Notes for Consequences

DISCLAIMER: Highlander the Series is a property of Rysher Entertainment. The characters Duncan MacLeod, Richie Ryan, Adam Pierson, and Joe Dawson are used without permission, but with great reverence. The personality destruction/reverse Quickening idea comes from Russet McMillan's story, Adam. The other characters and the story itself belong to Jennifer Allen, copyright 1996. Please send all comments to jen@jendaveallen.com, especially if they're good. If you distribute or save this story, please leave the header intact.

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

TIMELINE: This story is set sometime after the fourth season. Joe has survived his experience with the Tribunal, and Duncan and Richie are back together after Duncan's Dark Quickening. All of my fanfic can be found at http://www.jendaveallen.com/Fanfic/ficidx.htm, or you can email me and I'll send you a copy.


Seacouver, 1996. Pushing back her breakfast plate, JL sighed contentedly. As the waitress poured her fourth cup of coffee, JL powered up her laptop. Even though she considered herself a fairly literate person at this stage in her life, the phrase that kept running through her mind came from the campy '80s TV series, the A-Team. All she could hear, over and over, was George Peppard saying "I love it when a plan comes together." For her plan, after 5 years of effort, was finally coming together. The hardest part of her job was staying far enough back from her assignment to escape notice, and yet getting close enough to get the details. Luckily, today's surveillance technology had made that much, much easier. Case in point: one Lucas Buck, born in England in 1721. Lucas was discovered by Alaric Sutkin, who, in his two millennia on Earth, had raised Evil to an art form. The Watchers didn't know as much about Lucas as they would have liked, except that he stayed with Alaric for 60 years before heading off on his own. The problem wasn't so much that Watchers had a hard time trailing Lucas. The problem was that the Watchers who were trailing him kept disappearing, or quitting.

JL had been assigned the case five years ago because she was a long-range surveillance expert. Any kind of device she could find that would help her Watch Lucas, she was more than happy to use. She had a tracking device planted on his car and cameras in strategic rooms in his house. Technically, Watchers weren't supposed to use video cameras at all, nor could they photograph fights or Quickenings in case such incriminating evidence fell into the wrong hands. JL, however, interpreted that rule to mean you could tape your subject if you immediately transcribed the important stuff and erased the tapes. She kept meaning to get that verified by the Watcher Tribunal, but it went against the grain to ask for permission to do her job.

Even with all her gadgets, there was still one ritual that Lucas practiced every year that they knew nothing about. Until today, that is. For five days, always centered around the vernal equinox, Lucas disappeared into a quiet location that he had previously prepared. His henchmen-du-jour were often seen bringing other people into the sanctuary with them, but only the henchmen ever came out again. The only time they thought another Immortal might have been involved was in 1904, when Buck's Watcher thought he saw a Quickening, but the weather was stormy anyway, and the Quickening fairly faint. He checked the records, but no Immortal was missing from the area at that time, so he concluded that it had been a genuine lightning storm.

But 1996 was going to be different. Lucas had arrived in Seacouver two weeks ago, and JL had planted her tracking device on his rental car within hours. She Watched him buy an old, abandoned warehouse down by the docks, and she'd Watched Lucas' two closest associates, Tony and Carl (or Mutt and Jeff, as she called them), supervise the construction. At 4:45 that morning, the workmen had finished up and gone home. Their security system had been amazingly simple, at least in her opinion, and she'd gone inside to add a small surveillance camera and a microphone. Whatever she had expected to find, it wasn't what she'd found.

In the center of the warehouse, they had constructed a soundproofed square room, approximately 12 feet on each side. There was one door, no windows, and very little ventilation. The walls and floor had been painted white. Against one wall they'd nailed a large wooden cross, approximately 6 feet tall, with two interrogation-style lights trained on it. Judging from the other things she'd seen Lucas do in the last five years, JL was fairly certain that what was going to go on in this room would not be pleasant for someone. But she was a Watcher. It was her job to watch and record, objectively. At least, that's what people like Ian Bancroft kept saying at the meetings. Watch. Record. Objectively. She didn't like the way some Watchers glanced at Joe Dawson when they said that, but he ignored it, so she decided to ignore it too. She loved Joe, but he could get a little pig-headed at times.

Her laptop beeped at her as the Almighty Program Manager finally finished loading. Pulling it forward, she decided that she had time to play with her crossword program. She'd complained bitterly to Joe one afternoon about how boring it was hanging around all the time waiting for something to happen, and how tired she was of the commercial crosswords. So Joe had gone out and found this software program that let you add your own entries to its database of clues and answers. Then it would generate a crossword using your clues as well as the standard stuff. Joe had meant it as a joke, but JL decided it would be a great way to brush up on Immortal trivia. So her clues included things like: Lucas' first kill (Gloria Hawthorne, 1782), Duncan's "bad habit" (Amanda), a.k.a. Russell Nash (Connor MacLeod), Felicia Martin's stage name (Joan Jett), and the like.

She had only completed five of the clues when her transponder beeped, telling her that Lucas' car was on the move. She glanced at her watch again. 11 am. It can't be Lucas, she thought, because his only redeeming feature is that he never gets up before noon. Well, almost never, she corrected herself. It has happened twice in the last five years, but he was grumpy for days afterward. It must be his favorite playmates, Mutt and Jeff, going out to run errands and get the paper. They're just mortals, but Buck treats them more like his partners than his lackeys. Probably because they're just as sadistic as he is. Yeah, I'd better follow them. Whatever Buck's planning, they'll be involved in it all the way. I'm sure of it.

Closing the laptop and paying the check, she headed out to her van and hit the road. The signal led her outside of town to a small park with a good jogging path. JL had never seen Lucas or his friends jog, in fact, she rarely even saw Lucas practice his swordsmanship. But, as she pulled into the lot and parked in a quiet spot, she spotted his car parked near a red motorcycle. Mutt and Jeff weren't immediately evident, but she knew they were somewhere nearby.

She was still trying to figure out where she'd seen the motorcycle before when a young man jogged out of the park and headed over to the bike. He grabbed a towel to dry off the sweat, then pulled a Gatorade out of the back saddlebag and looked around. JL gasped in horror as she recognized the face from some pictures Joe had sent her of his bar's grand opening. Her favorite picture showed Joe behind the bar raising his cane threateningly while a young red-head leaned over the bar to pour his own beer from the tap. Joe's assignment, Duncan MacLeod, was sipping his scotch and pretending not to notice either of them, but you could tell all three were about to break up laughing. They looked so comfortable together that JL had felt a momentary surge of jealousy, but she had refused to give in to it. The comments on the back of the picture identified the boy as Richie Ryan, Duncan's 19-year old protégé and newly-made Immortal. A sudden flash of Richie chained to the cross dying and healing, dying and healing, came into her mind, and she cursed herself for not following Mutt and Jeff more often. She wasn't sure how they managed to get Richie's jogging schedule, but the timing was too good to be sheer coincidence. Pulling out her Nikon with its telephoto lens, she began taking pictures that she hoped would just show Richie getting on his bike and heading home.

While Mutt and Jeff remained hidden, JL dared to hope she was wrong, but, as Richie leaned over to unchain his bike, they made their move. The silenced .38 caught him four times in the back, and, before he even slumped onto the pavement, they grabbed his body and shoved it into the trunk of the car. Mutt paused long enough to take Richie's rapier while Jeff handcuffed and gagged the body, then they headed off at a leisurely pace.

JL looked around, hoping that someone else had seen the abduction and was going to call the police, but the parking lot was empty. She thought about doing something herself, but the fact that they had taken the rapier made her hesitate. Maybe this would end in a fair fight after all. She knew Lucas didn't care much for such things, and, indeed, had never shown much interest in swords at all, but you never knew. Maybe this one would be different. According to Joe, Richie had a natural flair for sword fighting. He might just be able to take Lucas, even with Lucas' two-hundred year advantage. After all, Lucas had only taken fourteen heads in his career, and most of those had been through trickery and deceit. Luckily for the rest of the world, Lucas wasn't anywhere near as powerful as he was cruel. In the end, she decided to do her job and just Watch, praying the entire way back to the city that she was wrong about the cross and what was going to happen in that room over the next five days.

When Mutt and Jeff stopped at the hotel for Lucas, JL kept going to the warehouse so she'd have time to set up before they got there. Parking in the alley she'd found earlier in the week, she turned on her camera and checked the signal. It showed the same scene as before, with the cross standing its lonely vigil on the wall opposite the door. JL got out a new 8- hour tape and put it in the VCR, then she settled back to wait. Her van looked like a common delivery truck, circa 1989, but the inside looked more like an electronics warehouse than anything else. She'd bought the oversized van from the San Francisco Police Department in 1991 when budget cuts required them to sell off the old stuff if they wanted to upgrade, but the only thing that remained of that old van was the shell and the engine. She'd added custom-built shelves for her camera monitor and two VCRs, cabinets for clothes, even a small kitchenette with a tiny microwave, coffee maker, and dorm-sized refrigerator. Another rack held her camping equipment, including a portable sink with its own water tank and a sleeping bag that had turned the van into a hotel room more times than JL cared to remember. She had it completely repainted once every four months so her quarry wouldn't get suspicious of its being around all the time--at the moment it was an industrial cleaning/laundry truck. The only thing she couldn't change was the plate. Lucas lived in Southern California, and JL had succumbed to the California vanity-plate craze. Having spent her first assignment constantly one step behind her Immortal, Jessica Duran, her plate UW84ME was less of a request than a prayer.

A noise from her hidden mike disturbed her reverie, and she reluctantly looked at the monitors. Mutt and Jeff hustled Richie into the room and kicked his feet out from under him so that his knees thumped loudly against the concrete floor. Richie winced but refused to cry out, and Mutt was careful not to put his hand near Richie's teeth when he removed the gag. Richie shook his head and tried to work the taste of cotton out of his mouth, then he looked around. He stiffened suddenly, then tried to rise when Lucas entered the room carrying Richie's rapier. The muzzle of Jeff's .38 convinced him to remain kneeling, though.

"What the hell is this all about?" Richie demanded. "If you wanted to fight, why didn't you just challenge me instead of bothering with all this Godfather crap?"

Lucas smiled and caressed Richie's cheek with the rapier's blade. "Fighting isn't the only thing in this life, my impudent young friend. It isn't even the most important. Do you know what the most important thing is?"

"Wearing clean underwear in case you get hit by a bus?"

Lucas' smile didn't waiver, but a line of blood followed the rapier's path along Richie's cheek. "No, little one," Lucas purred. "It's power. The acquisition of and the wielding of. And you have the glorious honor of helping me acquire a whole year's supply."

"Not in any lifetime, pal."

Lucas gestured with the rapier and Mutt hauled Richie to his feet. JL didn't like the way this was going so far, and the strange lust in Lucas' eyes reminded her way too much of Hannibal Lecter toying with Agent Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She almost looked for the fava beans and the nice little Chianti when Lucas tossed the rapier aside and pulled out a dagger that looked like it had belonged to a Mayan priest who only used it on Sundays for sacrificial purposes.

He slowly slit the shoulder seams in Richie's shirt from collar to sleeve so it slid down to his waist. Pulling it the rest of the way down, he used it to hobble Richie's feet. JL could see Richie struggling in his handcuffs, but they were police issue and merely cut deeper into his wrists. Lucas ran his hands down Richie's chest, then removed his belt and cut the side seam in his pants, leaving long, gleaming trails of blood running down his legs. The pants joined the shirt around Richie's ankles, then suddenly went flying as Richie leaned back into Mutt and lashed out with both feet as hard as he could.

Lucas staggered as Richie's feet struck him, but Jeff moved in and punched Richie in the stomach hard enough to double him over. He grabbed Richie's hair and held him while be brought his knee up into Richie's jaw. The crunch echoed in the small room, and when Jeff yanked Richie's head back up, JL could see that the jaw hung at the wrong angle and blood poured from Richie's split lip.

Lucas straightened and smiled tightly at Richie. "That wasn't very smart, my dear boy," he informed him coldly. "Not smart at all. You need to learn to mind your manners around your elders."

Moving out of the room for a few minutes, he came back with a heavy waist chain with two leg shackles attached. "Ever seen these before?" he asked, waving the chains in Richie's face. "They put them on all the really dangerous prisoners when they're transporting them. These were on my friend Tony here until I removed them for him. Since then, they've held several of the guard friends Tony made in prison, haven't they, Tony?"

Mutt smiled ominously and nodded. The viciousness of the smile made both Richie and JL flinch involuntarily. "You bet," he said. "It seemed only fair, seeing as how they made me wear them."

Lucas fastened the chain around Richie's waist, then put the shackles on his ankles. Richie tensed for another try, but Mutt pulled his own stiletto and rested it just above Richie's heart. "We can do this with you dead, smart mouth," he growled in Richie's ear. "We've got plenty of time to wait for you to wake up."

Once the chains were in place, Lucas stood back to admire his captive. The blood trails on his arms and legs had dried, but Richie's fear made his body tremble and the chains jingle softly. Lucas loved to see the fear in their eyes--especially those who thought themselves to be tough guys. Well, he'd show this child just how weak he really was. "Kneel," he ordered. "With your forehead on the floor."

When Richie just stared at him, Lucas hit him solidly on his broken jaw. "Kneel!" he commanded again.

Richie dropped to his knees, mostly from the pain and Mutt's helpful shove. Mutt then forced his head to the floor and his butt into the air, keeping it there by placing his foot squarely on the back of Richie's neck.

Lucas moved around behind Richie and used one hand to slap his upturned butt cheeks while the other undid his own pants. "Do you know the punishment for those who don't respect their elders, little one? Do you?"

Richie could only grunt in response as Mutt's foot pushed his face harder against the floor, but JL already knew the answer. She watched in stunned horror as first Buck, then Mutt and Jeff raped Richie, each one laughing at him and calling him everything from a whore to a cry-baby. JL managed to watch until Richie began screaming, then she turned off the volume and leaned against the wall of the van until she stopped shaking.

Whoever wrote the non-interference clause, she decided, they weren't Watching stuff like this. They couldn't have been. If ever there was a time for Kirk to say, 'Forget the Prime Directive, Spock, we're going in,' this is it.

JL called Joe's house and left a message on his machine. She knew that his cellular had been fried during Duncan's last Quickening, but she tried the number anyway in case he'd gotten around to replacing it, but he hadn't. She called the bar and got Mike, the day bartender and a fellow Watcher.

"Hi, Mike," she said. "Is Joe around?"

"Nope. He called and said he had some stuff to take care of for the next few days. It came up fairly suddenly, but you know how his business goes."

"That I do." JL glanced up at the monitor and instantly regretted it as she had to fight to keep her voice calm. She prayed that whatever Joe was up to, it wouldn't take long. Damn it all. If he's out trailing Duncan, who knows when they'll resurface. Well, it's still my best chance.

"Look, Mike, I need a phone number from Joe's Rolodex. Please? It's urgent."

Mike hesitated, and JL repeated her plea. "I mean it, Mike. It's life or death."

Mike sighed. "OK, OK. For you, and you alone. You Dawsons are a pushy lot, you are. Whose number do you need?"

"Duncan MacLeod's."

"MacLeod's? Why?"

"I just do, Mike. Please? You've got to help me. I know it's against the rules, but this is far more important than any rules. I don't care what the stupid Tribunal thinks. Besides, what they don't know won't hurt me. Right, Mike, old buddy, old pal?"

Mike sighed but relented. "It's your funeral, kid. Just forget where you got this number, OK?"

"What number?"

JL resolutely kept her eyes away from the monitor until Mike came back and read off the phone number. "Thanks, Mike," she said. "No cellular number, hmm? Oh, well. You're back in my will anyway. I'll try to drop by later and thank you in person. When Joe comes in, please have him call me. Bye."

JL looked at the phone number Mike had given her, thought about her Watcher Oath and the Tribunal, then glanced at the horror on the monitor and dialed.

"Hi. You've reached 555-6327. Please leave a message after the tone."

JL waited impatiently for the tone, then spoke quickly. "You don't know me," she told the machine, "but I'm a friend of Joe's. Same organizational affiliations, you might say. If you want to save Richie, come to the warehouse at 729 West Carmichael Street. If you need proof, his bike's parked in the lot near the jogging path and the bloodstains are his. Ignore the fact his rapier's gone--there wasn't even the semblance of a fair fight. Don't waste any time, and don't forget your katana."

As JL flipped through her address book looking for someone else to call, she hesitated at the entry for Bryan Cutler and Jim O'Leary. She remembered selecting them as her next assignment after Jessica lost her head because they seemed so stable and unlikely to die in her lifetime. They'd been together for the last 1,800 years, and they never went out of their way to take a head. They were happy to if it came down to it, but they had survived long enough that the thrill was gone. She hadn't been able to get around the security in their San Francisco townhouse to plant any cameras because Bryan was as intrigued by electronics as she was, so she'd settled for curling up on various benches near their front door. She'd been proud of how well she'd blended into the crowd because nobody seemed to notice her. She felt as inconspicuous as a taxi in NYC--only in much less demand. That all changed six months into the assignment, though.

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

San Francisco, April, 1985. She'd been working on a particularly challenging crossword when an amused tenor voice spoke almost in her ear. "You don't have to stay outside like a kid at a candy store window," the voice said. "We run a public dance studio--you can come in if you want to."

Once JL regained her equilibrium, she looked over the back of the bench to see Jim kneeling beside her. His golden brown hair fell in waves to his shoulders, and his blue eyes mirrored his amusement. He looked to be in his early thirties, but the intensity of his eyes hinted at his true age. They seemed to look through JL's soul and find all the secrets she had buried there.

"Uh, well, I'm just, um, what are you talking about? I'm just working on this crossword." Holding the newspaper up hopefully, JL knew it just wasn't going to fly. Jim knew it too, and he just looked at her expectantly until she felt compelled to say something.

"Um, hi. My name's JL. Gorgeous day, isn't it?"

Jim laughed softly. "Thank God for the weather, hmm? If it weren't for that, the world would be a much quieter place. I'm Jim. You're Jael? Like Superman's father?"

"No. Like Just Lingering. I've been caught like this before, you see."

"Really now? Caught at what, exactly?"

JL grinned. "Gazing into candy stores. I'll admit it--sometimes it stands for Just Looking. You and your friend lead some great dance classes."

"But dancing isn't your real interest, is it?"

JL started. "What do you mean?"

"It's the fencing classes that really get your attention. That's when we first noticed you--Bryan is very sensitive to being stared at."

JL blushed slightly and concentrated on folding her crossword carefully and storing it in her backpack before answering. "I've always wanted to learn how to fence. It's an extremely elegant sport--especially the way you and your partner--Bryan, was it?--do it. You're both wonderful to watch."

"So why not come in and sign up for lessons?"

JL sighed. "I thought about it, but I'm a freelance photographer when I'm not gazing in windows, and it's not the most lucrative of occupations. I saw your rate schedule, and I decided to watch instead."

Jim studied her, and JL waited for him to tell her to get lost and stop bothering them. She liked these two and didn't want to lose this assignment--especially due to bad surveillance work (although she still couldn't remember watching as openly as Jim implied she had). Finally, she dropped her eyes and fumbled for her backpack.

"I'll be on my way, then. Sorry I bothered you."

Jim seemed to come to some inner conclusion and smiled. "Forget it," he said. "Look, we need some help cleaning up, scheduling classes, maybe even leading some basic dance stuff. You look like you're in good shape, and Bryan is sure you've had some dance training. He hasn't been wrong about that in years. How about we go in and figure something out? Our rates can be extremely flexible in a good cause. And anyone who calls me 'extremely elegant' qualifies as a good cause. Lots and lots of potential, you might say. But before we talk deals, what's your real name? You know, the one on your driver's license?"

"Why?"

"Because I make it a policy to know people's names. It makes life more civilized. I'm James Faraday O'Leary, myself. And if you tell me you license says 'Jumps Lights,' you'd better just get it out now and show me."

JL laughed. "No, but that's not bad. My license says Joanna Lynn Dawson, but I only answer to JL."

Standing up, JL offered her hand. Jim shook it solemnly, then put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the studio to meet Bryan. JL glanced at Jim as they walked, surprised that they were nearly the same height. Jim carried himself with such confidence that he seemed much taller than 5'7", and she knew from watching him dance and sword practice that his slender build was deceptive. He reminded her of a panther--appearing detached and aloof while actually noticing everything going on around him. And, like all hunting cats, he was fast and deadly when he spotted his prey.

As they approached Bryan, she was amazed at the contrast between them. At 5'9", Bryan was built like a short Arnold Schwarzenegger--all muscle crowned with wavy blue-black hair and sparkling green eyes. While he was slightly shorter than average by today's standards, he must have been regarded as a giant in the first century. JL knew he had been 24 when he became Immortal in 150 AD, but his normally serious expression made him appear older than Jim. JL could empathize with that--she was only 26, but traumas in her childhood, and spending three years addicted to heroin, had left her looking almost as old as Jim herself.

Those were the best six years of my life, she thought fondly. Bryan's the best swordsman I've ever seen, and Jim's almost as good. They taught themselves how to fight equally well with both hands, and they got so excited when they found out that I could, too. They must have shown me a hundred ways to use my ambidexterity to win a fight. Almost makes me glad my real father broke my right arm so many times that I learned how to use my left one, too. And getting Bryan to teach me tricks that would surprise Jim while Jim was teaching me tricks that would surprise Bryan was great. Sometimes it felt like they were using me as a weapon against each other instead of just teaching me things, but the moves I learned were worth it. I suppose after living together for 1,800 years, you do start looking for new ways to keep the relationship exciting, even if it means bringing in a third party to add some unpredictability.

She had finally gotten them to admit their Immortality a year later when they offered to teach her how to ride a horse. Bryan had jumped on to show her how easy it was, and found himself flying through the air shortly thereafter. JL had sensed the opportunity and rushed to get to him before Jim did, so Bryan couldn't hide his broken arm. He was unwilling to wear a fake cast for a month, so he and Jim had communed silently for a time over JL's head, then taken her back to their townhouse for a quiet chat. JL hadn't had to hide her fascination--her real challenge was remembering not to correct some of the names and dates in the stories they told her. They had become even better friends after that, but the fact that JL had to leave out the really important parts of her life and friends always rankled. She wanted to tell them any number of times, but Joe had always talked her out of it. He reluctantly agreed that if she didn't tell them about her real job, the spirit of her Watcher Oath would remain intact, but that is was a very fine line that she had to be extremely careful not to cross. Awfully ironic, she thought, considering his current relationship with Duncan MacLeod.

JL sighed and shook her head. I can't do it, she decided. Duncan already knows about the Watchers, so telling him about Richie doesn't technically violate my Oath. It just plays off what Joe's already done. And even if I were willing to violate my Oath and tell Jim and Bryan, they'll be furious at me for not telling them the truth from the beginning. I can always call them later if nothing else occurs to me. Reluctantly, she let the pages of her address book flip past their number and searched for someone else to call, but no one came to mind. Sighing heavily, she tossed her address book in the corner and hoped Duncan would check his messages and rush to save both her and Richie.

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

By the time the sun rose, JL had watched Lucas nail Richie to the cross with the same type of iron spikes used in the more gruesome crucifixion paintings and then gleefully re-enact his own version of the Spanish Inquisition. He'd taken a couple of breaks, but JL had been so sickened by the whole scene that she hadn't been able to do anything with that time other than sit and stare at her cellular, willing it to ring. It hadn't. Nor had Duncan shown up with the cavalry, although she had convinced herself that she'd heard his T-bird a couple of times. Great, she thought the second time she'd looked outside to find nothing but an empty street. Now I'm hearing things. Pretty soon I'm going to start talking to myself.

She tried Joe's house and Duncan's loft again, but the machines were still the only ones home. Steeling herself, she looked at the monitor and watched Lucas clean up a bit while Richie healed. She couldn't tell if he was really dead or just keeping his eyes closed, but it didn't matter. Something had to be done, and she could only think of one thing it could be. If Duncan or Joe didn't call back soon, she was going to have to break her Oath and interfere. In a very, very big way.

Moving purposefully, she unloaded her camping equipment and unlocked the compartment built into the floor. Lifting out a long, black leather case, she laid it reverently across the front seat. Replacing her gear, she ran a hand gently along the leather and paused as she always did to admire the subtle gold plaque with the Old English script announcing that this box came from "Nash Antiques, NYC." Unlocking the combination lock, she opened the lid to reveal her graduation present from Joe--a 200-year-old scimitar with a sweeping Damascus steel blade and a wrought silver hilt. She remembered the astonishment she'd felt when she opened it almost 15 years ago, and she still felt like it was an illusion that would just disappear one day. But the hilt remained solid as she lifted it from its black velvet nest and watched the play of light along the blade. She felt an odd thrill as the weight of the steel settled into her hand, and another weight seemed to leave her.

Screw my Watcher Oath, she decided. I'm going to give that bastard more of a chance than he deserves, but he's going down by his own rules. And when he goes down, he won't be getting up again. I've put more time in with a sword than he has these last five years. If he can act like a demented Hunter, I can act like a principled Immortal.

Lucas decided to take another break and let his toy recover before the next session. Yanking the spikes from Richie's hands and feet, he let Richie fall to the floor, re-attached the shackles, and chained him to the base of the cross. Richie tried to struggle, but Lucas just laughed at his feeble attempts and went back into the warehouse to use the portable shower his men had set up and get some sleep before the next session. After all, he had to be fresh for the actual equinox, when no breaks would be allowed for either himself or Richie.

JL watched him with a curse. Her camera was in the torture chamber, so she didn't know what was going on in the warehouse proper. She knew they'd installed cameras over both the front and back doors along with the alarm system, and that the cameras fed into monitors hooked up outside the torture chamber. She'd taken the opportunity to splice into the cable running from the camera over the back door in case she needed to convince it nothing was happening outside, but that didn't guarantee much more then a few seconds worth of surprise. And it didn't tell JL just where in the warehouse Mutt and Jeff would be. When Mutt or Jeff joined Lucas in the torture chamber, they left the door open, so the divide and conquer technique probably wouldn't work. This was a deserted section of town. Even a derelict looking for a place to sleep would be noticed, especially a derelict carrying a scimitar. If she died in her attempt to take Buck, they'd probably move the whole show somewhere else, or just kill Richie and start over with someone else. No matter how much she wanted to just rush in there and stop it, she had to have a definite, workable plan or she couldn't risk doing it at all.

Turning up the microphone so she'd hear it when they started again, she listened to Richie's ragged breathing while she tried to decide what to do. The morning dragged on without bringing her any inspirations, and she finally drifted off into the nightmare that had plagued her since she was eight. Only this time, her real father was being egged on by Lucas, Mutt, and Jeff, who stood in the background waiting for their turn.

She awoke as usual to the sound of screams, but this time they didn't stop when she forced her eyes open. The VCR calmly told her it was noon, and Lucas, Mutt, and Jeff looked totally refreshed as they finished reattaching Richie to the cross. JL felt a sharp pain in her hand, and she looked down to find she'd grabbed her scimitar's hilt hard enough to leave its pattern deeply embedded into her palm. Turning off the microphone, JL put on her specially-tailored duster with its concealed sheath that Jim and Bryan had given her in one of their more whimsical moments. She slipped the scimitar into the sheath, took out and loaded the 9 mm Glock semi-automatic that she'd gotten when she'd started moonlighting as a private investigator, pocketed some extra clips, and headed for the warehouse to check things out firsthand and come up with a workable plan of attack.

An hour later, JL was no closer to having a plan than she'd been the day before. She'd decided that the best bet was the back door once she bypassed the camera and the alarms, but she had no idea what was behind that door. There had been some crates stacked there night she'd been in the warehouse, but she didn't know if they'd moved them. And there weren't any convenient windows she could use to check things out.

She made another round of phone calls got three answering machines--Joe's, Duncan's, and, in desperation, Richie's. She even called Jim and Bryan, hoping she could convince them to help her before she had to go into a long-winded explanation of why she needed them to, but they weren't home either. "Where the hell is everyone?" she swore angrily, but the phone had remained silent.

In desperation, she broke down and called the last person on earth she wanted to talk to--another Watcher with whom she'd had a rather stormy relationship five years ago and who had recently showed up again in company of Duncan MacLeod. But the number JL had was disconnected, and she decided the fact that he was just a researcher after ten plus years in the Watchers meant he wasn't much good in the field anyway. She was curious about his connection to Duncan, but her wounded pride had always kept her from questioning Joe too extensively. Besides, if she showed too much interest, Joe might make her admit that she still cared about him.

"Three years as a PI," she muttered to herself, "and I'm stuck outside a stupid warehouse with a simple alarm system. All the electronics classes I've taken, all the surveillance work I've done, and now, when I really need to get in somewhere, the thing I can't get around is two guys with guns." JL sighed and walked back to her van. "I can shoot all three of them if I have to, but I've got to be sure that no one's in the room with Richie so they don't cut off his head before I can rescue him. That would definitely defeat the purpose." Sighing again, she leaned against her van. "And I've got to stop talking to myself before I start hearing someone answer."

She was starting to feel the lack of sleep and food, but she couldn't stand the idea of going into the van and seeing Richie's face or looking at the blood spattered over the once-pristine white walls. Pulling a Snickers bar out of her pocket, she nibbled and prayed for inspiration. She was just finishing the last of her candy bar when her cellular phone vibrated silently. She prayed that someone was actually calling her back and it wasn't another stupid MCI representative.

"Hello?"

"JL? It's Bryan. What's up?"

"Bryan, put Jim on the extension. I don't want to go over this more than once."

Recognizing the strain and urgency in her voice, Bryan agreed without question. "OK. Hang on."

JL waited until Jim picked up then she took a deep breath. "Look, guys, I need your help. I can't explain it all right now, so you'll have to trust me. There's an evil SOB of an Immortal who's happily dissecting another one who really doesn't deserve it, not to mention doesn't deserve to have it happen over and over. He's been at it for over a day now, and, if he goes by his previous pattern, he'll keep it up for four more days."

"Damn. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln..." Bryan began.

"Quit name dropping, Bryan," Jim interrupted. "Look, JL, where are you? And who are the Immortals involved? And why are you involved at all?"

"Seacouver. Lucas Buck is the master of sacrifices, and the victim is a young man named Richie Ryan. As for my involvement, well, that's the long story."

At the name Lucas Buck, the levity drained out of Bryan's voice. "Well, it will take us four or five hours to get there. You can give us the details then. Don't go near that bastard under any circumstances, do you hear me, JL? Stay away from him. Far, far away."

"Bryan..."

"Shut up, Jim. We're going. Go pack something, will you? Hang in there, JL. What's the address?"

"729 West Carmichael. The van's in an alley north of the warehouse. It's white now, but you'll know the plate. And Bryan, I owe you a big one."

"Yeah, a big, long, detailed explanation. But be careful, because I'll be real upset if you're not around to pay up. I'll take care of it. See you soon."

JL relaxed against the wall and sighed. Four or five hours. That was doable, at least from out here. As her scimitar tapped against her leg, she was surprised to feel a vague sense of loss at the thought of not killing Buck herself, as if she'd gone to get the last piece of cake and found only the empty cake dish on the counter. Chalking it up to her violent upbringing, she went back to the van and courageously turned up the sound as she fixed lunch. Lucas was still carving contentedly on Richie's body, but she endured his screams as penance for not being willing to call Jim and Bryan earlier.

About two hours later, JL was still watching when Lucas ran his hands possessively over Richie's body and the lightning-like flashes flickered over his wounds as they slowly healed. Richie's head lolled forward on his chest, and, when Lucas grabbed his hair and yanked his head up, JL could see that his eyes were glazed and unfocused. Lucas slapped him until he looked more alert, then he leaned closer and whispered in Richie's ear like a lover. JL cranked the volume on the microphone and felt her blood run cold as Lucas told Richie what to expect.

"First, Tony is back with lunch, so I'm going to get something to eat. I told him to get me a nice steak with baked potato and salad. I'd bring you some, but the bathroom facilities here are lacking, so why cause yourself unnecessary discomfort?" Lucas stroked Richie's cheek, ignoring his attempts to pull away. "Then, for dessert, I'll come pluck your eyes out. So study this room intently, my boy, because you won't be seeing it much longer. I'll even leave the lights on for you."

With a light kiss on Richie's cheek, Lucas laughed and sauntered out the door, giving one last little wave before leaving the room. Richie pulled at the spikes embedded in his palms, but they had thick, wide heads and he passed out before he could pull his hands free. The look of terror in his eyes told JL that he believed Lucas' threat, and JL had to agree. Idle threats just weren't Lucas Buck's style.

JL put down her soda and felt the coldness settle over her just like it had in 1971. She felt balanced, centered, totally focused, and ready to kill anyone and everyone in her path. Enough, she decided, is enough. If I fail, Richie's probably better off losing his head than his eyes. And depending on how fast Lucas clears out, Jim and Bryan might arrive in time to clean up after me. If they're too late, well, they'll undoubtedly check my van and find all the information I've collected on Lucas. I'm sure Bryan will want to track him down. Besides, if I die, my Oath violations wouldn't matter much anymore.

Running the input feed from the security camera over the back door into her second VCR, she recorded the scene the security camera showed for a few minutes, then used her tape editing equipment to create a tape loop. When it was finished, she substituted the loop for their security camera's actual feed so that, instead of showing what was actually happening at the door, the camera showed the same view of the empty doorway over and over. She wished she'd tested this system before hand, but she'd never really intended to go this far. She'd just have to trust her surveillance training. Besides, it wouldn't take long to find out one way or another.

Checking her Glock and getting her scimitar, she picked up the beltpack containing her breaking and entering supplies-- WD-40 to grease the door hinges, an assortment of mechanical and electronic picklocks, and the medical supplies she'd started carrying after she got shot three years ago by a guard she had somehow overlooked. She paused to write a note for Jim and Bryan telling them where she was and how to get in, then she headed out. Bryan was even better with locks and disabling alarms than she was, so she was sure that he could understand her brief instructions. As she approached the warehouse, she quickly reviewed all the fighting tricks she'd been taught. The main problem she always had was controlling her anger when she was losing or frustrated, because it tended to consume her and destroy her focus. Bryan had finally given her a mantra that she could repeat to herself whenever she needed to, and it always helped.

"Let your anger power your blade, not guide it," she chanted softly, breathing deeply and centering herself as she did so. "Let your anger power your blade, not guide it. All right, Bryan. Time to see how it works under actual field conditions."

Giving Bryan a mental salute, JL disabled the alarm system on the back door and sprayed WD-40 on the hinges. Drawing her Glock, she flicked off the safety and chambered a round, then picked up her scimitar with her left hand and slipped into the warehouse. The crates were still piled by the door, and she used them as cover as she moved through the shadowy interior. As she approached the torture chamber, she could smell the food and hear the three men laughing and telling stories while they ate. From their general nonchalance, JL could tell that the tape loop was working perfectly.

As she moved closer, Lucas suddenly looked around and called out, "Who's there? How did you get in?"

Unsure of what she'd done wrong but sure the game was up, JL rose with her Glock in her right hand and shot Mutt in the chest as he started to rise, then shot him again in the head. Jeff went for his gun but was obviously having a hard time believing that their security system had been breached, and that disbelief gave JL the opening she needed to shoot him in the head before his gun cleared his holster. She considered shooting Lucas, too, but the thought of being branded a Hunter made her hesitate. No, she decided silently. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right. And that means killing him with a sword, not a gun.

Lucas looked from one fallen companion to another, then stared at JL. "Not bad," he said, suppressing his anger for the moment. "If you were trying to impress me, you've succeeded. Now what do you want here?"

Lowering her gun and brandishing her scimitar, JL strode into the center of the room and smiled tightly. "Nothing much, Lucas. Your head. Your life. You know, same old, same old."

Lucas studied his opponent, not bothering to hide his contempt. Her aura is definitely that of a pre- Immortal, he decided, which means she isn't any older than she looks. And judging from the gray strands in her hair, she's in her late thirties. Her arms are well muscled, so she works out regularly. She must have had some sword training or she would have just shot me, but I've got reach on her. Interesting. She obviously knows the Game, but she shouldn't be playing it yet. I wonder if she even knows what all the Rules are? Or whether full Immortals get more out of a kill than just some pyrotechnics?

Aloud, Lucas merely laughed. "Aren't you the arrogant one," he said derisively. "What makes you think that owning a sword gives you the right to play in the Game? You haven't even paid your dues yet."

"What dues?"

Lucas regarded her thoughtfully, then shrugged. "If you don't know all the details I don't have time to educate you right now. Let me finish this then I'll teach you everything you need to know."

JL hesitated, torn between curiosity and anger. Does he mean I'm one of them? she wondered. It would explain a few things. Like how he knew I was there. And why he seems to accept the fact that I'm challenging him with a sword instead of just shooting him. Shrugging, she decided to deal with all that later, after she'd done what she'd come to do. It does put a whole new slant on breaking my Watcher Oath, though.

"There's nothing you could teach me that I'd want to learn," she informed him coldly, "other than how easy it is to cut through a neck with Damascus steel. Now do you have a sword or can we jump right to the final blow?"

"Why waste the rest of your life so foolishly? I'm over 200 years old, and you're what, 40? You can't hope to beat me, no matter how old or finely crafted your sword is."

"I'd rather waste my life this way than the way you waste yours. Now get your sword or die where you're standing. It makes no difference to me."

Lucas laughed. "Once I take you down," he boasted, "you'll be easy to break. I'll bet you won't last more than a week or so on the cross. That should repay you for killing Tony and Carl."

JL merely snorted and raised her blade threateningly.

Lucas shrugged and moved over toward a chest pushed against the outer wall of the chamber. He lifted the lid, then went to reach in. JL had a feeling that he was being far too cooperative, so she raised her Glock and fired a warning shot, then snapped "Get your right hand in the air and take your sword out with your left. Very, very slowly."

Lucas reluctantly moved his right hand away from his .44 Magnum and picked up his sword with his left hand. JL gestured him away from the trunk, and Lucas complied slowly. He looked confident, but JL refused to be impressed. She put her Glock away and switched her blade to her right hand, then began to circle Lucas slowly. They exchanged some cautious parries, each trying to get an idea of how good the other was without giving too much away themselves. JL was about to lunge for real when Lucas moved first and drove in with more speed and power than she'd expected. He didn't manage to land the shot to the chest he was trying for, but he did leave a 10 inch gash in her sword arm that went down to the bone.

JL stared at the wound, amazed that it didn't hurt yet. Belatedly she realized that she'd never been in a real fight before, and that Jim and Bryan had been holding back even more than she realized. She started to panic when she noticed a somewhat distracted look on Lucas' face. Guessing that he had already declared himself the winner and was imagining adding JL to his toy collection, she suddenly thought of a plan. Switching her scimitar to her left hand, she held the blade awkwardly, pretending that she was holding it that way for the first time. Intentionally letting her blade wobble, she struck an off-center version of the en garde position. Lucas smiled broadly and lunged in, ready to burst through her weakened defenses and end this nonsense. She waited until the last second to deflect his blade a couple of times, then began to retreat toward the front door. Lucas laughed delightedly and brought his blade sweeping down in an attempt to knock her blade from her hand. At the last moment, she tightened her grip, brought her blade into the correct line, and parried his blow with a solid clang that sent sparks flying from both blades and echoed louder than the shots had.

Lucas stumbled in surprise and loosened his grip on his blade. Before he could recover, JL brought her blade around, disarmed him, and stabbed him in the chest. Twisting her sword viciously, she didn't stop until she was sure she had gotten to his heart.

Pulling her sword out and letting Lucas fall to his knees, she smiled coldly. "Sorry, about that Lucas, old boy. But you know what they say, 'There can be only one.' And it sure as hell isn't going to be you."

Moving swiftly before she lost her nerve, JL brought her blade up and down in a swift stroke that sent Lucas' head bouncing into the wall of the torture chamber. Knowing she needed to bind her arm and get out of the way of the Quickening, JL ducked behind the crates and removed the medical kit from her belt. The wound was still bleeding heavily and it had begun throbbing, so JL didn't pay much attention to the way the lightning gathered around Lucas and then blasted holes in the torture chamber walls so it could get to Richie. She heard Richie scream as the Quickening enveloped him, but she couldn't help him with this particular agony.

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

Duncan walked down the jetway, waiting for the familiar feeling of Richie's presence at the gate, but he wasn't in range by the time Duncan passed into the airport proper. Sighing, he headed toward baggage claim imagining the confusion in Richie's voice when he called him. 'That was today? Oh, gee, sorry, Mac.' Richie's voice echoed so clearly in Duncan's head that he almost turned to look for him. It must have something to do with a girl, Duncan decided. He probably decided it was more important to take her out to dinner than to pick up his boss. The boy's getting as distractible as Fitzcairn. That thought led to reminiscences of all the times Fitz had left him waiting throughout the centuries. By the time he'd reached the baggage carousels, most of his annoyance had dissipated. I'll just put him through a couple of grueling martial arts lessons, he decided. Maybe if I bounce him off the floor often enough, he won't forget so easily. It never impressed Fitz much, but Richie's still young enough to learn. Hopefully anyway.

Walking up to the carousel, Duncan thought about which moves he could teach Richie that would make the most satisfying thump. He'd sketched out the basic routine when the conveyor belt began moving as the suitcases were unloaded. He grabbed his bag and sword case, and was about to leave when he noticed another familiar bag. Suddenly envisioning a much cheaper way home than a cab, he took the second bag and began walking slowly toward the exit. Sure enough, a familiar voice hailed him as he neared the door.

"Hey, MacLeod. Moonlighting as a porter these days? I thought enrollment at the dojo was starting to pick up."

Duncan grinned. "Hey, Joe. I didn't see you on the plane."

"That's because on my salary I get to ride cargo. You first class types can wander on as late as you want and all they do is smile and take your drink order." Joe moved up beside Duncan but seemed content to let his suitcase stay where it was. "You need a ride home, don't you?" he guessed. "Richie dropped you off and now he's gone and abandoned you." When Duncan nodded, Joe chuckled. "Poor kid. Good thing he's a fast healer."

As they headed for the garage, Joe gestured at the bank of pay phones. "I just have to check my messages first. Some freak lightning storm blew out my cellular last week, and I can't get the insurance company to settle."

Duncan arched an eyebrow, ready to continue their latest argument. "I do not owe you a new phone. I never told you to lay it down on that metal trash can, much less to be standing that close in the first place. Replace your own phone, or, better yet, bill the Watchers for it."

Joe scowled, but the humor in his eyes belied his anger. Deciding to check his messages, too, Duncan picked up the phone next to Joe's and waited to hear if Richie had left him some kind of lame excuse.

The first message was from Anne, telling him about Mary's first steps and inviting him to dinner at the house. The second was from Adam Pierson, who was going to be in town tomorrow to work on some project with Joe and wanted to meet him at the bar. He shuddered at the thought of Adam's last project with Joe--that ill-fated CD-ROM--and hoped they had learned their lesson.

The third made him stiffen suddenly as he learned about the warehouse on Carmichael Street. He stopped the machine and looked at Joe, who wore a similar look of concern and confusion. Duncan rewound the message tape to the beginning of the third message and waited impatiently for Joe to finish. He tried to get Joe's attention when he hung up, but Joe held up a restraining hand and quickly dialed another number. After a minute or so he hung up, closed his eyes for a second, and then looked at Duncan. Duncan handed him his receiver. "Listen to this," he said, replaying the last message. Joe nodded and handed the phone back.

"I know her," he said. "She doesn't exaggerate. My truck's in the parking garage. Let's get it and go."

Joe began walking as quickly as he could toward his truck, but Duncan sighed and didn't hurry. "There's no rush, Joe," he said quietly. "She left the message almost 29 hours ago, so we're probably too late."

Joe shook his head. "She would have called and said it was too late if that were the case."

Duncan started when he realized he'd just hung up without listening to the rest of the messages, but Joe's hand on his arm kept him from turning around. "I meant she'd call me," Joe elaborated. "And all I got was the same warning call you did. So whatever's happening, it's not over yet."

This seemed to bother Joe more than it should have, but he refused to go into detail. "I don't know anything for certain, Mac." he said with a shrug. "I called the Watcher who left the message, but she didn't answer her cell phone. Maybe she's so close to the action that she doesn't dare answer the phone."

Joe tried to smile, but the concern in his eyes made Duncan nervous. He knew Joe and Richie were friends, but this seemed more personal somehow. He opened his mouth to question Joe again, but something made him hesitate. His friend never divulged any Watcher secrets without carefully weighing and re-weighing each word, and Duncan had learned that pushing just made him more stubborn. Sighing, he shut his mouth and waited for Joe to decide what to tell him.

Halfway to the warehouse, Joe finally spoke. "Do you know an immortal named Lucas Buck?" he asked.

"No, I don't think so. How old is he?"

"A little over two centuries, but he's not considered a major player because he's not much of a swordsman. Mainly he's a sadistic little creep with no scruples and no allegiance to the rules. If he's involved, don't count on a fair fight. He's been known to pull a .44 Magnum when he knows he's losing."

"And you think he's involved because...?"

Joe sighed. "It was his Watcher who called. And he's the type who likes to play with his food. If Richie's still alive, he probably doesn't want to be."

Duncan's jaw tightened and Joe recognized the cold resolve in the Immortal's eyes. He looked like he had when he'd gone after Horton and Kalas. Joe wished he could loan Duncan a bulletproof vest, but all he had were warnings. He didn't think Duncan was really paying attention to them until he spoke suddenly.

"Will this Watcher speak to me in person? I need to find out what she already knows about this--the setup inside the warehouse, how many people are involved, and whether Lucas is expecting company."

Joe considered this for a minute. In her message to him, JL had said she didn't want to get any more involved than was absolutely necessary, but he knew her surveillance techniques would have gathered crucial information and this was no ordinary fight--not with Lucas' propensity for cheating. No, he hadn't gone through all this just to lose his friend to some low-life with no honor and a gun. JL will forgive me, he decided. Eventually, anyway.

"I'm sure of it. She wouldn't have called you in the first place if she wasn't willing to get involved. She's an expert in remote surveillance work, so she'll know the layout inside the warehouse."

Duncan looked at Joe quizzically when he heard the note of pride in the other's voice, but Joe was wearing his 'I'm going to decline to elaborate any further' look, so he didn't press. Joe would tell him all of it eventually--he almost always did.

They turned onto Carmichael Street and Joe began looking for JL's van when Duncan gasped in shock. Joe pulled over to the curb and they both watched in horror as a Quickening flared within the warehouse. The small windows near the roof shattered violently and sparks flew from the security camera mounted over a nearby door. The disruption triggered some alarm system, and they could hear a faint ringing sound coming from inside the building. Jumping out of the car, Duncan grabbed his katana and headed for the entrance. If this Lucas Buck were as deceitful as Joe claimed, Duncan's best chance was to catch him before he recovered and make sure he wasn't carrying any surprises.

He burst through the door, rolled to the left, and leapt up in his best fighting stance. He felt the presence of another Immortal, but he couldn't see them. The room was silent except for the relatively quiet alarm announcing that someone had breached security. He knew the crates and shadows could hide a small army, but there was no way an Immortal who had just taken a Quickening could have hidden among them so quickly. That meant the Immortal had to be in the odd room set up in the middle of the warehouse floor, but from this angle, Duncan couldn't see a way in. Moving quietly, he circled around the room toward the equipment from which the alarm was issuing. As he cautiously glanced around the corner of the room, he realized why the warehouse was so quiet. Two men lay sprawled near a table, clearly shot to death. The third body must have been the source of the Quickening--his head was near the room's open doorway and his sword lay a few feet away from his hand. Still unsure as to just what Immortal he had sensed, Duncan moved silently toward the open doorway. He thought he felt a vague stirring, as if he were just on the edge of sensing another Immortal, but he decided to ignore it when he glanced in the room and realized who was on the cross. Running forward, he gritted his teeth and yanked out the spikes to get Richie off the cross as quickly as possible. He could imagine what had happened to his friend--in fact, he recognized some of the Inquisition-style implements racked around the room and the Satanic symbols painted on the walls in Richie's blood--but what made his heart break was the way Richie kept pulling away from his touch.

Talking in the same low, reassuring voice he'd used to soothe innumerable skittish horses, he kept reassuring his friend until Richie finally realized that he was safe and relaxed in Duncan's arms as much as the pain in his hands and feet would allow. Duncan heard Joe's footsteps outside, and he glanced up over Richie's head. Joe looked pale, but Duncan noticed that he was even more concerned now than he had been in the truck. He raised a questioning eyebrow, but Joe just shook his head and offered Duncan a blanket. Between them, they managed to get Richie wrapped up and back out to Joe's truck with a minimum of whimpering on Richie's part. Duncan knew his hands and feet had to hurt worse than anything the kid had felt in his life, and he prayed they'd heal properly as well as quickly. Leaving Joe to comfort Richie for a few minutes, he went back inside to look for clues to what had happened.

The killer couldn't have been an Immortal, he thought quickly, because they couldn't have recovered from the Quickening so soon. It couldn't have been Hunters, because they'd have killed Richie too. So what does that leave?

Duncan noticed some spatters of blood near the body. Following the trail behind some crates, he found a larger bloodstain and some torn gauze strips. So whoever it was, he said to himself, they're wounded, well prepared, and mortal. Duncan looked across the warehouse towards the back door, but then he shook his head.

They're obviously still mobile, he decided, which means they're gone. I'll let Dawson track down Buck's Watcher and get her to give me the details. If she won't help, I can always come back.

Returning to the equipment near the room, Duncan turned off the alarm in the hopes that the bodies would remain undiscovered and any clues undisturbed until he had more time to study them. Turning off the lights and closing the door, he rejoined Richie and Joe, and he held his friend tightly all the way back to the dojo. Joe dropped them off by the front door but declined to come up, just as he declined to give Duncan any more details about Buck's Watcher until he had spoken to her directly. Duncan let him go only after extracting a promise from him that he would call immediately after talking to her, and that he understood just how important all this was. Duncan stood in the doorway with Richie still cradled in his arms until Joe's truck was out of sight, then he shrugged slightly and headed for the elevator.

"Curiouser and curiouser," he muttered. "Curiouser and curiouser."

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

Crouching behind the crates as Lucas' Quickening died down, JL finished bandaging her arm and gulped some aspirin. She knew her arm needed a thorough cleaning and stitches, but Richie had to come first. She dreaded the thought of getting him down with only one arm, but the alternative was to wait another couple of hours for Jim and Bryan. Wiping the blood off her blade, she was about to get up when the door burst open. She waited breathlessly until a tall, dark-haired man with a katana crept around the corner of the room and stopped in surprise. He seemed to stare right at her hiding place for a second, then he looked in the room and saw Richie. Oh, sure, MacLeod, she thought, leaning her head against the crates. Now you show up. Some cavalry officer you must have made. I'll bet you were in charge of Custer's reinforcements, too.

After Duncan had gone into the room, JL stood up and re-sheathed her scimitar. She was about to slip out the back when Joe walked around the corner of the room. He surveyed the destruction, then looked at the bloodstained bandage on JL's arm. She put a finger to her lips, gestured to the room where Duncan and Richie were, then crept over to Lucas' trunk and got out a blanket. Gesturing Joe to come over, she gave him the blanket and then hugged him.

"Stop looking so worried, old man," she whispered. "I'm OK. It's just a scratch. A long, deep scratch, but a scratch. Richie's OK too, or, at least he will be when the nightmares stop." JL shuddered slightly, then continued. "Bryan and Jim are on their way here, and they've been in and out of the medical profession for centuries. Just don't tell MacLeod anything specific about me, all right?"

Joe shook his head and fixed the bandage on her arm. "I'm not going to lie to him. Why should I? You saved his protégé. He'll be grateful, not angry. He'll know you're not a Hunter."

"I just don't want to discuss any of this right now. There are some things I have to think through." JL glanced up as she heard noises from the chamber. "I have to go. Please give me some time, Dad? Please?"

Joe sighed. "Why is it that when you call me Dad my stomach turns to knots? OK, but not too much. You're going to stay at the house for awhile, aren't you?"

"For awhile, sure. I need to have a long talk with Bryan and Jim first, though. I'm going to have to fill them in because I got them here with a rather frantic phone call."

Joe nodded. "Just be careful. I need to talk to you about my last run-in with the Tribunal sometime soon. They're not pleased."

"They're going to be a lot less pleased soon, trust me. I have a few things to tell you, too. Thanks, Dad. I'll be home soon."

JL slipped off toward the back of the warehouse with a casual wave and a smile. Joe watched her go with the blanket clutched tightly to his chest. He knew she was old enough to take care of herself, and she certainly had the life experience to deal with almost anything. But she hadn't called him 'Dad' in years, and he had learned that her casual attitude usually meant trouble. Sighing again, he went to take the blanket to Duncan. When he saw the equipment and the amount of blood in the room, he knew immediately why she'd interfered. Duncan looked at him quizzically, but he was too overwhelmed to try to formulate an answer. Shaking his head at Duncan, he helped wrap Richie in the blanket, then drove them to the dojo and went home to wait for her.

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

JL went out the back door and leaned against it with a sigh. The stress of the last two days was catching up with her, and her arm throbbed like a kettle drum. She knew her reassurances hadn't fooled Joe for a second, but she couldn't deal with that right now. She felt somewhat guilty about calling him "Dad," but she knew it would arouse his protective instincts and keep him from talking to Duncan until she'd had a chance to think. Technically, JL and Joe were unrelated, but he'd taken her in back in 1974 when she was a tough, angry street kid trying to go straight. If only he were my real father, she thought for the millionth time, everything would have been different. I'm not sure how I would have avoided this particular mess, exactly, but I'd at least be able to sleep at night. After two days of watching this horror show, I'll never sleep again.

Moving slowly toward her van, she tried to figure out a plan. How the hell do they walk away from all those headless bodies, she wondered, with nary a witness to tie them to the crime? That's as clever as the way they manage to hide their swords under any outfit, no matter how tight-fitting. I hope I really am an Immortal, just so I can figure that out. I could sell that information to the Watchers for a small fortune.

Disarming the security on her van, JL tiredly took off her coat and began to clean the blood from the hilt of her sword. She tried to think about all the things in the warehouse that could tie her to the scene and how to get rid of them, but the throbbing in her arm made it impossible to concentrate. Replacing her sword in its case, she dropped onto the stool in front of the monitors and took a deep breath. Resting her injured arm on the console in front of her, she tried to control the pain. As exhaustion claimed her, she was ten years old again while her father twisted her arm up behind her back until it broke with a loud crack. Feeling a hand come to rest on her shoulder, her instincts took over and she grabbed the hand and bit it as hard as she could. Spinning around, she came face to face with Bryan Cutler instead of her father. Bryan looked somewhat surprised and was holding his hand mournfully while a large set of toothmarks healed.

"I pity your alarm clock," he commented, but Jim shushed him.

"Can't you see she's in shock? You need to go back to medical school. Here, JL, sit down." Jim squeezed past Bryan and helped JL back onto the stool. Deftly removing her bandages, he shook his head over the length and depth of the wound. Bryan decided that three people plus all JL's equipment were just not meant to occupy the same space at the same time, so he sat in the open doorway.

Jim finished examining the cut and looked expectantly at JL. "How many times have I told you not to block a sword with your arm unless you're wearing plate mail?"

JL sighed. "Sorry, Jim. But it was that or take the shot in the chest. And I've never figured out how to fit a suit of armor in my van."

Looking at the cramped quarters, Jim had to concede that point. "So where did you get the cut?"

JL hesitated, then decided she'd have to trust someone. "I killed Lucas Buck in the warehouse," she told them. "It was a fair fight and I won, but he managed to get in one good shot first."

"Did we or did we not tell you to wait for us? I know we're a bit late, but really. This is going to take months to heal, and you'll need physical therapy." Looking at Bryan, Jim gestured toward their rental car. "Bryan," he said, "please get my suture kit and then take care of the cleanup, OK?"

JL watched Bryan give Jim a mock salute and leave, then she looked at Jim. "What do you mean you're late?" she asked. "You're early. Joe and Richie's mentor, Duncan MacLeod, just got here a few..." Glancing at her watch, she stopped suddenly and looked at it more closely. "Damn. I must have fallen asleep."

Dropping the suture kit by Jim's knee, Bryan leaned past him to stroke JL's hair affectionately. "Passed out is more likely. How long has it been since you fought Buck? Is there anyone left in the warehouse I should worry about?"

"Almost five hours. I doubt they're still around--Duncan and Joe showed up right after the Quickening. I assumed they'd want to get Richie home as quickly as possible. He was in pretty bad shape."

"Good. One less detail to worry about." Bryan headed toward the warehouse and Jim began the preparations for suturing JL's arm. "I'll stitch this up and then we can find a hotel room and talk." Jim looked at the circles under JL's eyes and amended the plans slightly. "After you get some sleep. This time though, you're waking up on your own."

JL laughed softly and relaxed. She knew there'd be some hard questions to answer later, but they were obviously going to give her some time to figure out what to say. She almost drifted off again when Jim held up a large hypodermic needle and gave her a wicked grin. "Trust me, little girl, trust me," he chided.

When JL still looked wary, he decided to elaborate. "I've been binding wounds since 500 AD, when Bryan and I opened our first sword school in Rome. The first time one of our students almost bled to death, it seemed like a practical skill to pick up." Jim was about to inject the contents of the syringe into JL's arm when he hesitated. "You don't have any problems taking morphine, do you?"

JL shook her head and Jim slid the needle expertly into her vein. "At first, I was the doctor and Bryan the swordsmaster. That meant, of course, that everyone expected me to tend to him when he got hurt. I was thought to be a bit of a miracle worker by some. I saved Bryan from any number of fatal injuries, I did." Smiling, Jim tried to distract JL until the drug kicked in. "After the medical profession really got up and rolling, we both became doctors so we could argue about diagnoses together. We used to go back to school every century or so just to see what new gadgets and procedures they'd dreamed up. Now we just watch shows like ER and go back to school when we disagree with the treatments they use and want to find out who's right."

JL giggled and didn't resist when he cleaned the wound and began stitching. The morphine was doing a good job of blocking out the rest of the world, and she was rather tired. Bryan came back shortly after Jim finished making a neat row of stitches up her arm and slid Richie's and Lucas' swords into the rack of camping equipment. JL started slightly, then looked concerned. "My camera, the bodies..."

Bryan waved a dismissive hand. "The camera wasn't salvageable, I'm afraid. As for the bodies, well," Bryan produced a burned out match and handed it to JL. "Wave bye-bye to the nice warehouse," he quipped.

Jim settled JL into the passenger seat while he and Bryan discussed which hotel to go to. Heading away from the warehouse, JL thought she saw a small plume of smoke coming out of one of the broken windows, but she fell asleep before she could question Jim on just how Bryan had accomplished that.

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

The next thing JL knew, she was dressed in silk PJs and curled up in a king-sized hotel bed. Stretching slowly, she winced as her arm refused to straighten. She cursed it soundly until Bryan appeared in the doorway with a tray of food.

"You're going to spoil me," she accused him. "Silk jammies and bedside service. I didn't think I rated so highly."

Bryan set down the tray, then arranged her pillows so she could sit up. Moving the tray over her lap, he settled into a nearby chair. "You're lucky," he told her. "Jim needs to refresh his medical skills and you're the perfect guinea pig. Besides, you have a story to tell us, remember?"

Jim came in carrying a tray with three coffee cups and a large silver pot. He settled into his own chair, then he poured a cup for himself and Bryan. JL looked at him beseechingly, but he shook his head.

"No coffee until you spill. Everything."

JL whimpered piteously. "But if I don't have any coffee," she whined, "I can't think. I never saw them treat anyone like this on ER."

"Actually, this is a technique I picked up from Homicide, when Pembleton was questioning a murder suspect," Jim told her.

JL continued to gaze longingly at his cup, and he finally relented. Pouring her a cup, he set it on her tray and let her inhale its aroma. She took a sip and sighed happily.

"Thanks. That's the way to start the day."

"Or finish it." At JL's confused look, Jim gestured towards the alarm clock by the bed. "It's almost 5:30 pm. You must have been truly exhausted."

JL nodded. "I haven't gotten much sleep lately. Things have been a bit, well, intense."

Bryan nodded agreement. "We've watched some of the last tape. Nasty stuff. We understand why you called, and why you elected not to wait. I'd say that young man owes you his eyesight, not to mention his life. I assume that was the Richie Ryan you mentioned on the phone, and the man who took him off the cross was his mentor, Duncan MacLeod. What was your foster-father doing there?"

JL shrugged. "Joe was probably giving Duncan a ride home from the airport. But I didn't do it for Richie, anyway. I did it for me. I just couldn't let this bastard get away with it any more."

"Any more?" Bryan leaned forward in intently. "How long have you been doing this? And why?"

Taking a deep breath, JL refilled her coffee and moved the tray out of her way. She thought about trying to get them to let her take a shower, but that would only delay the inevitable. Besides, she didn't own anything as comfortable as the silk pajamas they'd lent her, and she wasn't that anxious to change.

"Let's see. I'm not supposed to be talking to you guys at all, but I do owe you an explanation. I hope you'll try to understand all this before you write me out of your lives--I really wanted to tell you ages ago." Looking from one to another for support, JL was relieved to see Bryan smile encouragingly. They burned the warehouse for me, she remembered. Maybe they'll take this in stride too.

"I'm a Watcher. We're a group of mortals who have known about you for centuries. We're supposed to observe what you do, who you kill, and write it down for posterity. We're not supposed to talk to you, befriend you, or influence you in any way." JL sighed and looked down. "And we're really not supposed to kill you. Any of the above are offenses punishable by death if the Tribunal--that's what we call our governing council--is so inclined."

Bryan started to speak, but Jim raised his hand to quiet him, and then gestured for JL to continue. His face was impassive, but JL recognized the anger beginning to build in his eyes. She looked pleadingly at Bryan, but he just shrugged. When Jim got angry, even Bryan didn't get in his way.

"I know how mad you must be, thinking that all I did for those years was spy on you. But I didn't, really. We were friends. Real, legitimate friends. I worked with you because I wanted to, not because I felt compelled to tell anyone about it. Besides, the Watchers only want to know the big stuff--who you kill, what countries you visit, what other Immortals you talk to. We're historians, not peeping Toms."

Jim glared at her. "And why would anyone care about any of it? What gives them the right to care?"

"It's not a question of caring, so much as a question of historical accuracy. Society forces you to hide your gift, and so you can't talk about the things you've seen openly. You forget the details, but we don't. We pass them down from Watcher to Watcher, and put together versions of the Big Picture. Remember, it's humanity as a whole that will have to deal with the winner. If we know their earlier history, maybe we can work with them better. And maybe we can learn from all of you while you're still alive."

Jim frowned, but he seemed slightly mollified. "Why couldn't you tell us? We could be more help if you actually got to ask questions."

"We're not supposed to interfere. And if you knew I was reporting things about you, how long would it be before you asked me what was getting reported about somebody else? Or needed just one little favor from somebody who might know somebody? We've had people abuse the relationship before. One Watcher told her Immortal who was vulnerable and when. Another Immortal tortured his Watcher until he got information about his Immortal enemies."

JL shifted and pulled the extra pillow into her lap so she had something to play with. Drawing elaborate designs on the case with her fingernail, she glanced up shyly.

"I know you think you wouldn't do that, but it happens. Joe isn't just my foster-father. He's also Duncan MacLeod's Watcher, and Duncan actually found out about him a couple of years ago. They've become friends, although they occasionally get each other into trouble. I'm sure he expects Joe to give him all the details of Richie's escape. It's going to put Joe in a really bad position if I don't want him to talk about me. This is going to get so miserably complicated," she complained. "Joe's the father I've always wanted, my best friend, my boss, and my mentor. And he's the one who's going to be given the order to shoot me by the head of the Tribunal, who'll never see one minute of those tapes."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, their not really mine to show, and I rather doubt Richie would give me permission to use them." Sighing, JL looked at them for a minute, then reluctantly admitted, "Plus, I'm not supposed to have them. Normally I only do it when I'm going to be out of town. I watch them, write down anything important, and erase them. They'd be considered too incriminating. None of us want to blow your covers because then we'd get blown too. And you guys are indistinguishable at first glance while we have these tattoos." Waving her wrist, JL went back to drawing designs on the pillow. After a few minutes, Bryan climbed into the bed behind her and began to rub her shoulders. She slowly relaxed under his hands, and Jim shook his head at both of them.

"Let me see your arm," he said finally. Unwrapping the bandage, he checked his stitches and changed the dressing while she snuggled up against Bryan. When Jim was done, he produced some of her clothes that they'd brought up from the van and helped rig up a plastic cover for her bandage so she could take a shower. Bryan offered to wash her hair, and soon the three of them were splashing merrily in the water just like they used to after a long day in the studio. When they were done, they went off to their separate rooms to change, then Bryan called room service and they settled down in the suite's central living room to continue the discussion.

"Do you really think the Watchers will order your execution?" Bryan asked.

"If they find out I killed Buck. I don't intend to tell them, historically inaccurate though that may be. Maybe I'll leave them a note they can open after my death. Until then, I'll have to come up with some story or another." JL watched them closely to see if they'd react to her "after my death" comment, and she was sure they exchanged an amused glance. "At this point, the only people who know the truth are the three of us and Joe. I'm sure he'll end up telling Duncan MacLeod and probably Richie, but I can't see any of them talking. No, I think the Watchers are the least of my problems."

"Joe won't be compelled to tell them?"

"No. If I had killed Buck on a whim, that would be different. But Joe would never betray me for acting with just cause. He's got way too much invested in me already. He took me in when I was a miserable 15 year old street kid, and he put up with a tremendous amount of hatred until I realized that some people could be trusted." Staring off into space, JL fought to break out of the memories of her young adulthood that threatened to overwhelm her. Bryan squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, and she clung to his hand.

"Damn," she almost whispered. "I am tired. I can usually gloss over this stuff like nobody's business. This is probably just the drugs wearing off."

"Sure, kid," Bryan said, hugging her. "Whatever you say. Jimmy and I have had a rough spot or two ourselves. But if the Watchers don't concern you, what does?"

JL hesitated, wondering if they knew the connection between Buck and Sutkin. "Lucas talks to his mentor all the time," she said cautiously. "I'm sure he told him he was coming to Seacouver, and his mentor will probably want revenge."

"Alaric Sutkin," Bryan whispered, moving quickly towards the windows so his friends couldn't see the fear in his face.

Jim watched him sympathetically, then shrugged at JL. "Speaking of rough spots..." he said. "Sutkin's bad news. Real bad. I wish I could tell you differently, but you're right. He hates it when his pets get taken out."

Jim rose and went over to kneel in front of JL. Taking her left hand in his, he looked at her intently. "I'll admit," he said slowly, "When you first told us about the Watchers, I wanted to kill you for deceiving us all these years." With a rueful smile, he kissed her hand and continued softly, "But Bryan, ever the peacemaker, reminded me while we were getting dressed a few minutes ago that we would have known by now if you were really trying to hurt us." Jim hesitated, and Bryan nodded at him encouragingly. "He also reminded me that we haven't been completely honest with you, either. You may be a Watcher, JL, but you'll be one of us someday." Jim laid a gentle hand on her bandaged arm. "Sooner rather than later, I'm beginning to suspect. So if Joe has to shoot you, he'll be able to apologize shortly thereafter."

JL sat back in her chair and rested her head in her hands. Jim waited patiently while she absorbed the news, and Bryan left the window to sit nearby. After a few minutes she shook herself slightly and looked up.

"I was beginning to suspect as much," she admitted quietly. "Buck knew I was in the warehouse, and when I challenged him, he offered to teach me everything I needed to know." She shuddered again. "A truly frightening offer, if I ever heard one. But guessing it and hearing it ... Wow. This is really going to ruin my chances of rising to North American Regional Watcher Coordinator."

Getting up, JL opened the minibar and fixed herself a drink. Leaning against the bar, she regarded Jim and Bryan.

"So I was with you just because you were Immortals and you were with me because I was a pre-Immortal. Great way to start a long-term relationship, isn't it?"

Bryan heard the bitterness in her voice and came over to give her a hug. "We may have met because of that, but we became friends because we had lots of other things in common. Most Immortals don't get along all that well, you know. Jim and I are the exceptions to a lot of rules."

"Bryan's right, JL," Jim seconded. "We've had protégés of course, but we've never trusted a pre-Immortal with our secret before. Much less taken one into our lives so completely."

JL glanced up at Bryan and then relaxed into his arms. "Thank God you did," she whispered. "Thank God you did."

Bryan held her close, then stepped back so he could see her face. "Let me take a page from your book of lyrical quotations. Remember that Jackson Browne song, Missing Persons? He says, 'does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?' Then later he says 'may you always know what your life is worth.' Your life is worth a lot more than just being some rapidly-healing freak of nature." He tousled her wet hair and kissed her gently. Then he held her face in his hands, looked deeply into her eyes, and said, "so get off this nobody-loves-me-for-me kick. We're not buying it."

JL laughed, equally embarrassed and glad that he could read her so easily. "OK, OK. I'm a person. I have value. Yada yada yada." Ducking under his arm, she grabbed another small bottle of booze and settled back into her chair.

"So the question is," she said, "should I face Sutkin as lowly pre-Immortal or a slightly-less-lowly newly made Immortal?"

"Why face him at all?" Jim asked. "Bryan took care of any clues linking you to the killings. If Sutkin doesn't know about Watchers, he'll probably look for another Immortal."

JL nodded hopefully, then sat up. "Oh, God. He'll think it was Richie, or maybe Duncan. If I explain all this to Joe, he can warn them for me."

Jim nodded. "So tell him and come stay with us until this blows over."

JL shook her head. "What if they don't listen and Sutkin catches them? I'm sure Duncan would fight to defend Richie, but I can't let either of them die for my actions. It just wouldn't be right. Besides, Joe would never forgive me."

"Is this Duncan any good? Maybe he'll win. Sutkin may be a Satanist, but he respects our rules as much as anyone."

"He's very good, actually, but that's part of the problem. He took a Dark Quickening awhile ago when he killed a very powerful Immortal who'd been his friend once. If he beats Sutkin, it could happen again."

"How did he get over it?" Jim asked.

"Joe didn't give me all the details. Something about a holy spring or some such. I do know he almost killed Richie, Joe, and another Watcher named Adam Pierson before they got him over it, though."

Bryan and Jim exchanged worried glances, then looked back at JL.

"If you fight Sutkin and win, JL," Jim said quietly, "you could find yourself in need of this spring yourself. And it might not work for you, if Sutkin destroys your entire personality. That's even rarer than a Dark Quickening, but I heard of it happening once, when a youngster like yourself cheated and beheaded a much, much older Immortal. I wouldn't want to see it happen to you."

"What are you talking about? I've never read about that in any of our records."

Jim sighed. "As I said, it's extremely rare. I've heard it called a Reverse Quickening--the loser is so much stronger than the winner that his Quickening takes over the winner's body and destroys the winner's original personality. In effect, the loser goes on as before, just in a new body."

JL sighed. "I can just see trying to write that one up and submit it to the Watchers," she muttered. "They'd laugh themselves silly and tell me to stop hallucinating." JL tried not to look worried, but she did look determined. "No. I killed the bastard and I'm willing to die for that if I have to. Granted, Duncan would probably have done the same thing if he'd shown up half an hour earlier, but he didn't." JL drained the bottle and tossed it into the waste basket. "I've run away from everything too God-damned long. It's probably the worst time to come down with a case of ethics, but there it is. I'm staying. So let's get back to the real question. Should I kill myself now and become a full-fledged Immortal?"

Jim got up and began to pace. "If we leave things as they are," he said, "Sutkin will know you're pre-Immortal as soon as he meets you. It will undoubtedly give him lots of ideas you don't want him to have." Glancing at Bryan, Jim continued. "On the other hand, it's good because he might underestimate your skill when he realizes that you really are as young as you look. If you're an Immortal, he'll know you're not very old, but he'll be less likely to discount your swordsmanship."

"Or," Bryan said quietly, "we could have JL use her Watcher contacts to find out where Sutkin is and then kill him ourselves."

Jim was about to protest, but JL beat him to it. "You'd never get close enough. His place is a veritable fortress, full of guards and security cameras and all sorts of stuff. He's got so many enemies he doesn't even go to the bathroom without one or two of his pet gorillas. No, it wouldn't work. He'll recognize you, and he'll take Joe and disappear before you can issue an honorable challenge."

Bryan nodded and tried to hide his relief. JL remembered the Watcher entry describing what shape he'd been in after Jim had rescued him from Sutkin's clutches almost a millennium ago, and she was deeply moved that he would even hint at being willing to go near his tormentor again. But as with most Chronicle entries, the Watcher didn't know why Jim had left Sutkin alive when he'd reclaimed Bryan. She looked at Jim curiously, and he seemed to understand her question.

"I should have killed him when I got the chance, I know. But when I found him and Bryan, they were in Sutkin's religious sanctuary. And holy ground is holy ground, even when it's Satanic in nature."

"What happens if a pre-Immortal kills an Immortal on holy ground?"

Bryan and Jim looked at each other for a long time, then they both shrugged.

"I can't say we've ever tried it," Bryan said. "I'm guessing something bad, but I've never seen two Immortals fight on holy ground--who's to say? It might be worth a try if it's that or getting slaughtered. Just make sure there aren't any other Immortals in the vicinity first, if you can."

JL nodded and went to the window. Trying to imagine throwing herself to her death, however temporary, made her skin crawl. What if they're wrong, she thought, and what they thought was my pre-Immortality was really a bad taco they had for lunch? Turning around, she looked at them and sighed. No, she decided. They don't eat enough tacos for that. Summoning her courage, she decided to test the waters more forcefully. "OK, guys," she said. "How should I die?"

"Wait a minute there, kiddo. This isn't just a matter of wandering out in front of a bus and voilà, everything's perfect. Once you're Immortal, you're fair game for anybody, not just Sutkin. There are Immortals who follow young ones around just to kill them while they're still too weak to fight. You might have an advantage over your fledgling competition because you're already a swordswoman, but you're not invincible. Plus," he added earnestly, "you'll never enter a room with the same nonchalance again. Take some time. Think about it. See if Sutkin finds you. We don't usually tell fledglings just so they don't have to face this decision, but you've gone and made yourself a special case. If you still want to die in a week or two, then we'll talk about it some more. Until then, talk to MacLeod and tell him the score. If he's really any good, he'll know what to do, and he'll do it."

JL started to shake her head, but Jim raised his hand warningly. "You don't want MacLeod to fight Sutkin because you killed Lucas, and that's an honorable attitude. But you can't stop him if he wants to take on Sutkin for his own reasons. All you can do is lay down the facts and let him make up his own mind. He's a big boy, JL, and he hasn't lived this long taking stupid chances. Besides, Richie is his protégé, so some could argue it's his responsibility anyway."

JL sighed. "OK. I'll tell him what's at stake and then let him decide. The problem is that I can't imagine how I could ever fight Sutkin. How can a lowly youngling take on someone that good? I mean, just in case I should ever have to."

"Just in case, hmmm?" Bryan mimicked. "You never stop angling for our secrets, do you?"

"Never. What's the point of being friends with you old fossils if I don't angle?"

Bryan chuckled and surveyed the room for an appropriate teaching tool. Going over to the basket of fruit the hotel had thoughtfully left for them, he pulled out the chocolate bunny they'd added as a seasonal touch. Taking off the cellophane, he put the bunny on the table and drew his hold-out dagger. "OK, JL, let's pretend this is Sutkin."

"Wait," Jim interrupted, picking up the bunny. "Sutkin doesn't have ears this long. I'm sure of it." With a decisive chomp, Jim removed the offending ears and put the bunny back on the table as he chewed happily. "There," he said around the chocolate. "That's better."

Bryan laughed and then tried to remember where he'd been going with this lesson. "Ah, yes," he said. "Now I remember. When you're good enough to challenge an Immortal and expect to win, you'll find yourself playing it fairly safe. You just don't have the same urge to take wild chances when you think your tried-and-true moves will be enough. As an amateur, however, you need to throw caution to the winds when you're badly outmatched like you'd be with Sutkin. That makes you unpredictable, and, if you get lucky, will be enough to throw him for a second. If your arm has healed, your ambidexterity will be a plus, but he's fought enough left-handed opponents to be ready for it. And you don't want to take a serious shot to your right arm every time you want to switch to your left.

"Now," he said, putting his dagger at the bunny's throat, "the objective is, of course, the head. But sometimes people focus so much on getting that perfect neck shot that they forget other vulnerable areas. Just like Achilles, everyone's got a spot or two that will bring them down. For example, if you can't get a neck shot, try to sever a limb. Losing a hand can really destroy one's morale during a fight, let me tell you. And if you can't get a limb, try to cut an artery. I know it heals fairly quickly, especially in one as old as Sutkin, but every little bit helps. It still makes them tired and can slow their reactions for a few minutes."

Bryan considered the bunny, then continued thoughtfully, "The other thing you have going for you is tumbling. We've taught you to do it with a sword in your hand, and that's a skill you don't run into every day. If you can, go into a somersault and end up behind him. Then bring your blade in low and hamstring him." Demonstrating with the dagger, Bryan buried his blade deep in the bunny's hind legs and carved out a large chuck of chocolate. The bunny wobbled, then toppled over. "See," Bryan said proudly, "it's easy." Popping the chunk of chocolate into his mouth, he offered the dagger to JL so she could make her own assault on the now helpless creature. Jim joined in and the three of them polished off the bunny in no time.

When they had finished their snack, Bryan got out his sword, enlisted their aid in pushing back the furniture, and showed JL some real maneuvers that nearly cost one of the end tables its legs in the cramped quarters. Jim called a halt to the practice before they totally destroyed the room, and they all ended up laughing. Jim yawned, and JL looked suddenly uneasy, as if she knew she were about to be abandoned. Jim caught the look and took her hand. "Come on, little one," he said softly. "We've designated our bedroom an official Nightmare-Free Zone. Come curl up with us and we'll make sure the night demons don't get you."

"I should call Joe and tell him I'm OK. He's probably running out of ways to stall Duncan by now."

"So call him. Then let's get some sleep. We didn't sleep all day yesterday, you know."

JL nodded and called Joe, promising to give him all the details the next afternoon at his house. Then she followed Jim and Bryan into their bedroom and shut the door. Tomorrow, she thought. I'll figure out what to say to MacLeod and Joe tomorrow. Tonight, I'll just enjoy being with my two best friends.

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

Duncan sat in his favorite chair, surreptitiously watching Richie from behind his newspaper. His friend claimed to feel fine, but he wouldn't leave the building and he wasn't eating any more than Duncan usually did. When Duncan had suggested they work out together, he'd seemed OK on the free weights and jump rope, but he refused to practice unarmed combat after the first time Duncan pinned him to the mat, even though Duncan had only held him there for a second or two. Richie had mentioned needing to find his rapier, but he didn't want to go back to the warehouse and get it. Duncan had planned to go by himself, but the morning paper had pictures of the burned-out building, so he knew the rapier was either ruined or with the person who had torched the warehouse. He hoped Buck's Watcher had it--that blade represented a special bond between himself and Richie, and he knew how much it hurt to lose something like that. He'd have to call Connor if the rapier didn't turn up and get a new one for the kid. Now that he'd sold the antique store, his sword contacts weren't as good as they used to be.

Duncan's musings were interrupted by the sudden overwhelming presence of an Immortal, followed by a knock at his door and Richie's soft curse as his nervous reaction to the buzz made him tip over his glass of soda. Laying a calming hand on Richie's shoulder, Duncan righted the glass, then moved toward the door. Richie shook his head at the mess and trudged off to the kitchen to get some paper towels.

"Who is it?" Duncan said.

"Adam Pierson," came the familiar reply.

Duncan opened the door and smiled at his friend. Adam looked around then whispered, "I talked to Joe. How's Richie?"

"If you ask him, he'll tell you he's fine," Duncan whispered back. "But he nearly jumped out of his skin when you came up."

Adam looked sympathetic. "I can imagine. I thought we could go over and get his bike from that park later."

Duncan sighed. "You can ask him. I tried, and he just shook his head and said he doesn't ever want to see it again." Hearing Richie returning from the kitchen, Duncan changed the subject. "So what did you get out of Joe? He hasn't called me back yet."

Adam shook his head. "He refused to discuss the details until he talks to the Watcher, then he got me into an argument that lasted until I gave up and left. That man should have been an undercover agent. He can withstand some serious questioning."

Duncan chuckled. "True enough. Did he tell you anything useful?"

"It's what he didn't say that intrigues me most. He's hiding something major, no doubt about it. Hi, Richie."

"Hi." Richie said quietly, drying off the coffee table without looking at them.

Adam glanced at Duncan, then walked over to Richie and sat next to him on the couch. Richie glanced at him, then finished cleaning up the soda and returned to the kitchen to throw away the paper towel. Returning to his seat on the couch, he finally looked at Adam. "So," he said, "who's the mystery swordsman?"

"Swordsman?" Adam asked. "Are you sure it was a man?"

Richie nodded, then looked uncertain. "I thought so," he finally replied. "But I guess I don't know for sure. I thought I heard voices outside, but the acoustics weren't the best. And I really wasn't paying much attention." Richie gazed off over Adam's head for a few seconds, and Adam recognized the look of pain in the boy's eyes. One of his students, Joshua, had had that look after being burned to death in a hotel fire. It had taken him years to be able to remember that night without remembering the agony of the fire, and Adam knew Richie would need even longer to get over Buck.

Duncan looked at his two friends lost in their own private worlds and cleared his throat. "What didn't Joe say that intrigues you?" he insisted, wondering just who would be a better undercover agent after all.

Adam started and looked at Duncan. "He didn't wonder where Buck's Watcher is, or hypothesize much about who killed Buck. Which, in Joe non-speak, means he knows both of those things."

"Why won't he tell me then?"

Adam shrugged. "I can't be sure. Perhaps Buck's Watcher doesn't want to wind up in front of the Tribunal. Maybe she doesn't like being praised because it embarrasses her. I can think of lots of reasons, but none of them will make much sense until Joe starts talking."

"Do you know this Watcher? What's her name?" Duncan had thought the question was an innocent one, but Adam got up abruptly and began pacing. Duncan watched him curiously for few seconds, then he stepped in front of him. "Adam?" he said quietly, laying a hand on Adam's shoulder. "What's really going on here? How well do you know this Watcher?"

Adam sighed. "We've known each other for about ten years," he replied, "but I haven't seen her since she started Watching Buck five years ago. I tried to tell her that the assignment would bring her nothing but grief, but she wouldn't listen. She's a good Watcher, but not much of a listener."

Adam went over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink. After draining half of it, he refilled the glass and then looked at Duncan and Richie. "Did either of you sense any other Immortals in that warehouse?" he asked casually.

Richie shook his head, and Duncan almost agreed with him, then stopped. "Yeah," Duncan said slowly, "At least, I think I did. When I first saw the bodies I felt like there was another Immortal right at the edge of my range, but the feeling went away when I went into the room with Richie. I decided I had other things to worry about and let it go."

Adam nodded, unsurprised. "I knew JL--that's her name, by the way--would have trouble with this job because of what she is. And that's one of us." Draining his drink and refilling it yet again, he looked at the two men. "At least," he amended, "she will be. If her first death isn't a beheading."

Bitterness and regret filled his eyes as he moved reluctantly away from the bar. "My fault, I suppose," he muttered, mostly to himself. "I should have told her years ago. She never would have taken the assignment if she knew how dangerous it really was."

"Do you think she killed Buck?"

Adam looked at Duncan and shrugged. "Maybe. Joe bought her a scimitar as a graduation present when she passed her Watcher training courses." He grinned ruefully at them. "She was always after me to spar with her, but I couldn't. She's a natural swordswoman if I ever saw one, and back then I was rusty enough that she probably could have taken me. Or, at least, cut me. And that wouldn't have done much for either my cover or my ego."

"Why is Joe so tight-lipped about her?"

Adam suddenly looked as if he might join Joe's "Need to Know" club, but then he shrugged. "I guess it can't hurt to tell you. It's not really a secret, just not widely publicized. JL stands for Joanna Lynn. As in Joanna Lynn Dawson. He didn't raise her, but he took her in when they both really needed somebody for moral support. Joe told me they met in 1974, and that JL had spent at the previous three years earning her living on the streets in Boston's Combat Zone." Adam paused and sighed. "She was all of 15 years old then. Joe had just gotten back from his preliminary Watcher training in Europe, and a mutual friend put them together because she needed a place to stay and Joe needed a pair of good legs to help around the house. She'd gotten beaten up badly enough often enough to want to make it work. She entered the Watchers in '78, and he trained her himself. Seems they shared the duties involved in following some Scottish antique dealer in the Seacouver area for awhile."

Smiling to himself, Adam looked as if he were about to get lost in a private memory when the phone rang. He and Richie both jumped, and Duncan shook his head at both of them.

"Hello," Duncan said. "It's about time. When? Why not right now? Yeah, I did ask you to call as soon as you heard anything, didn't I? Well, I guess if she's not home yet, that will have to do. We'll be there. Oh, and Joe? Thanks for doing this."

Duncan hung up the phone and looked at Richie. "All our questions will be answered tomorrow," he said. "JL will be arriving at Joe's house tomorrow evening. He wants to spend some time alone with her, but we can go over any time after 8."

Adam shook his head. "Don't count on getting all the details," he warned. "Like I said, JL learned from Joe. She can be as closed-mouthed as he can."

"Exactly," Duncan agreed. "That's why you're going with us. You know her, and I'll bet you'll be able to tell if she's lying, or hedging the truth."

"I don't think that's such a good idea," Adam said cautiously. "JL and I didn't exactly part on the best of terms. In fact, she wasn't speaking to me not all that long ago. That's what Joe and I were arguing about actually--he warned me to stay clear of her."

Duncan laughed and jostled Adam playfully. "Oh, come on," he teased. "You're a lot less rusty now. I'll bet you could take her at least two out of three. Especially if she's the one who left the blood trail in the warehouse and she's still wounded."

"I'll show you rusty, you overgrown Scottish boor," Adam snarled in mock fury and pulled away so he could dramatically brandish his sword. Duncan grabbed his katana and herded Adam and Richie down to the dojo in an attempt to spark Richie's interest and work out some of his own frustration.

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

JL reluctantly waved good-bye to Jim and Bryan as they pulled out of Joe's driveway and headed to the airport. They had helped her pick up Richie's bike after Joe told her that Richie hadn't left Duncan's apartment, and then stopped by the house to say 'Hi' to Joe. Having dropped their classes and recitals in the middle, they had apologized profusely and promised to come back if she called them. The problem was she needed them here right now to save her from Joe's concerned "we're going to have a long, long talk now" look.

Do I tell him about my pending Immortality? she wondered. He'll be happier about it than I am, but how long before he realizes I could end up tortured endlessly like Richie if Sutkin finds me and I can't commit suicide?

JL heard Joe walk up beside her, and she marshaled her best "I'm Just Looking" face. Joe gazed at her for a few minutes, then gestured toward his study. Unlocking the door, he preceded her into her favorite room. This was where he kept Duncan's chronicles, his copy of the Watcher/Immortal CD-ROM that wasn't supposed to exist, and, as JL had learned early on, his best brandy. She wandered into the room and glanced up over the fireplace, expecting to see the portrait of Joe's sister, her husband, James Horton, and their daughter, Lynne, that had hung there since she'd moved in. She started when she realized he'd replaced it with a photograph that JL had taken four years ago in Seacouver. Joe had called her bragging that he was suddenly Watching both Duncan and Connor MacLeod, and she decided to take a break from Lucas and join in on the fun. She'd arrived in time to tail Duncan and Connor to an old warehouse where they had spent a few carefree hours practicing. She'd had to be careful to avoid both the MacLeods and Richie, who was playing amateur Watcher himself, but she'd managed to use her best telephoto lens to get a picture of Connor grabbing Duncan from behind. Connor's right arm was around Duncan's chest and his left hand was on Duncan's shoulder while he grinned down at Duncan and Duncan grinned up at him. She'd had it framed in clear Lucite with an inlaid silver border and silver script at the bottom that said simply Clansmen. The frame had cost her a small fortune, not to mention hours in the store explaining exactly what she wanted, but the effect was worth it. So was the look on Joe's face when she'd given it to him for Christmas last year. Somehow the fact that this picture had replaced one with Horton in it seemed especially appropriate.

Joe watched her admire the picture and smiled. "If you think that's something, wait until Duncan sees it. He'll probably offer me a fortune for it."

"And will you take it?"

Joe laughed and settled into his chair. "Of course not. But I might sell him a copy if he offers enough."

"That's my Dad. Ever the practical one."

Joe snorted. "Me? That's your line. I'm the incurable romantic, remember?"

"True. You even saw some good in Pierson, as I recall."

"Adam's not all bad, JL," Joe said, wondering once again whether he should tell her that Adam was an Immortal--the oldest known Immortal on the planet in fact--or that he was in the area. He didn't think she'd react well to either revelation, so he decided to let the subject rest. After all, he'd warned Adam to stay away from the house and the bar until JL left, and he'd seemed quite agreeable. "He's a good researcher. Always digging up things you'd never expect him to be able to find."

JL harrumphed and sipped her coffee. Her arm was throbbing again, and she was getting less and less eager to face Duncan and Richie. Maybe facing the consequences isn't the right way to go, she thought to herself. Sutkin's probably on his way here, and Duncan's got a much better chance at surviving him than I do. Besides, what are they going to say except how grateful they are when they really want to know why I waited so long? My instincts are telling me to run, and why should I ignore them? she wondered. I don't owe Duncan MacLeod anything. All I have to do is write down the details, leave them with Joe, and let Duncan and Richie avoid Sutkin as best they can. God knows, they've had more practice than I have.

"JL?" Joe sounded worried, and JL knew she'd missed a question. Putting down her coffee cup, she dug out the painkillers Jim had left her and swallowed two of them.

"Sorry, Joe. I'm still not back where I should be. Jim says I lost enough blood to start my own chapter of the Red Cross." Trying to smile cheerfully, JL picked her coffee back up and washed down the pills. "It's been a hell of a week."

"What are you going to do now?" Joe asked.

"I'm not sure yet. I plan to tell Duncan to take a vacation with Richie in case Sutkin comes looking for revenge. As for myself, well, there's no reason to suspect that the son of a bitch can connect me to the killing. None of his Watchers have turned up tortured to death, so there's no reason to believe he knows about us. Buck certainly didn't, or, if he did, he didn't bother to take any precautions against being followed. I'm good, but five years is a long time to go without making a single mistake. No, I don't think Buck was on the alert."

"But you can't be sure," Joe insisted.

JL shook her head ruefully. "No. The prisons are full of people who thought they committed the perfect crime. True, Bryan helped me cover it up by burning the warehouse, and he picked up Lucas' and Richie's swords at the same time, but you can only cover so many bases. I should probably leave myself, but then I wouldn't get to hang out at your bar. Then again, maybe I'll try to take over as Richie's full-time Watcher and the four of us can go on vacation. What the hell. Aren't you supposed to be responsible for someone whose life you saved?"

Joe smiled. "I'm not sure it works quite that way. Besides, Richie's Watcher likes her job. Why don't you tell me what's really troubling you?"

"Nothing much. I just Watched a Satanic torture ritual and killed the guy who was performing it. I could end up executed by the Watcher Tribunal, arrested by the mundane police, or hiding from the dead guy's mentor. What could be wrong?"

Joe dropped his eyes, and JL immediately regretted her sarcasm. "I'm sorry, Joe." she said, going over to kneel beside his chair and rest her head on his lap. "I keep saying 'I'm sorry' over and over, don't I? Maybe someday I'll learn to shut up before I get into a spot where I have to say it."

Joe stroked her hair and smiled indulgently. "It's all right, JL," he said gently. "We've been through a lot together, and we've both come out better for it. Now please tell me what's really going on. I'm too old to be distracted and I know you too well to think I've heard all of it."

JL looked at Joe intently, then reached up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Returning to her chair, she stalled a bit longer to refill her coffee, then she looked at him once more. "You're right, Joe," she finally said. "You always are. Buck knew I was in the warehouse the same way Jim and Bryan knew I was Watching them. They all felt me coming."

"Felt you coming? What do you..." Joe trailed off and stared at her. "But your arm," he protested, "it hasn't healed yet."

"That's because I haven't died yet. But according to Jim and Bryan, I am an Immortal. Or I will be an Immortal. Has anyone settled on the proper tense for pre-Immortality?"

Joe shook his head absently and stared at her. "When did they tell you?"

"Yesterday. They said I should know just in case."

"In case what?"

"In case I get any smart ideas about avoiding Sutkin by committing suicide, I guess. I never should have told them how I tried to do it before but always bungled the job." With a lop-sided gin, JL shook her head. "It figures that the one thing I always really wanted to do was doomed to failure at the start. I'm awfully glad it didn't work when I was ten, though. Hanging around with a kid like Kenny for eternity would be hell."

"How can you joke about this, JL?" Joe demanded.

"How can I not? Right beyond laughter lies hysteria, and I don't have the time or the strength to go that route. Besides, I've been on borrowed time for almost 30 years. I never expected to see 20, much less 40. So, as my guiding light Jimmy Buffett says, 'If they solve my life, if they find me out, never thought to keep all I have found, I have had my fun if it all falls down.'"

Joe sighed. "That does it. When you start quoting Buffett, I know you've stopped listening. What's that one you used to have calligraphed in a frame on your wall?"

JL grinned. "Still do. It's the last lines from If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me. 'If it takes all the future, we'll live through the past. If the phone doesn't ring, it's me.' And it's even more appropriate now than it was when I first heard it." JL sighed and stretched. "Sadly, though," she added, "it's not really true. Some things even eternity isn't long enough to overcome." Putting down her coffee cup, JL stood up and gathered the cups and coffee pot onto their tray. "So," she asked cheerfully, "what's for dinner? No use facing MacLeod on an empty stomach."

As Joe watched her breeze into the kitchen, he made a similar vow to the one he'd made over and over ever since the first time he'd heard her fighting her night demons. If I could get to her real father, he promised himself, he'd wish he'd been sacrificed by someone like Buck. If she'd only tell me his name, I'd be happy to track him down. But she can't even think about him without losing control. And she hates losing control more than anything.

Leveraging himself out of his chair, Joe went out to stop JL from reorganizing his carefully-arranged kitchen.

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

After dinner, JL lit a fire in the living room fireplace and settled in with Joe to wait for Duncan. She tried to ask his advice about the story she should make up for the Watchers, but he was strangely reticent to help her. She knew there was another story there somewhere, but all he would tell her was that he'd been called on the carpet for associating with Duncan and it had taken a minor miracle to straighten it all out. He confirmed the rumor that most of the Regional Coordinators had been executed by an Immortal, and then distracted her by starting a debate over who should be promoted to fill those roles. They were in the middle of deciding whether they should recruit Rachel MacLeod when the doorbell rang. JL looked annoyed for a second, then got up to answer it.

Joe smiled to himself when he saw the unconscious way she made sure her stiletto was in its wrist sheath as she walked to the door. Well, he thought, I guess it's good that she's always ready to defend herself. She'll never end up slaughtered like poor Darius. Not that she's ever likely to become a priest.

He heard her greet Duncan and Richie, then he heard her utter a scathing oath followed by a sudden silence, a brief scuffle, and a quiet thump. As he rose from his chair and hurried to the door, he heard Adam say, "I told you this wasn't a good idea," in a heart-felt voice. At the door, he found Duncan and Richie staring at JL, who had backed Adam to the porch railing. Adam wasn't struggling because JL had her stiletto firmly at his throat. Duncan was about to move in and grab her from behind, but Joe caught his shoulder and shook his head. "Let them settle this," he whispered. "Adam and JL have fought like this before."

JL ignored them and glared angrily at Adam. "How dare you?" she demanded. "Your little note to Jack Shapiro telling him I was associating with Jim and Bryan almost got me fired. The Tribunal was ready to burn my tattoo off my wrist until I convinced them that I hadn't betrayed our existence."

Adam swallowed and tried to move further away from the knife. "I don't know what you're talking about, JL," he replied. "What note?"

"Don't bother denying it," JL said angrily, moving even closer to him. "I broke into the files and saw it. It was in your handwriting, and it recommended that I be suspended for rule violations, and that the Lucas Buck assignment be given to someone with more 'field experience,' I believe was the term you used."

Adam's eyes widened as he remembered the last-ditch effort he'd made to keep her from being assigned to Lucas after she'd insisted that she could handle it. "Oh, that note," he said softly. "I meant more expendable, JL, but I couldn't tell the Tribunal that. I told you that assignment was dangerous, and now you can see why."

Joe saw JL's back stiffen as Adam reawakened the old argument, and he knew he had to move quickly before things got any further out of hand. He had seen Adam and JL have some intense quarrels during the five years they'd been together, and he'd always been amazed by the way they could fight, make up, then fight again, all within minutes. Hoping they could do the same thing this time, Joe slipped past Duncan and tried to appeal to JL's sense of humor.

"Come on, JL," he said, "you know you're not really going to kill him. You're not even going to maim him a little."

Not taking her eyes from Adam's, JL growled a response. "Give me one good reason why not."

"I can give you several. First, I just had my whole porch repainted, and blood just doesn't go with the decor. Second, there are way too many witnesses. I'll bet that old biddy across the street has already dialed 91 and has her gnarly finger poised over the 1 to summon the cops, fire department, ambulance, and anyone else she can think of to annoy me." Joe sighed dramatically, hoping that JL was really listening. "I never should have turned down that cup of coffee she offered me last month. Now my life's a living hell."

JL almost smiled, and Adam looked encouragingly at Joe. Without thinking, he continued, "Third, that stiletto may be sharp, but it's a little small to cut through a neck. And I really can't afford to have my whole electrical system replaced. I've got all my spare cash invested in the bar."

JL chuckled softly and stepped back half a pace. Adam breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against the railing, but his reprieve was short-lived. Before Joe could take JL's arm and maneuver her back into the house, she stiffened and glared at him.

"Replace your what?" she demanded.

Joe looked startled, then realized what he'd said. He was searching for a harmless reply when JL slashed out with the stiletto and opened a shallow cut on Adam's cheek. He tried to cover it with his hand, but JL gestured with the knife and he slowly let his hand fall back to his side. She watched the wound heal, then turned abruptly and strode back into the house, ignoring all of them. Joe shook his head, then turned on Adam. "Why," he asked, "did you come here? I told you she was still angry."

"You said angry, Joe," Adam replied softly. "Not homicidal. Besides, I thought you two shared everything. I was sure you'd already told her what I was."

Joe shook his head. "I promised, Adam. That means something to me, remember?"

Adam shifted uncomfortably. "I never broke a promise to her. I just couldn't make the kind of promises she wanted me to make." Staring past Joe toward the house, he idly wiped the blood from his cheek. "I tried, Joe," he almost whispered. "But it just wasn't working. I've been married 68 times, and I've learned the signs. She's too emotional for me, too wild. I can't keep up that kind of pace anymore." Shrugging, he started toward the door. "I don't think I ever could, actually," he muttered as he went after JL.

Joe watched Adam follow JL into the back yard where they both knew she'd be sitting at the base of her favorite tree trying to regain her control. Joe appreciated Adam's audacity--he usually gave her an hour or two before he followed her. Looking at Duncan and Richie, he smiled and tried to make the best of it.

"Never a dull moment at the Dawson household," he observed. "The Tasmanian Devil was played this evening by my very own foster-daughter, JL. She'll undoubtedly be back in to talk to you a bit later, hopefully in a more reasonable frame of mind."

"She hates Adam a lot more than he let on," Duncan observed.

Joe shook his head, his concern making him more talkative than usual. "Hates him? She dated him for five years. He was the first man she willingly took into her bed after she made it off the streets, and only the second she trusted enough to talk to about her past. At one point, she was certain he was going to propose. And she was definitely ready to accept." Gesturing for them to follow, he moved back toward the house. "Hatred, Mac, isn't the problem. If she hated him, she'd just ignore him or actually get into a fight with him and hand him his head. Which is partially why I didn't tell her. Before, she might have settled for just shooting him." Sighing, he led them toward the study. "Now, who knows? The bottom line is he tried to protect her from Lucas, but he couldn't, or wouldn't, tell her the real reason why he was concerned. She didn't tell me that he sent the note to the Tribunal, but it doesn't surprise me. I just wish he'd told her the truth and been done with it. She might have actually listened if she knew she had eternity at stake."

"She knows?" Duncan asked in surprise.

Joe grinned. "I'm not the first Dawson who got discovered by their Immortal. JL was assigned to a pair in San Francisco, and they adopted her much the same way you adopted Richie. They told her yesterday when they were discussing how to deal with all this. It seemed only fair, as she finally told them about Watchers." Joe shook his head. "Another Dawson carrying on the rule violation tradition. But enough of all that. JL and Adam will figure it all out. They always do." Grinning slightly, he stood with his back to the study door so he could face Duncan. "Right now, I have something to show you. Prepare to be amazed."

Opening the study door, he retreated inside and let Duncan look around curiously until he saw the picture. They were still arguing over who had more rights to it when Richie put a hand on Duncan's shoulder and gestured toward the doorway. JL and Adam stood there watching them, obviously amused by Duncan and Joe's sparring. Joe couldn't see any new blood on either of them, and JL's stiletto was still sheathed, so he knew her anger had passed.

Duncan tried to compliment her on the picture, but she brushed it off. Joe looked apologetic, but Duncan could tell she was more uncomfortable than unappreciative. What was that comment Adam made? Duncan thought. Oh, yeah. 'Maybe she doesn't like being praised because it embarrasses her.' Wherever you grew up, JL Dawson, it wasn't with a parent as caring as the one who adopted you. No wonder you don't trust easily. Shrugging, Duncan dropped the subject of the picture and suggested they move into the living room to talk about Lucas Buck. JL agreed and glanced at Adam before heading for the living room. He nodded and went to get the brandy and glasses.

Joe watched the interplay and nudged Duncan. "See," he whispered. "When they're not at each other's throats, they act like they've been married for years. I've seen them condense elaborate conversations into half a dozen words and some eye contact, and they have this amazing ability to remember conversational tracks. I've heard each of them answer questions that the other asked an hour or two before, and the other one knows immediately what they're talking about. It's a bit confusing if you don't have a playbook, though."

Duncan nodded, thinking about his friends, Gina and Robert de Valicourt, who had just celebrated their 300th anniversary. "I know what you mean," he replied.

Adjourning to the living room, Duncan and Richie settled on the couch while Joe took his chair and JL the love seat. Adam came in with the drinks and looked at the seating arrangement, then decided to be brave and sit next to JL. She grinned at him, then moved further into the corner of the couch so she could draw her legs up and rest her right arm on the back of the couch. Duncan studied the arm thoughtfully, suddenly realizing that she hadn't moved it much during the altercation with Adam. Her shirt sleeve was full enough to hide a bandage, but as the cloth settled against her arm he thought there was some extra padding there that the shirt alone couldn't account for. She tried to settle in, then reached behind her and pulled out her Glock. Casually placing it on the coffee table, she gazed longingly at the brandy in Adam's hand. He went to pour her a glass, but she stopped him reluctantly.

"I can't drink right now," she said calmly. "It won't react well with the painkillers."

"Painkillers?" Adam asked, suddenly concerned.

"Painkillers." Gesturing toward her right arm, she said, "10 inch cut to the bone. Jim says I'm lucky to have a bone and I shouldn't complain, but it smarts occasionally."

"Jim? As in Cutler?" Adam asked. "No, wait, it's Bryan Cutler this century, isn't it? That must mean it's Jim's turn to be O'Leary."

JL laughed and nudged him with her foot. "So that's why you wouldn't help me Watch them. You knew they'd recognize you, and you were afraid they'd tell me the truth."

Adam shrugged and decided to change the subject. "So James is still in the medical profession, is he?" he asked. "I hope he's graduated from leeches and mystical herbs. I remember when he had to cut up an entire bedsheet just trying to get the right-sized bandage for a cut finger."

JL arched her eyebrow at him. "Actually," she said, "he's graduated from Harvard. And Yale. And Oxford. And about 20 other colleges I could name, so spare me your sarcasm. How old are you, anyway?"

Adam shifted uncomfortably. "Old enough to know you have to be careful with painkillers."

JL snorted. "Like you remember pain. Your memory is so selective you probably don't think about it hurting until you think you can get sympathy from some poor misguided girl who's willing to kiss it and make it all better."

"Is that an offer?" Adam challenged.

JL glared at him, but without the cruel intensity of their earlier encounter. "I am not a girl. And where you're concerned, I'm definitely not misguided."

Adam grinned and shrugged. "Just checking. So, where did you get the cut?"

"Shaving."

"You mean shaving Lucas' head from his shoulders?" Duncan asked.

JL raised her coffee cup and grinned. "Precisely. So if you know all this already, why are you here?"

"I didn't know for sure," Duncan replied with a smile, "but seeing how neatly you handled Adam, I could picture it. Did you torch the warehouse, too?"

"No. Arson's not my style."

"But it is Bryan's," Adam said with a smile. "Bryan loves fire."

"He does not," she protested. "Let's just say that he's very thorough. He served some jail time once, and he really didn't enjoy it, so now he doesn't leave any evidence. When did you meet Jim and Bryan?"

"Let's just say it's been awhile," Adam hedged.

Duncan smiled at Adam's discomfort, but decided to rescue him anyway. "Why didn't you wait for me?" he asked. "I realize what was going on was horrible, but you'd already waited for over a day."

Looking at Richie, she tried to meet his eyes but he was staring intently at his hands in his lap as if he'd never seen them before. Shaking her head sympathetically, JL looked back at Duncan. "Let's just say I'd reached my limit. I guess I just lost patience."

Richie stiffened suddenly as he remembered that JL had made her appearance right after Lucas had threatened to pluck his eyes out, an injury that would probably never heal. "You heard him, didn't you?" he asked, twisting his hands with embarrassment. "But you weren't close enough. You couldn't have been."

Duncan looked concerned, and JL realized that Richie hadn't told his friend what had really happened in the warehouse. Knowing that he'd never be free of it until he did, she decided to drop a few hints that Duncan could follow up on. "I heard it," she said, just loudly enough for Duncan to hear her. "And saw it. Almost all of it." Kneeling in front of him, she made sure he knew she was going to touch him before she reached out and took his hand. "Don't let him win, Richie," she said with a soft intensity that made him realize that she knew what she was talking about. "Because he still can. If you convince yourself it was your fault, that you were asking for it somehow, any of that crap will leave you with nightmares that never end. If you fall into that trap, he wins. Night after night after night. A Dark Quickening's got nothing on this kind of pain, because you can't even blame some arch bad-guy for your problems and wash them off in some forgotten spring."

Richie looked embarrassed, but JL just smiled encouragingly and squeezed his hand. Getting up again, she walked across the room and picked up Richie's rapier from an inconspicuous corner. Bringing it over, she held it out to him. "You could have taken Lucas if he'd given you the chance. But instead he had his goons shoot you in the back, handcuff you, and rape you. Nobody can fight that, Richie. You were outnumbered and outgunned. But none of it was your fault. Like the song says, 'The gods or whoever makes the world go 'round shuffled when they should have cut.'"

Richie reached out to touch the hilt of his rapier, then took it slowly from JL's hands. After carefully examining the blade for blood or scratches, he finally looked back up at JL.

"I don't know what to say," he said quietly. "I owe you my life, and I don't even know you well enough to begin to know how to thank you."

JL waved a casual hand. "Forget it. You don't owe me anything. I didn't do it for you."

"You didn't?"

"No. I never do anything for anyone other than myself." Straightening up to military attention, JL adopted an intentionally-overdone high-society accent. "I would have you know," she sniffed, "that I am a summa cum laude graduate of the Adam Pierson School of Egotistical Ethics and Conscience Annihilation, with a minor in both Advanced Deception and Breaking and Entering."

Duncan and Joe laughed, and even Richie smiled. Adam threw a couch pillow at JL, and she caught it easily and tossed it back without bothering to look at him. Digging in a pocket, she handed Richie a piece of paper. "I know you don't want to talk about it." Laughing ruefully, she glanced at Joe. "And lord knows I get accused of that all the time. But you need to. The name and address on that piece of paper belongs to an Immortal who knows exactly what you need to talk about, and how to help you do it. In fact, it's the same one who burned down the warehouse for me. He went through a similar experience almost a millennium ago. He assures me that it's not one you ever forget."

"You told him?" Richie asked, horrified.

JL looked down for a second, then squared her shoulders. "Sort of. When nobody answered my phone calls I started to get creative. I Watched Bryan before I Watched Buck, and I knew he'd help. He's a good person, with a tremendous amount of empathy. And, as I said, he could truly relate to your problem, even if it's been awhile. He's the one who torched the warehouse to get rid of the evidence."

"Lucas was a thousand years old?"

JL shook her head. "No. Lucas was only 275. Bryan was tortured by Lucas' mentor and High Priest, Alaric Sutkin."

"High Priest?"

"This wasn't a random act of violence. It was a Satanic vernal equinox ceremony, and it was supposed to end..." Glancing at her watch to see the date, JL paused to do some quick addition. "Let's see, it's the 21st. Tomorrow night at midnight, I would suspect. With your permanent death, no doubt."

Richie stared at her. "Tomorrow night?" he whispered. "You mean I could still be in there?"

"If I hadn't interfered, yes. But there wasn't ever really a chance of that, once I realized the extent of what was going on. And if I had lost the sword fight, Duncan was right behind me, and Bryan and Jim were right behind him. Between them, Buck didn't stand a chance." JL smiled encouragingly, then went over and resumed her seat next to Adam. He glanced at her and then began folding back her sleeve to check the dressing on her wound. Giving him a small smile, JL looked back at Richie. "You know that old adage, 'It could have been worse?' Well, it could have. But it wasn't. And as you get a little time between you and this nightmare, it's amazing how much comfort that's going to be."

JL looked at her own hands that were busily tracing their random patterns on her pants leg. Her eyes showed how much her own nightmares haunted her, and she put up only token resistance when Adam gathered her into his arms and held her close. Joe watched them cuddle and smiled indulgently. Here we go again, he thought, like moths to the flame.

After drawing on his warmth and strength for a minute, JL looked back at Richie. "Listen to me, Richard Ryan. I've been where you are, with the memory of an overwhelming trauma still fresh in my mind. I tried ignoring it, suppressing it, denying it. And I ended up with an extremely expensive heroin habit for my efforts. Now I've kicked the habit but I still can't talk about the past, even with the few people I actually trust. Every time I try, I lose control and can't think about anything other than killing everyone around me or killing myself." Glancing at Joe, her voice faltered a little then steadied again. "I'm not telling you this to elicit your sympathy but to kick your brain back into gear. Bryan and Jim are both over 1,800 years old. They've seen it all, done most of it, and heard about what they haven't done. They won't judge you, and, more importantly, they won't let you judge yourself. Hell, they even made me think I might have a redeemable quality or two, an opinion that had previously been held only by Joe." Snuggling deeper into Adam's lap, she smiled. "And maybe Adam, on occasion," she amended.

"Lots of occasions, JL."

"See how well he lies? I should have guessed he was Immortal by his skill at hedging the truth under pressure. Like," she said with forced casualness, "the truth about why you didn't want me to follow Lucas."

Adam tensed, then decided to admit all and try to change the subject as soon as possible. "So you know. Who told you?"

"Jim and Bryan."

"When?"

"Last night." Sitting up, JL looked at Adam intently. "I want one straight answer out of you, Adam. Was our entire relationship based on the fact that I'm pre-Immortal?"

Adam shook his head emphatically, relieved that he knew the answer to this one. After 68 marriages, he'd learned to expect the very worst whenever any variation of the phrase 'I want a straight answer' came up. "No, JL," he clarified. "I'll admit that that's why I asked you out the first time we met because I was intrigued by the thought of the Watchers training and educating one who would someday be Watched. But I wouldn't have stayed if we didn't have more than that going for us. The problem is that we're both too stubborn to compromise. You want life your way and I want it mine. And your way is loud, flashy, and attracts way too much attention. Vanity plates on a surveillance vehicle. I mean really, JL, why don't you take out an ad?"

JL laughed. "You said they were cute when I got them."

"They are cute. But cute isn't what I strive for when I'm trying to be inconspicuous. You, however, seem to pull it off."

"Thanks, I guess." JL tried to stifle a yawn, then looked at Duncan and Richie. "Anything else? I can't seem to get my energy level back to where it belongs. Guess it comes from fighting on three hours sleep and a Snickers bar."

"It's the painkillers," Adam said with some concern. "What did Jim give you?"

JL shrugged. "Pills." Showing him the container, she shook it so he could tell that is was still nearly full. "Is that satisfactory, Master?"

Adam ignored the sarcasm and nodded. "Perfect. We'll see you all later. Goodnight, gentlemen." Picking her up off the couch, he carried her upstairs. She looked at Duncan over Adam's shoulder and shrugged, then waved good-bye and settled into Adam's arms.

"She must be tired," Joe commented quietly. "Normally he'd be picking himself up off the floor by now."

Duncan watched Adam carry JL up the stairs and shook his head. "Unbelievable. From death threats to 100% compatible in a couple of hours. I've never seen the like."

Richie grinned with a spark of his old self. "I have," he announced. "Almost every time Amanda drops by."

Duncan, overjoyed to hear Richie regaining his sense of humor, growled playfully at him and the two tussled until Joe broke it up in fear for his furniture. "What do you say we take this to the bar," he suggested. "If Adam comes back downstairs, which I doubt, he's stayed here often enough to know where I keep everything. If you don't mind dropping me off on your way home, I'll ride with you guys so he can escape in my truck if they start fighting again. Oh, wait a minute. I have a couple of things for you, Richie."

Leading them back into the study, Joe picked up a box from his desk and handed it to Richie. "These are yours," he said. "And your motorcycle's in my garage. You can pick it up any time you want."

Richie opened the box and extracted his wallet, keys, and the chain and padlock he used to lock his motorcycle. "How did you get this stuff?" he asked incredulously. "And how did my bike get in your garage?"

Joe grinned. "You guys are constantly dropping things everywhere. We've stocked several very nice museums on stuff you've forgotten about. These, however, wouldn't make a good display, so you can have them back. As for your bike, JL, Jim, and Bryan picked it up on their way over. JL said you should consider investing in a more expensive lock."

On the way to Duncan's car, Joe considered the ramifications of JL and Adam resuming their relationship. I want you to be happy, JL, he thought, but it's so much more peaceful when you're not speaking to each other. And I've had enough excitement of my own to last for quite a while. Shaking his head, he climbed into Duncan's car. It's not like I can do anything about it anyway, he decided. Those two are equally bad at taking advice from anyone. Maybe if I can get Duncan to take her on as a student, he can show her a less cynical viewpoint than Adam's. Then she can train here in Seacouver instead of moving back to San Francisco with Jim and Bryan.

"So, Mac," he said as they started off. "What do you think of my pride and joy?"

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

Alaric Sutkin lounged in his recliner by the pool like a lizard on his favorite rock, basking in the afterglow of the Sacrifice. He sipped his drink and let his mind wander back to way the outrage on his victim's faces had been replaced by fear, then terror, then total defeat. Alaric had decided that this was the year for a major event, so, instead of just trapping one Immortal or a couple of mortals, he had decided to take care of two problems at once and kidnap his arch business rival, Miguel Santiago, his wife, and their three children. By the end, his former rival had followed Buck's orders without hesitation and killed his own son, and the power from the Sacrifice was stronger than it had been in years. Life, Alaric decided, is definitely good. Now if I could just get in touch with Lucas, it will be perfect. Everyone else has checked in, and it was a banner year across the board. Even for the initiates still sacrificing stray animals. Sitting up, Alaric motioned for his valet to bring him his phone, and he called one of Lucas' contacts in the LA Police Department on the special cellular the man carried just for that purpose. Letting the phone ring three times, he hung up and waited for the man to call back from a private location. Call Forwarding is a marvelous invention, he mused idly. I must thank the phone company. It saves all that messy call-this-number-if and call-that-number- when nonsense.

A few minutes later, the phone rang, and he exchanged the proper code words with Lucas' contact, Jesse.

"What's going on? You're not who I was expecting."

"I'm his, well, let's just say I'm his father. He's missing, and I want you to find him."

"Missing? I know he was planning to be gone for a couple of weeks. Maybe he's still on vacation."

"No, he would have called. Go to Seacouver and find out what happened to him." Alaric sensed the other man's reluctance and sighed. It's so hard to get dedicated help these days, he thought. I really have to get the whole slavery concept back up and running again sometime. Until then, I'll use the modern form of coercion. "You will, of course, be adequately compensated for your efforts," he promised smoothly. "And the faster you get results, the more adequate your compensation. I'll expect a full report in three days."

Jesse tried to protest, but Alaric cut him off. "Just do it, and do it right," he ordered. Idiot, he thought. I remember when the police force used to have higher entrance criteria. No wonder the world's been complaining about the LAPD lately. Alaric tossed the phone to his lackey and lay back down to enjoy the Colombian sunshine. If you're going to live with incompetent police, he decided, at least you should do it somewhere where you can bribe all of them and not worry about the few foolish ones who think they have something to prove. Alaric sighed contentedly and drifted off to sleep, confident that Jesse would find the answers he wanted.

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

Three and a half days later, Sutkin was starting to plan Jesse's punishment for being late when the phone rang.

"Sir? This is Jesse."

"What do you have for me, Jesse?"

"Sorry I'm a little late," Jesse said, "but I think I have the full story now. Lucas bought a warehouse in Seacouver, but it burned down on March 19th. Definitely arson, but the police still don't know who, or why. Probably never will." Jesse paused, and Alaric could hear pages being turned in the background. "The fire was incredibly hot," Jesse continued, "and the damage was extensive, but they did find some very badly burned corpses. The dental records for two of them definitely matched guys who worked for Lucas, but we couldn't find any dental records for Lucas himself, so the third body couldn't be positively identified." Jesse paused again. "It was decapitated, though. That they could tell. They think a beam fell on him or something. Anyway, they found his rental car parked outside, so I'll bet he was in there."

Jesse paused, but Sutkin didn't react. After a moment, he continued. "The police did get one lead--apparently some vagrant saw a white van with California tags near the warehouse during the week before the fire. I checked all the hotels around Lucas' until I found one where the guest had registered with a white van, California plates. It belongs to a 37 year old private investigator from LA named Joanna Dawson. I don't know her personally, but my friends say she's helped the Department out a couple of times. Real hush hush stuff. Her specialty is getting into high-security installations and taking pictures and recording conversations that she shouldn't be able to get. They can't ever use the stuff in court, but it helps to know what you're fishing for before you start. She's sort of like the LAPD's personal branch of the FBI."

Flipping some more pages, Jesse continued, obviously pleased with himself. "Joanna's next of kin is Joseph Dawson, who owns a bar called Joe's here in Seacouver. I checked out his house, and she's there, all right. I saw her out walking a couple of times, and yesterday she was out in the back yard fooling around with a sword."

"A sword?"

"Yep. With a long, curved blade. Looked like the ones in Lawrence of Arabia."

"A scimitar."

"Could be. I'm into guns, not swords. Anyway, she was out there for a couple of hours swinging at the air and doing these moves that looked more like dancing than anything else."

"Kata exercises."

"Whatever. Then she went inside, put on the long, black, duster-style coat that she wears everywhere and went to the bar."

"Did she notice you?"

"Of course not. I'm a pro."

Alaric decided not to share his opinion about that. "Are you sure she's never seen you with Lucas?"

"Positive. I haven't met face-to-face with him since the first time four years ago. And he never calls me by my real name, so she couldn't have tracked me through our phone conversations."

"When did she become an investigator?"

"She moved to LA from San Francisco five years ago, and she got her PI license three and a half years ago. Before that, she was a freelance photographer."

Interesting, Sutkin mused. An Immortal PI/freelance photographer. Well, we all have to pass the time somehow. She sounds like a useful recruit though. Maybe taking her head isn't the way to make her pay for Lucas' death.

Jesse cleared his throat quietly and Sutkin returned to the present. "Do you have pictures of the two of them?"

"No, but I can get some. Neither one of them is hard to find."

"Good. Leave them at Lucas' house tonight and I'll pick them up tomorrow. Is there anything else you noticed about her?"

"Not that I remember."

"Well done. I'll take it from here. Give me the address of the house and the bar, then you can go home. The money will be in your account by close of business today."

"Thanks. Are you sure you don't want me to keep an eye on her?"

"No, that's all right. You've done more than enough." Sutkin wrote down the addresses, then called his bank and transferred a generous amount into Jesse's account. Not bad for an idiot, he admitted to himself. Let's just hope he really didn't get noticed. This girl is going to be my next student, and I know just how to get her. Laughing delightedly and thinking of all the ways he could turn her into his slave, Sutkin ordered his bags packed and his jet readied to go to LA. I'll have to get her attention first, he decided. If she has a mortal 'father,' then that will be her weak spot. So I'll stop in LA to pick up the pictures and talk to some of Lucas' contacts, then fly to Seacouver and visit the bar. Joe's was it? How original.

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

Adam sat in the back of Mac's T-Bird trying not to worry. After he'd spent the night holding JL and telling her that everything was going to work out one way or another, she'd sent him away the next morning with a small kiss and a promise that she'd call him soon. He had called her dozens of times in the intervening week and a half, but she hadn't picked up the phone or returned his calls even though he knew she was home. Joe just shook his head when he asked after her at the bar and told him to stay away. "She needs to think," he'd said. "Let her do it. When she's ready, she'll call you. You know that. Right now her arm hurts, she's had her whole world suddenly rearranged, and she's beginning to realize that she killed a man. It's a lot to absorb in one sitting."

Joe's words made sense, but Adam worried anyway. Now this. JL had called Duncan this morning, asking him to come see her at Joe's house after Joe went to work, and to bring Adam with him. Richie had elected to come too, and Adam could tell the youngster was seriously considering asking JL out on a date now that Adam had apparently struck out. He couldn't decide whether he approved of that idea or not, much less whether he had a right to approve of anything in JL's life. Whenever he tried to think about JL all he got was confused. She made him feel more alive than he had in centuries, but that scared him as much as it attracted him. It used to be, he thought, that I knew just what I wanted out of life and I could go get it. Things aren't so simple any more. I wonder what changed--me or the world. Shrugging to himself, he tried to enjoy the wind in his hair and the sun on his face. Probably both, he decided, not for the first time. Probably both.

JL was in the backyard practicing her kata exercises when they arrived. Adam led them through the kitchen door, and the three men stood in silent appreciation while JL danced with her invisible opponent. Even with her bad arm, she moved like quicksilver as she blocked, parried, and slashed left-handed. Bryan had taught her how to take advantage of the scimitar's curving blade by coming in from one angle and suddenly pivoting so the blade flashed off at a different one. Even Duncan looked impressed as he watched her move, and Richie looked positively smitten.

Adam's attention was drawn back to JL as she suddenly tucked and rolled on her right shoulder, then brought her left arm sweeping along about 6" from the ground. The blade connected with something set on a block of wood in the grass, sending the object hurtling away from her. JL grunted as her right arm hit the ground, but she continued the blade's sweeping arc and used the momentum to regain her feet. She stumbled badly and had to fight to stay up, her face gray with pain and her bandage beginning to show red among the grass-stains. Adam suddenly realized that the object the blade had hit was about to strike him in the chest. The surprise held him still an instant too long, and the object--it's a golf ball, his mind helpfully supplied--hit him squarely in the solar plexus. He grabbed Duncan's arm to keep from falling, and his friend supported him until he could breathe again. When he'd regained his equilibrium, he straightened and glared at JL. She smiled tightly and shrugged.

"Sorry, Adam," she said, still cradling her right arm. "I didn't hear you come in."

Adam shrugged and got ready to chew her out, but, as he looked at her haggard face, he felt his anger drain away as he realized how much her arm had to hurt. She wouldn't be hurting herself this way just to annoy me, he decided. Even she's not that masochistic. "Thanks," was all he said.

"Thanks?"

"For reminding me why we broke up in the first place. You're not just a beautiful, supple young woman who's occasionally out for my blood. You're a psychotic young woman with truly exceptional aim and impeccable timing who's frequently out for my blood."

JL laughed uncomfortably. "I wasn't aiming at you, really. I was trying to cut the rabbit's feet off." JL grinned again. "Good thing I got him on the first try, too, because I don't think I want to try again."

Adam looked confused. "Rabbit? What rabbit?"

"It's a long story, and it's not important anyway. Look, I've got a problem. And you guys are the solution. Especially you," she said pointing at Duncan. "The game's almost over. I've been made."

Adam cursed softly. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. There's been a guy watching me these last couple of days that works for the LAPD. And, incidentally, for Buck. I saw him at Buck's house four years ago, and he's been selling Buck information ever since. The guy's code name is Jesse. Should have been Judas, but that one's probably taken already. Anyway, I'm guessing that Sutkin rattled his cage and he tracked me somehow." Sighing, JL picked up her towel and dried off, then drank some water. Reluctantly, she admitted, "someone probably saw the van and remembered the California plates. They're out of state as well as being clever, but I had to drive the van if I wanted to bring all my equipment. Like I told Joe, sometimes you just can't cover all the bases."

"I don't remember seeing anyone on the way in," Duncan observed.

"I haven't seen him for the past two days. Which means Sutkin decided to handle it himself." JL led them into the house and offered them drinks, then led them back to the living room.

When they were settled, Duncan spoke quietly. "Richie and I both owe you for saving Richie's life," he stated. "If I had checked my messages, or if I'd replaced Joe's phone when he asked me to, I'd have been the one who killed Lucas. Let me fight Sutkin. We both know it's going to take more than a golf ball to beat him."

"Thanks for the offer, but no. Sutkin's my problem, and I'll deal with him. But you and Richie can repay me another way."

"How?" Richie asked.

"I want both of you to go on vacation somewhere. And take Joe with you." Studying Duncan intently, JL recognized the hesitation in his eyes and sighed. "My father said you were the most honorably stubborn man he'd ever met. Look, Duncan, I appreciate the concern, but it's not warranted. Despite all the psychological bullshit to the contrary, not all souls are created equal. And no matter how much I've improved my life and my attitude, I'll never be half the person that Joe thinks I am. Or even a quarter of what Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod is." Waving off Duncan's objections, she picked up a video tape from the coffee table and tossed it to Duncan. "If you won't listen to me, watch this. It's eight hours in full Technicolor and Dolby stereo of what happened to Richie. And Buck was a minor player in Sutkin's game. You've been through one Dark Quickening, why go through another? Especially for something that's not your fault or responsibility? You're honorable, MacLeod, but I've never heard anyone call you stupid. Or suicidal. This is my problem, and I'll handle it. My way. Please?"

Duncan held the tape and looked at her, then looked at Richie. "Richie is my friend," he said quietly, "and I would have killed Buck without hesitation. Let me do this, JL."

"I can't." JL looked into Duncan's eyes and spoke as sincerely as she could manage. "I killed Buck. And just like I told Richie, I did it for me, not for him. Now I have to deal with the consequences. And for the first time in my life, I'm ready to do that. Please don't come sweeping in on your white horse and save the day. Because in the long run, that will destroy me."

"I don't understand. How will my killing Sutkin destroy you?"

"If you lose, or if you take another Dark Quickening, I'll never forgive myself. And neither will Joe. And what Joe thinks is more important to me than anything else in this world. I've spent the last twenty-odd years striving to make him proud of me, and, in some small measure, I've succeeded. If I let you go to my death, he'll never forgive me. He'll try to say it doesn't matter, that you're old enough to take care of yourself. But it will matter. And it will be in his eyes every time he looks at me. I've got enough guilt to haul through the centuries as it is, Duncan. Please don't give me any more. Promise me you won't fight Sutkin just to save me."

Duncan hesitated, remembering a promise he'd made to Drakov in Russia in 1918--a promise that he'd finally had to break. "I've gotten burned by such promises before," he said slowly.

"I'm not asking you to never fight Sutkin. Hell, I'm not even asking you not to fight him now if you have a personal grudge against him. But it should be a personal grudge. Not just a heroic attempt to save Joe's foster-daughter. You don't owe me that much. None of you do. Of course," she added casually, "if I do lose my head and you get the yen to avenge me, well, that's your business too. I certainly won't be in a position to stop you."

Duncan smiled and JL knew she'd won this round. "So will you get Joe out of harm's way?" she asked.

"What makes you think he'll go anywhere? Especially now?"

"Because I told him that I was leaving first thing in the morning. He thinks I'm going to San Francisco to stay with Jim and Bryan until this whole thing blows over. They invited me to do just that when they came by to say 'Hello' to Joe, so he knows it's a viable alternative. He also knows how close the three of us are."

Adam studied her. "And he believes you?"

JL nodded. "Yes. Mostly because he wants to, I'll admit. I told him that Sutkin wouldn't dare take on three of us, especially when you consider how good Jim and Bryan are. He thinks it's a safe place for me to hide. And if I were looking for a safe place, that is exactly where I would go. That's what makes the whole story believable. Now will you please hide him?"

"All right," Duncan said reluctantly. "Where should we go?"

"He's always wanted to see the Alps," JL said thoughtfully. "How about Switzerland? It's supposed to be truly magnificent this time of year."

Duncan glanced at Adam, and he nodded slowly. "Switzerland it is," Duncan said with a sigh. "And JL?"

"Yes?"

"You're a lot more than half of the person Joe thinks you are."

JL smiled shyly, suddenly uncomfortable again. "Thanks, I think. Now get lost, will you? And make sure Joe enjoys himself. His suitcase is by the door."

Duncan smiled. "How convenient. How did you know I'd agree to all this?"

"Because I've read your chronicles, and you always honor your debts. Just be glad this particular debt only cost you airfare and go protect Joe. OK?"

Duncan nodded and turned to leave, but Richie hesitated. "Are there any other tapes?" he asked quietly.

"Just this one. I saved it in case I need to justify myself to someone. But Sutkin's not going to be impressed, and I'm beyond caring about the opinion of the Tribunal. Have you called Bryan yet?"

Richie shook his head. "Not yet."

"Do it. Trust me. He's expecting your call, and he'll be happy to talk to you. He followed your French motorcycle racing career, you know. Used to race himself now and again."

Adam raised an eyebrow curiously, but JL glanced at him and he remained silent. She is good, he thought. I never would have thought of that angle. I'll bet she even gave Bryan all the appropriate newspaper articles so he can continue the line. Smooth, kid, real smooth. Now why can't you do as you say and let us help you with your own traumas? Especially this one.

JL hugged Richie good-bye and whispered one last bit of advice in his ear. Then she shook Duncan's hand and thanked him again. She seemed to assume that Adam was staying, so he did. They had returned to the backyard and were beginning to spar when Duncan and Richie jumped back into the T-Bird and headed off to tell Joe they were going skiing.

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

Duncan got up the next morning and surveyed his once-meticulous loft. Richie was sleeping on the futon where he'd been since the warehouse, and his clothes were lying half-folded on the chair next to the bed. He still wasn't eating much so the dishes weren't stacked to the ceiling, but his clothes made almost as much mess. And now he had Adam sleeping on the couch as well, with his clothes lying on the coffee table. I've got to get an apartment with more than one room, he mused.

Adam had arrived around 2 am, saying that he needed to see Duncan before he, Richie, and Joe left for Switzerland. Adam had admitted that JL had thrown him out but said they'd had a long talk first, and that he'd tried to teach her some tricks she could use against Sutkin. He hadn't discussed the fact that he wasn't going to Switzerland, but Duncan knew better than to mention that. He just hoped his friend was good enough to beat Sutkin if he decided to challenge him.

They were just sitting down to breakfast when the doorbell rang. Assuming it was Joe coming to meet them and share a ride to the airport, Duncan picked up a piece of toast and munched it as he headed toward the door. He smiled to himself as he remembered the longing on Joe's face when he'd told him that he and Richie were going to Switzerland. The longing had been replaced by surprised joy when he casually mentioned that between himself and Richie, they had enough frequent flyer miles to get three first-class tickets, so Joe didn't need to ride coach this time. Joe had even managed to forget his concern for JL for a few minutes, but then it had taken Duncan quite a while to convince him that she'd be all right. He hated lying to his friend, but Joe really seemed to think that Jim and Bryan could take care of her, and Duncan hoped he was right. Maybe he'd call them before they left, if Adam had the number.

As he approached the door, Duncan felt the faint buzz of a pre-Immortal, and he had a sudden premonition that he should have made Joe spend the night at the dojo with everyone else. His fears where confirmed when he opened the door and saw the cold hatred burning in JL's eyes. He moved aside and she swept into the room, the scabbard beneath her duster brushing against his legs as she passed.

Walking over to Adam, JL handed him a note. Adam read it, closed his eyes and lowered his head for a second, then looked back up at JL. "I'm sorry, princess," he said softly. "If I had thought he'd go for Joe, I would have told you. I swear."

"I know. I'm not here to blame you. Right now I need your help more than I ever have."

"You've got it. When do we leave?"

"We don't. I still want you guys to go to Switzerland in case he decides to finish what Buck started and try for Richie. I mean, if he goes down, all of this will have been for nothing." She smiled slightly, but it didn't reach her eyes. Drawing her Glock, JL tossed it to Adam, then took off her coat and folded it over a chair. "Right now," she said, "I want you to kill me."

"Beg pardon?" Adam said.

"Kill me. You know, point the gun at my chest and pull the trigger. Unless you want to tell me that this whole pre- Immortal thing has been a stupid joke Bryan and Jim came up with and that you've been going along with."

Adam shook his head. "It's not a joke, JL, but I don't want to kill you. What's the point?"

"I need to fight Sutkin, and I can't do that loaded with painkillers or with a bum arm. How am I supposed to pull my ambidextrous stunt on him if I can't hold a sword with my right hand? And how can I fight if all he has to do is tap my right arm to put me in agony? I can't do it, Adam. I need to have both arms, and that means I have to heal right now. Can you think of any other way to do it?"

"Even if you do heal," Duncan asked, "what makes you think you can beat Sutkin and rescue Joe?"

"I don't have to beat him. I just have to distract Sutkin long enough for Jim and Bryan to rescue him."

"Bryan's willing to go anywhere near Sutkin?" Adam asked in amazement.

JL nodded. "I didn't think he'd want to, either," she said. "But they insisted. And Bryan's good enough with electronics that I think he can do it." JL smiled to herself. "Especially with the floor plan of Sutkin's mansion and the alarm system information I sent him the other day, on the off-chance it might come in handy. It really pays to have friends in the real estate and security-alarm-installation business, let me tell you. Fortunately, Sutkin chose to have the installation done by some of Lucas' buddies in LA instead of hiring local Colombian talent. Good drugs, bad locks, I guess."

Adam shook his head. "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this, JL?"

"Yes," she replied. "If anyone else shows up, Sutkin will kill Joe. He has to be busy fighting me before anyone else comes on the scene. And I can't distract him long enough unless I'm in perfect health, and have the use of both arms. Besides, I'm not getting any younger, and my reflexes aren't getting any faster. Why wait? Please, Adam. You know I can't kill myself. I've tried and failed too many times. The closest I ever came was when I drove in Harvard Square in Boston." JL smiled weakly, then looked pleadingly at Adam. "Please. I'll never ask for anything from you again. I promise."

"The hell you won't." Adam got up and handed JL back her gun. "This isn't the right weapon. If you're going to die, it should be by a sword. It's only proper." Walking over to the coffee table and picking up his sword, Adam turned around and faced JL. "Are you sure about this, princess?"

"Just do it. Jim and Bryan taught me some techniques for warding off a Dark Quickening when I called them this morning, and they promised to teach me more on the way to Sutkin's place. Bryan offered to fly us down there in his Lear jet, and they're meeting me at the airport in a couple of hours. When I go in, I'll be as ready as I can be. And quit calling me princess."

"If I'm going to kill you, I'm damn well going to call you anything I want to. Especially if it annoys you." With a resolute expression, Adam thrust his sword quickly into JL's heart, then caught her body before it could fall to the floor. Cradling her gently in his arms, he waited until she shuddered and began to struggle before letting her go. JL trembled as she tried to assimilate the buzz for the first time. She took the bandage off her arm and touched the new skin gingerly, then flexed her arm and watched in amazement as the muscles stretched and contracted without so much as a twinge. Smiling unsteadily at Adam, she reached out and he kissed her gently, then she pushed herself away. "That was a hell of a rush. Thanks, Adam."

Picking up her coat she walked to the door, each step growing steadier as she recovered from her first death. She paused at the doorway and looked back at the three Immortals. "May the winds be with you, guys. All of you."

"And with you, princess," Adam whispered, too softly for JL to hear. Then he straightened, suddenly glad that Duncan had badgered him into knocking the rust off his fighting skills. Well, you've accomplished your goal, JL, he thought, feeling the old determination flare back to life in his soul. You've died. And if either Bryan or I can get to Sutkin first, we can make sure he doesn't get the option of making it permanent.

Adam looked at the note JL had handed him and read Sutkin's address, then regarded his companions. "Well," he said, "I guess I'm off to Colombia, land of good drugs and bad locks."

Duncan smiled and held up two fingers. "Me too," he said.

Richie nodded and held up three fingers. "Me three," he added. Duncan and Adam both looked at him, and he shrugged. "Somebody has to drive the get-away car," he reasoned, "and I drive faster than either of you."

Adam grinned, then picked up the phone and called the airline. "I need three tickets to Colombia, South America. On the next available flight." He waited while the agent checked the flights, then said, "Nothing until tomorrow morning? Well, that will have to do. No, they should be first class." Nudging Duncan, he held his hand over the receiver and whispered, "What's your charge card number, Mac? Mine's maxed out right now."

"This whole deal is getting awfully expensive," Duncan muttered as he got out his wallet. "This must be what I get for not replacing Joe's cellular. He said it would bring me bad karma."

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

JL moved silently through the hedges surrounding Sutkin's estate, stepping over the trip wires, dodging the cameras, and avoiding the armed guards. She had almost made it to the house when a strange silence descended around her. She froze and looked around, but she didn't see anyone. She was about to move forward when a shadow fell across her hiding place. She looked up to find two of Sutkin's guards standing over her. "Bienvenido a Colombia," they said, then shot her half a dozen times.

Surging back to life for the second time in as many days, JL found herself cradled in Joe's arms. "Hi, Dad," she said unsteadily. "I thought you were going to Switzerland."

"Me too. I've got to change travel agents. I told him in Scotland that the next time we'd take separate vacations. I should have listened to myself. When did you, uhm..."

"Become one of Them? Yesterday." She grinned suddenly. "I always told you Pierson would be the death of me, and I was right. It's OK, Dad, really. It was my idea, actually. Couldn't take the pain in my arm anymore." Growing serious, JL hugged him. "Look, I'm sorry you got involved in this."

JL looked around hopefully, but they were securely locked in a cell whose bars looked extremely thick and well- anchored. There was four feet of space between the bars and the walls of the main room, so the guards could inspect the entire cell without having to go inside. In addition, security cameras were mounted in opposite corners of the main room, and JL was sure those cameras were being carefully monitored. "Never thought I'd be glad to be on the wrong end of a surveillance camera," she muttered.

JL stiffened and turned toward the doorway as she felt another Immortal enter the room. Looking at Sutkin for the first time, she began to regret not hiding in San Francisco. He stared at her intently, letting her see his unmistakable confidence while the strength of his buzz almost overwhelmed her. He didn't have the manic cruelty that JL had seen in Buck, who was constantly trying to hurt things to make up for his poor swordsmanship. Instead, Sutkin radiated the same calm detachment as Hannibal Lecter. He didn't need to prove anything to anyone, and he could handle anything the world threw at him. As he stared at her, the bars of the cell melted away and she was suddenly trapped in the past.

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

New York City, June 13, 1967. It was the day after her eighth birthday, and she was curled in her bed listening to her parents argue. She knew her father was drunk again, and that her mother was mad at him for missing her birthday party, but she would be perfectly happy if they just let the whole thing drop. She'd rather have him forget her completely, if that were possible. There was a loud thud and the yelling stopped. She thought he'd passed out again when her door opened and he stumbled in. His breath reeked of alcohol and she tried to cower away as he leaned over to apologize to her for missing her birthday. She tried to tell him it was all right, that she didn't mind and that she forgave him, but he suddenly slapped her hard enough to make the room spin.

"You forgive me?" he screamed. "I own you, and I can do whatever I want to you. You don't have the right to forgive me, all you're supposed to do is obey me." He grabbed her nightgown to pull her out of the bed, but the thin cloth ripped open and she fell back down. Looking at her as if for the first time, he touched her in places she knew he wasn't supposed to, and, when she tried to stop him, he pulled off his belt and used it to tie her hands to the headboard.

"You're mine, you little whore," he told her. "I let that stupid cow I married adopt you so you could serve me. Never forget that." Driving himself into her, he stuffed her nightgown in her mouth to muffle her screams and laughed wildly. "You're mine," he repeated. "I own you. You can't fight me, so don't try."

She began to beg his forgiveness when she felt someone shaking her as if from a great distance and a voice calling out to her, repeating a name she vaguely remembered but knew was terribly important. Just as she was about to remember its significance, she noticed Sutkin's eyes boring into her soul, and the scene changed.

New York City, August 8, 1971. She was still in her old apartment, but now she was lying in her father's bed where he'd made her sleep ever since her mother had died two years ago in an "accidental" fall down the stairs. He had just finished using her, and his breathing was rapidly evening out into sleep. She waited until his snoring made a steady, pounding rhythm in her head, then she got up and went over to her underwear drawer. Taking out the stiletto she'd found on the street that morning, she marveled at how sharp the blade was even though it had been bent so that it wouldn't retract properly. Well, she thought, I don't want it to retract. Not now. Not ever. Cradling the blade in her hand, she walked over to her father and stared at him. She laid the knife at his throat, her hands trembling as she tried to work up the courage to cut him with it.

Suddenly he opened his eyes and snarled at her, the alcohol fumes on his breath making her gag. "What are you looking at, bitch?" he asked. "Get in bed. Now."

Suddenly filled with a cold fury that distanced her from this monster who called himself her father, she drew the blade quickly across his throat and watched the blood fountain up in spurts. He tried to grab her but she dodged out into the hallway, and he collapsed before he could make it across the floor. Staring at her blood-soaked clothes, she held the knife to her own wrist, but, as she started to cut, the pain startled her out of her fog. I'm free, she thought. Free.

Sutkin's unblinking black eyes still held hers, stirring up her feelings of guilt. You killed your own father, her conscience said. Whatever he did, whatever he said, he was still your father, and he deserved your respect. How could you be proud of such a horrible thing?

Go to hell, she told the voice angrily. It was self-defense. Me or him. He didn't own me. No one does. I'm free, and I'm going to stay that way. That sad, frightened kid is long gone. I'm JL Dawson now, and I've got a father who really, truly loves me, and who showed me how to believe in myself. I'm not going to let him win this easily, guilt or no guilt. I went through all this years ago, and I don't need to go through it again. Let your anger power your blade, not guide it. Let your anger power your blade, not guide it. Let...

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

"JL," Joe shook her frantically, frightened by her glazed eyes and the way her hands had stopped tracing their endless nervous patterns and were hanging limply at her side. "JL, what's wrong? Where are you? What is he doing to you?" Interposing his body between her and Sutkin, he kept talking to her in hopes that she'd hear him.

JL shuddered and felt her own anger returning like a river surging through the ice during a spring thaw. She pulled away from Joe and stumbled over to lean against the bars. She crossed her arms to hide her trembling hands and glared at Sutkin. "So," she said, proud that her anger was strong enough to keep her voice from shaking as much as it wanted to. "End of round one. Nice try, but I'm not quite that fragile anymore." Straightening, JL looked thoughtful. "So you're Sutkin." When he inclined his head affirmatively, she added contemptuously, "Things must be pretty tough if you have to kidnap an old man in order to get a girl to visit you."

Sutkin smiled. "You'll do," he said. "Yes, indeed, you'll do just fine."

"I won't do anything for you or with you except kill you, you son of a bitch. So forget the 'let's be friends and I'll teach you what you need to know' speech. I already heard it from your pet, and look where it got him. On his pathetic little knees begging for mercy."

For a moment, Sutkin's studied nonchalance broke and he looked angry. "Lucas would never beg a child such as you for mercy."

JL shrugged. "You can ask him yourself once I send you to Hell. I'm sure he'll be part of the welcoming committee."

"I think not. I don't intend to fight you, little girl. I intend to convert you. You'll make a fine replacement for my 'pet,' as you called him. And you'll look much better in the dog collar and leash."

"The dominatrix routine costs extra, pal. Are you sure you can afford it?"

Sutkin laughed. "Youngsters are so amusing," he commented, as if to himself. "So full of their own importance and convinced that the world is fair."

JL snorted. "I never said the world was fair, Sutkin. If it were, you'd have been beheaded before you ever became Immortal, and I'd be Joe's biological daughter. But before we discuss our fondest wishes, I want to say something."

Sutkin smiled indulgently. "Go ahead, my dear. We have lots of time for training."

"I challenge you."

"What?" Sutkin asked.

"I said 'I challenge you.' You know, to a duel. To the death. With swords. Does any of this seem the least little bit familiar? Good. Then let me out of this box and let's get to it."

Sutkin laughed in delight. "Oh, you're quite the Amazon aren't you? This is going to be even more fun than I had thought. The bold ones always break so completely and with such flair. It's a real joy to watch."

"What about my challenge? Or don't you have enough honor left to recognize a legitimate challenge when you hear one?"

Joe had moved up beside her, and put a restraining hand on her shoulder. JL rested her hand on top of his and gave it a squeeze. "It will be OK, Dad," she whispered.

Sutkin laughed indulgently. "How sweet," he observed. "But completely untrue. OK is definitely not what this is going to be, for you or your 'daddy.' But if you want your challenge, you can have it. Providing, of course, you give me your word about one small thing."

"What's that?" JL asked reluctantly.

"If I win, you won't try to take my head again. Ever."

JL shook her head. "Even if we're the last two Immortals? That seems a little much to ask from someone who just wants one fair fight."

Sutkin nodded thoughtfully. "Fine, then. You won't try to kill me unless we're the last two left. How's that?"

"All right. I promise. But I don't want to fight here." Glancing at Joe, she only said, "There's not enough room."

Sutkin understood her unspoken request and considered it. Why not? he decided. There'll be time enough to torment her with the old man's pain later. For now, she can have her fight wherever she likes. Then maybe she'll quit whining about it. Wouldn't want her to claim that she lost because the old man's cries distracted her.

Nodding, Sutkin opened the door to the main room to show JL the two armed guards waiting in the hallway, then he unlocked the cell door and bowed. "After you, little one," he said sarcastically.

JL gave Joe a final hug and a whispered "I love you," then she left the cell. She could feel Joe staring after her, but she couldn't bear to look at him. Tears worked on Joe, sometimes, but she didn't think they'd work on Sutkin. Please, God, she prayed. Let Jim and Bryan get him out of here. Please.

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

Jim and Bryan watched through the trees as JL got shot by a couple of guards she hadn't noticed sneaking up behind her, then dragged off toward the main house. They shook their heads, but neither moved to stop it. If they didn't get Joe out safely, JL would be first inconsolable, then very, very angry. Joe first then, they silently agreed. But JL second. A very close second.

Resuming their approach to the house, they neutralized the two guards at the doorway, then ghosted through the halls to the control room. Quickly knocking its occupant unconscious, they settled in to watch the monitors in time to see Joe frantically shaking JL, who looked like she was stoned. The monitors were visual-only, though, so they couldn't figure out exactly what was going on. "Why didn't they wire these things for sound, too?" Jim complained.

"Same reason Sutkin's in there without a guard," Bryan reasoned. "He doesn't trust his own employees to hear or see anything that they don't absolutely have to know. He's as paranoid as ever."

Jim sighed deeply and shook his head. "We have to kill him this time, Bryan. Even if he flees to Holy Ground."

"No question. If she manages to get his head first and he destroys her personality, I'll kill her, and take her into myself forever. And if I lose, then you can take him and end up with all of us, lucky guy that you are. So let's get Joe and then save JL."

Watching the other surveillance cameras scattered around the estate, the two men went back over their escape plan until the camera over the back door showed Sutkin and JL leaving the house and heading across the lawn. Smiling grimly, they headed down to the basement to rescue Joe.

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

To her relief, Sutkin led JL across the lawn to his practice yard. This should be far enough away, she decided. At least, I hope so. What's the range on these buzz things? And why doesn't this whole Game come with a decent player's handbook? This whole hide-the-sword-and-dump-the-bodies mystique is beginning to wear on my nerves.

Taking a deep breath, JL picked up her scimitar that Sutkin had thoughtfully placed here for her. No, you weren't planning this at all, were you? she thought. Too bad you didn't leave my Glock or my stiletto lying around, too. They would even the odds a tad. Well, all I have to do is last long enough for Jim and Bryan to get Joe out.

JL squared her shoulders and faced her opponent, whose black, swept hilt flamberge rapier reminded JL of a snake that was poised to strike. She began to circle slowly, hoping he wouldn't take her seriously enough to bother really paying attention, but she could tell from the intent way he watched her move that he wasn't taking any chances. As soon as she closed with him and exchanged a few tentative blows, she knew it was going to take a miracle to win this one. His moves were faster than Bryan's had been the last time they'd practiced, and he managed to give her a shallow cut on her arm when she'd been absolutely sure her guard had been perfect. Damn, she thought. Why did he put up with an incompetent dolt like Lucas? This guy's good.

Trying to remember everything she'd ever learned, JL managed to keep herself alive for several intense exchanges that sent sparks flying across the practice field. JL could tell that Sutkin wasn't even trying yet although she was bleeding from half a dozen small wounds on her arms, legs, and chest. He's toying with me, dammit, she swore under her breath. And I can't do anything thing about it. Lunging in suddenly and switching hands in mid-stride, she managed to score a decent-sized cut on his left leg, but Sutkin didn't seem to notice. He just laughed and responded with a powerful swing that nearly knocked her blade from her hand and ended the fight then and there. As JL scrambled to avoid him, she began to think about Plan B. Bryan had reluctantly shown her how to give Sutkin an opening for an arm shot, and then put her neck into the blade's path instead. "It's a tremendous long shot," he'd insisted, "and it's not something I've practiced much, as you can imagine. Jim and I messed around with it some, using lots and lots of padding, but it always gave him the willies. These are mainly just the theoretical ramblings of a man with too much time on his hands and occasional bouts of serious depression. Besides, once Sutkin figures out that you're trying to commit suicide, he'd probably wouldn't fall for it. But if it's absolutely your only chance..."

She regained her footing and tried a tumbling run that gained her another nick in her own arm, but she thought she saw a pattern to his attacks now. When she exposed her arm he brought his blade down along a diagonal path that she might be able to intercept with her neck if she timed it just right. And if it didn't quite take her head, then it should make a complete mess out of her face and, hopefully, her eyes. Even Sutkin wouldn't want a blind pet, she reasoned. Searching for the courage to try something this crazy, she though about how much Richie had suffered on the cross and resolutely began testing her theory to make sure she'd correctly identified the pattern before she made the only attempt she was likely to get. Please, God, she prayed silently. This time, let me die. There's a lot more riding on this one than there ever has been. Please? Don't let him break me. I know I haven't been much of a believer, or even much of a person, but surely this punishment is a little extreme even for me.

As always, silence was the only answer to her request. With a sigh, JL began to plan the series of moves that would, hopefully, put her neck directly in the path of Sutkin's rippled blade.

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

Adam tried to come up with a plan of attack by reviewing every victorious battle in his career, but he couldn't decide how experience commanding armies would help him win against a state-of-the-art alarm system. "Things were much simpler," he complained to Duncan on the flight to Colombia, "when 'high security' meant four guys with big dogs, torches, and bronze swords."

Duncan chuckled. "I'll have to take your word for it, old man. Even we had iron swords."

"Eventually, child. Long after the Japanese had moved on to steel."

Richie leaned forward and shook his head at both of them. "Will you two cut it out?" he whispered. "People are beginning to look curious. The least you can do is make this stuff sound less, well, personal."

Adam sighed. "Then I guess discussing the details of our plan is out."

"What plan?" asked Duncan curiously.

"Precisely," replied Adam. "Guess we'll have to wing it." Settling back in his seat, he remained quiet until they'd picked up their rental car and driven to Sutkin's estate.

When they saw the gate with its staggering array of electronic sensors and laser beams, backed up by an occasional guard patrolling with an AK-47, they had a feeling that winging it wasn't going to work either. Adam was about to try something rash when they felt the presence of at least one Immortal. Praying that it was Bryan and Jim, and that he remembered the signals he'd used when he'd been their battalion commander back in Ancient Rome, Adam warbled a particular birdcall that he hoped meant 'coast clear, come home.' Damn this selective memory, he thought. I should have studied that part of my journal again.

There was moment of silence, then a soft voice echoed the call. Adam repeated it with an added trill on the end, and suddenly three figures slipped out of the gate without disturbing the alarms at all. One of them gently set Joe down, while the other grabbed Adam in a huge bear hug. "Hiya, Arden, old man," he said. "How the hell are you? And why are you standing out here calling a latrine break?"

"Latrine break? They must have changed the signals again after I left." Adam hugged him back and laughed softly. "Fancy meeting you two mongrels here. And it's Adam Pierson, now," he added as an afterthought. "Is it safe to talk out here?"

"Yes," Jim replied. "Bryan used some of his electronic geegaws to disable the alarm system and we tranquilized the guards. Everything's under control."

Adam nodded. "I should have guessed. Oh, by the way, I'd like you to meet some friends of mine. Jim, Bryan, this is Duncan MacLeod and Richie Ryan. Duncan, Richie, this is Bryan Cutler and Jim O'Leary, two of my, well, let's just say my 'most notable' students."

"'Most notable'?" Bryan asked innocently. "Don't you mean 'only two surviving' students?"

"Did I mention 'most annoying'?" Adam shot back.

Jim stepped between Bryan and Adam, knowing the two of them could keep this up for centuries. "That's enough, Bryan," he said. "This is no time to start playing word games with the old man. We've got to get to JL."

Bryan shook his head slowly. "What's the rush?" he asked bitterly. "Even if we get there before Sutkin takes her head, we can't interfere in an official challenge."

"He's not going to take her head this time," Joe said heavily, and the Immortals turned to look at him. "The bastard is just playing with her. Made her promise that she wouldn't try to take his head ever again if he wins this fight." Joe lowered himself heavily into the back of one of the waiting cars and let his head rest against the front seat. "He's planning to make her into Buck's replacement," he said, his voice husky with repressed sobs.

"The hell he will," Bryan vowed, consulting the map of Sutkin's estate that JL had given them to find out where the practice field was.

While Bryan checked the map, Jim looked at Duncan. "I'm probably being paranoid here, but why don't you and Richie stay with Joe? That way if any guards find the unattended gate or Bryan's geegaws mess up and get us caught, you can rescue the rescuers?"

"My geegaws got Joe out, didn't they?" Bryan muttered, aiming a casual swat at Jim. "So quit picking on them. Come on, let's go."

Jim handed Duncan his gun, then followed Bryan and Adam towards the practice field, hiding his amazement as Bryan easily bypassed the remaining alarms. As they approached the practice field, the clanging of swords made stealth unnecessary. Slipping around a corner, Adam studied the fight. "Well, she's still alive so far. What do we do?"

Bryan watched JL for a minute, then said softly, "We could wait until he beats her and then challenge him, but I'm afraid she's going to try and commit suicide. I spent yesterday afternoon teaching her how to expose your arm and then put your neck in the way of your opponent's blade when he takes the bait."

Adam stared at him. "Your teaching methods have changed, Bryan," he finally said, but Bryan just shrugged.

"What we need," Bryan announced, "is a diversion." Waiting until Sutkin's back was turned, Bryan leapt out of his hiding place and headed toward the field. Jim tried to catch him, but he pulled free and raced forward.

Sutkin almost stumbled when he felt Bryan's presence, and he started to turn around. JL, who had seen Bryan emerge from the bushes and knew what was coming, took full advantage of Sutkin's inattention. Smiling that cold, hard smile she reserved for anyone who said anything bad about Joe, she threw herself into a forward roll and end up crouched on the ground behind him with her sword whistling along 6" above the ground. Only this time her target wasn't a golf ball but Sutkin's right hamstring. He howled in surprise and pain as the blade connected, then he stumbled on his suddenly useless leg.

JL uncoiled and pressed her advantage, forcing him off balance. As he struggled to stay up on one leg, she laughed a somewhat demented laugh and feinted towards his neck. Sutkin raised his blade in a effort to keep his head, then realized his error as hers came down in a unblocked shot to his good leg. Falling to his knees, Sutkin managed to cut JL across the chest, but he knew it wasn't going to do him any good. She had too much strength left for him to defeat while on his knees, especially with all the anger she had to draw on. Smiling, he steeled himself to his fate and hoped he could crush her personality and take over her body. I've got a better chance with her than with whichever friends she brought, he reasoned. And if it works, my enemies will have a damned hard time recognizing me. I'll be able to settle a lot of debts before they even know who they're fighting.

"Go ahead and take my Quickening, little one," he shouted. "Take me into you and let me become you." Dropping his own sword, he knelt with the same confidence he'd shown in the cells while JL's scimitar sliced through the air and neatly severed his head.

JL stared at the body while the power began to gather around her. Dimly she thought she heard voices, but she couldn't quite understand them. As the first lightning bolt hit her, she finally heard Jim screaming "Your name, JL! Use your name! Can you hear me, JL? What's your name?"

JL gathered her scattered thoughts and began chanting over the growing storm. "I am JL Dawson," she whispered. "JL Dawson. Joanna Dawson. Joanna Lynn Dawson." Pausing for breath, she began to scream back at the lightning. "I am JL Dawson," she repeated. "I...am...J...L...Dawson." The power arched and flared around her, and she dropped to her knees as it burned into her very soul. "Dawson," she repeated weakly. "Dawson." As the final bolt leapt from Sutkin to her, she screamed at the top of her lungs. "JL Dawson. I am JL Dawson. And I will stay that way." I am Alaric Sutkin, came the unbidden reply. And I will stay that way as well.

JL stared at the approaching figures, fighting the double vision that threatened to make her sick. What kind of side effect is this? she wondered. Is this what it's supposed to feel like?

Yes, replied the new voice in her mind voice. Yes. Just give in to it. Feel the power? That's right. Reach out to the power, little one. Let it fill you and nurture you. You'll always be safe from now on, if you let yourself draw on the power. No one will hurt you, not ever again.

JL shuddered and doubled over, trying to get the voice to shut up. If this is normal, she vowed, I'm out of the head-taking business as of right now.

"JL?" Bryan's voice cut through the fog that surrounded her and helped her focus. "JL? Can you hear me?"

"Bryan?" she asked hesitantly.

"Got it in one, kid," he replied. JL waited for him to come close enough to hold her, but he didn't. Finally gathering the strength to look up, she blinked at the six Immortals gathered before her. Regaining her feet, she shuddered again as she realized there were only three, and that her double-vision hadn't cleared yet. Rubbing her eyes vigorously, she tried to banish the effect when she heard the voice of an ancient enemy.

"Are you all right, princess?" it said.

Furious at him for having the audacity to come that close and speak so familiarly, JL glared at him and spoke in a deeper and harsher voice than anyone had ever heard her use. "So, Arden, you still pretend to care," she growled. "Why should I believe you, after what you've done?"

Adam saw the fury in her black eyes and stepped back a pace. What the hell? he wondered. Looking closer, he suddenly remembered that JL's eyes were supposed to be blue. "Oh, no," he said. "Here we go again. Everybody stay back and don't trust her for a second."

"What?" Bryan demanded.

"That's not JL. Look at her. Look at her eyes and listen to her voice, Bryan. That's Sutkin. Trust me, I just had a refresher course in the signs of a Dark Quickening, and this is it."

JL shuddered again and her blue eyes mirrored her confusion. "Where's Sutkin?" she asked. "Why are you all staring at me like that? Have I suddenly grown horns? Oh, my God. I beat the son of a bitch. I'll be damned. Is Joe all right?"

"JL? Is that you?" Adam asked.

"No, it's the Queen of England. Of course I'm JL, you idiot. What about Joe?"

"Joe's safe. Why did you call me Arden?" Adam insisted.

"Arden? Why would I call you that? Good lord, Adam, I may have been totally in the dark about your true nature, but I think I managed to figure out your name. Or, at least, the name you're using this time around. Who's Arden?"

"The name I was using when I first met Sutkin," Adam replied quietly.

JL stared at him, suddenly concerned. Adam was looking at her so intently that she moved back a bit, lifting her sword reflexively. His sword snapped into the en garde position and he began to advance. JL looked startled, then quickly lowered her blade. "Steady on, there, mate," she said, trying to decide whether to talk, fight, or run. At the moment, none of them seemed too appealing. "Let's not get carried away with this killing stuff."

"Who are you?" Adam asked.

"Who am I? Is that a trick question?"

"Just answer it," Adam demanded.

"I'm JL. You know, your former girlfriend, and your not-so-former lover. You want my curriculum vitae too?"

"This is serious, JL," Adam said quietly. "I have to know which one of you is in control. Answer me."

JL shook her head in frustration. "Answer you how? What am I supposed to say that you'll believe? If Sutkin were in control, and I'm not saying he is, so please don't wave that thing quite so close to my face, OK? Anyway, if he were, would he tell you? Of course not. So what am I supposed to do to prove I'm me? Let you take my head?"

"That would be one way, yes."

"In your dreams, lover." JL stared at Adam, but he didn't back down. He looked so serious and concerned that she couldn't pretend that this had been a normal Quickening anymore. Shrugging, she dropped her scimitar. "Oh, well. I knew it was too good to be true." Fighting to control her fear, she licked her lips and looked in his eyes for any sign that he was kidding. When she didn't find it, she squared her shoulders and steadied her voice. "So do it, if you feel that strongly about it. I mean, if you really, really think you have to."

Adam looked into her eyes and brought his blade up for the killing strike. As he had expected and feared, he saw the same glazed look begin to come over her that had come over Duncan when he was under the influence of the Dark Quickening. At least there is still something to save, he told himself. I'll just kill her temporarily, then get Bryan to fly us to that Spring. Let's hope she's strong enough to win there, too.

He was about to swing when he saw the glaze clear and her eyes return to their normal shade. "Well," she demanded flippantly. "Are you going to do this, or not? Because if you aren't, I'd really like to go talk to Dad before the shock wears off and he has time to get really, really pissed."

Adam brought his blade down swiftly, stopping it millimeters from her neck. She flinched a little, but the darkness didn't return to her eyes. Regarding him with that annoying calmness he knew meant she was one step away from hysteria, she said softly, "Well, what do you know. You missed. And you call yourself a swordsman. Can I go now?"

Adam lifted his blade away from her neck and hugged her as hard as he could. "Welcome back, princess," he whispered in her ear. "Thank you for not letting that miserable worm win. I knew you could do it. I really did."

"Sure," she replied. "That's why you almost made me wet my pants by pretending to take my head. Because you love me."

"Damn right, I do. Always have, probably always will. But that doesn't mean I can live with you."

JL grinned. "How about a occasional wild night of passion and a few fantastic arguments? You know, the same arrangement the big guy and Amanda have."

"Does that mean you're getting into second story work now?" Adam asked with a laugh.

"Actually, I'm thinking of taking over as one of the Regional Coordinators. Maybe in Europe. Joe mentioned that there are several sudden openings. Maybe I'll even try to take over the Methos project. God knows you haven't made a lot of progress on that one, have you?"

Adam laughed far louder than she thought her joke warranted, then put his arm around her waist and turned to face the others. "I have some bad news, folks," he announced. "The Princess is back. And we're stuck with her."

"You should be so lucky," she groused, then she pulled away and bent down to pick up her scimitar. She looked around the field, but her duster wasn't in evidence. She looked down at her bloody jeans and lucky T-shirt with its "Sooner or later, everybody comes to Joe's" logo, but she couldn't imagine hiding a sword anywhere on her person. She looked beseechingly at Adam, but he just grinned wickedly and shook his head.

Frowning, she studied the sword, her jeans, and the sword. Suddenly inspiration hit and she brought the sword in toward her side, turned it just so, and watched it vanish as if it had melted into her. She couldn't keep the delight from her eyes as she brought the blade back out and spun it, then slipped it back into its spot. "Cool," she murmured. "Way, way cool."

Adam laughed and slid an arm back around her waist to escort her back to Joe. She seemed happy to settle into his side the way the sword settled into hers, and they smiled at each other.

Later, whispered the voice that JL had somehow managed to ignore. I've got nothing but time, little one. Sooner or later, you'll realize that I'm the only chance you've got. And I'm not going anywhere.

Adam felt her shiver, and he hugged her closer. He still looked a little concerned, but she just smiled up at him and remained silent.

Go to Hell, she firmly told the voice, and it laughed softly before it faded. I should probably mention this to someone, JL thought as she and Adam walked back to the car. But it will destroy the mood. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe they all hear voices, and that's why they kill each other. It's like dogs barking at invisible creatures in the night. Besides, I've been talking to myself for years. Now I'll just get an answer now and then. At least I won't be so alone anymore.

Adam let her go as they walked out of the gate so she could go see Joe. Turning back to Bryan and Jim, he said quietly, "I think the three of us should stay with her for the next couple months. She got herself a temporary reprieve, but he'll be back. I'm sure of it. And when it happens, we have to restrain her immediately, before she kills one of us. Because I guarantee you that she'll try it. Don't let your guard down for a second. She sleeps alone until we're sure she's over this, agreed?"

"But she needs us," Bryan protested. "How can we shove her out of our bed now? She'll know something's up. And how can we tell when the danger's past?"

"I'll keep annoying her. Sutkin and I have been fighting on and off for two millennia now. If she can get really mad at me without tapping into Sutkin's anger, then maybe I'll believe it."

"Sounds like fun," Bryan muttered.

"That's why I want you two there. It means I'll get to sleep occasionally."

"You never told us about this stuff before," Jim complained.

"That's because you never asked. And by the time I took you two under my wing, I'd already forgotten the last Dark Quickening I'd seen." Adam sighed. "Just because I've kept a journal all these years doesn't mean I have time to actually read it."

Oblivious to the plots and plans being made behind her, JL ran over to Joe, who had been talking to Duncan and Richie. He looked at the rapier in her hand and smiled. "That will make a great addition to our collection," he said. "Are the bars on that hilt really carved into snakes the same way the grip is? Let me see that."

JL looked surprised to see Sutkin's rapier in her hand, then she shrugged and handed it to him. "Glad to see you're safe, too, Joe," she said with an indulgent laugh.

Joe put the rapier down and hugged her. "I knew you'd be OK," he said. "Bryan promised." Holding her close, he felt her begin to shake and then to cry softly as the tension she'd been under began to drain away. He tried to catch Adam's eye over JL's shoulder, but he was deep in conversation with Jim and Bryan. When she finally let him go, he smiled at her. "So, princess, you did it. I knew you could."

JL snorted. "Sure you did, Dad. And don't call me princess. Either of you," she added, glaring at Adam, who wasn't paying enough attention to respond.

"What about your scimitar?" Joe asked.

Grinning, she made the scimitar appear, twirled it a couple of times, then made it vanish.

Joe's eyes lit up with the prospect of finding out the secret that had baffled them all for years. "So," he asked eagerly, "how does it work?"

JL smiled and shrugged. "Sorry, Joe," she replied, "but if I tell you, then I'll be forced to kill you."

"That's not a Rule."

"Wanna bet?"

Joe studied her, then looked disappointed. "You don't know either, do you? It's like the buzz. It just happens, doesn't it?"

"What can I say, Joe?" JL asked him. "'The world works as it will...' Think of it as being held by an extra-dimensional prop master and let it go at that."

Laughing, JL called to the others and demanded that they let her go back to the hotel and change, then take her out for a celebratory drink. As Bryan and Jim gave Adam directions to their hotel, JL gazed back at the estate. I feel sorry about leaving here, she thought. That can't be good, because it can't really be me. But I beat my father, I beat my heroin addiction, and I beat Sutkin once already, so I should be able to do it again. The only thing I can't seem to shake is Adam. Watching Adam write down the directions, she smiled. Thank God for that, my friend. You'll show me how to control this new voice. I know you will. Now if I could only figure out how old you really are, and all the people you've been. Maybe I'll just check out the CD-ROM and see who's missing from the collection you so carefully put together. And I can start with someone named 'Arden.'

Smiling to herself, JL got in the car with Jim, Bryan, and Joe, contentedly planning how to spend the rest of eternity.