The Eyes Never Lie

by Linda Bindner

Victoria glanced up at the light knock that sounded on the frame of her curtained doorway.

Hola, Victoria, said her tall, studious friend, Don Diego de la Vega. He stood uncertainly just inside the doorway, one hand still on the wooden frame. You said that you wanted to see me?

Yes. Victoria set down her knife on the chopping block in the center of her kitchen and dusted her hands together; the vegetables she was in the middle of cutting would have to wait. She pushed them smoothly into a mound of fresh onions and peppers and tomatoes that she'd bought only that morning at the Los Angeles Market. Ah, Diego, thank you for coming during siesta. I imagine you're giving up quite a nap to answer my questions and soothe my curiosity. Then she wiped the end of her fingers distractedly on the apron she was wearing and worked at the knot at her back that held it tied around her waist.

Diego swallowed, and his face grew pale for a second. His heartbeat, something he found difficult to control, quickened for just a split instant, pounding a pattern on his rib cage. How he wished it was his hands that wrapped around her waist and not the string of her apron. He blinked to shut out the incongruously erotic sight of Victoria doing an act as simple as removing her apron, then chided himself severely for having such amorous thoughts. The images of what he would like to do to her faded from his mind, but the fact that they were visible at all said something about the trap he was falling in to; those images would be back when he least expected them, that was one thing he could guarantee, perhaps the only thing. They were already coming too frequently for his level of comfort. Even now, his fingers itched and burned, yearning to touch her sweet skin... He balled his hands into fists and held them rigidly at his sides while gazing about him for something to distract himself with. He settled on the pile of fresh vegetables. It looks like you plan to make something good for supper, he said.

Still with only half her attention on the task she had been doing while waiting for him to arrive, Victoria looked to the pile she'd shoved to the side. Oh, yes, I'm making enchiladas tonight. The vegetables are for them.

Heartbeat under control once more, Diego sauntered the rest of the way into the kitchen and paused at the block in its center. Sounds wonderful. I wonder if it's too late to suggest the same thing to our cook at home.

I shouldn't think so. With a hesitant air, Victoria moved away from the block of wood resting in the middle of the one room she spent the most time in at the tavern. It also didn't escape her fleeting thoughts that it was the one room that Zorro had often felt safe enough in to visit her there in the past. That image stayed with her as she considered the point that she had settled on as the main reason why she had chosen the kitchen in the first place for the conversation she planned to now have; she, too felt a degree of safety there. That is, if she had enough courage to have such a conversation at all.

But Diego was speaking. I heard that you desired to see me this afternoon, and it all but ruined my morning as I tried my hardest to figure out your reason behind such a strange inquiry.

She looked shocked. I'm sorry, Don Diego, I didn't mean...

Diego smiled. It's all right, Victoria, I'm joking. A bad joke, I admit, but at least I tried. The truth is, I got a lot of work done on articles for The Guardian while I waited for siesta time.

That reminded her of the potential nap she was interrupting for him. You have my apologies again for wanting to see you during siesta, Diego, but I didn't want to be disturbed during our talk...

Once more, Diego interrupted, That's fine, you aren't breaking into any planned nap time. He reached passed her, purposefully brushing her hand in the process, and picked up a slice of red pepper. With an air of nonchalance that was completely feigned, he popped the vegetable into his waiting mouth, then wiped his wet fingers on the leg of his trousers. You saved me from an afternoon spent having to work on the newspaper, which means intense boredom and backbreaking stiffness from sitting for hours in my desk chair. Not that I don't like the paper, or the work it gives me, but on such a nice day, I prefer to be elsewhere, I think. Thank you for giving me the excuse to leave.

Victoria's look of thoughtfulness dissolved into a teasing smile at his flippant comment. You're welcome, Diego, but I have to admit that I didn't call you here to discuss the newspaper.

Chewing slowly, letting the flavor of the pepper burst like a small explosion in his mouth, Diego asked, Why did you call me here, then?

It was an innocent enough question, but the implications behind the conversation she wanted to have were colossal in their importance. She took a deep breath to steady herself and give her the courage to say, All right, the truth.

Diego gave another teasing look of caution. Careful, Seńorita, the truth can be an awfully frightening thing. He ought to know, as the truth had been his greatest enemy for years. But he couldn't tell her that. Thus he was taken completely off guard when she blurted her next question.

What do you think you are doing, Diego?

That stopped his hand bearing the second piece of red pepper from the pile of vegetables. He dropped the second red pepper back into the pile, and looked at her in inquiry while his heart started beating in double time again. What do you mean, Victoria? Even frightened by the suddenness of the topic of conversation, he relished the feel of her name on his lips. He couldn't help himself.

Victoria drew a second deep breath. I've seen you, Diego.

Seen what? Diego was again pretending indifference that he didn't feel.

Victoria's next words were wholly unexpected. I've seen you staring while you're in the tavern. The minute you come in, you start watching me through your eyelashes; I've seen you, she repeated in accusation. Her explanation over, she continued, What do you mean by it?

The allegation was unanticipated, so unexpected that he froze, his mind a mad scramble of explanations that he didn't think she would buy. So he tried to play dumb. Watching you? You must be mistaken, Victoria. I'm not watching you do anything that...

Please don't treat me like I don't know what's going on, she said, overriding his words. What do you mean? she asked again.

Diego sighed. I would never treat you like you don't know what's going on in your own tavern, Victoria, just...

Don't, she insisted. She looked skeptical, as if she didn't accept his protestations. Don't pretend like nothing's happening. I know what I've been seeing for months. Please, all I want is an explanation.

Diego paused in his protests for a moment, then stared at her, thinking. His shrewd look was a judgmental one, like none of his expressions had been so far. It was also more honest. An explanation? Such honesty may be more than you bargain for, Victoria.

Hand on hip, she regarded him just as shrewdly. So your admitting the truth, then? That something's going on?

I'm admitting nothing, Diego began a little coldly. He viewed her with distrust as his secret identity and all the possible repercussions of knowing that secret rose in his mind. Then, hearing his tone, the finality of it, the sense of distrust, he seemed to deflate. For just a second, he hated his secret for what it did to him, to her. Had he just been pushed into treating Victoria like she was an inconvenience? Like she meant nothing to him, instead of how she was his everything? How could he do that? Even maintaining his secret life wasn't worth such hurtful words. She deserved to know everything if anybody did.

Making his decision quickly, probably faster than such a decision deserved to be made, and hoping that Felipe would understand his reasoning behind such a decision and forgive him this one transgression, he slowly asked, What is it you wish to know?

Victoria stared at him, and it was as if she'd never taken the time to look at him before. Now, she noticed the smoothness of his cheeks, the darkness of his eyebrows, the blue of his eyes... Why had she never seen such things before? She was staring at a man who was more than handsome, and she had never even realized it. What can you tell me? she asked, expecting... well, she didn't know exactly what to expect, if she was honest with herself. Did Diego harbor some kind of private feelings for her? Is that why he came into the tavern so often, then behaved so strangely, often leaving abruptly and without an explanation? The divulgence of such emotions would uncover a lot of things that had occurred in the past, and suddenly cause his reactions to her to make sense.

Diego furtively looked at the curtains that shut off a view of the main room. If he was going to announce the fact that he was actually the masked bandit, Zorro, in secret, then he didn't want anyone to overhear his confession.

It's all right, Victoria said, correctly interpreting his furtive look. The doors are locked tight for siesta, as long as you pushed on the bolt after you came in, like I asked you to.

I did, Diego said.

And the tavern's empty; no one to bother us.

No boarders sleeping away their siesta? Diego asked as he double checked that the back door was also locked. The door clanged against its bolt as he pulled experimentally on the knob. It didn't budge, and Diego was satisfied that she had locked it against possible intrusion.

I locked that door, too, Victoria assured, not quite comprehending his odd behavior, and getting worried because of it. No, we're quite alone, she informed.

And now that he was certain of the locked door, he whirled on her to stare in his most open, unsettling way yet. He looked behind her to the rest of the kitchen, as if making certain that they were, indeed, alone, then he placed his large hands comfortingly on her shoulders. Victoria, you have to promise not to react... negatively... to this news, he said first.

He's never touched me before, was what Victoria distractingly thought, but she still managed to say, You have my promise. Now, what is it, Diego? What's wrong? For some reason that she couldn't name, she wanted to soothe away the fear she saw in his eyes.

Now, please, don't get angry, and don't decide anything right away, not until you've had time to think about your options. There, that should leave him on pins and needles until he heard her answer, but it should also negate her outright rejection, too. It was the one thing he feared the most, and would do just about anything to make sure didn't happen. Waiting in suspense for a day at the most was a pittance of a price to pay if she just didn't turn from him immediately upon hearing his confession.

I promise, I won't, she said, but knew her temper could rise faster than her common sense in unpredictable situations. You have my word that I won't... won't get angry.

At least, not right away, he thought, but had to accept her promise as binding, since he had nothing else to count on. All right, he said softly, agreeably.

Diego, what is it? What could possibly be so wrong that..? she began, and he cut her off.

Nothing's wrong, Diego assured quickly in a voice that was lowered even more. In fact, everything could be right. It depends on what you decide to do.

Nothing he had said could surprise her more. Me? If all he had to worry about was her reaction, then he had nothing to be concerned of.

Yes, you. What I'm about to tell you may stir up your world, but please... He halted his words, just looking at her, then, and his face grew more tender by the second. Victoria, you're... I'm... He stopped again, and his trembling hand came up to almost touch her cheek. Breathless, he strove to go on. I'm Zorro, he said in a whisper.

It seemed like the world came to a crashing end. Victoria's sight narrowed to a small tunnel of afternoon brightness. What? she whispered back, fighting off the call of the narrowness. You're who? Her voice seemed like it came from far away.

I'm Zorro, he repeated, and if you need proof, you have the ring that my father gave to my mother before her death, and the one that I then gave to you. Victoria!

But it was the last thing she heard, the last thing that could penetrate the darkness before it overwhelmed her completely and she crumpled, heading straight for the floor, though she wasn't given to fainting when she heard unexpected news. It was just that the news she heard was so amazing, so incomprehensible...

The next thing Victoria knew, she was gasping on air like her lungs were already too full to hold more oxygen. A glass of water dangled before her face, and she slowly sat up, her head swimming.

Here, drink this. It'll make you feel better.

The cold of the tile floor seeped through her skirt as she reached for the glass and drank. The water cleared the foggy feeling from her mind, yet her arm still felt oddly heavy. But she could feel the strength returning quickly even as she recognized Diego. What happened? she asked unsteadily.

Diego sounded a bit hesitant himself when he informed, You fainted. I caught you before you could hit anything. His assurance came quietly in a voice much lower than the one he typically used.

Somehow, this lower voice seemed right for him, and in a rush, his incredible declaration came surging back to her in force. She gave a sudden jerk that sloshed water over the rim of her glass.

He gave her a slightly ironic look and dryly said, You remember, I see.

She looked at him, looked away, looked back again, then asked, Why?

Why? he parroted. He seemed surprised that this was her reaction. Well, you know the state of things in Los Angeles when Zorro first appeared better than I do, Victoria. What would you have had me do? I had to do something, and seeing to yours and my father's escape from jail as a man with a hidden identity seemed a better choice at the time than going as myself, only to hang on the Alcalde's gallows the next morning. I didn't anticipate that he would put a price on my head, nor did I expect the disguise to go so long. I should have told you of this secret years ago, and for that, I'm truly sorry, Victoria, but I was afraid that your temper would get the better of you and you might tell me... He stopped, swallowed the feelings of dread, then forced himself to continue, ... that you might tell me that you can't see me any longer. I didn't think I could bear that, even if it was already too late; I was so in love with you that just the promise of seeing you sent my insides into a useless spin. But what if you sent me away from you? Not saying a word became easier than the deception itself as the years went by. Until now, that is. You know the rest.

The silence after his admission was loud in the tiny kitchen. The pop and hiss of the fire was the only sound except for their breathing as they both contemplated his words. He was on his knees now, and his hand remained on her back in support, but that was the only place he touched her as he knelt beside her sitting form, seemingly glued to the floor next to her.

Victoria was cognizant of the fact that she needed to say something, anything, to erase the tension that she could feel in just his single hand and the fingers pressed into her back. Yet... she couldn't think of a thing to say. The only thing she was capable of doing was thinking, Could I possibly love... Diego?

Then Victoria was hit by a barrage of images as she sat beside his kneeling form on the floor of her kitchen. Images that were chaotic and random... Diego in her tavern, Zorro kissing her in the kitchen, Diego avidly listening to her talk about something, Zorro releasing her from prison yet again, hugging her hard and tight, Zorro pulling her up in front of him on Toronado for an unplanned picnic, Diego publishing an article that had been the topic of one of their recent discussions, Diego standing by as she dealt with an incredible, new idea that he had just given her, Diego reading in her tavern while he watched her in secret, Diego respecting her enough to listen to her rants and offering an opinion when no one else was brave enough to face her temper, Diego calming that temper with soothing words of wisdom when it slipped out of control... Diego, Diego, Diego.

Again she took a breath, and again it acted like it was trapped by lungs too full to accommodate the air they had just received. She gasped, then choked, then drank the water that he urged on her once more.

Slowly, slowly. That's right. Don't overdo it, he discouraged. Give yourself some time. He set the water aside when she had finished, careful lest they knock it over. The result of all this solicitation was that Diego's face ended up only inches from hers, though that clearly wasn't his intention according to the expression of concern etched into his features when he had begun to comfort her. They both froze when they realized how close they had managed to draw to each other.

Finally, Diego broke the silence. I should go and let you decide what you want to do next. His voice grew fainter and fainter as his sentence wore on until it practically faded to nothing as it drew to a close. Then they just looked at each other, neither moving, and only their strained breathing again made any noise. It was as if a blanket had been thrown over the entire room, a blanket of silence.

Diego's heart beat loudly enough to hear in that all-encompassing quiet.

Victoria started shaking as more pictures from the past assaulted her mind.

It finally entered his mind that the heat from his hand might be making her uncomfortable, but he couldn't remove it for anything.

Victoria raised one trembling hand to his cheek.

It was almost an inquisition, as that shaking hand scrutinized every bump, every dip, in that cheek, his chin, his mustache, his lips. She wore a strange, almost ethereal, expression of wonder and discovery as their breath mixed, but otherwise, both remained motionless except for the air he breathed and her shaking hand.

Madre de Dios, Victoria whispered, and even her whisper was soft and cautious. It's you. I finally found you. Her fingers flattened into the short hairs at his temple, and Diego could feel them tremble against his skin even as she threw herself towards him. With a rush of shaking fingers and tense, tight arms, they came together in a kiss that was as ravenous as it was inevitable.

Victoria clung to him as he kissed her, leaving bruises and scratches from her fingernails just as he left red marks around her upper arm where he had gripped her in haste beforehand. Neither meant to harm the other, yet they were both amazed as the sense of incredibleness grew, and the kiss wore on. Diego tasted the salt of tears when his lips moved to kiss her cheeks, her ear, her hair, and his arms wrapped around her in a hold so tight that it might have split a lesser woman in two. As it was, Victoria just held her breath and hugged him back in an equally explosive embrace.

Sh, sh, said Diego, though she was held in arms far too closely to make a single sound, be it one that needed hushed or not. One of his hands came up to grip her head, and he rocked gently on his toes as her quaking wore on despite his comforting sounds. You're not going to lose me, not now.

Victoria had to snort inelegantly at those words. You're not going to lose me, either, she tried to say, but the declaration came out more as a grunt as he held her, too tightly for proper breath. Her hand rubbed at the back of his head in great fondness, her lips grazed across his forehead and into his hair, frantic in her desire to show her affection, now, while it was still steeped in its sense of discovery.

Diego also fought against the inherent strength in her arms as he whispered, Victoria, I love you, I love all of you, every last inch of you and everything you do. I admit, if I could love you even more, I wouldn't hesitate for an instant to do it. That's why I watch; I can't keep my eyes off of you. You're everything I've ever wanted out of life, and if anything were to happen to you... He didn't finish, couldn't finish, as his habitual rocking went on.

After a few moments, they leaned back and stared at each other as if they were both starving for one sight of the other person. They looked, reverent, that they had found one another at last, after four long years, what seemed like a lifetime of waiting and hoping that this day would finally come. Another moment of quiet passed, then they rested their foreheads against the other's, talking softly of hopes and dreams as they sat, incongruous bundles on the cold, hard tile of the floor.

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