"We are actors. We are the opposite of people."
"You die a thousand casual deaths and get up after each one!
But no one gets up after death, there's no applause;
There's only silence and some second-hand clothes!"
--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
New York, 1996
Surrounded by her packed belongings, Brianna stared blankly at the open laptop in front of her. She had to move on, as soon as possible. First she had to liquidate or transfer all the belongings she had owned as Dr. Emily Blessing, her last persona. Then she had to find a purpose and create an identity around it. The problem was deciding what to do with her life. Darius had instilled within her a belief that no matter what she did with the lives she led, some part of them must be devoted to helping others.
It was this she thought of now. She had a strong desire to use this next life completely to help others, to help purge her guilt over what had happened to her family. The question was what did she want to do? What would serve others best?
All of a sudden her back straightened. She could teach child Immortals! Since she herself had been trained as a child, she knew better than anyone what their advantages and disadvantages were. Besides that, she was practically a child Immortal herself, and used latex masks and body suits often to help her create her personas and live them for as long as sixty years. If she could teach child Immortals how to do that, they could get jobs and have lives, able to defend and support themselves without depending on adults for anything ever again.
Most importantly, she was telepathic. Most adults who taught child Immortals were not prepared when the child's paranoia took over and made them want to kill their teachers before the adults started thinking of them as easy prey. She could detect when such thoughts were emerging. However, to make sure the trust and reassurance went both ways, she would train them on holy ground, so that her pupils didn't have to worry about her in the first place.
The more she considered the idea, the better it sounded. She phoned her lawyer in New York. "Barry? Hi, it's Bria. I'm moving on, I need you to sign some papers and contact a realtor for my apartment and the house in the country. I'll call you if I need anything else. Thanks, bye." Bria had long ago discovered the convenience of having a lawyer who knew about Immortals, someone who could sign and back up legal documents, especially ones concerning inheritance or the legitimacy of a birth certificate. A century ago she had explained the situation to the head of a law firm, and he had explained to trustworthy descendants exactly how to deal with her needs and accounts. She had never been disappointed in them, especially since she paid highly for the quality service she received.
Next, she went to an atlas, trying to find a nice place to live. She considered Maine, and then went about inquiring if there were any holy islands or abandoned churches near towns with good school systems. She was in luck. There was a small island off the coast of a friendly little town. The island had been a holy site for Native Americans, but was now abandoned. She continued her meticulous search over the next few days, finding another site in Canada, and a third in the Holy Land. She would have to investigate these in person to decide which one was appropriate, so she might as well get everything else in order.
First she had to find a good persona to play. She typed in the level one access codes. "Relative Stranger Protocol: one of my better ideas, if I do say so myself." She narrowed down the search range, looking for someone young and female, and found the birth certificate of a young woman. Born twenty-five years ago, died before she was a year old. "Cordelia Lucas," Brianna tried the name out as if tasting its flavor. "Perfect. And with a name like that, I can be a redhead, too. It's been a long time since I played a redhead. Now I need a career that I can do in a small town, one with flexible hours and good pay." She sat back and thought for a few minutes. "Something with a modem would give me a nice job without having to commute. Now what's open in the field of computers?" She could check the online job markets as soon as she had a background properly set up.
Next she began to make up her past. The birth certificate said Cordelia was born in Arizona; no reason to change that. She uploaded the information available about the Arizona public school system, and picked a likely district. The printer ejected a list of facts about the school and its teachers. With a few clicks of the mouse and strikes of the keyboard, Cordelia was now registered in both the elementary and high school records, with an A average in both math and science, a B in history and a C+ in English, with a few variations depending on semesters. She chose French as Cordelia's foreign language and had the grade vary between B+ and A-.
After that, she moved on to college records. Cordelia had gone to Wesleyan and majored in computer science and economics, doing poorly for the first year, then better as she got used to living away from home. She had not graduated at the top of her class -- that would make her too conspicuous -- but she had done quite well.
She printed out the transcripts for both high school and college, as well as the diplomas, and made sure that the records had been sent via modem to the schools' databanks. She was just lucky that in the modern age many high schools and colleges tended to have internet access, otherwise she would have had to actually travel there, sneak in, and place the records by hand.
On to medical and dental records. Nothing out of the ordinary; it was easier to remember that way. But she knew of several Immortals who had been discovered because they failed to have unimportant but universal papers and records. She mailed away for a social security number for Cordelia, then wrote up a will leaving all of her current possessions to herself. All she needed now was a driver's license and a passport, both of which would have to wait until the social security number was mailed to her, so that both would be over-the-counter and legal.
Now she had five things left to do before she could get on with her self-imposed mission: take care of all the property from her last persona, buy one of the prospective properties, get a list of all the child Immortals currently alive, get a job, and practice being Cordelia Lucas until she had the identity ingrained in her.
This was not how she had envisioned it. She had thought that when she decided to teach child Immortals how to live normal and independent lives, that she herself would be stable and noble, able to show herself as an example of the success of these methods.
Instead, she was running away from a family destroyed because she had failed to protect them. She was not proud of herself, and she was beginning to question her right to teach others to lead successful and happy lives when she couldn't do it herself.
She continued fine-tuning her new identity as Cordelia. The facts were all in place: her birth certificate, school diplomas, resume. But now she needed to turn those into a human being that she could pretend to be. Brianna always distanced herself from her personas as much as possible, it was her way of staying sane.
First came the face. Brianna had extremely delicate features, which gave her plenty to build on. Cordelia would have a slightly wider nose that turned up a little at the tip. Her face would be slightly longer than Brianna's, at odds with her wide, expressive eyes, and she would be taller by at least an inch, more if Brianna could contrive it. Brianna barely cleared five feet due to malnutrition in infancy and the fact that she had never finished puberty, the same reasons she had such enormous, expressive eyes. Both qualities made her too distinctive, and her personas always lacked one of those.
Brianna began casting and shaping the latex mask that would be her face. She painted it a very pale tan, with a generous serving of freckles. Cordelia loved the sun, even though it was bad for her. Her cheekbones were high, and being twenty-five and working late into the night often, Cordelia had a faint tracing of lines next to her eyes; almost imperceptible, but still subconsciously present for anyone viewing her.
Next she went shopping for clothes and wigs, both in rich supply in Manhattan. She found a wig with straight hair that came halfway to her breasts. She bought a wide selection of sweat shirts and loose fitting jeans -- half in stores, half at hand-me-down sales so they would look well-worn and much loved -- and three semi-formal business outfits just in case. One pair of nice shoes, one pair of clunky hiking boots and one pair of high-top sneakers with soles big enough to raise her height by two inches. A pair of gray color-contacts. A box of elastic hair ties and scrunchies. Cordelia was attractive, but never took the time to make herself look nice in the morning. The sort who reached into the clothes drawer in the dark and pulled things out at random. She dressed for comfort, not style.
Finally she took her treasure trove back to the hotel and tried it on. The wig attached easily with some glue to keep it secure, and was immediately pulled back in a pony tail. Then she attacked the test mask, to see how it fit and looked. She made mental notes of how to change it for the final mask, which would have fifteen duplicates. Quickening blasts after fights with Immortals tended to leave her masks melted, so she always had many spares on hand.
Finally she put on the clothes and smiled at the full length mirror. "Hi, I'm Cordelia." She shook her head and struck a different pose, changing her inflections and expression slightly. "Hi, I'm Cordelia." She pitched her voice slightly higher and firmer. "Hi, I'm Cordelia. Call me Cord, everyone does." She practiced walking, running, kneeling to pick up things from the floor. Cord was slightly less graceful than Brianna, and knew no martial arts. Her eyes were open to everything that came along, warm and unhesitatingly friendly.
Then she practiced monologues and memorized them. What was her sister like, living in Colorado with her husband, Ted? Why hadn't her daddy let her have pets as a kid? How had she liked Wesleyan? Such facts rounded out her character and gave her practice in speaking like Cord.
The next day she went to her first job interview. It was with a programming company; they were looking for someone to hire to help develop new programs for running other businesses. Cordelia went to the interview looking a little uncomfortable, she didn't wear suits often. "Ms. Lucas," the interviewer asked, "Is there anything else you would like us to know?"
Cordelia's smile faded. "Yes there is, actually. My sister just died, and she had requested that I be the foster parent to her son." she made a note of the lie to make sure that the first child she trained was a boy, so as not to arouse suspicion. "That's why I'm changing jobs. I need to work somewhere where I can work at home, so I can be there for the kid. He's really having a tough time of it, and I don't want to make it harder by commuting and working long hours." She gritted her teeth and stared at the floor as if trying to hold back tears. "I'm sorry," she said tightly, "I just...Meg and I were so close..." she remained silent for a minute as the interviewer handed her a Kleenex.
"Well, if we do decide to give you a job here, we have an excellent program for that. You would only have to come in once a week, the rest of the time you could do your work at home and fax or phone it in."
Cordelia smiled. "That's really great to know, sir."
The other interviews went by, some smoother than others, and Cordelia then traveled to Maine, Canada and Israel, looking at the sites for her new school. Though she figured Israel to New York was too long a commute, she didn't want to rule the place out until she had seen it. Reluctantly she decided that it wasn't right for her, though she had always wanted to live in the Holy Land again. Maine was the best choice.
The island in Maine had no house on it, though it was close enough to shore that phone lines and electricity could be put in once the house was in existence. She hired some contractors and told them specifically what she wanted, going over their suggested blueprints until both she and they were satisfied with the designs. She left them to their work and returned to the hotel in New York to find out about jobs, and to deal with the last, most critical part of her plan.
Colin Hanes was standing next to a tree in Central Park, trying to figure out where his quarry had gone. Then he felt an arm lock on his throat from behind as another arm twisted his hand behind his back. "At last we meet," a voice muttered in his ear.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he whispered.
"Then what's this tattoo on your wrist?" she inquired smoothly. "You are a Watcher, and I have been your assigned Immortal for quite a while. Don't try to deny it, you're only wasting your breath."
Colin slumped. He had failed, he had let the Immortal he Watched know he was there. He would be kicked out of the organization, perhaps even killed! "What do you want?" he asked.
Brianna released him and sat down on a park bench, motioning for him to join her. Knowing he could not outrun her, he sat down. "I want a list of all the known living child Immortals and their last confirmed location."
He looked at her in shock. "That's monstrous!"
Brianna shook her head. "You Watch, but do you understand what you see? Am I the sort of person who would kill the helpless for sport and power? I want to train them!"
Colin looked at her. "And if I don't help you?"
Brianna shrugged. "I won't threaten you. But the next time a child Immortal is killed because he can't protect himself, or kills someone out of paranoia, you'll know it is your fault for not giving someone the chance to help them." She stood up. "You know how to get in touch with me," she finished, "Tell me your answer when you're ready."
The next week was full of excitement. Brianna got offers at two of the positions she had applied to, and took the one she had interviewed at first, for various reasons. Walking down the street one day, she saw Marcus and had to fight hard not to call out. He would certainly not thank her for visiting, not after what had happened.
One day as she walked in Central Park, she saw Colin drop something in a trash bin and then hurry away. She tried to look nonchalant as she walked up to it, then pulled out two pages, stapled together. She nodded and walked away.
Dominic felt the Immortal coming and hid himself, prepared to go into his usual act of being ten years old and very frightened. Then he saw the Immortal. She was old and arthritic, leaning on a walker and dressed in a floral print skirt and jacket with a white blouse. "Don't be afraid, child," she murmured in a voice shaky with age.
"Who are you?" Dominic asked.
"I've come with an offer," she responded. "I wish to teach you how to protect yourself and lead a normal life. You can take the offer or leave it, as you choose."
"What could you possibly teach me?" Dominic asked scornfully.
The old woman peeled off her face and hair and stood straight. Now Dominic was staring at a young woman. "I can teach you how to do this," she said, "how to put on a mask and make others believe it is real. And I learned how to fight when I was much younger than you. You can learn how to take out an adult Immortal without resorting to tricking him into letting you at his back. If you like how that sounds and you want to learn to be independent, this envelope has money and an open airplane ticket and train ticket that will get you to my house in Maine. The address is also in the envelope." She walked up and handed him the envelope, then walked away. "I'll wait for you for one month," she promised, "If you don't respond by then I'll assume you're not interested."
"And what's to stop you from taking my head?" Dominic asked suspiciously.
"Common sense should tell you that if I wanted your head, I would have taken it already. I'd never kill someone who couldn't defend himself. And if that's not enough, I built my home on holy ground."
She walked back to the airport on foot and took a flight from Italy back to New York, hoping Dominic would come to take her up on her offer.
Hope Island, Maine, 1996
Arriving home, she saw her house for the first time. The architects and builders had done a splendid job. The house looked like a small Tibetan monastery, with a garden to one side and a training yard in front. There were new saplings taking root and small vine cuttings planted near the small bridge. The island, which had been bare for trees for years, would soon boast a lovely forest. The whole place exuded an air of peace.
Inside the house, Brianna was pleased to see everything just the way she had planned it. The kitchen with the floor made of glazed clay tiles. The meditation room, with tall windows and walls painted in the colors of balance. A stained glass window of her own creation spilled rainbow light onto the floor. Several bedrooms, each very different. A private carrel hidden under the stairs with a desk for a computer. Phone and electrical jacks placed unobtrusively in every room. The whole place was perfect except for the furniture which had not yet been selected and delivered.
The next week was spent both going through her own things and buying new ones to furnish the house in a style that felt like home to her, one of basic, country styles and simplicity. Though she put beds in each of the guest rooms, she left them plain and empty. She had no idea what things child Immortals would like, and wanted them to make their own decisions about it, rather than risk offending them. She had already decided to take on one student at a time and get that student on his or her way before taking another.
Almost a month after she had made the offer to Dominic, she saw a boat land at the dock and a passenger get off before sending the boat back. She walked down to meet it, hoping it was who she thought.
Dominic, standing guardedly, looked at her. "Did you mean what you said?"
"Why don't you come see for yourself," she suggested. "By the way, I never introduced myself. I'm Brianna."
"Do you really think you can train me?" Dominic asked, not budging.
"I swear I'll do my absolute best by you," Brianna promised, "There are going to be times when I'm not sure of what to do, or when you won't agree with me, but I swear I'll always try my best and stick it out, and I'll never lie or deceive you."
Dominic stuck out his hand. "Then I'm ready to try."
Brianna looked her new pupil over. Dominic appeared to be ten years old to the casual observer, but Brianna knew he was far older. His shaggy hair and unkempt appearance made it plain that he was used to living on his own, as did the deadly and obstinate gleam in his dark eyes. He was neither overweight nor underweight, and had no muscles to speak of. There was still baby fat in his cheeks.
"First off," Brianna said, "I'm leaving an envelope here by the front door. In it is enough money to go back where you came from, plus a little extra. This way you know that if you don't like it here, you can always leave. I'm not going to force you to stay or do what I say. Second, you should choose your room and then we can go get stuff to furnish it with. I didn't want to make any assumptions about what you liked."
Dominic looked at her, trying to judge what the catch was. "Why are you being so nice to me?" he asked suspiciously.
"Don't you think you're worth it?" she asked. "Come on, I'll show you around." Dominic chose one of the larger bedrooms and over the course of the next few days, had it decorated with a sound system, black sheets and pillows, and posters of women being tied up or punished. Brianna wasn't sure if he put the posters up to annoy her or to show anger about the fact that women were and always would be unobtainable for him. She decided it was none of her business, and left it at that.
After three days of getting used each other, Brianna decided it was time to start Dominic's new life. "Training session this afternoon in the practice yard," she ordered, "I want to see what you know before I start teaching you." She gave Dominic a small wooden blade, about half the length of the one she carried. "I'm going to start you off with street-fighting, but I want to see how you handle a blade first." She put him through some of the basic moves, correcting his stance. Then she put the swords away. "You have a distinct disadvantage in a fight. Your opponent can always swing level in order to take your head, the easiest motion. You, on the other hand, have less reach and must stab above you in order to accomplish the task."
"No shit, Sherlock," Dominic growled.
"Keep digging, Watson," Brianna replied. "Dominic, as long as we're training together, I'm your Sensei. As such, I deserve a little more respect than that. Now what's the best way to gain an advantage over a taller opponent?" When she saw he didn't know, she guided his leg to kick the back of her knee. "Bring the enemy down to your level by whatever means possible. Kick or slice the back of the knee. Use judo to throw them onto their backs or shove them off balance when they charge you. Punch their kidneys. Don't go for the groin, most people expect that. Stab the foot or slice the leg muscles."
She showed him two techniques for injuring a bigger opponent long enough to run away. "Until you know how to fight, your best prospect is to hurt the enemy and then run either to a public place or to holy ground."
Then she began at the beginning. She showed him the stances for Shaolin Kempo, making him repeat the basic moves over and over until she could find no fault with his performance. "You are going to be learning two kinds of combat at once," she informed him, "the first is survival fighting, dirty fighting. That's a precaution for now, in case you run into trouble before you know how to duel. The second kind is proper fighting, like martial arts and fencing. Later I'll show you how to combine the two. But I think that's enough for today. Now we have to create an identity for you."
Brianna took Dominic to the computer alcove under the stairs and told him to pull up a chair. "We'll have to use a fake birth certificate to get this to match in with my story, but no matter." At his questioning look, she explained, "you're my nephew. Your parents were just killed tragically in a plane crash, you were at home. My dear sister requested that if anything should happen to her, I should take care of you."
"Why not just say I'm your kid, or that I'm not related to you at all?" Dominic asked.
"Because single women in general have a difficult time adopting children, the system gets all stuffy about it. I need to make sure that the state isn't going to come in here, slap me with a child-abuse suit for just putting you through training, and put you in foster care. And I need a reason why you don't have any school records, so part of the story is that my sister believed in home schooling, but I don't. I'm sending you to school."
"Like hell you are!" Dominic shouted, "I'm not going to school! I am five hundred years old, I don't belong with those infants and you know it!"
"Will you at least listen to my reasoning before you react?" she asked, trying to project an air of calm into the room. "First of all, I believe that in order to succeed at making up identities, you first need to lead one life from beginning to end, starting at the age you 'died'. That means you go into fifth grade and stay in school until you're at college or university level. You'll learn how to deal with people and talk to them. Second, no matter how good your disguise, you will still be short, like me. You need to live out one full life as a short person, so that when you don a disguise and someone makes a comment about your height, you know that it's because you're short, not because they can see through your persona and are treating you like a child. You'll have fewer panic attacks that way. Third, I am two hundred years old. I am younger than you, but about four times older than any mortal I meet. Does that mean I don't talk to mortals, because they're all younger than me? Does that mean I feel mortals have nothing to teach me?"
"They're babies," Dominic retorted, "would you bother learning from them? Trying to get along with them? You never had to! You get to hang out with adults and learn from them as an equal! You can pass, even if you were only fifteen when you died! You never had to be with children who haven't got two brain cells to their names!"
"When I was eight years old," Brianna tried, "the Immortals who had been teaching me decided that I would be better off if I was made to live a 'normal' life. They sent me to live with mortals in Boston who knew nothing of our kind or what I'd been through. I despised my new brothers and sisters. For three years I had been only with adults, learning philosophy and fencing, learning how to be an adult just in case I didn't make it to physical adulthood. And then I was shoved into a world where I was expected to play games and learn my letters. I could have killed them all in the first few months, when the boys would pull my hair and the girl would try to include me in her pretending games and tea parties. But I learned how to smile again, and I stopped being suspicious. They made me human again. That's what you can learn from them."
"What happens if I refuse?" He eyed her, waiting to challenge her response.
"It's up to you. But as your teacher, I'm telling you that you'll regret it later, when you try to fit in with adults and you don't feel like one, just a child in a mask."
Dominic gritted his teeth. "I'll try it for one year," he promised tightly, "but if I don't like it, I won't do any more than that."
Brianna nodded. "Now to get you ready for fifth grade. We have five months until September; I'll have you start school in the new school year."
That was far more difficult than it sounded. First, Dominic was missing certain basic skills not taught to children five centuries ago, such as arithmetic and basic science. Determined not to seem ignorant in front of mortal infants, Dominic applied himself to his studies with an almost fanatic will. Then there were the sports. As best she could, considering that they had only two players, Brianna taught Dominic how to play baseball and basketball, and watched with admiration as Dominic patiently worked until he got the hang of riding a bike. He already knew how to swim, very well in fact. He told her that at one point he had spent nearly fifty years going from one ship to another as a cabin boy, changing ships every year or so. Brianna listened avidly to his stories of the high seas, wanting him to feel respected, and he began telling her more about himself.
The last item Dominic needed to learn was how to fight other boys. This was different from both the quick and dirty methods and from the elegant fighting styles she trained him in. This had strict rules: no killing or injuring, use only fists, don't hit any especially tender spots. "Remember," Brianna warned him, "No matter what, you are fighting children. They don't want to kill you; they don't know how to defend themselves if you get really angry. The object here is to prove you are tough enough to answer an insult, but not to terrify them all with promises of death. Despite the way it looks, if done right it's just friendly competition."
The first day of school approached and paper and pencils were bought, and travel arrangements were made. Rather than using their own rowboat, Brianna had made arrangements for Dominic to be picked up by a local fisherman each morning and brought back every afternoon, for a monthly fee. She also made it clear that if Dominic ever wanted to stay over with a friend, he could just call her and she would pick him up herself when he was ready, though Dominic snorted at the idea. Then came the last arrangement.
"How am I supposed to keep my sword out of view in school?" Dominic asked.
"Easy. You won't be carrying one."
Dominic glared at her. "Now you're going too far. I have to be able to defend myself."
"No you don't, not yet. It's illegal to carry a weapon in school. You can get away with a lot of eccentricities in college, but not in junior high. You know how to disable a foe long enough to get away, and that's all you need for now."
"Ah, I see. You, who are about a foot taller and more experienced, won't go off this island without a katana, but I'm supposed to defend myself without one? Your logic is astounding." he snarled.
"Dominic, we're living in a small town in Maine; you're hardly in an Immortal 'hot spot'. I, on the other hand, have business once a week in New York, which is practically the Immortal convention center."
"New York has lots of public places and churches. This town doesn't. We have one church, and I dare you to find somewhere where more than three people congregate on a weekday!"
"It's part of your persona. Children don't carry swords, you're pretending to be a kid. You'll blow your cover--"
"So will you. Computer programmers do not usually carry swords to work, and it's a felony in New York to carry a sword."
Brianna growled. He was right, and she had no right to expect him to take risks she herself would not. "I will leave my sword at home at all times unless I am going on an extended vacation with you, in which case we will both have them. Is that fair? And if I leave my sword at home, so do you." When he nodded solemnly she sighed. Another battle over, with the victor as unclear as ever. She just hoped she wasn't condemning both of them to an early grave.
Brianna sent Dominic off to school with no little amount of trepidation. Though he had been registered and tested, she was worried that perhaps she had forgotten to teach him something vital, something that would make the teacher embarrass him in front of the class. Maybe the kids would tease him in the school yard, or try to beat up the new kid. Would he take it passively, trying to fit in? Would he turn psychopath and kill fifth-graders who simply didn't know who they were dealing with?
She forced herself to focus on her work, sitting at the computer and losing herself in its convoluted logic. There were six other people working on this project, each supposed to program a different section. Brianna, almost completely self-taught, was trying to use the least number of lines possible and still get an output that the person working on the next section would be able to use and understand.
She took a lunch break around eleven, sipping tea and waiting for the microwave to heat up the leftover lasagna when the phone rang. Bracing herself for the worst, she answered it. "Hello? Yes, this is she. What? No, I don't want to switch my long-distance carrier!" She hung up the phone, disgusted. A few minutes later it rang again. "Hello?" She sighed. "I'll be there in an hour."
An hour later, she was seated at one of the small desks dressed as her persona, Cordelia Lucas, and trying to keep her knees from banging on the desk bottom. Across from her sat the assistant principal, and next to her Dominic was squirming in his seat.
"Ms. Lucas, I'll get right to the point. Dominic started a fight in the playground today and beat up several boys. It took three teachers to separate them! I am calling this matter to your attention in the hopes that we can work together to discipline him."
"I see," Cordelia answered, "and what punishment are the other boys getting?"
"Ms. Lucas, I don't think you understand. Dominic started the fight, and although the other boys surely hit back, there's not a scratch on him, whereas I have three boys with black eyes and bloody noses."
And since Dominic is immortal, the marks they inflicted vanished before the teachers arrived. But that doesn't mean he wasn't hurt severely. "I think I do understand. Surely you know that verbal provocation generally starts a fight, regardless of who throws the first punch? And everyone knows that young boys always gang up on the new kid and try to find a weak spot. Dominic has been through a lot lately, due to his parents ... passing on. Surely you understand that." She saw the man's eyes soften, and knew he would be fair. "What punishment are you setting for him?"
"Detention for three days."
Cordelia thought it over. "Well, I certainly can't object there. Dominic does need to learn to answer words with words, not with fists. But I think we should stop disrupting his first day and let him get back to class. Thank you so much for your concern."
"And thank you for coming out here. I know it's a long trip from the island." The assistant principal motioned for them to leave.
Cordelia walked with Dominic out into the hallway. Then she knelt so that they were on eye level. "We'll talk about this over dinner," she promised, "but for now I want you to know I'm proud of you."
The sullen look on Dominic's face faded. "Why?" he asked.
"Because you stood up for yourself. Because you had the self control and wisdom to fight with them like a boy, and not do them any lasting harm. You hurt them just enough to let them know you won't be pushed around, and I wouldn't be surprised if they ask you to join them before long. Now go on, you're late for class."
Dominic nodded and walked down the hallway. Cordelia couldn't help smiling.
Over dinner, as she served up salmon and rice, Brianna inquired, "So tell me what started the fight."
"They called me Nicky and said I was a sissy. Pushed me around a little, like this." He demonstrated on her shoulder.
Brianna nodded. "Did they bug you afterwards?"
"One of them tried it again. I grabbed his shirt and told him if he had to call me something, he could call me Dom. So he told me to let him go, and they walked off." He grinned. "I didn't even have to hit him."
Brianna grinned. "That's great! Dom is a good nickname. Sounds a little like the old Spanish word for honored lord. You handled it very well. Do you have homework?"
"For all my classes. I'll do it before we practice tonight."
Brianna nodded her approval. "Do you think you could keep this up for a year?"
Dom shrugged. "They're not too bright, and they don't like me." he scowled. "But I'll be damned if I'm going to let a bunch of ten-year-olds think they chased me off."
Brianna smiled and stood up. "Done with your fish?" She cleared the table. "We'll both work in here tonight." She brought in her papers and sat down. She had arranged things this way so that Dom would feel independent, doing his own work, but wouldn't feel awkward if he had to ask her a question. When he got to his English reading assignment, he growled.
"What's wrong?" Brianna asked.
"We have to read this stupid Shakespeare play."
"Shakespeare isn't--" she stopped when she saw the title. "Oh. Yeah, that would do it. I never liked that one much either."
"I don't want to read it." Dom decided, "and you can't make me."
"Which pisses you off more, the thought of reading Romeo and Juliet, or the thought of the teacher embarrassing you tomorrow when you fail the pop quiz?"
"What pop quiz?" Dom asked suspiciously, "and how do you know?"
"I've been a teacher, and in my last life I raised a mortal boy who was your age when I adopted him. I know the drill. On the second day the teacher gives a pop quiz to scare anyone who doesn't do their homework. After that, there is one pop quiz a week to make sure students don't fall behind, and a major test once a month on larger sections of the books you read."
"Am I supposed to love it because it's about two lovers?" he sneered, "I can't get a woman, not now, not ever! This has nothing to do with my life!"
"Read it anyway, and then argue with the teacher about exactly why you find it insipid drivel. She'll give you an A for understanding it well enough to argue the point."
Dom watched her. "You're making fun of me."
"Nope. I would never make fun of you. But a lot of what you learn in school is how to get work done, even if you hate it."
Dom glared, but opened the book and started reading it aloud, alternating between whiny voices for the woman and bored voices for the men. When he got to the end of the first two scenes, Brianna closed the book. "That's enough. Now tell me what you just read."
"I just read it to you!" he protested, "you know what it's about!"
"Literacy is not comprehension. Who are the Montagues and the Capulets?"
"Two noble houses that have a long standing grudge. Their sworn men got into a fight in the street, and were warned that any more fighting would mean exile." He explained hurriedly, hoping that if he was complete, she would get off his back.
"That's scene one. What's scene two?" she inquired.
"This stupid guy named Romeo is moaning about this girl who just dumped him. Rosamund. He's acting like his life is over, but obviously if he hasn't met Juliet yet, Rosie isn't that important."
"And what does that tell us about him?"
"That he's a stupid mortal who gets laid often and moons around like a cow the rest of the time." At Brianna's calm look he sighed and tried another tack. "That he's impulsive, goes from one thing to the next without a lot of sense, and he's liable to do something stupid." He glared at her.
"Excellent. Tell that to your teacher and she'll give you an A."
"Stop patronizing me, I'm older than you are."
"I'm treating you the way I would treat anyone. You just haven't seen me around other people." She stood up. "C'mon, it's time for your training."
For the time being, Brianna was teaching Dom fencing and Kempo, figuring that he knew enough of both fisticuffs and street-fighting to keep his head long enough to get to a safe place. However, when they practiced kicks and punches facing each other, Dom would keep edging forward until he was close enough to hurt her, so that she had to keep moving back or ordering him to move. It was most probably subconscious on his part, she decided, but it troubled her that he felt the need to intimidate, and that he showed such anger when he practiced.
After practice, she pulled him aside. "I think it's about time you learned the other half of martial arts." She took him to the smaller meditation room, the one only big enough for two people. They sat down on the cushions. "Close your eyes and sit straight," she told him, "let your hands rest in your lap. Feel your breath flowing in and cleansing you, out and taking all your anger and bad feelings with it. Feel the line of energy flowing from the base of your skull to your pelvis, like the string on a marionette--"
"What's the point of this?" Dom argued harshly, "it's boring and I want to go to sleep!"
"You have too much anger when you fight. Running wild, it makes you careless and predictable. If you can master your emotions and learn to channel them, you have a great weapon in a duel. If not, 'you lose your head when you lose your temper', as one of my teachers used to say."
"Anger is powerful," Dom told her, "it lets you keep going when you're ready to give up."
"Really? Are you sure? Because if you're not, it's better to give yourself the choice than to charge blindly down one path." She straightened her back and let out a calming breath. She wished she could just telepathically reach into his mind and show him what to do, but Dom would not have welcomed the intrusion. He would have to learn on his own. "Relax. Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the energy flowing through you. Shut out all the thoughts in your mind, let nothing disturb you."
She watched him for five minutes, then rang the small gong by her side. Though it was clear to her that Dom had had trouble, at least he had tried. "We will do this every day in the evening before practice." She watched him leave, kicking the carpet as he walked. Though he was older than her, so many of his mannerisms were those of a young boy, especially when he was angry. Her heart was sore, watching him get frustrated about this, but there was nothing she could do besides watch her tongue to make sure her words were encouraging, not patronizing.
Not all the battles went in Brianna's favor. There were things Dom simply refused to do, like chores. Brianna got as far as getting him to do his own dishes, but he would not clean, cook, garden, or take care of the boat. He declared that that was women's work, and that he couldn't learn to be a man if she bothered him with such things. He fought her constantly over alcohol, demanding that she buy it for him, since he was too young to procure it himself. Her response was that when his birth certificate said he was twenty-one, he could get all the alcohol he desired, but not before. Though there was nothing he could do to get around her back on that issue, he could and did procure marijuana in the school yard, despite her protests.
Then there were the times at two in the morning when he would play Nine Inch Nails at top volume just to see what her reaction would be...
Brianna stumbled into his room and growled. "Would you please turn that down, Dominic?"
"This is my house too, and I have as much right to play music as you do to sleep," he challenged her.
"Very true. This is why we have head-phones in the house."
"Headphones destroy your hearing." he countered.
"And that racket doesn't?" she inquired. "Besides, Dom, you're Immortal. You don't have to worry about going deaf."
"This isn't a racket, you just don't have an appreciation for fine music," he rebutted.
"Dom, if it were any time other than two a.m. I would simply argue that I prefer their 'Pretty Hate Machine' album to the 'Broken' album you are currently playing. However I can't sleep when you have the music at this decibel level."
Dominic turned the volume up another impossible notch. "How about this decibel level?" he inquired sarcastically.
Brianna, knowing that this whole episode was meant as a test of her patience, tried to remain calm. "Dominic, if you don't turn this noise down low enough for me to sleep, I shall take it as proof of your immaturity and will start calling you kid, sweetie, youngster, and other derogatory terms."
Dominic glared at her. "I'm older than you are."
"Then act like it for once!" Brianna realized that she was now screaming from anger rather than shouting to be heard over the noise and cursed herself. Now that she had shown that he could affect her, this would go on all night.
For the next week, Brianna held to her threat, calling him 'kid' or 'sport' instead of his name at every opportunity. She was someone who firmly believed that if you threatened a child you had to follow through on it, or they learned you were a pushover. Though Dominic was certainly not a kid, he wasn't an adult in her book either, and this was the only punishment that wouldn't make him completely psychopathic. She didn't even want to think about how many pieces she would be found in if she tried to spank him.
After a week, Brianna was falling asleep when she felt a hand grab her arm. Slow from exhaustion, it took her quite a while to get the upper hand and pin her assailant to the bed. Not surprisingly, it was Dominic. "May I ask what you were doing, entering my room without knocking? I generally extend you that courtesy, I'd expect it in return."
"Save the speeches," he retorted, "I'm here to take what's mine."
It was rather easy to see what he wanted. "Even if you were skilled enough to overpower me and rape me, would that make you more of a man?"
"Don't you want me, cunt? You keep talking about how if I do everything you say, I'll be my own man someday, with everything that goes with it. But you're lying when you say it, because you know that no woman would make love to someone who looks like a ten-year-old!"
Brianna felt at a loss for words. What he said was true, she couldn't think of a way that any decent woman could bring herself to make love to someone who looked like a child. But if she agreed with him, he would be convinced that her whole plan was a lie, and he would leave. "Dom, hear me out. I'm not attracted to you in that way because I'm not attracted to anyone like that. I was raped repeatedly when I was little, I haven't let anyone touch me like that since then. Especially not someone who sneaks in here without the slightest intention of being gentle or loving, someone who just wants me as a trophy to prove he's a man!" She glared at him.
"If you don't want me proving that I'm a man, stop calling me kid!"
"If you don't want me to call you a kid, stop acting like one!"
"Stop acting like you're my mother and I will!"
"If I was your mother I'd have turned you over my knee months ago, more than once! If I was your mother, I wouldn't put up with half the shit you throw at me! You're here by your own choice, and if you don't like it you can leave! So either leave, or stop fighting me!"
Dominic yanked his arm free and slammed the door. A few minutes later, she heard the front door slam as well. She fought the urge to get up and go after him. If he wanted to leave, he had to be able to do so freely. All the same, Brianna couldn't help feeling that she had failed.
The next morning, when Brianna went downstairs to make breakfast, she saw that the envelope she had placed there months before was gone. She closed her eyes for a second and slammed her fist hard into the wall, trying to get out frustration that wouldn't go away, and trying to silence the sound of her failure and guilt. She automatically went to make breakfast, though she knew she would not be able to eat it.
Then she heard the door open and shut. Walking in nonchalantly, as though he were lord of all he surveyed, Dominic pulled up a chair. "Well? Where's breakfast? I have to get to school, after all."
Hope Island, 2005
Dominic began slowly to adjust to studying alongside children hundreds of years his junior. Though he was by no means either popular or casual, he was also not a pariah. He never grew an inch, but he and Brianna had found ways to cleverly make him look like he was in the throes of puberty. Dots of acid on his skin gave the illusion of acne that burned the skin well enough to remain throughout the day, long jeans covered platform shoes, a year or two of strict diet lent him the thin, awkward limbs that mark an adolescent boy. He didn't go out on dates, and was teased for that, but he was everyone's top choice when it came to picking teams for either the chess club or the swim team, and he wasn't too bad on the soccer team either.
As for his fighting skills, these were superior to anything Brianna could have hoped. He used a rapier for its light weight and long reach, but he also kept a small knife in his boot as a backup. His fighting style relied on acrobatics to get him into positions where he could cut at an Immortal's legs and force them to their knees, and it was effective enough that, though Dominic had not taken a head since coming to Hope Island, he felt confident enough in his abilities to promise Brianna he would never use the ploy of 'helpless Immortal child' again. From now on, he would fight fair.
Currently, Dominic was at Harvard as a freshman, studying economics and law. He still had a complex about other people controlling him, and was determined to run his own corporation or firm someday, with other people obeying him. Brianna's new student was named Heather, and she was as sadistic a little viper as Dom had ever been. Heather, at least, had died at twelve, which gave her a little more height to work with.
The woman got off the boat and thanked the ferryman for taking her to the island, hauling her bags up onto the dock. She was greeted by a rather sullen looking pre-pubescent girl, who glared at her. "You're not supposed to be here," the girl informed her, "no one's supposed to be here except us."
"So I've been told," said the woman, "could you tell me where I could find someone named Brianna Macleod?"
The girl appraised her cautiously. "What do you want her for?" If the woman had known more about either the girl or martial arts, she would have realized that Heather was reaching for a knife in case of trouble.
"It's family business," the woman replied, "please, it's important."
Heather turned and began walking down the path, clearly intending for the woman to take her bags herself and follow. They soon arrived at a house that looked like a Tibetan monastery in miniature, complete with gardens and trees surrounding it and the stream that ran alongside it. The stream was crossed by a small bridge that was equally Tibetan in style. Inside the house, the woman set her bags down in the kitchen and looked around at the countrified interior. The girl told her to wait while she went further into the house.
A moment later, Brianna came out and looked the woman over. The woman gasped. "You ... you look exactly the same."
Brianna looked at the woman, confused, and then her eyes flicked to her left hand, which was missing the last joint of the pinkie finger. "Daria?" she asked confused and clearly upset. "How did you find me? You shouldn't be here."
"I'll answer that if you promise to answer my questions," the woman replied, clearly prepared to argue the bargain.
"I'll answer your questions," Brianna agreed, "Sit down and have something to drink. How did you find me?"
"There's a photo album on the high shelf of my dad's closet, hidden and out of reach unless you know what you're looking for. In it are pictures of you and Dad and a bunch of people I'd never seen, from when Dad was a kid. I knew he wouldn't answer any questions about you, so I asked the name of the guy who appeared most often with the two of you. It took three weeks to wear him down, but he told me the guy's name was Duncan Macleod.
"It took even longer to locate Duncan Macleod, travel to where he currently lives, and get him to tell me where to find you. I'm only eighteen, you know, it's not like I have major finances. I'm just lucky it's summer, or I'd have even more of a hassle." She leaned forward. "Now I want you to tell me who the hell you are, what the hell you did with my grandma, and what happened nine years ago when that bitch took us."
Brianna sighed. "Come with me." She led Daria down a hallway to a room hidden behind a wall with a trigger in the paneling. Inside was a room with masks and a computer. Brianna picked up one of the masks. "This was your grandmother. She was just a part I played a long time ago." It took several hours, but Brianna told her all of it. Immortals. The Gathering. That nightmare nine years ago when Daria and her family had been held hostage by Felicia Martins. "That's why I left," Brianna finished, "because I was endangering your family and causing you all more grief that you should ever have had to bear."
"Make me Immortal." Daria demanded.
"It doesn't work that way, Daria, I'm sorry. Either you have it or you don't. It can't be given or taken away, which is why I'm training Heather to make the best of permanently being twelve years old, just like I have to deal with being fifteen."
"Then teach me how to fight like you do." Daria argued.
"Go home," Brianna pleaded, "don't involve yourself in this and risk dying. I left you to prevent putting you at risk, I'm not going to get you killed and have to explain to your father why his mother is responsible for the deaths of not one, but two of his children."
"Go home to what? To the nightmares I have every night because I can't feel safe ever again? To my father and mother smothering me and Becca because they're terrified of losing us?"
"Have you forgotten what happened to your little brother? Do you want to end up like him?"
Daria thrust her hand in front of Bria's face. "Do you think I'm stupid? Every time I move my hand I think about him. That's why I want to learn to defend myself."
"That didn't save your father," Bria countered, "He was one of my best students and he was captured and tortured as easily as the rest of you. All his training couldn't help him or his family."
"I'm staying until you teach me," Daria replied stubbornly.
"I can knock you out and send you home much easier than you seem to think, kid," Brianna responded, "and I have a responsibility to Heather. I need to teach her to the best of my ability, and I don't think I can do that with another student around."
"You have a responsibility to me too."
"What about college?"
"I'm taking a year off. I'll make up some excuse to keep Mom and Dad from finding out."
"First of all, a year isn't long enough to learn martial arts and sword play. Second, your family is more intelligent than you seem to think."
"I've been studying martial arts for nine years," Daria responded. "I know Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Shodokan, Yoga, Tai Chi and plain old no-holds-barred street-fighting and kick-boxing. It's not like you're going to be starting from scratch with me. I want to learn the sword, so I never have to wake up in a cold sweat again."
Brianna looked the girl over. Daria was athletically slim, with her father's gray eyes and reddish-blond hair. Her face was set with determination, and Brianna knew that if she refused the girl, Daria would keep coming back until she got what she wanted.
"The way of the sword, like the way of the gun, doesn't make you any more safe or calm. It means being paranoid every moment, even alone with your closest friends."
"Let me discover that for myself." Daria demanded.
Brianna took her hand and shook it. "Welcome to Hope Island then."
Daria had expected to work hard when she had demanded a place in her grandmother's dojo, but she had not even dreamed of the reality of it. Brianna rode her harder than any teacher she had encountered before and had rules Daria had not expected, such as, "at all times remember that Heather is several centuries your elder before treating her as a child. The fact that we are on holy ground protects me, not you. You're fair game if you piss her off, at least until I stop her."
Every morning at sunrise Heather and Daria learned together under Brianna's watchful eye. Then they had breakfast together and Heather departed for school on the mainland. After that, Daria trained alone with Brianna until lunch, and then was set to learning vast amounts of information that had nothing to do with fighting: languages, acting, science, politics, lock-picking and Shakespeare, to name but a few of the eclectic subjects. She learned how to get out of ropes and how to repair armor, how to judge an antique as well as a chart of the stock market. In the afternoons Heather was Brianna's pupil until bedtime, when the three of them meditated before going off to their separate bedrooms.
Though things were edgy between Daria and Brianna, they were a walk in the park compared to even the smallest conversation with Heather. The child Immortal was determined to prove she was better than a measly mortal, no matter what she looked like, and Daria's previous training in the martial arts made that impossible most of the time.
It was also difficult keeping her current whereabouts a secret from her parents. She told them that she was in Maine, studying philosophy, and mailed them letters from a post-office box in town. She called them now and then, but explained that the phone was a public one, so she couldn't leave a number.
Regrettably, this did not deter them. It had been years since Marcus Macleod had been forced to use his investigative connections to get information, but where his daughter was concerned, there was little he would not do. He arrived with his wife and Daria's twin about six months after her arrival. Although Wendy rushed forward when she saw her daughter arrive at the dock, Marcus hauled her back and glared. "What the hell are you doing here, Daria?" he asked.
Daria stood in front of Heather in a reflexive protective reaction, and replied, "I told you, I'm studying philosophy."
"Bull," he spat, "I know an Immortal when I see one, and that's one in back of you. Where's Brianna? I'm going to give her a piece of my mind."
"I'm right here," said Brianna, approaching from up the path. "You should let Owen row back to shore, this is probably going to take a while to sort out."
"Like hell it is," Marcus shot, "I'm taking my daughter home."
"Good luck," Brianna replied, "It's more than I've been able to convince her to do."
"I'm staying, Dad." said Daria, "I'm an adult, I can make decisions for myself."
"Deciding on a college is one thing. Deciding to get yourself killed is another. You're coming home if I have to drag you there kicking and screaming, but I'm not going to bury another child."
Daria stood in a defensive position, but did not draw her weapon. "You really want to try it?"
Marcus knew that no matter how good his daughter thought she was, he was better. He had years more experience, most of them at Brianna's hands. But he'd be damned if he had to beat up his kid 'for her own good.' "No, I don't. Wendy, Becca, try and talk some sense into her. Brianna, I'll see you alone."
Brianna nodded, noting that for the second time that day he hadn't called her 'Mom'. The omission didn't surprise her, but it hurt.
They sat down in the kitchen, and Marcus touched his eyes with his fingers, as though he had a headache. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again," he told her, "and I really don't know whether to hug you or kill you. I do know that I'm not going to leave my daughter here under the mistaken impression that she can handle whatever the Game throws at her. I made that mistake and I'm not going to let her pay for it twice."
"Don't you think I tried to push her away?" Brianna asked. "Remember, I agreed after ... after what happened that it would be best if I never contacted any of you again? She came to me, and she made it very clear that if I kicked her out she would keep coming back." She closed her eyes for a moment, then gently touched his fingertips with her own. "I'd thought I'd never see you again."
"You won't, after this," Marcus replied tightly, but it was obvious to Brianna even without looking into his mind that he had missed her too.
"She's only here for a year, after that I swear to you I won't contact any of you. I've got my own problems here, I'm training child Immortals. I don't want any of them going psychotic and killing her because Holy Ground means they can't vent their frustrations and paranoia on me."
"I still think I was right, telling you to stay away. That won't change. But if the Gathering is soon..." he trailed off.
"If I'm the last, which I doubt, I'll give you a ring if it's some time this century. I'll pass on the word to Duncan, Connor and Amanda as well. I figure at least one of us should be the last, and you should know when it's over. If it ends any time soon."
Marcus nodded. "Mom, I..." he turned away and stood up to go. Then he turned back. "I love you," he told her simply, and hurried down the path, leaving Brianna choked with emotion.
Back at the dock, Marcus called to Becca and Wendy. "Come on, let's go home."
"But--" Wendy said, but Marcus interrupted her. "Six months on Holy Ground won't kill her, as long as she doesn't keep in contact with Immortals afterwards."
"I'll take you back to shore in the boat," Daria offered, and they left, with Wendy still frantically protesting.
Two hours later, Daria was back and sitting at the dinner table with Bria and Heather. Brianna served up bowls of hot vegetarian chili for her pupils and herself, and they all ate quietly, lost in their own thoughts. At one point, out of the blue, Heather asked, "how did he know what I was?"
"Aside from the fact that he had a pretty good idea before he set foot on the island?" Brianna inquired. "It's the eyes. I learned how to tell an Immortal by the eyes long before I became one myself. It's a trick you have to learn or be taught if you live with an Immortal; helps you keep out of trouble. The eyes are old, but it's a different flavor than you would get from someone who was an abuse survivor or a war veteran."
"I can't believe he gave in," Daria commented.
"He loves you," Brianna responded, and then almost to herself, "and despite all common sense and everything that's happened, he still loves me. I don't think I could have lived if he didn't."