The Fight

by Linda Bindner

It all started on a normal, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. The punishment was swift and sure.

Don Diego de la Vega was completely unaware, sitting inside the library after lunch, working on his latest poem while waiting rather impatiently for the afternoon siesta. He had spent several hours the night before as Zorro, tracking a pair of renegade cattle thieves, and he was tired.

Without warning, the outside door suddenly burst open, letting in the warm, Spring air, and Victoria Escalante ran into the hacienda looking like the horrible things of all her nightmares were on her tail. A second later, the Alcalde followed her, and caught her, wrapping one steel-like arm around her middle, lifting her off the floor and swinging her to the side in one violent move.

Now I've got the perfect bait! he said, triumph in his voice, followed closely by the patrol of lancers he had led from the cuartel in the pueblo and Sergeant Mendoza. For her part, Victoria was putting up quite a struggle, twisting and pulling against DeSoto's harsh grip. But it was a lost cause; no matter how she struggled, she could not regain her freedom. She earned nothing but a calming slap on the cheek for her efforts.

Attracted by the noise, Felipe and Don Alejandro appeared in the dining room archway, concealed for the moment from the lancers whose entire attention was on Victoria, DeSoto, and Diego.

Slowly, seething with the force of his abrupt anger, Diego rose from the chair by the fireplace where he'd been sitting only seconds before. What's the meaning of this? he asked, clamping down hard on his anger. Such an emotion could easily drive him out of control, he knew.

But Victoria still twisted in the Alcalde's grip, even though one small hand lifted in surprise and pain to her cheek. A tiny sound from the back of her throat was the only indication that she had been struck. That, and the red mark that was blooming on her skin even as Diego spoke.

Mendoza looked nervous, as if he wished to be anyplace other than where he was. Uh, mi Alcalde, do you think this is such a good idea? He's going to be awfully angry.

DeSoto struggled for a moment against Victoria, but he held his grip. Oh, I'm counting on it, Sergeant. You see, an angry man is easier to beat. And when I have him, I plan to hang him!

There was no need to ask whom he was talking about. Zorro. It could be the only reason for the suffering currently undergone by the señorita.

Mendoza went on, But do you think using Señorita Escalante as bait is such a good idea? Inside he was practically dying of humiliation for his favorite cook and tavern owner. It isn't right somehow.

DeSoto snorted. What difference does it make if it's right or not? I'm tired of the cat and mouse game we've played for years, and the only bait sure to bring him into the pueblo is the señorita. Now, back to the horses!

As Diego listened, horrified at these sudden and unexpected turn of events, he tried to think of something he could do. There was no way he would let the Alcalde manhandle Victoria that way. He would divulge his identity first.

Which gave him a sudden idea. Perhaps it was the time to reveal everything. The Alcalde, his most ardent enemy, was already at the hacienda and willing, as he stated. His father was in the room. Victoria was present, though she was being detained at the moment. It was not the opportune time he had invisioned, but when had he ever truly gotten what he wanted?

The decision made, he called, Wait! to the Alcalde and his men.

DeSoto paused at the door in his dealings with the señorita. He was prepared to exit, but the commanding voice arrested him. This has nothing to do with you, de la Vega, he said, trying hard to breath against the wriggling in his arms.

In a lower voice than he usually employed, and letting his anger slowly seep through his otherwise controlled expression, Diego took a step forward. But it does concern me, was all he said through clenched teeth. He never took his eyes away from the struggling Victoria.

The Alcalde didn't appear to be listening. I said this doesn't concern you.

Anything that concerns Zorro concerns me, Diego went on, throwing the paper and quill he'd been using onto the cushion of the chair he'd just vacated. Angry beyond words, he shook as he tried to contain such anger, knowing that he would be of little use to Victoria if he let the emotion control his actions.

Understanding suddenly dawned on the Alcalde's face. Victoria was a bit slower, but her comprehension of the deception was right an DeSoto's heals. Then Mendoza, his father, and the lancers slowly understood the terrible truth.

Well, said the Alcalde, loosening his hold on Victoria only momentarily. Well, well, well. It looks like my plan worked better than I thought.

Diego took another step. Let the señorita go, he demanded.

But DeSoto would have none of that. No. Her imprisonment secures your cooperation, he spat, thrusting Victoria into the waiting arms of the nearest lancer and drawing his sword. You are under arrest.

Even held captive by strong hands, even having the sudden disclosure of her masked hero and love, Victoria truly looked horrified at DeSoto's option. In vain, she renewed her writhing, but couldn't get away.

Diego let a smile of steel penetrate his granite features, though all the while he kept part of his attention on Victoria. Why wait? he asked, seeming to sign his own death warrant. Why not end it all right here and now?

The Alcalde paused, though his sword point never wavered from Diego's chest. What do you have in mind? he asked, curious in spite of his own misgivings not to be. The truth was he couldn't resist something that sounded like a challenge, especially from the man known as Zorro.

Diego broadened his smile, allowing it to take on a cocky appeal that he knew would be irresistible to DeSoto. We fight. With swords. Right here, in the stable yard. Just you and me.

At the impulsive suggestion, both Alejandro and Victoria surged forward, yelling, Diego, no! at the tops of their lungs. Both were held back by lancers.

Slowly, the Alcalde's sword point lowered, to Diego's gratification. If I lose?

Diego's mind raced. This was his final opportunity, his one chance to rid the pueblo of this scourge. You climb aboard a ship bound for Spain and never come back. No complaints. No tricks.

DeSoto warily eyed his adversary. And if I win?

Diego allowed the smile to envelope his entire face. Just to make it impossible to resist, he gave his old schoolmate exactly what he wanted. I hang, at dawn tomorrow.

No! Victoria twisted again against her imprisonment, horrified, terrified at Diego's suggestion. Despite his unmasking, his option was anything but an option for her.

Diego was gratified by her reaction, but still kept half his attention on DeSoto. The Alcalde lowered his sword point the rest of the way, taking Diego up on the suggestion, giving in to his wildest dreams, as Diego knew he would. It's a deal, he said, quietly agreeing.

Alejandro wasn't so quiet. No, it's not!

Never taking his eyes off DeSoto, Diego loudly proclaimed, Yes, it is! He slid his body to face Felipe, but his eyes didn't move from the Alcalde. From here on out, they were dueling enemies. Felipe, can you please run and get my sword? he requested, calm and ready behind his furious tone of voice.

Felipe, surprised at his sudden calling, nodded his head in acquiescence to the requested chore nonetheless. He pushed his way through some surprised lancers, and passed Diego before hitting the door release in the fireplace to the secret cave. To everybody's astonishment, the door swung open on silent hinges and Felipe disappeared inside.

I should have known, DeSoto said when Felipe had gone. There was no way you could have fought so much without help.

Felipe has always been a loyal assistant, Diego said, confirming the idea without confirming anything.

He'll surely hang beside you for his complicity.

Wrong! Diego yelled, his voice loud in the room. Nothing will happen to him, my father, or Victoria. They will not be harmed because of their connection to me. Or there's no deal. That's the conditions under which I agree to fight.

The Alcalde seemed to be thinking hard about the deal, but the chance of hanging his nemesis was too much to resist. All right. Nothing happens to them.

Sergeant Mendoza, Diego said, still with only half his attention.

Sí, Don Diego? Mendoza asked, his respect evident in his tone.

Diego spoke once more. I entrust you to make sure these plans are carried out.

Mendoza shrugged his shoulders nervously but proudly under his military tunic. You can count on me, Don Diego.

Diego's voice softened, but his gaze remained hard. I knew I could. Trust in you has always been well-placed.

The Sergeant beamed at this unexpected praise, but by this time Felipe had returned through the secret panel, carefully carrying a black scabbard and sword that appeared so familiar.

With a movement that was equally familiar, Diego drew the sword in one fluid motion, pulling it from its sheath practically before the weapon was in his hand. Know that this gives me no pleasure, he said as the lancers parted and headed for the door.

DeSoto paused again on the threshold of the door. It really matters little what you want, he said, goading his enemy with the tiny jab.

What I want is everything, Diego negated, with one straight glance at Victoria. His mouth was a tight, grim line of controlled anger.

Victoria grimaced at the rough handling she was receiving, but had enough mastery of her features to send him a look of pure love out of her frightened eyes.

It was enough for Diego. As long as he had his Victoria, nothing seemed insurmountable. His sword point lowered so it wouldn't accidentally catch an unwary individual, Diego followed the lancer holding the writhing Victoria out the door, pursued closely by his father, Felipe, and the other lancers.

The stable yard quickly came into view, and the horses neighed at the sudden influx of strangers to their personal domain. The Spring rains hadn't begun yet, and the dirt was packed hard and even glazed white, like adobe or brick. A good place for a fight.

Sword points raised the second they were outside, Diego and DeSoto warily circled each other long before the stable yard came into view. But the yard offered them the room they needed to fight, and they stayed their hands long enough to reach the open before the Alcalde struck, swinging his blade around in a sudden blur.

Diego reacted instinctively, knocking the Alcalde's blade aside with ease as he slowly allowed the anger he felt to sweep down his sword arm. With a jerky movement, he saluted, angry but in control, bringing his sword up to his swinging hair before releasing the action. He was reminded of one of Felipe's lessons with the movement, and he abruptly thought that Felipe's idea to kill his opponent had merit. It was the first indication of how angry he felt for Victoria's mistreatment. He'd never wanted to kill before, and resisted the pull of the desire even now.

Not so for DeSoto. His face twisted by hate, he said, I'll see that you hang. Or I'll kill you even now! He lunged accurately, fueled by his emotions to make his moves the best sword fighting he had ever tried.

Tired out by the long night he'd been through as Zorro, yet fueled as well by anger, Diego fought poorly at first, executing the worst moves he'd ever made with a sword. To buy himself some time and energy, he slid the entire length of his sword up DeSoto's and couldn't keep the sneer out of his voice as he grabbed the Alcalde's coat, That's what you think. Now let Victoria go.

No! DeSoto promised, gleefully engaging Diego in a round of his best moves. She guarantees your good behavior.

Diego parried each move, glad to finally have an opponent worthy of his sword, even if he was already exhausted. Knowing that to broadcast such news to the Alcalde was suicide, he pretended not to be so tired as he said, She guarantees nothing. Haven't you been listening, Alcalde?

I've been listening, and she stays, DeSoto grunted, winded from his exertions.

She goes.

No. Rude, taunting, attempting to make his opponent angrier, DeSoto gave his own famous sneer. Why don't you make me let her go.

Diego pushed his sword up the length of DeSoto's again. Don't tempt me.

Hah! DeSoto insulted. I've been watching you, and you're too tired to make me. I'll release that tavern wench when I'm good and ready.

That was it. Diego couldn't calmly take any more such insults. He moved to go on the offensive. As much as I'm enjoying this... Diego blocked an attack, then halted the retreat that had been the head of his style, and attacked back, another fast look at a frightened, hurt Victoria leading his movements. For her sake, he would have to end this fight quickly.

He lunged, parried, and blocked with unprecedented, unseen speed. Pulling out all his memories of the lessons he'd been given while at the University in Madrid, he finalized the duel with a sudden, brief flick of his wrist and sent the sword flying, disarming the Alcalde.

Not confounded in the least to lose his sword, DeSoto quickly drew his pistol before he lost his footing and fell backward into the dirt. It's not over yet! he called.

Oh, but it is. Diego's calm tone of voice heralded the flick once more as he hit the Alcalde's wrist and the pistol fell harmlessly to the side. I've never really cared for guns. They're so messy.

Suddenly finding himself at the wrong end of a sword, and divulged of his obvious weapons, DeSoto still retained his dignity. Go on, kill me, quick, and be done with it!

Diego answered, Again, don't tempt me, Señor.

DeSoto ridiculed, You can't do it! Emissary Risendo was right - you are a coward! That's why Zorro never kills.

Diego raised the sword, the point drawn to the Alcalde's heart. Wrong again, Señor. When I received this blade, I swore that it would never feel the sting of blood. I plan to uphold that promise. Now get off our land and don't come back.

DeSoto twisted suddenly and, his movements a blur, threw the knife hidden in his boot.

But Diego reacted faster. With a mighty sweep of his sword, he met the knife in mid air and deployed its forward momentum into the ground on the left, where it could do no harm. Again the sword point was lowered and held at DeSoto's heart. We had a deal, Señor. Let's both be men and honor it.

With loathing just beginning to seep into his expression, DeSoto belatedly perceived what he had agreed to. His departure loomed uncomfortably before him. Show some mercy, he begged suddenly.

Diego turned hard. Furious, he retorted, Is that what you were showing to Victoria? No, I don't think so. Leave, now, while your life is still intact. And remember, that if I ever see you around Los Angeles again, I will kill you next time. Comprende?

Even DeSoto would not attempt to push aside such fury. It practically snapped from Don Diego's eyes, and DeSoto began to have an inkling of just what he had been fighting. His arms went up. All right. I'm going. You don't have to end my life.

But Diego wasn't taking any chances. Release Victoria!

DeSoto looked to the lancer holding Victoria, and he gave the barest of nods. The lancer's hands fell away, and Victoria was suddenly free. She stepped away from the threat the lancers posed, and in one swift movement on her part, she was in the safe circle of Diego's arm. Still the sword didn't lower. Now, go, Diego ordered in a low voice that carried to everybody.

According to the tone in that voice, DeSoto went, creeping out of the hacienda grounds to find his horse. The sergeant went with him, to ensure his departure, and at the last minute bidding of Don Diego. The lancers left immediately afterwards, intent on gathering their horses before returning to the cuartel.

Diego let his sword point fall to the dust before he slumped and knelt in fatigue, the duel taking its toll even on him.

An instantly worried Victoria reacted instinctively. Diego! She knelt beside him and quickly examined him. She found a scratch on his wrist, testimony to how close the Alcalde had come to beating him. Get me some water!

No. That's not necessary, Diego was quick to countermand the order, removing his arm from around her even as he removed his fingers from the sword. His hand was shaking and seemed suddenly to have a life of its own. Unencumbered, he shook it to work out some of its jitters. I'm fine.

The water was given, however, and Diego, secretly grateful, drank its coolness down a suddenly parched throat. The scratch on his wrist was bathed by someone, and even a clean bandage was pressed into his fingers, but he was busy furtively watching Victoria. Now that the excitement, the danger was over, he had to wonder if she had changed her mind.

Why don't we go inside, out of the dust? It was Don Alejandro's suggestion, naturally, but even his solemn voice seemed loud and out of place after the concentration required by the fight.

So they moved to the library, and Diego resheathed his sword and laid it in the corner, away from harming anyone. Then the questions began, and Diego no longer tried to pretend, speaking in his real voice, letting his true persona shine through.

It was too much. You know, Don Alejandro said at last, trying to assimilate all that Diego had told him, I'm overwhelmed. He looked overwhelmed, too, with wide eyes and an open mouth. Even his silvery hair was windblown and unkempt. I think I need some time alone to absorb this latest information. Why don't we leave for siesta, like we had planned, and meet again after a good amount of time alone to think?

Diego sat unmoving on the love seat, where he had parked himself upon entering the door. He noticed that Victoria had taken the single chair for herself and he was sitting next to Felipe. Well, he ruminated unhappily, the guilty should be seated together. She appeared discontent, and Diego had to believe that she was also unhappy with the revelations of the day.

With his suggestion in the air, Alejandro and Felipe both rose as one. They disappeared into the bowels of the house, intent on heading for their rooms and solitude. Diego wished he could join them; he'd never felt so tired before.

Instead, he raised his head until he could see Victoria completely, so terrified that he could think of nothing to say. The red bruise where DeSoto had hit her was raised and obvious in the pallor of her skin.

We should soak that injury, he said, standing finally and going to the wooden bowl of water that a servant had brought immediately upon their arrival in the library. He wrung out the small, white cloth that had also been offered, and carefully wiped at the mark on her cheek.

No, Diego, I'm fine. Really, she protested immediately, self-consciously, nervously pulling his hand away to cradle in her lap.

I'm sorry, Diego suddenly said. This is not the way I had invisioned telling you. Not so... abrupt... His voice trailed off to silence. Ignominiously, he sat on the rug at her feet, too exhausted now to move again.

Victoria sighed, and played absently with the fingers held in her lap. Did you plan on ever telling me?

Ever? Diego asked to be sure of what she had said. She nodded. Of course. When any danger had passed and I was certain of your safety. However long that might take, he added, then wished he hadn't.

Diego was right. However long? Victoria echoed, her voice sounding choked.

Miserably, he nodded. Now, he wished he had told her of his secret years ago. As long as it took to guarantee your safety. That was always the most important thing, the only thing, really.

Without warning, she moved from her chair to his lap and cradled his face in her hands. I know you're wishing you had told me sooner, but the damage of lost time is done. We can't go back. Now she had started to rub his cheeks with her thumbs. Diego wanted to close his eyes to better enjoy the sensation, but he didn't dare take his gaze from her. He wasn't sure he wanted to. What I said during your proposal is also true. Though, I will always mourn the lost time, I do love you, even without the mask. I know that's hard to believe, yet I said it then and I'm saying it now; I don't care who you are under the mask. I will always be yours, until eternity. Then, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, she added, I can't help loving you all the time, no matter who you are, though I'm glad beyond words that you're my best friend. I feel like I know you so well, that I've always known you, she insisted.

Wordlessly, too choked up to say anything, Diego could only envelop her in his arms. She slid into his embrace as if she had always been there, as if he had been holding her forever. Perhaps he had. When he could finally speak, all he could say was, Victoria. Sweet Victoria, before his voice broke on the sound of her name, and he thought with antipathy that he might do something as ignoble as cry. With hands shaking from too much pent-up emotion, he stroked her hair methodically, as if the movement could calm them both. He had done the same thing when he proposed marriage. But this time he bent to kiss the top of her head, adding the extra endearment as if he couldn't quite help himself, as if there was much more he wanted to do.

Eventually she drew back, her cheeks now shining with tears, and she laid her forehead against his. Thank you, Diego, she whispered, overcome by emotion herself. I've never had two men fight over me before. And thank you for choosing me in the first place.

How could I refuse? he asked, whispering as well. Now they were both crying, and Diego found that he didn't care if he made a fool of himself. He hoped he would be spending the rest of his life feeling foolish. How could I stay away from the woman I love more than life itself?

And then he leaned down, she looked up, and he kissed her, his breathing already ragged. Victoria felt like a slip in his arms, slim, petite, and full of love. All at once he realized that his father had suggested leaving to not only think about all that he had been told, but to give his son and Victoria some much needed space and privacy for talking. He knew that was all it would take. Alejandro was one smart older man.

Both Diego and Victoria felt the building desire that had always accompanied their endearments lately, and they were forced to break off the kiss before their passions could claim them. But this relationship, this being together without the confining spirit of the mask, was still too new, too raw, too exciting. Another kiss led to even more ragged breathing, and Diego felt himself begin to inadvertently react to her closeness. But he was loathe to give her up; she felt warm, soft, and malleable in his arms, something that he had never experienced before. He tightened his embrace around her shoulders, and whispered into her hair, How I love you.

Victoria didn't quite know what to think of such a sudden and strong declaration aimed in her direction, but she did know that she was glad it had turned out to be him. She trusted Diego implicitly, and easily fell in love again with her best friend. Thank goodness it turned out to be you, she said, and hugged back even harder.

Victoria and Diego ignored the re-emergence of Don Alejandro and Felipe into the library an hour later, having eyes only for each other. And both the rancher and his servant knew that this was how it was supposed to be.


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