Author's note:  The worst days of Diego's life.  This alternative universe story is based on the episode "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" (Episode 2.09) written by Eugene Pressman.

Disclaimer: This story is an amateur, not-for-profit publication produced solely for the enjoyment of other Zorro fans and is not intended to infringe upon any rights by Goodman/Rosen Productions, New World Television, Zorro Productions, the estate of Johnston McCulley or anyone else.

"Otra Vez"

Day One

     On what would become one of the worst days of Diego's life, he woke up a little before noon.  He had been up most of the night reading a book entitled Phytologia, a very interesting tome on the philosophy of agriculture written by an Englishman, Eramus Darwin.  It had been one of many books that had been forwarded to him by Sir Edmond when the British knight had still been alive.  That practice was just one of many things that Diego was going to miss about his old friend who had been killed several months earlier that year.

     Pushing away his feelings of grief and guilt over his mentor's death, he instead thought about his habit of staying up late and sleeping until the afternoon, a habit which upset his father to no end.  But it was a necessary part of the masquerade that was Zorro.  Besides, he told himself defensively, it was a pattern to which he had grown accustomed over the years.

     "It's about time you got up," grumbled Don Alejandro as Diego ambled his way to the dining room about a half an hour later.  Then the old don broke into a big grin.  "You'll never believe it."

     Diego looked at his father expectantly.  "Never believe what?" he inquired lazily as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the urn that sat on the sideboard.

     "Your cousin Rafael is going to be a father!"  The elder de la Vega's eyes danced with excitement.  "Isn't that wonderful?"

     "Of course," Diego agreed.  His cousin had married the flighty Margarita after all, despite her falling in love with Zorro while the couple had visited Los Angeles.  And now they were going to have a child.  Diego gritted his teeth, bracing himself for what was going to come next.

     His father didn't disappoint.  "Diego, son," the old don began, "it's about time you settled down, found yourself a wife."  He stared expectantly at Diego.  "I want grandchildren!" he added emphatically.

     "I know, Father," replied Diego.  "Believe me, I know," he grumbled under his breath, before adding honestly in a louder voice, "I wish Rafael and Margarita all the happiness in the world.

     Don Alejandro eyed him curiously.  "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," he announced.  "I'll add your best wishes as well."

     "Gracias."  Diego sat down at the dining room table as his father left the room.  He shook his head.  He didn't want to marry just any woman, just so he could provide the old don with those much-desired grandchildren.  He loved Victoria.  But she loved Zorro and hadn't even spared him a second glance since the masked man had first appeared.

     He took a sip of his coffee, which was bitter and cold, as he contemplated his fate which was quickly tasting the same way.  A fate that was of his own making, he reminded himself .  No one had coerced him into becoming the guardian of Los Angeles.  He had assumed that mantle of his own volition.

     Diego set down his cup and pushed away from the table, suddenly losing his appetite.  It was time for Felipe's lessons anyway, he thought as he strode from the dining room.

     It was a few hours later when Diego rode into the pueblo.  It was an unseasonable warm day, he noted as he tied up his horse to the hitching rail in front of the tavern.  The heat explained why one of the tables on the porch was filled with men playing cards.  Scanning the men's faces, Diego recognized three of them as friends of his father; Don Carlos, Don Esteban, and Don Jose.

     The fourth man was one Diego had never seen before.  He must be the Americano that Felipe had told him about earlier that afternoon.  The man named Bishop who had come to Los Angeles a few days before and who had been aggressively enticing the pueblo's male citizens into games of chance.  Diego had thought it wise that he check out the itinerant gambler.

    "Buenas tardes, Diego," called out one of the men sitting at the table opposite the card game.

     "Hola, Don Sebastian," he replied, turning his attention to the older, balding man who was another of his father's good friends.  Diego sat down on the empty bench beside him and inclined his head toward the card players.  "How come you haven't joined them?"

    The older don shook his head.  "I'm not a gambling man," he said.  He glanced over at his trio of friends sitting with the gambler.  "Don Esteban and Don Jose can afford to lose a peso or two, but Don Carlos. . ."  He shook his head again.  "He's about to lose everything."

     "It's as bad as that?" queried Diego.  He had heard the rumors lately of the insolvency that surrounded Carlos de la Sandro.  His father had passed away five years earlier, leaving a modest sum of money as well as a prosperous rancho.  Don Carlos, whose wife had died before his father and before giving him a heir, had bled money from the estate, speculating on one bad business deal after another.

    The man's weakness for gambling hadn't helped either.  He would bet on anything - cards, horses, dogs, even the weather.  And he almost always lost, just winning often enough to keep his head above water.

      "Si, Diego," replied Don Sebastian.  "Don Carlos is nearly penniless.  The only way he can pay back what he owes is to sell off his land."

    "What a shame," Diego murmured.  After glancing over at the card players again, he turned his attention back to his book which he hadn't finished the previous night.  He was interrupted several times, however, by the welcome arrival of Victoria as she filled his glass of lemonade.

[most of the following taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]

     His quiet perusal was disturbed a short while later loud groans came from the opposite table.  "Gentlemen, the cards don't lie," said the newcomer Bishop.

     Diego looked over as Don Carlos leapt from his chair, staring at the cards on the table with something akin to horror in his eyes.  The other man then walked across the porch to the table where Diego now sat by himself.  Don Sebastian and the other two men, Don Arturo and Pedro Gonzalez, had left for their respective homes several hours earlier.

     Putting a finger in his book to mark his place, Diego glanced up at his father's friend.  "Don Carlos," he said in a cheerful voice.  "Lovely evening, isn't it?"

     "Not particularly," said Don Carlos sourly.  "It's too hot."

     Diego darted a glimpse at the other card players before asking, "How's your game going?"

     "Terrible," was the terse reply.  Don Carlos then sat down in the empty chair next to Diego.

     "The only man who wins at poker," Diego advised, knowing the message would probably fall on deaf ears, "is the one who doesn't play."

     Don Carlos turned and glared over his shoulder at the other table.  "I don't like being cheated," he announced in a strident tone.

     An expectant hush came over the men on the porch.  An accusation of cheating was a serious one, not something to be made lightly and never without proof.  Diego held his breath as Bishop stood up and sauntered up to loom menacingly over Don Carlos.

     "You have a big mouth, my friend," he declared pleasantly.  But everyone heard the underlying threat behind his words.

     Don Carlos jumped from his chair which slid noisily across the wooden planks.  A moment later, Mendoza and two other lancer emerged from the tavern.  Victoria hovered anxiously behind them.

     "What is the problem, señores?" the stout sergeant queried as he tugged on his uniform.

     "No man calls me a cheat and lives," answered Bishop, his eyes never leaving Don Carlos's pale face.

     "This is a peace-loving pueblo," Mendoza stated authoritatively. "You will act like gentlemen while you are here or you will go to jail for disturbing the peace."

     The Americano smiled insincerely. "Of course," he demurred sarcastically.  "I've forgotten my manners.  I've grown unused to such. . ."  His voice trailed off as he glanced over at Diego then down at the tome he still held in his hand before adding, "genteel surroundings."

     "That's more like it, Señor," said the sergeant, grinning as he believed he had diffused a dangerous situation.

     Bishop bowed with mock politeness toward Don Carlos.  "No hard feelings, friend," he said.  But as soon as the soldiers had turned their backs, he shook a piece of paper at the old don.  "I'll give you a week to pay this note," he warned ominously.  Then he spun around and walked back over to the side of the porch where Don Esteban and Don Jose sat with stunned expressions on their faces.

     No one paid much notice to Diego as he excused himself.  He knew, as did everyone else present, that nothing had been settled, despite Mendoza's interference.

     Less than an hour later, Zorro was lurking around the left side of the tavern, assessing the situation on the front porch.  Don Carlos was heavily in his cups and Victoria was persuading him to go home.  The card game was breaking up, the Americano clearly besting his two remaining opponents.

     The masked man peered around the corner as Bishop walked up to Don Carlos's table.  "You're a dead man," the gambler growled.

     Don Carlos sprang to his feet once again as Victoria glared angrily at his threatener.  "Haven't you caused enough trouble?" she asked crossly.  "Get out of here!"

     Bishop smirked condescendingly at her before returning his stare at the old don.  "No man calls me a cheat," he reiterated.

     Zorro had heard enough.  He appeared suddenly from his hiding place and stood on the porch.  "Suppose we just call you foolishly bad-tempered?" he drawled insolently.

     Bishop chuckled mirthlessly then drew a pistol, aiming it straight at the man in black's heart.  Zorro's whip cracked loudly as it knocked the weapon from the Americano's hand.  The gun fell harmlessly to the table as a staggered Bishop rubbed his stinging hand.

     The masked man moved forward, coiling up his whip. "Go home, Señor," he advised Don Carlos.  "And next time, don't play cards with strangers."

     The chastened don shuffled off toward his horse.  Zorro picked up the pistol, watching as the old man mounted his horse and riding out of the pueblo.  He then turned to look at Bishop.

     "A man who returns verbal insults with a bullet," he began, "is a most unwelcome addition to Los Angeles."  Not caring that the other man was furiously glaring at him, he continued, "Temper your anger, for next time I won't be so forgiving."

     Bishop shot him one last dirty look before stepping off the porch and ambling across the plaza.  Zorro reached out and took Victoria's right hand then led her to the edge of the porch's step.

     "I should see that Don Carlos makes his way home safely," he stated.  What he really wanted to do was to take her into his arms and kiss her lips until they were both senseless.  But instead he whistled sharply before bestowing a gentlemanly kiss upon her hand.

     He was about to swing up into the waiting Toronado's saddle when Victoria shouted, "Zorro, no!"  The masked man spun about as she grabbed his arm.  There was a strange sound, like a loud pop, then Victoria slumped against one of the porch's pillars.

     "Victoria!"  Zorro caught her before she hit the ground.  He stared in horror at the bright crimson stain that was quickly spreading over the white cotton of her blouse.

     "It was Bishop," she gasped out, breathing heavily.  "Ah!"

     He realized then that she had stepped in front of him, to protect him from the gambler's attack.  "Victoria, why?" he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

     She reached up her right hand and caressed the part of his face that wasn't covered by his mask.  "You are safe," she murmured as each word struggled across her lips, "and that's all that matters."

     Her hand abruptly fell away from his face as her eyes rolled backward.  Zorro ripped off the glove of his free hand and touched it to her neck.

     There was no pulse.

     Victoria was dead.
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     It was much later than night when Diego sat down at the desk in his room.  The preceding hours had been a nightmare for which he was unfortunately awake.  Thankfully his father had taken over making arrangements for the funeral.  He was going to have a difficult enough time attending the service, let alone participate in its planning.

     Diego pounded his clenched hand onto the wooden surface of his desk, barely acknowledging the pain that his action caused.  Victoria was dead.  The woman he loved, the woman he wanted to marry, the woman he wanted to be the mother of his children. . .was gone.  Gone because of his stupidity, his naivete that the irate gambler would just walk away and behave himself.

     He had let his love for her override his common sense.  And now he had volunteered in his throes of guilt to write to her brothers, informing them that their sister was dead.

     "‘Dear Francisco and Ramon,'" he muttered sarcastically as he picked up a quill, "‘Hope this letter finds you well.  Just dropping a line or two to let you know Victoria is dead, killed by my foolish arrogance.'"

     Tossing the white feather down in disgust, Diego buried his face in his hands and groaned in despair.  In his mind's eye, he relived the moment as he held Victoria in his arms, feeling the life force draining from her.  It was something that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

     The worst part had been leaving her inert body, entrusting it to Don Jose and Don Esteban as he made his escape.  The Alcalde and Sergeant Mendoza had emerged from the cuartel and had espied him, crouching in the dust with the lifeless Victoria in his grasp.  If it hadn't been for her last words, Zorro wouldn't have cared if Ramón's men had shot him.  But the fact that she had given her life to save his. . .  He just couldn't let her sacrifice to be for naught.  So it had been with great reluctance that he had whistled again for Toronado and had ridden away from the pueblo.

       His Victoria was now permanently out of his reach.  Now much more than a mask separated them.  And it was eating him up inside to know it was all his fault.  Bishop may have been the one who had physically murdered her, but he, Diego de la Vega, had caused her death.  He would have to live with that fact for the remainder of his life.

     Shudders of pain shook his body and he gave in to them, letting his grief overtake him as he rested his forehead on the desk top.  Then Diego de la Vega did something he hadn't done since his mother had died when he was twelve.

     He cried until he had no more tears left.
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