He came out of bed with a desperate lunge. Only a lifetime of training kept his lips clamped around the howl of rage and anguish, choking it down cloyingly in his throat even as he seized the handle of the katana. The same old nightmare had resurrected itself in another version and he stood by the dresser gasping for breath, his heart racing. The tears trailed down his cheeks, cooling paths upon the flushed skin.
A familiar face, dark as the night that held him, swam in and out of focus. Brutal visions of unthinkable, unspeakable acts of violence stamped themselves across the vista in his head. He knew he had heard not a single thing, but maniacal laughter, haunting as a specter, still rang in his ears ... a taunting voice that by its very sound harbored torture and death. The screaming of a man's voice, twisted with agony and fear echoed through his mind-the sound was mindless and animalistic with suffering.
The immortal felt his knees give out and he crashed to the floor in a heap, immediately vomiting on the tile near the closet door. He retched, head down and hunched over the spasms until there was nothing left to bring up. He didn't stop there, but continued the convulsive reaction; dry heaving until he trembled and had to lie down, miserably, in the slime.
"God help me," he whispered into the quiet room. He remained collapsed on the floor until the cramping ceased and then staggered to his feet to splash water in his face. He stared, hollow eyed and spooked, into the mirror above the basin.
The mess on the tile could wait. He padded downstairs and poured himself a drink, still unable to relinquish the sword gripped in his hand. The fog outside the bank of windows smeared the city lights eerily and it was a perfect reflection of the twisted dimensions conjured in his dreams.
It was like this almost every night right about this time of the year ... he fought it as only a man could: he drank, he paced, he stayed up all night and day until exhaustion felled him into sleep. This time he had hurt himself in that abrupt surge out of bed and he rotated his shoulder until the twinge of pain ceased.
How could he ever out-run this haunting of his mind? It was still too close, although it had happened more then a decade ago. The plague of unanswered questions, the guilt and blame returned with vengeance.
He paced, drink in one hand and sword in the other, wrestling through the same old regrets that served no purpose but which he was helpless to prevent. If it would not create more questions than it solved, he would get some therapy. He saw the remainder of his life stretching onward, blackened every time this anniversary rolled around, endlessly repeating the old trauma.
He wasn't even there!
He wasn't even there but his mind conjured the worst out of sheer imagination. The screaming bothered him most of all, the inhuman shrieking torn from a man laboring under unfathomable torment.
He shivered convulsively ... and was promptly ill again. Throwing up whisky was painful in the best circumstances. He hung his head and whimpered faintly through the acid bite of alcohol against fragile mucus membranes, the Scotch dribbling out of his nostrils.
But there was no one there to help him. There never had been. Even those who might know the truth of that terrible night were sworn to silence with codes as stringent as the ones that held immortals to their rules through thousands of years of combat.
Even if he could ask, he wouldn't know whom to ask ... and it was unthinkable to broach the question to person after person without getting to the truth. To reveal this personal private hell that hounded him doggedly only to be placated and the answer still held from him and kept secret.
He yelled. One hoarse expression of anguish and frustration that rang about the room swiftly and then faded.
He didn't have the strength to get back up this time. Two nights and days without sleep and pushing his body past his own limitations had caught up. He sidled himself away from the pool of whisky on the floor and huddled up feeling wretched. The faint light from the windows outlined the steel sword on the floor near him.
After a long time Connor grieved himself back to sleep, curled up piteously as if waiting for a blow to fall. His last thought was that he must wake up before anyone came and found him so forlornly on the floor.
Joseph Dawson prided himself on two things: the quality of music played in his bar and the character of people he called his friends. It was a lazy Thursday and the joint was anything but quiet. Dawson loved it like this ... and most surprising of all, the place was closed for the day!
Joe's bar was fairly bustling with people. Music throbbed from the stereo and raucous voices jostled to be heard over each other. The bearded man swung to his right, nearly colliding with Mrs. Soriano on her tenth trip out of the kitchen behind him. They both stopped abruptly and the dish of arroz con pollo would have hit the floor if Joe had not added one hand to the tray to steady it.
"Jesus, Laura, don't you think there's enough food out here already? We're going to be 'Watchers of our weight' instead of just 'Watchers' if you don't cease with the chow!" he protested with only half-hearted determination. He'd been friends with the dark-eyed Spanish lady for thirty years and knew exactly what she would be doing the whole time she was here...
Cooking. Tasting. Laughing over spoons that wandered away from the stove and others which found their way back. Each person seemed determined to have a sample of every dish before it arrived out where the party was. The silverware moved about industriously from one room to the next and rarely stayed where she left it. At one point everyone was in the kitchen; sticking fingers in gravy, filching pastries, lifting lids and otherwise being a nuisance until she drove them out with a spatula applied to their posteriors! The smell of sauteed peppers, onions and garlic enticed their senses.
"Aaah! Joseph! You almost wore that one!" she barked in mock horror, balancing the heavy paella. "You do look good in many things, but I don't think Spanish rice would be particularly attractive with that sweater."
"It smells wonderful! Did you add the scallops you ordered me to buy?" he twitted back.
"Of course, silly boy, and tossed in a few clams. Will you stop being so nosy about what's going on in the kitchen? You've tasted everything at least twice already!"
"Hey," he protested. "It's my kitchen."
"Not tonight it isn't, dear," she corrected. "I need some baskets for the rolls. Tell that ribald group to pull tables into one long one and move the candles to the center - we can have subtle lighting even if this group is as subtle as a mallet. Order Brandon to quit being a pest in everyone else's conversation and set up my electric wok in the center." She pattered off the words in a stream, dropping her R's as if she'd never left New England. "And make me a rum and coke if you actually want to be useful!"
She sailed around Dawson much more quickly than his artificial legs could move, leaving the bartender laughing and picking through the glassware to honor her last request first.
"Hiya, Joe," came a smooth voice across the top of the bar.
Joseph looked up into the face of Dawn Stuart, Research Division extraordinaire. "Hello, Dimples, how are you?" he shot back with alacrity.
"Here." She eyed him with a slight smile. "Still waiting for that CD from you, Joe."
"I've been busy!" he protested only half-hearted. "What are you drinking tonight?" As if it ever changed, he mentally chuckled. He was already reaching for the ginger ale.
"The usual. Is your head getting soft in your old age?"
"Not the last time I looked..." he laughed. "Glad you could make it."
"Wouldn't miss this for the world," she added, brown eyes alight. The dimple in her right cheek was plainly evident. She turned with her drink in hand to survey the room for an instant ... then wandered into the midst of the bustle and was met delightedly by the others.
Dawson had set this whole thing up in a rush only three days ago. His frantic phone calls at odd hours and pulling a few strings had managed to notify and reroute everyone in time. They had been headed to Colorado this year. He had convinced them that Seacouver was much more scenic, although that could be hotly debated. And he might very well need to debate it if this little game he was playing didn't bear fruit.
It was the day of a party, one held every year by this group of people. A very specific little knot of Watchers. Seldom and few were any others in the organization invited. He counted himself lucky to be included, based solely on a single connection.
"Duncan MacLeod," he said softly to himself.
At one time these were considered the best in the field, an elite bunch of hand-picked mortals keeping track of some of the wildest, not to mention wariest, combatants. All of them were well trained at espionage and uncanny in their ability to pierce through the veil shrouding immortals in mystery. They were so well studied to their specific targets that they could sometimes anticipate the next move and beat them to the site. Not a tactic often used, but handy when your man was particularly cunning and slippery.
Or unbelievably evil. Dawson shook his head, remembering the short concise narrative of one of the journals. How Stefan managed to stay so clear and sane watching the Kurgan was a mystery, especially in light of how watching the same man so totally deranged his brother-in-law that he took to slaying immortals to rid the world of their menace.
Dawson wondered, for the hundredth time, what would James Horton have been like had he only been watching someone else instead of the twisted inhumanity of the Kurgan?
"Someone like Duncan MacLeod?" Dawson said quietly under his breath. He sighed. Thinking about the 'what ifs' only made him melancholy and he had promised to not play any blues tonight for this group.
This is a party! We're not going to cry in our pretzels for you tonight, master Dawson, thank you very much. The group had said it to him almost in unison!
Some of this crowd had retired from fieldwork and were in translation and transcription. But a few still were on active duty, watching immortals wending their way through the world of men. Regardless of their present occupations, they kept in touch with each other and rendezvoused every year on this day. The location bounced around a lot, but they all came. Every one of them.
Dawson studied the group from behind his bar.
Stefan, still clinging to youth with his shoulder length curly hair, had a hand perpetually wrapped around his Pepsi. With the other he lobbed paper streamers to Tina who was perched ceiling height on a ladder. They both talked nonstop, catching up on news and gossip and the latest run of the Vikings. The petite Tina had to stretch to reach the light to hang the decorations, flipping her ash blonde hair back out of her eyes. Stefan, a true flirt, whistled at her curves and she threw a roll of blue paper at him ... followed by a glare of mock anger.
"Hey, don't hassle the help. She'll dump my ladder," called Dawson above the revelry. "You know how expensive those things are?"
"So? Take it out of my Watcher discount at the bar," adroitly called Stefan.
"What Watcher discount?"
"Didn't you make the last training? Geez, Joe, you're falling behind."
"Watchers who own food or alcohol establishments are obligated to extend to all fellow Watchers the same discount they apply to employees. Article 9, Section 22.8 of the revised standard code." Tina called the words from near the ceiling in a voice emphatic with legal authority.
Dawson overheard Laura Soriano chuckle at that perfect lawyer tone. She had worked with Tina when they were both on active duty. They caught each other's eyes briefly and the two women exchanged knowing smiles. There was one more person missing from the circle, perpetually tardy as usual. Then there would be three again, just like years ago.
"I'm here!" sounded a bright voice from the doorway and William strode inside, adorned head to foot in matching polyester blends. He was short and wiry and his hair had gone to white. The gray-blue eyes popped with alertness. "Hiya young 'un," he quipped smartly to Joe. "Pour me a root beer, will you?"
Dawson had to lean on the bar to laugh, nearly spilling the rum and coke he'd made for Laura and rolled his eyes at his friend's deliberately atrocious taste in clothing.
The greetings of old comrades, bound together by purpose and vision and a singular common denominator echoed in the bar. Tina practically squeaked and hugged the newcomer tightly. They looked into each other's faces for a moment-a swift exchange of memory.
"Here, here," toasted Stefan with his soda at the pair of them. "Never could figure out why you two didn't get hitched."
William laughed. "Tina couldn't stand my practical jokes and called me a smart ass."
"You are," she deadpanned.
"You ARE!" echoed the chorus of everyone else and the room broke into laughter.
Laura was next to join the little knot of Tina and William, winding her arms through theirs and forming a triangle. They were old friends and comrades; one time partners in a parallel game. They stood a moment and the cadence of voices simply streamed around their silence.
"Besides, we only had one thing in common," added Tina more kindly to the two of them.
"Yes," somberly agreed Laura. "Connor MacLeod."
"I'd drink to that if I had my root beer already!" called William boisterously over one shoulder, breaking the seriousness. "Dawson, you're losing your touch!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Root beer? He stocked some just for tonight ... so where the hell did it go? Laura didn't filch it for some dish she made, did she? You never could tell what she put in things, but they were always spectacular feasts at this little gathering. She believed in food and lots of it. "Unfortunately for my belt loops," Dawson muttered.
Slender Stefan had commandeered the ladder in Tina's absence. He was currently buried in an uncertain camouflage of streamers as he taped the last few ends up. He swore vigorously at the uncooperative decorations and the hanging light near him swung dangerously, casting shadows across the wall.
Brandon, his spiked hair as unruly as his general attitude, shook the bottom of the ladder. More cursing wafted down from near the ceiling. The two men met eyes and grinned spontaneously at one another.
"Coke," sallied up Brandon, hazel eyes dancing.
"Pepsi!" retorted Stefan from above.
"You watched him too long."
"I wasn't corrupt when I started like you were!"
"Calumny! I say calumny!" Brandon said, rolling his eyes.
"You always say that when I'm right."
"Next you'll be fortunetelling for a living!"
"Gentlemen, puleeze!" called Joe. "The ladies?" As if the mere suggestion of present company would stop these two from constantly heckling each other. Both 5' 10" with the same rangy build and enough cockiness for men twice their size ... and former Kurgan Watchers. The two were made of tougher stuff than they appeared to be.
"Pepsi," hissed Stefan down at his old partner.
"Coke, you maniac! It's Coke!"
"You're as bent as his skull was!"
"Before or after the warehouse dance?"
They folded up laughing, one over the top of the ladder and the other over the nearest step.
"Skinhead meets the cleaver!"
"I'll write your next of kin!"
"Oh! I forgot! You don't have any!" rejoined Brandon, finishing the inside joke. The harassment and bad puns continued unabated, but at a softer decibel level.
"Hi, Joseph, how's it hangin'? To the left or right?" came a suddenly loud voice from the direction of the door.
Dawson looked heavenward for help and found none ... Kyle MacAvoy had arrived. He was already cracking peanuts and tossing the shells enthusiastically over his head, leaving them scattered on the floor in a wake of crunchy debris.
"You do realize we just swept?!" incredulously demanded the bartender.
"Yes." More peanut shells hit the floor.
Dawson gave up.
The dinner was spectacular as usual. There seemed to be more food left over then what they had started with. Conversation was brisk and punctuated with laughter and the reminiscing of old tales-Kastagir's last party at the Devil's Ankle bar with Connor MacLeod, for one. The Watchers had been as smashed as the immortals that night-almost.
"You can't sit all night in a gin-joint like that and not have a drink!" protested Kyle. The tall man grinned at his audience and his crystal blue eyes were alight with glee. He tipped back the Guinness stout, drained it and slammed the glass down resoundingly on the table as if there really was a point to be made.
"Or three or four?" jested Tina, toasting him with a half-drained pina colata.
"Just fitting into the scenery. You know!" he blustered in mock defense. "Like they teach at academy training!"
"Academy training?" chorused Stefan merrily. "Is that shades of Star Trek, I hear? O, you are definitely hopeless!"
"Here, here," seconded Brandon, hoisting his fourth coke. "Without a doubt, hopeless!"
The laughter died down to a space of silence and thoughtfulness.
"But you never lost your man, Kyle," said Laura very quietly. "To the end, you were right there."
"Right there." It was all Kyle could say. He had watched Sunda Kastagir for 21 years and losing him was a terrible blow.
The Organization warned you and warned you about not becoming attached to the immortal you watched. Told you at every fight to say farewell to them in your heart, because it might be their last battle ... after all the years of watching the handsome black man, it was like losing a member of his family. The death of his assigned immortal was a loss he had never faced before. Consequently, Kastagir had been his first and last assignment.
Kyle translated Arabic journals into a common database now. Memories of adventures on the heels of an immortal were all he had left since the actual Chronicles were locked in the vaults at Watcher headquarters and sealed. End of Sunda's life - end of his story. He wasn't even allowed to visit the graveside ... it might raise questions about these people from sites all over the world, each of them laid to rest with hardly a funeral or notice.
Then the cops would get curious and ask questions ... and start digging up coffins. Next would come the demands as to why so many of them had their heads severed? Forensics would step into the mix and determine causes of death and discover that every man and woman died in perfect health.
Dawn pressed her foot on top of Kyle's under the table, a secret gesture of understanding, and drew him back from the bitter memories. They had both lost something that fateful night. She had watched Kastagir only seven years, but his death was still an ache. The damned game. She thought she hated it as much as some of the immortals seemed to.
"So how is the old boy?" piped up Stefan, hi-jacking the mood. Everyone knew instantly of whom he spoke.
"Fiesty as ever. Still screwed in tight in New York at Hudson. Hasn't been out hunting too much this year, laying low, digging in like a bear in winter," informed William. He was not suppose to be haunting any immortals in his retirement, but everyone knew he had never quite let go.
"Still keeping to himself? No lady?" inquired Tina innocently.
"Nope. Must be something wrong with that man's head, all right ... too much whisky. He's a fine enough face, but still practically lives like a pariah," William added curtly.
"Except for the girlies."
Everyone laughed at the interjected comment from Brandon. Connor MacLeod was not only notorious for his skill with a blade-he was a regular acquaintance of prostitutes. Many were the nights a Watcher stood in the chill and rain waiting for MacLeod to come out of a makeshift brothel. Sometimes they stood all night.
"You would know, eh, Brandon?" laughed Dawson. Sunda and Connor had dallied weeks at whorehouses together back when it was more common ... all of it duly noted in their Chronicles. It was common knowledge that the Watchers placed wagers as to which man looked more tired by the time they decided to leave the 'wares' of the house. There were still nights that a Watcher stood around in the cold while the immortal he was assigned to enjoyed comfort.
The athletic man grinned appreciatively back. "Yeah. But no more humorous than you lurking around trying to be inconspicuous when your man went slogging around in all the tunnels after that immortal simpleton!"
"The damn Opera house!" groaned Joe, rolling his eyes. "I ruined four pairs of good shoes on that one! You know, I still don't think I was ever reimbursed? And what do you write when your noble immortal is trying to hide another immortal in a safe place?" And only to himself he added: especially now that you know there can be danger within the ranks of Watchers and anything you write down could be used to victimize the very ones you've sworn to not betray.
"We hear you," commented William in that stroke of insight that made him excellent as a Watcher. Every individual here knew the potential danger of writing too much in a Chronicle ... information that could spell the doom of the immortal they had come to know and care for over the years of observing them. Until Horton, there had never been such a breach of protocol and misuse of the Chronicles. It was a splinter under their skin, festering unattended, that immortals and Watchers had come to prey on each other and people had died.
The hours passed and the dark outside deepened. Dawson grew more tense as the minutes ticked by, barely attentive to the conversation around him.
"Still afraid to love, you think?"
"Hell, he's lost everyone he's gotten close to. How much can a man take and not go mad?"
"I don't know if that's the reason, though. Could be that he prefers being alone to listening to a yakkity woman."
"Hey, I resemble that remark!"
"Sorry, Tina, wasn't gunning for you in particular..."
"The Highlander's no quitter. He just takes a lot of time before he wades in the water again."
"He just might be the type that doesn't care a whole lot. You know, keeps his distance because he wants less baggage and not more? He gets a streetwalker when he wants some action and otherwise just lives without the hassle. He is a bit of an introvert."
"Speculation on what motivates an immortal away from mortal involvement doesn't get us any facts," dryly remarked Kyle.
"He's tough and reclusive. He does without," added another opinion. "He doesn't need companionship with mortals to define who he is and what he's about."
"But that doesn't automatically mean MacLeod avoids involvement with mortals because he'd rather not have the hassle verses protecting himself emotionally." This last came from the astute Laura who was notorious for digging in her heels and refusing to be swayed from her opinions.
"Just because he looks like a fortress, acts like a fortress, talks like a fortress - he isn't?" quipped William, playing devil's advocate again.
"Conjecture," Tina said with exasperation. "You're being a smart ass again."
"Again," everyone said.
"I think that's considered a felony," deadpanned Stefan in the middle of the laughter.
"I still say, Tina, that day on Wellam Street, if you'd swayed your hips a bit before he spun around and went back the other way-you would have been able to take him home with you," teased William. "Then everybody would know just where he keeps that god damn sword!"
"But that's not what she would have been checking out!" interjected a grinning Laura immediately.
"No! No, no," protested Tina. "William, you are a mutton head, I tell you!"
"Right idea, wrong sword," Stefan sallied out over the melee of voices.
"And just what does that man hide beneath that trench coat?" laughed Brandon. "He's not like his cousin, half undressed all the time-and inquiring Watcher minds want to know!"
"Well, only the female Watchers," corrected Kyle.
"We wait. We see," chuckled Dawn.
"What did you see?" demanded three voices, pouncing upon her last comment in true Watcher fashion.
"Ummm," she shyly backpedaled, immediately realizing that her pithy comeback had landed her in hot water again.
"What did you see, Stuart, spill!" demanded Tina. "Did you catch him pants down sometime and forget to tell us!?"
"I don't think so, Tim," Dawn quipped right back, her standard disclaimer no matter whom she was talking with. The entire table erupted in laughter.
"I always forget what a ribald group you are when you all get together!" Joe chuckled, leaning over his propped elbows. He hoped his 'surprise' didn't walk in on the tail end of this and wished for the thirteenth thousandth time that he had an immortal's radar to be able to tell when one of them was drawing near. He watched the windows near the door hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar figure on approach. He should have known he would be late.
Where in hell was Duncan?
He never noticed when it first began.
It was more just a vague impression he had in the beginning and easily dismissed. The months went by and he thought nothing of the fact that the voice on the line was never his friend's voice anymore. There was business to be done, people to engage, and life to be lived ... besides, sometimes there were silences that developed in a friendship that spanned centuries.
He didn't notice until his birthday passed without the usual phone call. That was the moment he suddenly focused on what was not happening. When he called on Christmas Day, there was no one home. There were long delays or no replies at all to handwritten letters. The quiet between them shed the facade of subtlety and captured his attention.
There had never been anger involved. They had spoken, traded jokes and insults common to their kind. There was even a placating apology for missing his birthday ... a box of fine Scotch shipped from Edinburgh. His birthday was not forgotten casually again, but it became common that it was the sole time he heard from his friend.
Several years passed and now he could readily sense the difference. He could feel the chill between them, so light and elusive and yet still present. They couldn't seem to talk and conversations held long pauses where there used to be none. There weren't any rowdy visits anymore - instead there were reasons for not coming. They were all legitimate explanations, but still excuses that put him off.
His old friend was slipping away from him and he wasn't sure why. And there were no strings to pull to unlock the secret of the estrangement. Every overture was rebuffed and the more the relationship dwindled away, the more he desperately attempted to grasp for it. He had wracked his memory over and over trying to figure out if he had somehow done something that hindered what had once been warm fellowship and found nothing.
He was skilled at using words to settle differences, but words were elusive between them - fleeting brief things, barely scratching the top of all the unsaid worry through the telephone lines. It was never the right moment to engage the topic and not enough time to uncover the truth. He recognized that he was being avoided and somewhere in his heart, he limped with that knowledge.
It was a frightening kind of sorrow that he experienced now, when thinking of the situation. He felt as if he were trying to capture the fog, quietly pleading for the distance to be closed between them. The name that had always brought fond memories now evoked worry and concern. There was silence where there had always been comfort and companionship and he felt as bewildered and lost as he when he was a boy-with no respite in sight.
Something was broken that he had always counted on enduring the test of time and Duncan MacLeod stood helplessly watching it unfold around him. For all his years and strength, he felt utterly futile in halting the slowly widening gap.
Duncan was not surprised that the windows were shuttered and the liquor signs dark. Dawson told him the place would be closed and to just knock. What startled him when the Watcher opened the door was the party winding down over by the stage. Paper streamers dangled, confetti littered the floor, bottles of beer sat around and there was a table of surprised faces regarding his appearance.
No, he thought immediately, not surprised faces ... rewarded ones. And Joseph Dawson shot a glance toward them that, for an instant, radiated pure triumph. The group at the table resumed conversation so smoothly that it was only Duncan's alertness that caught the momentary hesitation when he stepped through the doorway.
And they ignored him as he walked to the bar, long black coat brushing his legs and the boots crackling on shells on the floor. An ordinary crowd would have studied his strong face and profile, weighing him in as every patron does when someone came into a bar. This group went back to conversation as if he wasn't there.
Perfectly trained. Watchers!
"Joe? What the hell are you up to?" softly quested Duncan. He felt as if all the hairs on the back of his neck were on edge. He looked full into his friend's face for answers, leaning across the bar for privacy.
"What? It's just a party, Mac." Dawson was nonchalant. "Why would they care if you came down for a drink?"
That brought the mortal to a halt. "Ummm-" he searched for words, suddenly floundering.
"Give me the truth, Joe. A closed bar, an obvious party in progress and they barely even acknowledge that I've come in? No staring ... they slid so evenly back into their table talk that I couldn't miss it. Watchers, trained to be inconspicuous and expecting me."
"Dammit Mac, you're too astute for your own good," protested Joe quietly.
"Answers or I'm gone," and Duncan meant it. He was not going to put himself on display and he was certainly opposed to flaunting his friendship with his Watcher for the amusement of others in the business. He was getting irritable very quickly and he let it show on his face.
"Look. Mac," cajoled Joe. "They're just a group of Watchers that get together every year on this day, okay? They have a bash and drink and razz each other. No big deal."
"Why me, Joe? You invited me down here." He let his voice harden under the words, knowing it would flush this particular mortal out. Dawson valued this relationship and the Highlander was counting on the desire for that friendship to pull him out of his reticence.
"I always invite-."
"Cut." Duncan just looked at him, conveying with his eyes the futility of any further subterfuge.
"Okay. All right," Dawson groused. "Look, Mac, it's all on the up and up, okay? They're old friends of mine and they know we're friends and that's cool. Do you hear me? That's cool with them. I wanted to treat them to seeing you, that's all. They know all about you and this is special."
"Why?" incredulously said the bartender. "Because you're immortal!" He eyed the Scot a moment. "Not everyone believes you're freaks, you know. These people hold you in pretty high regard."
"Why?" Duncan steadied his pose, still searching for the underlying unspoken reason for this little display. Dawson had never done anything remotely like this before - even the command center in the search for Kalas was not treated with such a cavalier style. There was something more, lurking somewhere beneath all the words skimming along the surface. "The truth, Joseph. All of it and now."
In a stroke of comprehension Dawson understood what this was. Duncan MacLeod was an immortal and in no particular danger from mortals except Watchers ... and he was spied on constantly. His life was not even his own; it was all written down in tomes for anyone to read who had access. Every move he made. Every place he dined. Every lover he bedded. They were friends - but Dawson was also a private snoop. The Highlander fought for his life frequently and brutally and this was no game to him. He needed to give Duncan the truth or it would cause major difficulties between them.
"Mac. Every one of these men and women were in New York City in 1985, watching and tracking their assignment. They were there for the fight between your clansman and the Kurgan." He let his honesty show on his face. "They get together every year, on this day, to celebrate Connor MacLeod's victory. This is his party. And even though none of them watch him anymore ... they all come."
"Connor?" Duncan was momentarily stupefied.
"The one and only," the Watcher confirmed. "I heard you comment a few days ago that he was planning to visit and yanked all of them over here for their annual bash. I didn't tell them that their man was in town to see you - just that you might show up for a free drink." He looked at the polished face of the bar. "Glad I didn't spill that to them, they would have been disappointed that you didn't bring him with you." He rubbed his hands together as if releasing tension. "But seeing Connor's kinsman up close is gift enough since they know how much you mean to him. Watchers rarely get within voice distance of the man they watch anyway. What would you like to drink, as if I didn't know?"
But the handsome immortal did not answer for a moment, he just looked thoughtfully at the bartender. "These Watchers are old pros?"
"Yeah. Some of the best. Very good under pressure to have been assigned in New York during that fracas."
"I guess we'll see how they steady under pressure." Duncan squared his shoulders, his earth eyes unreadable. "Because here comes Connor."
It was worth it to see the look on Dawson's face. "But I thought-" he exclaimed, surprised.
"He drove. Parking tonight is hell," dryly added MacLeod. "He likely had to look five blocks away."
Then the door was opening and the elder Highlander prowled through the entrance in his characteristic rolling stride, raking the room visually and missing-nothing.
The party of Watchers stilled as if jerked to a halt, stiffening reflexively with the sudden shock of recognition. The pause was momentary-only seconds long-but glaring to the alertness of men honed to defend themselves.
Connor MacLeod did not stop, but his gait changed very subtly-the length of his stride shortening-and he switched from a purely forward set of his shoulders to leading slightly with the left. One hand jerked loose the belt of the gray London Fog coat; the unthinking readying of a fighter.
But Duncan was the only other immortal in the room and Connor drew up close and leaned on the bar, not even glancing at him. He looked at the frozen-in-place bartender instead.
"Connor MacLeod, this is Joseph Dawson," commented Duncan sidelong to his kinsman. He could feel the tension and strength radiating out of the Scot beside him and cursed inwardly. He had been hoping a stiff drink or two would loosen up his friend so they could talk. "Joe, Connor knows all about the Watchers. I told him as soon as I found out, years ago."
It was pointless to argue about what Mac had told his first teacher. Joseph looked at Connor, taking in the signs of strain in his body and the steel in his eyes.
This was not a man like Duncan: friendly, gregarious, easy to deal with. All the descriptors from this man's Chronicles came to the forefront in a rush. This was a powerful and dangerous immortal, capable of holding a corner of New York so strongly that other immortals made peace with him upon entering his territory or stayed away.
Not Duncan. Not Duncan. Not Duncan. The repeating words hammered in his head. The Highlander. The original one. He had prepared for this moment all day, but Dawson found himself momentarily at a loss for words.
"Joe, I think you should tell Connor exactly what you told me and right now."
"I think you should too," spoke the older man softly. His words were mixed with drifting accents and full of controlled malice. He stared at the grizzled bartender, face unreadable.
"Uh, well," Joseph faltered, in a quandary.
"Now." Duncan's tone was firm. There was no room for hesitation. This was not only a test of the Watchers at this party - it was also a trial of Joe Dawson.
And Dawson rose to the occasion, falling back on strength learned in a war that cost him his limbs and the honesty that had helped forge the companionship with Duncan. He faced the old legend in the elder Highlander, met his intense gaze fully and began talking.
"They were Watchers in 1985. They watched Kastagir, the Kurgan and you. They get together every year and have a party."
"Today," Connor added quietly.
"Yes. I'm sure you remember."
"I killed the Kurgan 12 years ago today."
"Yes," Dawson confirmed.
"Why a party?"
"Because you did the world a favor when you killed that bastard."
Connor merely looked at him, but the malevolence of his gaze dissipated slightly. "They were in New York, watching?"
Dawson couldn't read through the solidity of the elder Scot's visage. The Watchers reported that this immortal was one of the most difficult to understand, his face remained impassive under all kinds of duress and his body language revealed little. No wonder there was tremendous speculation about what motivated him, the forces that forged his lifestyle choices. The bartender waited, almost holding his breath to see what the older MacLeod would make of this revelation.
"Do you have any Oban?" Connor asked surprisingly. He waited for Joe to pour the drink and then sipped it thoughtfully until it was gone. He slid it back to Dawson for a refill without a word.
Duncan had a shot of whisky also, standing shoulder to shoulder with his old mentor and leaning on the bar in almost identical fashion. Joe had a drink of Scotch and tried not to show the nervousness he felt. It had never crossed his mind that these two would recognize that these were all Watchers in here. The party-goers at the long table chattered amongst themselves, voices subdued and nonstop.
"Well, let's see what they're made of," and the older man spun from the bar and stalked over to the group of Watchers - stride determined and moving like a cat.
"Mac!?" protested Dawson in alarm, unable to tear his eyes away from the immortal's approach to the table.
"Connor's his own man, Joe," Duncan said quietly to the agitated bartender. "They're Watchers and I expect he will give them a run." To himself he grimly added that this little turn of events would dampen any conversation he had hoped to have with his clansman. The elder Highlander would be edgy and tense the whole two-day visit and then would leave ... and Duncan sadly wondered if he could cajole him to visit again after this incident. It had taken months to get him to agree to come-a last desperate bid to hold onto a fallen treasure.
"He wouldn't hurt any of them?" Dawson asked apprehensively.
"Not if it wasn't necessary," Duncan said softly.
"Shit!" was the muttered response.
The conversation of the Watchers at the table clipped to a halt as the immortal approached. Their body language did not betray any anxiety, but their eyes did; darting quickly to the nearest man or woman who had been assigned to Connor MacLeod, reading their expressions and picking up cues from the simple narrowing of their eyes.
Yes, he is on a direct course. Hold steady.
William, cocksure as ever, tilted back in his chair and readied himself for the exchange. Tina and Laura settled into calmness like it was a cloak. Their confidence put foundation beneath the rest and Kyle did not even flinch when the Highlander's hand settled firmly on his shoulder.
"Move one seat over, Watcher." The title was fairly spat out, as if a curse.
MacAvoy did not say a word, just slid around the corner of the table into the chair vacated previously by Joe. They all waited without a sound, yielding the floor to the obviously irritated immortal without question.
Connor raked his eyes across them. All unfamiliar faces ... except one. The woman half way down the table - he had noticed her in New York once and almost approached her on the street to strike up a conversation. Rationality swayed him at the last minute and he had just turned around and walked away that cold windy day. Now he understood why she seemed to have noticed him - she was watching him!
"I don't know who you are and I don't want to know," he said very softly. His voice was hard and it filled the empty space. "And all of you know who I am."
"A-yup, but we'd sure like to hear you say it aloud." William, absolutely calm, spoke right into the pause of silence.
Connor stared at the elderly man a moment, expression unreadable. Two of the women reacted briefly to their comrade's bold statement. One sighed and closed her eyes briefly and the other put a hand across her face, rubbing her forehead as if she had a headache. In the single flash of watching their response, the older Highlander picked out the individuals who had been assigned to him: the cocksure man asking the question, the Spaniard, and the curvy little blonde from New York.
"You've got a lot of balls for an old coot," Connor said coolly.
"A-yup, I carry my Share," returned William just as unruffled.
Connor sipped his Scotch, eyes flat gray over the rim, weighing and measuring the Watcher. He had terrible taste in clothing, but there was no doubt as to his mettle. "Are you always such a smart mouth?" he inquired of no one in particular.
The woman he recognized from New York spoke up. "Smart ass, is the term we use for him."
"It fits," laconically replied Connor. The petite woman was having a hard time watching him ... her gaze kept drifting to his left, before shifting back to him. And she wasn't the only one whose eyes strayed at this table.
Ahhh, Duncan. Elegantly handsome Duncan, the target of women everywhere and now seated two steps off his flank. A delightful distraction - even a few of the men had some difficulty not eyeing his masculine features and the power lurking in his frame.
Connor turned his head to look at his younger clansman for a moment, discerning the curious concern in Duncan's pose. He could continue the frosty stalemate with these Watchers or change tactics on them, he thought to himself. And they had already held steady under the initial shock. It would be hard to flush one out now that they had settled into a unified front.
"I'm Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," he said evenly, taking his eyes from Duncan and yielding to the request. The familiar words of clan and challenge rolled from his tongue as it had for hundreds of years.
"Yes," answered the woman whom Connor had nearly attempted to pick up in New York. "Yes, you are."
The white haired man on the end grinned widely and nodded to the others. Two or three of them smiled back.
Either a private joke ... or a gift, Duncan thought. He remembered Dawson's words earlier - Watchers rarely get within voice distance of the man they watch. Hearing Connor state his name and clan was a reward and his kinsman had just effectively manipulated the tone in the room to a more favorable one. Clever man, he surmised.
"I don't like what the Watchers do," Connor said quietly. "But I understand why." That was met with surprised silence. "I have a question for all of you." More silence.
"Uh, Connor, the Watchers can't just-," began Joe from the side.
The older Highlander raised one hand imperiously and cut him off with the motion. "You're not involved, Dawson, so butt out." He shot a scowl at the bartender, then stilled his features again. "I'm willing to make a bargain with you to get an answer," Connor continued, "but I want you to tell me the truth without subterfuge or double-talk. I want to ask it only once and get the answer the first time out."
Two of the women stirred very slightly in their seats.
So, Connor thought, identifying the calculating study that the Spaniard gave him, this was not going to be an easy task. His mind turned over quickly, flicking through all his experience with people and searching for the key to sway these Watchers.
It was the women in this group, judging from the resolute body language, that would be the hardest to convince. They were an interesting combination of femininity and strength. A direct route would likely yield up more questions instead of the truth he so desperately longed for. These men and women had been trained to resist immortal prying.
Force would never work here. Argument was useless. He simply could not win by badgering them. But, and here he felt his spirit lunge forward after the mark, a purely emotional appeal might unlock their guard and set his own private demon free.
If they were Watchers, then they knew him ... and he knew what aura he cast. He had crafted it deliberately, protecting himself with layers and layers of brooding silence and strength. What would they feel if he stripped away the exterior and revealed a part of him that they had never seen?
Did he have the fortitude it would take to be vulnerable and activate their emotions? A powerful hand wielded with gentleness. Was he alone enough? It was like setting up dominos ... one slight mistake and the painstaking work would clatter down and take every other piece with it. Would he be able to reach deeply enough and reveal enough to break down the codes of silence that held the keys to his suffering and anguish? And if it failed, would he still be able to pull his shattered self back together and walk away?
Truth, he said silently inside. The truth shall set you free.
He made his choice in an instant and wished even as he made it, that he could take Duncan aside for just five minutes to explain to him why he had to do this. What this would be. What it would cost him personally and what it might cost Duncan. If he needed more emotional impact than he was capable of, it would be necessary to draw Duncan into the sacrifice as well. He was gambling on his young kinsman's goodness of heart and his ability to overcome obstacles. This was going to be an expensive gambit ... he hoped he had enough coinage to pay.
"I'm going to tell Duncan a story," Connor spoke after a fashion. "I've needed to tell him this for a few years. You Watchers get to listen. Don't interrupt, just listen."
Duncan gave Connor his full attention and wondered what this was about. He peered into the face of his friend, searching for clues and found none.
"Dhonnchaidh, this is going to hurt you," Connor said simply to the younger man.
Duncan's heart chilled at the somber tone and the use of his Gaelic name. What was this?
"I can't prevent it from hurting you, I just have to tell you. You'll understand more when it's done than you will during the telling. Just bear with me."
Duncan waited. He could see the thoughts winging their way through Connor's eyes and knew his kinsman was searching for how to begin. It always took time for this old Scot to put his words out in midair.
They all waited, quietly and patiently. And the minutes passed.
He is having problems finding his voice, Duncan thought to himself. The question he had for these Watchers must be important if it could press Connor into revealing something this difficult. He shifted his chair, edging closer and drawing his clansman's attention by the movement.
"Heather was the perfect lass for me in the Highlands," the elder man began quietly. "She was merry and full of laughter, undaunted by our harsh life and the fact that I had no clan to surround me with strength. What I was didn't matter to her. Nothing mattered except that we were together."
All true words, Duncan thought.
Connor cocked his head, eyes abruptly mischievous. "She was exactly a woman of my generation, strong and fierce and lusty as they come. She always wanted to make love. She used to complain about how much I ate until I reminded her that she wanted me to poke her three times a day and to do that kind of work a man had to keep his strength up and you know, she never complained again about how much I ate," he said in one long breathless string. "She soon learned to feed me afterwards though, otherwise she found herself cooking five and six times a day!" His eyes went far away in memory. "She would come up and say "pie and ale, Connor, willya have some?" followed by "ah-ah-ah! After, you rogue-after!"
Duncan tried to control the impulse to laugh aloud, but it was futile. He chuckled behind his hand, rubbing it across his eyes to regain his composure. Connor MacLeod was the same clan, older vintage - older, Duncan told himself for the 800th time! Older and from a less civilized time. The faint chuckles of a few Watchers reminded him that he was not alone in his musings. When he looked up, Connor was wryly smiling too and he didn't look a bit embarrassed.
"Glad I knew Heather before you came along, you scoundrel," Connor drolly said. His face was utterly placid, but his eyes danced with merriment and good humor. Duncan's appetite for the opposite sex had gotten him in trouble more times then he could count.
Duncan grinned back at him, but then remembered that Heather was his kinsman's one true love and his cheeriness faded. He wanted no illusion lingering here, no wondering ... even if it was not meant as a question at all.
"Nay, Connor. Her soul belonged truly to yours. Even had she met me, she would have chosen you." Duncan said it with conviction and it became truth in midair between them. When he met his fellow clansman's eyes, it was as if they were suddenly alone in the room.
It was well that it seemed so, for the humor dissipated from Connor's face and he began more softly, the words striking and pulling at every listener. The subtle movements that all people make when waiting stilled as they focused to hear his quiet voice, straining to catch every nuance.
"She faded away into age, Duncan. That last winter I never chopped and burned so much wood to keep her warm. There was lots of pain toward the end and it made her ache to move around much. I had to dress her and help her eat. I stopped making love to her because I knew it just hurt her, no matter how much time I took about it. She would insist every once in awhile - but it was only to try to ease my stress, not ever for her anymore.
"I couldn't even sleep beside her," he said quietly. "In my slumber, I would throw an arm across her and even that ... even that, was too much weight for her. I slept on the floor beside the bed."
Duncan felt like he was wilting. What was the price for this tale? What could possibly be worth this cost? And still Connor went on, heedless of listeners and focused on Duncan's face as if they were the only two present, leveraging the emotional intimacy between them like a man prying at rocks.
"She woke up and called my name one night. I was dead asleep, but had been tuned to her voice for so many years that even in her weakness, I heard her. I leaned o'er her in the firelight and she looked at me strangely and asked me to make love with her." He paused a fraction of a second and then went on. "I told her 'no'. It only made her body ache and I was all right. She just looked at me with those eyes like the sky and asked again and there was something about her gaze ... something I couldn't place at first.
"I never could refuse a request of Heather's, so I came to bed with her. I tried to be gentle and to calm all my passion ... but I know everything just hurt her. Part of the way through, it came suddenly to me what this was." He blinked. "This was goodbye. She knew it was her hour. This was the last time I would be able to make love to her and suddenly I knew it. And I tried to be quick and get it over with, but it was so difficult ... and I wept the whole time and my tears fell in her hair like rain. It was the hardest thing I've ever done and it seemed to take forever to finish. Making love and crying the whole way through at all the good-byes. All the years of our life together. All the sad good-byes."
Duncan felt like he had been swiftly gutted. He could barely breathe through the pain and all of his focus was narrowed in on his friend's face.
"We got to talk just a bit afterwards," Connor continued, forging through the sadness that hung like mist in the room. "She didn't want to die and asked me to light a candle on her birthday. She got confused a mite, which was common for her to do those last few years. I told her where we were, painting a day of happier times for us..." He hesitated, his eyes still fixed on Duncan's face. "She got heavy and limp and I just kept talking, thinking she was going back to sleep. It took a bit before I realized that she had stopped breathing and was truly gone. I had to hold her for a long spell before I found the strength to carry her up and put her in the cold ground. I burned my house, set the livestock free and fled."
"Connor..." Duncan whispered and felt like he was dying. The cost ... what was the cost...? What could drive a tale like this out of this silent man?
"Steady, Duncan." Connor stretched a hand to touch his knee, a gesture that added weight to his next words. "Now comes the part that hurts."
Now? The younger man was inarticulate. That wasn't it?
"You called me," Connor said so carefully, measuring his words. "The day Tessa was killed and I heard the death in your voice when you said my name on the phone."
Yes. Suddenly and terribly worse. Duncan felt like he was writhing in his seat although he knew he had not moved. Not this ... not this, his mind whispered, trying to flee and searching for escape.
Connor stopped and thought a moment. "I need to tell you this, Duncan, because I owe you an apology. This has been between us for years and I have to fix it before it's too late."
Duncan could not speak. His throat had gone dry beneath the smoky flavor of the Scotch.
"I was on the first flight out even though you told me not to come. And I sat on that airplane and found myself idly wondering which of us had gotten off easier." He met Duncan's gaze unflinchingly. "Which one of us escaped the suffering better than the other one - the man who lived and loved for 51 years with the woman of his heart and watched her dwindle away in pain until she died? Or the one who had 12 years and had her snatched quickly away in the fullness of youth before he had to endure the wasting away of age? Which of us got off light ... and which of us had to suffer more?"
Anger, boiling in straight on top of the pain, swamped Duncan, mounting like a tempest in his heart. How dare he? Some distant corner of his mind protested that he was overreacting, but feelings were never rational when battered around, they just 'were'. Incoherent rage swelled and rolled over him and his fists closed convulsively-but Connor simply went on without pause.
"You met me at the airport and as I walked up to you, I realized what a damn fool I had been," the older man said seriously, "to even think such a thing. I saw it in your face, the agony and defeat. I saw the truth of my goddam foolishness. You were on that same path, the one we all take when we lose something that is part of us, where the ground is covered with broken glass and your feet bleed with every step.
"You were going to the same dark place I had been 400 years before. There was no difference between our suffering at all. Fifty years, twelve years, two years, it is always the same." He gazed into Duncan's shattered and angry face. "And if you had looked down at your feet, you would have seen my bloody footprints left there from long ago-leading the way to that place of silence and grief.
"I'm sorry Duncan, it was wrong of me to think you had gotten off easier than I. I've needed to tell you this for a while and I'm late. I've let this error in my thinking cripple us all this time trying to find the way to confess it to you."
Just breathing in and out took his concentration. Duncan felt like he'd been jerked through a knothole backwards. He stared at Connor and watched him patiently wait out the time it took for Duncan to find his voice. So this was it ... this was the reason for the silence and distance and the suffering? His clansman's misguided thoughts one day? Duncan wanted to throttle him ... right here and right now, in front of witnesses.
Yet, in a swift stroke he realized that what he had felt all these years of neglect in their friendship was nothing compared to the emotional brutalization his clansman had likely put himself through.
Trying to find the way to confess it to you, Connor had said. It made Duncan tighten all across his back as if his skin had been jerked taut.
Connor was easily able to forgive the shortcomings of friends ... but was savage with himself over the very same faults he overlooked in others. Quite likely his clansman had inflicted far more emotional damage upon himself than Duncan could ever come close to meting out physically.
And forgiveness was always the higher road. It took guts to bring this out ... and the climate of pain and self-revelation allowed Duncan to quench his anger with minimal effort. It was enough to have the connection back with this immortal that had been lacking and the younger man reached for what he had longed for over the course of four long years.
"I've been late much more than you have. I suppose I can overlook you for being tardy telling me this," he said finally and looked directly into his brother's eyes. "And I forgive you for such a simple error too, Connor." He didn't add that his kinsman should have come directly out with it. The older Highlander probably was too upset and ashamed at first ... and Duncan was in grief and didn't need that distraction then anyway.
"I'm sorry, Dhonnchaidh," Connor repeated. "You deserved better from me."
"Connor." He halted and thought, eyes skirting around the vicinity and not registering anything. "I understand why you would wonder about something like that. I know you loved Heather. Losing her has been the greatest tragedy of your life."
The older MacLeod looked intently at him a moment. "Ah, Duncan," he whispered, "don't you know? She was my Tessa."
The tears stung Duncan's eyes, mindful of the loss and pain. It had been years, how could it still create such agony? "Does it get better, Connor?" he faltered out, aware in some dim portion of his mind that he had stepped backwards and into the footsteps of student and protégé again. He was asking with the same bewildered voice that he used to ask questions of this immortal mentor hundreds of years ago. Needing the vision of an older man then he to guide his way - to help him see.
"Do you want the unforgiving truth or a comfortable lie?" returned the elder after a moment.
"Depends on the day." Connor regarded him with an infinitely sad expression. "The hour ... sometimes the minute."
Duncan simply closed his eyes and let his head hang.
Connor faced the hitherto forgotten group of Watchers. It was obvious that they had been moved ... evidence of tears, of heartache and empathy lingered on their faces. They were en mass, silent and waiting ... and their body language was soft and acquiescent. Exactly how he wanted them to be; exactly what he needed them to be.
"I want to ask you a question," Connor said gently, not wanting to shatter the vulnerability he had drawn them into. True strength had to be gentle. "Only you have the answer and I need it. The truth-no matter what that truth is."
Dawson nodded without thinking, affirmation that he would get a response even if it took digging out old records to find the missing clues. The individuals at the table raised chins and took the breaths that they had been holding.
"Who watched Kastagir in New York in '85?" the elder MacLeod asked.
"I did," Kyle MacAvoy answered from beside him.
"I watched him too," added Dawn Stuart from down the table.
"Tell me about his fight with Kurgan." The Scot's face was devoid of expression.
"What exactly do you want to know, Connor?" asked Dawn.
The man in question paused, struggling for words. "When they fought did he just beat him down and cut off his head or was there ... more?"
"He fought him to a standstill and killed him. Kastagir was not strong enough to take the Kurgan," Kyle said quietly.
"That's all?" Connor stared hard at MacAvoy. "Chop, chop, you're dead?"
Dawn flinched at the callous terms. "Yes. A fair fight and he killed him."
"You're sure?" Connor demanded in sudden ire, all softness gone as if he disbelieved their words. "You have to be sure about this!"
"I was on the roof looking down. I saw it all. He fought well, but was no match for the Kurgan's strength. He cut Sunda to the ground and killed him! End of story." Kyle bit every word off in midair testily, his fierceness underscoring the truth.
Connor slumped back into his seat, eyes wide and stunned and his hard face slack. Duncan was so startled that he put out a hand and gripped his clansman's shoulder. He had no idea what this was, but obviously his old friend labored under some heavy load ... Connor was blinking rapidly, caught in something unimaginable.
"Oh my God!" the older Highlander whispered to himself and then closed his eyes, hanging his head as if defeated, repeating Duncan's earlier strategy of coping with loss and pain.
The Watchers looked mystified at each other, struggling with the human instinct to comfort and the knowledge that this was no mortal - and none wrestled more then the three who had been assigned to the older MacLeod. William passed a quick hand gesture with four fingers to the others, the unmistakable signal to stand fast. They obeyed. Dawson caught the old call sign too and held his place.
Finally, Connor raised his head and opened his eyes. Duncan felt the sweep of strength rise in him when he registered the openness and vulnerability in the older man's face. He bristled all over protectively. This had been a horrible experience for just coming in for a simple drink ... going from humor, to grief, to rage and now ... what?
"He loved me you know, Duncan," said Connor, simply stunned into speaking and oblivious to the listeners.
The younger immortal searched briefly for words. "Sunda and you were friends for a long, long time. Of course he loved you."
"No no, Duncan," Connor corrected. "Kastagir was a lover of women and, on occasion, men. He loved me."
That brought Duncan up short. This was unfamiliar territory and Connor was fractured with something unexpressed. He had to tread carefully. And the damn Watchers were still here!
"It wasn't something we ever talked about, but I knew it all the same. I knew he loved me the whole time." Connor paused, regarding his hands around the empty whisky glass. "I didn't feel the same as he did.
"That last night in New York we had a party with some of his boom-boom, you remember the boom-boom, don't you?" The Highlander did not even wait for Duncan to answer, he just lurched on. "He told me, Duncan, that his worst fear was to fall to the Kurgan. He was a slimy bastard and had a fondness for toying with his prey, especially the men. He liked to torture and rape them before killing them. Sunda didn't want him to get a hold of him. He didn't want his last memory before death to be being violated by that bastard before he died." Connor closed his eyes, momentarily hiding his thoughts. "And then Kurgan got him. That same night, he went down before that beast."
"God, Connor," breathed Duncan sympathetically. "All these years you've-?"
"I've wondered." And there was something truly terrible haunting the Scot's blue eyes. "The nightmares have been-" He tilted his head and closed his eyes, clenching his teeth around the words without saying them.
"Why didn't you just ask me to find out for you?" Duncan asked quietly.
"You told me the Watchers aren't suppose to tell you anything. Why would they care about something like this? I wasn't friends with any of them. Why would they care at all about how I feel?" Connor's voice was devoid of emotion and he did not even deign to open his eyes.
Individuals startled all around the table and Duncan lifted one hand to still them, concentrating only on his friend. "I would have found out. And there would be people willing to tell me the truth."
Connor sighed heavily and looked at the floor. "If I had just confronted Kurgan a day earlier ... then I could have saved Sunda. I should have driven him home from that bar instead of just letting him walk to his hotel. If I had-."
"Stop it!" Duncan interjected forcefully. "You've told me time and again not to second guess fate and chance! You couldn't have saved him. Everything has a purpose," then more gently, for his clansman was wounded, "and now you know that Sunda wasn't tormented before he died."
"Yes, after all these long years of carrying this weight," Connor commented softly, finally lifting his eyes. "And now he's gone. I'll never hear that insane laugh or those terrible jokes or taste that boom-boom that turned my bones to mush or see his serious face over cards again." He paused and seemed lost for a moment.
"He deserved better then my silence all those years ... I should have talked to him about this. Even though he figured out that I didn't feel like he did - I should have had spine enough to face him and tell him. I did love him ... just not like that. He deserved to hear me say the words. He's dead now and I'll never have the chance." He looked at Duncan. "Don't wait to tell the ones that matter to you, the truth. Time runs out even for us."
There were no words for this last. Connor looked haggard, weary and worn.
"Come on, kinsman," Duncan rose and gestured as he spoke. "Let me take you home."
"Okay." He got to his feet easily enough ... and then the Watchers saw something they had never seen before: Connor MacLeod, hand on his neck, stretching to ease tension - and the dragon head katana peeked with a glint of silver steel from inside his coat. He groaned and threw his head, circling it back with a snap. The bones in his vertebra popped and he flinched slightly with the prick of pain, then walked away.
They had gone five steps when Connor turned back to face them. "I don't care what you write in my Chronicle," the Highlander said roughly. "But don't sully Heather's memory and don't tarnish Kastagir. He did that just fine all by himself."
"Yes, he did!" chuckled Dawn amused.
Watchers and immortals looked at each other for a moment.
"Would you like to know where they buried him?" offered Kyle quietly.
"Do you know?" returned the older Highlander just as softly.
"I can get it to Duncan in the morning," Joe offered. "We aren't allowed to visit, questions and such. Let us know when you go, we'd like to send some flowers with you."
Connor merely nodded once and turned away. The two Highlanders were out of the bar in a moment, vanishing into the darkness outside.
"You set this whole thing up, Joseph Dawson?" Laura Soriano immediately demanded as soon as the door closed. Her eyes pounced on him.
"Surprise! How the hell was I to know he had something so deep to ask?" the bartender said, rubbing his temples. He had a headache and he never wanted to come to this party again. "Pretty canny of him to pull us all by the heartstrings like that. Jesus, I think I would have told him just about anything he wanted."
"You're not alone there," commented Brandon.
"Still waters run deep," said Dawn.
"I told you he was a fortress," added William. "I just didn't tell you that he lives in the heart of it."
"So what are we going to write?" asked Tina, hitting the nail on the head immediately
"He's not my guy," said Stefan. "Not my assignment and I have enough damn paperwork to bury China three inches deep."
"If you spent less time dinking with fun gifs on that computer, you would get a hell of a lot more done," Brandon commented dryly.
"Boys!" warned Laura, reining the coming exchange in before it gained enough fuel for a steamroller.
"Kastagir's Chronicles are sealed," thoughtfully said Kyle. "I have no intention of reopening them." Dawn nodded across the distance that separated them in complete agreement with his words. "And Connor MacLeod is not my territory."
"That leaves the three," Brandon commented to no one in particular.
William, Tina and Laura looked at one another: The Three. They did not say a word, merely regarded one another. It was William who spoke for them, "I think we're retired. Watchin's not our bag." This was especially humorous coming from the old man, who still lived down the street from Connor's loft in New York and owned a frightening array of telescopic lenses and seemed to know the whereabouts of the owner of Nash Antiques most of the time.
"What about Jasper?" Brandon inquired of the elder Highlander's currently assigned Watcher. "Is he outside?"
"I let him have a vacation. He's in Florida," Dawson spoke up. "While Connor is with Duncan, I watch them both."
"That's a lot of hoofing it around, stumps," commented William.
"Smart ass," replied Joe to his old friend.
"Again? I don't even know when I'm doing it!"
"Again!" sallied forth a medley of voices.
"Tag, you're it, Dawson," said Stefan, bringing them back on topic with one swift stroke.
All eyes were on the bartender. "I ... um ... well, as far as I could tell, they just came in for a friendly drink and then left." Who was he to argue with such a group who had one by one declined to write any of this down? It wasn't like something said here was crucial to the game.
"He sure let us have a look didn't he?" said Tina thoughtfully. "How he felt about Heather and what it's like to lose what you love and still be forced to go on. To love someone or decide not to love, either way these immortals lose. He really gave us a gift tonight."
"The sword! Did you see it?" spoke another voice. "That was the limit!"
"And we loaned him our sight." The comment came from William, whom everyone knew had a deeply intelligent and emotional bent behind the smart aleck he was on the surface. "A gift for a gift. That's what the ol' boy wanted all along."
"He couldn't bully us into it, but he could get us to hand it over-clever shit!" laughed Brandon.
"And on that note," William melodramatically stated, rising to his feet. "We need to have our traditional toast."
"Must we?" complained Laura. "Scotch is like drinking iodine."
"Isn't that sacrilege to say when it's your man, you're drinking to?" casually remarked Kyle.
"What does he know? He's a Scot!" she fired back.
"And a darn fine one at that," Tina giggled, tossing a handful of confetti off the table at her friend. "Just make a face like I do and drink up, dearie."
"Say, MacLeod's not my guy, so can I pass?" inspired Stefan. "If I have to drink Scotch, I'll yak."
"You say that every year." Brandon's voice was mocking. "Besides, he put us out of a distasteful job when he whacked Kurgan."
They had their traditional toast, complete with heartfelt words and a few faces. Dawn cursed under her breath, her usual tirade of 'shit' and 'damn' at the bite of whisky. Stefan made horrible faces that made everyone else want to yak.
"Quit swearing, Dimples," called Joe, "you're making the plants shrivel."
"They're artificial, Dawson," Kyle informed him dutifully. "You've had too much to drink tonight."
"Hey, I've a great idea!" called William over the dispersing party-goers. "This was so much fun tonight - let's invite him next year. We'll tell him to bring the boom-boom and leave his sorry tales behind."
A plethora of groans and cursing greeted this last statement. The bar door slammed on it midway through.
"Where did you park the car?" questioned Duncan softly to the man beside him as they left the bar. He was glad to be out of there and wished he had more power over what these people wrote in their damned books. He thought he had an understanding of sorts with Dawson ... but Connor had just handed them fodder for their ruminations. And even if his kinsman didn't care what they wrote about him, Duncan cared. Some things should be left private, he grumbled mentally. Especially the wounds in our lives. Connor MacLeod was the only person he had left from his faraway roots in the Highlands. Someone he wondered if he had lost in these last years.
The older man looked around aimlessly, staring at streetlights and corners as if momentarily disoriented. The light rain put spots on his coat in a wandering pattern.
"Come. Let's just walk a while until you get your bearings," the younger man offered.
"Around the corner, this way," Connor remembered suddenly. "Parking was a bitch and I had to drive around the block four times."
"Let's walk," Duncan repeated softly, knowingly. "It helps you to get grounded again, so let's go."
They walked side-by-side, long coats billowing around their ankles and the misting rain cool against their faces. It took three blocks before Connor put a hand out to stop him, turning him away from the faint breeze.
"Duncan, are you okay?" he questioned. "Is it over?"
Like a siege, the younger man thought. He's been fighting a war on several fronts with no where to go and no one to turn to. "It's over, Connor."
"I couldn't just tell you about this, Duncan," the older man quietly explained, staring off at the skyline. "You were fresh hurt after losing Tessa and I never realized how terrible I felt until later. Then you were busy training Rich and the pace was so fast..." he looked directly at Duncan. "I couldn't bring this to you when you were strong, you would break my face."
Duncan chuckled. "I wanted to back in that bar ... for just a moment or two I wanted to thrash you bald."
"And you would have had every right to lay hands on me and yell until my ears rang and club me senseless. You had good reason to be furious and I would have accepted the judgment." Connor stopped talking and waited, studying the darker immortal. "But then, when you'd satisfied your rage ... how would you have felt?"
"God, Connor," he whispered, eyes dark and stunned. "Shit!"
"Yes, just like that. And the circle would continue ... one error after another. Me feeling guilty and then you feeling guilty. I had to get you soft enough to handle an insult like that without just acting in your anger and starting it all over again."
"So you laid yourself out to make both the Watchers and me vulnerable at the same time."
"I was only after the Watchers ... but figured I might as well clear the issue with you while I was bleeding." He paused and then added dourly, "would have been easier to let you rip my ears off."
"No, Connor. I hassled you into coming to visit because we needed to get this issue resolved before it hurt our friendship beyond repair." Duncan regarded him a moment. "I'm glad you had guts to do it even though it was the hard way. It's been ten times worse to lose my temper since Coltec." He stopped abruptly, suddenly understanding the darker truth. When he spoke, it was a whisper. "I might have killed you."
"Only temporarily, Dhonnchaidh."
"In a rage." Duncan had slain Connor before in sparring. Sometimes they went at it so heavily that one of them succumbed to blood loss or some fatal blow that they had not blocked. Always in practice, never for real. Never in a rage.
He shivered. All the blood ran down to his fingers and his pulse pounded out the tempo of life in the digits. For a long time, they simply stood facing one another in the soft rain.
"So," the older man asked, speaking gently once more, "is it over?"
"It's over, Connor," and the younger man reached for the peace.
The hug was spontaneous and strong. Duncan leaned into the clasp with a sigh and realized he hadn't been on the receiving end of one of Connor MacLeod's bear hugs since Tessa had been killed.
"I've missed you," said Connor simply.
"Not half as much as I've missed you," remarked Duncan. "We've got a lot of catching up to do." He clenched the slighter man strongly until he heard him groan and then released him. "Feel like staying up all night?"
"Heh, I'm not as young as I used to be," the older man said dryly.
"You're eighteen, ya daft Scot!" and Duncan laughed for the sheer joy of life and simple restored companionship. He turned them both, one arm slung across his friend's shoulder and started back the way they had come looking for the car.
They stayed up talking until four a.m., drinking and laughing and flipping beer caps at a cup positioned five feet away. Duncan dug through his pictures and showed off the photos of Richie Ryan that he had taken over the years. Connor caught him up on the antiques he had been acquiring and the bevy of swords he had added to his collection. They clinked glasses over the demise of immortals not worthy of the game and laughed at Amanda's escapades ... and grinned over other attributes of Amanda that they knew. There was a plethora of terrible jokes to inflict on the older man and Connor moaned and groaned dutifully through them all. It was a family reunion and the conversation never flagged until they were so tipsy and tired that they fell into bed with all their clothing on.
Duncan slept with one hand on Connor's arm.
And Connor slept without a single dream.
This was started quite some time ago and finally wrestled to a standstill with the aid of my faithful Beta Sharz. A second level of Beta reading was added by the eagle-eyed lynnann. A salute to the small army of people immortalized forever as Watchers.