Moments of Weakness


a Highlander story by Marina Frants



Feel free to send feedback to the author.

Monterey, CA, May 17, 2057

Sixteen months, and Richie Ryan still hadn't gotten used to sleeping alone. Every time he shifted in his sleep and felt no answering movement on the other side of the bed, every time he reached his arm out and Nicole wasn't there, he woke up with a start, wondering what was wrong. Then memory would come flooding back, and he would know exactly what was wrong. Everything.

He lay alone in the king-size bed, staring at the clock on the bedside table. Glowing green numbers stared back at him. 3:05 A.M. He wasn't in the least bit sleepy. Richie considered getting up for a drink, or a walk on the beach, but he knew it wasn't what he really needed. He needed Nicole, asleep next to him, even if all he could do was hold her. But that had become impossible sixteen months before, when he finally caved to necessity and hired a live-in nurse. As far as Elaine was concerned, Richie Ryan was her patient's devoted grandson. She would've been weirded out, to say the least, if he had insisted on sharing a bed with his "grandmother."

3:25 A.M. He still wasn't sleepy. Richie got up, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, padded to the door that led into the adjoining bedroom, and eased it open a few inches. There was a night-light burning, in case Nicole woke up -- she had become afraid of the dark lately. In the dim yellow glow, Richie could see her curled up on the bed, looking very small beneath the quilt, her gray hair fanned out on the pillow. If he listened closely, he could hear her steady breathing. The doctors had told him that Alzheimer patients were often restless at night. But it was Richie who was restless, more often than not.

He shut the door and went downstairs, through the living room, and into the excercise room in the back. A workout might help him sleep, but he couldn't focus on what he wanted to do. He tried a few half-hearted stretches, started a kata and stopped half-way through, eyed the free weights and the treadmill without actually approaching them, and finally gave up and went out on the deck.

It was a pleasant night, cool and clear. The deck had an ocean view, and the air smelled of salt. Lights in the distance indicated the passing of boats. Richie sat down in a deck chair, listened to the surf, and let the memories come.

* * *


Flashback

Grand Cayman Island, October 12, 2004

The was a volleyball game starting up in front of the Hilton, and Richie sat down in the sand to watch it. He had just completed the outgoing part of his daily jog on Seven-Mile Beach, which left him pleasantly tired and more inclined to observe other people's athletic endeavors than to engage in his own. A tall, black-haired young woman in a black swimsuit was getting ready to serve. Richie watched with growing admiration as she tossed the ball into the air, jumped up after it, and smashed it over the net with the speed and accuracy of a guided missile. It made a dent in the sand where it hit.

"Yay, Nicole!" The server's teammates cheered and pumped their fists in the air. The opposite team groused good-naturedly that it was no fair bringing in a ringer. Nicole's grin flashed a startling white against her tanned face. She had a slim, muscular built, and the longest legs Richie had ever seen. Her hair was in French braids which, he instantly decided, was his favorite hairstyle. He wondered what would happen if he tried to approach her after the game. Nothing good, probably. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, which made her a few years younger than he was, but all she would see would be a nineteen-year-old kid. At thirty, Richie Ryan was beginning to seriously resent that particular aspect of his immortality.

Nicole's team won the first game. Their opponents suggested two out of three. At that point one of the players announced that he was too hot to continue, and went off for a swim. It was too good an opportunity to miss. Richie threw caution to the wind and asked if he could play.

He wasn't on Nicole's team, but that was okay. He could always introduce himself afterwards. Meanwhile, he was enjoying the game, right up until it was his turn to serve. Richie sent the ball sailing over the net, and Nicole spiked it right back at him. There was no way in hell he was going to return that spike, but he could've at least gotten out of the way, if he'd been paying attention. He wasn't. He was hopelessly distracted by the sight of Nicole launching herself into the air, light and graceful as a dancer. He almost forgot there was a game going on at all. So the ball struck him squarely in the face and sent him sprawling in the sand.

He sat there, dazed, half-expecting to see little stars whirling about his head the way they always did for cartoon characters. His nose was bleeding. The other players crowded around him anxiously, demanding to know if he was all right.

"I'm fine," he insisted. "Really. Please don't worry. It's not broken or anything."

Actually it was, but it was healing rapidly. Richie suspected that the embarrassment would last longer than the damage. But it would look suspicious if he recovered too quickly. So he accepted a plastic baggie full of ice cubes that someone fetched from the poolside bar, and allowed himself to be led away from the court. His spirits rose considerably when he realized that Nicole was doing the leading.

"I'm really, really, really sorry," she said as she steered him toward a striped blue-and-white lounge chair that the Hilton obligingly provided for its sun-worshipping guests. "Here, sit down and lean your head forward. You don't feel dizzy or anything, do you?"

"I'm fine," Richie assured her. "It's stopped bleeding, see?"

"So it has." Nicole looked slightly surprised. "Good. I was afraid I broke it."

"So was I. Quite a spike you got there."

"Thanks." She flushed slightly under the tan. "I used to play for USC. No, don't take the ice off it, it might start bleeding again... Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Richie hesitated. Ah, what the hell, the worst she can do is say no. "Have a drink with me at the bar?"

They sat on wicker stools under a striped canopy, and drank multi-colored drinks with little umbrellas in them.

"So what did you study at USC?" Richie asked.

"Marine biology. I've just finished piling it higher and deeper, so I thought I'd come here and celebrate for a couple of weeks. Then it's off to Galapagos for a year, on a research grant. How about you, what do you do?"

"I'm in business." Richie hoped that didn't sound pretentious. Six years before, he had finally decided that the skills acquired in managing MacLeod's dojo would be better used on a venture that was actually intended to make a profit. So he had accepted a loan from Duncan, and sunk it into a health club in a trendy part of Seacouver. Now there were three health clubs, two sporting goods stores, a half-share in a companty that manufactured in-line skates, and an army of accountants to take care of it all. Richie was proud of what he'd made of himself, but it wasn't nearly as interesting as marine biology. It was also hard to explain in light of his apparent youth. So he steered the conversation back to Nicole's studies. This led to his learning more than he ever wanted to know about the impact of sea-cucumber harvesting on the ecological balance of the Galapagos islands.

"I'm lecturing, aren't I?" Nicole looked up from the table, where she'd been using bits of fruit from their drinks to illustrate the food chain. "First I smash your nose in, then I bore you to death. You're being very tolerant about it."

"I'm not bored. This is cool. So let's see, the orange slice gets eaten by the pineapple chunk, and the pineapple chunk gets eaten by the maraschino cherry, and the cherry--"

"Gets eaten by Nicole Zimmerman." She suited action to words. "I should get going. I'm signed up for a trip to Stingray City."

Richie took a swig of his drink, for courage. "Would you like to have dinner after you get back?"

"Dinner?" She looked hesitant. "I don't know. No offense, but you seem a little--"

"Don't say it!" Richie interrupted, a little more sharply than he'd intended. Nicole looked startled.

"Don't say what?"

"What you're going to say. Say I'm too stupid, say I'm too ugly, say I smell bad, just don't say I'm too young, okay?"

"Fine." She was smiling now. "But you're not ugly, and you don't seem stupid, and you smell all right for someone who has jogged five miles and played a volleyball game."

"Dinner, then?"

"All right."

End of Flashback

* * *


Morning found Richie asleep in the deck chair. He'd dreamed of Nicole, young and full of laughter. His body remembered the feel of her breasts under his hands, the taste of her mouth on his, the little gasping sound she made when he kissed the hollow at the base of her throat. He woke up sweat-soaked and sore and no more rested than before he slept, and climbed back upstairs to find Elaine helping Nicole out of the bathroom. Nicole was wearing her favorite robe, the silk paisley one with the lace cuffs. She blinked uncertainly at Richie.

"Timothy? Why aren't you dressed yet, we'll be late for church." Timothy was her brother, dead for almost six years.

"This is Richie," Elaine said patiently. "You remember. Your grandson."

Richie winced. The last thing Nicole needed was well-meaning people feeding her wrong information, but there was nothing he could do about it.

"No grandson," Nicole murmured. "No children." Her eyes brimmed with tears. "Immortals can't have children," she announced, loudly and distinctly, then gave a little gasp and pressed her hands against her mouth. "Oh. Mustn't say that. I'm sorry, Richie. I'm sorry..."

"It's all right. Don't worry about it." He kissed her forehead. Her skin felt dry and brittle against his lips, like old parchment. This wasn't the first time she had blurted out something about Immortals in Elaine's presence, but the nurse was far too sensible to take such things literally.

Nicole was still distraught, swaying back and forth, whispering "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over again until Richie took a hairbrush from the dresser and sat down to brush her hair. In the fifty years they've been married, this never failed to relax her. It worked this time, too. Nicole closed her eyes and tilted her hair back. Her mouth curved in a faint smile. She began to hum, deep in her throat. Richie recognized the song. They had heard it in a bar in Key West, years ago, and bought the CD from the singer.

Would I do it again? Richie looked at the frail old woman in front of him as he ran the brush through dark-streaked silver hair. Damn right I would.

* * *


Tokyo, May 18, 2057

"Sensei?" Hiromi Takahata's eyes were wide with concern as she bent over her teacher's prostrate form. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Duncan MacLeod wheezed, and pushed himself up on his left elbow. His right hand was pressed against his side, where Hiromi had just landed a rib-cracking blow with her wooden practice sword. "No permanent damage," he joked. Hiromi didn't smile. She was twenty-three years old, less than two years Immortal, and too earnest by half. Most students would be at least a little pleased with themselves after knocking their teacher on his ass. Hiromi looked apologetic. MacLeod climbed to his feet, and hopped up and down a couple of times to show her there was no harm done.

"You knew I was going to come in low, didn't you?" he asked. Hiromi nodded. "How did you know?"

"You always drop your left shoulder a little when you're about to do that move." Hiromi demonstrated in slow motion, exaggerating the movement. "Like this."

Duncan made a mental note to stop doing that. "That's good, Hiromi-san. Very observant. Though it won't be of much use if you fight someone who doesn't drop his left shoulder before that move."

Hiromi frowned. "You said I should look for patterns--"

"And so you should. But make sure you know the difference between general sword-fighting patterns, and my own personal quirks."

"I'll work on it." Hiromi looked as if she, too, was making mental notes. What she really needed, Duncan thought, was to fight someone other than him. He considered the possibilities. Hiromi wasn't ready to spar with Connor, and he suspected she wasn't ready to even meet Amanda... Richie, on the other hand, was perfect. And it would be nice to see the kid again. They had kept in touch sporadically over the years, but Richie's insistence on joining Nicole on all her research expeditions kept them from spending much time together. And by the time Nicole had finally settled down to a sedate professorship at Berkeley, MacLeod had embarked on his own fit of wanderlust, re-visiting old haunts in remote corners of the globe to see how much they've changed.

Maybe it was time to get reacquainted. As long as you remember not to call him "kid." He must be... what, eighty-two? Eighty-three? Which led to another, more troubling thought. I wonder how Nicole is doing?

"Who?" Hiromi asked. MacLeod realized with a start that he had spoken the last question aloud.

"Sorry." He shook his head. "I'm just talking to myself. Sign of old age, you know?" He grinned. Hiromi smiled back uncertainly. Yes, some time with Richie will definitely do her good. "So, Hiromi-san. How would you like to see California?"

* * *


Monterey International Airport, May 21, 2057

Richie had been initially pleased when MacLeod called to say he was coming, but now his feelings were mixed. It would be be good to have Mac to talk to again, and he was curious about this promising new student he was supposed to help train. But he wasn't sure if he wanted them to see Nicole. He wasn't ashamed of her; he just didn't want her pitied.

The flight from Japan arrived on time, miracle of miracles, but it was nearly an hour before MacLeod emerged from customs, carrying two suitcases. He had grown a moustache since Richie saw him last, and taken to wearing an earring again. They gave him a swashbuckling air, like a pirate in an old movie. The loose-sleeved black shirt he wore completed the effect. Only MacLeod could look swashbuckling after flying in from Japan, Richie thought. The shirt wasn't even wrinkled.

"Yo, Mac!" Richie called out, waving. MacLeod waved back and changed course, deftly weaving through the airport crowd. Trailing behind him was a young Japanese woman in a loose red tunic over black leggings and red ankle boots.

"Richie!" Duncan dropped the suitcases and gave him a brief hug. "It's good to see you. This is Hiromi Takahata, the new student I told you about. Hiromi-san, this is Richie Ryan."

"Hajimemashite." Richie bowed. "Dozo yoroshiku."

"Hajimemashite." Hiromi bowed back. She looked rumpled and jet lagged, and Richie warmed to her immediately.

MacLeod gave him a mildly surprised look. "Since when do you speak Japanese?"

"Since Nicole spent three years charting whale migration patterns in the Sea of Japan. Ages ago. I'm pretty rusty. It will be nice to have someone to practice with."

"How is Nicole?" MacLeod asked.

"She's waiting back at the house," Richie told him shortly, and grabbed the larger of the two suitcases. "Come on, let's go find the car."

MacLeod did not point out that he had asked how Nicole was, not where. He merely picked up the other suitcase and followed Richie to the parking lot.

It was a forty-minute drive from the airport to Richie's house. Hiromi spent it asleep in the back seat. MacLeod watched Richie drive, trying not to be too obvious in his concern. Richie looked bone tired. There were dark circles under his eyes, and an uncharactristic droop to his shoulders. He barely spoke ten words the entire trip. At first MacLeod tried to fill the silence with anecdotes of his travels, but he gave up after ten minutes of monosyllabic responses from Richie, and just stared at the ocean through the car's tinted window.

He must've dozed off at some point, because the next thing he knew, the car was no longer moving, and Richie was saying "We're here."

"Here" was a circular driveway in front of a Spanish Colonial-style house perched on a cliff overlooking the water. Richie carried their bags to the front door while Duncan shook Hiromi awake.

"Welcome to my humble abode."

He led them through the foyer and into the living room. "Make yourself at home. You want a drink, Mac? I've stocked up on single malts just for you."

MacLeod shook his head. "I'm groggy enough, thanks. A drink right now, and I'll pass out on your floor."

"Well, I could use one." Richie grabbed a bottle at random from the liquor cabinet and splashed a generous amount into a glass.

Hiromi collapsed on the sofa. MacLeod sat down next to her, gazing around the room as he did so. He liked the two bay windows and the French doors leading to the deck. The view at sunset had to be spectacular. The room itself had obviously been decorated by people who were more interested in pleasing themselves than in matching their furniture. A plush Edwardian sofa and a glass coffee table sat on top of a rather nice Persian rug. Framed photographs of marine life shared wall space with a collection of Venetian Carnival masks and several vintage movie posters. An interior decorator would probably have a fit, but MacLeod rather liked it.

"Nice place," he said.

"Thanks." Richie gulped his drink down and put the glass on the window sill. "We bought it when Nicole retired from Berkeley. She wanted a place where she could hear the ocean at night."

An unfamiliar woman came into the room. She appeared to be in her early forties, and stood about six inches shorter than Richie -- too short and too young to be Nicole. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved white blouse, and blue slippers on her feet, which suggested that she lived in the house.

"Mr. Ryan. I thought I heard you come in."

"Hello, Elaine. This is Duncan MacLeod, an old friend of mine, and this is Hiromi Takahata. Guys, this is Elaine Nissim. Nicole's nurse. How is Nicole, Elaine? Is she up to seeing people?"

"I think so. It's been a quiet afternoon."

They went upstairs. Duncan silently noted the electric chair lift, and the "child-proof" grating across the top of the staircase. The room they entered had two walls of book shelves, and a wall of stereo equipment. Classical music was playing softly from the speakers. There was a huge salt-water aquarium in the corner by the window. Nicole sat in front of it in an armchair.

"Nicole?" Richie touched her shoulder gently. She looked up at him slowly, as if waking up from a dream. The amazing green eyes Duncan remembered were dull and lifeless. She gazed at Richie for a second, then went back to watching the fish, as if he wasn't there.

"Nicole," Richie repeated, a little louder. "This is Duncan, do you remember? And this is Hiromi. They'll be staying with us for a few days."

Nicole turned to look at Duncan. "Hello," she said. There was no recognition at all in her face.

"Good to see you again, Nicole." Duncan was shocked at how frail she looked. The last time he'd seen her was almost twenty years ago. A friend's daughter was graduating Berkeley, and he'd gone to the commencement ceremony. Nicole had looked very elegant and scholarly in her doctoral cap and gown, but the effect had been somewhat spoiled by bright yellow fish-shaped earrings. She was fifty-nine then, but looking much younger, particularly when she necked with Richie at the student-faculty barbecue.

"Let 'em gawk," she'd laughed, with a wicked gleam in her eye. "It's not like it's news to them. Everyone knows about Professor Zimmerman and her boy toy."

Now she gave him a vacant smile, a stranger being polite. And Richie, standing next to her, looked tense and miserable and helpless.

"Let me show you to to the guest rooms," he said abruptly, and walked out of the room.

* * *


Dinner was an awkward meal. Nicole was visibly agitated by the presence of strangers at the table. She followed Duncan and Hiromi's movements with intense concentration, ignoring her own food. If Richie tried to speak to anyone but her, she would close her eyes and hum, loudly and tunelessly, until he stopped talking. The meal quickly lapsed into tense silence that lasted until Hiromi reached across the table for the pepper mill.

"Don't touch that!" Nicole snatched the mill out of Hiromi's reach and cradled it against her chest. "You'll break it!"

Hiromi, startled, began to mutter an apology, but fell silent when Duncan put a hand on her shoulder. Richie gently tried to disengage the pepper mill from his wife's hands.

"It's all right, Nicole. She won't break it. Just set it down."

"Don't touch me!" Nicole shrieked, and flailed her arm in a wild arc that sent her dinner plate flying off the table. "Don't bother me, everyone bothers me..." She burst into tears.

MacLeod expected Richie to go to comfort her, but it was Elaine who put her arms around Nicole's shoulders, and whispered to her in a soothing voice, and led her from the room. Richie fetched a roll of paper towels from the kitchen and knelt to clean up the mess on the floor.

"I'm sorry," he muttered. "We haven't had guests in the house in a long time. Nicole has trouble dealing with changes in her routine."

"You have nothing to apologize for," MacLeod told him. "Do you need help cleaning up?" Hiromi was already on her feet, gathering up the plates and the silverware. Together, they cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. When they came back into the living room, Richie was standing out on the deck with a drink in his hand, staring across the water.

MacLeod came out to join him. It was a spectacular view. The sun was setting behind a hazy-blue horizon. The waves were slowly creeping up on the high tide line. A seagull promenaded back and forth across the beach, shrieking periodically at the darkening sky.

"How long has she been ill?" MacLeod asked.

"Nine, maybe ten years..." Richie kept his eyes fixed on the horizon. "I don't remember exactly when the symptoms started. She stopped responding to tacrine a couple of years ago, that's when it got really bad." He closed his eyes for a moment. His right hand gripped the glass so tight, Duncan was afraid it would shatter. "She was always so strong, so self-sufficient. Now she can't go to the bathroom by herself. It's not fair."

"I'm sorry." What an inadequate phrase that was. MacLeod thought of Linda Plager, dying in a Seacouver hospital, and of Anne Lindsey, succumbing to a stroke less than a week after her eightieth birthday. Both deaths had hurt him deeply, but he hadn't been there to watch them slowly deteriorate over the years. He had no idea what to say to Richie now, what comfort to offer. "If there's anything at all I can do..."

"There's nothing anyone can do for her. Unless you can pull a cure for Alzheimer's out of a hat."

"I meant you, Richie. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Me?" Richie dismissed his own importance with a shrug. "I'll live."

"Mr. Ryan?" It was Elaine, speaking softly from the doorway. "She's fine now. I gave her her haldol and got her into bed."

"Thank you, Elaine." Richie pushed himself away from the railing. "I'd better go up there. I spend a couple of hours with Nicole every evening," he explained. "Talk to her, tell her how things are going. I doubt she remembers anything I say, but I think she likes it." He went inside.

Elaine started to follow him, but stopped and turned in mid-step, and joined MacLeod on the deck instead.

"Mr. MacLeod... you and Mr. Ryan are very close, aren't you?" MacLeod nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. Maybe he'll listen to you."

Duncan waited for her to say more, but she was silent.

"Listen to me about what?" he prompted.

Elaine sighed. "I'm worried about him. He never goes out, except on business. No one comes here, except the cleaning service and the cook. I've tried to get him to take a vacation, to go away for a few days. He can afford it, and I could take care of Nicole just fine while he's gone. But he won't do anything for himself." She shook her head, frowning. "I don't know why he insists on isolating himself, his temperament is obviously not suited to it, but... if you have any influence with him at all, get him to go out and do something. Anything."

"I'll do my best," Duncan promised. Elaine looked somewhat comforted as she walked away. MacLeod stayed where he was until the breeze grew too cold for comfort, and the last glimmer of daylight was gone. Then he turned and went inside, shutting the French doors behind him.

He stood in the center of the mismatched living room, looking at half a century's worth of memories hanging on the walls and cluttering the shelves. A photograph in an antique silver frame caught his eye -- Richie and Nicole on their wedding day, smiling in the sunshine under a rose-entwined arch. MacLeod had no trouble connecting the glowing bride in the picture with the respected scientist and teacher of later years. But he couldn't connect her with the vacant-eyed old woman upstairs, no matter how long he stood there, looking at the photo.

* * *


Flashback

Santa Barbara, CA, June 24, 2007

"Do I look all right?" Richie asked, for the tenth time in as many minutes.

His best man and groomsman sighed in unison.

"You look great," MacLeod told him. "Now stop fidgeting."

"I'm sorry, Mac. I can't help it. Is my bow tie straight?"

"It was until a moment ago." Joe Dawson reached over and straightened it for him. Again. "Don't fuss with it. Put your hands in your pockets, or something."

"Sorry." Richie paced the room, hands clasped behind his back. His face was flushed, and the back of his neck was beaded with sweat. "I'm just really nervous, you know?"

"We've noticed." Duncan resolutely kept a straight face. "But you don't need to be. Joe and I have taken care of everything."

"You have the ring?"

"I have the ring. I have a pen to sign the marriage license with. I have smelling salts in case you faint."

"Ha-ha. You think that's funny. I think I might need them."

"You won't faint." Outside, the music started. MacLeod grabbed Richie's arm and steered him toward the door. "Come on. It's showtime."

Richie did not faint, of course. He did not mess up the words, or spill the wine, or fail to crush the glass with his foot on the first try. MacLeod watched him with pride, and no small amount of envy. He had never seen Richie this happy. He never expected to be this happy himself... His vision grew suddenly cloudy. MacLeod blinked, and looked away from the bridal couple to scan the lawn for familiar faces. Methos was there, watching the proceedings with a wistful look in his eyes. Amanda sniffed ostentatiously, and dabbed her eyes with a white lace handkerchief. Duncan maintained a solemn expression. He was not going to let her crack him up... Anne Lindsey was sitting between her daughter and her date, a blond man MacLeod vaguely recognized as one of her colleagues from the hospital. She caught Duncan's eye and smiled. He had a second to smile back, before dragging his attention back to the ceremony. A few more minutes, a few more words from the rabbi, and then Richie stepped forward to kiss his bride.

The reception went off as smoothly as the wedding, though several of Nicole's relatives made hushed remarks about "the age difference" when they thought they were out of earshot, reducing Amanda to helpless fits of giggles, and Methos kept trying to get the band to play "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz." Halfway through the evening, Nicole came up and asked MacLeod to dance.

"I want to thank you," she told him as they circled the dance floor in a leisurely waltz. She was a tall woman, and in high heels her eyes were level with his. He was surprised at the intensity of her gaze.

"Thank me for what? Making sure Richie didn't faint during the wedding?"

"For making sure he didn't get killed, long before the wedding." Nicole's expression was dead serious. "He has fought five other Immortals in the three years I've known him. That's five times that I had to sit in a room somewhere, waiting, not knowing if he was coming back to me. But he did come back, because you trained him. Thank you."

"You're welcome, of course. But you can't give me all the credit. Richie was a good student."

"He's a good teacher, too." She was smiling now, relaxed. "He's teaching me how to use a sword, you know?"

"No, I didn't know." He wasn't sure if it was such a good idea, either. A mortal had no business with a sword. Mortal wounds scarred, and crippled, and killed forever.

Nicole must have sensed his unease. "I know I'll never be as good as someone who has practiced for centuries. But if an Immortal comes after me, I'd like to put up at least some semblance of a fight."

"You might be better off with a gun, then." MacLeod tried to keep the distaste from his voice. He hated guns. But if Nicole wanted to defend herself against Immortals, it was the most sensible choice.

"I have one already," she told him. "The sword training is for backup. Hopefully, I'll never have to use either one, of course. But I refuse to be completely helpless."

He couldn't imagine her helpless, and said so. Her smile grew wider at the compliment. "Why, thank you. That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in... minutes. Just for that, I'll let you have one more dance. Richie doesn't tango, but he says you do."

End of Flashback

* * *


MacLeod put the photograph back on the end table and stood up. Elaine Nissim's earlier speech had him worried now. She was right, it was not like Richie to live in self-imposed isolation. There was something wrong here, something more than just Nicole's illness, but he had no idea what it might be.

MacLeod yawned and rubbed his eyes. Whatever the problem was, he wasn't going to figure it tonight. He would wait a few days, and observe, and then talk to Richie. And in the meantime, he would follow Elaine's advice and get him to do something.

MacLeod went upstairs, to talk to Hiromi.

* * *


MacLeod and Hiromi rented a townhouse just outside of Monterey. Every morning, Hiromi jogged the four miles to Richie's house for their workout. She was, as MacLeod had promised, an excellent student, quick and light on her feet, with a real flair for fencing. She was more relaxed around Richie than she was around Duncan, less given to bowing and apologizing. It took less than a week for her to stop calling him "Sensei."

Richie was surprised at how much he enjoyed the workouts. It had been a long time since he had a sparring partner. Katas were all very well, but he knew he was rusty. Sparring with Hiromi, he could feel his old reflexes coming back, his body remembering long-forgotten moves. And though he didn't like to admit it to himself, it was a relief not to have quite so much time on his hands. His businesses mostly ran themselves now. He went over the books once a month, and visited each place at random intervals, but that left whole weeks when he had nothing to do with himself but sit in the house and brood. He hadn't realized how depressed he was until the depression lifted.

MacLeod was feeling pretty pleased with himself. It was just as he expected -- Richie might be unwilling to do anything for himself, but he could always be persuaded to do a favor for a friend. So when Hiromi wanted to learn to rollerblade, to see San Francisco, to shop around for a mountain bike and learn the local trails, Richie always agreed. And when MacLeod decided to get back into the antiques business, Richie was there to help him to look for store space, establish new contacts and arrange shipments.

"I've been away too long," MacLeod complained. He and Richie were sitting in the back of what was to be the new store, surrounded by crates, shipping receipts, and little containers of Chinese food. "I forgot how much goddamn paperwork there is in the antiques business... and I think the real estate prices in this area must've doubled while I was gone."

"Tripled is more like it." Richie snared the last sweet-and-sour shrimp with his chopsticks. "Are you sure you want to deal with all this hassle, Mac? I've got a dojo in San Francisco. You could manage it for me." He gave a wicked grin.

"Cute, Rich. Real cute. Yes, I want to deal with the hassle. And speaking of hassle, how'd you like to come over tomorrow afternoon and help me put the display cases up?"

"Gee, Mac, I'd love to, but I promised Hiromi I'd take her to the Aquarium." Richie's smile faded abruptly. "I haven't been there since Nicole got sick... it'll be weird without her."

MacLeod waited, hoping that Richie would say more. But Richie, as usual, showed no inclination to talk about himself. He just shrugged, plastered the smile back on his face, and began to ask questions about a shipment of French rococo porcelain due to arrive next week.

* * *


After three weeks of practicing with wooden swords, Richie decided that Hiromi was ready for some real sparring. She looked a little nervous at the suggestion, but did not object.

"Have you done this before?" Richie asked.

"Hai. Two or three times. But I don't have my sword."

"That's all right. My sword stash may not be as impressive as Mac's, but I think we'll find you something that fits."

A quick search of Richie's collection produced an Iwamoto Kunkan katana of suitable length for Hiromi's use. Richie put her through a couple of katas just to make sure the blade was balanced right for her, then got into position to spar.

He already knew from MacLeod's comments that Hiromi had a tendency to hold back when using real blades, and the first few seconds of the fight proved it. Her defensive moves were as fast and sure as ever, but her attack completely fell apart. Whenever Richie gave her an opening, she either failed to take it, or hesitated just long enough for him to parry the blow.

"Relax," Richie urged. "Believe me, you're not going to take my head by accident. And anything else will heal. So go for it, kick my butt."

"Sorry," Hiromi panted. But the very next moment she held back again, missing a perfectly good chance to strike at Richie's legs.

He didn't say anything this time. Instead, he beat her back a few steps, moved in close, and deliberately dropped his guard to give her another opportunity. She took it, after her usual moment's hesitation. Richie saw the attack coming in plenty of time to parry. He didn't bother. Hiromi's eyes grew wide as she realized she was going to hit him. She tried to pull the strike, and almost succeeded. Instead of piercing Richie's shoulder, the blade grazed his arm above the elbow.

The effort threw Hiromi off-balance. Richie immediately took advantage of it, stepping in and slashing across her left thigh. Hiromi dropped to one knee. Richie swung his sword in a wide arc, stopping with the blade less than an inch from her neck.

"That," he told her, "is what happens when you don't fight all out."

Hiromi looked as if she was going to apologize again, but all she did was nod, jaw clenched. Richie took her arm and pulled her to her feet. "Come on. You need to sit down until that leg heals."

They staggered across the room, with Hiromi's left arm draped around Richie's shoulders and Richie's right arm wrapped around her waist. Hiromi let out a groan as Richie lowered her to the low wooden bench that stood against the back wall.

"I hate this part," she muttered.

"I know, it sucks. Keep your leg out straight, it will heal faster." Richie still had his arm around her waist. He could feel how stiff she was, muscles tensed against the pain. A minute passed. There was a faint crackle of energy as the wound in Hiromi's leg healed. She relaxed and slumped against Richie's shoulder with a small sigh of relief. And Richie was suddenly painfully aware that he was holding a very attractive woman against him, and that she was wearing nothing but black tights and a thin white tank top. He pulled away and stood up clumsily, nearly tripping over the bench in his haste to move away.

"Richie-san? What's wrong?" Hiromi looked up at him, startled. A drop of sweat trickled down her neck and between her breasts. His eyes tracked it, hypnotized.

"Nothing." He turned away, aware that his sweatpants were doing nothing to conceal his reaction. "I think we've had enough excercise for today. I'll see you later." He bolted from the room.

* * *


Richie canceled his workouts with Hiromi for three days in a row, citing "business appointments." On the fourth day, MacLeod decided to come over. He did not call ahead to say he was coming, and he used the key card Richie gave Hiromi to let himself in.

It was early morning, but Nicole was up already, shuffling in slow circles around the living room. Elaine was on the sofa with a book in her lap. She looked up at Duncan's greeting, and he read relief in her eyes.

"He's in the pool," she said.

Actually, he was in the jacuzzi next to the pool, sitting with his head leaning back and his eyes closed.

"Hello, Mac. I kinda figured you'd show up about now." He turned his face toward the door when MacLeod entered, but didn't open his eyes.

"Being a little careless, aren't you?" MacLeod pulled up a pool chair and sat down. "What would you do now if I was some strange Immortal going after your head?"

"I'd splash hot water on your nice Italian shoes. Did you come here to lecture me on my habits?"

"No. I came to find out what the problem is with you and Hiromi."

Richie tensed at the question, though his expression didn't change. "What does Hiromi say?"

"She says she's not sure. She thinks either you were upset about hurting her, or..."

The pause stretched out until Richie finally opened his eyes. "Or what, Mac?"

"Or that you were about to make a pass at her."

"And what do you think?"

MacLeod sighed in exasperation. He had no patience for these mind games, not with Richie. "I think it's impossible to have a straightforward conversation with a man in a jacuzzi. Come out of there before you shrivel up into a prune and talk to me, dammit!"

Richie's face momentarily set into the stubborn expression that MacLeod knew so well, but it was quickly replaced by a look of resignation. He pushed himself up to sit on the edge of the jacuzzi, his legs still dangling in the water. He seemed unduly fascinated with the churning foam as he spoke.

"It caught me by surprise, you know? One minute we were working out as usual, and the next minute she was really close, and I wanted--" he broke off.

"Wanted what?" MacLeod prompted gently.

"Her." The word came out in a barely audible whisper. As soon as he spoke, Richie shook his head, denying. "No, that's not true. I wanted somebody, and she was there." He looked up. "Do me a favor, don't tell Hiromi that, okay? She must be pissed off enough as it is."

"Hiromi doesn't get pissed off. Richie, aren't you overreacting just a bit? So after three weeks you suddenly notice she's attractive. It's not as if you drooled all over the floor and ripped her clothes off. Why the avoidance?"

"I'm a married man, MacLeod."

"And in fifty years of marriage, you've never found another woman attractive?"

"That's not -- dammit!" Richie slapped his hands against the tiles. His voice was ragged. "You don't understand."

"Explain it to me, then."

"I don't want to."

"Yes, you do."

"I--" Richie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He looked tired, but he also looked relieved. "Yeah. I guess I do."

* * *


Flashback

San Francisco, December 19, 2054

Tom Hungerford owned the agency that handled all the advertising for R.Ryan, Inc. He was efficient, and intelligent, and never condescending to his unusually young client. After two years of working together, the two men were friendly enough for Tom to invite Richie to a Christmas party at his house, and for Richie to accept.

He was pouring himself a drink from the punch bowl when a woman's voice behind him said, "Richard Ryan, right?"

"Last time I checked." He turned around. The speaker looked vaguely familiar. "I feel like I should recognize you."

She smiled, flashing a great many unnaturally perfect teeth. "Imagine me as a brunette."

That helped. "Of course. Monica Culver." She worked for Tom, something to do with sales. Last time he saw her she had brown hair, and wore a conservative navy pinstripe suit. Now she was wearing a short black dress with a velvet ruffle along the off-the-shoulder neckline, and a red velvet bow around her neck. She looked gift-wrapped. Her hair had been cut short and dyed in black and tawny streaks, like a tiger's pelt. It was popular look that year, with tiger stripes and leopard spots being especially common. Richie thought it was a strange fad in a generation that had never seen a tiger or a leopard except in pictures.

"You look great," he told her. She was the first woman he'd ever met on whom that hairstyle actually worked. She had a long, graceful build and a slightly feline face with slanted amber-colored eyes. Tiger-stripes didn't seem like much of a stretch.

"So do you." She reached across him to pluck a chocolate-covered strawberry from the platter next to the punch bowl. "Tom told me you were here, so I thought I'd come over and say hi. This is our chance to talk about something other than business for a change." She popped the strawberry into her mouth and carefully licked the chocolate from her fingers. The resemblance to a cat grew even more pronounced.

She didn't know he was married, of course. Nobody did. He'd stopped wearing his wedding ring some years before, to save on the explanations. As far as Monica Culver knew, Richie Ryan was available, wealthy, and potentially good for her career. It was not at all surprising that she should flirt with him. He should've stopped it right there. Should've moved away when she stood too close. Should've brushed her hand off when she rested it on his arm while telling him a humorous account of a business lunch gone awry. Should've gone off to speak with somebody else. He did none of those things.

He didn't remember now what excuse she'd come up with to get him to come upstairs with her. It might've had something to do with the antique maps in Tom's library, because that's where they ended up, making love on the carpet in front of the unlit fireplace, surrounded by leather-bound books and fake nineteenth-century engravings on the walls. Afterwards, Monica seemed inclined to talk, but all he could think of was getting away.

She called him a couple of times in the next week. He blew her off. He switched ad agencies abruptly, alienating Tom. He stopped returning calls and accepting invitations, alienating most of his other friends. He drank more than was good for him, though not enough to make him forget what he'd done. After a few months, some latent instinct of self-preservation kicked in to stop the drinking. But he never really trusted himself again.

End of Flashback

* * *


"I'm sorry," MacLeod said softly.

"Don't." Richie snapped. "I don't deserve your sympathy, Mac. So don't offer it when you don't mean it."

"I do mean it. Don't do this to yourself. You're Immortal, you're not inhuman."

"Since when did being faithful to your wife become an inhuman quality?" Richie demanded. He looked bitter and defeated, all the good of the past few weeks undone in a day. "When I asked Nicole to marry me, she asked what I would do when she got old. And I told her that I'd always love her, that I wouldn't care how old she got, that I'd always stay with her. And she believed me."

"And it's still true. You have stayed with her. You do love her."

"Do I? Sometimes I think that what I love is the memory of her. The person she used to be, not the person she is now."

"Richie." MacLeod got out of his chair and squatted on the floor next to the younger Immortal. "You miss what you've lost, that's only natural. But anyone can see that you still love Nicole. Don't condemn yourself any more than you have to." He reached out to touch Richie's shoulder, but Richie drew back. MacLeod let his hand drop back to his side. "Look, I don't say you should excuse what you've done. You were wrong. You made a mistake. But don't shape the rest of your life around it. Forever is a long time to spend hating yourself."

Richie shrugged. "Forever is a long time, period."

That didn't sound like a healthy attitude for an Immortal. Before MacLeod could say anything about it, though, they both felt the presence of another Immortal nearby.

Richie looked at MacLeod. "Hiromi?"

MacLeod shook his head. "I told her to stay home."

"And does she always do what you tell her?"

"Hey, some of my students know how to take direction. Go grab your sword. I'll check if Nicole and Elaine are safe."

The living room was perfectly peaceful. Nicole was still pacing, Elaine quietly reading. She looked up as MacLeod entered.

"Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine." The buzz was coming from outside. MacLeod crossed to the front door and put his eye to the peephole.

There was a man standing in the driveway. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, dark-haired and olive-skinned, dressed in an expensive designer version of military surplus -- camouflage pants and jacket over an olive green t-shirt. He stood with his hands in his pockets, staring intently at the house, obviously waiting.

MacLeod swore under his breath. "Elaine, please take Nicole upstairs."

Elaine closed her book, but did not get up. "Why, what's--"

"Now, Elaine. Please. I'll explain later."

She didn't look at all happy with that, but at least she obeyed. MacLeod waited until both women were out of sight before he opened the door and stepped outside.

The stranger looked him over with a frown. "You're not Richard Ryan."

"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. What do you want with Richie?"

The Immortal sneered, unimpressed. "That's between him and me."

"I'm between him and you. You want Richie, you have to go through me."

"No, he doesn't." Richie stepped forward to stand next to MacLeod. He was barefoot, dressed only in a pair of jeans, but he had his sword. "I'm not your student anymore, Mac, you can't cover for me."

MacLeod wanted to object, but he knew Richie was right. Still, it took all his willpower to keep from drawing his sword. He moved aside to let Richie past him.

"Richard Ryan." The stranger moved for the first time, taking a jerky step forward. "I've been looking a long time for you. Your head is mine!" The look in his eyes spoke of cold, tightly controlled rage. Its intensity made MacLeod want to take a step backwards. What the hell did Richie do to this guy?

Richie looked as if he was wondering the same thing. "Do I know you?" He asked.

"Do you know-- You bastard, you don't even remember!" The Immortal lunged forward, sword drawn, his face twisted with hatred. Richie raised his own blade and prepared to parry.

"Not here!" Duncan said sharply, before they could engage. "You can be seen from the street."

The stranger stopped, controlling himself with a visible effort. He looked from MacLeod to Richie and back again. He smiled, and there was no humor in the expression. "You'll hear from me again, Ryan. Soon." He walked away backwards, keeping his eye on the house. His car was parked at the entrance to the driveway, engine running. "My name is Victor Cantalapiera! Ring any bells, Ryan? Maybe this will help." He pushed up his right sleeve. A white scar marked his forearm from wrist to elbow. "I'll give you until tomorrow to search your memory." A squeal of tires, and he was gone.

"I think he's upset," MacLeod said dryly. "What have you been doing, Richie? Do you recognize this guy?"

"Yeah..." Richie looked grim. "At least I recognize the scar, and the name. Cantalapiera... shit."

* * *


Flashback

New York City, September 2012

Richie had spent nearly a week trying to get Jorge Cantalapiera off his back. He didn't know the man, had no quarrel with him, didn't want to fight him. All he wanted was to enjoy a vacation with his wife, a vacation that for once didn't involve scuba diving. But Cantalapiera seemed to consider New York his personal territory, to be defended to the death against all other Immortals. He stalked Richie around Manhattan, woke him up with threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, made veiled and not-so-veiled threats against Nicole, and generally made a nuisance of himself until Richie reluctantly agreed to meet him at midnight in the North Woods in Central Park.

It was the closest he'd come to dying since his short, one-sided duel with Duncan after the Dark Quickening. Jorge Cantalapiera could've given MacLeod a run for his money. In the end, Richie was saved by wet grass and uneven ground. Cantalapiera missed his footing on a parry, and Richie, moving with a speed born of desperation, took his head before he could recover.

He was kneeling on the ground after the Quickening, bleeding from a dozen half-healed wounds, his body still trembling with the memory of pain, when a small, hysterical figure burst out of the surrounding trees and flung itself weeping over Cantalapiera's body.

Richie dragged himself to his feet and picked up his sword, uncertain of what to do next. The new arrival appeared to be a kid no older than thirteen, and mortal. Richie couldn't just leave him there with the corpse. He took a step forward, and the kid jumped up, grabbed Cantalapiera's sword, and charged him.

In some ways this was harder than fighting Cantalapiera. The kid was trained to fight, and he attacked without the slightest attempt at self-preservation. Richie didn't want to kill or cripple him. He fought only to disarm.

"I don't want to hurt you," he gasped. "Put that sword down, kid, we have to get out of here." He didn't expect the words to have any effect, and he was right. The boy just kept coming. He hadn't said a word the whole time, though Richie could hear him sobbing now and then.

After about five minutes of futile effort, Richie swallowed his scruples and slashed at the kid's arm, making him drop the sword. He hoped the fight would end there, but the kid dropped to the ground, trying to get his weapon back. Richie stepped up and hit him on the head with the rapier's hilt, and that finally ended it.

Richie was left with the interesting problem of disposing of a headless body and a bleeding and unconscious teenage boy in the middle of New York City. The boy was his first priority, of course. Richie picked him up in a fireman's carry, and headed for the 100th Street exit.

Luck was with him for a change -- he saw no people on his way out except for a couple of homeless guys sleeping on benches. He waited just inside the park until there were no cars coming on Central Park West, then sprinted across the street and dumped the kid on the sidewalk at the corner. He knew there was a police station and a firehouse only a couple of blocks away, so all he had to do was attract some attention, and the cavalry would arrive right away. Memories of his misspent youth provided the answer. Richie rummaged through a nearby garbage can, and came up with a beer bottle. He stepped out into the empty street, wound up, and threw. The bottle sailed through the air in a perfect arc, and shattered a window on the second floor.

An alarm went off immediately. Someone screamed. A moment later, flashing lights appeared in the distance. Richie sprinted toward the 96th Street subway station, abandoning Cantalapiera's corpse to its fate.

End of Flashback

* * *


"The thing is, I thought at the time the kid might be pre-Immortal." Richie paced the living room, gesturing nervously. "I can't spot 'em the way you do, but the circumstantial evidence was all for it." He stopped, and shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter what I thought at the time, does it?"

"No," MacLeod said firmly. "What matters is that he's after your head, and you should be prepared. Let's see what we can find out about this guy."

Adam Pierson had quit the Watchers and disappeared some fifty-odd years ago. Six years ago, an archaeology student named Paul Marshall was recruited in Thailand by the Asian Division. MacLeod thought it was a chancy thing to do, no matter how much time had passed, but Methos presumably knew what he was doing. And it was good to have a contact in the Watchers at a time like this.

"MacLeod..." Methos's voice sounded slurred and cranky on the speaker phone. "It's nearly midnight, you stupid barbarian... this had better be good."

"Sorry." Duncan did his best to sound contrite. "But there's an Immortal after Richie, and we're hoping you can give us something on him."

"Hey, don't keep the man up on my account," Richie grumbled from the other side of the table. "I didn't ask you to call him."

MacLeod ignored him. "Methos, what do you know about a Victor Cantalapiera?"

"Never heard of him."

"Well, can you find out?"

"I suppose I'd better, if I'm to get any sleep." Methos was beginning to sound more alert, though no less cranky. "As I said, I've never heard of him, but that doesn't mean anything except that he hasn't been in Asia lately. I'll call you back when I have something."

"Thanks." MacLeod gave him Richie's number, and hung up the phone.

Richie stared at him glumly. "What's the point of this, Mac? We know who Victor is, we know what he wants. What else do we need?"

"I want to know if he fights fair, that's all. No guns, or poison gas, or hunting dogs. Come and spar with me until Methos calls back."

"Now? I really don't feel up to it, Mac."

"I don't care what you feel up to!" MacLeod grabbed Richie's arm and hauled him out of his chair. "You haven't had a challenge in years, you told me so yourself. You're rusty. And I'm willing to bet that Victor isn't. You want to sit around and be depressed -- fine, go ahead, but do it after the fight. Got it?"

"I got it, I got it." Richie pulled his arm free. "You don't have to shout."

Richie was rusty, though not nearly as bad as MacLeod had feared, and he was in good physical shape. For two solid hours, MacLeod pressed his limits, taking advantage of every opening, making him repeat each wrong move until he got it right. Richie scored several hits of his own, which was a good sign, but his defense was often sloppy. They were both out of breath and dripping with sweat when MacLeod got past Richie's guard yet again and slashed him across the stomach.

"Nice move," Richie wheezed. He was on his knees, with his arms wrapped around his middle and his head touching the floor. "Excuse me a minute while I put my intestines back in."

"You should've blocked that," MacLeod told him. He fetched two paper cups full of water from the cooler in the corner, gulped one down, and held on to the other one until Richie was ready to get up.

"I was tired."

"You gave up. Give up against Victor, and you're dead."

"Que sera sera." Richie finally stood up. "Look at that, another pair of jeans gone to waste. Good thing I'm not wearing a shirt."

"Richie--"

"Maybe we oughta spar naked. Save wear and tear on the wardrobe."

"Richie!"

"What?"

"Tell me you're not going to give up when you're fighting Cantalapiera."

"I'm not going to give up when I'm fighting Cantalapiera," Richie said obediently. MacLeod wished he could believe him.

Methos called back shortly after they finished cleaning up the blood stains in the exercise room.

"Interesting case, this Victor. One of the few Immortals we got to Watch from before his first death. Jorge Cantalapiera adopted him when he was two, got him started in martial arts at five and in fencing at ten. He's known what he was since he was twelve. Very unusual."

"Great," MacLeod snapped. "You can do a thesis on him later. Do you have anything useful?"

"As far as we know, he fights clean, no tricks. Doesn't need any. He's good. Trains compulsively. Takes a lot of heads. Don't underestimate him because he's young, Richie."

"I won't." Richie spoke in the same dutiful tone of voice he'd used earlier to say he wouldn't give up. "Thanks, Methos." He disconnected the phone before MacLeod could ask anything else. "And thank you too, Mac, I appreciate the workout, but I want to spend some time with Nicole now, okay? Feel free to use the shower before you leave." And he walked out of the room.

MacLeod swore in Gaelic under his breath. Richie was not ready for this duel. The fighting skill was there, but his heart wasn't in it. And no amount of sparring was going to fix that.

* * *


Hiromi was worried. Sensei had left almost four hours ago, and he still wasn't back. She hoped he and Richie-san weren't arguing. She especially hoped they weren't arguing about her.

She was in the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of orange juice, when she felt the approach of another Immortal.

"Sensei?" she called out.

No answer. That was wrong. Sensei always answered. Hiromi felt her heartbeat speed up, and her stomach threatened to send her breakfast back up the way it came. She swallowed a couple of times, and ran to her room to fetch her sword.

When she came out again, there was a man standing in the living room, holding a sword. Hiromi didn't know him. She didn't like the cold way he smiled at her, as if she was a frog he was planning to dissect.

"You're the young one, aren't you?" The man advanced toward her. His eyes never left Hiromi's face. "Make it easy on yourself and put down that silly sword."

"Who are you?" Hiromi demanded. She raised the katana threateningly, willing her hands to stay steady. "How did you get in?"

He actually laughed. The laugh was worse than the smile. "These newfangled electronic locks -- never as secure as advertised, are they? Go on, girl, put down the sword. I don't want your Quickening, I just need you dead for a little while."

Whatever he really wanted, she wasn't about to give it to him. Hiromi lunged forward, remembering all of Richie's injunctions against hesitating, hoping that she might catch her opponent by surprise.

He knocked her blade aside with no apparent effort. His smile didn't even falter. His counterattack was so fast, Hiromi didn't even see it coming. Sheer instinct made her jump back just in time to avoid a vicious cut across her chest. Before she could recover, he swung his blade at her head.

She parried once. Twice. The third time, he feinted high and came in low, catching her completely off-guard. Hiromi cried out and fell as he slashed across her legs. She tried to raise her sword, but he stomped his foot down on her wrist.

"I did warn you," he said, and raised his sword for the final blow.

* * *


MacLeod felt a single Immortal inside his house as he climbed the front stairs, and naturally assumed it was Hiromi.

"Tadaima!" He called out, opening the door. Something moved at the edge of his vision, and he threw himself to one side without knowing why he did so. There was a sudden, sharp pain in his arm, and then Victor Cantalapiera burst out from behind the door to tackle him.

The two men crashed to the floor in a heap, with MacLeod on the bottom. He had no chance to go for his sword. It would be useless in such close quarters, anyway. Cantalapiera was armed with a long-bladed knife, which he used to slash at MacLeod's throat. Duncan blocked the blade with his forearm. Blood splashed his face. He ignored it, ignored the pain, jabbed his elbow into Victor's face. He tried to grab the knife, but wasn't fast enough.

Victor struck again, and this time the blade found its target. MacLeod watched with a strange, distant calm as the blood gushed from his throat. There was was only a moment of pain, and then a cold numbness that spread throughout his body until the world went away.

* * *


Richie's lunch with Nicole was interrupted by a frantic, barely coherent phone call from Hiromi. It took him longer to calm her down than it did to drive over to MacLeod's house. Hiromi met him at the door, pale but no longer hysterical. She described her fight with Victor Cantalapiera, pointed out the bloodstains by the door where MacLeod must've been ambushed, and led the way into the living room.

MacLeod's katana was on the coffee table, indisputable proof that MacLeod was in serious trouble.

"I found it when I woke up," Hiromi told him. "And this, lying next to it." She handed him an unsealed envelope addressed to Richard Ryan.

The envelope contained a folded map of the Monterey area and a note. The map had a X drawn in magic marker, marking a location just off Route 1 north of Monterey. The note gave detailed directions to the spot. It ended with "2:00 p.m. or MacLeod dies."

Richie checked his watch. He could just make it if he left immediately. Cantalapiera was giving him no time to plan, no time to do anything but walk straight into whatever trap he was setting up.

He jogged back to his car, and was opening the door before he realized that Hiromi was right behind him.

"I'm coming too," she said.

Richie wanted to tell her no, then remembered how much he always hated it when Mac tried to leave him behind in a crisis. "All right. But if I lose, and Mac--" He couldn't say it. Couldn't allow the possibility that MacLeod might die, that he might be dead already. "Just whatever happens, don't challenge him, all right? No reason for all of us to go out in a blaze of glory. Promise?"

She seemed about to object, then nodded reluctantly. "I promise."

* * *


MacLeod came awake to the sound of crashing waves, and the sun in his face. He tried to raise a hand to shade his eyes, and found he couldn't move. The realization brought with it a flood of memories, ending with the unpleasant recollection of a knife across his throat MacLeod turned his face away from the glare, and tried to figure out where he was.

He saw a narrow strip of sandy beach, with a few gray and brown rocks strewn about. The ocean was to his right. To his left was a jagged rock face rising about twenty-five feet. There must've been a boat mooring here at some point long past, for a few wooden posts stuck out of the sand, tilted at random angles. Duncan was seated with his back against one of the posts, his hands handcuffed behind him, his ankles bound with a leather belt. Victor Cantalapiera squatted in the sand a couple of yards away.

"Hello again, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." Victor sounded extremely pleased with himself. The hatred and rage he'd exhibited earlier were gone. He seemed excited, full of anticipation. "I hope you're not too uncomfortable."

"What do you want?" MacLeod growled.

Victor looked surprised at the question. "Why, Ryan, obviously. I thought I'd made that clear. He should be here any minute now, to watch you die." Some of the anger crept back into his voice. "Just as I watched Jorge die."

"Oh?" MacLeod raised one eyebrow. "Was Jorge bound hand and foot when he died?"

"I'm sorry about that," Cantalapiera told him, with perfect sincerity. "I would've liked to meet you in a proper duel. But -- you can't always get what you want."

"Very disappointing for you, I'm sure," Duncan muttered sarcastically. He leaned back against the post, putting all his weight on it. It wobbled slightly. MacLeod thought he could dislodge it without too much effort, but that would still leave him bound and vulnerable before Cantalapiera. He held still, waiting for the right moment, hoping there would be a right moment... A wave broke only a few feet away from him, showering him with salt spray. He was sitting very close to the high water mark, and the tide seemed to be moving up. If he could reach the water, throw himself in... the currents were strong here, strong enough to carry a body away quickly. Drowning was not a pleasant concept, but at least he'd recover from it.

Cantalapiera paced the sand, checking his watch every few seconds. He hardly looked at MacLeod. Duncan took the opportunity to rock slightly back and forth, loosening the post more and more, trying to get it free of the sand. He was almost done when he sensed two Immortals approaching. Cantalapiera stopped in mid-pace and looked up. MacLeod followed his gaze, and saw Richie and Hiromi standing at the top of the cliff.

* * *


Richie looked down at the the two figures on the beach, and let out a long sigh of relief. MacLeod was alive. The question was, for how long?

"Ryan!" Cantalapiera drew his sword and saluted. "Right on time for the light show. Ready to watch your teacher lose his head?"

"Dammit, Victor, this is our fight! Leave MacLeod out of it!" Richie looked around desperately, but saw no access from the cliff top to the beach. How the hell was he supposed to get down there? How did Mac and Cantalapiera get down? "Jorge challenged me, and I beat him in a fair fight. That's how the Game works."

"I don't care!" Cantalapiera shrieked. "You think I give a shit about who challenged whom, or how the Game works? He was my father, and I stood there and watched him die, and I want you to know how it feels!" He stepped back, and gestured with his sword toward the north. "That way, Ryan! There are steps carved into the rock about a hundred yards from here. If you run really fast, you can make it down here just as I'm done with the Quickening."

Richie watched helplessly as Victor stood over MacLeod and raised his sword. He could hear Hiromi screaming in Japanese, but his own voice would not obey him. He saw the blade descend, falling inexorably toward MacLeod's neck...

And saw MacLeod throw himself sideways, away from the blow, toward the water. Victor's sword missed its target and buried itself in the sand nearly a foot deep. With a shouted curse, Victor pulled it free and ran after MacLeod. An oncoming wave sent both of them tumbling.

Richie had no idea how MacLeod had managed to evade the blow. He only knew that he had no time to lose. He turned and handed his sword to Hiromi.

"Toss it down to me when I'm at the bottom," he ordered, sat down on the ground, swung his feet over the edge of the cliff, and began to climb.

It had never before occurred to him that lack of mountain climbing skill might be a serious gap in an Immortal's education. He vowed to take it up, if he lived long enough. He made it about a third of the way down before he got stuck, hanging by his fingertips with not a foothold in sight. Risking a quick glance over his shoulder, Richie saw that Cantalapiera had recovered both his footing and his sword, and was dragging a struggling MacLeod out of the water. Shit. Here goes nothing. Richie closed his eyes, released his hold on the rock face, and dropped.

He landed on his feet, but the impact sent him rolling over backwards. Sand stung his eyes and gritted between his teeth. His left ankle twisted painfully, but he didn't think anything actually broke. He stood up just as his sword thudded to the ground next to him. Richie picked it up, and yelled Victor's name at the top of his voice.

Cantalapiera face twisted with anger as he turned and saw Richie standing only a few paces away. He raised his sword, and for a moment Richie was afraid that he would take MacLeod's head anyway. But Victor reversed his grip on the hilt, and stabbed down instead, burying the blade in Duncan's chest.

"Have it your way!" he shouted to Richie. "I'll kill you first and come back for him."

Richie moved forward, not bothering to reply. His ankle still hurt when he put his weight on it, but the pain was fading quickly. He exaggerated the limp a bit for Cantalapiera's benefit. If he could just hold him off long enough for MacLeod to wake up and get himself out of harm's way...

The two Immortals circled each other warily for a few moments, then moved in to attack at almost the same time. Their swords clashed with a force that jarred Richie's arm from wrist to shoulder. Cantalapiera was stronger than he looked, and very fast. Richie blocked his blows, but saw no opening for a counter attack. He kept parrying, and hoped that Victor wouldn't be able to keep up that speed forever.

Cantalapiera pressed his attack, trying to get Richie backed up against the cliff. Richie stood his ground. He wished he could see what was happening with MacLeod, but there was no time to look. He parried another blow, then dropped low and lunged. It was a risky move that only partially paid off. Cantalapiera, caught by surprise, sidestepped too late to avoid taking a deep cut on his left side just below the ribs. His staggered, but kept his footing, and struck back immediately. Richie, left off-balance by the lunge, could not recover in time. Victor's sword pierced his right shoulder.

Richie screamed and threw himself backwards, pulling free before his opponent had time to twist the blade or drive it in deeper. Fortunately, Cantalapiera was slowed by his own wound. Richie was able to regain his balance and switch to a two-handed grip on his sword. He risked a quick glance over in MacLeod's direction, and saw that Hiromi had made her way down to the beach, and was trying to drag her teacher's corpse away from the fight. Unfortunately, MacLeod outweighed her by at least sixty pounds, and his clothes were soaked with water, adding extra weight. Richie doubted she'd get very far.

Cantalapiera's movements were noticeably slower when he resumed fighting. He was obviously in pain, and his shirt was soaked with blood. For the first time, Richie found himself on the offensive. The wound in his shoulder pumped blood every time he swang, and the pain made his eyes water, but he clenched his jaw and kept attacking, knowing that he had to finish this fight before Cantalapiera's wound healed.

Cantalapiera knew it, too. He retreated, fighting for time. Richie pressed forward, not giving him any. Victor tried to move sideways, so that his line of retreat was parallel to the water, but Richie cut him off, pushing him closer and closer to the waterline.

The footing was treacherous here, and the waves were a constant threat. Richie considered retreating back up the beach, but he didn't want to give up the offensive. Besides, there was no time. Cantalapiera was moving easier already, healing faster than Richie expected. He tried to retake the offensive, stepping in with a forceful thrust at Richie's torso. Richie parried, but his sword arm was still weak, too weak to completely deflect the blow. Victor's blade traced a line of blood across his chest.

Richie fell back a step. Cantalapiera rushed forward, thinking his opponent was in retreat. But Richie stopped where he was and swung his rapier in a wide arc, knocking the other sword upwards, and sliding his blade along Victor's until they grappled hilt to hilt.

For a few seconds, all movement stopped as each man tried to force the other back. They were evenly matched in strength, but Richie had the higher ground, which gave him better leverage, and he was able to send Cantalapiera staggering back. Richie immediately followed through with another lunge. This one found its target, hitting Cantalapiera squarely in the stomach, and running him clean through.

Victor's eyes snapped wide open in shock. A drop of blood trickled from his mouth. He drew in a painful, wheezing breath, and sank to his knees. Richie pulled his sword free, and took his head.

In the moment of quiet just before the Quickening hit, Richie turned and saw MacLeod finally sitting with Hiromi's help. It's about time, he thought, and then the first tendril of lightning struck him and all thought was swept away in a tide of pain, and pleasure, and a jumble of images that he would never be able to recall later.

When it was over, Richie lay curled up on his side and tried to catch his breath. His clothes were soaking wet and his mouth was full of sand. He didn't remember falling. He didn't move until Hiromi came over and shook him by the shoulder.

"Richie-san? Are you all right?"

"Fine. I guess." He sat up, and looked over to where MacLeod was sitting. "How about you, Mac?"

"Not too bad, under the circumstances," MacLeod replied. "I'll be even better when you find the key to these handcuffs."

The key was quickly located in Cantalapiera's back pocket. Hiromi undid the belt binding MacLeod's ankles while Richie unlocked the handcuffs.

"So, teach, how'd I do? Do I get a little gold star on my rapier?"

"Mmm, I don't know." MacLeod shook his head judiciously. "I'd say, A for strategy and intelligent use of the terrain, C-minus for that first lunge. What were you trying to do, impale yourself on his sword?"

"Hey, whatever wo-- waaait a minute!" Richie sat back on his heels and glared at MacLeod. "You saw that? That means you were awake!"

"Actually, I was." Duncan looked slightly sheepish. "That last blow from Cantalapiera didn't actually kill me. Though it hurt like hell, I'll have you know."

"It'll hurt a lot more when I'm through with you! I thought you were completely out of it. Why didn't you move?"

"Because." MacLeod met Richie's eyes with a steady gaze. "I wasn't sure you'd fight to win, if you thought it was only your own life at stake."

"You weren't-- you thought--" Richie was at a loss for words, a rare occurrence for him. He glared at Duncan with a mixture of anger and disbelief. "You're a manipulative bastard, you know that, MacLeod?"

"Yeah, but I'm a manipulative bastard who really cares. Come on, give me a hand up. You can yell at me later."

* * *


"So," MacLeod said two hours later. "Are you ready to yell at me yet?"

They were sitting in Richie's living room, drinking coffee. They had showered, changed, and put their wet clothes in the laundry. Hiromi had gone home, Elaine was upstairs with Nicole. It seemed like a good time to talk, and it worried MacLeod that Richie was so silent.

"I'm too tired to yell." Richie sighed. "I've had a difficult day."

"Tell me about it." MacLeod's hand kept stealing to his throat, to trace the line of the scar left by Cantalapiera's knife. He suspected he'd have it forever.

"And besides, you were right. I didn't care if I died."

"And now?"

"Now... I don't know. I'm eighty-two years old, Mac, I've had a mortal lifetime, and most of it's been pretty damn good. Why should I rate more than that? Why me, and you, and Hiromi, and not Nicole, or Tessa, or Joe Dawson?"

"I don't know, Richie. Nobody knows. I asked Methos something similar, back when I first met him, and he just shrugged. Maybe there's no purpose behind any of this. But in case there is... don't throw your Immortality away just because you're hurting now."

Richie took a sip of his coffee, wrinkled his nose, added more sugar. "I don't really want to die, you know? I think what I really want to do is to crawl into a cave for the next couple of centuries, and not have to deal with anything. But it never works that way, does it?"

"Never worked for me," MacLeod admitted. "And God knows I've tried a few times. You're better off going out and doing something. That's what your problem's been, the last couple of years. Too much to think about, not enough to do."

Richie gave him a sidelong glance. "Is this a roundabout way of asking me to work out with Hiromi again?"

"You don't have to if you don't want to. But I think it'll do you good. Don't brood too much about what happened the last time. After all, when you really think about it, nothing happened, did it?"

"It feels like a lot happened," Richie muttered, but he appeared to be thinking it over.

"I'd like to keep working with her," he said finally. "If that's what she wants."

"I'm pretty sure it is, but I'll ask her." MacLeod took one last sip of coffee and stood up. "In fact, I'll go home and ask her right now. Take care, Richie."

"I will. And Mac..."

"Yes?"

"Thanks for being such a manipulative bastard."

MacLeod grinned. "Any time."

* * *


EPILOGUE

Monterey, CA, September 22, 2057

Richie stood near the end of the breakwater, watching the sea lions sun themselves on the rocks. He turned around when MacLeod approached, and managed something resembling a smile.

"Mac! How'd you know I was here?"

"Lucky guess. You've mentioned this place before, as one of Nicole's favorites."

"It was." Richie's smile faded. Nicole had been buried two days before, in a small Jewish cemetery outside of town. Richie had avoided company since the funeral, but he didn't seem displeased to see MacLeod now. "We used to dive here every weekend when the weather was nice, and the sea lions would come down and swim with us. Make funny noises. Try to pull our fins off. I always thought they were kind of stupid-looking, but Nicole loved them."

MacLeod found a reasonably dry rock to sit on, and listened silently for nearly an hour while Richie recounted his memories of the past fifty years. He spoke of Nicole's work and the places it took them, of filming great whites on the Great Barrier Reef, and of diving under the ice in Antarctica. He spoke of their tenth anniversary, celebrated in Nice with champagne and wild strawberries, and of their fifteenth, celebrated in the middle of a typhoon in Sulawesi. He began to smile again as he talked, and MacLeod wished he'd known Nicole better.

"I'm sorry," Richie said when he was finished. "I didn't mean to run on for so long."

"No, I'm glad you did. I'm glad that you can remember the good parts now, and that you have so many good parts to remember. You're really lucky, you know?" He thought of Tessa, and the thirteen short years they had together. There were a lot of good parts there, but not nearly enough. He suspected that fifty years wouldn't have been enough, either.

"I know." Richie sat down next to MacLeod. "Methos called me last night," he said abruptly. "From Bangkok. We talked for almost an hour. I'd hate to see his phone bell at the end of this month."

"What did you talk about?" MacLeod had actually asked Methos to call, but he wasn't about to admit that.

"Oh, nothing in particular... just stuff. Did you know he was married sixty-eight times?" Richie shook his head in disbelief. "Crazy man... He's got some friends over there, archaeologists organizing a dig in Laos. They're looking for volunteers, no expertise necessary, just strong backs and weak minds. I thought I'd sign up, try my hand at something new. I've never been to Laos."

"Then by all means, go." MacLeod grinned. "There can't be too many places you haven't been yet."

"I think there's about four, but I'm working on them... I'll miss you, Mac. And I'll miss Hiromi."

"We'll miss you too." Hiromi had noticeably improved in her fencing, developed a taste for greasy American junk food, and finally stopped addressing Duncan as "sensei." MacLeod thought she might finally be ready for Amanda. "Drop us a postcard from Laos."

"I will," Richie promised, and turned his attention back to the sea lions. Now that he'd talked himself out, he seemed to want solitude again, and MacLeod said a quick good-bye and went back to the parking lot across the beach. Reaching his car, he turned around and looked out at the breakwater again. Richie still sat on the rock, with his arms wrapped around his knees. He looked very young, and very alone. But MacLeod thought he was remembering the good parts.

THE END




Highlander, Richie Ryan, Duncan MacLeod, Amanda, Joe Dawson, Methos, Anne Lindsay, Linda Plager, Tessa Noel, the Watchers, Immortals, "Seacouver," and anything else from the TV series are copyright © 1996 Davis/Panzer Productions. This story and all orignal characters (Nicole Zimmerman, Hiromi Takahata, Jorge Cantalapiera, Victor Cantalapiera, Elaine Nissim, etc.) are copyright © 1996 Marina Frants. "Moments of Weakness" is copyright © 1995 Michael McCloud.

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