Richie in Argentina

Vi Moreau and Suzanne Herring

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Standard disclaimer: the concept of Immortality and the characters of Duncan MacLeod and Richie Ryan belong to Rysher and are owned by them. This story is for fun, not for profit. For legal types, this means the authors don't make a dime off of it.

This story universe resides in a no-demon zone. Thus, in this story universe, Richie was not killed by Duncan. In fact, he lives a prosperous, happy Immortal life--insofar as Immortals can be happy.

PROLOGUE: AFTERMATH OF A KILLING

Duran [estancia,] near Buenos Aires, Argentina

December 17, 2001, 4 p.m.

Richie Ryan sat on his bed, nearly finished with the almost-religious ritual of cleaning his Gothic bastard broadsword. He took a clean rag and rubbed the blade gently until the metal gleamed. He held the sword up, inspected it, and--satisfied--slipped it back in its sheath. He sighed and looked around his bedroom in Elena Duran's [estancia]. It was a nice enough room, smelling of clean bright cotton and elegant leather, and he couldn't fault the hospitality, but he just couldn't get used to the soft air conditioning hum in the background--in December. He smiled at the thought that he was homesick for the sleet and snow flurries of a northern-hemisphere Christmas holiday.

He stood, his sword still in his hand, and looked out at the hot summer day. Behind the house were the stables, and there was always activity there. In fact, beyond the iron fence that enclosed the house proper, he could see a rather old man riding the kind of horse Richie had learned was called a [criollo]. The horse's hooves were setting off little explosions of dust as it walked. Other people were gathering around the stables in groups of two or three, Indians and Latinos alike. No wonder-- considering the mayhem that had gone on earlier today in the ballroom.

Richie unconsciously tightened his grip on his sword, remembering what Mac had told him: "Your sword may be your only friend." Mac had sure known what he was talking about. What Mac hadn't told him--and Richie was beginning to suspect that there were a lot of things that Mac not only hadn't told him, but couldn't tell him--was that sometimes your sword might be somebody else's only friend.

Richie's sword had been Elena Duran's friend earlier in the day, when the black-clad Immortal, Angel Gutierrez, had burst into the ballroom of the [estancia] and attacked Elena. Elena had been unarmed. Worse than that, she hadn't been alone. John MacLeod, Connor's adopted son, had been with her. In the ensuing fight, Richie had managed to get his weapon to Elena. But that was the only good part of the whole bloody mess--bloody being the operative word. Although Elena had managed to behead Angel, she had also managed to die in a pool of her own blood. Angel's head had slid across the ground, slamming into John MacLeod's pristine white boxing shoes. John had seen the whole thing.

And understood nothing.

And John--ignorant of the Immortal maxim that there can be only one-- had blamed Richie for letting Elena 'die.' Richie had not taken offense at John's accusations, because John simply didn't know what he was talking about. Obviously Connor MacLeod had never told John the real facts about the Game.

Nevertheless, after John had called Richie a coward, Richie had decided it was a good time to vanish, and he'd gone into the devastated ballroom to see Elena.

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

earlier that day

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

Elena is just reviving as Richie steps into the ruin that's left of the dojo. Stephen Holz, Elena's seventeen-year-old adopted son, is alone with her.

"God, she looks really bad, doesn't she?" Stephen asks, his beautiful golden color washed out and pasty white. He is kneeling by his adoptive mother, and his mouth is pinched with anxiety.

"Yeah," Richie says, sympathetically, gently. "But don't sweat it, kid. She won, she beat the bad guy. All's right with the world. Once she wakes up, all she'll need is a shower and some fresh clothes, and she'll be good as new." A slight exaggeration--both killing and dying take a little bit out of an Immortal, a little chunk of the soul. Richie knows that from experience. But he's not about to tell Stephen, nor that someday Stephen, too, would know all about Immortality--first hand.

Stephen closes his eyes, shaking his head. He starts to answer Richie, and Richie hopes Stephen is still too stunned and upset to come up with another one of his usual angry, bitter comments. But before the boy can speak, Elena moans.

Stephen takes her hand--almost the only part of her that isn't covered in blood, and squeezes it gently. "It's all right, Elena," he says urgently. "You're going to be OK."

"That's right, Elena," Richie says, in a lighter tone, from her other side. He watches her carefully, noticing how odd it is that she hasn't healed yet. Richie always heals before he revives--at least, he mostly heals. There had been a few times--Richie shakes his head. No need to think about those right now.

Elena's eyes open slowly, and she moans again, hoarsely. Then she throws her head back, her body stiff, gasping with her mouth open, obviously in tremendous pain.

Deep inside Richie, the Immortal part of him, the part of him that knows there can be only one, coils waiting, watching in avid fascination, eager to learn what it can about another Immortal, storing the knowledge away for a future time. Richie watches as the little blue lights play over Elena's body as she heals, as she cries out with the pain of it. So, that Immortal part of him observes coldly, Elena Duran mostly heals *after* she revives. Richie feels a certain coldness, not completely unaware of the calculations going on deep down. But he pushes the coldness away, reminding himself that Elena Duran is a friend--a good friend--and he hopes he never has to duel with her for real. Besides, she owes him for this--he had tossed her his sword, disarming himself and saving her life. And he knows he can trust her to remember that. So for now, Richie forces the killer in him back down, and says, gently, "You're going to be all right, Elena."

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

present time

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

Richie looked down from his window at the gossiping, speculating ranchhands for a moment more. Then he went outside to see what they were saying.

One Indian accosted Richie from behind, and Richie turned sharply. It was the old man Richie had seen on the horse just minutes before. He was half-a-head shorter than Richie, and he stepped back respectfully, his hands held up in front of him. A group of Indians and Latinos stood behind him. "I am sorry, Senor Ryan, I did not mean to startle you," the Indian said quickly in Spanish. "I only want to know--we only want to know--is it true that Senorita Duran is dead?" The group waited breathlessly, frightened and confused.

Richie shook his head and projected absolute assurance into his voice. "Senorita Duran was bruised and knocked around a little, but aside from that, she is as alive as you or me."

There were gasps of relief from the small group that had gathered, but then the same Indian asked again, "But we heard--"

"Whatever you heard, [senor]," Richie interrupted, "was wrong. I'm telling you, I just spoke to Senorita Duran, and she is fine and well. And I'm sure she'll be telling you this herself before very long."

In the resulting confusion, the small group of people seemed to swell, and voices rose in rapid, excited Spanish. Richie took the opportunity to turn away and head back to the ranch house. He went up to Elena's bedroom, knocked on the door, and at her soft response, he let himself in.

Elena was resting in bed in a white bathrobe, clean and looking healthy, but obviously still shaken from the brutal attack.

Richie dragged one of the heavy chairs over by the bed. "How you feelin', Elena?" he asked.

Elena sighed. "That Angel was a ... brutal, savage... I can still feel him inside me." She shuddered slightly, then shook her head, as if to clear him out. Her smile was without humor. "Actually, what I feel is mostly stupid. You warned me, and I didn't pay enough attention. But enough about me--how is John?"

It was Richie's turn to shake his head. "He wasn't too good an hour ago. I left--"

"Not too good? He didn't get hurt, did he?" she asked him urgently, sitting up in bed abruptly and grabbing Richie's arm.

"Nah," Richie reassured her. "Not physically, anyway." Except for the glass cuts and the sword wound and the aching stomach from throwing up over and over again, Richie thought. Nothing serious. "He's with Mac. I guess maybe they're still talking."

Elena nodded, releasing Richie's arm, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and standing. Richie stood, too.

"Good," Elena said. "If anyone can possibly fix this with John, it's Duncan," she added, starting to pace up and down her bedroom, then pausing at the window to look out over the group of people milling behind the house.

"You think so?" Richie asked her, following her with his eyes and ignoring the urge to rub his arm where Elena had gripped it.

She turned back to Richie. "No, I don't really think Duncan can fix it. But he can make John feel better," she answered.

"Yeah, well, maybe. But look, Elena, you can see out the window you've got another problem. A lot of your people"--he jerked a thumb towards the back of the house--"think you're dead. Everybody is scared half to death."

Voices drifted up, some filled with obvious alarm, and Richie caught a few words of rapid-fire Spanish, such as "[Senorita, muerta, sangre, asesino]. He even heard his name, ["el senor Ryan.."]

"Yes, I see that," she agreed, turning to him. "I guess I've got some 'splainin' to do," she said, in a much heavier Spanish accent than usual.

At Richie's blank look, she added, "You know, like the television show, Ricky Ricardo and Lucy, I Love Lucy--never mind," she sighed. "Actually, this happened once before in the 1930s sometime, when an Immortal came to the house in broad daylight." Suddenly, she slammed her fist against the edge of the window, startling Richie. "Damn his black heart!" she cursed, obviously referring to Angel.

"You're going to have to do something to calm them all down before there's like, a riot."

Elena sighed again. "Don't worry. There won't be a riot. Did anyone see anything they shouldn't have?"

"I don't think so, no. Juanito and company pretty much contained it. But what they heard and what they guessed--who knows?"

"All right," Elena said, gathering herself. She moved a step to her right, placing herself squarely in the window frame, and gave a long, piercing whistle that cut through most of the noise below. Most of the voices died down, and Richie moved up behind her just in time to see a lot of the Indians pointing up at the window, gesturing and talking animatedly again.

Elena waved, and the crowd spontaneously cheered. After a moment, she turned back to Richie. She was smiling, and Richie couldn't help returning her smile. "Richie, please have Juanito make an announcement that I will talk to them tonight and explain what happened. At seven p.m. It will still be light out, and it will give Duncan some time to finish talking to John."

"Will do," Richie said, turning to leave.

But as he got to the door, Elena called him back. "Wait, Richie," she said, rubbing her hands together self-consciously.

"Yeah?" He paused halfway out the door.

She walked up to him and held out her hand. "You saved my life. I thank you. And I owe you."

Richie shook her hand. "Yeah," Richie said. "I know you do." He smiled once more, then went out the door--but he meant it, and he knew Elena knew it.

Translations (all Spanish):

estancia - a large combination ranch/farm in Argentina

muerto/a - dead

sangre - blood

asesino/a - assassin

CHAPTER 1: A SURPRISE VISITOR

Duran [estancia], near Buenos Aires, Argentina

December 17, 2001, 6:45 p.m.

By late afternoon, it was obvious that Juanito had done his job and that the word had gotten around about Elena's "announcement." All of Elena's people--very few of whom knew about Immortality--were milling in the yard behind the house expectantly. Richie was among them again, listening to whispered comments, many of which were cut short as he came near. Not surprising, he thought.

He looked for and didn't find Maribet, the Indian girl he'd been flirting with, the one who knew about Immortals and had seen the dead bodies and the blood in the dojo. And one of the ones who knew that Richie was an Immortal too. But it was just as well. What could he possibly say to her?

He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. It was going to be another warm night, and the press of bodies wasn't making it any better. He looked up at the limp leaves of the ancient [ombu] tree, and past them to the window of John's bedroom. Mac had come out of John's room some time ago, then had evidently gone straight to see Elena. So Richie hadn't had a chance to talk to Mac and find out how things were with John. Richie wasn't about to go talk to John himself--John had made it quite clear that he didn't want anything more to do with Richie. And Richie figured that Mac's conversation with John had *not* been any fun, either.

Hell, none of this had been fun for anybody. Richie sighed again and pressed into the crowd, getting a noseful of sweaty bodies and dust.

Eventually, a little after seven, Elena came theatrically through the crowd, which parted for her like the Red Sea. Although John MacLeod was conspicuously absent, in her wake were a very serious Duncan MacLeod, a sulky-looking Stephen--what else was new?--and Juanito and Carmela Onioco, the foreman and housekeeper at the [estancia]. The chosen ones, Richie said to himself, perversely enjoying his biblical theme until Elena met his eye and gestured for him to join her. Obediently--and a little proudly--Richie found himself facing the crowd rather than being a part of it.

Elena chose a spot that had a natural slope near the wrought-iron, seven-foot fence, giving her and her entourage some elevation. She handled her responsibilities, telling her people that a madman with murderous intentions had burst into the house with some sort of explosive and pretty much blown up the ballroom.

They'd defended themselves against him, and the attacker had been the only one killed.

"Why didn't the police come?" a particularly bold man, a horse trainer, asked.

There was a hushed moment in the gathered group, and Richie realized he was not the only one surprised that anyone dared to question Elena Duran. Mac, who had been standing behind her while she talked, moved closer to her, backing up her authority with his own intimidating presence.

Elena paused, then smiled at the man, putting him wholly in the spotlight. "The proper authorities were advised," she answered. "The investigation was a quiet one. If you doubt me, feel free to call them yourself."

The man shook his head. "No, Senorita," he replied softly. "You misunderstand--I do not doubt you. I just wonder how our excellent Argentine authorities could do anything so quickly and so quietly." And the man smiled and raised his hands, showing he meant no harm.

The rest of the crowd laughed a little, and everyone seemed to relax. Elena smiled at the horse trainer again, but this time it was an approving smile. The man had provided a little comic relief. Like everyone else there, Richie knew that the authorities in Argentina were strictly to be avoided whenever possible--so it looked like the guy had done Elena a favor. Maybe he was a shill, Richie thought.

After a few more comments--no more questions for Elena, Richie noted--the crowd dispersed, and life went back to normal on the [estancia], more or less, except with a lot more gossip.

////////////////

Very early the next morning, a mere twenty-four hours after Elena had taken the Quickening of Angel Gutierrez, Richie was awakened early by the sounds of men and tools--his upstairs bedroom was almost, but not quite, above the ballroom. As he dressed he dimly heard the voices of the two MacLeod men in the hallway. But Richie didn't really want to talk to John MacLeod, so he waited until Mac and John left for the airport.

By the time Richie went downstairs to watch the work, the French doors and the glass had already been replaced, the wooden floor was being bleached and restained, and the walls were being repainted. The workers managed to stay out of each others' way, with the floor guys focusing on the middle of the floor, ignoring the edges where the painters had their ladders and buckets. Quick work, Richie thought. But then maybe Elena's people were used to this kind of labor.

After watching for a few minutes, Richie went into the dining room for a quiet, lonely breakfast. Francesca brought him some American coffee, and he helped himself to some fried eggs and meat pastries from a chafing dish, as well as slices of pineapple.

Elena was nowhere to be seen, and frankly, Richie was glad not to have to talk to anyone. When he finished eating, wanting nothing more than to have some peace for a while, he went back to his room to lie on his bed and read a little, and that's when he felt the approach of an Immortal.

It wasn't Elena; she had never left the house. Richie's awareness of her had faded into the background; this new sensation was someone else. He looked at his watch--it was still too early for Mac to have returned from the airport. He threw down his book, uncrossed his legs, and grabbed for his broadsword. Then he snapped to his feet and glanced out the window, which looked out over the back of the house. He saw no one, so he went out into the hallway. When he got to the top of the staircase, he saw Elena standing at the dining room's French doors, looking out, breathing hard, sword in hand, just like him. She'd obviously been doing something strenuous--she was dressed in a red tank top and white shorts, she was sweaty, and her hair was frizzy. She looked just fine, in Richie's opinion.

He joined her, and they stood quietly to look out at the man coming up the front walk. Short-cropped ash-blond hair and a long black duster. No black leather this time.

"I know this guy," Richie told Elena, his heart slowing down a little. "He's Nate Brown, the Immortal we met in Buenos Aires, the American. I told you about him. He's a friend."

Eyebrows raised slightly in surprise, she nodded and went back inside, while Richie went out to greet Nate. He brought Nate into the large [sala,] through the dining room and into the temporary dojo--an anteroom to the original ballroom, which was still under repair. They'd moved all the surviving exercise equipment and all the swords in there until the repairs on the ballroom were finished. Richie knew that was where Elena was waiting.

She was sitting on a weight bench, her sword resting against it, and she wiped her face with a towel as the two men walked across the floor toward her.

"Nate Brown--this is Elena Duran," Richie said, nodding at her.

There was nowhere for the two men to sit, and they were left standing in front of her while she sat, giving Richie--and probably Nate, too--the definite feeling of a student in front of the master. Which was probably deliberate on her part, Richie figured.

Nate was all charm and innocence. "Nice to meet you at last, Senorita Duran," he said, smiling. "I hope it's OK, my showing up unexpectedly like this."

Elena also smiled pleasantly, but her gray eye flickered. "It's nice to meet you also, Nate. Richie told us you were in Buenos Aires. And just out of curiosity, why did you show up unexpectedly ... like this?" She shrugged slightly, but her eye never left Nate's face. Her palms were resting on the bench, on each side of her, the left just inches away from the hilt of her weapon.

Nate inhaled and touched his tongue to his lip. His eyes narrowed. Then he smiled again. "I came to visit my pal Richie," Nate said, nodding towards his "pal." He asked coolly, "You did invite me, right, Richie?"

Elena shot a brief, inquisitive glance at Richie.

Richie nodded, too. "Yeah, Nate and I are buddies," he acknowledged, "and I did invite him to visit the [estancia.] I hope that's OK." But Richie did not vouch for Nate. Richie wouldn't go that far, and he knew Elena understood that.

Nate's clear blue eyes traveled back and forth between Elena and Richie, but if he grasped the situation, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he pleasantly said, "So, since I had my man here to introduce me, I thought I'd come to meet the well-known Senorita Elena Duran. And to make sure your son--Stephen, right?--is OK. He looked a little shaky a few nights ago. And also," he continued smoothly, "to warn you all about Joaquin--'Angel'--Gutierrez."

"What about Angel Gutierrez?" Elena asked blandly.

Richie was once more surprised at how easily and well Elena lied. Well, maybe not lied, exactly. Maybe just not shared information.

"He might be after you. He might be coming here," Nate said.

"He might? And why would you want to warn me?" she continued in her questioning.

Nate ran a hand through his short, stiff hair. "Because I feel a little guilty about accidentally scaring your son in Buenos Aires a few nights ago--and thought I might make it up to you a little, get on your good side."

He smiled at her again, but this time she didn't answer or smile back. Then he continued, a little grim now. "But I also came to warn you because Gutierrez is a loose cannon, a maniac, and he's not real careful about who he mows down on the way to getting his Immortal." Nate gestured towards the doors behind them, encompassing the whole [estancia]. "Lots of kids here--lots of cannon fodder for somebody like that. Anyway, I saw him in Buenos Aires again the day after I saw Richie and Stephen. He seemed more insistent this time. But I wasn't sure whether to come and let you know. It really is none of my business, after all."

Nate sounded cool, Richie thought. A little too cool, perhaps. Still--

"No, it really is none of your business," Elena agreed. "But as long as you're here, tell me: this Angel Gutierrez--what does he look like?" she asked, not responding to any of the comments about Stephen.

Nate replied, "About my size, dark hair, beak nose, wide-spread shoulders. He likes to wear black and this theatrical black cape, too. It would be ludicrous, except he is one crazy son of a bitch. Excuse my French. Anyways, he calls himself the 'Angel of Death,' and apparently he's had some impressive kills. So he says," Nate finished, smiling wryly.

"You haven't tested out his 'impressive' fencing skills, however, I take it," Elena stated.

"Nope. Not me." Nate shook his head emphatically. "Not that I trust him, but for some reason, he seems to like me. And I don't fight if I don't have to," Nate declared. "His most fun feature, though, is the two-handed sword he swings like a one-ounce steel-belted baseball bat."

Elena exchanged a cryptic glance with Richie, then planted her feet more firmly on the floor and leaned forward. Here it comes, Richie thought, a little worrried, wondering--was she going to challenge Nate? Right here and now?

But instead, she smiled sweetly. "Like that sword behind you?"

Nate's eyebrows rose, and he stared at Elena for a moment. Then, slowly he turned, examining the weapons propped carefully against the wall, "Angel's" sword all the way down on the left. He whistled and turned back to them. "I guess my warning is a little late, huh?" he said softly.

"Just a little," Elena said, smiling again. But her smile wasn't very pleasant, this time.

Richie shivered a little, watching her. Sometimes he had to remind himself just who she was and how old she was--and how many impressive heads she'd taken. Including Angel Gutierrez's. Feeling the tension rise, Richie suddenly decided he really could live without yet another immortal duel. And besides... He cleared his throat, speaking up before the situation escalated. "Actually, Nate warned us about Gutierrez three days ago, in Buenos Aires."

Elena nodded, still looking at Nate Brown. "You're right, Richie. He did."

Nate suddenly said, "Did my warning help?"

Richie and Elena looked at each other. The warning hadn't helped any--they'd all been caught totally by surprise. But Richie waited to see what Elena would say.

"Of course," she lied. "We were all ready for him when he came." She gave Nate a smile that was a few degrees warmer than her previous one.

"Right. So," Richie said, rubbing his hands together, warming them. "How about if Nate stays for lunch, Elena? Is that OK with you?"

Elena glanced at Richie again, and Richie knew she was making her decision based on her trust in him--and on the fact that Nate had, after all, given them a warning. Still, it put Richie in a delicate position. But this time he said nothing, waiting.

"Of course," Elena finally said. "It's the least we can do, considering you came all this way to warn us about Angel."

"And considering I did warn you before he got here," Nate replied easily.

"Yes," Elena said. "Especially considering that."

They chatted briefly about South America--Nate had been a long-time resident, and Elena praised his fluent although accented Spanish. They looked over Elena's trophy swords, and Nate admired her collection. After a while they walked into the dining room, where Stephen, already in his riding clothes, joined them, and his memories of Nate were clearly good ones. The two seemed to hit it off immediately, and Richie was reminded of what a pleasant, easy-going guy Nate Brown was to have around. The man even managed to make Elena smile, more than once. By the time lunch was ready, Mac had returned from the airport. Another round of introductions, while Richie burned with curiosity, wanting to ask Mac about John, but choosing not to--not in front of Nate. Finally, they sat down to eat outside at one of the shaded tables of the dining room patio.

After lunch, Nate stood to leave.

"Hey, man, don't go," Stephen protested. "You said you could ride, right? So why don't you stay and ride with us. We go every afternoon--and we got lots of horses."

Ultimately, everyone went riding but Richie, and Nate wound up sitting down at the dinner table with them as well.

/////////////////

That night at dinner, Elena sat at one end of the large oaken dining room table, Mac and Nate on her right and Stephen and Richie on her left. Halfway through the meal, Juanito Onioco brought a visiting [gaucho] with him, and when they entered, a large, old black dog snuck inside and hid under the table. Both men were invited to join the group at the table for dinner. They discussed cattle and horses with Elena and Mac, while the three younger men talked about women, movies, and cars.

Stephen fed the dog scraps. When Juanito left, he chased the dog back outside, and the animal's pitiful glance as he was ignominiously kicked out set them all to laughing.

After a dessert of [dulce de leche,] the four Immortals and Stephen still sat around the table talking.

Richie sighed. "I'm beginning to feel it's a conspiracy. Can everybody in the world ride a horse but me? No, you know, I don't even care. I am a child of the twentieth century. Twenty-first, now, I guess. Modern. Technical. Machines, computers, nuclear power--none of this old-fashioned stuff. I can't ride a horse, and I'm proud of it!"

"Bravo!" Elena said, applauding. "I like a man who stands up for what he believes." Then she added, teasing him, "But Richie, if you were proud of everything you couldn't do--"

"I'd be really arrogant, I know," Richie finished for her, laughing at himself. He was glad that Elena had loosened up a little, lost some of that scary paranoid edge; and Mac seemed happier, too. "But hey, Nate, I expected you to back me up, anyway. In California, you were all about motorcycles, cigarette boats, and jet-skis--remember? Now I find you can ride a horse disgustingly well, just like the others!"

"Certainly not just like the others!" Nate defended himself, using his wine glass to point to the others at the table. A little wine spilled, and he put the glass to his lips and took a sip. "For example, Stephen has a good seat, and he hasn't been riding forever, like the Senorita and like MacLeod. He's much younger than you, Richie."

Stephen nodded slightly, looking down his nose like a lofty lord of the manor. "Of course. I was born to ride," he said, in a snotty fake-British accent.

"Well, yeah, but you like horses, Stephen. I don't," Richie said, almost pouting.

Nate came to Richie's rescue. "I'll admit I prefer bikes to horses too, Richie, but in some cases horses are more practical."

"That's right. It's not just a matter of liking them," Mac contributed. "Some of us grew up in a time when horses and wagons or carriages were the only long-distance transportation--unless you wanted to walk. We had to know how to ride. You did too, didn't you, Nate?"

Richie frowned slightly at Mac's transparent question; Nate smiled. Immortals considered it rude, in fact dangerous, to give away any information on their ages to other Immortals, but Mac was obviously deliberately pushing Nate, looking for a reaction.

Yes," Nate said. "I was raised by settlers in North America."

"Settlers? You mean like Jamestown or something?" Richie really hadn't had any idea Nate had been around for so long--he was almost as old as Mac!

"Yeah. Or something," Nate answered. "Although I did spend more time with the natives than with the settlers."

"How come?" Richie asked him, interested now. Anything he could get on Nate or any other Immortal was fine with him. And it surprised him, a little, that someone with Nate's pale complexion, dirty blond hair, and blue eyes could ever hope to pass for an American Indian.

Nate took another swallow before continuing. "I joined the Shawnee in their war against my own people, my so-called family--even my own mother, who thought I was a devil from hell and threw me out of the settlement. In January. And by the way--sticks and stones do break your bones. And words hurt, too. The Shawnee, on the other hand, accepted me for what I was."

The slight bitterness in Nate's voice must be a faint echo of what he'd felt at the time, cast out into a white winter wilderness to die, Richie thought. And some of the bitterness, the anger, was still there. Richie kept a perfectly straight, interested look on his face, glancing at the Scot. He could only imagine what Nate was talking about--he'd never been through that particularly vicious Immortal rite of passage. But he knew Mac had. Actually, both MacLeods had.

"Hey," Stephen said, "the Indians must have thought you were a god or something, huh?"

Nate turned to Stephen, his eyes glowing. "No, Stephen. They just accepted me. And just like the English in Scotland," he continued, smiling grimly at Mac, "the white settlers took the natives' land, raped their women, killed their animals, cheated them. And when the Shawnee or the Huron or the Scots dared to fight back, they were called savages and shot down like dogs. And I was called a white renegade, a traitor to my own people, hunted down and shot like a murderous animal."

"Well, to them, you were a murderous animal, Nate," Elena contributed.

He shoved his chair back as he turned to her, not bothering to hide his anger. "Were the Auracanians--or was it the Mapuche?--of Argentina considered murderous animals by the civilized Spaniards? Is that why the [conquistadores] enslaved them or tried to eradicate them?"

Bad move, Nate, Richie thought coolly, letting yourself get so upset in front of strangers. Especially these two. But he turned to see how Elena would respond--he knew Elena's Mapuche mother had been a slave of the Spanish and that Elena had been, too.

But she only asked, sweetly, "You still hold a grudge, do you, Nate?"

Richie could almost guess what Elena was thinking as she, too, studied Nate carefully. Nate had been an excellent guest all day, charming and attentive, but relatively bland. This was the first time anyone had seen him excited about anything.

Nate took a deep breath and then a long gulp of his wine. Calmly, he answered, "Nah, not really. The years give you perspective, but some early experiences stay with you, don't they?"

Richie shook his head slightly. It felt full of both words and wine. He said, "Nate, I didn't know you felt so strongly about this. I never heard you make such a long, passionate speech."

"Yeah, well," Nate said, sitting back, visibly relaxing, and looking at the others in turn. "What's that phrase, 'in vino veritas'? And the Senorita made sure I never saw the bottom of my wine glass, right, Senorita?" He used what was left in his glass to toast her, then drained it.

Elena toasted him in turn, grinning unashamedly.

Richie laughed. "Busted, Elena!"

Then Nate stood and said, "But I have to drive back to my hotel in the dark, and I don't want to run over any cattle or any wheat fields. Or anybody."

Richie thought that Nate was a lot steadier on his feet than he should have been, but Richie said, "Then you better spend the night. That is, if you have no objection, Elena?" he asked, turning to her. Turning his head so quickly made him a little dizzy, but he took a deep breath until it passed. He had been drinking quite a bit of [rioja] and was feeling very little pain. But he was determined that if Nate could be so damn steady, so would he. And he was definitely not going to drink beyond a certain point, certainly not after getting lost half-drunk in Buenos Aires and after what had happened with Gutierrez.

Elena was smiling slightly. "I'd hate to get in trouble with my neighbors. Of course you're welcome to stay, Nate."

Nate thought about it for a moment, then said, "I accept. But only because of your gracious invitation, Senorita."

At that Elena chuckled and asked Francesca to escort their guest to one of the spare bedrooms.

Nate scooped up his sheathed sword. Just before he entered the living room on his way to the stairs, he turned, bowed slightly to everyone, and said, "[Buenas noches]."

Translations (all Spanish):

estancia - combination Argentine ranch/farm, a large estate

ombu - the sole native and rare tree of the Argentine pampa (prairie)

sala - living room gaucho - traditional Argentine cowboy

conquistadores - Spanish soldiers who conquered Latin American Indians in the l6th-17th centuries

buenas noches - good night

CHAPTER 2: LATE NIGHT CONFESSIONS

After Nate was gone, Stephen took a last sip of his wine and said, "Well, he seems like a nice guy." Then, looking at Elena, he added, "So. Is he one of the good guys? Does he get to keep his head, or what?"

Richie sighed. Way to go, kid, he thought. He waited for the inevitable.

"Stephen," Mac warned, shaking his head. "Don't go there."

Meanwhile, Elena's eyes narrowed slightly. Harshly, she said, "That is not even remotely funny, Stephen. Nate is an Immortal, but he is our guest. He is safe as long as he doesn't attack any of us."

Richie shot a glance at Stephen, but it wasn't overly sympathetic. The boy had asked for it--and he ought to know better by now. But Stephen didn't see Richie's glance.

The boy had been staring at Mac; now he shrank a little from Elena's voice. "I know that, Elena. I just ... I'm sorry. I guess it was a stupid thing to say. I just like the guy, and it seems to me that..." He paused, then suddenly stood and said, "I'd like to be excused." Without waiting for an answer, he ran upstairs.

Elena looked after him. Then, to no one in particular, she asked, "[?Que vamos a hacer con ese nino?]"

Mac reached over and put his hand over hers. "Just the best we can, sweetheart. We're all doing the best we can."

Richie watched as she raised Mac's hand and rubbed the back of it gently against her face. Then she kissed the back of it and squeezed it gently as Mac brought his left hand up to cradle her face. Then the Scot leaned forward across the corner of the table and kissed her softly on the lips.

Richie politely looked up at the ceiling--he didn't want to see the kiss go farther and he knew it would.

"I love you, Duncan," she said to Mac when they broke.

Richie glanced back at them, in time to see Mac smile at her, that special Elena-smile. "[Y yo te quiero a ti, mi vida,]" the Scot said.

Richie smiled too. A blind man could tell just exactly where this was going, and Richie wasn't blind. So he coughed into his hand, stood as steadily as he could--not too bad, he thought, considering all the [rioja] he had drunk--and said, "You two should get a room."

Mac laughed softly and turned to his former student. "We have a room, Richie. But before you go, I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about Nate."

"Not 'my friend' Nate?" Richie asked, sitting back down with a small frown. The inquisition was continuing, and now it was his turn on the rack.

"Is he your friend, Richie?" Elena asked. "Do you trust him? Can we trust him?"

"Look, Elena, I spent some time with him for a few months in California, and he was a fun guy. He never gave me any reason to mistrust him, and we even roomed together for a while. Do I trust him? Yes--but you guys have to make up your own minds," Richie said, annoyed. "I haven't forgotten what happened with Johnny Frankowski." And Richie knew they hadn't forgotten, either. Richie had defended John Frankowski, vouched for him--and Frankowski had betrayed them all.

Elena nodded understandingly, but she didn't stop there. "Richie, is Nate, what's the word, gay? Because you see, the whole day we were riding, talking to him, everything, he never once looked at me the way men always, eventually, look at me." She smiled wickedly at him, then added, "The way you've looked at me."

Mac raised his eyebrows, amused, and glanced at Richie, to see his reaction.

Richie looked from one to the other, a little panicked. Then he protested loudly. "No, I never ... no! Well, hell--"

Elena smiled. "Good, my teasing finally got under your skin, Richie. I was beginning to think you'd matured too much, or I was losing my touch."

"Both," Richie said, then changed the subject gladly. "Anyway, you think Nate's gay because he wouldn't look at you?" he asked her, smirking. "Vanity, thy name is woman!"

"It is not vanity!"

Both men looked at her skeptically, and she amended, "Well, maybe a little vanity."

"What does it matter, [querida?]" Mac asked, then turned to Richie, "Although, if he's already made a play for you--" Mac began, grinning.

"No!" Richie said. "*No*, although..." He was determined to be as cool as they were. Thinking about it, Nate hadn't ever gone after any girls that Richie could remember. Or any guys, for that matter. Still... "I don't know if Nate's gay or not, but even if he is, what the hell does it matter, Elena?"

"It doesn't! I just want to know about him, that's all. I don't care if he likes German shepherds--or sheep," she added, glancing at Mac.

The Scot raised his eyebrows again.

"As long as he leaves everyone here alone, I'm fine," Elena said.

"Fine, now that that's settled," Mac said, standing up. "I thought I might go out and look for a sheep."

Elena laughed out loud while Richie gaped. Then he shook his head and said, "You guys are too weird!"

Richie left the table, but instead of going directly upstairs, he took a detour through the kitchen, just in case ... and Maribet Onioco was there, kneading dough, of course. Good. Maybe. If she didn't hate him, or fear him, after the Gutierrez incident. Well, only one way to find out.

He walked into the large kitchen tentatively, ready to leave if she asked him to. "[Buenas noches], Maribet," he said, giving her his best smile.

"English, remember, Senor ... I mean, Richie," she answered.

Good, Richie thought. She seemed to be still friendly, pleasant. Richie hid his sigh of relief. But he still felt he couldn't just ignore what had happened, so he said, "About that guy--"

"Is all right," she interrupted him. "We, some of us, unnerstan' about the Senorita's--" she paused for a long time, searching for the right word, and finally came up with "--enemies. You are not to blame for what happened. I do not blame you."

"I'm glad, Maribet, because I-- Well, I'm glad," more relieved and pleased than he thought he might be.

Maribet, a nursing student who lived and worked on the ranch, had told Richie she wanted to learn English, and Richie had offered to teach her as much as possible. It had taken him a week to convince her not to call him "Senor," and now they were down to just Richie. It was a start. He watched her strong hands working the soft, light brown mass, kneading, folding, beating, and he finally decided to ask her, tonight. "So, can you let the dough rise for a while and take a break?"

"The dough? I don't unnerstan', Richie."

"This," he pointed, "is the dough. It needs to rise." He put his hand over it, covering hers, and brought both their hands up.

"Ah, yes, rise. I unnerstan'. A break is a rest, right?"

He liked the way she pronounced "understand." Her Spanish accent was strong, but she was bright, a quick study. She also had soft brown eyes. And even after the extremely bloody Gutierrez incident, she was accepting Richie for who--and what--he was. Richie felt a slight flutter in his belly. "Yeah," he said, "will you walk with me? For a little while? [Un ratito?] It's a beautiful night."

She smiled shyly. "Yes, is a beautiful--oh, it is a beautiful night. But I have work; I have to put the bread in the [horno.] Maybe you help me, eh?"

"Sure, I'll help," Richie agreed easily, happily. She'd asked him to help. She wanted him to stay. Wonderful. A strand of her dark hair had come loose from the bun at the nape of her neck, and he carefully tucked it back in place.

"After, I walk with you a little," she added.

Richie grinned.

//////////////////

Richie had just stretched out on his bed when he heard a faint step right outside his door. The house was so full of the Immortal presence, and he couldn't distinguish between Mac and Elena, not to mention Nate; now, hell, he couldn't even tell when one of them got closer or further away.

He glanced once at his sword, resting against his night table within easy reach. It was both sad and amazing how much reassurance the sight of that blade gave him. Then he turned his concentration to his visitor. Nate? he wondered.

But it was Stephen Holz who stood just inside the open bedroom door.

"Richie," he whispered. "You awake?"

Richie sighed. What now? What new bitter stones was the kid going to throw, this time at him? "Yeah," he said.

"Can I talk to you for a minute?"

There was something in Stephen's voice... Richie sat up in bed and turned on his lamp, blinking in the bright light.

He examined Stephen closely. Stephen, too, was blinking. He was wearing only some long, white pajama pants, tied tightly around his small waist. Above that, his hairless torso rose in the classic male triangular shape. Stephen was small, a few inches shorter than Richie, but he had the body of an athlete, all stringy muscle. Stephen was as lean as Elena, Richie reflected--and maybe just as mean in his own way.

Richie had seen this kid wrestle recalcitrant horses to his will and wither full-grown men and women with his rage. Richie knew Stephen Holz was not someone to underestimate. But the boy would be underestimated --and frequently targeted as an easy mark--Richie thought, looking at the boy's face, the golden honey skin, the long eyelashes that Richie had seldom seen even on the loveliest girls, the beautifully-shaped eyebrows just under the thick black hair, and the pouty mouth--

Damn! Richie suddenly saw what Nate might had seen that could have attracted him to Stephen. The boy was ... well, he was beautiful! And Richie realized that could create even more problems for Stephen, who already had more than his fair share of them. And it would make him another kind of target.

However, at the moment the boy looked somehow smaller than usual, insecure, his shoulders bent--maybe overtired?

Stephen came into the room, hesitated, looked around everywhere but at Richie. "You think John is all right?" Stephen asked, surprising Richie. "I know how he feels, you know."

"Yeah, I know you do. Don't worry, Connor will take care of him." Richie knew that John's conversation--no, conversations--with Connor wouldn't be easy, but that's not what Stephen really wanted to talk about. Richie was sure of that.

"I know sometimes I can be a pain in the ass," Stephen continued, looking down at his feet. "And I say things ... that I'm sorry about later."

Yeah, you do, Richie thought. But this was an apology, of sorts, and pretty much the first Richie had ever heard from Stephen, so... "Hey, we all do that sometimes, Stephen. I'm kind of a motor mouth myself."

Stephen nodded stiffly, still not meeting Richie's gaze. Then he said, "It was close with Elena, wasn't it?"

Stephen's voice was flat, cold. Richie couldn't tell anything from it, and he wished he could see the boy's face. Richie shrugged. "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, right?"

Stephen made a noise halfway between a sob and a chuckle, and Richie thought, uh-oh. Then, suddenly, Stephen turned those expressive green eyes of his on Richie, and Richie felt he could see right into Stephen's soul, and what he saw now was very different from the usual sarcasm, anger, bitterness, or even the occasional flashes of humor. It was a bleak, dark, terror-filled despair.

"She almost really died, didn't she, Richie? That guy actually killed her!"

Of course! Richie thought, and reminded himself to be more charitable. This boy's mortal mother and immortal father had both been decapitated by a cruel, relentless Immortal. Stephen was just a teenage boy worried to death--scared to death--for his mother. Richie could see that clearly, now that Stephen's usual mask was gone.

And Stephen's whole body was taut, the cords in his neck standing out. He held his fists held tightly at his sides, panting in his effort to keep from bursting into tears. The green eyes filled, then spilled over anyway, big fat tears sliding down that perfect face.

Richie kicked his covers off and stood, clad only in his briefs, wanting to comfort this poor kid--and yet he didn't know quite how to do it. Richie wasn't the touchy-feely type, and neither was Stephen, and what could he say to the boy? That Elena could take care of herself? That she'd never be taken by another Immortal? That she wouldn't die right in front of him?

Then Stephen spoke, and Richie could only stand there. "I'm scared, Richie. I'm really scared, all the time. I'm scared at night in the dark and during the day, when I look at her ... I love her so much! She came to rescue me ... She's done so much for me, even when I was so sick, dying almost, she always stayed with me! I don't want her to die, Richie. And I don't want Duncan to die, either. I know he thinks I hate him, but I don't. I want them to live, and you, too. I want you all ... I'm so afraid..."

Richie searched his mind frantically for something to do or say. In the meantime, the tears stopped rolling out of Stephen's eyes, and the boy sniffed, wiping his face, calming himself.

Richie ran his hand through his hair, nervous and frustrated, then began, "I'm scared too, Stephen. I'm scared for her and for Mac. And for myself." And for you, kid--but he didn't say that, couldn't say it. "I know you've heard this before, but we all do whatever it takes to survive. And thanks for including me, too, by the way," he said, grinning slightly.

"Yeah, sure," Stephen said, snuffling a little and closing and opening his fists. "I'm sorry."

"No, it's all right. I know how you feel." Richie smiled ruefully. Do I ever! he thought.

"Nate said he's lost a lot of people he loved, and he's scared of losing others," Stephen said. "That's why he's afraid to make any close friends or have any relationships."

Nate, huh? How did Nate get into this conversation? And when did Nate have a chance to say all that to Stephen? But it was certainly something Richie could understand, something he'd done himself--keeping people from getting too close. And it also explained, maybe, why Stephen kept Mac at a distance. The boy couldn't help loving Elena, but maybe he could help loving Mac, avoid using the Scot to replace his father. Then it wouldn't hurt so much if--when--Mac, his subsitute father, died.

Richie considered sharing this new insight of his with Mac, then figured the Scot would have probably already figured it out.

"Nate doesn't like to fight, either," Stephen continued. "He doesn't like to kill. I mean, he doesn't enjoy it."

Richie didn't much like that implication. "Like Elena and Mac enjoy it? Or I do? Is that what you mean? Because you're wrong about that, Stephen," Richie argued.

"I know they like to fight; maybe not to kill, but ... anyway, I ... I'm going to bed."

The boy had calmed down considerably, and Richie wished it had been something he'd said or done. Now that stubborn, slightly angry expression was back on the pre-Immortal's face, but it didn't annoy Richie as much as usual. Richie had seen the raw, vulnerable emotion of a moment before. "You going to be all right?"

"Yeah, yeah. And Richie, thanks for helping Elena, [merci bien, mon ami.]"

And before Richie could acknowledge the boy's abrupt thanks, Stephen was gone. Well, Richie thought, at least Stephen realized Richie had helped. John sure hadn't. Shaking his head, he got back into bed and turned off his lamp.

Translations (Spanish):

y yo te quiero a ti, mi vida - and I love you, my dear

rioja - type of wine

querido/a - beloved

un ratito - a little while

horno - oven

merci bien, mon ami (French) - thanks very much, my friend

CHAPTER 3: SUSPICIONS

December 21, 2000, 8 a.m.

"We don't want Stephen to know he's going to be one of us. He's too young. You can understand that, can't you, Nate?" That's how Elena had begun their sparring session, direct and to the point, her tone more of an order than a suggestion.

Nate had quickly agreed. "Of course not, Senorita. I understand exactly, and won't say anything to him."

Now, with swords crossed, they pressed against each other. Their eyes were at the same level, their faces almost touching as they both panted heavily. Elena dug her back heel into the wooden floor as she pushed. But Nate was stronger, and as she felt herself start to give ground she suddenly spun away to her right, so quickly he was almost overbalanced. Almost. As she twirled to face him again she found he was ready. She nodded in appreciation of his skill, and he smiled slightly in acknowledgement.

She immediately attacked again, and he withdrew under the fury of her blows.

Sitting on a bench, Duncan watched them with great interest. He'd briefly considered waking Richie up to come watch his "friend" Nate, then realized they were past that stage. If Richie wanted to sleep instead of work out or spar, that was his business, not Duncan's.

Nate was quite an accomplished fencer, Duncan saw. The American Immortal was strong and quick, and someone had spent some effort training him. In spite of the fact that he'd said he didn't like to fight, he could still fight well. He was a challenge for Elena.

Elena was thinking the same thing as Nate almost got past her guard. Suddenly he did something with his left hand she didn't quite catch out of her blind eye, and as she turned her head that way he enveloped her sword, twisting her wrist hard, breaking it. She gasped loudly. All the strength left her wrist, and her sword fell with a loud clang.

Duncan stood abruptly.

Nate deftly kicked her sword away, then drew his elbow back and moved his body close to hers, holding his blade horizontally, putting the tip a few centimeters in front of her face. "Touche, Senorita."

Duncan took a step forward, thinking: he wouldn't! Nate's sword was not at her neck, but...

She clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the pain in her wrist, looking down the length of Nate's sword, then into his eyes. She was taking a chance, she knew, but she also knew Nate wouldn't kill her--not with her lover standing behind him. So when he started to move away, she held him in place with a seductive whisper in her voice. "It feels good, doesn't it? You can feel the power! The thrill of winning. Of living, while your opponent dies." She moved closer to him, his swordtip now almost touching her nose. His blade didn't waver. "Can't you just imagine my Quickening coursing through your veins?"

Nate's eyes gleamed. "We all have our temptations, our dark side, Senorita," he whispered back harshly.

"And what does your dark side tell you to do, Nathan Brown?" she murmured.

From directly behind him, Duncan said sharply, "That's enough."

Nate had jerked in surprise as Duncan's voice so close behind him startled him, but, when Elena caught Duncan's eye, she wondered if Duncan had meant the words for Nate or for her.

"It tells me ... to live," Nate said, answering her question. Lowering his sword, he stepped back from her and almost into Duncan, who moved aside to give him room. Nathan nodded at the frowning Highlander, then he bowed to Elena. "As I was saying, I apologize for getting carried away. Is your wrist hurt?"

"Yes, it's broken," she said. As you well know, you son of a bitch, she didn't say. "It will heal." But you weren't apologizing a moment ago, were you, Nate? You were putting your sword in my face! she thought.

"But I know it still hurts," Nate said.

He was smiling slightly and seemed a bit flustered, perhaps even embarrassed. The glitter was gone from his eyes, now. But it had been there. She'd seen it. Like her, like all Immortals, he was a killer.

"No hard feelings, I hope," he continued.

Elena went to retrieve her sword and placed it at rest behind her right arm. Her wrist made a sound like cracking knuckles as it healed, but she forced the pain away from her eyes and from her voice. "No hard feelings," she agreed.

//////////////////

late that afternoon

The rain was coming down in what Elena would call [cantaros.] Pitcherfuls, yes, Richie thought, congratulating himself on his growing knowledge of Spanish. Elena and Mac and Stephen had gone riding in the early afternoon, as they did every day, and they had taken Nate, who apparently lived out of his backpack, with them again. The day had started typically warm and sunny--and Richie was still having trouble thinking of a *summer* Christmas. But the soft rain, actually probably not too bad to ride a horse in, had soon turned into a hard summer shower. Eventually, it drove Richie in from the stables, where he'd been working on his motorcyle.

After that, Richie had washed his hands and spent some time in his favorite activity--flirting, er, tutoring, Maribet in English. He smiled to himself as he sat in the living room on a comfortable red, tan and yellow sofa, drinking a Coke--out of a glass bottle, no less!--and looking out at a downpour so violent he couldn't even see the ten yards to the iron fence in front of the main house. The late afternoon was filled with a continuous low rumble, and he wondered how the equestrians were doing. Being on a tall horse on a wide plain when lightning was flashing was not a good idea, but surely Mac and Elena were smart enough to know that.

At that moment he sensed the Immortals approach. Richie took another swallow, then leaned forward, picking up his sheathed sword as he rose in a swift, graceful movement. He'd almost made it to the door when it opened in front of him and the four of them ran in, soaked to the skin.

Richie smiled. A fan of W.C. Fields, he quoted, "'Ain't a fit night out for man nor beast!' Now you'd think folks as old as you would know enough to come in out of the rain!"

Stephen shook himself like a dog.

Laughing, Richie backed off and stayed relatively dry. Carmela and Francesca, the little maid, came past Richie, bringing towels.

How did they know? Richie wondered, then he turned to the boy. "Say, Stephen, did you see any animals in pairs swimming out there?"

"Bite me, Richie," Stephen said, throwing his wet baseball cap at Richie.

Carmela made some despairing, comforting sounds, and she and the other woman roughly handed towels to Mac and Nate, then wrapped Elena and Stephen up and led them upstairs, leaving the two men to fend for themselves.

"I guess that tells you two where you stand," Richie said, chuckling, as he bent down to pick up the cap.

"You could make yourself useful, Richie, and pour me a shot," Duncan said, with some irritation.

"Ah, yes, internal combustion," Richie quipped. "Nate?"

"My kingdom for a hot shower, but I'll take two fingers first. The Scotch here is the best I've ever had," Nate answered.

"Don't you know Argentine whisky is famous?" Richie said facetiously as he led them to the dining room bar and poured them each a glass of Cragganmore. Richie decided to pour one for himself. It was just about the best single malt Scotch Richie had ever had, although Mac did not share his opinion. He'd told Richie last week that he considered the Fionnmore to be better than the Cragganmore. And Mac, of course, was an expert on single malt whiskies. Mac was an expert on a lot of things, Richie thought, ruefully. Maybe after a few centuries....

Duncan tossed back his drink, then went upstairs, soon followed by Nate, leaving Richie alone downstairs. He took a sip of his whisky, waiting for the others. But eventually watching the rain got boring, so Richie, who was in shorts and a t-shirt already, decided to go into the exercise room and do a little swordwork, which he had been sadly neglecting since he'd arrived a few weeks before. Stripping off his shirt, he limbered up, did some deep breathing, then got his blood going by jumping rope. When his legs started to tremble, he did a sword kata, followed by some fencing drills. He felt guilty for not having practiced, and his swordwork was not as good as it should have been. He'd better do some concentrated work on it, he thought, remembering Nate's skill and speed.

Forty-five minutes later, as he went upstairs, he saw Nate and Stephen at the top, coming down together, laughing about something. Stephen seemed to be quite taken with Nate Brown, Richie thought, and Nate was smiling at the boy, leaning close, almost whispering in Stephen's ear. Nate was leaning real close, Richie realized.

"Hey, Richie, you look as wet as we did!" Stephen said.

"Yeah, but this is perspiration, not precipitation," Richie answered. But the thought that had gotten hold of him the night he'd talked to Stephen, reinforced now, wasn't letting go. Stephen Holz was young, probably fairly inexperienced--he could be very attractive to someone like Nate and not even realize what was happening. "So, what are you guys up to?"

"Videos and junk food!" Stephen exclaimed.

"Great," Richie said. "I'll join you later." Well, what could Nate do to Stephen in the house, right in front of everyone?

///////

At the end of dinner, Carmela brought out a cake with a flourish. It was probably chocolate, Richie thought, but the top was so completely covered in candles, it was hard to tell.

"What's this?" Mac asked, chuckling.

"Just a joke, [querido,]" Elena answered. "After all, you are the 'older man.'"

"Watch it!" Duncan mock-growled at her.

"Happy birthday, Duncan!" Stephen called out happily.

Nate smiled. "So, how many candles is that?" he inquired innocently, obviously counting them.

"Too many," Richie said. "You're going to need help blowing them out!" he predicted, teasing his former teacher.

"Boy," Duncan said, "I think I can handle this one."

"Gotcha, Richie!" Stephen said. "Actually, I think he can," he continued, as Mac stood and blew out all the candles with a single deep breath.

Stephen handed Duncan a large, neatly-wrapped box, which Duncan took with a slight look of surprise. Then he smiled broadly, opened it, and pulled out a hat like the gauchos wore. It was black, with a silver band. It was his size, too.

"It'll protect you from the sun when we go riding, you know," Stephen said, blushing slightly.

"It's great, Stephen," Duncan said. He put it on immediately, pulling the cord tight under his chin. "I like it. Thanks!" He leaned over and held out his hand to Stephen, who smiled back. The two of them shook hands.

Elena gave Duncan a bottle of whisky. Carmela brought glasses, and he poured for all of them.

"To peace and quiet, for a change," Duncan toasted, and everyone sipped their whiskey--except for Stephen, who slammed it, then spluttered and coughed so that everyone laughed.

Afterwards, Nate, Richie, and Stephen went to the library to continue the four-movie Star Wars marathon that Stephen and Nate had started earlier.

"My favorite is The Empire Strikes Back," Stephen declared.

"Because..." Nate began, laughing, as he and Stephen finished together, "Darth Vader rules!"

"So ... lie back on the couch and tell me," Richie said, sitting on a chair, steepling his fingers together and narrowing his eyes, in his best imitation of a Viennese psychiatrist. "You like Darth Vader?" he asked Stephen.

Stephen flopped on the couch. "Yes, Herr Doctor. He is an awesome villain! Nate thinks so, too! I bet even Duncan never met a son of a bitch like that!" Stephen said, as they continued to talk above the film.

"Well," Richie said, "Mac has met some really nasty ones, believe me."

Nate met Richie's eyes. "So I've heard. I wouldn't want to cross him."

"No," Richie said coolly. "You wouldn't."

"Hey, guys, Yoda just died, and the forces are gathering," Stephen said, pointing to the large television screen, and the three settled down to watch, occasionally adding their own lines of dialogue or commentary to the action. Richie's comments usually resulted in getting a pillow thrown at him by Stephen.

About an hour later, Elena and Duncan walked in, arms linked, and stood behind the sofa where the three younger men sat in a row.

"That has to be Darth Vader," Elena said, pointing.

"Oui," Stephen said. Then the three on the sofa looked at each other and said, together, "Darth Vader rules!"

Elena chuckled along with them. "Rules what?" she asked.

Nate was shaking his head, and Stephen was still giggling. "Anything he wants, Elena!" the boy said.

Elena looked at the screen again. "Apparently someone is rebelling against his tyranny," she ventured.

"That's Luke Skywalker--the kid with the sword. He just found out Darth Vader is his father, and they're Jedi knights fighting the ultimate battle of good versus evil," Stephen explained, turning back to the screen.

"He's fighting his own son?" Elena asked, unbelieving.

"Yeah, he's evil, Elena," Stephen said.

"Well, their fencing is atrocious, even for actors!" she exclaimed. "What is that bright sword supposed to be?"

"A light saber," Richie said, turning around on the end of the couch and smiling at her. "I guess some sort of laser. Their swordwork is bad, isn't it?"

"Yes," Duncan agreed, nodding.

"And who is the really ugly man with the hood? The grandfather?" Elena asked.

Richie grinned. Watching movies from his generation with Elena was always fun. "That's the Emperor, Palatine or Palpatine or something. He's the ultimate bad guy. Catch this: in another minute, Darth Vader, his minion, is going to turn away from the dark side of the Force, save his son, and kill off his former master. You should like it, Mac. It's a very moralizing tale."

"Good," Duncan said, and the couple watched the space battle for a few minutes. "Nice special effects," Duncan commented. "Good night."

"We're going to bed?" Elena asked him, an innocent tone in her voice.

"Well, you haven't given me the rest of my birthday present yet," Duncan said mischievously.

"You're right!" Elena happily agreed.

Richie grinned again. In the semi-darkness of the library he could see Nate's smile as well. He heard Stephen's soft snort.

"Yes, I know," Duncan answered, and the two left the room.

But not before Elena put her right hand on Richie's shoulder, the outside one where the others couldn't see, and squeezed lightly.

Richie turned to her, but she was already walking out.

///////

Halfway through the fourth movie, the one with a queen who could have been a babe except for those damn hairdos, Richie went out for yet another snack, this time bringing goodies back for the other two. When he walked into the room, Nate and Stephen who had moved to the floor and were lying side-by-side, abruptly stopped their conversation. This made Richie nervous, not to mention curious--but it wasn't any of his business.

Right.

The thing to do, he decided, as he sat there munching and watching the two Jedi knights crossing light swords with the really ugly Darth Maul--two-on-one, not a fair fight!--was to let Elena and Mac know ... know what? That he thought Nate might like Stephen? Or maybe that Nate was getting too chummy with Stephen? Nate could just be after Stephen's head--or Stephen's body.

Richie sighed. Maybe Elena and Mac knew all about it already. And maybe it was perfectly innocent. The two older Immortals sure didn't act concerned, and had left Nate and Stephen alone ... but wait, they weren't alone, were they? Maybe the two older Immortals had left him, Richie, on guard, so to speak. Just like when Richie, Stephen and John MacLeod had gone drinking in Buenos Aires, and Richie had been in charge then, too. That must be what the slight pressure on Richie's shoulder had meant--be alert. If so, it meant they trusted him. Good. It also meant he was in the middle, again, and he didn't like it. However, he wasn't going to go off to bed and leave these two alone, either.

Stephen said, "Hey, Nate, guess what? Darth Maul rules!" He swallowed the rest of what was in his cup, then coughed, and Richie knew it wasn't water.

"Hey, ki--Stephen. What have you got in there? Not more Scotch?"

"Coca-cola," Stephen said.

"Yeah, right!" Nate said, laughing and digging Stephen with his elbow in the ribs.

Richie glanced down at the other two. Stephen was lying on his stomach, his face propped up in his hands. Next to him, Nate had turned to lie on on his side towards Stephen, his hand supporting his cheek. Richie observed them for a moment in the darkened room, the flickering images of the large screen providing both light and shadow, but not enough illumination to see the expressions on their faces.

Nate was not really watching the movie, Richie observed. In fact, Nate was mostly watching Stephen.

Nate moved closer to Stephen and whispered something Richie didn't quite hear.

"Yeah," Stephen nodded, then put his hand into the bowl of popcorn on the floor between them. Nate put his hand into the bowl at the same time. Richie was sure their hands touched. Coincidence? Richie wondered. He thought not.

Richie remained somewhat uncomfortable until the last parade in the movie on the planet Boo, or whatever it was called. Then he stood and rubbed his hands together. "Hey, I'm beat. How about you guys?"

Stephen said, "I've had it. If I see one more Star Wars movie, I'll vomit, puke and kill."

"Hopefully not kill," Nate said, smiling. "Besides, this was the last movie."

As the two of them sat up from their prone position on the floor, Richie looked at Nate for a long moment, then said to Stephen, "Come on, big guy. You can vomit and all that other stuff upstairs in your bedroom."

"Yeah," Stephen said, crossing his legs and standing up smoothly. "Nate?" he asked.

Nate again, Richie thought. This was not good.

"I'm gonna read one of the wonderful books in this room," Nate said, sitting on the tiled floor and gesturing at Elena's crowded, jumbled shelves. "Maybe ... hey--Lawrence of Arabia!" he exclaimed. He jumped up and pulled the book down.

["A bientot, mon ami,"] Stephen said to Nate.

Nate merely smiled, and Stephen meekly followed Richie upstairs.

Richie walked Stephen upstairs to his bedroom. Standing in the doorway, he said, "G'night, Stephen."

["Hasta manana, hombre,"] Stephen said. He took off his cap and threw it on the bed.

"So how many languages can you say 'goodnight' in?" Richie asked him.

Stephen grinned mischievously. "Ask me how many languages I can say 'fuck' in," he replied. "I've had a thorough education."

"I bet you have," Richie murmured, then closed Stephen's door and went to his own room down the hall. He sat in the leather chair, looking out his window. It was a good thing he'd left his window closed, he reflected. The rainstorm, which had shown signs of abatement earlier, now seemed to have gotten its second wind. Every time lightning flashed, he could see the almost horizontal rain, thick droplets glistening outside of his window. When he was a child, oh so many years ago, storms like this had frightened Richie. Now they were nothing more than a nuisance when he wanted to go out, especially as he still preferred a motorcycle to a car. He was grown up and not afraid of lightning anymore. Not this kind of lightning, anyway.

Richie stripped down to his briefs and lay on top of the covers, hands behind his neck. Not sleeping. Thinking. In the morning he'd talk to Nate rather than to the others. He didn't want to admit to Mac and Elena that he was reconsidering his original judgement about Nate Brown. And maybe Nate could straighten some things out, have some good explanation. Because Richie liked Nate; he wanted to believe him; he didn't want to make an enemy of him. Besides, if he told Elena that Nate might be after Stephen, her maternal instincts would kick in, in which case she might decapitate the other American first and ask questions later.

Satisfied with his decision, Richie was just rolling over to slide under the covers when thunder shook the whole house, while lightning simultaneously illuminated it as brightly as day. And the power was out now, Richie noted, as all the background hum of technology and the dim hallway light under his door died abruptly. Between lightning strokes and thunder rumbles, he could hear a few voices from outside the house. Curious, he went to the window for another look at the storm. A figure was gliding smoothly from the house toward the middle gate in the back fence. The brief glimpse, the way the figure moved, the vest, all told Richie it was Nate Brown. Out for a stroll. In the middle of the night. In a pouring thunderstorm. Hmmm.

Instinct or just plain suspicion formed a dull sensation in the back of Richie's head. It was quite different from the feeling of another Immortal, but in its way it was just as much of a danger signal to Richie. And it was just as impossible to ignore. Plus, it suddenly occurred to him that Stephen had told Richie goodnight but they had told Nate, ["a bientot."] And that meant, "See you later."

Damn! Frowning, Richie pulled on his jeans and tiptoed down to Stephen's room. The door was closed, but Richie was sure the thunder would mask any sound he made opening it, and the hallway was dark anyway, so... He turned the knob and pushed Stephen's door open.

Richie checked the nearby bathroom to make sure, and, even though he was sure he'd just seen Nate outside, Richie checked Nate's room for good measure. As he did, that sinking feeling started in the pit of his stomach again.

Nate Brown was gone.

And so was Stephen Holz.

Translations:

cantaros (Spanish) - pitcherfuls

a bientot, mon ami (French) - see you later, my friend

hasta manana, hombre (Spanish) - see you tomorrow, man

CHAPTER 4: NIGHT STORM

Nate had moved far enough away from the main house that Richie lost the Immortal thrum from Elena and Duncan and had to search for Nate among the many horse stables. But Richie fine-tuned his Immortal radar and as soon as he sensed Nate's presence clearly, Richie headed for the other Immortal. Richie felt a sense of urgency, of events happening, of time slipping away from him--and he was certain, now, that where he found Nate Brown he would find Stephen Holz.

He did.

In spite of the storm raging outside, sound carried so well inside the large barn that Richie heard the familiar, deadly noise clearly--the sibilant hiss of a sword slipping from its scabbard.

By the light of a single, dim electric bulb, Richie saw Nate Brown standing very close to Stephen. Nate's scabbard was in his left hand and his sword, halfway out of it, in his right hand. As Richie came around the corner and the two Immortals saw each other, Nate sagged visibly, then slid his sword back in with a snick.

Stephen said, a little guiltily perhaps, "Richie! What are you doing here, man?"

At the same time Nate exclaimed, "God, it's you, Richie! I thought it might have been Elena Duran!"

But the sword had been halfway out, Richie remembered. In Nate's hand. Again. Richie walked into the barn and pulled on the string of another of the overhead lightbulbs, better illuminating their small area. "Why Nate, do you think she might object that you snuck out in the middle of the night with her son and have your sword in your hand?"

In response to Richie's sarcasm, Nate shifted his weight, a nervous gesture Richie had seen before, just a few nights ago in an alley in Buenos Aires.

"Are we going to go through that again?" Nate asked. "I sensed an Immortal, so I automatically went for my sword. Wouldn't you?"

Yes, I would--but that's not good enough this time, my "friend". "I'm getting a feeling of deja vu, Nate," Richie commented, walking closer, angling for a good position, pulling Nate's attention toward himself and away from Stephen. Richie, too, carried his scabbard in his left hand, loosely, easily accessible. He hadn't stopped to put on a shirt or shoes, and the rain dripped from his hair and chest right down into his underwear. The mud he'd raced through had mixed with hay and stuck to his feet, and he shuffled slightly to get them clean so he could get a good foothold on the ground and keep from slipping. All the time he was thinking: this is not good. He could clearly see that Stephen was unhurt, and yet he asked, "Stephen, are you all right?"

"Sure, I'm all right, Richie! I'm fine!" the boy protested. "What's the matter with you?"

"He's fine, Richie, as you can see," Nate said.

Ignoring Stephen, Richie kept his concentration on Nate. Not this time, not this time, buddy. "What's that saying? 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice'--uh-uh," he finished, shaking his head gently.

"But nothing's happened, Richie," Stephen protested. "Nate and I are just talking, that's all!"

His face was pale in the dim light, Richie noticed absently. The kid must be scared, and if so, Richie wondered exactly what had happened.

"Are you that naive, Stephen?" Richie asked.

"What?" Stephen shouted back. "Do you think he's going to kidnap me or something, like that crazy Immortal Hannah whoever-she-was? Richie, Nate's a friend, that's all. A friend! Hell, I thought he was *your* friend."

"So did I," Richie said shortly. He felt a roaring in his ears, and it was the beginnings of anger, a feeling of betrayal. Not again! he thought.

"Richie, Stephen and I were just going to talk, and we needed to get away a little, that's all. Duran can be pretty smothering--an overprotective mother. And I would never hurt Stephen in any way." Nate's voice was calm, rational.

"That's right, you won't," Richie answered. For a moment he debated with himself. What did you need to talk to Stephen about, Nate? About pre-Immortality? Or was it talk you really wanted, Nate? Was it maybe something else you wanted, like Stephen's head? Or maybe Stephen's body? It was all the same. It was true Elena could be a little much, but Nate was alone with a pre-Immortal boy. In a barn, in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm. If they'd just wanted to talk, they could have gone downstairs. And Richie couldn't get the image of Nate's sword halfway out of its scabbard. That's what did it, Nate, old buddy. That sword in your hand again, [mi amigo.] That's it. Adios.

Richie thought briefly about what Duncan would probably do. He thought about what Elena would surely do. Then, slowly, Richie drew his sword.

"Jesus, no, Richie, don't!" Stephen cried out. "Don't, please!"

Richie could hear the plea in the boy's voice, but Stephen didn't realize what was really going on. Without turning away from Nate--not this time--Richie said calmly, "Go back to the house, Stephen."

"No! I won't." The boy came closer, up behind Richie, making the Immortal nervous. For a moment Richie was afraid Stephen might actually go for his sword hand. But Stephen came around to stand between the Immortals, off to one side. The boy's hands were out in front of him, palms up, in an almost supplicating gesture, but his voice was firm. "I'm not going to let you do this, Richie." Then Stephen turned to the other Immortal. "Nate, talk to him. Tell him!"

Nate had never taken his eyes off Richie's clear blue-eyed gaze. And he didn't now, even though his words were for Stephen. "You better go inside, kid. Richie and I have to talk. Alone."

"No, I won't leave. If I go, he'll kill you, or you'll kill him! [Mon Dieu], I can't stand it, not again, dammit, no!"

Stephen's voice was shrill now. If Richie hadn't been sure that the thunderstorm would mask Stephen's voice, he would have been worried that the boy's words would attract the attention of the stable hands who stayed up all night with the very, very valuable horses. But--surprise!--there were no horses in this stable. Richie was pretty sure they would have whinnied or something by now. Nate had chosen this particular stable with care. Nate had planned everything, hadn't he?

"Then stay and watch," Richie said, getting set. And he tentatively thrust at Nate.

Nate backed away from Richie's thrust. "Dammit, Richie, you've got it all wrong. But if this is what you want, man..." He pulled his weapon out, flinging the scabbard to the straw-covered floor.

With a sound halfway between a sob and a yell, Stephen ran out into the rain.

Richie waited for a moment to make sure Stephen was gone before he said, "You were after Stephen all the time, weren't you?" Then something else occurred to him, and he added, accusingly, "And that whole story about Angel Gutierrez--you were in this with him, weren't you? You were working together! Yeah!" The more Richie thought about it, the more plausible it became. Because hadn't it been a wonderfully convenient coincidence that Nate Brown knew Angel Gutierrez?

Nate shook his head. "All right, look, Angel did try to get me to come with him, to wait until one of you, MacLeod or you, was away from Duran, take her, then take each of you one at time. Double-team you: that was his plan. But I said no, man, that's not the way I play the Game. I mean, Angel was a scary guy, crazy, but I really didn't think he'd do it--come after Duran like that! If I'd thought he was serious, I would have come and let you know right away!"

Richie thought about how close Elena had come to losing her head. How she'd screamed in agony as she died during the Quickening. How John MacLeod had stared at that head at his feet, then thrown up on his shoes, and left the next day--hurt, bitter, afraid. It turned his hot fury into a cold, killing rage. "And what did Gutierrez promise you in return for your help, you lying bastard? An easy Quick--" He paused suddenly as it all became clear. Richie did the mental equivalent of hitting himself on the head with the heel of his hand. "Stephen, of course. He promised you Stephen, didn't he? It all comes back to that, doesn't it, you murdering son of a bitch!"

Nate's face darkened. His voice was hoarser now, lower-pitched, but still calm. "That was Gutierrez's plan. But it wouldn't have worked. And in any case, I didn't do it, did I?"

Richie wanted to yell, but he purposely kept his voice low, controlled. It all seemed so obvious to him now, and he'd been duped, again! Dammit! "Even if you didn't come with Gutierrez, it might still have worked, [*mi amigo*]. Gutierrez chops us. Stephen is desolate over his mother's death, maybe Duncan's too, and mine, huh? Stephen's all alone--he needs someone to comfort him. His *friend* Nate, who just happens to be--"

"No!" Nate protested, loudly this time. "You're wrong about that too, Richie! I didn't even know if Stephen was interested. That's why I wanted to talk to him, what I was hoping to find out tonight!" He shook his head, breathless, obviously thinking of an argument, a reason, an excuse. Finally, Nate said, "Look, we lived in the same apartment for a couple of months. I never pushed you!"

"I'm not a seventeen-year-old vulnerable kid, am I? You can't fuck me like you can him!"

"I've never fucked *anybody*, Richie! I would never have forced Stephen, or hurt him! I wouldn't! You can talk to Stephen--ask him--"

Richie saw the wildness in Nate's eyes. Anger. Hatred. Maybe even lust--and guilt. What he didn't see was innocence. And certainly not friendship.

"I'm through talking," Richie said, and he attacked again, this time in earnest.

/////////

Elena and Duncan sat up in bed together like marionettes on a string as the thunder shook the entire building and lightning lit up the room.

They laughed softly, amused, and Elena said, "That one was close." She shifted slightly in bed. "I bet it really scared the horses."

"Yeah," Duncan agreed. "And it blacked us out, too."

Elena glanced at the bedside clock--the dial was dark. For a moment she sat, while Duncan lay back down. Then she got up to look out at the storm. When she'd remodeled the [estancia] in the 1970s, she'd raised the main house's low ceilings, added a second story, and built a huge master suite over the ballroom, taking up the whole upstairs east side of the house, front to back. The master bedroom's French doors leading out to the balcony were identical to the ones downstairs in the ballroom, and she went towards them now. The blackness of the sky, especially without any lights from the buildings, was absolute except for the criss-crossing strokes of lightning, flashing along with the rumbles of thunder in an almost musical counterpoint.

She opened the doors, letting the sound and the smell of the storm fill her, thrill her. She'd always loved the drama of rain and thunder.

The balcony overhang protected her from the heavy rain, but the floor was wet under her feet. She couldn't go out to look towards the stables--where the horses were probably quite nervous by now--without getting totally soaked. After a moment she turned back to Duncan, intending to tell him she was going to the stables. She saw, from the illumination of a lightning bolt, that his eyes were open, and he was looking at her.

Duncan had stirred again when Elena got up, then leaned back, his head resting on several pillows against the wooden headboard so he could watch her. Every time the lightning blazed, her lean, naked figure was silhouetted--a beautiful dark shadow against the light. She'd opened the doors, and he could smell the ozone and the rain, along with her closer, jasmine, woman smell. He allowed her scent and the sight of her to fill his senses. As she turned around to him, he smiled slowly, knowingly, his teeth bright in the darkness.

Elena saw his smile. It lit a small fire inside her, always. She immediately forgot all about the horses. "I find the storm invigorating. Don't you?" she asked, innocently.

"Invigorating?" Duncan asked slyly. "You have unending energy, [querida.] Rain always makes me sleepy." He put his hands behind his head and yawned hugely, elaborately.

She walked toward him slowly, putting her hands in her hair, which lost its curl when it got so long and heavy, and fluffed it up, stretching her hands on up above her head, wiggling her fingers, then bringing them back down to her sides, acutely aware of his measuring, avid gaze. "Surely you're not too sleepy, [querido.]"

"Oh, I am," Duncan answered, weakly. "All I can do is lie here."

A huge smile on her face, Elena strolled to the bed and crawled onto it, straddling him with her knees and hands as she moved up his body until their faces were at the same level. "Then I guess I'll have to do all the work?" she suggested.

Duncan sighed with contentment as she lowered her mouth to his. "I guess so," he answered.

///////

Richie hissed loudly as Nate's weapon cut his sword arm--again. This cut was the worst so far. Richie felt the arm go numb, and he switched his broadsword to his left hand just before he lost his grip. Letting his right arm hang momentarily, he windmilled the sword in his left, glad that the sword responded so well, like an extension of his arm--even if it was his left. Mac had given him this broadsword, and Mac had also taught Richie this manuever, and Richie hoped it would give him time to recover and regain the use of his right arm. Assuming Nate would give him time to recover. Which Richie doubted.

In the end, Mac's training wasn't going to do Richie any good. He was in deep trouble and he knew it. In fact, Richie had been in trouble from the beginning, and he regretted ever challenging Nate Brown.

Blood from his right arm was dripping down, mixing with sweat, mud, and straw. The arm was taking too long to heal, and he knew he had to switch back, soon, and finish this interminable fight. He'd neglected his swordwork lately. And now he was paying for it in blood.

Because Nate Brown had not neglected *his* swordwork. Nate Brown was older, more experienced, more practiced. Nate Brown was going to take his head.

Richie tried--and failed--to parry one of Nate's swings, and he gasped as his opponent's sword clipped his hair. Richie was going to die now. He was sure of it. He was panting for breath. He was bleeding heavily from cuts on his arms, legs, stomach, and especially from that gash on his right arm--the one that still kept him fighting left-handed--and he couldn't keep the other man's blade off of him. Nate was whittling him down.

Nate protested without pausing in his attack. "Dammit, Richie, don't make me do this! Don't make me kill you! You're wrong about this whole damn thing, and you're wrong about me!" he panted.

Richie didn't waste his breath talking. He *was* right about this, and about Nate, too. But it wouldn't make any difference. Richie's gasps increased in desperation, and he finally realized he was going to die in a horse barn in South America in the middle of the night, and at the hands of a bastard who had betrayed him. It galled him. Richie had started this, and now he couldn't back away. Dammit! Maybe, if he was lucky, Nate would be too afraid of Duran or MacLeod to actually kill him--he didn't think anything else would save him.

He barely sidestepped Nate's picture-perfect lunge. Then Richie tried to punch Nate in the face before the other man could pull back. But Richie could only manage a glancing blow, which nevertheless hurt Richie's still wounded right arm, and he cried out. Then he saw his moment and Richie put his sword, still in his left hand, all the way up to the hilt into Nate's chest.

At least, where Nate's chest should have been. But Nate had brought his arm back and parried Richie's thrust. Then, sword guards touching, Nate twisted his wrist and disarmed Richie.

Richie didn't even glance at his falling weapon--his eyes were caught by the sheen of Nate's blade as Nate immediately drew his arm back for the killing blow. As Richie's sword hit the barn floor with a soft thud, the last thought in his mind was "I'm too young to die!"

"Nate, no, [pour l'amour de Dieu,] don't kill him!" Stephen cried out from the barn door behind Nate, so loudly they both heard him over the sound of the rain, and Nate, surprised, hesitated, half-turning to face a possible attack. Richie dove for his weapon and rolled with it to his feet--holding his sword in his right hand.

Nate spun around to face Richie again. "You son of a bitch!" he yelled.

As Nate attempted to finish his opponent with another decapitating stroke, but Richie dropped into a kneeling position--well inside Nate's swing--and slashed up, hard, from Nate's left hip to his right shoulder, gutting him. Nate fell to his knees and his sword--and some unidentified insides--also dropped to the floor.

Then Richie leaped to his feet and brought his sword back.

Nate looked up at Richie. Clutching his stomach, he gasped, "Richie! God! No! I didn't do--"

But those were the last words Nate Brown ever uttered, because Richie swung his blade back through its killing arc and finished his opponent.

Translations:

mi amigo (Spanish) - my friend

Mon Dieu! (French) - my God!

beisbol (Spanish) - baseball

CHAPTER 5: SHOULDERING THE BLAME

Elena sat on Duncan, her hands on his chest, rocking back and forth and pulling him deeper inside her with every thrust. The wind from the thunderstorm through the open doors felt cool against her glistening bare skin. She grunted softly with each motion of her hips, while Duncan moaned underneath her.

Outside, the storm seemed to increase in tempo and intensity, matching her own rising excitement. Through the window on her right she could see, through a half-closed eyelid, the lightning bolts zigzagging in the night sky.

Duncan opened his eyes, seeing the reflection of the light show in her eye. His left hand gripped her right hip and he brought his other hand to snag in her long curtain of hair, pulling her forward to kiss her. As she sat up again, he smiled at her, but she was too intent by now even to smile back, too close, her mouth open, gasping, her eye very wide, her breasts swinging as she rocked--

Suddenly there was a different light, a different reflection. He felt a tightening in his muscles--his blood pressure soared dramatically, his breath caught, his flesh rose in tiny bumps all over his body, six senses flashed to full alert. That was not lightning he'd just seen--felt.

That was a Quickening.

"Elena!" he exclaimed, but she had already paused in her movements and was looking down at him blankly.

Elena tried to focus her mind on what she'd just sensed. [!Madre de Dios!]--it was a Quickening, she was sure of it! She swung her leg over and off him and he got up.

Duncan hurriedly pulled on his pants. Here we go again, he thought, as he rushed to the window. It didn't afford a good enough view, so he snatched up his sheathed sword and went out onto the balcony. The rain soaked him instantly. He pulled wet hair out of his face as he strained to look through the darkness. In a moment, Elena was next to him, and they both turned toward the stables. It was too far from the house, and Duncan didn't sense any Immortals aside from her, but he clearly saw the lightning of the Quickening. Then it ended, and only the real lightning remained. "Christ!" he said, knowing someone was dead, permanently, thinking of Richie, of Stephen, even of Nate. He heard Elena whisper, "Stephen!" raggedly as she ran back into the house.

Duncan leaned over and dropped his katana onto what he knew was grass and mud below the balcony. Then he stepped to his right, swung over, held onto the railing until he was hanging straight down. He dropped, curled, rolled to his feet, picked up the katana, and ran.

The wooden gate in the back fence was usually not locked, and it was a good thing. He slammed it open with a loud clang against the iron fence, not pausing, running into the stables area, his heart thudding in his chest, fear gripping him by the throat. "Please, God!" he whispered. Rain pounded him, washing off the mud from his fall; lightning illuminated his path. Between peals of thunder he could distantly hear the neighing and screaming of frightened horses, and he almost barrelled into one of the stablehands who was rushing toward the animals. Duncan sidestepped swiftly, sliding in the soft mud, regained his balance, then continued toward the furthest stables. When he sensed another Immortal, he increased his pace, pulling his katana clear of its scabbard as he ran.

When he raced through the open barn door he was dripping wet, but the run had warmed him up nicely, his muscles were loose, his sword was in his hand, and he was ready. At the other end of the broad aisle that divided the two rows of stalls, outlined against the brightness of the storm outside, he saw Richie Ryan.

Richie was still on his knees, reeling from Nate's Quickening coursing through him, when he sensed an Immortal. Logic told him it would be Mac and/or Elena, but instinct and training took over and he pulled himself achingly to his feet to meet this new potential challenge.

He recognized Mac's tall outline at once and let out the breath he'd been holding. He was still bleeding from several cuts. Jagged blue lights arced across his body, healing him, repairing him. His arms felt heavy and his legs felt as though they were going to fold beneath him again. He put his sword point down into the floor and leaned on it a little, then looked around. No Stephen--good. The kid had come back just in time to distract Nate. Technically, Stephen had interfered, but as Richie took a deep breath, filled with hay and blood and sweat and ozone, he was too glad to be alive to blame Stephen. Richie had a brief flash of Maribet's pretty dark face but pushed it away. This was not the time.

Duncan slowed to a walk, breathing a silent prayer of relief and thanks as he watched Richie stagger to his feet. If Richie had taken a Quickening, it had to be Nate, or perhaps another Immortal "intruder" like Angel Gutierrez. As he got closer to Richie he noted the decapitated body lying beyond in the open doorway. In the next lightning flash he saw the vest on the corpse, stained red now. It was Nate Brown, all right.

"Richie."

Mac came up to him, and the blatant relief on the Scot's face warmed Richie right down to his toes. In spite of their talk about the white stallion, here was someone who loved him enough to come running to him, half-naked and armed, in a torrential downpour, in the middle of the night. Even if it meant Richie might turn around and chastise him about it. But Mac wouldn't care about that, would he? Mac would do this for any of them, Richie realized at that moment, no matter what their response: Connor, Elena, Methos, Amanda, Stephen, other Immortals Richie didn't even know, and mortals like Joe Dawson or Tessa, when she'd been alive. None of them had ever been Mac's student. They were the people Mac loved, the people he would rush to protect with his life. And Richie swallowed thickly, realizing once and for all that he was one of that select group. "Too much of a hurry to get dressed again, huh, Mac?" he asked, with just the right tone of amusement.

Duncan smiled. "I could say the same about you." He resisted the urge for a moment, then went ahead and gripped Richie's shoulder, squeezing lightly, then releasing.

Richie didn't expect Mac to ask him what had happened. What had happened was obvious. But as he opened his mouth to explain why it had happened, he realized with a jolt that he'd been duped by yet another Immortal. Felicia Martens, Kristen, Johnny Frankowski, Pete, who hadn't even been an Immortal ... now Nate Brown. Add another one to the fucking list. He should have known better, this time, by now. Mac and Elena had trusted Nate on his, Richie's, say-so. And Nate had turned on them. Which meant Richie had misjudged someone again, had miscalculated, had made the same stupid, naive mistake which might have resulted in a tragedy. The fact that Richie had just barely prevented the potential tragedy was an unimportant detail. Nate was there because of him. He was responsible. His judgement sucked. He had failed. Again.

Not only that, but Richie had challenged someone he couldn't beat. He couldn't even make *that* judgement correctly. And every mistake he'd made was a potentially fatal one.

A sense of total incompetence, uselessness, shame, embarrassment, and blame filled him, flushing his face and his torso. For once he was glad of the darkness, but he knew with a sense of burning humiliation that Mac must surely know he was blushing. He took a deep breath, swallowing his disgrace. This had to be faced.

But before he could say anything, he looked beyond Mac, who turned as Elena ran up to them. Her broadsword was in her hand, but that's not what Richie noticed. She was silhouetted against the open door, and in the lantern light and the lightning flashes Richie noticed that her thin dress was plastered to her. Her long hair was streaming down her body, her breasts were heaving, her nipples were peaked against the material. Richie closed his eyes and tried to think about something else, anything else. Hell, he felt bad enough.

For starters, how about the fact that she was going to blame him, Richie, for bringing this Immortal into her home and threatening those she loved? The thought made him cold.

"Stephen is not in his room," she said, in a flat, unemotional, dangerous tone that finished freezing Richie immediately.

Where the hell was Stephen? Richie wondered. "Nate was after Stephen," Richie supplied, his own embarrassment and sense of failure forgotten for the moment in his worry for the pre-Immortal boy. "When we started to fight, Stephen ran out. But then he came back, just before the Quickening. After that--I can't say for sure." He ran his hand through his wet hair, winced, came away with blood, and wiped it on his jeans.

Duncan resheathed his katana and went to put his arm around Elena's shoulders. "He's probably hiding somewhere, upset and scared."

Elena nodded. She had already spotted Nate's body, and Richie's words had calmed her. She thought for a minute. "Phillipe," she said.

"The colt, of course," Duncan said, referring to Stephen's current favorite. "Why don't you go find Stephen, [querida,] and Richie and I will take care of *this*," Duncan said, nodding toward Nate.

"[Muy bien.]" Elena went past them, paused at the open doorway. She turned back. "Richie. Gracias," she whispered, then went out into the rain again.

///////

Richie put the tools over his shoulder and walked back out into the rain. Hell, it wasn't enough that he had to fight for his life, constantly be on the alert, kill or be killed. And do it all in the dark. Damn, he hated the darkness, hated feeling like a fucking vampire--bloodletting in the night. Then, what he'd never counted on was what happened *after* the fight--cleanup detail, hiding his tracks. First, he and Mac had to put out a couple of small fires and a larger, smoldering one, the smell of smoke and ozone overcoming the smell of horse, hay, and straw. They'd dumped the feed out of a sack and muscled Nate's body and his head inside. That was ... a barrel of laughs; at least Nate wasn't stiff. Yet. Then, while Duncan obliterated all other signs of blood and death from the barn, Richie went to get a couple of shovels and a pick. It was going to be a lot of fun digging a grave in the mud in the rain, Richie thought, kind of like shoveling sea water above the tideline. The pick was for any rocks they might encounter ... which had happened before.

Richie looked around--fortunately, because of the rain, even the stable hands who were on duty were inside, trying to stay as dry as possible. As Richie went to the garage to get one of the jeeps, he continued his mental catalog of chores. After disposing of the body, he had to clean himself up, and his clothes were often so torn and bloody he had to discard or burn them. Tonight was a good example of that, although the damn rain that just wouldn't stop had washed away most of the blood. He slipped in the mud, wrenching his ankle and barely managing to regain his balance but dropping the tools, dammit! He leaned over to pick them up, thinking that later he'd still have to clean his sword, a boring, time-consuming but very necessary task which--

The driving rain masked the sound of Stephen's running footsteps, but Richie heard Stephen's yell all too clearly. It was that close.

"You killed him, you fucking son of a bitch!"

Richie twirled in the mud, forgetting the tools as Stephen launched himself in the air right at the Immortal. Richie responded instantly, instinctively. He took a step to his left on his still-tender ankle--gritting his teeth-- and grabbed at Stephen's shirt as the boy reached him. Avoiding Stephen, Richie pulled the boy alongside himself and pivoted the two of them together. When Richie released the teen, Stephen continued flying through the air for a moment before he hit the mud, hard.

Richie finished turning around and tried to regain his footing on the treacherous, sticky, wet ground, but he stepped on one of the spade handles and shouted, "Shit!" as he fell, his foot twisted beneath him.

Meanwhile, Stephen had picked himself up and was yelling, a fury in mud. "I tried to stop him, and you took advantage of that to kill him! I distracted him for you, and you--you son of a bitch! I hate you!"

"Stephen, listen, I--" Richie began, feeling guilty and grateful at the same time.

"I won't listen to you! You're a goddamn killer, and you used me! Was it good for you, Richie? Are you a big man, now? Is that what you needed, to kill him, to get your rocks off!?"

Richie blushed right down to his roots, in anger this time, but with sorrow, too. Stephen Holz was still so transparent; Richie could clearly see Stephen's anguish and anger--and his fear. Still, it didn't give him the right to say what he did.

As Richie watched, Stephen gathered himself for another charge, but Elena appeared out of the rain, as if by magic. She wrapped long arms around her son just before he began to launch himself at Richie.

"[Basta!]" she yelled in Stephen's ear.

"No, it's not enough!" he answered. "He murdered Nate, for nothing! I tried to stop them, and Richie took Nate's head anyway! He could have stopped, but he didn't! I hate him and I'm going to kill him!"

"[?Estais loco?]" she asked him, yelling back. "Stephen, Richie did exactly what he had to do!" She hung on to him grimly as he struggled and kicked to get away. "Stop this, right now! Stephen, stop it!"

Still Richie said nothing--he had nothing to say. He watched them, the raw pain and rage on the boy's face, the anger and determination on the woman's. First John MacLeod hated and blamed him. Now Stephen Holz. And Mac and Elena would blame him, too, for letting Nate loose in the house. What a damn disaster!

"Let me go!" Stephen drove his head back hard, catching Elena in the face--stunning her--Richie saw. The kid was totally out of control, and he lurched forward.

For a moment Richie thought Elena had lost her hold on Stephen, and he squared his weight over both feet, including the aching one, getting ready--bracing himself for the impact and considering how best to keep Elena's son at bay without hurting him.

But at the last minute Elena crossed her right leg over the boy's feet, tripping him up. Then she pushed him forward and face down on the sopping wet ground, literally sitting on him, straddling him, using her weight to hold him down. She bent over, her face close to his, and said something Richie didn't hear. Then she looked up at Richie, and he got her message loud and clear.

Turning away, Richie picked up his burden and hurried over to the garage, started up a jeep, and brought it around to where Duncan waited with what was left of Nate Brown. They loaded him in--he was starting to harden already, Richie noted, no wonder they called them stiffs--and Richie motioned Duncan back inside the barn.

"Listen, Mac, I hate to leave you in the lurch like this, but I guess it's 'I plug 'em, you plant 'em' this time."

Duncan pushed his hair out of his face, which was streaked with ash and dirt. He frowned. "Meaning what?"

"Meaning I gotta go. Tonight. Now."

Duncan put a hand on Richie's shoulder. He sighed. "Richie, you can't blame yourself for what happened with Nate. And you did save Stephen's life."

"Yeah, maybe somebody ought to tell Stephen," Richie said, sarcastically. "He just did his best imitation flying tackle at me."

"He just ... damn!" For a moment Duncan paused. Then he asked, "Is that why you want to leave?"

"No, Mac, it's not just that..." Richie glanced outside--it was raining even harder, if possible. He didn't think he could stay around and endure Stephen's temper and take that abuse meekly. But beyond that, he had been fooled and they both knew it. All three of them knew it. This should never have happened. "I need to go, get away, be on my own for a while."

Duncan shook his head. He couldn't let Richie go like this. "Listen to me, Richie. I want you to stay and celebrate Christmas with us, and I know Elena does, too. Stephen will get over it. He just needs a couple of days. As for anything else ... it's done. As far as I'm concerned, you saved Stephen from whatever ... ideas ... Nate Brown might have had."

"Mac--" Richie paused, grinding his teeth in frustration, thinking, it's not done, I still blew it, like I always have, no matter how many years pass, how much of an "experienced" Immortal I become... Surely MacLeod understood that; the Scot just wasn't going to say it.

Duncan wiped his face with both hands. He was tired, drenched, and cold. His teeth were starting to chatter. And he still had to drive off and bury this body before it was discovered. Now Richie was leaving, too, and he was leaving feeling like he'd failed. Duncan knew this young man too well, could see the guilt and self-incrimination. Richie hid it better these days, but not from him, not from Duncan. He put his other hand on Richie's shoulder, practically holding him in place, and spoke earnestly, hoping to convince him. "You did the right thing, Richie. You noticed something about Nate that Elena and I both missed. You saved Stephen's life. I'm grateful and Elena is too, and Stephen will be, once he calms down."

"Maybe so, Mac. Maybe so. Hey, it's nice to be appreciated and all, but...." He shook his head. "Look--Stephen interfered in the fight. He yelled and drew Nate's attention away, and I nailed him."

Duncan nodded, understanding that Richie felt that somehow he'd done something dishonorable. But he hadn't. "It happens sometimes in the middle of a fight. Brown could have slipped or mistimed his thrust. You took your opportunity when you could. And you lived. Your opponent died. That's the way it is. And that wasn't your fault either."

"Maybe not, Mac, but ... I gotta go. You know how it is," Richie replied, feeling even more guilty that Mac was excusing Richie's behavior during the duel.

Duncan opened his mouth, closed it again. He considered for a moment, then said, giving up the field, "All right, Richie. If you think it's best. We'll see you in Seacouver in a couple of months, then, right?"

Richie was almost suprised by the ease with which the Scot gave in. But he knew Mac was giving him all the room he could, and he appreciated that. "Just take care of the women and children, huh? Not that Elena needs a lot of care ... well, you know what I mean."

Duncan smiled, although he didn't feel like it. He felt like somehow things were unraveling around him, and he couldn't keep it together. He was afraid to let Richie go like this--feeling guilty, feeling incompetent. But Duncan also realized he had no choice. He couldn't keep Richie here any more than he could have kept John. "Yeah. And you take care of yourself." Duncan released Richie's shoulder and held his right hand out, and the two friends shook hands.

Then Richie turned and headed for the house.

Translations (all Spanish):

!Madre de Dios! - Mother of God!

muy bien - very good, agreed

!Basta! - enough!

?Estais loco? - Are you crazy?

CHAPTER 6: FAREWELLS

Richie packed up his duffel and hefted it. He hadn't even showered--just changed his clothes and packed. He'd only wiped the sword clean--he would worry about it later. Now he just wanted to leave, but he was reluctant to do so without saying goodbye to Elena. On the other hand, he really didn't want to have a conversation with her, didn't want to hear her condemn him for putting Stephen in danger.

He heard a whisper of a sound behind him and turned to see her by the door. Damn, she was quiet. He'd have to be careful about that, about not being alert enough while he had things on his mind. Well, at least now his quandary was resolved for him.

She took in his duffel and jacket, then asked, "Duncan went to dispose of our Immortal problem?"

Richie nodded quietly, waiting.

She said, "Stephen is in his room. It hasn't been a good holiday so far, has it? I'm sorry about what happened. About everything."

Richie shrugged. "Hey, don't worry about it," he said.

She stepped inside his bedroom. She hadn't cleaned up either, he could tell, but she had changed to a thick terry robe and had put her hair up in a towel. Blood still racing through his veins, he idly wondered how she looked under the robe.

If Elena noticed, she gave no sign. "But I do worry about it, Richie. I just can't do anything about it. I also hate to think of you all alone at Christmas. Is there any way I can talk you into staying?"

He smiled wryly. Apparently she wasn't going to insist he stay as earnestly as Mac had--but then he decided he was being unfair to her. Elena had always treated him right. She just had her priorities, that's all. He shook his head, then said, "I've been alone at Christmas before, Elena."

"Maybe so, but it doesn't make it right. And Stephen will get over it. He's just upset, he gets ... easily rattled when people are beheaded around him. Imagine that, eh?" she said, bitterly. "What the hell is going to happen to him when he becomes an Immortal himself, [Dios sabe.]"

"It's been a hard road for him, Elena."

"Yeah, him, and me, and you. And now poor John," she continued, shaking her head. "I wish there was some way we could make it better, smoother, but I guess all we can do is love him." She sighed. "All we can do is love each other."

"Yeah," Richie said.

For a moment neither one spoke, then she began again. "About Nate...."

Here it comes, Richie thought, steeling himself. Elena was nothing if not overprotective of Stephen Holz. And blunt, too. But she surprised him.

"I'm ... so grateful that you saw something there Duncan and I missed. We didn't think he'd dare make such a move. We were wrong. But you were here--alert--and you saved Stephen's life."

As she came closer to him he started to protest, then realized it wouldn't matter if he did.

She put both hands on his shoulders, just like Mac had. Her features, in the middle another crisis in the dead of night, were somehow softer and gentler than usual. But she was very serious. "I now owe you for my son's life as well as mine, Richie Ryan. I'm very grateful. And don't just say it's all right, because it isn't. I take my debts very much to heart."

Richie knew that to be true. Elena owed a debt to Anne Lindsay. She'd promised the doctor that she would watch over Anne's daughter, and she had been unfailing in her attentions to Mary Lindsay.

"I know, and I won't forget, Elena," he said, smiling, but meaning it. "But I think you should know that what Stephen said out there in the rain was true," he admitted, brutally honest. "Stephen interfered in the fight, and I ... took advantage of that to nail Nate. So in a way, you can say we helped each other."

Elena shook her head. "Stephen told me all about it," she replied, "but I don't care. I'm glad you're alive and I'm glad Stephen is alive. That's all that matters to me."

Leave it to Elena Duran to be blunt and honest, both. Her words helped-- but they weren't enough to make him feel good about this whole mess.

Elena sighed again. "You and John have both grown up to be fine men, Richie. I just hope...." She paused, then said, "I hope you will have a good holy season, [che,] and I will see you in the new year. And Richie, when I was a child, my [aya] was from the province of Galicia. She used to like to say, [Coitela.] Caution. Now I say it to you." She leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek, then gave him a strong, caring hug.

Richie hugged her back. He could smell the mud on her and the underwhiff of that ever-present jasmine. "Merry Christmas to you too, Elena. And I promise I will be careful."

He walked down the grand staircase, to the front door, then glanced to his right, considering. Maybe he'd take a last little side-trip through the kitchen, for old times' sake. It was, what, four o'clock in the morning or something? There was no way she was there at this hour--Maribet Onioco--but he still went by, just in case. He heard someone in the kitchen before he pushed open the swinging door.

He remembered something Juanito, the ranch foreman, had told him. "If you need anything twenty-four hours a day, Senor Richie, there's no problem. When the senorita is here, there's always someone up in the night, because she keeps odd hours, and doesn't sleep ... well, very well sometimes. And she'll want coffee or something to eat in the middle of the night..."

The smell of freshly-brewed coffee filled the spacious room.

And she was there.

"Maribet!" he said happily, walking up to where she sat, a stool next to one of the kitchen counters, a cup of coffee in her right hand and a cigarette in her left.

"Richie?" she asked, and put out the cigarette quickly, submerging it in her coffee with what he assumed was embarrassment. She started to take a sip, changed her mind, dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and stood at his approach, absent-mindedly smoothing back a stray lock of hair.

In the light of the oven hood he could see the circles under her eyes. Her hair was loose and tangled and hung down past her shoulders like a black veil, and her eyes looked weary. She was beautiful.

"I ... do you want something? You have hunger, yes? Ah, no, you are hungry, yes?"

Richie smiled, his first smile since he'd gone to bed. And he had the idea it would be one of his last smiles for some time to come. Well, his reputation, as far as Maribet was concerned, was still intact. So was his appetite, so far.

But he didn't want food. "No, I'm not hungry, Maribet. I'm just glad to see you." He put his duffle down, then came close enough--their chests almost touching--to smell the mix of tobacco and strong coffee on her breath. "I didn't know you smoked," he said.

"Ah, yes, everyone smokes. But, well, I should not, no?" She shrugged, smiled into his eyes. "Coffee?" she asked.

"No, I can't take it, remember?"

She gave him a skeptical smile. She knew he was Immortal, and he remembered she'd seen Elena Duran recover from much stronger things than the effects of caffeine. Like death.

"Yes, I remember. I can make you a [cafe con leche]? No, eh?"

"No. Look, Maribet, I'm glad--"

"You are leaving?" she asked him.

"Oh, yeah. Yeah," he sighed. "I gotta ... I have to go. Tonight," he added, regretfully, stepping back slightly.

She shook her head. "It is raining very hard. You cannot wait until morning? Maybe the storm will pass, although the ... [relampagos] ... the light in the sky, you know? ... are ended."

"You mean the lightning," he said, hiding his bitterness, hoping--guessing --she hadn't seen anything. God, he didn't want this girl to think of him as a killer.

"Light-ning. I have it. Thank you, Richie." Her voice was soft and high pitched, almost like a child's. But she was no child.

Richie sighed softly. The harsh light from the kitchen hood to her left wasn't flattering. It shadowed her face with sharp angles and didn't light her eyes, which he particularly liked. She was stilll beautiful. And special. And he couldn't have her, not really, not the way he might have wanted--a wife, a house, a family. Look what Elena and Mac's attempt at a family was like--running out in the middle of the night, frantically looking for the boy... So, instead of staying and courting this beautiful Indian girl, he had to slink off in the night, into the storm, like a damn criminal...

"Maribet," he whispered. He moved closer to her. This time their entire bodies touched, pressed together, and she made no effort to back away. He could feel her warmth, her soft, hot breath blowing into the hollow of his throat. He cupped her chin with his fingers and tilted her face to meet his, her mouth to meet his.

He had meant for it to be a soft kiss, but she pushed closer against him, and like the soft petals of a rosebud opening, the kiss flowered into something deeper, stirring him right down to his toes. When it ended, she murmured, "I wish you would not go, Richie. You will miss the celebration, the [Nochebuena], the food, the drinking. We exchange presents..." Here she paused, then added, "Is not ... I have not done anything to drive you away, have I?"

"No, Maribet, no," he hastened to reassure her. "If it were just you, just us, I would stay in a second. It sounds wonderful. Spending time with you would be wonderful!" He thought about Nate Brown's head falling to the straw with a deadly thump he had heard, at least in his mind, in spite of the wind and the lightning and the driving rain just a few feet outside. And in spite of what Mac or Elena said, it had been his fault that Nate was here, that Nate had tried for Stephen. His fault. "But there are other ... reasons. Considerations. Look, I have to go." He tore himself away with a visible effort, took her hand, and kissed each of her fingers. He felt rather than saw her blush and looked up at her face. "I'd like to come back to visit you, if it's all right."

"I would like that too, Richie," she answered, her teeth white in the semi-darkness.

Richie found his bike, took it inside the shelter of a barn to get it started, and scared a bunch of horses with the engine's roar. "Great, dammit!" he swore, and tore out into the night. Within minutes he was soaked to the skin, even past his leather jacket. But at least the lightning, the [relampagos], were ended.

Translations: (all Spanish) Dios sabe - God knows

che - Argentine term for good friend/comrade

aya - in old Spain and Latin America, combination maid/chaperone/companion

coitela (Galician) - caution

cafe con leche - milk with coffee

relampagos - lightning

EPILOG

The Andes, on the border of Argentina and Chile

December 24, 2000, midnight

Perversely, there was music playing in Richie Ryan's head.

"Peace on Earth."

Richie's sword got past the other Immortal's guard, but succeeded only in cutting his opponent's colorful, thick woollen coat. Richie attacked again.

"Good will to men."

His adversary had come out of nowhere, rushing at him in the night, eager to kill.

Richie panted as he fought. On the climb up from the flat Argentine [pampa] to the Andes, he had continually adjusted his bike's carburetor to make the mixture leaner in the high altitude. He wished he could make his own mixture leaner. He was having trouble breathing.

"O Prince of Peace."

Richie glanced briefly at the huge statue of [Cristo el Redentor,] Christ the Redeemer, illuminated in the frosty night and just a hundred yards away. He parried his opponent's thrust. Richie's lungs felt shrunken and cold, and he hoped the statue would somehow bless him after he lost his head.

"Silent night."

Steel clanged against steel, reverberating in the cold night air. He was sure the sound carried in the mountains for miles. And yet no one came because no one was anywhere near. They were all at the [Misa del Gallo,] at Midnight Mass, praying. Richie prayed for oxygen.

"God rest ye merry gentlemen."

His opponent, a black-haired mustachioed man, very Indian-looking, had a happy, cheerful smile on his face. And was hardly breathing hard at all. Richie was wheezing. His headache was a vise around his head now, and he was having trouble concentrating in the thin atmosphere. He felt dizzy and a little nauseated. It was called [soroche], altitude sickness. Soon, he wouldn't be sick anymore. Soon, he'd have all the rest he'd ever want.

"We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

He'd never see the new year. Never.

"O holy night."

If this night was truly holy, and if God was truly watching, it would be nice if He could work some miracle. But the other Immortal's sword ripped him open again, and Richie felt the pain claw into him, then felt himself start to black out. Maybe He was watching out for the other Immortal.

"It came upon a midnight clear."

It was a clear, summer night in the mountains. The stars were close enough to touch, and indeed brightly shining. They were too beautiful to say goodbye to, to give up on. Too beautiful.

"Peace on Earth."

He hadn't wanted to fight, especially not tonight. He was simply defending himself. As his enemy thrust at his abdomen, Richie made a decision to grab for the man's wrist. But to do that he needed both hands, so he dropped his sword first, deliberately disarming himself, remembering and trusting in something Connor MacLeod had once taught him. "You have already lost," he murmured to his opponent, and he took a step to the left at the last moment.

"Joy to the world."

Oh, joy! Richie thought. As the other Immortal went past him, Richie twisted the man's sword out of his hand. Richie turned, starting his decapitating swing with the other man's own sword; but out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the Christ statue again, arms flung out in a blessing to the world. So instead of beheading the man, Richie lowered his blade, slicing into his opponent's back, then finished his turn and watched as the Immortal arched and fell to his knees with a great exhalation of air.

"What's your name?" Richie breathed out, still panting, just holding on to consciousness, keeping the other Immortal's sword hovering just in front of his Adam's apple.

"Jesus," the man answered, between clenched teeth, pronouncing it the Spanish way, "Hay-soos."

"Jesus," Richie repeated, nodding, figuring, a very common Latino name, of course, what else would his name be? Richie had started the day depressed and sick, feeling sorry for himself because he was alone at Christmas. And now, about to kill someone on the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, he felt even more depressed and sick, and hurt and bleeding, and in no mood to--

He leaned down and put his mouth close to Jesus' ear, still breathing hard into it, using his very adequate Spanish. "It's Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas Day. Do you want to live, Jesus?" Richie asked him.

"Si."

"Me too," Richie said. He retrieved his sword and flung Jesus' weapon out into the night. "[Feliz Navidad]," he said, then backed away, turned, and walked to where he'd parked his bike. He still felt sick, and hurt, and he was still bleeding; but maybe he was a little less depressed. A little.

He put his sword away on the bike, thinking, thanks, Connor, for teaching me that little trick, the one that saved my life tonight. That's another one he owed the MacLeods. And especially thanks to whoever it was, whatever spirit had moved him to spare Jesus' life on Christmas.

He'd already been reminded of Connor MacLeod when he'd arrived at Mendoza, Argentina, the day before, and seen the sign: [Bienvenidos a Mendoza, Tierra del Sol y del Buen Vino]. Wine country. Good. And drinking the good Argentine wine, [rioja], reminded him that Connor felt Duncan had "sadly neglected" his, Richie's, education. Connor had promised, almost two years ago, to teach Richie to drink "good spirits." And as Richie remembered, Connor was an expert on drinking, among other things he was an expert on.

So he decided that when he arrived at Mexico City he'd turn east towards Laredo instead of west towards El Paso and go visit a friend in New York City. An old friend.

As he started his bike and rode back to the little lodge where he was staying, he called out, "And to all a good night!"

Translations: (all Spanish)

pampa - Argentine broad plain

Cristo el Redentor - Christ the Redeemer

Misa del Gallo - Midnight Mass

Feliz Navidad - Merry Christmas

Bienvenidos a Mendoza, Tierra del Sol y del Buen Vino - (sign in Argentina) Welcome to Mendoza, Land of the Sun and of Good Wine

THE END

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