Author's Notes: I am a fan of both Zorro TV series, but I felt the FAM Zorro lends itself to fiction better, so that is the paradigm this is based upon. I suppose everyone has a "what is the cost of being Zorro" story, and this is mine. It was inspired in part by Icyfire's fabulous "Wounded Fox". I also felt that the burden of Zorro's secret might have a heavier price for Felipe than is much explored. This is just the first chapter of what will likely be a long work, but I wanted to see people's reactions to how it is going, so I decided to throw it up here. It was supposed to be purely a character study sort of story, but then it developed an actual plot, so it's going in a bit of a different direction than I'd planned.

Toronado's hooves thundered against the hard dry ground of the gulch as they ran under the comfortingly anonymous darkness filling the very early hours of the morning. The lancers had fallen off the chase miles ago, and so the incredible speed they kept was not strictly necessary, but Zorro found the need to keep up the pace. And truly, Toronado seemed to be in as much of a hurry as he was to be home.

Zorro had ridden every night this week and many of the days as well. With Don Alejandro gone to Mexico to visit his friend Don Fernando, the alcalde had grown bolder in his treatment of the citizens of Los Angeles and Zorro had been kept quite busy. Added to that Diego's responsibilities in his father's absence, it had been quite a tiring week for the man who was cabellero's son and vigilante both. At least Toronado did not have to ride out with the vaqueros every morning.

Toronado finally swept into the familiar cave entrance and Diego sighed in relief as he slipped out of the saddle. Giving into his weariness for a moment, he crossed his arms on the high elegant saddle and laid his head on them for a moment. Toronado snorted softly in sympathy and after a moment he felt the

horse's hot breath and then soft nose against his shoulder. Lifting his head, he smiled and ran a gloved hand through the sweaty mane. As much as he would like to simply collapse into Don Diego's bed, mask and all, he knew he needed to take care of his friend first and complete the transition from masked bandit to
unassuming nobleman's son.

The saddle felt like it weighed a thousand pounds when he reached up to take it from the stallion's high back. Toronado tossed his head in gladness at having the weight lifted from him and Diego stroked his mane again to quiet him. Picking up the silver inlaid brush, Diego began the long process of brushing
and cooling his horse. The stallion snorted in appreciation and quivered in pleasure as the stiff bristles scraped the dirt and sweat from his skin.

"I know, my friend," Diego whispered in his most calming voice while rubbing the brush in soothing, repetitive circles. "You are tired and have run very hard today. I am afraid you will be needed yet again tomorrow so rest now."

He continued to murmur to his horse and brush him down, his exhausted mind heedless of the minutes that slowly drifted past.

An indeterminable time later, he felt a soft touch on his arm and spun to find Felipe's concerned gaze on him.

"You should be in bed," he said sternly. "Just because Zorro rides does not mean that you must lose sleep as well."

*I can take care of Toronado,* Felipe signed, his young face filled with worry.

Diego smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder affectionately. "It is all right. I am nearly finished and it is really very late."

Felipe's look told him he knew that as he picked up a cloth and rubbed it over the horse's skin.

"Felipe," Diego began, but the boy's expression silenced any further words on his part. Together, they finished cooling Toronado before giving him some water and feed.

Without so much as a gesture Felipe pushed Diego somewhat forcefully onto the bench by his work table and began to remove his boots. Diego would have stopped it, but Felipe's strangely aggressive mood and his own tired body prevented him. He sat passively while Felipe helped him out of the bulk of his costume. He fell into a bit of a stupor, moving only when Felipe pushed him this way or that. He felt a sharp tug on his shirt and found Felipe staring at a rip high on the right sleeve.

*Musket? * Felipe signed.

"Yes, but as you can see, it is nothing serious."

Felipe didn't look too convinced as he manhandled his mentor until he allowed him to remove the shirt and get a good look at the arm. Truly, it was not anything to be concerned about, although the small gash from the bullet was deeper than Diego had thought it would be. Felipe insisted on cleaning and bandaging it and Diego let him, still confused by the boy's angry mood.

"Felipe, my friend, truly you need not worry about it. You cannot expect even Sergeant Mendoza's men not to get lucky once in a while."

Felipe was still for a moment but when he 'spoke', it was in a veritable storm of furious gestures.

*Nothing? Nothing, like this was nothing? * he signed, gesturing at another cut Zorro had received high on his side earlier in the week. *Or these? * he pointed to an older wound on his forearm and then at the half dozen or so other old scars littering Diego's upper body. The rapid gestures stopped suddenly and Felipe whirled around so that his face was no longer visible.

Diego pulled him over to sit next to him on his bench. Taking the boy's chin in his hand, he raised his face until their eyes met. "What is it? What is bothering you this evening?"

Felipe shrugged, clearly frustrated with his inability to communicate his feelings. *Zorro has been very busy lately.*

Diego frowned, trying to understand what his young friend was trying to tell him. "Yes. With my father gone away, none of the other cabelleros have the courage to oppose the alcalde. And this new group of bandits seems unusually bold."

Felipe frowned. *If the alcalde spent as much time chasing bandits as Zorro they wouldn't be a problem.*

Diego had to smile. "Yes, that is probably true. But this is nothing new."

Felipe's hand rested lightly on his bandaged arm for a second. He tried to turn away again, but Diego caught his face in one hand and brought it back around.

"Ah," Diego said, taking in the slight circles under his friend's eyes and his pale, haunted countenance. "You had one of those dreams again, didn't you? Which was it this time?"

Felipe nodded and sighed. *It was the same as last time. Zorro was captured and the alcalde had him shot.*

"As you can see, I am quite alive," Diego said, trying to keep his voice light. "I cannot promise you that nothing will ever happen to me, but I can say that I have no more wish to be ensnared by the alcalde than you have wish to see it happen."

Felipe nodded though it was clear his fears were not much alleviated. It was easy to forget at times that his silent friend was no longer truly a boy. And he had always been very observant, even when young.

*Come* Felipe signed, his expression still troubled but resigned. *We should go to bed. We have to meet with the vaqueros early tomorrow, don't we?*

"Yes," Diego said, allowing Felipe to haul him to his feet. "Father has asked me to look after things and I don't want to give him any further reason to be disappointed."

Felipe's expression became slightly stony again, but he said nothing further as he helped Diego into his own clothes.

They entered the main bulk of the hacienda quietly to avoid waking curious servants. Diego ushered Felipe back to his room with promises of his own to go directly to bed.

His body confirmed the wisdom of that plan as aching muscles relaxed on the soft mattress, but his mind wouldn't completely let go of consciousness yet. Too many things to dwell on these days. Felipe was right. Zorro had been kept very busy of late. The nightly rides robbed most of his normal sleeping time and he could not fall back on his usual lazy persona to excuse his getting up at noon. With Don Alejandro planning to be gone for over a month, his son could no longer tarry in bed till early afternoon.

As he'd intimated to Felipe, he certainly could not afford to disappoint his father any further. Their arguments, which before had been more amiably frustrated than truly angry, had escalated into near nastiness of late. He suspected his father's sudden trip had as much to do with that as any truly pressing engagements. He remembered their last battle with the queer, intense pain that only those you loved the most could cause you.

His father had come home in a rush from the pueblo carrying news of the alcalde's latest treachery. . .

"DeSoto tried to hang three men today for the robberies that have been occurring along the road to Santa Paulo. If Zorro had not shown up with the real bandits, innocent men would have died," Alejandro said, both disgust with the alcalde and pride in Zorro evident in his tone.

"Ah," Diego said, keeping his voice carefully neutral, "Zorro again. It seems I chose the wrong day to stay at home."

Alejandro's face became very still as if he battled with himself over something. "You always choose the wrong day to stay home. Of course Zorro had to come to the rescue. No one else ever does! It would serve us right if he decided it was no longer worth the effort."

Diego shrugged. "I think it a bit strange myself, all this riding around in masks."

"You're right, it is strange. Strange that a man should be forced to risk his life day after day when others should be joining him. One of these days one of those muskets is going to find a target and where will we be? Zorro has been taking far too many chances of late."

Diego forced a laugh. "I thought Zorro was supposed to be immortal."

Alejandro smiled a bit grimly. "I admit I was as guilty of thinking that as anyone, but he seems very tired lately."

Diego shrugged again, not wanting too encourage too much discussion of Zorro with his father. Alejandro was a formidably intelligent man, and he probably wasn't going to stay blind forever. The less Diego let his feelings on Zorro get out, the better.

"There is mail from Spain," Diego announced, attempting to draw his father's attention from dangerous topics.

Alejandro's withering look told him he recognized the ploy and considered Diego even worse a coward for it. But he took up the mail and read the first letter, a smile briefly softening his face. But then the face darkened again.

"Don Carlos has written me about his son's marriage," he said, the bitterness clear in his voice. "It seems young Pardise has made quite a name for himself at the University. He even has captured the attention of the King. He helped quell a peasant revolt and has been inducted into the Royal Order of St. Domaso. All this fame has won him the hand of the reputedly lovely daughter of Don Alonzo Vasquez himself."

Diego blinked forcing the memory from his head. The conversation had deteriorated from there into the usual fight about Diego's unmarried state and his continued reluctance to do anything that might make him an attractive suitor. So bitter had the discussion become that Diego had been mildly shocked

when his father had entrusted him with the care of the ranch when he left for Mexico the next day. He thought perhaps it had been his father's way of apologizing. He knew the lack of understanding wounded his father as much as it did him, probably more so because Alejandro truly believed his son to be the
retiring poet he made himself out to be.

Diego sighed and tried to burrow further into the softness of the bed. Felipe was right. He did need to sleep. These thoughts did him little good. He'd been trying to solve this dilemma for years now, ever since he'd donned Zorro's persona and its accompanying masks. There were times when the ache to tell his father, to show him that his son was capable of things to be proud of, was so intense it was an actual physical pain. In a way it was even harder than keeping Victoria in the dark. He knew his father, at least, would be pleased at the secret after he got over the shock, whereas Victoria . . . well, best not to delve into that just then.

Part of him wondered just when he was going to deal with it though. These thoughts had been possessing him with increasing frequency as the years went by with no end of the alcalde's domination in sight. Could he ask Victoria to wait forever when he did not even think she would be happy with the man beneath the mask when it was removed? Was it fair to make his father go without grandchildren? The answers to these questions eluded him, and only action drove them away. That, as much as the alcalde's treachery, drove him into the night as Zorro so much of late. Ordinarily the energy the role of the masked bandit took was enough to send him into blessedly dreamless sleep, but tonight that was not so.

Sighing, he rolled onto his back and allowed the demons he'd been holding at bay to run free through his mind. Perhaps given free reign they might give him some respite. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours. Sleep claimed him some hours before dawn, but it was a sleep filled with the angry recriminations of his father and Victoria's condescending laughter.