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Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Chapter Text

Victoria found the box in her storage room.  She hadn't really cleaned it out in some time, but she needed a little more room.  The tavern wasn't very busy at the moment so she could take a few minutes to clear one shelf. She stood on the ladder trying to remember what she'd put in those bags on the top shelf and wishing she were a bit taller as it was a reach even from the top step.  Trying to grab one item, Victoria overbalanced and fell down to land on an old mattress and something unexpectedly hard.

What is that? she thought as she got up and pushed the mattress up to reveal a chest that she didn't remember being there a few months ago.  She opened the lid and looked through the contents.  There was a smaller wooden box and she lifted the lid to see a small plaque inscribed with the words "The Ten Potions of Dr. Henry Wayne."  Well, that explains it.  Three months earlier, Dr. Wayne had had to leave in a hurry after running afoul of the alcalde, not that she minded since the man had actually foolishly agreed to help the alcalde to try to kill Zorro and used her as bait for a trap.  Obviously, he'd been in too much of a hurry to remember this chest.  She looked at the potions.

"Strength, passion, love," she said, reading some of the labels.  Love sounded intriguing.  For a moment, she wondered if it would work on Zorro, then she laughed.  She couldn't even get the man to stop long enough to do more than kiss her hand; the idea of getting him to stop long enough to drink anything was ludicrous.  She'd have a better chance with Diego; then she stopped, embarrassed by that thought.

She sighed.  Why did that have to keep happening?  Diego was a friend— and a caballero.  She shouldn't think of him that way.  But the truth was after he'd risked his life to try to rescue her from pirates and after challenging that Englishman to a duel that he was bound to lose, Victoria had had a hard time thinking of him as just a friend.  The fact that Zorro was as elusive as ever didn't help matters.  Victoria was beginning to think he simply enjoyed flirting with her without any thought of the future.  The way he'd teased her about his promise did not speak of a man who meant to keep a commitment.  "Please be patient, Señorita," he'd said.  How patient was she supposed to be?

But Diego— he was just as impossible.  Hadn't he just been off somewhere chasing some mysterious woman?  She'd simply meant to tease him when she'd said she heard he'd been involved in a burning romance, since she'd been sure it had been some kind of study or experiment or maybe even a new book that had him disappearing for a couple of days without a word to his father.  He could be absent-minded sometimes, so she was shocked when he'd said it had been a woman.

She wondered what sort of woman would have attracted his attention enough to have him disappear without a word. Probably someone who knew all about music and art and literature.  Someone well traveled.  Someone not like her.  However, obviously it had not worked out, and Victoria wasn't going to let it bother her. Diego was her friend, and she was happy with that— most of the time.

Looking at the potions, Victoria wished she knew if such things would really work. She'd never really had a chance to study.  The tavern had kept her too busy for her to have much time for reading, though Don Alejandro had let her borrow many books from his library, and Diego was willing to explain things whenever she got up the nerve to ask. However, she knew that she'd never understand half the things he did.  Realizing that Diego was sitting in the tavern just now, she decided to take the box to him, hoping he could explain what would make potions like these work.  If they worked.

She closed the lid and carried it out into the main room, where he was sitting at a table with Sergeant Mendoza.  As she thought, he found Dr. Wayne's potions intriguing even as he was skeptical as to their efficacy.  Mendoza though with his less than fond memories of the traveling man was more blatant in his disbelief.

"His gadgets almost killed me twice," he grumbled.  "Doctor Henry Wayne was nothing but a crack pot.  I bet these things are nothing but colored water."

"Not necessarily, Sergeant," Diego said.  "Throughout history many different foods, herbs, minerals have all been reputed to affect moods or skills.  While I don't believe that any potion would have the exact outcomes promised on these bottles, I can't say that they are simply colored water, at least without some kind of testing."

Victoria was looking through the bottles.  "Here, Sergeant. Strength.  It would be perfect for you."

"Victoria, I don't think anyone should actually drink them," Diego protested.

"Why?  You don't think they're actually poisonous do you?" she asked.

"Well, no," Diego said, after a moment's reflection.  "Dr. Wayne was out to sell his inventions, not poison his customers.  I think at worst you might get an upset stomach."

"So, why not try it?  Hmm, Sergeant.  Wouldn't you like to be strong?" Victoria asked.

"It's ridiculous," he insisted.

Victoria wasn't so sure.  "All you can eat for lunch for a week... free," she said, holding out the bottle.

Mendoza's eyes went wide.  "All I can eat... for a week... free?"

"Free." Victoria knew she was going to regret this, but she was too curious to mind the cost now.

Mendoza took the bottle from Victoria, as Diego tried dissuading them.

"Don Diego, aren't you curious too?" Victoria asked.

"Yes, but not enough to drink an unknown potion," he said, watching in dismay as Mendoza opened the bottle.

Mendoza smiled as he lifted the bottle to take a swig, but then made a face as he swallowed.  Victoria lifted the box off the table for a moment, looking at the other bottles again.

After another moment, Mendoza looked triumphant.  "See.  Nothing.  I win!"

He brought down his hand on the table and it broke in half.  Almost convulsively, Victoria closed the lid on the box, as the whole tavern looked around in shock.  Mendoza stood frozen, as everyone heard the sudden yell of an all-too-familiar voice, shouting, "Men—do—za!"

Victoria turned to see Luis Ramone standing behind them.  She hadn't noticed he'd entered the tavern.  She looked at him in annoyance.

"Mendoza, what is going on?" he demanded.

"Um, we were just testing something, mi alcalde," he stammered. "Something of Dr. Wayne's."

"Dr. Henry Wayne? That madman?" Ramone exclaimed, astonishment and derision in his voice.  Ramone's eyes focused on the box in Victoria's lap.  "Let me see that."

He came forward and held his hand out.  Wanting to keep it but not in the mood for a struggle she'd probably lose, Victoria reluctantly handed it over.

"'The Ten Potions of Dr. Henry Wayne'?" he read incredulously.  "And what did you take, Mendoza?"

"Umm. Strength, mi alcalde," Mendoza gulped nervously.

Ramone looked from Mendoza to the table to the box with a calculating expression.  "I see," he said before looking at Victoria. "Señorita, for the safety of the state, I am confiscating this box and its contents immediately."

"They're not yours, alcalde," Victoria protested.

"Nor yours," he pointed out with a malicious smile.  "Dr. Henry Wayne was a dangerous man; it would hardly be wise for me to let such potentially harmful potions remain unsecured."

"Don't be ridiculous," Victoria said.

Ramone looked at the broken table.  "I beg to differ, Señorita," he said, before turning to Mendoza.  "Come with me, Sergeant."

Victoria looked after him angrily about to follow, when Diego touched her arm.  "Let him go.  It's not worth it," he said.

"How can you be sure?" she asked.  "If there's any truth on those labels, you can bet that man will find a way to use them for something evil.  Look at what Mendoza did to my table."

Diego examined the broken pieces.  "It could be that the structure was already weakened.  There have been several fights in here after all, and your furniture has seen a lot of abuse."

"You could be right," Victoria said with a sigh.  "I'm always needing to get it repaired and replaced."

Finishing his examination, Diego picked up the largest part of the table with an ease that surprised Victoria.   "Where would you like me to put this?" he asked.

"Oh, you don't have to do that, Don Diego," she said.

"I insist; after all, I was part of the experiment.  So where does this go?" Diego asked again.

"The storage shed outside is best," Victoria said.

"All right," he replied heading directly back.

Victoria had to hurry to get in front of him to hold the door.  One more trip and the last of the pieces were in the shed, and Diego even moved over an empty table from the back corner into the spot, completely oblivious to everyone's stares.

"Gracias, Diego," she said, as he set the table down.

"It was the least I could do," he said with a smile.  Glancing around he noticed the bottle of strength potion on its side near the bar.  He went to pick it up and glanced at it.  There was a small amount of liquid still at the bottom of the bottle.  "Do you mind if I take this with me?" he asked.  "I can't help but wonder if it was colored water or if Dr. Wayne used some ingredients that have the reputation of endowing strength."

"No, go ahead, before the alcalde comes back and tries to take it too," Victoria said, as she glared at the front door.

"Gracias, Victoria.  Buenas noches," Diego said politely, examining the bottle as he walked out the door.

Victoria found herself staring after Diego.  How like him to want to study something he was skeptical about.  He always wanted to know how or if something worked.  He had such a passion for learning, and yet sometimes such an inexplicable indifference to what was happening in the pueblo.  Sometimes she wondered if she could ever understand him and if she would be more disappointed than happy if she did.

~Z~Z~Z~

Luis Ramone sat at his desk looking over the various potions in the vials.  Courage had potential for his next fight with Zorro, but he'd rather act more indirectly especially since he had no idea if that thing with Mendoza was a fluke or not.  No, he'd need a test case, something a bit more devious.  He looked at the bottle of fear.  If he could get that into Zorro—but that wouldn't work.  It's not like Zorro actually stopped for drinks at the tavern or that he'd just swallow something because he was asked nicely.  However...

Ramone looked down at the bottle of love potion.  Everyone knew that Señorita Escalante was infatuated with Zorro and that nothing got him angrier than a threat to her.  Now what if she were to desert him for someone completely unlike the masked bandit. Oh, not himself, tempting though the thought was. Though Zorro made a point of not killing, who knew what jealousy or betrayal could drive a man to do?

Definitely someone else, someone equally galling, someone Ramone wouldn't mind seeing Zorro's rage focused on, someone who kept getting in his way.  In other words, someone like Diego de la Vega.  He might be all intellect and no action, but his newspaper was a constant irritant, one that he couldn't shut down, not after that fiasco when Don Diaz came to inspect it. He'd received direct instructions from the governor backing the press and insisting that de la Vega be allowed to continue running it.  And Don Diego did keep managing to print unfortunate truths Ramone would rather not have see the light of day.

Chuckling evilly, he thought this would be perfect.  Señorita Escalante had made no secret of her preference for men of action, to fall in love with the town's poet would be rich irony.  And Alejandro de la Vega, who could be more vexing than his son, after all his attempts to match his son with the daughters of local caballeros what could be more galling to have his son publicly infatuated with a tavern owner.  And if Zorro took his anger out on Diego, well, then he'd lose one of his biggest supporters since Alejandro would certainly not forgive the masked man for injuring or killing his only son.

Yes, this was the perfect plan, and it had the advantage that it would be easy to slip something to the pair of them, as de la Vega spent a great deal of time in the tavern, certainly more time than Zorro did.  And that made Ramone think about the situation a little more closely.

De la Vega was always hanging around the señorita, and there was that duel with Thackery.  Unusual for a man that couldn't normally be bothered to do more than make a weak protest and who was clearly outclassed by the Englishman and saved by a fluke. Yet when Thackery insulted this particular woman... Perhaps this would be even easier than he thought, if Don Diego were infatuated with the tavern owner but too cowardly to say anything because of Zorro.

Also, it wasn't that long ago that Señorita Escalante seemed particularly upset with the man over Amanda Herrara's presence at the de la Vega hacienda.  Could it be that she had some ambitions in that direction herself?  Even the most idealistic woman might make an exception for wealth and position. This could get interesting; even if Dr. Wayne's potion wasn't as potent as described, perhaps all he would need for it to do is give them both a push, and infatuation and self-interest could do the rest.

Locking the box into his safe, Ramone couldn't help but laugh all the way to bed.

~to be continued~

Chapter Text

The next day Diego walked into the tavern, still somewhat tired as he had been up quite late the evening before trying to determine what, if anything, Dr. Wayne had used in his strength potion.  It definitely was more than water, but his best guess was that the main ingredient had been fennel with a possible hint of laurel.  Certainly nothing to magically increase the good sergeant's strength.

Perhaps the power of suggestion and a table weakened by one too many fights in the tavern. Diego felt guilty about that since many of those fights had involved Zorro.  It was also the reason he tended to overpay at the tavern as often as he could get away with it. He didn't like the thought of Victoria losing money because of any actions of his, even in defense of her or the pueblo.

Though he usually tried to keep from showing his feelings, Diego couldn't help the slight smile that came when he saw Victoria approach him. "Buenos días," he said briefly.  He glanced around the room and felt annoyed when he saw Ramone sitting at his favorite table. Lowering his voice, he added, "I see our illustrious alcalde is here early."

"Yes, and I think he was hoping to see you," Victoria whispered, but before she could say another word Ramone's voice broke in.

"Buenos días, Don Diego, Señorita Escalante," Ramone said with a false cheerfulness that set Diego's teeth on edge.  "Will you join me?"

Diego forced a smile to his lips as he greeted the man in return before saying, "You seem in good spirits, Alcalde."

"It's a pleasant day," Ramone said.  "Señorita, I would like to apologize for last night's little disagreement.  I was only thinking of the safety of the pueblo after Mendoza's display last night.  I am sure you understand."

"Oh, I understand, Alcalde," Victoria said in biting tones.  "Now I'm afraid I need to get back to work."

"Don't leave so soon," Ramone protested. "I was hoping you and Don Diego would have a drink with me, to show there's no hard feelings."

Victoria narrowed her eyes at him.  Diego wondered what the man was up to.  Surely he wasn't planning on poisoning them.  Even he had to show some discretion.

Ramone smiled that crocodile smile of his as he looked around the mostly empty tavern. "Surely, a moment of your time is not too much to ask. I'm even willing to pay for the table Mendoza broke."  Taking in the expressions on their faces, he added, "I'm docking his pay for it, of course."

Victoria turned towards Diego.  Ramone was definitely up to something. Probably something to do with Dr. Wayne's potions.  Diego wondered if Ramone was working up to asking his opinions on their efficacy which seemed unlikely, but even that wouldn't explain why he was so eager for Victoria's presence, unless he was trying to soften her up for some outrageous new scheme.

However, refusing him his apparently innocuous request wouldn't give Diego the information he was looking for. Shrugging slightly, Diego sat at the table as Ramone took two glasses off the tray Victoria held and poured lemonade from the pitcher that had been sitting in front of him.

"Now come, friends.  I mean to make amends for my sergeant's clumsiness," he said, raising his glass.

Victoria finally sat after the alcalde actually put the money for both the damaged table and the drinks down in front of her, though she watched the alcalde suspiciously as she slipped the money into her pocket.

Still wondering at the alcalde's apparent good humor, Diego reluctantly lifted his glass, continuing to have a vague idea about poisons or possibly one of the potions, so he kept an eye on the man. "I don't see where I fit in, but as long as you're making amends..." He glanced at Victoria who'd done the same, together they took a swallow of their drinks after Ramone drank from his glass first.  The moment after he swallowed, Diego knew they'd made a mistake as he tasted something bitter that left a slight tingling sensation in its wake.

The alcalde's grin grew wider if that was at all possible.  "Thank you.  And now I suppose I ought to tell you that to make things up to you, I thought I'd add a little courage to your drinks."

"What?" Diego asked.  He had been right about the idea of Ramone using the potions, but why would Ramone choose that particular one?

Ramone set an empty bottle in front of Diego.  "As a favor to your father, he seems bothered by your timidity.  I thought that as long as Dr. Wayne's formulas seemed to work, it would be a nice gesture on my part."  Looking over at Victoria, he added, "I know you don't require any courage, Señorita, but I must admit to being curious about what it would do for the already brave."

Diego looked at the label.  "Alcalde," he said in an angry tone, "this says 'love.'"

"What?" Victoria yelped, snatching the bottle from Diego, then read it aloud.  "'Everlasting love shall bloom 'twixt the man and woman who partake this potion within each other's sight.'  Why would you give Diego and me love potion?"  She stared at Diego with a horrified expression that disheartened him completely.

"A mistake," Ramone said so smoothly Diego knew it was a lie.  "After all, every one knows how attached Zorro is to you, Señorita.  I would hardly want to raise his wrath by trying to shift your affections to someone like Don Diego, would I?"

Diego glared at the alcalde, realizing that was exactly his plan, which would be almost funny since he was Zorro yet had to spend most of his time pretending not to be in love with Victoria Escalante.  He glanced at Victoria again, surprised to see her expression soften a little toward him before she got up from the table and ran to the kitchen.

"I don't know what you're expecting, Alcalde, but be assured I don't believe in Dr. Wayne's potions any more now than when Victoria found them," Diego said, grabbing the bottle that Victoria had left sitting on the table.

"Of course not, Don Diego, I was just testing them. I certainly wouldn't want to cause any trouble," Ramone said with the utmost insincerity.

Diego ignored him as he dropped the bottle into a pocket, too worried about what Victoria might be thinking to spend any more time with this malicious man.  Hurrying to the kitchen he found her sitting on a bench by the wall, a hint of tears in her eyes.  Nervously, he sat down next to her and touched her shoulder hesitantly before pulling away.

Trying to sound reassuring, he said, "Victoria, please don't worry.  The alcalde's just trying to cause trouble.  Despite what happened with Mendoza, I don't think the potions have any real power."  Fighting an impulse to put his arms around her, Diego clenched his hands on his legs.  He hoped she believed him; he couldn't stand to see her cry.

She looked up at him with a watery smile.  "Are you sure?" she asked, putting a hand over his.

Her touch was almost a caress, and he had a hard time concentrating on anything else.  "Almost positive," he said, despite the fact he was feeling a little odd, almost tipsy. He tried to smile and speak lightly as she didn't seem at all reassured.  "Is the thought of being in love with me so very terrible?" he asked, knowing it was a foolish thing to say and he had no real desire to hear the answer.  Who wouldn't hate the thought of being made to fall in love against their will? Victoria certainly didn't care for Diego the way she did for Zorro.  He hated being jealous of himself. It was so frustrating.  His eyes fell to her lips; he wished he had the right to kiss her, but he doubted he ever would.

At his last words, Victoria smiled with a little more sincerity.  "No," she said slowly as if suddenly realizing the truth of it. "It's not a terrible thought at all."   She leaned closer to him as she spoke.

Diego was nonplused by her reaction and his own, which was to lean closer to her in return before he realized what he was doing and straightened up.  He couldn't believe any of this was happening.  Finally, he managed a choked, "You can't be serious."

Victoria looked up at him as if she were seeing him for the very first time.  "Yes, I think I am."  Her hand slid slowly up his arm to his shoulder as she spoke.

"Don't tease me, Victoria," he said.  She couldn't possibly believe that potion was working on her, could she?  No matter what he wished about her feelings, the idea of her believing she was in love with him because of some kind of potion made him feel sick.  Despite the slightly intoxicated feeling he was experiencing, Diego knew the love he felt for her was all his own, uncoerced, even if he didn't dare tell her as either himself or Zorro.  "This isn't funny.  I don't believe any love potion could work the way that one is supposed to."

"I'm not teasing you, Diego," Victoria said, staring at him in a way that he'd only ever seen her look at him when he was wearing a mask.  "I wouldn't want to do that.  But I feel... it's like the first time we met again.... you really are the most handsome man I know."  Her hand moved up from his shoulder to his cheek in a light caress.  "Are you saying you don't feel anything?"

He gulped slightly; this was getting out of hand. He couldn't tell her the truth, not yet. "Victoria, I... um... it's not as simple as..."

Victoria wasn't going to be sidetracked. "Diego," she said staring directly into his eyes, "what do you feel about me?'

She was definitely sitting too close to him for his own good, and Diego was starting to wonder if perhaps the potion had some kind of effect after all, as he found himself saying almost against his will, "I love you, Victoria, but that has nothing to do with any potion."

Victoria smiled brightly. "You love me?"  She had slid closer to him; he hadn't thought that possible.

Wishing he could have kept his mouth shut but still incapable of backtracking, Diego stood up and said, "Of course, I love you.  But you certainly don't love me."  He backed away, needing to keep his distance from her.  That was the only way to remain sensible.

"What makes you say that?" Victoria asked indignantly as she stood up to follow him.  "I love you, too.  I've been trying to tell you that."

"But that's not real," Diego insisted.  It couldn't be.  How many times had she made it clear he was a disappointment?

Victoria looked more indignant. "How can you say that you love me, and it's real, but when I say it, it's not?" she protested.

Diego was starting to lose his temper himself. He knew he was right, even as he wished he could stop himself from saying it.  "Because I've loved you for years, not two minutes."

"What makes you think it's been two minutes?" Victoria demanded.

She was so beautiful, even when angry— especially when angry. There was a light in her eyes that sparked something in him, but Diego told himself to ignore it, as he shook his head.

"Perhaps because you've been pining for Zorro all this time," he said, pointing out the patently obvious.

"Don't be so certain of that," Victoria retorted. Then as if a thought had suddenly occurred to her. "Besides how can you say you've loved me for years when just last week you were off romancing some strange woman?"

"I was not romancing some strange woman," Diego insisted.  "I was simply teasing you because you obviously expected me to say I was off doing something dull.  I'd just gotten tired of being seen as some kind of hopeless bookworm without a man's feelings or desires."

Victoria's eyes narrowed and she took another step closer to him. "And what are your desires?"

Diego swallowed hard and stepped back to hit the counter, feeling oddly trapped by someone so much smaller than him.  "Victoria... I... it's not like I could ever compete with the hero of the pueblo.  You've made that very clear more times than I could count."

"That's not true..." Victoria said, grabbing his shirt. "You just make me so angry sometimes... I could..."  She spluttered to a stop and then in a sudden motion pulled his head down to kiss him.

The moment her lips touched his, he was lost.  All the arguments he'd been making, the reasons why this wasn't real, all faded into the background, as all he could think of was how soft her lips were, how intoxicating her kiss was, how she felt pressed against him, and all without a mask between them.

Vaguely, as he tightened his grip on her, Diego knew he should stop this, but for once, he couldn't make himself do the right thing. What was wrong with him?  His head was muddled, Victoria was still kissing him, and he'd lost all sense of time before he was startled by the sound of his father's voice.

~to be continued~

Chapter Text

"What is going on here?" Don Alejandro asked in deceptively mild tones.

Startled by the interruption, Diego pulled back but didn't quite release his hold on Victoria, who didn't even seem remotely embarrassed to be caught kissing in her kitchen.

"Umm, Father..." Diego tried to find the words to explain the unexplainable, finally letting go of Victoria only to have her grab his hand.

"Yes, son," Alejandro said, his eyes never leaving the pair of them.  "I know I raised you better than to take advantage of a lady, so I'm hoping there's a good explanation of why you were kissing Victoria like that."

Diego wished there were, but he couldn't think of a single one that didn't make him sound like a complete cad. "I don't..."

Victoria broke in. "It wasn't Diego's fault.  I kissed him."

"You, Victoria?" Alejandro asked surprised.  "Why?"

She tightened the grip on his hand as she replied, "Because he kept insisting that I couldn't love him even though he said he loved me."

But it's true, Diego thought, though at the moment he didn't dare say anything, not with his father still glaring at him.

However, at Victoria's words, a gleam appeared in Alejandro's eye that Diego knew did not bode well for him.  "Diego, did you tell Victoria you loved her?"

"Well, yes, but..."  Diego didn't make it any farther before his father interrupted him.

"Victoria, did you say you loved my son?" he asked.

Looking unabashed, Victoria said, "Yes, I did."

Alejandro looked Diego in the eyes.  "Now, son, that said, I hope you had matrimony on your mind when you told her that, because I don't expect any son of mine to trifle with a lady's affections."

"Of course, I want to marry her, Father," Diego blurted out, wishing he could somehow manage to stop himself.  "It's just that she can't possibly want to marry me."

"Stop saying that, Diego," Victoria snapped.  "I love you, and you are being ridiculous."

"So you want to marry Diego as well?" Alejandro asked, a smile starting to break out..

"Certainly.  I love him, Don Alejandro, even if he's being stubborn about it," Victoria replied, sincerity in every word.

Alejandro's smile grew broader; Diego nearly groaned.  This was getting worse.  Diego knew that Alejandro already loved Victoria like a daughter, and he'd been trying since Diego had gotten home to get him to show an interest in marrying anyone.  Diego could practically hear his father's words before he spoke them.

"In that case, Diego, I suggest we go over and talk to Padre Benites about getting the banns read," Alejandro said.

"But, Father, you don't understand..." Diego protested.  Was he the only one who realized that Victoria had clearly lost her mind?

"What don't I understand?  This may be unexpected, but I'm delighted.  What is your problem?" Alejandro's eyes narrowed.  "Is there some reason you can't get married?  Some impediment that would prevent it?"

Only Zorro, Diego thought, but he understood what his father was asking, and since he did want to marry Victoria some day when it was safe and she was in her right senses, he told the truth.  "No, of course not.  But what I've been trying to say is that the alcalde slipped us both a love potion left behind by Dr. Henry Wayne, so whatever she says she's feeling... it's not real, and this isn't right."

"We're back to that again," Victoria said, in irritation.  "You're the one who keeps saying that the potions don't work.  My feelings are as real as yours are, Diego de la Vega."

"But they are a lot more sudden," Diego contended.  "How am I supposed to believe in a love that appears right after you've drunk something that's supposed to make you fall in love?" He knew his feelings were real enough, but Victoria had made it clear too often that he couldn't compare with Zorro for him to believe in this sudden declaration.

"Diego," Alejandro interrupted, "I don't know what's going on. But I will not have you compromising Victoria's reputation. That was not an innocent kiss that I saw. You say you love her; she says she loves you. The banns will need to be read over the next three Sundays.  I doubt any love potion would last that long.  So we're going over to talk to Padre Benites right now."

"But, Don Alejandro, if Diego doesn't really want to marry me..." Victoria tried to say.

"He says he does, and since you're willing as well, I don't see any reason why we should delay matters more than necessary," Alejandro said firmly before softening slightly. "It's for the best under the circumstances, but I couldn't be happier to have you join the family."

Victoria closed her mouth and looked at Diego with a mildly inquiring expression.  Diego smiled wryly, knowing any further protests were useless.  His father was right about one thing.  It was unlikely any potion could last a month, but even if it were possible, he should find the solution well before then.  He hoped.

Right now he had the nightmarish vision of Victoria demanding an annulment on the grounds of either coercion or the inability to properly give consent.  And then there was the whole question of Zorro.  What could he do about that?  The danger still existed; the reasons why he'd never dared to court her as himself still existed.  He could only see disaster coming from this, if he could even dream of trying to get back to the former status quo.

He didn't have time to consider further as his father took his arm and practically dragged him from the kitchen. Victoria followed them, looking more content than she had a right to.  Diego couldn't help but notice the alcalde had moved to sit near the kitchen, and from the smug smile on his face, he was positive that the man had heard every word spoken in the kitchen.  Diego could only thank whatever fates there were that he had managed not to blurt out anything incriminating.  But he longed to wipe that grin off his face with a punch.

However, that would have to wait.  Right now, his father had a firm grip on him, and there was nothing to do but go with him to the church and speak with Padre Benites who too didn't see anything wrong with Victoria's sudden declaration of feelings for him, especially since Diego couldn't deny that he wanted to marry her as well and had for some time.

Diego felt like he had tumbled into some strange faerie realm where all the normal rules had been upended, and he couldn't help but tell the truth about his feelings even when it was not in his best interests to do so.  However, he couldn't help but wonder at Padre Benites and his father so easily believing Victoria's declaration of love. Had he been the only one who'd noticed her general contempt for him when compared to Zorro's heroism?  Or were they all relieved to see her accept an ordinary man rather than pine away for a bandit? Or just eager to get him married?  Diego felt more befuddled than ever.

Victoria didn't help things by assuring the padre that she'd been fighting her feelings for some time, and that her sudden realization wasn't as sudden as Diego knew it had to be.  She seemed happy though irritated with him.  Honestly, how could anyone believe this was a rational choice when they couldn't even stop fighting about it? But his father seemed pleased though annoyed with his reluctance.  The worst seemed to be Padre Benites, who despite it all was agreeable about publishing the banns and willing to marry the two of them in a month's time.

After everything was settled, Alejandro wanted to return to the tavern to celebrate, but Diego wanted to talk to the padre alone for a few minutes.  He hoped that somehow he could get someone other than himself to see sense about this.

Reluctantly agreeing to leave with Alejandro, Victoria said, "Diego, no matter how sudden this seems, it's not.  I do love you, and I think I have for some time."

Sighing, he said, "I wish it were true."

"It is," she insisted.  "And I expect you back at the tavern when you're done."

Acquiescing, Diego then went to sit on a bench while the padre sat beside him.

"What is it that troubles you, my son?"

Diego couldn't help it.  "Am I the only one that finds this impossible to believe?  I know that under normal circumstances, I'm close to the last man Victoria would consider marrying. She can't possibly be in her right mind.  Surely, you don't believe she's really capable of giving consent at this moment."

Padre Benites sighed.  "I'm marrying the two of you in a month not today.  You both have time to change your minds, but I do believe that you are both sincere and capable of understanding and consenting to marriage, no matter how sudden or strange the circumstances.  I also think you think too little of yourself.  And perhaps, you too have been a little blind when it comes to Señorita Escalante."  As Diego remained silent, the priest, added, "Why is it only her feelings you disbelieve?  You shared the same drink, yet you aren't worried about your own declarations of a love that you've apparently taken great pains to hide. Why is that?"

Diego had a hard time looking at the priest.  How could he answer that, yet somehow he had to try to make him understand.  "I've known I loved her for some time, but how could I say anything when everyone knows Zorro's the man she cares about, and I'm just her clumsy friend."

"So Zorro has kept you silent," the priest said.  "Fear and doubt about how she might react, has also kept you silent."

Diego couldn't help but agree but the way the man phrased it suddenly made him very nervous. It sounded like Padre Benites understood more than Diego wanted him to.  This was getting worse all the time.

As Diego remained silent, Padre Benites asked another question.  "Have you considered that her feelings for Zorro are the ones that are based on fantasy rather than the ones she feels for you?"

"What?" Diego asked, surprised.  If nothing else, he believed in her feelings for Zorro even if he doubted they would ever extend to him, especially if she found out he'd been deceiving her for so long.

Sighing again, Benites said, "Zorro is a brave man, noble, adventurous, fighting for justice, as well as courteous, but he's gone almost as quickly as he arrives.  Unless he is less of a gentleman than he seems to be, Señorita Escalante has at most spent a few minutes at a time with him.  She can know very little of the man.  Love is more than a passing flirtation or even an admiration of virtues.  She has spent far more time with you than with Zorro, and I've seen the two of you together. Though you seem to have overlooked it, her attention to you has always rivaled her attention to Zorro."

Diego hadn't thought about things that way.  It was true that he hadn't had much time with her as Zorro, but he hadn't really thought about what it might mean as he did spend a lot of time with her as himself.  They were friends, but he'd heard her talk about Zorro too often to readily believe that her feelings for his alter ego were not real.  "I hadn't considered that."

"You should," Padre Benites said.  "You have always been very important to Señorita Escalante.  You may feel the frustration she's shown towards you is an indication of indifference, but if she really were indifferent, she wouldn't care that you weren't living up to her expectations."

"But still, this is too sudden," Diego said.  It hadn't been that long ago when she'd been criticizing his ineffectiveness to Zorro.  Victoria's feelings couldn't switch that quickly.

"That doesn't mean it's not real," Padre Benites said.  "Perhaps all the two of you needed was an excuse to say what was in your hearts.  Don't be so quick to dismiss her feelings as being less real than your own."  Padre Benites was watching him closely.  "I think you should look on this as more of a blessing than a curse, and well, you have a month to discover if it's the illusion you want to think it is or the truth it could be."

Diego bowed his head; he still knew there were difficulties above and beyond his certainty that Victoria couldn't love him, but he couldn't say that, even if it seemed the priest suspected what those difficulties were.  However, he knew there was no other argument he could make for the time being, so with a resigned sigh, he said, "I will try."

"That is all I ask," the priest said.  "This isn't as bad as you insist on believing it is."

~Z~Z~Z~

Still trying to figure out how to extract both himself and Victoria from the mess Ramone had gotten them into, Diego entered the tavern hesitantly and regretted it as the alcalde slid up to him, the smirk on his face even larger than usual if possible.

"It looks like congratulations are in order, Don Diego," he said.  "Or is it condolences?"

Using every ounce of will power to not knock the man down, Diego said through barely clenched teeth, "Alcalde, I think you might need some condolences once Zorro finds out what you've done."

"Oh, but I rather suspect he might be more interested in the man who's now going to be marrying Señorita Escalante," Ramone said with an oily smile.

Diego forced a smile to his face and a mild tone to his voice.  "But, Alcalde, I can't help but believe that Zorro would feel it beneath him to attack a defenseless man like me, whose only crime is having loved the señorita silently until now.  However, I don't think he would have any difficulty taking his wrath out on you.  After all, you're the one who played matchmaker."

"By mistake," Ramone said.

"Do you think he'll believe that?" Diego retorted, starting to have fun as Ramone's smirk began to vanish.  He didn't even mind that he couldn't hide his feelings for Victoria.  "That on my own I'd have ever been so bold as to declare my love for her?  You probably should have thought this through a bit better."  Diego's smile grew more genuine as Ramone's faltered.  Patting him patronizingly on the shoulder, he continued, "Don't worry, Alcalde.  Zorro does seem to be a man of honor; he probably won't take this all that badly.  But then again..."  He let his words trail off significantly.

Ramone looked thoroughly anxious now but in an effort to get in the last word, said, "Much as I'm enjoying this chat, Don Diego, I do have duties." His smirk was back in place, though it appeared forced. "I must say that this may all be worthwhile to see a pacifist marry a termagant.  I don't think you'll have a peaceful day."

He turned and walked out the door before Diego could say a word which was probably for the best, as his temper was getting the best of him— again. Before he could do anything, Victoria was there, throwing her arms around his neck. He caught her and held her gently for a moment, letting himself enjoy the embrace before releasing her.

"I heard that," she said, smiling at him in a way that both warmed him and caused him pain, since he still didn't know how long it would be before she came to her senses.  "I thought he was about to choke, pompous idiot.  He deserves to worry, even if he's the reason we're happy."

Diego looked at her.  "Aren't you concerned with how Zorro will react to the news?"

At the mention of the name, Victoria frowned slightly, but took hold of Diego's hand before she answered.  "No, not really," she said.  "To be honest, I think he'll be relieved to hear it."

"Relieved?" Diego exclaimed.  He didn't expect that.  "Why do you think that?"

Victoria looked surprised  for a moment as she tightened her grip on his hand.  "Oh, that's right, you were at home with your sore ankle.  It's just that after Zorro took care of Thackery, before the alcalde reneged his offered pardon, he seemed to have forgotten his promise to me, and in fact, he even seemed relieved that the alcalde wasn't going to keep his side of the bargain.  So I don't think this is going to cause him much pain."

"You don't really believe that, do you?" Diego asked, suppressing a groan as he recalled that conversation.  He hadn't really meant her to take it that way, but he'd already realized that there was no way that Ramone was going to keep his bargain.  Would his attempts at teasing always end up backfiring on him?

"I don't know what to think," Victoria said.  "But I'm sure Zorro will be fine, though I do like seeing our alcalde worried.  He deserves that."  She smiled up at Diego.  "I think our future's more important, if you're willing to believe me when I tell you how I feel."

Still doubtful but not in the mood for another argument, at least not until he'd thought of a way to fix this, Diego kissed her hand and before he had a chance to say anything else his father came over to drag them into his celebration of their engagement.

~to be continued~

Chapter Text

During his father's celebration at the tavern, Diego had managed to pour the remnants of his earlier drink into the love potion vial and bring it home.  He had to plead utter exhaustion to get away from his father, and during the quiet of siesta he sneaked down to the cave to try to analyze this particular concoction which is where Felipe found him some time later.  The younger man had heard the news from Don Alejandro and was bursting with questions that Diego tried answering.

"Yes, Victoria and I are engaged," he said, "and no, I'm not entirely sure how it happened." He looked at the glass tube in front of him and took another note, while Felipe was more insistent.  "You remember how I told you about the strength potion and Mendoza and how the alcalde confiscated the box."

Felipe nodded.

"Apparently the alcalde's brilliant idea was to test the love potion on Victoria and me for reasons I can't fathom (maybe he was hoping for a Shakespearean tragedy with Zorro stabbing Victoria, me, and then himself— I don't know), and now she thinks she's in love with me, and for some reason I told her I loved her, and then father came in when she kissed me, and now we're engaged...." He stopped for a moment as his own words sank in.  "All right, then I know how it happened, but I don't know why."  He sighed as he translated Felipe's next question.  "Of course, I want to marry her but not like this.... What do you mean why not?  She's not in her right mind."

Felipe pointed at him and then at his own head.

"I don't know that I'm in my right mind either; otherwise I never would have told her the truth about how I felt.  It's too dangerous, and she's always been interested in Zorro not me."

The younger man shook his head vigorously.

"You don't think it's too dangerous?" Diego asked incredulously.

Felipe nodded but then made the sign for Victoria and pointed at Diego.

"Wait; you think she's interested in me too?" he asked.  First Padre Benites and now Felipe.  What were they seeing that he wasn't?

Nodding again, Felipe signed that Victoria had always seemed jealous of other women interested in Diego and that she worried about him.  He asked why he was afraid to take the chance.

At least with Felipe he could actually state the problem aloud. "You know it's too dangerous while I ride as Zorro.  I don't want to put her in danger."

Felipe ran his hands through his hair in frustration, signing that she was already in danger and when did he think it would be safe?  When they were both old? There seemed to be no end for Zorro.

Diego sat down at his desk.  "I know you're right about that, but how can I ask her to share the secret I won't even tell my father? And she'd have to know." He looked at Felipe.  "It would be impossible to hide from a wife; she'd have far more reason to wonder where I was going than my father." He leaned his head in his hands.  "And despite what everyone keeps telling me, I find it hard to believe that she wants to marry me."

Felipe gestured at him with a Z.

"You think Zorro should find out?  I suppose..." Diego said thoughtfully.  "I'd also like to get the rest of Dr. Wayne's potions out of the alcalde's clutches.  Yes, I think it might be a good idea for Zorro to ride this evening.  Thank you, Felipe."

~Z~Z~Z~

Zorro was perched in the high window of the kitchen as Victoria finished locking up the tavern. To his relief, the intoxicated feeling from earlier in the day had passed, leaving only a slight headache and an increased urge to knock Ramone senseless. He hoped that if it had worn off of him, it had worn off on her, so they could have a truly sensible conversation.  However, as he waited, he wasn't sure this was the wisest procedure despite his earlier conversation with Felipe.  Was it really a good idea to appear to her as Zorro just now?

Deciding that it was too late to back out now, he dropped into the kitchen quietly, hoping he wouldn't startle her too much.  As he stood in the middle of the room, he was having difficulty deciding how to behave, torn between his doubts about her feelings and the realization that no matter how she really felt there could be no future with Zorro.  It would definitely not be right for him to press his attentions on her as a masked man, not even to prove that he hadn't forgotten his promise or that she wasn't interested in Diego.

When Victoria entered the kitchen, the first thing he noticed was that her eyes were red as if she'd been crying, and the second was that she didn't look surprised at all, as if she'd expected him to be there.  He hated seeing her look so upset, but perhaps that meant that she'd recovered her senses.  If that was so, his father would simply have to accept that it was a temporary insanity on both their parts.  He had no intention of letting her get pressured into marrying him because of something the alcalde had done. And maybe with some luck they could salvage their friendship by pretending that none of this had ever happened, though there's no way he would ever be able to forget kissing her— that would be burned into his memory forever. 

Realizing that she was waiting for him to speak, Zorro pulled himself together and said politely, "Buenas noches, Señorita." He stood still, not moving towards her though he desperately wanted to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right.

"Señor Zorro," she said in a slightly trembling voice.  "I suppose you've heard the news about my engagement to Don Diego."

"It would have been almost impossible not to, Señorita," he said. "It seems to have shocked the pueblo...." Pausing a moment as he watched her face which seemed distressingly blank despite the signs of tears, he continued, "I've also heard that the alcalde was responsible for it."

Victoria flushed slightly, and she looked down.  Zorro took the chance to step a little closer to her though he kept his hands loosely at his sides.

After what seemed like an eternity, Victoria looked up and said, "I suppose he was, though not in the way you seem to think."

"I don't understand," Zorro said.

Victoria kept her eyes fixed on his, and he had the terrifying impression that she was looking past the mask to see him.  However, when she spoke, she gave no indication that she saw him as anything other than Zorro.  "I don't know how to tell you this," she said softly.

"What, Señorita?" he prompted.  Maybe he should have come back as Diego; it would probably have been easier for her to explain what a mistake it all had been.  On the other hand, ironically it would be far more scandalous if he had stayed after closing as himself.

She was very hesitant when she started. "I'm not sure how to explain this.  It's been so confusing...." She paused for a long moment, her brow furrowed.  "Though I've tried to ignore the possibility... and hope for a future for us, I've been forced to see that your crusade for justice may never end and that you may never unmask.  I'm not sure you even want to unmask."

"No..." he tried saying before she interrupted.

"It's all right," she said, not in a tone of regret but as if to reassure him.  "I understand that it might never even be safe, but I want a chance for a family, and Diego..."

"What about Diego?" he asked more harshly than he meant to.  Was she saying that she was taking advantage of an opportunity to get a wealthy husband or to get back at him for not making a commitment?  No, Victoria wasn't mercenary or vindictive (temperamental but not vindictive).  However, maybe she wanted a family badly enough that she didn't care if it meant marrying Diego.  That didn't seem any better.  He was still confused.

Victoria eyes fell away from him then, not hiding a sudden pained look. "He's always been there for me, even when you couldn't," she said slowly, her hands twisting the folds of her skirt.  "Not that long ago, when those pirates raided Los Angeles and kidnaped a group of us, he followed them at the risk of his own life, without even a sword, just able to leave a trail of buttons, and even though he got caught, somehow I felt safer with him there.  And he got into a duel with Sir Miles Thackery because he was trying to defend me...."

"You've never given a sign of caring about him before," Zorro interrupted.

"How can you be sure?" Victoria asked softly, her eyes drifting back to him.  "Besides what would have been the point?  He's a caballero.  The kindest, gentlest, most compassionate man I know, but still a caballero, and I'm just a tavern owner."

"Do you think that makes a difference to him?" He was getting thoroughly confused; surely she didn't think that class mattered to him or his father for that matter.

"I'm not sure. He's always been my friend, but at times it's hard to know what he's thinking or feeling," Victoria said.  "He's always been a bit of a mystery to me."

"Mystery?"  He hardly thought his unmasked self fit the term.

"Yes," she said with a trace of a smile.  "Not exactly like you, but in his own way he's unpredictable and so contradictory that sometimes I think I know him well and other times I don't think I know him at all."

Zorro wasn't sure what to make of that, but he was more interested in what she said earlier.  "Señorita, what did you mean about the alcalde not being responsible for this situation in the way I'd think?"

Victoria turned away and walked over to the kitchen curtain.  "When I found out he'd put a love potion in our drinks, I was horrified— not at the thought of falling in love with Diego but at the thought of him being forced to fall in love with me.  I don't know what was really in that potion (there must have been something more than water), as I felt odd and light-headed, and then when Diego came into the kitchen, it suddenly seemed the most natural thing in the world to tell him how I felt about him, all those feelings I'd been pretending didn't exist because he was as impossible in his way as you are in yours.  It just seemed simpler when he told me that he'd loved me for a long time. It made me think that all that drink did was make us say what we really felt.  But he wouldn't believe that I was telling the truth, and then he was practically trapped into the engagement by his father, and that was my fault because I kissed him.  He didn't... Maybe for him it was the potion after all, and that's why he wouldn't believe me because deep down he knew what he was saying wasn't true."

The world seemed to be tilting around him.  That Victoria had been thinking much the same as he had was almost too much to comprehend. And she wasn't solely to blame for the kiss.  He certainly could have broken it off before his father had come in. "Is that why you've been crying?" he asked gently, taking another step forward.

She nodded.  "Earlier, I thought he was being stubborn only because he didn't believe me, but now... well, I'm not going to force him into anything he doesn't want.  No matter what his father says, my reputation isn't worth the price of making him miserable.  After all, I'm to blame, not him.  He tried to stay sensible; I didn't.  I know I should have, but..."  She trailed off, looking more unhappy than before.

He was having a hard time taking all this in.  That Victoria had really meant what she'd said.  He had to make certain he understood. "Are you telling me that you are in love with Diego de la Vega and want to marry him?"

Victoria glanced at him.  "Yes, I am and I do, but not enough to let him be dragged into a marriage he doesn't want," she said looking near tears again.  "And I'm not sure what to do, what he wants to do."

Hearing the pain in her voice, Diego knew he didn't want to lie to her anymore, didn't want to let her think he didn't care when he did, but he had to ask this question. "What if, somehow, there were hidden dangers involved in a relationship with him?"

Leaning back against the side of the doorway, Victoria looked up at him. "My mother was shot for aiding a revolutionary.  My father died fighting in Mexico. I run a tavern on my own. Every day, our alcalde threatens our freedom and our lives.  I wasn't meant for a safe life, and I'd rather take my chances living with the man I love than die alone regretting the missed opportunities." Victoria stopped and sighed.  "But it's not really my decision, is it?  It's his.  He needs to want this as much as I do, to believe that in spite of danger and uncertainty that it's worth the risks."  Then she looked him directly in the eyes.  "Did you really mean it when you said you loved me... Diego?"

He froze the moment she said his name, but she was right.  There were no promises of safety in life.  A lancer could get off a lucky shot tomorrow; an accident or illness could take her away from him.  He didn't really want to pretend that things were the way they had been, and he was tired of putting off his feelings for her. He wanted them to have a chance.  Taking off his hat, he set it on the table before pushing the mask off his head.

"How long have you known?" he asked, as he stepped closer to her.

"I had a vague suspicion this afternoon, though I don't know why.  It was only while we were talking now that I knew for certain," she said, moving closer on her own.  "Your face can be very expressive.  I'm amazed I was ever fooled at all." She looked in his eyes. "I do love you, Diego, both sides of you.  It's just that you could be so exasperating that I could never be sure of either of you.  I'm sorry I fought with you earlier.  I don't blame you for not believing me; I must have sounded a little crazy." She shrugged.  "Maybe I was a little crazy, but I wasn't lying."

Diego shook his head, still trying to absorb everything.  They definitely both had been a little off their heads, but he hadn't been lying either.  "I meant every word I said to you, but it seemed impossible that you could feel the same.  I'd been acting so long," he said, tentatively putting his arms around her, relieved when she slid her arms up around his neck to return his embrace.  "I never meant to deceive you, Victoria.  In the beginning, everything seemed to escalate so quickly with the alcalde— and you— and before I knew it I was trapped by the disguise. But I do love you," he tightened his arms around her, "and more than anything, I want to marry you, if you really do want to marry me, of course."

Victoria's face brightened with relief. "Of course, I do," she said, a slight teasing tone entering her voice.  "I feel like I've been trying to tell you that all day."

He leaned down to place a gentle kiss on her lips, but it didn't stay gentle for long.  When they finally pulled apart, they were both having trouble controlling their breathing.

Diego smiled at Victoria, as he held her in his arms.  "I think it's a very good thing we're getting married in a month."

Victoria nodded slightly as she leaned against him. "All thanks to our alcalde— and your father.  After all this morning's mess, nobody is going to think this at all suspicious.  Sudden and strange, but not suspicious."

It seemed amazing to Diego that something that only hours ago he'd looked at as utter disaster was now the answer to all their problems.  However... there was one thing he still needed to do. "Yes, I should thank Ramone," Diego said, with a sly smile.

"Diego... what are you planning?" Victoria asked, looking worried.

"Well, Zorro has just lost you because of the man's plotting.  Don't you think he should be a bit cross?  Besides, I don't want to leave Dr. Wayne's potions in Ramone's hands.  They might not be as effective as claimed, but they certainly aren't entirely harmless." He kissed her forehead. "Not that I'm ungrateful for the results."

"That's true," she said, watching as he put his mask and hat back on.  "You will be careful, won't you?"

"Of course," he said, with a cheeky grin and a quick kiss.  "After all, I've a wedding to look forward to."  And with a final salute, Zorro climbed up and out of the tavern.

~Z~Z~Z~

It was a simple enough matter to slip into the alcalde's office and open the safe.  He'd have thought that Ramone would have tried harder to secure it by now, but the man seemed not to learn from his mistakes.  For instance, Zorro knew full well that the man was awake and waiting for this visit, and yet he made it so easy in the vain hope that the masked man would drop his guard.  Zorro took out the box of potions and wrapped it securely in a heavy cloth before putting it in the pouch he'd brought specifically for that purpose.

Making sure the doors out of the office were securely locked to prevent interruptions, Zorro set the box on the desk and drew his sword.  Approaching the door to the bedroom, Zorro leaned closer to listen.  Satisfied that Ramone was near the door, he scratched at the bottom with his sword for a moment then stopped and scratched again.  When he saw the door knob move slightly, he kicked it in, hitting the alcalde, knocking him back causing him to drop the pistol he had at the ready.

Giving into the impulse he'd been harboring all day, Zorro punched Ramone squarely in the face, sending him backwards onto the floor.  Zorro had his sword at his throat before he could move again.

"Now, now, Alcalde, is that how you treat an expected guest?" he asked, as he pressed the blade in ever so slightly, not enough to pierce the skin as long as Ramone didn't try to move.  "I know you were waiting for me."

"Zorro, I don't know what you were told, but this isn't my fault," Ramone choked out.

"Oh, I'd say it was very much your fault," Zorro said softly, moving the blade a little higher.  "If you'd been a just alcalde, I wouldn't be wearing a mask.  And if I hadn't started wearing the mask, I might have been able to gain Señorita Escalante's love.  And now thanks to a love potion you administered, she's going to marry Diego de la Vega.  Oh, yes, alcalde, I'd say that's very much your fault."

Ramone's voice was hoarse, as he tried to talk. "But he's the one marrying her."

"Yes, and she's the one marrying him.  I have no intention of standing in the way of Señorita Escalante's happiness. She certainly deserves something better than a man with a price on his head," he said, before lowering his voice to a more threatening tone. "But mark me well, alcalde, I'm a man who's nearly reached the limit of his patience, and from now on, when I put on this mask I have absolutely nothing to look forward to other than thwarting your schemes."  He moved the blade in front of Ramone's eyes.  "I'd like you to think about that. And don't think a broken heart will make me careless.  It simply sharpens the blade.  Good night, alcalde." Zorro hit him again, knocking him out.

Going to the desk, he picked up the bag with the potions and slipped out the window.  Whistling for Toronado, he was soon riding from the pueblo, fast outstripping the lancers who'd come running at the sound.

~Z~Z~Z~

When he and Toronado returned to the cave, Diego wasn't really surprised to see Felipe still waiting up for him, wanting to know what happened

"I'll tell you in a minute," he said, taking the potion box out of the pouch and putting it on his lab table before starting to change.

Felipe started untacking Toronado, while he finished changing.

Diego glanced in the box before going over to Felipe who prompted him with one hand.

"All right," Diego said.  "It's simple enough.  You were right; she meant what she said, and since I meant what I said..."

Felipe pointed at him and signed a Z in the air.

"No," Diego said with a soft laugh.  "She told me." At Felipe's questioning look, he added, "She figured it out on her own, while we were talking.  I never thought that would be a relief, but it was.  And since Father has already set a date for our wedding we're going through with it, and I couldn't be happier."

Felipe pointed at the box on the table and made the sign for Ramone.

"Oh, yes, I also paid a visit to our esteemed alcalde to let him know that he's the only one I blame in this.  I wouldn't want him to get the idea that I plan to challenge... myself," he smiled a little wryly, "for Victoria's affections.  I don't want him looking that closely.  Hopefully he'll be too worried about what a rejected Zorro plans to do to him." He looked at Felipe.  "I can only thank the Lord that our alcalde is not nearly as clever or perceptive as he thinks he is."  He sighed.  "I just wish he wasn't such a blight despite that."

Felipe shrugged a little.

"True, we'll go on fighting, and maybe someday soon we'll be able to rid ourselves of him," Diego said.  "At least Victoria and I won't have to wait for that elusive someday to start a life together— and all because of Ramone's plotting.  I suppose I do owe him a small debt of gratitude." Diego paused and snickered at Felipe's next question. "No," he said firmly. "I have no intention of asking him to be my best man. That grateful, I'm not."

Diego nodded at the slashing motion Felipe made. "Good idea. Maybe, I won't cut a Z in his coat the next time I see him. After all, he'll probably be a guest at our wedding, and I should want him to look presentable."

~to be continued~

Chapter Text

The next month passed swiftly, as the preparations for the wedding went forward in full force.  Mendoza had agreed to be Diego's best man, even if Victoria had been irritated with how much food he'd eaten the week after the engagement, though she acknowledged it was her own fault for making the offer in the first place. His father was happy that his son now seemed to be looking forward to the wedding instead of fighting it but frustrated that the speed of the ceremony meant he couldn't invite every member of the family to come celebrate it.  Diego couldn't resist pointing out his father was the one who'd set the date to begin with.

Diego could even deal with the general teasing that it took the alcalde getting him drunk to confess his feelings for Victoria and his father to keep him from retracting that confession.  Apparently, that duel with Thackery had been responsible for a lot of people thinking he had more than platonic feelings for Victoria, feelings he was too afraid to admit until that very strange day. He didn't mind the teasing or the speculation at all, because it emphasized the difference between him and Zorro, while still allowing him to openly show his feelings for her.  In the end all he wanted was to be married to Victoria without unnecessary danger; everything else was unimportant.

He hadn't had to ride as Zorro much either, and the first time he did he'd made it a point to politely congratulate Victoria on her engagement.  Aside from Ramone, he didn't particularly want anyone else thinking that he was nursing a grudge against either Victoria or his unmasked self.  The alcalde had apparently decided to test Zorro's resolve with rigged scales in the marketplace (which was easily handled), followed by trying to discover the location of the cave by hiring a famed Indian tracker, Gray Wing.  The latter challenge he'd managed more by luck and the honor of Gray Wing, whose disgust with the alcalde caused him to walk away from the job. 

By the time it was over, Zorro had actually managed to resist cutting a Z in Ramone's clothes but not into his desk.  After all, the man deserved something to remember not to misbehave; besides, the desk could use a good refinishing.  For the rest of the month Ramone was rather subdued, not going out of his way to do anything particularly malicious other than making more than a few snide comments about the forthcoming nuptials, which Diego ignored with a bland smile.

The only other incident of note had been a bit of trouble caused by some American gambler named Bishop who when caught cheating at cards tried to shoot the man who accused him. However, between Victoria's new manager (a wiry and wily old seaman who'd come to Los Angeles to live with his married daughter but found himself more at home at the tavern than a farm) and Zorro's intervention shortly afterwards, Bishop decided Los Angeles wasn't the place for him and left without making further trouble.

The last week before the wedding was quiet for Zorro but harrowing for Diego as all the final preparations were made. So much of his life was spent anticipating disaster, he had a hard time believing that this was going to end well.  He hardly saw his bride to be as she seemed to have one difficulty after another with her wedding gown and packing up her possessions, while his father had him running errand after ridiculous errand that kept him from even offering his help with the moving.  And every night that week, he'd wake up from nightmares where Victoria kept finding different and more humiliating ways to refuse to marry him. One of the worst involved her reading out a long list of men she'd be willing to marry before him, including Mendoza, Dr. Wayne, and even Luis Ramone.

But the wedding day dawned brightly with everything finally in place, and sooner than he thought possible, he and Victoria were bound together in holy matrimony.  She had never looked more beautiful, and he had never been happier than when the padre pronounced them husband and wife.

The celebration at the tavern was in full swing when Ramone finally decided to pay his respects to the bride and groom.  Diego had noticed him glowering around the edges of the wedding and the party afterwards.  Before the wedding, he'd even wondered whether the man was going to show up at all, but he should have known that the alcalde wouldn't be able to resist attending the biggest social event in the pueblo.

"Alcalde," Victoria said in a syrupy sweet voice, "we're so glad you were able to attend. After all, without you, I might never have discovered Diego loved me or realized that I loved him."

"Yes," Diego said with a grin.  "Without your kind interference this day would never have been possible.  I don't know how to express my gratitude to you."

Ramone had a forced smile.  "You could express it in your newspaper."

"When it doesn't interfere with the publication of the truth," Diego said, evenly, "I certainly will."

"And I wish you all the happiness that two such different tempers is likely to bring," Ramone said with thinly veiled contempt.

"Gracias," Diego replied, pretending he didn't understand the underlying meaning.  "I believe we complement one another perfectly." He looked down at Victoria with an adoring smile.  "She's so passionate..."

"And he's so patient," Victoria added, looking up at Diego just as warmly.  "A wonderful quality in a husband." She glanced back at the alcalde.  "I'm so grateful to you, that I hope someday you get the happiness that you deserve."

Diego was impressed that she could say the last with all apparent sincerity.  Over the last month, he'd discovered she was quite the actress.  As the alcalde left them with a nauseated expression on his face, they both tried not to laugh.

~Z~Z~Z~

To the two of them it seemed forever before they were able to slip away from the festivities to return to the hacienda for some much desired solitude.  Victoria laughed as Diego insisted on carrying her through the house to the room that was now their own.  Once the door was firmly shut behind them, Diego let her down.   For a moment they simply looked at each other.  Then, Diego reached down to gently cup Victoria's cheek in his hand, his fingers sliding into her hair.

"It's hard to believe this is actually real," he whispered.  "That we're married."

Victoria smiled and reached up to tug at the ends of his tie.  "Oh, it's real.  I'm sure of that. After all a priest wouldn't lie about such things," she said with a teasing smile, as she pulled the loosened tie from his neck and let it drop to the floor.

"No, I'm sure he wouldn't," Diego said, tracing a line from her neck to her shoulder with his other hand.  "But a month ago I wouldn't have believed that this was possible."

"I know," Victoria said with a smile. "You were very outspoken and positive about it— except for returning my kiss.  That didn't seem very much like denial at all."

"Well, I am only human, after all," Diego said.  "And Dr. Wayne's potion was a bit intoxicating."

"I don't think it was the potion," she said, kissing his neck.  "Not much at any rate."

"No," he murmured, knowing how much he'd wanted to kiss her before that day.  "I don't think it was either."

As he let his hands slide into Victoria's hair, Diego had a sudden realization. "You know, I never did figure out what Dr. Wayne put into that potion."

"I'm sure you will," Victoria said before pulling him into a passionate kiss. At length their lips parted. She slowly opened her eyes, looked up into his, and smiled. "Just not tonight."

The End