"AND A STAR TO STEER HER BY"

Suzanne Herring
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DISCLAIMERS

Connor and Duncan MacLeod belong to Rysher Entertainment. They are used here in a strictly *not-for-profit* work of fiction and no copyright infringement is intended or desired. Jill MacCormick is my own creation. NASA is real and so is the moon, but the space missions referred to in the story are entirely fictitious. Houston is real and so is its weather.

Many thanks to my wonderful team of beta readers: Susan Hicks, Polly Hood, Monica Jordan, Amy Jaeger, Jenni Bohn, Vi Moreau, Michelle Wolfe, Alexis Latner, and my husband and sanity checker, Andy Testa. Jenni kept me straight on spelling and grammar and asked the occasional pointed question. Amy made me delve more deeply into Jill's character. Without Vi Moreau and Alexis Latner, but especially Vi, Connor wouldn't be Connor. Also, Vi contributed ideas, lines of dialogue, support, and incredible amounts of help on a daily basis, while she was writing her own wonderful Elena story, "Trust." I am indebted to Vi for the sword scene in Chapter 3 and much more besides. Michelle gave me the wonderful idea for Connor's gift in chapter 10 and also (along with Vi, big-time) helped me with his dialogue there. My husband kept insisting on certain structural matters, which ultimately resulted in a better story (though it was mighty painful, I tell ya...). And again, Vi, I couldn't have done it without you!

The description of the conditions at the moon's south pole is derived from "Merits of a Lunar Polar Base Location" by James D. Burke (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, Pasadena, CA. in the book "Lunar Bases," edited by W.W. Mendell, published in 1985 by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, TX. Any mistakes in the use of the concept are mine and mine alone.

Please do not distribute this story without the author's permission. Comments to me at Suzanne_Herring@metacrawler.com.

This story is ADULT. It contains material of a graphic sexual nature. Some violence and profanity also appear.

THE POEMS

"Sea-Fever," by John Masefield I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking, And a gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

The poem by Tu Fu is a translation by Kenneth Rexroth in "One Hundred Poems From The Chinese," A New Directions Book, copyright 1971.

CHAPTER ONE

Houston, TX July, 2005

"The subject of my leaving the astronaut corps is not open for discussion," Jill MacCormick told Connor MacLeod on the sultry night they met. Although it was not the first thing she said to him that night, or the last, it would eventually overshadow everything else Connor would remember about meeting her.

He had come to Houston for an antiques convention which his business manager, who took over when Rachel retired, had persuaded him he really should attend. He bought the last of the pieces, arranged for their shipment to New York, and escaped, sweating, into the sizzling Houston heat in search of a place to cool off for his remaining hours in Space City, USA. On a whim, he stopped at "Space Center Houston," the local tourist center for the space program. He remembered announcements that the crew of the latest space station mission would be here today, talking about their six-month tour on the International Space Station. Normally, Connor could not care less--the space program had always seemed so alien to the realities of his Immortal life. But the explorer in Connor was curious about this new frontier, so he bought a ticket and drove past the gates.

Out in the packed parking lot, Connor noted the heavy security around the building (including discreet but visible security guards) and the families with small children hurrying for the door. He suspected there would be metal detectors in the building, too--they were everywhere these days. There was no way he was carrying his katana in that building--any Immortals he met would surely agree to take their fight some place less dangerously public. With relief, Connor stripped off his trench coat and the razor-sharp sword hidden inside, and tucked them safely in the trunk. The climate was too hot for hiding swords under long coats anyway.

Once the coat was off, Connor removed his tie and unbuttoned the first three buttons of his shirt, too. Born and raised in the cool Highlands of Scotland, he had never enjoyed hot climates, especially since his escapades in southern Africa. Just now all he really wanted was to cool off.

Inside, Connor paused for a moment, letting the icy blasts from the air-conditioning penetrate down to his overheated bones. He followed the "Astronaut" signs and crowds to a large auditorium. The moment he stepped through the door, the buzz of another Immortal struck him. He cursed silently. Until now, he hadn't felt another Immortal the whole time he'd been in Houston.

As he scanned the crowd of men and women and starry-eyed children for the Immortal, he could see no one who appeared to be looking for one of his kind in return. Then he raised his eyes to the stage, where the seven astronauts sat on display. And he saw her.

All he could tell about her in the glare of the lights was that she was slender and had long red hair. She sat at the end of the stage, on his left, and she appeared to be doubled over with pain--but she also was making no effort to look around the crowd. Connor raised his eyebrows. This could be his Immortal--a brand new one who didn't even know what she was. Great, he thought. Just what he needed. A new Immortal to baby-sit. And a female one at that.

Connor watched as the woman, supporting her head with her hands, spoke briefly with the astronaut next to her. She shook her head vehemently over something the other said, started to get up, then abruptly sat back down. The other astronauts huddled together for a whispered conference, then one of them pulled out a cell-phone and made a hasty call. A moment later a voice proclaimed from the speakers, "Ladies and gentlemen. There's going to be a short delay...Astronaut Jill MacCormick is experiencing a little delayed return-to-Earth reaction, and we're going to see to her before we can move on. We'll pick up here in about 15 minutes."

By this time, despite the crowd's milling for seats, Connor had gotten close enough to see what was happening. He saw the glare the new Immortal shot the speaker, despite her evident pain. In a flash he realized what was happening. He, Connor, was making MacCormick sick to her stomach. Her glare to the speaker suggested she was pissed with the situation. And he hadn't even met her yet. His lips quirked slightly. He was going to have to work on his people skills, he thought sardonically.

The crowd surged back and forth in the auditorium, taking advantage of the delay to search for better seats. Connor hugged the wall, fighting the crowd, slinking as close to the stage as he could get without drawing too much attention to himself. His sense of her buzz grew as he neared her, confirming that she was indeed the Immortal he had detected.

He needed to get close enough to talk to her. He would have to tell her what she was and what she needed to know about Immortality. He wasn't looking forward to it.

Just then there was a commotion from the doors. Connor turned. A team of paramedics hurried past him to the stage. MacCormick, despite her obvious wishes to the contrary, was efficiently strapped to a gurney, carried down the stage steps, past Connor, and out of the auditorium. As she passed him, Connor looked right down in her face, taking note of the square jaw, green eyes, and angry frown. She stared back at him, then gasped and closed her eyes.

Connor hurried through the crowd to see what hospital the paramedics were taking her to. He got to the exit just in time to see "Coastal Medical Center" on the ambulance. It looked like he was in for some sneaking around in a hospital. Still, it was better than a morgue.

After a quick call to his agent to change his travel plans, Connor found a medical-supply store in a strip mall and purchased a doctor's white coat, a clip-board, and some paper. When dealing with mortals, he'd observed that a clip-board was almost a sure guarantee of credibility.

In the hospital parking lot, he put on the coat, attached some papers to the clip-board, and headed inside. The hospital was small, only three stories. That would make his search a little easier. He wandered unchallenged around the hospital for about 15 minutes, head down, scribbling on the paper, looking busy, before he isolated MacCormick's buzz to a private, corner room on the top floor. NASA takes care of its own, he thought. He listened at the closed door for a moment, heard no voices. He pushed the door open, walked in, and closed it behind him.

Jill MacCormick's head had cleared as soon as she left Space Center Houston. She argued that this meant she was fine and could go back to work, but the NASA doctors insisted she stay overnight for observation. Incensed, she had had someone from the office bring some of her paperwork over. She was going through it when, once again, she was assaulted by the stomach-curdling, head-popping sensation she'd felt before.

Involuntarily, she grasped her head. Then the door opened and she heard footsteps. Expecting her doctor, she looked up. She didn't recognize the man who walked in, but he looked vaguely familiar. "Who the hell are you?" she snapped. "Where's Vogel? I didn't agree to be treated by some novice still wet behind the ears."

Connor smiled to himself at her description of him. He walked over to her and stood next to her bed. "Miss MacCormick, I need to talk to you," he said without preamble.

She peered at him through her hands. "About what?" she said. Then, "I recognize you! You were in the auditorium when my head exploded."

Connor winced at the image.

She continued, "And I was doing just fine until you showed up again. Just exactly who are you?" She inspected him suspiciously. She saw a 5'11" man with short brown hair, fair skin, and hypnotic gray eyes. His lips were full and soft, suggesting a sensuality in conflict with the flat, hard planes of his face and the ruthless look in his eyes. The light, quick way he'd crossed the room reminded her of the disciplined military pilots she'd sometimes trained with. There was a forcefulness in the quiet way he, carried himself that set Jill's heart to beating rapidly. Looking at him more closely, Jill realized he hadn't shaved in several days. His shirt-collar was open. Tiny, nearly invisible hairline scars just above the hollow of his exposed throat made him look oddly vulnerable. "You're not a doctor, are you?" she said.

Very perceptive, Connor thought, enduring her inspection. Good. Her set jaw also suggested stubbornness. Connor surmised that telling her about her Immortality wasn't going to be easy. Well, it never was. "My name is Connor MacLeod and we need to talk."

"What about? Are you a goddamned reporter?"

Connor laughed out loud. "Not hardly."

"Then who are you and what's your business here?" Jill said.

"We need to talk about your headache and the nausea you're feeling--and the reason for them," he replied.

"Why, do you have a remedy for hospital food?"

Connor chuckled. She had a sense of humor, too. She'd need it. He said, "No, but I can tell you what's causing it."

"Okay. I'll bite. What's causing it?"

"I am," Connor said.

Jill rolled her eyes at him. "Good God," she said. "Where did you come from?" She leaned close and gave him a penetrating look with her green eyes, all the while holding her hand to her head. "No, no, let me guess," she croaked sarcastically. "I've got it. You're from the planet Zeist, you're here to kidnap me, and you've been beaming evil thought rays at me since you landed in the auditorium. I guess I should have worn my little protective tin-foil hat, huh?"

"No," Connor said seriously, trying not to crack up. "I'm not from another planet."

"Oh, well, another dimension then," she said, dripping sarcasm. "Look, we have people at NASA to take care of cases like you. And this ain't it. So do me a favor and get the hell out of my room before I call security."

"Miss MacCormick --"

"That's Ms. MacCormick to you."

"Ms. MacCormick," he said with exaggerated emphasis, "I am causing it. I can prove it to you."

"You mean you're gonna provide...empirical proof?" Jill replied acidly. "I hope it doesn't involve anal probes." Her tone was growing more caustic by the minute.

Great, he thought. The famous Connor MacLeod charm at work again. Not for the first time, he wondered if Duncan had this much trouble convincing new female Immortals to listen to him. No, he decided. Duncan probably had to beat them off with a stick. "No, no anal probes," he said. "It's very simple. I'll leave. You'll feel your headache and nausea fade. Then I'll come back and you'll know when--you'll feel it start again."

Jill simply looked at him, disbelief written across her determined features. "What have you got?" she said. "Telepathic body odor?"

Connor pressed his lips together firmly. "If you don't feel exactly what I said you would, I'll leave. I give you my word," he said.

"All right," Jill replied, rolling her eyes once more. "Good-bye."

Connor walked out of the room, took the elevator down to the lobby, and left the hospital. He went to his car, retrieved a couple of items, then went back to Jill's room.

She was sitting straight up in the bed, eyes wide, when he came back in the room.

There was a long silence.

Finally, Connor said, "You felt it, didn't you?"

She nodded. "But it's impossible."

"You felt it. So it's not impossible."

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him again. "So how did you do it? Some kind of a trick?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"You've been in an accident of some kind fairly recently, haven't you? An accident where you should have died, but didn't?"

Jill's eyes narrowed. "You are a goddamned reporter, aren't you, you bastard?" she said.

Connor shook his head.

"Then why do you want to know about the accident? And how did you find out anyway? Everyone is supposed to be keeping that quiet, at least until the NTSB releases the report."

Connor looked at her coolly. He said, "I don't know anything about your accident, Miss MacCormick. Only that something must have happened to you. Because, you see, something like that happened to me almost 500 years ago. We are both Immortals."

"Jeez, I like the Zeist theory better," Jill said. "You sure you haven't just mislaid your spaceship?"

Connor leaned right into her face, crowding her, deliberately invading her personal space. He let his expression go cold and distant, and he put the steel of 500 years into his voice. "I am Immortal," he said. "I was born in the Highlands of Scotland almost 500 years ago. I've been alive ever since. I am Immortal, you are Immortal, and we are not alone. We cannot die by ordinary means, but we can be killed. And the first rule of Immortality is: in the end, there can be only one."

"Only one what?" she asked slowly, leaning away from him.

"Only one Immortal."

"Why?"

Satisfied that he had her attention, Connor moved out of her personal space. He explained about the nature of Immortality, Quickenings, and the Prize. She tried to interrupt once, but stopped at his icy look.

When he finished, Jill shook her head. "I don't believe you," she said. "It doesn't make any sense."

"You felt me leave and come back, didn't you?" he asked.

Mesmerized by the power of his hooded gray eyes, she nodded. "But it's not enough for you, is that it?"

He let his voice and eyes soften a little. It had been hard enough for him to accept all those years ago. With her background, this must sound like insanity.

She shot him a quick, nervous look before nodding her head stubbornly.

Though her stubbornness was annoying, Connor admired her for it too. He knew he had frightened her, yet still she argued. "All right," he said. "You're a scientist. I'll give you another proof." He brought out the katana, which he'd retrieved from the car when he'd left her room.

Her eyes riveted on it. After a moment, she tore her eyes away, looked at him.

Expecting terror, Connor saw grim determination instead. Without warning, she tried to hit him in the groin with her fist. With a half a thousand years of reflex, Connor turned, taking the blow harmlessly on his thigh instead.

She tried to jump out of the hospital bed and run for the door.

Instead, he grabbed her and held her in place, his fingers digging brutally into her shoulders. "Try that again," he said coldly, "and we'll finish this discussion on the floor, with me holding you down and a gag in your mouth. When I'm through, I'll go and not before."

"Yeah, well, what does 'through' mean, exactly, when you say it?" Her voice shook, but she asked anyway.

"Just shut up and look," he said. He removed his hands, willing her to remain in place and stay silent.

Watching him, she didn't move.

On the bedside table, he placed several folded towels he'd grabbed from a hospital laundry cart. He took off the doctor's coat and rolled up his left sleeve. Next he lay his left arm on the towels, palm up. Then he used the katana to slice a short gash down his forearm, tensing sharply as the blade cut him. Blood spilled into the towels.

Jill jerked back.

"Look at it," Connor said coldly.

Her eyes shut, Jill shook her head.

"I said, look at it."

Jill opened her eyes, stared at the rapidly closing slash in his arm, touched it. Her jaw dropped. The cut finished closing under her fingertips and she ran her hand along his forearm. Blood still dripped, but the wound had healed completely. "That's impossible!" she said.

"That's Immortality," Connor replied.

"My God," she said, staring at him, the wall of disbelief finally cracking. "You're not kidding."

"No, I'm not."

"Are you all right?"

He drew himself up straight and pinned her with a look that would have stopped a tank. "I am Immortal. Wounds heal, sickness goes away, life goes on." Connor gestured at his bloody arm. "You are like this, too."

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CHAPTER 2

Connor sponged some of the loose blood from his arm with the already bloody towels--he was really just smearing it, he decided. So he let it go. He sat down in the room's one chair, leaned tiredly back in it, and watched Jill. From his coat, he pulled a flask which he'd filled with his hotel's mediocre Scotch whiskey. He drank off several large swallows.

He hadn't eaten for hours, and his stomach growled, but the lousy Scotch would have to do until they finished this little scene. He was waiting for her protests and whining to start--something else all new Immortals seemed to share. Including himself, he had to admit, recalling Ramirez' comments about his own endless complaints.

Jill seemed lost in thought, staring at him intently.

Connor bore the gaze stoically, sipping the Scotch. It wasn't the first time a new Immortal had given him that "what the hell are you?" look.

Finally, she stirred and opened her mouth to speak. In the split second before she uttered the words, he silently bet himself that her first words would either be a command for him to get lost or some whining about how she didn't want to be Immortal.

Jill said, "Are you really all right? I mean, you've still got blood all over you, although you're not dripping any more."

Well, damn, Connor thought, surprised and suspicious--it was a good thing he hadn't put any money on that bet. Then he decided he'd probably had enough Scotch. If she was sincere, this was the first time he could ever remember having a new Immortal be concerned about him after the revelation. If not, she was probably planning another escape attempt. He put the flask down and inspected his arm, which was, indeed, still covered with half-dried blood. In fact, there were spatters everywhere.

"I just need to clean this up," he said. Using his most menacing tone of voice, he said, "But don't come for me like that again. I have no qualms about hitting anyone who attacks me. Even a woman."

"You scared me," she said. "I thought you were going to kill me. Tit for tat." The pallor of her skin belied her calm tone.

"Not my job," Connor said.

"I thought you said that was the point," she said, a puzzled look replacing the fear.

Connor decided she was the intellectual type; get her brain engaged in a problem and she would forget everything else. That type wasn't necessarily the most successful among Immortals. He said, "The point, at least for some of us, is to have someone decent win the Prize. So we teach the new Immortals what they need to know--the rules of the Game and how to fight. That's my job." Until later, he thought. "Then, there can be only one."

"Oh," she said, watching him, shivering slightly as if she sensed his thought. "You mean you're going to become my teacher?"

"If you wish," he said. "For now, I'll leave."

"Really?"

"I've told you what I came to tell you. What you decide to do with it is your business."

"So you're not going to, ah, shorten me with that thing?" She pointed to the katana.

"No." He inserted the katana into its scabbard, then leaned it next to the bedside table. "I'll leave now, if you want."

"Oh. Well. Good-bye then."

Connor smiled coldly. He stood up, took the sword, rolled down his sleeve, donned the coat, and without a second look walked out of the hospital room.

Her buzz diminished as he headed down the hallway, then he felt it grow again.

"Wait, wait!" he heard her call behind him.

Now what, he thought to himself. He turned around.

She had wrapped her hospital gown around her, for all the good it did, and she was running after him. The hall was deserted, which was a good thing--with her chasing him through the halls half-naked in a hospital gown, they were hardly inconspicuous. She said, "Wait. Don't go. Please. Was all that stuff really true?"

"You saw the wound heal. What do you want me to do, slice up the other arm?"

"No, no," she said thoughtfully, "although it would provide a better database..."

Connor started to turn away.

She softly placed her hand on his chest and gazed straight into his deep gray eyes with her wide green ones.

Connor stopped. She was so close to him now that he could smell the sandalwood fragrance she wore. Her eyes were very green, he thought. The warmth of her hand spread through him, and he realized all at once just how much of her the brief hospital gown revealed. He forced his sudden desire for her away, and he schooled his features to blankness.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That was kind of a...Okay, let's suppose, just for the moment, I believe you. What happens next?"

Connor looked down the corridor. "If you want to discuss this, let's go back to your room. I'm not going to stand here in the hallway and talk about it."

They walked back. Connor gestured to his arm. "I'm going to clean this up first," he said, heading for her private bathroom.

She stood in the bathroom's doorway, watching him remove the coat again. Her next words surprised him once more. She said, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No," he said, stripping off his shirt while running water in the sink. "It's just a little blood."

She sighed. "You don't accept help from many people, do you?"

Connor was acutely aware of her eyes on his body, but he said nothing, simply washing his arm. When he was finished, he put the shirt back on, patting at the blood spatters with the wet cloth.

Smiling a little, she said, "Well, Obi-Wan, at least you don't look like the star of a horror movie any more. What do you say we get out of here, get some dinner and talk about what happens next with this Immortality business?"

Obi-Wan?, Connor thought. This could be an interesting apprenticeship, if that was what it was shaping up to be.

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Jill signed herself out of the hospital, over the staff's protests. They told her they were going to call the NASA physicians, and over her shoulder, as she left with Connor, she told them to go right ahead. "I'll be in trouble for this," she told Connor in a confidential whisper. "Won't be the first time, either."

Connor suppressed a smile. He had no problems imagining Jill MacCormick getting into trouble and disobeying rules.

They had dinner in his hotel suite, over her objections. "I hate hotel food," she complained.

"We're not going to discuss Immortality in public," Connor replied.

She asked him questions. He answered them. He told her he would teach her how to fight, if she wanted.

"What's my alternative?" she asked.

You could lose your head, he thought. But he said, "You can hope you find another friendly Immortal, by luck, who wouldn't rather take your head."

"Any other alternatives?" she snorted.

"I have a friend in Seacouver who might teach you--but I don't know any Immortals in Houston."

"So it's either you or Seacouver."

Connor didn't deign to answer.

Next they argued about when Jill would start her training. "We should start right away," Connor said.

"I can't do that," Jill replied.

After they argued some more, Connor said, "MacCormick, you aren't getting it. This is your life."

"MacLeod, I do get it. Really," she said, spreading her hands. "But what you don't seem to understand is that I can't just up and disappear. I'm an astronaut...in the public eye. You have to give me a little time to arrange leave or people will wonder what's going on, especially after that little show in the auditorium. I just got back from a mission not so long ago--I have responsibilities to fulfill. And isn't drawing attention to this worse than a short delay?"

Connor thought it over. She had a point.

"All right," he said gruffly. "I'll have my business manager FedEx a sword that I think you can use. It'll get here in a couple of days. You work on arranging leave. You should be resigning."

Jill twisted her glass in her hands. She said, "Let's get one thing straight, MacLeod. The subject of my leaving NASA or quitting the astronaut corps is not under discussion. It's not under discussion now, it won't be under discussion next week--in fact, it will never be under discussion."

Connor settled back in his chair. He wouldn't push this now, he decided. He would let her realize herself that her old life was over.

Anxious to change the subject, she looked around the stuffy hotel suite. "Are you going to stay here while you teach me?" she asked.

"No, I'll rent an apartment. It's not something we can do in a week or two. It will take months, at least."

She was aghast. "Months?! My God, how long will I need to request leave for?"

"As long as you can."

She nodded silently, then said, "Well, I'll have to figure out how I'm going to do this. But since you're going to be making the huge sacrifice of giving up New York City for a while to teach me, I guess the least I can do is put you up while you're at it."

Connor shook his head. "No, it's all right."

"I insist. I've got plenty of room and it's a lot nicer than this hotel suite or some crummy apartment."

"It's not necessary."

"Does everything have to be necessary with you? I tell you what." She leaned forward, looking directly into his eyes again. "Come take a look. If you don't like it, do whatever you want."

Connor absorbed her gaze. He was dubious about staying with her--usually students stayed with their teachers. But he had a sense that with MacCormick, things wouldn't be the way they were with most students.

One reason for that was the manner of her death. She had explained that no one had witnessed her drowning death after her plane had gently gone down in the Bay--as far as anyone else knew, she'd simply gotten out of the cockpit and swum to shore. The fact that she'd drowned, revived choking and gasping under water in the cockpit, and then swum ashore had been conveniently unrecorded. Therefore, she hadn't had to suddenly change her life, as most Immortals did when they died. That made a lot of difference. She had kept her mouth shut about the drowning, too, since she didn't want to sound crazy.

Another reason was her strength. He knew he unnerved her and that she really hadn't grasped her Immortality yet, but it hadn't stopped her from arguing with him about being an astronaut. She wouldn't back down from a challenge. He liked that about her. He wondered if she regarded him as a challenge.

"Well, MacLeod?" she said impatiently. "What about it? Will you consider my humble abode?"

He smiled to himself again. She was irrepressible. "All right," he said. "I'll look it over."

He didn't know what he expected to find, but her airy two-story beach house, supported by tall pilings, was indeed pleasanter than his hotel. It was located in one of the communities on Galveston Bay a few miles from the space center. Besides a living room, large kitchen, dining area, and three baths, there were four bedrooms, two facing the water and two facing land. The whole house was decorated in neutral tones of blue, gray, and cream, but small accents of a golden-pink lent a subtle note of sensuality.

The walls were hung with paintings and photographs of spacecraft, starscapes, and sailing ships, except for one large painting over the living room fireplace. That depicted a red-headed beauty in a gossamer white gown lounging on a couch in front of a circular window. A spiral galaxy hung outside the window. Two wineglasses sat on a table in front of the woman, and she was leaning forward, smiling suggestively.

Connor compared Jill to the woman in the painting. "Is that you?" he asked sardonically.

She shrugged. "Maybe."

Jill showed him a large guest room. It had its own spacious bathroom. The sliding glass door opened from the bedroom out onto a shaded, private verandah overlooking the waters of Galveston Bay. The paintings were watercolors of sailing ships, and a poem in calligraphic script hung over the bed.

Connor crossed over to look at it. "John Masefield," he said. "Sea-Fever." It was, perhaps, his favorite poem, since it reminded him vividly of his days as a sea-captain.

She nodded.

He studied the poem for a moment. Then he read out loud, "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky--"

Jill interrupted, her eyes closed, reciting, "And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..." She paused, waiting, and Connor smiled at her presumption.

Still, he allowed it, continuing, "And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking..."

She finished the verse, eyes still closed, "And a gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking."

Jill opened her eyes and smiled at him. She said simply, "You want to move in tonight or wait until tomorrow?"

From the open verandah door, Connor smelled the salt spray and felt the cool Bay breeze in his face. (...the fresh salt spray flew up in his face, the brisk wind tugged his long hair, and from his position at the wheel, he smiled across the sparkling blue water...they had a good wind, the sails were bellied out full and glorious...the weather was clear...the crew was sturdy and loyal and he could already count the profits from the voyage...it was for days like this that he had gone to sea in the first place...)

He remembered his stuffy hotel room. He made a snap decision. "Tonight," he said. "I'll check out of the hotel tonight."

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CHAPTER 3

Connor spent part of his first day at her house exploring her office. She had gone off to work to file requests for leave and finish up whatever tasks she had to do.

Connor paused at the framed degrees--a Ph.D. in physics and another in electrical engineering. He examined the commendations, recommendations, and honors that marched across the walls. There were two photographs of astronauts in flight suits and each of them included Jill. Connor realized that these were the crews of the two missions she had flown on. A page of NASA letterhead preserved in a block of clear Lucite occupied a space on the wall all its own--it was her letter of acceptance into the astronaut corps. Trophies for athletic competitions in high school and college lined two shelves.

He was surprised by the tomes of physics, mathematics, materials engineering, and electronics that lined her shelves. He had no idea what most of the titles meant. She had a large book about space travelers on a shelf, and flipping through it, Connor learned that only a few hundred human beings had flown in space. He understood that Jill already belonged to a very elite club of her own--one with even fewer members than the Immortals' club--and that she had spent her life striving to get into it. Competing to become an astronaut might be good preparation for Immortality, but Connor questioned whether it had instilled the killer instinct in her which she'd need to survive. His silver room in New York had trophies of its own--those of a warrior.

Her office was an academic's.

It took her a week to arrange leave for four months. "And that was by pulling in a lot of favors and stepping on a lot of toes," she told him as they began her first sword-fighting lesson. "My next assignment will probably be as galley-slave-slash-whore on a Ferengi transport, but what the hell--as long as I'm in space."

"A what transport?" Connor inquired.

Jill laughed at his blank expression. "Never mind, Obi-Wan," she said. "Just get out there and teach me about the Force. Or the Prize. Or whatever." She playfully swung the sword around, intending to smack him on the butt with it.

Before she had even started the swing, Connor knocked the sword from her hands and had his blade at her throat.

She could feel the razor-sharp edge just touching her skin...feather-light and deadly. She froze.

Connor circled her, the sword moving with him, never leaving her throat.

She watched him, afraid to move or speak.

"Never, ever try to touch another Immortal with your blade, MacCormick. Not unless you're going for his head. And never let another one touch you with his...unless you trust him absolutely. Or you want to die. This is The Game. But we don't play it for fun, and there is never a second prize. Either you win--every time--or you die."

Jill realized, all at once, that this man could kill her without effort. If he decided to, there was nothing, nothing at all she could do about it. She imagined the sharp blade slicing through her neck, her spine...her head bouncing on the sand, rolling free, her body falling. She glanced surreptitiously at his cold gray eyes. He could do it. He could. She shivered again.

Now the blade left her neck, but he was right in front of her, his face almost touching hers. "Do you understand, MacCormick?" His voice was quiet, soft, menacing.

She didn't trust her voice. She nodded, unable to meet his eyes.

"Then pick up your sword and let's begin."

Without a word, she bent over, retrieved the rapier he'd had sent from New York. Just at this moment, she hated Connor MacLeod.

Connor watched her. She was angry now. He had embarrassed her, humiliated her, frightened her. She probably hated him. Good. As Ramirez had said, that was a perfect beginning.

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She had had a little training in the martial arts and fencing, so Connor didn't have to start her sword training with the absolute basics. She listened to him intently, asking the occasional question.

He saw that she was afraid to attack him...she remembered the hospital and his beach-side demonstration too well. He went through an endless series of daily drills with her, patiently showing her how to thrust, parry, feint, attack, defend. After each set of drills, he engaged her, forcing her to defend herself.

She remained reluctant to attack him, so one day Connor changed tactics. He pressed her until she was near tears. Then he went after her even harder, trying to force her to attack him. He began to touch her with his blade, not drawing blood, just touching her, invading her space, trying to drive her to strike back at him...to attack, not just defend.

She tried to back up, to get away from his sword, but he was too fast for her. He wouldn't let her leave the sphere of moving steel he had built around her. "Fight me, MacCormick," he said. "Attack me. You're losing."

"You're too fast," she said.

"Is that how you got to be an astronaut? By giving up?"

That got to her. She began to use the attacks he had taught her, slowly, awkwardly, reluctantly.

"Good," he said. "Now again, faster."

In this way, over days, she overcame her fear, and he watched her begin to integrate the moves, from separate, awkward pieces to smooth motions. "Very good," he told her.

She began to develop a little confidence, and he saw that she was starting to use the sword with more grace, to treat it as the extension of herself he constantly reminded her it had to be.

He suggested that she carry the sword around with her everywhere that it wouldn't be noticed, the better to make it an unconscious part of herself.

As she forgot her fear of him, she began to concentrate on what he was teaching her.

Connor found that he liked watching her concentrate, hair pulled back, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared. She hadn't been the spoiled complainer he'd initially feared, even at the beginning. And as she grew more competitive, more skilled, he began to enjoy their duels, too.

Fencing wasn't the only arena for their competition. Although she remained cautious, she had no qualms about racing him daily in the water or on the sand. After she became more comfortable with him, she challenged him to a windsurfing race.

"I don't know how," he said. "What?" She deliberately widened her green eyes at him. "The great Connor MacLeod doesn't know how to do something? I thought you knew how to do everything. It's easy, MacLeod...let me show you."

He shook his head.

"What's the matter? Afraid your student will beat you at something? Know what I think, MacLeod? You just don't want to do anything you can't win at."

He raised his eyebrows. "You think I need to win all the time?"

"Like every sexist male I ever met, MacLeod, you need to win every time, all the time...especially when you're going up against a woman."

"All right," he said easily, smiling lightly. "Show me."

She laughed. "Do you have a bathing suit...?"

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She took great delight in reversing their roles. She jeered when he fell in the water, which was often enough at first. "Hey, MacLeod, you're all wet!" she'd shout, laughing as though she'd said something funny.

Connor would bob up to the surface, blinking, spitting water, cursing silently, looking around for the sailboard, which was always lying sideways in the water. After a few days, he began to get the hang of it, and they raced the boards in the Bay.

She preferred very skimpy, two-piece bathing suits, and Connor found his eyes drawn to her body as he watched her trim the sail and fight like a demon to beat him.

Whenever she won, she danced around, taking small bows, grinning at him. "I beat you, I beat you!" she'd gloat.

Then he would demolish her in fencing.

As the days progressed, Connor could tell she had overcome her initial fear of him. He knew he was--justifiably--grim where his students and The Game were concerned.

But Jill, once she got over the fear, wouldn't stand for it. She cracked jokes, insulted him, and called him Obi-Wan whenever he got pedantic. She also surprised him--and disturbed him--with an unspoken attentiveness to himself.

After he ordered Glenmorangie in a bar one night, a couple of bottles of it showed up in her liquor cabinet the next day. When he asked her about them, she said only that the Scotch whisky faeries must have brought them.

After a few days in her home, eating take-out food, he said he hadn't had a decent home-cooked meal since he had left New York. She then disappeared for a couple of hours, coming home with her arms full of groceries. She cooked a simple but pleasant meal of what she called arroz con pollo--Connor exercised his rusty Spanish and came up with rice and chicken. He offered to make the salad. They laughed and talked while they worked together in the kitchen.

It became the paradigm for their days and nights together--working out, racing, and training with swords during the day, cooking together and talking in the evening. Or rather, Jill talked.

Connor said little, and Jill filled in the silent spaces between them. He was curious about space, so he asked her about it.

"There's nothing like it," she said. It was late, they were sitting outside on the lower deck, and the stars were shining over the water. She raised her face to look at them.

Connor watched her, listening to the passion in her voice.

"When we take off, the whole spacecraft vibrates and shakes...it's like being in the middle of an explosion and being part of it. I thought I was going to come apart, just shake into a million pieces. And then, we start to lift off from the ground..." She paused a minute, turned to look at him. But the faraway look she had in her eyes told him she wasn't really seeing him, she was remembering. "When you feel the acceleration kick in, it's like a kick in the pants from behind and like having a couple of sumo wrestlers suddenly sit down on you--all at once...it's hard to breathe, you're squashed a little and you can feel your face stretch." She pulled her face and bugged her eyes out at him, deliberately exaggerating, and they both laughed. "That doesn't last too long, thank God. Then when you start to see the Earth curve under you...it's so beautiful, Connor...there's a thin line of brilliant red and blue that runs just above the horizon. You can't see it on the ground, you can only see it from space. Then the acceleration cuts out and you're in space, you're 'weightless.'"

Connor noticed that she had slipped and called him by his Christian name rather than "MacLeod." But he said only, "What does that feel like?"

She gave him the same faraway look. "Well, it's like falling. Except you never hit bottom. After a while you get used to it, although I was sick at first. But that's nothing...when you look out the window and you see Earth...the whole Earth underneath you...oh, Connor, it's so beautiful." She looked at him again, this time intently. "I wish you could see it...the pictures don't do it justice. The blues, the greens, the browns, and the white of the clouds...you can see their shadows on the surface...dark spots. Whole continents at once, entire oceans...and all with no barriers, no territorial lines. Connor..." she touched his forearm, lightly, with her fingertips, "You can see that it's just one little spot in the middle of infinity."

Jill's face had never struck Connor as beautiful...it was too wide, her jaw too square, her expression too purposeful and determined. Attractive, yes, beautiful, no. But at this moment, while she was lost in her passion, she was beautiful. Her use of his Christian name, her touch, had sent tiny shocks through him, and he leaned toward her. He wanted to hear what she said next.

But she seemed to be through for the moment, so he said, "You go into space to look at the Earth?"

"Sounds crazy, doesn't it? But, no that's not the only reason. There are other places to go, too...when I was a kid, I loved to watch films of the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. I decided I wanted to do that, too...that's why I became an astronaut. To travel to the moon, leave my own footprints there. Maybe go to Mars. You know. 'A star to steer by.'" She smiled at him sheepishly, apologetically. She lifted her fingers from his arm.

Connor leaned back. He had asked her, he knew, but he couldn't encourage this. He should remind her now about The Game, ask her where this all fit with Immortality, remind her that she should be resigning. This was his job. He looked at her face smiling softly at him, radiant in the light of the moon which had risen while she was speaking.

It had gotten very quiet, and he could hear the water lapping at the shoreline just yards away from them. He asked himself if they would even be having this conversation if Jill were a man, and the answer was obvious. He opened his mouth, but before he got any words out, she spoke again, looking at the stars.

"I always wanted to get to the stars, really, but the moon and maybe Mars are all I'll ever get in my lifetime."

Connor smiled to himself. She had inadvertently given him an easy opening. "Jill, I am nearly 500 years old. In my lifetime, I've seen the world move from sailing ships to sub-orbital aircraft. You are Immortal, too. Who knows where you may be able to go in 500 years...if you keep your head."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"If you keep your head, you may get what you want, if not quite the way you want it."

She looked at him for a long moment. Then, her voice cool, the passion gone, she said, "Well, that's what I call giving with one hand and taking away with the other."

"What?"

"Telling me how I can live for 500 years...and reminding me that I'll have to fight to do it."

Connor said nothing. That was the crux of the lesson, whether she liked it or not.

She turned away from him, and then, forgetting, she grabbed his arm suddenly, involuntarily. "Look! It's a meteor. Quick, make a wish--" Then she remembered. She released his arm, turned and looked at him again. "Sorry. Immortals don't make wishes, do they? They just fight each other until somebody's head falls off." Her voice was bitter.

But Connor's reflexes were lightning-quick and he had already turned. He watched the streak of light vanish.

He made no wish.

Jill stood up. "I guess I'll turn in," she said. "Sabers at dawn and all that...good-night, MacLeod."

She left.

MacLeod again, Connor thought. He sat for a little while longer, looking at the sky, then went to bed himself.

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CHAPTER 4 Houston, TX August, 2005

One evening, after they'd finished sparring for the day, Connor went into his room to shower and change. His laundry had been piling up, and he meant to do it tonight, after dinner. When he walked into his room, he found his clothes, neatly laundered and folded, waiting on his bed. (...Heather, washing his clothes in the stream, scrubbing carefully to remove the blood and the dirt...lovingly repairing the holes and rents...fitting him for a new shirt that she was making for him...)

He looked at the neat piles for a moment, imagining Jill touching every article of his clothing, gathering them up, sorting them, washing them, folding them, stacking them here on his bed while he was busy elsewhere practicing, doing katas. The implied intimacy set off a silent explosion in his head, and he realized that he had to stop this right now. Teaching women had its special hazards, but he was damned if he'd let that get in the way of her instruction. He turned and went back out to the living room.

Jill was reading, and she looked up, smiling, but the smile faded when she saw the serious expression on his face. "What?" she said.

"You did my laundry," he said. "Don't do these kinds of personal things for me."

She shrugged, dismissing his words. "I don't understand what the big deal is, Connor. I needed to fill out a laundry load...not waste water and electricity."

He looked at her for a moment, annoyed at her dismissive tone. The image of her touching every article of his clothing wouldn't leave, and he felt there was more to it than simple efficiency. Connor hadn't lived this long without trusting his own feelings. Sharply, he said, "Jill, there are boundaries between student and teacher. Washing my clothes for me...doing these kinds of personal things...crosses those boundaries. You're not my wife, and you're not my lover. Don't do anything like this again."

Jill was incredulous. "Don't you think you're blowing this a little out of proportion, Connor? All I did was wash a load of laundry...God forbid anyone should be nice to Connor MacLeod!"

"The Game is not about being nice, Jill. It's about surviving. You worry about The Game. I can take care of myself."

She was beginning to get angry with him now. Sarcastically, she said, "Well, remind me to unravel that wool crotch-warmer I was knitting for you for Christmas."

He wanted to shake her. She was refusing to get the point, and he was starting to get angry himself. "Jill--"

She leaned towards him, facing him off. "I get it, Connor. You don't want me doing you any favors. But you know what? Washing your laundry was a completely innocent act. If you see anything else in it, it's in your own head."

Now he was angry. She was accusing him of... He narrowed his eyes, and in his most authoritarian tone, emphasizing each word, said, "Just make sure you don't do anything like that again."

She tossed her book to the floor. "That's it," she said. "God, what a tyrant you are, Connor. You know what? I can take care of myself, too. And you can go to Hell." She got up from the chair, walked around him, and slammed her bedroom door behind her.

He stood in the middle of her living room, surrounded by her things. He could still smell the lingering scent of the sandalwood oil that she wore, still see the image of her green eyes widened with incredulity. He stalked back to the bedroom he was using--her guest room. A tyrant, eh? He wanted to throw the tidy piles of laundry on the floor, against the wall, he wanted to smash something, but he put the clothes away, neatly, into the drawers of her furniture. Then he showered and dressed and went back out into her living room.

She hadn't come out of her bedroom yet.

He waited, sat down, flipped through a magazine. After a moment, he heard her door open. He looked up and froze, his face an impassive mask.

She wore a black, strapless evening dress that revealed the tops of her heavy breasts and the deep cleavage that separated them. Her nipples stood out visibly underneath the thin cloth. The skirt fell to her ankles, but it was slit up both sides to her thighs. She wore black heels that accentuated the muscles of her calves and thighs, which he could glimpse through the slits in the skirt when she strode across the room in front of him. Black sequins on the bodice of the dress caught the light when she moved and from their movement, he could see her breathing.

From the way the dress clung to her, it was obvious she wore nothing beneath it. She had a gold chain around her neck, and she had dressed her long hair so that it swept up in the front and fell in a cascade of copper curls down her naked back. She wore only a little make-up, but her lips were a golden-red and she had applied a little glitter to her lids.

Connor felt an incandescence of volcanic proportions start in his groin, spread up his belly and chest and into his throat. At that moment, what he wanted, more than anything, was to walk across the room, rip the flimsy dress off of her, and take her right there, on the floor, whether she wanted it or not.

Watching him, Jill saw only the expressionless features, the cold gray eyes. He didn't see her at all, she thought...did he even know she was a woman? "I'm going out," she said. "I don't know what time I'll be back. Good-night."

"Your sword," he said coldly. It was a command.

She picked up a light-weight black cloak. "Hidden away right in here," she said, her tone equally as cold. And without a second look, she walked out of her house.

He heard her Porsche start up, heard her drive away.

Connor checked the time. Eight o'clock. He remembered he hadn't eaten yet, went into the kitchen, made himself a dinner of leftovers. He pushed the food around on his plate, ate a few mouthfuls, threw it away. He didn't want food. He wanted Jill. He knew if he closed his eyes, he would see her, in her bathing suit on a sailboard, or laughing in the kitchen, or standing there in the black dress. He didn't close his eyes. He turned on the television, flipping aimlessly through the channels.

Finally, he got up and walked into her bedroom.

The room smelled like her, arousing him even more. She had thrown her bathing suit from the day into a soggy heap on the bathroom floor.

He picked it up, ran his hands over it. He tossed it back onto the floor, walked back out into the living room.

Nine o'clock.

He watched the television some more, tried to read, stopped when he realized he had been reading the same page for an hour. Finally, at 11, he went to bed. He lay there, eyes open, torpid with desire, angry, frustrated. He drifted off to sleep hours later.

Jill never came in.

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When he woke up the next morning, Connor lay in bed thinking dispassionately about the problem of teaching women. Having once desired her, he knew it wasn't going to go away. The question was, could he control it, repress it, and continue to teach her? Or was it too late already?

No, he thought. He could control his feelings...if he hadn't learned anything else in 500 years, he had learned this. Knowing the danger, knowing he felt desire for her, he would be ready. He deliberately let himself remember how she'd looked the night before, going over it in detail, feeling the heat in his belly, in his groin. Then he pushed it away, locked it in a distant part of his brain. He would not let this interfere.

When he emerged from his bedroom, Connor was surprised to see Jill waiting for him, sword in hand. He'd expected her to claim exhaustion from her night out as an excuse to avoid practice today. He was pleased to see that she hadn't, but he said only, "Ready?"

She nodded, and they went outside on the beach. It was his habit to work with her for an hour before they had breakfast. He went through the drills with her, and she followed the moves, saying nothing to him. Usually, she went through the drills energetically, but today she seemed apathetic and tired.

Serves her right for staying out all night, Connor thought to himself, not letting himself consider what she had been doing. After the drills, he engaged her, forcing her to defend herself.

She held back, and he saw that once more she was reluctant to attack him. He pressed her harder. "You're losing again, Jill," he taunted. "One of these days, someone will come for your head. Do you want to keep it? Fight me, attack me. Show me what you can do. Surprise me."

She obeyed him, trying some attacking maneuvers, but she did so poorly that he easily forced her sword down to the sand and struck it hard enough to knock it from her hands.

"What's the matter with you?" he said harshly, thinking that he wasn't going to let her get away with it, no matter how tired she was. "You did better than that days ago. Are you trying to lose?"

She shook her head, not meeting his eyes.

He engaged her again, and once more she left herself wide open to him. He knocked the sword from her grasp and brought his blade to her throat. He let the edge nick her skin, drawing a little blood.

She just looked at him...he saw no fear, only resignation.

He studied her for a moment. This was more than tiredness, he realized. Her shoulders drooped and she had held her sword loosely, sloppily, without any of the grace or skill she had begun to develop. Her whole posture shouted defeat. "Oh, I see," he said.

She looked up at him. "See what?" she said indifferently.

"You're feeling sorry for yourself."

She turned away from him.

He grabbed her arm, swung her around to face him. "Did you decide that it would be easier if I just took your head today--solve all your problems--end it right here and now?"

She tried to turn away from him again, but he gripped her hard and got into her face once more.

"Did you think this was going to be easy? You become Immortal and live happily ever after? And now that you see it's not so easy, that it's not a fairy tale, you're willing to give up? I'm surprised at you, Jill. I thought you had more spine than that." He made his tone deliberately contemptuous; he wanted to make her angry. Anger was a powerful motivator.

She stiffened. Good, he thought. But her next words surprised him. "Fairy tale?" she hissed. "From what you've told me, it's more like an endless nightmare. Why should I want to live, if all it's about is hunting down other Immortals and killing them? If that's all I've got to look forward to for hundreds of years, I'd rather just die right now."

"What?"

She tried to pull away from him, but he held her in place. "Oh, MacLeod." Her green eyes shimmered with unshed tears. "All you ever talk about is The Game and killing other Immortals. Isn't there anything else to living forever that you can tell me about? It just sounds so...horrible."

The genuine despair in her voice gave Connor pause. "Immortality is a great gift, Jill."

She pulled away from him, and this time he let her go. "It doesn't sound like a gift to hear you talk about it," she said, looking across the water. "It sounds like a curse. And all you ever do is badger me about giving up everything I care about...and you're always so..."

She stopped.

"So...what?"

"Nothing," she said.

He jerked her around to face him again, his fingers digging into her shoulders. "I am so...what?" he insisted.

One of the tears fell and he watched it roll down her cheek. "So goddamned cold," she said. "You don't feel anything at all. You're all frozen...it's like you're dead already. You never show an ounce of emotion. If this is what Immortality is like, if you are what Immortals are like, I don't want any part of it or them."

Connor wanted to laugh. Yes, he was dead inside all right. He could feel the desire to take her in his arms, to comfort her, to kiss her face, to kiss her lips...and he could feel the desire for more growing, too. He repressed it ruthlessly, angrily--now was not the time for this. He should have foreseen this reaction from her, he thought. It was his responsibility to not only teach her how to take heads, but to show her that Immortality was a gift, too.

Ramirez had done this for him--Connor had tried to do it for Duncan and all of his other students. But Jill hadn't seemed to need it. And she was right; he did often see Immortality as a curse. He saw he would have to change tactics a little. He was still holding her shoulders, so he let her go. "Pick up your sword, Jill, and let's go inside."

"We're finished?"

"With fencing, for now. But not with the lessons for today."

They went inside and prepared breakfast. Jill still had nothing to say to him.

When they sat down to eat, Connor said, "So ask me."

"Ask you what?"

"About Immortality. What do you want to know?"

She looked at him. There was a tiny spark of interest in her eyes. "You mean it?" she said, sounding like a child.

Connor nodded, repressing a smile.

"Really?"

"Jill..."

"I can ask you anything?" Some color had returned to her voice.

He looked at her. "What do you want to know?"

"I want to know everything...tell me where you've been."

He told her about his life in Scotland, his travels by foot and horse and sailing ship as he had crisscrossed the globe across the centuries.

"You commanded ships, Connor?"

He nodded.

"What's it like?"

While morning progressed to noon, they sat over the empty breakfast dishes. He told her about commanding men, about pirates, about losing crews, about the thrill of a successful voyage, about the sea and the salt spray and the freedom of the empty spaces. Connor watched the light slowly return to her eyes; he watched the defeated stance vanish as she leaned forward, spellbound, listening to him.

"That's why you like 'Sea Fever' so much, isn't it, MacLeod?"

Connor nodded.

"I like it too...it applies equally as well to space, you know." He watched her eyes sparkle as she recited the lines of the poem to him.

"All right," he said when she finished. "Are you ready to spar again?"

She looked at him for a moment. "That part never goes away, does it?"

"No. It's how we live and how we die...but in between we live, just like mortals."

She nodded, picked up her sword. And that afternoon, for the first time, she tried to attack him without being urged.

He saw her watching his moves, trying to calculate where he was going to strike next. He disarmed her--it was far too early for her to actually have a chance at beating him--but he told her that she had done well and that he was pleased with her progress.

She smiled at him...the irrepressible smile he liked. She said, "Really? I did okay, today, huh?"

"Yes. Actually, better than 'okay.' You tried to win today. That's good."

"You still beat me."

He shrugged.

She laughed. "Well, if I did so well, do you think we might take a break tonight and do something different?"

Connor cocked his head at her. He knew what was coming.

Jill plunged ahead, even though she knew he knew what she was going to ask him. Every Friday and Saturday night since they had begun, she had begged him to go dancing in the country-and-western bars she liked, but he had refused. Now she asked him again, and this time, as a reward for her, he agreed.

"But only this once," he said.

She frowned at him. "You might like it," she said.

"Not likely," he replied.

To his chagrin, he did enjoy the dancing, although he told her the music and the wailing, nasal lyrics were lousy. "How many times can a mortal lose the same woman, anyway?" he asked her. He agreed to go with her again the next night, Saturday, and it quickly became a habit for the weekends.

They danced to the faster tunes. When the bands played slower music, by unspoken agreement, they sat out the songs, talking, waiting for less dangerous rhythms.

But then one Saturday, Connor had had perhaps one--perhaps two or even three--drinks too many, and he had let one of the innumerable cowboys dance with Jill all the way through one of the slow dances.

Connor watched the cowboy hold Jill close and slowly parade her around the dance floor. He watched the cowboy's legs brush against Jill's nearly bare ones. When the cowboy brought her back, thanking her and tipping his hat politely, Connor felt an irrational desire to punch him out.

Instead, without a word, he took Jill by the arm and led her to the dance floor. He pulled her close to him, letting her fragrance engulf him. Her body felt strong and sweet in his arms and they danced until the bar closed.

When they said good night to each other, Connor had to fight the urge to take her into his arms and kiss her. His dreams that night were dreams of losing women he desired to others, and he awoke long before dawn, hot, aroused, and frustrated.

Once again, he forced the desire away, into the locked cabinet of his mind. This was becoming a habit, he thought.

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His stories of Immortality became part of their daily routine. Every morning over breakfast, he would let Jill ask him questions. For the most part, he answered her truthfully. He expected her to ask him about the women in his life, but she didn't.

Jill didn't want to know about his wives, his lovers. She did ask him about killing, though, wincing. "How can you just look at somebody who's breathing and alive and then...cut his head off?"

Connor said, "You do what's necessary, Jill. You kill them, then you take their Quickenings. That's the way it works...that's The Game."

Bleakly, she said, "Does it always work that way? Do you ever show mercy...can you ever be friends with another Immortal? I mean, what happens when you're finished teaching me? Do we become enemies after that...will you come looking for me?"

"In the end, Jill, there can be only one. We must fight to the last. But in the meantime, yes, there can be friendship. I have friends..." he told her about his friends and his kinsman, Duncan MacLeod. "There can even be mercy...you can spare someone rather than take his head. Just be sure they're grateful...otherwise they'll bide their time and come back for you. And the next time, it may be your neck on the line."

Jill shivered.

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One evening, after eating, they sat out on her deck enjoying the sunset and the breeze off the Bay. The pleasure they both took in the Masefield poem had sent her searching for other poetry they both might like.

She brought out a book of Chinese poems. "I found this today," she told him. "I think it's beautiful. Want to hear it?"

"All right," Connor told her. While she read to him, he gazed at her long red hair, shining in the last rays of the sun and flying loosely around her shoulders as the Bay breeze played with it. Those floating copper strands made his fingers itch.

Mentally, he shook his head, repressing the thought, forcing his attention back to the poem.

She said, "It's by Tu Fu--it's called Clear After Rain."

She read, "'Autumn, cloud blades on the horizon. The west wind blows from ten thousand miles. Dawn, in the clear morning air, Farmers busy after long rain. The desert trees shed their few green leaves. The mountain pears are tiny but ripe. A Tartar flute plays by the city gate. A single wild goose climbs into the void.'"

"I see why you like it," Connor said quietly. The beauty of scarcity, of life struggling in emptiness, wasn't unfamiliar to him. It was like the moments of love in his long life--rare and priceless.

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CHAPTER 5

A few days later, Connor and Jill raced down the beach, both of them intent on the flag they'd put up to mark their finish line. Connor grinned wickedly at her as they sprinted for the end.

She had overcome her fear of him again, this time permanently, it seemed. Her fair, freckled face was red and she was panting heavily.

He sped up deliberately, just to watch her try to match him--which was exactly what she did, grinning right back at him in spite of her panting exertions. Connor began laughing, which slowed him down. He passed the flag inches in front of her and then hit the sand with a loud "oof!" as she tackled him from behind.

"You are a rotten bastard, MacLeod," she panted, laughing. "Eat sand or burrow!" She pushed his head into the sand and Connor got a good mouthful of beach property. She was sitting on him, her knees pressed into his back, her hands forcing his head down.

Connor arched abruptly and flipped her over on her back, then pinned her under him, holding her wrists down. He spat sand from his mouth and said, "You're going to pay for that. The student does not assault the teacher."

She lay under him, laughing. "You look like a sand dollar, MacLeod, except in your case, being a cheap Scot and all, it's more like a sand penny."

Connor used his weight to press her flat onto the beach. He grinned maliciously and said, "Say 'I am very grateful to Connor MacLeod for taking his precious time to teach me' and I'll let you up."

She smiled sweetly up at him and said, "I am very chagrined that that penny-pinching, cheap Scot Connor MacLeod is all I can get for a teacher, but all the first-rate Immortals were busy."

Connor was now laughing uproariously. He was stretched out above her, actually lying on her, using his weight to hold her in place. His face was not two inches from hers, and he held her hands above her head, imprisoned by his own.

She was laughing, too, and twisting under him, trying to dislodge him. She was breathing heavily from their run, and he could feel her breasts pressing into his chest. She was gritty with sand and she was hot and she smelled of sweat and woman.

Connor felt a spike of sheer lust shoot through his groin, and he stopped laughing. He could feel the erection, and from the way she smiled at him, he knew she could too. They lay frozen for a moment, while Connor cursed himself silently. He started to get off her but as soon as she felt the pressure on her hands loosen slightly, she jerked them free, pulled his head down to her and kissed him hard on the lips.

Connor had expected her to try to flip him back over, so his weight was braced precisely wrong for Jill's action. It took him an instant to recover, to start to pull away, but she pulled his head back down and kissed him even harder. The mantra that students and teachers should not get involved forced itself to Connor's attention while he kissed her back. He pulled away, panting.

She smiled at him, her green eyes flashing with pure mischief. This was the first time his rigid control had broken, that he had revealed anything to her. She was delighted.

He shook his head, cursing silently again, started to stand up. Jill rose with him, quickly, and as he rose she pushed him hard, backwards, with her full weight, using his own movement against him. This time he hit the ground flat on his back, facing her.

She practically fell on him, her hips over his waist. She ran her hand down behind her to his crotch.

He jerked violently when she touched him. But he said, "Jill, we are not going to--mmphf --"

Her tongue deep in his mouth, she lay on him, pressing him down, insistently rubbing him crotch to crotch, only the thin material of their running shorts separating their flesh.

Connor felt like he was on fire. He forgot the mantra, forgot that Jill was his student, forgot everything except her heated scent, the way she lay against him now, her mouth insistently pressed to his. He pulled her to him, thrusting his tongue deep into her mouth, crushing her copper-colored hair in his hands, twining it in his fingers, satisfying his fingers' itch.

In a trice, he had rolled her over and stretched himself out above her again. They were both covered with sand now, but neither noticed. The mantra did a tap dance in the back of his skull. Connor cursed again and hurriedly got to his feet. "We are not going to do this, Jill," he said, looking down at her, desiring her, angry with himself for this weakness.

"Why not?" she said sincerely.

He brushed sand off of himself. "Because when a teacher and student get involved, the student's training gets compromised."

"Seems to me that we're already compromised," she said, looking up at him ingenuously.

He thought it over. There was no way they could go back to the way things had been just a few minutes ago. Before she knocked him down and his body gave him away. He looked at her, sitting in the sand at his feet, waiting. All he had to do was take her in his arms, release the desire he had held chained for weeks. There would be no protests from her...she had already shown him how she felt. All he had to do was exactly what he wanted.

"All right," he said then, knowing that his days as her teacher were over. "All right."

Connor knelt above her, took her face in his hands, and kissed her slowly, exploring her mouth with his own. He removed her sweaty exercise bra, then lay her back on the sand. He cupped her breasts in his hands, leaning over to take each of her nipples in his mouth, sucking them until they grew hard and erect. Next, he removed her shorts, then his own.

Jill's heart was beating so fast she thought it was going to fly free from her chest. She had given up thinking he would ever see her as a woman until the instant when he stopped laughing and she saw the carnal look in his eyes and felt his erection swell against her. She had wanted to feel his soft, full lips on hers almost from the first moment she had seen him, feel his hard, lithe body moving on hers, feel him inside her.

She closed her eyes as his hands and lips and tongue began their wanton travels over her flesh, as she felt his solid weight above her. He took possession of her body as eagerly as she surrendered it, and all she wanted was for him not to stop.

Connor's eyes already knew the contours of her body from their runs and swims and sparring and the hours they'd spent windsurfing together. Now he sought to learn them with his hands and mouth and thighs and hips. This little mole, those freckles, that downy hair, this tiny little scar, that fragrance, this taste, this curve, that concavity...he sought to make her flesh a part of him...to make her a part of him...he wanted her to yield to him and she yielded willingly, eagerly...he let her guide him inside her and then he heard her urge him on...harder...more...yes...she said his name again and again...finally his thoughts fragmented as a series of shared waves of desire swept them, took them, drowned them, consumed them...

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The next day, they lay in bed together, and Jill asked him, "Are you sorry? Do you wish we hadn't done it?"

Connor said, "It's done, Jill. There's no point in regrets or wishing."

"Well, what do we do now?"

He smiled at her, a slow, lazy smile she'd quickly come to recognize meant only one thing. She'd been astounded by his stamina, and he had laughed his staccato laugh and told her Immortality gave long life in more ways than one. Now he pulled her to him. "Come here," he said. "I'll show you..."

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Seacouver September, 2005

Connor felt the expected buzz of another Immortal as he and Jill approached Duncan's dojo. The place looked even more impossibly run-down and seedy than the last time he'd been here six or seven years ago. Connor firmly repressed the thought. Beggars can't be choosers, he reminded himself. Duncan would never let him live this down.

Never.

He glanced at Jill. Too bad. It couldn't be helped.

Duncan was standing in the middle of the deserted room, sword drawn. Connor stopped at the door, smiling ruefully at his former student's caution. "Expecting someone?" he said.

"Connor!" Duncan exclaimed. "I thought...never mind." He put the katana away, hurried over to his kinsman. The two men embraced in a bear hug, clapping each other on the back.

"What brings you to Seacouver, Connor?" Duncan asked, eyeing Jill curiously.

"Duncan, I'd like you to meet Jill MacCormick," Connor said. "She just became one of us a couple of months ago."

"Come on upstairs," Duncan said, observing that Connor hadn't answered his question. "We can get comfortable and talk up there."

Settled on Duncan's couch, sipping Glenmorangie, Connor thought about what to say to Duncan. He had considered it during the entire flight up here in Jill's second private plane ("You didn't crash this one, did you?" he'd asked her, and smiled at the glare it earned him) but he hadn't come up with anything that would prevent Duncan's eyebrows from raising in wicked delight. Duncan was really going to enjoy this, he decided.

After an exchange of pleasantries, Duncan cocked his head questioningly. "So, what brings you to Seacouver?" he repeated.

"Jill needs a teacher, Duncan." It was a bald statement, and Connor waited patiently for Duncan to follow it through.

Duncan understood immediately, and his face broke out into the precise delighted smile Connor had known he would have.

"You?" Duncan chortled. "You got involved with a student?"

Connor sipped his Scotch blandly.

Duncan started laughing.

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Jill had excused herself to freshen up in Duncan's bathroom, and Duncan took the opportunity to quiz Connor about her.

"So how is she?" Duncan asked.

Connor scowled fiercely, and Duncan hurriedly added, "As a student?"

"She's a better student than you were," Connor replied, the scowl fading.

"Better than me?" Duncan said, smiling wryly.

Connor shot him an amused glance. "Come on, you complained all the time. I lost many a night's sleep because of your nightmares about being thrown out of Glenfinnan. You never followed instructions...and you were my first student. I doubt I was any better as your teacher than you were as my student. So, yes, she's a much better student than you were."

Duncan gave Connor a mock-hurt look. "So what makes her so good?"

"She doesn't complain. She listens. She's a fast learner. And she's very athletic."

"Uh-huh. And what about the two of you?"

Connor shrugged and took a sip of Scotch. "These things happen. She needs a teacher. Since I can't do it and I want her to have the best, I came to you. Will you take her on as your student?"

Duncan smiled. In his blunt way, Connor had just given him possibly the greatest compliment of his life...to trust him with teaching the woman he, Connor, was involved with, perhaps even loved.

Did Connor love her? Duncan considered it. It was clear to Duncan that Connor cared for her. The way Connor touched her and the way his eyes followed her around the room spelled it out. Connor's gray eyes usually seemed to be made of granite. Whenever Connor looked at Jill, Duncan saw a softness in them that he could recall seeing on only a few occasions in all the time he'd known his kinsman.

Connor had cared enough about staying with her to bring her here and ask his former student to teach her. He had cared enough to put up with the ribbing Duncan knew he would be dispensing over the decades and centuries to come. Yes, Duncan decided. Connor did love her--and Duncan couldn't remember the last time Connor had asked him for anything. Plus, Duncan would always be in Connor's debt. You couldn't ever repay your first teacher. Not fully. But you could even the score. Just a little.

Duncan smiled. Sincerely, he said, "I'd be happy to teach her. Did you ever doubt it?"

He raised his glass to Connor. Connor smiled warmly and joined Duncan in the wordless toast.

Jill came back in the room, and Connor told her that Duncan would be her new teacher.

"Thank you, Duncan," she said. But she looked at Connor.

He nodded, and she sat down. He curled his right arm around her, pulling her close to him. "You'll be in good hands now," he told her. "Duncan's a fine swordsman. He ought to be, considering who trained him."

They laughed, and Duncan poured them another round.

Connor had another question for Duncan. "So what was that about, downstairs?" he inquired.

"There was an Immortal hanging around recently. I thought you might be him."

"Who is it?"

"His name is Fandell. He showed up when Amanda blew through a couple of weeks ago. He challenged her but never showed. My sources say he likes to hunt women."

"Sources? You mean Watchers?"

"Yeah."

Connor raised his eyebrows, but didn't press. "Then why didn't he fight Amanda?"

"He's new and he likes to go after women because he thinks they're easier marks. I guess he figured out Amanda wasn't."

"Who's Amanda?" Jill asked.

The two men exchanged glances.

"A friend of mine," Duncan replied.

Connor snorted, Duncan glared at him, and Jill looked from one man to the other, trying to figure it out.

"Do you think this Fandell's gone?" Connor asked after a moment.

"I haven't felt him in a couple of weeks, but that doesn't mean he's gone."

Connor nodded. In the commanding tone Jill knew so well, he said, "Jill, keep your sword with you all the time."

She nodded and repressed the shiver that crawled up her spine. The notion of someone lurking about trying to cut off her head had suddenly become too real.

It wasn't a pleasant thought.

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CHAPTER 6

"You have to leave the astronaut corps," Duncan told Jill as soon as he found out that she hadn't quit yet. They were sparring in the dojo, and Duncan was giving advice and criticism along with the lesson.

"I'll tell you what I told Connor. That subject isn't open for discussion, Duncan."

"It certainly is," he insisted. "You're just not thinking it through."

"That's about what Connor told me."

"Well, Connor's usually right, you know."

She shook her head, panting, struggling to fend off his blade. "I'm not leaving. Why should I?"

"What if you get injured and the NASA doctors start working on you? What happens when you suddenly start healing on the table? Don't you think they'll notice?"

"I'll be careful," she said. "I won't let myself get injured."

Duncan frowned at her. His tone was a little sarcastic. "How can you keep yourself from getting injured? What if there's an accident? What if your spaceship blows up like that one back in the '80s?"

She laughed coolly. "Trust me, Duncan. First, astronaut training isn't all that dangerous. And second, if a shuttle--or any rocket--blows up while you're on it, it will separate your head from your body--and everything from everything else. I won't heal from anything like that, so all the Immortals will be safe."

Duncan grimaced. "Well, that's not the point, Jill. Do you seriously think you can continue that life--that public life--and carry a sword around with you? Take heads?"

She shrugged. "Maybe I can find a way to be Immortal and an astronaut without having to take heads."

Duncan stopped the practice duel. "Is that what you think, Jill? That you can avoid killing another Immortal?" He shook his head. "You really haven't thought this through, have you? Get this straight. Whether you like it or not, they will come for you. You'd better get over this queasiness about taking heads. Because believe me, when somebody comes for you, they won't have that handicap."

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Seacouver October, 2005

In Duncan's loft, the two men were preparing dinner for the three of them. The weather was unusually warm for the fall, and they had the windows open to let fresh air in. Street sounds seemed to originate right in the room.

Jill had a couple of errands to run at an aviation shop--getting current maps, mainly--before they ate. She stopped to give Connor a quick good-bye kiss, but Connor couldn't be hurried, and the kiss grew longer, lingering.

Duncan studiously kept his back to them.

Jill licked the taste of Scotch from her lips--Connor always tasted like Scotch--it was a good thing she liked it. She turned to run for the stairs, but Connor's arm shot out and grabbed her hard in one of those warp-speed moves that never failed to surprise her. She looked back at him, about to smile and ask him if he couldn't get along without her for even a minute, but the jest died at his expression.

Connor was looking across the room, where Jill's sword lay. He turned his head to look at her, his eyes boring into hers. His grip grew harder, hurting her, and his voice was hard too. "Jill, never forget your sword. Do you understand? Never leave it behind. Not even for a moment."

At Connor's words, Duncan turned to look. He started to speak, and Connor sensed it, turned to him.

"I'm sorry, Duncan," Connor said stiffly. "This is your job...make her understand." And then he released Jill's arm and walked away from her, back to the kitchen, leaving it to Duncan.

The set of Connor's shoulders told Duncan that his mentor wasn't simply angry with Jill; he was afraid for her too. Duncan knew that body language from the days when he was Connor's student, and Connor had protected him.

Duncan said, "Jill, haven't you been listening to us? Connor's right. You never, ever forget your sword. Not for any errand, not for anything." He walked across the room, picked up Jill's sword, walked back, and presented it to her formally, hilt first.

Jill bit her lips, took the sword, looked at both men, hid the weapon in her coat, and without a word left the loft.

As her steps receded down the stairs, Connor swore. "I can't get through to her, Duncan. She doesn't take this seriously...she still treats it like it's some kind of a game...not The Game."

Duncan could hear the capitals. "She'll learn, Connor."

Connor said nothing, simply shaking his head.

As the downstairs door slammed, they turned to go back to their work. Jill's buzz faded.

A couple of moments later, they heard the clash of swords. Duncan's eyes met Connor's and they raced to the window and peered out of it.

At the end of the alley, Jill was fighting someone.

"Fandell," Duncan said.

"Connor!" Jill called, desperation in her tone. "Help me!"

Duncan watched Connor's face pale to dead white, his fingers gripping the windowsill.

The two men stared at the dueling figures.

Jill was taking a terrible beating. She was already bleeding in half a dozen places, and she was retreating before Fandell's onslaught, back towards the loft.

Both MacLeods could tell that Fandell was a poor swordsman and no match for either of them. But he was more experienced than Jill. Even more important, he wanted her head. Both of them knew that desire made all the difference in the world.

"Connor!" Jill shrieked, pain and terror in her voice.

Connor flinched as though the blows striking Jill were falling on his body instead. He spun around and raced for his sword. He drew it from the scabbard, headed for the door, flew down the stairs.

Duncan arrived in the alley an instant behind Connor.

Connor stood rigidly watching the fight, his katana held to his side. His features were ice-cold, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed and fixed on Fandell.

Fandell felt Connor's eyes on him and turned. "You can't interfere!" he shouted.

Connor smiled the smile of a predator, and Duncan felt as though an arctic breeze had just blown through the alley, sending icy little breaths down his back. This was what Immortals who went up against Connor saw, and although Duncan had seen Connor fight, he never wanted to face this smile himself.

"I won't interfere, Fandell. But if you kill her, you'll deal with me next."

"And who are you?"

"I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod."

Fandell's face paled. He took a step back from Connor, as if Connor could reach down the alley and kill him from 30 feet away. "Shit," he said. "I've heard of you."

Connor said nothing, but the killing smile broadened, and Fandell paled even further.

While the exchange between Fandell and Connor had occurred, Jill had watched them, shaking, panting. Although she could see their mouths moving, the roaring in her ears, the frantic beating of her heart drowned out all meaning. "Connor," she finally managed, holding onto his name as if it were a lifeline. "Connor..." she pointed to Fandell with her sword. Her wounds were healing already, but she wasn't noticing; her attention was fixed on the man who had attacked her. "He's trying to kill me, Connor," she breathed. "He's trying to cut off my head."

Her tone was disbelieving.

Connor turned to her. He saw her terror, he read the expectation in her eyes that he would step in to save her. She hadn't yet grasped the lesson that she had to fight her own battles, that interference was forbidden. And mother of God, yes, he wanted to step in...Connor knew he could dispatch Fandell in seconds...probably in two strokes, maybe one. He wanted to kill the bastard. But Connor also knew that he had obeyed the rules for nearly 500 years and that he could not break them, not now, not even for Jill, no matter how much he wanted to. So he said to her, willing her to hear his love for her, his belief in her, "Jill, you can take him. You're better than you think...just calm down and remember what Duncan and I have taught you."

Fandell looked wildly from Connor to Jill to Duncan. It was obvious that he, too, expected Connor to interfere. He started to back away. "I don't want you after me," he said to Connor.

Connor ignored him. "Jill," he said. "Jill, if you let him go now, he'll only come back for you later. Remember what I told you? Take him, Jill. Take him and it will be over."

Jill stared at him. She shook her head. "I don't want to," she said. "I don't want to kill him."

"He'll only come back for you, Jill. Probably when you're all alone."

That got to her. She turned to face Fandell, shivering.

Fandell shook his head. "Shit, lady, I didn't know you belonged to Connor MacLeod. I'd have left you alone...I don't want any trouble."

But once again, Jill was having trouble hearing. Connor's words echoed in her skull and she suddenly realized that even if she and Fandell walked away tonight, Connor was telling her the Immortal would be back for her. She wouldn't be safe until Fandell was dead. She had to kill him. She had to. With a cry, she launched herself after Fandell, who was still watching Connor.

Jill's sudden attack took Fandell by surprise. He had dismissed Jill as a threat, focusing solely on Connor. He threw his sword up in a sloppy defense and Jill went under it, stabbing him in the abdomen.

He dropped his sword, fell to his knees.

Jill stood there, staring at him for a moment, her sword halfway through him. Both Connor and Duncan shouted to her to finish it, and she heard that. Feeling like her hand belonged to someone else, that she was in a dream, she yanked the sword free from Fandell's belly and swung it awkwardly at his neck. She felt it connect, felt it slice through the flesh, felt the spinal column separate. His head fell away from his body and his body fell to the ground.

And Jill dropped to her knees, in front of Fandell's body, staring, wide-eyed and aghast, at the headless, bloody remains of her opponent.

Duncan and Connor exchanged a glance, and Duncan walked away, back up the stairs and to the loft. Connor waited while her first Quickening shook Jill. He listened to her cries as it ripped through her.

Jill spasmed as the currents found their way to the ground taking her body as the path of least resistance...in her student days, Jill had occasionally had nightmares of physics experiments gone awry, shoving hundreds of amps of electricity through her, crisping even her bones. For her, this felt like those nightmares...but with a difference...then, the surging electrical storms had been merely a force of nature, deadly but impersonal. This storm passing agonizingly through her had a sense of presence...and against her will, she felt Fandell's consciousness, his cowardice, his fear, his life, and his death pass through her and forcibly become a part of her.

When it finished, she sagged face-down on the ground, sobbing.

Slowly, Connor walked over to her, sat next to her on the pavement, pulled her to him and wrapped his arms tightly around her, heedless of the blood smearing his clothes and hands. He glanced at Fandell's body. "It's over, Jill. You killed him. You're all right."

She jerked her head back up, staring at him as she had stared at the corpse. "All right? This is all right?" She pulled away from him, gazing at her hands as if she had never seen them before. "My God, I just killed a man...I didn't even know him, Connor!"

"You are Immortal, Jill. This is what we do. This is what we are."

Jill kept staring at him. She was still dazed, but he could see another emotion stirring behind her eyes. "This is what we do?" she shouted. "What we are?" She began shuddering violently. She crawled away from him to the alley wall and threw up, again and again.

Connor got up and followed her. He knelt down beside her, to hold her again, to comfort her, but she jerked away from him. "Keep your hands off me," she snarled. She gagged with dry heaves for a few more seconds, then crawled further away from him.

Connor stayed where he was, waiting. From her bitter, angry words, he knew what was coming now, and he steeled himself for it. She was looking at him with an expression of hatred. "So this is what we are all about, is it? God damn you. How many Immortals have you killed, Connor?"

"All I had to, Jill," he said evenly.

"How many?" she shrieked at him.

"I don't know. Hundreds, probably."

"My God," she said. "You're drenched in blood, Connor. And I let you touch me with those hands." She stared at his hands, which he knew were spattered with blood where he had held her. Jill hugged herself, shivering violently. She gestured to the corpse. "Just for the record, this may be what you are about, but it is not what I am about. I don't want you to come near me, Connor. I can't stand it if you touch me. I can't believe I ever let you...that I wanted you." Her tone turned to incredulity and then to a dead finality. "Well, I don't now."

He had known this was coming, but the knowledge didn't stop it from twisting his gut, from making him feel, for an instant, that he had lost the capacity to breathe.

She was in shock, he knew. She would later regret saying these things to him. He was sure of it. He pushed his pain aside, locking it away with everything else he needed to control or ignore, and focused on Jill.

She got to her feet, leaving her sword on the ground.

"Jill," he said, his voice commanding again, "your sword--"

"You keep it," she said without turning around. "It's what you're all about, isn't it?"

In a moment he was on his feet, after her, carrying her sword. He grabbed her, pulled her around to face him, trying not to hurt her. "Take it with you, Jill--I don't care how upset you are, keep it with you all the time!"

She shoved him, hard, but Connor stood his ground.

"Let me go!" she shouted.

"Not without your sword."

"I hate you," she said to him. She took the sword, then threw it, end over end, as far down the alley as she could. "God damn you, Connor. Leave me alone. I'm not taking it--you gave it to me, you can have it back. Just get out of my way."

He couldn't make her take it, Connor thought. Keeping her here, by force, would solve nothing. So he said, "Where are you going, then?"

"I'm going to fly. It's all I have left."

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Connor took Jill's sword and his own and climbed the stairs to Duncan's loft. He took off his clothing, bloodied from holding Jill, and cleaned himself up. He borrowed a pair of sweats from Duncan, then sat down to clean Jill's rapier, trying to lose himself in the ritual of half a thousand years.

In his memory, he heard Jill say, again, "I can't believe I ever let you touch me...that I wanted you. Well, I don't now." He forced himself to attend to the task in front of him. But the words kept echoing in his mind and finally, unable to silence the echoes, he lay the sword down.

After a moment, he felt Duncan's eyes. He looked up.

Duncan was sitting across from him, watching him silently, holding out a tumbler filled with Scotch.

Connor took the glass and gave Duncan a cheerless smile. "Scotch. The answer to all problems, eh, Duncan?" But instead of drinking the whiskey, he held the glass, contemplating the amber liquid.

Duncan poured himself a drink as well. "Shall we get drunk?"

Connor shook his head. "No. It doesn't solve anything."

Duncan nodded, downed his drink.

Connor followed suit. He straightened a little, taking resolve from the whiskey's liquid fire in his belly. He held the glass out to Duncan, watched him refill it.

"She said I am drenched in blood." Connor drank the second round of whiskey and set the glass down. He turned his hands over and over, staring at them. "She is right, you know," he added distantly. "I don't even know how many Immortals I have killed, much less mortals."

"It's what we do, Connor. It's what we are. You taught me that." Duncan's tone was worried.

Connor chuckled humorlessly. What was Duncan thinking, that he was about to renounce his sword? "Yes. It is. Still, I am so used to it that I had forgotten how it would seem to someone new. You know, Duncan, we Immortals who were born centuries ago have a real advantage over the modern ones. You and I were warriors from the day we were born."

Duncan said, "She'll be all right. She'll get over it." He reached to fill Connor's glass again, but Connor shook his head.

"You think so, Duncan." It was not a question.

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CHAPTER 7

When Connor awoke on Duncan's couch the next morning, he looked around in confusion. It took him a moment to place himself--almost 500 years is a lot of mornings and beds--and then the events of the night before crowded into his consciousness.

Duncan was somehow managing, impossibly, to clatter quietly in the kitchen. Wasn't that an oxymoron, Connor thought indifferently, then dismissed it. He sat up and dialed the number of the apartment he had been sharing with Jill, a few blocks from Duncan's dojo.

There was no answer.

"Damn," he said out loud.

At the sound of his voice, Duncan turned around.

Connor knew that his clansman had deliberately been giving him a moment of privacy.

"She's not there?" Duncan asked, concern evident in his tone.

"No. Damn her. She's walking around out there without her sword."

After a quick breakfast and a shower--and borrowing yet another set of Duncan's sweats and socks--Connor tried the apartment number a couple more times to no avail. He could feel his chest tightening, his level of anxiety rising.

Duncan found Connor a phone book.

Connor impatiently searched through its listings till he found the number of the business office of the hangar where Jill was keeping her plane. Then he dialed again, this time putting the phone in visual mode.

When a man's face popped into view, he said, "Jill MacCormick's hangar please."

The man said, "Are you Jill MacCormick's boyfriend?"

Tightly, Connor said, "Yes, this is her BOYfriend. Put me through."

"Hey, mister, you can kiss my ass. Jill's been crying since she got here yesterday. Whatever you did to her, you better --"

"This is none of your goddamned business," Connor said evenly. "Just put her on the phone."

"Hey, like I said, you can kiss my ass. I'm not bothering Jill for the likes of you."

The screen went black.

"Well," Duncan said. "That could have gone better."

Connor said nothing. He started to get up, then remembered that Jill had stranded him by taking their car. "Duncan," he sighed. "I need to get out to the hangar. Can I borrow your car?"

Duncan handed him the keys. He said, "Do you want some company?"

Connor took the keys and shook his head. "No, this is something I have to do alone." He headed for the door, then turned to look at Duncan again for a long moment. "Duncan..."

Duncan smiled. He heard the unspoken thanks in the way Connor said his name. "You're welcome, Connor."

Connor nodded and started to leave, then turned back to Duncan almost against his will. He said, "I thought it would be different with an Immortal woman..."

"She's brand new to the game. She'll learn."

Yes, Connor thought bitterly. She'll learn. And just then he realized how much he treasured Jill's naivete, her innocence from death, the very decency that made her horrified at the thought of killing. He thought about her wide green eyes and wondered what it would mean to him to see those eyes narrowed above the hunter's smile all Immortals eventually developed. Would he lose her then? For that matter, had he already lost her? He looked at the keys hanging in his hands and left the loft.

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When he got to the hangar, Connor felt Jill's buzz immediately.

She came out of the hangar. Her eyes were red, but her expression was blank, empty.

Connor stood watching her, appraising her. She had made her first kill, she was in The Game now, whether either or them wanted it or not. He remembered what he had told her about living in the spaces between the moments of The Game. He wanted her back to fill those spaces, which had been so empty for so long for him.

He held out his arms.

For a long moment, she simply stood and looked at him. "You want me back?" she said. Her voice was flat, but a tiny note of incredulity crept in. "After what I said to you?"

"You've never killed anyone before, Jill. I try to make allowances." He smiled, a little.

She began to cry soundlessly. She sank to the ground, her shoulders shaking.

He hurried over to her, dropped down to the ground next to her, and took her in his arms.

She turned to him, sobbing against his chest, soaking Duncan's borrowed sweatshirt, clinging to him.

Connor simply held her, saying nothing, stroking her hair, her face, her back, pulling her close to him, trying to share his strength with her, burying his face in her hair, trying to tell her with his hands and his body how much he loved her. And that he forgave her.

She turned her reddened, tear-stained face up to him and started to speak, but he kissed her softly, silencing her. "It will be all right, Jill," he said gently. But in the back of his mind he could hear Duncan saying, "She'll learn." "It will be all right," he repeated, silencing the voice in his mind.

"Will it?" she asked him seriously. She sounded like a child, he thought, seeking reassurance, forgiveness.

"Yes. It's hard adjusting to Immortality." He smiled slightly, wryly, at the understatement. "I just don't want to kill anybody. Is that so wrong?"

She'll learn, he heard Duncan say again.

He said, "Jill, for mortals, killing is wrong. For us, it's a matter of survival. You're still thinking like a mortal. You have to...learn...to think like an Immortal." After a moment, surrendering to the voice in his head, he added, "You have to learn."

She shook her head. "It's too big a leap. One minute, I'm an astronaut. The next, I'm supposed to cut people's heads off. Where's the path from A to B? I'm just not ready for this."

Connor gently disengaged himself from their embrace, hating what he was about to say to her. But it had to be said. Her life depended on it. "Jill, I could tell you that I will protect you, that I will fight your battles for you. But it would be a lie. Even if I try to protect you, I won't always be there. I can't be by your side every moment. That's what it would take."

She was pulling back, trying to turn away, not wanting to hear this.

He pulled her to him again, tipping her face up to his, thinking how quickly and how much he had come to cherish waking up in the morning with that square-jawed, stubborn face next to his. "Jill, I love you and I want you to live and to love me, but you must learn how to protect yourself. Nobody is asking you to go out and headhunt, but you have to be prepared for duels like last night."

"Connor, I'm not a killer. I'm an astronaut--I've dedicated my whole life to exploring space. Not killing people. They just don't mix."

"No, they don't. That's what Duncan and I have been trying to tell you."

She shook her head again. "Please. I can't think about this any more right now. Let's go back to the apartment."

Connor knew there was no point in pushing it any further. She would either understand--learn--in her own way, in her own time or she wouldn't. He didn't want to really think about either alternative.

They drove the two cars to Duncan's dojo, where Connor dropped off Duncan's keys, then he drove them to their apartment.

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Jill spent the next few days in morose introspection.

Connor tried to talk to her, but nothing he said seemed to help. He held her at night, but they didn't make love. The easy passion of their early days seemed as far away as another star. From the time they'd arrived in Seacouver, he had habitually risen early and gone over to Duncan's dojo to do katas and spar with his clansman. Connor could never afford to let his own skills diminish. He tried to get her to go with him now, but she refused.

One morning after he left, Jill looked at herself in the mirror. "Is this how you got to be an astronaut?" she asked the drawn reflection, echoing Connor's words to her from their Houston days.

She winced. For the first time, she let herself think of a life without space exploration in it. Most of the lucky few who became astronauts flew a few missions and then left to be consultants. With her, it had been different though. Not a stepping stone to career success, but a life. She had dreamed of going to the moon, perhaps to Mars. She had wanted to go to the stars, but that wouldn't happen in her lifetime.

Then she remembered what Connor had said to her about lifetimes, about what he had seen in his lifetime. "Sailing ships to sub-orbital aircraft," she remembered him saying. She looked the reflection directly in the eye. Not in her lifetime? Connor was 500 years old. What could happen in 500 years? She might have to give up the moon for now...but with Immortality, it was possible she could have the stars. "...if not quite the way you want it..." she also remembered Connor saying.

She picked up her sword and stared at it thoughtfully. The only question was whether she could pay the price. She tried to remember exactly how she had felt at the moment the blade cut off Fandell's head. The slicing of flesh, the snapping of bone...it revolted her, sickened her. As a path to the stars, the sword had little to recommend it. But she knew she owed it to herself, to Connor, and to Duncan to try. To make a real effort. Wasn't this as important as becoming an astronaut had been? She changed into workout clothes, picked up the sword, hid it in her coat, and walked the few blocks to the dojo.

Connor and Duncan were resting in the office. Both men were surprised to see her.

"Hi," she said, feeling inane and inadequate. "I'd like to try again, Duncan, ifyou'll work with me some more."

Duncan nodded. He seemed genuinely pleased. Connor's hopeful look twisted her gut, though.

Duncan, while a little weary from his workout with Connor, was ready to start working with Jill right away.

But first, Jill asked them both a question.

"Do we really have to fight? Isn't there any way we can just live in peace?"

Connor started to speak, then looked at Duncan, closed his mouth, and leaned back. As frustrating, as hard as it might be for him to yield to his own student, this was Duncan's job. He had asked Duncan to take over for him. It would be insulting for Connor to give Jill a lecture about Immortality, right here in front of Duncan.

When Duncan saw that Connor was going to leave it to him, Duncan turned towards Jill, intent, serious. He said, "Even if you don't want the Prize, Jill, others do. They'll kill any Immortal to get one step closer to it. Some of them just enjoy the pleasure of a Quickening and they'll go after every Immortal they meet for that reason alone. For others, it's kill or be killed. No matter what you may want, you have to know how to defend yourself."

Jill didn't look happy, but she straightened herself and said, "Well, I guess there's no time like the present, huh?"

"Never is," Duncan replied, smiling.

And they began again.

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As the days of Jill's leave ticked by, she threw herself into the training exercises and the sparring with a new intensity. She had given herself until the end of her leave to figure out what she was going to do, whether she was going to stay with Connor or go back to Houston. She knew he was aware of her indecision, but she avoided talking about it with him. They began making love again, gingerly, almost warily.

One night she had a dream in which she stood in a huge, empty arena, all alone except for Connor. And an endless pile of heads and headless bodies behind him.

In the dream, she turned and saw the same gory piles behind her. Connor was a few yards away, holding his katana. Facing her. Poised for battle. And in the dream, she realized that it had come down to her and Connor...and that they were going to fight.

"No, Connor!" she cried out. "We can't! I don't want to fight you!"

His reply was to salute her with his katana and attack.

She screamed and woke to find him trying to hold her. She pushed him away, truly afraid of him again, as she had been in the beginning. Sitting up, curled up in a defensive ball, she said slowly, cautiously, "Connor, I dreamed that you...that I..."

He instantly knew what she had dreamed. The nightmare that the only other Immortal left was someone you loved, someone you'd rather die for than kill. Someone you had to fight, all the same, to make the long, painful journey of Immortality worthwhile. Connor had had the nightmare himself, many times. And he knew what it meant.

She was starting to understand, even if only subconsciously, what Immortality meant. That was good, he thought unhappily. Gently, so as not to frighten her, he reached for her, pulled her carefully to him, wiped the tears from her face, kissed her.

She held herself stiffly in his arms. She was afraid of him. He knew it.

"Jill," he said, taking her face in his right hand, holding her close to him with his left. "Every Immortal has that dream. It's inevitable. But remember what I told you about living in the spaces between the moments of The Game?"

She nodded, watching him carefully, intently.

"We are in one of those spaces now. I love you, Jill. I'm not going to hurt you."

Her stiffness told him she was still afraid of him, and he saw he would have to give her more. He sighed. "My love, you see how Duncan and I are...how much we care about each other?"

She nodded.

Connor continued, with some difficulty. This kind of admission wasn't easy for him.

"I have had this same dream about Duncan and me. More times than I can count. And still I trust him with my life."

"But what if it came down to--"

"I hope that won't happen. But if it does, it will be a long time from now. And I refuse to let distant, remote, future possibilities haunt my every living moment and destroy everything I love. I love you, and I'm not going to hurt you. I swear it."

When she heard his oath, she finally relaxed. Whether he loved her or not--and Jill believed him when he said he did--she knew Connor MacLeod was a man of his word.

She fell asleep in his arms, and he lay there, staring at the ceiling in the darkness, wondering if it would get easier. Wondering if, once it got easier and Jill learned, how it would be between them then. Eventually, he fell asleep too.

The days ticked by.

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CHAPTER 8

With a couple of weeks left before her leave was over, Jill went through the moves of a kata in the apartment's living room. Connor had left to go spar with Duncan--Connor and Duncan were ever-religious about their practice--and Jill was alone. She held the sword out in front of her, looking at her reflection in it.

She often saw Connor doing this as he cleaned his sword--another religious ritual for him--and she had wondered what he saw there. As the days had passed, it became clearer and clearer to her that whatever he saw in the sword--salvation, peace, strength, or the Prize--she would never see the same thing. She had taken to flying for hours in her plane, trying to sort out her priorities.

And on this day, she crossed the room to look out the window, gazing at the moon hanging in the twilit sky. A bright star twinkled next to it, and she was forcibly reminded of the Masefield poem. "That's all I ever really wanted," she mused to herself. "A star to steer by."

The phone rang, interrupting her musings. She listened quietly to the voice on the other end. "Yes," she said. "I want it. I'll be there." She hung up the phone. The decision was made. Now she had to tell Connor.

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That night, after dinner, the three of them were sitting in Duncan's loft talking and laughing--Jill mostly listening. Connor had been watching Jill closely during the day, and she could tell that he knew something was up. His perceptiveness could be frightening, she thought. But he hadn't asked her anything, for which she was grateful.

She watched his face in the lamplight, comparing him at this moment to the rigid, icy, controlled man he'd been when she met him. Right now, he was relaxed, animated, laughing, and more than a little drunk as he and Duncan drank Scotch and exchanged stories of their pasts. She smiled, thinking of the passion and love she'd found under his impassive exterior.

And Jill wondered how that would change when she told him of her decision. She was sure the impassive mask would drop back down again, and the laughter and animation would end. She didn't want to spend this, her last night with him, at arm's length, shut out. She wanted to spend it in his arms, making love to him. But if she told him tonight, she knew he wouldn't let her come near him. He would close her out--he was too good at protecting himself, at pulling the barriers down.

She thought about how long it had taken her to penetrate those barriers, how cold and icy those eyes could become, and how quickly. Of course, she realized, if she didn't tell him tonight and made love to him instead, it was likely that Connor would see her actions as a betrayal in themselves. Very likely, she thought. She glanced at him, and he turned to her immediately, smiling softly. He missed nothing.

She looked away again, and he turned back to listen to Duncan. So this was her choice: to tell him tonight and ensure that their last night would be as strangers or to tell him tomorrow and risk his fury. With a little shiver, Jill decided to tell him tomorrow. Spending tonight with him meant too much to give up. She would make it something to remember--at least she could do that. She had a feeling that it was a memory which might have to last her a very long time. Along with other memories. Jill let her eyes trace a slow, avid path down the body that she loved.

After a moment, she noticed the two men had stopped talking and they were looking at her. Duncan's glance was knowing, Connor's was amused and just, she thought, a trifle embarrassed. She could feel herself flushing. "I think the lady sees something she likes, Connor," Duncan commented tipsily.

Connor turned to look at him, eyebrows raised, pursing his lips slightly.

"Well," Duncan said, shrugging, "she's looking at you the same way that redhead in England looked at you. The night the two of you trashed that hotel room. Must have something to do with redheads."

Indignantly, Connor said, "We did not trash the hotel room."

"Oh?" Duncan replied. "Then what was that little conversation with the hotel management all about the next day?"

Connor's face reddened slightly and he took another sip of Scotch. "It just wasn't a very sturdy bed. And the couch..." He trailed off because Duncan had started laughing.

"I rest my case," Duncan said to Jill.

Jill smiled at them. She loved watching them together like this, drinking, laughing, reminiscing. She wouldn't be seeing this any more either.

"What redhead?" she asked curiously, wanting to prolong the moment. "What hotel room?"

"Duncan's talking about ancient history," Connor replied. "Something that happened 175 years ago."

Duncan laughed again. "I still remember it."

She leaned over and took Connor's hand in hers. "Oh, ancient history." She dismissed it with a wave. "Why don't we go back to the apartment?" she said to Connor.

Deliberately, she yawned. "I'm tired."

Duncan chuckled softly, and Connor turned to glare at him.

Duncan shrugged again, but he was still grinning.

Connor turned back to Jill. "You're tired? It's only nine o'clock."

"Been a long day," she replied.

It was Connor's turn to shrug. They gathered their swords and coats and Duncan bid them good-night as they went down the back stairs.

Jill stayed close to Connor; ever since Fandell had attacked her, using these stairs made her nervous.

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When they returned to the apartment, Connor put up their coats. Jill disappeared into the bedroom, took off her clothes and got into the bed, pulling the covers up to her neck.

When he came in after her, he placed their swords within easy reach--in case they were surprised in the night. She ignored that and smiled mischievously at him, patting the bed. She hadn't played games like this with him since before she'd killed Fandell, Connor thought, back when it was still all magic and laughter and desire. The air of calmness, of decision, she'd radiated today had shouted to him, louder than words, that she had made up her mind. Made it up to stay, he thought. That had to be it. This was her way of showing him.

He thought, at that moment, how much he loved her. How much he had hoped she would stay. How hard he had tried not to think about it as he had waited for her to make her decision. And how much it would mean to him to have those empty spaces in his life filled with her presence. He cocked his head and stood there for a moment. Then he walked over to her, took the covers in his hand and threw them down to the foot of the bed, leaving her completely exposed.

She made as if to reach for them again, but he shook his head. She lay back down, smiling now, banishing her doubts, waiting for him. She meant to carry this through tonight whatever he might think about it tomorrow. Whatever he might do.

He walked down to the foot of the bed and simply stood and looked her up and down slowly. It was a look of ownership, of possession, and Jill felt a cold tingle run up and down her spine, followed by goosebumps. He started to undress and she jumped up to help him.

As her hands traveled over him, pulling and tugging at his sweats and touching him everywhere, he smiled lewdly at her. His clothes quickly joined hers on the floor. Then he let her gently push him down on the bed and she half-fell, half-lay down on top of him.

He ran his hands all over her, slowly at first, then more greedily.

She kissed him deeply, languorously, and she felt his erection harden against her belly.

He started to roll her over, but she said, "Please, Connor...let me..."

"Let you...what?" He quirked an eyebrow at her.

"You'll see," she said, smiling. She kissed his mouth again, then kissed his eyes and nose and cheeks. Her hands kept busy stroking him while she trailed tiny bites and kisses down his throat, paying special attention to the scars on his neck. He jerked when she touched them, and so she slid on down his chest, kissing and stroking him as she moved.

She could feel his breathing quicken, the muscles in his body stiffening with excitement. She stopped for a moment to suck his nipples, which rose into hard little nubbins under her tongue. She licked and nipped his flat belly, and he watched her. She met the lecherous, greedy look in his eyes with a wicked smile of her own while she continued to backtrack down his body.

Connor wanted to reach for her, pull her back up above him, and take her now. But if she wanted to demonstrate her decision this way, it was all right with him. He could be patient. He smiled, amused by the idea of virtuously waiting for sexual pleasure.

Then she moved on down to his genitals, and as she swirled her tongue around the shaft of his penis, his thoughts disintegrated. His head sagged back, his eyes closed, and he let out a great sigh. She took him into her mouth, and he immediately forgot everything else but the sensation of her tongue and lips. She grasped the shaft of his penis with her hand, moving it up and down as she continued circling the head with her tongue.

Connor's body went slack, his entire being now focused intently on her actions. He was breathing through his mouth, and she could hear him inhale and exhale deeply, quickly. For long moments, she kept sliding her hand up and down, up and down the shaft, while circling the head with her tongue.

Finally, he began to feel orgasm approach. She felt it too and she moved her hand and tongue faster to help him.

He began jerking and shuddering just before he climaxed. She tightened her lips and mouth around him as he spasmed, filling her mouth with his semen. She swallowed several times as he pumped the slightly bitter fluid into her. She continued to lick and suck him as his orgasm swept over him; she wanted to give him as much pleasure this night as she could. When his orgasm was clearly and definitely over, she lifted her head to find him looking at her.

"Hard work?" he asked, watching her work her jaws a little to loosen them.

"But worth it, I think," she said, smiling back at him.

He laughed, reached down, and pulled her up to him, holding her stretched out above him. She kissed his face again.

"I think it's worth it," he said.

"What a surprise," she said wryly.

"Don't you?" he asked her, laughing again.

"Yes," she said. "I do."

He rolled her over.

She started to speak, but he stopped her with a deep kiss which grew deeper and more passionate. He took her head in his hands and gently tilted it back, trailing a stream of unhurried hot kisses down her throat to her breasts. His mouth and lips continued slowly traversing her flesh, and his hands were moving everywhere, touching her, laying claim to every inch of her. He was already hard again.

Feeling his erection, she pulled his arms.

"Come back," she said, pulling harder. "Please. I want to feel you inside me."

Connor immediately positioned himself above her, letting her guide him in. He panted, grunting with exertion and pleasure.

As he entered her, Jill felt herself fill with a liquid heat, radiating out from her vagina. As drops of sweat fell from his brow to her face, she lifted her head up and licked the sweat off his forehead. She wrapped her legs around his waist, arching her back up to let him penetrate even farther. She wanted him now, and she ground her hips into him in time with his strokes.

Imprisoned by the circle of her legs, goaded by her grinding hips, he thrust himself into her. He felt her clasp his buttocks with her hands, urging him on. His face was just above hers, and she opened her eyes to look at him. His eyes were closed, his cheeks taut, his jaws clenched. He was so intent, he looked almost angry.

She closed her eyes again, surrendering to his onslaught, relishing it.

He went on and on, and Jill felt him pushing her close to the edge and then closer and then he drove her all the way over it. The liquid heat she had felt before erupted into a white-hot caldron of flame that spread through her in a wave of concentric circles.

As her orgasm rocked his body, Connor couldn't prevent his own explosion inside her. He cried out as he came, a series of wordless exclamations, and Jill felt him hammering himself into her. The explosion continued until he was completely spent, breathing heavily, smiling widely. "I love you, Jill," he said to her softly, kissing her face, her lips. He spent several long moments simply holding himself above her, inside her, luxuriating in the feel of her body stretched out beneath him and the lassitude of total satiation. Then he rolled over next to her, and cradled her in his arms.

Jill stilled the tears that threatened to fall, because she knew he would sense them. She lay there in his arms, feeling their strength. She went through every moment of the night, feeling his passion for her, his love, replaying his words in her mind, knowing that within a matter of hours, he would most likely hate her.

He fell asleep holding her and she lay awake for hours, watching him sleep. The transformation when he slept never failed to amaze her, and she wanted to fix this in her memory too. As soon as he closed his powerful, magnetic eyes, he reverted back to the youth he had been when he had first met death. When his eyes opened, their sheer authority and power made him seem decades older.

Jill watched him sleep until her eyes couldn't stay open. Then she gently disentangled herself from his arms so he wouldn't lose all feeling in them. But she held his hand gently in hers as she fell asleep. She wanted to touch him until the very last minute.

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The next morning, Jill woke up very early, before the sun rose, her body aching pleasurably from Connor's passionate assault of the night before. He was sound asleep, looking like a young and innocent college student she had taken into her bed. She smiled at that notion of Connor MacLeod.

He was partially turned on his right side, towards her, his left leg slightly bent, the right leg bent almost at a right angle. His left arm curved in front of him above the bedcovers, his right lay stretched out, also above the covers, in front of him. His long fingers were curled, half-closed. His face was turned to her, and she watched him and listened to him breathing quietly in his sleep.

She studied his face, looked at his short-cropped hair which right now was sticking up in all directions. Just at this moment, she thought, Connor MacLeod, 500-year-old warrior, veteran of innumerable battles, Immortal, looked...vulnerable. Utterly vulnerable.

Suddenly she remembered the decision she had made, and she shivered in the morning coolness. She felt a little sick, watching him sleep, knowing that she was about to hurt him terribly. This very morning.

She quailed. Could she really do this? Could she really bear to watch those eyes open, warm and loving, and then see that sheet of ice descend across them? Could she stand to see that sweet face, smiling and open with love and passion for her, change to the cold mask that he hid behind so effectively? And he would be furious with her for not telling him, for letting him believe she was going to stay.

Jill knew with certainty that that was what he thought. She had used his own passion and love against him, to deceive him. She shivered again.

She got up from the bed and walked over to the window, pulling the drapes aside just enough to peer out. The moon hung low in the sky, about to set. She thought about footprints on its surface, about her dreams, about the way she had felt when she had killed Fandell. She turned to look at Connor. It had seemed like the right decision yesterday, she thought. But she could easily change her mind, make a phone call, stay with the man sleeping in the bed. There were a hundred others who would eagerly take her place, be grateful that she had changed her mind.

Jill turned back to look at the moon, held her fingers up in front of it as if she could touch it. She almost could, now. It was just a matter of time before she would be able to, literally, touch the moon. What if she changed her mind, made that phone call? Then she would watch as others did what she wanted to do, what she could have done, growing more bitter with each milestone passed. She wouldn't be able to resist keeping up with everything that happened, and she would hate it. She wouldn't even be able to go out at night under the moon and the stars, without feeling the bitterness.

Jill looked at Connor again. Sooner or later, she knew she would come to hate Connor. Sooner or later, she would blame him for depriving her of her dreams, even though the decision was hers. In the end, she would lose, not only her dreams, but Connor too. For the last time, she turned back to look at the moon, almost obscured by buildings and trees now. No. She wouldn't make any phone calls. The decision was made, and though it had a cost she couldn't have imagined a year ago, it was the right one.

She began quietly moving about the room, tiptoeing, trying not to wake Connor, gathering the essentials to take back with her to Houston. Most of her things would have to be shipped; her plane had little luggage room.

She had just opened the first drawer when Connor sat up, reaching smoothly for the katana under the bed, rolling out of the bed into a crouching, ready position, the katana blade up, protecting his head.

He looked around, rapidly scanning the room for a potential attacker. His nudity diminished the threat of his stance not one whit.

Jill wondered if she would ever develop reflexes like that. She stayed where she was, waiting for him to finish his scan of the room--surprising Connor when he was expecting an attacker was bad for one's health.

In an instant he saw that it was only her. He slipped the katana back into its hiding place, and she watched the ready position relax. "Jill, what are you doing? It's still dark." He held his arms out to her. "Come back to bed, my love."

She could go back to bed with him now, make love again. Tell him after. Jill suddenly felt ashamed, guilty of her deception. No, she thought, she wouldn't do that again. She had deceived him last night, gotten her night with him. She wouldn't lie to him again like that, using his own body and emotions as a means to trick him.

He was watching her carefully, keenly, and she knew he had excellent night vision. He missed nothing. "What's the matter, Jill?"

Oh, God! She wasn't ready to tell him yet. Not yet.

He crossed the room, put his arms around her. She was shivering and he rubbed her naked body, warming her.

At his touch, she began shivering even harder.

"Jill? What's wrong, love? Come back to bed." His tone was gentle, loving. He tilted her face up to him, kissed her softly. The kiss grew longer and Jill could feel him starting to grow aroused again.

She pulled away from him.

He was confused. "Jill? What is it?"

She held her hand up in front of her, placing it on his chest, stopping him. She had to face this now, Jill realized. She couldn't put it off another minute. "I'm going to turn on the lights, Connor," Jill told him. He had the right to see her tell him, she thought.

She reached over and snapped on the light switch.

He blinked once, but adapted quickly. "What is it, Jill?"

She wanted to turn away from him. She was afraid to face him. She forced herself to look him squarely in the eye. "Connor, I got a call yesterday."

"A call?" He looked puzzled. "What kind of call?"

Calmly, tears sliding down her face, she said, "I had applied for a slot on the first lunar return mission, and they called to ask me if I was still interested. I said yes."

He stared at her. He didn't understand what she was saying. His certainty that she was going to stay, their lovemaking, confused him for a moment. And then, he got it.

She saw the realization dawn in his face. She watched the love drain out of his eyes like water down a drain. The dangerous man she had met months ago stood before her again.

Cold. Icy. Indifferent.

Except that now she knew better.

Connor stood there, naked, the residue of their lovemaking, Jill's scent, still on him. He felt an acute need to shower, to remove all the traces she had left on him of her betrayal, her deceit. He didn't move. The enormity of her betrayal sank in. Their lovemaking hadn't meant anything to her...it was just her way of keeping him from knowing until the very last moment. He could feel his fury begin to rise. He let nothing of it show on his face.

But Jill knew him too well by now. "I know you feel like I betrayed you. That you're furious with me. I--I knew that if I told you last night, you'd shut me out, just like you're doing right now." Looking straight at him, she said, "And I wanted that last night with you. That last night in your arms. Feeling you inside me. I wanted it."

Connor stood unmoving, silent.

Jill went on. "I'm going to need to remember how you felt, how you made love to me--"

"Enough, Jill," he interrupted her, his voice glacial. He couldn't bear to hear any more of this. "You lied and you had selfish reasons to do so. Is there anything else?"

"Yes," she said. "I know you and Duncan both think that my being an astronaut is a foolish waste of time. But I've dreamed about it all my life, and if I turn this down now, not only will I hate myself, but I'll hate you, too."

Again, he said nothing, and she wanted to beat on his chest, slap him, do something to get a reaction out of him, even if it was violent. Having him knock her across the room and beat her up would be preferable to this arctic, controlled silence. But it was exactly what she had expected, so she simply continued. "I have to leave today so I can be there tomorrow. I'll be leaving as soon as I shower and pack and go over to the dojo to tell Duncan."

Without a word, he turned away from her and went into the bathroom. He urinated, flushed the toilet, turned on the shower, stepped in. The need to wash Jill off of himself was overwhelming, and he bathed thoroughly. He dried himself off, threw the towel on the floor, stepped back into the bedroom. He could feel her eyes on him, and he thought about the desirous lover's look she had given him last night, a million years ago, in Duncan's loft.

The way that look had made him feel--he pushed the thoughts aside, pulled some clean clothes out of his dresser, put them on. He went out in the early morning light to jog. If he stayed here in the apartment with Jill, he thought he might kill her.

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After he left, Jill dragged herself into the bathroom and showered. Then, crying so hard she could hardly see, she finished packing her flight bag. She packed the rest of her few things in the labeled boxes she'd gotten yesterday and hidden so that Connor wouldn't see them. She would drop them off at a post office on her way to the airport.

She stripped the walls of the paintings and photographs she had had sent from Houston. The Masefield calligraphy was last. She took it down and started to pack it, then paused. If she left it for him, would he simply destroy it? Or leave it behind? She wanted to leave something of herself with him, even though she knew he would reject it.

He came back in, sweating from his run.

Holding the calligraphy, she turned to him. "Do you want this?" she said.

He looked at her. "No."

"I'd like you to have it."

He smiled at her, the cold smile, the smile that froze her blood and had given her nightmares.

"Take it with you. You have nothing I want."

Bravely, she said, "That's a lie. We both know it."

He had started to head for the little kitchen, but when she said this, he turned around to look at her. "Jill. Here's a piece of advice for you. Pack your things and get out."

"I love you, Connor," she said.

He turned away from her and went to the kitchen. She could hear him moving around, handling dishes, opening the refrigerator. She heard nothing slam, not a loud clink, not a single glass breaking against the wall.

She finished her packing without speaking to him again. When she was finished, she loaded everything into a taxi.

Connor ignored her.

She stood in front of him, crying, missing him already, missing the feel of his arms around her. "Good-bye, Connor. I do love you."

Once again, he said nothing to her.

She left the apartment, closing the door behind her. Her last view of him was of him in his jogging clothes, sitting on a chair in their tiny living room, reading the newspaper. He didn't even turn around to watch her go.

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When she reached the dojo, Duncan was warming up with an open-hand kata. The moment he saw her face, he stopped the kata and hurried over to her.

"What is it, Jill? Is Connor all right?"

She nodded, not trusting her voice. Finally, she got herself under control as Duncan steered her into his office. "Tell me what happened," he said.

"It's not--there's no danger, Duncan," she said, knowing his concern. "Connor's fine. I guess."

He raised his eyebrows. "Then what?"

"I'm going back to Houston. Now. Right now."

He shook his head, not understanding. "What are you talking about? You haven't finished your training --"

"I'll have to finish it in Houston."

"Jill...what are you doing?"

"They offered me a position on the first lunar return mission, Duncan. I have to take it."

He crossed his arms and looked at her witheringly. Then Duncan thought about Connor, and any worries he might have felt for Jill vanished. "How did Connor take this?" Duncan said.

She smiled bitterly at him. "How do you think?"

"I can't believe you're doing this to him. Don't you know how much he loves you? He brought you all the way up here to Seacouver so I could teach you, just so he could stay with you--and you do this to him?"

Duncan was furious with Jill for the man who was his best friend, his oldest friend. He could imagine the tight expression of denial Connor would wear to mask this loss--Duncan had seen Connor grieve and he didn't want to see it again. Jill had made Connor happy, she had made him laugh...she had made him act alive again. Duncan cursed silently. Connor would just crawl back into his shell after this, he knew.

And there would be nothing anybody could do.

Fighting back the tears, she faced him off. "I know, Duncan. And I love him."

"Then how can you leave him?"

"I'm doing what I have to do. There will be only one first return trip to the moon. I plan to be there."

Duncan said, "Jill, there's a lot more than a trip to the moon at stake here. You know that."

"I have to do this. If I don't, not only will I hate myself, but I will hate Connor too. Please try to understand that."

Duncan just looked at her.

"Well," she said, her voice bitter again. "I didn't want to leave without telling you in person that I was going." She turned to leave. "Good-bye, Duncan."

"Good luck, Jill. Don't lose your head." The words were sincere.

She turned to look at him, grateful for the impersonal kindness, and nodded, not able to speak. And then she left.

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Duncan waited until lunchtime before going over to the apartment where Connor had been living with Jill. He wanted to give Connor some time, some privacy, a chance to regroup. Duncan had seen Connor grieve, and he knew that he'd be facing his mentor's rigid control in its full force.

"Connor, it's me," he said when he came to the door.

The door opened, and Connor stood there, holding his katana.

"Come in, Duncan," Connor said calmly.

Duncan stepped into the kitchen, and felt something crackle under his feet. He looked down to see some kind of glittering, powdery coating on the kitchen floor. About to ask Connor what it was, he looked up. Then he couldn't suppress a gasp as he took in the apartment.

Or rather, what was left of it.

Not a single cabinet door remained on its hinges. Duncan saw the cabinet doors, flung about the apartment at random, in pieces. The refrigerator door hung askew, by one hinge only, as did all the rest of the doors in the place. The cabinets themselves had been torn half off the ceilings, and hung dangerously, moving slightly in the air currents from the ceiling vents. Every piece of furniture in the living room had been smashed and scraps of upholstery littered the carpet, which was itself split and ripped.

The mantelpiece had been torn off the fireplace and broken into pieces strewn across the living room. Every wall in the apartment had huge holes gouged out of it. Strips of drapery were flung around, and the drapery rods themselves were bent and twisted. Duncan realized that the crackling coating on the kitchen floor was the gritty remains of china, glass, and every dish that Connor had bought for this place he'd shared with Jill.

He looked at Connor, who simply raised his eyebrows. Connor put his katana back in its scabbard and put it down on the floor, which was the only remaining intact horizontal surface in the kitchen. He picked up a bottle of Scotch from the floor, dusted it off, and held it out to Duncan. "Scotch? I'd offer you a glass, but," he gestured to the kitchen, "I seem to be all out."

Duncan noticed the smashed remains of a bottle of Scotch thrown in a corner in the kitchen. "This is fine," Duncan said, taking a drink from the bottle. He noticed that Connor's breath smelled heavily of the whiskey.

"I'm packing in the bedroom," Connor said, leading the way as calmly as if he were giving a tour. "Watch the door," he said, and Duncan pushed the door out of the way. It was hanging twisted in the doorway on a single hinge.

Connor's suitcase was on the floor, because there was nothing left of the bed Connor had bought. Duncan remembered going with Connor and Jill to buy it, and he had teased Connor the whole time they were in the store about getting a suitable bed.

Now the sturdy four-poster that Connor had purchased lay in pieces around the bedroom, not one of them larger than Duncan's fist. The mattress was also torn to pieces, as was the box springs, and the springs themselves were flung into a corner. The only item of remaining furniture was the frame of the dresser Connor's clothes were in--Duncan saw that the mirror had been yanked off and smashed into slivers of glass and splinters of wood against one wall.

As Connor emptied his clothes from each drawer, he calmly pulled the drawer out and threw it across the room, breaking the wood and gouging more holes in the walls.

Duncan silently watched Connor destroy the last evidence of his life with Jill.

While Connor packed, he said evenly, "I'm leaving for New York today. As soon as I can get a flight. There's no reason for me to stay in Seacouver any more. And I need to get back to my business. My manager is competent, but he's not Rachel."

Duncan nodded. "Is there anything I can do?"

Closing his suitcase, Connor thought a moment. "Yes," he said. "There is. Get in touch with the apartment management for me, and tell them to send me a bill for damages and clean-up." He looked around the bedroom and back out to the living room past the bedroom door on its remaining hinge. "Tell them they don't have to itemize." Connor picked up his suitcase, held his hand out for the bottle. He took a healthy swig of it, handed it back to Duncan.

The two men went back into the living room, Connor carrying his suitcase. They sat down on the shredded carpet, and drank the rest of the bottle of Scotch while they talked.

"Will you go after her?" Duncan asked.

"Why would I do that?"

Duncan waited.

Connor finally said, in a tired tone, "This isn't a misunderstanding. It's not a mistake. Jill made her decision deliberately, with full knowledge of what she was doing." He swallowed more Scotch and looked away, at nothing. As if to himself, he whispered, "She did what she did...intentionally..."

Duncan, listening intently, heard something raw and naked in the whispered words.

Connor sighed, drank again, and looked back at Duncan. He said, "It's her life. It's her head. And it has nothing to do with me."

"You're welcome to stay with me for a few days. To visit. As long as you like."

Connor shook his head. His eyes traveled around the room, and suddenly, Duncan knew he was seeing Jill there, remembering her presence. And Duncan realized, also, that Connor wouldn't stay in Seacouver, where everything he saw, including Duncan's dojo and loft, would remind him of Jill. Connor MacLeod ran from nothing, but he was also no masochist.

"No, thank you, Duncan." Connor's tone was polite, controlled, and final. "I'm going back to New York."

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CHAPTER 9

December, 2005

New York

The phone rang in Connor's New York apartment, and he sat on the couch, listening while the recorder started.

"Connor? It's Jill," her voice said.

There was a pause, and Connor waited. He wondered what she would say, how she would try to explain her betrayal. In an instant, he thought back to October, to their apartment in Seacouver, that last morning, when he'd realized just how coldly, how deliberately, she'd used him. He could still remember--no, he could still feel--his disbelief and the knotted pain in his gut. But the fury had gone, leaving only an aching emptiness instead of the presence with which he had hoped she would fill his life. He closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to push the ache away.

After a moment, Jill's voice continued. "I don't know if you're there or not, Connor, but I want you to know that...I am so sorry for hurting you. Not for coming back to Houston, I still believe that was the right thing to do, but for lying to you, deceiving you. That was--it was wrong. I know that. I just, I guess I--I don't know what I was thinking. I just wanted to be with you, and I knew you'd close me out. And I know that's so inadequate, Connor...but..."

There was another pause, and Connor sipped his Scotch. Inadequate, he thought. He chuckled briefly, bitterly. He wanted to walk over to the phone and cut her off, but he didn't want to give her the acknowledgement of his attention, even of his presence. And he felt compelled to listen. So he waited again.

"Connor." She was crying now, he could tell. He remembered how she looked when she cried, that time, back in Houston, when she had told him how cold he was. And how she had looked when she cried, sinking to the ground at the hangar in Seacouver after killing Fandell. He unsuccessfully tried to push those thoughts aside, too.

"I am so sorry. I know it's probably hopeless to ask this, but will you forgive me? I am so sorry. And I miss you. You have no idea how much. I love you."

The line clicked, and she was gone.

He sat in the dark room, looking at the moon through the floor-length windows of his apartment. He drank his Scotch. And later he replayed the recording, listening to her voice.

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March, 2006

New York

Jill tipped the taxi driver and got out in front of David Stewart Antiques. She paused, looking at the storefront. Connor had told her that once it had been Russell Nash Antiques, but he had had to change his name and his shop's name when he began looking suspiciously young for someone born in 1943.

Her heart was pounding, and she wondered if she would feel him inside the shop. Well, that's what she had come to find out, she thought. He hadn't answered any of her phone calls or returned any of her messages since she had left him in Seacouver five months ago. She had grown frantic with worry that he had died, that someone had taken his head, that she would never see him again.

She had taken to sleeping in her own guest room, in the bed where he'd slept, just to have some kind of remote connection to him. She had bought a bottle of Glenmorangie, not to drink, just to smell...to remind her of how his kisses had always tasted, just slightly, of the whiskey. She would occasionally drink a glass of it. But that usually led to her calling him and leaving the unanswered messages.

Lately, she had left messages asking him to let her know that he was alive, at least. Just that he was alive. But there had been nothing. So finally, this morning, she couldn't stand it another day, and she got on a commercial jet and flew to New York. She was missing work, important meetings, and there would be hell to pay. But she had to know if Connor MacLeod was alive. She had to know if her world still had him in it.

Even if he hated her.

She pushed the door open and walked in. The moment she stepped across the threshold, she felt a powerful buzz. Her step faltered slightly. Her heart sped up, with relief and fear, and she was amazed that none of the customers in the store could hear it beating. She thought it was about to hammer itself right through her chest.

He was alive! And he was here.

Calmly, her face and posture displaying nothing of her agitation--Connor was a good instructor in more than sword work--she made her way through the furnishings, ornaments, vases, sketches, paintings, and stuff of other people's lives, other times. She wondered if any of the things in this room had once belonged to Connor in some previous life, under some other name. If he had handled them, touched them.

After a moment, a man came up to her. Pleasantly, briskly, he said, "I am Peter Brenning, the store manager. How can I help you, Miss--"

Then he stopped and peered closely at her. "Excuse me," he said excitedly, "but are you Jill MacCormick, the astronaut?"

Jill put on her PR face--part of an astronaut's stock-in-trade--and smiled. "Yes, I am."

Behind Brenning, a large freight elevator started up. Connor had sensed her, too, of course, and Jill knew he would be down in a moment.

Brenning continued, oblivious. "My son is absolutely fascinated with this lunar mission you're going on, Miss--ah, Dr.--MacCormick. He watches the news reports religiously; he's even got a model of the spacecraft you'll be going in. I wonder if it wouldn't be too much trouble--would it be possible to get your autograph? For him, I mean?"

"Of course," Jill said, pulling out the pen she carried for this purpose. "What would you like me to sign, and what's your son's name?"

Brenning hastily found a pad of paper and thrust it at her. "His name is Eric, Eric Brenning." He spelled it for her.

Jill could feel the Immortal presence so close to her, moving closer. She kept smiling pleasantly at Brenning, wrote a short note to the man's son, and then Brenning shook her hand, telling her what an honor it was to meet her.

"Well, I hope your son enjoys the autograph," she replied. "Now I wonder if you can help me?"

"Oh, anything you like, Dr. MacCormick. What would you like to see?"

"Actually, I'm not here to look at antiques. I'm an old friend of David Stewart's, and I'd like to see him. If I'm not mistaken, that's him right now."

Behind Brenning, the elevator stopped, and Jill watched Connor step out. He paused for just an instant when he saw her, and she thought she saw something flicker in his eyes. But it went by too fast for her to identify it. Anger? she thought. Hatred?

But she couldn't tell.

When Connor saw Jill, he knew that he wouldn't be fighting for his head. But he also was swept away in an instant to that last morning in Seacouver, and the pain and emptiness she had left him slammed him hard in the gut all over again. He felt it wash over him, along with anger that she had dared to come here, to open old wounds. Then he composed his features and walked over to her.

"Yes, it is, Dr. MacCormick!" Brenning said, turning to Connor. "Mr. Stewart, this is Dr. Jill MacCormick, the astronaut. She says she's an old friend of yours, sir." Brenning stood there for a long moment, beaming as if he owned her.

Connor nodded to him in dismissal. "Thank you, Peter."

"Right, Mr. Stewart." Brenning turned away, moving towards another customer.

"Let's go upstairs, Jill," Connor said, leading her back to the elevator.

Behind them, Jill could hear Brenning talking excitedly to a customer about her presence in the shop.

Connor looked in Brenning's direction, listened to the manager's words for a moment. Then he turned back to Jill. "My store manager seems to be quite taken with you," he said coolly.

Jill nodded as they stepped into the elevator, not caring what the store manager thought, only grateful that Connor was here, that he was taking her up to his apartment, that she was once again hearing his voice. She wanted to touch him, to touch his face, but she didn't dare.

Connor read her mood--Jill hadn't yet learned to hide her emotions, at least not from him. He saw her relief, her fear. He knew, from her messages, that she was worried about whether he was alive or dead. So her relief must be from seeing that he was alive. He couldn't deny that this moved him, that she had come all the way here to find out. But it clashed with the knot in his gut, and he kept his face impassive, giving her nothing.

Jill searched his face for any clue, any hint as to what he might be feeling. But he was expressionless. Whatever emotion had struck him when he first saw her was buried behind his mask.

"Scotch?" he asked her as they stepped out into his apartment. His voice was as neutral and as expressionless as his face. He propped the katana he'd carried down with him against a table by the elevator and efficiently hung up his coat and hers.

She nodded in answer to his question and followed him into the open living room. If he was still willing to drink with her, that was a good sign, Jill thought. She had understood the trust implicit in the drinking ritual of the MacLeods right away, and she took a little hope from his offer.

He gestured to the couch, and she sat down. Then he set the glass in front of her on the coffee table and sat across from her in a chair. She noticed he didn't have a glass.

"Aren't you going to join me?" she said.

He shook his head.

"I see," she said.

He raised his eyebrows. He sat back, waiting for her to speak.

She swallowed, moistening her dry mouth, taking a swallow of the whiskey. He wasn't making any effort to make this easy for her. But then she hadn't expected him to. "Do you ever listen to my messages, Connor? Or do you just delete them as soon as you hear my voice?"

"I hear them."

Jill felt a small moment of triumph, of hope. He was listening to her! "I've been asking you for weeks, months maybe, just to let me know you were alive. Was that too much to ask...just to let me know that you were alive?"

Connor cocked his head at her as if he were puzzled. "Why should that matter to you?"

She clenched her jaw, then relaxed it. She was not going to get angry with him. "Because I need to know that you are alive and in my world."

"I am alive. You can see that. But I am not in your world, and that is a decision you made."

There was a protracted silence as Jill looked at him and then around the room, as if she were trying to find something there to help break through his barriers. Finally, she said, slowly, "What about the spaces in The Game? The spaces you said we can fill with love and friendship?"

Connor's eyes narrowed. "Love and friendship, yes. Lies and betrayal, no."

Jill felt the tears start, and she made no effort to hold them back. She had never expected her actions to hurt him so badly. She slumped in the chair. "Connor...can't you ever forgive me? I miss you so terribly, and I--I just couldn't bear the thought that you were...that you had been..." she trailed off, sobbing.

He watched her, saying nothing, waiting for her to get herself under control. He had let himself love her, he had opened himself up to her, he had held nothing back. And she had raped his trust, his love. She had raped him. It still made him a little sick, remembering the moment he understood what she had done to him. He wasn't ready to relent.

"I do love you. And I've apologized over and over. What more do you want from me?"

Blandly, he said, "Why do you think I want anything from you?"

"I can't believe you mean that."

He leaned towards her and spoke softly, so she had to lean close to him to hear. "Believe it."

"No. I won't! You told me in Seacouver that you loved me."

"And what message did you give me in Seacouver?" His eyes glittered.

She leaned across the table, and reached for his hand. She softly rubbed the back of it against her wet cheek.

He started to pull it away from her, but she held it and, rather than make a ridiculous scene, he let her.

She was crying again. "Please listen to me. I never meant to hurt you like that. I love you, and I am asking for you to forgive me, to let me back into your life, to put that behind us, to take advantage of the time we have. Please, Connor."

He had expected her tears, steeled himself for them, but she was affecting him anyway. For the first time since Seacouver, the knot of pain and betrayal in his gut was softening a little. She really was sorry. He could see it. But he still couldn't bring himself to trust her. She had lied to him, betrayed him, devastated him. Just because she was sorry now didn't mean she wouldn't do it again. He said, "You should have thought of that before."

She looked at him through her tears, bleakly, desolately. "Is that all? You're just going to stay here, all bitter and vindictive and wounded, and send me away? How can you do that? Don't you know how much I love you, how sorry I am, how much I want you back?"

He said nothing to her, gave her no sign.

Jill stood up, defeated. She got her coat and headed for the elevator. Connor stood up to escort her back down.

"No," she said. "I can find my own way down." She gazed at him for a long moment, as if she were trying to memorize his features, then she stepped into the elevator.

It started down, and Connor watched her disappear. Was he making a mistake, letting her go like this? He knew he could call her back with a word...and he almost spoke the word, almost called her name. But he stopped just in time to keep from opening himself up to her again. From taking a chance, again.

As soon as Brenning saw her, he ran over to her, then stopped as he took in her tear-stained face, reddened eyes. "Oh, Dr. MacCormick, I--is everything all right?"

She just looked at him. "No, Mr., uh, Brenning, it isn't. If you'll excuse me..."

Brenning nodded and moved aside.

When she left the shop, she looked up at the windows lining Connor's apartment. He was standing by a window, looking down at her. Then without a gesture, he turned and walked away.

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July 16, 2008

New York, 1 a.m.

"Connor, it's Jill."

Connor sat up, surprised to hear her voice on his phone. He had heard nothing from her since she had come to New York. Although she and the rest of the crew of the lunar mission had become the staples of talk show and news broadcasts. Connor could scarcely walk into a bar without seeing Jill's face or one of her colleagues on a TV.

He watched the broadcasts, and each time he watched, he thought about calling her. But the habits of avoidance and distrust were too strong.

"We're leaving tomorrow morning. This will be my last call on Earth."

There was a silence, and Connor could feel his pulse speed up. Her last call on Earth.

"I meant to put you behind me, Connor. To forget about you. But I'm about to leave for a very long journey. And as I lay here, trying to sleep, I kept thinking about you. I realized I couldn't go without trying, just one more time, to reach you."

Another silence.

Connor walked over to the phone.

"I guess, despite everything, I still love you. I suppose it doesn't matter. It's just that...a quarter of a million miles is a long way to go, unforgiven."

Connor picked up the receiver, just in time to hear the click.

He cursed and hit the redial button.

"Jill? Jill?"

"This is the NASA operator, sir. I'm sorry, sir, that number is unavailable."

"Jill MacCormick just called me on this number, but we were cut off."

"I'm sorry, sir. That number is unavailable. Only outgoing calls are permitted."

"But--"

The line was dead.

Connor put the phone down, numbly. She was gone. Now that she was out of reach, he realized just how much he wanted her. Now, when it was too late. He had nursed his accursed pride and his hurt feelings, and now she was going some place he could not follow.

Unforgiven.

He sat down, drinking his Scotch, feeling empty and alone.

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September 30, 2008

50 kilometers from Lunar Base 1

Lunar South Polar Basin

8:41 a.m. Houston time (Lunar base time)

Static crackled painfully in Jill's ears. She instantly slapped the suit radio's volume control off. Her partner, Jonathan Muir, bounded over to her, carrying his sample of lunar soil. The geologist would probably leave an arm out here, Jill thought, before he'd leave a core sample.

Muir pointed at the sun, forever on the horizon here at the moon's pole. He touched his helmet to hers. With the suit radios out, direct sound transmission right through the metal, helmet-to-helmet, like Siamese twins joined at the head rather than the hip, was the only way they could talk. It was awkward and didn't allow much opportunity for long speeches. But it was workable. And it would hardly faze Muir, Jill thought.

Economical as always, he said simply, "Flare?"

Jill nodded, pulling her own core sample up rapidly. "Yeah. Worst-case scenario." What she meant, and what Muir understood, was that although they had no way of knowing it was a solar flare, they'd act as though it was. Nothing else could be worse for two astronauts out on the lunar surface.

The two looked at each other, thoughts racing. Jill wondered if the static had been the audible sign of a sleet of light-speed gamma rays slicing through their bodies. If so, then within an hour, an invisible rain of deadly high-energy particles would follow the gammas--solar cosmic rays. They'd mutate cells and wreck tissues. Not hers, Jill knew.

Muir's.

She felt a sudden, novel urge to protect Muir's life...something she knew the tough, spare geologist would resent if he suspected it.

They had to find a shadow to stand in...something solid to put between themselves and the particle rain. Something that would absorb the particles and shield her and Muir from them. Because even if she couldn't be hurt permanently, radiation exposure would attract a lot of attention. And Muir could be hurt. Muir could die. Jill turned and looked behind her.

"Amundsen," she said, referring to the crater 10 kilometers away.

Muir nodded. In some ways, Jill thought, Muir reminded her of Connor. He never needed many words, either. She pushed all thoughts of Connor aside. There wasn't time.

The crater wasn't ideal, Jill knew. Though its wall would shelter them from the particles, absorbing them like lead around a nuclear reactor, going to it would take them off a straight-line course to the base. They'd have to backtrack a little. But it was important to get to shelter as soon as possible, while the surge of cosmic rays would be at its peak.

The two stowed their core samples on the lunar rover. Jill set off across the collapsed region around the crater's southeastern wall. Muir, as second, navigated.

Jill figured they could cover sixty or seventy percent of the 10-klick distance in the rover. At best speed, that could take 15 or 20 minutes. Then they'd have to walk across two or three more klicks of the rough, rock-strewn terrain of the eroded region to reach the inner wall's sheltering shadow. Jill noticed she was unconsciously crouching--as if she could duck the sun and its cosmic rays.

She straightened up and tried her suit radio to see if they were receiving anything from the base. "Zzzzzztttt...EVA team... ...repeat....zzzzzzttttt....flare. zzzzzzttttt....shelt......zzzzzzztttttt..."

She slapped it off. "It's a flare, all right," she said grimly to Muir.

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September 30, 2008

10:05 a.m.

New York

Connor felt Sorenson's Quickening pass through him, ripping him apart. First, he cried out wordlessly with the pain. Then the pleasure drove through him. "Ohhhhh," he moaned, his head thrown back, surrendering to the ecstasy.

Sorenson had been a powerful Immortal, Connor thought. As was his personality...Connor could feel it penetrate him, struggle for space inside his mind, trying, for a long, tense moment, to assert itself and take control.. "No, you don't, you bastard," he said out loud.

He fought back, his grimaces the only sign of the invisible struggle for dominance. Finally, he felt Sorenson's *presence* diminish, submerged somewhere deep inside him, buried and unreachable. And you can stay there forever, Connor thought vindictively, deliberately pushing away the thoughts of times when others' memories had risen, unbidden, from the depths.

Anyway, he had other problems to deal with besides auld lang syne. He could already hear the police sirens. "Damn," he muttered to himself. "Whatever happened to the good old days, when a man could have a private duel without getting arrested?"

He struggled to his feet, looking around for the bundle of spare clothes he'd brought with him. Bloody clothes got noticed in the daytime, and Connor didn't want the attention.

He looked around. Where was he? And how was he going to get out of here? His car was parked blocks away--in the direction of the sirens. Naturally. He closed his eyes, trying to visualize his location. He spent long hours walking the streets of New York and studying maps of the city so he would never be lost, never be without an escape route. Now he realized that the nearest subway terminal was two blocks away. And by some miracle, he thought, not in the direction of the approaching sirens.

He wheeled around and began walking quickly. He didn't want to run, because that would also attract attention. The noise of the sirens, added to the restless energy a Quickening always imparted, made him jittery. To calm himself, he let himself slip into the rote of his get-away ritual: keep his head down, put one foot in front of the other, walk, don't rush.

After a few minutes, which seemed much longer to his agitated frame of mind, he got to the subway entrance. He went down and found the men's room. He looked down at his bloody clothes. Hell, this was New York, he thought, and went on in.

The men in the bathroom looked at him surreptitiously, and within seconds, the room was empty. And Connor bet himself that no one would remember seeing anything, either.

As he started stripping off his clothes, a kid wearing tight jeans and a cut-off tee-shirt slouched through the door. Connor guessed the kid was about 18, but his face looked much older. He looked at the Immortal appraisingly.

The kid said, "Lookin' for a party, man? I can show you a real sweet time." He licked his lips suggestively, leering.

"Christ," Connor said, "Get lost. I'm not interested." This kind of thing never failed to turn Connor's stomach.

"Come on, man," the kid pouted. "I can show you what a real good time is. I'm really tight...you'll love it."

Connor leaned close to the kid, letting his eyes go cold, deadly, and feral. "Get lost," he repeated icily.

"Okay, man, whatever you say, I'm cool, I'm gone," the kid said. He backed away, then fled.

Connor smiled mirthlessly.

He finished stripping off his bloodstained clothes and shoes and put on the fresh ones. He tossed the bloody items into the trash bin, careful to bury them far down. He rinsed his arms and hands with water--there was no soap, of course, this being a public facility, he thought wryly. No towels, either. He shook his hands dry.

Connor thought the police might start canvassing the terminal, and he wanted to put some distance between himself and the scene of the crime. Personally, he felt he should get a medal for killing Sorenson. The bastard was a cold-blooded head-hunter, without any regard for the lives he took.

When the first train arrived, he got on, not especially caring where it went. He'd ride the subways for a while and then go home. He moved through the cars until he found one that was empty but for an old man, peacefully listening to his radio. He sat down several seats behind and across the aisle from the old man.

Christ, he was tired. All he wanted was to get home, take a hot shower, and have a glass of Scotch. He sighed. It was going to take him a while to get there.

He raised his hand to brush his hair out of his face, noticed that his hand was trembling. Still jittery, too, he observed dispassionately. He concentrated on relaxing the muscles in his hand, stopping the trembling. After a moment, his hand was steady.

He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Although he was tired, he had learned that the best time to analyze his duels was right afterwards, while they were still fresh in his mind. He had made one mistake, he knew. He hadn't realized Sorenson was a left-hander--Sorenson had met him with his sword in his right hand and switched just as he had launched his attack. In guarding his left, like most right-handers fighting other right-handers, Connor had given Sorenson an opening to Connor's own right side.

Sorenson had taken it, stabbing him in his shoulder--it had hurt Connor throughout the rest of the fight and was responsible for most of the blood on his clothes. But Sorenson had a weakness, which he had evidently been too arrogant to correct. He had been so fast and strong that he frequently over-reached, putting himself off-balance, counting on his speed to save him. Connor had seen it, and when Sorenson left himself open, Connor had moved in and taken the kill.

And now Sorenson wouldn't be tricking anyone else with that little right-hand/left-hand move, he thought, smiling a little with satisfaction. But he'd want to work on fighting left-handers, find someone to spar with--

His thought sheared off as he caught a line from the old man's radio. "...lost all communication with the lunar base--" The old man shut the radio off. Connor felt his heart start to race. He leapt up, ran down the aisle, and leaned into the old man's face, invading his space, deliberately intimidating him. "Turn it back on!" he shouted.

"Sure, sure, mister, whatever you say." The old man shrank back and handed the radio to Connor. Impatiently, he turned it back on.

"--All efforts are under way at this time to re-establish communication with the base. And in other news--" Connor punched the tuner relentlessly, trying to find another station, more news. He could hardly hear the speaker, his heart was pounding so loudly.

He searched his limited store of knowledge about the lunar base, trying to make sense of the scraps of news he'd heard. All he could remember was that the base had been in constant contact since the hugely hyped landing on July 20. But even though he'd felt compelled to listen to the triumphant broadcasts from the base, he'd mostly watched for Jill's face, listening for her voice in the interviews. He didn't know much about the actual workings of the base. Or what this loss of communications meant.

"...more on the unconfirmed reports of the apparent lunar base disaster as we get the story..."

Disaster, Connor thought. Oh, no. Oh, Jill. The image of her face suddenly leapt into his mind, and he stood for a moment, distracted, frozen in the memory.

He punched the tuner some more, but there wasn't anything else. Maybe if he could find a TV somewhere...The train came to a stop. He thrust the radio back into the hands of the cowering old man, hurried out of the car, and ran up the first set of exit steps to street level.

Looking around hurriedly, trying to find somewhere nearby he could get some news, he saw a bar. He walked in and took a seat with a direct view of the TV hanging over the bartender's head.

"Glenmorangie on the rocks," he told the bartender, to give himself the right to sit there. Then he focused his attention on the TV, which was showing stock footage of the lunar base. The voiceover said, "...lost with the lunar base at about 9:41 Eastern time this morning. It's believed that two astronauts were--"

"Hey, turn that crap off and give us some chicks," one of the customers yelled to the bartender. The bartender reached up, and changed the channel. Two women's naked bodies appeared on the screen.

Connor leaned over the bar. He gave the bartender his coldest glare. "Change it back," he said sharply. "I wanna see the news."

The bartender started to shake his head. Then he looked closely at Connor's eyes. "Uh, you got it, buddy." He reached up and changed the channel back.

"Oh, jeezus," somebody complained.

Connor ignored it.

"...high radiation could seriously endanger the lives of any crew out on the surface. As we said, it is believed that two of the lunar base crew were outside at the time the flare hit. But all communications with the base have been lost. It's not clear at this time just how serious the damage is, or if there have been any injuries. We'll have more for you on this breaking story as it develops."

Connor pulled his wallet out, drew out a bill, and dropped it on the counter. He needed to get home, he thought. He walked outside. Where was he now? he wondered distantly. Some remote part of his mind noted the street names, and, without thinking, he started walking towards Hudson Street.

He walked for blocks, not noticing the distance or his tiredness. All he could see were alternating images of the lunar base and Jill's face, back in Houston, when she had told him how much she loved going into space.

Which two of the lunar base crew were out on the surface when the flare hit? Why didn't they have the names? he thought angrily. Couldn't they keep track of things like that?

Hardly aware of his surroundings, operating on instinct, he navigated the streets and the subways until he could get home, where he sank into his couch. He couldn't have stopped her from going, he knew that. But he didn't have to send her away without a word. With only his denial that he wanted anything from her.

If she died on the moon, he wondered, would they leave her there? Would she be lost...dead, but endlessly reviving, only to die again and again? Alone? Forever? Without hope of rescue? He shuddered. Connor couldn't imagine anything more horrible.

|||||||||||||||||||||

September 30, 2008

Southeastern wall of Amundsen crater

Lunar South Polar Basin

9:09 a.m. Houston time (Lunar base time)

"How much time's left?" Jill asked, stopping the rover, touching her helmet to Muir's.

Muir opened and closed his fingers three times.

Thirty minutes, Jill thought, smiling a little at his economical gesture. The 60 minutes between gammas and solar cosmic rays was just an approximation. She looked at the rocky, uneven ground in front of them. Another two or three kilometers to go before they'd have the shelter of the wall. Back on flat ground in Houston, it would have been a snap. Here, hampered by suits and struggling for footing, it would be a race.

Muir divvied up the four spare oxygen canisters between them. As they started walking, Jill in the lead, she calculated that they each had a little less than seven hours of oxygen--slightly less than one in the canisters they were wearing and three in each of the others.

She looked left towards the base. Two hours to get over there. Maybe...another half hour to get to the wall? And a half hour back? They could stay behind the wall for three hours, max, before they'd be choosing between the flare particles and suffocation. She hoped three hours would be enough for the cosmic ray stream to die down.

Jill kept fighting the urge to duck invisible particles. Muir, crouching, too, was evidently having the same trouble.

They trudged across the moon's surface, sweating, panting. Don't jump, Jill told herself. The footing was too dangerous for it. Avoid the rocks. Step here. Step there. Was that a shadow or a boot-sized crater? Watch the rocks. Walk, don't rush. She let it become a calming ritual.

Muir tapped her, leaned over. "We've got 15 minutes, tops," the geologist said.

Jill looked up. A little less than half-way left. She struggled to pick up the pace. Avoid the rocks. Walk, don't jump, don't rush. Step. Step. Shadow or crater?

Suddenly, Jill couldn't see. She was standing in a pool of darkness so complete she felt like she'd gone blind. She blinked, then realized they had made it. They were in the shadow of the wall.

Safe.

At last.

First, to business. They quickly changed out their nearly-depleted oxygen tanks, then ran through a quick checklist to make sure everything was intact, their suit integrity was still good...all the routines that made even emergencies endurable.

Then they settled up against a little alcove, trying to get comfortable. It was cold, Jill thought, here in the shadow of the crater wall. But it was protection. She moved a couple of rocks out of the way and scooped a little hollow in the soil for her hip to rest in.

Jill hadn't had much time to feel anything but the urgency to reach the crater wall. Now, safe in its shadow, she could feel her heart pounding. She was afraid for Muir, she knew that. But, she admitted to herself, she was also afraid for herself. Dying out here wouldn't be very pleasant. She tried to imagine what dying and reviving over and over would be like, and decided not to think about it.

Connor wouldn't do that, she thought. He'd face whatever was in front of him, no matter how hard it was. That was the second time she'd thought of him today. Despite her best efforts, she hadn't been able to push Connor out of her mind, leave him behind. He kept haunting her here on the moon, even now, during this emergency. Well, perhaps it was appropriate. Connor was good to have around in emergencies...he always seemed to know what to do.

After a moment, she touched her helmet to Muir's. "How'd we do on exposure?"

"Five minutes, maybe ten," Muir said.

Jill gave Muir a thumbs-up gesture. That wasn't bad, she thought. The little digital radiation counters they wore on their suits told the real story. She looked at Muir's. It was a tranquil green. Hers would be too. They could tolerate considerably more radiation before they'd be in the danger zone. But there was still the two-plus hour race to the base. Of course, she thought, it didn't really matter how much exposure she got. She wouldn't be hurt. It was an odd feeling, to know that with certainty, she would survive. But she had no desire to be discovered, and she wanted to make sure they didn't run out of oxygen before they got back to the base.

Jill touched her helmet to Muir's. "We need to do a little planning, Jonathan. I'm thinking maybe we shouldn't wait three hours. We'll need an oxygen reserve for the trip back."

Muir nodded. "I agree. Breathing is a good idea. How about two hours?"

That would give them an extra hour's worth of oxygen, Jill knew. It was a balancing act between the cosmic rays and breathable air.

"Okay," she said. It was tiring, trying to project her voice so Muir could hear her through his helmet. But the silence was worse. She wished the suit radios hadn't been fried when the gamma radiation had hit.

Well, no point in wishing.

She went on, "In two hours, we'll head back for the rover, exactly the way we came. We can walk in our footprints...we won't be blazing a trail--it'll be faster than before. Then ride the rover back."

Muir gestured a thumbs-up.

"We'll have to watch the radiation badges," Jill added.

Muir raised his eyebrows. "Doesn't matter."

"What?"

Muir looked at Jill for a long moment. Then he said, quite loudly, "We'll get a concentrated dose for two, three hours, Jill. No matter what."

Jill wrapped her arms around her knees and thought about how too much radiation could end their careers as astronauts.

And would that matter? What if her career was over? (Connor had said, "If you keep your head, you may get what you want, if not quite the way you want it.") Jill could feel her pulse speed up as she began to get a glimpse of something she'd been trying desperately not to see.

"I don't want to give it up," Jill whispered. "Not yet."

Muir tapped his helmet at his ears, raised his eyebrows.

A little embarrassed, she said, louder, "I'm not giving up. I want to go to Mars."

Now the geologist tilted his head back to look up at the sky. He pointed to a red star hanging high over the western wall of the crater.

Mars, Jill realized.

Muir pointed to himself, back at the planet.

His meaning was clear, Jill thought. He wanted to go to Mars, too.

They smiled at each other through their faceplates, linked by a common dream.

"What do you want to do when you get there?" she asked him curiously.

"Sample Olympus Mons. Or Valles Marineris," he said. "Fantastic geology."

Jill smiled at his passion. "I want to find water. Or Martians. Or some more bacteria."

Muir said, "Canals?"

Jill laughed. He was referring to the mythical Martian canals which had spawned so many dreams and fictions. "Yeah, definitely--canals."

They both were silent for a moment. ("The moon, and maybe Mars, are all I'll ever get in my lifetime," she had told Connor.)

Finally, curious again, she said, "What was your plan?" Every astronaut in the program had a plan, a strategy for making it to Mars. It was almost a religion with them. However, religion was more certain than crew assignments, and they all also knew that.

Muir smiled ruefully. "Do the moon a couple of times. I'd be the world's expert on planetary geology. They'd have to take me along."

She nodded. That made as much sense as anything else she'd heard.

"But they won't take me along if it's going to kill me," Muir said.

("Jill, there's a lot more than a trip to the moon at stake here," Duncan had said.) Yes, Jill thought. Muir's life was at stake. But what did she have at stake here? The glimpse, the thing she was trying not to see, was getting closer. She could feel it.

"We're gonna get there as fast as we can," she told Muir.

"The badges will be red when we get back."

"You don't know that, Jon."

"Even if they're not, we'll still have more exposure than anybody else in the corps. You think that'll make us good risks for Mars?"

Slowly, dispassionately, Muir said, "I may not even get back to the moon." He picked up a handful of the lunar soil and let it trail through his fingers. Then he tapped his radiation badge. "It all depends on this." And he smiled wryly at her.

"Me, too," Jill said. But, she thought, for her, it did not depend on the badge. She was not limited to one trip in her lifetime. Now it was more than a glimpse.

"I'd have really liked to have seen Olympus Mons," Muir said, a note of finality in his tone.

She looked at Mars, hanging in the sky above her. (Connor had said, "Jill, I am nearly 500 years old...who knows where you may be able to go in 500 years?")

It seemed as though a gap had suddenly opened between her and Muir. Linked by a common dream just a little while ago, there was a chasm between them now. An unseparable chasm of time and opportunity.

Muir's career could well be over, his one chance to see Mars gone.

Forever.

That was the difference between her and Muir. With a mixture of dread and elation, she saw at last the thing she had been avoiding.

For her, it didn't matter if her career was over. She could retire. Wait. Take a new identity. Then in 50 years or a hundred, she could go to Mars, or... ("I always wanted to get to the stars, really...")

Nothing that she lost here mattered. She had choices. She had...time. And she realized that, no matter whether she was grounded by NASA or not, she was through with the space program.

Because it was clear now. She had a new career.

Immortality.

||||||||||||||||||

CHAPTER 10

October 1, 2008

Seacouver, 12:30 a.m.

Duncan thought that Connor must have been sitting right next to his private phone line, even at 3:30 a.m. New York time, since he picked it up on the first ring. At least he got an answer, Duncan thought. He'd tried to reach Connor several times since the accident occurred, without any luck.

"Hello," Connor said, his voice hoarse.

"Connor, you heard?"

"What little there is to hear. Just that she was out on the surface when the flare erupted. All this technology...and nobody knows a damn thing..."

Connor sounded angry, Duncan thought. His friend usually masked worry with anger.

"Did you ever talk to her before she went?"

"No. She came to New York. And she talked, but I..." Connor sighed.

Duncan thought of several choice comments to make about his cousin's stubborn pigheadedness, but decided this wasn't a good time.

There was a long silence. Finally, Duncan said, "She called me a couple of times to ask about you, you know." He couldn't help letting a slight accusatory tone slip into the words.

Duncan could hear Connor breathing, slowly.

Finally, ignoring the accusatory tone, Connor said, as if the words were being dragged out of him, "No, I didn't know. What did she say?"

"She said she needed to know you were all right." And that you wouldn't talk to her, Duncan thought to himself.

"Anything else?"

"Yeah. She wanted to know everything that you were doing, how you were. She really missed you."

"She could be the last Immortal. Did you know that?"

"What?" Connor's words were so irrelevant that Duncan wondered if he was even paying attention.

"If she dies up there. She won't really be dead. Just endlessly reviving and dying, over and over again. Forever. And no way to get to her. Imagine what that would do to The Game."

Connor chuckled mirthlessly.

And suddenly, Duncan got a glimpse of what his old friend had been visualizing since communications with the base had ceased. Duncan had worried that Jill might be hurt or discovered. But he hadn't considered this kind of nightmare. And he realized that Connor sounded exhausted. His voice was absolutely flat.

"Connor...when was the last time you got some sleep?"

"I don't know. Two or three days, I guess. Let's see, when did I kill Sorenson?"

"You took Ingmar Sorenson's head?"

"Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that. That was...yesterday morning...and I was hunting him the previous day and night...then after I finally killed him, I heard about the base...and that was yesterday morning too, wasn't it? What did you ask me, Duncan?"

"Why don't I come out to New York? We'll wait it out together. I'll be on the next flight out."

And it was a measure of Connor's fatigue and sorrow, Duncan thought, that he didn't even argue. "All right. I'll be here."

||||||||||||||||

September 30, 2008

Southeastern wall of Amundsen crater

Lunar South Polar Basin

11:00 a.m. Houston time (Lunar base time)

"It's been two hours, Jon," Jill said. "We might as well go for it, as soon as we change oxygen."

The geologist nodded.

They exchanged oxygen canisters for the fresh ones--their last fresh ones. That gave them three hours of fresh oxygen in these tanks, with a little margin. The last tanks still had an hour left--they wanted to change before they left so they wouldn't have to stop on the way and endure more minutes of cosmic ray exposure. Each of the other used canisters still had a few minutes of oxygen left, and because they might need every minute, they took those too.

They headed back for the rover, which Jill had previously driven as far southwest as she could to still allow them to get to the crater wall's shelter by foot. They followed the same routine out as they had in: stepping carefully, watching for rocks, craters, and shadows. As Jill had thought, they could step in their old footprints this time, and it did make the going a little faster.

They reached the rover after about a half-hour.

"Straight-line path from here," Jill said, pointing towards the base, located a little south and west of Amundsen.

Muir climbed on the rover, taking the right seat. He pulled out their detailed terrain map. "I'll let you know about craters and boulders and anything else ASAP," he said.

Jill nodded. She would also try to stay in the shadows as much as possible. The more time they spent hidden from the sun, the more they could limit their exposure to the cosmic rays. She started the rover and drove carefully across the rocky, rough terrain. The eroded region they were in stretched most of the rest of the way to the base, and she couldn't drive as fast as she wanted to for fear of disabling the rover.

"Two-meter crater coming up on the left," Muir commented.

Jill swerved gently to the right.

"One-meter boulder on the right."

Jill drove to the left.

They proceeded like that, as the minutes passed, Muir calmly noting the obstacles, Jill driving around them, zigzagging as she tried to stay in the shadowed patches. It was a rough ride, and their helmets bumped together frequently as Muir leaned over to give her directions.

"How long have we been out here?" she asked after a while.

"'Bout 90 minutes," he said.

Another hour to the base, Jill thought. She took a quick look at Muir's badge. The tranquil green was gone, and it now shone yellow.

Riding through a pool of darkness about five meters long, the rover suddenly ground to a halt.

The two squinted at each other, their suit lights their only illumination.

"Prob'ly a rock," Muir said, leaning into her.

She nodded.

They grabbed flashlights and carefully climbed down from the rover, using the beams to light their paths.

They walked around, peering under the rover, the beams of light darting around. After a moment, Muir waved to Jill from the left front wheel, where, sure enough, it had got caught on a rock.

Without a word, they began pushing and rocking the lightweight vehicle--it only weighed a few hundred pounds here on the moon--and after a few moments and some grunts, they dislodged it. They pushed it till it was completely clear, and got back on.

"How long did that take?" Jill asked.

"'Bout ten minutes."

Ten minutes here, ten minutes there, Jill thought. It could add up. They'd have to be more careful, not get stuck any more.

She drove on, a little slower now.

After a few minutes, she glanced up to find him watching her, smiling ruefully.

"We're gonna make it, Jon," she said, clanging their helmets together a little painfully, trying to ignore her developing headache. Muir probably had one by now, too.

He nodded, said, "It's the part after that that's a little iffy."

The terrain had smoothed out a little, and Jill picked up speed. She was acutely conscious of Muir's badge, more so than her own. He deserved his trip to Mars, she thought.

Muir continued to give her directions and warnings, calmly, trying not to bang Jill's helmet too hard with his, and she drove on across the moon. It all had a feeling of surrealism to her, Jill thought. She just wanted to get it over with and get back to the base.

She looked towards the sun. She didn't feel a need to duck it anymore. That had been a consequence of her lingering sense of mortality, and that was gone now. The sun couldn't hurt her. But she took in the scene, because she wanted to remember it. She might not be back this way for a long time, and she wanted to store the image.

The sun hung eternally on the horizon, casting long, sharp shadows, creating an endless twilight here at the moon's south pole. The Earth hung higher in the sky, and a few bright stars could be seen. The terrain around her was alien...gray and black, with dots of pink, blue, and purple. There was color on the moon, she knew. But even today's cameras couldn't capture it. You had to be here to see it. And she had. She had fulfilled her dream of being first to return to the moon. She could put this behind her now.

Muir tapped her.

She glanced over at him. He was pointing ahead. There was the base. Another 20 minutes, and they'd be there.

"How are we doing on oxygen?" she asked him.

"Fine." But he was smiling at her again, a dry, ironic smile. He tapped his badge.

Jill looked at it. It was pale pink, and brightening as she watched, getting redder.

Muir wasn't going to make it to Mars, Jill realized. Their eyes met.

"I'm sorry, Jon," she said.

He nodded, shrugged, waved towards the base.

The simple shrug spoke volumes to her. It was all the sign he was going to give, she knew. No tears. No complaints. Just a simple shrug to mark the end of the dream of his one mortal lifetime.

She drove on for the base.

||||||||||||||||

October 1, 2008

New York, 9:30 a.m.

Duncan had taken the first flight out of Seacouver he could get to New York, a red-eye. He knocked on Connor's door, half-expecting his old teacher to be sound asleep. Connor opened the door though, and Duncan immediately noticed the black smudges of tiredness under his eyes, the drawn expression.

"Come in, Duncan. Good to see you. Something to drink?" Connor waved vaguely in the direction of the bar.

"No, thanks. It's a little early in the morning for that."

"Is it?" Connor said absently. The TV was on, and Connor had the remote in his hand. He was flipping from channel to channel, stopping wherever there was a news broadcast.

"Connor," Duncan said. Then, a little more sharply, since it didn't seem Connor heard him the first time, "Connor."

"What?"

"Look, I'm here now. Why don't you get some sleep? I'll wake you if there's any news."

"Yeah, all right," Connor said. He handed the remote to Duncan and headed for his bedroom. At the door, he turned and said, "Wake me for anything, Duncan. Good or bad."

"I will."

||||||||||||||||

October 2, 2008

New York, 8:30 a.m.

Connor had crashed right after Duncan's arrival the previous morning. And now, nearly 24 hours later, he was still sound asleep, tangled in the blankets and sheets.

Duncan knew, with a deep sense of satisfaction, that Connor wouldn't have slept like that, so soundly, deeply, and vulnerably, with any other Immortal around but himself. Except perhaps a lover, he corrected.

Now Duncan stood in Connor's doorway, well across the room, and called his teacher. "Connor! Wake up! It's me, Duncan!"

(...in the camp, shaking Connor awake on the first morning after Connor had found him, Duncan didn't see the fist that knocked him sprawling, nor the blade coming for his throat in the terrifying instant it took Connor to recognize him...

Connor jerked to wakefulness, then, realizing it was Duncan, he relaxed. He ran his hands through his hair, swallowed a couple of times. His mouth tasted vile, and his eyes were still bleary from sleep.

"There's some news," Duncan said. "They've re-established contact with the base."

"Why didn't you wake me up?"

"I did," Duncan said in an aggrieved tone. "They just announced it."

"Is there any news of Jill?"

Duncan shook his head. "Not yet. All I know is that the base has started broadcasting again."

Connor got up and put on a robe. Slowly, he followed Duncan out to the living room, wondering if the news he was about to hear would confirm his worst fears. He wasn't sure what he would do if he heard that Jill had died up there. There would be nothing he could do to get her back, he thought grimly, short of revealing his own Immortality and thus putting them all at risk. And he could never do that.

The picture on the TV was grainy and filled with static. Connor squinted at it. Now what? he thought. He started to adjust it, but Duncan said, "No, that's the way it is. It's a low-power broadcast or something."

"Live from the moon," a caption at the bottom of the screen informed them.

The scene showed the interior of the lunar base habitat, where the crew was hurrying around in the background. This obviously wasn't a staged performance, Connor thought, as he sat on the edge of his chair, leaning forward intently, looking for Jill in the view. But he didn't see her, and his heartbeat sped up. Where was she?

Why couldn't he see her?

A man's face was on the screen, looking right into the camera. Another caption informed them that he was Pieter van Horn, lunar base commander. He was saying, "...ECLSS system checklist. CO2-Filters, nominal, spares, ample. Potable water, nominal. Wastewater recovery sufficient. Regeneration subsystem..."

"What are they doing, Duncan? Do you know?"

Duncan shrugged. "I have no idea. I came and got you right away."

Connor shook his head at Duncan, feeling his anxiety mount as the broadcast continued with no sign of Jill--just this van Horn character, prattling off an endless stream of incomprehensible technical jargon. "Why doesn't he speak English? Why can't he just tell us if they're all right or not?"

Van Horn continued, "Houston, C& T checklist. Prime--failed. Comlink relays exposed to flare--failed. Spares have been deployed for direct line-of-sight transmission to Earth..."

"Base, we'd like a summary of crew health status and detailed data as soon as possible."

Van Horn nodded and said, "Houston, only MacCormick and Muir were EVA during the flare. They were able to take shelter in Amundsen Crater, but received a redline dose during return to base. However, tests are all negative at this time. We are sending you a downlink with detailed medical data, as soon as we finish this broadcast."

At the word "MacCormick," Connor jerked forward, almost out of his chair. "What is he saying about Jill?"

"I don't know. Something about the flare."

"What is EVA?" He was frustrated by his ignorance. He wished he had asked Jill more about this when they were together. But it had never occurred to him that he wouldneed to know.

"Beats me."

"Well, is she all right or not?"

Suddenly, Jill's voice said, "Houston, ready to start EPS checklist." Then her face appeared on the screen.

Connor felt relief flood through him. She was all right! Alive and well! He stared at her, willing this image of her face to replace the nightmare vision that had haunted him ever since the base had lost communications. He muttered, "Thank God," then cursed as the picture broke up. "Can't they fix that?" he said.

The grainy picture re-established itself, and he watched as Jill read off the screen of a small computer she was holding. She said, "Reactor one," followed by a series of names and numbers, none of which meant anything to either of the two men. Connor listened as though he was trying to memorize every incomprehensible word she said.

Duncan could read the relief in Connor's face, which was anything but impassive at this moment. He said, "She's alive and she looks okay. I think we should celebrate."

Connor glanced at a clock. "Isn't it a little early for drinking?"

"Who said anything about drinking? Let's celebrate with some breakfast. I'll cook bacon and pecan waffles, if you've got the ingredients. You go ahead and watch the news."

Connor smiled at him, the warm smile of kinship reserved strictly for Duncan. "Sure, I'm hungry."

While Duncan moved around in the kitchen, Connor watched intently as the camera began panning around the interior of the habitat, instead of focusing on van Horn. Every few minutes, Connor would see Jill, intent on her computer and readouts, and Connor found himself waiting for those moments. The talk stayed technical, with acronyms and numbers flying, and he couldn't follow any of it.

Duncan brought trays out and the two men ate as they watched and listened.

"It's like another language," Connor complained, finishing off his sixth waffle. "You got any more of those, Duncan? Your cooking has improved over the years."

Duncan laughed. Jill appeared to be all right, and undiscovered. And Connor was back to normal--rested, hungry, irritable, and throwing out left-handed compliments. "I think there are a couple more in the kitchen."

On the TV, Mission Control spoke again. "Base, when you have completed stabilizing all systems, we want to begin evacuation procedures."

van Horn's face suddenly looked a little pinched. "Houston, we believe we can complete our mission."

"Base, C&T has lost primary *and* secondary redundancy, two other systems have lost secondary redundancy, and crew health is an issue. Mission management and planners concur that the combined risk is unacceptable. Please stabilize all systems within two days, at which point we would like to proceed with evacuation."

"Evacuation--they're telling them to come home, right?" Connor said. "They must think it's too dangerous for them to stay."

Duncan said, "Yeah. That's what it sounds like to me. They could be back on Earth in a few days."

"A few days..." Connor echoed. She could be home...this could all be over in a matter of days. And he could go to her. He could see her...once again, his heart began beating rapidly.

On the TV, van Horn looked around at the rest of the crew, whose hurried activities had suddenly stopped.

"We copy that, Houston," van Horn said in a resigned tone. "We'll proceed with stabilization and shutdown procedures."

"And we copy that, Base. We will transmit launch parameters."

After a moment, the picture changed to a man in a business suit at a podium. "NASA spokesperson," the caption read.

"Ladies and gentlemen, as you have just heard, the lunar base crew has been given instructions that they're to evacuate the base and return to Earth. We expect them to begin their return in a couple of days. Everyone at the base is alive and well. We'll take your questions now."

"I never thought I'd be grateful to hear a PR flack," Connor said ruefully. "At least I can understand what he's saying."

Duncan nodded. "Well, it's a dirty job, but..."

The camera panned around to show a roomful of reporters. One stepped up to a microphone. "Will the crew come straight back to Houston?"

"No, they'll remain at the Cape for at least a month, undergoing tests and evaluations. After that, they'll be going home."

"What about the two astronauts who were out on the surface?" another reporter asked.

"That was Jill MacCormick and Jonathan Muir. They were out on the surface and did get exposure, evidently several hours' worth. They appear to be in good health at this point. We'll know more when we receive the medical downlink from the base and after we've been able to check them out here."

"In good health!" Connor said. "So she is all right. They finally said so." He turned the sound down and looked at Duncan. But his expression was absent, as if Connor wasn't really seeing him. "And she could be back in Houston in a month or so," he added, remembering her face, radiant in the moonlight as they sat on her deck more than three years ago.

"Yeah," Duncan said. "What are you going to do when she comes home?"

"Hmmm?"

"I said, what are you going to do when she comes home?"

"I'm going to be there," Connor said. "I'm going to get her back."

|||||||||||||||

November 12, 2008

Houston, TX, 1 p.m.

With a strong feeling of deja vu, Connor entered the Space Center Houston auditorium. He was two hours early, but the auditorium was already half-full of people. He'd been warned that the place would be packed, and as he looked around, he thought that they hadn't been kidding. He was glad he'd arrived early. There were still a few seats open near the front, where he wanted to sit to make sure that Jill could see him. He didn't want the buzz of an Immortal she couldn't see to frighten her.

He sat and thought about seeing her again, what he wanted to say, what he hoped would happen. She would be angry, he thought. Just how angry was the question. He had been his coldest, his most forbidding when she had come to New York. And she was proud. Just as he was. Getting her back wouldn't be a simple matter of opening his arms and expecting her to run to him. But he was determined not to go away alone. He wasn't going to let New York repeat itself in reverse. Not this time. Even if he had to swallow some of his pride.

By the time the crew filed onto the stage, the auditorium had reached standing room only. Connor felt Jill's buzz well before he could see her. When she walked out, he saw her shade her eyes from the glare of the stage lights and peer into the crowd. He gazed at her, taking in the reality of her presence here, knowing that she was only a few meters away from him now, safe and within reach. ("...a quarter of a million miles is a long way to go, unforgiven.")

She was still looking into the crowd, frowning slightly, and he realized that between the lights in her eyes and the number of people, she couldn't see him. He stood up and she caught his movement. Their eyes met, and he gave her his warmest smile, his best smile of welcome, of love. Her eyes widened in surprise, but she didn't return his smile. Then she looked away, and Connor sighed.

When Jill felt the presence of an Immortal, her first thought was that it must be Connor. A motion to her right caught her eye and she turned. It was Connor! He was smiling at her, warmly, the loving smile she remembered from Seacouver, before she'd tricked him and hurt him.

Conflicting emotions flooded her. Joy at seeing him again, at knowing that he was alive and well and that he had come here to see her. Anger and humiliation at the three years he had punished her, at the way he had treated her in New York. His smile was welcoming, but that conflicted with what he had told her, how he had treated her. She had no idea what to expect from him.

As Connor stood watching her, trying to guess what she was thinking, someone behind him yelled, "Hey, siddown buddy. We can't see through you, you know!"

He sat down. He waited through the crew's speeches, not too interested in what they had to say, until Jill stood up. Then he leaned forward, intent.

"Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me thank you for being here and for showing your support by coming out today. It's an honor to be here myself and I'm very happy to have this opportunity to tell you about Lunar Base One." She launched into a brief explanation of some of the scientific work she had done on the moon.

Connor listened, seeking to understand what this meant to her now--if her experience on the moon had changed her feelings or if she meant to continue.

As Jill spoke, she looked out into the crowd, at all the faces assembled there to hear their "returning hero" speeches. Five years ago, she thought, this would have meant everything to her. But now, it was simply part of the things she had to do to finish this part of her life, before she could move on. She already felt like she was a thousand miles away. She read the words she'd carefully scripted, trying to inject sincerity and feeling into them.

Jill finished her scripted words. She said, "I'll take questions from the audience now."

Hands went up, and Jill selected one at random. It was a young man. He walked up to one of the microphones standing in the aisle and asked, "What was it like on the moon, Dr. MacCormick? Especially when you and Dr. Muir were out during the flare?"

"That's a very easy question to answer," she said, thinking back to her time on the moon. "At the poles, the sun circles the sky just at the horizon all the time. It never rises or sets. It's very eerie and literally unearthly. The shadows are long and very sharp--it's either absolutely dark or absolutely bright. No 'dim' areas like on Earth."

Connor watched her look up, her face taking on a faraway look. ("...it's so beautiful, Connor...")

"The lunar landscape is totally different from almost anything we have on Earth. I already mentioned the contrasts between light and dark. The prevailing color is gray, but if you look closely at the soil, you can see colors. Even modern cameras can't pick up the color--it gets bleached out by the bright sunlight--but it's there. Pink, blue, purples, and other shades as well. You can only see that when you go there, and I'm very glad I got the chance to go."

"When Jon and I were out on the surface, of course we were mostly concerned about reducing our exposure to the flare. But even then, it was impossible not to notice the grandeur, the strangeness of the landscape. It's the greatest adventure you can imagine, seeing another planet, walking on its surface. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Connor watched her closely. This was one of the things he had come to find out. He saw now that he had never understood how much she loved it. He wasn't sure how to accommodate such a life, but he was willing to try.

Jill smiled at the young man. "I hope that answers your question for you."

The young man nodded. Jill took a couple of other questions about her work and the solar flare. Then she took her seat.

After the speeches were over and the crew was standing on the stage, talking to people as they came up, Connor pushed his way through the crowd and got to Jill. "We need to talk," he said.

She nodded. "All right," she said. "Meet me at home in an hour."

||||||||||||||||||

November 12, 2008

Houston, TX, 6 p.m.

When Connor drove his car up to Jill's house, she was sitting outside, waiting for him. He got out, carrying the box he'd brought, walked over to her. He put the box down on the step next to her. She was so close now. He could touch her if he wanted to, and he did want to. But he didn't know how she would take it, so he kept his hands at his sides. Looking at her greedily, drinking in her presence, he said, as warmly, as gently, as lovingly as he could, "Welcome home, Jill."

Ignoring the package he'd placed next to her, she stood up, facing him. This didn't seem like the cold, bitter, vindictive man she had left in New York, the man who had given her nothing, the man who had turned her away. This seemed like the man she had loved. Had loved? Did she still love him? She wasn't sure any more. She had lived with the image of his cold expression, his rejection, for so long that she could hardly remember anything else. "Connor, why are you here? What do you want?"

"I came to get you back, Jill."

There it was, she thought. A simple, bald statement from the most complex man she'd ever met. And then she felt her fury rise. He wanted her back? After the punishment he'd given her, the silence, the rejection? She cocked her head sideways at him. She said, "You want me back, Connor? Didn't you tell me in New York, when practically begged you on my knees to take me back, that you didn't want anything from me?"

He heard the cold anger in her voice and closed his eyes for a moment. Now his question was answered, he thought ruefully. She was very angry. Then he opened his eyes and looked straight into hers.

"Yes, I said that," he said. He swallowed, remembering his promise to himself about his pride. This was going to be hard. But he had to say it, to give her this. Or lose her forever. And he already knew what that felt like, when he thought she had died on the moon. "But it wasn't true. I was wrong to say it. I know that now. I'm...sorry, Jill."

"You're sorry! Isn't that what I told you in New York? That I was sorry, when I asked you to forgive me? And what did you tell me? Or rather, what didn't you tell me, you stone-cold bastard. You sent me away without a single goddamned word, Connor. Why should I feel any differently? Why shouldn't I tell you to get the hell out of here?"

Connor's mouth worked for a moment, as he tried to absorb her fury and think of what to say to get through to her. "Just listen to me, please. Look, I know I was wrong to turn you away for so long--"

"Three years!"

"Yes--"

"That one night was not worth three years of total rejection, not after what we had before it. You should have lightened up, Connor, and you should never have sent me away. And you could have at least picked up the phone when I called you in July."

"I did, Jill, I did pick it up, but--"

She looked at him dubiously. "When? I never heard you."

"You had already hung up. And I couldn't get through--the NASA operator told me it was an outgoing line only. Jill, I did pick it up. I wanted to talk to you, to tell--"

"You did, huh?"

"Yes. To tell you--"

"What did you want to say?"

"Let me finish a sentence, and I'll tell you!"

"Go ahead. I'm listening."

She sat down, looking up at him, giving him her full attention, and he suddenly realized he didn't know what to say.

"I'm waiting," she said, after a moment.

He swallowed and squatted down in front of her, so she wouldn't be looking up at him. "Look, Jill, when you...that last night in Seacouver..." he trailed off. This was much harder than he had thought it was going to be.

"I'm still waiting," she said coldly.

"All right. You lied to me. You betrayed me. You tricked me. And you used our lovemaking to do it, to delay telling me until the last moment that you were leaving." He remembered, again, the fury and the pain and the emptiness. He closed his eyes as it all washed over him, and his voice went hoarse with the memory. "And yes, I was hurt. I felt like I couldn't trust you, ever again. That's why I sent you away in New York. It was still too raw, too close."

Jill blinked as he opened his eyes and she saw the pain in them. A little of her fury drained away. "Oh, Connor...I never meant to hurt you that way. And that's why I kept calling you, why I came to New York. To tell you that. That I was sorry...but you wouldn't listen to me. You were so cold, so bitter, so unforgiving...you hardly said a word to me, except to tell me that you didn't want anything from me. And you wouldn't even answer my calls to let me know if you were alive or dead!" The fury had come back in full force at the disbelief that he couldn't even give her that.

"No, I couldn't, don't you see that? I've had so many losses...and each time they nearly kill me." He stood up abruptly and began pacing in front of her. He ran his hands through his hair, then squatted in front of her again, just as abruptly. Leaning in close to her, so close she could feel his breath on her face, he whispered, "You had already hurt me once...I couldn't risk it again..."

Once again, she felt her fury recede. His face was open, naked, flushed with the intensity of his emotion. He was holding nothing back from her. And he was looking at her, but she knew he was also seeing other faces from other times, faces that had passed into dust and ash.

"And then, when you called me, that last night, in July, I knew I didn't want you to go without telling you that I did forgive you, that I did love you, that I did want you back...but I was too late. I missed you, by seconds. By seconds." He clenched his fists, remembering.

"Then you went to the moon. I watched the broadcasts. To hear your voice. To watch you as you talked about your work. I never understood most of it, but I could see that it was a great adventure for you. And I could understand that. It's one of the reasons why I fell in love with you."

He stood up again and paced back and forth for a moment, and she knew that he was too agitated to sit still. He turned his head to look at the half-moon shining down on them. He stared at it for a moment. For inspiration? she wondered. Or perhaps courage?

Then he turned back to her, looking at her, at the moonlight illuminating her face. "And I missed you, Jill...the way you looked in the moonlight...the way you used to call me 'Obi-Wan'...how you looked at me when you wanted to make love to me...the way you never stopped competing with me...the way your hair flies around in the breeze from the Bay..."

He trailed off, and as if he couldn't help it, he squatted down in front of her again, reached out and twined his fingers in her hair. "Like that," he said, hoarsely, "like it's doing right now..." He let her hair go after a moment, dropped his hands.

Jill felt her anger, her bitterness, start to erode.

"And, oh, God, when I thought you were lost on the moon." His jaw tightened. "I imagined you'd died up there. That you'd be left behind, suffocating, dying, waking up, coming back to life, forever. Where nobody would ever find you. I was so afraid. I felt so helpless. I wanted you to come back."

Helpless, Jill thought. Afraid. Not words she'd have ever expected to hear from Connor MacLeod. And she'd had no idea he would be so worried for her. A little more of her fury evaporated.

He went on. "When the base started broadcasting again and I saw you, I felt as if I'd been holding my breath for days and I could finally breathe. I knew then that I wanted you back beside me Jill, whatever you need to live with me. Now I understand how much what you do means to you. I never should have tried to stop you. I won't fight you about being an astronaut anymore. Here." He pushed the package he'd brought across the step towards her. "I brought this for you."

She didn't take it. Instead, she gaped at him, at the torrent of words from a man who usually spoke in monosyllables, at the promise he had just given her. "You won't fight me about being an astronaut?"

"No. Please, take this." To be able to reach over to the box, Connor shifted his position so that he was on his knees in front of her.

He picked the box up and held it out to her, leaning close, eagerness and hope written on his face. Jill had a sudden image of a knight, kneeling, offering his love and loyalty to his lady.

Finally, she took the package he was holding out to her. She opened it and pulled out an antique astrolabe. The navigational instrument had clearly seen much use and had been very well cared for. She looked at him for a moment before she understood. "This was yours, wasn't it? When you were a sea-captain?"

He nodded. "Yes. I used it to steer my ships by the stars. It's yours, if you want it."

She laughed at the irony of it, of what his words would have meant three years ago, at his gift--the tangible symbol of his promise. She said, "Your sense of timing is impeccable, Connor."

"What?"

She saw his confusion. In a tired tone, absently stroking the astrolabe, running her fingers over the degree markings, she said, "I've resigned. I've given it up. It'll be announced in a few weeks."

Stunned, it was his turn to gape. "But you sounded...today...like it was a part of you. As if you could never leave it."

She tossed her head, watching the moonlight glint off the polished surfaces of the astrolabe. "It will always be a part of me. It always has been. I've wanted it as far back as I can remember. To go into space, to go to the moon, to Mars, as far as I could go. And when I got up there, it was just like I had always imagined. Another world! Strange, eerie, dangerous, beautiful...sharp shadows, harsh sunlight like you'll never see on Earth. And I was one of the first back! You were right. It was an adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

"Except that when I was stuck out there with Jon, I started to realize that it wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for me. When the flare hit, I was just as worried about my exposure as he was. But while we were back there behind that crater wall, talking about what we always wanted, I started to realize that, for Jon, it really was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. One the flare was going to take away from him. I saw that, whereas his radiation exposure was going to ground him forever, that he was out of time, I literally have all the time in the world."

"When we were racing back for the base, I could hardly keep my eyes off his radiation badge. Not mine. His. He wanted to go to Mars, to see Olympus Mons--the biggest shield volcano in the Solar System. But he never will. Never. He'll die without ever seeing it with his own eyes, because he is mortal. Because of what happened to him up there. And I realized that nothing I did up there, nothing that happened to me up there could keep me from seeing that one day, with my own eyes. I saw that I have choices, options, time, that none of the others have. And I realized I have no business taking up space that may be someone else's only opportunity. And," her voice dropped, "I have to learn how to be an Immortal. That's my career now." She set the astrolabe down on the step next to her and clasped her hands.

He looked at her closely. She had gone much further than he had realized. And he saw it wasn't from fear. She had seen, at last, what she was and what it meant. He also saw she was ready to at least accept it, if not quite embrace it.

Once again unable to resist the desire to touch her, he reached out and took her face in his hands, smoothing her hair back. "Jill, I want you back. I love you, and I need you."

She felt the tenderness in his touch, saw that he was waiting, without his armor, for whatever she wanted to say to him. Jill felt the last of her fury and bitterness dissolve. She looked into his open, undefended face and saw the love there. In that moment, she knew that she did still love him. And that Immortality would be so much easier to face with him.

She glanced down at his gift. She meant to keep it, to remind her of what he had offered her, though she no longer needed what it symbolized.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to call Duncan," she said. "To see if he has room for a student. But that's tomorrow." She smiled at him, then, a smile of love, welcome, forgiveness, homecoming. She touched his face. The face she had never thought to touch again. "Tonight, if I'm not mistaken, I have other plans."

"Yes, you do," Connor said, laughing a little from amazement and joy. He felt the ache, the emptiness inside him recede, diminish, disappear. She was going to come back to him. To stay, this time. He kissed her softly, embraced her. He kissed her again, more deeply, and she responded willingly.

The stars were coming out, but Jill didn't look at them. She picked up the astrolabe with one hand, and Connor took the other. She looked at the man beside her, at the love in his eyes. She had something new to steer her life by, she thought. Together, they walked into her house.

End

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