Letters

by Linda Bindner

Diego sat in his chair behind his desk, the cave opening up wide before him as he grew more and more lost in thought. The day that he had just lived through prompted introspection, he realized, and he was thinking a great deal as he sat in the oak chair that had belonged to his grandfather. The cold air of the cave seeped in to his bones, but he hardly noticed.

He was lucky to be alive at all, he knew. The day that Emissary Risendo had unexpectedly arrived in Los Angeles had done nothing to foretell how important the evil man would come to be to Diego, and now, even after he had been held at gunpoint by the man who had turned out to be his own brother, the subsequent death of that Emissary was still undeniably traumatizing. Diego felt like he had been struck a blow to his stomach, and the events of the rest of the afternoon hadn't helped him to stabilize the tilting feeling that had invaded his mind.

His father had seen the sword fight with Gilberto Risendo, had then asked the question concerning the high level of skill he had witnessed coming from Diego as he had fought for his life left-handed against the man he had come to revile. Such ability had to have an explanation, as did Risendo's last words, uttered as a threat to Diego's secret identity as Zorro, the masked legend and savior of the pueblo. Don Alejandro had inquired about who his firstborn son had been talking about when he had muttered maledictions at not only killing Diego, but also... And then he had died, brought down by a bullet from the Alcalde's pistol.

That had led to the trip into town, where soldiers had taken the body to the pueblo undertaker, where Ignacio DeSoto had resumed control of the tiny coastal village, where Diego himself had announced his surprising desire to adopt Felipe, which had then led to Don Alejandro's question... and Diego had confessed everything after being asked point blank by his father if he was Zorro or not. He found that he could not lie to his father, not when the question as to the maked man's identity was lying, bare, out in the open as it was. Alejandro had already suspected the truth, anyway. And thinking about the repercussions of telling Alejandro had led Diego to the cave to think about telling Victoria, which had led him to considering the events of the last few days, which in turn had led him to his present thoughts.

It always amazed Diego how fast events in life could unfold. He knew that it could have easily been himself whose life had tragically ended that afternoon instead of the man claiming to be his twin brother. The event did, however, impress upon Diego the fragility of life in general. That was why he was considering his role as Zorro, which inevitably led his thoughts to considering Victoria, who was as linked to Zorro as she could be. Diego had never been as angry as he had been when he thought the Emissary had kidnapped Victoria and taken her before the Inquisitor General in Monterey. The moment had been an eye-opening experience for Diego; never before had he been so forced to acknowledge how much he cared for Victoria. If anything, he could at least thank his brother for that.

The mishap, however, was the reason behind his thoughts now. Since he so clearly did care for Victoria, and cared deeply, he had to decide what he should do about such a situation. He had so many options, it made his head spin. But chief among those possible routes was the idea that had been dropped into his lap by the Emissary himself, ironically enough. That evil man had tried to bury Zorro alive just that afternoon in Diablo Canyon. He would have succeeded, too, if not for Toronado's skill at moving aside the rocks and boulders that had buried his master. In conjunction with the idea that life was fragile and one never knew when the end was coming, it wasn't too long for Diego to start considering how his particular life was delicate, too, and that events were not exactly turning out according to his wishes. He wished to be married by now, when he was coming up on his thirty-first year. Specifically, he wished to be married to Victoria.

To achieve that, Zorro had to die. What better opportunity for a death than at the Emissary's hands in Diablo Canyon? The evidence of a landslide was still there, and all he had to add was a torn piece of his cape or a boot or a glove to encourage the townsfolks into believing that he had been killed by the Emissary. The only problem with this idea was that Victoria would also have to believe it, and believing such a thing would undoubtedly lead her to extreme sorrow, and Diego did not want to hurt her if he could help it. But could he?

Diego decided to ask what his father thought about the plan. He would need help in carrying it out, anyway (someone had to be responsible for planting the rumor in the pueblo), and who better to ask than Don Alejandro, a man who already knew of the secret identity? Diego couldn't just ask Felipe to spread the news of Zorro's 'death' in this case. Besides being unable to speak, how could he expect the people to buy the intelligence of Felipe, a servant? As a mute, how would Felipe even get their attention to begin with? As much as Diego didn't agree with the conviction that servants weren't people in their own rights, many did believe such an idea, and Felipe wasn't respected enough to be heeded. Diego may not like it, but that was the truth of the situation. No, for this plan to work, it would have to be initiated by Don Alejandro, whether Diego liked it or not. And Diego had always been a pragmatist if he had been anything.

So, he mentally as well as physically prepared for his own 'death' at the hands of an Emissary bent on destroying the one man who had championed the people more than any other.

Z Z Z

It was relatively easy in the end. Don Alejandro went to the location of the landslide in Diablo Canyon, used a wedge to replace any rocks that obviously showed how narrow an escape Zorro had enjoyed, covered any tracks leading away from the sight of the slide, then took a dust-covered glove back to the pueblo with him as he patronized the tavern, undeniably the most well-visited spot in Los Angeles and the gathering place of the most people who would then spread the news of the 'death' caused by the sudden landslide. Diego stayed at the hacienda, not wishing to be seen and somehow linked to the devastating news, but also a bit nervous as to Victoria's reaction to the revelation. It was good that he missed it, for those currently in the tavern, including Don Alejandro, Sergeant Mendoza, and the Alcalde, were summarily asked to leave the minute the rumor was told and the dirty glove was in her hand.

The day that followed this new development was dismal in both mood and weather. Rain threatened from the dark, cloudy sky, and more tears than Victoria's covered the stones of the central fountain in the plaza. Diego stayed on Esperanza at the main city gate, but he had a good view of Victoria's collapse onto the blocks of stone that made up the water reservoir when she was asked by the gossips of the day concerning the landslide and what she planned to do now that Zorro was dead. Her genuine grief and her reaction to the gossips' questions only solidified Diego's belief that he didn't want to witness firsthand the anguish prevalent in the señorita. Such devotion was heartening to the young nobleman on horseback, but it was equally as devastating. It was all he could do to watch and not approach Victoria with the confession of his identity then and there. Such a divulgence would have had disastrous consequences, as Victoria needed to fully believe in her hero's death, since she was surely being watched by not only Alcalde DeSoto, but also by a ravenously curious citizenry as well.

That point, however, did little to alleviate Diego's sense of guilt at her suffering. As he thoughtfully rode home that day after perceiving Victoria's grief-stricken mood, he determined that he couldn't live with himself, knowing that he had been the cause of Victoria's sorrow. He had to tell her the truth, though such a disclosure was dangerous, as her mood would undoubtedly reflect her new knowledge. But it was a risk he would have to take; he didn't know what else to do. He could only caution her against revealing too much with her conduct and warn her not to show that behavior to the pueblo's citizens, and most importantly, not to confirm the suspicions of the Alcalde. He was most notably the most disbelieving man in the entire pueblo. But that man seemed to be believing the incredible news as he went about his business of running the garrison and the town. His conviction of the news, or of the Emissary's capabilities to trick somebody, was as clear as Victoria's apparent affliction. Yet Diego didn't want to rely on the possible opinion of the Alcalde, so he knew he would have to be very careful about how he told his secret to Victoria.

Unless he didn't want to tell her, yet? Diego hung his head and it rang with all the options he had to consider. To tell her, or not to tell her. Diego grinned to himself and finished the quote: 'that is the question.'

Which brought him to a new problem; how to tell her. Should he ride into the pueblo and have a little chat with Victoria, owning up to his double life? Should he send Felipe with the news of his unexpected resurrection? His father?

Or perhaps he should write a letter to her, skipping over the part where he acknowledged his identity until a later time when he could better ascertain her reaction to the news? It was a cowardly way to handle the problem, but Diego was more than ready to concede the point that hurting Victoria was something that he didn't wish to do, and that the exquisite tavern owner's reaction to his identity had always been the one thing that terrified him the most. He would rather face the entire garrison than the señorita and an unpleasant response to his information.

So the minute he reached the hacienda, without saying hello to his father or Felipe, he entered the secret cave through the fireplace in the library and sat down at his desk to compose a letter to Victoria.

Dearest Victoria,

Please don't be alarmed at my concession to being alive and well enough to write a letter, and please do not suffer any longer on my account. It gives me great pain to know that I've brought you distress, as I certainly witnessed today in the pueblo.

Yes, I'm real, I'm alive, you know me, and I saw your sorrow today at the fountain in the plaza. Nothing cut me more than to behold your misery at the news of my 'death.' Only your misery exceeded mine. But you should know that my 'death' is a trick to finally allow me to live the life I've been putting off for years, to finally claim your hand in marriage (if you still desire such an occurrence. I admit that it's not a good idea for me to assume anything at this juncture), and to finally escape the constant threat of the Alcalde's gallows while I still have a life to cherish and protect. The death of Emissary Risendo (a corrupt man, admittedly, but may he rest in peace) taught me that I shouldn't predicte the continued good fortune that I have always enjoyed up to this point in my career as a defender of justice, nor should I take this gift of life too lightly. Hence, my 'death' was necessary. The landslide in Diablo Canyon that the Emissary caused was too convenient of a way to 'kill' Zorro to pass up. I did, however, need you to fully believe in that 'death,' but I am also supremely sorry for causing you to endure such heartache on my account. Yet I did need for you to believe the worst, as I know that you are sure to be watched by the Alcalde and his men, and it is them that I have to convince of my demise at the hands of the Emissary. But please forgive me if I harmed you in any way. That was certainly not my intention when I thought of this incident.

You may be angry, furious, even, for being a victim of this subterfuge, but realize that if you had known of my continued existence, if I had told you everything beforehand, I could not have guaranteed your cooperation in the scheme. I already have more people involved in this conspiracy than I wish; I certainly did not want to involve you if I could help it, for you are the most important person alive to me, and I don't wish to see you next to me on the Alcalde's gallows if this trick doesn't work. Therefore, I knew I couldn't tell you anything, for if you knew nothing, then you could say nothing. But now I find that I can't bear your hurt at my own hands any longer. I could never willingly cause you heartache. Now I need to discover if you can convincingly act for the town, the Alcalde, everybody, and persuade them that you are in the throes of grief over my death when in actuality you'll know that I'm watching you closely and will comfort you when I can, but am as trapped by this idea as you are. Though now seems to be the time when I can solidly affirm that I have loved no one but you, and will always love you, no matter what happens in the upcoming days. Please, I need you to play the bereaved señorita for me if this plan is to work. More than ever before, I need your help, your regard, and, God willing, your love.

Yours forever,

Zorro

For a second, Diego contemplated signing his real name to the appeal, but he once again grew too afraid at the last minute. A divulgence of the secret identity was definitely in the future for him and Victoria, but he didn't have the courage to divulge it at the moment. He only hoped that she would not be too angry at his trickery, at her unwitting involvement in the matter, or her entanglement in the scheme at the last minute. He wanted to stay alive now that he had machinated his 'death,' and he had no wish to experience Victoria's inevitable wrath if he could avoid it. It was a cowardly way to handle the situation, he knew, but he also valued his life too much to endanger it by having to avoid the kitchen implements she was sure to throw around her tavern when she found out about his ultimate deception.

What he certainly didn't expect was a reply to his original message, but that's exactly what Felipe and his father brought home from Los Angeles that day, with the belief that they would do their utmost to deliver it into the proper hands as soon as possible.

The letter held words that Diego would rather have read at any other time, and in just about any other form other, than how she chose to convey her message.

Zorro,

You're alive? And you're worried that I'm angry? Livid is a better word. Do you expect me to act according to your wishes when I have done little more than sit in my bedroom and cry over you for the last two days? I'm worth more than that, and so is our relationship. Oh, excuse me... a man in love would never cause such sorrow in his chosen lady.

Victoria

The letter positively dripped sarcasm and a wish to cause hurt in the individual reading it. It succeeded if that was Victoria's aim when she wrote it. Diego felt instantly despondent and depressed from the moment he read that letter from her. He had gambled and lost; she was heartily angry, as he had always feared she would be. Any hope to reconcile with her now seemed hopeless.

He spent the day feeling sad and melancholy as he wandered fruitlessly from room to room in the hacienda, lost in thought again. Finally, he went to the secret cave in order to be alone, away from his father and his questions, from Felipe and his sympathetic expressions, and from the ever-helpful servants. After making sure to be alone in the secret cave, Diego was glad for that solitude; now he could deal with his grief in his own way. Diego felt his heart that had recently dropped to his toes at her words beat painfully with the reality of the situation he found himself in. He didn't cry, but he might as well have according to his despairing attitude. By trying to live the life he had only dreamed of for the past several years, he had done the one thing that had insured his unhappiness. Diego spent a very uncomfortable and lonely time.

Then, that evening right before supper, his father returned from his trip to the bank in Los Angeles (two trips to the tiny town in one day was unusual, certainly, but necessary when Alejandro totally forgot his original reason for going to the pueblo when he held Victoria's first letter in his fingers) bearing money for the upcoming month's expenses as well as another letter for Diego from Victoria. With undeniable trepidation, Diego broke the seal on the letter after he was left alone in the library to read her words.

Dear Zorro,

You should completely disregard my first letter. I was angry at the time, too angry to think about the effect of my words, let alone consider how you would take them. Now, I cringe at just thinking about your reaction to those thoughtless statements.

I'm sorry. That's all I can do, apologize and hope you get this letter before you spend too much time feeling hurt. Just know that I didn't mean any of what I said. Well, I meant what I said at the time, but not now, not anymore. I'm sorry again. My first reaction to just about everything is to get angry, and then to think later. I'm cursed with the Escalante temper for life.

Now that I've apologized, I can only pray that you'll forgive me for those hasty words that were thrown down on parchment during what was a busy lunch hour (yes, the tavern was open for business, but you already know that, as Don Alejandro apparently delivered my first letter. I could not afford to let the tavern be closed for more days than one, even for you, much to my regret when I got up this morning.) On the other hand, the Alcalde noticed my misery early on this morning, but that was before I knew about your 'resurrection'. (And yes, you can count on me to act as much as you need me to. The thought of doing so in the event of imminently being with you on a permanent basis will hopefully make my performance even that much more believable)(For you, I would do anything. Fooling the entire pueblo is a small price to pay for you to be alive.)

You do realize, don't you, that now I will have my eye on every man who wears a mustache who I come across, and wonder about his possibly being you? I almost can't stand not knowing who you are now, but you're right, it is too dangerous for me to know. If I did know, I'm not sure I could keep my hands to myself. What a dead giveaway that would be. Oh, forgive me a small pun at this situation's expense. My father taught me to love puns, and I always have, ever since I was a small girl. Though I do see a more cynical meaning in them than my father ever intended me to. I hope you don't mind.

Okay, I'm rambling, which means that it's time for me to end this letter, not to mention that I should end this siesta, open the tavern, and start supper. But I will always be on the lookout for men with mustaches.

Sergeant Mendoza has a mustache...

Love always (you have my forgiveness, too)

Victoria

P.S. I only broke one dish over lunch, a new record low for when I was too angry to see straight, and that time was an accident, I swear!

She broke a dish? Victoria had been angry. Truthfully, he had persuaded himself that her reaction, though it had played out much faster than even he had expected, and he hadn't anticipated her to be as forgiving as she was, had been what he always feared if not desired. It did, however, considerably lift his mood, not to mention make him start thinking about a reply as soon as he could write one. However, its delivery would have to wait for the morning when Felipe had time to ride into town again. To deliver his letter himself meant too much danger at this critical point in the Plan.

Diego started in on writing a reply as soon as he could retire to his room after supper.

Dearest Victoria,

Before I forget to mention anything, please continue to use Don Alejandro as a go-between for your letters. He makes the most sense, as you know and like him, he's likely to help you in anything you do, and he has always supported what I do for the pueblo. It's time to trust in him, for a change.

Now that that's done... I love your puns, I love your temper, and I love you. You can yell at me all you want in the future. As long as we're both alive, I won't care if I hear your angry voice all the way from here to the pueblo.

So, who am I? I assure you that I'm not Sergeant Mendoza, but you're right, he does have a mustache. He and I have shared meals though, from time to time. I'm ashamed too admit it now, but I bought him meals many times in the past in hopes of giving him time to spill any valuable information he knew. I did, however, always enjoy those meals, especially that part about enjoying your cooking again. I have certainly eaten enough meals at the tavern over the years to highly compliment you on your profession. Los Angeles is more than lucky to have such a talented woman run its only tavern.

What else besides puns did your parents teach you? I know that they didn't have time to teach you much, but there must be other family traits that you and your brothers inherited. I myself inherited good horsemanship skills from my own family, and hope to pass those skills on someday. It would be a pity if that trait ended with me. (Not to mention that Toronado probably wouldn't be too happy about it.)

I'm glad that you only broke one plate in your anger today. Even if it was an accident, a record low is something to be proud of. And I'm not worth such a temper, either. But you are.

Yours forever,

Zorro

Z Z Z

The letter was delivered the following day, but Diego didn't get Victoria's reply to that letter until the next morning. Even according to Don Alejandro, the family members had been in town too many times, lately. The draw of a new letter wasn't enough to bring any of them into the pueblo for no reason whatsoever.

But the following day, Alejandro accompanied his son and Felipe into Los Angeles to get lunch at the tavern. They had been there barely five minutes before Victoria was motioning to the kitchen in back with what was a surreptitious shake of her head. She left through the curtains, looking like she planned to gather another lunch order, and Alejandro rose a few minutes later to follow her. But Diego stopped him.

No, I'll go and see about our lunches, he suggested, and whispered, and anything else.

Alejandro quirked an eyebrow, but didn't say anything aloud. Diego pushed the curtain aside and knocked on the doorframe, then softly called, Victoria? just as he always did, hoping to waylay any suspicion of those patrons of the tavern who were watching the scene unfold.

Victoria's head jerked around, but otherwise she moved much more slowly than she normally did. There was also an expression of the deepest sorrow on her face, and if Diego didn't know that she knew better, he would have said he was staring at a woman consumed by grief.

Oh, Diego, I didn't hear you come in, she explained halfheartedly, and looked dejected even as he noticed her gaze slip along the mustache he wore.

I came to check over our lunch orders, he said, and motioned back towards the outer room. Father sent me... Then he saw the deep shadows etched under her eyes. Are you all right? he asked.

Victoria nodded, then sniffed. She held out a folded piece of parchment with nothing written on it to indicate who it was for. Can you please see that Don Alejandro gets this? she requested just as tears began to spill convincingly down her cheek.

Victoria! Diego exclaimed in just as convincing horror. He held out his hand, seeming to want to offer her what comfort a friend could.

She stopped him. Wiping a finger across her eyes, she said, No, I'm all right, Diego. Can you just please see that Don Alejandro gets this letter? Now she was silently crying in earnest, the tears running unchecked down her cheeks.

Watching her cry was almost more than Diego could bear. His fingers shook as he reached out to take the piece of parchment in her hands. He tried for an unaffected tone, but had to clear his throat before he achieved it. Anything you say, but what is it? he asked.

It's... She faltered. It's personal, she whispered, then seemed to make a great effort to gather her faculties together. She straightened her spine and drew in a deep breath. I'll be fine. There's no need to worry about me, though it's kind of you to do so.

Of course I will give it to him when we get home, Diego replied, then added, That's what friends are for. He took a step towards the curtain, then remembered his father's and Felipe's lunch orders, and collected them as quickly as he could. Then he turned to Victoria and asked, If you're certain you're all right..?

She nodded again. I'll be fine in a moment. I just need some time... Her voice trailed off into silence, and she shook her head, then dried her cheeks with a towel that was wrapped around her waist. I'll bring your order out in a moment, Diego. There's no need to come back in and fetch it yourself. She appeared calmer, but still anxious. I'm sorry. Sometimes I'm okay, then I'm not. But it never takes more than a few minutes for me to get back to normal again. She breathed once, then blinked. Thank you, Diego. You're a good friend to worry about me so.

Throwing himself into the part he'd chosen to play, he patted her comfortingly on her arm. If there's anything I can do for you, Victoria...

She interrupted him with a firm shake of her head. No, thank you. Just please see that your father gets my message.

Diego glanced down at the letter he'd laid aside on the counter while he gathered their lunches. Now he picked it up and pushed it into the sash he was wearing. The moment we return home, he promised.

Victoria gave a watery smile, and said, Thank you, Diego.

You're welcome. Diego paused at the curtain to say, Los Angeles is lucky to have such a woman running its only tavern. Don't you forget that.

Diego thought he saw Victoria give a little shiver at his words, but he wasn't sure; she collected herself so quickly. Thank you for such solid support, Diego, she said as she sniffed again, and smiled stronger yet. I'll remember that.

I bet you will, he thought to himself, but only nodded his farewells. Then he was gone, leaving her to her thoughts as he went back to the cheerful and boisterously loud main room.

He carefully lowered the steaming food before his father and Felipe. Victoria said she'd bring a plate for me in a moment, he said as he resumed his seat at the table they had chosen.

That's fine, Diego, Alejandro stated, then began cutting into his enchilada. I hope you don't mind if we don't wait? he asked, though his fork was already half way to his mouth.

Diego brushed his father's concerns aside. No, I don't mind at all. Ah, Victoria. Thank you, he said. She had stopped by their table in her typical rush around the main room at lunch, holding his order in her hand, like she'd promised. He reached out and received his warmed plate from her. This looks excellent, as usual, he said to her, then added, But be sure to take care of yourself.

Victoria nodded. I will. You can see that I'm fine already. And then she was gone, off to tend her other customers despite still looking worn, drawn, and sad.

A bit more openly than he was used to, Diego watched her talk to her patrons. While she spoke and behaved with less sparkle than she usually did, the men currently in the tavern responded to her evident beauty with flirtatious language of their own. They smiled, tilted their heads in a beguiling manner, kissed her hand... They were far more obvious with their attitudes than Diego had ever seen them behave when Zorro was known to be alive. As he watched, pangs of jealousy shot through his stomach, and he suddenly found that he was no longer hungry, even for Victoria's cooking.

The feeling of rivalry was new enough to him that it took him by surprise. He wasn't used to competing with anyone but the masked man for Victoria's affections. Now, however, it was clear that others hoped to win her favor with Zorro known to be gone and unable to stop such events from happening.

Ridiculously angry, and aware that he was being highly unreasonable, Diego growled low in his throat and pushed his plate aside.

Alejandro glanced up in surprise. What? You're not eating?

Diego glared unhappily at his father for a moment, then turned to look at the complacent Felipe. No, I'm not hungry anymore, was all he said.

Z Z Z

Diego dealt with his unforeseen mood the moment he got home. Without even taking the time to read Victoria's letter, he sat down at his desk in the secret cave and began writing a message of his own.

Dearest Victoria,

I don't quite know how to explain myself to you except by being completely honest; I confess that I haven't read your letter yet today. Know that my strange attitude has nothing to do with you, only with what I'm feeling right now. I'm jealous, I admit. My current emotions are not your fault at all - you did nothing wrong - but I have to say that I'm surprised to be jealous right now. I've never been jealous before. Well, of course I've been jealous before, but it's always been of the way the mask kept us apart, not of the other men of the pueblo. Today, however, is a different story.

I was in the tavern today for lunch, certainly a busy time for you and the tavern, and I noticed something different that I've never seen before: there were other men paying attention to you. They never have before... at least, they haven't paid you romantic attention. My only conclusion must be that the name of Zorro did more than cause fear in the Alcalde's heart. It kept everybody else in line as well. Now that he's known to be dead, you must be considered available again, and I admit that I don't like how those men are behaving particularly well. Has it been like this all week? How do you deal with all that extra attention? I'd become impatient with it after awhile, I think.

Now that you know I'm surprised and slightly horrified at myself, I'll read your letter, though I'm hardly feeling calm enough to do so. Perhaps it will be the thing to make me feel more peaceful this afternoon.

Yours forever.

Zorro

As soon as Diego finished the letter and addressed it, he took Victoria's message from his sash where he had hidden it and laid it out on his desk. Within seconds, he had pulled it open and was reading every word she had written as if they were jewels to be treasured and not just words on parchment.

Dear Zorro,

I'm not sure what traits I and my brothers inherited besides the propensity to get mad at everything first, and think later. That, and a severe disliking for injustice, but you already know about that, since I've gotten into trouble for it so many times in the past. You would think that after being inconvenienced (such as being arrested)(That's an inconvenience?) so often that I would learn to keep my mouth shut, but I guess not. I'm outspoken if I'm anything, and so are my brothers, so you could probably say that we inherited that trait from our parents, too.

Something I thought of just last night and I wanted to ask you about - what of Toronado, now that I remember him? Is he just standing around or are you exercising him when no one is looking? I'm just curious, but it seems that he's important, and easy to forget about because he just always seems to be around. I mean, not many people spend much time thinking about their horse. And I know what a good horseman you are. Everybody does. You're not just good, you're great. At least, that's what I've always thought.

I know you're not Sergeant Mendoza - I hope you were joking when you said that. I've seen you and the sergeant standing together as often as I've seen the Alcalde post his new taxes (which means a lot). But we're both right in that he does have a mustache. But your's is cuter.

You spent time buying Mendoza meals in the hopes that he would give you information as to what was going on at the cuartel? I think that's extremely smart, not something to be ashamed about. Though I will probably never see Mendoza in quite the same light again. Now I will always wonder what he can tell me. The only people I can think of who spend a lot of time with Mendoza are Diego de la Vega and Corporal Sepulveda. You're not the corporal, as he doesn't have a mustache. That leaves Diego, who does have a mustache. That makes me wonder...

If you are someone who is perfectly ordinary (as if you could ever be ordinary), who would that be? You know that I'll be extremely curious, now, and looking at every man I see, but you already know that's what I plan to do.

Diego paused in his reading to fully appreciate the terror he was feeling at her coming so close to guessing his identity. If she was already speculating, he knew this wasn't the last time he was going to hear about the subject, either. Part of him wanted her to discover him, and part of him was too frightened by the same prospect to dwell at all on the possibility. One thing he did know, however, was that he was going to have to be extra careful each time he was around Victoria in the future, and it was probably not a good idea for them to be alone together again. He just might inadvertently slip, especially if she cried in front of him again. Victoria may be a better actress than he had ever known she could be, but as good as she was, and as much success as he had enjoyed over the years at pretending to be far more inept than in actually, even his acting skills had their limitations. A crying woman was one of them.

Diego couldn't help but appreciate her last statement, though, especially in light of the letter he had just finished writing, detailing his jealousy over the attention she was going to receive from every male in the pueblo. That was an effect of Zorro's death that he had not anticipated. To add to the injury to his heart, Victoria was going to be busy staring at every male wearing a mustache who came into her tavern. He didn't mind if she stared at him, but the idea of her staring at other males made his skin crawl.

Diego laughed at both her comment and at himself, if a little bitterly. He wasn't sure how he felt about the idea that it was actually his fault that Victoria might be paying more attention to every man who walked into her tavern in the future. Contrarily, it would be an excellent reason for more men to be falsely encouraged to flirt with her. The situation he had created was ironic, and infuriating, and terrible, and amusing all at once. But it did make Diego more determined than ever to tell her the truth, and soon. He just hadn't figured out how to do that while Ignacio DeSoto was also the Alcalde of Los Angeles. It was an irritating problem that he would have to spend more time considering in the near future. But he preferred to spend his time thinking about Victoria rather than Ignacio DeSoto, he had to admit.

Chastened, Diego turned his attention back to Victoria's letter, and continued reading.

Since you come into the tavern often enough to see what I see, you already know most everything about me. I like to cook, take care of people (though I've often wondered if I naturally like to take care of people, or if it's become part of my personality because I now run the tavern), read, watch the waves at the ocean (though I don't have much time to do this - the tavern takes up most of my energy), quilting (my mother taught me how when I was young, though I don't get to quilt at all anymore), doing my accounts, and spending time with you (though I also don't get to do this very often because something always seems to interrupt us). I don't like injustice (but you already know that), washing dishes (though I will), doing laundry (though I'll do that, too, because it has to be done by somebody, and it might as well be done by me), Alcalde DeSoto (isn't it obvious?), and being told to be quiet and more ladylike. Who was it that said a lady had to be quiet, anyway? That's why I make it a point to always say what's on my mind; I know that some people don't like to hear my opinions on everything (especially on politics), but I can hardly help it - I've tried to be quiet before, and it doesn't work. It just makes me cranky, and who wants a cranky tavern owner?

I should go and do the dishes so that I'm ready for tomorrow, but you know what I think about that idea. Maybe I'll leave them until tomorrow - always put off what you can until tomorrow, right?

And in case I haven't told you before, I really like writing letters to you - it makes me look forward to every day, and I never used to do that. I love you, and good night (I'm writing this at night, if you haven't already guessed.)

Love always,

Victoria

Diego laid the long letter on the ink blotter on his desk and stared at the piece of parchment for a time, thinking. It seemed that her letter was more like a stream of conscious thought than something she had planned and prepared for him. Because of that, her latest letter seemed more real, more a part of her. He felt closer to her in a friendly manner than he ever had as her simple friend, Diego. As gratified as he was with this revelation, he felt that he had to give the same to Victoria. With that thought in mind, he hesitated no longer and lifted his quill into his fingers, pulled a piece of paper close to him, and instantly started writing a reply.

Dearest Victoria,

Your letter was wonderful, very spontaneous, and more personal because of it. And I was in the tavern today, and you're right, you can act perfectly well. If I didn't know the truth, I wouldn't have known the truth, if you know what I mean.

You don't have to worry about Toronado; he's currently standing in his stall in the cave and staring at me, wanting his supper. (I'm writing this in the cave, if you haven't guessed already.) Every night, he gets exercised by somebody (I don't want to tell you by whom, as telling might endanger that person, and I don't want to do that), so there's no need to be concerned. I'm thinking about turning him out in the pasture, while helping to circulate a story that he was 'found' after the day of the landslide and taken here, to this particular family, where his stud services would be in great demand and he would be highly prized, even if no one can catch him. However, that plan is just in the back of my mind. Maybe I'll do it, and maybe I won't. I haven't decided yet.

Here, Diego stopped and reread what he had just written. That was when he found the mistake he'd made. If he turned Toronado out, as he was considering, it wouldn't take long for the news to get around the pueblo that a strange, unknown black horse had suddenly appeared at the de la Vega hacienda. The vaqueros frequented the tavern, just as he and his father did, and it wouldn't take long for the news to then reach Victoria's ears, who would put two and two together, and she would have the identity of her masked man before he could say 'Toronado.' What was he doing, tring to tell her who he was?

Perhaps he was trying to tell her after all. He was writing a letter to Victoria, a very talkative letter, where he was treating her as a friend as much as he was treating her like his precious one; he should feel free to tell her what was on his mind, or what was the point of these letters? What was the point of their relationship at all?

And there was definitely a relationship. Diego felt warm and glowing every time he just thought of Victoria. She was the most important reason for which he had even considered having Zorro 'die' in the landslide a few days ago. If Zorro didn't die, then she couldn't be courted by Diego de la Vega, and they would never be together then. Of course, this was assuming that after he told her of his identity, she wouldn't just chuck the idea of being in love with her best friend out the nearest proverbial window. There was little he could do to control her reaction except to predict her anger. If her mood after finding out that he had faked his own 'death' was any indication, the revealing of his secret identity was sure to go over with the same anger. Perhaps he should wait longer than he wanted to, and tell her later.

But that was the cowardly way to handle telling Victoria his secret, and writing letters instead of speaking in person was timid enough already, especially for him. No, he couldn't quite stomach any more furtive behavior, and not to the woman he was reputed to love. He did love her, in fact, more than anything, and the way he waited for her letters was just proof of that love. Why wouldn't he want to tell her of his identity?

And thinking along those lines, he turned with a quick start towards his bookshelf where he kept several of the volumes containing his most valuable collection of romantic verses. If he was in love with Victoria, and he was, most definitely, he might as well act a little foolishly, a little daringly, a little mushily, rather than in the friendly fashion that he had fallen into up until now. Still acting in a jerky manner, he rose and pulled a thin book from the shelf and flipped to the page that he was looking for, a special poem that always made him think about Victoria, and furiously began copying the words before he could second guess what he was doing.

   MY

by Terence McMillan

   (an American)

You're my sunshine,

My ocean waves,

My delight at night

My sweet captor by any light.

My treasure,

My jewel in this plight,

My one and only,

My vision of holiness

My fight.

My everything.

My true love.

My soul.


What do you think of the poem? No, I didn't write it, though I like writing poetry. I only copied it from a book I have, but it does make me think of you every time I read it. It's as if the author knew of our struggle just to be together when he wrote it. I have to say that it has inspired many portraits of you over the years. There's even a very small drawing of your beautiful face right here in the margin of the book that I don't remember drawing, but I must have, as no one else uses the books that I own (books are dear enough to own that keeping them close by my desk is not such an individualistic thing; anybody would do the same).

Your letter was very enlightening, especially about dishes and laundry, as in, you don't like to do either. I'll have to remember that. What do I like to do? Well, you already know that I like fencing, and fighting against the injustices of the world, but I also like painting (you already know that, too,), writing poetry (you already know that, too,), reading, doing science experiments (half of what I trick the Alcalde with comes from my experiments), sitting by the ocean to watch the waves roll in, sleeping under quilts (where it's warm)(I prefer to do this with you, I admit, but I haven't had that pleasure, yet), horseback riding (you know this, too,), and taking care of you. I don't like injustice, either, and crass men who only pretend to be gentlemen to get things the way they want (and don't think I haven't watched you serve such men who have patronized the tavern in the past. I've had to sit on my hands to keep from doing anything rash more than once)(That kind of man tends to be caballeros who should know better, I've noticed), and picking strawberries (though I will help do this if no one else is available).(However, it hurts my back to bend over for too long of a time. I'm too tall, I think.)

What else do I like or not like? I like you, you, you. No, I love you, you, you. Just the thought of a day without you in it leaves such holes in my heart. No, it leaves holes in my soul - I don't know what I would do without you. That's the fear that keeps me from telling you who I am; the idea that someday, something will happen to you that I am powerless to stop, and you will be taken from me... The concept is so horrible, I don't even want to think about it, so I don't, at least, not often. I prefer to think about sleeping under one of your quilts.

And be as outspoken as you want; even if you yell at me - even if you hate me - that's how I prefer you. What would I do without your ideas spoken in the heat of some discussion or argument? You have often given me the solution to a vexing problem over the years just by being yourself and talking about whatever is on your mind. You're the other half of my mind, so keep talking, whatever you do. And, even when I don't have a problem to solve, I will always remain

Yours forever,

Zorro

Z Z Z

It was two days later before Diego received a response, due to all the delivery complexities, and he spent the hours trying to forget the message he had written, though it was a difficult thing to do, as the letter to Victoria was rarely far from his mind. In the meantime, he continued working on several experiments, exercised Toronado at night, and chewed his fingernails in uncharacteristic nervousness at her eventual response to such an outpouring of affection. Perhaps he had overdone it by including that poem? But there was nothing he could do about it at this later point in time, as the letter had already been delivered to Victoria in the tavern's more private kitchen by Felipe, who was being as cheerful at delivering mail for his mentor and lady as he had always been as a servant in the de la Vega household.

Finally, Diego's reading was interrupted by the servant who he had vocally showed his willingness to adopt, and Victoria's response was joyfully and trepidatiously received.

Dear Zorro,

Thank you for such a heartfelt and honest letter. I have to say that I was surprised by the poem, though I liked it very much. If for nothing else, I will save it forever as a reminder of your devotion to our relationship. For that's what it is, really, and that's what we both are; devoted. We've had to be, as there is no room for hesitation in trying to outwit the Alcalde at his own game of tyranny.

And you shouldn't be afraid of my response to your eventual unmasking, though I don't blame you for being worried that I'll be angry. My reaction to your 'death' and resurrection was certainly an indication to you about how I might take a revelation about your identity, especially if I've known you all along, but not known who you are, for years. But I meant every word I said on the day you proposed to me, and I'll love you no matter who you are, but you already know that and are still afraid. All I can say is that you shouldn't be, and wish we were physically together so I could hold you until this fear goes away. But I haven't even seen you since the day of the Emissary's death, and though I don't blame you for not being around when you aren't supposed to be around, I still miss you. These conversations are wonderful, but nothing compares to real displays of affection.

However, here's something to different to think about; havn't I always been in danger, anyway? The Alcalde has arrested me so many times for being in league with you that I'm surprised that I don't just live at the jail for convenience's sake. How will knowing who you are endanger me any more?

I'll stop whining now. The principal fear I've always had is that we would not have much in common if I knew the true man hidden under the mask, but these letters have put my nagging worries to rest; we have much in common, most importantly a willingness to let both of us be ourselves. More to the point, I can be as outspoken as I want to be and you won't mind. Few men would see my outspoken nature as an asset, or even as something to be tolerated. But I know by watching my parents when I was young that a woman is as unlikely to change as any man is, and it would be detrimental for me to try to be the meek and submissive wife when I would do better at acting like your equal.

Victoria was afraid of something concerning their future? That belief had never occurred to Diego before. He thought of himself as being the only person with worries about their future, and he had rarely considered such an event as Victoria secretly anxious about something other than when they might finally be together.

But he had to accept the responsibility for making her afraid of their commonality, as she didn't really know the authentic Diego, and so naturally she would be concerned about how such a vocal woman would be accepted by a man she was reported to be in love with. It was a very revealing moment for Diego, and even while he abhorred the idea of causing Victoria to spend moments in fear because of him, at the same time he reviled the need for the masked man that he had created, which in turn led to his relationship with Victoria in the first place. It was a sort of convoluted reality, and one that he regretted. Victoria had probably not desired to fall in love with a man she didn't know, who had a reward offered for his capture, and who then had 'died,' leaving her alone to handle her grief at his 'death.' It was no wonder that she was afraid; she had been alone for years.

Diego also hadn't considered the idea of Victoria being in danger, anyway, just for knowing him at all. He truly wished it didn't have to be that way, but the two despotic alcaldes that the citizens of Los Angeles had been forced to suffer through over the years had always treated her as an extension of Zorro, and hence, had made her suffer for it. The only thing Diego could do for Victoria in this situation was to stay as far away from her as he could, and though it might keep her out of danger, he didn't think he was capable of staying away from her at all, let alone permanently, even to stop her from being arrested.

Not that it mattered now. With Zorro gone from the pueblo, he no longer had to worry that Victoria suffered under any danger just by allying herself with him. He had unknowingly given her the greatest gift he could have, and he hadn't even known of it.

Now, however, he knew. Diego was forced to endure these rather uncomfortable thoughts for the first time, and he wasn't exactly proud of his creation of Zorro in those moments. To distract the unfortunate turn of his thoughts, he continued reading, letting Victoria's words soothe a suddenly worried and apologetic soul.

I'm glad that we share so many likes and dislikes, as I also know how important that is, as long as you want me to say what I think about things in the future. I can't deny a hidden force inside to say something when I think an injustice is being done. My whole family has always been this way. My father did what he felt encouraged to do by his emotions, and he died in prison because of it, and my mother was pushed to take care of a man who turned out to be a revolutionary and wanted by Spain, and she was killed in front of a firing squad for it. I don't exactly have a good record of a family trait of being quiet and unobtrusive, do I? But if I didn't do what my heart compelled me to do (love you), then I would surely go crazy for going against what is only natural for me to feel. As I don't want to go crazy (who does?). I'll continue to speak out about everything and to love you with all my heart. To do anything else would be... unnatural,.. and we both already know that I'm no good at fighting my own nature. I have too strong of a personality for that.

I also admit that snuggling up next to you under one of my quilts made in my younger days appeals to me, too, and I suppose that shocks you, but I can't seem to behave in the way that society expects me to behave. Four years is a long time to wait to have desires fulfilled, and I can't be too worried if society thinks I'm being proper or not. There are times that I'm so consumed with emotion for you that I feel like I'm burning up inside. I wonder what everyone could possibly say about that!

I confess that your last letter was the most romantic thing that anybody has ever written to me, and I'm encouraged to want to treat you in kind, but I don't have books of poetry lying around the tavern. My mother and father could barely read, so books were not high on our priority list when I was growing up. We mostly worked, I remember, and us kids played. We argued about everything under the sun, Ramón, Francisco, and I. It probably fixed our characters as outspoken individuals, but we didn't know that at the time. I only knew that I wanted to be a part of their more 'male' games, and they wanted to have nothing to do with a girl. I can't blame them now, but that little girl I used to be was usually devastated that they wouldn't let me tag along. I spent a great deal of time reading (when I could find or borrow books) and spying on them from the bushes. My one great accomplishment is that they never realized I was watching them and trying to be as much like them as I could be. (Sometimes being the youngest member of a family can really stink, you know?) I had to be the loudest and most aggressive person around for them to even know I was alive. Now, we like each other just fine, but then, it was a different story.

I should leave you for now (though nothing is farther from what I truly want to do), and let you go from this letter. But writing to you is sort of like writing in a journal for me; I can say whatever I want, and do what I want to do. I've never had a man's undivided attention like this before - we've never had time for you to give me such attention - and I admit that it's slightly compelling. I just want to keep on writing and writing, but I have to sleep sometime, or the tavern will eventually suffer, like it probably is right now. I know it's not as clean as my mother used to make it. Anyway, I will always be yours forever, too.

You always have my love,

Victoria

Diego sat, too overwhelmed to move from his chair in the library and go into the dining room for supper. This letter from Victoria was the first extra long epistle of devotedness he had ever had addressed to him, and he was too busy basking in the glow of such acceptance to be concerned about something as mundane as food. However, Felipe was too insistent about joining Don Alejandro at the table, and it was easier to give in than to live through the teasing remarks the young man was sure to make. Besides, the clear message given off by Felipe's loudly growling stomach was hard to resist.

After supper was another matter entirely. Diego shut himself off in his room and made it clear that if anybody was to disturb him, they could look forward to an unscheduled visit to Dr. Hernandez. As nobody wanted to see the town doctor for any reason other than a social call, no one bothered him. Thus, he was left alone to daydream as much as he wanted to.

And Diego wanted to daydream a lot. He couldn't help himself. Interrupting those overly pleasant daydreams was the letter he was composing... and rewriting... and rewriting about a dozen times, only to discard his replies to Victoria's letter a moment later. Everything he came up with seemed trite and stuffy to him. Finally, when it was dark outside and the candle inside was too low to do him much good but cause eye strain, he gave up and went to bed.

Early the very next morning, Diego was at his desk in his sitting room, and writing a reply before anyone else was even awake.

Dearest Victoria,

It's just before dawn, one of my favorite times of day. My other favorite time is evening, just as the sun sets into the horizon. I am almost always outside then, watching the sky turn pink as I think about you. The times I've seen the sun rise have usually been times where I've spent the entire night out riding as Zorro, either tracking criminals or catching bandits. Ever spent an entire night on a horse? My muscles get tighter the older I grow, but the stars are truly a sight to behold. I'll have to make sure you see them sometime after all this is over and we're an old, fussy, married couple who likes to stay up all night so we can sleep all day.

I am so sorry about your parents. When I think about what you've been through... it gives me a pain that won't go away and feels like a knife driving deeper and deeper into my heart. Living through the times of both their deaths must have been completely awful for you, though those times are also a part of the personality that you have and that I love. No wonder you cried so much at the prospect of Zorro's 'death.'

However, I am glad you're the youngest of three siblings. Just think how wonderfully busy Christmas must be with so much family? I myself am an only child, and as such have always garnered a lot of attention, but then, I had no one else to play with during childhood.

I suddenly envy all the bushes in the pueblo, though.

I hope you're smiling at the last comment. If I can't see you, I can at least take solace in the fact that I can make you smile. That's something, though I would rather do other things.

I can't help it - I'm laughing again, and the others in the house have already informed me that they would rather sleep late than lay awake and listen to me laugh. I can't blame them, as I like sleep as much as the next man.

Did you see DeSoto's new tax initiative? Sergeant Mendoza nailed it to the tavern post right as we were about to leave the pueblo the other day. At times like this, I regret Zorro's 'death' more than any other. But I can't expect to go on righting wrongs forever. After all, I have you to think about, and I think that you think that you have been waiting long enough for me to fulfill the promise I made to you several years ago in the plaza. It's about time that you came first and received the attention that you should receive, and it's about time I gave such attention. You've been so patient that I hardly deserve you to wait for me. I hope you're not disappointed if you ever find out my identity.

I need to go, too, as I'm being called to an early breakfast at the tavern. I'll be staring straight at you in just a few moments, instead of looking at you through my eyelashes. I feel safe in looking, because every other single, eligible male in the pueblo will be doing the same thing. I think I have finally just accepted that they'll stare whether I want them to or not. But you should think of the staring as the beginnings of the attention that you've always wanted. I can't imagine how your brothers didn't want to be near you all the time. I want to be right next to you, if not every minute of the day, then every other minute of the day.

Yours forever,

Zorro

Breakfast at the tavern seemed to be every body else's design as well as the de la Vegas. That establishment was uncostomarily full and Victoria and Maria were both so busy that neither had the time to appreciate the direction of Diego's eyes, which were both fixed on Victoria's rushing, though highly distracted, form enough to make Don Alejandro comment about it later. Ironic, thought Diego to himself on the way home. Father makes teasing remarks if I don't show any interest in Victoria, and he does the same when I do. I can't win. But not even Don Alejandro's ribbing could ruin Diego's good mood that morning. He anticipated a very good day while waiting for Victoria's reply to his letter.

What she had to say, though, surprised him practically enough to end his good mood.

Dear Zorro,

You stay out all night sometimes? How do you do that without falling asleep?

So many men were staring at me all morning that I had no idea which one was you. Which was the point, right?

Okay, I can't stand it any longer; am I right or am I wrong? Are you Diego in reality?

Victoria

It was not what Diego had expected, but if she had been thinking about his identity all morning, no wonder she had been so distracted. It was a pity that he couldn't decide how to answer her letter.

It was in the middle of the night when Diego jerked awake from a sound sleep and knew, after wrestling with his conscience for most of the day and a night, what he was going to do. His father had asked him that same question about Zorro's identity, and he had answered it with the truth for a change. Now, over a week later, Victoria was asking him the same thing. If he couldn't answer her the same way, what kind of a gentleman was he? He was in love with Victoria, not his father; she deserved the same consideration Diego had shown to Don Alejandro.

His mind made up, Diego decided that he didn't want to wait. He would write his response now, and gather the rose petals that he intended to spread out on her bed around his reply later. The black of nighttime could be expected to hide him if he wore his darkest clothing, rode a black horse (not Toronado, who was too conspicuous as Zorro's mount), and went during the time that most of the pueblo was conglomerated in the main room of the tavern. The fact that there was a new moon scheduled for the next night helped in his furtive planning. He had spent so much time being Zorro that he knew instinctively when a new moon was scheduled to happen.

So he gathered the rose petals, which would easily last a day, as they had been plucked during the night, by candlelight, in the de la Vega garden, when they were dormant and sleeping, as he should have been, though he was too excited to sleep.

The delivery of everything went more smoothly than Diego anticipated. He spread the reply out on her pillow, then watched as the rose petals floated down to cover her bed, her floor, her dresser, her vanity, her letter... He made sure his reply showed plainly through his offering of flowers, then hefted the empty saddlebags that were usually tied to Toronado's saddle onto his shoulder, and climbed back out her window, the same way he had entered. All this time, Alcalde DeSoto was right beneath him, nursing a glass of red wine that had come with his dinner of tamales and bread. The governmental man never had a hint that his mortal enemy was one floor above him the entire time he was sitting, hunched over his drink.

Neither did Victoria suspect that she would find Diego's romantic gift when she climbed the stairs of the tavern after midnight on what had been a very busy, and lucrative, day in the tavern.

She smelled the roses before she even entered the room, and saw the yellow piece of parchment that she had been expecting all day. With shaking fingers, she carefully extracted the folded parchment from the rose petals surrounding it on her pillow, and unfolded it so she could read his response.

There was only one word written on the entire piece of parchment. One word was enough.









Yes.










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