A New Lease on Life

by Linda Bindner

An AU to the episode 'A New Lease on Love'

A/N: Not beta read. All mistakes are mine and mine alone.

Felipe sat silently at the side table in the tavern and calmly listened to what was happening to the people of the pueblo. A large group had gathered together by now to cool off and eat lunch. The teen pushed his hair off his sweaty forehead, hoping to catch whatever breeze might come through the front door just opposite the back table he occupied. Despite his attempts to cool off, watery beads of perspiration rolled down his temples and across his cheeks. He took another shallow drink from the warming glass of orange juice he currently nursed, retraining his attention back to the tavern's patrons.

Felipe idly watched two lancers slowly saunter out the front door, then saw three caballeros settle at one of the tables near the front of the busy room. At first, they patiently waited for Victoria to notice that they wanted to order lunch, but unlike any day he'd ever spent at the tavern, Victoria was too busy just then to notice anything.

As Felipe watched, the beautiful tavern owner dodged around the man who was determined to bother her at this busy time of day, oblivious of her schedule. The man smiled, said something, laughed to himself, and said more, seemingly unaware that the woman at the center of his attentions wasn't even listening to him. She gave him a distracted glance, but he didn't notice when she skirted around him, going in the other direction. Still talking, the man instantly matched her new stride. She paced to the bar, scooped up her serving tray, then crossed to a messy table and began placing the dirty dishes on the tray. After a moment, she marched back to the bar, carrying the tray full of dishes to deposit onto the top of the green bar, immediately replacing it with a rag. All the while, the man followed her step for step.

As had been happening to Victoria all week, this man had to be another suitor come to try his hand at capturing the tavern owner's attention. He certainly had the same narcissistic look of the suitors here earlier in the week. The man doggedly said something more to her, laughing at his wit, not noticing that Victoria still wasn't listening to him. Felipe had just long enough to wonder what Diego would have done in this situation (probably chosen to speak to Victoria during a time she was not so obviously inundated with customers) when the man said one last thing, and turned his hopeful puppy dog eyes onto Victoria.

The man had finally said the right thing to gain the tavern owner's attention, but it was clearly not the kind of attention he had been hoping for. Victoria paused, a steely look invading her eyes. Felipe smirked the moment he saw the crimson of rage suffuse her cheeks, and without warning of any kind, she gave the man a stinging slap.

Stunned, the man's hand instinctively flew to his cheek and his eyes grew wide in amazement. Felipe tensed in case the man retaliated in kind, but for once he did the intelligent thing. Withdrawing a few paces, he whipped around to appeal to the matchmaking woman just rising from the table behind him.

Her hand reaching out in soothing comfort, she shepherded the wounded man to the front door, passing Don Diego as he entered the establishment. “The woman's impossible,” he heard her complain to the ever-effusive Diego.

Diego gave an amused smile at what was often considered Victoria's worst asset - her temper - then crossed to speak to the woman herself. Felipe did his best to listen to their conversation, but they didn't speak loud enough for him to catch more than Diego insisting that he must see Victoria, and Victoria answering that she would see him later, as she had lunch to prepare. Her hasty movements said more than she did: because of that self-absorbed suitor, she no longer had time even for her best friend.

Diego grimaced, but didn't follow. Without putting up any more of a fight, he turned away as Victoria hurried through the curtains blocking off the kitchen from the tavern's dining room. Heat from the cooking fire blasted through the parted curtains, washing over Felipe in gusts of hot air. He shoved his hair aside once again, and wondered how Victoria could possibly stand such heat that was undoubtedly trapped in her kitchen.

Still idly wondering, drinking when he remembered to, the teen watched Diego turn away from the retreating Victoria, noting that for a man who 'must' speak with someone, it sure was easy for Victoria to get away from his friend. That was when his attention was diverted by the sudden flash of sunlight off a uniform button.

Who could that be, he wondered. The Alcalde? He was one of the few men in the pueblo who owned a uniform with enough buttons to flash in the sun like that.

But it wasn't the Alcalde. Diego had just turned his back on the front doors when Felipe saw another man stride through, heading straight for the curtains that hid Victoria in the kitchen. The unknown man, wearing what had to be a stifling wool uniform, smoothly parted the curtains and confidently walked through them like he owned the place. Intrigued by such authoritative behavior, Felipe's ears immediately tuned in to the conversation that began in Victoria's kitchen.

Felipe relaxed when it soon became apparent that Victoria knew this strange man named Juan. The heavy uniform represented His Majesty's Navy, Felipe soon learned, and the man was on his way to his new station in Monterey, but had stopped in Los Angeles to pay his respects to his old childhood sweetheart, Victoria Escalante.

But what Juan said next made Felipe bolt up from his bench in shock. Just like that, the stranger asked Victoria to marry him! Victoria remained silent, just as Juan instructed while he launched into why he thought he was a good match for Victoria, but Felipe was no longer listening to the conversation.

Victoria just couldn't marry anyone but Zorro... er... Diego! She loved him, not this upstart Naval Officer! He had to find Diego, immediately. His friend would stop her before she managed to ruin more lives than just her own.

Felipe craned his neck, frantically scanning the room for Diego, catching sight of him just as the caballero left the business establishment. Darting around his table, Felipe threaded through the growing lunch crowd, waved to Sergeant Mendoza, but didn't stop until he'd lurched through the front doors to find Diego just untying his horse from the hitching rail prior to heading out of town. The youth skidded to a halt on the tavern's porch and grabbed his patron's arm.

“Felipe!” Diego's welcoming smile slowly disappeared when he saw the youth's obvious agitation. “What is it?”

Felipe heaved great gusts of the hot air as he began signing in rapid bursts of motion. He first made his sign for the tavern owner, then had to repeat himself as he was already going too fast for even his well-practised friend to understand.

“Victoria,” Diego dutifully repeated to show that he finally understood.

Next came Felipe's sign for 'male stranger.'

“Man you don't know,” came the interpretation.

Felipe quacked his fingers together.

“Spoke.”

Felipe pointed to his ear.

“You overheard.”

'Man ask Victoria...' Then Felipe paused. How should he indicate the man had proposed marriage to the tavern owner? That wasn't exactly a common question that Felipe often signed.

Meanwhile, Diego guessed, “The man did something you don't understand?”

Felipe quickly smiled in amusement, but shook his head. He again made the sign for 'man,' followed by a question mark drawn into the air between them, followed by his sign meaning 'Victoria.'

Diego correctly interpreted, “The man asked Victoria... what?”

Felipe paused again. How to say 'proposed?'

Suddenly inspired, he held up his left hand and pantomimed slipping a ring onto his fourth finger, then linked his hands tightly together.

Diego had no trouble figuring out the meaning of that motion. “He proposed?” Felipe vigorously nodded.

Diego's response was hardly what the boy anticipated, though. “Is that all?” Diego had been as worn down by all the suitors that week as Victoria had, and it wasn't the first time she'd received a marriage proposal. But she always set the proposer straight if they didn't already know about her commitment to Zorro. She'd never even considered her previous proposals, and Diego was now as innured to them as she was.

But Felipe was not innured, hence didn't understand Diego's laconic reaction. Why was he not as horrified by this situation as Felipe thought he should be? He made his proposal sign again, then his Victoria sign, then acted as if he was thinking about something. Last, he arranged his features in an expression that he hoped would convey his anxiety.

It must have worked, for Diego instantly appeared more interested. “You say she's considering it?” His face clouded over as his anxiety finally matched Felipe's. “Let me get this straight - a man named Juan just proposed marriage to Victoria, and she's considering it?”

Relieved that Diego had understood his frantic signing so quickly, Felipe visibly relaxed and took a much needed gulp of air before he nodded another vigorous nod.

“This really is serious.” Diego was just beginning to grow stunned when Juan walked out of the tavern right in front of them. Seizing the opportunity, Felipe gave an emphatic gesture to the man's back as he strode towards the Alcalde's office, telling Diego who 'the male stranger' was.

Diego instantly recognized him. “That's Juan Ortiz. The last thing I heard about him was that he'd joined the Navy and was sailing around The Horn.”

'No more sailing,' Felipe indicated. He sketched an 'm' for Monterey in the air with a wave of his hand.

His wave must have been too fast. “He's not sailing anymore?” Diego guessed. “He's doing something different?”

Getting impatient, Felipe once again signed the letter 'm' into the air, then waved in a northerly direction.

“He's stationed now in Monterey?” Diego guessed.

Felipe nodded again.

Diego gushed an aggravated sigh. “Normally, I'd barely be worried about this - Victoria generally gets a proposal a week - but she always replies with a definite and quick 'no.' But with these matchmaking attempts lately, I have to think they make Juan into something more important than the average man.” He threw a questioning glance at his ward. “She didn't give an answer at all?” he softly questioned.

Felipe pointed to his head with his index finger.

Diego's anxiety intensified. “You said that before - she's actually considering it.”

Felipe gave an energetic nod.

This was bad. The 'Z' that Felipe discreetly flashed through the air made Diego say, “We all thought she loves Zorro. But maybe not enough to withstand this push to marry.”

Felipe next asked if Zorro could stop her.

Diego shrugged. “What can Zorro do?” he dispiritedly asked. “She's free to do as she pleases. It's her decision.”

But Felipe was adamant. His 'Z' was signed with more aggravation this time.

Diego tried hard to be patient. “Felipe, I just told you...”

Felipe socked him on the arm, hard.

“Ow!” Diego rubbed his arm, getting the distinct impression that Felipe was irritated with him. “What do you want me to do?” he hissed. “Zorro can't marry - you know that! At least, not until the mask comes off for good, and it looks like that won't happen any time soon!”

Felipe eyed him in an unforgiving manner.

Diego was just as adamant as Felipe had been moments before. “Zorro is an outlaw! If he marries her now, she'll become an outlaw as well. I won't turn her into a fugitive - I won't!”

Felipe again eyed Diego, a world of meaning in his expression. He signed a 'Z' and shook his head. Then he deliberately pointed directly to Diego and gave a definite nod.

Diego understood. “You think I should ask her?” He guffawed in spite of the dire situation. “Felipe, have you lost your mind?”

Felipe sarcastically rolled his eyes, then indicated that if Diego didn't propose to her right now, and Zorro couldn't marry her, then there was every chance that she would marry Juan and move to Monterey. He had to give her an alternative to Juan and the North: he had to ask her to marry him NOW.

Alarmed again, Diego shook his head. “I can't!”

Felipe wasn't in the mood to take 'no' for an answer. He hit Diego once more, even harder this time.

Diego flinched. “Felipe, stop that!”

Felipe shook his head, and hit him again.

Diego was on the verge of losing his temper. “Felipe! Stop!”

Felipe gave a shake of his head, then purposely looked Diego square in the eye as he hit him again.

And Diego got his meaning at last. “Oh, you mean I have to stop. Stop what?”

Felipe's quaking was obvious.

Diego wilted at the teen's meaning. “I have to stop being afraid.”

'She leave,' Felipe signed again, a warning look on his face. 'Never forgive.'

Diego wasn't sure if Felipe meant that he would never forgive Diego if he didn't do something right now, or if Diego would never forgive himself for remaining silent, but it really didn't matter. The point was that if he did nothing - again - then he would regret this moment for the rest of his life.

But Diego gave a mighty shrug. “I don't have a ring,” he excused.

That was a mistake. This time Felipe's slug was hard enough to leave a bruise.

“I wish you'd stop hitting me,” Diego groused as he energetically rubbed his arm, but paused for a moment as he couldn't help but consider what losing Victoria from his life as Diego as well as Zorro would truly mean for him. The gaping maw of instant depression greeted his mental wanderings. Knowing that he couldn't stand such a life, he flinched again at the image, feeling desperate to do anything to avoid that fate. Suddenly determined, he tossed Esperanza's reigns to the waiting Felipe. “Alright, you've convinced me. I'm going.” And with that, he disappeared back into the cooler realm of the tavern.

The sigh of relief that issued from Felipe was loud enough to make heads turn towards him, but he only wrapped Esperanza's reins securely to the hitching rail: Diego might be awhile.

Diego scanned the lunch crowd the minute he entered the tavern, not seeing Victoria at first, as she was encased in shadow near the rear tables. But his gaze instinctively latched onto her in mere seconds. He was so used to seeking her out the moment he entered her business that finding her wasn't difficult at all.

What was far more difficult was physically following her as she whisked back through the curtains to the kitchen. He was used to watching her instead of following her. But he took a deep breath and went on, swallowing his fluttering nerves, realizing just then that he had forgotten to eat lunch that day. The twisting in his stomach made him glad of that oversight.

Distracted by his entrance, Victoria looked up from what she was stirring in the big kettle hanging over the fire where the heat was the worst. “Diego,” she announced, sounding pleased to see him so soon after their previous conversation. “I thought you'd already left. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Felipe overheard your conversation with Juan,” Diego unceremoniously blurted, ignoring the heat of the kitchen.

The welcoming smile that had adorned her face slipped away as she gave an embarrassed laugh. “Oh. Well. That's really none of your...”

“Don't do it.”

Her stirring slowed as she looked at him, stunned. “What?”

Victoria's helper Pilar parted the curtains, hurried in to grab an already prepared plate of pollo con queso, then hurried back out. She hadn't even seen that she had company in the kitchen.

Diego watched her go rather than immediately respond to Victoria. He wished that they could have this conversation somewhere more private, but he'd take a lack of privacy over losing Victoria any day.

When Pilar had left, Diego turned back to Victoria and her still obvious shock. He tried to be polite and gentlemanly as he went on, but he had never even imagined this moment, and it showed in his abrupt manner. “If you feel as if you must marry, then marry me.”

The stirring had stopped altogether while Victoria gaped. “What?"

Diego gulped down his nerves, then repeated, “Marry me instead.”

Maria parted the curtains and came through, bearing a tray of dirty dishes. She set down the tray and grabbed a clean one without looking up or indicating that she'd heard a word Diego had just said. But he couldn't be sure - he thought she gave a hint of a smile when she left the kitchen.

Her reaction irritated Diego. He really didn't want his personal life to become the gossip of the pueblo. He especially didn't want to turn Victoria into fodder for more gossip than Zorro already did.

Neither this point nor the one he'd made before when he'd proposed did anything to soothe Victoria's own reaction. She just numbly announced, “That's what I thought you said.”

Alicia rushed in then, saying, “Victoria, Don Emilio's table needs... oh.” She'd spotted Diego wearing an earnest look on his face, and her boss looking numb. The two were clearly embroiled in an important conversation, and she had interrupted. She blushed. To Diego she said, “I thought you were Victoria. I'm sorry - I'll leave you to talk.”

Diego stopped her before she had retreated one step toward the curtain, though. “Alicia, I wonder if you could keep everybody out of the kitchen while I speak with Victoria for a moment? It would be much appreciated.”

Not used to hearing such a commanding tone come from the typically gentle Don Diego, Alicia still demurred long enough to send a glance to Victoria. “You're alright?”

“Si, Alicia,” Victoria had the wits to say. “I'm fine. I just need to talk to Diego for a moment.”

Alicia nodded, looked assessingly at Diego, then hurried out to the dining room.

Alicia's interruption already forgotten under the pressure of what he'd come here to do, Diego turned back to thoughtfully regard Victoria. How could he convince her that marrying him was a good idea? He could tell her he was Zorro - that would stop her from marrying anybody else in an instant. But he wasn't prepared to give her his identity - not yet. He needed time to think about this! But he didn't have any time. The recent interruptions proved that. “This must come as a shock to you - and I know you love another man... and I'm sure that many men have said they love you...” Here it was: time to tell her his feelings about her. Diego's stomach did another back flip, but he ignored the sensation - it was either now, or never. “I've loved you as well, for years, ever since I came home from Madrid.” Actually, she probably already knows that, he thought as he put voice to the one ace he considered himself having besides Zorro's identity. There was simply no way that someone as smart as Victoria could possibly have missed the way he'd stared at her during the recent years. “Perhaps you've seen the way I...”

“Yes, I've seen,” Victoria sharply said. Purposely softening her voice, she went on, “The girls think I should turn you in, but you've never created a disturbance, or bothered anyone in any way, and...” Here she was forced to shrug. “Just having you here has been a help, often, even if you never knew it.”

Diego's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. “How did I help?”

A smile ghosted across Victoria's face. “My patrons behave better when you're here.”

That genuinely surprised Diego. “They do?”

Victoria turned to fully regard him. “I think they don't want to disappoint you.”

She didn't say anything about Zorro, or about the famous bandit running him through with his sword when he heard about Diego's interest in his love, so Diego minutely relaxed. “That's... good to know,” he announced, discombobulated by her news.

Victoria took on a regretful look. “But that doesn't change the facts, does it? I don't love you.”

Diego's heart quailed when he heard this, but he was determined. He wouldn't lose her now! “That doesn't signify.” The moment he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Her face hardened in confused derision, and he quickly backtracked. “I'm sorry! Of course it signifies - that isn't what I meant!” He put a calming hand to his temple and rubbed. “I'm not saying this very well, am I? I didn't exactly have a plan before coming in here.”

This confession had an unexpected effect: in spite of it's sense of self-deprecating derision, it engaged Victoria's natural sense of sympathy. She reached a hand out to the struggling caballero. “Diego, it's alright - truly. You don't have to be so nervous.”

Diego grunted a noise that resembled a laugh. “Of course I have to be nervous!” he refuted. “You've been all but inundated by suitors this entire week whether those men are suitable or not. It's clear that you're interested in getting married, but it's now reached the point where you can't even get your work done. Now, this old friend whom you haven't even seen in ten years...”

An astonished Victoria did a double take. “You've been counting the years since Juan left?”

Diego looked at her, nonplussed. “You were fourteen when you and Juan... right?”

Victoria's features grew even more puzzled. “Well, yes, but...”

“I thought it was over when Juan joined the Navy and left, but... I guess not.”

Victoria smiled - the gesture came out more like she was sucking on a lemon. “Didn't you meet someone while you were in Spain who completely turned your head?” It sounded like an excuse for the time she'd spent with Juan.

Remembering Zafira, Diego winced. “Well, yes, I guess you could say that. But...” He trailed away to silence.

Victoria chose to ignore the reluctance in his soft voice and asked, “Yet you came home unmarried - so, what happened? Surely she wasn't killed!”

The wince came again, clearer this time. “No.” This memory still pained Diego, though not for the obvious reasons. “Basically, she... left me at the altar,” he finally explained.

Her horrified expression grew. “Oh, Don Diego, I'm so sorry! That... that must have been... so painful for you.”

Diego sighed unhappily. “Not as painful as it should have been.” He was surprised at himself: he hadn't even told Felipe about Zafira, and here he was, blurting the whole affair to Victoria. “I'm sorry - I didn't mean this to turn into a confession.”

She quickly negated, “I don't mind hearing about your past.” Her smile was wan as she admitted, “I've always been curious.”

It was Diego's turn to snort. “There's not much to be curious about. Zafira was the only person who was able to make me think about someone besides you.”

Victoria's voice was partly resigned, but mostly interested when she ascertained, “She was?”

“It was you I thought about the most,” Diego divulged. “You, and my studies.”

That comment caused a true smile to blossom over Victoria's face. “I'm truly honored to have rivaled your studies.”

Realizing what she found so humorous, Diego grinned as well. “Yes, you and Archimedes held the world at bay for years.”

Victoria's grin grew. “It's nice to hear that my only competition was a dead man.”

The grin slowly slid off Diego's face. “I know who my competition is... and I accept that. But what with Juan proposing... coupled with all that matchmaking attention you've been getting lately... I thought I'd say something now, before it's too late.”

Victoria's brow creased. “You truly wish to marry me?” She asked as if this entire situation amazed her.

Diego was equally as amazed that she didn't already know that he thought everyone should want to marry her. “More than anything.”

“But... I'm not of your class,” Victoria inanely argued.

“A bandit isn't of yours,” Diego instantly argued back.

“Oh,” she squeaked, her voice full of the surprise she was clearly feeling. “That's never occurred to me.” She said it as if Diego was the first to ever highlight that point. Still, her discomfort remained. “Can I think about it?”

Diego shrewdly eyed her. “Are you thinking about how this might affect the tavern if you say yes?”

A look of guilt shot through her eyes. “Well, that thought had crossed my mind.”

Diego shrugged again. “Keep it if it makes you happy. That's all I want to do - make you happy.”

Victoria swallowed, visibly trying not to get swept away by that heartfelt confession. “It doesn't bother you that I'm a property owner?”

Diego was truly puzzled by this. “Should it?”

Again came the snort. “Most men are bothered by women who own property.”

“I'm not most men.”

True. It was uncommon to come across a man who was confident enough not to feel threatened by a woman who owned a successful business like the tavern. “What about my customers?”

This also truly mystified Diego. “What about them?”

Victoria shrugged. “Well, some of them think... They say...” She paused a third time, misery clear in her eyes. “Don't you know?”

“Know what?”

Victoria took a shivery breath. “They... laugh... at you.”

It was another surprise. “They laugh at me.” Diego hadn't heard a word about this. “Why?”

“Because...” Victoria really didn't want to tell him this! “I always throw them out.”

Diego was gratified by her response, but... she hadn't said a word as to why she did what she did - he'd noticed. “What do they say?”

Victoria winced; he'd heard what she hadn't said. She'd been hoping to keep this from him, and had for a long time. If only her nerves hadn't forced her to mention this topic in the first place! “They call you...” Perhaps if she didn't look at him while she said it? “... the Poet of the Pueblo.”

Instead of instinctively growing angry, Diego quirked a smile. It was good to know that his attempts at solidifying his disguise was working. It was even better to hear that she was defending him, though. “The Pueblo Poet, huh? Not quite the hero you're used to.”

She sent him a look that was full of sympathy strangely mixed with longing. “I'm very aware that there are many different kinds of heros.”

Ah... and what was he supposed to do with a comment like that? “The kind that wield a sword is particularly to your liking.”

“That's what everybody tells me.”

Which meant what? Diego looked at her out of eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Are you telling me that you're not interested in that kind of hero?”

“No, that's not what I'm saying,” she insisted, backpedaling again. “I'm just saying that...” She pensively gazed at him. “There are so many different kinds of courage in the world. And I run a tavern - I know what being laughed at can do to a man.”

Diego gave a noncommittal shrug and crossed his arms in a careless gesture. “It's not the first time I've been laughed at.”

Her lips gave just a hint of a curve before even that disappeared. “Yes, but only you can make sure it's the last.”

Diego uncrossed his arms so that he appeared more open in his confusion. “So, you're saying that you won't agree to marry me unless I stop writing poetry?”

A laugh bubbled out of Victoria. “No. I'm saying that...” What was she saying? “I should write more poetry when I have the chance.” The comment was out of her before she even realized that's what she meant.

As a simple comment, it floored Diego. “Well, I'm... I'm flattered.”

“It's me who should be flattered. Two marriage proposals in ten minutes - that has to be a record.”

“He'll never be free to marry you, you know,” Diego said, abruptly changing the subject. It was obvious to them both who he was referring to - Zorro. “I've worried about that for years.” That was at least the truth.

As predicted, Victoria didn't pretend not to understand the implications of his abrupt statement. What do you care? The question was written all over her face, even though she hadn't said a word.

“I care.” The confession was practically wrung out of him. “I don't want to see you brought down by him - you deserve more.”

Victoria snorted in disbelief at that. “Just what do you think I deserve?”

That answer was simple. “The world.”

It was the most honest and open she'd ever managed to get with Diego... or with any man, for that fact, even Zorro. “He's always gone before I can say anything important,” she divulged without intending to share her concerns.

Diego looked truly aggrieved. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

She shook her head. “Don't be.” She gave a dispirited rub to her temple. “I shouldn't be bothering you with my problems. You don't deserve that.”

But Diego wasn't convinced. “If you don't talk to me, then who will you talk to? You just said that you don't have time to talk to him.”

Victoria hesitated to mention the name of her professed love. “But I should still try to talk to Zorro, shouldn't I?”

Rather than being threatened, as she expected, Diego just chuckled. “Victoria, I know what Zorro is to you. I've told you that I accept it. It's not that it doesn't bother me...”

“It does bother you?” Her eyebrows hit her dark hairline.

Diego grimaced. “Actually... it's always made me jealous... very.”

That ghostly smile bloomed on her lips for a second.

“But what can I do about it?” he rhetorically asked. “It's not like I can fight him for you. He'd win with his hands tied behind his back.”

She sent him another shrewd look. “Maybe you're already fighting him and don't know it?” she suggested.

Diego considered. “No, I'm pretty sure I'd...”

“You read my mind,” she announced, cutting off his protests to list his fighting prowess for him. “You lend me your help when I need it. You defend me against all those men with unsavory thoughts.” Her next glance was perceptive. “I know what you're doing when you make yourself look like a fool - it always distracts them long enough for me to throw them out.” She grew bold in her recitation as she moved closer to him. “You so often stand between me and the Alcalde's crazy taxes, I feel like I owe you free meals for a decade just for saving me all the fees I would have had to pay by now. You remind me to keep a civil tongue in my head when it truly matters. You stop me from exploding with temper when getting hung is the most likely outcome. You're just always there.” Her look grew quizzical, as if she'd never realized that before this moment.

Unsure when faced with this reality of her unusual reaction, Diego grimaced, softly inquiring, “Is that bad?” He was about to promise to come to the tavern less often if his presence was bothering her, but she spoke before he could say anything.

“No.” She looked as if her thoughts were surprising. Her next confession surprised him, too. “I look forward to your visits. The times when you're sick or out of town are harder to get through because I don't have our conversations to help me through the day.” Her smile and shrug were small and deprecating and shy. “A girl likes the attention.”

This was all welcome news to Diego! He couldn't suppress his own smile. But that didn't mean that he knew what to say. “That's... good to hear.” His confusion continued. “However, I notice you didn't say anything specific about you liking the attention from me in particular.”

Her smile vanished, replace by that look of unease again. “No, I... didn't.”

The kind of reluctance as hers could only mean that she didn't have any special feelings for him, but didn't want to tell him that in case it hurt his feelings. Disappointment engulfed Diego, but always cognizant of not hurting her own feelings, he tried his best not to show it. “You don't have to...”

“I do... like the attention,” she suddenly blurted, then amended, “Attention from you, I mean.” She fiddled with the stirring spoon in her hand as her embarrassment grew. “I know I shouldn't feel that way,” she quietly divulged, still fidgeting. “But... I can't help it.”

Diego studied her in mystification. Had someone told her that? “Why do you think you shouldn't?”

“Because...” Her ready answer died in her throat. She cleared it, then tried again. “Because... I... should be happy with... and I am,” she adamantly stated.

If only Diego knew what she was talking about. “Happy with what?”

Victoria's reply was nearly strangled by her throat. “With... Zorro.”

Diego's brows lowered over his nose. “So you're inferring some kind of unhappiness with..?”

“No!” Her quick reply was loud in the quiet kitchen. When Diego's face automatically fell, she added, “And yes, I guess...”

His disappointment at her answer turned to confusion. “So which is it, yes or no?”

She glanced up, clearly confused now herself. “To what question?”

He felt himself growing irritated at her lack of a clear-cut answer, but instead of letting that irritation take hold, he smiled, amused again. “We are truly impressive at misunderstanding each other.”

Victoria grinned in response, but her expression turned inquiring the more she studied him. “Perhaps that is because I never quite feel as if I know you,” she declared. “I predict that you'll do one thing when you hear about something, but you do another. I think you'll be angry about something, but you act like you don't care.” Her questioning expression deepened, turning almost shrewd, making Diego wonder for the first time just how much she really knew about him. “It's like... like that statue of King Ferdinand that the Alcalde has ordered.”

Diego barked a laugh. “The statue?” His incredulous, questioning voice rang in the room. “How am I like the statue?”

The shrewdness in Victoria's gaze sharpened to suspicion. “The statue is obviously not a statue, but we don't know what it is yet,” she announced. “Just like you're something more, but I don't know what you are yet, either. If I marry you, do you..?”

But Diego's face suddenly brightened, cutting her off. He was like the statue. He wasn't the statue, not exactly, but he was more, like she'd said. Reminded of that puzzling statue, he knew he had to get a look at it before it was too late. In order to get a look at the statue, he needed to distract the Alcalde. How could he distract the Alcalde if he was examining the statue? And how could he give Victoria the attention she deserved if he was busy being Zorro while examining the statue? She might say 'yes' to Juan in the meantime if he did nothing concerning her... but then, he didn't have the kind of time to do much more than nothing if he was to examine that statue. He needed time.

Time was the one thing he didn't have. He needed something that was sure to distract the Alcalde so that he would get the time he needed. Nothing distracted the Alcalde like the promise of Zorro's capture. What would promise Zorro's capture? A gathering? Perhaps. Or maybe he could encourage the Alcalde to implement a new tax in order to bring out Zorro so that he could spring his trap with the 'statue.' At least then he would know what the statue was really intended for.

But no, he refused to let the Alcalde force new taxes on the Los Angeles citizens just in the hopes of capturing him. He needed to think of something else, something that he could control. Something that would cause everyone to gather in one place, de Soto included, and one that would ensure Zorro's eventual appearance as well, where he could then force de Soto to set his trap for Zorro, only the trap would be his and not de Soto's... that is if he could think of some reason sure to give him the time to look at the statue in the first place.

Diego realized then that he was mumbling softly to himself; he must look like a daydreaming idiot. He glanced at the now very confused Victoria, and suddenly Diego knew what he needed to do. He had to trust Victoria with his very life.

There had to be the promise of a wedding between Juan and Victoria in order to cause the entire pueblo to gather. Zorro was sure to show himself at such an event, plus Victoria's wedding would definitely distract the Alcalde with the promise of Zorro's eventual capture when the outlaw attended that wedding. It would be just the thing to give Zorro the time he needed to discover what the Alcalde was hiding inside the crate of the statue of Kind Ferdinand.

But how to convince Victoria that she needed to help him by promising to marry Juan? By telling here all about Zorro's identity, of course. Diego took a deep breath, asking himself if he truly knew what he was doing. But even Diego understood that it was now or never.

“Victoria,” he softly said, his previous determination sounding so loud in his voice that it came out much lower than normal, more forceful, almost commanding. “I need your help.”

Victoria took on a look of deepening confusion. “My help?” How did he go from her comparing him to the Alcalde's statue to needing her help? She reared back a bit, and smiled. “Diego, this is exactly what I'm talking about. You're so changeable.”

For perhaps the first time in his life, he ignored what she was saying. “You don't understand.” His gaze pierced through her, willing her to understand what he wasn't saying. He used his Zorro voice and emphatically repeated, “I. Need. Your. Help.”

She instantly recognized the sound of that voice. The recognition of Zorro while staring at Diego brought her up short, and she blinked, puzzled. She may recognize the voice, but she'd never known it to come from Diego before. “Diego, what are you..? I thought you were proposing marriage.” And why did the fact that she wasn't certain about that any longer make her reel with disappointment?

Diego immediately crossed on cat's feet to her side, his piercing gaze never leaving her face. He took her hands in his after carefully setting aside her stirring spoon. “Victoria, I'm going to tell you something that will be a shock. You might even want to hit me. You might not want to see me again. But right now, I need your help.”

The beseeching assurance in his voice was alarmingly familiar to her, but still she resisted what her ears were hearing. “Diego, what..?”

Diego's grip on her hands tightened. “Please don't hate me, Preciosa. I'm sorry for all of this... but I need you to promise to marry Juan tomorrow if possible.”

Confusion marred her features. “What?! I thought you said..!”

The grip tightened even more.

Victoria shook her hands, but couldn't shake him off. “Diego, you're hurting me!”

“That's just it. I'm Diego... and I'm not Diego.” His eyes bore into hers. “I'm like the state that's not a statue.”

Victoria again tugged uselessly at her hands. “Diego, please...”

“Preciosa, you have to listen to...”

“I am not your Preciosa!”

“And I'm not just Diego.”

“Ha! You're not..!” Victoria's scathing remark suddenly died on her lips. She stopped to stare at him as if she'd never seen him before. She blinked. She shifted on her feet, and gazed again. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. He could tell that she was just now beginning to understand what he wasn't saying when her gaze shot to his mouth.

He allowed the slow, cocky smile that was Zorro's trademark grin to creep over his face.

Understanding immediately shot through her eyes. In one instant, her innocence fell away from her like the blanket it was.

Victoria gave a gasp and jerked back so completely that she would have fallen backwards into the fire if he hadn't had such a tight grip on her hands. As it was, he felt her fingers ball into tight fists of defiance.

“You rat!”

The epithet was so loud that Diego instantly placed a hand across her mouth so that they wouldn't be heard by those on the other side of the curtain. “Not so loud!” he hissed.

She quickly bit him.

“Ow!” Diego grunted, but he didn't take his hand away, or loosen his hold on her fingers.

She retaliated by ruthlessly yanking free one hand to grab the spoon he'd so carefully set aside and whacked him on the shoulder.

Diego didn't even flinch. “You'll have to do better than that.”

She whacked his ear. Hard.

His hand fell away from her mouth. Diego blinked at the surge of pain, his head ringing. “That might do it.”

Victoria leaned in close to him, brandishing her spoon. “How could you?” she furiously hissed. “I loved you! I was your friend! I..!”

“As wonderful as this is to hear, Señorita, I..” It was the wrong thing to say.

Victoria growled at him, her eyes snapping in anger. “I trusted you, and you..!”

“... love you as much as I always did!” Diego decisively whispered.

Victoria was not mollified. “You're an impostor! You're a jackal! You're an..!”

“Yes, I get the picture,” Diego said in some amusement, though his grip tightened on both her hands once more. “I said it before, and I'll say it again: I need your help.” He pulled her hands in close to his heart, gripping them like his life depended on it. “Rage at me, hit me, say you'll hate me for the rest of your life, whatever you want,” he promised. “But right now I truly do need your help.”

His heartfelt plea was enough to shake Victoria out of her anger. Pausing, she carefully regarded him. “Whatever I want?”

Pausing himself now, Diego considered that what she might want may not bode well for him. But he had promised, and he was a man of his word. Uneasily he said, “I... hope you can accept me for who I am... but I said whatever you want, and I meant it.”

Victoria tugged fruitlessly on her hand, trying to free it again. “You and your promises! I don't believe a thing you say!”

Diego leaned in till he was barely a centimeter from her ear and forcefully hissed, “Fine, hate me then! But I love you, and will always love you, no matter what you do!” Then he kissed her on the cheek.

Victoria instantly stopped, clearly affected by the endearment. Gasping for air, she stared up at him, breathing in his familiar sent that was so close. “You need my help?” she cautiously asked.

“Yes,” he swiftly replied.

She looked at him as if trying to read his mind. “You love me?”

“Yes.”

Gratified by his swift response, she ascertained, “You wish to marry me?”

“Absolutely.”

Her eyes narrowed in confusion. “Are you unmasking for me?”

“Unless I promised to unmask and declare my love for somebody else, yes, that's what I'm doing.”

Her eyes searched his face, her confusion growing. “Prove that you're him.”

Diego had nothing prepared for her, not having predicted the need for this. After a moment of frantically searching his mind, he stated, “At Devil's Fortress, you used a broom to defeat the commandant's daughter outside the cells where you found your father, who was still alive, but just barely. I bought you some time by dueling with the soldiers so that you and your brother Ramon could have one last word with him before he died.”

Impressed by the amount of detail, Victoria nonetheless declared, “Ramon could have told you that. Or Mendoza. Try again.”

He suppressed a growl of frustration. “Before I left for Devil's Fortress, you and I met at the alter in the mission, where you asked me to watch over Don Diego, and I said that he would never be out of my sight.”

She paused again to stare at him in bewilderment - of course Diego wouldn't be out of his sight if Zorro was Diego. But with a sudden shake of her head, she accused, “You overheard.”

Thoroughly frustrated now, he leaned in close once more and whisper-hissed, “Would you like to see me fight? My sword is at home, in the cave. Would you believe me if I ride up on Toronado and take you away from your life at the tavern? You know I would never do that to you, as much as I would like to! You have to trust me like I'm trusting you, Preciosa!” He sent one final beseeching look her way. “Please, Victoria. I need you, in more ways than you can ever imagine.”

She opened her mouth to refute him, but closed it without uttering a word. A gasping squeak slipped through lips clamped tight against the emotional fit that she wanted to throw, but didn't dare in this public place. Her gaze met his, hers troubled and dark, his begging and blue. She did nothing but look at him, soaking in his features as if she hadn't seen him in years.

“Can I count on you?” he asked in a low voice.

Making a snap decision, praying she wasn't being a fool, she let her eyes convey what she wanted before she said it. “Yes.”

Z Z Z

And so during a cold front that made a shawl welcome, Victoria Escalante promised to marry Juan Ortiz. There was a pang in her stomach at potentially using him when Juan laughingly told her that she had made him the happiest man in the world, but it didn't last nearly as long it should have. Instead of hearing Juan proclaim his feelings for her, she was remembering another man's words from only hours before, 'I need you, in more ways than you can possibly imagine.'

Those words ringing in her ears, she was determined to be the best bride the pueblo had ever seen. She widened her eyes to the point of terror, and painted her face with a fine sheen of white chalk to make her seem pale and unsure of her choice of a husband. The overall effect of her theatrics was that she appeared not as the perfect blushing bride that would have been immediately suspect, but as a nervous wreck instead. To her thinking, if she actually were in this situation for real, she would be worried that she wasn't doing the right thing, terrified that the happiness of several people hinged on her decision, scared stiff that she was ruining her entire life. That was enough to make anybody look a wreck.

But she trusted herself, and intrinsically knew that she was doing the right thing, finally. She knew her own heart, but also knew how to make others wonder about her recent choices, too. They would say that as a woman, she didn't know her own mind well enough to go through with it. And if she had to come out of this looking like an indecisive fool, so be it. She would do it, anyway. He... they... were worth it.

And it worked like a charm. Zorro came off as nonchalant, supportive, and mildly interested in her sudden desire to marry Juan. She looked as white and nervous and terrified as any other bride.

And when the smoke cleared, they were all back to normal with the Alcalde firmly humiliated, Juan bent on waiting for the right woman for him, her firmly attached to Zorro, and Diego just as firmly her friend.

At the same time, things were just as different as they could be. She knew her masked man's identity, had assisted in his trickiest endeavor yet, and had proven that she could act with the best of them.

Most importantly of all, Diego had finally said those three magic words to her: not 'I love you,' as she'd always expected, but 'I need you.' Being needed as well as being loved... now that was truly a dream come true!

The End


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