The Legend Ends

by Linda Bindner

Diego de la Vega sat, steadily staring across the dusty plaza of Los Angeles, thinking hard. Should he tell of his secret identity or shouldn't he? And if he told of his secret, what would be the outcome? What would people think? What would Victoria think? And no matter what she thought or decided to do next, would he ever get another chance as good as this one?

A practiced, indifferent expression graced his features, giving no indication as to the debate that was waging in his mind. Only Diego's eyes moved, following the form of Sergeant Mendoza, who traveled from the cuartel towards the tavern where Diego currently sat at a table resting on the weathered boards of the tavern's porch and watched, weighing his options.

The one thing he did know in the whole, sordid, mess of the possibility of divulging his secret was that, even if he chose to retire as the masked legend, he didn't want to completely give up practicing his skills. He would still be the best tracker in the territory, if he was dressed as a caballero or in the black of Zorro. He would be the best man with a sword or a whip, and he would own the fastest horse in all of California. He knew he had to anticipate the occasional call from the military to lend aid, even in the event of disclosure.

Diego had thought of little else except divulging his secret, besides telling Victoria, in the week since the Mexican Army had unexpectedly marched into town, announcing Mexico's rebellion and takeover of the California territory. But, just because Spain was gone, its often tyrannical rule finished, didn't mean that Mexico was going to be any better at governing California than Spain had been. This new alcalde that Mexico had promised to send might easily be as corrupt as the last two alcaldes, and Zorro's sword may be necessary to fight for the needs of the poor, a people who had been too downtrodden for years to fight for themselves.

Not to mention, the idea of allowing the pueblo's citizens to see Diego as his true self was totally foreign to his sworn habits of the last five years. It would be extremely difficult at first to be himself while in the pueblo and not revert back to his old mannerisms and customs of the weakling he had always pretended to be. If he explained the truth, he was in for several days that promised to be uncomfortable at best.

On the other hand, there was Victoria to consider. She was undeniably an important part of the identity and someone who certainly had to be thought of before making his choice, any choice. If he chose to confess his secret identity, what might she do? Admittedly, the wedding between himself and Señorita Escalante would be that much closer if he confessed. But would there even be a wedding? Would she accept him unconditionally, or become so angry that she swore to hate him for the rest of his life? Was it better to stay with the status quo, spending little time with her, though what time they did spend together promised to be good times full of love and passion, or should he gamble on the possibility of finally being free to marry her and make her his wife? What would she want?

Probably the question he should be asking himself was if he could withstand his insistent feelings of desire for the señorita much longer. Could he bear to see her every day and not act on his feelings for her during the many more years it might take to win this war he'd started as he continued to battle what could be the corrupt alcaldes of Mexico? And what if she refused to accept him as the man beneath the mask? Could he go on with that war if Victoria decided that she simply could not love him? What then?

Did he want to base the rest of his life on what might come to pass?

Diego had to make some sort of a decision quickly; Sergeant Mendoza had almost reached the tavern's porch as Diego had been considering all these pros and cons to unmasking, letting it all flash across his mind one last time. Diego's brain was still a muddle of half-formed ideas and opinions. He wondered desperately what to do.

Then the sergeant stepped up appreciatively onto the porch. Diego was a bit panicked by now: he could stay trapped by the very deception he had begun, or he could divulge everything and hope for the best. It was now or never if he was going to tell the sergeant and allow him to spread the news. As a choice, Diego didn't particularly care for either option open to him.

Before Mendoza had the chance to drift past into the half-full tavern, Diego stopped him. Sergeant Mendoza, he said a bit too loudly. He better modulated his voice as he continued, I wonder if I could have a word with you?

Don Diego! Mendoza expostulated. Of course, of course, any time for a good friend is time well spent, especially in these unsettling days.

Well, Diego hesitantly began, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. He couldn't believe he was really considering this, but he was determined not to be derailed at the final moment, as had happened the last time he tried to announce his secret. He had started to tell of his identity, then changed his mind, with his father and Victoria listening to him in this very plaza as he had instead declared his intentions to adopt Felipe. He had vowed afterwards that his backing out wouldn't happen again.

Bueno, bueno, said the sergeant as he released the hat strap from under his chin and set the hat on the table before settling onto the single bench resting across from Don Diego. What is it you need?

For a moment, Diego paused. Then, without giving himself the chance to think of the possible consequences, he asked, You know of Zorro, don't you?

Mendoza laughed. Oh, si, who doesn't, Don Diego?

Diego went on without bothering to reply to the sergeant's rhetorical question. And do you have any ideas who he might be?

Mendoza remained silent as if he were actually considering the question. I have no ideas at all as to his identity. No one in the garrison knows, either. He threw up his hands. It's a mystery, but one I have tried to solve many times.

Diego gave a small smile at this statement. What do you think of him retiring?

Mendoza balked, his own smile sweeping off his face at the words. Retiring! Well, honestly, Diego, I haven't thought much about it.

Diego feigned astonishment. But, surely, Sergeant, now is the time for him to retire if ever there was a time. The Spanish officers are gone, the Mexican alcalde hasn't arrived yet, so we don't know if he'll be corrupt or not, there's no cry of unfairness from the poor people in the pueblo anymore... Now would be the perfect time for him to just fade away as if he were simply part of stories told around a fire.

Or he could unmask, Mendoza shrewdly stated a minute later. If he wants his dealings with the pueblo to end, he could just come forward like the man I know he is.

Diego gazed right back at him; what the sergeant had said ruffled his sense of honor, he admitted. So, you would think more of him if he would unmask in public than if he just faded away into the background?

Mendoza fiddled with his hat for a moment. Oh, I wouldn't say that, Don Diego. I would always think very highly of him, no matter what he chooses to do. I would just like to thank him for the many times he's helped us in the past. After all, Mendoza said in a low voice and leaned closer to Diego, he's come in mighty handy when we needed to catch a bandit or two. Then he laughed at his own joke. He went on in the same tone, commenting, But between you and me, I think he should settle down with Señorita Escalante and start that family she's always talking about. Then they can grow old in comfort, though it might be hard for him to stay so thin while eating all those tamales the señorita's going to make. He smiled at the thought of all the future food that he was going to miss. Ah, I envy him those tamales.

Diego eyed him warily, secretly thankful that the sergeant had turned the topic of conversation onto the señorita so that he didn't have to. You don't think that Victoria might be angry that he hasn't said anything to her about who he is all these years?

Again Mendoza looked thoughtful. Oh, perhaps, he finally acknowledged, then admitted his own ideas on the subject, I think she will be angry only at first. She won't let her temper ruin a romance that has lasted so long. He smiled largely. She's a smart woman; she'll come around, Mendoza promised at last. She'll be the happiest woman in the pueblo before we know it. That is, if he tells her.

Diego grasped at any positive opinions that he could. Do you think so?

Mendoza smiled once more as his mind moved to the more pleasant aspects of the conversation, allowing his sunnier disposition to shine through again. Oh, si, si, that's exactly what I think. But he needs to tell her soon; the new alcalde should be here by the end of the month; we just got word this morning. That doesn't give them much time, as it's already the twentieth. I looked at the calendar just this morning, he divulged.

No, it doesn't give them much time, Diego agreed. He remained silent as he considered the sergeant's words.

Diego? Mendoza asked. Diego, is that all you need? I'm meeting some of the men for a light lunch. I heard that the tavern is serving something special today, and I don't want to miss out on it.

Trust Mendoza to think about the importance of food at a time like this. Diego went on staring, seemingly ignoring what the sergeant had said, almost looking as if he was once again caught in his often reputed daydreams when that was far from the truth.

Diego? Mendoza inquired. Don Diego?

Diego started, seeming to wake from his thoughts. Sorry, Sergeant, but I was just thinking about what you said, and I think you're right; it is time that Zorro settled down with the señorita. It's probably the correct time for such an event, depending on her reaction to him. No matter her reaction, it's time he told her who he is, I suppose. But do you truly think that he should unmask publicly instead of simply fading away?

Mendoza answered immediately, much to Diego's gratitude, Oh, definitely, Diego, si. Everyone in the pueblo would wonder who he was if he just faded away. It would be such an unanswered mystery, kind of like a puzzle that went unsolved. It might drive some people, you know, loco. And he twirled his hand against his dark hair. That kind of occurrence would be a terrible thing to have on Zorro's conscience for the rest of his life.

That was an interesting idea. Diego hadn't thought of that, which was why he was talking to Mendoza about unmasking in the first place. Different people saw different things, and he had always valued what Mendoza thought. So you think he would remain a puzzle if he didn't unmask publicly?

Oh, si, that's what all of us at the garrison think, Mendoza reared back in a pretense of offense that he might be thinking anything else. Even if every young hothead in the territory challenges him to a sword fight, it would be worth it to let everybody in town know of his true skills.

His skills? Diego asked, and Mendoza nodded.

What we've always known him for, Mendoza added.

Diego continued, So, he should, say, use that deep voice that we all know him for? He let his high, affected, tones deepen as the question wore on. And he should behave with that graceful humor, the cockiness, that we've all come to expect from him? He leaned forward, head propped on his folded hand, practically oozing arrogance with the small, knowing, smile that was lilting from his features. Oh, and he could salute the people he sees. Diego flicked his hand at a passing lancer in an almost offhand salute from the top of his brow, as if he were wearing a hat. What else do you propose he do for this public unmasking?

Mendoza reacted to the change in his friend immediately. The expression that came over the sergeant's features was quick and complete. He gawked like a baby chicken. It was obvious that he recognized the sound of the voice and the look of mild enjoyment that he had been ordered to chase so many times in the past. His mouth dropped open to form an 'oh' of surprise. After a moment of silence had gone by, he managed to stutter, Ah... he should... I mean, if he wants to...

What, Sergeant? asked an unruffled Diego, when in reality, his heart was pounding unmercifully against his ribs.

Mendoza continued to gape. A sword fight? For a demonstration? he finally hazarded to guess.

To prove without a doubt that he is who he claims to be. Diego hadn't thought of this possibility, either. Well, it promises to be a VERY public unmasking, Diego thought to himself. while aloud, he said, An excellent suggestion, Sergeant. Please, choose the best swordsman from the group you have waiting for you in the tavern, and I'll give you that 'demonstration' you asked for. He rose and stretched his long legs after forcing them to be curled under the table for so long. I can't guarantee a good sword fight, but I'll do my best.

Mendoza was still gawking, his mouth hanging open. You... You... He didn't finish, but jumped up, ran towards the tavern door, ran back, saluted Diego, grabbed his hat, then disappeared into the tavern without another word.

Damn. Diego wished he'd had a chance to prepare a more private confession of his news to Victoria, for she was certain to hear of the strange request from the astonished sergeant. However, there was nothing to be done for it now. Diego leaned against the tavern's roof support post, and waited. He didn't have to wait for long.

A stream of people appeared on the porch, coming from the dark, beckoning, coolness that the tavern promised. Among them, Victoria surged out, standing a bit alone in the crowd of citizens and military personnel. Diego, what..? she asked in genuine confusion.

Slowly Diego stepped around her. I'm sorry, Señorita, he muttered as he shuffled off the edge of the porch and entered the warm, California sunshine. He held out his hand, and with authority, though always sounding polite, asked, May I borrow a sword, please? The next thing he knew, a light, military sword was offered to him, hilt first, and an opponent had been chosen from the crowd of onlookers.

Do you know how to use that thing? inquired Private Emmanuel, Diego's challenger, one of the new, Mexican soldiers assigned to the pueblo. You won't get hurt or anything, will you?

Would Zorro become injured in a sword fight? asked Diego, and though his words were mocking, his tone was deadly serious. He definitely realized the import of what he was doing.

There was the ringing sound of laughter at Emmanuel's question, and when it died down, Diego just swished the sword through the air, testing its weight, noting the differences between it and the sword he typically used, making the lighter, military sword sing for a second before turning to his chosen opponent.

No, you have nothing to worry about, Diego promised softly. I certainly know how to use this thing. Then he saluted, and quietly continued with, Let's fence.

Emmanuel looked doubtful. As you wish, he said with a shrug, and held up his sword. He saluted himself, then readied his stance for the promised duel.

Diego matched the other's stance, and the two blades scraped momentarily against each other in the hush that had descended over the plaza. Then Emmanuel pirouetted and lunged in a beautiful move that would have thrilled the many fencing teachers in the world. Diego blocked the move with an easy grace that was far more indicative of Zorro than the Diego of the past. Then the two didn't have any time to think about anything as the fight was on.

Diego parried left, parried right, blocked impossible strikes, protected any opening as he taunted his opponent in very Zorro-like humor. Private, you can do better than that. What would your fencing instructor say? He brought his sword down in a sweeping block, then backpedaled to give himself more room in the ever-growing crowd. What would your old commander say?

He'd say 'Congratulations for beating that arrogant, awkward, caballero! crowed Private Emmanuel with a smile of concentration and unanticipated enjoyment at finally finding a worthy adversary of his blade. He began a new series of attacks.

I'm hardly awkward. Diego insisted as he fought the private one-handed while his challenger briefly needed two hands.

And I'm hardly beaten! yelled Emmanuel in renewed vigor and attacked again.

Ah, not giving in to anger. Very good, Private, Diego commented.

My fencing instructor already told me about that trick, Emmanuel claimed.

Diego went on to say, Funny. It always worked on our old alcalde.

Wonder what his fencing instructor would say?

Oh, I know what his instructor would have said. Only, it's more about what he might have made DeSoto do than what he would have said.

What's that? Parry, lunge, attack.

Diego deflected each blow like it was simply play. Pushups. Over knife points, he replied.

Riposte, lunge, attack, parry. You're very familiar with that particular lesson, eh? Emmanuel taunted back.

Not at all, Diego reported, sounding barely out of breath, though it was a definite physical effort to ward off Emmanuel's strikes.

Emmanuel grimaced as the two traded blows. Somehow, I knew you were going to say that.

Dust flew around the combatants, but both ignored the smothering drift of dirt they kicked up from the plaza as they continued to fight. One second Emmanuel was on the offensive, then Diego. The back and forth of the battle lent an aching neck to the observers who stood in the plaza and watched the dueling men.

All except one woman, who watched only Diego. Victoria had immediately recognized his voice, his fighting style, his wit, his inborn confidence. She stood, with one arm wrapped around the smooth post of the tavern, and watched with bated breath. She didn't know if she should feel anger or not at his apparent deception that had lasted for years. She did know that she felt a bit foolish for being so close to both of the deceivers for so long and not figuring out the truth before now.

As Victoria continued to watch, she felt cold prickles and sweat mix freely on her skin. For a second, she thought she might be sick, and then she could hardly forgive Diego for deceiving her for so many years, for if she did, her humiliation would be complete. Then she felt a confusing ecstasy at finally finding him after all this time. But instead of giving in to the excitement building inside her, she calmly kept her eyes focused on the fighting pair, trying not to think at all. Cold sweats, she thought, and wished she could close her eyes for just a few seconds, to decrease the whirling in her mind, but didn't dare for fear she might miss some of the fight going on right in front of her eyes.

Diego suddenly flicked his sword, disarming Emmanuel and laying his blade against the other's neck. Then he pulled back his sword, gave a tiny smile, and nodded. Emmanuel bent down to retrieve his weapon and the fight went on without a word passing between the two combatants. The only difference now was that it was clear that Diego had taken the offensive position, a complete turnaround for the previously passive caballero, and he lunged when he saw an opening, a lunge that Emmanuel barely had time to push aside. A second later, Diego gave a strong sweep of his blade, and he flicked his wrist again, once more disarming Emmanuel, sending his sword spinning to lay in ignominy in the dust.

Emmanuel put both his hands into the air, breathing hard. You win, my friend. You win. Are you sure you never did those pushups over knives?

Diego chuckled, though he would only lower his weapon a fraction. I'm positive, he answered in a deceivingly light tone of voice.

Slowly, Emmanuel bent to retrieve his sword again and return it to its sheath. Only then did Diego relax and hand his borrowed blade over to his opponent.

Emmanuel observed his adversary, a wary, calculating expression on his face. Where did you learn to fence like that? You must be a master to be able to think so quickly on your feet, he noted as he took the offered weapon.

Diego smiled slightly more than before. Thank you. I'm sure my instructor at the University of Madrid would be pleased to hear of your praise, but unfortunately, he died several years ago. Brought down by a bounty hunter's bullet.

Emmanuel shook his head, marveling at the fact that the man before him was barely breathing hard at their exertion of swordplay. That's a pity. I would be very proud of you if you were my student.

Again, I thank you, Diego said. I've had a great deal of practice over the years, he said wryly, then laughed deprecatingly. Although I'm not so good at tracking in the dark.

Emmanuel barked a laugh, and the crowd guffawed in general at Diego's remark. You probably see better in the dark than you admit.

Diego just shrugged his thanks.

However, no one in the crowd was fooled by Diego's sudden show of humility. If, as he claimed, Diego really was Zorro..? But hadn't that astonishing display of swordsmanship just answered that question? The gossip had started already concerning the caballero who currently stood in the plaza and the legend whom everybody had seen in action countless times in the past.

Emmanuel took a deep breath and closed the distance between the two men, then. You say your name is de la Vega? Isn't that the same name of a wealthy family in the area? Nobles with a reputation for resisting the military?

Softly, Diego smiled. You mean my father, and no, we don't resist the military; only when the military is used to enforce injustice do we support any form of resistance.

Emmanuel smiled back at him. Well, that's good to hear, as I wouldn't want to be resisting you on anything. Diego chuckled again at the inherent praise in such a statement, but Emmanuel was still speaking, and he returned his attention to the private. Your father must be very proud of the son he has, Emmanuel said, not yet fully aware of the state of affairs in the pueblo.

Diego's smile turned twisted at the comment made by the private. That's a bit complicated, he hedged, not filling the man in completely on the state of affairs regarding the sometimes tense relationship between Don Alejandro and the son he knew.

Emmanuel nodded, not knowing what else to do according to the expression of indecision on his face. If there is ever anything you need, I'll gladly help, the private offered. Anything for such a master swordsman! he added with a hint of reverence in his voice.

Diego grinned again. Thank you. I'll remember that, he promised.

The fight over, the two combatants obviously friends again, the crowd drifted away to return to whatever they had been doing, some gathering to talk over the astounding events of the day. They pointed at Diego as he walked back to the tavern where Esperanza was currently tied, ignoring all the gossipy looks sent his way, the jaunt leading him to where Victoria stood wide-eyed, rooted to her spot on the porch by the post. Those pointing people now aimed their fingers at the señorita, who remained unmoving in her chosen place.

Even though Diego had just revealed himself to the entire town, and he hadn't had the opportunity to inform Victoria first, he knew he couldn't leave her without a word of explanation, no matter how betrayed she might be feeling at the moment and what she might do to him because of it. He didn't relish the idea of ducking the kitchen implements she was sure to throw at him in her anger, but he couldn't be so cruel as to leave without saying a word to her now. Besides, she didn't look very good while she stood at the edge of the sunshine. Her expression, as if she'd eaten something disagreeable, was probably his fault, he ruminated, and there was no way he could leave the town without responding to the cry of his heart to speak to her while he could. Yet he was frightened of her wrath enough to be glad that he could pretend that it was the position of the tied Esperanza that had caught his interest. Unbeknownst to him, his actions fooled no one, least of all Victoria. However, when Diego drew close, he gathered the reigns of his horse and quietly spoke.

Victoria. Are you all right?

Victoria drew a deep breath, and fought the feeling of nausea that swept over her. She was determined not to be sick in front of everybody, and especially not in front of him. But it was folly to try to hide the truth now. No, I'm not all right, she said. I'm having a hard time believing what you just did, and I think I'm sick. I can't decide if I should be so angry with you that I want to hit you over the head, or if I should be so glad to have finally found you that I want to kiss you senseless.

Even as Diego's arm rose instantly in alarm and solicitude, offering his assistance if she proved to be sick, he couldn't help but say, I prefer to be kissed senseless, if you want my opinion.

Victoria sent him a look of indecisive malice. I'm not sure I do, she said, then wavered as a wave of nausea tried to take control of her. She grimaced at the stomach cramp that assailed her.

Diego was instantly alarmed. Take deep breaths. Concentrate on settling your insides.

She shot him a faintly incongruous look of annoyance this time. I know, I know. I've learned a few things about medicine from running a tavern for many years.

Diego commented back, And I've learned a few things from books, Victoria. I think I need to send someone for the doctor; you're looking green.

No, you don't have to worry about me, she said, but then leaned over the edge of her porch, as far from his caballero trousers as she could get without toppling over, and proceeded to lose her breakfast in the dust of the plaza.

More cold sweat swooped over her to make her shiver. Damn, she whispered, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Not a very elegant way to react to discovering the identity of the man she had promised to marry.

Diego dropped the horse's reigns and scooped Victoria up in arms that shook more from fright than the strain of the fight he had just gone through. He carried her in through the open double doors, ordering the first patron he came to just inside those doors to run for Dr. Hernandez while following it with a loud, The tavern's closed for the rest of the day. Maria, one of Victoria's hired girls, took one look at the her boss's color and set out the closed sign on the door. Then she hurried to the kitchen for a bucket of water while Diego effortlessly carried the tavern's owner up the stairs to her room. Because of all his clandestine visits to that room in the past, he knew right where he should go, though it was hardly proper for a young, unmarried man to be in a young, unmarried woman's bedroom. But this wasn't a time for propriety to control a situation.

Diego gently lay Victoria down on the cover of the bed, then turned to the water pitcher resting on its stand placed against the wall. He submerged the cloth spread beside it into the the cooling liquid already in the water bowl, wrung out the cloth, then turned around to face the bed again.

He knelt beside the bed and wiped her face with the drenched cloth's soothing coolness. Rest easy. Dr. Hernandez will be here soon, he whispered to Victoria. No matter what he said to her now, his words weren't those words he had expected to be saying after the revelation of his identity, he thought with a wry twist to his lips.

Victoria had kicked off her shoes while his back was turned, and now she bent her knees, dragging the soles of her feet up the quilt covering her bed. Her hands just as effectively covered her face. Rest easy?! she choked incredulously from behind her fingers. I just about threw up on your boots right after a public duel where you confessed to the entire pueblo your obviously hidden identity. There's nothing to 'rest easy' about in this whole situation.

I'm sorry there is a 'situation' at all. I wish I'd had time to talk to you first, Victoria. Please, you have to believe that...

Dios! Victoria whispered the curse, and Diego became aware of the tears coursing from under her tight fingers. Why did this have to happen at all! And why do I still find myself loving you?

The harsh sound of her voice nearly rent his heart in two. He gently stroked her forehead with his hand. Victoria, I... The agony was evident in his own tone of voice.

Just go, she whispered, and her arms plopped on her bed. Now, there was nothing to hide the tears tracing from her closed eyes. I need time alone to think, to...

Below, they could hear the call of the worried tones of the town's only doctor.

Up here! Diego called through the open door. Then he turned swiftly back to the woman lying on the bed. He gazed yearningly down at her, the love, the desire, the anguish at hurting her so apparent in his expression.

But, as Victoria's eyes were tightly closed, she didn't see any of it, so Diego desperately said, You have to know, I have to say... He grabbed her hand from the bed and kissed it. I did it for you... Victoria, I love only you, and so much that it's become part of who I am...

Then Dr. Hernandez was there, and Diego didn't have time to finish his spontaneous, unplanned, declaration. I'll talk to you later, he said in capitulation to the inevitable as he rose, then tried to avoid the doctor in the small room and stumbled into the hall, where he practically ran into Maria as she rushed up the stairs with her bucket of cooling water.

Diego stopped Maria just as she was about to enter the room. Take good care of her, he whispered, and Maria nodded once before disappearing through the door. Knowing he would just be in the way, now, Diego somehow made his staggering legs take him outside to Esperanza again, as Victoria surely would not want to see him while she thought about her next move. In a fog of unhappiness created by his own handiwork, even if it had been designed to bring about his ultimate joy, he climbed aboard his horse and forced her out of town.

Father? Diego called the second he was inside the hacienda's imposing front door.

Yes? came the response, gratifyingly quick from around the corner in the library.

Diego allowed himself a fast grimace, then steeled his mind towards the conversation he knew he was about to have. His father had not been in Los Angeles that morning, and hence, knew nothing of his son's precipitous announcement that had been easily deduced through that unplanned sword 'demonstration' in the plaza. He knew nothing of Victoria's reaction, her illness, his son's behavior following the words uttered in her room. Nothing.

It was time Alejandro learned the truth.

Besides, the vaqueros who had been in town, who had seen the sword fight, and who would tell the don the news at their first opportunity were undoubtedly already on their way back to the ranch. Diego would have to hurry if he wanted to break the knowledge of his duplicity to his father before they did, or, as the saying went, 'all hell was sure to break loose.' Diego stood inside the open door, pondering his possible words for only a moment before calling, Father, I need to speak with you for just a moment.

What do you need? asked Don Alejandro as he came from the library into the foyer.

Diego shut the ornate door. Perhaps you'd best sit down, he suggested, remembering Victoria's rather unpleasant reaction to the same unveiling of his secret.

Alejandro grinned as he held tightly to the book he'd obviously been reading. This must be important if you need me to sit down, he commented, then turned back to the library. Out with it, Diego. What did you do now? he asked, half in jest, and amusement was evident in his tone.

Diego frowned again. Father, you have no idea. Please, after you, and he gestured into the library with his free arm.

Later that afternoon, Diego stood in the library, thinking of Victoria, her illness, and how she felt now. He wished she would send word over to the hacienda as to her condition, both of her illness and of the way her heart was currently leaning, but she remained discouragingly silent. Felipe found him wrapped in a daydream about what he would do if he ever received such news as to those mysterious leanings of her heart.

The young man startled Diego out of his thoughts, though the tall caballero could hardly keep himself from thinking about Victoria. It was just that he preferred to keep exactly what he was thinking about as private as possible, not that those particular daydreams were likely to come true, not now. As soon as she was feeling better, she would surely tell him that she never wanted to see him again, Diego thought pessimistically to himself. But the threat of that pessimistic version of reality hadn't been able to stop his dreams, at least, not yet, and Diego went on dreaming at the most inconvenient of times. Felipe had already startled him twice that day. This specific wake-up call was the third such time that Felipe had walked in on him since Diego had revealed his identity in the plaza that morning. This interrupted dreaming was beginning to become a habit between the two friends.

Felipe looked at the man who had promised in another moment of complete spontaneity to become his adopted father as well as his friend, and frowned.

Diego glared back at the young man. Well, what did you want me to do? he asked, guessing at what Felipe had planned to say to him. The Mexican Army has been in control for a week. DeSoto is gone, back to Spain. It was today or not at all, he concluded.

Felipe signed an answering comment, making Diego raise his eyebrows in surprise. Of course this has no bearing whatsoever on the adoption. That is, if you still want to go through with it as planned?

Felipe rolled his eyes before he signed that of course, he wanted to continue with the adoption plans. But he went on with his signs, asking his friend now if he hadn't been afraid that morning.

When? Diego clarified. Before I fought?

Felipe nodded.

Diego snorted, a sound that showed little amusement. I was afraid, but not nearly as frightened as when I carried Victoria up to her room. And not nearly as frightened as I am now, he admitted on a final whispered note. If only she would send word as to how she's doing...

Suddenly Felipe scrabbled for the pocket of his baggy trousers and pulled forth a folded piece of paper. He held it out in an offering to his friend.

Diego frowned again. What's this? He took the folded paper and carefully watched his young friend's signs. A note from Victoria? Diego instantly pulled it open. Why didn't I get this right away?

Once more, Felipe signed an answer, this time accompanied by a faintly sheepish smile.

You forgot to give to me right away? interpreted Diego. Felipe signed some more, then looked apologetic. Diego looked annoyed. Felipe, isn't waiting for Victoria's reply to my unmasking hard enough to endure? Forgotten notes don't help, he declared, then gave a painful expression. You watch someone you love be sick right in front of you and see how you feel, he warned.

Felipe gave a wide-eyed, wounded expression, and signed that Diego hadn't given a warning as to his thoughts about possibly unmasking sometime in the intervening week, not even a hint, so why should he feel bad now? Diego gave him the annoyed expression again in return.

I hate it when you're right, Felipe, Diego growled, then turned his attention to the opened note. It wasn't long, but the fact that Victoria had thought enough of him to write at all gave him reason to hope that she wouldn't detest the mere sight of him for the rest of her days.

Diego, he read.

Please do not worry on my account. Dr. Hernandez thinks I ate something bad for breakfast this morning (imagine, the owner of a tavern eating bad food!) The stomach cramps I suffered later on this morning were admittedly fairly awful, but now I feel much better. Dr. Hernandez says I have an extremely mild case... (This is mild?)... but wants to keep me here for the next day so he can 'observe' my condition (why do I feel like the mouse under the microscope?) I'll talk to you when I can.


That was it. There were no words of encouragement or affection in the note, and nothing to give any indication that her opinions had changed since her first reaction to his unmasked self. But there was nothing to indicate a change in her affections at all. As an inducement to daydreams, she hadn't changed a thing.

She ate some bad food, Diego reported, then lowered the note. She plans to explain more sometime soon. He looked off into the emptiness of the room. Felipe signed, and Diego grimaced. No, Felipe, there's not anything that says she still loves me. He was silent for a moment. I know she said that when I carried her to her room, but I think I need more than confessions induced by a heaving stomach. In one long, deep, breath, Diego's sigh tore through the room. No, my friend, the vigil continues. And with that, he stuffed the note into his pocket and turned to the library windows. He sighed again, the sound echoing throughout the room.

Silently, Felipe backed away.

This feels very strange, Diego thought two days later as he wheeled Toronado and guided him to the de la Vega stables. He pulled the great, black stallion to a halt and dismounted, keeping a firm grip on the reigns with his left hand. Together they entered the darker, though cooler, realms belonging to the horses the family kept, walking sedately down the aisle towards the stallion's stall, avoiding the eyes of all those whom he knew watched them go. He passed by two vaqueros who stared through solemn eyes, and two newer men who bowed their heads as he and Toronado went by. This deference was new, but not completely unexpected; it was how the servants had behaved around him since the sword fight in the plaza two days before. It was as if the men held him in too much reverence to speak to him now that they knew he was the hero who had been protecting them for years. The detachment made him slightly uncomfortable.

At least no one embarrassed themselves by offering to unsaddle Toronado this time. After exercising the stallion the evening before, two men had been turned away after requests to be allowed to untack the sweating mount with the explanation that Toronado wouldn't allow any one besides himself or Felipe to come near him. Toronado had, admittedly, created many odd habits over the years while he'd been a lone mount hidden in a cave. The inclination to be handled by only his master and servant was one of them. Though odd, such a habit showed the high-strung stallion's preferences, and it was also an understandable behavioral quirk, considering that he had been alone for much of the time, a carefully-guarded secret for years. It was, however, something the horse needed to grow out of before Diego could ever hope to ride him into the pueblo. And though Toronado was temperamental, he was still Diego's mount of choice, both powerful and intelligent. It was a conundrum no matter how one looked at it.

Victoria was also still a conundrum to Diego, he admitted as he thoughtfully pulled off the horse's black, leather saddle and began the customary rubdown. She hadn't quelled Diego's anxiety by sending over a more explanatory note that day, and she hadn't been able to come herself because of the doctor's orders, though Diego had hardly expected her to come at all.

But nothing, not even her absence, had strangled his feelings for her; she was rarely far from his thoughts, and the last two days had been an agony of idle dreams, hopes, despair, and love all mixed together to coalesce into images of a Victoria that either spurned him or welcomed him.

Nevertheless, he was momentarily surprised to find her waiting in the stable yard for his return, talking animatedly to a vaquero while she stood. The energy in her familiar features caused his hope to soar, and when she smiled at something the vaquero said, it was as if a great gift had been bestowed on his heart. But still he tried to contain his emotional explosion. He didn't want to become too joyful too soon. His emotions had been trampled into the dust before, though he wanted to keep his dreams of her alive in his mind for as long as possible. So, quietly, secretly, he watched.

Only a moment or so had passed, but as if Victoria could sense that he was gazing at her, she turned and saw him leaning against the stable door. Their eyes met over the distance, blue to brown. The air sizzled for just a second, and a chill rushed through Diego's blood, leaving him sweating and cold at the same time. His heart pounded in his temples. He didn't see how she could not feel such a connection between them, but her face remained impassive, and he wondered if she wished to ignore such affinity altogether. He couldn't tell for sure according to the bland expression she maintained with her features.

The moment passed, and the vaquero, who had surely told her where his young patrón was, shifted his weight to his other foot, breaking both Diego and Victoria out of the shared moment. Knowing that the man understood the emotions Diego, as Zorro, had very publicly expressed in the past, and realizing that the man would bring up this encounter at his first opportunity with the other vaqueros, and also knowing that the extended silence from him now was fodder for the gossip that was sure to occur, he called, Hola, Victoria, just like he always had in the past. Diego nonchalantly launched himself towards them through the afternoon sunshine soaking the yard.

Victoria stared at him for a moment, appearing to revel in the sight of him, as if she hadn't seen him for years, even though she had stared at him in her tavern every day for as long as he could remember. Or, at least, he had been present before her. Whether she had seen him or not was yet to be revealed. However, one of his recent mental wanderings had been answered with her look; she had been aware of that spark of... something... that had rushed between them a moment ago. Her open, hopeful expression made that abundantly clear.

Diego, she said, and the vaquero slid away as soon as she had uttered that musical pronouncement of his name. Just as obvious was the fact that he held a new position in her life all of a sudden, a new importance, and she was fully aware of it; the slightly shy yet ringing quality of her voice told him that.

Diego nervously brushed the hair dislodged from a thing so ordinary as his ride on Toronado off his forehead. For a second, they just stared at each other, and for that second, they were caught in the familiar web of feelings for the other that instantly flared between them. Then the sensation was gone, or, at least, controlled, and Diego calmly said, Is there something I can do for you? He hated the way his voice sounded so urbane and friendly, as if she meant nothing more to him than the friend that she had been for half a decade, but he didn't know how else to behave in the situation.

Luckily, Victoria ignored his nervous need to fall back on their relationship of the past. I wonder if I could talk to you for a minute? she asked immediately, and her soft voice now sang with familiarity.

Diego didn't start or act surprised in any other way. Of course she wanted to speak with him; who else would she want to see while she was at the hacienda? Please, feel free. I just finished up with exercising Toronado, so you've caught me between that and giving Felipe his Geometry lesson; I'm all yours, he ventured to say.

Victoria didn't miss his rather conspicuous invitation, though he hadn't meant to offer such a petition, which could be denied, but she let it slide right by her. She did smile, however, somewhat hesitantly, before gesturing towards the hacienda. I wonder if we can talk in the garden? she asked.

Ah, where everything began, he thought to himself, but followed her gesturing arm. It should be private here, he said the second they reached the garden, and we won't be... he started to continue, but she cut him off.

Diego, I think we both know why I'm here, she said with that same low, musical quality in her voice. You're right in that I don't want to be interrupted.

Diego hardly knew what to do with such candor. He was far more accustomed to hiding everything he felt. But the least he could do was try to be open and honest. Yes, I do know why you're here, he softly declared, and even saying that statement was hard for him. I'll try to be as forthcoming as possible, but I can't promise anything; I haven't had much practice at such openness.

Victoria snorted, the most inelegant and familiar sound she'd made all afternoon. No, I suppose you're more used to hiding your thoughts so you couldn't be identified.

That was one of my chief concerns, Diego admitted, trying to be as forthcoming as she had been. Diego gestured for her towards a seat on one of the chairs, but she declined. He also remained standing. But now, with DeSoto gone, I have other things on my mind, he added.

Diego, she said, ignoring his second attempt at an invitation, stopping their conversation even as they were surrounded by the rose-covered walls and hanging pots of flowers that made up most of the de la Vega garden. Before either of us says anything more, I want to state right now that I apologize for my behavior the other day.

Really? Diego asked in a tightly guarded manner. I thought you expressed your feelings rather admirably.

Victoria looked down at her shoes, a hesitant, flustered expression on her face. Still clearly upset, she said, I... I don't blame you for thinking that way. She rocked back on her heels for a moment. I wasn't quite myself at the time.

A thrill of... something unidentifiable... shot through Diego at her words. Again he attempted to rein in his rocketing emotions. He wasn't quite as successful as he had been only a few moments before. What do you mean?

Victoria pulled a flower bloom from a vine on the wall behind her. She absently played with it in her fingers as she spoke. I mean that I was sick, shocked, I wasn't quite myself...

She was going to crumble that flower to shreds if he didn't do something to stop her. Diego took a chance and covered her hands with his. He wondered where the courage he was feeling came from. Victoria.., he hesitantly started to say, referring to her words as well as the way she was systematically ripping apart the flower she had pulled. Do you mean that what you said..?

What I said was due to not feeling well, she informed quickly, interrupting him. For the moment, she clutched at his hands. I felt I needed to apologize in person, which is why I didn't send over a second note yesterday.

So that was the reason for her silence, he thought. A shiver slid through him at the contact of her warm skin. From the moment she held onto his hands, he froze, unable to move. But Diego still didn't completely understand. I'm not sure I quite comprehend everything, Señorita, he said a bit formally because he also didn't quite know how to behave in this situation, either; an apologizing Victoria was an unknown quantity to him. As Zorro, he'd always known what was expected of him in most situations. Now, as Diego, standing alone, in the garden, and with Victoria, he had no idea what was expected.

She smiled as she recognized his tone. You're so polite, she claimed.

I'd rather be completely honest, he said just as quickly.

Honest? she asked with raised brows. All right, here are my honest thoughts, she said and lifted her head up to stare at him. I had plenty of time to think while I lay in bed the last two days. She stared innocently at him out of suddenly dark eyes. Honestly? I've been waiting to see who Zorro could be since I met him several years ago. And each time we stole a few moments together, that feeling increased until that feeling became everything. I wanted to know who he was, who I wanted to marry, who... She stopped, gathered herself, then plunged on. Who I wanted to have children with. She stopped, then went on. Then, when I found out, I wanted... She stopped again.

Quiet descended over the garden. Neither said a word, until Diego couldn't bear the silence any longer. She was so beautiful, so compelling... He whispered, What did you want, Victoria?

It was all the prompting she needed. I felt glad that I finally knew, and that he was you. Being in love with my best friend is more than I ever hoped for... Though I might have appreciated a bit of warning in the matter...

That's what Felipe has been championing this entire time, Diego claimed. But I had to weigh which had precedence, the secret identity, or your need to know.

She smiled a little self-deprecatingly. And you chose your secret.

No, he clarified, Sergeant Mendoza inadvertently chose the secret by encouraging me to publicly unmask. I would have always chosen you first.

Her brow wrinkled. Mendoza?

He smiled down at her. She's so beautiful when she want's to look puzzled, he thought. But, then, she's beautiful all the time.

Victoria blushed, guessing his thoughts just by reading the expression of idolatry on his face, and sighed. Please don't change the subject, she said.

Diego sighed right back. Victoria, I'm not trying to change the subject, and I doubt you're here to talk about Sergeant Mendoza, who felt that letting Zorro simply fade away would be robbing the pueblo's citizens of the most intriguing mystery in decades.

Is that why you did what you did?

Yes, he answered, in a way. I participated in that sword fight because he encouraged me to do so. But, more importantly, I fought because it would give me away to you, and it would bring both of us that much closer to the elusive wedding that we've been waiting ages for. He paused as Victoria blushed. He admired her red cheeks, but only allowed himself to venture, We are still waiting for a wedding, aren't we?

Victoria blushed again. Yes, I do recall you saying something about a wedding two days ago.

Diego turned her hand over and placed it between his larger ones. Just the act of cradling her fingers like that was enough to send his stomach into a spin of emotion. We could be out here all day with explanations of why I did what I did. But, I admit that I'd far rather talk about you instead of Sergeant Mendoza. What are you thinking about all of this?

Victoria gave a tiny snort again, either surprised that he had asked her such a question, or surprised because anybody had asked her such a question. She cleared her throat and said, I don't know what to say about...

Diego stopped her, interrupting. Before you give your answer, I'll be completely honest with you; I did fight because of you, I admit. I did want to give myself away in the hopes of eventually winning your favor. He looked thoughtfully up, away at the horizon that he could see over the wall. I no longer wanted to share you with an outlaw. He paused again, then looked at her. Perhaps it was the wrong decision, but I wasn't sure I could stand another day of you not knowing my identity. I always assumed you would be angry...

I was, for awhile.

He continued. ... and I feared your rejection because of it.

I never rejected you, she negated. I swear on the sword that you carry all the time; it never crossed my mind to turn away from you. She smiled slightly, then. I might have wanted to hate you for what you had done to me... after all, it did make me look rather foolish for not discovering your identity sooner than the fight in the plaza... but it didn't even occur to me to stop loving you.

Diego looked at her tiny hand in between his large ones. The fingers seemed so delicate and frail... But she was far from frail. So you're saying that your feelings are the same?

Are yours?

Diego let the breath he was holding slowly hiss between his teeth. My feelings are more than they were, he confessed. Deeper, more solid, because they're more in the open.

She stared at him coolly, judging the truth of his words. His stomach did a flip at just her look. So you're saying that you still love me? That I wasn't part of the pretense? She hurried on. That you still want to marry me?

His voice was soft, quiet, as he countered with the same question, only aimed at her. Do you still want to marry me?

Her eyebrows rose even higher into her hairline, and her eyes sparkled. Even in the fading light, she couldn't hide the desire that suddenly shone through. Of course I do. I would like nothing better, she whispered, as if she were captured bu the expression in his eyes. Then she shook her head, as if to escape and be pragmatic once more. But we have to be realistic in this situation... You're from a much higher social class than I am...

I don't care about that. Diego took a step closer to her at his firm declaration.

She swallowed, but gently continued, Some will comment unfavorably about a caballero marrying a woman from the working class...

Diego was so close to her now that he could feel the natural heat radiating through her clothes. It was driving him to distraction. I'm not your typical caballero, he insisted.

She grinned at his assessment. I know. You've been an outlaw. But I've always had to work for my living.

Diego seized her hand to his chest where his heart beat an erratic rhythm. The smell of roses drifted up from her fingers, red and callused from tending the tavern for so long. I worked for a living, too, in a manner of speaking. Though you have always been the high point of my career.

Victoria grinned again, and found herself fighting her emotions just so that she could go on. Diego, I just want you to think about what it means and how many conventions we'll be resisting if you are determined to go through with a marriage to me...

Now his hand moved from her fingers on his chest to lovingly caress the strands of hair falling from her temples. I don't care what anybody says; I can't help being in love with you, with wanting you here, with me, every day, for the rest of my life.

Her cheeks flushed again at his declaration, but a coolness in the middle of each cheek indicated that she refused to be swept away by mere words. Refused to be, but was sorely tempted, she admitted. Just so you consider it...

Her protests fell on ears as reportedly deaf as Felipe's. Diego felt the smoothness of her skin under his fingers. I have considered it. But enough thinking for now, enough considering what others will say. I know what I've always wanted. He drew closer to her red lips as he spoke.

Victoria blushed again, then appeared as if giving in to his emotions wasn't such a hardship after all; there was even what had to be called an encouraging expression on her face. She squeezed his hand. I know what I've always wanted, too, she managed to whisper back before his lips covered hers, and then they were both too busy to whisper endearments, encouragements, honest truths, or anything at all.

The kiss, there in the garden, wasn't much like their first kiss in the same place. Love was behind it, surely, but the similarities stopped there. This gesture had so much rousing passion in it as well as their love that anyone, including the two involved, could tell that several years and a great deal of practice had gone by for such a gesture to even take place. Diego's hand slid from her temple into her hair, and Victoria's hand moved on its over his chest. He groaned at the scalding feel of her hand, and the little noises that she had begun to make every time he kissed her exploded over the previously silent garden. His hands moved from her hair to anywhere they wanted to explore, and she didn't halt their movement, only copied that activity in kind, her own hands finding homes at the small of his waist.

Diego's arms wrapped tightly around Victoria's back, giving the indication that nothing short of the end of the world would force him to release her. He closed his eyes and simply held on. Victoria, he whispered into the gently perfumed air of the garden. You don't know how worried I've been about you. But as I didn't know what your reaction would be, I dared not visit you to make certain you were all right.

Victoria choked a laugh right back. I had to spend the last day strengthening my courage to visit you here. I know you said that you loved me, but I wasn't sure when I was alone in my bedroom.

Diego hissed more breath through his teeth. Please don't talk about bedrooms. I'm not sure I can handle it.

Victoria turned her head a little, and her hair rustled against his chest. Diego tenderly pillowed the back of head with the palm of his hand, brushing contentedly at her curls that the breeze blew astray, keeping her hair out of her face as she said, If you can't handle it, then we should get married sooner rather than later.

Diego sighed. No time is soon enough for me, he admitted quietly.

Victoria glanced up at him from her place in his arms. Today? she asked.

Diego felt himself give a jump, then slowly smiled. Today? I assumed you would need some time to...

Victoria interjected, As long as you don't mind the fact that I'll have to get married in the skirt and blouse I have on right now, today seems perfect to me.

Diego's smile grew. No, I don't mind. She could walk down the aisle of the mission church in a sack, and he still wouldn't mind.

Good, Victoria grinned. The sooner, the better, if you want my opinion. We've already waited long enough, I think.

I think so, too. Diego glanced around the garden, saw no one, then looked towards the hacienda. I would like it if Felipe stood up with me... he helped me so much through the years that it seems the least I can do... and I admit that it would give my father great pleasure if he acted as witness.

Her grin became a full fledged smile. Your father?

He shrugged. And I would like it, too, he admitted, although I think he might be more thrilled with a promise of grandchildren than even I can predict. Victoria reddened at the mention of future grandchildren for Don Alejandro, but Diego was going on, and you should probably ask Sergeant Mendoza to stand with you, as long as you have no objections; he's been more a part of Zorro than he knows.

Who, me? No, I don't have any objections, none at all, just as long as I get to marry you and begin the rest of my life. Then she blushed, much deeper than the shade of her previous redness. Then we can start on creating those grandchildren that Don Alejandro has been talking about.

Diego broke into her thoughts. I like the way you think, Señorita Eascalante, almost as much as I like you, and you're even more beautiful when you blush; did you know that?

Victoria blushed again, much to Diego's delight. No, no one's ever mentioned that to me.

I never had time before, Diego said with a grin. But I do now. Then his arms tightened around Victoria in an embrace so affectionate that it surprised even her. He ended the gesture with a quick kiss, then reluctantly disengaged himself from her arms. You feel so good, Victoria, that I'm afraid I will spend the entire afternoon out here, just holding you, unless I force myself to move.

Victoria planted one kiss on his cheek. And we have so much to do...

Diego didn't need any further encouragement. He strode towards the door to the house. Felipe, Father, he called, I have some news that you'll be very interested in, I think.

Felipe appeared from the direction of the kitchen before Diego had managed to pull a beaming Victoria inside with him. Alejandro was only a second behind Felipe, a book once again in his hands.

What is it, Diego? What's happened now? Alejandro asked with a lowered brow.

Diego glanced at Victoria, smiled, then said, You know about those grandchildren you've always said you wanted..?

By that night, Diego was a married man.

By the next morning, Diego was a very happily married man.

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