A Fate Carved in Ice

by Linda Bindner

Specks of ice and rain pinged hard against the one window in the abandoned windmill's North wall. Forced for the second time to shelter there from an unexpected storm, Diego and Victoria were just glad that such a building was available. They had at least both known it's location this time when it became abundantly clear that they weren't going to make the appointment with Victoria's lawyer that day in Santa Paula. While Diego had been along mostly for his amateur knowledge of the law in general, Victoria had counted on him to keep her from signing or doing anything unnecessary while also enjoying his friendly companionship. But halfway to their destination, the freak storm had struck, forcing them to take shelter or risk being soaked, then frozen as the temperatures fell and the wind rose.

Now the two huddled underneath the few full-sized blankets that Diego had thought to leave in the windmill, coldly miserable.

All but frozen solid, Diego crept an inch closer to the flames of the meager fire he'd started, and wondered how Victoria could stand such cold; he knew that she was much more prone to the vagaries of cold weather than he was. The shirtwaist she wore was long-sleeved, but it did little to ward off the chill that had settled in the area around Los Angeles.

They had decided to patiently wait out the storm, but that event was becoming more remote by the minute; the storm was only growing more fierce instead of abating. It was now clear that they would definitely not make it to Santa Paula, let alone meet her lawyer in a timely fashion. It was barely 2:00 in the afternoon, but already it was as dark as evening and steadily growing colder. Only Diego's thoughtfulness after the last time they'd sheltered in this particular windmill had saved them from being frozen already.

During the month after their last adventure-by-windmill, Diego had seen to it that the abandoned building was better stocked with supplies than it had been when he had shared the space with Victoria. It now sported a collection of firewood ready to use stacked against one wall, dried grass meant to cushion the floor for seating and sleeping purposes as well as feed for horses, blankets to ward off a possible chill, and enough food unlikely to quickly spoil that Diego renewed every few weeks just in case he needed to use the hiding place as Zorro, or for the unwary traveler caught by the weather on their way to and from Santa Paula.

All Diego's efforts hadn't been in vain, as several visitors had sheltered there already, leaving messages of gratitude to their unknown host in the ashes spread over the dirt floor from their fires, smoothed into a crude writing slate.

However, this was the first time that Diego and Victoria had been forced to take shelter in the same windmill. The odds that they would be caught in another freak storm so soon after their first weather-induced adventure were too high to count, but he was doubly glad of all the work he'd done to keep the place well stocked. If not for his conscientious work, he and Victoria would truly be in a heap of trouble.

Diego issued another heavy sigh into the empty confines of the windmill, feeling his muscles strain against the cold, but unable to stop his shivering. Why, oh why had he not heeded the signs in the threatening northern sky and made Victoria stay at the hacienda like the intelligent person he sought to be?

Diego continued to uselessly berate himself, but his words of self-recrimination did nothing to alleviate their present situation. The fact that Victoria had insisted on going to meet with her lawyer, and Diego had refused to let Victoria go such a distance completely on her own was beside the point.

And so, here they were again, only it was much colder this time. Diego knew they were in danger of suffering frostbite, or maybe even of dying from exposure if they didn't get warm soon.

He listened to the knocking sound of Victoria's teeth chattering together, the only noise in the windmill other than the popping of the fire and the swish of ice against the walls. He gave an involuntary shiver as a cold draft snuck up under the edge of his blanket, and suddenly came to a decision that he fervently hoped he wouldn't regret. “We'll be much warmer if we share blankets, Victoria. Come over here; you're making the ground shake with your shivering.”

Victoria gazed in reluctance at his blanket-wrapped form. “Do you think we should, Diego? It wouldn't be proper!”

“It will be even less proper for us to freeze to death,” Diego shot back, not angry at her so much as at himself. He'd sworn that he wouldn't let this same kind of incident happen ever again after that agonizing night they'd spent together the year before. Yet here they were, in spite of any vows on his part. It was almost like he wanted to get stranded with Victoria, no matter how agonizing that time was. He had also subconsciously made sure they would be uninterrupted. Maybe he truly had a death wish and didn't know it?

No matter the reason, they were here, miserable, frozen, and in danger of real harm in spite of his earlier preparations to the old building. If he didn't do something about it, and quickly, what was proper and what was not wouldn't matter to either of them anymore. To that end, he opened his blanket in silent invitation.

That was all the incentive that Victoria needed. She instantly crawled towards him as fast as her frozen muscles would allow. She handed her blanket to Diego as he peeled off the caballero jacket he wore, surprised that he hadn't thought of offering it to her before now. He traded the jacket for her blanket, and while she struggled to put on the large coat, he quickly tossed her blanket as well as his own around his shoulders, pulling them over his head for good measure, knowing that their natural body warmth would leak through the tops of their heads unless he stopped it. Looking like a sort of rakish monk, he drew her to him in a very unmonkish way the second she finished donning the coat. She settled her back against his chest, and he flung the blanket ends over her head as well, wrapping them both in swaths of material. They huddled under a double layer of woolen protection, shivering together. After a few moments, he began to warm, and her violent shaking slowed as he gently wrapped his arms around her form.

“It's a good thing you had the forethought to keep these blankets here, Diego,” Victoria next commented, her teeth still chattering on occasion. “I'd hate to be stuck here in this storm with no protection at all.”

“After what happened last year,” Diego explained, “I thought it would be a good idea to be prepared for the worst.” He acknowledged his plan even as he buried his freezing nose into her hair. “Though I never expected to have to use them.”

Peaking through the blanket ends at the unforgiving adobe walls, Victoria wrinkled her nose. “I really could have lived quite nicely never having to see this windmill again.”

“That makes two of us,” Diego groused, grumpy from the cold in spite of Victoria's added warmth.

“But how were we to know that it was going to rain ice?!”

Diego didn't bother to correct her comment about it raining ice and call it 'sleet.' Instead, he simply told her, “The signs were there - I just ignored them.”

“Don't be silly, Diego,” Victoria admonished. “It was mostly sunny if not wholly warm when we left. Even you can't predict the weather.”

I can read the signs same as anyone, Diego silently insisted, not willing to forgive himself as Victoria automatically had. If he hadn't learned by now to do something as simple as read weather signs, then...

“Diego,” Victoria half warned, half chastised. “I can feel you thinking from here. This wasn't your fault.”

Diego gave a rueful grin to the back of her head. “I can't help chastising myself just a little. I should have...”

“Diego.” Victoria's tone was much less friendly this time. “I mean it - stop. This was no one's fault! If you're determined to blame someone, then blame me!”

“You? Why would I do that?”

“I asked for your company in the first place, and it was my lawyer we were going to see. The way I look at it, this is definitely my fault, if not my doing.”

“Of course it isn't your fault,” Diego instantly protested. “You couldn't have known...”

“Will you listen to yourself for once?” Victoria remonstrated, tilting her head towards him as she did. “This is no one's fault, like I said.”

Diego's rueful grin was back. “Either you read my mind, or you know me too well.”

“I could never know you too well,” Victoria artlessly commented, her teeth still chattering as she said it. She instinctively pushed back against Diego's warm chest to put a final halt to her shivers, and just as instinctively, Diego's arms tightened around her. “I often feel like I don't know you very well,” Victoria went on. “I'd like to change that.”

Delighted by her final words, though surprised that she was so unnervingly prescient, Diego promised, “I didn't know that. I'd like to remedy that as well. In fact, since we shouldn't go to sleep until we warm up, ask me anything - you can start getting to know me better right now.”

Victoria's voice resounded with her smile. “Alright,” and she wriggled against his chest, almost as if she knew the effect such movement would have on him. Diego realized he was lucky it was so cold, or he would be explaining something he'd rather not explain just yet.

Victoria moved until she got comfortable on the grass he'd gathered to cushion the hard dirt floor. Her second bout of wriggling heightened Diego's perception of her even more, but he steadfastly ignored it to instead suggest, “We could play word games... like anagrams!”

Victoria perked up as much as someone under a pile of blankets could perk. “Or maybe we could..! Oh, but that's silly - never mind.”

Diego couldn't help but smile at the enthusiasm in her tone in spite of their dire situation. “What?”

“Well,” Victoria hesitantly began, “my brothers and I came up with this game to keep us from getting bored on trips when we were young. We called it 'I would rather.' We could do that... for awhile.”

Diego sent a glance at their blanket dome. “This certainly constitutes as a time we might get bored. Alright.”

Victoria smiled. “I'll go first so that you can see what to do. It's easy. Um...” She thought for a moment. “I would rather... be in a horse race than... get stuck in an ice storm in Los Angeles.”

“A horse race?”

“On Toronado,” Victoria added in a burst of insight.

“A horse race on a half wild stallion,” Diego reminded her. “Though maybe he's really a gentle horse where women are concerned? I've heard of that before - a horse preferring one gender over the other. Perhaps Zorro looks like such a good horseman because Toronado is constantly trying to throw him off?”

Victoria instantly broke into peels of laughter, causing pleasure to ripple across Diego just from the sound of it.

“I love your laugh,” he commented without thinking about his words first. He was glad that she couldn't see him sitting behind her when his face blazed red. But he refused to take his words back because they were the truth - he really did like her laugh. It had always reminded him of tiny bells ringing on a Christmas tree.

Her rejoinder astonished him. “You have a nice laugh, too, but you so rarely use it. You should laugh more often.”

Delighted, Diego smiled. “I can't disappoint a lady - I'll endeavor to laugh more often when you're around.”

“You can laugh at how very... what did the Alcalde call my tavern the other day?” Victoria curiously asked.

Diego's forehead furrowed in thought. “Didn't he call it 'provincial?'”

“Yes, that's it! Provincial.” Victoria's look matched Diego's. “What does that mean?”

Diego's face cleared; if there was one thing Diego de la Vega was definitely known to be good at, it was being a learned, scholarly type of man. “I think what the Alcalde was trying to say was that he thinks of your tavern as... rustic,” Diego hedged.

However, Victoria was having none of his attempts not to offend her. “What did the Alcalde really mean?”

Diego gave a sigh at her persistence. “Stubborn, aren't you?”

Victoria arched an eyebrow. “Stubborn... or pigheaded? I've been called both.”

“Not by me.”

Now she huffed an impatient breath. “Diego? He meant..?”

Diego gave in as gracefully as he could. “He meant that he thinks your tavern is very rough... unrefined... “

“Backwards,” she sardonically finished for him.

Diego's discomfort grew. If there was anything sure to send Victoria on a temper rant, it was an insult to her tavern. “Um... yes.”

But Victoria surprised Diego again: she didn't rant, she laughed.

Taken aback by the sound, Diego blurted, “You're laughing? I thought you'd be...”

“Angry?” Victoria spluttered. At Diego's nod, she explained, “I would be... except that what he said is true. He thought I'd be so insulted - and he's so wrong... again! I can't help but laugh. So should you!”

But Diego negated that idea. “I could never laugh at your tavern - it's too nice, no matter how provincial you or the Alcalde think it is.” Then he paused. “Do you really think it's so very provincial?”

“Compared to taverns I've seen in places like Monterey, it is,” Victoria asserted. “You should hear what else the Alcalde says about it.”

Diego grimaced. “I don't really want to hear what the Alcalde has to say about anything.”

Victoria giggled at that. “Neither do I.”

“Alright - it's my turn,” Diego reminded her. “Let's see....”

“Oh, you have to say 'I would rather be stuck in an ice storm in Los Angeles than...' something else. Then I have to say that something else.... and so on.”

“I see.” Diego nodded in understanding. “So I better make this good. I would rather be stuck in an ice storm in Los Angeles - with you - rather than... with de Soto.” He grinned at her hair curling on her shoulder. “You're much friendlier... not to mention prettier.”

“I could never compare to his neckcloths, though,” she saucily teased back. “Alright... I would rather be stuck in an ice storm in Los Angeles with de Soto...” Victoria had to grimace here, showing how she would rather not be stuck with de Soto anywhere.

“But weren't you and he once..?” Diego pointed out.

Victoria groaned aloud. “I did say that I would marry him, didn't I?”

Diego shuddered at that thought. “I have a very hard time picturing you married to Ignacio when you automatically don't agree with anything he says.”

Victoria gave a sardonic grin. “That's for sure.”

“Just the fact that you're involved with his arch enemy is proof that you don't agree with anything Ignacio holds dear.”

Victoria paused again. “What do you think our esteemed Alcalde holds dear?”

“Power,” Diego instantly replied, remembering how the man tried to 'buy' his vote in the election for Alcalde several years before.

“Power?” Victoria's question of such a simple description showed in the puzzled tone of her voice. “Doesn't he just want to go back to Spain?”

“He does, but in order to do that, he thinks he needs power first. How else can he return to Madrid a hero?”

“Hmpf! Some hero!”

Diego gave his head a thoughtful cock, his hair rubbing the blanket tossed over them. “He thinks he'll be a hero if he captures a hero.”

“You mean Zorro?”

Diego shrugged. “He'll do in a pinch.”

Victoria's guffaw washed throughout their blanket tent. “If the last two years are a 'pinch,' then I'd hate to see what an all out fight would be like!”

Still teasing, Diego leaned over her. “I could punch him just like Zorro does, and we'll see what happens.”

Victoria laughed again, making Diego instantly glad for what he'd just said, even if it did go against the indolent caballero persona he had created for himself.

Victoria teasingly said, “If you can manage to punch the Alcalde, I'll... hmmmm... I'll give you lunch for a week, free!”

Diego couldn't halt the immediate tightening of his arms around her. “A whole week of cooking a la Escalante - how can I pass that up?”

Victoria chuckled again, this time in amazement. “What?”

“Oh, it's French - sorry - you know how I like to run off at the mouth. Forget it.”

Puzzled, Victoria asked, “I know that you know French, since you went to France, but... where did you first learn to speak it?”

Diego shrugged. “Here and there. From studying, I suppose. I traveled in France whenever I could while I was at the University. Countries are so close in Europe - I couldn't resist a little traveling while I was there.”

“It's not so spread out, not at all like California,” she next commented, her voice heavy with regret. “Do you miss Spain?”

Remembering those carefree days he'd spent as a university student, Diego couldn't help but heave a sigh. “Some. But when I was there, I missed Father and Felipe... and you.”

“Me?” Victoria echoed, further amazed. “How could you miss me? I was just a child when you left!”

“You were fifteen,” he firmly replied. “You were hardly a child.”

Victoria harrumphed again, showing that she didn't quite agree with him. “I was still a child who didn't know what she was doing even when you came back.”

Diego firmly shook his head, his hair again rustling on the blanket. “I disagree. I never viewed the owner of the tavern as a child.”

“Yes, but this tavern owner was childish enough to get herself thrown in jail not long after!”

“Protesting the Alcalde's cruelty was brave, not childish,” Diego insisted.

“It was stupid!” Victoria argued. “If I hadn't done that, then Don Alejandro wouldn't have done what he did, we wouldn't have been thrown in jail, and Zorro...” There she stopped, halting like she had run into a wall.

His heart beating in double time, Diego finished her sentence for her, “There would be no Zorro.” He paused, then grinned down at her. “So I guess he owes his existence to you!”

Diego could sense Victoria's answering grin. “Don't forget about Don Alejandro - Zorro rescued him from jail as well.”

Diego rolled his eyes and sarcastically said, “Oh yes, I can't possibly forget the time my father's temper actually landed him in jail.”

Victoria curiously cocked her head. “You don't always get along with your father, do you?”

Diego's responding smile was more rueful now than sarcastic. “Did you always get along with your parents?”

Victoria immediately ducked her head. “Now that you mention it...”

Diego laughed at her answer. “I just get tired of my father always reacting first, and thinking afterwards. That's how he ended up in jail all those years ago.”

“I thought it was my fault that he ended up in jail.”

Diego's snort filled their tent. “He ended up in jail because he punched the Alcalde - it wasn't anything you did.”

“Yes, but he only punched the Alcalde because I'd been arrested. And the reason I'd been arrested is because of the revolutionary meeting I was holding at my tavern.”

“Revolutionary!? A meeting that highlighted the injustices of the Alcalde's rule can hardly be considered revolutionary.” Diego's natural sarcasm leaked into his voice again, and he vowed in future to restrict the sarcasm to Zorro's realm... as useless as such a vow was.

But in spite of Diego's unexpected tone, Victoria's scathing reply stopped him cold. “It wasn't revolutionary so much as stupid... but we've been over that already. Let's talk about something else besides the Alcalde... past or present.”

The request stunned Diego for a moment - he was surprised not only at the self-loathing that was in Victoria's tone when this issue came up, but also her desire not to even discuss it. “I have the feeling that we're going to have to agree to disagree on why you were thrown in a jail when I first came home from Spain,” he reluctantly told her. “You think it was your fault, and I think it wasn't.”

“If it hadn't been for me, then Don Alejandro...” Victoria doggedly reiterated.

“My father's temper got the better of him, not yours,” Diego insisted. “But you've asked to talk about something else... what do you wish to discuss?”

Victoria thought for a moment. “Tell me something about yourself that I don't know.”

Diego's brows rose once more to his hairline. “Something you don't know? You already know so much about me.”

“Then why is that I feel I don't know the real Diego?”

That's because you don't. Diego momentarily quailed at how close she was to guessing the reality of his situation. In order to maintain the status quo he currently enjoyed, he imbued his voice with casual lightness. “The real Diego is hardly a mystery, I'm afraid: what you see is what you get.”

“But there must be something about you that I don't know.”

Humoring her, Diego attempted to think of something. “Truly, Victoria, I tell you almost everything.”

“'Almost?' So you admit that there is something about you that I don't know?”

Damn. That was too close to the truth again. “Well... I can't eat fish. I break out in spots if I eat fish.”

Diego could just see her nose wrinkle in consternation. “Really? I've never noticed.”

“That's because I never order fish in your tavern.”

“But I rarely cook anything related to fish.”

“Which is why I always frequent your tavern.”

Victoria's laughter again filled the space under the blankets. “I should cook more fish, especially considering how close we are to the ocean. But...”

“... that's not what the people want to eat.” Diego took a moment to consider that existence of Victoria's. He was surprised and appalled that he had never thought to do this before now. “It must be hard always guessing what the people want.”

“Not particularly,” Victoria informed, then sent a sly glance towards Diego. “I make albundigas soup at least once every two or three days.”

“I love your albundigas soup,” Diego enthused. “As well as your carne asada.”

“I know,” Victoria wryly admitted. “Why do you think I make them so often?”

This surprised Diego. “You make them for me?”

Victoria suddenly gave a saucy grin. “I'm sure to sell at least one meal!”

Diego's laughter rang through the space. “Well, I guess that fulfills your criteria - I didn't know this about you!”

Victoria laughed as well. “You can't eat fish - tell me something else.”

More used to the game now, Diego didn't hesitate to say, “I once read a book titled The Life and Times of Famous Trackers: Read it, Live it, Love it - does that count?”

Right on cue, her nose wrinkled. “Tracking? That's not something you're interested in, is it?”

“Noooooo,” Diego responded, not wanting to lie to her yet again, but not seeing a way around the lie if he wanted to maintain his image as the pueblo's most inactive caballero. At last he told her, “My father once accused me of having only enough knowledge about tracking to fill a thimble.” He shrugged. “I figured that if I read this book, I could at least fill two thimbles.”

“So, did you learn anything about tracking?”

The book he'd borrowed from a friend in Santa Barbara had only mentioned tracking basics. Diego, of course, already knew the basics, but he couldn't tell her that, as Diego would hardly be known to know tracking basics. Instead, he enthused about those basics to throw her off. “Yes! Did you know that every animal has a different print? And that even boot prints can tell a story about how a person walks? It all depends on how that person wears their shoes. And that...”

“Alright, Diego, I get the picture.”

“Well,” Diego ruefully continued, “We can't all be amazing trackers like Zorro.”

“No one expects you to be,” she lightly told him.

“My father does.”

“He shouldn't,” Victoria stoutly insisted. “You're fine the way you are.”

Delighted anew at her casual compliment, Diego let the thrill he was feeling suffuse his voice. “Thank you!” Compliments for Diego from Victoria were rare, so he treasured the few he'd received over the years. But as much as he liked getting compliments, and from Victoria in particular, Diego felt that this particular compliment was a little too personal for his taste. Ready to end this uncomfortable topic of conversation, he prodded, “Now it's your turn; something I don't know about you.”

“Oh... let me see...” Suddenly she sat up straighter, as if she'd thought of something. “Whenever I break a dish, it gets marked in the part of my tavern account books that I call 'The Broken Budget.'”

But Diego's nose wrinkled this time. “I'm not sure that tavern idiosyncrasies should count. They're about your business, not you.”

“But I'm the one who named it,” she argued. “Mama and papa just called it 'the budget for broken dishes.' I always thought that was boring.”

“There, now, that's something I didn't know about Victoria Escalante!” Diego proudly noted.

“What did I say?”

“That you grow bored of the tavern.”

Victoria chuckled a laugh. “Of course I do. Don't you sometimes grow tired of the same things you've been doing for several years?”

Instantly, thoughts of how tired he was getting of the way that Zorro constantly ran his life accosted Diego, but he couldn't mention that, to her especially - which was the point, really. So instead of talking about Zorro once again, he said, “I suppose that I get tired of teaching Felipe.”

Victoria's voice held her surprise. “I thought you loved teaching Felipe.”

“Maybe I do,” Diego admitted at last. “I guess I'm more tired of always battling with Felipe to do his work rather than the teaching itself.”

Victoria gave a small laughing cough of incredulity. “Surely Felipe knows that in order for him to learn, he has to work for it.”

Diego considered the situation again. “I'm not sure if it's the fact he doesn't like to do the work, or the fact that he automatically doesn't like to do any learning task I set for him just because I'm the one who set it. Maybe it's an age thing?”

Victoria knowingly announced, “That must be it. I've never thought for one minute that Felipe would resist learning. He always seems so responsible - especially for a young man.”

Affronted, Diego pointed out, “I was a responsible young man.”

Victoria's answer was as honest as it was rueful. “You're responsible even as an older man.”

Diego grimaced. “You make me sound so boring.”

“You're not boring, Diego,” Victoria protested. “You're more...” Her voice trailed off as she thought of a reply, and at last hesitantly announced, “You're responsible - I can count on you. So can everyone else. That's...”

“... boring.”

She gave a tolerant grin. “That doesn't make you boring. It's a trait to be proud of.”

Her answer irritated Diego rather than reassured him. “I think I'd rather be called anything but 'responsible.'”

“Even the Alcalde thinks you're highly responsible.”

“That's done it: my responsible days are over.”

Victoria's face displayed exaggerated disappointment. “Too bad - I liked having someone I can count on.”

Her answer amazed Diego. “But I thought you were more interested in doing everything yourself rather than in having someone around who is so boringly responsible that you can count on them to help?”

Victoria's reply was reluctant. “It's just... nice... to know... when I'm going to see someone for a change. You're not at all like... you know who.”

Diego was surprised anew: Victoria had never mentioned feeling any such anxieties to Zorro. At least, he assumed that's who she was referring to. He'd noticed that she was again about to compare him to the famous bandit, but had stopped herself at the last minute. He appreciated the effort she'd made not to compare them, knowing that he would come out on the losing end yet again if such a comparison was made. He was suddenly tired of losing so often to the masked bandit. “Does his unpredictability bother you so much?”

Victoria's sigh filled the small space; this already didn't sound good. “Not really. It's just...” She paused again, then hesitantly asked, “Diego, can I trust you with something?”

She'd asked him the same type of question once before. Now, as then, he assured, “Victoria, you know you can trust me with anything. What's wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong. In fact, it may make everything right.”

Diego made his voice take on regretful tone, as if what she'd hinted at confirmed one of his worst fears. “You're engaged to him, aren't you?”

“How did you know!?” Victoria's amazement was palpable.

Diego heaved a sad sigh, as if this truly aggrieved him. “I know you, that's how. I hoped I was wrong, but...”

She bristled. “Just why does this worry you?”

Patient now, he sounded like he was explaining something to a small child. “He's an outlaw, Victoria. A bandit.”

“So?”

“That's what you'll become, too, if you marry him.”

Her sigh again filled the tent. “Don't worry so, Diego. Even I know that the mask must disappear before we can do anything. I plan to marry whoever he really is, not an outlaw.”

Diego sounded astonished. “You mean you don't know?”

“Do you?”

“You're the one planning to marry the man, not me. Of course I have no idea who he is.” Another lie. It was highly unsettling how easily a lie slipped between his lips before he even realized what he was doing. He made another silent vow not to lie to her any more... again, for all the good it would do.

Victoria huffed. “Don't you think I've tried for years to figure out his identity? If I knew, I'd yell it from the rooftops!”

“Which is probably why he's made certain you don't know,” Diego dryly commented.

Victoria had to concede, “You're right. I wasn't thinking. Wouldn't the Alcalde like it if I did something so stupid as yell his identity from the rooftops!”

“I wouldn't call it 'stupid' - more like unwise.”

“Unwise?” She snorted, a particularly unladylike sound. The first response Victoria Escalante had of anything was the one she expressed. Diego had always loved her for it, but it was occasionally a very inconvenient personality trait. “Shouting it from the rooftops is what Father would do.”

“We've already discussed why I shouldn't do what your father does. What I would like to know is what you think I should do.”

This truly puzzled Diego. “Why me?”

Her shoulder almost touched the blanket as she shrugged. “Because I... value what you think.”

She did? Diego couldn't help but be pleased about that. “In that case... I think...” How much could he tell her without giving himself away?

“Yes?”

Diego cautiously began, “I think... you're not going to like what I have to say.”

Sounding determined rather than cautious, Victoria ordered, “Tell me anyway.”

Beaten, Diego sighed. “I think you shouldn't marry him.”

She jerked, as if surprised. “Not marry him?” She sounded affronted again. “Why not?”

Here was his chance for some honesty. “Because you can do better.”

Now she was astonished. “Better than Zorro?”

“Better than an outlaw,” he corrected her.

Now she was thoroughly confused. “Did you have someone in mind?”

Once again Diego pretended surprise. “Do you want to be married badly enough to consider someone besides Zorro?” His heart burned at the idea of her marrying anyone else, but it was something he had to concede was possible. It was another of his fears that he'd mentioned to no one, not even Felipe.

Victoria's surprise equaled Diego's. “No, I... I hadn't...”

Diego felt relieved before she'd even finished speaking. “Maybe you should,” he now suggested, just to see what she would do with such an outlandish suggestion.

The reluctance she now displayed was heartwarming. “No one... interests me like that.”

“You've never even been tempted to marry someone else?”

“Tempted?” Her voice told him of her discomfort with this new topic. “You know about my dealings with Juan Ortiz, I suppose, even though you were out of town at the time.”

Once again he feigned his reaction. “Yes, Father told me about it. Would you have liked being married to Juan?”

Her answer came immediately. “I would have liked having a normal life.”

“A normal life?”

“Able to count on something, to have some security...” Now she hedged, “But I didn't love him... though he said that he loved me.” Then she gave her head a decisive shake. “Still, that's not enough for a successful marriage. It wouldn't have worked.”

“Ah, you're on the side of the love match.”

“Love match?”

“As opposed to an arranged marriage,” Diego patiently explained.

She sounded as if this wasn't something she'd considered before, either. “I guess I am. I hadn't thought of that before you mentioned it... but now that I think of it...”

“Zorro's the only one for you, since he's the one you love,” Diego mournfully finished for her. He found himself considering asking her if Diego would be an acceptable substitute for either Juan or Zorro, but now he wasn't sure that he had enough courage to ask as himself, given her lukewarm feelings on the subject of marriage in general. He wasn't prepared to disclose his identity just yet, but he admitted the desire to marry her before revealing himself just to insure that she didn't marry someone else. However, he simultaneously realized that if he married her without first revealing his identity, he would have to then continue the facade that he didn't care about much of anything that he'd created in order to insure the continuation of Zorro. In all his fantasies of being married to Victoria, he'd never once imagined being married to her as anything but his true self. The thought of having to continue the 'lazy Diego' part of the deception in spite of marriage to Victoria was downright depressing.

Victoria instantly noticed his mood change - he should have counted on that. “You sound so disappointed now, though that's hardly news.”

Again Diego found himself wavering, strung out by maintaining such an all encompassing disguise. He wanted more than anything at that moment to tell her at least some of the truth. He was so tired of lies.

He began cautiously, “Have you ever considered marrying a caballero?”

Once more that idea took Victoria by surprise. “A caballero? Like Don Cristoba de Sala?”

“Or even Father.” He hesitated to immediately suggest himself - he didn't want to appear too eager.

“Don Alejandro?” To his satisfaction, her tone showed her revulsion at that idea. “Not to offend you, but it would be like marrying my father!”

“I'm not offended. To be honest, I'm not certain that he would want to marry you, either. You're too much like a daughter to him. You mentioned Don Cristoba earlier - was there a reason?”

“Not really.” She heaved a sigh, finally giving in to his rather bold idea. “If you must know, Don Cristoba was simply the first caballero who came to mind. Actually, he makes me... uncomfortable.”

“He does?” Diego had never heard this before. “How so?”

“He...” Victoria's voice hesitantly lowered, though there was no one else in the windmill who could possibly overhear her confession. “He... I don't think I should tell you, Diego. I'm not sure what you'll do.”

Diego laughed at that. “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” she quickly replied, then mumbled under her breath, “Though I wouldn't mind if you beat him to a pulp.”

Diego couldn't even pretend that he hadn't heard her comment. “Zorro would have more success at that than I would.”

“Zorro's never around,” she instantly said, her voice lacking the whine that would have made it a complaint. She wasn't complaining, simply stating fact: Zorro wasn't around, especially, it seemed, when Victoria needed him. A surge of guilt shot through Diego.

Trying to conceal his feelings of culpability, Diego self-consciously cleared his throat. “Does Don Cristoba treat you..?” He searched his mind to come up with something truly reprehensible, but Victoria spoke first.

“He doesn't treat me any worse than others do, I suppose.” Then her voice as well as her face darkened. “He just seems to enjoy it more.”

That was the opening that Diego had been waiting for. “You could marry me... that way he wouldn't dare treat you with anything less than respect. I... wouldn't let him.” Perhaps that was going too far?

“But you're a caballero,” Victoria inanely pointed out.

They were even discussing this issue to begin with in view of her marrying a caballero, weren't they? So what did this have to do with anything? “I'm a caballero... you're a business owner. What does that..?” Then inspiration struck Diego. “Unless you think that because I'm a caballero, I'm just like Don Cristoba?”

He could feel the sudden heat suffuse her face. “I know you're nothing like he is. That's not quite what I meant.”

“So... what did you mean?”

She gestured toward him, then raised her brows as if what she was referring to was all too obvious. His only response was the blank expression that universally implied, 'I don't understand.' When another moment went by and he still didn't get what she meant, she gusted a sigh of exasperation. “You live in a hacienda.”

This detail didn't enlighten him. “So?”

Her patience was already wearing thin. “I run a tavern.”

Diego's patience was also vanishing. He knew he shouldn't, but his heart was beating a hole in his chest - he wanted her answer immediately as opposed to all this implication. “Again, so?”

Her hands gestured once more between them. “I run a tavern - I don't know the first thing about running a hacienda!”

Diego sighed a laugh, his heart firming into a steadier rhythm as she turned toward him in order to see him better. “Is that all? You're a fast learner - you'll be doing a better job at running the hacienda than Father and I have before you know it.”

“But what would Don Alejandro think?!” she protested next.

Diego shrugged. “That I have wonderful taste in who I choose to marry?” he guessed. When she didn't take to his joke at all, he laughingly soothed, “Victoria, what are you worried about?”

She hesitantly plucked at her skirt. “Well, I... I don't...” Her voice trailed off into a tent filled with silence.

“What? Does it have something to do with Don Cristoba?” Suddenly alarmed, Diego asked, “Did he do something?”

“No,” Victoria quickly reassured. “No, that's not...”

Diego strove to show her the unconcerned image she expected to see when in reality, he abruptly wanted to do whatever it took to convince her to marry him. It was so important that he fought off a bout of shivering that had nothing to do with the cold. What if she said an unequivocal 'no?' How could he stand that? Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.

Victoria's timidity turned to reluctant resignation then. “Diego, I like you,” she suddenly announced.

And..? “I like you, too, Victoria, but what does that..?”

She stopped him with a slash of her hand. “No, I mean I like you.”

Diego paused, his breath stopped in his throat. “Oh,” he dully said, sounding absolutely astonished. She liked him... as in liked him... as in...

Well, he certainly hadn't seen this one coming.

Very slowly, his face took on the expression of the sun coming out after a particularly horrendous storm. “You like me... that's... good... because I like you, too.”

It was obvious by her reaction that Victoria hadn't expected to hear that. “What?” she inelegantly blurted.

Be honest, Diego. Tell her the truth! “I've.... loved you... for a long... time.” As confessions went, it had turned him into a stuttering fool; he was as inelegant as she was. Yet in spite of his halting manner, he suddenly felt far lighter than he had in a long time. Even he hadn't been aware of how this information had weighed him down. That weight now made his admittance that much sweeter.

The sweetness lasted about a second.

Victoria reared back as far as the blankets would let her. “Love! Who said anything about love? I just said liked!”

His heart's initial reaction was to instantly curdle and fall to his toes, but as despondency flooded his mind, his gaze met hers.

And in that instant, he knew she was lying.

His depression quickly mutated to anger, which he fought to control. “Don't do that, Victoria,” he warned in a low voice that was far too much like Zorro's. “I'm confessing something that I've wanted tell you for years, and you're lying to me.”

Victoria ripped her gaze from Diego's and looked down, guilt waves pouring from her. She studied the pattern of the threads in her skirt as if her life depended on it. “I'm sorry, Diego,' she whispered at last. “That was stupid and uncalled for. You don't deserve that.”

His anger waning as fast as it had arrived, Diego strove instead to understand. “What I want to know is why? Is it something I did?”

Her smile crept across her face. “No, of course not. Why is it that men always assume it's something they did wrong?”

Puzzled, Diego asked, “If not me, then... what?”

A silence invaded the blanket tent, so deep that Diego again heard the sound of ice brushing the one window in the windmill's walls, vaguely reminding him of their tenuous predicament, but it wasn't enough to tear his attention completely away from her. He waited impatiently for her to speak, imagining a multitude of reasons for her silence, each scenario worse than the last.

What actually happened didn't even enter his head.

“I'm sorry,” she ground out through teeth clenched against some overwhelming emotion, then launched herself at him with the sudden speed and accuracy of a hawk. Between one breath and the next, Diego found himself the unexpected object of a forceful kiss from Victoria Escalante.

That kiss had barely started before she began drawing back. Diego felt the tension in her shifting muscles, and instinctively wrapped his arms around her to hold her in place. His surprise quickly ebbed away, tenderness taking hold instead. What she had intended to be a fast, furious, and hard gesture abruptly slowed until he was just as obviously kissing her as she was kissing him.

Too overcome with emotion to realize that Victoria would most likely now be able to link Zorro with Diego just by the way he kissed, Diego gave in to the gentle pounding in his veins. He didn't care if she figured him out, didn't care that according to what she knew about him, Diego de la Vega shouldn't be practiced enough to kiss this well. He should be acting so prudish right now that a gesture such as a kiss would send him into a shock so deep that it lasted a week!

But that's not what happened. Surprise gave way to tenderness, which in turn gave way to a profound need to kiss her back and let his feelings penetrate his natural resistance. This was his chance, maybe his only one, to show her that there was more to Diego de la Vega than the piano playing poet the pueblo knew.

Diego gently cupped her cheek, momentarily startled by the feel of her skin against his. Smiling slightly at the wonder of kissing Victoria, Diego kissed her in earnest.

One thing was for sure: Zorro had never kissed Victoria this way. He hadn't dared. This gesture definitely invited them both down a trail they'd studiously resisted. He was helpless not to thread his hand through her black hair, thrilled at the sensation of feeling the individual strands caress his fingers. Not once did he let that little voice of reason inside his head tell him that he shouldn't be doing this, that he was sorry for such ungentlemanly behavior, that his precarious position in life didn't invite such a gesture. He only knew that he'd told Victoria that he loved her, and astonishingly, she hadn't bolted for the nearest exit. Instead, she was in his arms, and this was it.

Scant seconds later, it was over. Diego slowly released her, gratified to see a glaze tinging her eyes as she breathlessly looked back at him. Her arms had automatically wound around his neck, and he had a fleeting thought that this, too, might link him to Zorro, but he was too elated to care. Victoria had kissed him. Even though she'd intended her kiss to be short and more or less emotionless, Diego had stepped in and for once, hadn't let his fears rule his head. Instead, his heart had spoken directly to hers, and he'd let his emotions run wild. He'd kissed her, been kissed by her, and he liked it!

Diego couldn't help but give a light chuckle at the dazed look invading her eyes. She never lost her faculties so completely like this when Zorro kissed her. It was ironic that this was something she had initiated, but he had so clearly finished.

She swallowed convulsively as she stared into his eyes, the fog in hers gradually lifting. Ah, this was when reality was sure to set in and she would abruptly come back to her senses. Diego mentally braced himself for the disappointment that he was sure would momentarily explode.

But by now, Diego should know to expect the most unexpected things from Victoria Escalante.

An ecstatic smile crept slowly across her features. It truly was as if the sun had come bursting out of the cloudy sky that currently dripped ice on a beleaguered California. It wasn't at all the reaction he'd anticipated. There was no censure in her expression, no rejection, no anger, only an acceptance like nothing he'd ever thought to see.

Which, ironically, created something of a problem for Diego.

The second he saw that expression on her face, he wanted to tell her the truth - all of it. He'd already told her that he loved her... but suddenly, that wasn't enough. He wanted her to know he was Zorro, that he was the hero of the pueblo, the scourge of the Alcalde, the man most feared by every outlaw in every town this side of Monterey. He was the one who kissed her at midnight in her kitchen, he was the one who worshiped the ground she walked on, and who she had fallen for... twice.

But that was just it; Diego couldn't get around the fact that in his double life, he'd lied to her over and over again for years. How could she possibly ever forgive him for that? It didn't matter if she liked or loved him - what mattered is that he'd lied to her, he'd led her on for years, had strung her along because it suited Zorro's purposes. The fact that those purposes had mostly centered around keeping her and others whom he loved alive really had nothing to do with it now. The bottom line was that he was secretly using her... and there was no way around an angry reaction to that fact that Diego could see. If he told her the truth now, he could consider that kiss they had just shared as a goodbye kiss.

That would make spending the rest of a freezing night together very awkward, to say the least. Zorro didn't do 'awkward.'

Then again, they were completely alone, likely with no interruptions. If he was going to do this thing, he would never get a better opportunity.

The pros and cons of revealing his secret careened inside his mind. One second he was all for telling her everything and hoping for the best, the next he wondered if he was going crazy to even consider it.

Before he'd even had a chance to make up his mind, Victoria was speaking.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered again, her regret louder than her voice. “I shouldn't have done that.” Her skirt was once more the enthralling piece of material that it had been before; nothing Diego did could force her to look at him, not even when he actively lifted her chin with his index finger. “I like you, Diego,” she began, then forced herself to backtrack. “I more than like you, if I'm honest.”

“And that doesn't make sense,” Diego remarked, recalling the many times she had criticized who he was, or something he had done. “At times I thought you could barely stand the sight of me.”

Again Diego felt more than saw the blush raging on her face. “I'm so sorry if I hurt your feelings,” she whispered. “I shouldn't have said those things. I... knew... that you...” But she couldn't go on, and just shook her head, the blankets rustling. “I'm sorry.”

An apology from Victoria Escalante? It was such a rare thing that Diego was too stunned for a moment to respond.

Victoria took his hand in hers, but refused to look at him. “I was... hiding,” she admitted at last.

This puzzled Diego. “Hiding?”

“Hiding behind being mean,” she further explained. “If I treated you poorly enough, you would... never guess the truth. Neither would... anyone else.” Her tone bespoke her misery. “Now you know. If you never speak to me again, I'll... understand.” The last word was an agonized whisper.

The words were out of his mouth then before he knew it. “Victoria, I'm Zorro.”

She did look at him when he said that. “What?”

Diego closed his eyes so that he wouldn't see her, not that he could discern many details about her anyway. The fire at her back was dying, the light barely penetrating the double layer of blankets surrounding them. I really should do something about building up that fire again, Diego thought to himself. It will be even colder tonight. But still he didn't move, and neither did she, though he was abruptly very aware of the cold that penetrated their blanket tent. Yet, the only fact that his numbed mind could grasp onto was that she was looking at him again... though her eyes were only dark shadowy blots by now. He could feel her staring at him more than he could see her.

But no matter what he could or couldn't see, closed eyes made a repetition of his words seem not so momentous or important. “Victoria, I'm Zorro.”

He heard Victoria's breath hitch, the way it did right before she exploded in an angry tirade. He prepared himself for a well-deserved tongue lashing as best he could.

“That's... what I thought... you said.”

Her bewildered tones hardly bespoke anger, and the words were certainly not the tongue lashing that Diego had anticipated. Once again, she had surprised him, so much so that his eyes popped open of their own volition.

Peering through the gloom under the blankets, he tried to see her face. He could see the halo of hair that framed her, knew that she was looking at him, but her features remained a shadowed mystery.

The way she gently cradled his hand in hers was no mystery, though. The sob that suddenly choked her throat closed was no mystery. The splash of a watery tear that landed on the back of his hand was also no mystery. This wasn't how he'd expected her to react to that particular confession, not at all.

Apologizing for everything he'd put her through the last several years was on the tip of his tongue, but her whisper cut through the silence like a hot knife. “Madre de Dios, I was right.” Without another word, she burst into tears.

Uh-oh: a crying woman... and one in very close quarters. The sobs and tears tore at Diego's heart like claws; was she crying because she had obviously suspected Zorro's secret identity, and had been right, as she said, or because he was Zorro, and he was the last person she wanted to be her hero? He could easily withstand the most personal threat from any number of bandits bent on his very creative demise, but a crying woman... or, more accurately, this crying woman... was his natural downfall.

He clutched the hand that was holding his like a vise. “Victoria, please don't cry! I'm sorry! I can't say how sorry I am that I didn't tell you before now. I know it was...”

Victoria only choked a whisper again as if she hadn't heard a word he'd said, “Madre de Dios!”

Then she reverently kissed the back of his hand, and he felt the splashes of more tears anoint his knuckles. She turned his hand over and kissed his palm, sending shivers of longing down Diego's spine in spite of what he saw as her obvious unhappiness, an emotion seemingly at odds with how she kept kissing his hand.

The next thing she uttered was also a whisper, but one that filled the tent with joy. “I'm so glad I was right.” Then she gathered him as best she could into her arms, and hugged him tight.

This was definitely not the tongue lashing he thought he deserved. Perhaps that part would come next. Perhaps he had finally driven himself crazy with his constant worrying about this moment, and now that it was here, couldn't face reality, so was fantasizing about what he wanted to happen instead. Having Victoria in his arms definitely qualified as one of the best fantasies he'd ever dreamed up.

However, in all his other fantasies concerning this moment, Victoria was never crying. Victoria didn't hit him as a person who cried, anyway. None of this was going remotely as he'd expected.

For one, he'd never anticipated her already knowing his secret identity when he finally told her. “You already knew who I am... who Zorro is?” he corrected.

She pulled back so she could see his face, nodding. “Yes... and no. I suspected. I guessed. But I didn't know. Not for sure.”

“What made you guess?” He was almost afraid to ask.

She instantly lifted his hand so that he could see the outline of his fingers. “You have very artistic hands,” she noted, rubbing it enticingly against her cheek. “Long fingers.”

“Good for playing the piano,” he pointed out.

“Also good at... binding up knife wounds... in my arm,” she haltingly said.

“Your arm?” he echoed, confused. “When were you wounded by a knife on your..?”

“When that crazy woman cut me,” she explained. “When I punched that Sinestra woman out when... Zorro... couldn't do it. When I... fainted, and Zorro carried me up to my room... and bound the cut on my arm.”

Suddenly Diego knew exactly what she wasn't saying. He slowly noted, “Zorro took his gloves off to bind your arm...”

“... and Diego's long fingers...”

Her voice trailed off, so he finished for her. “Diego's long fingers did this.” He devoutly cupped her cheek, just as he'd done on that night, tenderly brushing the skin with his thumb. “And then...”

“Then Zorro kissed me.”

Victoria's voice said more than her simple words did. If he recalled, the kiss he'd given her then had been gentle, tender, loving to the point of reverent. He'd been terrified that night - that woman had wanted to kill her. He'd come so close to losing Victoria. And if she'd died, it would have been his fault. He was the one who'd been dumb enough to mention her name to that Sinestra woman; she had only gone after Victoria because of him.

Suddenly it was Diego who gathered Victoria in his arms for a tight hug. “She could have killed you,” he emphatically whispered. “She intended to. She might have done more than cut your arm with a knife, so much more. She might have... might have...” But Diego couldn't go on, horrifying images of what that woman might have done to his Victoria filling his mind, each image more gruesome than the last.

By then, Victoria had crawled into his lap, resting her head on his shoulder, tucked under his chin. “But she didn't,” she needlessly pointed out. “I fainted, Zorro carried me upstairs, bound my arm...”

“I kissed you,” Diego reminded her. He felt like a fever had invaded his eyes as he lifted her chin again with his index finger... his long index finger... his Diego finger, the long finger of a piano player, of a painter. “I relived that kiss over and over again for weeks,” he softly admitted to her. “I didn't tell Felipe about it, or my Father, or the padre at Confession... nobody. It was mine.”

“And mine,” she told him. “That was the first time I felt truly cherished.”

“You could have died,” Diego tonelessly repeated. “I almost lost you.”

“But you didn't.”

“I never loved you as much as I did right then. I should have told you who I was that night.”

“That's alright,” Victoria soothed, her eyes full of understanding. “You told me tonight.”

Diego gave her a lopsided smile. “It's about time.”

Victoria threaded her fingers through his, and squeezed. “I'm glad you did.” Her kiss was every bit as reverent as the one he'd given her over a year ago.

Z Z Z

That night was both too long and too short after that. Knowing that Victoria knew made things easier, and at the same time made things immeasurably hard. He instinctively treasured each moment he could spend with her, especially with a knowledgeable Victoria, but those treasured moments were also an agony of suppressed emotion due to the decision he and Victoria had sadly but inevitably reached.

Surrounded by darkness cut only by the dying fire that stood between them and frozen oblivion, they had came to a sad agreement:

They couldn't marry. They couldn't even be together. As long as Ignacio de Soto was the Alcalde of Los Angeles, any man known to marry Victoria Escalante would immediately be suspected of being Zorro. Her ties with the infamous bandit were too stringent to be ignored. It was known throughout the territory, and definitely in the pueblo, that the way to Zorro was through Victoria. She loved him - he loved her. They were both part of the legend that linked them together and simultaneously kept them apart. Whether or not that particular man was Zorro in reality wouldn't matter to de Soto. Just the fact that a tall man with a mustache showed enough interest in Victoria to marry her, and that affection was reciprocated, was enough to hang the individual as far as de Soto was concerned. Since neither Diego nor Victoria was in any hurry to see Diego de la Vega dangling at the end of a hangman's noose, they had to be quiet about Victoria's new knowledge, about their love... about everything. Diego couldn't tell Felipe. Victoria couldn't whisper about in some future Confession to the Padre. Victoria couldn't start that family she longed for. Diego couldn't give his father those grandchildren he'd always wanted.

Therefore, Diego's whispered confession to Victoria was both the most meaningful thing in the world to them, as well as the one thing that signed their own fate. They could kiss - and did, until their passion for the other almost ran away with them, but there they stopped, panting in the darkness of early night. They knew, though hadn't discussed, that Victoria absolutely could not have his child right now, not with de Soto as Alcalde. de Soto would use that child to get to her, and then use her to get to Zorro, even if someone else stepped up to claim the child for his own.

Besides that, Diego refused to put his child through the same type of agony he'd witnessed Felipe enduring many times over the years; the boy had been endlessly hounded for not having 'real' parents, for not being claimed by anybody for anything other than as a servant. In the same way, the child of Zorro would have only Victoria to call a true parent; it would be a bastard to the other pueblo citizens, and Victoria would most likely be ostracized as a 'loose woman' for giving in to him. The worst of it was that all of this would be Diego's fault, and he would most likely be the only one who would go completely free - Victoria would pay, the child would pay, and there was nothing he could do about it if he wanted to avoid hanging.

Now, Diego shivered just imagining the fallout of those events. One thing he wanted above anything was to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. And keeping a lid on his connection to Victoria was possible... though extremely trying!

They slept a bit after the saddest bout of kissing that Diego had ever experienced. He'd never been so ecstatic and depressed at the same time.

But eventually their ardor cooled as they fully comprehended that being together was a one night thing for them, at least until de Soto was replaced, and that eventuality didn't appear to be remotely imminent. So they built up the fire as much as was safely possible to ward off the chill that had invaded the tiny room while they enjoyed the heat of another kind. By then, the cold of the windmill had a biting edge to it.

But it warmed as they slept, curled up together with Victoria securely in Diego's arms. The bitterness of sleeping so close to her cut through him as effectively as a knife. The fact that he knew that Victoria was faring no better than he was only heightened his anguish, and at the same time kindled a ridiculous hope surging in him. It proved beyond any doubt he might still harbor that Victoria loved him, both sides of the same man combined: the hero, and the piano playing poet. That knowledge was a sublime gratification among the ashes of reality.

They woke long before the night gave way, both feeling far less awkward with each other, and ravenous for the beans that Victoria had thoughtfully set aside to soften in water not long after they'd first arrived at the windmill. The small packet of herbs and spices that she habitually carried in her sash made the meager meal far more palatable.

“Always the cook, aren't you, Victoria?” Diego appreciatively commented as he took another mouthful.

“I learned this trick from my mother,” she cheerfully divulged.

“Too bad Sergeant Mendoza isn't here - he would like your mother's trick even better than I do.”

Victoria laughed just as appreciatively. “I'm not sure I would welcome his reaction to beans, though.”

Diego had to swallow his own laugh. “But his stories would be most... entertaining.”

Victoria laughed again. Diego couldn't be too despondent when that sound rang in his ear.

They slept again after eating the simple meal, as they were warmer when they slept. All the exercise Diego unknowingly got acted like their own personal fire; they were much more toasty inside than out, even if they did get to eat when they emerged from under the blankets.

The effect of eating beans luckily didn't strike them before the noise of somebody bursting loudly into their haven the following morning did. The previous sense of the windmill acting like their peaceful bubble against the chilling reality of the ice storm disintegrated as Don Alejandro abruptly ripped the blankets away from their curled, slumbering forms, letting in plenty of freezing air to jar Diego awake in seconds.

“Diego! Say something!” Alejandro commanded as he rudely shook Diego's shoulder. He turned to do the same to Victoria before his son had the chance to come fully awake. “Victoria! Madre de Dios, I think they're alive!”

Diego shivered and blinked the sleep out of his eyes, then slowly pushed himself to a sitting position. He had to blow warm air through his mouth for several seconds before the muscles in his cheeks would contract enough for him to form words. “Father?” He blinked again, dismayed at the sluggishness of his mind. He needed to be quicker than this if Zorro was to stay alive. His gaze slid away from his father to take in the Alcalde and his soldiers standing at attention just behind him.

“Mendoza?” He tried to smile at the sergeant, but his muscles were too cold for anything more than a grimace. Still, he thought to turn to his companion, their nightly conversation about their dinner in mind. “Hey, Victoria, look, it's the sergeant,” he slowly said and added to Mendoza, “We have some beans for you.” He thought to look at the pot that neither he nor Victoria had bothered to clean the night before. “At least, I think we do - we might have eaten them all.”

It was only then that he noticed that Victoria hadn't moved yet. He gave her a much harder nudge than his father had, but his muscles wouldn't obey his command to be any softer. “Victoria, wake up.” She didn't stir. “Victoria?” He nudged her again, just as hard. But that did nothing more than make his shivering muscles seize into agonizing knots. He instinctively tightened his muscles against the cold outside air, though they instantly grew tired from shivering for so long. He'd been cold under the blankets without even knowing it.

But now he could at least blink, which grew faster as his concern grew stronger. “Victoria!” He shook her a third time.

She feebly swatted at his hand with her own. “Goway!” she slurred. “Sleeing...” Her voice trailed off as she buried her nose back into the blankets.

Merciless, and much more awake now, Diego grabbed at her arms, yanking her close. “Victoria! You have to wake up!”

“Get the fire going again,” Don Alejandro tersely ordered the lancers at the same time. “Wrap her in the blankets we brought with us. Get something hot down her throat.” He turned to gently remove her from his son's arms. “Diego, we've got her now. It's alright. You kept her alive all night, somehow. Let us take her now.”

But Diego was too confused with all that was happening to listen, even to that gentle, familiar voice. He only knew that he loved her, and someone was trying to take her away from him much sooner than he'd expected. His father's cajoling only made him more determined to wrap his arms tighter around Victoria. “No! She needs to get warm!” He tried to pull the night's blankets closer to her, but his frozen muscles again refused to obey, and his useless fingers dropped the blankets, then dropped them again. He didn't understand it - his body had never been this unresponsive before.

Corporal Sepulveda wasn't as gentle as Alejandro when he pulled the sleeping Victoria to him and shoved Diego aside. Disregarding Diego's muttered, “Uh!” he wrapped several more blankets around Victoria and hauled her closer to the fire he'd just built up.

“Cover her head,” the Alcalde ordered, and Mendoza unceremoniously crammed his nightcap over her hair. He didn't seem to care that it was too big for her as it's brim immediately drooped to her ears. He vigorously rubbed her arms under the blankets. “Gomez - do the same for him!” He gave a nod to indicate Diego, who still appeared confused as to why he wasn't still cuddling Victoria close.

“Here, drink this, Son.” Alejandro thrust a cup of hot coffee into his hands as somebody rubbed his legs.

The heat suffusing his fingers almost made Diego immediately drop the cup, not to mention the irritating jerking back and forth of the person who was rubbing him. “Too hot!” he complained, though he never complained - at least, not out loud.

“It's only lukewarm,” Alejandro argued, closing his own fingers around Diego's. “Drink it - it will make you feel better.”

“But Victoria...”

“She's fine, Son. You did your job - now let us do ours.”

Diego blinked again, and Gomez abruptly stopped his rubbing. Diego obediently took a drink, and as a result, more sleep faded from his eyes. It was then that he remembered that he really didn't like coffee, and held the cup out for Gomez to take. But Gomez didn't respond to his gesture. “Don't want it - only drink hers,” he mulishly said, nodding to Victoria.

The Alcalde caught him before he could set the cup aside. “Drink it, de la Vega!” He gave Diego a harsh slap. “Drink!”

Diego didn't know what was wrong with this scenario. Wasn't he the one who usually slapped Ignacio? Or did he usually punch him? But before he could remonstrate the government official for his harsh treatment, the Alcalde had wrapped his hands around Diego's, tilting the cup so that the coffee poured into his mouth whether he liked it or not. “I told you to drink!”

Diego didn't have any other choice - he drank. It was either that, or let the coffee dribble down his chest. He was reasonably sure that he didn't want to get wet just now, as that would only make him colder, so he drank. The liquid his father insisted was only lukewarm felt hotter than the hottest fire on his throat. “It burns!”

The Alcalde wasn't sympathetic. “Drink it anyway!” and tilted the cup a second time.

Diego was again given no choice. He drank. But even as he grew slowly warmer, he couldn't forget his worry for his companion. “Victoria?”

“She's no longer your concern, de la Vega.” Ignacio de Soto's voice perfectly displayed his growing annoyance with Diego.

“She's always my concern,” Diego argued, as if this should be common knowledge. He pushed his empty cup towards the Alcalde, then crawled across the cold stone floor on hands and knees to Victoria's side. He shook the cobwebs of cold from his mind, vigorously rubbing her right arm, the only arm he could reach, as she was lying on her other. The bad news was that she was no more responsive than she had been before. The good news was that his own muscles were now moving much better since he'd had that coffee. Thinking more clearly by the second, his businesslike voice ordered, “Move her off the stone floor onto the grass, or she'll never get warm. The floor's as cold as ice.” He ought to know; he'd just been sitting on it.

The lancers ringing the fire did nothing to comply to the command, but instead looked to the Alcalde to see what they should do.

Which irritated Diego so much that he shoved Corporal Gomez back. “If you're just going to sit there, get out of my way!” He fluffed the grass bed that he and Victoria had shared the night before, then spread it out beside her still cold form. A heave later, and Victoria was lying on the grass before the fire, Diego again rubbing her arm with his hand. He didn't stop with her arm, but continued along the rest of her body. “Mendoza, help me,” he softly appealed, unaware in his concern for Victoria that he was using his deeper Zorro voice.

But what voice he was using hardly seemed to matter when she still didn't respond any more than to give a grunt. He pulled her upright so that she rested against his warmer chest, and now rubbed both her arms. “Rub her legs,” he told the sergeant. “We have to get her blood moving again, or she won't wake up. Father, please.”

Don Alejandro ended up rubbing Victoria's legs and feet when Mendoza didn't act fast enough for Diego's liking. “Give me some more of that warm coffee,” he told the lancers.

A scurry of red showed how he was quickly obeyed, despite the fact that these were the Alcalde's soldiers, not his. “Put more wood on the fire.”

The fire blazed hot for another few moments, but Diego refused to back off like the lancers did. Even his father waited for the flames to die down a bit before he continued his rubbing. Only Diego didn't stop.

“Come on, Victoria, wake up,” Diego muttered as the fire blazed and he rubbed even harder. Victoria's head rolled on his shoulder. “Wake up. Your customers need you.” He remembered at the last moment not to mutter that he needed her, too.

As an incentive, it worked. Victoria mumbled something that no one understood, blinked, then slowly sat up. “This not tavern,” she stated in confusion.

Diego didn't stop rubbing. “No. Remember, you're with me, in the windmill.”

Victoria's nose suddenly wrinkled in absolute distaste. “Not here again!”

“Again?” the Alcalde asked, suspicion loud in his voice.

Diego wished that de Soto wasn't so quick on the uptake. He and Victoria had managed to conceal their last adventure-by-windmmill, but if Victoria had her way, she would inadvertently give everything away. “No, this isn't our rooms in Santa Paula, not this time,” Diego said to her, making sure that his voice was loud enough for everyone to hear, not just Victoria. “We came here because of the storm. You made beans.”

“That's right, I made beans... and I kissed you,” Victoria muttered.

Fear for the unexpected revelation of his secret identity shot through Diego at her muttered words: it was well known fact that Victoria shouldn't kiss anyone other than Zorro. At everyone's sudden interest, he immediately returned, “No, Victoria, you must have me confused with Zorro. Remember, we talked about him.”

Victoria closed her eyes and furrowed her forehead with effort. “Yes, we talked... about Zorro. But he wasn't here.” She let her head fall back to Diego's shoulder, and Mendoza's night cap fell to the floor; the sergeant scooped it up. “You feel nice,” she next said to Diego, a smile curving her lips. “Much softer than the floor.”

Diego did his best to ignore the desire that flashed through him. “You're cold, Victoria. Drink this coffee to warm up.”

Victoria's nose wrinkled again at the smell of coffee that filtered from the cup in his hand. “Don't like coffee. I only drink it 'cause you do.”

Diego saw the Alcalde's brows shoot up once again, and sought to distract them all. “Drink it, Victoria - I'll drink if you do.”

“What a coincidence,” the Alcalde noted. “Neither of you like coffee, but drink it anyway.”

“Only because the other does, mi Alcalde,” Mendoza helpfully added.

Ignoring the men around him, Diego held the cup while Victoria took a drink, then sipped the bitter, lukewarm beverage, fighting the entire time not to make a face.

Victoria wasn't so inhibited. “I hope you like this better than I do, Diego. It's truly awful, as awful as...” She recalled enough of the situation to pause in her comparison to Zorro's Cactus Tea - he'd given it to her the day he'd proposed marriage. She obviously remembered the words she'd uttered on that day, as well as grown enough aware now to realize what she was about to reveal. However, her look of lucidity disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. “You're so warm.” And she buried her nose in his neck. “I think I'll stay right here. That alright with you?”

“Uh...” Diego fought not to react to the feel of her so close. He took a deep breath, but now he smelled her; he'd only made things worse. “I'm not Zorro, Victoria, remember? I'm Diego.”

Victoria just burrowed deeper. “Don't care. Zorro's not here, but you are.” And she smiled sappily into his neck.

An answering grin wanted to burst forth when she said that, but he made sure to keep the gesture inside. “I'll always be here, Victoria,” he whispered, using the guise of helping her drink again to cover the motion. Not giving her the chance to respond, Diego once again held the cup to her lips. “Drink just a little more.”

“Only if you do,” she stubbornly said.

“I will,” Diego placated, and drained the cup after she had drunk everything but the dregs.

Alejandro was still rubbing her legs. “Can she stand?”

“Let's find out.” Diego rose to his own feet, pulling Victoria along with him. She swayed unsteadily at first, but took on more of her weight with every passing minute. Diego, however, missed the way she'd leaned against him the moment she pulled away.

Then Victoria began to blink, wildly glancing at the people surrounding her, as if seeing them for the first time. “Diego? What is this?”

Diego instantly touched a soothing hand to her. “The Alcalde's men and my father found us.”

“None too soon, either,” broke in the Alcalde. “Another few hours, and you'd both have been frozen solid.”

“How did you find us?” Diego asked next.

His father answered, “We rode all the way to Santa Paula yesterday. When you hadn't taken rooms at Jocinto's Inn, I knew you were between Santa Paula and Los Angeles, hopefully holed up somewhere warm.”

“We checked everywhere,” Gomez helpfully added to the story.

“We never even made it to Santa Paula,” Diego told them. “I was worried that we'd get wet, then be too cold to warm up. When we found this windmill, I insisted we stay here.”

“Good thinking,” Don Alejandro interjected. “This is the first place we looked this morning.”

“You looked for us all that time?” a surprised Diego blurted. “Didn't you get wet in the ice yesterday?”

Don Alejandro winced. “How long have you been here, Diego?”

Vigorously rubbing Victoria's arms, Diego thought back; all the hours blurred together. “Since... sometime around 2:00? I think?”

“Madre de Dios,” Mendoza muttered. “To survive that long... and in such cold.”

“We had blankets,” Diego abruptly informed them. “Victoria thought to bring them... in case.”

The Alcalde barked his laugh. “Good thing someone was thinking, de la Vega. If left up to you, you'd no doubt be frozen!”

Victoria bristled at his deriding tone. “Diego kept us warm and alive! If not for him...”

“What Victoria means is that I simply remembered something I'd once read, that's all,” Diego rushed to say. Victoria obligingly fell silent, but the puzzled frown on her face paid homage to her confusion as to why he'd not take credit for saving them with his forward thinking.

“Well,” Alejandro said, reaching for Victoria. “Let's move this to our hacienda, where it's at least warm.”

“Good idea, Don Alejandro.” Mendoza's quick agreement had to be as much encouraged by his hope for breakfast as his concern for Diego and Victoria.

Alejandro gestured towards the door, then led the way outside. “We have horses for you - come.”

Diego followed his father to the door, his arm still wrapped protectively around Victoria's shoulders, all the while informing, “We have Victoria's horse and wagon in a barn behind the windmill - hopefully the animal fared well enough for us to ride back to the hacienda in the wagon bed - as long as someone else can drive. I don't think either of us is up to riding a horse just yet.” His rueful grin represented both himself as well as Victoria's stiff form beside him.

Walking behind his father like he was, Diego could only imagine how much damage the ice storm had done. He expected to see downed branches, trees uprooted by the night's howling wind, and grass that glittered with ice. Instead he stepped from the dreary confines that he'd known for almost a full day into a world of sparkling white.

“It snowed!” Diego's surprise was so great that he audibly gasped. It hadn't snowed in Los Angeles so that it stuck on the ground for years and years... since Alejandro's father had come to California. There was only that one time a few years before when Señor Jones came to the pueblo looking for 'young Jaime Mendoza' that he'd even experienced snow flurries. Now Diego greedily took in the powder coating everything in sight. It covered the trees, crowned nearby rocks, and clothed the ground. The world looked like a giant had taken a handful of sugar and blown it all over everything. Only the prints of his father and fellow Angelenos interrupted the sparkling blanket. Snorting, steaming horses impatiently waited in the cold air to one side of the windmill.

Both Diego and Victoria paused in the doorway to gape at the sight before them.

“It's not deep, only a dusting,” Alejandro told them, amused at their reactions. After another moment, the old caballero's businesslike attitude reasserted itself. “Come - let's see about that horse and wagon you mentioned.” And he strode towards the only other building in the area.

Still a bit unsteady in the slick footing, Diego allowed his father and Sergeant Mendoza to enter the barn without him, expecting to hear that Victoria's horse had not lived through the storm, despite his precautions of food and at least one warming blanket he'd tossed over the horse the day before. But no such call came, and a moment later, he watched as the sergeant and his father led the horse and wagon through the barn door and over to them.

“I'm staying with you,” Victoria stubbornly stated the second the wheeled vehicle stopped next to them. She leaned back into Diego, as if to prove her point.

Diego felt his answering smile at her words, but squashed the gesture. His gaze met his father's, then Mendoza's; both men seemed to understand, given the circumstances. “Alright,” he quietly agreed. Snow clung to his boots as he walked them to the rear of the wagon and crawled in, helping a stumbling Victoria to do the same. He was amazed at how stiff he still was, given that he felt much more agile than when he'd first woke.

“Here, you'll be a lot warmer if you lean into me,” Diego told Victoria as she joined him. Her teeth were noisily chattering again, but she managed to follow him into the wagon bed and unwind the blankets before handing them to him. He tossed them over his shoulders before inviting her to take up the same position they'd shared earlier in the windmill.

Victoria crawled towards him then, but looked at him a split second before turning her back to him so that he could include her in the cocoon of warmth that he was making. Their eyes locked for a second. His hand was still held out towards her, and she slowly took it, wrapping still cold fingers around his.

In that instant, the connection that they'd previously shared blazed forth again like a flame, powerful in its simplicity. Diego knew just as abruptly that Victoria was more aware of things than she was letting on. More importantly, she remembered more about their day and night together than she'd claimed. The look now in her eyes let him know that she remembered it all.

Then that shared look was over. He hauled her around in front of him, and she arranged her skirts so that her legs wouldn't get trapped by material. Mendoza silently helped Diego as he awkwardly wrapped tucked the blankets around them as best he could. He didn't say one word of admonishment to the young unmarried caballero currently snuggling with the female tavern owner, only called, “We're ready back here.”

Having already doused the fire inside the windmill, the lancers followed their Alcalde when he mounted a garrison horse. Don Alejandro climbed aboard Dulcinea, and the party set off.

They had been riding several minutes in the general direction of the de la Vega hacienda when Victoria tiredly leaned her head on Diego's shoulder. She didn't speak, which was good, since Sergeant Mendoza only sat a foot away in the jouncing wagon bed, but Diego instinctively knew what she was thinking. The hand she'd curled around his out of sight under the blankets helped him reach the proper conclusions.

He knew that in spite of the inconvenience of the situation, the cold, and even of almost dying of exposure, she still cherished every moment they'd spent together in the windmill. The squeeze she gave his fingers only solidified his mental suppositions.

Cautiously, but calmly, Diego gave her hand a return squeeze; he would treasure their time together too, as long as he lived.

The End


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