May 26, 2012
"Easy," Duncan soothed his unexpected guest as the young man jerked to life as a new immortal. Coming back from a grocery run, Duncan had heard the crash in the woods and followed the trail the dirt bike had left, swearing when he found the accident scene. Untangling the dead body from the intersection of tree and bike had taken him some effort, but Duncan had managed to do so before making the trek over to his island. "You've had a very bad accident. My name is Duncan, and you're safe here."
"My head hurts," the young man groaned, rubbing his forehead. His red hair was streaked with blue coloring. He had an oval face with an angular jaw, deep-set blue eyes, thick eyebrows, a straight nose, and full lips. His right ear was pierced and currently absent an earring. "Why am I so thirsty?"
Having anticipated this, Duncan handed the man a glass of water. "It's because your body had to heal everything. You crashed hard."
With Duncan's help, the broad-shouldered man sat up in the quilt-covered bed and drank. Swallowing, he studied Duncan, his eyes reflecting a quick mind. "I'm not at a hospital," he observed. "I know I hit, so why is the only thing hurting my head? But it's fading now."
Duncan smiled reassuringly. "Why don't we start with the basics, first? What's your name? I'm Duncan MacLeod; my friends call me Duncan or Mac. You're in my cabin on my island."
"Kyle Mitchell," the young man introduced himself. "I always wondered who owned this place. My granddad used to run the general store in town, the one everyone shops at for supplies when they come up here. I remember seeing you, but I don't think we talked."
Duncan half-smiled; he'd tried to keep his visits to the general store brief, not wanting to get too involved with a pre-immortal. His experiences with both Michelle Webster and Richie had left him leery. "Wasn't your hair black and purple a few years ago?"
Kyle chuckled. "Yeah, that was a mistake. Can I have some more water?"
In reply, Duncan poured him more out of the ceramic pitcher on the nightstand. Kyle took it gratefully and sipped the water. "You know why I'm thirsty. I'm not a vampire now, am I?"
Duncan barked out a laugh. "No, you're not a vampire, but you did die in that crash; you're one of us now. You were dead a while, so your body's trying to recover the fluids it lost." He paused and waited for Kyle's reaction.
Kyle eyed him momentarily, wary in a way he hadn't been before. "What do you mean, 'one of us'?"
"Immortal," Duncan clarified. "You cannot die unless someone takes your head."
"Oh." Kyle helped himself to more water and drank again. "Does this mean I get to start over? Because I really want to get the hell away from here. Whatever you need to show me to be this thing I am now, I'm okay with that."
"What do you want to get away from?" Duncan probed gently. He was surprised at Kyle's easy acceptance of his new life.
"Homophobic idiots," Kyle said bluntly. "Nobody wants me here. Granddad was the only one who did, and he's in a retirement home in Seacouver now because he can't be alone anymore. I tried, but nobody wants a teenager taking care of a senior citizen. They think I'd abuse him. As if being different was instantly a recipe for being a criminal." He made a sound of disgust.
"Did you deliberately crash?"
Kyle stared at him, clearly horrified at the thought. "No. They're idiots, not worth killing myself over. But I might shoot one of them if they keep up. Just with paintballs, not with real bullets. I mean, I don’t want to be arrested anymore." Hastily, he added, "Though I can't blame you for asking, given how you found me."
Relieved, Duncan said, "I have more to tell you, but it can wait. Did you want to take a shower? The bathroom is next door, and there are clean towels in the cabinet above the toilet. I think I have a pair of sweats and a T-shirt that will fit you. We can talk over a late lunch if you're hungry."
Kyle nodded eagerly. "That would be awesome."
Kyle had hopped into the shower before Duncan could hand him the clothing, and now Duncan hesitated just outside the bathroom door, feeling oddly nervous. Other than the occasional email or phone call and limited visits into the nearest town for supplies, he'd kept his distance from the rest of the world for the last decade, needing to regroup after the intensity of the previous one. He'd had a slow, careful plan for how he was going to ease himself back, one designed for maximum control. He'd agreed to teach a mid-level history class at Seacouver University starting in September. He'd bought a corner unit residence in a former elementary school that had been converted into a six-unit luxury condominium on the north edge of downtown. He'd intended to scout out locations for a martial arts studio, since he'd sold DeSalvo's shortly after returning from Paris in the summer of 1998 and the building had since been torn down. Wryly, Duncan thought about how many times his plans had been interrupted by the arrival of a new student.
He knew he could turn Kyle over to another immortal with a phone call or an email. None of his friends would begrudge him for it. All of them knew how hard he'd taken Richie's death. Yet he couldn't quite bring himself to make that call – not yet anyway. Duncan told himself he needed to know who Kyle was so he'd call the right friend to train him.
Resolute, Duncan knocked on the bathroom door. "Kyle, I'm just going to put the clothes on the counter. Do you mind if I come in?"
"No, I'm in the shower," Kyle replied.
Duncan stepped into the bathroom and quickly placed the clothes on the counter. He was just about to exit when Kyle asked, "That weird pressure in my head – is that some kind of signal?"
"It's how you know another immortal is near," Duncan told him.
"Oh, okay, cool. Thanks."
Duncan stepped out of the bathroom, considering Kyle's reaction and wondering if Kyle was going to remain so accepting of whatever Duncan told him. That had the potential for disaster, and silently, Duncan prayed Kyle wasn't the kind of person to follow blindly.
After Kyle finished his shower, he walked out into the cabin's great room, where he found Duncan had set him a place at the table. "Tomato soup and ham and cheese sandwiches sound okay to you?" Duncan asked.
"Whatever you have is fine," Kyle said gratefully. "Anything I can do to help?"
"No. Have a seat." Duncan served Kyle, then gave himself a helping before sitting down.
Kyle applied himself to the food with the practiced pace of someone who'd learned the hard way that wolfing down his food wasn't a good idea.
"You've taken all of what I've said so far admirably," Duncan noted. "Most people wouldn't be as calm."
Kyle chuckled softly. "You didn't see me in the shower freaking out." He took a breath and let it out. "People used to make fun of me for, well, pretty much everything, from me living with my granddad to my hair to me walking on the street. I had to learn how not to react, at least on the outside." He met Duncan's concerned gaze. "You said something about not being able to die unless I lose my head? I mean, what counts as healing? And how can we die?"
Duncan looked at him. "You will heal from anything that would otherwise kill you permanently. You can't catch diseases or get sick. As for how we can die permanently: any bladed weapon sharp enough or any explosion powerful enough to sever your head will do it."
"If that tree branch had been a blade…" Clearly remembering his accident, Kyle blanched. "I didn't see it, and between the rabbit and the branch, I lost control of the bike. The last thing I remember is seeing it come up over me and the front fender coming up in my face." He paused. "What did I die from?"
"From what I could tell when I found you, it looked like you snapped your neck, and the bike fell on you."
Kyle winced, remembering that his dirt bike outweighed him. "Where is it?"
"It's where you crashed; I had no way of getting it and you here in the canoe. We can go take a look later and see if it's salvageable."
Kyle studied him, his face reflecting his curiosity. "So what happens after that? You don't seem like a guy who'd tell me, 'Congrats, you won the life lottery,' and then let me figure it out on my own. There's gotta be a catch here somewhere or else you wouldn't bother."
Duncan chuckled ruefully at that. "All immortals are a part of the Game. No one knows why it started or who started it, only that the winner will have the Prize – the knowledge and power of all of the immortals in the world. To survive the Game, you have to learn how to fight. Swords are traditional, but other edged weapons can be used. Modern weapons such as guns and explosives are considered cheating."
Kyle stared at him a moment before sopping up the last of his soup with the last bite of his sandwich. He chewed slowly and swallowed before saying, "And people being people no matter who they are, the incentive of that much power and knowledge makes them greedy."
"We call them headhunters, the ones who'd try to amass that many Quickenings."
"What? Doesn't that have something to do with pregnant women?"
"Not in this case." Duncan took a knife and sliced the back of his hand, hissing at the pain. As lightning crackled over his skin, healing it, he told a wide-eyed Kyle, "That lightning is my Quickening. If you were to –"
Faster than Duncan could anticipate, Kyle grabbed the knife and tried slicing himself in the same manner Duncan had. He sucked in his breath at the pain, only to shudder it out as he healed. "You weren't kidding." He sounded stunned.
Duncan eyed him cautiously as he retrieved the knife and put it safely out of reach. "What do you mean?"
Kyle chuckled darkly. "Until that happened –" he gestured to his hand "—I was willing to believe anything you said, tell you anything you wanted to know, if it got me fed and safe." Emotion darkened his eyes as he added, "But you're not joking, and you couldn't fake that. I could feel – that – like someone was stitching up my hand."
Duncan nodded grimly, not liking the way Kyle had humored him. "You'll heal from anything except losing your head."
"I wouldn't recommend it. Depending on how severe the fire was, you're not likely to be sane afterwards," Duncan warned. "This also means you need to be careful about how you hurt yourself, especially if you do it somewhere other people who aren't us can see."
"Oh. Yeah. I can see that." Kyle paused and rose from the table to set his dishes in the sink. The way he held himself away from Duncan made the older immortal think that Kyle was using the brief moment to process. "What kind of power and knowledge are we talking about?"
"Anything," Duncan told him. "I was born in the highlands of Scotland in 1592. When I died the first time, I didn't even know how to read or write. I've had centuries to learn anything I wanted, do anything I wanted, be something other than someone's soldier. Someone who was less scrupulous could take those same experiences and rule the world. What you know, who you are, everything you've done is contained in your Quickening; when you win a challenge against another immortal, you absorb their Quickening."
Kyle gaped at him, but recovered admirably. "Granddad's 89; he was a World War II and Korea veteran. I thought he'd seen a lot, but you…." He paused, and now Duncan saw the keen intelligence hiding behind that mostly-composed façade. "Why don't you want to rule the world?"
"I've known princes and kings and people who've run their corners of the world. It's not a job I'd want; no one is ever entirely happy." Duncan laughed shortly. "The problem is that if someone evil wins, mankind will suffer eternal darkness and pain. I do my best to try to keep that from happening, but I don't want to be in charge. People tend to want to kill you, regardless of whether you're a benevolent leader or not."
"They never seem happy to be on TV," Kyle agreed. "So does that mean you're one of the good guys, and the headhunters tend to want to be megalomaniacs?"
Duncan nodded, appreciating Kyle's quick grasp of the situation. He was starting to get the sense that Kyle wasn't naïve as much as he was deliberate.
"And the reason we can't call the cops on them is because…."
"We try to keep immortality a secret. Some of us have been burned at the stake for being witches. I was driven out of my clan for being a demon when I revived after dying in battle. The Nazis tried to create a perfect race, experimenting on people. They found a few of us that way, but those who discovered us didn't live to spread the word. I for one have no desire to discover what would happen now."
Kyle winced. "Yeah. But not all of us would be upright citizens, even if we wouldn't hunt others like us. I mean, there's invariably murderers and thieves and other kinds of criminals in any large group of people. What happens then?"
"Arrangements are usually made," Duncan said.
"Ah. Yeah. People would notice if someone's healing too well or not aging." Kyle sat back down and lounged in his chair. "There's a lot to think about."
"It is," Duncan agreed. "We don't have to go over everything just now, either. If you're willing, I'd like to take you on as my student, and I'll teach you what you need to know." He paused. "Do you have a place to stay? You mentioned something that made me think you don't."
Kyle hesitated. "My granddad burned our mobile home down two years ago," he said finally. "The assisted living facility the state moved him to doesn't allow people under age 56 to live there, so I moved in with a family friend, but after a few months, she decided to move out of state and I didn't want to go. I've been living with various friends of friends ever since. A couple of times, I've stayed at the shelter down in the city." He shrugged, but Duncan could see the damage that had done. "I don't want to be a burden."
"You're not," Duncan said swiftly, his protective instincts aroused. "I'd worry if you were out there alone. This island is holy ground; you'd be safe here. There are some headhunters who target young, inexperienced immortals. I would feel better if you were here with me. It would also be easier to teach you what you need to know if you were here."
"Would you?" Kyle asked hopefully. "I don't have anywhere to go, and if my bike's as trashed as I think it is, there's no way I can go anywhere anyway."
Duncan smiled. "It will be my pleasure."
Kyle hesitated. "Will I owe you anything for it? Because I'm broke," he confessed. "I quit my job at the gas station off I-5 because I was supposed to move in with a friend, but he lamed out and didn't tell me he moved his girlfriend in instead."
"I'll expect you to work," Duncan told him. "In addition to working on what I teach you, this cabin needs some repairs that I've been putting off doing because I didn't have another set of hands."
Kyle leaned forward and extended his hand to shake. "Sounds fair enough."
Duncan sealed the deal with a handshake and smiled.
Kyle quickly discovered that his new teacher had intended to spend the rest of the summer on the island. That suited Kyle just fine. Kyle was at loose ends and homeless, not a new state for Kyle since his grandfather had relocated to an assisted living facility; he'd been couch-surfing for the better part of two years. Having to learn how to fight with a sword and work on repairs to the cabin seemed a fair trade in exchange for a roof over his head and food he didn't have to scrounge.
Kyle found himself wondering what other immortals were like, if all of them were as demanding and perfectionist as Duncan was. The days blurred as Duncan woke him to rise with the sun, practice katas and work on swordsmanship, then perform some task Duncan deemed necessary for his education. Some of it was, to Kyle, odd – he couldn't see what the value of knowing the difference between a butter spreader and a fish knife in a full formal place setting was, work a ham radio, or how to write a letter of recommendation – but he trusted Duncan. Moreover, he was fascinated by the intricacies, even though some of the finer points frustrated him. Duncan just kept telling him that he was too much in a rush to learn everything.
Yet the feeling that time was running out never left Kyle. He'd felt that way before, when his grandfather had to be hospitalized for falling, burning himself and setting his mobile home on fire in the process, and then moved into an assisted living facility. That feeling had driven him to graduate early in hopes of motivating his grandfather to come home, only to be disappointed when his grandfather had told him that he was never going to be able to do so.
"Go live your life, not mine," his grandfather had advised him. "You don't need to be tied to an old man until he dies. This way, there's someone who knows what to do if I have another dizzy spell and fall and you won't be in trouble."
Kyle hadn't been able to argue otherwise. He'd tried to bury his anger and frustration in trying to work at the store, but the new owners had, after a few months, decided they didn't like him and had fired him for "doing too much." Kyle had a prepaid cell phone he'd kept mostly so that the assisted living facility could let him know if something had happened to his grandfather. Duncan even drove him to visit his grandfather a few times, combining the trips with other business Duncan had to conduct in Seacouver. Kyle's dirt bike was unsalvageable, and Duncan promised him that he could use a motorcycle he'd had in storage once they moved.
They'd just finished moving into Duncan's condo Labor Day weekend when the dreaded phone call came. Numb at the sudden loss of his grandfather, Kyle was grateful for Duncan's support as he dealt with the red tape.
The day they buried his grandfather, it rained, and only the few who'd cared most about him had braved the rain. Standing in the rain in the battered, brown leather motorcycle jacket Duncan had found for him out of a storage chest, sword hidden in the sheath inside the coat, Kyle felt incredibly alone, with a vast yearning chasm of uncertainty ahead.
Duncan offered no trite words, just a quiet sympathy that spoke of too many friends mourned. Kyle wanted to scream in rage, but he buried the pain, wanting to be the polished gentleman Duncan had been trying to teach him to be all summer. Kyle didn't want to disappoint his teacher. He was afraid that if he did, Duncan would revoke the offer of funding his college education, along with everything else Duncan had given him. Kyle had no desire to be left homeless again.
Though he'd been attending classes for nearly a week, Kyle was still trying to find his groove with his fellow students. He was sitting outside, enjoying a snack bar and reading the marketing chapter he'd been assigned, when a shadow fell over his textbook. He caught sight of a tattered skateboard under one checkboard-patterned high-top sneaker. Looking up, Kyle's eyes widened as he saw the heavily tattooed, muscular, stocky young man standing before him.
"So, is it as boring as I think?" the man asked. His sandy blond hair had been styled to fall in a crest over one side of his head. His grin was full of mischief and turned his otherwise ordinary face into something memorable. "Name's Seth, Seth Townshend. I haven't bought a textbook yet; wanna see if I like the class first."
"Kyle Mitchell," Kyle introduced himself, and extended his hand to shake. Hastily, he moved his helmet and well-worn, brown leather jacket to the ground next to the duffel bag containing his sword and textbooks, silently inviting the stranger to join him on the bench.
Seth grinned. "Ah, a gentleman," he teased lightly, sounding pleased as he shook hands and sat down. "And here I was expecting a nod and a text message if I was lucky."
Kyle laughed. "My phone's so old, it doesn't text. I don't know how," he confessed.
"I'll teach you," Seth offered. "If you're willing to let me borrow your textbook after class. You living in the dorms or…?"
Kyle shook his head. "No, I'm living off campus with Professor MacLeod; he's paying for school in exchange for helping him with his new dojo. He's my guardian."
Seth's brown eyes widened. "Really? Okay, so I'm gonna ask the stupidly nosy question: how did you manage that? Because that man's so hot. I'd want him to guard me any day." Almost inaudibly, Seth added, "Especially from sword-wielding idiots."
"What did you say? Mac's teaching me swords, but I –" Kyle hesitated before saying anything further. "I mean, that's how we met," he finished, trying for a reasonable excuse.
Seth gave him a guileless smile. "Swords are cool. I said, especially from stupid idiots, like those jerk-ass frat brothers in the English Lit class earlier."
"Oh, yeah, those. So we have two classes together? I know I saw you in Marketing this morning too." Kyle tapped the lecture notes in his lap.
"Three, I think," Seth said. "Do you have chemistry on Thursdays at 9 am?"
Kyle nodded, feeling like he'd just made a new friend. The two young men talked for a while longer, discovering a common love of music and motorcycles, before Seth excused himself.
Out of earshot and out of sight from Kyle, Seth pulled out a cell phone from his pocket. He waited for his caller to respond before saying, "Watcher ID number 377292951. Confirmed, Duncan MacLeod has a new student, Kyle Mitchell, freshman at Seacouver University, studying business administration. No problems yet, Kyle seems like a nice guy, but can you send me the file on Richie Ryan? Yeah, I just want to check what his jacket and helmet looked like."
"Joe!" Surprised and pleased, Duncan hugged his former Watcher. "I thought you were in Paris still, helping run Sanctuary." Stepping aside, he let Joe into his condo.
"No, it was time to come home," Joe said as he moved slowly into the living room, taking in the mix of modern and antique that had always been a hallmark of Duncan's style. Unlike Duncan's previous loft, the bedrooms and bathrooms were segregated from the great room by walls, making the great room into an L-shaped area. "Paris is hell in the winter, and the guy who bought my old bar wants me to play a few nights a week; says I've been missed. Fact is I miss it, too. Amanda and Nick said to tell you hello, by the way." Joe grinned as he came to a stop.
"If anyone would've told me that Amanda would settle down, I'd have thought you were telling a bad joke."
Joe grinned. "They fight like cats and dogs sometimes, but they understand each other quite well." He paused. "Hate to tell you, Mac, but I couldn't see Amanda going completely straight after all her centuries of being a thief. Not even for you."
Duncan smiled briefly and shrugged slightly. "We came to the same conclusion a while back. Nick's a good man; I met him before I left Paris. He makes Amanda happy, which is all I can ask."
Joe paused. "I heard you took a new student."
Duncan nodded, not surprised that Joe knew. "I thought you were retired," Duncan said mildly.
Joe snorted. "Your Watcher thinks I should still be in the loop, and I'm inclined to agree with him on this one. Are you sure you're ready for that responsibility?"
Startled, Duncan looked at his friend. "What do you mean?"
"You've given Kyle Richie's motorcycle, his gear, and you've even got him wearing some of the same kind of clothes. I wouldn't be surprised if you gave him Richie's sword, too. Who are you trying to make him into, Mac? Because if you keep this up, you're going to get mad at him for not measuring up."
Duncan stared at Joe, clearly surprised. "I know Kyle's not Richie. I see that every time I look at him. The blue hair, the earring, the people he'd date if he wasn't concentrating on school – he finished high school early, with honors, and he's studying for his business degree; he listens and asks thoughtful questions. I barely managed to convince Richie to get his GED. He had instinct and fire and guts, but I couldn't get him to plan anything that well. I think Kyle will do better in that regard and I don't think it'll take much to get him to understand just how real the Game is." Duncan took a deep breath. "And the chances of me being named a Champion again are slim."
"You don't have any guarantee of that," Joe said firmly. "Duncan, you went after Richie twice, once because he killed someone you called friend. Forgive me if I think you having another student is just one too many people to risk."
"Why the hell do you think I'm such a risk? I haven't killed –"
Implacably, Joe interrupted, "The only student you've ever taught that is still alive today is Gregor Powers. You took Devon's head, you almost took Gregor's, and you killed Richie. Everyone else is dead – and out of the seven you've taught, Richie was the odds-on favorite to last. Those aren't good odds, Duncan."
Duncan looked startled by that information. "I'll admit to being at fault for Richie, but the others were part of the Game, Joe. I'm trying to give Kyle a chance at life. It'll be different this time; I know what I did wrong with Richie."
Joe narrowed his eyes, clearly disbelieving, but he let the matter drop for the moment. "So where is he? I'd like to meet him."
Duncan checked his watch. "He should be here soon; he met a friend for coffee." Duncan paused. "I'm hurt you think I'd do anything to harm Kyle. I'm trying to do the best I can with him so he lives longer and doesn't get into the same kind of trouble that Richie did. I don't think Kyle will – he's quieter, for one thing. I don't have to worry about him talking his way into trouble. So what are you going to do back here? I can't imagine you sitting still."
Joe chuckled. "Don't worry, Duncan. I have plans, but I'm too old to be running a bar again, and the bookstore business isn't what it used to be. Figured I'd play a little guitar, teach that computer class for senior citizens – the one you roped me into three years ago, claiming you couldn't do it from the island?"
Duncan grinned. "Well, if you hated it so much, why do it again?" The feel of Kyle's Presence was accompanied shortly after by the young immortal's entrance.
"Apparently, I did so well, they want to pay me this time," Joe said dryly. "Can't pass up an opportunity like that."
Duncan looked annoyed. "I thought you had retirement. After all that – organization – did to you –"
Joe rolled his eyes. "Be glad I'm still alive, Duncan. That's what I do."
"Hey, Mac, sorry I'm late; there was an accident on Seventh and Cedar," Kyle said apologetically as he stepped into the room, a black full-face helmet tucked under his arm, an all-too familiar-looking brown motorcycle jacket draped across his shoulders. He glanced anxiously at Duncan, his steps faltering as he saw Joe. "If I'm interrupting something –"
"No, just an old argument we've agreed to disagree on," Duncan said with a smile. "Kyle, I'd like you to meet Joe Dawson, an old friend of mine. Joe, this is Kyle Mitchell, my new office manager."
"Pleased to meet you," Joe said sincerely, shaking Kyle's hand. He saw a young man in ill-fitting clothes, so reminiscent of a young Richie, and wondered again just what the Highlander planned to teach this one. "Is Mac teaching you everything he knows?"
Kyle glanced at Duncan nervously. "I think so," he said. "Some days my head is so full."
Joe didn't laugh at the attempt at a joke. "He tell you yet about the dangers of tattoos?"
"That'll be later," Duncan inserted warningly. "It's hard enough to learn how to fight and when not to."
Kyle looked puzzled a moment. "You know about us?" he asked Joe.
"Yeah," Joe said, and left it at that. If Duncan wanted to keep his student in the dark about Watchers, that was his call, yet it stuck in Joe's craw. Secrets were land mines as far Joe was concerned. Time would tell, Joe decided. "I should be getting home," he told them at length. "I'll let you know when I'm playing again at the bar, Mac."
"Take care of yourself, Joe."
After Joe had left, Kyle turned to Duncan. "I thought we weren't supposed to tell anyone what we are."
"Some people find out," Duncan pointed out. The Watchers were something he'd mention another time, he decided. Kyle was only starting to be comfortable with his sword, and he was finding college to be a challenge, especially his chemistry class. Everything else could wait.
"How? I mean, I know we can tell each other apart, but how does anyone find out?"
With a start, Duncan realized he hadn't had to explain this to Richie. "If you saw two people fighting with swords, would you stick around and watch?"
Kyle considered this. "I'd probably guess they were ren fair or something. I'm not sure I'd stick around and watch. I don't go poking in other peoples' business, because I don't want them poking around in mine."
"Well, there are some people who would stay and watch. My last student did that." Duncan chuckled roughly. "Then again, he tried to steal a sword from me the first time we met; he was always fascinated by swords."
Kyle looked incredulous. "How did he get past your security system? And didn't you feel him?"
"Richie was good at breaking into places," Duncan said, a bit of grief rolling through him at the memory. "His problem was getting out of them. I felt him, but by the time I got to where he was, we had two other immortals to contend with. He saw a little too much, enough to make him curious."
Kyle whistled softly. "I can't imagine that. Did you take him in, too?"
Duncan nodded. "He was just shy of eighteen when we met." Chuckling at the memory of Richie's attitude, Duncan added, "He was so sure of himself, even when thrown into unfamiliar situations. My biggest problem was teaching him how not to get himself in trouble; it only got worse after he died the first time."
"He wasn't one of us when you met?"
Duncan shook his head. "No. I knew he'd be one, and when I realized his curiosity would get him killed, I offered him a job and a home. It wasn't until after Richie moved in that I learned he'd been living on the streets, trying to avoid being sent back to a bad foster home. He didn't have his First Death until a year later."
"Wish I'd gotten to know you sooner instead of thinking you were just another customer at Granddad's store," Kyle said wistfully. "I needed someone like you after Granddad burned the trailer down, trying to cook dinner."
Duncan looked alarmed. "You mentioned that, but were you there?"
"No, but a neighbor was and got Granddad out. Granddad broke his hip again and had severe burns. The trailer was toast, and Granddad moved to an assisted living facility. Unfortunately, I couldn’t live there – I was seventeen and too young, so I've been sleeping on friends' couches ever since." Kyle waved off Duncan's concern with a shrug. "I survived, just like I'm sure Richie did before he met you." With a determined smile, Kyle changed the subject.
"So how did Joe find out about immortals?"
"He was saved by one of us in Vietnam," Duncan told Kyle. "Joe didn't believe that he'd been so out of pain from the land mine that he'd imagined he'd seen his squad leader die and come back to life."
The young immortal considered that. "I wouldn't tell anyone," he said at last.
"What if you fell in love with someone?"
"I dunno," Kyle said. "Hard to imagine anyone would want to be with me and know I have to play the Game, too. I mean, it's hard enough to be gay."
"Some immortals target friends and lovers," Duncan said carefully. "But you can't go through the centuries living alone, never loving anyone. You'll go crazy."
"You're not seeing anyone," Kyle pointed out, following Duncan into the kitchen and automatically pulling out dishes as Duncan grabbed a wok.
"Haven't met anyone I've wanted to be with," Duncan said easily. "I tend to want people who want a lasting commitment. Pork or chicken stir-fry?"
"Have you ever been married?" Kyle wondered, setting the breakfast bar with two place settings. There was a perfectly good table behind him, but he'd learned that Duncan preferred the bar for weeknight dinners. "And pork's fine."
"No, but I almost was," Duncan replied as he pulled out ingredients from the fridge and set them aside to prep. Pulling out a cutting board, he made quick work of ginger and garlic, and began to tell Kyle about Tessa. Old memories filled him as he spoke, but time had made the grief ache less, and he found he was able to speak freely.
Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad thing, he thought, if he kept a close watch on Kyle. Joe's words about Duncan's Watcher likely meant that there were others in town; if the Watchers knew he'd moved back to Seacouver, the immortal grapevine did as well. Two days after Joe's visit, Duncan was challenged by a hunter who'd come specifically to challenge him, and Duncan knew that where there was one, there'd be others.
Gregor Powers waited until the dojo was nearly empty. He'd seen his teacher running with his latest student on his way into work, and had surmised that Duncan hadn't changed his modus operandi since the last time he'd been in Seacouver. A quick Google had produced the location of Duncan's newest martial arts studio. Yelp had indicated that it had only been open six weeks, but the feedback seemed largely positive, which was no surprise. Gregor knew well just how good a teacher Duncan was; he'd survived for three centuries thanks to the lessons Duncan had given him.
From his vantage point in the doorway, the German-born immortal watched as the young man moved through the set of training exercises. The young immortal carried most of his 5'10" height in his legs. His short red hair was streaked with blue, though the dye job was fading and needed a touch-up. The late fall sunlight streaming through the windows caught the diamond stud in his right ear. He'd taken off his shirt, revealing broad shoulders and a narrow body still in the process of filling out, but his movements as a swordsman were more fluid than Gregor had expected.
As if belatedly realizing what the ringing headache in his head signified, the young immortal turned to face him and drew up short. His rapier looked oddly familiar to Gregor, and combined with the green motorcycle in the parking lot, Gregor wondered if this new immortal had inherited Richie's things. Richie had forgiven Gregor for his recklessness and they'd been working on a friendship when the younger immortal had died. Worried, Gregor nonetheless pasted on a smile. "Hi. I'm Gregor Powers, and I don't want your head. Duncan was my teacher, too, back in 1707."
"Kyle Mitchell," the young immortal said warily. "He's not here right now. Is there something I can help you with?"
Gregor stepped forward, donning his best 'I'm harmless' look. "I saw you running with Duncan this morning and wondered if you were his newest student. He usually runs alone. How long have you been immortal?"
Kyle relaxed marginally. "Since just before Memorial Day. I crashed into a tree on my dirt bike." He laughed self-consciously. "I tried to avoid hitting a rabbit and killed myself instead. Duncan found me. He's been so great to me, teaching me everything. I'm going to college – I didn't think I could. I mean, I wasn't dumb; I just couldn't afford to go. How did you meet Duncan?"
"A gang of bandits beat me to death," Gregor revealed. "They thought because I was going to medical school, I had more money."
Kyle frowned. "Bullies were around back then too?"
Gregor laughed briefly. "Unfortunately, yes. Some people never see anything beyond their own hate." He paused, hearing the distinctive sound of a car pulling up outside, followed by the sense of Presence. "I think Duncan's here. I'd like to get to know you better, one student of Duncan's to another. I work at Seacouver General as an internist, but I usually have Tuesdays and Wednesdays free. Duncan doesn't ride motorcycles."
"I know," Kyle said. "He said the motorcycle belonged to a friend of his."
"Yeah," Gregor replied with a nod. "He killed Richie accidentally. Or so the story goes. Personally, I think Duncan was out of his mind. Too many Quickenings in a row will do that to you. He tried to kill me too."
Gregor heard footsteps on the tile outside and knew he was out of time. Pulling a card out of his wallet, he gave it to Kyle. "My cell number's on the card," he told Kyle. "Call me if you want to talk."
Duncan's eyes narrowed as he entered the room. "Gregor. I wasn't expecting you."
"I know," Gregor said pleasantly. "Kyle and I were just getting acquainted. Can we talk a minute in private, Duncan?"
Nodding tightly, Duncan led the way to the dojo office and shut the door. "What the hell are you doing, Gregor? Trying to kill him like you did with Richie?"
"Oh, and you're any better? I only wanted to see what Richie was made of; turned out he was tougher than I thought. Maybe I deserved your killing strike for what I did, but from what I heard, Richie didn't. He was dumb enough to believe in you."
"Oh, so now you think you can judge me?" Duncan shot back.
"Why not?" Gregor retorted. "You've been doing it for years with everybody. Does no one talk to you anymore, Duncan? Are you that lonely for a friend that you have to find a new student?" Sensing an advantage, Gregor leaned forward on the desk that separated them. "You've known I've been here for years, and you barely talk to me. I've gotten better, Duncan. The question is: have you?"
"And if I tell him not to talk to you?" Duncan wondered, eyes narrowing.
Gregor didn't smile. "I wouldn't be surprised if you did," he said calmly, stepping back. "I just hope for Kyle's sake, you're the right person for him. He needs to know there's more than just your viewpoint on how to live."
Duncan nodded tightly. "Is that all you came to say?"
Gregor paused as he pulled open the door slightly. "No. I happened to mention that you were back in town to Dr. Lindsay, and she asked me to remind you that the restraining order's still in effect. What did you do to her, Duncan? She's such a sweet, giving woman."
Duncan's eyes flashed angrily. "I accidentally destroyed her house by taking a Quickening," he ground out. "She's never quite forgiven me, especially since it was the second time I'd done it."
"Huh," Gregor said, but he knew he'd hit a sore spot. Deciding he'd said enough, Greg retreated. "Well, I wish you the best. Good seeing you, Duncan."
To Kyle, he said, "If Duncan lets you, call me and we'll have coffee, talk about lessons learned and scars that don't always show."
Gregor had the satisfaction of seeing confusion register on Kyle's face before he exited. He knew Duncan would probably convince Kyle that Gregor had just gone crazy again, but Gregor felt he'd failed Richie; if he'd explained himself sooner, maybe Richie wouldn't have thought Duncan was the best example of immortality to follow. Silently, Gregor hoped Kyle would reach out to him before it was too late.
Kyle didn't know what to believe. He trusted Duncan, but after Gregor's and Joe's visits, he started paying more attention to the restrictions Duncan had placed on him in the name of his safety. The rule about avoiding confrontations made sense; Kyle wasn't sure he could take a challenge, even after all the weeks of training. There were other things, though, that didn't quite make sense.
Kyle wasn't allowed to go out on weeknights unless it was to study with a classmate. He could go out on weekends as long as he was caught up on his homework, but he couldn't just wander off. Duncan needed to know where he was going and who he was meeting; it wasn't enough that Kyle had his cell phone and his sword with him. There were certain rural roads out in the northern counties that Duncan had made Kyle promise he wouldn't ride, simply because they were "too dangerous." As Kyle had previously ridden them without any problems, he knew there were area where the sweeping S-curves and rolling hills presented a rider with challenges and blind spots, but he didn't quite understand Duncan's concern. The more Kyle thought about it, the more he chafed at the restrictions. He was nineteen, not nine; he was an experienced motorcycle rider who'd had one very bad day; and he'd been fending for himself for several years.
He'd never questioned Duncan's directions when it came to his training and safety, believing that a man who'd lived four centuries knew best. Now Gregor had him wondering if that was the right thing to continue doing. Gregor was only a century younger than Duncan and that had to count for something. He was, Kyle thought, the only other immortal Kyle had met who had been friendly. He'd felt others, but Duncan had made him stay back and not engage. Kyle recognized that state of affairs couldn't last forever; someday, Kyle was going to have to fight someone, and he hadn't yet seen what a real fight looked like. How was he supposed to know how to act when it stopped being a training session? What about making friends with another immortal? Surely, it was going to be a lonely, heartbreaking life if he never got involved with any other immortals besides Duncan; that just didn't seem healthy.
Seth noticed his distraction on what had become their regular Tuesday night study session at the independent coffeehouse six blocks from where Kyle and Duncan lived. "Something tells me you're not thinking of binary acids," the heavily tattooed skateboarder teased gently.
Kyle gave up on reading the lecture notes and looked at his friend. "Just…I met someone, and Duncan said I shouldn't contact him at all. I can't stop thinking about why."
"Really? Is this guy some kind of creep?"
"No, Gregor's a doctor over at Seacouver General. He and Duncan have known each other a long time."
Looking interested, Seth leaned forward. "So? Duncan's not in charge of your love life."
"I know, but…" Kyle hesitated. "He's paying for my college, my phone, everything. I owe him. I don't want him mad at me. I hate it when people get mad at me; I usually wind up homeless and broke when that happens and I'd really, really rather not go through that again anytime soon."
"Duncan's not abusing you, is he?" Seth looked alarmed.
"No! God no," Kyle shot back. "It's just…he's really protective of me. It's weird. I kinda like it – it's been two years since someone other than my granddad worried about me." Kyle took a sip of the last of his coffee and grimaced at the now-tepid drink. "But… I'm curious. Gregor's not like anyone I've met before. He's kinda cute, too."
Seth leaned back in his chair and shrugged one shoulder. "So you tell Duncan you're meeting me. Didn't you ever sneak out when you were in high school to go see someone?"
Kyle shook his head. "No. I graduated early so I could take care of my grandfather, and then I was too busy trying to dodge the social workers who thought I was too young to be out of school and taking care of a senior citizen."
Seth grinned. "Maybe it's time you learned how, then."
"Okay, I'll call him, then." Digging in his wallet, Kyle pulled out the business card Gregor had given him and started to use his cell phone. Faster than a snake, Seth snatched the phone away from Kyle. "Don't use that."
"Duh, it's traceable. Use one of the phones at school." Seth rolled his eyes and gave Kyle back his phone. "That way, Duncan doesn’t see the number in your call history."
"Oh. Isn't that a little paranoid? I mean, why can't I use your phone?"
"Because I'm out of minutes," Seth told him. "I need to stop off and buy a new prepaid card on the way home, but I hate going to Fred Meyer late at night. Too creepy."
"The one closest to here, up on Melrawnie?"
"Yeah, that one. I swear they look at me like I’m going to steal something."
"Yeah, they do that to me, too. Duncan says if we looked like everyone else, they wouldn't suspect us so much. I hate that." Kyle studied the other man a moment. "Why is me making this call so important to you?"
Almost unconsciously, Seth rubbed the tattoo on the underside of his right wrist. "Hey, what are friends for, right? You should be living your life, exploring new things. I mean, how mad can Duncan get?"
"I'd rather not find out," Kyle replied.
"Yeah, and he might calm down and understand why," Seth shot back. "I don't want to see you hurt, but I don't want you living in the shadows, afraid of making your own way. What if Duncan's wrong about this guy and he turns out to be this amazing person?" Seth didn't quite meet Kyle's gaze.
Kyle narrowed his eyes, abruptly suspecting that Seth was hiding a secret. "Who are you, really?"
Seth sighed and ran a nervous hand through his hair before looking at Kyle. "A friend who knows things he probably shouldn't," Seth admitted. "Richie's Watcher was my cousin."
"Richie? Gregor mentioned him, but how do you know that name?"
"I'm a Watcher, too," Seth said.
"Watcher? What the hell is that?" Kyle's temper, usually kept firmly on a leash, strained at its chain and made his voice louder than usual. Several other patrons in the coffeehouse turned at the sound.
"Lower your voice," Seth said harshly. "Please don't make a scene and don't hate me. I'm just here to observe and record, but damn it, I really, really like you and they don't know what it takes to do all that." He laughed hollowly. "Joe and Mike warned me, but the organization's family." He met Kyle's incredulous look. "You're not the only one with secrets, Kyle. I know you're carrying a sword in that duffel bag of yours and I know why. I'm just shocked that Duncan of all people hasn't told you about us. Well, maybe not shocked, but surprised."
Kyle stared at him, creeped out and fascinated at the same time. "You mentioned Joe. Joe who?"
"Joe Dawson. Duncan's Watcher until the overlords in France decided he was getting too old and replaced him with a Princeton grad."
"He came to the dojo a few weeks ago; Duncan wasn't happy after he left. Duncan said he was a friend, but I kinda got the sense that Joe was mad at him for something. You're what, my…Watcher?" Kyle tried out the word. "Why?"
"Because someone should know about you guys. You're people, too – people who have the potential to affect history, big time, and some of you have, in good and in bad ways. The Watchers observe, record, and keep record of all immortals. We don't interfere with the Game."
"Is that all? You're just historians? Because I can't see someone having all that knowledge and not wanting to use it for their own purposes, just like I can't see someone not wanting to have the Prize."
Seth sighed. "Look, we're human, too. We had some bad apples, but they're not in the organization anymore. Duncan and Joe managed to show who was behind the insanity and saved us all. Hell, I'm not even supposed to tell you any of this, for fear of you or someone on your side using what I know and can access."
Kyle considered this. "I don't get it. Why wouldn't Duncan tell me about you guys? If we're friends, wouldn't that mean you'd have a better idea of what to report? Ms. Freeman was talking about how you can't look at Shakespeare without knowing the context."
"That's what my family's advocated for years," Seth agreed with a nod, looking relieved at the way Kyle was taking the news. "Look, I understand if you'd rather we didn't talk anymore –"
"Don't be an idiot," Kyle said firmly. "I don't have that many friends – hell, I think Duncan would rather I bring any potential friend past him for his approval, and I'm just not gonna go there – and I'm scared to tell anyone my secret. At least, this way I don't feel like I’m lying to you all the time." He paused. "How do I know if who I'm talking to is a Watcher?"
In reply, Seth showed him the distinctive tattoo, with its stylized V and dots within a circle design. "I'm old school that way," he admitted. "Some people put it on jewelry, or they hide it somewhere else, but I have enough tats that someone's gotta look close to see it."
"Okay," Kyle said with a nod. He was starting to see the bigger world Duncan hadn't wanted him to know about, and wondered how much of that was truly under the heading of safety. Anger warred with the need to know more before he made any changes. "Will you get in trouble for talking to me about this?"
Seth shook his head. "No. I just can't look up information about other immortals for you or do stuff that would change the outcome of a challenge. I'm not supposed to get romantically involved with you, either – that's grounds for dismissal. Which, just for the record, I'm kinda bummed about; you're cute." He looked mildly disappointed.
Seth grinned. "I'd rather have you as a friend," he said honestly. "Less messy that way; my last breakup was a drama. Technically, I probably shouldn't encourage you to see Gregor, either, but if you think he's cute…." Seth shrugged philosophically. "I'm just a friend helping out."
"Cute's irrelevant right now," Kyle shot back. "I think he knows something I don't."
"Just be careful, okay? I've read he's kinda unpredictable."
Kyle chuckled softly. "I got that impression."
The following Tuesday, Kyle met Gregor in a teriyaki restaurant not far from the hospital. Nervous at skipping class for the late lunch, Kyle nonetheless felt somehow stronger for taking this particular step.
Gregor strolled in, still dressed in his doctor's lab coat. Something about the way he carried himself made Kyle think that Gregor's sword was hidden in the back of that coat. As if recognizing Kyle's look, Gregor smiled. "At last we meet," Gregor said. "Give me a minute to get my order in and then we'll talk."
"Sounds good. I wasn't sure how long you'd be so I haven't ordered yet."
The restaurant was not large, but there was a second story seating area that was largely unoccupied. After getting their orders from the counter, Gregor led the way upstairs, and Kyle took note of how the area provided them with a clear view of the exits – including the emergency exit that undoubtedly led straight down to ground level.
"Why did you feel we had to talk?" Kyle asked.
"Because out of all of Duncan's students, I'm the only one alive other than you," Gregor told him. "His cousin still has a handful of students alive. Some of us train more students than others, but usually, the stronger your teacher is, the greater your chances are of surviving past a mortal lifespan."
"Wait. Duncan has a cousin? I thought we couldn’t have relatives."
Gregor chuckled. "The MacLeods are special, even for us. Not many of us can claim even distant relations. Connor's seventy years older than Duncan, but they're from the same clan. Connor was Duncan's teacher." Gregor paused. "He's also one of the best immortals you'll ever know. He won a mini-Gathering and didn't, thank God, go crazy with power. He just kept living his life, same as it was before."
Startled, Kyle looked at Gregor. "Why? I don't get it. If you got that much power, you could change the world."
"I heard it was because of that power, he saw what the consequences were, and didn't like them," Gregor offered. "He's never told me and I've never asked. I try to stay on his good side; he's wicked fast with a sword and I couldn't beat him on my best day." Gregor grimaced. "Hell, Duncan can beat me. He almost took my head."
"For being a jerk, basically," Gregor admitted. "I was suicidal and nihilistic, angry at the world, and I hurt people he cared about."
Kyle studied the older immortal. "You're not using me to get at him, are you?"
"Oh, there's a little bit of that," Gregor said readily. "I'm annoyed with him; he's been ignoring me after he promised he'd stay in touch. Mostly, it's because I don't want to see you dead, no more than I wanted to die when Duncan had me on my knees."
"You don't seriously think Duncan's a threat to me, do you?"
Gregor looked at him pityingly. "You're wearing Richie's jacket, the one I helped him pick out after he decided to get rid of that green atrocity he used to wear. That brand isn't being made anymore. I'd bet anything you have one of Richie's swords – a Spanish rapier, right?" At Kyle's disbelieving nod, Gregor went on, "Your hair looks like it used to have more blue in it, but Duncan won't let you go get it done because he wants you to look more professional. You're a college student; you're supposed to be figuring out what to look like for yourself, not have someone else tell you. At least," Gregor grinned, "that's what they're telling me happens in college now. Back when I first went, there was a really, really strict dress code."
"When was that? Oh, wait, was that when you met Duncan?"
Gregor smiled. "Yes, but I've also gone more recently; I wanted to learn how to be a doctor again. It was a shock to discover I didn't have to show up in my best suit. Speaking of, how do you like your classes?'
To Kyle's surprise, the hour he'd allotted for lunch flew by, and he made a promise to Gregor to meet again. Gregor had given him a lot to think about, and he wasn't too keen on the implication that Duncan was remaking him into a ghost.
He headed back to class, still thinking about what Gregor had said.
Duncan looked worried, scared, and angry when Kyle pulled up in the parking lot behind their condo building that following Saturday. "Where have you been?" Duncan demanded as Kyle shut off the engine of his motorcycle.
"Out riding," Kyle said, pulling off his helmet and dismounting from the motorcycle. "It's almost too cold to ride, but the sun was shining and I wanted to enjoy the day." He undid the bungee cords holding his duffel onto the pillion pad of the motorcycle and then pulled his sword out of the custom sheath on the side of the bike.
"You've been gone all day," Duncan noted angrily as he followed Kyle into the back entrance of the common hallway on the first floor of the building. "You should've called. I've been expecting you to be home hours ago; you said you wanted to go to that movie today and you were supposed to help me out at the dojo by working the front desk. Seth said he didn't know where you were; he stopped by looking for you. You weren't answering your phone either."
Kyle looked over his shoulder at those words, mouth tightening in a thin line. He said nothing as he jogged up the stairs to their unit and unlocked the door. As Duncan followed him inside and shut the door behind them, Kyle dropped his duffel bag on the couch.
"You told me you didn't want to see that movie, and you said nothing of me working the front desk, unless you meant that I'm now supposed to work every Saturday afternoon," Kyle said as he took off his brand-new black leather motorcycle jacket. "I finished my homework last night, and it's a beautiful day. I didn't see the point in staying home. You won't let me have any friends over, even to study, so most of the people I started getting to know have turned into people I just talk to at school. Seth's the only friend I have."
"Yes, you're supposed to work Saturday afternoons. What happened to your brown leather jacket? I know you didn't like the green one at all. And I thought we discussed your hair."
Though anger at Duncan's presumption seeped through him, Kyle kept his tone even as he replied, "I like having blue streaks in my hair; it's me. I don't care if it's not 'professional'; I have a few years to go before I have to be all buttoned up like that. And Gregor suggested I get an armored jacket, something with more protection, so if I do get hurt, it's less likely I'll have serious, life-changing accident."
Duncan's eyes narrowed at that. "I told you not to talk to Gregor."
"I'm nineteen, Duncan. I'm old enough to make my own decisions about who my friends are and how I want to look. I was living on my own for two years before I died in the woods."
Duncan stared at him a moment, looking unhappy and angry. He let out a breath and said, "Aye. But I liked you in that brown jacket, and it had a sword sheath."
"Which I haven't used in months," Kyle felt compelled to point out. "My sword kept cutting into my back when I tried using it."
Duncan looked surprised at this. "Richie never complained."
Sotto voce, Kyle replied, "Where you could hear, I'm sure." Kyle rolled his eyes and headed up to his room, only to be stopped when Duncan grabbed his arm.
"What did you say?"
"Where did you want to see the movie, since it's too late for the dojo?" Kyle lied.
Duncan didn't quite believe him, but let it go. "Over at Oakland Place; it's closest."
In the wake of that Saturday, however, Kyle found his freedom restricted further. The only places he was allowed to go were to school, the library, the dojo, and the grocery store. He tested the theory that Duncan was tracking him by taking a longer route to the university; when his theory was proven right, Kyle was dumbfounded. When he mentioned it to Seth, Seth pointed out that his cell phone could be tracked fairly easily; all it would take would be the right application.
Feeling weirdly trapped and not at all protected, Kyle started spending as much time as possible at the library, using their computers to do the kind of searching he suspected would trigger Duncan's paranoia. He wanted to find out who Richie was, and he didn't think asking Duncan would be a good move.
It took a bit of digging and Kyle got a crash course in French before he found a slightly grainy YouTube video of a fatal race in Paris. Someone had grafted on a Saracen Racing Team publicity video ahead of the race, identifying the members of the team in 1995, including one Richie Ryan. A brief interview segment was part of the package as well; Richie was fluent in French, but his charm and enthusiasm were evident even without a translation. For a moment, Kyle sat, stunned, recognizing the similarities between him and a dead man.
He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he didn't feel safe around Duncan anymore. He kept his fear quiet, and did what Duncan told him to do, though he chafed at the restrictions. He grew to hate hiding, never knowing what a true challenge looked like, to living what felt like half a life. Silently, he promised himself he'd wait until after his final exams to make a change.
"Hey, Seth, can you set something up for me?"
"Depends," the young Watcher said cautiously. "If it's the answers for the chem final, sorry, bud, but you're on your own there. If you don't know what the hell we've been studying all semester, then it's not for my lack of trying."
Kyle laughed. "I think I'll be okay. No, I was just wondering if you could set up a meeting with Joe for me."
Seth looked concerned. "Why?"
"Because Duncan's been acting really weird and I know I can't ask you for answers. I'd ask Gregor, but Duncan's been really hounding me about studying and the weather's been so crappy I can't ride."
Seth hesitated. "I can't do that, it might be considered interfering, and Joe tries to keep his distance from us active folks, just in case someone decides to be stupid," he said regretfully, even as he typed into his laptop and then turned the screen to face Kyle. "But you might want to talk to this guy if it's really bad."
The website was for Nash Antiques, New York. It was a plain site, with simple description of the products it offered, its location and hours, and its contact information.
Understanding that the location was probably run by an immortal, Kyle wrote the information down in his notebook. "Just tell me where I might find Joe. I'm serious, Seth. I don't know whoever this is –" he gestured to the screen –"and Joe's local."
Seth hesitated again before sighing. "You need Connor MacLeod, not Joe. Duncan's not gonna listen to Joe."
"Connor? Who's he?"
"Duncan's older cousin and his teacher."
"Gregor mentioned him, but if you think he'd help, maybe I should talk to him." Kyle slid his notebook into his duffel bag before leaning over and kissing Seth's cheek. "I owe you."
Seth caught Kyle's hand before the immortal could walk away. "Kiss me like you mean it, and we'll call it even."
Kyle smiled, amused. He knew Seth had been flirting with him all semester, mostly without any real intent. "Not if it means the Watchers shoot you."
Seth pouted. "Sometimes I hate that I explained that part to you," he muttered, though without heat. "There's a pay phone at the 7-Eleven one block over; I swear it's the last one in the city." Seth pulled out a prepaid calling card and handed it over.
The young immortal eyed his Watcher, but took the card. "This isn't paid by the organization, is it?"
Seth looked insulted. "Do you take me for an idiot? No, I paid for this in cash."
Kyle hesitated. "Is it that bad?" he asked finally.
"You're living the life. You tell me."
Kyle thought about the way Duncan had specifically stated he was to study with Seth and come immediately home, and how Duncan had scheduled training and dojo duties around his finals schedule. Seeing Seth was the extent of his social life. Abruptly Kyle realized that once finals were over, Duncan would probably forbid him from seeing his friend, since the excuse of studying wasn't there anymore. Kyle didn't know what he'd do without Seth to hang out with; his last final ended at noon tomorrow. Two and half weeks without a friend, stuck manning a desk at a dojo and following Duncan's training plan for him, seemed awfully long.
"I won't be long," he promised Seth and headed out of the coffee shop.
Kyle knew from the web site that the antique store was closed at this hour of the night. Still, he hoped whoever this Connor MacLeod was would be listening to the messages.
To his surprise, a professional-sounding woman had recorded the greeting. "You've reached Nash and Ellenstein Antiques. If you've reached this message, we're either with a customer or it's after business hours. Please leave a message at the tone with your name and a number where you can be reached and we will get back to you as soon as possible."
"Um, hi. I'm Kyle Mitchell, and I need to talk to Connor about Duncan MacLeod. I think something's wrong with him; he's getting really, really protective and I don't think I'm learning what I'm supposed to be learning, except how to hide from the rest of us. Um, my number's 813-555-5555. I'm in final exams from 7:30 AM to noon tomorrow, but you can leave me a voicemail and I'll call back somewhere where Duncan can't hear because he'll go ballistic if he knew I was talking about this to anyone. Um, thanks for listening. Bye."
Kyle finished his first exam faster than he'd expected, and found himself with an hour and half to kill. Having checked his voicemail, he knew he hadn't gotten a return phone call, so he tried the number again, this time from the phone in the deserted chemistry lab.
The phone at the other end was answered promptly. "Nash and Ellenstein Antiques, this is Rachel, how can I help you?"
"Hi. I'm Kyle Mitchell. I called last night and left a message?"
"One moment, please."
The hold was thankfully absent any recorded music or annoying commercials, and Kyle didn't have to wait long.
An oddly accented male voice came on the line. "What's Duncan doing?"
Taking a deep breath, Kyle repeated what he'd said in his message, adding, "He's taken three challenges so far this semester, but every time he comes back from one, I'm the one who has to make changes. When school started, he didn't mind me riding around town, but now I can't ride anywhere without telling him where I’m going or who I'm seeing. I don't have many friends to begin with, and I'm sure if I told him my best friend was my Watcher, he'd tell me to stop hanging out with Seth, too. He threw a fit when I stopped wearing Richie's motorcycle jacket; it was leather but it didn't have any armor, and Gregor helped me pick out my new one. I don't know what to do or even if this is normal."
Silence met his words. "No, lad, it's not," Connor said heavily. "But he's trained you to fight?"
"Yes." Kyle paused before asking, "Are you really his cousin?"
A wry chuckle met his words. "Same clan, different vintage. I'm older."
"Gregor really respects you."
Amusement laced Connor's voice as he asked, "Is that Gregor Powers?"
"Yes. He said he was Duncan's student too."
"Aye, he was. I didn't meet him until recently."
"How recently is recently?"
Connor chuckled. "Six years ago, lad. He had questions, too."
Another moment of silence passed before Connor asked, "When's your last exam?"
"In an about an hour. I'm supposed to go straight home afterwards. I was invited to a 'yay, finals are done' party at the Sig Ep house, but I had to refuse because Duncan doesn’t want me there, even if it's supposed to be a no-alcohol-allowed party. He might let me see Seth, but I have to ask."
"Does he know Seth is a peeping Tom?"
"No. I didn't tell him. I promised Seth I wouldn't. Seth is the one who suggested I talk to you. He's my best friend and I couldn't have made it through Chem 101 without him."
Connor asked a few more questions, easing Kyle's nerves in the process, and promised to be in touch. He hung up the phone and, realizing the time, headed to his next exam.
Four days later
Connor sat at the breakfast bar in Duncan's condo, watching the younger immortal make breakfast. For three days, he'd watched his cousin run interference, not letting Connor spend any time with Kyle beyond the initial introductions. Connor was sick of the excuses – Kyle was tired, he was sleeping, he was with friends, he was at the dojo working, he was playing games on his laptop – but he'd never felt Kyle leave the house and he'd seen what had to be Kyle's laptop and cell phone on the desk in the living room the entire time. He didn't think Duncan had suddenly developed a taste for Adam Lambert and Lady Gaga or the desire to plaster stickers all over his electronic equipment. Added to that was the fact that the few times he'd seen Kyle out of his room, he'd looked longingly at those two items, as if he was now barred from having them.
It didn't fit with Connor's perception of a freshman in college – and he had several bases for comparison, since he'd had a history major working for him part-time, and he'd often hired college students to help him move furniture from his warehouse into his store. Invariably, the young were fascinated by the latest technology, no matter what it was.
When Connor had slipped Kyle the laptop and the phone the night before, Kyle looked as though Connor had given him the world before refusing them. "He'll be mad," Kyle had said regretfully. "I'm not supposed to use them until school starts again."
Reluctantly, Connor had put them back where they'd been. It worried Connor that he hadn't seen Duncan working out with Kyle in the time he'd been there, though he and Duncan had sparred easily enough in the dojo. Instead, Kyle had been occupied with cleaning the locker rooms, which, from what Connor had seen, hadn't needed the extra attention. It didn't make any sense to Connor, who knew that Richie had been deemed trained and ready to be on his own in far less time than Kyle. For that matter, Connor himself usually didn’t spend six months with a student without feeling comfortable that they could handle themselves around other immortals after all that time.
Duncan slid the finished omelet expertly onto a plate, cut it in half, split the two pieces across an equal number of plates, sliding one across to his cousin, and then refilled Connor's coffee. He'd already given Connor silverware, and waited expectantly for Connor's verdict.
Connor took a bite: sheep's milk Gouda cheese mixed with ham and onions, seasoned well, exploded on his tongue. He liked it and made a mental note to figure out where he could find something similar in New York. All he said aloud, though, was, "It's good."
Duncan chuckled, familiar with this game. "From you, that's a huge compliment," Duncan said dryly.
"Is Kyle not having breakfast?"
"No, he's not much for breakfast," Duncan said easily, but his gaze had dropped to his meal.
As Connor knew his cousin could and had eaten without needing to look at his food, Connor didn't buy the excuse. Still, he let the excuse stand until he'd eaten his fill. "Give me one good reason I'm not taking the lad back with me."
Duncan looked up, startled. "He's not ready."
Connor looked at Duncan expectantly and sipped coffee.
Annoyed, Duncan said, "I need more time. He doesn't always listen to me. He wants to go out and race his motorcycle and not tell me where he's going or why, but that's a good way to get killed."
"You gave him a sword," Connor said blandly.
Duncan glared at him. "Of course I gave him a sword. He's mine."
"He's not property, Duncan."
"I'm just trying to keep him safe."
Not satisfied with that answer, Connor rose and headed upstairs. As it had been the night before when he'd picked the lock, Kyle's bedroom door was locked from the outside. Connor had deliberately left it unlocked. Now the door turned easily in his hand. Kyle held his sword in a properly defensive move, but relaxed marginally when he saw who it was. "Pack your bags; we're leaving now."
"I was hoping you'd say that." Kyle hefted a large duffel bag. "I'm ready."
Duncan stood at the foot of the stairs, looking bewildered. "Where are you going?"
"With him," Kyle replied, pointing to Connor.
Kyle started to speak, but Connor held up a hand, silencing him. To Duncan, Connor said, "Wrapping Kyle up in wool is only going to smother him. You know you can't keep him safe forever; the Game will find him, whether both of you are ready or not."
"I know that," Duncan bit off impatiently.
"He's not Richie either," Connor pressed. "And making him to be isn't going to work. Now you can either hold it together or straighten out your own head, but that's no longer my concern; Kyle is. When Kyle's capable of standing on his own, I'll come back for you if necessary."
Duncan looked furious, but he said nothing.
Kyle waited for Connor to sweep up the few things he'd brought with him besides his sword and sword case– a few changes of clothing and a backpack – before they headed out.
Just as they were almost out of the door, Duncan said, "I was planning on calling you."
Connor paused only briefly, hearing the regret in his cousin's voice. He would call a mutual friend to check in on Duncan, but he couldn't spare any more effort on that score. Turning his attention to Kyle, who'd gotten into the rental car and was now waiting expectantly, Connor asked his newest student, "Ever been to New York?"
Kyle smiled. "No. But I was up all last night wondering if you were going to take me there." He paused. "I was right? Duncan's messed up?"
Kyle was quiet as they headed in the direction of the airport. "He was really nice until we moved back to the city and Joe talked to him. That's when the rules started getting tighter. Duncan didn't like it when Gregor showed up, either, and those three headhunters just seemed to make Duncan even more paranoid about my safety. Do you have any rules I should know about?"
"Don't lose your head," Connor told him, and looked over in time to see Kyle roll his eyes.
"Duh. No fighting on holy ground, stealing other people's hard-won Quickenings is not considered good taste, and using anything other than a traditonally bladed weapon to win is cheating. Got that. I meant, obviously, I don't know New York, and I won't have a motorcycle up there, so –"
"What do you want the rules to be?" Connor asked him.
Kyle looked startled, as if he hadn't considered that part of his life a democracy. "I don't want to go right back to college," he told Connor. "Duncan insisted I go and he was paying for it. I want to take a semester off and really figure out what I want to study. He didn't really give me a chance to figure it out. I know I suck at chemistry, so that's not on the list." He paused. "Also, I'd like to have friends, more than just one, and a curfew that's not like, 9 pm on a weeknight and 10 pm on a weekend. I was living pretty much on my own for two years before I met Duncan; I know when not to stay out late."
"Fair enough," Connor agreed, and they started hashing out the remainder of the rules as they headed to the airport.
Before they headed through security, however, Kyle looked at Connor and said, "I left Richie's sword behind. I know they're not cheap, but it just felt wrong to have it in my hand. I swear I'll stick like glue to you and not provoke anybody."
Connor nodded, not entirely surprised. "We'll take care of it when we get home," he promised.
Kyle looked relieved, and the rest of the trip went pleasantly.
Two months later
Kyle nearly bounced into the coffee shop. He couldn't help it; he was so happy after finally mastering a particularly intricate set of footwork and sword work. He also had just been accepted to one of the technical colleges in the city, where he'd be studying engineering. As a reward for mastering that sword work, Connor had gifted him with the stunningly simple yet elegant broadsword he'd been using as a replacement for Richie's rapier. More importantly in Kyle's mind, Connor had stopped accompanying him everywhere. Today marked the end of the second week in a row that Kyle was free to wander anywhere he liked, as long as he made it back to the antique shop by two pm so that Rachel could have a date.
He adored Rachel Ellenstein. In Kyle's mind, Rachel was Connor's daughter; it amused Kyle that Connor steadfastly insisted that he'd only been Rachel's legal guardian. Rachel had a lifetime's advantage of knowing how Connor's mind worked; she'd initially served as Kyle's interpreter when Connor's taciturn ways had made Kyle frustrated and angry. She also was one of the most quietly vibrant women Kyle had ever known. It had taken both Connor and Kyle to convince her that they'd be perfectly fine without her for the evening, and Connor to assure her that no, her date wasn't an immortal nor a man with a criminal record.
Kyle stepped up to the barista and placed his order. There weren't many people in the place; though it was mid-morning on a Saturday, the Starbucks across the street drew more people. Idly, Kyle glanced around as he waited. Not seeing anyone he recognized, he pulled out his new cell phone and began to play a game.
"One grande caramel mocha no whip," the barista called out a few minutes later.
Kyle stepped up to take his order as a voice he hadn't heard in months said, "I see you haven't changed your coffee."
Surprised, Kyle turned. "Seth? Oh my God, you're here," he exclaimed, and hugged him. He stepped back. "But aren't you supposed to be at school?"
Seth grinned. "I switched to online classes. Besides, you'll never make it through all those classes at your new school without me to help you study." He led the way to a nearby table and the two men sat down.
"Does that mean you're still my…"
Seth's smile widened. "You shouldn't have freaked Pablo out like that, you know."
"Hey, he was creeping me out, sitting at the bus stop across from the store. I figured it was either me telling him to get lost or Connor, and Connor looked way too mischievous. I wouldn't put it past him to accidentally hurt the man on purpose."
"Yeah, well, that's why I'm here," Seth told him. "You like me."
"They're not going to kill you over our friendship?"
"As long as it just stays a friendship," Seth told him. "No more kisses."
"Aww, and here I had an entire seduction planned," Kyle teased. He was relieved to see such a familiar face; he hadn't liked the man who'd started Watching him.
The two friends caught up over coffee, talking about the motorcycle Kyle was thinking of getting, the negotiating skills he was learning working at Connor's antique shop, and Seth's adventures in finding a cheap but safe apartment in the city. Once those safe topics had been exhausted, Kyle asked, "Is it okay if I ask you if you know if Duncan's okay?"
Seth hesitated a moment. "He saw me on campus last week – I was saying goodbye to the guys in Sig Ep – and stopped to talk to me. He was asking if I'd heard from you. I told him no. He looked disappointed, but then his friend showed up and dragged him away. I think he used to be a Watcher who found out one day that he was immortal. The friend, that is." Seth shrugged.
"Oh." Somehow, the news that Duncan had moved on didn't exactly please Kyle, but he shook off the odd feeling. "I need to get going; Rachel has a date and Connor's teaching me chess in between customers. You're living where, again?"
Seth named the address, and Kyle handed him his phone so he could enter his phone number.
"Ooh, nifty new phone. Did Connor get it for you?" Quickly, Seth entered his number on the screen.
"No," Kyle said, taking it back, "I bought this; he only went with me to intimidate the guy behind the counter into giving me 10% off."
Seth laughed. "Weren't you intimidated the first time you met him in person?"
"He gave me a killer headache; I was too busy on my knees in pain to be intimidated."
"Seriously? The sense of him is that big?"
"Yeah. I've gotten used it now, but it's still a 'oh, hi, it's Connor or someone that old and powerful," Kyle said dryly. "Marcus Constantine was here two weeks ago and the two of them together almost made me hurl, but Marcus gave me a new coping strategy to deal with it."
"Cool," Seth said with a smile. "You'll tell me all about it, right?"
"Sure," Kyle replied. "When you kiss me."
Seth laughed. "Oh, sure, taunt me with what I can't have," he said teasingly. More seriously, he asked, "You're not just staying with Connor because he's providing you with food and shelter, are you?"
Kyle stared at his Watcher a moment. "That was what worried you, wasn't it? How I'd just accept pretty much everything that came my way?"
"Yeah," Seth said. "If it was me, I'd have run away weeks before you did."
"I've always been slow to anger, but when I finally get there, I'm usually pretty angry," Kyle said. "When Connor and I finally got to New York and settled in, he deliberately provoked me, just to see how I'd react. I was terrified he was going to kill me, but I was so angry at him for saying I was spineless, willing to follow anyone anywhere. We fought – words and swords both. It wasn't until it was over that I realized the bastard had been testing me. He looked pleased when it was over."
"And?" Seth prompted.
"And I realized one of the reasons I was so accepting of Duncan was that he made it easy to believe that he was doing everything to protect me. He reminded me of Granddad that way; with Granddad it was his way or the highway, and I just fell right back into that kind of thinking." Kyle looked sheepish. "Connor isn't like that; he treats me like an adult and not like a child. I saw Connor fight someone a week after I moved here; I get why Duncan didn't want me to witness that kind of thing, but I have better incentive to train now. Oh, and I've talked to Gregor on Skype; there's a hospital in Boston that wants him."
"Do you trust Gregor?" Seth asked, then immediately followed it up with, "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."
"No, it's okay. He's a little manic, especially after he's pulled a long shift at work, but he's really, really trying to be a better guy. I like having his opinion on things, even if I wind up going back and asking Connor if Gregor's just yanking my chain. I don't know if we'll be best friends, but I like knowing that he's there. I don't think I could go ask Duncan anything."
Seth looked relieved. "Are you happy? I see you got your hair redone."
Self-consciously, Kyle touched a strand of his hair. "Yeah, but I'm getting sick of blue," he confessed, taking a sip of his drink. "I might do something a little less shocking next time."
"Yeah, but I haven't decided yet. Maybe you can help me figure it out? Not today; I need to get going; Rachel has a date. She's very nervous; she said the last date she had was four years ago." He rose to his feet as Seth did the same.
"Go on, get out of here before they send out search parties."
Kyle hugged him. "Good to see you. Call me; I'm usually off on Mondays."
After the young immortal had exited, Seth picked up his phone and dialed. "Hey, Joe, it's Seth. Yeah, Kyle's doing just fine in New York. His hair is blue again. You were right to worry. Oh, Duncan's talking to you again? Really? Well, I don't care where Duncan lives, as long as it's not where Kyle is. Someone on the other side's gonna have to deal with Duncan if he stays too long out in the middle of nowhere. We know that usually doesn't end well. Hey, I'm not interfering. I'm just a concerned friend. Uh huh, and that’s why you're my honorary uncle. You get to get away with teaching me all the bad things about being a Watcher." Seth laughed at something Joe said, and ended with, "You know you're my hero. Yeah, yeah, I'll get used to New York, don't worry. Uh huh, you take care."
Satisfied, Seth rose and exited the coffeehouse, assured that his best friend was going to live to see another day.