Dreaded Decision

by Linda Bindner

Prologue

It could happen. He supposed someday it would. Someday, he would be captured, publicly unmasked, and hung. It was only a matter of time.

Diego sighed, his voice echoing around the cave, bounced and enhanced by the stone floor and walls. It had almost happened today, and if the lancers had been a little faster, if they were slightly better shots, then it would have happened, and he would have been caught unprepared. That was the worst part of it.

Glad that he had some warning, at least, Diego thought for a moment, then decided his thoughts were too dark, and rifled aimlessly through a book on the corner of his desk. But there wasn't anything in it that held his interest. His thoughts may have been too morbid and too engaged by now to be distracted by a book, and he could no longer ignore them. He had to do something.

Still thinking, he pulled a blank piece of paper towards him, and opened the ink pot and picked up his quill. A moment later, after gathering his thoughts and coherently choosing what to instruct, he began writing.

He started with Felipe, and moved on to Don Alejandro, telling him all about his reasons for creating Zorro in the first place, and lamenting making his father an outlaw by his eventual unmasking and death, for Diego was certain that once his identity was discovered, DeSoto wouldn't stop there. He would advocate that King Ferdinand put a price on the head of the father, whether he was ignorant of that identity or not, and thus Alejandro would have no choice but to become an outlaw himself, losing everything he had worked for. It was an outcome that Diego hadn't even considered in the beginning, but his macabre thoughts considered it now, and he bemoaned that fate for his father. With any luck, he would never be publicly unmasked and none of this would come to pass. But by now Diego had learned not to count an Lady Luck; she was a fickle master.

The hardest letter to write he saved until last. An hour had gone by, and he was getting tired, but he wanted to finish this, and it had to be done now, before something happened. So he started on a clean piece of paper once again, the envelope already addressed with her name on it and waiting beside the other two. He only had to finish this task and deliver the letters before he could have an easier mind. He paused for a moment, gathered his thoughts for probably the most difficult letter of his life, then began.

Dearest, Sweetest, Victoria,

If you are reading this, and God grant that you will never need to, you know my identity through public humiliation, or I'm dead, or both. If that eventuality happens, there are a few things that I ask that you do for me. I realize that this is asking a lot, and that you shouldn't be required to do anything for me, but you are the only one who can take care of them at all.


1. Be happy. Please consider yourself free to fall in love again and marry someday, since we can no longer hold on to the dream of marrying each other sometime in the future. Also please know that I am sincere in this request, though it may be the hardest to write. I, too, dream of the perfect 'someday,' the day when I can hold you as myself, without a mask keeping us apart. I live for that day, and couldn't bear it if you despised me because of my unmasking.

2. Be safe. Always pay strict attention to this. There can be nothing more important than staying alive, and that includes, heaven forbid, forgetting about your tavern, though it has been in your family for generations. If you have to, disappear until DeSoto is gone from the pueblo and no longer poses a threat. Hopefully, any future alcaldes will not be so evil as to go after you because of your connection to me. But if that happens, please, hide. I've learned through being Zorro that nothing is worth your life, not even justice. Not even me.

3. Stay the way that you are. By this I mean don't change due to outside pressure to be more 'ladylike' and soft. I love your temper, your burning desire for fairness and justice. Without it, you wouldn't be who you are. But remember, it's not worth dying for, only worth living for. That's one thing that has been pounded into my head since this whole deception began. Stay alive, and be careful. Don't trust anyone too much. That motto has kept me alive this long, at least.


There's so much more to say, and no time to say it in. If given the chance, I suppose I would tell you that you are the most important person in the world to me. I want to kiss you and hold you in my arms forever, but we don't always get what we want. I'm proof of that. I'm sorry that we can't be together because of me, of my choices, but I think you understand my own burning desire for justice, why I created Zorro in the first place. However, I would give him up in an instant for you, but I would not give you up for him. I love you too much, Victoria. Though I didn't anticipate falling in love, know that you have always been paramount to me. Always. I'm truly sorry if DeSoto advises to make you an outlaw by encouraging the King to put a price on your head, like I'm afraid he will, but also remember everything I have told you in this letter. You're by far the best part of ever being Zorro.

Always remember, Victoria, that I love you.


Love has no rhyme and no reason.

It bursts with a passionate fire,

Engulfing the hearts in flame,

And only your cool, sweet lips

Will quench my burning desire.


Zorro

The writing of the letter finished, Diego read it over one last time to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. When it looked to be in proper order, but seemed like a cold goodbye, Diego stuffed it into its envelope so he wouldn't second guess himself. If they were all extremely lucky, it would never be read. As a final touch, Diego added at the bottom of all three envelopes 'Only to be read at the event of my public unmasking or death.' The word 'public' had been underlined twice. Diego hurried out of the cave, clutching his father's letter and leaving it on the front step where Alejandro would be sure to find it. There was still enough time in the day to pluck a single red rose from the garden to lay with the letter on Victoria's pillow at the tavern and be home in time for supper. He would never be missed. For a moment, Diego considered delivering his letter straight to Victoria in her kitchen, but discarded the idea before it could even take root; they might be caught, and it would be too dangerous for both of them so soon after the afternoon's escapade. That letter might be necessary far earlier then Diego wished. No, a secret delivery was the better choice.

The rose was plucked, the letter and flower delivered, and Diego instantly felt a peace of mind that had been missing earlier in the day. He noticed that Felipe's letter was already gone from the place he'd left it in the cave, and it was hopefully squirreled away where it wouldn't be found. He assumed that his father and Victoria would also hide their messages once they received them. His mind quiet again, Diego soon forgot about writing those letters in the once again unnatural safety he had always enjoyed. Until one day, practically a year later, he was harshly reminded of them.

* * *

Okay, you're relieved. Corporal Sepulveda's quiet voice floated across the jail to where Zorro sat on the bed, the only seat in the entire cell.

The other lancer, a private according to the stripes on his jaunty epaulets, came to strict attention, then saluted and marched briskly away, out of the jail and hopefully to a good breakfast.

Zorro watched him through his lashes, his bent head not moving, his body not stirring from his place on the bed lest he startle the new guards just assigned to the garrison from Santa Barbara and cause one of them to inadvertently shoot their rifles. At this close range, few of even the worst soldiers were likely to miss, and Zorro didn't know the other guard yet; he might be the garrison's crack shot. So he didn't want to overtly raise his attention.

Head bowed, hands still encased in the customary thick, black, leather, gloves, he looked despondent but gripped the edge of the bed on either side of him and thought, hard and fast. How had he gotten into this current debacle? Oh yes. He had gone to pay a simple visit to Victoria, and had been surrounded at five past midnight, if the clock on her kitchen fireplace mantle was correct. The Alcalde knew just where to have his soldiers aim their loaded rifles, too; the rifles had aimed not at him, but at a helpless Victoria. After being relieved of his sword and his whip, he was then 'escorted' across the plaza at gun point to the Alcalde's office and the jail. But they couldn't find Toronado on such a black night. There had been no moon, which was why he had made the trip in to Los Angeles in the first place. Then, weaponless, he had mercilessly been 'shown' to a cell, the current six by twelve foot cell he inhabited even now. He had been left there the remainder of the night, securely locked away from the outside world. And the door was definitely locked; Zorro had checked. The extra keys had been kept in the Alcalde's office. It appeared that he wasn't even trusted not to make an escape attempt with the second set of keys that usually hung on a rusted nail pounded in to the wall. The Alcalde was right to take the keys; Zorro would have indeed made such an attempt in the early hours of the morning.

But now it was breakfast, and if DeSoto kept to his fondness for dawn executions, the day of his hanging. Such a hanging could be no more than an hour away from now, which meant the shock had to wear off and he had to think, now, how to escape, or he would soon face the gallows in the plaza.

There had been no trial, only a death sentence. As a wanted criminal of the Spanish Empire, no trial was necessary to prove his guilt of treason. He would be hung at once. And Zorro had not been prepared to be captured this time. He had made no provisions for such an event as he had done that time he'd been caught by Colonel Palomorez. Toronado was off somewhere, hiding instead of standing right next to the cell window, just in case, a rope tied to the window bars and his saddlehorn. No, for all purposes, there was no escape this time.

The only good thing about his capture was that Victoria wasn't in the adjoining cell. It was obvious by the look on her face that she had been caught completely by surprise when the soldiers had burst into her kitchen and surrounded them. She had no idea who he really was, and such information showed through her worry and concern as he'd been smartly held at gunpoint and led away. In fact, he might have considered fighting the soldiers if not for her presence; his protection of her ranked higher even than the protection of his identity. But he couldn't risk one of the lancers firing and missing his target, only to hit her by mistake. So Zorro had come quietly, and she had been left to fret alone in her kitchen. He had not seen her since, though she had surely tried to visit the prisoner, and would make another attempt this morning. But DeSoto wasn't taking any chances this time. Zorro had not been allowed any visitors, even the padre for last rights, and he wasn't surprised.

Quickly his fast mind cataloged everything at his disposal. No weapons to speak of, all Zorro had were his mind, his body, and Toronado. He'd even been made to empty his pockets and take off his sash, not that much had been in either. Even an outlaw didn't come prepared for the worst when he was just visiting his lady love. Hence it had been an excellent time to capture him. He had been left with nothing that could help him escape his current predicament.

Hung until dead at dawn, a happening that was impossible to consider. So he would have to make his break before the rope was lowered around his neck, that much was obvious. He would surely die of a broken neck if he was hung, as most did and as DeSoto evidently wished, if he could judge by the sound of hammers hitting nails that had rung through the plaza all night, keeping him awake. And he would certainly be made to reveal his identity right before the noose was lowered, or he didn't know Ignacio DeSoto. But Zorro did know his arch enemy, knew him very well. He might have only mediocre sword fighting skills, but the soldiers were loyal to DeSoto and would hold Zorro at gunpoint with their loaded muskets until the last moment, and that moment would come too late, when he would be quite dead.

That was an unacceptable outcome. Zorro had no intention of dying in an hour without some kind of a fight.

He had his mind, and his body. That refrain kept echoing in his thoughts, and he tried to drown out the growling in his stomach and listen to the ideas bouncing around inside his head. The thought was so insistent that it almost, but not quite, drowned out his stomach.

He would have to use the revelation of his identity as the only distraction that he was likely to get. Everyone in the pueblo would know who he was, but that couldn't be helped. His identity was expendable, his life was not. True, he would have to leave the territory then, unless he wanted to risk additional capture, but at least he would be alive to make such an escape. That was something, even if he couldn't see Victoria anymore.

Zorro was just about to follow that thought when the object of his affections suddenly came, very unannounced, into the cell area of the jail. Her appearance surprised the hell out of Zorro.

Victoria! he exclaimed, and rose from the bed for the first time in hours. The guards both snapped to attention and threateningly brandished their rifles, but otherwise there was no reaction.

Zorro! She hurried over to the bars before the door to the holding cells even had time to close. Sergeant Mendoza hurried after her.

What are you doing here? Zorro asked. The question sounded blunt even to him, and he tried again. Not that I don't want you here, but I don't want you here.

Victoria gazed at him through the bars of the cell. The Alcalde has only granted us a few moments.

Zorro glanced at the two guards who were paying strict attention to the conversation. So we'll have to talk fast? he asked.

Precisely.

All of a sudden, he knew what her visit was. You know what this is? It's the Alcalde gloating, dangling before me what I will miss in life, and I have to admit that I will surely miss you.

This was no time for pretty speeches, but for complete honesty, from both of them, guards or no guards. That truth prompted her to say, Do you know what you're going to do?

Zorro had to laugh a tiny snort at that. Die? he hazarded to guess.

That's not funny! she said, suddenly loud in the quiet of the jail.

The possibility of his death really upset her, naturally. He'd always been so certain of her anger at the likelihood of his unmasking, and he didn't see how that could be avoided, that any other reaction came as a total shock.

He was in store for another shock. Sergeant Mendoza chose that moment to step forward, a set of keys in his hand. I've been authorized to let her in for five minutes. No more. He fumbled at the lock with the key.

You're kidding? Zorro asked, the expletive drawn from him in his complete surprise. I get to see her? This was thoroughly unexpected.

Mendoza's sad eyes met his. Five minutes, was all he said.

The sergeant let her past, then most shocking of all, he pulled the guards out the door to the Alcalde's office with him, leaving them alone for the first time all night. It felt like a lifetime had gone by since his capture.

The second she was inside the cell, Victoria ran to his out stretched arms. He lifted her all the way off the floor in his exuberance at feeling such an unexpected sensation as her in his arms again. This may be for the last time, but it was a last time that he would remember for the next hour.

Her lips found his for a kiss of incredible depth before the guards even reached the door to the Alcalde's office. Zorro covered her face with kisses, frantic as the new refrain of 'five minutes' flashed in his mind. Now was not the time for shyness or embarrassment, not that he had ever been embarrassed by his feelings for her, but then, he had never kissed her in front of anybody, either. He kissed her like there was no tomorrow, which for him, there wasn't.

Dios, Victoria, but you feel good, he said.

She wasted no time on tears. I read your letter.

His tired brain could not think what she was talking about. What letter?

The letter you left on my pillow with a rose.

His face became white as all the blood drained to his feet. Now he remembered. Oh, that letter. She didn't say anything more, just tightened her arms around his neck. Then you know who I am?

She nodded. That clue of the poem was pretty obvious.

You're not angry? He'd always expected her anger, as her temper was well-known throughout the pueblo.

Victoria shook her head. No. I'm not angry.

Surprised, he forced himself to move past the sensation, and hurried to say, I'm so worried about your safety, then. Can you act surprised when DeSoto makes me take off the mask?

That's not going to happen. She was adamant in her refusal.

But it will. DeSoto will certainly force me to unmask, right before he hangs me.

Without warning, her arms tightened like the future noose around his neck, and she shook her head back and forth in denial. Victoria whispered, finally tearful, I don't want you to die!

Don't be too sure that I will, he whispered back.

She reared her head backwards to look at him, tears still streaking down her cheeks. You have a plan?

I was just getting to that part when you arrived. But you feel so good that you've driven the concept completely from my mind.

Don't be flip. Now is not the time.

Flip? I was being honest.

Urgent, as time ticked by, she kissed him again. She whispered, You feel good to me, too. And I need to tell you that Don Alejandro has mustered his vaqueros to find every gun they own...

Zorro's face whitened again. No, Victoria! They can do nothing! If someone innocent is shot...

Victoria's face showed her own anguish. She was insistent. We have to do something! We can't just stand around, watching. The citizens won't let you die!

Zorro thought about such a fight, then nodded, agreeing, but an unwilling participant in the plot. It should be left as a last possible resort, then. When there is no other option... but death. Tell him!

Victoria hesitated reluctantly, then nodded. A last resort, she said, agreeing. Then she kissed him hungrily at the mention of his death.

Oh, Victoria, he said, embracing her hard. Suddenly, wanting to feel her, he pulled the leather gloves from his hands with his teeth. They fluttered to the floor. He spread his hands wide, as if that would help him feel her better. He was conscious of the silky strands of her hair curling around his fingers. I'm so sorry for all of this. For loving you and putting you through this pain.

Sh! I'd do the same thing all over again if given the chance.

You would?

Well, maybe not this awful part at the end, but...

You read the letter; when?

Last night. I was so scared that I read the letter right away, right after everybody left, then went and woke up your father.

Then he knows, too?

He does now.

I don't know why I bother with a disguise with you two around, Zorro groused, determined to keep his conversation as light as possible, to give Victoria good memories, in case that was all she'd have for a long time to come. The possibility was too real.

But Victoria was just as determined to have a heavy conversation here at the end. You know I don't care who you are. I love you whoever you are.

So it appears, teased Zorro. My fears seem to be groundless.

They are. I told you they are. She was talking about his proposal and their time in his cave when he'd imparted that his fear of rejection kept the mask between them.

But fears die hard, mi preciosa. Just as suddenly, he was overcome with love for her, fast, like it had to be in five minutes time. He hugged her hard. Oh, mi preciosa, now I'm worried about you.

She hugged him back. Don't be. I read your letter, and better yet, I remember your advice. I'm all ready to go if I have to.

So quickly?

I had to do something with all that extra energy. I started packing...

But Victoria was cut off by the sound of the door to the Alcalde's office being unlocked. Sergeant Mendoza was back, and the five minutes were up.

Zorro kissed her desperately, then, one last time. Stay safe, mi preciosa.

I love you, and will love you forever, Victoria whispered quickly. Mendoza's key was now in the lock of the cell door.

I love you, too, and I'm sorry, he whispered back. He kissed her on one tear-stained cheek, then she was bodily pulled from his arms by the two outside guards. She held on tightly to the bars of his cell, just outside his door, pain evident on her face. He stayed where he was, but his eyes never left hers.

Remember, Victoria! he called desperately, and she quietly answered, I will! as Mendoza had to drag her from the jail.

Corporal Sepulveda thoughtfully wrinkled his nose and asked, Remember what?

Zorro watched her go, his arms already aching with the need to hold her, feel her. DeSoto knew what he was doing in allowing him to see her; he missed her already. That I love her, Zorro whispered.

Everybody already knows that, Sepulveda said.

Zorro didn't take his eyes away from the door to the Alcalde's office, where she had gone. That's right, they do.

A minute later, Zorro retrieved his gloves from the floor and replaced them before he returned to his seat on the bed, more determined than ever to escape. Where was he? He had his mind, his body, and Toronado. For the first time, it seemed pitifully little to have.

* * *

Zorro still did not have a plan when less than an hour later, the group of five soldiers tied his hands tightly behind his back and led him from his cell into the cuartel courtyard where the Alcalde was waiting. More soldiers instantly surrounded him, as if they expected him to take advantage of the outside air and make a spectacular escape attempt. But it was just outside air, fresher than the air in the cell, and more caressing, but still only air. Zorro breathed deeply, drawing in as much as he could hold.

Breathe now, said the Alcalde with keen, watchful eyes. Breathe while you still can.

The gates came into view. Zorro took another deep breath, and sucked in the fresh air. He would need all that air, he had the feeling, before this was over. Oh, I will. You can count on that.

The Alcalde laughed, a sound somewhere between a snort and a wheeze. The only thing I count on is your demise, Zorro.

They were through the gates. The gallows hove into sight, wooden and glaring in the morning sun covering the plaza. It's rope noose swung in the early morning breeze. Zorro couldn't help it; he swallowed loudly. His heartbeat increased as fear suddenly took over, making his body shake, but he was still able to be jaunty in his reply. I'll try not to hold that against you.

You do that, Zorro. But I warn you; no tricks this time. We'll be watching you. The Alcalde put a hand on the pistol stuck into his sash as added emphasis. Zorro didn't miss the hidden message in the threat. But what the Alcalde didn't know was that he valued his own life somewhere below Victoria's, not to the highest degree, as DeSoto thought. His death would not be as painful to him as Victoria's. Not that either of their deaths would matter if he was dead.

They started across the plaza, the dust rising in their wake, making the last lancers in line clear their throats in an attempt to fight the clinging powder. And in one clear, swift second, Zorro knew what he was going to do.

The fear receded and the shaking stopped as quickly as they had started. Jocular at finally having a plan, Zorro turned to the Alcalde. I would watch me closely, too, if I was you.

Close enough, but not as close as I expect the seņorita got to you this morning.

DeSoto was deliberately goading, purposefully bringing up the seņorita to push Zorro's buttons as much as he could. And even with a plan of escape in his mind, Zorro couldn't help but rise to DeSoto's bait a little. Piqued, he replied, Leave her out of this.

Is that what you were doing when she was in your cell? DeSoto continued to jab. Leaving her out of this? Or couldn't you leave your hands off her?

Zorro ground his teeth. There was truly little that could gall him faster than an insult to Victoria's name, especially from DeSoto. But he only said, I don't expect you to understand.

The Alcalde laughed again. I understand perfectly. Why do you think I let her inside your cell?

Can we discuss something else? Zorro growled.

DeSoto laughed again, thoroughly enjoying his barbs and their effect. No, I like discussing this topic. Did she feel good? Are you going to miss her?

Furious, somewhat surprised at the strength of his sudden temper, Zorro stopped. Yes. And I thought I had requested that we leave her out of this? The request was really a statement, a threat of his own. The two men, no matter their congenial conversation here at the end, were enemies to the last.

DeSoto chuckled once more. Got your goat, didn't I? Well, no matter. She'll be as shocked as everybody when I ask you to remove the mask. Surprised?

Zorro began walking again, this time noticing the crowd held back by the extra lancers in the plaza. It seemed that no one in the garrison was getting to sleep late this morning. Zorro didn't feel guilty about that at all, though a crowd might make his plan more difficult. He shook his head to answer the Alcalde. I assumed as much.

The Alcalde chuckled again. You anticipate me. But I assure you, such anticipation will do you no good now. Not when you're dead.

The words barely pierced Zorro's brain as he sought out Victoria in the crowd around the gallows. There she was, in back, beside the tavern porch, behind the people, prepared to run to her kitchen, back door, and freedom if she had to. Her position was good. The lancers weren't likely to be able to shoot her clear back there, and her situation kept her free of any future fights in the plaza, kept her safe. Good, he thought, smiling a little at her in his unhoped for calmness at the sight.

Next Zorro sought out his father and Felipe, who just as obviously already knew his identity, and who wouldn't be even remotely astonished at the unmasking, as he could trust Victoria to pretend to be. The vaqueros were spread out, standing right in front of the crowd, unlike Don Alejandro and Felipe. Their position in the middle of the crowd was not quite as good as Victoria's, but better than when Zorro normally fought the Alcalde. Typically Don Alejandro was right in front of the crowd, protesting the cruelty of the scheme currently designed by the Alcalde, reveling in the action performed by the masked man. But this time Felipe held him back. Felipe and fear for his only son.

Conscious of the danger of discovery too soon, Zorro let his gaze skip over the three people dearest to his heart, and listened instead to the noisy jeering of the crowd in general. The noise level this close to the gallows was intense, and even the soldiers could do nothing to stop it, but the second he made his way up the first step, quiet descended like a sudden hand had slapped down in command. Zorro actually looked at the Alcalde to see if he had commanded the silence.

DeSoto hadn't commanded anything yet, but he was taking good advantage of the quiet as if he had. He shoved at Zorro with his gloved hand, pushing him up the steps. Hurry up. I don't have all day, he muttered, but his attention was on the crowd even if his voice was aimed directly at Zorro beside him.

This is your last day on Earth, Zorro, DeSoto said in a loud voice that carried easily across the crowd. Enjoy it while you can. He pushed at Zorro again for good measure.

Zorro was forced up the steps, towards the swaying rope and the lever that would open the trapdoor underfoot. It was the first rough treatment he had received all night. DeSoto respected his enemy enough for that. Zorro supposed he should be grateful for whatever small favors he could get right now. His incarceration could have been much worse.

As he looked, Zorro didn't bother to say anything to the Alcalde's undisguised jibe. The rope was hung right over the trapdoor in the floor, and the safety railing was three or four feet behind it, too close to serve his purposes, but high enough to keep the soldiers from immediately following him. He would have to take his leap at an angle.

Completely up the steps now, the silence was so all-encompassing that Zorro heard the cry of a lone bird, and the only sound that was lovelier had been the call of Victoria's voice that morning inside the jail. The remembered sound gave him courage now as he crossed to his place on the trapdoor cut into the floor. The whole scene seemed surreal in the morning air and sunshine.

The Alcalde called out, barely containing his glee, The time is at hand, Zorro, or should I say at glove? The comment was laughable, only no one was laughing. DeSoto's voice rang out again. The time is at hand, DeSoto repeated, and while he spoke, Zorro took the opportunity to glance around at his opposition. No soldiers behind him, only one well back, on each side. Good. Nothing and nobody in the way. Like a good boy, he turned his attention back to the Alcalde in time to hear him say, Remove the mask and let all these good people stare in the face of the criminal they have known all these years.

The time was indeed at hand. Zorro looked once more at Victoria standing at the rear of the crowd. Despite her knowledge, tears again streaked down her cheeks. She pushed at them, desperate to appear anticipatory to the soldiers who were watching her carefully. But the promise of his death was too much for her, and she sobbed, openly distressed. Zorro's heart clenched inside his chest for causing her pain, even if he hadn't planned this current situation.

Someone, a lancer probably, cut the rope binding his hands and took away his hat. Zorro slowly peeled off the black, leather gloves he always wore, and tucked them in his sash. He took a deep breath to dislodge the lump suddenly in his throat, and DeSoto misinterpreted that for courage to remove the mask. He laughed, enjoying this moment to the hilt, relishing the revelation of his number one enemy, of the man who had bested him for two and a half years.

Slowly, Zorro's hands went to the tie behind his head. The pale fingers deftly pulled at the twisted material, and kept the wind from tangling the tail ends together too much. He hoped that Felipe had forced Toronado into hiding nearby, or this escape attempt would be the shortest escape in history. He had only a second for this thought as the sound of his silk mask rubbing against itself was loud in his ears. The Alcalde was actually leaning forward now, waiting in glee for the mask to be removed and the face revealed, and the vaqueros slid their hands to their belts and their pistols. Zorro took another deep breath of air, working at not making the move suspicious. Then he pulled away the material.

The Alcalde's face now held not glee, but incredulity. De la Vega? he exclaimed. The coward of the pueblo?

It happened in an instant. One second, he was on the trapdoor, the next second he had flipped over at the necessary angle into a backwards somersault and landed beside the railing. Both guards who stood at either side of him shot the other as Diego flipped over, safe, away from the piercing bullets. Diego paused for a moment to stuff the mask in his sash and to simultaneously draw a deep breath again. A familiar, piercing whistle rang out across the town. An answering whinny reached his relieved ears. Felipe had not failed him in his moment of need.

But Diego was not waiting around to see the response to his unmasking and gymnastics. To the sound of gasps of astonishment from the crowd, one naked hand grabbed the support railing, and he vaulted over it in a single heartbeat. He had jumped farther distances before, from rooftops of houses and buildings, but he had never jumped so close to a gathered crowd. Toronado's flailing hooves didn't prove to be much help as Diego spotted a place to land, then felt himself falling towards the hopefully soft plaza dust. If he landed on his rear by overbalancing at the last minute, or broke a leg or an ankle in the fall, it would all be over. He could never recover fast enough to avoid recapture, and the Alcalde would not let a similar attempt happen again. Death by hanging was not a pretty image.

Determined not to let that sight become reality, Diego mentally readied his legs to absorb the impact that he knew was only seconds away. Then his feet were on the ground, and a heartbeat later, he felt the thud of solid dust creep up his legs in tingles and jangles as the jolt, even prepared for, rocked him until he almost lost his balance.

But then Toronado was there, and Diego grabbed the saddlehorn just prior to pulling himself up and around to land in the saddle, the familiar padding wrapping around his form as he grabbed the beaded reins and kicked the horse to head out of town. Toronado leapt forward, unused to kicks, but now was not the time to be concerned about animal cruelty. Diego leaned over the horse's neck to make the smallest target possible as he heard the first reports of rifle shot and pistol discharges, hoping that none of the bullets found their mark today.

Luck stayed with him. Diego and Toronado flashed past the crowd gathered near the gallows, caught only a glimpse of an astounded looking Victoria, then streaked under the sign of Los Angeles, running at a full gallop, bullets singing behind them even though they were out of range by now. Diego heard the voice of the Alcalde scream something, but the wind whipped it away before he could decipher it. He assumed the lancers would be ordered to give chase, though the hapless garrison horses would have no hope of catching a fully galloping Toronado.

Diego only prayed that the official's wrath at not hanging his arch enemy did not turn on Victoria and his father now that an unmasked Zorro had escaped. The thought made his already tight heart tighten even more, and the organ beat painfully in his chest, but there was nothing he could do for them now. He could only not be captured again, a promise made more durable by the fact that Diego now turned Toronodo due East, towards the hills and the desert, ultimately the mountains, towards hiding and banditry, towards life. Even as an outlaw, forgoing food and water for days at a time, he had a chance, no matter how slim, for survival and eventual reunion with his loved ones.

That hope kept him going now, heading away from the pueblo, galloping at a mile-eating pace, running with fear at their backs. But the dreaded chase never transpired, as the closest the lancers came to him and Toronado were barely within sight as the sun slowly arced overhead. The entire day was gone before he knew it, and the land rolled on, always ahead, the lancers always behind, and his stomach always growling a symphony of sounds to remind him that he had not eaten for a long time, as if he needed a reminder. The dizziness reminded him fast enough.

Darkness crept over them, and the lancers were so far behind as to no longer be a threat. They were in the mountains by now, and the air was decidedly cooler as Toronado kept running in case they were surprised and recaptured. Diego trusted that there was food, water, and money in the saddlebags, enough food for several days, if necessary. But Diego turned his attention to a bigger concern; water for Toronado. He had lost his hat in Los Angeles, using it to buy time right before his unmasking, but in that gift had lost his only receptacle. They would have to find a creek or pond, and find it soon, according to Toronado's stumbling footsteps, or it wouldn't matter that they had escaped the hangman's noose. Death due to lack of water was just as final as death by hanging.

They found a mountain pond an hour later, but not in sight of a cave or indentation for Diego, who was forced to sleep in the open, on the hard ground, for fear that leaving the pond meant certain death without water. But what could he do?

So he climbed wearily off Toronado's lathered back, and pulled nearby grass from their roots to rub him down with. He looked in his saddlebags, and found the food and water that Felipe always stored away in case of an emergency. Pulling out a tamale, hoping that the food would appease his grumbling stomach, he began the rubdown, letting the repeated motions soothe his tired soul.

The tamale made him hungrier for more food, instead of appeasing his appetite, and the hunger raged inside him, a physical force that demanded to be alleviated. Another tamale later had only made a dent in the monster gnawing at his insides, and he knew he would regret this decision in a few hours, but he ate an enchilada next, giving half to the powerfully hungry Toronado. The horse wolfed down the food, then quickly turned his attention to the grass growing at the edge of the rocks surrounding the pond. Diego lamented that he couldn't eat the grass too, but went to work instead on gathering firewood, remembering with fondness the fireplaces in the hacienda.

Fireplaces led to a longing for his bed, which led to thoughts about his father, which led his mind to dwell on Victoria. Diego groaned, knowing he shouldn't be thinking about her yet; it certainly hadn't been the longest he'd gone without seeing her. Before, weeks had passed by without seeing hide nor hair of Victoria between visits from Zorro. But he'd always seen Victoria as Diego, even if he couldn't touch her. And now there was nothing he'd like more than to curl up next to her, to feel her soft hair in his hands, to rub a finger down her smooth, silky skin... Stop it, Diego! he ordered himself, and dumped the gathered firewood near the pond, hoping the noise would distract him from his thoughts.

But it was no use. He curled up with the saddle blanket by the fire he'd built, his hands empty but his mind full, full of images of Victoria as he'd seen her in the jail, as he'd seen her in the tavern, as he wanted to see her in the hacienda. But for all he knew, she could be on the run right now, too, maybe cursing his name for putting her through such hardships. But he couldn't keep his mind from returning to such images as her hands, her face, her hair, imagining her in situations at the tavern, the hacienda, the plaza, the mission. For the first time all day, Diego felt homesick, pining to see something familiar, something he saw every day, only now, with the pain of hunger gnawing at his stomach and the longing to see Victoria gnawing at his heart, he swore not to take anything for granted again. He knew he would, but being on the run changed one's perspective about life, and fast. All those amenities he'd expected as his due in life would not be taken so lightly in the future.

If there was a future. All he could see was a time full of loneliness and heartache and wondering what became of the people he loved, and for the first time since his mother died, Diego cried himself into an exhausted sleep.

He started awake in what he knew from the positions of the stars to be around three in the morning, ravenously hungry, cold to the bone, and desperate to relieve himself. He sat up and walked to the other side of the pond before he allowed himself the luxury of a break, unwilling to contaminate the pond by emptying himself too early and letting his liquid to leak into the water of the pond. It was far too early in his life as an outlaw to give in to the demands of diarrhea.

He walked back to his campsite and built up the fire again before rummaging more food from a saddlebag. Toronado, staked nearby, wooshed out a breath of air through his nose, but otherwise made no sign that a fire in the middle of the night seemed strange, nor that breakfast at three o'clock was at all unusual as he practically inhaled his portion of the second enchilada he'd eaten in the past twenty-four hours. He would prefer oats and hay, but a hungry horse would not be picky.

Discouraged, Diego sat on the blanket to keep the nightly dew off his trousers, and thought for the first time about what he planned to do next. He could continue on and risk death due to lack of water. He could go back to the pueblo and risk capture and certain death by hanging. Or he could stay right where he was and risk death by hunger. Whatever course he chose, risks were part of the package. He thought back to what he'd said to Victoria that his fears were groundless, but it was his fear that had kept him alive, prolonged the legend of Zorro until it was something of a tradition around Los Angeles. Someone had said something about that to him once, and he could hear a voice echoing in his ear, but he couldn't place the sound, though he tried for over an hour, the silent contemplation at least distracting his thoughts from Victoria.

The sun rose and a new day began, a day Diego hadn't anticipated seeing. With the sun, he took stock of what he had with him, hoping that something would be around to help him in his dealings with nature.

He found tracks around the pond, telling him that area animals used it as a local watering hole. He would have to fashion some kind of bow, and soon, before he starved. There was the knife he kept hidden in his boot, and whatever was in the saddlebags. Looking inside, he found a rope good for climbing, if he only had a cliff to climb, another mask, if only he still needed to hide his identity, a few more tamales and enchiladas, a change of clothes that might come in handy if he ever found a village to sneak into, several horseshoes, in case Toronado ever went lame, and a blanket meant for the picnic he'd planned to ask Victoria on. He wrapped the thin, old blanket around his shoulders immediately to ward off the chill of the early morning, and was pleased when it proved to be bigger than the saddle blanket, but not so pleased when he didn't find loads of money in either saddlebag. His father had always had accounts in town, and they had never needed much cash before, but now its usefulness was very apparent. If Diego got out of this mess alive and intact, he promised to put as much money as he could in each saddlebag, towers of change. But that didn't help him much now, when he was almost out of food and had little money to replenish his dwindling stock. He swore he would put money in the poor box at his earliest opportunity, feeling the hunger mount again and curl his belly with need even as he ate another tamale for breakfast.

Diego spent the day exploring, and found a berry bush, to his delight, and taught himself how to fashion a fishing rod and a bow from downed tree limbs and the rope that was suddenly proving invaluable. He didn't see any lancers, and by then he would have been glad to see even that kind of human being making its mark on the wilderness. Diego had not known that California was such an extensive territory, but he had not wandered far from town in his normal daily routine. There was always too much to do, and if he wanted to rough it, as he was doing now, there were plenty of places to go right on the de la Vega property. But the outdoor life had never called to Diego before.

In a blur of boring routine, the days quickly started to blend together, and Diego had to remind himself what day it was. To break up the routine, Diego forced himself to take a bath in the pond, and thought he had really hurt himself from the cold of the water. Besides, it was hard to take much of a bath without any soap. He would have to create a recipe for soap soon, even if he had only watched the servants make it in the past. Drying quickly in the sun, Diego managed to keep his clothes from getting wet, but the bath made him long even more for a tub of hot water and a true bath, with scented oils and bubbles galore. He would never again complain about the time it took to heat the water, if he could only go home and have these luxuries once more.

That was the hardest knowledge of all to internalize; that he couldn't go home if he wanted to live. But again and again his thoughts returned to Los Angeles, its people, and before he knew it, the thoughts of if he should go home had changed to thoughts of when he would return home. It was a given concept that he would have to return sometime, for he would eventually run out of food in spite of the help of the berries, the fish he caught, and any game he managed to kill, but still his heart lightened the minute he made up his mind to go. He would skulk around the buildings, gleaning information until he heard the answers he sought. Being Zorro for so many years had taught him the tricks of espionage well, even if it hadn't taught him how to make food spring from trees. But he was determined; despite the risks, he was going home.

The following morning, he prepared to leave, though it felt strange after so long to be sitting astride Toronado again. But on this return trip the saddlebags were considerably lighter without the food that had been fortunately weighing them down. The bags flopped inelegantly, empty of all but the most important of burdens, like food for the journey, and Diego was resolved to go slower than before, as neither of them were running for their lives this time.

It took a day and several hours of constant riding for Diego to reach Los Angeles, longer than he had anticipated but not so long that his food ran out. The last of it he fed to Toronado behind the mission before slipping through a window and into the church. He was glad he'd taken the time to shave that day; scraping his skin with the knife hidden in his boot may not have done as good a job as his usual method of asking Felipe to bring him shaving water every morning, but it had improved his decidedly scruffy appearance. It made him more presentable for a visit to the church.

He crept, quietly, into the sanctuary, keeping low and hiding behind the pews. Nothing seemed amiss, and DeSoto, as usual, appeared to be absent. Only Padre Benitez and some unidentified person could be heard from the Confessionals at the back of the sanctuary. Even the priest's gravelly voice was wonderful to hear after Diego's extensive vacation from Human contact. He would stay down, and claim sanctuary of the church, if the law somehow caught up to him.

A moment later, he was glad he'd decided to stay low, as an unknown soldier in an equally unknown uniform walked from the Confessional box to the front door, pulled it open, and left. Padre Benitez materialized from the opposite Confessional and made his way up the sanctuary aisle to the door leading into the back garden where Diego had left Toronado. If he went out that door, he was certain to discover the horse, and the game of subterfuge would be up. It was now or never.

Padre! Diego whispered, his unused voice sounding harsh in the quiet of the sanctuary.

Padre Benitez turned, arrested by the call, then his face split into a huge grin. Diego! My boy! It's so good to see you! His voice was not lowered in the least, and Diego winced at the noise he was making.

Sh! Do you want everyone to hear you? If I'm caught again, I'll be hung, Diego whispered back, with a nervous glance at the door.

Padre Benitez's smile widened. But haven't you heard?

Heard what? Diego's whispers cut through the quiet of the mission. That's what I'm here for; information concerning my father and Victoria.

The priest, oddly enough, laughed. They're fine. Victoria's at the tavern even as we speak, and Don Alejandro is at home, I imagine, back from searching for you, tending to his ranch. And how about you? How are you?

Diego felt the relief free his soul. He didn't understand before now how worried he'd been. Then nothing happened to them? DeSoto didn't get angry?

The Padre chuckled again. DeSoto? No, he didn't have time to get angry, what with the arrival of the army.

Diego was confused. What army?

Oh, that's right, you can't possibly know, the padre explained, maddeningly slow in his explanations. It happened right after you left, that very afternoon.

Diego forced himself to count to ten. What happened?

The Mexican Army came marching into town! It seems that Ferdinand doesn't want us anymore. California is now a territory of Mexico.

You're kidding! So that's why no lancers had chased him. It was the first time Diego had spoken aloud, but the explosion of sound was forced out of him by surprise. Only seeing Victoria in prison had surprised him more.

The padre went on. No, I'm not joking. DeSoto's gone, back to Spain where he can no longer cause trouble, at least not for us, and we now have Mexican lancers in charge at the garrison. We're waiting for a new alcalde even now.

Diego paused, his voice returning to a whisper. Though I haven't seen any lancers looking for me, I could still be a wanted man, even in Mexico. I may not be able to stay here long. I may not be a free man yet.

The padre grinned again, the gesture lighting up his face. Oh, yes, you are. Free, I mean. The commandant made us all gather that evening and read a proclamation in the plaza, declaring you a free person as long as you give up being the masked legend, and charging everybody to tell you the next time you were seen. But you weren't. Not even Don Alejandro could find you.

This information stunned Diego, who had been expecting to hear bad news if he heard any news at all. A pardon was not on his list of expectations. He sat back, trying to absorb the new information, but thoughts of Victoria kept getting in the way. You said I'm free? The priest nodded. I won't be arrested on sight? The priest shook his head this time. You said Victoria is at the tavern?

Benitez got so excited that he took Diego's hand. She's frantic with worry about you, but she should be serving lunch soon. At the mention of food, Diego's stomach growled very audibly. Go to the tavern if you're hungry, my boy.

I am! Diego exclaimed, ending the quiet game he'd been playing by speaking aloud now for good, and relaxing. It seems like I haven't eaten in days.

Victoria will want to feed you, I imagine. Now go on, she'll tell you anything you want to know. Padre Benitez stood up from the seat on the pew he had appropriated. And Diego, he added. It's good to have you back. Now run.

Diego didn't have to be told twice. He ran, after stopping only to collect Toronado. He ran at a trot straight across the plaza and to the hitching rail, where he did something he'd never done before; he tied Toronado to the rail prior to walking around back and knocking with his knuckles on the tavern's back door. He looked fine enough for her kitchen, but too scruffy to be walking through the tavern.

The door was held open by a wide mouthed Maria, Victoria's kitchen helper, and he entered, his boots leaving a trail of dust on the clean kitchen floor. He had just finished stamping off his boots when Victoria suddenly parted the curtains to the main room, saying, Maria, I think we need more... He never found out what they needed more of, for she said next, Oh my god! and then she flung herself across the kitchen and into his arms.

Diego! You came back! she exclaimed loud enough for the customers in the main room to hear, though the noise of a gathering lunch crowd didn't subside. She kissed his cheek.

For a moment, he just held her. Then, eyes closed, a smile lighting his face, he said, It's good to feel you again.

I can't believe you're here! Victoria held him tight. His lips were the next to be kissed like she had to make up for the time they'd lost. Let me look at you! She drew back, eyeing him critically. You look like you've lost weight.

He felt so good that he laughed. I probably have. I'll tell you all about it if you give me a plate of your delicious tamales. I feel like I haven't eaten in days.

Of course! Anything! she exclaimed back to him, and left his embrace to get the requested food.

I'll see to the tavern, promised Maria, who slipped through the curtains in a silent show of respect for their privacy.

Diego hardly saw her leave. He had eyes only for Victoria, and he watched shamelessly as she prepared the tamales. He took the full plate from her, but set it down without touching the food. Instead he pulled her into his arms. You feel so good! I just want to hold you forever.

I can't believe you're here, in my kitchen, in the middle of the day.

Yes, you sort of said that already.

But oh my god!

You said that, too.

Her arms tightened around him. I just can't believe you're back! She tightened her embrace even more. I've been so worried about you!

Yes, I'm sorry about that. The padre said that you had been. His comments washed over her ear on hot breath.

Oh, Diego, have you seen your father yet? Are you hurt? Do you want anything?

Diego chuckled at her storm of questions. No, I haven't seen my father yet. I only just found out about the Mexican invasion...

Revolution, she corrected instantly.

Revolution, he said, firmly corrected. I came to see you first before heading back to the hacienda. And all I want is food, and you. He pulled her off the floor again.

You can have both, always. And she released him, kissing him one more time before insisting with a shove at the plate that he eat the food she had given him.

Diego didn't need any more encouragement. He attacked the tamales, forgetting quite often to use his silverware in his haste of hunger. But like in the old days, he frequently wiped his fingers on a napkin. It wasn't like his hands were all that clean to begin with. When he'd emptied the plate, only moments later, she refilled it without being asked and sat beside him, holding his hand, and wondered, What are you going to do now?

He brushed at his mouth with the red-checked napkin to give himself time to formulate a reply. Well, Zorro's been forced into retirement by the unmasking and the pardon. Oh, have you heard about the pardon? She nodded. He continued, I want to try to lighten the load for my father, take on more ranch responsibilities now that I don't have to recuperate from Zorro's outings.

Is that where you always were? Recuperating instead of being out of town or sick?

He nodded with a closed-lipped smile, good manners at the table rearing their ungainly heads. Then I plan to take a bath, sleep for a month, and ravish you in the most ungentlemanly way I can think of. And I warn you, I can be very creative when I want to be.

I bet, Victoria said, and the next thing Diego knew, he was being kissed so deeply that he couldn't breathe. His heartbeat quickened, and he subconsciously found himself rubbing her cheek with one sunburnt hand. She was right; it was an amazing sensation to kiss her in the middle of the day, and without the mask. Desire sprang up out of nowhere and attacked his only slightly full stomach. Victoria, you're feeling better all the time, he said when he could talk again. Too good. We'd best be careful.

Are you joking? You just got back; if you don't ravish me, I'll ravish you.

Is that a promise? he asked, promises being so dear to the both of them.

You bet it is. Victoria kissed him one more time, her lips like soft velvet, then encouraged him to eat more again. He cleaned off the plate. Victoria filled it for a third time. He cleaned it off again, though so much food would probably make him sick, then said that he really needed to be going home to the hacienda to see his father.

Wait right there for a moment. Victoria ran out through the curtains without any further explanations, returning in minutes, the only outward difference the sparkling ring she wore on her finger. She lightly kissed the top of his head. I've always wanted to do that. All right, I'm ready now.

Diego was confused for the second time that day. Ready? What do you mean?

I'm going with you. If you think I plan to let you out of my sight, think again.

Diego smiled. Victoria, I'm just going two...

Then pay up in cash for those plates of food you just inhaled. Her hands were on her hips.

Diego loved her mock rages. He gave in, though the argument had been one sided and giving in wasn't a hardship. All right. Toronado won't mind the extra weight for such a short distance. I think there's room for you. He was picturing an angry Victoria stuffed into a saddlebag.

You think? Seņor, just wait until I can get you to a church. Then we'll see how much thinking goes on.

Diego laughed again, and pulled her onto his lap. Not much, I bet, he quipped.

Victoria hugged him again. No, not much.

The hug ended, and they were both more then ready to go.


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