The Perfect Choice

by Linda Bindner

Zorro stood unmoving for a moment outside the back door of the tavern. The dark of night surrounded him like a quiet sheet of black. Only a little sliver of light escaped from under the bottom edge of the tavern's back door to indicate that anyone was even alive in the typically busy establishment. As he stood there in the cloak of darkness, he asked himself again if he truly wanted to go through with his plan and fully understood the possible repercussions of that plan.

Zorro sighed softly, the sound slipping away to dissipate in the blackness. What choice did he really have? He was already dreaming about Victoria enough to want to stay far away from the pueblo so that he wouldn't be tempted to do something that would ultimately disappoint respected people. If he didn't say something about his secret identity tonight, now, he could not be held accountable for his actions.

So, one gloved hand rested on the outside of the door, but he didn't push his way into the dimly lit, warm kitchen, not yet. Instead, he went over in his mind one more time his reasons for even being next to the tavern in the night, for risking his very life yet again to visit Victoria before she closed everything down and went to bed. He had to make certain this was what he truly wanted to do before he did it, because once he uttered the words that would divulge his identity, there would be no going back to the way things had been for the last several years.

The bored and sleepy patrol of lancers slowly swept by the tavern, and Zorro was momentarily glad for the concealment of the shadows in which he often hid. The patrol left, and Zorro knew that he had thirty minutes before they would come by again. Half an hour wasn't much time to spend with the love of his life, but it was more time than he and Victoria were usually granted. It amused him that the group of men so bent on his capture had created the patrols that afforded him the time now to implement the plan that had been on his mind for days. With a steely resolve and a firm grip on his emotions, Zorro waited patiently in the shadows until the lancers disappeared around the corner of the tavern, giving him the signal that it was time to open the door. Safety first, one more endearment shared with Victoria, and then he would start talking. That, perhaps, could be the end of everything or the beginning of his dreams. Either way, he was tired of the secret life that he had been living for so long, tired of the need for that secrecy, tired of being treated as a less of a man than he was, and he felt the determination spring anew inside his heart. With breath half in anticipation, half in fear of the future, he shoved at the door.

Disappointingly, but predictably, the warm kitchen was empty. Dishes lay stacked on the counter, already washed and drying before they were put away. The brown, glazed pitchers stood in a row on their shelf, waiting for the next day, and rolled napkins lay beside the dishes, also heralding another busy day at the tavern. In fact, order met him no matter which direction he looked; Victoria was one of the neatest people he knew, even neater than himself. Over the years, he had received many ideas from his observations of the kitchen while waiting for her to appear, and his ideas had been quickly implemented in the cave, much to his and Felipe's benefits.

But now was not the time to admire cleanliness and order. He slipped into the shadows beside the fireplace and waited. The shadows crept around him in comfort, yet he was glad when fate brought to him the woman he'd been waiting for relatively soon after his arrival in her kitchen. He could just as easily have waited for her all of those thirty minutes that the lancers had unknowingly granted him.

Victoria parted the curtains between the tavern's main room and its kitchen with a practiced swoosh of her hand. The flap of material would have covered up his softly indrawn breath to anybody else's ears, but she was aware of his presence as soon as she walked into the room. He drew her like a magnet.

Dios, she's beautiful, he thought. Her radiance and inborn fire stole his breath away every time he laid eyes on her, whether had had seen her just a few hours before or hadn't seen her for days. His heart performed a tiny flip inside his chest just seconds before the familiar heat of his love and desire spread to the very tips of his toes, warming him like nothing else could.

But he wasn't in her kitchen to be distracted by wayward emotions. With another firm hold on his resolve, he stepped out of the shadows and into the warm glow from the fire.

The instant he became visible, Victoria's face split into a wide smile. But before he could speak, she placed a finger to her lips to indicate the need for silence, then called loudly through the curtains, It will only take me a moment to get that glass of water you wanted, Seņora Benaldo. I'll be out in a minute.

There was a female grunt from the other side of the partition, and Victoria rolled her eyes at the obvious impatience that accompanied the sound. A sigh chilled the air as the invisible Seņora Benaldo settled against the bar to wait for her liquid refreshment.

But Victoria didn't immediately cross to the cupboard holding the glasses. Instead, she reached out for him, a smile of pure anticipation lighting her face, and drew him close without uttering a sound. The feel of her arms wrapped around him sent shivers traveling up his spine, and when she kissed him, he was hard pressed not to let the groan of pleasure he felt escape his lips. The invisible, waiting seņora would have undoubtedly heard such a declaration of passion, and from the sounds of her sigh, wouldn't have had much compunction in calling for the return of the patrol that had just walked obliviously by.

Zorro visibly shook as Victoria withdrew, the smile still on her face, and she took the time to gently nuzzle his cheek below the mask he always wore to hide his identity before crossing over to the cupboard, pulling down a glass, and filling it with water from the pump standing in one corner. The smile on her face dissolving into an expression of clear seduction, she grinned at him. Then schooling her features to a look more congenial in nature, she parted the curtains and slid away.

Zorro allowed his breath to hiss slowly between his teeth as his shaking continued, even when she wasn't present. He closed his eyes and gulped, and for the first time all evening, felt certain that by divulging his identity, he was doing the right thing. Since just a single kiss from her could rob him of speech for moments at a time, telling her of his secret seemed to be the next thing to do.

Victoria came back through the curtains, made a face of dislike, but remained speechless until they heard the distinct sound of a door shutting as the seņora made her way to bed in one of the guest rooms on the second floor. Victoria visibly relaxed then.

Thank goodness she's gone. I didn't think she would ever go to bed, she said, right before she rushed to embrace him.

He slipped his arms around her without having to be asked, noticing how well she fit in his arms, how good she felt against his chest, how right it seemed to be holding her. How could he have possibly resisted the compulsion to tell her of his secret for so many years? It made him more determined than ever to tell her the truth now.

With confession in mind, he held her back for a moment so he could look at her. Victoria stared at him uncomprehendingly as he held her at arms length. Victoria, he whispered, I have something important to tell you, and I don't think I can do it while holding you tonight; you're too difficult to resist.

Victoria glanced up at him. She tilted her head in a charming effort to beguile him senseless. Who said anything about resisting? she asked right before she leaned in and kissed him again.

Zorro shivered anew, but was determined to see his plan to completion. He chuckled, but said, Don't, please, and he heard the begging tone of his voice. I'm not sure I can resist your charms tonight.

She grinned once more. Then don't, she suggested, and leaned in to kiss him a third time, but he stopped her with an upheld hand.

This is too important, he said, sounding almost desperate.

His statement did finally halt her. What is it? she asked, a new trepidation in her voice.

But now that the time for divulgence had come and she had given him the perfect opening, he found it hard to begin. Don't worry, he soothed instantly. There's no danger involved.

Victoria visibly relaxed. That's good. For a minute, you scared me.

Zorro briefly kissed her on the top of her head. No, there's no reason to be frightened.

She puckered her forehead in puzzlement. What is it, then? He so rarely came to her with a personal concern that she was still new at handling his problems and didn't know what to do.

Zorro hesitated. It... um... has something to do with who you're in love with.

Victoria grinned. I'm in love with you. She wrapped him in a swift hug again.

Her obvious affection made him feel guilty even as he enjoyed her overtures of affection. However, enjoyment wouldn't help him now. But you deserve a home, a husband, a family, he protested.

I have everything I want right here, she argued back.

Zorro sighed; she wasn't making this easy. Maybe if he was blunt... You should get married, he blurted.

The smile on Victoria's face slowly faded away. To you, you mean. I should get married to you.

No, that's not quite what I mean, he explained on another sigh. He placed both his gloved hands on her shoulders. I mean that you should stop putting your life on hold to marry me. You should marry someone else, he said.

Her features froze in a mask of surprise. But I love you, she protested again.

This was the crux of his argument, and, therefore, the most important part of this conversation. No. You. Don't, he said as clearly as he could.

Yes, I do, she protested woodenly.

He spoke slowly so she would understand the unspoken part of his protests as well as the spoken words. You're in love with Diego de la Vega, he insisted.

Victoria looked like she was going to crumble to the floor at any moment. No, I'm not. Her soft voice spread in firm denial through the silent room. Even her voice was practically dripping with sadness.

Zorro hated to see her so unhappy, but he didn't know any other way to convince her. Yes, you are, he said pointedly, and he let his voice sound just as firm as hers.

Victoria looked at him as if her heart was congealing. You can't be serious.

I've never been more serious in my whole life, he intoned, knowing how much of his future hung in the balance at what she might say next.

You... I... Victoria stood still as the statue that the Alcalde had once reputedly wished to install in the plaza. For a moment, she didn't move. All she did was look at the floor through wide, suddenly teary eyes, and Zorro felt his heart begin to break as his resolve slowly started to erode away. Victoria remained unmoving. You don't want me anymore, she stated next in a flat, dispassionate voice.

His fingers tightened their grip around her arms. Of course that's not the truth... He stopped, feeling his desperation building again. Victoria, he said, trying to sound calm and in control. Instead, he sounded panicked. You have to understand about some things. He paused and tilted her head up with a finger underneath her chin, and immediately saw the shattered expression on her face. It took all of his resolve not to kiss her again so that expression would leave. First, we've waited so long to be together... We've grown so much older than when we first met...

True, she interrupted his flounderings, but I thought we were waiting for the right time so that you could remove your mask...

... and we can marry, I know. It's been my greatest wish for years, he soothed. But I wonder if the right time will ever come. It seems to be so far in the future right now, and I confess that I'm getting tired of waiting for such a time. Aren't you?

The tears that had been clinging to her lashes for the past five minutes finally fell to streak her cheeks in salty tracks, where the dirt from even the scrupulously clean kitchen clung to the wetness the tears created. But I thought... She couldn't continue.

Zorro's heart now twisted in anguish. Please, don't cry, Victoria. You know I can't stand it if you cry, he begged.

I know, she hiccuped, trying mightily to stop the tears. Even he could see her attempts to control herself. I'm sorry, but I can't help it. I always cry at the times when I'm being... She couldn't say the word. I suppose I've always been that way.

He couldn't help it any longer; he pulled her into his arms once more. That is so far from the truth, mi preciosa. He cradled her in his embrace. You're not being discarded, he promised with another kiss to the top of her head. I would never want to... He also couldn't go on. I treasure each encounter with you, every moment, each time I kiss your fingers, kiss you. At last, he was forced to confess the largest truth of all. I love you, and always will.

She hiccuped again. You've never said that before, she noticed. Then why..?

He was getting even more desperate; only the truth would explain things now. I'm trying to tell you my secret identity, Victoria, he finally whispered. It's just that I'm not doing a particularly good job of it.

She went deathly still in his arms for a moment. He could almost hear her mind whirring with the words he had spoken. You mean..?

He continued to hold her in a tight embrace. Don't you become completely irritated with the whole promise thing? he persuasively asked next. Don't you just want to marry someone and simply get on with living your life?

She paid better attention this time around as he spoke enigmatically of the future. Finally, hesitantly, she said, YYYeeeessss.

Don't you wish to someday marry the real me, though keeping my identity a secret from the Alcalde, or anybody, for that matter?

Again, she hesitantly said, YYYYeeeessssss. A head nod accompanied her hesitant speech.

He felt her hair move under his chin. Don't you want to start on having that family I know you crave before you're too old to have the children it would take to create that family? he next inquired, his voice soft even as his heart thundered along under her cheek.

Victoria didn't say anything this time, only nodded her head again.

He could feel her incredulity mount at this situation as it wore on, and he knew he would have to be going soon so she could have some time alone to think through all the repercussions of any decision she might make. The truth of the matter is that I want those things, too, want them so badly that I'm willing to risk your extreme displeasure now at leaving you to that truth and your own thoughts. I only ask that you be aware of the strong misrepresentation of... of certain people that you've had in the past, and that I ask you not... This was the hard part of his confession, one that had held him up inside the cave the longest as he wrestled for days with his conscience while making the decision to tell her. ... not ... He took a deep breath before he could go on. That you don't feel too much antagonism towards... me... for keeping this a secret for so long, he finally finished. I wanted so badly to say something, but saying nothing just grew easier as time went on. Please... don't be too... harsh... he stuttered.

Victoria didn't say anything. Perhaps she couldn't say anything.

Zorro kissed her one more time on the top of her head, then forced himself to step back, out of her embrace. She stood, as still as had stood earlier, like she was carved of stone. She put one hand for support on her fireplace mantel, the other arm hanging languidly at her side. She didn't look at him, but looked at the wall instead, her face as blank as the adobe she stared at.

At least he wasn't going to be forced to gaze into an expression of loathing and blame as he slipped away, through the tavern's back door, well ahead of the patrolling lancers who glanced into the shadows that blanketed the night, trying to find the outlaw who had eluded them for so long. Feeling frightened yet lighter than he'd felt in years, Zorro took hold of Toronado's reins and pulled the stallion out of earshot of the pueblo.

That had been the most terrifying thing he'd ever had to do. He fervently hoped not to have to do something so difficult ever again as he galloped away from Los Angeles.

Z Z Z

With his heart lodged in his throat, Diego rode beside his father and Felipe into town the following day. The sun shone, a cool breeze blew, and birds sang their harmonious songs, but Diego was oblivious to each sound or sight that greeted him. He was only aware of the pounding of his heart as his destiny drew closer and closer with each pass of a hoof over the ground. The horse inexorably led him on, towards the scene he had been contemplating for days. Would Victoria accept or reject the idea that it was him behind the mask? It was the only thing that still truly frightened him. Alejandro led them on, blessedly oblivious to his son's inner turmoil, and terrified, Diego nevertheless forced himself to breath calmly through his nose as the trio drew nearer to the pueblo.

Then, before Diego felt steady in the saddle, the low buildings that made up Los Angeles crept into sight. The streaks of dirt that crisscrossed on every building showed how badly a new coat of whitewash was needed, and how the summer had left its mark on the tiny town. Even the tavern had not been neglected by the dirt of the plaza to be marked as having lived through yet another brutal summer's heat. Alejandro reined his horse to the right, towards that tavern, and Felipe's paint and Esperanza followed Dulcinea without question, as if they knew right where to go the minute the caballeros rode under the sign bearing the full name of the pueblo. For the first time that day, the first day of the rest of Diego's life, he looked at the tavern with an unimpeded view.

The building looked the same as it had always looked. Diego didn't know what he had expected, but this plainness wasn't it. It seemed that such a tremendous day should have some tremendous sign, but the same old view greeted him as he rode into town and tied Esperanza to the tavern's hitching post.

Diego hung on to his saddle for support for as long as he could, but only a few seconds had elapsed before he was obliged to release his horse and follow his father and Felipe, or court suspicion. Feeling his heart pound hard enough for him to faint, Diego considered the option of slipping into The Guardian office so that he could put off seeing Victoria for as long as possible, but dismissed the idea as quickly as it came to him. Hiding could only be an option for so long. Sometime, he would have to face the truth. Certain that she planned to reject the idea of him being Zorro, he closed his eyes, ignored the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and followed his father into the dark interior of the tavern.

The minute he stepped casually inside, he knew right where she was, even if he couldn't immediately see her. She was waiting for him behind her bar. When his eyes had adjusted to the inside light, he allowed them to skim over her, and he didn't miss the look of expectation on her pretty face. He didn't allow himself to react to her in any way, even though the act of not reacting left him feeling hollow and constrained inside. She, on the other hand, had equally as much trouble hiding her rather volatile expression from everybody in the room. Alcalde DeSoto was in the tavern at the time, having his lunch, as the de la Vegas planned to do, but he didn't look up to notice the excitement on Victoria's face before a look of more typical congeniality on her countenance.

Diego tried to say hello, as his father had done, but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, so he remained silent rather than sound like a complete oaf in front of her. Somehow, he crossed the room behind his father to the last empty table available, sat down, then glued his eyes to the scarred surface of the table top. No one seemed to notice his refusal to meet Victoria's glance.

A moment passed, and nothing happened. But then he caught sight of her long, graceful, skirt at the end of the table, and knew he could no longer hide his eyes. He slowly looked up, an inch at a time, even as he played his finger through an old water stain on the table. Still, he gave a start when she spoke.

Victoria sounded exactly as she always did while taking lunch orders. Can I get something for you? she asked nonchalantly. Her acting abilities were far better practiced than Diego had ever given them credit for.

Alejandro answered. Two carne asadas, please, and Diego? Chicken con carne for you? he responded innocently.

Diego could do nothing more than nod, as by then his throat had closed up tighter than a barn door. His father turned a smiling face to Victoria and nodded as well.

To drink? Victoria asked next.

Orange juice for everybody, if you have some, Alejandro requested.

Victoria smiled then, and Diego felt like the hot point of a knife twisted straight through his stomach at the beautiful sight. We have a little leftover from breakfast. I'll bring it out to you, she promised, then turned towards the curtains as she added, Can I see you a moment in the kitchen, Diego? I want to talk to you about the Christmas pageant.

Here it was. The dreaded moment, at last. Victoria's final request, as innocuous as it had sounded, was just a pretense to get him alone, he knew, so she could tell him if he belonged to her forever, or if she hated the very sight of him. Diego tried to hide the shaking in his arms as he rose from the table, his bench scraping against the wooden floor. Briefly, he wondered how in the world he was going to manage to follow her all the way to her kitchen, but she was already gone before he felt ready. Felipe, who knew of the confession that he had made the night before, gave him a fleeting smile of encouragement as he left on trembling legs.

Despite Felipe's show of support, Diego still wasn't prepared for what waited for him behind the curtains. Victoria stood beside the block of wood in the center of her kitchen, leaning against it in her obvious agitation. Thank you for coming in here to see me, she said to the floor. I know you must be waiting for my reply to your news of last night...

Rejection, was the only thought in Diego's quick mind, and his heart fell to his toes.

But Victoria was still speaking. I need a little more time, though, I think, before I can work through all this. She glanced at him, then looked away just as quickly. And don't take this as rejection. That's not what this is, but I know you, and I know you're particularly frightened of that.

Diego finally found his voice. Terrified, actually, he said with a small smile.

Victoria smiled as well at his comment. That's what I thought.

I'm sorry, Diego whispered next, because it was the truth and because he couldn't think of anything else to say. His voice caught at the end of his apology, and the sound of the tears he was only just keeping in check reverberated in his words.

Victoria looked up at the sound. Don't you start crying on me, Diego de la Vega! she commanded. I can't stand it if you start crying! This... this is hard enough already.

Diego drew in a deep breath, and the tears he felt did abate somewhat. I'm sorry, Seņorita, he said again. I'll go now, before I do something to embarrass myself. He turned back towards the exit.

You should come again tonight, she said, halting him in a voice full of desperation now. I'll have my answer by then, she promised. Her hand leaning into the block, she continued, I do want you to know that leaving me after such a declaration as last night's is probably the most insane thing you've ever done. I didn't sleep a wink all night long, thanks to you.

For the first time, he noticed the deep shadows under her eyes. I didn't sleep, either, Diego admitted. I was too frightened to sleep.

She held up a hand. Don't. Don't make me feel sorry for you. It will only make this harder, she said, her voice firm, yet covering the sound of her tears just under the surface of her words. She still refused to look at him, her eyes trained assiduously to the chopping block instead.

I'll go then, he said, but before he could flip the curtain's cheerful material aside, went on, I'm sorry. I never meant this decision to be so difficult. But it was all real, you should know, and there's nothing I've loved more than I love you. You need to know that, too, for your deliberations, he confessed again, then blinked tears of his own from his eyesight before escaping the kitchen through the revoltingly colorful curtains.

A few moments later, Maria served the three men at their table. Victoria stayed hidden safely in her kitchen throughout the lunch hour.

Z Z Z

God, this is harder to bear than anything I have ever felt before, Diego ruminated later that afternoon. Not being able to predict what Victoria was thinking was much worse then he had anticipated. Diego nervously paced once more around the cave, not stopping to pet Toronado on his way, not pausing in front of the experiments he had laid out on the work tables, not glancing at the shelves of books he had collected over the years. Nothing snagged his interest while he waited for the hours to disappear, while he waited for Victoria's answer.

Felipe wanted to suggest that the time would seem to go faster if his mentor would just do something, but he kept his words to himself and let the older man pace while he continued to polish the candlesticks on the desk at one end of the secret cave. Diego just needed to fret, he understood, so he allowed the minutes to slowly tick away, then left as Diego went on with his pacing, his waiting, and his worrying.

Thirty minutes after he left, Felipe ran back into the cave, bounding down the steps without even looking at them, and skidding to a halt in front of his friend beside the coatrack.

Diego at least had the presence of mind to ask, What is it, Felipe? What's wrong?

Not wasting a second, the young man started signing, and didn't pause until he had explained the entire situation. Diego really had to concentrate for the first time all day to understand what his friend was saying.

Diego's face fell with the news. Another tax? he asked for simple clarification.

Felipe signed some more.

Diego's face hardened this time. On the very air we breath? he inquired, incredulous. This time, DeSoto really had gone too far, and he reached for the coatrack and the black clothes hanging there. Then, he stopped.

Felipe desperately pushed him on towards the clothes. You have to, he signed frantically.

Oh, don't worry, I will, Diego said in a soft tone. But I've never wanted the end of the legend to come about as much as I do right now, he explained slowly, as if the idea had just come to him and he hadn't spent the entire night before worrying about that very thing. It makes me pause.

Again Felipe signed, explaining how Don Alejandro had already gone to the pueblo, hoping to find his son already there, how the tax table had been erected to one side of the plaza, how a whipping post meant to punish those who couldn't pay this new tax was only now held in place by the dirt filling in the new hole at the side of the central circle, near the table and the Alcalde's office. His lengthy explanation of details worked.

Furious, but with a pang of regret for the shock he was about to give Victoria, Diego reached for the black clothes and mask as Felipe prepared to follow him to the pueblo.

Z Z Z

Protests at this new, highly ridiculous tax filtered out of the town, onto the plain surrounding the buildings, and on into the countryside around Los Angeles. Yells and arms flung in anger immediately greeted DeSoto as he stepped jauntily out of his office to meet his sergeant who rose quickly from his seat at the sight of his superior officer.

Nervously, Mendoza tugged at his uniform tunic. Are you sure this is such a good idea, mi Alcalde? he asked in a thin voice.

DeSoto laughed his wheezy laugh. This is a perfect idea, Sergeant! he cried.

Mendoza looked next across the plaza towards the tavern. But I don't think Zorro will like this much. He might even come here to put a stop to this new tax.

Again, DeSoto wheezed out a laugh. I hope so, Sergeant, he said, also glancing around, only anticipation glinted in his eyes.

Sergeant Mendoza rested his hand on the sword handle at his side and squeezed his eyes tight as he thought of the implications of what his superior had said. So, this is a trap? You planned this all along? he asked.

For the third time, the Alcalde laughed. It is, my trusted friend, he said jovially. In fact, we can thank that sweetheart of Zorro's, Seņorita Escalante, for giving me the idea. Didn't you hear her complaining this morning about how the government would tax the very air the citizens breath if it could only find a way? The smile slid into a frown. Well, she can consider that it found a way, he continued in a hard voice.

But Zorro... began Mendoza in a final protest.

He was stopped by the Alcalde's words. ... will finally meet his end, DeSoto promised darkly.

Mendoza gulped, but went on collecting the new tax that had only been posted after lunch. He simply didn't know what else to do. He only realized that he could do no wrong as a soldier by following orders, so on he went, forcing money out of farmers who could scarcely afford to pay, but feeling base and low about it the entire time. He would wish for Zorro to interfere, but the idea of a new trap whirled thickly around in his mind, and for once, he didn't want to see the arrival of his friend.

DeSoto stood beside the table, oozing triumph. Lancers held back the most vocal of the protestors with their rifles. The citizens went on calling useless insults at the military officer. Little did they know that more lancers waited quietly in the darkening shadows cast by the tavern.

Exactly as the sun began to touch the horizon came reports of the first distant sighting of the foe that the Alcalde wished to bring down. He's right on time, DeSoto said quietly, and smiled even more.

Toronado's scream split the air for a second, and the protestors turned to look. The great black stallion raced under the swinging sign and tore into the plaza, where he was pulled to a stop. A figure all dressed in black and looking like retribution itself vaulted to the ground.

Alcalde, you can't do this! Zorro yelled, pulling out his sword to use against the lancers who immediately threatened him.

The moment his outcry came, more citizens streamed onto the porch of the tavern to watch the proceedings, and DeSoto noted with satisfaction the presence of a certain seņorita as she stood alone, off to one side of the shaded porch.

DeSoto smirked. I wonder what took her so long to show up? he said to Mendoza. He'd half expected her to be right in front of the crowd, protesting loudly next to Don Alejandro, as she usually was. She must have spent the entire afternoon in her kitchen, cooking, to have only just now heard about the new tax. That's the only explanation for such a silent afternoon.

Si, mi Alcalde, Mendoza gulped from behind the collar of his uniform jacket.

The government... began DeSoto in a loud voice, ignoring his sergeant now that his main enemy was in town.

He was drowned out. The government doesn't govern by creating taxes just to soak its citizens, Alcalde! Zorro yelled as he swiped his blade into the path of an advancing lancer. This new tax is illegal, and you know it! he cried next.

DeSoto gave a small shake of his gloved hand. I do know it, Zorro, and I want to thank you for coming so promptly this evening, he replied enigmatically.

The reason for his quick capitulation was soon evident. Lancers, responding to the prearranged signal given by their diabolical leader, moved in on the masked man. He lunged against them again and again, but before he knew it, he was completely cut off from the protestors and his horse, which he had voluntarily abandoned in hopes of keeping him safe from the typical sword fight that he had expected to ensue.

DeSoto couldn't hold in his laughter. I hope you don't mind a bit of subterfuge, he said. Or insurance.

At this second signal, the three hidden lancers came out of the shadows to train the end of their weapons on a stunned Victoria. She couldn't move without being followed by the point of a rifle. When the reality if the situation had finally sunk in, she looked towards her masked man with agony in her eyes.

More soldiers, stationed in the shadows on the other side of the tavern, moved into position beside their compadres, cutting the masked man off from any avenue of escape. Zorro continued to circle warily, but there was no way to avoid the soldiers as they crowded closer to him. How, he wondered, had a tax protest turned into such a sour situation so quickly? Bent over, ready to fight, his voice rang out with false authority as he demanded, Let her go. It's me you want.

For what could possibly be the millionth time that afternoon, DeSoto wheezed his mirth. So I do, he called. But I won't let her go until you agree to a few things, he yelled.

Zorro still didn't resheath his blade, though he didn't know what he was going to do to work his way out of this new mess. Inwardly, he berated himself for walking into this net so easily, but he had been so angry that he hadn't paused to think things properly through beforehand. He continued to circle, and his eyes now landed on Victoria as she stood, unmoving, on her porch. Had he confessed his identity to her only to be hung before he could hear of her answer? Trapped, he gave in, asking, What do you want? However, the gathered people could clearly hear the trepidation in his voice.

DeSoto moved into the circle then, pulling and cocking the pistol tucked into his belt. It's strange you should ask, Zorro, he said as he walked.

Oh? asked the legend, bargaining for time as his brain scrambled frantically for an alternative to hanging. Why is it strange?

Because, began DeSoto conversationally, I have spent years here wishing I were someplace else while you thwarted me at every turn. What a waste, he finally expostulated.

It wasn't a waste, Zorro contradicted as he continued to swing his sword at the lancers in the constricting circle. Any way that your subjects devised to put a halt to your tyranny was never a waste, he said.

Strong words from a man who will certainly meet his end, DeSoto predicted. Who will not finally get what he wants.

What do you know about what I want? Zorro derisively asked.

Plenty, responded the Alcalde, still conversational. I know that you wish above all things to marry Seņorita Escalante, for example, followed only closely by my removal from the office of Alcalde of Los Angeles. And nothing would please me more, he announced with little fanfare. So I suggest we strike a deal.

Zorro had halted in his useless circling as the Alcalde spoke. A deal? What do you mean? he asked, instantly suspicious.

Just this, the Alcalde said without hesitation now that he knew for sure that he had the man's complete attention. You want to see me gone, correct?

Zorro's agreement was as hesitant as it sounded. Yes.

And I want to return to Madrid, a hero in my own right for capturing and executing you, informed the Alcalde.

Right so far, Zorro answered.

Now you, the Alcalde continued. You have something of a problem.

The suspicion was almost overwhelming by now. How so?

The Alcalde negligently waved the end of his weapon. The only way I can return to Spain as a hero is if you're dead, he said. And that is hardly conducive to a future with the seņorita, he went on.

Zorro was even more hesitant this time. And?

And so I came up with this plan, the Alcalde proclaimed.

Plan?

Yes, to get you into town under false pretenses so that we can talk, admitted the Alcalde next, surprising everybody.

Zorro was so stunned that he lowered the point of his sword into the plaza dust. No tax? he asked as silence enveloped the plaza.

DeSoto smiled. No tax. Just talk.

Zorro was quiet for a moment while he thought about this new development. Finally, he asked, Talk about what?

DeSoto seemed to settle more firmly on his feet. Here's the deal, he stated before his enemy could say something that would stop him. We lie, he said. In my report about this incident to Madrid, I claim that you've been killed while trying to escape, leaving you free to live your life as you see fit. The King should promote me out of this miserable widening of the road before the month is over. I get what I want, you get what you want, and neither of us has to see each other ever again. Spain never has to know the truth.

Zorro paused, still stunned. A lie? he asked at last, just to make sure.

The Alcalde shrugged. An exaggeration of the true course of events, he clarified. I certainly won't tell the truth, you won't tell the truth, and if these good citizens promise to never divulge these events, you go free. Our fight can come to an end. It's the only way to attain a mutual benefit to such a stalemate as our's.

Or? Zorro asked.

The reply was much faster than Victoria's had promised to be that afternoon. Or I really do try to kill you, and we will never know how the events will go, the Alcalde said. You might escape to fight another day, you might get away, you might be alive to marry the seņorita, here, like you want to. Then again, you might not. His threat hung on the air like the heaviness of a tornado.

Zorro paused yet again. How can I trust you?

You can't, DeSoto said. Trust in the loaded weapons you have pointed at your back, he suggested, an oily tone creeping into his voice. Trust in the rifles that are currently aimed at the supposed love of your life, he sneered.

Silence shrouded the pueblo again. Everyone could hear the breeze flap the sleeves of the black shirt worn by their favored hero. Finally, Zorro quietly asked, What will you do with her?

Do? DeSoto asked. Nothing. If you drop your sword belt to the dust right now.

What's my other option?

Her death, DeSoto commented lazily. If I were you, I wouldn't want that on my conscience for the rest of my life.

Zorro whipped his head around to regard Victoria standing so still on the porch. The silence was profound this time. It's her decision, he stated conclusively, noting that the moment had truly come. She had nothing to hide behind any longer.

Victoria slowly released the stranglehold she had on the roof support post that stood before her. The sound of cocking rifles split the evening air, but she found that she was completely unafraid as she faced the man she had loved for years through the string of surrounding lancers. She remained silent in the deepening shadows of the lowering dusk, staring only at Zorro as time ticked steadily away. Quiet settled on those gathered around her until, finally, she moved.

She walked purposefully to the entrance to her tavern's porch, trying to get a better view of her masked love. The lancers stepped aside, knowing that the man they had surrounded had little chance of escape now, even if he wanted to escape, which was unlikely. The silence lengthened as the two did nothing but stare at each other.

Why does this have to be so public? Zorro wondered. Victoria, if you love me... he started to say before his voice died away.

I do, was all she said, but to him, her simple declaration meant everything.

Without thinking through his actions, with no endless debate, Zorro ripped the gloves from his nerveless fingers, stuffed them into the sash around his waist, then tugged on the buckle of his sword belt to unhook it from around his hips. The sheathed sword and belt fell with a thud to the plaza dust below, gladly forgotten in the pulsating heat of the moment. Before he knew it, he somehow felt Victoria's arms around him as they joyously met near the porch overhang, his face buried in the dark hair that drifted over her shoulder.

I'm so sorry, she whispered, tears on her cheeks and in her voice. I never wanted to hurt you.

You haven't, he whispered back, clinging tightly to her the entire time. I just wanted you to know, at last.

I do know, and I do love you, as long as I live, Victoria whispered into the mask covering his ear.

Marry me? he softly inquired.

She giggled just as softly as he held her. I thought you'd never ask.

Today? Now?

Victoria sighed. I'm certainly not going to let you run away now that I've got you, she said on a gust of breeze.

He softly kissed her forehead. Want to find the padre?

But won't you have to unmask then? she protested weakly.

I'm not sure I care anymore if my identity stays a secret, he argued gently. Besides, I don't plan to wear this mask for the rest of my life, he announced.

Good, was all she said, and kissed him soundly on his lips to seal his promise.

The threat over, the lancers standing at attention lowered their weapons and dispersed. Even the Alcalde disappeared into his office, his green silk necktie fluttering in the wind, shutting the door tightly behind him as he went.

Like a portent of the future it promised, the championship saber lay, abandoned, in the plaza dust, a black smear in the otherwise pristine dirt.

Z Z Z

An hour later, it was official. Victoria was, without a doubt, a de la Vega. And Diego was the happiest man in all of Los Angeles.

The proceedings hadn't gone without a slight hitch, of course. First, not every citizen in the entire town could fit into the church all at once. Some had to wait in the courtyard of the mission, or in the plaza itself. But their presence didn't diminish the beauty of the simple wedding ceremony. While they waited, they happily discussed the fact that they had known the hidden identity of their masked hero all along.

For that was the second hiccup in the days' events. The moment Zorro and Victoria reached the alter, before the padre and the gathered crowd, she slipped the black silk mask up and off his head, exposing his features for everyone to see. Padre Benitez's expression didn't change, but the collective, indrawn breath showed that he was in the minority.

Oh, my... was a much more common response, led by the loud ringing of Alejandro's epithet. Oh my... he repeated much more quietly in the following silence.

Diego clung to Victoria again in a tight embrace as his father slowly came forward. I hope you don't mind, he said with a gesture towards Victoria and the padre.

Mind? Alejandro shook his silvered head in an attempt to make his words sound coherent instead of the numbed mess that they were. No, I don't mind at all. Another quiet moment passed as Felipe pushed on his back and Alejandro's mouth hung open. What am I saying? he finally asked himself. Madre de Dios! Of course, I don't mind!

Father.., Diego began, intending to explain his reasoning behind the activity of the last few years, but his father caught him up in such a tight hug that his words were lost.

Forgive me, Alejandro said then. Everything I've said and done... Madre de Dios. He clutched at his only son and couldn't let go.

I understand, was all Diego answered. It's all forgiven. All of it. He clutched back just as much.

Ahem. The sound of Padre Benitez clearing his throat broke into the little family tableau. Shall we get started? he asked, to break them out of the moment.

Alejandro smiled so broadly that his face threatened to crack under the expression. He nodded as he released his hold on his son, then pulled down his burgundy caballero jacket. Don't mind me, he said, then turned towards Felipe, who had followed him through the crush of people. That's my son, he said in a loud whisper and with a broad grin. Felipe nodded and grinned back.

Diego grimaced at his father's words, suspecting that it wasn't the last time he was going to hear those words as the night wore on.

Padre Benitez smiled. We are here because of the most happy of occasions, he began, and his voice carried easily to the far corners of the sanctuary. To join these two in holy matrimony. They have certainly waited for long enough... he went on, and the crowd laughed as the twilight fell.

After one hour, a borrowed ring, an ecstatic parent, and an attendant who dreamed of the tamales he would later eat, Diego and Victoria were married in a ceremony that was far from quiet, simple, or masked.


Back to [Zorro Stories]. Send comments to linda.bindner@gmail.com.

This page has been accessed 1821 times since 2005 Jul 30.