This story takes place right after the episode The Discovery.

Unburdening the Soul

by Linda Bindner

Alejandro explained perfectly. When Gilberto was going to shoot you, he said 'I'm not only going to kill Diego, but I'm going to kill...' Then he didn't finish. Do you know what he was going to say, Diego? He expectantly stared at his son.

Diego froze. It appeared the time for confession was upon him, whether he was ready for it or not. He glanced around, looking for any one eavesdropping. The crowded, bustling plaza hardly seemed the place for a disclosure of this magnitude, but he guessed his father already knew the truth, or at least suspected it. How could he witness that sword fight with Emissary Risendo and not wonder about his other son's activities? It may have even prompted his question.

Diego took one last glance across the plaza at Felipe and Victoria, still conversing about the sudden announcement of his plans to adopt Felipe and make him a permanent member of the family. The announcement, while a surprise, had been on Diego's mind almost as much as revealing his identity. But he had to tell the truth, while DeSoto was busy with the padre and his own stomach was full of this burning need to explain his actions. The glance gave him the strength to whisper, Not here. In the alley, perhaps.

Diego led his willing father between the tavern and the house next door, and the sudden quiet pounded on his ears. He walked almost to the back end, surrounded on one side by open land and the other by the active town going about its business of living. Living was the point, really, and Diego felt another surge of courage wash over him. In the span of only a breath or a heartbeat, he was suddenly tired of all the deception. And there was only one way to end it.

Father, this may come as a bit of a shock to you, began Diego, aware only of the pounding of his heart against his ribs and his father's increased expectancy. But things aren't always what they appear.

What do you mean, Son? asked Alejandro, barely containing his excitement. He leaned forward. The wind blew his silver hair across his shoulders in agitation.

Such details became more noticeable the more Diego spoke. Do you know how I never seem to be around when trouble starts brewing anywhere? He kept his voice low, almost indiscernable in the breeze that scoured the pueblo. He peeked around back, and when he saw no one obviously listening, he felt oddly satisfied. He was going to finally tell his most hidden secret, and the idea gave him a shiver of anticipation. He was ready.

Alejandro nodded. You're always too busy or sick or out of town. You're never available. It had been his greatest disappointment to ascertain his son's weakness, as he saw it.

Diego nodded as well. There's a good explanation for that, he said.

I'm glad to hear it, Alejandro murmured, truly appearing delighted that his worst concerns were empty.

The smile from his father again gave Diego the courage to continue. He took a deep breath, smelling the dust and grass of California, letting it tickle his nose in contented reminders of childhood and of why he was standing there, gloriously alive. He muttered the two words that he'd hidden for so long to keep those he loved safe and alive. I'm Zorro.

Surprise or astonishment didn't seem to be in Alejandro's reaction category. He smiled and nodded, as if he'd expected such an unprecedented acknowledgment from his son. I'm glad you finally told me, was what he said.

Diego stared in surprise. You knew? he asked, confounded, amazed yet delighted to have his craziest suspicions confirmed.

I suspected, imparted Alejandro, looking suddenly too wise for his years. I couldn't watch that fight between you and Gilberto and not wonder why I had never seen such a fierce display of sword play from you. With your left hand, no doubt! You were so good, it was almost as if you were a different person. But I recognized that style. It wasn't hard to figure out who you reminded me of.

Diego warily eyed his parent. Do you understand what kind of danger this information puts you in?

Again Alejandro nodded. I do, and do you understand that I would do so no matter the danger?

That concession surprised Diego again. Are you saying that the risks mean nothing to you?

I'm saying that the risks are minimal if it means finally knowing the real son I have, Alejandro said, while glancing up the alley, away from the land, towards the town and any danger of being overheard.

The risks have never been minimal, protested Diego, his bent right arm beginning to ache from the increased pressure of wind.

They are when compared to my disatisfaction over the past few years, Alejandro argued. I've said many things in my ignorance, and I ask for your forgiveness if they hurt.

Diego looked away from that piercing gaze, suddenly finding the dirt of the alley a fascinating subject of study. They did hurt, he admitted, feeling the sting of those comments even now. But know that the bluffing was part of the disguise, and you had to be fooled, even if it cost me my dignity.

And it must have cost that dignity dearly, Alejandro said, one hand raising to help support his son's injured arm, then falling once more by his side. Again, I can only apologize for my lack of insight. I'm sorry I didn't recognize the truth sooner.

Raised brows met that apology. You weren't meant to. Don't apologize for doing exactly what I wanted you to do.

But I should apologize for the derogatory comments. Alejandro sighed in consternation. They were given for the son I thought I had. Even though I was proud of you, and I loved you, the comments must have been biting. Now it was Alejandro's turn to examine the dirt.

It's all forgiven, Diego insisted, thinking exalted thoughts of his father; he knew what such an admittance cost his proud parent.

A feminine laugh made them look around, and they both caught sight of a blowing skirt as it passed the alleyway, heading towards the tavern porch. The sight made Alejandro start, and he suddenly asked an ardent question, Does Victoria know?

Diego looked down again, hanging his head, suddenly feeling shame. No, he whispered.

This time Alejandro did look surprised. You mean you've never told her?

The risk is as high for her as it is for you. Higher, perhaps, Diego explained, hoping his father would understand.

But Alejandro was shaking his head. You have to tell her. Today.

Diego felt his heart turn to ice at the suggestion. I'm afraid, he admitted, relieved at the reluctant admission of hidden fears, fears he'd carried alone for a long time.

Afraid? Of Victoria? Alejandro spluttered in indignant awe.

Diego could only nod in mute misery. When he could speak, he confessed in a whisper, I'm afraid she'll be angry. I've kept the secret from her for years. Lied for years.

Again Alejandro was shaking his head, making his hair dance in the wind. I know Victoria Escalante, and she might react with surprise, even astonishment at hearing the news, but never anger.

Maybe I know her better than you do, predicted Diego, intent now on his worries.

It's all in your head! Alejandro slapped his son on the right arm without thinking, reacting with the enthusiasm he'd had for years. There's no way she won't grab you up the minute you tell her.

As much as the slap hurt, the gesture brought an amount of encouragement with it. But still Diego wanted to be cautious. I'm not so sure, he forced himself to say.

Alejandro looked at the son he'd almost lost, and smiled, happy that Diego was alive. He shook his head again. I'm in awe, he admitted, his voice low and for Diego's ears only. Here's my studious son, telling me that he's a legend in secret, having hidden his true skills for years, and admitting that he's frightened of the woman he loves... I'm overwhelmed by the courage this kind of admission must take. And he sounded awed, overwhelmed, ecstatic at Diego's unburdening; to think of the son he had!

Diego wasn't nearly so overwhelmed. This is why I never told you, he said.

Alejandro brushed the reasoning aside. Why? It's easier to believe the bad?

I've been living with the bad for so long that the good seems nightmarish itself, Diego imparted.

Alejandro's face became soft on the heals of that affirmation. I never knew you were such a worrier, he said, comprehending. You might be afraid, but you have to tell her.

I know, Diego said in some reluctance, but acknowledging his father's correctness in a quiet voice.

Alejandro suddenly clapped his hands together, coming to a fast decision, as was his standard behavior. There's no time like the present. I won't get those grandchildren I want if we stand here, gabbing all day. With that, and without a look at Diego for permission, he started back up the alley, intent on entering the tavern and being there to lend support.

Diego shook his head at the impetuous action, yet realizing his parent couldn't help himself. Feeling drained from the divulgence, even if his father had known the truth, he took another deep breath of California dust and internally braced himself to tell Victoria of his deepest secret, then slowly followed his father up the alley.

The tavern was busy, full of smiling patrons and excited talking. Apparently the news of their deliverance from the evil Emissary had already traveled around the pueblo; everyone knew. It was not the scene Diego had always invisioned for his confession, and he wondered if he should put off his plan, waiting for a more conducive atmosphere.

Stop stalling, suggested Alejandro, knowing his son well enough to understand how hard this must be for him.

Diego protested, starting to say, Don't you think... But his voice was swallowed up by the eruption of laughter from several caballeros gathered around one of the tables.

Diego looked first to them, but it wasn't long before old habit made him look for Victoria, conscious of the task ahead of him, but conscious of her presence at the same time. He was always aware of her, he admitted to himself. He could hardly help it. She burned into him with a force not easily reckoned with, not easily pushed aside. He could hardly help feeling her presence in a room, even a busy one like the tavern. His emotions for her made themselves known as fiercely as the Alcalde's inexplicable wrath, or as intensely as the sun's beating warmth. Even now, with his heart pounding like thunder against his ribs, he couldn't help but love her.

There she was, behind the bar, prepared to put a stop to the loudness of the caballeros, until she saw Don Alejandro walk up to his friends, trusting him to be a calming influence, to keep them under control for her. Hesitating, she retained her watchful position, but didn't interfere in their conversation.

Watching himself, Diego felt his love like it was a physical force, but he refused to get swept away in too much emotion. At his father's insistence, he had a job to do.

Victoria, he said by way of greeting, allowing his true self and all it's encumbering emotions to show for the first time. For all purposes, there was no going back now.

She smiled until she comprehended the emotion blazing in his eyes, and she faltered, yet nodded her head in greeting herself. Diego. Again, I'm sorry to hear of your family's problems.

Diego leaned on the green countertop. Thank you, though it's all right. Or it's going to be. His voice had a determined edge to it.

Victoria didn't quite know how to respond to this new Diego. He seemed so much more sure of himself, so confident. She supposed that's what was to be expected from his reputed battle with the man who went from Emissary to brother in the span of a heartbeat. Winning such a battle, especially at sword fighting, must give much confidence.

Diego looked at her... Expectantly? Shyly? Helplessly? Victoria couldn't unravel all the emotions she saw in his eyes just then. Can you do me a favor, please, Victoria? he asked, his blue eyes now intent.

Victoria nodded. It's the least I can do for old friends on a day like today.

He smiled gratefully at her. I have something important to tell you, and I don't want to be interrupted. I wonder if you can close the tavern early today, and give us the privacy I need?

The request surprised Victoria, and even though it meant missing dinner and the evening revilries, some of her busiest times, she agreed, haunted by the expression she saw in his eyes. Her best friend's family so rarely asked anything of her that she couldn't refuse this unusual request. But what was going on? Just give me a minute to clear everybody out.

While Victoria went around from table to table with news of her closing, Diego took a seat on a bench that faced the door, old habits dying hard. He was simply glad that the Alcalde wasn't present. Diego didn't need his suspicions as well, piled on top of the concerns that naturally stemmed from this disclosure. He had enough to deal with already.

It took fifteen minutes for Victoria to clear the tavern while he waited, dread building in his stomach to form a knot of nervousness long before she was done. But everyone seemed to be in a good mood because of the Emissary's death, and she had little trouble with her many patrons, though she interrupted more than one conversation when she herded her happy customers through the door. When they had all left except Diego and herself, she shut the double doors on the sunlight streaming into the plaza, and even locked them against further intrusions. She must have been enflamed with curiosity by then.

Satisfied that her tavern was clear of the usual patrons, Victoria slid onto the bench across from him. I'm all yours now, Diego. What did you want to tell me?

Instead of talking right away, Diego reluctantly joined her on the long bench she was sitting on. He looked at the kitchen curtain still waving, and said, This must be costing you a lot of money in lost business. We'll repay you, naturally.

It's the least I can do, she said, all the while knowing that he was somehow gathering his courage together, toughening up, so to speak, so that he could say what he wanted to say. But this Diego was so different from the one she knew; she hardly knew how to react.

I'm stalling, he finally said with a tiny smile, his shirt glaring white against the darker backdrop of the tavern and the bloodstain on his sleeve. That's what my father would say.

She had seen Don Alejandro leaving the tavern, a knowing expression on his face. He'd claimed he wanted to look for Felipe anyway, and didn't mind in the least that he was being asked to vacate his favorite spot, but his aspect declared that he knew something else. As she stared at the son, she wondered what Alejandro knew that she didn't.

So then, just spit it out, Victoria suggested. That's what I always do.

Diego played with a water mark on the table, but his smile widened and grew. I know. Suddenly, he stopped his play and turned to face her. Victoria, what I'm about to say will probably come as a shock to you, and I don't get any enjoyment for your pains. But you, of all people, should know.

This was serious. Nervously, Victoria laughed through her nose. What is it, Diego?

Looking ashamed, contrite, yet hopeful of the future, Diego hung his head and whispered, I'm Zorro.

The avowal sounded loud in the empty room, despite his whispers. You're what? asked a confounded Victoria.

Diego sighed, but his eyes never wavered from her face, fiery in his profoundness. He took her hands. I'm Zorro, he repeated, still whispering.

Victoria's eyes went wide. That's what I thought you said. She never would have guessed this in a million years, even if she didn't understand the new disguise he was wearing that day. She thought his new personality had been because of the Emissary's revelations. She took short gasps of air, incredulous.

Please, Diego went on, don't be angry that I didn't tell you before now. There were always reasons that held me back. The danger in knowing was... paramount. I didn't want anything to happen to you.

Didn't want anything to happen? she replied, too shocked to say more, or to feel more.

Again came the enigmatic smile. The moment my brother died, I understood that life is more important than any amount of safety. I almost died myself today, and that made me wonder about you; where would you be? What would become of you? I couldn't keep such a secret any longer from the woman I love more than anything. I wanted you to know, needed you to know, and almost confessed everything in the plaza today.

Is that what that was about? asked Victoria, her eyes still glazed. So you don't plan to adopt Felipe?

Oh, yes, I plan to adopt him, all right. Felipe is very important to me. But you're more important, perhaps the most important. I was frightened in the plaza, but I've had time to think since, and I'm not afraid any longer. It was your right to know.

Victoria sat, unmoving on the bench, stunned. Eventually, she remonstrated, But you're nothing like Zorro.

Diego tried to be patient, but it was difficult. In reality he wanted to put his arms around her, comfort her. He needed her to need him. Of course I'm not. If I'm too similar, the Alcalde might grow suspicious of my activities. Her dazedness was starting to concern him. His brows drew down and his eyes narrowed in apprehension at her unresponsiveness. Victoria, are you all right? You're not angry, are you?

She responded automatically. Angry? No, I'm fine. Just fine. She laughed again, but the sound was closer to the hysterics she felt than anything normal. It's you we should be worried about. Only a nasty scrape could bleed so much.

Diego looked at the bloodstain on his sleeve. True, the stain was getting bigger, and spreading by the minute, but... She was worried about his wound, at a time like this? It's fine, a scrape, like you said. Nothing to be concerned about.

I'll get my medical kit to wrap it, Victoria stated, and moved numbly off the bench.

Diego watched her go, and it was as if she was taking the future with her. Victoria, I... But she was already gone, a wraith that sent her kitchen curtains waving again.

She was back in a moment, denying his concerns that she needed time alone to think. If she planned to react with fury, then he wanted her to cry on his shoulders, not cry to an empty room. He didn't want to leave her to go through such pain by herself anymore. Instead, she arrived almost perfunctorily, carrying her medical kit wrapped up in a towel. More towels for bandages were in her other hand.

Again he tried to protest, It's nothing, Victoria, nothing...

It's not nothing, she argued, the first spirit she had shown since the conversation began, as she rolled his shirt sleeve up high. She looked numb still, but coherent enough to go about her task with sure hands. But she stopped when she had untied the previous bandage and looked more closely at the wound. This is a bullet hole, she said rather unnecessarily.

Diego played hesitantly with his sleeve. Yes. I was shot while rescuing Toronado. But it's a light wound, he said, not wanting her to worry on his account. I can barely feel it. That was a lie, of course; the wound itched and burned like a thousand hot worms were crawling through it, but he would rather bleed than admit that to her.

She silently went about the job of cleaning off the old blood and rebinding it. I won't tell your father if you don't wish me to.

He'd just worry, Diego said, agreeing with her promise to remain silent.

Victoria tied the bandage around his arm, making sure that no more blood seeped through the rags, but she hesitated at the last tie, slowing in her self-appointed task until she came to a complete stop, a pensive look on her face.

Time stood still. This was it, the moment for acceptance or rejection. The knowledge made Diego's heart slam against his ribs again. He looked at her beautiful face, and couldn't stop himself from whispering, Victoria, I...

He didn't get any further. Suddenly, Victoria threw herself against his chest, and it no longer mattered to Diego that his wounded right arm ached.

I'm sorry, Diego, Victoria began, her voice small and not sounding like her own. You did almost the same thing for me not long ago, and I suddenly remembered that night...

He tightened his hold on her. Sh! I know this must be shocking to you...

She shook her head against his chest. When I think of all you've done for me, for the pueblo, and then I think of some of the things I've said...

Diego didn't want to hear it. Don't worry about it, he calmed. It's all part of our past, now. Just hold me. Make me feel like everything will be all right.

He was talking about the aftereffects of his fight with his brother, but she misunderstood. She thought he referred to his admission. It will be all right, now. I'm sorry I acted so numb before.

You were just surprised. That's perfectly understandable. His hand drifted down her hair again and again in a soothing caress. He shook his head in amazement. God, I love you, Victoria. I was so scared I would never be able to do this again.

You can do it whenever you like, she invited. Thank you for finally telling me. That must have been very frightening.

I've never been so scared in all my life, he admitted, closing his eyes and feeling her sweet presence in his arms. I was so certain you would be angry...

Victoria snorted a laugh. Angry? How could I be angry?

Well, you're temper is rather famous, Diego said wryly. He knew what an understatement he was making.

I'm not angry, she insisted once more. Only the injustice we have to suffer makes me angry, not you. If not for that, I could marry you and wake up to you every day. There would be no need for Zorro.

He tightened his grip. If not for you, there would be no Zorro. You're the reason why I couldn't give him up after all these years. Seeing you, loving you, even a bit at a time, made him well worth any amount of suffering.

She laughed into his chest. The sound was normal now, round and healthy after all that numbness. And now? What do you want to do now?

Diego answered immediately. Right now, I just want to be held and loved. He dropped a kiss on her hair. Soon I want to start courting you so that eventually we can be together without raising eyebrows, without any danger. I can use my brother's death as an excuse if anybody gets curious. Life is too short to share you with anybody, even with Zorro.

She leaned back then, a contemplative look on her face again. You sound as if that doesn't cause you any pain, but I know that any death in your family would...

Diego scooted closer to her on the bench. I know he was my brother, and his death does affect me somewhat, but yours would affect me much more. I shudder to think of the day; my life would be so empty then. And he did shiver, a movement that traveled all the way through him. His love coursed from his toes to the top of his head, then, settling in his chest to make his heart hurt with the feeling of it. He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand then, unable to stop himself. You're so beautiful, Victoria. I love you so much. Approaching tears were in his voice, and he couldn't stop from gathering her in his arms again.

Victoria embraced him hard, then lifted her head, desire evident on her face, and he didn't resist the invitation as he leaned down to kiss her, refusing to mask the full amount of his emotions for the first time that he could remember.

They parted. Panting, gulping for breath, he leaned his head against her forehead, doing his best to contain his emotions for her, but losing the fight even as he tried. He couldn't stop himself when he kissed her again, his emotions as hot and fiery as his skin, wanting nothing more than to touch his lips to places on her that were indecent and sacred.

Victoria felt surprised by his apparently heightened lack of control, but she reveled in it, deepening his kiss before he had the chance, running her hands over his back, his chest, anything she could touch, whether or not clothes were in the way. She ran her fingers through his hair, down his hot cheeks, around his neck, her heart pounding as loudly as his. This was what she had wanted, what she had waited for, and she grabbed it with both fists the second it presented itself.

Victoria moaned, a noise that sounded ragged in the silence of the empty tavern. The sound brought Diego reluctantly to his senses, and he wished it hadn't. The sensations that her lips caused in him were pleasant, furious, deep, and their rapid climb made sense laborious. But his honor was equally as strong as his desire.

Kissing his ear minutes later, she proclaimed in a whisper, I don't think I can stand much more secrecy; you better court me quickly. I want to show my feelings for you before the whole town. I want everyone to know that I love you, only you. She kissed him again, passion so clear in her endearment.

He held her close, promising that he would never put himself through something like this day again. He felt even more drained from this heartstopping disclosure, from the divulgence of his secret with his father, from the intense battle with Gilberto, from his struggle against the rocks in Diablo Canyon. When he awoke to start the day, he'd never have thought he might go through so much in a twelve hour period, or that he would win so incredibly.

But he had his Victoria, and he would never let her go.

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