Author's Notes: This is a sequel to my story "Sometimes," although it's not necessary to read that one to enjoy this one. Thanks to Cindy and Terry for their great assistance with this one - any remaining typos are obviously my own fault. Enjoy!
Duncan MacLeod stood at the windows of his loft apartment while dinner heated up in the microwave. Friday night, six p.m., already dark outside, the streets glistening under a steady fall of drizzle. The neighborhood's only successful businesses - two carpet stores, a paint supplier and a Goodwill donation center - had already closed. Three empty warehouses stood locked and forlorn. The last freight train of the day had already rumbled through on its way downtown. The only signs of life Duncan could see were the warm, yellow lights in the five-story brick building on the corner - Connor's building, the building where he and Richie now lived and where Connor oversaw the young Immortal's training.
The microwave beeped. Duncan peeled back the plastic on the frozen dinner, mixed the corn and petite peas, and put the tray back in the machine for another three minutes. Until quite recently, Friday night had been his favorite of the entire week. He and Tessa would sit home with videos and fresh pizza, or dine out in a fine restaurant, or go dancing in one of the few spots that still had a live orchestra. Richie would usually stay out late with friends, leaving most of the night free for languid lovemaking. The loss of Tessa, the ripping away of his entire life with her, still caused his chest to burn in grief.
"I'm doing the best I can," he said to the picture of her on the counter. She smiled at him, her face flushed and healthy, her hair pinned up as she playfully wielded an unlit welding torch toward the camera.
A lie. He wasn't doing the best he could. He was only doing what he could. Enough to keep busy during the day, to keep the gnawing ache from swallowing him up when he turned to tell her something and remembered she wasn't there, or when he saw a pretty blonde in the street who had her whole life in front of her. In the evenings, when the dojo customers went home and darkness inevitably fell, he found himself caught up in recriminations, doubts, fears. He should have saved her. He could have saved her, if he hadn't been so caught up in finding out what was on her kidnapper's computer. He should have been a better teacher for Richie, who had left him to go study under Connor's tutelage. He should abandon Seacouver for someplace that didn't hold so many painful reminders of the years he'd spent with Tessa - the coffee shop she so loved, the park where her sculpture still stood, the streets and waterfront they'd wandered when they still thought they had a lifetime to spend together.
He found himself drawn to the windows again, to the prospect of warmth and coziness and friendship. With astonishing speed and his customary flair, Connor had built a gym and two apartments in the old hat factory. He'd installed weight-lifting equipment, a lap pool, a Jacuzzi and a room full of very sharp weapons. Richie had moved from his dingy tenement building to rooms with high ceilings, brick walls and good heating. Duncan didn't know all the details of what went on over there, what arduous paces or drastic practices Connor imposed to compensate for Duncan's negligence. He didn't want to know. He remembered Connor's training habits all too clearly. The first few weeks had been extremely difficult, but Richie remained resolute.
"I'm not going to let him get the best of me," Richie said, with a bag of ice on his right shoulder. Duncan had almost laughed. Connor MacLeod could get the best of any man, given the proper circumstances and incentive.
He wondered, not for the first time, why he'd kept Tessa and Connor from meeting each other for twelve years. Had he been afraid the older Highlander would sweep her off her feet? Or that Connor would explain to her the grim realities of the Game? He didn't know. He couldn't change the past no matter how hard he wished. But oh, how he dearly wished.
He'd been through grief before. Intellectually, he knew it would eventually pass. Emotionally, he felt trapped at the bottom of a dark hole deeper than any he'd known since Little Deer's death. Some days he wondered if it might just be easier to tie an anchor around his feet and jump into Seacouver harbor than struggle through another day without her.
The phone rang, disturbing his grim fantasy.
"Mac, I'm starving," Richie complained. "Tell me you have something hot and greasy cooking on the stove."
"Don't tell me Connor's got you on a fast."
"Connor's out on a date," Richie said. "I'm wasting away while he's getting laid. If you don't save me, I'm going to have to start eating protein powder and tofu and - what the hell is this stuff? - wheat germ - gross."
The microwave showed three seconds on the clock. Duncan punched the off button before it could beep. "As a matter of fact," he said, opening the refrigerator door and scanning the shelves, "I'm making stir fry. If you hurry, you might make it before I finish it all off."
"I'm running out the door!" Richie hung up.
Duncan threw some oil and garlic on to heat, added some mushrooms and torn lettuce, and started chopping carrots and broccoli. The good thing about stir fry was that the vegetables did not, technically speaking, have to be at their peak of freshness. A quick glance out the window showed Richie jogging from Connor's building with his hood up against the rain. Duncan threw a frozen loaf of garlic bread in the oven - not the perfect accompaniment to the meal, but it was all he had - and had the wok full of sizzling food by the time the elevator ground its way up from the dojo.
Richie looked wet and famished. "Ferris Bueller, you're my hero."
"Ferris who?" Duncan pointed the spatula at him. "You're dripping water all over my floor."
"You've got to brush up on your pop culture," Richie said as he slid out of his jacket and hung it by the door. Shoulder muscles that had been soft and flabby now had a sculpted look. He looked like he'd gone up a size in sweatpants to accommodate stronger leg muscles as well. Duncan had no doubt that Connor's methods produced good results, but it was startling to see the changes so quickly. "It's a classic movie with Matthew Broderick in it."
"I'll be sure to rent it," Duncan said.
"You got anything as an appetizer?" Richie asked, poking his head into the cabinet. "Ding Dongs, cupcakes, cookies?"
"Going through sugar withdrawal?"
"You have no idea. You never told me Sir Galahad was a nutritionist."
"He's not, usually."
"Yeah, well, he's making me write down every boring detail of my protein, carb and fat intake. No sugar, no soda, not even chewing gum! I'm telling you, it's not natural to know exactly what you're eating." Richie's head dipped lower. "Come on, where's the good stuff?"
"Connor won't be happy with you."
"My problem, not yours."
Duncan broke out the Pepperidge Farm chocolate macadamia nut cookies. Richie's eyes lit up as if Christmas morning had dawned. He slid onto a stool and said, "Twice a hero."
"Three time's my limit. You look like you've had a long day."
"Nah," Richie said, his mouth full. "Just got up."
Duncan added vegetable stock and tamari to the wok. "You just got up?"
"Connor's on this sleep deprivation kick. I was up all day yesterday and all last night. I think the point is to teach me to fight even when I'm exhausted."
"Did it work?"
"No, he killed me in the first thirty seconds." Richie looked and sounded nonchalant about it. "I won't tell you how often I've died this week."
"I'm not sure I want to know," Duncan said honestly.
The food was done. Duncan divided the heap onto two plates and rescued the browning garlic bread from the oven. "What do you want to drink?"
"A beer?" Richie asked hopefully.
Duncan grabbed two bottles. Any man who had to carry a sword around with him at all times deserved the right to drink alcohol as well.
"So what have you been doing all week?" Richie asked as he dug into dinner. "Did you get the water heater fixed? Charlie get back from vacation?"
Duncan regaled him with tales of finding a plumber, covering for Charlie, starting a new martial arts class. For a few minutes he was able to forget that Tessa was gone and Richie no longer mortal. But when his fork scraped the plate in a way Tessa had always hated, Duncan remembered again the gunshots that had rung out on Briarcliff Street.
"Yo, earth to Mac," Richie said.
He blinked. "Huh?"
Richie gave him a sympathetic look. "You're thinking about her."
"I suppose I am." He couldn't get through a day - nor did he want to - without remembering her smile, her sharp mind, her dead body in his arms.
Richie glanced at the nearest photo. "I think about her every day, too."
Duncan found himself unable to speak. He picked up their empty plates and stacked them in the sink. He was suddenly sure that Richie had a full refrigerator over in his apartment, and that his dire prediction of starving had been a ruse to come over and cheer Duncan up. Connor would never leave Richie without a well-stocked pantry, not when he had him training so intently. Duncan didn't know whether to be angry, appreciative or further depressed by the deception.
"Can I ask you a question?" Richie asked.
Duncan didn't lift his gaze from the sink. "Depends on the question," he said, his voice rough.
"It's a sword thing. When is it okay to fight dirty?"
The abrupt change of topic startled Duncan. "Fight dirty?"
"Yeah, fight dirty. Like when someone has a headlock on you and you punch him in the nuts. Say there's this big, bad, monster Immie coming at you - when's it okay to, you know, shoot him and run away? Or use poison darts? Curare. Tear gas. Stuff like that."
Richie Ryan had an imagination worth an Academy Award.
"I suppose it depends," Duncan said. "On who you are, who your opponent is, the circumstances of the fight - are you trying to run away, or kill him using foul means?"
"What does Connor say?"
"He says you do what you have to do. He reminded me about the rules of the Game. One on one, blah blah blah, holy ground, blah blah blah. But I'm talking about the gray areas here."
"You do what you have to do to survive," Duncan said. "But you still have to be able to look yourself in the mirror the next morning."
Richie sighed. "See, that's the thing. You and Connor have these ideas about honor. Being a real man. Principles. I'd like to live like that. But I'm more worried about walking away afterward, you know?"
"I know," Duncan said. He sympathized. Richie had not grown up in a warrior culture. He'd struggled, but had never been involved in swordfighting or decapitation. Although Duncan knew where he himself drew the line - what tricks during a fight were acceptable, which were cheating - Richie, in his inexperience, had yet to establish or test his own boundaries.
"I just don't want to be known as a cheater," Richie said. "Maybe that's silly."
"No," Duncan said. "It's being wise. If word gets out that you fight dirty - if you fight two on one, for example - you'll get other Immortals angry. And they'll turn your own methods against you."
"Great," Richie muttered. "That's a big help. You know what else I don't get? Taking a Quickening. I've seen you get one and - wham! - the lightning, the wind, the whole special effects shebang. Windows shatter and everything. But what's it like to get one? What do you feel?"
Duncan grimaced. "I don't think I can put it into words."
"It's like . . . the worst you could ever feel and the best you could ever feel, all rolled into one."
Richie made a face. "That's not really specific."
"You'll find out when you take one," Duncan promised. He didn't look forward to that day, though. Taking an enemy's head would push Richie further along the road of independence as an Immortal. He might believe, erroneously, that he'd learned all he could about swordfighting, or that he was ready to take on anyone. He might be so overwhelmed by the experience that he sought to avoid all future battles.
Duncan decided to change the subject. "So who taught you how to get out of a headlock?"
"Like that one, huh? Gary said that's the best thing to do." The mention of his dead friend's name made Richie fall silent. Gary Correll had been like a big brother to Richie. His death as the pawn of a crime ring had been hard for Richie to accept, especially after Duncan discovered an Immortal had been part of it all. Losing Tessa less than a year after losing Gary had thrown the young Immortal off-balance, and Duncan could see him sometimes still struggling to cope.
Richie toyed with his empty beer bottle for a moment, then looked up with new resolve in his eyes. "You know what? I'm tired of talking about death. Let's go see a really stupid movie."
Duncan shook his head. "I'm not up for a movie."
"Sure you are. Something dumb and silly with a lot of obscene jokes. We can walk over to State Street."
Duncan looked at the windows. "It's raining," he protested.
"Don't be a baby. Come on. My treat. You cooked, after all."
Duncan wanted to say no. He had no desire to go out into the cold, damp night and see some teenage movie full of fart jokes and scantily-clad girls. But the alternative, sitting at home as the hours dragged by on the clock, didn't appeal to him either.
"Come on," Richie said. "Let's find the worst movie possible."
Duncan reached for his coat. Richie grabbed the bag of cookies on the way out, and they walked three blocks in the cold drizzle to see exactly how far American cinema had fallen. After the movie - as awful as Duncan had predicted, but Richie enjoyed it - the two Immortals returned to their neighborhood and split at the dojo's front stairs.
"Thanks for the movie," Duncan said. "Just what I needed."
"Thanks for dinner," Richie returned. "You saved a starving man."
Duncan smiled just a little bit and went inside. Richie thought the smile was a positive sign. Training with Connor left him with little time to worry about anything but the state of his own sorry body, but he didn't like how Duncan secluded himself on nights and weekends. Connor said that it was normal for Duncan to do that when he was grieving, and Connor would be the one to know, but Richie didn't have to like it. Thanksgiving was only a week away, and although he didn't think they really had much to celebrate, he hoped Duncan would at least agree to a turkey dinner out in some restaurant.
The drizzle had stopped while they were in the theater, leaving the night damp and cool. He should have worn a heavier jacket. He hopped lightly from foot to foot until the lights switched on in the loft. On the way to Connor's building he thought of Tessa, and how long Duncan could be expected to mourn her. Six months? A year? A decade? Connor said being Immortal made the normal passing of years sometimes stretch like an elastic band and other times shrivel like a flower. Richie didn't exactly understand what that meant, but Connor had seemed proud of the observation and had written it down in a little notebook to save for future reference.
Richie caught his breath as the cold, gritty feeling of a nearby Immortal washed through his bones. Connor, back already from his night out with the ladies? No, instead, a lady herself, standing at the front door with her left hand near the doorbell. Long blonde hair, attractive, looking a little younger than Tessa had been. Wary eyes. Her right hand stayed in the pocket of her expensive Burberry raincoat, and he recognized the sleek lines of a concealed gun. Richie stopped fifteen feet from her. "Can I help you?" He tried for a calm, casual tone, but where the hell was a Highlander when you needed one? He barely knew how to get his sword out of his jacket without cutting himself.
"I don't mean any harm," she said. An American like him.
"Lots of people say that," Richie said. "You going to use what you have in that pocket?"
She held his gaze. "Do I have to?"
Richie held up both hands. "I'm not big on fighting."
"Neither am I." The stiff set of her shoulders eased as she took her hand out of her pocket. "I'm looking for Connor MacLeod."
Richie didn't immediately reply. She might be friend, she might be foe. She might be someone Connor didn't want to see. She might, despite her apparent sincerity, be looking to take a head. He hadn't had the best experiences to date with female Immortals - Felicia Martins had seduced him and betrayed him, and Annie Devlin had sworn blood revenge on him.
She raised her hand in the air. "He's about this high, dirty blond hair, has an odd European accent and suffers from occasional delusions of grandeur."
Richie laughed despite himself. "Sounds like Connor."
She looked relieved.
"He's not around, though," Richie said, and watched as her expression fell. She really did want to see him. And perhaps he was a fool, but she didn't look like a headhunter, vengeful ex-lover or random psycho.
"I can tell him you came by," he offered.
"That would be great. Tell him I'm staying at the Park Central, room 1012. My name is Brenda Wyatt."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Richie Ryan."
"Pleased to meet you, Richie Ryan," she said, and offered her hand. She had a soft grip and worry lines around her eyes. "Tell me, are there any restaurants open around here? I'm starving."
"There are some on State Street," he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder. "Pizza, burgers, stuff like that."
"Just what I need." She started walking. "Thanks."
"Wait," he said impulsively. "I'll show you the way."
Brenda turned and gave him a lovely smile. "I'll buy you a burger for your trouble."
"Make it a milkshake and you're on."
"So how do you know Connor?" Richie asked a short time later, after the waitress had brought their food. The small, warm cafe catered to the after-movie crowd, but most of those customers had already drifted away. He and Brenda had a corner booth with a window view of the wet street and plenty of privacy. A song played on the stereo above the cashier's counter, one of Sting's better solo efforts.
"Seven years ago I worked for the NYPD," Brenda said, dipping French fries into vinegar. "Forensics. One night there was a beheading in the parking garage of Madison Square Garden, and you can guess who was in the middle of it."
"Were you - well, you know - then?"
Brenda's eyes clouded over. "No. That happened a few nights later. How do you know Connor?"
"He's my teacher."
"He ever tell you about the worst Immortals he's ever fought?"
"Once in a while."
Brenda swallowed a bite of her double cheeseburger. "He ever mention the Kurgan?"
"I've heard of him," Richie said. Not from Connor, but from Duncan. He didn't know if Brenda knew Connor had a younger kinsman. "Nasty guy."
"He kidnapped me to use as bait," Brenda said matter-of-factly. "And I died during the rescue attempt. It wasn't Connor's fault . . . well, anyway, I didn't realize what had happened at first. Connor took the Kurgan's head, we went to the Highlands - it was a difficult time for both of us."
Richie could imagine. He'd been used as bait once or twice himself. Duncan had always come to the rescue. Tessa had been used as bait, too, and the final time had resulted in tragedy.
"It's not easy, hanging around our kind." The words sounded lame in his own ears.
"Isn't that the truth?" Brenda glanced out the window at a couple hurrying down the street with three dogs. "Is he happy?"
"Connor? Yeah. I guess so."
"You don't sound sure."
"It's not something guys talk about," Richie said. "Sports, yeah. Cars - that's another safe topic. Happiness? Doesn't come up much."
Brenda smiled. "So I've learned. Is he a strict teacher?"
"On a scale of one to ten, he's only a . . . fifteen," Richie replied. He stirred his milkshake with a straw. "But you already know that, right?"
"Connor wasn't my teacher."
"I thought, since you went to Scotland together - "
"I never had a teacher," Brenda said. "I don't fight."
Richie said nothing. He knew of only two Immortals who'd refused to pick up a sword. Darius had survived by remaining on Holy Ground, but had died at the hands of mortals. Duncan's friend Grace hadn't fought, either, but Duncan had done her fighting for her.
"You don't approve," Brenda said.
"It's not up to me to approve or not."
"I don't believe in the Game, Richie. As a scientist, I've found no evidence that 'there can be only one.' No one has ever adequately explained to me why we have to kill each other. And even if I did believe we had to fight to the death, I don't have the upper-arm strength, the stamina or the reflexes to go up against anyone."
"But I've seen women do it," he said, thinking of Annie. She would have killed him permanently if Duncan hadn't taught him the defense to her favorite maneuver. An image of Felicia flashed in his head - she and Duncan fighting in the dark surf, their swords clanging madly.
"I've seen women do it, too. But you'll never see me do it. I don't want to be a killer. And I never want to take a Quickening."
Richie leaned forward. "That's what I really wonder about. What do you think it feels like?"
"I don't know." Brenda signaled for the check. "But I've seen it go wrong, and it's not pretty."
"It can? How?" Funny that neither Duncan nor Connor had ever mentioned that before.
Brenda shook her head. "It's not really for me to say, Richie. If you want to fight, if you want to be part of the bloodshed, then you have to believe in the Game and its consequences. I don't condemn anyone who does. But I can't participate. I won't."He tried to give her money for the milkshake, but she wouldn't take it. "Just tell Connor where to find me, please. Tell him I'm in town on business. We're working through the weekend, and I'll be flying out Tuesday morning."
Richie rose from his seat. The conversation had taken an abruptly bad turn, and he felt guilty for ruining her dinner. "What business are you in?"
"Metallurgical consulting for manufacturing firms," she said. "Not as exciting as forensics, but I got out of that business eight years ago."
"At least let me get you a cab."
"No, it's fine. I have a friend who'll pick me up." Brenda gave him a small squeeze on the arm. "You go on home. Just promise me you'll be careful, Richie."
"Sure," he said. "Any bad guy comes my way, I'm out of there."
"Sometimes it's not the bad guys you have to worry about," she said, but wouldn't say any more.
Brenda kept quiet on the drive back to the hotel, preferring instead to watch the slick streets while her mind slipped back in time.
Connor MacLeod. Mysterious, seductive, full of charm. A killer, but not in the way she'd feared. She remembered opening her apartment door to him and being instantly reduced to the level of a gawking adolescent. He'd been so dashing, so utterly sure of himself.
"Do you want to dine in the hall or shall we step inside?" he'd asked, with a little smirk.
That first prolonged encounter - she couldn't really call it a date, since she'd mostly wanted to pump him for information about a sword - still counted as one of the most sexually charged evenings of Brenda's life. They didn't fall into each other's arms. That would come later. Just watching him in action, though - his sizzling confidence, his knowledge of history, the way he'd quickly unmasked her, her gun and her tape recorder - she had gone to bed a few hours later in her virginal white nightgown and dreamed of him until dawn. The evening had ended in a fight. Their days in the Highlands had ended in a fight as well. Brenda had higher hopes for the present, but not significantly higher ones. She had met many men in her life, but none quite like Connor MacLeod. None quite like the Kurgan, either.
"You're awfully quiet," Scott said as they turned toward the waterfront. Brenda glanced over at her fiancee. Scott MacKenzie was broad-shouldered and handsome, a Marine who'd advanced high in the ranks before a knee injury forced him into early retirement. He was seven years older than she was. She had told him about Immortals and the danger he was in just by being in her company. He said it didn't matter. He pledged to protect her.
Connor had pledged to protect her once, too. On a high hill in Scotland, on a day full of rain, just before Duncan came to rescue them both.
"Nothing, really," Brenda said.
"That's a guy answer." Scott's smile flashed in the darkness. "Ann Landers said that if you ask a woman what she's thinking, she can tell you to the last detail. Ask a guy, and he'll say "Nothing really.'"
Brenda asked, "Are you sure it was Ann Landers?"
"Maybe 'Dear Abby.'"
Brenda squeezed his arm and lapsed back into silence. She'd been so naive and inexperienced when Connor MacLeod walked into her life. Or when he'd shown her his trophy room, the accumulation of centuries' worth of weapons. All she'd seen were priceless treasures. What he'd been trying to show her, she believed later, was a life of loneliness and pain.
He'd given her a knife, positioned her hand against his diaphragm, and run himself through. Hell of a way to drive home the truth of Immortality, but quite effective. She'd taught Scott the same lesson at a beach house in Virginia by stabbing her hand with a steak knife. Not quite as dramatic, but demonstrative none the less.
"You're sure this is a good idea?" Scott asked. "Talking to him?"
"I need to say goodbye," Brenda said. "I just want to close that chapter in my life."
Close out those dark days on the Isle of Skye, after it had become glaringly obvious Connor was unstable. She remembered the ruined castle he'd moved them to, the forlorn and constant sound of the wind, the way she could never get warm no matter how many sweaters she donned or cups of tea she drank. He claimed to have won the Prize, to be able to influence all the great men of the world, but he stopped showering, shaving and making love to her. His eating became sporadic. His temper unpredictable. He called her 'Heather' and shouted out to Ramirez in his sleep.
Through it all, she'd had no idea she herself was Immortal. That one of the consequences of being tied to a billboard scaffolding was that, when the scaffolding fell, she'd been kicked over the threshold of mortality into a lifestyle she neither wanted nor appreciated. Connor told her the buzz in her head was just the fresh Scottish air. The day she cut her finger and it healed instantly, he said it was his amazing powers that cured her.
"You could write a letter," Scott suggested as he pulled into the hotel parking lot.
After a moment of silence he reached over for her hand. "Sorry. I don't mean to sound flippant."
"I'm here to work," she said. "Talking to Connor would be nice, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."
They went up to their rooms with that lie between them.
Richie's circadian clock was out of whack. He didn't fall asleep again until nearly six a.m. on Saturday morning. Connor banged on his door at seven, and stumbled in smelling of wine, cigars and expensive perfume.
"Up, up, up!" he cried, spinning through Richie's living room. "Time to fight!"
"You're drunk," Richie said, dragging a pillow over his head. The renovated third-floor apartment had bedroom, kitchen and bathroom alcoves centered on the living room, but few interior walls. He'd painted the overhead pipes in neon shades and decorated the exposed brick walls with music posters, some of Tessa's prints, and a ghastly black velvet painting of a unicorn that his friend Angie had given him as a joke. Neither Connor nor Duncan thought much of his decorating sense, which made Richie even happier with his new place. Weak daylight filtered through the high windows, giving the rooms a gray illumination.
"Yes, I'm drunk," Connor said grandly, "but quick on my feet."
The Highlander pulled back Richie's pillow. Richie hated when his teacher got in an exuberant mood. He imagined a whole day of push-ups, sit-ups, weight-lifting and sword fighting ahead of him. Then he remembered the message he'd promised to deliver.
"A woman came to see you last night - "
"Many women come to see me," Connor interrupted. "It's a curse."
"Her name was Brenda Wyatt."
"Brenda?" Connor deflated as if someone had punched a hole in him. He sat heavily on the bed beside Richie, then fell back on a pillow in order to fully contemplate the ceiling. "Brenda was here?"
Richie said, "I know medieval Scottish guys did things differently in the days of yore, but do you have to share my bed with me?"
"Tell me what she said."
"She said you could find her at the Park Central until Tuesday. Room 1012."
"That's it?" Connor turned bleary eyes on him. "That's all she said?"
"Well, we talked about you," Richie admitted. "She told me all your secrets and stuff."
He meant that as a joke, but Connor looked stricken. "She shouldn't have done that."
"Rest easy, big guy," Richie said. "Nothing I didn't know already. Can I go back to sleep?"
He expected the answer to be no, but Connor lurched off without saying a word. Richie happily settled back into his cool sheets and pulled the comforter up past his bare shoulders. He didn't wake again until the phone rang shrilly at noon.
"Where's Connor?" Duncan asked. "He promised to come over and help me with some equipment."
Richie squinted at the bright sunlight outside his windows. "Maybe he's sleeping. He came in this morning still drunk."
"Well, go wake him up."
"Do I look like some kind of Immortal wake-up service? Besides, he might not be there. An old girlfriend's in town."
"Which old girlfriend?"
"Brenda Wyatt. Ring a bell?"
Silence on the other end of the line.
"You still there?"
"Yes, Brenda Wyatt rings a bell," Duncan said. "Just tell him - no, never mind. I'll leave a message on his machine."
"You want me to come help with the equipment?"
"No. I'll do it. You should be training."
Training. Right. Richie tried to go to sleep again, but his body had already woken up for the day. After several groggy minutes spent searching the refrigerator and freezer, he settled for a tall glass of orange juice and two onion bagels. The morning newspaper was still on the stoop outside - Richie was amazed no one had stolen it - and a quick search of the gym and Connor's second-floor apartment confirmed he wasn't anywhere around.
"Looks like I get a day off," Richie said happily to himself.
On his way out of the shower, he stubbed his big toe on the milk crate of books Connor had tasked him with reading. He'd even threatened to give Richie written and oral quizzes. Richie decided to take one to the park and try to meet girls by pretending to be smart. He hauled the crate to the bed and sorted through the titles. "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. "The Prince" by Machiavelli. Neither looked exciting. "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun." Was Atilla the Hun older or younger than Connor MacLeod? At the bottom of the crate was a very thick hardcover book that looked to be the dullest of all.
"A Metallurgical History of Ancient Sword Making," complete with Brenda Wyatt's picture on the back cover.***After Richie told him Brenda was in town, Connor went to his apartment to take a long, hot shower. He told himself to wait before seeing her. He pointed out to the bleary-eyed reflection in the mirror that a few more hours wouldn't matter after eight years of being apart. He even stretched out on his bed, ready for a good six or seven hours of sleep. But after ten minutes of staring at the ceiling, he dressed and went to her hotel.
"Idiot," he said to himself on the drive over.
The Park Central was one of Seacouver's finer establishments, with posh furnishings and a row of glass elevators that slid up and down a ten-story atrium of greenery and waterfalls. He swiped a hot croissant from the buffet set out by the concierge and slipped it into his pocket. Among the Saturday morning crowd of departing guests and harried bellhops, he felt the warning buzz of Brenda's presence and looked up to see her studying him from the mezzanine.
Eight years had not aged her, of course. She'd grown out her curls and switched to a better shade of hair dye. She looked every inch the professional businesswoman, with a black skirt and black briefcase that matched her raincoat. He didn't see any sign of a sword on her, but he hadn't expected to, either.
He thought about going up to meet her, but instead watched her descend the staircase.
"Connor," she said, warmly, as if they'd parted on better terms than his memory allowed.
"I'm sorry I wasn't home last night," he said.
"I should have called first."
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Connor held himself still, although he couldn't help the little thrill her touch always caused.
"I have to work all day," she said. "Are you available for dinner?"
"I might be," he said.
Brenda raised her eyebrows.
"Probably," he amended.
She smiled sunnily.
"Seven o'clock all right with you?" he asked.
"Seven o'clock it is," she said.
After she left in a cab with some colleagues, Connor swiped another croissant and then went to eat a proper breakfast. He bought a new sweater at the mall. He thought about getting a haircut, but dismissed the vanity. He did have his car cleaned, though. By the time he returned home, Richie had gone off gallivanting for the day and Duncan had left a message on his machine.
"I hear Brenda's in town. Call me if you want to talk."
Talk about what? How he'd believed, in the wake of the Kurgan's Quickening, that he'd actually won the Prize? That he'd told Brenda he could read men's minds, grow old and die, sire her children? Connor imagined how difficult those months must have been for her - isolated in the Highlands with a crazed Immortal whose mind had overloaded on too powerful a Quickening.
The situation had ended badly, of course.
But he had never quite stopped loving her.
That realization carried him down to sleep and discordant dreams.
No girls smiled his way at the park, and most of Brenda Wyatt's book sailed so far over Richie's head that he got a nosebleed just trying to make sense of the first chapter. Quenching, temper lines, deformations, stresses - who knew metal was so complicated? He ended up down at the YMCA, playing basketball with some of his friends. He felt a little guilty about not working out as Connor would have wished, but only just a little. Everybody deserved a Saturday off once in a while.
When he got back to Connor's at five, he found the older Highlander in the gym beating the hell out of a sixty-pound training bag.
"Lace up," Connor said, without even glancing his way.
Richie changed into sweats and pulled on his gloves. He didn't like Connor's icy tone. He began imagining the punishment he was going to get and grew annoyed at the thought. He'd been working harder than ever. He did everything Connor asked him to do, even walked around goddamned Seacouver for six hours without any shoes one night. He put everything he had into weight-lifting and running. He let himself get stabbed time and time again - well, truth be told, he couldn't prevent it, but he thought he responded with as good grace as any human pincushion could. And now Connor was going to hit him for taking the afternoon off?
Richie went back to the gym and raised his hands. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Not me, the bag," was all Connor said in return.
"Oh." Richie hesitated, then started slugging the bag in counterpoint to Connor's punches. The black vinyl shook and shuddered under their combined efforts, but the chain holding it to the ceiling held firm.
Sweaty, grim-faced, Connor showed no signs of a hangover. Richie wondered if he'd even gone to sleep yet. Brenda had asked him if Connor was happy, and as Richie rammed his fists into the bag he realized he had no real idea. Maybe Connor regretted relocating to Seacouver to oversee Richie's training. Maybe he realized Richie wasn't likely to survive long in the Game. Maybe Connor realized it had all been a big mistake -
"I'm sorry," he blurted out.
"Sorry for what?" Connor asked, his gaze firmly on the bag.
"I probably should have stuck around today, did ten thousand push-ups or something."
Connor grunted and threw a solid punch. "That's a lot of push-ups."
Several more minutes passed as Richie's doubts grew. Connor had spent a significant amount of money building the gym, which had better equipment than Duncan's dojo and a new hardwood floor to boot. But unlike the dojo, the gym was for private use only. The mats, benches, weights, weapons and treadmill were all for Richie to become a better fighter - hell, even the damn balance beam was for his training, even though all he did was fall off it. Including the additional cost of renovating space into two apartments, refurbishing the boiler and updating the electricity, Richie figured Connor had spent at least forty or fifty grand on the place in just the few weeks he'd been there, plus the money he'd paid for the building itself.
And Richie had gone to the park.
Had played basketball.
Richie couldn't take the tension anymore. "Connor, are you happy?"
"Happy?" Connor stopped punching. His gray T-shirt had gone dark with sweat, and he had to bend over at the waist for a moment to catch his breath. "Yes, I think so. Generally. Why do you ask?"
"I'll try to be a better student."
"You're a fine student," Connor said.
"I didn't work out at all today - "
Connor smiled in a decidedly evil fashion. "Richie, the day is still young."
Richie sagged against the training bag with the distinct feeling he'd set himself up for that one. "All right," he sighed dramatically. "I deserve it. Lay it on me."
"I'll let you decide what you want to do." Connor used his teeth to undo the lacings on his right glove. "I'll be out."
"Miss Brenda Wyatt?" Richie guessed.
Connor's smile faded, as if Richie had trampled in intensely personal territory. "As a matter of fact, yes."
The tone of his voice warned Richie not to pry, but he ignored it. "She seems nice."
"She is nice." Connor headed toward the stairs. "Too nice."
"She told me she doesn't fight."
"She also told me that Quickenings can go wrong sometimes. Like how?"
Connor stopped at the bottom step and pivoted slowly. "She told you that?"
Richie nodded. He didn't like the flatness in Connor's voice or the way his teacher's gaze narrowed. Quickenings going wrong was obviously something Connor didn't want him to know about, which made Richie all the more curious. And a little afraid, as well.
"Sometimes they do," Connor said. "You shouldn't worry about it. And as for Brenda - she thinks not fighting is the right decision. I think she'll die a terrible death, not long from now, and I'll weep at her grave. But there's nothing I can do to change her mind."
Abashed by the Highlander's honesty, Richie couldn't think of a single thing to say in return.
Connor gazed at him for a long moment. "You'd better start with those push-ups," he suggested, and started up the stairs.
Scott said, "I think I should be nearby when he comes."
Brenda searched her bag for her eyelash brush. She'd packed it, hadn't she? She could clearly remember packing it. Maybe she didn't need it. One look at her clumped lashes convinced her otherwise, and she started searching again amid foundation, blush, mascara, tweezers, cotton balls, eyebrow pencils and the eye shadow compact that had broken on the plane.
"No," Brenda said. "Let me do this my way."
He stood in the bathroom doorway, his arms folded over his 'U.S.A' sweatshirt. The evening news played on the television behind him. "What if he gets fresh?"
She found the brush and leaned in close to the mirror. Damn fluorescent lights. "He's not going to get fresh, Scott. And I know how to handle him. Go see a movie or something. Or go use the gym I saw on the mezzanine. It's open twenty-four hours."
Scott stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Bossy wench," he said. He nuzzled her neck. "Just remember, no freebies before the wedding."
"Aye, aye, colonel," she said, and sent him to his adjacent room. Freebies? Is that what Marines called fooling around on your fiancee? She didn't want to know.
Brenda checked the clock - Connor would arrive in less than fifteen minutes - and did a turn in front of the mirror. She didn't want to seduce him, but she didn't want to look frumpy or disheveled, either. A run up the back of her pantyhose made her swear and scurry to her suitcase.
"He's not worth this," she told herself sternly. "You've got Scott."
The new pantyhose fit perfectly. Brenda eyed herself critically. Where would she put a sword, even if she wanted to carry one? Women's clothing didn't allow for a lot of hidden weapons. She could wear a trench coat all her life, but that would look a little silly.
Not as silly as getting your head cut off, Connor would say.
Shoes. She needed to find her shoes.
I think she'll die a terrible death.
Connor winced at his own choice of words as he stood under his second shower of the day. Such callousness. Such resignation. Had he hardened his heart so much, to state the truth so baldly? But he'd known several Immortals over the centuries who had refused to fight and lived only a few years past their original mortal deaths.
Some did get by, on wits or charm or by hiding on Holy Ground. Darius had managed it, until being cut down in his own church. The longevity of Amanda's life had more to do with her quick mind and powers of seduction than her ability with a sword. Brenda, though, refused to either cloister herself or use her femininity as a weapon. She hid, she ran, she moved from city to city. She allowed herself to be a victim of Immortality rather than a player in the Game.
Could he blame her? After undergoing the Kurgan's captivity and witnessing what Connor himself became after the Quickening, perhaps she'd seen no other open path but that of flight and fear.
Richie's question about Quickenings going wrong made him wonder how much Brenda had told him. Not the whole story, certainly. Richie was often an open book. If he'd heard that Connor had gone temporarily out of his mind, the questions and doubts would be clear in his eyes.
"Is that what you're calling it?" he asked himself scornfully. "Temporarily out of your mind?"
Connor presented himself at her hotel room at seven o'clock. He'd worried about what to wear and had banished his customary casual wardrobe in favor of dark loafers, dark slacks and the new sweater under a black raincoat. Brenda opened the door wearing a blue dress and gaudy gold earrings. He remembered, belatedly, how fond she'd been of bad jewelry.
"Come on in," she said. "I just have to find my shoes."
He remembered that, too - she was forever losing her shoes, and misplacing her purse, and forgetting to put the milk carton away. While she hunted for errant footwear, Connor took a cursory look at the room's expensive furnishings, and a longer look out at the glittering view of Seacouver's skyline.
"Where would you like to eat?" he asked.
Brenda pulled back the bed skirt to uncover two blue shoes. Flats, not heels. Better for running, he supposed.
"I don't know," she said. "You decide. It's your town now."
"How did you know where to find me?"
"Rachel told me. I hope it's okay."
"Of course," he answered. He wanted to say more, but didn't know where to start. Sorry for going insane on you. Sorry you died. Sorry you won't lift a sword in your defense, because you think you can't possibly ever win.
"I'm starving," Brenda said. "Let's go."
Earlier in the day he'd taken the precaution of making reservations at a small Italian restaurant Duncan liked. Although Connor's name was on the list, the hostess had overbooked and they couldn't be seated for another half hour. Connor began to lose his temper - what good were reservations if they didn't work? - but Brenda took his arm and suggested a nice walk along the waterfront while they waited. The November night was cool but not bitterly cold, and the small shops along the boardwalk hadn't closed yet.
She told him about her job as a consultant. He told her about living in Seacouver. By the time Soldier's Bridge came into view, Connor realized they'd run out of safe topics of conversation. How would they ever get through the ordeal of dinner itself?
"I met Richie," Brenda said. "He's nice."
Brenda smiled. "Too young for me. How did you meet him?"
"Duncan met him first." Connor refrained from detailing the specifics of the fateful night Richie and Slan Quince had both broken into Duncan's antique store - one through the window, the other through the skylight. Although no one could possibly overhear them on the nearly empty waterfront, Connor had recently learned about the existence of the Watchers and developed a certain dread of electronic surveillance equipment. For all he knew, the sneaky mortals were back planting microphones in Brenda's hotel room that very moment.
Maybe he was paranoid. He'd certainly been worse.
"And now you're teaching him," Brenda prompted.
"Now I'm teaching him." Connor checked his watch. "Should we head back?"
"I'm not hungry," she said.
"You said you were starving."
"I lied." Brenda lifted her chin. "I had room service before you came. I thought I'd be too nervous during dinner to eat anything."
"Nervous about what?" Connor asked, resisting the urge to stroke the long line of her jaw or cup the smoothness of her cheek. Despite all the terrible memories of the Highlands that year, he remembered how comforting it had been to hold her in bed, like an weary swimmer clinging to a warm buoy.
"About us. It's been eight years."
"At least it hasn't been nine," he said solemnly, which made her laugh.
"If you're really not hungry," he continued, a new thought in mind, "let's go somewhere else."
Brenda's gaze narrowed. "I'm not sure I'm ready for somewhere else."
She probably thought he meant bed. That he presumed they would just tumble back into the physical passion that had more than once left him drained, depleted and ready to write sonnets in her honor.
"Trust me," he said. "You'll like this."
To Part Two
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