Richie: "I could have
killed her, Mac. I mean, that's what I'm supposed to do, right?"
"Where to?" the cabbie asked, pulling out into the heavy airport traffic.
Connor MacLeod gave him Duncan's new address and settled back against the seat's cracked upholstery to watch the scenery go by. Tired down to the bone, sick of concrete and smog and traffic, he had no desire whatsoever to be in Seacouver. He wanted to flee to the woods, the hills or the vast open deserts where a man could see the stars. Not visit another cold, rainy, crowded city filled with electric light and automobile exhaust.
He'd been in San Francisco on the trail of an old enemy when Duncan's news finally caught up to him. Tessa Noel, Duncan's love of a dozen years, had been fatally shot. Richie Ryan, the street kid Duncan had taken in the previous year, had also been killed but had returned to life as an Immortal. Although he hadn't spent much time with Tessa, Connor knew her loss would cut agonizingly deep in his kinsman's heart. And Richie - well, Connor had met him only briefly, and knew him mostly from Duncan's letters. He had little hope for the teen's continued life even with Duncan as his teacher.
Especially with Duncan as his teacher. The younger MacLeod had been out of the Game for several years. He'd spent too much time brooding over the moral questions all Immortals faced and not enough time taking heads. Whether or not he could teach Richie to be a warrior remained to be seen, but Connor had no desire to dwell on that depressing question. He'd come to Seacouver to offer Duncan his belated condolences and support, and that was all.
Water beat down on the cab windows. Connor tried to picture himself someplace sunny and warm. He had a plantation on the big island of Hawaii that he hadn't visited in a number of years. Perhaps the time had come to leave his home in grimy Manhattan. He would sun himself every day on the black beaches and let the ocean lull him to sleep each night. The gentle roll of waves, the endless push and pull of water against sand -
"We're here," the cabbie said, waking him from his pleasant doze.
Connor paid the man and climbed out into the evening drizzle with his bag. Duncan's brick building stood near the train tracks in a decaying industrial neighborhood. Old warehouses dotted every corner, half of them hung with "For Sale" signs. A brisk breeze off the water smelled like salt and diesel fuel. Any one of the nearby alleys would serve as a good place for a fight, he thought approvingly. Turning back to the building, he read the sign above the second-floor landing that said "DESALVO'S MARTIAL ARTS." Except for lights on the top floor, the building was dark.
Connor pulled out his cellular phone and dialed Duncan's number. A silhouette moved against the window shades above as his kinsman answered.
"Hello?" Duncan asked.
"Knock, knock," Connor said. "You've got company."
A moment later a shade went up, and Duncan's face appeared at a window. Connor spread out his arms and continued to get wet. Ninety seconds later the gym doors opened, and Duncan poked his head out.
"What are you doing standing in the rain?" Duncan asked with a small, pained smile.
"Taking a shower," Connor answered. "I haven't had one in days."
Duncan didn't leave the dry doorway. "Well, come on upstairs. I'll let you borrow a towel and a bar of Irish Spring."
"I'll tell you where you can put that Irish Spring," Connor replied, and added a coarse description in Gaelic. He went up the stairs into Duncan's fond embrace. His cousin felt too thin. He'd gained a few worry lines. He looked like a man barely containing his grief. But he was alive, even if Tessa wasn't, and Connor counted that as the most important thing.
Duncan gave him a quick tour of the newly refurbished dojo, which Connor thought would make an excellent training space after all the yuppie athletes had gone home for the day. A noisy ascent in the freight elevator brought them to the loft, a well-decorated area that showcased the younger MacLeod's talent for detail and neatness. They shared the Chinese food Duncan had ordered for dinner and drank the whisky Connor had brought from San Francisco. Connor kept the conversation going by regaling Duncan with headhunting tales, but stopped an hour later to let quiet fill the room. The topic they'd been avoiding all night made its aching presence known.
Connor put his hand on his kinsman's shoulder and locked gazes with him. "Bring out your Bible, Dhonnchaidh, and we'll light a candle for her."
"The old ways," Duncan agreed, his eyes dry, his voice rough.
They stayed up until dawn, mourning Tessa and railing against the unfairness of death. They played her favorite music on the stereo - she'd been especially partial to Nina Simone - and went through boxes of photographs. The young and beautiful woman she had been smiled at them from the streets of Paris, a boat on the Hudson, a waterfall in Jamaica. Drink slurred their words and loosened their emotions and cracked open Duncan's stoicism, leaving room for rage and tears. When they finally went to sleep the pale light of November had brightened the sky, and the timer-controlled boilers for the gym had begun to pipe up warmth to the loft's radiators as well.
Connor hunkered down on the sofa under a warm blanket, glad that he'd come to Seacouver and that the hardest part of his trip was over. Only later did he realize his mistake - the hard part was just beginning.
The next day Connor met the dojo's manager, Charlie DeSalvo. The man had a defiant attitude and an unblinking gaze, but he kept the dojo in good working condition and took all of Duncan's suggestions in stride. Richie didn't show up until after lunch, and Connor's presence obviously startled him.
"Nice to see you again," Connor said as he shook Richie's hand. The scrawny, baby-faced kid with long curls that he remembered had been replaced by a young man with shorter hair and harder planes in his face. Nineteen years old, just a little bit older than Connor had been when he first died. "Last time we met, you were two inches shorter and ten pounds lighter,"
"Mac fed me a lot," Richie said with a smile, puffing up his chest.
"Like I could ever stop you," Duncan retorted.
Richie ignored the comment. "How long are you going to be in town?"
"I'm not sure," Connor admitted.
Charlie slapped Richie on the back. "Go change and we'll get to work."
Connor assumed that Duncan had arranged for Charlie to work with Richie as a courtesy while they went off for some serious swordplay down in Duncan's warehouse. Testing each other's skills and working up a good sweat was a ritual of theirs after any long separation, and Connor took great pride in Duncan's abilities. But when they returned to the dojo a few hours later, satisfied and reassured by their dueling, Richie had disappeared and Charlie was giving a sales pitch to an overweight woman with frizzy black hair.
"Where's Richie?" Connor asked when the potential customer went to tour the women's locker room.
Charlie shrugged. "Said he had to go do some errands."
Connor lifted an eyebrow at Duncan.
"He's been working hard lately," Duncan said. "He deserves an afternoon to himself."
Connor and Duncan spent the next day at an estate sale in the suburbs. Connor deliberately didn't ask where Richie was, and Duncan didn't offer any information. On Friday morning, Connor wandered downstairs early and found Charlie and Richie fencing with foils, each man heavily protected by face guards and chest pads. It was perhaps one of the most useless exercises Connor would have proscribed for a new Immortal, unless he was in imminent danger of being attacked by one of the Three Musketeers. Connor drank his coffee and tried to keep quiet, but one of his snickers must have reached DeSalvo's sensitive ears.
"You want to give this a try?" Charlie asked, annoyed.
"I'm not sure," Connor said with as straight a face as he could manage. "It looks dangerous."
"We're just finishing anyway," Richie said, taking off his mask and stripping off his gloves. He didn't look at Connor. "I've got to go home and wait for the cable guy to show up sometime between nine and five. You'd think they could narrow it down closer, right? All day I've got to wait there."
"I'll keep you company," Connor suggested. "Show me where you live."
Richie didn't look very happy at the prospect of spending time alone with Connor, but he wasn't rude enough to reject the offer, either. They rode double on Richie's bike to a neighborhood several blocks away. The tenement reeked of old beer and frying fish. Five flights of scuffed stairs wound up past the broken elevator to Richie's apartment. The living room, kitchen and small bedroom had been furnished from the showroom at the Salvation Army thrift store, and the walls and ceilings bore water stains.
"It's not too bad," Richie said, trying to put a positive spin on the situation. "Good fire escapes if some bad guy comes knocking. The rent's affordable, and the neighbors are only loud on the weekends."
Connor had lived in far worse places during his youth. Compared to those medieval hovels, anything with a roof and utilities could be called a palace. Instead of regaling the teenager with tales of rats and open sewers and plagues, he sat on the lumpy sofa and looked at the old color television set propped on a crooked shelf unit. An expensive gold frame on top of the TV contained a photograph of Duncan, Richie and Tessa in happier times.
"Duncan says you're working," Connor said.
Richie brightened. "Yeah. Part-time at a mechanic's shop on Third Street. Plus Charlie pays me for work around the dojo sometimes. Do you want something to drink? I've got orange juice."
"That would be fine," Connor said. The orange juice had a slightly sour odor to it, as if it had aged a few days past the expiration date. He drank it anyway. "How's your sword work coming?"
Richie fidgeted in the armchair. "It's good. Mac's a really good teacher. Did he tell you about Annie Devlin? He made sure I knew how to beat her. That little trick he taught me saved my life."
As a matter of fact, Duncan had said nothing about Annie Devlin, whom Connor had met once or twice and disliked intensely. He'd found her to be shrill, temperamental and not very skilled at fighting - the kind of female Immortal better off thrusting her hips than her sword. Why hadn't Duncan mentioned her? And why had Duncan let Richie take her on in battle when he was so woefully unprepared? The teenager had only been Immortal for a month.
"It must have been very difficult going up against your first opponent," he offered as a way to fish for more information.
Richie looked at his fingernails. "Yeah. But I knew I had to do it."
Connor worked his way blindly around the subject. "What did you think about when the moment came to take her head?"
"Oh, man," Richie said, shaking his head. "I thought, 'No way.' I mean, I know about the Game, I know there's this Gathering thing, but I don't think I'm ever going to be able to just decapitate someone, you know?"
Relief and disappointment washed through Connor in equal parts. He didn't think Richie was actually ready for the emotional, physical and psychic surge of a Quickening. On the other hand, the teenager obviously didn't fully understand the Game or the Gathering if he could so easily dismiss the notion of killing.
Rock music blasted from a stereo in the apartment next door, then quickly shut off. Richie pulled a thread from his worn jeans and didn't look at Connor. Quietly he said, "I asked Mac later, because I know killing is what we have to do, but he said only sometimes. So I guess I'm still trying to figure out when it's okay and when it's not."
The arrival of the cable installation man saved Connor from replying. After the man left, Richie played around with his new channels. "I've missed MTV since we moved out of the store," he said, cheering up. "Do you ever watch 'The Real World?'"
"No," Connor said. "I live in it. Why don't you grab your sword and we'll go practice for awhile?"
Richie looked alarmed. "I'm not good enough to practice with you."
"You're good enough to practice with Duncan."
"Yeah, but only once in awhile, and he takes it easy on me."
Those were not the words Connor had hoped to hear, but by a supreme act of will he let them pass without comment. He had it in his head to go drag Duncan out of his loft and misery and make him deal with the situation he'd created. He opted, instead, for taking the teenager down to his kinsman's warehouse and putting him to the test. Richie had a rudimentary sense of what to do with his sword, but his footwork needed drastic improvement and his stamina could only be called dreadful. Just a few minutes of hard dueling left him red-faced and gasping.
"Fights sometimes take minutes," Connor said, passing Richie a water bottle. "Sometimes they take hours. You have to be prepared to fight for as long as it takes."
"Hours?" Richie asked as he tried to catch his breath.
"Imagine this. You're locked in a dungeon in a fortress in the Pyrenees - "
"The Pyrenees - they're between France and Spain. You and your worst enemy are fighting to the death. You stab him through the gut. He rips open your lung. You've both got to keep fighting long enough to heal. He severs your Achilles tendon. You break his knee. You're circling, circling, waiting for an opening." Connor paused for emphasis, then added, "You could be there all day."
Richie looked suitably aghast in the dim light of the warehouse. "Did that really happen?"
"But you lived to tell the tale - "
"Well, one of us certainly did."
Richie shook his head. "I'm never going to be able to fight like that."
Because your teacher isn't teaching you, Connor almost said, but he refrained.
That night, Duncan invited Charlie to come out drinking with them. Richie, still too young to imbibe by current legal standards, said he was going to the movies with his friend Angie. Perhaps sensing Connor's growing anger, Duncan made sure to go running with Richie on Saturday morning - a nice five-mile jog downtown and back in Seacouver's eternal drizzle. But Richie had to work at the garage in the afternoon, and Duncan made no protest about the teenager's priorities.
The loft was a warm, cozy refuge from the sleet slanting down outside. Duncan fixed grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch, then set about preparing a soup for dinner that called for the chopping, slicing or dicing of almost every vegetable in season. Connor drank beer and watched him and, because he'd rarely pulled punches with his kinsman, brought up the subject of Richie.
"He told me he went up against Annie Devlin," Connor said.
Duncan didn't lift his gaze from the chopping block. "He did very well."
"Didn't kill her."
"He's not ready for that yet. He's a teenager of the twentieth century, not of ours."
A good point. Richie had been raised in a city and age where young men didn't have to constantly defend their cattle, castle or homes from invaders. Connor had first killed at age fifteen by thrusting a sword through his enemy's throat. But whatever Richie's upbringing, he now belonged to the Game.
Connor tried to keep his voice neutral. "Did you tell him that sometimes we don't have to kill?"
Duncan shrugged. "I may have."
"And you think that's good advice?"
Duncan's gaze met his for a moment. "I think Richie will figure it all out."
"When? In the middle of a fight?" Connor wanted to reach across the counter and shake Duncan by the shoulders. "There's no room in a new Immortal's life for moral ambiguity. If he's going to live by the sword, he has to kill by it, too. Mercy is a mistake that could lead to his death."
Duncan's cheeks colored. "Annie won't come after him again."
"You don't know that!"
"She won't!" Duncan's knife cut savagely into a celery stalk, sending one end of it skittering across the chopping board. "She knows he could have killed her, and that he didn't. She won't come back."
"Why did you tell him that sometimes we shouldn't kill? You know as well as I do that the Gathering is at hand. It's kill or be killed out there - "
"He'll learn how to take care of himself - "
"Not when you barely take the time to train him! How many hours have you spent with him this week?"
"I've been with you," Duncan said vehemently. "You're the one who came to town uninvited - "
The younger Highlander bit off the last of his sentence. Connor felt his stomach sink like a cold, leaden weight. "Since when do I need an invitation?" he asked, putting a hint of steel into his voice.
Duncan offered him a stricken gaze, but said nothing. He put down his knife, lined up the small mixing bowls of vegetables, and meticulously folded a white dishtowel into squares until it was no larger than a sponge. Connor watched his every move from his perch on a stool. Steam knocked in the radiators once, then twice, the dissonant bell of a mechanical church.
"He's all I have left here," Duncan finally said, his hands flat and white-knuckled on the countertop. "Tessa's gone. The store is gone. Everything I've worked at for the last dozen years - gone. How can I send him off every day to fight to the death?"
Connor let out a long, slow breath. "How can you not?"
Duncan rubbed his face with both hands. "You think I've been neglecting him."
"Yes. He needs you now more than he'll ever need anyone in his life. He should be practicing twelve hours a day - working on his form, his tactics, his ability to fight through pain. He should be close at hand, always underfoot, not living in some dingy apartment miles away. He should be learning how to carry himself in a world of powerful men and dangerous women, not working in a garage."
"He likes the garage," Duncan protested, but he didn't put any strength in the words. He gave Connor a hopeless look. "Every time I look at him, I remember Tessa. The way they used to cheat when playing Scrabble, because neither one of them could spell worth a damn. The way they would steal the remote control from each other and hide it in the sofa cushions. The way she'd fuss or hover when he got sick or hurt . . . and now she's the one who got hurt so badly she's never coming back."
Connor circled the counter and took Duncan into his arms. They stood in the spotless kitchen, Duncan's tears hot on Connor's shoulder. The older Highlander said nothing. He merely rubbed circles on Duncan's back and gazed at the Seacouver calendar hanging on the brick wall opposite him. Such a gloomy day outside, the skies leaden and gray, the wind rattling panes of glass up and down the room.
A few minutes later Duncan pulled away. He went into the bathroom for several minutes, and emerged with dry if bloodshot eyes. "I want you to train Richie," he said.
Connor had sprawled out on the sofa, his feet propped on the coffee table. "No."
"You have to. I'm no good for him right now."
"Duncan, you're the one he knows. You're the one he trusts."
Duncan sat down and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. "He knows you. And he trusts you, because I do. Connor, I've been hiding from the Game for a long time. As much as I fear the Gathering is at hand, I can't find it in my heart to make Richie a killer. How can he have any hope of survival, unless you give it to him?"
Connor took a long swig of his beer. "I'm not looking for a student."
Duncan gave him a small, sad smile. "No. But there's a student looking for you."
First the carrot.
"Richie," Connor said as they took a break on a park bench, "how would you feel about taking a trip with me?"
"A trip?" Richie hopped lightly from foot to foot, his cheeks ruddy above his rain slicker and damp sweats. Few joggers had ventured out in the early morning fog. A freighter on the sound blew its horn three times. Richie propped his right foot against the bench and stretched his leg. "A trip where?"
"Hawaii. I have an estate near Puna that I haven't visited in a long time."
"Hawaii's cool," Richie grinned. "Bikinis, coconuts and surfing - how long would we be gone?"
"I'm not sure. Several months, or maybe a few years."
Richie's head jerked up. "A few years! You want me to move to Hawaii with you?"
"What about Mac?"
"He's staying here."
"Oh," Richie said. One syllable, one word, no special emphasis. He stretched his other leg, touched the palms of his hands to the wet concrete of the path, did a few kneebends. He sat down on the bench and gazed out at the water, his shoulders hunched.
"He thinks he's too close to you to train you properly," Connor offered, wondering what thoughts were going through the teenager's head. "I happen to agree."
Richie nodded, but he looked more angry than acquiescent. "Hawaii. Do I get any say in the matter?"
"I don't think it's a good idea."
"Why not?" Connor asked.
"What's Mac going to do if I'm not around? He's still getting used to losing Tessa. He shouldn't be alone. Unless - I guess - " Uneasiness flitted over Richie's face. "I mean, does he want me to leave? Did he ask you to take me?"
"He wants you to live," Connor replied. "He wants me to train you the way I trained him. It's not a rejection, Richie."
Richie snorted. Connor supposed, upon reflection, that the situation could be viewed *exactly* like a rejection. But only if one ascribed Duncan's motive to fear or blame, not love.
Time for the stick.
"Richie, are you happy with the way your training has been going?"
"Surely you thought there was more to learning how to fight than occasional duels with Duncan and maybe Charlie teaching you a thing or two."
"Mac's just in a slump," Richie said, and this time he looked directly at Connor. "Cut the man some slack. He'll snap out of it."
"Richie, you don't have time for Duncan to snap out of anything. The Gathering is getting closer. Immortal against Immortal. Soon you'll be fighting every month, every week, every day. Are you ready?"
"No." Richie shook his head and shrugged. "No way in hell am I ready. But I'm not leaving Mac, either."
And that, it seemed, was that. Despite Connor's best persuasive arguments, Richie remained firm in his resolution to not leave Duncan. Duncan didn't have the heart to drive the young man away, either, to cut him off from affection and support and advice. As a last resort Connor suggested Duncan come to Hawaii with them, but the younger Highlander didn't feel ready to leave Seacouver yet.
"You're both fools," Connor said, giving them his best glare.
But even with the problem acknowledged in the open, hovering in the air like a black cloud, Duncan and Richie remained locked in their own stubborn positions. The only possible solution came to Connor after several bottles of whisky and a night of banging his head against the walls of several Seacouver bars.
He muttered an old oath that roused his drinking companion from his side of the table. Charlie DeSalvo didn't have the greatest sense of humor, but he certainly knew how to drink a night away.
"What's wrong?" Charlie asked.
"Do you know how many days of rain Puna has every year? Fifty three. Do you know how many days Seacouver - "
"What the hell's a Puna?"
Connor stumbled out of the dockside bar and hailed a cab. Back at the loft he found Duncan and Richie eating bagels - not dueling, not practicing katas, not throwing each other around on an exercise mat. Just eating onion bagels with cream cheese and, at least in Richie's case, strawberry jam. Well, he'd soon put a stop to that. Time to instill a little discipline. No eating onion bagels with the Gathering so close at hand. And certainly no more eating onion bagels with strawberry jam.
"You," he said, pointing at Duncan. "Do you want me to teach him or not?"
Surprised, Duncan replied, "Yes." Then, curiously, he added, "How much did you drink, anyway? You smell like a distillery."
Connor ignored the jibe. He pointed at Richie. "You - do you want to be taught?"
Richie looked at Duncan with a guilty expression. "It would be nice."
"Fine." Connor lurched toward the window and peered out through the damned rain at the depressing neighborhood. He supposed that if Duncan could stand it, so could he. "That building over there is for sale."
Richie dropped a butter knife. "You're going to buy that building?"
"And you're going to move in it with me," Connor said. To Duncan he added, "You're going to let me train him the way *I* want to. You can have him on weekends and two weeks every summer."
"Connor, you're very drunk," Duncan said.
"I'm sober where it counts," he returned tartly. To Richie he said, "You're going to learn what it takes to win. You're going to work harder than you ever have in your entire life, and you're going to hate me. But you'll still have Duncan nearby when you need tea and sympathy."
Richie folded his arms. "Do I get any say about this idea?"
"Of course," Connor said, but inebriation and lack of sleep finally caught up to him and he crawled onto the couch before Richie's opinion registered in his ears. The heavy warmth of a blanket descended on him, and he felt Duncan pulling off his sneakers.
"He's not serious, is he?" Richie asked, his voice a distant buzz in Connor's ears.
"I don't know," Duncan answered.
When Connor next woke, the sky had turned dark. Duncan sat in a chair reading Homer. Connor stretched, acutely aware of the thick fuzz coating his tongue, the smell of whisky and smoke in his hair and clothes. He remembered what they'd been talking about before he passed out, the announcement and promises he'd made.
"Are you going to support me?" he asked Duncan. "Give me the freedom to teach Richie what he needs to know, whether he likes it or not?"
Duncan put a bookmark in his tome and looked up. "Yes. You'll have my complete support. But, Connor, you don't have to do this. You don't have to change your whole life around because of my inability to teach him."
Connor scratched his stomach. "I know. But I want to."
Why, indeed? Because Connor had been traveling for a long time, and he wanted to settle down for awhile. Because the teenager needed as strict a teacher as possible if he hoped to survive even the first rounds of the Gathering. Because Ramirez had once taken the time to teach him, and Connor kept trying to repay the debt through the centuries. Because Duncan was family, and Richie was part of Duncan's family, and thus they were all bound together by love and loyalty.
If he couldn't have the black beaches of Puna, he'd just have to make do with the silver train tracks that ran behind his new neighborhood. Maybe he'd save the trip to Hawaii for whenever Richie took his first head, so that the young Immortal could relax and adjust after the shock of experiencing a Quickening.
"Didn't you hear me? I asked why you're going to all this trouble for us."
"Because sometimes that's what you do for the ones you love," Connor replied, and left it at that.
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To the sequel, "Delusions of Granduer"
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To the sequel, "Delusions of Granduer"
To the Authors' pages