AN - Thank you all so much for reading and all the email comments and reviews. Please let me know what you think of the ending! For those of you that have asked, the traumas of Real Life, interrupted my plans for the sequel to the Quickening – (my answer to the Gathering, where Richie gets to save the Universe) - but the story has not been abandoned, and some aspects of this story are relevant to that plot! It will be called "A Place Out of Time" and it will be coming to a Computer near you as soon. And ALL my other stories (including Rite of Passage) will be completed as quickly as I can get to them. Thanks for reading!
The next morning, Duncan watched Richie out of the corner of his eye as the lad worked with the quarter staff. Richie executed the moves perfectly, but it was obvious that something was bothering the lad.
"Want to talk about it?" he offered gently.
"Can I ask you something?" Richie paused and reached over for a towel to wipe his face.
"No and Yes." Duncan told him with a smile..
"Mac, have you been putting those weird dried mushroom things in your Omelettes again?
"It's the answers to your questions," Duncan smiled. "No, .. I don't think you're a kid"
Richie gave him a lop sided smile. "You think you know me pretty well, huh?"
"Am I wrong?"
"No," Richie sighed. "Why didn't I, at least, have the sense to stay alive until I looked old enough to not get carded in a bar? Its bad enough people who don't know me, think I'm actually nineteen, but to have people like Connor and Joe treat me like I'm still practically in diapers, its embarrassing."
"You were twelve, at the time." Duncan tried to excuse his friends.
"Oh, and if it had been anyone other than me in that position, do you think Connor would have spanked Methos? Or Joe sent you to bed?"
Duncan gave Richie a sympathetic look. He was right, of course. "Connor hasn't quite thrown off, the old ways, when a youngster could be expected to obey his elders and betters without question."
"I know," Richie managed a wry smile. "I've seen the way he bosses you around."
"You should have seen him when I was still his student," Duncan made a rueful face. "If he thought I was loosing concentration it was a swat across the rear from his broadsword, to focus my attention. And I was a man grown." He shrugged. "Or at least, I thought so. I changed his mind eventually."
"Fine," Richie scrubbed at his face. "So, all I have to do is wait a few centuries and Connor will see me as an equal?"
"I didn't say Connor changed his mind," Duncan pointed out. "I said, I changed it for him."
"You killed him." Richie bit his lip.
"And .. Yes, You are good enough." Duncan smiled at him.
"That was going to be my next question," Richie nodded with a rueful smile. He paused. "You really think I can take Connor?"
"No. I know, you can," Duncan reached for his Katana. "With a little help from your friends."
"You know," Richie shifted nervously. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"You'll be fine," Methos soothed. "You've already killed Duncan, here, four times before breakfast."
"And he's better than Connor." Amanda put in.
"And it only took him almost two centuries to get that way," Richie hissed. "I've only had two hours to learn this move."
"Yeah, but you're better than me." Duncan shrugged.
Richie gave him an odd look. "You're funning me, right?"
"Mac, no way I am better than you."
"You're young yet," Duncan allowed. "And there are a few things that can only be taught by experience. But you're by far a better swordsman than I was at your age."
"You mean that?" Richie blushed softly under the warm praise.
"With all my heart," Duncan assured him. "Just make sure it's a clean strike. Connor will be upset if you get too much blood on his floor. He just had it re-laid."
"Right," Richie grinned. "No blood."
"Come on then lad," Connor invited, striding to the middle of the floor and holding his sword at the ready. "Since both your teachers are apparently too lazy to spar with you today," He gave Duncan and Methos a disapproving look. "Let's have at it."
Duncan had to admit to a sense of pride. Not a trace of nerves, or a quiver of anxiety, betrayed Richie's intentions as he walked over to square up tom the elder Immortal. It could just have been an ordinary sparring session, just like the ones they had done so many times before.
Except, it has to be said, for the expressions of anticipation on the faces of the three watching Immortals.
"Alright," Joe demanded. "What exactly is going one here?"
Methos smiled. A rare, warm, entirely genuine, smile. "Joseph, how would you like to make a little wager?"
Connor advanced with Richie defending, as the pair danced across the room, the sound of swords clashing echoing in the high ceiling room, as they negotiated the various obstacles.
"I taught him that move." Duncan looked proud. "See, how well he met the blade?"
"His footwork is much better." Amanda observed.
"Salsa dancing." Methos looked smug.
Suddenly, it looked as if Richie was in trouble, as Connor successfully manoeuvred to back him up the staircase, but just as the Highlander's blade flashed down and Joe was already mentally counting his winnings, Richie launched himself over Connor's head in a perfect somersault, to land lightly behind him, sword at the ready.
"I never taught him to do that." Duncan frowned.
"Me either." Methos added.
"Oh that was me," Amanda put in airily. "You know, he really is quite amazingly flexible. You wouldn't believe the positions he can .."
Duncan and Methos turned to her as one. "Amanda .."
"What?" She demanded innocently. "Oh tush, I never touched him. Although, he does look great in spandex." She smiled appreciatively. "You can see all those lovely muscles of his."
"She's winding you up," Duncan told Methos. "Richie would never wear spandex."
"Really?" Methos replied. "I thought she was winding you up."
"Oh man, that was close!" Joe suddenly exclaimed. "Connor, nearly sliced through Richie's tendon."
"Nearly, doesn't count." Duncan swung his attention back to the fight.
Connor feinted left, but moved right, cutting Richie deeply on the thigh, Duncan winced sympathetically at the lad's hiss of pain, as he sank onto one knee.
"Aw, oh well," Joe looked philosophical. "He tried. That's a months bar work you owe me, old man."
"Wait." Methos ordered.
At the exact same second that Connor pulled back his arm, to thrust the blade between Richie's ribs and deep into his heart, Richie twisted left, so that the Katana met empty air, throwing Connor off balance. In that instant, Richie thrust upward through Connor's stomach, with such power and force that the point of the blade came out the other side
"What the hell?" Joe's jaw dropped.
Connor died, with a very surprised expression on his face.
"It's a fix," Joe grumbled, as he signed off on the IOU that set aside Methos' current bar tab. "You never said you had helped him."
"Joe, do you have any idea how much skill it takes to execute a move like that?" Methos pointed out.
"Yeah, and Richie, dispatched it perfectly." Duncan smirked..
"You could say he finished it off with style." Amanda added.
"Alright," Connor grumbled, peering at his almost healed stomach. "So, the lad killed me. What can I say?"
"That you let your guard down?" Joe shrugged.
Connor turned to him in surprise. "Joseph, I would never let my guard down, not even in practise. Those swords are dammedable sharp. And I just got the floor re-laid. Risteared beat me fair and square."
"So, he really killed you?" Joe asked, dumbfounded. "But he couldn't …"
"Except that he did," Amanda, pointed out. "Very smoothly, too, actually."
"He certainly knows how to make a point." Methos grinned.
"How many times is that he's killed you now, kinsman?" Duncan asked. "Twice, isn't it?"
"Yes, alright," Connor said huffily. "And that first time doesn't count, it was an accident, not a challenge."
"But he's just a kid." Joe shook his head.
It was Connor who answered. "He's older than you were Joseph, when you went to fight in Vietnam and he's survived the Game these last few years by his wit and his courage. I think, sometimes we forget that."
"Aw, c'mon" Joe protested. "Its hard, not to see him as a kid. I mean, he's young enough to be my Grandson."
"And you're young enough to be mine," Duncan reminded him. "But I don't have any problem according you the respect due to a friend."
"I guess, I never thought of it like that." Joe blushed.
"So, you'll both make your peace with him?" Duncan pressed.
"A mite aggrieved is he?" Connor smiled. "Never mind, I think I know how I can make it up to him."
"I wish I did." Joe sighed.
"Mac said you wanted to talk to me."
The reluctant in Richie's tone made it clear that seeking out Connor hadn't been his idea. Connor blessed his stars that Duncan still had some influence over him. With Richie sometimes telling him how things were fell short of the mark. It was far better to be able to show him.
"Pass me that vase will you?" Connor said mildly, nodding at the sideboard.
As he complied, Richie surveyed the dining room table set with the best china, and crystal, and antique silver with awe and a certain amount of trepidation.
"Who's coming to dinner?"
"A very special guest." Connor told him.
"Oh." Richie was disappointed. He'd hoped to spend some time with just his family tonight. Then he counted the place settings.
"You want I should go and grab a burger or something?" he asked flatly.
"What?" Connor looked up in surprise. "Why ever would I want that?"
"There are only six places," Richie shrugged. "I figured you guys might wanna talk about old, old, times?"
"Without the bairn around?" Connor carried on setting the table. "Or, did you just think I would be mad enough at you for besting me to send you to bed without your supper?"
"That's Joe's job." Richie muttered sourly.
"Risteared," Connor turned to face him, putting a hand on each shoulder and looking him straight in the eyes. "You are the special guest."
"I am?" Richie blinked. "Its not like its my birthday or anything."
"It is the custom of the Clan, to celebrate the success of its warriors in battle with a feasting and a tribute."
"Oh." Richie looked pleased. Then frowned. "Tribute? You mean like Elvis?"
Connor ignored that.
"I owe you an apology."
"I thought I was the one who killed you." Richie looked a little awkward.
"Aye," Connor agreed. "And a dammed fine job you did of it too. I'm proud of you."
Connor grasped his arm by the elbow, in a warriors grip, as Richie had seen him do with Duncan. Slightly awed Richie returned the gesture.
"Well done kinsman," Connor allowed. "Well done indeed."
"Hey Rich, can I have a word?" Joe hovered uncertainly in the doorway to the den, where Duncan and Richie were playing chess.
"I'll go .." Duncan started to stand up. "Let you two talk."
"No, Mac, stay," Joe insisted, "I embarrassed Richie in front of his friends. Its only fair that I apologise in front of them as well. I'm really sorry Rich."
Richie looked up.
"What are you sorry for Joe?" he asked with a level look.
"Aw, c'mon Rich. I know, I shouldn't have treated you like that. You're not a kid and I'm sorry, alright?"
"But, if I had been a kid? It would have been OK to treat me like that?" Richie surged to his feet and strode over to look out the window.
Joe floundered and looked to Duncan for some help.
"He has a point." Duncan murmured.
"Oh, come on, Mac. A little help here?"
"Joe. You've read Richie's foster records. You should know as well as anyone where he's coming from with this. A child raised like that, is bound to feel a little powerless in the face of adult authority."
"I sent him to his room because I didn't know how to answer his questions. Its hardly the crime of the Century."
"His drunken foster father sent him to him room because he couldn't be bothered with him and he nearly died."
"Its not the same." Joe stuttered. "I didn't mean .."
"No," Richie turned around from the window, and came back over towards the couch. "You're right, it isn't." He ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, myself Joe. Its been a rough week."
"Maybe, this will make you feel better." Joe pulled a printout from his jacket pocket.
Richie read through the Watcher's report, a pleased smile spreading across his face. Duncan, reading over his shoulder, glanced approvingly at Joe.
"Thanks Joe," Richie smiled shyly. "This is pretty cool. I sound like Mac or something."
"No more than you deserve, kid." Joe winced. "I mean .."
"Leaving out the bit about him being twelve was a nice touch," Duncan complimented him, quickly changing the subject.
"Yeah, well, he's a good kid." Joe caught himself. "Oh hell!.."
Duncan caught Richie's eye and they both burst out laughing.
"You know, you really should work on that."
Richie pushed back his plate, with a sigh of real contentment. Warmed by wine and candle light he looked round the table and unexpectedly felt the sting of tears in his eyes.
"You OK, Rich?" Duncan's voice asked softly, at his elbow.
Richie smiled. He should have known Mac would notice. Mac always noticed.
"Yeah," That came out a little huskily. Richie coughed. "Yeah, I'm just .. happy."
"We're not done yet," Methos announced, from his other side. "Time for presents."
"Presents?" Richie sat up a little straighter.
"What did you think tribute meant?" Duncan gave him a fond look.
Richie exchanged a quick, amused, glance with Connor. "Um. Nothing."
"Alright," Connor took charge. "The tradition is meant to be that the noble warrior receives a tribute for his defence of the clan. But no-one could agree what to give you. So, we are each going to give you a present based on our own traditions. Joseph, I think you should go first."
"Mine isn't so much a present, as a gift." Joe began.
"What's the difference?" Richie asked.
"Well, this is much harder to wrap for a start," Joe grinned. "You get to choose your own Watcher."
"Really?" Richie blinked.
"You've earnt it Rich," Joe sighed at the debacle, with Richie's trainee watcher. "I'll let you look through the profiles of the available candidates, you can pick a shortlist and we'll call them in for interview."
"Like it was a real job?" Richie grinned.
"Hey," Joe protested. "It is a real job. I'd like to see you with someone you can trust."
"Thanks Joe. That means a lot to me."
"This is from me," Amanda handed him an envelope.
"An I.O.U. Amanda?" Richie teased.
"Something like that," Amanda surprised him. "Open it."
They all watched as Richie opened the envelope and extracted a single piece of cream coloured paper.
"Las Vegas? You're taking me to Las Vegas?"
"I said I would," Amanda reminded him. "When we met in Paris, that first time. But Duncan said you were too young."
"He's still too young for what you have in mind," Duncan scowled. "Cheating is against the law, Amanda."
"Only if you get caught."
"Don't worry Macleod," Methos smirked. "I'll go along and make sure they don't get caught."
"Mac," Richie shook his head fondly, lowering his voice so only Duncan could hear. "They're just winding you up. There's nothing going on between then."
"Really?" Duncan whispered back.
"Absolutely. Amanda told me. Apparently Methos and Rebecca used to be an item way back when .."
"Methos and Rebecca?" Duncan blinked.
"So, Amanda feels like she's know him forever. She's not sleeping with Methos, he's like family to her, it would be like sleeping with your sister or something."
"Oh." Duncan felt a profound sense of relief.
"So, does this mean I'm getting a wicked step-mother?" Richie teased.
Duncan ignored that. But he didn't say no, either, Richie noted.
"Here's mine," Methos offered a small box, wrapped in dark blue paper.
"I didn't know you knew how to shop." Richie teased.
"You think all these sweaters just appear, as if by magic, in my wardrobe?" Methos huffed. "Besides, I never said I'd bought it."
Curiously, Richie ripped at the paper and opened the box. It was a crystal on a thin leather thong.
"Hey, I used to have one of these when I was a kid." Richie recalled. "Remember, Mac? Angie bought it for me from the 5th Street Market. She said it would help focus my energies."
"Did it work?" Joe asked Duncan.
"He was eighteen," Duncan scoffed fondly, "His energies were already pretty focused .. on getting his next date."
"That's one of Rebecca's crystals." Amanda realised.
"You were Rebecca's student?" Joe blinked.
"Not exactly," Methos demurred. "But she taught me a lot."
"I'll bet." Connor murmured.
"Methos," Richie swallowed. "I can't take this."
"Rebecca would want you to have it. Besides, I've never met an Immortal that manages to get sick or injured as often as you do. If anyone around this table needs a little extra karma, its you."
Richie nodded. "Thank you. I'll treasure it."
"Duncan?" Connor raised a brow.
Duncan cleared his throat and produced a small, square box, from his pocket.
"I wanted to give you this, when you turned 21. But I wasn't sure that you would accept." He paused.
"C'mon Mac," Richie encouraged. "You're making me nervous here. Anyone would think you were going to propose."
"Just open it." Duncan thrust the box in his hand.
The thick gold ring fit him as if made for him.
"I got it altered." Duncan's voiced was husky.
"Oh Mac, its beautiful," Richie peered at the legend, embossed around the ring in Gaelic. Hold Fast The motto of the Clan Macleod. Richie stilled. "How old is it?"
"It belonged to my Grandfather," Duncan told him. "He gave it to my father, when he turned 21, and he gave it to me. I felt that I had lost the right to wear it when my father disowned me, but I'd always yearned to carry on the tradition. And now I can."
"Oh." Richie managed as he realised exactly what the ring symbolised.
"You don't like it?" Duncan worried.
"I love it," Richie looked up to meet his eyes. "Thanks, Dad."
"You're welcome." Duncan tousled his hair. "Tough Guy."
"And finally," Connor rose to his feet to attract their attention. "The Clan Macleod tradition has always been that notable success in battle is toasted by the Clan with fine wine, with the goblet going to the warrior, as tribute. The greater the victory, the elaborate the tribute."
Connor reached behind him to produce a large, lavishly decorated, goblet.
"Wow," Dollar signs spun in Amanda's eyes. "That much be worth several thousands at least."
"More actually," Connor shrugged. "I happen to think killing me is quite an achievement." He looked at Richie. "None of us know what may happen in times to come, gold may hold value when civilisations fall, and cash money, land or stocks and shares become worthless."
"Like an Immortal pension?" Richie hazarded.
"I always said you were bright."
He filled the goblet and raised it in Richie's direction.
Richie swallowed hard. Somehow that simple benediction from a man he respected meant more to him than any number of flowery words. Connor drank deeply and passed the goblet to Amanda on his left. "Richard." She toasted him with a twinkle in her eye and took a sip. "To Richie." Joe took a larger swallow. "Richard Ryan Macloed." Methos intoned, causing Duncan and Richie to look happily at each other, as the ancient Immortal took a big guzzle of wine.
"Hey, leave some for us." Duncan snagged the goblet from his grasp.
"Good vintage." Methos wiped his mouth appreciatively.
"Here's to you, .. son," Duncan toasted Richie, with a smile on his lips.
Richie took the goblet and raised it in his turn. Momentarily stuck for words, he looked around at the loving faces at the table, he realised that he knew exactly what to say.
He had finally come home.