Land of My Birth


Email me!

DISCLAIMER: Highlander and its familiar characters are the property of Davis/Panzer Productions; no copyright infringement is intended, no profit being made.

All I'm prepared to say here is that this is a New Year's story, set in my universe with its assorted quirks, and containing spoilers for Highlander: Endgame. The song lyrics quoted in the story are my own lyrics to the musical theme from Endgame.

Jan. 1, 2003

"I still don't think you should have come," Duncan MacLeod said over his shoulder. "Not even to Scotland, let alone out here. You're risking your life, Rich, and you didn't really know Connor."

Behind him, he heard Richie Ryan make a clucking sound--undoubtedly addressed to his horse. The mare gave an ill-tempered whinny, but let herself be urged forward to plod alongside Duncan's mount.

Then Richie said quietly, "We vowed to spend every New Year's Eve and Day together, if humanly possible, for the rest of our lives."

"Yes, but--"

"Besides, I know what Connor meant to you. I really want to join in honoring his birthday, Mac. And if the Watchers are as dangerous as you say--"

"They are!" Duncan insisted. "Except for Joe, of course. They'll do anything to suppress the knowledge that nothing bad happens to Immortals who kill on holy ground."

Illogically, he found himself lowering his voice. "If they discover I learned the details of the Sanctuary Massacre, they'll hunt me down and kill me. Or try to get me out of the way by forcing me into a new Sanctuary. I'd resist to the death, so the result would be the same.

"And my knowing where Connor is buried will prove I know other things. If they figure out what I'm doing here, I'm as good as dead."

Thanks to Joe, the Watchers currently believed Duncan had visited Connor's New York loft in October solely because it was the tenth anniversary of his teacher's disappearance. He *had* been headed there for that reason, before he stopped off in London to see Methos.

"Officially," he believed the Watchers who'd abducted him in New York were renegades. He didn't realize their ruined Sanctuary had been located on holy ground, or that the missing Connor had been involved in any way.

The Watchers still had no idea what had become of Connor, or Jacob Kell and his posse. They were hunting all of them, with deadly intent. According to Joe, they were sure Connor would never agree to go back into a Sanctuary. Who would, after witnessing what he had?

"I accept that they're killers," Richie told Duncan. "But there's something else you have to face. If they catch on, they'll also kill anyone you've told--or might have told. Even if you really hadn't filled me in, they'd assume you had. So if you wind up on their hit list, I will too. Whether or not I'm caught visiting Connor's grave with you."

That brought Duncan up short. He reined in his horse and looked anxiously at the young man he now knew was his son. "Damn! You're right. I've been deluding myself. And it's not just you I'm putting in danger, it's Joe, and God knows how many other friends. I probably shouldn't have come back here at all, even alone."

"Lighten up, will you?" Richie tried to make his tone fit the words, distracted though he was by the effort to bring his unruly mare to a halt. "I said if they catch on. But there's no reason to think they will."

"You had the perfect excuse to come to Scotland, showing me the Highlands for the first time. New Year's is a big deal here--that explains the timing. And even Watchers are distracted around the holidays, so they're trusting Joe to cover both of us. He stays at the inn in Glenfinnan, claims we were there all the time, and no one's the wiser.

"Look around. Do you think anyone could be following us? The snow's filling in the hoofprints almost before the horses can make new ones!"

Duncan turned to look back--and down, from a height he hadn't realized they'd attained. He grunted in surprise. No snow was falling, but what was on the ground was indeed drifting sufficiently to obscure their trail. And any pursuer in a position to see them could have been seen by them.

"You're right again," he conceded. "We should be okay. And believe me, Rich, I am grateful that you want to be here."

But I can only "show you the Highlands for the first time" once, he thought sorrowfully. I hoped I'd be able to make this an annual pilgrimage, but I can't risk it. I'll have to settle for praying at Connor's grave today...and never again.

As they rode on, another worry began to nag at him. "I wonder if the snow's deep enough to cover the headstone? I didn't want it to be visible from a distance-- just a marker for my own future use. I couldn't have made it much bigger, anyway, and carried it in my backpack. But I didn't think about snow."

Richie cast a sidelong glance at him. "You said when you came here before, Connor's Quickening guided you to the spot where he'd buried Heather. You don't...feel him now?"

"No," he admitted. "I always knew that sense of contact would fade with the passage of time."

But I didn't know how empty I'd feel when it did. It's only been two months! Please, Connor, don't desert me...

Aloud, he continued quickly, "But don't worry, we won't get lost. I remember the landmarks. All it means is that I may have to poke through the snow for the headstone to find the exact location of the grave."

One grave, not two. He knew that was what Connor would have wanted.

After a long silence, Richie said, "Mac? There's something I need to know. Forgive me if this is painful..."

"Go on, Rich. You can ask me anything."

"Well...if you're my father, some Immortal must have been yours. Do you believe it was Connor? You must have thought about it. I know he wouldn't have cheated on Heather, but she died a few years before you were born, right?"

Duncan's breath caught sharply in his throat. The question had opened a wound that was still raw, a wound left by the shattering of a cherished hope.

"Yes, I thought about it," he said slowly. "I had this idea that all Immortal parents and children might somehow be drawn together, the way you and I were. Fathers unknowingly taking on their own sons as students.

"And you're right about Heather. But I learned from Connor's Quickening that it wasn't possible. It was more than a century after her death before he had sex with another woman."

"My God," Richie whispered.

Duncan wondered whether the young man was recalling how soon after Tessa's murder *he* had fallen into the sack with Annie Devlin.

He must have been aware of it. That episode had to do with drink, and mutual comfort. But it was only a year later that I began a relationship with Anne Lindsay.

"Connor and I were different in many ways," he acknowledged ruefully. "He was my 'true brother'! In spirit, if not blood. But sometimes I think the differences between us outweighed the similarities. I suppose they were all caused by our life experiences..."

After another protracted silence--during which Duncan became uncomfortably aware that the wind was picking up, and the temperature dropping--Richie mumbled, "Uh, like you said, I didn't really know him."

Duncan realized that was as close as his son would come to asking for more details.

"I'll try to explain," he said. "But to make it clear, I have to tell you something about myself. Something I only discovered because of you."

"Huh? Because of me?"

"It was two years ago, when you thought I was Ahriman and almost took my head. And I knew you'd be devastated when you found out what you'd done. Remember how I tried to...shape my Quickening, to give you reasons to go on living?"

"God, yes. I'll never forget." Richie sounded as awed as he'd been at the time, when a miracle--no other term would do--had enabled him to pick up the Highlander's thoughts without taking that Quickening.

"I tried to tell you it was crucial for you to live on. To work for a better world, but also, to see all the glories that were coming. I urged you--at least I tried to urge you--to journey to the stars. You'd be taking a part of me with you, my Quickening. I remember thinking, 'I want you to take me to the stars!'"

"Yes." Richie nodded vigorously. "I somehow 'heard' those words."

"Well, I wasn't consciously lying, but I'd never thought about that before. In fact, earlier that night, I had believed my useful life was over, and genuinely wanted to die." Duncan gazed affectionately at his son. "Finding you alive snapped me out of that funk. But it was only later that it hit me. Much as I miss Tessa and Darius and Fitz--and now, Connor--I really do want to live for thousands of years! And journey to other worlds...

"I think the explanation may be that I'm interested in everything going on around me, and I have a compulsion to learn how it all turns out. Does that make sense?"

"Perfect sense. Except...I take it you don't believe in the Gathering? Or at least, you don't believe it's coming soon?"

"I don't believe in the Gathering at all," Duncan said flatly. "Unless it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even that could only happen if new Immortals stop being born."

"Ohhh...kay. So that's a difference between you and Connor. I remember you telling me he was always obsessed with the Gathering. Even convinced himself once that it was all over, and he'd won the Prize."

"Right. And he had this...mystique, as my teacher. Whenever I spent time with him, he was able to get me fired up about it! But after we split up, it would only be a matter of time till I asked myself, 'What was I thinking of?'

"Like you said, that was a difference between us. But there was an even bigger one. Connor truly belonged to the sixteenth century, in a way I never did to the seventeenth. I think that was because he had a loving, fifty-year marriage to a woman of his own time. Sure there were problems--the clan rejecting him, Ramirez being killed, then his mother. But on the whole, he knew great happiness in that time. That *world*.

"On the other hand, he lost his teacher early--a man who might have been his friend for centuries. And later, a mysterious Enemy began killing anyone he cared for. So he learned to keep people at a distance, and he was never really happy again." Duncan sighed. "He even kept me at arm's length. I know now that after Ramirez, I was the only Immortal he...loved. As family. But he never let me see it."

"Maybe his having to cope with that Enemy made him paranoid in a general sense," Richie suggested. "Made him disposed to believe in the Gathering."

"Maybe. Though from what he told me, Ramirez believed in it too."

They rode in silence for several minutes. Then Duncan made himself say what was in his heart. "Connor's death tore me up...but it wasn't a tragedy for *him*. He wanted to die. I think he'd wanted that for a long time, though he was too brave a man to throw his life away for no reason.

"When he was in Seacouver in '92, I heard him singing to himself. Just a snatch of song... I asked him what it was, and he seemed embarrassed.

"Then he admitted he'd heard this scrap of music somewhere--he didn't know what it was, but it reminded him, somehow, of home. So he'd put his own words to it..."

And as he rode, Duncan lifted his voice in song.

"The hills and the moors of the land of my birth Still beckon me home from the ends of the earth. For the love of my youth, My moment of truth, Waits there for e'er to sleep beside me."

As the last eerie note died away, Richie murmured, "Oh, wow."

Minutes passed before he could say shakily, "Now I know why you were so sure of his wishes. Do you believe he really is with Heather, somehow? That only a part of him is with you?"

"I have to believe that." Duncan was blinking back tears. "There must be more to us than the damned Quickenings!"

And besides, I don't feel him with me.

He brought his voice under control with an effort. "I think they were reunited on some other plane of existence. Outside time. So Heather didn't have to endure centuries of waiting."

"Only Connor did."


At a loss for more words, they lapsed into brooding silence. And as the afternoon sun dipped lower in the sky, the cold drove even thoughts of Connor out of their minds. Grimly, they forced their mounts onward and upward into the hills. Duncan's face went numb; he could hear Richie's teeth chattering, as well as his own.

At long last, he recognized a familiar pattern of crags. "We're almost there!" he announced. Richie's slumped form straightened in the saddle.

And then--suddenly, incomprehensibly--Duncan sensed the presence of another Immortal.

Here? In the middle of nowhere?

He gave his horse's reins a convulsive jerk--just as Richie did the same. Both animals neighed and reared, almost throwing their disoriented riders. But the men somehow kept their seats and regained control.

Richie said, "This is impossible. There's no way in hell an Immortal could have followed us!"

"You're right. No way." Duncan's heart was in his mouth. "And the sensation's coming from up ahead. Oh, God!"


"There's only one possibility. No Immortal could have followed us today, in this snow--but he could have tracked me two months ago, staying out of sensing range. I thought I was being careful. But I was grieving over Connor, wasn't really myself."

Richie frowned. "So you're saying this mystery Immortal got here ahead of us today because he already knew where to go? *Why?*"

"I...I don't know..."

To desecrate the grave. Why else? If he's touched anything more than the headstone... Oh God, this can't be happening!

"If he intended any kind of vandalism, he could have done it right after you left, two months ago," Richie said reasonably. "And he couldn't have known we'd be here today." Sudden hope dawned in his eyes. "Wait. Maybe this person is a friend of Connor's--even a lover! Afraid to approach you. And he--no, she--came today for the same reason we did. Because it's Connor's birthday."

"He didn't have Immortal friends or lovers," Duncan said miserably. "He was afraid to be close to anyone."

"Someone may have loved him," Richie insisted. "Even if he didn't give her any encouragement."

They knew they could only obtain answers by going forward. Holding their swords at the ready, they spurred the horses on again. Circled a boulder that had blocked their view, and gazed out over a field of snow.

The headstone--if it was still there--was buried, as Duncan had feared.

But he saw the Immortal. And froze in disbelief.

For their mystery man--and yes, it was a man--was huddled, shivering, in the snow.

Stark naked.

Dimly aware of Richie's shocked gasp, Duncan slipped down from his horse and stumbled forward. He reached the frigid body and cradled it in his arms, brushing wet hair back from the face.

Glazed eyes peered up at him, and a cracked voice whispered, "Duncan. I knew ye'd come! My...true... brother..."

Then Connor MacLeod passed out.

Two days later

"And of course, we both had changes of clothes in our packs," Richie was telling a still-amazed Joe Dawson. "We'd planned to spend a night in another inn before coming back here. So we got Connor dry and dressed, somehow, and put him across Mac's horse. We took turns walking."

Duncan gazed down at the tankard of ale he clutched in both hands. Hands that refused to stop shaking.

His voice was no steadier. "If Richie hadn't been there, I think I would have gone to pieces. Been so sure I was having a mental breakdown that I really would have had one."

Connor said loyally, "No, you wouldn't."

But he said it without conviction.

The men were seated around a rough oak table in the tavern area of Rachel MacLeod's inn, which she'd closed for their "private party." Despite some misgivings on Richie's part, all four had shared a traditional meal of haggis.

Duncan hadn't been completely sure Connor wasn't a ghost till he watched him eat.

Though ghosts are supposed to be pale and emaciated... Connor has never looked better. In fact, he seems to have shed a dozen years!

The elder Highlander caught him staring. He said gently, "I swear I didn't know this would happen when I asked you to take my head, Duncan. Right now I'm the most surprised man on the planet."

Joe gave a bemused shake of his head. "You might have some rivals for that title."

"No, I think it's all mine. Bad enough that I tried to make a noble sacrifice, only to come back to life on my *birth day*." Connor made the words distinctly separate, and spat them out with distaste. "On top of that, I'm learning Duncan had become a much more powerful Immortal than I knew. Well able to defeat Jacob Kell on his own. My death wish may actually have weakened him."

Duncan tried to protest, but Connor was on a roll. "As if that wasn't enough, I hear the Watchers are out to kill me and anyone who has contact with me. And if I'd had my wits about me--if I wasn't always so singleminded about my obsessions--I would have known that, from the moment I walked away from their blasted Sanctuary." He drained his ale tankard and slammed it into the table, for no particular reason.

"Are you through?" As usual, Duncan found himself functioning better when there was a need to cheer someone else. "It's not true that I could have taken Kell alone. Or that you weakened me.

"When you and I met on that rooftop...yes, I did believe I could defeat him. I'd seen through Joe's little trick."

Joe had already admitted that he'd deliberately misled Duncan about his "confirmed kills"--and, for that matter, Connor's--in an attempt to convince him they stood no chance against Kell. His real motive in trying to keep Duncan out of it had been to protect him from the Watchers.

"I believed you could take him just as easily," Duncan went on, "if you gave yourself time to recover from the Sanctuary experience--to get back in shape and practice." Their eyes met, and he said sotto voce, "Yes, I know now that there was more involved. I really did receive your Quickening..."

We can discuss that later. If there ever is a "later."

"I despaired of making you understand. And, yes, the reason I let myself be persuaded to take your head was the one you never thought of. I was sure the Watchers wouldn't let you live! I knew that in the state of mind I was seeing, you wouldn't defend yourself. And I couldn't bear the thought of your Quickening being lost."

He needed to steady himself with a deep breath before he could continue. "The fight with Kell was much harder than I expected. You weren't aware, Connor, that I'd stopped taking heads several years ago. I knew that in this crisis, I had to do it--to save your Quickening, and stop Kell's desecrations of holy ground. But it was one thing to know that, another to act.

"In mid-fight with him, I was questioning my motive. Was it really what I thought, or was I seeking revenge? For his murdering Kate, making me kill you?

"Worst of all, Joe and I hadn't realized how dangerous Kell really was. The nine Immortals he'd murdered in the Sanctuary were extremely old and powerful. Not just swordsmen, hypnotists and magicians. He was only gradually assimilating their power--but he *was* doing it. If he'd had another week, he would have been unstoppable.

"As it was...I swear this is true, Connor. The part of you that was in me realized I was losing, and came to the fore. And together, we defeated him."

Connor studied him for a long minute before saying evenly, "And now you have all those sorcerers' power?"

Duncan met his gaze without evasion. "Yes, in theory. But I've vowed never to use it, not even try to learn how to wield it. And I've sworn off taking heads again."

Connor looked into his onetime student's eyes, and seemed satisfied with what he saw. He gave a quick, crisp nod. "All right. I'm glad to know I really was able to help. Now can I have a refill on that ale?"

Joe poured drinks all around, then said with feigned casualness, "Okay, Connor, you've had time to think. Any ideas about your resurrection? They won't go beyond this room."

Connor took a long swig. Then he said, "An idea, yes." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "I didn't expect it. Didn't...want it." He stared into the depths of his drink. "But I think I know...what must have been involved...

"Duncan!" His head shot up again, and he now wore such a bright smile that the man addressed feared a change not only of mood, but of subject. "My first student. Remember when I tried to convince you that you could breathe under water?"

Duncan made a face. "I remember, all right. A nasty trick to play on a newbie. I almost drowned."

"My apologies. Heh heh...better late than never, right?" Connor leaned forward intently, and looked around the table to make sure he had everyone's attention. "I wasn't completely honest with you, Duncan. I let you think that was a practical joke, because I didn't want to scare you--maybe make you feel inferior.

"It was really a test. The only way I could find out whether you could breathe under water.

"You see...I actually can."

His listeners gaped at him, dumbstruck.

Then, as if a dam had burst, they all began talking at once.

Connor held up a hand for silence. "It's true," he said. "And there's more. Until you beheaded me, Duncan, I had never had a 'first death'!"

"Wha-at?" Duncan was almost sputtering. "That's impossible!"

"No, it's not," Connor said in his most reasonable voice. "I'll explain it as Ramirez did to me. There are two kinds of Immortals--I suppose they'd be called subspecies today.

"You and Richie belong to the group that's much more numerous. You can 'die,' temporarily, in any number of ways. After the 'first death' you stop aging, and all your injuries heal super-quickly. You can only be killed permanently by beheading.

"I belong to the other subspecies--so did Ramirez and the Kurgan. We can't 'die,' even short-term, by any means other than beheading. For example, we can't drown.

"And there's no distinction between pre-Immortals and full Immortals. We become aware of our Immortality the first time we come extremely close to death--and recover as if by magic.

"We never actually stop aging. But we age very slowly. Slowly enough to permit living for thousands of years, so it's not a problem."

Joe whistled softly. "That explains something that's always puzzled me. According to our Chronicles, you had your first death at eighteen. Not that you haven't always looked great, but--eighteen? No way."

Connor acknowledged that with a fleeting grin. "Ramirez had learned before he approached me that we were the same," he continued. "But I wasn't sure about you, Duncan. The accounts that had come out of Glenfinnan were too vague.

"Maybe I should have told you more. If I'd been older myself at the time, I might have had a clearer idea what to do. But like I said, I thought it might upset you-- and there didn't seem to be a need for it. Ramirez only told me because he knew I'd meet way more of you than of us."

Duncan shook his head in disbelief. "Wh-why didn't I learn anything about this from your Quickening?"

"Because it's something I took for granted, like the color of my hair," Connor said gently. "I hadn't thought about it in years."

Then his face clouded. "In practice, it's never made a real difference. Until now."

"Let me get this straight. You're saying...your race is capable of coming back after beheading?" Duncan wondered if he sounded as dazed as he felt.

Connor frowned. "Don't get me wrong. I've never heard of such a thing--and I'm sure Ramirez never did, or he would have told me.

"But what could it be, if not the one difference I know of between me and most other Immortals?"

No one had an answer for that.

At last Duncan said, "Ramirez was beheaded. And you beheaded the Kurgan. They didn't come back to life...did they?"

"No. But I've been thinking about that. Duncan, I can't believe you brought a body and severed head--secretly-- all the way from New York to the Highlands. What exactly did you bring?"

Too late, Duncan saw where this was going.

To a place he'd hoped never to visit again.

In a choked voice, he said, "Ashes."

"I think that's it," Connor breathed. "Even though I buried Ramirez's head and body in the same coffin-- placed the head on his shoulders--they were still separate. You had my remains cremated--" He made a strangled sound at that point, as if he'd just heard what he was saying. But then he swallowed hard and continued. "All the ashes were mingled together."

They sat in shocked silence for five minutes, until Richie broke the spell by muttering, "But the ashes were in an urn. Buried..."

Connor shrugged. "How do bullets get out of Immortals' bodies?"

After more reflection, Richie spoke up again. "Is it possible any dead Immortal could be revived that way?"

All three older men shook their heads. "Immortals are often cremated," Duncan told him. "If they were routinely coming back to life, we would have heard about it long ago. But something that only affects a small subgroup could have gone unnoticed."

Connor said bitterly, "I wonder if I revived when I did because it was New Year's, or because it was my stupid birthday? For which I was, in a sense, appropriately dressed...

"God. For all I know, my subspecies may all be born on New Year's. Or something like it in other cultures."

"Connor..." Richie hesitated, then plunged ahead. "I have to ask. From our point of view, you were dead for two months. Did you experience anything on the other side?"

Duncan winced.

"Not a frigging thing. Or if I did, I can't remember it." Connor closed his eyes, but not before Duncan had glimpsed the pain in their depths. "I felt a hard hit to the side of my neck...just a stunning blow, no sensation of being cut. And next thing I knew I was sitting in the snow, buck naked, wondering how I'd gotten there.

"I...I think, for the rest of my days, I'll be...trying to remember. To recall if I actually did see my bonny Heather...

"Damn it, it's not fair!" This time it was his fist that crashed into the table, and sent cutlery flying. "Life is never fair."

In the strained silence that followed, Duncan saw that Richie had gone deathly pale, and looked almost physically ill. As for Joe, he clutched at the flagon of ale, poured himself a drink, and downed it in a succession of rapid gulps.

He himself was fighting the urge to slide down in his chair, try to make himself smaller. Invisible.

But I'm not invisible. I can't hide, can't slink away. And I can't escape what I have to do. What I've known in my heart, from the moment I said that cursed word "ashes."

He pushed the chair back and heaved himself to his feet. "Connor," he said hoarsely. "You know that...I love you."

Connor looked up at him, eyes widening in surprise.

He made himself go on, though the words seemed torn from his throat. "If...if you truly want to die, and you believe there's a way you can stay dead..."

More chair movements, accompanied by gasps of horror.

"I...I it again." He tried to smile. "N-no ashes. I promise."

Connor's jaw had dropped. "Duncan, I didn't expect--"

"No!" And Richie was also on his feet, throwing a protective arm around his father.

"Don't put him through that again, Connor." It was an order, not a request. And the voice was firm.

"If you want to die, let me take your head. I'm young, but I have more experience than you did at my age. I'll make it quick and clean."

"Stay out of this, Richie!" Duncan pleaded. "It's my responsibility--"

"No, it isn't," said Connor. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. "I won't do this, not to either of you.

"The truth is"--he sniffled, and wiped disgustedly at the tears--"I don't so much 'want to die' as want to be dead. To have the dying part over and done with. But if I can't die without hurting people I love, I'll settle for living. Hell, I've been doing it for almost five hundred years."

Duncan was afraid to believe. "You won't let your guard down the next time an Immortal challenges you?"

Connor sighed. "No, I give you my word I won't."

"The Watchers. They still want to kill you. And if they do, your Quickening will be lost forever, because I don't think I have any part of it now--"

"Then I'll just have to evade the Watchers, won't I?"

Joe, who'd been uncharacteristically quiet for some time, cleared his throat. "I may be able to help you there, Connor. If you stay in touch, I'll give you the name and photo of anyone who's actively searching for you."

"I may have to kill some of them."

Joe grimaced, but said quickly, "Yeah, I know. I trust you. If you kill anyone, I'll accept that it was self-defense.

"And remember, they aren't even sure you're alive! In fact, the most popular theory as to why no one's spotted you or Kell is that you killed him, and one of his posse murdered you while you were weakened by the Quickening." He gave a faint chuckle. "My suggestion."

Duncan's face must have betrayed his anxiety, because Connor rose, came around the table, and pulled him into a crushing embrace. Then he extended an arm to include Richie.

"Don't worry, Duncan," he said as he released them. "I'll die in the Game, someday, somewhere. An honorable death. And I won't make any requests about my remains. No risking your life to recover my body and prevent cremation! It can be left to fate."

"You...won't be able to stay with us." Duncan had known that from the start, but it didn't ease the hurt.

"No. That's one of the things I meant by saying life is never fair. The old Enemy is dead, and I *still* can't risk being close to anyone." Connor's voice throbbed with regret, and his eyes were moist again. But he gave Duncan's hand an affectionate squeeze, then said gently, "Now that I'm on my feet, I think it's time to go."

An hour later, Duncan dropped into a chair opposite Joe. Their "party" had officially ended, but thanks to the bitter weather, they still had the tavern to themselves.

Duncan said wearily, "Thank God he didn't take us up on those offers to kill him. Do you think he will fight to stay alive, Joe, out of a sense of honor? Even though he really wants to die?"

"I hope so." Joe took a long drink, then said, "I may as well tell you this, Mac. I don't buy his theory about cremation. The business with the ashes."

Duncan straightened slowly in his chair. "Wh-why?"

"Because I have a better one." After a beat, the Watcher added grimly, "I wish I didn't."

"Another theory to explain Connor's coming back to life?" Duncan was mystified. "Why didn't you--"

"Do you believe in the Gathering?" Joe asked abruptly.

Duncan blinked, then said carefully, "Richie and I were talking about that the other day. I'll tell you what I told him. I think it might conceivably happen, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I don't believe it's inevitable, that we're a bunch of lemmings being drawn to some irresistible doom."

"Despite what your teacher told you."

"That's right. I love Connor, but he's a fanatic on that subject. Has an obsessive streak, in general--he admits it himself. What are you getting at, Joe?"

"Just this." Joe locked eyes with his friend. "Most Immortals, even headhunters, don't take the Gathering any more seriously than you do. 'There can be only one' is usually just another way of saying, 'This town's not big enough for both of us.' The Game is an excuse for killing, not the real reason.

"But back in '85, a handful of Immortals--the Kurgan, Kastagir, Fasil and a few others--really did rush to New York like so many lemmings. Connor, of course, was already there."

"I know. They somehow got carried away, believed they were the only ones left, and thought it was the time of the Gathering..." Duncan's voice trailed off.

Joe leaned across the table. "Nothing like that had ever happened before," he said, emphasizing every word. "And now we know that the Kurgan, at least, belonged to the same 'subspecies' as Connor. A group that was never very numerous.

"Mac, I think that was the Gathering! Although they didn't realize it, it was never meant to include any but that subspecies. For them, it was a true biological imperative."

Duncan took a slow, deep breath. "But if that's so, if that much was real...Connor should have won some sort of Prize.

"H-he didn't. He imagined he'd become mortal--that clearly wasn't true. And his supposed mind-reading was nothing more than an empathic ability we all have. It's suppressed, for the most part, by the nature of the lives we lead."

"I think he did win the Prize, Mac," Joe said quietly. "But what he won--and is stuck with--was the last thing he would have wanted. So he's been in denial ever since.

"I believe that Prize is the real reason he came back to life after you beheaded him.

"Connor MacLeod will never be able to join Heather. He's become literally, absolutely...IMMORTAL."


AUTHOR'S AFTERWORD: If you're wondering, I'm not a fan who was unwilling to accept Connor's death. I just couldn't resist this story idea, which suggested a way to acknowledge and actually use those maddening inconsistencies between the first Highlander film and the series.