Center of the Storm

by Linda Bindner

He wore his dark, royal blue coat with the red inlay and piping down the sleeves. Immaculate white trousers bloused over the tops of his tall, shiny black, military boots, contrasting vividly with the blazing coat. His epaulets swung crazily as independent golden strings when Alcalde DeSoto marched resolutely up to confront the smiling Victoria over the counter top of the tavern bar.

The right corner of his mouth lifted into a half smiling, half grimacing gesture of politeness. His low voice grated into the sudden silence that fell on the tavern's customers. Sergeant, he said, his deep colored eyes never leaving Victoria's frozen form, this has gone on long enough. Arrest her.

Victoria took a surprised step back, raising the white towel that had splayed on top of the bar to her hands, too stunned to react any further. Then her usual, defiant glare took over her initial surprise. Arrest me? For what?

How many times must I explain the obvious? DeSoto barked impatiently.

Sergeant Mendoza wriggled uncomfortably under his military hat. I still don't think this is a good idea, Alcalde, he said, his voice soft, squeaky, and nervous.

Sergeant! We have our orders! Obey them!

Mendoza fell back a bit at his superior's harsh tone, but nodded his head. Si, Alcalde. He turned to the blue-coated lancers standing cautiously behind him. Men, you heard the Alcalde. Arrest her.

Victoria threw down her towel, making it slap loudly on the bar. This is ridiculous! You can't do anything to me! But she had no where to go since the lancers blocked both ways out from behind the bar. She was trapped. They'd probably waited until she started serving drinks just to catch her in this position.

The Alcalde's left side of his mouth lifted to match the right side in a full, devilish grin almost hidden by his gray-flecked mustache. I just received a letter from Monterey, he explained, still sounding impatient. My orders are to finally bring down the outlaw, that thorn in my side, Zorro, without fail. And, he lifted his white-gloved hand to quiet the protest in her eyes. And I have been given the power to carry out my orders in any way that will bring results. He laughed, a soft, cruel rush of air through his throat. Your death is an excellent worm for my hook. He motioned for the lancers to bring her outside with a slice of his hand.

Her death?

Diego spoke for the first time, a hesitant question coming from a table near the wall. He stood, the bench he'd been seated on scraping against the worn tile floor.

DeSoto glanced at him, frowning, but ignored his question. He followed his men and a struggling Victoria outside into the bright sunshine of late afternoon. Long shadows stretched lazily across the empty plaza. Diego noticed a few puffy clouds sprinkled in the bright summer sky as he stepped down from the tavern's porch after the Alcalde.

Surely you're not going to kill her, Diego stated, his voice sounding annoyingly quiet and mild, even to his own ears.

DeSoto finally turned is full attention on Diego. You still do not understand me, do you, Diego? After that year at the University and all this time, you have no concept of my love for Madrid, my desire to return to my home. His voice hardened again. Zorro is the only thing standing between me and that dream. Now that I've been granted absolute power.., He paused to savor the way those words rolled across his tongue. ... in securing Zorro's capture and ultimate hanging, I plan to use that power to my greatest advantage. Soon, Zorro will be eliminated and I will be on my way... to... Madrid. He trailed off dreamily, the breeze whispering through his silvery white hair. Then, he focused again on Diego, blinking rapidly at the sunlight. I'm surprised you need this explained to you, Diego. You were supposedly the intelligent one.

With that he turned away almost in slow motion, each movement clear and distinct. He ordered Victoria's hands bound to a pole, and she was tied to the splintery wood behind her.

Just a hint of panic showed through her anger as she yelled, What are you doing? her blood red skirt billowing in the afternoon breeze.

I'm killing you to bring Zorro to me, he bluntly announced.

Diego stepped forward then, feeling his languid blood pounding in his veins. It only pumped fear to his heart. Don't you think that would make Zorro very angry?

The Alcalde paused to savor his plan before explaining, Angry men make mistakes.

He raised his arm and fifteen lancers raised their rifles to their shoulders. Lancers were everywhere, their blue coats and red trim flaming points in the dusty plaza. The rifles cocked as one, a loud, thundering click.

Victoria fought against the men holding her arms and standing behind her. They had not yet managed to tie her firmly to the post, and she broke away from them, gaining a few steps in Diego's direction before rough, callused hands descended on her again. Their skin smelled like gunpowder from loading so many rifles, and the stench burned her nostrils. Her heart hammered in fear. She kicked one man in the knee, sent her shoulder into another man's chest. Her hair flew wildly into her mouth. She screamed, and couldn't filter more air through her hair to fill her lungs; she couldn't breath! Fear clutched at her throat, choking her, clawing upward to reach her numbed brain.

The lancers subdued her again, pulling hard to return the few steps to the post. Diego stepped forward again, and sword points held him back.

Diego! Victoria yelled, sobbing, still fighting the lancers. Stop them! Stop!

Without even waiting for his men to tie Victoria to the post, without even giving them time to get out of the way, DeSoto calmly lifted his arm to give the command to fire.

Panic motivating him to instant action, Diego jumped forward, fell between two swords, and landed hard against the Alcalde. His head felt full of blood and about to explode. He couldn't get to Victoria fast enough; they would kill her! I'm the man you want! I'm Zorro! he called in desperation.

DeSoto turned a disinterested eye on him and laughed. Noble attempt, de la Vega, but the thought of you and Zorro... It's laughable! He flicked his wrist at Victoria, signaling his men to do their duty.

Victoria broke free again, stumbling forward. Then lancers surrounded Diego, their hands stretching to hold him down, imprisoning him with their bodies. Yet he plowed another two steps in her direction.

Diego, don't! she cried.

The Alcalde recovered himself and his hair blew around his head like dandelion fluff as he yelled, He's mine! His gloves wrapped like chains around Diego's left arm.

A lancer lost his balance in the scramble of bodies and slipped, jogging Victoria's shoulder with his hat. He rolled aside as he fell, his leg striking the arm of a fellow soldier, and the man's rifle went off with a loud explosion.

Victoria turned as the rifle swung up at an uncontrolled angle, the bullet neatly piercing her chest to lodge finally in the area near her heart.

She gasped, blinking her stunned surprise. The struggling and shoving instantly ceased. Blood seeped out of the hole like an evil cloud to color her white blouse the same bright color red as her skirt. She touched her hand to it in silence and wonder, and blood dripped smoothly from her thumb and index finger. She looked up to a freed Diego, and watched in surprised horror, then even the surprise began to fade from her eyes. Before he could take a step closer, the light in her had slipped away completely.

Diego's scream of denial echoed silently across the plaza of his mind.

With a start, Diego de la Vega opened his eyes and sat up in bed. His scream echoed distantly in his memory as he wiped sweat off his forehead and out of his eyes. His wild breathing shattered the quiet of the surrounding night, and he took a gulp of warm air, forcing his heart to stop racing. He did his best to calm down after the nightmare. Still, he stared wildly at the familiar objects in his bedroom, unable to focus on any one thing. The terrors of his dream were strong and he could not quite banish them from his mind.

Z Z Z

Diego crossed his arms patiently over the front of his blue bolero coat and leaned against the outside wall of the Alcalde's office. His eyes never left the tavern entrance. I know this is ridiculous, Felipe... but my nightmare seemed so real.

Felipe nodded, silent as usual.

I'll feel better if I see her, just to make sure she's all right. He smiled warmly at his friend's understanding expression. Then his face clouded again with uncertainty. But I don't want to look like I'm watching her... He glanced at Felipe's raised eyebrows and questioning look of disbelief. Don't ever let anybody tell you that love is easy, Felipe; it's the hardest thing I've tried to accomplish next to teaching you to fence, he joked, the lightness of his tone hiding the agitation still in his mind. He shook himself, trying to get rid of the foreboding that he'd felt since sitting up in bed after the dream, his heart pounding in fear. He hadn't slept the rest of the night, but had walked the floor of his bedroom until the rest of the hacienda stirred to life with the sunrise. He'd even frowned grimly at the pretty pink and purple clouds coloring the early morning sky. It looked like the sky of a perfect summer's day, just like the stark blue sky of his dream. He shuddered again with the vivid memory.

Felipe touched Diego's arm in concern. He had to admit to himself that when Diego told him about his dream that morning, he'd been inclined to laugh if he could. He'd teased Diego, tried to interest him with other thoughts, to get his mind off the horrors of his nightmare. But he didn't miss the desperation in Diego's eyes during their Sunday morning ride in the open carriage to the church Mass or the shiver that occasionally erupted over his friend's usually powerful form. Felipe shook his head in amazement; Diego had to love Señorita Escalante an awful lot for a dream about her death to cause such a fierce reaction in the typically placid man.

So Felipe patted Diego's arm reassuringly and settled his back against the wooden post supporting the cloth awning over the office doorstep. He just hoped Victoria would hurry up and close the tavern for Mass. If they waited much longer, there wouldn't be any seats left for them in the small chapel and he would have to stand in the back again with the old peasant men. He wrinkled his nose at the prospect; the peasants didn't always smell very good!

Z Z Z

Victoria Escalante pushed her hair back one more time from her face and tightly secured it with a comb. She regarded her image in the mirror on her dresser, scowled at her hair, then grabbed the light scarf hanging over the edge of her bed. She still had to close and lock up the tavern before starting across the plaza to the mission church, and she was late already.

She hurried down the stairs, her shoes scuffing noisily on the smoothly worn boards, and stopped momentarily in her spacious, sunny kitchen to cover the three loaves of bread she'd baked earlier with clean, white cloths before rushing to lock the back door.

She returned through the colorful curtained doorway to the front room, then locked the tavern's double doors from the outside and crossed the porch into the plaza. Silently regarding the people who were in the plaza hurrying to the mission, she joined the throng as quickly as she could. She pulled the red scarf over her hair again just as the mission bell began to toll its hollow call across the pueblo, signaling the beginning of Mass. She nodded and smiled to Don Diego as he held the church doors open for her, and Felipe gave her the widest grin she'd ever seen displayed on his face. In the scuffle of men and women to find empty seats in the limited number of pews the mission offered, she missed the quiet sigh of relief that escaped from Diego when he discreetly closed the doors softly behind them.

Don Alejandro motioned for Felipe and Diego to join him in the already crowded pew on the chapel's far right side. The two pushed passed several other pairs of knees and tried their best not to step on any toes while Alejandro waited impatiently, sending angry looks at both of them when they took their places next to him on the smooth bench.

What on earth were you doing that could possibly take so log? he asked, aggravated.

Diego turned to him and said, We were... watching the... the sun rise.

Alejandro frowned. Diego, the sun rose before we even left the hacienda this morning. Now, and he paused to give them his best parental glare, what are you two up to?

Felipe and Diego raised their eyebrows in simultaneous shows of complete innocence. Felipe gestured at the sky and smiled.

Alejandro growled a sigh, but was forced to keep his unpleasant thoughts to himself, for the Mass was beginning.

Padre Benitez walked slowly down the aisle and into Diego's view, followed by two acolytes, each swinging lamps filled with incense. The sweet smell rose passed the brown robes of the padre to tickle his nose, and before he could stop the reaction, he sneezed loudly, momentarily covering the sound of the padre's deep, melancholy chanting. He sniffed just as the padre reached the tiny altar.

Alejandro shook his head in a disapproving and resigned manner. Was his son ever going to change and become more like his courageous de la Vega ancestors rather then like a scholastic... disappointment? The word appeared in Alejandro's thoughts before he could stop it, and he was forced to admit the truth the word told. He was saddened to think that he may never be truly proud of his only son. But he had to admit that the way Diego was going, it was a distinct possibility the he would never get him away from his everlasting love for books and interested in more important occupations, like politics, justice for Los Angeles, or even women!

As the padre intoned the Latin phrases for the call to worship, Alejandro sighed again, and cast his eyes down to the floor.

Z Z Z

An hour later, Diego followed Felipe through the opened church doors, the brilliant morning sun momentarily dazzling his eyes. He blinked and squinted at the sky. Felipe elbowed him in the ribs, grinning, and shaded his eyes to look dreamily at the blueness above them.

Alejandro glared at the two younger men. Come on, Diego. You looked at the sun already this morning. Or had you forgotten? He stood with his hands on his hips, irritation snapping in his dark eyes. The Alcalde came up beside them, one gloved hand smoothing his well-groomed mustache over his upper lip. Dreaming again, eh, Diego? He laughed devilishly and straightened the fringe of his epaulets on his square shoulders.

Diego's temper flared immediately at DeSoto's remark, but he covered it with admirable control and smiled charmingly. No, I was simply enjoying the world we live in, Alcalde. His tone, bordering just on the edge of being sarcastic, said as much as his words.

The Alcalde bristled. Peasants and caballeros milled around in little groups for after-Mass chats, but DeSoto ignored them all to focus his steely eyes on Diego. Are you implying, Don Diego, that I am beyond enjoying the simple things in life: sunsets, a cool breeze, a soft, Spring rain?

Victoria Escalante squeezed between the Alcalde and Don Alejandro, pulling her shawl firmly over her arms before saying, You care only about taxes, your next meal, and capturing Zorro. Not everyone can be like Diego and take the time to notice nature's miracles. She turned to Diego and smiled, quietly patting his blue-coated arm.

Diego wasn't fooled by Victoria's seeming defense of him. He knew that she was more interested in putting down the Alcalde then in defending him - not much more interested, Diego had to admit, but enough. Nevertheless, he pulled Victoria's hand through his arm and led her away from a blustering DeSoto, leaving his father to mollify the appointed officer in his absence.

Thank you, Victoria, but that really wasn't necessary.

I know. I just hate to see that man preening himself at anybody's expense, especially yours.

Now, these words did surprise Diego. Well, thank you, Victoria, he said much more sincerely this time, a smile softening his tired features.

But you know, Diego, she continued, her pace slowing now that they'd put some distance between themselves and the Alcalde, you do daydream more than most. What is it that you think about so often?

Diego gazed at her puzzled expression, his thoughts turning back to his dream. I wonder what you would say if I told you the truth? he asked silently and smiled a little sigh. I was just looking at the sky today. I didn't sleep well last night - I'm almost too tired to think about anything. He grinned apologetically at her.

Nightmares? she inquired sympathetically.

He nodded. Very realistic ones.

I know what you mean. She paused near the plaza's central fountain to look pensively across the hazy horizon to the South of town. Sometimes, I dream that something terrible happens and I can't stop it. Or I dream about the day my mother died, and I wake up feeling so sad. Those dreams are worse than any others, she confided, her gaze still lost on the haze clouding the countryside around the pueblo.

Diego didn't quite know what to say to her. She looked sad even now when the bright, cleansing sunshine streamed over her and made her eyes squint almost shut. He absentmindedly rubbed his forehead as he became aware of a dull aching behind his eyes, and wished he could just find a darkened room to sit quietly in and think. He put a friendly arm around her shoulders in a tired hug.

But Victoria hardly noticed the gesture as she took an unconscious step forward, her eyes squinting in strain as she tried unsuccessfully to pierce the haze to the South. Diego, what is that?

Diego glanced around, but saw nothing unusual. What is what?

That. She pointed.

His headache forgotten, Diego looked more closely in the direction Victoria pointed. His first response was puzzlement at her concern, but the longer he looked, the more he understood her question. The haze on the horizon seemed to be moving, not in waves of heat created in the hot summer months, but in rolls, almost as if it were coalescing into a giant ball that stretched as far as he could see from his limited view in the plaza. The haze darkened, turning blacker as they stood, watching, yet not fully understanding. The breeze picked up a little, coming from the South, carrying the smell of dryness and dust to Los Angeles, and increasing in strength to swirl seductively around them.

Victoria pushed a swaying lock of hair from her eyes. Why is it so black? It can't be a storm; the sky is as clear as glass.

Do you smell dust? Diego queried, placing a hand unconsciously on her arm.

Victoria sniffed the air. Yes, I do. But it's just from the plaza and because it's been so dry lately. Isn't it? She looked up at his furrowed features, then back to the growing cloud, nervousness just beginning to edge across her mind.

Suddenly Victoria grabbed Diego's arm. I know! Papa told stories about storms like that. He called them dirt storms. Grandfather lived through one somewhere near here... oh, I can't remember when now. But Papa's description fits the conditions perfectly. She glanced around, her eyes taking in everything at once. That drought, the wind, the smell of dust. the great black cloud... Diego.... She turned to him, frightened. the storm in Papa's stories lasted three days.

Diego watched the encroaching cloud of swirling dirt move another hundred yards or so closer before saying, Perhaps it would be a good idea to raise the alarm. Just in case.

Within moments, every citizen was streaming towards the buildings and homes encircling the open plaza while Padre Benitez rang the mission's bell, sending a warning for everyone to gather at the church for shelter and instructions. Horses snorted at hitching posts, the whites of their eyes flicking back and forth between the outskirts of town and the people rushing about them in panic. The nervousness was contagious and soon the tethered mounts were pulling frantically on their tied reins, desperate to escape the fear that charged through the air. When they broke free, each horse instantly headed north, the wind and the great wall of black at their backs. Even the well-trained mounts such as Esperanza and Dulcinea, the horses belonging to the de la Vegas, plunged wildly against their reins until a lancer was ordered to take all the animals to the stables for safety.

Most of the citizens of Los Angeles were in town only for the Sunday Mass, and some farmers loaded their families into wagons to try to make the trip home before the storm engulfed the little village. The Alcalde summarily ordered everyone indoors, allowing no more people to leave and perhaps lose their lives in a foolish attempt to move beyond the town. The mission was chosen as sanctuary due to its few entrances and open chapel. The pews would offer places to sit in semi-comfort while the citizens of Los Angeles waited out the storm.

Diego found himself near the mission's doors, Felipe and his father beside him. Most of the Mass congregation had returned to the church rather than brave the weather, and the chapel was packed with sweating men, worried women, and crying children. Diego could see the storm's advance every time someone opened the front door to enter.

The wall of dirt had moved closer, a black cloud swallowing up the sun, blotting out the daylight until the chapel was as dark as night. The wind began to scream around the corners of the mission, and Diego felt the nervousness of the crowd raise another fraction. He glanced worriedly at his father, saying, Perhaps we should have tried to warn others on the outlying farms. Most farmers are ill-equipped to handle such a storm; we could have helped.

Alejandro lifted a finger, pointing it at the ceiling. No, Diego, I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do. We never would have made it a mile out of town! The horses are far too excitable in weather like this. We would only have been caught in the storm. All we can do is wait. He leaned his shoulder against the warm woodwork of the doorframe, and crossed his arms.

Diego sighed. I suppose you're right. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fist in frustration as he said, I just feel so helpless standing here, knowing that people will surely die when that... wall of dust hits us. He shook his head, frowning hard. Not even Zorro was fast enough to beat the weather, he thought bitterly to himself. All these years of hard work protecting the people of Los Angeles from tyranny and injustice, and he was beaten by a trick of nature. More peasants and poor people would lose everything they had, perhaps even their lives, than he had ever saved from the Alcalde's oppression. It was daunting to the spirit to even consider it.

All those people - caught in flimsy shelters against such a storm, Victoria said, her eyebrows drawing together to make a line of concern on her forehead.

Diego looked up at the high arched ceiling of the chapel and silently said a prayer for the deliverance of the pueblo's citizens, rich and poor. However, he had little faith in his heart that his efforts would do much good.

Here it comes, the Alcalde said softly as he pulled the doors securely closed, and the people packed in the one-room chapel braced themselves for a blow that hopefully the mission walls could withstand.

The adobe walls may have been old, but they were strong and solidly built. The first blast of increased wind and flying dirt hit the mission hard, shaking the building from its bell tower to the foundation stones, but every brick, door, and window held against the onslaught of nature. An evil darkness settled slowly over the town.

With the first blast of wind, the nerves of the trapped Angelenos rose quickly towards hysteria. Diego felt the increase and he looked around, his eyes darting from window to person to doorway to Sergeant Mendoza to Victoria to doorway again, his uneasiness feeding off the fear generated from every person in the room. Something was wrong. He tapped his hand against his trouser leg, waiting.

Then it happened. Like the spring of a mousetrap, the bolt on the double front doors snapped dryly in the emotionally charged air and both doors burst open. Dust, wind, rocks, twigs, leaves, and other debris tore through the opening, pushing the people back against each other. Surprised, Diego slipped as the Alcalde slammed into him, knocking them both to the floor. Children cried and women screamed, but no one attempted to close the doors.

At that moment, two year old Maria Gonzales seized her opportunity to escape the stifling grasp of her mother. Lost in the confusion of yelling adults and wind, she bolted for the door and the swirling dirt swallowed her up.

My baby! screamed the young Benita Gonzales, reaching her arm for the door, but three people blocked her from reaching the child.

Victoria, however, was not hemmed in and had a free path to the open doors. With hardly a thought for her own safety, she pushed a lancer aside, throwing herself against the wind, forcing her way through the door. The scarf that she'd held securely over her arms rippled serenely to the floor.

Victoria! Diego's stomach lurched after her, but he had to scramble over the Alcalde before he could regain his balance and his feet. As unhesitatingly as she, he hurled himself shoulder first out of the mission and into the raging storm.

No, Felipe! Alejandro lunged after the boy as he started for the door, catching his hand around an arm. The older man pulled the struggling Felipe close, wrapping a restraining arm around his waist.

The doors! The Alcalde yelled and two lancers managed to extricate themselves from the tangled bodies on the floor in order to push the doors shut again, this time laying a long board across them to keep them tightly closed. The storm that had forced its entry pounded on the wooden doors, demanding to be let in again. But the doors held this time, and for now the raging wind had to be content with the three victims it had already claimed.

The force of the wind and dirt against his skin stunned Diego, tearing his breath from his lungs, paralyzing him for a heartbeat. The tiny grains of California sand that always looked so harmless lying on the ground stung his cheeks, his hands, his exposed neck. The power behind the blasts drove the sand into his open mouth as he gasped for air against the wind, and he felt dirt sliding down his throat, threatening to choke him. Panic began to claw at his mind, telling him to open his mouth wider, to try harder to suck in some air to his lungs. He forced himself to remain calm and closed his mouth, swallowing the waste in his throat, and concentrated on breathing through his nose. With his hand shielding his eyes as much as it could from the stinging sand, he looked through his protective eyelashes for any sign of Victoria.

The debris in the air was so think, he had trouble getting his bearing in the wide open plaza. Loose dirt from a four-year drought obscured everything in a maddening haze, and Diego could distinguish only a few feet to either side of where he stood. And he dared not open his mouth to call Victoria's name or he might lose the thin hold he had on his senses and give way to the panic still threatening in his chest. But for all his control, he still couldn't see! He turned his head left and right, whirled around to look behind him, but he could not find her. Pictures of Victoria's remains smashed against an innocent adobe wall flashed through his mind, and he pushed it down with a vengeance. Where was she?

Then he saw something crouching near the ground, and the visions of a mutilated Victoria receded. He stumbled towards the object, shrugging aside flying boards and tree limbs that repeatedly smashed into his unprotected body, trying desperately to reach the shrouded from. He knew that it might not be Victoria, but only a windblown barrel or a pile of sticks. For all he knew, Victoria and the child could be at opposite ends of the plaza, covered in debris. But he pushed forward in single-minded determination for the object that was just now beginning to take shape.

She lay facing the bricks of the water fountain in the plaza's center, one arm clinging to Maria Gonzales' tiny form, the other hand grasping for a hold on the wet bricks to help her stand. Torrents of water sprayed the area surrounding the fountain, and the bricks were slick with mud.

Diego slipped his arms around her middle, hauling her roughly to her feet. She choked on sand, then choked again as more sand and dirt plunged down her throat. He covered her mouth with one large hand, at the same time heading away from the fountain and spraying water, hopefully in the direction of the nearest building. For all he could see, they were heading directly out of town, and if they didn't find cover soon from the stinging wind, heading to their deaths.

They pushed forward, stumbling every few steps as a branch or loose wood lashed them from unseen angles. Diego's forehead ached with the wind and tiny grains of sand digging into his skin. Relief poured over him when his boot tip stubbed against the raised boardwalk outside the tavern. He had hoped they would make it to the mission, where the child's mother would be waiting, but the storm had turned him completely around, shoving him in another direction. He and Victoria tripped up the step and crashed through the tavern's open double doors. Diego quickly shut the doors on the storm as they gasped for breath, coughing on the dust filling the air even inside the tavern.

Diego leaned wearily on the closed doors, his eyes watering, spitting out the dirt purged from his lungs. Sand crunched in his teeth when he shut his mouth. His eyes felt almost molded shut by encased sand and mud, and passing his dirty hands over them had little effect on restoring his proper sight. He coughed again, his ribs aching with each intense spasm.

Diego! Victoria bumped him against the door, her own eyes fighting to see through the mud and dirt covering her face. Her voice held an edge of desperation. Diego, she's not breathing! Help... Se was consumed by a fit of coughing, and had to rest briefly before she could continue. Look! She weakly held Maria up for him to see.

Maria was indeed turning blue from lack of oxygen, with a light, chalky sheen to her skin. Her eyes were shut and her perfect little mouth hung open in a silent plea for air.

Diego quickly pulled the girl from Victoria's arms, placing her face down over his leg. His heart thudded in returning fear, and a roaring sound blistered his ears as he sharply hit Maria in the center of her back with his hand. He struck her a second time, his mind a numbing fog that hindered his attempts to recall anything he knew about clearing a human's passage to the lungs. What else could he do? What if he was hurting her instead of helping? A curse for his lack of medical knowledge tore from between his clenched teeth just as Maria jerked her head back, and a tiny hiss of air escaped her lips. Hope rising inside him, he gently reached a finger into her mouth to dislodge a chunk of sand and dirt from her throat. A shudder ran through he body and muddy saliva dribbled down the girl's chin as she proceeded to vomit more dirty sludge all over the knee of Diego's blue trousers.

That's it, he said gently, patting her back reassuringly. Get it all out. There you go.

Maria took a shaky breath, coughing up more sand, then calmly blinked chocolate brown eyes at him.

Weak from relief and his battle with the wind, Diego sat down hard on the smooth wood floor, and smiling, gathered Maria into his arms. The blueness of her skin was disappearing with each breath of air she gulped into her lungs, and though her brown hair lay in a twisted, tangled mess, and dirt covered her entire body, she looked truly beautiful to a thankful Diego.

Victoria appeared suddenly beside him, carrying a wet cloth and bucket of water. She cleaned the mud off Maria's little face and pushed the girl's hair out of her eyes. Her own eyes held total amazement. Diego, she whispered through dry and cracked lips, how did you know what to do?

Now that it was over and the three of them were safe and alive in Victoria's tavern, Diego began to shake. Sweat poured down his face, and he could not stop trembling. This was far worse than any sword fight with the Alcalde or his lancers. Then he always knew what to do. Saving the life of a precious two year old girl was certainly not in his usual routine of daily rescues. His arms held tightly to Maria, and he clutched at Victoria's hand. I don't know, he finally wheezed, shaking his head, his hair sending up a cloud of dust with each movement. I must have read about it somewhere.

Victoria moved the damp cloth over his eyes, clearing away the dust, laughing as tears streaked from her own eyes. I never thought I would say this, but thank God for your books! she exclaimed.

He suddenly laughed with her, his fear subsiding as relief and eventually gladness filled its place. Victoria sat next to him on the floor and hugged him and Maria, reveling in her simple happiness that they were all alive.

Z Z Z

The crowded mission was getting hotter by the minute. Most of the citizens in the pueblo stood shoulder to shoulder, crammed together inside the walls. The wind still shook the building as it screamed around its corners, but every window continued to hold against the ferocious windstorm.

Felipe stood next to Don Alejandro, his right arm pinned between his side and the woodwork of a soaring arch. He absentmindedly rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, and listened to the howling wind. The grains of sand and dirt blowing against the windows sounded like tiny pieces of metal thrown into an old pan. His ears ached with that sound as he thought of those same pieces of sand slashing into his friend Diego, and for the first time, he wished he actually were deaf so he wouldn't have to hear the sand and dirt grinding into the building's outer skin.

Finally Felipe gently touched Alejandro's shirt sleeve, asking for his attention. When the older gentleman turned a strained face to him, he wriggled his trapped arm free and began gesturing questions.

What's he saying? Sergeant Mendoza asked, squinting his eyes at Felipe as he joined the boy and Alejandro.

Don Alejandro shook his head, his shoulders rising to meet the ends of his silvery gray hair. Diego is much better at understanding than I am. No, Felipe... Felipe, slow down.

Felipe rolled his eyes and pointed at the mission's wooden double doors, then followed with his sign for Diego before letting his arms run wild again, his gestures gaining speed to catch up to his thoughts. Still, it was only when he took a determined step towards the door that the two men fully understood him.

Mendoza gaped, his mouth hanging wide. You can't go out there! You're only a boy...

No, Felipe. We've already been through this. It's far too dangerous outside right now. Alejandro put restraining hands on Felipe's shoulders, pulling him back. Felipe waved his hands angrily at Alejandro. I know, Felipe. Diego is out there, perhaps lost... perhaps dying. His voice trailed off and he glanced at the firmly closed doors, his thoughts on his only son. A lancer sneezed, and Alejandro shook off his gloomy mood, turning back to Felipe. It won't help Diego if we get lost in that storm, too. No, all we can do is wait it out. We're safe here in the mission... He sighed, his eyes resting again on the doors. But it won't hurt to say a... a little prayer for Diego's and the señorita's safe deliverance. He nodded his head, his nod mimicked by the sergeant and Felipe. They huddled closer together as Alejandro's quiet, beseeching voice began to intone a prayer for Diego, for Victoria, for them all.

Z Z Z

Victoria stood calmly in the center of her tavern, holding Maria in her arms and watching Diego do his best to block every nook and crack in the building to keep the choking dust out. Tables already covered thy entire fireplace, their tops leaning flat against the soot blackened bricks, the legs sticking crazily into the room. Every towel, cloth, or sheet she could get her hands on was stuffed between the cracks in the shutters and under the door, and an evil, deep twilight settled on the tavern, though it was still early afternoon.

There, that should do it, Diego said cheerfully. He pushed a strip of a pink linen pillow case more firmly into the crack between the doors, then looked at her with a smile on his face. Hmm, I hadn't noticed the darkness... let me light some candles. The dim, flickering light of one candle, then several more, helped to dispel some of the worst shadows in the dark corners. Ah, much better, Diego commented.

Victoria laughed softly and shifted Maria to her other hip. I think you are the only man I know who would remain cheerful even in a dust storm, she commented.

Diego cocked his head thoughtfully. I hope that's a compliment, he answered doubtfully, and crossed over to where she stood holding Maria. He smoothed away a smudge of dirt from Maria's thin pink cheek. Still, I'm sure Father and the others at the mission are worrying about us. They have no idea if we're safe or still caught in that storm. He flicked a thumb at the door.

Victoria smiled. Well, we are safe, thanks to you, and I for one am perfectly happy to be exactly where we are. She lowered her eyes to the floor, feeling suddenly shy before him. Thank you for going after me, Diego. I know I was probably very foolish to charge into the storm like that...

Hey, Diego interrupted, patting her shoulder sympathetically with a big hand, you were saving someone yourself. He gently ruffled Maria's hair, still smiling.

Victoria looked him in the eye, unwilling to let her gratitude go unspoken. You saved my life, Diego. Thank you.

Diego watched the yellow light dance across her brilliant, dark eyes and his heart beat a touch faster. He reached for her shoulder again and ran his hand down her arm, squeezing her hand when he caught hold of it. It was the least I could do for such a... He almost said 'beautiful,' but changed the word to 'dear' at the last second, ... dear friend as you. He paused to smile at her, the gesture or once reaching into his eyes. You're welcome.

Of course, I went after her, he thought to himself. How could he not, when he yearned to keep her safely beside him every day of his life? Yet, he only smiled and released her hand. Now, why don't you change out of those wet, muddy clothes?

But... Victoria's brows drew together as she hefted Maria into her arms again.

I'll watch her, Diego offered. You go on.

Are you sure?

Diego sighed in mock exasperation. Victoria, I'm perfectly capable of watching a young child. He pulled Maria out of her arms, marveling at the girl's lightness. My goodness, you are a little thing, aren't you? he asked Maria, who looked at him calmly before reaching out to pull at his ear.

Victoria left them playing in the main room and hurried upstairs with a candle to change into dry clothes. She had washed the mud and dirt off her skin earlier, and Diego had treated the small cuts they all had from the force of the sand hitting exposed areas of skin, but her skirt and blouse were stained with mud and sand. She pulled both articles of clothing off in the privacy of her room and tossed them into a corner behind a straight backed chair. She heard Maria suddenly squeal with laughter from downstairs, and she smiled. It was wonderful to hear a child in her taproom, she thought A familiar desire to have children of her own swooped down on her, but she pushed it aside for a change, refusing to let her unfulfilled dreams ruin the strange sense of peace and cosines that had wrapped around her ever since she'd realized they were all safe from the storm. Part of the happiness she was feeling came from holding the adorable Maria, she knew, and the girl's mother was probably sick with worry, yet Victoria couldn't help but feel glad this storm had given her the chance to at least care for a child, even for only a little while.

The other cause of her strange sense of contentment... She stopped herself as an image of Don Diego holding Maria crossed her mind. Diego, a man typical for his inaction and delay, had jumped as mindlessly to her rescue as she had to Maria's. Such a reaction was interesting, she mused, while pulling a clean shirtwaist and crisp skirt from a drawer.

She sighed at the light cascade of dust that floated through the air as she shook the clothes out. It was going to take her days to clean up after this storm. She pulled the blouse on, thinking about Diego again. He was so unlike Zorro. Yet, he wasn't unattractive... In fact, she rather liked his cheerfulness and soothing companionship, especially during chaotic times like this caused by the dust storm. And that look she'd seen in his eyes as he held her hand... She shook her head and smiled at her own foolishness. You are letting your dreams of Zorro take over your life, she chided herself.

She straightened the sleeve of her blouse, then quickly added a belt around her waist. She ran a brush through her hair and dust billowed around her head. She grimaced in disgust, and checked the snugness of the rags in the shutters of her window before retrieving the candle and going downstairs.

She found Diego standing in the middle of the main room, holding Maria high over his head. The girl was laughing and giggling down at him, her brown hair curling across her chin and falling into her eyes. Diego smile, too, as he shook her back and forth, his large hands practically encircling Maria's skinny waist. Victoria laughed at the sight of such a large man with such a tiny child. She was so surprised that she hardly noticed the scream of the wind as it continued to circle hysterically around the tavern.

Victoria! Diego said in delight.

She smiled and crossed to the bar where the rest of her rags lay in a dusty heap. I had no idea you were so good with children, she commented as she searched through the pile of discarded cloth, separating the rags into two piles. One bundle she pushed aside, leaving a streak on the dusty counter top, and the other she began meticulously folding in the hastily dusted space.

Diego pulled Maria into his arms and wandered over to Victoria. What are you doing? he curiously asked.

Victoria tugged at one of Maria's dangling curls and said, We don't know how long this horrible storm is going to last. I'm folding diapers, just in case we need to use them. She glanced suspiciously at Maria gurgling innocently in Diego's arms. Victoria smiled affectionately, but said, And I expect that we'll need all that I can fold.

Ah, Diego said in understanding, and nodded appreciatively at the folded diapers. Good idea. Diego set Maria on the bar before him, careful not to give her too much room to wriggle off the counter. He'd never considered how high the bar was until he visualized this young girl falling off its top to the hard tile floor. How are your arms? he asked Victoria, and indicated the many tiny cuts dotting her arms and hands.

She grudgingly looked up at him. They hurt, she confided. I hope I never feel that sting of sand blowing into my skin again. He nodded in agreement. Then, her expression grew concerned, and her folding slowed as she voiced her thoughts. Diego, what will a storm like this do to Los Angeles? All the crops and soil are blowing away. How will the farmers in this area survive?

Diego's brow wrinkled over the bridge of his nose. What indeed? he thought. The rich soil of California was now cutting into the adobe bricks of the pueblo's buildings before blowing away. Horses and livestock were probably suffocating from the heavy dust, just as Maria would have suffocated if he hadn't been able to save her. Before the storm's end, homes, stables, entire lives might be lost. He shook his head and sighed heavily, the sound filling the empty tavern with frustration and melancholy. I don't know, Victoria. It's difficult enough for some people to scratch a living out of this land as it is. What with the long drought and the new taxes the Alcalde keeps implementing, most either give up in despair, or starve to death just trying to survive. The frustration he was feeling quickly changed to anger, and he clenched his teeth. Glaring helplessly at the high-beamed ceiling, he said, Then this storm comes along, taking away everything the Alcalde hasn't already destroyed... and there's nothing I can do to stop it!

He paused in his anger to send a seething glance at Victoria. She stared at him in surprise, a rag dangling loosely from her fingers. His anger cooled, dissipating as quickly as it had come, and he let a rush of air escape through his clenched teeth. His tight jaw relaxed into a smile. Sorry. I was just... running off at the mouth.

Victoria smiled back and placed a sympathetic hand on Diego's arm. That's all right, Diego. It's good that you care so much, but we can't all do work better cut out for Zorro. She turned back to fold the last of the rags left on the counter top.

Zorro, Diego practically groaned, rolling his eyes again to the ceiling. Even Zorro could not outsmart Nature, he said.

She laughed indulgently, lifting Maria off the bar as she began, Yes, but he can...

The sound of shattering glass stopped her in mid sentence. They looked at each other, their eyes meeting for a brief moment over the child's head. Then Diego said, Stay here, before grabbing a fat, white candle from the counter top so quickly that hot wax splattered to the smooth, green top of the bar.

That came from one of the rooms upstairs, Victoria said.

Diego nodded. Something must have struck one of your windows. I'll take a look.

Be careful, she called after him as he hurried up the stairs to the second floor. For a reason she could not name, a hint of fear shook in her voice.

Victoria held Maria tightly, unconsciously swaying back and forth, and gently patted the girl's back. She was suddenly aware of the howling wind, and now she heard every speck of debris pounding on the delicate glass windows of her tavern. The candle's flames threw strange shadows across the silent room, making the tables loom large in the corners. She watched the colorful curtain partition to the kitchen fluttering slowly in a draft of air that had somehow managed to get by the rags tightly packed in every possible crack. The careful swaying of the curtain was making her nervous, and she jumped when Diego appeared again on the balcony, firmly shutting a room's door behind him.

What happened? Her voice sounded strained and harsh in the eerie quiet of the main room.

It's as I thought, he answered, walking slowly down the narrow, wooden staircase. What looks like a log or fence post went right through one of the windows upstairs. It was wedged in so tightly that I couldn't move it on my own. I'm afraid the room is filling with dust; I sealed the hole as best I could, but... He shrugged his shoulders, suddenly feeling very tired.

Victoria nodded. Well, you tried, I was worried that bandits were breaking in to find cover more than I had thought about flying fence posts. She laughed softly, and some of the tense fear she'd been feeling dissipated. I guess I worry too much.

Diego replaced the candle on the bar, saying, That's understandable, Victoria. You've encountered enough bandits and rough characters in here to cause anybody concern. He clumsily took her hand. Though there's little chance of anybody being out and about today, I do think we should stay down here for the duration of the storm, and remain as far from any windows as possible.

Hm, we never know when a mysterious log might drop in to visit.

Something like that. He smiled and gave her hand a friendly squeeze.

Victoria looked down at her hand encased in his fingers, and a strong feeling of familiarity swept over her. What did his hand remind her of? An image began forming in her mind as she stared at his large fingers, the nails kept short and round, the soft, smooth skin, with a tiny nick in the cuticle of his thumb. But what was it? She wrinkled her forehead, concentrating so hard that she forgot Diego was watching her as closely as she observed his hand.

The calculating expression that suddenly crossed her eyes sent off warning signals in Diego's mind. He shook his head to clear it of the daydream he had been indulging in and immediately attempted to change the subject.

Well, he loudly said, shall we see what we have in the kitchen to eat? We were late in leaving for the service this morning, and I completely missed breakfast; I'm starved! His smile was ridiculously wide, he knew, and he turned cheerfully towards the kitchen, trying his best to slow his crazily beating heart.

Z Z Z

Do you ever think about having a family, Diego?

They sat side by side on several bed mattresses that Diego had tossed down from the rooms on the second floor, leaning against the wall that separated the kitchen from the main room. Maria sat beside them on the dusty floor, playing with some empty containers from behind the bar.

Victoria leaned contentedly beside Diego, her legs curled under her long, dark skirt, slowly eating a slightly green apple. She dropped her eyes from Diego's face long enough to make sure she avoided a bruise in the apple's reddish skin, then looked back up to settle her gaze again on her companion.

Diego arched an eyebrow at her question while he finished a bite of bread before answering. Of course I think about having a family, he replied. I suppose I want a home, wife, and children as much as he next man. Perhaps more than some.

Who are you thinking of when you say that? she asked next.

Well, our Alcalde comes to mind.

Ignacio DeSoto? Her voice carried an undertone of horror. Who could possibly want to marry him?

Diego's eyebrows rose even further. Ignacio is a very handsome, distinguished man. He holds a position of authority in the government...

Some authority! Victoria snorted. He abuses his authority rather than upholds it!

Nevertheless, Victoria, his position does carry power. Some women appreciate power in a man.

Victoria snorted again. I'm certainly not one of them!

Diego laughed. Calm down, Victoria. Everybody knows how high your standards are.

The anger slowly left Victoria's features and she smiled softly into the dimly lit room. I do seem to lose my patience when anybody mentions the Alcalde, she apologized. So, how many children do you want? She took another bite of apple.

Diego pulled a piece of the fluffy middle section from his chunk of bread and very carefully flattened it between his thumb and index finger. Oh, one, five, twenty, it doesn't matter to me. What's important is that they grow up in a loving, nurturing home, where they will be appreciated for what they choose to do in life. He played with his bread some more as he thought, until he had a circular disk of dough as large as his palm. Yes, he mused, things would officially be a little different for the children of his family.

Victoria glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. Do I detect a note of criticism? Are you unhappy with your household for some reason?

He glanced at her. Not at all, he corrected. My father and I just don't always agree on what being a de la Vega consists of.

Do you mean action versus... inaction? she cautiously asked.

Diego bit back a hot retort and just as cautiously said, Victoria, how can you and Father possibly see my editing and printing a newspaper as inaction?

Victoria leaned forward so she could look more directly at him. But what good does a newspaper do? Half of the pueblo's citizens can't even read! They don't understand the power that comes from the written word. The changes in the government and results from your editorials come too slowly for them. Fighting for their cause is what gives them satisfaction; what delivers them from the government's injustice.

But unlike you and my Father, I still have hope that the problems in this pueblo can be resolved peacefully. He pulled more bread from the loaf and handed a section of soft, doughy insides to Maria before eating any more himself.

Victoria rolled her eyes, but only said, Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with that opinion.

Diego was able to laugh again. Father would prefer to come out fighting, no doubt. He popped another roll of bread into his mouth. And what about you, Victoria? Your situation in pueblo politics is singularly unique; what would you like to see happen? He casually watched her from the corners of his eyes.

Me? Victoria smiled sadly, her gaze moving to settle on Maria. I would like to see an end to all this injustice and tyranny so I can get on with my life.

Naturally, Diego nodded. And what do you and... um... Zorro... plan to do when you're both free of his secret? He nonchalantly reached to break more bread from the loaf sitting on a plate between them. When she didn't immediately answer, he raised his eyebrows to his hairline. Surely you've talked about it... discussed some plans for the future..?

Victoria hesitantly shook her head, trying to look unconcerned while at the same time, biting her lip with some worry. No, I can't say we've discussed anything...

What? No designs for a house or set number of little Zorro's decided on?

Diego!

But Victoria! Diego exclaimed in mock astonishment. You need to talk to that man and get some of this settled!

Frustrated now, her sadness gone, she gestured at him with her apple. We never see each other long enough to talk about such things!

Diego raised his eyebrows further, if that were possible. Then, he smiled disarmingly. Don't look so worried, Victoria. I was only teasing. I saw the way you looked so sad when you watched Maria just now that I wanted to give you something besides your present predicament to think about. He smiled even wider to himself, oddly pleased with the effect his words had on her. Diego had to admit to himself that he wanted to discuss his future with alarming desire as of late, and this was as good a time as any. The more romantically involved he became with Victoria, he found that he wanted to talk about their future with her, to decide on something, anything, so he could at least be able to count on and look forward to definite possibilities.

Now that he'd gotten Victoria thinking on the subject of their future, though his particular presence was still a bit murky at the moment, he continued, Why don't you practice on me; pretend I'm Zorro. He chose to ignore the snort of laughter she couldn't quite hide under a cough. And we're having a heart to heart discussion of our future - your future - his and yours... He waved a hand at the look of amazement on her face. You first.

The tangent their conversation had taken took Victoria completely by surprise. But I... I can't assume anything about him, Diego! I don't even know for sure where he's from! she protested.

Diego waved a hand dismissively in the air. I think we can assume he's from this area, at least.

Why do you think that?

Oh... Diego paused, thinking fast. I think he knows too much of the happenings in Los Angeles to be from Santa Paula or San Pedro or anyplace else. I bet he lives somewhere nearby... in a deserted hacienda or a cave, perhaps. He watched her eyes briefly light up at his mention of a cave, and he smiled again to himself. Though he knew she held unconditional love for the man who was Zorro, it always made him feel good to be reminded of her emotions.

Victoria did her best to keep a straight face and only appear marginally interested in what he was saying. But she was finding it hard not to get excited at their discussion. She had wanted to talk about plans for her future so often, but had not wanted to waste what little time she had with Zorro by discussing a future that was hopeful at best. So with a little smile on her lips, she settled more comfortably on the floor and turned shining eyes on Diego.

I want to live in a house, she exuberantly stated.

Diego grinned with the right side of his mouth and licked his lips. That's very... interesting... Victoria. But can you be more specific?

She shrugged her shoulders, disturbing the ruffle of her blouse so that it folded up and wrinkled over her arm. I don't care. Just a place where I don't have to worry about customers watching us constantly or the Alcalde or Mendoza or somebody disturbing our... well, our anything!

Someplace out of town, then, where it's quiet? He rubbed his chin with his fingers, looking pensive, and feeling relieved. He had worried that she would want to remain at the tavern, thus ending any hope of their ever gaining any privacy. He was mentally and quickly running through all the possible building sites near Los Angeles while he reached out to gently straighten the ruffle of her blouse.

Victoria continued, dreamily munching on her apple, a little smile still curving her lips. I want a big house where I can have a garden, and lots of children, and a pasture for the horses. And every night I can go to bed without worrying, knowing that everybody I care for is safe and won't be killed by bandits before morning. Her voice turned sarcastic and cold as she ended her wish list on a less than optimistic note.

Diego guiltily glanced at her from the corner of his eyes. Do you worry often? he inquired, his voice low and contrite.

Victoria leaned her head back and stared him directly in the eye. Every day, she admitted sadly, her gaze turning to watch Maria play with her makeshift blocks.

Diego sighed and stared moodily into the shifting shadows along the bar. His brow furrowed, a scowl unhappily carved on his usually cheerful features.

What about you? she quietly interrupted his brooding thoughts. Why aren't you planning for that family you want?

He broke out of his thoughts about the unfairness of life and sighed again. I'm waiting for the right woman to be free, I guess.

Victoria glanced at him, interested. Free from what? She took a bite of her now brown apple. Is she underage? Does she have a previous obligation?

He smiled, amused. No, it's nothing like that. And there is no woman pining for Diego de la Vega. She's pining for Zorro, instead, he thought with some irony. What I mean is I'm waiting for someone who just wants to settle down and raise a family. It would be nice if she reads a little and likes to talk... I dream of a day when we'll sit in front of the fireplace, discussing something that may not be terribly important or matter to anyone else. I can hold her, and she'll put her head comfortably on my shoulder while we discuss the weather, for all I care... Diego stared into the dim room, lost in his reverie, his voice hushed and soft. All I ask is that she love me and let me love her. He turned his eyes to Victoria, the light washing over her in delicate webs of golden shadows. How can you not know, Victoria? he thought, wanting to speak out loud. How can you see me every day, look at me now, and not see the love I feel for you? I cannot hide my feelings all the time; I won't be able to control my love forever. So often I dream of holding you, of kissing you, of being able to declare my feelings for you... Diego tightened his jaw and swallowed, the melancholy he was feeling at the unfairness of it all threatening to overwhelm him. He took a deep, cleansing breath and was able to relax his taut muscles as the desires that so quickly took hold of his mind slowly ebbed away.

I didn't know you were such a romantic, Victoria teased lightly, her eyes belying the curiosity she suddenly felt about him.

Sometimes I think dreams are best left alone, Diego said sadly. Then he was able to smile as Maria tottered up to them and he scooped her up, throwing off his sadness with the gesture. Especially when we have a very real little girl right here! But Maria whimpered, pushing against Diego's restraining arms. He looked at Victoria, concerned and confused.

Suddenly, Victoria laughed. She pulled the edge of Diego's blue coat aside, displaying a widening stain on the dark material. And a very wet little girl! she exclaimed.

Wet? Diego glanced down and grimaced. Oh.

Victoria patted him lightly on the shoulder. Welcome to an unexpected dream come true.

He laughed, nodding his head at the irony of their situation while she jumped up to retrieve a folded diaper from the top of the bar.

Z Z Z

Felipe leaned against the rough adobe bricks forming the mission's west wall. He dozed uncomfortably until his head rolled to his shoulder, and he jerked awake again, his eyes wide and staring at the overcrowded chapel.

He looked around, listless, rubbing his stiff neck. Each pew was filled with frightened, bored, and unhappy Angelenos, and more citizens stood or sat on the floor, in the vestibule, and even on the steps of the altar. So many bodies made the building warm and very stuffy. Felipe ran a frustrated hand over his face and through his uncombed hair. He tried to stretch out his cramped legs, but there were too many other people in his way, mostly children, all tumbled about on the floor. Children always seemed to gravitate towards him, He would have groaned out loud at that thought if he could. Maybe Diego wanted to get married and have children, and maybe he would, too, in another ten years. But right now he wanted to get out of Los Angeles, travel, and see the world.

If this storm ever ends, that is. Felipe blinked and shot a glance at Don Alejandro. The caballero still leaned uneasily on a wooden ceiling support, his gaze never wavering from the mission's double doors. He just stood there, waiting for Don Diego to suddenly return or for the storm to end so he could start searching for him. Felipe wished he could do something , tell him anything, to calm the man's fears. But telling him his son was in truth capable enough to be the legendary Zorro and could take care of himself would cause even greater concern, not make him feel better. Still, the young man smiled just as the thought of the disbelief the truth would bring. Then he sighed, sadness, boredom, and worry overtaking his momentary humor. He, too, felt anxious about Diego's safety.

Sergeant Mendoza wriggled his large form between two lethargic lancers to stand near Alejandro. Please don't worry, Don Alejandro; Diego can take care of himself.

The Alcalde snorted softly from his post on the other side of the doors. I don't always know about that, Sergeant. No doubt, Diego would get lost on his way home from the tavern.

Alejandro looked down at the dusty tops of his brown boots and patiently said, Diego may not be everything that I could want him to be, but one thing he has in abundance, Alcalde, is intelligence. He writes, prints a newspaper, and is well-read. He can certainly find his way home from town. His voice had a proud edge to it, and he glanced tiredly at the Alcalde as he finished his speech.

The Alcalde laughed again, the sound coming from deep in his chest, and rattling unhealthily in his throat. Perhaps. But personally, I've never met a more ineffectual man than Don Diego.

Don Alejandro bristled at DeSoto's comment, and Felipe pushed himself to his feet, ready to stop Alejandro from doing something he might regret if his temper took control of him.

That's not true, Sir, and you know it! Alejandro exclaimed, his tone changing from proud to angry. My son has done more for this pueblo just this week than you have accomplished the entire year!

I hardly call reading poetry at the tavern a benefit to pueblo life, Señor! the Alcalde answered.

Alejandro shook his head, and pulled his coat tighter across his blocky shoulders. Well, I certainly didn't see you or any of your men plunging courageously into that storm after the girl or Señorita Escalante! He thrust a shaking finger and the mission's doors.

The Alcalde thrust his own finger at Alejandro's white, ruffled shirt. I do not send my men on heedless suicide rescue missions. They are far too valuable to be wasted on the rescue of a ridiculous child or a woman as meddlesome as the señorita!

Alejandro took a step closer to the Alcalde, and Felipe tried to move closer to Don Alejandro. You would rather sacrifice a caballero than one of these worthless pigeons you call lancers?! he cried in disbelief.

Mendoza frowned, and straightened his shoulders in a useless gesture of militaristic strength. Señor, please, the men are very sensitive about such things.

Alejandro tuned widened eyes on the sergeant. I don't care about 'the men,' Sergeant, just as our Alcalde here doesn't seem to care about the well-being of the pueblo's citizens! I'm sure the other caballeros, and especially that little girl's parents, would have something to say about that!

DeSoto swiftly moved to stand before the shorter de la Vega. Pointing his finger again, snarling through clenched teeth, he threatened, If anything happens in this pueblo, I will know who is behind it, and who to hang on my gallows. Now, I'll tell you what your haughty, well educated, useless son can do about that: nothing! Or he will be joining you in the family grave at the cemetery.

Felipe finally gained Alejandro's side, and Mendoza stepped smoothly in between the two furious men just as they prepared to attack each other. Please, mí Alcalde, Don Alejandro, there is a storm raging outside and three people are lost, possibly wounded. Now is not the time to get into a personal dispute.

The two men glared at each other, the Alcalde's hand resting dangerously on the hilt of his sword and Alejandro's shaking fist only inches from he Alcalde's nose. Then the Alcalde smoothed his silk cravat in place and leaned back from his adversary. Just remember my threat, Señor, he sneered.

Alejandro shot a wolfish grin at DeSoto. And don't underestimate a de la Vega, he warned, a sharp glint of anger still in his eyes.

With a sigh of relief, Felipe relaxed as the Alcalde moved away, followed by the sergeant. Alejandro shook his head in frustration, clenching his hands into tight fists. Someday, that man will go too far, Felipe, he prophesied in a soft, yet no less angry, voice.

Felipe sighed. He could feel that it was going to be a very long storm.

Z Z Z

Diego glanced at the clock hanging from a nail on the wall for the fourth time in three minutes. His eyes resolutely followed a by-now familiar cycle as they settled on Victoria's pacing form. She walked restlessly from the tavern's bar, across the wide-open expanse of floor, to the stairs leading to the second floor, and back again. Back and forth, back and forth. Diego was getting a little sick to his stomach just watching her.

Maria, who had long since tired of playing with her empty containers and Diego's pocket watch and chain, marched beside Victoria, taking three steps to every one of the señorita's, swinging her arms energetically at her sides. Finally, Victoria picked her up and carried her as she paced, but Maria whined to be let down, and Victoria spent as much time avoiding the girl's tottering rambles as she did pacing.

At last, Victoria stopped beside the stairs and turned to Diego, her hands defiantly on her hips. How can you just sit there like that? she asked, her voice full of frustration, boredom, and just a tinge of fear. You haven't moved for two hours! she accused.

Diego chewed on his bottom lip and carefully twirled his watch chain around his index finger as he tried to remain calm and cheerful. But, a saying his father often mentioned at times of trouble came suddenly to his mind: 'You can't love someone all the time.' Diego bit harder on his lip as he sat on the tavern's floor, regarding Victoria. When she was in an antagonistic mood like this, he had to admit those words held some merit.

Putting as much mildness in his tone as he could after sitting on either the tavern's hard benches or the softer mattresses for nine hours, he replied, I don't see the point in wasting energy just to pace the length of your tavern. He waved his hand to encompass the entire room. It won't fix your broken windows or make the storm blow itself out any faster.

The mild nonchalance of his tone grated sharply on Victoria's nerves. How could he be so calm hour after hour, while the sand and dirt scoured the walls of her tavern, and unidentified debris plowed through her precious glass windows? Three more windows broken since evening set in, and at this rate, she not would be able to afford replacements for all of them, and that meant the customers would grumble about flies and gnats in their food and not pay full price for their meals as compensation... and she would go bankrupt. Even as she thought about bankruptcy, she knew she was jumping to conclusions, but she couldn't help herself. What if something really was irreparably damaged? Her problems could very well escalate beyond any damage done by this horrid storm. And Diego sat there so calmly, not concerned by any of it! Just looking at his benign expression made her furious.

That's easy for you to say! she maliciously retorted. You don't have to worry about repairs or a mortgage or where your next meal comes from!

Oh, Victoria! he said with a shake of his head and more emotion than he'd shown all afternoon. You're not going to starve because of a few broken windows.

Well, you're acting as if you wouldn't care if I did! She threw her hands out and resumed her angry pacing.

Diego's cheek twitched once under her hurtful words, but he bit back another retort and only said, Relax, Victoria. There's nothing we can do until the storm passes. When she ignored him, he suggested, Why don't you sit down for awhile and give Maria a rest.

She did stop moving again, this time pausing in the middle of her route. They heard the constant whine of wind and sand and dirt meeting the buildings of Los Angeles, but for a few moments, a silence settled on the room. Diego watched her hang her head back, loosening the muscles in her neck, and her face relaxed a bit. Candle light flickered lazily across her brow, casting her long shadow up the stairs and along the wall.

She looks tired, he thought to himself. That was not surprising, since he was also weary of waiting out the storm. Her eyes were closed against the soft candle flames, her arms hanging at her sides. For a brief moment, his desire to spring up and wrap his arms protectively around her surged strong inside him. Victoria appeared so alone, standing in the middle of the empty room; so alone and so unhappy. He wanted to push back the lock of hair that straggled across her cheek. He knew he could smooth out the worry carved in wrinkles over her eyes with a gentle stroke of his hand. He could make her tight lips relax into a charming smile with a soft kiss on her cheek. She could sink against his chest and his arms would... He looked down at the white sleeves encasing his arms.

Of course, he was wearing the wrong clothes... With that thought, his dream vanished...

Diego clenched his teeth against the wave of love and desire, determined to beat it down again before it got the better of his common sense and he said or did something that he couldn't easily explain away. He felt the most vulnerable at times like this, when he was tired and had less control over his pounding emotions. He ran a heavy hand through his hair, sighing sadly into the quiet of the room.

Victoria opened her eyes to glare at the wall, oblivious to Diego's internal struggle, all hints of her previous relaxation gone. She looked to the bar, contemplating the dust and glasses on the counter top; if she was going to be restless, then she might as well do something with her energy. She crossed to stand beside where Diego sat near the bar and began wiping off the glasses that she had set there before Mass that morning. Maria ran over near the door, laughing and cooing, intent on getting into the storeroom, a place she had previously been strictly prohibited from entering. Diego stood up so he could be next to Victoria beside the counter. He watched the tavern owner for a moment, planning to offer his help; wiping glasses was much better than feeling sorry for himself. Suddenly, wiping glasses seemed very appealing. The sound of the squeaking rag was the only noise inside the tavern.

Victoria was on her third glass when it happened. One second, she was meticulously wiping her fingerprints off the surface under her hand, Diego was reaching for a second cloth, Maria was causing havoc in the storeroom, and the next second, the screaming wind blew a maple board straight through one of the downstairs windows, shattering the window pane into a neat rectangle, while the board came to a stop, quivering, impaled in the side of the green counter. Victoria only stood inches from its bouncing shape.

Both she and Diego just stood in astonishment for a few seconds, staring at the board while the wind and debris tore through the hole in the window, shrieking around the tavern, spreading dust everywhere. Then, they sprang into motion at the same instant.

Almost as if they could read each other's minds, Diego ran to the balcony to pull off one of the decorative blankets in preparation for covering the hole in the window, and Victoria ran to get nails, strips of wood, and a hammer from her storeroom. Before they knew it, Victoria was holding the blanket in place, coughing on the dust that came pouring through the hole in the window, and the taller Diego was hammering the strips to the wooden window frame, the adobe on the walls making it impossible to nail directly into them. Diego pounded the last strip of wood in place at the top of the window until the job was done. An eerie quiet descended over the tavern's main room, profound in its depth.

Diego exploded a breath of air that he wasn't aware he was holding, dropping the hammer to the closest tabletop, leaning his head against the blanket in weary reaction. His heart was pounding so hard, it hurt. Aghast, Victoria's breathing cut harshly into the tavern. The previous silence hung heavy in the room, but the quiet meant the crisis was over. The half-light that filtered through the blanket leant a crazy semidarkness to the entire inside, and the board shone in the candlelight, still quivering slightly in the place it had embedded itself in the side of Victoria's bar. The dust settled quietly on tables, chairs, and counter top alike.

As he gazed at the board in the dim light, Diego struggled with the knowledge that if Victoria had been standing a few more inches to the left, if the window had been just a little further to the right, if the wind was blowing just a bit harder, that sailing board would have killed her instantly upon impact. He could now be without Victoria. The idea was so terrible that he started shaking again. He barely saw the real Victoria for the dreadful image of a dead one currently filling his mind. Without preamble, Diego grabbed her into his trembling arms.

He embraced her tightly, desperately, his strong arms wrapping around her slender frame. Oh, sweet Jesus, he whispered tragically, his breath coming in short gasps. He'd almost lost Victoria. It was one of his greatest fears. His arms tightened even further; he had never been so surprised or so frightened in his entire life. Zorro's adventures with the fiercest bandits were never like this; awful, horrifying, perilous and cold, so deadly that it left him chilled and sweaty at the same time. Diego tightened his shaking arms even more, then tearfully whispered, If something happened to you, I couldn't go on. I... I... I don't know what I would do.

Victoria had been returning the embrace, thinking it was a gesture between friends, getting comfort where she could. Her own trembling arms wrapped around his waist and she hung on for dear life, not quite able to catch her breath, her face pressed into his ruffled chest; she had also received the scare of her life. But he was shuddering so hard that she even felt his arms move against her! She experienced stunned disbelief at first, desiring only to take and give the comfort that welled inside him. Then she heard him talking in a rasping whisper, the words sounding hollow, as if they were almost forced out. Her first thought was that they were strangled words, strange words to be coming from a friend. Her second guess at his enigmatic words was far closer to the frightening reality of the truth. She was barraged with perceptions, then, bowled over with her past views of the man she held in her arms. The blast of ideas was so profound that she was forced to stand still, rigid in his arms, forgetting about her recent mishap as the new concept blossomed to sudden and terrifying life.

Slowly, the fact that she was standing so stiff and so still entered the haze of fear in his mind, and his arms stopped tightening, though they didn't, couldn't, halt their trembling. He became aware of the fact that she was pressed up against him, that he was physically holding her in his arms. That one of his wildest, best, dreams, was coming true. That the words he had uttered could hardly be brushed aside as coming from a friend.

Horrified at his ramblings, Diego just stood for a moment, his arms wrapping her in firm security, too dismayed to move. Then, remembering the terror of his nightmare, he clutched even more frantically, squeezing his arms again, simply glad to be cradling her at all. She was alive, and if he had inadvertently given away his secret, then so be it. That was nothing compared to the very real possibility of losing her, illustrated by the quivering board in her counter.

Victoria didn't move for a full minute, too astounded to even do so much as wriggle in his surrounding embrace, recognition hitting her like a punch in the stomach. But she was too dazed to feel the blow, too surprised by her previous perception of him to believe the truth.

Then, just as quickly and all at once, between two shivering breaths of air, she began to believe; Diego could have hidden his true talents, could have pretended all this time. There was a chance that he was secretly the man behind the mask, that the strange emotions she had always harbored for him and the furtive words she had heard whispered over her head represented reality. It was possible.

The shivers traveled from her arms to the rest of her body, making her shake with excitement, now, instead of fright. She lifted her head, and in a choking whisper, asked, Diego, are you..? But she was still too stunned to go on, the words dying before they had even been spoken. There was wonder in her voice, and trepidation, barely heard over the sound of the wind tearing around the outside of her tavern.

Finding resistance useless now, certain he didn't want to resist at all, Diego hesitated, then finally nodded. For a moment, he closed his eyes in resignation, accepting the fact that, in one uncontrollable moment, he had lost the secret identity that he had safeguarded for years. With that acceptance, he was barraged with loss, dread, terror, and love, all simultaneously. He was unable to fight against his surging emotions, not while he faced his greatest fear.

Then he was hit by a wave of desire so strong that it threatened to overwhelm him, even in his terror. He tried to control it, but any form of coherent thought was difficult at this point. Like in his nightmare, he had almost lost her. The very idea was so awful, the reality was so much more terrible than the nightmare, that Diego just shook, trembling in reaction to circumstances beyond his control. Standing still like Victoria, too shocked to move, he held on to her and tightened his arms again.

At last, after long moments of silence cut only by the howling wind and dust, Victoria stopped shivering. She gazed at him, her dark eyes meeting his blue ones in a question of infinite depth and perception. She wanted to speak, but found that words were beyond her.

She made no move to leave his arms. If anything, she pressed against him even tighter, her own embrace growing stronger. She looked, and it was as if she had never seen him before. An expression of tender amazement was on her face, and love was in her eyes.

Diego couldn't combat her expression any longer. Feeling like he had no control over himself, and not caring that he didn't, he leaned down and kissed her, swept away by his emotions, the circumstances, and being so near to her that he could smell her skin. A hand on each side of her head, he cradled her cheeks, reveling in the sensation of feeling her, of kissing her without the encumbrance of the mask, of being himself and in love. He controlled his desire so it wouldn't pound so fast through his veins, but he couldn't stop himself from entwining his fingers affectionately in her hair.

Victoria deepened the kiss, feeling his hair herself, spreading her fingers wide through it. That she could touch his hair without the barrier of the mask furthered the demand to touch more, to experience every inch of his skin that she could explore. The fervor was intense and building to a vehement pitch inside her when the wail of a child cut through the haze in her mind.

Diego kissed her neck again, then sighed and smiled a resigned grin. That's us; always getting interrupted, he whispered gently, but his amusement at the situation came through in his tone. He longingly kissed her on the forehead, then said, I'll go and see what trouble she's causing. His voice was regretful now, as if he never wanted to let go, as if he almost resented being stopped.

Victoria's eyes were shut, but she opened them to watch him walk away, in the direction of the storeroom and the one that Maria had thankfully taken. If that flying board had hit her...

She felt cold and empty without his magnetic warmth in her arms. That loss was almost as cutting as his own imagined death, which made her think about Diego, and Zorro, and her past perceptions of both men. Victoria had always thought they were so different, but when she had kissed Diego, she had paid attention to the feel of muscles hidden underneath his caballero shirt. He could hide his feelings, and had for years, she now realized, but he couldn't hide the physical proof of his clandestine activities from anyone with an eye toward experiencing the right thing. It was truly amazing that no one had discovered his secret before now. But even concealed, he couldn't hide his attributes forever.

That made her wonder about the acceptance she was feeling. She should be angry at him, furious for keeping such a secret from her for so long, for being in her tavern every day and not exposing himself to her, for not appearing to trust her. But her anticipated anger was absent now that she finally knew who he was. She only felt loving, and a desire to experience more of his endearments, no matter what form they might take in the future. She supposed she should feel guilty about feeling like that, but she didn't.

Victoria admired his fighting skills, naturally, but she found herself also liking his thirst for knowledge of any kind, as well. She even found herself admiring his flair for poetry, and she never thought she'd learn to appreciate that.

But for all Diego's sudden allure, she felt that she had not really looked at him for years, that even though he was her best friend in the world, she had only received the honor of knowing half of him at any one time. Now she knew the entire man, and realized that he was far more passionate than she had ever given him credit for being.

Yet she would tell no one his secret, for that information in the wrong hands could be deadly, and she had too much to lose in such a disclosure. Still, her thoughts were turbulent enough for her to feel a little self retribution about the way she had treated him in the past. He had always been so patient and kind, and she had behaved less than ideal towards him. How some of her comments must have hurt! That information practically burned her now with reproach, for he had only ever wanted to keep her safe, instead of wanting to irritate her by not explaining his feelings and secrets.

With half-formed ideas of herself, Zorro, Diego, and the Alcalde in her head, the concept that he had been gone a long time just to check on one little girl came to the forefront of her tired brain. With that thought in mind, and allowing herself no more deep meditation, Victoria started slowly for her storeroom, more than a little cautious of the windows. But the glass panes held solid and no more flying debris came ricocheting through them as she passed to the curtain covering the room that kept her extra bedding from the prying eyes of her customers.

Pulling the long curtain that covered the door aside, she looked in on a scene that she was unlikely to forget any time soon. There sat Diego, smiling contentedly as he held a grinning Maria on his lap, his large finger slowly caressing down one cheek as she reached mischievously for the folded sheets on the lowest shelves along the wall that surrounded them. They were hemmed in now in piles of white sheets. Maria had pulled them all off in her exuberant toddler fashion, then, completely enthralled, had screamed with her new enthusiasm once before climbing in excitement into her newfound play land. Victoria gazed at the pile of unfolded linen, not thinking of the work that would be required to refold everything, but just glad that the little girl hadn't thought to climb the shelves, as they were fairly rickety and not attached to the wall. The idea of being responsible for an injured toddler made her cringe. She supposed that's how she would feel when she became a parent someday; her heart in her throat half the time. Victoria sighed a bit longingly, the sound mixing with the howl of the wind as the dust storm continued in all its previous fury.

But Diego heard the sound. He turned to glance at her, and it was as if a light had been lit in his eyes; the blue simply glowed once they had caught sight of her in the doorway. How he had concealed such exultant emotions from her was incredible. Why had she not seen such regard before now? Or had he hidden his feelings from her and anybody else who might notice? He was hiding his emotions no longer as he smiled at her, and the smile traveled all the way to his eyes.

Victoria smiled at him as he rose to carry the squirming child to the main room of the tavern, where he attempted to wear away her energy by playing a game of chase around the tables while Victoria refolded the pile of linens in the store room. But as he passed by her on his way out the door, he smiled and ran a finger down her cheek as well, and the motion was far more seductive than it had been when he had done the same thing only moments before to Maria.

Hours passed, and they were held hostage by the storm as well as the energetic two-year-old that Victoria was doing her best to feed bread to when in actuality she would prefer to be doing other things, more forbidden things, if she were honest with herself. The smoldering looks that Diego was abruptly displaying toward her when he thought Maria was looking the other way had the tips of her toes tingling inside her shoes.

At last, two hours later, Maria finally fell into a blissful sleep, worn out from the game and from the sound of the constant wind. Diego carefully laid her on one of the mattresses on the big room's tile floor. He softly pulled up the blankets, covering her up with elegant care. Then, still trying to be unnaturally quiet, he reached up and closed the blankets attached to the wire he had also strung earlier that afternoon from doorways and the mantels and around adobe posts. The seclusion of the closed blankets gave the sleeping Maria some amount of privacy. Victoria felt an odd kinship with those blankets; he had strung them before she knew who he was, before that kiss that afternoon...

Suddenly shy, Victoria turned away. You're so gentle with her; it's usually the domain of women to tend to the children, she commented.

Diego smiled again, then softly said, I admit that I've wanted children for a long time. To actually be allowed to care for one is... is a frequent dream of mine, I guess.

Still shy after the passage of so much time, Victoria asked the first thing that came into her head, And what else do you want, Señor?

You, he replied instantly, without thought or prelude. If you had been hurt today.., he muttered again as he stood to walk around the three mattresses until he reached the edge nearest her, the light going out in his eyes and his face growing white and pinched at just the though of her demise.

Victoria shivered again as she recalled her near death and lucky deliverance of a few hours past.

Diego shivered, too, and sank down to sit on the outside mattress spread on the floor. It makes me... shudder... when I think of it. You were so close... He stopped, unable to go on, and held his head despairingly with his right hand.

He looked so lost, so grave, that Victoria hurried over to join him on the mattress, and took his hand in both of hers, something she'd never done, something she typically didn't have time to do. But that didn't happen, and I'm right here; there's no need to worry about 'what might have been.'

Relentlessly, he continued, as if now that he had started on the vein of thought, he was determined to let nothing stop him. But when I think about such a thing... There was the sound of tears in his voice. He sighed a big exhalation of air, opting for honesty now that they were free to discuss what had been on their minds all afternoon. It's always a possibility. You could have died without... He gathered himself and took a deep breath. ... without ever knowing who I was. That idea just makes me... shake.

He was shaking even now, but Victoria was rather amazed by how honest he was being. Yet, she ignored it in lieu of his seeming greater need to be comforted. Diego, it's all right, she soothed softly, and automatically put her arm around his shoulders, her voice almost lost again in the ever present howl of the wind.

I'm sorry, he said at once. I don't know what's wrong with me. Perhaps I'm tired.

Perhaps you're just fine, only you would rather be doing something else, she took a chance in saying.

Diego looked at her out of blue eyes that were steeped in integrity for a change. He regarded her half honestly, half shrewdly. She could see so many emotions unveiled for her in his eyes, like a fog that had covered his features was slipping away, an explosion of honesty churning on his face. The expression in his blue eyes would have frightened her at any other time, but now they just sent a thrilling shiver along her spine.

Perhaps, he slowly answered. But perhaps what I would rather be doing is dangerous, he inscrutably continued.

Yet, Victoria knew exactly what he was referring to. You can always take a chance, she suggested, sounding bewitching and risque now. They were slowly drawing closer, and Victoria saw Diego's eyes dart to her lips and back to her eyes.

Quietly, he said, I suddenly find a certain someone who is older than a toddler just as... desirable... right now.

Victoria answered in an equally gentle voice. It's a policy of mine to always give in to your desires, no matter what they are. We're both so much happier that way. She hoped he would kiss her. She hoped he planned on doing a whole lot more.

Slowly, as if it had a life of its own and he didn't recognize it, Diego's hand came up to brush her cheek in a soft caress. If I start down that road, I'm not sure I'll be able to stop.

Who's thinking about stopping? she breathlessly invited, aiming for the same amount of honesty that had come from him. She had to be frank with him, felt obliged to be sincere by the desire running full speed around her heart.

Then his mouth was on hers and neither of them could utter a single word more. Victoria curled her arms around his neck, her fingers touching his hair, the edge of his mustache, his shoulders and arms, his chest. Nothing else would suit except the sensation of sliding her hand over his silky skin. Fully daring now, she pulled the white shirt from the confines of his trousers, allowing her fingers the freedom to roam where they wanted to. Slowly, gently, reverently, Diego lowered her back onto the blankets covering the mattress in the most daring adventure he had participated in to date.

Z Z Z

Hours later, the wind still hurling around the town, fully presentable now, and propped up on pillows with the wall directly behind them, Diego munched on an apple and held Victoria firmly in his free arm. She lay against him in relaxed splendor, her curls spread out on his chest, hugging him as turbulently as the storm raged outside. It was as if now that she knew his secret identity, she couldn't let go of him. She could never get enough of who he really was. So she gave in to her basic longings, for once, and tightly hung on to him.

Diego wiped the juice from his chin with a napkin that Victoria had provided for him, and set his meal aside with a determined squeeze of her in his embrace. Then he kissed the top of her head. Victoria, he said a bit grimly but gently ran a hand through her hair, there's something on my mind I need to ask you, and now seems to be the right time.

His words had on ominous ring to them. She lifted her head to better hear him. Go ahead, she invited, though her heart beat with sudden trepidation.

Instead of talking immediately, he lifted her away with his hand and arm so that he could stare directly at her. His eyes cherished what they stared at, sweeping across her features in worshipful gestures. I need to say something as much as ask you.., he babbled, then visibly drew himself together. He couldn't give in to his more tender emotions just yet. He sighed, and slowly said, Victoria, I'll be honest with you; there's still a need for Zorro, for his sword, and there may always be. I'm not sure he can fulfill his promise to you, ever, since even I don't know what the future holds for him.

Victoria's face, so recently full of contentment and happiness, blanched as all the blood drained to her feet. What do you mean? she choked. That we can't be together to..? She tried to say the rest of her bald statement of fears, but the words died on her lips. Her head shook back and forth, trying to negate the awful truth.

Diego's face fell with hers, and his arms came up to grasp her shoulders. No, that's not what I'm saying at all. The truth is that Zorro may never be free to be with you like the rest of the pueblo expects. But I am.

Victoria was confused. What's the difference? she asked.

There's a world of difference, he insisted. As Don Diego, I can hold you, kiss you, love you, marry you, in public, before the Alcalde... Don't you see? I can show my real affections on a daily basis. But it all depends on you, on what you do and decide tonight.

On me?

Yes, on whether or not you can believably give up loving Zorro and love Don Diego instead.

Again she looked confused. A puzzled expression became her, brought out the light in her eyes, yet... You speak as if you're two different people, but that's not the case.

Diego shifted his position on the mattress. Now he could see her rather well. Of course we're two different people where you're concerned. I might still have to play the ineffectual fool for my father, for the Alcalde, for everybody. The point is, can you still love me, Don Diego, and give up on Zorro, or not? What do you think?

Victoria gazed at him, searching over his face, staring at his features. All right, here's honesty for you, she started. The truth is that I'm not sure I can give you up at all. I love you with all my heart...

Diego forced himself not to pull her into his arms at that statement. And I love you, was all he allowed himself to proclaim.

Victoria continued, I want us to be together. I don't think I can go on as before, snatching a few moments here and there, only loving half of you...

What do you mean? he asked.

I mean that you and I are getting older, more mature, and romance by itself may not be enough anymore. She gripped his arms, feeling the muscles beneath the white material. I do know that I want to be with you, always, to show you my emotions in public, to... to sleep with you in private.., she finished a little shyly, but determined to express her deepest desires. Diego, now that I've had that, I want more of it. I want it again, and again; I know I won't be content to go back to the way things were. She lifted a hand to her forehead, ordering her thoughts to come out in something resembling coherency. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I love you, I'm not getting any younger, I want a husband, a family, and maybe I'm growing tired of waiting for that. However, I can't imagine any of that happening with anybody else but you, and if it takes convincing the pueblo that I've fallen in love with Diego in order to get it, then that's what I'll have to do.

Diego was almost overwhelmed by her answer. She was willing to give up..? But he took a deep, calming breath, and asked, Victoria, why didn't you tell me about this before if you felt...

She smiled softly. What was the point? We already had so little time together, and why waste what precious time we had with dreams of a future that might not ever come true?

He was shocked into speechlessness. In all the years he had romanced her as Zorro, she had never once intimated that she might want more. He pulled her into his embrace now. You never said anything about that. I'm sorry for giving you so little. I didn't realize...

But she was already shaking her head against his chest. No, you gave me what you could. I knew that. I never expected you to solve all the little problems in life, mine included. But the point is, that yes, I can love you, as much as I ever loved Zorro, probably more, and yes, I can show that love to the pueblo, even if I might be less than enthusiastic for you to play the fool when I'll know that you're capable of so much more. But I can do this for you, if it can mean that we'll be together and have something resembling a normal life.

Diego stroked her hair. I want that, too, more than anything, he whispered.

More than justice?

He paused, considering, and placed his fingers caressingly on her jaw. Yes, more than justice, I think. I want a wife, a family, as much as you want a husband. If you can remain silent when I need you to be silent, maybe that dream isn't so far away as it always seemed to have been. He kissed her then, showering her with all the emotion he was capable of, all those dreams, that she had given up to be with him. He thought his heart was so full that it might explode. Victoria, he whispered when his kiss ended, feeling her forehead with his, I want to marry you. I want you to be my wife. I want to make love to you again, and I want to wake up to you every morning. As long as you understand that I also want to be Zorro, that I'll need the time for his sword, that on some days I won't be able to speak to you as a husband, that I won't always be able to give you the time you deserve...

It will be more than I have now, she whispered back. And if that takes some sacrifices, some compromises, then that's what we'll have to do. Yes, I want all those things, too, but I understand perfectly. Anybody who marries you would have to understand.

Diego briefly wondered why he was so lucky to have found her, but he went on, You know that means I'll be gone sometimes and you will have to take up a great deal of my negligence. Are you prepared for that and won't be angry about it?

Victoria sighed. I don't think I could ever be angry with you. When I think of what you've done for the pueblo...

Diego grinned. Just wait until you see my wardrobe; it's a bit messy. You'll be plenty angry, then.

I don't care about you wardrobe, she stated. Not as long as you come back to me, safe, and you kiss me before I go insane.

I can't promise to always come home, Victoria, but I'll certainly try, Diego said, even as he lowered his head to claim her mouth with his own. When he could speak, he whispered, How can I not try, with you waiting for me at the end of the ride? Then he kissed her again, and the desire that always existed between them erupted once more in a familiar flame of passion, burning bright and constant, strong in the sacrifices they made for it. The flame became a roaring fire, and before either of them knew it, Victoria had leaned them both back to the mattress again, letting her emotions for him consume her while she had the chance.

Z Z Z

Sleep fell over them soon after Diego gave his last kiss to her cheek. Before he knew it, morning had arrived, the soft, weak light streaming into the tavern, bringing with it the promise of a filling if slightly ancient breakfast of bread and fruit that were several days old.

Diego woke to see the sun and find Victoria gone.

Victoria? he called, not really frightened, only concerned. Where was she? Had she gone up to her room for some reason? Victoria?

She appeared, coming through the curtains blocking off the kitchen, carrying a serving tray with three glasses on it, old bread, a knife to cut it with, and more fruit. She set it down beside him on the mattress, and briefly kissed his lips. She was already dressed and ready to start the day.

Good morning. Sorry, but there's no coffee. How did you sleep?

He looked at her appreciatively, even through her clothes. Like a rock. No need for Zorro, no storm... Victoria, the wind! It's stopped!

The sun's out! The storm must be over. She glanced at him, suddenly mischievous. Maybe you'll get that coffee after all. She hurried to the door to remove the rags from the cracks between them while Diego rushed to dress. He had just mussed the middle bed to make it look like someone had slept in it when there was a loud pounding on the front doors. The bed hadn't been used, as Victoria had spent the night in Diego's arms, but what the citizens of the pueblo didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

While Victoria answered the insistent knocking, Diego went to rouse the still-sleeping Maria, sitting on the tousled middle mattress as he gently shook the toddler.

Victoria pulled the door open wide, and the first to enter was Benita Gonzales, Maria's worried mother. She rushed over to the form of her daughter, and hugged her as much as the small child would allow. But Maria wanted her breakfast, and a dry diaper, not hugs from her hysterical mother. She began wailing the moment she woke up, and Diego saw that he could offer little help, so he moved to embrace his family, just entering the empty tavern.

Diego! exclaimed Don Alejandro with a hug for his son. We were so worried when you and Victoria ran out into the storm like that.

Diego embraced an obviously relieved Felipe next. We made it here by pure luck, and had some scary moments, but we're all right. In fact, more than all right! Sergeant Mendoza blew his nose on a convenient handkerchief to see such an open display of family love.

DeSoto, on the other hand, openly sneered. What tripe! he gruffly announced, hoping the jealousy he was feeling at the display wasn't showing on his face. I bet you had some scary moments! You probably got lost before you even made it this far. He laughed lightly, implying the unsaid with his gesture, referring to Diego's famed lack of directional abilities.

Diego saw a flash of fire in Victoria's eyes before he could hope to respond to the statement, but then she buried her obvious anger deep inside, covering the hurt with a mien of nonchalance. But Diego had seen it, even from across the crowded room; the sacrifices for his secret identity had already begun, apparently. As a concession, Diego grabbed hold of Victoria as she was scooting past them to her bar and said, Even you can't spoil this day for me, Alcalde. Father, Felipe, we have some news we'd like to share with you before anybody else tells it to you, first.

DeSoto's laugh changed to one of disbelief. Don't tell me that the two of you...?

Diego didn't let him finish. Victoria and I are getting married... soon. He grinned at Victoria, remembering and reminding her through such an endearment about the previous night. He ran his hand slightly up her arm. She grinned saucily back at him, the hurt in her eyes now replaced by genuine affection.

Alejandro's smile at seeing his son alive changed to one of incredulity. What?

Diego went on to say, Well, you know, with storms and saving lives, and near death experiences... With that, he gave a pointed look at the board still firmly embedded in the front side of the bar.

Still incredulous, Alejandro prepared to give them a huge embrace himself. Near death? Diego, I think you have some things to tell me.

Diego chuckled, even as the crowd righted the tables and sat down while Victoria and her girls hurried into the kitchen. Father, we have many more things than that to tell you. But those can wait until after breakfast. Just as soon as we can prepare it for you. It's my guess that you'll be very surprised as well!


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