A/N: This story is also not finished, and I swore that I would never post an unfinished story again, so I was trying to finish it, but it's getting so long, and it's taking me such a long time to write, and several people have asked for another story... I give up. I'll quite happily post it now, as I want feedback, but be warned that I plan to keep writing on it, which means that a lot of it will change, quite possibly even the title.

July 10, 2006: Further note: Still not finished, but I thought you might want to read what's done on it. And thanks for the feedback - it helped a lot, and the story changed a lot because of it. Thanks again!

August 4, 2006: Still not finished, but I hope this new format helps in downloading chores.

September 14, 2006: Finished.

Transformations

by Linda Bindner

Diego took one last, angry, look at the shivering splendor of the horizon before turning and stomping on the stones underfoot as he retraced his steps to the inside of the hacienda. He tried hard not to let his father's recent words about his typical lack of motivation bother him, but the pronouncement had been personal, fairly negative, and more cutting than usual this time. The words rang in Diego's mind like the bell at the mission on a cool day; clear and with a reverberating energy that made them repeat over and over again as Diego slipped into the library, and then, unseen, stole again like smoke through the door in the rear of the fireplace and into the secret cave. But his irate sigh sliced through the quiet afternoon air even as he walked.

He let the sound of the bubbling liquids from his laboratory calm his inner turmoil, but just enough of an edge of his previous animosity stayed with him to make his hands shake as he lifted the black garments from the rack to the side of the workroom. That rack had been made for the single purpose of hanging the dark clothes on so they wouldn't wrinkle when he needed to grab them to wear on a moment's notice, changing the perception of himself as neatly as he changed into his nightshirt at night. He did his best to concentrate on dressing in the dark outfit of Zorro, but it was difficult when what he really wanted to do was yell back at his father, tell him that such comments as proclaiming a wish that Diego had remained in Madrid if all the interest he was going to show in the happenings of Los Angeles was to record the births and deaths in his newspaper, The Guardian, were truly unwelcome. Don Alejandro had continued, saying that Diego could just stay home, then, since he wasn't going to be of any help to anybody.

Diego groaned, black silk shirt in hand, as the words from Alejandro sounded again in his mind... Stay here, then, his father had proclaimed, stay here and die of thirst, if that's what you want to do. But know that the actions of a de la Vega make a lasting statement in the pueblo of Los Angeles, and the statement being made right now is hardly one that makes me proud.

Diego shut his eyes, attempting to also block the thoughts from his head, the memories, but he couldn't quite stop them all. Groaning again, he resolutely ignored his own mind and continued dressing, buttoning the shirt, jerking on the trousers and boots, tying the black sash around his waist, stashing the gloves and the mask away as he had practiced, the gloves in his boots, the mask aimed for his sash. But the mask was stubborn enough to fall from his nerveless fingers and float to the floor, where he accidentally stepped on the black material as he bent to scoop it off the light colored flagstones under his feet. He hoped this wasn't an omen of what might be coming as he had to bend down a second time before he succeeded in snagging the offending mask prior to sliding it into his sash.

Two minutes later, he peered at his reflection in the mirror hanging on the cave wall, made an adjustment to the dark shirt a final time, checked once more, made certain that nothing of the black costume was out of place, then carefully belted his sword under his left shoulder to hang diagonally across his chest, tied with black thread common to any sewing kit in the Territory to the part of his leg just below his right knee. He made sure that the binds were secure on the sword that he had won from his fight instructor several years before, and was even now resting inside its scabbard. The bulk of the hilt felt odd under his left shoulder and arm, and he couldn't put his arm down all the way, but the coat he planned to wear over his white caballero shirt would cover the strange lump of the hilt, keeping it from sight, at least until he could remove it and hide the sword in the supply closet in the tavern's kitchen, which he knew would be empty as everybody would be outside, trying to argue with the Alcalde.

Hurrying, now, he reached for the caballero clothes that he had been wearing, and tugged them over Zorro's black outfit. Button the white shirt, he reminded himself, though the instructions were rather rote at this point, as he had practiced dressing this way so often as to almost make it a habit. Pulling the blue trousers on over his boots and up the black pants tucked into those boots, he was glad again that he'd had a tailor in Monterey line all of his trousers in satin not long after he'd first thought of this way to outfit the masked avenger. Satin lining made sliding the trousers on and off so much easier; everything slid on satin. He only hoped that he wouldn't meet anyone as he walked into the pueblo; he had to leave Toronado behind, as he couldn't bend his leg enough to ride a horse, and Don Diego could never be seen riding Zorro's mount, anyway. Besides, the caballero clothes were so formfitting that they did little to hide the bulk of the sword, even when he wore his jacket, as he intended to do on this afternoon.

After fastening the blue trousers and looking in the mirror one more time to make certain that no part of the black costume showed through his white outer caballero shirt or the blue trousers, he proceeded to finish doing up the buttons on the fluffy white shirt all the way to his neck and tying the cravat he felt was necessary to wear to completely conceal the black costume hidden underneath. He had decided to dispense with the cape and the hat, as the cape tended to bunch up when he tried to stuff it under his sash, and there was really no way to transport the black hat except to wear it, and he couldn't do that; it was too recognizable. Yet he had fought as Zorro while not wearing the hat and the cape a time or two before, and though it wasn't his usual mode of dress, it would have to do.

Nothing showed through the high quality whiteness of the outer caballero shirt, and before he knew it, the reflection in the mirror showed the pristine appearance of Don Diego de la Vega again to him.

With the return of his usual mirrored image came the unbidden echo of his father's words one more time, and for a moment, Diego allowed himself the luxury of reliving the events that had led him to this point of secretly dressing in the hidden cave like some criminal too ashamed to appear as himself in public.

It was all because of the fountain of water in the middle of the plaza. Well, that, Diego amended to himself, and the drought that had been going on for years. The weather had tantalized the citizens of California again and again, letting light, but infrequent rains fall from the sky every few weeks. But the amount of water wasn't enough, was never enough, did not even come close to refilling the downed reserves in the riverbanks and wells until the Alcalde had decreed just today that the water in the plaza's fountain would now cost a centavo per bucket, a peso per barrel, even though the fountain water had been free since the Los Angeles pueblo had begun in Diego's grandfather's time. Hence, the caballeros had organized a protest of DeSoto's new 'edict,' and thus had come Alejandro's biting words to his son when Diego knew it was time to fight among the citizens as Zorro in protection of the poor farmers and merchants and people who had always relied on the fountain to provide free cooking and drinking water. But, in order to do that, Diego had to give a plausible excuse to remain behind at the hacienda so that he would be free to change into Zorro's black outfit, and it had been due to that excuse that Alejandro had declared to his son such awful things to begin with.

Diego growled low in his throat, a sound of pure anger, but he wasn't completely certain whom he was more angry with: his father, for having the expectations that he did for his son; at DeSoto, for being Alcalde and decreeing the necessity of Zorro in the first place; at himself, for not showing the courage needed to tell his father the truth; or at Zorro, just for being Zorro. It was difficult to sort through his churning thoughts, and he walked out of the cave, leaving an unsaddled Toronado, but still using the larger entrance reserved for Zorro's famous steed. Still, Diego hadn't come to any decision on the matter of his father's scathing words as he left. He promised himself the chance to revisit his emotions on the subject at the first available opportunity.

The protest against paying for the plaza water was in full swing when he entered the pueblo through the front door of the tavern. Having awkwardly vaulted through the kitchen window, due to the encumbrance of the sword strapped to his chest and thigh, he stashed it in Victoria's supply closet, and hurrying through the eerily empty main room, which had proven to be especially easy now that he was in the pueblo and wished to keep his alter ego's presence a secret until the last possible second. The townspeople were coming to rely too heavily on the fact that Zorro had always ridden to their defense, and Diego was in the midst of silently encouraging them to fend more for themselves when this 'water situation' had occurred. The protest, being loudly led by Don Alejandro and Seņorita Victoria Escalante, the proud and vocal owner of the only tavern in town, was well under way when Diego made his appearance in the plaza.

We've never had to pay for water from the fountain before, Alcalde! Victoria was shouting even as she pushed the barrel of a lancer's rifle out of her way so that she could better see the government official whom she was addressing.

Diego felt his heart turn over and curdle in fear at the sight of Victoria throwing herself in harm's way once again on behalf of the downtrodden citizens of Los Angeles, but DeSoto didn't order her instant arrest, as Diego feared he might.

The wind that tickled across the tavern's porch blew his hair into his eyes as next Diego carefully watched the form of Ignacio DeSoto in order to judge what he might do. Diego was still standing at the back of the gathered crowd, near the tavern's promised safety, where he could run to its kitchen and change to Zorro's black outfit if the situation should become necessary. To appear from The Guardian's office, a building known to house a press run by Diego de la Vega, had too much potential to be tied to that caballero to be used now. However, the protest hadn't quite reached that level of emotionalism necessary for an appearance by Zorro, and Diego remained standing at the fringe of the crowd.

What do you care about what I do with the water in the fountain, anyway, Seņorita? DeSoto continued with a sneer in his voice. He derisively reminded, You have a pump in the tavern's kitchen that draws water from your own well. I think you just want to come out here now in order to stir up trouble!

Don Alejandro answered, You've already caused your own trouble, Alcalde! Just by having lancers surround the fountain the way you have shows a high disregard for what the people think! he accused.

What the people..? began DeSoto in an echo of Alejandro's comment, the mockery again evident in his tone. The people don't think for themselves, or it would be perfectly obvious to everyone that a peso for a barrel of water in these times of trouble is a positive bargain! I doubt that any of you would get such fair treatment in any other pueblo, Don Alejandro!

But you have to admit that most individuals from this pueblo don't have even a centavo to spend on water, Alcalde! Alejandro replied with a feral growl. Mark my words when I say that no one will talk themselves into paying for a commodity that should be free, and always has been free in the past!

DeSoto placed his hand on Mendoza's shoulder as the sergeant nervously sat at the collection table near the fountain in the plaza's center. And I will know who to arrest the minute insurrection takes place in Los Angeles, won't I, Don Alejandro? jeered DeSoto. If anybody wants water, he or she will have to pay for it from now on! With a threatening look on his face, he glanced at Victoria, and Diego felt the muscles of his legs gather together in preparation for leaping to the seņorita's defense if he had to. But... In times of drought, continued the Alcalde, I am well within my rights of improving the military readiness of this pueblo by charging a small fee for a few measly drops of water!

And I am well within my rights to protest such an action! shouted Victoria. The sun and confrontation had brought twin spots of red color to her high cheekbones, and the wind blew her curly hair in a twisting semblance of order. The elements conspired to make her appear even more wonderful to Diego's eye, yet he still did nothing but back up a step towards the open tavern doors, ready to become Zorro, but equally as ready to give the townspeople the opportunity to solve this situation on their own.

There was a great deal of grumbling on both the Alcalde's part and on the part of the gathered townspeople. Some of the citizens were glancing furtively at the rooftops in the pueblo, and Diego knew they were looking for the figure of their hero come to deliver them from this newest debacle of the Alcalde's. But still, he hesitated directly outside the threshold of the tavern's doorstep. He fought the urge to give in to the feeling to become that deliverer of justice and appear in Zorro's black mask. These people needed to learn to solve problems on their own, he firmly reminded himself.

The grumbling wore on for several moments before Don Alejandro turned from where he'd been talking quietly among the rest of the dons to face the Alcalde, and said, Since you insist on being pigheaded as usual about this...

Pigheaded, indeed, snorted the Alcalde, then. Speak for yourself, he said defiantly.

Don Alejandro chose to ignore the Alcalde's comment, which was probably the wisest course of action, considering the alternative of forcing the Alcalde to grow even angrier and order the lancers to fire at will into the crowd in hopes of controling the situation. Instead, he said, Alcalde, we have a deal to offer you.

Instantly, the Alcalde grew suspicious of any bargain. A deal? he inquired.

Alejandro gave one curt nod of his head. Don Franco has a pond on the edge of his property, which, as you know, also borders the land around Los Angeles. He suggests that the people gather water from his pond half a mile away, and pay for any water they might collect from the plaza fountain, here, until he can no longer afford to allow the citizens to have free water, or until such time as the pond runs dry. He glared at the soldiers in the plaza, but his words belied his angry mood. It's a good compromise, Alcalde, he argued in a loud voice. The water in the plaza remains at the same rate you've already decreed, and the citizens who can't pay for extra water rights have to travel a fair bit before they can collect their free water in buckets or pails or whatever they've brought. He paused, and there was a pregnant silence in the plaza. Everybody gets what they want, no blood is spilled, and you get to keep a clean military record, which we all know means a great deal to you.

The Alcalde's suspicion had risen to fill even his eyes by now. How can I stop people from going to Don Franco's pond instead of going here? he asked at last.

You can't, responded Don Alejandro. He tugged on his jacket, but gamely went on, It's either pay for the water that's already conveniently here, or trudge half a mile to Don Franco's, where there might or might not be water. It depends on how big of a gambler each person is.

There was silence again. Diego could hear the wind scouring through the pueblo as he stood outside the tavern. He held his breath, his eyes roving from Victoria, to the Alcalde, to the area dons, and back to Victoria again. She seemed about ready to disagree with the suggested compromise, and he quietly willed her not to say a word in protest and get everyone stirred up again.

The silence in the plaza dragged on while the Alcalde considered every facet of the compromise. Diego met his father's eyes across the plaza, but neither moved towards the other, as Alejandro's negative words were too recent and the wound they had caused too raw to be patched up with a quick look and a handshake now. Neither smiled, or even blinked, as the Alcalde finally turned from where he had been contemplating the ground and regarded the people gathered in the plaza.

All right, he said at last, his words barely loud enough to be heard over the wind. It's a deal.

A huge sigh seemed to erupt over the plaza, and the sound carried the frustration of an unpleasant negotiation in it, as well as relief that a compromise had been found.

However, the Alcalde wasn't finished speaking. He turned back to the lancers grouped near the collection table that had been erected, and declared, This is just the type of situation for an appearance by that fiend, Zorro; he has to be around somewhere, waiting to ride to everyone's rescue. He sneered again, then ordered, I want you to search everywhere until he's found and brought to me.

Diego shook his head while he leisurely strolled to The Guardian's office and crossed his arms over his coat so that it wouldn't flap open at an unfortunate moment and possibly reveal the outfit he had hiding beneath the caballero clothes. But he shook his head in disgust as he did so; will the Alcalde never learn? he asked himself. The man's citizens could bend over backwards for him, but still he insisted on making things even harder for the families under his leadership. He'd learned nothing in the past few years where he had battled Zorro for every little thing he'd invented. And Zorro had foiled one after another of his ridiculous plots only to have the man come up with something else with which to irritate the peasants and farmers and caballeros of the pueblo. Diego shook his head again as the lancers moved to search through The Guardian office and back rooms; there was only going to be so far that these good people would allow themselves to be pushed before they started to fight back. He only hoped that the Alcalde was gone from the pueblo before it happened.

When the lancers had finished, finding nothing and nobody hiding behind the printing press, of course, Diego wandered along a by-now well known trail that led to the tavern. The busy eating establishment teemed with customers after the brush with the Alcalde, and Diego had to stand aside as several of those patrons move off the porch and into the plaza beside him. Then, he moved with relative freedom into Victoria's domain.

The tavern was indisputably hers, and anybody would realize it upon entering the inn. There were pieces of her personality everywhere, in the curtains hanging between the tap room and the kitchen, and the shelves behind the bar. It was even in the food that many of the customers had placed before them on crude platters and dishes. Victoria was one of the best cooks in the entire California Territory, and she was getting quite a reputation for her burritos and tamales as being almost too good to eat. Diego smiled, a bit austerely, then sauntered over to where his father stood discussing the latest development with Victoria, who also stood, but behind her bar.

She brightened the instant he came up to her bar, but even he could tell that the look was different from the one he so often received when he was wearing Zorro's darker garb and standing in the shadows of her kitchen. He tried not to care about the depth of her expression, but found that, after enduring his father's tirade that afternoon, he wanted an expression of comfort more than one of the neutral friendliness she was displaying right now.

Diego! Victoria exclaimed brightly, oblivious to his thoughts. Hola! What do you think about the way the Alcalde just gave in to the dons' suggestion?

Diego had a reply ready for her. I think that we should all run the other way when our luck ends, as it surely will, even if the Alcalde saw fit to capitulate this time.

Oh, Diego! scoffed Alejandro. Don't be such a spoilsport! At least the Alcalde gave in this time, and he will continue to see the benefit of discouraging the bloodshed that your brother seemed to better understand. No, the Alcalde is a changed man, he declared in no uncertain terms.

I wish I could believe that, Diego muttered.

Victoria scowled a bit as she answered, No, I think you're father's right, Diego. Alcalde DeSoto is much more likely to negotiate now, after Emissary Rissendo was in the pueblo.

I hope you're right, Victoria, Diego conceded, attempting to shake off the dark mood that had been brought on by his father's hasty words from before at the hacienda.

You know I'm right, Victoria declared, and this time her smile lit up her entire face, eyes included, and Diego felt himself melting at the explosion of soft emotions that he always held for her. What had they been talking about, anyway? Desperately, Diego tried to remember and keep his naturally emotional response from showing in his own eyes. A little regard may have leaked through in spite of his efforts.

But Alejandro was talking again, acting as the distraction that Diego desperately needed, yet seemed unable to produce. The don slapped Diego on his nearest shoulder, and said, I... uh.. hope there's no hard feelings about what I said earlier, Diego...

Diego smiled, but a person paying attention couldn't help to realize that the endearment didn't reach his eyes, either. Victoria noticed, and gave him a rather searching expression. But fortunately, Alejandro wasn't paying such close attention. It's already forgotten, Diego politely said, and watched as his father nodded and smiled.

You know that I didn't mean it, Alejandro said. But the other dons were calling to him, and he placed both his warm hands on Diego's coated arm. We'll talk later, he promised, then disappeared into the crowd to spend some quality time with his friends, whom he rarely saw.

Victoria and Diego stayed near the bar. Once Alejandro had disappeared, Victoria eyed Diego, then softly accused, I saw that.

Saw what? Diego innocently asked.

Victoria snorted, not impolitely, and replied, I saw what you did! she exclaimed in spite of her low voice. The way you just brushed aside whatever Don Alejandro did earlier, even though you obviously didn't want to. What happened, Diego? Did you and your father have an argument of some kind?

Diego sighed, knowing that making up an untrue story would be useless at this point; Victoria would see through it in an instant. He sighed again. I don't wish to talk about it right now, Victoria, Diego said with a voice full of sadness.

Victoria eyed him again, the skepticism she was feeling as apparent on her face as the towel she was using to wipe up the bar was apparent in her hand. You might feel better if you talked about it, she suggested, her voice so soft that she sounded arch.

Diego smiled at her remark. Nice try. But I really don't wish to discuss it. Thanks for being concerned, though.

Victoria didn't give up as he wished her to. Later, maybe?

Maybe.

Like, perhaps, when I close the tavern tonight? she intimated. Maybe you'll find that you can talk about it then?

Diego smiled once more at the tiny figure behind the bar. I really do appreciate what you're trying to do, Victoria, but...

No buts, she said immediately, interrupting him. Help me close tonight and we'll talk.

An entire evening of uninterrupted time with Victoria? Diego blanched; that was almost too dangerous of a proposition. But he could think of no excuse to get out of it. Finally, he grinned, prepared for an evening full of the pleasure of being with her mixed with the acute agony that being in her company always wrought in him. Of course, Seņorita, he said, giving in to the cajoling smile she wore on her face. Actually, giving in wasn't much of a hardship on him.

Good, she answered. I'll expect you about ten o'clock.

I'll mention it to my father, then meet you back here, he said.

I expect good conversation and good work, she warned.

Diego tapped the top of the bar before turning to the front doors. And I expect to give nothing less, he told her.

Victoria frowned at his serious tone, but chose to hold her words. Still, she watched Diego with a speculative pucker between her eyes until he had vanished through her front doors.

Z Z Z

Ten o'clock came, and true to her word, Victoria started ushering people to the door the second Diego walked into the tavern.

Why do I have to leave if Diego gets to stay? asked Don Jose, one of Alejandro's friends, but he stumbled out the front door with an amicable slap on Alejandro's shoulder. He was also so drunk that he hardly knew which direction he was facing, and would have tripped down the porch step if Alejandro hadn't kept a steadying hand on his arm.

Alejandro turned to his son. Diego, I think I'd better see that Don Jose makes it home all right, and I plan to make some coffee while I'm there.

The best thing for him is sleep, not coffee, Diego reported, knowing that his father would ignore his advice.

The coffee is for me, Alejandro said, then grinned at Diego. Perhaps we can have that talk of ours tomorrow, Son, he promised, then jumped down the step and slipped into the surrounding darkness as Don Jose pulled at him and he responded to the tugging.

Diego was a bit perturbed that his father had once again avoided what promised to be a deep, personal discussion, but he also had to laugh at the antics of the two older men. Be careful! he called after them.

Alejandro waved with one hand, then was gone.

The tavern emptied out rather quickly after that. There was quite a bit of good natured teasing about the fact that Diego was clearly going to remain behind after the others had all left. Victoria's going to put me to work, he told several men who stopped by him to inquire as to what was going on.

Work! scoffed one man in a slightly ribald humor. I would think she would much rather... But then, he stopped himself before he could go any further and allowed his friends to push him out of the tavern.

Victoria rolled her eyes, knowing what the man had not said, and ushered the rest of her customers to the door with less politeness, then closed the doors behind them. When she realized that several of the men were peering in abject curiosity through the tavern's two large windows, she pulled the glass closed and swung the shutters together. Good night, she called in fake cheerfulness, but with another roll of her eyes. When she was certain that no one was left looking through the shuttered windows, she propped her hands on her hips and said, Honestly, if that Jorge de Hidalgo were my husband, I wouldn't have such a warm homecoming prepared for him as his wife always has planned!

I heard Mercedes was going to dump him in the horse trough, Diego commented with a slight smile.

Victoria laughed at that statement. It would serve him right, too! she declared.

Diego grinned, as Victoria lowered the central chandelier prior to blowing out its candles save one, and from that she lit a single candle that she set on the bar behind her before blowing out the last lit candle on the wheel of light and replacing it. While she worked, he asked, What would you like me to do first, Victoria? Carry dishes to the kitchen or sweep the floor?

Victoria whirled at the sound of his voice. She turned a baleful eye on him. I'd like it if you told me what's wrong, Diego, she said as she tied the rope that held the chandelier aloft to a ceiling post.

Diego tried for a lighthearted shrug. Nothing's wrong, Victoria, he insisted.

Victoria put her hands on her hips again. Of course there is! she exclaimed. You can't fool me, Diego de la Vega! Now, what is it? What happened?

The look of innocence fell from Diego's face. You're right, he said with a sigh. There is no fooling you, is there? I wonder why I even bother trying.

That's right, Victoria responded before she started placing dirty dishes onto the tray she had set on one of the tables prior to a trip to her kitchen. So start talking.

Diego sighed again and ruffled a hand through his hair. The effect left strands of his hair mussed and disorderly. He looked more boyish than he usually did with his immaculate mode of dress.

You seem more relaxed, Victoria commented in a friendlier tone of voice. I like that, she shyly continued. It looks good on you.

Then I'll try to appear more relaxed, Diego promised lightly, when in reality, his heart had started beating in double rhythm the moment she opened her mouth. I never should have agreed to this, he thought sourly to himself. But he still wanted the comfort he typically found only with her, and he couldn't deny his craving.

It would help if you really were relaxed, she pointed out. And the only way that I've heard to get to such a state is...

To talk, I know, he interrupted her with a smile. Then, he had to give in to such a persistent force as Victoria Escalante had become. All right, all right, I'll tell you the entire, sordid scene, but first I wonder if you could do something for me? he asked. Then, he took one of her hands in his and kissed the knuckles in a charming display of affection that he rarely showed. A small part of his brain wondered what he was doing, but he wanted to feel her fingers in his, to touch her skin, more than he wanted anything else at the moment, and he could deny that piece of himself no more than he could deny her.

Victoria grinned, even though he had never kissed her hand before.

Diego grinned back at her, and Victoria blushed, fortunately looking at his face instead of at the the rest of him; she was always so attuned to men dressed in black that Diego fancied she could see through his clothes.

She took a step back, away from him. Diego whispered, Thank you, Seņorita, and squeezed her fingers, when suddenly his eyes became trapped in the swirling depths that hers had become as she lifted them to look again at his face in order to tell him he was welcome.

Before either of them could breathe, Diego felt that he was lost in the beautiful, shimmering darkness of Victoria's eyes. This was not at all what he'd had in mind for the evening when he had agreed to Victoria's request to help close the tavern. He had fully intended to tell her about what his father had said that afternoon, and discuss his possible actions, but now he found that he couldn't look away from the mesmerizing current of her gaze.

He lifted a hand to slowly caress one cheek. The stare grew more heated. Victoria hesitantly lifted her hand and gently brushed aside the lock of hair that always fell in a graceful curve across his forehead. Neither looked away, and the confusion that Diego clearly saw in Victoria's eyes was overshadowed by the affection that was equally as evident.

Then Victoria shut her eyes to close out the sight of Diego as if she could also close out the emotions she was obviously warring against. There was determination written all over her face. No, she said in a sad voice, but one full of chilling finality. She shook here head back and forth. No, no, no... This can't be happening again.

Diego appeared puzzled; What was she talking about? Had something happened to her? Something that, heaven forbid, affected her relationship with Zorro, since she'd said the word 'again,' and Diego knew of no other man she was involved with at the time? But was that emotion dissolved by her comment? Again? Diego asked in a whisper of fear, not understanding.

Victoria's hand that had recently played so tenderly with his hair rose to cover her mouth in consternation as tears began to swim in her eyes. Which was strange; Victoria never cried. No, she repeated, but her voice was more watery, not as determined sounding as before. This can't... I can't...

Diego's eyes drew down in a thunderous frown. Victoria, what are you talking about?

She didn't answer, only let her other hand join her first until her fingers completely covered her mouth as her eyes showed her obvious distress in the dimly lit room. The head shaking continued. I'm so sorry, Diego. I can't... Then she turned away, sat down at the table she'd been clearing, and proceeded to shake quietly, the hands still covering her mouth. She looked like a lost bundle of pain sitting alone on the bench in the empty tavern. Oh Dios, she whispered on a cracked whisper. What's wrong with me?

Victoria, what..? Diego started to ask, but when he realized that she heard none of his words, he paused. Yet, the confusion showed on his face and he couldn't hide it fast enough from her.

But it didn't much matter, as Victoria wasn't looking at him. She kept shaking her head back and forth, and a few of the tears from her eyes had traveled down her white cheeks. Even from where he was standing several feet away, Diego could see her trembling against the edge of the table she had chosen for herself.

Inside his chest, Diego's heart twisted as each of her tears traced lines down her cheeks. He crossed over to her, placed a comforting hand on her arm, but didn't sit beside her, as Diego was known more as her friend than her paramour.

Victoria hardly noticed his touch or close proximity. Dios... she whispered, and started to rock back and forth in complete misery. It's my fault, all my fault!

Diego tried again. Victoria, please tell me what's wrong, so I can...

But she did nothing but ignore him once more. Diego wondered if she was even aware of him. He heard her whisper, There's no one I can even...

Her shaking intensified, as did her tears. Another moment, and she had buried her face in her arms and silently shook with the force of her sobs.

Diego was horrified. A shiver raced up his spine at his own sense of helplessness. Victoria was crying, it was clearly his fault, though he didn't know what he had done, and he could do very little to comfort her because of his internal need to protect her reputation... His annoyance with that internal need increased a notch, but he couldn't change it. Could he?

Diego watched as Victoria continued to cry into her arms, slightly amazed at how powerless he felt. He was Zorro, defender of the poor. The simple utterance of his name struck fear into the heart's of bandits for a fifty mile radius, and he could do nothing to soothe the woman he loved. He didn't even understand the reason for her breakdown. His heart twisted again at the sight of her red, tear-streaked face when she raised her head to prop it in despair on one hand.

I'm so sorry, Diego, she said between the tears that continued to fall. It's not you! But she couldn't go on as another torrent of fresh tears made her shoulders quiver and shake. I... I.., she tried again, but had to stop when her throat refused to cooperate. The sound of her tears tore through the silence in the room.

Diego was beside himself with the agony of watching her cry by now. Victoria! Please, tell me what's wrong! he pled. Please. Is it me, something I did? The Alcalde? What?

Nooooo! Victoria wailed, and tried to gather herself so she could speak. I's not you, she said again, but couldn't go on as more of the sobs wrenching through her small frame swallowed whatever voice she had.

That was it. Diego didn't say a word, but headed for the kitchen, untying his cravat and unbuttoning his shirt so that he could breathe and move more easily as he went. He had his shirt buttoned more normally so fast that the red and blue curtains separating the kitchen from the main room were still waving back and forth. Then, by the disparate light of a flickering cooking fire, he thrust a towel into a bucket of clean water sitting near the counter. He wrung it out and crossed back to where Victoria was still sitting and sobbing, the rag clutched firmly in his hand. Diego took the cool cloth, knelt before her, and wiped at her cheeks, deciding to forget about her reputation in light of comforting her. Everything's going to be fine, Victoria. Sh. It's all right, he whispered.

Suddenly, her sorrow turned to anger. No, no, you don't understand! she loudly claimed. I can't... can't...

What can't you do? Tell me, please, or I'm going to get Dr. Hernandez for you.

She violently shook her head at his statement. No, she whispered, trying now to control her crying after his threat, though the effort to do so made her face contort in a grimace. He can't help. Then, she quietly added, No one can. This is something that can't be changed. She again attempted to take hold of her emotions, scowling again. It's just that... that sometimes I get overwhelmed by the reality of... of everything, that's all.

I know exactly what you mean, Diego kindly responded, thinking of how he had lately felt just as coerced as Victoria did about the need to continue his deception. Sometimes, he felt as if it ruled over his entire life.

I'm so sorry, Diego, she went on, hiccuping occasionally as she spoke. This is not a new issue to me, but I don't usually get this upset about it. Tonight, I guess I was just taken by surprise by everything. She sent him a thin smile. Her tears had almost disappeared by then, and her smile was less tremulous as more time went by. It was obvious to him that she was remembering how the air had come alive with energy during that moment when their glances had become trapped in one another's expressions; she seemed to have recovered from that one moment of weakness, or truth, depending on how one viewed it. It also seemed that his kneeling closer to her and the wet rag in his hand had managed to calm her in a way that his words couldn't. Then, her smile disappeared as her expression moved from one denoting disconcertion to one more puzzled, and she asked, Diego, why are you wearing two shirts?

Two shirts? How did she know that?

In spite of the 'how's that he had yet to answer, he unconsciously reacted to her innocent question, and the blood drained into his feet. His new position of kneeling so closely to her must have left her free to see the black shirt he wore under his white one, now that he no longer wore the tight cravat close to his throat. He knew what had happened an instant later; when he had dressed again in her kitchen, after removing the cravat he had worn, he had been in a hurry and hadn't been careful enough to safely conceal the collar of the black shirt away, and it showed where he had negligently let the material ride up under his outer clothes.

The paleness of his face gave away his guilt as clearly as if he had admitted the truth. But he had to offer her some explanation. Um... I dressed in a hurry when I heard about the unpleasant circumstances in the pueblo... I just threw something on over the work clothes that I was wearing, he tried to excuse.

Victoria sniffled, still trying to contain her earlier emotions. Diego... she said warningly. What's the real reason? It's too hot these days to work in black clothing.

He grinned, trying to disarm her. That's the reason they're work clothes, he said.

But Victoria wasn't buying his excuse. No one in California would ever choose to work in black, she negated, half in leftover emotion, and half in her more normal state of irritation. Now, what's the real reason? She peered at him speculatively. In an offhand manner, she passed a hand across her rapidly drying eyes, and said, It's like you're trying to hide your own shirt... almost as if you're... She lost her grin, slowly, letting it slide from her features, then drew in a quick breath. She put her hand to her mouth in consternation as she stared at him through suddenly wide eyes. She watched him for a full, silent, minute, simply breathing in air. Finally, she managed to say, You're... She couldn't finish her statement. You're not..? She couldn't finish that statement, either.

Diego stared at her in anguish as she watched him.

Oh, Dios, she tragically whispered. Her eyes flicked to his cheeks, his hair, his lips, his jaw, his mustache... They were too agitated to settle on any one thing.

She knew that he was Zorro, and he knew that she knew. He had to say something, do something, that might contain this situation before it rolled out of his control. He felt as if he were barely in control as it was. Victoria... Diego began to say, his voice calm and soothing at the same time. Or, at least, he hoped it was calm and soothing. Actually, he barely knew what he was saying. Please... please don't do anything like... like scream, for instance.

Like scream? she echoed, as if she didn't comprehend what she was saying. Hesitantly, her hand reached out from her mouth towards his dark hair, but she let it drop before it came in contact with him. Oh, my God, she repeated.

He caught her hand in his on its downward swing, and brought it to his mouth, where he slowly, lovingly, kissed it, his eyes never once leaving hers. Please... please don't say anything yet... There's so much I want to tell you... That I've always wanted to tell you.

She appeared utterly bewildered by her discovery, then. You do? she asked as if she were in a daze. Like what?

Diego, once he had gotten started on his secret confessions, found each divulgence easier than the last. He whispered his explanation, Such as; yes, I'm Zorro, I'm the man you have been searching for with such avid interest, but who's been terrified to reveal himself, as you know. There seemed little point at this juncture to try to hide the truth of her discovery from her. I've always been afraid that I won't prove to be exciting and interesting enough for you, hence the reason why I've always clung to the disguise of the legend that I began all those years ago. In something of an aside, he went on in a softer, lower voice, I know that I'm assuming a bit, here, but I was always so certain that you loved the legend and not me, the real man behind the mask of your hero that I grew to despise that black outfit every time I had to put it on... But that's beside the point, he continued, still in his lower voice.

It's strange, hearing him speak, Victoria thought in an abstract, dissociated way. It was like seeing Diego, yet hearing Zorro. Only, she wasn't quite seeing Diego, either, she amended to herself. True, he looked exactly like the Diego she had stared at for years, but... He appeared to be so... so capable. It was a change wrought in his character, in his soul, and made her challenge everything she had ever perceived about Diego in the past...

She clutched at his hand still cradling hers. There's something I need to tell you, too, though... Assessing, she stared at him. It's weird, she suddenly thought again; I'm staring at Diego, but seeing Zorro. For, without a doubt, she knew she was staring at the man who was Zorro. Years worth of a semblance of incompetence fell away from Diego like they had been chains, and a supreme belief in his own abilities to handle any situation life may throw at him fairly oozed out of his pours. It was as if the old Diego had merely walked out of the room for a moment, and this new duplicate had taken his place... a copy that was exactly identical on the outside, but the intrinsic personality that made up Diego had been completely replaced by another man's actions and thoughts.

Diego interrupted her. Before we get in to any other issues... I'm sorry, but I have to know for certain what you think of all this, of me being Zorro, because I've been so afraid for so long... I think I might lose my lunch if you don't tell me now... He took a deep, steadying breath, closed his eyes, and kept them closed as he asked, Are you disappointed that Zorro, your never-does-anything-wrong hero, has turned out to be boring old, one-science-experiment-after-another me? He opened his eyes to stare hopefully at her.

Victoria stared back. She didn't say anything, but her look was just as full of her estimation of him as her previous expression had been. She had that look of irritation on her face again, and she leaned forward almost imperceptibly as she took both of his hands in hers this time. That depends, she whispered.

Another moment went by, and when she didn't elaborate, he inquired, Depends on what?

She sighed. Diego, I want you to think about being me for a minute... Imagine that I simply could not comprehend that fear you're claiming... clinging to, actually... Haven't I already said that I would love the man behind Zorro's mask just as much, if not more, than I already loved Zorro? Do those words mean nothing to you? What more can I say that will convince you of my feelings?

Diego shook his head, but was stopped in mid-shake when she suddenly leaned down the rest of the way, cutting through the small distance separating them, and kissed him lovingly on the lips.

Tingles and shivers erupted on Diego's skin, even under the his double layer of clothing, and he clutched at her hands still in his fingers... He felt more alive in that moment than he did when he was fighting the fiercest of opponents...

She touched her lips to his one last time, then released him and drew back, but it was obvious by the expression on her face that she hardly considered this conversation or this love affair to be over. I hope you like children, she whispered enigmatically, yet wholeheartedly.

Was she accepting him for him, then? Diego was barely able to believe it - it was his biggest, wildest, craziest dream come true... He gasped out a breath of air that he didn't realize he was holding, and grinned at her. I love children, he whispered to her, awe-struck, himself, and grazed across her cheek with his mouth right before he enfolded her into the tightest embrace he could give from his position on the floor. I love you, he whispered, and his gratitude at her unquestioning acceptance of him sounded in his voice.

They stayed like that for several moments, Victoria's head laid on his shoulder, each taking comfort from the other, there in the empty tavern. But, eventually, Diego had to release her. I'm sorry, Victoria, he whispered with a silly little grin plastered across his own face, but I have to get up... my knees are killing me... and I need to go and get my sword... I had to take it off, earlier... But, I feel naked without it, and too vulnerable sitting here, my knees getting all stiff...

Victoria smiled, showing clear affection in the expression. Go, was all she said, but there was understanding about Zorro mixed in with the fondness that was also in her gesture.

Diego stood, and indeed, his knees creaked ever so slightly as he raised his body from the floor. He grinned ruefully down at her. I'm not as young as I used to be...

None of us are, she said, though there was no hint of recrimination in her voice.

Still, Diego had to look a bit grimly at her before excusing himself; had her comment, as innocent as it had been delivered, actually been a criticism of how long the deception of Zorro had gone on? He didn't know, so he chose to ignore any commentary that she might be making, and took her statement at face value. I'll only be a minute... he said, held up one finger, then left her at the table nearest the bar and walked into the kitchen.

The light of the fire that he'd used the first time he was in her kitchen lit his way as he quickly crossed to the supply cupboard where he had earlier stashed his sword. He hurried, eager to return to Victoria, when he paused to stare more fully into the cupboard.

His sword that he had so carefully placed in the corner of the closet, was gone.

Go on to Part II


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