Hungry, hungry, hungry. Amanda Darieux was hungry. She gazed up from the street corner at Duncan MacLeod's building and munched on a chocolate doughnut from a paper bag in her right hand. Winter in Seacouver meant nothing but chill winds and gray skies. She was thinking of leaving the States, going on to sunnier and warmer climates, but had a need to fulfill first.
MacLeod had better be home.
"Took off down to San Francisco," Richie said in the office. He'd been delighted, and wary, to see her. Amanda expected no less. She considered Richie cute in a puppy sort of fashion. He was far too young for her, and very easy to manipulate. But also brave and strong, good at heart, well-meaning if headstrong and cocky. He'd been working out when her Immortal buzz hit him, and his gray tank top was soaked with sweat. The dojo was full of customers, mostly men, and the smell of sweat and testosterone in the air intrigued her.
"What's in San Francisco?" she pouted. She pulled out a small bag of potato chips from her jacket and opened them.
Richie finished drying his arms and chest off with a white towel. Flushed, his hair damp on his forehead, he reached for a water bottle. "Martial arts tournament. He went to see an old Japanese sensei pal. Might be back tomorrow."
Amanda turned to look out the office window. She devoured the chips and licked the salt from her lips. Her eyes roamed the men in their tight spandex, their firm muscles lifting weights, the incredible power in squatting thighs and legs. Any of them would normally do. But her desire demanded another Immortal, and MacLeod was in San Francisco.
"Tomorrow?" she asked.
"So he said. Maybe not until the day after."
"Maybe I could go down there," she mused.
"Is something wrong? More FBI agents running amuck, counterfeit plates, stuff like that?" Behind the teasing in his voice was a note of concern.
"No, nothing like that." True enough, the last time she'd been in Seacouver, before the holidays, she'd brought MacLeod a bit of trouble. Amanda had still been reeling from the disappearance of her teacher and dear friend, Rebecca Horne. Duncan had still been mourning the loss of Tessa Noel. The last thing either of them had needed was the attention of a corrupt federal agent. But everything had worked out in the end, and they'd parted on very good terms. Terms she'd hoped to re-open. Even as she fantasized about the Highlander's incredible body, Amanda found a candy bar in her pocket and opened it with a slice of her fingernails.
Richie asked, with a smile, "Since when did you become the junk food connoisseur?"
Amanda closed her mouth firmly on the long stick of chocolate and moved towards him. He instinctively retreated until he was backed up against the water cooler. "Do you want some?" she purred, moving her tongue around its edges.
Richie's blue eyes, always startling in their intensity, widened. "What?"
"You heard me," she smiled, and used her free hand to trace a line down the center of his chest. "If Duncan's away, maybe this is our opportunity to be together."
Richie's mouth opened. Shut. Opened again. "Oh, Amanda, let's not go there, okay? This is some kind of trick, isn't it?" He edged out from his trapped position and snatched his towel up off the desk, as if it were some sort of shield. His expression had shaded into wariness again. "It's like a practical joke, isn't it?"
Amanda leveled her best gaze on him. A look that had flattened better men and boys than him.
"No joke, Richard," she said. "I don't want to be alone tonight."
"I've got some friends," Richie said hastily. "How do you feel about blind dates?"
"Do I understand you right?" Amanda asked in a low and incredulous voice, advancing again, her lip pushed down, her eyes wide with hurt. "You're saying no?"
Richie stopped where he was, and appeared to give the idea serious thought. "I'm saying . . . this is not a good idea."
"Says who?" Amanda tossed the candy wrapper aside and put both of her hands on his chest. She had him wedged up against the wall again, and this time he wasn't trying as hard to escape. "Duncan? He doesn't own me. I don't own him. That should be clear to everyone."
Richie didn't answer. He was still a teenager, she remembered, in years as well as appearance. When he was three or four hundred he'd probably regret his youthful looks, frozen in time, but for now she relished them. She pressed up tight against him, and felt through his sweats that at least one part of him was considering the possibilities.
"This is between you and me," she said, both literally and figuratively, and reached one hand down between his hot skin and the soaked elastic waistband while her other hand went up to cup his chin. She pressed her mouth open and invading on his, her breasts against his firm chest. She could feel him rising harder to the occasion, his heartbeat doubling, his tongue meeting hers -
Then, as if remembering where he was, that the whole dojo was just a few feet away, that Duncan and Amanda were known lovers, that he should not be standing there with her hand wrapped around him, Richie broke loose.
"Oh, man," he said, wiping his lips. "Amanda, don't."
This time his rejection sparked anger in her. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Am I too old for you? Too withered up and dried out? Or don't you like women who know what they're doing? Or did I misread you completely, and you don't like women at all?"
A trace of raw hurt crossed his expression, quickly covered by a new toughness and traces of pink in his cheeks. "You don't have to get nasty about it," he retorted. "You know the way out."
Then he was gone, towards the locker room, towards whatever, but definitely away from her. Amanda sagged against the wall, feeling her own heart start to slow down, the lingering taste of him in her mouth.
Damn, damn, damn.
She was still hungry.
She told herself she could wait until Duncan got back, surely her hormones could wait that long, but her need required action, required fulfillment. Amanda decided to try Richie again. She went to his apartment long after dark, but he wasn't in and she had to pick the lock on his door. She looked around the small apartment, at the sports and travel and movie posters, at the dirty dishes in the sink and Salvation Army reject furniture. Whatever Duncan was paying him, it wasn't enough. She flopped down on his unmade bed. He must not have washed his sheets recently, because she could smell him, strong and young and virile, against the worn blue cotton.
Amanda fished under his bed and came up with two Penthouse magazines. She leafed through them languidly, critically, and then tossed them aside.
She went back to the dojo.
From the street she could see a light burning in the office. The stairs were dark, as was the hall. She crept upward, a sixth sense warning her to be quiet, and when she edged to the glass doors of the dojo she saw Richie and three figures in the middle of the darkened room. Richie was the easiest to spot, because he was kneeling on the floor with his hands roped behind his back.
He must have sensed her, but he didn't even glance her way. Words from his captors floated out from under the wooden doors.
"Tell us where MacLeod is," the tallest figure warned. "And we'll kill you quickly."
"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" came Richie's defiant answer.
The tall man backhanded him savagely, sending him crashing to the floor. The other two laughed.
"Careful," one managed. "If you break his jaw, he won't be able to tell us where MacLeod is."
The third disagreed. "No. If you break it, we just wait for him to heal it, the supernatural freak. Then we break it again."
Amanda ducked down low under the glass panes and scooted down the hall to the locker room exit. She slipped a thin pick from her jacket and worked it into the lock. Within seconds she had the door open. She slipped inside and moved carefully down the rows of battered lockers. The place smelled heavily of antiseptic and soap, and her feet glided silently over the clean towel.
From outside, more laughter. A sharp cry from Richie. Amanda forced herself not to hurry. If she hurried, she might make a mistake that might cost them both their heads. She opened the supply closet and found a ten foot hose coiled on a shelf above the deep sink. She screwed the hose on, laid the other end to rest on the floor and turned the knob counter clock-wise.
Amanda moved to the showers, turned them on full blast and scalding hot, and aimed their spray at the floor.
Two of the Hunters came to investigate. She dropped the first one cleanly and expertly with her sword through his stomach. The second managed a swing at her, but she ducked and slammed into him sideways, sending him crashing against the wall. He fired a gun blindly, the explosion very loud in the tiled room, and the blast nearly deafened her. She came up low and hard, knocking him down, and the crunch of his head against the floor told her he wouldn't be of any more trouble.
The floor was flooding. Amanda lurched to her feet. Outside, the third Hunter called to her.
"Whoever's in there!" he shouted. "You come out now, before I take his head!"
Amanda swiftly repositioned the hose so that it sent water across the dojo floor. Counted to five. Prayed the Hunter wouldn't cut off Richie's head. Then she walked out, calm and cool, her sword lazy in her right hand.
"I don't think we've met," Amanda said. "You don't look like a friend."
The Hunter had dragged Richie upright. One hand yanked back the younger Immortal's short hair, and the other kept Richie's rapier at his throat. The blade bit into the soft flesh, drawing a thin line of blood. Richie had been beaten, and his green shirt was stained in several places from where they'd cut him. His blue eyes, scared and angry, were locked on Amanda. His jaw was set firmly against any cries of pain or panic.
"I'm no friend of yours," the Hunter rasped.
Amanda gave both men a smile.
"If you say so," she shrugged. "But as for your friends. . . well, you might need to go help them. They're drowning. I'd say they have about thirty more seconds before they suck enough water in their lungs to make resuscitation impossible."
She was lying. They were already dead.
The Hunter yanked Richie up higher, pressed the blade deeper. Richie visibly fought not to gag or resist. "Then go save them," he ordered.
"That's your job," Amanda said.
"Then I'll just take his head now and go save them. You'll be too busy to stop me. And when you're down on your knees, bitch, I'll take yours."
"That's an option," Amanda nodded, keeping her voice bright and cheerful. "But you see this water on the floor that we're standing in? You must have had the introductory course on Quickenings. Don't stand in water, don't stand between metal poles, you know, that stuff. Basic electricity facts. Because if you take a head now, you might as well just climb into a bathtub and drop a transformer into it."
The Hunter's eyes went wide. "You're bluffing."
"Won't it be interesting when you die finding out?" Amanda asked.
The Hunter drew back the rapier, slicing open if not actually severing Richie's neck, and plunged it into Richie's side. He tossed his captive at Amanda. She expected the move, and let him fall so that she could take down the Hunter. He was fast, and strong, but she got her knees around his head and snapped his neck.
She crawled a few feet to where Richie lay in shock, his eyes glazing over, his blood running out all over the already wet floor. With a slice of her sword she freed his wrists. His eyes were dull with pain, but he could focus on her.
"Glad you came back," he rasped.
"Me, too," she said. She stroked his forehead. "It's okay. Go ahead and die. I'll take care of the mess."
He nodded fractionally and went limp.
Amanda made a phone call, shut off the water in the sink and showers, found a mop. Dawson made it to the dojo faster than she'd expected, but brought with him three burly men who took the Hunters' bodies away with barely a glance at her.
"I knew them," Dawson sighed. "Used to be Good Watchers."
"No offense, Joe," Amanda said, "but now they're good worm fodder."
Dawson nodded towards where Richie sat in the office, draped with a thick blue terry-cloth robe Amanda had found in one of the lockers. "He okay?"
Amanda wiped the last of the floor clean. In retrospect, she should have made the Watchers do it. "Watchers give him the creeps, and Hunters just tried to kill him. Go ask him."
Dawson went into the office. Amanda watched the men exchange a few words. Dawson put his hand on Richie's shoulder. Richie didn't brush it aside. A few more words, and Dawson came out.
"Take care of him," he told Amanda, with a mixture of fondness and sadness, and he limped with his cane across the dojo floor to the doors.
Amanda turned back to see Richie framed in the doorway, leaning as if his injuries still hurt. She supposed they might, because although he'd physically healed, sometimes wounds went deeper than skin and bone.
"I want to go home," he complained.
"You're going upstairs," she said firmly. "You can't go out into the streets looking like that. Come on."
Up in Duncan's loft she pushed him into the bathroom, had him strip down while she averted her gaze, and got him into the shower. He came out awhile later, wrapped in one of MacLeod's bathrobes this time, and some of the shock had left his eyes and pale expression.
Amanda made him sit on the edge of Duncan's bed with her.
"You're cold," she said, her arm around his shoulder.
He gazed at something she couldn't see. "Bastards," he said, in a dull voice. "Why don't they just leave us alone?"
"I don't know," she said truthfully.
"I should have been the one to kill them," he said, suddenly angry, and broke from her to pace back and forth. "I should have taken my sword and cut out their fucking little hearts."
For a few more minutes he ranted, verbally dumping the adrenaline and fear that had fueled his last few minutes before the Hunter had killed him, and Amanda listened patiently. When he was done she went to him, held him, let him breathe the scent of her.
"I know," she said.
He shifted a little in her arms, but not from discomfort. Amanda slid one hand up his back, lightly across his neck, to the back of his skull. She kissed him gently, with none of the naked hunger of that afternoon, and his arm around her waist tightened.
"I don't understand," he said, his eyes closed, his body shivering, as she planted more kisses on his eyelids, his cheeks, his chin. "Amanda, why?"
"Why not?" she asked.
He shook his head, even though he wasn't letting go yet. He opened his eyes to stare into hers. "But what about . . . "
"No buts," she said. "Would you, Richard, if tonight were the last night of your life?"
"Yes," he said instantly.
"Who knows?" Amanda asked. No pretense, no lies. "You you could have died tonight. I could have. Tomorrow is too far away to worry about."
She took his hands and led him and backed up to the bed. He looked at it, at her, and doubt crossed his face again.
"That's Duncan's bed," he said. "You and him. . . him and others . . .it would be too weird."
Amanda managed a slow smile. She yanked the thick down comforter off MacLeod's bed and spread it on the Persian rug beneath their feet. She tossed some pillows down for extra comfort. "That's MacLeod's floor," she said.
She dropped her dress, under which she'd conveniently worn nothing. The chill air of the loft caressed her skin, but she wanted his hands instead.
"Any more problems?" she asked.
Richie smiled. "Not at all," he said, coming to her, taking her, and they went to MacLeod's floor together.
He was everything she expected and needed. Of course he was young and enthusiastic and maybe a little rushed, but by the third time she'd taught him to slow down, prolong, enjoy, then let go. He was very eager to please her, which she found pleasantly surprising, and very strong. If he wasn't as expert as Duncan, or as able to anticipate what she wanted, it wasn't for lack of trying.
On the deliciously soft comforter he cupped her breasts, put down a trail of kisses from her throat to hips, explored every inch of her mouth. In turn, she used her tongue on every sensitive spot, and her fingers to gently squeeze and fondle him. He knew exactly two positions, so she doubled his repertoire. She made him groan and laugh and whisper her name. By the fifth time he was exhausted, laying face down beside her, chest heaving, skin sleek, eyes fixed on hers.
"I'm not getting up again for a week," he vowed.
"We'll see about that," she said. Her own hair was damp, her body gleaming, her skin tingling. Amanda nestled against him, and traced her hand around his firm, well-shaped backside. "I thought you had a lot of stamina."
"Not that much," he smiled wearily. "But for you, my lady . . . "
One more time, and she was happy.
The world beyond the windows was very dark and very quiet, and she wondered what time it was. The hunger inside her, satiated now, would transform soon. Richie wasn't going to be a part of that. She kissed his cheek. He stirred sweetly in his sleep, his face peaceful with whatever dreams she'd brought him, his body long and lax and warm beside her. He had old scars on the back of his legs, from his rough childhood no doubt, and she traced them with the tip of her finger. She didn't know what kind of mother could abandon a helpless child, but all Immortals were foundlings. Sitting up, pushing away disturbing thoughts, she arranged part of the comforter over him to shelter him from the cool air, pulled her dress back on, and then slipped out the door with her shoes and coat and sword.
She climbed into her car and drove north, stopping at two gas stations for Twinkies, Ring Dings, Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and several jugs of Diet Pepsi. She was driving on instinct, knowing she had to get as far from the city and Richie as she could. Time was gaining swiftly on her. At noon she found a roadside motel at the base of the mountains, with cabins spreading back through thick pines and spruce trees to a small river.
The couple checking in ahead of her had two toddlers and a six-month-old. The motel owner, a pleasant-looking man in his forties, cooed over the baby.
"Helen and I have been trying for years," he confided as he signed the couple in and handed them keys. "One day . . . "
Amanda hadn't reserved a cabin, but he had several open. She chose the one furthest back in the woods and made him give her a telephone list of all the restaurants in the area that delivered.
For several hours she did nothing but lay in the small cabin in a wide, lumpy bed and watch talk shows. She ordered and ate two pizzas and three cartons of Chinese food. Her dress barely fit anymore. When darkness outside brought the moon, she took off her clothes and started up the mountain. Brush, thorns and rocks cut her legs and feet open, but she healed so quickly she didn't even notice.
Occasionally, consumed by the hunger, she would scoop a handful of fresh soil from the ground and shove it into her mouth, chewing furiously.
She had no thoughts or plans, just instinct, just wildness, and when the time came she stood in a clearing and raised her hands to the sky. She waited, outstretched, breasts and ribs and swollen belly all taut, the wind whirling leaves around her feet, the night animals all quiet, the clouds boiling across the moon.
The Quickening came.
Came in white hot waves of silver and blue, came with bolts of energy that transformed her, transfixed her, ripped out screams, broke the water, brought the blood. The Quickening that came from inside her, culmination of a secret cycle that had been perpetuating through thousands of centuries.
The Quickening that pulled the baby down between her legs.
When it was done, when the woods were soft again with crickets and owls and leaves murmuring high above, Amanda lay down with her daughter.
The newborn fed greedily, slurping at her breast. Amanda watched her in the moonlight as resounding chords of memory played deep within her chest. Only during these next precious hours would she be granted memories of her other children, born like this one. Only during this time, the time she jokingly referred to as the Mothering, would she be able to remember it at all, to regain her awareness of the role all female Immortals played sooner or later.
Her body was already healing itself from the strain of transforming Richie's immortal seed into a full grown infant in so short a time. Her uterus was reshaping, her hormones readjusting, her torn pelvic muscles fusing back together. In a few minutes, no autopsy would ever be able to identify signs of pregnancy or childbirth. In a few hours, the instinct to separate herself from her child would become all-consuming. If she didn't find the baby a home by then, she would be driven without conscious thought to leave it in a garbage can, a roadside rest stop, a department store bathroom. The instinct and forgetting were vital to the continued existence of Immortals everywhere, but for the moment she felt a deep sorrow, a deep loss.
Amanda kissed the infant's head - her small, perfect head, with traces of peach fuzz as hair. Although the air was cold, the afterglow of the Mothering kept both of them warm. The baby stopped sucking finally, and opened startling blue eyes to fix on her mother.
Eyes like her father's.
"I should tell you about him," Amanda said, "but in a little while I won't even remember you're my daughter. And he'll never know you exist."
The baby scrunched her face and waved a tiny fist.
Amanda smiled. "All right, since you insist. . . "
She told the baby everything she knew about Richie Ryan, and then about her brothers and sisters scattered around the world and through the centuries. "If you knew," she murmured, stroking the baby's soft, wrinkled skin, "how could you fight them? How could there be only one if you came face to face with your own father, or sister, or brother, or mother?"
A decade earlier, while visiting Rebecca in France, both women had gone into the Mothering. Over the course of a few precious hours they'd been able to share the experience, to actually hear another woman speak aloud the same loss and sorrow, the amazing wonder. But the knowledge always fled.
"I may not remember you," Amanda whispered now, "and a kid would cramp my style, you know - but I'll always love you."
They slept in the dirt, with moonlight shining on their faces. When Amanda woke she stared at the infant, wondering where in the world it had come from. It was very late, and very cold. She took the child in her arms and found her way back to the cabin. Once inside, grimacing with disgust, she managed to clean the baby of blood and afterbirth and dirt, and wrapped it in a bathroom towel. She didn't like the way it watched her, as if she owed it something. Eager to be rid of the burden, she slipped across the grounds to the motel owner's door, rang the bell loudly and shrilly, left the baby, and ran away.
She snagged an extra towel from the housekeeper's unlocked closet on her way back to her own cabin. Showered, went to bed. Woke around noon, feeling refreshed and energetic. When she checked out, police were in the lobby interviewing people and the motel owner and his wife were juggling a newborn girl the owner said had been abandoned during the night.
Amanda peered at the baby. Pink, pretty, with gorgeous blue eyes that reminded of someone, but she wasn't sure who. Luckily she'd never been the maternal type herself, or she could have fallen for the kid. "It's a shame what some people do," she said.
One of the policemen asked, "Do you know anything about the baby or her parents?"
"No," Amanda said truthfully.
She also told the police she hadn't heard or seen anything unusual in the night - more truth, since she'd slept like a log. Since it was obvious she herself hadn't had a baby, they thanked her for her time and wished her a safe trip back to Seacouver.
Amanda felt two Immortals as she crossed the dojo, but saw only Richie. He was sitting on the desk, lit by the late afternoon sun streaming through the office windows. The dojo was full of muscle boys trying to show off, and she ignored their obvious posturing. Richie watched her approach with an expression of affection and wariness and appreciation that made him seem very young, and very dear.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," he said.
"How's it going?"
"Same old, same old." He was wearing soft jeans and a clean white T-shirt, and had recently showered. Amanda felt a deep wave of affection - she clearly remembered their night together - but the urge to throw herself at him had disappeared.
"Good," she said.
"You left without saying goodbye," he said.
"I do that," Amanda admitted. "But I had a great time."
He laughed. "Yeah, me too. You were . . . great. Amazing. I'm still sore."
Amanda smiled and gave a little bow of her head. "Impossible. But thank you. You should know that it probably won't happen again for awhile, if at all."
He nodded. "I kinda figured that."
"Because I told him," Duncan said from the doorway. He'd pulled his long dark hair back, and was wearing her favorite black turtleneck beneath his crossed arms. The hint of a smile played around the edges of his mouth, and his eyes had a glint in them she knew only too well.
Amanda narrowed her gaze. "Told him what?"
"That's you're unpredictable, and wild, and amazing." Duncan walked around behind Richie and put a hand on the younger Immortal's shoulder. "That it's one day at a time with you, and you reserve the right to change your mind at any time."
"True," Amanda said, although she wasn't sure she liked this show of solidarity between them. She turned her attention to Richie, who shrugged and put up his hands.
"I'm staying out of it," he announced, with a trace of pink in his cheeks. "I'll just be the relief pitcher, if you don't mind."
"If that's what you prefer," Amanda said loftily. Then, abruptly, she said, "Do you think the three of us could - "
"No," they both chimed simultaneously.
Amanda smiled. A quick thought flashed through her brain, like a tiny silver fish darting through a fathomless ocean, gone before she could grasp it. She couldn't remember, of course, but Rebecca had told her during their shared time that in the last months of 1974 she'd gone into the first stages of Mothering and sought out the nearest Immortal to provide the seed - Duncan MacLeod. They'd been in New York City, MacLeod was drunk, and Rebecca gave birth eighteen hours later to their child. She didn't remember where she'd left him, but she did remember he'd been born with her red hair.
Neither Rebecca, Amanda or Duncan had any way of knowing that Rebecca had left her baby at a rest stop off the New Jersey turnpike, where a young childless couple heading west found him and took him. The couple died in a car accident when their foundling was only two years old, spinning the boy into Seacouver's welfare system and placing him in a series of homes until, at the age of seventeen, instinct or destiny brought him to his father's shop with larceny in his heart.
Duncan had once confided in Amanda that it was hard sometimes, to not think of Richie as a son, to not treat him as one.
But Richie was Duncan's son. And last night, Richie had become a father, Duncan a grandfather.
They would never know.
"You didn't know what I was going to say," Amanda chided them now, the secret father and secret son, as they smiled at her. She picked up MacLeod's car keys from the desk. "I was going to say, "Do you think the three of us could go out to dinner? Because, frankly, I'm starving."
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