|It's Probably Me
Boring Disclaimer Stuff: This is a work of speculative fiction and is not intended to infringe on anyone's copyright.
The song "It's Probably Me" comes from Sting's album "Ten Summoner's Tales" and also does not belong to me.
The characters of MacLeod, Richie Ryan, Joe Dawson and Methos all belong to Rysher, Panzer/Davis and/or Gaumont -- anybody but me. Morgan Trainor and Karnauer are mine.
Rating: PG-13 -- just straight gen fic, folks. A little violence, a little sex.
Author's Note: Many thanks to a wonderful beta-reader, Juanita, who deserves many chocolate kisses for her time and comments. Feedback can be sent to JiM, email@example.com -- all constructive criticism welcomed.
The Buzz of another Immortal hit MacLeod just as he was getting into his car. He stood up and began raking the alley and street with his gaze, looking like a wolf questing after a scent. A short figure stood in the gloom of the alley, hard to see in the watery light of a wet evening. A chuckle flowed out into the night air. "So this is the famous Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," it mocked softly.
"Show yourself," the Highlander called, unsheathing his sword and tossing his coat onto the car seat. The figure laughed again, turned and vanished into the alley. Biting back a curse, MacLeod followed the flash of an unsheathed blade into the darkness.
If the night turned cold and the stars looked down,
Over the years, Joe Dawson had come to believe that he was prepared for anything around Duncan MacLeod. Assassins, explosions, thieves, hoodlums, witches, scholars, gamblers, rogues, monks and lovers. But, as he slid up the grate of the big transport elevator and took a step into the loft, Joe realized that he wasn't prepared for this. Richie Ryan and a woman. More specifically, a blindfolded woman cuffed to a chair and Richie Ryan's sword across the Watcher's throat.
He froze, slid his eyes carefully to the left and waited for Richie to recognize him. When the young Immortal took a deep breath and lowered his sword, Dawson released his own in a silent whistle. That had been close.
"A little jumpy, aren't we, Richie?"
The redhead shrugged sheepishly and sheathed his sword. "Sorry, Joe. I was expecting someone else." Dawson nodded then jerked his chin toward the woman. "You want to tell me what's going on here?" At the sound of his voice, the woman had cocked her head and blindly turned toward them. "Who is she?"
"I don't know, Joe. All I know is that she was skulking around the alley with that." Richie led the way to the kitchen island. On the counter rested one of the most beautiful blades Dawson had ever seen. "I've never seen anything like it," he breathed. His fingers itched to touch it. An antique saber -- lovingly cared for, its brightness dimmed with drying blood.
Grimacing at the stains, he asked Richie "Yours?" The young man nodded again, blushing slightly. Dawson would never admit how queasy the sight of blood still made him, particularly that of his friends, Immortal or not. Viet Nam had not cured that.
"So why is she here? I mean, if she challenged you and you won ..." Joe let the thought trail off. "Did someone change the rules of the Game while I wasn't looking?"
Richie grinned. "Nope. 'There can be only One' still stands. But she's not an immortal. And she's not one of you, either. At least, she hasn't got a tattoo."
That was a relief- -Dawson fervently hoped that the last of the rogue Watchers had been ferreted out. "So what's she doing wandering around with a blade like that?"
The captive spoke suddenly. "I'm looking for Duncan MacLeod." Her voice was loud in the empty loft and both men jumped.
"Yeah, well, he was supposed to meet me here two hours ago. What do you know about that?" Richie demanded.
"Nothing. I told you before. I just got into town." Joe noticed that her voice sounded resigned rather than frightened or defensive. Odd.
"Yeah -- I know you did. Just before you stabbed me," Richie muttered resentfully. "Uh, tried to stab me, " he corrected himself lamely.
"You swung first, as I recall. And I did stab you. You should be dead from blood loss by now. Why aren't you?" she asked curiously.
Richie ignored his captive's question and turned to Dawson. Now, he could see the ragged, wet tear in Richie's black t-shirt -- a solid cut, right across the abdomen. Joe's own gut clutched in sympathy, it must have hurt like hell. Still lost in his own reaction, he almost missed Richie's next question.
"Joe? Could you keep an eye on her for a couple of hours? I want to go look around for Mac. I think something big is going down."
"Richie, kidnapping and jail-keeping really aren't in my line. Remember, we 'watch but never interfere'?"
Richie gave a short bark of disbelieving laughter and fixed him with the same mocking expression he'd trotted out every time he wanted something since Mac's Dark Quickening. Then, Joe's interference had saved Richie's life and nearly cost him his own. They both knew it was an empty protest -- he'd crossed the line long ago.
He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Two hours. That's it." Richie grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks, Joe. I'll let you know as soon as I have anything." He stepped into the elevator, shrugging into his leather jacket.
"Richie? Aren't you going to leave me the keys? For her, I mean."
The younger man stopped a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think so, Joe. You're too tender-hearted. She'd feed you some sob-story and you'd probably let her go."
Stung, Joe said, "Yeah? Well, what if there's a fire?"
"Throw some water on it," was the off-hand reply as the grate slid down and the elevator descended.
"And why is she blindfolded?" he yelled down the shaft, not expecting an answer. There wasn't one.
Sighing, Joe turned back toward the living area and stopped to consider Richie's prize. She appeared to be a youngish woman, with short dark red hair, pale skin and a strong jaw. Richie had placed her in Duncan's old wooden desk chair, drawing her hands behind her and threading the handcuffs through the spindles of the chairback. The woman was blindfolded with an oily bandana -- probably one Richie had shoved in his pocket after working on his bike. She was wearing what had been stylishly casual clothes, had been before she and Richie had tangled in the muddy alley behind the dojo. Now they were ruined, drying in filthy patches. Her face was also smeared with dirt and she had a split lip.
"Are you done staring, or do you want to take a picture for posterity?" Her coolly mocking voice annoyed him.
"Just wondering what in hell you're doing here with that sword."
She sighed. "I told you. I'm looking for Duncan MacLeod."
Joe walked over to the couch and slowly eased himself down. A straight week of rain had made his joints stiff and achy -- 'I'm getting old,' he thought ruefully. "Why?"
"Why did you attack, Richie?"
"I told you -- he swung first. I was looking for the back door up here, he comes barging out, takes one look and starts swinging. He's fast, though. I'll give him that," her voice was filled with grudging admiration.
"Yeah, well, he had a good teacher. This was not the alley to be wandering around with a naked sword."
To his complete surprise, she laughed, a rich throaty sound. "You know, I guessed that."
"What's your name?"
The laugh lines faded from her face. "Morgan," she answered slowly.
"No last name?"
"Well, Morgan, I'm Joe. Since it looks like we're going to be together for a while, do you want anything?"
"Yes -- cut me loose," she answered shortly.
"I can't," he answered. "I meant, do you want something to eat, or drink?"
"No thanks, old man. I read all the materials on 'Stockholm Syndrome' too." Her sudden bitter tone stung him, although he realized she had no reason to trust him.
"You are, I assume. I heard you come in -- you walk with a cane."
"There's more than one reason for using a cane."
"Oh." Then, "Sorry."
"Forget it. I need some coffee. Want some?"
She shrugged, and was silent while he levered himself off the couch and went to putter in the kitchen area. At least this jail guard stunt came with fresh-ground Kona coffee -- Mac never stinted himself. Joe found the aroma of the brewing coffee comforting; his good humor was returning.
He looked very carefully at Morgan and noted the slump in her shoulders and the tight whiteness of her face. He was willing to bet that she was strained nearly to the breaking point.
He poured two mugs, adding a healthy dose of cream and sugar to one. Bringing them back into the living room, he maneuvered himself onto the coffee table in front of Morgan. She had stiffened at his approach, and he found himself wanting to put her at ease.
"Hey, relax. I brought you some coffee. You look like you could use something."
"And I'm supposed to drink it --- how?" she shrugged her shoulders, her lips curved into a slight smile.
"I'll help you." Picking up the mug he had prepared for her, he carefully brought it close to her generous mouth. She sniffed appreciatively. "You bring out the good stuff for all of your captives?"
"Don't burn yourself," he warned, letting her find the edge of the cup with her lower lip. At her nod, he tipped it slightly and she drank eagerly. After a couple of swallows, she nodded again and he lowered it.
She licked her lips. "That's good. I haven't had Kona in a long time. You even put in the right amount of cream. Did you remember the truth serum?"
He couldn't help but grin. "We were all out. Just sugar. Have some more," and he helped her to drink again. This time, when he lowered the mug, a little coffee remained on her lower lip. Without thinking, he reached up and stroked it away with his thumb. At his touch, she jerked back, breathing suddenly ragged. "Get away from me," she grated.
Joe was stricken at the way her body was straining away from him, as if she were suddenly afraid of him. Which was absurd -- she was blindfolded, handcuffed to a chair and completely at his mercy -- why shouldn't she be terrified? But she hadn't been before -- there had been anger, humor, exhaustion in her tone -- but no fear.
"OK," he said in a soft voice, trying to be reassuring. He got up and retreated with his coffee to the couch.
"Can't you at least take off the damned blindfold?" Morgan's voice had returned to her original slightly mocking tone, but there was a slight tremor underneath. Her head was turned toward him, almost as if she could see.
"Sorry," he said regretfully. "I'd rather you weren't able to describe me to the police once you get out of here." There -- let her chew on that -- the clear implication that they weren't going to hurt her, were going to free her eventually. Dawson knew that he could reason with Richie, given time and the young man in a calmer state than he had been earlier. Unless this woman really was implicated in whatever had happened to Duncan.
Two hours late -- that was unlike MacLeod. His car was left, unlocked on the street below, his jacket on the seat. The only reassuring thing was that his sword was gone too. Dawson figured there weren't many situations which MacLeod and his katana weren't equal to.
Of course, they'd run up against a few in the last couple of years; Duncan's being locked in Killian's cell, Kalas, the whole Dark Quickening episode, the Watcher trial... the list was disturbingly long. Now Dawson was starting to worry. He shook his head and kept drinking his coffee, not tasting it. 'Some Watcher I am, don't even know where my Immortal is.'
Outside, another thunderstorm was rolling in. The light grew grayer and dimmer and the loft became downright gloomy as both evening and the storm came on. Dawson turned on the lamp beside him and picked up a small leather-bound volume from the coffee-table.
'Poetry, MacLeod?' he asked silently, 'I didn't think you were the type.' No, that was wrong; MacLeod had a deeper side, he knew. It was just hard to imagine him lounging above a dojo full of boxers, martial artists and weight-lifting enthusiasts while reading ...John Donne? Hmmm. Joe opened it and became absorbed; the only sounds in the loft were thunder grumbling, rain sheeting against the windows and pages turning.
"What are you reading?" Morgan's voice startled him; he was taken aback to realize that he had forgotten about her.
"Poetry or prose?" she asked.
"Read me some?" He hesitated and she shifted a little in her seat. "There's nothing else to do but wait, Joe," she reminded him. Her use of his name warmed him a little.
Without preamble, he began to read to her. Some of his favorites were here -- he read those first. His smoky voice rose and fell in the golden light of the lamp, the rest of the loft blanketed in comforting shadows.
He liked the alert cock of her head as she listened, sometimes nodding, as if agreeing with the poet. She sighed at the end of each poem read, as if returning from a daydream, her full lips curved again into that slight smile.
After a time, he noticed that she was shifting more in her seat, flexing and trying to stretch. "You OK?" he asked.
"Just stiff. I hit the ground pretty hard. And the wall. So much for the self-defense classes Dad made me take."
"What hurts?" Grabbing his cane from the floor, he got up and came over to her.
"Besides my head? Everything. Don't worry Joe, I'm not really hurt."
"I'll see if I can find some aspirin."
"Still trying for the truth serum, huh, Joe?" When she turned her head to smile blindly up at him, Joe realized that the darkening areas on the side of her face weren't dried mud, they were bruises. Above and below the blindfold, her right temple, cheekbone and jaw were abraded and purpling. Joe felt an unreasoning rush of anger at Richie -- what had he done, slammed her into the wall headfirst? He stomped off, afraid of what would come out of his mouth if he spoke.
After rummaging uselessly around Mac's bathroom and kitchen for a while, it came to him that Immortals didn't need aspirin. He returned to the kitchen and filled a bowl with cool water and ice cubes and grabbed a dishtowel. The sight of that beautiful, deadly blade on the counter interrupted his black thoughts about Richie. Morgan had shown up, looking for MacLeod, with a naked blade in her hand. MacLeod himself was missing. She had managed to cut Richie before he took her down. He reminded himself that Richie could have done a lot worse to his enemy than rough her up and leave her tied to a chair with a couple of bruises.
But she didn't feel like an enemy, he thought, as he crossed back over to her. He found himself wanting to believe that there was more to this than a simple headhunting, that there was more to her...
"Sorry -- Mac doesn't seem to have any aspirin." He sat down on the coffee table again, obscurely pleased when she didn't draw away. "I've got some cold water here; it'll probably help with those bruises. Can I touch you?" he asked, oddly formal. After a startled moment, she nodded.
Joe dipped the towel in the water, then wrung it out. With two gentle fingers on her chin, he turned her face to the light. Wincing at the damage on that fair skin, he started dabbing at it, working around the blindfold. He was forced to take a firmer grip to steady her face; his large hand cupped her jaw, bracing it. His thumb was against her lips and his long fingers reached to her throat and into her coppery hair. His tongue crept out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on his task.
Dried mud and grit came away slowly; he had to keep rinsing the cloth out. Once cleaned, the abrasions and bruises didn't look that bad, he admitted. But they probably hurt like hell. He twisted a couple of the ice cubes into a corner of the towel and held them against the side of her head.
"Mmmm, feels good," she breathed. He smiled and kept holding the icepack for her. Suddenly she asked, "What's the time?"
Abruptly brought back to himself, his eyes flicked to the kitchen clock, then he replied, "7:30."
She swore and drew away from his hand. "When did Richie leave, Joe? It's been more than two hours, hasn't it?"
Thinking back, he realized that she was right -- he had gotten there around 4:00. His first reaction was annoyance -- another typical Ryan stunt, late again. But then he started to worry. What the hell were they all tied up in?
Morgan's voice broke in upon his musings. "Joe -- he's in trouble. You've got to let me go. I'm the only one who can help." Her voice became urgent. "And you've got to get out of here yourself. They know where MacLeod lives -- they might come here looking for..."
"Looking for what, Morgan?" He dropped the towel back into the bowl.
She stopped, obviously struggling with herself. "Looking for that sword. The sword is the key, Joe, don't you understand?" she finished a little wildly, quite unlike the poised prisoner she had first been.
"No," he said flatly. "Morgan, what is all of this about?"
"I can't tell you," she whispered. "People are going to die."
"Then tell me. I don't believe you came here to harm MacLeod; I think you want his help. I'm his friend; I'll help you," he promised without thinking.
"No. I don't know who to trust."
"You can trust me." His voice was low and caressing, warm with concern.
Suddenly there was a mocking smile on those soft lips and her voice was cool ice. "No, Joe. Remember, I told you I knew all about Stockholm Syndrome. 'Inducing a belief of shared concerns and common threat between a hostage and kidnapper can result in a radical change of behavior in both. Consider the Patty Hearst case'", she quoted.
"I don't trust you, Joe. And you shouldn't trust me. Let's just stay kidnapper and hostage, OK? It's so much simpler."
"Fine," he snapped. "Don't tell me. Let those people die, whoever they are." Her lips tightened into a thin line, but she didn't say another word.
He stalked back to the couch, nearly throwing his cane down. Why was he so angry? he wondered. She was right -- he shouldn't want to trust her, nor want her trust. Nor want to gather her into his arms and protect her from...uh oh. He didn't like where this train of thought was leading at all.
Listening to the constant rain, he leaned his head back against the couch. He was so tired... where the hell was Richie? And Mac? Why was this woman here and why did he want so much to...? His thoughts running in circles, he fell asleep.
Morgan waited an hour or so, listening to her captor's even breathing. She shifted quietly, testing the quality of that silence. Then, softly, she said, "Joe? I'm thirsty -- can I have some water?" When there was no response, she smiled grimly and began working to escape.
She had already found that two of the spindles of the chairback were loose in their sockets, it was an old chair. Twisting her hands painfully in the cuffs, she began working the spindles loose. It was painstaking, maddening work and she stopped frequently to listen for signs that Joe was awakening. Suddenly, a cold thought swept through her. Perhaps he was awake now, amusing himself by watching her pitiful struggles for freedom? No, she told herself angrily, whatever he was, he wasn't deceitful.
'And how do you know that?' she asked herself mockingly. 'Who was just lecturing about Stockholm Syndrome?'
Well, only one way to find out. She returned to her escape. After another short eternity, she had one spindle nearly out of its socket. With tremendous effort, because of the awkward angle, she had pulled it out enough to slip the chain of the handcuffs out from under it. One down, one to go.
It was surreal, she decided. This grim struggle conducted in perfect silence against the background noise of the rain and a man's sleeping breath. Her wrists had been rubbed raw against the bracelets as she worked, and her sweat running down her arms was stinging the wounds unmercifully. The second spindle was tougher than the first, it seemed a little longer and therefore more stubborn as she coaxed it out of the hole. Finally, she gave a superhuman jerk and the spindle snapped. The sound was preternaturally loud in the quiet room. She held her breath and waited for Joe to seize her, trapping her once more.
He continued to sleep. Carefully, slowly, warning herself to remain calm, now that freedom was so close, Morgan untangled her cuffed hands from the wreckage of the chair back and rose shakily to her feet. Her legs were both asleep and she nearly fell. Stiffly, slowly, she bent and managed to pass her legs through the circle of her chained arms so that her hands were now before her. Much better.
She raised her joined hands and pushed the blindfold off her face, pulling it awkwardly off her head and dropping it with distaste. Squinting against even the small pool of light thrown by the single lamp, Morgan scanned the room for her captor.
He was sitting on the couch, deeply asleep. One arm was thrown out along the couch's back, the other rested, hand open, in his lap. His pleasant face was relaxed, a slight smile curving his lips. She considered the thick silver hair that dropped almost into his eyes, the grizzled beard, the broad chest and whispered , "Not so old, Joe." But something was wrong.
Her eyes dropped to his cane, lying on the floor at his feet. That was it -- the lines of his jean-clad legs. Too regular for nature, the feet at an angle unnatural for his sleeping sprawl. What...?
Morgan shook herself out of her reverie. 'Time to be getting out of here before all hell breaks loose,' she reminded herself. 'But not with my hands like this.' Walking softly, she stole to Joe's side and began carefully, clumsily rifling the pockets of his tweed jacket for the key to the handcuffs. She was so awkward that, if he hadn't been so deeply asleep, he would certainly have caught her at it. She didn't find the key, but she did find several other items of interest. Guitar picks, a money clip wadded with bills, a Beretta and an extra clip, a prescription bottle for a narcotic painkiller -- 'Now why didn't you use that on me, Joe? You could have doped me up so far I would have told you anything.' But no key.
Then she remembered the brief exchange he had had with Richie. Richie had kept the key with him. Damn! She would have to find some other way out of the damned things. Maybe MacLeod kept a hacksaw.
Morgan pursed her lips, considering the booty she had collected out of Joe's pockets laid out on the coffee table in front of her. Bending and twisting awkwardly, she took the money and shoved it into one pocket, along with the spare clip. She smiled a little as she bent to pick up the gun; it had been a surprise -- gentle-voiced Joe, a musician, packing a respectable piece of iron like that. How ... incongruous. She turned her head to smile at the sleeping man and froze.
His eyes were open.
Her shock lasted a split second less than his. She lurched at him and swung the heavy automatic into the side of his head. It connected solidly and he slumped backwards as she lost her balance and sprawled across his lap, then fell to the floor heavily.
Her rasping breath sounded loud to her as she shakily climbed to her feet. Joe was out, features slack and a thin trickle of blood running down from his temple.
"I told you not to trust me, Joe," she said sadly.
Morgan awkwardly tucked the pistol into the waist of her pants and stood looking down at him. She reached out with her shackled hands to check for a pulse. Her fingers lightly resting in the soft hollow of his throat, she was rewarded by the steady thrum of his heartbeat and breathing. She found herself smiling when she knew that he was all right. 'Fool' she cursed herself and went to find a hacksaw.
A short, breathlessly irritating time later, her hands were free. The bracelets were still around her wrists, but she could use her hands again. Richie must have purchased the cheapest possible pair, the chain had given up the ghost pretty easily. She wondered idly what he usually used them for. Stowing the hacksaw back in the toolbox she had found under the sink, Morgan stood up stiffly and cursed the redheaded idiot who had done this to her. Every muscle screamed, several were pulled and her head throbbed like a badly-tuned engine. She promised herself a childish and bruising retribution on him. 'Time to go', she thought, then glanced at her former captor.
He was still sprawled, bonelessly unconscious in that pool of warm yellow light. His headache was going to be worse than hers, she thought and smiled a little in sympathy. Oh hell, he had done his best to be decent to her, she thought, remembering the coffee and the feeling of her face gently cupped in his big warm hand and the soothing sound of his voice reading poetry to her in the darkness. Decision made, she ransacked the kitchen until she found a food storage bag which she filled with ice and sealed.
On the way back to the unconscious man, Morgan grabbed the towel out of the now-warm water on the coffee-table. With brisk efficiency, she dabbed at the blood on his head, then placed the makeshift icepack against the wound, bracing it in place with a throw pillow. Grabbing an afghan from the other end of the couch, she threw it over him and tucked him in. The incongruity of her actions suddenly struck her as enormously funny and she began to giggle. When her laughter took on an hysterical edge, she shook her head and struggled for self-control. 'Definitely time to go.'
She picked up the sword, grimacing at the blood dried on it. She had never cut a person before, had never intended to, but Richie's attack had triggered her sense of self-preservation and she had instinctively fought to win. The damned thing was more trouble than it was worth -- and it was visible as hell. 'Should have taken the sheath, too'.
She wanted MacLeod to have it, but was wary of simply leaving it for him. She had meant what she had told Joe -- her pursuers might indeed come here searching for her -- and it. She felt a qualm about leaving Joe unconscious and helpless for them to find, but hardened her heart. He had accepted a part in this little comedy by becoming her jailer -- let him fight it out for himself.
Beside the door was a brass vase which held a collection of umbrellas and walking sticks. Smiling now, Morgan tucked the blade into the center of the mass and stood back to admire the effect. Good, it couldn't be seen unless you were really looking for it, right there. She grabbed a leather jacket off the wall and shrugged into it. Feeling significantly lighter, she slipped out of the door and was down the stairs and into the wet night.
When Joe awoke, it was to not-so-gentle slaps on his face and Richie's worried face swimming into view. His head ached unbearably and the slaps weren't helping it. He caught Richie's wrist in one powerful hand before it could connect again.
"What the hell happened to you?" he croaked.
Relief washed across Richie's face as he put an arm behind Joe's shoulders and helped him to sit up; the afghan fell to the floor. Joe immediately groaned and put his head in his hands. "What happened to you?" Richie retorted. "And where's the woman?"
"Morgan's gone?" Joe's head snapped up, and his vision swirled with grey at the motion, leaving him slightly nauseated. The empty chair with the splintered back told the sorry truth.
"What, you guys were on a first-name basis already? Yeah -- she's gone, Joe. I knew I shouldn't have left you ..." Richie stopped himself from actually accusing Dawson of letting his prize go.
"Damned right you shouldn't have left, Ryan," Joe ground out from between teeth clenched with the effort of keeping his head from coming off. "What about the sword?"
"That's gone, too."
"Damn! She said something about it being 'the key'. Any idea what she meant by it?"
Richie shook his head. "I didn't find any sign of Mac, either," he added gloomily.
"Great. Just great. Look, Richie, the next time you want to play bondage games, leave me out of it, OK?" Joe struggled to his feet, and was caught and steadied by Richie's hand under his elbow when he staggered. He saw the medicine bottle and guitar picks on the table and immediately patted himself down and groaned when his pockets came up empty. "She's got a pistol and at least $200 cash now. I don't think we're gonna find her unless she wants us to. We blew it, Richie."
When your belly's empty and the hunger's so real,
Joe had called the bar and let Mike know he wouldn't be in that night, neither to play his set nor work. Mike, accustomed to his boss' odd hours, had accepted the alteration without comment and told him to have a good night. Since Joe had been sitting in the local emergency room having his head checked for concussion, he doubted that Mike's good wishes would be enough to salvage the evening.
He and Richie had concocted a quick little mugging cover story on the way to the hospital. Richie was waiting outside in the car, because he had forgotten to change before dragging Dawson off to be checked out. In addition to the original slash across the abdomen, his shirt now had two bullet holes in it and his leather jacket was showing signs of having been burnt. He resolutely refused to tell Dawson what had happened, scowling darkly whenever he brought it up.
The middle-aged doctor lectured Joe sincerely on personal safety, then released him with the prescription of three aspirin and a good night's sleep. Joe wearily stepped outside the Emergency Room doors and looked around for Richie.
A black car pulled up and the door opened; when Dawson leaned down automatically to look inside, he found himself staring down the silenced barrel of a .45.
'Shoot -- what a day.' Resigned, he climbed into the back seat and almost welcomed the sudden sharp pain of the injection and the restful blackness that claimed him.
The black car pulled sedately away from the hospital entrance and moved decorously out into traffic, as if it had never been involved in a kidnapping. The driver, so intent on being unnoticed, himself did not notice the smaller car following him out of town and onto the highway.
An hour later, having turned off the main highway, the car Richie was following turned down a dirt road in the middle of "fucking nowhere" and followed it as it turned and twisted in the inky blackness. This was beyond risky -- this was stupid. In order to keep from being seen, he had doused his headlights. Which meant he was crawling along and trying to keep from driving off the road while simultaneously trying to keep track of his quarry. Fortunately, they were driving almost as slowly, as if they were looking for something. Finally, he gave up, pulled the car as far to the side of the road as he dared and cut the engine.
Grabbing his sword and a small flashlight from the glove compartment, Richie shoved it in his pocket and jogged off in the direction the other car had taken. He wasn't disappointed -- he could still hear the engine and see the occasional flash of light as the road twisted back on itself. Then it stopped. The sounds of car doors opening and slamming, off to his right. He sped up a little, came around a curve in the road and discovered himself suddenly on a paved driveway. The driveway curved to the right and he slowed down to a walk. There seemed to be lighted windows through the trees.
The Buzz hit him and he stood stock still, trying to determine where the other Immortal was. Then the other Immortal hit him, and he went down with a muffled swear, kicking and lashing out at his unknown attacker.
"Richie?" the other breathed incredulously. They both stopped struggling, MacLeod lying on top of his protege, trying to see him in the near-utter darkness of night in the forest.
"Mac -- you're OK!" Richie panted. He pushed weakly at Duncan, who rolled off of him. They both sat up, trying to catch their breath.
"What are you doing here?" MacLeod whispered at the same time Richie hissed "Where have you been?"
"Shhh!" MacLeod clapped a hand over Richie's mouth. "The warehouse isn't very far from here, although they don't even seem to have posted any guards. Now -- what are you doing here?" he repeated sternly, slowly removing his hand.
"They've got Joe!"
MacLeod swore softly in Gaelic. "How did Dawson get involved?"
"I kinda talked him into it," Richie admitted, rubbing the back of his neck.
"All right, " said Duncan, with infinite patience for a man sitting on a cold driveway at 2:00 am, "and how did you get into it?"
"It was the woman with the sword in the alley who started all of this."
"Morgan? She came to you?"
"Not exactly," Richie winced. He was beginning to think that he had screwed up big time.
"Did she give you the sword?"
"Not exactly. See Mac, it was like this..." Duncan's hand came to cover his mouth again. "Tell me later so I can yell at you properly. Right now, we've got to figure out how to get Dawson out of there. Then we need to find Morgan and that sword. And then..." He took his hand away to run it tiredly through his loose hair.
"Yeah?" Richie prompted.
"Then I don't know. We'll just have to see."
Dawson regained consciousness slowly, his mind vaguely registering a number of unpleasant sensations. He was lying on something cold and very hard -- a concrete floor. It was dark, a little light came in through a small barred window high up one wall. The air smelled of dry rot, mildew and something undefinable and awful. He was cold and everything hurt. But it was the sounds he heard that were the worst and which woke him completely. Someone screaming -- harsh, full-throated and hopeless. A woman.
Head throbbing, he sat up. Whatever they had doped him with had left him dry-mouthed and shaky. Or was that just left over from tonight's earlier adventures? The woman had stopped screaming and he could hear a harsh mutter of voices coming from somewhere outside his cell.
He wanted to get up but they had taken his cane. He dragged himself over to the wall and struggled to stand but was overcome with a wave of nausea and weakness. Damn. It looked like he was stuck here for a while. He leaned his back against the wall, shivering, and tried to think.
What was he mixed up in? Someone must have seen him leave MacLeod's with Richie and followed them to the hospital. What had happened to Richie -- had they taken him too? Morgan -- how did she fit into this rapidly worsening scenario? And where was she?
His last question was answered almost immediately. A door opened across from him, letting in a stream of light that blinded his too-sensitive eyes. He screened his eyes with a forearm, but couldn't see anything more than a huddle of undistinguished black shapes. Someone was thrown bodily into the room, to land heavily in front of him.
"What the hell is this?" he shouted, regretting it instantly as his head began to throb.
"Don't worry Dawson, we haven't forgotten about you. You'll be next," promised a softly mocking voice before the door slammed shut.
A groan from the person in front of him dragged his attention away from the cryptic threat.
"Are you OK?" he asked, reaching out a hand in the dark.
"About as good as usual, Joe," Morgan's tired voice quipped. She crawled toward him and collided with his hand. He fumbled a little, touched her face, which was wet, then found her shoulder and urged her toward him. She slumped against the wall next to him, shoulder touching his. Her ragged breathing was very loud in that dark place and he could feel her shivering too.
"Morgan -- what are you doing here?"
She ignored his question. "You're Dawson?" she asked accusingly. At his grunt of assent, she groaned again. "Go ahead, make my day, tell me that that Richie lout is named Ryan."
"I have some bad news, Morgan..."
She groaned again, but this time it seemed like she was in pain. Without thinking about it, Joe slipped his arm behind her head and gently gathered her to his chest. After a moment, she relaxed into him. He half-pulled her into his lap and tucked her head underneath his chin. Slowly stroking her hair, arms around her, he asked quietly,
"What did they do to you?"
She trembled suddenly, then seemed to clamp down tightly and control herself "Ever had electroshock, Joe?" she asked with a lightness betrayed by the tension knotting her body. At his inarticulate sound of horror, she snuggled a little closer and put her arm around his neck. For a moment, they were both silent, enjoying the little warmth they were able to share.
"Why are they doing this, Morgan? Who are they?"
"'Friends' of my father, I think. They're looking for an artifact that disappeared from his collection just after his murder, about two months ago."
She nodded briefly and took a deep breath. "They want that sword so badly Joe, that they don't care who they kill to get it."
"Did you tell them where it was?"
He could feel her shake her head against his chest. "But I can't hold out very long, Joe. When they take me back in there, I think I'm going to crack. You have no idea what it's like..." she was trembling again.
"Shhh," he urged. He kissed the top of her head and kept gently stroking her hair and back until her trembling had eased some. "What's so special about that sword?"
"Nothing really. It's only three or four hundred years old. It's the key in the hilt that they really want. And the markings on it."
"So that's what you meant when you said 'the sword was the key'. What is it the key to?"
"There's a locker at the airport. In that locker is a CD-Rom which contains a database for some secret society my father was interested in."
Dawson felt his throat constrict -- no, not again. With a sinking heart, he asked, "The Watchers?"
"Yes -- that was it. My father told me that, if anything happened to him, I was to give that disc to one of three people -- Duncan MacLeod, Ryan or Dawson. He didn't tell me either of your first names," she added resentfully.
Damn Don Salzer-- and Methos, for that matter. They had all thought that the renegade Watcher Database had been destroyed years ago in Paris. Anyone reading it would know all they needed about Immortals, the Watchers and could start a witch-hunt that would destroy them all. Why had Don made a back-up? And to whom had he given it?
"You should have trusted me," he said softly.
She sat up sharply, grunting a little at the pain. "The next time I'm attacked with a sword, beaten, tied up and blindfolded, I'll try to keep an open mind about my kidnappers," she promised caustically.
"Ok, sweetheart, " he soothed, "It's Ok." Gently, he urged her to lean back against him, resting his chin on her head and trying to think with the drugs still swimming in him.
"Who was your father?"
"No one special, or so I thought, until it seemed like everyone in the known world was trying to kill him."
"Did any of them show up with swords?"
He could feel her surprise. "Yeah. He killed three people like that. Two men and a woman."
His turn to be surprised. "This didn't seem strange to you?"
"Of course it did," she snapped. "But they had just tried to kill my father. What was I supposed to do -- call the police and turn him in just for defending himself?"
"Did he tell you why they came after him?"
"No. He just said it had something to do with his past. And his future."
"Morgan -- were you adopted?"
She nodded slowly. He had his answer then. The man had been an Immortal, but hadn't told his daughter anything about the Game, it seemed.
"What was his name?"
"Thomas Trainor. Did you know him?"
He thought hard, despite his aching head, reviewing the database of Immortals in his head. Trainor -- now he had it -- was the most recent alias of Ibrahim Khan, who had lost his head a couple of months ago. He remembered scanning the close-out report on him; there had been a daughter mentioned, but he hadn't paid attention to the name. The man had most recently been a professor at a small liberal arts college in Winnipeg, specializing in... the Norman Conquests.
That might be the connection to Don; if he had traveled to France and somehow found himself in Don's bookstore, they might have struck up an acquaintance. Certainly Don would have recognized him for who he was. But would he have betrayed his oath to the Watchers and gotten involved with an Immortal -- told him about the organization? Given him a copy of the database? Joe caught the flavor of outrage in his thoughts and smiled grimly. 'Hypocrite,' he accused himself.
"Yeah -- at least, I knew of him. How did he get that database?"
Morgan had let her hand fall onto his leg. Feeling the odd texture beneath her fingers, she tapped softly. Oh. The man was wearing prostheses. Suddenly she felt huge, an enormous burden. She shifted a little, trying to ease the strain of her weight on him, but he tightened his grip slightly.
His legs did ache and he was trembling from cold and exhaustion, but it seemed very likely that soon, neither of them would feel a friendly touch ever again. He wasn't going to waste the little time left worrying about getting bruised.
Morgan tried to remember his last question. Oh yes -- where the damned thing had come from.
"I think he got it from Don's store after he died. His friend Don used to run a bookstore in Paris..." Joe stopped her.
"I knew Don. He was one of my oldest friends." So his guess was right. And that might have been how Trainor had gotten MacLeod's name, and his own. Damn -- he had thought that the organization had checked the store with a fine-toothed comb after Don's murder.
"How do you fit into this?"
"Dad said that Don had shown him the database but wanted some security for it. That's my field -- I'm an encryption specialist. So I volunteered to help out with it. But Don was killed before I had a chance to go over and take a look at it. Then Dad showed up here with the disk and asked me to go to work on it."
"And how did it get into an airport locker?"
"We put it there after the third guy with the sword showed up. Dad said it was too dangerous to have the names, aliases and addresses of a bunch of killers lying around the house."
"He was right. A lot of people have died for that information. Don, his wife, your father, Kalas, a bunch of hired thugs..." his voice trailed off, seeing the faces.
"And now us," she finished sadly. "Are you one of the killers on that database, Joe?"
"My name is there," he said carefully. "But I'm not someone who goes around murdering people with swords."
"I know -- I found the Beretta; it's a much more practical weapon. Sorry I lost it. So what do you do?"
"I run a bar. I play blues. I watch people."
She reached out and took his hand, running her fingers meditatively over the palm and fingers, feeling the calluses left there from steel strings and cane and wheelchair. "I'd like to hear you play sometime, Joe."
"I don't think so, Joe," she said calmly. "This group's been right behind me for two straight months -- they're ruthless. They won't leave behind any witnesses."
He sighed, privately agreeing with her. He caressed her forehead with his lips, deciding to focus on this moment.
Morgan lifted her face and kissed him. It was a little clumsy at first, noses bumping in the dark, beard scratching across her face before she found his lips. Even against her bruised and split lip, it felt wonderful.
Joe's concentration on this kiss was total and breath-taking. His tongue had slipped out to tease against her lips, gently urging them open, before slipping inside to brush against her own. He grazed her teeth with it, then allowed himself to explore the silkiness of her mouth. One hand slid up to tip and hold her head exactly where he wanted it, while the other was a firm support against her back.
When they broke, breathless, and moved apart a fraction, she said conversationally, "Well, this is insane."
She could feel him smile in the darkness and nuzzled into his beard. Then the door opened.
As rescue plans went, it was a little crude, but its simplicity appealed to both of them. Get in quietly, kill anyone they met, get Dawson and get the hell out. MacLeod had tracked the other Immortal to this warehouse, after their unresolved battle.
Mac still didn't know the man's name, nor why he had risked a challenge. He did know, however, that the man was a poor swordsman. Short and weak, he had chosen a sword that was too long and heavy for him. It was only by using coward's tactics that he had survived even a short encounter with the Highlander.
First he had thrown sand into MacLeod's eyes, running as soon as Mac was helpless. Finally brought to bay, panting and gasping, down on the docks, he had simply turned and shot MacLeod in the chest, watching him fall into the river with a smug expression on his weasely face.
But he was foolish. He had stayed in the area, searching the banks, hoping to catch MacLeod as he dragged himself from the river. Mac had caught sight of him, hidden himself, and had begun to trail him as soon as his enemy had given up his own fruitless search.
In two days, MacLeod hadn't learned a lot about his quarry. He used four separate names, never stayed in one place longer than an hour and appeared to have a great deal of money which he threw around indiscriminately. His hotel room had paid bodyguards 24 hours a day; his chauffeur had several suspicious bulges about his person and there seemed to be one or two blonde bimbos in constant attention. All of these trappings made the man conspicuous and easy to track.
Or was he foolish? It suddenly occurred to MacLeod, waiting in the darkness, that his enemy had managed to keep MacLeod out of action for 48 hours -- while his friend was kidnapped and Trainor's daughter and sword disappeared. Was Dawson simply bait? Richie had already told him about the attempt on himself earlier that day. This might all be a set up. He ground his teeth in frustration.
"Mac?" whispered Richie, eyes still locked on the single faintly lit window.
"I just thought of something disturbing. Keep on the lookout for an Immortal -- a short, skinny guy who fights very dirty. Don't even bother to challenge him; he doesn't play by the rules. Just leave him to me."
"I'm a big boy, Mac." Duncan grinned at the familiar complaint.
"I know," he said, "but your job is to find Dawson and get him out of here. Got it?"
"Got it," Richie sighed, resigned. He started to move, when he was stopped by Duncan's hand on his arm.
"And Richie? Watch your head."
"You too, Mac." The youth slithered off into the night, sword drawn.
In the end, it was almost too easy. There had been five heavies -- three of them playing poker in the main section of the warehouse. It had been a simple matter to throw the main power switch, plunging the whole place into darkness. The heavies had started like rabbits, shouting, cursing and firing indiscriminately. After a few minutes of carnage, the three lay dead, one by "friendly fire". MacLeod flicked the blood off his blade and started for the back of the warehouse.
Richie had slipped into the rear of the warehouse, careful to avoid the attention of the poker players. There was an openwork stairway there and he crept down it, reasoning that prisoners were always kept in basements -- it was a tradition, wasn't it?
He froze on the last step, hearing footsteps and voices. Looking desperately around for a hiding place, he slid into the shadows beneath the stairs.
"Want to try the woman again?" A tired workman's voice.
"No -- save her for last. Let's see what we can get out of the old man first, then have her...for dessert." There was an oily smirk in the second man's voice that sent a shiver down Richie's spine. That cultured Oxonian accent somehow made it much worse. 'The woman' was probably, what was her name?, Morgan. He didn't like the thought of anyone being at the mercy of these two, not even someone who'd sliced open his gut a little earlier in the day.
"Knives or current?" That was the workman again.
"I don't think Karnauer particularly cares about this one; it was the woman he told us to keep in good health. Let's see what you can do with a blade, my boy."
"I'm the best you'll get at this price." Cold certainty and a pride in craft that made Richie grit his teeth in rage. They were talking about slicing up Dawson, for God's sake.
There was the thump of small quick-moving feet on the staircase above him. Oh no. He drew back even deeper into the shadows and tried not to look up and betray himself by the gleam of his eyes. At the fourth or fifth step, the Buzz hit him. 'Oh damn, MacLeod -- where are you?'
The strange Immortal had stopped dead and shrieked , "There's someone here! Find him! Find him!" Before the two hired guns had a chance to react, the lights went out.
In the ensuing pandemonium, Richie found it relatively easy to step out and cut down at least two of the enemies. He fumbled the flashlight out of his pocket and raked the area with the beam. Two bodies lay in the hall, blood splashed liberally. They both appeared to be mortal -- but not for long, Richie thought with grim pleasure. The little rat-like Immortal had disappeared -- Richie felt the Buzz receding from his senses. He swore and started up the stairs only to be hit with it again.
"Mac! Down here. Did you get him?"
Footsteps down the metal staircase and a soft oath when Richie swung the beam into his unguarded eyes. "Sorry," he pointed it downward.
"No -- he got away. There was a helicopter out there." MacLeod sounded faintly outraged at his enemy's planning. "Did you find Dawson?"
"No, but I'm pretty sure he's here somewhere. Watch your step."
They opened one heavy steel door at the end of the hall; it was an empty room that gave the impression of a dentist's office in a nightmare. Richie supposed it was the dentist chair and the table beside it, filled with gleaming instruments. There was a heavy, sweet-sour smell that wrinkled his nose; he didn't want to think about it. He swept the flashlight beam around the room one more time before they backed out and Duncan tried the other door across the hallway.
Bingo. When MacLeod swung this door open, he had the brief impression of sudden movement, then a white face moved into the light.
"Come on, then. It's me you want anyway. Leave him." The dark eyes widened at the sight of the naked blade in his hand.
"Actually, I want both of you. It's all right, Morgan." MacLeod sheathed his blade and opened his hands to show her he meant her no harm.
"Mac?" came Dawson's tired voice.
"Joe? Are you OK?" MacLeod moved quickly past her to kneel beside his friend.
"Yeah -- I'm OK. Give me a hand up."
MacLeod grabbed Dawson under the arms and hauled him bodily to his feet, catching him as Joe struggled to regain his balance. He held the other man close for a moment, thankful that he had not lost this friend yet. So fragile, mortal lives, and so short. Why couldn't the world leave him this one, at least, to live out his too-short natural span? Once again, Dawson had nearly died merely because he knew Duncan MacLeod.
Joe returned the embrace for a moment, then repeated, more strongly, "I'm OK, Mac. And I'm damned glad you are, too."
"Let's get out of here, then. Richie, help Morgan."
The younger man gulped and reached out to her. She dodged his hand, hissing, "Don't touch me." She walked unsteadily past him and he followed her down the hallway. She stopped for a moment, staring at the two bodies tangled at the foot of the stairs.
"Don't worry, " Richie said, "They're dead. I killed them."
She surprised him by smiling tightly, ferociously at him. "Good." Then she stepped over them and began climbing the stairs.
The sky was paling through the high windows on the upper level. They could just barely make out the disrupted poker game sprawled across the floor as they staggered past. When Morgan refused his arm with another snarl, Richie went and took Joe's other arm, slinging it around his neck, trying to take as much weight as he could onto himself.
Joe turned to smile weakly at him, but the smile faded as his eyes slid past the younger man's face. Morgan was rifling the bodies that lay like so much discarded trash.
"What the hell are you doing?" Richie snapped as they all stopped.
She ignored him to continue searching. Suddenly she gave an expression of pleasure and he saw a pistol in her hand.
"Morgan..." MacLeod began as she scooped up a handful of bills that had fluttered down from the overturned card table. Giving a satisfied nod, she stood up and crossed to them.
"Here's your pistol back, Joe. And your cash." She tucked them both into his pocket while the three of them stood staring at her open-mouthed.
"Let's get out of here," she suggested and started walking toward the entrance, limping slightly.
"Will someone tell me what the hell is going on around here?" MacLeod asked plaintively.
The drive back to town was quiet. Joe was sprawled in the front seat, head leaning against the glass as he half-faced MacLeod. Morgan had climbed silently into the back seat with Richie and sat as far away as possible from him. No one said anything. It had begun to rain again. Eventually, MacLeod broke the silence.
"I'm sorry about your father, Morgan."
She met his dark-eyed gaze in the rear-view mirror and nodded.
"The sword is in your apartment. I stuck it in the umbrella holder near the door," she explained without preamble. She was faintly amused to see Joe's eyes close as he shook his head and whispered what must have been a curse. Richie smacked a hand against his forehead and she smiled evilly at him.
Duncan's brow creased and he asked, "Does this have anything to do with the splintered chair in the middle of my living room?"
The hostile silence maintained by the other three answered his question. He sighed and took the hospital exit. No one said anything until he turned into the Emergency Room.
"Mac -- I don't need a hospital," Joe said quickly.
"Karnauer's still out there, Mac. This is where he snatched Dawson from last night!"
"I'm not going in there," Morgan said flatly.
Duncan drew up to the door and put the car in park before turning and saying,
"Would the three of you please shut up?" Morgan merely returned his glare, Joe looked resigned and Richie truculent.
"You," he stabbed a finger at Dawson, "are going to be checked out. And you," he waved his finger in Morgan's face, "look like hell; you're going to get a thorough going-over, too.
"And you," he focused on Richie, who swallowed nervously, "are going to explain this whole fiasco while we wait for them. Any questions?" he asked pleasantly. There was no arguing with the underlying steel in his tone.
He got out, crossed in front of the car and leaned in to help Dawson stand. Morgan scrambled out of the back seat and stood stretching in the drizzle while Richie clambered out to stand beside her. Wordlessly, she held out her hands to him. He flushed and fished out the handcuff key and unlocked the bracelets.
"MacLeod?" He looked up at her as Joe pulled himself upright, braced against his shoulder.
"The key is in the hilt of the sword. Airport. The locker number is 42. The markings on the blade are the key to the encryption code I used. Do whatever you want with it. I am opting out of this whole mess right now." Then she turned to the young man standing beside her. "Richie? Thanks for helping to get us out of there." She sounded truly sincere, so he grinned. At the sight of that grin, her eyes darkened. "Oh yeah- there's something I've been promising myself since yesterday afternoon."
She hit him, a powerful right, straight to his jaw. He went down hard, bouncing off the car as he fell. Then she turned and ran, jerky and a little clumsy, but still fast.
MacLeod shouted, "Morgan!" and made to follow her, but was stopped by Dawson's hand on his arm. "Mac -- let her go." At his bewildered look, Dawson sighed. "Come on. I'll explain as we wait. Richie, are you OK?"
The red-head clambered back to his feet, rubbing his jaw ruefully. A thin trickle of blood flowed from the side of his mouth. He wiped it away and grimaced. "She packs quite a punch, doesn't she, Joe?"
Unconsciously rubbing the side of his head, Dawson gave him a crooked grin. "That she does."
"Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" MacLeod repeated plaintively as he led Dawson into the hospital.
You're not the easiest person I ever got to know,
Hours later, Dawson was home, having narrowly avoided being admitted for observation. Later in the afternoon, he had nearly wished he was back safe in the hospital.
When the whole story of Morgan's capture had come out, MacLeod was livid. While not a man given much to swearing, Duncan had astonished Joe and Richie with his wide grasp of the fundamental crudities of at least four separate languages. The shouting was also a little hard on Joe, coming, as it did, on top of a head injury, a pretty large dose of dope, and exhaustion. When Mac had finally noticed his pained grimace, he had modulated the volume, but not the intensity.
Upon sober reflection, Dawson though he hadn't had such a lousy couple of days in a long, long time. He acknowledged every point MacLeod made, not excepting the accusation that Dawson had finally gone senile. Then he had plaintively asked if they were ever going to go find the CD that had caused all the trouble in the first place.
"No, Joe. We are not going to go look for it. I am. You are going to stay here and go to bed. Richie is going to stay here and make sure Karnauer doesn't come back for you. Got it?"
"MacLeod, I don't need a babysitter!"
MacLeod bellowed, "Enough!", silencing their yelps of protest. In a quieter tone, he said , "I will call you as soon as I find it. Then I will bring it here, OK?"
"In the meantime, I need everything you can find out about Karnauer. Aliases, chosen weapons, everything."
At the silent protest in Joe's eyes, MacLeod said, " I am not asking you for information just so I can go take another head, Joe. We're back in the same boat we were with Kalas. If this guy gets a hold of that CD and can get Morgan to decrypt it, he's got total access to the Watchers and all of the Immortals. I don't think he's all that old, or skilled. He needs an edge, "Joe grimaced at the unintentional pun, "like knowing who all the other Immortals are and where they live. He'll go hunting. Look what he did to Trainor."
MacLeod ran a tired hand through his hair. "Someone has to be here in case Morgan gets back in touch. I have a feeling she will; she can't leave the game before it ends, if I know anything about Trainor's kids."
Joe nodded, silently agreeing to wait for Morgan. "Mac, did you ever meet Morgan before? I got the impression she didn't know you."
"She didn't. But Trainor -- Ibrahim -- always had a kid around and they were always named 'Morgan', boy or girl."
At Joe's wondering stare, MacLeod shrugged. "Ibrahim liked kids. Morgan, the original one, was a backstreet kid he picked up in...I think it was during the Children's Crusade. He bought the boy in the slave markets of Constantinople, freed him and raised him as a son. Since then, he always had a 'Morgan' around." MacLeod sighed for his dead friend.
"I guess he was lonely and that was how he handled it. But I don't know how he dealt, time and again, when they died. How do you raise a child, knowing that you will watch it age, or sicken and die, right before your eyes, every time?"
His dark eyes were haunted as Joe met his stare. Joe nodded, understanding, then said to Richie, "Come on, hotshot, help this old man to bed."
The next day, Dawson dragged himself down to the bar, even though it was closed, in an attempt to keep himself occupied while waiting for MacLeod to show up.
MacLeod had called early that morning, saying only, "Do you have any idea how many lockers numbered '42' there are at this airport?"
When Joe replied that he didn't usually keep that kind of trivia in his head, MacLeod had hung up in disgust, before Joe could point out that the city actually had two airports.
Richie was straining like a dog on a leash, so Dawson finally sent him off to join MacLeod and remind him about the other airport. He grinned, hoping that Morgan would stay clear of MacLeod for a while, at least until he was out of his snit.
Morgan. He thought about her as he polished glasses; wondered where she was as he did mindless paperwork and finally, gave up and tuned his Gibson, yearning for her. It was still raining out and the industrial fan on the wall behind the stage turned lazily, letting him hear the growls of thunder and the flooding gutters outside. Mike, familiar with his boss' moods, said nothing as he worked. Dawson let his fingers wander, playing slow tunes, Mississippi River tunes, letting the Delta music flow out of him.
'Infuriating, mocking, irritating, brave,witty, strong woman -- where are you? How can I miss you this much when I didn't even know who you were 48 hours ago?'
The street door opened and a figure took a step inside and stood dripping, peering around the dim interior.
"Miss? We're closed," Mike called, coming around the bar. She ignored him, staring past the big man, waiting as Joe slowly put down the guitar and stood up. Grabbing his second-favorite cane, he came toward her.
Morgan closed her eyes and heard the same step she had listened for that whole insane afternoon when he had held her prisoner, fed her coffee and comforted her with poetry. When she reopened them, Joe stood in front of her. Mike had retreated behind the bar again, sure that this was another of those things he didn't want to know about. Morgan looked into Joe's eyes and smiled uncertainly.
"Well, you look like hell," he said gently, not touching her.
She was still wearing the clothes that she and Richie had tussled in, days ago now. She was soaking wet, her dark red hair plastered to her head, water dripping into her eyes and off that firm chin. The bruises had come up in Technicolor and she looked like a poster child for Domestic Violence Prevention. Her chin quivered a little, then her lips tightened and she started to speak.
Joe held up a hand to forestall her, then turned to Mike, who already had his jacket in hand and tossed it to him. "Come on," he said and took her home.
They were mostly silent on the drive there. Noting her shivering, he turned the heat way up; he liked the sigh she gave as she relaxed into it.
"Forgot it at the bus station. I thought I was being followed."
He glanced sharply at her. "Were you?" He had been keeping a pretty careful eye out for pursuers the whole drive home and had seen nothing.
"I don't think so. I just panicked. It was that kind of a day."
"I hear that."
After a moment, he asked, "Why'd you come back, Morgan?"
"These people killed my father. They want that disk, and it's suddenly become very important to me that they not get it, or the information stored on it."
"Can you decode it?"
"Given the right tools, and the sword, Yes. If you want it, you can have it. Just help me take down Karnauer -- that's all I ask."
He ushered into the foyer of his house where she stood dripping, staring unhappily at the growing puddle on his hardwood floor. Joe hung his jacket on the coat rack then laughed at her woebegone expression.
"Don't worry about it -- that floor's had a lot worse than water drip on it. The bathroom is through there. Just toss your wet stuff on the floor and get into a hot shower NOW."
Morgan slipped off her muddy shoes and squished off to the bathroom. Soon he heard the water running and figured it was safe. Knocking once on the door, he opened it and said, "I'm going to throw your clothes into the washer and see if we can do anything for them." He picked up the sodden mass and scrutinized it. "But I gotta tell you, I'm not too optimistic."
Morgan laughed. "Maybe we should skip washing and go right to burning them."
He left her to the mercies of hot water and soap and put on some coffee. Then he rummaged in his drawers for something for Morgan to wear. There wasn't much -- sweats and a clean tee shirt would have to do. He left them on the sink and was mildly startled and pleased to hear her humming a little.
When Morgan emerged, Joe was nowhere in sight. Following her nose, she wandered into the living room. It was a large, comfortable obviously masculine room. There were bookcases lining the walls, even between the windows. There were a few prints on the walls and a stunning pen and ink over the mantel, but aside from these, the room was very plainly furnished. A pair of sofas were set on either side of the fireplace and an easy chair with a lamp next to it were the only furniture. There was a guitar placed carefully on the floor beside the chair. It wasn't plain so much as austere, she decided.
Joe had lit a fire and left a tray of food on the coffee table before it. She sat down on the couch and continued to towel her short hair, wondering if she had the willpower to wait until her host returned; she was ravenous.
"There's food in the living room, Morgan. Eat something, OK? I'll be there in a minute," he called from somewhere down the hall. That was all the invitation she needed. By the time Joe emerged, she had inhaled a sandwich and a half and was working on a cup of tomato soup with total concentration.
His warm laugh startled her and she jerked, spilling some soup onto her hand and the floor. Shaking her hand ruefully, she looked up to apologize and stopped.
'Oh my.' Joe had changed into jeans and a navy Henley that hugged his torso, outlining the strong muscles she remembered holding her tight.
He had also taken the opportunity to take off his prostheses for a while. His legs had taken a beating this weekend, along with the rest of him.
It was only the merest pause, but Joe caught it and sighed as he wheeled himself into the room. He chose to ignore her reaction, asking,
"Is there enough for you? Do you want something else?"
She shook her head. "Do you know what a luxury it is to be clean and warm and dry, Joe? Thanks."
"Don't mention it." He picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip, then put a small bottle on the table. "Painkillers. If you feel even half as bad as you look, you'll need them." The black tee shirt he had given her only emphasized the dark circles under her eyes and the pallor of exhaustion that had been hidden under dirt.
She grinned at him. "Flattery won't get you anywhere with me, Joe." But she took one of the tablets and washed it down with the last of her soup. When she put the mug down, he saw that her hand was shaking a little.
"Morgan -- you need some sleep. There's a guest room upstairs..."
Her head jerked up. "No." Then she grasped at some of her tattered self-control. "I'd like to stay here, by the fire, Joe."
He understood. Too much recently -- too much fear, too much pain, too much strangeness. He smiled gently and wheeled over to her, shoving the table to the side.
"Lie down, " he pushed gently on her shoulder. She lay back, hazel eyes wide. Twitching a Hudson Bay blanket off the back of the couch, he spread it over her and tucked her in.
It made him think of Richie's description of how he had found Joe that first night and he grinned a slow, crooked grin -- "she tucked you in, Joe. First, she bashed your head in, then she made sure you wouldn't catch a cold! What kind of a woman does that?!"
Richie had been outraged, but Joe had instinctively understood what kind of woman she was -- practical, perhaps even ruthless. She hadn't wanted to hurt him, but she was going to get away. He found he bore her no ill will, even though he still had that nagging headache.
"I am sorry about that, Joe. " Morgan obviously knew exactly what had been in his thoughts.
"It's OK, Morgan," he reassured her, then grinned, pure devilment in his eyes, "Just wait until you wake up, though." He mock-punched to her jaw and was rewarded with her full-lipped smile.
"Joe, will you...?" He reached out and brushed her hair away from her forehead, then stroked her undamaged cheek with his fingertips.
"I'll be right here, Morgan. Go to sleep." Trusting him, she closed her eyes and was instantly asleep.
She slept most of the afternoon, although she often woke, jerking herself out of sleep at some small sound, a log popping in the fireplace, a roll of thunder, a car in the street. She would instinctively scan the room for him, calming only at his smile. Then she would drop back into sleep with a soft sound and he would feel a twist somewhere deep inside.
Once, when he had calmed her again with a soft word, her eyes had closed, then a small grin crossed her face and she said only, "Stockholm Syndrome," then was asleep.
Although he had settled himself on the other sofa to read, he found himself staring at her, tracing the lines of her face with his gaze. His fingers remembered them well enough, and if he closed his eyes, he could almost feel her in his arms again.
His cell phone rang as dusk was falling, startling her awake once again. It was MacLeod -- Joe kept his voice low as her eyes closed again.
"Mac -- where are you?"
The Highlander's voice was tired. "Leaving the airport, Joe. I finally found it; I've got the disk. I also found Karnauer -- or he found us."
"Are you two OK?"
"Fine, Joe, but he got away again. Have you got anything on him?"
"Not much in the files, Mac. He's pretty new;only died two years ago. He was a small-time Mob accountant who got caught in a fire-fight by accident. He's still in La Familiar and they call him "Lucky"."
"Which explains the limo and the helicopter and the hired thugs."
"And Mac -- he's only taken 2 heads -- one of them was his teacher, Trainor. He doesn't play by the rules. Looks like you were right -- if he gets that disk, he will go hunting. We've got to find him first."
"He's still out there. Are you taking precautions?"
He sighed and tapped the Beretta slid into the sofa cushion beside him. "Yes, Mother. The alarms are set and we're staying away from the windows."
"Morgan came back, Mac."
There was a slight pause. "I'm on my way over."
"No you're not, MacLeod. The database can wait until morning. What she needs is some rest and a little time to heal."
"Joe -- I can protect her..." As soon as he had said it, Duncan knew he'd made a mistake. "I'm sorry, but you're up against an Immortal here."
Dawson's voice was icy. "She came to me, MacLeod. She doesn't trust you and she didn't exactly have the best experience at your place. I've got the situation under control."
He broke the connection and stared angrily into the fire.
When Mac heard him hang up, he sighed and tucked his phone back into his pocket. At Richie's questioning glance, he said ruefully, "In four hundred years, you'd think I would have learned a little tact."
"So what are we gonna do?"
"Ever play Cops-And-Robbers as a kid, Richie? I think we're going to set up a stakeout."
When Morgan awoke again, it was dark outside and the room was full of gentle music. She stretched lazily and Joe looked up from his guitar.
"Did I wake you?"
"No," she smiled,"it's lovely."
"I told you you'd hear me play the blues."
She sat up and ran her fingers through her hair, combing it into place. The tee shirt outlined her muscular form and clung to the swell of her breasts. A few hours of peaceful sleep had restored the brightness to her eyes; she looked very young and Joe swallowed, pushing away certain thoughts that had begun surfacing.
She was rubbing absently at the bruises and abrasions on her wrists. The cuffs had really torn them up as she struggled to escape. From him.
"Like everything else," she shrugged.
Suddenly he remembered the little jar he had tucked into his pocket when he had changed. Levering himself off the couch and into his chair, he came over to her. Morgan had watched the process, marveling at the strength and agility he had in those long arms and solid shoulders.
"Give me your hand."
He unscrewed the jar and put it on the table, then took her hand. A pleasant scent of cinnamon and mint and a sharper menthol rose as he took a dab of the dark red ointment and began massaging it gently into her wrist, first one, then the other.
Joe's fingers were warm and sure and the balm was soothing; Morgan closed her eyes and gave herself up to the pleasure of his touch.
"I have a friend who's a Chinese pharmacist. She gets me this stuff for my legs."
"Mmmm. It feels wonderful," Morgan murmured, not opening her eyes.
"So do you, Joe," she added.
His fingers stopped. She opened her eyes and looked directly at him. Then she leaned forward and touched her lips to his.
"Morgan -- I don't know that this is such a good idea."
She grinned. "You're right. It's a stunningly bad one.
"Close your eyes."
Surprised, he did. He heard the blanket rustle as she stood. Then she had settled herself gently down on his lap. His arms came up automatically to support her and he found himself holding her as he had during that dark and terrible night.
Her lips brushed up his throat and through his beard, searching blindly for his. He was startled at the shock of pure desire that shot through him at her kiss. Any objections he might have had were burned away when he felt her tongue begin to play with his, stroking beneath, tangling and teasing. He gave himself up to this with the single-minded intensity of attention that had so rocked Morgan that night.
Eyes still closed, he ran his hands up her back, beneath the tee shirt. The feel of his calloused hands made Morgan arch against him with a purring noise. When she threw her head back, he kissed down her throat, his beard gently scraping the tender skin and causing her to clutch at his head with a whimper.
"Easy, sweetheart," he whispered.
"Oh, no. Nothing is ever easy, Joe. You're going to have to work for this," her warm voice teased through him.
He drew his head back and looked at her flushed face and the challenging brightness of her eyes. "I do all of my best work in the bedroom," he suggested. She was off of his lap and down the hallway with gratifying speed.
He woke, sometime in the night, to an empty bed. "Morgan?" he called softly, but there was no answer. There were faint scratching noises coming from somewhere. Telling himself not to be ridiculous, he pulled himself out of bed anyway, reaching for his prostheses and the jeans he had left set up for morning. Strapping them on, and fastening the jeans took longer than he had patience for. His concern was rapidly edging into panic as those indistinct noises stopped.
He grabbed his cane and shrugged into a flannel shirt left hanging on the edge of the bed. Picking up the Beretta, he moved as quietly as he could out of his bedroom and down the hallway.
He found her in the study.
Morgan was sitting at Joe's desk, her face illuminated by the greenish glare of the computer monitor. Her attention was riveted on the screen. She was eating leftover Chinese food out of the carton, using chopsticks. Every once and again, her finger would move out to tap a key or move the mouse.
After standing there for a while, waiting for her to notice him, Joe said, "You slept with me just to get access to my computer files?"
Without taking her eyes off the screen, she said with a grin, "No. I slept with you just to get access to your Chinese food."
When he didn't reply, Morgan finally dragged her eyes from the screen and focused on the man in the doorway. What she saw drove the smile from her face.
He was leaning on the doorjamb, the gun in one hand, shirt hanging open, hair rumpled with loving and sleep. He should have looked romantic as all hell, but the expression in his eyes was terrible.
"Oh my God -- you're serious."
"What else am I supposed to think?" he said bitterly.
Her mouth opened once, then she closed it. Finally she said, "Joe, I made love to you honestly, because I wanted to be with you."
"Come on, Morgan. I may be a fool, and an old fool, but I'm not stupid." The cynicism in his quiet voice was far worse than any shouting.
"Look -- I'm sorry that I trespassed in your files. But I'm the only player without any idea of what's going on here, Joe. You've got information and I need it if I'm going to survive."
"I would have protected you. MacLeod, too."
"But for how long, Joe? I've been a prisoner twice in 24 hours. I've been beat up, tortured, drugged and chased across the country -- and I didn't even know why.
"When were you going to tell me about Immortals, Joe? What were you going to tell me about the Watchers? Were you ever going to mention that I was my father's 16th adopted child -- the 16th Morgan, daughter of Ibrahim? I never even knew his real name before tonight..."
He couldn't answer her. She went on. "How long could we hold out against people who don't die when you shoot them? Or cut them -- like Richie? Were you going to tell me anything, Joe?"
He nodded sadly. "I was, Morgan. I was going to recruit you." Anger suddenly flared in his eyes. "Do you realize that people have been killed for the information you just stole? That my oath requires that I kill you just because you've tapped those files?" Her eyes flicked to the gun in his hand.
"Joe," she said, "there are people waiting in line to kill me. And I'm the only one who can give you access to that database."
He recognized the calm, slightly mocking voice of the blindfolded woman he had first met cuffed to a chair. Assessing, calculating, giving nothing away.
Only now, she wasn't blindfolded anymore. She was fighting for her life with the weapons she had -- intelligence and information. She had had to take the information because no one had given it to her -- not Trainor, not MacLeod, not Joe Dawson.
'What attracted you most to this woman, remember Joe? It was her practicality. She's a survivor in a tough game. Why blame her for breaking rules she never made?'
His anger started to flicker out, but not the sense of betrayal.
"You could have just asked; you didn't have to..." he whispered. She only stared at him, plainly telling him that she knew he wouldn't have told her a thing.
"It's too bad MacLeod doesn't have a computer," he finished bitterly and looked away.
Her jaw tightened and she punched the keyboard and signed off before trusting herself to speak.
"Joe. I could have hacked into your files from any terminal in the country. I'm that good. I didn't need to worm my way into your home, nor whore myself into your bed for it."
He didn't say anything.
She walked over to stand in front of him, forcing him to look at her. When she saw the misery and doubt in his eyes, she finally understood.
"You have one hell of an inferiority complex, bluesman."
She watched him struggle, try to deny it, then swallow and accept it.
"There's no fool like an old fool," he said, a reluctant grin beginning to show.
"Maybe you should stop comparing yourself to the 400-year old pin-up boy," she suggested before flowing into his arms. After a breathless eternity, she pulled back and asked,
"How old do you feel now, Joe?"
The devil was back in his eye. "Like I'm 18 and my jeans are too damned tight."
Her eyebrow cocked and she rubbed up against him experimentally. Reaching around him and under his open shirt, she gently ran her nails down his back, causing him to arch against her soft breasts. Her lips and teeth tugging at his ear made him grab the doorframe for support and her hand brushing against his crotch made him gasp.
"Nah. An 18-year-old would have lost it right there. There's nothing like experience," she whispered.
He tucked the gun into the waistband of his jeans, then his hands came up to clasp her head, holding it in place.
"Joe?" she asked breathlessly, as he brushed his lips across her eyelids, touching them to each temple and cheekbone.
"Mmm?" He was feather-kissing down her throat, paying special attention to the hollow above her collar-bone.
"If you're going to shoot me, would you wait until after you do that thing you did with your tongue again?"
Laughing, he drew her back down the hall and into his bed.
Morning dawned cold and damp, but with the promise of sunlight for the first time in a week. Richie awoke with a jerk, stiff from his nap in the back seat. Duncan sat silent and watchful in the front. They had spent the night in front of Dawson's house, watching and waiting for an attack that never came. There had been no Buzz, no skulking figures, nothing. MacLeod was beginning to feel much put upon by his friend's stubborn pride.
He pulled the CD out and stared at it with something akin to hatred. He should just burn the damned thing now and get it over with. But he was curious -- and he needed information on Karnauer that Joe would probably argue about giving him. In fact, the whole situation was irritating as hell.
He hadn't created the interactive Watcher database that had caused all the trouble in the first place- Methos and Don Salzer had. MacLeod had gotten shot keeping Dawson from sacrificing his soul and shooting Don's widow just to keep the Watchers and Immortals anonymous. *MacLeod* had fought Kalas and absorbed his tainted Quickening. This was the third sleepless night in a row that damned disk had caused him, let alone the frustrating hours spent pawing in airport lockers.
"This has gone far enough," he muttered.
"Well, finally. I've been saying that since last night," Richie commented, before catching MacLeod's black look and opting for self-preservation and silence. He followed MacLeod as he got out of the car and strode across the street to pound on Dawson's front door.
"Dawson! It's MacLeod. Open up," he called and pounded some more. A couple of early morning runners and dog-walkers slowed down to stare. Richie winced at his volume and tried hard to look as if he were merely waiting for a bus next to the large angry man in black leather.
After a short time, Dawson came cautiously into the foyer, brightening when he saw them through the glass. He tucked the gun back into his waistband, disarmed the alarm and opened the door to usher them inside. His manner was almost offensively cheerful and only underscored MacLeod's sour demeanor.
"MacLeod! Richie! Just in time for breakfast." Richie sniffed appreciatively at the odor of coffee and bacon wafting out of the kitchen.
"Here's the disk, Joe. Where's Morgan?"
"Cooking breakfast. Eat first, save the world later, OK, Mac?" He led the way to the kitchen where Morgan was scrambling eggs and whistling tunelessly. She smiled warmly at them, her happy expression a marked contrast to the bruises and scrapes on her face and arms. Without a word, she broke six more eggs into the bowl.
The table was set for two -- Joe waved them to seats and busied himself setting two more places for them. MacLeod stared at the two of them, mechanically drinking the coffee that Joe handed him, wondering what was going on.
He felt himself becoming more and more aggrieved as breakfast went on. Dawson was joking with Richie, laughing openly when Morgan threw in a sly dig. She was certainly no longer the panicky waif who had escaped from his care just two days before. These two were far too cheerful to be the potential victims he had just spent a cold and uncomfortable night watching over. A suspicion began to tickle the back of his mind.
He stuffed the last piece of toast into his mouth and handed the disk to Morgan without a word.
She turned it over gently in her long fingers, staring at it as if she could read it. "I've got a price, MacLeod."
"I thought you might," he said wryly. He had known Ibrahim and he figured this Morgan wouldn't be much different from the others.
"I want Karnauer." No hint of the laughing woman who had served him breakfast twenty minutes ago.
"Ibrahim was my friend. I'll get him, Morgan."
"No, MacLeod. I said, I *want* him. He killed my father; he's chased me across the country. And he tortured me. He hurt Joe.
"If you want my help with this, " she spun the disk on her finger, "you promise that we go after Karnauer together." They both ignored the distressed noises Richie and Joe were making.
Duncan looked at her carefully, assessing her. After a moment, he nodded, his brown eyes warming. Here was a woman he could understand and respect. "You've got a deal, Morgan. Now -- the disk."
She nodded and led the way to Joe's study. They all trooped in and arranged themselves around the room, "like cats in a fish shop," she laughed.
"Did you bring the sword, MacLeod?"
He nodded and brought it out it out from under his leather overcoat. As she took it, Morgan asked Joe, "How does he do that?"
"No one's ever been able to figure that out," Joe grimaced at Duncan's smug grin.
"This isn't going to be too exciting to watch, gentlemen."
"That's fine, Morgan, " MacLeod assured her. "I think we've all had enough excitement from this damned disk. We just want to know what's on it."
She nodded and got to work. They watched as she scrutinized the markings stamped into the blade; she appeared to be counting. Then she put in the disk and called up what looked like a hash of letters and numbers. Her fingers flew over the keyboard, seemingly unconnected to the rest of her, as she casually asked, "What are we going to do with it once we've got it?"
"What?" three voices asked her.
The keys kept clicking as she said, "What are you going to do with the database once you've got it? From what Joe told me, it was never supposed to be created in the first place. The master disk melted; my father destroyed the copy he got from Don's place and this is an encrypted copy -- the last one, presumably. So what I'm wondering is, why am I decoding it at all? Why not just destroy it?" Her fingers never faltered as she questioned her own purpose there.
The thunderstruck silence behind her spoke volumes. She watched impassively as pieces of data flickered across the screen, reassembling themselves into the information H-bomb it had originally been. When she turned to look at them, the three men were staring at one another, obviously struggling with the issue, silently arguing, weighing options.
"I should turn it in to Watcher HQ," Dawson said hesitantly.
"You don't sound convinced," she pointed out and added another line of code, causing more puzzle pieces to drop into place.
"This wasn't a sanctioned project," he explained. "HQ was mad as hell when they found out about it. We keep information decentralized so no one can ever uncover the whole organization, or our Chronicles."
"That's why your files are incomplete," Morgan nodded, understanding.
"You let her look at your Watcher files?" MacLeod accused Dawson, disbelief warring with anger in his tone.
"What -- you thought you were the only one I broke my oath for?" Dawson and MacLeod locked gazes and something intensely personal and not entirely friendly passed between them.
Morgan cut in sharply. "There was no "let" about it, MacLeod. I hacked in while he was sleeping. I told him not to trust me," she added, her voice warming as she shot a look at Dawson. They shared a private smile while MacLeod ground his teeth.
"How much do you know?" he asked tightly.
"Too much for your comfort and not enough for my own." She turned back to the screen.
"Go have your fight in the kitchen, gentlemen. I'll call you when I've got it unraveled, OK?"
Slowly, unwillingly, like dogs pulled off a scent, the three men went.
Dawson made more coffee and they drank it in a fearsome silence. Richie's eyes slid between his two friends, and he wished there was something he could do. It dawned on him that the best thing he could do was not be there. They were proud men and 'kissing and making up' with an audience was not likely. He got up and left the room without a word.
Left alone, the Immortal and his Watcher said nothing for a time. Then, they both spoke at once.
"Joe -- I didn't mean to..."
"Look, Mac, this whole thing is..."
They both broke off; brown eyes met hazel and they smiled a little tentatively. Once again the friendship was stronger than the demands they placed on it.
"I guess your night was a little better than mine," MacLeod offered with a grin.
"Depends on how close you and Richie got," Dawson teased.
MacLeod snorted, then asked "Are you in love with her?"
"Yes. No. I don't know." Dawson ran his hands through his hair. "It feels like it, but it doesn't make any sense. My brain is telling me that I know nothing about her and I just met her 3 days ago and that I'm a foolish old man. I won't even tell you what my body is saying," he grinned.
"I can imagine -- I think it's her eyes. And the way she smells."
For a moment, MacLeod looked exactly like a wine connoisseur evaluating a particular vintage. How many women had he known, Dawson wondered idly. What woman wouldn't prefer Duncan MacLeod, Warrior, Lover, Wanderer? He could feel the inferiority complex Morgan had accused him of kicking in and sighed.
He didn't realize that it was all in his face until MacLeod said softly, Joe. Men are men and women are mysteries, whether you've lived 40 years or 400. Morgan obviously wants you. Not me."
"And I have no idea why."
"You really think she'd tell me?"
"No." MacLeod grinned.
Richie stood in the doorway to the study, shifting from foot to foot, watching Morgan's nimble fingers skim over the keyboard.
"Richie. Either come in or get out, but not the in-between stuff, OK?"
He gave a shamefaced grin and came to sit on the corner of the desk. "I just didn't want to get slugged in the jaw again."
Morgan smiled at him. "I'm not going to apologize." The morning light seemed to highlight the scrapes and bruises on her cheek and forehead.
"I know. And I'm not going to apologize for cuffing you. Even though Mac thinks I should."
"We both did what we thought we had to; let's leave it at that."
He nodded slowly at her and they shook hands. Then Morgan turned her attention back to the screen.
Richie asked, "How's it coming?"
"Pretty well. It's going more slowly than I had hoped just because I've forgotten some of the codes I used. I was a little rushed for time and it's been a while since I looked at this.
"How's it going with Joe and MacLeod?"
"They'll work it out. They always have before."
"They've been friends for a long time?"
"Three or four years, on and off."
"Watchers aren't supposed to be friends with their assignments. How did this happen?"
Richie just grinned. "Mac. He tripped over Dawson and couldn't stay away."
"And Joe probably didn't push him away; he's too fascinated by him." Morgan had also taken a brief tour of Dawson's private journals, the ones he would never log with the Watchers.
"They've broken off their friendship more times than I can count, but something always brings them back."
"It almost sounds like a codependent relationship."
Richie laughed at that. "Maybe," he admitted. "But I can't help thinking that living with a couple of alcoholics might be a lot more peaceful. It's nearly killed them both." He shuddered, thinking about the Watcher trial Mac had told him about in Paris a few months back.
"Those scars Joe won't talk about?"
Richie nodded. Morgan sighed and said, "And here I thought I was just getting involved with a couple of nice kidnappers who had a weakness for fancy swords. Why couldn't it be that simple?"
They were both still laughing when Dawson and MacLeod came into the room.
"Morgan," MacLeod said, "We think we've got a plan." A slow, feral smile came up in her eyes.
"Talk to me."
"Is the disk decrypted?" MacLeod reminded her of their deal.
"Another hour, at most," she promised.
"All right, then. Here's the idea..."
Twenty minutes and two phone calls later, Morgan was hacking her way into an overseas bank's database, chuckling evilly all the while. The three men watched with raised eyebrows as she picked her way through the security system, searching for Karnauer's accounts.
"Got it!" She hit the 'return' key with a flourish and accepted Richie's high-five with a grin.
"That's good, Morgan," MacLeod came to stand behind her, one hand on her shoulder. He looked at the balances of some of the accounts Morgan had isolated and whistled.
"Look at all of that money, just sitting there. What a waste. Why don't we put it somewhere it might do some good?" He and Morgan traded vicious grins, then she bent over the keyboard, fingers typing furiously.
Large sums of money were transferred without a single beep to interrupt her concentration. Churches, synagogues, mosques, orphanages, and homeless shelters across the city all received substantial deposits.
While the three men were busy plotting MacLeod's next move, Morgan also created four special accounts and padded them comfortably. She herself was untroubled by stealing money from the Mob, but both Joe and MacLeod seemed to have an excess of morality in some areas. She hoped that they wouldn't kick too much later on when they discovered themselves to be modest millionaires.
Besides, Karnauer owed them all. He was just going to be paying his debt with his employer's money, something done by many improvident people in positions of unwarranted trust. Idly, she wondered what the Mob would do to him when they found out about the embezzled funds. She hope it was sustained and very painful.
He had also bluntly suggested that Morgan get herself some clothes. Her own clothing hadn't survived the washing machine and her luggage was gone, lost at the airport when Karnauer's goons had originally tried to grab her on her way to meet Duncan MacLeod; the night she had 'met' Richie and Joe instead.
Richie and Morgan had come back dressed in brand-new "urban guerrilla" gear. Camo pants, perfectly ironed, topped with thick British issue black wool sweaters and finished with shiny new combat boots; the two of them looked like fresh-faced kids dressing up for Halloween. Joe couldn't help laughing at them.
Morgan had obviously stopped and bought makeup as well. She had applied it with care, disguising the damage to her face with almost professional skill.
"Well? What do you think?" she asked Joe with a grin.
Unable to speak, he tugged her into his arms and kissed her, hard. Richie tried not to stare, then gave up, scratching his head. First MacLeod and now Dawson -- 'Why did everyone else get all the good women?' he wondered.
When Joe released her, Morgan took a deep breath, then turned away and began rummaging in one of the numerous bags she and Richie had carried in. She handed Joe a full box of 9 mm ammunition and a couple of spare clips for his pistol.
"Stopped by a police supply warehouse," Morgan said simply as he stared at her. "I wanted to bring you roses, but they were all out."
She then handed a pair of handcuffs to each man. "Try those next time, guys. Much better quality than what you were using, Richie."
She gathered up her bags and took them down the hall to the bedroom, whistling, as Joe and Richie stared at each other. After a moment, Richie said,
"That woman frightens me, Joe. She seems so sweet, but the stuff she does..."
"You're tellin' me?"
Richie shook his head in wonder, then asked, "Mac come back yet?"
"Nope. But he phoned. He's out making Karnauer nervous."
He himself had just gotten off the phone with Karnauer's Watcher, Jimmy Supres, getting his monthly report a little early. Jimmy had been chasing Karnauer around the continent for two months now and he was tired and annoyed at his assignment. He wanted nothing more than to talk to a sympathetic supervisor.
The guy was a weasel, a small-time Mob bean-counter who had had exactly two encounters in the past two years, Supres complained. He even managed to sound personally offended that Karnauer had cheated on both of those, not even issuing a Challenge, just cutting Wilson and Trainor down from behind. The Quickenings weren't even that spectacular, Jimmy bitched.
Things had looked up when Karnauer had challenged MacLeod, but nothing had come of it. Jimmy even admitted to losing track of his assignment for the last couple of days, mostly through inattention. The guy was a complete wart, and a boring one at that. Couldn't Joe reassign him?
Joe had promised to consider it, told him to take the night off, then ended the call. So Supres hadn't seen Dawson kidnapped by Karnauer, nor rescued by MacLeod. He hadn't even mentioned Morgan, whom Karnauer had been pursuing single-mindedly for two months.
Joe was personally inclined to be thankful for his subordinate's inefficiency this time. He couldn't afford to be personally connected to anyone MacLeod killed ever again. The Paris trial had focused intense scrutiny on Joe's whole division. It was fortunate that Jimmy had already logged Karnauer's unfinished challenge to MacLeod. It would make anything that happened tonight far less suspicious. He hoped.
MacLeod had no trouble finding Karnauer's suite. A little charm, a $50 investment with the bell captain and he was standing at the door, smiling pleasantly at Karnauer's hired Cerberus.
"Tell Mr. Karnauer that Mr. MacLeod is here. I have something he'd be very interested in."
There was a whispered consultation among the muscle, then the door opened wide enough to admit him. One of the guards moved in close to pat him down and MacLeod dodged with a polite smile.
"No. Karnauer sees me as I am, or not at all."
The two guards were reaching toward their weapons when Karnauer's high-pitched voice said,
"It's all right, boys. Mr. MacLeod and I are ... acquaintances. Do I presume that this is merely a social call, Mr. MacLeod?" Karnauer's gaze flicked to Mac's overcoat and the sword that he knew must be there.
Duncan nodded, silently agreeing that there would be no challenge, at least not right now.
"You can leave, boys. A drink, MacLeod?" Karnauer raised his own in invitation.
Mac waited until he heard the door close behind the bodyguards, then said, "No. I came to offer a deal, Karnauer."
"You surprise me, MacLeod. Everything I've learned of you suggests that you wouldn't touch the likes of me with a ten-foot pole."
"Everything you learned from Trainor?" MacLeod accused.
Karnauer merely nodded, his small eyes brightening with vicious humor. "Ibrahim was enormously informative and a good teacher. Of course, not as informative as that database would be."
MacLeod smiled coolly. "True. There's a lot of interesting material on it. Names, addresses, preferred techniques... it could certainly give one an advantage. Someone who had it."
"You've read it?" Karnauer licked his lips.
MacLeod nodded, still smiling. "Oh yes. Morgan decrypted it for me. It's the most comprehensive listing of Immortals that I've ever seen. Even the Watchers don't have anything like it. What's it worth to you?"
Karnauer shook his head, and made a sound like a mink laughing. "You don't get it, do you MacLeod? The question is: what are your friends' lives worth to you?" He put his drink down on a coffee table and sat down, trying to appear completely at his ease.
"You see, I know who Dawson is, where he lives and that Richie Ryan and Trainor's daughter are with him now. With one phone call, I could have them all picked up and delivered here -- or back to that warehouse."
"That is, if you could reach the phone, of course," MacLeod remarked pleasantly, considering his fingernails.
Karnauer's grin wavered for a moment. "You said you were here to offer me a deal?"
MacLeod nodded. "It's simple. You meet me down on the docks tonight, alone, with your sword. If you win, you get the disk. If I win, I get your head."
Karnauer snorted. "I have no illusions about my ability with a sword, MacLeod. Nor yours. What makes you think I'd take such a foolish risk?"
"The simple fact that if you don't, tomorrow morning your 'employers' will discover that you've embezzled all of the funds which you were supposed to have carefully invested in their behalf."
"What?!" Karnauer's outraged shriek almost shattered the windows as he rushed to his computer terminal and began punching keys desperately. MacLeod watched the truth sink in and drag Karnauer's shoulders down, then turned to leave.
"It was that Trainor bitch, wasn't it?!"
MacLeod smirked as he paused with his hand on the doorknob.
"Tonight, Karnauer. Dock 16, midnight, alone. Just you and me. A fair fight. I'll bring the disk. Don't think of touching Dawson or Morgan or Richie; if anything happens to any of them, you'll never get that money back. And your bosses will be very ... unhappy with you. And I'll be very unhappy with you, too. Only then, you won't have all the hired muscle to do your dirty work, will you? It'll still be just you and me."
He left, whistling tunelessly.
When the world's gone crazy and it makes no sense,
Morgan wasn't happy with the next piece of MacLeod's plan. It left her completely safe and sound, a fact she protested vigorously.
"You promised that we would go after Karnauer together, MacLeod."
"And we have. You hit him where it hurts and gave us the one thing that could have flushed Karnauer out. This is a team effort, Morgan. Now, it's my turn at bat."
She glared at him.
Joe said, "If you're going to be a Watcher, there's a basic fact you're going to have to accept, Morgan. We watch, but we never interfere. Tonight, MacLeod fights, I watch, you wait."
"Dammit, this is my fight. He killed my father and totally trashed my life. I don't need any knights in shining armor to do my dirty work for me."
"Morgan, we're trying to keep you from getting hurt here." Joe was the personification of patience and it annoyed her immeasurably.
"Joe, I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself!" she snapped.
MacLeod snorted, her tone was so like Richie's. Both Morgan and Joe turned to glare at him, and he held up a hand in mock-apology. "Sorry, go on with your fight. Pretend I'm not here."
"He can really be a pain in the neck sometimes, can't he?" Morgan asked Joe.
"You have no idea," Joe sighed.
In the end, Joe gave in only as far as promising to take Morgan along with him to chronicle the Challenge. He figured, correctly, that if he didn't, she would only find her own way straight into trouble.
MacLeod was pretty sure that he had effectively muzzled Karnauer's dogs as far as Dawson and Morgan were concerned, but he remained with them the rest of the afternoon and evening, meditating, doing kata, polishing his blade. Dawson caught him alone as he untangled himself from a full-lotus position.
"MacLeod, you seem a little worried about tonight. You don't have any doubts about taking Karnauer, do you?
The Highlander grinned wolfishly. "No. But he's going to cheat. I need to be ready for whatever he comes up with."
"What do you figure he'll do?"
"Simplest thing would be to put a gunman or two up on the roof and shoot me, then take my head."
Dawson nodded, considering. "Do you want me to..."
"No." MacLeod said, a shade too quickly. "That's where Richie comes in. He's been dying to do some rooftop work; he claims he's starting to get rusty since I made him go on the straight and narrow."
Dawson grimaced at what MacLeod hadn't said.
MacLeod said gently, "Joe. I know you want to help me. You have. But I can't put you in the position of helping me to take down another Immortal ever again. Didn't we learn anything in Paris this last time?"
Dawson sighed, but he nodded slowly. "Well, I'm not going to whine that 'I'm a big boy', but I am going to be there."
Mac grinned. "You wouldn't be my Watcher if you weren't."
"And I won't interfere with *Karnauer*."
MacLeod heard the limits Joe had placed on his promise. Dawson might not stop Karnauer, but his Watcher oath did not prevent him from 'interfering' with Karnauer's mortal thugs. MacLeod had noticed that Joe's interference often came in 9 mm bursts.
"And keep Morgan out of trouble."
"Hey, I'm only one man, MacLeod," the Watcher protested with a grin.
If there's one guy, just one guy,
11:30 pm, a wet night on Seacouver's deserted shipping docks.
MacLeod and Richie were somewhere out there in the murky fog, waiting for Karnauer to make his move.
Joe and Morgan sat in his car, tucked against the side of a warehouse behind Dock #16. Joe had already checked his equipment three times. Now he sat, silent, fiddling with the handcuffs Morgan had given him earlier.
"Time for me to get into position."
Joe had reluctantly agreed to Morgan's idea of videotaping the bout from the shadowed deck of the freighter moored in berth 16. He had to admit that it would be a perfect vantage point and probably the safest place for her, unless...
Morgan caught him looking speculatively at the cuffs in his hands, her wrists and the door handle. Eyes cold, she said, "Don't even think about it, Joe."
With a guilty start, he shoved them into his pocket.
"Can't blame a guy for thinking."
"You guys ought to be arrested for some of the things you think of," she retorted, then grinned reluctantly. She reached out and drew his head down to kiss him deeply. When they broke, panting a little, she said,
"Stop trying to protect me, Joe. If this partnership is going to work, you're going to have to let me take my own risks, got it?"
Wordlessly, he nodded, then kissed her again, an edge of desperation rising in him. "If you get hurt out there tonight, I'll kill you."
That earned him her full-throated laugh. "You watch yourself, bluesman." And she got out of the car and disappeared into the darkness.
After all of their preparations, Karnauer was depressingly predictable. He had stationed two riflemen on the roofs of the closest warehouses. Richie's job was almost too easy. Nearly invisible in the dark commando gear he and Morgan had bought earlier, it was a simple matter for him to slide up behind each sharpshooter and put them to sleep with a tap behind the ear.
He briefly debated dumping them off the warehouse roof, but cold-blooded murder wasn't really his style, he decided. Instead, he tied them both up, gagged them, and deposited them in the warehouse's main office. Then he met Joe back beside his car and they moved up to the corner of the warehouse. There they stood in the shadows and prepared to watch the show.
Karnauer strolled cockily into the orange nimbus thrown by the dock's sodium lights.
"Well, Highlander? I'm here, show yourself!" He clumsily drew his too-long sword and held it in a bad parody of guard position.
"Good Lord, Karnauer. You killed Trainor before he had even taught you the rudiments of how to hold a sword? That was poor planning," MacLeod mocked and stepped into the ring of light, katana glinting.
"Oh, I'm good enough at planning, MacLeod. For example, you didn't actually think I intended to fight you, did you?"
"No," MacLeod said calmly and brought his sword up.
Karnauer's ferrety eyes narrowed and he shot a glance at the roof of the warehouse to his left.
"Looking for your friends, Karnauer? They won't be able to play tonight. It's just you and me."
From the shadows beside the freighter's deckhouse, Morgan held the camera steady on the two men down on the dock. When Karnauer had stepped into the light, a cold wave had washed through her. Her father's friend, a man Trainor had welcomed into his house repeatedly, until Karnauer had killed him. Morgan felt an icy rage rising in her; if Karnauer were standing before her at that moment, she would cheerfully have drunk his blood.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the deeper shadows beside the deck crane begin to uncoil. A man with a rifle took careful aim on the tableau below him, resting his weapon on the rail.
Without thought, Morgan rushed him, slamming the video camera into the side of his head. The lightweight camera shattered and the rifle fell over the side. The gunman had only been momentarily stunned by the blow and he turned to face his attacker with a growl.
Morgan backed away slowly, stumbling slightly as the deck angled up toward the bow.
"Morgan?" MacLeod called.
"MacLeod -- do it!" she shouted, even as the gunman continued to stalk her, backing her into the corner of the bow.
Karnauer took advantage of MacLeod's brief distraction and swung clumsily at his head. The accountant's blade swung wide and missed when the Scot leaned merely leaned out of its way. MacLeod's katana whispered through the fog and he took Karnauer's head with negligent precision.
There was a flash of muzzle fire, then the sound of a shot from the bow of the freighter. Mist had gathered over Karnauer's body, seeping from it and reaching greedy fingers toward MacLeod. He tried to see past it, searching for Morgan, but it was Joe and Richie who saw her fall, cartwheeling over the side and down into the darkness of the harbor.
Richie ran toward the freighter, even as the lightning of Karnauer's Quickening began to strike at MacLeod. The gunman, distracted by the light-show, made an easy target for Joe. He, too, fell into the harbor, disappearing into the cold water without a splash.
There was nothing left to be seen; no one to be taken from the water.
Joe was singing his last set that night and MacLeod and Richie were exchanging worried looks over their glasses. It had been a long, empty week and MacLeod heard it plainly in Joe's voice and in the tunes he chose. The Watcher had once told him that anyone who played the blues really well had paid a high price for the gift. Duncan thought that he had rarely heard Joe play better, but that the pain in his voice was too high a price for excellence.
Joe's smoky voice wound 'round the room, commanding attention.
If the night turned cold and the stars looked down,
His eyes were closed and he was channeling the grief out through his fingers, letting it flow out of his mouth. Turning it into music. The blues were all about turning pain into beauty.
When your belly's empty and the hunger's so real,
Beauty. Like the deep flame of her hair in firelight. The scent of her on his clothes, the taste of her on his lips. The sound of her laughter and the way she said his name -- shouting it down the hall, breathing it into his ear, moaning it in desire. He let it all bleed into the music.
You're not the easiest person I ever got to know,
Gone. She was gone and he felt like he was missing another limb, bleeding internally. 'Sing, bluesman, sing. It's the only way to live with this.' He sang.
When the world's gone crazy and it makes no sense,
He opened his eyes and looked out at the crowd as his fingers picked out the last chords. There was a flash of auburn under the lights at the bar and his voice caught on the last refrain, then strengthened. It wasn't her. How could it be?
I hate to say it, I hate to say it, But it's probably me.
The applause was loud and long and he hardly noticed it as he carefully placed his Gibson in the rack and left the stage. He ignored MacLeod's wave of invitation; he needed numbness now, not friendly eyes counting every drink he took. Mike already had a glass of single malt in his hand, reaching it over the bar to him, when it was intercepted by a slender hand.
Joe watched as Morgan took a healthy swallow, then handed him the glass.
"Morgan?" His voice was glass and gravel.
"It's probably me," she smiled, then she was in his arms. He buried his face in her hair, breathing in her scent, soothed by the soft sound of her voice in his ear and the hard pressure of her arms around him.
Then MacLeod and Richie were there and their arms were around them both. They were all laughing and crying and talking at once. Mike took one look and knew this was yet another thing about his boss' life that he didn't want to know. He turned away, taking the bottle of Scotch with him and putting it back under the bar. He had a hunch that Joe wouldn't be asking for it again any time soon.
When they were all at least semi-coherent, they had left the bar and gone to Dawson's house. Richie thought privately that it might have been more tactful of him and Mac to wait until morning, but MacLeod wasn't going to let it alone until he had answers. Now they were sitting in Joe's living room, drinking coffee and waiting for some kind of explanation.
It had occurred to all three men, separately, that they had lived through a week of grief that Morgan could have averted with one phone call. Joe's face was impassive now, but the tracks of his tears were still visible. Morgan was curled on the couch next to him and he frequently touched her, almost unconsciously.
Richie could stand it no longer. "Where the hell have you been?" he snarled.
"I missed you, too, Ryan."
"Morgan..." MacLeod rumbled threateningly.
"OK, OK. I've been making sure that I'm dead."
At their dumbstruck looks, she burst out laughing but got herself under control quickly. "I'm sorry," she hiccupped, "I'm a little tired and it makes me silly."
"You've been making sure that you're dead?" Richie repeated. "We all thought that Karnauer had done that job for you."
She nodded. "He certainly tried his best. But he didn't count on my wearing a Kevlar vest." She smirked, then sobered as she realized that she was facing three very angry men.
"I'm going to kill you," Joe said in a perfectly quiet, frighteningly controlled voice.
Morgan reached out to him, but stopped before she touched him. Instead, she forced herself to back off and explain.
"There used to be people standing in line to do that, Joe. But not any more. That's why I had to do it."
"Do what?" MacLeod snapped.
"Get myself killed. At least as far as Karnauer's outfit is concerned. They watched the whole funeral, Joe. In fact, they sent that huge wreath -- the one with the white lilies." She grinned at the irony and wasnearly set upon by the other three.
"How did you find that out?"
"I hacked into their e-mail system."
"The Mob uses e-mail?"
"Of course. They use all the modern tools.
"There was quite a flurry of communication after that night on the docks. Apparently Karnauer wasn't quite as clever as he thought and his bosses had already caught on that he was involved in some 'extra-curricul ar' business. He really *was* embezzling from the Mob and our little stunt threw all of his plans out of whack.
"Anyway, they thought that my father and MacLeod were in on a little money-laundering scheme that Karnauer was running on the side. So, when he went after me, they figured that Dad &I had swindled Karnauer and scooped the pot; they were just waiting until Karnauer found the money, then they were going to pull the plug on all of us." She shivered a little, then continued.
"Some of them thought I was dead, others thought it was a ruse and the order went out to keep an eye on you three. If I showed up, we were all to be 'liquidated' as an object lesson on why it is a bad idea to cheat La Familiar.
"They kept you all under surveillance and realized after a while that you didn't have a clue about the money or Karnauer. The funeral was apparently pretty convincing, too." She stopped when she saw Joe's hand clench the arm of his chair, knuckles slowly whitening.
"So...." Duncan prompted.
"So I waited until the coast was clear. Once the funeral was over, they were all convinced and the orders went out to drop the surveillance. Then I figured it was safe to come home."
At that, Joe groaned and dragged her into his lap, tucking her head under his chin. Morgan sighed, then said quietly, "I'm sorry, Joe. I did try to send you an e-mail telling you I was all right, but it kept bouncing."
Joe closed his eyes in intense pain. "The server has been down all week. Watcher Central is going ballistic about it -- faxing is a hell of a lot more expensive and they hate the paper trail."
"But why not phone?" Richie demanded.
"Because the phone lines were tapped, dummy. Don't you people have any kind of phone security system either?" she demanded back.
Joe blanched, thinking of the substance of some of his calls recently.
As if reading his thoughts, Morgan said, "Don't worry, Joe. The Mob thinks that you're some kind of delusional crackpot. They haven't taken a single thing you've said about Immortals or Quickenings seriously."
"Thanks. That's very reassuring," he said dryly.
"Better to be a live lunatic than a dead Watcher," she shrugged.
"Words to live by," MacLeod agreed, smiling at her for the first time.
"Anyway -- the phone taps are gone, the surveillance is gone and we are officially yesterday's news to the Seacouver Mob. Kind of like Karnauer," she added with satisfaction.
"Now," Morgan breathed, snuggling closer against Joe's chest, "I go get myself a life. Morgan Trainor is dead. I sort of thought I might spend the afterlife overseas. Say, Paris?"
If there's one guy, just one guy,
Morgan was gently stroking his belly, fingers meditatively pressing the flesh. She was enjoying Joe's unique texture and feel under her fingers, luxuriating in the imperfections and beauties that were his alone. She was also trying to store up memories against the long separation to come, the months to be spent training at the Watcher Academy.
Joe loved the feel of her hands on him but he was becoming uncomfortably aware that his physique was no longer that of a young man. There was a gut there now, and he wryly blamed it on opening the bar. If only he didn't have to taste every new batch of beer...
"I'm getting fat," he grumbled, unaware that he had spoken aloud. Morgan's hand stopped for a long moment and she thought hard about what he had, and hadn't said.
"Maybe you should take up jogging."
Joe froze, not believing what he had just heard.
In his life, he had had lovers who were matter of fact about the loss of his legs, lovers who had tried to adjust, and, worst of all, lovers who had pitied him. But he had never had a lover who felt comfortable enough to tease him about them. Never.
Suddenly, he grabbed her wrists and flipped her onto her back, pinning her with his body. She gave an undignified yelp, then started helplessly giggling as he nuzzled her neck, tickling her with his beard. He began the torture in earnest, kissing and sucking a trail of fire from her ear to her breast. She was squirming and gasping when he moved back up to kiss her lips.
"Or," she suggested shakily, just before his lips touched hers, "you could just try more push-ups." The two of them wound up laughing into one another's mouths, even as their hands got down to serious business.