Disclaimer: Highlander the Series is property of Rysher Entertainment. The characters Duncan MacLeod, Methos/Petey, and Joe Dawson, Richie, and Connor are used without permission, but with great reverence. Sarah MacGreggor belongs to Lisa Krakowka. The other characters and the story itself belong to Jennifer Allen, copyright 2000. Please send all comments to email@example.com, especially if they're good. If you distribute or save this story, please leave the header intact.
Timeline: This story occurs after almost 2 years after DefCon 1 and my original trilogy, Consequences, Accusations, and Retaliation. You don't need to read those stories to understand this one, but JL is introduced in there, and the relationships will make more sense if you do. The trilogy is also the source of any comments made about the Immortals Lucas Buck, Alaric Sutkin, and Aurelia. 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.
Original Printing: This story originally appeared in A Zine of Their Own published by Maria and Christine. I highly recommend the zine because it's got some really great authors in it.
Acknowledgments: This story couldn't have been written without my excellent team of beta readers: my eternally-patient hubby Dave, Cynthia Hoffman, Glo. Phillips, Lisa Krakowka, Daneen McDermott, Kay Brenner, and Ron & Sue Koci. You guys make me look really good, and I definitely appreciate it.
Los Angeles, California, August 1999. JL Dawson sat cross-legged on the wall of Griffith Park Observatory sipping the sludge the concession stand called coffee and nibbling a Snickers bar. On a clear night, this view was arguably one of the loveliest on Earth, with Los Angeles spread out like a glittering blanket of lights. Today, however, the smog was a sickly brownish-yellow shroud. Families on vacation trudged along the walls, commiserating about the view and wondering what the city would look like if they could see that far. JL didn't mind it a bit -- she felt like L.A. was welcoming her back by looking exactly the way she felt. How often did a city work so hard to match your mood?
JL had moved to L.A. in 1991 to watch an Immortal named Lucas Buck even though several previous Watchers who'd been assigned to him had mysteriously disappeared. Her boyfriend at the time, Adam Pierson, had begged her not to go, but she'd been too stubborn to back down and their five-year-old love affair hadn't survived the bitter fight that followed.
Despite Adam's dire warnings, for over four years JL had watched Lucas without any sign that he knew she was following him. JL wasn't the typical Hollywood wannabe type; her chin was a little too square, her eyes were a shade too far apart, and, compared to most starlets, her breasts were almost non-existent. However, she did have a model's slim build and long, silky black hair. It was her one vanity; her nails might be bitten short, but she always took care of her hair. When she put on a slinky dress, added some subtle makeup, and let her hair flow down her back, she could pass, at a distance, for one of the starry-eyed dreamers who flocked to L.A. Lucas' henchmen had passed her on the street dozens of times and had never given her a second look.
Then Lucas had kidnapped Richie Ryan, and she'd broken the non-interference directive to save him from a fate worse than death. After that, everything had spiraled rapidly out of her control.
The biggest shock had been becoming an Immortal herself shortly before her 37th birthday. Her Immortal friends hadn't told her about her pre-Immortality, and she'd felt supremely unprepared when Lucas' buddies -- a band of Immortals next to whom Satanists looked benevolent -- forced her to take her first head. Reeling from the shock, she'd tried to stabilize her life by moving back to Seacouver. Her best friend, Colin, and her foster father, Joe Dawson, both lived there, and Joe's bar had quickly become her second home. She'd even managed to make up with Adam, who she now knew to be Methos, and the last three or four months had grown into a comfortable groove that made her think living forever might actually be fun.
Sighing wearily, JL rubbed her temples, trying to puzzle out where she'd gone wrong. She'd been living with Methos and their cats in a comfortable apartment and practicing swordsmanship with him and Duncan MacLeod on a regular basis. She'd frequently spend a week in San Francisco too, training with Bryan Cutler and his partner James O'Leary, the Immortals she considered her true teachers. It had all fallen apart when she'd taken Bryan's word about the virtues of helping a friend and the importance of working with a female teacher.
Rising abruptly, JL stuffed the candy wrapper in her empty cup and strode back to her '89 Mustang GT convertible. Tossing the cup in the backseat to join the small army of its fellows that had accumulated during her hell-bent drive from Seacouver, she jumped over the driver's door and settled behind the wheel. Driving had always been JL's favorite way of forgetting her problems, and L.A. traffic was complex enough to keep even her confusion at bay.
Making her way back to the I-5 South, JL kept thoughts of her future at bay by wondering were she was going to sleep tonight. She could take Jim and Bryan up on their standing offer to use their L.A. condo -- for the last time if she went through with her tentative plan to sever her relationship with them -- or she could get a hotel room. The latter was certainly more self-sufficient, but JL had lived on the streets long enough to consider throwing away free crash space blasphemous. A quick mental accounting of her finances was the final nail in the hotel coffin. Joe's bar was doing well enough, but JL was a long way from being able to waste money. The condo it was, at least until she got a job and made her formal declaration of independence.
Digging out her address book, JL checked the address. "Pacific Palisades," she muttered. "Figures." At this time of day she made decent time over to the 405 and eventually found the posh condo complex that Bryan had had built as an investment opportunity. She entered the code he'd given her into the security gate and made her way to the corner unit facing the ocean.
Pulling up in front of the garage, she got out of the car, grabbed her duffel bag, and turned around to inspect the central courtyard. It was a maze of elegant gardens surrounding a crystal swimming pool, with palm trees standing guard along the outer edges. Several Mexican gardeners tended the grounds, so at home there they almost seemed part of the design. Clearly the reality of living in a desert was expected to stay on the other side of the gate.
Shaking her head, JL walked to the front door and keyed in another access code. The door clicked open, and she paused in the entry long enough to crank up the air conditioning to banish the mustiness. Heading upstairs, she went to throw her duffel in the master bedroom.
She paused in the doorway, surprised to find that the bed was the same style as the one Jim and Bryan had given her for her apartment. Instead of feeling homey, its familiar shape triggered the memory that had dogged her all the way from Seacouver. A whimper escaped her lips, but the rage she'd been trying to deny quickly transformed it into a snarl. Hurling her duffel bag across the room, she watched it bounce off the headboard to the floor. Vaguely dissatisfied with the lack of damage, she muttered a curse and fled out onto the balcony.
The Pacific was an indistinct blur in the smog, but there was a salty tang in the air and she could hear the distant sound of gulls hoping for a handout. The units were angled so each balcony was completely private, but it was too hot to stay out long. Making her way back downstairs, she uncovered the furniture and mixed herself a Scotch and soda. She tried to concentrate on making a grocery list, but the only thing she hungered for had walked out of her life because he thought he might be in love with someone else.
Heaving a sigh, she curled up on the couch clutching her drink. If only she hadn't listened when Bryan had called asking her to do him a huge personal favor. If only...
JL drained her drink and rose abruptly. She considered pouring another, then shrugged and took the entire bottle upstairs. Maybe the Jacuzzi would relax her. She watched the bath fill idly, her emotions churning more than the water. She'd always prided herself on her control -- it was all that had gotten her through the hell that had been her childhood. She'd convinced herself that she could handle anything after that.
Lowering herself into the roiling water, JL closed her eyes and drained half the bottle. While she'd managed to do everything Bryan had asked of her, she'd been forced to gamble almost everything she'd held dear in the process. Now that she'd lost that gamble, all she could think to do was slam the Scotch into the wall and begin sobbing.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next day JL resolutely put all thoughts of Methos out of her mind and drove to the dojo of one of L.A.'s premier martial artists, Sensei Robert de Morgan. She'd worked with him during her previous tenure in the city, and she hoped strenuous activity would clear her mind. Entering the dojo, she bowed silently to the Sensei as he instructed a group of attentive young men. He smiled gleefully, immediately gesturing for her to come to the head of the class so he could use her as a demonstration model. He tossed her repeatedly to the mat until she began to think remembering her problems might not be so bad after all.
When it was time for the students to throw each other, JL leaned against the wall watching them strain to emulate the Sensei's effortless style. She frowned as she listened to every word Robert said to them, hoping to understand why he'd thrown her so easily. She'd expected to go down, certainly, but it should have been more of a challenge. A mortal besting her that way didn't bode well for her newly hatched plan to strike off on her own and deal with her challengers as best she could. In fact, it made her downright nervous.
Eventually Robert dismissed his class and grinned at JL. "Surprised you, didn't I?" he asked, far too cheerfully for JL's comfort.
"Folded, spindled, and mutilated me is closer," she replied ruefully. "Once upon a time, I remember lasting longer in our matches."
Robert chuckled. "Ah, but that was when you were young and needed confidence. I can tell you've had more training since you left me. Your stance is much better and your focus vastly improved, but getting cocky is a dangerous thing."
JL grimaced. "Well, you certainly took care of that little problem."
Still smiling, the Sensei walked to the center of the mat and bowed. "Let me show you how to get cocky again, my friend. You have the instincts; all you lack is the proper balance. Show me your stance."
Returning his bow, JL dropped into her fighting stance. Robert reached over and made her stagger just by shoving her shoulder lightly. "If you were properly balanced, I could kick you and not knock you over. Stand with your feet further apart and your body angled like this. Your weight should be distributed evenly, and you should be ready to move in any direction without undue stress."
JL mimicked the Sensei's movements, letting her body take over and shutting her mind out of the equation. Robert had her repeat the basic footwork over and over so it would become muscle memory, occasionally reaching out to test her balance and make sure that wherever she moved, she did so properly.
By the end of the session, JL felt ready to drop, but Robert couldn't throw her off balance with anything less than a full-strength shove.
"Acceptable," he announced, which was Robert's version of high praise. "Tomorrow at this time? We'll keep working solely with your stance until adjusting your balance becomes automatic. Knowing every fancy move in the world won't help if a fly can knock you over."
JL laughed. "Moves not make one great," she offered in a high yet gravelly tone.
"Oh, don't you start," he griped. "I am so sick of movie cliches that it makes me want to move back to Virginia. Everyone in this bloody town thinks in moviespeak. Now go! Find some real literature to quote from."
"Star Wars isn't just a movie," JL countered on her way out the door. "It's a lifestyle choice." Laughing, she dodged the sandal he threw at her and headed across the parking lot to her Mustang.
Pulling out of the lot, she laughed again as she watched Robert hop out to get his sandal, his other pure white sock held fastidiously above the ground. Only a true Sensei could bounce and still look dignified.
Merging into traffic, she let its flow carry her to Chinatown. She wandered the shops until she saw a series of ivory figurines illustrating positions from the Kama Sutra. She was looking at them in amusement until she picked up one showing the same pose that they had been in.
JL tried to block the memory, but the image of Methos making love to a strange blonde in her own bed was seared too deeply into her mind to be easily dismissed. The lovers been completely oblivious to JL's presence, their passion apparently overriding the buzz Methos should have felt when she got within range. JL had seen people having sex before, but this had been different. These two had shared the same incredible intensity she'd noticed between Jim and Bryan, and they'd been lovers for over 1,800 years. She remembered clutching the door frame hard enough to leave fingernail depressions in the wood, her sword leaping unbidden into her other hand. She'd even taken a step forward, thinking how easy it would be to kill the woman, whose back was towards her. A single sweep of her blade and the nightmare would be over.
Having grown up in an abusive home, JL was no stranger to nightmares, and she had learned that ending one often started another that was even worse. She'd called herself a coward -- and worse -- as she fled the scene, but as soon as she learned the identity of the blonde, she realized just how good a decision she'd made. Methos' partner had turned out to be Sarah MacGreggor, a woman admired by all the key figures in JL's life. Methos had Sarah's teacher since the day she became Immortal. Jim and Bryan had traveled with her for centuries, and JL knew that Bryan loved Sarah almost as much as he did Jim. She'd fought at Culloden with Bryan, Jim, Mac, and Connor, and she and Richie had gone through a mingled Quickening in Scotland. JL had felt instantly outcast, thrown over for a woman whose history she couldn't hope to compete with. She still felt that way, even though Sarah and Methos had subsequently done their best to heal some of the wounds they'd inadvertently caused.
Setting the figurine down quickly, she glanced at her watch. She'd made it almost four hours without thinking of Methos this time. It was a start. Now all she had to do was get through a night without crying herself to sleep, or a morning without feeling that crushing disappointment when she woke and he wasn't lying beside her. With a disheartened sigh, she picked up the entwined couple again, wondering if it would be therapeutic to take it home and saw their little heads off. She had a hunch the idea was too appealing to be good for her.
Putting the figurine back reluctantly, she headed home for a shower and a change of clothes. She considered her options before settling on black jeans, an electric blue silk shirt, cowboy boots, and a black leather vest with silver accents. Small silver earrings and a Celtic knot hair tie holding her braid completed her outfit.
While it would be warm for the next hour or so, at sunset the city would remind its inhabitants that this was supposed to be a desert by cooling off almost immediately. By then, she'd be on the Sunset Strip, where she could occupy her mind with eye candy, neon lights, and noise. It could get expensive to go clubbing in this town, but JL had no intention of buying her own drinks. If ever there was a place to flirt for booze, L.A. was it.
The Strip was much as she remembered it, lined with tourists shopping for souvenirs and hookers shopping for tourists. She'd been off the streets since 1974, but she still felt a vague kinship for the women who had nothing left to sell but themselves. She knew the pain of strutting about on stiletto heels for hours, and the knot of terror that grew in your belly as you reached the end of your current fix and couldn't find the John whose money would score you another one. Any working girl could tell at a glance who was desperate, but the Johns walked on obliviously, seeing only the micro-skirts, the full-to-bursting tube tops, and the welcoming smiles as false as most of the breasts.
The hookers, though, would be completely uninterested in JL's kinship unless it had a financial benefit. Money they'd take, but friendship was dangerous in their line of work. If you were too kind or too trusting, you didn't survive long. JL passed them with only a glance and a small prayer of thanksgiving that Colin and Joe had cared enough to clean her up and give her a shot at a different life. It wasn't a move she could have made without a lot of support.
The first club JL tried was full of youngsters, making her feel like a chaperone at the Senior Prom. While her first death had frozen her at 36, years of hard living and the multitude of silver threads in her black hair made her look older. No, this crowd wasn't going to be much help in her quest for distractions.
She drifted down the street to the Casablanca, yet another new club catering to the cinema crowd. While part of her cringed at that kind of theme bar, her practical side reminded her that she was out to flirt and get free booze, and this place was perfect. They were about her age and wealthy enough not to mind buying a few drinks for a girl who wanted to talk instead of act. Some of them might even find her restraint refreshing.
The club was as full of Christian Dior, Donna Karan, and pictures of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as she'd expected. JL felt suddenly out of style -- the line dancing craze was clearly over and her cowboy boots felt like ancient relics on her feet. She hadn't bothered with any makeup either, or done anything to her hair except braid it. Every other woman in the place looked like they were ready for their photo shoot with Mirabella.
She was about to retreat back into the night when she noticed a group of men with ponytails and work boots who were almost as out of style as she was. One of them looked familiar, so she edged over toward their table. She began grinning when she recognized Josh Braden, a special effects artist who was nearly as good as he claimed he was. Of all the friends she'd made in L.A., Josh was the most amusing. As usual, he was holding center stage with a story about a prima donna starlet who kept them waiting in the rain for hours until all the gunpowder got too wet to use.
Josh kept chattering away as she came up behind him and stood with her arms crossed expectantly. She even tapped her foot a few times, but it wasn't until his buddy whapped him on the shoulder that Josh suddenly realized something was amiss. Turning around, he looked at JL with the same puzzled look she'd just given him, then his face cleared and he leapt up to hug her, turning his back on his friends as if they'd ceased to exist.
"JL! God, you haven't changed a bit! Where the heck have you been? I've missed you."
JL laughed and hugged him back. "Sure you did, Josh. You were so heartbroken you could barely speak, right?"
Josh grinned. "Just trying to drown my sorrows in words. You know what a recluse I usually am."
"Yeah. You and Dennis Rodman." Stepping back, JL surveyed him carefully. "You look good, Josh. Not at all like a man in the throes of bitter agony while he awaits his lady love."
Holding one hand over his heart and the other to his forehead, Josh whimpered, "The flesh is sound but my soul has been shredded to its very core!"
One of Josh's friends ruined the dramatic moment by spitting beer across the table and into Josh's back, sending the rest into gales of laughter. Josh whirled and smacked his buddy playfully, then settled his arm around JL's waist. "All right, you reprobates, try and pretend you've got a little class, will ya? This is JL Dawson. I met her working on Reasonable Doubts where I was kind and considerate enough to let her tag along and learn from the master."
JL eyed him thoughtfully. "As I recall, I told you that your crew had put the explosives in the wrong place and that this huge vase was going to blow pottery shards right into Mark Harmon's face. Basically I saved your sorry butt and you realized you couldn't live without me."
Josh shook his head and pouted. "I don't remember it like that."
"Of course you don't!" Josh's beer-spitting friend chided as he appropriated a chair for JL. "Your brain rotted years ago. Sit down, my dear, and don't fret. I remember Joshy-Boy telling us all about this really terrific protégé he found schlepping coffee and turning the lousy stage directions we were getting into computer models for fun." Shaking his head, the man snorted. "And then he tried to claim it was all his idea! Like he even knows how to turn on a computer."
"Just because I'm not an animator doesn't mean I'm computer illiterate," Josh shot back amiably. "I have WebTV!"
"Yeah, but he keeps trying to type email messages into his universal remote and can't figure out why the channel keeps changing," one of the other guys commented, lofting a pretzel at Josh.
"Oh, spare me," Josh admonished, catching the pretzel and popping it into his mouth. "Seriously, you guys should see her in action. Made my job almost bearable."
"I just listened," JL protested with a small blush. "Soaked up your knowledge and put it all together. Nothing special, really -- the computer did all the work."
Josh patted her shoulder. "Nothing special to you maybe, but it never occurred to me to do vector analysis on a stupid vase." JL's current discomfort reminded him that she didn't handle praise well, and she'd even refused to let him put her name in the show's credits. Time to change the subject. Turning towards the bar, Josh signaled their waitress to bring another round. "Enough about her," he said, rubbing his hands together with a grin, "where was I? Oh, yes, the rainstorm from hell..."
Soon the stories were flying thick and fast again, each crewman trying to outdo the others with tales of prissy starlets and exacting directors. JL had tears in her eyes long before they concluded that their jobs were complete nightmares and they should go into something boring like being cameramen for roving war reporters.
When they finally decided to call it a night, JL had offers to sneak in behind the scenes of two television shows and a movie. Despite the old saw, she could go home again, and it felt wonderful.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After a week and a half of intensive training, the sound of Sensei de Morgan's body thudding onto the mat was music in JL's ears, but she knew better than to stand around and savor it. Sure enough, he attacked almost instantly, and this time it was JL who crashed to the floor. She rolled back and leapt up, circling cautiously. Another blindingly fast pass left JL on the mat again with an aching ankle, and she signaled her surrender with a wry grimace. "I know, I know. Better but with lots of room for improvement."
Robert laughed. "You speak wisely, young grasshopper."
"What happened to your disdain for pop culture?"
"Kung Fu isn't pop culture; it's my life. Besides, it's what keeps kids signing up for classes year after year. Who do you think really bankrolled The Legend Continues? There were Senseis across the country celebrating that sequel."
JL grinned. "Are you saying American youth is easily influenced?"
"I don't need to say it. I can, and do, bank on it." Tossing JL a towel, Robert began to dry himself off. "We need to work on your timing, but I'm pleased overall. Your focus is much better than it used to be. You must be practicing more this time."
Smiling gratefully, JL nearly told Robert that having your life depend on something was a great motivator, but she'd have to explain that comment. Best to stay out of that particular quagmire. "I have more time now," she commented instead. "Being unemployed has its advantages."
"Well, you could work here until you get a real job and can't loaf about all day. The pay's not great, but you'll learn a lot."
"Really," Robert replied with an evil grin. "I need someone to sweep the floors."
JL laughed and threw the damp towel back at him. "Gee, I don't know, Sensei. Lie in the sun all day or sweep floors. Tough call."
Robert sighed dramatically. "Well, all right. Just for you, I'll let you assist me with a couple of morning classes -- say 6 and 7 a.m.?"
Blanching, JL backed away making a cross with her fingers. "Get thee away from me, oh spawn of daybreak! Those are the finest sleeping hours of the day!"
"I vaguely remember thinking that a long time ago," Robert admitted sadly. "I was sure no one would sign up for those early classes, but apparently rising at dawn is back in style. Now they're too popular to drop."
"Tell you what," JL offered. "I'll do what I consider morning. Say, noon and one."
"The lunch crowd. Well, they are larger classes." Nodding, Robert offered JL his hand. "Noon, one, and the after school ones at four and five. How about that?"
JL clasped his hand and nodded back. "Done."
"Good. I'll expect you tomorrow at noon. Enjoy your last day of freedom, my dear."
With a chuckle, JL waved and headed out. It wasn't until she returned home that she realized she'd just gotten a part-time job and made her first commitment to stay in L.A. The idea of declaring her independence was tempting, but it offered as much danger as freedom. The thought of staying in L.A. without cutting her ties drifted through her mind, but she dismissed it. If she had any contact with Jim and Bryan at all, they'd just haul her back into their world eventually. Bryan especially was as persistent as a pit bull when he was convinced he was right -- and JL had yet to hear him admit he'd been wrong about anything.
In the shower, she contemplated Josh's comment that she could get a job in the special effects field. The job in the dojo would be fun, but it wouldn't pay for a decent apartment once she moved out of this cozy nest. Working on a movie or TV show would give her enough money to live and still play with the electronic equipment she loved.
While her days had been taken up by practicing martial arts and sword katas, her evenings had been spent networking with the old gang and acquainting herself with the new technowizards in town. So much was being done on computer that it was a whole different world, and many of the guys she'd been talking to felt rather left out. JL had taken plenty of computer classes when she was with the Watchers, looking for ways to make the organization more efficient.
She might not be a skilled graphic artist, but she could figure out what the terms meant and envision what the CGI would look like when it was integrated with live action. That knowledge could be her way in, if she found people who wanted a liaison between the regular effects guys and the CGI group. It would be a great job too, despite all the horror stories. Who could complain about getting to blow up, shoot, electrocute, or otherwise torment the likes of Antonio Banderas and Liam Neeson for a living?
Toweling herself off, JL stepped out onto the balcony and savored the afternoon sun. Today the ocean was crystal clear and she could hear the sea birds calling. She settled on a patio chair and gazed into the distance, hoping her answers would magically appear. She didn't want to go back to Seacouver and face Sarah, nor did she really want to talk to Bryan about the situation. After all, it was his meddling that got her into this mess in the first place.
Even now, JL could remember Bryan's call almost word for word. He'd told her about the Immortal who preferred coaxing others into doing his fighting for him, and how he was trying to kill Sarah. All JL needed to do was act like she was mad at Sarah, pretend to let him manipulate her, then double cross him. Bryan even had the perfect way to start a fight between them -- Sarah would pretend to flirt with Methos and JL would pretend to be jealous.
She'd been reluctant, so Bryan had played his trump card. If JL helped, Sarah would agree to be her tutor. Bryan had insisted that JL really needed a female teacher; women needed more finesse and strategy to compensate for their lack of brute strength. Because Sarah was one of the best in the Game, her tutelage could make the difference between JL turning 40 or turning 400. No matter what she said, Bryan had a counter to it that made Sarah JL's only hope for survival.
In the end, she couldn't find the heart to say no. She owed her life to Bryan, and while her morals might be somewhat questionable at times, her loyalty wasn't. So she'd agreed to walk in a little while after Sarah had arrived in order to find Sarah in a compromising position with Methos. A flat tire had delayed JL's entrance long enough for Sarah to forget she was only supposed to be pretending, and now Methos was playing Romeo to Sarah's Juliet while JL was left to try and rebuild her life yet again.
Heaving a sigh, JL forced herself to refocus on the present. She was learning a lot from Robert, and she could find other instructors who knew sword work the way he knew martial arts. They weren't Immortals so they didn't spar with the same intensity, but it took more control to pull a blow than land it. Training without actually drawing blood wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Lulled by the sun's warmth, JL found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill her. Who would bother her if she didn't bother them? It's not like she was worth much in the cosmic scheme of the Game; she was still too young to carry a powerful Quickening. Almost instantly, her Watcher-trained brain came up with several Immortals who killed younglings on general principles, but actively training with another Immortal didn't guarantee her safety from those Immortals anyway.
Stretching, she went back inside and pulled out a pair of shorts and a tank top. If this was her last afternoon of freedom, she was going to spend it playing tourist and wandering down Hollywood Boulevard. There were a few shops she wanted to hit near Mann's Chinese theater, and a movie could be a pleasant escape. Picking the wrong one would only put her out $8, making it less difficult than her other choices.
Hollywood Boulevard was mobbed, and JL decided to people watch before the movie. She was waiting to get ice cream when she felt an unwelcome buzz. Hoping her earlier thoughts of Immortals who killed for sport weren't some kind of cosmic premonition, she stepped out of line and scanned the crowd warily. Finally she spotted a similar gaze from a woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, with meticulously waved blonde hair and an almost palpable attitude. Whoever this woman was, her life hadn't been all sweetness and light.
JL considered fading into the crowd, but she suddenly realized how much she missed being able to talk to someone who knew about Immortality. It would be nice to drop the pretense for a time, and this woman certainly wasn't dressed for a challenge. Her black knit dress accentuated her ample curves and her stiletto-heeled sandals made her calves look fabulous, but even Amanda would think twice about fighting in that get-up.
Taking a deep breath, JL decided that there weren't many safer ways to meet a strange Immortal. With a friendly smile, she nodded invitingly towards a nearby café.
The woman considered JL expressionlessly for a long moment before slowly walking forward. She moved through the crush of people as if she owned the street, but she was using furtive glances to avoid getting too close to anyone who might challenge that perception. She wanted to appear nonchalant, but the tension in her leg muscles telegraphed that she was ready to flee and she expected resistance when she did. It was the way she regarded JL with a quiet hunger that said the most however. JL had had the same look herself years ago -- this woman desperately wanted a friend but was afraid to trust anyone that far.
JL had a feeling that that she'd grown up on the streets and hadn't been off them long. Most likely she was as young as she looked, unless her mentor was taking advantage of her the way JL's pimp had back in Boston. Someone had definitely taught her the basics because she knew what the buzz meant and, like JL, she kept her hands clearly visible as she moved within sword range, crowded street or not.
She watched the woman approach, concentrating on keeping her own expression welcoming and not making any sudden moves. She surreptitiously studied the woman's purple eyes, fairly sure they weren't her natural color. They were striking, as was her perfectly made-up face. Street rat she might have been, but she'd clearly come into some money and she planned on flaunting it.
Eventually the woman came within speaking range. "Looking for someone?" she asked, her voice casual but her fingers twitching.
"No," JL reassured her, "just playing tourist. I'm JL."
JL smiled and offered her hand. "Hi."
Caitlyn regarded it dubiously, then reached out and barely touched it. "How long have you been in town?"
"Just over a week this time, but I lived here before. That's why I can just play tourist instead of really being one."
"Why'd you come back?"
JL chuckled wryly. "Long and painful story. Let's just say I wanted to go back to a happier point in my life, and this was it."
Grinning suddenly, Caitlyn tossed her hair. "Got dumped, didn't you?"
With a surprised blink, JL abruptly wondered which of them was the open book. "Does it show that much?"
"Only to one who's been there." With a sigh, Caitlyn gazed off towards the San Gabriel Mountains. "Did yours have the guts to say goodbye?"
Methos' goodbye speech was the last thing JL wanted to remember. "Does it matter?" she countered. "It still hurts like hell." At Caitlyn's sympathetic nod, JL gestured towards the café again. "Hungry?"
Caitlyn hesitated, then gave a small shrug. "A little."
Claiming a table, they settled in and ordered a couple of ice cream sundaes. Watching as their waiter retreated, they both admired the view. "Not bad," Caitlyn decided.
"A little young for me," JL replied, "but I might look him up in ten years."
Caitlyn chuckled. "I thought age didn't matter to us anymore."
JL rolled her eyes. "So says the lady frozen in her twenties. You, he would date. Me, he'd probably offer to help across the street."
Blushing, Caitlyn played with her spoon. "It's...weird, isn't it? Feeling older but not looking it. We could both be older than his great grandmother."
"We could," JL replied quietly, "but I'm not. Are you?"
Caitlyn dropped the spoon, flinching as it clattered against the tabletop. She fidgeted a little, giving a relieved sigh when the waiter's return gave her an excuse to be silent. She nibbled at her sundae before she finally answered. "No. I'm...not even close."
JL nodded and smiled encouragingly. No reason to tell Caitlyn that her silences were clearer than her words. "I've only been Immortal for three years. It's still a really bizarre concept."
"Tell me about it. I was so freaked out when I woke up after I...um...died."
"What happened?" JL eyed Caitlyn over her sundae, noticing the way she unconsciously rubbed the inside of her elbow. Following a hunch, she continued gently, "Did you OD?"
Caitlyn blanched and stared at JL as if she expected to see horns growing out of her forehead. "How did you know?"
With a rueful chuckle, JL contemplated a spoonful of ice cream. "Been there, damn near did that."
"Really?" Caitlyn leaned forward, eager to hear that she wasn't the only one who'd been seduced by narcotics. JL understood the feeling; the drugs that made you feel good also tended to isolate you from reality and left you feeling alone in the world.
Nodding, JL waved the now-empty spoon. "More times than I can count. I ran away from home and discovered heroin when I was 12. I spent the next few years doing whatever it took to keep a needle in my arm."
Caitlyn's eyes widened. "But then you quit?"
"It took a lot of help, but yeah. I've been clean over 25 years now." With a wink, JL dug into her sundae. "Which is good, because I'd hate to be stuck below the drinking age. I have a friend who's going to get carded for eternity."
Grinning, Caitlyn waved her own spoon. "That's why they make fake IDs, isn't it?"
Donning her best innocent look, JL queried, "A fake ID? Whatever would you do with one of those?"
"Drink!" they chorused in unison before they burst out laughing.
Caitlyn toyed with her sundae for a bit before she glanced at JL from under her lashes. "So, um, do you miss it?"
"Miss what? The realization that my first trip was the best and the rest were pale imitations? Waking up not knowing why my body was covered in bruises? The humiliating things I did when I was broke and needed to feed my monkey?" JL shook her head hard enough to make her braid bounce. "Not a chance. The highs were never high enough to make up for the lows." With a weary sigh, she shoved the spoon back in her ice cream. "But it still took a sledgehammer named Colin to make me realize how bad it was. When I was using, it all seemed so natural, so right. Other options simply didn't occur to me."
Suddenly defensive, Caitlyn scowled. "Not all drugs are addictive. I stopped using crank after Ray took me in."
JL nodded soothingly. "That's true. But you asked me if I missed heroin, and I don't." Leaning back, she frowned thoughtfully. "Well, okay. To be really honest, I suppose the highs weren't too bad and it did keep me from killing myself. So I guess it's not the heroin I hate, it's the side effects. The loss of control. The unrelenting hunger. On the streets, I desperately needed to feel numb, and I don't want to feel like that again."
Caitlyn twirled her spoon as she let JL's words sink in. Finally she straightened and looked at her companion. "Ray tried to tell me I had a destiny that was too important to waste on drugs. He seemed to think Immortals were part of some holy army that was supposed to change the world."
"Yeah? What did he plan to change first?"
"I'm...not sure. He kept telling me that he had a grand plan -- I just wasn't ready to hear it yet. But I'd have an important part to play, if I just learned how to fight."
Caitlyn shrugged, only her eyes betraying her wounded pride. "He took off one day and never came back. No note, no phone call, nothing. He just took his clothes and the Porsche, and cleaned out two of his bank accounts. I thought he'd come back, but it's been six months now."
Based on the Chronicles she'd read, JL had a hunch that Ray had fled from another Immortal, leaving Caitlyn to fend for herself. The fact that Caitlyn hadn't met this hypothetical assailant implied that Ray's flight had been unsuccessful, but there was no reason to bring that up. "I was trained by a pair of Immortals who are over 1,800 years old," she offered instead, "and if there's one thing I've learned it's that time moves differently for them. When they have a spat, they break up for decades. When they say ‘I'll be right back,' it can mean any time in the next 5 minutes or in the next 50 years. If Ray was like that, then six months might be how long it takes him to buy a new yacht or something."
"Maybe." Caitlyn shrugged and studied her amethyst ring. "I thought that, well, that he'd take me with him if he had to go buy something."
"How long were you together?"
"Almost two years. I was just beginning to feel like I knew which end of a sword to use."
"It's easy. ‘The pointy end goes into the other man,'" JL quoted with a grin.
Caitlyn giggled. "Man, that's a lot easier to remember than all the moves Ray wanted me to learn."
"Yeah, and I wish my teacher was Antonio Banderas." Pulling out her wallet, JL paid the check and stood up. "We should spar some time. Where do you work out?"
"Ray has a practice room in his basement. I figured I'd stay there so he'd know how to find me." Getting up, Caitlyn smoothed her dress and fluffed her hair. "I'm afraid I haven't done much since he left. It's hard when you're alone."
It's even harder when you're afraid to break a nail, JL thought, but she quickly berated herself for being jealous of the way the men in the café watched Caitlyn as she unconsciously posed for them. If Caitlyn had been a hooker, she'd probably had a much easier time attracting clients than JL had had.
"JL?" Caitlyn repeated. "You still with me?"
JL blinked and grinned. "Sorry. Brain cramp. Look, I was thinking of going to a movie and then out to a club called the Casablanca. Interested?"
"Sure," Caitlyn replied. "There's a new Liam Neeson movie out."
JL tried to pay attention to the movie, but her mind wouldn't cooperate. She kept thinking about the best way to help Caitlyn without risking her own neck in case she turned out to be another teacher-killer like Kenny. She toyed with the idea of calling Bryan and getting his professional opinion, but eventually decided against putting herself back in his sphere of influence. She had to start listening to her own gut sometime, and this seemed like a great chance to prove she could take care of both herself and a fledgling Immortal. Getting Caitlyn settled into her new life could be just the thing JL needed to get over losing her old life with Methos. It was a slender straw, but JL was more than happy to grasp at it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
By the time JL left Robert's dojo the following afternoon, she felt completely drained. She'd had an hour workout with Robert followed by two hours of classes, then another hour of Robert going over the common mistakes the students had made and ways to correct them. Teaching the course hadn't been as easy as she'd imagined. In fact, she'd been incredibly frustrated watching a student move, knowing it wasn't quite right, but being unable to tell them how to fix it. Robert had been his usual patient self, gliding effortlessly between coaching JL and working with the students, but JL had a feeling he was having second thoughts about his new assistant. With a weary sigh, she wondered how she'd ever be ready to do it all over again at five.
When her cellular phone rang, she expected it to be Robert telling her not to bother, but it was a woman's voice that answered her greeting.
"Hi, JL. It's Caitlyn. I was wondering if you'd like to get together again. I thought we might play some tennis."
JL blinked, feeling her mental gears shift with painful slowness. "Tennis?"
"Yeah," Caitlyn continued brightly, seemingly oblivious to JL's confusion. "Ray has a membership at a club in Brentwood. Great courts. Gorgeous instructors."
"Tennis?" JL began laughing, picturing herself in ragged cutoffs and a sweaty T-shirt chasing a ball amid the elegant, perfectly coifed Brentwoodians. When she realized that Caitlyn wasn't joining in, she tried to smother her amusement. "I'm, um, sorry, Caitlyn," she choked out. "I thought you were, um, kidding."
"No," Caitlyn replied defensively. "I thought it was pretty silly at first too, but Ray insisted and it turned out to be fun."
JL imagined Caitlyn trotting around in her tennis whites, being fawned over by every man in the club while the pros competed over who would get to improve her backhand. Somehow she didn't think she'd garner the same attention, but it could be amusing to see how the other five percent lived. "Does your club have a pool?" she asked. "I may not play tennis but I love to swim."
"Yeah, it does," Caitlyn enthused. "And a sauna. We could get a manicure and a facial too."
Rolling her eyes, JL sternly reminded herself that her own tomboy attitude was the exception, not the rule. "Um, I could go for the sauna, but I'm afraid I don't have enough nail to manicure. They always annoy me and I bite them off."
"Okay," Caitlyn replied, clearly unimpressed with JL's chosen method of nail maintenance. "Swimming and steaming it is. What time?"
"I'm teaching at my friend's dojo until seven, so why don't we say seven thirty? We can exercise and then go have dinner somewhere."
"Seven thirty sounds great." Caitlyn reeled off complete directions, but JL only bothered to listen to the street address. She always mapped her own route with her trusty Thomas Guide in an attempt to stay familiar with L.A.'s maze of streets. Watcher habits died hard.
Hanging up, JL turned up the stereo and enjoyed the sunshine. She was pleased Caitlyn had called her, but they'd seemed to have more in common at the movies. With a sigh, she pulled into the condo complex wondering if she'd have become as obsessed with manicures and facials if she'd been born with a figure like Caitlyn's. Amanda certainly seemed to enjoy such things, but Sarah only wore makeup when she went out somewhere special. Clearly just being pretty wasn't the deciding factor.
Making herself a salad, JL ate on the balcony while reading one of the mysteries she'd found in the living room. By the time she had to go back to Robert's, the detective was locked in a basement about to burn to death, but JL had the feeling all would be well. A glance at the back of the book had revealed an excerpt from the sequel, currently out in hardcover. Script immunity was a wonderful thing.
The next two classes with Robert went better because the students were more advanced. JL ended up being a demonstration model more than a teacher, which was perfectly fine with her. After bidding Robert goodbye, she headed over to Brentwood, still dressed in her black leotard and tights.
Caitlyn was waiting for her in the parking lot, and she hugged JL happily. She was dressed in designer sweats with perfectly coordinated jewelry and a pricey pair of Reebocks, but she didn't seem to notice that JL looked more like a cat burglar than a club member. The guard at the gate noticed though, and he checked Caitlyn's membership card carefully before he let them pass.
JL tried to pretend she belonged there, refusing to let herself be intimidated by the people wearing tennis dresses and diamonds. The manicurist Caitlyn had spoken of must have been busy -- the women JL noticed all had elegant French manicured nails that clearly didn't see much activity. She wasn't sure how anyone could play tennis with nails like that, but this was Brentwood. These women probably had people to play tennis for them.
Once she got into the pool, JL felt more at home. Her slender form might not win any cleavage awards, but she looked reasonably good in a bikini and she noticed several high society types stealing jealous glances at her flat stomach and well-toned muscles. She repressed the desire to go over and announce she was a size 2 just like Susan Lucci, but the thought of it made her giggle. Relaxing, she swam some fast laps before falling into a calmer backstroke. Truth be told, she didn't want to look like Caitlyn. She liked being flat-chested enough to go braless, and the fewer times she had to deal with makeup the better.
Caitlyn swam up to her and grinned. "Isn't this a great pool?" she asked, looking at two bronzed Adonises chatting by the poolside bar.
"Not bad," JL admitted. "No wonder they lock the riffraff out."
Chuckling, Caitlyn dove back under water and shot off across the pool. She swam energetically but without much grace, as if trying to make up with enthusiasm what she lacked in style. JL's own technique was better because Colin had had a pool in Boston and she'd practically lived in it every summer trying to escape the miserable humidity.
When they'd finished swimming and admiring the other pool goers, Caitlyn led JL back to the saunas. They found an empty unit and Caitlyn poured water over the stones until she had a nice cloud of steam. Settling on the redwood bench next to JL, she smiled. "Having fun?"
JL stretched and grinned back. "Well, it's not how I usually spend my evenings, but I'm suffering through it."
"What do you usually do?"
"Lately? Read a book or watch TV. Back home, I was a waitress in my dad's bar."
"Your father? But I thought we didn't have parents."
JL smiled fondly. "Joe's closer to me than any biological father could be. He's one of the people who helped straighten me up and he's stood by me ever since. I actually own a stake in the bar."
Caitlyn regarded her thoughtfully. "But you still left."
She winced, memories of Sarah and Methos crowding in on her. "Sometimes staying is harder than leaving."
Sighing, Caitlyn stared into the steam. "Why are men such idiots?"
JL chuckled. "That, my dear, is a question even my 900 year old teacher can't answer."
Straightening, Caitlyn looked at JL. "Will you teach me?"
Although she'd seen this coming, JL still paused. The afternoon's classes were still fresh in her mind, and Jim and Bryan had repeatedly warned her against sparring with an unknown Immortal unless she had backup. All it took, they'd told her, was one lucky shot and you could end up losing a challenge you didn't realize you'd been fighting.
Caitlyn leapt up and began pacing like a caged tiger. "I'm sorry," she almost whispered. "I'm sure you have your own life."
"It's all right, Caitlyn," JL tried to reassure her. "It's not you, really. It's me. I've never taught before, and I just found out today that it's not as easy as it looks."
"What do you mean?"
"I just started assisting my martial arts instructor in a couple of classes, and it's really hard explaining to the students what they're doing wrong. Do you know any martial arts?"
"No." Caitlyn stopped pacing and busied herself pouring more water on the rocks. "Why bother with that when we use swords?"
"Because it's great for your balance and coordination, plus the footwork can be integrated with your sword work," JL explained. "What weapon do you use?"
"Perfect. One of my teachers used a rapier, and she was the one who emphasized the footwork part. We can meet at the dojo and Robert can help me teach you martial arts. Then, when I'm a better teacher, we can start working with swords."
Caitlyn pouted as she sat back down next to JL. "How long will that take?"
"That depends on how much you practice," JL replied. "I've studied for years and I'm still learning, but I think I'd be ready to teach you on my own in, say, four or five months. By then you should have the basics down."
"But what if someone...well...you know....challenges me?"
JL squeezed Caitlyn's shoulder reassuringly. "They probably won't, and if they do, we'll deal with it. There are other ways to handle things besides fighting, you know."
Caitlyn looked unconvinced, but she nodded. "If you're sure it's the best way."
"It is. Believe me, if you could have seen me stumble my way through class today, you'd thank me for doing this." When Caitlyn kept looking forlornly at the floor, JL continued, "Tell you what. I'm meeting Josh and his crew at the Casablanca tonight -- you could go with me. They're in the biz, so they have great stories. We'll have a few drinks, dance with some cute guys, and then we can cope with the real world tomorrow. Okay?"
Glancing up shyly, Caitlyn gave her a small grin. "How cute are they?"
Giving Caitlyn's shoulder a playful shove, JL laughed. "If you don't like them there will be plenty more to chose from, believe me." Growing serious, she squeezed Caitlyn's hand. "We've got time to get to the sword work, I promise. Let's just start slowly until I get up to speed, okay?"
"It's this or nothing, isn't it?" At JL's nod, Caitlyn sighed. "I know I'm not being very appreciative, but every once in a while I get so worried about living alone in that big house, just waiting for someone to decide I'm worth killing. Doesn't it stress you out?"
JL shrugged. "It would if I let it. The trick is to realize it's all in Fate's hands anyway, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. You'll either be ready or you won't, but worrying about it won't accomplish anything."
Nodding slowly, Caitlyn offered her hand. "It's a deal then. Martial arts now, swords later, and cute guys tonight."
Shaking it, JL grinned back. "Always back to the guys. We'll never learn, will we?"
"Oh, I hope not," Caitlyn replied with a laugh. "I definitely hope not."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Four days later, JL leaned against the wall of Robert's dojo, panting and wondering why she'd left her sun-drenched balcony. The two afternoon classes had run her ragged yet again, and now Caitlyn was in the wings waiting for her turn. Robert was her only salvation; he'd already kept her from strangling Caitlyn half a dozen times in the past four days. Either her concentration was abysmal or her nervous energy worked against her; JL couldn't quite decide. All she knew was that Caitlyn just wanted to cruise through the moves instead of getting them right, and she was getting increasingly impatient every time JL corrected her.
JL desperately wanted to break a few of Caitlyn's bones to get the girl's attention, but she didn't dare go that far in front of Robert. She constantly had to remind herself that Caitlyn was young and needed a lot of slack. The thought of foisting her off on Bryan had become increasingly attractive, and JL was halfway convinced that hooking them up would go a long way towards getting revenge for Bryan's meddlesome plans. Coping with Caitlyn would certainly keep him occupied for a few years anyway.
With a sigh, JL pushed herself off the wall. "Come on, Caitlyn," she said. "Let's see if I have more luck teaching you today."
Caitlyn stepped forward with a sullen expression that didn't make JL feel particularly lucky. She took a deep breath and bowed when she reached the center of the mat. Instead of returning the greeting, Caitlyn lashed out at JL with a front kick. Instinctively, JL threw herself sideways, avoiding the blow and buying herself some time to find her balance.
Caitlyn charged in again, heedless of the fact that she'd lost the benefit of surprise. This time when she tried to kick, JL grabbed her ankle and twisted. Caitlyn tried to save herself, but her shoulder met the mat with a solid thud. Her eyes flashed as she rolled to her feet, the pain making her angrier than ever. Discipline forgotten, she reverted to street fighting tactics and tried to punch with one hand while scratching with the other.
JL shifted so the punch just grazed her shoulder and grabbed the other hand as it came within range. Taking advantage of Caitlyn's own forward momentum, she tossed the woman neatly over her shoulder. Caitlyn landed face down, and JL quickly twisted her arm up behind her and jammed a knee into the small of her back. "I know all those tricks too," she hissed.
Caitlyn struggled for a moment, and JL twisted harder.
"Enough," Caitlyn grunted finally.
JL released her and stood back, waiting to see if she'd attack again. Caitlyn got up rubbing her wrist, glowering as she looked for an opening. She started to circle, but Robert blocked her path.
"Now, Miss Caitlyn," he said in his calming teacher voice, "would you like to learn how to counter an ankle grab?" Caitlyn scowled, but Robert continued blithely on. "I'll show you. JL, grab my ankle."
Despite her anger, Caitlyn watched with grudging respect as Robert let JL twist his body so that he landed on his hands, not his shoulder. He tucked his knees under himself for a moment, then lashed out with both feet against JL's leg. He was up and ready to attack again before JL had really come to terms with the fact that she'd been knocked on her butt.
Ignoring JL's colorful commentary, he smiled at Caitlyn. "You see, fighting the motion is natural. By going with it, I lessened the damage and managed to surprise her with my attack. Counter-intuitive defenses can be the best moves in your arsenal. When you let anger take control, you can't override your instincts. You have to think, not feel."
"Let your anger power your blade, not guide it," JL commented.
"What?" Robert asked, momentarily distracted from his script.
"Sorry. I was just remembering the mantra my swordmaster taught me. He's right, Caitlyn. Controlling my anger has made all the difference when I fight."
Caitlyn looked from one to the other and sighed. "How do you remember it all? It happens so fast."
"Muscle memory," Robert replied. "If your ankle gets grabbed a hundred times, you learn what to do. Then you learn how not to let her grab it in the first place."
"I guess," she said.
Robert chuckled. "Please, my dear, try to contain your enthusiasm." At Caitlyn's grimace, he shrugged. "I'm afraid you're not going to like my advice. You're trying to move too fast and skip the basics. My students spend weeks just going from one position to another until they flow like water. No sparring; just me calling out commands for them to execute. Only after their reactions become automatic do I tell them they've actually begun simple combinations and let them see how the positions translate into real moves."
"That would take forever," Caitlyn muttered.
"It takes more focus than time." Glancing back at JL, Robert shrugged again. "You've only been at it for a few days, Caitlyn. If you really want to learn, you need to have patience. But you don't need me here because JL's heard all my lectures on patience. She was certain she could skip the basics too." Picking up a towel, he bowed to the two women. "Time for lunch. Good afternoon, ladies."
"Bye. May your lettuce be unwilted." JL waited for the door to close before she turned back to Caitlyn. "You've got forever, you know," she pointed out quietly. "I know you're scared but you can't rush your training."
Caitlyn snorted. "This isn't training; it's a waste of time. So some of the footwork applies to sword fighting. Big deal. I'd rather learn sword fighting, then apply that to martial arts. But you're not planning on teaching me anything useful, are you? You're afraid I'll get better than you. I probably already am better."
JL cocked an eyebrow. "What's your problem today, Caitlyn? Somebody tell you that you're God's gift to Immortality?"
"No. My horoscope said not to suffer fools gladly." Grabbing her sword, Caitlyn flicked the sheath aside and waved it at JL. "I say we start with swords right now."
Looking at the bare steel, JL's eyes widened. She'd seen a flamberge rapier before, but not being waved uncomfortably close to her nose. The light glinted off the rippled blade in an almost hypnotic pattern, drawing her gaze away from the deadly point. No wonder they'd been a popular weapon among the ostentatious noble class.
With a small shake, JL forced herself to stop admiring Caitlyn's blade and backed away from it until she could kneel down and retrieve her own scimitar without turning her back. Luckily, Sarah fought with a rapier, so she felt comfortable defending against one. Especially when it was wielded by someone with far less experience than Sarah.
Gazing at Caitlyn, JL tried to judge if this was a challenge or a spar. Caitlyn seemed more in control than she had been. Clearly she respected the steel she held, which suited JL just fine. The blinds were closed against the afternoon sun so passersby wouldn't see them, but if it came down to a Quickening, there was no way JL could afford to replace all the mirrors in the dojo.
They circled warily before JL moved in with an uppercut that Caitlyn parried gracefully. JL deflected Caitlyn's return cut, lashing out with a side kick the moment their blades connected. Caitlyn grunted and stumbled, unaccustomed to dealing with both forms of attack. She snarled but didn't lose her temper this time.
JL pressed forward, driving the younger woman back with a series of fast cuts that Caitlyn barely managed to parry. Just as they reached the wall, JL hesitated for a moment, panting to look more tired than she was. She took half a step back, luring Caitlyn into striking for her head. Catching the rapier on the back edge of her scimitar, JL let it slide down the curve of her blade for a moment before she stepped forward and rotated her blade around Caitlyn's, binding it. A second twist of her wrist, and the torque ripped the rapier out of Caitlyn's hand and sent it clattering across the floor. A heartbeat later JL's sword was nestled at Caitlyn's throat.
In perfect silence, JL waited until the younger woman's face showed her fear. Shifting the blade away from her neck a fraction, JL said softly, "Not only does the footwork apply, but the disciplines can be used together. If you knew how to regain your balance quickly, then I might not have been able to take your sword."
Caitlyn tried to look arrogant, but her voice shook. "First you cheat and now you kill me?"
"I didn't cheat," JL replied, stepping back. "Anything goes and always has."
"Ray never said anything about kicking." Residual fear turned her voice into a whine.
JL sighed. "If this had been a real challenge, Caitlyn, I doubt your opponent would worry about annoying some guy who's not even around. Now let's go back to square one and work on your positions."
"Show me how to disarm someone."
Cocking an eyebrow, JL smiled grimly. "Eventually. Right now you need to go back to basics."
Caitlyn snorted. "I was right! You're never going to teach me anything useful!" Pushing past JL, Caitlyn grabbed her sword and slammed it back into its sheath. Without a second look, she strode out the door, letting it slam behind her.
JL stood frozen for a moment before she wearily put her scimitar away. Colin's familiar baritone laugh echoed in her mind, and she shifted uncomfortably as she remembered throwing a few similar tantrums. Fear, frustration, flight. Bryan called it the progression of insecurity, but right now, JL called it too bloody familiar to be comfortable. For the thousandth time, she wondered where Colin and Joe had gotten the patience to put up with her when she'd first come in off the streets, and thanked whatever gods might be listening that they had.
Heaving a sigh, she picked up her stuff and headed out. She was fairly sure that Caitlyn would be back and even more sullen the next day, but if Colin could stick by her, then she could stick by Caitlyn. She'd give back a little of what she'd been given and balance the karmic scales. Then before they sparred again, she'd teach her to tape her wrists like Sarah did so she could handle the torque better. Maybe then she wouldn't get so angry with herself.
By the time she got home, JL had decided on a new training plan that she hoped would incorporate the basics with a little sparring so Caitlyn wouldn't be bored. If Caitlyn continued to respect live steel, they should be able to spar in front of Robert without mishap. All she needed to do was come up with a convincing story about why they were both so fascinated by swords, but that was doable given Robert's live and let live attitude. He knew when not to push.
She dropped her gym bag in the living room and went into the kitchen for a drink. On the counter, the answering machine dutifully blinked "1". She regarded it dubiously. So far, Bryan had only called once to tell her she could talk to him anytime but that he wouldn't push himself on her. JL was amazed he'd kept his promise this long, but even if it was from him, it couldn't hurt to listen. With a small shrug, she tapped the Play button and left her finger lingering over Erase.
However, it was Colin's baritone that echoed out of the speaker and she felt an unexpected warmth the moment she heard his voice. With a smile she leaned closer and savored the sound until the message ended and she realized she hadn't taken in a word. Running the tape back, she tried again.
"Hi, JL. You were right. Ray Serafin met Gregor Powers just before the Arizona state line. Turns out there was bad blood there, and Greg finally settled the score. The Porsche is history; Greg parked it near a chop shop in East L.A. and let nature take its course. Damn clever, actually, because abandoned cars are usually what get noticed first and the investigation spirals from there." Colin paused and JL could picture him grinning and shaking his head. "Sorry, Princess. I'm in ex-cop-lecture-mode again, aren't I? Anyway, I've got to run. Take care and please call me soon. Love you."
JL sighed and ran a finger gently along the face of the machine as if it were Colin's cheek. Struggling with the pain of leaving Methos had overwhelmed her homesickness, but now all she wanted to do was run back to Joe and Colin. They'd welcome her, she knew, and there wouldn't be any obnoxious young Immortals trying to drive her mad. Just love and support, whether she deserved it or not.
Shaking her head, she reluctantly erased the message and poured herself a glass of wine. Now that she was certain Ray wasn't coming back, Caitlyn needed her more than ever. She couldn't even tell Caitlyn about Ray's death because then she'd have to explain how she found out, and telling Caitlyn about Watchers didn't strike JL as a good idea. Later, perhaps, but not now.
Heading upstairs and settling into the Jacuzzi, JL sipped her wine and let the water banish all thoughts of Caitlyn. She was tomorrow's problem. Tonight she had to decide if she was going to take Josh up on the job he'd offered her the night before. He'd also mentioned a real, honest-to-goodness date, which might be interesting. JL wasn't sure she was ready to get back into the dating market, but she and Josh had a great platonic relationship, and he did have all the latest electronic gadgets that they could play with.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was nearly ten o'clock by the time JL got her act together and made it to the Casablanca. She still hadn't decided whether to go out with Josh, but she had decided the job sounded attractive. Three months on a movie set in Arizona, with a decent per diem and limited expenses. She'd be doing a lot of scut work, but it was a start.
Birtie Higgins was singing about Key Largo when she entered, and several couples were slow dancing on the small parquet dance floor. She stopped when she felt another Immortal's presence, but it was a familiar laugh that drew her attention to the dancers. Moving closer, she realized that Caitlyn was dancing with Josh. His back was toward her and Caitlyn had her head buried in his shoulder, seemingly unconcerned about having suddenly felt a buzz. On the surface they looked fine, but Caitlyn's hand kept twitching ever so slightly against Josh's back.
When the song ended, Josh swung Caitlyn around and glanced up, meeting JL's gaze. He flushed guiltily and pulled Caitlyn off the dance floor. "JL! Caitlyn said you weren't coming tonight."
"She did?" JL hesitated, deciding to call Caitlyn on the lie in private. "I, um, changed my mind. Are you two having fun?"
"We were," Caitlyn sulked, tugging on Josh's sleeve. "Can't we dance some more?"
Josh looked uncomfortable and tried halfheartedly to disengage Caitlyn's arm, but she just snuggled closer. Deciding JL didn't look particularly jealous, he relaxed and rubbed Caitlyn's shoulder. "I'm kind of tired, actually, and I could use a drink."
Caitlyn pouted but let Josh lead her back towards their table. As she passed JL, she tossed her hair and glared.
Even in the neon light of the bar, JL had no trouble recognizing the signs. Dilated pupils, flushed features, hyper-alertness. Eyes that roamed constantly around the bar and a false smile plastered on her face. Speed most likely, as she could now afford better quality drugs than crank. JL scowled, trying to decide if Caitlyn had slipped back into her old habits or if she'd just been maintaining before. Maybe she'd taken a higher dose because of their fight. Either way, it was bad news.
Trailing after them, JL tried to work out a plan. She knew better than to confront Caitlyn right now, but the girl needed to learn that drugs and Immortality didn't mix. She had a hunch Caitlyn had chalked the buzz up to another side effect of the drug, and that could be disastrous.
Back at the table, Josh pulled out a chair for Caitlyn. As soon as she let go of his arm, he turned to JL and gave her a hug. "You two have a fight?" he whispered in her ear.
"What makes you say that?" JL whispered back.
"She's making some pretty serious accusations about you, JL. Said you were planning to kill her, steal her money, stuff like that."
"Josh!" Caitlyn got up, reaching for Josh's arm.
JL rolled her eyes. "It's the drugs," she replied as she stepped around Josh and confronted Caitlyn. "We need to talk. Outside."
"I've got nothing to say to you! Now let go of my date."
Josh started to protest, but JL shushed him by nudging her elbow into his ribs. "He's my friend, Caitlyn, and I can hug him if I want to. Now please, let's go somewhere and talk."
"No! You're just a lying slut pretending to be friendly so you can kill me!"
Grabbing Caitlyn's arm, JL hissed, "Enough! Let's get out of here."
Caitlyn shoved her back into Josh and was about to leap onto them when two of Josh's buddies pulled her back. She cursed and struggled, but they held on grimly until the bouncer got there.
"My friend and I need to leave," JL said quickly. "She's not feeling well. I think she's reacting to her...medication."
The bouncer looked at Caitlyn and scowled. Drug busts were never good for business. "You'll get her away from here?"
"Right away. Can you help me get her outside?"
Nodding, the bouncer gestured to the guys holding Caitlyn, and they followed him as he created a path through the crowd. Hardly anyone bothered to look up as they left; drug scenes on a Saturday night in L.A. were nothing new.
Outside, the bouncer rounded on Caitlyn. "I don't want to see you back in the club tonight, you hear? We don't need that kind of trouble."
Caitlyn's eyes flashed, but the bouncer made Hulk Hogan look svelte, so even her dazed mind could comprehend the danger. "Don't want to go back anyway," she muttered.
The bouncer growled and stalked back in the bar, followed by Josh's friends. Josh stood next to JL and asked quietly, "Can I help?"
"No, thanks. We'll be fine. I've dealt with this before."
Josh gazed uncertainly at Caitlyn. "She seems angry."
JL shrugged. "She's angry about us, so staying together will just aggravate her. Please, Josh. I'll see you tomorrow."
"All right. If you're sure." Walking reluctantly back to the door, Josh lingered for a moment before responding to JL's wave goodbye and disappearing inside.
Turning back to Caitlyn, JL put her hands on her hips and glared. "What are you on?"
"Like you care."
"I do care, you idiot. If I didn't, I'd have let them throw you out and spent the rest of the night with my friends. But here I am, trying to drum some sense into your thick head."
"I challenge you," Caitlyn announced suddenly.
"You heard me. I'm sick of this. Let's end it."
JL grabbed Caitlyn's wrist as she reached for her rapier. "I don't want to kill you, Caitlyn," she insisted, "and we can't fight here even if I did. Even Angelenos aren't that jaded."
Caitlyn fidgeted and gazed around, seeming to notice the pedestrians for the first time. None of them were staring yet, but several were loitering nearby. "Where then?"
"Nowhere. Come on, Caitlyn. We don't need to do this."
"Yes we do!" Caitlyn advanced on JL, her fists clenched and her pulse throbbing visibly in her neck. "You know the Rules! Once a challenge is made only a coward runs away!"
JL sensed movement from the crowd and decided to deal with this someplace private. She didn't want to give Caitlyn the home court advantage or tell her about Bryan's apartment. Time to find that challenge spot Caitlyn wanted and talk there. "You know the pull-off right before Mulholland drops down near Encino?"
Caitlyn nodded and strode toward her car. JL watched her go, wondering if she should just disappear. Caitlyn might come to her senses on her own, or maybe she'd decide to quit going into JL's territory. Of course, she also might come back to the bar and attack Josh. JL had seen enough drug addicts to know that predicting their behavior was next to impossible. With a heavy sigh, she walked back to her Mustang and headed for Mulholland.
When she arrived, she found Caitlyn's red Maserati already parked. Getting out, she caught the gleam of moonlight on steel and swiftly drew her own sword. "Caitlyn," she began, but the other woman attacked before she could finish.
Caitlyn was startlingly quick, fueled by the energy the drug pumped into her system. Her movements lacked any sort of finesse, as if her body were moving too fast to wait until her eyes spotted a legitimate opening.
Retreating rapidly, JL let herself be driven down the hill to a level stretch of ground. Because of Caitlyn's enhanced strength, she concentrated on deflecting each blow instead of parrying it directly. Whenever Caitlyn swung, JL would block and sidestep, letting the rapier slide off her own blade and miss her by inches. She knew she couldn't keep that up because she'd wear down long before Caitlyn's high did. If they were going to talk, this fight needed to end soon.
When she felt decent ground beneath her feet, JL began pushing back. Caitlyn sneered and swung harder, stumbling when JL ducked and rolled instead of making a parry. Caitlyn spun, just in time to parry an uppercut from JL's scimitar.
JL took the initiative, using her brain to overcome Caitlyn's new-found brawn. She kept shifting her attacks to different parts of Caitlyn's body, using upper and lower cuts with equal abandon. Fighting felt wonderful after the weeks of pent-up aggression, and JL almost forgot that she hadn't wanted to fight this challenge. All of her teachers had believed in sparring full out, never ending a session until JL had literally died, sometimes more than once.
In the moonlight, Caitlyn's stature reminded JL of Sarah, which only spurred her on further. Her scimitar practically hummed as it dipped and slashed, the curved blade sending up sparks as it occasionally skidded down the length of the flamberge rapier. Relinquishing herself to the battle, JL's world narrowed to getting her blade inside Caitlyn's slightly-longer reach. She stopped wielding the steel and became the steel.
After a swift series of parries, JL spotted her opening. When Caitlyn came in from the lower right, she tended to swing her sword away from herself instead of bringing it across her body. The movement added to her blade's momentum but left her side open for a moment. JL waited until Caitlyn repeated the move to be sure, then she gave Caitlyn an opening that even her drug-fogged brain couldn't miss.
Caitlyn sprang for it, sweeping her blade to the right as she readied a blow to JL's groin. As JL parried the blow across her body, she stepped back and pivoted to the left with her left elbow extended. Her momentum carried her around until her elbow slammed squarely into Caitlyn's solar plexus, sending the young woman staggering. JL easily completed her turn and kicked Caitlyn's leg out from under her.
Unable to save her balance, Caitlyn fell with a curse. Before she could gather her wits, JL's foot landed solidly on the rapier's blade and her scimitar settled at Caitlyn's throat.
Panting, JL gazed down at the young woman while she let some of the adrenaline drain out of her system. Caitlyn still glared at her, but she too was panting. When JL had enough breath to speak, she said quietly, "And thus does history repeat itself. Let go of the rapier, Caitlyn."
Caitlyn gathered herself for another string of invectives, but JL shifted her scimitar ever so slightly, releasing a thin trickle of blood down Caitlyn's neck. "Bad time to be stupid, Caitlyn. Let go."
With a snarl, Caitlyn let go of her rapier. JL kicked it away without looking and backed off a pace. "Now can we talk?"
"You've got nothing to say that I want to hear," Caitlyn snapped.
"Look, I know you're frustrated. I told you I'd never taught before. Apparently I'm not good at it, but I have friends who are. Friends who have lived for eighteen centuries. They can help you, Caitlyn, I swear it. And they will, too. I'm sure of it."
"I don't need anyone's help."
JL regarded her steadily. "I beat you twice today, and I'm nothing compared to them. You need a teacher, and you need help getting clean. I understand addiction, Caitlyn. I couldn't do it alone. I don't think anyone can. It takes help."
Caitlyn shook her head, her hands tightly clenched and her teeth bared like a wolf's.
JL stepped back a little more. She'd have to wait until Caitlyn came down to talk to her, and even then it wasn't going to be easy. First, she'd need to knock Caitlyn out and get her home where she could be restrained until her head cleared.
A flash of movement was JL's only warning before she heard a sharp crack and felt a searing pain in her thigh. Without thinking she lunged forward, her blade striking at the gun in Caitlyn's hand. The darkness made her misjudge the distance; instead of hitting the gun, her sword cut into Caitlyn's forearm.
Blood spurting from the wound, Caitlyn howled but somehow managed to keep the gun clutched in her hand. She fired again, screaming out her triumph even as JL's blade swept cleanly through her neck. Like a parlor trick, Caitlyn's head didn't fall for a few seconds. Then her body crumpled and the reek of ozone filled the air.
JL had always hated Quickenings, but this one ripped into her with redoubled force as her writhing worsened the pain of the bullet wounds. The creosote bushes around her began to smolder as the lightning flickered among their branches, and JL suddenly imagined herself under arrest for burning down Encino. Murder she might be able to justify, but starting a grass fire was cause for lynching in L.A. The absurdness of that thought made JL laugh hysterically even as her leg throbbed and her head threatened to explode.
Finally the Quickening ended, and JL fell to her knees amid the blackened bushes sobbing with grief and exhaustion until her body healed itself.
When she finally forced her eyes open, she was cold and cramped. She stood up slowly, amazed that no one had heard the commotion. Glancing at her watch, she grimaced. It seemed like she'd left the club years ago, but it was still only eleven. The lovers who used this spot were still cruising the bars trying to get lucky; they wouldn't need a dark parking place for hours yet.
She glanced towards the parking lot anyway, half hoping to hear Colin's steady tread on the grass even though she'd begged him not to follow her this time. He hadn't hidden the fact that he was her Watcher, and he'd taken to joining her after a Quickening. They'd talk a little about the fight, then he'd help take care of the evidence. She giggled nervously, remembering the plaque she'd given him on his last birthday. "Friends help you move," it read. "Real friends help you move bodies."
Stretching, she gazed at the city clogging the valley below her. Its lights glittered, pulsing with a cold, distant life. So many souls that one less wouldn't make bit of difference -- except to JL. Turning away, she looked at Caitlyn's headless body. Her gorge rose and she wanted to vomit, but she forced herself to stay focused. There was still much to be done.
While this area was relatively quiet, a body would be noticed eventually. She needed to move it or there'd be far too many uncomfortable questions. JL didn't know how many of the bar's patrons had heard Caitlyn's accusations, but it didn't matter. One was too many when JL didn't have an alibi.
Walking back to her car, JL opened the trunk and moved everything into the back seat. Then she opened the spare tire well and took out the small package Jim had helped her assemble years ago. He called it his Freedom Preservation Kit: a zippered nylon bag that was conveniently body-sized, gloves, a cloth to wipe off fingerprints, and a change of clothes.
Stuffing Caitlyn's remains in the bag and dragging it back up the hill alone made JL miss Colin even more. After she got the body stowed in the trunk, she returned for Caitlyn's rapier and gun. With a branch and her halogen flashlight, she did her best to erase the tracks of their passage near the parking area. The blood and singed branches were impossible to hide, but with no sign that anyone had gone down the hill, it might be a while before anyone ventured down that far. Besides, the blood alone wouldn't give the cops much to go on. She'd have to leave Caitlyn's car parked there for a couple of hours; if she were lucky someone would notice that the key was still in it and steal it before she got back.
JL pulled out onto Mulholland and headed for Topanga. It didn't take long before the road turned to dirt and start skirting the edges of the canyon. She kept going until she was well beyond the usual hiking paths before stopping. Standing at the roadside, she listened to the soft clicks as the Mustang's engine cooled. No lights were visible anywhere, and the only sounds were the ones she made. Still she waited, keeping her thoughts at bay until half an hour had passed with no signs of life. Opening the trunk, she unloaded the bag and dumped its contents into the depths of the ravine.
Folding the nylon bag, she brushed her arm across her chest. The fabric was stiff with blood, and the events of the evening threatened to overwhelm her. Her fist clenched, driving her nails into her palm. The familiar pain gave her an anchor against the horror. Pulling herself together by sheer force of will, she stripped and changed into the clothes from her kit. Stashing the bloodied clothes and the bag under the spare tire, she reloaded her stuff into the trunk and drove back to Encino.
Her hands were shaking and she wanted nothing more than to sleep for days, but Caitlyn's Maserati still needed to be dealt with. Parking near an apartment complex, she hiked up the hill and checked the lot. Caitlyn's car was no longer alone; apparently someone had gotten lucky and found a girl willing to neck. Where were the car thieves when you needed them?
Taking a deep breath, JL walked up to the car as though it were natural to park there in the middle of the night. Getting in, she started the engine and resisted the urge to race out of there. "Fly casual," she muttered to herself as she began a stately descent into Encino.
Remembering Colin's message, she drove to one of the poorer neighborhoods and parked under a broken street light. She affected a drunken manner as she locked the door and staggered into a nearby bar. Threading her way through the crowds to the back door, she ghosted through the darkened alley to the next street over. She checked to make sure no one was paying attention before strolling towards a nearby 7-11. She had just hung up the pay phone after summoning a cab when the Maserati turned the corner and sped off into the night. She watched it go with regret, promising herself that one day she'd own a car like that, and she'd keep it far, far away from L.A.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
By the time JL had finished disposing of all the evidence, false dawn was shining through the balcony doors. She pulled the drapes wearily, thankful that it was Saturday and she didn't have to work. Crawling into bed, she closed her eyes only to be confronted by Caitlyn's face looming up in her memories. You betrayed me, Caitlyn's image accused. Pretended to be a friend who wanted to help. Unless murder is your real definition of ‘help'?
Rolling over with a curse, JL buried her head under the pillow. Caitlyn's image just laughed. You can't escape me now. You made me part of you forever. You're really just like your father -- when he beat you, he always said it was to help you learn, didn't he? To teach you respect. Was that the problem? I didn't respect you enough? Didn't kowtow to your wisdom? I dared to question the decisions of the mighty Joanna Lynn Dawson. How foolish of me.
Flinging the pillow across the room, JL got up and began pacing. She longed for a drink, but she didn't know of any alcohol strong enough to fight off this particular demon. Maybe just one shot of something stronger. She'd been addicted to heroin, so if she took something else maybe it wouldn't trigger her old dependencies...
A sudden claustrophobia came over her and she fled to the balcony, breathing deeply of the cold ocean air. Leaning on the railing, she listened to the unaccustomed silence. Dawn was imminent, and the world seemed to be holding its collective breath waiting for morning. These few hours were truly a no-man's land; the daytime crowd wasn't up yet and the night owls had retreated to their lairs. JL felt like she was completely alone with her pounding heart and her hunger.
"Drugs aren't the answer any more," she chanted to herself. "I know them for the trap they are. I won't fall for their lies. I am in control. I am in control. I am in control." Slowly her pulse steadied and her hands let go of the rail. Sinking into a chair, she finally let herself cry -- for Caitlyn, for good intentions, for Methos' perfidy.
She hoped sobbing would wash her soul clean the way it did in books, but she ended up feeling more miserable than ever. It was time to sort through her life and make all the decisions she'd been putting off since Methos had said goodbye. He'd told her that while he cared a great deal about her, he couldn't live with her anymore because he thought he was truly in love with Sarah and it wouldn't be fair to any of them. Fair. As if that concept was supposed to be something JL believed in and valued.
Sighing, she abandoned that memory. She needed to start with the easy stuff first. Had she lied to Caitlyn? No, she'd meant it when she said she wanted to help her learn. She'd been impatient with Caitlyn's whining, but not enough to kill her. Was it really Caitlyn's defiance that JL had hated? That one was harder. Certainly Caitlyn had challenged her, and the gun was clearly cheating. Yet JL could have knocked Caitlyn unconscious instead of taking her head, just as she'd intended to do. Even with the gun, Caitlyn wasn't an insurmountable threat. So why had she really killed her?
JL replayed the fight in her mind. Caitlyn was angry and arrogant, but JL had dealt with that before. It wasn't just the challenge, because JL had been ready to take her home after it ended. It was the gun, then. Not the first shot, because she'd still tried to disarm her, not kill her. In that moment between shots, what had changed?
Concentrating on the fight's conclusion, JL examined her memories once again. The gun blast. Surprise as the bullet hit, with the pain following a half step later. The immediate urge to disarm Caitlyn, followed by more surprise when Caitlyn didn't drop the gun even though her arm had to hurt. Caitlyn glaring up at her, furious. Lifting the gun for a second shot and glancing over to her rapier to make sure it was within reach. The flash as the gun discharged again. Caitlyn's look of triumph.
JL opened her eyes and blinked. The feeling she'd been looking for was still there -- the bone deep certainty that she could never trust Caitlyn again. No matter what the girl said, JL would remember the look of hatred and the stubborn determination to destroy someone who was trying to help her. In that fraction of a second, JL had judged Caitlyn unfit to live and carried out her sentence. Judge, jury, executioner. Court's adjourned, no leniency granted. Next case.
Feeling sick, JL tried to tell herself she'd had no choice and that she couldn't have taken Caitlyn to Bryan because Caitlyn might have had better luck murdering him. It sounded reasonable on the surface, but her heart knew the truth. Bryan was eighteen centuries old, and he'd been studying human nature and healing battered souls long before psychology was invented. If she'd gone to him and told him everything, he could have made his own choice. He'd helped JL deal with her past, and it stood to reason he could have helped Caitlyn. Now, thanks to JL, Caitlyn was beyond help.
Slamming her fist into the wall, JL got up and went back to leaning on the railing. The birds were starting to stir, and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. So much for L.A. matching her mood.
Drugs. It all came down to the drugs Caitlyn had taken before she went to the club, maybe even before they'd met at the dojo. Her flaring temper and mood swings were easily explained as drug-induced paranoia. She was certain that JL had wanted to kill her, so she'd tried to kill JL first. It was a warped logic that JL knew well, and she felt a pang of guilt when she considered the idea that their argument had been the reason Caitlyn had gotten high. If she had been more patient, maybe Caitlyn would still be alive.
JL snorted and shook her head. Even her guilty conscience couldn't accept that. She hadn't made Caitlyn take drugs any more than she could have stopped her. If Caitlyn had really wanted to stay clean, there were twelve step groups and hotlines, rehab clinics, and psychotherapists. Even if Caitlyn had felt alienated by JL, she still had dozens of places to turn to for support, and every addict knew how to find them. It went with the territory.
JL knew she'd never felt particularly worthwhile when she'd been using heroin. Caitlyn might have judged herself too harshly long before JL got there. Death from low self-esteem wasn't exactly uncommon on the streets.
Going back inside, JL put on her swimsuit and went out to the pool. She swam lap after lap, letting her brain wander where it would until her arms burned from exhaustion and she was afraid she'd drown. Dragging herself out, she stumbled back to the apartment and collapsed on the couch. Eventually she drifted off into a fitful sleep, finally awakening when the mail slot banged and she started hard enough to roll herself off the couch.
Climbing slowly to her feet, she stripped off her wet suit and gave the couch a few cursory pats with her towel. With a sigh, she gave up and went to get breakfast, hoping coffee would help her sort through whatever ideas her mind had come up with. She was nibbling some toast when she realized the answer was obvious. If she had been ready to leave the nest, then the whole experience with Caitlyn wouldn't have ended so disastrously. Obviously, she'd done a lot of things wrong, and the only way to keep from repeating her mistakes was to keep learning; to go back to Bryan, tell him the whole story, and let him show her what she should have done.
That would work if Bryan were still her teacher.
Sipping her coffee, JL made herself think about Sarah as dispassionately as she could. She was over nine hundred years old, had a reputation for being honest, was one of the finest fighters in the Game. The Chronicles were full of stories about her dedication, her war efforts, her loyalty. Above all, the people JL trusted most in the world -- Jim, Bryan, Joe, Colin, and Methos -- all trusted her implicitly. If she hadn't stolen Methos away, JL would consider herself lucky to be her student.
Something nagged at JL's mind, just as it did every time she thought about Sarah. She'd been letting it disappear unchallenged, but this time she was feeling introspective enough to track it down. It stemmed from a comment Colin had made after he'd gotten tired of hearing her bash Sarah for sleeping with Methos. "It's not like she raped him, JL," he'd retorted, slamming his beer down hard enough to send half the contents slopping onto the bar. "She didn't know you were living together, but he sure as hell did. If I cheat on my wife with someone who thinks I'm single, whose fault is it? Mine or the girl I lied to?"
Colin had never really liked Methos, so she'd dismissed it as sour grapes. Clearly Sarah had seduced him -- things had been fine before she arrived and horrible after, so it must have been Sarah's fault. Unless...
Getting more coffee, JL recalled the long silences, the days they barely saw each other when she worked from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., the way he shot down all her vacation ideas with his bored ‘been there don't need to go back' attitude. She thought about Colin and his ex-wife, Peggy, and how their marriage had started out so wonderfully and ended up pretty much like that. They stopped talking to each other, took separate vacations, developed diverse interests and different friends. Maybe she'd lost Methos long before Sarah's arrival and it was just that neither one of them had noticed it yet.
She remembered too how nervous she'd been the first day she'd sparred with Caitlyn, and how she refused to meet the girl privately. At that point, she had no reason not to trust Caitlyn; she simply didn't know her. Sarah hadn't known JL either, and she certainly had good reason to be worried that JL would want revenge for what had happened with Methos. She had wanted revenge, badly enough to attack Sarah in Joe's bar after they'd gotten rid of the Immortal who'd threatened Sarah's life. JL had tried to claim that it was just a spar, that she'd just wanted to see what would happen on her home turf. Sarah had tried to talk her out of it, but JL had been far too angry to listen.
They'd broken a few chairs and drawn a little blood before Sarah had finally disarmed JL. For a moment, JL had considered drawing her gun, but even furious, she'd known that that would be going too far. So she'd grudgingly backed down, her resentment intensified instead of lessened. Yet Sarah had continued to uphold her end of the bargain, training JL daily at Mac's dojo and placing her life in JL's hands if the younger woman managed to get lucky.
Just as JL's life would have been in Caitlyn's hands if the bullets had killed her rather than wounding her.
JL got up slowly and walked back upstairs, trying to imagine whether she'd have the courage to do such a thing in Sarah's place. Would she trust someone as angry and hurt as she herself had been? Would she override her survival instinct to keep a promise?
Before Caitlyn, JL would have said yes to all of that. Now she had to admit that she couldn't trust someone that completely no matter what she'd promised. She hadn't even been willing to go to Caitlyn's house, much less spar with her using live steel until Caitlyn had forced her to.
Sarah, on the other hand, had accepted JL as a student and not looked back. No matter how badly JL had behaved, Sarah had basically ignored it and continued to teach her as best she could. For the first time, JL considered the kind of strain Sarah had to be working under every time they sparred. She'd been so focused on her own problems, she hadn't given a thought to Sarah's.
Bryan had tried to tell her that working with Sarah would be good for her. She should have realized he meant for more than just her swordsmanship; he rarely did anything for only one reason. If she could learn that kind of inner strength, maybe she could finally overcome the years of child abuse and addiction that had left her with a dangerously low self-esteem. If she were truly worthless, Sarah could have used JL's tantrums as an excuse to walk away and even JL wouldn't have faulted her for it. In fact, she'd pretty much been expecting it before she'd fled to L.A., but Sarah hadn't given up on JL; JL had given up on Sarah.
She wondered if Sarah was still in Seacouver, and if she'd still be willing to train her. She knew it would be a long time before they'd find the same trust she shared with Bryan and Jim, and that her residual resentment was bound to crop up and make the journey more difficult. Even if Sarah did take her back, there was no guarantee that JL would ever learn to be as patient and honorable as Sarah was no matter how long they worked together. It definitely wouldn't happen if she didn't try though.
JL finally relaxed as she reached her decision. If Sarah would have her, she would go back and do whatever it took to make it work. Everyone said she was stubborn enough to do whatever she set her mind to, so why couldn't she reshape her entire outlook on life?
As she walked into the bedroom, she noticed a glint of silver in the corner. Picking up Caitlyn's rapier, she watched the light reflect off its rippled blade. Taking it out on the balcony, she began a brief kata, letting the sword swing around her in graceful arcs. Whoever had made the blade had been a true craftsman, for it dipped and spun with a life of its own.
Stopping the kata, she glanced back into the bedroom at her scimitar resting on the dresser. It had been a present from Joe when she'd graduated from the Watcher Academy, and it had served her well. Yet the rapier she now held seemed to have been made for her hand, and its rippled blade appealed to her sense of self. JL had never taken a straight path to get anywhere in her life. Now here she was, about to go back home to try starting over yet again. This time, she was determined not to repeat her mistakes.
Holding the blade before her, she said softly, "Caitlyn, I'm sorry. If I could go back and fix it, I would. But all I can do is pledge that from this day forward, I will try to be the person you needed me to be. Someone you could have counted on to fight a lot harder before they gave up on you. Someone who wouldn't have taken on a job they weren't willing to finish. I swear that from now on I'll wield this blade as a reminder of my vow and the crooked path I took to get here."
Lowering the sword, JL was almost blinded by a sudden flash of sunlight off the blade. She chuckled, amused at the thought that her sign from the heavens left her with red spots in front of her eyes. Nothing comes without a price.