by Linda Bindner

This story is another version of what could have happened in the episode 'An Affair to Remember.'

Zorro stood still for a moment by the back outside door of the cave, his mouth gaping open, the pulley rope dangling at his feet, the confused outlaws still looking for his and Victoria's tracks, and he was horrified at what had almost happened.

They'd almost done it. Those six outlaws searching for him and Victoria had stepped on the trigger leading to the cave entrance, almost causing the door to open. They had come within a breath of discovering the entrance, the cave, Victoria, him. Had the alarm sounded even a few seconds later, he would have been without his mask, defenseless.

The thought left him chilled, goose pimples standing out all over his skin, shivers radiating up his spine, his heart pounding so hard that it hurt. Those outlaws had come this close... And in the next instant, Zorro realized that he would have had to kill them. He could never allow the men who knew the secret to his cave live to tell the Alcalde all about it. Knocking them unconscious wouldn't have been enough. He couldn't keep them unconscious indefinitely, and to let them be anything close to aware would put Victoria in great danger. For, if he knew anything, he knew men, and he knew what men like those outlaws truly wanted; they would have stormed the cave, overpowered him, perhaps even killed him immediately, then had their fun with Victoria, and he, if he was left alive, could have done nothing to stop them. The idea of his Victoria, his beautiful flower, being... used like that, violated in the worst possible manner, made him sick to his stomach. The large lunch he'd eaten roiled and gurgled at the mere thought.

Just as quickly as he had accepted the idea that he would have had to kill the men for their knowledge and what they surely would have done with it, he realized something else. The mask he wore, the piece of black material that he'd always thought kept not only him safe, but Victoria, his father, everybody, as well, didn't do anything. Those outlaws would have done evil things to Victoria if she had known his identity or not. He had no doubt that he was strong enough to defeat six poorly trained outlaws, but if they rushed him as one, and brought him down and tied him up, he could have done nothing to keep them from turning their attentions to Victoria, as would have inevitably happened. She would have been fairly helpless, alone as she was, and with a broken ankle as well. And though he knew no other woman as strong as she was, her strength was as much spiritual as raw, and six men were more than enough to overcome what physical strength she had. She could have tried to get away and yell for help, but she didn't know her way out of the cave, and he would have not been able to show her. He could just as easily have been dead.

The idea of Victoria being at the mercy of outlaws was too awful to contemplate, so he let the thought roll from his mind. But the idea, once coalesced, refused to leave completely, and he was unable to banish it from his brain. He ignored it instead, listening by proxy to the call of his thundering heart, attempting once and for all to forget. The only thing he accomplished with that decision was to immediately make his mind contemplate Victoria, and her most recent request, his unmasking for her. Even though he'd already made the decision to remove the mask, he truly understood that remaining masked really didn't help keep anybody safe. Innocent people were in danger just by being around him, but the idea of staying away from his father or Victoria was laughable the second he considered it. He would never be able to stick to such a vow.

Which next made him wonder if he was protecting Victoria by not sharing his identity, or protecting himself.

Trembling at his racing thoughts and from the near miss they'd had, Zorro returned to the large chamber and Victoria sitting at his desk, in his chair, looking helpless and vulnerable, but valiantly trying to hide it. This was one of the few times he'd seen her appear so defenseless, and the insecurity she must have been feeling started to carve a hole in his soul, making him shake all the more.

Have they gone? Victoria demanded to know, and the harsh, questioning tone of her voice drummed through his shivers.

He was able to answer, Yes, without clearing his throat, a major miracle in such a situation. They're gone, and they probably won't be back, but I have to think about what almost happened, and just the thought makes me cringe.

Victoria seemed confused. Why? What would have happened?

Zorro set his sword safely on the desk, the sharp end pointed away from them, out into the empty room where it was a lot less likely to do either of them any damage. He slowly sank to his knees before her, the stool he'd slid earlier from the worktable for him to sit on was pushed to the side, enabling her a route of escape, at least. Both her feet were now on the floor, one shoe off and one shoe on. The sight of the two of them together was faintly incongruous. The humor her two feet represented did little to waylay his thoughts, however, and he still felt too repulsed to speak. He fought to control his emotions, and when he did, he gathered her small hands in his and swallowed convulsively. What would have happened to those lovely hands was almost too awful to think about.

Victoria, Zorro started, his voice soft, slow, hesitant, I don't think you realize what we just escaped from. If those outlaws had found the cave, if they had overpowered me, they would have had their way with you, and I would have been unable to stop them.

Victoria's face turned ashen at his words as all the blood drained suddenly to her toes. She was silent for a moment. I hadn't thought of that, she confessed quietly.

Zorro's face took on his look of steel, matching that of his blade. I would have had to kill them, and quickly, to make certain of the safety of this cave, because they would have run to give that information to the Alcalde, and I'd have had a much better chance of stopping them here than containing the damage once out, in the open.

Her features grew even more appalled. You would have had to kill them? she squeaked.

Zorro fidgeted on the floor, uncomfortable at even the idea of killing. I would have had to, to guarantee my safety, the safety of this cave, your life...

Victoria protested, But I've been in this cave all afternoon. Surely you aren't thinking of having to... to kill me just to guarantee my silence? Her voice was incredulous, and full of disbelief.

Zorro had to smile at that statement, though the gesture was practically forced out of him. No, mi preciosa, I could just as easily end my own life as be responsible for ending yours. She gazed at him out of her big, trusting, dark eyes. No, I'm not thinking that at all.

Her look turned puzzled. Then what are you thinking?

Made even more uncomfortable by her inquiry, he was still determined to continue. He sat the rest of the way on the floor, which was cold but more comfortable, and his hands tightened around hers. He felt an encouraging squeeze in return.

What am I thinking? He placed his arms on her legs as he leaned forward. It wasn't a move of endearment, exactly, but it wasn't not one, either. He took what courage from the contact with her that he could. His heartbeat grew even faster as he considered the act of unmasking for her again. Perhaps it was time now to end the charade that had clouded over both of them for years. I'm thinking about what could have happened, about the danger to you in even knowing me, to say nothing of how far we've let our relationship develop, that keeping the mask in place might be just as detrimental as removing it, that it never protected you but perhaps it protected me, and that I'm considering removing it once again.

Slowly her eyes grew in understanding, and the color rose in her cheeks. It never guaranteed my safety? But you always said...

I know what I said before. I'm not certain I was... His voice trailed to a whisper. ... thinking correctly at the time, he finished, overriding her protests.

His acknowledgment acted as a damper on her arguments. She became quiet, and her silence was almost as frightening as her disbelief.

Can you keep this secret, Victoria? he asked urgently, squeezing her hands. Can you see me every day and not react to me and give me away to the Alcalde or his men?

That information caught her attention. I see you every day? I know you?

Yes, he replied simply. You know me very well. I tried to stay away, to limit my visits, but I couldn't. Seeing you has been the highlight of each day for me, he whispered, and again kissed her hands wrapped firmly in his own, then laid a cheek on the enfolded fingers.

Victoria couldn't help but feel the love pouring off him at the hasty gesture of affection. He'd never shown the full strength of his emotions to her before, and she felt herself swell with the feelings. But there was still so much that she didn't understand.

She didn't know why, but she had always anticipated that Zorro was as mysterious and unknown to her without the mask as he was with it. She had stared at the men in her tavern before, wondering if they were him, of course, but she had rarely taken that wondering seriously. Suddenly her future life took on an entirely new twist, and she was certain that she liked it. I know you? This was an unexpected surprise.

He lifted his head to better see her. Yes, Zorro repeated. You see me all the time, sometimes more than once a day.

Victoria didn't know what to do with this wisdom besides gasp her surprise at hearing it.

Victoria, mi preciosa, I'm sure you realize that I couldn't have born the possible danger you might have been in today. With that in mind, I think it's time... He cleared his throat. Saying this was so difficult. ... time to share my secret with you, but I have to admit that doing such a thing terrifies me.

It does? This was a new surprise. Nothing frightened Zorro.

He chuckled. It's truly ironic that I can fight an entire garrison of lancers without a second thought, but telling one woman who I am and how I feel about her has me quivering like a leaf.

This information shocked her even further. I have that much power over you?

Zorro laughed quietly again. You have the most power over me of anybody, my precious one, simply because you can harm me the worst. Even the Alcalde with his threats of hanging and death don't come close to the power you wield.

Victoria tried to acknowledge that claim. It was true, that he had the same kind of power over her, though she didn't like to admit it, even to herself. If he were ever to end their relationship... The results would be so dreadful that she didn't even want to consider such a thing as possible, but she supposed that he had to consider such an occurrence, since he had to consider everything. However, she said in response to both him and her swirling thoughts, you can trust me to keep your identity safe. I know that trusting someone is hard for you, or at least, I'm beginning to realize it, but it won't be in my best interest to let anybody know. And I love you. You have to understand that.

Zorro sighed, the sound like a palpable desperation dripping off the stone walls of the cave. His eyes met hers, and the passion he couldn't quite hide flourished in his blue eyes. I do know that. I'm just afraid that you'll be angry and grow to despise me. I don't think I can bear to watch our love grow sour and turn to hatred.

That was one of the only times he'd ever named their feelings for each other. It came as a shock, and simultaneously didn't seem surprising at all. Not knowing what to do with the energy that hearing him confess to those emotions made her feel, Victoria leaned forward across their clasped hands, and kissed his head through the mask. It was so rare that she could reach his head at all that she couldn't bring herself to pass up the opportunity. There's nothing to be afraid of. Share your secret with me, she repeated, then added the final incentive that broke down any defense he had left. Please. For me. For us.

Zorro gazed at Victoria, the love he felt for her shining now out of his eyes, and his hand rose to caress one cheek as he acquiesced. For both of us, my Victoria, he said in a choked whisper that reverberated around the cavern. Without another word, he slowly reached behind his head to the knot of material tied at the nape of his neck, the silk noiselessly sliding across itself, and he lifted the black cloth away, his eyes never leaving hers.

The tension between them was enormous. Victoria's heart slammed against her ribs, like a living thing. As Diego's features came into view, her heart was practically in her throat with the excitement. Tentatively, she reached out to touch his hair.

Diego did everything but melt under her soft, delectable, touch. The feel of her fingers on his temples, where he'd never felt the sensation before, almost sent him into a spin that he was helpless to control. The feel of her hands sliding down to run smoothly across his cheeks was almost more than he could take. He tingled just at her caress.

Victoria was whispering. Thank you, thank God, thank whoever. I don't care, I'm just so glad it's you. Then, with no more hesitation, she slid off the chair, onto his lap, and kissed him, deeply, while clinging to his back and arms as if her life depended on it.

It was very like their first kiss, hesitant and timid, only this time the endearment was slow and drawn out rather than hasty and quick. It was their first kiss without the mask, free and unobstructed. Then neither could stop themselves as the kiss deepened to something they were more recently used to experiencing. Tongues twisted together, hands held on tightly as passion sprang up before either of them realized it enough to hold it down. An endearment such as a kiss was almost too much for them to endure, too much for such a strong love to handle.

Diego halted them before such intense instincts had the chance to take complete control. Still, he could do nothing but fall into her eyes as he rested his arms on her shoulders and tried not to kiss her again as he heaved for more air. Victoria, I'm in love with you, he muttered, the loudest he could be with the air sucked right out of him the way it was.

Her own soul blossomed at his words. She too felt the tingles that his nearness created, and she whispered in response, I'm in love with you, too, Diego de la Vega, the man behind the mask. I think I always have been.

Victoria. He kissed her on her forehead, finding the desire to touch her irresistible. I have to ask you... He kissed her cheek. I'm compelled to ask... He kissed her other cheek, the feel of his lips skimming across her smooth skin making another shiver leap down his back, a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold of the stone floor he was sitting on. Will you marry me? He managed to get the words out before he felt he had to kiss her lips again, his eyes closed to better savor the sensations accosting his body.

But Victoria broke the kiss and drew back in surprise. Marry you? she asked in a stunned whisper.

Yes, he answered, and at the same time couldn't quite believe that his mouth was uttering his most fervent dream. Soon. We can find a way.

Victoria stared at him for a heartbeat, the beat that shoved fear and hope against the sides of his ribs so hard that he could hear that heartbeat inside him. Then, with the suddenness of a rainbow, she smiled, slow, joyful, and full of peace, as if she had found her way home. Yes, she announced, still smiling. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

A smile broke out on his face as well. Her gesture was infectious. He pulled her even more tightly into his arms, then running a hand from her hair to her waist. Victoria simply held on as her arms wrapped more customarily around his neck.

Diego's legs were getting cramps from sitting so long on the floor, but he didn't care. Victoria was in his arms, his, not Zorro's. A few leg cramps weren't going to induce him to move more than he had to.

With Victoria's head still lying contentedly on his shoulder, and feeling like she planned to remain there for awhile, Diego carefully reached over and slid open the top drawer of his desk. Making no sound, it gaped open at his touch, and he reached in a hand for the square, velvet box that he knew was residing on a bed of tissue paper. It was the only thing in the drawer. He carefully drew the box out and flipped up the lid. He didn't even have to look for the ring that was in there. He knew its location by heart, as he had looked at it, and dreamt of this moment, so many times before.

He plucked up the ring and felt its smooth, golden band as it slid onto the end of his fourth finger. Seamlessly, he transferred it to his right hand, kissed Victoria on her shoulder as she sat up, and said, Please take this ring. It was my mother's, and now it's yours.

Victoria held her breath as she looked at the emerald and diamond ring in her fingers, almost too overwhelmed to speak. This was Doņa Elena's?

Yes, Diego answered simply. Mother gave me all her jewelry when she died...

Victoria held it back to him. I couldn't possibly keep it, then. It's a family heirloom, and far too expensive and beautiful for...

No. Diego was shaking his head, his heart now conducting a ragged tempo with his insides. It's for you. It will only be more radiant next to your beautiful skin. I wish it could be me, he confessed, allowing the blush he was feeling to suffuse his cheeks.

An analytical part of Victoria thought that it was rather humorous to see the man who was Zorro blushing, but the more romantic side of her loved every second of that reddening; it meant that he was human, and perfect, and loved. At that, Victoria slipped the ring onto her right hand, admiring it as it glinted in the cave's candlelight, even as they suddenly heard a voice clearly from the other side of the wall they were sitting near. It was unmistakably the voice of Don Alejandro.

Diego? I'm home! Diego! he called, sounding irritated, as usual, and they could hear his muffled voice easily through the wall. His footsteps receded down the hall towards his room.

Victoria glanced at Diego still in her looser embrace. The corners of her mouth quivered in amusement. Well, she whispered, if I didn't know who you were by now, I think you would have a lot of explaining to do.

Diego just grinned, felt the cold of the stone floor seep through his black trousers, and kissed her forehead. He sighed, flooding the cavern with the happy sound. I can't begin to tell you how perfect you've made my life, Victoria.

She hugged him once more. I can guess, she said softly, and continued, her voice drifting over his shoulder. And you thought I was sure to be angry, she scoffed. As if I can ever be angry with you.

Diego laughed. You will be, he predicted. When I least want you to be.

Victoria hugged tighter yet. But not now. Now everything's simply exquisite, she whispered, and laid her head sideways on his surprisingly broad shoulders.

They held each other for a few moments, content in the holding, both feeling as if something unexpected, new, and exciting had happened to them. At last, he shook her a little, and kissed her hair. Mi preciosa, we should be leaving. My father is probably already looking for me.

She heaved a reluctant sigh. You're probably right. But it gives me no great joy to think about calmly returning to work after this.

Diego chuckled again. How's your ankle?

It hurts, she admitted. But it's bearable.

Stay off your feet, suggested Diego. Have someone who works for you do all of the fetching and carrying for the next few days. Perhaps I can talk Father into eating at the tavern for supper and I can do all your errands for you. Nothing would make me happier.

Victoria smiled. Sounds marvelous, especially since we missed siesta today.

We missed siesta?

We were busy, Victoria insisted, a mysterious smile on her face as she looked again at the gleam of the ring on her finger.

Diego saw her glance, and he felt a tight, hot glow of contentment surrounding his heart. But we really should leave, before we're missed. He smiled.

Victoria giggled, her heart as light as her ring. She wrapped her arms more firmly around his neck. Lead on, Seņor Zorro.

Diego looked at her in his arms, right where she was meant to be. We'll find a way to be together, Victoria.

Lilting her head charmingly to the side, she asked in a teasing voice, Do you promise?

He laughed. Absolutely, I promise.

Then, after he had replaced the sword and his mask with practiced moves and given her a quick kiss, he rose with a grunt of effort, and pushed off the floor with her in his arms. He asked if she could stand for a second and lean against the wall while he peaked outside, saw no outlaws, heard nothing, then whistled for Toronado. Within seconds, the big, black horse came trotting around the corner, obviously from grazing nearby.

Zorro laughed. Hello, boy. You up to carrying two?

The horse bobbed his head, as if in a nod, and Zorro grinned again and grabbed his reins. He led the horse to Victoria, told him to be calm, then quickly fixed the rope belonging to the pulley system so they could get out when the time came.

The time was very near, yet Zorro couldn't stop himself from swinging joyfully into the saddle.

Show-off, Victoria muttered, but couldn't help her admiration of his strength and grace, though she would never tell him that; the compliment might go straight to his head.

He grinned, reached down a gloved hand to help her mount, and pulled her up in front of him. He indulged in a few moments of delighted nuzzling, smelling her sweet hair, then sent the horse forward towards the trigger out of the cave and ultimately to Los Angeles.

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