Chapter 1: A Welcome Visitor
January 16, 2002, Manhattan Island, New York City
The sensation of another Immortal struck Connor MacLeod with all the subtlety of a saw ripping into a plank of wood. He threw his book to the floor and leaped up from the sofa in his bedroom. "Rachel!" he exclaimed. She was downstairs now, with an unknown Immortal close by and probably inside the store. And so much for his state-of-the-art security system. He raced across his loft, snatched up his katana, and hurried down the back stairs to the antique store.
The stairs ended in a small, enclosed space, separated by a locked door from the offices in the rear of the store. Connor quickly unlocked the door and cracked it open, leading with his katana. No sword slammed down on his, so Connor stepped out into his own office. A swath of light from the open stockroom door illuminated the hallway beyond. Rachel's office light was on, too. Connor jogged swiftly down the narrow hallway to the stockroom door, unconsciously clenching his jaw, his body instinctively preparing itself for the shock and pain of finding Rachel dead -- or brutally wounded.
When he stepped into the open doorway, he breathed a profound sigh of relief. He could see Rachel safe and alone, far back in the bowels of the huge, cluttered space. She was kneeling in front of a Federal-period wardrobe, holding a palmtop computer, taking inventory. They had received a shipment of the period furniture that day. Connor had become bored with the inventory and gone up to his loft to read, but Rachel had insisted on staying until the work was done.
Now Connor concentrated hard on the sensation of the intruder and realized that it had faded slightly. The "buzz" -- the sense of another Immortal's Quickening -- wasn't directional in any real sense, but over time, Connor had learned to detect the slight variations that meant "closer" or "farther." So this fade-out meant the other Immortal wasn't anywhere near Rachel.
Connor smiled, his lips forming a taut, feral line. Silently, he waved his hand until he caught Rachel's eye. As soon as she saw the katana in his hand, she knew what was up, and she nodded at him calmly. He closed the door to the stockroom and it locked behind him. Rachel would know what to do if someone other than Connor came through it, and she knew to leave by a secret exit if he wasn't back in ten minutes. But for now, Connor could put her out of his mind and concentrate on the Immortal.
Connor paused and took a deep, calming breath. He was alert and ready. The sculptured grooves on the handle of his katana fit perfectly in the calluses on his palm, and he held the weapon blade down at his side.
He turned around, leaving the stockroom behind. Then he crept down the hallway through the warren of offices, crossing narrow halls until he emerged into the store itself. The dim, after-hours lighting illuminated the display cases, emphasizing the bright colors and patterns, the glittering crystal, and the gleaming gold and silver plate. He walked among the possessions of his mortal persona confidently, seeing reflected images of himself. He knew who he was and why he was here. He was Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, and he was ready and able to fight, if not entirely willing.
There was the other Immortal! Connor froze when he finally saw the source of the tingling in his spine. His heart slowed and the tension leached out of his muscles, as he simultaneously realized that he wouldn't have to fight *this* Immortal, and that here, at last, was his chance to find out exactly what had happened to John in Argentina. Fears for Rachel's safety disappeared, and he put his katana at rest behind his right arm. Despite the easing of his concerns, the instincts of centuries warned him to be careful. Connor MacLeod never ignored his instincts. He walked up behind the other Immortal with his usual silent tread.
But the redhead must have heard something, because he said, without turning around, "Nice. Eighteenth-century American, right?" And he turned to Connor, smiling.
While Connor was pleased with Richie's alertness, he was also a little annoyed that he hadn't been able to slip in under the younger man's "radar." And he was very annoyed that Richie had easily slipped in under Connor's own security system's "radar." State-of-the-art, my ass, Connor thought. However, he didn't want to start this visit -- if that's what it was -- by bitching at Richie. So he decided he'd wait to ask Richie how he'd gotten in.
The Highlander studied the young man, who wasn't so young anymore -- at least not in terms of experience. Richie looked exhausted. The worn leather saddlebags that lay on the floor next to him were proof of a long trip, probably from Argentina. His motorcycle leathers were dusty and lined, and his skin was freckled and pink in the way that only redheads, who never tanned, could get.
But despite all that, Richie's eyes were sharp, his breathing calm and steady. Connor could tell the young man was poised, ready for whatever might come his way. Good, Connor thought. He liked the kid. And he smiled to himself as he thought that Richie probably hated being called a kid -- and that Richie would be called a kid for a long time to come. Or at least for the rest of his life.
Connor glanced down at the antique dagger Richie was holding and finally said, "Good to see you, Richie. I'm pleased that your teacher taught you something about antiques -- it is eighteenth century American. But," he added, "didn't your teacher also tell you not to play with sharp objects?"
Richie exhaled slightly, apparently a little tense about Connor's reaction, then grinned. "You mean a sharp object like that katana behind you?" he asked, tilting his chin towards Connor's right arm, where the katana still waited at rest.
"Right. Or like that sword in your saddlebags," Connor said, nodding towards what must have been the hilt of Richie's sword, sticking out of the saddlebags, wrapped in a soft cloth.
"My teacher was always telling me to be careful," Richie replied. "But I'm reckless. Hell, I bet I gave him as much trouble as he gave his teacher."
Connor snorted. "I'll take that bet," he said lightly.
Richie chuckled, then looked around suspiciously. "Well, sharp objects are not a problem. You know why?"
Connor shook his head, curbing the urge to look around, too.
Richie dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Because I'm an Immortal."
Connor grinned, feeling relaxed for the first time since he'd met Lasseigne long months ago to arrange their duel. Quickly and gracefully, Connor switched his katana to rest behind his left arm and held out his right hand. "Welcome to New York, Richie. It's good to see you."
Richie replaced the dagger, closed the glass door of the case, and shook Connor's hand warmly. "Same here, Mac. Ah, Connor. So you invited me, and here I am." He paused, then raised his eyebrows a little quizzically, and added, "You do remember inviting me, right?"
"Of course," Connor answered. "I'm glad you finally took me up on it."
Richie nodded, rubbing his hands together. "So ... is this a good time?" he asked. "Should I, like, come back another day? Another month? Another century?"
Connor kept a straight face during Richie's questioning and finally snorted. "No, now is just fine." Connor studied the younger man openly now. He raised his eyebrows, narrowed his eyes, and tilted his head appraisingly.
Without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, Richie looked down at himself, then back up to meet Connor's eyes, waved his hand at himself, and grinned self-deprecatingly. "Bet I look like shit, huh? Well, then, I look about the way I feel."
Connor nodded in agreement. "I've seen you look better. So ... maybe you'd like to come up, shower, have a beer ... tell me what brings you here?"
There was a short pause, then Richie said, "What brings me here, Connor, is wine, women, and song -- but not necessarily in that order."
Wondering about the pause, but not about to comment on it, Connor said, "If I remember correctly, we've done the women part before, right?"
Richie's face got even pinker. That amused Connor to no end, but he kept a perfectly straight face. The women in question had been two prostitutes, one redheaded and one blonde, whom Richie and Connor had met outside a bar in Seacouver a few years back. The two Immortals had, indeed, done the women -- in the carnal sense. They'd exercised the carnal sense pretty thoroughly, too, as Connor remembered.
Richie said, "That's not the kind of women I had in mind, Connor."
Connor grinned again. "There are lots of nice girls in Manhattan."
"But not too nice, I hope," Richie said, backpedaling a little.
"Well, let's see what we can do. Shall we go upstairs? Hmmm ... wine, women, and song -- maybe we can even figure out the order."
Richie picked up his saddlebags and started to swing them over his shoulder, but he stopped and said hesitantly, "John isn't up there, is he? Because he might still be pissed off at me."
"John's gone," Connor said flatly. Then he quickly added, "But you can tell me why he'd be pissed off at you."
Richie frowned, surprised. "You mean John didn't tell you what happened in Argentina?"
"Yeah, he did," Connor said smoothly, lying a little. "But I want you to tell me, too, Richie. Get your perspective."
Connor steered them towards the back of the store as Richie talked. "Well ... OK. I can give you my take on it. It was pretty ugly. You know -- the usual Immortal crap. Death, blood, mayhem, fireworks, broken glass. Maybe a little worse than usual, since poor John was, well..." Richie shook his head, tiredly shifting the saddlebags onto his shoulders. "But first, how about a couple hamburgers -- I haven't had a decent burger in months -- and some beer. And maybe a shower. And some clean clothes -- I've been living out of these saddlebags forever! And some sleep."
Connor draped his arm around Richie's shoulder. "Yes to all of it. But first, Rachel will want to see you," he said, guiding Richie through the offices and towards the stockroom.
"Like this?" Richie exclaimed, gesturing to himself.
Connor shook his head. "She won't care about that, but she will give me hell if I don't take you by to see her."
"Rachel will give you hell?" Richie exclaimed. "I'd love to see that!"
"Hmph," Connor snorted. "Stick around. She gives me hell regularly."
Richie laughed as they walked up to the stockroom door.
"Rachel, it's Connor," Connor called out, then quickly used his card-key and pressed his thumb to the fingerprint-scanner to unlock the door.
"Pretty high-tech stuff," Richie commented admiringly.
Connor started to reply, but the door opened.
Rachel was just putting an automatic pistol on the desk beside her. She looked at them and exclaimed, "Richie! Richie Ryan, is that really you?" As they reached her, she nodded down towards the gun and said apologetically, "Connor and I have a system..."
Richie nodded, looking uncomfortable. "Wow, I'm sorry, Ms. Ellenstein. I had no idea you'd be here at this time of night. And I should have called ahead, Connor..." he said, shaking his head.
"Next time," Connor said, willing to give the kid a break. This time. Then, recognizing his opportunity, he asked Richie, "How did you break in?"
Richie shrugged and looked even more uncomfortable. "Well, Amanda --" he started.
"Ah," Connor interrupted, nodding and raising his eyebrows. "I see."
Rachel looked puzzled, and Connor knew she was waiting for him to explain. But he said nothing else. Finally, she sighed slightly and smiled at Richie. Graciously she said, "It's good to see you again, Richie. And as for the time, it's only ten o'clock. But -- Ms. Ellenstein? Have you forgotten? You called me Rachel before!"
Richie exhaled slowly. "Well, what with my grand entrance and all ... I wasn't sure..."
"It's Rachel," she said firmly extending her hands to Richie. "And I really am happy to see you again."
"Thanks," Richie said, just as smoothly, taking her hands in his. "I'm glad to see you again. And you are as beautiful as ever."
Rachel replied, "And you are as sweet as I remember you. Older. And still handsome."
Rolling his eyes at the mutual admiration, Connor said, "Rachel, Richie drove here all the way from Argentina, on his bike."
"On a motorcycle?" Rachel asked, obviously intrigued. She looked Richie up and down closely, just as Connor had a few moments before.
Richie withstood her inspection, then said, "Not just one bike, this is my third one. And there were several jeeps, even burros. And I did some walking, too. I don't know if I'll ever get the smell of jungle off me." He smiled. "As soon as I got into wine country in Argentina, I remembered Connor's invitation. Then over the Andes, north on the Pan American Highway into Central America -- that's where the jungle came in. When I got to Mexico City I went east instead of west, two thousand little miles more -- piece o' cake -- and here I am."
Rachel smiled brightly. "Whew!" she breathed. "Sounds so exciting, and I'd love to hear all about it. I've only been as far south as Mexico, once. It was Puerto Vallarta, actually, on vacation."
"It's a beautiful place, Rachel," Richie answered.
"You must tell us all about it," she said.
"I will, but first I need to clean up and get something to eat. It's been a long trip."
Rachel nodded. "And here I am, holding you up. Of course! You must be exhausted."
"Are you through down here yet?" Connor asked Rachel. He wasn't worried about Richie's exhaustion -- the kid was an Immortal, after all -- but he was still wired from the fear he'd felt for Rachel.
"There are a few more pieces --" she began.
"They can wait," Connor said peremptorily. A few minutes later, he and Richie were seeing Rachel safely into a taxi. "I'll call you tomorrow," Connor said, by way of saying goodnight.
Connor locked up and re-set the alarms, and then he and Richie headed up the back stairs.
Chapter 2: Haggis and Hospitality
As they walked up the stairs, Richie turned to Connor. "Famous Scottish hospitality?" he repeated skeptically. "What does that mean, exactly?"
"All the porridge you can eat and all the Scotch you can drink," Connor replied, his eyes glinting.
Richie wrinkled his nose and frowned, as though he'd smelled something nasty. "Well, forget about the porridge -- Mac, I mean Duncan, tried to get me to eat that once. Ugh." He shook his head. "But the Scotch sounds good. And ... like I said, some burgers. I bet I could eat a dozen double cheeseburgers."
"Hmph. I bet you could, too," Connor said. "How about some double-haggis-burgers instead?"
Richie wrinkled his nose again, even more disdainfully. He said, "Maybe I just oughta go find a drive-through..."
Connor exhaled disgustedly. "I wouldn't hear of it. Besides, nobody in this town makes a decent Scottish haggisburger. You'll see. All you can eat and drink, Richie. My word of honor."
Richie rolled his eyes.
They finally reached the top of the stairs, and Richie followed Connor into the loft. Richie knew from previous visits that Connor liked to surround himself with expensive, elegant, polished, antique furniture -- unlike Duncan, whose stuff at the dojo was OK. Old, yeah, but not antique. Strictly utilitarian. Richie had figured that some of the pieces in Connor's place were probably worth as much as Richie's entire motorcycle business in Seacouver. But when the two men walked out into the main open area, the apartment was nearly empty.
Richie looked around in surprise. A few large packing crates and a dolly stood bunched together in the middle of the living room, and a set of barstools nestled up against the kitchen counter. But no expensive furniture -- hell, no furniture at all, not even a sofa. And what about that big TV Connor used to have?
"Wow, man, did somebody rip you off?" Richie asked, looking around in surprise. Like any ordinary burglar could rip off Connor MacLeod with that high-tech security system Connor had, sure. Then Richie wondered if Connor was redecorating. He had a sudden vision of Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod looking at wallpaper and paint chips, trying to choose between, oh, say, "mauve" and "lavender." It made Richie smile.
Connor shrugged, saying, "Nah. It's a long story. But you can help me unpack the boxes and move some of the new things in."
Richie shook his head. "You mean you're going to put me to work?" he said, in mock disgust. "So that's what I am to you -- a beast of burden?"
"No -- another strong back to share the family labor," Connor said, grinning at Richie. "But we'll take care of it tomorrow. In the meantime, walk this way," he said, with a theatrical sweep of his arm that ended by pointing Richie up the staircase in the middle of the loft, toward the bedrooms.
The family labor! Richie liked the sound of that. But Connor was waiting. Richie took two steps toward the staircase, had a sudden thought, and turned back to Connor. "Hey, not that I haven't slept on the floor before, but ... I do get a bed, don't I?"
Connor sighed. "A bed! Beds are for wimps. For weaklings! I sleep on the floor -- not even a pillow. Just me and the hardwood."
"Huh?" Richie said, his jaw dropping. Connor couldn't be serious -- could he? Nah!
Connor laughed, "Heh-heh-heh." Then he added, pounding on his chest like Tarzan, "It puts hair on your chest."
Richie replied, "I got all the hair on my chest that I need. All the ladies tell me that, anyhow." He winked.
"Ah," Connor replied, nodding wisely. "The ladies, of course, know best about these things. If you're sure..."
Richie nodded once. "I'm sure."
Connor said, shrugging again, "Well ... in that case I suppose you get a bed, Ryan. With a nice soft mattress and your own bathroom." Leading the way upstairs to the guest bedroom and opening the door for Richie, he bowed like a servant from a fairy tale, waved Richie in, and said, "Your chamber awaits."
Richie walked inside and looked around. It was a fully-furnished, elegant room. "OK," he said. "This is more like it."
Dropping the servant routine, Connor pointed to the back wall and said, "Bathroom's through that door over there."
Richie nodded as Connor shut the bedroom door and left him alone in the guestroom. He looked out through the full-length window at the Manhattan skyline, rolled his eyes, and said, "Ryan, what have you gotten yourself into? You just dropped in for a visit on Connor MacLeod. Sheesh." He dropped his saddlebags on the floor, shook his head at his scruffy reflection in the bureau mirror, and headed for the bathroom to take a hot shower, shedding his filthy clothes as he walked.
Chapter 3: Sweat
January 17, 2002, 7:00 a.m.
Connor MacLeod woke up with a start. An Immortal was nearby! He kicked his covers off and sprang to his feet, reaching for his sword. But then he calmed down at once. He was in his own home and the Immortal he was sensing was Richie Ryan, down the hall in Connor's guest bedroom. Ryan wasn't an enemy, wasn't a threat.
Relieved, Connor took a pair of gray shorts and a t-shirt out of a drawer and put them on, then walked into his sinfully luxurious master bath -- sinful at least for an old Highlander born and raised in a thatched hut.
Connor washed his face with icy cold water to finish waking up and then went downstairs to the kitchen. Remembering that the redhead liked coffee, Connor put on a pot for Richie while he made himself some tea. He thought about waking Richie so they could work out together, so they could bond. It would be a good way to get to know his young guest better. But he resisted the impulse. Richie was a guest, not a student, and he would resent Connor treating him like one.
So Connor made a pot of porridge, smiling to himself at Richie's probable reaction to it, adding salt and a dab of butter. Then he drank his tea, ate his porridge, cleaned his dishes, and plopped his laptop computer on the counter to do his bills. At 9 a.m, with still no Richie in sight, Connor finally headed downstairs to the basement to work out.
Richie Ryan woke up with a start, sitting up in his bed, thinking: an Immortal, there's an Immortal nearby! But there was no one in the room with him, and he could clearly see the closed door, so he deliberately forced himself to lie back down and relax. He'd quickly learned that panic was the most useless state he could be in when the shit hit the fan. And there wasn't even any reason to panic now, he realized, identifying the room he was in: Connor MacLeod's guest bedroom in Greenwich Village, Manhattan Island, New York City. The Big Apple. He'd arrived the night before, and Connor had welcomed him.
He glanced at the clock by his bedside. It was 9:30, and Connor hadn't awakened him. Good, that was good. Richie grinned in spite of his headache. It meant Connor wasn't going to treat him like someone who needed to be awakened, needed to be nagged -- like a student, in other words. Richie scrambled out of bed and pulled some dirty shorts and a t-shirt out of his saddlebags, grimacing at the smell. Then he remembered the assorted exercise clothes Connor had given him last night. He put on a pair of shorts and one of the lightweight sweatshirts. He also slowed down. Richie wasn't a student anymore, and he didn't need to impress Connor MacLeod -- although, if he was honest with himself, he wanted to.
Connor had certainly impressed him, preparing a feast while Richie was taking a shower last night. Despite the threat of haggis-burgers, Connor had cooked up a platter of regular hamburgers -- excellent burgers, actually -- and home fries with little bits of onion and tons of garlic. It was a good thing they hadn't been meeting any women, Richie thought. Connor had also put out a big salad, a bowl of fruit, and all the Coors Richie could drink. Enough Coors, in fact, to give Richie, already exhausted, a pleasant buzz.
And after dinner, Connor had brought out the Glenmorangie. Then Connor had grilled Richie -- maybe not grilled, maybe ... questioned, maybe ... politely inquired -- about events in Argentina. Richie figured he could never keep the truth from Connor. Besides, Connor had the right to know what went on with his own teenage son. And Richie preferred to talk about John instead of his own real reason for coming. So he'd given Connor his "perspective" and had sat and consumed more and more whisky.
the night before
"So, Elena finishes him off, and then there's the big light show, you know. You shoulda seen the glass everywhere, but John was hardly hurt. Well, just a little."
"Yeah, just a little," Connor said. "That stupid Argentine bitch really blew it."
"Connor," Richie felt it his duty to say, "It wasn't her fault. He -- no, she -- Elena -- saved John's life. She almost died herself, you know. I mean ... she did die ... jus' not permanently ... An' right in front of everybody."
Or some such thing. Richie remembered defending Elena, but not the details. The details were forever embalmed in half a bottle of very good, very smooth, very old whisky.
He could feel the aftereffects of the Scotch now as he went into the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and brushed his teeth. He pulled his sword from the saddlebags and, leaving it in its sheath, took it with him as he headed downstairs to the kitchen first. Connor had left a pot of coffee for him and a pot of porridge that looked positively disgusting. Richie poured himself half a cup of coffee, then added sugar and milk and drank it down, ignoring the heat on his tongue. He also ignored the porridge -- obviously a gag on Connor's part. He put the cup in the sink. Then he noticed that Connor's breakfast dishes had been neatly washed and stacked in the dish drain. So Richie washed his own cup and put it in the drain, too.
Richie had every intention of joining Connor down in the basement, where the gym was. Richie remembered that gym from previous visits. But just at the moment, he wanted to look around Connor's apartment -- snoop a little. He hadn't had much chance last night to notice anything but the emptiness of the place. As soon as Richie had gotten out of the shower, Connor had plied him with food and drink. Any curiosity about Connor's two-story loft had vanished under those inducements. Richie had just been glad to know that he did have a bed to sleep in, although he didn't clearly remember how he'd gotten to it.
But now was Richie's chance -- maybe his only chance -- to check the whole apartment out more thoroughly. He wandered around the "public" rooms of the loft, which were all downstairs: the living room, the dining room and kitchen, Connor's office area. Richie had no intention of going back upstairs into Connor's bedroom or opening drawers or the like. He was just looking around, not really snooping.
He went to the packing crates first. They were stamped with "This side up," and "Fragile" and "MacKinnon-Ellenstein Antiques." A hammer and a pry bar lay on top of one of the crates. The largest crate -- it must have been six feet wide and twelve feet long, even though it was only a few inches wide -- was open at one edge, and Richie peered inside to see an elegant, banquet-sized cherry dining tabletop. Maybe Connor was thinking about improving his social life -- having parties and big dinners. Why else have a banquet table?
Well, obviously there were sides to this Highlander, just like the other one, that Richie didn't know about. Not too surprising, since he really hadn't ever spent much time with Connor.
Richie shrugged. He'd probably find out what it was all about, sooner or later. Connor seemed pleased to have him here, and that was all that really mattered. Richie took one more look around the empty apartment, thinking that the place seemed like a good ... oh, what was that word Mac was always using? "Mega ... no ... meta ... metaphor," he said, pleased with himself for remembering. Yeah, the place seemed like a metaphor for Immortal existence.
"Heavy, Ryan," he said out loud. And that reminded him of why he'd really come to New York. His reason was heavy, indeed. And also not easy to talk about. Well, he didn't have to do it today. For now, it was time to head downstairs to the gym and get started on his daily work-out. That's where Richie found the Highlander, of course -- in the gym.
Just as Richie remembered, the room was spacious and longer than it was wide. The floor was wooden, and it looked like it had taken a lot of battering since it had been installed. The walls looked like ordinary sheetrock, painted off-white. The lighting was very good.
Since Richie had last been here, Connor had added a Nautilus machine, which was located by the wall on Richie's left. A shelf of free weights and a weight bench stood next to the Nautilus. Beyond those, a small plastic cabinet held extra work-out clothes. Richie figured Connor probably went through those pretty quickly. Idly, he wondered who did the Highlander's laundry -- and if whoever it was knew how to get bloodstains out.
The middle of the room was free of obstacles, forming a wide corridor down the room's length. A mirror ran all along the top half of the right wall. In the middle of the wall, beneath the mirror, was a stacked pile of exercise mats. There were two large fans overhead, but they weren't turned on. That was a good thing, Richie thought, as the room seemed pretty chilly to him anyway.
Against the far wall hung a rack with several practice swords and some staffs. Near the rack was a stand that had three fencing outfits, complete with face masks, hanging from it. Richie hoped Connor wouldn't ask him to wear that stuff. He hated the confinement, and he'd never fight an Immortal wearing anything like that anyway.
As Richie came through the door he paused, then decided what the hell, and he bowed before coming inside. On a white plastic table next to the door were a pitcher full of water, several glasses, and several towels. The pitcher and glasses were plastic, too. Richie figured that everything was plastic to prevent breakage. Connor's gleaming, lethally sharp katana also lay on the table. Richie laid his broadsword down right next to it. The room gave him a feeling of deja vu. It was very similar to Duncan's dojo in Seacouver and to Elena's dojo in Argentina. Richie supposed that every Immortal who could afford it had his or her own set-up. The only difference between this room and the others was that this one had no windows and only one other exit, which Richie figured led outside. That took care of all the entrances and exits. The outside door had a big alarm-type lock on it on this side, like the type you saw in public buildings. This was just par for the course. From what Richie had seen, Connor was pretty security-conscious. Pretty paranoid, actually.
In addition to his shorts and lightweight sweatshirt, Richie was wearing good running shoes. He knew that Connor was a runner from the time Connor had stayed at Richie's place in Seacouver while they hunted that Mongolian Immortal dude. He fully expected Connor to "ask" him to go running, and Connor's polite "request" would be a challenge. Richie was ready.
However, that didn't keep him from being cold. Despite the sweatshirt, Richie shivered in the basement's chill. Connor, on the other hand, had already warmed up and had removed his shirt. He was wearing only a pair of shorts and his socks and shoes. Turned sideways from Richie, the Scot was doing bicep curls, his skin gleaming with sweat and effort. While Connor concentrated, Richie briefly evaluated the older man's build as an opponent, something Richie had never done before. Connor wasn't as broad as Duncan through the shoulders and chest, but he was well-muscled and lean. Connor was also shorter than Duncan by an inch or two. That was good, although it still meant that Connor had a height advantage over Richie. Richie knew from that same previous visit of Connor's that the elder Highlander had very good wind.
Richie knew, from his South American road trip, that he needed to work on his own wind and stamina. And Connor was also obviously not bothered by the chill, something Richie wondered if he'd ever achieve. Must come from having been raised in the frozen northern wastes of Scotland, Richie thought. "Hey, Connor," Richie called out.
Connor nodded back, concentrating on lifting the weight correctly but also studying Richie from the corner of his eyes. Richie didn't look hung over. That was good. And although Richie was later than Connor would have liked, the young Immortal was obviously ready to work out. He looked strong, with the kind of lean muscle that generally translated into speed, and his blue eyes were bright with energy and intelligence. Connor had been right to tell Duncan to watch over this kid, and Connor was glad Duncan had followed through.
Richie started jogging slowly in place, getting himself warmed up. "I guess I remembered wrong," he told Connor.
Connor paused, let the weight down, and asked, panting slightly, "What?"
"Well, that time when you stayed with me, you got up at the crack of dawn and went running, remember? So I figured you'd be an early bird. Like Mac. The other Mac."
Connor smiled, going back to his lifting. He was working the triceps now, his arms bending and straightening over his head. "You remembered correctly." He paused, took a breath, then added, "I was up early. I thought I might wait for you, and we could go running together."
"Together, huh? Great," Richie answered pleasantly, thinking Bingo! Do I know my Highlanders, or what? "Just let me get the blood going," he said, heading over to the weight equipment where he picked up a jump-rope. He began skipping rope, quickly establishing a good tempo.
John always skipped rope, too, Connor thought, his breath catching. But John was gone. This wasn't John. It was Richie. He went back to the triceps exercises until Richie finished, then they both stretched to get ready for their run.
"So, what do we do with our swords, Connor?" Richie asked. "You don't just leave yours here, do you?"
Connor grunted, and Richie took that as a "no." Then, Connor added, grinning, "Don't you know New York is a dangerous city?"
Once they'd stretched, Connor changed into an ugly gray sweatsuit, and pointed Richie to the cabinet where the extras were neatly folded. Richie grabbed a likely-looking set and went back to check on Connor. He watched while Connor wrapped his katana in a cloth and put it into the scabbard of a sword belt. Then Connor tied the belt around himself so the sword hilt stood out diagonally over his right shoulder and looked like the Scot was carrying ...
"A hockey stick!" Richie exclaimed, amused, as he changed into the heavier sweatsuit. "It looks like you're carrying a hockey stick. But hasn't anyone ever asked you --"
"Yeah," Connor replied.
Richie waited, but Connor just straightened his sword and said nothing else. "So what happened?" Richie finally asked.
"It just so happened that both times I was carrying a hockey stick."
"How'd you manage that?"
"I knew the cops on the beat would stop me sooner or later. I just made sure I drew attention to myself so they stopped me when I wanted them to."
"Oh, I get it," Richie said, nodding. "Allay suspicion right up front, eh?"
Connor nodded his head and handed Richie a similar belt. "Now I just wave and smile."
"You wave and ... smile ... at cops," Richie said skeptically, recalling just how well Connor had always gotten on with the police. NOT!!!
Connor nodded and without another word led the way out into the cold Manhattan air. Richie could just chew on that. It just so happened that Connor could be charming when he needed to be -- even to cops.
The two of them ran steadily, setting up a brisk rhythm. Connor was pleased that Richie didn't pant or puff or complain, although running this late in the morning meant they had to weave in and out of foot traffic on the busy sidewalks. As they rounded a corner, Connor was wondering how long it would take Richie to tell him what was really bothering him. Hoping to expedite things, he said, "So ... wine, women, song ..."
"Yeah," Richie replied easily. "And like I said, not necessarily in that order." He grinned at Connor, who grinned back.
"Umph," Connor grunted. OK. Ryan wasn't ready. And Connor wouldn't push. So he said, panting slightly as they ran, "Well, as for song, Laurie Anderson is performing tonight, at a theater near my place. Ever seen her?"
Richie was panting, too. "No, never heard of her. What is she -- a singer or something?"
"Yeah," Connor said slowly, trying to think of a way to describe the artist. "Or something."
Richie squinted at Connor dubiously. "What's that mean exactly?"
"She's a performance artist," Connor said.
"Which means what?"
"You'll see," Connor said, grinning at him again. This was going to be fun -- introducing Richie, his junior by nearly five hundred years, to something avant-garde.
"It's not opera, is it?" Richie asked suspiciously, his eyes narrowed.
Connor laughed. "You don't like opera?"
"Uh-uh," Richie panted. "Or any of that fancy-schmancy stuff.
Connor laughed again. "Fancy-schmancy, eh? Well, I don't think Laurie Anderson could be considered fancy or 'schmancy.'" They rounded another corner, and Connor put on a burst of speed, commenting, "The warm-up's over. Time for some real running!" He left Richie behind. But the redhead, grinning and shaking his head, caught up with Connor after just a moment.
"I'll show you real running," Richie half-shouted, half-panted, then sped up, leaving Connor to catch up this time. The two of them raced down the sidewalks, laughing and insulting each other and weaving their way through surprised and annoyed pedestrians.
Chapter 4: Song
As soon as they got back to Connor's apartment, Richie exclaimed, "Man, I gotta hit the shower!" He threw off his jacket, untied the belt, slipped off his sword, and pulled both sticky, sweaty shirts off. He tossed them across one of the boxes. The warm loft was stifling after the frozen waste outside.
"Not yet," Connor said, removing his own jacket, sword, and shirts. "You need to help me uncrate furniture, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, the strong back part, right. So -- where do we start, O slave-driver?"
Connor shook his head, sighing but Richie could tell he was amused. "Right here," he said, pointing to the very box Richie had peered into earlier. "And there," Connor added, pointing to two other, smaller boxes -- cubes about three feet on a side. "We have to move them into the dining area." He moved the dolly into place, and Richie smiled, a little.
"So, what are they?" Richie asked, pretending not to know.
"The big box is my new dining room table. The smaller ones are its legs."
Both men grunted as they lifted the flat, massive box. Connor backed slowly and they carefully placed it on the dolly, moved it to the far wall of the dining room, then unloaded it gently and came back for the other boxes.
After moving a number of boxes, sweat was running down Richie's back from the exertion -- some of those boxes had been heavy! "Just a minute," he said to Connor. He grabbed his already-sweaty shirt up and wiped his forehead, chest, neck, and back with it. "That's better," he said, tossing the shirt back. "What's next, chief?" he asked.
Connor had picked up his own discarded shirt and was wiping his own sweaty body with it. Then he threw the shirt on the kitchen counter. Connor looked very energetic, even though his chest was gleaming from the exertion as he walked among the boxes in the dining room. He touched the boxes as he talked. "We're going to uncrate these pieces and put the table together. Then we're going to uncrate the china cabinet," Connor pointed to the other two large, heavy pieces they'd moved into the dining area, "and put that together. And then we're going to unroll the carpet and arrange everything. You ready?"
Richie took a deep breath and put a smile on his face. There was nothing wrong with hard work, and he wasn't going to get out of it anyway. And besides, Connor had told him this was part of being in the "family," which Richie liked. So he was going to be gracious about it. "Let's do it," he said, rubbing his hands briskly.
Connor looked skeptical, and Richie's smile broadened. "Oh, you expected me to object, right? To whine or something. So you could give me the speech about how soft the youth of today is, about when you were my age you had to walk twelve miles to school in the snow, and it was uphill both ways --"
Connor snorted. "School! We didn't have school. We went to war -- and, yes, as a matter of fact, the battlefield was uphill both ways, and the snow was waist-deep." With that, he grinned back at Richie. "We can eat on the table tonight."
"Make it one of those haggis-burgers like the first night I arrived," Richie said, "and you got yourself a deal, man."
Thank God somebody invented the wheel, Richie thought when they finally took a break, propping the dolly against a wall. He and Connor each got great big glasses of water, then stood at the bar, panting and gulping the water down. Taking a deep breath, Richie decided to pop the furniture question again.
"So, Connor," Richie said, then paused, smiling.
Connor's eyebrows went up, and he tilted his head slightly. After waiting a moment, he said, "So, Richie ..."
"Yeah," Richie said. "I was, like, wondering ... what happened to the rest of your furniture?" he asked quickly. He took another drink from his glass.
Connor grunted, finished drinking his water, put the glass down, looked sideways at Richie. He was silent for a long moment, then said, "I decided to get rid of it. I was ready for a change. It's a good thing, change. Don't you think?"
Richie knew right then that there must be a lot more to this furniture thing that Connor wasn't telling him -- and didn't want to tell him. What was the big deal about getting rid of furniture, anyway? Connor could do whatever he wanted -- if he wanted to burn all of his antiques and decorate in lime green and neon purple, that was his business. But why be so secretive about it? Richie sighed and shook his head, but Connor had already turned away and was heading for the big cylinder in the dining room. "I'll never understand these old guys," Richie muttered to himself, then followed Connor across the room.
"Break time's over," Connor announced, and they went back to work with energy, prying open the crates with hammers and pry bars, unpacking the contents, disposing of the packing materials, and assembling the furniture. They ripped the brown paper off the cylinder, which turned out to be a big rug. They unrolled it on the dining room floor. And then, with a good deal more puffing and grunting, they moved all the furniture into place. At the very end, they unpacked two chairs and set them at the table.
When it was done, they surveyed their work. The cherry banquet table gleamed a deep burgundy-red in the light from the windows. It took pride of place on the room-sized rug, where a floral pattern in reds, yellows, blues, and golds flowed across an ivory background, and red and gold stripes formed a broad border around the edge. Against the wall stood the china cabinet, also in cherry. Tiny bubbles in the cabinet's glass doors resembled transparent seeds.
Richie knelt to run his hand over the carpet. It was flat and smooth to the touch, but there were some pretty frayed-looking places on it. Maybe those added to the value -- he remembered Duncan and Tessa talking about "distressed" furniture. Standing up, he said, "So, Connor, what's all this stuff worth?"
"The carpet we're standing on," Connor replied, "is an Aubusson, from the reign of Louis XIV. It's worth about a million dollars."
Richie's jaw dropped and, without thinking about it, he stepped abruptly off the carpet onto the hardwood floor. "It's worth a million dollars and we're standing on it?" he squeaked.
"That's what carpets are made for," Connor replied casually, his gray eyes glinting, one corner of his mouth turned up. "The table is English Regency and is worth about a hundred thousand. The cabinet is a modern piece, and it's worth about $5,000. But I like it, and I think it'll be a good investment in a hundred years or so."
Richie stared down at the Aubusson carpet and thought about his motorcycle repair shop in Seacouver. The shop and all its contents were worth $450,000, and Richie had had to sell the swords he'd won in several duels to get the money for it. And here was Connor, standing on a rug that could buy Richie's business twice over with money left for ice cream and snacks.
Richie sighed and wondered -- not for the first time -- what it would be like to be really rich, and how long he'd have to live before he was as rich as Connor -- and how long he'd have to live before a hundred years didn't sound like eternity. Richie looked up from the carpet to find Connor's gray eyes boring into him. Richie felt as if Connor knew exactly what he was thinking. Then Connor spoke and confirmed it.
"After I left Scotland, it only took me about fifty years to start making money, Richie," Connor said, his eyes now looking up and away, into some unknown place or time Richie couldn't imagine. "It seemed like a long fifty years ... but now ..."
"Yeah," Richie replied, "now fifty years seems like a blip on the radar to you, right?" Connor started to speak, but Richie said, "Well, man, I haven't even hit thirty years yet, much less fifty. It still seems like a long time to me."
Connor nodded. "It's always long in the living of it, Richie. But as for making money -- it was easier in some ways when I first started, but it's easier in other ways today, too."
"Yeah," Richie scoffed. "The miracle of compound interest."
Connor laughed. "You'll see, Richie. We'll be celebrating your first million before you know it. After all, you got started a lot sooner than I did."
"We'll be celebrating! Ha! When I make my first million, I intend to celebrate with a beautiful babe. Or maybe two."
"And well you should," Connor said, smiling, his eyes gleaming. "But for now, you've got me. And I am ready for a shower. Frankly, I think you are, too." Connor wrinkled his nose.
"Yeah, yeah," Richie replied in a long-suffering tone. "You don't have to ask me twice. I'm outta here. Soap and hot water, here I come." Richie headed for the central staircase, but when he reached it, he turned back to Connor, grinning. "Oh, and by the way," he said, "you're right about yourself, too. Phew!" He held his nose, then laughed out loud when Connor's eyes narrowed. And when the Highlander took a step towards him, Richie quickly fled upstairs to his room and locked the door behind him.
When Richie finally got cleaned up, he told Connor, "I've gotta do some stuff -- wash my laundry, get some cash, buy a few things, check in with my bike shop -- stuff I haven't been able to do for a while. Do you mind if I use your phone and --"
Connor waved the question away. "Mi casa es tu casa."
"Right," Richie said, pleased at the "tu." Taken together with the "family" comment Connor had made earlier, Richie figured it meant that Connor considered him an equal. Richie liked that idea a lot, even though he knew he was no equal to Connor in either experience or swordsmanship.
Connor went out to do some errands, and Richie threw his clothes in the wash. While the machine ran, he called Jake, the manager of Richie's motorcycle repair shop in Seacouver, to check on things. He made sure he charged the call to his own phone card. He tossed the clothes in the dryer and went to find his host, who had returned from his errands and was now reading a newspaper at the dining room table. Richie said, "I need money."
"Money?" Connor asked, crinkling the pages -- a superior, amused look on his face.
"My money," Richie quickly amended. "I need to cash a check."
"Ah," Connor said, nodding wisely.
They went to Connor's bank, then to the local grocers. Connor bought fruit and Richie bought a bag of goodies. The snacks got a skeptical look from Connor, but the Scot didn't say anything. More equality, Richie thought. I could get used to this.
When they got back to Connor's apartment, Richie checked his clothes, and grumbled, "Man, look at this stuff. I gotta get some new clothes, pronto. This is what you get for spending time in a jungle, and a desert, and a mountain range." He held up a shirt for Connor to see -- there were tiny holes and rips all over the fabric.
"Yeah," Connor said. "I'll give you some tips on places to shop tomorrow. But we need to leave now or we'll be late for the show. You got anything you can wear tonight?"
"Well, yeah, my best threads. But," Richie said dubiously, "this better not be educational, man ..."
"Don't worry, Richie. I have no intention of trying to educate you. Except about drinking, that is."
The two grinned at each other, and Richie left to change clothes.
With Connor's great tickets, of course, they had no problem getting into the cozy Greenwich Village theater where Laurie Anderson was performing. Richie reflected once again that it would be nice to be rich. Neither Duncan nor Connor ever seemed to have any money problems, and they both always went first-class -- at least when it suited them. It would be nice just to have that choice, Richie thought. He hoped it wouldn't be too long before he, too, was rich. Maybe not as rich as the MacLeods, but rich enough so that he could go first class when it suited him. He wondered what it had been like for the two Scots before they had become rich, because when they were growing up -- hell, for most of their ancient-history-type lives -- poor was REALLY poor.
Then he stopped wondering as he and Connor reached their seats, which had an excellent view of the stage. The stage set was simple -- just a stool, a violin, keyboard, a few other instruments, and some miscellaneous electronic equipment. It was the kind of stuff that cluttered any musician's stage these days.
Finally, Anderson was introduced and the audience clapped and whistled enthusiastically. Richie, who had been fantasizing about a beautiful blonde, was disappointed to find that even though the performer was slender and attractive, she was also fortyish and taller than he was. She had an elfin face, framed by short, somewhat wild blonde-brown hair, and she wore jeans and an ordinary t-shirt. Not the glamorous type, Richie decided.
Anderson began talking about some book she had written, and then she started playing a violin in a series of sinister-sounding minor-key progressions -- Richie recognized those from years of listening to Joe Dawson talk about music. The initial lyrics were simple "ooh-ahs," but they sounded sinister, too. Richie leaned over to Connor and whispered, "Man, this is gonna be educational, isn't it?"
Connor simply snorted.
Richie leaned back, listening as the artist segued into a series of stories, told with a combination of words and strange, almost eerie, music. The stories dealt with the future, art, other cultures, and death. There was a story about staying with a tribe of Indians in Mexico that reminded Richie a little of his time in South America. Richie laughed along with the rest of the audience as Anderson described how the Indians found her ugly because of her height, but thought her contact lenses were jewels that she hid in her eyes. "I might be ugly," Anderson said, "but I had the jewels."
As the stories progressed, always accompanied by the odd music, he found himself leaning forward, interested, though frequently he also wondered what she was talking about. He really enjoyed her method of occasionally using special filters for her voice to create unusual sounds and other voices. But there was one part of her performance that held him riveted.
To a background of dirge-like notes, Anderson intoned, "The one-armed man comes into the flower shop and says, 'What flower expresses days go by, and they just keep going by endlessly, endlessly pulling you into the future ... days go by endlessly, endlessly pulling you ... into the future.' And the florist says, 'White lilies.'"
Richie was still thinking about that when the show ended twenty minutes later. As they left with the crowd, he turned to Connor and said, "I liked that bit about the florist shop."
Connor nodded. "White lilies," he said.
"Yeah," Richie agreed thoughtfully. His brows were slightly furrowed, forming a small pucker across the bridge of his nose. "But the thing is ... I guess white lilies are like Immortality, right? We're always being pulled forward endlessly into the future, whether we like it or not."
Connor nodded again.
Richie went on, quietly. "And they're funeral flowers, too, aren't they? I remember Tessa's funeral -- there were white lilies everywhere. I mean ... an endless future ... and funerals -- that is Immortality."
"Yes," Connor said, also quietly, but smiling slightly.
Richie didn't miss the smile. "You know what I think?" he said, his tone changing to one of teasing.
Connor raised his eyebrows.
Richie laughed. "I think it was educational -- but I liked it. You tricked me, old man."
"Nothing beats youth and skill like old age and treachery," Connor replied smugly.
Richie shot back, "At least I don't need Viagra to get laid."
Connor laughed. "And at least I don't have pimples to treat."
"Fossil," Richie replied.
"Punk," Connor answered.
"So how 'bout a drink? And let's go find some women," Richie said, punching Connor in the shoulder in a friendly -- no, a family -- fashion.
"Right," Connor said, punching him back -- harder. "I know just the place." They rubbed their shoulders simultaneously, grinned at each other, and Connor led the way.
Mi casa es tu casa -- Spanish, "My home is your home."
Tu -- Spanish, the familiar form of "you," used for family and friends
Chapter 5: Winky Doodles and the Wascally Wabbit
Connor was using a urinal in the men's bathroom in the bar when he sensed the presence of another Immortal. "Damn," he muttered. He grunted, trying to stop the stream, but it wasn't going to happen. So he exerted himself to empty his bladder faster, but that wasn't going to happen either. He gritted his teeth and as soon as he was finished, he starting zipping up his jeans and running out of the bathroom at the same time, almost knocking over a man who was just going in. But when he got out of the door -- his jeans zipped and snapped -- he slowed to a normal walk, appearing nonchalant, willing his heartbeat to slow, too. No sense in letting the other guy think he was panicked when he wasn't. The truth is that Connor wasn't especially looking for a duel, but he couldn't deny the thrill that the sensation of another Immortal always roused in him. He looked around the bar, searching for his potential opponent.
He didn't have to search long. The other Immortal was at the bar, talking -- to Richie Ryan! Great, perfect! Connor had almost forgotten about the boy, the man, actually. Richie could handle this -- sure he could! Except Connor knew, drink for drink, just how much Richie had imbibed this night.
Duncan hadn't taken proper care of Connor's son, John. Connor was absolutely determined to make sure nothing happened to Duncan's "son," Richie. If Connor had to take on this new Immortal, he would.
Connor examined his possible opponent as he sauntered towards the bar on the Immortal's right, positioning himself so that he and Richie would be flanking the other man. The unknown Immortal was tall, maybe six-foot-three or -four, and slim. He had neatly-trimmed brown hair, and he was dressed in a conservative, expensive suit under a black wool overcoat, blending well with the crowd in the Greenwich Village bar they were in. As Connor came close, he noticed the man's eyes were a deep blue -- and riveted on him, on Connor.
"This has nothing to do with you," the other Immortal growled.
Connor put his trench coat down on the bar, with his blade inside. Then he reached over to get his glass of whisky, which was in front of the other Immortal. Taking a long, slow sip, he turned to Richie, looking right past the other man, taking the opportunity to check Richie out. The redhead looked steady enough, but his eyes were a little too bright. Too much alcohol. Well, if the challenge hadn't yet been made, maybe Connor could take care of things -- protect Richie -- after all.
"Who's your friend, Richie?" Connor asked.
Richie frowned, his blues eyes glittering. "I'll take care of this," he said, annoyed and a little possessive.
"Yeah, we're busy here. Take a walk," the unknown Immortal told Connor.
But it was an empty threat, and Connor knew it. Dammit, was Richie going to fight this guy? Connor didn't want to have to explain Richie's death to a grieving Duncan, but there wasn't much he could do besides continue with his nonchalant approach. "No problem," Connor said, still talking to Richie, this time noting the man's British accent. So many of his enemies over the centuries had been English -- but so had some of his friends. "I just wanted to know his name."
"His name is Edward Percy, and you won't need to know his name after tonight, Connor," Richie said coolly.
There was a pause while Percy's head swiveled from Richie to Connor, his eyes boring into Connor again. And then Connor saw it, the moment when the Immortal's cold stare changed, just a little. It made Connor smile -- just a little. And suddenly Percy said, "You're Connor MacLeod."
It was a flat statement, and Richie probably hadn't caught the nuance, but Connor had been doing this a long time. He had seen the change in Percy's eyes, had heard the disguised worry in Percy's voice, had immediately sensed the shift in the balance of power. Connor even felt Percy draw away from him, slightly -- not physically, not that obviously -- but it was still there.
Knight takes pawn. Check, Connor thought. "Guilty," he answered, shrugging, with a slight, mocking nod of his head.
"It doesn't matter who he is, buddy," Richie stated flatly, drawing Percy's attention back to himself while glaring at Connor. "I'm the one you have to worry about."
Some of Richie's aggression was the alcohol talking, Connor knew. Connor had fenced while drunk before. Fencing sober was better. But now he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the knuckles of Percy's hand tighten slightly. The Englishman stepped away from the bar so he could look at Richie without completely exposing his back to Connor. Tilting his head back towards Connor, Percy said to Richie, "He's a friend of yours?"
"So?" Richie answered, belligerently, looking up at Percy but simultaneously crowding the man a little, getting right in his face -- letting Percy know that his greater height meant nothing.
"So ... I just moved here. I like Manhattan, and I don't want to piss in my own pool," Percy answered. "I'm sure MacLeod understands."
Connor understood only too well. He waited.
Richie now looked from one man to the other, starting to see what was going on. Percy was really afraid -- obviously afraid -- and that made Richie uncomfortable, a little angry, and simultaneously a little sympathetic. Hell, he knew how he himself would feel if he had to face Connor MacLeod. But he pushed that aside. Percy might be afraid of Connor and Connor's damned reputation, but Connor had nothing to do with this. This was between him, Richie Ryan, and Percy. There was no way Richie was going to let Connor drive this guy away -- because Edward Percy might come back and bite Richie on the ass, just the way Nate Brown had! So Richie said, "Look, Percy, you don't have to worry about pissing -- just about fighting. So how about it -- yes or no?"
Connor said nothing and did nothing, to Richie's gratification.
The Englishman licked his lips and said, "No."
Well, then, Richie thought. OK. And it was OK, because Richie realized he himself wasn't all that eager to fight after all, not at this particular moment, not with all the alcohol in his bloodstream. And speaking of pissing, he realized he needed to do that, too.
So Richie decided to just let Percy go. Percy hadn't done anything they all didn't do. Hell, there hadn't even been a challenge, yet. No harm done. He didn't want to kill anyone needlessly. Or kill anyone else needlessly. So he'd just let Percy walk, just like he'd let that guy in South America -- Jesus? -- walk. Still, there was that little nagging worry about Percy coming back ... Well, there was one way to be sure. "Tomorrow night, then?"
"No," Percy said again. "We have no quarrel."
Richie stared at the other Immortal for a long moment. "OK," he finally agreed, nodding.
Connor had heard the fear, too, and now Percy was turning to him. There was no point in his challenging Percy. If Percy wasn't going to fight Richie Ryan, then he sure as hell wasn't about to fight Connor MacLeod. Maybe Connor should change his name to Winky Doodles; maybe then he wouldn't inspire such terror. He waited indifferently to hear Percy's farewell speech.
They'd all been speaking very softly, but the tension had built a sort of bubble around them, leaving them in relative isolation within the bar. The man who'd been sitting on Richie's left abruptly moved off his stool and walked away, and the action made Richie jump slightly.
Connor was still silent and unmoving, his right hand held loosely around his glass and his eyes still on Percy's. Finally, the Englishman looked down at his shoes, then back up. "We don't have a quarrel, do we, MacLeod?"
Checkmate, Connor thought. "No," he answered simply. With that one word, Connor knew he'd just made a friend for life -- or an implacable enemy. Either way, he and Percy wouldn't be fighting tonight either, which was just as well, considering that Connor had been drinking a little, too. And really, Connor wasn't particularly interested in fighting right now, anyway.
"Goodnight, then," the Englishman said, this time taking a step backwards. Percy turned and left. Connor and Richie watched until the man left the place ... and they kept watching the door until they could no longer sense Percy's presence.
Richie exhaled slowly then pushed his drink away. "Damn, these Immortals crawling out of the woodwork reminds me of Paris," he said a little grimly.
"Yeah. Or Argentina," Connor said, slamming the rest of his whisky. He gave Richie a somewhat sour, blurry look. "Do you still want to look for women?"
Richie shook his head. "No way. I'm through for the night."
"Yeah," Connor said, putting on his coat. "Let's go."
After their run the next day, Connor squinted purposefully at Richie and said, "Want to spar?"
"Sure," Richie said. "I was wondering when you'd get around to that."
Feeling warm and loose from the run, Richie pulled off his sweatshirt and took a deep breath, his chest expanding, to let the air fill his lungs. He stretched his arms, too. He felt strong. He felt good. This was what Immortality, at its best, was all about.
Connor asked, "Ready?"
"Sure." Richie struck a dramatic pose -- sword high up in the air, left arm stretched out to the side -- and then sang in mock-Wagnerian opera style, "I'll just get my sword and magic helmet."
Connor gravely replied, "You mean your spear and magic helmet."
Richie said, "Huh?"
Then Connor added, "But the question is..." He paused dramatically.
Richie said, "Yeah, yeah, and the question is...?"
Connor said, "The question is -- are we really going to kill the wabbit?"
Richie doubled over laughing, for the moment completely unable to even hold his blade up, while Connor waited patiently. Connor looked completely innocent, but Richie figured the old man was counting points.
Richie had never suspected the older Highlander was this much *fun*! And who'd have guessed he watched Bugs Bunny cartoons!
"About done?" Connor finally asked. Richie nodded, straightening up, suppressing the last of the "wabbit" chuckles. Connor stood straight and saluted with his practice katana. Then he positioned himself, his weapon up beside his right ear, both hands clasping the hilt.
Richie saluted Connor, then took the classic fencing stance, right leg in front, left leg behind him. His sword was extended straight out in front of him, his elbow bent, the sword tip pointing at his opponent's eyes, his left hand up behind his ear. When everything else was perfect, Richie bent his knees, sinking into the "en garde" position." He could feel little drops of sweat on his upper lip. He was not nervous; he wasn't, although this was the first time he'd ever sparred with Connor MacLeod. The original Highlander. His teacher's teacher. The man who had killed the Kurgan. No, he wasn't nervous. Right.
Connor examined Richie closely but could find no fault -- the stance was perfect and Ryan was clearly ready. "En garde," he said, eager to find out what Duncan had taught his student -- and what Duncan's student had learned on his own.
Richie launched his attack. Connor parried. Riposte. Richie avoided that, parried Connor's next thrust, attacked, and Connor sidestepped. They were getting each other's measure, both of them aware they would be fighting skilled opponents. They would count points based on a sword's touch.
On the fourth pass, Connor's feint fooled Richie completely. The katana tip touched the younger man's exposed abdomen.
"Touche," Richie acknowledged, pulling back and lowering his sword. "I left myself open there, didn't I?" he grimaced, shaking his head in disgust.
Connor smiled. "Good thing I didn't have a Mack truck," he said, teasing.
"It won't happen again this morning."
"I hope not," Connor answered, a little warningly. "En garde."
This time Richie did better, although Connor's blade still slipped past his defenses once, twice, touching him lightly on the edge of the shoulder and then on the thigh. Richie calmly acknowledged each touch, his breath coming a little heavier as they moved around the room.
Good, Richie wasn't allowing himself to get frustrated, Connor thought, and he had had to work -- some -- to make those two touches. As he was thinking this, Richie's swordtip touched him on the bicep. "A hit," Connor acknowledged.
"Yeah, killer move, ain't it?" Richie said, almost grinning. "I'm sure it would have stopped you cold," he joked. But he'd actually touched Connor MacLeod, and he was more pleased with himself than he would admit.
Connor smiled slightly. "En garde," he said once more.
This time Richie touched Connor twice, pushing hard, moving quickly and reading Connor's moves, although not always correctly. Connor touched him a half-dozen times. Then, after a perfect set-up, Richie moved into a classic, by-the-book lunge which should have, if they'd been serious, gutted the Highlander. But Connor sidestepped it at the last minute and Richie, with no obstacle to stop his momentum, went past his opponent. He felt Connor's sword prick the back of his neck.
Connor chuckled. "Getting ambitious, are we?"
"You weren't supposed to have time to get out of the way," Richie complained good-humoredly as he sighed and turned around, coming back to the en garde position. "You just took off my head, right?"
Connor shrugged and smiled.
When Richie attacked again, Connor retreated, but finally enveloped the younger man's sword. A twist of the wrist, and Richie's sword hit the wooden floor, Connor's foot on it. Richie looked up from it to find Connor had shifted his weight forward and put his sword at Richie's neck. Richie swallowed -- the blade went up and down with his Adam's apple. "Touche," Richie said. Again.
"You're doing well, Richie," Connor said, his sword still at the younger man's throat. He circled Richie closely, his sword unwavering. "You're trying to anticipate me, which is good, but you should guess less and think more and faster. Only a certain number of fencing moves are possible -- even for me." Connor smiled coolly and a bit smugly, with the last words.
"I know that," Richie answered, slightly annoyed. Having a sword at one's throat was never fun, and Connor's smugness grated a little. Chill, Ryan, he told himself. Showing his annoyance would just make Connor worse, he was sure. When Connor finally put his sword down, Richie smiled pleasantly and said, "I guess I'm learning from the best." Then, as Richie bent down to pick up his sword, he had a sudden thought. "Hey, you're not holding back, are you?" he asked, even more annoyed.
Connor smiled again. His eyebrows went up and down, and he tilted his head slightly, with a wicked, challenging look in his eyes. This time he attacked without warning, and Richie found himself pushed until his back was against the mirrored wall. Connor's thrust was so close, he cut into Richie's t-shirt, and the Scot's sword hit the mirror, starring it.
"My bad," Richie said, turning to look at the broken glass. His breath was coming hard and fast, and he was beginning to feel a stitch in his side. But he also noticed, with some satisfaction, that Connor was breathing hard, too.
"No, that was my miss," Connor said.
When Richie looked back from the mirror, Connor's blade was at his throat -- again. "Never turn your back on your opponent, Richie," Connor said pleasantly.
"I thought we were just sparring," Richie said, as Connor lowered his blade.
"We are." Then, with a very evil, very challenging smile, Connor suggested, "Want to do it like the real thing?"
And so far this has been tiddly-winks, Richie said to himself. But as long as they were talking, he'd have a chance to get his breathing back under control. "Sure, but without the lightning part."
Connor stepped back and nodded. He was getting somewhat winded, and Richie was defending well and attacking better than he thought, but Connor figured he had enough left for an all-out attack. "En garde."
Chapter 6: Seeing The Sights
For the next five minutes Richie Ryan fought as though his life depended on it, but try as he might, he could only get past Connor's guard once, stabbing Connor lightly in the shoulder, while the Highlander scored on him several times, drawing blood with every touch, and backing him into a corner of the room. With a series of carefully thought-out thrusts, Richie made a valiant effort to break out into open ground, but Connor finally pushed the younger man's sword aside. Once more Richie found himself looking down the silver sheen of a blade.
Panting, Richie said, "The field ... is yours."
Connor grinned, spacing his words between breaths also. "Yes it is ... for now."
Richie smiled at Connor's heavy breathing. He might not have won, but at least he'd kept Connor busy -- and Connor's smugness was gone, too. "You mean, if I keep practicing, I can get as good as you?"
"Well, you had a good teacher and a fine sparring partner," Connor admitted. "So maybe you can ..." He considered a moment, head tilted to one side, the same wicked look in his eyes as before, and finally said, "Nah!"
Richie laughed, while Connor put his feet together and brought his sword back up to the salute position.
"Hey, man, I could sure tell the difference," Richie said.
Connor was wiping his face on a towel, his sword in his left hand. "Good," he said, dropping the towel, then filling a water glass and draining it.
Richie poured himself a glass of water and drank it down, too. Then he lay his sword down on the laundry cabinet and stretched, groaning slightly as sore muscles protested. All the cuts had healed, but his whole body still felt like he'd been rolling in prickly pear cactus. "Whew," he said. "Some vacation this is. I come for wine, women, and song ... and I wind up moving furniture and working my ass off." He stretched and deliberately groaned again, eyeing Connor for his reaction.
Connor looked offended. "Hey ... We've done the song, and the wine and women are next. But if you want to wallow, I have an idea. Hot tub."
"What's wrong with a nice, hot wallow?" Richie protested loudly. "Sounds great to me."
Ten minutes later, they were relaxing in the swirling heat, steam rising into the air of the small, closed room. Connor had leaned back -- his head was against the wooden edge of the hot tub, his eyes closed. It was amazing, Richie thought, how relaxed Connor MacLeod seemed to be around him. It either meant that this MacLeod also trusted him -- or didn't consider him a threat. Richie decided he liked the first explanation better.
Richie stirred in the water, and Connor's eyes opened at once, then closed again. Maybe Connor had not been that relaxed, Richie thought. Or maybe the Highlander was always on alert. Always. That was the more likely scenario. Richie knew Connor was still tense about John, but although Richie had told Connor everything, Connor had told Richie practically nothing. And Richie hadn't asked. Until this moment, when Richie decided to inquire politely. "So, Connor ... where is John?"
Connor opened his eyes. "In Africa. Nairobi, Kenya. With the Peace Corps."
Richie pressed his lips together, then exhaled with a "whew" sound. "Did he drop out of college?"
Richie shook his head sympathetically, thinking that it was even harder to get information out of this MacLeod than the other one. But still, he wanted to know some things. Besides, he had a right to know -- he had been there in Argentina, after all. And if Connor didn't want to talk, well, he wouldn't. Richie said, "So, uh, did you guys get a chance to talk?"
Connor smiled grimly. "Not exactly."
Richie sighed. "Look, Connor, is John still pissed with me?"
Connor was silent for a moment. Then he said, "I don't know. And if he is, you can bet he's a lot less pissed off with you than he is with me."
Uh-oh, Richie thought. That didn't sound too good. He tried a different tack. "Well, as long as we're talking about being pissed off, I heard from Mac -- Duncan -- that you were kind of blaming him and Elena for the whole thing. Are you still pissed off with them?"
There was another silence, much longer this time. Finally, Connor said, "No."
Man! Richie thought. Like pulling teeth. Spreading his arms expansively -- trying to get the idea across to this silent Scot with gestures -- he said, "Care to expand on that?"
Connor closed his eyes and scratched his temple with his right index finger, leaving a couple of droplets to roll down the side of his face. Then he dropped his hand back into the water with a splash, sighed, and said, "Elena got herself into a stupid position ... but she did the right thing where John was concerned."
Another pause, so long Richie wondered if Connor had gone to sleep. Then the Scot said, slowly, "She saved his life. I can't very well take her head for that, can I?" Connor opened his eyes and looked at Richie then, a wintry, bleak look that made Richie feel Connor's age.
"No," Richie said, puzzled. "But Connor, I don't get it. Why'd John leave?"
This silence was the longest yet. Richie waited, thinking furiously. Just when Connor opened his mouth to speak, a light bulb went on in Richie's head. "It was you, wasn't it?" Richie blurted. "He saw you fight somebody."
Connor nodded and sighed once more. "He saw everything."
"Jeez," Richie said sympathetically. No wonder John had split! From that horror in Argentina to watching his own old man take a head and a Quickening. Poor John. Poor Connor.
Abruptly, Connor stood up, dripping wet, naked except for a pair of swim trunks, and stepped out of the hot tub. He quickly grabbed a towel and started scrubbing himself roughly with it. "Enough soaking for me," he said. "I'm going to take a shower."
Right, Richie thought, Connor and Duncan were just alike in this. They both hated sympathy or pity or any of those touchy-feely emotions. Richie sat in the hot tub, covertly watching Connor, carefully examining the man's lean, sinewy build and thinking about how he moved when he fought. Connor wasn't a big, broad guy like Duncan, but he was incredibly strong and fast, and he fought like a demon. A very smart, cool demon. Connor caught Richie's eye and raised an eyebrow quizzically. Richie looked down into the hot tub, thinking about tales Duncan had told him of being trained by Connor. And about other tales Duncan had told of Connor, too. Not a touchy-feely spot in Connor's entire body, Richie figured.
He looked at the Scot again, measuringly, remembering the fight he'd just had with Connor and wondering what it would really be like to fight this man for his life. Connor had greater reach, better speed and stamina, and far more skill. It would be like going up against ... "Connor?" he asked.
"What was it like when you fought the Kurgan?"
Connor took a deep breath. "I suppose Duncan told you about that."
Richie nodded. "Yeah, but Duncan wasn't there. You were." Just now, Richie thought, I just now wanted to ask you how it felt to go up against a much bigger, stronger opponent who wanted your head.
It was Connor's turn to nod. He scrubbed at his hair with the towel, leaving it sticking up and all awry. Then he tossed the towel to the tile floor, the muscles in his arms flexing slightly. He stared at the wall for a moment.
Richie waited patiently.
Finally, Connor spoke, though he was still staring at the wall. "It was the hardest fight of my life."
There was a long silence, and Richie waited for Connor to say something else. But apparently that was all Connor was going to say. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a chicken, Richie thought, then asked, "Were you afraid?"
Connor chuckled grimly. "What do you think, Richie? The point is that I won." Connor smiled then, a cold, lethal smile that sent a chill down Richie's back. Then the smile softened, and Connor said, "If you don't get out of that hot tub, your balls are going to shrivel up and fall off."
"Yeah," Richie said, standing up in his borrowed swim trunks and grabbing his own towel. "I guess I'll take a shower, too. And then how about some lunch?"
Afterwards, Connor asked Richie what he wanted to do.
Richie squinted at him. "You mean we're not going to move furniture all afternoon, like we did yesterday?"
"It'll be here when we get back."
Richie snorted this time. "Back from where?"
Connor pivoted towards the huge floor-to-ceiling windows with their grand view of the Manhattan skyline and gestured towards it. "You tell me, Richie."
"OK. I get it. Sight-seeing." Richie smacked his right fist into his left palm. "Here are the sights I want to see. Let's go to the UN and check out all those foreign babes -- you know, the secretaries of the ambassadors? And then, I wanna go to Rockefeller Center and watch the women skate in those little short skirts. And then --"
Connor grinned and held up his hand. "I get it, Richie. Let's go."
Several hours later, after his attempt to impress a second long-legged, gorgeous skater with his own skating skills failed when he fell for the second -- or was it the third? -- time for the day, a red-nosed, shivering Richie stomped up to Connor, who was swilling a cup of something hot and steamy, and said, "Is there any alcohol in that?"
Connor handed over his drink, which turned out to be unadulterated hot chocolate, and Richie drained it. "So, whaddya have to do to meet babes in this town?"
"Where did you learn to skate?" Connor asked.
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Connor laughed, and Richie could feel his ears turning even pinker than they already were. "So I never learned. I thought Immortals were supposed to have this natural grace, you know? And besides, I didn't see you skating."
"I didn't want to embarrass you with my natural grace."
"Yeah, yeah," Richie said. "I suppose you used to skate all the time in ancient Scotland, back when you wore bearskins and used stone knives, right?"
"It was wolfskins and hard steel, laddy-boy, and if you want me to show you how to skate --"
"No. No. No. Forget it. I'm sure you're Olympic material. Now how about them girls?"
"Well, there are always the art museums --" Connor began.
"No. No art, remember?" Richie crumpled up the styrofoam cup and tossed it in his best Michael Jordan imitation into the nearest trash can.
"Don't you know that women love art museums? It's one of the best places to meet them."
Richie stared at Connor. "Are you serious?" he said.
"Absolutely," Connor replied. "Women love art. They also love music, opera, ballet ... you name it. If it's artistic or decorative, women love it. But it's a lot easier to start a conversation in a museum. And you can talk to them about the paintings or the sculptures. You don't have to come up with some lame pick-up line."
"Man, I never thought of that -- any of that," Richie said, with the wide-eyed expression of a man who has just caught sight of an infinite vista whose existence he had never suspected.
Richie thought it over. "But I don't know anything about art. What am I supposed to say?"
Connor shook his head sadly and put an arm around Richie's shoulders. "Confess your ignorance," he said in a tutorial tone. "Let them tell you what it's about. Women also love that -- as long as you're smart enough to pick up on what they're telling you. As far as a woman is concerned, a man in search of instruction about something that woman knows about is a fascinating man, indeed. If you play it right, you can let her talk you right from the art museum into bed."
At that moment Richie remembered the advice Tessa had given him in a similar situation in another art gallery, years before. "Just be yourself, Richie," she'd said. Well, Connor was telling him the same thing, in a way. And in fact, Richie was no longer as ignorant about art as he'd been then. Tessa had taught him a few things. He shook his head clear of those thoughts. Babes, that's what he was after. "I can, huh?" Richie said, smiling. "Well, let's go, then!"
But just at that moment, the sky, which had been cloudy and gray all afternoon, suddenly opened up and began dumping icy-cold rain mixed with sleet and snow on the New York streets. Pedestrians began scurrying for shelter, and Connor and Richie headed for the nearest subway entrance.
"It's too late," Connor said, as they got to the bottom of the stairs, entered the shelter of the subway, and went to wait for the train. "We're not going to meet any women in this mess. Besides, the museums are all going to be closing soon. It's almost five o'clock. We might as well go back to my apartment and batten down the hatches." Although the crowd was thick, he expertly avoided being jostled.
Richie sighed, yelling a little over the noise. "It's starting to look like the only thing I'm going to accomplish on this trip is song, sparring, and slavery."
Connor laughed. "And the pleasure of my company," he said dryly.
"Right," Richie replied, smiling insincerely. "Don't get me wrong, Connor -- I do enjoy every single minute I spend in your company ... but there are some pleasures only the company of women can provide." Richie's insincere smile broadened into a mocking grin. "You know what I mean, don't you, old man -- or maybe it's been so long that you've forgotten?"
"Hmph," Connor snorted.
"Yeah, yeah," Richie said. "That's what all the old-timers say -- when they can remember to get their teeth in so they can talk." He peered at Connor's mouth. "You did remember to put your teeth in today, right?"
Connor laughed and cuffed Richie on the shoulder. "The train is coming," he said.
"Don't worry, Connor," Richie said as the train came to a screeching stop in front of them. He took Connor's elbow in his hand as the crowd pressed on them from all sides. "I'll help you on -- I'd sure hate to have you trip and fall on those frail old bones."
Connor jerked his elbow from Richie's hand and stepped onto the train. "I'll show you 'frail' when we spar tomorrow." And he laughed as Richie's grin shriveled. "No holding back, either," he added.
Richie had no answer for that.
Chapter 7: The Letter
By the time they got back to Connor's shop, it was completely dark outside. The nasty mix of rain, sleet, and snow had gradually changed to just snow. The store was still open, the lights beckoning, and the two men hurried in, shivering and stamping their feet.
"Whew," Richie said. "I thought it got cold in Seacouver, but I don't think it gets like this."
"Different sources of cold weather," Connor said knowledgeably, then turned as he heard Rachel call him.
"Iain!" she said loudly, for the benefit of the remaining customers -- most of whom were staring glumly through the windows at the falling snow, not willing to brave it as long as the store was open. She waved him towards her urgently.
"What's up?" Richie asked as they headed towards her.
"Let's go in the back," she said softly. They followed her into her office, and she gestured to Richie to close the door behind him. Rachel silently held out a sheet of paper to Connor. "It's another fax from John," she said.
Another fax -- thank God! Connor thought, remembering John's first message, the one Rachel had handed to him the day before Richie had arrived. Rachel had studied him carefully, the little furrow between her eyes deepening, as Connor had read the message over and over. So many times, in fact, that he knew it by heart:
"Hello," the letter had begun, making Connor clench his fingers around the fax a little more tightly. John had used no name at all.
"I figured that if you didn't know where I was, you'd start looking for me. I don't want you to do that. So I'm in Nairobi, Kenya, or at least that's where I'm based. I'm really out in the villages, away from the city most of the time. I'm here with the Peace Corps. My job is to help figure out ways for the farmers to co-exist with the wild animals without killing them all.
"I need some time to think. I've got so many things I have to understand ... or try to understand ... and I thought this might be a good place to do it.
"My Peace Corps gig is a year. Maybe by the time it's done, I'll understand it all better.
"I'll fax again when I have a phone number and email.
"I still have a lot of questions.
"It's not much of a letter," he'd said cautiously, but Rachel had answered, firmly and reassuringly, "No. But it is a letter."
He'd agreed, thinking that a year wasn't that long, and at least he hadn't lost his son. That was all that mattered. Connor had felt his chest open up -- it was the first time he'd had been able to take a truly deep breath since that night John had seen Connor behead the Immortal, Rene Lasseigne -- the event that had ultimately driven John away from him.
And now Connor took another deep breath. Here was another letter from John, when Connor had been half-afraid -- more than half-afraid -- that there wouldn't be. He bent his head to read it.
"Wow!" Richie said, reaching for this new fax eagerly. "What's it say?"
Connor glared at Richie and pulled the paper out of Richie's reach. "I don't know. I just got it, Richie."
"Oh, yeah, right," Richie said. "But I mean --" he turned to Rachel "-- this is a good thing, right?"
Rachel just smiled neutrally at Richie.
Richie turned back to Connor, his mouth open to speak. But Connor was reading the letter intently. So instead, Richie leaned over Connor's arm to read.
Connor jerked the letter away and glared at Richie again.
With determination, Richie said, "I was in on this from the beginning, remember? I got a right to know. Besides, you told me I was part of the family," he added, pulling out all the stops.
Connor just glowered at Richie. Rachel looked nervous.
Richie glowered right back at Connor. He wasn't giving up on this one. Now we find out what he really thinks of me, Richie thought.
After a long, silent moment, Connor snarled, "Maybe I should take out an ad in the paper."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Richie said innocently, deliberately widening his eyes. Connor's response was good -- Connor was treating Richie in exactly the same tactful, warm, sensitive way he treated Duncan, who was definitely "family." Richie added, "Besides, there's no 'Immortal' section in the classifieds."
There was another long pause, but Richie was starting to get used to these kind of head games. He said nothing, just waiting Connor out. Finally, Connor conceded with a growl, "All right, Ryan. I suppose you can read it. After I finish."
Richie waited impatiently while Connor read the letter several times. That Connor was willing to let him look at this letter from John clinched it for Richie -- Connor wasn't kidding about that family stuff. He really meant it. When Connor finally handed over the fax, Richie unconsciously straightened as he scanned it.
"I'm staying really busy here. We've been helping some wildlife vets who are trying to re-locate a herd of hippos. You can't shoot the hippos with tranquilizer darts because they'll head for the water, fall unconscious, and drown. Instead, we have to build a special kind of enclosure, tempt them into it with food over several days, then lock them up in it when we finally get them all in there. Then we have to load them onto trucks and drive them to their new destinations.
"It's all about saving lives -- not just the animals, but the people, too.
"After Lasseigne, you know, I figured all you did was take lives, but I guess you've saved lives, too.
"What I don't get is why. It doesn't make any sense. I've thought about it, over and over, and I just don't get why you do it. I guess I can see that you have to defend yourself, but that's not what it's always about, is it? I want to know why, Dad.
At the bottom of the letter were John's email address and phone number.
As soon as he finished it, Richie looked up at Connor, who was still staring at the letter. Richie handed what he realized was a precious missive back to Connor, who read it again, then again. Man, it must be a pain to be a parent, Richie thought, wondering if he'd ever adopt a child. Maybe not ... Sighing, then coming back to the present, Richie looked at Rachel, who pressed her lips together and gave a kind of sad shrug and a tiny shake of her head. They both waited silently until Connor finally looked up, a grim expression on his face, his gray eyes flat and distant.
Richie started to speak, but Rachel beat him to it. Placing her hand on Connor's, she said, "He called you 'Dad.' And he's asking you questions instead of making accusations. And he says --" she pointed at the words "-- that he knows you've saved lives, Connor."
Wow, Richie thought to himself, as he watched the grim expression on Connor's face transform itself into something like hope, complete with a tiny quirk of the lips that was almost a smile. Richie saw for the first time how important Rachel must be to Connor and what her role in his life must be. Richie had been planning to say some sympathetic bromide, but Rachel had cut right to the heart of things. Somehow, she'd managed to tell the truth and make Connor feel better, all at once.
For the first time, Richie also realized just how shrewd and smart Rachel must be to understand Connor that well. And how close she must be to Connor, too. Closer than anybody else in the world, he thought -- maybe even closer than Duncan. It put Connor's life with Rachel in a whole new light. Richie looked closely at Rachel, thinking. Wondering...
But Rachel was paying no attention to Richie. All of her attention was focused on Connor, whose almost-smile suddenly expanded into a real smile.
"You're right, Rachel," Connor said. "And he sent me his email address."
"Yes, and now you have to write him," Rachel said firmly.
"Do you have to write to him right now?" Richie said. Both Connor and Rachel turned to look at him in total surprise. Richie could read that look. They had both completely forgotten about him.
"Why wouldn't I?" Connor said.
"Well, I mean, what time is it in Africa, anyhow? It's probably the middle of the night. It's not like John's going to be reading it for hours yet. Don't you think it could wait until after dinner at least?" And right on cue, Richie's stomach growled loudly.
Connor's eyes narrowed, and then he laughed his unique "heh, heh, heh." He boxed Richie on the shoulder. Richie winced, and Connor laughed again, shaking his head. "You never lose track of priorities, do you, Richie?" Connor said.
Rachel smiled approvingly at Richie, who was glad that his choice of the role of comic relief had worked so well. "Well, I gotta keep my strength up so I can keep slaving away in the furniture mines," he added.
Connor snorted, tucked the letter into his pocket, and said, "Well, come on upstairs, and let me see what I can throw together. But first ... " He pulled Rachel close, kissed her on the cheek and said, "Thank you, Rachel. And good-night." He whispered something in her ear that Richie couldn't catch, and then he let her go.
Rachel touched Connor's hand again, gave him a brilliant smile, then stepped back as he turned to head for the elevator.
Richie, who had learned the very night he'd arrived that Connor was just as good a chef as Duncan, if not better, smiled and mouthed good-night to Rachel, too, then hurried after Connor. "I'll make the salad -- again!" he said to Connor's back as he followed the Scot to the elevator.
Chapter 8: The Wine Lesson
After they sparred this morning, it took Richie a long time standing under an extremely hot shower to get the majority of the aches out of his muscles. Damn, even his bones hurt. At the subway station yesterday, when Connor said he'd do it like the real thing ... Richie looked down at his chest. Thank God for Immortal healing; that last diagonal cut of Connor's had cut through the top layer of muscle on Richie's chest. Richie had dropped like a stone, trying to catch his breath. It had not been a killing blow, but only because Richie had been lucky -- if you call lying on the ground and panting in agony lucky.
"You lowered your guard," Connor had explained. And now here he was, calmly frying bacon and toasting bread, without a care in the world. But Richie had seen Connor limp up the stairs from the basement, and that alone had been worth all the pain he'd suffered.
The phone rang, and Richie looked at Connor.
"Get that, Richie, will you?" Connor asked. He was busy frying bacon, gingerly turning over the strips with tongs, carefully avoiding the popping grease.
"Sure thing, Connor," Richie said. He'd been going to the refrigerator, so he turned and leaped over the kitchen counter to catch the call. "Iain MacKinnon's residence," he said.
Connor shook his head and said, "Who is it? And how many eggs do you want?"
Richie raised a hand then said into the receiver, "Just a minute, Mac." He turned to Connor and said, "It's Mac. I mean, it's Duncan. And I want three."
Connor nodded, smiling. He dropped a chunk of butter into a hot frying pan and started breaking eggs into it.
Richie laughed. "You're kidding, right?" He gave Connor an appraising look then said into the receiver, "Okay, I'll ask him." To Connor, Richie said, "Duncan wants to know why you sent him a dozen roses and a box of Godiva chocolates."
Connor chuckled. He'd wanted to apologize to Duncan for treating him so badly on his recent visit to New York. The roses and chocolate had seemed like a good idea at the time -- the day he got John's first fax. "Tell him I've got the hots for him." Connor flipped over the eggs; he and Richie were having them "over easy" this morning.
Richie shook his head, grinning. "No way I'm tellin' him that. Wait a minute ... oh, you heard that, huh, Mac?" Richie laughed out loud. "I don't know. Maybe you should send him an engagement ring. Maybe you should bring it with you the next time you come visit." Richie was watching Connor, who grinned broadly back while dishing up eggs and toast. "Hey, Connor, Mac wants to know if you'll marry him."
Connor threw his head back and laughed. "Tell him I'm no sodomizing Fraser. But I appreciate the offer."
"Hey, Mac, Connor says -- Oh, you heard that, too. Okay. Anything else you want to know? Oh, yeah, we heard from John. Yeah, we even got a fax from him last night. Sure. He's in Nairobi, Kenya."
We got a fax from John? Connor thought to himself then rolled his eyes. Well, it hadn't been a secret -- not with Richie standing right there and insisting on reading it. And they had discussed John. And besides, Duncan had a right to know. It seemed like everybody had a right to know. Maybe he should take out an ad in a newspaper. He shook his head and said, "Breakfast's ready."
"Yeah," Richie was saying. "He joined the Peace Corps. They're moving wildlife around, hippos and such." A moment of silence, then Richie laughed softly. "Yeah, either that or the Army, I guess. At least he's communicating. Look, Mac, I gotta go -- Connor's got the eggs and bacon ready. Should I tell him good-bye for you?" Richie did a double-take. "You never say good-bye? Geez. Well, I'll say good-bye for you." Richie looked up at Connor. "Good-bye, Connor."
Connor puckered up his lips and blew a kiss in the general direction of the phone.
Richie rolled his eyes. "Yeah, he says the same to you, Mac. 'Bye." He hung up the phone and looked at Connor. "You know, you two are weird."
"Hmph," Connor snorted. He shoved the butter dish down the counter towards Richie, and sat down with his own plate.
His mouth full, Richie turned to Connor and said, "What's the grand plan for today, O mine host?"
"Today we finish the 'slave-driving' part of your visit." The left side of Connor's mouth was quirked up in a sly grin, and his gray eyes were glinting.
Well, Richie thought, being part of a family -- a real family, like the one he'd felt he had with Mac and Tessa -- included birthday parties and Christmases. It also included sweeping up antique store warehouses and uncrating furniture. The good with the bad, Ryan, he told himself. "TV set?" he asked Connor hopefully.
Connor shook his head. "That's being delivered on Tuesday. Today, the living room and my desk." He rinsed off his dishes and headed for the cluster of crates that still filled a good bit of the living room space. "And, of course, the rest of the chairs for the dining room table. You can also help me hang the pictures. Rachel will finish up with the smaller decorative stuff -- candlesticks, cushions, the maiolica and so forth."
"The may-all-what?" Richie said, joining Connor by the boxes.
"European porcelain," Connor explained, as he picked up a hammer and pry bar and started working on one of the smaller boxes.
"Worth a fortune, I suppose," Richie said, as he picked up his own pry bar and hammer.
"A few small ones," Connor replied, with another sly grin. Then he bent to the job of opening the box.
Several hours later, Richie and Connor, both stripped to the waist and once again shiny with sweat, surveyed the finished product. A dozen dining room chairs made of black bamboo polished to a high gloss now nestled up against the great cherry table. A second Aubusson carpet -- this one a deep blue dotted with small golden crowns like stars -- covered the floor in the living room. Connor's new desk, a French antique covered with inlaid swirls of tortoiseshell and brass, gleamed like claret from the back of the living room.
One edge of the living room was defined by a modern sofa upholstered in golden-orange damask. The aquarium, which was evidently the only thing left of Connor's previous furniture, sat behind the sofa.
French chairs in pale golds and soft ivories filled the rest of the space. There was a modern glass-topped coffee-table that, despite its newness, seemed to fit right in. A couple of tables shaped like half-circles, one with painted panels and a marble top, the other gilded, hugged the right-hand wall of the loft. Other, smaller tables were placed here and there between the chairs. Connor and Richie had hung paintings with distinctly erotic images all around the huge loft. The whole effect, Richie thought, was luxurious and a little decadent, almost like stepping into some fairytale castle. He almost expected some princess wearing a diamond-encrusted crown and a glittering gown to come walking through a door with a whole line of knights behind her.
"So," Connor said, turning to Richie with a small smile and interrupting Richie's reverie. "Think this will impress the ladies?"
Richie took a deep breath. "Hell, I'm impressed. And if it doesn't impress them, you might as well give up on chicks altogether," he replied, sincerely and fervently.
"Heh," Connor said, obviously pleased with Richie's reaction. He punched Richie lightly on the shoulder. "You do good work, Ryan. Now how about showers and some lunch?"
Richie helped Connor wash up. Richie noticed that Connor, like Duncan, seemed to prefer washing the dishes by hand to putting them in the dishwasher. Old dudes, he thought, with a mental shrug.
When they were done, Connor turned to him and said, "Ready for the 'wine' part of the visit now?"
Taken a little by surprise -- Richie wasn't sure Connor had really meant to teach him anything -- he said, "Sure! I was wondering if we were really going to do this."
Connor's eyebrows went up, and he snorted. "I said we would, didn't I? Unless you've lost interest."
"Not at all," Richie said, thinking that just recently he'd drunk a lot of Argentine whites and Chilean reds at Elena's [estancia] -- with every meal except breakfast -- and how good they had tasted. He also thought further back, how cool it had seemed when Duncan and Tessa had been together and they'd tasted the wines while the waiter stood there. Usually Duncan and Tessa accepted the wines, but sometimes they sent them back. Richie had had no clue, but he wanted to know all the mysteries. And it was very useful for impressing the ladies. "I definitely still want to."
"Good," Connor replied. "We'll start with the basics." Taking a sturdy wicker basket with him, he led Richie into a small, cool room off the kitchen that was filled with racks of wine bottles.
"Wow!" Richie said. "This is something!"
Connor shrugged as he carefully placed three bottles of wine in the basket. "Well, I can't keep wine in the kitchen, you know."
"Why not? Ah, too hot, right?"
"Right. Wine has to be kept cool and dry. So I had this room specially built for it."
"Oh." Richie nodded then peered at the bottles. "So, what are we starting out with ... Chateau Rothschild something-or-other?"
Connor snorted derisively. "Not hardly," he said. He handed the basket to Richie then carefully closed the door to the "wine cellar" behind them.
Richie sat the basket on the dining table and Connor held a bottle up. "What we've got here are three pretty good California whites. Good wine -- but we'll save the great stuff for when you're a little more ... appreciative."
Richie raised his eyebrows but didn't comment.
Leaving the basket on the table, Connor went to a cabinet and pulled out six wine glasses, which he set on a tray. The tray and glasses joined the basket on the table. Next was a corkscrew. The last item Connor put on the table was a small bucket.
Richie frowned at the bucket. "What's that for?"
They had only been at it for an hour when the phone rang.
"Iain, it's Rachel," came the voice over the phone. "There are several boxes here for Richie Ryan."
Connor glanced at Richie, who was spitting. Connor had figured out that the spitting was Richie's favorite part. Except for the drinking part. "OK, I'll send him downstairs."
"You'd better come too," Rachel said. "I don't think Richie can carry all these up by himself."
Curious and amused, Connor hung up and turned to the young Immortal. "Some boxes arrived for you. Rachel says you'll need help carrying them up."
Richie swallowed the wine instead of spitting. "Hey, my stuff got here, good!" he exclaimed. He wiped his mouth on a napkin. "Let's go."
"Richie, about these boxes. Do I want to know?"
"Yeah. Well. It's a surprise. For tonight. Clear your calendar. And Rachel has to come, too."
Connor said, "We'll see if she's free. Let's go downstairs and get your ... mystery boxes," he said, raising one eyebrow.
Richie merely nodded. Racing each other down the stairs, taking two and three steps at a time, like small, eager boys, they went down to the shop and rushed up to Rachel's desk.
"Are you boys having fun?" Rachel asked, her eyes filled with amusement.
"Well, yeah, Connor's been taking me around. And teaching me all about wine. Even spitting. But tonight," Richie said, bowing deeply, "you are invited to dine. Upstairs. Both of you."
"Good," Rachel said, and Connor interjected, "Nice of you to invite me to dinner in my own home."
Richie shrugged. "What can I tell you? I'm a generous guy."
"Am I going to regret this surprise?" Connor asked, folding his arms in front of him and deliberately trying hard not to smile.
"What surprise?" Rachel asked.
Richie grinned. "If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise, would it? Now where are my boxes?" he asked, looking around.
After they'd gotten the cartons upstairs, Richie sent Connor to the grocer's for supplies: two pounds of cubed round steak; five pounds of lean ground chuck; one pound of cheddar and one of jack cheese; a head of lettuce and several very ripe tomatoes. When Connor came back, Richie met him at the door, took the packages, and said, "Come back in a couple hours. Bring Rachel and an appetite."
Grumbling good-naturedly at being kicked out of his own apartment, Connor went downstairs and was soon involved with a very old, very well-dressed, very discriminating couple who were looking for a present for their favorite grandniece, who was getting married in a month.
Estancia -- Spanish for an Argentine combination ranch/farm
Chapter 9: Mexican Fiesta
Rachel put down the telephone and went to find Connor, who was in the back going over the accounts. "Richie's ready for us," she said.
Connor nodded and with seeming reluctance led the way to the elevator. "Be afraid," he whispered to Rachel, who chuckled. "Be very afraid."
"Don't worry, Connor. If Richie poisons you, you'll survive."
"Heh, heh, heh. What about you?"
"Me?" She put her hand on his arm, a warm, familiar gesture. "I'll let you be my food taster, like royalty."
Connor snorted as the elevator pinged and they walked across the catwalk and down the steps to the main living area. The big cherry table Connor and Richie had assembled was covered by a bedspread and was groaning with food. Sitting on hotpads, folded napkins, and plates were all the pots Connor owned, big and small. There were three covered baskets, which Richie uncovered with a flourish as Connor and Rachel approached. One basket was filled with taco shells, the other with cornbread -- most of which had little red and green flecks in it -- and the third with tortillas. Then plates, bowls, water glasses, shot glasses and beer mugs -- this was going to be a semi-liquid dinner, Connor could see -- and that was ensured by the presence of a plastic cleaning bucket with several bottles of Negra Modelo, Dos Equis, and Carta Blanca, and two bottles of chilling Cuervo tequila. There were also the usual utensils, napkins, plates, and bowls, all neatly arrayed. Connor looked around him. On the floor against the wall were the open cartons, which Connor had noticed earlier all had Mexican labels, including one from the town of Tequila, Mexico.
Connor could see the devastation in the kitchen, and he groaned inwardly. Who did Richie think was going to clean this stuff up? He shook his head in amusement while Rachel oohed and aahed.
"A Mexican fiesta," she said, clapping her hands softly in glee.
Richie grinned at them both. "I figured I'd pay you back for your hospitality, so I bought this stuff and had it shipped ahead. And, if you didn't invite me to stay, you'd have the fixins for a good feast," he explained, waving over the table.
"Um-hmmm," Connor muttered noncommittally, looking over the food again and wondering if Immortals could stand being quick-fried to a crackly crunch from the inside out.
"So -- do you like hot foods?" Richie asked, looking slyly at Connor. Without waiting for an answer, Richie uncovered one pot at a time. "Here we have plain chili, with dark kidney beans and some black beans, onions and tomatoes, and some finely chopped [jalapenos], not too much. It's quite mild -- I didn't know, Rachel..."
Rachel smiled, "I appreciate it, Richie. My intestinal tract is not what it used to be."
"Right. Some of the cornbread is mild, too, no chilies. You have to make sure they have no spots in them, Rachel. However," he uncovered another pot. "This is a brown rice, black bean, and green chile casserole. Garlic, tomatoes, cumin. Guaranteed to take the roof off your mouth."
Connor saw that Richie was sweating, and it probably wasn't just from the cooking. He'd apparently been tasting his creations as he went along.
"These, as you can see, are chiles rellenos. They're chiles anchos, roasted, peeled, and stuffed with cheddar and jack cheeses. Good luck with these. And this batch of chili, made with cubed beef, not the ground-up kind, has passilla, california, serrano and habanero chiles. Don't let it get on the furniture; it'll eat right through it. The taco meat is mild so Rachel can have some, but you can always add the sauce. It's made with chipolte and green chilies." He laughed. "It'll have you spitting a jet of flame twenty feet long, like one of those fire-breathing dragons. And to wash it all down -- Mexican beer, Cuervo tequila, blanco, and reposado -- that's aged tequila -- and the piece de resistance..."
Richie swept into the kitchen and brought out a bottle of Cuervo tequila that was a beautiful amber color. Dramatically, he held it up for inspection. As Connor peered in it, he noticed there was something floating inside.
"This is tequila Dorado chitelpin," Richie said. "It has five dried chitelpin chiles in it, and some cumin from your larder. I brought this bottle with me. It's been steeping ever since I got here. This is my belated Christmas present to you, Connor."
"Thanks," Connor said, taking the bottle and smiling, while privately hoping that nobody came looking for a duel tonight. But then, all he'd probably have to do would be to breathe on them. Or fart on them, once the chiles and beans got through his system. Maybe he should just fill up a tub with water right now, in case he spontaneously combusted. But Connor was determined; if Richie could eat this ... food ... so could Connor.
"And we're supposed to drink that?" Rachel asked, muted horror in her voice.
Richie laughed again. "Nah, you can have straight tequila or some beer, Rachel." He looked around him proudly. "Actually, a lot of this stuff only an Immortal could ingest -- and survive. But it will be painful." He looked at Connor with a clear challenge in his blue eyes. "Are you game, Connor? Or is your old, ancient intestinal tract too weak to handle it?"
Connor puffed up his chest, pounded it with closed fists, and grunted. "Me Tarzan. Me can take it," he declared, figuring in for a penny, in for pyrotechnics.
Richie said, "Lots of wildlife in the jungle; and real loud, too. The insects alone -- the cicadas, the mosquitoes, the dragonflies, the buzzing whatevers -- were loud. Then there were the monkeys, the birds, and assorted growls, roars, and cries, most of which I couldn't identify. Good thing, too."
Rachel was leaning forward eagerly. She had passed on the tequila, but the beer had given a flush to her cheeks, and she had even tried a bite of the chiles rellenos, although she'd had to wash that down with water. "And snakes, right?"
"One anaconda. About ten feet long. Beautiful but deadly. There was a lump in it, right in the middle, you could almost make out what it was. Or what it had been." Richie shrugged and took a bite of cornbread, washing it down with Negra Modelo. It landed in his already tortured stomach like a heated lead balloon. His grin was lopsided.
Rachel put her taco down and wiped her fingers and mouth carefully with a napkin. She asked Richie, "What did you think of the people there? I've always heard Latin American people are among the most generous in the world, and the Mexicans I met on the streets of Puerto Vallarta were just wonderful!"
"Kindest I've ever dealt with," Richie agreed. "I spent many nights in private homes, with families who just took me in, fed me, gave me a bed to sleep in. Very open with what they had, when they had it. And there were lots of people. When you were in a place where there were people, not in the jungle or something, they were all around you. And always trying to sell something. Even kids. Especially kids. Capitalism is big down there. My kind of people," he said, pointing at himself and smiling. "Hey, would you like another taco?"
"Richie, I've already had two tacos," Rachel answered, as though she'd committed the sin of gluttony. She added, "I remember there was an open market in Puerto Vallarta with some lovely native crafts. Very colorful."
"Oh, yeah, lotsa those," Richie agreed. "The whole town of Golfito on the border of ... Costa Rica ...? Yeah, Costa Rica, was like one big flea market, huge boxes on either side of the road, each one selling something, shoes, clothes, food. And all crowding around you, yelling, hustling, buy, buy! In fact, I got you something there, Rachel." He got up from the table, nearly fell, got his balance, and lurched upstairs to his room.
When he came back he handed Rachel a box wrapped in plain paper. "This is for you."
She gaily ripped the package open and looked inside. "Oh, my," she exclaimed, pulling out a colorful wool shawl interwoven with dyed cotton threads and a long, intricate, macrame fringe.
She pressed it against her face as Richie explained, "It's a macana, woven of sheepswool by these famous Indian weavers from a town in Ecuador called Otovalo. You like it?"
"It's stunning, Richie, thank you so much!" She wrapped it around her shoulders, hugging it to herself and running her hands over it. "It's so soft," she said. Then she carefully folded it back into its box and closed it. "I don't want to get any sauce on it. I'll wear it tomorrow."
"Merry Christmas," Richie answered, feeling generous and sophisticated. Then he continued his tale of adventure. "As I was saying, there were all these little kids all around. Man, I didn't know what to do! If I didn't give them anything, I was the ugly American ... but if I gave even one dollar to one kid, they were all over me, like bees, buzzing..." Richie's head was buzzing as he spoke, and they hadn't even opened the "special" bottle of tequila. "And if I gave them too much, I was the rich American, and that's when I got myself knifed --"
He suddenly broke off, realizing that getting knifed to death was not what he wanted to bring up. He glanced at Connor, who was definitely giving him a warning look.
"But you're here, alive and well, thank goodness. I'm sure being Immortal does have its advantages," Rachel said. She took another sip of her beer. A tiny sip.
Richie thought she was still holding her original bottle of beer. Well, Rachel wasn't trying to hide the fact of their Immortality, or change the subject. He even thought he might have heard a little envy in her voice. Nah....
"Yeah, well, there were a lot of them hombres, and I'd been drinking, a little."
"A little?" Connor asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Richie protested. "Well, this time it was a little. I learned the hard way that there were certain times to keep a low profile and not get too drunk," Richie said, rubbing a spot in his ribcage. He put his empty bottle of Negra Modelo down. "And I did manage to eventually give all my money away, which is how I wound up here, completely broke and depending on your charity, like one of those poor relations."
Connor laughed. "Well, Richie, we know how to treat family. You haven't gone hungry in my house. Or thirsty!" Connor raised a shot glass full of tequila and knocked it back in one gulp.
Family, Richie thought. There it was again. Richie took a deep breath to keep at bay the tears that suddenly threatened to spring to his eyes. He gulped, feeling very warm inside. Or maybe it was what he'd eaten. And drank. He idly wondered who was winning the battle raging in his stomach: the beer, the food, or the tequila. But he shrugged it off. "Thirsty? Hell, I been drinking since Argentina! All the local poisons," he explained to Rachel. "Mate in Argentina, aguardiente, which means burning water, in Chile -- I even drank some mixed with gunpowder!"
"Goodness!" Rachel exclaimed, and Connor winced.
Richie was frowning, trying to remember. "Anyway, the national drink of Peru is..." He knew this, but a gentle fog had settled over his mind.
"Pisco, " Connor supplied.
Richie was grateful. Even though they were both well-lubricated, Richie knew Connor knew something was up with him. And maybe, Richie thought, maybe this was the time to talk about it. Maybe later, after Rachel left, they could do some more drinking, followed by some talking.
"Right! Then tequila in Mexico. I tell ya, the trip back from Argentina was great!"
Rachel laughed. "Sounds like a young man's trip, definitely. How long did it take you? Wouldn't you have had to be on the road by Christmas already? I thought you spent Christmas in Argentina, with Elena Duran and Duncan."
"No," Richie replied. "That didn't work out. I had to go."
Connor gave Richie a sharp, speculative look, and Richie could almost see the Highlander wondering at his abruptness. Richie had told Connor he'd had some problems with John, and that he was also on Stephen Holz's "shit list." Connor might think that had something to do with why Richie had "had to go." But there was no way Connor could figure out the truth. He just didn't have all the facts. And Richie still wasn't sure whether tonight was the night to tell him or not. Well, he'd just wait and see what happened.
"... did you do on Christmas?" Rachel was asking.
Richie twirled on her, almost angrily. "Christmas Eve --" he began, then realized what he was about to say and closed his mouth with a snap. Then he closed his eyes, too, feeling a little dizzy. Well, a lot dizzy. His stomach hurt, too. It burned, and more than just his stomach. He had already told Connor about fighting that Immortal named Jesus on the mountain pass, practically under the outstretched arms of the huge statue of the Andean Christ the Redeemer. And what had happened when he, Richie, had won. But he was sure that Rachel didn't want to hear this, and he was especially sure that Connor wouldn't want Rachel to hear this. Too much drinking equals too much talking, Richie. Maybe in a few centuries he'd learn to hold his liquor. And his tongue.
Connor said nothing. Instead, he got up from the table and slowly went to the kitchen. He noisily refilled the blue plastic bucket with ice, then plunged a few more beers into it and slowly carried it to the table, setting the bucket down with a grunt.
Rachel was saying, "... quite an adventure." She was trying to make things easy for him, Richie realized. Maybe she was afraid he'd say something else, something he didn't want to say, about Immortals, something he'd later regret, Richie thought. Time to change the subject. "Let me tell you about going up and down the Cerro de la Muerte. On a motorcycle, no less." He gulped air. Maybe the oxygen hit would sober him up a little, keep him from going off at the mouth.
"Cerro de la muerte? The mountain of death?" Connor asked.
"Yeah," Richie answered, but with a smile on his face. After all, he'd survived that, too. But that was an easy subject, no killing, no fighting. Just some mighty hairy motorcyle driving. He told them the story. Afterwards, Rachel declared that it was time for her to go, so Richie and Connor escorted her downstairs, delivered her to a waiting taxi, then swayed and staggered their way back up the stairs.
Translations -- all Spanish except where indicated
Cuervo tequila -- tequila is an alcholic beverage made from fermented
cactus juice; Cuervo is a brand of tequila
Jalapenos, chiles anchos, passilla, california, serrano, habanero, chipolte -- various peppers, many of them quite hot
Chiles rellenos -- stuffed peppers
Piece de resistance -- (French) the ultimate, the showpiece
Blanco, Reposado -- white, aged tequila
Tequila Dorado chitelpin -- Gold tequila with chitelpin peppers floating in it
Macana -- intricately woven, colorful woolen shawl from Ecuador
Hombres -- Spanish for men
Mate, Aguardiente, Pisco -- In order, the national alcoholic drinks of Argentina, Chile, and Peru
Cerro de la muerte -- mountain of death, located in Costa Rica
Chapter 10: Physics
Too full to continue eating, they opened the bottle of the tequila Dorado chitelpin and drank a third of it, coughing and gasping. They sat in companionable and painful silence for perhaps ten minutes. But Connor knew Richie Ryan wouldn't -- or couldn't -- stay quiet for long. And Richie still hadn't spoken about whatever had brought him here, to New York, to see Connor.
So Connor waited, his stomach protesting and hurting.
"You know, I've finally figured out the answer to it all," Richie stated at last, looking at the shot of tequila on the coffee table in front of him. He was sprawled on the floor, his back to one of the chairs, across from Connor, who was sitting on the sofa, his legs crossed in front of him. "The answer to Immortality, love, life and death. Everything."
Connor smiled. As long as you don't say forty-two, he thought. "Enlighten me, O wise one," he said, leaning forward and picking up his glass of tequila. He wasn't sure if he could drink it or not.
Richie looked straight at the Scot. "You can't win, you can't break even, you can't get out of the Game." He scrambled onto his knees and leaned forward, close to Connor, very serious. Their faces were almost touching when he added the coup de grace: "You lose." Then he leaned back, a self-satisfied smile on his face, drank his shot, and poured himself another. His hands shook slightly, but his voice was clear, if low. "It's all fuckin' physics," he murmured.
When Richie had said, "You lose," Connor had had a blinding instant of doubt, his hand wrapped around the glass, his heart rising to his throat. But he immediately realized Richie was using the "generic" you. He leaned back again, the moment of panic over, and nodded slowly. His head felt heavy. "So science has all the answers, huh?" he asked the young Immortal.
"No, not science," Richie answered. "Physics. For example -- two objects can't occupy the same ... place ... at the same time. Right?"
"Right," Connor agreed. He thought it over for a moment then asked, "Meaning what?"
"Meaning." Richie lifted his glass and pointed to it with his left hand in his best "exhibit A" manner. "If I drink this shot of tequila, I'll throw up." He held it up. Like the liquor in Connor's glass, it was gold-colored and murky, with little bits floating in it. The chiles, of course.
This time Connor shook his head, even more slowly, because that movement made him dizzy. He understood about too much tequila, but ... "That would be bi ... uh ... ology. Or maybe ch ... chemistry," he said.
"No," Richie disagreed again. "Look, you remember that Monty Python movie?"
Connor thought for a moment. "Life of Brian."
"No, no! The other one, with King Arthur. The one with the coconuts!" Richie said, clearly annoyed.
Connor shook his head, very gingerly this time, feeling perverse. "Cocoanuts was a Marx Brothers movie."
Richie stared at Connor uncomprehendingly for a moment. "Sir Lancelot," he said, as if starting to say more, but stopped.
Richie had called Connor by that name when they'd first seen each other, Connor knew -- even though they'd never met that time. Richie had called Connor that name again when he'd visited New York with Tessa, the summer before Tessa had been murdered. Seeing the flash of tears in Richie's eyes, Connor wondered if Richie was thinking about Tessa, whom he suspected Richie had loved fiercely. Tessa died many years ago -- but to Richie, her memory still apparently brought tears. Connor knew exactly how that felt. Softened by alcohol, maybe the redhead was finally getting ready to tell Connor something, after all.
But Richie came back to what he was trying to explain to Connor. "Do you remember when Sir Lancelot ran into the castle and swung his sword, swooosh!" He pronounced the three words with the same "sw" sound, slicing the air with the palm of his hand. "He swung and swung his sword, and killed people. Everybody died, everybody. But it was like a pendulum, you know, swinging back and forth. Lancelot couldn't help it, he couldn't stop it. It was a force of nature. He had no choice. Swing, swoosh, and he killed them all. Fuckin' physics," he repeated.
Connor remembered that scene from the movie, although he couldn't recall the title. He looked closely at Richie, trying to clear his mind. At last, he realized, here was a hint of what was bothering the young Immortal, what he wanted to talk about and hadn't been able to. And he fully understood, very well, what Richie was saying. Connor waited for more, but instead of talking, Richie drank his tequila in one gulp.
Richie closed his eyes as the liquid fire slid down his throat then opened them wide. Connor guessed the tequila had exploded in Richie's stomach with all the subtlety of napalm. The redhead gasped, lurching to his feet, looking depressed and suddenly very ill.
Connor looked up at him through squinted eyes. "You know where th' head is." Then, to himself, he mumbled, "Fuckin' physics," raised his own shot-glass of tequila and drank it down.
Some time later, Richie found himself standing next to Connor all the way out on a long pier. Richie had no idea of the time, and he also had no idea how he and Connor had gotten to the pier. He didn't know what pier it was, either. He looked down -- way down -- into the dark chasm beneath them. "Where are we?" he asked, but the words were whipped away as a boat blew its horn out on the water. Richie squinted to see the boat -- his vision was blurred by the cold and the dark and the bitter wind, and no doubt by the unbelievable amount of liquor he and Connor had consumed. He started suddenly, wondering if he had his sword, but then relaxed as he realized he could feel it through his coat. As far as he could tell, without even being completely conscious, he'd remembered to take his sword with him. Not, Richie thought slowly, that it would do him much good if somebody challenged him now.
"Unh?" Connor grunted inquiringly.
Richie could smell the alcohol fumes from Connor, which was amazing, considering that Richie himself stank of liquor too. "Whew," he said. "We stink."
"Yeah," Connor grunted in amiable agreement, then belched loudly several times.
He looked at Richie as if he expected Richie to chastise him for the belches, and Richie started laughing helplessly. After a moment, Connor started laughing, too. They staggered around for a few minutes on the pier, in ever-more-imminent danger of falling into the water, both of them laughing and belching and farting. The icy wind blew across them relentlessly, but they were too well fortified with alcohol to feel the cold.
Suddenly, Richie felt an unmistakable internal pressure. "I gotta piss," he said loudly.
Connor sobered immediately. "Me, too," he said gravely.
That set them off on another round of howls and laughs as they struggled drunkenly against the wind towards the edge of the pier.
Richie somehow managed to get close enough and started to unzip his pants, but Connor said, "No!"
"Whaddya mean 'no'?" Richie said, his pants already half-unzipped. "I gotta go."
"Never ... uh, never piss into the wind, Ryan."
Richie thought it over. "Okay," he finally said. "Now what?"
Connor listed sideways and pointed in the same direction, towards the other side of the pier. "Over there," he said. "Piss with the wind."
"Unh-huh," Richie grunted.
The two of them -- holding on to each other for balance -- staggered across the wide expanse of the pier, tripped and fell on their knees on the concrete. Laughing loudly and drunkenly again, they dragged each other up and lurched over to the other side, which, fortunately, had a guardrail.
Richie finished unzipping his pants and then sighed as he leaned against the guardrail and relieved himself into the water below. "What is that down there?" he said.
"The Hudson River," Connor replied, also relieving himself.
Richie smiled. "The water's cold," he said.
"Yeah," Connor replied. "And deep, too," he added. Then he gave Richie a smug look, and they started laughing helplessly again.
coup de grace -- (French) the ultimate blow, the conclusion
Chapter 11: The Very Model of Modern Twenty-First Century Men
Richie could not remember how they got back to Connor's apartment. But it didn't matter, because despite their Immortal constitutions, it was two days before Connor and Richie could get back to their morning routine of working out, sparring, and breakfast. They spent the time sitting quietly around Connor's apartment, tiptoeing, whispering occasional monosyllables to each other, eating bland food, and sleeping. And avoiding everyone else.
On the third day -- Tuesday -- they skipped the workout, had a light breakfast, and got the rest of Connor's furniture into place. Then they had a somewhat more filling lunch and spent the afternoon on more wine lessons for Richie. Richie learned all about red and fortified wines and demonstrated that he had totally mastered the skill of spitting.
On Wednesday, and after the first serious workout and real breakfast they'd had since the day of Richie's Mexican fiesta (which Connor was privately thinking of as Richie's Mexican fiasco), Richie came out of his bedroom in his holey briefs, looked at Connor, and announced, "Well, it's time."
"You're right, Richie." Connor sighed theatrically, having not the slightest idea what Richie meant. "It's past time. But it has to be done."
Richie scratched his chest, then squinted at Connor, his eyes glinting with mischief. "You old fart," he muttered -- just loud enough for Connor to hear.
"But a wise fart," Connor replied with a perfectly straight face -- but his eyes were dancing.
Richie lost it, and Connor smiled slyly.
"What the hell are you talking about, Ryan?"
"The worst fate known to man -- shopping for clothes."
"Oy," Connor said, nodding sagely. "Have fun."
"You said you were going to tell me --"
"Bitch, bitch," Connor interrupted. "Get dressed and -- never mind. I'll lend you something to wear."
"As long as it's not a kilt," Richie stated firmly.
Connor gave him a sorrowful look. "Kilts are all I have to lend. A shame you don't have the legs for them."
"Bullshit," Richie replied. "I have great legs." He paused, gave Connor a skeptical look. "Hey, man, this is gettin' a little weird. Just tell me where to go -- never mind. I just want to get this over with."
"Right," Connor said.
Consulting the directions Connor had given him, Richie walked into Good Times, intending to buy everything he needed in one place and get it over with. He stood in the entryway, looking around the place and headed straight for the racks of jeans. But he was intercepted.
"Can I help you?" a woman's voice inquired.
Richie smiled. That was a young woman's voice, and Richie had always gotten along well with young women sales-clerks. He turned around, anticipating, and then, when he saw her, he thought: Wow. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, about five-foot-three, with brown hair and sea-blue eyes, and Richie thought he'd like to go for a swim in that sea. He glanced at her nametag. "Yes, Lisa Vance, Manager," he read aloud, "you can certainly help me. By the way, I'm Richie. Richie Ryan." He held out his hand, and she took it, not shaking it, just holding it firmly with both of her hands for a moment. Her hands were soft and warm, and Richie liked the feel of them. Then Lisa released his hand and smiled at him warmly. Richie seriously doubted that she smiled like that for all her customers.
"And you need some new threads, right, Richie Ryan, customer?"
Richie grinned, then looked down at his frayed, faded jeans -- he'd turned Connor down on the clothing loan, after all. "How'd you guess?"
An hour later, when Richie walked out, he was re-dressed head to toe, in new boots, socks, new underwear, new jeans, a new belt, a new shirt and sweater, and a brand-new full-length black leather duster so soft that it almost seemed to melt when you touched it. He was carrying bags containing two more pairs of jeans, three shirts, one sweater, one package of briefs, one package of socks, and some work-out clothes. He'd thrown everything he'd worn to the store into the trash bin. He had no cash left, and he'd almost maxed out one of his credit cards, but the important thing was that he had the name of the bar Lisa and her room-mate would be in tonight.
As he looked around for an ATM, he decided Manhattan was great.
Connor and Richie stepped into the bar Lisa had told Richie about. Both of them immediately paused from the sense of another Immortal. They looked at each other. Then, by unspoken agreement, they split up, Richie taking the left, Connor the right. Richie was tense, and Connor looked ... actually, Connor looked a little bit scary. Damn! Richie thought, hoping Lisa and her friend would not be here yet.
The two Immortals scanned the room. The Retro Bar was a large square with a central sunken dance floor in the middle, flanked two steps up by a multitude of tiny tables on the right and left and by the raised bar on the far end. It would be almost impossible to spot an Immortal in this mess, Richie thought. He and Connor stood on either side of the double entry doors, making themselves fully visible and available to the Immortal inside. No one obviously turned to look their way, but then Richie saw Lisa -- good, she was here, dammit! -- standing on the other end of the room at the bar, facing him, talking to a man seated at the bar. She glanced up, saw Richie, and smiled.
Richie smiled back, a small smile. But Lisa would have to wait. Dealing with the Immortal -- as soon as Richie found him -- had to be the first priority.
Then the man Lisa was talking to stood and turned abruptly towards them, and Richie recognized him at once. Edward Percy! Great! Wonderful! Richie thought. Not only was Percy here, in Richie's face again, but he was horning in on Richie's girl!
Richie waved his hand in the air at Connor and pointed to Percy, but Connor had obviously already spotted the Englishman. Connor nodded to Richie. Then they slowly wound their way in and out of the tables on either side, the better to keep the bar and their quarry in sight.
"You again!" Percy shouted as they flanked him -- just like last time.
Richie replied, also yelling, "Like a bad penny." He stopped just short of the bar. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Connor squeeze up to the bar on Percy's right. "How you doin', Lisa?" Richie yelled over the din of the music. But at that moment, thankfully, the band stopped, and the silence was deafening.
"Fine," she said in a normal voice, still smiling. "You two know each other?" she asked. She started to step towards Richie, but Percy put his hand on her wrist.
Lisa turned to him, pulling her arm away. "Hey," she said irritably, and Percy dropped his hand immediately.
Richie started to reach for Percy's arm, but the moment was past.
"Sorry," Percy said to Lisa, "but I thought we were going to have dinner."
"I never said that, Edward," she replied. "This is Richie Ryan --" she nodded at Richie "-- and he's the friend I told you we were waiting for."
"I'd like to be your friend, too, Lisa," he said in her ear -- but loud enough for Richie to hear. "In fact, I thought we were getting along quite well."
Richie stepped forward, smiling at Lisa. He looked up at Percy. "You know," he said easily, expecting Percy to back down again, "I think the lady already told you what she wanted. Why don't you give it a rest?"
Percy surprised Richie by saying angrily, "Why don't you piss off, Ryan? What are you two doing, following me around?" he growled loudly, including Connor in his scathing look. "I thought we'd settled things the other night."
Lisa looked at the two of them dubiously. "Settled what?"
"Our differences," Percy replied.
"Well, I hope your 'differences' don't include fighting over women, because I don't like that kind of macho bullshit. And neither does Gina, right, Gina?"
The second brunette, who had been looking Connor over, now stood with Lisa. She nodded.
"This isn't about you, my dear," Percy said. "Not any more."
"Well, screw you," she said. "Both of you." She turned to her friend and said, "Come on, Gina, let's go." The two of them disappeared into the crowd, Gina turning at the last minute to give Connor a charming smile.
Connor had been looking Gina over as well, and he'd liked what he'd seen: long, dark hair; golden-olive skin; dark eyes; full, wide lips. But Edward Percy had ruined that. For now. Lisa had seemed glad to see Richie, and Gina had definitely seemed pleased with Connor. Well, Lisa and Gina hadn't gone out the door. Maybe if he or Richie killed Percy, they could still get back to the girls tonight. If they could get Percy to fight, this time. "Well, looks like it's just the three of us, again," Connor said pleasantly.
"Yes," Percy said. "And that's not the way the Game is played, MacLeod. Not two against one."
"I play by the rules," Connor said sharply.
"Then you won't mind if Ryan and I go outside and settle our differences, according to the rules, will you?"
"You and me. Let's go," Richie said, glad to see Connor wasn't like the other Mac, wasn't going to interfere.
The two men went out the door, with Connor following, and they walked to the crowded parking lot. Percy, who was in the lead, turned to say, "There's an alley behind --" But then he saw Connor and snarled, "I thought you were going to stay out of this, MacLeod!"
"I won't interfere," Connor answered quietly, glancing at the people around them.
"Right!" Percy said. Then he lowered his voice. "Until I take the blighter's head, then you'll help yourself to an easy kill."
"He said he wouldn't interfere, dammit!" Richie said in a low tone. But he was a little annoyed with Connor, too.
Connor suggested, "Let's find a quieter place to discuss this, shall we?" pointing down the street.
Percy exclaimed, "With the two of you? I think not!" And with that, he went to the street, flagged down a taxi, and, never taking his eyes off them, rode away.
They watched the car disappear, then Richie said, irritably, "You know, I don't blame him for thinking we're double-teaming him. Why'd you follow us, anyway? You're just like Duncan."
Connor shrugged. "Whenever we've been together, I've always stood with Duncan, and he with me. But if you prefer, I'll leave you to fight alone."
Richie didn't like the way this was going -- he liked having a MacLeod stand with him. "That's not what I meant, Connor. What I mean is --"
"I know what you mean. I'm not trying to protect you -- just stand by you, as your friend." Then Connor thought: yes, you are trying to protect him, MacLeod.
Richie remembered Duncan saying those very same words to him, back in Buenos Aires. But he said, "I appreciate that, but ... this Percy guy ..."
"Next time we run into him -- if there is a next time -- I'll stay out of it. Completely," Connor said. Unfortunately, Connor thought to himself. He'd much rather be the one to fight, but Richie was right -- it was his battle. Then Connor said, "You know, there's still a chance that Lisa and Gina are inside. Maybe we'd better get back and see if we can convince them we're not full of macho bullshit."
"Yeah," Richie said, grinning, punching Connor in the shoulder. "No macho bullshit here."
Connor punched him back, harder. "Right. We're both model twenty-first-century sensitive men. In fact, I think I'm about to weep."
"Yeah," Richie replied, moving his shoulder around in circles. "Let's get back inside before you get too in touch with your feminine side and break my arm."
Connor was grinning -- his own shoulder aching -- as they went back inside the bedlam. The music -- "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurhythmics this time -- had started up again. Within minutes they found the two brunettes, and the women weren't talking to any other men. Yet. Richie and Connor moved in assertively, but not aggressively. No macho bullshit, Connor reminded himself.
"Hey," Richie said, easing up to Lisa and yelling in her ear again. "We're back."
Gina smiled at Connor again, while Lisa leaned against the bar and looked Richie up and down. "Like a bad penny? So ..." she shouted, studying Richie. "Did you fight a duel?"
"Not this time," Richie answered seriously.
"He had to go," Connor yelled.
Gina spoke for the first time, so low that they had to read her lips. "Good," she said.
"Let's go eat," Lisa yelled, making eating motions with her hand.
Richie said, "Great!" nodding emphatically, and the four of them headed out. As soon as they were outside, Richie said, "This is Iain MacKinnon, the friend I told you about."
"Hi, Iain MacKinnon," Lisa said, smiling, then grabbed Gina by the arm and pulled her forward. "This is Gina Valenti, my roommate."
"Now that's Italian," Richie said.
"Si," Gina answered.
"Piacere," Connor said, kissing Gina's hand gallantly.
Gina giggled and blushed, and then allowed Connor to take her arm as they went to dinner.
Piacere -- (Italian) pleased to meet you (informal)
Chapter 12: Valenti and Vance
After dinner, they'd taken in a movie, then Connor had invited them all back to his place for a nightcap, coffee ... "Whatever you'd like," he'd said expansively, spreading his arms wide, smiling charmingly.
Lisa and Gina had glanced at each other. Gina had turned back to Connor and, in the contralto voice that sent goosebumps up Connor's back, had said simply, "OK."
So the four of them had taken the subway and the bus and then walked the last few blocks to Connor's loft apartment. It was cold, and their breath came out in frosty clouds. Connor and Richie took the opportunity to put their arms around the ladies "to keep you from freezing," Richie said to Lisa, smiling, but the comment was for them all.
They went upstairs, and the two girls oohed and aahed over Connor's elegant apartment. Lisa planted herself in front of the aquarium while Gina walked around, touching things, looking at the furnishings, the paintings on the wall. Gina stopped in front of a nude, leaned forward, and gasped a little. She turned to Connor, her eyes wide with an unspoken question, her right index finger carefully air-tracing the artist's signature.
Connor smiled, shrugged. "It's an original Toulouse-Lautrec," he said modestly. "All my art is original."
Gina's rather thick eyebrows rose -- they were her only mildly unattractive feature, Connor thought -- and then she glanced around the loft quickly. "All Impressionists?" she said.
"Oh, no," Connor replied. "I have an ... eclectic collection. But Toulouse-Lautrec is definitely one of my favorites."
"Mine, too," Gina said. She turned to him, and suddenly they were close together. Connor could smell her, and he permitted himself to do so. "I like your perfume," he said softly.
Gina smiled flirtatiously and said softly, "I like your tastes."
What Connor wanted to do at that moment was take the girl -- woman -- in his arms, kiss her, and then make love to her. But they weren't alone, and besides, he was pretty sure she wasn't ready for that. So instead he replied, "Speaking of taste, would anyone like a drink? I have a very good vintage port."
"Oh, yes," Gina replied. "I'd like that. Lisa?"
"What?" Lisa looked up. She and Richie had been in deep conversation and hadn't heard Connor's offer.
"I said," Connor replied, "Would anyone like some port?"
"Sure, I guess," Lisa replied. "What's the difference between wine and port?"
Connor started to answer, but Richie held up his hand. "I've been learning all about wine," he said smugly. "I'll take this. Port is a fortified wine, which means brandy gets added to it to make it tastier."
Lisa looked skeptical. "You mean to make it stronger, don't you? Are you trying to get us drunk?"
"No," Connor said. Yes, Connor thought.
Simultaneously, Richie said, "Of course not, but if you don't want any port, I won't drink any either."
Lisa protested, "I didn't say I didn't want any. I just want to keep you honest."
"As the day is long, Lisa," Richie said, putting one hand on his heart and grinning broadly. "Besides, I think you'll like this vintage port. It's really old. The good stuff."
"Excellent, Mr. Mondavi," Connor replied, "I'll go get the drinks." He headed towards the kitchen.
As Connor left, Lisa said to Richie, "Who's Mr. Mondavi?"
Gina answered, smiling at Richie, "A famous California vintner."
Lisa shrugged, still looking baffled.
Richie said, "You know, he has vineyards, he grows grapes, he makes wine."
"Oh," Lisa said, shrugging again. "Well, I don't know much about wine -- just that I like to drink it!" She smiled a little when she said it, and Richie smiled with her.
"I was in the same boat," he said. "But Connor ... well, he knows all there is to know about wine, liquor, you name it. He promised to teach me about it, so I took him up on it."
"So you're a hoity-toity wine expert now?" Lisa asked in a mock-snotty voice.
"Absolutely," he said. "I can snort, gargle, and spit with the best of them."
"Oh, you!" Lisa said, laughing and thumping Richie on the shoulder. She started to speak again, but just then Connor came back with a bottle and four glasses on a tray.
He set the tray down, then handed the bottle and the corkscrew over to Richie. "Would you like to do the honors, Mr. Ryan?" he said, his eyes sparking mischievously.
"Absolutely," Richie repeated, taking the bottle and the tool. Richie cut the foil, aligned the corkscrew, screwed it precisely into the cork, and with a sharp tug, pulled the cork out.
"Bravo!" Lisa said, clapping. "Every time I do that, I wind up digging the cork out of the bottle with tweezers."
Everyone laughed, and Richie replied, "Well, it took me a little practice, but I think I've got the hang of it now." He decanted carefully for everyone, making sure to keep the residue from floating to the top of the bottle. As they took up their glasses, Richie said, "I'd like to toast the two most beautiful women in the city of New York."
Connor raised his glass and nodded to Gina and then Lisa.
The women smiled -- a little embarrassed and quite pleased -- then the four of them drank.
Gina closed her eyes, swirled the port around on her tongue, then swallowed it. Afterwards, she sighed deeply, pleasurably, sensually. "Mmmmmm," she murmured.
Connor began to feel a little warm, and he took another sip himself to cover his reaction. If she enjoyed ... other things ... as much as she enjoyed art and drink ... he smiled. "Would you like to see more of my collection?" he asked, holding out his arm.
"Yes," Gina replied, taking his arm and letting him lead her to another painting, this one of a woman reclining on a couch, a gown billowing about her feet, her breasts bare, her expression and pose erotic, inviting.
As Connor and Gina left, Richie turned to Lisa and said, "So, Lisa, when you're not working at the store or learning about wine from an expert --" he grinned and raised his eyebrows "-- what are you doing?"
"I'm working on my MBA at NYU," she replied, pushing her dark hair back behind her right ear. "I'm managing the jeans store to get experience and pay my way through school. I'm going to do the corporate thing for a few years, save my money, and then do the entrepeneurial deal. Gina and I are planning to go into business together -- we're going to run a print and frame shop with a small gallery attached. Gina -- she's getting her master's in art -- she's going to take care of the art side and I'm going to handle the business end. We're going to call it 'Valenti and Vance.' We both want to be our own bosses."
"I'm my own boss," Richie admitted modestly. "I own a motorcycle repair shop, with an occasional sale when some customer needs it."
"Really? Here in Manhattan? Tell me all about it!" Lisa said.
Richie liked the way her blue eyes sparkled. "No, no, not in Manhattan," he clarified. "It's in Seacouver."
"I still want to hear all about it," Lisa said. She drew him to one of the couches, where they sat down. Then she began asking questions. Pleased to find a woman really interested in his business, Richie found himself eagerly explaining all the details.
"As for taxes ... " he said, grimacing.
Lisa laughed and said, "You know, I'm taking a course in business taxes right now ... maybe I can give you some hints on adjusting your income."
"Yeah," Richie said, smiling. "That'd be great ..." He took her hand in his. "But there are other things in life than business. You know what they say: All work and no play --"
"Make Johnnie a very rich dude," Lisa said, and they both laughed.
"Rich, but dull," Richie said.
"Right," Lisa said, pulling her hand from his, but not pulling away. She put her glass back down on the table and gave him a delighted, pleased smile. "I'm glad you came to the bar, Richie."
"Yeah? And why is that?"
"Because you're funny and smart and because you like me."
"Yes, I do," Richie replied, taking her hand once again. This time she let him. Oh, believe me, I do, he thought to himself. Wine, women, and song -- two down, one to go.
Gina had preceded Connor into his bedroom; but when she got to the bed, she suddenly turned to face him, slightly alarmed.
Connor, who was coming closer to her, immediately stopped a full yard away from her. "You're in charge," he said, holding his hands up, outspread, totally non-threatening. "We can talk; we can drink more port -- or coffee; I can take you home. Whatever you'd like."
"Hmmm," she said, nodding a little. She walked around his bedroom, looking at the objets d'art: paintings, drawings, figures. She ran her hand down the back of a chair cushioned in velvet, closed her eyes, and sighed. It reminded Connor of the pleasure she'd shown when she'd tasted the port, and he felt the blood surge from his brain -- down, down, down.
Gina opened her eyes, glanced at him, smiled knowingly. Then she blushed and turned away again, facing one of the paintings.
There was a knock on the door. Connor turned away, and, walking a little stiffly, he opened it. Lisa was there with Richie behind her, and she looked past him to Gina.
"I think it's probably time to get home, don't you, Gina?" she said, looking at Connor a little curiously, maybe a little anxiously.
Connor stepped back, to get out of the way, to give them space and to make sure Lisa didn't feel threatened -- no macho bullshit -- and he turned to look inquiringly at Gina. Lisa came into the room, with Richie following her.
Connor glanced at Richie, at the girls, back at Richie, and raised his eyebrows. It was all done in a second. Richie shrugged. Connor turned back to Gina, who was nodding to Lisa.
"Yes," Gina said, though she smiled at Connor again when she spoke. Then to Lisa, she said, "My purse."
"I've got it," Lisa said, holding it up.
Connor sighed, wondering how Richie had managed to spoil this part of the evening. Letting none of his disappointment show, he said, "Let me drive you ladies home."
"It's okay," Lisa said. "It's just a few blocks from here. We can walk."
"At this time of night?" Connor said. "Let Richie and I walk you home -- or at least call you a cab. I insist."
"Okay, sure," Lisa said, her eyes dancing. "We live over on Christopher Street, above one of the shops."
Connor looked directly at Lisa. "Christopher Street, eh?" he said.
"Yeah," Lisa replied. She was smiling wickedly, and so was Gina.
Richie frowned. "Some kind of problem with Christopher Street?"
Lisa and Gina simply giggled.
Connor turned to Richie and said, "Let me put it this way, Richie. It's the kind of street where you and I could walk hand-in-hand and nobody would notice."
"Oh," Richie said.
Lisa burst out laughing. "Look, if it makes you too uncomfortable --"
"Nonsense," Connor interrupted. "I think Richie and I are man enough to resist a few advances to see you ladies safely home." He turned to Richie. "Right, Richie?"
"Yeah. Sure. I mean ... absolutely." Richie sounded unenthusiastic.
Connor gave him a hard stare, then said perfectly pleasantly, "Well, let's get the ladies' coats, shall we?"
Chapter 13: A Walk On The Wild Side
The two couples walked arm-in-arm up the three well-lit blocks of Hudson Street, then turned right onto Christopher Street. The sidewalks were full of people, and the whole area looked almost as lively as New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
Richie saw a spotlit billboard showing a happy male couple on a beach, their arms around each other, a cruise ship in the background. Below the billboard was a bookstore, and the window display was full of titles on gay and lesbian relationships, getting along in a straight world, and the like. There was even one book entitled, "With This Ring ..." Richie peered more closely -- it turned out to be a book of vows for gay wedding ceremonies. Beside the bookstore was a busy bar, with a line outside. Same-sex couples were holding hands or hugging. A few were kissing. Richie didn't care, one way or the other, about gay lifestyles -- hell, it wasn't like this was the first time he'd seen gay men out in the open by a long shot -- but he wasn't quite sure what was the protocol for walking your date through a gay neighborhood. And besides, it felt odd to be a "minority."
Lisa was watching Richie. "You don't look too happy," she said softly.
"Nah," he replied, "I'm cool. This is the twenty-first century after all. Live and let live, right?" Speaking of centuries ... He looked across Lisa at Connor. "What do you think of all this?"
"I think things have changed a lot since I was a boy," Connor replied.
Richie laughed out loud at that. "No kidding," he said.
They crossed a major intersection -- Sheridan Square -- where four streets came together at varying angles. A subway station was in the middle of the intersection, and the place was incredibly busy -- pedestrians and vehicles all fighting for space, even now, just a little before midnight. It reminded Richie a little of Times Square, without the skyscrapers and the huge ads -- and with a near-totality of same-sex couples. In fact, Richie felt that the four of them -- two men and two women -- were the ones who were out-of-place here. Finally, they reached the girls' building, a two-story affair above a grocery at the corner of Waverly and Christopher. Richie and Connor walked the two women upstairs, and the two couples lightly, almost chastely, kissed goodnight at the door.
Richie asked Lisa, "Are you free tomorrow night?"
Lisa looked at Gina, who looked at Connor and said, "Not tomorrow but Friday we are."
"Yeah," Lisa said. Richie realized that Lisa always looked to Gina for a decision, even though Gina was the quiet one. "We're free on Friday. You guys want to meet us at the same bar?" She grinned and raised her eyebrows.
"Okay," Richie said. "We'll be there."
Connor nodded, smiling at Gina.
As they went down the stairs and headed for the street, Connor asked, "Are you ready?"
"For what?" Richie replied. But he had a pretty good idea.
"You know," Connor replied, pitching his voice low. "The gauntlet."
"Yeah," Richie replied. "I'm ready."
Connor raised his eyebrows, but said nothing, leading Richie to wonder how many times Connor had been propositioned in this part of the Village.
They walked swiftly down the street, passing Sheridan Square without incident. But when they got to the corner of Bleecker and Christopher, lit as brightly as noon with streetlights and neon lights, their luck ran out. They encountered a six-foot-three-inch-tall, fifty-ish, rotund man impeccably dressed in black jeans and boots, a blue turtleneck sweater, and what looked like a Victorian cloak draped across his shoulders and sweeping down to his ankles. The man's gray hair was balding and he had a face like a dock-worker's. Even with the elegant clothing, he didn't look anything like Richie's idea of what "gay" meant -- this guy looked like he could beat the crap out of Richie.
The man raked both Connor and Richie up and down with his eyes, then approached them eagerly. Richie tensed.
But in an admiring, cultured baritone that took Richie completely by surprise, the man said, "Oh, you two are just the answer to a prayer." He put his hand to his mouth, then shook his head. "I just can't believe it. I have been looking for ... je ne sais pas ... I just kept telling everyone that I'd know it when I saw it -- and here you are. I just can't believe it, but then I always say things have a way of working out for the best. You two are just ... beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous. Sublime. Of course, we're going to have to shape up that hair --" He reached for Connor's rather shaggy hair, but Connor tilted his head back and squinted at Hugh -- not looking dangerous or scary, Richie thought. It was more of an aloof, "don't touch me" look. Hugh sighed and dropped his hand, and Richie got the distinct impression that Hugh *really* wanted to stroke Connor's hair. But after a moment, Hugh recovered and prattled on, "But that's not going to be a problem. No, no, no, indeed."
Hugh circled them. "And, oh, you, honey --" Richie jumped at a soft patting stroke across his ass "-- honey, you have the best ass. You really ought to wear tighter jeans, but we'll take care of that. Absolutely." Now he was back in front of them. "And you again," he spoke to Connor, waving his hand, "you are just hiding everything under those clothes. I'll bet you have great biceps and pecs. And as for what you've got hidden under those sloppy jeans ..." Hugh put his hand up to his face, shook his head, and sighed happily. "But that's why I'm such a genius -- I can find the diamonds in the rough." Then he turned to the crowd milling around and called, "Kathy! Kath, honey. Come over here and look what I *found*."
Kathy immediately came over. She was a tall, too-thin woman wearing too much make-up and just as sharply dressed as her companion. At his gesture, she silently looked Richie and Connor up and down then gasped. "Oh, my God! Hugh! They're perfect! You said we'd find them -- and here they are!" She had a noticeable New Jersey accent, so "perfect" sounded like "poifect."
Connor took a breath, and Richie waited. But all the Scot said, politely and coolly, was, "We're not interested. Good-bye."
"Not interested! Not interested!" Kathy exclaimed. She tried to grab Connor's elbow, but he smoothly sidestepped, and she sniffed. "Do you know who this is?" She pointed at Hugh. "This is Hugh Slater, the producer!"
Connor started to say something, but Richie interrupted. "Producer. You mean as in the movies?"
Connor glared at Richie, but Richie resolutely ignored him.
"Television, darling," Hugh replied. He was pursing his lips and shaking his head at Richie now. "You see, Kath, these are just all the wrong colors. With that strawberry-blond hair and that skin -- we are talking some lovely peaches and greens here, darling, you see that, don't you? Of course, he has those gorgeous azure eyes ..." Hugh stared for a moment into Richie's eyes as if mesmerized by them. "Hmph ... just gorgeous."
While Hugh and Kathy stared into Richie's eyes, Connor mimed the word, "Gorgeous" to Richie while batting his own eyelashes.
Richie had to press his lips together to keep from laughing.
Kathy was nodding at Hugh's words and taking notes in a notebook, totally oblivious to anything else.
"Now as for you, darling," Hugh said, turning to Connor -- who instantly assumed a bland expression -- "oh, my -- his eyes might be blue, but your eyes ... Kath, honey, will you take a look? Have you ever seen such wild, intense eyes?"
Now it was Richie's turn and he let his eyes go very wide, blinking slowly, while making a "yakkity-yakkity" motion with his right hand.
Connor snorted. Of course, Richie thought, he doesn't give a damn. In the next instant, Kathy was nose-to-nose with Connor, her small, bright eyes peering straight into his.
She sighed dreamily. "Never in my life. And they're gray, Hugh -- you know what that means! Blues ... heather grays ... greens..."
Hugh reached for Connor once again, trying to take the Scot's chin in his hand, but Richie figured that something in Connor's 'wild, intense eyes' made Hugh change his mind. Instead he lowered his hand and said, "Kath, you are a genius!" To Connor, he said, "I'll bet you just don't have any idea what those eyes can do -- I bet they even change color depending on your mood. You're going to have everyone falling in love with you. Hell, I've already fallen in love with you." He threw his arms out to include both Immortals. "Both of you. I'm going to put you up on billboards, on TV, on the Internet..." He babbled happily on about how both Richie and Connor would be overnight superstars, but he eyed Connor longingly.
Richie looked from Hugh to Connor, then back again, figuring he'd better take control of this situation before Connor got nasty. But before he could speak, Connor said quietly, "It's not going to happen. We're just --"
"We have a camera phobia," Richie interrupted, hit by a sudden inspiration.
Hugh stared. "A what?"
"A phobia to cameras. If anybody tries to photograph us, we just..." He sighed dramatically, then started again. "Look, it's a psychological thing, OK?" he explained. "It's how we met, at a support group for people with phobias. You know."
Connor stared at Richie then rolled his eyes.
"I don't understand," Kathy said. "What happens when someone tries to take your picture?"
"We have, you know..." Richie began.
"Anxiety attacks," Connor finished for him.
"Yeah," Richie said, amazed but pleased that Connor was going along with it. "We get cold sweats, spasms, dizziness, fainting spells. Sometimes I feel like I'm falling into a deep pit or something. The whole thing. We're trying to get desensitized, but so far..." He sighed again, even more dramatically.
"But usually he just faints," Connor said maliciously.
Richie gave Connor a surprised look. Damn, he didn't realize Connor was so quick on the uptake for this kind of thing.
"But you'd be making tons of money," Hugh implored.
"Sorry," Connor said. "Really, the very thought of a camera --" he said, clenching his teeth and taking deep breaths as though he were making a great effort. But his eyes were glinting dangerously, and Richie could tell that if he didn't get them out of there soon, the Highlander was going to get ... rude. Real rude.
"Right," Richie said briskly. "Damn, he might be going into one of his fits now." He took Connor by the elbow, earning himself an evil sideways squint from the Scot. "I better get him home. Sorry!" Hurriedly, Richie steered Connor away from The Famous Producer And His Assistant and towards Hudson Street. As soon as they'd taken a few steps, Connor pulled his elbow free and produced a loud editorial snort. Richie kept a straight face and kept going.
Richie looked back once to see Hugh and Kathy despondently staring after them. When he and Connor got to Hudson Street and made the left turn, Richie turned to Connor and said, "I faint?!"
"Well, it was better than saying you piss yourself, which was the other thing I could think of."
"Thanks," Richie said sarcastically. "But I'd rather faint than have fits."
"Uncontrollable fits," Connor corrected, beginning to grin and then chuckle and then laugh out loud.
Richie was laughing, too, but he managed, "I want a look at those wild, intense gray eyes."
Connor replied, through gales of laughter, "And I want a look at those gorgeous azure ones."
Richie batted his eyelashes at Connor, then both of them bent over, howling. Richie actually had to lean his forehead against a street sign, which sent Connor off into further guffaws. It took them several minutes to compose themselves, by which time several pedestrians had taken smart detours around them.
Wiping their eyes and coughing, occasionally leaking a chuckle, they began walking towards Connor's loft again. A block away from the building, Connor looked at Richie at the exact same moment Richie looked at Connor. Connor said, "Don't faint now," at the same moment Richie said, "Not another fit!" and both men collapsed against a wall, laughing again.
When they recovered, Richie said, "You know, I think ol' Hugh really had the hots for you, Connor."
"Yeah," Connor replied, facing it like a man, "but I think he'd have been plenty happy with you as back-up. Or maybe more like ... backside-up..." He wiggled his eyebrows and grinned evilly.
Richie found himself doing a Connor-snort, then shut up. Probably best not to go down that path, he decided.
When they finally got to Connor's apartment, Richie said, "Should we explain to Gina and Lisa how we have a camera phobia?"
Connor looked thoughtful. "Maybe we should wait until they try to take our pictures."
"Yeah," Richie said, thinking that it was entirely possible that the girls would ask for their pictures.
As they took the elevator up to the loft, Connor said, "Speaking of Gina and Lisa, what did you do to make Lisa come running into my bedroom, Richie? Not that I mind women running into my bedroom, but I usually like them to stay." He raised an eyebrow, smirking.
"Me? Nothing!" Richie protested. "She was that close to staying." He held his hand up, forefinger to thumb, a hair-breadth apart. "And then ... I don't know."
"She changed her mind," Connor said with a shrug. "A woman's prerogative, as they say. And you did the right thing."
"Yeah, I know," Richie said. "Still..." he sighed. "Well, there's always Friday night. And a nice cold shower for tonight, right?" He cuffed Connor on the shoulder.
"At least we won't have to fight over the hot water," Connor said, grinning at the challenge. Then he cuffed Richie on the shoulder -- harder.
Richie rubbed his shoulder, grimacing. "Maybe we should invite Hugh over to scrub our backs and, of course ... your biceps."
"And your ass," Connor retorted, rotating his shoulder a couple of times. Then he made a fist as if to hit Richie in the shoulder again, but Richie stepped out of reach.
"Or yours," Richie said generously.
Connor laughed. "Goodnight, Richie."
"Yeah," Richie replied.
Chapter 14: Women
Friday morning proceeded in what was now standard fashion for Connor and Richie. That afternoon, Richie got another wine lesson then went down to Connor's private garage to work on his bike. Connor spent the rest of the afternoon in the antique store, arguing with dealers over prices and quality and occasionally helping Rachel out with the customers. When the store closed, Connor bid Rachel good-night, finished some paperwork in the store's back office, then went upstairs to get ready for his date with Gina.
A few minutes before seven, Connor went looking for Richie. He found the younger man in the guest bathroom, still shirtless, gazing at his reflection. "Aren't you ready yet, Narcissus?" Connor teased.
Richie made a face at him. "Whoever that is, I don't care. Say, I see you shaved for the first time in, what, a few days? Think we might..."
He let the phrase trail off, and Connor shrugged. "It pays to be prepared," he replied, smiling slyly.
"Just wondering if I should shave or not," Richie answered, turning his face to survey it from all angles. "I might go for the rugged look. You know, like you and Mac."
Connor grinned. "It's hard to look rugged with that baby-face, Richie."
"It's my young, innocent look, and I think Lisa likes it," Richie retorted. "But you wouldn't remember, since you haven't been innocent for..." he thought about it for a moment, then continued, "... four hundred eighty years or so."
Connor wiggled his eyebrows up and down, then said, "Whether Lisa or Gina likes innocence, I can tell you one thing they won't like, and that's having to wait."
"Yeah, right," Richie said with a smirk. "I should worry. Women are always late. So, should I shave or not?"
Connor chuckled. "It won't make any difference."
"Get out of my room!" Richie ordered, picking up the razor and shaking it threateningly at Connor.
"All right, just don't be too long, or I'll leave without you and tell Lisa I left you primping in front of a mirror."
Minutes later they piled into a taxi and made it to the bar by 7:15 p.m. A sound wave from the electric guitars almost knocked them over, but they bravely pushed their way in. Connor also expected the girls to be late, but he and Richie were surprised to find them already at a table, saving two chairs.
Gina, her black hair curling around her shoulders, her dark eyes bright with pleasure at the sight of Connor, waved at him. Connor smiled his best, most charming smile, and took a seat between the two women. Gina was at his left, Lisa at his right. Richie sat on the other side of Lisa.
A waiter came up to their table and put down four drinks. Gina picked up the sole whisky and presented it to Connor. He sniffed it -- Glenmorangie, fifteen years old at least. She leaned over to him and yelled in his ear, "I ordered for you." He nodded and raised the glass in a toast, then took a sip. No slamming back this stuff -- he wanted to savor it; both for the whisky itself and to show Gina he appreciated it. There was no question of conversation, so they simply sat and sipped their drinks. Richie, though, took Lisa by the hand and led her to the tiny dance floor. They began gyrating to the music. Gina took Connor's left hand and squeezed, smiling into his face. He returned the squeeze and the smile both. Things were looking up.
A few hours later...
Connor ran his hands through Gina's luxurious hair, closing his eyes, concentrating his entire being on the sensations of his fingertips. She had her back to him, and he let his hands slip to her shoulders and down her arms. Then he turned her gently to face him, opening his eyes and gazing at her. She was really quite lovely -- her eyes were brown, but they had flecks of gold that seemed to fire them with light and heat. Her olive skin was very smooth, and he had been longing to touch it. And then there was that contralto voice that sent his nerves into gymnastics. It was a good thing she didn't talk much.
Gina placed one finger on his lips and gently rubbed them. "Soft," she whispered.
Connor closed his eyes. A fire began burning in his belly, and he took a deep breath to slow his racing pulse. Then Gina leaned forward, on tiptoes, and softly pressed her lips to his. The fire in his belly blazed hotter and higher, and he returned the pressure, feeling her lips open to him. He opened his eyes while his hands slipped back down to her silk blouse, and he began unbuttoning it, slowly. He didn't want to appear too urgent or too insistent, though the blood was pounding in his brain and his entire body felt almost feverish. Gina took his hands in hers, and he stopped, thinking that was what she wanted, but she moved his hands down to the next button. Then he understood. She simply wanted to touch him, hold his hands while he did this. So he obliged, with her fingers wrapped around the backs of his hands as his fingers glided slowly, gently down the silk from button to button. Gina gazed into his eyes, and Connor gazed back.
When all the buttons were undone, he carefully removed her blouse, kissing her shoulders, her neck, her mouth, the mounded fullness of her breasts -- still contained safely by her brassiere, but tantalizingly visible. She moaned softly in his ear, her hands now pulling his own shirt out of his jeans, then reaching underneath it to gently -- very softly -- run her nails down his chest. He froze at her touch, gasping slightly, the fire now spreading rapidly throughout his entire body. Next he reached behind her to undo the clasp of her bra. When it dropped to the floor, he gazed avidly at her breasts. "Bellissima!" he breathed, returning his gaze to her face.
She stood proudly half-naked in front of him for a moment, allowing him -- encouraging him -- to admire her, to enjoy her. Then she said, "Grazie," took his hands again, and pulled him towards the bed.
Lisa glanced at the closed door to Connor's bedroom, where Connor and Gina had disappeared a good thirty minutes ago.
Richie followed her glance. "More wine?" he said, wondering what she was thinking. Gina hadn't played hard-to-get at all; it had been obvious that she had the hots for Connor. Richie had thought Lisa was interested in him, but now Richie wondered if Lisa, too, had the hots for Connor. Damn! What was it about these Scots? Kilts? Bagpipes? Haggis? Was it --
Lisa kissed him full on the mouth. Then she pulled back. "Hello? Remember me?"
"Of course," Richie breathed. "I've never forgotten. Where were we?" He kissed her back, then took her hand and stood up, leading her to his own bedroom. As soon as he closed the door behind them, Lisa began tugging his shirt out of his jeans. Richie helped, then pulled Lisa's sweater and tee-shirt over her head and tossed them on the floor. He'd been right -- she wasn't wearing a bra. Not that she needed to. Perfect, small round breasts. Perky. Definitely perky. And perfect. "You're perfect," he said.
"I know," she answered. "Me and Kate Moss, right?"
"Kate Moss is a stick. Who cares about -- why are we talking about another woman when you're here?"
Lisa smiled shyly. This surprised Richie -- she seemed so self-assured, so -- then he got it. It was an act. She wasn't as self-assured as she pretended. This was amazing -- he actually understood what was going on in a woman's head. This was a major breakthrough. He smiled at Lisa, wrapped his arms around her, and whispered, "I think you're beautiful, Lisa."
"Yeah. Absolutely." He kissed her again, and her hands caressed his back, running up and down the long muscles in his back. Her touch sparked off a series of tremors along his spine, and Richie shivered. "Whoa," he breathed.
Now she pulled back, moving her hands to his chest. "You must work out a lot," she said, stroking his pecs, rubbing her index fingers across his nipples.
"Yeah, every damn day. But look, Lisa, how about if we..."
"Yeah," she whispered. "Let's. I can't wait."
Richie gasped slightly, then scooped her up and carried her to bed.
Friday gave way to Saturday, and in the early afternoon, Richie softly knocked on Connor's bedroom door. Connor, who was lying drowsily next to a still-sleeping Gina -- or rather, a once-again-sleeping Gina -- got up, pulled on his jeans, and tiptoed quietly out of the room. He silently pulled the door closed behind him and looked at Richie quizzically.
Richie motioned Connor to the kitchen, and the two sat down at the counter. "I'm starving," Richie said without preamble. "What are we gonna do about food?"
Connor idly scratched his chest as he gave Richie a thoughtful look. Richie's light complexion clearly showed the dark circles under his eyes, and Connor, too, was suffering from the sharp pangs of hunger of a man who had had sex repeatedly for half the night and then again in the morning. "We could cook," he said, but without enthusiasm. He didn't want to waste energy cooking.
Richie shook his head.
"We could go out and --"
Richie shook his head more emphatically. "Hey, I like Lisa right where she is. And don't tell me you want Gina up and around, thinking about having to do her laundry and chores and stuff, either."
Connor smiled knowingly. He reached for the phone, punched in a number, then said, "This is Iain MacKinnon. Yes, that's right. I want you to deliver..."
Richie smiled back at Connor.
A half-hour later -- time that both men spent grazing through Connor's refrigerator and pantry -- there was a knock on the door, and Connor let in a delivery boy who was carrying bags and bags of Chinese food. Connor paid, gave the delivery boy a big tip, and then gestured to the huge pile of food on the counter. "Problem solved," he said.
"Right," Richie said, already dumping food from the cartons and containers onto plates. "Hmm, mushi," he murmured, stuffing most of an egg roll into his mouth as he put two plates on a large tray. Then, with a bottle of Connor's wine under his arm and a corkscrew held pincer-style between two free fingers, he headed back to the guest bedroom. He swallowed. "Thanks, Connor," he tossed over his shoulder. "I owe you. See you later."
Connor gave a skeptical look to Richie's retreating back. He then followed Richie's example with the Chinese food, and a few moments later was pleased to bring brunch in bed to a drowsy, yet very sensually awakening Gina.
It was late Saturday night, the two couples had gone for dinner and a movie and then Connor and Richie had walked the girls to their apartment door.
"Church tomorrow," Gina said. "I meet my folks at the steps of St. Patrick's every Sunday for ten o'clock mass, and I guess ..." here she smiled mischievously at Connor, "... I may have a few things to confess."
Connor grinned at that, and Richie wasn't able to get Lisa to stay. "Got things to do," she said, although Richie believed -- hoped -- she would rather spend a second night with him at Connor's, but not without Gina. They all agreed to get together again later in the week. "We'll call you!" Lisa said, just before saying wistful goodbyes and closing her apartment door.
The two men sadly walked back to Hudson Street, this time without being accosted. They went up the elevator, then sat in the darkness of Connor's living room for a moment, brooding. Connor sighed and turned on a lamp by the sofa. The girls were well and truly gone, but Gina's perfume lingered in his nostrils, and he already missed her warm, responsive, voluptuous body.
He looked at Richie, who was sitting, quietly, with his hands clasped between his knees, looking down at the floor. Richie had a glum expression on his face, too.
Then Connor laughed out loud.
Richie looked up, surprised.
Connor said, "We just spent a weekend with two lovely ladies. We're going to see them again. And look at us -- we look like our best friends were just beheaded."
Richie chuckled. "Yeah, you're right," he said, brightening up. "It just seems like a long time until Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or Friday."
"Yeah," Connor said. "But in the meantime, you still have the pleasure of my company."
Richie rolled his eyes.
Well, the young Immortal had not yet told Connor his real reason for coming, but Connor could be patient when he had to be. Not to mention that he was enjoying Richie's visit immensely. The kid was lively and funny. And he would never have met Gina if Richie hadn't been here. He sighed. "So -- tomorrow, back to the salt mines."
"No way," Richie said. "Not after a weekend like this. Besides, I'm on vacation. Let's do something else."
Connor raised an eyebrow. Although he hadn't worked out today, and probably wouldn't tomorrow either -- hell, it was already tomorrow -- he had certainly gotten a lot of "exercise." In fact, he was exhausted. But Richie was full of plans, and he was the host, so he dutifully said, "What would you like to do?"
Richie grinned. "Didn't you say something about wineries in New York?"
Bellissima -- Italian, beautiful
Grazie -- Italian, thank you
Chapter 15: The Chase
Sunday morning arrived, and Richie exclaimed enthusiastically, "Great! Long Island wine country, here we come! Any excuse to do more drinking, right?"
"It's not just drinking, Richie," Connor protested, pulling on his driving gloves, preparatory to getting his ever-present trench coat -- and his sword, of course. "You are learning something, aren't you?"
"Learning, yeah," Richie answered, sounding a little disgusted. "Even though I told you I didn't want any 'learning experiences.'"
"You said you wanted to learn about wine," Connor corrected, grinning. "Besides, Richie, life is a learning experience. You might as well stop fighting it." He reached for his coat, then saw that Richie was wearing his motorcycle leathers. Hmmm ...
"All right," Richie agreed with his trademark wide-eyed, innocent look. "I promise I'll learn, Grandpa. But I've finished working on my bike. Since the girls couldn't come along, we can ride her to the vineyards! That long last leg from Mexico really took a lot out of both of us, but she's ready to roar. And you know I been wanting to take you out on her."
Connor paused with one arm in his coat. "Bike, huh? It's a long trip. A car would be warmer --" As soon as the words left Connor's mouth he saw the gleeful look in Richie's eyes and realized his tactical mistake.
"Warmer? Awww," Richie said, drawing close to the Scot and giving him a look of pity. "And here I thought you Highlanders were tough, you know, especially when it comes to cold and mountains and stuff. You know, like the Highlands?"
Connor nodded his head in acceptance, saying nothing, taking it like a man -- he had left himself wide open, after all. But Richie wasn't finished talking. Richie was never finished talking.
"Maybe living in the big city has softened you up some, Connor. Maybe you're not as tough as you used to be. You should wear your rubbers and a scarf, against the cold. And don't forget your hat. A cane?"
Connor sighed. "And my mittens," he said, making the best of it. "Don't forget about my mittens."
"Hey, I just don't want to tax your strength," Richie protested. He put his right arm around Connor's shoulders and said, "It's old age, isn't it? You're not as bold as you used to be, and you can feel that cold right down in your bones. Let's face it, MacLeod. You're soft. You're over the hill. But don't worry." He squeezed Connor, but there was nothing soft about the Scot's shoulder and his upper arm. "I won't leave your side."
"Thanks, Richie," Connor answered, wondering how long Richie would keep this up, and if he, Connor, would ever be able to live down his comment. "I feel much safer now." He moved away from Richie and grabbed a heavier, lined trenchcoat. Richie said nothing to that, but as they left the apartment, Richie shook his head and muttered, loud enough for Connor to hear, "Warmer. And he calls himself a Highlander!"
Connor sighed. This was going to be a long, cold trip.
They went downstairs to the garage where Richie's bike sat next to Connor's newest Porsche. They loaded up the two saddlebags. Richie put his leather-encased sword into a carry-on pouch especially built into the motorcyle, near his hand. The engine roar filled the entire garage, and it hurt Connor's ears. Not that he'd dare complain, of course. Hell, he couldn't even shiver now, without Richie giving him a hard time.
They made it out to the end of I-495 and onto the North Fork of Long Island without incident, although both men's hands were cold by then. Connor was glad he'd brought a woolen hat; otherwise his ears would have fallen off, even under the helmet. Or they'd have frozen and stuck to the helmet, he mused frigidly. As they swung onto the much smaller Route 25, Richie didn't slow from interstate speed except when they drove through the small towns. Good -- at least he wasn't a totally crazed biker, Connor thought. Richie's body was blocking most of the wind, and Connor was thankful for that. At the same time, he wondered how his young friend was coping with the cold. Of course, he couldn't ask. There was no conversation possible on a motorcyle going at full speed, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Richie's constant chatter was mostly amusing, and had kept Connor very entertained for ... days, but once or twice Connor had found himself wanting to swat the young Immortal, like a buzzing fly.
Richie was thrilled when Connor pulled slightly on his jacket and pointed out the first of the wineries they were going to stop at, Paumanok Vineyards. He was chilled to the bone, but he'd never complain to Connor, not after he'd made a special point of bringing the bike and hassling the Highlander about the weather. The one good thing was that they hadn't had to talk on the motorcycle. Sometimes Richie wondered how Connor had survived all this time with so few words. The silence in that apartment would have been deafening if Richie hadn't kept up both ends and the middle of the conversation. Still, he couldn't complain about Connor's sense of humor -- or Connor's choice of entertainment.
But now, at last, they were going to go inside, get a little bit warm, drink some Chardonnay. Or actually, not drink some Chardonnay. Connor had taught him how not to do that. ("I thought that spitting stuff was just when we were alone! You mean, I'm supposed* to spit in public?" "At a wine tasting, when you're tasting several different wines, yes. Otherwise, after the fifth or sixth glass, they will all taste the same.") Richie always managed to swallow a little bit of wine when he was in Connor's kitchen, but he wouldn't do that today. The roads were icy, and Richie had no intention of crashing and giving the elder MacLeod such ammunition to use against him.
They parked in the winery lot, took off their helmets, and made their way stiffly down a narrow shoveled walk to the brightly-painted green double door of the winery. "After you, old man," Richie said, opening the door for Connor with a sweep of his arm.
Connor paused at the threshold. "If you say 'age before beauty,' I'll have to kill you."
"Me? I'd never say that!" Richie fervently replied.
Connor looked at him for a long moment, but Richie was silent, for once. Then, as Connor finally walked in, Richie added, with a grin, "I just thought you might be in a hurry to warm up those brittle old arthritic bones."
Monday morning they got an early start, driving back west on Route 25. "Hey, too bad we didn't get a chance to open her up yesterday," Richie had groused.
Connor had suggested -- somewhat reluctantly, it seemed to Richie -- that they cut south across the island to Ocean Parkway. "It's a deserted beach, and they don't patrol it in the winter. So you can go as fast as you want."
Richie had smiled to himself. He was still ahead on their little game of cold-weather one-up-manship.
"Let's do it!" Richie had said, but was now regretting it, a little. Here by the shore it was even colder, although the winter sun was rising behind them. On their right was South Oyster Bay, with the actual bulk of Long Island north of that. The sand dunes on either side of the narrow causeway were covered by the soft glistening snowfall of the night before. Richie's head still reeled with wine flavors: dry, sweet, smooth and tart; French names, cabernet sauvignons, merlots, chardonnays, pinot blancs, and that excellent German wine with the jaw-cracking name, Gewurztraminer. Scents filled his nostrils with the unmistakable alcohol smell. His motorcycle saddlebags bulged with carefully packed bottles of wine. In spite of their speed, Richie was driving very carefully because of their fragile, valuable cargo.
The scenery was awesome, and Richie braked the bike to a gradual stop and turned off the engine. He looked south, out over the Atlantic. The sky was a flawless blue, darkening in a straight line where it met the white peaked water. He took a deep, cleansing breath -- Elena Duran's tai chi, he couldn't completely get away from it -- and the cold air burned his lungs. Now it felt more like the holidays.
"Hey," he said, gesturing with his head toward the endless expanse of ocean.
"Yeah," Connor agreed.
The silence was absolute, and their voices carried. Still, Richie turned and spoke over his shoulder to Connor so he could look at the Highlander. "I'm enjoying being here, man. Hey, I even learned something."
"Good," Connor answered. After another moment of silence, where Richie just soaked in the white-blanketed scenery, he revved his engine and they drove off again. Just after they passed Gligo State Park -- or was it Gilgo? Richie couldn't remember -- he sensed it. An Immortal. Not Connor. Shit. Connor shifted and stiffened right behind him, obviously sensing it too. Glancing back over his shoulder, Richie saw the car -- a black Jag XKE -- tearing down the road after them.
Now a Jaguar was not a very big car, but it was certainly big enough and fast enough to catch up to them, run them off the road, and cripple them. Richie briefly considered stopping and facing the guy, but that would put him and Connor on foot in the snow, with icy water on either side of the road. Also, the Jaguar was bearing down on them fast enough to make Richie think the oncoming Immortal would not be sporting and get out of his car to talk. Or get out to fight.
Connor reinforced Richie's decision by pulling on the younger man's sleeve and poking his thumb up in the air -- the universal sign for increasing speed. So they were going to run. Richie was a little surprised that Connor would run, but then he realized that Connor always did the smart thing. And the smart thing now was to run. Richie jammed on the gas and the big bike surged forward suddenly, almost but not quite popping a wheelie.
As they sped up, Connor held on hard. There were lots of ways to die, but being dragged to death on pavement was one way he'd rather avoid. He regretted suggesting they take this barren, frozen stretch of road. Bad judgement -- he should have known better, he groused to himself. His knees and shins took the brunt of the wind as it whizzed past, and they seemed to be turning to ice. His hands were frozen to the handholds despite his gloves, and every breath he took was like a knife blade in the lungs. Richie had crossed mountain ranges and deserts -- he was dressed for a long, cold motorcycle ride. But Connor had just been expecting a short bike ride, getting home soon, warming up with a glass of whisky -- he wasn't dressed for a high-speed chase on a bike in freezing weather. And of course their hunter was inside a heated car. Dammit! Connor couldn't see Richie's speed, and he didn't want to know, not really. They must be flying along at nearly a hundred miles an hour, with just Richie's skill and their clothes between them and the pavement. Connor should never have agreed to bring the bike; as good as Richie was on a motorcycle, Connor knew sportscars, and he knew the heavily-loaded bike wouldn't be able to outrun the Immortal who was hunting them.
Connor turned to look behind him -- the bastard was getting closer; he was going to run them down. Connor murmured a long string of Gaelic curses. If he remembered correctly, they had at least ten miles before they could turn off. Maybe they could get to Jones Beach, get off the road, maybe even stop and fight -- if they made it.
He wished they could stop now and face the son of a bitch; but while they were on the bike, and their hunter was in a car... Dammit, he hated being the prey, and he especially hated running! He peered back over his shoulder again, trying to make out the driver through his faceplate and through the darkened windshield of the Jaguar. If he only knew who it was ... probably someone who had followed them to Long Island and waited until just the right time. Who...? But it wouldn't make a difference. He swore softly, helplessly, again, racking his brain, wondering how in hell they were going to get out of this alive.
In spite of his leathers, Richie was cold, and not just from the weather. He glanced in his rear-view mirror -- the bastard was getting closer. Soon he'd be slamming into them. If only Richie hadn't insisted on bringing the bike... Hell, if he were on the bike alone, he might have gotten away. Maybe. Nah, he just didn't have the horsepower. And he and Connor were too heavy. He tried to think -- but he had nothing. They had nowhere to go; there was nothing they could do. Their own personal terminator was going to catch them, ram them, knock them over. They'd be hurt, then they'd be dead. Dammit.
It wasn't supposed to be like this! He looked in the mirror again, wondering what Connor was thinking. Even if the Highlander had a plan, how could they communicate? Besides, he was the driver; he was supposed to --
They came over a rise and there it was in front of them: A car. Doing forty. Fifty, tops.
"Oh, shit!" Richie yelled, swerving sharply to the right. With the instincts of a born bike rider, Richie bailed.
When Richie shouted, Connor was still looking backwards, trying to identify the Jaguar's driver. He was taken completely by surprise as the bike suddenly swerved sharply. He didn't even have time to snap his head around before he felt Richie jump off and the bike simultaneously go down on its right side. There was no time to react, no time. The bike slid on its right side along the shoulder of the parkway with Connor still on it, his right leg caught under the back wheel. Connor screamed -- his leg was being torn off! For an eternity the motorcycle dragged him along. He screamed again as he and the motorcycle hit the snowbank and the bike mercifully spun off him while Connor slammed against the hardened, plowed-up snow. There was a sudden, bone-cracking agony in his right shoulder, so sharp he thought he would vomit. But the worst was his leg, Christ, his leg!
Barely conscious, Connor heard someone, somewhere, moaning softly, urgently. He wanted to help whoever was so badly hurt, but he was lying in a very cold place, and he couldn't move. After a long moment, Connor realized that he himself was the one moaning, although his body felt numb, and there was no pain. Yet.
He blinked, trying to clear his vision, but the sky above him was a small blue circle at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The tunnel was getting longer and darker every second. He couldn't remember what had happened, only that he was cold and wet. And hurting. Now the pain came rushing at him -- oh, Christ, he was in agony! And he was not alone.
There was an Immortal nearby! He needed to get up. He had to get up. He tried to focus again. The Immortal was getting closer. Connor could tell because vaguely, through the pounding in his ears, Connor could hear him, too. But there was something terribly wrong with his right leg. He looked down the tunnel at it. He could see the bone, stark, white, and sharp, gleaming against the dark blue of his jeans. Steam was rising out of the open wound, and the rest of his leg was twisted in a way that a leg shouldn't, couldn't, go. There was blood, too, a lot of blood underneath him. The smell of it filled his head, and he could see the pool of blood visibly growing, pumping out of him. Femoral artery. He was going to die, going to bleed to death. He knew it. But he couldn't just lie here. Gritting his teeth against the pain he knew would come, he exerted himself to move his leg -- and then he surprised himself by screaming again as a battering ram of agony slammed into him, knocking him out, taking the pain and everything else with it.
Chapter 16: The Duel
At Connor's first scream, Richie jerked his head up, slashing his hand across his visor to get the snow off. He saw the bike bounce off the Scot and careen across the snow, while Connor hit the snowbank with a cra-acking sound and another hoarse scream that made Richie grit his teeth and close his eyes for a moment. If Connor was lucky, he'd have broken his neck. If he wasn't -- but in any case, it wouldn't matter. Connor MacLeod was out for the count. "Hors de combat" was the phrase Duncan had taught him. Richie was alone to face the Immortal who had run them off the road.
At the sound of a car door slamming slut, Richie opened his eyes, gathered himself, then hurriedly got to his feet, only to nearly fall over again from the dizziness that hit him. His right knee was throbbing, but not broken -- good. He steadied himself.
Damn! The other Immortal had pulled off the road, gotten out of the Jaguar, and was hurrying towards Connor -- who lay helpless between Richie and the other Immortal.
"Oh, no, you don't," Richie muttered. He put his weight on his bad knee, and it just barely held him as he began limping hastily towards Connor, thrusting away his own pain. Connor was alive, and he was gasping and groaning hoarsely, horribly. Richie had accidentally run over a dog once with his bike. Connor was making sounds like that dog had made.
Richie moved faster -- even though the other Immortal had a slight head start on Richie, Richie was closer. And there was no way Richie was going to let this bastard take Connor MacLeod's head, not like this. As Richie approached the Scot, Connor tried to get up and screamed again. Richie gritted his teeth again so hard he thought he they were going to break. Then Connor sagged down into the snow and lay still.
The other Immortal started running when Connor screamed. Richie still couldn't see the other Immortal's face because the man was wearing a scarf and hat, but from his height and the cut of the coat, Richie had a good idea who it was. It was a footrace to get to Connor, and Richie sped up, too, into a stumbling run, his right knee nearly giving way beneath him. Richie bit his lip and ignored the pain. And kept running.
Panting, Richie reached Connor first. He sank inelegantly to his knees, hurting his bad knee even more. The knee cracked loudly, producing a sharp stab of pain that made him catch his breath. But he had no time for this. His knees felt cold and wet, too, and Richie didn't know if the wetness was the snow or some of the blood all around Connor. He gasped for breath, yanking Connor's coat loose. Buttons flew into the snow. The other Immortal was only a few yards away now. Richie could hear him crunching through the snow.
"Sorry, man," Richie whispered to Connor as he ripped the katana from its hidden sheath. Connor wasn't making any more noises, but his hands fluttered weakly, once. Even mostly dead, the Scot was trying to prevent the theft of his katana. Connor moaned again, this time softly, but Richie had no time left for his companion.
Rising awkwardly to his feet, he twirled and faced his enemy. Their enemy. His legs were frozen, but at least his feet were dry and okay. Thank God for good boots! He stomped his feet to try to get the circulation going in the rest of his body. Damn, but that knee hurt! he thought, stifling a cry. No way was he going to show pain in front of this son of a bitch! The katana felt awkward in his grasp, unfamiliar, too light. Well, better than too heavy. And it was a sword; it would cut off a head. It would have to do.
Richie stared at his opponent. Of course it was Edward Percy, the Immortal from the bar, the one whom he and Connor had let walk away. Because Percy had asked so nicely. Rage coursed through Richie, and he cried out, "You cheating, cowardly bastard! You deliberately ran us off the road! Two easy Quickenings, right?"
Percy pulled his sword out, but he shook his head. "You're wrong, Ryan," he said. "I wasn't --"
"The hell I am," Richie replied. Though he was freezing, he could feel rage and hate warming him up from the inside, setting his heart to pumping, his blood surging through his veins. He wanted to lunge at Percy right away, but the longer he could stall, the more his knee would heal. So, putting all the sarcasm he could into his voice, he said, "I guess you came running over here to give Connor artificial respiration and a Bandaid, right?"
Percy took a breath and a step back. "I heard him scream. I came to see if I could help. I wouldn't --"
"You are a lying son of a bitch," Richie said. And he thrust at Percy with Connor's katana, unable to wait any longer.
Percy parried, then stepped back again, out of Richie's reach. "It's the truth," Percy said.
Following Percy, Richie attacked again. "So you ran us down out of good sportsmanship?"
Percy parried again, retreating once more. "I wanted to stop you, yes. But I didn't run you down --"
"Yeah, yeah, just a lucky coincidence for you," Richie said, going after the Englishman again. This time, he didn't allow Percy to retreat; he launched a hailstorm of blows that the Englishman was barely able to withstand. Then, seeing an opening, Richie made that perfect lunge -- the one that he'd used on Connor when they'd been sparring, the one that should have gone right through Connor's gut. The one that should have gone right through Percy's gut.
But, like Connor, Percy sidestepped. From practicing this with Connor in their sparring matches, Richie knew Percy's blade was coming around behind him. So he hit the ground with his knees, gasping in pain as he rolled to his feet, favoring his right leg. He expected Percy to be there. But Percy wasn't there. Instead of following up his advantage, Percy had stopped.
"Listen to me, Ryan," Percy said, facing Richie. "I wanted to stop you, yes, challenge you, yes. I -- I had to. But I would never take a man's head when he's lying on the ground, helpless. And I wouldn't --"
"Uh-huh," Richie interrupted, not caring anymore what Percy said. "Well, you've got your challenge, you bastard. Let's see if you can fight like a man." And Richie attacked once more, clearing everything else from his mind but those five little magic words that summarized all Immortal philosophy: There can be only one. Evidently Percy was finished talking and retreating, because he fought back, advancing on Richie, who retreated a few steps, still favoring that right knee, trying to give it time to heal completely.
God, he wanted this bastard's head! Richie paused in his retreat and forced down his anger, waiting for Percy to come to him. Richie put all his weight on his left leg, shifting his hips just so and not moving. The longer he kept weight off that bad knee, the sooner it would heal. As Percy struck down at him Richie bent his knees, lowering his center of gravity, letting his whole body and his good leg absorb most of the shock of the blow, like a spring.
He was pushed back unexpectedly, and realized there was ice under the snow. Wonderful, just wonderful! Well, at least they would *both* be slipping and sliding.
Grabbing Percy's sword arm, Richie rose back up with his hips and thighs, pushing his opponent backwards and off-balance, but he couldn't take advantage of it because of that damned knee. He had to let Percy go, but soon the knee would be fine -- he just needed one more minute.
Percy obliged him by pausing, apparently re-evaluating Richie's strength.
That strength must be due to all those push-ups and pull-ups, not to mention the practice sparring with Connor, Richie thought. He felt strong, and damn it, he was in the right. This time there was no hesitation, no question, no doubt. This time it was kill or be killed, facing an opponent who didn't fight fair, a coward who knew nothing about honor... "So you decided you had to challenge me, huh?" Richie panted, trying to give himself that one extra minute, keep Percy talking. It was, after all, what the SOB did best.
"Yes," Percy agreed, also panting. "I couldn't let it go. But --"
"Right," Richie said, interrupting again. He feinted, fooling his opponent long enough to get a clear frontal shot, and he tried the same lunge to Percy's abdomen, knowing Percy would sidestep again. But this time, Richie was ready, and he twisted his wrist and twirled on the ice, following Percy's motion, slashing the Englishman across the belly. However, it wasn't deep enough. Dammit!
Percy gasped and still had strength enough to jump back, but Richie was thinking, the way Connor had told him, and he anticipated that, too, and before Percy hit the ground, Richie's sword was there, following the slash with a thrust into Percy's ribcage. Richie yanked the katana out, and Percy sank to the ground with a low moan. Immediately, Richie brought the sword up and around for the final cut, but the treacherous ground slipped out from under him again, and he slipped and fell backwards. Shit!
Realizing he was like a turtle on his back, Richie rolled away and scrambled to his feet swiftly, looking to see where Percy was. The Englishman was still on his knees in the snow, but struggling to get up. Richie rushed up to thrust at Percy, but lost his balance again. It didn't matter, though, since Percy had fallen once more trying to get up. It would have been funny, Richie thought, if they weren't trying to kill each other. Finally, they both got to their feet and gingerly circled each other.
"Ryan," Percy said, panting. "You fell off your bike. You're hurt. You're worried about MacLeod. This is not what I wanted. We can set a time and a place." Percy turned his right shoulder towards Richie, trying to expose the smallest possible area of his wounded chest to Richie. But Percy's sword was still up, his grip firm and unwavering. Mostly unwavering. And Percy was backing up again.
Richie wasn't going to let Percy get away, not this time. "You're the one who came after us, Sassenach," Richie answered, using Duncan's favorite insult, especially for Englishmen.
Percy paused. "Listen, to me, Ryan..." Pant, pant. "After what happened in that bar, I had to come back and challenge you. You and MacLeod --"
"Yeah, I get it," Richie said, panting himself.
Percy backed up some more. "So shall we do this like gentlemen, like we're supposed to ... from the beginning, one-on-one, honorably?"
Without taking his attention off his opponent, Richie looked around him at the blood on the snow, feeling the ache in his knee, which was nearly healed, at last. Richie's bike was off in the distance, ruined. And Connor, as Percy himself had pointed out, lay behind Richie, fatally wounded, dying in agony or maybe already dead. Percy had ambushed them, and Percy was responsible for this. Percy ... who now wanted to "do the honorable thing." Percy, whom he and Connor had let go because that had seemed like the honorable, decent thing to do. And this was their reward for that decency. Rage exploded like a nuclear conflagration inside Richie, but he stayed cool on the outside, staring directly into Percy's eyes.
"You know what I think, Percy?" Richie said, in a low, deadly tone, his breathing easier now. "I think that you're afraid to fight me -- or anybody. I think you're a fucking coward. I think all this shit about honor is just that -- so much shit. I think you figured you had yourself a couple of easy kills and when you realized it wasn't going to be so easy, you decided to lie your way out of it. I think you don't know what 'honor' means. And I think that if we make a date to fight somewhere else, some other time, you'll bring a gun. So we're gonna finish this, right here, right now."
Percy swallowed. Just like he'd done in the bar. "You're wrong, Ryan -- why didn't I bring a gun this time?" he said.
"Maybe you left it in the car when you thought you were gonna get two easy kills," Richie replied calmly, in that same deadly tone, and he attacked again.
Percy blocked Richie's thrust. The two men strained at each other, swords crossed, and Percy said, "It doesn't matter what I say, does it, Ryan?"
Richie snarled, "You got that right."
Percy said, "Well, I tried." Now Percy shoved hard, pushing Richie back, following up with his own attack. Then he slipped forwards, toward Richie. Percy's sword was out-thrust dangerously, but flailing as the Englishman tried to regain his balance.
Richie pushed Percy's sword away with his own and then slipped, too, backwards, fighting not to overbalance and fall on his butt. He just managed to avoid Percy's next thrust.
Riposte. Attack. Wipe the sweat from your eyes. Slip. Lunge. Slide. Parry. Thrust. Richie could see the blue light as Percy's chest wound healed, but blood stained the Englishman's coat dark, and there was more blood in the snow, which meant Percy had to be weakened.
As if to prove it, Percy licked his dry lips.
Angling for a better position, Richie slipped again. He had a brief image of the clowns he had found so funny in an ice capade show Emily Ryan had taken him to once, many years ago... Maybe he should try to get the fight onto the highway itself; it wasn't iced over. Suddenly Richie crouched as Percy's horizontal slice gave him a quick and dirty haircut, an inch off the top. Percy's body swung around with his own momentum, while Richie felt his feet going out from under him yet again. But this time Richie fell forward, holding the katana two-handed in front of him. He buried it up to the hilt in Percy's unprotected back, then viciously yanked it back out.
"Yeah!" Richie yelled, unable to hide his exuberance as Percy arched his back and screamed, a sound not unlike the one Connor had made when he'd hit the snowbank.
The Englishman collapsed onto one knee. But Percy wasn't quite done. In a surprising move -- surprising to Richie -- the still-kneeling Percy twisted from the waist and brought his sword around in a horizontal swing which would have cut Richie in half if Richie hadn't jumped back at the last second.
They ain't dead 'till their heads fall off, Richie berated himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He hadn't been thinking again. Irrationally, he hoped Connor hadn't seen him make that beginner's mistake. Percy started arcing his sword back, cursing, "Bloody Yank bastard --"
"Yeah," Richie said, grabbing Percy's outstretched right wrist. "There can be only one -- and it's not you." With Percy's wrist immobilized, Richie looked down into the Englishman's dark blue eyes, then neatly and efficiently decapitated him. Richie fell backwards under the onslaught of Percy's Quickening, lying in the snow, arms outstretched, helpless and unable to move, gasping and screaming with the always-familiar, always-new frenzied fusion of sexual ecstasy and brutal pain. He could hear the sizzles and sparks as the lightning struck the snow around him, melting it in flashes of steam, creating ephemeral circuits lasting less than a second, made of incandescent water molecules before they exploded, filling the air with the smell of ozone.
When it was over, he still didn't move, catching his breath, waiting for the after-effects of the flashes to fade from his vision. His knee was aching again, and he was wet and cold, even through his leathers.
Hors de combat -- French, out of the fight or battle
Chapter 17: Richiesicle
At last, Richie grunted and staggered to his feet, using Connor's katana to support himself. He looked around at the scene and then checked the road in both directions, only now wondering what had happened to the car that had caused him to lose control of his bike. Surely the driver had seen the accident, but he must have just sped on, not wanting to get involved. No good Samaritans around when you needed them, Richie thought bitterly. If the driver had stopped, Richie and Percy probably wouldn't have fought... Hell, it was just as well.
He surveyed the area around the duel. What a hell of a mess. Percy's head lay a few feet away, unseeing blue eyes still open. Blood was still pumping from Percy's neck, forming a spreading, brilliant crimson pool against the pristine white snow. A thin red trail led to the head. Richie glanced up at the blue, cloudless sky and the cheerful winter sunshine, then back down at the body and the head in front of him.
He shook his head -- still firmly on his shoulders, thank you very much -- and sighed, his breath coming out in a big steamy puff. It wasn't over yet. In fact, he had more work to do now than he had in killing Percy. But at least no one was trying to decapitate him while he worked. If he and Connor were very, very lucky, nobody else would come down this road, from either direction. There would be no way to explain this. Richie didn't fancy running from the police or spending the next few decades locked up in a cell. So -- no drivers now, please, God.
He took a deep breath. Okay, Ryan. Time for cleanup detail. Again. He frowned and looked around once more at the whole area. He could see the remains of his bike about fifty yards up the road. The bike was totaled. He'd have to take the Jag. And Connor -- Richie glanced in the Scot's direction and realized that he felt no buzz at all. Connor wasn't going to be any help, then. "You're dead, man," he said. But unlike Percy, Connor would revive. Richie grinned a little at that.
"Could be worse," he said into the stillness of the winter day. He wiped the katana on Percy's clothes, then jammed it point-down into the snow. He quickly rifled through the dead Englishman's pockets, trying not to look at the stump of his neck. Richie found the keys to the car and put them in his pocket. He stood for a moment, thinking.
The first things he had to deal with were Percy's body and head. Everything else might possibly be explained if someone drove by, but a headless body -- "No way!" Richie whispered softly. There was no point in burying the body under the snow. The whole area where they'd been fighting was torn up. Somebody might get curious. They were in some sort of state park, so probably nobody lived nearby, but bodies were found in parks all the time, and people stopped to let their dogs out for walks, etc. No, Richie thought, he needed a place that would keep Edward Percy out of sight a little longer. He looked across the street at the bay he and Connor had stopped to view. "Perfect!" he said.
With an effort, Richie got Percy's coat off of the man, then started to hoist the body over his shoulder in a fireman's carry position. But when he had the body halfway up he remembered that dead bodies float. Sure they do -- he'd never dumped a body in the drink, but he'd seen it in all the movies. So, he was going to have to weight the body. Damn. And what was he going to use for that? He had an idea, but he was freezing and wet from all the times he'd fallen while fighting Percy. He dropped the body, gritting his teeth when it crunched loudly in the snow, then wrapped the head in Percy's bloody coat.
Gasping from the cold wind that penetrated to his bones, Richie set out for his bike. He was shivering so hard he could barely walk, his teeth were chattering so badly that he had to clench his jaw to keep from biting his tongue, and his hands were numb. When he got there, he forced his numb fingers to bend, removed his sword from its special sheath, and rolled the ruined bike over to Percy's remains. Richie took his and Connor's clothes from the motorcycle's saddlebags, which were stinking and wet from the broken wine bottles. Then, struggling, cursing, stumbling, shivering, and falling down several times, once with Percy's body on top of him, Richie got Percy seated on the saddle.
He found the bungee cords he always kept for whatever and tied Percy's body to the seat with them. There were no bungee cords left for the head, and Richie was so cold he couldn't think. Finally, he just jammed the head into one saddlebag, down on top of the busted wine bottles, and closed the flap.
"This would not be a good time to freeze to death, Ryan," he stammered to himself. He did a few jumping-jacks, his booted feet throwing snow around, trying to warm himself up a little. He wished he were back in front of the roaring fire at their inn in Greenport, or at least that he could have a good stiff drink of Glenmorangie. But that wasn't going to happen. It was hopeless. His clothes, even his leather jacket, were freezing to his body. When the wind blew across the water, Richie wanted to lay down and die. At least maybe he'd be dry when he revived. Not.
But there was no time for that. Someone might have seen the Quickening and be on his way to investigate. He -- or she -- could be here any moment.
Something nagged him about the bike, and he stared at it for a long, frigid moment before he realized what it was. The plates. They had to come off. Percy's head came back out of the saddlebag, and Richie pulled out his emergency tool kit, opened it, and grabbed a wrench. He threw the rest of the tools on the ground. It took him fifteen agonizing minutes to remove the nuts and bolts that held the tags because he had no feeling left in his fingers. He tossed the tags on the snow, too, jammed his dead opponent's head back into the saddlebag and walked back to pick up Percy's sword, and stood it up next to the katana. Then he took his gloves off and laid them on the snow. He'd need them to be dry when he came back out of the water. Finally, Richie rolled the bike out into the lake. God, the water was cold! Beyond cold! Glacial! Arctic! Like outer space! Richie racked his brains for every word for "cold" he knew. This should be the Arctic Ocean, not the Atlantic! Richie called out to the dead Highlander. "Hey, Connor! You love cold weather; you should be doing this." Then he added, "I can't, Richie, I'm dead," figuring he might as well speak for Connor, too. After all, Richie had been carrying both sides of most conversations since he'd arrived in Manhattan.
Richie waded in until the water was up to his waist, holding onto the bike handles, but trying to keep his hands dry. He gasped as the cold made everything below his waist shrink. It was a good thing he was an Immortal! Of course, if he weren't an Immortal, he wouldn't be doing this, but that was irrelevant now. With one last effort, he pushed the bike away. He was beyond cursing, but sending Percy to his grave on Richie's own bike was just one more icicle in Richie's heart.
And speaking of hearts, as Richie trudged slowly out of the icy water and back onto the snowy beach, he felt like his was going to stop from his semi-dunking in the Atlantic. He didn't know if Immortals could die from heart attacks or get frostbite or gangrene, but as he knelt on the ground for his gloves and slowly pulled them back on he realized there was no feeling left in his hands or feet. He keeled over and lay on the snow. He was beginning to feel warm and sleepy. Blessedly so. It felt so good to lay there, with the sun shining down on him. He decided to just stay where he was and rest. But just as he was about to let go and slide away, something flashed and caught his eyes.
It was a katana, glinting in the sunlight. Connor MacLeod's katana. And Connor was lying over there, still dead. Still completely exposed. Tapping into his reserves, now, Richie struggled back up to a sitting position on the snow, his head hanging down between his knees, wondering if he could actually make it to his feet. Speaking of feet, they were starting to tingle, and so were his hands. Richie had a feeling they were going to be doing worse than that in a moment. He started shivering again. He'd just about died, he realized. Right there in the snow. He looked past his hands and called out, "Hey, Connor. You looked so comfy I decided to join you. Almost. And wouldn't it be great for somebody to find us like this?" he added, muttering now, his voice throaty and raw from the cold.
There was still blood everywhere and Connor's body and the two swords. Three swords, actually. First, the body. Bodies attracted attention, even more attention than blood. He had to get Connor into the Jag, and he didn't dare wait until the Scot revived -- Richie had no idea how long that might take. He had to act now. "All right, Ryan, keep it moving or die," he murmured, knowing he wasn't exaggerating.
Richie stumbled back over to Connor -- the whole place looked like a troop of disorderly cross-country-skiers had been through, along with their families and luggage. Richie reached Connor and knelt beside him, looking down at the helpless, temporarily-dead Immortal. And for Richie, time slowed to a stop while something deep inside him, something feral and merciless, whispered, "There can be only one."
Slowly, Richie looked at the swords just a few feet away and then at the exposed, vulnerable neck of the man lying in the snow. It would be so easy, the cold inhuman voice inside Richie purred, to wait until he just revives and then take his head. So easy...
Richie took a deep breath and then exclaimed, "Christ!" His spine crawled and he shook his head. "What the fuck is the matter with me?!" He pushed it all away, shoving down the memory of that horrible voice inside his head and that terrifying lust to kill that had come out of nowhere and almost overwhelmed him.
Carefully, gingerly, as if making up for his previous thoughts, Richie struggled with the already cooling body to straighten out that leg -- Jesus, it looked terrible, at an impossible angle, with a sharp shard of bone sticking out into the cold air. But at least Connor wasn't stiff yet. Hadn't Richie just done this not too long ago? And how many more times, God, how many more times was he going to have to -- Richie shook his head. He didn't have time for self-pity. Still work to be done.
On his knees yet again, Richie wrestled Connor's dead weight -- and yes, dead weight was definitely heavier than live weight -- across his shoulders in a fireman's carry the same way he'd carried Percy. Then somehow he stood and staggered back to the Jag. He got the passenger door open -- no easy task with his stiff, cold fingers -- and bent down awkwardly to let Connor's body roll off onto the passenger seat. Connor's arms and legs sprawled and the body fell over partially onto the driver's seat and across the gear shift. That wouldn't do.
Sweating and panting, the sweat freezing on his skin while his breath fogged up the inside of the car, Richie sat Connor up, straightened out his legs and arms, then tilted the seat back so gravity would keep Connor out of the way of the driver's side. Then Richie turned the heat on in the car as high as it would go. Thawing a dead body. Richie's semi-hysterical giggle broke the stillness, and he took a deep breath, getting himself back under control. He pushed the door closed with his hip and leaned against it for a moment, his eyes closed, resting.
But there was too much to do for him to rest for long. He opened his eyes and stared at the scene, his teeth chattering loudly. What was he going to do about the blood? Suddenly inspired -- after all, Percy had to do body detail, too -- Richie checked in the Jaguar's trunk and found -- ta da! -- a shovel! Perfect. It was the kind where the blade folded up against the handle. Using the shovel, he covered every inch of the blood trails with snow, hoping that the clear sky would cloud up and drop more snow on the ground soon -- after Richie was gone, please. But for now, this would have to do. Next, he carefully placed the three swords, his and Connor's belongings, the tools and the bike helmets in the tiny back seat of the Jag.
He gathered up every trace of their little escapade and threw it all into the bay. The last thing he did was to pick up his bike tags and toss them in the Jaguar's trunk. Then, finally finished, thank God! he rounded the car and got in on the driver's side.
When Connor finally revived, his leg hurt so much he nearly blacked out again immediately. He fought that off, gritting his teeth against the pain and the darkness. First things first -- he was alive. Second, he could sense an Immortal. Third, where was his sword?
Christ! Gritting his teeth through the agony, he lifted his head and looked around. He was sitting inside a car. It was a Jaguar -- the Jaguar which had chased them? Of course, MacLeod -- what other Jaguar could it be?
It was all starting to come back to him now, but he still couldn't remember exactly how he'd gotten hurt. There were no car keys and no driver, and he knew the driver would not be his friend. He sat up, then turned around in his seat and spotted his katana, another sword, and the two bike helmets in the space behind the driver's seat.
Connor reached for the katana and pulled it across the back of the seat to him, immediately feeling more secure and thinking that an enemy wouldn't have left his sword right there. So the driver probably wasn't an enemy, after all. So why chase them down in the first place? He was confused.
He looked out through the closed car window at the sunshine on the snow. Somebody -- Richie? -- had turned on the heat in the car, but even so, Connor felt cold. And wet. He shivered. His leg was still throbbing, although less with every passing moment. Why did he always have to get wet in the winter, Connor bitched to himself silently, although he could already feel his strength slowly coming back.
It had to be Richie, Connor thought -- otherwise, Connor would be dead. If the other Immortal had wanted to take him prisoner, he wouldn't have left Connor alive with his sword close by. And Connor wouldn't be sitting in the Jaguar. He brought the seat up to a vertical position and sank back into it, thinking furiously. The Immortal must be Richie, which meant that the other man ... but if by some chance it wasn't Richie ... Connor felt the adrenaline start to pump through his body, in preparation for ... But then he saw Richie back by the Jaguar's trunk, and he felt a surge of relief. He put the katana back where Richie -- obviously Richie -- had stashed it. It wouldn't do to be pointing it at the kid when Richie got in the car.
The young Immortal raised the lid, threw something that clanked in the trunk, slammed it shut, then came around to the driver's side, got in, and slammed the car door even harder. Richie looked cold and tired. No, he looked worse than that. He looked about half-dead. His wet hair was plastered to his skull. And Connor could tell that Richie had taken a Quickening. The chase was all coming back to Connor now. Richie must have beheaded the man who chased them in the Jaguar.
Richie leaned his head against the seat back and put his hands on the wheel, closing his eyes. Connor watched Richie, waiting, wondering whether he was resting or dying. After one minute of total silence, the redhead gritted his teeth and gasped, making little "ah" sounds, and Connor knew what was happening.
Connor took off his gloves and reached for Richie's hands. "Here," he said, and Richie turned to him. "Give me your hands." Connor took off Richie's gloves and started very gently rubbing Richie's hands. They were a pale sickly color, on the edge of frostbite, but dry -- the gloves had saved Richie from that agony. Still, they had to warm up from being almost frozen, and Connor knew how much that hurt.
"Ah," Richie repeated several times, blowing air forcefully out with each syllable, his face contorted with pain. Connor rubbed Richie's hands carefully, slowly, creating friction and heat for both of them for several minutes before the young Immortal was able to pull them free. "Oh, God," Richie mumbled. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. How about your feet?" Connor asked.
"They haven't started hurting yet," Richie answered. "I'm hoping they'll heal first, but I'll let you know. And by the way, welcome back." He put the keys in the ignition and turned to Connor. They looked at each other.
Connor had a thousand questions, but he asked only one. "Anybody we know?"
"Sure," Richie said flatly. "That Percy guy from the bar the other night. He followed us."
Connor nodded. Percy, of course. Connor should have realized, should have taken the Englishman when he had the chance ...
"I should have killed him while I had him," Richie said bitterly, echoing Connor's thought.
At least Richie wasn't blaming Connor. "It was a calculated risk," Connor said.
"It was a mistake." Richie shook his head ruefully. "I just seem to keep making mistakes, Connor."
On the other hand, Richie shouldn't take all the blame on himself, so Connor said, "I let him go, too. And you evidently didn't make any mistakes when you fought him. At least, not any fatal ones." Not to mention that he'd saved Connor's life, too. Connor felt a warm glow of gratitude towards Richie Ryan, and he let some of that warmth into his voice when he said, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Richie mumbled, and he was quiet for a long minute.
Connor was eager to get back to Manhattan, and he opened his mouth to say so, but Richie spoke first.
"Hey, Connor..." Richie finally began, and Connor had the impression Richie was getting ready to tell him something important. Maybe even finally tell him why he'd come to Manhattan.
But Richie paused again and just said, "Well, now he's sleeping with the fishes. Along with my bike, damn him!" He angrily thumped the steering wheel, then started the ignition and smiled as the solid power of the car hummed through his body. "Man, I could get used to this!" he exclaimed as he put the car in gear and pulled out into the road.
Connor grinned and said, "Why do you think I drive a Porsche?"
Richie replied, "I'm keeping the car."
Connor grinned again, his good humor returning. They had won, pushed back the forces of darkness, destroyed the cowardly enemy. They were alive. But what he said was, "We'd have to burgle his place, steal some documents, do some forging."
Richie's answering smile was savage. "Yeah, let's ransack his place tonight, steal his stuff. He's not going to be using it. And I claim it as 'right of conquest.'"
Connor's grin got wider. He wasn't interested in Percy's stuff, but if that's what Ryan wanted to do, he'd go along. Anyone who saved Connor's life deserved some leeway, in Connor's opinion. He shifted his weight in the very comfortable leather seats as the last of the pain left his leg and said, quietly, "To the victor belong the spoils."
Chapter 18: The Spoils
Richie opened Percy's door with the stolen keys, and the two of them walked in, splitting up, instantly and instinctively alert for any surprises or evidence of occupancy. After a thorough but quick survey of the dead man's apartment, they met back in the living room.
Connor said, "He lives alone."
"Yeah, and he's got pretty nice stuff, too," Richie said, looking around appraisingly. "Too bad it isn't more ... portable."
Connor looked around, too. Judging from his possessions, Edward Percy had been a man of reasonably good taste and enough wealth to indulge it -- to an extent. Mixed in among the good pieces of furniture were a few inexpensive reproductions that told Connor that Percy probably didn't have quite as much wealth as he'd have liked. But Edward Percy's desires and frustrations were ancient history now. "What do you want to do first?" Connor asked Richie.
"I want to get the title to the Jaguar. Then we can see what else is worth taking."
"I suggest the desk, then," Connor replied. "Looks like he was pretty neat and organized."
"Yeah," Richie replied. He headed for the desk, which faced one wall of the room. It had a built-in file drawer that was full of folders. Richie dropped to his knees and began rifling through them, a little awkwardly because of his gloves -- both men had kept their gloves on so there would be no fingerprints to connect them to Edward Percy's disappearance. "Let's see," Richie said, 'c' is for car ... nope, nothing in there. Let's try 'j' for Jaguar ... yep. Here it is, the title." Richie pulled it out, smiling. "Mine, now. What else do you think, Connor?"
Connor shrugged, a movement that ended with a quick lift of his eyebrows. "Your call."
"I want to take anything I can get," Richie replied, laughing nastily. "Why not?" He pulled out folders and began going through them, tossing them on the floor when he was done.
Connor had joined Richie at the desk, and he picked up a photograph. It was a slightly faded picture of Edward Percy and a woman who looked to be in her early thirties. The two of them were sitting on the floor and the woman had a baby in her arms. From their tie-dyed t-shirts and style of hair -- long and straight for both of them -- Connor could tell the picture had been taken in the 1960s.
He put the photo down, picked up another one, and then was hit with a wave of sorrow. This picture was recent -- the date was written on the back of it, March 2000. It showed an old woman sitting in a wheelchair, two middle-aged adults, and Edward Percy, looking exactly the same, of course. Percy was holding the old woman's hand. Stuck in the corner of the frame was a clipping from a newspaper. Knowing what it was, Connor read it anyway. "Janice Percy, widow of the late Edward Percy, Sr., died ... She is survived by her two children, James and Margaret, and her great-nephew, Edward. Funeral services ..." The date on the obituary was six months ago. The place was London.
Connor pulled the chair from under the desk and dropped down into it. "Richie," he said softly. "You need to look at these."
"Just a minute, Connor. I think I've hit the jackpot here --"
"I think you'll probably want to look at this now."
Richie paused. "What?"
"Here." Connor thrust the photographs into Richie's hands and sat back, thinking about Heather growing old, never wanting to leave him. Of Heather, loving him, staying with him all her life and dying in his arms.
"I don't get it," Richie said. "I like the hot babe he's with in this picture, but who's the old lady in the other one?"
Connor chuckled grimly. "The old lady is the hot babe, Richie."
Richie squatted on the floor, one photo in his right hand, the other in his left, looking back and forth between them.
"Read the obituary," Connor ordered.
Richie read it, then said, "It says he was her --"
"He was her husband!" Connor said, his voice still soft. "He married her --" his finger stabbed the older photo. "Back in the sixties, he married her. Then he stayed with her while she got old and died, pretending to be her 'great-nephew.' And when she died, he came to New York. Do you see?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I get it," Richie replied, as grim as Connor. Richie settled back on the floor, staring fixedly at the pictures. "Goddammit!" he exclaimed, flinging the photographs at the wall with a brutal, savage gesture. They hit the wall and fell to the floor, and the glass made a tinkling sound as it rained down on the frames. "It doesn't matter. So he had a damn family! He was still a fucking coward who tried to kill us with a car! I'm not going to forget that, man!"
Connor shook his head, saying nothing. But the picture had touched him, as it had obviously touched Richie.
"Lookie here," Richie exclaimed. "Looks like he collected medals. Think these might be worth something?" he asked, handing Connor an old wooden box full of old-looking medals.
Connor picked up the first medal he recognized. It was a squat gold cross with the British lion in the circular center. Connor gave a short whistle -- there were two of them!
Richie nodded. "We found something good, huh?"
Holding an identical medal in each hand -- except the ribbon of one was more worn and definitely older, Connor looked at Richie. "Oh, yeah," the older Immortal said softly. "Only he didn't collect these. You can't buy these, because people who have them don't give them up. Percy had to have earned them. They're Victoria Crosses. They're awarded for a single act of courage and devotion to your country in the face of the enemy."
Richie's face fell a little. "Courage?" he echoed.
"The British use the word 'valor,'" Connor answered. He put the medals back in the box, carefully, then picked up another. "This one is the DSO, Distinguished Service Cross," he said, pointing to the white cross with a gold crown in the red center, surrounded by a green wreath. "Gallantry in action," he said, looking into Richie's eyes. He noted that the younger man looked uncomfortable. Connor absolutely felt uncomfortable.
"This is the Mons Star, the 1914 Star. Everyone who fought in World War I got one of these. I have one. The crossed swords are especially appropriate for us, don't you think?" he asked, in a mild tone. He was starting to have the same feeling he'd had after he'd beheaded Lasseigne, and John had asked, "Why'd you have to kill him, Dad? He wasn't a bad guy!" It was starting to look as if Edward Percy hadn't been a bad guy, either. Connor sighed.
He put the Mons Star back in the box and picked up yet another medal. This one was a silver circle. "This is the British War Medal, for everyone who served between 1914 and 1918. I have one of these, and one of these." He pointed to a circular gold medal. "Inter-Allied Victory Medal."
"So this Victoria Cross..." Richie began, but said nothing more.
"Valor. Gallantry in action."
But Richie wasn't listening -- he had picked up a folder labeled "m" and was reading the military papers which came with it, which described Percy's actions. "All right," Richie finally said, putting the papers down. "So he was brave in World War II. And World War I, and maybe a couple other wars. So he was a war hero. But now he's ..." He took a deep breath. "He's a coward. Hasn't he acted like a coward in everything he's done? Look." Richie held his hands out in front of him, palms up. "Mac had a friend who was like an expert fencer, and he lost his nerve, became a coward and a drug addict. He tried to run me down on my bike with his car, just like Percy did," Richie said. "So Percy's a coward now, right, Connor?"
Connor had known Bryan Cullen. He nodded, putting the medals back in the box and closing it. "So it would seem."
"Yeah," Richie said, but with so little conviction that Connor looked at him sharply.
"People change," Richie continued in a low voice, but he was looking at something else, a letter in a folder which Connor could see was labeled "v". Richie said, "It's a letter from the New York Downtown Hospital, thanking him for all his volunteer hours in the last six months. Not fifty fucking years ago, now, this week!" He threw the letter on the floor and pulled another one out of the folder. "A letter from St. Mary's Hospital in London, same shit. Same fucking shit!" He started to breathe hard. "The guy was a fucking saint!"
"I wouldn't go that f--" Connor began.
"And I did it again," Richie interrupted. "I fucking did it again."
Connor swiveled in the chair and looked down at the redhead, who had thrown that folder on the floor along with the others and was looking at his own hands with loathing. It occurred to Connor that the "v" was for volunteering. But he dismissed that thought and asked, "Did what again?"
Richie didn't answer.
After a moment, Connor reached down and shook Richie's shoulder. "Did what again?" he repeated.
"I killed somebody I shouldn't have, again. See," he looked up at Connor, his face pale, "I thought Percy was a bastard. And a coward. And a son of a bitch. And it turns out --" Richie gestured at the photos, laying face-down across the room, at the folder, at the box of medals. "He wasn't lying, after all, when he said..."
"Said what?" Connor asked again, getting impatient. "What happened with you and Percy out there, Richie?"
Chapter 19: Confession
Richie rose up from the floor and began pacing rapidly. "I killed him, that's what happened. He said he wasn't trying to run us off the road -- that he wasn't going after two easy Quickenings. He wanted to postpone the fight, do the honorable thing. But I wouldn't let him. I wouldn't listen! I was so sure he was lying." Richie spun around to Connor. "I killed him. Just like I killed Nate. And I was WRONG! SHIT!!! What kind of monster am I?"
("You enjoyed it," John says, his voice raw with accusation and disgust. "I saw it in your face.") Connor shook the memory away. That was ancient history, and he needed to deal with Richie now. "Richie," he said, stressing the name, trying to get Richie's attention. "Who is Nate?"
There was a pause, then Richie started pacing again and talking rapidly at the same time. The words poured from him, and Connor realized that at last, Richie was explaining why he'd come to see Connor.
"Nate's the guy I killed down in Argentina," Richie said. "He was a friend -- I thought he was a friend. We spent time together, you know ... But he came to the estancia ... he told us about Angel. But Elena had already killed Angel --"
At Connor's puzzled look, Richie said, "Angel's the one who attacked Elena -- the one John saw get beheaded. So Nate said ... he said that Angel had told him he wanted Elena's head. And Nate said ... he was trying to warn us. About Angel. But I didn't believe him because of Stephen."
And there Richie stopped talking and pacing, and he stood still, his eyes fixed on the wall at the other end of the room, obviously seeing something that Connor couldn't.
Connor waited. When it was evident that Richie wasn't going to continue, Connor gently said, "What did Stephen have to do with it?"
Richie jerked, then started talking again, like a wind-up doll. "Nate was gay. And I thought he wanted Stephen ... and maybe Stephen's Quickening, too." The words came faster and faster now. "But Nate said ... he said it wasn't true. That he just wanted to talk to Stephen. That he liked him. That he'd never hurt a kid. But I killed him, Connor. I killed him anyway. Just like I killed Percy. And I think I made a mistake. Both times. Christ, I think --" The words stopped, and Richie gasped once, then sat down on the floor, suddenly.
Connor started to speak, but Richie interrupted him with another spate of words, uttered almost without pause. "You know in school when you made a mistake, they'd drag you off to detention or something and then maybe if you did something really bad, they'd take you to jail. And you'd get thirty days or probation or something. Or if you flunked a test, like in algebra, you know, you'd get an 'F' and you'd have to take the class again. But nobody ever DIED before because of a mistake I made. Nobody ever chopped your head off because of a MISTAKE. When did I start KILLING PEOPLE by MISTAKE?! I killed Nate and I killed Percy, and I think I was wrong! And what the fuck can I do about it NOW?" The last words came out almost as a moan, a sob of grief and remorse and guilt.
As Connor listened to Richie, he closed his eyes, then opened them again, trying hard not to remember the faces of the men and the women he'd killed, whose Quickenings he'd taken, and most especially, those whom he'd killed by mistake ... just as Richie had done -- or might have done. Those Connor had killed because he'd believed lies about them or made false assumptions or jumped to conclusions ... there were any number of reasons, and Connor knew all too well what Richie was feeling.
"Ryan," Connor said softly. Richie looked up, and Connor could see the hope in his face -- the hope that Connor was about to tell him some Immortal secret, absolve him of guilt. Connor had seen that look in the faces of students before. He had worn that look himself. Connor knew what it was to seek absolution and find none. He swallowed. There could be no absolution. But there was confession.
"The last man I killed," Connor said softly, "was named Rene Lasseigne. He was as honorable as they come. A good man. He came to New York to challenge me. That's when John showed up. Lasseigne offered to postpone the duel, because of John. But ... I didn't want to." He glanced at Richie, who nodded once in understanding. "So I fought him, with John right there. When I won, I took his head." His voice dropped to a whisper. "And I enjoyed his Quickening."
"Yeah," Richie said, obviously understanding.
Connor's voice rose again. "Lasseigne came for me. But I knew what he was, the kind of man he was. I could have said no. When I had him on his knees, I could have made him give me his word not to come after me again -- he was the kind of man who would have kept his word. But I didn't do that. I killed him. His body's lying out in a marsh somewhere in New Jersey." Connor ran out of words, and the two Immortals stared at one another.
"So what's the answer?" Richie asked grimly.
"There is no answer. We're Immortals. We're killers. When we make mistakes, people die. You can't glue their heads back on. No second chances."
"Shit," Richie said. "So what am I supposed to do the next time? Run?"
"No," Connor said firmly. "Just be very sure, as sure as you can be, that your opponent has to die. And don't make the mistake of thinking that every opponent is going to be some kind of bastard. They're not. The Game doesn't care whether you're a good guy or a bad guy. Only whether you win or lose. And the one who wins is the better swordsman. The Kurgan was an excellent swordsman."
"But he was the bad guy, and you were the good guy," Richie said, leaning forward. "And you won."
"Even if he was a bad guy, the Kurgan killed a lot of good men, including my friend Kastigir and my teacher Ramirez." Connor swallowed. Those two men's deaths still weighed on him.
"So -- you're saying there's no answer?" Richie asked.
"Yes," Connor agreed, returning to the important matter at hand. "There is no answer."
Richie shook his head and ran his hand through his short hair. "Man -- what about the guilt?"
"That's your penance. You carry it with you. You try to learn something from it."
"What? What the hell do you learn?" Richie asked, coming to his feet abruptly, standing over Connor.
Connor shrugged impatiently, painfully. "I don't know, Richie. I think maybe the lesson is different for every one."
"And how long do you carry it? Is there ever a time --"
"Forever," Connor said then amended, "As long as you live. You never forget. And maybe you shouldn't forget. Because when you do --"
"I know. Mac told me." Richie turned smoothly and went to look out Percy's window. The view was not spectacular, and he could see a nightclub across the street. "That's why Percy was at the bar," he murmured, "looking for companionship, for a connection, after his wife died." Richie turned around to face Connor. "God, it doesn't make any sense."
"It's not right. It's WRONG!"
"Then why keep on going? Why keep on playing the Game?"
"Because we have no choice." Richie looked ready to explode, and Connor added, "If every Immortal but *one* agreed to lay down their swords and stop fighting, we'd all soon be dead, except for that one. So that's your choice: play the Game, or die."
Richie nodded. He took a deep breath, looked around Percy's apartment. "You know, I don't want any of Percy's stuff. I'm keeping the car, because I need the wheels. But nothing else. Let's go."
The two men stood and looked at Edward Percy's material remains. Then Richie headed for the door. Connor turned out the lights, and Richie locked up behind them. They got into the Jaguar. Richie turned on the ignition, then turned to Connor. "I need a drink."
"Yeah," Connor agreed, feeling empty and unsatisfied with his own explanation. "My place, I think."
"Yeah," Richie said, and he eased the Jaguar out into the street.
Estancia -- Spanish for an Argentine combination ranch/farm
Chapter 20: The Right Thing
Tuesday morning, Connor woke later than usual, around nine. Quietly, he opened his door and listened. Richie was still snoring gently in his room across the hall. Connor closed the door and headed for his bathroom, thinking that, after all, yesterday had been pretty eventful, for both Richie and himself. And then, after the two of them had returned from Percy's apartment, Richie had, with uncharacteristic taciturnity, gone to bed. Connor, unable to sleep, had sat down at the computer in his bedroom and answered John's last letter. It hadn't been easy. In fact, it had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done. But he owed John some answers -- although one of the two main things he'd written to his son was that Immortals themselves really had no answers. The other main thing Connor had told John was that Connor loved him. After Connor had sent the letter, he'd had a glass -- one glass -- of Scotch, and then he had gone to bed as well.
This morning Connor thought about the letter he'd written last night, one of the most important letters he'd ever written. A letter to his son, to the only real son he'd ever had ... Suddenly John's absence struck Connor full force, and he abruptly sat down at his computer, feeling hollow and cold.
Connor flipped the "on" switch and waited while the computer booted itself up. Although Connor didn't yet expect an answer from John, he mechanically went about checking his email. And there it was -- flashing in his "in-box." Hastily, Connor double-clicked the message, then closed his eyes when the words appeared on the screen. He wasn't sure he wanted to read this. But, of course, he had to. Like so many times before, he had no choice. Taking a deep, calming breath, he opened his eyes and began reading.
There was no salutation this time. Instead, there was only the computer-generated message at the top, followed with the first of several passages from Connor's letter. "The one thing I know for sure is that if I chose not to fight -- to lay down my sword -- I'd soon be dead," Connor had written.
Beneath that, John had replied, "I know that you have to fight in self-defense. I don't question that. And I can see that if someone challenges you and you don't behead them, they might come back later. But aren't there some challenges you can turn down -- and some you don't have to make?"
"No," Connor said softly. "Almost never. Refusing a challenge or not making one when it's timely is just the same as not taking a head when you've won a victory. The Game is all or nothing."
Connor repressed the urge to answer John's first question and send those bare few sentences on to his son. He needed to read the whole letter and make a complete reply. He read on. John had quoted a few lines of Connor's explanation of The Prize -- and its undefined nature -- and then he'd written, "Do you think humanity would really accept a ruler from an unknown race who claimed the right to rule us based on victory in a game most of humanity has never heard of? I have to tell you, Dad, I don't buy it. Even if there is a Prize to be won, I just can't see how it could ever work. Maybe it could have, even a few hundred years ago, when kings ruled by divine right. But today, nobody accepts ideas like that any more. Most of the kings and queens who do exist are superfluous and have no real power. I know Immortals can be pretty scary, Dad -- I do remember Kane -- but I don't think any 'Prize' could stop a modern army that had modern weapons."
Connor stopped reading, his heart thumping rapidly in his chest. John had called him "Dad" twice in the same paragraph! As for what John was saying about the Prize, Connor had had similar discussions with Duncan and a few other Immortals. As long as no one really knew whether or not The Prize existed, or what it was, or how powerful it was, the argument was moot. John could be right. Mortals might fight the winner of The Prize, if he tried to rule them. But Connor knew how dangerous Immortals were to mortals now. An Immortal with unlimited power...?
John had begun the next paragraph with more of Connor's letter -- the most difficult part, perhaps. It was the part where Connor had admitted that he liked the fighting, the killing, and the Quickenings. It was the part where Connor had essentially admitted that he -- or part of him -- was a savage. He re-read his own words with a chill, then hurried on to John's answer.
"I think I know some of what you mean. Whenever I'm in a boxing match, and I'm winning, there's a moment where I know that I can beat the other guy to a pulp. And part of me wants to. It wants to just keep hitting and hitting, even after the other guy is down for the count. Maybe you raised me so I would have that feeling -- maybe you didn't know any other way to raise me. I don't kill the other guy, though. I wait for the count to end, and whether I win or he does, nobody dies. I have had a couple of guys come for me out of the ring, after a fight, so I know what that's like, too. When that guy, Angel, was trying to kill Elena -- I really wanted to stop him. But I didn't want to kill him. I've never killed anybody, and I don't think I ever could have been a warrior. I don't want to know, either. I'll never be able to share that with you, or understand it."
Connor sighed. He'd never wanted John to know about any of the killing Connor had to do, either. And he was glad John didn't want to share it with him. Connor had to kill. John didn't. John didn't know how blessed that made him.
The next quotes in John's letter skipped around, from the part where Connor had tried to explain why he thought he was a "good guy" to the part where he'd tried to explain to John about his desire for a family.
John had written, "I can't see you ruling the world, Dad. I know you'd rather the world left you alone. So I guess I believe you when you say you're fighting mostly to keep guys like Kane from winning, not so you can win yourself -- if there's anything to win. And I guess someone has to be around to take out guys like Kane and like Angel in Argentina. And somehow, that does make you a good guy -- you and Duncan and Richie and Elena, I guess. But it still doesn't make The Game right. I think The Game is horrible -- it's more like a trap that none of you can escape, and that you're caught in forever. I know you don't want to hide, but isn't there any way out?"
"No," Connor muttered. "It is a trap. But it has some compensations." He looked around his bedroom. He was glad that he hadn't destroyed all of his furniture after John had left, when he'd gone into a drunken and depressed rampage and trashed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of antiques and expensive reproductions. He hadn't wanted to tell Richie about any of that. It was shameful and embarrassing in a way that even the killing of Lasseigne wasn't.
Connor looked back at the screen and read the email's next sentence. His breath caught, and the cold, hollow feeling hit him again.
"As for family," John had written, "I've thought about what it would mean to just never see you again. Right at the beginning, when I first found out what you hadn't told me about Immortality, that's what I wanted to do. That's why I left. I didn't know what to do with myself. I thought about joining the Army, but that was the last thing I wanted to do -- learn how to fight and kill. So I went the other way. I joined the Peace Corps.
"When I got here, I was still really confused about what was right. I wanted to be a good guy. So I followed my instincts, and it seemed to go okay. The people in the villages like me a lot, and so do the vets, and I think I'm making a difference here. And then I sat down and thought about what 'following my instincts' meant, and I realized that it meant following what *you* had taught me.
"So there's no escaping it. I have a good idea of what you'd be doing if you were here in my place, and it pretty much seems like the right thing to do, almost every time. The thing is, I don't need you here to tell me. It seems like I already know. And I thought about that, too, and I realized that you taught me to think for myself.
"I thought about a lot of other things, too, and I finally realized that I want you in my life. I still need some more time, and there are more questions I need to ask, and I know you're not perfect. But so much of you is in me. Even the part of me that makes me stop and wait for the count when I've won a boxing match -- you taught me that, too. How not to kill.
"You raised me to be a good guy, just like you.
Connor exhaled slowly, a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. John still hadn't said he loved Connor, but Connor could read between the lines. And John no longer thought of him as a murderer, a serial killer. And even though John had used no salutation, he had called Connor "Dad" repeatedly through the letter and signed himself as Connor's son. Connor bowed his head in silent gratitude and sat that way for a long moment. The hollow feeling had disappeared, and his heart felt full. Connor had his son back.
Chapter 21: Good Guys
In the next instant, there was a soft knock on Connor's door. Connor looked up. Richie must finally be out of bed.
Slightly muffled, Richie's voice called out, "Connor?"
Connor quickly went to the door and opened it, letting Richie in. The redhead looked glum and dispirited.
"What's the plan for today? " Richie asked.
Connor smiled. "I think we should take the day off and celebrate."
Richie looked at Connor as though the Scot had lost his mind. "Celebrate what? Killing Edward Percy?" Richie turned away and stared grimly out the window. "I don't want to celebrate that."
Mentally kicking himself, Connor hastened to speak. "No, Richie. I don't want to celebrate that, either. But I got another letter from John."
Richie turned back, looking at Connor questioningly.
Without prodding, Connor said, "It was a good letter." He smiled again, more broadly this time. "I think he's ... I don't think..."
"He's coming back, huh?"
"I think so," Connor hedged. "Not right away. But he will come back home."
"That's great," Richie said unenthusiastically. "But I bet he'll still think I'm a shithead."
"No," Connor said seriously. "He won't. He said so in the letter. He said he thought you were a good guy."
"He really said that?" Richie asked, a sudden hope in his eyes.
"Yes," Connor said. "John really said that."
Richie walked over to the full-length windows in Connor's bedroom and stared out at the city. "I'm glad John thinks I'm a good guy. But what about you?"
Connor deliberately misunderstood. "He said he thought we were all good guys -- you, Duncan, and me." And, Connor thought to himself, John also said Elena was one of the good guys. Connor didn't really like being grouped with Elena for any reason -- and, besides, there was no reason to mention Elena in this conversation. No reason at all.
"That's good, too," Richie said glumly, "but what I meant was, what do you think?"
Continuing with his deliberate misunderstanding, Connor replied, "I think I'm one of the good guys, too. Most of the time, anyway."
Richie turned away from the windows to look at Connor, and he smiled a little. "Most of the time, huh?"
Connor nodded. Richie snorted, and Connor reflected that the kid -- young man -- was picking up Connor's habits.
Now Richie walked back across the room, to stand in front of Connor. "What I mean, Connor, is, do you think I'm one of the good guys?"
Connor sighed. Richie was waiting, again, and Connor knew the young man was still hoping for some kind of absolution from his teacher's teacher. Connor felt all of his nearly five hundred years settle on his shoulders like a yoke, and he wondered how Ramirez had felt when Connor had asked the old peacock, "What if we were the last two? Would you take my head?" Ramirez hadn't replied directly, Connor remembered. He'd simply said, "We must fight until only one remains." Connor wished Ramirez was here, now, with his wisdom and wit.
Finally, Connor said, "Richie, when I think about some of the Immortals I've encountered, then, yes, I think you are definitely one of the good guys."
"But what about Percy and Nate?"
"What about the Immortal you let go on Christmas Eve?" Connor shook his head. "I don't know." Looking beyond the redhead to the Manhattan skyline, he sighed and said, "I'm almost five hundred years old, Richie, and I'm still making my share of mistakes. Like Lasseigne, maybe."
Richie nodded, and Connor continued. "I learned that you can't brood over them, or you'll drive yourself insane. You can't go into a fight second-guessing your judgment, or you'll die. You have to face the fact that you are going to make mistakes. You just have to be able to forgive yourself for them and go on."
Richie's mouth was set in a straight line. "That's easy to say..."
"I know. If it were easy to do, then I would wonder if you were one of the good guys."
Richie met Connor's eyes with his own, then nodded. "Thanks, Connor. And I'm glad John is ... doing better. But I don't know about celebrating. It doesn't seem right."
"We can at least have a good lunch and drink a toast to John with a great bottle of wine."
"Okay," Richie agreed. "I think I can handle that."
They talked some more during lunch, but Connor saw that Richie's naturally sunny disposition was going to be AWOL for a while. A little later, Connor drew up a bill of sale for the Jaguar and forged Edward Percy's signature on it. Connor also put down a good sale price for the Jaguar and showed Richie how much he'd have to pay to the State of New York for it to be legal.
"Ouch," Richie said. "Maybe I should just leave the Jaguar."
Connor shrugged. "It's up to you," he said.
"No," Richie said. "I want to keep it. It'll help me remember about not making mistakes. Being more sure of things. Besides, I don't have any other wheels. And I ...I'm keeping it," he repeated.
Connor nodded. "Then we'll need to go downtown and take care of the paperwork."
"Okay," Richie sighed. "I just hope this isn't like the last time I was in a government office building. That was a very bad day."
Connor put on his coat and replied, "I don't think most Immortals have good days in government office buildings. In fact, I'm not sure anyone does, even when they work there."
"Yeah," Richie said. "But this was a really bad day." And while the two of them headed for the proper offices via subway and bus, Richie told Connor all about the day Tessa had finally decided to go downtown and pay for her parking tickets.
For dinner, they went to a small restaurant that was one of Connor's favorites. The ambiance was so Italian, with checkered tablecloths, half-melted candles inside old bottles of chianti, and a mustachioed, apron-wearing, bustling owner, that it looked fake, like a tourist trap. But the lasagna was ...
"This lasagna rocks!" Richie exclaimed, swallowing.
Connor nodded. He had ordered lasagna too, and his mouth was too full of it to speak.
They were midway through the meal when Richie took a deep breath and said, "Well, I guess it's about time for me to head back to Seacouver."
Nonplussed, Connor, who'd been about to take a sip of chianti, paused with his glass in mid-air. "You want to have dessert first?"
Richie shot Connor a look. "I don't mean right now. The real reason I came up here was ... well..." He paused.
Connor waited, wondering if the young Immortal was going to say it or let it die.
Richie squared his shoulders, looking determined. "Well, it was about Nate. I needed to talk it over with somebody -- not Duncan, but somebody I could, you know, trust. So I came here."
Connor nodded. "I'm honored, but I don't think I helped much."
"Yeah. You did. I mean, you didn't make it any easier for me ... but at least I know I'm not the only one who's screwed up."
Connor smiled grimly. "We've all screwed up, Richie. Even Duncan."
"Yeah, well ... I guess that's about as good as it's gonna get."
Connor nodded again.
"Plus, I'm one of the good guys, so, anyway," Richie continued, "I was thinking I'd leave this coming Sunday morning. I want to take you and the girls out -- and Rachel, too, of course -- for one final big dinner on Friday or Saturday night. I'll pick the menu and all the wine. I want to show you what I've learned, old man. Let you know all that time spent teaching me about wine wasn't wasted."
No smile from Richie. All right. "Hmph," Connor snorted. "The only thing I can vouch for is that you learned how to spit."
Richie actually smiled this time. "Yeah," he said.
As they headed back by subway to Connor's place, Richie returned to the subject of a farewell dinner. "The only part I need your help on, Connor, is figuring out a good restaurant."
Connor considered for a minute. "What about price?" he asked.
Richie shook his head. "My problem. I just want to show everybody a good time -- and show you what I learned about wine. So where's a place that they'd work with me on something like that?"
Connor named three restaurants, and Richie nodded. "Fine. I'll call 'em tomorrow and see which one I'll go with."
By the time they got back to Connor's, it was nearly midnight. Claiming he had a busy day tomorrow, Richie went to bed with no further conversation. Connor looked at Richie's closed door and shook his head. Just yesterday he had wondered if Richie would ever shut up. Today, the silence was deafening.
Chapter 22: Farewells
The week went by quickly, interspersed with exercise, sparring, sightseeing, and another night out with Gina and Lisa. Richie was planning his menu in secret with the chef -- refusing to let Connor or Rachel overhear anything. Connor was amused by the whole thing, and glad that Richie had something to occupy him, since there was an undertone of ... melancholy ... to the young Immortal that Connor hadn't seen before and didn't like.
Friday night, Rachel and Connor were just about to close the antique store when Rachel put her hand on Connor's arm and asked him, abruptly, "Richie's not ... upset with you, is he?"
Connor could hear the concern in her voice, so he rushed to reassure her. "No, it's not about Richie and me. Don't worry," he said, squeezing her hand.
"But something did happen ... Immortal business," Rachel ventured in a low voice.
"Yeah," Connor answered simply.
Rachel closed her eyes and looked away for a moment, but she soon turned back to Connor. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"He'll be all right," Connor assured her again.
This time Rachel smiled a little. "Yes, I'm sure he will. He has a sunny disposition."
"Unlike me," Connor suggested, with an equally small smile.
Rachel squeezed back. "You have many good qualities," she said proudly, her eyes bright.
Rachel chuckled, and she was still chuckling when her taxi rolled up to the shop door. "Goodnight, Connor. And for heaven's sake, don't bully Richie into giving away his secret plans."
Connor smiled innocently.
Tsking, Rachel got into the taxi.
By the time Saturday evening arrived, Connor discovered that his pretense of curiosity had in fact become real. Richie had arranged a limo to take everyone to and from the restaurant. Connor sat between Gina and his "Aunt" Rachel, grinning.
When they reached the restaurant, the maitre d' quickly led them to a secluded table for five, and he and Richie bent their heads together in a quick consultation. The maitre d' left and Richie went to his place next to Lisa. Looking slightly pink and flustered, he announced, "Everything's ready, and we'll be starting in just a minute!" Catching sight of a waiter headed towards them pushing a cart, he smiled. "All right! Looks like the champagne is here!"
"I love champagne," Lisa contributed, then looked embarrassed as everyone glanced at her. "I guess everybody does, huh?" she added in a small voice.
Rachel laughed gently. "I love champagne, too, dear. And yes, I think most everyone does."
"It tickles my nose," Lisa replied.
They were all quiet as the waiter ceremoniously announced, "Moet et Chandon," opened the bottle, poured the bubbling, pale wine into Richie's champagne flute, and then stood back while Richie swirled the liquid in the glass and then took a taste.
"It's good," Richie said. "Pour for everybody."
When the glasses were full, Richie lifted his and said, "To a good, if not restful, vacation, to three beautiful ladies, and to the best wine instructor anybody ever had."
Connor blinked, then smiled and raised his glass along with the others and drank. Gina and Lisa sniffed, then Lisa giggled a little as she inhaled some of the bubbles. "Told you," she said.
"And you were right, too," Richie replied, smiling warmly at her. Then, to the whole group, he said, "Shall we continue?" Connor nodded, and Richie gestured to the waiter.
They began with a cup of French onion soup. After that, as each course came, it was accompanied by a wine which Richie sampled and approved. For the first course he offered approval rights to Connor, too, but Connor shook his head and said, "I trust you, Richie." The younger man actually grinned -- and he didn't ask Connor again.
Then came the salad course -- greens in a vinaigrette dressing, accompanied by a pale dry sherry. Next came the main course -- succulent lamb chops, with fresh, almost al dente green beans and tiny new potatoes, accompanied by a mature claret from the Medoc region of France. "This combination is exquisite," Rachel complimented.
Connor added, "You didn't go with the usual Cabernet for the lamb, Richie." He held up his glass. "And the claret was a great choice."
Richie beamed, finally, Connor could see, getting into a more festive spirit. "See, I told you I learned more than just how to spit."
Connor nodded agreeably, his mouth full of the excellent claret.
The dessert course, a French apple flan, was served with Sauternes, and Connor shared a glance with Rachel as the two of them totted up the rough cost of this meal -- it was a good thing Richie had a gold card, Connor decided. But he wasn't going to say a thing. This was Richie's triumph, and all Connor had to do was sit back and enjoy it. Which he did.
They closed the meal with fine vintage port, and Connor had a twinge of regret that the old days -- when the men would go off into smoking rooms with their cigars -- were past.
As soon as the meal ended, Lisa called their waiter over and handed him a camera. "We'd like a picture of all of us," Lisa explained, as she and Gina got up and stood behind Connor and Richie, who were sitting with Rachel between them.
Connor and Richie exchanged a glance and a smile.
"What?" Lisa asked, bending over to look, upside down, into Richie's face.
"Nothing," Richie replied, looking over at Connor, who simply smiled into the camera. The waiter asked them to squeeze a little closer, then took the picture.
"Great!" Lisa said. "I'll send you a copy, Richie."
"You better," he answered.
Less than an hour later, their limo drove up to Rachel's apartment building. Connor started to escort her upstairs but Richie said, "I'll see the lady to her door, Iain." Connor hugged Rachel goodnight, and then Richie gave Rachel his arm.
Upstairs, Rachel unlocked her door and turned to Richie. "It was a wonderful evening, Richie. You're quite grown up, aren't you?"
Richie blushed slightly. "Nah," he finally said. "I'm just a punk kid, and I'll always be just a punk kid."
She shook her head. "You're a sweet and thoughtful man," she insisted, "and I've enjoyed your visit tremendously."
"Thanks for making me feel so welcome," Richie said -- no sense letting Rachel know that the visit had had its rough moments. But he liked her, and was pleased with her comment. He took her hand between both of his. "For making me feel ... a part of the family," he added.
"Oh, you're not just part of the family, Richie. You're part of the clan. Connor told me so."
Richie's eyes widened. "The clan." Wow, this was a big deal. "Connor said that?" he asked, a bit incredulous.
Rachel nodded. "He did. And shall I tell you what that means?"
He nodded, silent for once, and she continued. "It means that for the rest of your life, both Duncan and Connor will be there when you need them -- and often when you don't," she added, laughing.
Richie smiled, but then she got serious again.
"For the rest of your life, Richie Ryan. And don't underestimate that. Duncan MacLeod is a kind and wonderful man, straight as an arrow, and Connor --" She sighed, and her eyes misted. "Connor MacLeod is my hero."
It was a lifetime of devotion, and Richie could see it clearly. He hoped someday he would be able to inspire such caring from another human being -- and then he thought, maybe ...
While he was thinking this, she was studying him. Then she added, "Connor was right in asking Duncan to watch over you."
Richie hadn't known this either. "Connor asked Mac --?"
"Yes -- he saw something in you. He told me he thought you'd be worth it. He said he was right, too, and he was. Goodbye, Richie. I hope I'll see you again."
Still amazed -- and pleased -- by what she'd said, and by what Connor had said, too, Richie squeezed her hand. "You will, Rachel. You don't get rid of me that easy."
She squeezed back, smiled at him and slipped inside.
Richie trotted back downstairs to the waiting limo and the four of them rode back to Connor's apartment.
Sunday morning, Richie softly knocked on Connor's bedroom door. A moment later, Connor appeared in the doorway, wearing sweat pants.
Richie smiled. "Here we are again."
"You're a bottomless pit."
"Yep. Especially when I've had a busy night." He grinned at Connor, who simply raised an eyebrow. "Well, you may not be able to go all night and work up an appetite, old man, but I still can. And I always will.
Connor laughed. "Let's go out for breakfast."
Ninety minutes later, they were standing outside the Greenwich Village restaurant they'd breakfasted in, and Richie turned to Lisa. Connor took Gina's hand, and the two of them walked a few feet away, giving Richie and Lisa a little space.
"Well, it's back to the Seacouver salt mines for me," Richie said.
"Yeah. I'll miss you."
"Miss me, heck. Come out to Seacouver, and I'll show you my shop."
"With my work and school, it could be a while. So you'll have to come back to New York. In the meantime, email me."
"It's a date, and I will." Richie didn't want to make any long-term commitments. He liked Lisa, but so far his track record for serious relationships wasn't good. And then there was the whole Immortal thing, with its sharp swords and light shows. He wasn't going to fit into any version of Lisa's carefully planned dream future. He would email her a few times, sure, but he didn't expect to come back to New York soon. He wasn't going to tell Lisa any of this, either -- he was just going to let time and distance do the dirty work for him. It was a little cold, but Richie hadn't made Lisa any promises and it would be best for both of them. Besides, Lisa didn't seem eager to drop her life and come chasing after him, anyway. Best to say good-bye now and go. He wrapped his arms around her for a last, long, loving embrace, and they kissed.
Connor and Gina walked back over, and Richie kissed Gina on the cheek. She hugged him quickly and softly murmured, "Good-bye, Richie."
"Take care, Gina."
She nodded, and the two girls walked up Hudson Street, heading for their Christopher Street apartment. Lisa turned once to wave, and Richie smiled and waved back.
Connor and Richie walked the short distance back to Connor's apartment in silence. Richie packed his things in twenty minutes and came out to the living room carrying the new duffel bag he'd bought to replace the lost saddlebags on his motorcycle. "I guess this is it," he said.
Connor put his book down and stood. "Until next time, clansman."
Richie stared at Connor for a moment, then said, "So that's it? I get adopted into the Clan MacLeod, and there isn't even a ceremony? Ritual blood-letting? Drinking of the sacred Scotch? Dancing the Scottish fling over a hot fire while I'm wearing a kilt?" Richie asked, grinning.
In a serious tone, Connor replied, "I told Duncan to watch you. He taught you and protected you. You stayed with him, even when it was dangerous. You saved my life. That's enough for me, and Duncan agrees."
Richie's vision suddenly blurred, and he coughed. "Wow. That's some speech," he said, thinking that Rachel was right, after all. He'd figured her words were said out of kindness, but it was true. In spite of Nate and Percy, the MacLeods had accepted him into the clan, with all its privileges and responsibilities.
"Yeah." Connor smiled.
"So is there some kind of clan handshake or something?"
Connor just looked at him.
"Okay, I guess not," Richie said hurriedly. He held out his hand, sincere and serious this time. "Well, good-bye, then."
Connor took Richie's hand and shook it, but he said, "We never say good-bye."
"Oh, yeah. Right ... well ... uh ..."
"I'll walk you to your car," Connor said, and they went down to Connor's private garage, where the Jaguar and Porsche were parked side by side. Richie threw his duffel in the back and got in.
Connor leaned on the car windowsill. "Richie," he said.
"Connor," Richie returned, proud and a little nervous about this ritual and what it implied about his own future responsibilities as a clansman.
Connor stood back, and Richie started up the ignition, thrilling to the powerful growl of the engine. He put it in gear, backed out, waved to Connor, and headed for home.
Al dente -- Italian: still somewhat crispy or firm, not cooked to sogginess
Chapter 23: Epilogue: An Unwelcome Visitor
Manhattan, February 21, 2002
Connor MacLeod was definitely not looking for a kill. He felt calm and ready, but annoyed -- he was getting really tired of all these Immortal visits, one right after the other. Enough was enough. His katana was inside his coat -- after all, it was the middle of the day, and he was in his home on Hudson Street. The last thing he wanted right now was a duel, and he fully intended to send this Immortal packing -- if he could. He was Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, and he was ready and able, but absolutely not willing.
As he opened the elevator and stepped out into the antique shop. He scanned the customers quickly for the Immortal, then saw his visitor sitting on the edge of Rachel's desk. It was Elena Duran, the Argentine. She was leaning forward and talking to Rachel like they were partners in crime.
He exhaled softly, the tension running off him like water.
"John was so drunk," Elena was telling Rachel, "that he started to tell me about the breasts of this one woman he'd seen on the streets of Buenos Aires!"
Rachel chuckled as Elena turned on her perch so she could speak to both Rachel and Connor at the same time. "But even drunk," Elena continued, "he was still too much of a gentleman to say such a thing to me. The two of you have done a great job of raising him. He is a kind, moral, and brave young man. And a good boxer, too," she added, rubbing her jaw slightly.
"Did he knock you down?" Connor asked cheerily, annoyed that she was here, demanding something else from him. Again.
"Right on my ass," she answered. "Just like his dad."
Rachel's eyebrows went up, but Connor ignored her, remembering that Richie had told him they'd had to burn John's new boxing shoes when Angel's bloody head had slammed into them. He took a deep breath, putting that incident in the past where it belonged. He was glad his katana was nowhere in sight. The last time he'd talked to Elena Duran was on the telephone, and he had threatened to take her head because he'd blamed her for what had happened with John. But that was then, and this was now. He didn't blame her any more -- not exclusively -- and he didn't want her head any more, either.
"You should be proud of him, both of you," Elena said.
"Most of the credit goes to Iain," Rachel said, pointing to Connor. "I was just the friendly aunt."
"Ah, yes, Iain MacKinnon, isn't it?" Elena asked, standing up and turning completely to Connor.
"Yes. And I am proud of John."
Elena's smile was like opening the windows and letting in the sunshine. She was dressed in a red turtleneck sweater and black leather jeans she had to have been poured into, her black hair just reaching the upturned collar of her black leather duster. The eyepatch made her look exotic, as usual. In fact, she looked fine -- but she usually looked fine, Connor reflected -- and he was suddenly glad he was seeing Gina tomorrow night. Still, he had never minded looking at Elena. And he could tolerate her presence -- up to a point. But he also knew why she was here, and it annoyed him. Elena could never leave well enough alone. She always had to push, push, push. Just now, Connor didn't feel like being pushed. So he let his sentence about John stand, just as he himself was standing, and he let the silence grow.
Elena broke it, as he knew she would.
"How are you?" she asked him finally, studying him openly. "You look ... fairly pleased with yourself."
Connor was fairly pleased with himself. He'd just had a very pleasant visit with Richie Ryan, he was seeing a beautiful, passionate woman, Rachel and Duncan were both happy with him, there were no immediate Immortals to kill, and John was writing to him. But Connor knew that Elena meant that he no longer seemed eager to take her head. It always had to be about her, he thought, knowing he was being a bit unfair.
"Things are going well," he answered, not really giving her anything. This game was one he always enjoyed playing, even with Duncan. Especially with Duncan.
"And you've heard from John," she stated. Connor knew Duncan had told her that. "He is well in Nairobi? Doing good deeds?"
She didn't sound sarcastic, and she hadn't been sarcastic a moment ago, when she had been talking about John. Maybe she really liked Connor's son. One point for her. A little point. "Yes," he replied, still playing his own little game.
Rachel cleared her throat. "Elena said she's just here until tomorrow, Connor," she said, glancing at him. Connor gave her a quick, reassuring wink, and Rachel smiled, looking relieved.
In the meantime, Elena seemed either unaware of or unaffected by Connor's contest. "That's right. I'm flying out in the morning, back to Seacouver." She chuckled. "I'm in the midst of a campaign to get Richie Ryan to let me drive his new Jaguar, and I have to keep the pressure up. He's very attached to it," she said, winking at Connor. "And he said he had a very good time here with you."
Connor eased up a little. "Richie's not going to let you drive that car, Elena," he stated.
Elena's eye narrowed. "Obviously you know something I don't."
"Obviously," he replied smugly, glad to hear Richie had had a good time.
She shrugged easily. "Oh, I do have a present for you too, Con -- Iain," Elena said, reaching in her backpack and pulling out a gaily-wrapped box, a little larger than the one sitting on Rachel's desk, Connor noted. "A combination Christmas/birthday present, from me and Duncan," she said.
"Thank you," Connor said, taking the box and shaking it slightly. It was blatantly obvious that this was a peace offering -- the first move in Elena's ongoing game of complete honesty and [palabra de honor]. Unless he wanted her to be suspicious of him, and he didn't, he now had to make the next move. That would involve making it obvious to Elena that he wanted peace, too. Connor wasn't into the blatantly obvious -- he preferred the subtle and devious -- but that was not how Elena worked. He sighed. He was going to have to say something ... nice. Even ... pleasant. And he was going to have to arrange an opportunity to do it, too. Dammit.
Rachel, God bless her, provided the opportunity. "We can open these gifts tonight, Iain. It is Thursday night."
Connor smiled guilelessly at Rachel, delighted that she had, all unknowingly, spared him the effort. He turned to Elena and said, "Rachel and I have dinner together every Thursday. Your turn to cook, I think," he said to Rachel. He turned back to Elena and, the epitome of the gracious host, said, "Would you care to join us?"
Elena's eye opened wide. Connor noticed again what a different and appealing shade of grey it was, how it accented her dusky, oval face, which had registered surprise, then pleasure. "I would love to join you," she said, meaning it, "as long as I'm not intruding."
At that moment the bell over the front door to the shop rang, and Connor glanced up briefly to see another customer enter and look around. Getting back to the matter at hand, Connor said -- a little less graciously, "If I thought you were intruding, I wouldn't have invited you."
"True," Elena admitted. Then she said innocently, "An invitation to dinner. Does that mean you consider me part of the family now, Iain?"
Connor snorted loudly. Same as always, he thought.
Rachel laughed. "Excuse me -- I'll leave you two to make the arrangements," she said, standing up and walking towards the new customer.
"So," Elena said. Moving closer to Connor, she whispered, "All indicators are good, but where the safety of my head is concerned, I like to hear the words out loud and in person, Connor."
Extremely pushy -- now Connor was thoroughly pissed off, and he didn't bother to hide it. "Do you think I'd waste a perfectly good dinner by feeding you and then cutting off your head?" he retorted.
Elena smiled again. "Not on a full stomach, no. But what about next week, or next month, when we haven't shared dinner?" she said calmly.
Connor sighed deeply with exasperation. "I don't want your head, Elena. Now, next week, next month, or next year. Satisfied?"
Ignoring the sarcasm, she said, sincerely, "Yes, you have always been honest with me, and I appreciate it -- as I have always been honest with you." Then she lowered her voice again and quickly began, "I am very sorry about what happened with John, Connor, I --"
"It's over," he interrupted. "It's done."
"Well, if you want me to stay away from John, I can try --"
"That's not necessary," he interrupted her again. "And --" he sighed again, not wanting to say it, but knowing this was what she was waiting for "-- you did the right thing where John was concerned. I know that, Elena." She had died in a pool of her own blood and risked exposing her Immortal secret, all to save John's life. And I won't forget it, he thought silently. But he wouldn't say that. Either she knew him well enough to understand, or she didn't. And that wasn't Connor's problem.
She shrugged. "You saved my life once. But even if it hadn't been John, I could never let someone die in front of me like that," she said.
"I know," Connor acknowledged, feeling less annoyed now.
She smiled and put a hand on his chest. "Besides, that's what friends are for, Connor MacLeod."
Her hand was warm, as always, and her touch wasn't entirely unwelcome. Connor smiled a small smile. "Yes, they are, Elena Duran," he said, finally giving in and giving Elena exactly what he knew she wanted.
Palabra de honor -- Spanish: word of honor
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