A/N: Thank you so much to mmkbrook, yeahsureyoubetcha, and KatieZfan for being such excellent betas - I owe ya one!(or two... or three... or a hundred)
A/N2: This fic is already finished, and comes in 14 parts and an epilogue.
“Diego,” Victoria said.
He instantly looked up at her quiet voice, his lunch and the rest of the tavern forgotten.
This unspoken encouragement urged her to continue, despite the racing of her heart and an overwhelming feeling of nausea. “I need to talk to you. Can you meet me at The Guardian office at the beginning of siesta?”
His forehead furrowed in wrinkles. “Yes, of course. But is something wrong?” His hand snaked out to curl around her right wrist in comfort, the concern in his voice unmistakable, even with his tone pitched low to match hers.
“Of course not,” she replied with a false brightness. “I...” Victoria's smile was faltering already. “I just need... to talk to you.” Her following swallow was hard and painful.
He'd clearly seen the gesture, and just as clearly didn't know what she meant by it. “Whatever you need,” Diego assured her, obviously worried now, but endeavoring not to show it. His gaze raked over her form: was he looking for obvious injuries? “Does this have something to do with the Emissary's visit?”
Ah, that was it - Emissary Risendo had called her in for questioning, and Diego must be concerned about that. “It doesn't have anything to do with the Emissary,” she assured him, though she thought she'd already confided that she was unhurt due to her time spent with Risendo. And it was true that the government man's eventful visit to the pueblo had been followed by an equally eventful month, but she hadn't received any injuries during that time, either. She was fairly certain that it had proven to be more eventful for him than for her.
Victoria added, “I just need to talk to you.” She understood that such vagueness would only make him worry even more, but she couldn't be more specific in such a public place as the tavern. All she could do was ask to speak to him, then hope for the best. She added a smile to her request, hoping to put him more at ease.
The smile strained across her face, and Diego frowned; her smile clearly did nothing to soothe his taut nerves. He didn't bother to return her smile, but simply gave a wordless nod. Lest he grow even more concerned, she rapidly disappeared into the lunch crowd at the tavern.
Well, this is it. No more backing out, Victoria fiercely instructed herself as she wove and bobbed through the crowd like the pro that she was. She was glad for the distraction, as serving lunch kept her from thinking too much, and experience dictated that time free for thinking was definitely her enemy. How many times in the previous months had she been in this exact same position, wanting desperately to say something to him, only to change her mind at the last minute? Her silence was causing guilt to eat away at her, making a hole of considerable size in her heart. If she wanted to banish that hole at long last, then she would have to end this round of silence on her part.
Victoria refused to let herself dwell on what she planned to do. She just couldn't back out now - not this time. She would never be able to forgive herself. He would never forgive her. That single thought kept her focused and determined. By concentrating on his perceived reaction, Victoria was able to get through another lunch rush without changing her mind yet again.
At long last, siesta arrived. Victoria was able to shoo out her final customers and close the tavern without inciting any undue suspicion. Maria and Alicia, her daytime employees, retired to their own homes for the hours of downtime, leaving her to lock up behind them.
But the second that Alicia vanished around the blacksmith's shop, and Maria disappeared into the alley that led to the house she shared with her aging mother, Victoria stopped in locking the back door. Instead, she slipped through the small opening that she'd left and anxiously glanced around. Appearing too nervous would only attract unwanted attention, so she took a shivery breath in a last attempt to calm her racing heart before that organ exploded out of her chest.
The office assigned to the pueblo newspaper appeared deserted, but Victoria didn't let that deter her. It often seemed empty - that only meant Diego was most likely inside, but lost in thought about an article he was writing, or daydreaming about a painting he planned to start, or contemplating the Alcalde's newest tax, or any number of other things that concerned the caballero. Victoria had long since given up on remembering everything that Diego might have on his mind. His distractions were so numerous, she wondered how he kept them all straight in his head. She, who took food and drink orders for many hungry customers like it was nothing, would never be able to keep straight all that Diego dealt with on a daily basis.
Determined, she crossed the short distance to The Guardian office and entered the building with an air of extreme nonchalance.
“Victoria!” Diego jumped up from the chair that he occupied behind his desk. The room was shrouded in semidarkness, lending credence to her suspicion that he had been thinking while waiting for her. For some reason, the thought gave her comfort now.
He helped her to sit in one of the chairs fronting his small desk. “What can I do for you?”
Victoria jumped back up the minute he sat down again. “Diego,” she began in a wooden voice. Her fingers found a loose thread in her skirt's waistband and nervously rubbed it back and forth. “Thank you for meeting me. You must be worried to death by now.”
“Concerned, not 'worried to death,'” he confessed with a bland smile smoothing the wrinkles from his face. “Is something..?”
“I should have told you so much sooner than this,” she burst out, interrupting his polite question. Afraid she would clam up if given the chance, she rushed to say, “Iknowwhoyouare.”
Silence followed this outburst. Diego looked at Victoria not with the horror she had always predicted, but with a decided lack of comprehension. Perhaps she had spoken so fast that he hadn't understood her?
Confirmation to that fear came when his confusion made him inquire, “You know... what?”
Victoria sighed, suddenly realizing that this moment would not be as utterly monumental for him as it would be for her simply because she knew what she was talking about and he didn't. “I'm not explaining this well,” she muttered, and said it again, slower this time, “I know who you are.”
The skin around Diego's eyes crinkled endearingly as his confusion increased. “Who I am,” he repeated, his voice as slow as hers. “What does that mean?”
And he truly did look as if he didn't know what Victoria meant. But there was only one thing she could mean - and she knew it, and she knew that he did, too. Either he truly was dense, he was the greatest actor in the world to pretend ignorance at this monumental juncture, or he had so convinced himself that this moment would never arrive that he was honestly flummoxed now that it had.
In any event, she would have to try again, and this time be as specific as possible so that he wouldn't misunderstand. “I know you're Zorro.” Victoria fully anticipated that his horror would now set in at her words.
Instead of horror, Diego still just looked highly perplexed, leaving her feeling unsatisfied and oddly foolish. “You think I'm Zorro.”
“I don't think you are, I know you are.”
Again he paused before slowly echoing, “You know I am.”
Victoria closed her eyes against the glare of the sun filtering through the one window in the room. Closed eyes made this confession much easier for her. “I know that I should have said something long ago, but...”
“Victoria, I'm not Zorro.”
The mildness of Diego's protest washed over her, trailing a convincing cloud of doubt. He sounded so sure, so sincere, that she would have instantly believed him... if she didn't know better.
Opening her eyes, she confessed, “I know this puts you in so much danger - and you're in enough danger as it is - and I...”
“Victoria.” Diego rose from his chair to draw closer to her, his hands reaching out to soothe away what he clearly perceived as insanity. “I think you need to sit down. The heat...”
Suddenly incensed, she threw off his hands and glared at him. “Don't do that!” she hotly demanded. “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to even say this? How much I've wanted to..?”
“I know how badly you want Zorro's identity,” he calmly said, “but this isn't the way to find it. I can't help you to...”
“Don't treat me like a child, Diego!” Her glare intensified. “Zorro is about honor, respect, and chivalry! But right now, there's not an ounce of honor in you. You're truly disappointing me, and I never thought I would say that!”
For the briefest moment, something like regret flashed across his blue eyes, but then it was gone, and his blandness firmly reasserted itself. “I'm sorry if I'm disappointing you, but truly Victoria, you've got this all wrong. I'm not...”
“I saw you, Diego,” she breathed in a monotone. “I saw everything.” And she wished she hadn't. If she hadn't, she would have continued to be blissfully unaware of the danger he encountered every time he did nothing but visit her at night in her kitchen. But after that particular incident, she knew that every time she saw Zorro, it could be Diego's last day alive. Perhaps he thought that the danger being Zorro put him in was acceptable, but she didn't.
However, it was obvious now that she was going to have to say more than simply 'I know;' that look of confused helplessness he had perfected over the years still lingered at the corners of his eyes. In the next breath, she found herself explaining the whole thing. “I was invited for supper one night to your hacienda, and while looking for you to drive me home after dinner, I came around the corner from the dining room just as you and Felipe went through the fireplace in the library.” Victoria was glad to note that she had Diego's full attention by then. “I waited for you to come back, but when you didn't, I started to get worried. So I tried to follow you. Only I couldn't open the door in the fireplace again.”
His look turned more wary than bland. “Were you ever able to open this mythical door in my fireplace?”
Relief shot through Victoria; his questioning showed that he believed her... sort of. At least he didn't immediately think she'd lost her sanity. Using the most convincing tone she could muster, she said, “No, not at first. I was sure I'd been dreaming. And it's not like I was so often a guest at your hacienda that the opportunity to prove myself right or wrong happened every day. But I looked when I could. I paid attention. And then, I saw you do it again.”
She could interpret his watchful silence in so many ways. But she wasn't dreaming the extreme care with which he chose his following words. “Going through a hidden door doesn't mean anything. It certainly doesn't mean that I'm Zorro.”
Victoria couldn't deny the truth of what he said. “No, it doesn't. But what happened next does.”
Wariness had definitely invaded his blue eyes. “What happened next?”
Victoria was pained at her admittance, but admitted it nonetheless. “I thought I was going crazy. But I saw how you pressed something on the mantel before you disappeared through the door. I found the button, but I didn't push it. If it led to your private place, I didn't want to suddenly burst into it. So I waited for you to come back, and I was going to tease you about it when you did. I waited so long, but you never did come back. So I... followed.”
“You followed.” It came out as a statement.
Victoria nodded. “I went through the door. There was a short corridor - you know that. I stopped at some steps when I heard your voice - I still thought of this as your special place, and I didn't want to intrude, but I wanted to make sure you were all right. When I peeked around the corner, I saw the cave.”
“Cave?” Amazingly enough, Diego was still able to act like he didn't understand her reference.
“Yes, the cave.” His lack of outward comprehension was beginning to aggravate her, and her clipped tone showed it. “I saw Felipe holding Zorro's mask and hat out to you.” She endeavored to soften her tone to something less confrontational. “I saw Toronado.”
“That still doesn't...”
“And I saw you,” she quietly intoned. “Reaching out to Felipe, dressed like Zorro... without the mask.”
Finally her words prodded him to gave a nervous swallow. “What did I do then?”
Relief encompassed Victoria at the hint of confession crossing his eyes. But the relief was short lived when she realized she was witnessing fear rather than confession. “You put on the mask, smiled at something Felipe signed, promised not to hurt the Alcalde too much, jumped onto Toronado, and rode out a door at the back of the cave.”
His guarded expression grew even more guarded as he asked, “When was this?”
A familiar feeling of guilt shot through Victoria, and she swung her head down so she wouldn't have to look at him. “A long time ago.”
He paused, and she thought he hadn't heard her whisper until he asked, “How long?”
She didn't answer. She couldn't. The truth was, she wasn't even sure. She'd been so shocked at the time that she hadn't noted the date. It was amazing that she'd been together enough to figure out how to get back into the library without Felipe discovering her. Since that fateful day, so much time had passed that she couldn't be sure any longer when it had happened. “Long enough for me to feel guilty that I didn't tell you... or Felipe... right away. Then, it got easier and easier to say nothing - for a long time.” She hated the way he was staring at her now, so wary, so careful, but at the same time, so tired.
She was tired too; tired of waiting for him to say something to her, of worrying when he didn't, of wondering if remaining silent was the right thing to do when time went by and he never mentioned his secret, of constantly worrying if the Alcalde knew, and barring that, of doing her utmost to insure that he didn't, of trying to work out if Don Alejandro knew, if Sergeant Mendoza knew, if Felipe would ever say anything. The exhaustion of 'knowing' swamped her again in seconds.
But what that exhaustion made her say surprised her as much as it seemed to surprise him. “When you proposed as the man and not the legend... do you remember that? I said 'yes' because I knew who was really asking.”
For the first time, the mask of indifference that Diego typically wore trembled, and finally cracked. “Whaaaat?”
She shook her head back and forth, barely hearing him. “It's all my fault. I should have told you. I was scared that if you knew that I knew...” She paused as her emotions surged. “It's my fault,” she repeated on a distraught whisper aimed at the floor. “You were in such danger from the Emissary, and I... I was just so stupid. I either didn't take the time to understand what was happening to you, or too busy saying things I I knew would make him angry. I should have just kept my mouth shut.” She glanced up to beseech him one last time. “I thought I was doing the right thing, I truly did, but...” Misery soaked her voice, and she was certain that he could not forgive her for all the trouble she'd caused this time. “I'm sorry.”
He didn't move. She could feel him standing still where he'd been standing during most of her confession. He was probably too stunned to move, too sickened at what she was telling him to do anything but breath, too disappointed in her to react any other way. The next thing she knew, he would be asking for his ring back, and she wouldn't blame him. How could he be engaged to someone he couldn't trust? Trust meant everything to him, and she'd broken it, in the worst way possible.
Victoria waited for him to say something. He was quiet for so long that she wondered if he was again going to take refuge in pretending ignorance of everything she was referring to.
If he did that, she was sure that her heart would break into tiny pieces; that would only prove that he definitely felt he couldn't trust her with the truth. At the same time, she didn't think she could handle it if he tried to continue with the ruse he'd been relying on for years. It was part of that ruse for her to be dumb to his true self, but it was only her inability to speak up that had ensured how dumb she really was. Why hadn't she spoken out as soon as she'd had the chance? He would be so much safer than he was right now. But if there was one thing that was consistent in all this, it was her ability to make the worst decision possible. Honestly, she was no better than Luis Ramone!
So when he enfolded her in his arms and hugged her with all his hidden strength, she was as surprised as it was possible to be.
Go on to part 2.
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