"Why must you do this!" Fear and anger distorted Tessa's lovely features.
"I have to help Connor," Duncan sighed, glancing at her, turning his back on more passion than he could bear. He was ever cut to the bone by the depth and the fury of her love.
"I am coming with you." She crossed her arms, the battle proffered, daring him to deny her the right.
"Tessa, it's too dangerous. You know what I will have to do, you know how this will end."
"I know how you intend for it to end. I know how I hope it will end. You can't do everything by yourself, Duncan." She placed herself in front of him, one hand on his arm so that he could not turn away from her again. "Listen to me. I am here for you, but I can do more than just wait around for things to happen! I care for Connor, too. Let me be a part of this!"
"How?" Duncan flung his arms diagonally, his bitter sarcasm fueled by a repressed sense of urgency and the premature rush of adrenaline that accompanied the mental clash between a common sense call to wait and a desperate need for immediate resolution.
"Let me be your wife." She matched his snarl with a smile and raised him a saucy tilt of her head.
Marriage was not a priority at the moment and Duncan opened his mouth to tell her so even as his manic resolve shrank from her skilled advance. Tessa abruptly turned, paced to a display and frowned so intently that Duncan found himself awaiting the sculpture's levitation.
"You are on the outside, looking in," she nodded and caressed the figure gently. "You can't just walk past the guard house into the park without interference from security unless you are living there."
"Those condos are very expensive," Duncan intoned with an upward roll of his eyes, "and they only accept…"
Tessa smiled and waited for him to catch up. Duncan reached for her in spite of himself and nuzzled the top of her head. "You are one smart lady," he murmured.
She laughed and pushed him away. "Yes, I am!"
"I still can't let you do this." Her smile faded with a sharp exclamation of protest. "No, Tessa! I am not willing to endanger you by involving you in my battles."
"When will you learn that I am involved? Everything that affects you, affects me, and I won't sit still and chew my nails while I wait to hear whether you and Connor are dead! Felicia Martins is a madwoman, and she is determined to kill you this time! What she failed to do through Richie and me, she wants to do through Connor."
"She hasn't killed him yet," Duncan simmered. "She let me talk with him on the phone. She has him drugged, but she won't kill him," he turned to face Tessa, "until I am there to watch her do it."
"I can't allow that happen." Duncan's steady voice belied the tremor that ascended his spine at the thought of losing Connor. "I have to stop her. She won't put forth terms or conditions. She's taunting me, dragging out her demands, making me wait for confrontation."
"So you lease a condo," Tessa said, "and move your family in. We'll be in a different building, far enough away that Felicia will not be able to perceive your presence. If you don't have to worry about getting past guards and dodging security, you will be able to rescue Connor and take care of Felicia quickly."
"Nice in theory, but it would take time," Duncan retorted, "that neither Connor nor I have to waste. Our 'family' would have to be approved, and…what?"
Tessa swallowed her satisfied smile and shrugged. "It's taken care of, Duncan. Your nephew, recently accepted to Harvard, is negotiating the lease at this very moment. He will be staying with us, you know, between semesters. I told him to go ahead with this plan. I thought you would be easier to convince. I didn't expect you to put up such a fight."
Consternation dilated Duncan's eyes as he turned on Tessa. "Richie is out there, on his own, in the vicinity of Felicia Martins? Do you know what she'll do if she sees him!"
"I know what she will do if she sees any of us, Duncan, and so does Richie. He isn't entering the park, just filling out paperwork at the front office. In case it has escaped your notice, Felicia isn't exactly on Richie's list of fondest memories, either."
Before Duncan could reply, the door opened wide and Richie strolled into the shop, smoothing his topcoat and humming off-key. Amusement momentarily distracted Duncan from his rant as he studied this incorrigible young friend who had so very much to learn about himself, who so eagerly flung caution to the wind in efforts to help Duncan win battles that he would, himself, someday fight alone.
"It's done," Richie grinned, palms together toward Tessa. "All my uncle and his lovely bride have to do is sign the lease in, oh, three dozen places, offer your firstborn as collateral…sorry," he cringed, "and the condo is ours!"
Duncan elevated an eyebrow.
"Well, I meant yours, of course," Richie rescinded. "After all, I will be going to college soon. How 'bout that Crimson…" he raised a tentative fist.
"Hope you've snagged a scholarship." Duncan knew when he was defeated, and knew enough to appreciate that if his defeat was Tessa's victory, at least they were now and forever on the same side.
He reached out and took her hand. "Come on then," he threw an arm across Richie's shoulders. "Let's go sign our lease."
"Ah, you'll need these," Richie held out a small stack for each of them.
"What's this?" Duncan rifled through identification and credit cards, what appeared to be information on previous loans, and…a birth certificate? He glared at Richie. "Who the hell is Marc Cameron?" He snatched Tessa's paperwork away from her. "And Melissa? Marc and Melissa Cameron?"
Richie shrugged. "I had to come up with paperwork quick, and my friend already had most of this stuff lying around. He was also working on papers for a man named Cumberland, but I felt pretty certain you wouldn't be interested in using that name."
Duncan bristled and Tessa linked arms with him as Richie fled to the car. "We couldn't exactly go in there as Mr. and Mrs. Duncan MacLeod, now could we?" She kissed the steel jaw line and it relaxed, slightly, at her touch.
"What am I going to do with both of you," Duncan muttered.
"Let us help you when we can. Don't rob us of the pleasure of being there for you when you need us."
Duncan kissed the tip of Tessa's nose. She stepped back and took his hand.
"Now, it's time. Let's go and get Connor."
Her life had ever been brutal and loud and she neither knew nor cared how to live it any other way. On occasion it had been necessary to try, but no one ever really changed; the actual person always surfaced through the soul, invaded the conscience and occupied the eyes, and reclaimed that from which it had been temporarily evicted, whether by pressing need or the best of intentions.
Intentions, she had learned, played tremendously to her favor. Bad ones were exploitable, but good ones made the bearer as malleable as clay and she was, from lifetimes of practice, capable of manipulating unique and functional results from the original product. Emotions were the simplest of instruments, like cheap musical toys that emitted what noises were demanded of them and were easily broken into permanent silence. She used what she needed and discarded what was left when she needed something more.
Providence had fortuitously placed her at an estate auction. She loathed the eagerness of heirs to liquidate the assets of the still-warm deceased and plunder the spoils. She harbored no reservations about stealing - begging was beneath her and borrowing smacked of commitment - and would relieve a crowd or a safe with equal fervor. She had been sifting through the gathering, mentally cataloguing those whose appearances advertised the greatest financial worth, when she sensed another immortal and promptly dropped her head over a leaflet, a studious patron among multitudes of bargain hunters, invisible as though she did not exist at all. The immortal came incredibly close, even as she emptied a few more pockets, dangerously close, sickeningly close, forcing her to abandon the area among a group of publicly grieving profligates, moving until she escaped the sensation altogether. She was unable to determine who among the crowd shared her Gift - or Curse, from her own perspective - until suspicions were sorted from among the day's cache.
She emptied Russell Nash's wallet and found, amidst identification and credit cards, a photograph of Duncan MacLeod and his Tessa.
The face ignited an explosion of memories and reopened a wound still festering from the ignominy of defeat, all the more humiliating because it was witnessed by a mortal she had seduced, used, intended to destroy. Duncan MacLeod had arrived as anticipated and not only deprived her of the pleasure of killing the boy - to make Duncan watch him die - but had bloody near taken her own head. Her life had been spared on request of the idiot mortal, who obviously still cherished fantasies of the "love" they had shared. That, at least, made her laugh. Duncan MacLeod had killed her and left her - a loser, after all the trouble she had gone through to infiltrate his life, determined to slay those most precious to him in order to weaken him, make him willing, even eager to die. Unfortunately, they had proven as reluctant to accept death as MacLeod himself. No matter. She had left then, knowing she would fight MacLeod another day. When it came down to that, his mortal friend, Richie, would also be worth more to her when he had…she smiled deliciously…matured.
A call to the credit card company to allegedly correct a potential billing error achieved the name of Nash's hotel. She waited for him in the morning, placed herself in his path, turned her ankle at the appropriate time. Good intentions took care of the rest. Amidst verbal protests that she was all right and facial expressions indicating that she most definitely was not, Russell offered coffee and company to recompense his guilt for her injury and allow her time to heal. She was in the mood to smile and he was in the mood to talk and their immortal camaraderie during the next forty-five minutes proved most conducive to her cause.
Security and isolation were her next requirements, and she had found both within acceptable range of MacLeod's own shop. Condominiums meandered through the park like dutiful ants, each following the other. There was, however, a band of trees and a manmade lake between the traditional and the newly built; if she had been amused to learn that the park was restricted to family units, she found yet more mirth in the intimation that most families residing in the park discreetly enrolled their children in boarding schools; did she plan to follow suit?
In case she did not, she would be encouraged to wait for one of the larger condos beyond the lake. They were intended for families whose children would live with them year around. The separation and distance were planned to discourage any intrusion on current residents who would not appreciate the constant noise and zeal of other people's children roaming the park.
Though children were neither consideration nor option, she had pounced on a lease of the newest condo, not yet available, in a building that was not otherwise ready for occupation. The park manager was aghast at her request for that specific living space; she would be alone in the building, have to deal with the traffic of such as carpet layers and electricians visiting adjoining units at odd hours, suffer the lingering smells of paint and, worst of all, this condo did not look out across the beautifully landscaped park. Instead, her view would be restricted to a forest at her back, a playground to her left, and a cul de sac beyond her front door.
After confirming her husband's job transfer and assuring that he would be joining her within a couple of days, and after blackening the office with shadows of doubt as to whether or not her three children would also be residing in the park, she took her key, arranged for the delivery of furniture courtesy of the morning's acquired credit cards, and settled in for the drive back to Nash's hotel.
He opened the door as she was about to knock and she plunged the needle through his shirt into his chest before the smile of recognition had a chance to light his eyes. She shoved him back into the room and hastily piled his belongings into his suitcase. She was about to lower the lid when something in a pocket caught her eye: a wallet. But she had stolen Nash's wallet! She fished the offending article from amongst the clothing and flipped it open. Her eyes grew wide as she looked through the identification of the unconscious immortal. Incredulous elation merged with shock. Felicia held the wallet tightly in both hands as she turned and hissed at the man on the floor.
"It could use professional help," Tessa smiled gaily as Richie hauled past with a too-large load.
"I've got your old pal, Mr. Russell Nash. You know…Connor MacLeod?" Duncan heard the voice again in the back of his mind as he panthered edgily from one room to the next.
"Your touch is all the help it needs, Tessa," Richie gestured across the glare of sterile white walls. "By the time you're finished decorating, even old Oz won't recognize the place."
Tessa laughed at Richie's reference to the park manager, a blustery gentleman who did, indeed, resemble the classic movie's self-proclaimed wizard. "Careful you don't call him that to his face," she remonstrated. "He might feel insulted."
"Not a problem," Richie peered under a cardboard flap. "My social graces are forever established in the old guy's mind. I got us this place, remember?" He headed off to another room with the box.
"Connor's having a real good time here with me," the voice dripped with malevolence. "You wanna talk to him? He can't come to the phone right now. We're getting ready for bed."
Duncan clenched his fists so tightly he felt his knuckles would burst. Within her first telephone call Felicia had related, if there had been any doubt, that thiopental would render an immortal as helplessly sedated as any mortal human being. The voice that sauntered through the second call, however, stumbled over inflections of vindictive boredom with a hostage merely numbed, for a slumbering victim provided neither entertainment nor benefit. Felicia wanted action, leverage, a live weapon. She wanted to hurt Duncan by hurting Connor. What was she doing to him?
"Where do you think it would look best, Duncan?"
"WHAT?" he roared.
Tessa flinched and backed away as Richie subtly maneuvered a chair between himself and Duncan. One look at the uncertainty in both their eyes added regret to the anxiety already devouring Duncan from the inside out.
"I'm sorry." He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.
"It's working," Tessa said.
"What is working?" He had not moved.
"Felicia's plan to worry you into a frenzy and break down your defenses. You're thinking too much about what Connor might be going through and not enough about what Felicia is planning for a finale."
Duncan gave her an oblique look, angry desperation barely off-balanced by better judgment, and verging dangerously on attack. Tessa's was the voice of logic, rubbing out the gray areas to expose what facts were known. It was growing harder to acknowledge that she was right. Once more, however, he nodded.
"It's been three days since her first call. I don't know what she's putting him through. She won't eliminate Connor in front of me; she knows I would take her head before she felt the first spark of his Quickening. She wants me to see her do it, but can't allow me close enough to stop her or to catch her before she has a chance to recover and escape. She's taking too much time, avoiding a confrontation until she's ready. I have to do something. I am so sick of listening to that raspy, mocking voice every day, suggesting that she is in complete control and there's nothing I can do to stop her."
"Husky," Richie spoke quietly.
Duncan and Tessa looked at him.
"Her voice," Richie said. "It was soft and husky and low, not raspy. It was…" He shrugged and turned awkwardly away.
"I'll even tell you where we're staying - our new home is one of the Pacific Treille condos. I'm sorry you won't be able to visit. Security is tighter than a scared virgin in this place. Oh, and if you try? I'll cut him in pieces, man, I mean it. I'll hack him up alive and mail him to you, one limb at a time." Her laughter was relaxed, confident. "Connor needs me now; I gotta go."
"I have to go," Duncan said. "For a walk," he elaborated at Tessa's look of concern. "Alone," he commanded toward Richie's sidelong glance. "You two finish unpacking, stock the kitchen, make it look like we live here." The door closed with a decisive thump.
Tessa sighed heavily as Richie shrugged into his jacket, loitered by the window until Duncan had disappeared into the shadows, and ghosted out the door in his wake.
She had hardly locked the door behind her men when Duncan's cell phone rang from atop a stack of books. Surprise that he had left it behind was immediately forced aside by apprehension at who the caller might be. She did not recognize the number on the display. She keyed the phone and raised it to her ear. "Hello."
The tension was palpable in that brief moment of silence, broken at length by an abrasive chuckle. "Tessa! My dear, sweet friend. Is your man at home? Mine has something to say to him."
Duncan was being careless and knew it, and reproved himself for conceding to the dangers of distraction and rage even as he refused to turn back. If he sensed her, he told himself, there would be time enough to withdraw from her presence before she discovered his identity and punished Connor for his interference. It troubled him deeply that he had not felt her already in the three days of coming and going to move in acceptable furnishings and necessities for their brief stay in the exorbitantly priced condominium. Richie had covertly prowled through the park each day only to return empty and apologetic. None of their new neighbors had seen a woman who matched Felicia's description. The nagging suggestion that it was all a lie clamored for a prominent position among Duncan's myriad doubts and fears.
He kept walking, hard and fast, releasing stress and tension through the exertion. The last building came and went and still he walked, following the paved lane along a heavily wooded area that seemed to draw darkness into itself from the gathering dusk. The lane veered sharply, leaving Duncan the option of changing direction or walking directly into the forest. He continued straight ahead and found himself, upon emerging from a considerable brush, standing at the edge of a lake.
He paused at the unexpected pleasure. Mist was already drifting upward from the middle of the lake, whispering of peace and consolation and long-forgotten childhood lore. The evening was silent and cool. He sat cross-legged on a flat rock and breathed heavenward, closing his eyes, allowing himself to go still.
When at last he opened his eyes and stood and stretched, the moon had established a brilliant reign over lesser planets against a backdrop of liquid black infinity. Fog possessed the lakeshore, enswathing him in an eerie netherworld gloom. One last appreciative look across the water twitched into a double take as he turned to go.
Gazing through translucent layers of fog, Duncan made out a row of new buildings beyond the lake, presumably additional condominiums, which appeared to be in various stages of construction. The mist and the moonlight and the skeletal frames backed by evergreens created an atmosphere of foreboding, suggesting entertainment might best be sought elsewhere. One detail was not in keeping with the rest; in the first building, which appeared nearer completion than the others, a window was brightly lit. Duncan stared, frustrated that circumstances prevented a study in more detail. After a moment, he started back the way he had come.
A muffled sound brought out his sword as he entered the woods. The sight of Richie asleep in the undergrowth teased forth a smile, gently unfamiliar of late. Duncan crept away, found a small stone and tossed it in Richie's direction. When he was sure Richie was awake and following, Duncan continued on his way home.
The approach of uneven footsteps sent Duncan silently within the shadows of intricately sculptured shrubbery. He cautiously stepped back into the path when he recognized the park manager.
"Oh! Good evening," the old man huffed. "Gave me quite a scare, you did, standing in the bushes like that. What are you doing out here this time of night?"
"I might ask the same of you," Duncan countered.
"Just out for my evening constitutional," he replied. "A bit of fresh air does a body good, it does. I have an assistant, I do, but he is on vacation and I am left with the park all to myself. A lot of responsibility, this. I usually take my walk early in the evening, but until my assistant returns I will be getting out late if I do at all."
"I just discovered the lake," Duncan began.
"Yes! The lake, yes, isn't it nice. The new residences will be ready for occupation in four more months. We won't officially open that end of the park until everything is ready for public viewing."
"There was a light in the building nearest the lake," Duncan continued.
"Yes, well, one of the units in that building was nearly enough completed that a lady wanted it, wanted to go ahead and live there despite all the goings on, construction, noise…I tried to discourage her, I did, but she was determined, wouldn't have it any other way. She said her husband would be joining her upon completion of his job transfer. She wasn't sure if the children would be along, but I haven't seen them yet. I haven't seen her husband, either, nor have I spoken with her since she moved in."
With an effort Duncan controlled his breathing, his voice. "I have been looking for a friend whom I was fairly certain had moved here. What does this woman look like?"
"She has black hair, shoulder-length, yes, and dark eyes. Slim, reasonably attractive. And she has that low, sultry voice, she does; that is how she gets her way; it is."
Duncan gave one stiff nod. "Thank you." And walked away.
"Does she sound like your friend?"
Duncan stopped dead, his features hard with anger that he did not want the old gentleman to see. "No," he flung over his shoulder, and walked home.
He lingered by the door, pulling his emotions in check. He abstractly studied the escutcheon placed at eye level upon their arrival, announcing the "Cameron" residence. Each door was graced with a similar boast of the family inside. Was that truly the Cameron coat of arms? It had been so long since he last had seen it…
Richie came trotting around the building and halted, guilty, at the sight of Duncan waiting for him by the door. Duncan motioned him inside and together they encountered Tessa.
"Hours ago. I came looking for you, but didn't know where you had gone."
"Don't ever do that. Not with Felicia around. Please don't go anywhere without either Richie or me until this is over." Duncan took her hands in his. "What did she say?"
"She just rambled on and on; she talked about how much she enjoyed living with us and how nice we were to her, but how we had upset all her plans. Duncan, I think she's crazy!"
"Did she talk about Connor?"
Tessa swallowed hard and nodded, a hand going to her mouth as tears filled her eyes.
"What? Tell me!"
"She didn't really say anything; I asked to talk to him and she said he only wanted to talk to you. She said he has a tremendous fondness for 'chalk' and that he can't get enough. Duncan, what does that mean? When I asked her what it was, she hung up on me."
"Chalk," Duncan muttered, glanced at Richie's expression, and froze.
"I hope she means the kind used in the classroom, not the kind traded behind the building after school."
"There's no time for games, Richie. What is it?"
"I-i-it's Meth, Mac. You know…crank…speed?"
"Methamphetamine? So help me God, if she has…what do you know about it? What does it do?"
"It's highly addictive. She's probably been shooting him up, but if he's hooked on it already, he might be smoking the stuff by now. It's easy to get if you know who to call. It, uh…changes people after a while. People who use it start acting weird. They see things that aren't there. They can fly into a rage over nothing and get violent, hurt themselves and other people.
"I had a friend a couple of years back who got hooked on the stuff, couldn't live without it. He turned into somebody totally different; dangerous, too. Got to where it wasn't safe to hang out with him anymore. We just never knew what he was going to do."
"So what happened? How did he get off the stuff? How long did it take him to recover? Gaaah, and even at that we don't know how it will affect Connor. Call this friend of yours, Richie, and find out everything you can about Meth. Felicia is a dead woman, but we may have trouble with Connor when we get him back. Well?" Duncan snatched up his phone and held it out to Richie.
"Uh, I can't, Mac. Sorry."
"If you don't have his number, just look it up! We are running out of time, here! What is the problem?"
Richie shriveled into his jacket. "Corpses don't talk, Mac. Jimmy OD'd. That's how he stopped using Meth."
Tessa's tears spilled over as she cried out. "Connor! I could hear him when Felicia was talking. He was calling out, but I couldn't tell what he was trying to say. He sounded incoherent, and by the time Felicia hung up he was shouting."
No more… Connor struggled adrift in a tormented haze of distorted images, uncertain whether his demons were physical presences or infernal figments of a deluded imagination. Regardless of their source they were very real, a corps of adversaries he had never before encountered. They fawned after two spirits who battled for control of his being; one he vaguely recognized as Connor MacLeod while the other was something he had never been and never wanted to be, but it was growing stronger…
Death had ascended with excruciating torture, horrifying beyond any he had previously known, a transcendent slaughter of not only his body but also his mind, clawing at his soul, tearing asunder his very essence. Upon the reunion of all that assembled life, before he had a chance to draw the elements together, the woman was upon him again, tying off his arm, bringing forth the vein and inserting the needle, plunging him to depths of convoluted ecstasy that never lasted long enough, but kept him hopelessly beyond reach of himself.
He had learned too late to fake a reaction to the drugs and although he tried to mimic the effects as realistically as he could recall them, his eyes betrayed the dangerous lucidity of determination surfacing through the mire. She watched for this, and fed his hunger not with the desired freedom, but with another stimulating rush that carried him ever further from all that his life was about. She poisoned his mind even as she polluted his body, forcing uninvited thoughts within the hideous chasms ripped out of his convictions and manipulating his mind into obedience to her intentions.
Duncan MacLeod…he knew Duncan MacLeod. Same clan, different vintage. They were brothers, allies, friends. No… Yes, they were. It is a lie, he is your enemy… Throughout all their years they had remained true to each other, their history, their clan. He has betrayed you… On the contrary, Duncan had been both apprentice and saviour; they had rescued and redeemed one another on countless occasions through the centuries. He is coming for you… Yes. If he knows where I am, if he knows I need help, Duncan MacLeod will come for me. He is why you are here… That is a lie. Oh yes…this is his plan for you… No. He weakens you in order that he might defeat you… No! He will take your head, your essence… Connor struggled against his bonds. He has made it so that you will be defenseless against him…you are going to die at the hands of your worst enemy… NO!!! Your nemesis, Duncan MacLeod… Helpless desperation surged forth in a cry of rage as the chair violently slammed the floor, the man chained to it spending his last efforts in a frantic attempt to hang on to that of which he was being spitefully robbed.
* * * * *
She turned up the music to drown out the commotion taking place in her bedroom. Although Felicia tended toward noise as a means of expressing her temperament, Connor protested more furiously than she would have imagined - to the drugs, to her coaxing, her instructions. She had mistaken a tremendous challenge for an easy mark. Such was the price of spontaneity, but conflict was the crux of her existence and she enjoyed the feel of it; taking it into herself and twisting it, inflicting it upon her targets, breaking down their concentration and their will, leaving them distraught. It was much more entertaining, considerably less stressful and, if she were honest, safer than crossing blades for hours with opponents more skilled and powerful than she had ever become. The weaker they were, the faster they died, and the less she had to compromise her own neck in achieving the end result.
She had killed him once, and cared not if she did so again. Among the luxuries of managing an immortal hostage, one might add that fatalities made for an oxymoron and lethal injections never were. Death was only a momentary setback. Addiction was as easy to instigate as with any mortal, but required constant maintenance to thwart the immortal body's inconvenient ability to cleanse and heal itself with complete and infinite swiftness.
A cocaine-based street mix had thrown Connor into a massive stroke and left him dead. Felicia didn’t want him dead; the thiopental stupor had been monotonous enough. Cocaine was also harder to come by locally and took longer than she wanted to establish dependency. The collective experience of other abusers (as wisdom prevailed against submitting herself to helpless oblivion) made Meth an easy choice. Although Connor severely tried her patience with astonishing mental tenacity, he was ultimately defenseless against the drug and, although he had yet to ask for it, he was already feeling the need for more.
The music drowned out his shouting, the handcuffs prevented the flailing that had bloodied her nose during a previous injection and nearly resulted in Connor's permanent demise; but she would have him soon enough and needed him until then in order to claim the head of Duncan MacLeod, so she had simply knocked her prisoner unconscious and applied ice to her face. She would continue to decrease the length of time between injections until Connor lost his desire to fight the need, deepening his addiction to the drug and his dependence upon her as its source. She had him where she wanted him - almost. Another day, maybe two; then he would be rampant without it, and they would go together to meet with Duncan and Tessa. Men would do interesting things when they needed something badly enough. Oh, and she would see Richie again. She smiled broadly. So much to look forward to…
The next morning, within an hour of his strongest fix yet, Connor turned half-crazed, pleading eyes on Felicia and uttered the words she had been waiting to hear.
She danced exultantly from his presence, turned down the stereo and tapped out a number on her telephone. It was answered on the first ring.
"Hi Duncan!" Her voice was that of mockery, gloating at the thought of her upcoming victory. "You know, old friends ought to get together more often than we do. I know lately I'm the one who's been holding back, but I've been so busy - you know how time gets away. Why don't you and Tessa close up shop early tomorrow evening and come out to see me? I'll tell the park manager that I am expecting visitors and he will let you right in. Connor and I will meet you…" She outlined directions to the lakeshore on which Duncan had rested in meditation and ended the call before he had a chance to respond.
She then reached for a syringe with which to fulfill Connor's request.
"A boat?" The park manager looked askance at the young Terrence Cameron, who responded with his most appealing smile.
"Please, Mr. Oswell." Richie was tasked to the limits of propriety in addressing 'Oz' by his surname without giggling. "I'm not just asking for myself. This evening I will have the pleasure of entertaining a beautiful lady, and the night would be perfect if I could give her moonlight on the lake." Again, the smile.
Mr. Oswell capitulated with a sigh of resignation, chiding himself for giving in so easily. The young man ought to forget college, he should. He could make a bloody fortune selling cars; he could. He removed a key from the drawer and opened a binder.
"Sign here; we must record who has the key. Follow the road past the housing until you reach a barricade; turn left on the lane toward the lake. Help yourself to the boathouse and the supply shack. Everything is immaculately stored; nevertheless, you'll doubtless have some cleaning to do, if you plan on hosting a lady aboard one of those boats this evening. And if you please, Mr. Cameron, we would much appreciate your return of the borrowed items in their current condition."
"Not a problem," Richie signed his nom de guerre with a flourish. "Is there an area near the lake that I should avoid? You mentioned a barricade…"
"Oh no, Mr. Cameron, not at all. New condominiums are being built beyond the lake, and we are keeping the area closed until they are ready to be leased. Construction personnel use a back road, they do; it helps preserve the atmosphere of our community, to not be disturbed daily by the noise and untidiness of such goings on."
"It does," Richie agreed.
"Enjoy your evening, Mr. Cameron."
"Thank you, Mr. Oswell. I am sure it will prove most interesting."
* * * * *
Tessa watched quietly from across the room as Duncan became one with his katana and progressed through a series of moves, beautiful, poetic, deadly, resurrecting skills bequeathed him hundreds of years before by a succession of mentors, the first of which had been Connor MacLeod. He continued, unaware of her presence, and at length she slipped away to focus on her own mental preparation for the night ahead.
She and Duncan had returned to the shop in the morning. Although the doors were closed to the public, there were plenty of telephone calls to return, mail to sort through, cleaning and rearranging to accomplish. Tessa had been glad for work to occupy her time. She had hardly slept the night before; keeping herself available for Duncan and absorbing the intensity of his need, keeping a constant eye on Richie's errant emotions toward Felicia, and keeping her concerns for Connor buried out of sight so as not to burden her men with the added weight of her worries, took a toll that revealed itself in the dark circles under her eyes and the anxiety with which her hands reached, explored, searched for something solid to grasp. If only she did not feel so inadequate! She wanted to help Duncan, to stand by his side and participate in his battles. She had learned long ago that this was not possible, that there was a part of his life into which she could never be welcomed, but knowledge and acceptance did little to lessen the pain of unfulfilled desire.
She would be on the lakeshore tonight; Felicia had demanded her presence and although Duncan had vehemently protested, in the end he had agreed that Tessa should accompany him. He would not follow Felicia's instructions in their entirety, intending to take her off guard both by compliance with one detail and outright defiance of another. Tessa's contribution was to put in an appearance and promptly depart to the haven of the forest, leaving Duncan behind to face Felicia in the inevitable battle.
And that, as they say, was that. And it still wasn't enough. Tessa lay back on the sofa and willed herself to think. What did she know about Felicia? If she were to fight Felicia personally within the confines of mortality, how would she win?
A forgotten moment drifted lazily to her attention, bringing forth an anxious frown. Her intervention may not be necessary tonight but if it was, perhaps there was something she could do after all. She rose from the sofa and went to collect the items she would need.
* * * * *
Boating was not an activity about which Richie was well versed, but the twelve-foot aluminum dinghy with the outboard motor instantly caught his eye. It was beached along with several other crafts, notice that not all residents felt it necessary to follow protocol when desiring access to the park's recreational amenities. He winced when he imagined the reaction of the impeccable Oz to the disarray of the supply shack and to the door that opened without requiring the key Richie had dutifully signed out. He investigated the area out of curiosity rather than necessity, then returned to the dinghy.
"Okay," he addressed the craft. "Let's see if I can figure you out." Oars were in the boat, with oarlocks attached. That was good. He pushed the dinghy out into the water and climbed in, seating himself gingerly, before positioning and fumbling with the pull-start outboard, muttering impolite connotations upon all things not electric. To his surprise and relief the motor responded promptly, impelling Richie gently out across the lake. The breeze, the serenity, the rhythmic motion were nice, he thought, if speed were not an issue. Don't count on going anywhere in a hurry in one of these. But speed was not a consideration, while the reliability of this little craft would be paramount tonight.
Duncan wanted the boat on "their" side of the lake, where Felicia had said she would meet them. Duncan believed this was a lie, that Felicia in fact planned to kill Connor on the opposite shore, closest to her condo, while Duncan watched helplessly from across the water. She would have time to recover from the Quickening and take refuge either in the forest or the construction site before Duncan could reach her; by the time he did, she would be ready to fight him with more strength than ever before. He believed she also intended that Tessa and Richie should die, though he could not know what she had in mind as a means to their demise; the only certainty was that Felicia Martins would want him to witness the destruction of all he held dear, before facing his own.
Richie hoped Duncan was planning according to fact. It would be his responsibility to row quietly across the lake while Duncan and Tessa approached Felicia on foot and took her by surprise. They would distract Felicia sufficiently for Richie to slip in and rescue Connor, take him into the boat, and employ the outboard to hasten back across to safety. Tessa would seek shelter in the woods while Duncan and Felicia fought a battle that the Highlander did not intend to lose. In a perfect world, he thought; but then, he had learned long ago to never underestimate Duncan MacLeod.
He cut the motor and lifted the propeller from the water as he approached the shore. He had stepped out and dragged the dinghy up onto the gravel before he noticed that he wasn't alone; a sleek little motorboat peered through the brush a good one hundred feet away, as though someone had tried to camouflage the shiny red craft and quit halfway through the job. He had no time to consider the implications. A voice at his back confirmed his worst fears even as they coalesced in his mind.
"Hi, Richie! Remember me? I sure do remember you."
Richie stared at the telltale red and cursed himself for carelessness that might very well cost him his life, even as his heart fluttered ludicrously at memories long since betrayed.
"Bet you wish you hadn't butted in to keep me alive before; think of all the trouble you could've saved yourself and your friends. But not to worry, Lover; you don't have to regret that anymore."
Mac! came the mental scream. Bright lights exploded before his eyes and he collapsed without a sound at the water's edge.
"Truth" serum was a disappointing fallacy. The extent of a recipient's revelations was ultimately a matter of willpower, and some had far more than others. The Richie that Felicia remembered had presented no opposition whatsoever to her advances; he had so ardently trusted and supported every lie she told that he willingly turned his back on those who loved him the most in acquiescence to her irrational demands - proof that maturity would be a long time coming. She had been ready to kill him then and she was ready to kill him now, but she needed information first, and the desired audience after that.
Richie had remained unconscious while she hefted him back into the dinghy and tooled across the lake. He opened his eyes as she dragged him through the grass to her front door, and he staggered inside under his own power. Within moments, however, the double vision cleared and the throbbing lump on the back of Richie's head lost priority to his need of escape. Felicia demanded information and was surprised to find herself facing a wall of determined silence that would not crumble before her threats. Her efforts toward seduction achieved a physical reaction, but burning even deeper than the bruised passion in Richie's eyes was a resolve she had not expected him to possess. She spent a brief moment threatening Connor for Richie's cooperation, but he merely ignored her. Richie knew she needed them both to accomplish her goal.
For her last effort Felicia resorted to thiopental, intending that the drug would loosen Richie's tongue. Indeed it did. Richie rambled until she was desperate for earplugs - telling her everything but what she wanted to hear, discussing Duncan and Tessa and his life with them in detail without betraying their plans for this evening. She was relieved that the sedative wore off quickly, glad for the restoration of bitter silence.
Felicia was furious and more than a little nervous at the realization that her intended victim was also making plans for her evening. It had not occurred to her that, with Connor at her mercy, Duncan MacLeod would do anything less than obey her demands to the last detail in attempt to save his friend. Uncertain how to proceed, she decided to follow through with her original intentions; obviously Duncan was going to meet her as she asked on the opposite side of the lake. Obviously he had taken into consideration that she might digress from that plan; that had to be why he wanted the boat nearby. These details revealed at least that Duncan and Tessa would be where she wanted them and, even though she had left a motorboat stranded amidst the brush, she would still have Connor's Quickening and Richie's life before Duncan could hope to get the craft into the water and across the lake. Being indwelt of an advance warning system meant she could not ambush Duncan; she would have to fight him. But she would have Connor's power, and that gave her confidence. Felicia hoped so desperately that an opportunity would arise to separate Duncan from Tessa. She wondered if watching the life fade from Tessa's eyes as her throat bled dry would prepare the Highlander to willingly embrace his own death.
There would be no challenge to killing Connor. His sanity had eroded with her increasing administration of methamphetamine in doses that would have already left a mortal permanently incapacitated. Connor's body could not heal fast enough to repair the damage she was doing. It had been fun to play with his mind, see the dementia in his eyes as she insisted that the man he had considered closer than a brother was, in fact, responsible for the myriad hells he was experiencing with every breath of his wretched life. Connor would be ready to die, and he would bequeath his destiny to her from a soul gone mad, forever lost in a desert of betrayal.
She left Richie and Connor cuffed to chairs in her bedroom and stripped for a shower. As she entered the bathroom she heard voices and stopped to listen.
"Connor? Connor, it's me, Richie. Do you know who I am? Do you remember me?"
Connor responded with something akin to a growl.
Felicia grinned wickedly. Perhaps Connor should take care of Richie before Felicia took care of Connor…
* * * * *
"This way," Duncan clasped Tessa's hand and led her into the forest.
"I'm worried about Richie," Tessa murmured.
"He knows what to do."
"But what if Connor gives him trouble?"
Duncan squeezed her hand for reassurance; his own as well as hers. "No use in worrying about things like that until we get there."
They had parked near the boathouse. Duncan had taken a roll of canvas from the supply shack and carried it casually over one arm. Tessa did not have to ask what it was for. She reached into the deep pockets of her bulky fleece jacket to ensure that her own resources were instantly available, shuddering at the thought of using violence, even in defense of those she loved.
Duncan stiffened abruptly and Tessa ran into his back. She could see the moonlit beach through the last of the trees and knew that Duncan had felt the presence of others like him. He led her forward to the edge of the woods and together they looked toward the lake and Felicia's condominium.
Dusk had fallen, encouraging the moon to admire its waning reflection in the dark water. The mist was just beginning to accumulate upon the lake. In another time and place, the night would have been made for lovers.
Connor knelt on the shore, shuddering violently. Richie sat beside him and appeared to be having trouble remaining upright. Tessa gave a muffled cry and started forward, only to feel her shoulder firmly vised in Duncan's hand. She looked at him, her face inches from his, and recoiled from the predatory illumination of eyes she barely recognized.
"Stay here. Stay here." Duncan stepped out of the woods and walked steadily along the water's edge toward Connor and Richie. Felicia was not in sight and he cast about, moving his eyes without turning his head, in attempt to locate her. He could feel her presence; it intermingled with Connor's and seemed to come from everywhere at once. He paused twenty feet from the two men who were not even aware of his presence. He started forward again and heard a sound from the woods behind him that turned his blood to ice. Tessa!
Tessa watched, holding her breath, as Duncan advanced to where Connor and Richie sat, oblivious to the world around them. The blade was against the back of her neck before she realized she was in danger.
"Hi Tessa," Felicia rasped, low and venomous. "Guess what? You get to be the first to die." She poked Tessa between the shoulders with the point of her blade and Tessa stumbled out of the forest along the shore, drawing her jacket closer against the cool air wafting off the lake.
"Stop," Felicia ordered, and Tessa stood still. Duncan, where are you? Connor was rocking back and forth on his knees a short distance away, as though in horrible pain. Richie was sitting still, rubbing his eyes as though he were about to fall asleep. Duncan had disappeared.
"I know you're here!" Felicia shouted triumphantly. "I can feel you! And I know you're watching! I'd love to see the look on your face, MacLeod, but I'm tired of waiting around! Tessa gets to go first! Are you ready? Can you see her?" The bloodlust in Felicia's laughter shattered Tessa's hesitation. Felicia had turned toward the lake and then the forest to see if Duncan would show himself. When she turned back to Tessa she found herself staring into icy blue eyes instead of at the back of a sweater.
"Haven't you forgotten something?" Tessa's words were clipped with fear and anger. "Maybe I do not want to die." She took a deep breath and took a step backward. "Maybe you would like to know how it feels to be afraid!" One hand came out of its pocket. Felicia eyed it carelessly from the other end of her sword.
"I'm not afraid of anything!" she snapped. "And I'm especially not afraid of you! What are you! You are a pawn, like any other mortal, useless as anything but cheap entertainment. Useless except as a bargaining tool, as a means to get what I want! Turn around!"
"No." Tessa's voice was trembling, but she stood her ground. "Would you treat them like that if you knew how they are feeling?" She motioned toward Connor and Richie. "Would it make any difference to you at all if you were to hurt, if you were to be afraid?"
Felicia snarled at Tessa's audacity. "I told you. I'm not afraid of anything." She raised the sword over her head. Duncan was approaching swiftly, silently from the trees behind her, his sword ready, but Tessa knew he would not get to her in time.
"You are afraid of fire," and Tessa produced a small flame atop her lighter.
Felicia flinched, recovered. "You call that fire? I can use a lighter, fool!" She laughed, and Tessa saw the sword descending. She pulled an aerosol can from her other pocket and directed metal polish into Felicia's midsection, holding the flame under the spray. Felicia screamed as her clothing erupted into flames. She dropped her sword and threw herself to the ground, shrieking as she rolled into the lake.
Tessa flung the can away and dropped the lighter to the ground as Duncan clasped her in his arms. Her right hand was blistered and black and he stared at it in astonishment, but Tessa pulled it away and held it against her chest. She was sobbing and he wanted to hold her, just hold her, but he needed her; they all needed her.
"Get Connor and Richie," he ordered gently, "-into the boat. Get them across the lake and wait for me there."
She nodded and ran to them. Richie was recovered enough from the sedative to drag himself aboard the dinghy with only enough assistance from Tessa to keep his balance. She turned back for Connor and stared in horror at his appearance. He rocked, trembled, shuddered, staring wild-eyed up at her like a cornered animal. His sword lay on the ground beside him.
"Connor," she said softly, and took his hand in hers. "Come with me. Let me help you. Please Connor," but he would not stand and she had not the strength to force him.
"Connor!" He and Tessa turned to Felicia, soaked to the skin, the horrible burns across her abdomen and arms already beginning to heal. "She's your problem, Connor. You can have relief if you just eliminate her. Kill her, Connor! Do it now!"
Time ground to a halt when she heard an unmistakable voice close behind her.
"Leave them alone. I am the one you have been after all this time; now that we are together, I think it's time we settle our differences, once and for all."
Felicia Martins turned slowly to face Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod. His sword was in his right hand.
Felicia's was in his left.
No! Days of tediously structured plans collapsed around her. Injured, weak and out of options, she felt a flash of desperation that flooded into rage at Duncan MacLeod for again disrupting her momentum, robbing her once more of the power she craved as surely as Connor craved his drugs.
So be it, then. If Duncan wanted a fight, she could surely provide him one that would result in greater torment than she could ever inflict on her own. Her only regret was that it would not last long, because she would subsequently end the victor's misery. Her eyes lit with crazed triumph as Duncan tossed her sword to her. She would still win. She would still win!
She spun as she caught her sword by the hilt, and charged toward Connor. Tessa backed away to the boat, no weapons at her command. Felicia shouted at Connor as she thrust his sword into his hand and positioned herself behind him.
"Connor! He's here! Duncan MacLeod! He's come for you, just like I said - look! Look! He's come to kill you Connor! You have to defend yourself against him - remember the rules, Connor! Once a battle has been engaged, no one can interfere. I can't fight him on your behalf, Connor. I can't protect you - you have to save yourself!"
Connor came to his feet, hurting with physical need, wandering lost amidst the mental ruins of what had once been his life. He was desperate for relief, freedom, rest from the endless agony. He went rigid as his eyes focused on the source of all his anguish. Destroy him, the voice echoed, require his life in absolute vengeance for your suffering, and you will be gifted with your Self.
He started at Duncan, sword aloft, death in his eyes for this enemy who was solely responsible for all that was wrong with his life, who was…who was…who was?…he hesitated, uncertain.
"He's going to kill you, Connor! Fight him! Don't let him take your head!"
Another voice broke in, gentle as distant thunder building above the chaos. It spoke his name. "Connor. You know me. I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod. You are Connor MacLeod. We are brothers."
"He's lying! He's trying to trick you! He thinks you're a fool!"
Connor shuddered, his muscles gripping tight in demand. He would kill for a fix. He would kill for a fix. His heart pounded madly against his ribs, taunting of death. His vision blurred and strayed in the darkness.
"Connor, listen to me."
"You have to kill him, Connor! He's not like us! He's a demon! He has haunted you, he has hurt you! You don't know what he is capable of!"
Bewildered, Connor gripped his sword tightly in both hands and closed his eyes against the dual assault. There was a voice of reason and he listened for it, reached for it, please…help me…
"Connor, I am your friend. You're hurt; you need help. Look at me, Connor."
Connor desperately pulled his vision toward the dark, penetrating eyes, finding strength where his own had eluded him.
"He is of the devil, Connor! He will destroy you if you don't kill him now! Do you hear me? His whole existence is a lie! He looks like us, but it's all a deception! He's not human and he's not a true immortal! You can't let him live!"
Connor squeezed his eyes against the invasion. Felicia's voice altered to a strange tenor, an accent long forgotten as it penetrated through the physical suffering, beyond the delusions, piercing the uncertainty, merging with other voices that rose out of his past and crossed the bridge of time. He heard them and gradually he could see them, and as they surrounded him in the mist he could feel their hands on him, hard and cruel and crazed with terror born of superstition they worshipped for fear of retribution if they did not.
You are not of us! Connor could look back at them now, his expression refreshing their fear, these people he knew and loved as cherished as his own life - his family, his clan. He was dead, and now he lives! He is the devil's own…
Abruptly he found himself staring helplessly from behind the bars of a dungeon as his mother was bound and placed on a pyre. The ties of blood cannot be severed by word or deed…
A torch set the pyre alight. Connor threw the force of his very being against the bars. Mother…he had to escape, had to get out…
He had to stop them, hurling himself like an animal against the bars…
My water horse…
His own scream of rage and terror and horror and loss brought Connor face to face with Duncan MacLeod. He stared at his old friend through his tears even as the downward spiral of the Meth drew him irresistibly away.
He held his sword high, his arms trembling with the prolonged effort. He began to lower his blade and his eyes as the drug demanded possession.
"No!" Felicia shrieked. "No! You can't back down! He will kill you. He is the devil, Connor, he must be destroyed!" In desperation she struck him across the shoulders with the flat of her blade, shoving him toward Duncan, who raised his own sword as he took a step back.
Connor raised his sword again as he was propelled toward Duncan. He stopped inches away as their blades and their eyes met, held steady, for one eternal moment.
Felicia shouted again. "Now, Connor!"
Connor stepped back and turned in one swift motion, his sword descending in a graceful arc that sliced through Felicia's neck and left her standing, for a moment, as though did not realize that Death had come and gone. Her body sagged to the ground as her head rolled to the water's edge and stopped face up, the lips curled back, teeth bared in an eternal snarl.
The brilliance of the Quickening surged upward and outward, engulfing Connor where he stood. He threw his arms wide and embraced the surge of life, crying out in excruciating ecstasy. Duncan closed his eyes against the lightning and the thunder and awaited the conclusion. Rings of fire danced across the water, fascinating the two mortals in the boat. Explosive bursts confronted Richie, flirting seductively, teasing him to breathe in their exhilaration, celebrate their future in a new body. As suddenly as it had erupted, the Quickening was over, the light descending into Connor's body, leaving him weak and staggering.
Duncan ran to him, reached out for him. Connor looked into his face and smiled.
"Dun-can," he pronounced softly, and collapsed dead into his brother's arms.
* * * * *
It was thus that Mr. Oswald came upon them. Out for his evening walk, he could not avoid noticing the strange electrical disturbance taking place beyond the lake, and hurried to discover the cause.
"Oh, sweet Mary!" he cried out in horror, and Duncan scanned the beach helplessly - Richie spreading the canvas over Felicia's decapitated body, Tessa cradling Connor in her arms - but Oz wasn't looking at them. Duncan followed his gaze to the row of partially built condos, burning brightly against the night sky, set alight by Connor's victory. "Sweet Mary," Oz cried again, and dug into his pocket for a cell phone as he loped awkwardly toward the fires.
Duncan assisted Richie in wrapping Felicia in the canvas, then carried her body to the construction trailer next to her condo. The fire was furious and hot, dining and growing off a considerable supply of fuel, and the trailer was fully involved before Duncan had covered the short distance back to the lake.
He lowered Connor gently into the dinghy and settled in beside Tessa. Richie pushed the boat into the water, stepped in, and started the motor. He directed them slowly toward the opposite shore, their presence lost in the mist that jealously occupied the lake, rolled off the shore and merged with the smoke rising skyward.
The Camerons broke their lease five days after the fire.
"We enjoyed living at Pacific Treille," Duncan said.
"We did," Richie agreed.
"I apologize for our sudden departure," Duncan continued. "It will be more convenient for me to live closer to my place of business."
"It's no trouble," Mr. Oswald murmured. He was still distraught. Insurance would cover the financial loss, but Oz took his job very personally. "You know I can not refund your deposit," he sighed wearily.
"Of course not," Duncan replied. "I would not accept it if you tried."
"Your keys?" Duncan handed them over and Mr. Oswald jotted several perfunctory notes along the appropriate lines in the appropriate binders.
"I will be leaving, too," he stated unexpectedly. "I have family abroad and have been away far too long. I am going to visit for a while and think about what I would like to do with the rest of my life." The easy smile, the blustery manner were gone, and the man whose appearance had suggested a casual fifty now stooped under the weight of twenty years more.
Duncan offered a smile of reassurance and wished it was enough. "Take care of yourself. I hope you find work that makes you happy."
"Yes," Richie echoed, and Oz studied the younger man for a brief moment before quirking the corners of his mouth in a knowing smile. He turned to Duncan then, and pushed a parcel wrapped in the Pacific Treille colors across the counter. Duncan glanced a question at Richie, who shrugged. Duncan accepted the package and nodded.
"I wish you the best, Mr. Oswald."
"Likewise, Mr. Cameron. Thank you."
Duncan welcomed the comfort of his own home, the atmosphere of his own peaceful haven. He was glad to settle Connor in to the guest room, safe and nearly recovered. Withdrawal had not been as severe as they had all feared, nor had it taken as long. The physical destruction that would have inflicted permanent damage or death upon a mortal, however, had required more time for restoration. Connor had suffered physically and emotionally, startling them all with mood swings and hallucinations that he battled and dominated with swiftly increasing strength.
Tessa, however…Duncan frowned. Her recovery would take longer than Connor's, and Felicia Martins would live on in the scars that would slowly heal on Tessa's wrist. Tessa had taken care of Connor, of Richie and Duncan from a remote distance that none of them could bridge since the night of Felicia's death.
"Let me talk to her," Connor had requested, and Duncan, not knowing what else to do, had agreed.
* * * * *
Richie left in search of entertainment, having put the bitter aftertaste of hope behind him. Duncan had yet to return from a meeting to discuss a sale in which he was the potential buyer. Tessa stood in the kitchen storing groceries away when Connor reached around and clasped her hand, still loosely bandaged. She laid her other hand over his and squeezed gently.
"Tessa, we need to talk."
The smile that darted over her shoulder was guarded, the expression closed. "What do you need to talk about?"
"About what is bothering you." Connor leaned against the counter and studied Tessa's profile. She glanced at him and closed the cabinet door. She neither smiled nor denied the assertion. Connor waited patiently for her to empty a bag into the refrigerator.
"I don't know what to tell you." She flattened the bag out on the counter, smoothing away the wrinkles with her good hand. "I hurt another person, Connor. Deliberately. Premeditated, if you want to call it that."
For a brief moment Connor felt keenly the division between his kind and hers. He was each and both and he understood the conflict churning inside her. Tessa's voice broke as she continued.
"I know why you and Duncan don't discuss these things now, even with each other. These battles happen with no logical reason, they just are, and living through each one is punishment enough without constantly playing them over and over in your mind…"
"That's right," Connor said. "But it's not easy for Duncan and me. We aren't killers. We kill in self-defense; the same reason you set fire to Felicia. Had you not done that, you would have died that night, too."
Tessa shook her head and swallowed hard, blinking back tears. "It's not that. I am all right with that. It's not even that I set her on fire." She turned to Connor and looked into his eyes. "I used her worst fear against her. I would not want anyone to do that to me."
* * * * *
Duncan returned to find Connor examining the Cameron coat of arms on his way out.
"Wh-where are you going?" he demanded. "You still have some recovering to do. You need to rest for a while."
"Duncan," Connor grinned and the Highlanders embraced. "I have a life to live, too, you know."
"Yeah, thanks to me!" Duncan retorted, and was rewarded with a chuckle.
"Tessa is fine," Connor answered the silent question. "Be available for her. Let her come to you." He looked toward the street. "She is a brave woman. You are lucky to have her."
Duncan grunted. "She would not have had to go through this if I had moved quicker; if I had reached her sooner. Felicia could have killed her. That can could have exploded in her hand and done far more damage than a few blisters."
"She doesn't blame you, Duncan. Stop blaming yourself. It's over." Connor pulled on his jacket and offered a hand. Duncan clasped it warmly.
"Don't be a stranger."
"I will be seeing you."
Duncan nodded a farewell as Connor walked out the door and turned for one last smile.