The Consequences of a Conversation One Sunday Morning After Mass

by Linda Bindner

Victoria had just heard the most amazing thing. Her friend, Diego, the best friend she had in the whole world next to the man she loved, had just told her that he secretly was the man she loved, that he had been Zorro since the very beginning. It had been he who had rescued her from jail those many times, he who had fought the government soldiers and won so easily, he who had come to her tavern's kitchen for those many visits at midnight and kissed her senseless... It was wholly unbelievable, and yet...

It made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Diego had always been absent when Zorro had been climbing over the rooftops of the pueblo, but the revelation of his secret identity did nothing to alleviate the shock she'd felt when she thought of the fact that he had held her, kissed her, whispered of her beauty to her, proposed marriage to her... and she had not had a hint of the truth. Not even an inkling. Surely, she should have known, but she hadn't. Diego?

The two men, Diego and Zorro, had been separate to her for years, and now she knew that those two men were in reality one man, that she had always declared her love for Diego and not known it, that Felipe could hear and had been a spy in secret... It was too much information for her to take in all at once.

Is that why you wanted to talk to me this morning? she finally asked of him, her voice hushed and shaky as she sat next to him, his long legs tense even as they splayed into the main room of her vacant, echoing, place of business, supporting the hands that held tightly to his head in abject sorrow. To tell me..?

While the tavern was empty, Diego said quietly to his fingers, and through them, to her. On a Sunday, when it was closed and I knew we wouldn't be disturbed... Suddenly he turned swiftly toward her on the table's long seating bench that they were both sitting on and gently touched her shoulders. The regard he automatically felt for her was instantly on his face, blazing, even though he had never displayed his emotions before. He shouldn't be this practiced at it. You must realize that knowing this secret puts you in severe danger, he said, insisting on emphasizing the peril she was in. If the Alcalde finds out that you know... He paused, looking terrified at just the thought.

As scrambled as her mind was at the moment, Victoria had little trouble latching on to his statement due to that look of intense horror. How could he be afraid of anything? Zorro feared so little. But a macabre part of her had to know... Or what, Diego? she asked. What do you think he would do? It seemed imperative that she hear what he was about to say.

Diego sighed, hanging his head low enough to allow his hair to swing crazily with the motion. To tell her everything now meant that he might distort her rosy view of the world, cause her to doubt that view, to doubt him, give her reasons to feel the guilt of misrepresentation that he had felt every day since donning the disguise belonging to Zorro. He would never wish that on anybody else, least of all her.

But he knew in one second of insight that he had to explain it all, to tell her even if he caused her guilt to fester by putting a new burden on her soul. What else could he do? He hated to hurt her, even hated the possibility of hurting her, but what choice did he really have? He had reached the point where he had to tell her of his feelings or stay as far away from her as he could imagine, and in such a small town as Los Angeles, that wasn't truly an option. As far away as he could imagine meant he had to relocate to the next territory, and there was no real territory for him to go to, except East, and that meant the desert, and that in turn meant death. As death wasn't truly an option, that only left capture, which meant... It means hanging, Victoria, he said bluntly. Out of any thoughts I've ever had about telling you my identity, that's been the one thing that has guaranteed my silence for four years. I could never bear to bring you pain. Yet, you've rarely been far from my mind at any given time. He paused to gather his thoughts, then confessed in some self-deprecation, It hasn't been rarely enough lately. I had to say something at last.

Victoria noticed how he was staring at her through his lashes, as was his habit, a bit frightened, yet also hopeful, and the expression immediately terrified her. But I... she had to protest, her voice trailing off into the silence of the tavern on a Sunday morning, and she was forced to clear her throat. But I don't even know you. I mean, I don't really know who you are.

He seemed surprised by her comment. After spending several hours every day, for years on end, with him as himself, even as innocuously as a customer of her tavern, he thought she knew him well, to say nothing of the times he had romanced her as Zorro. A blush crept across his cheeks when he thought of those times he had happily kissed her, caressed her, indicated his deep and enduring feelings for her. He considered her statement instead as a distraction to his emotions. Who am I? You know as well as anybody.

No, I don't, she said, her voice still quiet, yet insistent. I haven't spent any time with you... with all of you. I've only seen half of you... I'm not sure... I'm not sure I was paying attention when I was with you, she admitted at last, her head also hanging low.

So Diego turned more of his mind to candidly answering her question. Who am I? he repeated. I'm the same man you've always known; a man who likes poetry, reading, horseback riding. I'm an exceptionally skilled swordsman, through no fault of my own, he admitted wryly. It's a talent I've always been cursed with. Then he continued with his litany, I like writing, doing scientific experiments, being quiet, staring at you...

Victoria colored at his last comment.

Diego continued, That's the real reason why I spent so much time in the tavern. I do like the cuisine, and the company's not bad... but neither's as compelling as the person who owns the tavern. His eyes raised to hers in a show of courage, then, for once not looking at her through his lashes but staring straight and true. I'm only lucky that my father likes the place as well as I do, because I couldn't stay away.

Victoria didn't know how to take such a pained expression. If she was honest with herself, and she hoped she always was, his stare left her slightly uncomfortable. She had not known herself to be the object of a stare from Diego before. She was so much more used to being the object of such a gaze from the blue eyes of Zorro than she was from Diego de la Vega that the tiny hairs all over her body raised in alarm when he looked at her so... affectionately. She was just not get accustomed to this.

Then she realized that the blue eyes that held her so enthralled were the same no matter who the stare was directed from. She shook her head; such a duality was extremely confusing. He's always been you? she asked, clarifying, making sure.

Always, he responded with fast assurance. It was the one thing besides his tender regard for her and the presence of Felipe that had remained constant over the years, through countless numbers of bandits and two reigns of despotic and cruel alcaldes. The promise of a glimpse of you, Victoria, or better yet, of a kiss or other endearment, often kept me going over the years, he whispered, almost silent in his confession. His heart beat a crazy rhythm against the insides of his ribs, a rhythm of hope. He couldn't help himself, and even as he fought to contain that heartbeat and the emotions it represented, he went on hoping, despite his knowledge that she might reject him at any moment. Victoria, you have to under...

Again, his voice trailed to silence before he finished his thought, though Victoria could easily guess what he wanted to say, anyway. The declaration he'd made was bold enough to steal her breath away for a moment, and she tried to be equally as honest with him. Anybody pouring their heart out to her as Diego was just now deserved such integrity. But what came out of her mouth was very different than what she intended to say. I'm sure you always liked my cooking, Diego, and...

It was then that he interrupted her in a voice as soft as a sigh. In fact, Victoria wasn't certain he had spoken at all. I'm sorry for everything, Victoria. So sorry. If I could turn back time and tell you much earlier, I wouldn't hesitate to do it. I just... He stopped.

Her curiosity won out over any caution she felt, and she prodded persuasively, What would you do, Diego? In spite of her fear, she found his divergences fascinating. She had never seen so deeply into Diego's inner, hidden, personality before.

He turned again to her on the bench and took a deep breath for the courage necessary to make his next announcement. I want you to know that I consider you to be free from our engagement if you want to be. You may have my ring, but I... I don't expect that you'll want to keep it now. He grew subdued once more, as if he didn't expect her to even like him let alone love him after what he'd said to her on that chilly November morning. I would think that you're feeling fairly disappointed about now.

His words had the opposite effect than he'd ever have guessed they would. A sensation of love and wonder washed over her, coming out of nowhere to bombard an unsuspecting Victoria, leaving her with far gentler emotions than she'd experienced in a long time. Bravely, she placed a hand over his fingers spread out on the bench between them. Give back your ring? she asked with incredulity. Of course I don't want to give it back. I don't feel disappointed at all. This... this revelation was just so unexpected that... that I never would have guessed.

He shook his head. Victoria, please, you don't...

Let me finish, she ordered rather harshly, cutting him off in mid-sentence. Diego, I need to ask your forgiveness for discounting you so quickly, for all the things I've said to you and about you over the years, for not guessing, and to tell you that what I said the day you proposed... that I will love any man who carries such courage and compassion in his heart all the time... is true. It's just taken me a moment to catch my breath, I think. My best friend doesn't tell me such a thing every day, after all.

Diego obstinately shook his head as he started to say, Victoria, you don't have to feel that... but she stopped him again by standing up and dragging him up with her.

Will you be quiet? she demanded, half soberly and half in amusement, an intimation of her temper showing for the first time all morning. She gazed up at him, aware of his blatant insecurity in opposition of every time he was so confident with her when he was Zorro, humbled and amazed that, despite such fear, he would tell her his secret at all. She also saw the tender emotions and love he carried behind the inherent fear at his admission, his inability to hide his feelings now that she knew his deepest, most forbidden secret. But that knowledge didn't inhibit her own emotions; it set her feelings free so that she could wonder, instead, just who she truly was in love with, Zorro or Diego. She never would have guessed the identity of her masked love, but she couldn't have been happier when she finally comprehended that secret. He was a caballero, as her parents had always wished her to fall in love with, and he was her friend, as she had always dreamed she would fall in love with. It made any concealed feelings that she might have harbored for him jump to the forefront of her mind, made them make sense for the first time ever. I've often wondered about so many things, and now I don't have to wonder anymore, she said, her voice only a whisper.

But, Victoria, he protested, don't you plan to tell me that you love a legend instead of me? You know that I've always been terrified of that eventuality, expected it, really, and if you...

I know, she said, interrupting him. You've said as much to me before. But something tells me that you worry too much, that a part of you enjoys playing the martyr even when you don't have any reason to, that you secretly want your fear of rejection to come true, to justify what you've been afraid of for years. Her hands gravitated to his cheeks, one on each side of his smooth face. Those fears aren't true and they won't come true. I don't know what to say to convince you that your fears are ludicrous, laughable even. She gazed just as unbelievingly at him, letting the blue of his eyes wash over her in a sense of safety, of protection. Your fears have no justification in reality; it's just taking me a while to get used to the idea that it's you that I love.

Diego drew a deep inhalation and held it when she told him of her feelings, her love. It was more than he'd ever dreamed or hoped for, more than he deserved, especially after withholding information as to the identity of her masked love for so many years. Yet, Victoria wasn't angry, as he had always expected her to be. Instead, she was accepting, just as her more noble nature instinctively led her to become. He should have remembered about that part of her and appealed to her inbred sense of fairness long ago. When he thought of the huge amount of time that had already gone by...

Victoria, he exhaled quietly, a sense of astonishment creeping into his own voice now, do you realize what you're saying?

She only nodded, mute now that her feelings were out in the open.

Diego looked down at her, his gaze skipping from her dark eyes to her creamy forehead to her inviting lips. His hands found their way on their own to her warm cheeks. He hardly recognized the fingers as belonging to him. You don't know what you've... He paused, gathering his thoughts to mix freely with his feelings, then he softly began again. I'm in love with your hair, your cooking, with how you serve drinks, with your temper as you come to the defense of those who can't defend themselves, with your anything and your everything... with you, he said simply, his voice still softened to a whisper, combining with the sounds of the town that were drifting in through the closed windows to the shadowed alcove beside the fireplace where they stood. His right hand slid down her arm until her hand was inside his gently wrapped fingers. He lingeringly kissed the palm that he turned towards his lips, hungry for the feel of her skin.

Diego, she asked cautiously, are you asking what I think you are?

Diego didn't even hesitate now. Victoria, I want to marry you, to wake up to you every day, and to see your beautiful face before I fall asleep every night... I know I don't have the right to ask so much sacrifice from you...

She smiled, slow and sunny and full of love. I don't care about that.

But we'll have to be so careful. I'll - we'll have to hide the real reason for a marriage from everyone. If the Alcalde finds out... He didn't finish his statement, letting the threat of disclosure hang in the air, making it more potent and memorable in the thrill of its unknown and unvoiced risk.

I don't care about that, either, she insisted. All I find I truly care about is you, and being with you, even if I have to hide the extent of my feelings.

I know you, Victoria, Diego warned. You won't like that after awhile. Then he gave voice to another concern, And you won't like the fact that I will no longer be able to pay attention to you as Zorro; no more singling out, no more hand kissing, no more regard... You will be the wife of another man, and I don't feel it's time yet to retire the masked legend...

I wouldn't ask you to, she immediately assured. Then she went on, And don't you think that I haven't already thought of all that? What else do you think I've daydreamed about?

He smiled, soft and slow, like a sunset. You've daydreamed about me?

Her answering smile was equally as soft. Absolutely, she whispered in response as they drew closer together until their foreheads were only an inch apart. I'm finding that reality is much better than daydreams any day. Then, with all the love she possessed in her tiny body, she kissed him.

For a change, Victoria kissed Diego, not the other way around, though Diego instantly felt his own stirrings of desire swirl with the love he also automatically experienced. His fingers buried themselves in her hair, and he was immediately glad that she had left her curls hanging free that day, as if she'd known that he would want to feel the soft strands on his hands. The kiss deepened and the desire quickly overtook their emotions to bombard them with sensations and demands that were not wholly foreign to them, though they couldn't yet give in to those delicious emotions. They weren't married, and though Diego didn't think that he could stop himself no matter his marital status, Victoria knew what her parents had also wanted for her, how disappointed the few friends she had in the pueblo would be. She acknowledged the teachings of the favored religion that she had known all her life, and the betrayal she would feel, however slight, in herself if she gave in when they were so close to an authentic marriage, one they both wanted desperately. But her emotions were hard to resist. She wanted to feel his hot skin, touch him in places that she'd only heard about, welcome the desire surging through her body. She held those emotions off only through sheer force of will. I think we need to find Padre Benitez, soon. Today. Now, she whispered.

You're certain? he whispered back, his lips only centimeters from hers.

Expected, even encouraged, to run her hands in denied places..? Oh, yes, I'm certain. I've never been more certain of anything in my entire life. Even through his shirt, his skin felt invitingly warm to her light touch. Can you wait while I get my rings?

For you, Victoria, anything, he answered, then swept her away in another bone-melting kiss.

The mysteriousness of her statement would only come to his mind later, during the wedding ceremony, when she presented him with a wedding ring of his own, a simple band that she had purchased months before from a street vendor during market day who hadn't visited Los Angeles since his strange appearance all that time ago, right after Zorro had proposed marriage. She had been forced to guess at Diego's ring size, and had guessed too large, but they both suspected that her future cooking would soon take care of any extra space around his finger. Carlos acted as witness, and the tiny mission church so familiar to Victoria and Diego was empty save for them, Carlos, and a reluctant Padre Benitez. Diego had to tell the priest of his love for Victoria before he would agree to perform such a precipitous ceremony to begin with, thus disclosing his identity, though not formerly voicing the words. But for Victoria, Diego would do just about anything save for shouting his secret from the rooftops of the pueblo, at least not until Ignacio DeSoto was no longer alcalde of Los Angeles. Diego's sense of self-preservation was as strong as his love for Victoria, but only just.

The wedding ceremony was short and succinct, since there was no one else who needed to take communion on that cold, November afternoon. Not remotely hungry for any kind of lunch, with eyes only for each other, Diego and Victoria walked shyly across the plaza, both cognizant of the change in their lives that a wedding represented. They may both be highly aware of what they wanted to do next, but they were also aware, however deeply, that an unexpected marriage would be met with suspicion, especially for Diego.

Yet, that realization of danger seemed unimportant now as the only thing they felt was the fact that their skin fairly burned for the other, even in the cool air. The feelings made them both nervous, and Victoria fumbled with her keys when they reached the tavern's porch. She held them up so long that Diego finally seated himself at an outside table and stared at her, glorying in the fact that he could look now without fear of discovery or retribution; everyone would expect her to be the object of such a stare from her husband, though he wasn't immediately used to such an elevated status. It was at least as heady a sensation as his desire. Thus, they were both taken by surprise when the Alcalde hailed them and strode energetically across the plaza, a book in hand. Diego looked around, his gaze torn from Victoria's alluring figure, and Victoria glanced up from the keys in her hand and from the doorway that currently captured her attention.

Diego! Just the man I want to see right now, DeSoto called.

Diego's heart suddenly beat erratically against his ribs, but his calm, unruffled demeanor would have fooled even Victoria on a regular day. Oh? And why is that? he asked indolently as he leaned against the tavern's wall. Inside, he was quailing and telling himself to relax, but there was little he could outwardly do about the evidence of his desire showing under the blue caballero trousers he wore except to hunch over and hope that DeSoto didn't have any reason to glance down. Even the coolness of the weather had no effect on such strong emotions. Carefully, so as not to attract undo attention to the movement, he crossed his arms at the wrist and set them over the clear sign of his desire, hiding the evidence from the approaching man.

DeSoto had no idea of what was right under his nose. Instead, he pointed at the book in his hand. I wonder if you can tell me the meaning of this word, he said, holding out the book towards Diego. It isn't in my travel dictionary, but I know that it's French, and you have been to France, after all. He wheezed a laugh. It doesn't even have any vowels, so I have no hope of understanding this accursed... he began, but stopped himself short as Victoria eyed him distrustfully, almost fearfully. The strange expression arrested him. He completely missed seeing anything odd about Diego.

Yet, despite the clear animosity he saw in Victoria's eyes, he wanted to go on now that he had the opportunity; that word had been irritating him for days! Everyone knew of her fondness for Zorro, and no one expected her to have any amount of agreeable feelings for him. He turned back to Diego, trying to ignore such animosity, and continued, Asking you now saves a trip to your hacienda later.

Using the tabletop as cover, Diego took the book, and noticed that the Alcalde's finger was pointing straight at the the initials, 'RSVP.' Diego couldn't help himself; in spite of the inherent danger that he and Victoria were both in, he smiled. Everybody wanted to know what those letters meant, and few people really did. It's not a word by itself. It's an initial.

Then what's it stand for? asked DeSoto, irritated, as always. Have you read this book? Is that how you know?

Victoria forced a laugh, too, at the idea of the scholarly caballero caught reading, but Diego shook his head negatively. It means, 'Respondez, s'il vous plait'; please reply. The main character must be sending an invitation of some kind. He turned the book over in his hand so he could read the title. What is this, anyway? I'm not familiar with it.

The Alcalde grimaced at his light tone. Nothing you'd be interested in.

No, I'm truly curious, assured Diego, using his curiosity as a distraction from the truth so obviously in front of the Alcalde's eyes, if only the man would look.

The Alcalde looked embarrassed instead, then, because of his feelings, angry. It's romance poetry, not something you would know about. Nothing that would be compelling to anyone with as high-flown tastes as you.

Well, thank you. Diego pretended a look of gratitude while inside he was seething at DeSoto's assumption. He was certainly not too good to read romance poetry. He had read several poems that had been considered romances in the past. La Belle dam Sans Merci in particular had given him many ideas for the more romantic side of Zorro. But he couldn't say that to the Alcalde. Diego was, however, newly aware of Victoria standing benignly, yet flirtatiously it seemed to him, next to the door of the tavern. His heart did a funny flip at the thought. But I'm afraid that I, too, have read of the kinder felicitations of the heart.

DeSoto snorted inelegantly, but didn't say anything except, Yes, well, I thank you, Diego. I knew you would know the proper definition. Language, after all, is your kind of thing.

Diego didn't let his smile slip at the second intended insult, trying to pretend not to understand, though he understood the comment all too well. Any day, Alcalde, was all he said, not wishing to prolong the encounter.

Again, thank you, said DeSoto. Seņor, Seņorita, until later, then. And he took Victoria's hand, prepared to administer the customary kiss to her knuckles. He paused when his eye fell on Victoria's ring. The diamonds glinted in the sunlight as he looked at it and said slowly, Excuse me, make that 'Seņora.'

Victoria had to fight with herself to leave her hand in DeSoto's grip. The struggle showed clearly on her face, if DeSoto had cared to look up. He didn't.

Diego's heart began beating even harder. Um, yes, he cautiously said, tripping uncustomarily over the words in his sudden fear. The result left him sounding hesitant and feeling foolish. Victoria came to his rescue.

Cool as the autumn weather, she said, Yes, you get to be the first to congratulate us, Alcalde. We just got married in the last hour.

Did you? asked the Alcalde suspiciously, knowing that any man who was married to Victoria Escalante should also be considered as a candidate for that outlaw, Zorro. But... Diego? Even he, even now, had to admit that Diego de la Vega was probably the least likely of those candidates to be the masked legend. The man couldn't even fence! However, DeSoto admirably covered his line of thinking. I'm surprised. When did you decide to marry?

When he asked, Victoria said quickly, before Diego could stutter a reply.

Thanks to the untimely death of my brother, Diego said then, I realized the fragility of life. His heart may have been pounding painfully in his chest, but his response came out as cool and composed as Victoria's reply had been. And he wasn't completely unaware of the irony of the situation that it was DeSoto who had shot Gilberto Risendo, and thus it was DeSoto who had indirectly brought his nemesis the greatest desire of his life. Secretly, of course. I decided to stop hiding feelings of any kind. It was a warning and a threat for anybody willing to listen.

Diego had hoped to trigger DeSoto's guilt over Risendo's death by mentioning the name of his brother at all, and he wasn't disappointed. DeSoto flinched and tried to change the subject. Why not wait for your hero? DeSoto next asked the tavern owner, his voice curious, but imbued with a far more dangerous intent, born of the culpability he automatically felt for the mentioned crime. Diego bristled at that dangerous tone, ready to spring into action if necessary.

But Victoria just shrugged, still acting cool and composed. Diego asked. Zorro didn't, she answered bluntly. The less DeSoto knew about Zorro's proposal, the better.

In fact, the Alcalde knew nothing at all. Victoria's reply and careless manner set the tone for his following speech. What could have easily been a tirade of suspicion turned into another query instead. Didn't you plan to wait for him forever? The mock regard was evident in his voice, even now.

Victoria shrugged again. Funny how life turns out, she said vaguely. The less direct she could be at a time like this was all for the better. Even Diego had to admire her courage in the face of so much hostility. She was as cool and calm as a much less knowledgeable person.

DeSoto looked to Victoria, then shrewdly glanced at Diego, then looked back at the tavern owner. He was clearly attempting to decide if her proclamation was real or not. It was true that she had often said that she would like to marry... But Diego? DeSoto wheezed a laugh when he thought of the languid caballero handling the spirited seņorita when she was in a temper, but he couldn't say anything aloud for fear of possible retribution for such a slight from that area dons. The position in Los Angeles of nobles like the de la Vegas protected Diego in the extreme, even in such an event as marriage to another man's advertised love. And what an affront to Zorro... To suddenly have his declared love marry another man... The slight, the hidden offense... It was almost too good to be real!

DeSoto would have laughed out loud if he was in the company of anybody else. Schooling his face to show a sudden weariness of his line of questioning, DeSoto capitulated with what he hoped was graciousness. Well, you have my congratulations, then. Until next we see each other, which in such a small collection of houses you citizens call a town, shouldn't be too long. He was typically critical. Adios. He turned and retreated back to his office, smiling in delight the moment his back was to the recently married couple; they would dig their own grave, DeSoto predicted, certain of their incompatibility and eventual unhappiness, an unhappiness that was sure to come about without any help from him. Sure of his eventual vindication, he walked away.

Diego's heart slowed as he gradually let the breath hiss through his teeth. What Victoria had done for him... I don't suppose you know what you just accomplished? he asked, his eyes still on the retreating form of the Alcalde.

Victoria also followed the man with open antipathy. What?

Bringing the attention back to their relationship, Die softly replied, In one cool, composed moment, and with very few words, you just started a rumor about us that allows me to be as open as I want around you, and there won't be any cause for suspicion. Such openness is expected, even! You couldn't have handled it better if I had coached you for a month.

Victoria grinned at the compliment. Thank you, Diego. And it's about time there was a rumor concerning 'improper behavior' spread about you. I thought I might as well make it good. She turned, and equally as nonchalantly, opened the tavern's main door. Please, come in, oh husband of mine, she said, and her lightness of tone covered up the slight shaking that probably only he could hear.

With a chill coursing up his spine that had nothing to do with the weather or the recent encounter with the Alcalde, Diego followed her, and when he was through the door, she pushed it closed and shoved the bolt across it.

I don't want to be disturbed, either, she said in a normal voice, giving no indication as to how close to jailing, at least, they had recently come. The Alcalde could easily have decided not to buy a word they said, and they could be facing jail cells right now instead of an empty and inviting tavern. The emptiness of that unoccupied room proved to be too much even for Victoria, as she casually tossed her keys onto the bar beside the door. The action covered up a pounding heart, an organ thudding for more reasons than the scare they had just lived through. Speaking of which... She sidled up next to Diego, an obvious grin of invitation on her face.

Diego didn't require any further encouragement. He willingly opened his arms, and she slipped into his welcoming embrace. We should both try to forget the incident with the Alcalde, he suggested as he hugged Victoria tight. His arms trembled, but even he knew that the shaking was caused by more than the fear generated by their recent brush with danger.

Swallowing that fear, Victoria flirtatiously replied, Oh, consider it forgotten already.

Diego tensed, remembering his earlier feelings of desire, the feelings that had been interrupted by DeSoto. Those emotions now came rushing back with surprising ease. Without any more words of rumors or fears, Victoria began planting little kisses all the way from his bellybutton hidden behind his shirt to his neck. Even that motion made Diego breath heavily, and the encounter with DeSoto was indeed supplanted by other thoughts in Diego's mind. When her fingers began to slowly, enticingly, push the buttons on his best caballero shirt through their respective buttonholes, Diego couldn't quite suppress the sound that was wrung from him; he groaned softly.

She worked her way through the buttons with a speed that astonished him and pulled the crisp, white shirt out of his blue trousers. I've never been so nervous, she admitted in a whisper as she turned her sweet kisses to the skin on his chest. The action almost brought Diego to his knees.

Still, he managed to say, I thought the Alcalde had figured us out for sure. He managed to untie the sash from her waist, leaving it to hang, forgotten, from the edges of his fingers. It was a good thing on the whole that she wore a sash; its presence had deterred his amorous pursuits on more than one occasion. Now, however, it was as much a nuisance as a deterrent. He removed the sash to lay in a colorful red puddle beside her keys on the bar as he leaned down for his first of many burning kisses. He ran his fingers lightly over what skin he could reach as the endearment wore on, teasing her with his touch.

I wasn't talking about that, answered Victoria in a whisper as she stretched her neck out long. He turned his attention towards the silky skin along her throat and shoulders.

Diego increased the pressure of his endearments and removed the silk necktie that held his own shirt closed at his throat. Then what were you talking about? he murmured into her inviting, warm, skin. The tie found a new resting place beside her sash.

The wedding ceremony, she responded, not caring for once if anybody peered at them through the tavern's clean, clear windows. All anybody was likely to see was a man kissing his wife. If where those kisses landed wasn't fit for public viewing, and that someone saw something embarrassing, then that was the voyeur's fault. I kept expecting the Alcalde to break in to the mission and call off the wedding.

Diego uttered the last words that he could under the circumstances. Heaven forbid.

Victoria was about to say, That's what I thought, when his lips captured hers again and then she was far too busy to say anything at all.

With her hands freely roaming over the hidden muscles under his open shirt, she kissed him like she was starving, and unceremoniously led him, or rather, shoved him to the stairs that led to her room. There was no doubt as to what was on her mind as Diego's foot found the first step and they began climbing.

Frustrated with the lack of advancement he was making with his hands, Diego pulled her flowered shirtwaist from her skirt and yanked it over her head the second they reached the balcony, baring her shoulders, corset, and under things to anybody happening to look through the window. She would have protested in a feminine squeak, but her emotions were too heightened by then to worry that she was basically naked to anybody who cared to look. Nobody did.

Only Diego cared enough to glance once at her in appreciation as they reached the top of the stairs and stepped onto the balcony. He gave one shuddering sigh before he buried his lips in the gentle swell of her breasts. Victoria's own sigh reached up to his ears on a less than gentle groan of pure passion. Her dreams of this event had elicited feelings nothing like the emotions she was currently experiencing as she reached for the ends of his shirt and he clasped the ties for her corset.

By the time he had removed her underthings, freeing her breasts to his gaze and to the cool, afternoon air of siesta, they had reached her room. Diego let the unwanted underwear drop to her floor as he brushed his lips lightly around her naval and lowered her under him to the single bed. The wrinkles of the quilt her grandmother had used went unnoticed as Victoria found her fingers curled in the light dusting of hair along his chest. That touch led to her fingers being concealed in the hair on top of his head as his mouth closed around one pink nipple and she didn't think any further thoughts at all. The yearning sensation that had possessed her entire body was too much for her mind to comprehend.

Boots, shoes, skirt, trousers, all joined the underthings on the floor as the desire to feel skin on skin was almost overwhelming. Diego lay atop Victoria, reveling in the feel of her stomach under his probing hands even as he supported most of his prodigious weight on his elbows. He kissed, he touched, he explored, and none of his daydreams about making love to Victoria even came close to reality as her own fingers wove amazing patterns across the skin of his back and down to his thighs.

Gingerly rubbing the skin she had only imagined before from his legs to his head, Victoria's excitement coiled tight and grew until she almost jumped up to meet him when he caressed her chest one second before he slowly entered her, letting her become used to the sensation in the only deliberate move either one of them had made all afternoon. It felt so good to have him finally touching her that Victoria urged him closer, deeper, yet.

Hair hung wildly in eyes and across the sweat beaded on foreheads as sighs turned into quiet groans of longing. Diego pushed forward instinctively, breaking the entrance to Victoria's cherished and protected womb as her hips rose clear off the bed to meet his rhythm with a wild, demanding, pressure that only she could feel. Pain, both expected as well as real, faded into the background as that pressure tightened and twisted. Sweetly swirling, surrounding and embroiling them in swaths of passion, the pressure only built around them, shrouding each in ripples of delight. They were both aware only of the feelings of enchantment that the other elicited.

Victoria placed her hands on his hips, guiding each thrust belonging to that ancient rhythm he had found, instinctively desiring the promised fulfillment, whether it was considered descent for her to want it or not. She heaved again when he came in contact with the fiery, hot center to that pleasure. She wanted to yell her enjoyment at such feelings, wanted to reach for the ecstasy she was enjoying, wanted to share it. She opened her mouth, prepared to give everything to the man she unequivocally loved. But nothing happened, except for that impossible tightness of the pressure in her most private of places tightened even further. Without warning, that pressure broke apart in pure pleasure. The thrill traveled across her stomach and the aching in her groin turned to heat as she shuddered and pulsed, hanging on with her arms wrapped around Diego's back for everything she was worth. Her eyes scrunched shut with that pleasant, mind-numbing sensation of unexpected fulfillment.

Diego bent to kiss her cheek, but instead felt himself hurtling to his own destiny as she shivered beneath him. His own resolution came with unprecedented satisfaction as he groaned softly into the smooth skin of her neck through teeth clenched tightly together. He buried himself securely within her undulating folds as his own pulsing wore on and the pleasure only built inside of him to explode soundlessly in one final burst of passion. The sensation became a throbbing, then a tickle, then it was over, and Victoria's arms and legs encircled him in the most intimate embrace he had ever received.

She whispered, Dios mio, as her grasp tightened.

Diego rolled off her so she could breath easier again, but refused to break contact completely as he linked his fingers with hers. I love you, Victoria, he whispered and kissed her on the end of her nose after he spoke.

For her part, Victoria may have shared his feelings, but she was left speechless by the last twinges caused by his new position. Lying beside her, he woke the last vestiges of desire in her, and she shivered anew.

Are you cold? he asked, still whispering though there were no boarders yet at the siesta hours of early afternoon.

Eyes still closed, Victoria drew in air like she had been in a fire, and shook her head.

He tenderly kissed her forehead and fondled her curls. That way your hips rose... Where did you learn such a thing? he asked in curiosity. It had been obvious that she, like he, had never experienced the joy of making love before, and he wondered where such art had come from if she was as innocent as her body proved her to be.

Eyes still closed, savoring memories, she smiled. Oh, I hear things when the tavern is full of men. If I'm quiet and unobtrusive, I learn a lot of things a woman isn't likely to learn if she asks directly. And there's a book called 'The Art of Wifely Duties' in my desk drawer that's so explicit, it would make even you blush.

Diego laughed. That was a duty?

Actually, the author is fairly stodgy, but the pictures are... illuminating, she admitted with the smile still on her face.

Diego gently kissed her on those smiling lips. I'll champion the cause of duty any time of the day or night.

Victoria's eyes flew open and she had swatted him on his arm before she realized that he was joking. Carrying the humor just a little bit further, she said, See if I don't tell you to.

Tell me? Diego questioned in sarcasm. You'll never tell me to do anything, Doņa de la Vega, he predicted.

Her first response was to be angry at his imperious, arrogant tone, but then she grinned, wriggled seductively, and whispered, There are many ways to tell you what you need to do, Seņor de la Vega.

He kissed her on the lips once more, a lingering promise of future events. I look forward to that telling more than you can know.

In reply, Victoria hugged him again, transmitting her thoughts on the subject in admirable silence. At long last, she whispered, I love you, too.

By the time supper rolled around at the de la Vega hacienda, Don Alejandro had read a great portion of his current book while he waited in the library, a glass of wine resting at his elbow. But even as he read, part of his brain was reserved for worrying about the location of his only son, who had disappeared to mysterious places immediately after mass that morning. Even Felipe didn't know where he was, and the worry Alejandro automatically felt at Diego's strange absence was quickly turning into irritation. He would give Diego until right after supper to show himself before he asked the Alcalde to form a party to search for the missing caballero. The government man might not be happy about doing his duty on a Sunday, a day specifically deigned as a day of rest, but Alejandro knew DeSoto would get over his feelings of frustration. The caballero would make sure he got over them.

But for now, Alejandro enjoyed his book, settling more firmly into the soft cushion of the chair he was sitting in. Nearing the end, he was waiting in anticipation to read about the culmination of the characters' adventures when the front door suddenly burst open, letting the coolness of the autumn air flow through the house.

Alejandro couldn't see who entered, naturally, but he had no trouble hearing the noise made by the two people who stood, laughing, on his threshold; the missing Diego and Seņorita Escalante.

So Diego had invited the lovely tavern owner to the hacienda for supper. That's what he must have done, for what other reason could explain her presence at the hacienda so late in the day? However, an invitation to supper was hardly enough to cause so much noise and confusion in the foyer. And the noise being created as the two entered the hacienda was as peculiar as it was loud.

Diego, this is a silly tradition! came Victoria's voice, perfectly audible in the crisp air.

Diego answered on another laugh. It's not silly at all. But it will be terribly amusing if I drop you, so stop wriggling so much.

Don't you dare drop me! she ordered on an answering laugh. Though I would like it better if you just put me down.

I can't do that right now; not enough room, Diego explained in a voice much more like the one Alejandro recalled his son using on his return from Spain. That return had been a long time ago, but Alejandro still vaguely remembered that voice in the darkened parts of his brain. Diego sounded cool and unusually confident.

Can you get the door with your free hand? Diego asked next. I don't seem to have one available.

Victoria laughed again, and Alejandro heard the unmistakable sound of a door slamming shut.

I'd use my foot, but I think I still have need of them, Diego said, his voice carrying lightly around the corner to his father sitting quietly, listening, in the library.

That's Diego? Alejandro silently asked himself, amazed at the words coming to him from the entryway.

Then he heard Victoria say, You know, Diego, I would be much better at getting into the house if I could do it on my own two feet.

And break with tradition?

What tradition?

I wouldn't mind, grumbled Victoria, sounding world weary.

I would. Besides, I like you here.

Alejandro heard as much as saw Diego round the corner of the entryway, oddly enough cradling an equally subdued tavern owner in his arms. Though Victoria was clearly being carried for some strange reason, she and Diego were both laughing so hard that they easily caused the loud noise that Alejandro had just heard. Their laughter abruptly ended the second they caught sight of Alejandro sitting in his chair, unmoving, in the library.

Father! Diego exclaimed, quiet now though still smiling. I didn't expect you. I thought supper would have already begun.

I'm waiting for it now, replied Alejandro, a patient, fatherly lilt to his voice. It's nice of you to join me this evening. Now his voice clearly held animosity.

Diego shrugged, a motion not lost on Alejandro despite the yards of material currently covering his arms. He made no move to deposit Victoria on the rug.

Which made Alejandro instantly suspicious. What happened, Victoria? Did you sprain your ankle? he asked, pretending calmness that he didn't feel.

Victoria instantly and quite guiltily shook her head. No, no, there's no problem like that.

Alejandro grew even more concerned. What was going on? It's good of you to wish to visit over supper, Victoria, but if you don't have any ankle problems, why, then, is Diego carrying you? And Diego, don't think you'll escape so easily; I've not seen you since this morning. Where the devil have you been? Here he looked pointedly at his son, then whipped his eyes back to Victoria.

It was Diego who answered first. Well, you see... His voice was hesitant and unsure.

Yes? Alejandro encouraged as he watched Diego do the adult version of 'squirm under his father's eye.' It was strangely satisfying to see such nervousness.

Victoria turned her head to look at Diego. He doesn't know yet?

That question surprised Alejandro. Know? He jerked up straight in his chair. Know what?

And Diego suddenly looked like he'd just realized something of great importance. It was as if a thousand candles went off on his head. He still held tightly to Victoria, but his attention was definitely directed inward even as his face lit up with his sudden idea.

Alejandro glanced over at Diego, a paternal look of doom gracing his features. Diego, is there something you wish to tell me? he asked, threatening even as he tried to be persuasive, and even as his voice was successfully soft.

Diego hefted Victoria more firmly into his arms, then sat, Victoria and all, on the love seat. He settled gingerly at first, until he was certain that the piece of furniture could support the two of them, but the love seat didn't even bow under the double weight. Diego sat, holding Victoria on his lap, wrapping his arms tightly around her so she couldn't scoot off to the side in embarrassment. His left arm ended up in his father's line of sight. Actually, Father, there is something going on.

I look forward to hearing it, murmured Alejandro. He glanced down, his attention caught suddenly by a mysterious and compelling glint of light. The flicker came from the ring on Diego's finger, and on closer inspection, the flicker came from what was obviously a wedding ring. That could only mean...

Alejandro's mouth dropped open as wide as his eyes, and he slowly rose from his chair to approach his son, where he slowly bent for a closer look. Then he noticed the ring on Victoria's left hand, a ring he recognized as one he'd bought many years ago for his future bride, Elena, He turned white. Madre de Dios, he whispered as he looked at what was clearly two wedding bands.

Yes, Diego said, a little uneasily. We're married. That's what I wanted to tell you.

Madre de Dios, repeated Alejandro in a hushed voice. A minute of silence passed. Then he glanced sharply at Victoria. What about Zorro? What does he say about all of this?

I don't know. Victoria turned to Diego. What do you say to all this?

Diego instantly answered, I say 'That's my wife, and she's just where I want her to be.'

For a second, Alejandro didn't internalize his son's words. Then he gaped anew. You're not..? he exclaimed.

Diego nodded. I am.

Madre de Dios, muttered Alejandro once again. It appeared that he was so surprised at hearing the news, he could only whisper the same sentence over and over again.

Diego looked chagrined now. I meant to tell you years ago. I just... got sidetracked, he finally decided upon. I know it's a lot to get used to...

Alejandro interrupted with a whisper, Madre de Dios.

Yes, you've said that, Diego replied, as Victoria giggled.

Why... why... What else can I say? Alejandro spluttered inelegantly.

I'm sure the mother of Jesus has something better to do with her time than look in on the Los Angeles area, Diego quipped dryly. Besides, there's nothing happening here except two people who have waited for nearly five years have finally had their dreams come true. He nuzzled Victoria's nose. I know mine has.

You always say the most romantic things. Victoria smiled.

And I plan to keep saying them, Diego responded with an answering grin and a kiss for her forehead.

Alejandro was not nearly as bowled over by the commentary as Victoria appeared to be. He managed to bring a certain order to the chaos that was ringing in his mind. Sarcastically he said, All right, you two lovebirds, I hate to rain on your day of happiness, but what about the Alcalde?

Victoria shrugged, and Diego asked, What about him?

Alejandro exploded, He's going to kill you, that's what!

Victoria waved his fears aside with her hand. No, he's not. Besides, he already knows.

Alejandro reared back in alarm. He does?

He does. Diego responded, his voice still light, though deeper than usual.

It was like having Zorro sitting in the library, taking tea. The entire situation was surreal. And he hasn't done anything? Alejandro asked incredulously.

Diego sighed. Father, DeSoto doesn't see beyond the end of his own necktie collection. It was the most honest and the most unkind thing Diego had ever said about the Alcalde. Alejandro gaped like a dead fish, and even Victoria stared.

Well, it's true, and I've been on intimate terms with his neckties, so I should know, Diego assured them.

I bet you have, Victoria said with raised eyebrows.

Alejandro seemed shocked. I'm stunned, he said. Then he looked at Diego. My Diego? Is Zorro?

You sent me to Spain to learn, didn't you? Diego asked next, then conceded, Though some things I learned perhaps a little better than others. He had the decency to look embarrassed.

Alejandro opened his mouth and took a deep breath, ready to begin one of his famous lectures, when a servant, Jose, came around the corner and stopped him before he could get started, much to Diego's everlasting thankfulness. Dinner is served, the servant announced.

Diego's face brightened. Good, I'm starved. He stood, hefting Victoria into his arms again. She squealed.

Victoria commented, How can you think of food at a time like this? And for the last time, please put me down.

But Diego didn't release her, firmly shaking his head. There's something I want to show you yet. Well, several somethings. He stared, though, at his father as the man walked in an apparent daze to the front door. You're not eating, Father?

Alejandro stopped, but said his words to the door. I've lost my appetite, he said. And I suddenly have a lot to think about. You go ahead without me. And then he was gone, out the door to watch the autumn sunset.

Diego and Victoria watched the empty front foyer for a moment, their eyes on the spot that the older don had occupied. Then Diego hefted Victoria again.

Finally, she asked, What do you want to show me, Diego?

Diego turned to look at her, knowing his father just needed to be alone for awhile. After all, he had much to assimilate. Will supper wait? She nodded. You're going to like this, Diego promised, and carried her off to their new suit of rooms, built years ago and hidden behind what looked like a common guest room door.

Married life was satisfactory in all concepts of the word. In fact, Victoria's days didn't much change. She still tended the tavern and its many customers, and on those times that Zorro had to visit the pueblo, she was extra cautious to draw no attention to the fact that while Diego wore the black mask of Zorro, he completely ignored her unless her safety was in question, such as the time bandits arrived unexpectedly through the pueblo gates and started shooting at everything in sight. Luckily, the garrison lancers handled the uprising with unanticipated efficiency, and Zorro mopped up what they couldn't handle, meaning that Diego was gone all night once more, searching for the escaped bandits while Victoria sat up and fretted.

Yet that was the only problem that confronted the newlyweds over the following months. Diego, like on many nights, slipped into bed late, not knowing that Victoria had spent the night wondering if he'd been shot or killed while out in the darkness, tracking, protecting the area of Los Angeles from those evil bandits bent on making mischief in what was a peace-loving pueblo. The members of the garrison, who were supposed to be catching such outlaws because it was their job, but who weren't the best of trackers, spent the evening enjoying the tavern's amenities. It almost made Victoria want to scream. That night, instead of sleeping, she sat up and worried until she saw his presence again with her own two eyes at four o'clock the next morning.

She swallowed the strain until, two weeks later, in the middle of March, she couldn't stand the silence any longer. She spoke with an edge added to the quiet voice she had adopted when speaking of Zorro.

Diego, we need to talk, she said in restrained calm.

Diego didn't hear the bleakness coming from his wife. His mind was on the latest adventure of Zorro, and on his and Victoria's most recent adventure in lovemaking, one he hoped to duplicate soon. It still amazed him that he had garnered a wife who was so... willing. What about? he asked lightly, having no idea that he was rushing towards his own fate.

You won't like what I have to say, she predicted.

That statement, uttered in perfect seriousness, caught his attention. With a concerned look, he turned to Victoria. What is it? Are you hurt?

No, I'm not hurt, she reassured quickly, then amended, At least, not in the way you mean. She was thinking of the bandits from two weeks ago, and how glad she was that they had aimed their destruction at the market day stalls, bent on demolition, instead of at the people, bent on killing someone.

He stopped his fiddling with the vests hanging in his wardrobe and eyed Victoria. What do you mean? It's not like you to talk in riddles.

Victoria snorted. No, that's more your way, she commented, not angrily, but recalling all the times he had tried to give himself away to her in the past using nothing but poorly quoted poetry. I can't even count how many lines of poetry you quoted. Talk about riddles!

He would have laughed at any other time, reminiscing with her, but he was feeling suddenly too panicked by the look of gloom on her face. But that's not it, is it? he prompted.

Victoria sighed and sat with a bump on their bed. No. She twiddled her thumbs. She actually twiddled her thumbs. She stopped the nervous movement as soon as she realized she was doing it, then took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Diego, how much longer is this going to go on, do you think?

Diego was confused and stood as limply beside his wardrobe as his clothes hung inside it. What are you talking about? But he had a pretty good idea, already, and his heart sank.

Victoria tried crossing her arms, but that just made her look belligerent. Zorro, of course.

What about him? Diego guardedly asked.

Victoria next uncrossed her arms, but raised a hand to her forehead, unusually vulnerable. Diego, I know you can take care of yourself, but things are different now. This waiting while you risk your life, wondering if I'm going to have a husband the following day, is killing me.

Diego smiled indulgently at her choice of words. Don't you think you're being just a touch dramatic?

No, no, I don't. A persona like Zorro calls for drama.

But you were fine with the waiting before, he protested, finally coming to sit beside her on the neatly made bed.

Victoria smiled. Before, things were different. I had my work at the tavern, and you were nothing more than a dream, really. A very good dream, she was sure to protest, but a dream, nonetheless.

Diego felt his heart begin to thud. What do you mean to say? Are you getting tired of the marriage? he blurted, his eyes wide over his mustache.

Victoria knew what he wasn't saying. He was worried that she was getting tired not of the marriage, but of being married to him. It was amazing how such a confident man could have so little confidence in himself. No, no. Nothing like that. I'm not tired of the marriage. I'm just... just... What was she tired of? There was still a need for Zorro, and she still supported the decision to keep the legend alive, though not at her husband's expense. The dreams, or rather, nightmares, she'd had about his death at the hands of uncaring bandits were enough to give her chills on a hot day. Maybe, she was just plain tired? Suddenly she said, Diego, I'm pregnant.

His wide eyes got even wider. What? he asked in stunned surprise, drawing the word out in his amazement.

I'm going to have our first baby, and I'd rather not have to worry every night about where its father is. Victoria drew in a deep, even breath.

Diego simply sat, stunned. A baby? Isn't it a bit early for babies? he asked.

She quizzically stared at him. That's all you have to say?

Well, no, I... Then the news truly sank in. He paused. A baby? She nodded. Madre de Dios, he whispered in shock.

Victoria chuckled. Now you sound like your father.

A baby? But I... he started to protest, then the waves of gladness wrapped their talons around him. A baby! He pulled Victoria to him in a hug so tight that it threatened to disrupt her stays. It can't be true! Diego felt her nod against his neck. Abruptly concerned, he pushed himself back so that he could look at her. Have you been to see Dr. Hernandez? Is everything all right?

Victoria smiled and sucked in welcome air. Yes, last week, and everything's just fine. You don't have to worry on that account. She paused, herself, then plunged on, Diego, don't you see that now everything's different? It's not just me anymore.

Slowly, still incredulous at the news, Diego nodded his head. Yes, I understand your problem.

What should I do? I can't just sit around for the next eight months, wondering if you're alive or not.

That's how far along you are?

Victoria nodded again.

Knowing that the first three or four months were the most conducive to miscarriage in pregnancy affected Diego's next question, though it was difficult to make his mind work at all, to be honest. Do you want him to retire?

Victoria had long since gotten used to referring to her previous love in the third person. It was safer that way, and collected fewer looks of concern and suspicion. But it was still strange, she thought as she considered how much her life was about to change. Yes and no, she answered honestly. Yes, I want him to retire for safety's sake, and no, I don't want him to retire for the sake of those poor people in the pueblo who need his defense. Who do they have to help but Zorro? If not for him, we all would have been completely taken advantage of years ago.

Diego rolled his eyes, even as he was holding on to her elbows. The contact was extremely nice. I know. He remembered. She had been thrown in jail, along with his father, and the entire pueblo was in military chaos.

Victoria shrugged. Perhaps we should mention this to your father. He might have some suggestions besides retirement. Retirement is so... final. She stumbled over her last word.

A baby? The whisper echoed in Diego's mind, and he wondered if his father had felt the same sense of disbelief when he'd found out about his son's unheralded marriage. The comparison was most appropriate.

That thought brought Diego around to thinking about Don Alejandro. Suddenly, he gave a large smile. Father's going to be so pleased, he predicted.

Why? Victoria settled herself more firmly in his new, lighter, embrace, and guided his hand across her still flat abdomen.

Diego chuckled this time. Have I ever told you about the many times he used to talk to me about wanting grandchildren?

They would have spoken to Don Alejandro that very night, but were busy celebrating the promise of the new baby, and didn't take the opportunity to be disturbed. The very next morning, Alejandro came storming into the hacienda, ready to crack the heads together of anybody he met, he was so angry. It seemed the Alcalde was up to his old tricks by placing a new tax on any citizen who walked through or worked in the plaza, which was just about everybody. His excuse was that the plaza was a public place, and therefore, anybody who used the plaza publicly should pay for its upkeep, hence the new tax.

I wonder how we're supposed to use it unpublicly, said Alejandro with scorn very evident in his voice. Then he turned his calmer attention to Diego. I'm sorry, Son, he apologized. I suppose you are planning to ride out in protest of this new... this monstrosity, and I should spend my energy worrying about you, not by being uselessly cruel and angry.

Diego snapped shut the book he'd been reading in the library while Victoria was at work. Don't concern yourself, Victoria already has the angle of the worrier covered, Diego remembered. He'd forgotten all about his talk with Victoria the day before in the excitement concerning the new baby. Now it all came back to him in full force.

Diego stood. I don't see what choice I have but to defend the innocent in this. However, please, you might want to gather the caballeros present in the plaza to get them ready for a protest.

You don't mean an uprising? Alejandro asked in astonishment.

Perhaps, Diego hedged, unwilling to commit. Whatever happens today, I have to be prepared to start doing less and less for the citizens of the pueblo.

Surprised, Alejandro could only gape. You're not thinking about retiring? But even in his surprise, he was thinking of the baby that Victoria was having. Diego had mentioned that baby just that morning, and though Alejandro was thrilled beyond measure to hear about becoming a grandfather, he had to wonder how this type of future might conflict with the continuation of Zorro.

Diego shrugged. What choice do I truly have? With a new child on the way, Victoria's already worried enough of the time to encourage him to retire. But today, I think, is just a little too soon for retirement. At the end of his statement, his voice hardened until it was as steely as the blade he typically used in his defense of the poor.

Victoria's worried for you?

Diego nodded. And you know how she is when she's worried, he said, indicating her temper that neither had seen since before the wedding. However, they both also knew that Diego would do anything for her; he wouldn't be able to stop himself. But neither suspicion changed the current situation. Quietly, he instructed his father to find Felipe, and disappeared into the hidden bowels of Zorro's secret cave.

Diego just didn't understand exactly what it meant that he would do anything for her until later that same day.

Toronado went charging under the sign bearing the name of Los Angeles as the afternoon sun streamed down on the people already protesting the new tax in the plaza in front of the Alcalde's office, wanting to be in easy sight in case they were noticed by the appointed official.

They were not happy; the plaza was one of the few gathering places left in Los Angeles, and to tax it was preposterous. Its upkeep had always come from the garrison fund before, and the town's citizens didn't see why it couldn't continue to do so. Oh, they knew why, and it wouldn't take much incentive to make them start to protest that. DeSoto knew this, and even though he had created the tax to bolster his sagging military budget, there was no way he planned to tell that to anyone.

Until Zorro 'encouraged' him to, that is.

Still, the citizens' angry yells rang loudly out to the surrounding countryside. Zorro heard them long before he saw them. Unable to resist the opportunity to catch his arch nemesis, DeSoto burst out of his office into the startled, though now silent, crowd of onlookers. What's the meaning of this? he yelled.

Zorro pulled Toronado to a stop and tilted his head cockily, sliding off the mount and drawing his sword simultaneously. Now, that's what I should be asking you, Alcalde.

You don't frighten me by riding in here, spewing dust, just to protest my new tax, sneered DeSoto. That is why you're here, isn't it?

Zorro swung his masked and hatted head the other way. Yes, that's why I'm here, and if you would stop this ridiculous taxation, I wouldn't have to 'ride in here' at all, he answered.

Suddenly, another crowd of onlookers streamed onto the porch from the tavern's main room, and Zorro knew without even looking that Victoria was with them, watching the conflict with her heart in her throat, but always carefully disguised to look only mildly interested. Zorro didn't dare glance around at her, but felt her gaze burning through his dark clothing, anyway, and thought about her commentary the day before. He shook his head to rid himself of the distracting, though intriguing, thoughts. One thing he couldn't afford right now was to be distracted by concern for her anxiety.

Unfortunately, DeSoto also noticed Victoria's arrival on the scene. He couldn't help but point her out to the masked man. Ridiculous, is it? Why don't we ask your old girlfriend how ridiculous she thinks it is? He pointed right at Victoria across the plaza, as if he planned to skewer her with his finger.

DeSoto was trying to engage Zorro's temper, he knew, and it was working. Zorro felt his blood pressure rise at even the reference to Victoria. Knowing that worse insults were coming his way, Zorro growled, Leave her out of this. She has nothing to do with your new tax.

DeSoto playfully batted at Zorro's drawn sword. Oh, no, I think she's already a part of this whether she wants to be or not.

Zorro responded, I said leave her out! And while we're at it... Zorro swung his sword to the side. The Alcalde blocked it, but not without effort. Rescind this new tax, Alcalde.

Or what? scoffed the military man. You'll do to me what you did to her; nothing? He was hoping to pique the other man's temper, and he did, better than even he anticipated.

But for now, Zorro pretended to keep his cool. He swung his sword in a badly executed swing. He was too angry to stick to good swordplay. No, I'll just disarm you, he threatened.

No, you won't, said DeSoto, who lunged. Zorro blocked the lunge and riposted. What's the matter, Zorro? taunted DeSoto. Too distracted by the tavern's service to do your worst? Or does that pleasure only stem to the tavern owner?

At the intended insult, falling prey to that other man's barbs, Zorro's hold on his anger snapped. I said that we should leave her alone! With that yelled, he flicked his sword and quickly disarmed the Alcalde in one bold stroke. The man's sword went flying into the cuartel, where it landed unceremoniously in the dirt.

DeSoto instantly claimed, I'm unarmed, even while he tried to surreptitiously reach for his left boot.

You are never completely unarmed, Alcalde, Zorro answered scathingly. And I wouldn't reach for your hidden pistol if I was you.

The hand instantly stopped, but the Alcalde was still seething about the fact that his attempt at arming himself had been halted, to say nothing of how he felt at being detected. Livid, he couldn't help but goad, Tell me, does she accommodate just anybody, including married men, or does one have to be single to apply?

Furious, Zorro's sword shot up to threaten the Alcalde with its sharp end, apparently ready to plunge into his evil heart and end this contest once and for all.

How had a protest against unjust taxation ended in this? Zorro didn't know, but now he had Victoria's stainless reputation to defend. All the while, a more analytical part of his brain was realizing that his old schoolmate was simply baiting him, trying to make him angry in the hopes that he would make a mistake. It was a dangerous strategy, but one that had worked on other bandits before him. He'd seen it work while he was pretending to be just Diego. But that did little to deter him at the moment. Seņor, don't question her reputation. Don't forget that she is a married woman.

Don Alejandro spoke then from his usual place at the front of the crowd, held back only by the presence of a lancer and his rifle, which was kept pointing towards the dirt, but was equally prepared to be fired if necessary. Seņor Zorro, don't do anything you might... regret... later, Alejandro warned, trying to save the man who he knew was his son from the dishonor of killing someone in a fit of rage. The old army colonel knew what that type of soul-eating could do to a man.

Don Alejandro's warning succeeded in grabbing Zorro's attention, the familiar voice piercing through the red haze currently covering his mind in a fog of fury. Very little incensed him more than a blight on Victoria's reputation. Instead of plunging the blade into the Alcalde, like he wanted to, his right hand shot out to grasp the Alcalde around the throat. I thought we had already decided that she is a married woman and we would leave her out of our deliberations, he ground through clenched teeth.

A point you'd do well to remember yourself, Zorro, gurgled the Alcalde in a voice too quiet for anybody else to hear as the gloved hand began to squeeze tighter. Or doesn't that bother you? Dallying with another man's wife. It was common knowledge that Zorro had been completely perplexed at apparently being jilted by Victoria, and he was currently nursing a wounded heart even as they spoke. Could he be hiding something more?

The gloved hand tightened even further. One more word out of you, and you'll be wishing for the same fate as your sword; it would hurt less. I'm warning you, Seņor, don't push me too far.

The Alcalde glanced out of the corners of his eyes at the lancers holding back the crowd. He had a look that was so insincere that anybody, even the padre, would have known he was lying about Victoria's reputation. As if he could read Zorro's mind, he said, I'll have to ask the padre about the tavern owner to hear of any strange confessions lately. It seems that she's more willing than anybody realizes to... perform... hidden duties.

That does it The sword came up again. Nobody, and I mean nobody, insults Victoria's reputation.

The Alcalde's arms grabbed uselessly at the hand circling like a clamp around his throat. What do you care if another man's wife is slandered? he groaned, stopping Zorro's hand from tightening any further. DeSoto was silent as his eyes narrowed in speculation. Unless she isn't another man's wife, but yours, which can only mean that you are... The eyes widened in comprehension. Diego? Just as quickly, he started to chuckle behind that gloved hand holding him captive. Diego! I would never have guessed, but it's so clear once you know! His glee certainly lasted long enough to taunt his old fellow student. I've found you out, and I will ruin you once I tell every citizen of this pueblo who you really are, he promised. Then his stance changed to a more questioning one. Tell me, how does the seņora fancy herself as a widow?

Not answering, but with the statement burned into his brain for eternity, Zorro drew back his sword. I warned you. Then he plunged the fist, sword and all, into the gloating man's jaw. DeSoto fell, unconscious instantly, landing in the dust where he stood. Zorro was so angry that he didn't exactly care where the Alcalde landed, just so long as he shut up.

Zorro's heart pounding with sudden adrenaline driven by fear, he whistled for Toronado. The horse arrived immediately, and just as quickly, Zorro bolted into the saddle. The steed reared before galloping out of town, and Zorro hung on like a man possessed, all the while thinking Oh, God, he knows! It was his worst nightmare come true.

Forgetting to glance at Victoria, as Toronado's rear allowed a covert glance, they raced out of town and across the plain. For once Zorro didn't backtrack or take the time to cover his tracks to confuse any possible lancers who might be following. He rode straight for the de la Vega hacienda, knowing that time was too important, now.

Reaching the cover of the secret cave, Zorro hurried Toronado inside as soon as the tree-covered door was open. He jumped out of the saddle, nearly scaring a waiting Felipe to tears.

I'm sorry, amigo, but I have no choice, said Zorro as his feet hit the cave's stone floor. I've been discovered, I'm afraid, and it's either stay, be caught, and make my baby a half orphan before it has a chance to even be born, or hide. I choose to hide. Zorro yanked off the black gloves, leaving the mask in place for later use.

Felipe quickly signed something, but Zorro didn't have time to interpret it. I've been discovered, Felipe! Don't you understand? I don't have time to figure out what you're trying to say! I'm sorry, but the only thing I can do now is run, and I want to run before the Alcalde wakes up and tells everybody about my identity. I need money and food, more than we usually keep on hand in the saddlebags. Now hurry, please.

Felipe didn't need any more incentive. He didn't even take the time to peer through the peephole to make sure it was safe. He ran up the steps, through the cave entrance, the library, and headed for the kitchen.

Zorro balled up Diego's caballero clothes and shoved them into Toronado's saddlebag. Then he grabbed the rope off a wall hook, glad he'd had the foresight to keep it available for this day in case discovery ever happened. Now, he had definite need of it. He shoved it into the other saddlebag, but his ring caught on the bag's surface, and he paused as he withdrew his hand.

Victoria. Oh, God, he whispered, thinking of Victoria, the barely conceived child, and of the certainty of leaving his father to care for them, because he knew that he didn't have the time to ride back to the pueblo and whisk Victoria away from the future gallows she would surely face if his father couldn't protect her. And the child..? Zorro felt his heart constrict at the thought; how much he was going to miss. It was incredible, really, what a simple ring made him think about.

Felipe tore back into the cave, interrupting Zorro's negative thoughts, his hands, as well as his outstretched shirt, full of extra food and money. The interruption may have been well-timed, but even that wasn't enough to distract Zorro completely from his thoughts.

Zorro's fingers wrapped around Felipe's arm, stopping the boy as he held out his offerings. Victoria, he said through his rasping throat. You have to tell her how sorry I am that I got her mixed up in all this. Tell her how much I regret losing my temper, that I should know better. Tell her I love her.

Why don't you tell me yourself.

Zorro whirled towards the stairs, catching sight of Victoria's shadowy form standing on the top step. She breathed hard, leaning against the stone support wall, clutching her side as if she was in pain. I'm so glad I caught you first.

Victoria! Zorro called. Instantly she was in arms that were curled tightly around her. There was panic in the words that rushed from his mouth, I'm so sorry, but DeSoto discovered my identity today. I have to leave before...

But she was shaking her head. Take a look at this piece of parchment, she said enigmatically.

What? Zorro answered back; he was trying to run for his life, and all she could talk about was something she was holding? He hadn't even seen a piece of parchment in her hands when she was standing on the cave's step. I don't have time to look at anything. I have to go, now!

Victoria's grip clenched around his back, effectively keeping him in place. No, you don't understand! You've been pardoned.

What? Zorro asked again. Were the first few months of the pregnancy making her delusional? What do you mean? I have to go before DeSoto wakes up and...

But Victoria was again shaking her head back and forth. Her hair made little rustling sounds as it touched the silk of his black shirt. No, I'm telling the truth, she insisted. The Mexican Army came, right after you left. They've revolted, Diego, just like you and your father always said they would.

Zorro didn't understand, but her commentary was enough to make him halt in his haste. What?

Victoria smiled. Remember how I said that a woman can hear more by listening than by asking directly? And how many parties have we been invited to over the past months? she archly inquired.

That question made Zorro at least attempt to think. It was slow work as his brain instead of adrenaline reacted. Too many to count, he finally said.

The Revolution that you and everybody else was worried would happen, did happen, she said. And the King didn't want the territories any longer, so the last thing he did was sell California to Mexico before their army threw out Spain. DeSoto's in jail, and he doesn't even know it, yet; he will when he regains consciousness. Here, the pardon says it all. She left Diego's arms only long enough to hand him a piece of yellow paper, to thrust it under his eyes still peeping out from the holes in his mask.

The paper was covered in scratchy, governmental writing, with a lot of indecipherable language and unnecessary words. But it also said that Zorro, as well as any accomplices he might have had over the years, were free as long as Zorro didn't commit any further 'crimes' against the Mexican government. The only mention of Spain's previous claim on him was to denounce the death sentence that had once held him under its thumb.

That was all. But it was more than enough. It was all of Zorro's greatest dreams come true at once.

He glanced at Felipe, then looked at Victoria, and his mouth fell open at the shock of finally believing. He was almost too surprised to move, but with his free hand, he was still coherent enough to rip the mask backwards off his head, exposing his easily recognizable features.

A pardon? It was the last thing he expected. He drew in his first breath of freedom in between the shivers he felt, but kissed Victoria so hard, it made her head spin. Before she could recover, he was hugging Felipe, his adopted son. Yep, let's throw the biggest celebration this side of, well, of Mexico. We have a baby to celebrate!

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