Zorro Revealed

by Linda Bindner

Victoria. Wake up.

The whisper cut through the darkness of night like the candle had sliced it. But deeply asleep, she didn't stir. Zorro tried again.

Victoria. Mi preciosa. Please wake up.

His shaking on her shoulder worked this time. Slowly, she stirred and groggily opened her eyes to the flame from a single candle. Just as languidly, she smiled as Zorro's features came into focus.

Zorro, she announced dreamily, and stretched. Then she grew aware of the light of the candle and what it meant. Startled, she sat up in bed.

It's all right, he was quick to reassure. I closed the shutters, then blocked them and the door. I'm sorry, but I had to be fast, and grabbed the first things I could.

Victoria looked first at the door, where her skirt from yesterday lay neatly spread out in a long line of material to cut off the light that would have otherwise streamed through the crack under the opening, and her shirt was stuffed under the shutters to block the same thing from escaping into the night.

Still speaking in a whisper, he apologized. I'm sorry about your clothes. I can reimburse you or get you some more to replace them. But it may take me awhile. He chuckled then. I can't exactly walk into a store whenever I want.

Victoria rubbed at her eyes in an attempt to remove the feeling of sleep that she had, the tightness behind her pupils. Don't worry about the clothes, she said as she rubbed. I have more. But why are you here? Is someone in trouble? She propped herself up on the mattress.

Zorro sat back on his heels from the kneeling position he had occupied beside her bed. His legs were falling asleep, but he was so agitated that he hardly noticed. Victoria, I'm... I'm... he said hesitantly, trying to answer her question. Now that she was awake, he didn't know what to say, how to start; he had too much to say, and all about his brother's death, Emissary Risendo's death. He took a deep breath, then confessed, I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have come, yet there are things that need to be said, and the night is the only time you're free.

Instantly Victoria's natural sense of empathy roused, even though it was the middle of the night. She placed a soothing hand on his cheek and curved her lips up just a little bit to hint at a smile. It's all right. We have time. You can say what you need to say when you're ready.

Zorro snorted a laugh, part humor and irony. When I'm ready, he repeated, his whisper now full of twisted amusement. I think that's part of my problem. I'll never be ready.

He hadn't behaved like this before. What had happened? Victoria boosted herself all the way up in bed, her back leaning against the pillow. What's wrong? she whispered to him. What problem?

For a moment, he just stared silently at the unforgiving, wooden planks of the floor. Then he gazed at her, indecision clear in his eyes. I need... But he couldn't continue.

He needed something? He had always been so strong, so clever, that he had been the one to give to others in the past, even when few knew what he was doing. Victoria unconsciously leaned forward. What do you need?

A huge sigh exploded into the bedroom. There was the sound of tears in his voice when he said in a whisper, I'm sorry, but I just need to be held tonight.

That she could do, easily. Without a word, Victoria slid out of bed and into his arms. He'd taken off his thick, black gloves before waking her, and now his naked hand ran a path down her hair and the back of her white nightgown.

I'm sorry, Victoria, he said again, but she wouldn't let him finish.

Don't be sorry. It's all right to need a little comfort, Victoria said, her voice as low and soft as his. I have bad dreams and need comfort all the time.

For a moment, he held her, and slowly caressed her back as she did for him. Then his response glided quietly across her ear, Who comforts your bad dreams?

A second later, she almost laughed in mockery of herself. Nobody, she answered. I'm here, alone, and had better comfort myself.

He flinched. Because of the necessity of keeping his secret, he was often not available when she needed him. He knew that, but it was much harder hearing about it spoken aloud, even if she wasn't being accusatory. I'm sorry for that...

But she insisted, Don't be. I didn't say it to blame you. I understand.

Why had he been so lucky to fall in love with such an empathetic woman? Unconsciously, his arms tightened a little around her waist.

His arms felt so good touching her! Victoria was aware of his tightening arms, and wondered again about a nightmare. Do you want to talk about it now? Did you dream about something?

Zorro shook his head immediately. No. No bad dreams. In fact, I couldn't even go to sleep, he was quick to say. Something happened yesterday that... that... Again he couldn't finish.

You don't have to worry, she soothed, running her own hand up and down his back, her fingers twining into the tails of his mask. And you don't have to tell me. I just want you to feel better.

But I do, Zorro was quick to say. Unfortunately, I find myself still wanting more, and more is dangerous. I have no wish to put you in unnecessary danger.

She felt him lay his cheek against the top of her hair. In response, Victoria kissed his chest through the silk shirt he always wore. Stop being so chivalrous and noble. Everyone, even you, needs to be comforted sometimes, needs the companionship of others. You're just not used to needing that companionship.

He chuckled. You're very astute, Victoria. But I think this problem is so momentous that even I might need some help this time.

This sounded like a bigger problem than bad dreams. I'm glad that you feel you can come to me, but what happened?

Zorro heard the concern in her voice, despite the whisper. I can't explain what happened without revealing my identity. Again a wave of memories engulfed him at his confession, and the pain he felt at them almost made him gasp for air. He squeezed his arms around her and held on, still attempting to speak through the anguish. But it might be time to show you everything. His voice broke on such an astonishing statement, though he managed to finish his thought with relatively little trouble.

Victoria froze. Do you mean..?

Victoria, Zorro said, gently holding her away from him so he could see her, you're the most important person to me, and I could never bear to bring you harm. His blue eyes blazed with pain, and she could see it even in the light of the single candle. But I'm not sure I can handle this one on my own. I might need your help, and to get that help means that I have to reveal my secret. The problem is very personal in nature, he explained.

Victoria looked on his sorrowful face, conscious of the hesitancy, the unshed tears, the need for her that she saw in half of his countenance alone. Good God, what happened?

For his part, Zorro heard the worry in her tone. I don't mean to frighten you... Look, Victoria, we can go round and round and easily get lost in my need and your empathy. Things will be much clearer if I just take off my mask and reveal to you who I am. You've wanted to know my secret for years, and right now, I'm not sure I have the energy anymore to resist your entreaties. I do know what kind of danger this puts you in, and I'm sorry for that, but I need your love now more than a freedom from danger.

The amount of emotion and persuasion that Victoria poured into her voice, even at a whisper, was prodigious. You have it, Zorro. All you have to do is trust me. I won't tell a soul who you really are, she promised. It will benefit me more not to tell.

Zorro laughed at that. I know you won't tell, he said in complete understanding, displaying as much of that understanding as he could into his own voice. It's not you I don't trust, it's myself. I've never had trouble trusting you. The only thing is that you may not have the same feelings for my unmasked self as you do for Zorro, and I'm not certain I can bear that kind of rejection right now.

Victoria was quick to counter his fear. Yes, but even when you proposed, I asserted to love the man who had such a heart full of justice as you do. I probably do love the real man behind the mask, and just don't know it yet.

For a second, Zorro looked at her, love in his eyes, momentarily covering up his pain, then he seemed to come to some decision. His features cleared. I know that your bedroom is not the appropriate place for such a request, but this is what we have...

Mystified, she searched his eyes for a hint as to his petition. What is it?

This isn't very gentlemanly... For a second, Zorro was silent again, hesitant, ashamed, then he steeled himself and plunged on, Victoria, in case you hate me after my unmasking, can I ask you to kiss me, one last time? I don't know if my memories of you will hold up against hate...

Victoria gazed chidingly up at him. I won't hate you. That's the silliest thing you've ever said. And you don't have to beg me for a kiss, either. I'll gladly give one to you, now and anytime in the future.

I'm not so sure about that!

I am, she said, responding to his joke even as she drew closer yet to him. Her eyes closed, and the second her lips met his, she felt his desperation, his sense of hopelessness, as quickly as she felt his growing desire. Love washed over her in waves, threatening to consume what little sense she had left after such a request. He had never kissed her like this before, so lovingly and so passionately. She melted in his arms, useless mush before such an onslaught of emotion. Still, there was that hint of holding back, as if he didn't want to hurt her with whatever news he had yet to impart. Victoria felt his agony, his pain, even in such a pleasant endearment as a kiss.

At last, he drew back, putting an end to the desperation as well as to the passion and love. His breathing was harsh in the quiet room, fast and strong, and he crushed her tightly to him. I don't want to lose you over this, Victoria, he finally admitted, rocking her in that embrace. I can't bear to lose you. The tears were back in his voice.

I know that unmasking holds a great many fears for you. Would it help if I untied your mask? she offered.

No. I should do it. It's just hard; I'm so afraid that you'll be disappointed in the real me.

I won't hate you, I promise. Victoria encouraged, acknowledging silently how much promises meant to him.

Zorro took another big inhalation of air by way of preparation and courage. He released her, and they both sat on her rumpled bed in anticipation. There was an expectant look on her face and he appeared pained, yet determined. He raised his arms to the ties at the back of his head and twisted the material in quick, practiced motions. Then, slowly, the pain and anguish he was experiencing showing so clearly in his eyes, he lifted the mask away to uncover the uncertainty of Diego de la Vega.

Just as suddenly, she knew what his problem was.

She felt fear, awe, friendship, love, irony, and relief for a moment, all swamping her at once. Her features dissolving under the weight of so many conflicting emotions, she looked like she was about to cry, and had the sound of tears in her voice as she threw her arms around his neck and said, Oh, thank the Mother!

This incredulity and unquestioning acceptance was not exactly the response that he had anticipated for years. He had always been so certain of her hate and anger, hate because of who he pretended to be, and because he'd been nearby, yet so far away, and anger because he had wasted all those years in useless waiting, that to receive anything else was simply amazing. He wrapped her up in another embrace, his heart thudding. He whispered, You're not disappointed?

Victoria was crying now, and laughing, and hugging him back all simultaneously. No, she said when she could speak. I'm not disappointed. After all you have done for the pueblo, for me...

I've only used my skills for the pueblo. It's what any man would do.

But it's what you did, she argued. All your true feelings, hidden, every day... Her arms tightened this time as her voice trailed off.

He felt her arms squeeze harder, and his arms tightened in response. He was becoming aware of the fact that she only wore a thin gown, too, but ignored that fact in lieu of an inquiry burning in his mind. Victoria, can I ask you a question?

She sniffled, and he could hear the smile in her voice, even if it was low. Go ahead. She nodded, too.

Why? Why do you feel this thrill for little, inconsequential me?

She sat back on his lap and brushed at the tear tracks on her cheeks. Why did I have that particular reaction?

Speechless, he nodded.

She hugged him again, and it was as if her body's curves had been created to fit into his. First, you'll never be inconsequential, not to me. Second, I've suspected it was you, but I've never been certain, and I've been worried about who Zorro is for years; I would have happily married a poor farmer from Santa Barbara, but it's so much nicer, so much better, that I don't have to, for then I would gain much, but lose much at the same time. Third, it explains my own growing feelings that I've harbored for you over the years. Why do you think I've always been so cutting in my remarks, so hurtful?

You haven't been hurtful, Diego lied.

Yes, I have, and you can admit it. It's something that I'll have to learn to live with. Anyway, to further explain, I've been so awful to you in order to keep you away, at a distance, so to speak. I couldn't get closer to you, couldn't afford to let myself.

Such closeness would have been nice, he admitted to himself. Why?

At first Victoria wouldn't answer. She only clung to him. Then, her voice still a whisper, she admitted, Because if I did, I might have fallen in love with you, and I already felt unconditional love for Zorro; everybody knew that.

Diego pulled back again in his surprise. You could have loved me?

Tearfully, Victoria nodded. I'm so lucky he turned out to be you. I think I wanted him to be you, but I never thought, never dared...

Diego squeezed her tighter again. Sh! You don't have to say anything...

Yes, I do. Of course I do. I have to say it, and you have to hear it. Her voice drifted somewhere over his head, soft and hesitant, a mere whisper, yet beautiful.

His arms stayed wrapped around her small frame. Victoria, do you have any idea how hard it was to sit in your tavern every day and not... he was in the process of admitting, but she backed away from his embrace, despite how good it felt, and interrupted.

Oh, yes, I do have an idea, she asserted. Then said, But that is in the past, and now I have to deal with my knowledge of knowing your secret, and keeping it, instead of you suffering every day. And none of this helps you to deal with your problem.

My problem. He sighed, remembering again. My problem is guilt, and lack of feeling, and enjoying too much love...

Lack of feeling? For Emissary Risendo? she inquired with a disbelieving wrinkle to her brow.

Diego sighed again. I know he was inherently evil, that his evil was highlighted, and few liked him, but most of how he behaved was because of how he was brought up. His life would have been so different if he had been raised by Father. When I think about that...

His lowered voice was full of pain. Victoria didn't actually think Emissary Risendo was worth feeling that kind of pain for, but he had been Diego's brother by birth... she had to remember that. Don't think about that possibility, she suggested. Think about being married to me instead, she said, even though she knew such an event would be difficult to bring about, might even be impossible with Ignacio DeSoto as the Alcalde of Los Angeles.

Diego's arms tightened once more as he embraced her. He laughed a little laugh. Nothing would please me more, he insisted. But as beautiful, as wonderful, as that thought is, I need to tell you about my emotions first...

Right, your problem. Go on.

His sigh chiseled through the room. I feel guilty for having lived, for having you, for having Father and Felipe and all my friends. I have so much, and he had so little.

You can't feel guilty about that, she insisted at once. You've given up so much over the years since Zorro appeared that there should only be a sense of equality between you and your brother. As for having me, please don't ever feel guilt over my love. I think you've earned it.

Just then she did look beautiful, even with her hair disarranged by sleep, and he felt more than lucky. He hugged her. Don't ever let me forget that, he said, his whisper pained yet full of insistence. You are so beautiful and you're mine and I love you. Have I said that? It's as true as the wind or the rain or the sun; I'll always love you.

Her whisper floated back to him like a breath of air. I know.

With the abruptness of the turns in their nighttime conversation, his lips were on hers, claiming, demanding, cajoling in a way that Zorro had never dared to kiss her before. He let loose on his emotions, on the pueblo's expectations, to feel her and only her. His mouth traveled across the hot skin of her throat, up the salty tracks on her cheeks, across her forehead, and back to her mouth. She felt so good, so right, in his arms, the center of his endearments, that he didn't want to stop, couldn't stop in his vulnerable state. Instead, he wanted to feel all of her, and it was suddenly so important that the sensation quickly escalated into a yearning need to experience her against him, on him, under him, beside him, with him, always, forever. The sensation built to a fever pitch, burning hotter and brighter as their tongues danced together, displaying that hope to share what they could with each other. They disregarded any social convention, any teaching they had received, any disappointment they might wreak in others as Diego made his decision and slowly lowered Victoria back onto the bed.

* * *

The candle had long since extinguished itself when Diego woke Victoria for the second time in that long yet not long enough, beautiful, wonderful, painful, exquisite night.

Mi preciosa? Victoria?

She was awake instantly, and sat up in the bed, the sheets and blankets barely useful to warm her naked skin as she gazed at him in open amazement, and wonder, and fulfillment.

Dressed in the black of Zorro, without the mask left lying at the bottom of the bed, he whispered to her again. I need to be going home for now. But know that I don't regret anything that happened, and I will anticipate the time that I get to see you again. Diego shook his head in admiration. You're so wonderful, so beautiful, I don't know how I'm going to hide my feelings. He stroked her cheek in a soft caress. However, I wanted to say something to you before slipping off and disappearing. And to give you this. He pulled a maroon rose from beside the bed, picked from the de la Vega garden especially for her, and offered it. One beauty for another.

Victoria smiled, and took his offering. Thank you. She embraced him one last time. You should know that I'm not certain I will be able to serve you in the future without giving you away to everybody in the pueblo. I might have one of my helpers serve you and your family. That only means that I love you too much, not the opposite, and I'll be in back, hiding in my kitchen. Then she laughed and added, But I'll be spying through the curtains, and have eyes only for you.

Diego grinned. If I feel like I'm suddenly under a microscope, I'll know it's you. Goodbye for now, mi preciosa. He gave her one last kiss, then replaced the mask, tied it, and slipped away out her window as soundlessly as he had arrived. Victoria didn't even hear the pounding of Toronado's hooves on the ground.

She lay back against the pillow and absentmindedly fingered the rose. So, now she knew, and gaining that knowledge had been too beautiful to describe. Victoria felt the sheets beside her, but the indentation he'd left on her mattress wasn't even warm anymore. There was no physical reminder of what they'd felt. Only she knew, and that sharing of his identity, despite his fears on that sharing, meant more to her than any amount of lost sleep. He'd given her something indelible, something strong, something lasting, and that gift meant the world to her.

Content, and finally sleepy, Victoria rolled over and remembered, not feeling guilty at all. She sighed and glowed, in love.

* * *

Diego looked down at Felipe, stretched out, asleep, in the straw of Toronado's stall, and laughed. He knew he shouldn't laugh, that he'd been more than bad, unchivalrous, even, but he couldn't feel too evil. He wasn't like his brother, Gilberto Risendo, had been. In him, every good impulse had been twisted until there was nothing good left. But Diego felt too happy for anything he'd done with Victoria to be bad. Sure, his father and Padre Benitez wouldn't like it, especially if a baby had been created, but this relaxed feeling was worth any outcome. It was worth anything.

Felipe. Wake up. Why was he always waking people? He seemed to be doing that a lot, lately.

Felipe's legs moved, bent up, straightened out, and his eyelids fluttered. But he was not nearly as beautiful to wake as Victoria had been only moments past. Diego grinned, ready to laugh again.

The young man suddenly startled awake and sat up, bits of straw still clinging to his hair.

Diego may have been dressed in his own clothes from the night before, but he looked different, even more laid back, cheerful, ready to take on the world, confident. Anybody who had gone through his experience would have looked the same.

Felipe noticed the change right away, and signed, his face lowered in accusation, to ask Diego where he had been the night before.

Diego sighed, but couldn't diminish his emotions. I'm sorry, amigo. I didn't mean to worry you, or for you to sleep in a pile of straw to wait.

Again Felipe signed his question, asking if he'd had some troubles with banditos or something, then rubbed the back of his neck in curiosity.

Or something. Diego couldn't help himself; he chuckled. No, no banditos, he confessed, not feeling guilty at all. You aren't going to like what I have to tell you, he warned his friend. When Felipe ordered Diego to tell him, anyway, Diego shrugged. Very well. I spent the night with Victoria.

Felipe understood him immediately. His face paled. His mouth fell open. He signed another question, and showed horror, as well as a grudging respect for Diego's decisions.

Yes, I faced all my worst fears and lived to tell about it, Diego joked, then carefully watched Felipe's next inquiry. Where is she now? Probably starting breakfast, pregnant, or both. Another wide-eyed question. How do I feel? Wonderful. Diego rose and bounded up the steps to the cave's anteroom and exited through the fireplace opening.

Felipe followed, astonished at the news. His friend and mentor hadn't even bothered to check the peep hole before going past the grate and into the library. It was as if he didn't care anymore if he was caught. Felipe was impressed; he would have to acquire a girlfriend if having one made somebody feel so... invincible.

Diego was aware of Felipe's surprise, but unaware of his further thoughts. He told himself to get used to that surprised reaction. It wasn't like his behavior was in character, especially as far as the pueblo's citizens were concerned. He was certainly bound to run into some amount of incredulity from his father. He tried to imagine how his father would feel upon hearing the news, or how he himself would feel about the same news sixteen years from now, to hear how his son or daughter had behaved similarly, and he couldn't find the bad mixed with the good. There was no bad. That's why he couldn't find it. His intentions had been noble, not nefarious, and though he'd behaved towards Victoria with less then gentlemanly chivalry, his mood reflected the actual outcome; his wildest dreams had come true. And, if anything, his mood was only improving.

Don Alejandro glanced at his son from his position at the head of the breakfast table, and frowned in irritation. If there was one thing he didn't like, it was for his own family to look so... happy... while he was obviously suffering. And Diego practically radiated with good will. Alejandro carefully adjusted his bandaged leg. He may be aware of his son's secret, but that didn't mean he could appreciate Diego's mood. You're up early this morning, considering what a rotten day we had yesterday.

Diego crossed to his chair. My day wasn't rotten. Well, he amended, it wasn't, then it was, then it wasn't again. It definitely wasn't!

Alejandro eyed Diego. You must have slept well.

Diego took a breakfast burrito for himself and passed the platter on to Felipe, who ate breakfast with the family every day, even before news of his impending adoption had been made known to the entire town. Felipe took the platter. I did sleep well, said Diego. It was a little cramped, perhaps, he continued, considering, But that made it all the nicer.

Why? asked the aged don. Your bed shouldn't be cramped, unless you spent the night with a traveling circus and I don't know about it. Alejandro laughed at his own joke.

Diego laughed, too. No, that's not who I spent the night with.

Felipe slid down in his chair, trying to make himself as small as possible, as if knowing that an explosion was coming.

Alejandro glanced once at the odd behavior from his servant and future grandson, then turned his attention back to the even odder behavior coming from his son. Diego, up before ten o'clock? And cheerful about it? That was strange. Why? Alejandro asked again, still joking. Who did you spend the night with?

Diego looked up, bright and smiling, as he smeared some jam onto a piece of toast. Victoria, he answered.

He watched as Don Alejandro's face paled, like Felipe's had done.

Don't have such a negative reaction, Father. There's nothing negative about this, Diego insisted.

Alejandro's face almost turned purple, he was suddenly so angry. In a tight, pinched, voice that easily displayed his anger, he said, You didn't.

I did, Diego countered. And I feel marvelous. Not even you, in all your anger and rages, can make me feel bad today.

His voice still low, still indicating his extreme wrath, Alejandro said, Do you realize what you have done?

Diego paused while about to take a bite of toast. Made myself very happy for a change? he guessed.

No, Alejandro patiently explained, as if to a small, misbehaving, child. You've ruined a young woman's perfectly good reputation, that's what.

Diego dramatically rolled his eyes and took that bite of toast he had been trying to take. Oh, that. He shook his head and swallowed. I haven't ruined anything.

Alejandro turned purple again. Oh, yes, you have! he hissed.

Then why do I feel so good? Answer me that.

Diego's challenge momentarily stopped his father.

The truth is, said Diego as he took another bite of toast, I should have been with her a long time ago, and last night just proves that. He took another bite, then finished the toast.

But that's no kind of life, Alejandro insisted. Snatching a moment here, a moment there, finding secret places to meet...

Diego brushed his father's words aside with a wave of his hand. We already had that. This is much better.

Alejandro threw his hands up. I'm glad you think so, Diego, because responsibility will come crashing down on your head if she becomes... with child. He couldn't say the word, 'pregnant.'

Angry now himself, Diego threw down the second piece of toast he'd taken. I take on more than my share of responsibilities. If you want to talk about responsibilities, then where have the caballeros of this pueblo been for the last five years while Zorro has solved all the problems? While he's been confronting not one, but two Alcaldes, on tax after tax after insufferable tax? Why have two men bent on ruining our lives not been run out of town? I'll tell you why. Diego stood, pacing alongside the table, warming to his topic. Because Zorro has given the last five years of his life defending the downtrodden and poor people of Los Angeles while the caballeros have stood by and done nothing, and you want him to feel bad when he has found some happiness at last? No thank you! he roared, then left the dining room.

The silence was so intense that anybody could hear a pin drop.

That is perhaps the first time Diego has ever defended himself against his family, decided Alejandro in some amazement. But he had more pressing matters to contend with than his wayward son. It's all right, Felipe, you can come out now, said Alejandro to the servant, who had slid the rest of the way under the dining room table, trying to hide.

* * *

Minutes later, Alejandro found Diego sitting placidly in the library, reading the writings of Samuel Johnson. Ten minutes after that, he knew Diego wasn't reading anything, for though the younger man stared at the book as if he was completely engrossed, he hadn't turned a single page.

Alejandro sighed. Why was he lucky enough to get the children with the difficult problems? Out with it, Son. What's on your mind?

Diego glanced up, feigning surprise, as if he'd just woken from a long siesta. But he didn't pretend about his thoughts. Oh, Father... my thoughts? Oh, I was just thinking about Zorro, and Victoria, and about what happens now.

Alejandro kept his bandaged leg from getting caught on the edge of the chair he'd sat in. What are you going to do? he asked, deciding that he couldn't cause any more harm by asking that particular question.

Diego looked up from where his fingers had laced through his hair, from his severe contemplation of the carpet on the floor. I don't know what I'm going to do, he admitted. I guess that depends on what happens next.

Do you mean if Victoria turns out to be..? Alejandro asked.

Diego smiled, though somewhat sadly. He hated disappointing his father. ... pregnant?

Alejandro nodded.

Diego resumed his contemplations of the carpet. Well, yes. She could be, and I know that this isn't exactly how you wanted to acquire grandchildren, and I know you're angry, Father, but what I shared last night with Victoria....

I'd rather not hear about it.

Diego lifted his head again. I had no plans for that to happen, you know, he relentlessly continued. I'm glad it did. It's been a long time in coming, I think, and I wouldn't change anything about our actions for anybody. I love Victoria, Father, have loved her since I first met her as a young woman, perhaps even since we were children.

So what happened last night?

Last night? A slow smile spread across Diego's features, causing a second sunrise. Last night, I went to Victoria for comfort.

Comfort? asked Alejandro, puzzled.

Diego tried to explain, I felt... guilty... about Gilberto.

Alejandro blustered indignantly. Why, for heavens' sake?

Diego had the decency to blush a little. Because I was alive at his expense.

Alejandro appeared surprised to hear this, as surprised as he was to hear about Diego's recent behavior. He had expected to be the one with issues over Gilberto's death. But he tried to kill you! he protested.

True, Diego agreed lackadaisically. He's not the first person.

Alejandro wanted to hear about his son's exploits as Zorro, but he suspected that other concerns were a tad more important right now. He did his best to act like a parent. And later? How did you feel later? Still guilty?

Again, the smile lit Diego's face. No, wonderful, he said again. I felt wonderful. In love.

Alejandro sighed at the smiling, content tableau his son was presenting, loathe to destroy it. He sighed again. Diego...

Diego interrupted. I know, I know, Father. You're going to say that I should have shown more restraint. But I've shown nothing but restraint for the last five years, and Victoria was... she was simply too beautiful to resist any longer.

Alejandro fidgeted. I really don't want to hear any more...

Diego had lowered his head into his hands again. I unmasked for her first.

This was news. Alejandro didn't know about any unmasking. You did what?

First, I had to unmask. That led to talking about Gilberto. Then...

Alejandro would have vaulted to his feet if not for his injured leg. As it was, he slowly rose. I think I should be going...

Father, no, Diego stopped him. You don't have to leave. I won't say anything... too embarrassing. You just need to know that I love Victoria, have always loved her, have been part of the strangest courtship in history, and plan to accept whatever responsibilities are the outcome of last night. We've been together for a long time, and...

That's it! Alejandro suddenly exclaimed excitedly, a smile lighting his face now.

Diego lifted his head. What is?

A courtship. Alejandro looked energetically at his son. You can court Victoria now. As long as she's not... you know, and in a few months, six at the most, we can have a wedding. You can be properly married.

Diego was confused. I admit, that sounds nice, but Seņor Zorro is still...

Not Zorro, Alejandro hissed. You!

Diego straightened with a start. Me?

You, Alejandro repeated, excited by his new idea. What Zorro can't do, you can, and that's marry, have children, run the ranch, live with the woman you love...

Diego's brows rose to meet his hairline. He couldn't help but consider the idea. It's possible.

Alejandro was enthusiastic. It's more than possible.

But what if Victoria's pregnant? Diego asked.

Alejandro slapped his knee. All the better! You can 'rescue' her then. A courtship will go along much faster. And no one will question a thing.

Diego seemed to be looking internally; he had a thoughtful expression on his face. A courtship. A real courtship. Not bad.

Alejandro glanced at Diego and prepared to leave the room. Be careful, Son. Now is not the time to be getting killed. He limped away, leaving Diego alone to stew in the idea for awhile.

Hmmm, Diego hummed, still pensive. A courtship.

* * *

The idea had merit. Diego brought the concept up to Victoria later that day when the de la Vegas visited the tavern for lunch.

A courtship, by me, meant to sweep you off your feet and take your affections away from El Zorro. What do you think? inquired Diego in a whisper.

Victoria was quick to answer, her voice also low, I think that nobody will believe it.

What if you make it believable?

Make it believable? What do you mean?

What if you start rumors of a fight, or that you're tired of waiting for him to fulfill his promise, or both?

Victoria thought for a moment, considering his words. That scenario had some possibility to it. Maybe, she grudgingly said. But this has to be the best acting job the pueblo has seen yet.

Oh, that. Diego wasn't worried about acting. He'd been acting for years. I can do that with both hands tied behind my back.

Suddenly, Victoria smiled. I'm sure you can.

Just then, Maria, Victoria's kitchen helper, walked through the curtains from the main room. She reached for some extra tortilla shells kept on a shelf, and gave Diego and Victoria a searching glance. They moved another foot apart and tried to appear nonchalant. Maria moved again back through the curtains.

Diego looked down at Victoria. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life like this, half living in fear of discovery, you'll agree.

Victoria chewed on her bottom lip. All right. Perhaps we can do it.

Diego was as excited as his father had been that morning at the hacienda. Thank you, Victoria! Thank you for doing this.

She smiled. Now, how about that kiss you promised me?

Diego cradled her arm in his. You know that it's my pleasure, but shouldn't we have less threat of an audience?

Again, Victoria smiled. Do you want to court me, or not? she asked flirtatiously.

Diego's breath washed seductively across her face. You know I do.

Then help me start some rumors, she suggested.

That was all Diego could stand. He placed both his hands on either side of her head as she stood on tip-toe like she always had to do, and he leaned his head down and...

That was when Maria reappeared through the curtain, looked, said, Oh, excuse me, and, flustered, went back through the curtains.

Diego smiled in amusement. It won't be long for such news to reach every ear in the pueblo now.

Victoria couldn't help but add, Let's help it along. She finished reaching the distance to his waiting lips, and kissed him.

Diego felt like he was drowning, but spreading the news of a courtship was what he wanted. He had to fight his natural instincts to cover up his behavior. This was no time for secretive movements. A kiss taking place in the kitchen was hidden enough. Diego was done with hiding his emotions.

Victoria deepened the kiss, making it almost impossible for him to draw away from her. As it was, his insides were spinning.

He collected himself with an effort. Well, Seņorita, how was that for starting a rumor?

Victoria looked at him appreciatively. I'll start rumors with you any day.

Flirting back with her, he wrapped his fingers more tightly around her waist. I'd do other things first, he suggested.

She kissed his cheek. Oh, stop.

He laughed. I have to tell my father of your decision. I'll see you later. He touched her cheek in a light endearment, then slipped out through her back door in the way he'd done many times before. One look around the side of the tavern told him the coast was clear, and he sauntered into the open until he found himself in the main room of the tavern again.

Alejandro and Felipe glanced up at him expectantly as he slid onto a single bench on the other side of the table at which they were sitting.

She said she'd do it, Diego reported. He looked once at his beaming father, once at the stairs that led to the balcony that led to her room, smiled, then winked in the direction of the curtains. His thoughts were on the previous night, after that kiss he'd just experienced, and he blushed. He couldn't stop thinking about her and how she felt under his hands... He took a deep breath and sighed.

* * *

Diego was in Los Angeles the next day, preparing the paper for publication. There were two articles left to edit when he decided to stop for lunch. On his way through the plaza to the tavern, he ran into DeSoto. It would seem rude not to stop for a quick chat, and he couldn't afford to appear rude. Diego found himself talking to his most ardent enemy. He was extra cautious, especially since he'd challenged the Alcalde as Zorro in that very plaza several hours earlier. A disagreement with the Alcalde when he was bruised and battered wasn't on Diego's list of things to do for the day.

Alcalde, Diego called in greeting, and raised his arm as he passed.

If it isn't Diego de la Vega, competition for Zorro, the government official sneered as he leaned nonchalantly against a post supporting his office roof, dedicated in his perusal of the villagers currently in the plaza.

Oh, and Diego did his best to look ashamed. You heard about that.

DeSoto's sneer deepened. He had never thought very highly of the interfering de la Vegas, and now was not the time to start. And he had even less regard for Don Diego's chosen flame. Of course I heard! Well, that's the type of behavior expected from a simple barmaid.

Hidden from the Alcalde's view, Diego's hand balled into a tight fist as his anger skyrocketed. But he couldn't allow that fist to slam into the gloating jaw in front of him. He wasn't into suicide.

DeSoto's voice softened. I hear you're waging the war for Seņorita Escalante's affections and winning, if I can determine by the reports from Sergeant Mendoza. I had thought there was no way she would forsake her hero, but you never know with women.

As you say, Alcalde, replied Diego warily. He didn't trust the Alcalde, and was purposefully vague. Love is certainly unpredictable.

DeSoto wheezed a laugh, making the gesture sound unhealthy even if it wasn't. You should know that better than all of the rest of us. Good luck - you'll need it, said DeSoto sardonically.

But if even DeSoto bought the courtship idea as believable, then everybody else would, too, for there was none more suspicious than Ignacio DeSoto. Diego ought to know.

* * *

The first time Diego took Victoria anywhere as himself was to a supper party at his father's friend's, Don Hector Manuel's, hacienda. They were both so nervous that each of them spilled their drink onto their clothes. Because they were both so wet, nobody said anything when they left early. Of course, that necessitated the removal of wet clothing, and with one thing leading to another, Diego found himself once again spending the night at the tavern. But neither he nor Victoria seemed to mind.

When he was alone again in the library the following morning, the memory of Victoria's sweet caresses in his mind, he had time to think about what he had agreed to and groaned in fear. What had he done? There was no chance that anybody would buy a transference of such strong emotion to the passive Diego. If only Victoria had not been so devoted so openly, he mused, though then last night might not have happened at all, and he wouldn't change that for anything. Victoria's slender form could be quite... enchanting.., he decided with a tender smile.

But no matter how good the courtship was going, both Diego and Felipe couldn't deny that Diego had become slightly reckless in his relentless pursuit of Victoria. Once, twice, was not enough for Diego to experience the tavern owner's charms, especially now that he had tasted them at all. She was like a disease to him; once started, impossible to stop. He spent more time romancing Victoria than he did in chasing desperadoes. Felipe worried, but Diego only pushed the worry aside and stepped up his activities as a sudden courtier in the tiny town. Of course, his other activities increased, too, and his happiness soared, to the detriment of Zorro. In fact, he let the lancers track a fairly dangerous gang of bandits, one that he could have easily captured, and allowed the group of royal men to garner the reward, too, for the eventual capture of the outlaws. Zorro was otherwise occupied, it seemed.

Despite the risks involved, he continued to court the seņorita as Diego and to make passionate love to her when time permitted. However, neither knew that time was running out for the two in the small pueblo.

Oblivious to the happenings surrounding them, and happy to remain so, the arrival of a single soldier from Mexico City caught them and the small town completely by surprise. Diego had once again spent the night with Victoria, determined not to feel guilty about his nocturnal activities, and only the commotion in the plaza could make him dress hastily in the caballero's clothes he had brought along and slink out of Victoria's bedroom window to sneak around the tavern and discover what drama was unfolding so early in the morning in the plaza. Even he was surprised.

The single rider, that lone soldier, showed more power than anybody would ever give credit to one man. He uncurled the proclamation he held in his hands, pulled quickly from his saddlebag, and slipped the green ribbon binding the parchment together back into its hiding place. DeSoto stood behind him, looking nervous, partly relieved, and partly irritated as he carefully scratched his brows with one gloved hand. The tails of his pink neck cloth flapped in the wind. Other than that, there was no sound except the opening of the tavern doors as Victoria joined the others in the plaza, and of the guest's voice carrying like a bell over the heads of the gathered crowd.

The soldier half read, half shouted, the words on the parchment. Let it be known that two months ago, Mexico declared and won her independence from Spain, and King Ferdinand has sold the territory of California to that country. Any citizen in the California territory is now a citizen of Mexico, and any Spanish official is hereby requested to leave immediately. Consider these developments and this document as a pardon for the outlaw known as Zorro. With those words spoken, the soldier lowered the parchment in his hands. Now you know, was all he said in reaction to this astonishing news, and turned to his fresh horse procured from the garrison stables, and mounted dispassionately. With a cloud of dust, he was gone, off to spread his news in the pueblo of Santa Paula.

Diego turned to Victoria, who had sidled up to stand next to him, and regarded her, his mouth hanging open in surprise. His expression matched hers, and before they knew it, they were in each other's arms, laughing and crying in the impromptu celebration that had erupted in the plaza.

However, DeSoto, who had surmised correctly the identity of his arch enemy by the atypical display of affection from the usually very proper young don, loudly voiced that opinion, his sarcasm and disbelief carrying even over to Diego's side of the plaza. Diego? Is Zorro? How unbelievable! His voice had the familiar sneering sound to it, and an undertone of astonishment. His mouth hanging open, and without warning of any kind, he drew his ornate sword and quietly charged up the suddenly open middle plaza, heading straight for Diego and Victoria in what could have been the most perfect lunge he'd performed in his life.

The only reason Diego saw such an audacious movement was because his hold on Victoria had caused him to turn his head to the side, and his smile faded to an expression of horror as DeSoto drew nearer. Look out! he yelled, and pushed. Acting completely on instinct, he threw himself and Victoria to the dust, landing hard on his shoulder as he tried to take the brunt of the impact with his body, noticing the dust cloud rising lazily into the air. Then he was too busy trying to remain alive to notice much of anything.

In an attempt to divide the former alcalde's attention, Diego and Victoria had to split apart, each rolling separately in the opposite direction to avoid the next swish of the swinging blade. DeSoto didn't even hesitate in his following attack, but immediately went after Diego.

Diego breathed a quick sigh of relief. Trusting in luck, something he usually made certain he didn't have to do, DeSoto had chosen to chase him instead of Victoria, thus ascertaining the seņorita's safety, and drawing the potentially deadly blade from other innocent bystanders in the plaza. It was what Diego wanted, but it was perhaps the last move of his life.

Only after years of watching, Diego was well schooled in the art of using his peripheral vision, and caught sight of Sergeant Mendoza standing beside him out of the corners of his eyes as he summersaulted backwards to avoid the swinging blade and rose unsteadily to a standing position. Blood that had previously gone to his head rushed to his feet, leaving him momentarily dizzy, but even as the world tilted strangely, he asked, May I borrow this? Always polite to a fault, he pulled Mendoza's sword from the scabbard at his waist, making it twang like it never had before, then barely had time to bring the weapon up to block the third attack of Desoto's sword.

The familiar derision was evident on DeSoto's features as he faced his old enemy across the dust. Getting slow in your old age? he asked, goading, taunting, something he'd rarely dared to do with his enemy. He swung his sword across his chest to make it slice the air with an action of bravado.

Instead of feeling nervous, Diego now felt calm with a sword in his hand, with Victoria out of danger, and in control of the situation once again. The minute DeSoto's blade had chosen its target, Victoria had climbed to her feet and backed away until she was on the tavern's porch, surrounded by people, and ready to run into the tavern if she had to. Now, she turned around to the fight, her heart in her throat, condemned to watching by years of useless ideology that declared men were better simply because they were physically stronger, unable to help in the way she wanted to. She knew that staying out of harm's way was the best assistance she could give in the situation. It was maddening, as the man she loved more than her own life was currently engaged in a battle of wills and strength with a man who was leant energy by his audacity and mania. Yet she could do nothing more than watch.

DeSoto smiled, his features twisting with the gesture.

Diego took a step back to avoid the dangerous weapon and to draw the fight even further away from innocent people. What an unfortunate display of such a pleasant sensation, he said of the smile, hoping that DeSoto would take the bait of his step instead of dragging someone watching into the scene as a hostage. For nothing could raise his temper or stymie his attempts at disarming an opponent faster than using a defenseless observer to cower behind. Little could be more cowardly, in his opinion, or more dangerous.

DeSoto noticed the step backwards and automatically took the bait, following his opponent like a puppy as he sent the sword slicing again through the air. Why don't you admit it and save yourself the effort; you're outclassed this time. Give up before I run you through.

Conserving his own strength for the battle ahead, Diego ignored the taunt from his former schoolmate. Instead, he saluted briefly, as he'd been taught to do, then pushed aside the next lunge from the opposing blade. Knowing that he might finally have to kill his adversary in order to survive, Diego mentally prepared his mind for the eventuality even as he readied his arm to absorb the sting of the next assault. I'm not outclassed, he finally said. And if you keep forcing this ludicrous decision, I'll be compelled to make you my first victim, he promised.

But even as he spoke, his hair swung crazily across his forehead and into his eyes, hiding any future attacks from him. The black mask he'd always worn had protected him from the vagaries of the wind until now. Who would have thought it? There was little he could do about the wind pushing his hair into his eyes to distort his decree of a possible killing.

Still, DeSoto didn't know that. He sneered, his mouth warping with the gesture. Wouldn't you like me to think so? he said. No, everyone knows that Zorro doesn't kill. Or should I say the coward of the pueblo doesn't kill? he asked, making the question into a challenge that even Diego couldn't resist.

I am no coward, Diego intoned in a whisper. Don't even dare to think that. He propelled his own sword through the air, backing his words with a commitment of steel.

Let's see if your heart is as good as your words, DeSoto said quickly, and lunged.

My heart belongs to Victoria, and you know it, Diego said as he deflected DeSoto's swing with an easy riposte.

That barmaid? DeSoto cackled, knowing that his comment would ruffle the calm exterior of his adversary.

The questioning of Victoria's reputation and integrity worked well. Diego's face descended into a hard frown. You know nothing, he replied, and performed an attack of his own. Leave her out of this.

DeSoto cackled. I'll do what I want. After all, I have nothing left to lose. You do.

Diego's face hardened even more. If you so much as scratch her, you'll be sure to die.

DeSoto's smile widened. Brave words, my friend.

Don't even think that I am your friend, Diego said in an awful, grating whisper.

Oh, I don't, DeSoto reassured, then swerved his sword in his own arch.

Diego parried the impossible arch. They circled warily.

You can't kill me, DeSoto bantered. You won't kill anybody.

When I won my sword from Sir Edmund...

So you won it, DeSoto interrupted.

Diego went on as if DeSoto hadn't even spoken, ... I promised that it would never be sullied by blood.

A noble sentiment, but misguided. DeSoto attacked and again Diego parried.

That may be, Ignacio, Diego said, but be warned that I'm not using that particular sword right now.

The knowledge and what it meant clearly showed in DeSoto's frown. For the first time, fear was disclosed in his eyes. He quickly hid the sensation.

But Diego had seen. Too late, Ignacio, too late.

DeSoto attempted to bait him with more insults when he knew his swordsmanship was in serious doubt. But he knew right where his enemy was vulnerable. So, tell us, Seņor Zorro, how does it feel to hold a common waitress?

The force of Diego's anger was almost palpable. Still, he managed to keep it under control, though just barely. He knew he could not afford to lose his temper now. I thought I requested that we leave her alone?

DeSoto laughed, noticing how close to the edge Diego was. What he didn't realize was how dangerous Diego could be if angered. You didn't answer my question, he challenged again.

Diego's frown grew deeper, etched in his face. What you're indicating is a very foul way to describe a particular pleasure.

Ignacio laughed, his typical wheeze carrying across the plaza. Victoria, standing still on the tavern's porch, had to hear. That's what you would like us to think. But we all know what kind of a past a lady has who runs a tavern can suffer, he taunted.

Diego answered. There's nothing wrong with Victoria's past. And to those who care about such things, I'll answer your little challenge by saying that I've felt nothing better. He could see Victoria's smile even from where he was standing across the plaza.

DeSoto attacked once more. Diego traded attacks with him, all the while knowing that DeSoto hoped to tire him out with this strategy of barbs and blows.

DeSoto didn't prove him wrong. Tell us, does she serve others as well?

The words had exactly the effect that DeSoto was hoping for. In fact, they worked too well. There was nothing DeSoto could have said that would have made Diego's temper rise faster than an insult to his chosen lady's reputation. Diego just as hastily moved DeSoto's sword aside at the next occasion, leaving him open for excellent and easy disarming. He took the opportunity that arose before someone could get hurt in the conflict, and before DeSoto could utter another hurtful outrage. With a flick of his wrist, he performed a seamless and easy-looking move that sent DeSoto's sword flying. You always were an easy adversary, Ignacio, he said, then held the man with ease at the point of his sword.

Ignacio felt contrition was the better part of valor at this point. He fell in supplication to his knees. Please, Diego, we've always been friends. Don't kill me.

Diego glared. If I wanted to kill you, I would have a long time ago. Now, apologize to Victoria. He brushed the knife that was thrown at him away like it was nothing more than an annoying insect. He pushed the point of his sword into the skin belonging to his enemy to further encourage him. I don't believe I heard you.

DeSoto quailed under Diego's threat. When did the poet of the pueblo get to be so brave? He felt the sword point delve a little deeper into the skin of his neck, and a trickle of red proved to be most convincing. The man was perfectly willing to draw blood after all. All right, I'm sorry, I apologize. Will that do?

A most insincere apology I've never heard, Diego said, and the onlookers heard the fury in his voice. He then lowered his sword and purposefully, slowly, carved his final 'Z' into his former schoolmate's vest. Now get out. He added a punch to the man's jaw to hurry him along. That's for the nasty words spoken about Victoria. Go back to Spain, Ignacio. You're brand of justice is not wanted here.

DeSoto reeled backwards, tripping over the garrison's hitching rail.

Then Diego walked back to Victoria, calm in his superior strength, his back to a prone DeSoto in an unspoken insult to the soldier's presence. Gently but firmly, he pushed the crowd of gathered citizens aside until he finally reached her. Without a word, he pulled her into his embrace, proving once and for all what he thought of Victoria's reputation.

Are you all right? she whispered immediately, holding onto him so tightly that it had to make the onlookers wonder how much she had known. Such an embrace came only through practice.

Diego nodded instantly. I didn't even break a sweat, he explained, and those collected on the porch laughed, breaking the tense moment. Promising much more, Diego kissed her on the head. I love you, he said, affirming both hers and the citizens' beliefs with his words.

I know. Victoria's whisper was accepting of his answer and preceded the sudden knowledge that DeSoto was gone and the town of Los Angeles was finally free of the thumb that it had been under for the past five, six years. All around them, a celebration slowly began, then grew to a roar of sound and writhing bodies as everybody, including the lancers belonging to the tyranny of Spain, celebrated that country's deposition.

In the midst of it all, and for the man whom it meant perhaps the most, Diego only quietly held Victoria, feeling her welcome presence against his chest like he was holding her for the first time. Diego halted his unique celebration with Victoria for a moment. In front of all the jubilant townsfolk, he fell audaciously to one knee and proposed again. This time, there's no mask, and I want to make it real. Victoria, will you share everything I own? Will you marry me?

Victoria would have been slightly embarrassed at his display of emotion if she wasn't already consumed by blurring tears. A tense moment passed where it actually looked like she was considering his offer when she was truly blinking the tears from her eyes. Yes, she could only whisper before pulling him to his feet and drawing him in for a crushing embrace.

Diego would have been perfectly content to spend the morning right where he already was, but he pulled back after awhile and said, I need to see my father about this news right away, he explained, not saying if he planned to tell about the governmental changeover, or his seemingly sudden and wholly unexpected plans to marry. Then he gave Victoria a kiss right there, in the open, in the plaza. He's not going to believe this, Diego said, thinking of grandchildren as he softly rubbed her nose with his, showing gentle affection. Then, with a soft caress on her cheek, he left, loping around the back of the tavern to fetch Toronado, whom he had ridden the night before, overwhelmed by the concept of his luck. Tearing the stallion away from the pot full of Victoria's hanging flowers that he was currently consuming, Diego reappeared, heading towards the hacienda. At the last moment, he waved at the gathered citizens, and the horse reared in sudden excitement before they galloped together out of town.

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