Dreams? Or is it Reality?

by Linda Bindner

A/N: A sequel to '6000 Pesos.' For Peppymint, who wanted a sequel so much that she wrote one of her own.

Thanks to Lianne for story ideas.


Diego growled. He watched the retreating form of Sergeant Mendoza from where he had uselessly joined him at a tavern table only seconds before. Diego had sat down at the table, jovially asked, Sergeant, how..? And then Mendoza had simply picked up his hat, risen from the table, and, without a word to Diego, had turned to leave the tavern.

Now Diego found himself staring at Sergeant Mendoza's uniformed back as the man dodged several other tavern customers and wound his way to the front door. As Diego gazed after him, he couldn't help but sourly think, This is not what I had in mind for the day after I finally unmasked!

The day that Diego had secretly longed for, his sudden and unexpected unmasking, had gone as planned at first, but then before the following day had barely begun, everything had fallen into a stunning show of disillusionment for Diego. Yes, the reward for his capture and the call for his arrest had been summarily rescinded, just as the Alcalde had promised. And that 'rescinding of the reward' had been done in a very public place, in front of a multitude of people - the full, and fully populated, plaza in Los Angeles. If it had all been an elaborate plot of DeSoto's to get Zorro to unmask (and Diego should have thought of that, Felipe told him in the one time he'd spoken to his cohort since the time in the plaza)... If that had been the Alcalde's plan all along, then the Alcalde would have only found himself with a real public persona problem as the gathered Los Angelenos would have surely been so angry with him for tricking their hero that they would have run the Alcalde out of town right then and there. So, because of the alternative for the Alcalde, Diego had chosen to believe him at his word ('as a member of the King's Military,' DeSoto had insisted) and Diego found that so far, his gamble had paid off.

But now, here it was the day after that infamous unmasking, and nothing besides the actual physical act of unmasking had gone, or was going, how Diego had always envisioned his eventual unmasking and its consequences to go.

Diego sighed once again, still watching the Sergeant walk away from him. His sight of the disappearing military man was obstructed just as Mendoza reached the tavern door when Alcalde DeSoto slid onto the bench opposite Diego that Mendoza had so recently abandoned.

So, Diego, DeSoto conversationally intoned. How's the unmasking going for you? I suppose that you're everybody's hero by now? His tone was biting, slightly sarcastic, and Diego responded accordingly.

You did this to me on purpose, didn't you? he growled in a low and abruptly jarring manner. Diego balefully eyed the Alcalde sitting across from him.

That question made DeSoto's eyebrows raise in a show of confusion. He asked now for more clarification from Diego. Did I do what on purpose? inquired the governmental man.

Diego sighed, and stared once again to where Mendoza had vanished from the tavern only a moment before. His gaze returned to the Alcalde before he half asked, half accused, You knew this would happen, didn't you?

That comment from Diego made DeSoto's brows raise even further on his forehead. Why? What's happening? He glanced around at the other patrons in the busy tavern. Are we somehow under attack?

Diego sighed again, slightly perturbed at the other man's seeming misunderstanding of the situation. Don't play games with me, Alcalde, he suggested darkly. No, there's no attack, as you well know, he explained. Then his gaze again swiveled to the just-vanished Mendoza, and he decided to take the Alcalde's previous question for the curiosity that it was. He couldn't talk about this to anybody else, after all, as nobody was speaking to him right now except Victoria, and she was too busy serving her patrons in her tavern to spend time in nothing but talking to him.

So he might as well unload on DeSoto. This is the second time today that Sergeant Mendoza has refused to speak to me. At least this time I was able to say 'Sergeant, how's..?' before he left, which is an improvement on the time this morning when he wouldn't even let me get the word 'Sergeant' out before he left. And I can't seem to find my father to talk with him as to how he's feeling about what happened yesterday. He did discover that his son had been basically lying to him for years, Diego sardonically reminded. In addition to that, total strangers keep coming up to me at any and all inconvenient times to shake my hand and tell me how undying their appreciation is for what I've done for them the last four years by catching so many outlaws. Diego took a breath, partially amazed at himself for telling such personal information to the Alcalde, of all people. But before DeSoto could even open his mouth to respond, Diego began speaking again, Victoria is so busy because of all the extra customers that she has in the tavern - because people are coming from miles around to stare at me - I can't talk to her because she's so busy serving in the tavern. And Felipe... yes, you were right about me having an assistant... Anyway, Felipe is caught up in some jealous tangle, and he's mad at the whole world right now, and won't speak to me, and...

DeSoto gave a small but hearty chuckle, and interrupted Diego's litany. Yes, yes, I get the picture!

Diego's thunderous expression didn't diminish. You planned this, didn't you? he again accused, his voice the still low timbre associated with Zorro.

DeSoto pensively rubbed his chin, the very spot that Diego had often punched him in the past. It was so... odd... to hear the man known as Zorro complaining to him that he smiled a tiny grin at the altercation he was currently embroiled in at the tavern. He appreciated the irony of that thought, according to the look on his face. But instead of probing an injury, the Alcalde only now appeared to be thoughtful... ironically thoughtful. Plan for this to happen? No, he quietly said. Then he shifted slightly on his bench. At last the man admitted, But I would be lying if I said that I hadn't suspected that this very situation might arise after your eventual unmasking.

Diego's dark look intensified. So? I ask again, by maneuvering me into the corner that you did in the plaza yesterday... Was this all some kind of an elaborate plot of yours, Alcalde? Diego's expression in his eyes was equally as forbidding now as the look on his face. Because if I find out...

DeSoto chuckled again, a reaction that Diego had never anticipated at all. Yes, yes, he repeated. then went on, I know what you'll do. He rubbed his jaw again, his features rueful this time. You'll probably pummel me into unconsciousness, he predicted, his light expression and tone of voice at odds with Diego's stormy demeanor. But the most I can say is that, honestly, I only sort of suspected that this might happen. I also sort of suspected that everyone would openly love you and worship you if I did what I did yesterday. I was taking a big chance, but if I wanted to be seen an something other than someone who was just like the Emissary, someone who behaved just like him, he clarified, Then I had to take a chance and hope for the desired outcome. However, he prudently didn't say which outcome it was that he had desired.

But Diego knew the man he was talking with too well. I'd wager that's part of the truth, Alcalde, but not the whole truth.

Once more came DeSoto's chuckle. You are good, I'll give you that, he appreciatively commented under his breath for Diego's ears only.

Diego just gave a rather sad and resigned sigh, as if he knew there was more to this situation than had been so far revealed, and waited for DeSoto to speak.

Diego didn't have to wait long. Leaning forward now, his tone quiet, conspiratal, DeSoto continued, Here's the story, he said as his opening. It makes no difference now if you know it or not, so I might just as well tell you as not. I can't tell Mendoza... he's a military man, true, but the twists and turns and subtleties of politics are beyond his purview. You, however, will understand my recent ways of thinking. I know this because I've come to understand your sense of worldliness, shall we say, these last few years.

Diego sighed again. Alcalde, stop stalling, he ordered. I'm listening, but if you don't start...

DeSoto cut him off. I wanted one thing, Diego, he announced in a confession of his own. I wanted to capture Zorro.

This was no surprise. Yes, Diego tiredly prompted the man. I think the last two years have established that as a fact, he said with a roll of his eyes. What..?

Again DeSoto interrupted him. But... I got to thinking. I didn't want the same reputation as the Emissary had gained during his time in Los Angeles. Here he paused, then added, I realize he was related to you, Diego, but in all honesty, you and Don Alejandro are the only ones in the entire pueblo who even 'sort of' mourn his passing. The rest of the citizens are celebrating the fact that I, for all intents and purposes, ended a tyrant's hold on the pueblo. And I myself was condemned to death by the man. Yet even as he reminded Diego of these facts, DeSoto looked contrite and embarrassed for what he had done, and briefly glanced down at the table. I apologize for having to end your brother's life, but again, it was either end his life, or do nothing and watch him end your life. I had to make a fast choice, and I made it, for good or ill. Then he softly gave a laugh. It's truly ironic that I was in effect saving the life of my one true nemesis.

Diego grunted, That bit about wanting to get rid of Risendo for your own sake is only convenience, then?

The Alcalde gave a ghost of a smile. Yes, he hesitantly agreed. I saved your life, but I did it in a... convenient... way.

Diego and DeSoto had trouble looking into each other's eyes for a second. Then the Alcalde breathed in a rush of air that broke through the uncomfortable hold the past had on the two men, and went on with his explanation. So, as you know, I talked to Padre Benitez when we got back to town... and we talked... and we talked... We talked for two hours. It was the longest Confession that I've ever lived through, he divulged.

I don't doubt it, Diego dryly stated.

DeSoto's ghost of a smile grew in appreciation at Diego's wry tone, but he didn't comment, only went on. Benitez helped me to see that the basic reason that I had come to Los Angeles in the first place... to capture Zorro... was in actuality a desire to answer the King's edict about Zorro, and to put an end to Zorro's career. I had always assumed that 'putting an end to Zorro's career' meant that I was to capture and hang Zorro... you... But Benitez insisted that I could instead look on the whole situation from another angle.

Diego was interested now in spite of himself. Go on, he invited.

DeSoto did as Diego suggested. Benitez highlighted the differences for me as to what exactly the King's edict about Zorro was saying. Zorro's wanted posters offered the reward of 6000 Pesos, to be sure...

For my eventual capture, Diego reminded.

Yes, the Alcalde agreed with him. But it didn't detail how that capture should come about, he pointed out. 'Capture is capture' I argued with the padre, but he insisted that no, capture meant 'to put an end to' something, to stop it, whether it was Zorro's life itself, or Zorro's reign as 'defender of the people,' and as my chief adversary. DeSoto sat back a bit in order to get comfortable again before continuing. Benitez said that even if I didn't want to admit it, the last two years worth of 'encounters' between you and I showed that, no matter how wild my schemes to 'capture' Zorro were, I always ended up on the losing side. Zorro always came out the victor. And after two years of this, time after time, wasn't I ready to concede the fact that maybe Zorro is a better swordsman than I am? That maybe Zorro is a bit more clever than I am?

Diego was astonished. The Padre said that? he blurted with a face wrinkled by astonishment. And you let him?

DeSoto nodded with an accompanying shrug. He said more, actually, the details of which I won't bore you with now. But he gave me the idea that maybe I was looking on this whole 'must capture Zorro' thing the wrong way. I needed to put an end to the mystical idea of Zorro itself, and that, in effect, was capturing Zorro, no matter how I eventually did it. He glanced at Diego in amusement. I had no idea that you were Zorro, of course, so I'm not, and never was, sure about all that's now going on with you, no, but from the moment I thought that I wanted to be seen as somehow different from the Emissary, and that I also wanted to put an end to Zorro... When I put the two together, it just came to me that night as I was lying in bed.

What came to you? Diego asked, intrigued, again, in spite of himself.

DeSoto's eyes glittered. That if I wanted to fulfill the King's edict concerning Zorro, to put an end to Zorro's career as my chief adversary, I had to convince him that things were at an end, that he could unmask, that he could feel safe enough to do so. The only way to convince him of his general safety, and the safety of all those he cared about, so that he would unmask and finally reveal his identity, was to repeal the 6000 Peso reward, to repeal the call for his arrest. That's what came to me that night as I was lying in bed, thinking about what the Padre had told me.

Diego gusted a breath of air. I admit, all that repealing bit surprised even me, he said. I figured that it was part of some new idea of yours to convince me to unmask so that you could capture me, hang me, and then go after my family.

The Alcalde pensively pursed his lips and gave a grimace. Yeeees, he slowly and reluctantly admitted, as if he thought that Diego's prediction was half right rather than wholly correct. I wanted you to unmask so that we can put to rest this impasse we've been mired in these last two years, but I didn't want to do it by going after your family, not that I knew who they were, or Señorita Escalante, not if I wanted to be seen as a different man than Emissary Risendo was. And I did, the Alcalde said again, as if to emphasize his point. I don't wish to be seen as a murderer, either by Los Angelenos, or by the people of Madrid, in case I ever return to Spain in the future. And the only way to 'capture' Zorro, but not end Zorro's life, was to rescind the whole enchilada.

DeSoto went on after a moment of reflection. But even I knew that I'm just the Alcalde of a small pueblo in the California Colony. I don't have the authority to repeal the King's edicts, even if I want to do it. That's why I wrote to the governor in Monterey, and that's why I waited till yesterday to tell you about repealing the reward and to end the call for your arrest.

Amazed, Diego didn't know what to say. But finally, a question occurred to him. So it was really the governor who repealed the award and the arrest?

DeSoto looked almost relieved to have told his story to someone, anyone, even Diego as he added, Yes, but the bit about me not harming your family or the señorita was my idea. I knew that it would take a lot to convince Zorro to put an end to our... The Alcalde fished around in his mind for the right word he was looking for, and at last settled on, Our situation.

Diego's eyebrows rose incredulously. You call the last two years' worth of battles 'a situation?'

DeSoto looked embarrassed now. Yes, well, I figured that the phrase 'irritating thorn in my side' wouldn't please you so much.

Diego cocked his head to the side as he considered what the Alcalde had said. It gives me some pleasure to know that you thought of me as a thorn in your side, he admitted. Then he added, But you're right... I think I like being called 'a situation' better.

It's a nicer turn of phrase, the Alcalde agreed. Anyway, I've been assured by the governor that I will have the King's gratitude for ending a problem for him, and for doing it without bloodshed, and in a unique and creative way.

Diego couldn't help but smile at this point. See, Alcalde, he said. You are clever.

DeSoto grimaced. I highly doubt that Zorro would ever think so.

But Diego insisted, I bet I know a little about what Señor Zorro thinks and doesn't think, Alcalde.

DeSoto appeared a tad surprised at what Diego was intimating with his words, but opted to only give Diego a cock of his head and a look of acceptance. That expression turned into a casual once over of the man sitting across from him. I can guarantee that Sergeant Mendoza will eventually come around to be your staunch friend once again; he never stays angry for more than a day. And I bet that Felipe will also put an end to being jealous - he's always been a little possessive of Zorro. The Alcalde nodded then. Oh, yes, I've noticed. Then he went on, He's envious of anyone who he has to share Zorro's secret with, I bet, and that would now be the entire pueblo. He would never dislike every person in Los Angeles forever... and you are adopting him... At Diego's look of semi surprise that DeSoto had even heard of his adoption intentions, the Alcalde merely explained, The entire pueblo has heard about those plans of yours by now. Then he went on without missing a beat, And I wager that you'll find your father again eventually, and the two of you will talk, or yell, or whatever, but you will somehow get passed this concept that you didn't share your secret with him - Am I right in assuming that he didn't know?

Diego looked chagrined, but determined in his regret. I couldn't tell anyone, he confessed. I could never predict what you might do to them. Only Felipe knew about anything, at least that I know of, and the only reason he knew was that he found out everything before I realized that I needed to keep Zorro's identity a secret. But I never told Father, or Victoria.

Yes, the Alcalde balefully reported. It became quite evident rather quickly yesterday that Señorita Escalante had no idea who Zorro was.

Diego smiled at the memory. Yes, Victoria did seem... surprised.

The Alcalde snorted. You have a funny definition of 'surprise' then, my friend, he said. If she already knew, or at least suspected, Zorro's identity, then she's a better actress than I've always given her credit for. One thing I've always enjoyed about Señorita Escalante is her ability to tell you exactly what she's thinking at any given time. He softly added, I admire that about her. Then he seemed to remember who he was speaking to. But don't tell her I said that - she might faint from the shock that I admire anything about her.

Diego laughed. She'll never know a thing you think, Alcalde. Of course, he wryly added, She would never believe any of it, either.

The Alcalde just slapped the table top in a friendly manner in order to help that amiable ending of the conversation to come about. Well, if I'm not mistaken, you have some members of your family to speak with, and I have an idea that might put an end to Señorita Escalante's serving problems of the day. But... And here, the embarrassment he was feeling clearly showed in his eyes and on his face. I wonder if you can help me implement this idea of mine. He explained then, If the señorita ever discovers that this idea comes from me, she will only stubbornly refuse any suggestion I might make to help her, and she might end up running her feet off trying to keep up with all her customers before the day is over. And as I was going to suggest that you and she take a moonlit walk tonight... there are so little courting opportunities in the pueblo that one has to more or less create opportunities of his own... Can I assume that you and that tavern owner of yours..? Diego sent the Alcalde another dark look, but DeSoto simply ignored Diego and continued on, Can I assume that the two of you plan to court now that your secret is revealed to one and all in the pueblo?

Diego's dark expression turned only marginally softer at the mention of courting Victoria in the open, one of his deepest desires for the last several years. But he nodded, not quite trusting himself to say anything in this situation.

DeSoto nodded as well. Then I suggest a moonlit walk. People will talk about the two of you anyway, but a moonlit walk is at least something to do that's semi-private that is still in plain view of all these busybodies that we encounter every day.

Diego's thunderous expression had softened again until it had turned more rueful and ironically appreciative than dark. I don't think I'll be telling that opinion of yours to the 'good people of Los Angeles,' he quoted, as he knew that DeSoto had often called the pueblo's citizens so many times in the past. But he went on, No good can come of them knowing what you think if you truly wish to overcome this 'aura of Risendo' that you've fallen under. I won't say a word, he promised. All the while he thought that a promise made from him to DeSoto vowing silence was truly an amazing thing! He also considered that the way they were each dealing with what in all actuality was the death of his own brother at the Alcalde's hands to be another amazing thing. But as he didn't know how to address that 'thing' without also addressing several other topics at the same time, he opted for silence on this issue.

So too did DeSoto, it appeared. He just nodded again at Diego's words, or obvious lack of words, and went on. Can I predict that the 'talking about the two of you behind your backs...' That that state of affairs would not be particularly appreciated by you, Diego?

Once more, Diego's dry, bored tone answered the Alcalde's query. You predict quite accurately, Alcalde.

The Alcalde grinned, then conspiratorially leaned forward across the table. Then here's my 'Victoria suggestion...'

Z Z Z

An hour later, Diego stood in Victoria's kitchen, confronting a very puzzled tavern owner as he explained the presence of Corporal Rodrigo Sanchez standing at attention beside Diego. He's here to help you, Victoria. Consider it a serving present from me to you for the day.

Victoria continued to look confused. A serving present?

Diego nodded. I've noticed how busy the tavern is today, he told her, then grimaced. I think I'm actually the cause of your business today... or Zorro is... or Zorro's unmasking is... And it was an idea to ask one of the off-duty lancers to come to your aid and to help serve for as long as you need him today. He patted Corporal Sanchez proudly on his back, as if it had been the soldier's idea to offer to help Victoria all along. He didn't say, though, that this had originally been the Alcalde's idea from the beginning. He knew how unfavorable Victoria's opinion of anything connected with the Alcalde generally was, and would only get angry if she knew the entire truth. He wished to avoid such an ensuing scene if he could.

But he's a lancer, Victoria next protested, as if Sanchez's occupation would automatically make him ineligible to be of much help in a public tavern. How would he know..?

Diego smiled and interrupted her. You'll be able to train him in serving very quickly, Victoria, or I don't know how intelligent you are. His eyes twinkled as he finished his compliment. But as I do know your intelligence, I know that you'll take any help you can get on such a busy day as today is turning out to be. Besides... Now he looked a little apologetic. I feel that the state the tavern is in right now is partly my fault. At least let me feel like I'm doing some tiny thing to help the situation, Señorita.

Victoria's confusion cleared away, and she smiled up at him, unable to help herself. She always had been a sucker for the look of entreaty that Diego was giving to her now. She sighed in mock irritation, made it look like she was more put upon by this 'idea' of his than she really was, but gave in to him in the end. All right, Diego, I'll let him help. Her smile grew. I won't be so tired tonight if I have his help during the rest of the day, she suggestively noted.

Diego couldn't help but send her a rather private grin as well when she used such a seductive tone. He knew that she was referring to the idea that she hoped that he would spend more time with her now that he had been officially unmasked. I wanted to talk to you about that as well, he softly told her as he pulled her away from Sanchez so that they could have a moment of private conversation. Excuse us, he said to the Corporal, then in a hushed voice, said to Victoria, How do you feel about taking a moonlit walk tonight? he gently asked.

Victoria's brows wrinkled together. A moonlit walk? she echoed him. Diego nodded. With you? she clarified. Diego gave another hopeful nod of his head. Then Victoria smiled. The idea is almost sinful! she declared, then amended, I mean sinfully delicious!

Diego smiled. I think I'll leave the delicious part to you, he remarked. But is that a yes? Victoria nodded this time. Good! Then I'll be sure to meet you here this evening, he said with intense satisfaction at the thought.

Victoria seemed satisfied as well according to the excited look she sent him. Well then, Señor, our planned walk in the moonlight will be more of a walk, and less of you walking, and me dragging along beside you as long as Sanchez helps. So now I guess that I have a double reason to agree to his staying here today, she enticingly went on.

Victoria was enticing all right! Diego couldn't help the thrill that coursed through him at the thought of the now planned walk that night between him and Victoria, and decided that he truly liked the concept of courting her in the open for a change. I have to admit that I've thought of that, he said to her, his blush at the mention of their coming tryst reddening on his neck.

Victoria's smile turned into a grin of mischief. I thought that might have happened, she coyly said. And now I can look forward to our walk without guilt.

Diego smiled even wider, still amazed that he had the Alcalde to thank for suggesting this action of Sanchez helping at the tavern for the day as a 'present' for Victoria. That was the idea, he admitted again. He meanwhile decided not to mention to the Alcalde that his idea was now definitely going to have a direct affect on the state of the courtship between Diego and Victoria. Nope, Alcalde DeSoto didn't need to know everything. So you'll let Sanchez stay? Diego asked.

Victoria bobbed her head. Even if he is a lancer, and the only thing he has to wear is his lancer's uniform, which will look strange... a lancer serving in my tavern... But I can't turn the offer of help away. Her grin grew even larger to one of pure enjoyment at the peripheral mention of hers and Diego's planned evening walk together. And I think I don't want to turn him or his help away, either.

Diego smiled in relief that she seemed so willing to accept the aid he was offering her. Now, if only my talks with Father and Felipe can go so well, he said, referring to how well he thought his present conversation with Victoria was going.

Victoria placed her hand on his arm to halt his speech as well as encourage his hopes as she beckoned Maria over to her. Take Corporal Sanchez to the tables with you as you serve this round, Maria. He's going to help us serve today, and the best way for him to learn is to see what you do and how you do it. She smiled at Maria, then bent in to whisper to her, Just see that he doesn't steal anything while you're both out in the main room, Maria. With that, the tavern's other employee grinned, nodded, then crooked her finger to Sanchez to get him to follow her. The two disappeared through the curtain, carrying a tray of food each as they went. Victoria turned to Diego and sent him a look of sympathy as she hastily returned to work. Good luck with your family, Diego. You can tell me later how it goes. We'll talk this evening, I promise, but right now I really must get back to my customers. She gave him a fast peck on his cheek before she too whirled to go through the curtain.

Diego couldn't help it: he grinned like a romantic idiot while he placed a hand over the spot on his cheek where Victoria had just kissed him. He happily gushed a sigh. Even though unmasking had caused him some unexpected problems, he definitely liked this concept of an open courtship!

Z Z Z

Ten minutes later, Diego rode out of Los Angeles amid open stares of curiosity, a few looks of malevolence, and many more outpourings of affection and overwhelming gratitude from the gathered noonday crowd. He soaked up the positive attention, knowing that it would last only until he was out of town. Then he had just a conversation with what he assumed would be an angry and hurt Alejandro to look forward to. He needed all that hero worship to counter balance what he felt sure was in store for him.

He stopped at the hacienda just long enough to ask one of the vaqueros if he knew where Don Alejandro was. He didn't even have to go into the house for his errand, for which he was grateful. Like a trembling schoolboy, he was avoiding running into Felipe and any more of the young man's well-thought-out points that might make him feel badly for a second time that day. He preferred to limit his coming lectures to one a day if he could. He supposed that was the coward's way out, but if he had to endorse cowardly ways, then he would willingly do that in order to forgo (or at least put off) more unfriendly words from the young man whom he'd considered a friend for many years.

The friendly vaquero who happened to be in the stable yard at the time that Diego asked his question gestured to the West. I saw your father heading in that direction an hour or so ago, the man said, pointing now towards the one beach on de la Vega land. I haven't seen him return, Master Diego, so it's likely that he's still there.

By the ocean, Diego said, referring to the vaquero's directives. Thank you. He nodded, then wheeled his horse towards the West. He was just about to give Toronado a nudge in the correct direction when the vaquero stopped him.

The man was now smiling shyly. I want to take this opportunity to say a 'Thank you' of my own, patrón. His shy smile wormed its way across his face, and he twisted his sombrero in his hands as he spoke. Many times we needed Zorro's help, and he always treated us with respect regardless of our needs. That was your doing... Thank you.

Diego let a smile bloom on his face at the man's words. He hadn't expected any thanks from those at his home. They all simply knew him as the bookish and slightly odd 'Master Diego,' as his Diego persona had been on display the most at the hacienda. He had certainly never expected the worker's gratitude for the times he had come between the Alcalde's insane taxes and his father's employees. I'm just glad that I could be of some help, Diego humbly replied, the words now accompanying his own smile. With a nod, he then loped away on the one easily recognizable horse in all of the California territory.

On the ride, Diego found himself soon lost in thought, trying to predict what he could expect from a conversation with his father. It had been his habit as Zorro to try to predict every outcome of every situation that he could possibly think of in advance, and he now fell into the habit as naturally as breathing. Only moments later, he was so busy thinking that he was completely unaware of where he was going.

Toronado slowed, then stopped, then just snorted and munched some grass, as if the horse was on the lookout for a good lunch. But the minute Diego 'woke,' he pulled the horse's head back up. All this hypothesizing, while possibly productive in that it prepared Diego for what could be the worst reception he had ever received from his father, was simultaneously very dangerous. He could rarely afford to become so unaware of his surroundings. So he pulled the big horse away from his tasty lunch with a firm flick of the reins in his fist. Time for food later, my friend, Diego said. Right now we need to find Father, and I need to get this confrontation with him over with. Before I go insane with worry, Diego sardonically thought to himself.

Toronado snorted again, but allowed Diego to urge him on, as if he truly could understand what his owner had said to him. Toronado was certainly smart enough to comprehend if not his words, then the tone they had been spoken in, Diego mused.

Five minutes later, Diego and Toronado burst out of the trees surrounding the only de la Vega beach, and Diego caught sight of his father pensively standing at the water's edge. It was just as the vaquero had said. Diego dismounted with an unZorrolike hesitation as his father watched, and then slowly made his way across the densely packed sand to stand beside Don Alejandro.

The two men stood silently, one next to the other, neither saying a word, for several minutes. Diego was about to open the conversation he was sure that was coming, but Alejandro chose that moment to loudly issue a regretful sigh and glance up at his son. So, you've either come to be once again proclaimed the hero of the pueblo, or you've come to get a blistering lecture about the fact that you never told me your secret. He balefully gazed at Diego for a moment longer. When his son didn't reply, he gently asked, Well? Which lecture do you think I should deliver now?

Diego glanced cautiously at Alejandro, confusion warring in his soul and making his features twist into a grimace of puzzlement. I don't know, Father, he at last responded in a quiet voice filled with uncertainty. Which do you think I need to hear?

Alejandro sighed again with a sound that was something like defeat, and said, I think that you probably need to hear both, Diego. But you won't get either from me.

This comment surprised Diego, enough to snap him out of his lethargy of confusion. You're sure that you don't want to 'give me a good tongue lashing' for not saying anything to you for so many years?

Alejandro gave a dry laugh. Oh, I may want to give you 'a good tongue lashing,' but the idea of telling Zorro... you... that he should have trusted me with a secret that I feel certain that he... you... must have thought would ultimately get me hung for knowing in the first place seems a bit... wrong. He turned to face an astonished Diego. Don't you agree, Son?

Diego could only blink. How..? He swallowed and blurted the question, How did you know what I was thinking all these years? His astonishment grew.

Alejandro simply accepted that astonishment of Diego's and announced, Because I know you, Son, and I know Zorro... or at least, I knew the public man who was Zorro... and... Here, his voice trailed off into a wind that had picked up in the last few minutes and now sighed through the leaves on the trees surrounding the beach. Mixed with the sound of the pounding waves as the tide went out for the day, it gave a steady backdrop of relaxing susurration to the two men's talk.

Now the tide and the wind was all either man heard as the sounds of nature swallowed Alejandro's words as if he had never said anything to begin with. Finally, the elder de la Vega just shrugged. Guess I should start at the beginning, shouldn't I? he rhetorically asked Diego.

This query surprised Diego again. You mean that you haven't even begun yet?

Alejandro turned to regard the hazy horizon, a tiny smile tilting his lips. Oh, I suppose that I have one or two surprises in store for you yet. Just... Alejandro then eyed the taller man a bit confusedly. I was going to say 'Sit and get comfortable,' as my story's a fairly long one, but you'll get a bottom full of sand if you sit here on the beach, and I assume that you plan to see Victoria tonight and want to look your best? Diego nodded, blushing now, and Alejandro gave a grunt of enjoyment. I won't ask you to muss your appearance, then. I know how much appearances mean to you.

Appearances mean more to you than to me, aside from appearing as Zorro when the time was right, Diego mildly contradicted.

Alejandro shrugged a second time, as if to concede that his son had a point. Appearances did mean a lot to me, he admitted, then added, At least, in the beginning.

Diego's forehead wrinkled. In the beginning? he asked, puzzled. It was a strange occurrence for the man who was Zorro not to immediately have all the answers.

Alejandro chuckled then. Yes, in the beginning, he repeated. The beginning, as in, when you came home from Spain. When Zorro was born. He faced front again, then went on, When I was stupid enough to strike the Alcalde and get thrown in jail, making you do something as drastic as create your secret legend to assure my release. He glanced at Diego, then turned back towards the ocean. Or at least, that's what I assume happened. He gave a shake of his head. I guess that I shouldn't assume anything in this scenario.

Diego pointed out, No, you haven't assumed anything so far.

Alejandro seemed to internalize what his son's comment meant to what he was suggesting, then went on. In a way, I've always assumed that it was my fault that you felt the need to create Zorro to begin with, Diego.

It's not your fault, Diego instantly negated. You were only coming to Victoria's defense when you punched Alcalde Ramon all those years ago.

I should have held on to my temper instead, Alejandro insisted. The caballeros of the pueblo would have made sure that Victoria was released. You shouldn't have had to do what you did, to put your life on hold to become the defender of the people.

But Diego wanted to argue more with his father. I would have created Zorro out of desperation to get Victoria out of jail, then, and the fact that she was imprisoned was no one's fault but Alcalde Ramon's. He regarded his father with an ironic twinkle in his eye. So let's blame him.

Alejandro chuckled. All right, I have no qualms with that. He gazed at the watery horizon again, thinking. But in the end, Ramon was just one despot who was replaced with another named DeSoto.

Diego then piped up, I spoke to DeSoto at the tavern.

Oh? Alejandro inquired. He appeared inordinately interested. And what did he say?

Diego gave a sigh of resignation, and told him, He said that I should seek you out and talk to you. So here I am.

What!? Alejandro asked in mock disbelief. Zorro, taking advice from DeSoto? He gave Diego a teasing grin. This is a first.

Diego wryly rolled his eyes. Yes, well, a first among many, he announced, thinking again of DeSoto's idea to help Victoria. And on the subject of Victoria, he supposed that their evening walk could also be considered a first. Diego couldn't help but smile again at just the thought of their proposed walk together. But he turned his attention back to his father lest he get carried away in daydreams about Victoria. Anyway, you were saying? he prompted the older don.

Alejandro gave another shake of his head. Of course, I was speaking about 'the beginning.' Suddenly he gave another low laugh. The son I sent to Spain was not the man who returned, he noted. And I soon began to wonder why, if I had somehow said or done something... He shook his head once more. I used to think so much in those days, trying to figure it all out, that you almost overtaxed this poor brain of mine.

Diego grinned. I thought it was Alcalde Ramon who overtaxed people. And here it was me all along.

But Alejandro wasn't going to be waylaid by a mere humorous comment now that he had gotten started on his explanation. He said, Yes, well, let's just say that I thought a lot that first year that Zorro was seen in Los Angeles.

And after that? Diego's mild question prodded his father.

After that... Alejandro pursed his lips for a full minute as he clearly went through his options at this time. Then he blurted something that Diego never expected him to say. After that, I knew.

Diego gave a start. You... knew? he echoed, stunned. As in, knew Zorro's secret identity?

Alejandro smiled benignly at Diego. 'Knew...' That word's not quite accurate. He pursed his lips again in a pensive manner, then said, Let's say that I suspected. He turned a proud gaze onto Diego. You're quite an actor, Diego! he exclaimed then. You had me going back and forth between being sure that you were Zorro, to thinking that I was the biggest fool in California to even contemplate something so insane. He smiled, his silver hair sliding across his back once more. I'd be so certain that you were Zorro that I'd almost say something to you, and just before I said anything, you'd do something that was so... 'Diego'... that I'd convince myself again that I was imagining things.

Diego regarded Alejandro with a look of open amazement. His mouth hanging, he couldn't stop himself from blurting the question, When did you begin thinking that I..?

Alejandro cocked his head. When you were sick with that terrible cold, remember?

The one during Christmas a few years ago? Diego asked to be sure.

Yes, Alejandro nodded. When we saw Zorro in the plaza that morning, Victoria made a comment to me that stuck in my head long after the event. She said something about it being odd that Zorro had shown up to save the day once again, but he hadn't spoken a word, and that it wasn't like him. I said that maybe he wasn't feeling himself that day. Alejandro gazed pensively across the water before them, remembering. Later I got to thinking about her comment and my reaction to it. He struck a thoughtful pose and went on. I wondered what could possibly keep Zorro from speaking. Then I remembered that you had that terrible cold and was having trouble speaking through your stuffy nose. He put a finger to his own nose then, still with that same thoughtful expression on his face. That expression made Diego slightly nervous, to be honest. It usually meant that Alejandro was considering some drastic action or other.

But Alejandro just continued. I got to thinking again the next day: What if..? What if... Zorro hadn't said anything while in the plaza because he couldn't speak, at least not normally. And you couldn't speak, at least not normally. Then you originally turned down the opportunity to go to Victoria's Christmas party at the tavern with me, though you showed up later. He turned, smiling, and wagged his finger at his son. The fact that you resisted the lure of a party thrown by Victoria, of all people, really hit me as odd, Diego. He smiled a tiny, self-satisfied smile as he regarded his son from the corners of his eyes. I knew you. I knew you had a 'thing' for Victoria, and you never turned away an opportunity to be around her. There had to be a reason you stayed home, besides needing to look after your cold, as you told me. Alejandro's thoughtful expression increased. A reason why you had decided to remain at home that night, if only I could puzzle it out. I had to ask myself why you turned away from Victoria's party, only to show up later, after Zorro had made an appearance and gone, I might add. And you were looking at Victoria that night as if she was the cream to your cat. I remember thinking that if Zorro could see that look on your face, he'd either have to kill you, or concede that he had some serious competition for the señorita's hand. He gave a soft smile in Diego's direction. That's when I started to question all that I had always assumed I knew about you. His smile softened even more at his confession. I've always thought of that ability to question my assumptions as a Christmas present to me of a sort, he quietly divulged.

Diego thought about what his father had told him so far, then had to prompt him to get him to confess any more, even though more confessions scared him so badly that he wanted to melt into the sand under his boots. And then?

And then... Alejandro sighed. The sound barely carried to Diego over the wind in his ears. Then I began what has to be the most difficult acting job of my life.

That divulgence astonished Diego even more. You acted?

Oh, yes, Alejandro told him in the same dry tone that he would use to invite Diego into the pueblo for lunch. When I thought my acting was getting a bit... poor... I would berate you for something you had recently done so that you wouldn't notice how bad my acting... or pretending... or whatever you want to call it... how bad it had gotten. After all, I had to look as if I was disappointed in something you had just done. If I didn't look slightly disappointed in you all the time, I might give a hint to the Alcalde that he should question your actions and decisions. He glanced at Diego in assuredness. And I knew that a thinking DeSoto was one thing I definitely did not want! Then his expression dropped just a bit. If I ever hurt your feelings with those comments of mine, I truly am sorry for that, Diego. Know that I hated that part of my own disguise, but I felt it was necessary if I wanted to help you in remaining alive.

Diego continued to stare at Alejandro, dumbfounded. I had no idea, Diego said to him at last. There I was, acting like a person who you had to see as a pathetic excuse for a man and a son, and you were responding to me...

By pretending, Alejandro admitted. My other option was to show you what I was really thinking: if I was right and you turned out to be Zorro, like I thought... But I really couldn't show you what I was thinking, or ask you point blank about your secret. If you told me, or I discovered the truth in some other way, there was every indication that others would figure out who you were, too, and it would be extremely bad if either of our Alcaldes ever thought as I thought, and in the end, you would probably be hung. Alejandro sighed. I didn't want to be the cause of that. He shrugged again. So I pretended. It seemed the least I could do.

Diego stood, stunned, staring without seeing at the ocean in front of him. To think, I came here to try to uncover your feelings on this unmasking of mine, and you knew who I was all along.

But Alejandro shook his head, No, I suspected. I didn't know. I tried for months... years... to find some kind of absolute proof that you were Zorro, but I couldn't find one scrap of evidence to support my theories. Not even in your cave...

Diego gave a violent start at that comment, making Alejandro smile again. Oh, yes, I found your cave a few years ago. Felipe does a marvelous job in keeping it clean, by the way. Then he gestured towards Diego with his hand raised in a ready apology. I guess I'm assuming, here. Perhaps it's always been you who kept everything in working order?

Diego dumbly shook his head. No, it's been Felipe from the beginning, he managed to squeak in a small voice.

Alejandro nodded once. The two of you have always been so close. It would have surprised me that you could become so close as to make you want to adopt him when he didn't help you... if you turned out to be Zorro... so I was fairly certain that the pristine condition of the cave was his doing. Then he wrinkled his nose and lowered his voice. You were always a bit messy as a child, Diego. The condition of the cave was best left to a conscientious lad like Felipe.

Diego raised his brows in mild annoyance at being told by his parent that the man who was Zorro had been messy as a child, but Alejandro went on once more. And speaking of the cave... I remember spending entire afternoons trying to find out how you got into the library so quickly, as you often did. I thought I was going insane for awhile. Then Alejandro struck his right fist into the palm of his left hand in a sign of irritation. If only I could find proof of your secret identity, or some kind of hidden cavern, or room, or hideout, I would finally have the reason why the front of the house, and especially the library, often smelled funny from your experiments... which I didn't know where you performed, by the way. Alejandro regarded Diego. You know, Son, if you had performed those experiments of yours more in the open, I never would have thought to look for some hidden cavern or cave in the first place. I recall that I first looked behind all the books on the bookshelf in the library. Remember when we had those shelves installed? Alejandro asked. You were so excited to have them... too excited for that to be where you went as a way to your secret... hideout... or whatever. He hesitated, not sure what to call this possibly concealed room of his son's. I was frustrated in my library searches more than once by Felipe returning early from a lunch by himself in town. He heaved a sigh. And I had a ranch to run. That didn't leave me much time to snoop around the library.

Diego blinked, half of him not believing he was hearing about this from his well-respected rancher father. You must have found the cave at last, Diego insisted. You said something about seeing the cleanliness of the cave, he pointed out. You must have been successful in your snooping after awhile.

Alejandro shifted guiltily in the sand beside his taller son. You would think so, he at last commented. Actually, I finally... out of pure desperation... set you up to be alone with Felipe in just such a situation that called for Zorro's presence, left the hacienda, then spied on you through the library window to see what you would do.

Diego blanched. You spied on me? he asked in disbelief.

Alejandro instantly tried to placate the blustering Diego with his hand gestured toward his son, his palm down in a calming manner. Now, I know that this spying on someone is not something that I have ever endorsed before, and still don't endorse, but I know that you've done your own fair bit of spying over the years as Zorro... eh? Alejandro asked Diego. Am I right?

Caught! Maybe, Diego at last conceded. Perhaps, he reluctantly admitted. Every now and then.

Alejandro gave a knowing nod. Uh-huh. What you mean is that you spied all the time, whenever it suited your purpose. He gazed into Diego's slight guilty eyes. Well, no matter, as I'm sure that this spying helped to keep you alive over the years. He snorted a laugh. I'd rather have you spying on everything under the sun than be dead, I admit. Then he cleared his throat, purposefully rerouting his attention. I was speaking about Zorro's secret cave... I spied, saw you touch the fireplace mantel somewhere, then a door magically opened in the back of the fireplace, and Felipe disappeared through it like it was an act he did every day. You followed him. Alejandro then turned to stare at Diego with a small smile of wonder on his face. I was stunned. That the way into your cave could be so easy, and right under my nose like that, all this time.

Diego was still trying to fully come to terms with a father who spied on him, but only dryly noted, I suppose that you found the cave right away after that.

Alejandro snorted again. No.

No? Diego echoed his father in incredulity.

Alejandro continued, I had the Devil's own time finding that exact spot where I needed to push on the mantel again. There had been one of the palm fronds in between me and what you did to the mantel at the time I spied, and I wasn't entirely sure what that something that you did was. So I experimented, touching everything on the mantel. Alejandro blinked, then wrinkled his face up to a sour expression. I felt like a complete fool. I was glad that nobody ever saw me do it.

But you found the mechanism that opens the door leading into the cave? Diego asked.

Alejandro nodded. Yes, finally. So in I went, to see such wonders... He grinned at his son for a moment. Then his grin slowly faded. At the time I was so frightened that you would come back as Zorro and find me in your cave that I made a quick scope of everything in there, then left as fast as I could. I had wedged a half burnt piece of wood in between the door and the wall to make certain that I could get back out so that I could think about what I should do next... confront you with what I had discovered, or sit back and let things go on as before. He toed the wet sand beneath his boots while he recounted his tale. A moment later, the letter 'Z' appeared in the sand. Then he wiped it out again with his boot. I decided that I still needed proof, something that actually said 'I, Diego de la Vega, am the outlaw Zorro.' Alejandro dryly gazed at Diego. Something definitive like that would be hard to refute, he pointed out.

Diego couldn't argue with his father's thought processes. True. Then he just shrugged. But please, go on, he invited.

So Alejandro continued with his explanation. You made things mighty difficult, you know, he accused. At Diego's questioning expression, said, I didn't find anything, not one scrap of evidence to undeniably link you and Zorro together at all. Then Alejandro insisted, And I looked, repeatedly! But you never let your guard down, never relaxed, even in your own secret place.

Things were silent then as Alejandro's compliment made Diego's face flame in proud embarrassment. He decided that saying nothing was better than calling attention to such a commentary, so he instead asked, When did you find that evidence you were seeking? He added, You did find something eventually, didn't you?

Alejandro could only shake his head again. No, he firmly answered. By then, the Emissary had come to town, and my attention was on things other than prooving that my son led a double life. He gazed at Diego and emphatically proclaimed, But every time you faced Risendo, let me tell you that my heart was in my throat, just in case I was right and you were Zorro. He shook his silver hair across his back, a sign of his regret. I could tell even then that something was a little... off... in the Emissary. He was too ready to turn to evil where the de la Vegas were concerned. Alejandro thoughtfully halted his speech, and furrowed his forehead. It was almost as if the man had a personal vendetta against us, for some obscure reason. He smiled then at Diego. When you decided to seek my lawyer friend's advise in Santa Barbara, I was relieved, I admit. You would at least be out of town, and wouldn't come under the Emissary's scrutiny. He heaved air. But... It wasn't long before Zorro made another appearance, and my hopes were dashed on the ground before they even took flight. I realized that you had only been saying that bit about the lawyer, that I couldn't stop worrying yet.

Diego winced at his father's mention of his anxiety. I certainly didn't mean to cause you concern, Father.

Oh, I know that, Alejandro was quick to insist. But I couldn't help it. I felt things get more and more tense until that day that Risendo attacked me at the hacienda.

Diego snorted a dry laugh. Your worries about my demise almost came true that day. If it hadn't been for Toronado...

I don't want to hear it, Alejandro said, abruptly cutting him off. Having my fears confirmed will only give me nightmares. Perhaps when you one day have children of your own to worry about... He gazed at Diego through the corners of his eyes. And speaking of children...

Father! Diego remonstrated. Is that truly all that you think about?

Alejandro shrugged, then grinned a mischievous grin. It's not all I think about, no. But... With Victoria now knowing everything, I had hoped...

Well, keep your hopes to yourself, Diego advised. I won't have you haranguing Victoria about grandchildren just yet.

Alejandro insisted, I wasn't going to harangue her... Only give her a nudge in the right direction.

You'll do nothing of the kind! Diego told him. Leave Victoria to me. We'll do what we need to do, but if you interfere, there's no...

Alejandro cut him off. Diego, Diego... Calm down... You do get protective awfully fast when Victoria is concerned, don't you?

Now it was Diego's turn to appear slightly aggrieved. I confess that I do, he admitted at last. Victoria and I haven't had the chance to spend as much time together as we would like, and I'm used to treasuring the few moments that we could sneak here and there. He gusted air a moment later. But you were speaking about Zorro and the Emissary, he reminded.

Oh, yes, Alejandro said, successfully reminded. I still wasn't sure, even on that day that I saw you fight your brother, if you were or were not the outlaw sword fighter of the pueblo. The idea of you being competent with a blade is still something to get used to, he remarked. They were both quiet then, gazing out to the ever-moving ocean waters. When it came, Alejandro's soft voice was barely intelligible over the pounding waves on the sand. I thought for sure that you were going to tell me your secret that same day in the plaza. But you still didn't. He grew silent again as he continued to gaze at the water before him. That was the first time that I've truly been disappointed in you, Diego, he admitted. I wanted you to tell me, but you seemed to be too afraid to tell me anything.

The stakes were too high, Diego excused, though he looked ashamed of himself even as he made the excuse. I tried to tell you, twice, but... His voice trailed off. I talked myself out of it at the last second both times. He tried to gaze quietly at the ocean, but his emotions were in too much of a turmoil for him to pass off having a serene attitude. Did you find out when everyone did, when I unmasked?

Alejandro had to say, No, it wasn't even then.

Not even when I took the mask off? Diego inquired, surprised again.

No, Alejandro blandly noted.

This shocked Diego all over again. No?

Alejandro shook his head. Actually, a few minutes before that, Felipe gave your secret away.

Felipe?! Diego uttered, dumbfounded.

Alejandro nodded. Just moments before you... Zorro... unmasked, Felipe reacted to what the Alcalde was saying to Zorro in the plaza just like he could hear every word that was being said, he told Diego, and Diego guiltily remembered noticing that his friend wasn't behaving as he should in that instance.

Alejandro continued, I immediately wondered 'How can a deaf boy possibly know what the Alcalde is saying when Felipe surely isn't reading the Alcalde's lips?' He heaved a dry laugh. It's true that what Alcalde DeSoto was saying was nothing short of astronomical, but how was it that Felipe was reacting like he was? He was just as stunned as the rest of us, as if he somehow knew what the Alcalde was saying, as if he were reading the Alcalde's lips like he'd never read them before. He paused to send a quick glance at his son, as if gauging the possible reactions Diego could make to his claims. Then he glanced away again just as quickly before going on. But there was no way that Felipe could read the Alcalde's lips in that instance. Alejandro firmly negated. There were two lancers, as well as Sergeant Mendoza, not to mention several people, all standing in between Felipe and I, and the Alcalde. There was no way that Felipe could lip read through all those people. Alejandro gave a low chuckle. I was so busy watching Felipe that I didn't hear the Alcalde mentioning my name in connection to Gilberto's death until it was too late to respond to what he was saying. Then Alejandro continued, But I had heard about Felipe's continued deafness from you, and heard it several times over the years of Zorro's appearances. I asked myself if you telling stories about Felipe's deafness... as Felipe showed that he certainly wasn't as deaf as I always thought that he was by reacting to the amazing things Alcalde DeSoto was saying... then what else had you fudged the truth on? Was there more going on than met the eye? Alejandro gave a tiny smile. You were speaking to Victoria at this point. His grin widened. I loved the way she confronted you about your fears, right there in front of everybody. He shook his head, remembering. She isn't afraid of anything, is she? he rhetorically asked with a small accompanying chuckle.

Despite the casualness of his father's question, Diego passionately responded anyway, No, I don't think she is afraid of anything, come to think of it. Then he turned to face his father. But you said that you were disappointed in me? Why?

Alejandro thought about what to say for a quiet minute. He finally told Diego, Because... Not for all the reasons you might normally think that I would be disappointed... not because of finding out that the son I thought I had turned out to be a son who obviously thought he couldn't trust even me with the secret to Zorro's identity. He shook his head before saying, Instead it was because... Here he paused again, and thoughtfully perused his son. You never told me yourself, he finally admitted, saying the phrase one more time. He sighed, a sound of regret. You didn't quite trust me enough to hold your secret, did you? he inquired. I had to learn of it at the same time as everyone else, and in the same way.

Diego refused to get lost in his instant reaction of remorse. Instead, he defended his decisions. Had you known, you couldn't have kept a secret that was so... profound... to yourself, he predicted. You would have bragged about your son's accomplishments every time I brought another set of banditos into town, he ruefully continued. Had you known, your life would have been forfeit for harboring a criminal, and you would have been hung without benefit of a trial. He faced his father and tragically eyed him. I couldn't live with that possibility actually occurring, he explained, sounding regretful, and sad, and apologetic. I couldn't tell you, he at last whispered in sorrow.

Alejandro turned his grief-filled gaze to Diego. Did you tell Victoria? he asked almost accusingly.

No, Diego quickly said with an afflicted shake of his head. If I couldn't risk it with you, there was no way that I was going to risk it with her. He gave an upset, heartfelt sigh. I didn't say a thing.

In all those years? Alejandro queried incredulously. Diego again shook his head. Do you think that she knows anyway? Alejandro inquired. If I suspected, surely such an intelligent woman as Victoria had some suspicions of her own, he posited.

Diego shrugged. If she did, she never said anything about them to me.

Alejandro raised his brows. Well... He trailed off, his words changing into a smile as he calmed. You're going to talk to her, aren't you? he inquired.

Diego nodded. Tonight we're going on a walk together.

A walk?! Alejandro balked. He snorted. Forgive me, Diego, but can't you be more romantic than that?

Diego rolled his eyes. Perhaps Victoria and I need 'normal' more than 'romantic' right now. We've certainly had little enough that's been 'normal' over the years.

Alejandro let what Diego had said sit inside his mind as he mulled that prospect over. He sighed in a gust of air. Well... And he turned towards the sea once again to further contemplate such an idea. I'll just put it into your mind that she might have done the same thing I did, he said at last.

That she pretended all those years? Diego asked in his own incredulity. Victoria would never have pretended with me, he protested. I would have known.

That comment made Alejandro give a start of his own this time. Oh ho! he objected. Victoria Escalante used to be quite the actress in the theatricals we held in the pueblo while you were in Madrid. I wouldn't put it beyond her acting abilities to pretend all those times that your life was in the balance. She thinks awfully highly of you... I mean, of Zorro, and as you're Zorro...

Diego grimaced. His father had unwittingly mentioned the very fear that Diego mulled over on a daily basis: That Victoria might love the bandit, but not the man behind the bandit.

I'll find out everything tonight, Diego finally said, trying for a light tone, but croaking his words at the thought of his and Victoria's coming walk.

Just don't be too surprised by what you hear, Alejandro cautioned.

If there's anything to hear, Diego cautioned back.

Alejandro energetically clapped Diego on his shoulder. As you say, he blustered.

Diego wasn't convinced. I hope that it all goes as well as you seem to think it will. I haven't had time to ask her if she's disappointed as well in who her legend has turned out to be. Diego gazed into his father's face. Are you still disappointed? he quietly asked.

Alejandro lifted his lips in a wry half grin. I am, if the reason why you didn't tell me is that you couldn't trust me.

But Diego was able to instantly mollify him. Trust was never a part of my silence, he insisted. I was terrified that if you knew, you'd ultimately hang. I couldn't live with that eventuality. He hung his head, regretful of the necessity of a situation where he'd felt the need to mislead his father, but sure that he'd done the right thing, nevertheless. So I said nothing.

Alejandro sagely nodded at his son's obvious torment. Then I'm not disappointed in the least, he quietly intoned. And I doubt that Victoria will be, either.

Diego's reaction to his father's words was quick and resolute. I'm not so sure of that, he darkly predicted.

It was Alejandro's turn to grimace. You are such a worst-case type of person, Diego. I never knew that about you.

Diego gave a semi grin, but didn't agree with his father's assessment of him, nor did he disagree. But Alejandro was going on, and Diego had to return his wandering attention to him. By the way, Diego, how's the arm doing? his father asked.

Diego couldn't stop his glance towards his right arm. Improving daily, he responded a hopeful sound now peppering his voice.

Was it Risendo who clipped you with his blade that caused your arm wound? Alejandro next wished to know.

Diego shook his head no. One of Gilberto's guards shot me while I was attempting to rescue Toronado.

Shot you! Alejandro echoed in abject horror. I'd supposed that Zorro had been shot at in the past, but that he'd never actually been shot! he exclaimed.

Diego gave a rueful raise of his brows. Zorro has unfortunately been shot several times, he admitted. I guess it's my good fortune that Señor Zorro has never been shot fatally.

For a moment, Alejandro only gazed at his son in a sickened horror. Then he shook his head, dispelling the shroud of amazed gloom that had fallen over him.

Diego had begun moving up the beach toward the horses now, and Alejandro followed, keeping his loathing at his son's last casual comment to himself. Their discussion had come to an end.

Besides, Diego was going on, and his father was paying close attention to his words. I've had to think about the worst possible consequences for every situation I've been in for years now, Diego told his father in order to excuse his past as well as his recent behavior. I believe that I should be allowed to think a bit negatively one last time.

Alejandro grabbed the reins dangling down to the sand from his horse Dulcinea's bridle. He shook his head again, and only exuberantly said, I anticipate hearing about what happens tonight! He swung into his saddle. Diego followed his father's actions, showing more restraint than the older gentleman. Alejandro continued to ask, Do you want me and Felipe to wait up for you tonight? They turned their horses towards the hacienda.

Diego couldn't hold back his snort that burst out of his mouth. I've come home to a sleeping hacienda a multitude of times, Father. You don't have to 'wait up for me' like I'm some teenager on his first date. I'll be fine.

That's not what I asked, Alejandro retorted. Do you want me and Felipe to wait up for you?

Want? What did he want? Did he want something so normal? Diego asked himself. He wasn't quite sure...

Diego waffled then. Well, maybe. He turned to Alejandro and grinned. I may need a shoulder to cry on after what Victoria might say to me tonight.

Alejandro blew out a humorous gust of air this time. If you don't come home engaged to be married, Diego, I'll...

Diego interrupted. Victoria and I are already engaged, he remarked. Then he sighed. Though I may come home with an engagement ring tonight, he darkly predicted.

Alejandro peered at his son in dumbfounded disbelief. At last he was able to say, How you were Zorro for so many years, cocky to the point of arrogance, and you still have these dark fears about your personal life is beyond me. That girl is madly in love with you. I'll be a grandfather before the year is out, he predicted back to his son.

That son grinned a bit wryly, but the gesture was hopeful, too. If only you can be right, he postulated as they made their way home. Nothing would make me happier than to make you happy, Father, at least in this instance.

Alejandro gave a teasing grin. You and Victoria - engaged. Felipe - not deaf... Is there anything else you want to tell me, Diego? he asked.

Diego quickly reported, Toronado likes corn too much. He'll eat it until his belly swells so much that his stomach is distended for days afterwards.

Alejandro smiled and gave a soft laugh. Teach all of us at home how to restrain him correctly, and he'll never get into the grain closet, I guarantee it.

Diego had to laugh at his father's bluster. Then you don't know Toronado, he said, thinking about how his horse did amazing things with knots.

I have the feeling that I'm about to get to know him very well! Alejandro said. They both grinned at the prospect of the future they envisioned. I look forward to it!

Z Z Z

That evening found Diego riding towards the pueblo and its tavern, feeling nervous and excited at the same time as the sunset blazed its many colors across the sky. He had a rough timeframe to meet Victoria, and he thought... No, he wanted... to err on arriving on the early side rather than have it appear as if he didn't care enough about the proposed moonlit walk with Victoria to appear on time. It was ironic enough that the idea for a walk at all had come from the Alcalde, of all people, that Diego was still amazed at the suggestion in the first place.

Diego's mind then turned onto pondering the fact that this idea for a walk had come from Alcalde DeSoto, thus prooving that the man had at least spent time thinking about the possible courtship problems of his ardent enemy. Diego again felt a tiny thrill shoot all across his body when he thought about the concept of beginning a true courtship with Victoria. That suggestion of a moonlit walk that the Alcalde had made...

Diego was suddenly struck so strongly by another new thought that he physically halted his horse so that he could think uninterrupted by the rocking of his mount's movement across the terrain. Esperanza, whom he had chosen to take to the tavern this evening in order to give Toronado a break from the constant riding of the past day, stopped when Diego pulled back on her reins, but had the presence of mind (or the good training of the de la Vega vaqueros) not to eat of the roadside grass, since she had been fed right before she had set out on the road to town.

Now, Esperanza only snorted through her nose, but stood stock still so that her young master could think uninterrupted. And think he did, swiftly and decisively, as he was accustomed to doing as Zorro.

Wait a minute, Diego thought, a puzzled expression creeping onto his face as Esperanza stood stock still in the waning light of the sun. Tonight is this month's night of the new moon. There will be no moonlight tonight.

Still puzzling, Diego shifted slightly in his saddle, trying to somehow force the different pieces of the day's events into some semblance of order so that he could figure out what was nagging him about the fact that there would be no moonlight for his and Victoria's proposed walk that night.

So there's not going to be any moonlight tonight, he argued with himself. There's no need for moonlight for our walk. It's not like there won't be plenty of light from elsewhere in the pueblo for me and Victoria to see by. Besides, I'm quite used to navigating my way across country in extremely dark conditions. I won't let Victoria run into anything, so I must not be worried about that.

Diego continued to ponder. Who came up with the suggestion that I should take a moonlit walk with Victoria? he next asked himself, still attempting to discover just why his niggling feeling of unease wouldn't go away on its own. He swiftly answered his mental question: Alcalde DeSoto. But wouldn't someone like an Alcalde charged with the safety of a pueblo know something such as when a moon was expected to show itself, and when it wasn't going to? The defense of the pueblo could potentially hinge on something like having moonlight or not having it. Wouldn't DeSoto have known something like the times of the phases of the moon? Diego certainly knew such times... or he was typically attentive of such things. It was true that he had been a bit... distracted... lately, what with the unmasking and all that it had eventually entailed.

Just because of a little thing like moonlight versus no moonlight, it isn't enough to condemn a man, Diego continued to tell himself. Used to pointing out every facet of a situation, Diego went on with trying to convince himself that he could in all good conscience ignore the warning bells suddenly peeling very loudly in his mind. So.., he said to himself, What else about the whole unmasking scenario came about directly because of Alcalde DeSoto? There surely isn't any nefarious plot going on, but just to prove it to myself, is there any other instance where his recent behavior should be suspect?

Diego only had time enough to ask that one question before he had an unexpected answer: DeSoto said something about being able to guarantee that Mendoza would be talking to me by tomorrow at the latest, that the longest the Sergeant ever remained too angry to speak to someone is a day. Diego then cocked his head, still thinking. Yet, how could the Alcalde guarantee that Mendoza won't be so angry as to avoid talking to me until tomorrow? True, it's possible to know a man so well that one could predict that man's actions. And it's true that the Alcalde has been put into a position where he would know Mendoza quite well by now... but...

Diego felt the current of unease flow through him again. He went on thinking, But... Even if the Alcalde knows Mendoza so well as to be able to predict his second's actions... and he's never hit me as a man who would spend particular time on noticing other's behaviors... How can he guarantee Mendoza's behavior tomorrow? How can he be so sure?

The Alcalde hadn't guaranteed Don Alejandro's surprisingly good behavior that afternoon on the beach when the older man had revealed the way he suspected his son's actions as Zorro's... for years. He hadn't guaranteed that Felipe would most likely communicate with Diego again. And he still didn't suspect that Victoria knew anything about Zorro's identity, though Don Alejandro definitely did, and had even given a reason for his suspicions. DeSoto had simply said that he always knew where he stood in Victoria's graces because she always let other's know exactly what she was thinking at any given time. Alejandro, on the other hand, had intimated that Victoria was smart enough to suspect Zorro's identity, and had more than enough acting abilities to cover her suspicions once she had them from the others in the pueblo.

But surely Alcalde Ramon had to have known of Victoria's possible acting acumen... it had to have been noted somewhere in the town's records. DeSoto had to have read about it by now. So why was it that DeSoto wasn't also able to predict the same thing as Don Alejandro had concerning Victoria's acting ability? And why wasn't Felipe's behavior 'guaranteed,' for that matter? Something in this mix of information and revelations didn't quite add up.

Diego sat on the ever-patient Esperanza, furiously thinking as the sun fell further and further in the sky. He was going to be late to the tavern now, instead of early. He hoped that Victoria would forgive him for it...

Then a second thought burned through Diego's mind with the clarity of the receding sunlight. It had been Alcalde DeSoto who had given the idea of 'loaning' an off duty lancer to Victoria to help on this busy day in the tavern so that she would still have a little energy left for that walk he had also proposed. A lancer.... in Victoria's kitchen... his eye on Victoria all day long...

Diego's heart in his throat and throbbing unmercifully, he suddenly spurred Esperanza forward down the dusty road, traveling as fast as the unspirited horse would go. Now, he couldn't get to Los Angeles fast enough.

It had all been a plot of DeSoto's... the entire unmasking, the subsequent reactions of the pueblo's people... for what? To capture him, Zorro... and Victoria? And why wait for that capture? Why not do it right away in the plaza the day before?

Diego was able to instantly answer that query as well, recalling what DeSoto had said to him earlier in the tavern: Alcalde DeSoto knew that he was probably going to be on the losing end of things if he immediately tried to capture an masked Zorro - the tables would turn as they had in every attempt the man had made to capture Zorro the two previous years - Padre Benitez had pointed that very thing out to DeSoto in his Confession a few days ago, according to DeSoto himself. So, since a capture at the time was unlikely, he had waited, bided his time, bent his energies not on capture, but instead on relaxing Zorro... DeSoto must have figured that the man who was Zorro would be growing tired of not spending his life with Victoria, of not having a 'normal' family like other men his age in other 'more normal' lives. DeSoto must have banked on Zorro's relatively quick acceptance of the rescinding of the reward and the arrest because that's what Zorro wanted above all else. If he couldn't capture Zorro the old fashioned way (by brute force) as had been established in the previous two years, then he needed to give Zorro what the masked defender most wanted, what would be almost too tempting for him to resist, to dull his senses enough so that he wouldn't suspect any duplicity on DeSoto's part.

Diego reminded himself that he was hypothesizing at the moment, but that his theories felt more dead right then dead wrong. His heart skipped a beat at how easily he had wanted to believe what the Alcalde had told him, and thus how easily he had done exactly what the Alcalde had needed him to do. Diego again reminded himself that he was just hypothesizing, but still he hung his head, feeling ashamed at where his thoughts were taking him now.

But he couldn't give anyone the idea that he suspected the Alcalde's scheme, Diego realized. He couldn't just come tearing into town and stop amidst pounding hoofbeats and clouds of dust at the tavern to rescue everyone from his own shortsightedness. He would have to go about this very quietly and carefully...

Z Z Z

Still being overly cautious, a trait that either proved his special kind of paranoia, or branded him as the smartest man alive simply because he was still alive after all these years chasing banditos, Diego crept up to the back of the tavern still astride Esperanza. For the first time ever, he swung himself from the saddle of a mount who wasn't Toronado onto the tavern roof. Still being fully guarded, he stayed low, picking his way across the roof so that he could see down into the plaza at the center of town.

Sure enough, it was full to the brim with lancers holding tightly to their weapons. True, there were also regular citizens mingling with each other in the plaza, and a small mercado had temporarily been erected at one side of the dusty central square, but there were just too many men in red coats, carrying weapons for Diego's liking. So many lancers would never have made Diego feel easy during his walk with Victoria, anyway. Shouldn't the Alcalde have known that, and kept his men inside the cuartel walls for this night, since he did suggest that moonlit walk in the first place? Or did he have something else in mind? Something else that required the presence of so much military might?

And thinking of Alcalde DeSoto... Diego watched as the man from Madrid sauntered through the plaza, heading in the general direction of the tavern. He stopped twice, once to talk to a group of lancers on his way, and once he had left, the lancers made certain to speak to their compadres standing idly in the square. Then DeSoto spoke confidently to Sergeant Mendoza. The Sergeant turned his head towards the rooftops of Los Angeles, and Diego had a clear view of him as he conversed with his superior officer.

Obviously upset, Mendoza shook his head and said something that Diego couldn't hear. DeSoto patted him on the shoulder in a comforting gesture, but when Mendoza refused to take any kind of placating from the Alcalde, DeSoto seemed to lose his tiny grip that he had on his patience, and raised his voice. Now Diego clearly heard him say, It makes no difference what you think, Mendoza! You will do your duty! Is that understood?

Diego also had no trouble making out the Si, mi Alcalde, that a very unhappy Mendoza muttered to DeSoto.

The two men didn't exchange any more words. DeSoto continued to make his way jauntily to the tavern, and Mendoza took his suddenly heavy and dragging feet off in the direction of the cuartel, where he rallied more men and convinced them to move into the plaza to join their other enlisted friends.

DeSoto disappeared onto the tavern porch and into the tavern itself, having no idea that someone was watching his every move from just a few feet above him. Diego's white shirt would have caused him to blend into the pinkish-white of the twilight sky behind him, but he stayed low to the tiles beneath him. Convinced that he had seen and heard enough to thoroughly disturb his instincts, Diego slipped quietly back down the way he had come.

Diego lay on the warm roof tiles of the tavern's far side, contemplating his next move as the ever-present wind scoured the plains leading into town from behind the tavern. Well, Diego thought, I can go straight back home and leave Victoria hanging... literally...; I can go with Victoria on our 'moonlit' walk as we had planned; I can go banging on the tavern's back door to get Victoria's... and everybody else's... attention; or I can jump through the kitchen's high window where nobody else will see me, arriving at the tavern in a startling, yet familiar, way, considering who I am.

Whatever course of action he chose, Diego knew that if he stayed in Los Angeles, he had to deal with what he suspected the Alcalde was planning to do - capture both him and Victoria while they were on their moonlit walk, taking them both by surprise after luring Diego into a false sense of security by rescinding that reward and call for Zorro's arrest.

But on the other side of the peso, hadn't the Alcalde said just that morning that he wished to be seen as different from Emissary Risendo? Diego reminded himself. How was he to explain that to his satisfaction?

And how was this possibly suspected scheme for Zorro's capture different than what Risendo had done?

Diego was immediately able to respond to his mental query: DeSoto was behaving differently than the Emissary had behaved. The Alcalde was using scheming trickery, and taking his time about doing it, in luring Zorro/Diego into relaxing his guard, then waiting a day to pass before pouncing on him and Victoria when they least expected it. It was true that the Emissary had often used trickery in his diabolical machinations, but he had never shown enough patience to wait an extra day before tightening the noose on the schemes that he had set in motion. But DeSoto was showing an inordinate amount of patience just now. The difference between his own actions and that of the Emissary's was as different as... well, a moonlit night, and a night with no moon at all.

Diego knew that his best chance to stop DeSoto from doing anything to either him or Victoria was to put a halt to any plans of his before he had time to put those plans into effect. That meant dealing with him inside the tavern rather than out in the open where he would have the assistance from his lancers to count on. But how, Diego wondered, was that 'dealing with DeSoto' supposed to come about?

Unlike the decisive time that he'd often spent as Zorro, at this time, Diego had no idea. He shook his head and gave a soft sigh of aggravation. Diego wished that, like in the tales of his childhood, there was someone who might magically show up to tell him what to do next, but at the same time, he didn't really expect that to occur.

Diego lay still on the tiles for another minute, just on the off chance that someone strange might show up, the way Don Fernando had appeared by chance several years before. Unfortunately, after the minute had gone by, no one who could magically solve his problems with one swipe of his hand had appeared at his elbow. Diego gave another sigh, a small grimace, and decided that if something was going to happen next, it was up to him to make it happen. So he carefully moved in the direction of the inside kitchen window and positioned himself to wriggle through the opening. I never thought I'd be doing this again. Diego's wry thoughts were cut off as he concentrated on staying as low and as silent as possible on the rather noisy tile roof.

A moment later, he cautiously tilted his head over the adobe edge of Victoria's inner window, and when he only saw Victoria stirring something bubbling in a pot at the kitchen fireplace... no sign of Corporal Sanchez... he slipped soundlessly into the tavern.

Still, Victoria must have felt his eyes piercing her back, for she turned, alarmed, a long wooden spoon clutched threateningly in her hand. Diego instantly put a finger to his lips in the age-old sign desiring continued quiet, and Victoria visibly swallowed the cry of surprise that had instinctively wanted to escape from her throat. Diego carefully avoided the pots and kitchen paraphernalia that she kept on the high shelves, placing his feet just so to escape all contact with the shelved cookware. Within another minute, he had landed soundlessly on the floor in front of her.

Diego quickly crossed to Victoria's side. Sanchez? he asked, whispering the word in her ear.

Also keeping her voice as low as she could, Victoria waved the spoon at the curtain separating the kitchen from the main room of the tavern. Maria has him serving drinks to a group of caballeros who just came in.

The relief on Diego's face was easy to see. Good, he sighed.

Whispering as well, Victoria looked up at him out of her dark, assessing eyes. Mind telling me why you're crawling into my kitchen through my window? Are you already longing for the old days?

Diego rolled his eyes at Victoria's sardonic tone. No, I have the feeling that the old days aren't as far off as we would like them to be.

Victoria wrinkled her forehead. What?

Diego explained, I just got a peak at the plaza from the tavern roof - the plaza's crawling with armed lancers, quite possibly just waiting for the two of us to appear for our 'moonlit' walk that will have to occur without any moonlight. At her continued puzzlement, he further explained, Tonight's the new moon. There is no moonlight tonight because there is no moon.

No moon? Victoria echoed in an incredulous whisper. Why did you suggest a moonlit walk to me if you knew that there would be no moon tonight?

Diego was swift to whisper his reply. Because I'm a thoughtless fool who apparently wants to get us both captured later this evening. He gave his head a sorrowful shake. Actually, the idea for a walk came from the Alcalde.

Victoria's eyes widened. You know better than anyone that you can't trust anything the Alcalde says!

Diego's contrite expression successfully displayed his agreement with her opinion. You're right, and I should have thought of that. I just wanted things to work out so smoothly with all the unmasking... at least, smoothly with somebody... that I believed everything he told to me. He shook his head again, his pain palpable in his wince. Felipe is right to feel that this whole setup is too good to be true.

Victoria's confusion gave way to alarm. Do you mean..?

Diego finished for her. I mean that there's a very good chance that this is all some kind of a new diabolical scheme of the Alcalde's to lure me into relaxing while he descends on us with all the might at his command. He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. Damn! he uncharacteristically swore. I just wanted so badly to believe what the Alcalde was saying yesterday about rescinding the arrest and reward that I didn't stop to think about what I was possibly doing, how I could very well be bringing you into the hangman's noose right along with me. He gazed at the wide-eyed, strangely silent Victoria, and apologized before he could consider what her expression might mean. I'm so sorry, Victoria, for all of this.

Victoria simply acknowledged his apology for what it was by nodding once, then contradicting her action with her next comment. Never mind, Diego, she absolved in an absentminded fog of thoughtfulness. You could only react to the things you were being told.

Diego gave a self-flagelating grimace. Yes, he said, admitting that she was partly correct. I suppose that what you say is correct. But I, for one, should have remained suspicious of anything told to me by a person named Ignacio DeSoto. A third recriminating shake made his hair shiver. I should have known better.

But Victoria was not as willing as Diego to expect him to predict every intention of every man... or woman... he met. What can we do now? she inquired instead, choosing to focus on the set of circumstances they'd been given rather than centering in a self beating. She went on in her same worried tone, I can't go back to pretending to not know who Zorro is this time. It's not like the town can get collective amnesia.

But Diego had snagged on what she'd said earlier. Pretending to not know who Zorro was? Diego suddenly eyed her in suspicion. Victoria, is there something you're not telling me?

Victoria's anxiety gave way to guilt for one second as the sensation swept across her face. I wasn't going to tell you, but... Her guilt had escalated tenfold by now. I've... She swallowed, then admitted with a look of contrition on her pretty face, I've known Zorro's identity for three years.

Diego was so stunned than he almost forgot to keep his voice down. Three years!

At fault, and ready to admit her fault at not telling him, Victoria slowly nodded. You didn't seem to want me to know, so once I figured it all out... I... sort of... acted.

Diego snorted. Sort of?! He was so busy wondering if he had fooled anyone with his Zorro/Diego act that he almost missed what Victoria said next.

Victoria looked relieved that her own secret was finally coming out into the open. Okay, she admitted. I did act. Pretended, if that's what you want to call it. Then she looked at him in beseeching supplication. But I only did what I thought was for the best, she pleaded.

Best for whom? an irate Diego asked.

For you! Victoria hissed, sending a quick glance towards the curtains when raucous laughter suddenly wafted through the material. It reminded her how thin the barrier was between them and the rest of the town. You chose not to tell me your secret yourself! At first, I waited for you to say something, so I pretended to know nothing, but then the years went by, and still you didn't say...

Suddenly, Diego's ire vanished, and his low laughter burst from him.

Caught off guard by his unexpected reaction to her news, Victoria's brow wrinkled even more than it was already creased. What? she asked. What's wrong?

Diego's mirth continued to explode out of him. The Alcalde! he said in a tone of glee. He... He... Diego had to stop his attempt at speech as he was overcome by more chuckles.

Which annoyed Victoria. Diego de la Vega! she admonishingly whispered. Tell me, or I'll...

Diego made a supreme effort to contain his merriment. You don't need to threaten, Victoria, he told her. It's just that DeSoto thinks that... Here, more laughter again halted him temporarily, but he collected himself enough to report, DeSoto... yesterday in the plaza... he thinks you had no idea as to Zorro's identity!

What?

Diego hauled her into an abrupt hug, and explained, DeSoto thinks that every thought that you have is instantly displayed for all to see on your face, so... More chuckles overwhelmed him for a third time. Ah, Victoria! he exclaimed, enjoyment now in his voice. You can pretend all you want if it means that once again I get to see just how inept DeSoto is at knowing anything at all about you!

Victoria wasn't quite mollified. That's just it! she continued. I can't go back to pretending not to know who Zorro is... the citizens will never believe that! It could be dangerous, at the very least!

This comment calmed Diego like nothing else could. The possibility of danger to Victoria had the ability to sober him so fast that it left his head spinning. True, he agreed with her. And I can't go back to pretending to be Zorro, either, not when the entire town knows exactly who I am, thanks to my own stupidity for not seeing this duplicity of the Alcalde's sooner.

Victoria gave a sad sounding sigh, though she stood willingly in Diego's embrace. Don't beat yourself up about it, she suggested. I doubt that anyone would have been able to predict that this one was coming.

But it does explain Mendoza's strange reluctance to talk to me, Diego pensively pointed out. Victoria reared back a few inches so that she could peer up and into his face. He went on, Mendoza probably knows all about what DeSoto is doing, and instead of trying to cover his knowledge from me, he doesn't dare even speak to me. I might see something in his eyes that tells me something is going on, something I'm not meant to see.

That would be bad for the Alcalde, Victoria dryly admitted.

Yes. The question now is, 'what should we do about this situation?' Diego asked in a breathless voice.

Victoria ignored the fact that she had just told him that she was already thinking about this subject. Instead, she zeroed her attention into coming up with an answer to Diego's query. We can't go back...

Diego finished her comment for her. And going forward means that I suspect that we'll be apprehended the minute we step outside the tavern for our proposed moonlit walk. Quietly, Diego held onto Victoria, thinking. Finally he made a decision. I need Felipe, he suddenly stated.

Victoria's brow wrinkled again in confusion. Felipe?

Diego brushed aside her tone of perplexity, and began peering around her kitchen. Do you have any ink, pen, and paper in here? Or is everything that you have upstairs in your room?

Victoria knew the second his attention moved away from her, and she would have sighed in unhappy acknowledgment of that, but she was so used to his consideration seeming to get stuck inevitably on the problem of the moment that she knew any sort of protest form her was useless. So she simply walked over to a corner of the kitchen to retrieve the items he had asked about. I keep these in the kitchen for when I do my bookkeeping calculations, she told him. But now they're all yours.

Thanks, Diego said as his short reply to her generosity. He began immediately scribbling on the paper, the splatter of ink over his words a testament to his agitation and hurry. But he paused in his rapid writing to look up at her. He smiled, then grabbed her hand with his still clutching the feather pen. What would I do without you? he rhetorically questioned, peering affectionately into her face.

Victoria responded to his smile - she couldn't help herself anymore - but sighed her comment, You'd probably have been captured years ago.

Her wry comment, off the cuff though it had been, made Diego see the truth of her mutterings. You're probably right, he quickly admitted. He turned back to his note to Felipe, quickly scanning the writing for mistakes.

Felipe,

You're right about the Alcalde, as usual. Please don't hold it against me that I have a thick head without you there to always point out the trouble spots in a situation. But now I find that I need your help, one last time. I need Zorro's clothes, his mask, Toronado, ether, my whip and sword, and I need them as soon as you can get them to the tavern in Los Angeles.

Thank you from my entire heart,

Diego

Can you call someone to deliver this note as quickly as possible? Diego next asked of Victoria. I know that I'm expecting a lot from you tonight, but... He didn't finish, for she interrupted him by wordlessly grabbing the note from his hand, shoving it in her skirt pocket, then slipping out the tavern's back door so she could skulk around the rear of the town until she found a child or other delivery person suiting Diego's needs.

A few nail-biting moments later, Victoria returned without his note taking up space in her pocket. Now we wait, she told Diego.

I hate waiting, Diego insisted as he dejectedly slumped onto a bench she he shoved beside the door.

Victoria grinned, thinking of all the times in the past he must have waited for the timing to be exactly right before acting on the captures of certain banditos and outlaws. He hates waiting, indeed, she thought sighing, not believing him for a second.

But she found herself humoring him anyway. To avoid all this hated waiting, she said a moment later, Why don't you tell me what you have planned - why ether? she asked.

Successfully distracted, Diego had no idea what she was doing by asking such a question. He hadn't known that she'd been giving him this same type of distraction for him for years. Oblivious, he went on, Ultimately, I need to take the Alcalde out of the picture for now, and maybe for good, so that this same type of thing doesn't happen again. To that end, I plan to use the ether and one of your dinner napkins to knock him out before shipping him out on the next boat that leaves the port of San Pedro. He shrugged, thinking of how the Alcalde had just that morning predicted that Diego would 'pummel him into unconsciousness.' In truth, the Alcalde's comment wasn't far off the mark. Ether would surely render the governmental man unconscious.

But Diego went on before his mind could settle on this humorous idea. I can't think of anything else to do with him right now. Then he said, But for me to get to San Pedro, I need Zorro's dark clothing, as it's doubtful that the news of Zorro's unmasking has reached all the way to San Pedro in such a short time since yesterday. He sighed. I don't want to help spread the news that the end of Zorro's career is upon us if I don't have to.

But Victoria's confusion remained. How do you plan to lure the Alcalde in here so that you can use your ethered napkin on him?

I don't know yet, Diego admitted with an apologetic look in his eyes. I'm making this up as I go along. Do you have any ideas? he hopefully asked.

Victoria opened her mouth to reply, but was effectively cut off by the uninvited form of Sergeant Mendoza as he pushed his way into the kitchen through the curtain from the tavern's main room. Señorita Victoria, I was wondering if... And that was when he caught sight of Diego, and stopped speaking long enough to gape at him with fish eyes. Don Diego! he exclaimed in a half grate, half whisper. I didn't... I mean, I... Finally he smoothed down the front of his uniform jacket with fingers that shook with nerves, and said, I can just leave if I'm interrupting...

Diego patted the Sergeant on his shoulder, trying hard to make the action seem more reassuring than the Alcalde's similar gesture earlier that evening. It's all right, Sergeant, he intoned. We suspect all about the Alcalde's most recent... Here he stopped himself, afraid that if he said anything more, he might say something he would later regret. Anyway, he continued in a soothing voice. You can stop avoiding me, now. He glanced at the military man. That is, he hesitantly began, if that's what you were doing. I suppose that I shouldn't assume...

No, Don Diego, Mendoza admitted, quickly capitulating, his hands held up to warn the other man to silence. You're more right than wrong, I confess. For a moment he peered at them both with guilt all over his face. Not speaking to either of you was the worst thing I've ever had to do, but I knew that if I said anything to either of you at all, I would never be able to keep...

Sergeant, it's all right, Diego assured. It was something DeSoto said about you that tipped us off about what the Alcalde is planning... probably planning. Diego tried to grin encouragingly as Mendoza again nodded affirmation of Diego's suspicions. So you should... Diego gave up, and sent a glance towards Victoria for help in his explanation.

Thinking that Diego owed her for what she was about to do, Victoria cleared her throat and prepared to break in on the conversation. We owe you a great debt, Mendoza. In fact... And she crossed the room to fill two bowls with a small amount of flan. She knew that both the Alcalde and Mendoza had a weakness for flan. I wonder if you can take this out for you and the Alcalde for me, as a 'thank you' from me for lifting the reward for Diego's capture. Then she wheedled, Perhaps you can mention that you should both come back to the kitchen for more? she suggested.

Diego brightened at her notion. That might work to lure him in here, he said. Then I can... He stopped speaking again, sending another quick glance towards Mendoza. I don't want to put you in the position of thinking that we plan anything for the Alcalde...

Mendoza momentarily fiddled with the top button of his military jacket, his nerves being strengthened by the playing. Just promise that you won't tell the Alcalde, he said as he fiddled.

Diego was quick to reply, We both promise to be the souls of discretion. He threw a glance Victoria's way, not sure how she would feel to have him speak for her.

But Victoria was too busy crossing to the curtained area of her kitchen to give even Diego much thought. She set the two bowls of flan on a table near the covered opening, ready for giving them to Mendoza to give to DeSoto, just as a tentative knock sounded on the back door.

Thus summoned, Victoria moved to answer the knock, peaking through a tiny sliver that she had created when she opened the door a tiny bit. Without waiting to be invited into the confines of the kitchen, Felipe gave a tentative smile, blinked, then pushed his way passed Victoria and into the barely lit kitchen.

Diego was quick to react at the sight of his young assistant. Felipe, thank goodness! He eyed the black bundle that Felipe was clutching to his chest. You managed to bring everything I asked you to bring?

Felipe gave a sarcastic roll of his eyes, nodded with his hand thrown out, as if to say 'of COURSE!' and thrust the tied bundle of clothing at his friend/patr¢n/mentor/father-to-be. He instantly gestured his moves for the words meaning 'enough,''apology,''scraping,''now''you' (said while pointing none too softly at Diego's chest) 'I''work.'

Mendoza's brow wrinkled. That was too fast for me to follow.

Victoria nodded her agreement.

Diego shot a glance that was both apologetic and exasperated at Felipe, then interpreted, He said, 'That's enough apologizing now that you've scraped the floor to say that you're sorry, and it's high time for you and I to get to work.' Diego grinned, and Felipe suddenly reddened in a blush at Diego's expression. Meanwhile, Diego still smiled as he looked at his friends. Felipe just yelled at me, he happily reported.

Victoria didn't quite understand what Diego was so thrilled about in this instance. Well, at least he's speaking to you, she nonchalantly said. 'Speaking' as a relative term, of course.

Isn't it great? Diego shook the bundle of clothes out onto a nearby counter, then made a grab for the small bottle of ether that Felipe had included. Good job, Felipe, he said as he held the bottle aloft, noting that he was almost out of the clear liquid and would need to order more of it soon from his supplier in England. Victoria, he said next. Can I have one of...

That was as much as he managed to get out of that request before Victoria was shoving a red-checkered napkin into his hand.

Diego raised his brows in amazement. Again, for the millionth time in the last half hour, he wondered what he would do without her. Thank you, Victoria, he appreciatively whispered.

Victoria gave him a baleful look as a way of saying, 'You're welcome.'

Diego poured the amount of ether that he thought would render the Alcalde unconscious onto the napkin. Next, and unashamedly, he quickly changed to the Zorro clothes that Felipe had brought to the tavern with him. Diego didn't have time to be shy now around Victoria and his fellow cohorts. After the black of Zorro's cape once again (perhaps for the last time) fell from Diego's dark-clad shoulders, Diego turned to Mendoza. Sergeant, if you can...

It was as if for once Mendoza read Diego's mind. He nervously straightened his uniform jacket again, then said, I'm on my way, Don Diego. Behaving as if he rather enjoyed this traitorous roll of his in the tiny Los Angeles drama, he went with Victoria to the curtain, picked up the small bowls of flan, and was about to exit the kitchen through the curtain when Diego stopped him.

Remember to encourage the Alcalde to come...

Again Mendoza did not allow him to finish. Back here, he noted. I remember. Then, shoulders squared, he walked through the curtain looking like he was cheerfully on his way to his own execution.

Feeling somewhat superfluous, Diego took up position next to the curtained entrance, and Felipe sidled to the other side of the curtain, prepared to stop it from swinging wildly to and fro if Mendoza actually succeeded in bringing DeSoto to the one room in the tavern that was remotely private.

Tense, they waited, Victoria again stirring whatever was bubbling in the pot at the fire as Diego and Felipe stood with their backs to the adobe walls, ready for action. A moment later, they all heard the exaggerated tones belonging to Sergeant Mendoza as he say in an exaggerated whisper, Señorita Victoria said to come on back to the kitchen, that she'd be happy to serve more flan to us. She served us such small portions because she didn't want her other customers to get jealous, she said...

Victoria sent Diego a look that clearly asked, 'I did?' when a second later, Ignacio DeSoto snuck through the split curtain. Señorita Escalante? The Sergeant said that...

Which was precisely when Felipe pushed the curtain closed behind the forms of DeSoto and Mendoza as they entered the kitchen, and Diego wrapped his steely arm around the Alcalde from behind and a little to his right, cutting off his breath so that he couldn't talk for a moment. But by then Diego had thrust the cloth over DeSoto's mouth and nose, the man had taken a reflexive breath in response to the sudden and unexpected action, then slumped forward when the ether hit his brain, putting him instantly to sleep. Diego caught him. Mendoza, don't look so worried, he suggested as he dragged the Alcalde's surprisingly heavy form towards the back door. DeSoto doesn't and won't know what hit him. If he begins to awaken, I'll dose him again with more ether. He'll never know a thing about what's going on, he promised.

Victoria held the back door wide open for Diego only moments after the Sergeant had been sent to draw any soldiers away from the tavern with a quick reminder from the Alcalde as to what to do in the proposed plan to apprehend Zorro. With Felipe's help, Diego managed to get a quickly trussed DeSoto over the saddle of a shying Toronado. Then, with practiced ease, he tossed the mask over his hair and tighed the material behind his head, then reached for the hat Felipe was holding out to him.

Thank you, Amigo, he said as he took the offering from Felipe and placed it squarely on his head.

That's amazing, Victoria breathed as she beheld Zorro where a moment before Diego had been standing before her.

Zorro gave her a saucy grin. My thanks, as always, Preciosa, he said, then bent down to give her a fast kiss on the lips. I'd say 'don't wait up for me,' but I know you will anyway. I'll send Felipe to the tavern to tell you that I've gotten back safe and sound, he vowed.

Ah, a new promise, Victoria dryly intoned. See that you keep this one, too, she told him, wry now. She happily accepted his caress, then turned back to her tavern. Come on, Felipe, I'll give you a bowl of flan to celebrate our first partnership in helping the outlaw Zorro.

Felipe grinned at the thought of free flan, and followed Victoria through the door just as Zorro swatted his rear end with the flat of his blade. Eat some for me, he commanded. Then, with a grin affixed to his handsome face, lept aboard Toronado and, an unconscious Alcalde in tow, rode swiftly towards the port of San Pedro.

Z Z Z

Seven hours later, well after the tavern closed its doors on its nightly revelers and the many highly confused lancers who had settled into its lit interior, looking futilely for their alcalde, Felipe scratched at the front door. When the anxious Victoria hurriedly answered the summons as if she had been sitting in the tavern, just waiting for the sound, she found the boy standing in unusually dark clothing on her front porch. He didn't bother to push his way passed her to enter the tavern this time, but only gave her a cock of one eyebrow, a sleepy smile, then held out a piece of paper with only a few words written on it in Diego's hand. 'Captain Jarret - nightly tide - Buenos Aires' it said.

The ship Diego had successfully deposited DeSoto on was now bound for Buenos Aires? As in, Brazil?

Wouldn't the Alcalde be surprised when he woke up surrounded by nothing but ocean water?

Buenos Aires...

Brazil...

The Amazon Campaign?

Victoria inhaled in sudden understanding. Diego was counting on the policy of the Spanish military to conscript soldiers into its fighting ranks who showed particular talent for anything that proved necessary at the moment as a way of 'handling DeSoto.' The governmental man was undeniably tactically skilled, as long as Zorro wasn't a concern. And there was no doubt that those in the Amazon Campaign were always on the lookout for skilled tacticians...

Slowly, Victoria's smile blazed across her lovely face as she grinned along with Felipe.

The End


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