Accusations

Jen Allen

Notes for Accusations

DISCLAIMER: Highlander Television Series copyright 1993 Gaumont Television. All rights reserved. The characters Connor MacLeod, Duncan MacLeod, Richie Ryan, Adam Pierson/Methos, and Joe Dawson are owned by Davis/Panzer Productions, Inc. They are used without permission, but with great reverence. The personality destruction/reverse Quickening idea comes from Russet McMillan's story, Adam. The other characters and the story itself belong to Jennifer Allen, copyright 1996. If you distribute or save this story, please leave the header intact.

WARNING: This story contains scenes that are both violent and sexually graphic. If either of these offend you, please select another story. If they don't offend you, sit back and enjoy the ride.

TIMELINE: This story is set sometime after the fourth season, and eight months after the events in my first story, Consequences. I've tried to make this one stand alone, but I make no guarantees. If you need a copy of Consequences, please get a copy from the archive site or E-mail me and I'll send you one.

Seacouver, December 1996.

Richie leaned against the wall near the baggage carousel and tried to put the last eight months in perspective. Let's see, he thought, it was March when Lucas Buck kidnapped me and started to make me his vernal equinox sacrifice. That was an experience I could definitely have lived without, even if I did meet JL Dawson. Richie looked up, but JL hadn't returned from the Starbuck's counter yet, so he returned to his mental summation. She killed Lucas like a pro, even though she thought she was just a Watcher, not a pre-Immortal. Of course, most Watchers don't have six years of sword training with teachers as good as Jim O'Leary and Bryan Cutler. In fact, she's had more training than I've had and she's only been an Immortal since March. But the way she killed Lucas' mentor, Alaric Sutkin, now that was incredible. Almost as amazing as the fact that Alaric's personality is still alive and well and living in JL's brain. If her eyes didn't change color from blue to black when Alaric takes over her body, you'd never know which one you were talking to. And I thought I had cause for nightmares. Richie shuddered slightly and shifted to a more comfortable position against the wall. Adam tested her for a couple of months, though, and he's sure she can control Alaric, so it's not as bad as the Dark Quickening Duncan took. Now if she'd just notice that I want to take over Adam's former role as her lover, all would be right with the world.

Richie's musings were interrupted when JL came up beside him and offered him some of her cappuccino. Shaking his head, he offered to help her with the bearclaw he hoped was in the bag she was carrying. Laughing, JL handed him two- thirds of the pastry and a cup of regular coffee, extra sweet.

"I hate people like you," she said conversationally. "All you do is eat and you never gain a pound."

Richie grinned. "It's one of the few benefits of a high metabolism. What's the point of being an eternally-growing boy if I can't eat like one?"

JL snorted and leaned next to him. "None, I suppose. Us old fogies have to be more careful though."

"I'll be glad to help you burn it off," he offered, only half-jokingly. "How about tonight?"

JL looked thoughtful, then nodded. Richie's smile had just started to change to surprised anticipation when she continued. "I'll meet you at the dojo after dinner and you can spot me on the weights."

JL laughed at Richie's crestfallen look and tickled him. While they were in San Francisco, Richie had assumed JL would sleep with Adam, but he was testing her control of Alaric by picking as many fights with her as possible, so they always ended up stalking off to their separate bedrooms at the end of the evening. After Adam left and she wasn't being constantly riled, Richie had begun trying to seduce her. So far her answer had been a resounding "maybe." Richie understood JL's reticence--he knew the signs of childhood trauma when he saw them--but he'd hoped she'd begun to trust him enough to let him get a little closer. He was about to say so when they both felt the sudden disorientation that heralded the approach of another Immortal. JL turned around quickly and scanned the baggage area, then relaxed a little when she saw Duncan making his way towards them. Richie smiled broadly and moved off to greet his friend, but JL chose to wait by the now-moving carousel to get their bags.

"Hey, Mac!" Richie embraced Duncan and then clasped his shoulder. "How are you? What's going on? Where's Joe?"

Duncan laughed, delighted to see Richie's youthful exuberance back in full force after his encounter with Lucas Buck. "Slow down, Richie," he chided gently. "I'm fine. It's been pretty quiet without you, as I'm just beginning to appreciate. And Joe was in the middle of a jam session with some of his musician friends, so I offered to come get you. How was San Francisco?"

"Great. You'd love Bryan's study. He's got this massive claymore displayed over the fireplace. He said it dates back to William Wallace's time, and a friend of his actually used it during the battle at Stirling Castle in the thirteenth century."

"Bryan was at Stirling Castle?" Duncan asked eagerly. "I'd love to hear about that sometime."

"It's a great story," Richie agreed. "I guess Jim and Bryan fought for Robert the Bruce, too. Jim says Bryan really got into the whole Scottish independence thing, although Bryan claims that it was Jim who wanted to stay." Richie laughed and shook his head. "Those two are hysterical when they get going. The roof of their townhouse has a solarium that overlooks the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz, and JL and I would sit up there for hours listening to them argue about who wanted to do what and who couldn't give up which cause. They've been through so much together, I'm amazed they have to talk at all." Richie grinned fondly and then returned his attention to Duncan. "Anyway, from the roof during the day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito, and after the fog rolls in at night it gets all ethereal and a little spooky."

"Ethereal?" Duncan asked, grinning.

Richie blushed slightly and lowered his gaze for a second. "OK, OK. That was how Jim described it. Bryan called it 'mystical,' but I like the sound of 'ethereal' better."

Duncan laughed and patted him on the back. "Careful, Richie," he warned playfully. "People might start to think you're educated."

Richie shuddered in mock horror and replied, "Gosh, I hope not. They might start to expect things of me then."

Duncan shook his head reprovingly, "Not much chance of that, Richie. Not much chance at all." Growing more serious, Duncan looked at JL, who seemed to be fascinated by the bags on the carousel. "JL doesn't seem very happy to see me. How are you two getting along?"

Richie looked at her for a minute, deciding what to say. "I think you intimidate her," he said finally. "But she'll deny it if anyone asks. When she first started working with Joe she really wanted to impress him, so she memorized all of your Chronicles. Now she can't look at you without remembering all the wars you've fought in and all the causes you've championed." Richie winked at Duncan and continued, "I told her if she got to know you that your all-powerful aura would fade pretty quickly, but she doesn't believe me."

Duncan glared at him. "Maybe if you stopped ignoring my 'aura' so completely, I wouldn't have to tell you the same things over and over."

Richie shrugged. "And maybe I'll buy that bridge you're selling, too, right?"

Duncan sighed dramatically. "You've recovered," he said, unable to keep the happiness out of his voice. "Completely."

Richie scuffed the ground with his sneaker, then looked back at Duncan and smiled hesitantly. "Yeah, I guess so. Bryan took me on a camping trip for almost a month. We went to Yosemite for a week, then headed south to Big Sur. He'd get me out in the middle of absolute nowhere so I couldn't take off without getting abysmally lost--and trust me, the one time I did try, I almost ended up falling off a very steep cliff in the dark--then make me talk about what happened. Fortunately for both of us, it did get easier after a while, and he finally brought me back to the city. He survived Sutkin's attentions for almost four days, so anything I said he could identify with." Richie gazed unseeingly at the people milling around with their luggage, then shrugged and returned his attention to Duncan. "The most important thing he made me realize is that it's over. I can sleep at night again, and that makes a tremendous difference."

Duncan nodded. "I remember when Garrick was sending me those nightmares that had me fighting shadows all over town. I was so tired that I thought you were one of the apparitions. It is hard to function on little or no sleep, even when you're Immortal." Duncan smiled sheepishly and clasped Richie's shoulder. "I'm glad you're feeling better. Bryan sounds like a very patient man."

"He is. So is Jim, but in a more stand-offish way. They make a really interesting couple. JL says Bryan's the one to watch out for, though, because he's slow to anger but impossible to calm down once he does get there. Even Jim doesn't get in the way when Bryan gets angry." Richie grinned mischievously. "We'll have to practice later. Bryan showed me a couple of moves that he thought you might not know. He said your Japanese instructor was--in his opinion, of course-- 'fairly modern.' He didn't make it sound like a bad thing, just not his style."

Duncan raised an eyebrow. "So you've found a new mentor, have you?"

"Oh, no," Richie said hurriedly. "He's good, but I like your style better. Jim and Bryan, well, they're amazing to watch, but they've been together so long that I feel like a fifth wheel."

"That eventually passes," JL said, maneuvering the full luggage cart up to Duncan and Richie. "Although you'll never figure out 1,800 years worth of in-jokes, no matter how long you study their Chronicles. Actually, your best bet is to ask Jim how to beat Bryan, then ask Bryan how to beat Jim. I learned some of my best moves that way, and it was gratifying how quickly they stopped taking me for granted. Hello, Duncan. Joe conned you into picking us up, did he?"

"Hello, JL. He didn't really con me. I offered. He was playing with some friends of his from New Orleans."

JL nodded. "It's amazing what he can do on the spur-of-the-moment, isn't it? I've accused him of practicing that stuff on the sly for years, but he insists the heart of Jazz is its spontaneity. I don't know," she continued with a small shrug. "I fool around with the guitar he gave me, but I usually stick to Jackson Browne or the Eagles. So, Richie," she said, gesturing toward the overloaded cart, "did I get them all?"

Richie counted the bags and nodded. "Yep. That's how many I checked."

JL smiled. "Good, because nothing else will fit. You bought too much stuff in San Francisco, and you already had two suitcases to begin with." Smiling at Duncan, JL elbowed Richie. "I never thought he was a clothes horse until he started asking Jim where he got his clothes. Then it was a different outfit every day."

"It was not," Richie protested. "Jim and Bryan didn't want to stop in Seacouver, so all I had were the two suitcases I had were packed for Switzerland, which was our original destination before we detoured to Sutkin's Colombian fortress. And San Francisco was usually too hot for wool sweaters and ski pants."

JL just shook her head and made a show of dragging the cart toward the door. "Where'd you park?" she asked Duncan piteously. "I hope it's not too far."

Laughing, Richie grabbed the cart from her and the two of them continued bickering cheerfully all the way to Duncan's T-Bird.

Duncan listened to them and smiled to himself. Well, they've certainly hit it off, haven't they? he thought. Joe said they might, because of their similar upbringing. It does explain why Joe was able to get Richie to trust him so completely so quickly, though. He'd already tamed his own street-rat, so he knew what to say and when. I just hope Adam was right when he declared her 'in control' and headed back to Paris. I'd hate for Sutkin's personality to overwhelm hers and force her to kill Richie or Joe. I'll never forget the way my Dark Quickening nearly made me kill them, and did make me kill Sean Burns. Fending off uncomfortable memories of laughing at Richie while he was kneeling at Duncan's feet waiting to die, Duncan loaded the suitcases in the trunk and back seat and drove JL to Joe's house, then dropped Richie off at his apartment.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Five days later, JL leaned against the wall and watched Richie reach across the pool table for his shot. Jim's tailor deserves a medal, she mused. Those pants are perfect on him, as every other girl in the place seems to have noticed. Maybe it is time to take our relationship to the next level. Signaling to the waitress to refill their drinks, JL shrugged slightly. And maybe I'm just playing dog in the manger. Why spoil a good friendship with sex?

Because it's fun? answered Sutkin's voice from the area of her mind that JL had told everyone she could control.

Shut up, Alaric, she replied silently. I'm busy losing at pool here, and I don't need any more distractions.

Sorry, little one. Try for the three in the corner. Just a suggestion, don't get so huffy.

JL growled silently at the voice again, then studied the table. "Three ball, corner pocket," she said reluctantly. Sinking the three, she was contemplating her next shot when a man's voice broke her concentration.

"Lori? Is that really you?" the man said.

JL glanced up to see who he was talking to, then dropped her cue on the table in shock. "Jason?" she whispered incredulously. "Oh, my God, Jason. How in the world did you find me?" JL stared at the man for another second, then she hugged him.

Richie gazed at the newcomer with undisguised interest. The man was about 45 years old with graying dark brown hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in new blue jeans, a crisp green polo shirt, and a shiny black leather jacket. Richie thought he seemed happy to see JL but uneasy hugging her. Jason pulled back after a few seconds and tried to cover his discomfort by saying, "Here, let me look at you. God, you've grown up so much."

The man's obviously-new clothes and shifty eyes set off alarm bells in Richie's head, but JL seemed oblivious to the signs. Clearing his throat, Richie interrupted with what he hoped was a more sincere smile than Jason had. "Hi," he said. "I'm Richie. JL's friend and pool partner."

Jason smiled dismissively at him and shook hands. "Hi, Richie. I'm Jason. Lori's..."

"JL," JL interrupted firmly. "My name's JL now, Jason." Turning to Richie, she said quietly. "Jason's my foster-brother, Richie. We haven't seen each other since when, Jase? 1971, wasn't it?"

"Yeah. A couple of nights before Dad died."

JL started slightly but just smiled at Richie. "Could we have some time alone, Rich?" she asked. "We need to catch up on 25 years of life, and it will be boring for you, I'm sure."

Richie had a feeling that bored was the last thing he'd be, but he looked at JL's face and nodded. "OK. I'll get a drink and hang around a while, in case you need a ride home."

"I have a car," Jason said.

"I'll still have a drink, if you don't mind," Richie replied, a little sharper than he'd meant to. Jason shrugged and Richie gave JL a quick hug while whispering "Be careful" in her ear. She smiled reassuringly at him, then turned back to Jason and led him to a quiet corner. Richie watched them go then headed for the bar. As he walked past the booths, he noticed two men that looked vaguely familiar. Ordering a beer, he tried to remember where he'd seen them before. The official liquor license framed behind the cash register reminded him of being at the courthouse with Mac and Tessa when she went to pay her parking tickets and they ended up being taken hostage by Bryan Slade and his gang. After Mac had killed the kidnappers, they'd been debriefed for hours by the FBI as well as the local cops, and the two men in the corner had been the Federal agents that had spent an inordinately long time talking to Tessa.

Leaning over the bar, Richie gestured to the bartender, who was a friend of his from the old neighborhood. "Charlie," he said quietly. "Do you know those two guys in the back?" Charlie glanced and shook his head, and Richie continued, "What are they drinking?"

Charlie grinned. "Changing your orientation, aren't you, Richie? You usually want to know what the ladies are drinking."

Richie grinned back. "Gotta go where the money is, Charlie. Now what is it?"

Charlie shrugged and ambled over to chat with one of the waitresses. When he came back, he looked thoughtfully at Richie. "Who are they?" he asked.

"Cops. FBI types, actually. So?"

Charlie studiously wiped his bar, then said quietly, "Soda."

"That means they're on duty," Richie said with a sigh, and Charlie nodded. "Been here long?"

"Since 7. Right after you and your lady friend came in, I do believe. What did you do this time?"

"I didn't. And neither did JL, so don't ask."

Charlie shrugged and wandered off. Richie sipped his beer and tried to figure out what was going on. Let's see, he thought, we've got JL's brother, showing up mysteriously after 25 years. He's wearing all new clothes, but that might be to impress JL. The cops have to be working, or they'd be drinking beer, at least. They're definitely not here for the pool tables. Richie shifted and undid the top button on his shirt. It's hot in here, and Jason hasn't even taken off that leather jacket. With a sudden sinking feeling, Richie called Charlie over. "Can I get some quarters, Charlie?" he asked.

Charlie looked surprised but gave Richie the change. Walking over to the cigarette machine, Richie bought a pack, got some matches, and wandered outside for a smoke. Leaning against the wall, he used the trick he'd learned in junior high school to overcome his disgust at the taste of the cigarette. Concentrating on how cool he looked, he managed to inhale two small puffs without gagging or coughing too much. These taste awful, he thought. Good thing I dropped out of school before I learned to like them. Looking around, Richie finally spotted the surveillance van he'd been afraid was going to be there. Going back inside, he waited until JL glanced at him, then he took a deep drag on the cigarette, blew the smoke towards her, and started coughing. JL didn't seem to notice at first, then her eyes widened in surprise. Putting a hand on Jason's arm, she spoke quietly for a minute, then moved towards the bar. Richie gratefully put out his cigarette as she walked over and stood next to him to order her drinks.

"FBI," he whispered to her. "I saw two in a back booth, and there's a van outside. Jason is wired. It's a trap, JL."

JL shook her head slightly and whispered, "Why?"

Richie shrugged, then whispered back, "The two in the back are working, because they're only drinking soda. They came in right after we did. I've seen them before working a hostage situation in a local courthouse. And Jason didn't like you hugging him, plus he's still wearing that coat. I think he's wired. It's a trap, JL. I can feel it. Dump Jason and meet me at Joe's bar."

JL took her drinks, stirred them carefully, then nodded the slightest bit and returned to Jason as if nothing were wrong. Richie finished his beer, slid Charlie an extra $20, and headed to Joe's bar to wait for her.

Duncan was the only one seated at the bar when Richie arrived, and he slid in next to him with a small smile.

"You're back early," Duncan commented. "JL get tired of playing pool with a shark?"

Richie just shrugged and motioned to Joe. Joe drew him a beer and studied his serious expression. "You and JL have another argument over the meaning of life?" he asked.

Richie shook his head and sipped his beer. "What was JL's name when you first met her, Joe?" he asked.

Joe looked curious, but he decided to answer Richie's question before asking some of his own. "She said it was Angelina Hethden. I checked with New York and the real Angelina was born May 9, 1955 and died eight days later. Why?"

"Anyone ever call her Lori?"

"Lori?" Joe repeated. "No, not that I ever heard. Why? Who called her Lori?"

"Her brother, Jason," Richie said slowly.

Joe stared at Richie in disbelief. "Her brother? Are you sure it was her brother? Richie," Joe insisted, grabbing Richie's arm. "What happened? And where is she?"

Richie sighed. "We were shooting pool when this guy came over and said 'Lori, is that you?' She said it was her brother, Jason, then she told me to scram so they could catch up on old times." Richie studied the pattern of rings his beer glass was making on the napkin, then he looked up at Joe. "Remember you said if I ever found out anything about her father I should tell you so you could track him down and kill him?" At Joe's curt nod, Richie sighed again. "Well, it's too late. Jason said they hadn't seen each other since quote a few days before Dad died, unquote. And the way JL flinched made me wonder."

Joe wiped the bar slowly, then leaned against it with a heartfelt sigh. "I knew it," he said softly. "She never said it, but I think I always knew. She never wanted revenge. I always found that odd."

Richie studied him closely. "Are you sure it was her father who abused her?"

Joe nodded. "In some of her early nightmares, she very clearly said 'No, father, please don't. Please stop.'" Joe rested his head in his hands for a minute, then looked back at Richie. "Did she seem happy to see him?"

"Too happy," Richie grumbled.

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing, Joe. I guess I'm just jealous he interrupted our pool game. She'd just sunk a really nice shot, and I was hoping she might win one."

Joe looked uncertain, but one of his waitresses needed a drink order filled, so he moved reluctantly down the bar. Duncan watched him go, then turned to Richie. "So," he said quietly. "What didn't you tell Joe?"

Richie looked at him, then checked to make sure Joe was out of earshot. "Two of the FBI agents that questioned Tessa after we were held hostage in the courthouse were watching the pool hall," he said softly. "I think Jason was wired. JL's supposed to dump him and meet me here."

Duncan shook his head. "Be careful, Richie," he warned. "If JL's being investigated by the FBI, you shouldn't get in the way."

"I'm not going to. But I do want to help her. Isn't that what friends do?"

"Take it from me, Richie," Duncan said earnestly. "Remember the last time Amanda got me involved with the FBI over those counterfeit plates? We both ended up getting shot in the back."

"Yeah, and a corrupt cop went to jail. Case closed, wrong righted, and the hero gets the hero's reward from a gorgeous lady. Sounds good to me."

"It's not that simple, Richie," Duncan insisted. "You could end up in serious trouble."

"So could JL. She's my friend, Mac. I just wish you'd get to know her a little better. The three of us could practice together, maybe, then you could invite her up for lunch. I can't think of what you have in common except for sword fighting, but I didn't have anything in common with you when we first met either, and I adjusted OK."

Duncan nodded slowly. "All right, Richie. I'll try. But you still need to be careful with the FBI."

"I will, Mac. You know me. I'm always careful around cops." Richie smiled encouragingly at Duncan. "You'll like her, Mac. She's got a good heart once you get past all her defenses."

Joe nodded agreement as he approached and refilled their drinks. "That she does," he said with a proud smile. "If you think she's defensive now, though, you should have seen her in '74. Spines out to here." Joe held his hands about two feet apart and smiled. Bringing his hands about six inches apart, he said, "Now they're just little stubbly things. Hardly noticeable. From a distance, anyway."

A sudden flash of lightning brought them all to attention, but they relaxed again as it was followed by a peal of thunder and the sound of rain. "I've really learned to hate lightning storms," Joe muttered as his heart resumed a steady beat.

Richie nodded, then remembered his bike and dashed outside to cover it. Joe watched him sprint out the door, then turned to Duncan. "You two looked pretty intense," he said. "What were you arguing about?"

Duncan looked at Joe's carefully-neutral expression and sighed. "It's not that I don't like her, Joe, and I am impressed with how far you've brought her. But every time I talk to her, I'm left with more questions than when I started. She holds back so much with me, and I don't know why."

"Everybody else she meets wants something from her, Mac," Joe replied. "I needed someone to help me adjust to having artificial legs and a whole new career in the Watchers. Adam wanted a lover and someone who could tell him things about the other Watchers. Jim and Bryan started out wanting someone to help manage their dance studio and ended up using her to spice up their love life. Even Richie wants to be more than friends, although he's not pushing her into anything." Joe sighed and leaned on the bar. "But you," he continued, "you don't need her, and she senses that. She can't find a hold over you, or even a category to put you in. She automatically looks for weakness and all she finds is that calm, controlled, I-can-handle-anything attitude. Mere human beings aren't supposed to achieve that state of security, especially when they have Amanda dropping in and out of their lives on a regular basis."

"So I should tell her about all the mistakes I've made?"

Joe smiled. "No, she already read about them. If you really want to get to know her, ask her about one of her passions, surveillance work or photography. She loves hiking in the wilderness, too. In fact, she was the one who followed you when you trailed Caleb and his crew into the mountains after Tessa. Remember the ax you saw in my office when you found out about me? Well, she was the one who brought it back." Joe hesitated, then poured himself a drink. "That is, if you want to bother to get to know her," he said casually.

Duncan sighed. "It's no bother, Joe. She's important to you, Adam, and Richie. That makes her important to me. Besides, I owe her for talking Richie into staying with Jim and Bryan these last few months. They obviously helped him a great deal, and I didn't even know where to begin." Duncan looked toward the door as Richie came in shaking the rain out of his hair.

Joe nodded. "JL says Bryan's got a couple of degrees in psychology. He does a lot of AIDS counseling in San Francisco, too."

Richie came back to the bar and poured himself some coffee from the pot Joe kept at the end of the bar. "It's nasty out there," he commented. "I hope JL's not out in it."

"She won't melt," Joe replied with a chuckle. "She used to drive that van of hers in all kinds of weather to catch up with Lucas, and Jessica before that. I think it's become a matter of pride. You know, 'Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night...' Besides, she knows we'll want the whole story once she gets here, so she'll wait until the place is empty. Today's Tuesday, so it should only be another hour or so. This isn't really a late-night crowd."

Richie nodded, then shifted as the door opened and he recognized the two FBI agents from the pool hall. "Damn," he swore softly. "What are they doing here?"

"Who?" Joe asked, but Richie didn't have time to answer as the agents approached the bar.

"Are you Joseph Dawson?" one of them asked.

"Yes. What can I do for you?"

"I'm Agent Carstairs, and this is Agent O'Reilly. We're with the FBI."

Joe examined the credentials they offered him, then nodded. "So you are. What can I do for you?"

"We'd like to talk to you. Alone."

Joe shook his head. "I'm the only bartender tonight, gentlemen, so I have to stay here. And anything you need to say to me, you can say in front of my friends here."

Agent Carstairs frowned, but Joe just settled himself more firmly behind his bar. "All right," Carstairs relented. "What do you know about the murder of Jeffrey St. Cloud?"

Joe looked puzzled. "Jeffrey St. Cloud? Never heard of him. Who was he?"

"An FBI agent. He was killed in New York City in August of 1971."

"1971? I was in Europe. I didn't come back to the States until 1973."

"We think the murder was committed by his adopted daughter, Lori." The agent handed Joe a copy of JL's California driver's license, and he examined it with an unreadable expression.

"What makes you think I can help? I just told you I wasn't even in the country."

"Lori St. Cloud is now calling herself Joanna Lynn Dawson. And you co-signed her car loan."

Joe nodded slowly. "JL's lived with me on and off since 1975. But I didn't know her name used to be Lori. She never talked about her past, but I gathered it wasn't pleasant."

"Where is she now?"

"I don't know. She's 37 years old and hasn't had a curfew in decades."

Carstairs frowned but handed Joe his card. "When you see her, tell her to call us."

Joe nodded, and the two FBI agents left. "Jeffrey St. Cloud," he muttered. "I wonder if he was related to Xavier."

"Not to my knowledge," came JL's tired voice from the shadows in the back of the bar. "Although they did share a certain irreverence for the sanctity of human life."

Joe looked startled, then glanced at Duncan and Richie, who grinned. "Just because we felt her come in, Joe," Richie said, "didn't mean we had to tell the FBI."

JL smiled and dropped onto the stool next to Richie as she set a can of WD-40 on the bar and began drying her hair with a towel. "It's a bit damp out there," she said matter-of-factly, "and your back door is now freshly oiled."

"Where did that come from?" Richie asked.

"I parked my van out back before I left for Colombia, and I haven't bothered to move it yet because we've been using your motorcycle every night."

Joe laughed and picked up the can. "Don't leave home without it, hmm? I'm glad to see that time I caught you breaking into my office because the door squeaked wasn't a wasted lesson."

"My ears will never forget it," she said with a grimace. "You must have lectured me for a solid hour over a silly little bottle of brandy and a dusty old book."

"You were too young to drink and that 'dusty old book' was one of Duncan's Chronicles..."

"Where's Jason?" Richie interrupted before they could get too involved in reliving the past.

JL looked at him and sighed. "Back at his hotel. I'd have been here sooner, but I spotted someone following me so I had to get rid of them first. I hope they enjoyed trying to pick up my trail in the rain."

"Did you hear what the FBI agent said?" Joe asked.

"Yes. The acoustics in here are as good as you designed them to be." JL sighed and contemplated Joe's assortment of scotch before pointing to one and letting Joe pour her a drink. "It's true, by the way," she said softly, studying the amber liquid intently so she wouldn't have to meet their eyes. "I killed him. Three months after my twelfth birthday." JL drained the scotch and motioned for Joe to pour her another, but Richie stopped her from picking it up by gathering her into his arms.

"You had a good reason," he said soothingly.

"Is there ever a good reason for murder?" she retorted bitterly.

"Yes. When the person who gets murdered doesn't deserve to live. Like Xavier St. Cloud or Kalas."

JL just shuddered and buried her head in Richie's shoulder. "Those were fair fights," she said brokenly. "They had a chance. My father was practically asleep."

Richie hugged her tightly for a minute, then held her at arm's length so he could look into her eyes. "You were 12, JL. Nobody expects a 12 year old to be able to fight fair. Nobody expects them to have to." Gently caressing her cheek, he said softly, "You killed him because he was molesting you, right?"

JL almost looked like she was going to bolt, then she forced herself to relax and nodded. "I guess it's not much of a secret, is it? Lots of energy wasted covering up what everyone already knows."

Richie pulled her close again. "How old were you? The first time, I mean."

"Does it matter?"

"Yes. You know what Bryan says: 'If you can't talk about it, then it matters a great deal.'"

"Bryan can get a bit full of himself at times."

"You're stalling, JL," Richie insisted.

JL sighed, then pulled away and settled back on her bar stool. Sipping her second scotch, she regarded Richie tiredly. "Eight," she said finally. "It was his way of apologizing for missing my birthday party. He was off in a drunken fog somewhere, no doubt."

"Why didn't your mother stop it?" Duncan asked.

JL looked at him and shook her head. "My father was 6' 4" and built like an ox. My mother was 5' 2" and very soft- spoken. When she finally annoyed him enough, he threw her down the stairs and crushed her skull. Accidentally, of course." JL sighed and swirled her drink. "That was when I was ten. After she was gone, he dropped any pretense of propriety and made me move into his bedroom."

Joe reached out and laid his hand on her arm. She squeezed his hand and mustered a small smile. "It was almost better, in a way. He didn't get angry about my mother's looking at him or her 'accusing tone,' as he called it. I thought things were going to go on that way forever."

Joe waited for a minute, but JL just stared at her drink and didn't continue. Giving her arm another small squeeze, he said softly, "So what changed?"

"I met someone in Central Park. I was sitting up in a tree watching the other kids sail their boats and thinking about why my last suicide attempt had failed when he walked up, looked around, then sat down under my tree. I didn't think he'd seen me, but he started talking. He told the most wonderful stories about princes rescuing fair damsels and evil dragons meeting their grisly rewards. He had this great English accent that I'd never heard before, and I just sat there enthralled. After a couple of hours he got up, looked right at me with these beautiful blue eyes and a smile that could melt any girl's heart and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow. Same time, same tree, all right?' Then he left. I didn't really expect to see him again, but I did. At least a couple of times a week for nearly a year and a half. He told me stories, taught me to play chess, and generally gave me something to look forward to. He told me things that I didn't believe but that I liked hearing--that I was smart, pretty, and that I'd be someone important someday. The funny thing was that he really seemed to believe it. Of course," she added with a smile, "he did have inside information."

Joe stared at her intently. "Inside information? You mean about your pending Immortality?"

JL nodded, then dug out her wallet and retrieved a dog-eared photograph. Smoothing the wrinkles with a loving hand, she passed the photo to Joe. "Hugh Fitzcairn," he almost whispered, amazed.

"Fitzcairn. After I found out he was Immortal, I kept meaning to try to 'accidentally' run into him to tell him how grateful I was, but I kept thinking that I'd have time." JL smiled ruefully and carefully put the picture back in her wallet. "He always said if you want something, you have to go for it without hesitation. So one day, about a month after he told me he had to go on a business trip and wasn't sure when he'd be back, I found a stiletto under a bush in the park. Its blade wouldn't retract anymore, but I thought it was a gift from the gods. I took it home and, the next time he fell asleep after he raped me, I slit his throat with it." JL sighed and continued bitterly, "And if I could have stuck around I'll bet the whole neighborhood would have thrown me a party."

JL went to take the bottle of scotch from Joe, then thought better of it and got a cup of coffee. Sitting back down without looking at any of them, she stirred in the sugar and then sighed. "So that's the whole sordid story. If you want to call Carstairs back and turn me in, I'll understand."

Joe snorted. "The hell I will. Besides, it was a case of justifiable homicide if I ever heard of one."

JL smiled weakly. "Thanks, but I don't think the FBI is going to care. My father was a miserable bastard, but he was also an FBI agent."

"Is that why he got away with killing your mother?" Richie asked.

"Mostly. That and he made me lie for him and say that I'd seen her trip and fall."

"Why didn't Jason help?"

"Jason loved his daddy. And he was already 16 by the time our father started molesting me. He stayed out a lot, and he got away with it because he was Jeffrey's 'real' son." JL sighed. "He moved out right before Mom died, so he didn't see him move me into the master bedroom."

"But he must have known," Richie insisted.

"Like father, like son," JL said bitterly. "But what could he really do? Our father had very large fists, Richie. And he enjoyed using them, even on Jase now and again."

"What I don't understand," Duncan said quietly, "is how the FBI found you now?"

"Through Jason, I guess. After I moved in with Joe, I sent Jason a letter telling him I was OK, but not giving details or a return address. I heard that he'd gotten arrested for car theft a few years ago, but, other than that, I haven't seen him or talked to him. He said an old neighbor of ours, saw me and told him I was here." JL shrugged. "Could be. I would have thought I'd recognize Kathleen if I saw her again, but I've already started tuning out anyone who doesn't 'buzz.'"

Richie shook his head and looked angry. "Maybe he got caught again and he's selling you out to make a deal for himself. What did he say?"

"Not much. He has a wife and kid, and he's in AA. That's why he says he looked me up--to get my forgiveness. One of the steps, or some such."

"He's lying," Richie said flatly.

"Most likely. It was a survival skill in our house." JL yawned. "Well, guys, I'm beat. If they found you here, Joe, they're probably watching your house. I'm going to drive over to a hotel for the night."

"You can't use the van," Duncan interrupted. "I'm sure they have an APB out on your license plate."

"You can come home with me," Richie offered.

Duncan shook his head. "No, you two have been out every night since you came back. They're probably watching your place, too, Richie. They probably aren't watching my loft, though, and Richie has some sweats there that should fit you. Joe, Richie, and I will leave, and, when I'm sure I'm not being followed, I'll circle around and pick you up out back. You can stay with me until we figure out how to handle this."

"I can't ask you to hide me from the FBI, Duncan."

"You're not asking. I'm offering. It might not even work, if they checked Richie's background thoroughly enough. I'm betting that they only have enough people to stake out Joe's house, the bar, and Richie's apartment. If they see Joe lock up for the night, they'll probably leave the bar and concentrate on his house and Richie's apartment, especially in this weather."

"It bothers me that they tipped their hand to Joe," JL said quietly.

"They probably figured that Joe would call you and they could get the phone company to trace the call," Duncan theorized. "Or, if he didn't call you, you'd show up here or at Joe's house. Luckily they underestimated your ability to spot surveillance setups and glide through them undetected."

"And Richie's memory for FBI agents."

Duncan smiled. "That too. I certainly didn't recognize them."

Smiling hesitantly at Duncan, JL said quietly, "Thank you. I really appreciate your help."

"Don't worry about it. Come morning we'll figure out a plan. Connor's in New York City, and he should be able to help."

Joe grinned. "I didn't know Connor was wired in with the FBI," he said.

Duncan grinned back. "Connor's wired into everything. I thought you Watchers knew all this stuff."

Joe smiled. "Not my assignment." Joe stood up and announced "Last call" to the remaining patrons, preparing to close the bar. JL helped with the chairs, then grabbed a broom as the last of the crowd filed out, leaving Joe, Duncan, and Richie alone at the bar.

Joe shook his head. "She always cleans when she's nervous," he explained. "Our house used to be spotless until she settled in."

Closing the register, Joe walked over to give JL a good-bye hug and his spare set of keys. Walking out with Duncan and Richie, he locked the door behind them and left JL to wait inside the back door for Duncan.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

JL was quiet on the drive back to Duncan's loft, watching the rain stream down the windows and trying not to flinch when the lightning flashed. Duncan could tell she was upset from the restless patterns her left hand kept tracing on her leg, so he decided to try to get her talking. "How was San Francisco?" he asked.

JL started as if she had forgotten he was there. "Good," she said softly. "It's a beautiful city, and I enjoyed showing Richie around. He gets excited over everything. I'd forgotten what that was like."

Duncan smiled. "He does, doesn't he? That's one reason I like teaching him. He reminds me of everything I take for granted."

"I wonder how long it will be before he gets jaded like the rest of us."

"Jim and Bryan don't seem jaded."

"They're not. But they surround themselves with mortal students and get doctorates in whatever catches their fancy-- Jim says it takes more work to stay in touch with the world than it does to survive in it."

Duncan nodded. "He's right. Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it."

"What do you do then?"

Duncan stared at the rain and sighed. "You wait," he said finally, "until something or someone jolts you out of your depression. For me it's been a couple of people. Connor. Darius. And Fitzcairn." Duncan smiled fondly. "I can picture Fitz sitting under a tree telling fairy tales to a young pre-Immortal. It fits his romantic style."

"You know the funny part?" JL asked a bit hesitantly. At Duncan's questioning glance, she continued, "I read the basis for a lot of his stories in your Chronicles. And Connor's. It took me a while to pin down why the entries about you fighting with Bonny Prince Charles sounded so familiar, but that was it. Fitz told me about it, although," she added with a chuckle, "I don't remember your name coming into it. Nor Connor's, for that matter."

Duncan smiled. "That's Fitz. I'll miss his unfailing irreverence, even if he annoyed me constantly."

JL seemed unsure of whether to ask a question, but they arrived at the dojo and she was spared the decision. Dashing from the car into the building, Duncan took her upstairs and showed her where the futon and extra bedding were kept while he got out Richie's sweats. She set it up in the corner near the spiral staircase, then carefully laid her scimitar next to it. Duncan laughed softly and JL looked up at him in surprise. "Is something wrong?" she asked.

"No," he replied quickly. "Sorry. I wasn't laughing at you, really. I was just wishing all my house guests were that neat."

JL smiled. "Well, you can't expect Richie to have both youthful exuberance and a tidy nature. The two are extremely contradictory."

Duncan nodded. "True enough. Would you like anything to eat or drink?"

"No, thanks."

Duncan noticed that JL looked reluctant to actually get into her newly-made bed, so he decided to try to help her relax. "How about a workout before turning in? Richie thinks Jim and Bryan taught you a few moves that I might not know."

JL blushed slightly, but looked eager to burn off some energy. Retrieving her scimitar, she followed Duncan into the elevator and back down to the dojo.

After stretching out a bit, the two of them began to circle warily. JL studied Duncan's eyes and shoulders to try and figure out when and where he was going to move, but he didn't give off any more clues than Jim or Bryan did. Deciding to take the initiative, she attacked fast with a feint to his leg followed by a real cut to his arm, but Duncan blocked the shot easily and responded with a thrust to her side. The katana slit her shirt but not her skin, and she began a more cautious series of attacks that resulted in some satisfying exchanges, but no solid hits for either side.

Separating again, they circled a bit more, and then JL dove into a roll that put her behind him, and she scored a small cut in Duncan's back before he could whirl around and parry her next shot. They were both grinning as they maneuvered, each enjoying the rush of adrenaline and the solid feel of steel on steel. Duncan suddenly leapt up on a weight bench and flipped over JL's head, then uncoiled and cut deep into her side as she began to turn. He stepped back assuming she would wait for it to heal, but she drove in without hesitation in a fierce exchange that sent sparks flying and backed Duncan into the punching bag. He stumbled slightly as the heavy bag rebounded and hit him in the shoulder, and JL darted in and placed her scimitar at his throat. They stared at each other intently for what Duncan considered to be an eternity before the bloodlust receded from JL's eyes and she stepped back and lowered her blade.

"Sorry," she said quietly. "I do get a bit carried away sometimes."

Duncan rubbed his neck gingerly. "It's all right. I should have pulled that first shot."

JL shook her head. "Jim and Bryan don't pull anything, now. They expect me to fight to the death. Several of them, sometimes."

"Sounds a bit severe."

JL shrugged. "They tell me it's better to die with those who'll let you keep your head. We even fight two-on-one occasionally."

"Who against whom?"

"We alternate. Bryan calls out the first team, then he'll suddenly call out new teams. It's fun, and it definitely keeps you on your toes."

"I'd think it would," Duncan replied, trying to envision suddenly fighting against the person you'd just been working with. "No wonder Richie thinks the three of us should work out together. He probably wasn't going to warn me about the changing-teams-in-mid-battle part."

JL smiled. "Don't worry, they didn't do that with him. They said they didn't want to interfere with your training. But he did watch us do it--maybe he does think we should try it."

Duncan laughed. "He loves to learn new moves. If he put half that effort into his school work, he'd be a Ph. D. by now."

"Education's not a big seller on the streets. Fighting ability--now that's always useful." JL stretched a little, then grinned mischievously at Duncan. "Best two out of three?" she proposed. "Loser cooks breakfast and washes the dishes."

Duncan smiled and raised his blade. "You're on. But I'll warn you--I'm very particular about how my Eggs Benedict are prepared."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

JL kept an eye on the English muffins as she mixed up the Hollandaise sauce. Me and my big mouth, she thought as she worked. I should have known that punching bag thing was a fluke.

If you had let me take control of your body we could have taken him, little one, Alaric told her.

Oh, good morning, Alaric. So you said last night, repeatedly. JL grinned wryly. That's probably why I lost. Your constant yammering distracted me.

I do not yammer, Alaric thought indignantly. I merely suggested a few strategies during the quieter parts of the fight.

You don't get it, Alaric. If he sees me turn into you, he'll probably kill me. Kill us, I should say. Adam said my talking to you isn't the same as your controlling me, but he wasn't too keen on it. And Duncan has even less reason to be lenient.

"JL?"

What?

I didn't say anything, Alaric replied. That was MacLeod.

Oh, joy. JL shook herself slightly and looked at Duncan, who was watching her curiously. "Sorry about that. I haven't had enough coffee yet. What did you say?"

Duncan still looked curious, but he just pointed at the toaster. "The muffins are starting to burn," he said.

JL rescued the muffins, scraped off the blackened edges, then assembled the Eggs Benedict. Pouring them both coffee and juice, she settled in to eat without quite meeting Duncan's eyes. They ate in a somewhat strained silence for a while, then she squared her shoulders and looked at Duncan. "Joe told me how Kalas killed Fitz, and then you killed Kalas." At Duncan's nod, JL continued slowly, "Do you ever talk to Fitz? Or to anyone whose Quickening you carry?"

"Talk to them?" Duncan replied in surprise. "Do you mean more than just trying to imagine what the other person would say?"

"Yes. I mean a conversation where you get information from the other person that you couldn't know any other way."

Duncan shook his head, then reconsidered. "Once, sort of. Sean Burns was a good friend of mine I killed because I couldn't control the Dark Quickening. When I first looked into the holy spring Adam took me to, I saw Sean's face, then I heard his voice speaking to me. He said he forgave me and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and defeat my demons. But that's the only time. Why?"

"I can talk to Alaric," she said, tensing as Duncan's eyes widened. "Adam says it's unusual but not unheard of." She grinned wryly in an effort to lighten the mood. "Adam seems to have heard of almost everything. I've got to find out how old he really is."

Shaking her head and returning to the point, JL looked back at Duncan. "Alaric knew Adam in Rome in 150 AD, which is where they both met Jim and Bryan just before those two became Immortal. Apparently there was a bit of an altercation as to whether Adam or Alaric would mentor the two youngsters, and Adam won." JL studied Duncan's face, but he didn't meet her eyes. "It doesn't mean he can control me, Duncan," she said earnestly. "Adam, Jim, and Bryan all tested me over and over. Adam got me so mad that I tried to strangle him, but it was me, not Alaric. I can only hear him when I'm not paying attention to something else, like when I forget about the muffins or I'm waiting for my next pool shot. And I don't feel compelled to do what he says. Although," she added with a sigh, "he is a better pool player than I am, and I usually do better when I follow his advice. But it's still me making the shots."

Duncan shook his head. "When I was under the influence of the Dark Quickening, I did things I don't remember. Or, at least, don't want to remember."

"But you did notice gaps in your memories, didn't you?" JL insisted. "Time you just couldn't account for?"

"Yes," Duncan replied slowly. "I guess that's true."

"Well, I don't have any gaps. I can recall every glorious second of wrapping my hands around Adam's throat and squeezing until he managed to break free. He quit picking on me about my fear of horses after that, let me tell you."

Duncan smiled, and JL relaxed slightly. "I guess my father did me a favor after all."

"How so?" Duncan asked.

"They said part of the reason my personality survived is that I have a tremendous reserve of anger against my father and all men who remind me of him. When Alaric dropped his sword and said 'Go ahead and take my Quickening, little one,' he sounded a lot like my father. And I fought hard enough to beat him."

Duncan nodded. "You'd already had your trial by fire, so to speak."

"Precisely. Plus when Joe took me in as his own, he gave me a clear idea of who I want to be now that I have a choice. That's why I concentrated on being JL Dawson rather than Lori St. Cloud when I took Alaric's Quickening."

"Joe's a good man," Duncan agreed.

"The best." JL poured them more coffee, then set down the pot and looked directly at Duncan. "So, now I've leveled with you, just as Joe and Richie have been telling me to. What now?"

Duncan greeted her unspoken challenge with silence for a minute, then he smiled. "Now," he said, "we finish these eggs and you do the dishes. Then we'll plan how to get you cleared of your father's murder."

JL smiled gratefully, and the two finished breakfast in a more companionable silence. They were settling in to begin strategizing when Duncan's phone rang.

"Richie," Duncan guessed.

"Joe," JL countered.

"Hello?" Duncan said into the phone. "Oh, hi, Connor. That was even faster than I'd hoped. What did you find out?"

JL listened impatiently while Duncan talked to Connor, letting her left hand draw its random patterns while she sipped her coffee. After Duncan said good-bye, he came back to the couch and glanced over her shoulder.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing to the drawing.

JL looked confused for a second, trying to remember when she'd picked up the pencil. "This?" she asked, trying to sound casual. "It's nothing. Just doodles. Why?"

Duncan took the drawing and studied it. "It looks like a Chavín god-symbol from Peru, circa 800 BC."

JL shrugged. "Could be, I guess. Maybe I saw one in a museum once. That was even before Alaric's time."

Duncan nodded. "Interesting though. They practiced ritualized torture and dismemberment for prisoners. Maybe Alaric borrowed a page or two from their book."

"Lots of cultures practice ritual torture, though, so what makes you think Alaric copied the Chavíns? Not to mention the fact that only an antique dealer would see a 2,700-years-dead god in a doodle on a piece of legal paper."

Duncan laughed. "Anyway," he said handing the paper back to JL, "Connor's friend in the FBI, Danny Kane, pulled a few strings and found out that the investigation was just re-opened, but he couldn't find out why. Apparently Danny doesn't have a 'need-to-know' about your case. He's going to keep checking, but it may take some time." Duncan shifted to a more comfortable position on the couch and looked at JL. "So let's try and figure out what they might know. When you left your apartment for the last time, was it obvious you were running away?"

JL shook her head. "No. I got dressed, walked out, and calmly chatted with Mrs. DuPont next door before saying I needed to run to the all-night market for breakfast supplies. She knew how angry my father got if his breakfast wasn't exactly on time and just the way he wanted it, so she wasn't surprised. I'd slipped out at night to do the shopping before."

"You didn't pack anything?"

"Just the money my father had in the house, some jewelry, and a change of underwear and socks that I tucked in my coat pockets. I was wearing two shirts and a sweatshirt, but I was pretty thin so it all fit OK under my coat."

Duncan looked impressed. "It sounds like you planned the whole thing rather expertly."

JL nodded slowly. "I didn't plan to kill him until I found the stiletto, but I did have some expert advice in how to run away. Fitz told me a story about how he escaped from the clutches of a beautiful woman who wouldn't let him go by dressing much the same way and slipping past her unsuspecting guards. He then rendezvoused with the lady's maid and ran away to some Greek island."

Duncan chuckled, "I remember that story," he said, then he nodded thoughtfully. "Did you ever tell Fitz about your father?"

"Not explicitly, no. But he knew I wasn't happy, and that I was as afraid of my father as I was fascinated by Fitz." JL smiled fondly. "He was the one who started calling me JL, because I wouldn't talk to him at first. He said all I ever did was Just Look, Just Listen, or Just Leave, so he might as well call me JL. And he wasn't going to stop telling his stories until it stood for Joyously Laughing." JL stared at the drawing for a minute, then said softly, "It worked, too, by the end of the year. Our tree in Central Park became the only place I ever felt safe the whole time I was growing up. I knew he was exaggerating like crazy, but, as Jimmy Buffett says, 'There is a tale the island people tell, don't care if it is true 'cause I love it so well.'"

Duncan gave her knee a small squeeze and she smiled at him. "But you knew Fitz," she continued, "so you know what I mean. If you're asking whether his stories gave me hints on how to run away and lose myself in society, the answer's a definite yes. Right before he left he told me how a friend of his had run up some massive gambling debts so he went to the cemetery, got the name of some child who had died young, then applied for a copy of the birth certificate and made a new identity for himself. I almost didn't believe him, but I thought it would be fun to try. And two months later, I had all the paperwork to become Angelina Hethden." JL sighed and got up to get a glass of water. Returning to the couch, she said quietly, "Fortunately, I've always looked older than I was, so I could manage to pass for 16 if the person looking at me wasn't too careful. I suppose when I ran away I could have done better than Boston's Combat Zone, but the man I met at the bus station seemed so friendly and helpful. Before I could orient myself I was his 'favorite girl' and all I needed was a little shot to make the nightmares go away. I would have given my soul to talk to Fitz again at that point, but he wasn't there. So I gave my soul to my pimp and heroin dealer. At the time, I thought I wouldn't need it."

"Did you tell anyone what your father had done to you?"

"To be honest, I don't really remember anymore. I doubt it, because no one cared until I met Joe, and by then I'd decided I had to hide it at all costs in case someone tied me to the murder."

Duncan frowned. "Did anyone in New York City notice that you were being abused?"

"Anyone who's still alive? Jason, but he's apparently working with the FBI. Some of my teachers noticed a couple of times when my father hit me in the face, and my right arm was in a cast more often than not from the time I was nine until I was around eleven. Every time I got the stupid thing off, he went and broke it again for some reason."

Duncan looked encouraged. "So there are hospital records," he said.

"Lots of them, but that was 25 years ago, and who knows how many are left? They would be all over the city, too. He was smart enough not to go to the same ER too often."

"That's OK. Joe, Richie, and I will fly to New York City and collect the records. Then we can build you a case of self- defense. I'm sure Connor knows a good lawyer. He's needed one himself now and again."

"What about me?" JL asked.

"Call the FBI and turn yourself in. Then they'll have to pay for your flight back to New York, and it will look good at your bail hearing. If they have to smoke you out, you're much more likely to be considered a flight risk."

"And if I get convicted?"

Duncan smiled encouragingly. "You won't. We'll find a way out of this, JL, I promise. And Joe, Richie, and I will be there every step of the way. I'll bet Jim, Bryan, and Adam will be, too, if you want to call them."

JL hugged him impulsively, and Duncan held her firmly for a minute before letting go. "Now," he said, "shall we try another two-out-of-three for the honor of making lunch before you call Agent Carstairs?"

JL grinned fiendishly. "You're on. Alaric and I were just discussing strategies over the breakfast dishes..."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two days later, Duncan, Richie, and Joe were on their way to meet Connor at Kennedy airport in New York City. Jim and Bryan had offered to take them there in Bryan's Lear jet, and, after they'd reached their cruising altitude, Richie had immediately headed for the cockpit demanding a explanation of every dial and gauge. Jim eventually gave Richie the co- pilot's seat, then he headed back to join Duncan and Joe. Settling into a seat facing them, he tried to look grave, but he couldn't keep the humor out of his eyes. "We're in trouble now," he said ominously. "Bryan's letting Richie fly the plane."

Joe looked nervous, but Duncan laughed. "As long as Bryan doesn't let him land, it should be OK, Joe," he said. "It's easier to fly than to drive a car once you get her airborne."

"Do you fly?" Jim asked.

"I did while working for the French Resistance. Small planes, though, and I haven't done it in decades."

"Me either, actually," Jim admitted. "Bryan loves it so much, I never get close to the controls anymore."

"I'm surprised he's letting Richie fly, then."

"Bryan's still trying to impress him..." Jim began.

"This is your captain speaking," interrupted Richie's voice over the intercom. "Please fasten your seat belts as the barrel rolls will begin immediately."

"Not in my jet they won't," came Bryan's unamplified, but still perfectly audible, voice from the cockpit.

"Kids," Jim, Joe, and Duncan said together, then they all laughed.

"Did you hear from Adam?" Jim asked.

"Yes," Joe replied. "He's going to meet us in New York City. He plans to stay at the Ritz-Carlton."

"I thought he was broke," Duncan exclaimed.

"He is. Or consistently claims to be," Joe said with a laugh. "He said something about Jim and Bryan paying for it because, and I'm quoting here so don't get mad at me, 'It's the teacher's prerogative to choose and the student's job to pay.'"

Jim snorted. "You'd think after 1,800 years we'd get to cut the apron strings, wouldn't you? Maybe we'll have to remind him yet again that neither Bryan nor I took the last couple of centuries off. Or," he said with a wicked grin, "maybe we'll just get a room with one bed and make him earn his keep."

Duncan and Joe exchanged shocked glances, and Jim laughed. "Forgot to mention that phase of his life, did he? Well, he did thoroughly enjoy living in Ancient Greece, you know. And studying with Socrates wasn't the only thing I've heard him wax rhapsodic about. Besides, we wouldn't be doing our jobs as his friends and memory-joggers if we let him forget."

Duncan laughed. "He must love it when you bring up his past in front of his new friends."

"Adam hasn't made many new friends," Jim said. "At least, not in the last few centuries. He pretty much went into hibernation after Martinique nearly ended his illustrious career."

"The island?" Duncan asked.

"No," Jim replied with a wink. "The girl."

Duncan looked thoughtful. "I don't remember him ever mentioning the island or the girl."

"He wouldn't. She's one of those embarrassing moments that he'd love for us to forget."

"Do tell," Duncan encouraged.

Jim hesitated a second, then grinned. "OK. It's actually relevant anyway, if you go back far enough. It seems that Adam met Alaric Sutkin while leading Bryan's battalion. They were both waiting for Bryan to die so they could mentor him, and there was quite a bit of infighting behind the scenes before Adam drove Sutkin out. Sutkin's response was to take over command of the opposing battalion, of which I happened to be a member. He gave me explicit orders to defeat Bryan, and to cut off his head because he'd heard that Bryan was 'possessed by a demon' and that was the only way to kill him. I wasn't to engage anyone else if I could help it, just focus on Bryan. I didn't know what was really going on, of course, because I hadn't died yet, either. But I was honored that my commander had chosen me for this very special mission."

Jim went to get the bottle of scotch, refilling all three glasses before he continued. "So that's what I did. Or tried to do, rather. Bryan was good, and we both landed killing blows almost simultaneously." Jim grinned. "I still remember wondering why he looked so triumphant about the fact that my blade was buried in his chest until I looked down and realized that his was buried in mine. Luckily for both of us, Adam's tactics won the day, and he was sitting on his horse nearby when we woke up. We looked at each other, then at him, then at each other again. He just laughed and said to Bryan, 'How many times have I told you not to block a sword with your chest? Now do you believe me?' Then he turned to me and said, 'Hello, my name is Arden, this is Benedictus, and all three of us are Immortal. Welcome to the Game.' And thus did Sutkin lose not one but two potential acolytes as well as the entire battle."

Jim laughed softly and sipped his drink. "But I haven't gotten to Martinique yet, have I? Let's see. Do you know about the Black Adders?"

Duncan shook his head, but Joe looked thoughtful. "Isn't that what Sutkin's group calls itself?" he asked.

Jim nodded. "Yes. What do you know about it?"

"That's about it. Adam mentioned it in passing once, but he didn't give me any details."

"Figures," Jim commented dryly. "Adam never did believe in giving out unnecessary details, and he's even worse now. Anyway, after Adam bested Sutkin in Rome, Sutkin would occasionally send one of the Black Adders after Adam's head. One of the ones who almost got it was Martinique. She was gorgeous--ebony hair, midnight blue eyes, and a figure that made even Bryan take notice. Adam fell for her instantly, and he broke one of his own Rules: 'Never sleep with a strange Immortal until you're sure they're not out to kill you.' Well, Bryan and I were asleep in the next room when all hell broke loose. Adam was cursing, Martinique was yelling, and furniture was flying. We went in to find Adam defending himself with a chair because she'd managed to throw his sword out the window. Bryan asked him innocently whether giving him a sword would be considered interfering in a fair fight, and Adam shouted 'No' while Martinique cried 'Yes.' Bryan thought about it for a second, then shrugged and said, 'Sorry, honey, but he still owes me money,' then tossed his rapier to Adam."

Jim took another sip and grinned. "The fight got a little more even after that. She was good, but Adam was in his best form back then, and he won. He looked a little regretful when he took her head, but I think he was more upset about losing the rest of her, personally."

Duncan grinned. "Now I know how Richie feels when he hears about one of my screw-ups. It's encouraging to know that even Methos can get taken in occasionally."

"Adam told you his real name?" Jim said in surprise.

"He didn't plan to," Duncan admitted. "An Immortal named Kalas was trying to kill Methos so he'd have enough power to be certain of defeating me. I didn't really believe the legend, but I wanted to try and warn him, just in case. Joe sent me to the Watcher who was in charge of compiling the Methos Chronicle. When I realized that the Watcher was also Immortal, it was rather obvious who it was. I told Joe before I really got to know Methos, but I never told Richie or JL."

Jim nodded. "We practically had to beat his real name out of him. But his idioms were hideously dated, so we knew he was old. Of course, back when he was in his best form, he didn't care as much because he could take anyone who challenged him. Martinique threw him so badly it's taken all this time to regain his stride." Jim grinned. "Watch him pass a travel poster for the island sometime. He'll flinch, I guarantee you."

Duncan nodded. "When I found him last year, he was extremely rusty, and he admitted that he hadn't take a head for nearly two centuries. He's gotten better lately, though."

Jim smiled ruefully. "So we found out when he stayed with us this last time. He managed to beat me once, which made him inordinately proud of himself. Bryan, however, dropped him rather neatly every time they fought."

Duncan smiled at the note of pride in Jim's voice as he talked about his lover's skill, but he wanted to hear more about Methos' younger days. "Do you have any more embarrassing stories about Methos?" he asked, but Richie's voice interrupted him.

"This is your co-pilot speaking," Richie said, his voice slightly more subdued. "We are approaching New York City, where the temperature is a balmy 20 degrees and the local time is 4:30 pm. Please prepare for landing and return your steward to his upright and locked position."

Jim raised an eyebrow and laughed, then went to store the bottle of scotch and the glasses. "Just make sure you land this crate yourself, Bryan, or we'll see who gets into a locked position," he called into the cockpit.

Bryan laughed and replied, "Don't tease me, James. I'm trying to concentrate here." Then he brought the jet in for a textbook landing. After taxiing the jet in its assigned spot, Bryan pulled Jim aside for a short conference. When they were done, Jim came back to Duncan, Richie, and Joe, and told them to go on without them.

"We have a couple of things to check out," Jim explained, "and it's better if we're not seen with you. That way if anyone's paying attention to who's visiting JL, they won't recognize us. Please tell JL that we're here and we'll see her as soon as we can. We'll get her a room at the Ritz, too. Adam will just have to fend for himself."

"I'll tell her," Duncan replied with a smile. "Connor promised to find out where she was being held, and to take us over to see her."

"Good. We'll be in touch. We can reach you at Nash Antiques, right?"

"Yes," Duncan confirmed, then he, Richie, and Joe set off for the passenger loading zone where Connor had promised to meet them.

The first indication Duncan had that something was wrong was when he saw Connor's face. His clansman had never been overly emotional, but his greeting was even more subdued than usual. "Duncan," was all he said, giving him a brief hug and a pat on the back.

Duncan looked curious, but decided not to discuss it in the middle of the loading zone. "Connor. You might remember Richie, although I don't think you exchanged names the last time you met. And this is Joe Dawson, the Watcher I've been telling you about."

Connor shook hands with Joe and Richie, then led them to the van he'd rented. After he had negotiated the airport traffic and gotten to the highway, Connor finally looked a little more relaxed. "I thought Jim and Bryan were coming, too," he said to Duncan. "That's why I rented this yacht."

"I wondered what happened to your Porsche," Duncan replied with a smile. "I'm glad you haven't wrecked it yet. Jim and Bryan decided to go on alone and pretend they aren't involved. Lord knows what they'll end up actually doing. I'm almost afraid to consider the possibilities."

Connor laughed his staccato laugh. "Jim and Bryan? They'll do some shopping, maybe turn up dancing in Cats, then show up at the courthouse at the last second with the crucial piece of evidence and a mysterious smile when you try to find out how they got it."

"How did you meet Jim and Bryan?"

"We ran a couple of merchant ships together back in the late eighteen hundreds, when I was calling myself David Carruthers and they were Benedict Collins and Jeff O'Roarke. The last time I saw them really was at Cats, though. I was sitting in the audience when I felt the buzz, and I looked up to find this poor dancer teetering on one of the ramps they had suspended above the audience. I figured he was the Immortal from the way he reacted, and I felt like I should apologize to him for nearly ruining his grand entrance. I didn't recognize the name Bryan Cutler, but he did look vaguely familiar, so I had the usher slip him a note during intermission requesting a friendly meeting backstage. I didn't really expect him to take me up on it, but I figured it was worth a shot." Connor chuckled again. "As soon as I walked backstage and saw them standing together, though, I knew who they were, greasepaint and cat costumes notwithstanding. As a pair, they're unmistakable."

Joe chuckled softly and Connor glanced at him in the rearview mirror. "That was about seven years ago, wasn't it?" Joe asked.

"About that. How'd you know?"

"JL lived with them for the year and a half they performed in Cats. The way she tells the story, your apology was really an excuse to get an introduction to the starlet who sang 'Memories.' Worked, too, as I recall."

Connor nodded wistfully. "So it did. She was incredibly, uhm, athletic." Shaking himself slightly, Connor reluctantly returned to the subject at hand. "I do remember noticing a pre-Immortal hanging around their dressing room with a camera. I tried to talk to her, but she seemed rather shy. Bryan told me they had great hopes for her once she came into her own."

Joe nodded. "JL's much less shy once you get to know her. Or, more accurately, once she gets to know you. Speaking of which, what did you find out? Is she in the city yet?"

Connor studied the other traffic on the road intently for a minute, then he shook his head. "It's a bit confusing. Danny Kane, the FBI video-analyst I told you about, is trying to check into things without arousing too many suspicions. Security's extremely tight, though. Instead of using a cell at one of the prisons in the area, they have her in of one of the secure houses the FBI owns up in Westchester. Danny says only the six agents assigned to the case can get into the building, much less talk to her. Apparently it's not unusual to take such measures to protect a suspect when other policemen might want to avenge the victim."

"Where did you meet a video analyst?" Duncan asked.

"His wife's an artist, and they were at one of the gallery openings that Rachel's constantly dragging me to."

Duncan grinned. "I knew there had to be a woman involved in this somewhere."

"Can we see her?" Richie asked impatiently.

"You can try," Connor said quietly, "but when I went over yesterday, I was told that JL didn't want any visitors."

Joe shook his head. "That might be true, I suppose," he said. "But right before she turned herself in I told her I'd be in to see her as often as they'd let me, and she said she'd be waiting."

"Maybe she changed her mind and doesn't want anyone to see her in prison," Duncan guessed. "We'll go over later and try ourselves."

Joe nodded, but still looked worried. Richie reached over and patted his knee reassuringly. "She's tough, Joe," he said. "She'll be OK."

"The good news," Connor continued, "is that Jim and Bryan have a friend who specializes in defending incest victims, and she called me to say that they talked her into taking the case. Her name is Colleen Thompson, and she's going to meet us at my house this evening to learn about the situation. I called some of my friends in the legal profession, and they all said she has a stellar reputation."

"I remember JL talking about her," Joe said. "She represented one of Bryan's friends, Terry, who had repressed memories of his father's abuse for almost twenty years." Joe paused, then smiled at Connor. "I really appreciate all the effort you've gone to, Connor. It would have taken me weeks to get all this done."

"No problem. Anyone who keeps saving Duncan from himself deserves all the outside assistance he can get. And from what I hear, you've been working overtime lately."

Joe grinned despite his nervousness as Duncan growled and threw a mock punch at Connor. Connor ignored him and parked in front of Nash Antiques. They had just opened the door to the shop when the Immortals felt the familiar buzz and looked around for the source. Richie spotted it first, and he waved. "Hi, Adam," he called. "What are you hiding in the back of the shop for?"

"I'm not hiding, Richie," Adam replied mildly. "I'm over here trying to seduce Connor's lovely secretary, but she's not buying it. Which, sadly, is pretty much the story of my life."

Rachel laughed and brushed past Adam with a small blush. Handing Connor his messages, she said, "Colleen Thompson called. She's got an appointment to see JL Dawson tomorrow morning at 10 am."

"Thanks, Rachel," Connor said with a smile. "You're still the best. Do you want to continue putting your new friend down or shall we take him with us?"

"Oh, you can have him," she said casually. "He's rather a pest though, so be warned."

Adam raised an eyebrow but didn't comment, and he elbowed Richie before the younger man could say anything. "She thinks I'm a harmless Watcher," he whispered to Richie, "and I like it that way."

Connor escorted them all from the shop into the elevator and up to his living quarters, then he told them where the guest rooms were. "You're all welcome to stay here, but I have to warn you--I've only got two guest rooms," he said, "one with a queen-sized bed and one with two twins. So you have to figure out your own rooming assignments."

After a brief discussion, Duncan decided to share the queen-sized bed with Richie and let Adam and Joe have the other room. Sending Richie on ahead with his own and Joe's suitcases on the grounds that he was the youngest and had the most energy, Duncan, Adam, and Joe followed at a more leisurely pace.

"What do you mean, Jim and Bryan didn't want to get me a suite at the Ritz?" Adam complained as they walked up the stairs. "What kind of gratitude is that?"

"The kind that's stretched a bit thin, I would think." Duncan replied. "They seemed to think that helping you out with Martinique settled their debt to you."

Adam stopped short and stared at Duncan. "They told you about that?" he demanded.

Duncan smiled innocently. "They did mention something about that, yes. And something about your relationship with Socrates as well. Why do you think I'm rooming with Richie and not you?" Laughing, Duncan raced up the stairs, leaving Adam to sputter indignantly to Joe.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

They had tried to see JL the previous afternoon after they'd settled in at Connor's, but they were told she still wasn't accepting visitors. Joe had insisted, but even he couldn't make any headway against the FBI's bureaucracy. So when Colleen went to talk to her client the next morning, Adam dug out his good suit and accompanied her as her assistant. He knew the instant he saw JL that something was wrong--she had dark circles under her eyes and her hands shook so much that her handcuffs jangled. Her eyes were still blue, though, so Adam knew that Sutkin hadn't managed to gain control while she was in prison.

The guard released one handcuff and pushed her into the chair. She didn't comment as he passed the handcuff through the metal ring in the table and reattached it to her wrist, but her eyes took on a distant, glassy look. Colleen demanded that they release her, but the guard refused, saying that she had 'violent tendencies.' Colleen tried to argue, but JL interrupted her suddenly. "It's all right," she said quietly. "It's not worth fighting about."

Colleen glanced at Adam, who nodded uncertainly. Shaking her head, she ordered the guard outside the door and began talking to JL about her case. JL answered her questions calmly, but the lack of emotion in her voice made Adam long for a recurrence of her supposed violent tendencies. She recounted the story as if it had happened to someone else, and even Colleen seemed aware that something was wrong.

As they were leaving, Adam turned to JL. "Is it true you don't want visitors, JL?" he asked quietly.

JL looked extremely sad, but she just nodded her head slowly. "It's true. Not here," she replied. "Please, Adam, it's better if you don't try anymore. Just get me out of here."

Adam watched the guards lead JL back toward her cell, then he turned back to Colleen. She looked curiously at him, but he took her out of the prison and to a local cafe before he tried to talk about it. "I don't know," he admitted. "She wasn't herself, no question about it. But she's never been in jail before, so that might be part of it. From what I understand of her past, all of what she did say was true."

"If she acts like that on the stand, Adam, the jury isn't going to be able to sympathize with her. She's too controlled, too distant. The prosecution will have no trouble painting her as a pre-meditative murderer."

"Let's get her out of jail, and I'll guarantee you she'll act differently. I don't understand why she doesn't want visitors, but she must be under a lot of stress."

"Well," Colleen said thoughtfully, "they claimed she had violent tendencies, but that's usually an excuse to cover some kind of abuse. I looked for bruises, though, but I didn't see any."

Nor would you, thought Adam sadly. Not unless they happened on the way to the interview room. Aloud he said, "I didn't either, but she's definitely acting strangely. How soon can you arrange a bail hearing?"

"I can probably get one scheduled tomorrow. She's already been in jail for three days since she turned herself in back in Seacouver, so I can use that as leverage too. If we're lucky, we'll get Judge Andrea McClellan. She's a very reasonable person and I've worked with her before."

Adam nodded. "Whatever you think is best. I'd better go back and tell everyone what's going on."

Adam took his time getting back to the antique shop so he could face his friends without letting them see how worried he was. When he arrived, he avoided any comments about JL's mental state and focused on the facts that JL was still controlling Alaric, that she had leveled with Colleen, and that Colleen was setting up the bail hearing. He even managed to convince them that JL didn't want visitors because she hated the thought of seeing them in an interrogation room. Joe didn't want to believe it, but Adam could honestly assure him that their attempted visits were causing her unnecessary stress.

After the others had gone to bed, Adam sat in Connor's living room and prayed to anyone who might be listening that JL would stay strong enough to keep Alaric Sutkin from taking control, no matter what they were doing to her in that prison. When Colleen called the next morning to tell them that the bail hearing had been set for that afternoon, he repeated his prayers until they got to the courtroom. Please, he implored silently, don't let Alaric win. Not now. Not when you've come so far.

The instant they led JL into the courtroom the next morning, he knew his prayers might have helped get them assigned to Judge McClellan's court, but they hadn't been enough to help JL. She walked with a relaxed stride and her face looked extremely serene, but her black eyes gleamed with a cold fury that Adam knew meant that Sutkin had taken control of JL's body. He looked worriedly at Duncan, and his friend nodded slightly. Duncan looked concerned but resolute, and Adam knew if they couldn't get JL back in control, he'd have an extremely hard time convincing the Highlander to let her live. Of course, he thought, if she's not in control, it won't really be her we're killing, now will it? I still hope it doesn't come down to that.

Alaric held JL's body still as the prosecutor outlined all the reasons she should be denied bail. It's all right, JL, Alaric said silently. We'll get out. And then those bastards can't touch us any more. JL didn't answer him, but he could feel her panic recede slightly. Good, little one. Just let the lawyer do her stuff and I'll look sincere and trustworthy. Satan knows I've faked it often enough before.

Colleen stood up and addressed Judge McClellan. "Your honor," she said, "it's true that my client has had a difficult past. But she's also been able to put that past behind her. She turned herself in to the FBI as soon as they contacted her friend, Joseph Dawson. She has a long history of cooperation with the police. In 1974 she testified as a witness in a murder trial, and for the past three years she's been a private investigator in Los Angeles and has worked very closely with the LAPD on a number of cases. My client is not a flight risk, your Honor. She is ready to face her past in a court of law and explain her actions to a judge and jury. We ask that bail be waived and that Ms. Dawson be released on her own recognizance."

The Assistant District Attorney shook his head. "The State strongly disagrees, your Honor. The defendant's familiarity with law enforcement techniques makes her a prime flight risk, because she knows how to avoid a police investigation. The fact that she has spent the last 25 years as a free woman proves that. And she hasn't even been back to her apartment in Los Angeles for the last eight months, which means she isn't very strongly tied to that community, regardless of her prior assistance to the police. The State recommends that bail be set at two million dollars."

Colleen looked at her counterpart in disbelief. "My client is a private investigator with modest funds available, your Honor," she said. "She can't possibly afford such an outrageous sum."

Judge McClellan looked at the two lawyers, then at JL. "Do you have anything to add?" she asked JL.

Alaric considered this for a minute, trying to decide what combination of lies and truth to tell the judge. JL desperately wanted to talk to Joe, and that gave him an idea. Nodding, he stood up. "Yes, your Honor, I do. I realize that my lifestyle makes me seem rather cavalier about where I'm living and what I'm doing, but that's not really true. In the last 25 years I've had only four residences: Boston, Seacouver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And while I haven't kept in touch with anyone the law regards as my family, I've built a new family with Joseph Dawson." Alaric directed a loving glance at Joe, but he had to struggle to keep the sarcasm out of JL's voice. "I would never do anything to jeopardize my relationship with him. And jumping bail would definitely do that." Alaric paused and smiled wryly. "Besides, I've lived in constant fear of being discovered for a long time now, and, quite frankly, I'm tired of it. My counsel is correct--I'm more than ready to face my day in court. I've finally come to understand what happened in 1971, and I'm confident a jury will, too." Striving for the right mix of sincerity and apprehension, Alaric tried to make JL's face look as honest as he could. It's been a few years, it's true, he thought to himself, but this is how sincerity looks. I'm sure of it.

The judge studied JL's face and then nodded at Colleen. "Bail is set at $20,000," she said, "and the trial will begin in three weeks, on Monday, January 6th. Next case."

Colleen smiled at JL, then squeezed her hand. "I'll see you tomorrow at Connor's," she said, "and we'll start going over your case. Oh, by the way, Jim and Bryan said to tell you that they wish you all the best and they have a room at the Ritz waiting for you."

"Bryan always did like his creature comforts," Alaric replied.

Colleen looked at JL curiously, but Alaric was staring at the guards as they moved in to reclaim her. JL wanted to run to Joe and the others, but Alaric kept firm control of her body. Later, little one, he soothed her. Let's just get out of here with as little fuss as possible, shall we? They granted you bail, and I'm sure Joe will post it. This nightmare is almost over. Just stick with me, and we'll be fine. I want to get out of this as much as you do, remember?

Later, JL promised herself as the guards took her to a local jail instead of driving her back to the Westchester safe house. I'll take control back later. I'm just too tired right now. A good night's sleep and I'll be back in top form.

Of course you will, replied Alaric. Of course you will.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Joe and Richie waited impatiently as the FBI agent and his police counterpart slowly checked that all the paperwork was in order. Richie had wanted to follow Adam and find out what he, Duncan, and Connor had seemed so serious about, but he had the most experience with bail bondsmen, so he'd gone with Joe to take care of those details. I still think there's something to be said for a street education, he thought while they waited. You learn the ins and outs of the legal system better than most of the cops.

He smiled at JL when the guards led her through the door, but she just walked up to the desk to get her possessions without looking at him. Once she had signed for her belongings, she turned to them and smiled, but Richie only noticed JL's black eyes.

"Alaric," he whispered.

"I'll explain later, Richie," Alaric whispered back. "Can we please get out of here now? Before I lose control and she goes hysterical?"

Richie nodded and escorted JL to the door, being careful not to let her get behind him. Alaric sighed dramatically but didn't protest as long as they kept moving out of the police station. Once they had gained the street, they saw an older man watching Adam, Duncan, and Connor. "Donovan," Alaric said venomously, then strode over to him. Donovan glanced up and started to leave, but Alaric was too quick for him.

"Donovan," he hissed, "you listen to me. This will not go unanswered, do you understand me? Whatever Aurelia says, whatever you want to believe, it doesn't matter. In the end, you and I will have a very long discussion about this. And you will not enjoy it, either."

Donovan blanched but tried to look tough. "Are you threatening me, Dawson?" he blustered.

Alaric put JL's face a scant inch from Donovan's and let him see his hatred in her eyes. "You'll wish it were Dawson threatening you, Donovan," he promised coldly. "She has too many qualms to teach you a proper lesson. But I am Alaric Sutkin, and qualms aren't a problem for me. By the time I'm finished, you'll understand what I mean. Intimately."

Donovan almost trembled, then he mumbled something about talking to Aurelia before he fled. Alaric watched him go, then realized that the other Immortals and Joe were staring at him. "It's a long story," he said tiredly, "and I promise to tell it once we get home. I even promise not to try and kill any of you before we get there. Especially without a sword." Looking at the group assembled before him, he sighed. "That's the last time I'll ever let JL listen to your advice, Highlander. Turn herself in, indeed. Next time just use your katana. It will hurt less."

Duncan stared at JL for a minute, then said flatly, "I'll be happy to do just that if you don't give control back to JL right now, Sutkin."

"She doesn't want control, Highlander. She's been through hell this last week, courtesy of that miserable ex-employee of mine who just left. You just can't get good help these days. The absolution of slavery was a grave mistake. The prospect of being sold to the highest bidder was a great motivator."

Duncan didn't look amused, and Alaric sighed. "You want her back, Highlander? Fine. Just be prepared to deal with the results."

"Alaric..." Adam began, but Alaric wasn't listening anymore.

Duncan, Connor, Adam, Richie, and Joe all watched in amazement as JL closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and suddenly began trembling. Her eyes snapped open and she stared at them in terror, then the adrenaline that Alaric had been holding back all week flooded into her system and she shoved past Duncan and raced off into the city as though her life depended on it.

The five of them watched her run, too surprised to try and stop her. Richie recovered first and started to sprint off after her, but Duncan grabbed his arm.

"Don't, Richie," he said. "If we chase her on foot, she's liable to panic even more than she already has."

"So what do we do?" Joe asked.

"We try to follow her in the van. Or until one of us gets a better idea," Duncan replied. "At least there's a heater in the van, and she can't get all that far on foot, no matter how fast she runs."

As they got in the van, Richie nervously pushed the cassette Connor had been listening to into the tape player. As they listened to The Who's Quadrophenia, Duncan suddenly snapped his fingers. "Central Park," he announced.

"What?" Connor asked, turning down the music.

"She's going to Central Park."

"How do you know that?" Richie asked.

"I just remembered that she told me the only place she felt safe as a child was the tree she and Fitzcairn used to meet at in Central Park."

"That's right, she did mention talking to Fitz there," Joe said. "And didn't she also say that she was watching the sail boats? That would put it somewhere within sight of the pond."

Duncan nodded. "That should narrow it down enough. Besides, I have a hunch Fitzcairn's memories will help me recognize the spot when I see it."

"Great," Adam muttered. "Now you're hearing internal voices too. The Gathering better hurry up and get here before we all end up in therapy."

"Like you haven't done your time on Sean Burns' couch," Connor shot back.

"What if she runs into another Immortal?" Joe asked before the two could escalate the argument.

Duncan smiled grimly. "I doubt they could catch her at this point. And you can't challenge what you can't catch." Sighing, Duncan stared at the streets for a minute, then he looked back at Joe. "I'm sorry, Joe," he said. "If I'd have known she'd take off, I wouldn't have pushed Sutkin so hard."

Adam shook his head. "It wasn't your fault, Duncan," he said. "Sutkin must have been having problems keeping control, or he wouldn't have given in so easily. Whatever this Donovan did to her, it must have been extremely stressful. I haven't seen her take off like that since the fight we had over whether she should take the Lucas Buck assignment. If she follows her usual pattern, she'll run herself into exhaustion until her brain kicks back in and she calms down."

Joe nodded agreement. "She's always running from something or another. Adam's right--she'll run herself out. She knows the city, so I suppose she'll be OK until then."

They drove in silence for a while until Connor decided to give in to his curiosity. "So," he said, "what's really going on with JL? I mean, is it a Dark Quickening or something altogether different?"

Adam smiled to himself and said, "Well, I happen to have a theory about that." Ignoring Duncan's dramatic sigh and exaggerated eye-rolling, he settled back in his seat and continued. "When we were in San Francisco, Bryan hypnotized her in order to figure out exactly what kind of hold Sutkin had over her, and he thought that her mental patterns were consistent with a person who has multiple-personalities."

"So Sutkin's Quickening created a new personality?" Duncan asked disbelievingly.

"Not exactly. We didn't do this before she fought Sutkin, so we can't do a proper comparison, but Bryan thinks she already had at least one other personality to begin with. She can't remember anything before she was six years old, even under hypnosis, and that's a classic sign. Once the disorder manifests itself, it becomes easier and easier to create a new personality. In fact, it can become the person's first reaction to stress."

Joe shook his head. "But she hasn't shown any signs of doing that since I've known her. Unless you think all her personalities are so similar that I wouldn't notice a difference."

"No," Adam replied slowly, "personalities are usually very different from each other, so you probably would have noticed something. Bryan found indications that her personality split at least once around six, but that it had probably already split before that. The research he found suggested that the abuse has to begin as early as two or three for the child's personality to be malleable enough to split. Then, after the first split, the 'core personality,' as they call it, stops developing. The human brain is a very, very complex thing with lots of strange defenses when it gets overwhelmed. Have any of you read When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase?"

"I did," Connor replied. "It was an amazing book."

Adam nodded. "Truddi Chase has over 90 personalities, and the book talks about how they all came to know and talk to one another. Rabbit was one of the youngest, and she endured most of the abuse. She calls her personalities 'the Troops,' and different ones wrote different parts of the book. In fact, the exact authorship is 'the Troops for Truddi Chase.' When she finally got to know them all, she decided not to try and integrate them. One of her personalities changed her eye color when it was in control, too."

Duncan shook his head. "How does this relate to her being able to access Sutkin's memories? And, more importantly, to his being able to control her body?"

"JL didn't just absorb Sutkin's Quickening," Adam replied. "She made it into a part of herself that is as substantial as any of her other personalities, and who has as much control."

Richie looked fascinated. "Do you think every Quickening JL takes will create a new personality?"

"I hope not," Adam replied fervently. "For JL's sake if not ours. I think as she gets used to this whole Quickening business, she'll learn to take it in stride and incorporate the power the same way we do. With Joe's kidnapping and her sudden shift from Watcher to Immortal, her whole encounter with Sutkin had to be off the scale, stress-wise."

Connor parked the van near an entrance to Central Park, and the five men got out and looked around. "Not to disparage your amazing tracking ability, Duncan," Connor said dryly, "but I think we should split up. She could be here by now, but, depending on how long it takes her to calm down, it could be hours. What do you say we rendezvous every half hour here at the van and compare notes? It's too cold to linger in the park anyway. If you need coffee or something, there are some cafes along Central Park West that serve great cappuccino." Connor laughed softly as he added, "Just remember, you're in New York City now, so if you want coffee, bring your credit card."

Splitting up, they walked into the park and tried to ignore the bitter wind stirring up the old newspapers and Styrofoam cups left behind by countless visitors. The park was decorated for Christmas, but it still had a forlorn air of desolation that suited Adam's pessimistic attitude perfectly. They had reconvened at the van twice before he finally felt the buzz of an approaching Immortal. Turning around, he spotted JL trudging through the dead grass and abandoned newspapers. She was staring unseeingly at the ground before her, and her long black hair had escaped its braid and was falling unheeded around her shoulders and blowing in her face. She didn't even seem aware of Adam's presence until he spoke to her. "JL?" he called, "are you all right?"

JL looked up slowly, and Adam studied the dark circles under her blue eyes. "No," she whispered. "I'm cold, tired, and I just want to go home. This was a mistake, Adam. I can't go through with it. I'm not strong enough."

Adam put his arms around her and held her close, trying to help her get warm. "It's all right, JL," he soothed. "What happened last week? Sutkin implied the FBI agents were less than perfect gentlemen."

JL shuddered and snuggled deeper without answering. Adam held her for a minute, then realized there was a hard lump pressing into his hip. Reaching into her coat pocket, he pulled out a .38 special and stared at it in amazement. "Where," he asked incredulously, "did you get this?"

JL smiled for the first time and retrieved the gun. "New York's a great town, Adam. You can buy anything, any time. All you have to do is know where to shop."

Adam shook his head. "If the FBI catches you with this, they'll lock you up again, JL. And it won't look good on your record. I can hear the prosecutor now: 'And after you left your bail hearing, Ms. Dawson, didn't you run right out and buy an illegal handgun? And just what would a good, upstanding citizen like yourself need with such a thing?'"

JL handed the gun back to Adam. "So you carry it," she said with a soft laugh.

Adam rolled his eyes, but put the gun in his inside coat pocket as he ushered her back to Connor's van. After the rest came back for the next rendezvous, she exchanged subdued greetings with the others, but wouldn't elaborate on what had happened. Connor drove in silence back to his house, where he let the others settle into the living room while he mixed up some hot chocolate liberally spiked with brandy.

JL sat as far away from everyone as she could, seemingly content to drink her hot chocolate and look at the things Connor had displayed on his walls. Adam, however, was only willing to let her take a couple of sips before he spoke. "So, JL," he prompted, "why did Sutkin take such an intense dislike to Donovan?"

JL sighed but met Adam's gaze. "I knew him because he was my father's ex-partner, and my father occasionally, well, let's just say he occasionally shared me with him." JL took a larger swallow and let the brandy help her relax. "And he decided he wanted to resume our previous relationship while I was in custody. Alaric knew him because he's one of the Black Adders' mortal contacts." JL's eyes unfocused for a moment, then she smiled wryly. "Make that soon-to-be-ex contact. Alaric intends to take care of that soon." JL raised her hand as Adam started to say something. "Relax, Adam. I told him it was still under discussion. Although," she continued with a flash of anger in her eye, "I might be willing to kill him cleanly if I get the opportunity."

"You could press charges," Joe offered.

JL shook her head. "The drawback to being a fast healer is there's no evidence of physical abuse. How can I convince a jury they hurt me when I don't even have a bruise to show for it? No, it would be my word against theirs. And there were six of them at one time or another."

"Why didn't you want to see us while you were in custody?" Richie asked.

"I never saw anyone except for the six agents assigned to my case, all of whom Alaric recognized as being Black Adders. They never told me I had a visitor unless it was my lawyer and they couldn't keep her out." JL smiled tiredly at Richie and Joe. "I knew you were trying to get in, but what could I do about it? When I complained, their brutality just got even more creative. So when Adam asked if I wanted visitors, I said no." JL stared over Joe's head for a while, then she shrugged. "Besides, I wasn't really there all the time, either. Donovan kept reminding me of being Lori St. Cloud, and how I had an obligation to 'please' him the way my father had told me to. The more helpless I felt, the less strength I had to keep Alaric from taking control. Finally I stopped caring and let him take over when Donovan came in for our fourth session."

JL got up and poured herself a straight brandy, then settled back on the couch, her eyes growing distant again. "It was an interesting encounter. Alaric identified himself with some code words, but Donovan just laughed and told him he was officially dead to the Black Adders, and therefore had no power. Then, to prove how unimpressed he was with Alaric's sudden reappearance, he called in a couple of his friends and conducted an extremely lengthy and painful session that annoyed Alaric mentally as much as it hurt me physically." JL paused to shake off the memory, then she continued in a slightly lighter tone. "After that we started taking turns enduring their attentions. It's a strange feeling when I'm not in control--I can almost feel the pain, but it doesn't seem to matter all that much. Sort of like being back on heroin, actually."

"Did you ever feel that way when your father was molesting you?" Adam asked.

JL looked thoughtful. "Maybe. It's been so long, I can't really remember how it felt living with my father. Over the years it's all gotten confused with being a heroin addict, followed by the agony of becoming an ex-heroin addict." She sighed and sipped her drink. "What you feel during withdrawal has a way of overshadowing everything you've ever felt before. Or since. Why?"

"Oh, nothing, really," Adam replied casually. "Just testing another one of my hypotheses."

JL studied him for a second, then pushed the hair out of her eyes and yawned. "Joe, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your posting my bail. And Connor, this is a fabulous room full of trinkets I'd just love to hear the histories of, but I haven't been sleeping particularly well lately. So if you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I'll catch a cab over to the Ritz and sleep until noon. Maybe even later."

"The Ritz?" Adam asked.

JL nodded. "Colleen told me that Jim and Bryan got me a room there. We almost always get adjoining suites when we travel." JL grinned at Adam.

"Some people take care of their students instead of expecting their students to take care of them," Joe said softly.

Adam glowered at him, and JL laughed as she walked to the elevator door, where she picked up her coat and her scimitar and got ready to face a New York City winter night.

"Do you want any company, JL?" Adam asked.

"No, thanks. I can get some sedatives from Doctor Jim if the nightmares get too bad."

"I'll drive you over," Connor offered, getting up and retrieving his coat and keys.

"I brought your suitcase, JL," Joe said. "It's there by the door, along with your sword case."

JL nodded and picked up the cases. "What would I do without you, Joe?" she asked fondly, then she turned and grinned at Connor. "And I never turn down a ride in a Porsche."

"The Ritz indeed," Adam groused as she and Connor left. "Those boys are going to spoil her."

"Better her than you, old man," Duncan replied. "At least she's grateful when you do things for her."

"I'm grateful," Adam protested. "Most of the time, anyway. And I did try to help Joe when he'd been hauled off by the Tribunal."

"Not until I reminded you about all the things he's done for you."

"I still say it was his choice," Adam sulked.

"Care to debate this in Connor's exercise room downstairs?" Duncan challenged, but Adam didn't back down the way he'd expected.

"Certainly, Highlander," he replied. "Come see what I've remembered lately. We'll see who ends up teaching whom."

Joe and Richie chuckled as the two men headed out, then they began examining all the things Connor had hanging on his walls.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As she had predicted, JL didn't wake up until noon, but she didn't feel as rested as she had hoped. Being abused by Donovan again had re-awakened all her old nightmares, and she had spent most of the night caught between exhaustion and terror. I wish Jim and Bryan had been in last night when I got here, she thought as she struggled to open her eyes. Even if Jim didn't have any sedatives with him, I'm sure they would have been willing to sit with me and wake me up when the dreams got bad, just like they did after I killed Sutkin. I wonder what they're up to. They didn't even leave me a message. That settles it though, they're each getting a cellular phone for Christmas, and I'm going to badger them until they start carrying them around.

With a shrug, JL called room service and ordered breakfast with a full pot of coffee for delivery in 45 minutes, then she got in the shower and luxuriated in the hot, streaming water for half an hour. Feeling a little more awake, she got out, dried off, and put on her favorite flannel robe that Joe had thoughtfully included when he packed her suitcase. She chatted for awhile with the bellboy who brought up her breakfast, letting him fill her in on the comings and goings in New York City since the last time she'd been there, then she ate her breakfast and headed over to Connor's.

Saying "Hello" to Rachel, JL went up to Connor's loft. Colleen and the others were already gathered around a table, looking at some files.

"Good afternoon, JL," Colleen greeted her. "Did you sleep well?"

"All right, considering," JL replied with a small smile. "What have you decided on as our course of attack?"

"Well, first I need some answers, and I'd like you to tell me as much as you remember."

JL nodded and squeezed down on the couch between Joe and Richie. Joe obligingly moved over a little, but Richie just moved closer and put an arm around her shoulders. She arched an eyebrow at him, then sighed resignedly and allowed him to leave his arm there. She thought she heard Adam snicker softly, but when she glanced at him he was examining one of the swords hanging on Connor's wall. Looking back at Colleen, she smiled. "What do you need to know?"

"Well, you already gave me some of the details at our first meeting--namely that your father began molesting you when you were eight and you killed him when you were twelve. Joe also said that your father killed your mother, and made you lie about it. How old were you when that happened?"

"Ten," JL answered.

"Did you think your life was in danger when you killed him?" Colleen asked.

"Do you mean in more danger than usual or just the run-of-the-mill danger my life was always in?"

Colleen tapped her pencil on her teeth thoughtfully. "So you thought he might kill you at any time," she asked.

JL nodded, unconsciously reaching out to take Joe's hand. "He said he killed my mother because she looked at him once too often. He broke my arm four or five times over a two-year period because he was arguing with his boss at work. He drank enough to stock a bar and he was given to violent outbursts. Yes, I thought he might kill me at any time. I knew I could push him over the edge if I just argued at the wrong time, but I didn't have the courage. So I'd shut up and let him hit me until he passed out." JL's voice had risen angrily as she spoke, but then she dropped her eyes and said softly, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

Colleen smiled reassuringly. "It's all right, JL, you can be as angry as you need to be. I'm an expert in this field because I've been there. I didn't kill my father, but I did testify against him in court so my sisters would be taken away from him. It was very hard, because part of me really wanted to be daddy's little girl. But he made that impossible, not me. And not you. So," she said, handing JL a legal pad, "why don't you write down every injury you remember that required a hospital visit and which hospital you think he took you to. Then we'll get the records to prove a pattern of abuse."

"Colleen," JL said hesitantly, "am I going to prison?"

Colleen shook her head. "If we can prove that you were abused, I don't think so. It's actually a good thing that you're on trial now instead of in the seventies. A lot of abuse cases have been covered in the media lately, and people are beginning to realize that incest does happen, and that the victims rarely tell anyone about the problem until it's too late. We just don't want it to end up being your word against your father's, so we'll get other opinions. After you've listed the hospitals, list the names of your teachers, neighbors, anyone who knew your father and might have seen or heard him fighting with you or your mother. Every character witness who says your father drank a lot or was often angry is a point in your favor."

"What about her brother, Jason?" Richie asked.

"I'll talk to him, too," Colleen replied. "I don't know what he intended to get out of contacting you in Seacouver, JL, but he probably didn't get it, so he might be amenable to a deal from me. I know he's been arrested for heroin possession, so he should be anxious to make any deal he can."

"I wouldn't count on Jason too much," JL said quietly. "He's got a few things to hide himself, so he'll probably be leery of saying anything the FBI doesn't want him to say."

"Anything I could use to make the jury question his credibility?" Colleen asked.

JL sighed and shook her head. "Nothing I could prove that isn't already in his criminal record. I really don't want to drag him into this any more than necessary anyway. He's got enough trouble of his own right now."

Colleen looked thoughtful, but she decided to drop the subject and let her investigator work on it for awhile.

"What can the rest of us do?" Joe asked. "I mean, I'm sure you have investigators for this, but we've all had some experience digging through obscure paperwork to find information, and none of us are any good at sitting around waiting."

"Well, Jim and Bryan are already working with my investigator, but he can always use more help," Colleen acknowledged. "After JL makes out the list, we can split it up and research what people are still alive and what hospitals records are still available. Then we can start canvassing JL's old acquaintances to see what they remember. I've gotten much better results having the person who's actually involved with the case talk to the potential witnesses, too," she said with a rueful smile. "They have a much harder time claiming that the questions make them feel 'uncomfortable' when the person who was being hurt is standing there asking them. JL, do you know of anyone else your father molested?"

JL stared thoughtfully at her legal pad for a minute, then she nodded. "I know of at least one, a mentally retarded boy about my age named Alex Jackson. But I don't have any idea of where he is now or even if he'd remember it." Shaking off an old memory, JL shrugged. "There were some other kids that were afraid of him, too. They said he yelled at them, but I'll bet he at least hit some of them."

"All right," Colleen said, "Put their names at the top of the list, and I'll get people looking for them."

JL nodded and began writing. After she finished her list, Colleen divided it up and sent Adam, Richie, and Connor off to search for hospital records while JL took Joe and Duncan to her old neighborhood. JL stood staring at her former apartment house for a minute, unable to summon the courage to go inside. Joe held her close for a second, then let her go and headed into the building. Duncan looked at her with a reassuring smile, which she returned weakly before following Joe in the front door. The hallway was smaller and dingier than she remembered, but old Mrs. DuPont still lived in 1A, across the hall from JL's old apartment. They talked to her for a while, but she was in her eighties now, and her memories weren't particularly clear. The rest of the tenants had all changed since JL had left, and Mrs. DuPont didn't know where anyone had gone.

The buildings on either side yielded the same discouraging results, so Duncan suggested they try JL's old school. Checking in with the office, they found out that all of JL's teachers had retired, but Duncan was able to get the secretary to give them forwarding addresses for some of them. JL grinned to herself as she watched Duncan charm the secretary, but she decided to refrain from teasing him considering how many young men she'd charmed in her own investigative career. Not that I blame her, she thought. I'd forget the rules gazing into those gorgeous brown eyes myself.

Not you too, Alaric sneered. What about poor Adam? And lovelorn little Richie? How many hearts do you plan to get on your string, JL?

You're just jealous, Alaric, she replied, struggling not to blush, because no one ever loved you.

Not true, Alaric replied. Sometime I'll have to tell you about Aurelia. Probably should do it before you end up facing her, too.

She's one of us?

Not only that, my dear, but she's also one of me. A Satanist of the highest order. My very finest pupil, in fact. And a finer swordswoman you'll never hope to meet.

JL shuddered slightly. Lovely. Please make sure you tell me all about her so I can avoid her.

Alaric chuckled silently, but Duncan had the addresses and JL had to concentrate on taking them to the closest house. Her teacher, Mrs. Abigail Pratt, was slightly more helpful than Mrs. DuPont. She remembered JL's struggle learning how to write with her left hand because of the cast on her right, and she agreed to testify to that. The next teacher, Mr. Harvey Scanlon, needed a bit more prompting, but he eventually remembered sending JL to the school nurse several times when she came in with bruises on her face and a split lip. He, too, agreed to testify.

The other three teachers on the list didn't remember JL well enough to help, but she was encouraged with the two they'd found. "I didn't think anyone would remember me," she confided to Duncan and Joe on the way back to Connor's. "I was only a mediocre student at the best of times, and I tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible."

Joe nodded and smiled at her. "Teachers see more than you think, JL. So do parents, when we're paying attention. At least, the good ones do, anyway."

Duncan nodded but still looked thoughtful. "What's the matter, Duncan?" JL asked him. "You don't seem encouraged."

"I think it's a good start, JL," Duncan replied, "but we still haven't found anyone who can prove it was your father who hurt you. Maybe we should talk to Jason."

JL stared out at the passing cityscape for a minute, then she shook her head. "I'm not sure how much I trust him. I'd hate to count on him corroborating my story only to have him suddenly claim that our father was a saint in order to cut a better deal for himself."

Duncan glanced at JL in the rearview mirror. "Did Jason ever abuse you, JL?" he asked. Duncan watched in the mirror as JL stared out the window silently for a while, then he saw her quickly brush away a tear before she nodded and whispered, "Yes."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The rest of December passed similarly, with trips to dusty records rooms punctuated by visits to JL's old acquaintances, most of whom seemed unhappy to see her and few of whom were willing to talk to Colleen, let alone testify. Jason had talked to Colleen, but the father he claimed to remember was definitely a much kinder, gentler man than the one JL had known, and his testimony was going to be very hard to disprove.

The one event that brought JL out of her depression was Connor's annual Christmas celebration on December 21st. Jim and Bryan decided to pull out all the stops and turn JL into their personal version of Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady. They bought her a red silk strapless gown with a full skirt that sparkled with gold sequins, then they added a ruby and diamond necklace and earrings that shown almost as brightly as the dress. They introduced her to the make-up artist/hair stylist, Michael, that they'd met while they were in Cats. Michael tutted over how her hair wasn't being properly cared for, then trimmed the split ends and turned it into an artful waterfall of ebony that perfectly complimented the flowing cut of her dress.

"There," Michael declared. "That softens your face and makes you look years younger. Now let's do your make-up and you'll be ready to take on the world."

Or go back and work the streets, she thought, staring uneasily at the beautiful stranger who looked back at her in the mirror. I look like a high-priced call girl.

You look like a lovely and wealthy woman, Alaric replied. A call girl's skirt would be much tighter and would ride up higher when you sat down.

Thanks for pointing out the distinction, Alaric, she replied silently as the stylist applied her make-up.

When she entered the ballroom Connor had rented, Richie, Duncan, and Connor couldn't help staring. Grinning at their shocked expressions, Adam leaned over and whispered, "That, gentlemen, is why I call her 'princess.' Not to mention why I got close enough to feel her pre-Immortal buzz at the Watcher ball as soon as she walked in the door."

"Wow," Richie breathed.

"Wow covers it, too," Adam acknowledged with a chuckle and a wink at Joe, who was smiling proudly.

JL tried to stay inconspicuously positioned in a corner with Richie, but Bryan dragged her out on the dance floor and waltzed with her. They moved together so perfectly that most of the crowd stopped to watch, and even Jim looked impressed. Richie was the only one who looked unhappy about it, and his instincts were proven right when JL ended up virtually ignoring him as she was surrounded by Connor's friends, most of whom wanted to dance with her and all of whom had fascinating stories that kept her laughing and talking until dawn.

Duncan put a sympathetic arm around Richie's shoulders as they eventually watched her leave nestled between Jim and Bryan. "Did you invite her back to Connor's tonight?" Duncan asked him.

Richie shook his head. "No. I could tell she planned to spend the night with Jim and Bryan, and I didn't want to upset her. It's the first time I've seen her truly happy since this whole mess started."

Duncan nodded approvingly. "There's hope for you yet, Richie. I've seen the way she looks at you sometimes, and I agree there's something there. I think you're right not to push her too hard, though. She'll express her appreciation eventually."

"Yeah," Richie muttered, mostly to himself. "I just hope I live that long."

The next day, they went back to working on JL's case. Jim and Bryan thought they were getting close to finding Alex Jackson and Kathleen McCormick, and they started going out of town to interview people in person instead of relying on the telephone. They came back to celebrate Christmas day with them before Bryan flew to Chicago looking for Kathleen and Jim drove to upstate New York looking for Alex. They promised to keep in touch with her as often as they could, but JL found the cellular phones she'd given them still packed in their boxes after they'd headed out. JL was surprised at how much she missed talking to them at night, especially now that the trial was only a week away. She refused to leave the Ritz and move into Connor's, though, because he didn't have enough room for her and she wanted some time alone to prepare herself for the trial.

JL grew more distant and reserved as the trial approached. Joe, Richie, and the others did their best to cheer her up, without much success. When she tried going out to some of her favorite bars with Richie and managed to bring even his natural exuberance down, and she'd finally given up and gone back to her hotel room alone.

Even Alaric seemed concerned about her state of mind, searching his memory for stories about people and places that would spark her interest. On New Year's Eve, he finally convinced her that if she didn't want to party with the others, she should take her camera and spend the night photographing people bustling about in their holiday finery. Alaric seemed to appreciate the display as much as JL did, and the two of them ended up discussing the pros and cons of the different types of tuxedos and evening dresses that passed them by.

You know, Alaric, she thought as she worked her way towards Times Square, this isn't exactly the way I intended to spend New Year's Eve, but it's kind of fun. I never envisioned you having a fashion sense before.

Evil people are all supposed to be ugly, is that it? Alaric asked with a laugh. Just like we're all supposed to be stupid and easy to hate. There's much you don't know about me, little one. I just hope you'll be willing to learn what I have to teach.

Some of it, anyway, JL replied cautiously. I don't need any lessons on torturing for fun and profit.

Don't reject ways to acquire power until you've tried them. This is a difficult world we're living in, and you're going to need all the power you can get.

I've got lots of power, JL told him firmly, and it comes from my friends, not from other people's pain.

All right, all right, Alaric said with a chuckle. Just checking. You can't blame me for trying, can you?

Yes, JL said. I certainly can. Behave yourself, Alaric, or you might find yourself living in a much less amenable host once Duncan or Adam takes my head.

Alaric's answer was drowned out by the insanity that was Times Square on New Year's Eve, and he decided to drop the subject until later.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When JL finally roused herself the next day, she took a quick shower and called down for breakfast, asking that it be delivered by the bellboy she'd met the first morning. He'd brought up her breakfast several times before, and he was happy to fill her in on the gossip that didn't make the papers. JL enjoyed hearing his gossip, and she tipped him handsomely enough that he began looking for things to tell her. This time when he wheeled in her breakfast tray, he was also carrying a black turtleneck sweater neatly wrapped in a dry cleaner's plastic bag.

"Here you are Ma'am," he said cheerfully. "The cleaner's note said to tell you that the bloodstain came right out, and that it was a good thing you didn't let it sit too long."

JL looked confused but took the sweater. She was about to tell him there must be some mistake when she recognized it as one she often wore during night reconnaissance missions because it blended perfectly with the shadows and was shapeless enough to leave any potential witness unsure as to her sex. "Uh," she stammered, aware that the bellboy was staring at her, "Thanks. I, uh, had a really bad nosebleed last night, and I love this sweater."

The bellboy smiled and nodded. "I know what you mean," he replied. "I always seem to get stains on my favorite stuff, too. Now the really ugly clothes my Mom sends me for Christmas, those are indestructible." JL's laugh seemed to encourage the young man, and he leaned closer and said conspiratorially, "I thought maybe you tried to help that poor cat."

"Cat?" JL asked. "What cat?"

"Oh," he said, suddenly shy. "I probably shouldn't talk about it. You won't have the right impression of the City."

JL laughed again. "I grew up here, so don't worry about my impression. It's already been ruined. What cat?" Smiling at the bellboy, JL leaned forward expectantly and let her robe drape open ever so slightly.

And you call me shameless, Alaric chided her.

Shut up, Alaric, JL countered, careful to keep her expression friendly. You interrogate your way and I'll interrogate mine. At least my way doesn't leave scars. "So," she prompted again. "What about the cat?"

"Uh, the cat. Right." The bellboy swallowed noisily, than forcibly brought his gaze back up to JL's face. She smiled encouragingly at him, and he continued slowly. "Well, last night some sicko killed a cat in the alley out back."

"This couldn't have been the first dead cat you've seen," JL replied.

"No, but this one was cut up like a Thanksgiving turkey. They found pieces of it all down the alley."

JL shuddered. "Sounds lovely. No, I didn't see it last night, thank goodness. When did they find it?"

"One of the kitchen staffers found it this morning when he went to throw out some garbage. He called the police, but they weren't very interested in a dead cat, no matter how gruesomely carved up."

JL smiled and handed the bellboy the signed breakfast receipt and a twenty dollar bill. "Thanks for the news," she said, "and the sweater. I appreciate it."

"Sure," he beamed. "Any time." Then he went out the door before she could ask for change for the twenty.

JL watched him go and grinned. Never fails, she thought with satisfaction. Give them a bill you might want change from and they flee without another word. Or potentially awkward question. Looking at her sweater again, she shook her head. Alaric? What do you know about this? she asked silently.

Me? responded Alaric in surprise. Nothing. I was with you in Times Square last night, remember?

You were with me or you were me? Did you take control while I was sleeping?

No, little one, Alaric replied. You've told everyone you'd remember it if I had. And I haven't bothered to sacrifice anything as boring as a cat since I was twenty and I graduated from animals to humans. Now if the victim had been someone like that foolish little bellboy, well, that would be different.

Don't joke about this, Alaric, she warned. If I find out you're lying to me and taking control without my knowledge, I'm going to convince MacLeod to take my head. I promise you.

So you've said. Repeatedly. And as I've said, I can feel your determination so I know you're serious. So consider me warned and drop it, OK?

JL sighed to herself and drank her coffee. You are such a grouch in the morning, you know that? she thought, but Alaric didn't respond to her taunt. Feeling much better as the caffeine entered her system, she ate breakfast, then called Connor and told him she was on the way over. Morbid curiosity made her stop in the alley behind the hotel first, but she saw only a few bloodstains and an occasional tuft of fur. She was about to leave when a small symbol painted in blood and half-hidden by a trash can caught her eye. Moving the can, she felt a chill run down her back as she recognized one of the Satanic symbols that Lucas had painted on the wall of the torture room in Richie's blood after he'd started torturing the young Immortal.

Interesting, was Alaric's comment. But badly drawn. Whoever drew it should have practiced it more on paper before trying it on brick.

Oh, great, she thought. Now you're an art critic.

JL could almost feel Alaric shrug, but he refused to comment further. Shaking her head, she walked out of the alley and caught a cab over to Connor's house. She spent the entire trip trying to decide whether she should tell Adam about the cat and the bloodstained sweater. There are just too many unanswered questions, she decided as she walked in the door. I've caught Alaric hedging the truth before, and I don't think he's lying now. Besides, I can always tell Adam later, if I need to.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The day before the trial, JL woke up with a headache for the first time since she'd become Immortal. Something was making an infernal racket next to the bed, so she groped across the night stand without opening her eyes until she found the offending object and knocked it to the floor. She was about to go back to sleep when she realized that there was a distant voice that sounded vaguely like Joe's coming from the floor.

"JL?" the voice said. "JL, are you there? Can you hear me? JL?"

Forcing her eyes open, she looked down at the telephone receiver, from which the distant voice spoke again. "JL?" it said. "Are you all right?"

JL sighed and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" she said.

"JL," Joe said gratefully. "What's going on? Why didn't you answer?"

"I'm sorry, Joe," she said. "I thought it was the alarm clock, not the phone."

"Did you get any sleep last night?"

"Some. But now I have a wicked headache like I'd been drinking all last night." She tried to open her eyes and groaned. "Maybe I was, come to think of it."

"I though you'd sworn off emptying the honor bar after that time you stayed in Toronto and ended up hung over for almost a week." Joe laughed softly. "So," he said, "Immortality doesn't save you from hangovers. I'll have to make a note in the records."

"Great," JL said with a sigh. "I'll go down in the annals of Watcher history as the Immortal who couldn't hold her booze. Lovely thing to be remembered for."

"You were supposed to be at Connor's for breakfast followed by our last strategy meeting with Colleen, remember? Should I send Adam over to help you get organized? I'm sure Rachel will let him use her car, even if Connor doesn't want to lend him his Porsche."

"No, thanks, Joe. It's not that far. I'll take some aspirin and a shower and be there within the hour. I can't promise how much I'll eat, but I'll be there."

"Take care of yourself, JL," Joe cautioned. "We've still got a long way to go before this is over."

"I will, Joe, I promise. Good-bye."

Hanging up, JL stretched and walked slowly over to the honor bar, but only one small bottle of rum was lying empty in the trash can. I didn't think I had more than one drink last night, she thought. So why do I feel this badly? Must be the stress. I guess Immortality doesn't save you from tension headaches, either.

After taking four aspirin, JL got into the shower and let the hot water stream over her until she felt human again. Getting out reluctantly, she dried off and blow-dried her hair, then got dressed and put on her duster and scimitar. Walking downstairs, she stopped at the closest coffee shop for a double cappuccino, then took a taxi over to Connor's.

When she walked into Nash Antiques, Rachel greeted her with a warm smile. "Good morning, JL," she said cheerfully. "How are you?"

"I'll survive, Rachel," she said with a tired smile. "As always."

Rachel smiled back and pointed to a long, rectangular crate lying next to her desk. "This arrived for you this morning from Watcher headquarters."

"Really? It looks too big to be my pink slip."

Rachel shrugged. "I don't know. But it was addressed to you care of this store, and it came special delivery."

JL shook her head and picked up the crate. It felt relatively heavy and looked about the right size for a sword, but she couldn't imagine why anyone from the Watchers would be sending her one. Connor met her at the elevator, and he looked curious when he saw the crate. JL just shrugged and smiled. "I haven't a clue," she told him, picking up the crate. "Only way to find out is with a crow bar."

Connor nodded and pointed the way to the kitchen while he went to get the crow bar. JL walked into the kitchen, set the crate on the counter, then assessed the coffee situation and poured herself a large mug. Looking at the expectant faces arranged around the kitchen table, she raised an eyebrow. "What?" she demanded. "You've never seen a woman bring a big crate to breakfast before?"

"Not in recent memory," Joe replied. "What's in it?"

JL shrugged. "If I knew that, I wouldn't have sent Connor off after a crow bar. It's from the Watcher HQ here in town, though, so it's probably a bomb. Anyone ever worked on a bomb squad?"

"Don't laugh, JL," Adam said, coming over to examine the crate. "Although it does look more like a sword than a bomb. Who knew you were going to be here? Are you even still in the Watchers?"

"Yes. Jim and Bryan's Watcher was thrilled to get some vacation, so I took them back as my temporary assignment." JL grinned mischievously at Adam. "Besides, that way he couldn't report me to the Tribunal for 'conduct unbecoming' or whatever they're calling associating with you riffraff these days."

Connor came back with the crow bar and JL opened the crate, then handed the lid to Adam who had been staring expectantly over her shoulder. "Put this somewhere, would you?" she asked, waiting until he'd reluctantly moved away to lift the first layer of padding. She took out and opened a manila envelope and looked at the post-it note attached to it. "'Thought you might want to add these to Bryan Cutler's Chronicle'," she read aloud. "Some Watcher in Chicago must have caught him fooling around again. I wonder why they didn't sign it, though." With a shrug, JL opened the envelope and studied the three pictures it contained.

The first one showed a dark alley with a woman about JL's height and build shooting a taller, dark haired man in the back. In the second one, the man faced the camera as he knelt unsteadily in the alley, his arms fastened behind his back and his despair evident on his face. The woman's expression was one of evil anticipation as she stood behind him swinging a sword toward his neck. JL's eyes widened in shock as she recognized Bryan as the kneeling man and herself as the killer. She prayed there was some mistake as she looked at the third picture, but it clearly showed JL taking Bryan's Quickening.

Trying desperately to stay calm, she angrily summoned Alaric. Is this your handiwork? she demanded.

Certainly not, Alaric replied. It wasn't even a fair fight.

You'd better not be lying to me, Alaric, JL thought angrily, then she put the pictures down on the counter and lifted another layer of padding. Staring at the contents of the crate for a minute, she felt herself beginning to shake and knew she needed to sit down. Without taking her eyes off the crate, she backed up until she came to a wall then let herself slide down it until she was sitting on the kitchen floor with her arms around her pulled-up knees. As Adam and the others quickly moved over toward the crate, she lowered her head and began crying softly.

Richie looked at the German backsword with its distinctive engraved S-shaped crossguard and side ring lying in the crate and said softly, "That's Bryan's," to Duncan and Connor.

Adam looked at the sword, then closed his eyes briefly and muttered a small prayer before examining the pictures. He held each one up to the light as if to see it better before handing it to one of the others. His hands seemed steady but his eyes looked incredibly old and tired when he finally lifted out Bryan's sword and examined the bloodied blade carefully. Shaking his head in puzzlement, he laid it back in the crate. Turning to face JL, he said angrily, "Alaric?"

When JL didn't respond, he strode over and hauled her to her feet, then shook her by her shoulders. "Alaric?" he repeated. "Talk to me, damn you."

JL stiffened in Adam's grasp and pulled away as her eyes turned black and Alaric took control. "You've got to be joking, Adam," he said. "You don't really believe that I'm responsible for this, do you?"

"Well I certainly don't think JL did it."

"She didn't. And neither did I." Alaric looked at the others, but they all looked ready to skin JL alive, an event that Alaric did not need to imagine. "Look, Adam," he said as reasonably as he could, "if I were looking for an easy kill, it wouldn't have been Bryan. He's probably the best fighter in this whole group, considering your current state of rustiness. No, I'd have taken Richie when he and JL did the bar scene a couple of nights ago. But I didn't. Didn't even occur to me, actually."

"I don't believe you," Adam said tightly.

Alaric sighed and directed JL to walk over to the counter and picked up the photographs, trying to ignore the accusing stares from the other Immortals. "You've known me a long time, Adam," he said, selecting the one that showed Bryan being shot in the back. Offering it to Adam, he said earnestly, "Have you ever known me to defeat an Immortal by cheating this blatantly?"

"No," Adam replied slowly, "but I have known you to sacrifice Immortals, and many would not consider that to be fair." Glancing at Richie, he continued, "And Lucas was your student, and he didn't even bother to shoot Richie in the back himself. He sent his mortal cohorts to do it."

Alaric had JL lift the sword and rest its point on the counter so he could gaze down its length and see if the blood and residue matched that of a beheading. A surge of anger and fear went through him as Duncan and Connor stepped back warily and unconsciously reached for their swords, but he forced himself to control his emotions. "It's true," he said softly, "that Lucas broke the rules taking Richie the way he did. I won't try to justify it, because that's not how I taught him to operate. I have indeed sacrificed Immortals, but only after I defeated them in one-on-one combat first. I satisfied our rules before I satisfied my own."

Letting JL put the sword back in the crate, Alaric had her turn so he could study Adam intently. "Even if you believe that I would take a head that unfairly, you must know I'm not stupid. And killing Bryan, or any of you, would be stupid. You've all made it very clear that you don't trust me. Even JL, as fond as we're becoming of each other, keeps telling me she'll step in front of the Highlander's blade if she thinks I'm controlling her without her knowledge." Alaric smiled wryly. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't tried, but I haven't succeeded. Besides that Chavín drawing I slipped in to play with MacLeod's mind a little bit, of course." Alaric smiled again, but the anger didn't fade from Adam's eyes, so he continued earnestly, "Look, Adam, I assure you that JL isn't unaware of my presence or my actions. And even if she was, how in the world could I hide the lasting effects of a Quickening from her? Especially one as strong as Bryan's? They love each other a great deal, Adam. She'd know if he were in here."

Walking over to Adam, Alaric laid JL's hands on his shoulders. "We were never friends, Adam," he said quietly, "but we were relatively honorable rivals. I tried to kill you, it's true. I tried to take Bryan from you by sending Jim to kill him. That's true too. I even 'suggested' that some of my better students might want to go after your head. But I never 'cheated' by ganging up on you, or by attacking you when you were helpless. Do you remember that battle in Rome, Adam? You were surrounded. Finished. Your troops won the day, but you, personally, lost. And do you remember what I did? Do you?"

Adam stared at JL's black eyes and nodded slowly. "You saluted me, said 'see you next time around,' and rode away."

Alaric nodded. "Exactly. I'm proud of my skill with a sword, Adam, and I wouldn't demean myself this way. The pictures are fake. Have them checked out, if you don't believe me. Of course," he added slowly, "I can't be sure how much is fake. Bryan could well be dead. But I didn't do it. I swear on my honor as a fellow Immortal."

Adam brushed Alaric's hands off his shoulders and walked back to the counter. Running his hand along Bryan's blade, he watched his blood join Bryan's on the steel. As the lightning flickered along his healing fingers, he looked back at Alaric. "Let me talk to JL," he said quietly.

Alaric shrugged, then JL's body suddenly slumped as she regained control. Her tears started again, and she leaned wearily against the wall. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Poor Bryan. And poor, poor Jim."

Adam walked over to her and guided her to a chair. Kneeling beside her, he brushed the hair out of her face and lifted her head up so he could look into her eyes. "JL," he said softly, "What do you think of all this? Is Alaric lying?"

"I don't know anymore, Adam," she said. "I just don't. I had some really bad nightmares last night, and I woke up feeling like ten miles of bad road. I don't remember seeing Bryan since he left for Chicago, but he did call me a couple of days ago to tell me he was giving up and coming back to New York. That was last Friday, and, when he didn't show up, I just assumed that he found another lead and forgot to call me back. He didn't take his new phone with him, so I couldn't get in touch with him to ask." JL sighed and reached out to stroke Adam's cheek. "I should have just told you about the stupid cat and convinced you to kill me days ago."

"What cat?" Adam asked taking her hand and holding it gently.

"Alaric convinced me to take my camera and go to Times Square for the New Year's Eve celebration. The next day when I ordered breakfast, the bellboy came up with my food and my black turtleneck sweater that he claimed I'd sent down to the laundry the night before because I'd gotten blood on it. Then he told me about this poor cat that had been cut up in the alley out back."

JL stood up and went over to clean the blood from Bryan's sword. As she worked, she continued quietly, "I checked the alley where it happened, and found a symbol inscribed on one of the walls that strongly resembled one I saw Lucas Buck paint in Richie's blood in that Carmichael Street warehouse, any number of lifetimes ago." Carefully cleaning the engraving on the blade itself, JL sighed. "I asked Alaric about it, and he denied any knowledge and said he'd graduated from cats long ago. I believed him then, but nobody took any pictures of that."

"What I want to know," Joe said thoughtfully, "is who took these pictures? The folder and crate are clearly marked with Watcher symbols, but it doesn't make sense. You are Jim and Bryan's Watcher, and you obviously didn't take them."

"Who would know which Watcher symbols to forge, and where they should put them?" JL straightened suddenly, then put down Bryan's blade and held out her hand for the pictures. "Let me see those again." Taking the pictures from Joe, she studied them intently. "This shot of the beheading had to be taken at close range and right in front of Bryan."

"What about a telephoto lens?"

"There's not enough light to get that much detail from a telephoto shot. Look at the blur the sword is making. No, someone used fast film set on a long exposure to get that effect, and they were right in front of Bryan at the time."

Joe nodded. "Then these aren't Watcher photographs, which means they're probably fakes."

JL stopped cleaning the sword for a minute, standing with her eyes closed and her hands still for the first time since she'd opened the crate. Then she opened her eyes and resumed cleaning the sword. "Could be, I suppose," she muttered to herself.

"What could be?" Duncan asked. "Were you just talking to Sutkin?"

JL glanced up at him and sighed. "Alaric said that he had just discovered his Watcher shortly before I killed him, and that he'd been talking about the implications to the others. He thinks Donovan might have done some research and forged the symbols so we wouldn't question the authenticity of the pictures." JL grinned wryly as she added, "But on the whole, Alaric doesn't care any more for Donovan than I do, so you might want to take any theories we have about him with a grain of salt."

Connor took the photographs and put them back in their envelope. "Well," he said, "it sounds like we have a clear case of reasonable doubt to me, so I'll call Danny and ask him to check these out. If anybody can figure out whether they've been altered, he can. And," he added with a small laugh, "I know just what to bribe him with, too."

"Who's Danny?" JL asked.

"An FBI video-analyst whose wife appreciates old jewelry. He's the one who tried to find out about your case when this whole thing started."

"Which reminds me," she replied, "what do I owe you for the last bit of information you got from Danny?"

Connor waved a dismissive hand. "I'll figure out a bill at the end of all this," he said with a smile. "We can work out some kind of an installment plan. Or maybe some kind of swap. Didn't Jim tell me you had pictures of Adam naked? I could sell them to Playgirl."

Adam almost blushed and glared at Connor, but JL laughed and managed to nod before Adam grabbed her and began whispering threats in her ear while he tickled her. She turned and began tickling Adam until they were both laughing too hard to continue. He dropped into a chair and pulled JL onto his lap, mouthing a silent "Thanks" towards Connor. Connor winked at him and went back to his office to call Danny.

"So," Richie asked, intrigued. "Are these pictures of Adam real or what?"

JL chuckled and squirmed around in Adam's lap until she could see Richie. "Of course they are," she replied. "And they are extremely tasteful, if I do say so myself. My favorite is black and white, and it shows Adam standing there smiling and holding a strategically-positioned sword with its point resting on the ground."

"A big sword," Adam supplied helpfully. "A claymore, wasn't it? Like the really massive one in Bryan's study."

"Actually I thought it was closer to a dagger, but it has been a few years. I suppose it could have been a claymore, although the term 'overkill' does come to mind."

Adam growled in her ear and hugged her tightly. "I'll be happy to refresh your memory, sometime," he promised. "Just say the word."

JL looked at him in surprise. "I thought you weren't going to sleep with me again because of Alaric," she said.

"Who said anything about sleep?" he countered with an attempted leer that just made JL laugh again. "You," he sighed, "are not good for my ego. Not good at all."

"Balderdash," she replied. "Like your ego is in any danger of shriveling away. Now if I had to hide that behind a sword, it would have to be a lot bigger than a claymore. Maybe even bigger than a small city."

"Why do I put up with you?" Adam asked mournfully.

"Because nobody else thinks you need to hear the truth. They get caught up in how old and venerable you're supposed to be and forget that cynicism is not the same thing as wisdom."

"Oh, my, how profound. Who told you that?" Adam said challengingly.

"You did, actually. You were referring to Bryan at the time, but if the shoe fits..." JL trailed off at the mention of Bryan's name, and she sighed. "I'm going to miss him," she said softly.

"I wouldn't miss him yet," Adam replied. "If Bryan were easy to kill, he'd be dead many times over. You read his Chronicle, so you know what he's been through. That claymore of his isn't just a display model. No, I wouldn't count him out just yet."

"Count who out?" Colleen asked, walking into the kitchen with Connor. "What's in the crate?"

"A sword for Connor's collection," Richie lied automatically, replacing the packing material in the crate.

"Have you heard from Bryan lately?" JL asked, giving Richie an amused wink.

"He called me last Friday to say he found another lead and might be out of touch for a while, but I haven't heard anything since then. Why?"

"Uhm, nothing, really," JL replied, standing up and tucking her shirt back into her jeans. "Adam was just trying to convince me that this might be survivable, even without Bryan to lean on."

"That it might," Colleen replied cheerfully. "My investigator found a medical report that shows multiple fractures in your right arm and includes a note from the doctor who noticed bruises around your wrist consistent with a large hand twisting your arm until it broke, as well as welts running from your shoulder blades to the back of your knees. The doctor suggested that the authorities be contacted, but I checked with social services, and they don't have any record of it. Which means that your father got his buddies in the police force to squelch it. It doesn't prove that your father abused you, but it strongly suggests it. I just found the doctor, and he's willing to corroborate it himself. He even remembered you when I showed him the file, so he's going to be a very strong witness for our side."

JL smiled hopefully. "What about Alex Jackson?"

"Jim still hasn't managed to trace him yet, but he's working on it. Now, let's go over what we have so far."

Moving into the living room, Colleen spread her papers out on Connor's coffee table. JL studied them intently, trying to banish the image of Bryan kneeling in a filthy alleyway with his betrayal showing in his eyes as JL swung his own sword toward his neck.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

During her pre-trial work with JL, Colleen had kept emphasizing the importance of the first impression she would make on the jury. JL had thought about the accolades she'd gotten at Connor's Christmas party and made a standing appointment with Michael for the duration of the trial. For the first day, she decided to wear an elegantly-tailored blue silk suit with a white silk blouse, low heeled dark blue pumps, and the braided silver necklace and earrings that Adam had given her one Christmas while they were still dating. Michael curled her hair slightly so it cascaded down in gentle waves, then he used the silver Celtic-patterned barrette that Duncan had given her to pull most of it back from her face and make sure the rest fell properly around her shoulders. He applied her make-up carefully, achieving a competent professional look that JL could never have managed on her own.

"Jim and Bryan are right," she told him as she admired the results. "You are a magician. Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate this."

"No problem," Michael replied as he escorted her down to a waiting taxi for her ride to the courthouse. "Although you really should take better care of your hair if you plan on leaving it long."

"Yes, oh Great One," JL replied with a bow and a smile, then she headed for the courthouse.

The others smiled warmly when she entered the courtroom, and Colleen looked especially pleased with her appearance. By the end of the day, though, they'd all stopped smiling as they listened to several current and retired FBI agents testify to what a wonderful man and dedicated law-enforcement officer Jeffrey St. Cloud had been. JL tried to stay calm, but she looked stricken when Jason told the jury that their father had disciplined him occasionally, but only when he deserved it and never with anything other than his open hand. Colleen couldn't break his story, but she did get him to say that he spent most of his nights out of the house 'because their apartment was so small,' so it was possible that Jeffrey treated his daughter differently than he did his son. She also got him to admit to being held for heroin possession, although he strongly denied having cut a deal in exchange for his testimony.

Richie still thought Jason looked as untrustworthy as the used car salesman he'd once worked for, but the jury seemed to like him and even Colleen was a bit discouraged when Judge McClellan stopped the proceedings for the day. Trying to put a positive spin on things, she put a hand on JL's arm as they left the courtroom and smiled at her. "It will be all right," she said. "The prosecution won a few points with Jason, but we have your doctors and your teachers lined up to testify, and they're going to be far more credible than a man who's just been arrested."

Later that evening, JL was curled up on Connor's couch with Richie when Connor burst into the room. "Danny's on the phone," he announced, "and he's looked at those pictures."

JL yawned and stretched while Connor rounded up the others, then he put his speaker phone in the middle of the room. "You still there, Danny?" he asked.

"Barely. What's all the commotion?"

"Sorry, but I had to assemble the troops. We're ready now. What did you find out?"

"Where did you get the pictures?"

"From an anonymous source. Why? Are they real?"

"Certainly. Each one is made up of three very real pictures: One of the girl with the sword, one of the guy who's shown being decapitated, and one of the alley."

"So they're composites," Connor said.

Danny hesitated. "That's what I said, isn't it? You getting hard of hearing in your old age, Connor?"

"Just making sure I understand you," Connor replied patiently.

JL said, "Hi, Danny. I'm one of the troops."

"Hi, yourself," Danny said promptly. "What's the question?"

"Can you tell if Bryan was really beheaded?"

"Someone definitely was. It's hard to say who, exactly. The problem is that while I can find the inconsistencies between the outline of the head and the alley wall, I can't determine why those inconsistencies are there. Either Bryan was indeed beheaded in some other location and added to the alley picture, or a different man was beheaded and Bryan's face was substituted for his. Similar inconsistencies exist between the woman's face and the alley wall. Do you understand what I mean?"

"What about analyzing light patterns and shadow lengths?" JL asked.

"All shots were taken at night, and in relative darkness, so no go."

"Picture intensity? Color density? There's got to be some way to tell if that's really Bryan."

"I wish there was, I really do. But this picture was created with a professional image processing setup by a real expert and then printed from a negative. That smoothes out any potential differences in color and intensity." Danny sighed and they could hear papers rustling in the background.

"What is it, Danny?" Connor prompted. "I can hear you considering saying something from here."

Danny sighed again. "You know me far too well, Connor. I was just thinking that the imperfections I found in these pictures look awfully familiar."

"How so?"

"Well, I was messing around with some pictures just for fun. You know, putting my head on Arnold Schwarzenegger's body, really 'professional' stuff like that for Peggy's birthday card last year. Anyway, I thought it looked great until I examined it up close and found the same type of pixel distortion I'm seeing in these photos."

"What does that mean?" Connor asked.

"I'm not sure, exactly. But every system gives you slightly different results. So whoever created these pictures, they're using the same setup as the FBI."

"That's comforting," Connor muttered.

"Be careful, Connor," Danny warned. "Whoever these people are, they beheaded somebody. And whoever that woman is, she looks pretty comfortable with that sword. Even if she wasn't in that particular alley, she still looks dangerous to me."

Connor chuckled. "This from an Arnold-wannabe. Thanks, Danny. I'll send that brooch you've been hinting about over tomorrow."

"Fantastic. Peggy'll like that even better than the Arnold card."

Connor laughed. "Thanks again, Danny." Turning off the speakerphone, Connor looked at JL. "Well," he said, "it's something, anyway. At least we know Bryan wasn't beheaded in that alley."

JL shrugged and sat back on the couch. "I'd rather know Bryan wasn't beheaded anywhere," she said tiredly. "I can't imagine how they got his facial expressions right unless he really thought he was being betrayed."

Adam came over and began to rub her shoulders. "It will all work out, JL," he promised. "Did you call the Chicago airport?" he asked.

"Yes. They said Bryan's jet is gone, but they're still searching for the flight plan. His hotel confirmed that he left on January 3rd, but the only forwarding address they have is San Francisco. I called there and left a message, just in case. I suppose we could call every airport in the world and ask them if they have a stray Lear jet with 'Breaking Free' painted in metallic gold script on her nose, but otherwise I haven't a clue about where to start. If you can figure it out, let me know and I'll be happy to work on it." JL got up and stretched, then started to get her coat. "I'd better get to bed, guys. Good night."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Making the ultimate sacrifice, Richie got up early enough to meet JL for breakfast at the Ritz before she met Michael for her morning hair and make-up session. After breakfast, JL enviously watched Richie doze on the bed while she tried to compose herself for the day's ordeal. Her hands were shaking more than usual and Michael kept scolding her for squirming too much as he applied her make-up, but she somehow made it out the door in time. Richie held her hand in the cab, and she smiled at him and rested her head on his shoulder. When they arrived at the courthouse, he held the door for her and paid the driver, then they walked up the steps into the building. As they walked down the corridor, Jason stepped out of an alcove and reached for JL. Richie automatically dropped into a basic martial arts position and was about to kick Jason's teeth down his throat when JL stopped him. "It's all right, Richie," she said. "I want to hear what he has to say."

"I'm sorry, Lori," Jason said quietly, his hands moving in the same nervous patterns JL's usually did. "I'm really sorry. I had to. They didn't give me a choice."

JL regarded him silently for a few seconds, then she shook her head. "If you want my forgiveness, Jason, get back on that stand and tell the truth about what our father did to me. Then make sure you never do anything like that to your wife and daughter."

"I'm going to jail, JL," he whined. "And it's not fair. They planted the heroin on me."

"You really expect me to believe that after what you said about our father on the stand? Tell the truth, Jason. Then, maybe, I'll see what I can do to help you with your problems."

Jason just shook his head and trembled, but she didn't stop staring at him. "Father was right about one thing, Jason," JL called after him coldly as he shuffled away, "you are a coward."

Jason moved past Adam, Duncan, and Joe as they came in the door, and the four men watched as he slunk out the door. Adam walked quickly over to JL, studying her expression.

"Are you all right, JL?" he asked.

"No, but I'll live. I shouldn't have been so hard on him."

Richie shook his head. "The creep lied on the stand just to cover his own butt. He deserves to be called a lot worse than a coward."

"You don't understand, Richie," JL protested.

"You'd be surprised," Richie muttered, putting his arm back around her waist and leading her toward a nearby bench. "I've met a few creeps in my life."

"Haven't we all," Adam said quietly, appropriating the seat on the other side of JL while Joe sat down next to Adam and Duncan leaned against the wall.

JL looked from one to the other and laughed softly. "You will let me decide which one of you I want to spend time with instead of doing some silly macho thing and fighting it out between yourselves, won't you?"

"Do you have a preference?" Adam asked with a grin.

"Yes," JL replied. "I prefer to stay single."

Adam winked at Richie over JL's head. "Guess that means we fight it out between ourselves then, right, Richie?"

"Sounds like it to me," Richie replied, glancing up at Duncan. "Although I might have to elect a champion if you want to do it before I've had a century or two to practice."

"Don't look at me," Duncan said quickly. "I'm staying far away from all this."

"Me too," JL said, getting up and going over to Duncan with a flirtatious smile. "How about you and I seeing the town tonight? Jim and Bryan showed me all the best galleries, and we can eat at the Four Seasons."

"Sounds good to me," Duncan replied to her conspiratorial wink, and the two of them began discussing evening plans.

Adam grinned at Richie. "Nice work," he said. "She needs all the joking around she can get right now."

"Who was joking?" Richie asked, staring intently at Adam.

Adam blinked in surprise, then Richie burst out laughing and stood up to horn in on Duncan's conversation with JL.

They were still joking when Colleen walked up, followed by Donovan. JL and her friends glared at him, but Donovan seemed oblivious to their hatred as he leered at JL on his way into the courtroom. "Sorry to hear about your pal, Cutler," he said as he walked by, tossing a New York Post on the bench next to JL.

JL stared down at the paper, then picked it up slowly and read about how the police had found the body of a headless man down by the docks. The body had yet to be identified, but it belonged to a 35-year-old white male with no visible scars who had been dead for several days. Duncan read the article over her shoulder, then took the paper from her hands and held her close. "It might not be Bryan," he said gently. "They still haven't identified the body yet."

JL just trembled and tried not to cry while Duncan held her and Adam spoke quietly with Colleen. When it was almost time for court to begin, JL reluctantly pulled away from Duncan and tried to fix her make-up. Colleen came over to help, then the two women walked into the courtroom. "I'm going to kill that son of a bitch," Adam said angrily.

"Get in line," Richie growled as he grabbed the paper and looked at the article. "Then I'm going to talk with Jason until he sees reason."

Joe just shook his head and gestured at the door. "Let's get through this first. If we lose focus, JL will lose focus. And she can't afford that."

"Joe's right," Duncan said, ushering the others into the courtroom. "There will be time to deal with Jason and Donovan later."

JL looked up as she felt them enter the courtroom, and she managed a small smile before she turned her attention back to Judge McClellan. The day didn't get any better as the prosecution presented photographs of the crime scene that clearly showed that her father had been murdered in his bed. When enlargements of the pictures were displayed for the jury, JL thought about Bryan's death and cried for him instead of letting them see her real feelings about her father. Her tears were so intense that the judge even ordered a 15-minute recess to give her time to collect herself.

She couldn't stop crying until Alaric's chuckle cut through her sorrow. Great work, little one, he thought. Brilliant timing. Serves Donovan right, too. He tries to throw you so you can't handle the trial, and you turn it right back on him and act like you miss your miserable excuse for a father. And you want to know the best part? Do you?

What's that? she asked slowly.

He is going to catch serious grief from the other Black Adders for giving you the article today. He should have saved it until you were about to testify so that it would destroy your concentration. Serious, serious grief. I just wish we were going to be there to see it.

You're a very sick man, Alaric, she thought, but the idea of Donovan's getting into trouble appealed to her just as Alaric had known it would.

I know, he replied cheerfully. It's one of my best qualities.

After the recess, the day proceeded relatively quietly. JL managed to keep her emotions in check with the help of an occasional sarcastic comment from Alaric, and Judge McClellan called a halt for the day as soon as the prosecution finished its case. As they filed out, JL walked over to Adam and held him. "It's a small comfort, but Alaric says if it was Bryan's body, they would have found the head. He also pointed out that the jet should be back at Kennedy Airport, too." JL pulled back and smiled at him. "Of course, I suppose he could have said it for my benefit."

Adam stroked her hair and smiled back. "I doubt it. Alaric never does anything for anyone else's benefit." Taking her hand, he smiled again. "Now how about dinner?"

"I already have a date, remember? Duncan and I are going to the Four Seasons." Taking her hand back, she smiled at Duncan and took his arm. He arched an eyebrow at Adam, then shrugged helplessly and led her out to get a cab.

When they arrived at the restaurant, Duncan got them a quiet table and ordered drinks. After the waiter left, he smiled at JL. "So, JL, what's going on? Why are we really here?"

JL sighed. "You don't waste much time on small talk, do you? You'd think you were in a hurry or something."

"Am I wrong?"

"No. I did want to talk to you alone. Except for Connor, you're the only one that doesn't really have a personal stake in how this turns out. So you're the only one I can count on for an honest evaluation of the situation."

Duncan nodded slowly. "Sometimes it's better to face the truth."

"Is this one of those times?"

"I suppose it depends on what truth you're looking for," Duncan replied. "I don't know if Bryan is dead or not, but I do know Donovan wants you to believe it. And I hate to agree with Alaric, but putting Bryan's head in that crate or in the dumpster would have done that much more effectively."

"Then again, maybe they want me to have some kind of false hope and they'll send me the head later."

Duncan raised an eyebrow. "You and Adam are both so pessimistic. No wonder you can't live together for any length of time."

JL laughed softly. "In the words of Douglas Adams' Marvin the Paranoid Robot, 'I'm not getting you down at all, am I?'"

Duncan smiled. "No, but it's a close thing. I just keep in mind the fact that you're emotionally unstable."

"Always a good thing to remember," she said with a smile. "I like to keep it in mind myself."

"As to how the trial's going, I don't know. It all depends on who the jury thinks is more credible, you or Jason. If they're like Richie, they'll side with you instantly."

JL nodded, and seemed willing to let it go at that. They ordered dinner, and she took the opportunity to ask him about his adventures with Fitzcairn. They were still talking about Fitz when they returned to Connor's, and they were both surprised to find the building dark and silent. Looking at his watch, Duncan whistled. "It's after midnight. Now Adam and Richie are both going to be out for my blood."

JL laughed. "So box their ears and let them go. They'll figure it all out." Duncan looked reproachful, and JL smiled. "Don't worry, Duncan," she continued. "Adam is too realistic to get upset over my spending time with Richie. He knows we weren't meant to be in the long run. He needs someone like Alexa who can balance his cynicism with wonder and enthusiasm. I lost that ability several lifetimes ago."

Duncan nodded. "And what about Richie?"

JL grinned and winked at Duncan. "He balances my cynicism. Or he'll try, if I let him." Looking out at the night, she sighed. "I need to settle this first. Then we'll see. I don't want to commit to anything yet."

She turned to go, but Duncan laid a hand on her shoulder. "I don't have the best track record for making commitments, myself," he said quietly, "but I have learned that there's always another excuse. Now it's the trial. After that it will be the emotional aftermath. Maybe even the quest for revenge if Bryan's really dead. And suddenly you can't remember why you wanted to make a commitment in the first place. Look," he said, holding out the keys Connor had given him, "I'm sharing a bed with Richie. Top of the stairs, first door on the right. Why don't you take it, and I'll take the couch tonight?"

JL stared at the keys, then looked back at Duncan. "You trust me alone with Richie?"

Duncan looked puzzled, then smiled grimly. "You mean do I trust Alaric alone with Richie?" he asked. JL nodded and Duncan continued, "I'm sure all of Bryan's psychology books would tell me to say 'yes' to build your confidence no matter what I really thought. But you said you valued my honesty, so I'm not going to do that." Pausing, Duncan looked up at Richie's bedroom window and shook his head. "I'm sure Joe told you I tried to kill Richie after I took the Dark Quickening. I'd like to say I was able to stop myself, but I was enjoying his fear and confusion. If Joe hadn't shown up when he did and shot me, I'm sure I would have taken his head." Looking back at JL, he smiled again. "Alaric is in better control of his evil tendencies than I was. He knows I'd never rest until he was dead. And neither would Adam or Connor. No, that much of his story I believe. Richie's Quickening isn't worth the aggravation it would cause."

JL shook her head. "Well," she said, "I did ask for honesty, didn't I? I should have known better." Taking the key from Duncan, she smiled. "What the hell. At least it will be fun."

Duncan winked at her. "I'm sure it will. Make sure he shows you what Kristin taught him."

"Kristin? The fashion designer? When did he meet her?"

Duncan laughed. "I'd tell you, but I have to go write this down." Standing stiffly at attention, he spoke in a extremely officious manner, "Let it be known that in the early morning hours of January 7, 1997 in the city of New York, the Watcher JL Dawson did hereby miss a question in the Immortal Trivia Game."

Hanging her head in shame, JL peeked up at him from under her bangs. "Shoot. There goes my reputation for infallibility as well as the theory that Joe and I are telepathically connected. Please tell me you'll forgive me. I'll get the question right next time, I promise."

Duncan laughed and chased her into the antique store and into the elevator, then he gave her a hug and a friendly pat on the back. "Good night, JL," he said as he headed for the living room. "Have fun."

Saluting him, JL slipped upstairs and opened Richie's door. As she came in, she saw the blankets stir as he reached down for his sword, then he said softly, "Duncan?"

"Nope," she answered. "I'm afraid you're stuck with me tonight."

"JL?" he asked hopefully, letting go of his sword and sitting up.

Pouncing on him quickly, JL pushed him back in the bed and began tickling him. "Who is Kristin," she asked, "and what did she teach you?"

Richie looked surprised, but he decided to go with the moment. "She was an extremely possessive woman whose only redeeming feature was that she could teach men to be amazing sex partners."

"Oh, yeah?" JL said teasingly. "Care to prove it?"

"What have I been offering for the last eight months?"

JL shrugged and kissed him, then whispered tauntingly in his ear, "You should have told me you had such an illustrious teacher. Of course, I'll still have to find out how much of your lessons you've managed to retain."

After Richie had shown her enough of what Kristin had taught him to leave them both breathless and content, JL curled on his chest and made it through the night without a single nightmare for the first time since she'd turned herself in to the FBI. When she woke up, she stretched and ruffled Richie's hair. He mumbled something about 'being right there' and rolled back over. Getting up with a smile, JL slipped out to use the shower, then dressed in a pair of Richie's sweats and went down to the kitchen for breakfast.

Adam looked up from the morning paper as she came in, then poured her a cup of coffee. "Have a pleasant evening?" he asked.

"Adam..." she began.

"Don't, JL," Adam said softly. "I saw Duncan on the couch, so I can guess where you spent the night. No commitments means no excuses, remember? Besides, it's not like it's that big a surprise."

"And you're not even the least little bit jealous?"

Adam stirred his coffee and sighed. "Of course not," he said with a casual smile. "If he ever hurts you, I'll rip his heart out and feed it to him, but that's not jealousy. It's just, uhm, my protective instinct kicking in. Yeah, that's the ticket."

JL raised an eyebrow and kissed him on the cheek. "Well," she said with a smile, "as long as you're not jealous."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That morning, Colleen started her defense by calling the doctor who'd set JL's broken arm, then she moved on to the teachers who had agreed to testify. Each witness made some points in JL's favor, but the prosecution made sure to point out each time that there was no way to tell who had actually hurt JL. They also got her teachers to admit that she was anti-social and occasionally got into fights with her classmates. By the time they broke for lunch, JL was positive they'd done more harm than good, but Colleen was less pessimistic.

"This afternoon we'll go with the psychiatrists that I had you talk to, then some of your neighbors who saw your father yell at you. Then that leaves the bartender who remembers your father leaving drunk several times plus your testimony for tomorrow. Will you be ready?"

"Do I have a choice?" JL asked hopefully.

"I don't think so," Colleen answered. "We can't refute the physical evidence, because it's true. And there still isn't any sign of Jim or Bryan and the star witnesses I was hoping for."

JL winced when she mentioned Bryan, but she just nodded and spent the evening rehearsing her testimony. When she finally took the stand the following day, her voice shook when she promised to 'tell the whole truth and nothing but.'

Colleen questioned JL exhaustively until the end of the day, carefully laying the groundwork for her self defense plea. JL answered her as best she could, but she was crying openly by the end of the session. Judge McClellan gave her time to collect herself twice, then she called an early halt to the proceedings. JL felt drained and was positive that she couldn't do this again tomorrow, but her friends dragged her out for an evening on the town and kept telling such interesting stories that JL almost forgot her own problems. Once she was feeling better, they went back to Connor's and JL followed Richie up the stairs after tossing Duncan the key to her room at the Ritz. He winked back at her and then began arguing with Adam as to who got to sleep in luxurious comfort and who got to sleep with Joe. They were still debating the issue when Joe walked up carrying an overnight bag, took the key out of Duncan's hand, saluted them both, and walked outside to get a cab.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Colleen finished her questioning about the details of JL's abuse and began working on establishing her state of mind. "So, Ms. Dawson," she said, "you've told this court you were ready to run away. Why didn't you just do that without killing your father?"

"My father worked for the FBI. He was always telling us how they caught some criminal who thought he was safe, or found some crucial piece of evidence just when they thought the case was lost. I was sure he could find me if I ran away, and I knew when he did he'd be very, very angry."

"Did you ever fear for your life?"

JL nodded. "All the time. Especially after he pushed my mother down the stairs."

"Objection," the ADA said. "Alicia St. Cloud's death was officially declared an accident, not murder."

"Sustained," Judge McClellan answered. "The defendant will please rephrase her answer."

JL looked confused. "Especially after I thought I saw him push her down the stairs?" she said hesitantly.

Colleen hid a smile, then she continued briskly, "When you ran, didn't you think the FBI would find you?"

"Yes, but it didn't matter so much. He couldn't hurt me anymore, so I didn't care."

"Did you ever run away before?"

"No, but he thought I had. I was eleven years old and I had lost track of time while I was in Central Park talking to a friend. As I was hurrying home, he pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of me with his car. Then he ordered me into the front seat and he took me home."

"Did he punish you?"

JL nodded and twisted her hands in her lap. "He told me I didn't have the right to leave him, then he grabbed my arm and twisted it until it broke. He told me the next time I tried to leave, he'd rip it off."

"Did you believe him?"

"Absolutely."

"Ms. Dawson," Colleen said, "When you took the knife out of your dresser drawer, were you in fear for your life at that very moment?"

"No," JL replied slowly. "He was asleep."

"Did he wake up?"

"Yes. I stood there with the knife at his throat and couldn't do it. Then he woke up and started yelling at me. I knew then that I had to kill him before he killed me."

Colleen walked to the jury box and laid a hand on the railing, then looked back at JL. "So when you actually killed your father, you were definitely in fear for your life?"

"Yes," JL replied instantly. "I knew the moment he woke up and saw the knife that I'd gone too far. He was getting up to kill me. He said so, and I knew he meant it."

"Do you regret killing him, JL?"

JL closed her eyes for a second, then she said slowly, "Do I regret stopping his abuse? No, I don't. Do I regret killing him to do that? Yes. He was my father, and part of me will always love him. But he was destroying me, and it was the only way I could think of to make him stop." Brushing away another tear, JL looked down at her hands, then back up at Colleen. "If I could do it over again," she said earnestly, "I'd tell someone like my teachers or my school guidance counselors. Someone who could have helped. But I didn't think they could help me, so I took the only option I thought I had. And now I have to find a way to live with that forever."

Colleen smiled encouragingly. "Thank you, Ms. Dawson. No further questions."

The ADA got up and tried to shake JL's story, but, because she'd stayed with the truth throughout her testimony, she was able to repeat it without faltering. She had almost begun to relax when he suddenly looked much more intense.

"So, Ms. Dawson," he began, looking down his nose at her. "You would have us believe that a decorated Federal agent came home drunk and raped his adopted daughter."

"Yes, sir," she answered.

"And that you never told anyone, not a neighbor, not a friend, not even your big brother Jason what was going on."

"I was ashamed of it," JL said softly.

"But you weren't ashamed to kill him."

"I was desperate," she protested.

"If your father was such a horrible man, why didn't anyone see this abuse? Why didn't it affect his job or his friendships with other officers?"

"Objection," Colleen interrupted. "Calls for speculation. Ms. Dawson couldn't know how her father was handling his job."

"Sustained."

The ADA nodded to the judge and looked back to JL. "Did he ever hit you in public?"

"No," she admitted.

"So this monster who beat you, broke your arm, and raped you was a perfect gentleman outside your apartment?"

"I said he was abusive, not stupid," JL snapped before she could control herself.

"Perhaps. And perhaps he was forced to put up with a daughter with violent tendencies who finally got angry enough to kill him for no reason."

"Objection," Colleen said. "Argumentative."

"Withdrawn," the ADA said with a smile. "Nothing further, your Honor."

"The witness is excused, and the court will reconvene at 2 pm. We're adjourned."

JL walked slowly off the witness stand and looked forlornly at Colleen. "I messed that up, didn't I?"

"No," Colleen reassured her. "You were great. The jury knows the ADA was just fishing. I'm sure of it. Look, I have to polish my closing arguments, so I'll meet you back here at 1:45, OK?" Smiling at JL, Colleen packed up her books and headed out. JL watched her go, then she walked over to Joe and the others.

They hugged her, then they took her out to lunch nearby. When they got back to the courtroom at 1:45, Colleen wasn't in evidence. JL sat on a bench in the hallway talking to Richie, but they hadn't seen Colleen by the time they had to go into the courtroom. JL walked up to the defense table looking nervous, but Colleen suddenly sprinted through the door and took her place beside JL just as the judge was walking to her seat. Giving her hand an excited squeeze, Colleen waited until the judge called the court to session before she stood up and announced, "Your Honor, one of my investigators has just found a former neighbor of Ms. Dawson's who has important information about this case. His name is Alexander Jackson."

"Objection," the ADA said. "Alexander Jackson isn't on the defense's witness list."

"We just located him ourselves," Colleen replied, "and my assistant took his statement."

Judge McClellan looked thoughtful, then she said, "You may call him, but the prosecution can elect to wait for cross- examination until they've had a chance to interview him."

"There's one other thing, your Honor," Colleen said. "Alexander Jackson is both deaf and mildly retarded. The interpreter who took his statement is here, and he is willing to interpret for the court." Pulling some papers from her briefcase, she offered them to the bailiff for delivery to the judge. "These papers show that my interpreter, Mr. James O'Leary, has been certified as an interpreter by the American Institute for the Deaf."

When Colleen mentioned Jim's name, JL turned and grinned at Adam, who leaned forward and whispered, "I told you he'd be back in time."

The judge read over the paperwork and then nodded. "All right," she said, bringing JL's attention back to the courtroom. "Bailiff, put a chair for Mr. O'Leary next to the witness stand and make sure the video camera gets both of them in the frame. Then if anyone has any doubts, they can get the tape transcribed by their own interpreter."

The bailiff nodded and set up the chair, then the judge looked at Colleen. "Call your witness," she said.

"The defense calls Alexander Jackson," she replied, picking up the legal pad with the summary of Alex's testimony that Jim had given her when he'd caught her on her way back from lunch.

JL felt the welcomed buzz as the courtroom door opened, and she turned and smiled at Jim as he escorted Alex down the aisle. Giving her and Colleen a formal smile, Jim settled into the folding chair and began interpreting for Alex.

"Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" the bailiff said.

"I do."

"Please state your full name for the record."

"Alexander Robert Jackson."

"The witness may be seated."

Alex sat down and smiled uncertainly at Jim, who smiled back and then began interpreting Colleen's words. "Good afternoon, Alex," she said. "May I call you Alex?" At Alex's nod, she continued slowly, "Alex, do you know why we're here?"

Alex nodded. "Jim told me that Lori killed her father, and they need me to tell what he did to me."

"That's right, Alex," Colleen replied. "Do you recognize Lori?"

Alex looked around, then smiled brightly and waved at JL, who smiled and waved back. "Let the record show the witness identified the defendant," Colleen said, then she turned back to Alex. "Alex, do you remember Lori's father?"

"Yes."

"Did you like him?"

"No. He was a bad man."

"Why, Alex?"

"He hurt me. I didn't like it."

"When did he hurt you, Alex?"

Alex looked thoughtful. "At night," he finally said. "Before we moved."

Colleen hesitated, then decided to let that go. "How old were you when he hurt you, Alex?" she asked instead.

"Eleven," he replied after a minute's thought.

"How did he hurt you, Alex?" Colleen asked.

Alex's smile disappeared and he looked unhappily at Jim. Jim didn't move his hands, but he did smile encouragingly at Alex. "Alex," Colleen repeated. "How did he hurt you?"

"He took his clothes off and he made me touch his naughty places," Alex said reluctantly, "then he took my clothes off and touched me there. It hurt."

"Did you tell anyone, Alex?"

"Not then. He told me not to."

Colleen consulted Jim's notes again, then she smiled at Alex. "Did you ever tell anyone?"

"Yes. After he did it again, my Mommy found blood in my bed and wanted to know why. I told her."

"And what did she do, Alex?"

"She told Daddy, and he got mad."

"I'm sure he did, Alex. Did he talk to Mr. St. Cloud?"

"Yes. Then we had to take him to the hospital because Mr. St. Cloud hurt him, too."

"Did you see Mr. St. Cloud hurt him?"

"Yes. He kept hitting him and hitting him until the police came and made him stop. Then we moved to a different building."

Colleen glanced at the legal pad again, then she said, "Did you ever see Lori after you moved?"

"In school. I saw her go out behind the school and I followed her. She was crying. I wrote a note asking why she was so sad, but she wouldn't tell me."

"Alex, do you remember going back to the building JL lived in?"

"Yes," Alex nodded. "My mother took me back to visit my cousin Tommy, but he wasn't home."

"What did you find when you went back?"

"Lori was asleep in the stairwell. Mommy and I tried to wake her up, but we couldn't."

"What did you do, Alex?"

"Mommy called the ambulance, and they came and they took her to the hospital."

"Did you ever ask Lori what she was doing that day?"

"Yes. I followed her out behind the school again, and wrote her another note asking what was wrong. She wrote 'I wanted to die, but they stopped me.' I wrote 'Was it because he hurt you, too,' and she wrote 'Yes.' Then she looked surprised and wrote 'Did he hurt you?'"

"Did you tell her?"

"Yes. And the next day he was dead. I wanted to thank her, but she was gone. Daddy said she had to go away for awhile, but that she was safe now."

"You have a very good memory, Alex," Colleen said.

"I just read the note again on the way here," he admitted.

Colleen took a piece of paper out of her briefcase and showed it to Alex. "Is this the note you're talking about, Alex?" she asked.

Alex nodded. "Yes."

"Why did you save it?"

Alex smiled shyly. "I showed it to my Daddy, and he said it was important. He was a lawyer like you, and he said it was 'evidence,' and that Lori might need it someday." Alex brightened again. "See," he said pointing to the paper, "he told me to write the date we talked on it just in case."

"And what date did you write on it?"

"June 12, 1967."

"The day before Lori killed her father," Colleen said, mostly for the jury.

"Yes," Alex answered. "Daddy was right, wasn't he? About my saving this, I mean."

"He certainly was, Alex." Colleen offered the paper to the judge and said "We request that this be marked as defense exhibit 'C,' your Honor." Then she smiled and squeezed Alex's hand. "Thank you, Alex. You've been very helpful." Looking up at the judge, she smiled again and said "Nothing further."

The judge nodded and looked at the prosecutor. "The State requests time to prepare for cross-examination," the ADA said.

"The witness may step down. Do you have any other witnesses, Counselor?"

"No, your Honor."

"In order to give the prosecution time to interview this witness, court is adjourned until tomorrow afternoon at 1 pm."

When Jim told him he could get up, Alex jumped off the witness stand and ran over to hug JL. She held him for a minute, then she tried to sign "Thank you." Alex looked puzzled, and Jim came over and corrected her hand position. Alex brightened and said "You're welcome," then smiled up at Jim. Jim ruffled his hair and led him over to his father before returning to the group and perching on the rail separating the audience from the defense table.

"So," he said with a smile, "did I miss anything?" JL pummeled him, but he just caught her hands and pulled her close. "I'll take that as a 'yes,'" he said, "as you're normally more grateful than that. What happened?"

"Why didn't you return my messages?" she demanded.

"I was busy trying to save your life, remember?" Jim replied. "Once I found Alex, I had to win his trust before he would tell me what happened, then I had to convince him that he could testify. He was so skittish that I probably would have given up if his father hadn't shown me the note he had saved. I kept meaning to call you, but I was so exhausted by the end of the day that all I could do was crawl into bed."

"Have you heard from Bryan?" JL asked him hopefully.

"Not since I left the Ritz. He didn't even leave me a message with Colleen."

"That's not unusual for a Cutler on the hunt, is it Jim?" Colleen said with a smile, then she turned to the ADA as he tapped his foot impatiently.

"You don't know the half of it," Jim muttered to himself as Colleen talked to the ADA.

Colleen nodded at the ADA and said, "Well, if you don't need me any more tonight, I have to talk to the prosecutor and set up a deposition for Alex. Thanks, Jim," she said with a smile. "You just won this case single-handedly."

"Any time, my lady," Jim said gallantly.

"My pleasure. Good night, all," Colleen responded, then she left with the ADA.

"All right, JL, what's going on?" Jim asked. "For someone who just scored a major victory, you don't seem particularly happy. What's Bryan done now?"

"He's gone, Jim," JL said as gently as she could.

Jim stared at her for a second, then he shook his head. "No," was all he said.

"Someone sent me pictures of what was supposed to be me killing Bryan in an alley. We found out the pictures were fakes, but they must have killed him somewhere else and taken pictures of it."

"No," Jim repeated stubbornly.

"I know how you feel, Jim," Adam said softly, but Jim just shook his head.

"You're not listening to me," Jim said angrily. "I've loved that man since 150 AD. I'd know if he were dead. I'd feel it."

"Jim..." Connor began.

"Stop it, all of you," Jim snapped. "Where are these pictures?"

"Back at my house," Connor said.

Jim strode to the door, then looked back at them. "Well," he demanded, "do I have to break in or are you coming along to unlock the door?"

Connor glanced at Adam, then moved off after Jim. "Let's go then," he said quietly, leading Jim and the others to his van. Adam tried to talk to Jim during the drive back to Connor's, but Jim just stared out at the street and didn't respond.

When they arrived at the antique store, Connor led them into his living room and took the pictures out of his desk drawer. Handing them to Jim, he said softly, "You might want to sit down, Jim."

Jim shrugged but sat on the couch before he opened the envelope. His expression grew progressively colder as he examined each picture, then he selected the one that had disturbed JL the most. He sat silently for almost five minutes, studying the expression of betrayal in Bryan's face and the silver blur of the sword cutting through the air toward his neck. Then he looked up and said, "Connor, does Rachel still drag you to those gallery openings?"

"What?" Connor asked, momentarily thrown by the unexpected question. "Uhm, yes. Why?"

"And does she still save all those brochures she picks up at them?"

"Probably. That woman's a regular pack rat. If she didn't have such a great filing system, I'd worry. But again, why?"

Ignoring Connor, Jim turned to JL. "What's the name of that manic depressive Immortal artist?"

JL looked blank for a second, then she answered hesitantly. "The sculptor who did all those gargoyles? Garrick."

"No," Jim replied. "The photographer with the motorcycle."

"Greg Powers?"

Jim nodded. "That's the one. What was the name of the show his pictures were in a couple of years ago?"

JL looked uncertain, but Duncan came to her rescue. "Studies in Light and Dark," he said quietly. "It was a joint show with Linda Plager. But to repeat my clansman's question, why?"

"I'll show you," Jim replied, going out into the antique shop.

JL picked up the photographs and flipped through them again. "If Greg Powers is involved in this, he's not going to be happy once Jim gets his hands on him," she said quietly.

"I can't believe he'd do something like this," Duncan replied. "It's not like Greg at all."

"No, but he did do the foundation work," Jim said returning with a gallery brochure and handing it to JL. "Page 5," he said.

Flipping it open to page 5, JL's eyes widened. "I'll be damned," she whispered softly. "'Betrayal, 1990 Kodachrome Print by Gregor Powers. $500 dollars framed, $300 unframed,'" she read, then she handed the catalog to Duncan.

Duncan studied the picture of Bryan kneeling in an alley while Jim swung Bryan's sword toward his neck. Holding it next to the other one, he nodded. "Different alley, and your face instead of Jim's, but the same picture of Bryan. Amazing. But I still don't think Greg was involved in this."

"I don't either," Jim said quietly. "Bryan thought this stupid picture idea was fun, but I never understood the point of almost getting killed, even artistically. I wouldn't even let him hang the photograph because it gave me nightmares. Ironic, isn't it? Now I'm finally justified in having them, and I can't take it out on either of them."

"But you've just proven that this picture doesn't show Bryan being decapitated, so these probably don't, either," Adam said.

"So where is he, Adam? He knows JL is counting on him. He should have at least checked in with Colleen."

"You know Bryan," Adam said, putting a reassuring hand on Jim's shoulder. "He gets involved, and he forgets to eat, much less call in. Even Colleen knows that about him. He'll be OK. I'm sure of it."

"You're lying, teacher," Jim said unsteadily, but he hugged Adam anyway. "But it's a pleasant little lie. Maybe I'll even try to believe it for a while. Then I'll get amazingly drunk and try to remember how to do the singles scene again. I supposed it's changed somewhat in 1,846 years." Jim pulled away from Adam and picked up his coat. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "but I've done as much of this macho holding-it-all-in as I can right now. I'm going back to my hotel."

"I'll go with you, Jim," JL said.

"No, thanks. You stay here. I need some time alone right now. I'll see you tomorrow, I promise."

"Just be careful, Jim," Adam warned. "If they killed Bryan, they might try to kill you too. And if you're too drunk to defend yourself, you can't avenge him."

Jim paused at the door and nodded. "Point taken. I'll be careful, I promise," he said as he left.

JL glanced at Adam and he nodded. "Let's give him a five minute head start, though. That way we'll be out of range. You take first shift, then it's off to bed with you. You haven't been sleeping all that well."

"I slept fine last night," JL said innocently.

Adam grinned wickedly and picked up his coat. "That's because Richie's too young to know how to pace himself, regardless of what Kristin taught him. He was probably out like a light in under an hour."

"You wish. Do you really want a detailed comparison of your styles?" JL asked, only half jokingly. "I am trained to observe diminutive details, after all."

Adam looked at Richie and sighed. "Now, don't go calling Richie diminutive. He can't help his Irish heritage, now can he?" Adam ducked JL's punch and laughed. "Be careful of her, Richie. She's got no shame."

JL shrugged and winked at Richie. "None at all. That's what makes me fun to go to bars with. When's the last time you danced on a table without me egging you on?"

"You mean without you pouring ouzo down my throat," Adam countered.

"I don't remember pouring it down your throat," JL said with a thoughtful expression. "Just into your glass. What happened to it after that wasn't my responsibility. But you did look mighty cute in that grass skirt they found behind the bar. Shall we go Watch Jim?"

"Let's," Adam replied with a laugh, taking her arm. "Just like old times. See you around, guys," he said with a wave, then he escorted JL out the door.

Richie watched them go and sighed. Joe smiled and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, Richie," he advised. "She'll come back. She always does."

"And I'm sure you'd look just as good in a grass skirt, however diminutive you are," Duncan offered, ducking quickly behind Connor. Connor grunted as Richie's fist connected with his shoulder instead of Duncan's head, then he joined Richie in chasing Duncan down to the exercise room for an impromptu two-on-one training exercise.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

JL arrived at court the next afternoon looking as if she'd finally gotten a good night's sleep. Jim and Adam were slightly more haggard, but neither would admit to being hung over. "What can I say," Adam was explaining to JL as the others arrived at the courtroom. "I'm lazy, and it was cold. So I Watched him from inside the room. It worked."

JL sighed. "Sure. And then they could have taken you both out with identical stupid smiles plastered on your faces."

"You would have saved us, princess."

"Me?" JL replied indignantly. "I'm with Richie now. He doesn't call me princess."

Richie winked at Adam and said smugly, "Some people can take a hint. Right, princess?"

JL glared at him, and he laughed. "Sorry, JL, I just couldn't resist that."

"You two are not funny," she groused as they walked into the courtroom. "Who are you trying to make points with? Him or me?"

"You, of course," Richie answered, then gave her a hug. "And hopefully you'll let me prove that tonight."

"We'll see, smart guy," she said, but she hugged him back before she sat down at the defense table.

Alex's cross-examination by the ADA was mercifully short, then he and Colleen presented their closing arguments, and the jury was sent off to deliberate the case around 3 pm. Colleen treated them all to coffee at a local cafe, and they listened attentively while Adam tried to lift Jim's spirits with wild stories that rivaled Fitzcairn's. Jim looked like he knew what Adam was doing and why, but even he had to smile at Adam's colorful descriptions of human stupidity in all its forms. Adam was careful to make all his stories hypothetical for Colleen's benefit, but he still managed to give enough personal details so that Jim could recognize many of them.

At 5:30, the bailiff beeped Colleen to tell her the jury was back in, and they quickly returned to the courthouse. After Judge McClellan had called the court to order, she looked at the jury. "Madam Forewoman," she said. "Have you reached a verdict?"

"We have, your Honor," the jurist responded, handing a slip of paper to the bailiff. The bailiff handed it to the judge, and she read it quickly. With a nod, she looked back up at the jury. "What say you?" she asked formally.

"In the case of the State versus Joanna Lynn Dawson, on the charge of murder in the first degree, we find the defendant not guilty by reason of self defense."

"The court thanks you for your time. Case dismissed."

JL stared at them silently for a second, then she stood up and jumped over the railing separating her from her friends. As they all congratulated her and patted her on the back, she hugged Joe tightly and cried happily onto his shoulder. Then she wiped her eyes and shook Colleen's hand gratefully. "Thank you so much," she said. "You did a great job."

"I just presented the facts, JL. You and Jim did the rest. Congratulations."

"Thanks. Do you want to join us for drink? You've earned one."

"No, thanks," Colleen said with a smile. "I have to get home and find out if I still have a family of my own. It's been a pleasure, JL. Good luck, and don't forget that you did what you had to do. Jim, I'll see you and Bryan around, won't I? I can't miss my chance to pick on him for arriving with Kathleen after the trial's already over."

"You can see me anytime you want, Colleen," Jim said with only a trace of sadness. "Call me if you ever need anything. And don't forget that you and your family have a standing offer of a place to stay in San Francisco whenever you want it."

"I will, I promise." Picking up her briefcase, Colleen gave them a final wave and headed home.

JL watched her go, then she put an arm around Jim. "How about buying a girl a drink, sailor?" she asked.

"Well," Jim said with a smile, "you're not my usual type, but what the heck. Maybe it's time for a change. I know it's time for a drink."

"When's the last time you saw Adam dance on a table?" JL asked wickedly.

"Uhm, let's see. That would be with Martinique. No, wait, that was under a table, I do believe. I saw him dance on a bar in Greece once, then there was that time in New Orleans..."

"Oh, shut up and get in the car," Adam said gruffly. "I'm the only one who gets to tell embarrassing stories about me. Now if you want to talk stupid, there was the time Jim picked up a guy in Paris who turned out to be a Police Commissioner's son."

"He knew all the good bars," Jim explained. "It was a lot of fun until his father caught us necking in that little bistro. He was, well, less than enlightened."

"How long ago was that?" JL asked. "I don't think it made it into your Chronicle."

"Oh," Jim said, "'93, I think."

"Which '93, James? You've lived through a couple of them, you know," JL said patiently.

"You Watchers are so date conscious, it's scary. Which '93 was that, Adam?"

"Tell me you're joking, James," Adam replied. When Jim just shook his head, Adam sighed. "The last one, you idiot. As in three years ago."

"I knew that," Jim protested, and Adam jostled him playfully.

"Sure you did, James, sure you did. Come on, let's go get that drink and see if we can reconstruct your life for you. You've obviously forgotten more than is good for you. I'll bet you even forgot that $5,000 you borrowed from me last year."

Jim laughed and shook his head. "Now that, I'd remember. But I will buy the first round, how about that? We have enough people that two rounds apiece ought to just do it. All we need is a designated driver."

JL laughed and took Jim's arm. "I hereby designate one or two of the fine fleet of cabs New York City is famous for. So we can all drink ourselves onto the tables in grass skirts."

"You don't mind if I pass on the skirt, do you?" Joe asked.

"Why should you retain anymore dignity than the rest of us?" JL asked fondly. "If we dance, old man, you dance, all right?"

Joe sighed and nodded reluctantly. "Just for you, JL. As long as you promise that you'll never let anyone back in Seacouver hear about this."

"Have you got the camera, Adam?" she said in a stage whisper. At Adam's nod, she smiled at Joe and said, "Of course not, Joseph. Of course not." Then she took Joe's arm and escorted him and Jim to the van.

Shortly after midnight, Duncan and Connor took a cab home. Around 2 am the other four Immortals were ready to go to bed, but Joe was happily ensconced behind a borrowed guitar in a Greenwich Village jazz club, and he barely even glanced up as they left. Jim and Adam went to the Ritz and JL and Richie went back to Connor's.

As JL and Richie walked into the living room, JL stumbled and Richie caught her, but they managed to overbalance each other and fell to the floor laughing. JL was fumbling with the buttons on Richie's shirt when Connor's study door opened. They tried to get up as two men dressed in black clothes and ski masks burst into the room, but the last thing they saw was the muzzle flashes of their silenced .357 magnums.

When JL regained consciousness, she was chained to the wall in the basement the FBI had held her in before she made bail. Duncan and Connor were chained across from her, both men similarly attired in boxer shorts and bloodstains and looking equally confused. Looking around, she saw four guards standing at the other end of the room, but she couldn't find Richie. She felt a moment of terror before she spotted him chained in a dark corner, then she began to test the handcuffs until one of the guards growled at her to stop. Titanium, she thought with a sigh. It figures these guys would have the best of the best. And that growl has to belong to Donovan. Just what I need to go with my hangover.

"Where are we?" Duncan asked.

"Welcome to the basement of an FBI safehouse," JL replied. "Luxurious, isn't it? I love how they keep the stone walls cold to make it seem even more dungeon-like. That's why Donovan's here too--he's standing in for the castle gargoyle."

"Shut up," Donovan said, emphasizing his words by raising his gun. "Or shall we have another session before your friends get here?"

JL decided to bide her time, and she waited silently until the door opened again and she felt a strong buzz as Jim and Adam were shoved down the stairs, followed by two more guards. Both Immortals looked like they had tremendous headaches, but their other wounds were already healed. Once they were chained in place, Donovan checked their bonds one last time, then surveyed the entire room and nodded approval while another guard pulled out a cellular phone, called a number, and hung up before anyone answered.

Ten minutes later the buzz came again, and two more men appeared who were also dressed in black but without the ski masks. Their clothes were of a markedly better quality than their associates, and JL noticed that one of them had a platinum belt buckle that looked like a coiled snake with ruby eyes. That was mine, Alaric whispered angrily in her mind. Miserable little usurper.

The belt buckle's current wearer looked to be about 35 years old with blonde hair and blue eyes, while the other was closer to 50 with graying brown hair and green eyes. The older one checked the chains himself, then he nodded curtly to the guards. With a slight bow, Donovan led the guards up the stairs, leaving the two newcomers with the prisoners.

The blonde looked them over disdainfully, then began spinning Duncan's katana in slow circles around his hand, letting its point cut a shallow groove in Jim's cheek before he pulled it away. Jim tried not to flinch, but his eyes widened a little and his breathing grew faster.

JL straightened in her bonds and her eyes turned black as Alaric took control. "So you finally show yourselves," he said scornfully. "I should have known you two fools were behind this. It has reeked of amateurism from the start. Using gun- wielding mortals instead of fighting honorably. Really, Logan. How déclassé."

Logan advanced on JL and let the katana slice the front of her shirt open. "Don't you feel overdressed for this party?" he asked, gesturing to Duncan and Connor.

Alaric shook his head. "You wouldn't know good tailoring if it smothered you, Logan. Belt buckles don't make the man, no matter how many precious stones they're set with or who wore them before you."

"I should kill you right now," he snarled, laying his sword against JL's throat.

"Go ahead," Alaric urged. "I'd love to blow your silly little brains out the way I did hers. You certainly don't use them."

"Logan," the other man warned. "You know Aurelia wants him alive. Alaric, the kid, and him." he continued, pointing to JL, Richie, and Adam in turn. Smiling cruelly, he said, "You three are the lucky finalists in the 'Celebrate the Equinox' game for 1997. The first sacrifice that Aurelia is going to be the Mistress of Ceremonies for, and she's really looking forward to doing it right. Lots of special little tortures that have never been done before."

Alaric yawned, letting the katana's razor-sharp blade shave a patch of skin from JL's throat. "They've all been done before by someone, Ryder," he said scornfully. "As anyone who'd ever bothered to learn the first thing about our religion would know."

Ryder ignored him and looked at Logan. "Come on, man," he said. "Play with one of the others. It's not like we have to bring them back with us."

Logan flexed his fingers around the katana's hilt, then he shrugged and stepped back. Alaric snorted and spit on him, receiving a blow from the hilt that broke at least three of JL's ribs with a loud crunch. Gasping for breath, Alaric glared at him for a moment, then he straightened again. "You can't do this, you know. It's not proper."

"Proper?" Logan laughed. "Who cares about proper?"

Alaric shook his head and frowned at them. "I do, and you should. The sacrifice must be taken in a fair fight, not with gun fire. You know the rules."

"Lucas didn't follow the rules," Logan protested.

"And he was scheduled for punishment after the Equinox, as you well know," Alaric said. "He just got it sooner and more thoroughly than I had planned. You do realize that this is suicide, don't you? You can't kill both MacLeods, Jim, and Bryan without raising quite a bit of fuss. They have too many friends, and those friends won't rest until they avenge them."

"But they won't need to be avenged," Ryder said arrogantly. "You see, Jim went a little crazy after his lover's death, and he came here looking for the responsible parties. His friends followed him, and they all accidentally got caught in the explosion he set when the timer malfunctioned."

"Bryan was the electronics expert, after all," Logan added with a laugh. "Poor Jimmy-boy screwed up when he tried to follow in his lover's footsteps."

"No one will believe this."

"Sure they will," Logan sneered. "You see, it will all be recorded by impartial third parties who have nothing to gain by lying. Third parties like me," he said, holding up his wrist so they could all see the Watcher tattoo. "All we have to do is kill Joe Dawson, and no one will have any proof to the contrary."

"Oh, no," Adam whispered. "And Jack Shapiro thought Joe was a bad influence."

Ryder laughed and caressed JL's cheek. "This is all your fault anyway, Alaric. If you hadn't decided to protect the sacrifice, we wouldn't have had to work so hard to get rid of you."

"What do you mean protect..." Alaric started to say, then he stopped and stared at Ryder. "You thought I changed sides? Me? Why in Satan's name would I do that?"

"Actually," Ryder said, "we thought you were dead. We followed JL to San Francisco, and she and the kid seemed pretty friendly. In Seacouver, we could tell they were becoming inseparable, so we decided to separate them."

"Why?" Alaric demanded.

Logan shrugged. "Because we thought it would be easier than dealing with JL later on. We couldn't be sure how much she knew about us and how important the kid is to our future, and she was good enough to kill you, so we decided to get rid of her. After Donovan started researching her past, he realized who she was and what she'd done, and it looked easy. Her brother was an easy target--setting him up for the heroin rap was child's play, and he was extremely eager to make a deal. JL was supposed to end up in prison. Then in March, Aurelia was going to find a way to collect her for the sacrifice."

"Why didn't Donovan tell Aurelia that I wasn't dead?" Alaric asked.

"He did," Logan replied dismissively. "It just made her more certain that you had to be eliminated."

"This goes against almost every rule we have, Logan. Both as Immortals and as Satanists."

"Forget your silly rules," Logan said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Aurelia will fight you later if it's all that important. But a Quickening is a Quickening, regardless of how you get the head. You could ask Cutler about it, but he isn't here, now is he? What a shame."

"What did you do to Bryan?" Jim demanded.

"Nothing, Jimmy-boy, nothing at all," Logan said with a laugh. "Gravity, fire, and jet fuel, now they probably did a few things though."

"Where is he?" Jim said frantically. "Who took his Quickening?"

"The birds, the trees, and half of Illinois," Logan said, caressing Jim's cheek with his hand. "Your lover-boy died all by himself at 10,000 feet in the air. One little bomb and POOF, there's a new shooting star in the sky. I hear it was quite a show. Too bad there weren't any lightning rods around, hmm? I guess the Game will just have to go on without him. A pity, really, but there was no way around it. He was too good to take any chances with, and he was about to find McCormick. Besides, it gives you a reason to go crazy and bomb the place."

Jim stared numbly at Logan, and the blonde leaned in and kissed him before turning back to JL. "I like the new look, Alaric," he said, using the katana's blade to look under JL's ripped shirt. "Much better than the old model. But I'm not sure Aurelia will agree. What do you think, Ryder?"

"Right now I'm thinking about how we have to bring Alaric, Adam, and Richie back alive, but we can do anything we damn near please to you in the meantime. And we aren't due back until the equinox ceremony in March, so we have plenty of 'mean time' to work with," Ryder replied harshly.

"Anyone care what I'm thinking?" asked Bryan's voice from the top of the stairs. As he descended, the others could see the light dancing off the two-handed claymore that Jim, JL, and Richie recognized as the one from Bryan's study. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, the he regarded Ryder and Logan with cold green eyes. "I think you might want to start with the one who's still got a sword."

Logan backed away from JL and stared at the apparition. "B-b-but," he stammered, "this is impossible. You're dead."

Ryder shook himself, then held his blade at Jim's throat. "Drop the sword, buddy," he threatened, "or your friend here is finished. I know how to kill people like you."

"Don't bother pretending you're mortal, Ryder," Alaric said quickly. "Nor you either, Logan. And I wouldn't suggest taking anyone's head right now considering that you'll never survive the Quickening."

Bryan smiled at him sweetly, making his eyes seem even colder. "I'd listen to your friend there. The only chance you have is to kill me before I kill you." Lifting the claymore, he advanced on Logan and Ryder, who backed away uncertainly.

"How did you survive?" Logan asked, still unwilling to accept Bryan's reappearance. "Our Chicago operatives saw the wreckage on the news. There was no way you could have kept your head through that."

Bryan smiled grimly and beckoned them into the center of the room. "I have a penchant for collecting electronic geegaws, as Jim calls them. One of them detected a power drain in my jet's systems as I got to 10,000 feet, and warned me that I might have a bomb on board. So I decided to play it safe and parachute out. I can't tell you how much it hurt to see her explode moments after my chute opened, but I'll be happy to try and recreate the agony for you here and now." Giving a little bow, Bryan smiled again. "So," he said, "shall we dance?"

"Who first?" Ryder asked.

"Why not all three of us together?" Bryan answered. "After all, I know neither of you can be counted on to contain yourselves once the other starts losing. And you will lose, I promise you."

Ryder looked uncertain, but Logan grinned. "You're on, fool. Did you hear that, Alaric? He's the one who requested the fight be two-on-one."

"I'll bet he doesn't even break a sweat," JL snorted, her blue eyes smoldering almost as much as Alaric's had. "He's worth a hundred of you sniveling cowards any day."

Ryder glanced up at the change in her voice and Bryan lunged in quickly, driving them further away from the others and putting his back to the wall. He smiled as he watched them try to get out of each other's way and reposition themselves without coming in range of his claymore. Just as I suspected, he thought. They haven't fought together much, so they'll need some time to get adjusted. All I have to do is see that they don't get it.

Moving cautiously, Bryan let the other two take the offensive and moved his claymore just enough to parry one shot so he could get it back in line in time to parry the other. They tried to circle around behind him, but that was the first thing he'd learned how to avoid in such fights. Now I know why Adam insisted we fight this way so often, he thought as the frustration became more and more evident on Logan's face. "Thought this would be a walk in the park, didn't you Logan?" he sneered.

Driving in suddenly to the left, Bryan put Logan between himself and Ryder, then swung the claymore in a powerful arc that sent Duncan's katana clattering to the floor and left a deep cut in Logan's arm. Using his momentum to shove the katana further away from the fight, Bryan resumed his defensive stance against the opposite wall as Logan cursed and drew his own rapier. Ryder moved in to cover for him while he got re-organized, but Bryan easily overpowered Ryder's lighter blade and left him with a deep cut in the thigh. Ryder did manage to make him move off his wall, and Bryan had to break off a promising series of exchanges in order to keep Logan from getting behind him.

Logan and Ryder looked angry that he'd noticed Logan movements, then they tried forcing him back towards the others. Bryan used the claymore's extended reach and his experience fighting in William Wallace's consistently- outnumbered army to keep them from overpowering him. Seeing an opening, he raised the claymore above his head and spun to the right, barely dodging Ryder's shot and taking a deep cut on his leg from Logan. Bryan's move put Logan between himself and Ryder, and, before Logan could turn, Bryan quickly brought the claymore down with all his strength. The blade passed through Logan's collarbone and into his chest, nearly cutting his torso in half and bisecting his heart. Hurling Logan's body at Ryder, Bryan yanked his sword out and brought it back into the en garde position. Ryder disentangled himself from Logan and tried to match Bryan's stance, but his fear was evident to everyone in the room.

Bryan pressed his advantage and attacked Ryder, who was barely able to parry three of Bryan's attacks before his weaker blade shattered against the claymore. Ryder stared at his now-useless hilt in horror, and Bryan laughed so cruelly that even Jim shuddered.

"Do you like symmetry, Ryder?" he asked, kicking Logan's sword across the room and out of reach. "Here I am, defending--among others, of course--two upstanding members of the clan MacLeod with a Scottish sword that comes complete with the Gaelic inscription 'Victory Must be Seized.'" Looking at the sword, Bryan laughed harshly. "Well, you'll have to take my word for that, as most of the inscription in covered in Logan's blood right at the moment. Anyway, this sword is definitely going to be your undoing, as it has undone many opponents before you. But do you want to know the best part?" he asked, leaning closer and resting the point of the claymore against Ryder's breast bone just above his heart. "Do you? Well, I'll tell you anyway. I forged this claymore myself, over seven hundred years ago because a shield brother of mine had broken his sword saving my life the week before. I put everything I had into this blade--all my experience, my craftsmanship, my love. It was the finest blade I ever forged, and I was proud to give it to the man I would have gladly called kin. The inscription here on the crossguard reads 'To Robert Donegal MacLeod from his ardent admirer, Bryan Cutler, in the year of our Lord, 1296.'"

Bryan paused long enough to make sure Logan wasn't going to revive any time soon, then he turned his attention back to Ryder. "Then, in 1297, William Wallace led us into a veritable sea of Englishmen at Stirling Castle from which I was sure we'd never emerge. During a pause in my personal battle, I looked over and watched Robert kill two opponents with this blade using a move very similar to the one I just used on you. That's when I knew we could do anything that day, and we did. We won. Even 50,000 Englishmen couldn't stop us, and the likes of you never will."

Lifting the claymore, Bryan smiled again. "But you're bored aren't you? That's the problem with you young pups today. You've got no sense of history. Anyway, now I will finally fulfill my promise to Robert, who survived Stirling Castle but not the war. I shall return this blade even as I defend his Clansmen with it." Giving a triumphant yell, Bryan swung the claymore in a glittering arc that neatly severed Ryder's head, then he quickly severed Logan's before Ryder's Quickening was released. Moving into the center of the room as the lightning gathered around him, he lifted the claymore above his head and held it parallel to the floor.

"I dedicate these souls to you, Robert," Bryan called out in Gaelic. "May the hunting in Heaven be as good as you hoped for, the scotch as free-flowing, and the women as beguiling." Then he screamed and raised the blade higher as the power hit him with twice its usual force, bouncing wildly off the walls in the enclosed space and making the other Immortals wonder if they were going to end up with severe electrical burns.

When the Quickenings had died down, Bryan slowly opened his eyes and refocused on the others. Lowering the claymore, he grinned as he realized that everyone except for JL and Richie were mostly naked and all were chained securely to the wall. "You know," he said with a chuckle, "I've had fantasies about stuff like this, but I never thought I'd actually get to enact any of them."

"You idiot!" Jim growled at Bryan. "What if these stupid chains had been steel?"

Bryan pretended to look blank for a second, then he brightened. "You would have been electrocuted?" he guessed.

"This isn't funny, you rat," Jim complained. "We could have died."

Bryan looked down at his bloodstained clothes and sword, then at the bodies on the other side of the room. "And I've been what, on vacation? You and Adam have been drinking again, haven't you?" he asked. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, I just saved your ungrateful, hungover hide."

"Let me go."

"Why should I?" Bryan asked, walking over to stand right in front of Jim.

Jim kissed him passionately, then growled again, "Don't you ever do that to me again, you ungrateful beast. I damn near had myself convinced that you were dead."

Bryan shrugged. "I figured if they were going to all that trouble to kill me, it would be impolite to just pop up again alive and well. Besides, I had to send to San Francisco for my sword before I felt safe enough to even consider popping up anywhere. By the time I got back to New York, I found men watching both the Ritz and Connor's house. So I spent the last couple days keeping an eye on things until I could figure out what was going on."

"They didn't hurt Joe, did they?" JL asked from right behind Bryan. Bryan whirled and lifted the claymore, but JL ignored him and walked over to Duncan.

"No," Bryan answered, after he recovered from his surprise at the fact she was no longer chained. "He wasn't at Connor's or the Ritz. I heard one of them saying they'd have to go back for him later. Where is he?"

"Probably still playing guitar in Greenwich Village," JL replied, deftly picking the locks on Duncan's chains with a hair pin. "You know, maybe I should wear my hair up more often," she commented as she moved on to Connor.

Bryan laughed and pulled out his own lock pick to free Jim. Jim hugged him tightly while JL freed the others, then Bryan gave him another squeeze and wormed his way free. Tearing off Ryder's shirt, he began reverently cleaning the claymore. "This really was the best blade I ever made, wasn't it, James?" he asked.

"It was all right if you had the strength of an ox and the room to maneuver it. You're lucky this room has a high ceiling. Remember the damage it caused in that tavern? Robert had a fit when he got that bar bill. I can't recall whether or not he paid it, though."

"He didn't," Bryan said with a laugh as he finished wiping off the blade. Lifting it again, he admired the way it still gleamed in the light, and how the intricate Celtic patterns surrounding the inscription still looked almost new. "Alaric," he said intently, "come here."

JL stared at him in surprise, then moved forward hesitantly. "Hey, Bryan," she said. "Welcome back."

Laying the blade against her neck, Bryan stared at her coldly. "Get out here and face me, Alaric. This is no time to hide behind JL."

JL stiffened again as Alaric took control. "Good morning, Bryan," he said cordially. "There's really no need for this, is there? I mean, how many Quickenings do you need in a day?"

"It depends on your answers to a few simple questions. How many Black Adders are left?"

"In the entire organization or just the Immortals involved?" Alaric asked.

"Both," Bryan replied quietly.

"Well," Alaric said thoughtfully, "We had a dozen Immortals last January, as well as six or seven hundred mortal henchmen, servants, and contacts. JL took me and Lucas, and you just took Ryder and Logan. That leaves eight Immortals including Aurelia, who, as you might know, is almost as good as I was. And she's obviously not as dedicated to the rules as I had thought."

"Unless these two were working on their own."

Alaric started to shake his head, then felt the claymore's blade at JL's throat and thought better of it. "Not likely. This is too big an operation. I counted at least twenty of our mortal contacts milling about the courtroom alone. Look, Bryan, could we please dispense with this sword-at-the-throat business? My head is killing me and I can't tell you what these stupid heels are doing to my feet. I still think JL should wear make-up all the time, but she's definitely right about the sneakers."

Bryan looked at Alaric and laughed, then lowered the claymore. "You're getting harder and harder to hate, Alaric," he said. "Why is that?"

Alaric shrugged. "Maybe you're just getting used to me, or I'm getting used to you." Alaric hesitated for a second, and he laughed. "And," he said, "as my hostess so kindly reminded me, I don't have any other choice right now, as my previous companions don't seem too crazy about me anymore."

"So what do you propose to do about that?" Adam asked.

"Kill them." Alaric stretched JL's muscles, then took off her shoes and tossed them in a corner. "I don't have a choice anymore, and neither do you, Adam. Nor you, Richie. If Aurelia wants us for the equinox ceremony, then she will do everything she can to get us. And I don't think I have to tell any of you that letting her accomplish this would not be good for our future plans."

Adam shook his head. "We should try to keep Richie out of this. He's too young."

"We can't," Alaric insisted. "You've been studying the Black Adders for almost two millennia now, Adam. Do you know why they panicked when Richie and JL started getting close? What Ryder meant when he accused me of protecting the sacrifice?"

"No," Adam replied. "What did it mean?"

Alaric smiled. "Lucas started the sacrifice with Richie, and, according to our ancient traditions, if any sacrifice escapes alive once the ceremony has started, the High Priest must get it back for the following year or take its place on The Cross. How do you think I became High Priest? My predecessor didn't get Bryan back the year after Jim's heroic rescue." Alaric looked at Richie and sighed. "Trust me, Adam. Once I found out what Lucas had done, I had mortals watching Richie constantly. If another Immortal challenged him and was about to win, they had orders to shoot them both and bring Richie to me. Otherwise I was going to leave him alone until mid-March so as not to arouse the suspicions of his protective friend over there." Pointing at Duncan, Alaric shook his head. "But I would have taken him, even if I had to go through MacLeod to do it. I would have killed him fairly, of course, but Aurelia? I thought I knew her, but that was before Ryder's commentary."

"How in God's name can you live this way?" Connor asked. "Human sacrifices and betrayal and lies. It's insane."

Alaric shrugged. "How can a man rape a three-year-old child because she spilled a little coffee on his briefcase?" Stumbling suddenly, JL's face contorted with pain and she moaned. Bryan caught her arm and steadied her, and she leaned into him for several seconds before she straightened again. "It's like a minefield in here, sometimes," Alaric said tiredly. "Even I can't be sure when I'm going to trigger some memory she was positive she was better off without."

"So she is a multiple personality," Bryan said.

"Yes, but most of her viable personalities latched on to the JL Dawson persona that Joe helped create and have already integrated on their own. Once he got the heroin out of her system and gave her an emotionally-stable home life, she didn't need that particular defense mechanism any more. There are just a few of the youngest ones left, but they're basically dormant most of the time. We just get flashes from them now and then. Fuel for the nightmares and all that."

"Why doesn't she integrate you, then?" Adam asked.

Alaric stared over Adam's head for a second, then he shook JL's head. "After we first merged I tried to frighten her into submission by telling her about my plans for Richie. She didn't react the way I thought she would, though. Instead of..." JL's eyes glazed again, and he grimaced. "If you're not going to tell them, I'm not giving up control," he muttered out loud. "No, little one. Even if you shut me up, you can't believe for a second that Bryan will let this rest. Ah, now that's better."

Shaking JL's head to clear it, Alaric looked up at Adam again. "Stubborn little wench, isn't she? Where was I? Oh, yes, her reaction. Instead of folding and crawling off in a corner, she just said 'so how do we destroy them?' I told her she couldn't, and she seemed to accept that. Then she went to Watcher headquarters and demanded the names of all the Immortals in the Black Adders so she could compile a list of their enemies and organize her own army." Alaric sighed. "I tried to tell her it was too much fuss for a mere teenager, but she ignored me. Then when she started to fall in love with him, I knew it was over. I almost wanted to merge then so I could hide my memories from her the way normal Quickenings hide theirs, but she wouldn't let me."

"Do you think you can merge voluntarily?" Bryan asked.

"Maybe. I've never run into this situation before, so it's hard to say. And now I'm not so sure I want to." Walking over to the bodies, Alaric reached down and removed Logan's belt buckle. Returning to the others, he pressed the adder's tongue and eye, then carefully opened the back of the buckle. Taking out a small platinum key, he held it up and laughed.

"What's that?" Richie asked.

"An invitation to a party," Alaric replied. "In Peru in late March. Only I think we should arrive much earlier than that. Let's say, the first week in March, at the latest. That's when her power will be the weakest, and her desire to get her hands on the sacrifice the strongest. Until then, you should spend every spare moment practicing with anyone who'll work with you, and by yourself if no one's around. You're in this all the way, Richie, whether you want to be or not."

"What about you, Alaric?" Adam insisted. "Are you really with us?"

Alaric smiled and handed him the key. "I'm behind you every step of the way, old man, until we get to Aurelia. She's mine. The rest you can divide among you as you will." With a sardonic bow, Alaric winked at Adam and said, "Wake me up when we get to Peru. I've got to plan a few things." Then he gratefully let JL resume control.

JL turned away from them as she took over for Alaric, staring at the chains embedded in the walls. Richie put his arms around her and let her bury her head in his chest so the others couldn't see her tears. "Let's get out of here," he suggested. "I know I've had my fill of FBI hospitality."

"Just a minute," Bryan said, examining his claymore to make sure he'd gotten all the blood cleaned off. Turning to Connor, he offered him the blade, hilt first. "It's a bit late, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, but I've never been very punctual. Take care of her--she's as proud a blade as the man I made her for."

Connor reached out to touch the hilt with his fingertips, but he didn't take the claymore from Bryan's hands. "She's your blade, Bryan. You keep her for me. For us, actually," he added, nodding toward Duncan. "Besides, she's too big for me to lug around."

Bryan shook his head. "A promise is a promise, Connor. I told Robert I'd return her, even if I didn't specify an exact century. And after losing three of my best swords when my jet exploded, I'm almost afraid to keep her anymore. This is the only one I consider truly irreplaceable."

"Two of your best swords," JL corrected quietly.

"What?" Bryan asked in surprise.

"It's a long story, but basically, Donovan and his cronies tried to freak me out by sending me pictures of my beheading you with your German backsword. They even included the sword with a fresh layer of blood just to make it more realistic."

"I told you those pictures we did with Greg Powers would come back to haunt us," Jim grumbled, but Bryan shushed him.

"You didn't leave the blood on my blade, did you?" he asked in concern.

JL sighed. "That's what I love about you, Bryan. Your priorities are so clear. I tell you that they tried to frame me for your murder and you want to know if I got around to cleaning the murder weapon."

"Well, did you?" he insisted.

"Yes, all right? Even while I was being interrogated by those who believed that Alaric had taken control and was using me to do evil things. They were going to kill me, Bryan, but I made them let me clean all the blood off your stupid sword first."

"Good," he said approvingly, "I'm going to need it once I get Connor to take the claymore."

JL snarled in frustration and pounced at him. Handing the claymore to Connor, Bryan laughed and wrestled with her for a minute before lifting her easily and cradling her in his arms. "I'm sorry, JL," he said. "If I had known they tried to frame you for my death, I'd have broken cover to contact you. But they had to believe I was dead if I wanted to move around freely."

JL hugged him and let her head rest on his shoulder for a second. "I'm glad you didn't die, Bryan, even if you can be the most aggravating creature on Earth."

Putting her down, Bryan assumed his best teacher stance, with his arms folded and his eyes stern. "So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, what did you learn from this fight?"

"That you're a complete show off?" JL hazarded, ducking the swat she knew was coming. "OK, OK," she protested with a laugh. "You took them together because you couldn't count on the other one staying out of things, especially after the first Quickening."

"I told them that. Why else?"

JL took a deep breath and then shrugged. "You knew you could take them?" she guessed.

Bryan shook his head. "When people are used to fighting alone, they have trouble fighting together. They get in each other's way, like Logan and Ryder did after the first exchange. What does that tell you?" he asked, inclining his head toward Connor.

JL looked over at Connor, who was testing out the claymore's balance. Watching him parry his invisible opponent, she noted differences in the way he handled the blade from the way Bryan had. Her eyes widened suddenly and she snapped her fingers. "That whoever goes on this Peru expedition with me needs to spend time beforehand training together in case we end up fighting in a group."

Bryan nodded. "Exactly.

"So who was in this little group you and Alaric put together?" Adam asked.

"You, me, Jim, Bryan, and Amanda." At Bryan's expression of disbelief, JL grinned. "I talked to Amanda about it briefly a couple of months ago, and she definitely wants to go. She's tangled with Aurelia three times now--usually over a man, by the way--and the mere mention of her name had Amanda ready to pack. I had a couple of ideas for the other people, but I was going to ask your advice first. That makes five definite, though."

"Six," Richie stated flatly.

JL nodded. "Six, then."

"Seven," responded Duncan. "I want to go, too."

"As do I," Connor added. "So that's eight to eight. Sounds like we have our army."

"What about the mortals who brought us here tonight?" Duncan asked, looking at Bryan.

"They're dead," Bryan replied quietly. "And that includes Donovan. Except for us, this whole building is empty as a pharaoh's tomb."

JL smiled tentatively at him, then they made their way back out into the street. The seven of them couldn't fit in Bryan's rental car, so Richie hot-wired the Black Adders' van while Bryan set the fire that would cover their tracks. "I'll call the fire department before the neighboring houses are in danger," Bryan muttered, adjusting the timer carefully.

"Do you always carry bombs with you where ever you go?" Duncan asked.

"Always. It's a policy that has served me well more times than I could count. Besides, if I weren't so familiar with them, I never would have found the one on my plane until it blew up."

Richie got the van started, then Connor drove them back home as the safehouse burned merrily behind them. When they got to Connor's, they saw a couple of people sitting on the steps talking to Joe. They drifted into the darkness when the Immortals approached, and Joe came down to hug JL and then shake Bryan's hand. "Richie's Watcher called to tell me you'd been kidnapped," he explained, "so we came over to keep an eye on the place while the lock was broken and wait to see how Bryan's rescue mission turned out."

"You knew Bryan was alive?" JL demanded.

"Not until Richie's Watcher spotted him tailing the kidnappers, no. But it certainly made the non-interference policy easier to adhere to."

Connor sighed as he saw the mess the kidnappers had left. "This is going to send my insurance premiums through the roof," he muttered.

JL surveyed the wreckage and gave a heartfelt sigh. "I am never going to pay off this debt," she said, ticking off the expenses incurred on her fingers. "A lawyer, bribes to an FBI video analyst, van rental for a month, and an antique store. Not to mention one very expensive, fully-customized Lear jet." Shaking her head she glanced at Joe. "That waitress job still available, Joe? I think I'm going to need it. For at least the next seven or eight millennia."

Adam laughed softly. "Get us to Peru and back, and the money can take care of itself."

"Sure it can," JL said with a grin. "That's why you never have any."

Adam grinned back. "I never said I didn't have any. I just don't want to spend any. That's a fine distinction that you'll pick up as the millennia roll by. Where are we going to plan this momentous attack?"

Surveying the remains of his antique store, Connor smiled grimly. "Either San Francisco or Seacouver where we can trash someone else's house for a change."

"What attack?" Joe asked with concern. "What's in Peru?"

JL sighed. "I'll explain it all to you later, Joe. Did your old friend Jasper sell his Seacouver estate?"

"No. The house still has earthquake damage." Joe replied. "Why?"

"Because it has six bedrooms and a great exercise room, as well as a ballroom. And it's only half an hour from your bar. I'm sure he'll let us rent it for awhile, won't he?"

Joe sighed. "I don't see why not, considering it's just going to waste."

"Sounds good," Adam said. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready for bed. Good night all." With a wave, Adam headed upstairs before anyone could question his financial policies further.

JL yawned. "That sounds like a wonderful idea. Coming, Richie?"

"Sure," Richie replied, following her up the stairs. "Where were we when we got so rudely interrupted?"

"I was taking your shirt off..." they heard JL start to reply, then the bedroom door closed and cut off the rest of the conversation.

"Shall we go out jet shopping tomorrow morning, Bryan?" Jim asked.

"You bet," Bryan replied promptly. "They have all sorts of new gadgets on the '97 models. I've been thinking of trading her in anyway, and the insurance premium is actually more than the trade-in value."

Jim groaned and took Bryan's hand. "I should have known you'd find a way to come out of this with new geegaws. Well, gentlemen, we're off too. Anybody want to share a cab back to the Ritz and use JL's room?"

"I will," Joe replied, waving at Duncan and Connor as they headed out to the street to find a cab. "I already brought some of my things over the other night, anyway."

Connor laughed and looked at Duncan. "Well," he said quietly, "I guess it's up to us to finish cleaning up this mess."

Duncan surveyed the damage and put an arm around Connor's shoulders. "I did tell you that I met Methos, didn't I?" he asked. At Connor's curious nod, he continued with a smile, "Well, let me give you a bit of advice I got from the Ancient One himself." Duncan paused for effect, then he said earnestly, "Get someone in."

Laughing, he walked up the stairs, leaving Connor alone to wonder why the legendary Methos was talking to Duncan at all, much less what he thought Duncan had needed to get someone in about.

To Part 3, "Retaliation"