Disclaimer: Don't own it, not a bit of it, because if I did, "One Special Night" would have definitely ended another way, and Victoria and Diego would have been married by the end of the series. Also, "One Special Night" was written by Gary Steven Rieck, and anything you recognize is his.
Summary: One night, while alone with Diego in an abandoned windmill, Victoria figures out his secret, and everything changes.
Author's Notes: The inevitable "One Special Night" AU story, though I intend to cover much more than just this episode. Was there any other story besides "An Affair to Remember" that called out more strongly for a different ending? I've read quite a few, and I do like most of them. A lot involve Victoria getting angry which I find very believable and even probable. However, since I find her general blindness in the series frustrating especially since it is clear that she has strong feelings for Diego as well as Zorro, I thought it might be interesting to have Victoria be able to figure it out on her own, and while understanding the difficulties, not accept his having to be Zorro as an excuse for them to remain apart.
I know none of this is very original, but I still couldn't resist, nor could I resist the idea of exploring how the stories might change if the relationship of Victoria and Diego changed, especially the episodes that would be radically affected by such an alteration of events. I know that's not original either, but I hope that this will be at least entertaining.
Also, the show had a very loose relationship with continuity, so since they didn't care, I'm not going to either and thus I'm putting most of the episodes in production order, which puts "One Special Night" near the end of season 2 and gives me most of season 3 and all of season 4 to play with.
Roughly speaking this chapter will be taking place sometime after "The Old Flame"— which is another season 3 story produced during season 2— and before "Devil's Fortress" which also means definitely before "A New Lease on Love." Season 3 stories that were produced in season 2 before "One Special Night" and which will be treated as happening before are, in production order, "The Old Flame," "Alejandro Rides Again," "Heir Apparent," and "Armed & Dangerous." Basically, I'm treating "One Special Night" as the penultimate story of season 2, with "Devil's Fortress" as the finale.
Once upon a time, well, after the one time I started posting a story and then took three years to finish the relatively short piece, I've sworn never to start posting another uncompleted story. And technically this isn't, as I consider this a series of interconnected stories. Each chapter will be relatively stand alone, like the episodes themselves, just with a little more inter-episode continuity than the actual series. Also, I don't intend to cover every episode, as some of them I don't feel would be overly affected one way or another by a change in Diego and Victoria's relationship, but I do intend to work my way to the end of the series, eventually.
Also, I need to express my gratitude for PamZ's episode transcripts; they do make this easier (it helps to be able to check the dialogue even when I'm changing it), and also without them, I wouldn't know what was missing from the DVD releases.
And finally, I need to thank Ghetto Outlaw for putting up with being my sounding board and getting roped into being my beta reader as well as occasional collaborator.
Love Has No Rhyme and No Reason
It Started One Night
(One Special Night)
Victoria sat on the bench feeling confused and more than a little guilty. Today had been such a strange day. Ever since she and Diego had left Santa Paula, she had been fighting off feelings she thought had vanished when she'd fallen in love with Zorro. Diego had been so different today. Determined, persuasive, forceful, something she'd only rarely glimpsed in him since the day he'd gotten back from Madrid.
He was like the Diego she remembered when they were young, the one she'd decided at the age of fourteen that she was going to marry when they were old enough. The one who seemed to vanish so soon after returning home— in fact, who seemed to have disappeared the moment Zorro arrived.
Was that really a coincidence? She started to push the thought back as she had so many times before, but for once wondered why she didn't want to consider it. Zorro and Diego. Diego and Zorro. The two most important men in her life, so different, and yet— this was the part she was having difficulty with— so much alike. It was as if she'd suddenly realized that two apparently different doors might lead to precisely the same room.
Zorro was so much like the old Diego— brave, heroic, dashing. She'd always known that had been a large part of the reason she'd fallen in love with Zorro in the first place, though she'd never admit it to a soul. So why couldn't it be that Zorro really was Diego? Was it that she felt that Diego only thought of her as a friend or little sister and not as someone to be courted?
Diego came back inside with more wood for the fire. It really was cold. She wrapped her arms around herself to try to fight off the chill and the wish that he'd just put his arms around her.
"It's getting worse out there," he said, standing back up and rubbing his hands together to warm them.
Victoria stared at him for a moment, wondering before being distracted again by the cold. Then suddenly, Diego reached down and pulled her to her feet. Startled, she looked at his face, his lowered eyes not really hiding an expression of longing there. For a moment, it seemed as if he might kiss her, but then as suddenly as the look appeared it vanished, leaving Victoria feeling strangely bereft and wondering if she'd imagined it. She'd so often wanted him to kiss her in the past that she no longer trusted her judgement on the matter.
"Excuse me," he said, moving her to the side and picking up the bench before setting it on end near the fire. "Right." He moved over to their luggage and grabbed a blanket. "I'm glad we brought these blankets." He laid one down.
Apparently, she had imagined it. How could he be so cool if he felt anything at all? But there was a nagging doubt in the back of her mind. If her incredible thought was true, then he was very good at hiding what he felt and who he was.
"You mean we're spending the night here?" Victoria asked incredulously.
She didn't relish spending the night on the floor of a cold, abandoned windmill. On the other hand, she was alone with Diego and perhaps she could finally figure out what had changed him so much— or if he really was the man in the mask. Right now she wanted him to be more than anything. If nothing else, it would stop her feeling so guilty about being so strongly attracted to two apparently different men. She watched Diego as he moved; he seemed to be going out of his way to appear as harmless as possible, as if he didn't want her to get nervous.
"Well, the storm doesn't give us much choice," he said lightly, spreading out a second blanket a short way from the first. "There, that will make the floor more comfortable." After he finished he grabbed the bench and placed it between the blankets.
Victoria couldn't help asking, "And what is this?"
Diego picked up a sack and dropped it at the head of one blanket as he spoke. "Your side." He dropped another bag on the other blanket. "My side."
"How very proper," Victoria said. How like Diego to behave like that. He was always so concerned about propriety. Definitely more than she was. But was it just about being proper or some other reason? She was feeling confused, and she was starting to suspect Diego of being the best actor she'd ever known.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he replied.
Victoria was annoyed. Stomping down on the feeling that she would very much like for him to behave improperly, she replied in a harsher tone than she meant, "And neither would I."
She watched in disbelief as he just lay down on the blanket, facing away from her side of the room. He looked up at her with an obnoxiously cheerful face and said, "good night," before lying back down and closing his eyes. For a long moment, Victoria stared at him unable to believe it, until the thought crossed her mind that he might be afraid to sit and talk with her alone, and that was why he was in such a hurry to go to sleep. She hoped it wasn't wishful thinking on her part, but her earlier suspicions just wouldn't go away.
Sitting down on the end of the bench, she stared at the fire as thought after thought raced through her head. First, the obvious physical similarities. Both were tall with blue eyes and mustaches. It was ridiculous that she hadn't put that together. Or had she tried to ignore the fact that she'd fallen for a man who reminded her of the Diego she'd once known?
And why would he court her as Zorro and not as himself? After all, it would only be safe for her to marry Zorro if he was able to finally remove the mask, and she was beginning to wonder if that day would ever come. Even if justice came to Los Angeles, it might never be a good idea for Zorro to reveal his identity. Too many villains had been brought to justice by him, and too many brash swordsmen would want to challenge him. Not to mention that if the political winds changed again, he could find himself a hunted man, this time with no other identity to flee to. And how did he expect her to react to finding out who was hiding behind that mask? To know that her best friend, a man who certainly could have courted and won her, chose instead to flirt from behind a mask. So why?
And pieces of the answer began to fall into place as her thoughts jumped around. He'd probably never expected to be Zorro so long and hadn't thought about the consequences of unmasking Zorro any more than she had. Maybe he'd been as caught up in her infatuation with Zorro as she had been. With a sigh, she realized that Diego had probably never known how she'd felt about him before he left for Spain, or how much she'd been looking forward to his return.
After all, she had always gone to great pains to hide her feelings for Diego. First to keep her brothers from teasing her or worse keep her away from him and second to protect herself if Diego never saw her as anything more than a friend. After Zorro's daring rescue of her and Don Alejandro, Diego had so quickly gone back to treating her like a sister that it was so easy to let her initial admiration of Zorro grow into infatuation.
She'd been so disappointed by the changes in Diego, that she couldn't help expressing her disapproval, comparing him to the man who seemed to be so much more like he used to be than he was. There had been a bit more of wounded pride in that criticism than she'd ever let on. However, her mind kept switching back to the material issue. No matter how blind she'd been, how critical, how infatuated, Diego would know the truth, and knowing the truth, how could he have let her keep getting more involved with his masked self rather than the true man?
And the answer to that hit her in the face like a bucket of cold water. He'd actually tried— obliquely, cautiously— but he'd tried, and she had missed or misunderstood every hint. How could he tell her, when every indication was that she loved only Zorro and not the Diego he presented to the world?
She remembered back when he'd challenged that faker Ramirez to a duel that Zorro had fought instead. Afterwards, Zorro had asked about her regard for Diego, and she brushed her feelings aside in her eagerness to assure Zorro of her affections. And when for a single moment, she'd almost put it together, she dismissed it again, not wanting to get her hopes up, laughing in Diego's face. No wonder he'd said nothing then. He couldn't have known what she'd really been feeling. She was starting to feel like she'd gotten as good at hiding her true feelings as he had his identity.
She felt worse when she remembered the time she'd been shot trying to save Zorro. If she'd been paying the slightest bit of attention to Diego, she would have known the truth. When she'd first woken, Diego had told her that Zorro hadn't been seen since she'd been shot, and yet he also said that the reason was that he could no longer endanger innocent people. Admittedly, she'd been groggy, but she had a lot of time to think while recovering, and she should have wondered how or why Diego knew this. And then in the garden, when Zorro had said that she should have a husband like Diego, she should have realized then what he was really trying to tell her. If she had, it would have been so easy for them then— Zorro backing away from feelings of guilt and her turning to Diego after he'd looked after her. But at the time, all she wondered was why Zorro would think Diego would be interested in marrying her. He'd been treating her as a friend for such a long time that she'd believed that was all Diego felt for her, and she was afraid that she'd lose Zorro as well.
But if she'd really understood him that night, if he really did love her, they could have been married by now. There would be no need to have a bench between them, and the only gossip they'd have to worry about is the speculation about when the next de la Vega would be born. She blushed slightly as she thought of it and glanced back at Diego. He really was the most handsome man she'd ever known; she'd had to work to pretend not to notice that.
Turning back to the fire, she tried to decide what to do. Things were a little more complicated now; if Diego really were Zorro, she couldn't just suddenly reveal her feelings for Diego. Despite the fact that she'd cared for Diego such a long time, she'd been too outspoken about her feelings for Zorro and her disappointment with Diego for anyone to believe a sudden switch between them. That would be the quickest way to lose him to the alcalde's rope, and she was not going to risk it.
Of course, if it seemed like Diego had compromised her, that would be a quick way to marriage. She didn't really mind the thought, but she was sure that Diego would hate it. He'd always cared more about her reputation than she did. So that wouldn't do. On the other hand, he had really done very well today, as himself, and it really wouldn't be so difficult to start to publicly admire Diego as he appeared to be. After all, he might seem to be overly studious and inclined to take to his bed at the slightest sign of a cold, but he was also a kind, compassionate man who was always willing to help those in need. He wasn't as forward or splashy as Zorro, but he was a good man and her friend. It wouldn't be that hard.
And there was something else that she could exploit. Even though it had never mattered to her except as a possible barrier between them, Diego's wealth and position certainly made him the most eligible bachelor in the territory, and who but the most romantically inclined would blame her for preferring a settled home with such a man than an uncertain existence with a bandit?
Suddenly, she had the curious sensation of being watched, but when she turned, Diego's eyes were closed. She really needed a plan, and she needed to talk to Diego. She had to know the truth.
Did he really love her? He'd never said the words as either Zorro or Diego, and there was still that odd sliver of doubt. If she could just prod him into some action, that would help. He was just too controlled. Of course, she was a bit too impulsive, and if everything she thought were true, she'd need to show him that she could act as well as he.
Again, she felt eyes on her and turned, this time she saw Diego looking at her through half-closed eyes. Ha! He was awake, and she was determined to try to get him to do something, reveal something.
"You were very impressive today," she said, starting with honesty.
As she suspected, this got him to stop pretending to be asleep. "Was I?" he said. "Oh, thank you."
Good, she got him talking; now to try to get him to react a bit. "Although speech-making is very different from action, isn't it?" she said, trying to treat him as she had been. As well you should know, you're very good at both, even if you only show a little at a time. "Why don't you ever do anything?" She knew this wasn't true, but she wanted to goad him— just a little.
But it didn't really work. He just got a faraway look in his eye, as he said, "Oh, I do lots of things. I read... play the piano... write poetry..."
You do more than that, even without a mask, Victoria thought. Please, give me something more, a dream, a hope, a passion. Show me the Diego I remember. "I know all about those things. But isn't there something you want above everything else? Something you must have?" For once, Diego, be impulsive. Drop the mask just a little.
Her heart leapt a little when he half sat up and said in a passionate voice, "Yes!" He hesitated a little. Victoria hoped he was finally ready to tell her the truth but was disappointed as she saw him regain control of himself and say instead, "Sleep. I must have sleep."
Oh, he was so frustrating, so controlled. But then he had had a lot of practice, hadn't he? She rolled her eyes as she moved over to her side of the bench. She was not going to give up so easily. It was just a case of switching to another tactic.
She lay down on the blanket, still thinking. It was funny; she'd managed to not think about her feelings for Diego for months. Or she thought she had. But now that the floodgates had opened, she knew she hadn't really done a very good job of it, not even with Zorro to distract her. For one thing, she'd been more than annoyed any time a woman had shown even a passing interest in Diego or with the thought that Diego could be interested in someone else.
She'd been especially irritated by that little tease Amanda Herrara when she'd been staying at the de la Vegas' hacienda without a chaperone. At the time, she didn't really understand why she'd been so cross with Diego, who was apparently only interested in helping Mendoza court the woman. But she'd been convinced that Señorita Herrara, who had what seemed like half the men in the pueblo trying to woo her, was equally determined to trap Diego in her net.
Even after she and her bland fiancé had left town, Victoria had been curious enough that she'd basely pumped Mendoza for information about what happened that night at the de la Vegas' all under the guise of offering sympathy. She'd been a little ashamed of her duplicity at the time, but that hadn't stopped her from extracting every last detail from him or from feeling a sense of satisfaction that she'd been right about Señorita Herrara's intentions, though Diego had apparently been quite vocal about his lack of interest.
And then there'd been Zafira Correna. She'd been astonished and not a little disappointed to discover Diego had been engaged once. She'd worried about that while he was away at school, and it bothered her to realize that he had not only proposed marriage to another woman but also only chance had prevented that marriage.
While she had more than her share of suitors, no one had ever quite measured up in comparison to him, and it stung her to have it confirmed just how little an impression she'd ever made on him. She could hardly hide her relief when he told the now married woman who said she still had feelings for him that he no longer cared for her, though she was surprised to hear he was in love with a woman who was in love with someone else. She had spent some time trying to determine who this mystery woman could be; unlike Mendoza, however, Diego was much better at keeping his secrets, though it didn't stop her from trying to think of every single or widowed woman within a fifty mile radius.
It wasn't too long afterwards that Don Alejandro had been complaining that Diego was off gallivanting. She hadn't believed that he had been, not really, but then when she'd asked him about it, he'd said there had been a woman but— what were his exact words?— "the fire had gone out." Was that it? And she'd spent some time thinking he'd spoken to the woman he'd mentioned and been turned down. But if he was Zorro, then she knew exactly what he'd been doing, and who the woman was, and the literal fire he'd been referring to. How could he have teased her like that? But then again, how would he have known it would bother her? She'd gotten very good at pretending that she thought of him as only a friend.
Oh, could she pull herself together? Victoria looked at the flames of the fire and decided that she'd rather try to talk with Diego. It would be better than continuing to let her thoughts chase themselves in circles. Poetry was a good subject. After all, he'd just mentioned it.
"The fire reminds me," she said, quietly, remembering, "when my mother used to read me poems and adventure stories of love and courage. 'Love has no rhyme and no reason. It strikes with a passionate fire, engulfing the hearts in flame...'"
"'And only your cool, sweet lips will quench my burning desire,'" Diego finished, in a low tone, sounding more like Zorro than his usual self.
Maybe it would just be best to let him know something of what she was thinking. Could being wrong be worse than not knowing at all? Throwing caution to the winds, Victoria sat up, placing her arms on the bench and looking over at him. He seemed to be lying very stiffly, as if uncomfortable.
Still a little unsure, Victoria said, "Diego, something happened today. Something I've never noticed before. When you stood up to the King's emissary, there was something about you... Well, you seemed different somehow."
She paused for a moment trying to figure out how to say what she wanted to tell him, when a heavy gust of wind blew the door open sending an icy blast into the room. Diego ran to the door and pulled it shut, latching it. Victoria sat up and hugged herself in the again cold room.
Diego turned away from the door and when he saw her, said, "Oh, you're chilled. Here." Always the gentleman, he took off his jacket and knelt in front of her to drape it around her shoulders. "Get this around you." He rubbed her arms to try to warm her.
Victoria looked up at his face to thank him, but the words died on her lips as she saw the expression in his eyes. At that moment, she knew the truth: he was Zorro, he definitely did not think of her as a sister, and she was never more relieved about anything in her whole life.
She felt light-headed as she looked in those very blue eyes, feeling like she was seeing a series of images overlaying one another to show a whole other picture— the Diego she had a crush on before he left for Spain, the one she'd glimpsed briefly when he returned, the scholarly Diego who seemed only to care about arts and sciences, the compassionate Diego who was always willing to lend an ear, and even the heroic Diego who hid behind a mask to fight injustice and protect those he loved. It was as if she'd suddenly discovered the whole man after seeing only fragments.
He was leaning closer to her now, the intensity of his expression making her melt inside. Was he finally going to kiss her without a mask on? She watched as his expression changed slightly, doubt seemed to creep in. Was he worried about her feelings or the propriety of kissing her when they were all alone unlikely to be interrupted by anything?
In frustration, she could see him preparing to draw back and retreat behind the mask of friendship. Well, she wasn't going to let him, not now that she knew the truth, not after all this time. Quickly, she closed the gap between them and kissed him, hoping that he wouldn't pull away from her.
He didn't. His arms slid around her back and he returned her kiss with a passion that took her breath away. She managed to work her arms out from under his jacket and slip them around his neck, pulling him closer. His arms tightened around her almost reflexively. A slight gasp escaped her. Diego finally seemed to become conscious of what he was doing and drew back with a guilty expression.
"Victoria, forgive me. I shouldn't have... I didn't mean to..." he stammered, as he stood up and backed away.
She got to her feet, letting his jacket slip to the floor, forgotten. She crossed to him, putting a hand on his arm. "Diego, if any one needs to apologize, it is me. After all, I'm the one who kissed you." She paused for a moment, before saying, "I wanted you to kiss me."
He looked stunned. After a long moment as if it was dragged from somewhere deep inside, he asked, "Why?"
Victoria looked at him silently, unable to give voice to what she was feeling. However, as the silence stretched, she knew she had to say something. Suddenly, wanting reassurance on one point before putting her heart on the line, Victoria said, "I'll answer that question, if you answer one of mine first." Unable to look at him any longer, she walked back to the bench and sat down before continuing. "It's one I've asked before, in a manner of speaking, but this time I need you to give me an honest answer."
Confused apprehension radiated off him in waves. "If I can," he said, hesitantly, coming to sit on the other end of the bench.
While Victoria's first thought was just ask him directly, her second was to be as indirect as he tended to be, and she decided to go with that second impulse and ask him the question that had bothered her off and on until this evening. Victoria took a deep breath. "Who is she?"
"What?" Diego exclaimed, clearly disconcerted. "I... I... don't think I understand the question."
Glancing at him, Victoria realized that he'd expected her to ask him about Zorro, but that actually didn't matter to her at the moment. She clarified the question to leave him in no doubt what she was asking. "The woman you told Señora Correna about, the one you told me was in love with another man. Who is she?" She softened her voice. "I need to know, please."
Diego sat speechless. Victoria didn't dare do more than glance at him from beneath her lashes, hoping he wasn't going to find a way to wriggle out of answering her.
Finally, he started to speak. "I..." he stopped and then tried again. "I think you know the answer."
Victoria turned to face him then. "I need you to tell me, Diego."
He glanced away for a moment, sighed, and then looked directly at Victoria. "You," he finally said in a whisper. "And only you." His expression was faintly terrified as he waited for her response.
Victoria closed her eyes for a second, then smiled up at him. "That's a relief. However, you were wrong about one thing."
"Wrong? Wrong about what?" Diego asked, a mixture of hope and fear in his eyes.
"I'm not in love with another man," she said softly.
She'd managed to render him speechless again. He looked dazed. "But I thought... I mean... it seemed like..." he stammered. He stopped, visibly pulled himself together, and said, "What about Zorro?"
Considering who he was, Victoria wasn't about to let him off too lightly. "Well, what about Zorro?" she asked, not taking her eyes from his face.
"I thought you loved him," Diego finally said, hesitantly. "I didn't think you noticed me at all."
Victoria sighed. If she left it to him, they would never get anywhere, and she was tired of games. "I've always noticed you, Diego. Even when I didn't want to. Even when you didn't notice me. And Zorro reminded me so much of you before you left from Spain. Maybe a bit bolder, more flamboyant, and most importantly interested in me," she said, looking away from him. "How could I resist when you were treating me as a friend? And you'd changed so much; he seemed so much more like you than you were. I didn't understand why— until tonight."
She didn't dare look back at him. She'd said more than she meant to, though not nearly as much as she could have. It was up to him now, and she wasn't sure if she could forgive him if he tried to keep up the pretense any longer. The blinders had come off, and they weren't going back on again.
She felt rather than saw Diego slide off the bench beside her. He knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his.
"I'm sorry, Victoria. Very sorry. I never thought things would get this complicated," he said, softly. "I never expected to have to be Zorro this long. And the longer I've been him, the more dangerous the secret seems to have become. I've hated having to pretend with you and my father, but it's seemed like the best way to keep you safe. I never wanted to get you involved. It's bad enough that Felipe knows."
"Felipe?" Victoria exclaimed. "I should have realized." She shook her head a little before continuing. "But, Diego, I am involved. If you were trying to protect me, how could you encourage my feelings for you as Zorro? The promise you made me..."
Diego's head dropped. "I meant it—I still mean it. Every word."
"That wasn't my point, and I think you know that."
"I do. It's just once things got started, I couldn't seem to find a way out of the situation I created. And every time I tried, it seemed that I didn't really stand a chance in comparison with Zorro."
"Well, you didn't make a very good job of it," Victoria replied, remembering all the odd frustrating moments. "I never understood what you were trying to do when you hinted as Zorro, and you've done far too good a job of pretending indifference as Diego. There were times, I wish you'd..." She broke off, shaking her head a little.
He looked up at her. "You wished I'd what?" he asked.
She gently squeezed his hands. "It doesn't matter. There's no point in regretting the past. The more important question is what we're going to do now."
He sighed. "It's still dangerous."
"I know, but life can be dangerous. And there's no telling when or if Zorro can ever publicly unmask."
"What are you saying?" Diego asked.
"I'm saying that I don't want to wait for some moment when it will be safe for Zorro to unmask," Victoria said. "I'm tired of waiting for a legend. I'd far rather be courted by a man of flesh and blood," she paused and then, wanting to be absolutely sure he didn't misunderstand, added, "as long as he's you."
Diego smiled at her then. He reached up to caress her cheek. She closed her eyes, relishing the sensation. "I'm finding this very hard to believe," he whispered. He kissed the corner of her mouth.
Victoria opened her eyes. "What?" she asked, returning his kiss. "That I know your secret? Or that it's you that I love?"
"Both, I think," he said. "And somehow, I expected you to be angry." He kissed her again.
"Well, I'm not angry, just regretful," she replied, between kisses. "And you're stalling. Not that I mind— much."
Diego drew back, with a sigh. "It's hard to know what to do. You can't just switch your affections from Zorro to me without the alcalde getting suspicious."
"I realize that, but I can be patient. I have been patient."
"I know, and I'm sorry you've had to be. Perhaps with some time..."
"The romance with Zorro could fade, and our friendship could become something more," Victoria interjected. "A year from now, I don't think anyone would think it at all odd if we were to..." She stopped, suddenly unsure again, wanting to know what Diego would say. He'd always been the cautious one.
"Marry?" Diego said, without hesitation finishing her thought. "I suppose it could work, if we're very careful." He suddenly grinned mischievously. "And if you can stop flirting with Zorro."
"As long as he stops flirting with me," Victoria replied, with a smile. "He started it after all."
"I'm not sure I would put it like that," Diego protested.
"I would," Victoria retorted.
"Well, your charms are very difficult to resist," Diego finally said, taking her hand and kissing it gently.
"You seemed to resist well enough without the mask on," she said.
"Seemed is the operative word," he said. "You'd be surprised how hard it's been." He looked down at the hand he was holding. "I'm still afraid of the danger we're going to face now. I never wanted you to have to play a role as I have. And it's one you're going to have to play as long as Zorro is still needed. You're going to have to treat us as two different people all of the time. It's not going to be easy."
Victoria pulled her hand out of his and reached up to take hold of his face. She forced him to look her in the eyes. "I'm willing to take the chance, Diego. It's worth the danger; it's worth the acting, and I think I can be a better actress than you realize. I know you're afraid of what will happen. So am I, but I'd rather take the risk than go on without you. I just need you to be willing to take the chance as well. Please. For our future."
He looked into her eyes for a long moment. "How can I refuse?" he finally said, before kissing her again.
This kiss was deeper and more full of promise. Victoria slipped her hands into his hair, glad that this time no mask was in the way. His hair was surprisingly soft to the touch. Everything around her seemed to take on a heightened reality as if determined to press this moment permanently in her memory. The feel of his lips on hers. The sound of the rain on the roof. The slight tickling of his mustache. The hard wood of the bench. The warmth of his embrace. Time seemed to have stopped for her. It could have been a minute or an hour for all she was aware of when Diego pulled away from her. He was near enough that she could still feel his breath on her face, and she lost herself in the expression in his deep blue eyes.
"I think..." He had to stop to clear his throat, and she could feel him trembling slightly. "I think... we'd better try to get some sleep before we find we need to get married faster than we planned."
Victoria was tempted to say she didn't mind, but she knew he was right, so instead she said, reluctantly, "Your side and my side?"
He stood up uncomfortably, folding his arms tightly. "Yes, definitely," he said, shakily.
Victoria picked up his jacket. Tempting as it was to keep it, she was no longer feeling cold, and his shirt seemed rather thin. "Here, you can have this back now. I don't think I need it anymore."
Gingerly taking it from her, Diego put it on before moving back to his side of the bench. Their gazes locked for a long moment. Diego took her hand and placed a kiss on the palm before turning away to lay back down. "Good night, Victoria," he said.
Victoria lay down on her side still looking at him. "Good night, Diego." She wondered how she was ever going to be able to sleep.
It was just after dawn when Victoria awoke to see that Diego was already up. He was quietly folding his blanket up.
"The storm's passed," he said, when he saw her staring at him. "We can head back any time now."
Victoria rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. Much as she liked being alone with him, especially now, she'd definitely prefer to get back to her tavern. She stood up and helped him get their things together. Diego made sure the fire was truly out, before they mounted their horses for the trip back to Los Angeles.
They rode most of the way in silence. Victoria was absorbed in her thoughts; so much had changed in one night, and in the cold light of day, it seemed safer to pretend that nothing was different. Victoria glanced at Diego. He too seemed lost in thought.
Maybe he was thinking the same; more likely he was worrying about what the next few days or weeks would bring. She knew he was concerned about putting her in such a position, but in any event it was too late for regret now. She couldn't unknow his secret, any more than she could stop loving him. They'd neared the pueblo now. Victoria reined in her horse. Diego stopped close beside her.
"Diego, I can go alone from here. You should go and see your father," she said.
He smiled at her. "Yes, I should," he said with apparent reluctance. "But I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you as well, but I'll see you at the tavern later," Victoria replied. Everything would be more difficult in the beginning, but she knew they could make it work.
Diego took her hand and kissed it quickly before letting it drop. "Till later then," he said.
Victoria smiled at him once more before riding towards the pueblo gate. Everything seemed quiet as she rode into town. After taking her borrowed horse to the livery stable, Victoria went back to the tavern, hoping to get some rest before going back to work. Tired as she was, she planned to let Perez handle the breakfast crowd, since she hadn't planned on being back this early.
She'd barely had time to do more than doze off when a loud commotion woke her. Getting dressed quickly, Victoria ran out to discover that bandits had tied up Mendoza and robbed the alcalde's office. The lancers went out after them, but no one held much hope. Mendoza was too groggy to go after them himself and sat outside her tavern bemoaning his plight.
Victoria wondered if she should tell Diego but stopped herself from hurrying away. It would be too obvious if she ran off to the de la Vegas, and she knew that this was part of what worried Diego. Besides, Zorro always seemed to find out things quickly on his own. She'd wait and see for a little while, at least. And perhaps for once the lancers would get lucky.
She brought out something for Mendoza to drink while trying to encourage him. "Don't you have any confidence in your men?" she asked. Of course, she couldn't blame him for not expecting them to succeed.
Mendoza didn't appear to hear her as he said in despair, "What is the alcalde going to say?" Then he looked up surprised at something coming towards them. He stood up to get a better look. "What is this?"
Victoria turned and saw a couple of horses walking closer. On the backs of each were two men tied together.
"Madre de Dios!" Mendoza exclaimed, getting closer to the horses.
Victoria heard another horse approaching from behind, and heard Perez say, "It's Zorro!" Backing up against the tavern wall, Victoria saw Zorro as if for the first time. It was so obvious now that he was Diego that she couldn't believe she'd ever been fooled at all, but she forced herself to think of him as simply Zorro while he spoke to Mendoza. She stayed back, determined not to draw attention to herself.
"Good afternoon, Sergeant. Please accept these prisoners as a gift from me," he said, sitting confidently astride Toronado.
Mendoza seemed confused by his speech. "Zorro?"
"I think you'll find what you're looking for in the leader's saddlebags," Zorro said, pointedly. His eyes and Victoria's met for just a moment, but it was to Mendoza he directed his "adios" before riding away.
As Mendoza excitedly retrieved the gold and directed the available men to take the thieves to jail, Victoria slipped back into the tavern, relieved that no one seemed to notice or care that Zorro hadn't spoken to her or she to him. It might prove easier than she thought to let that aspect go, since Zorro almost always had to dash away. It would actually make it safer for him to not stop to acknowledge her as he left. But as she thought about how she saw Diego in the mask, she was more concerned about giving him away when he was in danger. She had to remember that with the mask on he was always Zorro and never anyone else at all. One wrong word could get him killed. That's what she had to guard against.
She threw herself into her work, as people began drifting in after the excitement in the plaza had faded. Though tired, she found cooking a good way to deal with the nervous energy she had left over in anticipation of seeing Diego again. She was more anxious about that than she'd been with seeing Zorro unexpectedly. She was relieved that everyone seemed more interested in talking about the robbery than in asking her about the trip to Santa Paula.
It was lunchtime before she saw Diego again. Mendoza was busily telling the story of his dealings with the bandits, exaggerating his bravery as usual, to a group of soldiers, and Victoria almost missed spotting him as he took a seat on the far side of the room. She schooled her expression to show no more than her ordinary friendliness.
"Hola, Diego," she said, approaching the table with a pitcher of water and glass. "It's good to see you again. Is your father feeling any better?"
Diego smiled at her, and she had to steady the tray as she placed the pitcher on the table. "Buenas tardes, Victoria," he replied, evenly, though his eyes seemed brighter than normal. "It's good to see you again too. Unfortunately, while we were gone he somehow managed to twist his ankle after getting out of bed against Dr. Hernandez's orders, so he's not in the best of humors."
"That's too bad. But I hope telling him about the Emissary's response cheered him a little."
"It did indeed, but I still thought it better to eat lunch in town today," he said, straight-faced.
Victoria wondered how much practice would it take to be as good at acting as he was. "Well, I'm very glad you did," she said with a warm smile.
"As am I," Diego replied simply, returning her smile.
She walked back toward the kitchen but turned for a moment to look back at him over her shoulder. It isn't much, she thought, but it is a beginning.
Next up: "The Devil's Fortress." The draft for this one is done but in need of major editing. It should be ready to go within the next week or so.
End notes: Previous episodes referred to in this story were "The Legend Begins," "The Unhappy Medium," "Broken Heart, Broken Mask," "The Tease," "The Old Flame," and "Sanctuary."