The End of All Things

by Linda Bindner

Victoria wondered if he would come that night. It was the same thing she wondered every night. She was wrong in her hope that he would come more often than naught, but hope she did, and would every night as she closed her tavern doors tight against the darkness. For while the darkness might keep him hidden, might be his friend, she had never liked it for fear it might be hiding something.

Of course, since she met Zorro, she had grown accustomed to darkness, but it had never been the kind thing for her as it was for him, and that had been many years ago. Even the marriage proposal had been many years ago. Now all she could wait for was freedom from tyranny and a wedding. Her wedding. Though first he had to divulge his secret identity just so they could get married. It was a small hitch in the plans for a future together, and she wished she could hurry things along, but she could do nothing but wait. Victoria was getting very tired of waiting.

She shivered, thinking about the possible wedding, and from the cold air that had come through her front doors. If they waited much longer, she would have to wear a shawl at her own wedding. She laughed a little bitterly at the thought. The cold air seeped around the cracks in the door, and Victoria thought it had never been so cold in Los Angeles before. Of course, it had been, and she was just being silly, but the air definitely had a bite to it, and she felt a little guilty then for wishing to see him that night, for that meant a cold ride on Toronado, just to see her. It was asking too much, even for Zorro.

Wherever he was, Victoria hoped that he was warm and dry, sitting with a good book in front of a fire, in a cave, perhaps, or some secret lair. That's what she had thought until she'd seen the actual cave where he conducted all his tricks he played on the Alcalde. It had been nothing like her imagination, with its bubbling tubes and butterflies hanging from the wall, so she had stopped imagining how it looked all the time. It was there that he had proposed marriage, and Victoria thought her life was finally going to start. But all she'd done with her life was wait for something to happen. It was hardly the dream she'd planned for herself when she was a child, but what could she do?

Victoria started loading the dirty dishes onto a padded tray, intent on carrying them to the kitchen before a good washing, when she decided to leave them until tomorrow. She was tired, and dirty dishes could wait. In fact, the whole tavern needed a good cleaning, but even that could wait until she had more energy and more help. Right now she was just too tired to start. She wouldn't even wait for Zorro. Heading for the kitchen, she planned to bank the fire for the night and lock the back door before heading up the stairs to bed.

Victoria parted the curtains, and saw him immediately standing near the fireplace. She had no idea how long he'd been waiting for her, but it was starting to rain, and he was completely dry, so she suspected it was quite a while. Imagine, she was tending a dirty bar while he waited in her kitchen! It seemed that the masked avenger should have something better to do with his time.

But apparently not, as he opened up his arms without a word, and she rushed into them, feeling both gullible and relieved at the same time. He was simply too much for her to resist, especially when he looked at her like that, as if he was starving and she was dessert. As she smiled and curled against the warmth of his black outfit, she wondered when she had begun thinking in terms of food. Maybe she had been around Sergeant Mendoza too much lately, She giggled.

Zorro leaned back for a better look at her. What are you laughing at? he asked, so gently that she found herself explaining the thought even though it was a bit embarrassing. He got a contrite expression around his mouth when she reached the part about not seeing him much, and she was quick to assure him that it was all right.

But it's not all right, he insisted. This mask that keeps us apart is my doing, and I have no right to ask you to give up what a normal woman should want to wait for me.

I like waiting for you, Victoria assured again. It makes me feel like I'm helping your cause.

He laughed humorlessly. My cause. My cause may yet kill us both, and the Alcalde isn't learning to be less oppressive because of my lessons. You may have wasted the best years of your life, Zorro said, ending with a cynical laugh that she had never heard before.

Victoria gulped and stepped out of his arms so that she could see all of him, disregarding her own earlier, similar behavior. Zorro, what's wrong? Why are you talking like this?

Just a thought that perhaps you should have married and moved on with your life when you had the chance.

But I don't love Juan, she said right away. I don't, and I didn't.

You don't love me, either, he predicted darkly, moving to the other side of the chopping block nearest the window. Not the real me.

You don't know that, Victoria reminded, only once having to clear her throat of a sudden worry.

He laughed again, sardonically, and Victoria shivered at the sound she'd never heard him make. What was it that put him in such a mood? Yes, I do know that, he said at the end of that laugh. You love a hero, a legend, even though you proclaimed to be engaged to the man behind the mask. It looks to be the longest engagement in history as I may never be allowed to remove the mask.

Why was he talking like this? Underneath his words, which were biting enough, lay the real pain he suffered, she knew, having suffered comparable moods in the past. He was worried that they might never be together, and he couldn't handle the pain any longer with his usual cheerfulness and charm. Something had happened that brought such trouble to the front of his mind. What happened, Zorro? Why are you saying this?

He examined a pepper shaker she had set on the ledge under the window. Nothing happened. I'm just not in a good mood right now, that's all.

Then, why did you come? She could hear the rain begin to fall on her kitchen roof, and cursed the weather that kept him in her kitchen, wishing for the decent weather that Los Angeles usually had this time of year. Rain wasn't usual.

Oh, do I always have to be in a good mood when I see you? I'm glad to know that, and I'll keep it in mind.

His anger had never been directed at her, and she was not happy to be on the receiving end of it. This whole night was becoming rather terrible, as a matter of fact, and she wished it would end, wished he would go for the first time in her life. What was he so angry about, anyway?

He told her without her having to ask. Suddenly he sighed and hung his head. I'm sorry, Victoria. I don't seem to be in a good mood tonight. You don't have to worry that anything happened or anybody said the wrong thing. I just want to be held tonight, and I know that's impossible, and I don't like it, he explained to the floor.

She hurried around the chopping block to join him. I know how that feels, she was quick to reassure. Boy, did she know! I wish we could be together, too, but...

I know, I know. Nothing will change as long as I wear this mask, he predicted, and she had to agree.

With no sound, with no warning, the Alcalde and several lancers suddenly burst through the unlocked back door, riding in on the rain and the clouds. She'd left the door open on purpose, in case she had a visit from Zorro. Now the Alcalde had put it to good use. He and the lancers brushed rain drops off their shoulders and left puddles on her not-so-clean kitchen floor. She couldn't help it; she jumped at the sight of him, guilty before being proven of wrongdoing. And as long as you wear that mask, Zorro, you'll be a wanted criminal, Alcalde DeSoto sneered, making Victoria glad that he hadn't caught them in a more compromising position, as he might have if he had waited another few minutes. Hearing that tone was bad enough without having to be the object of such scorn, too. But that wasn't bothering Ignacio DeSoto a bit as he ordered, Lancers, kill him.

Zorro and Victoria shared a final, alarmed, glance goodbye before he vaulted straight up, climbing through her window with a speed that she would have found astonishing if she hadn't seen his muscles gather for the jump at the last minute. The lancers, trained military personnel, lined up side by side, ready to fire at the man in black. Without giving herself too much time to think about her actions, she bumped the nearest lancer hard in his hip just as he fired his aimed rifle, causing his shot to go wild and to careen into the fellow next to him, whose shot also skipped off the adobe as he fell into the third, whose shot landed nowhere near the retreating man. Zorro had escaped once more. Victoria smiled and looked gloatingly at the Alcalde.

Missed again, she said.

DeSoto growled. He hated looking like a fool, especially to a gloating woman, almost as much as he hated getting caught in the pouring rain. You are under arrest, he said slowly, pointing his finger at Victoria, having to blame someone for his bad luck.

Victoria's mouth fell open. For what? she said, barely able to contain the sudden rush of her anger.

DeSoto brushed the water off his coat in annoyance. His plan to capture Zorro in the señorita's kitchen wasn't turning out as predicted, as usual, and that made him angrier than the rain. For aiding and abetting that criminal, Zorro. For she who helps a known criminal must be a criminal herself, he said, then with a shake of his wet head, indicated that the lancers still standing should grab her arms.

What! yelled Victoria, incensed. Alcalde, you know I'm no criminal!

I know no such thing, answered the Alcalde calmly. I only know what I see, and I see a man who breaks the law left and right, helped by his traitorous friends; you. This establishment is closed until further notice. Place a sign on the front door before you leave, he instructed a lancer, suddenly pleased with how the evening had turned out. He may not have captured the bandit he was after, but he got the next best thing. He chuckled, then headed out the back door in the wake of the tavern owner. To her credit, she struggled the whole way. He only laughed again. Maybe a night in his jail would calm the fire out of her.

Then again, maybe an hour or two spent in the stocks first would help convince her of his seriousness. DeSoto glanced at the stocks on his way across the plaza, and made a quick decision. He held out his hand and muttered, Keys, to the closest lancer, having to shout to be heard above the sudden storm.

What if she's hit by lightening? the lancer asked, but handed over the keys as he spoke.

That's my problem, Corporal, not yours. Besides, she isn't going to be hit by lightening, DeSoto scoffed.

Only God knows that, Sir, answered the corporal, but even his dire warning wasn't enough to keep Victoria's hands from being shoved into the tiny holes that bound around her wrists and neck. The wood of the stocks clanged shut liken a judgment, a sound not lost on the milling military personnel. They beat a hasty but soaked retreat through the Alcalde's office door, leaving a lone Victoria to brave the storm and struggle helplessly against the wood. They retrieved a much subdued señorita an hour later to throw the dripping, exhausted form into a cell at the Alcalde's orders. According to DeSoto, the rainy night wasn't a total waste of time after all.


Don't be deluded into thinking that you can beat Zorro in a fight, because that's what you'll get if you continue to hold her, Diego de la Vega warned his schoolmate the minute he noticed the 'closed' sign on the tavern's door and asked DeSoto about Victoria's whereabouts the next day. The tavern hadn't been closed the night before, he was sure, or Victoria would have said something about it, either to him as Diego or to him as Zorro. Sometimes it was difficult to keep the two personas separated.

DeSoto laughed. A criminal belongs in jail, and she's where she belongs, he said, smiling congenially the entire time he spoke.

Then she had spent another night in jail because of her sympathies for Zorro, because of him. Diego felt the blood drain from his cheeks, and he fought to keep his expression neutral. However, he let his anger show brightly. We both know that Victoria's no criminal! Diego stated next.

She helped Zorro escape and may know where his hideout is. That makes her a criminal in my book, answered DeSoto.

You can't be serious, replied Diego, bending down to place both hands on either corner of the desk. He was so angry that he was afraid DeSoto might notice his shaking arms if he didn't do something with them. Placing them on the desk was better than throttling DeSoto, which is what he really wanted to do.

She'll lead me right to Zorro, DeSoto predicted, looking a bit gloating now as he leaned back casually in his chair.

She'll lead you nowhere, Diego did some dark predicting of his own. If he wasn't careful, he would let his anger give him away. Can I see her? Diego asked next, removing his arms from DeSoto's desk only to cross them in an attempt to restrain himself.

The plan worked, as DeSoto never knew what to look for. Of course. I'm not as unforgiving as some think. Diego snorted, but covered it up by pretending to swat at a fly. You can see the prisoner all you want... for five minutes. Provided you don't fill her head with plans of escape. He laughed at that idea.

I would never do that. Besides, you would know right where to look if she disappeared, Diego commented, loosening his hold on his arms now that he got to see Victoria, at least.

See that you don't. DeSoto laughed, knowing that his last threat was unfounded. The idea of Diego doing anything was ridiculous.

Thank you, Diego muttered, then turned to Sergeant Mendoza, who had been standing by during the entire interview. Lead the way, Sergeant, he said, pretending not to know the way to the jail cells. Behind him, DeSoto shook his head.

Sergeant Mendoza opened the door to the cells, using no keys as this particular door hadn't been locked. In fact, as Zorro, he had released Victoria from these very cells before. But knowing what to expect didn't help him this time as his blue eyes lighted on the bedraggled form of Victoria. He had to fight again to keep his cool.

She was still wearing the same clothes as the night before, naturally, but her hair hung down her back in wet, clumpy waves, and bits of straw still clung to it and to the edge of her green skirt. The cell she occupied hadn't been cleaned from the last occupants, who, by the smell, had not been nearly as hygienic as Victoria. Though she stayed far away from the less hygienic leftovers, she couldn't avoid the stench altogether, and was starting to smell too.

Diego had to quickly cover a wrinkled nose, which fit very well with his established image. Victoria, he said in relief now that he'd found her for sure. How are you?

The minute she heard the door open, she had hurried forward, but now drew back as she remembered the odor. Thank you for coming to see me, she said as if she owed him a huge favor for the visit. Maybe she did on account of the smell. Then her brow puckered in concern. I'm about as well as can be expected, Don Diego. But at least I'm dry in here, though it needs a good cleaning. She smiled wanly at the last.

Yes, I would expect DeSoto to keep better care of his facilities, Diego agreed, giving her the once over without looking like he was giving her the once over. Why did you decide to wash your hair in such surroundings? he asked as he gently passed a handkerchief over his nose. His delicate sensibilities were well-known in the pueblo.

It rained last night and I got wet in the stocks, she explained. She gave a tiny laugh. You should have seen me before.

You were put in the stocks? Diego asked incredulously, his anger returning full force. He fought it down again.

Yes. You didn't know?

No.

She nodded. For about an hour in the rain, she informed. It's not as bad as it sounds, Diego. But you know me; I had to fight the entire time. I was pretty tired when they brought me in here.

Last night? In the rain? he asked at her nod.

It's not so bad now that I'm drying out. But last night was cold, she couldn't help but complain.

Diego glanced at the open window that was common in the cells all over California. He sighed, unable to do anything about the window. Look, Victoria, we have the best lawyer in the territory. I'm sure my father won't mind loaning his to you. We'll get you out of this, he promised.

But I can't afford your lawyer, Victoria reminded him. Please thank Don Alejandro anyway.

Then we'll post bail. And don't worry about the lawyer; this one's on us. He smiled a closed-lipped, sardonic smile, for the de la Vegas were so generous, it was always up to them to help other people monetarily.

Don Diego, you only have a minute left, Sergeant Mendoza said, sounding apologetic.

Victoria grabbed the bars, no longer so concerned about the smell. I'm more worried about the transfer than I am about bail.

Diego's blood congealed. What transfer?

DeSoto plans to transfer me to the prison in San Diego in the morning. We can't let that happen. You have to help me, Diego.

Again, Diego was almost overwhelmed by anger. Don't worry, Victoria, we'll help you. Victoria couldn't be transferred. How would Zorro or Diego survive without seeing her beautiful face every day? Innerly he cursed Ignacio DeSoto. My father will not sit still for this. The Alcalde may have bitten off more than he can chew this time.

Funny. That's what he hopes will happen to Zorro. With a meaningful look, Victoria stepped back, fully aware that she needed help this time. If she was transferred, then DeSoto would have won this round; there was little chance that she could be rescued from San Diego. And if she wasn't somehow released, then she would rot in prison or worse, hang from the gallows.

Time's up, said Mendoza, still looking apologetic.

Diego gave one last encouraging look at Victoria. But... how had they gotten into this mess?


That night, stars filled the sky instead of clouds. With the stars came abundant moonlight, which was good in that Zorro could see what he needed to do, and bad in that Zorro could be seen doing it. But at least it wasn't raining. This was far more normal weather for the area around Los Angeles.

Don Alejandro had spent the day protesting Victoria's arrest and subsequent treatment as Diego considered giving himself away by giving in to his anger and wrapping his bare hands around DeSoto's neck. The lawyer had been contacted and promised to come, but Diego doubted he could make the journey to Los Angeles in time to save Victoria from a transfer. There was only one thing left to do; rescue Victoria himself.

As quietly as he could, Zorro entered the jail cell through the Alcalde's office and lifted the keys off the nail they always rested around. Only the rusty keys made any noise. Preciosa, let's get you out of here, he said, wrinkling his nose again at the smell.

But the Alcalde... Victoria began to protest.

... will expect a jailbreak. I know. But I'm taking you to a place he'll never find you. What choice did he have?

Victoria gave a short, mirthless laugh. That's good, because I certainly can't go back to the tavern now. She hurried forward, knowing that any noise would alert the guard on duty.

DeSoto would only arrest you again, and then he would arrest me while I'm rescuing you. It's not worth the energy to fight the inevitable. No, for now, you better stay away from the tavern, Zorro whispered back, but only oiled the cell door so it wouldn't squeak. I think you should write to Ramón about the tavern.

I'd already thought of that. He needs to tend the tavern if I'm to stay out of jail. Oil. You think of everything, she said admiringly, changing the subject suddenly.

I know these doors, Zorro mumbled at the compliment, shrugging his shoulders. One squeak is all DeSoto will need to spring a trap for me.

Finished, Zorro jiggled the key soundlessly in the lock, and the door swung open. Without a thought for the smell, he gathered her into his arms the minute the door was open. But he could only disregard it for so long. Come on. They might know you're coming from the smell alone.

Sorry, she whispered contritely, shrinking behind his large form, letting him shield her as much as he could.

Don't be. The Alcalde should be ashamed of the state of his cellblock. Only a man enamored with my capture could let his cells reach this state. He contemptuously tossed the bundle of keys into the cell.

Saying no more, he led her out the outside door to the cuartel yard and downed the guard on duty with one powerful punch, then pulled the guard inside the cuartel wall. Sleep tight, Zorro said in a low voice, sounding not at all worried over what he'd just done.

As one, they slipped through the cuartel gate, then around to the back of the mission, where Toronado was contentedly munching grape leaves. DeSoto would expect us to go out the same way I came in, Zorro explained. Only I'm not that stupid. He looked briefly over his shoulder, but no one was following them. That's why we went through the cuartel gates instead of through his office. With luck, we'll be long gone before that guard is discovered.

For once, their luck held as they rode out of town as quietly as Toronado could go. It was as if the great black horse knew the need for stealth, and stayed at a sedate walk until they were well out of earshot. Then he broke into a gallop, completely aware that he was carrying a more than normal load. He threw his head, but tolerated the extra weight and bad smell because he knew his master was near. His odor and gentle touch was all the assurance the horse needed.

Wrapping his arms tighter about her waist, Zorro smiled, then made sure to lead Toronado to the cave by a very convoluted route. He was fairly certain they hadn't been discovered and followed, but there was no use taking chances now. He turned to his precious cargo and asked, Comfortable?

"Oh, yes, Victoria assured. I'm only a little chilly. Actually, she was freezing as the cold air streamed past, but she would never admit it to him.

He wrapped his cape around her shoulders anyway, and assured, Not much farther now. She leaned into him, for warmth as well as for her feelings for him, and he kissed her head.

Where is this 'safe place' you're taking me? She expected to be taken to a hacienda, or a cavern in the woods, someplace he could visit. But his hesitant voice broke over her ears.

Victoria, we need to talk about that. He pulled Toronodo to a stop beside a rather innocuous looking bush, its branches reaching towards the sky, waiting to snag unwary travelers.

Why are we stopping?

I need to... He didn't know what to say. ... discover your intentions, he finally stated, proud of the way the words sounded when put together. Proud that he could even speak.

She turned in the saddle to face him. What do you mean? My intentions about what?

Well, do you want to return to tending a tavern..?

I thought DeSoto ruined that chance for me, she said, sounding glum even in the cover of darkness. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly.

Yes, that's what I think. But I want you to consider your options. I'll set you free to tend any tavern of your choice somewhere else for as long as DeSoto remains in power, I can take you wherever you want to go right now, or you can stay here with me.

Abruptly her heart started pounding. But if I stay with you, does that mean you'll have to share your secret?

Zorro hesitated again. Yes, was all he said at last.

With no further warning or words, Victoria kissed him on the mouth. Her ardor was obvious, and the kiss was one full of love and passion. The odor was truly terrible this close, but he would never expostulate on it, knowing that it wasn't her fault. The kiss deepened until even Zorro could feel the desire in it.

I'll stay with you, she whispered, each hand on the sides of his mask, and kissed him again until his mind turned circles and bells rang in his ears.

That's what he thought she would say. Wait, he said. Un memento. This decision comes with a further price.

Which is?

He could barely think straight after such a kiss, bad smell or not. But he continued. I'll unmask for you on a few conditions. That you'll promise not to go into the pueblo...

That'll be hard, and could take years, but for my safety, I promise, she whispered, not so cold now that they had stopped, and she felt herself burning with the sudden desire.

At least not until it's safe and I or your brothers are with you, and that you'll marry me no matter who I am beneath the mask.

That was a lot harder to agree to than staying out of the pueblo. What if she didn't like him? Could she be married to someone she didn't like? Did it matter? And why the demand? Why can't you just trust me? she asked.

He sighed and Toronado tossed his head at the sudden sound. Honesty seemed to be the best thing at this time. The truth isn't about trust. The truth is that... that I'm scared. There, he'd said aloud what he'd kept coming back to as he paced the cave all day.

Victoria wrinkled her brow. Scared? Scared of what?

He looked at her for a second. Of you, he finally admitted. Even though I wasn't in the best of moods last night... She snorted inelegantly. ... I did say one thing intelligent. I am worried that you're in love with the legend instead of boring old me.

But Victoria was violently shaking her head. You know I'm in love with you, not the hero. That's what I said when...

... when I proposed, I know. But I had a lot of time to think...

So did I! she exclaimed. That's all you can do in jail.

I know, he said, looking contrite. He took a breath and went on. But if you stay, I'm afraid the only proper solution is for us to get married, or... people I live with won't think very highly of us. And I don't want that fate for you.

He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Is that why you always came to my tavern while wearing the mask?

He nodded. I can do many things if people don't know my identity.

That must be very addictive, she said, having wondered about that for long time.

He had started thinking the same thing. It can be.

I mean, doing things you want to do, but are too scared to do...

Like stand up to the Alcalde without fear of retribution?

She looked straight at him then. The reason you can stand up to him is that you're a better fighter than DeSoto.

A better swordsman?

That, yes, but a better fighter all around. Much better then the lancers. And you succeed because the Alcalde and the lancers are so proud, they won't admit that you are better.

Zorro held up one finger to stop any more words from her. Ah, that's why the mask is so crucial. With the mask, I and those I love can't be harmed.

Then why has it been this long before an alcalde tried to hurt me? Victoria asked, curious as to what he thought.

An alcalde has hurt you. By naming you a criminal, he managed to take your tavern away, Zorro said sadly.

Maybe Alcalde DeSoto simply started the ball rolling, and I've been waiting for a good reason to give up running my tavern anyway.

What? he asked, genuinely surprised. He hadn't heard this before. You want to give up the tavern?

She tried to explain, Look, Zorro, I'm almost thirty. I'm tired of the tavern, of waiting for something special to happen. That's what DeSoto doesn't understand, and why he has no real power over me. He should be focusing on you if he wants to hurt me.

But he wants to hurt me. That's why you suffer and it would be so much worse if he knew you were married to me. That's why you need to stay out of the pueblo, at least until we have a just and fair alcalde. But at the same time, I'm tired of waiting for a normal life. I'm tired of not being myself. And I'm tired of not having you by my side. That's why I'm considering taking off my mask. His voice was hard, determined at the end. At the same time, it breaks my heart to think of not seeing you at the tavern, of you having to give up the tavern because of me. I don't want that, either.

So it's down to what we want, Victoria said, leaning back to look at him. I also had a lot of time to think once I started thinking rather than reacting. And I know what I want now, and it's different from what I wanted before.

He shifted in the saddle. This line of conversation made him nervous, but he forced himself to continue with it, to see it through to the end. What do you want, Victoria?

Victoria considered for a moment. I want what everyone wants; to be loved for themselves. I want to get married and have children, even if they're awful and I'm a rotten mother.

That could never happen, Zorro interrupted.

One never really knows, she said, ending his predictions with a prediction of her own. I want to end the waiting, and I want to be with you. In public.

But you don't know if you even like me, he protested.

That's your fear talking, she said. Now, are you going to take me to this 'safe place' or not?

He smiled, soft and slow. You're impetuous. That's what I love about you.

Because you're not? she asked.

Not as impetuous, though I do have a temper.

Yes, I know, she said, reminding him of last night.

So you want to stay?

She nodded.

You know what that means?

She raised an eyebrow. Do you?

He swallowed noisily, but nodded as well. I do.

She smiled. Then let's get a start on the rest of our lives, she whispered, cajoling, persuading, flirting.

First I want you to do me a favor, he whispered back.

What?

Take a bath.

She giggled then, caught up in the heaviness of the scene they had just gone through compared to his request. All right, she agreed. Oh, and by the way, you could never be boring.

Neither could you.

She laughed again, realizing just how very well he knew her when the sound of pounding hooves interrupted their conversation. They both turned in the direction of the sound, surprised. It came from the the pueblo.

Zorro said, The Alcalde and his men. We should hurry. Nothing could instigate his survival instinct faster than the thought of Victoria being in danger, which she would be if they were captured while talking only feet from the cave. He was suddenly afraid. He backed Toronado up a few feet, had him step on the trigger for the bush, and it swung aside, leaving an opening just big enough for the horse. He ducked, and forced Victoria's head down, too, just in case, and the bush swung shut, effectively concealing them.

Like it was old habit, Toronado walked directly into his stall and began munching oats. He stamped, blew dust from the road out with his nostrils, but didn't whiny. It was as if he knew the need for quiet.

The need was very real. Victoria gaped as the voice of the Alcalde and his lancers came to them faintly, but obviously from the hacienda. They were surely with someone. The hope of private quarters quickly diminished.

Why don't you take your bath and change into these, he pulled a skirt and shirtwaist from his saddlebags, while I brush down Toronado and we wait for the Alcalde to leave. His whisper still reverberated off the walls more than he would have liked. He was glad he had sent Felipe off to bed before setting out to rescue Victoria from jail, or he would have had some explaining to do, and the young man would be as trapped in this fiasco as they were.

And you get ready to unmask, she whispered back, Then I'm all yours. She grinned, making certain he didn't misunderstand her meaning, as if he would, and climbed the steps, past the desk and on up to the partitioned off alcove that lead to who-knew-where. There the voices were a little louder, but there also stood a small hip bath, full of bubbles and still-warm water, despite their time spent talking on Toronado. How did he know that she would need a bath? Soap, a towel, washcloth, and brush sat folded on the stone floor beside the tub.

After a quick bath in the too small tub, Victoria sat at his desk, fully dressed, brushing her wet hair and perusing the note she found laying there.

Victoria,

Found this in Toronado's saddlebag. Thought you would like to wear it.

Z

Wrapped in the black sash from his waist, Victoria found the engagement ring, the green emeralds surrounded by diamonds tucked, she thought, safely away in her desk at the tavern. The only person she'd told about the hidden compartment had been Diego during a particularly boring siesta time. Zorro's promise for the future, this future, was a secret that very few knew about. Even her best friend, Diego, had had to force it out of her. Beside Zorro's promise of revealing his true identity to her, this engagement was far less known. Victoria stared at the ring, thinking of all the promises it stood for, before slipping the cool metal onto her finger.

She looked around, the ring feeling heavy and strange on her hand. She looked again, hoping for a distraction, trying to find any clue as to his hidden identity and only seeing his books in his book case and spread across the edge of the desk. 'The Lifesigns of the Common Criminal' didn't look as interesting as 'Dr. Wagner's Cure For the Common Cold.' She opened the last one, wondering why he needed it, and quietly read several entries as he finished brushing down Toronado until the horse's coat shone a glossy black.

He was stalling.

Victoria knew he would put 'The Moment' off as long as possible, to humor his fears, but this was getting ridiculous. No horse needed to be brushed so much. She supposed she would have to push for even this, though he claimed, like her, to want as normal a life as possible. Her heart pounded in her chest, but she closed the book with a determined snap that he heard in Toronado's stall. His head jerked up for a look, making sure that she was all right, and she stood to walk back to him, where it was a simple and well-known habit to wrap her arms around his neck prior to kissing his very kissable lips. She felt his arms wrap around her waist, and she played with the ends of his hair hanging out from beneath the mask. With a little contented sigh, she leaned into him, ready to forgive his stalling techniques, ready to forget his behavior from the previous night, and more than ready to get on with it.

One hand on his cheek in comfort, support, and love, Victoria whispered, Stop stalling.

He leaned his forehead down against hers, taking his support where he could. I can't help it, he said, willing time to stand still. You smell too good.

Would it help for me to encourage you? No more kissing until you unmask.

You drive a hard bargain, Señorita, said Zorro, his voice still low despite no longer hearing voices through the walls. Maybe they had gone to a different part of the house to search...?

You're stalling again, Victoria whispered, smoothing the wrinkles out of the back of his shirt with a languid hand. She kissed the front left free by the low collar of the shirt he wore, promising much more when she smiled beguilingly up at him.

He grinned back. But I haven't unmasked yet.

Just a little kiss. Hardly anything. Here, and here, and here, she whispered as she kissed his chest again, his neck, his nose.

Zorro groaned. There's only so much a man can take, he whispered back before kissing her on the lips, desire practically overwhelming his self control. Even her hair smelled fresh and clean, he noted, his eyes closed against the onslaught of emotion churning his soul. One hand on either side of her head, improper thoughts bombarded his senses as he reveled in the feel of her leaning against him, and he forgot all about brushing Toronado. The only thing he wanted was a normal life with the woman he loved. And there was only one way to get that.

The kiss ended and he breathlessly took her hand. Leading her to his desk, he took off his sword belt so that he could sit in the desk chair unimpeded, and grabbed a stool from the worktable for her, then without a word to her, bent over for a better grasp of the tails of the cloth covering his head. The only sound in the cave was Toronado's contented chewing of oats, the bubbling of the occasional flask of liquid, satin rubbing on satin, and the slamming of his heart against his ribs as he pulled the last knot apart and drew off the concealing piece of black material.

As the mask slid away, dark hair was revealed, and Victoria's first thought was of all the Mexicans she knew in the pueblo. They all had dark hair. That was little help to his identity, though, as he still had his head bent down, hiding until the last second, hiding from what, she wished she knew. With a trembling finger, she reached down and found his chin, slowly lifting his head so that she could see. Amid fluttering hearts, his appearance came into delayed view.

Oh. My. God.

Suddenly she knew where she was.

She wasn't with any Mexican, in a cave hidden behind a house. Victoria was with someone Spanish.

And she was somehow near his hacienda. The voice she'd heard speaking to the Alcalde had belonged to Don Alejandro.

For she was staring into the frightened face of Diego de la Vega, confirmed scholar and her bumbling best friend. Many things abruptly fell into place for her as she smiled a tremulous smile before throwing herself forward into his arms for an unprecedented embrace.

My mother once told me to fall in love with a friend if I could help it. I guess you count, she whispered, curling up on his lap, kissing his face, running her fingers through his hair, eyes closed to better feel his smooth skin and ticklish mustache.

Thank God that's over, he thought, and it had gone so well. Diego returned her endearments, still thinking improper thoughts as his hands roamed where they wanted to, forgetting her hair was wet as they buried themselves in the curly strands. He settled her into a more comfortable position with wet fingers, and the unhidden effect of their love abruptly showed through his trousers. But he was done with hiding.

After drawing back, Diego blew the breath he'd been holding out through pursed lips. You're not angry?

No. Glad. Happy. Joyous. In love. She kissed him again, trailing her fingers through his hair usually hidden beneath the mask, trying to express her gratitude for his unmasking before her and failing. All she could do was pant and hang onto him for dear life as he played subconsciously with the makings of her soul. She, too, was done with hiding.

Victoria, will you marry me soon? Diego whispered between kisses, intent on ending the agony. Tomorrow night? I don't think I can stand having you nearby without...

Victoria didn't let him finish his thought. Yes, Diego. I'll marry you. And I'm so glad it's you.

The last ride of Zorro. A good way to end.

You're retiring?

For you, anything.

Then we had better make it official. We should tell your father...

The kisses stopped. How did you know...? He stared at her quizzically.

She looked at him in amazement. I was talking about getting married still. You mean he doesn't know? She fingered the black silk of his shirt, a subtle reminder of Zorro.

Only Felipe knows. Besides you, of course.

Of course. She laughed, a small chuckle that meant she had something on her mind. Then it appears your work is not done. She rose awkwardly. You need to tell him.

Can't we just let Zorro disappear? Diego asked, his old fear of the truth returning full force. He rubbed down her arm, but the endearment wasn't as distracting as he'd hoped.

Come on, she said and pulled. Off we go to change your father's opinions of his only son. She paused at his surprised expression. She gave a determined look back. Oh, don't think I haven't noticed. His disdain is as famous in the pueblo as Zorro is. I think it's time to end the stories, don't you?

You're most persuasive, Victoria, he said as he allowed her to pull him up. But first let me change clothes. You never know who's lurking just outside the window.

And he'll never believe you if you do. Aren't changed opinions enough for one night? Besides, I thought you said you'd do anything, she said, unmistakably flirtatious.

Diego feigned a look of consternation. Did I say that?

Victoria nodded. She headed for the area behind the bathtub, an uneasy Diego in tow. Now, how do we get out of here?

Impetuous. Good word, said Diego, incredulous that he was doing this, as he peeked through the peep hole that showed Don Alejandro reading a book in the library, and he opened the door leading to the fireplace, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Don Alejandro was alone in the room. Have they gone?

At Alejandro's nod, he visibly relaxed, but Alejandro did a double-take from the chair he was sitting in close to the fire. His gaze caught on Victoria's form. Victoria! Thank goodness you're safe! Half the garrison is out looking for you, He stood, then held out his arms to congratulate her. Now I want to hear all about your escape! What are you doing here, my dear? And, Diego, why are you dressed like Zorro?

She gladly fell into his arms. I escaped with a lot of help from Zorro. And she pointedly glanced over her shoulder at Diego.

Diego gave his best Zorro-like grin and crossed his arms in excellent imitation of himself. Well, I do my best, he said confidently, knowing Alejandro could hardly fail to recognize the line.

The smile of delight slowly faded from Alejandro's wrinkled face. What...? You mean...? Diego, what's going on? At first, he thought that Diego was playing a joke on all of them, but at Victoria's serene countenance, he pricked his ears, knowing that what he was about to hear was going to be astonishing. He repeated, What's going on?

Diego looked at Victoria, gathering strength from her nod of encouragement. Father, perhaps you'd better sit down, Diego cautioned, making sure not to be anywhere near the window or in front of the fire. A highlighted man made a good target, especially in the black clothes of Zorro. There's a lot to say.

Out with it, Son, Alejandro commanded, ignoring Diego's offer of a seat. Besides, after seeing him fight Emissary Resindo, he had had his suspicions as to what Diego was going to say. His heart beating loudly in his chest, he unconsciously leaned forward in anticipation.

But still Diego hesitated, afraid to reveal the secret that he had safeguarded for so long. Was there really any reason to tell him? Then he glanced again at Victoria and knew the secrecy had to end. Logistically speaking, how could Victoria stay at the hacienda without being married to him, and how could they get married if it wasn't known by those who counted that he was Zorro? His father looked at him so trusting, and he took a deep breath, then indicated the opening behind the fireplace. Perhaps I should just show you. And be warned that this may seem unbelievable, but try to keep an open mind. He smiled, and led the way back into the cave. Welcome to Victoria's hiding place, at least as long as it's necessary. He put an arm around Victoria's waist, so that Alejandro would have the freedom to look around by himself, unimpeded.

Ah, whispered Alejandro in sudden understanding, looking at the test tubes and worktables, so this is why the library often had a funny smell to it. He touched the desk, then moved on to the tubes on the worktable. Astonishment glinted on his face, and love, and understanding. Diego, don't let me criticize your experiments ever again. They've come in quite handy, haven't they?

Yes, they have, Diego responded, giving Victoria an affectionate kiss on the top of her head. Alejandro didn't miss the gesture. Are you two...?

Getting married properly tomorrow night, yes, Diego finished for him. Alejandro nodded as if he knew this, too, had been coming. Zorro's last ride. After all, I have too much to live for now to put myself in more danger than Maria's cooking affords. He laughed at his own joke. The Señorita here makes a good, though hard to resist, bargain.

That she does, Alejandro said smoothly, then glanced purposefully towards the coat tree where Diego's caballero shirt hung covered by Zorro's black cape. But let's get back to the library where it's warm and we can plan the future, Alejandro said. On their way out, Alejandro patted Diego on the back. Babies, Diego, I want grandbabies.

Here it comes; the lecture on how to be a good parent, Diego thought. Yes, you've mentioned that before, Diego said with a roll of his eyes.


Early the next morning, before the servants or the sun was up, found Diego, dressed in his nightshirt covered by a deep midnight blue robe, leaning on the doorjamb of one of the hacienda's many guest rooms. Moonlight covered the bed and the wall, highlighting the lone, sleeping occupant, Victoria Escalante.

Diego shivered once, a movement that had nothing to do with the cold. One more day, Diego thought. One more day before she's all yours, and this feeling of pent up agony will be over. He could hardly wait.

But first he had to talk to Felipe, the servants, Padre Benitez, and the vaqueros before he could do anything for the wedding. The people were loyal to the de la Vegas and would soon be loyal to their new mistress. He didn't have to worry about anybody inadvertently turning her in. The entire family was too well respected, even by their servants. And to think, the night before he had been feeling so frustrated. It just proved once again that no one knew what the future had in store for them. He could preach all he wanted with the written word in The Guardian, and planned to, but the people of Los Angeles would never be as strong a believer in destiny as he would.

And was Victoria his destiny, then? He thought so. Fate or the Universe or Organized Religion or Whatever had destined her to be the next de la Vega, even if he and she were acting on their emotions a little late in life. But better late than never, he supposed. He wished the entire pueblo could know of his good fortune; he wanted to show Victoria off, dress her regally, spend a fortune on her. But maybe it was better this way. At least it would be less uncomfortable for her. She could be as independent as she liked, and still be his to guard and cherish as much as he liked. It was an irresistible promise. Diego shivered again.

She had been through so much to get here. She had put her life on hold, gone to jail, even stood in the pouring rain, and now she could expect her reward. Diego vowed to make her life easier, to give her something to live for, in the months she would wait for the Alcalde to go. Victoria was far from patient, and Diego expected the first months of his marriage to be trying ones. With any luck, he could give her a baby to watch over and occupy her time.

But the truth was, he didn't care what they did, as long as they did it together. He had her, finally, and he would not let her go. Zorro, he could let go quietly and without a fuss, but not Victoria. She was his life. No, he would not give her up without a fight.

Victoria stirred suddenly, and turned over on to her side. As he'd watched over her many times as Zorro, now Diego stood, watching her sleep, keeping an eye on her, while feelings of love washed over him like the ocean washed over the beaches on his father's land. He couldn't help himself as he stared. The desire to watch was as strong as his desire to love. He felt helpless to deny either.

Victoria suddenly sat up, taking the bed clothes with her, alert in the predawn light. Diego?

Yes. Hush now. What is it?

Nothing. But what are you doing?

Watching. Go back to sleep.

If he could see, he would have seen Victoria gape in the direction of the door. Are you insane? I get a chance to see you uninterrupted, and you want me to go to sleep? Not a chance.

He entered the room, sure to leave the door open behind him, but wanting to pull it shut instead. Propriety demanded obedience on this last day.

Today's our wedding day, she commented in a dispassionate whisper.

As soon as it's dark, around seven o'clock, he promised from his place at the end of her bed. He didn't trust himself to get any closer.

Victoria shivered then, making the bed sway. I can hardly wait, she said, causing his heart to suddenly thump loudly in the quiet room. Drawing up her knees to her chest, her borrowed nightgown bunching under her arms, she said, In fact, I'm not sure I can wait.

Her words hung in the air between them like a challenge, bold, daring.

Not one to deny a direct order like that, Diego quietly closed the door. Your wish is my command, Señorita. Victoria giggled as he sat on the end of the bed and reached for her. She slid into his arms as if she'd been cast there. Maybe she had, in some other lifetime or universe.

A passionate kiss later, he drew back to look at her. What are you thinking?

That tomorrow my new life begins, and I have Alcalde DeSoto to thank for it, as much as that pains me to say.

He is a pain, isn't he?

Like being stabbed in the back with a sharp knife, Victoria said, causing him to laugh and her to roll her eyes.

Then he embraced her, hard, saying, I love it when you do that. Please, don't change, Victoria. Don't change no matter what happens.

Knowing that he liked her just the way she was, all fire and indignation, she suspected that Diego would change, slowly becoming more like the Diego she vaguely remembered, half Diego and half Zorro. The real him, the man she hadn't seen in years but the one she was in love with. Passionately in love with.

You've never told me what you really think of me, Victoria accused, running a few fingers up his chest to soften her words from an accusation to seduction.

Diego gave her a look of surprise that even she could see in the dim light. Certainly you realize how much I love you, he said, one palm flat against her cheek.

It's always nice to hear it, she countered, leaning into his palm as if it was her lifeline.

Unhesitantly, Diego said, Victoria, you are the living end for me. I would be nothing without you. I wouldn't even exist. I need you, and I love you with all my heart. And I hope we have a lot of children so that love can only grow with them as it has with me. There. How's that?

Nice, she whispered so as not to alert the others as to their wakeful state. Thoughtfully, she placed her chin on her upraised knee. Have you decided what you're going to tell the servants about me being here?

What? You're not going to say what you think of me?

I love you, passionately, and would do anything for you, and you know it. Is that what you're looking for?

You're right - it is nice to hear, Diego joked, lounging on the bed on one elbow, while his thoughts turned to other, more ardent, positions. Anybody who saw them together could see it - a love that had taken chances and given sacrifices was about to be sanctified. There was hardly anything more to say about it; even the Alcalde couldn't stop it. The Alcalde could hardly understand it.

But Diego could. He'd seen the same type of relationship in his parents, and he was lucky enough to find another such relationship for himself. He remembered how he'd basically picked Victoria out of the crowd at the beginning, and he'd been lucky enough to fall madly in love with her. Now she was part of his... well, his everything. He wondered how he had gotten to be so undeserving, but so fortunate.

What are you thinking? she asked when he didn't say anything for several minutes.

Oh, I was wondering what's for breakfast, how the servants are going to take the news of my marrying at last, and how you chose me from the crowd in the tavern the day we met. He smiled up at her.

I chose you? I thought you chose me, Victoria was quick to point out. You couldn't keep your eyes off me.

Such beauty as yours is rare, Diego declared. But I think I fell in love with your spirit first.

Hearing such compliments from her old friend's lips was strange, but Victoria was already getting used to it. She shivered again in excitement. Your intelligence, she decided. It was obvious from the start that you were different. I just didn't know how different.

Different enough not to be afraid of you.

But I thought Zorro kept the others at bay.

Oh, no, it was all you. Everybody was afraid of your temper, thank goodness, not my retribution. Nobody could handle an outspoken woman.

Except you, she reminded.

Yes, Father and I had a long talk about 'handling' last night. He thinks I'm making a mistake and that I won't be able to 'handle' a temper like yours in the future. But he hasn't gotten to know the new and improved Don Diego yet.

Hmph! Victoria snorted. New and improved, my right eye. There isn't anything new about you that can't be discerned from paying attention. I don't believe we were fooled for so long. And I don't plan to let him talk to you as he has in the past, either. He will have to learn a new respect, just like I have.

Diego was amazed. He'd never had a champion before. The effect was new to him, and he said as much to her, the incredulity leaking through in his voice.

You should have a champion, she said bluntly. When I think of how I talked to you all those years, I cringe. Don Alejandro should feel the same way, in spite of the fact that he's been like a father to me, too. She spoke with a fierce honesty that amazed him despite her whispers.

I don't need a champion, Victoria, I need a wife. Can you be that?

Of course I can. But the people of the pueblo can stop overlooking you and start taking you seriously, and it starts right here. After all, you fooled the whole town, and there you were, risking your life every month, and we didn't even know it. We should be asking for forgiveness.

He stared at her in admiration, frankly astounded to hear anybody talk like this. You would make a wonderful University professor, he finally announced, his voice low in spite of his praise.

And so would you, and don't be modest this time. She softened her words with a quick kiss. You can expertly tutor any children we have, just as you've tutored Felipe all these years. Me, I'm just a barmaid who chose wisely.

You're not just a barmaid, Victoria, and don't you forget that. Now be quiet and give me another kiss before I explode with unrequited love.

With a smile, she leaned forward, and, her legs crossed under the blankets, kissed him like there was no wedding to look forward to, like the beauty of the endearment was natural and enlightening. Diego just thought it was amazing.

Wow, he breathed when she released him, thinking how glad he was that tonight was his wedding night. He couldn't wait much longer, either. Suddenly the day seemed extremely long to live through. Have I told you lately that you're amazing?

Not lately.

I promise to show you tonight, he said, cupping her cheek with his hand, hoping for another sweet kiss.

I look forward to it. Victoria was surprised to find that she was looking forward to it, looking forward to it with passionate abandonment. Her tongue wrapped around his as she kissed him, displaying the promise of an incredible night. She wasn't frightened, horrified, or worried, as so many other women in the pueblo spoke of on their wedding days. She was just in love. Victoria felt her desire to consummate that love rise in her, almost overpowering her good sense with its gentle insistence to keep going and not listen to the lifelong teachings that she'd always been subjected to.

An audible moan from Diego reminded them of where they were and what they were about to do. She ignored the teachings filling her head, but he didn't.

Wait. We should wait, he whispered in the light of early morning. The sound of Felipe tending the trees outside her window brought them to their senses as well. Her hand on his chest, Diego wondered how she'd gotten his robe and nightshirt open so quickly. He was laying on her bed without remembering how he'd gotten there. He only remembered his need to speak with Felipe, and that extraordinary kiss. Maybe his father did have an argument, just not an argument for what he thought. And how was he going to get back to his room without being seen? Problems had already started, and he and Victoria weren't even married yet. This was not a promising beginning for an obedient life together, or it was promising, just promising of the wrong thing.

He sighed, guilty but happy, and said, We should dress for breakfast. Then I'll talk to the servants after seeing Felipe. I imagine he won't want to share me with you - he's been the lone recipient of my identity for many years.

I have faith; he'll come around, Victoria promised even as she yearned to give him one more kiss. Her stomach rolled and churned with desire. One thing she wasn't worried about was sharing her future husband. But she did say, And you - how can you think about food at a time like this?

I'm only starting us out on the right foot, he objected, then rolled towards the door with a straight face, where he began a fast rebuttoning job. She was impressed with how good he was at it. Take today easy. After yesterday and the day before, you deserve it.

I plan on eating anything in sight and wandering in the garden, dreaming of tonight, Victoria said looking like the dream had already started.

Keep that thought, he ordered, poking fun at himself, then disappeared down the hall, leaving her alone on her wedding day. She stretched, then hurried to dress before breakfast so she could see him again, even if it had to be a chaste encounter. With that imminent encounter in mind, and the need to hurry, she put her blouse on backwards. Well, that's what he does to me, she guessed, leaves me breathless and backwards. With a laugh, she wondered how he was faring. Not well, she hoped.

The day was interminable, and Padre Benitez refused to read the ceremony on such short notice until Diego told him why haste was of the essence. Then Diego entered the closed tavern through her jimmied window, and the next thing Esperanza knew, a dark skirt and shirtwaist were falling towards her through the air, waiting to be stuffed in her saddlebags. A fast trip home from the pueblo brought Diego to the hacienda just before lunch time. While he waited, he sought out and found Victoria in the garden, trying to gather dry roses. He leaned against a post support to watch.

She finally set the basket swinging on her arm to the ground and grumbled, You can help, you know. What are you doing, anyway?

Watching, Diego answered simply, though his enjoyment went far deeper than his words indicated.

Her head turned around sharply, the sunlight glinting off her hair, though a new bank of clouds littered the horizon. What are you watching?

You.

She couldn't keep the blush or the smile off her face. You must do that a lot.

I do. An appearance as beautiful as yours is difficult not to watch.

She smiled again. Diego, you never used to say such romantic things.

I never was allowed to be open about my feelings before, he explained, and took a seat in one of the rought iron chairs to get a better view of her. It seemed that now he was free to be himself, nothing was going to stop him from being that self. His desire was blatant in his eyes.

She blushed again, somewhat nervously, then joined him in the other chair. A small table separated them.

Can we talk for a moment? she asked.

It's almost lunch time; better hurry.

How can you think about food at a time like this?

I'm not, but we'll be missed if we don't show. A silence greeted his words, where he helplessly stared until he was interrupted by the sound of a gong, announcing lunch. Then again, we could miss this once. He grinned at the suggestion in his tone. What did you want to talk about? he finally asked to get the desire that he knew was there out of his eyes, at least.

Victoria suddenly hung her head. I want to talk to you about you being Zorro, she said quietly at last. Or at least about you retiring.

Go ahead. He sounded like they were already married; content and malleable. When had he become this way?

She remained silent for quite awhile. I can't bear for you to give up your sword because of me, she said at last. I know how important justice for the pueblo is to you. She laughed a little laugh; she knew exactly how important justice was to him!

He quietly responded, You're more important.

Her head came up sharply. Diego....

He reached for her hand across the table between them. Victoria, listen to me; it would be too much for the Alcalde to resist killing me if I were ever injured. I don't want to leave you. I have too much to live for now.

You didn't before? she asked.

He smiled. Was I ever injured? he asked in response to her question. Of course he was, but never fatally.

She looked at him then. You mean I was that important even then?

Diego sighed, trying to restrain his natural inclinations. You've always been that important, he admitted, his voice soft at the confession.

What about your cause? she asked, using the same word she'd used several days before, when this had all started.

He replied immediately, as if he already knew the answer. My cause would be empty without you to sweeten it.

Wouldn't anybody 'sweeten it'?

No. I need you, he honestly replied. I love you more than any cause. Perhaps he was pouring it on a bit thick, but he couldn't help being completely honest with her now. The relief felt too good.

Victoria lifted her head. She had already suspected his need, and to be honest, she felt the same need for him. Her hand tightened even as it tingled from his touch. I love you, too, she whispered, the need she felt also loud in her eyes. A simple unmasking should not be so seductive, she thought resolutely.

His thoughts weren't far from hers. He stood, pulling her up with him, and kissed her without preamble, letting loose of his passions completely for the first time, showing her how deeply he longed to be connected with her. It was the only thing he had ever really longed for.

Fazed, surprised, and touched, she responded automatically, her hands on his chest until thought returned and she threaded her fingers through his hair. He kissed her desperately, hanging on to her tightly, as if she might disappear if he let go. A servant sent to find them interrupted the endearment, but not before Victoria fully understood the depths of his emotions. He would do anything for her.

It was that last thought that haunted Victoria through lunch. She realized that Diego was more proper than she was. Attending all the parties required by his station in life made him more proper than pouring tequila all day had made her. But she wondered how far that propriety went? Was he secretly laughing in amusement at the propriety in everything, or was he really gratified by it? Everyone had a role in that kind of politeness, which could be very comforting. Determined to discover which it was, she found herself outside his room when Alejandro announced a siesta after lunch. Hesitantly, she knocked on the door to his sitting room. This was the first time she had been in his area of the house, and the novelty made her a little uneasy.

Diego answered her knock quickly, as if he'd only been waiting for the opportunity to visit her guest room. He stared again, taking in her beautiful form, and the raw emotions she saw in his eyes made her nervousness increase.

But nothing could stop her once she made up her mind. Diego, she announced in a whisper, I don't think I can wait for you until we're properly married.

He pulled her through the opening. Neither can I, he whispered back instantly, seeking her lips with his, reaching with his tongue, his hands roaming anywhere they wanted to. The desire flooded his senses until he couldn't see straight. He had only the presence of mind to close his door before drowning in that desire, giving in to his emotions, consumed by the storm that engulfed him, aware only of the woman in his arms and the pain below his stomach that was quickly overtaking everything.

His desire was matched by hers as her skin burned under his touch, and the craving she felt built until she could think of nothing else. She may need him in daily life, but right now she wanted him with a passion not to be denied.

They made it as far as the top of the bed before each exploded like a volcano, blood flowing like hot liquid through their veins. His lips on her neck, he pulled off their clothes, leaving them scattered around the room in his haste, feeling naked skin on naked skin for the first time. Knowing that he could hurt her, he put off entering her until she begged him to, wanting beyond anything to finish what they had perhaps so foolishly started, but not wanting to cause her discomfort, either.

They rose on their desire, burning, demanding, needing to fulfill the passion each felt. Hot skin scorched fingertips in an agony of sensation, tongues darted out to find pulse points, hands rubbed places that had never felt the touch of another. In a few furious minutes, it was over, Victoria shivering and sending Diego over the edge of sensation where blinding lights blended together, each conscious of the incredible emotion that was released in such a decision as theirs. Only erratic breathing was heard in the room, and a deep gratitude that washed everything in complete relaxation.

Diego kissed her forehead, discerning the love in his gesture, unable to help himself, and grateful beyond belief that she had trusted him enough to seek him out. His feet dangling on the floor, he vowed that it would take longer next time. As long as there was a next time, and with him giving up being Zorro, it looked as though there probably would be. For her, he would do anything.

There it was again, that commitment to her from him. He would have laughed at that line, thinking the teller was silly to get involved so deep, but he couldn't laugh at himself for loving Victoria too well. She had accepted him, after all, and only he would know what that meant. And it meant everything.

This certainly changes the wedding night, Victoria said, as her skin glistened with sweat, her hair bunched up under her in a mass of curls gone wild, and she heaved in air like she had been a prisoner denied the life-giving treat. What she said made little matter to what they had just done.

Diego laughed anyway. He looked over at her, and even naked she seemed more beautiful now than before. Love stole over him like a blanket. You know, I used to use images of you to keep in mind while I got out of sticky situations. My memories of you were... menacing and memorable.

She had never thought about his memories. What did you remember?

Diego smiled softly to himself. Everything.

Everything?

Every touch, every look, every kiss, every gesture.... He turned his head to look at her again. That's one for the memory books.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to come here.... She stared at the ceiling, unable to meet his gaze.

You'll always come to me?

She turned to him, then. But now I'm unchaste, she said, just like everybody thinks. Like everybody suspects.

I don't care. People will think what they want to think. What matters, what's important is that I love you even more now, and I didn't think that was possible. He caressed her head, then, running his hand down her dark curls. He had never felt this good in his life, and she was responsible for that. Once more, he stared, committing her face to memory.

You want me to come to you?

I will always want you, he said boldly.

Her brow puckered. What about what Don Alejandro thinks?

He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. I don't personally care what Father thinks about what we do. This is my life, my longing, my commitment. I don't plan to share anymore.

She smiled and leaned up to kiss him. Neither do I, she whispered, and kissed him again, their love for each other only growing now that the passion, the whirlwind, was over.

The wedding didn't come off without a hitch. It rained again, wet, cold drops of water that found their way into the dryest places. Despite the warm cloak he had given her to wear, Victoria's hair was a mass of wet clumps and her dark clothes were damp by the time they reached the mission church where hopefully Don Alejandro was already waiting to act as witness. But they signed the registry, and it was done, without any interruptions from the clergy staff, without a sudden visit from the Alcalde or Sergeant Mendoza, and without flowers from the garden, as it had been too wet for Victoria to gather any as Diego talked to the servants. Zorro wore his black outfit for the last time, promising that he planned to retire his sword after the wedding - it was the only way Victoria would let him wear the famous black clothes. Already she was dictating to him, he thought ruefully to himself.

After the wedding ceremony ended, he mounted Toronado, pulling Victoria up in front of him, wrapping his arm tightly around her waist again and kissing her, hard. Then they turned to go. But he paused for a long moment, and glanced back at the pueblo he'd protected for so many years; the light from the storm highlighted the mission and tavern roofs, where he had spent so much of his time climbing during chases, visits, and times of severe trouble. He saluted towards the Alcalde's office before wheeling Toronado towards home, where hopefully a warm bed awaited them. A warm bed, and even warmer sheets! In fact, once Zorro got started out of the pueblo, a warm bed was the main reason he wanted to get home so quickly. He could already feel the hot desire spreading again through him despite the coldness of the raindrops worming past the collar on the cloak he wore, and he could only hope that Victoria felt the same way in spite of the aching she must be feeling. He tightened his arm, and she leaned back against him as the ride continued. Thoughts of the pueblo were already distant memories.

It started on their dismount from Toronado. Again they were alone in the cave, and that solitude was dangerous for them. Victoria slid down from Toronado's back and into Diego's waiting embrace. Her feet several inches from the floor, she gave in to the passion she always had to hold in check, giving him a searing kiss full of desire, her wedding band sparkling in the dim light of the cave. Diego answered, hardly more than a pile of mush as his own desire rushed over him, his own wedding ring glinting in the light that was left in the cave. He let his desire wrap around his senses until there were no other senses left. Victoria was his life as much as he was hers, legally now as well as naturally. That knowledge cocooned them as he led her confidently to his bedroom, early though it was, and instead of waiting for Alejandro and Felipe like they could have, the newly married couple had eyes only for each other, and the honeymoon began.

Honeymoon or not, Victoria chafed at her basic imprisonment, as Diego knew she would, but the festive feeling in the hacienda continued despite the circumstances behind that imprisonment. She sought him out as often as he sought her, and it wasn't unusual for them to remain out of commission long into the mornings, laughing, talking, or just falling silent.

Twice, though, Victoria had to hide in the cave from DeSoto, once with the knowledge of his visit when he had to be invited to a party, and once with surprise on her heals when he came to the front door, unexpectedly, with soldiers in tow as she ran for Zorro's secret hideout. Both times Diego found her, hours and minutes later, contentedly reading a book at his desk. He decided that reading was better than pacing like an angry caged lion, and both times he bought her presents to help her endure the exile. As much as Victoria appreciated the gifts, she would have appreciated freedom more. Those were the longest two months in de la Vega history.

As to Victoria Escalante, she was never found, and it was rumored that she had run away with Zorro after he rescued her from jail that clear, crisp night. As to Victoria de la Vega, no one ever turned her in, and she spent her days tending the kitchen and driving Maria nuts. They were both glad when the Mexicans suddenly revolted and ousted the cruel Spanish rule, and the corrupt Alcalde, from Los Angeles. Victoria returned to town but not the tavern that she had loved from childhood. According respect to her new status in life, she refused to cook another meal or run the tavern, but everyone was so ecstatic to have her back that no one questioned that she came back as Diego's wife, or that Zorro had disappeared, seemingly for good, or that the Mexicans suddenly ruled California. Zorro slipped into stories told round the dinner table, and Diego slipped into a not-so-quiet married life with Victoria, and some good fortune remained unquestioned in the grand scheme of the bigger picture of life.


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