Dreams and Nightmares

by Linda Bindner

Gold, Felipe. Diego de la Vega held up the vial in his hand. In its liquid form, it should be fairly easy for us to work with, but we'll have to be careful; this just came from Europe, and I only have this one vial. He looked at the young servant soon to become his son. I hope it's enough for our purposes. We'll know for sure in a little while, after we conduct...

You! The feminine rasp was at odds in a cave more accustomed to having only male voices in it.

Diego whirled around, so surprised at the unexpected interruption that he dropped the vial in his hands. Yellow liquid seeped into cracks of the stone flooring, disappearing even as the glass crunched underfoot.

Victoria stood on the steps leading down from the anteroom, a look of thunderstruck incredulity on her beautiful face.

Diego couldn't quite believe his eyes. After dinner was over, he'd left Victoria to her own devices for a few minutes while he and Felipe had vanished into the cave to check his latest science experiment, but he never suspected that her own devices would lead her to his safe haven. In fact, he'd felt so secure that he never expected to be discovered in this manner. Thus, he had no plan for it.

Diego's heart congealed, then fell to his toes. He had protected his secret for so long from her that he had stopped expecting discovery of any kind. But still, he was able to collect his wits enough to suspect that she would want to rage at him for awhile, and to do that comfortably, he needed to send Felipe away. It was the last thing he wanted to do; the young man offered more support than he realized.

Can you clear the table, please, Felipe? Diego heard himself say quite calmly. Only they both knew that the table didn't need cleared of the dishes from dinner. The other de la Vega servants would have whisked them away the minute Don Alejandro and the others had left the dining room. But Felipe went, for once glad to escape the cave and the scene that was sure to ensue. Diego wasn't so lucky. He had no escape.

Felipe slipped past Victoria and out, working the hand release right in front of her. She was too stunned to notice.

Victoria could barely believe her eyes, either. She stared at her best friend in the world, and gaped. Diego? Her Diego? How long have you been Zorro? she asked from her place beside the stairs.

Time was up, it seemed. Diego couldn't talk his way out of this incriminating scene, even as her gaze alighted on the coatrack and arsenal of weapons he kept to practice with. Because of that, he decided to be honest right off.

For years, he said regretfully. Since the beginning.

Victoria looked surprised. Years? she repeated questioningly, numbly. And you were going to tell me..?

Diego hesitated, but he had decided to tell the truth, for once in his life. The truth is I wasn't going to tell you if I could help it. You were not to know. His voice got softer as her amazement increased. He hung his head, his once pristine hair swinging wildly.

You weren't going to tell me? Didn't I have the biggest right to know? she gasped in her anger.

Again Diego hesitated. You had the biggest right, but I was afraid for your safety, he explained. If I was ever discovered, certain hanging waited for me and those who knew my identity. That's why I couldn't tell you, but you know that already. I wish Felipe didn't know my secret, but he does and has from the start. However, I didn't want that fate for you.

For me? she repeated, feeling like a parrot, but that was the best she could do at the moment. She felt lucky to be coherent, actually. You... you. She was so angry that she had to pause and collect herself. You must have really enjoyed this charade, always laughing at us behind our backs because of our innate trust, our stupid trust, whenever you came here. She gestured at the cave.

Diego took a step forward in protest. Victoria took a step back. He halted, astonished. In all the time he'd known her, romanced her, she'd never backed away from him. Victoria, it wasn't like that.

Wasn't it? Then what was it like, to go gallivanting over the countryside with lancers on your tail? Was it exciting? Is that why you did this? For the excitement?

Diego sighed into the cave, a harsh sound that echoed off the walls. It was exciting, but that's not why...

And all those visits to me? Victoria asked, interrupting, a hand to her chest, her voice becoming shrill to echo off the cave walls. Her anger wouldn't let him even complete a sentence. Was I a charade, too? Is our engagement just part of a giant trick?

No. Diego shook his head. There were many things about Zorro that he was willing to give up, but she wasn't one of them. You have always been very real to me, as have been my emotions for you. He decided at the last second not to say 'love,' thinking that it might be too much for her to handle, but he was mistaken.

Your emotions for me? she said derisively. How very nice for you. You could get your excitement and your emotions fixed all in one night, while we waited to do your bidding like slaves.

No. It wasn't like that, his voice whipped out, perhaps sounding a bit harsher than he intended. But he was getting angry now, too, angry and hurt. He clamped down hard on those emotions, knowing from experience that they would only fog his brain, and he couldn't afford that right now. You have always been the most important person to me.

Victoria bristled. Right behind a million other peasants. She spoke disdainfully, as if she was looking for some humor in the situation, failed, and decided to be sarcastic instead. I can't believe how many times you came into my tavern and I didn't know. How you must have laughed at that.

Diego had lost his patience with this fight. He abhorred violence, and arguing was not far behind it. No, Victoria. Now you have to listen... he protested again.

No! You listen! she yelled back, but only stood on the steps with her hands balled into fists. Suddenly, without completing her thought, she turned and vaulted to the hand spring to open the door, as Felipe had done. She disappeared as quickly as the gold in the floor.

Diego rushed after her, wanting to force her to listen to reason. Victoria, wait! I... Without glancing first through the peep hole, without ducking low enough for the opening, Diego took the steps in one stride and pushed his way through the already open door, then promptly smashed his head onto the underside of the mantel to the fireplace in the library. Victoria... ouch!

Diego paused, seeing stars as he rubbed his head ineffectually and a knot formed right under his fingers. He didn't see the entrance of Don Alejandro, or his gaping face. He caught sight of the edge of Victoria's skirt as she first fled the library, then the hacienda. In such a hurry to get away, she didn't even close the front door.

Diego clutched at his head, arrested in front of the love seat. He slid down to sit on the carpet in front of the piece of furniture. Desperation now clamped at his heart. Oh, God, he said in a low voice full of pain. The desperation was quickly turning into despair. I've lost Victoria.

Alejandro gawked in surprise. But he walked through the entryway to shut the door. It clicked loudly in the suddenly silent house.

Alejandro spoke a few minutes later. Are you just going to let her go like that?

Surprised at the further rebuke, Diego stared at his father from his place on the floor. What? he managed to ask.

Are you just going to let her go like that? Alejandro repeated. Or are you going to do something about it?

Incensed, Diego lowered his hands, though his head ached now. What can I do? Victoria clearly can't stand the sight of me. Even speaking of such a horrible thing was hard.

Do you love her?

Diego was exasperated now. Well, yes, but...

Are you the man of action? Alejandro asked next, not looking for a reply to something he had deduced in seconds as he stared at the open door in his own fireplace, saw Victoria, the public love of Zorro's life, vault from that fireplace, followed closely by his own son. Recognition had slapped into his face like the mantel piece had connected to his son's head. But he would be astonished later; right now there was a crisis in the hacienda, and he could help, or at the very least, advise. Go after her if you love her so much. Make sure she gets home all right. It's the least Zorro can do.

Slowly Diego rose to his feet, weaving drunkenly from the blow to his head. His world may have come crashing down, but right now he had something to do. He just wished he could remember what. He shook his head, and the fight with Victoria came back in sudden clarity. You're right, he would.

I thought so. Alejandro smiled. Well, what are you waiting for? An invitation?

Diego stood unsteadily on his feet. The world tilted strangely, and he knew he had a concussion. But that would have to wait. Victoria was out there, right now, maybe crying on her way back to the tavern.

For Diego knew that was where she would go, perhaps instinctively. She would head for comfort, for the familiar, for a distraction. She would probably go back to serving, definitely start cooking something. The customary activity would be a huge draw right now, more than he would be, he admitted in some discomfort to himself as he strode out the door and to the stables to saddle his horse. He may want to wrap his arms around her and let her rage against his own shoulder, but he refused to force his company on her for the whole evening.

Denying his instincts to fall asleep, he kept his attention on his task, noticing as he did so that Felipe's mount was missing. The young man had probably taken advantage of his sudden free time to visit his girlfriend in town. They were probably having fun. Diego wished he could say the same.

The stable spun dizzily, and Diego shook his head again to straighten it out. The saddle came in to sharp focus, and once outside, he sprang to the padded seat in a very Zorro-like imitation. He was in such a hurry, he didn't even use the stirrups. He spoke a word to Esperanza, and the roan leapt forward. It was as if she understood his reasons to hurry, and the ride into town had never gone by faster.

First the sign announcing the pueblo hove into view on the horizon, then the tavern came into his sights as Diego reined Esperanza and tied her up at the available hitching post. He walked on in, the nightly patrons keeping him on the porch, delaying him unnecessarily. Hurried, he dodged around them, and they made way for his authoritative figure, surprised to see a de la Vega coming in so late. It was almost dark.

Diego caught sight of Victoria immediately. She was standing behind the bar, pouring a drink of whiskey for somebody. Nobody was currently clustered around her, and she was free to place the drink on the serving tray in front of her with several other full glasses. But as she looked up to place the glass, her red eyes came into view. It was obvious that she had been crying, and Diego's heart clenched, sad beyond comprehension that he had caused her pain.

She caught sight of him as he neared her, and he held out his hands.

Don't say anything, please, he began.

The sadness changed to anger again. She couldn't help but reply, I certainly have nothing to say to you. In fact, I think I'd like it better if you just got out of my tavern.

His hands remained up as he felt all the eyes in the place turn to him. He hated being the center of attention this way, but he had more to say. I just wanted to make sure you made it back all right.

Victoria tossed her head and retorted, I made it back just fine, no thanks to you. Now get out of my tavern.

I'm going. As long as you're all right. The pain in his heart spread to the rest of his chest. Diego took a deep breath, then a step back, towards the door. He was treating her very cautiously in deference to her well-known temper.

Victoria noticed the caution, and it made her even angrier to be treated as if she was so fragile. Numb, she grabbed the tray and started forward. I'm fine, as you can see. Now go, please, before I hit you over the head with a rolling pin.

The customers took a collective indrawn breath; an Escalante had never threatened a de la Vega before. This woman's best friend must have really done something terrible to warrant such an action, they figured. Never had they seen her so angry. She blazed.

The anger sparked through her hair, and even now Diego noticed her magnificence. She practically shone, like a light was set behind her. His insides constricted again; such a treasure was unlikely to ever be for him again. Wanting to kiss her forehead over those flaming eyes, he settled for turning, his hands still up, and stumbling out of the tavern. His head ached furiously as he grabbed the reins of his horse, and he felt empty, like crying right there in front of everybody.

But he could never stand their questions, never calmly take the teasing from the Alcalde. He waited until the pueblo was behind him before he let the first tear trickle down his cheek. Once the process started, he was powerless to stop it, and not even Felipe was at home to comfort him.

The next morning, the sun shone, the birds sang, promising another beautiful day with deep blue skies, but Victoria's stomach felt like a lead rock had fallen into it. Depression consumed her. No longer angry, she sat in her nightgown long after opening time and she was usually busily cooking something for breakfast. Instead, she wondered what to do. She should go to Diego, she knew, and apologize after the scene in the cave last night, but she felt sure that the prospect was too humiliating to be born. The last thing she wanted was to have him think that she was crawling back because she had nothing else to do.

On the other hand, what else did she have to live for? She pictured life without Diego, without Zorro, and life seemed to stretch to infinity, empty. She pictured again such an empty life; no more kisses, no more embraces. She didn't think she could bear it. She would have to apologize and hope that he would take her back.

She pushed on her eyelids with the palms of her hands. Oh, why did she have to react angrily to everything? Victoria wondered about that as she brushed her curling hair. She had tried to change before, to banish her anger, but it hadn't done any good; she had the Escalante temper, like the de la Vega temper, and no amount of changing was going to eradicate that part of her personality. Of course, it was the part that Diego liked most, she admitted to herself, the times when he stared the hardest. Not that he ever openly stared, but she wasn't stupid, she had seen him secretly watching her in the past. She had never done anything about it because she didn't want to encourage what she thought of as another man's infatuation, but now she knew the man she loved and her best friend were the same man, though seemingly so different. She thought about that.

In one sense, she supposed that to be like Zorro would have signed Diego's death warrant. But she couldn't think of two such different men. Did Diego have a double personality?

No, Victoria didn't think so. He was just a darn good actor, had been for years, as he'd said. She tried to consider such a double existence, and couldn't, not without a lot of acting and masking of his real personality. She guessed such a masking could exist, that Diego could have purposefully hidden his real personality, but who would want to hide themselves? The pueblo wasn't worth it, she was sure, even in the duplicitous times they'd lived through over the last few years.

And that wasn't taking into account all that he would have to give up. Why, he would have to say 'adios' to ever living a normal life! He'd be forced to give up his heart's deepest desire, her, and make her wait for him.

Suddenly a chill coursed up Victoria's spine. She had waited for him. She knew, without a doubt, that she was illuminating Diego de la Vega's existence over the last few years. In fact, she was the last piece of the puzzle. Hadn't he said when he proposed marriage that it was rejection that he feared the most? And her reaction had been rejection enough, as all she could do was yell at him for not telling her about his secret identity. Of course, he couldn't tell her! What did he want, a dead fianceé? And if she had known his identity, she would have been killed, for the entire pueblo would know immediately that she knew about Zorro's identity by her actions, and deduce the man's identity for themselves just by watching who she spent time with. Victoria didn't think she could act so masterfully if she had been in Diego's boots. She didn't think she could stay away, as he had.

That was the point that hurt so much, Victoria decided. The fact that he could stay away, converse with her like a sister, treat her like she meant nothing more than a friend, every day, for years

Still, he had made such an effort to be near her. The dichotomy was confusing. She couldn't be that cold on purpose, but he could, and the hurt swelled up in her heart, threatening to overtake her if she didn't think of something else. Quickly Victoria wondered what to fix for lunch, and it was the mundane thoughts that saved her from being completely swallowed up by despair. She wondered briefly if this was how he felt, too?

Of course, Victoria knew that if he had acted like Zorro, like her lover, he would have been quickly eliminated by their last Alcalde, Luis Ramone, and she wouldn't be sitting here, having these doubts. He did what he could, what he had to do, to stay alive, and when he couldn't stand it anymore, he would visit, slipping out of the dark like the bandit he was to make sweet love to her in the dim kitchen, of all places, but holding onto his secret to the last.

However, he couldn't mask his passion, his desire, his love for her, not completely. He said she was the most important person to him, and she believed him. She had to believe. After all, he was the most important person to her. Hadn't she proved that over the years?

Or had she? At the first opportunity, she had run. She had probably hurt him beyond all reasoning, beyond what a simple apology could fix. But she had to try. He was worth that to her. She loved him. If she didn't try, where would she be?

Determined, Victoria rose and dressed for an early morning visit to an old friend.

The knock on the door came during breakfast. Alejandro sent Felipe to answer it, hoping that it wasn't the Alcalde, coming to collect on taxes again. That man had no hidden agendas, at least. He was all evil, and didn't pretend to be otherwise. Diego, naturally, was still in bed, though with the remains of a headache instead of one of Zorro's adventures, thank goodness. Alejandro had seen the remains of Zorro's grand adventures scarred into his son's chest, and what he'd seen while changing Diego from his clothes to a nightshirt had made him shudder. If candlelight could be so revealing, he wondered how his son would look in the brighter light of day. He was fairly certain he didn't want to find out.

He and Diego had had a long talk the night before when Diego had returned from the tavern, about Zorro, and Felipe, and Victoria, all caught up in the myth of Zorro whether they wanted to be or not. Diego loved Victoria, that was indisputable fact, and it had been agreed that Diego couldn't do much with a concussion to worry about, but once it was healed, he planned to fight to the last breath for Victoria. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but no one would argue with Alejandro that Diego himself was a bit dramatic. He had to be, in order to be the hero of the pueblo.

So Don Alejandro was greatly surprised to see Seņorita Escalante hurry into his dining room that morning. He had been expecting the Alcalde.

There was no preamble. There wasn't even a 'Hello.' Instead, she got right to the point. Have you seen Diego? Her eyes were puffy, like she had been crying, but otherwise she looked unaffected by her discovery, if a little windblown and agitated. What had she done, run like Toronado to get to his hacienda?

He's still in bed, nursing a headache from a concussion.

A concussion! she blurted.

Alejandro ignored her outburst. I'll see if he's awake. He rose to his feet, then sauntered with nonchalant unconcern to his son's room. He knocked on the door, then burst right in. Diego, wake up. He shook the lump that was his son. Wake up. Victoria's here.

Alejandro was happy to see that Diego's first reaction was to throw back the covers instantly and sit up. There, he stopped and put his hands to his aching head. Does she want to see me? Diego asked.

Showing no mercy, Alejandro threw back the darkening curtains over the window and let the sunlight pour in. She's asking for you.

That was all it took. Diego threw back the covers the rest of the way and strode to his wardrobe. Pulling out the first thing his fingers encountered, Diego started to dress in his brown trousers and a simple, unruffled white shirt. Show her into the library. I'll be there in a moment, he ordered.

Alejandro was amused at Diego's sudden haste, but left, calling sarcastically over his shoulder as he did, It's good to see that your headache's gone.

Alejandro showed Victoria to the library, as was proper, but couldn't keep her company, as was not proper. He wanted to check on the cattle with the vaqueros that morning, and the men were waiting on him. Deciding that being in charge of his own cattle was a better use of his time than showing interest in his son's torrid love life, and secretly wanting to give the two some unaccustomed space, he left the hacienda, hoping his trust in the two wasn't misplaced.

Victoria paced the carpets covering the floor, and Diego watched her, as he was want to do, with love for her abounding in his eyes. Hands clasped behind his back so he wouldn't be tempted to touch her, he decided he couldn't watch all day, and announced himself into the library.

My father said you wanted to see me. He asked the statement not as a question, but as a conclusion, hoping that would protect him from future rejection. It was a small hope, but it was the only one he had.

Victoria jumped guiltily, and took two steps forward before she remembered her anger from the previous night. It checked her forward momentum. Her eyes were puffy, as if she had recently been crying.

One look at her, and Diego anticipated getting his engagement ring back. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Hands clasped stiffly behind his back, he tiredly asked, Seņorita, what can I do for you?

Victoria clasped her hands in front, and it made a world of difference. She appeared timid and contrite as she asked, How's your head?

Well enough, said Diego. But you didn't come all the way out here to ask about my head. Why did you come? What she said next nearly sent him to the floor again.

I came to apologize after last night. I'm sorry for my general reaction. What I said wasn't what I wanted to say at all.

Stunned, Diego crossed slowly to the love seat and sat down. Victoria took a chair under the window, but their knees almost touched. Diego was too schooled by years of furtive watching not to notice this. It made his heart beat a little quicker against his ribs. But at last curiosity got the best of him. What did you want to say?

Victoria looked at the sunlight out the window, I don't know. That I want to hit you and kiss you at the same time. That you're the bravest man I know. And that I love you, despite my words, even if I was laughed at, and I can't go away just because I know your identity.

Diego was beside her instantly, kneeling on the floor by her chair, looking as if he was ready to forgive anything. Victoria, I never meant to hurt you like this. Please, you have to believe that. I just wanted to keep you safe, and to insure that safety, my secrecy had to be guaranteed. Only Felipe knows... What?

One hand on each cheek, freshly shaved just for this visit, Victoria leaned closer to him. I'm a smart woman. I know all that. And I know how much you care because of your ride to the tavern last night, even though you had a concussion, just to see ungrateful little me. Now be quiet and kiss me, before you make a fool of yourself.

Diego grinned, loving the way she held his cheeks while she told him what to do, loving the way her hair curled around her ears, loving the way she leaned in close to him, just loving her, even her temper, though it had caused a sleepless night and an aggravating morning. The mighty Zorro, taken down by a five foot three inch woman, he thought to himself. If anybody asked him later, he would say that he liked those odds.

Back to [Zorro Stories]. Send comments to linda.bindner@gmail.com.

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