Part III

by Linda Bindner

Diego was on his feet and sprinting to where he had left Toronado before DeSoto could twist his face into one more grimace of pain. You four, come with me! Diego ordered, calling over his shoulder as he mounted without stopping his run or using the saddle's stirrups. The rest of you, round up the prisoners and escort the Alcalde to the jail! And go for the doctor! I'll join you when I can! With that promise, he was gone, heading at a gallop back to the woods he had so recently left. The pace of the horse could be heard by those remaining behind at the hacienda. The roundup began by removing the bullets from the soldiers' discarded rifles, and moving DeSoto onto a blanket brought from the hacienda. The soldiers didn't resist at all now that they had no leader.

Diego hadn't even looked at the men he had 'volunteered' to come along with him, but the luck of the draw colored those four men as excellent riders. They weren't vaqueros for nothing. They charged over the ground behind the hacienda in a short but violently fast sprint, in Toronado's wake, the dust from his passing not having the chance to settle before four more horses stirred it again.

They came to a halt beside an already riderless Toronado and dismounted, then followed Diego's trail that led further into the trees where they had left Victoria and the four quiet vaqueros guarding the captured and tied lancers. But now, the scene was a bit different than when they had all abandoned it.

Now, three of the vaqueros lay, splayed and unconscious, across the ground. The lancers were struggling mightily against knots that had been tied so tightly that they just couldn't escape, and Victoria was backed into a tree, one of the pistols still in her hand as she strained against the fourth silent vaquero, who was so busy grinning over his apparent conquest that he didn't even notice Diego's quiet approach.

You're as pert and as pretty as you are in that tavern of yours, the man declared, the sound of his voice covering up the noise Diego naturally made as he crept up behind the vaquero. And they say you won't act like a true tavern wench... We'll see about that now that you're all mine! he promised with a leer that froze on his face as Diego drew his sword from his sash and miscalculated the distance between himself and an opponent for the first time in his life. He drew a trickle of blood that traced a path down the vaquero's back.

Don't you dare lay one finger on her, he said as he heaved in air that he hadn't realized he'd been fighting to suck in. I don't take kindly to anyone who threatens Victoria.

The man smiled again, said nothing, but whirled around in blinding speed, gave a swift kick, and knocked Diego's sword out of his hand.

No! Victoria yelled, for all the good a distracting call did for her.

Diego followed his sword to the ground after a swift punch that he didn't even see coming as the vaquero struck out. But the man hadn't counted on Diego having enough wherewithal left to roll to the side, then use his boot to trip the man. The vaquero crashed to the ground very near to a kneeling Diego, who used his fist to punch him so hard, he was instantly unconscious.

Diego stood up, swaying, but remaining on his feet. Heaving in a shuddering lungful of air, he turned his head to Victoria as she launched herself from the tree and into his arms. Dizzy with all the fast turns of the fight he'd just gone through, Diego led Victoria over to a rotting log lying on that ground and helped her to sit on it. He joined her, then, trying to catch his breath.

Oh, God, Diego! Victoria shakily exclaimed, and dropped her face into her trembling hands. I shot him in his left leg, but then the other pistol from Don Eduardo jammed when I tried to use it next... That man moved so fast in spite of a bullet wound... I did all I could...

Diego gathered Victoria into his dirty arms... How had he gotten so dirty? he vaguely wondered... It's all right, it's all right now, he soothed, though his voice came out no stronger than a whisper. To the four vaqueros who had come with him, he nodded and said, I took out my sword so fast, I cut my sash in two. You can tie him up with those pieces of cloth that fell on the ground... Then, he was busy holding Victoria and trying to keep his seat as he successfully drew in more and more air.

The vaqueros tied their fellow with less sympathy than even Diego would have shown, then literally threw him on the back of a horse. Despite what the man had been about to do to Victoria, Diego winced at the thudding sound as he hit the saddle. With no more fanfare, the four vaqueros rode off in the direction of the hacienda to join the other vaqueros and to escort the Lancers and DeSoto into Los Angeles, before they tossed the lot of them into the pueblo's jail. Diego didn't put a stop to their enthusiasm.

However, that left Diego and Victoria completely alone for the first time since ten o'clock the night before. So much had happened since then that it was hard to believe that so much activity could have been crammed into one night. Still, Diego didn't want to appear to be taking advantage of the situation; he was still as concerned for Victoria's reputation as he had ever been. But what he didn't count on was the strength of will in Victoria. She was so small compared to him that he frequently found himself thinking of her as much more delicate and fragile than she truly was.

There was nothing remotely weak about her now, though, as she sat in the woods, clinging to him so tightly that he was afraid that she was going to break him in two, and he had never thought that anybody could do such a thing before, even with his strongest male opponents. Victoria, he was finally forced to say, please loosen your hold or you might...

He got no further as her lips hungrily sought his in a move that was hardly chaste or innocent. Desire instantly surged out of control to bombard them both with soft sensations that swept through each of them and left them more breathless than the events of the morning put together.

Diego felt himself spinning with the new emotions, inhaling her every scent as if she were his for the taking. It was only with a supreme effort that he reined his stampeding emotions back and scooted away from her.

Heaving in air, Diego and Victoria stared in wide-eyed astonishment at each other. They had never before experienced such sensations, such strong passion. Of course, they had never dared give in to their full emotions before, either, and the tide of feeling had taken them both completely by surprise.

Slowly and very deliberately, Diego touched his cheek to hers. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply, just soaking in the velvety feel of her skin. I'm so glad he didn't hurt you, Victoria, he whispered.

I know, or you would have to kill him, she said in a matter of fact tone. Am I right, Diego? she asked after a silent moment had gone by.

Diego chuckled in spite of the unhappy situation. I wouldn't have felt too kindly towards him, I admit, he said and smiled, squeezing her even tighter, as if it were his sole responsibility to treasure such a precious bundle as Victoria had become.

That precious bundle currently in his arms was about to shock him so deeply that even the socks inside his boots curled. With no fanfare and no easing into a new topic of discussion, Victoria blurted, Diego, I'm not a virgin.

Another silent moment followed, where Diego was frozen in surprise by her admission. Finally, perplexed, Diego lifted his head from touching her cheek and slowly asked, What?

Victoria looked as if she were about to crumble until she looked like the dust her feet were resting on. She babbled in fast desperation, I'm so sorry, Diego, but it's true! I was only seventeen at the time, I had no mother, no father, no brothers, no one to talk things over with, nothing to lend me any comfort when I needed it... I had convinced myself that you wouldn't remember me when you sailed back from Madrid... Then Manuel moved to the pueblo, and I thought he was so handsome, and one thing led to another, and then he and his family had to move back to Santa Barbara six months later, and... well, say something, please, Diego - I've been dying of guilt for months... years... Her eyes seared his in the same pleading expression that was beginning to be evident in her tortured features.

Diego simply sat still for a minute, letting the news blanket the corners of his mind the same way the wind fluffed the hair on his head. After that quiet moment passed, he found himself protesting, But all those rumors about your pristine reputation that needed protecting...

Everyone assumed, Diego! Victoria protested back. You have no idea how strong the power of assumption can be...

A tiny, wry smile was on Diego's face. Oh, I think I have a little idea about the power of an incorrect assumption, he quietly interrupted.

When Manuel had to leave with his family, he swore that he would stay true to me until his dying day, but when I've questioned those guests I've had in the tavern that have come from Santa Barbara, I've only found out that he's married and has three boys... Diego, aren't you angry or disgusted or... I've truly been terrified over the years that you would somehow find out and...

You say that I was at the university at the time? inquired a careful Diego, trying his best to understand the details of Victoria's claim.

Yes, and I your father told me that you had no plans to return until your graduation three years from then...

Has it ever occurred to you that there might have been a good reason for that decision?

This interruption caught Victoria off guard this time. Wh... What? she asked.

I... um... had a bit too much fun my first year in Madrid, Diego slowly confessed, sounding shy in his divulgence. I didn't want to come home at first, and I still didn't want to come home even after three and a half years of...

What made you change your mind? Victoria asked.

Diego shrugged. Father started writing about trouble in the pueblo with Alcalde Ramon, and he mentioned you once or twice in passing...

He did?

Well. Diego shrugged again, apologetic and explanatory. His mentions of you started me to thinking, wondering what had happened to you, kind of peripherally, even though I was seeing Sophira by then...

You didn't change your mind because of anything she did, or I did, did you, Diego?

No! Diego emphatically said. Father wrote that the trouble in the pueblo had grown so large that he couldn't handle things on his own any longer, and I...

Suddenly, Victoria's eyes narrowed in speculation. Just how much fun did you have while you were in school?

Diego's neck reddened. Quite a bit, he answered, now sounding reluctant. He'd had a passion for his studies that were well known on campus, but he knew that wasn't what Victoria was referring to.

Go on, she prodded.

Well, Diego said again, slowly, trying to buy some time by drawing the word out for all it was worth. Finally, he said, Some of the other first years went to the two week Festival of Barcelona, and dragged me along, and while we were there, we just happened to visit a particular lady who, it was rumored, would...

So what you're saying is that this lady was part of the 'fun' you were having...

Diego grimaced. Actually, she was the main reason that I didn't wish to return home right away... we planned to see her again the next year during the Festival... and eventually I didn't wish to come back because of my school work, but that wasn't always the case...

How many times did you see this... this lady? Victoria asked, unsure of what, precisely, she should call her. She'd never met a true courtesan before, but had heard of them, whispered of in hushed, reverent conversations in her tavern.

Twice, Diego confessed.

Only twice?

Her response surprised Diego. Don't you think that was enough?

Victoria snorted. Not when compared to some of the stories of visits with women of... of ill repute... that I overhear some of my customers telling about...

Diego smiled as she rolled her eyes. Referring to the fact that she had heard, and always would hear, many things in her tavern, Diego said, I guess you know more about reality than the normal lady ever learns.

The 'normal lady' is supposed to remain 'innocent' until she gets married, Victoria pointed out, in a slightly sarcastic tone of voice.

True, Diego conceded, refusing to fall to the bait of her sarcasm. He knew he would have to be careful in what he said, for he, in essence, agreed with what Victoria was saying, but he also didn't wish to revile the customs of the day, either. So he continued, but in a quietly modulated voice and with carefully chosen words, But is that really when you want someone you plan to marry find out about..? He didn't finish, as the subject of intimate relations was a rather delicate topic, in spite of the way he and Victoria were able to discuss it so freely with each other.

Many men expect that the woman they plan to marry be as innocent as an unborn baby. Victoria went on to admit, I was so worried that you would think the same way.

Diego had a sudden insight that wasn't unlike Victoria's realization the night before that he was the masked bandit. An explosion suddenly went off in his head. Is this what had you so upset last night? Victoria nodded, and Diego couldn't help his smile as relief at finally comprehending her problem flooded through him. He considered that relations with another man who had moved away while they had both still been teenagers to be relatively a minor issue, but apparently Victoria's concerns were that he would believe more along the lines of what was commonly held as an inviolate practice. Setting her at ease, he smiled again and said, It is prevalent in a marriage for the man to know much more about the wedding night than the female, but is the wedding night when one really wants half of a wedding party to discover what a marriage is all about? he asked. And personally, I have always wondered about the practice of expecting virginity in women when the same thing is not expected of men, but in order for men to become so... He floundered for a moment, and finally settled for the word, ... knowledgeable.., they have to encourage women to become exactly that thing that they are taught from birth to revile. Such a double expectation doesn't make much sense...

Victoria couldn't quite withstand such a direct referral to the very subject she had been so concerned over for several years. I've always wondered the same thing, but I also know that to give such an opinion might be enough to make a person become very unpopular. I decided it was best to keep my thoughts to myself...

A miracle, in your case, Diego grinned in a teasing manner.

Victoria eyed him, then continued as if he hadn't even spoken. ... but I have to say that keeping anything to myself was extremely... um... worrisome... when it came to you.

I guess we both had secrets that we were keeping from each other, Diego murmured thoughtfully.

Victoria started, then wrapped an arm around each side of his waist. I promise to never keep anything from you again if you promise to do the same thing.

Diego had to keep grinning as he hugged her back. An easy promise to make, he said solemnly. Much like that earlier promise I made in the plaza to declare my feelings for you when I was free to do so...

I'm waiting, Victoria said, interrupting him with a slightly sing song voice.

Diego tightened his arms, then, and touched her cheek again with his. He whispered, I love you, Victoria, and always will, even if you're not what everybody assumes you are.

Victoria lay her head on Diego's left shoulder, and smiled a tiny, closed lipped smile; she had received even more than she had hoped for... She sighed, the content sound slipping around the small clearing in the trees as the sun continued to rise on a new California morning.


Later on that California morning found Diego outside the Alcalde's office in Los Angeles, standing in a somewhat nervous demeanor. He had seen an ever sleepier Victoria back to the tavern, where she had roused herself enough to cook him one of the best breakfasts he'd ever had the good fortune to eat, but had left her behind to wash and with the warning that unless she intended to spend the entire day in bed, which she most definitely deserved, she would do better to avoid sleep altogether, as an hour or two of sleep could do more damage to a day full of sleep deprivation than several hours spent languishing in bed. He ought to know, as he'd spent many sleepless nights out patrolling on Toronado, followed by equally as sleepless days, rather than ending up feeling sick after only an hour or two of sleep to keep him going. Victoria was beginning to learn that being Zorro had not always been the romantic, adventurous escapade that she had always thought it to be; there was much more to being a dueler for justice than the few times she had seen Zorro fighting the Alcalde in the plaza. Most of his time spent dressed in the black of Zorro had been filled with the questionable joy of enduring uncomfortable weather from the back of Toronado while on patrol, looking for the trouble caused by unwelcome bandits or desperate outlaws. It was a job free of the glamour and excitement that most people often envisioned as coming from Zorro, and it left Victoria with new ideas to ponder as she washed and couldn't resist tumbling into bed.

But that left an equally tired Diego to deal with DeSoto and the lancers. He couldn't let all those men languish in jail while he slept the day away in order to regain his strength. They deserved better treatment than that... unless, of course, they refused to renounce their allegiance to Spain and continued to view him as a wanted criminal. Diego had little hope that DeSoto would see the errors of his opinions versus an extended stay in jail, for Diego could not let him go free to return to Spain and the King, and quite possibly, to his ideas that a price on Diego's head was an appropriate response to his 'outlaw' ways... But, the lancers might not have the same opinion, and Diego was willing to offer them a deal that few could refuse, given the alternative.

Diego took a deep, steadying breath, then entered the office through the green outer door. The room inside was, naturally, empty, and Diego had to admit to himself that he found it rather strange not to see DeSoto sitting at the pine desk. However, the presence of his sword lying on the desk top, negligently left behind the night before, did a lot to cancel out the emptiness left by the absence of DeSoto. He grabbed the sword left him so many years before and half a world away as he also reminded himself that the vacuum of DeSoto's presence was for a very good reason, and so, he stepped lightly to the door leading from the office to the jail cells, bouncing the sword in his hand the entire way.

The cells were in the opposite condition from what the outer office was; they were full of men in blue and red uniforms, a sea of color. Sitting defiantly on one of the cell's built-in cots sat the vaquero who had tried to attack Victoria. Diego felt his face grow hard, and he refused to look away from the man's expressive, hate-filled eyes. The other vaqueros whom Diego had organized into an army large enough to threaten the Alcalde had dumped their fellow man still tied with the pieces of Diego's sash, and he couldn't go anywhere with his feet held together and his hands bound behind his back... All he could do was look and growl, and he was throwing his remaining energies into wholeheartedly doing both while Diego stared him down, unfazed by the fierceness of the man's glare. Yet, it was the vaquero who glanced away first, leaving Diego with his determined stare, a sour taste in his mouth, and a driving anger to hurt this man as much as he had intended to hurt Victoria. It was only through a supreme grip on his temper that he was able to turn to deal with DeSoto and his men at all. Even then, he felt the eyes of the evil ex-vaquero burning into his back when he turned to face DeSoto.

So, DeSoto said after a few silent moments had gone by. He was sitting on the cot in his cell, his wounded leg bandaged by Dr. Hernandez while Diego had enjoyed that excellent breakfast that Victoria had fixed for him. Now, it was also propped up by the cot in the cell. The military man was surrounded by his men, who had only an hour before professed their allegiance to King and country, as well as to him. It had to come as quite a humiliating blow to find out that those men weren't as loyal as he'd first expected.

So? Diego echoed, his monotone voice matching the one used by the Alcalde.

As Diego had anticipated, the repetition of his question left a rattled and irritated military man. DeSoto sighed in aggravation. So, he repeated in asperity, what happens now?

Diego remained quiet for a few seconds longer, just to irritate the men even more, then said, Well, that depends on a great deal of things.

The lancers, who had grown quiet in order to listen to the exchange between the famous outlaw and their Alcalde, shuffled their boots across the stone floor. It was Sergeant Mendoza who spoke. The sergeant, whom Diego had to remind himself was an automatic enemy due to the uniform he as currently wearing, gripped the bars of the cell as he continued, We're not much of a threat to a swordsman like yourself, he admitted truthfully, gazing pointedly at the sword that Diego let hang at his side.

Diego never lifted his gaze from the Alcalde, but he addressed his underling's concerns. You give yourself too little credit, Mendoza, he said. On the contrary to your probable opinions just now, I need you and your fighting skills more than anything.

You do? Mendoza asked with a quizzical twist of his brow.

Here's the deal, Diego declared then, having to fight off a yawn even to speak; he was just plain too tired to be diplomatic. He went on, DeSoto I have to leave in prison, behind bars, because if I let him go free to return to Spain, he could easily tell King Ferdinand all about my identity, and he could potentially be ordered to return to Los Angeles, intent on collecting on the reward placed, unjustly, in my opinion, on my head. My family members would be endangered through no fault of their own, and I can't have that at any cost. Then, Diego grinned, like he might be enjoying his next thought a bit too much. He will, on the other hand, remain alive to think about the reason for his incarceration, which will end when Spain no longer controls California, or Ferdinand is no longer king, both events that could potentially happen any day.

Or not at all, DeSoto announced in despondency when he heard Diego's words. Still, a tiny bit of defiance laced the tone of his voice.

Or not at all, Diego conceded, repeating the words of the governmental man.

And the lancers? Mendoza nervously inquired. He wasn't quite sure if he wanted to know his part in Diego's plan or not.

The lancers... Here, Diego paused for a moment, and regretfully sighed. The lancers have the option of remaining here, in jail, which tells us all where your loyalties truly lie, or in declaring a loyalty to a new alcalde, one freely elected by the citizens of this pueblo, one who will govern... more wisely... than those who have come before. Again, he glanced at a glowering DeSoto, but ignored the man's magnetic expression, aware that to give in to his look meant to give in to tyranny.

And... and the King of Spain? Sepulveda asked in a soft voice that was almost a whisper.

Can go to the devil, Diego answered. I apologize for my rudeness, but I'm so tired right now that I've grown punchy in what I say, he continued. I'd rather be honest than nice. Then his stance changed just a bit as he rested his weight on his left leg, preparing to depart the jail. You have today to think about what I've said and who you're truly loyal to. In the meantime, I'm going to sleep in a nice, soft bed at the tavern. Good night, gentlemen. With that, he turned towards the door to the outer office, intent on returning to the plaza and the town.

But the words from the cruel ex-vaquero halted him in mid stride. Tell us, does bed include joining that dark-haired little piece of choice meat who runs the tavern? He chuckled, as if he had given voice to one heck of a good joke.

Diego halted at the speaker's words all right, but he didn't turn around to face the man. Instead, he addressed his next question to Mendoza. Sergeant, tell us, what's the punishment for assault with intent to do bodily injury? he asked while silently chastising himself for ever leaving this man in Victoria's company for even a moment, though the vaquero had fooled even his friends about his true character; hence Diego, who had known him barely a night, had had no chance against him. It was a bitter knowledge to possess, and he vowed not to forget this lesson; he was entirely too trusting, he decided with an ironic twist in his heart. He had no intention of letting Victoria pay the price of his character flaw. Trusting the wrong person wouldn't happen again, he decreed to himself.

The sergeant broke in on Diego's pessimistic thoughts. That's easy, he declared with a smile. Flogging, followed by six months in prison, or hanging, depending on how serious the offense is. He looked without mercy in his eyes at the vaquero he was condemning. Considering it was Señorita Victoria who he attacked, and she has been known to be under Zorro's protection for years, the six months prison sentence is a given. The fact that Don Diego stopped him before he could do any harm to the lady in question means a lighter sentence, so the hanging is canceled in light of the circumstances. But not the flogging or the jail time.

Diego breathed out a sickened exhalation of air, but then turned to face the man and said, Hope that I don't catch up with you when you get out, or flogging and jail time will be the least of your concerns.

The vaquero protested, But I always heard that Zorro doesn't kill, and hanging me would be a death, sure as I'm born.

Diego sneered then. You're death isn't worth the kind of stain it would leave on my soul, he announced. I've never killed, but I've threatened many men with that fate, he went on explaining. Then he faced the vaquero more head on, and the look of steel in his eyes and on his face chilled many of the soldiers in the cells. But threats are not quite satisfactory, in this case. You come any where near Victoria or the rest of my family again, or run to the king with the information of who I am... if you're lucky, I'll make sure that you're hanged. If not... He left the rest of his threat go unfinished, as an incomplete threat had more weight then a completed one. To drive his point in more fully, he smiled.

You don't frighten me with your empty threats, the vaquero said, though he looked frightened enough to wet his pants just then.

Diego's grin grew bigger and more ferocious the longer the man spoke. It's a promise, Señor, not a threat, Diego said softly. I'd remember that if I were you. Then, he turned his back on his adversary and calmly walked into the outer office.

The calm dissolved the moment he had closed the door on any audience he'd had, and he was shaking in reaction to the confrontation he'd just endured. He was so sick to his stomach, that felt like he'd just fought a duel.

It was the large breakfast he'd just eaten, he decided. It was behaving in ways that he had not intended.

Ignoring the rumblings in his intestines then, he crossed the plaza and returned to the tavern to check on Victoria before falling into a bed himself. With a definite goal in his mind now, at least a goal that lasted for the next few hours, he made sure that both the back and front doors of the tavern were locked against the wandering of the general public, and that Victoria's 'closed' sign was in plain view on the tavern's locked front doors, then wearily climbed the stairs to the second floor, and hopefully to the room that he usually stayed at when he remained in town. But, he paused outside the door that he knew was the opening to Victoria's room, and knocked lightly, though he heard no sound coming from within.

There was no call for him to enter, either, and Diego suddenly endured the unpleasant image as it coalesced in his mind of Victoria under another attack by more unfriendly vaqueros, and it was the fear caused by that mental picture that led him to cautiously open her bedroom door and peek in, just to make certain she was alright, he told himself.

A perfectly safe Victoria greeted his initial glance into the room. Diego pushed the door open even more, and it swung aside on silent hinges; Victoria kept the doors to her upstairs rooms in excellent... and quiet... condition, so that they would never squeal and bother other, paying costumers. Upon further perusal of the woman he loved, he noticed that she was dressed in a white nightgown, covered by the blankets on her bed, and sound asleep in reaction to the events of the night they had just lived through. When Diego considered all that had happened to them from her point of view... the crying scene in her tavern, discovering that her best friend was also the man she loved, changing clothes in Zorro's secret cave, the strange encounter with Don Eduardo, the concept of having to confront DeSoto, the attack by the vaquero... It was a wonder that she could sleep at all, considering that so much had happened and she had the potential to have much on her mind. But her head was laid on the pillow, and she seemed to be completely oblivious to her surroundings as she deeply slept the sleep of the exhausted, while her hair splayed out behind her across the pillow.

Victoria appeared refreshed in sleep. She looked younger, inviting, and terribly vulnerable to him as he stood in the doorway to her bedroom and contemplated her, conscious that he should go home to assure his father as to his and Victoria's safety, or to sleep in another bedroom in the tavern. But he was also aware of the draw he felt towards the woman sleeping so innocently in the bed. Before he knew what he was doing, he was crossing carefully on silent steps over the wooden planks of the floor to reach the side of her twin bed, and he knelt down beside her, all without making a sound.

He lightly skimmed his finger on the skin of her forehead, then whispered, So beautiful, so full of life... He felt his love for her blossom inside his heart, and the desire that naturally followed such a sensation stir in his stomach, but he refused to do more than acknowledge its existence as he stared at the oblivious Victoria asleep under the covers. He wanted her to feel safe with him above all things, and to inherently know that he would never hurt her... That wish acted as guide to his actions now as his finger traced just as helplessly down her cheek. He couldn't deny himself the internal need to caress what he automatically worshiped...

Diego lay his head down on the edge of her bed, content just to be near her for now, to touch her forehead and cheek in reverent strokes of his fingers. He would just close his eyes for a moment to enjoy this sense of rapture inside him...


Diego, came Victoria's whisper, quiet, serene, floating into his mind like the velvety soft petal of a rose. It was accompanied by the rougher shaking of his shoulders as someone or something tried to awaken him.

Diego opened his eyes to the wash of sunlight that came through the left corner of the window, and to find the scratch of unfamiliar blankets under his cheek. He blinked, drew in a mind-clearing breath, and slowly raised his head so that he could glance around in confusion. Where was he?

Immediately, his eyes alighted on Victoria. He could hardly help noticing her first, as her face came into focus only inches from his. But that was odd; what was Victoria doing in his room?

With almost an audible whoosh, the events of the morning came back to him in a rush of mental images and memories.

Victoria, he slurred, sounding groggy, but more awake with every passing second. What's going on? Why are you in my room?

Why are you in mine? she asked in response to his question. It's five o'clock in the afternoon, and I wake to find you sleeping on my floor with your head on my blankets... What's going on in that mind of yours, Diego? she inquired interrogatively. Planning on taking advantage of me? she asked teasingly.

But Diego wasn't in a mood for teasing her back. It's five o'clock in the evening? he asked instead, turning his eyes again to her window to note the slanting sunshine coming from an westerly direction. It was most definitely afternoon, at least, according to the direction of the setting sun. He tried to wrap his tired mind around that concept, but found it a difficult struggle.

You must have fallen asleep in here this morning, and we slept all day... Victoria hypothesized.

All day? Diego inquired, just before he was overwhelmed by the horror caused by his actions. I had only meant to sleep for a few hours, then head home... he began to explain. How his father must be worried sick by now that something had happened to both him and Victoria..! In reaction to that thought, Diego jerked his head the rest of the way upright, followed by his body. I'm so sorry, Victoria, but I should go before...

Victoria gave the sarcastic comment, Don't worry about me... I'm used to you always running off to do something that seems to be utterly urgent...

That statement of hers made Diego pause in his flustered and flurried activity. He bent down to place a quick kiss on the top of her head. I'm so sorry, Victoria, but I have to go, now! I can only imagine what Father is thinking at such a long absence... But he peered into her face and saw her understanding expression. It made him halt for a second. I'm so sorry, Victoria, he said again. You're so understanding...

It would make things easier for me if I weren't always so... Victoria murmured under her breath, but she shoved him towards her bedroom door with a small hand on his arm. Go. I'll see you later, she said with a sense of resignation in her voice.

Diego hesitated. He wanted to go to his father, but he also wanted to stay with Victoria... Tomorrow, early, I'll come into town, and after I see to the lancers in the jail, we'll talk to Padre Benitez about getting married as soon as we can... I promise, he ended pleadingly.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Of course you promise, she muttered, her voice a touch sardonic, but again came the shove. A little louder, she said to him, I'll be waiting. Now, go!

Diego went, jumping down the stairs, throwing open the doors to the tavern, and hurtling onto a bored Toronado, who had tried to entertain himself all day by butting with his nose Victoria's flowerpots that displayed cascading, gloriously colored flowers from her second story balcony. He could just touch them, but forgot about them and easily responded to Diego's rather hurried command to gallop out of the pueblo in the direction of the de la Vega hacienda.

Much sooner than he would have reached the hacienda if he'd been riding Esperanza... he had to remember that he'd chosen Esperanza from the family's collection of mounts because of her steadiness, not her speed... Diego pulled Toronado to a halt and jumped to the ground. As he habitually did with Toronado, he didn't take the time to tie the faithful stallion to the hitching ring set in the adobe of the protective wall, but lay both reins on the horses neck and vaulted to the ground in a very Zorroish imitation, and ran up the steps to the front door.

Pushing through the right portal, he called, Father! I'm home! the instant he reached the inside of the hacienda. He hastily slammed the door closed with his foot and strode into the library.

The sight of Don Alejandro and Felipe calmly sitting across from each other, the chessboard between them, halted Diego in his tracks. The board was set with enough pieces to indicate that a game had been in progress for quite some time. Felipe's white pieces were placed in such a way that it was clear the young man was winning. Again.

Diego, Alejandro began in a conversational tone, but he was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a servant holding out a basket with a cloth cover, and a canteen. Patrón, you requested that these be delivered to you the moment Master Diego came home.

Alejandro pushed himself up from his chair with a grunt. So I did, Rosa, thank you. He took the offered basket and canteen out of the servants' hands. Then, he linked his free arm through Diego's. I apologize, Felipe, but our game will have to wait. I need to speak with Diego. Alone. He glanced pointedly up at his tall son.

Felipe shrugged his good will to show that he didn't mind the interruption of his and Don Alejandro's game.

Uh, Felipe, stuttered Diego before Alejandro had managed to lead him back to the front door. Toronado is just outside... Can you see that he gets into the stable and rubbed down..? Then he was pulled out doors by his insistent father.

You wanted to say something to me? Diego sarcastically inquired, wondering then if he had been spending so much time lately with Victoria that her mocking manner was beginning to rub off on him.

Oh, very funny, Diego, Alejandro began in a tone of voice that was far from inviting the teasing that Diego had just given him. Yes, I wish to say something to you, or I wish to hear you say something to me, more accurately. Once he had propelled Diego out of the front gate and they had started walking in the direction away from town, out into the surrounding countryside where they were assured not to be bothered by anybody, Alejandro released Diego's arm, threw the basket's cloth covering aside, and reached into the basket. He withdrew two paper wrapped bundles from the basket hanging from his hand. He offered one to his son. Sandwich? he politely inquired.

Diego took the offering without hesitation. He was quite hungry after spending the entire day asleep. Honestly, Father, he tried to explain, I meant to come home hours ago, but I fell asleep at Victoria's bedside...

Please, Diego, spare me the long and windy explanation that you feel I absolutely have to hear, Alejandro ordered, then stared his son questioningly right in his blue eyes. Unless you have something about Victoria that you would like to tell me?

Without hesitation, Diego blurted, We plan to get married sometime soon. I'm not sure when, yet, as we're going to speak to the padre tomorrow.

Alejandro lifted his eyebrows in surprise as he stopped unfolding his sandwich. Then, he began unrolling his food again, but he commented on his son's news. Well, that is a surprise, though it isn't much of a surprise, if you follow me.

Diego gave his father a puzzled expression. No, I'm not sure I do follow you.

Alejandro snorted and explained, It's hardly a secret that there's always been... something... between Zorro and Victoria, and as you're Zorro...

Yes, Diego interrupted, that's something we need to talk to each other about.

I thought we were talking to each other, Alejandro said without missing a beat.

Well... er... yes, Diego stuttered again, thrown totally off guard by Alejandro's slightly jocular demeanor.

Okay, out with it, Alejandro demanded next. I want to hear all about you and Zorro, and Felipe, and Victoria, and...

One at a time, please, Diego said, stemming his father's enthusiasm about the topic.

Alejandro agreed. All right, then, start with Victoria. However, he glared at Diego. And make it good, he balefully ordered.

Diego tried right from the start to 'make it good.' I've loved Victoria forever, he said bluntly to his father.

Alejandro nodded as if he'd expected to hear something like what Diego had declared. Good start, he commented then. Go on.

Diego didn't quite know what to add to his statement. Um... We've been engaged to be married for quite some time, now.

Alejandro stumbled a bit upon hearing that. I wasn't aware of any engagement, he said as he took a bite of ham sandwich. The huge chunk of meat dangled between the two pieces of bread. Of course, being unaware of it doesn't somehow cancel it out of existence.

No, murmured Diego as he took a bite of his own ham sandwich. We kept quiet about it, he answered.

Why? Alejandro questioned, puzzled. There was no point in keeping such a thing a secret, was there?

Diego sorted. There was if I didn't want DeSoto finding out about it and using Victoria against me even more than he usually did, he answered bluntly.

Alejandro shrugged around his sandwich. There is that, he admitted wryly. Then he peered more closely at the food in his hand. You know, Diego, one thing you brought home from Madrid that has done us nothing but good is knowledge of this kind of food. I've never known a lunch to be so easy to make, or to eat, or as satisfying. We didn't know about a sandwich before then.

Father, Diego reminded in a slightly aggravated tone, please don't let your attention wander so much.

Alejandro lifted the sandwich to his mouth to take another bite. He used the cloth cover on the basket to wipe the bread crumbs from his mustache. Sorry. Then, tell me about Felipe, he ordered next.

Felipe is my assistant, he's known about Zorro from the beginning, he can hear, and I couldn't have done it without him, Diego admitted, all in one hurried breath of air. He's bandaged more wounds for me than I care to remember.

Alejandro glanced at him, then. Wounds? he questioned, and at Diego's nod, asked, All those times you were unavailable, you were recovering from wounds you received when you were out as Zorro? Diego nodded again, his mouth too full of sandwich to answer. Alejandro went on once more, No wonder you had so many colds, then... You were hiding in your room while wounds healed. Diego nodded a third time. Alejandro told his son, You know, Diego, you wouldn't have risked discovery just by admitting that you needed some time to heal or needed to see Dr. Hernandez, or...

Diego interrupted, How could I have done that? He took a swig from his father's canteen, then wiped the excess water away. It was far easier... and safer... to have you think I had a headache rather than a concussion, or a cold instead of a sword cut on my shoulder.

Alejandro paused for a moment in his walking. You had sword cuts? he asked in incredulity.

Often, Diego admitted, though with a great deal of reluctance. Sword cuts, bullet wounds, concussions, snake bites..

Good grief! Alejandro muttered. And here I thought you were lying in bed after falling off a horse or something! He shook his head in wonder. I guess that being Zorro was far more dangerous than I ever knew.

You have no idea, Diego murmured before taking another bite of sandwich.

I'm beginning to see that, Alejandro grunted, despite Diego's lowered voice. Another moment went by before he asked, And Toronado? Don't tell me that you stole him from somewhere?

Stole him! Diego repeated in an aggravated voice. I would never steal a horse! You taught me about property values and morals better than that... Of course, I didn't steal him, Diego went on to explain. Felipe and I found Toronado out in the farthest eastern edge of the east pasture. He was part of a herd of wild horses, I think, but settled into the secret cave quicker than I expected, given his beginnings.

He's a marvelous horse, Alejandro commented almost under his breath.

He's been a marvelous ally, Diego corrected. He's gotten me out of many tight spots.

Alejandro looked as if he was going to say something, hesitated, then with a shake of his head, said, No, I don't want to know how tight those spots were. He said, The less I know about Zorro's adventures, in this case, the better, I think.

Diego sent a wry look in his direction, one full of amusement. How do you think I got some or those wounds? he asked.

I guess I hadn't thought about it, reported a thoughtful Alejandro. There were a great many things that I never thought about, he said, still thinking.

You, and a lot of other people, Father, Diego told him knowingly. It was an accepted fact with him that the citizens of Los Angeles looked on Zorro as their savior, but hadn't given him much thought beyond that. Except to distrust him in his initial debut onto the scene of Los Angeles tyranny, they simply expected him to come to their aid now. He said as much to his father, asking then, Do you think that because Zorro is present and part of Los Angeles... folklore, he settled on, for want of a better description, there's more tyranny in Los Angeles than in other pueblos? That Zorro has, in effect, continued the very tranny he's spent years trying to overcome simply by trying to overcome it?

Alejandro carefully considered his son's question. I don't think so, Diego, but that's an interesting theory, he said at last. I've never thought of it before.

Diego answered his father with the comment, I've always wondered about that.

There are a lot of things to make me wonder, Alejandro divulged.

Such as?

Such as, what's it really like to tear into the plaza while galloping on Toronado? Alejandro inquired.

Diego stopped walking and exclaimed, Father!

All right, all right, Alejandro said. I was just curious, that's all!

Suddenly, Diego gave a ghost of a smile, more like the quirk of his lips than anything else. It is fun, he confessed in a soft, quiet voice.

Alejandro grinned a bit at his son. I knew it had to be at least a little bit fun... or else, what would be the point if doing it?

Why, indeed, Diego echoed.

Alejandro came to a complete stop in order to stare up at his son. Why did you become Zorro? he asked in a quizzical manner.

Diego paused as well to thoughtfully examine the horizon while his attention delved inward. Mostly because you and Victoria were in jail, I had to do something about that, and I needed a way to protect my identity while I did that something. What better way to protect an identity than to cover up that identity to begin with? I had no idea that Zorro's secret would last this long, however, or I would never have asked Victoria to wait for me the way she has.

Yes, Alejandro muttered thoughtfully, Her loyalty is well known.

Her loyalty almost got her raped last night, Diego grimly murmured. I don't know what good it's really done her.

Alejandro balked at Diego's words. What good it's done her? he asked disbelievingly. I'll tell you what good it's done her... There's a very good possibility that if not for you and your impossible declarations, she would have long since fallen into the patterns of a common barmaid and tavern owner, that's what! he sputtered. Her father was always worried about that very thing happening to her, he reported. You saved her in more ways than one, Diego.

But Diego was shaking his head. Victoria would never sell herself like you're suggesting, he negated.

Alejandro raised his eyebrows at that statement. Don't be too sure about that, he warned, then popped the last of his sandwich in his mouth. A girl can only hold out for so long against peer pressure like she was getting from other tavern owners in the area, and oppression from men like Luis Ramon was at the time. You put a stop to that oppression, and gave her and every other citizen something that was far more precious: hope.

Diego smiled at his father's dramatic tone. You make what I did sound so noble, Father, he teased.

It is noble, Alejandro argued. You don't understand how far hope can take a people. Take Victoria, for instance. The very fact that Zorro existed gave her the courage to continue to say 'No more!' to the forces of the King and his minions. Her courage, in turn, gave courage to others. You started that trail of courage. Zorro became a symbol of hope of continued resistance. Just look at what you did last night if you don't believe me, Alejandro pointed out. Don't sell yourself short, my boy: what you did is pretty darn incredible, and don't you cut yourself short on that. He shook his head. It's no wonder that King Ferdinand wants you out to the way, so he placed an exorbitant price on your head.

Diego suddenly grinned at that idea. I've never thought of it that way before, he exclaimed in wonder.

Alejandro gazed at his son in abject astonishment. Never thought of it? he echoed. I have to admit that that surprises me a bit. It always seems like you think of everything.

I don't, Diego negated. I've just always been extremely lucky, is all.

Alejandro snorted. Well, you delude yourself all you want, but your 'luck' seems to me to be nothing but very thorough planning.

Suddenly, Diego paused in his walk through the grass. Alejandro stopped beside him. What is it, Diego? he asked.

Diego didn't quite know how to frame the question he had in mind to ask in diplomatic words, so he just blurted, Father, does it... upset you... that I want to marry Victoria like I do? he inquired.

Upset me? Alejandro repeated in a tone of amazement. No, I'm hardly upset about the idea! I'm just glad that during all this time, you've been in love with her, and that's the reason you put off all my suggestions about getting together with someone else... I thought you weren't remotely interested in anything feminine and that I would never get those grandchildren I've always wanted... I sure didn't know that you were secretly Zorro and in love with my good friend's daughter! No, I'm not upset! More like ecstatic!

That was good news to Diego. Good news, and calming news, he had to admit to himself as relief flowed through him. You don't mind, then?

Mind? Alejandro spluttered. Why on Earth should I mind?

Diego shrugged. Well, she is the daughter of a man who was a member of the working class, which technically makes her part of that same working class...

Alejandro stopped his rambling by putting a hand and his Son's arm. Diego, no, stop... I don't mind at all. In fact, I could care less what class some people think that Victoria is from... He sighed, then. As much as no one would care to admit it, single females are a rather rare commodity in the Colonies, and though some caballeros want to stick to only those in their class, the truth is that no one has really cared about class for fifty years or more.

But Grandfather protested your marriage... Diego began.

Yes, but you have to remember that your grandfather came from Spain, where he lived and was educated... Alejandro interrupted to explain. A lot of his morality came from Europe, and in a place like Europe, things like class matter much more than they do here. He shrugged both shoulders, making the canteen he was carrying bounce against his hip by the rising and falling of its strap. We can't afford to worry about that here, Alejandro went on to say. No, I'm thrilled you've chosen to marry Victoria; she's bright, a good businessperson, is quite beautiful... oh yes, I've noticed... she cares about the same things you care about... And, I admit that I naturally like her a great deal... That last bit is a tad selfish, I admit...

Father, Diego said. Her beauty aside, you truly don't mind the fact that I plan to marry 'beneath me,' as the saying goes..?

Diego, Alejandro laughed his interjection. You want to get married! Plan to get married! He shrugged disarmingly again. To the daughter of what was a good friend... Of course I'm thrilled to death! He grinned. And I expect grandchildren as soon as possible - you've kept me waiting long enough! he exclaimed.

Diego had to grin along with his father, simply because what he was saying was so outrageous. Give us some time, Father, please! he exclaimed back.

I give you one year, Alejandro predicted. If you need even that long.

Father! Diego remonstrated.

Alejandro chuckled. I can still get a rise out of you by being a little...

Unconventional? Diego suggested.

The grin was back on Alejandro's face. Yes, 'unconventional.' Then, he was as silent as Diego as they slowly resumed their walk.

Diego stared at the horizon where the sun was low in the sky. He felt a little uneasy about leaving the lancers in the jail cells for the night, especially since they were so crammed in to the cramped space that they had no place to sleep. He decided right then and there to ride back to town later that night and release whomever wished to pledge to work at his side to bring peace to Los Angeles... Of course, thinking about the lancers made him think about the town, and that made him think about Victoria... He smiled softly, thinking that she would have liked to see this sunset and its colors that painted the sky. Victoria is rather incredible, isn't she? he asked of his father, though he didn't expect a response to such a rhetorical question.

Alejandro nodded anyway. Yes, she is. I will be delighted when she is my daughter-in-law.

Diego sighed, then, his eyes still on the pinks and mauves of sunset. I truly do love her so much, he stated, a silly grin gracing his features. I only hope that, in time, she and Felipe can share the same kind of closeness that I share with Felipe.

Felipe? Alejandro questioned. What does he have to do with your future marriage?

Diego shrugged then. Well, I haven't had time to talk to Felipe yet, I admit, but I have the feeling that he will resist the idea that I want to take a wife, he explained. Felipe has been the sole holder of the secret as to Zorro's identity for a long time... something tells me that he won't like the fact that I am now a part of the local... What would you say that Zorro is part of? he asked.

The folklore? Alejandro asked. The stories told in the tavern? Then he went on. I just want you to prepared with how fast this news of Zorro's identity is going to travel, and the reaction that people will give to you from now on. Diego grimaced at his father's announcement, but Alejandro continued, I'm serious! You went from something of a scholastic dandy who reads poetry at the tavern to the greatest hero this pueblo has ever known in the matter of a day... People will not know how to take that information, or how to treat you, he warned.

Well, what do you suggest that I do? Diego asked. Bury myself here and never ride into town?

No, Alejandro thoughtfully began. But you may want to expect that some people will treat you a bit... suspiciously at first. Some will think you did something very noble, and some will treat you as if you have the plague. Just be patient with whatever reception you get in town, he suggested. Eventually, everyone will come around.

Diego sighed quietly into the evening air. I'm not sure I want to hear this, he admitted.

I'm just telling you not to be surprised by the reception that you get tomorrow, Alejandro protested. There's nothing you can do about influencing it one way or another, so I suggest that you don't worry about it, my boy. He shrugged his shoulders again, sending the canteen careening. I'm just telling you, he repeated. So you'll be prepared.

Softly, Diego smiled. Be prepared for the unpreparable? he asked, and Alejandro had to smile and nod at that particular way of rephrasing his warning. Suddenly, Diego stopped and turned. If I'm not to worry, I might as well go about my business, then. I'm riding back into town to talk to the lancers I had thrown in jail, then maybe I'll see Victoria, and let her feed me supper...

But you already had a sandwich! Alejandro protested.

Diego grinned. And I thank you for that, but I am a man fully grown with a man's hearty appetite.

Oh! Alejandro scowled. If the sandwich wasn't enough, all you have to do is tell me!

The sandwich wasn't enough, Diego immediately told him. And what a good excuse that will make.

Go on! Alejandro said gruffly. Then in a light, mocking tone of voice, added, Tell Victoria that I plan to see her tomorrow.

With that, Diego walked away, back in the direction of the stables.

Alejandro sighed happily as he watched Diego leave. My son... getting married, he said, and grinned again into the waning sunlight.

Go on to Part IV

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