Seattle, September 1996
The door swung open with a squeak and a groan, and Duncan MacLeod stepped reluctantly into the entry of his former home. The long-closed building smelled dusty and stale. Inside, the dojo floor was empty, all equipment pushed to one side. Duncan didn't pause to look around—just headed for the elevator and stared at the walls as it labored up to his loft apartment. He tossed his duffel bag onto the bed. The loft was just as he had left it—at least he thought so. He didn't remember that aspect of his departure very well. The floor was clean and the furniture had been dusted recently. Someone had been looking after the place.
There was nothing in the refrigerator, however. He drank a glass of tap water and wandered around the large open room. It was good to see his books again, and the chess set. There wasn't much else that he had missed. Turning back to the kitchen area, he found himself repulsed by its cold metallic gleam.
Suddenly he longed for the beauty and comfort and elegance of the home that he had shared with Tessa. This apartment had been only a gloomy hiding place. It reminded him of nothing but grief and failed relationships.
He pulled his sword and jacket from the bag and headed out for groceries.
The next morning the sun was bright, although the autumn air was cold. Duncan opened all his windows and went downstairs to work out. He half-expected to be assaulted by the memories of his last fight on the dojo floor, but instead he simply enjoyed the sensation of physical movement. Two strenuous katas later, he went upstairs to shower and pull on some warm clothes. He felt ready to speak to another human being for the first time since he had left Paris.
One o'clock found him parking his car outside Joe's bar. Only two customers were in evidence at that hour, but Mike was bustling around the place, getting ready for a busy weekend.
"MacLeod!" Joe Dawson emerged from the darkness by the stage. "It's good to have you back in town."
"It's good to see you, Joseph." Duncan gripped Joe's arm in the welcoming gesture he usually reserved for other immortals. "You're looking well."
"Can't be. I've spent all morning trying to fix this damn sound system, and I'm ready to take a sledgehammer to it."
Duncan laughed. "I don't recommend blunt instruments. Would lunch help? I'm buying."
"Just as long as it gets me out of here."
Twenty minutes later they were settled at a pleasant table in a sunny restaurant Duncan hadn't visited in years. The two men examined each other frankly across the table.
"How does it feel to be back?" Joe asked.
Duncan considered the question seriously. A great deal had happened since his abrupt departure, and he and Joe had talked only briefly about the rampage that had followed the dark quickening. Too much had been left unsaid during their time together in Paris. Here in Seattle, he couldn't avoid the subject any longer.
"It's strange. When I left the holy spring..." he paused long enough to see Joe nod his understanding of the reference "...I felt like a new person. It was more than just getting through the dark quickening. I felt healed." He stopped there. He trusted Joe, but he didn't want to go into the details of all the old wounds that had needed healing.
"Now I'm back here, and all I want to do is pack up and leave."
"So why did you come back?"
He looked Joe squarely in the eye. "I need to talk to Richie. Joe, please tell me where he is."
Joe swirled the water in his glass, considering his options. He sighed. "Well, I suppose you'll find out anyway."
Dismay flashed over Duncan.
"No, no," Joe said hastily. "He's OK. I just meant that he's back in town. He dropped by the bar about three months ago."
"Where is he?"
"You don't need my help to find him. And I'd rather not be the middle man here."
"OK." Duncan could recognize the wisdom of Joe's position. "How is he?"
"Fine, as far as I can tell. He doesn't confide in me, you know." Joe didn't have to add "the way he did in you." Duncan filled in the words himself.
The conversation turned to Joe, the bar, and mutual friends. After lunch Duncan dropped Joe off with a promise to come by Saturday evening, sound system permitting. Then he headed back to the loft.
Finding Richie required exactly one phone call.
It was nearly six o'clock when Duncan pulled up at Richie's new address. To his surprise, the place was a brick commercial building built in late nineteenth-century style. A small family-run restaurant and an old-fashioned hardware store occupied the ground floor. Much better than a strip mall, Duncan thought approvingly. He'd been a little worried when he heard the street number; this wasn't the best part of town. This block, though, seemed relatively respectable, if a bit down at the heels. Presumably Richie lived upstairs.
The restaurant offered more sources of information, but Duncan was curious to see the inside of the hardware store first. Its meandering aisles were packed with a fascinating array of objects.
"Can I help you find something?"
Duncan pulled himself away from a display of fine woodworking tools. The handsome black woman behind the back counter could have been fifty or sixty. She had an air of competence and authority. The owner?
"Actually, I was looking for someone. Richie Ryan?"
She looked skeptical. "Richie's not working today."
"Oh. I thought he lived here."
She eyed him suspiciously. "You don't look like a student."
"Student?" Duncan was puzzled.
"At the college. Six blocks down?"
"Oh. That's not how I know Richie. He lived with me for a while when he was younger."
"Ah." She had a warm smile. "I have to be careful in this neighborhood. Richie's upstairs. Go through the door with the 'Employees Only' sign and turn right."
Duncan climbed the stairs slowly, wondering why he hadn't at least called to say that he was on his way. He felt Richie's familiar presence quite clearly.
The door at the top of the stairs was open. Taking a deep breath, he stepped over the threshold and halted. The room was small, dim, and sparsely furnished. An old sofa, some bookshelves, and a desk occupied most of the space.
Richie sat quietly at the desk, a computer monitor in front of him and papers piled all around. Duncan couldn't begin to identify the emotions that crossed his face.
"Well, at least you didn't go for your sword," he ventured.
It was the wrong thing to say. Richie winced visibly and attempted to recover with his wiseguy manner. "What would be the point?"
For an awful moment Duncan flashed back to the dojo, remembering Richie's helplessness in the face of his attack. He swore under his breath. How could he have forgotten Richie's injured pride?
Richie changed the subject. "Did Joe give you my address?"
"No. I called information."
Duncan leaned heavily against the wall. This had been a mistake. He shouldn't have come here like this after ignoring Richie for months. He should have sent a letter through Joe months ago. Or flown back to the States. Stop it, he told himself firmly. You're here now, so get on with it.
At any rate, he wasn't going to do this in the doorway. "May I come in?"
"Hey, mi casa, su casa."
Duncan was trying very hard to ignore Richie's sarcasm. He knew the bravado was an act, but it was making it difficult for him to launch the kind of conversation he'd come here to have. He stepped toward the center of the room.
Richie's hands gripped the edge of the desk. He pushed back in his chair, looking as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world. Duncan didn't want to stand there, talking down to Richie, but there were no other chairs in the room.
"Richie, I didn't stay away because I don't care. You must know that."
The words hung in the air. Even Duncan didn't find them quite believable.
Richie looked down at his hands. "So why now?" he asked in a low voice.
Good question, Duncan thought. "I didn't know where you were. I didn't know what to say. 'I'm sorry' doesn't cover it." He moved to the side of the desk, hoping to force Richie to look at him. He resisted an urge to touch him, knowing that could prove disastrous.
"Not when I hurt you." He whispered. "Body and soul." That brought Richie's head up. "Tried to murder you."
"Well, it wasn't you." The words were clipped; the tone carefully neutral.
"Yes, it was. You saw that as well as I did." Something in Richie's eyes confirmed the statement.
Duncan suddenly realized why he'd put off this apology for so long. He'd been fooling himself, thinking the worst thing he had to account for was a crazed act of violence. But he'd openly despised Richie's weakness. Deliberately tried to humiliate him. "The wolf is under wraps now, but he's not dead."
There was a long pause. Say something, Duncan willed. Tell me how you feel. Cry, curse, yell. Do anything except sit there.
Finally Richie stood up and backed away, keeping the length of the desk between Duncan and himself. "What do you want?"
Too late, Duncan thought. I've lost him. "I want to know that you're all right," he said softly.
"I'm OK. I've got a place, a job; I'm even going to school. I'm fine."
He sounded sincere. Duncan thought he even detected a note of sympathy in Richie's voice. Maybe the best thing he could do was finish this and get out of Richie's life?
He sighed. "Good."
There was an awkward silence. What am I supposed to do, ask him what his major is? Duncan walked to the door. "If you ever need anything..."
"I know where you live." No sympathy in that line.
"Right," Duncan said angrily, and headed down the stairs.
Richie collapsed onto the couch before Duncan's buzz had even receded into the distance. His knees weren't exactly knocking, but he didn't feel all that steady on his feet, either. God! He hadn't even known Mac was in the country. And he sure wasn't prepared to meet any other immortals. Not now. Seeing Mac come through the door had been both a shock and a relief.
"What's going on up there?"
Richie scrambled to his feet before Willa Edmondson could make it to the top of the stairs.
"Who was that man?"
"His name's MacLeod."
"He left in a hurry."
Richie didn't respond.
"Why was he here?"
"He just got back into town." At least I think so, Richie added to himself. "I haven't seen him since last fall."
"I don't want any trouble here, Richie. You want to have a few friends over in the evening, that's fine. But that one looks like trouble to me."
Richie couldn't believe it. Willa thought Mac was trouble? That was usually his job! He tried to consider her viewpoint—a well-built, well-dressed, thirtyish-type guy comes into the seedier part of town, looking for some punk kid. What did she think MacLeod was? A drug dealer? A pimp? Richie snickered.
"No, Mac's OK. It's just—he's mad at me." That felt true, even if it wasn't.
"He said you used to live with him."
Richie was surprised. Mac didn't usually volunteer that kind of information. "Yeah, a few years ago. He's a good guy, Willa. A real white-hat kinda cowboy."
"Well, just make sure he doesn't drive any cows through here. No shootouts, either."
"No problem. Mac hates guns." Swords, now...he tried not to think about that.
"OK." She didn't seem truly convinced. "I'm closing up now. Don't forget, you're opening up in the morning."
"Ugh, ugh, ugh." Richie grinned. "I'm the tool man."
"Yeah, right." Willa put her hands on her hips. "Just don't go mistaking me for the Tool Time girl."
A bleary-eyed Richie unlocked the store Saturday morning to find four eager customers awaiting his arrival. They hurried to pick out sandpaper, drill bits, and the assorted bolts and screws necessary for their weekend chores. Once the early birds had departed, he made a pot of strong coffee and drank more than half of it over the course of the morning. Unfortunately, it made him more irritable than alert. Still, he counted out change carefully and made an effort to be cheerful with the customers who drifted in and out. Willa had taken a chance on him, and he didn't want to alienate her clientele.
He was helping a mother with a clinging three-year-old when Willa came by to relieve him for lunch. After scrutinizing paint chips for twenty minutes, the young woman finally decided on the off-white that Richie had known she'd pick all along. Everyone did. He loaded four gallon cans into her trunk and breathed a sigh of relief as the old Chevy pulled the wailing child out of earshot.
"I'll be back by one," he said to Willa after grabbing his jacket.
"Never mind," she said. "I can handle things this afternoon. Don't you have some schoolwork to do?"
"Oh, yeah." The prospect of spending a beautiful afternoon in the library wasn't too appealing. "See you Monday."
Since he hadn't planned on a free Saturday, Richie headed off aimlessly. Two blocks from the store, he decided to take Willa's advice. He wasn't all that confident about his ability to keep up with a classful of community college students. He'd scraped by in high school, but he'd always found math easier than writing. He had a paper due in two weeks, and he didn't want to embarrass himself. He wished he hadn't told Mac that he was in school. What if he couldn't handle it?
Mac. Damn. He wished he hadn't thought of that. He'd spent most of the night before going over and over their encounter. When had Mac gotten back in town, anyway? Richie had returned to Seattle himself more than three months ago. No one had come looking for him, though he was pretty sure that the Watchers must have known he was in the city. When he went by to see Joe Dawson, he was afraid of what he might hear. If Mac wasn't looking for him, maybe it was because he was dead. Really dead.
Joe had reassured him.
"He's over it, Richie. He's not hunting you or anyone else."
"What happened? Where is he?"
Joe pondered his answer. "I think MacLeod ought to tell you about it himself. If it's OK with you, I'll call him and tell him you're in town."
"How long has he been OK?" Richie knew it sounded petty, but he really wanted to know. He'd spent the last few months in despair, and Mac was fine. Probably in Paris, living the good life.
"He needs time, Rich. I know he's worried about you. We both spent a lot of sleepless nights after you disappeared."
Richie had spent plenty of sleepless nights himself. He bet Mac hadn't spent any of them under an overpass.
"Don't call him. I'm sure he's got more important things on his mind." Even to himself he sounded childish, but he couldn't suppress his anger. "I'll see you around."
But he hadn't gone back, hadn't seen Joe, or Anne Lindsey, or anyone else from his old life. Not that there were that many people to begin with. And they were Mac's friends, not his. That was OK. He'd started over a lot of times in his life. He knew the city, and that at least was to his advantage.
Only a week after his visit with Joe, he'd found the job at Willa's place. One of the counselors at the youth center had pointed out the neatly printed index card on the bulletin board. It described a part-time job with a very small salary—and the use of a room.
"Didn't you say you had some experience with financial software?" the counselor asked doubtfully.
"Yeah," Richie said, his hopes rising. If this Mrs. Edmondson was looking for skilled help in a youth shelter, he probably wouldn't have much competition for the job. And he was very, very tired of living in shelters or on the street. So he cleaned himself up the best he could, borrowed a clean shirt from the shelter's closet, and showed up early the next morning at the address on River Street.
Mrs. Edmondson had been a tough sell. She seemed completely immune to Richie's boyish charms. Instead she grilled him about his schooling and his work experience. He told her about working in the antique store and the dojo, and passing the GED a couple years after his classmates had graduated from high school. When she asked if he'd ever been in trouble with the law, he admitted that he had a juvenile record for vandalism and theft—among other things.
"But nothing since I was 17. I straightened out when I started working at the antique store."
"I'll check that out," Mrs. Edmondson responded. "Come back tomorrow."
He did go back. The police had apparently verified his story, but Mrs. Edmondson wanted references from his former employers.
"They're dead," Richie said flatly, thinking of Tessa and Charlie. They would have vouched for him. "Both places are out of business now."
Willa was ultimately convinced by his facility with the outmoded computer that lurked in a back storage room. "You're the first person who could even figure out how to get that thing started," she said, as Richie tried to explain to her how the database worked. She agreed to let him try the job, at least until the inventory was computerized.
Richie grinned, knowing she had no idea just how long that might take. So he lugged the computer upstairs to his new room and spent his evenings entering information about the seemingly endless variety of items Willa kept in stock. Downstairs, he made himself indispensable—working the cash register, stocking shelves, calling suppliers, unloading shipments.
Finally Willa had said, "Enough, Richie. You can stay as long as you want. I'm not paying you enough."
Richie smiled with pride at the memory. When he'd returned to Seattle, he hadn't been sure he could make it on his own. Maybe a single room and a subminimum-wage job weren't hot stuff, but they were a big step up from where he'd been. And he'd earned them. Willa didn't feel sorry for him, and she didn't try to tell him how to live his life.
His new security had given him the courage to check out the community college down the street. For the first time in his life, Richie found that being an orphan worked to his advantage. Student loans were readily available. Good thing I've got an eternity to pay this back, he thought as he signed the papers. Although I'll probably be dead long before the loan collector finds me.
His newly assigned advisor talked him into taking Econ 101 as well as English composition. What a con artist that guy was, Richie thought. If I hadn't fallen for that "expand your horizons" BS I could be spending the weekend at the beach.
He looked up from his reminiscences to find himself face to face with the school's small, windowless library. The great outdoors loses some of its charm after you've spent days and nights in a cold downpour. He sighed and entered the library, leaving the sunny afternoon behind him.
Richie woke with a start. Nearly four o'clock. He rubbed at a crick in his neck. Did the library make these carrels uncomfortable on purpose? So much for studying. He'd only opened one of the two books that he'd pulled off the shelf. Why had he ever thought he'd be interested in economics?
On his way out of the library he loudly slapped the books on a collection table. A pretty brunette looked up in annoyance, and Richie smiled apologetically.
"Richie?" she said disbelievingly.
He stopped in mid-stride. "Angie? What are you doing here? I thought you were still in school somewhere."
"I graduated in June." Now the guy at the next table was annoyed. "C'mon, let's go outside." She grabbed her sweater and books.
In the small patio behind the library, the two old friends perched on a stone bench and grinned at each other.
"You really graduated from college? Angie, that's fantastic." Then he thought about it. "So what are you doing here? Haven't you been sprung from Saturdays in the library?"
Angie laughed. "I'm doing an internship at one of the hospital clinics. I'm trying to impress them so they'll give me a real job."
Richie whistled. "Wow. That's great."
Angie punched his arm. "So what are you doing here? Are you taking classes?"
"Just trying out a couple classes. I'm thinking of dropping it, though." He wasn't sure why he added that.
"Aw, I'll never make it for four years." He changed the subject. "Where are you staying?"
"With my folks. The job doesn't pay much."
Richie smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I know the problem."
"You wanna come over for dinner? Mom always makes too much."
"Nah, I don't want to give your dad a heart attack." Richie grinned. "Bet he thought he'd seen the last of me."
"He likes you, Richie. He was just trying to look out for me."
"I know." Richie took her hands in his and pulled her off the bench. "Look at you. You look great."
Angie beamed. "Well, let's get together tomorrow, then. I have to work in the afternoon, but we could have lunch or something." Her eyes twinkled. "You could come to church with me."
"Yeah, sure. God would probably strike me dead on the doorstep."
"I bet you haven't been to confession in a long time."
"You wouldn't lose any money on that bet. How 'bout if I meet you after church?"
"OK. St. Bridget's. Mass usually gets out around nine o'clock."
"I'll be there."
"You were there." Duncan looked away. "Thank God you were there," he repeated fervently. "Why did I do it? Of all the people I could have gone after, why was it Richie?"
"Because he was nearby. Because it seemed like an easy quickening." Joe wiped imaginary water spots from the bar. "There's no point torturing yourself about it."
Duncan considered. "There was more to it than that. Kant—or Coltec—whoever—didn't know about Richie. I did. I must have wanted to hurt him."
"You mean 'you always hurt the one you love'?" Joe scoffed. "That thing, whatever it was, was using you. We've all got a dark side, MacLeod. God forbid any evil spirit got inside my head and started acting out my thoughts."
"You should have killed me, you know. If you had, Sean Burns would be alive today." Guilt and gratitude mingled in Duncan's voice.
"I couldn't have done it. You were right: shooting someone with a gun is a hell of a lot easier than cutting their head off with a sword." Joe paused. "Richie couldn't do it either, you know."
"The quickening would have destroyed him." Duncan dismissed the notion.
"Maybe," Joe acknowledged. "But that's not what he was worried about. He wanted to stick around and help you. I had to kick him out. It was pretty clear you were going to kill him."
Shame washed through Duncan. He lifted his glass and gazed into the bottom. "So do you think he'll forgive me?"
"He'll come around. You've been gone a long time, you know."
Duncan heard the accusation beneath the kind words and sighed. "I know I should have come back. I told myself he wouldn't want anything to do with me. Truth is, I couldn't face him. Or you."
"Apology accepted." Joe poured them both another shot.
"Do you know where he went?" Duncan asked.
"No idea." Joe smiled at Duncan's skeptical expression. "Really. He sold his bike about sixty miles south of here. We never picked up any trace of him after that, not until he showed up here. Didn't he tell you?"
"He didn't have much to say."
"Give him some time, Mac. You'll work it out."
After Duncan left, Joe and Mike went through their nightly clean-up routine. As Mike was locking the front door, he suddenly said, "You don't really think he'll get over it, do you? Richie, I mean."
"Huh?" Mike was so taciturn that Joe often forgot he was watching close by. "Why wouldn't he?"
"Well, you've seen his file. Would you feel forgiving?"
Joe didn't know what to say, so he mumbled something about the lateness of the hour. After Mike left, he went into the office and pulled Richie's Watcher file from a locked cabinet. A little bedtime reading.
Sunday dawned clear and bright, painting welcome streaks of light across Joe's dining table. He admired the sunrise for a few minutes before snapping off the lamp and pulling himself stiffly from the straightback chair. He needed a bath, clean clothes, and some coffee. Then he would decide.
He dialed the phone promptly at nine o'clock.
"MacLeod? It's Dawson. Can you come over to my place? I have something I think you should see."
When Duncan appeared, Joe showed him into the dining room. "First, I should explain," he said slowly. "When the Watchers find out that someone's an immortal, we try to go back and find out as much as possible about their previous life. These days, there can be a helluva paper trail, if you've got the right connections. Some of the younger immortals have bigger files than you do."
He thumped the thick manila file on the table top. "Most of the salient facts go into the computer, but we keep the paper files."
Duncan glowered at him.
"Don't worry, they're under lock and key," Joe said. "Anyway, I usually look through the records after they're assembled, but in Richie's case I never got around to it. I guess I figured I knew him well enough." He was embarrassed. "You follow around older immortals long enough, you get to thinking that anyone under 200 is shallow. Last night was the first time I even looked at Richie's background file."
He sighed. "I don't know how much the kid has told you. Maybe you already know this stuff. But I thought you ought to see it for yourself. I need your word, though, that the file stays in this room."
Duncan nodded his assent, and Joe left the room as quickly as he was able. He had no desire to open that file again, or to watch Duncan's face as he read through it. One reading had already made an indelible impression. He hobbled into the living room and poured himself a drink.
When Duncan emerged from the dining room two hours later, his face was grim. "I'm leaving," he said curtly. "I suggest you put this away."
"I will." Duncan was gone before Joe could even phrase a question.
With fondness, Richie recognized Mr. Burke's beat-up Oldsmobile in St. Bridget's parking lot. He lounged against its hood, listening to the congregation wheeze through the closing hymn. He'd once attended this church, with a foster family that had taken off for California a few months later. Angie's Italian mother, a pillar of the altar guild, had tried to keep him involved. But Richie wasn't cut out to be a choirboy. Later foster families had taken him to other churches, but he'd resisted all of it. Not even Darius could persuade him to attend another Mass.
The twin doors to the church swung open, and the early service regulars began to spill out, blinking in the sunlight. It was mostly an older crowd, although a few couples towed young children. Richie watched as the kids chased each other around the grounds while smiling adults chatted in small groups and congratulated the priest on his homily. Watching these happy, normal, well-adjusted people, Richie felt like a creature from another planet. It seemed impossible that he had ever been one of them.
Angie emerged from the church with two other women, and Richie took the opportunity to study her as she made her way through the crowd. She was wearing a simple yellow dress that glowed in the morning light. Her dark, wavy hair was pulled back from her face to cascade down her back. When she spotted him, her face lit up with the wide smile he remembered from childhood. His heart flip-flopped. She was a lot more beautiful than he remembered.
"Hey, you," Angie said. "You should have come inside."
Richie just smiled.
"So what do you want to do?"
"OK, but where?" Angie stopped to consider her own question. "We could go down to the waterfront," she said doubtfully. Although both she and Richie had spent most of their lives in Seattle, neither had spent much time hanging around the tonier parts of the city.
"Wherever you want," Richie said. "I'm buying."
They had brunch in an attractive little cafe near Alki Beach. Angie nibbled at fruit and a muffin while Richie plowed his way through two enormous platefuls from the buffet. As he ate, she filled him in on the last four years: her family, her friends at school, her coursework, the internship at a mental health clinic.
"Mom and Dad have been great," she concluded. "I never could have made it through without them, even with all the loan money."
"I can't believe you were going to be a social worker. You know what idiots they all are."
Angie smiled at him. "Freshman fantasy. I thought I could do a better job than those bozos you had." She shrugged. "But if I get a good job I can start paying my folks back. Maybe get my Master's in counseling some day."
"Yeah, well, I can see you as a shrink." He grinned. "But don't you have to shut up and listen to other people talk all day?"
She bounced a grape off his nose. "Oh, that's funny, coming from you. The original motor mouth. If you've got so much to say, how come you haven't told me anything about you?"
"My mouth was full," he protested. "C'mon, let's walk."
They strolled around the shops for a while but soon got bored with window shopping. A small park filled with picnicking families provided an access point to the beach. Driven by a chilly sea breeze and a desire for privacy, they moved down the beach, taking up shelter in a collection of driftwood.
Once settled on Richie's jacket, Angie shook his shoulders and said jokingly, "OK, spill it, wiseguy. The whole story."
Hesitantly at first, Richie began to fill her in on his life. She was easy to talk to, though, and it wasn't as hard as he thought to edit out references to his immortality. When he was with Angie, that part didn't feel real anyway. He told her about the mugger who shot and killed Tessa. About MacLeod's grief, the sale of the antique store, moving into his own apartment. Working at the dojo and training with Mac. The tension that had grown up between them. His brief foray into international motorcycle racing.
"Then last year a good friend of Mac's died, and it really pushed him over the edge. He went kind of crazy. He came looking for a fight, and he damn near killed me." Angie's eyes widened. "I got out of town as fast as I could. Just came back in June. That's when I started working for Willa."
"Where did you go?"
Richie made a face. "Don't you have to go to work soon?"
"Not yet." She faked a thick German accent. "Now tell ze good doctor all about your trip."
Richie ran his hands through his hair and thought. This part was going to be harder to explain.
"I didn't have any money for gas, so I sold my bike and hitched to Portland."
"I hear it's nice there."
He smiled without amusement. "I didn't notice. I was too busy trying to kill myself."
"Drinking. Fighting. Getting high." His voice dropped. "I started stealing again. It was just luck the cops didn't catch me."
He looked up at Angie, but she didn't say anything. "I think I was trying to break every rule Mac ever taught me."
"What made you stop?"
"The booze and the dope stopped making me feel better. The more I did, the worse the dreams were." He paused. "There was this woman who used to drive around in a van, giving out sandwiches to the street kids and trying to get them to go home or get some help. I finally wised up enough to take her up on it. She got me into this shelter. It took about a month, but they cleaned me up and gave me bus fare to get back here."
Angie took his hand and wrapped her fingers around his. "So how are you doing now?"
"I thought I was doing OK. Willa's been great. And I haven't had anything stronger than a beer. Then a couple days ago, Mac showed up. It kind of shook me up."
"What did he want?" Angie asked angrily.
"Said he was sorry."
"So where's he been all this time?"
"I'm not sure. France, maybe. He and Tessa used to live there." Richie squeezed her hand. "It's OK. Running into you more than makes up for seeing Mac again."
Angie sighed. "I'm so sorry, Richie. Mom sent me the newspaper article about Tessa, but I didn't know about any of the rest. It seemed like MacLeod really cared about you."
She jumped as a seagull screeched down beside her, demanding to be fed. In minutes a whole flock had descended upon them. Richie chased away the invaders as Angie laughed at his antics. The mood broken, conversation turned to familiar and less personal topics—which CD was hot and which friends were sleeping together.
Duncan left Joe's house in a daze. He felt numb, and at the same time curiously aware of his surroundings. Closing the front door behind him. Walking down the stairs. Opening his car door. Putting the key in the ignition.
He pulled the car into traffic with no plan or direction, but knowing that he didn't want to be alone in the dojo. Three or four miles later, he pulled to the side of the road in a residential area.
He leaned back against the head rest and stared through the windshield. Beyond the glass, the morning was bright and a bed of purple and gold chrysanthemums assaulted his eyes. A block away, three young girls drew chalk pictures on the sidewalk. A lawnmower growled in a nearby backyard. Duncan sat unmoving for twenty or thirty minutes, unable to focus his thoughts on anything more significant than the dust motes swirling in the warm air inside the car.
When the overheated air finally forced him to stir, he was startled by the sight of his face in the rearview mirror. He hadn't been crying, but his cheeks were wet with tears. He wiped them away, cranked open the window, and headed the car for home.
Back at the loft, he changed into some workout clothes. There was little point in attempting a kata. Instead he stretched and then tried to pick a fight with the punching bag. But his heart wasn't in it. Running sometimes helped him to think. He jogged down the dojo stairs and took to the street at a rapid clip.
As he ran, the pictures came back to him. Richie at two, a laughing cherub with enormous blue eyes and reddish-gold curls framing his chubby face. Emily Ryan with her arms wrapped around a proud four-year-old. Child welfare agency photos of a stoic five-year-old Richie, taken days after Emily's death and staged to appeal to prospective adoptive parents. Richie at six, back at the orphanage after his new parents decided a second child was more than they could handle. A complete collection of school photos from first grade through high school. Duncan had been amused to see that the defiant grin and cocky attitude he had long associated with Richie's adolescence were actually in evidence by the third grade.
And the other pictures. An x-ray of a nine-year-old boy's arm, broken in a spiral fracture. Police photos of a ten-year-old Richie, obviously drugged, in a hospital bed. Close-ups showed his face, with a black eye and a split lip, and his back, covered from ribs to knees in welts and long, bloody gashes. Richie at twelve, held in a juvenile detention center as a runaway. At thirteen, his first mug shot, taken after an arrest for breaking store windows. His eyes were frightened and angry. At fourteen, the shoplifter mugged for the camera. A bundle of reports from police, doctors, and social workers followed, chronicling Richie's many foster families, his crimes, attempts at rehabilitation. The last mug shot was taken when Richie was 17, arrested for breaking into Tessa and Duncan's antique shop.
It's not as if I didn't know, Duncan thought. But the papers and photos, so neatly organized in chronological order, had a powerful impact. Despite his garrulousness, Richie had never even spoken the name of any of his foster parents except Emily Ryan, the woman he had once believed to be his mother. Yet Duncan had counted seven foster families in the file after Emily. After the beating by Francis Bianconi, Richie had spent nearly a year in the Children's Center. His therapist reported that he was withdrawn and self-destructive.
His subsequent placements were short, seldom lasting more than a year. In several cases, it was Richie who apparently terminated the relationship. One concerned social worker expressed suspicion that Richie was being abused, but Duncan found no indication that the authorities had acted to protect him. By age 16, the point was moot. Richie was spending more time on the streets or living with friends than in the guardianship of his assigned foster parents.
Duncan struggled to reconcile the Richie he knew with the boy whose childhood was encapsulated in that stunning file. Richie had always been a bundle of contradictions, he realized. When Richie first crossed Duncan's path he had been an unrepentant thief with a smart mouth. Duncan hadn't liked him very much. He had taken Richie in to please Connor and to honor his own sense of duty.
Both Duncan and Tessa had been surprised by the ease with which Richie had blended into their household. Certainly the boy had a lot of rough edges, but he had proven himself to be trustworthy and well-intentioned. He might complain, but he worked at any job that Duncan assigned him. He was good-natured, enthusiastic, and impulsive. He was also sensitive, prone to nightmares, and completely lacking any sense of his own worth.
The guilt that had been dogging Duncan for months now hit him full force. Richie's trust and affection had been hard won—in retrospect, he found it hard to understand how the boy could trust anyone at all. Once Duncan had thought he understood Richie's feelings about their confrontation. Now he was quite sure that he didn't. The depth of his own betrayal sickened him.
He returned to the dojo physically exhausted and not a whit closer to emotional equilibrium. Just climbing the exterior stairs was an effort. As he crossed the dojo floor to the elevator, a powerful cramp seized his right calf. "Goddammit!" he cursed aloud, and limped into the office to massage his leg.
He closed his eyes and rested in one of the office chairs. When the pain had passed and his heart rate slowed, he made a conscious effort to clear his mind. Just breathe, he told himself. In and out. Nothing else. Several minutes later he opened his eyes and contemplated the cluttered room. Stacks of papers tottered everywhere. Someone, either Joe or the cleaning staff, had collected mail from the entry and piled it on and around the desk. One large package was wedged between the desk and the credenza. His curiosity aroused, Duncan shifted himself from the chair and stooped to examine the package. There was no return address, and the postmark was nearly five months old. He tore off the paper and lifted the lid from the box.
Inside, carelessly wrapped in newspaper, was Richie's bloodstained rapier.
Richie returned to the store after his Monday morning class. He spread his invoices across the back counter, turned up the radio, and worked contentedly as Willa dealt with the steady flow of customers. He loved to listen to her talk—she had a direct manner and a quick wit that lured in construction workers, housewives, and homeless people for a cup of coffee and a chat. A seemingly endless stream of friends and acquaintances dropped by to hear or convey the latest news about what was up in the neighborhood, the local Methodist church, or the wide variety of civic and charitable organizations in which Willa was an active participant.
Around dinner time business slowed, and Willa drifted toward the back of the store. "How we doing?" she asked.
"Better than last month," Richie responded with a smile. He wasn't accustomed to finding his accounts in the black.
"Must be all those teenage girls coming in to get a glimpse of the redhead," Willa teased. "You know how many hair dryers I've sold this month?"
"Twenty-seven," Richie replied soberly, and Willa let out a deep laugh.
"I oughta put you in the front window," she said. "Your talents are wasted back here."
"C'mon," Richie objected. "You're the only star in this store."
Willa chuckled and reached for the radio dial. "Son," she said, "if you're gonna turn that thing on, let's have some music. Not noise." She paused at the wailing voice of Ray Orbison. "Now there's a man who can sing."
"Geezer music," Richie grumbled happily, and turned his attention back to the account book.
"Geezer, my eye! You kids can't sing, can't dance, and you wouldn't know a melody from a caterwaul."
The tune switched to "She's a Brick House." Willa raised an eyebrow. "Well, not one of my favorites, but..." She began to dance, adding all the appropriate hand movements and sending Richie into a fit of giggles.
Willa pulled him beside her and soon had him in step, though Richie's hands never traced exactly the same curves that Willa's did. At the end of the song they both collapsed in helpless laughter against the counter.
"You have hidden talents," a familiar voice said.
Richie straightened up to find Duncan smiling affectionately at him. He hadn't even noticed his approach.
"That's just what I was saying." Willa wiped her eyes and surveyed the man before her.
"Duncan MacLeod, Willa Edmondson." Richie relapsed into formalities. "Willa, this is Mac." They shook hands.
"Richie, I need to talk to you. I was hoping I could buy you dinner."
Richie glanced at Willa.
"I can close up," she said. "If you want me to."
He didn't, but he knew Mac well enough to know that he wouldn't be put off for long. "OK," Richie said, and on a sudden impulse he leaned over and kissed Willa's cheek. "See you tomorrow."
He turned and reluctantly followed Duncan from the shop.
Neither man spoke during the brief walk to Duncan's Thunderbird.
Richie stopped at the car door. "I thought I was gonna call you if I needed anything," he said sardonically.
Duncan gazed at Richie across the car roof. He's afraid, Duncan realized. He's afraid to get in the car with me. His heart sank.
"Would you rather walk?"
Richie shrugged as if to say he didn't care; then he headed down the sidewalk with Duncan at his heels.
"I want to apologize for what happened on Friday," Duncan said. "I shouldn't have surprised you like that. And I'm in no position to demand anything from you, least of all forgiveness."
Richie said nothing.
"I don't want to fight with you, Rich. I want to make things right between us. I know that won't be easy. But is it what you want?"
"What does it matter what I want? You fly in here almost a year later and you want to know how I feel! What do you care?"
Duncan stopped and faced the very angry young man.
"I care, Rich. I understand why you might find that hard to believe, but I do." He sighed heavily. "I can't explain why I've waited so long to say this. It was cowardice, I guess. And selfishness. I was feeling so much better. I didn't want to face you. And I told myself you'd be better off on your own."
"Oh, right. You'd think I'd get it by now, wouldn't you? How many times do you have to throw me out? Well, I've got it now, Mac." Sarcasm drenched every word. "Immortals have to keep their distance. Immortals kill each other. Got it."
Duncan took the attack as his due. "I never wanted to put distance between us," he said quietly.
"That's bullshit!" Richie spat. "You knew I was going to be an immortal. A bad one. You were just waiting for me to screw up. And I did!"
"Is that why you sent me this?" Duncan opened his coat and revealed Richie's sword. It gleamed in the twilight. "If you wanted to scare me, that was the way to do it."
"Scare you?" Richie said with a strangled laugh. "I was just returning your property. It's kinda hard to explain a quarter-million-dollar sword when some cop's rousting you off the street."
"It belongs to you, Richie. You could have sold it."
"No way. I don't want anything to do with it."
Duncan examined him carefully, trying to understand the feelings behind the words. "How are you going to protect yourself without a sword?"
Richie waved an arm in dismissal and headed back down the sidewalk. "That's not your problem."
Duncan followed. "Maybe it is. If you're rejecting this sword because I gave it to you."
"It's got nothing to do with you," Richie said impatiently. "I've had it, OK? I'm out of the Game. End of story."
They walked silently for a long time. Richie headed for the community college campus, which was nearly deserted at that hour. Duncan followed as Richie climbed the bleachers of the small stadium. Together they sat and watched a few joggers make their way around the track.
Grateful for the respite, Duncan clasped his hands and gathered his thoughts before speaking. "I wish it were that easy to quit the Game, Rich. But we both know it's not. Without a sword, you'll be defenseless the next time an immortal surprises you in your room. Or anywhere else."
Richie stared off at the setting sun. "What difference does it make?" he asked calmly. " 'We both know' I'll never see 30. Maybe not even 25."
Duncan was shaken by his composure. "That's not true. If I made you feel that way...you're wrong. You have as much chance as any of us."
Richie didn't seem to be listening.
"Your life is worth fighting for," Duncan said, almost desperately. "I'll train you."
"You don't get it, Mac. I'm 22 years old and I've killed four people. With that sword."
"No," Duncan insisted. "This isn't about the Game. It's about you. You've been hurt too many times by the people who were supposed to protect you. I was just the last in a long line. I've seen your file, Rich. No one could go through what you did and not be scarred by it. You need help. You need—"
He stopped only when he saw Richie's horrified expression. Even in the approaching darkness, he could see that all the color had drained from Richie's face.
Richie stood and faced him. "You saw my file," he said slowly. "My Watcher file?" He was trembling. "You saw my file," he repeated.
"Richie," Duncan pleaded, "listen to me."
"I don't want to see you again," Richie said, enunciating each word.
Duncan rose to meet his glare and recognized defeat in the cold blue eyes. He squeezed Richie's shoulder in a gesture of farewell and left the field.
Richie sat in the bleachers waiting for the tightness in his chest to ease. When it didn't, he found the nearest liquor store and bought the largest and cheapest bottle of scotch he could find.
The next morning Duncan called Anne Lindsey to arrange for a visit. Anne was off duty and invited Duncan for lunch at the house he had given her. "It'll probably be tunafish sandwiches," she warned. "I was never much of a cook, and with Mary crawling I have to keep an eye on her every second."
"I'll bring the sandwiches. I just want to see the two of you."
They had a pleasant lunch on the front porch. Duncan and Anne talked little; baby Mary provided ample entertainment. Duncan was amazed at her size and charmed by her dark eyes and dimples. Anne was right—she moved incredibly fast and was into practically everything. About an hour after lunch, she began to whine and fuss. Duncan picked her up and held her close to his chest, rocking her and talking nonsense to her in his deep voice. In a few minutes she melted into his shoulder in blissful sleep.
Anne nestled in a wicker chair and watched Duncan cuddle her baby. "Something's on your mind," she observed.
"Yes," he said. "I need your advice. I probably shouldn't be telling you about this, but I think I've already caused so much damage that it won't matter."
"Is this about the 'dark quickening'?" Her skepticism about such matters was clear.
Duncan smiled wryly to indicate his understanding of the message. "Not really. It's Richie. When I got back, I actually thought I could just fix things. Explain, apologize, make it up to him. Either that or he'd just turn his back and walk away. Which would be a pretty smart thing for him to do, under the circumstances."
"But it wasn't that simple?"
"There is absolutely nothing simple about it." Duncan patted Mary's back and rocked for a while before continuing.
"Richie was an orphan. Like all immortals. He grew up in foster homes. I found out recently that he'd been assaulted by one of his foster fathers."
"Oh." Duncan could almost see Anne's mind fitting the puzzle pieces together. "He must be having a hard time with this."
"Hard doesn't begin to describe it. He's given up on himself. He won't even protect himself." Duncan couldn't conceal his frustration. "You see kids like this in the emergency room all the time, don't you? How do you reach them?"
"Well, I just treat the immediate injuries and report the incidents to the police. Hopefully, a therapist steps in later to take care of the bigger problems."
"There's only one psychiatrist I know that Richie could have talked to about this. Sean Burns. The man I killed." Duncan choked and tears welled up in his eyes.
Anne rose and touched his cheek. "Here, let me take her," she said, reaching for Mary.
"No, please, I'd like to hold her," Duncan implored.
Anne acceded and sat beside him on the swing. Mary snuffled a bit at the disturbance and Duncan hummed until she was quiet again.
"Has he talked to you about it?" Anne asked.
"I've talked to him. Twice. The first time he was distant, the second time he was furious."
"But that's good, Duncan. At least he's talking. And he came back to the city. It doesn't sound like he's given up on you."
"You wouldn't say that if you'd been there." He shifted Mary into a more comfortable position. "The strange thing is, I think he's angrier at me for staying away than for trying to kill him."
"Mmm. That's not so strange. The neglected kids can be even sadder than the abused ones. A lot of kids who are beaten up regularly still really love their parents. They assume it's their fault. It's the rejection that breaks their hearts."
"What can I do?"
"Well, if you were a genuine abuser, I'd say get yourself into therapy and put your kids somewhere safe. But you're not. And Richie's not a kid, either." She considered the problem for a while.
"You know what's really amazing? I see the awful things that parents do to their children, and you can't believe any of them could survive, much less thrive. But a lot of them do. With just a little love and security, they bloom.
"Richie never struck me as an unhappy person. He may be suffering through a bad time now, after everything that's happened, but he can pull through it. From what he told me about you and Tessa, you two got him out of a pretty bad situation once before."
Duncan nodded. "But he was a child then. And it took us months to earn his trust. Now he's an immortal. He doesn't have months to recover. His time is up the minute another immortal comes for his head."
Anne squeezed Duncan's knee. "You can't change that. All you can do is try your best to reach him. There are some dangers that parents just have to accept. Because you can't protect him from everything."
Duncan held Mary tight and kissed her dark curls. "In my case, I can't protect him at all," he sighed.
Richie sat on the floor of his room and methodically emptied shot after shot of the whiskey. At least immortals can get drunk, he thought with satisfaction. He was determined to pass out before he could think of all the things that Mac might have found in that file. Unconsciousness was infinitely preferable to the mortification that twisted his gut, wrapped icy bands around his chest, and set his heart pounding a mile a minute.
"Richie! Are you in there?"
At eight o'clock Willa's persistent knocking roused him temporarily from his stupor. He was still drunk. He couldn't even lift his head from the floor.
A key turned in the lock, and then Willa's face was looming over him.
"We'll talk about this when you're sober," she said sternly. She appropriated the remainder of the scotch and slammed the door behind her. Richie moaned and slipped back into the blackness.
When he woke again it was nearly two o'clock in the afternoon. He had to move now. "Shit," he said aloud when he remembered that the bathroom was out the door and down the hall. Somehow he managed to rise and stagger down the corridor. He slumped against the sink and splashed cold water in his face.
Without bothering to change clothes, he made his way down the back stairs, leaning heavily on the railing. He looked around for his bike until he remembered that he didn't have a bike anymore. So what. That wasn't going to stop him. He stumbled down the sidewalk.
More than half an hour later he was pounding on the locked door of Joe's bar. He yelled for what seemed like hours, until finally Joe opened the door.
"Richie, what the hell are you doing?"
He pushed past Joe and into the dimness of the bar. He tripped and fell against a table and wrathfully kicked over a couple of chairs.
"Why did you do it?" he shouted. "Why did you do that to me?"
"Jesus!" Joe muttered. "Can't MacLeod ever keep his damn mouth shut?" He limped past Richie and took up his customary stance behind the shelter of the bar. He poured a glass of water and pushed it across the bar. "Calm down, Rich."
Richie ignored the overture. "It's not bad enough you're gonna put my life on a library shelf after I'm dead, for all the world to see? You've gotta do it now? With Mac?"
Joe took a step back. "Richie, he's your family."
Richie shook his head fiercely.
"He wants to help. So do I."
The self-righteous attitude was really getting under his skin. "You don't give a shit about me. Everything with you is Duncan MacLeod. 'Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod,'" he mimicked. "Your own personal horse in the run for the roses."
Joe leaned across the bar and poked Richie in the chest. "I shot him to save your sorry ass," he snapped.
Richie snorted. "Yeah, tell me again how you did that for me."
"Damn it, Richie, you're a real pain—" Joe stopped when he recognized the wary expression on Richie's face.
"Fuck!" Richie said explosively, and knocked the glass off the bar. Both men turned to confront MacLeod.
But it wasn't MacLeod.
The woman who came through the door was an impressive sight. At about 5'9" she was close to Richie in height, with short brown hair and strong, clean-cut features. She wore jeans with a T-shirt and vest that did little to hide her muscular shoulders and arms. Linda Hamilton, Richie thought crazily. He looked back at the door to see if the Terminator was trailing behind her.
"Katya Turgeneva," Joe breathed.
"Who the hell is—"
"Shut up." The glare that Joe shot toward Richie could have felled even a sober man.
For the first time Richie noticed that the woman was carrying a sword instead of a machine gun. A brightly polished cavalry saber that she was making no attempt to conceal.
The two men were silent as she circled the room with the grace of a dancer. As she approached the bar, she lifted the sword in the general vicinity of Richie's neck. Richie stared at the blade, transfixed.
"Leave him alone," Joe said sharply. "He's only 22. He's got nothing to offer you."
Katya eyed Richie's disheveled condition with contempt. "I'm not here for him." With remarkable swiftness, she turned and swung the saber for Joe's head.
Richie gaped in shock as Joe ducked away from the blow and fumbled frantically beneath the bar for his gun. The Watcher was impossibly slow. Katya's second blow opened a deep slash in his upper arm.
"Hey!" Richie lunged for Katya's sword arm. Without even bothering to turn, she stomped a boot across his instep and elbowed him in the nose. He sagged against the counter, gasping for air, and she stepped over him to get behind the bar.
Joe was half-crouched in the corner, leaning heavily on his cane and trying desperately to remove the safety from the gun. His right hand didn't seem to be working properly. Katya paused briefly to enjoy the spectacle, then raised her sword overhead for the kill.
"No!" Richie shrieked. He dove across the bar on his belly to take the blow. As the saber fell, Joe swung his cane upward to meet it. It made no difference. The sword connected solidly with the back of Richie's neck.
Joe watched Richie's body slide over the bar in slow motion and drop heavily into the narrow space. Without knowing how he did it, he fired the gun, emptying every bullet in the chamber into Katya Turgeneva's chest.
Duncan had been back from Anne's house for nearly an hour when the phone rang.
"MacLeod!" Joe was sobbing for breath. "Get over here. There's a dead immortal outside my bar and she's coming back for me."
"Hold on." Duncan sprinted from the room without even stopping to hang up the phone.
In less than ten minutes, he screeched the T-bird to a halt and leaped out with his katana in hand. Let the police catch me, he thought. They'll have to stop me first. He prowled the block with his senses at full alert, but felt no immortal's presence in or around the bar.
Still cautious, but relieved by the apparent lack of immortals, he approached Joe's door. At the foot of the stairs was a bloody leather vest where Joe must have dumped the other immortal's body.
"Dawson! It's MacLeod. You can open up."
There was a faint response.
"What? I can't hear you!"
"Break it down!" Joe shouted hoarsely. "I can't make it back there."
The door was strong, but not strong enough to sustain a dozen powerful kicks. Duncan crashed inside and immediately recognized the sweet metallic smell of blood. Tables and chairs were overturned. A bloody trail marked the path Joe had taken as he dragged the body outside. Joe himself was nowhere to be seen.
"Joseph! Where are you?"
"Back here, MacLeod." Joe sounded exhausted.
Duncan strode quickly toward the voice.
A pair of legs stuck out at an odd angle from behind the bar. Richie's legs. Clad in the same jeans and dirty sneakers he had worn the night before.
Duncan put a hand on the bar to steady himself. "Richie," he said faintly. He crumpled to his knees and touched the boy's foot.
"He's alive, MacLeod." Joe's voice was urgent. "At least he's not dead for long."
"What?" Duncan stumbled around the corner of the bar. Joe had collapsed beside Richie, whose body lay on its side in a deep pool of blood. A sword had laid open his neck and slashed deeply into his left shoulder. Duncan had to avert his eyes. The wound was too terrible to look at.
Joe cradled the boy's head on his lap. "He's not healing, Mac. He hasn't moved."
Duncan smiled giddily with joy and relief. "It's all right. He will. He will. Even an old immortal would have trouble healing a wound like that."
He laughed. "Thank God you're all right." It was only then that he realized Joe wasn't all right. The right side of the Watcher's dark shirt was soaked with blood.
"Damn!" Duncan reverted to the medic persona that had served him well through so many battles. In a few seconds he had ripped Joe's sleeve open and wrapped his arm tightly in a clean towel.
"We have to get you to the ER. Now."
"We can't leave Richie here alone."
"First things first." He hauled Joe out from behind the bar and dragged him toward the door. The man was a dead weight. "Richie can't bleed to death. You can."
"We're not leaving him here." Joe was adamant. "She could come back."
Duncan propped Joe against the Thunderbird. "Just get in the car. I'll come back for him."
"I'm not going anywhere!"
"Fine, I'll take you both! Stop fighting me and get in the car!" Duncan dashed back into the building and emerged with Richie's lifeless body across his shoulder. He placed the boy in the cramped back seat as gently as he could and covered him with his trenchcoat. The last thing he wanted was some solicitous ER attendant finding the body.
"Happy?" Duncan asked as he pulled the car into the street.
"Happy," Joe said, and promptly fainted against the seat.
Richie woke in stifling darkness. Someone was holding a blanket over his head. "No, no, no, no!" he cried, and frantically struggled against the entangling material. "Stop!"
He sat up abruptly and gasped in pain. His head hurt in a way it never had before. Sharp pain, stabbing up his spine and deep into his head. He couldn't see. He put his hands over his ears and moaned. "Stop," he pleaded with the pain. "Please stop."
In a few minutes the agony did lessen and his vision returned, but there was still a throbbing ache in his head that was ten times worse than any hangover he'd ever had. He couldn't remember what had happened. How the hell had he ended up in Mac's car?
Sheer determination propelled him out of the car, but it couldn't give him enough strength to stand. He had to slide to a seat against one of the rear wheels. He tried to catch his breath and figure out what was going on. Something about Joe?
He wobbled to his feet and tried to determine where he was. It wasn't hard—a large blue-and-white sign nearby shouted "Harborview Hospital Emergency Entrance." Doctors, Richie thought. Almost as dangerous as cops. He had to get moving. But where?
Inspiration struck. Harborview Hospital. Angie's clinic was somewhere near the hospital. He had to find her. He started off in the first convenient direction, only to end up in a blind alley. Damn. Which way?
"Do you need the ER?" At the sight of him, two middle-aged women in a doorway dropped their cigarettes.
"Mental health clinic! Where's the mental health clinic?"
The two women looked at each other, no doubt wondering why a teenager in a blood-soaked T-shirt and jeans was looking for a mental health clinic. "Other direction. About a block and a half, on your left."
Richie tried to run, but he couldn't breathe. All the signs looked the same. Where was it?
Finally, a likely doorway. He plunged inside. "Angie!" he said. "I need to talk to Angie Burke!"
The receptionist took one look at him and picked up the phone. Almost instantaneously, a man appeared, took his elbow, and guided him into a small room.
"Are you hurt, son? How'd you get here?"
"I'm OK. It's not my blood," Richie said. "Where's Angie?"
"Well, some of it's yours. You've got a nasty slash across the back of your neck."
"There can't be!"
The psychologist eyed him curiously. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Richie replied honestly.
"Well, I'm not a doctor, but I think I can clean that up for you. You might need to go to the ER for some stitches, though."
"OK, why don't you relax? We'll get you cleaned up, and then we can talk."
Richie wavered and nearly fell. "I'm sick of talking," he said. "I'm so damn sick of talking."
About twenty minutes later Angie, back from an errand, rushed in. "Richie!"
The psychologist had settled Richie in a chair, and he felt less dazed. His hair was still matted with blood, and he stank of sweat—but he had at least removed the bloody T-shirt. With luck, he didn't look like an ax murderer anymore.
He scrounged up a faint smile. "Hey, Ange. I was looking for you."
"Richie, what happened? Are you OK?"
He looked meaningfully at the psychologist, who was fingering the gash that ripped the t-shirt from the neckline halfway to the hem.
"You're one lucky kid," the man said. "Whoever knifed you meant business." He sighed. "OK, I can see you two want to talk. I'll be just next door, Angie."
She waited until the door had closed behind him. "What's going on?" There was an edge to her voice.
"I don't remember it very well," Richie admitted. "I was kinda...hung over."
"I thought you were gonna stop drinking," she chided.
"I know. Believe me, God is punishing me for it."
"So what do you remember?"
Richie thought. "I went to see Joe. Some broad came in with a knife." He suddenly sat straight up, remembering Katya's powerful arms and the saber falling. "Oh, man."
"That blood. It must be Joe's," Richie said. He grasped her arm. "That must be how I ended up here."
"I've gotta get over to the hospital and see if he's OK."
"You better get over there and have somebody look at you." She gently bent his head over and touched his neck near the wound.
"No, that part's OK."
"What about the part that's not?"
He looked up at her, hearing both the annoyance and the concern in her voice. "No doctors, Angie."
She made an exasperated sound. "I swear, Richie Ryan, you are more trouble than a clinic full of mental cases!"
"I know," he said, and took her hand. "I'm sorry, Ange."
She relented. "Well, wait here and I'll try to find you a shirt." She left and returned a few minutes later with an extra-large golf shirt that hung practically to his knees, covering most of the blood on his jeans. He turned up the collar to hide his neck, and Angie laughed at the strangely jaunty effect.
"C'mon," she sighed. "I'm going with you."
Joe was safely ensconced in a double room by the time they arrived. His right arm was wrapped in heavy gauze and an IV was taped to his left. Duncan sat in a chair at the bedside, but he rose to his feet the minute Richie entered.
"Richie! Are you all right?"
Talk about your stupid questions. "I'm fine, Mac."
"I've been looking for you."
"Well, here I am," he said dryly. Mac's buzz was not helping his head.
Duncan examined him for a moment. "Truce?" he asked, and extended his hand.
Richie didn't take it, but he nodded wearily.
Duncan smiled his gratitude and turned to Richie's companion. "It's Angie, isn't it?"
"That's right," she said stiffly.
"Hey," Joe croaked from the bed. "Isn't anyone gonna introduce me?"
Richie gladly turned his attention away from Duncan. "Hey, Joe, are you OK?" The Watcher looked ten years older, and was strikingly pale.
"Thanks to you." Joe pulled himself to a more upright position, and waved Angie and Richie to the other side of the bed.
"I owe you an apology, Rich. And one helluva big thank you."
Richie shrugged and shifted from one foot to the other. He didn't want Angie and Mac hearing about this.
"Young lady," Joe said, "this man put himself between me and a blade." Then he fixed Richie with his stare. "That's gotta be the stupidest move I ever saw. And I've seen a lot."
Richie grinned. "Yeah, stupid pet tricks." He knew he wasn't making much sense. But he was so tired. And the pounding in his head was not getting any better.
Joe patted Angie's hand with his good one. "Take him home, sweetheart. He needs the bed more than I do."
Angie smiled beatifically at Joe. "C'mon, Rich." She put her arm around his waist and led him toward the door. "Let's go home."
Joe dropped back on the pillow and closed his eyes. "I don't know what's going on with him, MacLeod, but the kid's definitely growing on me."
Willa was not pleased to discover that Richie had been injured in a bar fight, Angie's declarations of his heroism notwithstanding. Still, she helped Angie get him up to his room and into the sofa bed, and she listened patiently as Angie relayed what little she knew about the events at Joe's.
There was no charity in Willa's tone the next morning when Richie slipped downstairs to apologize before the store opened.
"It doesn't matter to me whether you're sorry or not. You left the back door unlocked all night. Anyone could have come in and cleared out the entire inventory. My husband and I worked twenty years to keep this place going, and I'm not going to risk it all on a drunk."
"Are you throwing me out?" Richie felt stricken at the thought.
"If there's one thing I know, it's that you can't save an alcoholic with kindness."
"I'm not an alcoholic!"
Willa was unbending. "Then you're on the road. Do you understand that much at least?"
"I guess," he mumbled.
"Stop guessing and get sure about it right now. There won't be any more second chances from me."
"Second chances?" It took Richie a moment to realize that she was making a peace offering. "Thanks," he said shakily. "I'll make the coffee," he offered.
"No, you get yourself to school and stay there. I don't want to see your face around here today. I'm too mad at you."
"OK," Richie said. "It won't happen again."
"You're right about that."
The next few days were uneventful. Richie worked harder than he ever had to win back Willa's favor. Joe called to check on him and repeat his thanks, but their conversation was brief. Mac, thankfully, made no attempt to contact him. Both Angie and Willa tried to elicit more information about what had happened with Joe and Duncan, but Richie steadfastly refused to talk about it.
He kept a large bandage across his neck to hide his wound—or rather, the lack of a wound. He was surprised to discover that he could scar. When he peered over his shoulder into the mirror of the little upstairs bathroom, he could see a distinct, pinkish line that crossed his neck at an angle. His shoulder, which had taken the full force of the blow, was completely unmarked.
When he wasn't at the store or in class, Richie spent as much time as he could with Angie. He was just beginning to realize how much he had missed her since he cut off his ties to the old neighborhood. It was a great relief to be with a woman who was not a delicate flower—and never needed any explanations about his background. Although he sometimes felt guilty about keeping Angie in the dark, he was in fact grateful that she was so blissfully unaware of immortals.
Like Willa, Angie was a natural do-gooder. If Richie needed help to stick to the straight and narrow, she was happy to provide it. She tried to motivate him to stick with his classes, steered him away from all settings associated with alcohol, and did her best to lift his spirits.
Richie was aware that Mike or some other Watcher normally tracked his comings and goings, but he paid little attention. He wanted very much to build his own world apart from Mac, other immortals, and the Watchers. His new life revolved around the hardware store, the school, and the clinic. Angie and Willa were the two daily constants in his life.
Ironically, the more stable his life became, the more conscious he was of his own precarious situation. He could get an education and build a life in Seattle, but for how long? In a few years, at most, he'd have to leave the city and all his connections there. He could avoid immortals, but sooner or later another killer would come along. A day or two would go by, and he would forget that he was any different from anyone else. Then he would finger the scar on his neck and be reminded of the imminence of his own death.
It was nearly two weeks later when Joe dropped by the hardware store. His arm was still in a sling, and it was clearly difficult for him to get around.
"Come over to my place for dinner on Sunday. And bring that beautiful brunette you never introduced me to."
Richie hesitated. "No, I gotta work."
Willa, who had overheard the conversation, broke in. "We're never open on Sunday, Richie, you know that."
"Aha," Joe said. "Saved by another beautiful brunette." He flapped his bad arm as if to apologize for his inability to shake hands. "I'm Joe Dawson."
"Willa Edmondson. I take it you're the gentleman Richie tried to protect."
"The same. A kamikaze move if I ever saw one." Joe squinted at her. "Willa Edmondson? Willa GraceyEdmondson?"
"My God!" Joe exclaimed. "Richie, did you know you were working for one of the best gospel singers that ever was?"
"Really?" Richie was interested in hearing about Willa. He didn't know much about gospel music—he wasn't sure he even knew what it was.
"Really!" Joe said.
"Well, my singing days are behind me," Willa said. "This place keeps me busy."
"Are you sure? Don't you ever perform?"
"Not perform. Gospel belongs in a church, not in a bar," Willa said pointedly.
Joe wasn't offended. "Yes, I know a lot of people feel that way, but great music is great music. It ought to be heard."
"Would be, if more folks got themselves to church," Willa said with a chuckle.
Joe laughed. "OK, let me know next time you're in the church bulletin." He returned to the subject at hand. "So you can let this kid go for an afternoon?"
"Hey," Richie objected. "Isn't this up to me? I've got a paper to write."
"You've got to eat," Joe said. "Just an hour, Richie."
Richie showed up alone at one o'clock. The hardware store was closed on Sunday, but not the clinic. Angie had to work.
Suspicious about who else might be invited to this dinner, Richie approached Joe's home cautiously. No buzz. Mac wasn't there.
"Come on in, Rich. I'm glad you came."
Richie had never been to Joe's home before. It was bigger and nicer than he expected, full of books and polished wood. He felt out of place until he realized that Joe was trying to play host with only one good limb. Happy to have something to do, Richie jumped up to set the table and pour drinks. He helped Joe dish out moussaka, salad, and baklava from a local Greek restaurant.
Once the meal was served, Richie focused on his plate while Joe futilely attempted to make conversation.
Finally Joe gave up on the social niceties. "I thought there were some things I ought to tell you about. You've been out of touch for a while, and you probably don't know what's been going on."
"It doesn't matter." Richie was in no mood for a history lesson.
"All right, at least let me tell you about Katya Turgeneva."
Richie sat back in his chair. This was a topic that did interest him.
"She's almost 500 years old. She's spent nearly all her life in Russia, a lot of it in court circles. She knew Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. At one point in her life, she disguised herself as a man and served twenty years in one of the tsar's elite cavalry units.
"She's a killer, Richie. Pure and simple. She's been an active participant in mass murder for centuries. Not just under the tsars—she worked happily for Stalin, until he turned on her too. She kills indiscriminately. Peasants, nobles, Jews, Russians, mortals, immortals.
"Somehow she got hooked up with Rita Luce, and now she's after Watchers as well. I don't know what the hell she's doing in the States, but it's not good news.
"She's not going to forget either one of us, Rich. You need to be prepared."
"Somehow I knew you'd get around to that," Richie said.
Joe surveyed him sympathetically. "Every immortal goes through this sometime, Richie, if he has any conscience at all."
"Conscience! Is that what you think?"
"You tell me then. Is there some reason why you're trying to get yourself killed?"
"I was out of control!" he snapped. "If I'd had a sword, I probably would have killed you instead of that Russian bitch."
"Come on, you don't really believe that."
Richie shook his head. "You and Mac, you're always so sure of everything," he said. "I'm just not so sure."
"About the Game, you mean? Or something else?"
"I don't know, Joe," he said. "Look, I gotta write that paper."
Joe gave it one last try. "You need to talk to MacLeod, Rich. He's not as sure of everything as you seem to think. And if you won't listen to me about where he's been, you should hear it from him. It's important."
Richie made a sour face.
"Give the guy a break, Rich. It really wasn't his fault."
"I never said I was mad at him."
"Well, then you're doing a damn good imitation." Joe rose to his feet. "Go talk to him, Rich. It's the right thing to do."
Richie was moody and distracted for days after his visit with Joe. Willa intervened when she overheard him arguing with himself while doing the books.
"Richie, what's going on with you?"
"I'm not drinking. I swear!" He was worried by Willa's concern. "I've just got a lot on my mind."
"I know that," Willa said. "Come over for dinner tonight and you can tell me about it."
He wondered just how many people would want to have dinner with him before this whole ordeal was over."Sure, Willa," he said, forcing a smile.
Willa was a wonderful cook, but there was nothing fancy about her food. Hey, I can pronounce everything here, Richie thought, and immediately felt a pang for his unintended betrayal of Tessa. Then he dug into his barbecued chicken and enjoyed the meal without worrying about which fork to use or whether he would insult Willa by putting more pepper on the potatoes. During dinner Willa regaled him with a long story about her days as a backup singer for several Motown groups.
He could feel the inquisition coming with dessert.
"No, thanks," he said uneasily. He hoped she wasn't going to expect him to tell her his life story.
Willa poured herself a cup and settled comfortably into her chair. She started on another story instead of prying him with questions.
"When I was a little girl, my daddy lost his job. All those GIs coming home from the big war got all the work. Mama was keepin' house for some white folks, and she didn't want to leave Georgia. So Daddy left to find work.
"He ended up in Michigan. Used to send us checks, regular as clockwork. We thought we'd be moving up north just as soon as he could manage it. But then the money stopped coming. My mama started working two jobs. I had to look after my brother and sister and take care of the house. From the age of 8, I hardly saw my mama."
Willa paused to stir another spoonful of sugar into her coffee.
"Whoa...Didn't you ever see your dad again?"
"Yes, I did. He showed up around my sixteenth birthday. My brother and sister didn't care to see Daddy. But I was overjoyed! He wanted to take me out to celebrate my birthday.
"I bought the nicest dress I could find. Mama fixed my hair. I even got to wear lipstick." Willa smiled at the memory.
"I sat on that old couch until I fell asleep. 'Round midnight Daddy showed up drunk. It tickled his funny bone to see me all dressed up and waiting for him. Told me I looked like a tramp."
"What!" Richie sputtered. He couldn't imagine anyone calling Willa a tramp. Unbelievable. He shook his head, remembering some of the things his foster families had called him. Bastard. Smartass. Stupid kid.
Willa went on calmly. "I didn't see Daddy again until Mama's funeral a couple years later."
Richie stared at her. Her life didn't sound perfect, as he always imagined everyone else's life to be. "What happened?" he asked, afraid to hear the rest of the story.
"Daddy wanted us to come back to Detroit with him. Ben and I didn't want anything to do with him, but I wasn't gonna leave my sister Esther alone with him. Turned out Daddy was married to another woman and had two other children."
"So what happened to you and your sister?"
"It took a long time, but we did get to be a family again." She picked up a faded color photograph from the buffet and passed it to Richie. "Daddy and Loreena took good care of Esther. And I got to liking having two new brothers.
"But I never really forgave Daddy. I made myself a thorn in his side for the rest of his days, singing and running around with people he didn't approve of. I always told him I was mad at him because of what he did to Mama. But really, I couldn't forgive him for leaving me behind."
Richie fidgeted with his silverware. "So why are you telling me this?"
"Daddy wasn't a bad man. He was just alone and a long way from his family, and he did some things he couldn't undo. Now that I'm older, I can understand that." Willa paused significantly.
"I think you've got the same problem I did. Last time that Mr. MacLeod came in here he had a look on his face like my daddy had all those years ago. Feeling so bad. Wanting me to love him again."
"If you want that man to be part of your life, you should stop feeling sorry for yourself and forgive him for whatever he did. And if you don't...you tell him that straight out. Then you get on with your life."
"Willa," Richie said helplessly, "you have no idea..."
"I don't know what your relationship is to him. And I'm not sure I want to. You've got to decide what's right for yourself."
"It was nothing like that! Mac and Tessa tried to take care of me. Then Tessa...got killed." He broke off. He couldn't tell Willa about that. He couldn't. He looked at the floor.
Willa walked to the kitchen and put her cup in the sink, and Richie was silent for a few moments. He should be angry with her for interfering, but he wasn't. She was right. Mac might not be around forever. He had to tell him the truth. He owed him that much.
"I said, do you want another piece of pie, Richie?"
He roused himself from his thoughts. At the mention of pie, his stomach rumbled.
Two days later, in the early morning, Richie showed up at Mac's building feeling apprehensive but determined. He considered taking the exterior stairs up to the loft to avoid the memories that lurked inside the dojo. No point, he thought. Might as well go all the way.
Duncan hadn't reopened the dojo for business, but he was inside. Richie could feel his buzz before he had even climbed the short flight of stairs to the first floor. When he pushed through the double doors, he found Duncan dressed in workout clothes and armed for attack.
"Richie!" Duncan hastily put his katana aside.
"Guess I should have called," Richie said ironically. The real warrior wasn't as terrifying as the specter that haunted his dreams.
Duncan hunted for words, not wanting to say the wrong thing this time. " I never do."
The veiled apology earned a half-smile from Richie.
"Would you like to come upstairs?" Duncan asked.
"Hey, anything to get out of here," Richie replied, poking fun at his own nervousness.
Duncan felt a surge of gratitude and admiration. It couldn't have been easy for Richie to come here. He reached for a towel and wiped his face. "I'll make you breakfast." He smiled and ushered Richie to the elevator.
Once in the loft, Richie didn't know what to do with himself. He circled the room restlessly while Duncan banged around with the pots and pans and struggled with the coffeemaker.
"Here, let me," Richie said. He didn't understand how Mac could have so much trouble with a simple coffeemaker. "You do the eggs."
It took Richie only a minute to get the coffee started. He pulled a chair up to the kitchen island and watched as Duncan mixed pancake batter and set bacon sizzling in a frying pan. In a few minutes both their plates were piled high with a near-fatal dose of calories and cholesterol. Richie wasn't particularly hungry, but he could feel Mac's eyes evaluating him for any sign of weakness, so he choked down everything on his plate. He didn't notice that Duncan put his plate in the sink with most of its contents uneaten.
"I imagine there are some things you want to know," Duncan prompted.
Richie shoved his plate aside. "Joe said I should ask you about what happened. After Coltec, I mean."
Duncan stood and faced him. "After I attacked you," he corrected.
"Joe tried to set me straight, but I was too far gone," Duncan said quietly. "I took off on a cargo ship for France. Caused so much trouble they almost tossed me overboard.
"They should have," he added. Now that the moment had arrived, Duncan found it unexpectedly difficult to tell Richie what he had done. He decided to be direct.
"After we docked, I nearly beat the ship's captain to death. Then I went to his home and seduced his wife with lies about her husband. When he came back, I attacked and nearly raped her. Would have, if they hadn't shot me."
Richie looked up at him in disbelief. He couldn't imagine any circumstances in which Duncan MacLeod would attack a woman.
"It's true," Duncan said. "There's more." His mouth was so dry he could hardly go on. He left the kitchen area and paced out into the living space.
"In one of my saner moments, I went to find help. From an old friend of mine, an immortal named Sean Burns. I've known him for many years.
"I killed him, Richie. He was unarmed and trying to help me, and I took his head." With that, Duncan fell silent.
Richie closed his eyes to head off a wave of dizzying disorientation. Despite his own close call, he had never believed that Mac would actually kill any innocent person, let alone an unarmed friend. Somehow he had thought that he was a special case. When he opened his eyes and turned back to look at Duncan, it seemed as if the colors in the room had changed.
Richie tried his best to think of something comforting to say. Neither man spoke for what seemed like an eternity.
"Tell me what happened to you," Duncan finally suggested.
Richie slid off the stool. "Don't you know?" he asked.
"You mean the file?" Duncan was apologetic. "No, there was nothing current there."
Richie's shame was palpable.
"I never should have read it," Duncan said. "I'm sorry. It's not much of an excuse, but I wanted to understand you."
Richie laughed harshly. "So do you?" he asked.
"No," Duncan admitted. "I'm not sure it's possible."
Richie's expression softened a bit at the words. Duncan returned to the kitchen island and filled the sink with hot, soapy water before he continued.
"I know sometimes it seems like I've been everywhere and done everything before you were even born. But it's not true. I was lucky. For an immortal, extremely lucky. I had two parents who loved me. A whole clan for a family. A village and a home. I was a grown man, and a warrior, when I had to cope with immortality."
Richie edged a little closer to the sink, listening intently.
Duncan plunged a dish into the water and went on, choosing his words carefully. "The truth is, I can't even picture what it was like for you, growing up the way you did. But I know what I was like at 19. I could never have handled immortality as well as you did."
Richie scoffed. "That's bull. I hate it, Mac. I hate being an immortal."
"I know," Duncan said. "But it's the price we pay for being alive. If you weren't an immortal, you'd be buried in that grave with Tessa. Every minute you have past that day is a gift." He paused, and then continued earnestly. "What matters is how you spend that time. And life does matter. Enough to defend against all comers."
"What if I don't want to live like that?" Richie challenged. "Darius didn't. He didn't think you had to kill to survive."
Duncan sighed in frustration. "So you're going to live the rest of your life on holy ground?"
Richie grinned. "Not unless the Swedish bikini team is in the abbey next door."
"Richie, this is too important to joke about." Duncan dried his hands and walked to the trunk where he had stashed Richie's rapier. "Take this back, Richie. Please."
The sight of the sword sobered Richie immediately. "No," he said quietly but emphatically. "I can't."
"Richie, Darius and I disagreed about a lot of things. But he would never have encouraged you to stop protecting yourself. Self-defense is not a sin."
Richie shrank back against the counter. "I did worse than that," he blurted. "I killed two people."
"What?" Duncan was jolted by the sudden confession. He put the sword down. "What are you talking about?"
"The day after I took off. I sold my bike and I was hanging out in this cheap motel off the interstate and I felt this buzz and I knew it was you." The words all rushed out at once. "It was the middle of the night and you were outside my door, so I grabbed my sword and I went out the door swinging. Whoever it was came back at me, and we fought for a few seconds and I killed him. Right there in the parking lot.
"I don't even know who it was, Mac. I never even had time to ask him his name." Richie turned away to hide his face.
"Richie..." Duncan sat heavily in an armchair, reeling from the notion that Richie had killed someone else in his place.
Richie went on talking, needing to finish what he had started. "The second time it was this drunk in a bar in Portland. I knew he wasn't you. But I was smashed and I wanted to fight somebody, and there he was. So we went outside.
"I can't even remember the fight. I just remember it seemed to last forever. But the quickening, Mac." Richie turned back and looked at Duncan in anguish. "It was bad. It was so bad. I never knew it could be like that."
This wasn't what Duncan had expected to hear. Was it guilt that was torturing Richie? Not fear?
"That's when I sent the sword back. I was afraid of what I might do next. I had to try to get my life back together." Richie hung his head. "I'm sorry, Mac. God, I'm so sorry."
Duncan felt glued to his chair. "You had good reason to think I was on your trail," he pointed out as calmly as he could. "I would have thought the same thing."
Richie shook his head. "I was scared and mad and I didn't even try to stop what I was doing. I killed two people I didn't even know. I'm a murderer."
Duncan finally found his legs. He grasped Richie by the shoulders and shook him. "However awful it may be, those two men had a chance. They were armed, and they chose to fight. They could just as easily have killed you."
"And that makes it all right?" Richie asked scornfully.
"No, that makes it part of the Game. Part of our lives that we have to accept."
Duncan's voice rose. "Do you think I haven't done worse? I just told you that I have! And in four hundred years I've done things that would make your skin crawl. With far less excuse."
Richie couldn't be comforted. "I just thought you should know," he said. "Not your fault your charity case went bad. Happens all the time."
Duncan's words were urgent. "You made a mistake. You have to take responsibility for it and learn from it. Giving up on yourself is not the answer, Richie. It won't help those men if you get yourself killed.
"Take a look at yourself. You have gotten your life together. With no help from me. You have a job, you're going to school, you have friends." Duncan remembered the stab of jealousy he had felt at the sight of Richie and Willa laughing together in the back of the store. "Those are things to be proud of. Things worth protecting."
Richie was quiet, and Duncan seized the opportunity to ease the tension.
"Rich, if we're going to be friends, you have to stop expecting perfection in either one of us. Conflict is an unavoidable part of our lives. Forgiveness has to be part of the package too."
Richie smiled slowly. "That's what Willa said."
Duncan breathed a sigh of relief. "Then she's a wise woman."
"So you're not mad at me? I mean, even if I'm not..." Richie fought a wave of self-consciousness. "Hell, Mac, it's not like we have much in common. We don't have anything in common."
"Why would I be angry with you?" Duncan asked. "You didn't hurt me. I'm the one who was at fault."
"No," Richie said softly. "I know it wasn't you. I just felt like such a loser."
Duncan put a hand on his shoulder. "You're a survivor. How can you not know that?" He had to cut himself off before he ventured into more dangerous topics. "Think of what you did for Joe. Would a loser risk his life for a friend?"
Richie sidled away from his touch. "Yeah, OK. I hear you." He attempted a smile. "Could we talk about something else? Like, say, the weather?"
"Whatever you want. I'm just grateful you're talking to me."
Richie stayed for a few more minutes, chatting about the store as Duncan finished washing up. Then he announced that he was late for class and departed via the elevator, leaving Duncan alone to ponder what had just happened.
Duncan was well aware that another breach of Richie's privacy might prove unforgivable. Nonetheless, it took all of his considerable self-restraint to avoid following the young man around in the subsequent days. He tried distracting himself with projects. First he attempted to find Katya Turgeneva, calling every immortal and every sword dealer he could think of to see if she were searching for a new saber to replace the one left behind at Joe's. No luck. Next he cleaned the dojo and the loft from top to bottom. He wrote letters to friends he hadn't seen in years. He even reviewed his financial portfolio.
When distraction failed him, Duncan tried visualizing the slapstick cinema of Joe following Duncan following Mike following Richie. When the temptation to take control still didn't dissipate, he contemplated the grim reality. What was the point of following Richie if he couldn't interfere when it really mattered? The last thing he wanted was to be a witness at his execution.
Above all Duncan wanted to preserve their uneasy truce. The boy had come to him once. He was confident that, given time, Richie would see reason and would return for his sword.
He prayed for time and dreaded every ring of the telephone.
"How does it feel?" Angie asked. Richie had finally removed the bandage from his neck. Her fingers lightly traced the scar.
"It's fine." He brushed away her hand and stood. He pulled her up off the grass.
"Let's call it a day, OK? I never want to hear another word about macroeconomic theory." He picked up his textbook from beneath the tree and shoved it into his pack.
Angie wouldn't be put off. "Aren't you ever going to tell me what really happened? Who was that woman, anyway?"
Richie sighed and shrugged into his backpack. "I don't know. She had some beef with Joe. I just happened to be there."
"Well, how did MacLeod get there then?"
"I dunno, Ange. Joe must have called him. I guess I passed out."
Angie wasn't satisfied with that answer. "I thought we were friends."
"Since the third grade." He tried to dazzle her with a smile. "It's the truth, Angie. If you want to know more, we can go by the bar and you can ask Joe yourself." Serve him right, Richie thought. He should learn what it feels like to have to lie to everyone.
"Not tonight." Angie stalked down the path toward the parking lot.
Richie trailed a step behind her. "What are you so mad about?"
"You really don't get it, do you? We're not in the third grade anymore, you know." She stopped to fumble in her pocket for the car keys.
"Angie." Richie stepped in front of her. "Don't be mad. I was too out of it to remember most of it."
"So what were you doing there in the first place?"
He looked over her shoulder. "That's kinda embarrassing."
"What are you talking about?"
What could he tell her that wouldn't be an outright lie? He bit his lip. "Joe knew about me getting beat up when I was little, and he told Mac. That's why I got bombed. I went to the bar to tell Joe how I felt about that."
"Oh, Richie." Angie dropped her keys and put her arms around his neck. "You don't owe MacLeod any explanations."
He hugged her briefly. "I went to talk to him a few days ago," he said. "I told him about Portland."
"Yeah, I guess he's had some rough times, too."
"Richie, you're not going to let him hurt you again, are you?" Angie grasped both his arms and made him look at her.
"No, it's all right." He bent down to pick up her keys. "I'm on my own now." He smiled.
"Good." She took his arm for the rest of the short walk to her father's car.
"I was gonna take a week off and go up to Canada with some friends from school. Think you can get through midterms without me?"
"I don't need a social worker, Angie." He put his hands on her waist and pulled her close.
"Oh." She made a small surprised sound as he lightly brushed his lips across hers. As soon as the kiss ended, they drew apart.
"That's good to know," she said with a smile, and pulled the car keys from his fingers.
Joe watched Duncan's futile attempts at distraction with a good deal of empathy and a certain amount of amusement. He was all too familiar with the sensation of helplessness. He decided to take pity on the man. Sweet Honey in the Rock was appearing at the Fifth Avenue Theater that weekend. Just the sort of thing Willa Edmondson might like, he decided. He picked up the phone and issued the invitations.
Finally enjoying the full use of both arms, Joe drove Duncan, Willa, and Richie to the theater on Saturday night. Conversation was awkward until they were settled in their cramped seats. Then Willa and Joe discovered that they shared a number of acquaintances—and a near-total despair about the musical tastes of the current generation. Richie was used to that complaint and took their digs with good humor.
Duncan spoke little. He relaxed when the lights dimmed and the singers appeared on stage. For tonight, at least, he didn't have to worry about sword-wielding psychopaths.
After the show, Joe invited everyone to the bar for a drink, but Willa politely declined. "I have to be up early," she explained. "Those Sunday schoolers won't wait."
The hardware store was closest to downtown, so they swung by River Street first to drop off Richie. The store was dark, but a single lamp burned upstairs.
"Thought I turned that off," Richie mumbled as he said good-night and closed the car door behind him. He unlocked the store as the others drove off.
The car was several blocks away when Duncan suddenly came awake and nearly knocked Joe's hands from the hand controls.
"Go back!" he yelled, and Joe pulled the car into a U-turn. Duncan leaped from the front seat before the car had come to a complete halt. He disappeared inside the store, and a moment later the lights blazed on.
"What's going on?" Willa asked, and got no answer from Joe. She started to get out of the back seat.
"No, don't go in there!" Joe warned. "Willa, don't!"
"That's my store! No one's telling me to keep out of it."
"Damn!" Joe swore. "Wait for me!" He struggled out of the car as quickly as he could and followed Willa inside.
The two mortals entered a strange tableau. The back portion of the store was a shambles where Richie and Katya Turgeneva had fought a brief, uneven battle in the dark. Turgeneva was now holding a furious Richie in a chokehold with her left arm. Her right hand held a pistol to his head. Duncan was a menacing, but frozen, statue beside them.
Katya seemed pleased by Joe's appearance on the scene. "I wasn't expecting to see you all again, tovarishchi," she observed. She swung the pistol to point at Joe's head before releasing the chokehold.
Richie fell gasping to the floor. "What do you want?" he wheezed angrily as he lurched to his feet.
"I'm here for you, malchishka." She smiled. "And now I have a meal to follow up my little hors d'oeuvre." She flicked her eyes at Joe.
"There are witnesses here," Duncan said forbiddingly. He longed to pull his sword but did not, realizing that he needed to keep a lid on this situation if he was going to protect the others.
"Not a problem," Katya replied, and threw an upper cut at Willa's jaw. Her fist connected with enough force to fell a prizefighter. Willa flew back, her head thunking against a glass display case full of power tools. Richie barely managed to catch her before she hit her head again on the linoleum floor.
"Willa!" he cried, and tried to gather her up in his arms. "Willa!"
"Now, little one," Katya said, a gem-studded saber suddenly in hand. She caressed the point of the sword lightly across Richie's shoulder and neck, retracing her earlier work. Instantly Duncan clanked his katana against her saber, knocking it away from Richie.
"No!" Richie glared at Duncan. He settled Willa on the floor and jumped to his feet to face Katya.
Duncan ignored Richie. "You want a fight? Let's fight," he challenged Katya. He began to circle her with his katana at the ready.
"Stop it!" Richie foolishly knocked into Duncan, who shoved him aside. He stumbled painfully into the display case before pouncing back between Katya and Duncan.
"Give me your sword!" he shouted at Duncan. "Mac!" He grabbed Duncan's shirt and wouldn't let go. "It's not your fight! Give me your sword!"
"He's right, Highlander. You can't interfere. If the boy wants to defend himself, let him try." Katya smiled a catlike smile.
For a moment time seemed to stop. Duncan stared into Richie's contorted face and contemplated the choices that were left to him.
"Do it, MacLeod," Joe said harshly. Duncan had forgotten that he was even there.
Duncan grasped Richie's wrists in his left hand and forcefully broke the grip Richie still held on his shirt. He stepped back, whirled the katana point down, and lifted the hilt to eye level before resting the sword across his left arm and formally extending the sword to Richie.
Richie breathed a short sigh of relief and made a sort of grateful half-bow. He wrapped his small hands around the ivory, and lifted the katana from Duncan's arms.
"I'll be next," the Highlander threatened Katya in a voice that had chilled many a warrior.
The Russian was unimpressed. "You can't kill a woman, MacLeod. Not without giving her a chance to defend herself."
Richie intervened. "Let's go," he said darkly, and he motioned Katya toward the small open space near the back counter.
Duncan moved to follow, but Joe had a surprisingly strong hold on his arm. "You can't help him," the Watcher said gruffly. "And we have to get her out of here. This is no place to be during a quickening."
Willa lay unmoving on the cold floor. Duncan bent over her to check for a pulse. She was breathing evenly but showed no signs of returning consciousness. He checked for evidence of spinal injuries and, finding none, lifted her carefully and carried her from the store. Joe removed his coat and Duncan placed her on the sidewalk a safe distance from the large store windows.
"I'm calling an ambulance," Joe said, and he made his way back to the car while Duncan sat beside Willa and waited for the end.
"Aaah!" Richie barely avoided the saber that plunged for the center of his chest. Katya's attack had no subtlety, and needed none. She was incredibly fast.
Richie shifted the katana in his hands and suppressed a panicky surge of claustrophobia. There was very little room to maneuver in here. He couldn't afford to let her corner him. She was too good.
The second swing came for his arm, and he parried it easily. She followed it with a low blow that sliced his jeans neatly above each knee, and then she struck again, furiously, for his sword arm. It took all his strength to stop her blade and force her back against the counter. She kicked him hard in the shins.
"Shit!" Richie grunted and jumped back as she swung for his head. He tightened both hands on the katana and attacked with a flurry of blows that pressed her into retreat down one of the narrow aisles.
Katya laughed. She was breathing hard now. "You're not bad, malchik. But you're not lucky." She stuck her boot beneath a large sheet of pegboard and overturned it with one savage kick. Open containers of nails and screws spilled their contents over Richie and onto the floor. He kept his footing, but the heavy pegboard blocked his right arm and left him open to attack.
Katya charged like the cavalry officer she was, aiming a high two-handed blow for Richie's left shoulder and neck. He went down, rolling across the linoleum with the katana still tightly in hand.
She was on top of him before he could rise. She kicked him hard in the face, and he felt his cheekbone shatter. As his vision clouded, some instinct made him kick out his legs, catching her in the knees. One crunched with a collapse of bone and cartilage.
"Govno!" she cursed. Her right knee was broken. She stumbled back, and Richie scrambled to his feet.
He hesitated for a second, long enough for her to direct another blow at his shoulder. But she was off-balance, and he sidestepped the attack easily. He went in beneath her saber and heaved with all his might. Her sword went sailing into the air and then skittered noisily across the hardware-laden floor.
Suddenly it was very quiet, and Richie was aware of his own harsh breathing. Katya limped backward, her eyes searching the place for anything she might use as a weapon until her knee finished healing. Richie stepped after her.
"You couldn't live with yourself," she taunted.
Richie wondered if he could. "You don't have any problem attacking women."
"They're all dead anyway," Katya replied. "They're nothing to us."
Richie remembered Tessa lying on the pavement. Dead for no reason. No reason at all.
"You're wrong," he said. "You couldn't be more wrong."
And slashed her head from her neck.
The quickening surged from Katya's body without giving Richie even a moment's respite. It hit him like a tidal wave, threatening to pull him down into the abyss with the rest of Katya's victims. He crashed to the floor on his back. Visions of places and people he had never known flashed through his mind. Hundreds of men and women, crying out for liberation in strange tongues. He screamed with them, swept along in the terror that had marked their deaths.
The store seemed to come apart around him. Glass shattered and fell. Displays toppled. Nails whirled in the air and dropped like hail. Paint cans exploded. Electric lines glowed with power and then blasted into showers of blue sparks.
Still the roar in his head drowned out everything else, until finally the energy seemed to coalesce and streamed deep into his head and his heart.
He curled up on the floor and moaned.
When Duncan found him a few minutes later, Richie was sitting against the back counter in something rather like a lotus position, with the katana resting on his knees. Duncan stooped beside him and carefully slid the sword from his hands.
"Go outside and see Willa. I'll take care of this."
Richie blinked at him. "She's alive?"
Duncan helped him to his feet. "Go see for yourself," he urged.
Willa was alive. And conscious. She cried with relief when Richie dropped to the sidewalk beside her. They clasped each other tight.
The siren of an approaching ambulance broke their embrace. Willa looked over Richie's shoulder and grimaced at the sight of the store's broken windows and tumbled contents.
"Oh, Willa," Richie grieved. "I'm so sorry."
She wiped a smear of blood and paint from his face with her thumb. She shook her head in mock irritation.
"Thought I told you not to drive any cows through there."
Richie and Joe gathered at Duncan's place the next afternoon.
"Let me get this straight. I'm such a hot blues star that women from around the world are stalking me?" Joe smirked and emptied his drink.
"It's the best we've come up with," Duncan said. "Unless Richie has a better idea."
Richie shook his head and slouched further into the green leather sofa. He'd been listening to Mac and Joe invent wild stories about Katya Turgeneva for the last half hour. Willa was being released from the hospital tomorrow and, head injury or not, he doubted she would accept any such nonsense. The police hadn't—but then Duncan had removed the body before their arrival, and they had little to go on.
"OK." Joe set his glass on the coffee table and arched an eyebrow at Duncan, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "We'll go with that."
Joe rose to his feet. "Now, I've got a business to run."
Duncan walked Joe to the elevator and pulled the gate down behind him. Then he returned to his seat in the massive carved chair that Richie always thought of as a throne.
Duncan cleared his throat. "So, how are you doing?"
"I'm going to keep asking until you say something, you know." Duncan's tone was light, but Richie knew he was serious.
"It's been less than 24 hours," Duncan pointed out. "The voices will go away. Things will look clearer by tomorrow."
Richie smiled cynically. "That'll be a first."
Duncan studied him. "What exactly do you mean by that?"
Richie wasn't used to having his remarks taken seriously. He thought for a minute. "What's clear about anything?" he asked. "Fight. Don't fight. Lie. Tell the truth. No matter what I do, it's wrong."
As Duncan considered this statement a smile spread gradually across his face. He leaned forward in his chair. "'Is maturity the acceptance of conflict?'" he quoted.
"Huh?" Richie wondered what there was to smile about.
"I think it means..." Duncan hesitated. "Accepting conflict—in ideas, relationships, in yourself—is one of the hardest things anyone has to cope with. Mortal or immortal." He sighed. "Believe me, it's not any easier at 403 than it is at 22.
"You're not the only one feeling guilty, you know." Duncan pushed back in his chair. "You haven't asked me how I got over the dark quickening," he observed.
Richie was quiet.
Duncan went on. "Adam Pierson took me to a holy place. A spring that has been forgotten for centuries." He paused. "When I went into the water...I had to confront myself. What I am, and what I want to be." He covered his face with his hands. "All the things I have to live with," he lamented.
Richie made a rude noise. "That's it?" He sprang from the sofa. "Take a little dip and everything's all right? Life goes on! Who gives a shit about anyone else?"
Duncan reacted as if he had been slapped.
"Yeah, I know how that works," Richie raged. "You go to confession, you say a few prayers, splash on a little holy water. That makes everything A-OK." He was white with fury.
Duncan was astonished by his open contempt. "Go to confession?" he repeated. A light dawned. "You're not just talking about me, are you, Rich?"
"Oh, Frank liked his holy water. It worked for him, but not for me. He had to beat the sins out of me." Richie's voice broke, but he was too distraught to care.
"Frank?" Duncan asked. And then remembered. "You mean Bianconi," he said. "Francis Bianconi." Dear God, he thought. What have I done?
"Don't call him Francis," Richie said caustically. "He hates it." Suddenly he wanted to run, but his legs wouldn't oblige. He collapsed back onto the sofa and tucked himself into a tight ball.
Duncan had to take several deep breaths before he pulled himself from his chair. He sat clumsily on the coffee table in front of Richie, who gave no indication that he was going to move or speak for quite some time to come.
"Talk to me," Duncan pleaded. He summoned up all the love and compassion at his disposal, and issued a command. "Please talk to me, Richie."
Richie made a kind of horrible laughing sound. "You mean you haven't heard enough?" he asked, without unbending a muscle.
"You need to tell someone," Duncan said tenderly. "I realize I'm probably the last person who should ask, but I'm here. I want to help, if I can."
Richie was still for several moments before he loosened his grip on his knees and slumped back into the sofa to stare at Duncan. "You don't want to know," he said. It was a statement, not a challenge.
Duncan said nothing, only returning Richie's steady gaze with his own.
Richie surged to his feet and squeezed past Duncan, needing to be somewhere away from those eyes. He paced behind the sofa, not knowing what to say or how to say it.
"Did he sexually abuse you?"
Richie had to cover his mouth with his hand. I am not going to throw up, he thought. That would be ridiculous.
It was just that he hadn't expected Mac to be so blunt.
"No, he never touched me. Not the way you mean."
Duncan was silent, waiting for Richie to go on.
Richie struggled to find a vocabulary that could convey his thoughts without revealing his emotions. "I mean..." he hesitated. Then his voice took on a hard edge. "You could tell it turned him on. But he took it out on Sally, not me."
Duncan tried to fathom what it had been like for Richie. To be a child, alone in that house. He couldn't imagine it.
"Tell me about the scars on your legs."
Richie flushed. "You already know all about that."
"I've seen the police report," Duncan said. "I don't know how it happened."
Richie turned away and moved to stare out the window. "I told Tessa," he said, so quietly that Duncan had to strain to hear the words.
Duncan was taken aback. "I didn't know, Richie. She never told me."
Richie gave a small nod. She'd kept his confidence.
"You don't have to talk about it. It's up to you."
Richie was quiet for a long time. He rested his forehead against the window and closed his eyes. That particular memory was never far from his mind. But if he put it into words, it would be in Mac's mind, too. Then it would always be there.
"Oh, Mac," he said softly. There was a world of sorrow and hurt in those two syllables.
Immediately Duncan was at his side, but Richie shrank away, shaking his head. Frustrated, Duncan retreated to the sofa and sank back into its cushions.
"I came home from school one day and they were arguing in the kitchen." When Richie finally spoke, his voice was calm. "Frank was mad about the agency check. He said there should have been a Christmas bonus. That Sally shouldn't spend his money on presents.
"I think he was drunk. Anyway, when he saw me, he went ballistic. I had on this new red jacket that Sally just bought me. He slapped her across the face." Actually, he'd called her a dumb bitch and sent her crashing against the wall.
"She was crying." Richie could still see her terrified expression. "So I threw the jacket on the floor and said I didn't want it." He smiled, and a chill went down Duncan's spine. "God, I was so stupid. I didn't even have the sense to shut up and get out of there.
"Course, that sent Frank into orbit. He started tossing me around. Then he took off his belt and started laying into me. Just like usual, except this time he didn't stop.
"I cried, I screamed, I wet my pants. I remember Sally was yelling at him. I was bleeding all over the carpet. But he just kept hitting me." He stopped to feel the lashing pain that he normally relegated to his dreams.
"Usually Frank wouldn't let me go to school right after he beat me up. But he had somebody coming over to the house the next day, so he made Sally take me. I passed out at my desk. My teacher called the police, and they took me to the hospital."
He'd spent Christmas there, Duncan knew. A ten-year-old boy, frightened, in pain, and utterly alone; his only visitors a police officer and a social worker. The photographs had illustrated his condition in horrifying detail.
"After that, they sent me back to the Children's Center. Sally was supposed to send me my stuff, but she never did." For the first time, a note of bitterness crept into his voice. "It wasn't that much, just some pictures and stuff."
His story finished, Richie felt incredibly awkward. "So," he said boisterously. "You've seen it in Technicolor, now you've heard the thrilling eyewitness account." He couldn't look at Duncan.
Duncan stood and joined Richie at the window. Tentatively, he touched Richie's arm.
"I've gotta go," Richie said. He headed for the door.
"No, Richie, don't." Duncan followed until Richie turned and pushed him away.
"Just leave me alone!"
Duncan froze. There was so much raw emotion in Richie's voice that he didn't dare deny the request. Instead he watched as Richie closed the door behind him, and he listened somberly as Richie's feet pounded down the stairs.
Unnerved by his glimpse of Richie's reality, Duncan turned to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a stiff drink. At the first sip he heard Richie's voice saying "I think he was drunk." He promptly dumped the scotch into the kitchen sink and turned on the water to drown the alcohol fumes.
"Time to face facts," he said to himself, and headed after Richie.
He found him sitting at the foot of the stairs, just beyond the range at which Duncan could have felt his presence. Richie was dry-eyed but shaky, and breathing far too fast.
"Richie, come upstairs."
"I c-can't, Mac. I'm gonna lose it." He wrapped his arms around himself to hide his trembling.
"Then you're not going to do it alone," Duncan said firmly. "Come upstairs."
He kept a hand at Richie's back as they climbed the stairs. Richie was completely out of breath by the time they reached the loft.
"Sit down. I'll put on some tea." Duncan puttered about with the teakettle and cups, trying to give Richie a chance to collect himself. From a top shelf, he pulled an assortment of carefully marked herbs. Darius's strange concoctions, all identified by runes. Draughts for headache, and heartache, and insomnia. Duncan selected a package labeled simply "Time of Trouble" and steeped a generous handful of leaves.
"Try this," he said, putting a warm mug in Richie's hands. Richie drank obediently.
Duncan sank unsteadily into his chair, feeling every one of his 403 years. His body felt old, and stiff, and worn out. His own mug was too heavy to lift to his lips. He stared into the warm brown liquid, breathing its steamy aroma and wondering idly how Darius had come by these herbs. Part of him wanted to believe that Darius had known just how much he would need this small comfort.
Richie emptied his mug in silence and gradually relaxed into the couch. When he emerged from his own thoughts, Duncan was still gazing into his tea.
Richie bit his lip. "I'm sorry, Mac," he whispered. "I shouldn't have said all that stuff."
Duncan set his cup down abruptly, the contents sloshing onto the floor. "Don't say that again," he said, more sharply than he intended. He rubbed a hand across his face. "What can I say to make you understand?" he asked in frustration. "There's no shame in what happened to you!"
"You wouldn't think so if it was you!" Richie retorted.
He was probably right about that. "OK, I give." Duncan smiled weakly. "Maybe it doesn't make sense, but I should know by now that feelings usually don't." He raked his hands through his hair.
"Just please tell me that you're not going to go on pretending that you don't need a sword."
"No," Richie said half-heartedly. "I guess I figured that part out. I don't want to be helpless next time somebody goes after someone I care about."
"That's not good enough, Richie. You have to care about your own life."
"Yeah, well, I do." He smiled fleetingly, thinking of kissing Angie in the park. "It's just for a while there it didn't seem worth it. And I guess I got scared that..." His voice trailed off.
"What?" Duncan asked.
"That I wasn't any different from Frank," Richie admitted. "At least he never killed anybody when he got plastered."
"He nearly killed you!" Duncan shook his head in amazement. "Are you trying to tell me that you don't see any difference between taking on another immortal and brutalizing a defenseless boy who's in your care?"
Richie rolled the empty cup in his hands. "It's just that everybody says that kids like me usually turn out to be just as bad. I mean, it's not just the cops and the social workers. It's in the paper every day!"
Duncan sighed inwardly at the human penchant for making ignorant and simplistic judgments. "For God's sake, Richie, how can you even think like that?"
"Well, nobody ever wanted me around for long," Richie said defensively. "I kept screwing up. And you didn't think I did so great. You were pretty mad about Mako. You thought I was gonna go bad on you."
He needs to hear the truth, Duncan realized. "You're right. I did think that was a mistake. When you become an immortal there's an awful temptation to solve your problems by killing them. But Mako was a judgment call. You saw it differently than I did. I can accept that now."
Duncan's voice dropped. "That wasn't the only thing I was worried about, you know. The minute you became an immortal, your life depended on your skill with a sword. And your ability to cope with...the pressure. And the losses."
"The guilt, you mean," Richie said hollowly.
"That too." It hurt to know that Richie was already carrying that. All my fault, Duncan thought bitterly. None of this would have happened if not for me. Why did I attack him? Why did I even take him in when I couldn't keep him alive long enough to enjoy a taste of a normal life?
"Mac?" Richie thought he recognized the signs of an unpleasant flashback.
Duncan forced aside his self-recriminations long enough to focus on Richie. "You don't have to worry about becoming like Frank, Rich. Sure, you make mistakes—usually because you let some emotion override your good sense. But there's not a bit of cruelty, or callousness, in you. I don't suppose that makes you immune, but if you ever 'go bad,' I don't think you'll be able to blame it on your childhood. You've survived that with flying colors."
"Yeah?" The single word managed to be both skeptical and wistful.
"Yes," Duncan said emphatically. "There are better years ahead."
Richie smiled crookedly and put his cup down on the coffee table. "Don't make any promises you can't keep," he said.
"I can't promise, but I believe it. The question is, what do you believe?"
Richie was embarrassed by his directness. "I believe I've got exams to study for and invoices to pay!"
"I think that answers my question," Duncan observed.
Richie laughed. "OK, I promise to live for good grades and a net profit."
"I've heard worse reasons," Duncan said. He stood and once again retrieved Richie's rapier from the storage trunk. "I think you're ready for a new sword, but this one will do until I find something that's right for you." For the second time that weekend, he formally offered a sword to Richie.
Richie stood to receive the offer, thinking not of the earlier encounter in the hardware store, but of the first time Mac had given him this rapier. He'd felt so much pride and happiness that day—but both those emotions were absent now. He felt nothing but the burden of responsibility. He accepted the sword solemnly and tested its familiar weight in his hand.
"Thanks, Mac." He held the rapier for only a few seconds before he put it carefully aside. "I don't think I'm up for sparring today."
He looks exhausted, Duncan thought. "Sit down," he directed. "Are the voices from the quickening still bothering you?"
"No, it's better now. I'm just beat." Richie sprawled across the sofa, trying his best to look at ease.
Duncan sat beside him. "Richie, do you mind if I ask you something?"
Richie smiled ruefully and waved him to go on.
"What did Tess say, when you told her about Frank?"
A faint smile lit Richie's face. "I don't remember exactly. I just remember she kissed me and said I was safe."
Safe. The one thing he would never be. Even Tessa had not been safe.
It was too much. Duncan couldn't bear it. He put his head in his hands and began to sob. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning the apology to encompass all his sins. Sorry for breaking down. Sorry for what happened to you. For hurting you. For not being there when you needed me.
"Mac!" Richie said in alarm. Nothing in the preceding weeks had reduced him to tears, but at the sight of Duncan's distress his own eyes overflowed. "It's OK. I'm fine. That was more than ten years ago!"
Duncan continued to weep. "Mac, please don't," Richie begged. There was something profoundly disturbing about seeing Duncan so upset. Richie grabbed his elbow. "Mac, please!"
Duncan heard the anxiety in Richie's voice and made an effort to quell his sobs. "I'm the one who turned into a monster," he croaked. He took a breath and impatiently wiped away the tears.
"How will you ever forget that?" he asked. "I'm no better than Frank." He heard a choking sound, and looked over at Richie.
Richie had a hand over his mouth, but laughter was leaking out. He sniffed, and then smiled broadly. "Gimme a break, Mac. You really think I can't tell the difference between you and Frank Bianconi?"
He shook his head. "Man, you are one messed-up old dude," he said fondly.
Duncan laughed shakily, but wasn't ready to let the subject drop. "But didn't it feel the same? When I tried to kill you?"
"I don't think so," Richie said thoughtfully. "Maybe...just a little. But it wasn't the same. I mean, Frank never cared about me in the first place." He was looking at his hands, and didn't see the look of tenderness on Duncan's face. "Besides, I was just a kid then. I needed somebody to take care of me. I don't need that anymore."
"No, you don't," Duncan said simply. "I leave for a year, and you finish growing up without me."
Richie blushed at the unexpected praise. "Sorry about that."
Duncan smiled indulgently. He squeezed Richie's shoulder. "You haven't said it, you know."
"Haven't said what?" Richie asked, bewildered.
"That you forgive me."
Richie wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Yes, I did," he said.
"No, you didn't."
"Yes, I did!"
Duncan stared him down. "All right!" Richie grinned sheepishly. "I do. Forgive you. OK?"
"OK," Duncan acknowledged gratefully. An enormous weight lifted from his shoulders. Suddenly he felt blessed. Lighter than air. He wanted to get up and dance.
Instead he ruffled Richie's hair and laughed exuberantly. "I never thought I'd ever hear those words from you!"
"You've been good for him." Duncan smiled at Willa across the table. It was late on the following Friday night, and Joe's bar was full of drinkers and dancers. Music, laughter, and cigarette smoke swirled around them in an intoxicating haze.
"He's been good for me," Willa said matter-of-factly. "You raised him right."
"He had to raise himself," Duncan said regretfully. "I didn't even meet him until he was 17."
"Not too late," Willa said. "But there must have been other people along the way."
Duncan tried to remember. There had been other families in the file besides the Bianconis. And friends. Doctors, police, counselors, teachers. Some of them must have cared. "Yes," he said. "But I don't know much about them. I suppose it's easy to forget the good when the evil is so memorable."
"You believe in evil then?"
"I don't have to believe in it," Duncan said. "I've known it intimately."
Willa nodded knowingly. "Mr. MacLeod, is Richie mixed up in something illegal?"
Duncan leaned across the table. "There's no simple answer to that. And the complicated answer...will have to come from Richie."
They locked eyes briefly, and then Willa nodded. "All right."
They were quiet then, sipping at their drinks and listening as the guitarist improvised on a haunting melody.
Joe interrupted their reverie. "How are you two doing?"
Duncan pulled out a chair for him.
"Thanks," Joe said wearily. "It's almost one o'clock and I haven't had a chance to sit down all night."
"One o'clock?" Duncan asked. He looked at Willa. "I'm sorry. I promised I'd have you home by midnight." He scanned the dance floor. "Where did Richie and Angie disappear to, anyway?"
"They're upstairs," Joe said. He didn't need Mike to tell him that they were necking in the relative privacy of the balcony.
"I hope you've had 'that talk' with him," Willa teased Duncan.
He smiled. "I certainly have," he responded honestly. "More than once!"
"I'll send one of the waitresses up for them." Joe pulled himself from the chair and headed for the bar.
"Would you excuse me for a minute?" Duncan said to Willa. "I need to talk to Joe."
Joe flagged down a waitress and then vanished into the office with Duncan. Willa enjoyed the music alone for a few minutes, until Richie and Angie materialized wearing silly smiles and barely managing to keep their hands off each other.
"Sorry, Willa," Richie said, kissing her cheek. "I didn't know it was so late."
"Oh, I've been enjoying myself, too," Willa said wickedly.
Richie grinned. "So where's Mac? I thought he wanted to leave."
"He'll be back in a minute. Sit down and listen to this."
Richie and Angie joined her, but their thoughts weren't on the music. They held hands above the table and twined their feet together beneath it. Willa kept her attention focused on the band.
A short time later Duncan reappeared. He shepherded them all out into the cold, starry night and they climbed into the T-bird. Angie and Richie cuddled in the back seat. Duncan dropped Willa off first and then sat in the car as Richie walked Angie to her door. The hardware store was the last stop.
"Come by the dojo on Sunday, will you, Rich? There's something I want to give you."
"What?" Richie asked sleepily. "It's too early for Christmas."
"I did miss your birthday," Duncan said. "Come by Sunday."
Late on Sunday afternoon Richie lounged against the kitchen island as Duncan searched his nearly empty refrigerator for something to feed his hungry guest. "I forgot to tell you Friday night," Richie gloated. "I got a B! Can you believe I got a B on an econ exam?"
"Why not?" Duncan asked. "You've always been good with numbers." He grabbed a couple sodas and tossed one to Richie.
Richie grinned. "That's what I thought. But it's not about math. It's just a bunch of BS."
"Well, as I recall, you're pretty good at that too."
Richie laughed. "Yeah, my English prof says I should stick to creative writing in the future. I have lots of strange ideas!" He picked up a listing of homes that was lying on the counter top. "Hey, Mac, are you looking for another fixer-upper?"
"I'm ready to move on now," Duncan said. "I thought you might help me find a new place. Someplace bright. Maybe near the water, with room for some of Tessa's sculptures. And a workout space."
"Doesn't sound like the kind of neighborhood I can help you with," Richie said. "But it sounds like a great idea." He popped open his soda. "I never liked this place."
"It was a mistake to sell the store so quickly. I never thought about how you might feel about it," Duncan admitted.
"Me?" Richie didn't see the connection. "I don't get attached to places."
Duncan doubted that was true, but he supposed it might be. "Well, there'll be a room for you wherever I move. If you want it."
"C'mon, Mac!" Richie was insulted. "I'm 22. A guy needs his privacy."
Seventeen, twenty-two, Duncan thought. What's the difference, really? "OK, but the room will be there. In case you ever want to visit."
"Is that why you wanted me to come over?" Richie asked.
"No," Duncan said. He walked to the coffee table and picked up a handsome, leather-bound album. "I wanted to give you this."
Richie put the soda can down and sat on the sofa to examine the gift. "What is it?" he asked.
Richie flipped to the first page. His baby pictures smiled up at him, carefully mounted and labeled with whatever information Duncan had been able to glean from the file the day before. Later pages held his school pictures, photos of some of his foster parents and their homes, and pictures taken during a summer event at the Children's Center. The last few pages were filled with pictures and drawings of Richie, Tessa, and Duncan during their two years together in Seattle and in Paris.
Richie's chin quivered and his eyes were bright with unshed tears.
Duncan was pleased at the success of his gift. "Don't overlook this," he said. He reached over and pulled a set of official-looking papers from an envelope in the back of the album. A photo of Richie and Emily Ryan was clipped to the top. "What is it?" Richie asked again, looking at Duncan instead of the papers in front of him.
Duncan slid the photo from the paper clip and put it in his hand. "They're adoption papers, Richie. In another two months you would have been hers."
"She wanted me?" Richie asked. "She wanted me?"
Duncan nodded. "As much as Tess and I did."
"Oh, damn, Mac." Richie started to cry. Duncan took the album from his hands and put an arm around him. A moment later Richie excused himself and made a dash for the bathroom. It was several minutes before he emerged, wiping his face with a towel and looking more than a little chagrined.
"Tea?" Duncan asked casually.
Richie shook his head vigorously. "Are you crazy? Did you ever taste that stuff?"
Duncan laughed. "No, not that particular batch."
"Well, take my word for it. It's awful." Richie plunked down in a chair. "What made you think of that?" he asked, motioning toward the album.
"You said you lost your things while you were in the hospital. And...I decided that I was wrong about the holy spring. Maybe it wasn't the water at all. Maybe it was just the chance to focus on the good. To call on my father's sword, and the memory of all the people who've loved me and made me what I am. Maybe that's the miracle."
Richie shifted uncomfortably in his chair and looked at his feet. "Angie says that holy water can work. But you have to really want to change."
Duncan smiled. He hadn't expected support from a 21-year-old slip of a girl. But he was grateful for it.
"I still don't think I believe it," Richie added.
"That's OK," Duncan conceded. "You don't have to. I just wanted you to remember that you did have people who cared about you. You still do."
Richie picked up the photograph of Emily Ryan and his younger self. He carried it over to the window to examine more carefully. "I used to have this by my bed," he recalled. "I can't believe I forgot what she looked like."
He turned and grinned from ear to ear. "She was gonna adopt me. Man, that's so great." His happiness lit up the room.
"Thanks, Mac," Richie said joyfully. He flung his arms enthusiastically around Duncan's neck, still clutching the photograph. Duncan wrapped him in a bear hug. "Thank you, Mac," Richie said into his shoulder.
"You're welcome," Duncan said contentedly. "And next time try to remember that you're not in this alone, will you?"
Richie pulled out of the hug. "I'm so—" he started.
"Don't say it," Duncan threatened.
Richie smiled. "What?" he asked innocently. "I was just gonna say I'm so glad you're back!"