Ordeal in Argentina

Vi Moreau and Suzanne Herring

Email Vi! Email Suzanne

Copyright December 1999

DISCLAIMERS: We don't own any of the MacLeods, although we wish we did. We don't own Richie, either. Nor do we own this particular concept of Immortality. We make no money from this effort--in fact, writing fanfiction probably costs at least one of us money. Elena Duran and Stephen Holz are creations of Vi Moreau; please don't use them without her permission. Though John MacLeod did appear as a child in Highlander 3, the grown-up version you see here has never appeared anywhere else before and is due mainly to Bridget Mintz Testa.

CHAPTER 1: LITTLE BOY LOST ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buenos Aires, Argentina

(December 14, 2001, very late at night)

The buzz of a nearby Immortal slithered up and down Richie Ryan's spine, and he stiffened with fear. But the fear wasn't for himself. Oh, no. Richie's fear was for Stephen Holz, a pre-Immortal who just happened to be Elena Duran's sixteen-year-old adopted son, a pre-Immortal who was supposed to be under Richie's supervision.

"Terrific," Richie murmured, looking around the maze of streets in downtown Buenos Aires, wondering where the hell Stephen could be. The boy had run off about a half-hour ago, giggling.

"Huh?" John MacLeod said, another teenager who was supposed to be under Richie's supervision, another adopted son of an Immortal: Connor MacLeod. Fortunately, John was a mortal and was right behind him. Unfortunately, John was very drunk, and Richie wasn't completely sober himself.

"Wonderful!" Richie muttered to himself, taking a series of deep breaths, hoping the oxygen would clear his head. "I didn't ask for this."

"Huh?" John answered.

"Nothing, John. It's nothing," Richie replied. But it *was* something. And he was hip-deep in it. And he *had* asked for it. Quite bluntly, in fact.

/////

(Much earlier that evening, at the Claridge Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires)

Stephen Holz, sitting on the floor in the hotel room John and Richie were sharing, is smiling. Not an expression you saw on that boy's face often, Richie thinks.

The boy says, "Come on, Richie. We're driving back to the [estancia] tomorrow. Who knows when John'll get a chance to come to Buenos Aires again! He can't go home and say that the only thing he saw was the inside of a hotel room! Right, John?" Stephen looks up at John MacLeod, whose full six-foot-four-inch length is sprawled out on the long, comfortable couch in the spacious penthouse-level room in the Claridge hotel.

"Right, Stephen," John agrees, smiling too, sitting up and leaning forward eagerly. "I want to see the Buenos Aires' nightlife. I've heard that Latin American women are really something." He wiggles his eyebrows exactly the way Connor did.

Richie laughs, thinking that this gift of a pre-Christmas trip to Argentina from Connor to his son might wind up being more than Connor had bargained for. "OK," Richie says. "Let's go talk to Elena and Duncan." All three of them troop across the hall to Elena and Duncan's suite and knock on the door.

There is a pause, then Duncan opens the door. "Come in, guys." He waves them inside and says, "Elena's almost ready for dinner. We thought we'd go to one of the restaurants overlooking the river."

"Yeah, that's good, Mac," Richie answers, "but...."

"But?" Duncan asks, looking them all over.

"Go on, Richie," Stephen prompts.

"The guys and I are going out on the town," Richie declares, forcefully.

"Right," John says.

Duncan's eyebrows go up. "You are?"

"Yeah. Stephen knows the city, and I'll be the designated walker. You know, I'll stay sober." Mostly, he adds silently.

"You'll be responsible, Richie?" Elena asks.

She had come from one of the bedrooms, up behind Richie, and he hadn't heard her, again. Damn. She is too good at sneaking up on him. He turns to her and says, "I will. Any problem with that?"

Elena exchanges the briefest of glances with Duncan, then says, "No problem for me, if Duncan feels that John...." She drifts off.

Duncan looks John up and down, mostly up, since John is taller than he is. "I'm sure they'll be fine." Turning to his former student, he says, "I trust Richie."

Elena nods in agreement. "So do I. Have fun, then, gentlemen."

Richie grins, pleased with the success of his assertive announcement. Maybe that old saying that you get what you ask for was true, he thinks.

As they leave, Stephen calls out, "Don't wait up!"

"Of course not," Duncan says with a smile. "We old fogies need to get our sleep."

Old fogies. Yeah, right, Richie thinks, as the suite door slams behind the three of them. He turns to the boys. "Look, I'm responsible for you guys, so you gotta listen to me. Understand?"

Stephen pastes a solemn expression on his face, but it does nothing to hide the glint of mischief in his eyes. "Absolutely, Richie," he says, nodding.

"Right," John chimes in.

Richie sighs. "I'm gonna regret this, aren't I?" he says, and both boys just grin.

/////

(Streets of Buenos Aires, late at night December 14, 2001)

And now Richie was regretting it. And thinking that, yeah, he had certainly gotten what he'd asked for.

Richie, John, and Stephen had hit the night-time streets of Buenos Aires like a ton of bricks. And they'd had a great night of drinking, dancing, flirting with dark-eyed senoritas, drinking, being flirted with *by* dark-eyed senoritas, eating large steaks and small [empanadas], laughing, people watching. Not to mention drinking. They had even managed to get kicked out of a "show" at a "theater" featuring a redhead whose outfit would have easily fit in the pocket of Richie's T-shirt. Their fun hadn't stopped when Stephen had run off.

Richie should have stopped him, but he had been just a little too drunk himself at the time. And it had been a kind of hide-and-seek game through the streets at first, a game which Richie could easily win because of course, unbeknownst to Stephen, Richie could sense the pre-Immortal. Unfortunately, so could the new, full-fledged Immortal Richie was sensing at this very moment.

"Elena's gonna kill me, permanently," Richie whispered unhappily. He realized he was talking to himself a lot tonight. It had to stop.

"Nah," John said happily. "'Lena likes you, Richie. I like you, too."

"That's great, John," Richie said, louder this time. At least he was talking to someone else now, not that John really counted for much as a conversation partner at this point. Richie shook his head--he just had to find Stephen Holz.

John mumbled, "Whaddya say, Richie?"

"Nothin' John. Nothin'."

The deep breaths and the danger of the Immortal had burned away the last traces of alcohol in Richie's bloodstream, and he felt relatively sober. He headed toward the place where the Immortal sensation was strongest, right into the teeth of the tiger. Because Stephen was his responsibility, he didn't even have the choice of walking away. The sensation led him near a street called Florida, which was like an inner-city pedestrian mall. But all the bright beckoning stores of a few hours ago were barred at this late hour. It was dark, silent, and lonely, even with John's broad, solid bulk behind him.

Richie moved forward slowly and licked his lips. The old European-style buildings of the downtown area, which had seemed so charming earlier that evening before, now seemed to crowd in on him, a long line of grey, weathered monotony. They were all the same, and he felt like a rat in a maze. Except for him the reward for finding the exit would not be cheese--it would be three feet of steel.

"Stay with me, John," he said. In spite of John's size and his obvious ability to take care of himself from the years of boxing and karate lessons Connor had arranged, John was no match for an armed Immortal. And if Richie let John get hurt, Connor would probably kill him permanently, too.

To make things worse, Duncan had warned Richie--and Elena and especially Stephen--that Connor had still not told John about the Game. Connor didn't want his son to know about the gory, ugly details of Immortality. So, however Richie got them out of this fix, he, Richie Ryan, did not want to be the one who separated John from his innocence. Connor MacLeod wouldn't thank him for that, either. Richie shuddered in spite of the heat.

Richie took a deep breath for calmness and swallowed his fear. He knew they were close to their hotel. The street names were familiar. But he still wasn't sure of their exact location.

He got to the edge of a building with a large picture window displaying leather goods and peered around the corner quickly, seeing very little in the darkness. The Immortal was there, all right. But with the strong presence of a full Immortal, now Richie couldn't pinpoint Stephen's location.

The one saving grace of that, Richie thought, was that Richie's vibes would also block Stephen from the other Immortal. Unless, of course, the other Immortal already had Stephen in his sights. That thought drove a shard of ice down Richie's back. All he needed was to have to explain to Elena Duran how another Immortal had killed Stephen, waited for him to revive, and then taken his tiny little Quickening. While Richie was supposed to be looking after the kid.

What Richie really wanted to do was go back to the Claridge Hotel, hand Stephen over to Elena, go to sleep, and avoid this Immortal altogether. But first he had to find Stephen Holz. He had to.

"John, stay right here for a minute and I'll just check something," Richie said to his very happy friend.

John smiled, apparently unaware of what was going on. "Richie, what's happenin'?"

Richie looked at John, studying him. The boy didn't look as neat as when they'd started. No surprise there. His silk shirt was pulled out of his black jeans--that would be because of the dancing--and he had that dopey smile still lighting his face. And lipstick on his cheek, too, jeez, that blonde prostitute!

Though Richie needed to be sober himself, he was glad that John MacLeod was still drunk. It would be easier this way. He put his hand on John's large chest and pressed the teen slowly but firmly against the wall. "Don't move. Understand?"

Some of Richie's earnestness must have gotten through to John by this time, because he peered down at Richie closely. "Richie ... somethin' goin' on?"

"Yeah, John, I have to find Stephen. But don't worry. I'll be right back."

"I'll help," John said, taking a step forward.

"No!" Dammit, Richie thought. That would just be great, for John to "help" his way right into an Immortal ... situation.

John's broad, dusky face had shifted from the happy demeanor of the moment before into a stubborn expression that Richie recognized immediately. He'd seen that same slightly sulky look on both Duncan and Connor's faces. And here it was on this MacLeod, too. Great, Richie thought. Something else he needed right now: Clan MacLeod hardheadedness.

Trusting to his mouth to save him, Richie opened it and heard himself say, "No, John, I need you to stay right here in case Stephen comes back this way. OK? This way I'll know where you are. We'll split up--I'll go that way, and you stay here and keep watch for Stephen. That'll be your job, and you can do it better than I can." Richie carefully pushed John back against the wall, then held his breath to see if John would buy it.

John frowned and twisted his lips. He appeared to think it over for a minute, though Richie doubted that much thought was taking place in the sloshed brain. Finally, John said, "I can?"

Richie nodded.

"Oh. OK, then," John said. "If you really think--"

"I do, John," Richie said fervently. "Absolutely, man."

John leaned back against the wall. "Then I'll stay right here an' wait, watch out for ... for ..."

"Stephen," Richie finished for him.

"Steph'n," John agreed pleasantly.

"Great," Richie said, removing his hand from John's chest. "I'll check back in a few minutes. In the meantime, do not leave this spot."

John nodded solemnly.

Richie took a deep breath and started towards the unseen but obviously nearby Immortal. He wasn't happy about leaving John on his own, but as he looked back at the boy, he relaxed a little. John looked pretty intimidating just standing there. As long as John encountered no Immortals--and Richie was heading towards the Immortal and away from John--Richie thought John could probably give a good accounting of himself. John towered over most of the Argentines. Hell, John towered over most men.

And since Stephen could be in real danger of losing his head, Richie simply had to trust that John could handle things on his own. Richie couldn't wait any longer.

As soon as Richie was out of John's view around a corner, he pulled out his sword, holding it double-handed before him, pausing for a moment to let his eyes get accustomed to the darkness before walking any further. The side street he was on kept going into the labyrinth, but the Immortal sensation was strongest to Richie's right. He crept silently to the end of the block, peered around the corner of the building and saw an alley stretching back through the buildings. Bingo, Richie thought. He slipped round the corner.

The street lights didn't quite reach the shadows of the alley. The smell of garbage, one of the constant, underlying scents of many large cities, filled his nostrils at once, covering any others. In the background he could hear spirited Latin music, what else? Or maybe it was in his head. As he entered the alley, he softly called out, "Honey, I'm home." And to cover all bets, because he was in Argentina, he added, ["Buenas noches."]

"Richie? Is that you?"

It was Stephen's voice, thank God, and Stephen was safe. Maybe.

"Richie? Richie Ryan?" another voice called, also filled with relief.

That was a voice Richie knew, but couldn't quite place ... he moved in closer, and the clouds agreeably parted just at that moment--deus ex machina--giving the night a silvery moonlit sheen. And illumination, thank you very much. He hated meeting an Immortal in pitch blackness.

The Immortal stepped from behind a large dumpster, and now Richie recognized him. Short hair dyed ash-blond over dark roots, light eyes, a neat little scar under his right eye, his build compact and muscular, dressed all in black leathers and silver buckles--and, Richie remembered, with a grip like the Terminator. Nate Brown, Immortal.

"It's me, Nate," the other man identified himself right away. "Nathan Brown."

"Yeah, Nate. It's Richie Ryan," he answered, extremely relieved but also unhappily aware of the sword held easily in Nathan Brown's right hand. He also noticed that Brown was between him and Stephen.

"Richie! How are you, man? Long time no see! Hey, I'm sure glad it's you, bro!" Brown called out.

Brown's voice did indeed sound relieved, and friendly, just like it always had when the two of them had spent time together in California.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 2: LATE ENCOUNTER

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nate yells at Richie over the roar of his Harley. "Hey Richie! You ever raced along the LA culverts! You know, the runoff system! Like the guys in that movie, 'The Gumball Rally.'"

"Yeah," Richie answers. "Like in 'Terminator II.'"

Nate grins widely and revs his engine. "I'll meet you at The Hothouse. Loser buys the beer!" he calls, then takes off, disappearing under the street level.

Ultimately, Richie buys the beer. "The only reason you won," he tells Nate, "is 'cause you know the culvert system so well--and you gave yourself a head start."

"Oh, hell, Ryan," Nate replies, "next time you can have the head start."

"OK," Richie agrees.

They drink to it. Then they drink to motorcycles. They find many things to drink to and they're still working at it when the bald, squat little bartender softly says he can't serve them anymore.

Nate says, "Whaddya mean, you won't serve us anymore, Joe? Ain't our money as good as the nex' guy's?"

"It ain't your money, son," the bartender answers calmly. "It's closing time."

Nate starts to protest, but Richie looks blearily around. The bartender isn't lying; Richie and Nate are the only customers left. Plus, for all his soft voice, this particular bartender has scar tissue around his eyes and his nose has been broken before. Probably several times. Probably in the ring. Not, Richie decides, a man he'd want to mess with. Even if he were sober.

"Can it, Nate," Richie says. "Le's go."

"But--"

"'S not worth arguin' over," Richie replies, putting an arm around Nate and turning them both toward the door. "Say," he asks, "is that bartender's name really Joe? Or is every bartender's name Joe?" Richie muses out loud.

"They're all called Joe," Nate answers with certainty.

They had picked this bar because it was only a block from the apartment they're sharing, and they had been pretty sure they'd be too drunk to drive. As they walk their bikes towards home, Nate points to the local all-night convenience store. "Hey, let's get some brewskies!" he calls out, as if he'd just had a great, brand new idea.

They finally stagger back to the safety of their apartment, lock up their bikes, and drink until they both pass out.

When Richie wakes up from a restless night and some very strange dreams, he's sprawled on the living room floor. Nate is already awake and sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. Nate is watching Richie, and the look seems to Richie ... not as friendly as it might be. Certainly not as friendly as the night before. Richie notices through half-closed lids that Nate's sword is on the floor right next to him. Not in his hand, but right next to him. At that moment, Richie feels the hair stand up on the back of his neck. And he is suddenly all too aware that he's been totally unconscious in the presence of an armed Immortal he really doesn't know that well.

An instant later, Nate grins at Richie and the unfriendliness--if it was in fact there, and Richie is suddenly unsure that it ever was--is gone. "So, Sleeping Beauty finally woke up, eh? How 'bout we go find some breakfast."

And now Richie is certain that the unfriendliness he thought he saw must have been a figment of his hangover. Or a leftover of those weird dreams. He feels guilty, and he hurries to cover it up. "Yeah, anything but eggs," he answers.

Nate laughs, and there's no echo of predatory coldness or anything else in the laugh. Richie is quite sure of it.

The two Immortals go out for a late breakfast.

/////

(Streets of downtown Buenos Aires, late at night, December 14, 2001)

Nate had never given Richie a reason to wonder about him again, and some months later, they parted company on friendly terms. But now Nate had his sword in his hand, and he was standing between Richie and Stephen.

Richie glanced quickly at Stephen. The boy looked all right. But there was something ... suddenly Richie realized that the boy had lost his ever-present baseball cap. For some reason, that made Richie nervous. But he made sure it didn't show. Right now he needed to deal with the other Immortal.

"How are you, Nate?" Richie said quietly, shooting a meaningful look at the other man's sword.

And just as Nate raised his eyebrows and started to speak, Stephen spoke up. "I know the drill. Now you're going to kill each other, huh? Chop off each others' heads, clean off? Well, I wouldn't want to--"

"Friend of yours?" Brown interrupted, looking at Stephen, then back at Richie.

"Yeah," Richie answered. He started to tell Stephen to come over to him. Instead he paused, thinking, and then said, "Stephen, what are you doing in this alley? Nate, I'm glad you found him; we got separated about a half hour ago and I've been looking everywhere for him."

Nate lowered his sword, then nodded his head towards Stephen and gave Richie a questioning look.

Richie shook his head and lowered his own sword. To Stephen, he said, "You OK, kid?"

But Stephen always flared up at being called a kid. He also always flared up at the sight of swords like the ones in Richie's and Nate's hands. Stephen hated swords because--unlike John--he knew exactly what they meant. The boy made no secret of the fact that he hated Immortals, even though he lived with them.

He was also too drunk to take in the easing of tension between the two Immortals. Stephen shouted, "Well, I'm not gonna stick around and watch!" And he took off, running right past Richie.

As Stephen raced by, Richie sheathed his sword in his lightweight denim duster and in the same movement, spun around to follow the boy. Stephen was normally nimble and light-footed, but tonight he staggered and panted, and Richie, now sober, easily caught up to him. He grabbed Stephen by the shoulders and yanked the slim youth around, not too gently, to face him.

"Did you forget all about John?" Richie asked, hoping this would get through Stephen's alcoholic, angry haze, hoping Stephen would be able to grasp the simple fact that John MacLeod shouldn't be exposed to another Immortal; he might learn too much. "Stephen, *John* is at the mouth of the alley, around the corner. Get him and go back to the hotel."

It was clearly an order. Unfortunately, Stephen wasn't thinking altruistically. The boy rose to his full height of five-foot-six or so and opened his mouth to protest, but Richie cut him off before he began.

"Stephen, you need to get John back to the hotel--he doesn't know the city. And he doesn't know anything about Immortals. Do you understand me?" he said, spelling it out.

Stephen nodded. "Yeah, sure," he snarled. "I understand everything. Chop, chop." And he jerked his hand across his neck in the universal "cut" motion. Then, carefully watching his own feet, Stephen made his way around Richie.

Richie ignored the sarcasm and the anger, letting the teen go past him, listening carefully to the receding clicking of Stephen's boots. He dimly heard Stephen and John talking quietly beyond him, back around the corner of the leather shop. Then their footsteps and voices faded into the night.

Good. Now Richie could concentrate on Nate, because he did have one very important question he needed to ask his old friend before he could just walk away and forget about all this. He turned back around and walked over to Nate, who, he saw, had also sheathed his sword. Richie took a breath and relaxed. He started to speak, but Nate beat him to it.

"Who is he?" Nate asked.

No harm in telling Nate that, Richie thought. In fact, it might do some good. Carefully, he answered, "He's Elena Duran's adopted son."

Nate whistled. "Mama Bear herself, eh?"

Richie nodded. Then he said, "I have to ask this, Nate. What were you doing in this alley with that kid and your sword in your hand?"

"Look," Nate replied. "I sensed an Immortal, so I drew my sword. But it was kind of a weak feeling ... and I wasn't sure ... so I wanted--needed--to find out. Yeah, I followed him. I was curious. Wouldn't you have done the same?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "And then I felt you coming and I still had my sword in my hand. It wasn't until you showed up and blanked him out that I realized who he was--I mean, what he was--that he hadn't yet died, you know. If you hadn't shown up, I'd have realized it and just left him alone. We're friends, Richie. You know me! You know I wouldn't ... He's just a kid, for Chrissake!"

Richie inspected his old friend for any sign of that look he'd thought he'd seen back in LA, a couple of years ago, that look of someone silently reciting the single line of Immortal scripture: There can be only one.

Nate looked back at Richie. The blond man was frowning slightly, looking a little hurt, a little puzzled. But he didn't look at all like a man with beheading on his mind.

Richie chose to trust his instincts. He took a deep breath and held out his hand. "It's good to see you again, Nate."

Without hesitation, Nate responded and shook his hand warmly.

Richie said, "You can see why I had to ask--"

Nate held up his hand. "Sure, I understand. Forget about it." He clapped Richie on the back. "So, why don't we get a beer, and you can tell me how you came to know Elena Duran."

Richie shook his head. "Sorry, Nate, no can do. I gotta get back to the hotel, make sure Stephen is OK and calm down Elena and Mac. They probably think you and I are fighting right now."

Nate nodded. "Yeah, I see what you mean. Calming her down sounds like a plan to me."

But as Richie started to turn away, Nate put a hand on Richie's arm, then asked, "Wait ... you said Mac? Mac who?"

Nonchalantly, Richie said, "Duncan MacLeod--"

"Christ," Nate interrupted, his eyes wide. "Elena Duran *and* Duncan MacLeod. Hey, you don't know Connor MacLeod too, do you?"

Richie smiled wickedly. "Well, as a matter of fact--"

"Whoa, man!" Nate stepped back and raised his eyebrows. "You know what they say: 'A man is known by the company he keeps.' You're keeping some kick-ass company, my man."

Richie shrugged. He'd never mentioned MacLeod to Nate before, and he was enjoying this reflected glory immensely. But he did need to get back. "Look, Nate, I really gotta get back to the hotel--"

"Yeah, I know. Let's not keep those two waiting. But look, Richie, before you go there's something I gotta tell you. Have you ever heard of Angel Gutierrez?"

Richie shook his head. Then he listened, and his face grew dark with anger and worry as Nate hurried on, his voice intent and serious. When Nate finished, Richie held out his hand again and Nate shook it. "Thanks for the warning, Nate," Richie said. Then he quickly turned to head back to the hotel.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 3: INTO THE NIGHT

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Duncan! Elena!"

Duncan MacLeod woke immediately from a deep sleep, threw the covers off, and sat up in bed. It took him two breaths to orient himself. Location: a suite in the Claridge Hotel, Buenos Aires. The Immortal nearby: Elena Duran, her tangled, long black hair caught under her pillow, in bed with him.

"Duncan, Elena, open up!"

And slamming the outer suite door, running, shouting and pounding on their bedroom door: Stephen Holz.

Elena was already out of bed, crying out, "Stephen!" as she slipped into her white silk robe. Duncan pulled on his blue jeans, scooped up his katana from under the nightstand, nicking the hard wood as he drew it up, then opened the door so quickly Stephen almost fell inside. John stood unsteadily just beyond their bedroom doorway.

Quickly putting the katana on the dresser by their bedroom door, Duncan grabbed Stephen by the shoulders and half-walked, half-carried him a few steps backwards out into the living room of their suite. They bumped into John, and Duncan had to quickly set Stephen aside and catch John's shirt one-handed, straightening him out when the boy stumbled slightly.

"Where's Richie?" Duncan asked Stephen, still holding on to John's shirt-collar.

"He's out there ... he didn't come back with us!" Stephen said, breathlessly.

Out there where? Duncan wondered. And why didn't Richie stay with the boys? Duncan could think of several reasons, none of them good. But first ... "Stay here!" Duncan whispered to John harshly.

John finally regained his balance, and Duncan let him go. He retrieved his sword and went to the front door of the suite. He stepped out and scanned the empty corridor, his katana held hidden behind his leg. The only thing visible was the same used room-service tray they'd seen when he and Elena had come in a few hours before. No Immortals close by, not even Richie Ryan.

He closed the door, then took a moment to look around the room, richly furnished in Spanish leather-and-wood, searching for a place to hide his sword. Spotting a large, colorful ceramic planter by the window, he put his katana in it as surreptitously as possible, glancing at the boys, hoping neither one had noticed the weapon.

Stephen didn't look in much condition to notice anything. Sweating, panting slightly, his golden-green eyes glowing with drink and excitement--or maybe fear--Stephen began talking quickly, the words tumbling out. "Duncan, it's Richie! He's met an Immortal! I think they're fighting!"

"Calm down, Stephen," Duncan said in a soft, soothing voice, in contrast to his pounding heart. Beyond the two boys he could see Elena, yanking her robe closed as she strode out of the bedroom and mouthed the word, [!Cono!]

Duncan walked over and put his hands on Stephen's wiry shoulders, glanced meaningfully at John, then back to Stephen. "And keep your voice down. Remember where we are." This didn't seem to be so bad. He could see--and smell--that they had been drinking, but they seemed to be safe, although frightened, out of breath, and--Duncan glanced at John again--apparently bewildered. Duncan knew he couldn't get any information from Stephen in this state, and he didn't want to question John.

Elena, too, could tell the boys were unhurt, but an Immortal had been involved in frightening them, and if Richie didn't dispatch the [hijo de mala madre] who'd frightened her son and rousted her out of the warm bed she was sharing with Duncan, then she would. No, not really. Not unless ... first let's find out what's going on, she thought, and asked, "Are either of you hurt in any way?"

"No! No, we're fine! But Richie--," Stephen began.

"Richie can take care of himself, Stephen," Duncan interrupted. The fast tattoo of his heart had slowed somewhat, but now he was worried about Richie. He believed what he'd just told Stephen, but ... He put an arm around Stephen's shoulders and carefully steered the boy towards Stephen's own room, the second bedroom of the suite, further away from John. Then he glanced at Elena and nodded slightly towards his "nephew." He knew Elena would distract the boy easily.

Elena nodded, then turned to John and said, "Why don't you come sit down with me, John?"

"Wha's going on, Elena?" John asked her. He still looked confused and drunk, and she could see a little worry line between his brows.

"What's going on is I want you to tell me what you think of Buenos Aires." Taking his arm, because he didn't look too steady, she led the way to the tan leather couch in the living room, near the window and well away from Duncan and Stephen.

They sank into the butter-soft leather seats.

Above the sweet smell of the leather, Elena could smell John--alcohol and sweat, and *definitely* cheap perfume. He looked to be somewhat oblivious to his surroundings. His chest rose and fell rapidly, and his brown silk shirt was dark with sweat, as though they'd run here or taken the stairs instead of the elevator. She wondered how much he'd actually had to drink and guessed he didn't get this drunk too often. Which was probably one reason he had come with her without protest.

Elena took the nineteen-year-old's hand in hers, leaned close to him, and smiled. "So, John, did you see any tango dancers?" she began.

"Yeah, we did!" John said, a bit too loudly, also leaning in close to her. "I wanted to dance with some more senoritas, but Richie said the cobblestones were already dancing under his feet, and that this blonde girl with big t--uh, breasts and a tight skirt would give me the clap just by touching me."

"The clap?" Elena asked, her eyebrows shooting up.

"Yeah," John answered. "But *I* wasn't worried."

"You weren't?" she replied, trying not to smile.

"No!" John shook his head, then eagerly went on to describe their adventures, including almost getting thrown out of "that tango place," gesturing with his hands for emphasis while she really listened and gazed into his brown eyes with great interest. And whatever worries John might have had seemed to dissolve in the face of Elena's attentions.

Duncan watched Elena work that "beautiful woman" kind of magic, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Leading Stephen on into the boy's bedroom and well away from the other two, Duncan said in a low voice, pitched only for Stephen's ears, "Just tell me what happened."

Stephen also took a couple of deep breaths.

"Good. Take a moment," Duncan said approvingly, although he was anxious to ask him, to know. Sweat plastered the boy's black hair to his head, and he was missing his cap. Now that Duncan looked closely he could easily see that Stephen was clearly afraid. The boy's eyes were also more than a little out of focus. He was breathing hard, as though he'd hurried, maybe run to the hotel. His yellow shirt was splotched with sweat, and he was clutching his stomach.

Duncan wondered if Stephen was going to vomit. "You all right?" Duncan asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine, I'm good," Stephen said, getting control of himself, and when he spoke again, he was calmer and quiet, now speaking only for Duncan. "We met an Immortal. And Richie knew him." Suddenly he raised his voice again. "They're probably fighting now!"

Could be, Duncan thought unhappily, shifting his feet. But he carefully kept the concern out of his voice. "Richie knew him? Did he say his name?" He wanted the man's name in case--

"He said ... uh ... I think ... Nathan Brown ... but Duncan, you've got to go--"

"I'm going, Stephen," Duncan interrupted. "But Buenos Aires is a big city. I need to know where they are."

"Ah, yes, umm...." Stephen thought for a moment. "Damn, I been doing some drinking." He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. "We were walking back from San Telmo."

San Telmo was the bohemian district of Buenos Aires, with winding cobblestone streets, antique shops and all-night tango bars and [confiterias.] "This side of the Plaza de Mayo?" Duncan asked, trying to narrow down their location.

"Yes," Stephen said, nodding slowly, delicately, as though he were afraid his head might fall off. "We were off Florida, you know, the street with the stores--"

"I know the street, Stephen. I'll find him." Duncan squeezed Stephen's shoulder once, gently, then crossed the living room back to the bedroom he was sharing with Elena, glad that John was too engrossed in telling his story to Elena to notice.

Duncan dressed quickly: socks, boots, hair clip to keep his hair out of his eyes, in case he had to fight. No shirt, just his long tan duster. As he pulled the coat on and headed back into the living room he thought about Stephen's "directions." Florida street dead-ended at the Plaza de Mayo, which gave Duncan a good idea where Richie--and this Nathan Brown--might be. Not too far. Good.

He looked toward Elena. His eyes met hers. She got the message, stood up, smiled gently down at John, and said, "John, why don't you go back to your room now? We'll let you know if anything happens."

John looked confused for a moment; then he slowly stood, smiled down at her, walked deliberately across the room, opened the door, smiled back at Elena, then went into the hall and closed the door quietly behind him.

Unsure because of John's mechanical movements, Duncan opened the door and looked down the hall to verify that John was, indeed, going into his hotel room. John was just closing his door behind himself. Good.

When Duncan turned back, Elena was already at his side. "What's happened with Richie?" she asked urgently, pushing strands of thick, tangled hair from her face.

Duncan replied, "He met an Immortal. I'm going." Then he pulled his katana out of the planter and slipped it inside its sheath hidden in the duster.

Stephen, who had stayed near the door, stared at the katana and then at Duncan's coat with morbid fascination. "So, you're going to go help Richie, right?" Stephen asked him.

Duncan exchanged the briefest of glances with Elena, and she nodded again. To Stephen he said, "Stay here; I'll be back." He paused a moment by the door, looking back and smiling at the strong and beautiful woman he was so proud and happy to be sharing his life with, and at the wiry, dark-haired boy he so badly wanted to call his son. Then he went out quickly to look for his other son.

Elena watched him leave. The thought of losing Duncan made her heart rise up into her throat, and she swallowed to make it go down again. More than anything, she wanted to get dressed and go with Duncan, stand with him, be with him. Being the woman waiting at home with the children while the man went out to do battle did not suit her at all. Of course, that was exactly what she had to do now.

Meanwhile, Stephen stared for a moment at the closed door, then turned to Elena. And she could see the look on his face right away, the rage, the betrayal, and she heard the hurt and bitterness in his voice when he said to her, pronouncing every word distinctly: "Duncan's going to help him. He's going to help *Richie.* But he wouldn't--"

"[No, mi nino]," she interrupted, taking him by the shoulders, looking into his dark, troubled face, letting the soothing mother-sound into her voice, even though she was jacked up, worried for Duncan and especially for Richie, even though she was upset for her son.

Elena knew exactly where Stephen was going, exactly how he felt. He'd made it clear to her, repeated it many times. Four years ago, Stephen's Immortal "father," Phillipe Holz, had been beheaded in front of the boy, and in front of Duncan, Elena, and Methos. And Duncan, who had promised to try to help the elder Holz, had done nothing to interfere in the Immortal duel. It had been a very bitter pill for Stephen to swallow, and even though Duncan loved the boy and had tried to help her raise Stephen as their own, she knew Stephen still held this against Duncan, and maybe always would.

She concentrated on trying to reach Stephen yet again, this time through an alcoholic haze. "Duncan is not going to help Richie," Elena said firmly. "Richie is a grown man and an Immortal, and he knows what he's doing, what we all have to do: fight in single combat, one on one. It's the very essence of being an Immortal. Can you understand that?" [Madre de Dios], but she was tired of repeating this to him! And it was very important, not just for Stephen's relationship with Duncan, but for Stephen as a future Immortal to understand.

"And if Richie's killed?" Stephen demanded.

"Then he's killed," Elena said, coldly. "Immortals die all the time, Stephen. We'll be desolate at losing another good friend. We will mourn him, and Duncan will avenge him. But neither of us will interfere in his fight."

She could see the wheels turning in Stephen's head, and when he looked into her eyes he didn't seem as angry any more, or as sullen. Maybe, she hoped, she prayed, this time, the boy would finally begin to understand.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 4: TO STAND WITH YOU

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Duncan strode down Florida Street. The hilt of his sword felt cool against his bare skin--everything else about the night was hot and sweaty and still. This early in the morning, even Buenos Aires was almost quiet. There was scant traffic on the cross streets. The old, weathered storefronts were darkened, and very few people were out walking.

One woman was not walking. She was leaning against the corner of a building, dressed in a cut-off blouse and a tight, very short skirt, trying to get a last few puffs out of a cigarette. She straightened up and tossed the cigarette down, grinding it under her foot, looking Duncan over appreciatively. As she called out, "[!Oye, mi amor, veni!]" smoke poured out of her mouth. He ignored her, turning south onto Corrientes Street.

A group of teens came out of a doorway, talking and laughing, filling the narrow sidewalk, blocking his way. Duncan quickly stepped out onto the street, into the path of one of the few cars on this street at this hour. Brakes screeched and insults followed--"[!Tu madre, cabron!]"--but Duncan ignored them, too, cutting across the street to the other side, hurrying, almost desperate now, because he was close to the plaza and he still hadn't sensed an Immortal. He forced himself to stay calm, repeating what he'd told Stephen: Richie can take care of himself. The more minutes passed, the more he repeated the mantra: Richie can take care of himself, Richie can....

Duncan sensed Richie first, then saw him. Richie was walking towards him quickly, glancing around, sniffing the air like a bloodhound for an Immortal--just like Duncan was--but appearing cool, calm. His duster, T-shirt, and jeans showed no sign of rips or blood. Thank God. Duncan could tell Richie hadn't just fought a duel, or killed a man, or taken a Quickening. Duncan slowed down, easing up to his young friend. He liked this new Richie--confident, smart, and experienced--much more than he had liked the arrogant swaggering teenager he'd first met nine years ago.

Richie had seen Duncan rush, then slow down. Mac, coming to rescue him again? He thought they'd gotten past that. "Hey, Mac," he called casually, "out for a stroll?" But he knew it was more than that. Mac didn't even have a shirt on. Damn. Mac must have really been in a hurry. Richie wondered what horror story Stephen had related to Mac. And he was annoyed that the Scot still, after all this time, thought he had to come out and rescue him. Or babysit. But Richie wasn't about to show his annoyance. So, deliberately adopting a casual attitude and a teasing tone, he said, "And have we forgotten how to dress ourselves, my friend?"

Duncan put his hand on his bare chest self-consciously. "Yeah, I'm an old fogie, remember?" he joked. He could guess that Richie wasn't too thrilled to see him. Richie probably took it as an insult, a sign that Duncan didn't think he could take care of himself. But he doubted that Richie would come right out and say it. "I couldn't sleep," Duncan added, trying to downplay the situation even more. He was somewhat breathless, but hoped Richie couldn't hear the hammering of his heart.

Richie smiled tiredly. Pretty lame, MacLeod, he thought. Out loud, he said, "It's been a long night, I did a little drinking," he admitted. "But mostly, I'm whipped. More seriously, he added, "Are Stephen and John--"

"The boys are fine. They're at the hotel. And John didn't hear anything he shouldn't have."

Richie sagged a little with relief. "Good."

Duncan didn't need Richie to tell him he had done a little drinking. He could smell it, and he could see Richie's exhaustion in the redhead's pallid face. Duncan said, "Stephen told me...." But then he let it go. He wasn't going to press. If Richie wanted to tell him what happened, he would.

But Richie didn't want to let it go. "Stephen told you ... what?" he asked.

Richie's tone was light, but Duncan could hear the underlying intensity. Duncan had played this same game with Connor, this macho game of "cooler-than-thou," long before Richie was born. In a deliberately nonchalant tone, he said, "That you met an Immortal--Nathan Brown."

"Nate's all right," Richie replied. Then he added emphatically, "We're friends."

Duncan raised his eyebrows. "Friends? Good." He looked at Richie a moment, then deliberately yawned and started walking back. "I guess I'm tired, too. You coming back to the hotel now?"

Richie yawned, too, a long one that actually hurt his jaw, then fell into step with the Scot. "Yeah. I'm looking forward to using that three-hundred-dollar-a-night room."

Duncan smiled, put his arm around Richie's shoulder. "You should. You're paying for it."

Richie laughed. "Well, I'm paying for half. Connor can pay for John's half."

Duncan laughed, too. "I'll tell him." He could have stopped there, again, let it go, but he suddenly realized he wanted something different with Richie than what he had with Connor. Something more honest. No games, dammit! "You know, Connor still worries about me. Even after all this time."

"Really? He doesn't strike me as the worrying kind."

"He would die by slow torture before he would admit it, but I know he does. It comes with the territory."

"It does, huh? I guess that's something else I should look forward to when I get as old and decrepit as you and Connor, Mac. Right?" Richie knew what Mac was trying to do, but the rescue attempt still irritated him. He wasn't really ready for the "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" line yet.

Now Duncan really laughed, throwing his head back. He removed his arm from Richie's shoulder, resisting the urge to ruffle the red-blond head.

Well, Richie's hair was too short now anyway. "Only if you take a student, Rich." Then you'll know what it's really like, he thought.

Richie rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, I'm not looking for a student."

Duncan said, "Immortals never look for students. Somehow they just find us. You know?"

Richie thought it over. Touche, Mac, he thought. With a snort, he said, "If you say so."

Satisfied for now, Duncan let it rest.

As they walked side-by-side to the hotel, Richie used the private moment to ask, "You ever hear of a Mexican Immortal named Angel Gutierrez?" John and Stephen didn't need to hear about this possible threat.

Duncan pursed his lips and shook his head. "No, I don't know him. Elena might."

Richie nodded. "Yeah, and you should ask her. Tonight. According to Nate, this guy is crazy. Calls himself [El Angel de la Muerte.] And he wants Elena's head."

Duncan stopped and turned to his young friend. "The Angel of Death, huh? So, how does Nate know this guy, and that he's after Elena?"

"He told me that he knew Angel from the Mexican Revolution. He ran into him here in Buenos Aires, and everything was fine for a while. Then Angel started acting crazy, obsessed with Elena. Hell, Elena's told me a million times that sooner or later, every Immortal in South American takes a crack at her."

"Yeah, they do. Every one. Eventually." Duncan knew what that felt like. He sighed. They'd been hoping to have a nice, quiet, normal Christmas celebration. Maybe not this year.

Richie said, "Nate said he was planning to leave BA tonight because of this Mexican dude."

Duncan nodded. He swallowed, then began, "Richie...." He didn't want to ask this, but he had to.

"Yeah?" Richie knew what Duncan was about to ask, and he felt defensive about it already. Would Duncan ask Connor this? Would he ask Methos? Or any of his other old Immortal buddies?

"Do you trust this Nate Brown?" Duncan asked, calmly.

Defiantly, Richie replied, "I told you he's my friend. I trust him."

Duncan nodded. "OK, then. I'll take care of telling Elena about Gutierrez."

"Good," Richie said, then looked down the street and saw the international flags over the half-moon driveway of the Claridge. As they walked up, the uniformed doorman tapped the brim of his hat. "Senor MacLeod," he said, and Mac nodded at the man. The two Immortals entered the cool, wood-paneled lobby and went into the elevator, standing in silence for a moment. Finally, Richie hit the button for the top floor, then turned deliberately to his former teacher. "The truth, now. Were you coming to rescue me, Mac?"

Duncan could tell how deadly serious Richie was. "No, Richie. I was coming to stand with you, as your friend."

Richie wasn't sure he believed that. Hell, he wasn't sure even Mac believed that. He had to get this straightened out, once and for all, now, tonight. Even if he couldn't keep Mac from worrying, he could sure keep him from charging to his rescue. "You're positive."

"Absolutely."

The elevator arrived at their floor and the doors opened. The two men stepped out. Richie said, "So, you don't have to put away the white stallion, right?"

"Never even took him out of his stall," Duncan replied. He was telling the truth. Mostly. He hoped.

Richie still wasn't completely convinced, but he nodded nevertheless. "OK," he said. "Then don't forget about Angel."

Duncan said, "I won't. And you try not to wake up John. He's...." Duncan smiled a little in spite of himself.

"Wasted. I doubt I could wake him up--he's probably passed out on the bed, fully clothed. I didn't drink half of what he did, but I could use some shuteye myself." He held out his hand. "Goodnight, Mac."

The two men shook hands, the barest beginning of a new understanding between them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 5: THE LAST MEAL

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Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina December 17, 2001

"Pass the [torrejas], John," Elena said. "That is, if you're through with them," she added, teasing him a little.

John, who had just been serving himself a few more slices of the French toast for breakfast, blushed and passed the serving dish to Elena.

John seemed in good appetite, Duncan thought, sipping his coffee. It was lucky that John evidently hadn't really seen much, if any of Richie's encounter with Nate Brown--and that Elena had been able to distract him from whatever he had noticed. When Duncan had asked him about it the next day, John had shrugged.

Duncan knew that all Connor had told John about Immortality was that "it was a kind of magic." As for the Game, with its beheadings and Quickenings, Connor had told John nothing. It was a decision Duncan understood, but didn't agree with. Duncan had tried to protect Tessa by telling her only a little, and it hadn't worked very well. Duncan had felt the weight of Connor's disapproval when his kinsman had found out that Tessa didn't know the full gory details. Now Connor was trying to protect John the same way. But John was just a boy, and in any case, Duncan wasn't going to argue with Connor. It was Connor's decision.

And so far, Duncan thought, it had worked. John and Connor had a close, warm relationship. Of course, Duncan wanted his clansman to be close to his son, but ... he sighed internally, gripping his knife, then glanced at Stephen, feeling a little pang of envy. And shame for feeling the envy.

Elena smiled at John. It occurred to Duncan that Elena was smiling at John a lot these days. She liked him, and the boy was infatuated with Elena, just as several of the girls at the [estancia] were infatuated with John. Although he was charming, polite and friendly to the entire staff, John was having a lot of trouble hiding his obvious--and constant--attraction for the female Immortal.

Duncan was amused by it. Elena had that effect on most men, including himself. Her black eyepatch, a souvenir of an encounter with a vicious Immortal named Claude Bethel, made her even more alluring, more mysterious. And she was handling John in her usual way, by teasing. Elena always teased, always pushed. Always.

Now she looked at the almost-empty platter for a moment. Her smile broadened as she turned to Duncan, and he waited.

"Have you noticed that our food bill has skyrocketed since Richie and John came to visit?" Elena asked him.

Richie laughed, unfazed. His appetite was legendary and had not diminished with age--he was still physically a teenager and could eat more than Duncan and Elena put together. But unlike a teenager, he had really learned the art of laughing at himself, Duncan thought.

But Duncan noticed that John's slight blush had deepened.

And obviously so had Richie. Not one to let a good opportunity pass, Richie said, "Yeah, and you should see the way he puts away the beer, too. You must have drunk two places out of business, John," he said to the young MacLeod.

Duncan grinned. He couldn't let this pass either. "Just like your old man."

John looked at Duncan. A bit defensively, he said, "Dad doesn't drink that much, Duncan."

Elena watched brightly, saying nothing. She had her own ideas about Connor MacLeod's capacity for Scotch, but she was staying out of this one.

At John's comment, Richie lifted his eyebrows. "John, maybe your Dad doesn't drink that much around you, but he's sure drunk *me* under the table at least once." Richie shot a mischievous look at Duncan and added, "And I bet he's drank you under the table a lot more than that, huh, Mac?"

Elena choked on a mouthful of French toast.

Chewing his own toast, Duncan gave Richie a measuring look. He swallowed, took a sip of coffee, then smiled archly and said, "Well, there's some ... disagreement over who's drank who under the table the most, Richie." He waited a moment for effect, then added in a judicious tone which the wicked gleam in his eye totally cancelled, "Of course, Connor might contend that he didn't really start drinking *seriously* until he took his first student."

John leaned towards Duncan, obviously curious, his earlier defensiveness forgotten. "You mean *you*?"

Duncan laughed and shot a meaningful look at Richie. "Yeah. Having a student can make a drinking man out of anyone."

Amen, Elena thought.

Richie snorted but said nothing.

At that moment, Carmela, the housekeeper, came up to Elena and whispered in her ear.

"Si," Elena replied. "They are a very handsome trio of young men. No female on the ranch older than ten has done anything but moon after you since you got here, John. And Richie--can you tell me how Maribet is doing these days? You see more of her than anyone, including her own family."

Richie smiled brilliantly. "Maribet is fine," he said.

"I'm sure of that," Duncan said, chuckling. Maribet was a young nursing student who lived here on the [estancia]. Short for Maria Isabel, Richie had explained to Duncan. And a beautiful name it was, didn't Duncan think?

Carmela went to Stephen. "I've packed a picnic lunch for both of you, Esteban. And a thermos with cold tea."

Stephen smiled at her. "Great, thanks, Carmela. Oh, and a couple of bottles of beer, too, right?"

Carmela pursed her lips reprovingly. "No, [nino]. No beer while you ride. And I think you've drunk enough, eh?"

But Duncan was curious. Carmela had said both of you, and he wondered.... "Both of whom?" he asked the old woman.

She tilted her chin at Stephen, who turned to Duncan. Almost reluctantly, Stephen answered, "You and me, Duncan. I thought we might go riding today. Together. We could talk over some stuff, you know.... But," he added hurriedly, "you don't have to go if you don't want to.

Surprised and pleased, but also aware of Stephen's hesitation, Duncan glanced at Elena, who looked as surprised as he himself felt. Then he turned his attention back to Stephen. Talk about "stuff"? Was the boy finally ready to talk about his father's death, rationally, without blaming Duncan for it? Although he didn't know where it had come from--after all, Duncan had been trying for years--it was a chance the Scot couldn't, wouldn't, pass up, and Stephen had obviously planned this beforehand. "I'd like that, Stephen," he said sincerely. He finished his coffee and looked around the table. As soon as Carmela left the room, he added, smiling, "And I'll bring the beer."

But then he noticed that John was looking a little ... left out? So, even though he wanted to talk to Stephen alone, Duncan felt that, out of courtesy, he had to ask. "Would anyone else like to come riding with us?"

"Riding?" Richie asked. His voice rose in pitch. "Horses?" In the week he'd been here, Richie had already proved he was completely inept at riding a horse--and totally unwilling to learn.

Stephen nodded, amused. "Yeah, horses, Richie. This is a horse ranch, remember?"

Richie shook his head. "No, thanks. I don't ride anything that doesn't have an ignition switch. Or a kick-starter. Or ... never mind," he added, shrugging suggestively.

Elena shook her head. "Careful, Richie," she warned. "We're a traditional country. We still have shotgun weddings down here." But she knew Richie was just teasing. And she knew Maribet Onioco could take very good care of herself.

Richie jumped up from the table and looked around wildly. "Did somebody say 'wedding'?"

John, grinning at Richie, started to speak, but Elena said, "John and I are going to do some boxing. I'd like to see what those golden gloves of yours are all about, John. And Richie can referee."

Duncan shot a grateful glance towards Elena. With that suggestion, she'd made it possible for him to go with Stephen without feeling that he was deserting John.

John turned to her, looking slightly pleased and quite nonplussed, all at the same time. "We're going to box? You and me?"

Simultaneously, Richie sat down heavily and asked, "I'm going to referee?"

Elena said, "Si, senores." Then she leaned over and, in a stage whisper to Richie, added, "And don't worry, the referee doesn't get hit."

"You're sure about that," Richie said, eyeing John.

John looked at Richie speculatively. "Well, as long as he does a good job," he said, grinning. Then he apparently remembered what this was all about, turned to Elena again, and repeated, in a small voice, "You and I are going to box?"

Elena was amused. "Yes. You're not afraid you'll hurt me, are you, John?"

"We're not exactly in the same weight class, you know?" the boy answered, blushing.

Duncan thought, no, you're not, John--you do outweigh her by thirty kilos. But she was a woman. That's probably what John wanted to say to her, but was too polite. Or too smart.

"I noticed that. So ... I'll be gentle, OK?" she purred.

At that, John blushed even deeper than before, the color overwhelming even his dark complexion.

Now Duncan shot Elena a warning look. Teasing John was one thing, but he didn't want her to humiliate the boy.

Elena winked reassurance at him, then said to John, "Don't worry, John. I'm tougher than I look."

John still looked dubious, but he nodded.

Duncan wiped his mouth and stood up, expectant and a little nervous, but letting only his deep pleasure at going riding with Stephen show. "Well, Stephen," he said, "if we're going to go on that ride, we should probably start getting ready. Horses don't saddle themselves, you know." He started to clap Stephen on the back, but Stephen stood up abruptly and Duncan dropped his hand, then sighed softly. Obviously, the boy had mixed feelings about spending any time with him. He'd have to try not to overreact and let his hopes push him too far.

"Yeah," Stephen said. "I know." He gave Duncan a considering look, then pulled one of his ever-present caps out of his back pocket. He fussed with it some, finally settled it on his head, then led the way out of the room, his back straight, his body tense.

Duncan glanced at Elena once, shook his head, then followed Stephen out.

"Have fun! she called out. As soon as they left the dining room, the atmosphere eased. Relentless, Elena turned to John again. "So, are your gloves really golden?"

John grinned. "My dad says they ought to be, for what the training cost."

Elena laughed. "Whatever it cost, he can afford it. Connor is filthy rich."

John laughed at that, then leaned towards her. "So ... how long have you been boxing, Elena?"

Elena raised her eyebrows, amused that John felt comfortable enough now that Duncan was gone to flirt with her. This was an *old* game for her, and she started to reply, but Richie beat her to it.

"Hey, John, you remember what you said to Tessa once, about never asking a lady anything about her age?" Richie asked.

John said, "Yeah, I remember. But that was a long time ago."

"It still works. For *all* ladies," Richie said, nodding at Elena. Then he picked up the platter with the remaining scrambled eggs and scooped them onto his plate. At Elena and John's look, he protested, "Well ... as long as no one's gonna eat 'em, why let 'em go to waste?"

Elena shook her head and stood up. "For one thing, because you're needed to referee."

John looked surprised. "I can't box right now, Elena." He put his hand on his stomach. "I'm stuffed. If we box right now, I'll just throw up. And besides, I wanted to talk to Richie a little. How 'bout we meet up in a couple hours?"

Elena thought: Immortals have to fight any time, anywhere, on a full stomach, sometimes full of alcohol (as Richie had proven in Buenos Aires)--or on an empty stomach. And she never stuffed herself anyway. But John was right. And John wasn't Immortal. She was also glad he and Richie were such good friends, and if the two young men wanted to talk, fine. She smiled. "All right, John. Two hours, in the dojo."

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CHAPTER 6: SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

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Richie was greatly amused by the fact that John looked lingeringly after Elena as she left the room. Then his thoughts went to the reason John wanted to talk to him. Still eating the eggs, Richie looked at John curiously. "So what did you want to talk about?" he asked. John seemed to regard him as a cross between an older brother and a cousin, and Richie enjoyed it. He liked being a member--however odd the relationships were--of the extended MacLeod clan. And he liked John MacLeod, too. It was nice to have a kind of brother, even if they weren't *really* related and didn't look anything like each other, and he was an Immortal, while John was just a normal guy.

"Oh, I was just wondering about Duncan and Elena. How long have they been together?" John casually poured himself a glass of juice and took a sip, looking nonchalant.

Richie knew better. He grinned. "Don't even think about it, John. You're way out of your league. I know she's a looker, but--"

"Hey!" John protested, blushing for the second or third time that morning. "I wasn't thinking about poaching. I mean, Duncan's my uncle and she's--well, she's his lover."

"That's right," Richie agreed.

"So I was just wondering how long they'd been together. That's all."

Richie took his last mouthful of eggs and washed it down with a good slug of [cafe con leche]. He was amazed and amused at how "Latino" he'd become in just a few weeks. Soon he'd be dancing a tango or something. But back to John.... He tilted his head sideways and gave John a dubious squint. "I think it's about six years or so, now. And I think they'll be together for a while, too," he predicted.

"Oh. So ... how did they meet?" John took another sip of his juice, then put the glass down.

Trying to take each others' heads, Richie thought, like most Immortals. And almost succeeding. He'd been there. And just how was he supposed to explain that to John? For the thousandth time, Richie wondered how Connor MacLeod had managed to keep John in the dark about it all. And why? What had the boy's father told him about his sword collection? Richie wondered. But Richie pushed his own questions aside. Right now, John was waiting for an answer. Richie decided to punt.

Pushing his empty plate out of the way, he said, "Uh, I think you ought to ask Duncan about that, John. It's kind of his story, after all." Richie leaned back from the table, wiping his mouth with his napkin.

John frowned. "Jeez, Richie, it's not like I'm asking for all the details of their love life."

Richie sighed. "They met at a funeral. A lot of people do, you know."

John's frown deepened. "Ugh. Seems like a pretty horrible way to meet someone."

Richie smiled, relaxing into his seat. He liked being the voice of authority, for a change. And besides, it was a chance to get the subject away from Elena and Duncan's near-fatal *second* encounter. "Nah. You'd be surprised how easy it is to meet girls at funerals. And weddings, too. Any large social gig."

"I guess that makes sense."

"Well, you probably don't have much trouble meeting girls anyhow, do you, John?"

John grinned. "I do all right."

"I bet. Tall, dark, handsome, *and* rich. The girls probably fall all over you." He winked. "I've seen how several of them here at the ranch look at you. And you're only what--nineteen years old?"

Raising a dark eyebrow, John replied, "Yeah, and I've seen how Maribet Onioco looks at you."

Richie laughed, putting both palms on the table and tilting his chair back precariously. "The feeling is mutual, believe me."

"Is she an Immortal, too?"

Richie almost lost his balance and he leaned forward to compensate. His chair legs hit the tile floor with a thump. "Whatever gave you *that* idea?" The question had come completely out of left field. Now he started wondering what was *really* on John's mind. Besides women, of course.

"Well, I was just wondering. So is she? Immortal?" John quickly raised his glass and finished his juice. Then he absently pulled a mangled-looking tennis ball from his pants pocket and began squeezing it hard, first in one hand, then in the other.

"No," Richie said decisively. "Maribet Onioco is not immortal." And he watched John's very large hands working the tennis ball.

"Oh." There was a long pause, as John looked thoughtful. He abruptly clenched the ball so hard with his right hand that it burst with a soft "pop!" Surprised, John opened his hand to look, then dropped the mess of rubber and chartreuse felt on the table next to his plate.

Richie took a deep breath. "What's on your mind, John?" he said gently.

John pressed his lips together, then softly said, "Richie, I need to ask you a question about Immortals."

Here it comes, Richie thought, with a bad feeling of deja vu. John had started a similar conversation with him two years ago, obviously searching for more answers about Immortality. Then and now.

========================================

Manhattan, 1999

Richie and John are relaxing--lazing, really--in the spacious living room of Connor MacLeod's Hudson Street apartment. Connor and Duncan are out playing racquetball, and the two young men have been left to themselves. Stretched out on the floor, they are talking about motorcycles and women and Richie's motorcycle repair shop as well as John's upcoming graduation and his plans for college in Europe. Then they simply sit for a while, watching a basketball game, eating chips and drinking Cokes and companionably yelling advice at the players and curses at the referees.

John picks up a tennis ball that was laying on a coffee table--one of a multitude around the house, Richie has noticed--and the boy starts kneading it with his fingers like a ball of dough. Then, out of the blue, John turns to him and asks, "Did you always know you were immortal, Richie?"

All of Richie's alarm bells sound off. Duncan has warned him that Connor has told John very little about Immortality. Obviously the boy wants to know more, and Richie doesn't want to ruin what looks like a possible friendship with Connor's son by simply refusing to answer his questions. So he looks at John and says, "No, I didn't."

"Oh. Well, how did you find out?"

Richie takes a deep breath, thinking quickly. Connor would definitely not want Richie explaining *this.* Maybe he can distract John a little, guide the conversation away from the landmines. Yeah. He deliberately relaxes a little, taking another sip of Coke. "Well, it all started when I broke into Duncan's antique shop."

John's mouth falls open. "You what?"

"Oh, yeah," Richie brags, pleased that his distraction has worked. "I was quite the well-equipped burglar. Me and the Pink Panther. I cut open the window, re-wired the alarm system so it wouldn't go off, and broke in." Richie leans back on the sofa, crossing his feet at the ankles, thinking about that fateful night.

"So what happened?" John leans forward towards Richie, intent on the story.

"Uh ... well, I was boosting a sword and swinging it around, when Mac, uh, and your dad showed up. And there was this other guy, a big guy, a bad dude. I don't remember his name."

John says, "Wow! What happened next?"

Settling into his story and enjoying being the older, more experienced party for a change, Richie continues. "Well, Duncan and Connor argued over who was going to fight the big dude. As for me, I split. It was a crazy scene--can you imagine? I was seventeen and I'd never seen anything like that before."

"Whoa!" John exclaims. "They were arguing about who was going to fight him? Why?"

Richie grimaces to himself. Damn! Thinking quickly, he says, "Well, the other guy had broken in too. And he was threatening Tessa. It really pissed Duncan off."

"Oh." John's face screws up in a puzzled frown. "Then why did Dad want to fight him?"

Richie sighs. "I honestly don't know. Maybe he didn't like the dude threatening Tessa either. You know ... Tessa and Duncan...."

"Oh," John repeats. "Yeah. I guess Tessa was ... special. So what happened next?"

Richie sees this as the opportunity to distract John again. Happily, he explains, "Well, after all that stuff, I was spooked, so I called the police myself, then ran for it. But they caught me. Duncan filed a report the next day--I guess he had to for insurance--and of course the stuff I'd taken matched the stuff he'd listed as missing."

"Oh. So you went to jail for a while?"

"Nah. Duncan didn't press charges. He took me in instead."

"He took you in? Why?"

Richie sighs. Back to square one. "Because he knew I was going to be immortal. I guess he was trying to protect me, keep an eye on me."

"How did he know?"

Richie shakes his head. "John, these are the kinds of questions you ought to be asking your Dad."

It was John's turn to sigh. "He won't tell me anything. All he says is, 'It's a kind of magic.' That was okay when I was a kid, but I'm seventeen now. I have a right to know."

Richie reflects that he was about the same age when he found out all about Immortality. He thinks: You do have a right to know, kid, but it's not my place to tell you. Sympathetically, he says, "I'm sorry, John. I just can't go against your father's wishes and answer all your questions. Besides, I probably don't even know the answers to a lot of them."

John takes a deep breath, then blows it out. "Well, can you just answer one question?"

Richie eyes the tennis ball that John is squeezing, really hard, in his hands. He raises an eyebrow and finishes his can of Coke. "It depends on the question."

"Okay," John says. "Did *you* know you were going to be Immortal?"

Richie laughs. That is an easy one to answer. "Are you kidding? I was a street punk, a nobody. *Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod* was like a different species from me. I never dreamed I'd be immortal. And if anybody had told me I was going to be, I'd have laughed in his face!"

========================================

Duran estancia, 2001

And now, Richie thought, John was still trying to get answers. Connor MacLeod really needed to tell his son the Immortal facts of life before John found out the hard way. But it still wasn't Richie's decision; it was Connor's. So, Richie answered John as he had done two years ago. "It depends on the question, kid."

John sighed deeply. "Well, it's about swords. Dad always told me that he had swords because he was an antique dealer. And Duncan was too. But Elena's not an antique dealer and you're not an antique dealer and you both have swords. Elena has a lot of them. I know you all fence, too. You always seem to have yours with you, and I know you had it with you the other night, when you and Stephen and me were all out together in Buenos Aires. So the question is, what's the big deal with Immortals and swords?"

And now it was Richie's turn to take a deep breath. John hadn't admitted to seeing anything that night in Buenos Aires. But the boy was sharp; even dead drunk he'd obviously been paying more attention than anyone thought. And not just that night, either. Dammit! He was going to have to talk to Connor himself! This was not fair, it wasn't right, and it put him, Richie, in a shitty position.

Looking at John leaning over the breakfast table, young, innocent, intent, curious, and frustrated, Richie wondered if this was how he'd seemed to Duncan back in his pre-Immortal days.

And what was he going to say to John now? But as he was struggling to think of some kind of answer, he was saved by Maribet coming into the dining room.

"There you are, Richie. I am searching for you."

Richie quickly wiped his mouth on the napkin again, threw it on his plate, and stood, smacking his right knee painfully against the table leg. He ignored his throbbing kneecap. Sometimes it was good to have mega-healing. "What a coincidence; I am searching for you, too." Great! he thought. Now she's got me talking weird English, too.

Maribet was wearing a bright yellow dress today. Richie thought she looked great in yellow. Her black hair, long and thick like an Indian and worn in a pony tail, was thrown over her left shoulder. She also had a lovely smile. She showed Richie that smile now, and he felt his heart speed up a little.

"Hello, John," Maribet said, smiling pleasantly at John.

Richie suddenly remembered John's presence, but he continued to look at Maribet.

Maribet continued. "Well, Richie, I am now working in the kitchen. Later I have some time, how do you say, free, but now I have to wash the dishes. And then do some baking."

"I love washing dishes," Richie proclaimed. "I'll help you clear the table, too. And I make a mean apple pie," he finished. He began picking up the remains of their breakfast, to Maribet's and John's amusement.

Later while the three of them were still talking, Elena, dressed in red silk boxing shorts, a tank top, and white laced-up tennis shoes, strode into the kitchen. She paused at the threshold to watch them for a moment. John was putting a large pot away on a high shelf. Maribet's apron was covered in flour, and her hands were white and sticky. But she was ignoring the dough on the counter in front of her and was laughing at Richie, who had a dishrag on his head and was quacking like a duck.

Elena decided she didn't want to know. "John, Richie!" she called out, trying not to laugh out loud.

"!Senorita!" Maribet exclaimed, and Richie turned to her, jumping a little, snatching the cloth off his head sheepishly. "Hey! You have to sneak up on people like that?"

"I wasn't sneaking, Richie," Elena answered, a little annoyed that she'd surprised Richie. "I just walk quietly. Something you should learn, by the way." She looked at him steadily, not wanting to chide him in front of the girl and John for his potentially fatal inattention to another Immortal's arrival.

Richie nodded uncomfortably, and once Elena saw he got her message, she went on. "Anyway, you two were supposed to meet me in the dojo ..." she looked at the kitchen clock "... twenty minutes ago! I thought we Latinas were supposed to be the late ones. We have to warm up, senores! [!Arriba! !Andale!] Come on!" She shadow-boxed the air a couple of times. "Let's get started."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 7: THE ORDEAL BEGINS

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After only a few minutes of boxing, Elena spat her mouthguard into her glove and challenged, "Is that the best you can do, John?" And are those gloves golden or tin? she wondered, frustrated.

She wiped the sweat off her forehead with her arm. [!Carajo!] she was hot! She didn't like to have the air conditioning on because it made her too cold when she got all sweaty, but the spacious ballroom-turned-dojo was stuffy in the December heat. "Richie, would you open the French doors and let some air in? I can hardly breathe in here." She put her mouthguard back in and turned to her young opponent.

As Richie walked around the two boxers towards the French doors, he glanced at the wall of swords on the other end of the room, thinking about John's earlier questions. Immortals and swords, indeed! He knew John would ask him again as soon as he had a chance. Richie wasn't looking forward to it.

Richie pulled the off-white, floor-to-ceiling curtains open, then opened up the three sets of French doors along the outside wall, letting in the tepid mid-afternoon air. When he turned around, Elena and John were whaling away at each other again on the large canvas mat in the center of the room. "He's pulling his punches, Elena," Richie said. "John, as your referee--and as somebody who's been there--let me give you a piece of advice. Don't pull your punches on Elena. She'll get even with you for it."

"She will?" John said, a bit nervously, his voice muffled and almost incoherent because of his mouthguard.

Elena laughed, almost choking on her own mouthguard. She'd been a little worried about John's visit, thinking Connor's son would be maladjusted and mean, like his father. And the first thing John had done was to go on a drinking binge, apparently confirming her fears. But by now she knew that John MacLeod was a big, sweet teddy bear. How had Connor MacLeod managed that?

She removed her mouthguard once more and said, "I won't get even with *you*, John." She gave Richie a look. "I only get even with [descarados] who deserve it." And Immortals who need to know how to fight for their lives, to be ready all the time, every minute, she added silently. "But don't pull your punches, OK? I want to see what you can really do, Golden Gloves."

John looked distinctly unhappy--an expression which hadn't left his face since he'd entered the dojo.

"But, Elena--"

"No," she interrupted. "I mean it. I want you to hit me with your best shot. I'm well protected, as you can see. I want you to think of me as no different from any of your other opponents."

John looked at her for a moment, then removed his mouthguard and said with complete sincerity, "Elena, there's no way I can think of you as just another opponent! But if you really want me to--"

"Yes, John. I really want you to," she answered, smiling at his implied compliment. "We're here to box, right?" She got ready once more, then started dancing again, all around him. A century ago she'd seen boxing bouts where the opponents simply stood and beat on each other. She would never have survived that, although she suspected the young man standing before her might have. [!Dios mio], he was big! The American boxer Jim Corbett had changed boxing forever by having boxers move around in the ring, and that's how she had learned to box. It was definitely better.

"Yeah, OK," John sighed, completely unenthusiastic.

"Attaboy," Richie said, punching one fist in the air. "That's confidence for you. Want me to tie one hand behind your back?" He watched their reflections on the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that lined the wall opposite the French doors. Richie was really hoping John would hit Elena a good one. Richie himself had been on the receiving end of too many of her--

At that moment Elena hit John solidly in the stomach, putting her shoulder into the punch.

Like that, Richie thought, uh-huh.

As John went to one knee, panting, she said, "See, like that!"

John rubbed his stomach gingerly with one gloved hand. He looked Elena over, measuringly. "Oh. Like that, huh?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling, dancing around him once more, shadow-punching the air. She was faster than John, and she knew it. Right now she wanted to goad him, a little, to see how much skill--and how much fire--this MacLeod had.

"OK," he said, rising swiftly. This time he sounded more determined.

The two of them started boxing seriously, now, all the patter and jokes forgotten. Elena punched and jabbed, hitting mostly his arms, elbows and shoulders or just plain missing him. He was fast, too, a lot faster than she thought. And now he was hitting decidedly harder than before, especially with that right cross of his. She blocked one of his rights with her arm and felt it go numb; still, he could surely hit harder than that!

Her breath was catching--he was really making her work now, but she could see the sweat dripping down his face too, a dark stain spreading on his chest and armpits. But so far, he hadn't really hit her with any of the strength she knew he had. She had just decided that he simply couldn't bring himself to hit her really hard when the blow came--a feint with the right, followed by a left cross, which knocked her to the canvas like a puppet whose strings were suddenly cut.

Yeah. Like that, Richie thought. He refrained from whooping out loud. He was, after all, the referee, and Elena wouldn't appreciate his taking sides.

John froze, then dropped to his knees beside her--but he didn't touch her. He spit out his mouthguard and exclaimed, "Oh, God! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Are you OK, Elena?"

His voice came from far away. In spite of the helmet, her whole face throbbed. She painfully and laboriously turned her face to one side so she could push her mouthguard out with her tongue, then ran her tongue around her mouth to see if any of her teeth were loose. Darkness reached out and tried to take her down.

She took several deep breaths, forcing herself to concentrate. That was John, kneeling over her, looking pale and worried. At least she thought it was John; his face was all blurry.

Finally, careful not to move her aching head too quickly--no loose teeth, but she thought maybe her cheek was broken--she whispered, "Is that the best you can do?"

John sighed. "Yes."

"Good. Don't hit me again. I want to keep my teeth, thank you." She heard the young man sigh again, with relief this time.

Richie laughed. "Ladies and gentlemen, that's a knock-out in round ... whatever," he announced cheerfully. He rubbed his hands together. "I'm gonna go get myself a snack."

"Again?" John and Elena said in unison.

"Hey, I gotta keep my strength up. This refereeing business is rough," he answered. He turned to head for the kitchen.

But as John easily helped Elena to her feet by putting his forearms under her armpits and lifting her, she grunted, then called out, not too loudly, "Wait, Richie! How about helping us get these gloves off, eh?"

Richie stopped, then turned back to them and sighed theatrically, spreading his hands in front of him. "Richie, we need you to referee. Richie, help me put the gloves on. Richie, help me take the gloves off. Don't I get a break here?" he grinned, as he started unlacing Elena's gloves.

Even after Richie was finished and gone, she still felt a little dizzy. But as she unlaced John's gloves, she said to him, "You are a good boxer, Golden Gloves. You faked me out with that right. And you hit harder than anybody I ever met. With one exception."

"Yeah?" John said, obviously pleased. "Who was that? Some great fighter?"

She smiled at him. Men were all alike--boys at heart! "Yes, as a matter of fact," she said, hating to admit it, but knowing it was true. "His name is Connor MacLeod."

At the mention of Connor's name, John smiled brilliantly, his eyes crinkled up, and he even leaned towards her eagerly. At this moment Elena could clearly see how serious he usually was--and how handsome he looked when he smiled. Not to mention, she further realized, how proud he was of his father.

"Dad? Really? Wow! I mean ... thanks. I'll tell him you--" But then he stopped and frowned, looking confused. "Wait. Why did Dad hit *you*? Were you boxing with him, too?"

"Yes," Elena lied easily. "We were sparring, like you and I just were." She didn't want to go into this any further and was sorry she'd made that comment, now. Well, she just wouldn't say anything more about Connor.

She had John's right glove off. Now for the other. He was working his right fist, opening and closing it absently. She knew firsthand the power behind that fist. The MacLeods were a formidable bunch, even this mortal one, she decided. And John obviously felt more at ease with her now--maybe she was no longer the intimidating, exotic Immortal Elena Duran, but just another person. Good.

As if to prove her point, John nodded and said, "Oh, I see. Well, he doesn't pull any punches when we spar, either. He's knocked me out a couple of times. And when I came to, he told me I shouldn't drop my guard."

Elena remembered Connor knocking *her* out, and other times he'd slammed her against walls, grabbed her, threatened to behead her. Connor MacLeod could be a brute, and he absolutely did not pull his punches. "Yeah, that sounds just like him. But I bet you've gotten in a few good licks yourself, haven't you, John?" she said, forgetting her previous resolve, and now hoping to hear about Connor landing on his butt.

"Yeah," he replied, smiling. "I returned the compliment. Once."

"Really!" Elena said, chortling. "I wish I could have seen that. Did you tell him he shouldn't drop his guard?" she asked, handing him his gloves.

"No!" John replied, his mouth open in shock. "Are you kidding?"

She could see that the thought horrified him, and that amused her even more. "So, what did he do when you knocked him out? After he regained consciousness, I mean."

"He shook my hand and took me out for a beer and a steak dinner."

She was surprised at that, thinking that Connor would have been angry. But on second thought, she realized that he would have been justifiably proud of his son. After all, John's accomplishments reflected well on Connor himself. And the Scot was certainly arrogant enough. Then, on third thought, Elena decided she was being unfair to Connor. After all, John clearly loved and respected Connor--and the feeling was obviously mutual.

"Your father is an interesting man. A complex man, I think." There. That was all she would volunteer about Connor MacLeod. Of course, she knew another side of the Highlander--a side his son obviously didn't know about, at least not yet--and that's the way it was going to stay.

As she made that decision, again, she sensed an Immortal, looked around, and finally isolated it to the outside, past the wide-open French doors.

Were Duncan and Stephen back so soon? [!Cono!] That wasn't good news. Or had Richie gone outside ...?

But John still wanted to talk about his father. "You think he's interesting, huh? Well, he told me that you--," he began, then paused, coloring slightly. Again.

Elena glanced back up at her young guest and laughed. "I can imagine! He warned you about me, didn't he?" John's color rose, confirming her guess. That was probably part of the reason he hadn't wanted to box with her. Still, Connor had sent John to her--and to Duncan, of course. Which meant Connor trusted her with his son. "Look, John," she began, finally getting his second glove off and handing it to him, deciding she could tell him part of the truth, "I know he doesn't much like me. He and I just don't--"

The words died in her throat as her worst nightmare appeared, as if by magic--an armed Immortal, rushing toward them. Tall and dark, with a full beard and wild eyes and a black cape streaming out behind him like--like black wings--he was holding a double-handed sword above his head and shouting an old, Spanish battle cry designed to chill his opponent's soul.

And it was working very well. Elena felt the chill right down to her bones, and for a long second she stood rigid, thinking the angel of death had indeed come for her.

She blinked once, breaking her paralysis, then dropped her gloves and raced quickly towards John and the other Immortal, wishing [!Madre de Dios!] that she had her sword. But it was on the table by the door to the dining room, at the far end of the dojo, and she would have no chance to reach it, or any of the weapons on the wall, because John MacLeod was between her and the attacking Immortal and she had to get John out of here.

John caught sight of the other Immortal in the mirrored wall and spun around. As Elena sprinted by John, she used one of the precious seconds she could have spent running toward her weapon to give John a hard push that sent him sprawling.

"Get out, John!" she yelled.

Then her attacker was upon her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER 8: THE ANGEL OF DEATH

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Richie wasn't sure about the protocol of simply opening Elena's refrigerator and rooting around in it, but the second day he'd been there, when he'd asked, Carmela had laughed. "Young men must eat," she'd said, opening the door with a flourish and inviting him to take whatever he wanted.

He'd carefully thanked her in Spanish. The Indios and Latinos on Elena's ranch were invariably polite, and he knew he'd made brownie points with them when they found out he had passable Spanish and was willing to use it, albeit not always correctly. He came into the kitchen after the boxing match and Carmela was there, making--oh, she was making [empanadas.] Wonderful!

He walked over to the stove, thought about the Spanish words for chicken and beef, and asked her, "[?Son empanadas de carne o de pollo?]"

"[De carne,]" she answered.

Beef, Richie translated. "Great, I love those!" he exclaimed in English, smiling at her. She smiled back at him--his words obviously required no translation.

He went to open the refrigerator door and put his head and shoulders inside, then suddenly stiffened at the sudden sense of an approaching Immortal. He stood up and tried to pinpoint the location. It wasn't Elena--wrong direction. It was someone in the estancia itself, so it must be Duncan and Stephen. They were back kind of soon. Maybe that talk of theirs hadn't worked out ... too bad.

With this other Immortal thrum pressing against his consciousness, Richie glanced over at his sword for reassurance. Ever since Duncan had tried to behead him, under the influence of what Richie had learned was called a "dark" Quickening, Richie had been especially careful about keeping his sword very close. That incident had left him a little more nervous, a little more paranoid. Sadder, but wiser.

In this large estate he made sure his weapon was at least in the same room as he was. Because of the number of mortals, including children, in and out of the house, stables, etc., Elena had insisted they all keep their weapons sheathed, and his was leaning against one of the kitchen counters. It was in its scabbard, but it was also comfortably near at hand. Nobody had said anything to him, but John MacLeod had noticed, hadn't he? Richie thought, ruefully. And John would ask him about it once more when the two of them were alone again.

Richie sighed, then turned back to the refrigerator and scanned the contents with a practiced eye. He bent down to pick up a promising-looking covered bowl, and was starting to peek under the lid when he heard something, someone, yell hoarsely.

It came from the direction of the ballroom. What the hell? He put the bowl of cold yellow rice back down and turned around, catching Carmela's eye. "[?Usted oyo algo, Carmela?]" he asked her.

"?Eh?"

Richie smiled wryly. Asking a partially-deaf, eighty-year-old woman if she'd heard a distant noise ... it might have been John; maybe he was getting too enthusiastic, some of that karate. Or even someone from the outside, one of the kids playing ... there were certainly plenty of those around.

"[No, no es nada, senora.]"

Another yell, that was a man's voice--John's?--then a woman's scream, very clear, "Noooo!"

*That* was Elena Duran. Damn! The other Immortal he'd sensed! Richie dropped the bowl and grabbed his sword, tossing his scabbard aside as he ran towards the dojo door.

When Richie ran into the dojo he saw two things that froze his blood. First, he saw Elena Duran and an unknown tall, dark-haired, bearded man grappling for a deadly-looking two-handed sword. But the second thing he noticed was much worse. It was John MacLeod, his hand over his chest, trying to stem the flow of blood from a long, shallow--Richie hoped it was shallow!--cut that ran diagonally from his left shoulder almost to his waist.

"John, you all right?" Richie called breathlessly.

The teen nodded grimly, his eyes bright, and Richie turned to the fighting Immortals, quickly assessing the situation. Oh, great! Richie thought, taking in the black cape and the black hair of the unknown Immortal. It must be that Angel Gutierrez, the so-called 'Angel of Death,' the one they were all supposed to be watching out for. Well, so much for caution and being forewarned--Elena was unarmed and wounded. "Hey, guys," he said, making a time-out gesture--a little awkwardly because of the sword he was holding. "We're sorta letting it all hang out here in public, aren't we?"

The only response from either combatant was grunts as each tried to get the upper hand. Elena tried to twist Angel's wrist and disarm him, but he wrenched his sword loose, knocking her to the ground. She rolled away and to her feet, but not quickly enough to keep from getting sliced across the back. She cried out, taking cover behind a Nautilus machine.

The bastard's fast, Richie thought. But Elena was faster--for now. Before her opponent could follow her, Richie opened his mouth to try again, but John beat him to it.

"Come on, Richie!" John yelled. "We'll take him, the two of us! We'll tackle him from behind!"

"John, are you crazy!" Richie cried out, as Elena yelled simultaneously, "Richie, get John out of here, now!"

Gutierrez growled but paused, eyeing Richie's sword while keeping Elena and John in sight. "[!No puedes interferir, mariquita!]" he exclaimed.

The guy was calling him a faggot, but Richie didn't give a damn. "John, listen to me, we gotta get out of here, now!" He reached for John's shoulder with his free left hand and pulled. It was like trying to move a brick wall. Why was the kid still here, anyway? Why hadn't he run like a normal person would? But Richie didn't have time to wonder. Instead he started to tell John again, to make him go, but Angel chose that moment to make his move.

He feinted at John, who drew back, then Angel cut down at Elena through the Nautilus machine. She neatly dodged and reached for a weight bar. His sword struck against the machine, getting tangled in the mechanism. She tried to trap his blade with her bar, wielding it like a quarterstaff.

John rushed Angel from behind and almost got close enough ... but the Mexican Immortal muscled his blade loose and slashed backwards at John, who dodged the blade as if he were in a ring and the blade was the other boxer's fist. Then the Immortal swung back and thrust at Elena again, missing once more.

"John, he'll kill you!" she said in English, moving away, panting. "Get out of here; I don't need your help!"

Richie could tell she was frightened ... and furious!

"There's three of us! We can take him!" John cried out.

"No! Richie, take him out of here!" she yelled, then added, in Spanish, "This bastard is a coward! He's afraid to let me have a sword!"

That much was obvious, Richie thought. Elena was the one in the most danger, and she was dead meat without a sword. He had to do something, even if it meant interfering. He pushed away thoughts of Duncan's disapproval. Hell, Duncan had given him a sword when Richie had been attacked by Culbraith. And Richie wasn't going to stand by while this joker hacked Elena to pieces right in front of him, without even giving her a chance to defend herself honorably. He was going to get a sword to her somehow.

Elena glanced at Richie's sword yearningly, then at him. Their eyes met. But instead of saying anything about the sword, she called out, "Richie! Forget everything else! This is just between me and him." She pointed to Gutierrez. Then she added breathlessly, "I want you both to leave! Now! And you, [cabron,] the 'Angel of Death,' eh? We'll see about that!" She tossed her bar to the ground with contempt and waved both hands in the classic "come-here" gesture. "Let's finish this! [!Veni, animal!]"

Still the bearded Immortal hesitated, and Elena screamed, "Now, you son of a bitch! Come get me!"

He rushed her, sword held high, and once again John ran at Angel from behind.

No! Richie thought, Oh God, no! Yelling, "No, John!" Richie did the only thing he could--he dropped his sword and tackled John, coming in just behind the knees like a linebacker, bringing John down as the boy surged forward.

As John fell, he reached out with his long arms and grabbed Angel's pants, pulling him down also, and all four of them fell in a tangle of arms and legs, with Richie on top and Elena on the bottom.

The Angel of Death was grunting like a pig--it might have been actually funny, Richie thought, if the situation had not been so deadly. Elena moaned as she dragged herself out from under the heap, crawled away, and got to her feet.

Richie saw Angel awkwardly turn his blade around and try to stab back at John, but the dark-clad Immortal needed two hands to wield his heavy sword and couldn't get any leverage while lying on his stomach on the polished wooden floor. As the Immortal tried to roll over, John drew his fist back and hit him in the closest place he could reach, the back of his knee. There was a loud crack as Angel's knee hit the floor, and he made a pained, 'Ungh!' sound. John hit him again, in the same place, but he had no real leverage either, and Angel kicked back, catching John on the top of the head, then kicked John again and managed to roll himself over and start to sit up. He brought his blade around and up, obviously intending to come down like a guillotine on John--but the boy, partially pulled back by a desperate Richie, was already out of his range, and the large sword slammed down loudly, cutting a long gouge into the floor.

John and Richie scrambled to their feet, with John panting, angry, and confused. He swatted back at Richie, trying to get loose, catching Richie on the jaw with his elbow. Richie saw every star in the Milky Way for a brief instant--but he hung onto John's left arm stubbornly. He could see Elena retreating as Angel got awkwardly to his feet, feinted at John, then went after her. And Elena was limping. Dammit! Richie thought. John's attempt to help had done more harm than good.

John said to Richie, "Let me go!" then whirled and tried to punch Richie, who ducked, still holding on. He didn't dare let John loose. And he didn't dare let John get a solid punch at him either--Richie wouldn't be able to help Elena much if he was unconscious on the floor.

"Listen to me, John," Richie said, softly, earnestly, letting his mouth lead the way again, keeping a deathgrip on John's arm. "If you really want to help, listen, OK?" The plan blossomed in Richie's head. No way John was going to stay out of this willingly--all these MacLeods were damn heroes! So Richie would have to get John out of the way, just long enough ... "You can't fight this guy with your bare hands. And you don't know how to fence. See that nice, long spear on the wall?"

John whipped his head around, sweat flying off his dark hair. "Yeah!" he said eagerly.

"Get it and come around behind him, distract him. When he turns to you, I'll toss her my sword. Got it?"

Actually, the distraction was for John--Richie planned to get his sword to Elena *before* John came back. Once Elena had a weapon, Richie could get to Elena's own sword on the table--the one Gutierrez was carefully keeping her from reaching.

John nodded and ran to the far wall. Meanwhile, Richie picked up his weapon and stepped out to the side. He yelled, "[!Maricon!] Right here!" raised his weapon menacingly and took a step forward, succeeding in getting both combatants' attention. "Angel, you kill her, unarmed as she is, and I take you down, no waiting. Understand?" he threatened, in Spanish.

Angel paused briefly at this, and Richie called out, "Duran!" tossed his weapon to Elena, and hurriedly retreated, picking up Elena's sword.

Elena glanced at Richie when he called out her name, saw the sword flying towards her. A smile lit her face. But the moment she opened up her body to snag the sword out of the air, Gutierrez yelled his battle cry again, and did his best to cut her in half. As the sword bit into her from shoulder to pelvis, her scream was deep, guttural, agonized.

Richie's head snapped round to her. His stomach clenched. God, no, she can't die, please, no!

"My God!" John whispered, frozen for a moment.

Richie turned to see the young MacLeod just behind him. Spear in hand, John ran toward her again. No, you don't, Richie thought, and this time he ruthlessly tripped John, who fell down heavily. Then Richie turned immediately back to the battle.

Elena had curled her body in on herself with a sound halfway between a gasp and a sob, holding her abdomen, staggering back. Richie's blade was still in her hand, but she let the tip of it drop down heavily to the floor, as though she couldn't even lift it anymore. And now the man who had surprised them all was swinging his sword right at Elena's neck with yet another fierce battle cry--this one with the sound of victory in it!

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CHAPTER 9: FINDING ANSWERS

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As John MacLeod got back to his feet, he shouted, "No!" a single word, raw with fear and denial.

In slow motion, Richie could see her lips move in what was probably a prayer. She was still standing, though, and he wondered if she was bluffing her opponent, if she was fooling herself, or if she really had no strength left at all.

At the last possible second, she drew back, judging the distance so closely that the tip of his blade touched, but did not cut, the skin of her throat.

Because his blade encountered no resistance, Angel's own momentum turned him far to his left, half-turning him away from her.

Then Richie saw that Elena still had something left. She stepped forward, shoving the back of her opponent's right shoulder with her right hand, pushing him hard in the direction he was already moving, forcing him on until his back was to her. And Angel, all his momentum channeled in that direction, was helpless to stop. Knowing what was about to happen, he began to yell.

Simultaneously, Elena stretched out her swordarm--her left arm--behind her, opening up her chest, and tearing her wound even more. With a loud groan, filled with pain and effort, she gripped the sword hilt hard and swung it back, neatly cutting off Angel's head. The blood from his head mixed with Elena's blood as it flowed down her stomach and thighs, dropping in great big gobs to the floor between her legs.

Angel's body fell straight down. His head continued its guttural cry as it smacked the floor. Unable to stop her own momentum, Elena collapsed face down on top of her sword, right next to her enemy's body.

Richie, standing just behind John, could hardly believe that she'd done it, and he felt joy and pride for her well up inside him. He saw her fall--but then his eyes were drawn by another movement. It was the head, Gutierrez's head, dark hair slicked down, mouth still open, eyes wide, sliding with a horrible sucking sound on the bloody stump straight towards John, like the puck in a shuffleboard court. It slid right into John's shoes, his immaculate white boxing shoes. Wonderful! Great! Just perfect, Richie thought. So much for keeping the ugly truth about Immortality from John.

John's eyes got very round and wide as he stared down, frozen, at the bloody, gory offering at his feet. Then, with a gulp, he backed away, turned, dropped the spear with a loud clatter, fell to his hands and knees and vomited violently and loudly onto the highly-buffed wooden floor.

Things happened quickly now, and yet, for Richie, in a kind of slow motion that enabled him to see every detail. A gasp, a cry, behind him, and he turned to see the old lady, Carmela, standing in the doorway. Then she rushed inside, toward her mistress. But at that moment the Quickening began, and the first panel of the mirrored wall to Richie's right shattered explosively, filling the air with shards of glass. Richie dropped the sword in his hand and hastened toward the screaming Indian woman as the second mirrored panel exploded. He shielded her with his own body, pushing her gently back toward the dining room door. Slivers of the mirror speared into his back, pinpricks of pain, then the first of the French doors across the room became a casualty. He had to get Carmela and John out of the room, he thought calmly and coolly, away from the deadly cross-fire of flying glass.

He finally got the small woman into the dining room and went back for John. More glass explosions, more lightning. His eyes burned as he ducked the flying splinters and shards of glass, and walked toward the young MacLeod.

John, corpse-green, was still on his knees, but he had turned to look when the Quickening started. The kid's face was a mess, and he was now staring, disbelieving, at Elena, struck dumb by what Richie thought must look to him like a scene right out of hell. All that was missing was Satan and his minions. Unless Angel Gutierrez counted as a minion, Richie thought. Then he choked it off. No time for this now.

Elena was writhing, sobbing and whimpering as the strokes hit her again and again. She took the Quickening lying on her side, twisting and crying in a pool of her own and Angel's blood.

John turned back around and dropped his head between his knees again, gasping and shuddering. A large shard of glass cut open Richie's cheek as he made his way to the boy. Before he could get John out of the room, however, the Quickening suddenly stopped, and then the only sound was John's dry heaves as he uselessly tried to expel everything he'd eaten in the last week.

"Jeez, John," Richie murmured sympathetically. The boy's knees were shaking, so Richie helped John to a sitting position on the floor, away from the vomit and the head and in a spot clear of the glass. Then Richie looked around for something to wipe John's face. But the towels they'd used were undoubtedly filled with glass slivers. Finally, he tore a strip from the front of his shirt, which he thought would be relatively glass-free, and handed it to John, who stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment, then slowly rubbed his mouth clean with it.

Richie wanted to rub John's back, soothe him, but John's side and back were covered with tiny slivers of glass. He heard Elena give one last gurgle, the death rattle, and turned to look just as the stillness of death descended over her. For a few more minutes, he knew, the pool of blood would grow underneath her, then finally stop and start cooling, congealing.

Damn, damn, damn! Richie thought.

John gasped, staring at Elena, and Richie said, "John," again. But this wasn't getting him anywhere, he knew. He had to do something, now.

Then Carmela was back again, calling out "!Mariaelena!" in a pained, strangled voice, and rushing toward the dead body on the mat, nearly slipping on the glass splinters and fragments--and blood--all over the floor.

Richie moved swiftly to intercept Carmela once more, holding the small woman by the shoulders, keeping her away from Elena's body. He had to do some damage control here. Thinking of what Duncan would do--damn, he'd better get a message to Duncan!--he began. "Carmela, listen," he said in his fair Spanish. "Elena will be all right. I need you to help me, now. Please get some towels, blankets, to cover the body." He pointed with his head in the vague general direction of the decapitated Immortal, then cursed under his breath as Carmela went rigid at the sight of the head on the floor.

"[!Ay! !Maria Santisima!]" the woman exclaimed, crossing herself.

She got so pale that for a moment Richie thought she'd throw up, too, or faint. Dammit! He tightened his grip slightly to keep her upright and quickly turned them both so his body blocked her view. He said, "Carmela!" forcing her to look at him, and repeated, "[Cobijas, por favor, senora. !Ayudeme!]"

She closed her eyes for a long moment, swallowing thickly several times, then nodded grimly. She went out the door, and Richie locked it behind her. But as he turned and looked outside through the shattered set of French doors, he saw someone, a ranch worker, coming over to investigate. Richie quickly ran over to the French doors--or what was left of them--almost slipping on the glass himself. Then he closed and locked them, and pulled all the floor-to-ceiling curtains shut.

Richie surveyed the destruction and wondered exactly how Elena was going to explain this. Not his problem. Shaking his head, he went back to John. "John, talk to me now," he urged. "Tell me you're OK."

The boy was still sitting on the floor, his knees drawn up with his arms around them, his head buried in his arms--the classic fetal position, Richie thought. But John still managed to nod and make some incoherent noise, more like a swallow than like a word.

Richie wanted to give John a glass of water from one of the pitchers, but was afraid there might be fragments of glass in there, too. He examined the broad expanse of the boy's back--there were spots of blood everywhere, but it didn't look like John had taken any large pieces of shrapnel. Good. But there was still that diagonal swordcut on John's chest. "John, I'm going to get you some medical attention, OK?"

John nodded again, stiffly.

"Good, John, you're doing great, man," Richie said, impressed with John's self-control under the circumstances and thinking that every secret of Immortality had now been completely revealed to John MacLeod. Well, there was nothing he could do about it. Satisfied that John was OK for the moment, Richie dragged Elena off the blood-soaked mat to a drier place. She was well and truly dead, her whole front and side covered in gore, most of it hers. Richie dipped his hand in the pitcher and washed her face, a little. There was not much he could do for her but wait. He then retrieved his bloody sword from the mat, thinking he'd have to give it a very thorough cleaning. But at least it had helped her, saved her, and he smiled grimly at that.

He looked up as someone came in through the other door, the one leading into the living room. Damn! He hadn't locked that one. Richie mentally kicked himself. But it was Juanito Onioco, the ranch foreman, his arms filled with blankets and towels.

Richie looked him over as the man walked toward them, his boots crunching noisily on the broken glass. Elena had told Richie that centuries ago, the Immortal Don Alvaro Duran, Elena's teacher, had made a bargain with a family of Mapuche Indians, the Oniocos. They would keep his secret, man the ranch, and keep a home for the Immortal and his loved ones; in exchange Don Alvaro would protect and provide for them and their descendants down the centuries. Elena had kept Don Alvaro's promise. It worked well, Richie thought--although as he saw Juanito's dark complexion lose all its color, Richie wondered if the Indian foreman thought, at this moment, that the "deal" was worth it.

Whether the deal was worth it or not, they were right in the middle of it right now, Richie thought. And his job was to keep 'em movin', not let them freeze up. "Juanito," he said commandingly, "Elena will be fine, but John needs some medical attention. He's got glass splinters all in his back. And he has a cut on his chest." As he spoke, he took blankets from Onioco and covered John with one, tucking it around his young friend. Then he put another blanket over the decapitated Immortal's body, a third for the head, a fourth for Elena.

While Richie covered the living and the dead, Juanito didn't move, his nose flaring. And no wonder, Richie thought. The room smelled like death: blood, vomit, ozone, burnt wood. Elena's bladder had released in death, too, and Richie wondered, wryly, if they should just call it a loss and burn down the dojo.

But first, deal with Juanito, get him going. Richie patiently went back up to him, wondering how it was possible that he, Richie Ryan, would be walking around decapitated and eviscerated bodies with such calm abandon. Hell, he didn't even feel sick to his stomach, and that made him feel sad, isolated--which he was, of course, he realized with a pang. He was an Immortal. Blood and death were an integral part of his life. Those things wouldn't make him sick--he'd seen too much of them. Too often. And he'd see more--more killings, beheadings, guttings, bleeding, vomiting, cries of pain and fear. Doing some of it himself.... Shaking himself free from the bout of self-pity, he said to Juanito, "I need your help, [hombre]. We need to send a message to Mac."

"[Si. Si, como no, senor.] I understand what has to be done," the man said in a slightly shaky voice. He took a deep breath, glanced at the blanket that covered Elena, cleared his throat, looked at Richie. He took a second, even shakier breath, then said," "We must take care of the boy first, the living," he gestured to John. "He does not seem to need emergency care, eh?"

"No, but he's cut up pretty badly," Richie answered, gratified, and thinking, all things considered, this is one coldly efficient dude.

There was a knock at the dining room door, and Juanito opened it. Carmela came in again, with Maribet and another Indian, both of them carrying more blankets, water, brooms, mops, and a bucket.

Damn! Maribet knew about Immortals, Richie realized, his heart sinking a little. Of course she did. He exchanged a long glance with her, wondering if she had known about this part of Immortality. Her face revealed fear, perhaps horror, but not the disgust he'd been dreading. And he wondered, too, if it would change how she felt about him.

As the other Indian began sweeping up the glass, Juanito spoke to Maribet softly. She nodded, tore her gaze from Richie, and walked over to John, taking care not to slip.

While John was being cared for, the foreman said to Richie, "I have sent for Senor Mac. I can see you have done this before," he continued, approvingly, pointing to the blanket mounds and to the curtains Richie had drawn. "All the doors are watched--no one will come in. We will wait for the senorita to ...," here he paused and a shadow briefly darkened his face, "... revive ... to see what will be said to the others. As for the body, and the head...." He took a deep breath. "We have done this before, too."

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CHAPTER 10: AFTERMATH

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Duncan and Stephen were lying back on blankets, relaxing, enjoying a comfortable after-lunch silence in the bright, summer sunshine. A few meters away, their mounts were grazing, occasionally whinnying softly at each other. The pampa, named for the tall grasses, stretched out for miles around them, flat, hot, and humid, humming with insects. Unlike many [estancieros,] Elena hadn't sold any of her land and, except for the manor house and a few other buildings, she hadn't changed the pampa either. As a result, the tall grass, hay-colored at this time of year, grew in its original wild state, undulating in the breeze like the waves on a lake. No trees, ponds, or rivers interrupted the monotonous vista. It was about as different from the Highland mountains and heather and running streams as it could be, Duncan thought. He wiped sweat off his face with a kerchief and waved away a buzzing fly that apparently was now devoting its entire existence to tormenting him.

Stephen's hands were clasped behind his neck, dark glasses protected his light eyes from the blazing blue sky. If he hadn't been chewing a grass stem he'd broken off for the purpose, Duncan would have thought the boy was asleep.

After a moment, Stephen suddenly sat up and pointed to his left. "Look."

Too drowsy and heavy with the heat to sit up, Duncan turned his head to look. Hundreds of white butterflies danced on the warm air like bright confetti. He smiled.

"So," Stephen began calmly, "even though you went to 'stand with' Richie, you weren't going to fight for him or interfere?"

Duncan had been anxiously waiting for this opening. He turned to the boy he'd like to have as his son. Although Stephen had started the morning off tense, the horseback ride, as always, had calmed the teen considerably. By now, Stephen's tone and even his attitude were relaxed and tranquil.

Duncan and Stephen had had similar conversations about Immortality and its rules many times before, but this was the first time that Stephen seemed willing to really listen to Duncan without recriminations and accusations. "That's right," Duncan said carefully, hoping that maybe when Elena had explained to Stephen that Duncan wouldn't save Richie, maybe at last it had sunk in. "I know it doesn't make much sense to you, Stephen, but it's one of the rules Immortals have to live by. Without some sort of ... code ... we would all just become killing machines, animals. Like Philip Ordway," he ventured, referring to the Immortal nemesis who had hunted Stephen's adoptive parents for years, finally killing them both. And Ordway had planned to kill Stephen as well.

Evidently choosing to ignore the reference to Ordway for the moment, Stephen said, "So, even if Richie had been fighting, had even gotten killed, you wouldn't have interfered?" He studied Duncan closely.

Duncan, aware of the scrutiny, shook his head. He'd just been through this same argument with Richie that night in Buenos Aires. Now he had to convince Stephen. "I couldn't, Stephen. I would have hated ... it would have hurt me a lot to watch him die, but if I'd stepped in, I'd have taken away Richie's right to fight his own battles. And he has to fight them, because I won't always be there to save him. Richie knows that." And so did your father, he thought to himself.

Stephen, still studying Duncan, replied, "Then, even though you promised me that you'd help Father, that didn't mean that you could fight for him?"

"That's right. I couldn't step in for your father for the same reasons that I couldn't have stepped in for Richie. We *all* have to fight our own battles, Stephen." Please ... please understand this time! Duncan thought.

"I know," Stephen replied. "I know that," he repeated, a bit stiffly and defensively. Then he took a deep breath and seemed to relax again. "And I know it means a lot to you, and to Elena. It meant a lot to Father." He shifted his weight and crossed his legs in front of him, obviously thinking about Duncan's words. "Father spent a lot of years running, afraid of Ordway," he said hesitantly. "But when it came right down to it, Father didn't want you to fight for him; he wanted to do his own fighting. I can see that." And now Stephen shook his head. "But I've hated Father for that, you know, for getting himself killed, for leaving me. Just like I've hated you for letting him do it." His voice was tight, with an undercurrent of anger.

"Yes," Duncan whispered hoarsely. He could see, hear in Stephen's voice, that three years hadn't much dulled Stephen's pain; nor did Duncan expect it to. But at least Stephen had said 'I've hated you.' Past tense. Maybe not any more.

Stephen continued. "But I'm mortal, and I'd rather have my father."

Duncan nodded. If you only knew, kid, he thought. "Your father would have rather stayed with you, too, Stephen. He loved you very much. But sometimes our choices are not 'good and bad.' Sometimes our choices are 'bad and worse.'"

As he spoke, Duncan caught a movement in the distance out of the corner of his eye. Slowly he sat up, turning to look. It was just more cattle, or some wild horses--but no, wait. It was moving too quickly, a single individual. It was a rider coming towards them at an all-out gallop, a dust-cloud rising behind him.

"Duncan?" Stephen said, also intently watching the rider.

"I see him." This didn't look good, Duncan thought, starting to worry. By the time the two of them got to their feet, the rider was almost upon them, his black mare blowing and snorting with exhaustion, the rider covered with dust and sweat.

"Senor Mac!" the Indian rider shouted, reining back on his horse. "I'm so glad I found you!" He panted for a moment. "Juanito sent me to get you! The Senorita--she has been hurt badly. Juanito says you must come back, right away."

The heat-induced lethargy vanished as Duncan's heart began hammering in his chest. He and Stephen exchanged a panicked look, and they both turned immediately and wordlessly to their mounts.

Duncan's gelding suddenly didn't like the way Duncan smelled and backed away from him. Impatient, the Scot reached for the reins and pulled down hard, then mounted.

Stephen had already leaped onto his horse without once touching the stirrups. With a yell, he dug in his heels and galloped east.

As he quickly settled himself in the saddle, Duncan asked the Indian, "Quicho, did you see Senor Ryan?"

"No, senor. Just Juanito. It's an emergency, he said."

Duncan nodded and gestured to the picnic he and Stephen had just been enjoying. "Bring this stuff back with you."

"Si, Senor Mac." The Indian dismounted, moving to obey Duncan's instructions.

Duncan kicked his horse into a gallop and followed Stephen. God, how many times had he done this, rushed back to the scene of a tragedy, a massacre, always too late, always useless, being gone at the wrong time, hopeless, helpless ... He took a deep breath to calm himself, leaning forward over his saddle like a jockey. Juanito had said she was 'badly hurt,' which meant she might actually be dead, but that might be all right, and Juanito just didn't want her Immortal secret to become known. But if she were truly dead.... Grimly Duncan glanced down at his katana, which was tied to the saddle. If, my God, if Elena Duran was dead, there would be hell to pay!

/////

Duncan drew up to the [estancia] alone--he'd galloped right past Stephen in his rush. Now he scanned the house for signs of damage. Everything looked normal from the outside. He swiftly dismounted, then tossed the reins to the Indian boy who was obviously waiting for him by the front steps. The Highlander strode up, leaping the three steps to the front door and pulling it open abruptly.

Carmela, looking grave and pale, met him at the door.

"Where is she?" he queried.

"The ballroom," she said quietly. "Senor Mac...." She stopped, words failing her.

Duncan took the old woman's hands, squeezed them once, smiled half-heartedly, and went inside, crossing the living room and dining room.

The house was unnaturally silent. He shoved his hair back out of his eyes--it had come loose from its band during the wild ride back to the house--and wiped a trickle of sweat from his temple with the heel of his hand. His shirt and pants were clinging to him, and he was covered with dust and grit. He didn't care.

Beyond the long dining room table he could see John MacLeod and Richie Ryan facing each other in front of the closed ballroom door. John was breathing a bit heavily, his arms crossed in front of him, his low, angry words obviously meant for Richie, who had a long-suffering but patient expression on his face. Neither of them looked too good.

John was missing both his shirt and his shoes. Pinpricks of red and stained bandages all over his back, neck, and arms showed where he must have been cut somehow--lots and lots of cuts. Well, at least they weren't sword wounds, Duncan thought ... but then John turned towards him slightly, and Duncan saw the long, thin, diagonal red slash across John's chest. *That* was a sword wound, Duncan thought, his throat constricting, although he was relieved that the boy was obviously not badly hurt. And despite his anger and the heat, John seemed to be hunched into himself a little, shivering slightly as though he were cold--or afraid.

As for Richie, the redhead had several smears of blood on him and on his clothes, too, but he was also unharmed, and Duncan was pretty sure Richie hadn't fought, either. He was nodding to John, listening, but saying very little.

Richie turned to Duncan and sighed with relief. Pointing towards the ballroom, he quickly said, "She's all right, Mac."

Duncan took a deep breath and wiped another trickle of sweat from his temple with the back of his hand. Thank God! He could actually feel his heart slow down, feel the sick knot in his stomach start to loosen a little. The murderous rage that had been slowly building inside him as he rode died down suddenly. There was no Immortal for him to kill--if there were, Richie wouldn't be standing here now. "Thanks, Richie," he replied, grateful that whatever else was going on, Elena Duran was alive.

John said to Duncan, "She's *not* all right, Duncan. Dammit, Elena's *dead*!"

Before Duncan could reply to John, or think about what John's pronouncement meant, Duncan heard light, almost delicate, footsteps running up behind him. Stephen, of course. The boy came up next to him, his beautiful golden face pale under the dirt and dust, fear plain in his eyes, grief lying just under the surface.

"She is? She's *really* dead?" Stephen asked, his voice shaking.

John started to speak, but Richie interrupted, "She's still got her head, Stephen."

Stephen closed his eyes for a moment, swaying a little, and Duncan put a hand on Stephen's shoulder, to steady him. Duncan understood exactly what was going on in the boy's mind: thanksgiving. And Duncan shared Stephen's relief.

John was now staring at all three of them as if they had jointly lost their minds. "Her head! What the hell--! I'm telling you she is *dead*!" he exclaimed. "This ... this...," he threw his hands up in the air then continued, "... *maniac* with this long, black cloak, like a damn vampire or something, just burst in and attacked her. With this monster sword! Just like that, for no reason at all! And *Richie--*" John uttered the name with contempt "--had a sword, too, which he threw at her, but he wouldn't help her! And he wouldn't let me help her either! Hell, he tried to stop me! He sent me on a wild goose chase, then he tripped me up! He deliberately let her get killed!"

Richie sighed and caught Duncan's eyes, shook his head.

First of all, Duncan had to be satisfied about the "maniac." "Angel Gutierrez?" Duncan asked Richie sharply.

"I'm guessing, from Nate's description, that he *was* Angel, Mac," Richie said, answering all of the implied question.

Duncan sighed with both relief and frustration. He was glad Angel was dead, but he knew what had happened between Richie and John. Richie hadn't wanted to interfere, and John ... this was bad. John had been so happy to see Richie again, and at the breakfast table this morning they'd been kidding around together like brothers. Duncan was also angry that he and Elena had not been more on their guard against Angel Gutierrez. Richie had warned them. Damn!

Stephen abruptly stepped between Richie and John, giving John a very sympathetic glance. However, he said, "I'm going in to see her. I want to be there when she revives."

"When she what!?" John gasped, moving forward protectively to block Stephen from entering the ballroom. "Look, Stephen--"

"John," Richie interrupted. Patiently, slowly, he said, "You don't understand what is going on here. Let Stephen by."

John looked rebellious, but at Duncan's nod, he reluctantly stepped aside--away from Richie--and let Stephen pass. Stephen went inside the dojo and firmly closed the door behind him.

And Duncan wanted nothing more than to follow Stephen into that room, put his arms around Elena, and hold her while she revived, hold her while her body healed. She'd be disoriented, afraid, in pain--he knew that for her the healing always came *after* the reviving.

But first he had to deal with John. The boy's face was dark, and his brown eyes were even darker with anger and confusion.

Deliberately trying to keep things calm, Duncan asked the most innocuous question he could. "Are you all right, John?"

John drew himself up to his full height, a height which allowed him to actually look down at Duncan, and said, "Oh, yeah, sure! Abso-fucking-lutely! I see women get attacked by crazed swordsmen every day of the week! And as for decapitations--they're as regular as the subway schedule in Manhattan!"

Duncan exchanged another grim glance with Richie, then turned to John, put his hand on the boy's arm, and said gently but commandingly, "John, I know you're upset, but keep your voice down. Do you want everyone on the ranch to hear you?"

John took a deep, shuddering breath, and Duncan released his arm. When John began again, his voice was still bitterly sarcastic, but he had lowered it. "Of course I'm not all right! I just watched Elena get ... gutted, eviscerated. I saw the blood, Duncan, all this blood--I didn't know a human body had so much blood...." He trailed off, a sick look on his face. "I watched her cut a man's head off, then I saw some kind of light show straight from Hell, and then I got to watch Elena die in total agony. And Super-Shithead here--," he jerked his thumb at Richie, "--just stood by and did *absolutely nothing* to help her, *and* he did his level best to keep me from helping her either! I can't believe what a cowardly...." His voice, hoarse with anger, broke. He swallowed, then continued, "And as if that wasn't enough, now you and Richie and Stephen have all gone insane, insisting that Elena isn't *really* dead! Not only am I in a slaughter-house all of a sudden, I'm in one run by lunatics! Listen, *I* saw her die, Duncan, and I've never ... I've never seen anybody die before!" He stopped suddenly, panting.

Richie had taken a deep, calming breath at the insult. Now he turned to Duncan and said, "Mac, I think John has some questions for you--they're not the kind of questions I really think I can answer."

Duncan nodded. Damn. This was the last thing he wanted. And he still didn't know exactly what had happened.

Richie walked around John's stiff, unyielding form and went into the dojo, quietly closing the door behind him, shooting Duncan a compassionate look that worried Duncan even more.

Again, what Duncan really wanted was to follow Richie into that room. But it was going to have to wait, dammit. Elena would have to wait. Stephen would be with her, and Richie. Duncan looked at John's angry young face. Christ, he thought, running his hand through his damp, sweaty hair, what was he going to tell John?

And what was he going to tell Connor?

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CHAPTER 11: REALIZATIONS

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"John, let's go to your room," Duncan said in his most soothing, most reasonable voice, the voice he had used for centuries to calm mortals after the onset of tragedy and disaster. In particular, Duncan's voice was pitched just right for John, whom he knew much better than most mortals.

He put his hand companionably on John's shoulder, and the two of them walked through the dining room, away from the death scene, and up the stairs to John's bedroom. John seemed a little surprised to find himself in his room, but Duncan gave him an avuncular smile and closed the door behind them.

The room's furniture was all rustic, heavy wood--a man's guest room. A king-sized bed stood under a large window on the wall to the right of the door. Matching nightstands adorned each side of the bed. A massive dresser stood left of the door, a mirror above it. Across the room, two roomy leather easy chairs faced each other at a comfortable angle for conversation, a small table set between them. Above the chairs, a window ran all the way up to the ceiling and the length of the whole wall. The view from the window was reflected in the mirror. On the wall opposite the bed hung an enormous pastoral painting of two horsemen riding through a rolling landscape. It all seemed so perfectly ordinary, Duncan thought as he made himself comfortable in one chair and gestured for John to sit in the other.

Still looking rebellious, John nevertheless sat down. Then he leaned back, away from Duncan, and crossed his arms.

Duncan recognized John's classic stance of self-defense, self-protection. His heart went out to the boy. What a hell of a way to find out the truth about Immortality! And even though John obviously didn't understand what he'd seen, he was unconsciously guarding himself against understanding too much, too well.

Carefully placing his hands on his knees, Duncan leaned towards his nephew, projecting reassurance, trustworthiness, and openness. And now for the words, Duncan thought. The words that should rightfully be coming from Connor, but which couldn't wait for the boy to get back to New York, to his father. The magic words which would say just enough, but not too much, which would calm John down and which wouldn't infuriate Connor when John repeated them to him later. Duncan knew that he had a reputation for having a silver tongue, but at times like these the silver was decidedly tarnished. Still, Duncan didn't want the boy to take control of this discussion, so he went right to the point. "John, what has Connor told you about Immortality?"

John's eyes narrowed, and the rest of his broad, generous face became a study in linearity--his lips pressed together in a straight horizontal line, two vertical lines forming between his thick brows. "Not much," he said, biting off the words.

Duncan waited patiently.

After a moment, John sighed. "Fairytale stuff. Magic. He told me that there are people who can't die. They live hidden among ordinary mortals, assuming identities down the centuries, pretending to be just like everyone else. He's one of them, and you are, and Richie, and Elena. And that there are others ... but Elena's dead, Duncan. Nobody could survive that wound! And I *saw* her die," John repeated.

Now it was Duncan's turn to sigh. "Yes, John, you did. But she will revive. She's not ... permanently ... dead."

John shook his head. "Not *permanently* dead? You mean like a resurrection or something?"

Duncan nodded. "Or something," he said.

John shot Duncan a sharp, dubious glance. "And what about the other guy--the one who attacked her? The one she decapitated? I saw his head hit the floor and ... slide...."

He paled and paused for a moment, swallowing, while Duncan winced inwardly at the picture that must be in John's head. And would be there, in John's thoughts, probably in his nightmares, for a long time to come. Probably forever.

"Will he *revive*?" John finally asked.

Carefully, Duncan put his elbows on his knees, spreading his hands in front of him, striving to make his posture as open as possible. "No, John," he said softly. "Beheading is the one thing Immortals can't survive."

John abruptly stood and began pacing--one, two, three steps, then back again. He reached into his pants pocket with his right hand and pulled out a tennis ball, which he bounced on the floor rapidly as he walked.

Duncan watched, letting John absorb this new information at his own speed, in his own way. Hoping that he wouldn't go too far, too fast.

Suddenly, John grabbed the ball and whirled to face Duncan. "That guy who attacked Elena--he had a sword, too. Just like Dad. And you. And Richie. And Elena. *All* Immortals carry swords, don't they, Duncan?"

"Yes," Duncan answered.

Now John leaned over, breathing down into Duncan's face. His dark brows were furrowed, his eyes flashing with anger. In a low voice, full of betrayal and hurt, he said, "There's only one reason to carry swords, just like there's only one reason to carry guns. Isn't there, Duncan? The same reason that guy attacked Elena. To behead her. To kill her. *Permanently.*"

Duncan closed his eyes, briefly. Connor should have told John. Duncan resented Connor for putting him in this position. And he resented the Immortal SOB who'd burst in and attacked Elena in front of John; he wished he could have gotten his hands on him first. It had probably been this Gutierrez, and they should have watched out for him more. But they hadn't. And Duncan should never have left the house with Stephen, never even agreed to have John come to Argentina in the first place. If wishes were horses, Duncan reminded himself, and he opened his eyes to answer John.

But John wasn't looking at Duncan anymore. He had whirled away to stare out his window, squeezing the tennis ball rhythmically, his jaw clenched, his face closed and remote.

Duncan was astounded at how much John suddenly resembled Connor. It was as though Connor were right there in the room, ignoring him. And this worried him more than the anger. As long as John was showing his feelings, Duncan at least knew what he was dealing with. If John was going to retreat, close himself off the way Connor did, then Duncan's job could be a lot more difficult. "John--"

"Isn't that why that guy came for Elena? To decapitate her? To kill her *permanently*?" John repeated, relentless, without even turning to look at Duncan.

"Yes, it is, but--"

"And that's why you all carry swords, isn't it? You all carry them because that guy who attacked Elena--he's not the only one who carries swords to decapitate other Immortals, is he?"

"No, he's not, but--"

"Why, Duncan?" Now John turned to Duncan, his face still expressionless, still looking like Connor.

"Why what?"

"Why didn't any of you ever tell me it was all about swords? About killing?" On the last word, John abruptly crushed the tennis ball. He dropped it and immediately pulled out another to knead.

"Why didn't *Dad* tell me?" It sounded like a plea.

Duncan wanted to tell John how sorry he was. Instead, he answered, "John, Immortality is not just about swords. Or just about killing. It's a lot more complicated than that. A lot more, believe me. And Connor was going to tell you. He was just waiting for the right time."

"The right time," John repeated tonelessly, bouncing his ball. "I'd guess that would be right about now, huh?" He swung back around to face Duncan again. His face, though pale, was very calm, all signs of anger gone. "This isn't really your job, is it?" he said, putting the tennis ball back in his pocket and resuming his seat.

"What do you mean?"

"Explaining all this. It's Dad's job."

Suspicious of John's calm demeanor, Duncan nevertheless knew that Connor wouldn't appreciate his explaining Immortality to the boy, even now. Hoping that he wasn't taking the easy way out, hoping that maybe John really was calming down, Duncan said, "He'd want to be the one to tell you, John, yes."

John nodded. "OK, then. I want to fly back to New York as soon as I can. Tonight. Or tomorrow morning."

Duncan shook his head slightly. "I don't know if that's--"

"It's what I want to do. It's what I need to do."

"I'll fly back with you," Duncan said, suddenly worried that the boy might be planning to bolt.

"What for? I don't need a nursemaid."

And then John's eyes narrowed, and he tilted his head, and once again Duncan had the uncanny sense that Connor was in the room, looking at him, judging him, knowing exactly what he was thinking

"Oh, geez," John said in disgust. "You don't think I'm going to run away or do something stupid like that, do you?"

"I don't know, John. You've had quite a shock. I don't know what you're planning to do," Duncan admitted.

John stood and walked back to the window. He stared into the distance for a long moment before turning to Duncan. "I'm not going to run away. You have my word on it. Is that good enough?" The question was asked quietly, without sarcasm.

Duncan thought it over. Connor MacLeod was a man of his word, and he had raised John to be the same way. Besides, Duncan had known John since the boy was three, ever since Connor had adopted him. There was no reason to think that John was suddenly going to start lying, despite his shock and dismay and anger. Still, Duncan thought.... "All right, John. I believe you. But are you sure you want to do this by yourself? Are you sure you don't want me to come, help explain things?"

"Yes. I'm sure. If you come, you and Dad will just argue about what happened. I want to talk to him myself. And I want to tell him what happened, too, Duncan. I don't want you to tell him."

"That's hardly fair to him, John, to surprise him like this."

His young face intent, John said, "Well, it wasn't exactly fair how I found out, was it? And it isn't fair to *me* if you tell him about it, either, is it? You weren't even there! And if you call and tell him, it'll be the same as if you come. You'll fight about it, and he'll be furious about it before I even get to say a word to him. No. I want to tell him, in my own way, when I get home."

"I don't--"

"It's my right!" John said. "He's my father! It's between us, and it has nothing to do with you!"

At this, Duncan stood, too. "You're wrong about that, John. It has a lot to do with me," he stated firmly.

"But I'm the one who was there! I'm the one this happened to! I want to be the one to tell him!" John turned back to the window, clenching his jaw and both fists. After a moment, he opened his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, then faced Duncan again.

When he spoke, he was calm once more. "It's important to me, Duncan. Will you let me be the one to tell him?"

No matter which path he took, Duncan thought, it was going to be bad. Connor would be furious either way. He'd be furious about what had happened, period. But in the long run, Duncan knew that Connor would recover. Right now, it was John whose innocence had been lost, John whose trust needed rebuilding. John was the injured party, the one who would have that long, diagonal scar on his chest for the rest of his life. His very mortal life. Not to mention the emotional scars....

And, after all, Duncan *hadn't* been there. John had. It *was* his story to tell. And it was something that John and Connor were going to have to work out between them--that discrepancy between "a kind of magic" and the bloody fall of a head.

"All right, John," he finally said. "You tell Connor what happened." And I hope to God I'm doing the right thing, Duncan prayed. And that John doesn't wind up hating Connor the way Stephen had hated him, Duncan, because that would be the worst possible thing that could happen. The very worst.

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CHAPTER 12: LEAVING ARGENTINA

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The next morning, Carrying his duffel bag, John came down the steps and into the dining room, where Duncan and Elena were having a light, early breakfast. John glanced quickly at Elena, then paused, frankly staring at her. "Elena?" he murmured.

She got up to meet him under the arch that led into the dining room. "Yes, John, it's me. I know this is strange for you, but I'm all right, as you can see," she added, to reassure him. "Will you come have some breakfast with us?"

John breathed out quickly. Duncan could see the exact moment when he closed up on her, just as he had with Duncan the day before. "Sure," he said unenthusiastically, looking away from her.

Duncan and Elena exchanged grim looks. Just yesterday morning, John would have paid money to share the table with Elena. Now he didn't even want to speak to her. "How are you this morning, John?" Duncan asked.

"Fine," John muttered. His eyes strayed briefly beyond to the closed door that led to the ballroom, and he quickly looked away from there as well. Then he sat one chair away from the Immortals, while Elena sat back down at the head of the table. John reached for the platter of fried eggs. He scooped some onto his plate, added one of the breakfast steaks and bread. Then he poured himself a demitasse of espresso, meticulously adding two spoonfuls of sugar and stirring, seemingly engrossed in watching the steam rise from the dark brew.

Duncan looked his nephew over carefully. John's dark hair was still damp from the shower. He'd combed it back neatly. He was dressed equally as neatly in a dark purple tee-shirt and his black jeans. He wore boots--and Duncan remembered that they'd had to burn John's boxing shoes yesterday. Duncan grimaced inwardly at that memory.

John's face was pale, but expressionless. He gave a good semblance of calmness, but the image was belied by the dark smudges beneath his eyes and the way he was pushing his food around on his plate.

The night before, Duncan hadn't slept well either. He'd gotten up to go check on John. Just as he was about to knock on the boy's door, he'd heard voices, low and steady. Though he couldn't make out the words, it was easy enough to distinguish Stephen's light, high voice and John's deep, rumbling one. And Duncan could guess what they were talking about. While Duncan wasn't pleased to have Stephen telling John about The Game or Immortality, there wasn't much he could do about it . So, he had turned away from the door and padded softly back to the bed he was sharing with Elena.

Now, this morning, the silence was deafening. The boy was so much like his father, Duncan thought. Too much like him. A few more years of practice, and no one would ever know when anything was wrong with John.

Elena shook her head at Duncan, then sighed. But she was not one to sit and mope. She got up and went around the corner of the table to sit next to Connor's son. "John," she said, formally, "I am sorry about what happened. I'd been warned, but I wasn't prepared, and I put you in danger. I messed up completely, and I would like to ask for your forgiveness."

The night before, Elena and Duncan had discussed their lack of preparation.

"But we *were* watching out for Gutierrez, Duncan," she'd argued, pacing in their bedroom. "I can't turn this house into an armed camp every time I hear about an Immortal who might possibly come by. Besides, they usually come to the front door. Every time, in fact. This bastard hid in the stables, well away from the house--Alfredo found his binoculars--and only came after me when he saw you and Stephen leave on your ride. Lucky for me, Richie was around."

"Yeah. Well, it wasn't lucky for John."

"No. It wasn't," she'd said grimly.

Duncan had held her in bed while she had told him, horror still lingering in her voice, how close this sweet, brave young man had come to being cut in half and how that thought would haunt her for a long time. Duncan could see that she was now appealing to John's sense of honor, and she reached to put her hand on his arm, lightly, to reassure him and to reach him. But he pulled back from her, almost imperceptibly, and Duncan could see her surprise--no, she really wasn't surprised, just disappointed, her feelings a little hurt--at the trace of fear, deep in the boy's eyes.

Both Immortals understood that John had had a terrible shock. Now they both waited to see what he would say.

"Look, Elena," he began, then stopped.

She sighed, then tried another approach. "I also want to thank you, John MacLeod, for trying to help me yesterday. It was very brave of you," she said, really meaning it, and flattering his sense of young manhood while she was at it.

John turned to look at her, but he still held himself apart from her, stiffly. "I couldn't just stand there and let him chop you," he said testily.

"Of course you couldn't," she agreed. "Not the son of Connor MacLeod. And I appreciate it, believe me. But Immortals--we have to fight our own battles," she explained. "Besides, you are my guest, and I have a certain duty to everyone under my roof. I feel responsible, and I failed you."

She was trying, but by now both Immortals were getting a very good idea of where she stood from John's unyielding posture and the look in his eyes. She turned to glance at Duncan, just behind her, and the Scot narrowed his eyes at her, shaking his head minutely. It was too much. Duncan knew she felt bad, and guilty, but this could wait; her needs could wait.

And Elena obviously understood that, too. When John didn't answer, she added more gently, "Look, this was difficult for all of us. We'll talk again another time."

"I just need to think things over, Elena. And talk to Connor," John finally replied, then took a careful swallow of the dark, hot coffee.

Elena noted that he was no longer referring to Connor as "Dad." She sighed one more time and went back to her original seat, pushed her plate away and poured herself more coffee.

John said nothing more for a while, eating very little, in silence.

Finally Duncan asked, "Your plane leaves at noon, John?"

John nodded.

"We'd better get going then," the Highlander said. "It's a long drive to Buenos Aires." Then he asked John, "Is there anyone you want to say good-bye to before we leave?"

John shook his head. "I said good-bye to Stephen last night, and a couple of other people."

"What about Richie?" Duncan asked carefully.

John frowned. "I don't have anything to say to him."

Duncan frowned. "That's not exactly fair--"

"I don't have anything to say to him, Duncan!"

Duncan raised his eyebrows and blew out a deep breath. "Are you ready to go then?"

"Yeah."

John picked up his bag, and the three of them went out to the garage.

"Godspeed, John," Elena said, not even trying to shake his hand; and to herself she added, good luck, [nino.]

John nodded at her, said, "Bye," then turned quickly away and threw his bag in the back of the Jeep. The two men climbed in. Duncan waved to Elena, but John faced front. He didn't wave, and he didn't look back as they drove off. It occurred to Duncan that John's memories of beautiful Argentina would not be very pleasant.

They didn't talk much on the way to the airport or as they waited for John's flight. When it was finally time for the boy to board, Duncan surreptitiously breathed a sigh of relief. He started to put his arms around John, but the boy still held himself stiffly, and Duncan settled for a handshake. "John," he said quickly, desperately, "Connor loves you. You know that."

John nodded. "Yeah," he said. "But love doesn't fix everything, Duncan."

At that, Duncan sucked his breath in and glanced away from John, wondering again if he was doing the right thing by not calling Connor. Well, he'd promised..

"John ...," he began again, looking back at John's expressionless, pale face, realizing that what he wanted to say was, "Don't hurt Connor." But he couldn't say that. And John had been hurt, too. He finally settled for, "I'm sorry about what happened. Just ... take care. And don't forget he's your father."

"I gotta go," John said. "Good-bye, Duncan."

Duncan waited until the plane took off, feeling helpless and wishing that he'd never heard of Immortality. Then he started the long drive back to the ranch.

End

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