Author's Note: As is always the way of things, in the fullness of time, this story turned out to be a little AU from where TPTB eventually led the parade (I can't tell you why because that would ruin all the fun). But when I originally published it, everything was perfectly in canon, even if there was a wee bit of a crack theory in there that I kinda played like hey, isn't that an obvious thing. And, too, I feel a need to mention that this was originally published WAY before Something Wicked aired, so I got here first, even if I don't own any of the characters so they get to call their version canon.
Chronological Note: This story takes place directly before the episode "The Revolutionary."
"There can be only one," Duncan MacLeod told his downed opponent grimly.
Lifting his head with an effort, Croix glared at MacLeod. His almost colorless eyes were alive with hatred. He'd been a brutal man in life: He would be a brutal man in death. There was no fear in him, only rage and defiance and a nearly tangible sense of timeless, merciless savagery.
The Katana fell in one swift, clean stroke; Adjen Croix's head came away from his body neatly.
The night fell to still in the waiting. Deprived of the sounds of battle -- the clash of metal on metal; the quiet, desperate grunts of men taking blows and giving them -- it seemed almost peaceful now.
MacLeod stumbled and recovered. The Katana hung loosely in his grip. Blood trickled down his neck from a gash near his eye. His shoulder throbbed where Croix's blade had cut the muscle to bone.
He could feel it coming.
Closing his eyes, he braced himself for the onslaught. The buzz of Croix's quickening came like a swarm of locust under his skin. It invaded his bones and set up a humming resonance in the joints. He acquiesced to the sensation, giving himself over to the pain. The air around him grew dense, heavy. It lay tangibly on his skin. For a moment, he stood in a space of nothingness, the eye of a hurricane.
Electricity, seemingly spawned from nowhere, cut the air. Power sparks rained around him in the night. A storm formed beneath his feet. It whirled around his legs, a devastating dervish of raw, unfettered power.
Anxiety course through MacLeod's veins. Fear tightened his grip on the Katana. Croix was an ancient, older even than Greyson. He'd been in the game since the beginning. His quickening was rife with the deaths of hundreds, the deaths of thousands. Unsure what to expect, MacLeod waited, knowing that even in the winning, he could still lose.
The night exploded without warning. Like a rainspout on the open sea, the quickening climbed him in a cyclonic fury. It engulfed him, a white-hot surge of everything Croix had ever been, of everything every Immortal Croix had ever killed had ever been. Sparks gashed the night. Pulses of pure energy opened blinding wounds in the darkness.
MacLeod's body convulsed. Sound shrieked along his bones. White noise filled his skull. His hand opened, and the Katana dropped to the ground. He bellowed in pain and defiance as the quickening drove him to his knees.
Devastation became his reality. For an endless eternity of mere moments, there was nothing in him at all but the consuming, white agony of the quickening.
When it finally faded – faded slowly, faded grudgingly -- it left in its wake a new sense of power, a new sense of invincibility. Rage coursed through his veins. Pain was the rhythm of his heart.
Around him, the night settled to still. It waited, as if sensing a change.
Staggering to his feet, he found a balance, steadied. His gaze swept the barren landscape. It followed the line of the horizon to the city that glowed in the distance, an invitation to the traveler, a prize to the victor.
Quietly, darkly, Duncan MacLeod laughed.
"Well look what the cat dragged in," Charlie called. He paused in his morning training routine with Richie to watch as MacLeod strode across the dojo floor. "And damned if it don't look like she toyed with it a bit first."
Richie laughed. Wiping perspiration from his face with the back of one hand, he said, "He's right, Mac. You look like you've been rode hard and put up wet. Big date last night?"
Only three steps short of a freight elevator that served as the only point of access to his personal quarters, MacLeod changed directions.
He closed in on them like a shark closing in on a kill. His stride was predatory; his eyes, dark and glitteringly cold. The way he moved was overtly dangerous; his expression, the anticipation of a threat not yet realized.
Charlie tensed instinctively to a defensive posture. MacLeod ignored him like he didn't exist. His voice a dangerous whisper, he asked Richie and only Richie, "Do you have a problem with the way I look? Do you have a problem with the time I come in, or with how I spend my nights?"
"I, uh ... no, Mac; I didn't mean anything." Richie backpedaled from the Highlander's approach, looking to Charlie for help. "I just … I was … just kidding around, that's all."
Holding out one hand in a conciliatory gesture, his tone all diplomat, Charlie said, "Hey, MacLeod. Go easy on the kid."
Invading the ground given as Richie retreated, MacLeod's expression sharpened with escalating savagery. "Because if you do, I think you know how we can solve it, don't you? Well? Don't you?"
Richie's back was against the dojo wall. He had nowhere left to go. Lifting both hands in front of himself and holding them there, palm out, he said, "Hey, Mac, lighten up, will ya? I didn't mean --"
MacLeod cut the protest short with a sharp slap to the younger man's face. It wasn't a blow intended to pain; it was a blow intended to humiliate. The stun in Richie's expression made him look sick.
Charlie's eyes flashed rage. All around the dojo, men paused in their own training routines. A palpable sense of discomfiture skittered among them, splitting the difference between concern and surprise.
"Don't you?" MacLeod insisted, eyes glittering.
Charlie stepped into the confrontation, placing himself between MacLeod and Richie. "Okay, man, that is far enough." For a long moment, MacLeod didn't respond. Still focused on Richie so exclusively nothing else seemed to register, he held the younger Immortal pinned to the wall with nothing more than the ferocity of his glare. "That's enough, MacLeod," Charlie repeated.
MacLeod's focus shifted. He smiled. It was a chilling, merciless expression. "What? You think you can take me, Charlie? Do you really think you can take me before --" he struck like a cobra, his hand wrapping around DeSalvo's throat, his fingers digging into muscle and tendons and flesh, "-- I kill you?"
The dojo fell to utter silence. Every man was watching now, sensing the quiet confrontation in the corner had gone deadly. A few looked like they were considering interference. More looked like they were considering retreat to the coffee bar across the street.
No one spoke. No one breathed. For a long three beat of absolute still, there was nothing and no one in the dojo but MacLeod and Charlie and the life and death between them.
"Let go of me," Charlie said finally. Though strained with the effort of speaking, his voice was quiet, calm. It reflected none of the anger in his eyes.
MacLeod responded by tightening his grip. He leaned into it with one shoulder, his fingers digging in behind DeSalvo's larynx. It was a hold Charlie knew enough about to fear. "It would be so easy, you know," MacLeod said conversationally. "Like taking candy from a baby."
Charlie didn't answer -- couldn't answer – so he did the only thing he could do: Staring silently at MacLeod, he waited to see if he would live or die. The Highlander met the his stone-eyed gaze for several long moments, then laughed and threw him off. Charlie slammed into Richie, stumbling them both to a near fall. Coughing hoarsely, he reached for his throat with one hand without ever taking his eyes off MacLeod.
"Candy from a baby," MacLeod repeated while the rest of the dojo looked on. "You might want to remember that the next time you even think about touching me. Because I promise you, DeSalvo, it only ends this way once."
Without another word, Duncan MacLeod turned and stalked away.
MacLeod was well gone before Richie found the voice to ask, "What in the hell's eating him?" Still standing pressed against the wall to which MacLeod had backed him, he stared at the gate to the freight elevator as if it was something he'd never seen before.
Charlie grunted. Rubbing at the bruises already beginning to show purple and black on his throat, he asked, "He say anything to you about going somewhere last night?"
"Yeah, right. Like I'm his social secretary."
"You don't know where he was?" Charlie pressed.
"I thought he was upstairs until he walked in here and went ballistic." Richie pulled off his sparring gloves and tossed them aside. The dojo was drained dry of clientele. More than a dozen men went from serious workouts to showerlessly gone in less than five minutes. "Was I out of line? I mean … did I deserve that?"
"You'd better go on home," Charlie said in lieu of an answer. "We'll pick this up tomorrow, but for today at least, I think I'm shutting the gym down."
"Your throat okay?"
"Yeah." He dropped his hand away from the bruises. "I'm fine."
Richie sighed. "I'd better go talk to him," he muttered, heading for the elevator.
Charlie grabbed the younger man's arm as he passed. "No." The way he said it was an unequivocal order.
"I'm just going to apologize. Tell him I was out of line."
"You weren't out of line."
Richie snorted lightly. "Guess he thinks I was." Pulling his arm out of DeSalvo's grip, he started once more for the elevator, saying "I'm just going to talk to him. Wherever he went last night, something must have happened. I've gotta go find out what it was."
"He's going to tear you a new asshole," Charlie called after him.
"Won't be the first time," Richie tossed back over his shoulder.
"He takes your head off, I'm not coming up there to the rescue."
Richie turned, walking backwards as he said, "He takes my head off and it's game over, so I wouldn't really need a rescue, would I?"
"I'm serious, Richie. MacLeod's not playing around. This" he pointed to his own throat "isn't a sparring hold. It's an I'm-going-to-fuck-you-up-in-a-terminal-way hold, and you don't use it unless you're looking to take someone out."
Richie pulled up the gate and ducked into the elevator. "But he didn't take you out."
"He wasn't very damn far from it. You're an idiot if you go up there right now. Whatever it is that's eating him doesn't have anything to do with you."
"I'm his friend. That makes whatever's eating him my business, too."
"You need to stay the hell out of his way until he cools down."
Richie pulled the elevator gate closed. "Not the way it works, Charlie. Mac's in a bad place. If it was me, he wouldn't walk away."
"If it was you, he wouldn't have to worry about getting himself killed."
"Mac's not going to kill me," Richie said. He waited a beat, then he added, "I hope. But even if he does, this is still what I've gotta do." He pressed the button to MacLeod's loft.
"You're making a mistake," Charlie said as the elevator jolted into motion and began to rise.
"Not the first," Richie said. "With any luck, it won't be the last either."
Charlie reached up to touch his throat again. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Luck."
MacLeod was naked to the waist when the elevator stopped and Richie Ryan stepped out into his loft. Stirring the briskly sizzling contents of a flat pan, he afforded the younger Immortal little more than a passing glance before dismissing him as if he was utterly irrelevant.
"Hey, Mac," Richie ventured.
MacLeod ignored him.
"I just came up to apologize. Didn't mean to sound like a smart ass down there." The stove radiated heat and the smell of seared meat. It made the loft seem smaller somehow. "No disrespect intended. If it came off that way, I'm sorry."
MacLeod continued to ignore him.
Richie stepped a little deeper into the loft's entryway, keeping his back to the wall and his weight balanced on the balls of his feet. Though he was trying hard to look casual, he hadn't pulled the gate down on the elevator, and he didn't stray far enough from that meager refuge to require more than a couple of steps and a dive to return to it if the need arose. He might be making a mistake, but he wasn't an idiot.
"So … what's up? Anything you want to talk about?"
Richie started to take another step closer. MacLeod looked up with an expression that killed the intention dead. Though it wasn't a direct threat, it was an unmistakable warning. "Nothing's up," he said.
"Really? 'Cause you seem a little --" Richie hesitated, "-- wound."
"Do I?" MacLeod picked up the pan and slid its contents onto a plate. The meat was still half raw, but he began to eat in huge, ravenous bites.
"Yeah, you do. Not to be nosey or anything, but did something happen last night? You have a challenge or something?"
MacLeod grunted. It was an expression that could have been either irritation or disgust. "Or something," he said.
Outrage flashpointed in the young Immortal's expression. Forgetting, for a moment, the look in MacLeod's eyes as he held DeSalvo's throat in his hand, Richie asked in a tone too demanding for his own good, "You fought somebody? Someone called you out, and you didn't bother to even tell me?"
MacLeod looked up from his half-devoured meal. He'd been eating in huge bites, using his fingers to shovel food in and only partially chewing each mouthful before he swallowed to make room for the next. Juices seeped darkly from the corners of his mouth. They jagged over his chin and down his throat, giving him the look of a hungry tiger disturbed from its meal.
"Do you have a problem with that, Richie?" MacLeod's tone was as dangerous as it had been in the dojo.
Richie's outrage died as quickly as it sparked. "No. No problem. I have got no problem at all, Mac." MacLeod went back to his meal. "It's just that ... you know, I thought you'd ... you usually tell me when something's going down. I mean, we kind of keep each other in the loop, right?"
MacLeod finished with his plate and tossed it carelessly aside. The rim chipped against the granite countertop, but he either didn't notice or didn't care. "None of your business," MacLeod said. "It was between him and me."
MacLeod grunted again. This time, it was identifiably disgust.
"I mean, if you don't mind me asking," Richie qualified quickly.
MacLeod crossed to the liquor cabinet. He picked up the first bottle saw and opened it. "Adjen Croix." He took a long, hard draw on what could have been a hundred and twenty year old scotch or six year old Napa Valley Chablis for all it mattered, then wiped at his mouth with the back of one hand.
"Adjen Croix," Richie repeated.
MacLeod nodded. He took another draw on the bottle, watching the younger Immortal as if he expected a specific response to the revelation of that name.
"And that is?" Richie asked finally.
MacLeod shook his head. Laughing quietly, he drained the rest of his bottle, then crossed to where Richie stood by the elevator's open gate.
Richie flinched when MacLeod reached out, but this time there was no blow in the Highlander's hand. Placing one palm flat on the younger man's chest, MacLeod pushed. Richie stumbled back to maintain his balance and found himself back in the elevator. MacLeod caught the gate's pull rope and slammed it in place.
"Come back," he said, "when you know enough about your own people to hold my attention." Reaching through the slats in the gate, MacLeod pushed the down button and sent Richie back to the dojo from whence he came.
"Who's Adjen Croix?" Richie asked.
Dawson's eyes narrowed. He studied the young Immortal for a moment, trying to decide exactly how much he already knew, then said cautiously, "He's one of you."
"Well there's a news flash. How 'bout something I don't already know?"
"All right," Dawson conceded even more cautiously. "He's one of you who pre-dates us. Probably the oldest one – or at least the oldest one still walking around with his head. He's older than Darius was, older than the Kurgin was, and he's probably taken more quickenings than all the rest of you combined."
"He's bad news then."
"I suppose that depends on your point of view."
"What's that supposed to mean, my point of view? Either he's bad news or he's not."
Dawson leaned back in his chair. "What exactly are you trying to get at, Richie?"
"I'm just trying to figure out who this guy is. I mean, what's he about? Is he one of the white hats or one of the black hats?"
"Definitely one of the black hats. Not somebody you want to mess with."
Richie sighed, disconsolate. "Yeah. That's what I figured." He stared at a wall for several moments before saying, "So tell me about him."
"What do you want to know?" Dawson asked, his tone guarded.
"What's he done? Where's he been? Who's he killed? You know -- the usual."
Dawson took several long sips of scotch and soda. He regarded the young man sitting across the table from him for almost a minute without saying a single word.
"Come on, Dawson," Richie prompted finally. "Give."
"Contrary to what you seem to think, I'm not the public library. You can't come in here and expect me to give you the run-down on another Immortal just because you ask."
Richie was genuinely surprised. "Why not?"
"Because we've got rules."
"So break 'em."
"I'm breaking several of them just by talking to you."
"Then you're all ready half way there, right? What's another three steps my direction?"
Dawson bristled. Shaking his head in aggravated disgust, he said, "You've got some balls, boy. I'll give you that much."
"I'm a Watcher." Dawson's tone was edged with an irritation that fell only breaths short of actual anger. "I've devoted most of my adult life to those rules you want me to toss out the window like they mean nothing."
"I didn't mean it that way. I just meant I could really use some help, and you're the only person I know to ask."
"Well you'd better find somebody else. Our rules are made for good reasons. And while I may be willing to break them on occasion, it isn't something I practice on a regular basis."
Richie pushed to his feet and began to pace. He ran a hand through his hair. "Come on, Joe. Help me out here, will ya?"
"I can't. I won't." He let the statement stand for several seconds before amending it slightly to lessen the unequivocal nature of his refusal. "If you're looking for something in specific, I might be able to answer a couple of yes-or-no questions for you. But other than that, you need to look elsewhere. 'Tell me what you know about this guy' isn't something I am ever going to be able to help you with. That's not the way it works. By definition, Watchers don't interfere in Immortal affairs."
Richie leaned into the half-finished bar. "When Mac needs something, you give it to him. If you can break your rules for him, then why can't you break them for me?"
He couldn't have picked a worse thing to say if he tried. Irritation ignited to infuriation in Joe Dawson's eyes. He leaned forward, tapping the table with one finger as he spoke, his voice low and fierce and seriously pissed off. "Get this straight, Richie: You are not Duncan MacLeod. I owe MacLeod. He helped me clean my house when it needed cleaning, and he's put his life on the line for me and my people more than once. So yeah, when Mac asks for something, I try to accommodate him. I even bend the rules now and then when I have to. But that's for him. That's for an Immortal with a four hundred year track record, and more than one Watcher life stashed away as collateral in his account."
Dawson took a breath, then went on, warming to his subject in earnest. "Now you, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. You've never put dollar one in the pot, yet you draw on it like we're your own personal little information pool. Up to now, I've pretty much let it slide because of you being Mac's pupil and all; but I'll tell you right now, my young Immortal friend, that can change. It can change very, very fast."
By the time Dawson finished, Richie looked like a kicked puppy. Shoulders sagging and head bowed, he'd resumed his seat and was staring disconsolately into his drink. "You're right," he muttered. "I was out of line."
"Damn straight you're out of line. You know, if me doing you a couple of favors means you're going to think that any time you want something, all you've got to do is snap your fingers --"
"Come on, Joe," Richie interrupted quietly. "I said I was sorry, okay?" He was holding his empty glass with both hands, staring into it as if it held the secrets of the universe. "Don't yell at me any more. I've been yelled at enough today: I don't need to be yelled at any more."
Dawson twitched, every line of his expression still furious, but he didn't start in again. Instead, he sat in the devastation of his half-renovated, hole-in-the-wall, wanna-be blues bar and drank scotch and soda like it was part tranquilizer and part reward for resisting the urge to crack a presumptuous Immortal pup upside the head with a cane, a baseball bat, or both.
Richie stared into his glass for a while longer, then set it down and pushed back from the table. "I guess I'd better get going," he said.
"Yeah," Dawson agreed, his words clipped short. "I guess you'd better."
Richie winced. Rubbing at his eyes like a headache was building behind them, he ventured, "Can I ask one more question, if I promise not to ask it like an asshole?"
Joe was done with his drink. He pushed the glass away and said, "You can ask."
Richie looked into Dawson's closed, confrontational gaze, then looked away again. "I'm sorry, Joe. I really am." He stood up. "I didn't mean to be an ass. It's just that …." He shoved both hands deep into the pockets of his black, leather jacket, " … I don't know, I guess I'm just kind of an ass. But no disrespect, okay? I didn't mean to come off like I think the Watchers are my own personal library or anything."
He turned and started for the door.
Dawson let him get there before he spoke. "What did you want to ask?"
Richie stopped walking, but didn't turn. "I just wanted to ask how I'm supposed to find out what I need to know. About another Immortal, I mean." He did turn then, and the insecurity in his features was almost enough to make Dawson regret being so harsh with the younger man. Almost. "I came to you because you're the only person I know who has any answers. If I'm not supposed to ask you, is there somebody else I can ask? Or some place else I can look? I'm just kind of lost here, Joe. I don't really know what I'm doing, and it's … it's really important."
The anger in Dawson's expression relented a bit. "Your best source of information on Immortals is other Immortals. Ask MacLeod. He can tell you anything you want to know about Adjen Croix."
Richie looked liked he'd been kicked again. He averted his gaze, focusing on a wall to keep his expression from folding in on itself. "Yeah," he said, his voice so quiet it barely reached Joe less than half a bar away. "Maybe I'll ask MacLeod." He offered an anemic grin. "Thanks, Joe. See you around."
"You and Mac having troubles?"
Richie shrugged. He developed a sudden, intense interest in his shoes. "Yeah. I guess you could say that."
Dawson sighed. "You want to tell me about it?"
Richie shrugged again. "We're just not getting along so great right now. Things are kind of tense. I guess I pissed him off or something."
"It's been my experience that when Mac is pissed at you, you know it."
Richie released a small burst of laughter that was as desperate a sound as Joe Dawson had ever heard. "Yeah," the young Immortal said. "He's pissed. I just don't know why. I mean, I didn't do anything. At least, I don't think I did anything."
"And you think this has something to do with Adjen Croix?"
Richie took a step away from outside and closer to Joe. "I don't know. Maybe."
Dawson sighed again. Shaking his head, he snapped one finger against his empty glass and lifted his chin in the direction of the bar. "Get me another scotch and soda," he ordered mildly, "then sit down, and we'll see what we can talk about that doesn't break my rules beyond what I'm willing to break them."
Duncan MacLeod was dreaming. Skin sheened with sweat, he slept like a man possessed. The images painting the landscape of his battered mind were intoxicating. They twisted him deeper into the violent disarray of his enormous bed, turning him in his own skin, knotting him to tangles of pain and pleasure.
She was screaming, and he was enjoying it. He enjoyed the terror in her eyes, the smell of fear on her skin. He enjoyed the frantic thrashing of her slender body beneath his, and the way her struggles slowed as his hands tightened into soft, compliant flesh. Her blood was warm in his mouth, salty on his tongue. Her bones gave under the pressure of his grip.
He left her alive because the desolation dulling her striking eyes was a palpable reminder of his victory. She would speak of him in the years to come, if she chose to speak again at all.
Her words would make him strong.
Her memories would make him powerful.
Sleeping in the darkness of the empty loft, Duncan MacLeod moaned. The guttural savagery of it was primal. His lips tasted the aboriginal power of pain older than language itself, and it tasted like the blood of a broken child.
Dawson sat bolt upright in his chair. "MacLeod took Adjen Croix's head?" he demanded, his voice harsh with sudden anxiety.
Richie fidgeted. "Yeah. Last night."
Dawson swore. He swore again, and then a third time. The Watcher's reaction escalated the worry in Richie's expression to near panic. "Oh man, this is bad, isn't it? This is really bad."
"No. Not necessarily. This doesn't have to be bad; it could be good." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself and not doing a very good job of it. "MacLeod's strong. He's always been strong. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing." He looked at Richie. "How's he acting? Does he seem normal to you?"
"You mean Mac?"
"No, I mean Croix. Of course I mean Mac. Who else would I mean?"
"Don't yell at me, Joe!" Richie was close to breaking. He was scared, and he was angry, and he was scared. But mostly, he was scared.
Joe made a concerted effort to calm Richie by calming himself. "I'm sorry. Yes, I mean Mac. Is Mac acting normal?"
But Richie was not calm. He was not calm by any stretch of the imagination. "No, he's not acting normal. He's acting a lot like you, biting my damned head off every time I open my mouth. What's going on, Joe? Is Mac in trouble? He's in trouble, isn't he? He's in bad trouble."
"I need you to calm down, Richie," Joe said.
"I am calm!" Hearing the sound of his own voice, Richie realized suddenly how calm he wasn't. He took a moment, then said it again. "I am calm. I just don't know what to do."
"Tell me what happened," Joe instructed. "Tell me exactly how MacLeod's acting."
"He's … I don't know… he's just … wound. He came back to the dojo after taking this Adjen guy on, and everything seemed fine, and me and Charlie were just joking around like we always do, and then BAM, outta nowhere, he hits me."
"MacLeod hit you?"
"Yeah. I mean, not hard, but … it was more of a … more of a slap, really."
"MacLeod slapped you?"
"Yeah." Richie ran a hand through his hair. "It was kind of an insult thing. Like you slap somebody to piss 'em off. To get them to take you on. He slapped me like that. And then Charlie … he really went after Charlie. I thought Mac was going to rip his throat out right there in the middle of the dojo."
"He grabbed Charlie by the throat." It wasn't a question this time, but rather a statement; and the weight of the statement was ponderous in its ominous implication.
"Yeah. It was bad. If he hadn't caught Charlie off guard, I think they would have gone at it. But he did, so Charlie didn't really have any choice but to back off. It was either that, or … or … I don't know. Maybe I'm making it sound worse than it was. I mean, Mac can get really intense sometimes. You know how he is. But Charlie has bruises. Pretty bad bruises. And I just … I don't know … I just …."
Richie's voice trailed off to nothing. He was watching Dawson, and what he was seeing in the older man's expression made him feel the way he did when MacLeod was watching him with the feral expression of an animal who'd caught the scent of blood.
"Something's wrong, isn't it?" Richie asked finally. "Something's really, really wrong."
"Yeah," Dawson agreed.
Richie closed his eyes. He sat utterly still for a moment, merely breathing. "How bad?" he asked finally.
"Probably a lot worse than you think."
Richie opened his eyes. "I know I've got no right to ask, but me and Mac are friends, you know? And I don't know where else to turn."
Joe Dawson met the young Immortal's eyes. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I know."
Amanda lowered her sword and smiled. "Well, hello, Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod. You are almost the exact last person I would have expected to find on my doorstep at this hour."
She stepped back, he slid in, and she closed the door behind him. The dead bolt clicked quietly into place.
When she turned, he was watching her. His eyes lingered on the lay of silk against wet skin. His gaze traced the contours of her dressing robe where it clung to her breasts and thighs. She shifted slightly, letting the closure vee deeply in a way that seemed almost unintentional as she slipped her sword into an umbrella stand near the door.
His eyes followed her every move.
"Well?' she prompted after a long moment.
"I wanted to see you," he said.
Amanda laughed. "If you'd come three minutes earlier, you could have seen all of me. I was in the shower when you buzzed." She shook her head, her short hair spraying droplets of water around the lushly-furnished condo, then favored him with a sly, seductive look. "Timing never was your strong suit."
MacLeod stepped in close. He reached out one hand, running it along the curve of her throat. "You smell good," he murmured. His fingers found the neckline of her dressing robe and pushed it aside. One slender shoulder, the delicate arch of her collarbone and a portion of one breast glowed palely white in the room's artificial lighting. "You look good, too."
Amanda smiled. Stepping into the small space he'd left between them, she molded her still damp body to his. "What, MacLeod? No champagne? No dinner?" She pushed her hands inside his coat, resting them against the flat of his belly. "No small talk and small demurs under the pretense of honor?"
He touched her face, ran a thumb across her lips. His fingers were heavier than she'd ever known them to be, stretching her skin where they stroked, leaving slight marks in their wake. She started to draw back, and he grabbed her. His hold was bruising.
"This is something new," Amanda observed. Her eyes had gone from seductive to cautious, but she didn't struggle in his hands.
MacLeod loosened his hold. His fingers tangled themselves in her robe, and he pulled. The sound of tearing silk whispered through the quiet room. Her dressing gown fell away in pieces. Beneath, it she wore nothing but the residue of her interrupted shower.
"No one knows for sure when Croix was born. He was around in the thirteenth century, he was around in the sixth century. He may have been around before Christ was born, there's just no way to know for sure." Dawson's drink was fresh and new and twice as strong as the last. Richie was listening with his head in his hands, trying hard not to panic.
"Through the years, he's killed thousands, tens of thousands … most of them mortal. He feeds on death like it's mother's milk. He thrives on terror, on pain, on desolation. He drinks the blood of his mortal victims like he drinks the quickening of his Immortal ones."
"The guy sounds like the kind of monster the nuns used to make up to keep me in line."
Dawson took another long drink. "He's worse than a monster, Richie. He's real."
"But he's dead now. MacLeod killed him."
"That's the worst thing he could have done."
Richie rubbed at his forehead. "I can't see how it's bad that Mac took care of this guy. I mean --"
"Do you remember taking Mako's head?" Dawson interrupted.
"Sure I remember."
"Do you remember how you handled a sword after that? How much easier it was for you to learn the physical things Mac was trying to teach you? How much easier it was to focus on the task at hand and how much less frightened you were of the eventuality of facing another opponent?"
"Yeah," Richie allowed cautiously. "I guess."
"It's the same thing," Dawson said. "You learned faster, became proficient more quickly, because by absorbing Mako's quickening, you absorbed not only his life energy, but the life energy of every Immortal he ever beheaded."
Richie thought about it for a moment. He frowned, trying to arrange the information in his skull to a pattern that made sense. "Like sex," he said finally.
"Sex?" Dawson repeated, caught off guard by the analogy.
"Yeah. Like when you sleep with somebody, you're really sleeping with everyone they've ever slept with, and with everyone who they've ever slept with has ever slept with, and so on, until one hot blonde hooks you into the bad habits of every guy in upper Minnesota."
Dawson looked at Richie like he'd grown an extra nose. "Okay. If that helps you wrap around it, then sure, like sex. But the point is, Mako changed you because his quickening was stronger than yours. He'd lived longer, taken more heads. That's the reason Mac tried so hard to keep you from going up against him. Because he was afraid that even if you won, you'd lose."
"And you think that's what happened to Mac? You think Croix's quickening was too strong, so it changed him?"
"It's happened before," Dawson said grimly.
"Exactly. A thousand years ago, Darius marched his armies across Europe, burning villages, raping civilians, pillaging, plundering ... He was your basic, textbook example of an all-round bad guy."
"Until he took an Immortal's head at the gates of Paris," Richie finished.
"Not just an Immortal," Dawson clarified. "An ancient Immortal. A very powerful, very good Immortal who abhorred violence and spent his whole life searching for truth and meaning."
Richie put his head in his hands. After a full, long moment of pure, silent panic, he said, "So what you're saying is that Mac O.D.'d on this guy Croix, and now he's gone bad like Darius went good."
Dawson took a long draw on his drink. "It could be an initial reaction. Sometimes it takes a while for one Immortal to assimilate the quickening of another. Maybe he's still fighting to maintain control, still struggling to exert his own influence as the dominating presence."
Richie was shaking his head. "No. You didn't see him in the dojo. He's out of control. He almost killed Charlie."
"But he didn't, and that's important."
"He grabbed him by the throat, Joe. He reached out and -- It wasn't Mac. Mac wouldn't do that."
"Adjen Croix wouldn't have given killing Charlie a second thought. If he stopped short of doing it, Mac's still in control, at least to some degree."
"I don't think he is."
"He's strong, Richie. He's got a very secure sense of who he is. If anybody could stand against Adjen Croix, it would be MacLeod."
"Mac's four hundred years old," Richie argued. "Croix's what? Two thousand? Three thousand?"
"That's like asking an amoeba to take on Albert Einstein in a chess game."
"Greyson was an ancient, and Mac integrated his quickening like they were contemporaries," Dawson reminded the younger man.
"Greyson was a soldier. Sure he was a bad guy and all, but if Adjen Croix is half the monster you make him out to be, they aren't even in the same league."
"Croix was an animal. He was a predator."
"And now Mac has him inside his head," Richie said.
"Inside his soul," Dawson corrected quietly.
Together, they considered it in the sudden quiet of the half-finished bar.
Amanda lay very still in the huge, antique bed, feeling her bruises heal and her bones mend themselves back to their original structures. MacLeod slept next her, one arm draped across her waist. It might have been meant as an embrace, but it felt more like the iron cuff on a medieval bed of torture.
He was dreaming. His skin was slick with sweat, and he moved restlessly as if struggling against an unseen enemy. She would have soothed him, but her wrist was still broken, and it hurt.
This wasn't a first for her. She'd been around long enough to know that with some men, power is sex and sex is power. Such liaisons invariably meant down time for healing in the aftermath.
It had been that way with Zachary. He'd always hurt her; and had even, on occasion, killed her. And though that wasn't her favorite game as sex games went, it did keep things interesting.
And interesting was important to an Immortal. More than important, in fact: It was essential.
After all, sex -- like life -- isn't much good without a pinch of spice now and again. And when one had been around as long as Amanda had been around, and had seen as much as Amanda had seen, that spice almost always manifested itself in the form of the unexpected.
And unexpected certainly fit MacLeod tonight.
She'd never seen him this way. She'd never seen him mean for the sake of mean; never seen him smile at the sound of a bone breaking, or seen him lick blood from a wound he'd made with his own teeth.
It disturbed her more than it should have. Certainly more than it should have, considering how good it was. She hadn't felt this alive in decades. Centuries, even. Her body still tingled from the ferocity of his touch.
Not that MacLeod wasn't always good. Of all the men she'd known over the extended duration of her lifetime, MacLeod was the most consistently consistent. He was strong and inventive, and he was never out of practice. Moreover, he'd evolved this charming hero mentality over the past few decades that could be exasperatingly straight-laced at times, but was always irresistible in a boy scout kind of way.
And he listened, which always helped.
But tonight, he was better than good. He was great. He was sensational.
He was scary.
He'd actually frightened her. She'd thought herself long dead to that sensation: dead to the vulnerability it represented, dead to the euphoria of aliveness that followed in the wake of surviving.
Had she not known MacLeod as well as she did, she might have taken this turn of personality as some kind of gift to her. She might have considered the possibility that this new brutality was a game he'd crafted with her in mind, a game to allow her one night's return to the fragility -- to the mortality -- so irretrievably lost so very long ago.
It was something MacLeod might have understood she would value beyond measure.
But he didn't. He wouldn't. Even if he did understood, he wouldn't -- couldn't -- be what he'd been tonight. Not for her. Not for anyone.
Not unless something was wrong.
Very, very wrong.
As her bones healed and the pain of her injuries faded slowly to the background of her thoughts, Amanda watched MacLeod dream his restless dreams. She watched him murmur and moan as he twisted in protest to unseen visions, the muscles along his chest and shoulders clenching and unclenching in a battle waged on other planes of awareness.
In the relative quiet of the darkened bedroom, Amanda found herself once again afraid. But it was a different sort of fear this time: a sort she'd never known, even with a blade to her throat or as a starving mortal scavenging among the plague dead for scraps of food or money.
The fear wasn't a fear of him, it was a fear for him, a fear for MacLeod. A fear for what this new darkness in him would destroy, and a fear for what it would cost him should he ever return to the way he had once been.
And this fear she found, much to her anguished distress, had no redeeming qualities what so ever.
"We've got trouble," Dawson said into the phone. "We need to talk."
He listened for a moment, then shook his head. "No. It's worse than that." He listened again, shook his head again. "He was just here. Said it happened some time last night. Why weren't you on him? Why wasn't somebody watching?"
He listened for almost a minute, and then nodded. "Yeah, I hear you there. Okay. Well get over here, will you? And watch your back. If it's as bad as it sounds, MacLeod could be dangerous."
Dawson listened once more and then snorted. "Yeah, well watch your back anyway. You're the only operative I've got who's been able to keep tabs on him for more than two weeks running, and I don't have the funds or the manpower to set up anyone else if you blow your cover."
He hung up the phone and stood awkwardly in the quiet, dark bar. Though the builders had been working on it for a full three months now, it was still only half-finished. The walls were raw two-by-fours and drywall, there was no stage at all, and there wasn't enough wiring completed to support overhead lights to compensate when daylight gave way to dusk.
"Damnit, Mac," Dawson muttered. A multitude of scenarios chased one another through his mind. None of them were good. "What have you done? What in God's name have you done?
Richie careened around a hairpin turn at a little more than sixty miles an hour and nearly laid his bike down on the old sawmill road. He pulled it out at the last moment, controlling the skid, riding through the slippage of tires on dirt and gravel until the bike grabbed road again of its own volition.
It would have killed him had he gone down. Because he wasn't wearing a helmet, his skull would undoubtedly have cracked like a rotten pumpkin. Beyond that, the sharp-edged gravel would have torn him to shreds and, most likely, totaled the bike, too.
Not that he cared.
Why would he care? He was Immortal. If he died, it wasn't like he was dead forever. Nothing was forever in his world. Nothing but the stretch of the open road before him.
Richie accelerated, taking the straight-away at nearly ninety.
The two Watchers sat in the shadows of the half finished bar, a table and two drinks between them. Charlie DeSalvo thrust to his feet and began to pace.
"Shit," he swore vehemently. "Shit, shit, shit. Are you sure it was Adjen Croix?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. He told Richie they fought last night."
"Shit!" DeSalvo repeated.
It was full dark now. Without wiring, there was no electricity, but Dawson had a battery-operated lantern the construction crew used for working in the basement. It lit the place eerily, throwing long, dark shadows of indeterminate origin on the floor.
"You didn't say anything to Richie about --" Charlie asked suddenly.
"Why would I tell Richie anything about you?" Dawson interrupted, anticipating the question. "I told him what I wanted him to know, not what I've spent the better part of two years keeping from them both."
"Yeah, right." Charlie ran a hand through the close, military crop of his hair. "I know that. Sorry."
"Richie's just concerned. Hell, he's scared." Dawson hesitated a moment, then added, "I hate to admit it, but I'm a little scared myself."
"That makes three of us. Adjen Croix. Shit. I can't believe MacLeod would be dumb enough to take on Adjen Croix. Su was over a thousand years old, and he had serious reservations about facing that animal. There's no way to win when it comes down to either losing your head or losing your soul. MacLeod should have realized that. He should have known that 400 years isn't nearly enough buffer against a quickening so old we can't even trace its origin."
"Croix may not have given him any choice."
Charlie snorted. "There are times not to have any choice; and there are times to tuck your gear in tight, keep your ass close to the ground, and run like hell. Adjen Croix is definitely one of the latter."
"Then I assume you didn't know they were going to meet?"
"If I'd known, you'd've known." Charlie shot Dawson a side-eyed glance. "And don't give me any of that Watcher credo crap," he said pre-emptively. "You, of all people, know how hard it is to keep track of MacLeod."
"Yeah, I do. That's why I gave him to you."
Charlie stopped pacing. He glared at Dawson, informing the older man tersely, "MacLeod didn't say anything. He didn't even tell Richie until after it was done. I'm good, Dawson; but I can't read his damn mind."
"I don't expect you to read his mind, but I do expect you to pick up on it if he's preparing for a fight. Croix was an expert swordsman. If Mac was planning to face him, there should have been some discernable variance in his work-out routine."
"Well there wasn't. MacLeod was all smiles when he hit the showers last night. I didn't see him again until he tried to rip my head off this morning."
"Did you have someone watching the dojo?"
"I always have someone watching the dojo. Hell, I was there myself until well after midnight. Whatever happened had to have happened on the spur of the moment. Croix must have just showed up and called him out."
Dawson shook his head. "I don't like it. This was a major occurrence. There should have been somebody there to serve witness to it."
"How many times did you miss one of MacLeod's quickenings in the fifteen years you covered him?" Charlie asked. "How many times did he slip you and go off on his own? How many times was he missing in action for weeks until you picked up his trail again?"
"Which is exactly why we broke precedence to set you up in his back pocket. So you'd be close enough to keep track of him. Mac knows too much about us to be watched by conventional means."
"Yeah. Well, I've never been much of one for convention, but that doesn't mean I'm not the best damned operative you've got. Just because I don't sport the club tattoo --"
"I'm not questioning your competency, Charlie," Dawson assured the indignant Watcher. "And the first thing MacLeod notices when he meets a man is his wrist. If you had the tattoo, you wouldn't have been any use to the cause at all. I wouldn't have recruited you from the CIA if I'd wanted someone who could be spotted as a pigeon's egg when it's lying in a hawk's nest."
"I ain't no pigeon, man," Charlie groused. "And I'm a damned sight better than competent. I've kept MacLeod on the defensive for two years now. He's been working so hard to keep me from finding out his big, dark secret that he's never once considered that I might be anything other than just a guy whose dojo was in financial trouble when he was looking to invest."
Dawson sighed. Rubbing wearily at the headache that pulsed in his temples, he said, "I'm not pointing fingers here. I just called to fill you in on what's going down, and to try and figure out how this happened so we can keep it from happening again."
"You can't keep it from happening again," Charlie said. "Unless you can figure out some way to put MacLeod in an airtight box, he's going to slip through the cracks now and again. That's just the way it is. So all you need to figure out is how to wrap around it when it does happen. Because it will. You can count on it."
Dawson picked up his drink. "You're right, of course." He sipped of expensive scotch that was utterly wasted on him at the moment. "I just hate to see something like this happen. If we'd seen it coming, maybe we could have done something to keep it from happening. Maybe we could have figured out a way to stop MacLeod from taking up a challenge there wasn't any way for him to win."
"He did win."
"Not if Croix's quickening poisoned him."
Charlie didn't respond, but the way he didn't say anything was more of a statement than if he'd put what he was thinking to words.
"What?" Joe prompted.
Charlie shook the question off. "Nothing."
"Nothing my ass. What were you going to say?"
"I wasn't going to say anything."
"You were going to say you think I've let MacLeod get to me," Joe said. "That I've lost my perspective."
Charlie picked up his own drink, saying, "If you knew what I was going to say, then why the fuck did you ask?"
"You're wrong," Joe said.
Charlie cocked any eyebrow. "Am I?"
"Yes, you are. What? You think I haven't heard that before? But you saying it doesn't make it any more true than the Watcher Council saying it."
Charlie remained unconvinced. "You're trying to tell me you and MacLeod haven't become friends?"
"This isn't about Mac and I being friends."
"I didn't say it was. I said that because you are, it makes a difference in the way you look at things. If it didn't, the possibility of Croix's quickening poisoning MacLeod wouldn't be as important to you as the fact that there wasn't a Watcher there to witness Croix's head hitting the dirt."
Joe leaned into the table between them. "Mac and I may be friends, but I haven't lost my perspective. Every decision I make is as a Watcher first, and a friend second. MacLeod's one of the good guys. You know it. I know it. Hell, I think the Watcher Council even knows it. And in the time of The Gathering, that becomes far more important than one more record of who died where, by whose hand."
Charlie didn't say anything for several moments. "Important enough to do something about it?" he asked finally.
"If we could have gotten to him before he took Croix's head, I would have considered trying to talk him out of it. But now? I don't think there's anything we can do now but wait."
"If there was?"
Dawson's expression went utterly flat. "No," he said.
"No, there isn't anything we can do? Or no, you wouldn't consider it if there was?"
"No, I won't consider what you're suggesting."
Charlie's eyes narrowed. "I'm not suggesting anything," he said after a beat.
"Yes, you are; and it's out of the question."
"You're saying we can't interfere at all?"
"We're Watchers," Joe answered without answering. "It's who we are. It's who we've always been."
"I was assigned to Su Nguyen for six years," Charlie said. "I fought with the man. I slept in the same mud, I ate the same food, I even pissed in the same tin can at times. He saved my life more times than I can count; and he was a good enough friend to trust me with his secret, to warn me about the game and about the consequences of standing too close to a walking target." DeSalvo's eyes were sharp; his expression, angry. "But when it was time -- when Adjen Croix rose up out of the Mekong mists and challenged him -- I did what every good Watcher does: I stood back, and I watched."
"You aren't telling me anything I don't already know."
"What I'm telling you is that this is different. Su and I were friends – much closer friends than MacLeod and I will ever be – but I didn't interfere because I knew it wasn't my place to interfere. But this is different. It's different, and I think you know it."
"You think he's the one," Dawson surmised after a beat.
"Don't you?" Charlie challenged. "Isn't that what you mean when you say MacLeod's one of the good guys? When you say you haven't lost your perspective, and that every decision you make, you make as a Watcher first?"
Dawson ran a weary hand across his eyes. For a moment, he looked older than his years ... much older. "I'm not sure it matters what I think," he said finally. "Or what I want. If MacLeod is the one, he'll make it through this. We got into the game too late; the cards were already dealt. All we can do now is let the hand play itself out and hope for the best. "
Anger flared in Charlie DeSalvo's eyes. "That's a load of crap, and you know it. This isn't a game of cards, Dawson, it's a blood sport; and we have as much stake in the outcome as the Immortals do. Maybe more, given that we have to live with whoever's left when the last head falls. It isn't the fifteenth century any more. This is the time of The Gathering. What was the far-off mists of the future to the original Watchers is a cold, hard, imminent reality to us. They may have been able to afford that high-minded moral crap, but we can't. It's too immediate, too real. If we don't take a stand soon, its going to be someone like St. Cloud, or Callis who takes the prize."
"We're Watchers. That's all we can do. Watch."
"If you believed that, you would have re-assigned yourself when MacLeod showed up on your doorstep with that chronicle. But you didn't. You got involved. Like it or not, you stopped being a Watcher and became a participant the day you went eye to eye with Duncan MacLeod and chose not to turn away."
Dawson studied the intricate eddies that formed in the bottom of his nearly empty glass. "You're right," he admitted finally. "I am a participant to an extent. When James murdered Darius, he unbalanced the scales. I had to do something to try and make that right."
"But not this time? MacLeod did what he was supposed to do: He took Croix's head. And now -- for no other reason than because he took out the baddest cat on the block -- he's in trouble. That seems balanced to you? That doesn't seem like something we should try and make right if we can?"
For a long, hard minute, Dawson didn't answer. "Being a Watcher has taught me a lot about history," he said finally. "About recording it, about making it." He swirled the amber scotch in the bottom of his glass. "It's taught me that the smartest men have made choices for the most honorable reasons only to start in motion the crushing wheels of disaster."
"And men of conscience have paralyzed themselves with moral indecision to the same end," Charlie countered.
Dawson sighed. "I don't pretend to have all the answers," he said. "But I do have some of them. Or at least, I think I do. That's why I've made the choices I have with MacLeod. He's an experiment: an attempt to change the way we do things for the better. I've broken a lot of rules in the name of that, but it doesn't mean I can do anything I want to. I'm still a Watcher. I still have to live by the spirit of the Watcher Code, if not the letter of its law."
"He's more than an experiment. He's a man: a good man. And he's your friend."
"That can't make a difference."
"It has to make a difference," Charlie argued.
"No." Dawson finished his drink and set it aside. "It doesn't."
"Then let it make a difference for me. If I can figure out some way to help him, then sanction me to act or turn away so what I do isn't anything you know."
"I can't do that."
"He's more hope for the future than I've had in twenty years," Charlie said. "I'm willing to take whatever heat the Watcher Council throws my way."
"We have to have lines, Charlie."
"What kind of lines, Joe?"
"The kind we can't cross."
"The line between mortal and Immortal?"
"The line between friendship and duty. And the one between right and wrong." Dawson met DeSalvo's eyes. "What you're thinking about crosses both of them."
"You keep saying that, but you don't have any idea what I'm thinking."
"You're thinking that if MacLeod takes another quickening, it will dilute Croix's influence on him," Dawson said. "You're thinking if he does it soon enough, he might be able to regain control before we lose him."
"And you're thinking," Dawson finished quietly, "that it would be child's play to set someone up; to put a lesser Immortal in the right place, at the right time, and then sit back and let nature take its course."
Charlie sighed. He sank slowly into a chair. "You've been doing this too long, Joe," he muttered.
"Yes," Dawson agreed grimly. "I have."
MacLeod woke with a headache worthy of his most notorious nights. The room was a ship at sea, pitching and yawing in gut-turning heaves and jerks. The confusion of corners and angles and walls and colors made him want to close his eyes again, but he didn't. It took some time to figure out exactly where he was, but once he did; the slick whisper of silk against his skin made a comforting kind of sense.
"Amanda?" He tried to sit up without success. The room continued to buck and heave around him. "Amanda?"
She wasn't there. He knew it once the resident buzzing in his skull settled from a deafening cacophony of white noise static to the mind-numbing drone he'd carried in his bones since Adjen Croix's quickening drove him to his knees. There were no other Immortals in his immediate vicinity. At least he had that to soothe him in the chaos that had become his every waking moment.
Crawling from the luxury of her bedclothes like an animal crawling away to die, he put his feet to the floor and tried to stand. For a moment, he was on his feet, but then he lost his balance and fell back to the bed, bruising one bare hip on the corner of a nightstand. It was a beautiful piece, intricately carved and easily a hundred years old if it was a day. With a snarl of rage, MacLeod grabbed the nightstand by its delicately tooled ironwork lattice and hurled it across the room.
He took a perverse pleasure in the slamming of her irreplaceable indulgence against the far wall, but the sound of splintering wood became an assault before the satisfaction of destruction had even begun to fade. The shatter of the nightstand wreaking havoc in the expensive clutter of her lush décor escalated to a thousand voices screaming in his head. Like a heated argument in a fifteenth century Italian brothel, they shouted and bickered and cursed among themselves.
MacLeod groaned. Falling back into the tangled nest of pillows and blankets, he clutched at his head, fingers turning pressure white as they dug into his own flesh.
Nothing made any sense. The voices spoke in a hundred languages, some he recognized, some he didn't. Some spoke in no language at all, but in guttural utterances more akin to grunts and snarls and moans. Disjointed and out of context, they wove a tapestry of bedlam through the corridors of his mind, deafening him with the endless white noise of their meaningless discourse.
MacLeod rolled over, burrowed deeper in what little succor Amanda's bed offered him. He needed the skill of her hands, the pressure of her mouth to drive the demons to silence, if only for a little while. Her absence was an agony in and of itself. He needed to feel her bones break in his hands, even as he needed to hear her voice against his skin, telling him she wanted him even if wanting him meant feeling this.
She knew him, and he needed that. She knew who he was, and he wanted that. But she wasn't here. He'd come to her for help, and she wasn't here. "Amanda," he whispered, his voice a pleading on her name. She didn't answer him. The warmth of her body was nothing but a memory he couldn't hold as it slipped away. He slept again, the smell of her blood suffusing his senses and rich with the taste of her in his dreams.
"Hello?" Amanda's voice was a tentative echo in the deserted dojo. The lights were off, and there was no one in the office that backed the main gymnasium. "Is anyone here?" She stepped across the threshold, her stiletto heels tapping a sharp, staccato pattern on the hardwood floor as she made her way deeper into the darkness. "Richard? Hello? Is anyone here?"
A tall, wiry black man popped around a corner. He frowned when he saw her, but said, "Yeah? What can I do for you?"
He didn't look like he wanted to do anything for her, and Amanda took that as a challenge. She preferred her men surly: They were more fun that way. Beyond which, she'd come to the conclusion over years of extensive experimentation that men who were too willing to please usually couldn't, and those who required a little work were almost always worth the effort.
She smiled at him and said, "I'm looking for Richard Ryan."
"Well, you're looking in the wrong place." His voice was harsh, his tone dismissive. "Ryan ain't here. Try his crib. It's over on Second and Paseo."
"Well, actually," she said to stall a retreat he'd already half affected, "I didn't really think he'd be up yet; but I thought I would wait for him here. Maybe upstairs, in MacLeod's place?"
That caught the black man's attention. His gaze became clinically evaluative as he walked toward her, his eyes bold and uncompromising in the way they examined every inch of her without evident care whether she found the examination intimidating or offensive. She returned the favor, noting the way his muscles moved in the low light as he walked.
He was a strong man, a lithely muscular man; and he was wearing a dark, sweat-stained tank that showed that off to his advantage. He wore his head virtually shaved and moved with an economy of motion that reminded her of a panther on the prowl. Special forces, she decided. Probably the man MacLeod told her about: The one who'd owned the dojo before he bought it.
"You a friend of Mac's?" he demanded after a beat, his voice still an effrontery of presumption.
Amanda favored him with a look that had been known to melt Navy SEALs in their boots. "A good friend," she verified. "A very, very good friend." She stepped forward, holding out her hand in a way that could have been shaken or kissed, depending if one was a Marine or a Musketeer. "You must be Charlie."
He surprised her by choosing neither, and saying nothing.
"I'm Amanda," she offered after a beat. "Perhaps MacLeod mentioned me?"
"No." His tone was cold, unnecessarily discourteous. "He hasn't."
Amanda dropped her hand. Her appreciation for his surlier attributes was waning fast. "Really. How derelict of him."
"You're going to have to wait for Richie someplace else," Charlie said like she was some harpy he couldn't be bothered with. "Mac ain't home, and I don't have a key."
"Not a problem." She produced the key with a flourish. "I have my own. I'll just," she wrinkled her nose at him, "be right upstairs. Be a dear and send Richard up when he gets in, won't you?"
She started for the freight elevator. Charlie moved to block. "Mac has a keychain just like that."
"What a delightful coincidence."
"You lift it off him while he was looking the other way?"
Amanda's eyes flashed with a fair approximation of outraged indignation. "Are you suggesting that I'm a pickpocket?" she demanded. "I'll have you know, I've never picked a pocket in my life."
"Really." Charlie's tone was clear with his opinion.
"Then how'd you end up with Mac's key?"
Amanda sniffed primly. "Well, if you must know, he gave it to me. He's staying at my place for a while, and he asked me to pick up a few things."
"What kind of things?"
"Intimate things. Like those teeny, tiny little briefs he --"
"I thought you said you came to see Richie," Charlie interrupted.
Always prepared to shift on the fly, Amanda didn't even blink. "I did. That's why Duncan asked me to pick up his things. Because I was already coming over to see Richard."
Charlie shook his head. "Sorry. Key or no key, I'm not letting you through. You can wait for him across the street; or you can wait in the office, if you want. But until I hear different from MacLeod himself, you're not going upstairs when he's not home."
"You're being ridiculous," Amanda huffed. "I am going upstairs, and I'm doing it now. You can tell Richard where I am when he gets in."
She tried to walk around him again; and again, Charlie stepped to the side to block.
"I don't think so," he said.
"What you think hardly matters," she retorted.
"It matters unless you think you can take me."
"Don't be ridiculous. I could take you on my worst day."
"Any time you're ready," Charlie agreed blandly.
Amanda glared daggers at him. "You know, the more I talk to you, the more that sounds like fun." Whatever else she was going to say died in her throat as the buzz of an approaching Immortal lit her pale features to a momentary panic. "Oh, crap," she said. And this time, when she stepped closer to Charlie, it was to step behind him, to put his body between her and whoever was about to walk through the dojo's front door.
Much to her relief, it was Richie and not MacLeod who opened the door and stepped inside. Lost in thought, he hadn't noticed the buzz of her quickening yet. It was a foolish mistake, but one the young were prone to make.
"Richard! How lovely to see you again."
The overly effusive enthusiasm of her greeting stopped Richie dead in his tracks. "Uh … Amanda." His surprise escalated by a factor of ten when she hurried across the dojo floor in a tippy-tappy of stiletto heals to wrap him in an ardent embrace.
"We need to talk," she hissed near his ear. "Now!" When she pulled back, she was still smiling her carefree smile, the urgency in her tone conspicuously absent from the pleasant turn of a relaxed expression.
When he didn't say anything, she prompted impatiently, "I thought maybe we could chat a bit, Richard. Perhaps catch up on old times?"
"Old times," Richie agreed. He nodded, still confused, but said, "Yeah. Catch up on old times. Right. We could do that." He looked at Charlie. "Uh -- Charlie. We're going to chat a bit, I guess. Catch up on old times."
"You sure Mac won't have a problem with that," Charlie asked, then added sarcastically, "Richard?"
"With Amanda and I chatting?" Richie asked.
"With her," Charlie clarified with a pointed look at Amanda, "up in his place when he's not around."
Amanda hooked her arm in Richie's. "I believe your friend thinks I'm a thief," she said.
"You are a thief," Richie replied without thinking.
"Richie!" Amanda glared at him. "I am not a thief." When Charlie snorted his opinion of that claim, she afforded him a side-ways glance and allowed grudgingly, "Well, I'm not a thief any more. I haven't been for --" she started to say three months, but changed her mind at the last second "-- for some time now." She glanced meaningfully at Richie. "Some time," she repeated firmly. Then her eyes swung back to Charlie. "And I have never -- not on my worst days ever -- picked a pocket. That's as sure a sign as there is of a small thinker, and as MacLeod would tell you, if MacLeod were here, I never think small."
Richie grinned. "Mac won't mind, Charlie. He and Amanda are old friends."
"I told him we were old friends," Amanda complained. "I don't think he believed me."
"Trust me, Charlie," Richie said. "They're old friends. Old, old friends."
Amanda reached back to smooth the short, sleek line of her ebony hair. "Not that old," she demurred.
"And I promise," Richie added, "I'll watch her like a hawk."
"You'd better," Charlie said. "Because it's your ass if she walks off with something MacLeod values." Without another word, he turned and walked away.
"I thought you were a pickpocket for almost a decade before you met Rebecca," Richie said as he and Amanda headed across the dojo for the freight elevator that led to MacLeod's loft.
"Richard!" She slapped his biceps, her arm still hooked in his, her smile playfully incensed rather than truly offended. "Does a girl have no secrets around you? And Mac and I aren't old friends, we're intimate friends. It sounds much better to a lady, even if she is Immortal."
Minutes later, there was no trace of amusement of any kind in Amanda's voice as she repeated, her voice hushed and horrified, "Adjen Croix? Oh, no." She put a hand over her mouth, then said again, "Oh, no."
"I guess he was a real bad guy."
"Bad doesn't even begin to cover it," Amanda said. She sat in silence for a long moment, then shuddered and stood, announcing, "I need a drink." She crossed MacLeod's loft and helped herself to his liquor cabinet and its compliment of ancient, expensive whiskeys.
"Adjen Croix," she murmured again when she'd downed more than half a snifter of Napoleon brandy, a finely textured spirit she'd developed a taste for when it was the newest fad in the Parisian court. "Oh, Duncan, what foolish, foolish thing have you done this time?"
"Then you're worried, too," Richie surmised.
She smiled at him; but tears were glistening, unshed, in her eyes. "Worried, dear? Worried isn't the word I would use."
"Dawson thinks Croix's quickening changed him. He thinks it turned him bad like Darius turned good."
"I wish I could say he's wrong, but I don't think he is. Mac has changed, and not for the good." Her gaze shortened then, returning from a distant point of contemplation to focus on Richie. "Dawson who?"
"Joe Dawson. The Watcher guy."
"Oh. Him." Amanda's lip curled in distaste. "That still gives me the creeps. To think there's been generations of mortals watching our every move: watching us eat, watching us sleep, watching us ..." she wrinkled her nose "... do other things. It's like a fetish or something: a secret little society of secret little men passing their secret little vocation from father to son to son to son."
"Joe's not like that. He's a good guy."
"A good guy who likes to watch."
"He knows a lot about us. He knows a lot about Adjen Croix."
"Who doesn't? Croix's been around forever. He's the ghost story mortals tell their children at night to make them stay in bed where they belong." She took another sip of brandy, growing quiet. "He shouldn't have fought him," she said after several moments of silence. "No matter what Croix did, he shouldn't have fought him." Tears welled in her eyes again. "You can't win against someone like that. Even if you take his head .…" Her voice cracked. She left the thought unfinished.
"There has to be a way to help him," Richie said. "There has to be a way to get MacLeod back."
Amanda shook her head. "It's too late," she whispered. "The quickening changed him. Croix was too strong. Too strong even for brave, gentle Duncan MacLeod."
"You don't know that," Richie insisted.
"I do know it. I know it far too well." She loosened the fashionable drape of her brightly colored, expensive scarf. "Did I mention he slept at my place last night?"
The bruises on her throat were unmistakable. Every finger could be counted in garish stains on otherwise pale, flawless flesh. Though they'd begun to heal, the purples and greens were still a blasphemy to the delicate arch of her graceful neck.
Across the room, Richie stared at Amanda's throat, his mind numb and his heart frozen dead in his chest.
MacLeod felt as bad as he ever remembered feeling. There was a lethargy in his chest, a sickness in his belly, a sense of devastation resonating in his bones. His hands were shaking, and his ears were ringing, and every fiber of his body pulsed in time with the somnolent beat of his heart.
And in his skull, the voices continued to bicker.
He walked slowly along the grey, foggy street, head low and shoulders hunched against the day's chill-fingered caress. The tails of his coat whipped lonely in the wind. They flapped about his legs like the wings of a great raven, the only sound indigenous to a street nearly devoid of traffic. Though the sun cloaked itself chastely with rain-heavy clouds, he wore dark glasses against what little ambient light remained.
His hands were clenched to fists.
The dojo was still miles away. He would have called a cab, but he had no money. He had no wallet, he had no keys. He was lucky, he supposed, that he still had his head.
MacLeod smiled a mirthless smile. One day, Amanda was going to push him too far. One day she would take too much, and he would wrap his fingers around her delicate little neck and rip her lying head off her lying shoulders.
One day soon.
MacLeod shrugged deeper into his coat and watched the fog lap at his boots like a shallow pool of molten smoke. It occurred to him passingly that it might behoove him to simply vanish. To go someplace new, to become someone else. The day was right for it. His mood was right for it. Had Amanda not taken his car when she left him sleeping, he might have done just that.
But she had, and he didn't; so instead, he continued to walk.
Richie had never seen Amanda frightened before, but she was frightened now. Her small, birdlike hands made small, birdlike gestures as she told him to leave before MacLeod returned to the dojo from where she'd left him stranded at her condo.
"I can't," Richie said. "Mac's my friend. If there's any way I can help him --"
"He's past help," she interrupted sharply. "Past your help. Past mine. All you can do now is lose your head." Her eyes softened as the freight elevator ground to a halt. She reached out and laid a hand on his cheek. "He wouldn't want that," she said. "If he was still in his right mind, he would never want that."
Richie shook his head, denying her words by refusing to accept them. "Mac won't hurt me," he insisted.
"He isn't Duncan MacLeod anymore. He's someone else."
Richie swung the gate up and stepped onto the dojo floor. He held out a hand to help a woman who scaled twenty storey buildings for fun over the slight rise of the uneven floor. "Part of him is still Mac."
Tears glistened in Amanda's dark eyes. "He was so fond of you," she whispered.
"Is," Richie corrected. "He is so fond of me." He flashed her a lopsided grin. "And why not? What's not to be fond of?" When he held out his arms to say goodbye, she slid into them more intimately than he expected.
"Be careful, Richie," she said against his neck.
"I always am," he returned, fighting to maintain the natural jocularity to his tone.
"How touching," a low voice commented from the dojo door. "Fresh meat, Amanda?"
Amanda's body tightened like a bowstring. She turned, putting her back to Richie like she trusted him to protect it. And then she smiled.
"Duncan." Her voice was a convincing charade of pleased surprise. "I'm surprised to see you here. I was just on my way back --"
"Spare me," MacLeod advised. He stepped into the dojo, his expression a dark match to the soulless glower of his gaze. "I've heard them all before."
"Now, Duncan --" her tone was cajoling, playful as she approached him like it didn't occur to her it might be a dangerous thing to do, "-- surely you don't think --"
He grabbed her wrists when she went to place her hands on his chest. All the way across the gym, Richie heard the bones crack. Amanda cried out as much in surprise as in pain. Richie jolted into motion.
MacLeod looked up, his eyes invitingly dangerous. "Come on then, boy," he said.
"It's okay, Richie," Amanda called quickly. "I'm okay." She said it breathlessly, like she'd just finished running a race, and though he didn't believe it, Richie stopped nonetheless, unnerved by the predatory anticipation in MacLeod's gaze. "Please ... Duncan," Amanda's knees sagged slightly to relieve the pressure of his grip. "You're hurting me."
"Am I?" he asked mildly. His eyes glittered once more at Richie before he turned his full attention to the slender woman whose wrists he held trapped in one hand. "My keys," he said.
"In my purse," she assured him. "I was bringing --"
"My wallet," he interrupted.
"In my purse, too. Really, Duncan, I was --"
His hands tightened on her wrists.
"It's all ..." she was having trouble speaking "... all in the wallet, Duncan. I didn't take any."
He smiled down into her eyes. "That would be a refreshing change." He released her and pushed her away, stripping her purse from her shoulder as she went. Digging through the bag, he retrieved his wallet, his keys and an impressive roll of money. He held the money up. "Going somewhere?"
"It's not yours if that's what you're thinking." She was holding one wrist with the other hand. "It's just a nest egg. I was taking it to the bank --"
"The bank? Come now, Amanda. Surely you can do better than that." He tossed the purse at her feet but kept the roll of money. "Banks have such a poor return rate. And they're so vulnerable to the affections of agile thieves." He dropped the money into a coat pocket. "Why don't I hold it for you. I'll make a few investments. You'll be much happier with the rate of return, I promise."
She drew a breath as if to argue, then changed her mind. "Okay. You keep it; I trust you." She took another step toward the dojo door. "I'd love to stay, but I'm meeting friends." Her eyes flicked to Richie. "It was lovely to see you again, Richard." Her hand fluttered near the scarf that was once again draped around her throat. "Don't wait too long to call that restaurant. If you don't act quickly, you could die waiting to get a reservation." She turned to go.
"Amanda?" MacLeod called after her.
His Katana was out when she turned. He needed only two steps to lay the tip of the blade against her face. He traced the line of her jaw to her chin, then traveled a slow, deliberate line down her throat to the hollow between her collarbones. Though the press of folded steel against her flesh was obscured by the same scarf that concealed the stain of his hands on her skin, a welling of dark crimson rising through the expensive silk made him smile.
"The next time you steal from me," he said quietly, his eyes full of promise, "will be the last."
Not daring to move, she nodded with her eyes. MacLeod waited a moment longer, and then drew the blade away. "Get out," he said. She was gone before the echo of his voice died.
With a short, humorless burst of laughter, he turned back to Richie. The rage in the younger Immortal's eyes was unmistakable. Hands clenched white at his side, and he was nearly vibrating with the effort of holding it in.
"Something you want to say, Richard?" MacLeod asked. The Katana hung loose in his relaxed grip. It swayed gently near his leg like a cobra waiting to strike.
Richie struggled for a moment with his pride. Though his expression never quite gave in, common sense won out in the words he finally spoke: "Nah, Mac. I got nothing to say to you. Nothing at all." He pushed into motion as if to follow Amanda's lead, but MacLeod stopped him with a shift of the Katana's blade.
"I feel like fighting." His eyes were alive with an expression Richie had never seen before. "Get the Toledo. We'll play."
"I don't think so. I had a rough night, and I'm kind of tired."
"Fucking Amanda?" MacLeod asked brightly. The glitter in his eyes grew more intense, more specific. "Get the Toledo anyway."
Richie averted his eyes. "I don't really have time." Dropping one shoulder, he tried to slip past MacLeod. The Katana flashed. Its razor-sharp tip opened a long red line from the corner of Richie's left eye to his ear.
"Make time," MacLeod hissed.
Richie Ryan was fighting for his life when Charlie returned to the dojo with lunch. The young Immortal was bleeding from a dozen shallow cuts, and his eyes had the wild look of a cornered animal. Scrambling on the dojo's slick, hardwood floor, he tried and failed to outmaneuver a perfectly-balanced, perfectly-composed MacLeod.
"What in the ...?" Charlie slung his duffle instinctively. It caught MacLeod's shoulder, knocking the Highlander off balance and deflecting a blow that would have, in all probability, gutted the half standing, half kneeling Richie.
Forgetting for a moment that both MacLeod and Richie would heal from their wounds while he would just flat out die; Charlie charged. His presence in the crux of the battle was enough to break things up. Richie stumbled back; MacLeod let him retreat.
Taking up a defensive stance between them, Charlie started ranting, doing his best to seem as if he had no idea what was really going on: "What in the name of God's green earth do you two think you're doing? This ain't no fucking kung-fu movie. One slip of that head-hacker you've got MacLeod, and Richie's singing soprano in the Vienna Boy's Choir … or worse!"
"I'm okay, Charlie," Richie said, breathing hard. "Mac's just teaching me a few moves."
"A few moves, hell! He damned neared took out your intestines!" Charlie turned to focus his fury on the calm Immortal whose Katana now hung from his hand without intention. "What in the hell do you think you're doing, Mac? You trying to kill the boy? You want to take his head off at the belly button? Is that what you want? You want to kill Richie? Huh? Do you?"
MacLeod blinked. He stared at Charlie for a moment, then blinked again. "It was a workout," he said finally. "I was just showing him some moves." He looked past Charlie to Richie. "We're done for today. You can go ahead and get cleaned up."
And then he turned and strode to the freight elevator.
"You're going to kill him, MacLeod," Charlie called angrily. The gate slammed in place and the elevator began to ascend. "Is that what you want? You want to kill your own student?"
But MacLeod was already gone.
Richie reached out to put a hand on DeSalvo's shoulder. "Hey, man. It's okay. Really. No big deal."
"No big deal?" Charlie was still glaring at the elevator gate.
"We were sparring. I guess we just got a little carried away."
Charlie turned. He fixed the young Immortal with a hard, cold gaze. "He's gonna kill you, man," he said.
"No one's going to kill me. It just got out of hand. You know how it is."
"Yeah. I know how it is." His eyes flicked meaningfully to one of a dozen lines of blood cut into the younger man's skin. "I know you think you're Immortal. I know you think because you're young, you're gonna live forever." He pretended not to notice Richie's flinch of surprise. "But immortal kids like you die all the time. They get themselves burned up in car crashes and shot in drug deals every day."
"I'm not --"
"You think you won't die if he takes your head off with that sword of his?" Charlie interrupted.
Richie flinched again. Charlie wanted to pursue the point, to make it beyond question, but he'd already pushed father than he should, and he couldn't afford to show his hole card at this stage of the game. "You will, man," he said instead. "Take my word for it: You will." He reached down to retrieved his duffle, wondering idly if by throwing it, he'd crossed one of Dawson's lines. "You need to get while the getting's still good," he advised as he straightened. "You don't, and you're going to find out more about the afterlife than you ever wanted to know."
"I can't leave right now. Mac's in trouble. I have to stay and try to help."
"That" Charlie pointed at the elevator gate, "isn't the MacLeod you know. Whatever's going on with him, he's changed. I know it, and you know it. At least, you do if there is a single brain in that thick head of yours."
"He needs my help," Richie insisted a little desperately.
"You can't help him. Whatever demons have got hold of him, he has to work them out on his own."
"It's not demons, Charlie. It's ... it's something else."
For a moment, Richie looked like he was going to tell him. The moment passed. The urge to confess died in the young Immortal's eyes, and he looked away. "Just something else," he said quietly.
"Get out, Richie," Charlie repeated. "Get out now, or you're going to die."
The loft was the den of an enemy unknown. Crouched in a corner, pulled into himself in a defensive ball, the utter stillness of MacLeod's body was a dramatic contrast to the roiling upheaval within him. Rage coiled around his vitals. Rage and fury and hatred. It lived in him, trying to consume him.
Inside his skull, the voices shrieked.
He closed his eyes. In the reflection of his memory, he saw the terror in Richie Ryan's eyes as the boy scrambled for his life. He saw the surprise in Amanda's delicate features, and then the pain, as his fingers tightened into her throat until she could no longer breathe.
A part of him relished the memory.
A part of him abhorred it.
The voices shrieked and howled. They clamored for attention, a deafening cacophony of sound. Brilliantly blinding light coursed through his veins. It flared around his heart, it burgeoned in his chest. It filled him like a fire, burning away all sense of time and place and sanity.
In the quiet, dark corner, MacLeod trembled. Low and guttural, a sound of no inherent meaning beyond the tortured emotion it expressed rumbled through him. Wounded, damaged, cornered, he existed in a state of ageless memory. His body was a battleground; his mind, a bloodbath; his soul, a place of devastation. The quickening that had sustained him for centuries was a bitter acid now. It consumed him, creating in him a sense of nothingness so deep and timeless it had no name.
As the abyss within him yawed, he teetered on the rim of it, caught in the vortex of a quickening, burning to ash in the electrical storm of Immortal invincibility. His every need was a carnal gluttony: voracious, insatiable. His sense of self had eroded to nothing in the teeth of it. He existed now only as a memory he clung to: a memory of friends, of family, of love, of purpose.
It was all he was now, and even that was bleeding out through an Immortal wound torn in the fabric of everything he had ever been.
Richie was shaking so hard he could barely hold the glass Dawson handed him. It's amber contents sloshed over the rim, numbing his skin each place it fell. "He was going to kill me," he whispered, voice dull with shock. "He was going to take my head, right there in the dojo."
"Just calm down. And take a drink of that." He nodded to the as-of-yet untouched scotch. "It'll kill a case of the jitters faster than morphine with a novocain chaser."
Richie downed the whiskey in one gulp. Though he wasn't much of a drinker, he hardly seemed affected by the strength of the old, expensive, 180 proof scotch.
"There has to be something we can do. Some way we can help him. Some way we can change him back to who he used to be."
Easing himself awkwardly into the chair across the table from the young Immortal, Dawson said, "If there is, I don't know what it is."
Richie leaned forward. Features here-to-for virtually defined by their seeming inability to take anything seriously were serious now. Fiercely serious. Deadly serious. As if the force of his will could alone change granite to gold, he insisted, "There has to be. There just has to be."
Dawson didn't answer because the only thing he could say wasn't something he was willing to say.
"This has happened before, hasn't it?" Richie asked when Dawson didn't respond. "I mean, you guys have been doing this for a thousand years or something, right? This can't be the first time somebody got a bad quickening."
"So what did you do? How did you get them back?"
Dawson sighed. He leaned back in his chair and folded both hands across his stomach. "We're Watchers, Richie," he explained patiently. "We don't do anything. We watch. That's all. We watch."
"Well if you watched, then you know what they did, right? How they dealt with it?" He spoke with his hands, gesturing forcefully. "So, give, Joe. What's the cure for a bad case of quickening? What's the favored Immortal home remedy to the hang-over of all time?"
"You're not going to like it," Dawson warned.
"I've got a strong constitution, and Mac's got a truckload of money. Between the two of us, we can handle anything. Just lay it on me. Just tell me what I have to do."
Dawson could see panic doing its best to masquerade as optimism in the young Immortal's eyes. It made him sick to tell the boy what he had to tell him. "In the cases we know about, there was no cure. Who they became is who they stayed."
Richie was already shaking his head before Dawson finished speaking. Pushing up from the table, he began to pace, saying, "No. There has to be a way. There has to be a way."
"Every time an Immortal takes a quickening," Dawson went on gently, "it changes him. It adds to him, gives him more knowledge, makes him a little stronger. But when there's a dramatic imbalance between the respective strengths of two quickenings, sometimes it matters less which body survives than it does which quickening survives. If a vastly stronger quickening is absorbed by someone not equipped to control it, the new quickening doesn't influence the existing personality so much as it takes over. The stronger essence becomes dominant. In Darius's case, that changed him for the good. In Mac's --"
Joe stopped for a moment, then forced himself to finish it: "In Mac's, I'm afraid it's working the other way around. Croix was a monster. He'd been a monster for thousands of years. His quickening was fortified by only God knows how many other quickenings, many of those also from Immortals who'd lived for a very long time, probably in ways very similar to how Croix lived. I'm not sure there's an Immortal alive who could have taken that quickening without changing for the worse. Methos, maybe, if he is something more than just a myth. But not Mac. Not someone only 400 years old."
Richie was pacing faster, shaking his head, running his hands through his hair. "No, no, no," he kept muttering. "There has to be a way. There has to be."
"I'm sorry, Richie. I don't know what else to tell you."
Richie resumed his seat suddenly. Leaning his arms into the table, he stared directly into Joe Dawson's eyes and asked, "What if he takes another quickening?"
"I don't know. It might dilute Croix's influence on him. Or it might deepen it. It would depend on whose quickening it was: What kind of Immortal they are. If they're closer to Croix's side of the coin or to MacLeod's. How old they are. How many other quickenings they've taken, and how old those quickenings are."
"What if it was me?"
Joe knew the question was coming, but hearing it made him sick anyway. "No," he said unequivocally. "Absolutely not. You're a newborn by Immortal standards. You aren't strong enough. You've only taken what? Two, three quickenings? It's not enough to make a difference."
"I took Mako," Richie said.
"It's not enough. Not even close."
"Do you know that?" Richie asked. "Or are you just guessing?"
"I know it," Dawson lied.
Richie stared into Dawson's eyes for a long moment and then nodded. "Thanks, Joe," he said. "You've been a big help." He stood.
Dawson leaned forward, one hand fisted in frustration on the smooth tabletop. "It won't work. You'll die for nothing."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it's my choice to make." He smiled, his young features relaxing into a satisfaction of palpable relief. "I appreciate you lying though. It made me feel like ... I don't know. Like I was important, too, I guess. Like maybe you and I are friends in our own way."
"We are friends, Richie."
"Yeah." Richie grinned. "We are."
"And as your friend," Dawson pressed, "I can't let you do this."
Richie met the older man's eyes. "As a Watcher," he countered calmly, "you can't do anything else. Thanks for everything, Joe. See you around."
Richie turned and walked away, and Joe Dawson could do nothing but watch him go.
Dawson set the long case on the table and pushed it across. "It has a 240 scope. Best on the market." He met DeSalvo's steady gaze for a moment before looking away. "Don't miss."
Charlie didn't move. He neither accepted the case nor refused it. "And then what?" he asked finally. "Bullet won't keep him down long."
Unhooking his cane from the arm of his chair, Dawson struggled awkwardly to his feet. "Wait until Richie's gone, then finish it."
"Take his head?"
"There's a saber in one of the inside pockets."
"What if Richie won't leave?"
"Make him leave. I don't care how you do it, but if Richie's around when MacLeod's head comes off, he'll absorb the quickening. That can't happen. Make sure it doesn't happen."
"What about your rules, Joe? What about your lines?"
"I may not be able to set another Immortal up to save him, but I can keep him from killing Richie. I owe him that."
"You're afraid it will work," Charlie said. "You think Richie's quickening would make a difference."
"I don't know if it would or not, but either way, Mac loses. Again. And if the dilution is enough for him to know what he's done, to care what he's done …" There was a harsh glint to Joe Dawson's eyes. "Watcher or no Watcher, I can't let that happen. I won't let it happen."
"I used to think you were a lucky man to have MacLeod trust you," Charlie said. He pulled the case across the table and stood. "To have him consider you a friend. But now that I think about it, I think maybe I had it turned around."
"A Watcher first," Dawson said quietly. "But still a friend. This is all I can do for him. It will have to be enough."
Charlie nodded. Stepping back, he retreated into the half-shadows of the half-finished bar and vanished.
MacLeod was concentrating on the routine, performing the stylistically ritual moves to the full extent of their flexibility potential. The sun was warm on his bare shoulders and forgiving on the dark cloth of his black sweat pants.
He'd spent days in the corner of his loft, trapped in his own world, unwilling to return to theirs until the need to slaughter a boy he very nearly considered a son faded from his every waking thought to a random happenstance of periodic consideration. When he returned to a sense of sanity that wasn't defined by the taste of blood, he left the dojo behind, driving roads so familiar they didn't require him to consider their navigation from there to here.
For the first time in what seemed an eternity, he could hear his own thoughts as they swam about in his head. The voices still whispered, but at least now, one of them was his own.
He finished a series of forms and began another.
The land stretched lush and green before him, a long valley of trees and mountain streams overlooked by the rocky outcropping of Beyer's mountain. It was peaceful here. Secluded. It was a place he felt safe; a place he could hear himself think, and a place he could teach himself not to listen.
A place he could teach himself the discipline to go on, just as he'd taught Richie the discipline to use the Toledo as something more than a sharp stick in the undisciplined hands of a child.
Thoughts of Richie sparked conflict to his routine. The remembered terror in the boy's eyes as he bled him for the sin of allowing Amanda's hands to touch his skin skewed MacLeod's sense of balance. The remembered rage of picturing them together in his mind when he saw Amanda in the boy's arms faltered MacLeod in mid-move, and he had to place a foot to ground to keep from falling. The structure of his routine crumpled, and with it, his iron grip on the chaos in his mind.
The voices began to argue louder. The peaceful serenity of the day splintered to a thousand shards of groundless rage.
I've come for the boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
The agony of Croix's quickening driving him to the ground was a physical memory in every fiber of his body. The bloodlust of Croix hunger for the savagery of the vulnerable burned like acid every time it crossed the knowing that Richie Ryan was there for the taking.
A lamb sacrifice to appease his lust for blood and death. The tributes of his people were his every living pleasure. They were a sacrosanct covenant of their piety, their devotion, their love, their willingness to bow before him and offer unto him that which was most precious to them.
He needed that veneration to exist. The taste of their love in the blood of their children was the only adoration that made the endless passing of centuries bearable.
I've come for your boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
MacLeod swayed with the power of emotion roiling in his veins. The need was a consumingly tangible hunger. Even knowing the hunger was Croix's and not his own, there was nothing in him that could renounce it, only that which could endure it. Endure it until it faded. Endure it until it could once again be subjugated. Endure it until it no longer required the taste of agony to satiate it. Endure it until it rose again to call for another sacrifice in blood.
The jar of an Immortal presence buzzed through the voices in MacLeod's head, an angry bee demanding attention from the scattered remnants of his shattered concentration. He dropped to an instinctive crouch, scanning the empty clearing for movement, his hand hovering over the sun-warm Katana that lay nearby.
I've come for your boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
When Richie broke the tree line to step into the open, MacLeod wasn't particularly surprised, but he was angry.
With an effort, he sank the feeling, struggled to control it. He stood, leaving the Katana where it lay. Because merely looking at the younger Immortal made it harder to think, he turned his back and resumed the interrupted routine.
Richie walked across the clearing. He stopped only a few yards away.
"Go away, boy," MacLeod growled. "I've got better things to do than to teach a brainless dog new tricks."
He continued to work, ignoring Richie completely. The younger Immortal waited. He waited five minutes; he waited ten. He didn't speak, he didn't move, he just waited.
When MacLeod finally turned to face a newborn buzz too foolish to run away, he found the urge to taste Richie's blood had eased. In its place was a familiar irritation, a shortness of temper much easier to deny than a killing rage, than an ageless hunger for tribute. "What do you want?" he demanded.
"I want you," Richie said. Lifting the point of the Toledo, he set himself to a fighting stance they'd practiced in this clearing until it became second nature. "There can be only one."
MacLeod laughed. "Don't be a fool," he scoffed.
"Let's do it," Richie insisted.
Shaking his head, MacLeod turned away. The cut of metal arced through air. He ducked to an instinctive roll, regained his feet like a cat as he turned to face the attack in the same fluid move.
"Don't turn your back on me, Mac," Richie said quietly. "I'm not fooling around."
MacLeod reached back to touch his left shoulder. His fingertips came away bloody. "You know, Richie," he informed the younger man calmly. "This time, you've really pissed me off."
He attacked so suddenly Richie didn't see it coming. He'd expected MacLeod to pick up the Katana first, but instead, the Highlander came at him, arms pinwheeling in a way that looked laughably ungainly but was, in reality, devastatingly effective.
The heel of MacLeod's left hand caught the bridge of Richie's nose, followed in quick succession by a right hand to the eye socket and the left again on the jaw. The last blow in the cycle fell on the wrist of his unprepared sword hand, and the Toledo fell harmlessly to the grass.
Richie followed it a moment later, the imprint of Duncan MacLeod's left heel vivid on the point of his chin. Stunned and spreadeagle, he didn't have the presence of mind to roll to one side until it was too late. MacLeod's bare foot came down again, this time crosswise to his windpipe.
MacLeod stopped the blow just short of crushing his larynx but maintained enough pressure with the arch of his foot to pin the younger Immortal effectively to the rock-strewn ground. "Clumsy, Richie," he chided. "Very, very clumsy."
"Get on with it," Richie said.
MacLeod laughed. Taking his foot off Richie's throat, he said, "I don't want your head, boy. You don't have enough juice to make it worth the effort."
When MacLeod walked away, Richie made a diving roll and came up with the Toledo. Wiping blood out of his eyes with the back of one hand, he crouched back to ready.
MacLeod glanced at him, then shook his head dismissively.
"Come on, MacLeod," Richie challenged. "At least show me the respect of picking up your sword. You owe me that."
MacLeod snorted. "I owe you nothing," he said. "You get respect when you earn it -- something you've never understood."
"Fine." Richie lunged. The Toledo cut the air with a hissing whistle. It missed taking MacLeod's head by inches, and only that because MacLeod ducked.
The Katana was in position to counter before Richie finished his follow through. He pressed the attack, rushing recklessly, leaving openings in his defense. MacLeod countered easily. The Highlander took five strokes to the Katana's slender blade as if they were nothing before circling the Toledo out of the Richie's less experienced grip with a single twist of his wrist. The sword cartwheeled through the sunlit clearing, landing several meters away with a clatter of metal on stone.
Slowly, Richie straightened. He stood quietly and waited, his hands lax at his side.
"You win," he murmured, eyes calm with resigned acceptance.
MacLeod took one step, doubled up his fist, and threw a left hook that laid the younger Immortal flat on his back. The Katana's blade drew blood as he placed it flat against the side of Richie's exposed throat. "Concede," he ordered.
"Concede," MacLeod said again, louder, more angrily.
"No. Just do it, because if you don't, I'm going to keep coming until one of us loses our head."
It was the anger that betrayed him to the madness. Chaos ever restless below a thin skin of control broke free and began to rise through him in a wash that turned fury to feral savagery in its wake. He tried to step away, but it was already too late. He lost the ability to form his own intention in a haze of need so primal it resonated like quickening in his bones. The boy was vulnerable, a tribute thrown to his feet in supplication. He tasted the power of invincibility in the ageless memories of time passing without end. He lost control of his senses, and for a moment, the only reality that existed was the smell of sacrificial blood.
"If this is the way you want it, boy," MacLeod whispered, his voice an endurance broken as he lifted the Katana high overhead in a two-fisted grip, "then let it be so." His eyes glittered. The immortal savagery of endless time twisted his features. "There can be only one," he said.
From a range of more than 200 meters, Charlie had him dead to rights. Watching through the infra-red sight, he followed their fight, seeing every thrust, every parry, understanding every failing in Richie's aggressive offense that MacLeod could have turned to endgame with a single move.
But he didn't.
When the Toledo spun out of Richie's hand, Charlie waited to see what would happen. The Highlander decked the younger man with a left hook and stepped in close. His blade drew blood from Richie's neck, but still Charlie waited.
Still Charlie watched.
The Katana rose high over MacLeod's head. It hesitated there, a commitment not yet made. Sunlight reflected in brilliant flashes off ancient metal smelted to a blade of legend by men of another age. Hanging motionless, it spent a seeming eternity poised to slice down through the spring day and relieve Richie Ryan of his one and only Immortal head.
One eye pressed tight to the scope, his body braced for stability and his rifle secure in its mount, Charlie watched without firing, waited without breathing.
Through the scope, he saw MacLeod's expression harden. He saw the lines of the Highlander's arms and shoulders tense, and saw just the smallest flicker of movement to the Katana's blade that forecast the intention of imminent descent.
An indifferent Watcher turned merciful assassin, Charlie DeSalvo's finger whitened against the trigger.
The voices were shrieking. They screamed and wailed and howled like Scottish banshees trapped within the confines of his skull. Rage pulsed through his veins. The adrenaline of battle lit his nerves like wildfire. The smell of fear was rich in the air.
There can be only one.
Richie's quickening called to him, the ancient call of a siren to a sailor. In combination with the ferocious compulsion of escalating bloodlust, it became everything he was until he became nothing but the need for it. Croix stood as a specter in the cyclonic fury of his mind. Colorless eyes glittering with victory, he stated his terms once again for the sacrifice demanded as the price for Duncan MacLeod's soul:
I've come for your boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
MacLeod's knees buckled. He staggered, then spun and threw the Katana away. Part of him rejoiced, but part of him screamed in betrayed outrage. The chaos within him exploded. He lurched several steps, clawing blindly at the cacophony of voices shredding his mind, then fell to mother earth, wounded in a way he'd never known.
For some time, he managed nothing more than the simple agony it was to breathe.
When the chaos began to fade, his senses made a slow, laborious return. The fury in his mind bled away as he forced the abyssal dissonance to unwilling submission, once again exerting the intractable iron of his resolute will. When he no longer existed as a storm over an open ocean of nothingness, he began to search the desolation of the gutted ruins for anything that remained of the man he had been.
Torn asunder and left to rot as worthless refuse, he found his bones and his flesh and his heart. He gathered them to him, the missing pieces of a broken man. From them, he would reconstruct who he was determined to be. From them, he could recreate who he was and who he wanted to be.
Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod.
It was a vain exercise in futility. He understood the pointlessness of it even as he ritualized the steps of returning to himself, of finding who he was and trying to put himself back together from the fracture he had become. The madness would find him again, and when it did, he would succumb to it again. There was nothing in him capable of believing otherwise any longer. Yet still, he performed the ritual because to fail to do so would be to allow it all to slip beyond his grasp.
He would be lost beyond finding. He would become nothing more than another echo in the ageless darkening that existed as those who would sacrifice the blood of their own children.
MacLeod opened his eyes with an effort. Richie was sitting on a rock near by, staring out over the valley. His eyes were far off and distant in their focus. "You okay?" the younger Immortal asked.
MacLeod grunted. A gentle breeze washed over him, cooling the fire in his skin. He swayed drunkenly on his knees, very nearly beyond the ability to remain upright.
"You should have done it," Richie said. "You should have taken my head."
MacLeod grunted again. He'd never been so tired, never known such utter exhaustion as lay heavy in his bones now. He could barely focus his eyes or force himself to breath. The emptiness in him was so profound it ached. It was an abyss, devoid of all things except the darkness and the nothingness that defined it.
"It's the only way," Richie said.
MacLeod blinked. His thoughts were sluggish in his head. They milled about, disturbed by the younger Immortal's statement, but unable to pinpoint exactly why. "The only way what?" he asked thickly.
Richie continued to stare. "The only way to play the game," he said finally. "You know the rules, MacLeod. There can be only one."
MacLeod felt himself slipping. He closed his eyes, whispering, "Go away, Richie. I'm too tired for games."
"Then I'll take your head," Richie threatened without conviction.
MacLeod laughed. It was a low, bitter growl of a sound. "You wouldn't want my head. You wouldn't want the voices, the memories, the taste of blood in every thought you have. You wouldn't want the chaos, or the acid of my quickening eating you alive."
Richie turned to study the Highlander. "Croix?" he ventured after a beat.
MacLeod nodded. "They defined him," he murmured. "Created him as he is. Their pain. Fear. Desolation. Despair. Their sacrifice is the only passion he knows; their willingness to annihilate their own, the only emotion he feels."
"They worshiped him. Their veneration made him alive. It made him immortal."
"He changed you, Mac. His quickening did something."
"I can't breathe through it. Can't hear anything but their despair. It's impossible to think, impossible to feel beyond the fire of their rage. I just want it to stop." He rocked back and forth on his knees. Face turned to the sun and the sky, he whispered in a tone that sounded like prayer, "Just stop. For a while. For a minute. I just need it to stop. Please. Just let it stop."
"You need help," Richie said.
"No. I can control it. I can overcome it. I just need time … just a little more time."
Richie's voice trembled when he spoke. "You can't do it by yourself."
"He's destroying you –"
"No!" MacLeod pushed himself to his feet with an effort. "Go home. Go back to the city."
Richie stood, too. "Dawson said it would dilute Croix's influence if you took another quickening," he said.
"This isn't about you. I don't want to hurt you." He swayed on his feet, then steadied. "Go away, Richie. Please, just go away."
"I can't," Richie said again. Then, more quietly, "I won't."
It was starting again. He could feel it rising through him. The anger. The rage. The need to hurt something just to see it scream.
"You need another quickening." Richie picked up the Katana. He held it out, saying, "It's the only way."
The voices began to whisper. The anger was a bitter bile in his throat. It choked him, made it hard to breathe. It would be so easy to hurt him. So easy to find relief in the breaking of him.
MacLeod took a step back. He looked from Richie, to the Katana, and back to Richie again.
"It's the only way," Richie said again.
"You can't be serious."
"I am serious."
"No!" MacLeod slapped the Katana from Richie's hand. He was angry. So very, very angry. The voices in his skull had escalated once again to a chaos of constant sound. A hundred different voices, a thousand different voices, all speaking to him at once. "I'm not going to kill you, Richie," he snarled. "I'm not going to take your head."
But he wanted to kill him.
He wanted to take his head.
I've come for your boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
"If it weren't for you, I'd be dead already," Richie argued desperately. "Or worse than dead. You and Tessa made me. You're the only friends I've ever really had."
I've come for your boy, MacLeod. If you step aside, you can walk away.
"So it's fair that I be the one," Richie went on. "I'm a good guy, Mac. My quickening would help you, not Croix. And I wouldn't last anyway. Not without you tutoring me." He took a step closer. "Let me do this," he said. "Let me help you. I took Mako's head. He was old, really old. He made me stronger … strong enough to make a difference. Joe thinks so, too. You have to at least try."
It was all MacLeod could do to control the urge to hurt the younger man: to break his bones until he screamed, to open his flesh in one long line after another until the blood inside him was drained dry.
Standing within reach of hands that ached to destroy him, Richie spoke with the trust of a student, the trust of a child: "Please, Mac. Let me do this." He waited for MacLeod to see the obvious, waited for him to accept an offer willingly made. "I want to do it. It's the only way."
"You're right," MacLeod said suddenly. "I can't control it. I thought I could, but I can't."
"Okay then." Richie bent down and picked up the Katana again. The blade was light in his hand, perfectly balanced. He handed it to MacLeod and stepped away. "Let's do it."
Closing his eyes, he waited for the end, a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.
Hands fisted at his sides, shoulders tense with the expectation of the Katana's blade, Richie waited until he couldn't wait any longer, then he said, his voice shaking with the desire to sound nonchalant, "Come on, Mac. You're killin' me here."
And still, nothing happened.
Time passed, an eternity in every second, and still, only silence and the sun and nothing happening.
Unnerved beyond his capacity to endure it, Richie opened one eye. The clearing was empty. In the shadow of Beyer's mountain, he stood alone.
MacLeod stood alone, the roar of metal rotors still thunderous in his ears even though the helicopter had long since gone. The island was exactly as he remembered it. The serenity of nature seemed as undisturbed here as it had been fifty years ago.
MacLeod began to climb.
The temple was integrated into the landscape of its natural surroundings. As with all things traditionally oriental, it was designed to harmonize with its world, rather than dominate it. The structure and its environment were two notes in the same chord, inseparable in the way they played off one another to greater effect than either of them accomplished by standing alone.
"I have been expecting you, MacLeod," an old, slightly-accented voice announced. Samatsu Kobia sat cross legged on the temple porch. Like his home, he harmonized so well with his surroundings that he was nearly invisible against them.
MacLeod bowed deeply in respect. "Samatsuson."
The old man smiled. He was much older than he looked, and he looked to be ancient. The worn lines of his face were more numerous than the stars in the sky. He beckoned with a small gesture of one ancient hand, saying, "Come. Sit with me, my ageless friend."
MacLeod climbed the steps to the porch. He paused to remove his shoes before stepping onto the laboriously hand-oiled wood.
"You always were very courteous," Samatsu said with a knowing smile. "For a gaijin."
MacLeod settled gracefully at the old man's side. "Not always. But I've learned over the years."
"The mark of a wise man. One who can learn from his indiscretions."
MacLeod folded his hands in his lap. He became a mirror, reflecting Samatsu's posture of peaceful repose. Though he'd always been flawed in the attempt, he failed more fully today than he had so many times in the past. Today, he was a stone-surfaced pool, rather than clear waters plagued by the periodic ripple.
"You are troubled," Samatsu noted after saying nothing at all for almost a full hour. "Your heart is angry; your mind, confused."
"Yes," MacLeod agreed.
"You come seeking peace. Seeking balance." Samatsu drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "The disharmony in you is … destructive."
"Tell me about the darkening," Samatsu instructed.
MacLeod glanced at the old man. His eyes were sharp with surprise and suspicion.
"As I said," Samatsu observed blandly, "I have been expecting you."
MacLeod's hands closed to fists. He turned again, facing forward, trying to relax. Again, he failed. "I killed a man," he said. "A very old man. A very powerful man."
"A very evil man," Samatsu said.
"Yes. A very evil man."
Again, MacLeod's gaze swung on the old man.
"You look surprised," Samatsu said without looking at him.
"I'm confused," MacLeod agreed.
A slow smile seeped into the man's worn features. "You come to me for wisdom, yet you are surprised when I am wise?"
They sat together in silence for some time: Samatsu awaiting the next question and MacLeod struggling not to ask it.
"The seeds of my life gathered with me this last spring to mark the passing of one more year in a line of years more plentiful than I thought, as a young man, to have lived," Samatsu said finally. "The oldest among them -- an outspoken child dark of hair and of eye -- broke with the tradition of the household to bring a gift. She presented it to me with the understanding that it was time I joined the world in which she lived, this twentieth century of which she is so enamored." He smiled, his eyes focused far beyond the scope of their surroundings. "As it was her desire to seek my advice on occasion, and as she was always a favored one among those many who are now as my children even though they have lived a dozen lives before I was born, I chose to accept this gift, this cellular phone which she wrapped so painstakingly in paper made of her own hands in this place she calls Canada."
He turned to MacLeod, his eyes young and clear and full of animated life. "She calls me once a week to tell me of the loves who have passed through her life, and of those who have chosen to linger. She calls me for advice, and when her friends are in pain."
MacLeod nodded slowly. "Amanda," he said.
Samatsu returned his gaze to the wooded landscape. "I tell you of the gift from one I regard as a child of a child of my child," he observed blandly. "Nothing more." He drew a deep, cleansing breath and rose from lotus position with the graceful strength of a man a quarter of his age. "We will begin in the morning," he announced. "When you are fresh for the battle."
MacLeod stood as well. "In the morning," he agreed.
The stewardess met him at the door of the plane, holding the Katana's ornately tooled case as if it was a small child of inordinately fragile health. Since the priceless artifact was worth well more than the entire flight crew would make in their lifetimes; and since he was very well-connected, very rich, and could be very charming when he wanted to be, they'd honored his request to stow the sword in the flight cabin rather than in the belly of the plane.
After all, it wasn't like it was a gun.
MacLeod smiled. He took the case and left the plane behind him, glad to once again be safe on solid ground. Over the years, he'd been shipwrecked twice, crushed between two railroad cars in the early thirties, thrown off a speeding roller coaster in the seventies and involved in more motorcycle and car wrecks than he could count.
Though each of the encounters had proven fatal in the short run, none of them – none of them – even began to compare to terror of falling out of the sky. It still haunted him: the sound of first one engine, and then the other, failing; the uncontrolled plummet, the devastating impact, the panic of survivors as they scrambled over one another ...
It took him more than a quarter of a century to climb back aboard one of the flying metal bastards, and he was still prone to hold his breath from takeoff to touchdown. In a trans-Pacific flight from Japan to the continental United States, that made for one hell of a long trip.
Though he wasn't expecting anyone to meet him, he felt their presence before he cleared the jetway. Richie was waiting just beyond the arrival gate. Amanda was about a hundred feet farther away, flirting with a pilot as she eyed an expensive vase on display in one of the terminal's clear plastic viewing cases.
"Mac!" Richie waved enthusiastically. He was grinning from ear to ear. "Hey, Mac! Over here!"
MacLeod inclined his head slightly, hoping the subtle acknowledgement would stymie the younger Immortal's excitement enough to keep him from actually jumping up and down. Joining Richie near the end of the arrival gate walkway, Amanda laid a hand on his forearm to that same end.
MacLeod smiled, met her gaze, held it.
Richie was holding both arms out in welcome as if asking for a hug in a way that made it clear he was only playing in the asking. "Mac ..."
"Hello, Richie. If you hug me, I will hurt you."
Richie grinned and dropped his arms. "Let me take that for you, old man." He reached for the Katana, but with an subtle shift, MacLeod offered the flight bag instead. As always, Richie accepted the adjustment without offense. Slinging the bag over one shoulder, he said, "That's the one I was going for. The old flight bag. Shirts and socks and souvenirs. So what'd you bring me, Mac? Got a geisha girl in there for your old buddy Richie?"
"I brought you one," MacLeod said dryly. "But she's going to take some inflating."
Amanda slid in close, wrapping both arms around his neck like slender, graceful vines. She kissed him in a way that heated the air by tangible degrees, then released him as if the embrace was nothing more than a casual greeting. "Welcome home."
Richie grinned, shaking his head. "Damn. I've gotta travel more." He gestured toward the open terminal. "Your carriage awaits."
"I could have taken a cab," MacLeod said as they walked.
"You could have," Richie agreed. "But would the cabbie have greeted you with such flair? Such style?"
"Such tongue?" Amanda added sweetly, looping her arm under MacLeod's left elbow to slide one hand into his coat pocket.
"And more importantly," Richie added, "would you have wanted him to?"
"How terribly sexist of you, Richard," Amanda chided. "Perhaps his cabbie would have been a woman." She flicked MacLeod a sly, sideways glance. "If he gave me the proper fare, I'd drive him anywhere he wanted to go."
Richie laughed. "Really, Mac. I didn't think you ever had to pay."
"I don't," he answered because it was expected.
"That's not precisely true, MacLeod," Amanda said. "The man always pays. One way or another, he always pays."
"Now look who's being sexist," Richie jibed. "If I said something like that ..."
MacLeod let them carry the conversation throughout the ride to the dojo because it relieved him of the need to do so. He was tired. Exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and go to sleep. Though he would have preferred they didn't, both of them came in: Richie still carrying his bag and Amanda still securely latched to his arm. They rode the freight elevator up and invaded his loft without invitation. Tossing his flight bag on the couch, Richie made himself at home, raiding the refrigerator as if it were his own. Amanda lingered at his side, her body warm and inviting and her active hands a temptation against his chest, his belly, his arm, his thigh ….
"I could stay if you want," she offered.
Richie finished with the refrigerator, but stayed in the kitchen. He tried to look busy as MacLeod pulled Amanda's hands away from his body and kissed her passively. "Another time," he said.
Her hands twisted in his grip. He expected an attempt to intensify the seduction, but instead, she held onto his hands, squeezed them, clung to them.
"We could just talk."
Her eyes were serious. For once, he could see nothing in them but what she was saying.
He kissed her again, less passively but still without invitation. "Another time," he repeated, his lips near her ear.
She forced a smile and shrugged. "Another time," she agreed.
He held onto her hands for a moment, then touched her face. His fingers traced the line of her jaw to her throat. They lingered there, the barest of contact between his hand and her skin. When she started to say something to absolve him of the memory in his expression, he shook the intention off, stepped back, turned away.
"Another time," she said again. Her eyes flicked to Richie. He was watching, his gaze guardedly cautious.
He nodded to her. "Later."
When Amanda was gone, MacLeod slipped out of his coat and settled into the leather couch. Stretching both legs out before him, he folded his hands atop his belly and closed his eyes.
Richie fiddled around for a moment longer in the kitchen, then headed for the elevator as well. "Uh -- I guess I'll be going, too, then. You look pretty beat. Probably want to get some sleep --"
"I've had a number of friends over the years," MacLeod said quietly, his eyes still closed. "Some better than others. A few I would have died for. A few who would have died for me."
Richie hesitated, not sure how to respond.
MacLeod opened one eye to regard the younger Immortal in his uncertain stance. "I've never had one offer me their quickening before, though. Never had one lay his head on the chopping block for me to take off."
Richie fidgeted uncomfortably. "I really didn't see any other choice," he said when it became obvious MacLeod was waiting for some kind of answer.
MacLeod closed his eye again. "There's always another choice."
"Maybe so. I didn't see it."
"Then you didn't look hard enough. If you had, you would have found some other solution. Any other solution."
"I didn't --" Richie started.
"No." The interruption was sharp. Harsh. MacLeod shot him an agitated glance as he thrust to his feet in an abruption of movement, crossing to the kitchen as he announced, "It isn't a trade: Your life for mine. In that situation -- if it come to a choice between you or me -- you make the only choice you can. You survive. You do whatever it takes to keep your head." He was glaring at the younger man from across a counter that stretched between them. "Do you understand me, Richie? Whatever it takes to survive."
"You were out of control," Richie protested.
MacLeod slapped the counter in frustration. The explosive crack made Richie jump. MacLeod's hand closed to a fist on the granite countertop. He averted his gaze, struggling to quell the surge of anger reflected by the tension in the line of his posture. "Yes," he agreed finally. "I was out of control." He lifted his eyes again. They were still angry, but also utterly MacLeod. "Which is exactly the point. Don't ever do that to me again, Richie."
Richie sighed. He looked at his feet, scuffing them like a reprimanded schoolboy. "Sorry," he said finally. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
"It wasn't a good idea." MacLeod said. "It was an incredibly stupid idea."
"Yeah. Well, that's me, I guess. Full of stupid ideas." He started for the elevator. "Listen, I gotta go. I've got things to do."
"I want you here early in the morning," MacLeod said. "We're going to work on your swordsmanship. I took the Toledo away from you like you were a five-year old with a stick."
"I let you take it away from me."
MacLeod snorted. "Yeah. Right." Opening the refrigerator, he grabbed the first thing that looked edible before heading back to the couch.
"Hey, I was trying to lose, remember?"
"You would have lost either way," MacLeod said around a mouthful of cold macaroni and cheese. "You fight like a little, old woman."
"Oh, really?" Richie stretched his neck like an insulted gaming cock. "Oh, really?"
"Yes, really." MacLeod seemed to realize what he was eating suddenly. He poked the mass of it in his bowl for a moment, then held up a congealed spoonful for an ill-advised inspection. His lip curled in revulsion. "What is this crap?"
"It was going to be my lunch tomorrow."
MacLeod dropped the spoon back into the bowl and sent them both skittering across the coffee table with a disgusted flick of his wrist. "No wonder you can't hold on to your sword. That crap will kill you. Even Immortals have limits, you know."
Richie grinned. "Yeah," he said. "I know. See you tomorrow, Mac."
"Early," MacLeod said.
"Yeah, yeah." Richie swung the elevator gate up and ducked inside. The gate fell back in place with a clatter. His thumb was on the down button before MacLeod spoke again.
Richie looked up.
"Stupid, but brave," MacLeod said quietly. "Thank you."
Richie grinned. "I let you win," he said. Then he punched the down button, and the elevator began to move.
When the darkness woke him with its whispers, MacLeod rose in the night and went to the dojo to silence them with the focusing meditations of physical exertion. The ritualistic routine was at once taxing and relaxing. Stretching, pulling, flexing, contracting: he worked through half a dozen archaic forms and a handful of ones that hadn't been seen in the world of the gaijin for more than a century. His mind settled to the calm of a near meditative state. He was sweating, even in the slight cool of the dark, empty gym.
Charlie DeSalvo watched from the shadows of the dojo doorway.
MacLeod finished, folding himself into a formal repose, hands on thighs, bare feet crossed where they lay against cool wood. He rested that way for almost five minutes before he stood and reached for a towel, saying, "Hello, Charlie."
Shaking his head, DeSalvo stepped into the dojo. "You must have the eyes of a hawk, MacLeod."
"Ears of a cat." MacLeod wiped his face with the towel. "Your car needs a muffler, and your left shoe squeaks when you walk."
"I'll keep that in mind."
For a moment, they didn't speak. MacLeod sat on a bench to catch a breather. Charlie merely watched him rest.
"What brings you here this time of night?" MacLeod asked finally.
Pushing back on the bench, MacLeod leaned against the dojo wall. Pulling up one knee to support an elbow, he gestured slightly, offering Charlie a seat and the opportunity to speak his mind.
Charlie refused one, but took him up on the other. "Heard you were back. Just wanted to make sure everything was okay."
"Everything is okay," MacLeod said.
"That a party line, or is it the truth?"
MacLeod shrugged. "A little of both, I suppose. I'm not there yet, but I'm better."
"You couldn't be much worse."
MacLeod smiled a one-cornered smile. "You'd be surprised."
"Not much surprises me, MacLeod. I've seen pretty much everything at least once in my day. Some of them even twice." He watched MacLeod for a moment longer, then added, "You almost killed him, you know. That day I walked in? If I'd been two minutes later, you'd've gutted him right here on the dojo floor."
MacLeod's expression darkened. He looked away. "Yes. I know."
"Wanna tell me why?"
"I was having a bad day."
"A bad day." Charlie studied the Highlander for several long beats of expectant silence. MacLeod returned the gaze flatly. "So how much longer we gonna dance, MacLeod?" Charlie asked finally.
"I suppose that's up to you," MacLeod said.
"If it was up to me, you'd've given up the old soft shoe a long time ago. You told me we'd talk about this shit eventually, didn't you? That you'd explain all the games, all the cloak and dagger? Make it worth my while to be a patient man? Well I've gotta tell you, I'm fast running out of patience here, my friend. About the time you start laying hands on me in a lethal manner is about the time I think we need to have that talk, don't you?"
"Maybe it is," MacLeod said. He stood and walked across the dojo, staring out a window onto the lamp-lit night that lay over the streets below. "Do you know what a quickening is like, Charlie?" he asked suddenly.
DeSalvo's eyes narrowed. "A ... quickening?" he said like he'd never heard the word before.
"Yes. A quickening."
"No," Charlie said after an appropriate hesitation. "I don't."
"It's like being struck by lightening. A power overload. An overwhelming rush of light and memories and knowledge as the essence of your opponent swarms you all at once. Everything he has ever been. Everything he has ever known. Everything he has ever done."
Charlie took a step closer to the Immortal standing across the dojo. "You're not making a lot of sense," he said. "Why don't we start at the beginning?"
"With Croix, it was a devastation like I've never known," MacLeod went on. "I felt like I was being torn apart. He'd taken hundreds of quickenings; slaughtered thousands of innocents. He'd raped … tortured … eaten the flesh of the living … drunk the blood of his own. All that hit me at the same time. Thousands of year in one rush, in one wave that picked me up and swept me so far out to sea I'm still not sure how I ever made my way back."
"Sounds … bad," Charlie said quietly.
"It was. It was bad. It's always bad. But once you get through it, once you ride out the wave and the waters finally start to calm … that's when things start making a little more sense. Not all at once. Just pieces here and there. Specific memories that seem to stand out. Not even memories, really. More like experiences you never lived. Things you know that you didn't know before." MacLeod was still staring out the window, his voice quiet, calm. "Sensations you've never felt that are familiar. Emotions you've never experienced that resonate with the way you look at the world now. The way you look at the people around you. The way you look at yourself."
"You've lost me, MacLeod" Charlie said.
"Have I?" He turned. His eyes were flat. They reflected nothing. "He remembers you from Phu Plak. He remembers you watching the fight, but leaving before the quickening was over."
Charlie straightened, suddenly tense. "Who remembers me?"
Charlie shook his head. "I don't know what your talking about, man."
"There's more," MacLeod went on calmly. "Something I felt when I had your throat in my hand that day in the dojo. I really wanted to kill you right then. Really wanted to take you apart for daring to put your hands on me."
"All I was trying to do –"
"I know what you were trying to do. And I appreciate it now. But then … then, I wanted to kill you."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I remembered you. Not any memory in specific, but just the knowing of you. How we'd gone through the wars together; how we'd shared things that bond men to one another for life." MacLeod stopped for a moment, watching as DeSalvo's expression lost its ability to play the role of the uninitiated. "He's a part of it, now," MacLeod said quietly. "Croix's quickening. My quickening. The things he knew, I know. The things he did, I remember doing. I know he told you about The Game. I know you saw him take more than one quickening over the years, and I know you killed a hunter who tried to take him out on holy ground in Cambodia."
Charlie's features were slack with stun. He was staring at MacLeod, but it was in his eyes that he was seeing someone else.
"So how long have you been working for Dawson, Charlie?" MacLeod asked.
The question jarred DeSalvo out of his stupor. "Dawson," he repeated like the name was one he didn't really recognize. "You mean … your friend? The guy with the cane who comes in once in a while?"
MacLeod smiled tolerantly. "I suppose it should have occurred to me that, even with Joe and I becoming friends, somebody would still be still be assigned to me, somebody would still be watching."
"I don't know what you're talking about, man. In fact, I'm not sure what you've been talking about pretty much since I got here. Quickenings … games … Cambodia? I mean, I was in the war, but I don't remember seeing you over there. Listen, maybe this isn't the best time to talk about this. You're not making a lot of sense, and after listening to some of this stuff you're saying, I'm not all that sure I really want to know what you're into any more. Sounds like it could be hazardous to my health."
"You're right," MacLeod agreed. "It could be. But not from me. I like things the way they are. I like the balance that exists in my life. I like the way my friends counterbalance my enemies. I like the way I know what to expect from the people trust, and the ones I want to trust."
"You mean Richie?"
"I mean Dawson." He gestured slightly. "And you."
DeSalvo's eyes narrowed slightly. "Really," he said. It was as much of an acknowledgement and as close to a confession as he was ever going to offer.
And MacLeod took it as such. "Yes. Really."
"Then … we're okay, here? You with your secrets, me with mine?"
"You're a military man. Isn't there a policy about secrets in the military?"
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you?" Charlie ventured cautiously.
MacLeod smiled. "I was thinking more along the lines of don't ask, don't tell."
Charlie chuckled quietly. "I think I can live with that," he said.
MacLeod nodded. He wiped his face with the towel again, then hung it around his neck. "Good. Don't forget to lock up when you leave."
Charlie watched him all the way to the elevator. "Hey, MacLeod," he called finally.
MacLeod stopped. He waited.
"Glad you're back, man. Missed you while you were gone."
"I was only gone three weeks," he said.
"Yeah. Seemed longer to me, too, Charlie. Seemed a lot longer." He pulled the gate into place. "And thanks, by the way."
"For not shooting me."
"Why the hell would I shoot you?"
MacLeod shrugged. "I saw the flash off your scope. Didn't really put it together until later, but when I had some time to think about it without a thousand voices bickering in my head, I did eventually put it together. In the spirit of don't ask, don't tell, I won't look for a verification, but I'm assuming you were there because Joe sent you, so buy the man a drink for me, will you? Tell him I appreciate the two of you looking after Richie while I was gone."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Charlie said.
"I'm sure you don't. Watcher first, friend second. But tell my friend thank you for me, anyway. One of the reasons I'm here instead of Croix is because I know Joe's got my back when it matters. Sometimes that the whole difference between staying in the fight and giving it up: Just knowing someone's got your back. Someone you can afford to trust to do the right thing."
"He came for Richie, didn't he?" Charlie said. "And you took him on instead."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," MacLeod replied.
"I'm sure you don't," Charlie agreed.
MacLeod smiled. He pushed the up button. Slowly, grudgingly, the elevator began to move.