Tell It Like It Is
by Sandra McDonald
(This first appeared on the Highlander Fiction List <HLFIC-L@PSUVM.PSU.EDU>)
Amanda stepped in from the rain and stood dripping inside Joe's bar, relieved to be out of the gusty winds and general nastiness outside. She'd come late, well after midnight, and most of the Friday night crowd was long gone. A haze of cigarette smoke and the smell of beer hung in the dimness. Mike was filling a few last orders, and Joe and the band were winding down with slow, aching songs of loss and pain. She stood perfectly still, caught in memories of being in bars in Munich, in New Orleans, in Dublin. Places where lonely people went, in hopes of being a little less alone.
Aside from Joe, Mike and a dozen or so remaining customers, there was an Immortal somewhere inside. Amanda had counted on that. She slipped her raincoat from her shoulders to the coat rack, tugged down on her red sweater, and wiped a few drops of rain from her black miniskirt. She could use something hot to drink.
Mike served her up with an Irish coffee and then gestured upstairs. Amanda turned and tilted her head up. Richie stood on the walkway, his arms resting on the wooden railing, a beer in one hand, watching her with a solemn expression.
She finished half of her coffee while listening to Joe. He was a very good singer and musician, she decided. A very good musician. He could have a whole new career ahead of him once he decided to give up Watching and mind his own business. When it became apparent that Richie wasn't going to come down she went up the stairs, and found him still standing at the railing and watching the band. His shoulders were tense beneath his black T- shirt. If he was cold, he wasn't showing it.
"Duncan send you?" Richie asked levelly.
Amanda leaned on the railing. She liked this view of Joe's. Three women were fishing money from their purses and reaching for their coats. An older black couple with matching blue sweaters danced cheek to cheek on the floor, moving in a slow and easy rhythm. Another couple against the wall sat holding hands, and two men at the bar exchanged phone numbers.
"No one sends me anywhere," Amanda replied. "I came on my own."
"Can't a girl enjoy a night out?" she asked coyly.
"All over the city," Richie agreed. His face showed no emotion. He was staring at Joe but what he was really seeing, Amanda didn't know.
She dropped the levity from her voice and fixed her gaze on the band. Sometimes, she'd found, men found it easier to talk when no one was watching them do it. Something about being impaired with that Y chromosome, she guessed. Amanda said, "I came because I thought you might want to talk about it."
"There's nothing to talk about," he said. "Just another head. Another notch on the scorecard. Another headless body in the garbage."
"No exceptions. Not a friend. Not someone I ever met. I didn't even know her -"
He stopped. Amanda didn't move her eyes.
"- name," he finished, a second later.
"Was she pretty?"
"Sure," he said, and there might have been a hint of dryness in his voice. "In a femme fatale, sword-wielding, killer Immortal sort of way."
"First time you ever killed a woman," Amanda said, this time daring to turn his way.
His mouth set in a grim line. "Doesn't mean anything."
"Maybe," Amanda conceded. "Now, if you were Duncan, I'd be concerned. Duncan has this thing about taking a woman's Quickening. Feels guilty for weeks. But not you."
"Not me," he agreed, and took a swallow from his bottle of Coors.
"The Richie Ryan I know is far too smart to fall into that chauvinistic women thing. He's a tough cookie. Knows that sometimes you have to do what you have to do."
"You know what, Amanda?" he asked, turning to her, his blue eyes wide and unreadable. "Sometimes I wish I'd never become Immortal. It's supposed to be, "Life's a bitch and then you die." Not, "Life's a bitch, and then you keep living.""
"You'll get over it," Amanda said.
He shook his head. "No I won't. I'm always going to know what I lost."
"What did you lose? Colds, flu, venereal disease, AIDS, fatal injuries, freak accidents, a limited lifespan..."
"You believe that?" he challenged. "You believe that's all you lost when you died?"
"Who are we talking about, Richie? You or me? I've got several hundred years more perspective on this than you do."
"Yeah, that's me. Junior sidekick. Newbie Immortal. Doesn't know one end of his sword from the other. Don't let him challenge anyone, you know, because he'll just lose his head."
"Is that how we treat you?"
Richie turned his attention back to Joe's band without answering.
Amanda had expected bitterness. The bitterness hid fear and uncertainty. Duncan was fond of reminding her how young Richie was, and it was true that in comparison to them he was just a child. But he was twenty years old, a fast learner, a survivor and thief like herself. She remembered when thirteen years old had been a reasonable age of adulthood, and a woman at twenty was an old maid.
"I think you are more like Duncan than either of you cares to admit."
"I don't wear skirts."
"You feel guilty about killing Serena, because she was a woman."
His shoulders pulled a fraction tighter. "Was that her name?"
"One of them. It was when I knew her, fifty years ago. Would it help if I told you she was a ruthless killer who would have toasted herself with champagne once she'd taken your Quickening?"
He gave her question serious thought and then said, "Nope. Wouldn't help at all."
"Stubborn. Just like Duncan."
He didn't answer. Below them, Joe had launched into the song "Tell It Like It Is," and was singing of boys grown to men and broken hearts. The last couple dancing on the floor swung slowly in an intimate circle, as if they were the only lovers in the world, as if nothing in the cold, nasty world outside could touch them. His hand, on the center of her back, was firm and strong.
Duncan had been wrong. Not completely, but mostly. Richie had taken Serena's head two weeks earlier, and since then the young Immortal had been uncharacteristically withdrawn and quiet. Not sullen, not pouting, not afraid, but not himself. And Duncan had thought it was because Richie had killed his first woman.
"Where would you be now, if you weren't Immortal?"
He shrugged. "You mean, if Tessa and I hadn't been shot? If she was still alive?"
"Probably not living with them still," he said, with a small laugh. "There's only so much calisthenics you can listen to in the middle of the night, you know. It was like having the Playboy Channel on 24 hours a day."
That was probably a little bit more than she needed to know about Tessa and Duncan's relationship. But they had inched, it seemed, a little closer to the real problem.
"Mac would never have bought a bankrupt dojo," Richie continued, "so I guess the lucrative job field of being its equally bankrupt manager would have been lost to me too."
Joe's fingers picked at his guitar. His voice went a little huskier, a little closer to breaking. Maybe he was remembering his own losses, down there on the stage. Maybe he was remembering love, and felt a little empty in his heart too.
Amanda remembered Munich. Dublin. New Orleans. Late nights, men with lost eyes, women afraid of cold eyes. People came to bars because they wanted to drink alcohol for comfort or companionship. To meet or share with other people. To be less alone.
"I don't know," he sighed. "Not here."
"College?" No answer. Amanda edged a little forward. "The military?"
"Me in a uniform? No way. You may have noticed, I have a problem with authority figures. Ask Duncan."
"Out on a Friday night with your friends?" she asked softly.
He put his beer down on the railing. "I got to go," he said, turning away from her.
Amanda caught his arm. "Richie - I'm sorry. I'm not trying to pry, honestly. I just want you to know ... I'm your friend too. You don't have to feel alone."
"I don't feel alone," he insisted.
Amanda kept skepticism from her features. Men hated to be told what they were feeling. She had a well-developed set of theories about how men and women might as well have been from different planets, and a friend of hers had turned them into a best-selling book. She offered him a rueful, suddenly shy smile as an unfamiliar realization broke in her own chest.
"Maybe I do," she offered.
Richie studied her. She could feel the force of his intense gaze, his disbelief. She couldn't blame him. She worked extremely hard to present herself as utterly confident and capable. Duncan was only one of a handful of men she trusted enough to let past her defenses. Richie, it seemed, might turn into another.
"Dance with me," she proposed, taking his hands in hers.
"I don't dance," he said, trying to step away.
"It's okay," she promised. "I'll lead. I'm good at that."
"Amanda ... " he groaned, almost pulling away again, but she fixed his hands and started moving. He fell into step, still reluctant, but not fighting.
"Someone taught you to dance," she observed.
"Tessa," he said. "She was appalled when she found out I couldn't do anything but the Funky Chicken. She didn't even know what it was."
"That's one I must have missed too," Amanda said. She eased him closer until their bodies were separated by only a few inches. He was cuter than she'd ever given him credit for. Stronger, too, with finely developed muscles under his shirt. But she felt no lust for him, which was a relief, because suddenly companionship was more important than sexual maneuvers. Being a friend was more important than another one-night stand.
Joe's voice filled her ears. Her black pumps and Richie's battered sneakers made soft sounds on the scuffed floor. The nasty world of rain and wind outside moved further and further away, and some of the cold inside her chest as well.
"Amanda?" His voice, in her ear, was unexpectedly soft.
"Her name really wasn't Serena, was it? You made that up."
"Yes, I made that up. Does it matter?" she said.
She rested her head on his shoulder. Joe's voice and music wrapped around them like a blanket. He was singing now of strength, and recovery, and life.
"Richie?" she asked.
"Would you teach me how to do the Funky Chicken?"
A genuine laugh broke out of him. "Sure," he promised. "Anytime you want."