A/N: It has come to my attention that readers who don't know the episodes as well as I do will not understand this story without a brief synopsis of the first five minutes of the third season episode it's based on, titled 'The New Broom,' the episode that introduces DeSoto. So here it is, a brief synopsis of the first five minutes:

Everyone in Los Angeles is shouting for Acting-Alcalde Mendoza. Mendoza is hiding from them, and fervently praying for the new Alcalde to soon be sent to Los Angeles.

Meantime: in Madrid: Don Ignacio DeSoto publicly confronts Don Xavier Miguel Francisco Caroga, the new Alcalde of Los Angeles, named by King Ferdinand himself. DeSoto goads Caroga into a sword fight with the prize being the Los Angeles Alcalde position by promising Caroga's death. Caroga angrily fights back, but makes enough mistakes that DeSoto wins. Caroga declares, 'I will not fight you.' DeSoto beats him by breaking Don Xavier Caroga's sword from its hilt, and calls Don Xavier a coward in front of many witnesses. DeSoto is the Los Angeles Alcalde by default, but has a moment of mercy (I know - mercy? From DeSoto?? It's as likely that Mendoza is Victoria's long lost brother, it will always snow in Los Angeles in August, and Zorro will roll over and play dead in Toronado's watering trough.) In a miraculous act, DeSoto leaves Don Xavier Caroga alive after becoming the new new Alcalde of Los Angeles.

And now, on with the story! (Told you that it would be a brief synopsis, and it is, particularly for me.)

Past and Present: a Collision

by Linda Bindner

Part I: The Meeting

“Okay... Corporal, your turn.”

Sergeant Mendoza's voice settled soothingly over his fellow lancers who had joined their sergeant at his table on the tavern porch. Mendoza was of half a mind to order his men to the cuartel where they could partake of a much-needed siesta (all the lancers of Pueblo de Los Angeles had spent much of the previous night in search of the famous Martinez gang, only to ride back to town just as the sun was rising to find that Zorro had already captured them and delivered the five bandits to the pueblo's jail). However, the game of Question/Answer that the men had begun during the lunch hour was too good at keeping the men awake even after the horrible night they'd spent in uselessly tracking their bandito prey. Now, Mendoza was as caught up in the game as his lancers were. The hope of a rejuvenating siesta was growing dimmer with every passing moment.

Even Don Diego looked like he was falling asleep as he languorously tried to force his eyes to remain open as he read the last page of his book. When he finally finished The Life and Times of Famous Trackers: Read It, Live It, Love It that he had borrowed from an acquaintance of his in Santa Barbara, he snapped the book shut just as Corporal Sepulveda spoke.

“My turn...” Sepulveda pensively muttered to himself as he tried to think of a question that he wanted to ask and discuss with his compadres. At last, a spark lit in his eyes, and he looked up in triumph.

“Make it good, Sepulveda,” grumbled Cortez from the other side of the table. “No questions about the Padre this time,” he ordered. “Those religious-type discussions tend to get on the boring side, and I can barely keep my eyes open as it is.”

Sepulveda only grimaced at his friend's teasing, then promised, “This has nothing to do with the Padre, I swear.” He cleared his throat and, after making certain that he had his friends' attentions, as well as Don Diego's, who had wandered over to their table on his way to collecting his horse, happily said, “My question is...” The bated breath was almost a physical force at the table as the men waited impatiently for him to continue.

“Come on, Sepulveda,” Cortez ground out. “Finish, or I'll...”

Cortez never made his threat to completion, for Sepulveda looked at him like he was about to be dumped into a watering trough, and said, “My question... How old do you think the Alcalde is this year?”

“How old is the Alcalde?” Mendoza quietly echoed, thinking hard, considering his possible answers. He was to be the first to make his guess, as he was seated at the Corporal's immediate left, and 'left is first, right is last' as the rules of the game dictated.

“Hmmm,” Mendoza hummed. Then he lifted his head and said, “I don't know for certain, but I would guess that he's... forty?”

Forty?” Gomez spat on Mendoza's left, and guffawed. “That would be awfully young for a man to make it all the way up to the post of Alcalde!” He laughed again.

Mendoza argued, “Si, but he has the reputation for being an expert strategist, certainly enough of one to have risen quickly through the ranks and end up here. I know that Pueblo de Los Angeles is not exactly the crown jewel of the Spanish Empire, but it takes a fairly young and robust man to be assigned to captain a frontier garrison. I still say that he's only forty.”

“Forty-five! At the least!” Gomez declared. “That's my guess!”

“Thirty-seven!” Private Paravel piped up from his place at Gomez's right. “I'm with the Sergeant, but I'm also with you, Gomez.”

“Aaaahhh!” Gomez waved his hand good-naturedly at his friend in blue and red. “You're always playing the middle road!” he said.

“I am not!” protested Paravel. He turned to Diego. “Perhaps you can make a guess, Don Diego,” he suggested. “You've known the Alcalde for a long time, and you're a good judge - how old?”

Diego gave a soft laugh, blustering a bit as he tried desperately to remember the date that had been marked as the Alcalde's birthday on DeSoto's office calendar the last time he'd been in the government quarters as Zorro. But then he recalled how he'd been a Freshman at the University of Madrid while Ignacio had been a Senior, and then he was able to give a much more certain reply to Sepulveda's question. “My guess... though it's not very informed...”

“The Alcalde has too smooth of a face to be tooooo old,” Gomez reminded him.

How hard was Ignacio's jaw when he'd last hit him? Strong bones meant young bones. Old bones meant... advancing years. But he had to assume that the lancers would know that. According to the ache he now had in his right fist, even though it had been gloved at the time of his latest pueblo protest of the Alcalde's cruelty and he'd punched Ignacio... “Thirty-five,” Diego guessed at last.

“Thirty-five?!?!?!” came the chorus of astonished replies.

But Diego didn't have time to worry about how he would explain his reasoning, for another yell cut off his explanation.

“Mendoza!”

The Alcalde's harsh call grated over the quiet that had enveloped the lancer's and their game. Now the man with his flair for intricate neckcloths marched up to the group and sent a critical glance over the assembled crowd before settling on its leader. “Mendoza, how often do I have to tell you that we must be prepared at all times for anything from Zorro, that masked brigand, that fiend, that...” The Alcalde's mouth twisted into a sneer as he thought of Zorro. “That...” But he couldn't finish his comment, as he was too overcome at just the thought of Zorro to vocalize what he was thinking.

“Heinous hyena?” Diego asked, filling in for DeSoto.

“Excellent description, Don Diego!” Mendoza instantly expostulated in a lighthearted tone.

DeSoto hardly looked like he agreed. Instead, he looked thoroughly exasperated to be bested in any way by a man whom he considered to be so completely anemic compared to himself as Don Diego de la Vega was. “That is NOT what I was going to say, Don Diego, but thank you for your rather...” He humorously barked a laugh and did his best to hide the gesture behind his gray goatee beard and mustache as he considered the word options open to him. “Rather... amusing... description.” He smoothed the hair of his beard down with a gloved finger. “No, that man defies description,” DeSoto excused himself.

He went on with his eyes once again trained on Mendoza. “What I'm trying to get across, Sergeant, is that the men need their rest to be at their top physical form should Zorro put in another appearance today, and tired, worn out men tend to make mistakes, which I will not have in my garrison!" DeSoto breathed his sudden anger at his Sergeant into the now silent air surrounding the tavern table at the edge of the empty plaza. “Now, I tell you again to..!”

DeSoto's tirade was cut short when Mendoza squinted his eyes up at the Alcalde in a judging manner, and without any proper segue into the topic, asked, “Exactly how old would you be, Alcalde?”

“Don't change the subject!” DeSoto hollered, as if he thought his Sergeant had gone deaf in the last half hour.

“He's thirty-five,” Diego softly said again before DeSoto could yell any more at his underling.

DeSoto whipped around to stare at Diego. “I'm thirty-four, as you well know!” DeSoto protested in indignation.

“I know,” Diego casually remarked. “You don't have to remind me that you're three years older than I am, not four.”

The gathered lancers gaped at the man who really did look 'anemic' standing next to the bulkier DeSoto while Mendoza suddenly grinned and gestured in excitement. “Of course!” he said in a voice of discovery as he stared at Diego. “You were a Freshmen at the University in Madrid when the Alcalde was a Senior! The Alcalde told me so during our first interview - I remember now!”

Diego suddenly grinned, and with that one movement, looked far more handsome and far less 'anemic' by the second. “Correct Sergeant,” he congratulated. “And as I just had a birthday last week, as you know, since you came to the party that Father threw for me, and gave me...”

Mendoza interrupted, “I gave you exactly what I've always dreamed of getting for my own birthday!” Then he looked around, instantly embarrassed. He yanked on his uniform tunic, but ended, “That is, if I knew what day to celebrate my birthday on...”

Diego's grin faded. “You mean you have no idea when your own birthday is?”

“I am an orphan, Don Diego,” Mendoza uncomfortably reminded him. “The date on my certificate of entering the orphanage was smudged out by the coffee that Father Hidalgo spilled the morning he found me on the mission doorstep... all swaddled in...”

“Sergeant!” DeSoto hollered, reminding the Sergeant of his newest orders. “The cuartel... now!”

But before any of the soldiers could move, Gomez stopped them all by saying, “We know how old the Alcalde is... I wonder how old Zorro is?”

Victoria stepped out onto the porch to collect the dirty glasses that the lancers had been sipping from for at least an hour, and caught the tail end of the man's question. Before any of the lancers could make an attempt at guessing the appropriate age of their chief adversary, announced, “Oh, that's easy, Private, he's thirty-one.”

DeSoto placed a gloved hand on the hilt of his sword to make himself look more imposing as he asked in a dangerous, powerful tone of voice, “And just how would you know that, Señorita?”

In one swooping second, Diego's mood disintegrated from indolent to horrified. Ignacio's going to find out my identity through Victoria mentioning Zorro's age, when I just announced to everyone here how old I am! And it will be too big of a coincidence for Diego and Zorro to be the same age - my identity will surely be discovered! Diego would have gasped, but he was too horrified to make a sound. He tried desperately to catch Victoria's eye and give a minute shake of his head to tell her that it was suddenly much too dangerous to discuss something as seemingly benign as Zorro's age, and he would deal with Victoria and the consequences of his actions later.

But Victoria's gaze was fully centered on DeSoto by then, and she missed Diego's minuscule head shake. She plunked down her tray to the scarred tabletop beneath her fingers, then placed her hands defiantly on her hips. She was too thrilled to get to behave in a defiant manner, and to the Alcalde no less, to pay any attention to her friend at the moment. “It's no secret, Alcalde,” she forcefully said. “Everyone in all of Los Angeles knows that Zorro was twenty-six when he appeared, as he announced four years ago to the entire town, and he was particularly pleased to celebrate his twenty-sixth birthday with his 'present' to the pueblo of the four captured bandits belonging to the Parlez gang. And as I was twenty-two when he and I met, and I am now twenty-six, it stands to reason that he recently had a birthday.” Then she grinned, still not looking at the horrified Diego. “That is how I am suddenly so knowledgeable about the man who just this morning gave you a black eye.”

“Yes, well..,” DeSoto began, stuttering his attempt to distract the Señorita from her memories of his recent trouncing at the hands of her hero. “Be that as it may, I..,” he said, fingering the bruise of his 'black eye' as he spoke. Then he paused in the middle of his fidgeting, and slowly turned to face Diego. “Funny how you're the same age as that brigand, Diego.”

Diego smiled, trying as hard as he ever had to make the gesture look as natural as possible. “Yes, that is interesting,” he said, as if just discovering that fact for himself. “Perhaps I should announce it in The Guardian,” he said. Maybe if he made a big deal out of this similarity in ages between himself and Zorro, it would make that similarity between them seem even more ridiculous. “I can see the editorial now,” he dramatically intoned. He held up his hands and his eyes took on a dreamy expression. “Hero and Don Diego de la Vega share same birthday. Do they share more?” His hands fell back to his sides as laughter erupted around him. He couldn't help but chuckle along with them as he gazed at the Alcalde.

DeSoto turned a violent shade of purple. “It's more than just a coincidence!” he protested.

“Ignacio!” Diego laughed some more. “You really are seeing Zorro under every bush, aren't you?” he rhetorically asked.

DeSoto's purple color increased. “It could be that..!”

But Victoria interrupted. “Just because Diego and Zorro share the same age doesn't make them the same man,” she pointed out. “Don't you think I would know, Alcalde?” she asked, successfully taking the focus off Diego and putting it back onto herself.

Thank you, Victoria! Diego thought triumphantly. But she threw a sly glance Diego's way out of the corner of her eyes as the lancer's chuckled at her comment.

Diego's eyes widened again. Does she know? he asked himself, his renewed terror suddenly enveloping him just as he had begun to relax once more.

But Diego's abrupt perplexity was cut short when a coach suddenly rounded the corner of the tavern and came to a stop amidst a rain of dust and dirt at the tavern's hitching rail. A man dressed in the silks of a don emerged from the back of the coach as the driver vaulted down from his higher seat in the front and began unloading luggage to the plaza dirt. The don carefully eyed Los Angeles, his gaze enigmatic as it slipped across the double doors of the cuartel and on to the green door of the Alcalde's office. That door had been left ajar in the Alcalde's recent haste to rush across the plaza to see his men.

Now the visitor's simple black necktie blew in the wind that scoured the pueblo as his gaze washed further across the blacksmith shop, the mission, and finally came to rest on the people before him. The tails of his brown caballero coat flapped twice as he took hold of his black velvet collar, and unconsciously striking a casual pose with his left foot propped on the tavern step before him, announced, “I am new to Los Angeles, and I wonder if you can tell me which way it is to..?” He paused, foot still firmly in place, and reared back until he could read the sign painted on Victoria's tavern wall announcing that this building was the 'Tavern Victoria.' “Ah... I seem to have found a tavern by luck. Perhaps I will be as lucky to find an inn as well?” he asked of the people gathered on the porch.

Victoria giggled. “There is not much luck involved, Señor,” she insisted. “This is the only tavern in town. It also serves as the only inn in town, and I am Victoria... Welcome to my tavern.” She smiled in her most winning way, and Diego found his toes melting at her expression, even though that expression wasn't aimed at him. “Are you planning to stay awhile?”

The man answered Victoria's smile with a smile of his own, and suddenly, for just a second, jealousy at the fact that any man was able to smile so winningly at Victoria when he could do nothing about it shot through Diego as he stood behind DeSoto and his men to watch the scene unfold.

The new arrival bowed low, one hand on his sword and one on his chest. “Your servant, Señorita. Yes, I find I need to stay in Los Angeles for several days if I'm going to see this Zorro fellow in action.”

Victoria's eyes sparkled, as they always did the second that Zorro's name was mentioned. “Why do you wish to see Zorro in action?” she asked as she collected the dirty glasses still on the table.

The man's dark upswept hair tilted as the wind picked up for a moment, then died. The tilting caused the undersides of his hair to show for an instant, and the gray that met the eyes of all those gathered lent him a distinguished air instead of illustrating his advancing years. He responded to Victoria's question, unaware of the citizens' perusal as he did so. “I am here as a special envoy to King Ferdinand to offer this Zorro a pardon, so naturally I wish to find him. But first I do so wish to see him in action.” And he gave a disarming smile at the crowd.

Diego's heart leapt at the man's mention of a pardon, then went numb, as did his tongue, so that he couldn't make it move, even if the action meant that it would save his own life.

Unaware of Diego's sudden distress, DeSoto coughed, and spluttering, asked the Royal Envoy, “Excuse me, but did I hear you correctly? That you have a...” He could barely say the word. “A... a pardon... for Zorro?”

The man gazed at DeSoto, his eyes narrowed as he recognized who had spoken. Instead of answering the question posed to him, he asked one of his own. “You are the Alcalde?”

DeSoto nodded. “Indeed, Sir, I am...”

“Yes,” the man said in a suddenly flat tone, cutting off DeSoto in mid comment. “You are Don Ignacio DeSoto.”

DeSoto grinned in a perplexed way. “Yes. I am Alcalde DeSoto. How do you..?”

Again the man didn't let him finish. “Then I am here to put an end to the job that you seem incapable of doing yourself.”

DeSoto's perplexity increased. “I'm sorry, but... You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Señor. I...”

“That's Don Xavier Caroga, Señor, and it's quite ironic that you use the same words now as I did when we first met in Madrid.”

It was clear by the confusion in DeSoto's eyes that he didn't recall the meeting that Don Caroga was referring to. “I don't...” His voice trailed off, and he continued to stare at the new arrival.

Don Xavier Caroga didn't let him say anything more. “It makes no difference what you remember and what you don't, Señor.” He seemed to relish the idea of calling DeSoto by the more common title of 'señor' rather than the more honorific 'don.' “Am I correct in assuming that neither you nor your men have been successful in apprehending this outlaw Zorro?”

It was Sergeant Mendoza who responded after a tiny shifting of his shoulders to illustrate the dignity that Don Caroga's question had destroyed, which he now hoped to regain as he reported, “You assume correctly, Don Caroga, though Zorro is no common outlaw. He's as slippery as a snake in water. Capturing him has never proven to be an easy thing to do, and...”

Don Caroga interrupted, “Zorro is still a man, Sergeant. I remind you that as a man, he has the same wants and desires that any man has.” All eyes strayed to Victoria, but Don Xavier didn't appear to notice as he continued, “To capture such a man, even one so elusive, all you have to do is offer him what he wants most in this world - a pardon.” His gaze turned hard. “Then it is simply a matter of either deciding that he deserves to be pardoned, or to capture him while the pardon that he covets distracts him for you.” His suddenly icy gaze slid to study DeSoto. “I would think that as Alcalde, you would consider such an idea.”

DeSoto reared back a little at the sense of accusation Don Xavier was bestowing so liberally on him. “What's to say that I haven't considered it, Señor?” he gruffly responded, putting an emphasis on the title with which he chose to address Don Xavier. If one thing was well known in the pueblo of Los Angeles, it was that Alcalde DeSoto never appreciated being made to look a fool. The fact that Zorro made him look like a fool on a weekly basis had also been noted by every citizen in town, even if it hadn't been gossiped about out loud. It was interesting that the man who did that remarking aloud now was an outsider.

But as an outsider, Don Xavier was not as cowed by DeSoto's promised wrath as the pueblo's citizens were. He didn't have the personal experience of living with the fear that DeSoto might hang a loved one, as DeSoto had threatened to do many times in the past.

Now, that lack of fear was freeing as Don Xavier continued to confront DeSoto. “If you considered it, Señor, why did you never offer a pardon of your own, or do anything else about your ongoing Zorro situation?” His voice was coolly disdainful, and even Diego had to admire this man's apparent courage in speaking so condescendingly to DeSoto.

The Alcalde's eyes gave an evil twinkle as he let his growing animosity towards this man show in his demeanor. He placed his own hand on his sword hilt in a mirror of Don Xavier's stance. “Because, Señor, Zorro is too smart to ever fall for such on obvious ruse. Besides, I am not, as you claim to be, an envoy to the King - I do not have the authority to simply offer pardons at the drop of a hat to whomever I wish.” He stared in cold calculation at Don Xavier, and rubbed at his goatee with his right hand. “It's rather amazing that you do,” he said, planting doubt as to Don Xavier's claims in the mind of anyone listening. Then he went on to further question Don Xavier, “Your authority is real... isn't it?” Despite his innocent expression, that disbelieving tone of his caused even more doubt to fester in everyone's minds about Don Xavier's claims without having to say anything specific or slanderous about the man himself.

With a cold light of his own brewing in his stormy eyes, Don Xavier abruptly smiled at DeSoto in a parody of admiration. “Well said, Don DeSoto,” he praised in a quiet, restrained voice. “You make a good point. Though authority such as you mention is fairly easy to acquire when one has enough imagination to know where to begin his inquiry.”

DeSoto's eyes narrowed to slits as all pretense at respecting this man disappeared. “I assure you that if I could rely on my family's connections to the King, then I might have...”

Don Xavier cut him off again. “And I assure you, DeSoto, that I didn't rely on any of my family's royal connections to first gain the respect of the royal advisers, then let them posit my idea to King Ferdinand themselves. It doesn't take many connections to the King to win the good opinion of strangers, only ingenuity, something that seems to be in short supply in Los Angeles.”

DeSoto's face turned red at the inferred offense he was taking from Don Xavier. “There is plenty of ingenuity in Los Angeles!” the Alcalde insisted. “And if I remember right, our confrontation that day in Madrid branded you a coward!” he barked, then added, “Are you still one even now?”

While DeSoto blustered, Diego admired the way that Don Xavier was baiting DeSoto in order to make him angry, for angry men made mistakes, as he well knew, and tended to reveal far more information than they wanted to mention.

Mendoza scrunched up his eyes again as he regarded the two men. “Um... Excuse me,” he stuttered, and held up a finger to halt more arguments from either of the two disagreeing men. “What does the Alcalde mean?” he asked Don Xavier. “How did he brand you a coward? We have never seen you before today,” he helpfully pointed out.

Don Xavier regarded DeSoto. “Shall you tell them, or shall I?” he asked in a firm voice.

DeSoto barked another laugh. “Tell them how a coward such as yourself was bested in a sword fight by a man... me... who obviously has much more intrinsic skill than you have?” he rhetorically asked. Then he gestured a magnanimous wave at Don Xavier. “By all means, be my guest.”

The Alcalde's previous comment about sword skills caused a bark of laughter to also emanate from Victoria. “You? Skilled with a sword?” she asked, echoing DeSoto, even as she disbelievingly stared at DeSoto himself. Her tone was just derisive enough for Diego to begin to worry about her safety.

Victoria turned to take in Don Xavier with her contemptuous gaze. “Either you have very few skills with a blade, Señor, or the Alcalde has been withholding his own skills when fighting Zorro these many years, for the Alcalde has never won in a battle with Zorro. It's amazing to know that he ever bested you.”

Don Xavier gave a harrumph of annoyance in Victoria's general direction for pointing out what everyone was probably thinking, but were too afraid to say. Diego surreptitiously moved closer to her in order to offer protection to her if she suddenly found that she needed it. It wasn't every day that even Victoria managed to criticize two men with one comment, one of those men being Ignacio DeSoto. Some repercussions were inevitable for making such a point.

Victoria acted like she didn't take any notice of Diego's apparent solicitude, for she gathered her tray in hand with another glare at both men, then returned to the inside of her tavern with one last huff after finishing off her commentary by saying to Don Xavier, “It's almost as if your sword skills are as appalling as Diego's here, since Zorro has bested DeSoto so often, yet DeSoto somehow bested you.”

Again Diego wanted to thank Victoria aloud for reinforcing his disguise for him like she was, but he couldn't say anything to her if he wanted to keep that disguise of his a secret from the lancers and other men around them. It was confusing to once more wish to say something, but be unable to do so.

Still, Victoria's second glance at him out of the corners of her eyes as she disappeared into her tavern had him again wondering just how much she knew about that secret identity of his. It would be truly ironic if she were assisting in securing that double identity of his while she knew all about that identity in the first place.

But Victoria disappeared into the darkness of the tavern just as Diego seemed to react with surprised chagrin at her recently voiced opinion.

However, after a comment like Victoria's, Diego felt he had to say something that would act in her defense. He thoughtfully regarded Don Xavier. “What Victoria means is that Zorro is extremely good with a sword, as he's proven over and over again these past years, not that your fighting skill really does equal the poor quality of mine.”

DeSoto, however, wasn't so easily waylaid. “It sounded to me like she doesn't think much of either Diego's or, by comparison to Zorro, Don Xavier's skills with a blade.” He chuckled, for according to him and his usual code of conduct, there was no way that such a slight could be allowed to pass without some form of reprisal from Don Xavier, and any time that 'Zorro's woman' was brought to task for saying something rash was an exceptional moment, according to him.

But Don Xavier didn't share this opinion of Victoria with DeSoto. Instead of going after her, and making her pay for her comment, he skewered DeSoto with his gaze. “So, Zorro has bested you, has he?”

“Oh, many times,” Mendoza supplied, artlessly cutting into the conversation. “Zorro's very good with a sword, as Don Diego just pointed out,” he next announced.

“Perhaps Zorro also wishes to be considered good at things other than his skills with a sword that he hasn't had the opportunity to highlight,” Caroga then said. He hefted the one bag that his man servant had dropped near him when he'd unloaded the coach, the bag that the others surmised held the pardon for Zorro in it, for Don Xavier hadn't let it out of his sight once he'd acquired it during the entire exchange he'd had with the people of Los Angeles. Then he turned to follow Victoria inside without saying another word.

DeSoto contemptuously dismissed Xavier Caroga from his mind the second he left, instilling his opinion of the man's lack of importance with one action. Instead, he gestured angrily at Mendoza to return to the cuartel the moment that Don Caroga vanished. The Sergeant instantly and nervously began herding his men towards the other side of the plaza at the unspoken order from the Alcalde of the pueblo.

As Diego watched the lancers go, he suddenly found himself wondering for the first time at his previous assumption of DeSoto's pueblo standing. DeSoto and Caroga had obviously met many years before in Madrid, though neither of them had detailed that encounter. Just what did this plaza meeting mean for the Alcalde? For Zorro? And who was the rightful Alcalde of Los Angeles if DeSoto had beaten Don Xavier in a sword fight, as all the listeners to Caroga and DeSoto's angry conversation had been told?

And Don Xavier had said that he had a pardon for Zorro, but that he 'wanted to see Zorro in action' first? What was up with that? Why wait to give that pardon to the famous outlaw? Was this some mysterious part of a trap to capture Zorro, such as the one that Don Xavier had mentioned?

Of course, Diego thought all situations could be a potential trap. Still, he couldn't be certain this time. He still didn't know enough about the circumstances surrounding Don Xavier Caroga to be able to predict an answer to any of his questions.

It looked as if Zorro was going to have to have a private discussion with Don Xavier, and soon.

But it was worry for Victoria and the infamous tongue she had that his final thoughts were centered on as he gathered the reigns of his horse prior to riding out of town.

Part II: The Fight

Diego didn't have time for more than a short conversation with Victoria over the course of the following week, certainly not enough time to ask her what a pardon for Zorro meant to her personally. He didn't even do more than touch on the subject of whether Don Xavier could be trusted or not; the idea that the don had earlier stated, about capturing Zorro with the lure of the pardon, was still very much a possibility, he reminded himself.

But if that was the case, then why mention that plan in the first place? For surely Zorro would hear of such a contrivance as Don Xavier's, and be on guard for it. The situation was making less and less sense all the time.

In order for it to make more sense, Diego watched in that following week, and listened to every scrap of information that he could glean from the pueblo's citizens about the newly arrived Don Xavier, and he tried not to think about the ramifications of a pardon, knowing that such a deliverance could be as elusive as ever.

Zorro was drawing as much attention as Don Xavier due to his lack of presence. He wasn't seen or heard from that entire week. In contrast, the pueblo's citizens all wondered what the visitor from Spain's true purpose was for him to be in Los Angeles besides his very vocal plan to pardon Zorro, and they loudly discussed that wonder at their every opportunity.

They also openly deliberated the obvious animosity that flowed between Don Xavier and Alcalde DeSoto. But since the two men refused to enlighten the citizens on their past dealings with each other, all those same citizens could do was speculate and wait for one man or the other to issue a challenge of some kind to his nemesis to explain the natural hatred the two men felt for each other.

All in all, it was a busy week.

But without warning, one lazy day in the middle of the morning, that waiting finally came to an end. It was a good thing; the curiosity level in the pueblo was reaching new highs as the week wore on.

The tavern was the scene of the eventual challenge that halted the waiting. Don Xavier was standing at the bar, enjoying his morning coffee, accompanied by Don Alejandro, when DeSoto sauntered in. Once the Alcalde's eyes had adjusted to the tavern's darker interior, he couldn't help but notice the two men standing at the bar, currently engaged in a discussion about cattle estates in Spain versus ranches in the colonies.

Don Xavier was saying with a gracious expression as the two men continued to drink their morning coffee together, “Not that I know much about ranches, Don Alejandro, but even I can see that your estate rivals the best in Spain.”

Alejandro missed the Alcalde's grand entrance, for he was responding, “You exaggerate, Sir. But I'm pleased to hear that you think the de la Vega rancho can compete with the larger spreads in the mother country.”

“Most definitely,” Don Xavier told him, though he kept an eye on DeSoto at all times.

DeSoto saw them, too, and immediately gave a snort of disgust that he didn't attempt to cover before turning to head back into the Los Angeles warmth without partaking of a single one of the tavern's amenities.

Victoria, unusually watchful behind the bar, noticed the slight and asked a question of her own before any of the men could stop her. (Victoria's proclaimed love had been offered a pardon from his life as a bandit - of course she was watchful!) “Alcalde, is there something I can do for you?” she called after his departing figure in the doorway.

DeSoto turned again to gaze at her for a moment, but only shook his head. “No, Señorita, not at this time.” His top lip actually curled into a sneer that was only partially hidden by his mustache. “There seems to be something that I wish... to avoid... in here at the moment. I'll come back later.”

DeSoto swiveled again and aimed in the direction of his office, but a cold voice stopped him in his tracks. “Perhaps it is you who is to be avoided, DeSoto,” the man recently arrived from Spain said into the silence that had fallen inside the tavern.

Slowly, DeSoto swung back around to gaze at Don Xavier. “What was that?” he asked in a deceptively polite tone.

Don Xavier didn't react as if he was appropriately shamed, as most people did, by DeSoto's politely frigid tone when he explained his comment, “I have spent the time ever since I arrived in this pueblo listening to what others have to say about you, and seen your 'tax initiatives' often put into effect myself. The fact that Zorro or anybody else hasn't completely stopped these ridiculous actions of yours testifies to the fear with which you choose to govern the citizens who have been placed under your protection. I wonder how you would react, Señor, if that fear was not a part of this equation?”

Diego lowered the book he'd been calmly reading at a nearby table to keep himself busy while his Father talked to Don Xavier that morning. He'd overheard Don Xavier's comment, and decided again that either the man was a fool, or particularly brave to bait DeSoto the way that he was. Diego was just about to mention that Zorro feared nobody, but the purple expression of the expected fury on the Alcalde's face stopped him. Instead, he found himself watching this scene unfold in utter fascination, along with his fellow morning patrons of the tavern.

DeSoto narrowed his eyes as he glared at Don Xavier. “My citizens are happy to support their local garrison by paying their taxes, and I would thank you not to rile any of these good people with your slanderous talk, Señor.”

“Gentlemen,” Diego began to interject from his place at the nearby table. “Perhaps you should..?”

Don Alejandro was softly cautioning his son to be careful of saying too much by swiftly raising his hand in the air to halt Diego's tongue when suddenly Don Xavier overrode Diego's warning to respond to DeSoto. “If you interpret the fear that one can easily see in the eyes of every citizen I've run across this week as a sign of their 'happiness,' then you are truly deluded, Señor.”

DeSoto slapped the riding gloves he was carrying onto the top of the table beside him as he furiously regarded Don Xavier still standing at the bar. The loud thunk of the gloves on the wooden table made everyone give a jump, even the watching Diego. “If the Señor thinks that, then he is the one deluded in this scenario!” the Alcalde gruffly articulated.

In complete contrast to DeSoto's angry demeanor, Don Xavier calmly intoned, “Delusion is often in the eyes of the beholder.”

It seemed that everything Don Xavier said was calculated to enrage DeSoto further. DeSoto's expression grew even more furious as he strode the few steps to stand, quivering, next to the visitor. “Then perhaps Señor Caroga would like to demonstrate just how 'deluded' he claims that I am!” DeSoto's eyes glittered as his white hair swayed on his shoulders. “Or do I remember correctly that Señor Caroga doesn't like to 'show' anybody anything, especially when fighting with a sword - or anything else?”

Don Xavier stood up straighter to better confront DeSoto. “When we met in Madrid, I said that I would not fight you, if I recall, not that I preferred not to show you anything about my fighting skills.”

DeSoto maliciously sneered, “Would not, or could not?”

Don Xavier's own glare intensified a tiny degree, but the man still didn't confirm or deny his own anger that he must have been feeling at this point in the confrontation. “I refuse to dignify that kind of a blatant challenge with a response,” was all he said.

DeSoto then stuck a quivering finger right into Don Xavier's face. “Ever since you came to this pueblo, you've done nothing but spy on me and criticize my governing style.” A basically untrue statement, as Don Xavier had only watched DeSoto, not criticized. But the Alcalde was beyond the lure of the truth by now. Instead, he was so angry that he swayed as he faced Don Xavier. “Fear seems to be more a part of your cowardly lack of a response than anything that you've 'shown' to us so far. Perhaps you just need the right kind of 'incentive' to jog your memory so you can 'dignify us with a response!'” DeSoto regarded Don Xavier, his nostrils flaring. Finally, in a deceptively low voice, he hissed, “I beat you once before, Señor, and I can do it again! I wager that you would not be so calm staring down that heinous outlaw whom you so erroneously wish to pardon!”

“Is that a challenge, Señor DeSoto?” Don Xavier evenly inquired of the furious man standing before him, even as he ignored the obvious barb thrown in his direction.

Again came the slap of gloves hitting a hard surface as DeSoto slammed his outerwear onto the bar. The tavern's patrons jumped again, all except Victoria, who looked too incensed at the vaguely stated commentary on her professed love to give a jump.

DeSoto didn't notice her non-reaction, as his entire attention was taken up by Don Xavier and that man's last query. “Let's settle this once and for all!” he demanded. “I'll trounce you a second time, if that's what it takes to get you out of my pueblo! The plaza... swords... now!” he ended on a roar.

Don Xavier's eyes glittered, but otherwise, he gave no outward reaction to DeSoto's angry demand except to say, “As you wish, Señor, but I want to add that to the victor goes the Alcalde of Los Angeles position.” Shrewdly, he regarded DeSoto swaying before him. “I believe that was what we were fighting for in our original meeting.”

DeSoto's own anger was too much for him to contain by this point. “As you wish,” he recklessly noted. “Anything to get you out of my jurisdiction!”

“Done,” Don Xavier announced in such a cool voice that it caught the direct attention of all those listening to the scene in the tavern.

Even Diego, from his post near the tavern's center, could see that Don Xavier exuded the quiet, subtle strength indicative of someone who was more than competent with a blade. “I wouldn't be so hasty to issue a challenge if I were you, Alcalde,” he laconically warned as DeSoto was about to abruptly turn to head out of the tavern.

But Diego's interference was unwanted. Without even glancing in his direction, DeSoto kept his eyes riveted to Don Xavier as he commanded, “Stay out of this, Diego. You know nothing of swordplay, so don't be so worried.” Abruptly, he gave a sick, wheezy laugh. “In fact, come watch. You might learn something.” With that, he gave an angry twist and marched out of the tavern. Every other tavern occupant followed.

Don Xavier looked calm and collected as he exited the public inn after DeSoto. Diego once again decided that either the man was too ignorant of the situation he had agreed to enter to be frightened, or he was a far more competent adversary to DeSoto than he had shown so far that week. And as Don Xavier hadn't displayed any foolish behavior during the week that Diego had silently watched him, the de la Vega heir had to believe that there was more to the quiet man than met the eye.

Diego was about to again call a warning to the Alcalde to be careful of this seeming sheep in wolf's clothing who had wandered into the pueblo a week before, but Don Alejandro stopped him from speaking by placing an arresting hand on his son's arm.

“No, Diego, don't say anything yet,” Alejandro muttered. He narrowed his eyes against the glare of the sun as he watched Don Xavier calmly accepting a borrowed sword from one of the lancers, bouncing it in the air, testing its weight. Don Alejandro continued in a hushed voice, “I have no more wish than you do to see DeSoto murdered by a man we basically know nothing about, but this may be our chance to rid ourselves of an overbearing government official with no effort on our parts.”

“I had thought of that,” Diego admitted in a whisper. “But it's also possible that if Don Xavier becomes our new Alcalde, he could turn out to be even worse than DeSoto.”

Alejandro quickly turned his head away from the two men in the plaza to stare in astonishment at his son. “You sound like you don't want to be free of DeSoto's tyranny.” He continued to stare in wide-eyed surprise at Diego. “That doesn't sound like the man who previously declared in the newspaper that DeSoto's tax initiatives need 'instant reviewing,'” he groused.

Diego grimaced. That move that he'd made to put his personal opinion in The Los Angeles Guardian editorial column just last week about DeSoto's taxation practices might have been a brave move on his part, but it also might have been an ill-conceived move. “I meant that DeSoto's taxation should be reviewed, not that the man needed to be assassinated!”

Alejandro gave a loud harrumph at his son's perceived lack of a fighting spirit, shown by his further explanation, but said nothing as DeSoto and Xavier continued to face off in the plaza.

That dusty center of town was suddenly filled to the brim with citizens in the standing-room-only plaza. Xavier and DeSoto circled warily, watching, waiting for the other to make the first move in this sword fight that had suddenly transpired.

Predictably, it was DeSoto who lunged first. Don Xavier sedately blocked the sudden but not entirely unexpected move from his opponent, and the fight was on.

Diego watched, completely focused on the battle as DeSoto lunged again, and Xavier quickly twirled away from the Alcalde's swinging blade. Diego had been right: there was more to Don Xavier than DeSoto knew, and the subtle skill as a swordfighter that he was displaying now proved it. The pueblo visitor backpedaled as he carefully led the angrier DeSoto to one side of the plaza. He parried a third lunge made by DeSoto, and shoved aside the swinging swish of DeSoto's sword that followed. Diego studiously took note of the way that Don Xavier was methodically maneuvering DeSoto to face the sunlight, where the Alcalde would be further hampered by the glare of the sun in his eyes. However, before Diego could call out any more warnings to the Alcalde, in one smooth movement, DeSoto's silver blade snapped up and caught Don Xavier on the cheek in a well-executed move that was unexpected.

Blood welled from the shallow cut, and Xavier's gloved hand slowly wiped the red liquid away.

“Ha!” DeSoto gloated at the superficial mark. “I see that your appalling fighting skills have not improved over the years, Señor!”

In opposition of the Alcalde's recent statement, Diego had to consider the careful way that Xavier was moving the fight's general direction, but again he kept his own counsel, as well as held his breath, awaiting the outcome of this unforeseen battle.

Don Xavier was busy sending a rueful smile towards the Alcalde as Diego decided to remain silent yet again. “As you say, Señor, I seem to be hounded to the defensive.”

DeSoto sneered. “Even that is too good a place for you to be in!” he ground out.

Careful, Alcalde, Diego thought, still watching the two combatants. Don Xavier could be baiting you. There's more to this man than we know.

As if Don Xavier could read Diego's mind, he suddenly made a lunge of his own at DeSoto, clearly not accepting the defensive position that DeSoto's former cutting move had thrust him into. “Looks are deceiving, Señor!” Don Xavier reminded with a huff of breath as his blade also neatly sliced a superficial cut through the skin on DeSoto's cheek, mirroring the cut that was on his own. The crowd muttered quietly to each other as DeSoto wiped at his own cheek this time.

“Now we're even,” Don Xavier quietly stated to DeSoto. He held up his borrowed sword between him and his opponent, waiting for the next move that DeSoto was sure to make.

DeSoto didn't keep Don Xavier waiting for long. He swung his sword in a wide arc, looking as if he intended to try to take the Los Angeles visitor out in one bold move, but then he feinted to the side and abruptly brought his blade down, aiming for Xavier's right arm.

As if Don Xavier had been expecting the Alcalde to use just such a feint, he blocked the sudden action in a fluid motion of his own that ended up pushing DeSoto's sword to the side so that the Alcalde didn't have the time or strength to parry the lightning fast move that Don Xavier now made that brought his own sword in contact with DeSoto's right wrist instead of becoming the intended victim of almost the same combination of skills.

Diego blinked. He hadn't seen the complicated series of moves before this, and thus hadn't previously utilized the action when he was dueling as Zorro. He would have to try to copy the subtle movements that Don Xavier had made a moment before so that he could adapt the action to his own fighting repertoire.

Then Diego puckered his nose in thought. What am I thinking? he asked himself in some astonishment. He was learning fencing moves from Don Xavier?? How was that possible, if DeSoto had beaten Don Xavier in a sword fight in Madrid several years before, as both men claimed? How... Why... had DeSoto previously beaten Don Xavier, a man obviously quite competent with a sword, as his last move testified?

Diego puzzled on as the two men continued to dance around the plaza, first trading blows in front at the tavern, then the mission, then back to stand in front of the tavern again. Victoria stood riveted to her front step, watching the fight so closely that she seemed to have acquired the piercing eyes of a hawk. The fate of the man she proclaimed to love hung in the balance of this fight, so naturally, she was as interested as Diego in its outcome.

Diego would have directed some of his swirling thoughts to the promise that he had made to Victoria years before, to proclaim his feelings to her, and what a pardon might mean to him keeping that promise. But he was too wrapped up in watching what Don Xavier and DeSoto did next to spare any of his concentration for anything other than the battle.

Sergeant Mendoza sidled up to where Diego stood beside his Father, seeming to be comforted by standing near his good friends, though the two men made no outward motions towards the Sergeant one way or the other. Mendoza promised to be as affected by the outcome of this contest as Victoria was, and his gaze grew to be just as intense as hers. He puffed out his chest, as if he were holding his breath as well as staring, and his uniform jacket strained with the new movement.

Don Xavier and DeSoto were trading blows directly before Mendoza and the de la Vegas now. DeSoto lunged again, and Don Xavier easily blocked the move once more, shoving the sword aside in the direction of the bystanders in a well executed move that took strength as well as agility.

Frustrated that his attacks were being so easily dealt with, and by a man who wasn't supposed to be dealing with his fighting skills well at all, the Alcalde finally chose a desperate move. He brought his sword up and over and to the side in a threatening advance of his own that carried the blade alarmingly close to the unarmed spectators who stood to the side of the tavern.

Diego, the man closest to the Alcalde's swinging blade, took an instinctive step back away from the two combatants just as Don Xavier's sword caught DeSoto's in an action purely meant to defend the group of three men standing near the tavern. Don Xavier's action left him wide open for a return roundabout and swing from DeSoto, who executed the move with an amazing amount of precision, given that the move was from him, and given the circumstances that he now found himself in. Diego already knew that the Alcalde did not react very thoughtfully to outside pressure.

But no matter how well the move had been delivered, DeSoto was just a fraction too slow in his execution of his last swing, and Don Xavier managed to bring his own weapon to his other side for a glancing parry that still kept DeSoto's sword from cleaving him in two, as DeSoto's calculated move was meant to do. Instead, the Alcalde's sword bounced off Don Xavier's hip. It ripped through the man's expensive looking trousers, but did little real damage, as only the sword tip penetrated the material, and not the entire sword, as was the intention.

Only Diego had ever been in any danger from the Alcalde's rash and desperate move. Now that he was out of the danger, he took a second to pass his hand over his eyes, and risked a glance away from the two dueling men to where Sergeant Mendoza now stood next to his Father to ascertain their safety as well as his. Both men seemed to be too frightened to move, both were still wincing from DeSoto's recent failed attack, but both men were also perfectly all right.

Diego's gaze again swiveled up just in time to see DeSoto make the same threatening move as he had delivered a moment before in the direction of some more of the fight's innocent bystanders on the other side of the plaza. But this time, Don Xavier was ready for such a feint from DeSoto, and blocked the move, then made a lightening fast riposte to his other side to also block DeSoto's secondary swing.

The crowd gasped at the speed of the visitor's half defensive, half offensive motion. At that point, all Don Xavier's fighting firmly transferred from the 'defensive' that DeSoto had earlier ascribed to him, and all to 'offensive,' and at a blurrily fast clip as well.

No longer toying with the Alcalde by letting DeSoto set the pace of the fight, Don Xavier must have decided to take the execution of DeSoto's second move toward endangering innocent bystanders as a sign that he needed to end this contest before someone besides himself or DeSoto got hurt. In what were moves that had so far gone unseen in a sword fight, he attacked DeSoto in the calm, methodical manner meant to chill his opponent.

Even Diego was chilled - in all his years as Zorro, he had never seen such swordsmanship. Of course, he usually fought the typical bandit, whose skills with a sword were generally no more schooled than Toronado's, but it was still something astonishing to see. It slowly dawned on Diego that he was seeing the skills of a master swordsman on display, right there in the Los Angeles plaza, as Don Xavier now attempted to put a quick end to the fight. So far he had been calm, methodical, and poised in how he treated DeSoto's skills. Now he allowed a burst of his own emotional determination to show through the expression of concentration on his face.

Don Xavier had cleverly rotated the fight until DeSoto was facing the sun, and now he used that to his advantage. He gave the Alcalde a fast lunge, a feint, an arc, and brought his own blade up and around in such a distinctly precise movement that it caught the flash of the rising sun on the edge of the blade. DeSoto tried to respond to each of Don Xavier's moves with just that hint of light to guide him.

But DeSoto's skills were no match for Don Xavier's. The pueblo visitor caught DeSoto completely unaware with all his double and triple feints, and arcs, and lunges, and before DeSoto knew it, Don Xavier trapped the Alcalde's sword under his own blade in a move that Diego had never before seen. In one swift downward thrust, Don Xavier broke through DeSoto's sword, causing the blade to fall to the dirt with a thud.

Both men were rasping harsh breaths into the morning air. It was clear that DeSoto was winded with the fight he had undergone, but it was far less certain that Don Xavier's heaves weren't caused more by emotion than exertion, as he wasn't even sweating. He backed DeSoto to a wall of the cuartel that they happened to be standing before, and without hesitation lifted his sword up until the point was unwaveringly centered at the Alcalde's jugular vein in his neck. That vein of DeSoto's now throbbed under the visitor's sword, and the Alcalde's harsh rasps continued to reverberate around the plaza.

The two stared at each other, Don Xavier in a shrewd fashion, and DeSoto in puzzled astonishment.

“But... But...” DeSoto inelegantly spluttered. When he had gathered his wits together, he managed to ask, “How did you disarm me now when I did the same to you not two years ago in Madrid? How?”

Don Xavier actually seemed bored as he shrugged his shoulders and answered the Alcalde. “If I recall the event correctly, Señor, you threatened to kill me for the Los Angeles Alcalde position. I thought at the time that it was the better decision to downplay my skills and stay alive rather than stop you from getting what you wanted. I had plans to come back later and fight for what was rightly mine, but you had already sailed for the colonies.”

“But I branded you a coward!” DeSoto reminded in astonished confusion.

“True,” Don Xavier grunted. “But any who knew me then, and knows me now, knows that I am no coward. And those who don't know me can...” Don Xavier didn't finish his comment, but only gave a wicked smile. “You get the idea,” he added.

DeSoto still looked completely flustered. “But.... But...”

The smile then disappeared from Don Xavier's deliberately angry expression. “I believe that we had an agreement, DeSoto,” Xavier barked through his own gusting breaths. “Be a sporting man, and leave this town, where its rightful Alcalde now presides.”

It's rightful Alcalde? Even Diego wasn't immune to the mutterings brought on by that comment.

However, DeSoto apparently wasn't the 'sporting man' that Don Xavier hoped him to be. Before anyone could react any further to what Xavier had said, DeSoto's bellow of “Lancers!” rang throughout the tiny coastal town. “Rid the pueblo of this...!”

That was as far as DeSoto got in voicing his order. Before the Alcalde could even finish, Don Xavier menacingly shoved the point of his sword a fraction further into the Alcalde's vein at his neck, looking not sorry at all at his life-threatening move.

As the lancers lifted their rifles to their shoulders in anticipation of the Alcalde's order to shoot the visitor from Spain, Don Xavier called to the surrounding lancers, “Señor DeSoto and I made an agreement for the position of Alcalde of Los Angeles before many of these people - don't cheapen that promise that we made!”

The lancers hesitated while DeSoto gulped, the bobbing of his Adam's apple barely escaping the point of Don Xavier's sword. A small trickle of blood slid down to the Alcalde's intricately tied white neckcloth anyway as all the previous bravado DeSoto had showed to the town's citizens vanished in a heartbeat.

A breath went by. The wind whistled through town. Silence reigned.

Then it was Mendoza who hollered, “Lower your weapons, men!” He dropped his own rifle to dangle at his side. “The first man who fires at the new Alcalde will be transferred after a year on latrine duty - my personal guarantee!”

'New Alcalde?' Diego blinked once more, stunned anew. Had he heard Mendoza correctly? That Los Angeles now had a new Alcalde, one who had apparently been the rightful man to begin with all along?

Now all eyes were riveted to see what DeSoto would do. Would he continue to resist? Or would he give up the position of prestige he had enjoyed the last two years to Don Xavier?

DeSoto seemed to be pondering his options, but Don Xavier softly spoke. “I would quietly disappear, DeSoto, if I were you. Better to go peaceably out of town than to go out at the head of a funeral train... coffin first.”

DeSoto gasped another breath and glared at Xavier, but the surrender he must have been feeling by then was ringing in his tone. “You're full of surprises, I'll give you that, Caroga,” he reluctantly complimented.

Don Xavier smiled a tight, little smile that seemed even more menacing on his weathered face. “Thank you,” he said, sounding like he knew the compliment had also been reluctantly given. “Now go pack, Señor, then get out of town. You have until sundown before my good will vanishes, and I lock you in jail. Go!”

Xavier slowly withdrew his blade, then lowered it as the adrenaline from the fight left his arm.

And before the pueblo's gathered citizens, DeSoto woodenly stumbled away in the direction of his office for the final time.

Without a bit of assistance from Zorro, DeSoto was summarily stripped of his power and run out of town. It was a disturbing sight for Diego to watch.

Don Xavier had promised a pardon for Zorro. And now Don Xavier was the 'new' Alcalde of Los Angeles.

Pardon... New Alcalde... a new Alcalde who was obviously a master of the sword, a fighter, a challenge for the area banditos to have to contend with in the future.

Did all that equal an end to the need for Zorro?

Diego blinked at Don Xavier standing alone where DeSoto had left him. He was now the town's Alcalde. A master of the sword. The first real challenge that Zorro... or anyone in Los Angeles... had ever known.

Clearly this changeover was not to be taken lightly. Diego had to think...

With one last glance, and as the crowd began moving to mill together in clumps and small groups of people, Diego calmly strode through the clumps, passed Victoria without even acknowledging her for the first time in the last four years of his life, up to Esperanza's side, and mounted the horse for a thoughtful ride out of town.

Part III: The Padre

It was a pity then that Diego couldn't force his frozen mind to think for anything. He settled himself deep into his chosen library chair and stared blankly out the window, an uncomprehending bundle of pure numbness. A bird twittered as it flew passed the open window. Flies buzzed lazily on the warm morning air. A breeze softly fluttered the cream curtains hanging at the window. A cow mooed from the corrals out near the barns. The muted laughter of the vaqueros drifted to him from the front pasture where they were returning from counting the cattle kept there. They vociferously contemplated the benefits of moving the animals to another pasture this close to market day. Or should they keep the cows in the front pasture for awhile longer yet?

All were normal sounds at a ranch, all natural, benign, and expected. Except that Diego was unaware of any of it. He just continued to stare, completely unengaged, at the carpet under his boots in the library.

The recent events of the past week could very well mean the end for Zorro, an ending garnered through a full pardon. It was more than Diego had ever hoped for. True, the promise of a pardon could be nothing more than a ruse meant to trap him into capture. But even the smallest possibility that the pardon was real, and really meant as a pardon from his 'activities' of the past four years, was almost too incredible.

But did he actually want to be pardoned, to put an end to Zorro for good, to cease fighting the evil that somehow seemed to be attracted to Los Angeles? Diego truly liked doing what he did, even if that life that he led had to be led in secret.

But then he thought of Victoria, how she had spent the most recent years of her life waiting for him to take off his mask and keep the promise he'd made to her. How, then, could he not want to be pardoned?

It was a dilemma of astronomical proportions no matter how he looked at it.

Perhaps it would help to organize his thoughts if he talked to someone about this?

But who could a bandit talk to about chasing criminals at night, about fighting the Alcalde, about dueling for justice in the pueblo? Who in the entire California territory could possibly understand what he'd been through in the last four years?

Nobody. Because he was, and always had been, the one and only Zorro.

So Diego continued thinking, his thoughts already beginning the second round in what promised to be a dizzying afternoon.

Thus, he didn't even hear the knock on the front door when it came a moment later. He was vaguely aware of Felipe approaching the front of the house from the dining room to answer the door, and was busy wondering how a deaf boy could hear a knock on a door, too dazed to recall that Felipe hadn't truly been deaf for years.

The sudden arrival of Padre Benitez in the library drifted in to interrupt Diego's tangled thoughts. The Padre didn't lift his black four cornered hat from his head in greeting, only stood in the library and calmly regarded Diego with a resigned look on his face.

“Diego.” Benitez's rough voice broke through the silence that hung over the book-filled room. He still regarded Diego almost playfully as the cozy aura that the library always offered surrounded the two men. “I fancied that I might find you here when I saw you lead Esperanza out of town.” Then he conspiratorially leaned in close to Diego, and offhandedly whispered, “Though leaving the way you did, without a word to anyone, and looking so dazed as if to say that you had had a huge shock that would directly affect your personal life was as good as yelling to everyone in attendance, 'I'm the man you're looking for - the pardon is mine!'” Benitez shot Diego a baleful look now as Diego's numbness gave way to a sudden wide-eyed, heart-stopping horror as he realized that the Los Angeles Padre somehow knew his secret. “Let me guess,” the Padre continued in a kind tone. “You're suddenly awash in cold prickles as the fear of discovery slowly gives way to your constant fear of being hung... am I right?”

Diego could only sit, a useless lump in the library chair, and gaze, aghast, at Benitez. He neither denied the Padre's assertion, nor declared that it was correct. He couldn't. He was so stunned that he could barely sit up straight to look his guest in his eyes. There was no way that he could form any words beyond the, “Uh,” that he mumbled.

The Padre abruptly straightened, and shot a hasty glance towards the front vestibule of the hacienda as Diego valiantly tried to gather his scattered wits together. It was a good thing it was the Padre who had made his last comment. If it had come from DeSoto, or someone else attached to the government, or who used to be attached to the government, he could have never collected himself quickly enough to ward off the impending doom sure to come after such words!

But now Diego asked himself how could he be so... numb? It wasn't like he hadn't known the possibility of this eventuality happening to him. He should have made a plan for handling just this kind of situation.

But, really, he hadn't.

It was a humbling few seconds for Diego.

But Padre Benitez ignored the hyperventilating man before him. “I wonder if you would take a walk with me, Diego?” the Padre finally asked in his normal gruff tones. “You were saying something about a group of swans living near your back lake. I wonder if you would be able to show them to me now?”

First, the Padre spoke about pardons and Zorro like the two were everyday events, and now he was talking about seeing swans that usually nested in the de la Vegas' back lake, where nobody but Diego had ventured in years. Except the birds were oddly absent this year, as Diego had recently remarked to the Padre. So what could possibly be the religious man's agenda? Diego had gained only enough use of his tongue to stutter, “Uh... There are no...”

Benitez roughly cut him off as he grabbed at Diego's left arm to haul him unceremoniously out of the chair. It was a miracle that the Padre was even able to budge the caballero, as Diego was so much bigger than the Padre. But the smaller man yanked him up as if he were nothing but a recalcitrant student, lifting him from the chair so fast that the younger man nearly toppled over onto the library love seat.

Benitez had to use his considerable weight to keep Diego on his feet. “How you don't fall off Toronado's back to land in the dirt on your... er... derriere... is beyond me,” he muttered under his breath in a whisper that Diego barely heard, but a comment that stunned him further.

Benitez didn't let Diego pause for long. “Now, I know that the fight you saw this morning probably alarmed you,” he said in a loud, overly casual voice. “And I know that DeSoto was an acquaintance of yours from the University, but...” As he spoke, he shoved until Diego was standing up straight and aiming for the front door.

Felipe obliged the friar by holding the front door open, where Benitez winked at Felipe as he and Diego passed, then he abruptly shoved until he had Diego out the door and down the steps. “I'd suggest that we ride horses this afternoon,” Benitez said, “But I'm not sure that you would be able to stay in the saddle of a horse right now. So we walk.”

The two men kicked up a cloud of dust with their feet as they made their way through the front gate and out beyond the hacienda's main grounds. Diego dutifully followed where Padre Benitez pushed, having no idea where he was going (obviously not to the back lake, as this wasn't the way to that body of water at all). He didn't know if he cared or not where they were heading, as he was still too... astonished!... to make any protest.

When the two men were on the road from town, surrounded by the 'nothing' of rural California, the only two alive for miles, Padre Benitez began speaking. “So, Diego, do you want to tell me how long this has been going on?” His eyes raked over Diego's taller form. “Did you create Zorro, or did somebody else come up with the idea of a bandit dressed in black, championing the poor, like the fictional Robin Hood of novels, and you simply refined the idea?” He gazed at Diego with the raised eyebrows of a curious man. “If you recall, I was not yet in Los Angeles when Zorro appeared.” He shrugged. “So I have no idea what happened in the beginning.”

But when Diego remained silent, and only stared at him with ever widening eyes, Benitez sighed. He finally asked, “Or, since you've decided to be difficult and not speak, am I going to have to tickle it out of you?”

Diego gave a surprised start, and Benitez shrugged again. “I suspect that I can hardly request a contest of swords to lure it out of you - you'll beat me at that with your hands tied behind your back.”

Diego finally found his voice enough to mutter, “Padre, believe me when I say that I don't have any...”

Surprisingly, Benitez scowled at him. “Don't give me that nonsense, Don Diego. I thought you were a better man than that. In fact, Victoria insists that you are, but I suppose that she could be somewhat biased.”

“Victoria!” Diego gave an owlish blink. Just the sound of her name did more to wake him up than all of the Padre's shoving and unexpected revelations combined. “What does she have to do with this?”

Benitez considered the caballero's question before he answered. “Well, quite a lot, in one sense, and very little in another.”

Diego again stopped the priest by planting his feet firmly into the dirt of the road they were strolling along to belligerently cross his arms on his chest, and to glare at the Padre. “All right, what's this about, and what does it have to do with Victoria?” His glare had turned into a warning scowl by now. “If you don't tell me this instant that she's all right, I'll...”

But Benitez just 'tsked' at Diego's threatening tone. “Honestly, Diego,” he said with a shake of his head. “You're slipping,” he accused. “A single man not interested in a lady 'in that way' would never be so insistent as to 'demanding' to hear the safety of 'just a friend,' even of a friend of the female persuasion. Unless, of course, that man is more than 'just a friend' to this particular female.”

“Padre!” Diego warned again. “Is she..?”

Suddenly, Benitez gave a chuckle. “She's perfectly fine, Diego,” he assured in a light voice. “She's busy serving at the tavern while the Los Angeles citizens discuss this most recent fight with its Alcalde, and its astounding outcome. In fact, she was the one who sent me out here to make certain that you are all right.”

Diego sent the Padre a discerning look full of suspicion. “Padre,” he said, his tone still one of warning, as if he were speaking to a naughty child. “Twice you've said something that has made me think that you know more about this situation than you're letting on, and so does Victoria. Now, are you going to tell me about it, or am I going to be the one grabbing Felipe's feather duster away from him so that I can tickle you with it?” Then he went on, “Besides the fact that this new Alcalde is suddenly being thrust on us, I have a lot of thinking that I need...”

But Padre Benitez was simply shaking his head back and forth, a smile on his wizened face. “Diego, Diego...” He took a deep breath, laid a calming hand on Diego's arm, and patted him in a manner so familiar that it was entirely disconcerting, especially considering that he was patting the man he had indicated was Zorro, and knew that Zorro could carve him into tiny pieces if he wanted to. “The fact that Zorro has never treated anyone as less than an equal, in spite of your... his... abilities, and despite the opportunities you've... he's... had says more to me about Diego's character than any amount of Confessions might have given.” He turned to gravely stare at Diego. “After all, the deeds of the living reflect forever in the soul,” he added.

At Diego's expression of continued confusion, the Padre gave a soft, forgiving smile in Diego's direction before explaining. “I'd heard of Zorro before coming to Los Angeles, and I had been warned about the bandit Fox of the Night, that he would slit my throat in my sleep and make off with the poor box earnings as a consequence for my audacity in requesting assignment to this pueblo.” The calm smile only grew bigger. “Now I know those rumors of Zorro for the tall tales that they are, and I have been given the opportunity to personally know that he is the kindest man with the biggest heart I have ever encountered. I can only say, 'Thank you, Diego,' but that thanks can most certainly never be enough.”

Diego's puzzlement had grown as Padre Benitez continued to speak, and now his sense of utter confusion had put a stop to the numbness that had previously soaked his brain. He finally took a deep breath and, in order to clear his mind of his many annoying questions meant to ascertain facts, simply stated, “I take it that you know my secret, given what you said in the hacienda as well as out here.”

The smile on the Padre's face only became more benign. “Yes, I confess that I've known for quite some time. Only Victoria has known longer than I have.”

That surprised Diego even further, even though he had suspected something like this. Victoria knew? For sure? “Victoria?!”

Padre Benitez lifted a hand to halt Diego's ramblings before they even began. “Yes, but that's a story that she must tell you herself. I'm here to listen to your first true Confession, if you'd like to give one, and to give advice, though I can only imagine what it must have been like for you these past years. Frustrating... Terrifying...”

“Er...” Diego shuffled slightly on the open road as he regarded the Padre. Why was he hesitating? Hadn't he just said to himself that he wanted someone to talk to about Zorro? How could he turn away from just such an offer when it was handed to him so nicely?

But could he truly afford to take what the Padre was offering? Then Diego thought of Victoria. The image of her sweet face swam before his eyes with more clarity than he'd managed to conger for months. With her again firmly in mind, could he afford not to take the Padre's offer? “How did you deduce Zorro's identity?” he finally asked with narrowed eyes. “What makes you think that I'm the man everyone is looking for?”

Benitez turned away from Diego, so that the younger man could not see the guilt on display in his eyes. “Señor Zorro often came to me over the years in the dead of night, seeking the forgiveness of Confession, did he not?”

Diego continued to glare at him. “I'm not supposed to know that, am I, Padre?” he stubbornly asked.

The sense of determination in the young don's voice made Benitez smile again. “Then take it from me, he did.” The Padre turned to more fully stare at the caballero before him. “And those Confessions, though they weren't meant to, left me with something that few people were ever made aware of.”

Diego's suspicions grew. “Oh? And what was that?”

Benitez looked as if he didn't blame Diego for being suspicious of him and of what he was saying. “Confession is a Holy rite that has been handed down for centuries.”

When the Padre didn't go on, Diego prodded, “Yes?”

Encouraged to continue, Padre Benitez added, “The way Confessionals are dictated to be built, the anonymous Confessor sits in one cubicle, and the Priest hearing the Confession sits in another cubicle built right next to it. Only a small partition left semi-open for sound to pass through the two cubicles is permitted.”

None of this was new information to Diego. “And?” he impatiently asked again. What was all this seemingly random information leading towards? Hadn't the Priest come to talk to him about Don Xavier and the promised pardon instead? What was his reason for all this information about Confessionals?

Benitez looked down to the ground, as if he was admitting something that he would rather keep a secret. “Sound can tell a person many things: whether or not the voice that's speaking holds kindness, whether that person is an impatient or hurried individual, as in DeSoto's case, or...”

But it was Diego who was in a hurry now. He truly wished to discuss Don Xavier's pardon, now that he had convinced himself that he wanted to talk about it, and he wanted to hurry, lest he talk himself out of it again. His impatience with the priest was growing. “So sound tells us a lot. This much I already know, but...”

Benitez cut him off. “Zorro Confessed to me,” he succinctly said. “In the middle of the night, in darkened Confessionals so that I could not discover his identity by the chance sighting of his face during our talks.” Then he eyed Diego with a knowing expression. “But even an outlaw cannot completely change his voice. Oh, he can alter its timbre,” the Padre admitted, “But the distinct qualities that make it his voice...” Again Benitez balefully eyed Diego. “I listened to more things than just his words, though they were often horrifying enough. Then one day at the tavern, while listening to a conversation between you and your father, I admit to closing my eyes and just letting the sound of your voice wash over me.”

At this point Diego's brows rose in acknowledgment to the viability of the Padre's actions.

But Benitez was not finished. “If I was wrong...” He shrugged. “No harm done. But if my suspicions were right...” He shot a telling glance at Diego. “That was when I was certain that you were the man I sought. Such a simple thing to do... close one's eyes and listen for a moment. But it was something that our many Alcaldes never thought to do. And I made sure that it wasn't because of me that DeSoto or Ramon ever considered doing it, either.”

Diego could only stare at Benitez now. “So what you're saying is that my own Confessions are what gave me away in the end?”

Benitez crossed his hands on his stomach and calmly regarded Diego out of settled eyes. “Yes.”

Diego blew out a deep breath that he'd been unaware that he was holding. “So much for the anonymity of Confession,” he acrimoniously grumbled.

But Benitez knew that Diego wasn't angry with him. “It was then that I decided that it didn't matter if by knowing of Zorro's identity, but keeping it a secret from the Alcaldes, I was committing a crime that's akin to harboring a fugitive from the law. If I had ever had the slightest hint that Zorro's criminal activities were truly... criminal... I would have done my duty and informed the Alcalde of what I had discovered. But Zorro did nothing except aid the poor, uncover other, more nefarious bandits, and he did so without harming anyone. You didn't do any harm, did you?” he asked, firmly naming Diego as the owner of Zorro's activities for the first time in their interview.

“Not... permanently.” Diego automatically winced at what the Padre was implying - that Diego was Zorro - and that he had perhaps done things as Zorro that were... questionable. “Let's not talk about that now,” he hedged.

Benitez cleared his throat and clearly asked, “When do you wish to talk about it, then?”

Diego glanced around at all the empty space surrounding them. “Not here,” was what he said in his furtive voice. “And not now.”

Padre Benitez chuckled a bit. “If not in the here, where there is virtually no one to hear us, and we will see anyone approaching for at least a mile, and not right now, then where and when would you feel more comfortable?” he incredulously asked. Diego didn't answer the Padre's inquiry, and when he remained silent, Benitez went on, “Don't disappoint me now, Diego, by illustrating an inability to take a risk and fulfill the dictates of a Confession.”

But even this type of goading didn't garner a vocal reaction from Diego. The young caballero did plenty of non-vocalizing... most notably illustrated by the severe frown on his face... but he kept his mouth firmly closed.

Frustrated, Benitez balked beside Diego on the road. “I really am going to have to tickle it out of you, aren't I?”

Diego abruptly laughed a small laugh at the Padre's words.

“What's so funny?” Benitez asked in curiosity.

Diego did respond to that question. “I had an image in my mind of you bearing a featherduster, looking tall and terrible in your priest's habit, ready to 'tickle it out of' a very meek looking Zorro.” He snorted as he described the picture.

Benitez chuckled as well, and while he was taken with laughter, Diego abruptly stopped the light moment in mid moment.

“Padre,” Diego said, his face so serious now that a deep frown marred his features, making him almost unrecognizable. “You said something a bit earlier that caught my attention - you told me not to disappoint you by showing that I can't take a risk.” He stared at the Priest. “What did you mean by that, exactly?”

Benitez sighed. “Exactly?” he repeated. Diego nodded his ascent, so Benitez explained, “I meant that, as you know, Confession is good for the soul, and I suspect that you have quite a lot to confess, and...”

Diego interrupted the man, whispering a fast, stream-of-thought type of confession, afraid that he would chicken out of speaking again if he gave himself too much time to truly think about what he was doing. “You're right, I am Zorro, and I want to marry Victoria very much, but it was an impossibility while DeSoto was the Alcalde of the pueblo, but now he's gone, with Don Xavier as the new Alcalde, and I don't know if I should take this chance that he's offering to me now for a free life with his pardon, or wait and see if he's as awful an Alcalde as DeSoto always was.” He took a much needed breath, then stared straight at Benitez in some amount of consternation. “What do you think I should do, Padre?”

But now that Diego had done what Benitez had said that he wanted all along, to confess, he was the one to remain silent as he and Diego resumed their stroll up the road. Finally he recapped Diego's problem, “Do you mean, do I think you should ask Don Xavier to honor this pardon of his, or should you wait him out and see if his behavior necessitates the continuation of Zorro's activities?”

Diego nodded. “Tell me what to do, Padre.” His soft voice now held a hint of the desperation that he felt - he truly did not know which way to go on this issue.

“I can't tell you what to do,” Benitez instantly replied.

To which Diego rolled his eyes, and threw up his hands. “I thought you wanted to hear my Confession so that you can tell me what to do. But the minute I do what you wish, you tell me that you can't tell me what to do.” Again he rolled his eyes. “Forgive me for asking, but if that's the case, what's the point in confessing anything at all?”

Padre Benitez sighed again. “'The point...' I suppose the point depends on what you want to do now, Diego.”

Diego gave an aggravated sigh. “I already told you - I want one thing, and this chance will grant me that one thing, but I don't know if I should grab this chance, or if I should wait and see what kind of an Alcalde Don Xavier turns out to be. It could be too soon for Zorro to disappear from the area.” They walked in silence, both of them trying to imagine what type of Alcalde Don Xavier would make, until finally Diego scowled his displeasure at not being able to predict the future. “Part of me wants to desperately believe that Don Xavier has a real pardon that he's offering to me, and I would be a fool not to grab it up as soon as I can, then see about finally marrying Victoria and giving my Father the bushel of grandkids that he's always claimed to have wanted.” But he gave an irritated sigh. “The more conservative part of me, however, thinks that I should wait and see - a good thing is often not real, I've learned.” They walked on, and he continued, “Besides, all this depends on whether or not Victoria even wants me anymore.” He gave a supremely glum sigh, and admitted, “There is always the possibility of her having perpetuated the myth of Zorro simply to perpetuate it. Perhaps she doesn't truly care for me anymore.”

Benitez barked an incredulous laugh. “That's your fear talking again,” he wisely predicted. He regarded Diego in calculated shrewdness. “Perhaps you're looking at all this from the wrong angle,” he suggested instead of replying to Diego's quandary.

Diego wrinkled his nose. “I don't think I...”

Padre Benitez looked up at him in curiosity. “Does Señorita Escalante want to get married in the near future?”

Diego spluttered. “Well... That's what she indicated when I proposed to her!”

Benitez burst into a smile. “Ah, you've already proposed marriage - good, good!”

But Diego didn't look like he thought that his proposal was a good thing at all. “But now that I've asked her... which was at least a year ago... I...”

“Perhaps, as we've already established, you're simply afraid,” Benitez instantly suggested next.

Diego let a thunderous expression cross his face. “Señor Zorro isn't afraid of anything,” he protested.

Benitez smiled softly at Diego. “I'm not talking about Señor Zorro right now, but about Don Diego de la Vega.”

That statement made Diego come to a complete stop on the road again while he mulled over the Padre's words. “You're saying that I'm too afraid to do anything about this situation?”

Benitez waffled his head back and forth. “Ehhhh... Perhaps. Is there some other reason why you've been engaged to Señorita Escalante for a year and are still not married to her?”

It was Diego's turn to balk at what the Padre was saying. “But it was Señor Zorro who proposed!” he protested. “And we already know that Zorro isn't afraid of anything!”

“Ah,” Benitez said in his 'wait a minute' tone of voice. “Was it a proposal for Victoria to marry Señor Zorro, or for her to marry you?”

Diego paused again. “Well...” He finally had to tell him as they resumed their walk, “Me.”

Benitez smiled kindly up at Diego. “Then again, I ask why you're still an unmarried man?”

“Because... Zorro... The Alcalde...” Diego continued to splutter.

Benitez smiled his maddeningly benign smile again as he peered at Diego. “We're not discussing Zorro's future,” he reminded, “but your own.”

Diego blushed at the reference the Padre was making, but he couldn't meet the Padre's eyes after he'd made such excuses.

For that was what he was doing, Diego suddenly realized - making excuses.

Diego stared at the hazy, heat-ridden horizon. “Well,” he lamely began in a small voice. “Marriage means that so much will change... and Felipe might not like all those changes. And...”

“Felipe!” Benitez exclaimed in a voice that said he knew why Felipe was being mentioned in connection to Zorro, but not why the boy was being taken into consideration when talking about Diego's personal affairs. “Felipe will understand, either right away, or after a thoughtful amount of a time has passed. You can't allow your concern for what you think the boy will feel to dictate your own future.” Benitez stopped walking again, forcing Diego to stop as well. “Perhaps you should speak to him, see what's on his mind - he may surprise you.”

That was an astonishing suggestion to Diego. It was so simple as a solution to his plight that he wondered why he hadn't thought of doing that himself before now. “But we always had DeSoto to worry about,” Diego ineffectually excused. “Felipe didn't...” His voice trailed away as he went on thinking.

“Now DeSoto is no longer a problem, thanks to Don Xavier,” Benitez pointed out. “There's nothing holding you back, either from speaking with Felipe, or from Señorita Escalante.”

“Except the part about me not being a free man,” Diego quickly said. “And I won't make Victoria marry a bandit. She deserves a better life than one as an outlaw's wife.”

Again came the Padre's kind smile, the one that always made Diego feel like he was being a bad little boy. But this time he didn't know the reason why he was considered to be behaving poorly.

The Padre finally explained the reason behind his enigmatic expression, “I was thinking - somehow, I don't think anyone - not even Zorro - can 'make' Señorita Escalante do something she didn't already wish to do.” His kind smile became even kinder, which was irritating, and Diego knew the 'advice' part of his problem was going to come in short order, so he knew that he'd better listen carefully. Benitez continued, “You need to speak with her, my son, find out what she wants, what she's thinking, what she desires...”

“I'm afraid that she won't desire me, that's what,” Diego blurted. He was instantly mortified - his deepest fear, and he'd gone and voiced it at the earliest opportunity! How could he have said such a thing?

“Ah,” Benitez intoned again, sounding slightly triumphant at last. “Now at last we reach the heart of the issue.”

Diego winced again at hearing one of his hidden fears described so specifically, but he couldn't deny the truth of his statement, either. “She knows that I'm afraid...”

“But does she know of what?” asked the Padre.

Diego had to concede, “No, not really. I've never told her before. At least...” He recalled how when he had originally proposed in the cave to Victoria, he had voiced his fear that she was in love with a legend rather than with a live person, but he had not said that he was really worried that she didn't love him. “Not in those specific terms, no,” he admitted.

“Then I suggest that you speak with her... soon.” Benitez said in a not unkind tone. “And it would be a good idea to ask her what she thinks of you accepting this pardon, too, or if you should wait and see...”

“Or if it's a trap to capture Zorro,” Diego felt he had to say.

Benitez shrugged. “Whatever it is, or might be, the possibilities that you choose affect her life as well as yours.”

What a revolutionary concept! It was an idea that Diego had never considered before. But now that Padre Benitez had vocalized that idea, it seemed obvious to Diego. Obvious enough for him to have realized it before now. “You're right, of course.”

“You don't have to decide everything yourself, you know,” Benitez wisely counseled. “You have help now in her form. Let her help you.”

It was another revolutionary idea. Victoria's entire life really was affected by his decisions. It wholly depended on whether he decided to put an end to Zorro or not.

Frowning, Diego continued to stand stock still and consider the Padre's latest advice. More unsettling yet was the idea that he had never done any considering beyond himself before now. The fact that he'd had other people to think of beyond the safety of maintaining his secret identity was horrific in the extreme. “Victoria's more patient with me than I ever gave her credit for,” Diego commented under his breath as he thought.

Padre Benitez began winding his way back to the hacienda, followed by a contrite and pensive Diego. “The words 'patient' and 'Victoria' seem to be in opposition,” Benitez commented in some amusement.

Diego's head whipped up again at that statement, but Benitez was in front of him now, as if he didn't expect Diego to respond to his comment even as he made that comment anyway, as if he didn't want to give Diego the answer to a question he had asked, but that he wanted Diego to come up with that answer on his own.

The old devil! Diego thought now in sour appreciation. He wondered how many times the Padre had done that exact same thing to him, or to the others in his flock, in the past. Giving 'food for thought' rather than answers to calls for advice was the mark of a good padre. And to think, Benitez had been a 'good padre' for as long as Diego (or Señor Zorro, for that matter) had known him.

Benitez and Diego had returned to the hacienda by now, where they met a puzzled Don Alejandro just dismounting from Dulcinea. The slightly confused don met Benitez's soft expression with a questioning one of his own. “Padre!” Alejandro called as he turned his still-tacked mount over to a vaquero for handling. “To what do we owe the honor of this visit?”

Benitez stuffed his hands in the arm holes of his robe in a particularly priest-like motion. “Nothing, Don Alejandro, only that Diego and I have had much to discuss concerning the new Alcalde.”

“Ah,” Alejandro interjected, rushing to make an assumption, as he usually did.

Or, at least, to appear to make an assumption, Diego admitted to himself. He supposed that if Victoria and the Padre knew all about his identity, and had kept it a secret from him for who-knew how long, then he really shouldn't 'assume' that anything he held as true really was true.

Don Alejandro was continuing, and Diego listened closely to him. “The way that fight turned out - Don Xavier is full of surprises!” he expostulated with a smile.

Benitez chuckled. “Indeed he is, Don Alejandro.”

Alejandro turned to regard his son. “What do you think will be Zorro's reaction to this turn of events, Diego?” he asked.

Alejandro's voice didn't hold even a hint of accusation, or inquisition, only of curiosity as he asked his question. It was then that Diego realized how very many times in the past that his father had asked him the same type of question - 'What will Zorro do now?' It again led him to wonder just how much Don Alejandro knew about Diego and his ties with Señor Zorro.

Still suspicious, Diego regarded his father just as the older man was regarding him. “How would I know, Father?” he asked, just to see what the older gentleman would do with such a vague response. “I can only guess as to what Zorro will do about anything.”

Alejandro gave a minute growl of irritation at such an evasive reply. “Well, then, what do you guess he'll do?” he inquired. “The reason I wish to know is that Victoria and I were discussing this very subject just now in the tavern, and I wish to hear what you think he'll do so I can add your thoughts to mine and her deliberations.” He continued to just stare at his son with an innocent expression on his face. “You often see the situations connected with Zorro from a unique perspective that Victoria and I haven't considered yet,” he further explained. “I merely wish to hear what you have to say,” Alejandro said.

Diego gazed at his parent. Does he know? Diego thought. Or does he not know, but sounds like he does? Diego grimaced then. Does it matter? he asked himself next. It seemed that a plethora of scattered individuals knew of his secret identity without him having to say a word one way or the other at all. At this point, what difference did it really make if Alejandro knew, too, or not?

With this concept in mind, Diego endeavored to reply to his parent. “I don't quite know what Zorro should do, Father,” he admitted. “The Padre and I were just discussing that very thing.”

Alejandro again looked slightly irritated with Diego's vague response, but he quickly kept such an emotion from showing in his eyes as he, Diego, and their guest wandered to the front door of the hacienda. “Can you be more specific?” Alejandro next asked, his hands held thoughtfully behind his back.

Diego seemed to ponder his father's question as they walked. In truth, his heart was pounding in his veins - what should he say now? They'd reached the hacienda's front door before he replied. “It's only a guess, of course,” he made sure to emphasize. “But... if I were Señor Zorro...” (Here Padre Benitez did a remarkable job of not reacting to Diego's words at all.) Diego continued, “I would have to at least speak with Victoria and Don Xavier first before I decided what was my next best course of action to take.”

Alejandro nodded his silvered head once, quietly appearing to think about what Diego had proposed. “Victoria and Don Xavier,” he repeated, entirely forgetting that Diego had said that he thought Zorro should 'at least' speak with them, indicating that he also thought Zorro needed to speak to more than the two he'd already mentioned.

But Alejandro's expression showed that he was oblivious, as if he was busy thinking about Zorro's possible conversations with Don Xavier and Victoria. He clearly wasn't considering what else his son had said, something that actually gave a hint as to Zorro's secret identity, if he'd only been listening.

But Diego had heavily suspected that his father wouldn't be listening closely to what he had said. Don Alejandro, Diego knew, rarely listened to anyone else's ideas very closely unless told to do so, and since Diego hadn't 'told' him to do anything in particular, Diego knew that he was safe... or appeared to be safe... for the moment.

“That might just be a good idea,” Alejandro was saying now as he marched up the steps to his rambling house. “If so, then Zorro has a lot of speaking and thinking ahead of him,” he absently remarked.

Benitez chose that moment to announce, “I must go, as there are surely many citizens in the pueblo who are unsure of this change to a new Alcalde, and I need to be available to listen to Confessions.” He turned to regard Diego with a light shining in his eyes. “Thank you, Don Diego, for giving me your thoughts and insights into this matter,” he succinctly said. “You've given me a great many things to consider.” With that, he had grabbed the reins of the horse he'd kept tethered at the de la Vega's front gate, mounted, and cantered towards the pueblo.

Alejandro shot Diego a confused look. “Whatever do you suppose he meant, Diego?” he asked as the two men moved to enter the house.

“I really have no idea,” Diego intoned as he closed the door behind them, both men heading for the dining room and a late lunch.

Part IV: Four Brief... and not-so-brief... Conversations

It was an hour before Diego was able to speak to Felipe. The boy had served the de la Vega lunch, as usual (an occurrence that was coming to an end, as soon as the paperwork for his adoption to Don Diego was able to travel through the intricate network of proper offices and proper signatures, which could take a year or more, they had been warned). But as soon as he could get away, Felipe had sensed Diego's need for quiet thought, and disappeared into the cave to brush Toronado until the stallion's black fur coat shone, and to polish his tack until it twinkled. He had the inner nagging that Zorro would need to look good in the very near future, especially if he faced Don Xavier for his 'pardon,' as was currently rumored around town. The idea that the outlaw also needed to look his best in case he came face to face with Victoria was another foregone conclusion.

An hour after lunch, though, found Diego searching out his assistant to see what he had to say about the whole pardon affair. Diego didn't mince words once he found the young man in Zorro's secret cave. “Well, Felipe, what do you think I should do?” he dourly asked the young man. He plopped into the chair pulled up to his desk as he waited for Felipe to start signing. As he waited, he put voice to his choices. “Should I sit tight, keep things as they are, and wait to see what kind of Alcalde Don Xavier makes? Or should I grab this chance for what it is, pardon or not, and publicly declare my undying love for Victoria for all eternity, then sweep her off her feet, literally, onto Toronado's waiting back, and gallop out of the pueblo?” He gazed at Felipe, a half puzzled, half waiting expression on his face. “Any thoughts?” he asked at last.

First, Felipe did something that Diego didn't expect him to do. He grinned, and would have laughed if he could have. Then he motioned a question of his own. 'You - talk - Padre Benitez, yes?'

The signed question caught Diego by surprise. “You know about the Padre... knowing?” Diego lamely asked.

Felipe continued to grin, and dipped his head in one brisk nod.

“Oh,” Diego flatly said, but then recalled the secret, knowing smile that Felipe and the Padre had shared earlier that day when Padre Benitez had urged Diego out the hacienda's front door that Felipe had held open for them. So of course Felipe knew that the Padre knew everything about him.

Diego let a quiet beat go by. Then, without commenting further on that issue, since he didn't know what to say about it anyway, he just prompted, “I'm waiting to see what you have to say - don't keep me in suspense.”

Felipe would have used a dry tone if he could speak, but the sock he gave to Diego's shoulder, and his eye roll did an admirable job of giving the same impression of supreme irritation. 'Idiot,' he said with waving arms. 'Take pardon - take girl - RUN!'

“Just like that?” Diego casually asked, his arms on the rests at the chairs' sides.

Felipe rolled his eyes again. “Afraid - what?' he finally asked in aggravation. 'You - talk - always - Señorita Escalante, yet - ask - me - what - do?' he rhetorically inquired. His face suddenly grew fierce as he regarded his mentor and soon-to-be parent. 'No - disappoint - again,' he threatened, stunning Diego anew. 'Did - same - when - DeSoto - came - pueblo!'

Diego instantly collected his wits enough to point out, “And look what a horrible alcalde DeSoto turned out to be!” He stood, and propped his left hand on his hip, as if to illustrate how stubbornly he felt about this whole issue. “It's a good thing I was Mr. Conservative-wait-and-see, or this town would have been sadly lacking in the hero department, while desperately needing a hero, for two miserable years, thanks to Ignacio DeSoto!”

Felipe gave the eye roll again. 'No - drama!' he suggested, telling his mentor that he thought he was being overly dramatic in this case. The hint of another grin was on his lips.

And for good reason. Diego was incensed, as Felipe had predicted he would be. “I am not being overly dramatic, Felipe!”

The hint of the grin slid off Felipe's face as his expression suddenly grew even more thunderous. He paused, thinking, and blew out a gust of air before he began rapidly signing, as if his life depended on it. 'I - tell... No - hate - me...'

Hate him? Diego could never hate Felipe, no matter what Felipe chose to do... or not do.

Diego tried to catch Felipe's eye, but the boy's attention was all internal by then. Felipe ran a hand through his hair, and around to the back of his neck, showing that he was nervous, but determined to have his say. He sighed a second time, and the soft sound washed around the room to reverberate off the cave's stone walls. He gathered his thoughts together one last time, then launched into an explanation of his own. 'Ramone - died - I - older - you - went to - Spain.'

“You were only older than me by a few months!” Diego protested, but when Felipe glared at him, he held up his hands in the universal signal of surrender. “Sorry to interrupt - my mistake,” he said, then invited, “Go ahead.”

Felipe gave him another thunderous look. 'No - protest - Zorro - then.' The thunderous look deepened. 'I - pueblo - needed. Now - same - chance. I - no - stay - trapped...” Felipe paused, clearly trying to decide what to call this thing he felt trapped in. He finally decided to call it a 'Zorro hole... captured - always. I - life - 'on hold - too.'

Diego was surprised, not only by Felipe's unusual candidness, but by what he was saying. Felipe had never even given the impression that he felt trapped by the myth of Zorro before, to say nothing of actually mentioning his feelings. Diego's hand that had been on his hip in a show of irritation now rested on the younger man's shoulder in a show of sympathy. “I had no idea that I was holding you back - you never said,” Diego softly apologized.

Felipe scowled. 'I - no - complain!' he argued. 'Would - you?'

Diego uncomfortably peered at the stone flags under his boots. “Well... no.” His brows furrowed in self-agitation, he continued. “Of course you can consider yourself free to leave the hacienda whenever you want, but I still have no clue as to what you want to do. Or what I should do. Do you have any ideas?” he asked again.

Felipe began yet another eye-roll, but Diego stopped him with the words, “No eye rolls, please.”

Felipe sighed, ran his hand up his other arm, thought for a minute, then hesitantly signed some more. 'Chance - now. Dangerous - but - chance. Talk - Don...” Felipe took on a pensive expression.

“Talk to Don Xavier,” Diego helpfully supplied.

Felipe's eyes brightened. 'Yes... Talk - him - what - do - next?' the boy suggested.

It was the same advice that Padre Benitez had given him not two hours before. Diego still had the same misgivings he'd had two hours before, too. “But how will I know if Don Xavier's being honest or not?” he protested. “I don't know him well enough to know if I can trust his word, or if he's the greatest liar in all of Spain and the colonies combined!”

Felipe did roll his eyes this time before Diego could stop him. 'You - Zorro,' he signed. 'Zorro - do - anything.'

Diego marveled at the way that Felipe saw his alter ego as a second person, when in reality, that person was standing right in front of him.

'Ask - Don Xavier,' Felipe signed, again snagging Diego's attention. 'Tries - capture - you, then - know - another - DeSoto. Then - steal - pardon...' But Felipe cautioned him, 'He - signs - first.'

“I never thought that he might not sign it,” Diego admitted. “That's a good way to capture Zorro, now that I think of it - give him a pardon, but neglect to sign it.” He gave a rueful smile. “It's rather difficult to honor an unsigned pardon,” he pointed out. “Good thinking.”

Then Felipe made a point that Diego had also not considered. 'Don Xavier - danger - too... trusting - Zorro - not take - pardon,' he said again. 'You - same?'

Diego hadn't thought of things from Don Xavier's point of view, either. He rerouted his attention when Felipe signed some more.

'Chance - no - fly. No - tell - me - do.' And he gave Diego the gravest look he'd ever given him.

Diego stood stock still, sufficiently chastised by Felipe's waving arms. He pondered that he hadn't thought of any of what the young man had just told him. He sighed, then admitted, “I need to...”

'Think,' Felipe ended for him, as if he'd known what his mentor had been going to say. He nodded his understanding, then shoved Diego back into his desk chair where he'd earlier begun their conversation. Once Diego was again seated, the youngster left the cave, bounding up the stairs in one youthful stride, leaving Diego alone to 'think.'

Z Z Z

It was almost full dark when Victoria felt the breeze that meant an open back door on her bare arms. She gasped in surprise, but managed to carefully set down the jug of water she was holding onto a tiny side table without spilling a drop. She turned, expecting to see...

... either bandits bent on robbing the tavern, or Zorro, if she were honest with herself.

“Señor Zorro!” she said with only a tiny whimper of delight to accompany the sound, glad that she wasn't being terrorized by bandits. Or that she was being terrorized by this bandit in particular.

“Señorita,” Zorro whispered as he pecked at her fingers with lips gone cold with his jangling nerves. It was the most wooden he'd ever sounded, and he usually added a romantic line or two on the end of his greeting, an absence that now spoke volumes about his unease. “This isn't a social visit,” he quickly announced with a glance thrown at the curtains separating the kitchen from the tavern's main room.

“It isn't?” Victoria asked as if she didn't quite understand why anyone would not want to visit her tavern for social reasons.

“No,” Zorro reiterated. “Is Don Xavier here for supper, or to answer questions, or..?”

Victoria interrupted him to inform, “Our new Alcalde was here earlier, to answer questions, as you say, and back again for a light dinner, but he left just now, as the sun's setting. He said that he had made sure that DeSoto kept his end of their bargain and left Los Angeles by putting him on a ship bound for Spain at San Pedro. But he ordered Mendoza to prepare the jail, just in case. He should be in his office by now.”

Zorro looked relieved. “Trust you to know what's going on in town,” he muttered with another glance thrown in the direction of the curtain. This time, Victoria's eyes followed his.

“There's no lancers in the main room, nothing to be afraid of,” she said, guessing at what was making him so jittery. “You're safe.”

“Perhaaaaaps,” Zorro whispered, and he still looked as if he thought this entire no-lancers deal was too good to be true, but he tried to relax for Victoria's sake. It wasn't that he didn't trust her assessment of the situation. But... There were different things that he needed to pay attention to that she had never been forced to consider. He preferred to judge the situation for himself.

Before that became necessary, he needed to leave. But before he did that... “I must talk to you,” he whispered, at his unromantic best, “But not now, not here.” He worked his gloved fingers back and forth against each other, the leather rasping in the quiet of the kitchen. Finally, decisively, he instructed, “Give me an hour. After you close the tavern in forty-five minutes, go to the mission. The cells behind the sanctuary...”

Her brows wrinkled. She almost had the desire to tease him about how long it would really be before she closed the tavern. She would close it right that very minute if he just asked. But Zorro would never ask such a thing of her. Victoria squelched her more teasing nature, and ascertained, “Do you mean the cells where visiting priests sleep?”

“Yes,” Zorro said. “Go to the room on the right at the end of the hall behind the sanctuary. Knock twice, pause, then knock twice again. I'll either be waiting to speak with you, or I'll still be talking to Don Xavier, so go on in if you don't hear my answering call. If I'm not there, sit down and wait... and don't panic! I'll be along momentarily.”

But she didn't completely understand. “You're going to speak to Don Xavier?” she asked. “Why? Are you worried about him, about DeSoto, or..?”

However, Victoria didn't get the chance to finish her question. Zorro kissed her once on her forehead, a strangely familiar yet casual thing for him to do. Then he vaguely announced, “I must go.”

No explanation, no details... He just turned away and disappeared through the door again like he was made of nothing more substantial than smoke. “Gone - How typical,” Victoria muttered in amused exasperation once he had vanished.

Z Z Z

Zorro stared through the office skylight, surreptitiously watching Don Xavier as the new Alcalde made careful notes about something at his desk.

Quiet reigned. The scratching of the quill that Don Xavier used was the only sound in the room.

Presently, Sergeant Mendoza arrived at the door leading to the jail cells. “The cells have been cleaned and aired according to your orders, mí Alcalde.”

Don Xavier smiled as he looked up to say, “Thank you, Sergeant. Though we hopefully won't be needing the cells, as DeSoto has already left this afternoon with much less fuss than I expected from him. However, may I compliment you and your men on your quick and diligent work?”

Mendoza smiled now, an infectious grin that nearly disarmed both watching men. “Think nothing of it, Alcalde.” Then a solicitous expression crept over his face. “Was there anything else that you need before I turn in for the night?”

“No,” Don Xavier said, then immediately changed his answer to say a fast, “Yes.” He held up the paper he'd been reading so that Mendoza could see it, too. “Perhaps you can explain these strange markings in the margins of this report to me before you retire,” he suggested.

Mendoza peered more closely at the page in the candlelight. “Oh!” he finally intoned. “Those squiggles on the sides...”

“Yes.” Don Xavier gave a puzzled shrug. “I've never seen markings like those before.”

Mendoza tried out his smile again and explained, “Those are from two Alcaldes ago. Those little numbers are how many times Zorro either beat Alcalde Ramon in a sword fight, or bruised him in one of his tax protests. It's nothing to concern yourself over.”

But Don Xavier didn't quite agree. “Two Alcaldes ago?” he asked in surprise.

Mendoza nodded. “Sí, Señor Alcalde. Those were made by Alcalde Ramon before he died.”

Don Xavier gave a lighthearted chuckle. “Then can I assume that you've been stationed here for quite some time, Sergeant?”

Once again came that infectious grin of Mendoza's. “Oh, sí, I was born here, stationed here... Los Angeles has always been home to me. I have no desire to leave.”

Don Xavier studied the Sergeant for a silent moment. At last he said, “Well... Work hard, assist in keeping the order in the pueblo, and I will see that you remain here, Sergeant.”

“Oh, thank you, mí Alcalde!” Mendoza's surprised grin took up half his face this time at the thought of not getting transferred to who-knows-where doing who-knew-what.

Don Xavier briskly nodded once, as if he'd just promised something that he had meant to promise for some time. “Good night, then, Sergeant. I hope that you sleep well,” Don Xavier said, and returned his attention to his work.

Mendoza actually saluted as he prepared to leave. “I'm sure I will!” he exclaimed before turning smartly... sort of... and marching out of the room, carefully closing the door behind him.

The Sergeant's behavior said more to Zorro about what Mendoza thought of his new boss than Diego would have uncovered in a month by asking twenty different citizens their opinions for a Guardian editorial on the new Alcalde of Los Angeles. It was the most informative three minutes that Zorro had ever indulged in.

Ten minutes of quiet then descended on the office. Zorro watched, but Xavier didn't do anything except copy what was written on one paper to another.

But finally Don Xavier broke the silence. Without even looking up, or pausing in what he was doing, he said, “You can come down now, Señor Zorro. I think the men have gone to bed - it should be quite safe.”

Impressed by how aware of his surroundings Don Xavier was (Zorro had thought he was being as quiet as a mouse) Zorro dropped lightly down to the crossbeams of the room's ceiling, then to the floor.

Only when the man in black was standing before Don Xavier's new desk did the Alcalde look up. He stopped his writing altogether as he first peered at the menacing figure standing in front of him, then smiled up at the tall man. “So I finally get to meet the famous Zorro.”

Zorro's voice was quiet as he responded, “Perhaps 'infamous' is a better word.”

Don Xavier's grin remained. “Perhaps,” he partially agreed. “But you can't deny your fame in this area.”

Zorro, however, was in no mood for a lighthearted chat right then. “Forgive me for cutting this interesting conversation short, Alcalde, but I'm not here to swap pleasantries.”

“Oh?” Don Xavier asked. “What are you here for then?” he continued. “Do you plan to cut my throat and be done with it?”

Zorro grinned his charming half smile. “No, I'm trying to stop the throat cutting business - it's so messy.”

Don Xavier laughed when he heard that statement. “Then, may I ask one more time, why are you here?”

Again Zorro was impressed that the man seemed quite at his ease, not remotely agitated enough to call for his lancers. The bandit responded to the ease of the other by making a show of crossing his arms, a sign of comfort, given that he now would have trouble uncoiling his arms in time to reach for his sword in a possible attack.

As a show of trust, it worked. Don Xavier seemed duly impressed himself. “I can tell by your posture that most of the tales that I've heard of Zorro's wickedness and untrustworthy ways have been exaggerated.”

This comment startled Zorro. “You've been in the area for a time?”

Don Xavier immediately answered. “I've been living in Santa Paula for the last six months, listening to accounts of Zorro, assessing whether or not you were real, or the phantom of the night that the stories claimed, and if your actions meant that you deserved to be pardoned or captured.”

That statement surprised Zorro even further. “Really?” he asked in amazement. “Santa Paula you say?”

Don Xavier nodded. “I wanted to get to know the area... get to know the bandits in the area... before I tipped my hand and revealed myself.”

Zorro grunted in satisfaction at the logic of Don Xavier's plan. “I am impressed.” He studied Don Xavier in a new light. “Most Alcaldes I've known used brute strength rather than cunning to control a populace under his command.” Then he grinned his most winning grin. “I wouldn't want to get on your bad side, Alcalde,” he explained.

But Don Xavier seemed almost immune to the teasing quality in Zorro's voice. “Then what you're really saying is that if I wish to keep you on my good side, you wish to have the pardon that I'm offering?”

“To put it plainly, yes,” Zorro answered without missing a beat. “There are many lives that hinge on this pardon.” The outlaw shrewdly stared at the man behind the pine desk. “I have no wish to burden them any more than I already have by forcing them to wait even longer for me to put an end to my outlaw ways.”

“Yes,” Don Xavier nodded. “I'm sure that even Señorita Escalante wants to move on with her life, and is ready for you to be pardoned.”

At her name, Zorro was of half a mind to let his features grow more menacing, but he endeavored to keep this conversation on a lighter plane. “You know of the Señorita, then?”

Don Xavier barked a laugh. “I wouldn't be much of a detective if I didn't,” he pointed out.

“True,” Zorro conceded. Then he bluntly stated, “I'm risking getting hung to ask if you have the pardon with you now?”

“I won't call for my lancers if you don't try to steal it,” Xavier instantly told him.

“I'm not planning on stealing it,” Zorro informed. “It's not mine until it's freely given to me by the hands of a representative of King Ferdinand.” He sighed, then admitted, “I simply wish to look at it. You can choose to give it to me later, or to not give it to me at all, as you desire. But I warn you that if you decide that I don't deserve to be pardoned, Victoria may choose to ban you from the tavern, and eating in the garrison mess is not always a pleasant experience, as the Sergeant tells me.”

Don Xavier smiled anew at the comment. “Yes, I've partaken food in both places, and the Señorita's tavern is definitely more welcoming... not to mention that the food is better.” He then rose from behind his desk, pulling out a scroll from the pile of papers near the far corner. He waved the curled scroll gently back and forth. “I figured that locking this pardon away in the office safe was a waste of time. As a bandit worth his salt, I had to assume that you would be able to crack the combination of the safe in no time. So I decided to make things as easy for you as possible.”

Zorro chuckled at what Don Xavier was saying, but most of his attention was bent on unfurling and scanning the document that had been placed in his gloved hands. “This isn't signed,” he announced without preamble.

“No.” Don Xavier studied the man before him. “I'll sign it,” he promised, then added, “On one condition.”

Zorro assumed that he knew what this 'condition' of the Alcalde's was going to be. “Giving myself up to the authorities to be 'hung until dead' isn't quite what I had in mind.”

“It's not what's on my mind, either, Zorro,” Don Xavier imparted.

“Oh?”

“Oh,” Xavier echoed. “I have yet to experience first hand just what this pardon of mine is pardoning.”

Zorro affably shrugged. “We seem to be fresh out of banditos for me to catch, or I would show you,” he joked.

“Just so,” Xavier agreed with him. “However, I have an alternative to suggest.”

“Oh?” Zorro was interested now in spite of himself. He was unused to dealing with a fair and impartial Alcalde, but he did his best to adjust to the unusual situation that he now found himself in. “I'm listening.”

Don Xavier moved to sit on the corner of his desk and fold his hands in his lap. “I would be honored to fight you myself, using swords, just once, as long as you promise not to punch me.”

Zorro laughed at the thought of having to punch Don Xavier - he so far hadn't found anyone he wanted less to punch. But he managed to collect himself enough to make a condition of his own. “We fight, with swords, and I promise not to punch you, all for the pardon, which you will hand to me as soon as the fight is over... unless this is to be a duel to the death?”

Don Xavier smiled. “I don't blame you, of all people, for asking that question. But no, it's just meant to be a fight, not a duel to the death. I have no desire to die this week.”

“Neither do I,” Zorro assured him, thinking that Victoria would kill him if he died just as things seemed as if they might actually have a possibility of finally working out for them. How ironic, he thought with an accompanying smile.

“Oh,” Don Xavier said, almost as an afterthought. “The pardon is yours, as long as your sword is mine.”

Zorro answered just as nonchalantly, “I don't know you well enough yet to give you my sword. You're not who this fight for justice of mine was for in the first place. My sword means a lot to me. It goes where I deem it goes.”

Don Xavier considered this. “Fair enough,” he said at last. “But your outlaw ways come to an end,” he demanded.

Zorro considered that condition, and found that it wasn't much of a condition that he needed to consider in the first place. But he needed to be clear on one point. “No capture?”

Xavier shook his head, making the gray in his hair dance in the candlelight. “No capture.”

Making a fast decision, and hoping that he wouldn't later regret it, Zorro stuck out his gloved hand. “Sign the pardon, and you've got a deal.”

Don Xavier shook the hand offered to him, then quickly signed his name and title at the bottom of the pardon. When he was done, he read aloud, “Don Xavier Caroga, special envoy to King Ferdinand of Spain, ratifies this pardon as binding on this date, June 4, 1822.” He showed the added signature to the man in black, but held on to the scroll the pardon was written on. “It's yours after noon tomorrow, when we fight in the plaza.”

Zorro thought about what it might mean to duel with a master of the sword. He lazily smiled. “I'm looking forward to it.” He then dropped his smile and added, “Just don't kill me.”

Equally as casual, Don Xavier said, “If I do, I'm afraid of what Señorita Escalante might do to me the next day.”

Zorro chuckled again. “Wise man,” he noted, then repeated, “Noon tomorrow.”

“Just so that I can say that I crossed swords with the 'infamous' Zorro.” Don Xavier smiled.

This had been by far the most pleasant conversation with an Alcalde of Los Angeles that Zorro had ever had. “Until then,” he said. And in another heartbeat, he was gone.

Z Z Z

But Zorro was not quite finished with all his business in Los Angeles that night. Five minutes after speaking with Alcalde Caroga, he found himself tapping twice on the priests' cell door at the end of the hall behind the mission sanctuary. He paused, breathed, then knocked again. The door opened just a crack. Victoria's dark curls framed her face as she peered through the opening.

She didn't bother with voicing a greeting, only quickly pulling him through a wider crack that she made with the door. Zorro suddenly found himself encased in the cell-like room with nothing but a window, a cot, a desk to write at, and Victoria.

“Buenos noches, Señorita,” Zorro said, a grin on his face, happy just to see her.

But Victoria had other things on her mind than simply saying 'Hello.' Zorro had time to note only that the curtain had been pulled across the one tiny window set high in the room's north wall before Victoria unceremoniously backed him into the naked adobe near the door and kissed him so softly, yet so passionately that he felt his groin grow hard the second she touched him. The analytical part of his mind studied on the fact that he had never reacted to her so quickly before, but the 'feelings' part of his brain was far too enthralled with her current actions to do any further analyzing just then. Her hands instantly roved over the parts of his body that had always been considered by both of them to be untouchable territory.

But now Victoria's fingers were incredibly soft as they passed over areas that had never before been stroked by female hands. Zorro would have been surprised at her audacity if a pleasant red haze hadn't immediately descended on his mind. He was just giving in to the sweet feelings that were accosting him when suddenly Victoria stepped back a few inches to put some unwelcome space between them.

Victoria smiled a languid, pleasant smile up at him, and Zorro shook his head just once to clear his mind of a fog that threatened to quickly overwhelm his senses and turn him completely into mush. Then, almost before he was able to make out what she was saying, she casually whispered into the area where the black silk mask covered his right ear, “That, Señor, is a taste of what you'll be giving up if you don't accept this pardon that is being offered to you, and soon. Though if anything bad happens to you because of what I'm saying, I'm not sure I'll be able to forgive myself. But I know that I'll never forgive myself if I don't say something this time and make some promises of my own.” Then she leaned farther back so that she could see his face frozen with the surprise of her 'attack' to peer at her handiwork.

Her 'handiwork' was a man in black who would now be a puddle on the floor if the wall wasn't presently holding him up.

Victoria smiled that benign grin of hers again, looking like a satisfied cat who'd just caught her first mouse. Then she kissed his cheek in a show of affection, and said, “This is just an example of what's at stake for your future in accepting this pardon. Only a thought to keep in mind.” Then it was her turn to disappear like smoke through a door.

Stunned, Zorro stood alone, leaning against the wall. He was still too full of pent up desire to move, and he just heaved the refreshing night air that flowed through the cracks surrounding the window. Somehow, he knew that Victoria had just offered him the sweetest ultimatum/promise for the future that he'd ever received.

Again Zorro shook his head to try to clear it, but found the endeavor to be a fairly useless one.

Damn! he managed to think in a surge of appreciation - Victoria had known how best to completely unravel his insides in seconds, and leave him a solitary lump of quivering flesh that was still burning for more of her particular kind of 'promise.' And she had been obvious with her 'promise' - he ignored this offer of a pardon from Don Xavier at his peril. The thought of Victoria again kissing him so passionately, then leaving him alone to 'appreciate' her certain brand of 'persuasion' was more compelling than all the arguments that he had heard thus far combined.

He was in much more trouble from Señorita Escalante than he had ever been in from Don Xavier's lancers - heaven help him!

Part V: The Fight Revisited

News of the scheduled match between the new Los Angeles Alcalde and the outlaw hero in black was to be kept a total secret. Therefore, the information about the rumored match was widely disseminated by 7:00 the following morning. Noon was still several hours away, but citizens began lining the plaza for a place to stand at the front of the crowd in order to have a good view of the 'secret' fight long before it was time for the soldiers and Alcalde to smartly march out of the garrison and to the tavern across the dirt plaza. Even Alejandro was willing to wait in the plaza all morning, talking to the Padre and being served glass after glass of lemonade as long as the tangy drink lasted at the tavern.

The group of calm (mostly calm) caballeros and peasants patiently waited while the excited crowd undulated back and forth, standing first in front of the mission, then moving to gather near the tavern, unsure of which location afforded the better view of the plaza.

But noon came and went, and still there was no sign of the local hero riding jauntily astride his black horse into town. The crowd began to murmur with a slight sense of disapproval and shot puzzled glances at Victoria, who had paused long enough in her serving duties to close the tavern when the mission clock chimed the time of 11:30. But though everyone avidly watched Victoria as if she knew more about what was going on than they did, no one said something to her that claimed that she or they knew anything one way or the other. Don Xavier glanced one more time at his pocket watch, asking Don Alejandro standing beside him if his watch had somehow gained time in the last ten minutes.

Just as Alejandro shook his silver head and said that no, Don Xavier had the correct time, the familiar hoofbeats were first heard echoing steadily on the mission walls.

The sound of the horses' hooves grew louder and louder, until, quite unexpectedly, the familiar form of Toronado and his rider entered the town, followed by two more cantering horses. The crowd of people smoothly parted like the Red Sea to allow Zorro to canter farther into town, holding the ropes binding the hands of two scruffy looking men to the pommels of the two extra horses as the two dirty amigos sat dispiritedly on the backs of their mounts.

“Please forgive my tardiness,” Zorro broke the heavy silence that had descended over the crowd. “I was on my way to the pueblo when I suddenly found myself needing to stop an attempt at robbing a private coach bound for Monterey.” He turned to glance at his companions. “Here you will find Señors Lopez and his cohort-of-the-moment, Sancho. They were doing their best to relieve the passengers of their valuables when I arrived on the scene. You'll find that a coach will arrive in the pueblo in a few hours filled with passengers wishing to press charges against these two banditos who, among other things, need to be taught the difference between a private coach full of relatives to the current Monterey Alcalde, and the Monterey mail coach. They thought they were stealing the Territorial mail.” Then Zorro looked around until he managed to spy Mendoza in the crowd of people, lancers, and tavern patrons. “Sergeant?” He deftly handed the ropes in his gloved hands to the waiting Sergeant Mendoza, who caught the ropes in mid air and led the extraneous horses away to the cuartel.

“Gracias, Amigo,” Zorro pleasantly stated as the Sergeant disappeared into the garrison. Then he again surveyed the gathered crowd before him, noting how many eyes were now glued to his black clad form, waiting to see what he would do next - fight with Don Xavier for the pardon, like was rumored, or saunter away on Toronado as if this was any other Zorro sighting on any other day. Even as Zorro was fervently wishing that he had thought to make the condition to Don Xavier last evening that he wanted to confine their duel to the inside of the cuartel, where prying eyes couldn't watch them, he realized the futility of trying to keep this rumored match between him and Don Xavier a 'secret.' He now realized that the citizens of pueblo de Los Angeles and its surrounding area had the right, as well as the need, to see how the skill of their hero 'stacked up' to their new Alcalde's skill. Both men were said to be masters of the sword, and though they knew how well Zorro handled a blade - some of them personally - Don Xavier was a much more unknown commodity.

Then Zorro caught the eye of Señorita Escalante, and he vividly recalled the way she had made hash out of his insides in under a minute the night before. He also recalled her own 'promise' to him.

Zorro gave a soft sigh as he stared at Victoria, but it was a sigh that no one but him was even aware of. He could pretend all he wanted - what he knew to be the truth was staring at him every time he even looked at Victoria: she was the only person who could change the status of his fight for justice, and that 'changing of the fight's status' was perfectly fine, even welcome, to him!

Such exhalations as Zorro's sigh didn't do much more than stall the inevitable. When Zorro next caught site of several young children standing to one side of the plaza, expressions of 'fight, fight, fight!' on their faces, he knew that his grace period was at an end. He could never knowingly disappoint children as well as Victoria, so he gathered his famous fortitude around him like a second cloak and slowly dismounted from Toronado's back, landing softly on the ground before Don Xavier.

“Alcalde,” Zorro said in greeting.

Don Xavier bobbed a nod of his head in the bandit's direction. “Zorro. I want to say that you don't have to go through with this fight of ours.”

Not fight? And risk not winning the pardon? Victoria might cut him up and feed him to her customers if he chose to do that! “Oooohhhh,” Zorro mildly intoned, glancing at Victoria, visions of a sweet seduction dancing inappropriately through his mind. “I think I do.”

It was as if everyone could see exactly what he was thinking by looking into his eyes left free by the mask. As one, the entire crowd turned to regard Victoria, who only shrugged. “You know what my own promise is,” she simply said to the masked man.

“I do indeed.” Zorro carefully drew his sword. It sang into the silent plaza when the scabbard released it. “And like you said last night, I have a promise to keep as well.”

Don Xavier also drew the sword that rested in a scabbard at his side from its protective sheath. “Don't worry, Zorro, I'll go easy on you.”

“Funny,” Zorro remarked as his gaze slid from the pleasing sight of Victoria to the more masculine sight of Don Xavier. Zorro wished he could stare at Victoria all day long instead of dealing with Don Xavier. “I have no intention of 'going easy on you,' for form's sake, or any other sake. I'd feel guilty taking advantage of your hospitality in not immediately arresting me the moment I rode into town by beating you too quickly now because I 'went easy on you.'”

Don Xavier stood in the proper pose that displayed he was ready to begin a fencing match. “Don't be too sure that you'll beat me,” he quietly said, already goading his opponent into overeager displays of skill.

But Zorro was no DeSoto. He resisted the urge of his emotions to toss aside his tight control and grow angry at Xavier's pointed words. He slowly strolled to the side, ignoring Xavier's ready stance, his gaze now fixed on the tavern roofline. The thought that he may never be destined to crawl that roofline again entered his mind, but he forced his attention back onto Don Xavier and his position with firm chiding not to wander again. “Don't be so sure that I won't beat you,” Zorro said in his typically jocular manner that he knew the citizens loved.

With all the suddenness of a typhoon, Don Xavier's booted foot curved upward as he thrust a scoop of dirt in the direction of his opponent. He brought his blade up, over, and down at the same time in the first maneuver of sword fighting skill either one had shown that day.

And in an equally as smooth move, Zorro used his left hand to lift his cape up to block the rain of dirt that was swiftly on top of him, swung around in a circle, and was there to block Don Xavier's swing with his own blade. “Señor, I feel I should point out that we both forgot one of the most important parts of a battle of sword skills - the salute.”

Slowly a smile crept across Don Xavier's face as he released his weight from his sword and backed up a step from where Zorro had managed to move incredibly fast to block his swing. No mere student of the Royal Academy in Spain or the University in Madrid could have blocked his move as quickly. Yet Zorro had made the maneuver seem like child's play. “Your reputation precedes you, Zorro,” Don Xavier noted in a tone of delight. “I was testing you to see if you were worthy of a salute.”

Zorro slowly gave his most cocky grin as he replied with a question, “And did I pass your little test? Am I 'worthy?'”

In answer to Zorro's question, Don Xavier remained silent, but raised his sword blade vertically to his head while his gaze now centered appreciatively on the masked man. “You are indeed,” he finally said.

Zorro gave his own salute to Don Xavier. “Then let's fence,” he suggested in a lazy voice.

And they were off, trading blows as they chased each other up and down the plaza. First Don Xavier was on the defensive, then Zorro as they moved back in the direction of the tavern. “Señorita, lovely as ever,” Zorro commented to the side when his match with Don Xavier allowed him to take his attention off his opponent of the moment and land on Victoria in the crowd.

For the third time that day, all eyes turned to regard the tavern owner. She couldn't resist the blush that instantly stained her cheeks a vibrant shade of pink, but she smiled as if she enjoyed the attention, exactly as Zorro had intended when he made his remark.

Fast as lightening, Zorro's attention swung back to fix firmly onto Don Xavier again. He allowed Alcalde Caroga to attempt to fix his opponent's position by using his sword blade as a weight to pin Zorro's own blade against his sword and his body, but Zorro gave a mighty twist to the side, and escaped the trap that Don Xavier had set into motion. And so the duel wore on.

They traveled first in the direction of the Mission and Don Alejandro, who had an intent, watchful look on his face, then back towards the tavern, where Victoria wore an equally as intent expression. The two dueling men traded lunges, feints, strikes, and blocks as they danced before the crowd, first one way, then the other, neither gaining an advantage over the other for more than a moment or two.

At last, it looked as if Zorro was beginning to tire from Don Xavier's constant skill with his sword. The legend in black was more used to using cunning, agility, and fast bursts of strength to win his contests with the bandits who made up most of his dueling partners, not this constant use of his own skills. He frequently had to switch hands as he fought Don Xavier, who had relied completely on his right hand so far in the fight, and seemed to be still going strong.

At last, Zorro stumbled on some pebbles near the plaza's center fountain, and he had to place his foot against the fountain's stone wall to regain his balance. Don Xavier took advantage of the split second that Zorro's attention was on the stone fountain instead of on him and his moves to try to trap the man's sword blade, now using the same moves as before, adding a complicated twist to the end. Only the fact that Zorro again switched hands at the last moment, thus changing the angle of his blade just slightly, saved him from becoming the Alcalde's next sword 'victim.' Yet the action had taken its toll on Zorro and his concentration, which was beginning to completely unravel.

“Give it up, Zorro,” Don Xavier justifiably advised in a pleased tone. “Though your skill is at the highest level that I've ever had the pleasure to practice with, even I can see that you are growing more and more tired from our exertions.” Seemingly too focused on the fight to reply, Zorro remained silent rather than send yet another barb Don Xavier's way.

The two men fought a few more moments, slipping like snakes around the fountain, until Don Xavier again noted, “You're tiring quickly now. I can feel it with ever strike of my sword. Surrender: there is no shame in giving in to the inevitable.”

But Zorro's light, answering tones flowed into the shimmering sunshine of the California noon. “You wish to surrender to me? Then, by all means....” And Zorro switched his sword hands once more, his blade settling familiarly in the gloved fingers of his right hand as he blocked yet one more swing from Don Xavier. Slowly a smile wormed its way through his tired look of concentration, replacing that look of exhaustion that he'd previously worn to one denoting a more solid expression of enjoyment. Zorro made another impossibly fast block, his sword singing as it met with Don Xavier's.

Don Xavier was taken aback. “How did you block that move?” he asked, clearly not expecting an answer. “No one has ever blocked that move!” his accusation split through the otherwise silent plaza. “You're too tired already to have done such a thing so successfully!”

But Zorro's response didn't sound tired at all. “Take a hint built from experience: don't always believe what you see, Señor.”

Don Xavier gave Zorro a perplexed expression as he continued to perform feints and lunges in the bandit's general direction. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?” Zorro repeated Don Xavier, who only nodded. “Don't always believe your eyes, which can only ever give you half the truth,” Zorro advised. Don Xavier still didn't understand, according to the confusion now gracing his features. So Zorro explained more fully, “Your eyes tell you that I'm tiring.” Don Xavier warily nodded. “However, surely a mind as sharp as yours would tell you that someone of the skill level that you insist that I have would surely not tire so soon in a sword fight.” The look of confusion deepened in Don Xavier's gaze. “So... me, surrender?” Zorro now openly mocked his opponent and what he had earlier said. “Surely you jest,” he responded.

Suddenly the man in black's blows grew to become much harder to anticipate. It took all of Don Xavier's prodigious skills to fend off the other man's strikes.

Zorro maddeningly continued, “That move is mere child's play.” His cocky smile was back on his ever confident face. “A simple contest of skills.”

Xavier grunted. “But that move has never failed to disarm an opponent before,” he argued.

“I've never been the opponent,” Zorro jocularly replied.

And so the duel wore on... and on... and on. It was soon very obvious that Zorro wasn't tired at all, but had merely been pretending fatigue in order to build Don Xavier's confidence to a level where he might be able to force the Alcalde of Los Angeles to make a mistake.

But so far that mistake had not appeared.

However, Zorro seemed to make an error by dropping his guard to ascertain Victoria's position on the tavern porch when the dueling swords reached a bit too close to her for his comfort level. The lapse in his attention had only lasted for a split second, yet it was long enough for Don Xavier to swing his blade aside, taking the famous sword of Toledo Steel with it.

The crowd made a collective draw of breath, just a hiss of sound through their mouths. But by the time the sound was over, Zorro had flipped over backwards, putting the needed distance between himself and the ever threatening Don Xavier. He grabbed a walking stick from the grasp of an unknown man in the crowd, and met Don Xavier's next furious thrust with the wood of the staff suddenly in his hands. Xavier's sword stuck fast in the wood of the walking staff long enough for Zorro to reach down to the edge of the fountain and regain his sword. He managed to bring it up and over, blocking the follow through swing of Xavier's blade.

“That's astonishing!” Xavier blurted. “No one has ever fought like that before, thinking to use a stick as a mode of self defense long enough to turn around a disarmament!”

Zorro only smiled, relaxed and lazy, the gesture fully irritating. “'In the event of being disarmed, use whatever weapon is at hand.'” he quoted his fight master.

“A lesson that you've taken to heart, I see,” Xavier noted with an ironic twist to his lips.

Zorro seemed to give a shrug of his shoulders under the cape he wore. “It's a tenet that has always served me well in the past.”

“And so you use it today,” Xavier remarked.

“So it seems,” Zorro simply replied as they fought on.

... and on... and on... and on.

Neither man made another mistake that his opponent could take advantage of. They danced back and forth for several more moments until abruptly it was Don Xavier who seemed to be tiring, except that his actions were not part of a ruse. He was beginning to make mistakes now, mistakes that Zorro allowed to go by without reprisal.

Yet the outlaw knew that other chances were coming, if he just waited long enough for them. Don Xavier was sure to eventually make another mistake. It would be an error that Zorro could quickly take advantage of.

Such as right now!

With a slight flick of his wrist that was so fast and so subtle, a layman wouldn't even be able to see it, Zorro quickly disarmed Don Xavier, whose sword flew down to lay in the dust at his feet.

Except that Don Xavier's next move was one that even Zorro did not anticipate. Xavier dropped like a stone, following his sword to the dirt, letting the dust of the plaza to coat his sleeves as he reached seemingly instinctively for his sword while not shifting his gaze for one second from Zorro's supremely confident face. Once his sword was again in hand, Xavier rose in a smooth move that put him once again in the crouched position of a ready stance.

Zorro cocked his head to one side, a 'tsking' sound of regret now slipping through his pursed lips. “I'll have to make sure that your sword ends up at the other end of town next time,” he thoughtfully said as the fight continued.

“If there is a 'next time'” Xavier shot back.

And again the fight wore on. Neither man seemed to be tiring now, both combatants pumped up with the adrenaline of disarming an opponent to spur them on.

At last, they had fought their way around to stand in front of the tavern again, and Zorro used that same flick of his wrist to disarm Don Xavier once more. This time the legendary outlaw made certain that Don Xavier's sword swung to the side first before sprawling into the dust several feet away, at the base of one of the tavern's porch support posts.

Don Xavier was breathing heavily by this point, and he heaved in a breath as he raised both his hands into the air. “I surrender, my friend.” Suddenly, his grin defused the tense situation. “That was marvelous! Truly, I haven't enjoyed a contest like that since my own fight master fought me when I was a teenager.”

“You flatter me,” Zorro intoned as he lowered his sword as Xavier continued to keep his hands in the air, and his sword continued to lay in the dirt several feet away.

“No,” Don Xavier said next, still heaving from their earlier exertions. “I think it is you who flatter me.”

“I didn't just let you fight on for as long as you did, if that's what you're saying,” Zorro said as he regarded the Alcalde of Los Angeles. “That was all you. Your skills are quite impressive.” He gave a rueful grin now that the battle had come to a halt. “I haven't been so perfectly matched in years.” He nodded his thanks and acceptance of Don Xavier's superior sword skills. “That was certainly a challenge.”

Don Xavier also nodded his acceptance of the compliment, as well as finally having caught his breath. “Now comes the portion of today's proceedings that you may not find so nice, Zorro,” Don Xavier forced himself to say. Drawing in another deep breath still filled with the dust stirred up by the two combatants of a moment before, he went on, “I've requested that now that we've dueled, I can say that I've crossed swords with the mighty Zorro, where he firmly trounced me with his superior skills.”

Again Zorro's grin of acknowledgment brightened his features. “You're too kind, Alcalde,” he modestly murmured, much to the crowd's approval. He replaced his sword in its sheath even as he spoke.

Don Xavier continued, “I'm afraid that now I have to recall the promise that you made to me last night in my office.”

“That once the duel had been fought, I would turn over my sword and vow never to fight again,” Zorro reiterated a bit sadly. “I remember.

“I thought that you would,” Xavier commented, his voice soft as the wind that scoured the pueblo. “Will you now be a man of your word, Zorro, ceasing your fight of your own volition?” Xavier asked. “Can I trust my instincts that say I'm dealing with a noble man?”

Zorro's gaze shifted to again take in Victoria. “Somehow,” he wryly added, “Noble or not, I have the feeling that I also have a promise that I'd better keep.”

Don Xavier's gaze followed that of Zorro's until he too was looking straight at the tavern owner. He cocked one eyebrow, but only commented, “I suggest that you keep your promise, then, or I have the feeling that you've just eaten your last unpoisoned tamale.”

The crowd chortled and laughed, shifting at the seeming good will of the two who had been admitted combatants.

Zorro let slip one audible sigh, but he refused to show any amount of maudlin emotion at this stage of the day's proceedings. He'd known what was to come after the close of the fight with Don Xavier, and he had accepted that as his fate, even happily accepted it after his 'interview' with Victoria the night before. Knowing that he had the promise of an eventful existence, one that he had only ever allowed himself to dream of before now, he let his gaze linger on Victoria just prior to turning it to the form of the patiently standing Toronado.

Zorro grabbed at the beaded reins of the horse and pulled the animal close. Zorro scratched at the horse's nose as he asked, “Do you have the promised pardon with you now?”

Don Xavier met the eyes of a fresh, young soldier under his command. The soldier gave a smart salute to Alcalde Caroga, then moved forward to offer him a scroll that was loosely tied with a red ribbon. “Yes, as we agreed, the pardon in exchange for your sword.” He held aloft one finger before holding the rolled pardon out to the bandit. “This signed pardon, I want to emphasize.” He unfurled the parchment paper, showing to everyone close enough to observe that he was indeed holding a signed pardon in his outstretched hand.

Zorro gave his lopsided trademark grin at the show of faith from a man whom he had basically not met until the night before. In acknowledgment of the gesture, he gave one last rub to his spirited stallion, then before he could second guess what he was about to do, said, “I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge those who helped me in this struggle that I embarked on several years ago, to help the people of this pueblo overcome the adversities they faced in any way that I could, adversities that were often enforced by the very government that had sworn to protect them.” Knowing that he had already gifted the knife that normally resided in his boot to Felipe, he felt free now to nod in the direction of the crowd. But before anyone had the chance to do their own answering to his speech, he focused his gaze on Don Alejandro. With no more pomp, or flowery speeches, Zorro held out the reins of the mighty steed towards those of the aging caballero. “For unstinting support that has meant more to me than has ever been expressed, I give my horse, Toronado, into Don Alejandro's expert care.” As an astonished Alejandro slowly came forward, too overcome at the gesture to speak himself (There's a first time for everything, Zorro thought to himself), Zorro instructed, “Just beware of feeding him only a little at a time - he's a hog for oats.”

The crowd laughed again, as Zorro had intended it to. Don Alejandro's stunned, “Thank you, Zorro - I promise he'll have the best of care,” was lost on the wind as the outlaw with a price on his head then watched as Don Alejandro slowly led the horse away.

Toronado went with him willingly enough, smelling the partial odor of his master on the master's father, even as that master carefully removed the whip wound around his waist. Zorro held the weapon with a degree of fondness, then before he could think twice, handed the whip out to Don Xavier. “Take it,” he roughly instructed the surprised Los Angeles Alcalde. “I hope that you never have to use it in your own struggle with justice, and that I never have occasion to steel it back.”

Don Xavier slowly took the gift presented to him, mindful of just what the bandit was bequeathing him. “I pray that you don't have to wield it again, either, Zorro,” he managed to say, knowing that, though he was basically new in town, he was witnessing history that may never be written down for posterity, but would certainly be much talked about during his tenure as Alcalde.

Zorro's smile was a fraction less happy now. He once again removed his sheathed saber, and held it up to the sun, its hilt in his left hand, watching the light glint along its silver surface for the last time. He looked at it, for once letting his affection for the weapon show in the expression on his face. “This sword has never let me down,” he remarked, pensive now. “It's perfectly weighted, never bends, and is still as sharp as the day that I first received it.”

Don Xavier was close enough to Zorro's position that he was able to admire the blade. “Such a simple sword for one that has proven so useful,” he said, looking now at the unadorned silver hilt gracing Zorro's gloved hand. “Am I to accept this sword now as a sign of your future promise not to take up any resistance to the military government?”

“As long as that government helps the citizens under its protection rather than exploit them, yes,” Zorro promised. Then he added, “However, I would prefer to let this sword be put on public display for all to see as a constant symbol of hope given to the one who has given me more hope over the years than I can ever repay.” And he crossed with sure steps to face a befuddled Victoria in front of the tavern porch. “May it continue to protect you and all other soldiers of justice,” he simply said in a voice that was light as well as emotionally controlled.

Stunned, Victoria slowly raised her arms to lift the sword from his hands, the hilt in her right fingers. He carefully held the blade at a horizontal angle, cautious to the last of possibly harming this dearest piece of his heart. Victoria reverently took the sword, surprised at how heavy it was now that she was holding it for the first time. “You know that I'll treasure this always, Zorro,” she said on a puff of air as she continued to be mesmerized by the flash of light off the sword blade. “I promise to display it for all to see in a place of honor, so that...”

But that was all she had the time to vocalise. A wholly unexpected burst of motion coming from behind Victoria, and a little to her right side. The flurry of motion stopped her words with little effort. A rough hand abruptly closed over the señorita's fingers holding the sword's shiny silver hilt, and in half a second of eye-blinking, numbing horror, the sharp blade of Zorro's sword was suddenly thrust up against the tavern owner's unblemished skin of her neck as a peon dressed in a wide sombrero and red-checked serape over faded work clothes chuckled in the sudden quiet that had descended on the plaza.

A chill coursed through Zorro's heart as the lazy tones of Ignacio DeSoto floated over the crowd. “You're such a fool, Zorro,” he sneered as his left arm snaked around Victoria's waist to pin her to tightly to his front.

Victoria expelled a surprised breath of air, and held her head up high in order to keep the exposed skin of her neck as far away from the sword blade as possible. With more venom in her voice than she'd spoken with in a long time, she said, “I will not be used in this manner, DeSoto.” She furiously breathed out. “Not by you, or anyone else wanting to...”

DeSoto quieted her with the cold touch of the steel at her neck. Victoria drew in another breath, fury and fear now mixing in her eyes. But she immediately stopped talking and grew quieter, pushing her chin out to draw her head higher yet. Even a fraction of a hair's width between her skin and the sword blade might make a difference in a situation like this.

The crowd moved forward an inch, reacting to DeSoto's aggressive actions. “Not one step closer!” DeSoto called, taking a tighter grip on the sword hilt in his hand. “If anyone moves, I cut her throat!” he acrimoniously called into the morning air.

Everyone stilled, barely breathing. Zorro took in the situation, warily circling in front of DeSoto and his prisoner, trying to decide what to do. Victoria's sincerely frightened gaze held his eyes without effort. She didn't say anything, but only looked at him with surprise, agony, fright, and regret that she was being used against him in this manner showing in her own dark eyes. The fact that the hero of the pueblo was momentarily unarmed had not passed beyond her notice, either. She knew that Zorro was well and truly at DeSoto's mercy for the moment, and that she was playing a part in his scheme - an unwitting part, but a part nonetheless.

Zorro halted his cautious steps just to Victoria and DeSoto's left. He didn't know what he might do to help Victoria in such a personally dangerous situation, but he wanted to be able to throw himself between Victoria and the sword's sharpened edge if he had to, and in order to do that, he needed to position himself where he was more or less directly to Victoria's left. Yet, the moment he stopped his careful saunter around the hostage area, his cold voice washed over the silent crowd. “What do you want, DeSoto?”

Surprisingly enough, DeSoto laughed a light chuckle just as he pulled Victoria more firmly against his chest. Victoria's second forced exhalation of air sounded like a plea in the quiet plaza.

DeSoto kept on grinning, in spite of Victoria's audible expression of pain. “You know what I want, Zorro,” DeSoto wheezed into the heavy, watchful silence of the crowd.

Don Xavier had not stood uselessly by as the former Alcalde manhandled one of his subjects. Now, he drew his own sword that he had regained from the plaza dust only moments before, and pointed it towards DeSoto. “How did you get off that ship bound for Spain that I put you on, Señor?” he demanded to know. “I personally witnessed you being led onto that ship in San Pedro!”

DeSoto dragged Victoria, sword and all, to stand between himself and Zorro on one side, and Don Xavier on the other. “Yes, you did,” he answered his replacement, drawling his reply. “But you should have taken the time to make sure that ship you so nicely imprisoned me on didn't have plans to put in to port in Monterey just before leaving for Spain. I used the one night she was berthed to slip down the mooring ropes, then swim to shore once I was certain the coast was clear.” Finished gloating, he grinned at Don Xavier, though his grin showed no humor. “Waste no opportunity, I always say, eh, Don Xavier?” he rhetorically inquired.

Zorro's cold voice again broke into the ensuing scene. “I for one don't care how you got here. I'm much more concerned with the fact that you're here, now, again using these citizens for your own purpose with no regard to the lives that you're using. Once more - I ask you, what do you want?” He took a threatening step forward as he spoke. “And I warn you, harm one hair on her head, and you will rue the day that you ever came to this pueblo. The dark of night will not be enough to hide you from my vengeance,” he promised in a voice hard as steel.

DeSoto pretended to lift his eyes thoughtfully to the blue of the sky above them to consider Zorro's words. “I would be shaking in my boots, Zorro,” he languidly said. “Except that I know that you're unarmed, so your words are as empty as your heart.”

Zorro instantly posited, “And just how do you know that I am unarmed, DeSoto?”

Fear shot momentarily through DeSoto's eyes, as it became clear that he had not considered such an addition to this scene. He swiftly recovered his former mein of confident unconcern. “You're unarmed,” he replied. “You were fool enough to hand over your sword yourself,” he reminded the bandit. “I think you'll listen to me now, Outlaw.”

Zorro gave an inaudible sigh - his bluff had been called. He spent precious seconds inwardly cursing the fact that he hadn't foreseen this event transpiring. Aloud, he answered, “Either let her go, or tell us your demands. But I promise you...”

“Yes, yes.” DeSoto now sounded tired as he firmly carried Victoria back two steps, putting some distance between him and his adversary. The former Alcalde shrewdly regarded his enemy, who had mirrored his adversary's actions with his own as soon as he'd made his move.

But DeSoto didn't appear to be threatened, as if he knew that he held all the cards in this game of cat and mouse that he'd been playing with the masked bandit for two years. Where Zorro was concerned, he did hold the winning hand. He made sure to tighten his grasp on Victoria even as he spoke.

“All right, Zorro, I'll give it to you plain and simple,” he said, seeming to suddenly agree with Zorro's demand. “I want...” he emphasized, “you...” and he pointed at Zorro with the tip of the sword in his possession. “I want... you... to unmask, here and now, before all these good citizens who will bear witness to the man who has covered his features for years... hidden himself from them for years like the coward that he is... or I promise that I will have little remorse in shutting up this piece of baggage for good.” His voice had grown thin and deadly the more he spoke. “You have my word,” he slowly ground out.

Don Xavier chose that moment to note, “You will never get away with your freedom intact, DeSoto.”

But it was Zorro who replied, “It's not his intention to get away today.” His voice almost whisper soft and intense, he continued, “His only desire is to best me, and he'll use whatever is at his command in order to do it.”

“Ohhhh!” DeSoto gushed. “I'd clap my hands in acknowledgment of your superior intellect, Zorro, but they're a little occupied at the moment.” Sarcasm dripped from every word he spoke. “Now remove the mask, take your humiliation like the hero...” He spit the word. “... that everyone claims that you are, and no one comes to harm.” DeSoto tightened his grip once more on both Victoria and the silver sword in his hand. “Or I promise you that this little drama will be talked about for years to come as the day a certain tavern owner met her death.”

Zorro stood momentarily undecided before the man with a glint of madness sparkling in his eyes. But he only glanced at DeSoto. His gaze from then on was securely centered on the woman in DeSoto's arms.

Zorro could tell just by the look of frustration in Victoria's eyes that she suspected that Zorro was seriously considering DeSoto's request. So she took matters into her own hands: she gave a minute shake of her head. “Don't do it, Zorro,” she pled in a soft voice. It was the quietest Zorro had ever heard Victoria be. She went on, “One life, even mine, is not worth the price of your secret identity.”

But Zorro was far from convinced. “How can you say that, Victoria?” he asked. “Your life will always be worth anything to me,” he insisted.

DeSoto sneered. “How touching,” he mocked. He tightened his grip yet again, and Victoria reacted in the only way she could, by taking another indrawn breath and moving her head away from the sword once more. But despite her moves, the blade edge was coming closer and closer to her throat. “You have one minute!” DeSoto warned. “How will you possibly live the life that I know you secretly covet with the Señorita if she's dead, eh Zorro?” he asked, his voice goading now. “It makes no difference to...”

And that was the second that many separate things happened with the suddenness of a summer storm. The fllrrrt of something spiraling through the air suddenly reached everyone's ears as a yellow-hilted dagger was abruptly thrown from the direction of the tavern roof to bury itself in the ground after winging the former Alcalde's hand, throwing it forward just enough so that Zorro could slip his gloved right hand into the opening between the shiny silver blade and Victoria's unprotected neck. At the same time, a shot rang out in the plaza, one from the crowd's left, and back, from the tavern's other roofline. The speeding bullet from the unknown pistol buried itself at the outer edge of DeSoto's right shoulder. The reflexive jerk that DeSoto gave flung his arm further forward, pushing the sword blade to scrape across what would have been Victoria's neck, but instead hit Zorro's gloved fingers. The black glove successfully deflected the slicing blade away from Victoria's exposed throat, but that blade cut instead into Zorro's palm with abandon. Zorro, however, quickly decided that a palm throbbing in pain was a completely acceptable tradeoff if it meant that the first blood drawn by the famous sword was his rather than blood drawn from Victoria's neck.

Zorro finished the lightening fast move he had instantly embarked on the second the knife was thrown into the plaza. His left hand shot out to catch hold of Victoria's wrist, and to yank her completely away from the dangerous edge of the blade. As DeSoto crumbled to the dirt, and Zorro's sword spun away to fall into the dust at their feet, the outlaw bandit gathered his arm protectively around a shaking Victoria, and pull, too busy shaking himself to care about the spectacle they were making.

Victoria stood, hiding her face in Zorro's shoulder, trembling, too frightened to cry. She heaved in her shallow breaths, frightened beyond even her imaginings, and the amount of horror she could imagine was prodigious. The fact that Zorro wasn't in much better shape than she was told her that he had easily been as frightened as she had been. His shaking was just much more controlled than hers.

Guns had cocked and rifles made ready the second DeSoto had dropped Zorro's sword and struck the dirt of the plaza. He now gripped his shoulder, grimacing and groaning as he lay panting in the dust, red blood seeping through his clenched fingers. Don Xavier quickly looked to the rooftops to the crowd's right, and a man wearing the red and blue uniform of a lancer appeared on a rooftop, carrying a rifle. He now raised his shoulders in a shrug, and yelled, “You ordered me up here in case there was trouble, but that shot wasn't from me, Alcalde.”

The murmurs of the crowd quickly consumed anyone not already wondering about the anonymity of the secret shooter. Zorro and Victoria remained silent, watching as the rifles of the lancers still on the ground continued to cover the groaning DeSoto, just as another man rounded the corner of the tavern between that and the mission to its side.

This unknown man pushed his way through the gathered people. He stared around him with excited, widened eyes, then took in the wriggling DeSoto lying in the dirt at everyone's feet. “I knew I hit him!” he blurted, his excitement only growing. “How's that for hitting the broad side of a barn, Mendoza?”

It was then that Zorro's eyesight cleared enough for him to take in the identity of this addition to the day's proceedings. “Lopez!” he exclaimed in amazement. “What are you doing out of jail?”

The shining eyes of the one man who had the distinction of being captured by Zorro more times than any other bandit now latched onto the hero's blue gaze. “Oh,” he said, sounding stunned, as if he had suddenly realized that he wasn't supposed to show himself to those conglomerated in the plaza. He straightened, then gestured towards Mendoza with his pistol. “The Sergeant was taking me and Sanchez to the jail cells, when I mentioned that it was lucky for you that I had never shot you before now, what with you capturing me all the time...”

Don Xavier's patience with this bandit was growing thin already. “Yes, yes? Get on with it, man!”

Lopez looked only slightly taken aback, but continued his story in a rushed manner - meaning that he said the same words he was always going to say, just that he said them as fast as he possibly could. “I told Mendoza that I was a marksman, after all. Then Mendoza gave me this look, and said that he would put a good word in for me to the Alcalde... that's you.” And he pointed to Don Xavier, as if Don Xavier needed the reminder. “And that I should hide myself on the tavern roof, and shoot someone in case there was trouble this afternoon... and as I didn't want anything bad or nothin' to happen to Zorro - he always treated me real good on those captures and all... Mendoza said something about things going easier on me this time if I would help in case there was trouble - he figured that an ace up his sleeve would...”

But Don Xavier swiveled to look at the now nervous Mendoza. “Sergeant!” he said, his voice full of his sense of pleasant surprise. “You took it upon yourself to secure another sniper in the area, just in case we had trouble?”

The Sergeant was now so nervous that his shuffling feet created their own dust devils in the plaza. “Sí, mi Alcalde, even though I knew about your orders to have a lancer ready in case of trouble, I thought it would be prudent to have two men available.” His anxiety was making him dance in place now. It looked like he was a man who had to immediately use the rest-room. “You're new in Los Angeles, and don't know...” He halted his babbling, and pointed in Zorro's general direction. “You don't know how Zorro can attract really bad guys, no matter what he's doing, and I wasn't sure that I trusted Señor DeSoto not to show up and...”

But Don Xavier's slow smile halted Mendoza's words. “You took the initiative to make an addendum like that to my original orders?”

Mendoza gave a miserable nod. He appeared as if he expected an unpleasant reprisal for his actions at any moment. “Sí, Alcalde, but I promise that it won't happen again, and...”

“But that's excellent, Sergeant!” Don Xavier was smiling now. “There is definite potential here at the garrison of Los Angeles if the sergeant's good example of individual thinking is any indication of what I can expect in the next few months.”

Mendoza's eyes widened at his words. “Uh... it is?” he hesitantly asked.

“Well done, Sergeant!” Don Xavier now more softly said. “I can only be as good as the soldiers under my command, and if this is any example of that, then the citizens of Los Angeles can expect great things from all of us.”

Mendoza's uncertain smile started to worm across his face and his dancing ceased for the moment. “Oh!” he exclaimed, sudden understanding of Don Xavier's message finally showing in his eyes. “Sí, sí!” he agreeably said, then blushed a deep hue of red at the Alcalde's praise. “It was nothing, really.”

A still quaking Zorro spoke up for the first time since he'd taken the trembling Victoria into his arms. “I think it was excellent foresight, Sergeant.” He glanced at Victoria then, and his arm tightened around her in response. A deep sense of gratitude stole through him, and he found that he couldn't remain silent as he said, “I owe you a far larger debt than I can ever repay - thank you.”

Sergeant Mendoza seemed not to know how to take so much positive feedback to his actions. “Oh, no Zorro,” he said, nervous again. “There is no debt - don't think that. I was just doing my duty.”

Don Xavier's voice then turned harder as he motioned towards the man on the ground still clutching his shoulder and groaning in pain. “It's our duty now to move this individual to the jail, and we should see to the removal of his bullet. Señor Lopez, if you'll follow me to my office, we'll see what kind of a deal we can strike.”

Lopez smiled, appearing only too glad to accommodate the new Alcalde's wishes. “As long as you don't want me to stop any cousins of yours from reaching Los Angeles, you have my gun, Alcalde,” he said, gesturing now in The Alcalde's office's direction. “After you,” and started walking towards the green office of the pueblo's alcalde.

But Don Xavier was too busy furrowing his brow to follow. “Stopping my cousins? What's he going on about, Mendoza?”

The Sergeant simply indicated that the nobleman should follow him and Lopez to the cuartel. “I'll explain everything, mí Alcalde. You see...”

Part VI: Nocturnal Interlude

The dark of night almost hid the squeak of the skylight's hinges as a few hours later, Zorro snuck for quite possibly his last time into the Alcalde's office. He had left a horse borrowed from the de la Vega stables tied outside the pueblo and was in town for only one purpose now - to ascertain what had happened to DeSoto, and to the bandits Lopez and Sancho. Quietly he lowered himself to the floor, then prepared to softly approach the door leading into the Los Angeles jail cells.

The sudden arrival of Don Xavier coming through the door to his quarters arrested Zorro's movements.

“Zorro!” Don Xavier softly yelped. He placed his hand to his heart, indicating his severe fright at the unexpected sight of the outlaw in his office. “You must really stop doing all this sneaking around,” he admonished as he crossed to his desk. “You might startle someone enough to cause them to inadvertently hurt you.” He sighed a breath, then shuffled through some papers on his desk. He had to sit down in order to study them more closely. It almost seemed as if he was so comfortable in Zorro's presence that he dismissed the outlaw entirely from his attention.

Even after all the time that had passed, the ease of this Alcalde's bearing still managed to surprise Zorro enough to completely unnerve him. “Alcalde,” he began, his voice steadier than his insides at the sight of an Alcalde leaning so casually back in a chair that happened to be in the same room that he was.

Don Xavier glanced up from the papers he was in the middle of perusing. “Yes, Zorro?” he asked.

Zorro still didn't know how to take this casual acceptance of his presence. “Er...”

But Don Xavier seemed to inherently know what the bandit had come to inquire about. “If you're here about DeSoto, he left just this evening for his trial in Monterey. The territorial governor requested that we send him back to Spain for trial, but you can imagine that I had certain misgivings about carrying out that plan.”

Zorro grinned his usual disarming grin, warming up to this revolutionary attitude that the Alcalde was showing. “I certainly can understand your qualms concerning that plan, yes,” he answered, his voice growing more jaunty all the time.

“How's your hand faring?” Don Xavier next inquired, the papers in his hands still now.

The furrowing of Zorro's brow wasn't completely lost despite the fact that the black mask obscured the gesture. “My hand?” he asked, again surprised at hearing any kind of solicitation from any governmental quarter.

Don Xavier rose, but remained behind his desk. “Yes,” he said, giving the papers a smart snap on the wood. “That was a nasty gash you received from your sword when you saved Señorita Escalante from DeSoto.”

Zorro couldn't resist flexing his right hand beneath the glove to show Don Xavier that it was all right. The skin around his wound pulled a bit at the motion, but didn't hurt overly much. The lack of overwhelming pain was encouraging. “It's good enough,” he reported, bending and unbending his fingers. “My glove was plenty thick enough to take the brunt of that cut the sword made. It barely cut all the way into my palm.”

Don Xavier still gave a grimace. “Better your palm than the Señorita's neck, I suppose,” he thoughtfully admitted.

“Yes!” Zorro said in wholehearted agreement.

Don Xavier noted, “Still, it must be a painful injury. One that can do much harm to your identity, as anyone can just look for a tall, young man with a cut on his right palm to link Zorro and him together.” Xavier turned now shrewd eyes onto the bandit. “That stunt of DeSoto's may have more far reaching consequences than he ever imagined.”

Zorro took a quick turn through the office in order to take Don Xavier's attention away from his hand. “True,” he admitted. “However, the real man that I am can simply remain away from the pueblo, at least until a slight sword wound heals.”

Don Xavier shrugged in acknowledgment of the plan, then nodded.

Zorro went on, “How can you deduce my identity in those circumstances, Alcalde?” he asked.

Don Xavier was forced again to shrug. “You're right, as usual, Zorro. Yet, you're here now - is there something I can do for you?”

Zorro quickly responded, “I came to make certain of DeSoto's fate, as I haven't heard any rumors as to what you intend to do with him.” Xavier gave a nod as Zorro spoke on. “I also came to hear of your intentions towards Lopez and Sancho.” He cocked his head to the side. “I owe Lopez a great deal, though what I owe him, and what he owes me for treating him so fairly over the years tends to cancel each other out, so I'm told.”

Don Xavier grunted his agreement at Zorro's assessment of the situation. “You must have excellent spies in the pueblo,” he replied. “That is indeed how the rumor goes.” Then he seemed to gather his thoughts together, and explained, “DeSoto... You know what happened to him. As to Señors Lopez and Sancho... I let Señor Lopez go free, after I confiscated his weapon, and promised harsh reprisals if I ever see him again.” Then he sighed, taking on a regretful expression. “Señor Sancho, I had to transfer to Monterey for trial - he had apparently assaulted one of the female passengers aboard the couch that he and Lopez tried to rob. She wished to press charges, and I decided to let the Alcalde in Monterey sort out all the 'he said/she said' arguments at Sanchez's trial. Either way, it removed a criminal from the Los Angeles area, which is always my basic intent, so I figure that I shouldn't feel too badly about it. But an assault on my watch... I regret that it happened... or that the Señorita in question can believably claim that it happened.”

Zorro considered both Sanchez's supposed actions, and how Don Xavier had reacted to the accusation. “If it's true, there's nothing that you could have done, and I agree completely with your decisions, Alcalde,” he told him. “But I feel that I should tell you that the rumor of my 'spies' in the pueblo is greatly exaggerated.”

Don Xavier perked up. “No spies then?”

Zorro hedged, “Weeeeellllll... not so many as I'm rumored to have.”

Then Zorro was further astonished when Don Xavier said in a very subdued voice, “And speaking of spies...” He suddenly looked very uncomfortable, yet determined to continue. “I have a confession to make, and I should really stop trying so hard to deceive you...”

Zorro's perplexity at what Don Xavier was now hinting at was also not completely hidden beneath his mask. “Don Xavier - what is it?” A confession? Of what? “You wish to tell me that you actually held back on your abilities during our sword fight in the plaza, and want a rematch?” Then he shook his head. “I'm not sure that Victoria is up to that.”

But Don Xavier cut him off to chuckle at Zorro's final comment, and to state, “No, I can't say that I want a rematch - though what I have to tell you does include Señorita Escalante.”

Zorro's attention was assured the second that the Señorita's name was mentioned. He leaned in closer to Don Xavier so that he could hear the Alcalde's lowered voice with no trouble.

The silence was intense as Don Xavier gazed, not blinking, at the man in black, looking guilty now. Finally he simply confessed in a voice close to a whisper, “I know who you are.”

Zorro reared back, then only stared in disbelief at him, a look of mixed horror and resignation invading his eyes. Victoria knew... the Padre knew... now apparently Don Xavier knew... was there anyone who didn't know his identity?

Zorro's right hand twinged an ache through his arm, and he immediately thought that at least Ignacio DeSoto hadn't known - and he had the proof!

Zorro continued to gaze at a contrite looking Don Xavier. Finally, he only said, “Explain.”

Don Xavier winced at the commanding tone. But he gamely said, “Do you remember when I arrived in Los Angeles?”

Zorro again aimed his assessing look at him. “That event comes to mind,” was all he said, trying not to confirm Don Xavier's suspicions that he had indeed been present at the event in question. Such an acknowledgment would do little than immediately verify his identity.

“I brought a servant with me,” Don Xavier then explained. “My servant's name is José. That evening of the day that I arrived, José told me of a conversation that he had unwittingly overheard between Sergeant Mendoza and Señorita Escalante about Zorro's age and how it was the same age as... a certain someone in the pueblo... and how Alcalde DeSoto had instantly linked the two men together because of their similar ages, and how ridiculous it was to link the two men, according to most of the patrons in the tavern, and how...” Then he took a deep breath. “An innocent bit of information, I admit, but I've learned over the years to pay attention to any bits of information that come my way. And in that following week, I paid attention to... who you really are... whom I saw plenty of, even if I didn't see Zorro, and...”

“Until later you had Zorro in plain sight right before you when I visited you in your office.” Zorro's voice held the fright that he was feeling at even a hint of someone official suspecting his identity. He wished that he had thought of a plan to implement in the event that the Alcalde of the pueblo ever deduced his identity, but it had always seemed to be a remote possibility to him, something that would take place 'one day,' a time that had always seemed to be far in the future to him. It was even more ironic that Zorro now suspected that he himself had unwittingly helped Don Xavier in his 'discovery' of his secret identity.

Don Xavier went on, “It was a simple matter then of imposing... the features of who you really are... to the features on Zorro, at least, the unmasked ones.” His guilty look deepened. “It seemed so obvious, then.”

“So people keep telling me,” Zorro said, the chill that he'd only felt up till now coming through in his voice as heavy sarcasm. Finally, still assessing Don Xavier with his gaze, he sighed and, thinking primarily of Victoria and the life he now might be able to begin with her... as long as she was agreeable to that idea... and nothing came of this 'identity discovery...' His sigh deepened. “What do you intend to do with this information now that you know?” he abruptly asked.

Don Xavier leaned back in his chair. “Do?” he echoed. He appeared to be confused by the question that Zorro had just asked, even though it was a logical inquiry. “Well,” he blustered. “I... I don't...” Finally, after a calming breath, he stated, “I don't intend to do anything!” He shrugged, baffled. “Is there something that you wish me to do?” he inquired, his eyebrows raised. “Something specific that..?”

Zorro's own assurances came across loud and clear. “No! No! Not saying anything to anybody is... That's a fine idea,” he lamely suggested. I'm not handling this particularly well, he then thought. Felipe was going to have one heck of a laugh about all this when he heard.

“So no one else knows?” Don Xavier then asked.

“Well,” Zorro began to say, and thought of Victoria, Padre Benitez... They had known, but hadn't said a thing to him... in Victoria's case, for years. He hadn't exactly had time to discuss that with her yet...

Don Xavier leaned even more comfortably into the back of his chair. “Of course, you can count on my discretion, if you wish, Zorro.” He steepled his fingers together in a thoughtful pose. “I can promise not to tell Señorita Escalante about what I know.”

“That won't do any good - she already knows,” Zorro had to tell the Alcalde.

Don Xavier seemed further intrigued by this piece of information, as if this was a twist to his own knowledge that he hadn't previously anticipated. “Really?” he half accused, half asked. “Now that I didn't know.” His brows drew down over his eyes in a pensive pose. “What have the two of you decided concerning..?”

Zorro had to interrupt him again to explain, “We haven't decided anything yet, I'm afraid.”

Xavier peered up at the bandit as he continued to loom over the official's desk. “You mean that..?”

“I never told her,” Zorro had to uncomfortably inform. “She... er... figured it out for herself... I think... somehow,” he said, his tone so cautious at what he now divulged that he stumbled in his explanation.

Don Xavier leaned forward, looking up with his searching eyes. “Hadn't you better discuss this with her then?” he ascertained in a suggestive way.

It was basically the same advice that Padre Benitez had given him not long ago. How did this man know that the bandit had yet to do this? Unless... Perhaps, Don Xavier had gone to Confession?

But Zorro couldn't be sure of that, and he didn't wish to ask about a man's personal Confessions. Still, Zorro's gaze remained assessing. At last he simply said, “Maybe I should,” as if he were admitting to a truly heinous crime in not speaking to Victoria before now.

“Well then...” Don Xavier searched Zorro's eyes. “What are you still doing here?” he asked.

And that's my cue to leave, Zorro thought. He turned away from Don Xavier's desk without a word, but immediately turned back. He reached up and removed his black hat. Holding it out, he asked, “I'll go, but before I do that, and before I forget, can you see that Sergeant Mendoza gets this for me?”

Don Xavier took the hat, a confused expression on his face. “Certainly, but...”

“The Sergeant will understand,” Zorro interjected. Before he turned away again, he said, “Tell him that his friend wishes for him to have it... to remember me by.” Zorro did turn away then, prepared to disappear through the window, since his right hand wasn't exactly up to holding him while he hung from the Alcalde's rafters to leave through the skylight, but he again changed his mind in order to request one more thing. “Have Victoria fill the hat full of beans.”

“Beans?” Xavier clearly didn't understand this directive.

Zorro shrugged. “Mendoza likes beans. Tell him...” He thoughtfully added, “Tell him 'Happy Birthday.'”

“I didn't know it was his birthday!” Xavier confessed. But then he gathered himself and took the hat more firmly in hand. “Leave Zorro behind you for good, and consider it done,” he said.

Zorro nodded, and gave his usual half grin. “Agreed.” Then he saluted once, and without further interruptions, dove for the window.

Xavier wondered if he'd actually left the window open, but by then, Zorro was gone.

Part VII: Aftershocks

However, despite Don Xavier's words, neither Zorro nor Diego showed himself in Los Angeles to do anything with Victoria, to say nothing of speaking to her. By siesta time the afternoon following Zorro's discussion with the town's new Alcalde, the news had already circulated around the town: Señorita Escalante's bad mood could successfully be attributed to Zorro's lack of presence anywhere within the pueblo. She 'loudly' expressed her confusion as to his absence with slammed dishes, burnt bread, and sloshed drinks. Nobody complained, though, as complaints were generally met with sarcastic comments and barbed words. The Señorita's famous temper was more than engaged by the time Don Alejandro had returned from town the following morning.

“Diego,” the don greeted as he moved from his son's sitting room into the caballero's bedroom, where Diego languished in bed just as he usually did before rising near noon. “You should see the way that Victoria's reacting to...” Then he took a closer look at his son. He noticed the pale cast to his cheeks, the closed eyes that hadn't fluttered once since he'd begun speaking. This degree of non-reaction on Diego's part was highly unusual, particularly since the don was speaking about Victoria, even if seeing his son still lying in bed at 11:00 in the morning was quite typical of the indolent caballero. “Diego?” Alejandro hesitantly asked. “Did you hear me?”

But Diego was only peripherally aware of someone's presence in the room. He thought it was his father who was speaking to him, but he wasn't able to concentrate long enough to place the voice. The dreams he currently endured were far more immediate to him than even his father's words. A widening white stain on the red and black of the bedcover was a testament to the severity of his injured hand. Diego moaned with the pain that he felt throb through his infected hand, but he was still unable to pinpoint just why he felt such pain in the first place. He was much too busy being horrified by what he was witnessing right at the moment behind his tightly closed eyelids.

Diego was back in the plaza, dressed in the familiar garb of Zorro, his fight with Don Xavier having just ended. The scene was familiar, but he couldn't place either it or the increasing feeling of terror building inside him as he gave his horse to Don Alejandro, his whip to Don Xavier, and his sword to Victoria. But he didn't understand just why he was giving them away. How could Zorro fight without them? These items were his most precious possessions, Zorro's livelihood, his life.

Once he was unarmed, and by his own hand, the agony began. The soup of slow motion that had enveloped his mind also mired everyone in the plaza. No one reacted at all as once again DeSoto abruptly appeared. Then his arm snaked out to roughly pull Victoria back against him, holding her hostage with Zorro's own sword. As he dreamed, Diego recalled the way his fear had beat a staccato rhythm against his ribs at seeing his Victoria so at the mercy of a madman. Yet her refusal to give in to the former Alcalde's insane demands resounded with the same fortitude that she had always shown for the governmental oppression that daily met the people of Los Angeles.

At this point, the scene in the plaza became somehow different than Diego felt it should. A niggling memory tickled the back of his brain, but stopped as more horror deluged Zorro. The thick, soupy sensation continually crawled up Zorro's legs to deaden his responses in a morass of inaction. He fought through the paralyzing sensation, strained towards Victoria with every muscle in his body in his attempt to save her.

Zorro had his arm out, his fingers stretched towards the blade, when the sound of the gun shot echoed throughout the tiny coastal town. The bullet hit DeSoto in the shoulder, and the sword jerked with his arm. This time, it arced forward rather than out, and faster than even Zorro could make his body move, faster than Toronado could run over easy terrain, faster than the lightening from summer storms. In that same morass of inaction, shrouded in the pall of horror, Zorro watched the edge of his sword slide straight between his fingers to easily slice the sinews of Victoria's cream-colored skin until it had embedded itself right in an exposed vein of her neck.

Zorro yelled his horror - or thought he did. But even he was unable to turn back time and put his hand that little bit further between Victoria's smooth skin and the sharp edge of the sword blade. Zorro noted the look of shock and surprise that crowded through Victoria's eyes just as a cascade of blood spurted from the wound onto his gloved hand. He watched the surprise in Victoria's eyes give way to reluctant acceptance as the spark that he'd grown accustomed to seeing in her dimmed. He desperately tried to staunch the blood flowing like a maroon river out of her neck, but his gloved fingers slipped on the liquid. He could only make sure to catch her as she and DeSoto both slowly crumpled into the dust.

“Victoria!” he cried, but even that call was swallowed up by the blankness that swept over her with amazing speed now that she was on the ground. She didn't say anything, or even try to speak. She did, however, raise one bloody hand to his cheek in a final caress before completely succumbing to the darkness that had invaded her eyes.

In spite of all the incredible things Zorro had always done, for her in particular, he couldn't force her blood back into her veins. His breath mingled with hers until her lifeless form breathed no more.

Zorro's ragged voice choked on his own agony. “Victoria, no!” he called, realizing that even as he voiced that cry, it was too late for her. Zorro was swiftly encompassed in searing misery. “Victoria, don't... m preciosa, please...” But all his pleading could not bring her back.

In anguish and shock, Zorro continued to gape at the wound still gushing blood in Victoria's neck. The sword cut was so thin, it would have been negligible anywhere else. But here, in her neck, at the base of her head, her very heart, her soul, her... It had proved mighty enough to banish the light from her eyes forever.

For the first time in Los Angeles history, the great bandit known as Zorro sat in the plaza, cradling what was left of Victoria Escalante, and cried.

Z Z Z

The depression following Victoria's death was all-consuming. It instantly shadowed Diego's heart, monopolizing everything he did. He longed to hear one more word from her, to feel her work-roughened hands on his skin. But she was gone. He was now totally alone. His life was empty, a pitiful caricature of normality. He was agony personified.

He dreamt that he saw her, heard her calling to him, speaking to him. “Diego,” she said in a caring, loving tone that she had never used on his caballero persona since Zorro had entered her life. It was what made him immediately suspect that what he heard wasn't real. “Diego,” she softly called a second time, no matter how he viewed her. “You're alright. I love you, and you're going to be alright.”

She loved him? Now he knew she was a hallucination. Victoria Escalante had only ever had eyes for one man, and he was called 'Zorro,' not 'Diego.' Yet here she was, telling him she loved him. She had even called him 'Diego' in the same breath! As much as he'd always longed for her to do just that, she had never spoken his name and the word 'love' in the same sentence. He'd frequently wished for something different, now more than ever. Yet he simultaneously knew that he was seeing a particularly lovely image, one who looked exactly like the Victoria of his memories. But it couldn't be Victoria. She was dead.

Diego's face screwed up in hope anyway when he heard those melodious tones coming from his vision, that voice raised in soothing comfort. He wanted her to be alive so badly! Yet, he couldn't allow himself to believe it, no matter how much he wanted to. “You're dead,” he bluntly stated, and turned his face away, unable to look into the eyes of his dream, yet unable to remain silent, either. “Victoria's... gone.” He sobbed on the words, only able to utter them in choppy spurts of misery. “Gone.”

Then the pounding that had never completely diminished in his hand flared up to brush aside even his depression as he arched with each sudden searing of his own flesh. Three separate times that same agony bit into him. But even to feel this pain, as real and tormenting as it was, was better than to be taken over by the emptiness that had become his life.

Then, the searing anguish in his hand disappeared just as quickly as the light had gone out in Victoria's eyes. Calmness soothed his taut nerves, and a nothingness mantled him in waves of rolling white. The dream Victoria disappeared, as did his father's voice, the anxious tones strangely belonging to Dr. Hernandez, Felipe's worried sighs... All those sounds coalesced into the soothing balm of the nothingness, and for the first time since Victoria's death, he slept the deep and dreamless sleep of the recovering convalescent.

When his eyelids fluttered up at long last, he recognized the fact that he was in his bedroom in the middle of the day. As he blinked against the harsh sunlight filtering through his open window, the odd feeling that several hours had passed washed over him. He remembered it being dark when Victoria had died... or maybe that was simply how he had felt, that all the light in his world had gone out when she had left it. Now, the sunlight of day blazed throughout the bedroom, and a soft, sweet-scented breeze fluttered the curtains at the window's sides. More amazing yet, he found himself staring right into the troubled brown eyes of Victoria Escalante.

“Diego,” she said, smiling in the same beautiful way that still lived in his memory. “You're finally awake!” She sounded delighted with this news.

Puzzled, Diego could only blink at her in confusion. Finally? The confusion didn't clear any with the repetition of what she had said. What was she doing here, anyway? She was obviously concerned about him: her look literally screamed 'concern.' But he still wasn't sure that he was seeing things right - there was concern for him - but that look was sitting right beside the longing and affection and love that blazed out of her eyes? That didn't make sense. She was in love with Zorro, not Diego, should be worried about him, not... Sure, Diego was her friend, but...

Then he recalled his thoughts several days ago when he'd wondered just how much Victoria Escalante really knew about his secret. Swiftly on the heels of that thought, jumbled with the molasses of just waking up, came memories of recently discussing this very subject with Padre Benitez. The padre had made the claim that only Victoria had known about Diego's secret longer than he had. Then there were memories that Don Xavier knew all about Zorro's real persona as well.

Diego abruptly shuddered. Ugh! Who else knew about his secret? His mind whirled with the implications of that thought. He couldn't handle such an idea when his mind was spinning so fast. It gave him a headache. So he chose instead to concentrate on Victoria. Or at least, on this unexpected image of Victoria, this amazing, beautiful, loved...

Diego blinked, and stared hard at her again. She looked... Diego looked again. She looked... real. He had to swallow back the sudden rush of excitement that threatened to engulf him before that feeling completely ran away with him. He blinked once more. “Have I been asleep for long?” he asked, his words slurred together as he experimentally curled his right fingers around a bulky bandage that covered his entire hand.

“Long?” Her brows rose to her hair, disbelief coloring her voice.

Diego didn't understand her slightly sarcastic reaction. How could an image so lovely be sarcastic?

That sarcastic image was going on. “You've been unconscious for three days,” she explained. “The cut on your hand became infected. If Felipe hadn't found you in the cave when he did...” Her tone gave the indication that the teenager had saved him from suffering some dire end.

Diego blinked once more. He just didn't understand. First this wonderful vision of Victoria came to him, speaking in an oddly sarcastic voice. Now she was telling him that something had happened to him because of the cut on his hand. But hadn't his hand been healing nicely? Hadn't he mentioned it to Don Xavier just last night?

Puzzled anew, Diego gazed at her - this angel, this vision, this hallucination that had taken on the look of a delighted, tired, sarcastic Victoria Escalante. “How long have I been here?” he asked, still too dazed to yank away the cobwebs still cloaking his mind.

The vision answered him quickly enough. “Like I said before, you've been unconscious for three days, but Felipe only dragged you in here and went for Dr. Hernandez two and a half days ago.” She self-consciously straightened a wrinkle in the bed covering. “Felipe rushed into the tavern to get me just yesterday morning.” She blushed. “I was so angry that you hadn't come to see me that I... uh... wasn't going to go with him at first,” she explained, her tone one of self-deprecation now. The recalled scene made her roll her eyes. “But Felipe was... adamant. He insisted that I go with him, no matter how I felt about the matter. And it was a good thing he did - you almost died. If I hadn't been here...” Then she shook her head, as if this thought truly pained her. Instead of trying to speak again, she took a shuddering breath. After a silent moment full of horror so tangible that it almost seemed to consume her, she was able to restrain it, then explained, “I was still angry even though I chose to go with Felipe.” The sardonic eye roll was back. “That is, I was still angry until I heard you screaming that I was dead. Then you cried.” She blinked at him, looking uncomfortably pleased as she sat beside his bed. “I had never seen you cry before - I didn't even know that you could cry!” She gathered herself together with an effort, swallowed, then continued on as if she wasn't fighting suddenly overwhelming emotions. “Felipe told us that you had been raving like that ever since he had found you in the cave.”

Cave? What cave? Diego gazed at her in puzzlement, then horror. Did she mean the cave? Then he remembered that this vision of Victoria apparently knew everything. It was difficult to get used to dealing with a knowledgeable Victoria - even an imaginary one. He was much more used to pretending for her as well as for everyone. It was very strange.

But Diego still didn't understand. She was imaginary... wasn't she? Diego was no longer sure. How was it possible that a vision could comment on something that he only remembered when he made an effort? A vision shouldn't be able to do that. “I don't understand,” he at last stated in a no-nonsense voice. “You're dead.” But even as he said it, he didn't fully believe it. How could someone who was dead come back in such a complete representation of reality? The edges of her body weren't even blurred, and wouldn't a vision - if that's what she was - have blurry edges? Or be haloed somehow from behind? Or something equally as ethereal? This just didn't make sense!

“I'm not dead, Diego,” the angel - or whatever she was - stated. “You saved me that day in the plaza,” she bluntly told him, not softening this news at all. “Remember? You got that cut on your hand when you saved me.”

Slowly, Diego raised his bandaged hand so that he could see it with his own eyes. Slowly, his tongue feeling strangely thick in his mouth, he said, “That's right - Zorro stopped the sword from going into your neck.”

“Yes,” she said, sounding delighted again that he recalled that much. “Don Xavier has been by to see you several times, and Dr. Hernandez has stayed here for three days. He slept in one of your guest rooms so that he could check on you at least twice each night.” Then she blushed again, and looked decidedly uncomfortable. “I... I stayed... here,” she at last admitted, indicating his bedroom. “I... hope you... don't mind.” Her words continued in this same stumbling fashion. “I didn't think...” She breathed a quick breath, then tried speaking again. “Zorro needed...” At last, she gulped another breath of air, then blurted, “I know that you don't like to be linked with Zorro, but...” Her voice trailed away. At last, she simply gave one artful shrug of one elegant shoulder.

With her shrug, it all came back to Diego in one solid whoosh!

Zorro's fight in the plaza with Don Xavier. His promise to relinquish his outlaw ways. Giving his sword to Victoria. DeSoto's demands, the shooting, how he'd stuck his hand between Victoria's neck and the sharp edge of the sword - how he'd saved her... It was all done by Zorro.

Suddenly Diego felt his entire soul open up. He.. Zorro... Diego... he had saved her! She wasn't dead! “You're alive!” he exclaimed in delight, his voice so loud that it brought both his father and Dr. Hernandez running into his room to gape at him.

But Diego didn't care how they looked, or how he looked. Instead, his smile blazed out of his face. “She's alive!” he joyously yelled.

The answering smile that blossomed on Don Alejandro's weathered features was relieved as much as it was amused. “Yes, Diego, she's very much alive.”

Dr. Hernandez ignored the amazed way that Diego was smiling at Victoria to reach for the young caballero's bandaged hand lying on a pillow at his right side. “Let's see if those red streaks of inflammation have receded by now,” he said in a ridiculously calm, medically analytical voice to a still thoroughly enchanted Diego.

Carefully, the pueblo doctor uncovered a thin cut still oozing a clear liquid onto the surrounding material of the bandage. However, stitches sewn into his flesh kept the wound from gaping open too badly, and from leaking all over his bed covers. Tiny red streaks shot out from the center of the wound, then disappeared under the cuff of the white nightshirt that Diego was wearing.

“Excellent,” the doctor intoned. “That last sterilization of the wound seems to have done the trick - the wound is looking much better than it was, much less red.”

Less red? Diego stared at the stripes radiating out from his hand up his arm, and was astonished at the doctor's announcement that this was an improvement. How bad had his hand been before?

Afraid to ask such a direct question, fearing that he wouldn't like the answer, Diego experimentally flexed his fingers, forcing them to curl passed the pain that would typically have stopped him, just to see how far he could make his fingers move. He was rather distressed to see that his fingers didn't move far at all.

Hernandez chuckled. “You won't be holding a sword for awhile, but this movement looks promising.”

He wouldn't be holding a sword for awhile? Diego blinked once again. The familiar feeling of horror was beginning to encompass him again, now that Zorro's identity was again in question. But that feeling was quickly superseded by Victoria.

She harumphed from her spot beside the bed, but what she spoke about wasn't quite what Diego had on his mind. “He won't be holding a sword at all if I have anything to say about it!” she growled in a sardonic threat.

And for some reason, Alejandro and Hernandez thought this statement was funny. They both heartily laughed as Hernandez rewrapped the wound in a new bandage. “Is Felipe still sleeping?” the doctor inquired of Don Alejandro as he tied off the bandage on Diego's fingers.

Alejandro nodded. “It's time that we should wake him with the news about Diego joining us once again,” he proclaimed. “Felipe will surely want to hear all about this miracle recovery of Diego's.” His eyes suddenly gave a merry twinkle as his gaze settled on Victoria sitting beside Diego's bed. “We should leave these two alone.” The twinkle increased. “I'm certain they wish to... talk.” His tone indicated something else.

With that, and to a slight chuckle from his father, as if he knew something that Diego was still too slow to figure out, both Alejandro and the doctor smiled at each other and walked from the room.

Their disappearance left Diego alone with the completely surprising, very much alive Victoria. He couldn't help it - he grinned a huge grin up at her from his place on the pillows. “I'm so glad that you're alive,” he definitively stated. After all, he'd thought sure she was dead until half an hour ago. It was a lot for a man to come to terms with in under thirty minutes.

“Diego.” Victoria took up his injured hand very gingerly in her own, and cradled it in her two smaller hands. Her heavy tone seemed to mean that she wanted to get serious now. Diego did his best to follow her lead and be as serious as possible. “I know that you don't wish to mix Zorro and Diego's identities,” she said as an opener. Diego's heart skipped a beat at her words... until he recalled his talk with Padre Benitez where the priest had disclosed her irrefutable knowledge of Zorro's identity. (He seemed to be forgetting things as fast as he remembered them, then forgetting them again. Maybe this was because of some aftereffect of being unconscious? Or maybe he was just getter old.) His heart slowed as she went on. “I owe my life to you.” She took a deep breath, and looked terrified, but swallowed back her own fear so she could continue. “Even though you were wearing Zorro's clothes at the time, I...” At that point, she really couldn't go on, and could only voice a sincere, “Thank you.”

Admittedly, even though he was trying hard to be serious, Diego barely heard her words of gratitude. She'saliveshe'saliveshe'salive! was the mantra that tumbled instead through his delighted mind, blissfully distracting him. He was just so thrilled that she was alive that he didn't want to pay attention to anything else.

An exhausted yawn overtook some of his delight. Victoria gave a soft smile at his gesture. “You go back to sleep,” she told him. “I will be here when you wake.”

“I'd rather stare at you all day,” Diego truthfully said even as the sleep pulled at him. “You're so... alive!” He just couldn't get over this.

Victoria smiled again, her brown eyes crinkling with the gesture. “Sleep, mí corazon.” She smoothed his hair.

She'd called him her corazon! And her hand in his hair felt so good. She could do that forever as far as he was concerned. He squeezed her hand in his left before allowing himself to finally drift into sleep.

Z Z Z

Victoria was as good as her word. The next time he awoke, it was to her beautiful face gazing at him out of the surrounding darkness. The window in his bedroom was now closed against the night's cooler air. The curtains lay in languid lines against the wall beside the window. A small fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace across the room. The bandage was still wrapped around his right hand, and Diego could feel the pull of the stitches that sewed his skin together when he gave another curl of his fingers. To his joy, he could feel his fingers make a bigger motion than before, and he noticed right away that the bandage was smaller than the earlier one had been, less bulky. Doctor Hernandez must be far less worried about the state of his patient's hand to have given him a smaller bandage. For it was known throughout Los Angeles that Dr. Hernandez was the most cautious man in the entire pueblo.

However, Dr. Hernandez wasn't who was on his mind right now. “Hola,” Diego said to Victoria as soon as his gaze had settled squarely on the tavern owner. (She'saliveshe'saliveshe'salive!)

“Hola,” Victoria answered in a low drawling voice.

Diego couldn't keep his grin from wreathing his face. “You're staring at me.”

Victoria sent him a lazy smile, showing that she wasn't at all uncomfortable about his comment.” I am.” She nodded. “I was trying to picture you in a mask, holding a whip, and wearing that hat of yours.” She gave him another lazy grin that was full of her own sleep that she must have just woken from. “Mendoza thanks you for that hat, by the way. He loved the beans.”

She was directly discussing something Diego should have no knowledge of, but Zorro did. It was obvious to anyone listening to this conversation that she clearly knew that he was Zorro, just as the Padre claimed. Even more amazingly, she didn't seem to care much about who heard her speak about him connected to him. So. She wasn't pulling any punches this time, same as when he'd last seen her. Zorro and Diego were now one and the same to her, and she clearly didn't mind commenting on that fact.

To give himself time to come to terms with this incredible state of affairs, Diego pushed himself to a sitting position in the bed using his good hand. But he couldn't raise the pillow up for him to lean against. Victoria had to help him by placing the pillow at his back where he could rest against it.

Finished with his distraction much too soon for his liking, Diego again contemplated a knowing Victoria. He acknowledged that her knowing his secret was an interesting state of affairs. She knew of his identity, he knew that she knew, but she had never before felt free enough to even allude to that fact, to say nothing about freely discussing it. What had changed?

For that fact, what had caused her to learn of Zorro's identity in the first place? Diego knew that he hadn't told her, and also knew the he hadn't told her. So how..?

“Victoria?” Diego softly asked, and his gaze settled on her dark eyes. He had to be careful not to drown in those beautiful eyes that he had longed for years to stare into. He gave a cautious blink against the magnetic pull of her gaze, knowing that now wasn't the time to get lost in her eyes. He asked his question in order to distract himself from staring at her the rest of the night. “Do you mind telling me... how..?” He had to blink again. “How did you..?” And he gestured at himself, hoping she would get the gist of his query without him to vocalise it - knowing that she knew all about Zorro's identity was one thing - voicing it was an entirely different thing!

“How did I learn of Zorro's identity?” she interrupted to vocalise when he began to have trouble finding the right words.

Grateful, Diego nodded.

Unexpectedly Victoria smiled. Which was odd. Discovering Zorro's secret identity seemed to Diego to be of a rather serious nature, especially since he hadn't said anything to her about that secret. She ought to be put out at him at the very least. He had honestly anticipated experiencing her fury when she found out his secret, especially since he'd kept it from her... for years. This smiling wasn't what he'd predicted at all.

Still smiling, Victoria made short work of the explanation for her knowledge. “I figured it out that time when your professor came to the pueblo.” She suddenly grew pensive. “What was his name?”

Diego was only too happy to supply it. “Do you mean Sir Edmund?”

Victoria again brightened. “Yes, that's it!” She went on, “I heard him call you the best student he'd ever had - you, the diehard anti sword fighter of the pueblo! But how could that be? I didn't understand that comment, so I thought about it, then paid closer attention than I had before, saw Zorro, then saw you immediately after, and bingo!"

Diego gave a wan smile of his own. “Bingo?”

Victoria's enthusiasm wasn't at all lessened by his dampened reaction. “Yes!” She gave another shrug. “Simple.”

Diego swallowed, feeling bile collect in his throat. “But didn't you realize what kind of danger knowing this put you in?” He went on before she had a chance to speak. “And why didn't you tell me that you knew?”

She sent an assessing stare straight at him. “Why didn't you tell me in the first place?”

Numbed, Diego could only blink. In all the scenarios of her knowing his secret that he'd played in his mind over the years, he'd never pictured her as accusing. Angry - yes. But asking why he had never said anything - no.

At the same time, didn't she know why he'd never told her? He could never be responsible for putting her in the kind of danger that..!

He stared back in thoughtful puzzlement. “But don't you know why?” he inquired. He'd always thought it had seemed so obvious!

She nodded assertively, then guessed, “You expected me to be in great danger if I knew, is that right?” He nodded his agreement with her assumption. She gave a sigh so deep that it seemed to originate in the tips of her toes. “That's what I thought. So that's what I expected, too,” she then confessed. “I was certain that it showed on my face to everybody who even looked at me that I knew your identity, and it was only a matter of days before Alcalde Ramon would beat my knowledge out of me, then throw me in front of a firing squad and be done with it!”

The way she so casually mentioned one of his biggest fears made Diego flinch. Before he could stop himself, he had muttered the words, “God forbid!”

“Hmmmm,” muttered Victoria as well. “That's exactly what I thought, too.” She sat up straight in a seeming attempt to distance herself from these unpleasant memories, then continued her tale when she had herself under better control. “So I waited, and waited... but nothing happened.” Then she looked wide-eyed at Diego. “And I kept expecting it to!” Sounding stunned, she continued, “I had to serve him in the tavern just like normal while I waited for him to arrest me! The suspense was killing me!” she exclaimed. Then she calmed. “I waited for him to do something... or for you to do something - I thought surely that you must know that I knew... I couldn't keep something that important from you, could I?”

Diego gave a shrug of his own to her rhetorical question.

She didn't give him time to reply. “But neither of you did or said anything.” She gave a third casual shrug. “So I just went on like I'd always done before.”

Diego gave a start. “And you kept this a secret... about knowing my secret...” He did a double take at the incongruity of it all. “You stayed quiet for years!?” he finally managed to blurt.

Contrary to his amazement, Victoria simply nodded her assent.

Amazing! Diego had known for several days about her knowledge of his secret, but knowing about it did nothing to diminish his awe of the fact that he'd never had so much as a hint that she knew all about him. And all these years, he'd thought he was the only one acting! In the end, Victoria was clearly a better actor that even he was!

“And nobody ever realized?” he ascertained.

She shook her head, making her black hair dance in the firelight. “Nope,” she breathed. The way she said it - so casually - so calmly...

Diego's sense of awe increased. It impressed him even more that she'd known for so long... and still managed to never let him know! “How did you not say something?!” he eventually asked. “How..?”

Victoria's shrug sounded in her voice. “By not saying anything... It was like I was helping you,” she explained in a light voice that totally belied the seriousness of the subject. “I wanted to help you... somehow... but I never knew what I could do,” she now said. “Eventually I realized that by pretending to know nothing - that was the one thing I could do for you.”

And suddenly Diego understood why she had done what she had done. It was her own contribution to sustaining the legend of Zorro. She had safeguarded the legend, nurtured it, and pretended to know nothing, all while keeping from every citizen in the pueblo all knowledge that she alone had figured out the most important secret in Los Angeles! Amazing!

Diego's awe increased yet again. It seemed ridiculous for him to now continue with the subterfuge when Victoria knew all about his alter ego.

In fact, it seemed that everyone in the house also knew all about him. There were those in the town who knew as well. The fact that Victoria knew, and had known about Zorro for years, seemed almost a non-issue at this point.

It did, however, make things between them seem suddenly awkward. “Victoria,” Diego fretfully began, but she cut him off.

“I know what you're going to say,” she told him in that long-suffering tone she had. “You're going to tell me that we still can't be together, even though DeSoto is gone. You think that even with Don Xavier as the Alcalde, you and I should play it safe, and wait and see.”

It was true enough - that was what the Diego of old would have been thinking. But this wasn't the Diego of old.

Before he had the chance to illustrate the new state of affairs, her eyes closed in painful regret. After all, it was exactly something he would say, especially as far as she knew. She obviously knew him well.

At last she opened her eyes to stubbornly stare at him, and the familiar light that told Diego she was ready to argue shone in those dark eyes. “Diego,” she finally announced. “You came this close to dying.” She held her thumb and forefinger together until they almost touched. “I'm so glad that you didn't, and I want to tell everybody I meet how relieved I am about that, and why I'm so relieved, including you.” She gazed down at him, a serene expression on her face. “When it finally looked like you were going to recover, I wanted to melt. Don Alejandro was prepared to scrape my remains of the floor if he had to, just so that he could reach your side.”

And she looked relieved even now. The serenity of her expression deepened until it made her glow. “I promised myself right then that there would be no more hiding, no more pretending. You are the man I love, no matter what you're wearing, and you are going to live.” She sounded as amazed as he felt. She softly smoothed his hair aside once again, the action doing more to relax him than all the other touches he'd had combined. “I want to tell the world that you're going to be alright.” Then her Escalante stubbornness set in. “And there's nothing that you can do to stop me.”

Wow. Did she ever sound stubborn. Diego couldn't help but practically swoon on the pillow he rested against just to hear her talk. He loved her stubbornness. He loved her courage. He loved her willingness to fight for her beliefs, to do whatever it took to be successful in whatever she wanted. Diego instantly considered that DeSoto had never known how to handle such intractability as hers. He would have derided such a thing... had derided her... as an inconvenience.

But if there was one thing that Diego had learned from all his father's lectures about relationships, it was that when a lady said that she was going to do something in spite of anything he tried to do to stop her, it was better to save his energy for the eventual consequences than to waste time trying to halt what amounted to a determined herd of cattle bent on a stampeding through a pasture fence. Perhaps DeSoto would have been better served listening to his father's lectures than obsessing about capturing Zorro.

Diego now put his father's warnings to good use. “Nothing, Señorita?” he playfully asked from his bed.

“Nothing,” Victoria decisively reiterated. “I've decided that I've waited long enough. You are going to unmask whether you're ready for it or not.”

Unmask? Diego sent her another puzzled look. “Why should I unmask if you already know who I am?” he softly inquired, amazed at how simple it was to say those words. He'd always assumed that even speaking of unmasking would curdle him with terror. But now, he spoke of unmasking as if it was as much a non-issue as Victoria finally knowing the identity of her bandit. “What would be the point of that?”

Victoria sent him an expression that said she hadn't been sure that he was aware of her knowledge concerning his alter self or not, but that she was amenable to any changes that might come about because of it. “What are you saying?” she asked.

Diego smiled again. “I'm saying that the Padre told me everything. I've known that you know for quite some time now.”

Victoria looked like she was secretly cursing the Padre.

“It doesn't matter anyway,” Diego continued. “Don Xavier even knows of my identity, but told me yesterday... I mean, the other night... that he doesn't plan to do anything about what he knows.” Victoria seemed relieved again to hear that. “I have his signed pardon sitting on my dresser,” Diego went on to note, somewhat wryly. “I don't see what he can do to a pardoned man, anyway.”

“What do you think of being pardoned?” Victoria abruptly asked him.

Diego looked towards the shadow where his dresser was located and the pardon it hid by extension. “I've been pardoned before, Señorita,” he reminded.

“Yes,” she agreed, but quickly countered, “You've never actually held the pardon in your hands, however. Not like this time.”

“True,” Diego conceded.

“My point,” Victoria said, “is now that you're pardoned, and by an Emissary of the King, no less,” she reminded him, as if he'd forgotten Alcalde Xavier Carroga's other official title. “What do you intend to do next?” When he didn't immediately respond, she went on, “I think I showed you what you have to look forward to if you accepted his pardon, but just because I...”

Diego gave a wry snort at the scene in the priest's cell at the mission that she was referring to. “You left me a puddle of sludge on the floor, Victoria,” he interrupted her to say. “And it was mighty effective as a mode of persuasion, too, I might add.”

A pleased look crept over Victoria's face, and she smiled. “Good.”

Diego snorted once more. “You got your point across admirably well.” Her pleasure deepened. “The thing is,” he went on, “now that I have the pardon that you were 'asking' me to accept, what do you want me to do?” He knew what he wanted to do next, but what he wanted wasn't necessarily what she wanted. He waited for her to respond to his question with shivers of fear and dread crawling up his spine.

Victoria eyed him askance. “I'm rather surprised that you even have to ask that question.”

Diego didn't say anything other than to prompt, “Well?” When she remained silent, he told her, “We've spent so long not saying anything to each other, I find that now I most definitely want you to tell me what you're thinking.”

Victoria thought for a moment more, then slowly responded, “I'm thinking... that a lot of people had to make sacrifices for this charade of Zorro to continue, more people than you're aware of.”

Diego's forehead wrinkled. “It was hardly a charade that...

But Victoria cut him off, explaining, “That was the wrong word for me to use.” She looked pensive as Diego tried to resettle his ruffled pride. “I'll call it the persona of Zorro,” she at last conceded, and glanced down now in embarrassment. “But I know that's not what you expect me to be thinking about - it's not concerning love, and family, and marriage, and all that... and I am thinking about those things too, and how very much I want them... with you,” she emphasized. In one quick comment, she had soothed away Diego's concerns about her possible rejection of him, even at this late date. Though it was quite ridiculous for him to worry about such a thing, the truth was that he would always worry where she was concerned. What he wasn't taking into account was that she'd had several years to get used to loving Diego as well as loving Zorro. For Victoria, this was almost as much a nonevent as it was a momentous one for Diego.

But Victoria didn't know any of this. She calmly went on, “I'm still thinking about what everyone has done for us - I can't help it.”

Again he was puzzlement by what she had said. “What everyone has done for us? What do you mean by that?”

Victoria swallowed, and for the first time since she had broached this subject, looked ill at ease. “I mean...” She paused in her explanation, looking pained, yet stubbornly determined. “I mean...” She sighed, and rolled her eyes at herself, exasperated. Finally, she blurted, “No man is an island, Diego.” She sent him a shrewd stare. “You may not have realized it, but you had a great deal of help and support over the years that you played at being Zorro.”

Diego's eyes once again darkened. “I wasn't playing,” he quietly insisted. “And this wasn't just a 'charade,'” he maintained. “Those swords that I fought were real, even when the wielder wasn't very well trained in the art of swordplay. I have the scars to prove it,” he told her in clipped, no-nonsense tones.

Victoria instantly soothed the feathers that she had again ruffled in his rather prodigious pride. “I know that, and so does Dr. Hernandez,” she cryptically noted.

Or maybe, it wasn't so cryptic. When he thought about it, Dr. Hernandez was the one person besides Victoria and the Padre who had seen the most of Diego.

Diego continued to puzzle it all through. True, he had spent the greater portion of his time with Alejandro, but that man had always professed to see him the way that Diego had wanted to be viewed. And Felipe... well, Felipe had always seen him as he really was. The boy was directly responsible for many of those past injuries becoming the scars they were that Dr. Hernandez must have become aware of over the years. And Hernandez must also have witnessed how the number of those scars seemed to increase, and all from serious wounds that he hadn't been called on to treat. And it wasn't much of a stretch to note that Don Alejandro was hardly the kind of parent who would refuse to call on the best of assistance for his child. Which would have made the doctor realize that his young patient had to be getting treatment for those wounds from someone else. Perhaps from another doctor? Though why would Diego need to see another doctor? Unless... Diego needed to hide those wounds even from his eyes? But why would he need to do that? Unless... he was acting as someone other than the indolent caballero he seemed to be. And if he wasn't indolent... was he a man of action, perhaps? Was he, perhaps, the man of action? Dr. Hernandez would of course not be certain his suspicions were, in fact, true, until... Was he not sure until one of those wounds of Diego's became truly beyond what turned out to be Felipe's limited abilities to heal?

It would have been short work for the Los Angeles doctor to then put everything together and come up with the idea, no matter how bizarre, that Diego was secretly doing something so dangerous that he would incur a wound or two every year. Then it must have been an even shorter time for him to put two and two together and come up with the idea, no matter how preposterous, that Diego was Zorro. So Dr. Hernandez must know of Zorro's secret identity, too, and must have known for a good long time. But like Victoria, he had never said anything, never even intimated that...

Which seemed to be what Victoria was alluding to now. She interrupted Diego's thoughts. “That's not what I was talking about, anyway.”

Not talking about Doctor Hernandez? Diego looked at her in confusion again. “Meaning..?”

Victoria took a deep breath. “Meaning... You gave yourself away, you know.”

Again Diego's puzzlement at her comment only grew. “And pray tell, how did I do that?” he asked.

Victoria took another deep breath, as if stealing herself to voice this revelation. “You always fought as Zorro,” she began by saying. “But then, once the dust had settled, it was always Diego who was available to further help the person that Zorro had just put his neck on the line to save,” she went on to argue. “You gave money, helped build homes or to rebuild burned barns, helped plant crops, dig wells, or told people where it was safe to dig wells. You cleared land, and once I remember that you even asked me how to make Russian food so that you could make something to eat for the Russians traveling through Los Angeles.” She smiled as she remembered. “And you tried to feed their baby something completely inappropriate for one so young, just like Mendoza did.” She laughed, and the tinkling sound echoed in the room. Diego couldn't help but grin at the sound. “I don't recall just what it was...” Victoria said.

“I do,” Diego ruefully stated. “It was albundigas soup. And the baby got more on the floor than she ate.”

Victoria laughed. “You and Sergeant Mendoza,” she groaned, not explaining what she was referring to. “Well, it serves you right,” she at last proclaimed. “You should have just asked me or the baby's mother what to feed it instead of charging ahead and not paying attention to the consequences.”

Diego actually blushed at her comment. “It forced me to do some reading on what to feed babies.” He tried to ignore her continuing laughter, but it was hard. “I know what to do for them now.” One look her way, and Diego realized that what he'd said could be taken as a reference to his... and hers... future babies. He hurried to dispel his assumptions by adding, “That is, in case I ever find another bandit of the prairie that I have to take care of.” He didn't think he had the strength just now to be talking about his and her possible future babies!

“I hope you never have cause to find little bandits on the prairie ever again,” Victoria confessed behind her hand, still chuckling.

Diego wasn't chuckling when he added, “So does Felipe.”

Eventually, Victoria calmed, but didn't take the opening he'd made about Felipe knowing what he shouldn't have known about unless he had worked closely with Zorro. Instead, it seemed as if she'd also known all about Felipe's contribution to Zorro for so many years that this present revelation about the boy by Diego was another non-issue. “I know that you already own a portion of the tavern,” she unexpectedly told him instead of talking about Felipe. When he could only stare at her in more confusion, she added, “It was you who kept leaving a few centavos too many each time you paid for a drink or a meal, wasn't it?” She now eyed him in accusation. “At first, I could never quite figure out who left those small 'tavern contributions.' I finally just decided to keep the money and use it to pay for the mortgage on the land the tavern was on.” She eyed him, and fingered the engagement ring that he'd just now noticed that she was wearing. What her simple motion alluded to made him recall what had happened to them when she was trying to pay that mortgage, as if he needed the reminder. But he would never forget the day that he had proposed marriage to her - that event was branded on his memory forever.

But Victoria didn't comment about that day, as he half expected her to. She went on telling him about why she had said that he owned half of her business. “Since I'm fairly certain that those 'contributions' came from you, or were from you through other customers, then I don't feel right not giving you your fair share of the profits from the building that you helped to pay for.”

“Victoria,” Diego said in sudden exasperation. “I don't want anything for what was really just a good business decision.”

She wrinkled her brow. “A good business decision?”

Diego nodded, his hair ruffling against the pillow at his back. He thought about denying what she was claiming, that it hadn't been him making those 'tavern contributions' like she thought. But then again, what was the point of denying anything at this late time? Victoria would just use her quick mind to go over the facts again, and reach the same conclusion that she had before. He would simply be putting off the inevitable, and there was really no point in doing that.

Yet, being given credit for the many things he had done for the community as Don Diego was a new thought to him. He had always figured that he would be lauded for being Zorro if he was lauded at all. Yet here was Victoria, applauding his secret efforts as Don Diego. That was a new concept to him, and one that even now he had trouble grasping.

As a distraction, he continued speaking about business. “The tavern is the only public gathering place in this part of the territory,” he argued. “I used it often enough for collecting information for Zorro, so of course it was to Zorro's benefit if it prospered as a business. How Zorro...” He paused, then blushed to correct himself, “How Diego went about attaining that...” He at last settled on saying, “That was beside the point.”

Victoria's own puzzled gaze washed over him. “So you helped in whatever way you could as Diego to keep the tavern open so that you could use it as a place to spy for Zorro?” she asked, still slightly befuddled.

And suddenly Diego gave her a sly smile. “Of course, it didn't hurt to keep the tavern open so that I could then stare at the proprietess, either.”

Abruptly, Victoria laughed. “If I'd known you were staring so much, I would have given you something to stare at!”

Diego's grin broadened. “Then everyone else would have stared, too, and I didn't want the competition,” he joked. “Besides, had you looked any more appealing than you already did, you would have given me a heart attack on a daily basis.”

Victoria stared at him in amazement. “Did you just make a joke?” she incredulously asked, still laughing silently at what he'd said. “I didn't know that you could make personal jokes.

Diego gave a chuckle at her comment. “I guess that we never had time to make jokes,” he wryly stated. “I'm afraid that I was always in such a hurry to either catch a bandit, punch the Alcalde, or bring some criminal to justice that you had to suffer through a great deal more than your fair share over the years.”

Victoria was incensed in a matter of seconds. “No more talk like that, Diego de la Vega,” she announced in a voice that was so no-nonsense that it made Diego not even want to argue with what she was saying. “We both had to give up a great deal, yes, but it was much more important for you to be free to do the work that needed to be done.” Then she sent a sly smile his way. “However, it was good of the Alcalde to so readily give most of that work to you.”

Diego snorted. “That was work that I could really have done without,” he told her. “It's a wonder that you didn't clobber me with a board when I decided to wait for DeSoto to show his true colors when he arrived in the pueblo.”

“Hmmmmm,” Victoria hummed, successfully showing her irritation with him at the point in time that he was referring to without having to say a word. “I admit, I did think about beaming you with a board,” she abruptly confessed. “But I didn't have a handy one in the tavern.”

Diego snorted again. “Maybe you could have borrowed the board that Felipe wanted to use at that same time to knock some sense into me.” He shook his head, amazed anew that the young man had stayed with him even though he had seen the 'changing of the Alcalde guard' as a missed opportunity for his mentor. “In fact, he gave me quite a tongue lashing about that time - so to speak.” Victoria giggled at the image Diego was painting. “Felipe was so upset with me a few days ago that it's a wonder he was even able to sign in complete sentences.” Considering, he said, “Now that I think of it, he didn't.” Had that conversation that he'd had with Felipe really only happened a few days ago? It seemed as if so much had occurred in the interim that a year or two should surely have taken place.

It had grown light while Diego and Victoria had spoken quietly to each other, and the servants had woken in the meantime, and were creating the noise that often accompanied the making of breakfast. As if on cue, Dr. Hernandez and Alejandro burst into the room, letting those sounds filter through the door that they left open.

Diego barely noticed the door left ajar, for he was too glad at the moment that he wasn't showing his appreciation to Victoria for so easily putting up with his decisions over the last years - he'd been about to kiss her senseless in a great show of that appreciation of his. But he didn't think his father would have taken to the activity as well as Victoria might have, especially now that his son was getting better. It was just easier on everybody that he hadn't invited yet another lecture on the subject of how even a convalescent should properly treat guests to the hacienda. He figured that he'd already had enough tongue lashings in the recent days to last at least a year. He didn't need to volunteer for any more!

On the other hand, kissing Victoria senseless might have been worth that lecture...

Ah, well, the moment was already passed. Diego vowed to himself that he'd take advantage of the next opportunity that came by to give Victoria the kiss he was longing to give her.

Dr. Hernandez immediately broke the silence that had settled on the room, “I'd like to give one last physical exam to my patient before I return to the pueblo.” He set his medical bag at Diego's feet. “Though I suspect that this young man will have very little need of my services at this point, thanks to the Señorita.”

Victoria blushed just slightly at the doctor's praise. “Come to the tavern, and I will make for you the best breakfast in Los Angeles for saving Diego's life.”

Hernandez grunted. “I think I'll take you up on that, Señorita,” he said in pleased tones. “Now that Diego is on the mend, I feel good enough to eat a horse.”

“Don't let Toronado hear you say that,” Diego warned, fully accepting the fact that he was with several people who already knew about his secret identity. What surprised him was the casual way he was able to accept that they knew. He'd always assumed that he would be horrified if even one person found out. His father even knew about Zorro's identity according to the way he kept beaming at everyone, even though he never said a word about the situation of knowing his son's secret. And here Diego was with two other knowledgeable people in his bedroom at once, and he felt like it was no big deal that they knew. It was almost incomprehensible! “Toronado might take offense at the idea of someone eating horses,” he continued his jibe. “Then he'll never let me hear the end of it.”

They all laughed, and Alejandro offered an invitation to his guests to stay for breakfast, but Victoria felt that after all this time away, she was needed at the tavern, if not to cook, then to spread the word about Diego's recovery. She would join the doctor on his trip back to the pueblo, but she would take a cup of coffee before that trip, if Don Alejandro didn't mind.

Diego knew that his father would certainly see to getting Victoria a cup of coffee if she wanted one. According to the besotted light in his eyes, the elder de la Vega would be happy to see that Victoria got basically anything that a future daughter-in-law might ask for. Diego knew how he felt, and had to give a small smile of appreciation as Alejandro led Victoria from the room after she had promised to say goodbye to Diego before she left the hacienda. Diego viewed that goodbye as the first kissing opportunity to come his way.

As Diego thought about kissing Victoria, Hernandez was unwinding the bandage on his injured right hand even as Alejandro and Victoria left the room. The doctor eyed the slice on Diego's hand with a critical stare. “This looks much better than it did just last evening,” he intoned. “Can you bend your fingers any further?”

Diego experimentally tried to curl his fingers again, but a stiffness that he was unfamiliar with pulled at the stitches on his palm. Then he tried straightening his fingers out flat, and the pulling sensation increased. “Ow!” he said, surprised at the pain that flared through his hand. This was the first time in all his years as Zorro that he'd injured his hand, and he wasn't used to feeling pain in that part of his body.

Hernandez cautioned, “It will take some time for you to get any amount of normal mobility back in your hand, and you may never get it back.”

“Never?” A dismayed Diego fell back against his pillow, deflated. “But I thought my hand was getting better,” he protested.

“And it is,” Hernandez was quick to reassure. “But with the way your sword cut the palm... it's a wonder that you survived that infection, Diego. I thought for awhile that I was going to have to amputate your hand.”

Diego gave a start. “The infection was that bad?”

The doctor's face grew grim. “If Felipe hadn't come for me, then gone for the Señorita when he did...” Then his face scrunched up in thoughtfulness. “I wonder what caused that cut on your hand to become so infected like it did?” he asked almost to himself.

Diego protested, “I'd sterilized my sword blade, so that wasn't it.”

The Doctor's eyes widened in curiosity. “Not your sword, huh? Then... Did you think to sterilize your glove?”

That question gave Diego pause. “Well, no,” he admitted at last. “I never thought that was necessary.”

The thoughtfulness in the Doctor's eyes increased. “What had you handled with your gloves the last time you were Zorro?”

Diego thought hard about what he had done as Zorro just before he had saved Victoria's life by allowing his sword to slice through his glove and into his palm. “Well, I was late coming to that fight with Don Xavier because...” Then he knew. He had stopped a theft of the territorial mail by Lopez and Sancho! And he had handled... “There had been what I thought was mud on one of the mailbags where I touched it - it turned out to be something other than mud...” His voice trailed away as he delicately referred to the feces that had been all over the bag, causing it to smell badly enough to make him look twice at what he was holding. “That must have been it.”

Doctor Hernandez's lined face grew grave. “Then it would have done no good if you had sterilized your gloves. Your cut would have become infected no matter what.” Then he shook his head, seeming to recall that he had been speaking about Victoria's presence in the hacienda. “At any rate, just the fact that Señorita Escalante was here seemed to calm you enough for Felipe to sterilize your wound, then to sew it up.” He sighed an aggravated, sad sigh. “I'm just glad that he knew what to do, and did it so quickly. He really did most of the work. I just told him what to do.” Hernandez smiled. “I was so impressed with the work that Felipe did that I'd like to ask you if it's alright to train him as my apprentice?”

The suggestion startled, then pleased Diego. “Absolutely,” he enthused. “It's about time that something worked out for Felipe.” The thought of a son... or even a ward... of his apprenticing a doctor..! Diego's smile grew. “Of course Felipe has my permission!”

Doctor Hernandez smiled as well. “Excellent!” Then he explained his enthusiasm. “I'm getting too old to be running around the pueblo when I'm needed so often. I've been on the lookout for someone to take over my business for years, but Felipe is the first person I've ever felt comfortable with training.” Then he gave a wry grin. “Though Felipe may do more training of me then I will with him. He's very talented already.” He gave a critical once over of Diego. “Just look at how he managed to keep your scarring to a minimum - especially considering the circumstances of your many injuries! Amazing!”

Diego didn't know if he appreciated feeling like he was under the microscope like this. “Well, I'll be sure to tell Felipe that you said so, and to convey your offer of apprenticeship. He might have something other than medicine on his mind, knowing Felipe like I do. Plus there's a young Señorita named Rosita in the pueblo that might be of more interest to him just now.” Both Diego and Hernandez laughed.

And as if he knew that he was being talked about, Felipe barreled through the door, staring straight at Diego, his eyes widened half in fright, and half in wild disbelief.

“Felipe!” Diego lightly admonished as the young man practically ran over the doctor. “Be careful - Dr. Hernandez can't train you as an apprentice if you run him over.”

That statement made Felipe's eyes go even wider. He stared first at Diego, then the doctor, then Diego again before signing a question to fast that even Diego had trouble keeping up with his flashing hands. “If you asked if this is real, the answer is 'yes.' That is, if you wish it. Dr. Hernandez has just requested that you be his assistant.” Diego grinned at the boy. “No more time for Zorro, eh, Felipe? Won't Toronado be jealous!”

Dr. Hernandez laughed. Diego laughed. Felipe rubbed at the back of his neck with his hand, as if wondering how things had gotten so far out of his control all at once, and how was he going to get it back in his control when even he was interrupted.

Victoria reappeared with coffee for everyone held on a tray she carefully carried into the room. Don Alejandro followed her, followed in turn by Don Xavier and Sergeant Mendoza. “Diego... look who's come to see you.” Don Alejandro beamed, as if he was personally responsible for bringing the Alcalde and Sergeant to the hacienda just to see his son.

“Ah, young de la Vega!” Don Xavier gusted as he entered the room behind Alejandro. “Or should I say 'Señor Zorro?'”

Completely ignoring the remark Don Xavier had just made about Zorro, Dr. Hernandez scowled. He clearly didn't like how crowded the room was quickly growing. “Perhaps you should just say what you intend as quickly as possible. Diego needs to rest if we ever want that hand of his to improve more than it already has. I'm sure the Señorita has no wish for him to relapse.”

Victoria's face clouded over with horror. “Don't even mention it!” she ordered. “It might give him ideas... and then he'll ride out on that horse of his... and then were will I be?” she rhetorically asked.

Don Xavier laughingly stated, “Then we'll be quick - I wouldn't want to be blamed for a possible unfortunate state of mind for the Señorita.” he joked.

“Finish your coffee, at least,” Don Alejandro graciously invited.

Sergeant Mendoza jumped nervously onto the end of the caballero's words. He set aside his coffee without drinking it, and said, “Don Diego... I... I wish...” He stopped, too agitated to continue.

So Diego prodded him. “Yes, Sergeant?”

Mendoza looked to Don Xavier, who was clearly already acting as his mentor. Don Xavier nodded for the Sergeant to continue, and added his persuasion, “It's alright, Mendoza - we all know who he really is, and we're all Zorro's friends... as well as Don Diego's!”

Mendoza blushed a violent shade of red, but went on as he fiddled with his hat in his hands. “Don Diego... you're my friend...” he reiterated, then blushed at what he was repeating. He rushed on to blurt, “I want to thank you for giving me my birthday!”

But Diego appeared confused. “You're welcome! But when did I give you your birthday, Sergeant?”

The hat fiddling increased so much that it was a wonder the Sergeant was able to hold onto it at all. “When you gave me the beans!” he explained in another rush of words. Then his smile shone out of his face. “Oh, they were so good! Señorita Victoria cooked them for me in a special sauce...”

“Really,” Dr, Hernandez gently interrupted. He had left the Sergeant looking like he was undecided if he should finish his comment, or not. It was well known in the pueblo how Mendoza could ramble on for minutes at a stretch when he was nervous. So Hernandez quickly continued, “We should let Diego rest now. Perhaps you can save the story about your beans for Diego to hear tomorrow - eh?” he asked the Sergeant. “The suspense will surely encourage him to improve - as will the Señorita, I'm sure.”

Diego was again impressed with the doctor's hidden skills. He was asking everyone to leave not so Diego could rest, but so that he had the quiet he needed to come to terms with what was basically every citizen in the entire town knowing his secret. Diego silently marveled at Hernandez's many varied talents.

Mendoza colored again. “Of course... Feel better soon, Don Diego... and thank you!” He began a shuffling dance to the door, obviously waiting on Don Xavier to move first, like a kid waiting on his parent.

Diego was surprised, and impressed once more at the Doctor's skills at so quickly moving the often immovable Sergeant. Keeping the Sergeant to a short visit was almost as hard as it had been for Zorro to track outlaws in the dark during a rainstorm.

Diego's many visitors all followed in the wake of the two military men, and filed towards the open door that led from the room to the rest of the hacienda. But before she could leave with Dr. Hernandez, Diego called, “Victoria - can I see you for a moment before you leave?”

“Certainly.” Victoria handed her coffee cup to Felipe to take to the kitchen for her, then turned back as everyone else left the room. “What is it Diego?”

Diego ignored the pain he felt in his hand, ignored the noises filtering in from outside, ignored the sound of the retreating guests... and before Victoria could object, kissed her senseless. He may have had an injured hand, but he didn't need his hand for this action. He simply thrilled in a kiss that had no mask involved in it. He drew back, and lazily looked at his wonderfully alive preciosa. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Zorro couldn't have done it without you.”

Victoria looked bowled over by the kiss for a moment, but was collected enough to insist, “I was never alone.” “There was Dr. Hernandez, the Padre, your father, Felipe...” Then with a devilish twinkle in her eye, she blurted, “And Toronado was always there if he ever needed more company!”

The End


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