Prelude: At The Airport
"I never have been able to figure this out," he sourly grumbled. The tall man was trying not to pace, but couldn't stop the clenching and unclenching of one hand. "I used to fly all the time and it never used to tie me in knots."
"Once you get aboard, just flirt with the stewardesses and drink whisky. You'll be just fine," replied the man sitting nearby. He watched his friend with patience, hands loose in his lap.
"I know, but I've already had two shots and I'm still wound up tight as a spring," muttered the first man. He fidgeted waiting for his flight to be called and turned to his companion. "You don't have any of these problems ... do you think we can get phobias after so many years?"
"A phobia? I wonder," he thoughtfully replied, his mind already skimming through the years to a different time ... another world away.
The airplane went down in a dizzying descent, both pilots struggling against wind sheer and controls bereft of hydraulic power. It was a hopeless battle to keep the nose up and the wings level. There were no witnesses to the disaster amidst the towering waves - the fuselage skidded furiously, bleeding out the kinetic energy and stripping itself with each contact with the water.
Ultimately the 747 turned a cartwheel and the wings tore off in a squall of tortured metal, spewing fuel and black oil obscenely. A tremendous roar of fire leapt out of the saltwater that had never known such an element, consuming everything. The half-shell of the passenger hold sailed, midair, through the trough of a wave and slammed brutally into the crest of the next one ... but even the raw power captured in the hurling metal could not still the strength of the relentless sea.
The ocean swallowed the 56 meters of jetliner easily and it vanished eerily and slowly into the murky depths below.
Above, in the swarming mass of dark clouds a conflagration of bright lightning illuminated the chaotic sea. Several of the incandescent bolts stabbed into the water as if seeking the doomed plane and it appeared, briefly, that more lightning answered it. But the furious ocean would not give up her new gift. All the power captive in the thunderstorm could not bring it back to the top again.
Joseph Dawson stood on the front steps, cane in one hand and a bottle of fine scotch whiskey in the other. The rain dotted the top of his head and trickled down his face. He let it.
Christ, he thought to himself. He was sorely out of practice with this. He had delivered bad news before, of course. It was the nature of the business sometimes to bring bad news. But this?
He had no illusions about the severity of his tidings tonight and it would show on his face the moment he stepped inside the door. He felt sick. And it would get worse. How much worse he had no idea, but certainly worse than it already was.
He opened the door after a short knock. After all, he was expected here for dinner.
Duncan MacLeod was in the kitchen dicing vegetables for the stir-fry. The steam boiled out of the iron wok beside him. He did not even look up, just smiled down at the busy knife in his hand and called a cheery 'hello' to his Watcher and friend. Joseph wondered when he would see that smile again and tossed his wet coat on the back of the nearest chair.
"I hope you're in the mood for chicken. I found this great recipe the other day and thought you wouldn't mind trying it out-," Duncan's voice faltered abruptly as he looked up at the bearded bartender, "-with me ... Joe?" He put the knife down and leaned both hands on the chopping block. "What's wrong?"
"I've some bad news, Mac." Dawson had known this immortal too long to beat around the bush about such things. Still, his throat tightened and his heart cringed at this grim task set before him. "You remember that jetliner that went down near the equator?"
"Yes." The Highlander's eyes were hard and fixed on his face. "They are still pulling bodies out two days later. What of it?"
"One of my men was aboard."
"Oh, Joe, I'm sorry," Duncan's voice was immediately soft with sympathy. "On vacation? The plane was headed to South America, I heard."
"No." Dawson plunged ahead with his revelation as if he had to get it out before it burned a hole in his insides. "He was Watching Connor MacLeod."
Stunned silence from Duncan, his face confused at first and then stilling woodenly around thoughts and feelings erupting from within. "Connor?"
"I'm sorry Mac. Your clansman was on that plane."
"NO!" and the dark immortal choked the protest off. His eyes focused desperately on the face of his friend, searching for the evidence of a terrible joke ... and finding none. "All of it, Dawson."
Joe sighed. Mac always took refuge in last names when his status shifted out of 'friend' and into 'immortal'. The 'friend' part was always there, just crowded out temporarily by the state of immortal to Watcher. Immortal business always regulated Joe back a few steps from his friendship with the elegant MacLeod.
"He had enough time before the crash to send one last message via satellite. It was that they would likely all die and that Connor MacLeod was on board." Joseph paused and considered his fellow worker. "Still on duty. Reporting the demise of the immortal he was assigned to keep track of."
Mac leaned hard on his knuckles against the chopping block, swinging his head slowly from side to side, eyes closed. Joe could hear his ragged breathing. The blood had drained straight out of his face and gave him a deathly appearance.
"Why did it take you so long to tell me?" he grated out between clenched teeth.
Joe accepted this reaction as a matter of course. This was positively evil news, and he expected MacLeod to take refuge in anger to control the overwhelming emotions he was suddenly battling. He was much better with a sword then a barrage of anguish.
"It took us a day to discover the Watcher had not checked in. Then we had to send a man to the house and convince his wife to let him break into the computers. That takes a little time." Joe reached to lay his hand on the shoulder near him. "I had to be sure before I would ever come and tell you something like this." Beneath his hand, the shoulder began trembling and he tightened his grip sorrowfully.
"I burned dinner."
What? Joe thought, oh ... that. Yes, the odor of overdone chicken was filling the air. "I'm not hungry anyway."
"I'm not either." Duncan turned away from the sympathetic hand and swept the assortment of vegetables off the block with one swipe of rage. They scattered and bounced on the tile in a colorful array. The wok went next, propelled by a bare hand that did not even feel the bite of pain from the hot surface. He staggered and then sobbed, once, before righting himself against the countertop again.
Joseph closed his eyes, unable to watch his friend's suffering for a moment. He wanted to wrap his arms around himself and rock back and forth to gather his strength enough to do the same to Mac ... if he would let him.
"Go home, Joe."
Back to first names again. That was a good sign, he thought. "Not right now. I'll sit with you awhile."
"I don't need you to sit with me!" but his voice cracked at the end and he put his face in his hands, clenching his temples as if a migraine had suddenly spiked into being. One more distressing sob strangled out under centuries of control. He was shattering.
Joe Dawson stayed anyway -- and it was a very long night.
"I have to know," Duncan said grimly.
"How? They're torn beyond recognition, Mac, and it's a tropical climate." Joseph was still patient and tender with his fractured friend despite the stubbornness he was currently exercising. "They don't have the facilities to keep the bodies on ice and it's not a pretty sight." Nor smell, but he did not say the latter thought aloud.
"I have to know that he's dead and I have to bring what's left," he stumbled on the hideous words, "of him back."
"Mac, you know he couldn't have survived. The bodies are torn apart, arms and legs missing. The impact of the plane simply exploded people into..." Dawson stopped, feeling suddenly ill.
"Was there a quickening?"
"You know there's no answer to that. It was a fricken storm, for Chrissake! And no one was around anyway ... it's a wide ocean. The nearest island is five miles away and uninhabitable!"
"I have to know that he's dead."
"They say there are probably some whole bodies in the passenger section at the bottom. If Connor was-."
"MAC!" Joseph had to shake him by the sleeve to get his face turned. "Mac," more softly. "It's in 500 feet of water, buried partially in the mud. They'll never get down there in time."
"In time?" Duncan questioned, suspicious.
Joseph sighed. How could something this bad get even worse? "They are having a hard time getting the bodies out before the sharks get them. Most of them are chewed on a little bit ... some have been eaten almost entirely away. It gets worse the farther down they dive."
"O God." Duncan leaned over his crossed arms and put his head on the table. "Connor."
"I don't think an immortal can heal if enough of him is ... gone," Joseph said softly.
They ended up flying to the scene anyway; the two of them side by side crammed into a tiny bi-plane from the nearest inhabited island, which was fifty miles from the crash site. The statement 'he's all I have' was the magic button that made Joseph stop arguing.
The pilot skimmed at low altitude over the inhospitable little island near the disaster at request. Duncan was hoping against hope that Connor had survived and made it across the five miles of open sea. The plane barely cleared the tops of the trees laden with fruit and bright birds. It quartered the rugged terrain expertly, the pilot hot-dogging his engine just as he used to do in Vietnam.
Duncan closed his eyes during the flyby ... Joseph knew he was reaching with his immortal presence for the echo of another. The sad look in his eyes when he opened them again told Dawson he had felt nothing.
It was a quiet flight to the site of the doomed airliner. They spotted it from miles away; boats by the dozen, men in orange wetsuits, and floating red markers tied to pieces of wreckage still afloat. The white ones denoted parts of bodies that had not yet been hauled out of the water.
There were a lot of white markers.
"I have to do this, Joe," Duncan said over the sound of the engine as they looked over the scene. His face was grim. "I have to try. He's ... we're..."
"I know," Joe finished for him. "He's family and this is what you do for family."
"More than family," Duncan choked it out. "More. Part of me. I have to know or I've lost myself." He turned his head, willing to let this mortal friend see the tears shining in his eyes. "You don't have to come with me. It will be ... very bad."
"I know. I think I'll sit in the plane or I'll be sick. Take all the time you want, Mac." He squeezed a hand around the nearest shoulder encouragingly. "I hope you find what you need."If you can't find what you want ... find what you need, he said only to himself.
Very bad turned out to be a major understatement once he got on board the recovery vessel. Duncan had seen death in many forms, but the stench was too horrible to comprehend until it was fully in his face. The wind shifted and brought the full reek of bloated and ripening human bodies to him and he staggered against the nearest railing and vomited over the side. He was glad that he had not bothered to eat anything before flying out here. Dry heaving was messy enough without the indignity of viewing his meal again the second time around.
"Jake! Get a mask on this fellow before he loses his gut some more!" shouted a voice.
A mask was shoved over his face, filtering out the worst of the odors but doing nothing for the sight of the corpses laid in a row on the deck. There were so many that he just stared. And the piles of pieces of bodies ... limbs and heads and torsos all loose as if mannequin parts.
"What are you doing here, mister?" gently inquired a man nearby. "Are you Rescue?"
"No, um, I've come to identify someone," he faltered out.
"You can't do that now. No one is allowed to do that yet."
"I won't make trouble. I'll stay clear of your work..."
Duncan had to convince him, but eventually got his way. The man who faced him was exhausted from the thankless task of ocean retrieval ... too tired to quote rule and regulation and too mentally numb to care. Duncan picked up the nearest orange coat abandoned on the rescue boat and put it on to avoid further questions about his right to be there.
"What are you looking for?" asked another man.
Duncan was walking along the narrow isle left between rows and rows of bone white corpses. "A person, obviously." He said it with more stability and calmness than he felt. "Don't you have them separated into men and women?"
"Smart ass," the rescuer laughed, falling into gallows humor to cope with the trauma of his work. "Most of them we can't tell which they are. But go down below and I think Sammy separated the ones that we could."
Duncan went down below. It was worse. He vomited into the metal tubs placed along the rows of torn bodies just for that purpose ... and he suspected he visited every single one of them before he finished looking through the twisted corpses. It was a terribly long day and none of the bodies was that of Connor MacLeod.
He asked the pilot to do one more flyby over the near island, holding out hope until the last. This time the veteran clipped off treetops in passing and ducked down in every ravine, skimming the ground with less than 50 yards clearance. Duncan just leaned his head back and stared vacantly at the ceiling when the island had been quartered twice more.
No one. Nothing.
Connor was gone.
The months went by and Duncan did not notice. He drank a lot alone at night. He passed hours motionless and silent, staring out the window at rain falling. He trained and studied and taught at the martial arts school. His students found him more of a taskmaster than usual, but thrived under the added intensity. Their Master seldom smiled.
The little kids had a rough time, though. His Tiny Tiger class usually was full with excited four-year-olds. It wasn't until several parents approached him with complaints about how stern he was with the fun-filled little girls and boys, that he gentled his approach and forced his laughter. Their ranks swelled again and there were no more complaints.
Methos went with him to the Highlands and walked up the long hill to where Heather MacLeod had been laid to rest so many years ago. Duncan was so tight with grief that he couldn't speak. It was Methos, strengthened with thousands of years of control, who mercifully told her aloud what Duncan had come there to say. When it was done, they walked back down in the same aching silence.
Joe Dawson came to see Duncan every day and watched the lines of suffering in his face. They had lightened some since they had returned unfruitful from the search at the crash site, but the grief was not far from the surface. He wondered how long it would take before the old Duncan MacLeod was back.
Even Amanda had been unable to charm him. The Highlander finally asked her to just please leave him alone. She kissed him tearfully goodbye and told Joseph to send word when he was feeling better.
He wasn't getting better at all. If anything, he was getting worse ... and in a frightening fashion. When he didn't answer the phone one day, Dawson forced the door and found him packing to leave.
"I have to go."
"Go where, Mac?"
"I'm not sure. I dreamed last night about a jungle somewhere," said Duncan brusquely.
"Wait a minute, Mac, just calm down!"
"No. I have to go!" He snapped his suitcase closed. "I keep seeing the same thing."
"No, it doesn't make sense..."
"Because you are dreaming!" Joe practically shouted into his face.
"This isn't an ordinary dream. I have ordinary dreams ... but then this sudden view of a jungle pops into it and then it's gone again." Duncan's gaze was far away, searching. He focused again on the familiar face of his Watcher. "I know what I see."
"You're losing it, Mac. A jungle? What has this to do with anything?"
"SHIT!" Joe Dawson had a terrible sinking sensation. His immortal was going mad on him and he was going to have to watch the whole event unfold and put it in his Chronicle. There were other immortals that had lost their grip on reality ... not a pretty sight. Some were prone to killing themselves over and over again, each time more painfully then the last time. He could feel the blood drain from his face.
"Joseph." Duncan put his hands on either of his shoulders. "Trust me on this. I know what I see. It's Connor and I have to go."
"You've collapsed under grief and you need some outside help, Mac. I know a Watcher who wouldn't mind counseling you until you're bet-"
"Joe!" he said more strongly. "Let me go."
Duncan had spent time in the wilderness before, using the land and his wits to sustain him. Nothing prepared him for this wet tropical warfare. He hacked the tangle of vegetation as he walked, eyes roving the floor and canopy of green overhead. They had quartered this island three times from the air right after the crash and it hadn't looked nearly this wild. No wonder it was uninhabitable.
"Be damned if one of those snakes will get me again!" he muttered grimly. He had died twice from poison and revived in time to escape being targeted by still more jungle fauna. Only the short sword saved him from the enormous constrictor that made a bid for him two days ago and desperate scrambles up trees kept the stray feline hunters from making a play for him.
He had been on this rugged island for only a week, trudging farther into the interior and using his compass to keep his bearings. It took supreme effort to quarter the ground effectively amidst the heavy growth of vines and trees. Waterways cut him off and crevasses appeared out of nowhere and forced him away from his carefully calculated path.
He perspired heavily in the heat and fought his exhaustion from spending night and day alert for danger. Hardship and death lurked everywhere around him, from innocent seeming fruit that made him heave 24 hours straight after one small nibble to the obvious howling of animals in the night. He found a small cave in the rocks near a waterfall and dug it out for shelter. Unfortunately, the roar of water covered the sound of approaching vermin and thrice he had come out of sleep wildly battling with creatures for his place.
He tried building a fire and was marginally successful. The lush surroundings held little to no dry timber and keeping the fire going took too much time. It never burned hot enough to cook anything all the way through anyway. He ate his dry goods instead.
His provisions were being rapidly depleted and soon he would have to leave the island to restock. He wasn't looking forward to piloting the small boat he came in back across the fifty miles of sea to the big island again.
Something bit him on the neck and he swatted at it, hands coming away bloody and his vision swimming already. "Not again..." and he collapsed in the muck.
He revived with a gasp, instinctively coming up fighting with the short sword, twisting in a circle to cover his flank. He sprawled immediately with terrific pain in one leg. He wasn't defenseless though, and spun on one knee, slashing the blade sidelong as he passed. Animals scattered into the jungle cover and abruptly he was alone, gasping through the agony.
There were myriad tiny bites out of his skin and a three inch chunk was gouged out of his right calf. He could not bear much weight on it and healing was slow when the entire piece of flesh was gone. He hopped and sprawled back the way he had come, cursing. It took all of his residual strength to get to shelter and he sat in his damp cave too exhausted to eat.
Perhaps this had been a mistake after all. Joseph was right. He had lost it.
He was spent and exhausted and discouraged. There had been no 'visions of jungles' since he left Seacouver and no sign at all of any human life on this inhospitable island. If Connor had made it here ... he would have been killed by animals bent on survival themselves. Duncan couldn't even get through a day without dying at least once - and he had weapons and more physical strength to boot.
There was a deep emotional void when his trail of thought ended. It was over and his old friend was gone. Duncan felt the last vestige of hope evaporate. There was nothing left behind it but a husk and he curled around himself and wept bitterly, howling his grief into the night noises. They continued around the hoarse sound as if it belonged in the jungle.
He was trying to pack everything out when he felt it, ringing through his senses like the toll of a bell and setting his teeth on edge. He turned instinctively, scanning visually through the green to find him and the approaching immortal dropped from above like a cat. By the time Duncan completed the circle, his opponent was on him, striking viciously and savagely. The darker immortal was gutted and dead on his feet before his eyes could even focus.
He revived gasping and scrambled backwards instinctively, searching for his attacker. Duncan was alone. His abdomen ached as it finished healing. The ground was spattered with blood and his pants were soaked with urine. A hell of a condition to find himself in and no immortal in sight.
"Connor?" he whispered into the noise surrounding him. "Connor!" There was no answer.
He spent the next two days looking, hacking once more into the mist-shrouded greenery. The clamor of the birds overhead and the hubbub of other creatures heightened his tension. He kept his pistol ready, knowing even as he did that his attacker moved so stealthily that he probably would not get a shot off anyway.
Every swing of the short sword chopping through clinging vines and expansive leaves in his way made his neck ache with stress. When the sword was down, he was the most vulnerable ... unable to bring it up fast enough to guard his throat.
"But he didn't take my head," he said aloud again, wonderingly. "I was down, but he didn't finish me. And why the hell did he kill me? Maybe it's not Connor ... but then, who?"
Duncan looked up when he felt the buzz again, expecting the same appearance out of the cover from above. But the immortal came by land this time, hurtling through the thick greenery as if it parted for him.
As he suspected, he couldn't get the sword up fast enough. Duncan had only a glimpse of the fierce visage before he was jerked off his feet, impaled by the sharpened stake in his foe's hand. It pressed in and up, tearing agonizingly and propelled by the strength of the headlong rush. The ground tilted and crashed up to meet him. Duncan coughed blood in a pool around his mouth and watched it trickle about searching for lower ground as he died.
He revived again the same way, with the same scramble to ward off an attacker who was no longer there. Once more, the jungle carpet was smeared with his blood and he was still alive. He stood with his chest heaving for breath.
"Connor?" he said, already knowing the answer.
It was Connor and he was insane.
He spent another long day hunting his mad clansman and trying to figure out what to do. The gun was useless unless he could catch him at a far enough distance to actually drop him and this copse of jungle greenery went on endlessly without a break. The sword was a useful enough tool ... but what would Connor do if Duncan hacked him to death and then tried to make peace with him?
There wasn't opportunity to find out the next time either. Connor jerked him down with a trip vine and crushed him under a log. It was the curious apes, prying the errant timber away from their favorite jungle path that allowed him to revive. The beetles had a merry feast on his skin in the meantime.
The following day was almost a repeat of the previous, except Duncan managed to yell Connor's name before he was stabbed through the chest. The immortal in question responded with a roar of rage and pain so barbarous that Duncan could only gape at him as his life's blood spilled wetly down his chest. He tugged at the spear and freed it too late to save himself. He collapsed and thrashed as he died, dimly aware in the frantic corner of his mind that Connor was running away.
"Running away." He said it as soon as he revived again. His clansman fled from the scene after he killed him. "This dying gig is getting old," he said examining his shredded shirt. "I need a damn net to catch him!" And the thought was not the least bit funny.
It took another three days of wary searching to find him again. Thankfully, this time Duncan spotted him from a distance and pulled out his binoculars. What he saw amazed and saddened him in swift succession.
Connor MacLeod was down by the flat section of the river, sitting on the open rocks at the break of day. He was tanned golden by sunlight and as slender as the boy he truly was. There was not an ounce of fat on him. His hair had grown long and hung in a tangle down to his shoulders. Curled around his nudity, he rocked very slightly back and forth, waiting and watching the water. There was something in his right hand, but Duncan couldn't make it out very well. Now and then he scratched his scalp and chewed whatever he caught.
The watching Duncan shivered. His kinsman was starving ... and had likely starved often until he had become good enough to catch anything.
"Damn," he said softly. "Dammit to hell and back again."
Connor struck at the water with the slivery shape in his hand and dove in for what he was after. He didn't surface for a short time, but when he did, it was to flop out with a small animal struggling in his fingers. He cut it lengthwise with the shard of metal, popped the dying creature inside out of its skin and tore at it hungrily with his teeth. The blood ran down his chin and dappled brightly on his thighs.
Duncan put the binoculars down, feeling sickly. "Connor."
Duncan started shooting wildlife after that, grateful he had the foresight to bring a handgun. The fauna wasn't familiar with a weapon like this and picking them off was easy. He watched from a distance to make sure Connor found at least one carcass a day before the other hungry beasts located them with their keener noses. On four occasions he watched angrily as his mad brother was simply driven off by a larger beast.
After Connor had eaten, he would usually curl up near the river and sleep in the sunshine. Duncan couldn't figure out why until one of the few jungle cats that dwelled in the vegetation came bounding out of cover for him. Duncan jerked his gun out of its holster in fear, knowing he was too far away for a killing shot - only to see Connor dive into the swollen river and sink out of sight. The spotted beast prowled the riverbank for a while, hissing and snarling, but its prey never surfaced.
Duncan sat down on the bluff where he watched and laughed himself giddy.
When the feline gave up, Connor resurfaced and surged out of the water with gracefulness. His skin glowed copper in the sunlight, clean for once by the submersion. He shook his head like a dog and sprayed water in all directions before curling up again to sleep.
Duncan laughed some more and then sat in thought.
It was not really surprising that Connor had lost his mind. The combination of the terrible crash, fighting his way to the surface, fending off sharks and other prey drawn to the bloodshed was enough to drive a man over the edge. He might have just walked out beneath the sea, but that held hardships of endurance and fighting skill too. And where was his sword? How did he arrive here without it?
Then to be captive on this wretched island, where half of the flora would kill you and most of the fauna attempted it too? Duncan thought he would go crazy and he had just arrived. Connor MacLeod had been here six months, forsaken and abandoned. It was well that his mentor was a quick study and had tenacious will.
Could he regain his mind? was what Duncan wondered. The deepest question of them all. If Connor had gone wild and could not be righted internally ... what was Duncan to do?
Leave him here to fate, naked and half-starving, struggling out a meager survival and not really living? A waiting victim for another immortal with a rifle and no scruples? He couldn't take him off the island and cage him somewhere. And he couldn't stay with him forever like this, playing guard. "And getting killed for it," he muttered.
He did not even consider the very last option.
Before any of those questions could be answered, he had to try to reach him-attempt to bring his mind back around to himself. But Duncan couldn't get close enough to catch his errant clansman ... he died two more times trying. He considered shooting him, but something made him hesitate to hurt him in order to capture him.
"You don't injure a creature in order to tame it. I learned that long ago. You gentle wild horses, not break them." He sighed. "I could try to trap him somehow ... but I don't know how to fix a trap that he can't cut his way out of before I get to him or one that won't harm him. He's as flexible as a noodle. Even hanging him upside down by one foot wouldn't work."
The next five days were filled with Duncan hunting game and leaving it along trails and the river. He had to switch sites frequently because the beasts were canny enough to find the offerings in the same spot and just wait for them. Connor began haunting the places too, but with lots of competition the frailer human simply had to give way to the other hungry animals. Duncan took to feeding both creatures and his wild friend, all the while wracking his brain on how to get close enough to him.
He figured out that as soon as he drew close enough to 'feel' Connor, his insane clansman always turned and attacked him. The last time Duncan had plenty of opportunity to see him on approach because, as chance would have it, he had been following Connor and when the elder man impulsively turned back the way he had come. Duncan was simply unable to get out of his way quickly enough.
With a mountain on one side and a steep ravine on the other, there was nowhere for him to escape and Duncan lacked the speed this man had on foot in the tangle of underbrush. He chose a small clear area and simply awaited his fate.
Connor always killed him and Duncan chose to die instead of hurting him back.
Duncan grimly had to admit that there was something savagely thrilling at seeing Connor so alive after believing him dead. Even as the older immortal came down the path, silent and enraged, eyes sullen and uncivilized under thunderous brows, he was the most magnificent creature Duncan had ever seen. He was golden as the sun and raw with power, his weighty penis swinging like a pendulum with his gait.
He seized up the nearest item, a rock, and came for him.
Duncan flinched and just knelt waiting for the first blow to fall. He hated being clubbed to death. It took too long to die. The blows had to be rained in rapid succession to put him down quickly. Connor was fast enough, but didn't have the pure strength to strike him hard enough to end it with the first blow.
If he entertained the thought that maybe his submissive posture would earn him some mercy, it was quickly dispelled. Connor took him by the hair, growling murderously, and methodically beat him to death.
He revived with the same ringing in his ears and cringed waiting for the next blow to fall. But there was silence and Duncan raised his head amidst it and looked around, dazed. Connor sat several stone's throws away, hands clasped around his knees and coated with blood.
My blood, Duncan corrected himself. He sat guardedly up, expecting his wild friend to bolt and was pleased to see that he did not. Connor was not looking directly at him, but Duncan knew he watched him with his peripheral vision. For a while, they just sat opposite one another in the deepening twilight.
Duncan didn't know quite where to begin now that they were in the same space. He sidled closer by increments and watched Connor, reading his tight body language and the way he warily regarded him out of the corner of his eyes.
Duncan was nearly close enough to touch his friend when he couldn't stand it anymore and he spoke aloud "Connor." He said it with all his hope and entreaty and love wrapped into it.
Connor snarled malevolently, seized up the stone and promptly beat him to death again.
This time, Duncan woke up in the little clearing alone.
Duncan was getting quite tired of the dying. He had lost track of how many times Connor had killed him. He had to try a tougher tactic without physically harming his elusive prey. It must not appear that he personally, by strength and force, hurt him or Connor would never learn to trust him. And trust was imperative and above all else.
He stopped feeding him and his lost clansman noticed it immediately, circling through all the familiar places where Duncan usually left meat and finding none. Connor consumed a variety of fruits that grew numerously about, but soon began to suffer diarrhea from the overload of one staple. Duncan grimly suspected that this had been his kinsman's plight for a long time at first: eating the easy fruit and then the constantly draining bowels insidiously sapped away the energy and nutrients.
Duncan was relentless. When Connor lurked near the river, Duncan shot bullets into the water to keep the prey away. It terrified Connor and he ran away screaming and did not return. When he tried to sneak up on some unwary animal, Duncan yelled and spooked both game and Connor. The younger immortal tracked him night and day, frightening the animals away. He drove him out with thrown stones when Connor stopped to eat grubs from a turned over log. He hounded him dutifully and made sure to keep himself at enough distance that his irate clansman could not slay him again and did not connect his present woes with him.
By the time the week was up Duncan was slowly and proficiently starving his insane kinsman. It hurt to watch Connor's efforts to maintain himself ... he ate almost continuously, but the light fruits could not hold his fast metabolic rate at bay. He was filthy and the flies circled him constantly from the diarrhea. Duncan remained resolute.
The level of stress Connor now functioned under quadrupled his caloric needs. He shivered almost constantly, even in the light of the sun. He carried a fragment of the doomed airliner as a tool and weapon, Duncan had decided, and his fingers trembled so much that he couldn't grip it properly anymore.
At day number ten, Connor stopped trying to be rid of Duncan and focused solely on killing something, anything. Duncan pelted him with stones when he caught a snake and he snarled savagely back, too starved to leave his prey. Duncan finally shot him from cover, knocking him clear off the branch, to keep him from eating.
On the fourteenth day, Connor stopped his ceaseless tracking for easy prey. He stayed in one area and seemed to be tired. When he picked his head up to look around, the wild eyes were shadowy ... and he held his head slightly crooked, as if too exhausted to hold it straight. Most of the time he did not look around. Like a wounded animal falling slowly behind the herd, Connor began to fail.
Duncan sat on the adjacent hillside and wept.
Ultimately, Duncan could not finish the grisly task. After a few more days, when Connor ceased curling up around himself and lay lax and exposed, his breaths shallow and uneven, Duncan came from hiding and went to him. Connor was unable to rise and he didn't even struggle when Duncan finally reached out a hand and placed it, almost reverently, on his bare chest.
Alive, he said to himself. Connor MacLeod is alive.
He wondered if he had waited too long when he discovered that Connor could no longer swallow. Even his gag reflex was delayed significantly in this slow slide into death.
Grimly, he dribbled blood from a fresh kill in Connor's mouth and let him choke and cough until part of it trickled down. It took a painstakingly long time. Helpless tears leaked from the once proud eyes as Connor strangled for air amidst the lifegiving blood.
When some strength came back into him, Duncan fed him bits and pieces small enough to swallow whole and Connor stared at him, his eyes wild and unfathomable. He ate until he fell asleep.
He tried not to touch him because every time he did, Connor turned his face aside and whimpered somewhere in his throat. Duncan did not know if it was fear or pain. He suspected it was both. He wrestled with the tremendous instinct to just hold him, born out of the months of suffering believing him dead. He sat with his gun in hand to keep predators at bay while the older man slept.
Duncan dozed off in the sweet sunshine after a few hours. He woke up to see Connor struggle to his feet and stagger away. He let him go. His kinsman couldn't get very far and he ended up crawling twenty feet before subsiding. They spent the night in the open.
The next day Connor warily watched him when Duncan approached. He let him get within ten feet and his face twisted. He bared his teeth and hissed at him just as any jungle cat would and Duncan halted in his tracks.
This is as good as it's going to be for awhile, the younger man thought, and dropped the fresh carcass on the ground. He backed slowly away and sat down to watch the older immortal eat. Strange how he had become accustomed to the sight of the blood running fresh down the long forearms and wetting Connor's face from ear to ear.
Day by day, the two men did the same strange dance: Duncan bringing food and pushing the personal space closer and closer; Connor fearfully and painfully and watchfully allowing the intrusion in order to eat. He regained his strength swiftly.
It took almost two weeks before Duncan finally was able to remain closer then five feet away from him. This time, when Connor finished eating and voided noisily nearby, he returned to the area and sat. He half closed his eyes in the heat, letting the flies walk in the blood on his face without a care.
Duncan watched, surprised and pleased that he had not just taken off as usual. Such a simple act to sit here with his lost clansman ... it made him smile. He was quite careful to never say a word, though. Speaking anything sparked terrible fury and he did not want to go back to the killing and dying again. A human voice provoked towering rages. All the screaming people on the plane as it went down, Duncan suspected. Connor likely had horrific incomprehensible nightmares.
Connor rubbed his bloody fingers up and down his forehead for a moment as if trying by sheer determination to rub a headache away. He sighed almost patiently, enduringly, still rubbing circles on his eyebrows.
Duncan abruptly realized why he had become the target of such hatred and animosity - the immortal ring of his presence. When he was a new immortal, it had hurt like hell at first! Connor, insane and immortal, could not figure out why he hurt so terribly and the pain did not go away like other wounds he received. He was smart enough to figure out that it was caused by the dark stranger and only ended if he was dead!
Another breakthrough came two days later, but this one cost Duncan his life.
He was on a new trail, winding through the thick flora and he took a shortcut to the next switchback loop of the path that was easily seen through the thick undergrowth. In an instant he was sinking out of sight in a bog covered with merry inviting flowers. It had looked like solid ground and at this elevation Duncan never suspected quicksand.
He reached for limbs and he stretched for the rock nearby -- all were out of reach. He shouted frantically, knowing even as he did so that no one was there to help him. Connor had been elusive all day. He screamed louder as the muck reached his chest.
And then, there he was!
Connor skidded to a halt at the edge of the quagmire with his face full of insanity and wrath at the clamor. He glared at Duncan.
"Please, Connor," Duncan whispered, trying to convey the urgency without making his kinsman angry. "Connor? Help me, Connor."
Connor snarled savagely at the voice.
I'm going to die! I'll sink to the bottom and revive and die over and over again and no one will ever know where I am and Connor will never know to tell anyone... he thought it somewhere within and his voice cracked with the terrifying knowledge. "Connor!"
But the savage man who was once his best friend and teacher, squatted on his haunches and regarded him with cold dispassionate eyes.
The mire reached his chin and Duncan tilted his head up to stay with the slowly rising surface. It was hard to breathe with the weight crushing in from all sides upon his chest. Desperation made him struggle and he was helpless against the instinct. He sank to his teeth and spit out gobs of brackish water and mud.
"Conchobhar!" It was the final time Duncan would say the name and he took his last breath to speak it, a goodbye and benediction in one. He sank with a sploop below the surface and the final welt of air reached the top and burped obscenely after he died.
Connor cocked his head at this last word.
It took him a moment to pull vines loose and roll some logs nearby and then he went diving in the slippery mud and drug out the dark man by the hair and one arm. He left him a hapless mess of black muck beside the trail and went on his way.
Duncan revived and then coughed out vile stuff for twenty minutes, trying to figure out how he got free. The vine wrapped around one wrist told him. He smiled.
It was worth dying for.
Everything began to change after that incident.
Connor permitted Duncan to walk with him when he wandered during the day, albeit with an arm's distance between them. Many times Connor followed behind Duncan, making the younger man's skin prickle all over with the presence of an untrustworthy immortal at his back. Even if Connor lacked the comprehension to decapitate, Duncan still instinctively recoiled inside. It made his nerves edgy waiting for some imaginary blow to fall and his entire back ached with the stress.
Duncan coaxed him down to the waterfall where his burrow was. Connor refused to enter it, no matter Duncan's motioning and going in and out. He knew better than to try to force him in ... there was a frightened quality to his lost friend's blue eyes when he looked at the gaping dark hole. He growled very softly in his throat when Duncan tugged gently on one hand to prompt him inside. It was hair raising and the younger man ceased immediately.
The plane. Stuck in the darkness probably confined and trapped in the wreckage for who knows how long... Duncan shivered in sympathy and pulled all of his meager provisions out of the dark interior. He would have to find another place to stay where Connor could be with him too.
At dusk, Connor took to the trees, climbing the leaning trunk of one and leaping the distance to another. His balance was perfect and he bounced on one limb until the spring of the branch aided his next jump across a gap too wide for it to be humanly possible.
Duncan, grounded, stared up at him.
He was suddenly aware of the flexible lithe body that stretched those distances as easily as if he had been born to them. He never thought he would see the day that he was envious of his kinsman's boyish framework, but he was today. He grinned up through the leaves at the face that looked down from thirty feet and saw Connor gesture at him, repeating Duncan's beckoning hand wave that he had used with him all day.
Come here, said wordlessly.
Knife by knife, using them like handholds to climb rock walls, Duncan pulled himself up the tree. It took a very long time and his arms trembled at the top. Connor helped at the very end, dragging him over the edge with a hand snarled in his hair. Duncan was strangling on his howl of pain and anger when he was finally released. He ground his teeth until the ache subsided.
There was an intersection of crossing limbs up here. Connor had stuck more branches in to make it stable and filled it with leaves. They were damp and soft and crawling with bugs. Duncan sighed. They must not be insects that bite or Connor would have tossed them. His clansman was already curling up in the middle and rubbing his eyes like a child.
This was going to be a pretty tight fit for the both of them and Connor had seemed uneasy whenever they chanced to touch during the day. Duncan studied the terrain far below. If he fell out it would kill him. He wasn't sure he could sleep in a tree although it must be pretty safe to be up off the ground at night.
It was as if Connor abruptly made a decision about the issue of personal space, for he tugged Duncan down beside and almost atop him. He scooted about a little, grunted when Duncan's elbow got him in the ribs and then settled. A moment later, Connor sighed and closed his eyes.
Their limbs were all tangled, they were practically breathing the same air ... and the nearness was strangely comforting. "Connor," Duncan said very very softly, but the man in question growled at him and he shut up. It was enough to feel his breath and warmth and finally hold him, alive and reasonably healthy even if his mind was not. Duncan let the quiet tears leak over the bridge of his nose and down into his ear. He listened to the night sounds until he finally slept.
He woke up in the morning with Connor jerking himself off less than four feet away, balanced on his feet, one hand on the branch above his head for added stability. In other circumstances, Duncan would have roared with laughter at the spectacle ... but here in the wild with an old friend tenuously clinging to any sanity at all, it was a completely normal activity. It cheered him that some of the other foundations were still intact besides just the instinct to eat and sleep and seek shelter.
His faint movement caught Connor's attention despite his activity, and the older man looked at him. His eyes were vivid with intensity. It was another moment before he finished his act of blatant sexuality and then he stretched, extending his arms overhead to his full height and came to curl back up against Duncan's warmth.
The younger man considered his own state of bottled sexual energy and would have pursued the matter in the same way as Connor just had, but he wondered seriously if he would fall right out of the tree.
He spent the day in a futile attempt to get Connor to say his name. It took convincing to just get him to listen to the word and he stubbornly refused to speak it. He seemed interested in Duncan's name, however, and Duncan said it to him over and over, pointing at his chest in doing so.
He wouldn't say that either. He never said a word at all.
The days passed full of sunlight and heat and eating and sleeping. Connor plucked the ripe fruit from the canopy tops and Duncan shot game with the handgun. It took a lot of work to teach Connor to drop flat when he was getting ready to fire ... he did not want him to inadvertently step in the way. He never let his short sword out of sight, but Connor seemed disinterested in it.
By the time a week had passed, Duncan was eating meat right along with Connor ... he just never looked directly at it and therefore could ignore it being raw. He drew the line at grubs and wouldn't touch them. Connor devoured them like candy.
They swam in the bowl of the river and pulled the tangles out of each other's hair as if they were back in the Highlands. Connor had very slowly adjusted to the sound of his voice and Duncan talked constantly to his silent companion, pointing out objects and repeating their names endlessly. Connor never said a thing.
The canopy was the place to sleep and nothing disturbed them in the night. Most daybreaks Connor jacked himself off and Duncan learned to join him in the morning ritual without falling off the branch. The first time he managed the feat, Connor grinned at him. Duncan laughed back and felt as if he were home, although he certainly had never lived like this.
The older man was intrigued with the medallion that Duncan wore and so he pulled it off one day and dropped it around his neck. Connor smiled at him and Duncan was reminded, with a pang, of patting a dog. His kinsman was easily made happy: food, shelter, basic physical pleasure. It was the entire circle of his world.
There was no pressure and no time in the humid climate of the jungle.
They waited out the torrential rain squalls under the broad leaves of plants and chucked unripened fruit at monkeys who came beneath the tree. Duncan plaited several strands of green vines together and made a rope to help him get up to where they slept. His curious clansman soon discovered that it made a glorious swing and Duncan laughed until he cried watching Connor coast wildly by and let go - sailing fifteen feet into dense greenery to break his fall over and over again. They spent hours whistling back and forth to the bright birds overhead, insinuating themselves into their music and grinning when they were answered with alarm and excitement.
Duncan only feared for his life during the nightmares that brought Connor hurtling out of dead sleep screaming incoherently. If they were sleeping curled too closely together against the light chill of night, the older man fought like an animal in a trap to be free. Duncan learned to scramble quickly away and could only sit and wait until the rage and pain dwindled into the sound of fear.
Even then the younger man had to keep his distance, watching helplessly as his tormented friend mourned and grieved over something inexpressibly broken within, twisting his fingers in his hair and pulling until he tore out clumps of the long tresses. Connor bit his lips open until he bled and chewed his fingers, fighting his way back alone to his meager reality. If Duncan tried to soothe him, it only sent the older man spiraling back into the visions.
Connor would never go back to sleep after a night terror, but would sit staring silently until the dawn brought the light again. Those were the days he slept beside the river on the rocks for hours at a time.
Duncan realized, with a pang of sorrow, that before Connor had allowed Duncan to befriend him, he spent most of his nights terrified and awake. More than ever, it confirmed to the younger Highlander that he had chosen well in not raising a hand against his lost kinsman in those first weeks and in finally starving him into accepting his intrusion.
"Not that I needed any proof," Duncan said softly while sitting awake with his trembling counterpart one night, "but it's nice to have confirmation anyway."
Connor was always rubbing at his shoulders and twisting his head during the day. Duncan remembered that his older clansman always carried stress in his neck. It took a long period of coaxing before Connor allowed Duncan's hands on his neck long enough to truly relieve some of the pain with counter pressure. Connor went to sleep slumped across his lap. It was the highest gesture of trust Duncan had received in their weeks of peaceful coexistence and he closed his eyes against the tears and held him for hours in simple longing. Trust, above all else, the younger Highlander confirmed again internally.
Connor took Duncan in a new direction one morning and they climbed and climbed up the mountain until they had reached nearly the top. There, hacked into the truck of a tree at neck height was Connor's katana.
Duncan stared at the sunlight gleaming off the portion of the exposed blade and then jerked it out of the tree. When he turned with it in his hands and looked at his clansman, what he saw froze him in place and the coldness flowed into his spine like water. His gut sank like a stone.
Connor MacLeod regarded him with curious eyes, his hands at his sides. He showed not the slightest hint of danger or fear of the bright blade ... an immortal unalarmed by the only means of his true death. It dawned on him that his wild friend had never shied from the short sword either.
Duncan, cursing savagely at himself internally, went back down the mountain without looking back. He had been monkeying around in this place for months, forgetting the ultimate question. What was he going to do about Connor?
That night, high above the jungle floor, sleep was a long time coming to the younger man. He stroked the temple of his lost friend absentmindedly. Connor slumbered peacefully unaware that Duncan was trying to determine his final fate.
Eight days later, it was someone else who made the final irrevocable choice for Duncan.
The sound of rifle fire, three shots in quick succession, brought the young Highlander from his reverie. He darted his glance about quickly, but Connor had gone wandering quite some time ago.
Immediately he was on the move, scrambling down the slope of heavy foliage and crashing through the flora that tangled around him. Wild birds took flight in a wave of colors from the direction of the shots and monkeys screamed in fear. He thought he heard Connor's voice in the mix and desperation sent him over the edge of the ravine, bouncing down the steep slope of rocks and trees and crawling vines. Adrenalin kept him from even noticing the pain as his skin was flayed open. He tumbled to the bottom head first and bounded to his feet again.
Too far away!
Connor, trained like a dog to the sound of gunfire, had beaten him to the site. When there were shots fired, there was food. It happened every day. He did not fear the bright blade the other man carried ... and with terror in his heart, Duncan realized that he had painstaking taught his mad kinsman to endure the immortal signature and the sound of a human voice. The tall golden Highlander waited dutifully and patiently for a meal.
And Duncan was too far for the handgun to make a difference! He had come from hopelessness and death in a full circle to hope and life again. Now he was going to watch Connor die!
He screamed inarticulately and the sound turned Connor's head away from the blade swinging back to kill him. Duncan, in a dead run, did the only thing he knew - he raised his hand and dropped it, the unmistakable command he had taught his wild brother when he was getting ready to shoot. Lay down on your belly.
Connor dropped flat, obeying instantly.
The immortal's blade swished harmlessly in midair and in another moment, Duncan was on the invader powered by towering rage and bellowing with fury. He looked as wild as Connor did: mostly naked, hair awry and his muscles honed by the constant climbing and walking of the hilly terrain.
He was so murderous that he simply tore into the other man with his bare hands, ducking beneath the sword and roaring with anger. Biting, kicking and gouging - it took a couple of cuts from the blade to jerk him back to reality and self control.
He broke from the clinch and pulled the short sword from its dangle down his back, shifting immediately into the present and taking up his classic fighting stance. He did not know the other man and did not care. Right now, he was as insane as Connor and Duncan lunged into the clash of swords in a frenzy, fighting close and pressing his attacker back.
His opponent was a reasonably apt hand with a sword ... but the Highlander swarmed over his defenses and simply hacked him apart in uncomprehending violence. Somewhere along the way he chopped off his head, but he was still slashing at the corpse when the familiar fog of the quickening began to rise.
Belatedly, Duncan yelled at Connor to run ... but he had never taught him that word and the older man stood mystified by the appearance of the coalescing cloud. By the time the lightning gathered force and began, it was too late to escape.
Duncan heard the screams of fear and terror and was powerless to do anything to help Connor. He was awash in the transporting glory of the quickening. The life and intention of the slain immortal rushed in, dizzying and twisted. It was like looking through a crazed kaleidoscope. The man was old enough to be a good fighter, lazy enough to seek out a disaster scene looking for the easy spoils that had washed up on the rocky coast, and foul enough to kill an obviously helpless immortal. If Duncan had hesitated, he would have been shot and then beheaded.
The clouds above whirled like a dervish and the greenery around him whipped as if lashed by a giant hand. The lightning stabbed the earth and impaled him on it, racing spectacularly through his chest again and again, feeding his spirit and soul and leaving him vibrantly alive. He was flattened on the ground when it finally was over.
Somewhere in the midst of it, Connor had stopped screaming. When Duncan reoriented and stumbled to where he had crumpled, the madman was dead. There wasn't a mark on his nude body anywhere, but his face was frozen in a look of absolute horror.
Duncan carried him away from the scene. Connor was a heavy and unwieldy burden and the younger man couldn't go very far before resting. He took him to the river and then waited for him to revive.
The minutes passed and Duncan began pacing. He didn't even know why Connor had died. The quickening wasn't so powerful that it would kill him ... unless, he suddenly wondered, his mindless clansman had simply had a heart attack in the middle of it. In confusion and terror, had he just died from fear? Duncan sat down, abruptly.
He had to make a decision. One that would cost him dearly.
He could not go on like this, guarding an immortal lost in the labyrinths of his mind. Duncan did not belong here in the trackless wild, a prisoner of someone else's sad fate.
In all the weeks of loose partnership in this godforsaken place, his wild kinsman had not attempted to speak once. He was unafraid of a sword, a gun, or another immortal. He had no interest in any of Duncan's verbal prattling; he simply ignored him as if he was one of the colorful birds twittering overhead. Without even the simple willingness to learn and interest in language ... how could he ever hope to retrain his fallen comrade?
If he left him here alive, Connor would be doomed to a half-life of nervous scrounging for food, waiting out the rain and huddling to himself for warmth. Tearing himself apart physically during every nightmare. The years would keep rolling by and Connor would live them out, barely scraping through. Afraid. Lonely. Perhaps sad. Certainly confused and bewildered that everything around him changed and died, but he did not.
Another person might come here and find him. A mortal to exploit him, an immortal to slay or take him captive. Perhaps suffering a lingering horrific death being consumed by an animal that finally brought him down and his immortal healing couldn't keep pace enough to allow him to escape. Duncan shuddered with the sheer inhumanity of the picture.
Connor was his clansman, a part of himself ... the one family tie that was blood. But in his right mind, would he ask Duncan to give up his life and freedom to stand guard over his insanity? Would he ask him to leave him to face his fate alone?
Or, and Duncan felt his soul cringe away in a paroxysm of anguish so terrible that he hung his head beneath the thought, would he tell Duncan to give him his final death? One last act of caretaking ... of love. His vision blurred and the greenery of jungle around him swam as if it was the sea.
Duncan had been forced to kill other friends before: Michael Moore, Coltec, Hideo, Brian Cullen. Warren Cochrane had gone mad after beheading a student. He himself had attempted to slay Rich Ryan in a moment of insanity. He shivered all over, remembering his own words to his student: "What would I be if Connor MacLeod had never found me?"
And in his mind, he asked the true question: what will I become if I execute my helpless brother?
The younger man stumbled in the step he had taken.
The disembodied voices went on inside his head, demanding audience, insisting on attention ... judging and condemning in bitter tones. The same razor edge of evaluation and illumination that he used objectively with others glared at him, weighing and measuring with cool calculating eyes.
What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
"I can't do this," Duncan whispered horrified and staring at his hands. "This is not in me. Oh God, I can't..."
What shall be the fate of the one who slaughters the last of his own Clan? Who dares to rive the eldest son of the Clan MacLeod from life?
"No ... no!" he moaned, dropping the short sword as if it had suddenly become a viper and backing away. "No!"
Kinslayer. Traitor to your own bloodline.
"Oh God," it was only a whisper against the background of sounds.
Changeling, foundling ... you DESERVED to be cast out of Clan all those years ago.
The dark immortal went to his knees in agony, stricken to the core.
Never were you fit to be a Clanleader's son--.
--For treason lives in your soul and treachery dwells in your heart.
Duncan collapsed bodily in the lush foliage, face down in the vines and rich earth. He concentrated on keeping his breathing even, feeling close to a dead faint. After several minutes he rolled and stared at the sky overhead. The fronds of plants waved over him and the birds twitted and winged from tree to tree, singing a merry chorus through the middle of his dread.
"What would you have me do for you, Conchobhar?" Duncan choked out in the silence, torn by the agony of the choices and the even greater fear of living with the consequences.
There was no answer.
Connor MacLeod was still dead, laid out in the vegetation and gilded with sunlight as if an offering to some ancient God. The sounds of the jungle hummed around them and the music of the river echoed softly. The chatter of a small monkey called in the distant and another answered. The breeze overhead made the flowers dance on the canopy of the trees.
The younger MacLeod struggled to his feet and stood amidst the peace of the place. He regarded the fallen sword, but made no move to retrieve it ... simply stared at the light glinting coldly from the steel for a long time. Finally, with his eyes closed to gather his will, Duncan made the final decision about his clansman's fate. He could feel the beating of his heart in his ears.
That voice, coinciding with the return of Connor's immortal song, stunned Duncan for an instant. His eyes snapped open and he stared, stupidly. Then he was kneeling and looking down into the dazed blue eyes. His heart was ablaze.
"Connor." His voice cracked. "Jesus, Connor."
"What happened?" the elder Highlander blurted, obviously utterly confused. He blinked and blinked at the canopy of trees overhead as if he couldn't see. His naked chest heaved for breath. The nearest hand scrabbled up the younger man's arm desperately seeking something solid and Duncan clasped it firmly. "I was in Paris and ... I was ... there was a phone call and ... I ... I went ... Duncan, what happened?"
"What do you remember, Connor?" he returned gently, trying to calm his shattered nerves and feelings. He felt as if he had been whip-sawed through a tree ... and then his mind leaped ahead with apprehension.
The quickening must have sifted the older immortal's fragmented mind enough to restore him, but what did Connor retain of these pain-wracked months? With all the physical and mental stress he had been functioning under, would he be able to cope with the truth of what had transpired here?
The irony of the situation struck Duncan fiercely. He had endured hardship and pain trying to restore his kinsman to sanity and now that the moment was upon him, blooming right before him, his fear turned to the realization that a full recovery had serious repercussions also.
Connor MacLeod was hundreds of years beyond being Duncan's teacher. They were friends and brothers, close as a breath during months of sadness after one of them suffered a loss in life. But Duncan also knew there was a central core to his oldest friend that could not be removed or shaken. Something immutable and transcending every phase of their relationship.
Duncan knew if there ever came the choice, Connor would die for him. Without hesitation or regret, the older Highlander would shove the younger aside from fate and taking his place. A position of sacrifice bound up so deeply in his soul that they could hardly even talk about it.
Whenever faced with danger, Duncan suspected his mentor was not far behind ... hidden in the shadows ... watching the battle unfold ... waiting for the moment Duncan failed, to play his final card. One ultimate act of protection. And there was enough magic and mysticism wrapped up in the fabric of the old Scot to pull it off, Duncan suspected. A last trick, never revealed.
But here on this forsaken tropical island, imprisoned in his senselessness, the man who had always functioned as Duncan's shield had become the weapon. A tool of destruction and suffering and death. The unmitigated ruthlessness of his repeated slaying of Duncan battered against that foundation in the elder man. And while mere physical pain birthed from his clansman's damaged mental state was a light thing for Duncan to dismiss ... it would not be an easy thing for Connor to put aside. Killing his immortal clansman over and over again was only a short step away from the more final end and that knowledge could be devastating.
Connor frowned and shut his eyes tightly, reopening them a moment later. His expression remained alarmed. "I don't know ... I ... I was ... did I fall? Where the hell am I?" His grip tightened even more painfully on Duncan's hand, fingers cold and powered by unknowing fear.
"It's all right," reassured Duncan. He kept his words calm. His heart was dancing so madly he thought it would rupture in the heady mix of joy and fear. "It's okay if you don't remember. Everything is all right."
"It is not all right! I don't remember ... I was in Paris ... then ... then ... Duncan?" His face was scattered with disorientation. "What's happened?"
Now, Duncan thought insightfully, while he is vulnerable and confused. I have to bend him right now. "Connor," the younger immortal said quietly. "Do you trust me?"
"Of course I trust you, but-," he returned, eyes casting about looking for clues to the blankness that swathed his mind.
"Conchobhar," Duncan called seriously, letting his tone capture Connor's bewildered focus. "Do you trust me with your life?" He had the short sword in one hand.
Connor spotted the blade and involuntarily tensed ... then relaxed. This was Duncan MacLeod he faced. The blue eyes weighed the brown ones, instinctively grasping the gravity of the question and making the decision effortlessly. "I trust you with my life, Duncan."
It was exactly enough. Duncan leaned and kissed him, once, on the forehead and it was a blessing and a gift. "It's okay to not remember, Connor," he said very quietly. "Let me hold this part of your life and you just go on without it."
"Dhonnchaidh?" Connor quested, grave eyes wandering across Duncan's face and suddenly focused outward instead of on his inner turmoil.
The familiar name made Duncan's spine shiver and he put his fingers on Connor's mouth. He let all the gravity of the moment show on his face. "Shhh. Trust, above everything else. Live in the trust and let me hold this."
Connor studied him earnestly. He opened his mouth to speak and then stopped again. "Where's my clothes?" he finally settled on.
"It's hot, in case you hadn't noticed." Duncan let the humor creep thankfully into his tone and wryly smiled. "Think of it as ... us being on a little vacation and you've always had a predilection for drinking, stinking and going naked?"
Connor chuckled and allowed part of the tension shiver away in the air. "You're not so clean yourself, smart mouth," and he let Duncan haul him to his feet.
The younger man took him down to the little boat hidden away. Connor stared about him, raking his surroundings with piercing bewildered eyes, but he said not one word. He possessed none of his hitherto gracefulness in the dense foliage and stumbled and tripped just as Duncan had upon first encountering the vicious terrain. Several times Duncan shot out a hand to steady his slighter cousin away from a headfirst plummet.
At the alcove, Duncan made him sit with the short sword. The blade would comfort the older immortal and Duncan knew they were alone in this place. He raced through the tropical oasis that seemed more friendly now than it ever had before, to his meager provisions stashed near the river.
There was precious little to carry away. Ammo, a spare knife, Connor's sword, the pocket camera he never used because the flash would scare his friend ... clothes for his naked partner. A size too big, but they would have to do.
When he stepped out of the jungle, Connor was on his feet and turning to find the immortal approaching - just as he should, Duncan thought. For that fragment of time, Duncan got his very last glimpse of the strong and savage man he had first met here. He ordered his mind to hold the vision of Connor exactly this way, forever. It would be the sole snapshot he would ever have, engraved in memory.
Then the moment was gone. Connor grinned at him and plucked the katana from his hand, greeting it like an old friend.
The older man asked only three more questions on the long boat ride to civilization, sitting close beside Duncan to be heard over the roaring motor. He had insisted that Duncan cut his long hair off with a knife ... but he didn't ask about its length. He didn't ask why the complexion of his skin was only a few shades off of Duncan's normal coloring. He didn't ask where his shoes were. He did not question any of those things.
"Did I do something terrible?" he asked first.
Duncan thought for only a moment before answering honestly, "No, Connor. A lesser man could not have done what you did. And I don't know if I could have pulled it off either, but you did nothing wrong."
The next questions took more thought and Duncan understood that Connor needed to ask.
"Did I do something to ... hurt you?" the older man asked solemnly. He remembered the shifting eddies of fear and determination in Duncan's face when he woke up. There was something there, looming hugely just below the surface. "Did I injure 'us' somehow?"
The killing. The dying. The brutal instances when Connor beat him to death. Duncan closed his eyes over the memories and considered them. He had chosen to try to gentle Connor instead of harming him. He had starved him nearly to death to bring him down. All the choices had fallen in his hands, not his friend's. Connor had not been given a single choice for months and hitherto had not been capable of a rational one above basic survival. Was he guilty?
And behind the obvious answer was the second question Duncan needed to weigh; was there any lingering emotional or mental anguish that he was harboring? Even on a spiritual level, was there some echo of trauma that would injure him by this subterfuge?
The answer echoed like a voice in his head. Love is a decision and I choose to love above all else. Nothing besides that is important.
"No Connor." Duncan faced him honestly and directly. "You did nothing to hurt me that matters and nothing to injure what we are." Duncan put a hand on the nearest lean shoulder and smiled fondly at him. Connor was looking deeply into his face, his eyes probing like picks for the truth. "Trust, old friend, as once I handed you my life when I was a boy. If you dig at this, I can't guarantee that you won't hurt us. And if it all comes back some day - you just remember what I've said. Stand in the trust I've asked of you."
"You were 29. Not much of a boy by any means," Connor dutifully pointed out after a fashion. The ocean wind whipped the ragged ends of his shorn hair about, but his eyes were calm.
Duncan wanted no mistake about this matter. This time of hardship, search, pain and joy was a closed subject. "I was a boy and I gave you my life and my fate. Let me hold this for you, Connor MacLeod, and just trust that I can."
The other immortal nodded his agreement and smiled a small smile. "It's well that you can, because I don't remember a thing. I think I've been in a terrible fight."
"You won," Duncan chuckled and the subject was closed.
Epilogue: At the airport
"Us? Get phobias? I don't know," Duncan replied thoughtfully and then smiled. "I do have a thing about snakes."
"Yeah. Can't stand them. They give me nightmares!"
"Really? I didn't know that about you..."
"Flight 2693 for New York now boarding at gate 27. Flight 2693 for New York City, now boarding at gate 27."
The voice sounded bored and loud over the speakers, making the older man flinch and then turn to the other. They locking gazes for a moment as good friends do. "Snakes, huh? Well, I guess I'm not all alone with stuff like this," he said with a sigh.
"Nope." The other immortal smiled and took the offered hand. "Connor."
"Duncan." And then he added softly: "Watch your head."
"I always do," grinned Duncan.
The younger Highlander watched him walk down the ramp until it turned and he was lost from sight. He waited until the jetliner had taxied and taken flight before speaking again to the expanse of glass he looked through.
"You're not alone, Connor. You weren't then ... you aren't now."
Author's notes: I blame this Muse attack on Sharz, who always seems to know the way to provoke my Muses! It was an intense romp in a place I never would have thought to go if it had not been for her idle comment one day that Christophe Lambert is "Connor MacLeod" to her only when the photo in question is from a Highlander movie. Strangely, to me CL is "Connor" in every photo I see of him - it's merely some facet of his 483 year life -- including certain snapshots from Greystoke.
This was brutal and intense and the vision of Duncan's Muse. I learned more about Duncan then I did about Connor, which is what usually happens when a story involving Connor is told through the vision of DuncanMuse. Thanks for the ride, but I never want to do this again, Duncan dear! (or at least, no time soon *grin*.)
Kudos to the Clan CDC for 68 pages of feedback and chatter about this story and to Sharz, as always, for insight and laughter and Beta reading! Take a bow.