Love and War

(A New Lease on Love)

Part 2

Diego took the long way back to the hacienda, trying to convince himself that everything would be all right. She was worried about him, but that didn't change the fact that she was angry with him. Or that she had good reason to be impatient. Or that the one man he'd been convinced she might marry had just come back and proposed to her. Why had he waited so long?

Her comments about his almost getting married stung. He didn't know how to explain to her what had happened. He couldn't even explain it to himself. He'd been lonely and homesick and sure that if not Juan, someone else would have swept her away before his return. She'd always been the most popular girl in the pueblo. Despite her assurances, he still feared that she might be ready to give up on him entirely. After all, Juan didn't have to worry about any one suspecting him of being a masked bandit, and apparently he was confident enough to propose even after an absence of four years.

Shaking his head, Diego told himself that in two days, regardless of what schemes the alcalde had going on, he was going to declare his intentions openly. He just hoped Victoria's patience would last that much longer; if it didn't he would just have to throw himself on her mercy and beg her forgiveness. She was worth fighting for.

Now, however, in keeping with his promise to her, he concentrated on pushing all those worries out of his mind so that he could focus on his quest tonight. Zorro had to ride with a clear head, since this was almost inevitably a trap, and he had no intention of being caught in it. Not now.

~Z~Z~Z~

The afternoon seemed to stretch forever. Victoria wondered what Diego was doing and if he were safe. She wished she'd managed to keep her temper. And she couldn't help but think about Juan and his proposal. It seemed unreal like something from a play.

Apparently, he remembered her reluctance to marry a sailor better than their other disagreements. They'd had quite a few during that last time he'd been in Los Angeles. Nothing as direct as a fight, just each other thinking the other was being unreasonable. He'd never really seemed to have faith in her ability to run the tavern on her own, and despite the fact that she didn't mind spending time with him while he was on leave, she'd realized that she wasn't willing to spend her life waiting for him to come back from the sea and that she'd never really gotten over her crush on Diego.

When she and Juan had last parted, Victoria had thought they'd both realized that it wasn't going to work. She hadn't really been surprised to not hear from him in the intervening time which was why his proposal had been such a complete shock. She had no idea he'd still felt that way, and she still didn't know exactly what she was going to say to him. Thinking about how things had ended with Juan reminded her of the things she loved about Diego. He never seemed to doubt her capabilities or to want her to change who she was. There were times where he may have wished she was less impulsive, but it always seemed to be more about his concern about her safety rather than his hating that aspect of her personality. And she was starting to realize that she loved his patience even though occasionally, like now, it drove her crazy. She still had to wonder how he'd managed to maintain his disguise as Diego for so long. She would have cracked before the first year was out, and yet he hadn't. He had made so many sacrifices to protect the people of Los Angeles. Could she really blame him for being so cautious? Now that she knew who he was, was it really such a sacrifice to be patient?

She wished that Felipe would come to town, since she couldn't go visit the de la Vegas. She wanted some assurance that Zorro was going prepared, and Felipe was the only who could give her that. The only thing she regretted about knowing who Zorro was that she worried all the more about his safety. Somehow it had been easier to believe in his invulnerability when she didn't know the man behind the mask. However, she wouldn't change knowing who he was for any feeling of security.

The sun had gone down when Juan returned to the tavern. He asked her to go for a walk with him, and still unsure of what to say, Victoria agreed. They strolled to the edge of the pueblo, near the church. Victoria had been staring blankly ahead trying to get her thoughts together when she heard Juan say:

"Probably just some traveler trying to get home before the moon goes down."

She focused on the direction she'd been looking and realized that it was Zorro riding in the general direction of his cave. He had such a distinctive silhouette. She couldn't stop her smile of relief as this meant that he'd finished whatever he was going to do and was safe. Then she realized that Juan was watching her with a hopeful expression, and she sighed as she knew it was time to give him her answer.

"I've been thinking about your proposal all day," she started hesitatingly. "It was very unexpected."

"I realize that. I know we didn't part on the closest of terms, but I never stopped thinking of you. I'd hoped that now I'll no longer be at sea and since you're not betrothed to anyone..."

Victoria couldn't let him go on. "Juan, please, no, I'm sorry. I'm afraid I can't marry you."

Juan looked at her silently for a long moment. "Is there someone else?"

Of course he would ask. "Yes," Victoria said simply.

"Who is it?" he asked.

She knew he'd ask that question too though she'd hoped that he would just accept her refusal and let the rest go. "Does it really matter? I don't know what the future is for us; I just know that I love him too much to even consider marrying anyone else."

Juan was still watching her. "Is it Don Diego?"

Victoria's eyes widened a bit. "What makes you think that?"

"Aside from the look in your eyes when I mentioned his name?" He managed a wry smile. "As much as I hated to admit it, it was always clear that you had some kind of feelings for him. I know I wasn't the only one who was jealous of the attention you paid him when we were young. When I heard you were still single, I had hoped that it meant you might have gotten over him. But you haven't, have you?"

Victoria shook her head. She had thought she'd hid her feelings better than that. At least she'd fooled her brothers and Diego, for what good that did. "You're right. Even when I tried, and I did try, I never quite forgot him, and these last few months, it's just gotten stronger." She could almost laugh at the irony that she had once thought she'd gotten over Diego by falling in love with a man in a mask, who turned out to be Diego after all. It would be funny if it hadn't made her life so complicated.

"Do you think he'll ever marry you?" Juan asked.

Victoria's temper flared a little even though his tone was mild. "It doesn't matter. What matters is I love him and only him." She took a deep breath and continued more gently, "Juan, you're a good man. You deserve to be someone's first choice of husband, not a fallback because she's gotten tired of waiting for the man she really wants. Even if it never works out between Diego and me, I'm never going to be that woman for you." The last came out a bit harsher than she meant it to, but she didn't want to leave him with any false hope. She knew in her heart, that much as she wanted a family, it would be with Diego or no one, and she was willing to wait for him.

Juan sighed. "I understand. I'm very sorry, but I understand. Shall we go back?" He offered her his arm.

Victoria nodded her head and took his arm, relieved that this was over. Now if only she could get the matchmaker to leave her alone, life would be tolerable again.

~Z~Z~Z~

Diego pulled off the mask in the cave, frustrated about how the evening had gone. It had been a trap, and while he'd escaped from the pit, he'd still not gotten a look at the statue. He wasn't sure what it really was, but he wanted to have a better idea before it got to Los Angeles. Suddenly he felt like an idiot; surely the alcalde had some form of paperwork in his office. De Soto seemed to be more of a stickler for it that Ramone, at least the official paperwork, and Diego suspected that this statue was considered some sort of official requisition.

He went over to his lab table and took a small bottle of ether. If he was going to do a search of De Soto's office tonight, he wanted to be absolutely sure that the alcalde wasn't going to disturb him. He didn't particularly want to go back out, but he knew he needed the information. He'd just have to hope that no messenger would arrive from the lancers guarding the crates arrived this evening.

It wasn't too long before he was back in Los Angeles and creeping into the alcalde's quarters. De Soto was sleeping heavily, but Zorro added a few drops of ether just to be sure. He slipped into De Soto's office and after being quite sure the doors were locked, started going methodically through his desk. One drawer was locked, but since De Soto had left his keys out, it was the work of a moment to get it open. Pulling the papers out, he started examining them. At the bottom of the pile, he found the item he was looking for, and he was furious to find out that De Soto was expecting a shrapnel cannon. De Soto was willing to endanger the lives of the citizens of Los Angeles just to take down one man. Even Ramone wouldn't have been that reckless with his citizenry.

As soon as he got his temper under control, he managed to realize what kind of underhanded maneuvering De Soto had gone through to acquire the cannon. While this information wouldn't necessarily get him more than a reprimand, Zorro reflected that it wouldn't make De Soto look good and, if it fell into the hands of higher authority, would certainly prevent his managing to replace it. Replacing everything except the papers referring to the cannon exactly where he found them, Zorro slipped out of the cuartel and headed back to the cave, pausing just long enough to glance at the tavern on the way out of town.

As he rode, he ran through possible options in his head, since there was no way he was going to let the alcalde get away with this. However, this would take special planning, since the only good time to deal with the cannon and the ammunition would be while it was moving on the road to Los Angeles. If he waited until it reached town, it would be too well guarded, and there'd be a far greater danger that innocent bystanders could be hurt. He'd also need to send Felipe into town in the morning to see if he could discover anything more specific about De Soto's plans.

He wished he could go himself, but he knew he had too much to do. Also, for once, he didn't think he could manage to see Victoria and act as if everything were fine when he was torn up with worry inside. Even as he was working on his plans, he wondered what, if anything, she'd said to Juan or if she might really be sick of dealing with his secrets and prefer a life without any need for deception.

As he solidified his plans, he desperately wished there was some way to use what he discovered to make De Soto be a just alcalde or failing that find a decent way to get him out of Los Angeles. However, in his current pessimistic state of mind, Diego felt that it wouldn't matter if De Soto left, since the next alcalde would in all probability be just as bad or worse. Too many people were willing to just sit back and let Zorro fight for justice rather than go even a step out of their own way. Diego was beginning to feel like this crusade would never end. Hours later, he couldn't even forget it in his sleep.

~Z~Z~Z~

The next morning was a slightly more peaceful one for Victoria. Doña Maria had apparently either gotten the hint or hadn't found a replacement suitor; either way Victoria was pleased to not see her. Victoria was also glad that Juan made no appearance in the tavern as that would have been awkward.

There hadn't been that much activity from the cuartel, until a messenger rode in late in the morning. He was inside for about half an hour before he went riding back out again, and it wasn't all that much later when Mendoza was sent out with a notice to post: another tax, this time for the statue that no one had asked for or wanted and which the alcalde planned to unveil at five o'clock in the evening. Victoria stared at it angrily. De Soto might as well have written, "this is a trap for Zorro" and been done with it. She looked around the plaza, vainly hoping to see Diego riding into town and wondering if she needed to go to him. She had no idea what he'd been doing last night or what he might have planned for today. She did know that he needed to know what De Soto had planned.

It was with relief that she saw Felipe coming into town. He'd be able to give Diego the details of the alcalde's trap, and she could tell him what she'd seen earlier. It was easy enough to get his attention once he'd seen the notice. As if she was just venting her irritation about the alcalde's behavior, she told him about the messenger who'd arrived and left as well as her feelings about the notice. Then, as casually as she could, she asked how Diego's experiments were going.

Felipe signed that he'd been very busy and that he thought he'd finish them up sometime later today or tonight. Then cautiously making sure no one else saw he signed that Diego was worried about her. Equally cautiously, Victoria said that Diego didn't need to worry; she still had faith in the future, and he should too. Felipe smiled. Very quietly she added, "Make sure you're both careful." Felipe nodded. Victoria smiled at him and went back into the tavern, relieved that Diego would know what had been happening. However, it didn't stop her from worrying about them. Nothing did.

~Z~Z~Z~

Diego was in the cave changing into Zorro's gear, when Felipe returned. He'd just finished up his final preparations for dealing with the alcalde and his cannon. Much of the preliminary bits had been done early in the morning once there was enough light to see by. It didn't take Felipe long to let him know what was going on in town and to pass on Victoria's message, which went a long way to calming his worries. Once he was sure of everything, he worked out the last couple of details with Felipe and told him to tell his father, if asked, that he had to ride to the bank in Santa Paula.

Once out of the cave, Zorro headed towards the point where he planned to ambush the wagon. He had considered just sabotaging the cannon and letting the alcalde reap the consequences, but he decided that would be too dangerous. He'd rather make sure that when he destroyed it, there was no one nearby. Besides, he wasn't in the mood to let De Soto even think he was triumphing before pulling the rug out from under him. He planned to make sure this failed in such a spectacular way, that De Soto would never try such a stunt again.

He'd carefully calculated the location of his ambush and the likely time that the wagon would arrive and was there well in advance to be sure everything was still ready. He circled around the area keeping just out of sight of the road. Everything was ready.

When the wagon finally appeared, Zorro waited until it was getting close the right spot before appearing. As he expected half the soldiers started chasing after him. He led them away, and then circled back behind them to set off some smoke bombs before returning to the wagon. With only three men there, it was easy enough to deal with them. Soon they were all unconscious, and he had the wagon. He drove it past the spot where the second set of smoke bombs were ready and set them off. By the time the smoke cleared, he should be almost at the spot for the final disposal, and he already knew that these lancers couldn't track worth anything. The smoke had probably been an unnecessary precaution, but he didn't want to take any chances today. It was too important.

He was right that the lancers couldn't or wouldn't track him. He got the wagon where he wanted it and unhitched and sent off the horses. It didn't take him long to prep the explosion, but he was waiting until at least one of the lancers made it into town before setting off the explosion. That was Felipe's job, as long as he could get to the first charge unobserved. If not Zorro still had a backup plan.

He didn't have that long to wait. He heard a light blast from outside the pueblo and lit the fuse to the charge on the wagon before retiring on Toronado to a safe distance. He watched with satisfaction as it exploded precisely on cue. Toronado shied a little at the sound, but as soon as the debris settled, Zorro started him for the pueblo, lighting the fuses of several more light charges on his the way. Riding to the far side of the pueblo, Zorro saw a number of lancers riding in the direction of the main explosion. As he hoped De Soto remained behind.

Charging in to town, Zorro disarmed the few remaining lancers, and then swung off Toronado to land in front of De Soto.

"Buenas tardes, alcalde," he said, raising his sword to De Soto's throat before he could reach his own sword.. "I'm afraid I just couldn't wait to see the statue of King Ferdinand. Imagine my surprise when I found out what exactly in those crates."

"What have you done with the cannon?" De Soto managed to say between clenched teeth.

"Oh, it and its ammunition have suffered a fatal accident. I'm sure your lancers can tell you all about it later." Quickly sheathing his sword, Zorro grabbed De Soto by the collar pressing him back against the wall of his office. "And don't think I don't know what you did to get that," he whispered.

"I don't know what you're talking about," De Soto choked out, trying to shake loose.

"Check your office, alcalde; you might be surprised at what's missing."

De Soto paled.

"If you spent a tenth of the time doing your job as you've spent trying to trap me," Zorro added, "you'd probably be out of here in a year. Dream on that."

De Soto's eyes widened as Zorro knocked him out with a punch, before leaping on Toronado and speeding away. He barely paused long enough to see Felipe and Victoria standing near each other outside of the tavern before racing out of town to make it back to the cave. He almost couldn't believe that his plan had worked, but once Felipe returned safely home from the pueblo, he could finally stop worrying about the alcalde and start concentrating on Victoria. He hoped those plans would go as smoothly, since he had no idea what to do if they went badly.

~Z~Z~Z~

The next day seemed to go by too quietly for Victoria, as she had nothing much to do but think about the previous evening's events. Once the alcalde had woken up after his confrontation with Zorro, he'd retreated to his office in a foul mood. Mendoza had removed the notice with a shrug, after the lancers had returned. Victoria had mainly felt relief that the alcalde's scheme whatever it was had failed and that Diego was safe. She wasn't even in the mood to gloat about De Soto's loss, mainly because she knew it was just a matter of time before he came up with something else. She wondered when Diego would be coming back to town; she knew he had to be exhausted by everything he'd done the past couple of days, and she wanted him to get some rest. Much as she wanted to talk to him and let him know that she'd wait as long as necessary, she'd rather know he was getting some much needed rest. She had long since stopped thinking he slept too much; now she wondered if he slept at all.

It was late morning when Juan left on the Monterey coach. He spoke to her briefly before he left. It was very polite and very final, and she felt lighter once the coach left. And after that, everything got too busy for her to even think of visiting Diego. At siesta time, she was tempted to go to see him, but decided against it. After all, she had decided to be patient, and that wasn't patient.

Near the end of siesta, Victoria unlocked the doors to the tavern and went back to the kitchen to get things ready. She was in the pantry, checking her supplies, when she heard a small sound. Stepping back into main room of the tavern, she stopped when she saw Diego standing in front of the bar.

For what seemed like a long time, they stood where they were in silence. Finally, they drifted across the room toward each other. "Victoria...Victoria... I'm sorry," Diego started.

"No, Diego," Victoria interrupted. "I'm sorry. I was..."

"Victoria, please," Diego said gently as he reached down and took her hand. "You have no reason to be sorry. What I have to say can't wait just as you shouldn't have had to all ths time." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. "I thought I was being noble by being cautious, that by playing the friend and not showing my feelings for you, I was keeping you safe, but... I was being selfish by letting things drift along. I am sorry. I love you, and I don't want to hide that anymore..."

Victoria looked up into his face. Diego had the most expressive eyes. It's a wonder it had taken her so long to notice them when he wasn't wearing a mask. "I love you, Diego, now and always," she said just above a whisper. Diego wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. Victoria rested her head on Diego's chest.

After a long moment, he said, "I have something for you, querida."

"For me?" Victoria looked up at him.

Letting go of her, Diego turned and moved her over to a table over which was draped a blue velvet cloth.

"What is it?" she asked curiously.

"It's something I painted for you," he said, an unaccountable nervousness in his voice.

"A painting? For me?" She never expected that.

"Yes. Especially for you," Diego said, as he pulled the cloth aside.

Victoria stepped forward to look at the painting, not sure what to expect. At first glance, it seemed to be simply a picture of the main room of the tavern. However, once she got a good look, she was stunned at what she saw. It wasn't just the tavern. It was a memory. A perfect memory. She didn't know how he'd done it, but it was her family, when they were still together. Her father behind the bar, her mother a tray in hand, her brothers playing out of the way, and she standing on the stairs looking out at them all. Everyone looked so happy. It was so much better than any portraits could have been. Her vision blurred as tears came to her eyes. He'd had to have been working on this for months. Long before she'd gotten frustrated with him.

"Diego, how..." was all she managed to say before her voice choked up.

He stepped behind her and said hesitantly, "A few months ago I found some sketches I'd made when I was young. They weren't very good but they were a start, and I found some better ones my mother had done. And I thought that you might like something... It took a while to figure out what would be the best way... I wasn't sure, but I'd hoped..." His voice trailed off.

"It's perfect," she said, throwing her arms back around him.

"I'm so glad," he said, holding her tightly. "I wasn't sure if it was a good idea. But I wanted to give you something today of all days and not just because of what's been happening."

"Today? Why today?" she asked leaning back to look at him.

Diego smiled. One hand reached up to wipe away a tear that was trailing down her cheek. "I thought it was men who were supposed to be the forgetful ones," he said, letting her go and stepping back to take her hands in his. "Three years ago today, I walked into this tavern and saw you for the first time in four years and lost my heart entirely. You were so beautiful, so kind, so passionate about justice. I knew life would never be the same. I just didn't expect what else happened."

Victoria returned the smile. She had forgotten what day it was. "I don't think anyone really could have. You were so handsome that day, and when you came to my defense, I think I knew, but then..."

"I know. It was my fault. I was so cocky and then so afraid. But I've come to my senses now," he said, then took a deep breath. "So in keeping with my newly acquired sanity, Victoria Escalante, I would like to have your permission to court you openly the way I should have from the beginning."

Victoria was speechless for the moment, but then finally managed to say, "You have my permission, Diego de la Vega."

Diego's eyes lit up, and he raised her hands to his lips and placed a kiss on each one, his eyes never leaving hers. "I can't tell you how happy that makes me, querida," he said, before continuing in a more mundane tone. "So to celebrate will you join my father and me for dinner this evening?" Then with a touch of humor he added, "I wouldn't call it a sumptuous hacienda, but I am 'aflame with desire' for you."

Victoria laughed; everything was all right again. "And even better, you can speak for yourself."

"Even if it took me a long time to do it," he said self-deprecatingly.

"That doesn't matter now," Victoria replied, letting her love shine out in her expression.

They leaned towards each other until their lips met in a kiss. Diego's hands slipped around her waist, and her arms wrapped around his neck to pull him closer as the kiss deepened. All too soon, Diego pulled away to catch his breath.

"Perhaps I'd better hang that for you," he said after a long silence and a look at the painting.

Victoria cleared her throat. "Yes, I think so," she said, unsteadily.

Diego moved over to pick up the painting. "Will it be all right if I call for you at seven?" he asked.

"That would be perfect," Victoria replied.

~Z~Z~Z~

The tavern was busy. Victoria had made sure that Alicia and Pilar could handle everything before going upstairs to change into her best dress. It was just before seven when she walked downstairs and to her annoyance she saw Doña Maria waiting for her, although this time she didn't seem to have a suitor along with her.

"Ah, Victoria," she said, "I think I might just have the perfect suitor for you, if you're willing to..."

Victoria was bracing herself to tell Doña Maria that she had no need for a suitor, when another voice broke in.

"I don't think that's necessary," Diego said.

Victoria hadn't even seen him come in, but he looked more handsome than ever. Doña Maria stared at him a little disbelievingly.

"Señorita Escalante has agreed to let me court her," he said softly, before turning to Victoria. "You look exceptionally beautiful this evening, señorita." He lifted her hand for a kiss. "Are you ready to leave? My father is waiting for us."

"Yes, Don Diego," she answered, with a rare meekness, taking his arm.

As they exited the tavern, Diego and Victoria glanced back at Doña Maria who was staring at them slack-jawed. Victoria laughed as they went outside, thinking about the look on Doña Maria's face once she realized that Don Diego did indeed have at least a little bit of romance in him after all.

The End

Next up: "A Love Remembered." Technically "Turning the Tables" is next in production order, but much as I love this episode, I can't think of anything interesting to do with it, so it too is getting skipped. It will also probably be November before the next story gets written as I'm in the midst of editing a Zorro / Monster Squad crossover that I'm uploading throughout October.

End notes: I'm not entirely sure how I'm doing with this series. I know I'm doing a lot of experimenting with formats and with just how much I cover or change in each story. This one is the first episode that ended up being radically altered from the original, and I'm not always sure it works. I know that I just couldn't figure out an interesting way to deal with the alcalde's daft plot, so I apologize for the weakness there. All forms of feedback (reviews, comments, messages, suggestions, questions, follows, favorites) are gratefully received, especially since while I have very definite ideas about how to handle certain episodes, I still haven't figured them all out yet.