The Document

by Linda Bindner

It was a normal summer day in Los Angeles; hot already, even though it was only noon. Dust devils swirled in the wind that scoured through the plaza, children yelled happily in their game of tag played energetically around Padre Benitez, who tried to wend his way to the back of the mission where he planned to tie up his grape arbor again, and Sergeant Mendoza strolled leisurely from the tavern into the Alcalde's office, his red and blue uniform gleaming in the sunshine that washed the plaza into a hard bowl of clay. The only odd thing happening was an unknown man wearing an obscure uniform, riding an unfamiliar horse who burst into the plaza at a gallop, passing the de la Vegas as they rode under the weathered sign bearing the town's name and into the pueblo. The unknown soldier came to an abrupt halt from his gallop, spraying dust and debris everywhere, and disappeared into the cuartel.

Well, that's something new happening, commented Don Alejandro to his son and Felipe, who were riding their own horses at a respectable, controlled canter in the plaza to avoid any unwary children who might get underfoot. I wonder what he wants?

Diego shrugged towards his father. Maybe he's from the Territorial Governor. Whatever it is, we'll surely find out what he's doing in Los Angeles; Mendoza just went into the Alcalde's office. He grinned at Felipe, enjoying his own little joke, but secretly wondering if the man's mission was something nefarious. If so, then Zorro would have work to do that night.

The three men carefully crossed the dust in the plaza and tied up their horses in front of the tavern. Intent on eating lunch, they entered the public establishment and searched for an empty table. Victoria smiled at them and came around the green bar to take their order just as they stood near a suitable table. Diego pulled a bench out with his foot.

Victoria! Hola. Hot day, he said in greeting as the beautiful tavern owner met them at the chosen table.

It is hot outside. Can I get anything for you? A cool drink, perhaps? she asked pleasantly.

Even at just the sound of her voice, Diego longed to take her in his arms and never let go. The feeling was so strong, so sudden, barraging his insides so unexpectedly, that he had trouble hiding it, and some of the emotion leaked into his eyes before he managed to bury it deep in his mind. He was fairly certain that Victoria, always observant, saw the sudden love and desire in his eyes, but she chose not to say anything about it for the moment. Instead, she waited patiently while Don Alejandro mentioned their burning hunger for lunch, explaining their appearance in the pueblo, though it was hardly anything distinct; the de la Vegas often rode to the pueblo during the day.

The emotion continued to accost Diego while his father spoke to Victoria. He knew he would have to tell the seņorita of his secret identity soon, or risk exploding. Only fear of her reaction held him back, fear of her expected anger at the divulgence. Her temper was as well-known around the pueblo as Zorro's exploits were. Diego worried that once she knew his secret, knew that such an unassuming man as Diego was in reality the masked bandit, she wouldn't want to have anything more to do with him, and he was certain that he couldn't withstand that.

Understanding the strain Diego was putting himself through, Felipe sidled up to the man who had saved him from a battlefield during the August Revolution, lending his silent support as best he could. Alejandro was oblivious, of course, as he fortunately had his back to the whole affair while his attention was riveted to the object of his son's desires. One thing Diego didn't want to do was explain away his behavior to his father. At least Felipe knew of his tender attraction for Victoria, and Diego could count on his support in anything, as he was displaying right now.

But Diego's feelings were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Sergeant Mendoza as he skidded through the tavern's double front doors. Seņorita! Seņorita Escalante! You have to read this document! He ran over to them at the table, panting for breath in his haste.

Sergeant? What is it? Diego questioned, his apprehension and curiosity instantly evident on his face as his brows furrowed to his eyes. The previous burst of emotion was forgotten in the excitement.

The sergeant thrust the document at Victoria, who took it from his trembling fingers. You have to read this, said Mendoza.

Even Victoria was amazed at the sense of urgency in his voice. She didn't think she had ever seen the sergeant so agitated before. All right, I'll read it. Would you like a glass of water to help you calm down?

Mendoza sucked in air. No thank you. But you have to read it right now!

He was insistent, arousing Diego's curiosity and concern even further. Diego held the top half of the curled scroll and began reading while a surprised Victoria held the bottom half of the scroll and read also. Felipe and Don Alejandro crowded around them, but were unable to read as fast as Diego.

Diego announced the short contents of the scroll for those who couldn't read it yet. This is a document noting that Mexico has won their independence and that King Ferdinand has sold all of the California territory to a man named Iturbide, the president of Mexico. As of now, we're Mexican citizens and should abide by the laws of that country. His voice trailed off as he wondered what kind of effect this news would have on his father, who was loyal to Spain, but who had been living in California for decades. This kind of transition would have a much greater impact on the older caballero than on his son, who had really very little connection to Spain.

Diego glanced at the scroll in his hands once more. Wait, there's more here at the bottom. It says that... Suddenly, he stopped reading, and a free hand went to his mouth as he gasped in a breath of air. He looked at Felipe, who was looking back at him, the same incredulity mirrored on the young man's face. Oh my god, he whispered, awash in sudden emotion.

Diego! admonished Alejandro automatically.

But Diego wasn't listening. His son had dropped slowly to the bench behind him, his mouth hanging open in amazement, his sense of incredulity barely diminished as he lowered his head until it touched his hands. Then he did something that would have stunned even a complete stranger; he burst into tears.

Felipe was instantly concerned, sitting beside Diego and putting a comforting hand around his shoulders. But Diego's relief was so great that it couldn't be stopped by a single arm. All Felipe could really do was hand Diego his white linen handkerchief and hold on.

Diego! expostulated Alejandro, somewhat embarrassed by his son's obvious feelings. Victoria looked equally as surprised. He asked, What's wrong now?

Diego couldn't talk beyond saying, I'm sorry, Father, Victoria. Then he pointed at the scroll in Victoria's hand, hoping it would explain everything.

Trying to understand this abrupt and extreme outburst from his son, Alejandro took Diego's place beside Victoria, who was equally astonished by Diego's display of emotion, and held onto the top of the scroll as he read the rest of the words. It says here that this document should also be considered as... a pardon for Zorro, Alejandro finished in a quiet, stunned voice. A pardon!

Yes! said Sergeant Mendoza, pointing at the document still in the silver-haired caballero's hand. That's why I wanted the seņorita to read it so badly.

Alejandro said, But this still doesn't explain why Diego is so... overcome. Alejandro gestured towards his son. Diego was calming down from his barrage of tears, but that did nothing to mollify his father. Actually, Alejandro felt at his wits end to fully understand his heir and progeny. It's not like he's... Alejandro stopped short of what he was going to say as his face went white, the blood congealing. Then quite as clearly it fell to his toes. The older man sank onto the bench at the next table over. He didn't notice that the occupant of that bench quickly vacated it before the don had the chance to sink onto his lap. Oh my god, he whispered, echoing his son, the sentence still ringing in the suddenly silent tavern.

Victoria was as white as Alejandro. She couldn't stop staring at the man sitting at one of her tables, but she remained mute as she too fell onto a conveniently empty bench across from him. She only whispered, Dios mio, to her hands. The scroll fell unheeded to the scarred surface of the tabletop.

Thinking of the poems he had quoted or misquoted in the past, Diego swiped one last time at his right eye with the borrowed handkerchief, then whispered to both of them, though he aimed his words mostly to Victoria, I tried to tell you. I'm so sorry.

This public confession shocked and stunned both Alejandro and Victoria. Neither of them knew what to say. They were both too busy feeling astonished.

Diego suspected that this was the only time either of them had been speechless before. He smiled to himself as he set the handkerchief on the table, a white, soggy stain on the wooden surface. In his true, lower, voice he asked, Felipe, can you watch over my father for a moment? Victoria, can I please see you alone in your kitchen? There was nothing he wanted more after that very public announcement of his identity than to have a private fallout. Because there had to be some kind of a reaction to this news, or he didn't know the two people who were dearest to his heart. However, he knew them both well, and realized that this stunned silence wasn't going to last forever.

Somehow, Diego rose, then led the way to her kitchen. He didn't even look behind to see if Victoria was following. He was aware only of the sudden and intense pounding of his heart in his chest as it tried to beat a hole right through his skin. She followed more slowly, still stunned.

The second she parted the curtains and entered, she saw Diego standing in the center of her kitchen, next to the old chopping block, and she wondered how it felt to be so exposed all of a sudden. Usually Zorro... no, Diego, she reminded herself.., stayed to the side of the curtains, hiding in the shadows, making certain no one saw him. Now he didn't have to hide any longer. That thought made her draw in a sharp breath.

With that breath, he knew that the silence was ending. He whispered quickly, I'm sorry, Victoria. I should have told you years ago. I see that now, but I was too afraid to say anything.

Afraid? she asked in a squeaky, tinny voice that didn't sound like her own. Self-conscious, she cleared her throat.

Yes, Diego answered. You always were the only person I was afraid of.

Me? Her voice now held some sense of surprise, too, in its emptiness.

He smiled. Yes. You are the only person who can hurt me. So I was afraid, he explained. The tear stains had dried into salty tracks on his cheeks as they spoke. It all sounded so logical, so cold, Diego thought.

That's why you never told me of this before? You were afraid?

Diego sighed. I thought you would be angry at such knowledge. And there was a very real possibility of rejection.

Rejection... Victoria physically shook her head to clear it of the fog that had descended on it, and that helped to disperse some of the haze so she could think. And just as suddenly she knew that she wasn't angry, could never be angry at him for protecting her from the truth. Flashes jumped around in her mind, images, of Diego in her tavern every day, of Diego in a windmill where he quoted beautiful lines of poetry to her, of Zorro telling her that he couldn't remain in the pueblo for a quick visit because of the danger, of Zorro sneaking into her kitchen at night for a kiss that turned into so much more, of the emotion she had seen in Diego's eyes just that morning... The emotion she had seen in his eyes... Tell me one thing, she said, her voice only breaking a little. Was it real?

What? Diego was confused by her question.

Victoria repeated, Were your feelings real, or were they a sham, too? She wouldn't or couldn't look at him, as she continued to let the chopping block act as a barrier between the two.

Diego was a little amazed by her question. He thought his endearments had made his feelings abundantly clear to her, but even she had said it was always nicer to hear him say it, and he had never allowed himself to say the words to her, as an outlaw with a price on his head shouldn't be allowed. Now, however, he spoke the words out loud, and gladly. You have to believe me, Victoria, that I could never have lied about my emotions for you. I love you, and have since I returned from the University. He was amazed at how easy the words came to him now that it didn't matter.

Victoria listened to his pleading tone, and heard the words she had always wanted to hear, and it was like her friend had proposed a food fight in her best room; unthinkable, incredible. Still feeling somewhat vague and foggy, she did manage to grasp onto those three little words. You love me?

Diego looked like he was full of anguish, doubt, fear, hope, and love, several emotions all at once. Yes. Oh yes. I love you with every grain I have inside me.

Again she thought about the passion she had glimpsed in his eyes just that morning. But she had thought she was engaged to another man, and she couldn't afford to take note of what she considered the crush of her friend. Now she knew the two men were the same, a friend, a man of flesh and blood, and the black, mysterious hero who had protected her for years by withholding his identity. They were the same man... He loved her... Diego loved her...

Suddenly, as abrupt as the announcement from the document, she was barraged with sensation, with tingles, all for him. He had made sure to visit her every day, whether she knew of his true feelings or not. He had risked discovery at the Alcalde's hands, every day, where he would face jail or worse, just to see her. He couldn't even touch her, like he must have wanted to. Then, when he couldn't stand seeing her, but not touching, any longer, he would come to her as Zorro and kiss her senseless. She didn't think she had ever heard of such a strange courtship before. But it had been a courtship, of a sort, one that had left her either ignorant or full of tender feelings, depending on who she was with at the time. Yet it had been a courtship, and the engagement...

Was the engagement real, too? she asked after several heartbeats of quick thinking.

Again Diego couldn't follow her furious thoughts. The engagement?

A bit irritated now at his apparent inability to read her mind, she said, Yes, the engagement. Do you want your ring back, or did you ask me to marry you that day?

Diego made a carnal sound that came from the very back of his throat. It sounded like a groan. He whispered, Yes, that was real; I dream of marrying you. No, I don't want my ring back. Victoria, I know this is probably difficult for you to accep... He was cut off by the unexpected kiss she gave him, experimental and testing the until-now unknown waters of his love. But Diego didn't want to test any waters; he wanted to show the full intensity of his love, and he wanted to show it right now.

He deepened the kiss. Passion mushroomed instantly. He was immediately on fire, and his skin turned hot as a steadfast reaction to her closeness that he couldn't help if he wanted to. He traced kisses down her exposed neck to her shoulder, inhaling the scent of her hair and lacing his fingers through the curly strands as he held her tightly lest she disappear, letting him know that once again he had been dreaming.

Victoria's hands felt his chest audaciously through his shirt, frantic in her sudden desire to touch him everywhere, sensing muscles that she didn't know existed, but were apparent once she knew what to look for. Her hands crept around to his back, also running over the shirt there as she embraced him equally as tightly, also seemingly afraid he would disappear if given the opportunity. She didn't plan to give him that chance. Not this time.

The kiss ended, but the passion and love remained. Diego leaned his head down to her upturned face, resting his forehead on hers. He squeezed her hard, his fencing arms able to wrap firmly around her tiny frame, even when she stood on tiptoe to reach him. Their harsh breathing was the only sound in the kitchen besides the bubbling of the sauce she had simmering on the fire for lunch.

Diego was the first to recover from such a passionate kiss. Victoria, he said, his eyes closed as he hung onto her, as the feelings roiled inside of him, I love you with all my heart and want you to be my wife more than anything in the world. You have to believe that now.

I do. I do believe that. I love you. Have I said that yet?

In spite of his incredulity, Diego laughed softly. Not in the last thirty seconds. Then his laughter ended and a serious tone invaded his voice. His arms squeezed even harder. I'm not a swearing man - you know that - but, God, I love you, Victoria.

Then we shouldn't wait. We should talk to Padre Benitez right now.

Diego lifted his head to better see her. You're sure?

Victoria smiled coyly, the first flirtatious gesture she had ever given him, then whispered, Yes. I want our wedding to happen quickly. You have a promise to keep, Seņor. And if you think I'm going to let you out of it...

I would never think that. I don't want to think that.

Victoria laughed softly this time. She whispered, Then lead the way, Seņor Zorro.

Not Seņor Zorro. It's Diego de la Vega, he whispered back.

And I'll never forget that, she said with a kiss to his cheek. Then together, holding hands, they left the kitchen and the tavern, searching the pueblo for the priest.

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