This story takes place after “Something Wicked” and “Deliverance” in Highlander: The Series, the episodes in which Duncan is overcome by a Dark Quickening. And, while most of my stories are independent of each other, this particular one is the prequel to “No Stone Unturned.”
Duncan MacLeod remained on his feet. His life had been whipped inside out and there was no order at all within, but he still managed to stay on his feet. A hundred crazy voices in his head whispered his name, calling out of the darkness—and he shouted back, balancing and coping with the onslaught of strong forces in Coltec’s quickening. The faces within him slid through his mind, and all of them were angry.
What a clean place you keep here. And such a fine body, commented one silky voice in the throng.
NO! he returned, and felt a surge of panic as he realized how piteous his strength seemed. There were too many murmurs inside his head and too much weight pressing on his soul. This quickening did not seem to grant him more internal fortitude. It granted him nothing, as if the energy had been diverted away somehow and held apart—a seething cauldron of strength that he could not tap into. I had to stop Coltec’s evil. I had to stop him. Duncan barely could understand his own mental thoughts, thrown up as a shield in this internal battle of wills.
We know, the inner reflection agreed.
Duncan focused inwardly on his psychological bearings and found chaos. Strangers’ faces twisted grotesquely in his soul. The yammer of many voices blended into a tidal wave of sound: distorted, looming over him, and terrifying him with its strength. He sought refuge in his clan name, his title, the one constant of his life that had always kept him grounded in the hurricane tossing of a quickening … and could not hear his own thoughts amidst the tumult. The mobs surged like the ocean, and he retreated mentally, seeking his own internal order. And, as he did, the throng expanded like scuttling crabs across a rocky shoreline, fitting themselves into the territory of his soul that he had abandoned.
He searched for clarity, trying to find a mental blockade to make a stand—and the forces scrambling for power sucked him under, tumbling him end over end, pressing his limbs down tightly with their combined weight and strength. He gagged and fought, enraged, drowning in a rip tide of evil, to no avail. There were too many, too strong, too determined to have him … and they took him from the inside and dragged him down into the darkness of his own soul.
Crazed and screaming somewhere internally, his skin feeling on fire, Duncan went to Joe’s bar. He walked calmly, unhurriedly—a puppet on strings wielded by other hands. The blonde looks good, someone said clearly in his head. From a distance, locked in horror, Duncan found himself beside the woman and heard the raw seductive words coming smoothly from his mouth.
It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me! he shouted within. He was unable to watch yet equally unable to look away; imprisoned alive.
Are you sure this isn’t you? The REAL you that you pretend doesn’t exist? patiently asked a disembodied voice in his soul. The forces within were finding their order, unifying around and behind this one velvet voice and adding the intent of their will to it. The strength of their numbers crushed down inside his mind and, by now, Duncan was too exhausted to resist at all. Like a moth that had struggled all night in a web, he waited numb and battered for the end.
But, there was no end. There was no death. He felt everything within him being sifted and searched, until there was no act, no thought, no hidden emotion that had not been laid bare to scrutiny. It was base and vile, to be violated so thoroughly in his inner being … and there was not a single thing he could do to prevent it.
The blonde turned his advances down, and he felt a spark of irritation, as if he had been tapped in some hidden place within. How dare a common woman defy me? I’m a clan leader’s son! he thought, incensed.
There, you see? You had it in you all along: the arrogance, the love of power. But don’t be too upset by that, dear boy; it’s common to all people. The conversational tongue within went on soothingly, seizing upon this one shaft of inner pride. You’re just young and misguided. We will teach you.
And then Duncan hit her. The impact resonated emotionally with the thousand other beings that had taken up residence in his psyche and magnified it. He felt their surge of pleasure in the act, and it flowed around him, filled him, overwhelming every inner thought. In a thrice, it was no longer the throng who clamored with their own wants and needs; it had melded itself to his own inner man.
You aren’t so different from the rest of us, are you, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod? THIS is what real strength is, calmed that rich accent amidst the crowd in his head. You’ve always deserved better, you know. But don’t fret, dear boy, we’ll show you the rest.
Joseph Dawson was the next victim, struck with all of Duncan’s strength when the bartender moved to protect his patron. There was even greater satisfaction there, and Duncan grinned at the stunned Watcher who spied on him. All of his inner senses reveled in the adrenaline as it was magnified by the strong personalities within. In a heartbeat, the cauldron of evil strength that had hitherto been held apart spilled out like a tidal wave and submerged him. The ability to protest melted from his mind as he took to the streets.
AFTERWARDS Day One, Early Morning
He was up before the dawn, sitting on the floor in a loose black robe. The slap-slap-slap of waves against the barge was the only sound present—but Duncan knew that it would just be a matter of time before he was assaulted again. From the inside, from the dark, from the depths of his soul where all his demons lay in wait. His dreams were disturbing and chaotic. There were terrifying moments when he relived the dark events that had taken place beneath the possession of Coltec’s quickening. The images floated like specters in his head, behind his eyes, ghostly memories of events that tumbled confusingly and without order. They rippled and shivered like the visuals that children give themselves by pressing too hard on their closed eyelids. It was hard to discern which acts he had committed and which were another immortal’s. Did he burn down that seedy apartment building or was that a memory of Korland's? What about the car accident he’d caused for entertainment? Did he rob those stores? Did he rape those girls he’d caught walking alone?
His head began to hurt. His nerves were frayed and his fingers trembled. He was glad that he had been sensible enough when he first arrived back at the barge to send Rachel MacLeod away. She was concerned about him and had said as much, but had not argued with his request. Methos had called within the hour, from the airport; Duncan had heard the roar of jet engines in the background.
“Rachel is touring Chartres and spending some time in Monte Carlo?” Methos had curiously stated. “She said you sent her away.”
“She’s safer that way,” Duncan had impulsively replied.
Silence on the line for a moment, followed by a soft sigh. “I’ll catch a taxi back.”
“No,” Duncan had countered ineffectually, wishing he had thought more clearly about his words. “Go be with Alexa. She hasn’t much time.” But the phone line had been dead before he’d finished his sentence.
Duncan spun back from his idle thoughts to the present, to the pain. “I should journal,” he said aloud, and his voice cracked part way through. Journal. Chronicle this terrible fight back from a dark quickening so if it ever happened again, the immortal in question could have some guideline to help himself. The Watchers would talk and keep their notes, but did immortals ever think to write to other immortals under some guise as science fiction or something?
Such a noble gesture from someone who definitely has lost some nobility, murmured the cynic in his head. Would you have read any self-help books during that ordeal, or were you too busy having … fun?
“I hit a woman in the bar,” he said aloud, as if by speaking he could silence his inner condemnation. Part of his recovery was to face the facts that the Watchers had recorded during that sordid time. “I hit Joe Dawson, my friend. I tried … I tried…” His words failed beneath the sickening clench in his gut. Richie!
Duncan knew he would have killed the young man if Joe Dawson had not shot him down just before that last strike at Rich. The familiar surroundings of the barge swam. “I let Joe live,” he blurted almost desperately, forging past the event of trying to slay his own student. “I didn’t kill Dawson.”
Barely, and it was more out of internal confusion than conscious decision. You were quite ready to kill the boy, insanely quipped the internal judge. His spiteful words to Joe returned to taunt him: Why would I be friends with a dead man?
“I got on a boat. I picked a lot of fights, but I didn’t kill anyone.”
He stopped, choked. He was still denying the truth, desperate to somehow wish it away, to regain the cloak and shield of Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. But he hadn’t been noble. He hadn’t been just. Every quality he cherished had been stripped from him; everything he detested and judged in others, he had embraced. “The voices made me do it” had no bearing on the fact that part of him loved it. Enjoyed it. Longed for its return. That dark insidious clamor for power was a heady addiction ... and part of him was evil.
“I didn’t kill anyone … on the boat.” There had been too many witnesses to get away with it, and he hadn’t figured out a way to cast the blame onto another man, especially since he had viciously fought with every crewman while aboard. And, once caught, the sailors either would have killed him and dumped his body overboard, or they would have held him for Port authorities. A jail cell looked no better than a very long swim, even in his madness, so Duncan had not killed anyone on the boat.
But he had wanted to kill … oh, yes. Wanted to kill, to watch their faces as he throttled their lives out in his bare hands. Watch their anger turn to fear, then panic, then see their eyes stare across the threshold into their own death. Such fragile things, these mortals ... so easy to take to that border crossing between life and the grave.
“I didn’t kill Davis, the captain,” Duncan said aloud. His fingers were bunched in the fabric of his robe, twisting. But I wanted to. “I didn’t take his woman by force.” I seduced her with wine and words and taunted her with my own body. It was more the victory for him—and more the destruction for them—if she willingly bedded him. If I didn’t think she would have eventually succumbed to charm and all the wine, I would have taken her by force. “I didn’t cripple Davis when he arrived.” He faltered to another halt and closed his eyes. In another few moments, I would have, and, thereby, destroyed their livelihood. He knew his inner intent that sordid day. It wasn’t enough to kill Davis or assault his wife; Duncan had wanted to make the seaman suffer for the rest of his life. Crippling the captain physically, and adding the burden of his wife’s unfaithfulness on top of it would make a perfect stew of revenge.
Instead, the woman shot him and then he was fleeing … fleeing … stumbling, staggering … to Methos. Not his Watcher, not his clansman … Methos. His friend. An immortal coming to help him despite great personal risk. Methos, who dodged trouble at every turn, had come from afar when word reached him that the Highlander had fallen into evil.
“I bet he called me names for this one,” soliloquized Duncan. “If I hadn’t tried to ‘fix’ Coltec, this wouldn’t have happened.” He felt unbearably close to insane laughter or tears. “When I first met Methos, I thought he should stay close to me for protection. Funny how I needed to stay close to him.” He rested his forehead on the heels of his hands and stared at the floor.
Methos, in the church…
Duncan blinked, but the beginning vision twitched away from him. Methos? What about Methos? All he remembered was the conflict after he had … he had… His mind skipped and shied from the truth and he angrily forced himself to say the words aloud: “I killed Sean Burns.” Another friend. His head hurt. He felt battered and bruised without a single mark to show it and his fingers were trembling. “I couldn’t hold a pen to write in a journal anyway.”
Methos, in the church? Methos wasn’t at that church, just a pair of lovers with their red sports car. Duncan shivered all over, haunted. Is something missing? Something Dawson neglected to tell me? God, not more evil done by my hands. I don’t think I could endure much more and still recognize myself.
Duncan got up, stiff and sore from sitting, and made some coffee. His body ached. His mind ached. It was almost certain that Methos would call shortly and ask how he was. Duncan would tell him he was fine and working out his recovery mentally. He didn’t want to put his friend through even more emotional trauma after what they’d already gone through together. Methos had done enough. Duncan had given up trying to convince the elder immortal to return to Alexa—Methos was steadfastly ignoring his attempts to shoo him away.
Dawson would call next, to check on him and see if there was anything he needed. Another friend whom I came close to killing. How do I tell them that I just wasn't myself … when I know, and they probably suspect, that part of what I did and said really was the truth? They came face to face with the evil that lives in the soul of every man, and I spoke it aloud to their faces. Duncan planned on fielding all their questions and concerns without letting them see the continued pain and horror that lurked in his depths. They had done enough, suffered enough, and endured enough heartache.
Connor MacLeod would not call. Duncan was certain his old teacher and clansman had been one of the first contacted when the dark quickening had overtaken him … but the elder Highlander had never come. Duncan shoved the half-full cup away from him on the floor, and coffee slopped over the rim and spread in a dark stain across the barge floor. Like blood, he thought. His head ached. Connor did not come. Why didn’t he help me?
Duncan would have killed Richie; he knew it like sickness in his heart. He had killed Sean Burns. He would have killed Methos outside the holy spring, at the car, but something had made him stop. Sean’s soul, pulling me back? Most likely the sight of my father’s sword, wrapped in MacLeod tartan. He had killed the whore when it was time to pay her. He'd killed the man in the suit who had unwisely stopped to answer Duncan about the time. He had stood on the street below, watching the people frantic to escape the fire in the apartment building. He had laughed the whole time they screamed and jumped to their deaths.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said aloud, buried under the weight of hideous deeds. “I tried to stop.” The words fell empty in the long expanse of the barge. That isn't the truth: that I tried to stop. Not always. Part of me loved being evil. “I needed more help.” Connor MacLeod had not come. Why didn’t he come? Duncan wondered. Of all the people in the world, his first teacher, his clansman … why wasn’t he the first man on the scene?
Dreamscape: The images startled him. He had been in a filthy jail, stinking of smoke and poor hygiene, but now Duncan sat bedraggled and unkempt in a landscape of green—seemingly transported without taking a step. Rocks covered with ancient carvings surrounded him, and enormous trees stretched to the sky. He could hear the birdsong high above and the distant burble of a brook. The air was crisp, clean, and it whispered of freedom.
Duncan needed that freedom … an escape from his bloodlust and rage at Kern.
“Your hate is not destroying him,” Kol T’ek had said softly in that dark jail lost somewhere. “But it is destroying you.” The shaman’s eyes were black within black, shimmering like polished onyx. His truth hammered against Duncan’s rage.
There was pain in the drawing out of all the hatred that lived in Duncan’s heart. The shaman’s hands burned where they touched him, then gradually went to ice against his temples. When Duncan forced open his eyes, he saw Kol T’ek caught up in some ancient spiritual dance, his form ethereal and ghostly as a vapor. Around and around and around he went, his arms outstretched under the expanse of the sky, while the voices chanted and the drums beat. And all the while he danced, his perfect twin knelt on the forest floor with his fingers pressed to Duncan’s temple. The Highlander couldn’t move, caught in some sucking vortex and pinned there in the center by the power. It seemed to take forever, and at the end, when the shaman had drawn out all of the anger, Duncan collapsed, exhausted and drained. He awakened hours later in an empty jail cell, wondering if he had merely been dreaming.
Except, inside that wooden cell, there were leaves in his hair and dirt in his mouth.
It was one of those uncanny immortal experiences that could not be explained. Like seeing the specter of someone long dead and having completely new conversations with him or her. Scenes so rich and vivid, playing themselves out in real time within his mind, yet, when he returned to the present, only seconds had passed. There were other odd manifestations of immortality … being raised off the ground or picking up huge objects in the power of a quickening. The encounter with Kol T’ek was an out-of-body experience that defied comprehension, and Duncan let the images remain as real and true as he had experienced them, resisting the urge to pick them apart to understand them.
Some incidents were simply beyond his intellectual grasp.
The vision of the shaman shifted and bent within the dreamscape, stretching and wavering forbiddingly. The same face and features of Jim Coltec, but now his eyes held death. Even his tone was weighted with darkness. “We will all become evil in time. Real strength is evil.” His body blurred and shimmered, gleaming like silver, and the laughter was insane. It echoed long after the vision ceased.
Day One, Midday
Duncan had taken refuge at the closest bar as soon as it had opened for business.
Methos found him at noon, tucked out of sight in a back corner. Duncan’s gaze almost immediately shifted away from his friend and salvation. He knew he looked terrible, gaunt and pale beneath his complexion from the inner turmoil. And he knew that as soon as the older man sat down, he would corner Duncan with questions that he didn’t want to answer. His gut knotted up and he covered by tossing back his whisky. He was trying to calm down, not stir around in events again.
“How are you, MacLeod?” Methos asked, sliding into the seat across from him. His concern shown in his eyes and in the way he leaned closer across his forearms to speak, scrutinizing the younger man. The dim lighting fell across the angles and planes of his face.
“I’m all right,” Duncan replied, playing with the rim of his glass. “As best as I can expect.”
“Sleeping okay or having nightmares?” Methos’ voice was kind and lacked his usual condescending tone.
His eyes fastened on him, and Duncan could feel the intensity of that cool regard. There were thousands of years of people-watching skills embodied in the man sitting across the table.
“I’m fine, Methos,” he evaded, wondering briefly how the other man knew he was having nightmares. Probably because he knows I wouldn’t pretend that nothing has happened and simply go on with my life. “I know you’re my friend, but please stop picking me apart.”
Methos paused a moment, considering, then cocked his head in mild annoyance. “You’re certainly not fine. You were pounding on the door of the bar at five after eight this morning and now you’re putting away Scotch? Dawson says you’ve been flighty and troubled…"
“Count on my own personal guardian angel to detail all the events—and then everyone rushes to help Duncan,” testily remarked the younger man. Except Connor MacLeod, echoed some bitter voice. Duncan knew his irritation was plain to see. It’s Joe’s job to keep track of me! He likely was the one who called Methos when this happened!
“Ahh, feeling a bit peckish today, are we?” surmised the older man. He paused before kindly reminding Duncan of what they both already knew: “All we are trying to do is help you get back on your feet again.”
“I know,” Duncan admitted. He shook his head, trying to throw off the mood brooding in him. “I’m sorry. I know Joe is just trying to look out for me and I appreciate it. Really. And I’m grateful you came to help me, Methos. I don’t know if I would have found myself without you.” He glanced at the enigmatic immortal and let his gaze soften a bit. “But the rest of my healing has to be done by myself. You’ve done enough. Everyone has done enough.”
Methos gave him a few moments of peace before asking, “Are you still remembering just bits and pieces, or is everything starting to clear now?”
Duncan glanced sharply at the other man and was just as startled to see Methos flinch. Not very noticeably, but nonetheless, a flinch in response to his sudden movement. Duncan frowned, his eyes fixed on his friend’s face and watching the hooded eyes. What was that? More importantly, why was that?
“Bits and pieces still, just like after coming out of the spring,” he admitted grudgingly. “They are all in a jumble and interspersed with flashbacks and … kind of odd experiences.”
“What kind of ‘odd experiences’?”
Duncan shrugged and considered. Methos was old and well traveled. He certainly would have encountered strange phenomena before amongst immortals. “Kind of like ‘out-of-body’ experiences.” He twirled the shot glass in his fingers. “They’re different from just remembering something from my past. I know that, physically, I’m still on the barge, but I’m also somewhere else. Some other place. I can see, feel the breeze, hear the people there, walk and touch things. Sometimes I’m asleep and it’s just like a really vivid dream. Other times … I’m awake. I’m awake and then, just suddenly, gone.” He rubbed his head where it was beginning to ache again.
“I’ve had things like this happen before. I experienced some as a new immortal when I was with Connor, things he tried to show me.” Connor MacLeod, the clansman that did not even come to the aid of another MacLeod. His own clansman. Duncan scowled and took a deep breath, willing the knot of anger away.
“He spent a lot of time trying to show me how to bend the visions to my own will, to learn from them and sift out the truths from the lies. He told me that some immortals could see and decipher them, use them. I didn’t have the mystical knack, and he didn’t have the patience. I usually don’t have many of them, but…”
“There are more of them now?” Methos finished in the lapse, unperturbed, appraising him very thoughtfully.
Methos slouched back in his seat for a moment. “They might be stronger because of the influence of the spring combined with your recent events. Are you trying to reach these memories and dreams, or are they just finding you?”
“I’m not trying to uncover anything and I wish they’d stop. I think I would be fine if—” Duncan broke off, startled.
Methos, in the church, eyes wide… The ghostly image superimposed itself across the top of the calm face opposite him and made the impression garish. Reflexively, Duncan jerked his hands away from his drink. What the hell? The hairs on the back of his neck raised, chilled.
“MacLeod?” Methos tilted his head. “What are you seeing?”
“Nothing.” He prayed it was nothing. “Just fidgety. I need to take a walk.” He slid the glass away and left the bills on the table as he rose.
“Want some company?”
“No,” he countered, aware that he had responded too sharply. “I’m all right, Methos, thanks anyway. You’ve done enough. Thanks.” He walked out of the bar, trying to avoid giving the impression of a man fleeing.
Dreamscape: Duncan put one foot in front of the other. He was characteristically aware of his surroundings and the length of steel hidden within his coat, but concentrated on his moving feet. No more, he pleaded silently to any god who would give him audience. No more nightmares, no more visions, and no more shifts from the real to the unreal where I can not tell them apart. I’m tired and I want this behind me. I just want to go on with my life. Can I just go on with my life?
But God did not listen, and down at the park, where the trees lined the paths like benevolent sentinels, Duncan came face to face with Sean Burns. He stopped dead and stared, remembering how many times he had seen the specter of Sean's ghost across the forms of people on the street in his darkness. The canopy of spring growth overhead had changed in a blink to leaves shot through with hues of gold and fiery orange.
It could not be Sean, and Duncan mentally reminded himself of that, but the eyes he looked into were just as blue and his voice just as calm. The red-blonde hair curled at the temples as if he had been exerting himself. His smile was kindly. Duncan could smell his cologne, and he unconsciously leaned forward to catch the familiar scent of his old friend. There was a lump in his throat, but he still tried to tell him … tried to tell Sean how he missed him, how sorry he was, how he would give anything he possessed to bring him back. Duncan saw those eyes, smelled that cologne, heard his own voice as he took Sean’s hand with a grip that was sure … and then he slew him again.
This time, Duncan screamed when the blade snapped forward.
Abruptly, he was in the present, flat on his back in the footpath, staring at the lacy clouds and the curious faces looking down on him. How long have I been lost in this vision? He got up and grinned at the people.
“The clouds. They are so beautiful! I haven’t stared at them since I was a boy!” he called in a voice pitched a bit high.
The bystanders bought his child-like glee and laughed. And Duncan MacLeod laughed with them, but his laughter sounded hollow and terrified.
Methos called again later that afternoon and his voice was cheerful against the backdrop of hell that the Highlander dwelled within. Duncan, sitting head back against the barge wall, let the machine answer for him. “Just checking on you,” remarked the accented voice. Methos had checked numerous times since his return from the airport, even had stayed and offered to help clean up the mess that was scattered throughout the rooms. Duncan, still exhausted and bewildered from his holy spring encounter, just waved his friend away. The condition of his barge was not his concern—it was his inner self. Joe Dawson called often, on some pretense or another. All of them, standing guard around me and offering their companionship and help.
Connor MacLeod did not call. He hadn’t called the whole time Duncan had been overpowered with darkness, nor in the hours since he was restored. Duncan felt the prick of barely settled rage again. Maybe he was busy with “immortal business”? commented a small voice from within.
“Too busy to check on a student gone bad. A clansman,” bitterly said Duncan aloud, only partially listening to the machine droning on. He tossed his head, trying to shake another looming headache. “I needed him and where was he? He was my Goddamned teacher! He probably could have stopped me at the beginning of the possession with some of that mystic stuff he can do, if he had come—if he had tried!” He put his head back against the wall with a thump and scowled. “Connor is always watching the players in this damn game. He would have known Jim Coltec and what he was about.”
Duncan refocused on his answering machine. Methos’ voice went on and ended with a pronouncement that he might stop by later in the evening. Duncan sighed and picked up his coat. He didn’t want to see Methos. Didn’t want to see his friend’s concern, and didn’t want to be the recipient of comfort that had come out of this usually elusive man. He didn’t want to see anyone, let alone reveal his inner shame and distress. He knew Methos would be full of convincing arguments about culpability in this matter, but Duncan's mind was chaotic and he was exhausted. If the other immortal leaned very hard on him, he was afraid he would break.
There were still gaps in his memory, and Duncan contemplated what might be in them. Dawson had told him part of what had gone on, under protest, but Duncan could tell the Watcher was tempering the story. Protecting me, he thought. He doesn’t want me to know everything that I did. He hopes that by arguing and being reluctant to tell me that I’ll believe he’s told me everything. But I know—I know that how evil I am is balanced with how good I was. Instead of making this easier to cope with, now I conjure the very worst that I could have done because no one will tell me the truth.
Duncan got up, sadly aware that he was fleeing from a man who was merely trying to lend him his own strength. He drove aimlessly to the far side of town, picked a nondescript bar out of the way, and drank until one a.m. He was walking to his car when the shivery ghost of immortal presence crept over him, and he sighed and halted near a streetlight.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he said tiredly. “I’m not in any mood to be toyed with.”
“Well, then that’s the right mood to have a fight, isn’t it?” announced a raucous voice. A stranger stepped into the sphere of yellow light. His dark coat was haphazardly tied and a cigarette hung from his mouth. He wore sturdy shoes, Duncan noted, but otherwise his appearance practically yelled “street rat.”
“You want to fight, fine. And right here is fine, too,” Duncan sourly said. He was already feeling the push of adrenaline that an immortal challenge brought.
“So, what’s your name?” chuckled the stranger.
“Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. And yours?”
“Mine don’t matter, since I’m going to be swallowing you down, Scotty boy!” and with that, he lunged.
It wasn’t even a fight, in the true sense. Duncan had him down within one minute, streaming blood and curses beside a parked car. The katana swept back for the final strike, but his doomed foe looked up at him with such bitter hatred that it gave Duncan pause.
“Go ahead! Do it, you bastard! I’ll kick you for the next twenty years from the inside!”
Duncan stared down at him, suddenly hesitating with those volatile words ringing in his head. What am I doing? I’m on a city street and I don’t even care? I didn’t even try to talk this punk out of this folly? That’s all I need: to add some enraged maniac into my head! He lowered the sword, ill at ease with the scene about to take place.
“Get lost, kid. And next time think twice about trying to take an immortal in a bad mood,” he growled. He wiped the bloody steel off on the shoulder of the man kneeling then smiled at the convulsive shiver the action sent up. On the heels of his enjoyment, Duncan felt a stroke of fear. I delighted in his dread? What is wrong with me?
He sheathed the sword and strode off to his car, anxious to get away and off the streets. He didn’t feel the grip of consternation let up until he was driving away, past the scene of the encounter, and saw the other immortal was gone. A trashcan was knocked over from their skirmish and blood still smeared the sidewalk. Profound weariness slid over him as he turned the wheels for home.
“I must just be too tired to think straight,” he said aloud. “That’s all it was. I’m just exhausted from everything I’ve been through.” He put the encounter out of his mind and concentrated on navigating the whorl of streets leading him back to the Seine.
When he finally arrived back at the barge, Methos had come and gone and left him a note.
“Came to see you. Hope you’re okay. Talk to me. Talking always helps. PS, next time you go out—lock this damn freighter, will you?” There were three empty beer bottles on the table beside the letter. The bottle caps were stacked inside each other, and the labels were peeled off, the mark of a worried friend passing time.
Duncan stood and stared at the neat handwriting a long moment. The old immortal had written it in Gaelic, and Duncan sighed at the soft touch he had just been given. Methos is just trying to get me back to myself again. That’s always what he intended, he reminded himself mentally. At least he tries … that’s more than can be said for my kinsman. His anger flared again and he countered by looking down at the cool paper in his hands … left by a friend who cared enough to come.
Methos, in the church, eyes wide…
“No!” ordered Duncan, dropping the scrap of writing and waving his hand as if to avert some specter. “No, leave me alone! Leave me ALONE!” He jerked out the Scotch and poured a full glass. Drank it and then chased it with another. No more visions tonight.
But nighttime was the hardest of all, as nightmarish dreams permeated his sleep. The double shot of liquor added to the images inside his mind and compounded them. Once again, Duncan watched himself at the holy place where he had tried and failed to rescue Coltec. The shaman’s face was full of rage and violence, a portent of things to come. Duncan was at a loss in the face of such unrepentant corruption in his hitherto peaceful friend.
He relived the brutal attack he had perpetrated against Richie Ryan, heard again his own laughter at the cries of the young man who trusted him above all others. He had broken the confidence of his protégé, probably forever.
“Is this how it’s supposed to be?" Richie had asked in bewilderment. "The teacher kills the student?" His expression had reflected his anguish, both mental and physical, that this might well be the truth behind his training with Duncan.
“That’s as good a reason as any,” Duncan had mockingly returned. Yes, the teacher kills the student … and loves it just as much as killing a friend. Killing people is fun and killing immortals is twice the fun! The katana swung in elegant arcs, in the hands of a master of the blade, and Duncan made the last attack that put the young man on his knees in the center of the dojo. It was perfect—frightfully perfect! He watched himself lean and kiss Richie on the brow—the crowning moment in a supreme act of betrayal.
Duncan’s face was wet with tears, twisting amidst his covers, but still the ordeal would not relent.
The nightmare shifted once more. This time to the prostitute, half-nude and bruised, pleading for her life in a refuse-filled alley. Duncan smelled her perfume anew and the acrid odor of several lovers upon her. He listened again as she offered anything he wanted, even a life of sexual bondage and slavery to him, if he would just not kill her. Her four-year-old son, her one-year-old daughter … and he laughed as she told him of those who depended on her, and slowly strangled her down to pleading with just her eyes. Then, finally, into death. Duncan writhed in the sheets until they clung damply to his limbs … and could not escape.
Methos, in the church, eyes wide and horrified…
His mind shied from the memory as a steed shies from an electric wire; the same way Methos had flinched in the bar. But this time, Duncan was carried along with the vicious tide … back to a stone church on a hill … where he revived and sat alone…
The smell of years of burning candles permeated the room. Someone had wiped the pews with oil, and it mixed with the scent of incense and smoke. The handrail near the pulpit was worn smooth by worshipful hands, and Duncan trailed his fingers along the wood, imagining a dark stain spreading along that surface with his touch. Am I evil enough to defile something holy? he smugly thought. He spat at the pulpit and urinated at the base of the crucifix. A candle flickered high to his right, emitting a sliver of black smoke that he watched for a while. The wax rolled down like tears and turned alabaster as they cooled.
And still, he sat alone … until Methos came.
Until Methos came, all the doors being shut, and stood with him.
Duncan felt the presence of an immortal behind him, but he wasn’t overly concerned. The dark forces pulsing in him left little room for fear. Some faint inner being longed for help while the fierce outer shell reveled in the hate and lust for power.
"MacLeod, you need help," offered the older man.
“I don’t need your help, my son!” Duncan boomed cheerfully. “I like what I see!” He laughed at the man who had rescued him from Davis … felt the fire of his quickening, so close, so fresh. How sweet Methos’ soul would taste! How satisfying the power! The lust to take his life was strong. Duncan hadn’t enjoyed a quickening since Coltec’s although he had come close to Richie’s.
It’s been too long, he decided internally. Time for some real fire! And Methos trusts me…and he’s old. He’ll be delightful going down! Duncan took a step and drew the sword … and discovered, enraged, that he still subconsciously bowed to the rules of the game and part of him resisted the impulse to kill on holy ground. Even more infuriating, Methos knew that was the magic button to stop him.
"You cannot do this!” Methos protested as the blade rested against his sweater. Then, more emphatically and desperately, “This is Holy Ground! Whatever evil is inside you, you—cannot—do—this!”
He used my own nobility against me! How dare he know me so well and use it as leverage! raged Duncan internally.
Methos scrambled away once released, but still did not flee the church. The dark coat hung crooked from his shoulders, accenting the slender neck and profile. He watched Duncan warily, as if surprised at the depths of evil that the Highlander had sunk to, but persisted in his efforts to help.
Evil? You’ve no idea the evil that lives in me, the dark warrior thought. You hide as a Watcher and stay out of the game! You wait on the sidelines to kill a woman whom I let go. You, who endlessly patronize me with your pithy advice! You, your only point is to stay alive! The rage and darkness pounded inside his skull and Duncan looked through hell at a five thousand-year-old immortal that he could not kill. Let me show you evil, Methos.
Duncan moving haltingly and bewildered, as if contemplating of the offer of help, before he lunged. A tribute to the survival skills of the elder man, Methos had already shifted his weight to step back from the Scot, so that Duncan missed his arm and captured the sleeve of the coat instead. In an instant, Methos was shrugging out of it and backpedaling to escape the sudden danger.
Duncan stripped the coat off with a jerk that halted his prey and yanked Methos a step back—back and into his solid grip. “Too late, little bird,” he catcalled into the stunned face that looked back at him. And then he smiled a grimace that pulled his handsome features into the epitome of a death’s head. He seized the nearest candelabra with one hand and brought it crushingly down on Methos’ shoulder, sending him to the floor in agony. The hot wax spilled over Duncan’s hand and splattered across the downed immortal and the floor. Ivory candles broke off, fell and rolled.
Duncan stood over his prey and their gazes met: one haunted with pain and something indecipherable, one burgeoned with dark power.
On the battlefields in the old days, the victors often assaulted the wounded before dispatching them. But this was no battlefield, and some small part of Duncan that still retained prescience—the same one that kept him from beheading on holy ground—diverted him from the act of rape. It was only a spark of power, but enough. No, he would not violate this man. Something compelled him to not cast a shadow over that particular arena…
He flipped the candlestick like a baton, the gold filigree catching the sunlight and scattering rays, and wielded it by the top. The first blow was blocked, but it shattered the forearm that Methos had raised in defense. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Duncan said calmly, dimly registering that his friend made no move to escape.
It was quite satisfying to bludgeon Methos into a bloody shell. He watched the other man’s eyes switch instantly into suffering, then agony … then to oblivion. Duncan didn’t cease until long after the signature of immortality extinguished itself like one of the candles in the church.
When Methos revived, Duncan slew him again, laughing, watching the shadows shift in his eyes beneath the punishment.
And again. The church floor was smeared with blood and the candlestick was dented. Duncan rolled it in his hands. “We really should straighten this back out, don’t you think—Methos?” he boomed. “We mustn’t make the priests unhappy that we bent their candlestick,” and so saying, Duncan swung it with a vengeance. “What you see is what you get!” he mocked.
Methos did not resist, not once. He endured with barely a sound. It defied comprehension that he didn’t fight back, but Duncan wasn’t in a contemplative mood that day.
Duncan was sick when he got up at four in the morning. He knelt on the cold tile and heaved until he was trembling, then he leaned against the porcelain bowl. The coldness against him was an anchor. His hair was in the toilet and smattered with vomit.
My God, what have I done?
Methos had come to help him. The eldest had came straight from his tour with his dying lover to help him. He came, when his own kinsman, Connor, did not—to aid him, to save him.
I killed him. Brutally. Over and over. And I loved it. Duncan was helplessly sick again, soiling himself with the force of his heaving. Sick within and sick without. I’ve destroyed myself and I’ve destroyed the two of us. I’ve broken any hope of friendship with an immortal five thousand years old. I trusted Methos from the time we met and he trusted me—and look what I did to that trust. The same thing I did with Rich.
Duncan slid sidelong in the narrow bathroom and curled up, wedged between the toilet and wall, cowering before something savage. In the darkness of his torn soul, he faced the truth. I beheaded Jim Coltec and Sean Burns, and I loved it. I would have killed Rich and loved it. I killed mortals left and right, hideously and without cause, and loved every death. I would have dragged Methos outside and killed him as well, but I enjoyed beating him to death too much. My God! What have I become?
I am what I most hate, what I’ve judged everyone around me for—I kill because I love it!
Time seemed to stop, frozen, at this final recrimination. All the evil that had gone before swelled up within his soul with this last piece of the puzzle and drowned him.
Dreamscape: He was in the empty church. Alone. His knees hurt from kneeling on the floor and he tried to use the pain to center him. “What have I become?” he shouted at the room. His skin hurt, his clothes fit poorly, and he stank. There was a din in his head and yet the church was absolutely quiet. Duncan was in his true flesh, but it didn’t feel like his own.
“I killed a friend!” And killed another over and over and over again. “I can’t live like this! Everything I love is gone!” Everyone I love has been driven away. And some never came to help me in the first place. Some never came!
Abruptly, the scene shifted crazily. Duncan was in the barge, tearing apart his books and photos, searching frantically for a key to unlock his darkness. Statues, furniture, papers fell in his rage and pain—and he found nothing. His hands coasted over the picture of Tessa Noel on the wall, and he knocked it down without recognizing her.
Next, he was face to face with Sean Burns beneath the trees. And again, he smiled and grasped his hand as he slew him. The quickening this time was agony and he cried when it was over.
Methos’ voice, close and in his face: “You’re too important to lose.”
“You’re no’ my son! You never were my son!” from a sept leader hundreds of years ago. The words shot ice through his heart all over again.
Davis’ wife, whimpering beneath him. “Come on, baby, I like it a little rough and you can take this,” he cajoled through his lust.
“Is this how it is? The teacher kills the student?” cried Richie.
Duncan stopped the smartly dressed businessman and asked the time. He took the watch and left the corpse in the alley. Now he could tell his own time on the gold Dior.
He passed a church and flinched when he saw Darius in the doorway. He wanted to run to him, find shelter somehow in his presence, but the priest vanished as Duncan approached. I am too evil for Darius to endure, he cried internally.
He stood in the chill of the meat locker, before cattle carcasses hung by the tendons. The apron and his chest were smattered with blood as he hacked with the butcher’s blade.
The scene shifted, horrifically, to the holy ground encounter where he bludgeoned Methos to death, over and over again.
Back and forth he went, experiencing each scene over and over anew. It was terrible. It was horrible. Duncan was dying in the midst of it, and completely unable to die. If he could have screamed and fled, he would have. Some small part of him keened for death, some surcease to his suffering. Hearing the words, reliving each event, feeling the siren of Methos’ quickening begin and end and begin again.
Daylight, streaming through the nearest porthole and creeping slowly across the floor, marked the hours for him. Duncan lay sprawled in the doorway of the bathroom and watched the ellipse of light for a time before he got on his feet. He reeked of vomit and turned the shower on full blast. Numbly, he stepped in the hot spray and mechanically washed his hair, then scrubbed and scrubbed his body until his skin hurt and his fingers ached. Still, the stain on his soul remained.
How am I supposed to go on? Who am I anymore? Certainly not the man he once was, nor the hero that Richie Ryan had believed in. And not “too important to lose.” His father had denied his birthright and Duncan found those traumatic words more truthful than they had ever been before. He wasn’t his father’s son. He did not have the qualities to lead and protect a clan. What right did he have to the name Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod any longer? He had attempted to slay his own student, contemplated slaying a crippled mortal, brutalized one friend over and over, and killed another one. Everyone who circled in his orbit had become a target of his darkness. Strangers on the street weren’t safe and neither were those of whom he was fondest. Everyone paid dearly for the murderer in his heart. His head hurt. His soul hurt. Trauma settled down into his bones like heavy silt and there was nowhere to go, nowhere to run to escape what he felt. What he had done.
Perhaps Connor could have turned my course—but I will never know now, will I? His mentor had not come to his aid. Everyone else had come, save this one man, who should have been ahead of all of the rest. Some dark fury seethed at the thought. Perhaps he hoped someone would slay me. One less obstacle for him to have to face in that Goddamn game that is so important to him! His head throbbed the cadence of his pulse. Did Connor wish me dead? I tried to kill my student—did Connor ever think about that? Was he tempted?” Duncan’s internal chaos formed around the darker thoughts. He didn’t come, he hasn’t called … does he even care or did he abandon me to fate? Was he hoping for the chance, during my darkness, to try for my head himself? Was he waiting for me to get tired enough, miserable enough, savaged internally enough to simply give up? His fingers closed around the bar of soap and left indentations all the way around it. The water grew tepid, then cool. He didn’t bother to shave, and he left the crushed bar of soap spinning with the funnel of water down the drain.
He dried off and dressed. He made coffee. He swirled some eggs in a pan on the stove. All unthinking actions, performed automatically. He wasn’t even sure where his katana was in the barge, and the knowledge deepened his internal chaos.
It did not matter anymore, to live, to die. It used to be enough to live his immortal life before: fighting for survival occasionally and trying to do worthy tasks the rest of the time. But to be turned into evil? How can I ever pick up that sword after having gone through this? My God—it could happen again! He flinched and burned his hand on the stove, thinking immediately of the punk outside the bar and his snarled retort to bedevil Duncan from the inside for the next twenty years.
“It could happen again. Every fight, I will fear a repeat of this evil resurrecting itself,” he whispered, aghast. “This lives in me!” Duncan felt as if he was floundering for air, his thoughts dizzyingly swift and remembering facing his own twin across the pool. It was not some stranger within that he fought in the dreamscape at the Holy Spring.
“It IS me!” The eggs popped and sizzled while Duncan stared off at nothing. His world, and everything in it, had abruptly contracted around him. “I didn’t become possessed by some other man on the inside, like Jim Coltec. The possession became me!
“Coltec brought me across the threshold into darkness. He told me we would all become evil! He warned me that I’d better be prepared to be just like him, and I ignored him. Methos said ‘There might be more room in me.’ Every quickening will shift the balance either for good, or bad!” Duncan backed away from the stove, staring at nothing. “I don’t hunt simply to kill immortals; I only try to take out the evil ones. Is killing the 'good' ones, right along with the bad, the only way I can stay stable? But, what does that make me if I kill the good and the bad without regard? Without any distinction? I can’t ignore this and pretend I don’t understand, go on living when I know I am an immortal who can be mastered by evil…”
Who am I, now? What am I willing to risk and to lose? My friends? Myself? Which is more closely aligned with who I really am?
“I’m done. I have to be done with the sword,” he whispered bleakly, fully understanding the ramifications of his thinking. “And I have to walk alone because I may not be able to avoid every fight. I can’t let his happen again and kill, or try to kill, everyone I love. If they’re not with me and not my friends, then they won’t be in danger.”
He stood a long time, numbly. The eggs began to burn and he turned the stove off without thinking. They went cold in the pan and still he stood, staring at nothing.
The Scot didn’t even wince when an immortal presence swept over him. I cannot simply go on as if this never happened. It happened—and it may happen again if I kill. He went to the door, unarmed, and stared at Methos blankly. For a moment, he fixed the placid features and casual dress of the elder immortal … then his last hideous memory returned with a rush and he dropped his gaze from the friendly face at his door. Not this man. Not now and not ever again.
“Go away,” he struggled out.
“You look like hell, MacLeod.” Methos studied him intently from the doorway. “I think you need some help.”
Not from you. I can’t accept this from you or anyone else. You’ve paid too much for the likes of me already. “Go away,” he repeated in a voice that sounded torn.
“I don’t think so,” returned Methos, and he brushed past the Scot. Duncan stood in the doorway a moment before he turned. The other man acquired a cup of coffee and slid into the wing chair near the couch. He watched Duncan over the rim and asked, very gently, “What happened?”
Duncan winced at the kindness of that tone. “Another vision.”
“And this one of…?” Methos let the words trail off.
Duncan could not look him in the face and his voice was monologue. “I know why you flinched in the bar yesterday. I lived it all over again last night.”
“Ah.” Complete understanding encapsulated in one word.
“I’m sorry, Methos.” Duncan finally looked at his benefactor. “If I could undo it, I would.”
“I know, MacLeod.” Methos shrugged one shoulder in dismissal. “Like you said, you haven’t been yourself lately.”
A lie, his inner judge reminded him. He HAD been himself. There had always been a part of him that was everything he hated in an enemy. It took a powerful possession to bring it to the fore, but it was still the truth. There was no way to deny that part of him was evil. Evil! And the immortal sitting so blithely in his chair was a living reminder of the dark deeds Duncan was capable of. If you walk near me, it will happen again. I will never be free of what I am.
“I think you should go, Methos.”
“I just poured a cup of coffee,” he protested. He scowled at the Scot and took another sip.
“Take it with you.” Duncan looked outside. The sky was mottled with clouds. It would rain today. Perhaps all day and night. He didn’t think he would ever see the world quite the same way again, as if all the colors had been drained out and were replaced with black, white, and gray. “It’s too risky to be around me any more. Especially after what’s happened.”
“You’ve always been a risk to be around, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Everyone knows that.” Methos was firmly in his patronizing voice and scooted more comfortably into the chair. “You don’t change your name, you sport an excess of nobility, and you attempt to rescue everyone who is in trouble. You can’t even kill a silly hen that has gone bad, even when you know good and well that she must be stopped, because of your chivalry!” He shook his head and gave a small laugh. “You’re a magnet for immortals and mortals alike, because of that character of yours. It was only a matter of time before you would need rescuing.”
“A fine character, I have! I didn’t rescue the whore in the alley!” Duncan retorted. “I fucked her good and then strangled her! I killed a man for his watch—his stupid watch, Methos!” The scalding coffee spilled across his hand and he flinched, struggling against rage and pain so deep … so deep…
“I know.” Methos sighed patiently, putting his cup down on the side table. He leaned over his hands, adding weight to his words. “There’s a bit of darkness in all of us, MacLeod. Some of us learn it early and others late. It’s a hard lesson to accept and still go on. It’s much easier to try to excuse your actions instead of admitting that part of you is evil … and you like it.”
Duncan just looked at his friend. He knows, he thought. Does he have any idea of how terrible this is? How this changes everything I believe of myself, my whole life as an immortal? I could become evil again and how will he stop me the next time? I doubt I could be cajoled into that spring again, and you can bet I would regard him as a man who contemplated slaying me because I was evil the last time! I would never give him another chance at my neck. How could he possibly know how horrific this is for a man sworn to do good and not evil?
The placid-faced man sitting across from him was known for turning from trouble and fights. It was how he had survived all these thousands of years. Methos didn’t have any idea what it was like to kill and kill and kill again, caught up in delight with the bloodshed and pain. Duncan couldn’t look away from him, sitting casually in the chair as if they were discussing scoreboard statistics. What price will Methos pay if this happens again? he wondered. And what if he fails to stop my madness? How many will have to die?
“I need some time to think, Methos, to figure out who I am again.” I have to disappear, disappear from the world and from everyone. I value you too highly to risk you. “I want you to go back to wherever you belong and let me find my own way.”
“I think you need a friend who knows all your demons and deeds, and accepts you anyway.” Methos picked up his cup and took another sip, grimacing at the strength of the coffee.
Not you. I savaged you over and over again, without hesitating. I know what I am. I don’t want to be responsible for slaying the oldest immortal in the world. “Not this time, Methos, it’s better if you go. I need some time.”
“To brood, yes, I know.”
Duncan stared at his fingers curled around his cup, aware of some dim part of himself that wanted to throttle this man—again. There was a devil living in his heart … and it was his own.
“You’ve brooded for a whole day already. Do you have any idea how boring you are when you’re in a brood? Not to mention all the phone calls you ignore and all the people you avoid, when they are just trying—"
“Methos,” he interjected, cutting the other man off. “Just go.” “Go? Just like that? Just order me away?” Methos leaned over his knee, irritated, his eyes glittery. “You and I have been through a bit much to just tell me to bugger off, haven’t we? And now, more than ever, we have to talk—not to mention the fact that you need support through this. Accepting your own inner demons is almost as difficult as being them.”
“The price is too high, Methos.” Duncan faced him angrily. “I tried to kill my own student. I killed a friend I’ve known for almost two hundred years, and I would have killed you!”
“But you didn’t!” remonstrated the elder man. He put his cup aside and laced his fingers, every expression coaxing the Highlander back to center instead of this desperate scrambling away.
“I wanted to!” Duncan’s voice was explosive and troubled. He set his coffee cup upon the counter as if it was fine china. Any minute, he expected to simply fly apart.
“You’re a good man, Duncan. We were on holy ground, and I knew you were fighting something bigger than you were. You needed an outlet to some rage … and I was willing to pay the price.”
“Yes! I had to try to reach you, to help you get back out of the darkness. You’re the best I’ve ever seen, MacLeod.”
“At what? The sword? At killing?” he snapped back. “No, Methos, I’m not what I’m supposed to be anymore! Part of me … part of me,” he was losing his grip and fought for strength, “part of me loves the darkness ... and what will happen the next time, if you’re my friend and we’re even closer?” he demanded.
Silence met his outburst, and he knew he was correct. To walk beside me means death, somewhere, sometime, somehow. Duncan closed his eyes in the misery and listened, grateful that he did not have a clock that ticked audibly in his barge. The quiet was unbroken until he whispered, “I can’t risk you. You have to go. Everyone that I care about has to go. No one is safe around me. You have to go and never come back.” They sat in a quiet stalemate and Duncan stared into the blackness in his soul, mesmerized and aching.
“No man is an island, MacLeod, not the ones who try to do right. We’re all connected. When you fall, we all fall. You fought the same urge to kill inside when you faced Sean Burns, but you weren’t on holy ground, and you weren’t close enough to Sean to win that battle.” Methos spoke softly into the stillness. “You were close enough to me to keep from killing me, permanently. If you walk away from friendship now, how will I be able to help you if there’s a next time?” He stood and moved close, until he was face to face. Duncan could feel the breath behind the words and hear the note of resignation.
“It’s better to stand nearer, than farther away. Sometimes there’s a price, but I would have still paid it, and you must just accept that.” His closeness, the hand he placed against his chest—like he had once before in a church—forced Duncan to look directly into his face. “You still aren’t alone, and you’re too important to lose.”
If I care—if he matters—if he’s important enough to me, I have to be strong enough to send him away. Some other immortal isn’t the danger to him anymore—it’s me. Duncan swallowed around the bitterness in his soul and stepped out from behind that hand of friendship.
“You have to walk away, Methos. And if this happens again, don’t come back. You were safer not knowing me. Live, grow stronger, fight another day. Those are wise words from an old man.”
“I am not your foe. I was never your foe.” The elder immortal bit each word off precisely. “And I would still come. It’s what friends do. You are too important to lose, whether you believe it or not.”
“You’re wrong.” Duncan turned away and stared out the nearest porthole at the gray drizzle that had begun. “I’m grateful that you helped, but I can’t be the cause of your death or anyone else’s. Please—just go—and don’t come back.” He stared at the clouds that boiled above the Notre Dame and the bounce of raindrops on the concrete through the porthole. He stood until he heard the sigh behind him, the footsteps, and the swish of the long coat being donned. The door shut with no farewell, leaving him alone with ghosts and ghastly deeds.
For many minutes, the Highlander stared blindly through the downpour and listened. We’re one, inseparable, proclaimed the darkness in his soul and he saw again the malevolently laughing face at the spring. You can’t kill what you become.
“I know,” he said aloud. “You will always be there, waiting for the chance to take me over again.”
Duncan poured another cup of coffee and in the span of time it took to retrieve his cup and fill it, the hum of immortality was back. He sat the mug down with a bang of irritation. Leave me alone. Leave me alone, Methos! He strode to the door, empty handed and angry, and found himself face to face with Connor MacLeod.
The elder Highlander was unsmiling, unshaven, poised just the slightest bit sideways as if braced for an attack on the narrow gangway. The katana was dull looking in the gloomy day, but his eyes burned from within, set like golden fire in caves.
“YOU!” Duncan spat out, feeling the weight of weeks of darkness and then days of misery compounding in him. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Connor registered faint surprise at the harsh words, but his stance and demeanor did not change on the planking. “I came to see you.”
“To see—,” and Duncan throttled the words midway. His hands were clenched and the nails bit into his palms. Didn’t he know? How could he not have been told? He had to have been told! He was inarticulate, staring back at his clansman.
“Can I come in? It’s wet.” Connor studied him with the same cool calculating expression that he always wore.
Duncan swung away from the door, locked up internally with confusion and pain, and let Connor inside the barge. Duncan watched the older man’s cautious survey of the interior as he tucked the katana inside his coat. There was a flurry of papers and books swept into one corner, and broken glass stuck up haphazardly in the recycle bin. The walls, once laden with photographs, were bare and stark. There were tears in several chairs. The bedding was a heap and the kitchen smelled of old garbage—a perfect reflection of Duncan’s shattered life.
Connor studied it all, moving as carefully as a cat in the confining interior, and Duncan registered the other man’s unease. He’s at a disadvantage in here. There’s only one way out unless you go for a swim in the Seine, he thought. He planted himself between Connor and the door, conscious and uncaring of how that might be perceived by this immortal.
“Why?” Duncan kept the accusation out of his voice, but couldn’t keep the edge from it. “Why are you here now?”
“Can’t I visit sometimes?”
There was nothing within his statement to pry at. It was just an innocent response, but Duncan’s anger refused to fade. “Do you know what’s happened to me?” he demanded. He took another step into the barge.
Connor stopped his aimless walking and studied him a moment. “I heard.”
Duncan didn’t have his katana and he didn’t care. An explosive fury was boiling up from inside, flowing through his blood and pounding like the thunder of hooves through his head. You’re the one I should have beaten to death over and over in that church. Not Methos, who came to help—YOU! You abandoned me in my darkest hour! He took another step. Connor watched, but his stance still did not change. Duncan registered that his clansman had been poised for conflict the whole time. He had known! He knew I took a dark quickening and still he didn’t come! Why didn’t he come?
“You knew, but you didn’t come to try to help me?” Duncan asked, clipping each word off tersely. I have to hear you say it. I have to hear it from your own mouth. Then we’ll deal with that kind of betrayal between clansmen.
“Is that what you think?”
Duncan took yet another step and faced his old mentor across seven feet of empty space. “Tell me, Connor, why didn’t you come?”
The elder Highlander reacted minutely to this, tilting his head slightly. The severity of his gaze changed to curiosity. “You thought I didn’t come?”
Parrying questions with more questions: an old tactic that Connor used against opponents to flush out what they were thinking. Ordinarily, this was merely a game between them, and Duncan could go on for a long time without giving any answers. But this time, there was nothing ‘play’ about anything he felt or thought or believed.
“I didn’t see you. Not once.” He was certain his face reflected the accusation that he flung out so bitterly. “I know you had to have been one of the first to be told, but you never came. Why didn’t you come? Too busy with yourself?”
From somewhere outside himself, Duncan could see the reaction in the man he faced. Connor straightened all over minutely, and the eyes switched from curiosity to something harder. He exhaled very slowly, studying Duncan before responding. “No thanks to your Watcher, I see,” he growled sullenly. “I came. Didn’t you ask Dawson?”
Duncan blinked at that. He came? “I didn’t ask.”
“And whose fault was that?”
Oh no you don’t, you bastard! You won’t turn this shit around on me, not after what I’ve been through, without you lifting a finger! Duncan took another step, bringing the tension between them along with his stride. Five feet. Sword distance. “Where were you when I was going through all this, Connor?” Hiding? Watching? Waiting for me to slip up and be an easy mark for you? Why didn’t you come out where I could see you?
“You thought I didn’t come—so where did you think I was?” Connor’s eyes were hard, probing, scrutinizing Duncan’s tone and tension-filled pose.
“Why should I care about where you were?” Duncan countered. “I was in trouble, and I needed help, but I never saw you!” I expected to see you—you, of all people, should have been the first to reach me! The first to try to help me!
“So, where did you think I was?” Connor countered stubbornly, ignoring the question at hand completely. He tilted his head, weighing the other man suspiciously.
Duncan took another step forward at the challenging query, bringing him within arms distance—close enough to see the grime in Connor’s hair, the raindrops that lingered as they evaporated. His clansman looked like he’d been under a bridge for a week, but Duncan dismissed his curiosity. All of the hardship he had relived for the past two days, the darkness and flashbacks to acts of violence, swung to the fore. This man should have been aiding me at my most desperate hour, and he wasn’t! Connor's calmness and evasive manner made this even more bitter. “You could have been fucking yourself for all I care," Duncan said. "You sure didn’t help me.”
Connor ignored the ugly comment entirely; his eyes fastened on him like claws. “What do you think I was doing?”
Duncan couldn’t hold back the vitriol and fury any more. His words were like acid, etching to be released. “I think you were watching to see if I fell to someone else. One less obstacle on your way to the prize.” He let the accusations stab like daggers. “Maybe you were hoping to see me falter, and then I’d be an easy target for you!”
The elder Highlander stood frozen—unblinking—then he moved so fast that they were face to face before it registered through Duncan’s rage. For an instant, the younger immortal caught a glimpse of something tragic in the gray-green eyes, something burning, buried beneath layers of control—then they went flat and cold, switched off as if a wall had slammed down inside. A fortress, impervious to everything outside. The planes of Connor’s face went still and it seemed even his pulse had stopped.
“You thought I wanted you dead … to slay you myself.” The words dropped out in empty space, absolutely dead. Then the flash of anger erupted in the tone, “You fucking idiot!”
“I never saw you, damn it! I never even FELT you! What the hell were you doing?” Duncan demanded, spittle flicking the space between them. You came, you saw, you did nothing? While I killed and killed and brutalized my friends, you did nothing? I’ve destroyed the trust of my student, my Watcher, the oldest immortal in the world? All those friendships, gone, while you stood around doing … what? It didn’t matter if Connor was armed and Duncan wasn’t, at this distance. If he drew a sword on him now, it would just confirm Duncan’s suspicions.
Inarticulate rage drove Duncan onward for the truth. “TELL ME!”
“I was waiting,” Connor barked right back, furious.
“Tell me, tell me exactly what you were waiting for?”
“I was the outer ring.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Duncan demanded. Connor was shorter and leaner than he was, but he radiated nearly twice the aura of violence in the same amount of space. The younger Scot pressed on, undaunted by that personal boundary, leaning farther into the other man’s face, staring him down.
“I was called and I caught the first flight to get to you. There were other immortals coming to try to help. Some of them I sent away, because I knew you loved them, and you might kill them while mad.” Connor’s words were icy, his tone biting. He stood, spread-legged and cornered, right in the middle of the room. “I stood clear outside the ring of presence and watched. I followed wherever you went, stumbling across Watchers in my way and dodging other immortals too afraid to help you. And while everybody else made the effort to bring you back from the darkness, I had to stand on the outside and watch.”
“Why?” Duncan fired at him in the pause.
“Because I was your teacher. And I knew that in the end, if you couldn’t be salvaged, it would be up to me.”
“To do what?”
“To kill you.” Connor’s voice turned oddly gentle beneath the words.
Duncan did not heed that change in tone or timbre. He rebelled, like a tiger caught in a net, furious, determined to find the end of this twisted conversation. One derisive and mocking laugh escaped him before his rage took over. “As if you thought you could?” he spat out defiantly in Connor’s face.
Eerily, raising all the goose bumps on Duncan’s skin, Connor MacLeod shifted right before him! Like some specter of Kol T’ek, who danced circles in his buckskin in an unreal world, the elder man wavered slightly, the greatcoat and eyes shimmering and stretching, then became solid again—off to Duncan’s right, by inches. And in Connor’s hand he held, not the length of the katana, but a short blade pressed point down against Duncan’s chest. It was more than enough to stab him through the heart.
Duncan’s mouth went dry. Connor was completely alien in this moment, eyes wild with rage and pain and something else more terrifying. A kaleidoscope of impressions churned behind that gaze, as if an abrupt struggle for possession had arisen. His kinsman’s jaws were locked so hard that the tendons in his throat strained. Duncan could see his pulse bounding at the juncture of his neck and clavicle. There was some cataclysmic war being fought. The blade dug slightly beneath the pressure of his hand and his smile was lethal.
The younger man knew he could strike that arm away, he had the knowledge and the strength … but what could he use against the kind of sorcery that he had just seen? Connor MacLeod held the quickening of Nakano. Duncan had lived through supernatural encounters galore, even his own encounter with himself at the holy spring, but this—this threat he wasn’t prepared for. All the anger and vitriol, all the agony that had propelled him like a juggernaut against this man, halted. Connor meets strength with more strength. He’s off the edge.
It took forever.
It was merely seconds.
It had to have been fifteen minutes.
It was only a moment—a moment that paused like a tear trembling on the edge of a woman’s eye. Like blood welling beneath the point of a dagger.
And, finally, Connor took a breath. Then the second one. He blinked and tilted his head with that same deranged look in his eyes. When he spoke, the tone was light and disconnected from the scene—that, more than anything, chilled the younger Highlander to the core. “I’m clearly able to kill you, Duncan.”
“Connor,” Duncan said very quietly, still beneath the threat, still pressed by that hard edge against his chest. “Connor?”
The blade fell away and the elder man stepped back. Duncan registered the rigidity of his movements, the face frozen in a blank. Even the fire that always burned in his clansman’s eyes was damped. What has happened? Something is terribly, terribly wrong.
“Connor?” Duncan waited, wondering what had taken place within the pale immortal facing him from three feet away.
“I waited to do the task that they could do, but didn’t want to have to do. No one wanted to be the one to behead Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, and no one wanted to be the one to decide when that time had come.” The older Scot’s words were grim and lifeless. “I was the man for the job. I could do it, easily.”
Some spark of resentful anger resurrected itself. “It wouldn’t have bothered you, to kill me?” Duncan said querulously, hurt.
The vacuous eyes he faced flared into being, madly alight, and Connor leaned towards him. “As a matter of fact, Duncan … no. It wouldn’t have bothered me.” Then he leaned back on his heels, head cocked, waiting, baiting.
“Dammit, Connor! Do I mean so little to you?” Duncan accused, his anger rekindled in a heartbeat.
The elder Scot smiled a terrible, terrible smile … and Duncan understood. An icy tremor ran through his soul. Everything that had gone before, all the murders, the ignominious act of savaging his student, the brutality with Methos—everything that was evil and dark and tortured within Duncan—reached threshold.
“I was right.” He said it with conviction, knowing nothing could ever repair or salvage this comprehension that lay like venom between them. A betrayal like this between clansmen was enough to rend the fellowship. One either had to die or leave the clan forever. ‘There can be only one.’ How many times have I heard this man say those words? He lives for the hunt, the fight, and the strength to be gained in a quickening! He must never know about Methos, or he’ll track him down just to kill him for the power! He felt like a dog, swiftly kicked. “You did want me dead.”
“And there you are wrong, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.” Connor’s face was hard and severe, betraying nothing. “If it became obvious that there was no way to halt you, if you’d failed to be drawn back by that old claymore of your father’s, I would have come in quick and hard and done whatever had to be done to kill you.” He nodded at Duncan’s scowl. “Yes, even sorcery if I needed it—because,” he leaned closer, breathing sourly into Duncan’s face, “I know you. And I know you would want someone to free you from the dark, no matter what it took, no matter what price there was to be paid, no matter what rules of the game had to be broken. This isn’t about immortality or the game—it’s about you, the son of a clan chieftain. That is who you are most of all: a man who would beg for release from evil. Above all else, you are a noble prince … to be anything less is a living death.
“And I would have killed you without regret, without grief, without sorrow. It wouldn’t have bothered me to kill you at all.”
“Because it would be a mercy.” Duncan’s words sounded far away to his own ears as he struggled to shift his perspective. My God, what was I thinking? This is a nightmare, trying to get to the truth amidst all these open wounds in me. “That’s why you could cope with killing me?”
“No, Duncan. That’s not the reason.” Connor tilted his head, like a child about to tell a secret … a terrible secret. “It’s because I knew I wouldn’t have to live very long after it was done.”
Duncan shook his head, denying, scrambling for words and clear thought, reeling beneath blow after blow. “You would have … just let someone kill you?” he stumbled the words out, aghast.
“No, Duncan. There are lots of rock walls in the Highlands, even in these days. It’s easy to wedge the handle of a sword in the stones. And I run, Duncan, I run fast, with my chin up.” Connor spoke calmly … too calmly ... he was terrifyingly calm, every word a truth. “It would take me, maybe, five hundred feet of open ground to get the swiftness I’d need. I wouldn’t even see the blade when I went through it. My head would probably bounce fifty feet before stopping and the fall would break all of my bones.” He dropped the final words out like a man emptying his pockets. “I’ve always had the strength to die.”
Silence. Duncan gaped at this man who had abruptly become a stranger to him, stunned. Fitz was terrified of this happening. Darius suffered this horrible fate. The ground had just opened beneath Duncan's feet and he struggled to comprehend. “But, your quickening—it would just be … gone!”
“SO!?” Connor roared, abruptly alive. He reached with both hands and twisted them into Duncan’s shirt. The younger man fastened his fingers around the slenderer wrists and attempted to break free—and found his slighter kinsman powered by inhuman strength. “Ask me why, Duncan! Ask me!” Connor demanded. His eyes were crazed, wide open, so intense and brilliant that Duncan couldn’t look away.
“Connor!” Duncan partially whispered, partially soothed, trying to retreat from this sudden precipice he found himself at. Look at his eyes! Something is wrong! He could not break the hold on his shirt, nor find the fight it took to twist free … and knew he was being dragged toward some staggering conclusion
“I’ll TELL you why!” Connor spat it into his face. “Because I killed you! That isn’t the way it is supposed to end! I am your kinsman! Your kinsman! This isn’t the way it ends! It doesn’t matter how I kill you, it doesn’t matter why I kill you, it doesn’t matter about my sword being lost on some mountainside, it doesn’t matter about the damn quickening—I killed you! Do you think I would give a Goddamn about where my quickening went after I had killed you? My quickening doesn’t MATTER! Nothing matters after that final act! The only reason I could kill you was because I knew I didn’t have far to go afterwards—and I was willing to pay that price to stop you!”
Duncan closed his eyes against the raw agony he saw in Connor, and saw the same pain mirrored inside himself. All these prices everyone was paying to try to rescue me from evil. Every way I turn is another, paying some terrible price. How could I have been so blind to not see it? If Methos had been unsuccessful, I would have had to be killed and Connor would not have been able to live with it. Both of us would have been lost … but Methos brought exactly what I needed and knew how to reach me. He saved us both and I’ve sent him away…
“You thought I didn’t come, you thought I wanted to see you die—worst of all, you thought I wanted to slay you myself!” Connor voice was ragged, savage, choking on bitter words and hurling them out one right after the other. He jerked Duncan with both hands, punctuating every sentence, and Duncan let him, too aggrieved to resist and nearly tottering on his feet. “What have we been to each other for four hundred years, Duncan? Huh? Teacher, student, kinsmen.” The spittle hit his face and Duncan did not move, letting the agony-filled man work out his pain. “We’ve been brothers, cousins, warriors, friends, Goddammit, we’ve crossed battle lines and continents for each other! We’ve bled and fought and died for each other! If there were a way to jerk my quickening out and hand it to you if you needed it, I would find it!
“Sure, Connor,” Duncan murmured, struck by the preposterousness of that last comment, then cringed when the other man let him go with an abruptness that made him stagger. Connor’s expression hit him like a physical blow.
“If you came to New York and stood at my door, and when I opened that door, you put your hands on my shoulders and looked me in the face and said: ‘Take me in, Connor, because I think I’m dying. I’m losing everyone that I hold dear. And every time I lose another one, another piece of my soul gets ripped away, and now, when I look inside, I don’t SEE me inside anymore’—what do you think I would do?”
No words. Duncan was inarticulate, silenced both in mind and heart. Somewhere, his soul was crying at the impossible strength all of this took. He could not go on, he could not go back. There was no way to turn any of this.
“You would take me in until I found myself again,” he whispered, finally aware and fully recognizing that the man he faced held no limits, no boundaries, no walls—a true clansman. There was no price higher than death, no length Connor MacLeod would not go to grapple for a kinsman lost in the darkness. Sentenced, by choice—and by a particular skill trained into him by an old master—to be the outside line around his evil. Carrying out this final duty would have destroyed him and still, he came, willing to be destroyed for the sake of a brother. Like Methos…
“I would not say a thing," Connor said. "I would take you in and walk beside you however long it took, pass all of my strength and fire to you, bargain the devil for your soul until you were well again. The people who love you are willing to pay whatever they must to heal you or free you.” In the silence after the words, Connor ran fingers up through his hair, making it appear even more unkempt. His hand shook. “I came,” he said hoarsely. “I was there all the time. There is no power on earth that could have kept me from you, save death or a cell. Now you know.” He moved carefully, rigidly, as if every step ached, around the low table and towards the wood stove, tightening the long coat around him.
“Where are you going?” Duncan stuttered out, bewildered by the abrupt shift of direction. His mind and emotions were still several sentences away, battered and numbly contemplating.
“I’m going home,” Connor replied bitterly.
Duncan reached out and halted him, but Connor jerked back as if branded, bristling all over. The younger immortal winced at the pain radiating out of the Scot. “Stay,” he said, abruptly aware that this man was too brittle to be out in the city like this. “I know you’re exhausted. Stay for a while, rest, then we can talk some more.”
“There’s nothing more to be said.”
Gently, gently, everything’s gone tragically wrong. “You came to see me, and it’s been confusing and brutal. We’ve thrown words like knives and we’re both hurt. Stay, and let us work it out to peace again, clansman.” Duncan saw him flinch at the title and knew the depths to which he had inadvertently injured this man. He reached across the distance and placed his hand on him the second time, underscoring his words. “We can fix this, Connor. With some time and some more talking, we can heal this. You came to see me, so stay.”
“No, Duncan,” and Connor swung on him, shouldering off the restraining hand. “You can’t fix this.”
“I can’t if you don’t LET me,” Duncan remonstrated.
“I can’t let you! All of this is a betrayal of everything we are—everything I am! How could you even think this, let alone believe it?” he hissed.
“I’ve been through hell, too, Connor, night and day and night again! Dreams and visions and nightmares practically every hour! It hasn’t been easy on me either, dealing with what I’ve done. It’s like a betrayal of myself,” Duncan retorted, stung by the accusation. You don’t know what it’s like in me!
“You’re as dumb as a dick if you think anything is about you anymore,” Connor spat right back. “It hasn’t been about you for days now. It’s about those who have been hurt and how you help them heal. THAT is the task of a clan leader.”
Duncan stopped his internal murmuring abruptly, slapped with the truth. One mistake after the next, turning away those who helped, injuring those he didn’t understand … and Connor, bruised and battered, gathering his tattered ego around himself—still making for the door.
I have to stop him. If he leaves like this … I’m not sure he’ll get back to New York alive. “Connor! Wait!” Duncan intercepted again, placing himself squarely in the doorway … and this time, he encountered the sword. Connor rested it against his breastbone, tip up, and when he met the older man’s gaze, Duncan realized the end of his hope. There was nothing behind those familiar eyes; just the immortal instinct to survive that had been hammered into place for nearly five hundred years. Connor has never faced me across his sword like this. Never, not even in practice. Not even when he has been irritated. Something is broken in him, somewhere. Some foundation has been torn loose.
“Connor, please … just stay. You’re the only one left.” He was pleading and he didn’t even care. This was one thing he was sure of; he had to reach this man who was lost somewhere. “I know you’re hurt; let me help you heal. Take a step back from this with me.”
“I—can’t—step—back,” Connor grated out. His fingers were bone white, gripping the katana hilt. “I am immortal, Duncan. I expect to see the blade in every man’s hand—I just never expected to see it in yours.” And his expression was bereft and empty, stripped to the core. “Never, in yours.”
Still, Duncan did not move. He watched the ferocious eyes turn slate gray and deadly, the way his mentor’s head dropped just so—like a cat sweeping its ears back, preparing to pounce—and all his blood chilled. “When will I see you again?” he whispered, needing to know, fearing to know.
“Never. I’ve been a fool to let a kinsman get so deep in me again,” Connor ground out. “We’re through. Now stand aside.”
Duncan blinked at the finality of those words, stunned. You’re the only clan I have. The only blood MacLeod who is immortal. How can it just end? Duncan felt the weight of steel press more firmly and registered the settling of the elder Highlander’s features. He was heading toward his standard cool fighting mode, from which there was no calling him back … and Duncan retreated from the blade. The steel tip opened a gash in his shirt as he moved and he ignored the pain. I can’t let it end like this. Not like this! Once he turns, I’ll catch him, and I’d better not hesitate to hit him hard and fast! He has to look at the threshold to clear it.
But Connor MacLeod pivoted as he brushed past, always with the blade of the sword ready, and stepped over the raised iron of the doorway as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Duncan stood, staring, with all of his regrets in his throat, as Connor backed down the gangplank with the sword. He never let his guard down and never said a word … not even his expression changed. It became lost only when the gray coat merged seamlessly with the driving rain.
Duncan was still standing there, too exhausted to move, too bewildered to reenter the barge, until the streetlights winked on thirty minutes later to light the darkness along the Seine.
He was halfway through the first bottle of Scotch when Joe Dawson arrived forty minutes later. The Watcher held an umbrella and his cell phone in one hand, the cane in the other, and nearly dropped the cell phone when Duncan opened the door.
“Mac, you okay? You look like shit,” he commented immediately. Duncan just walked back inside and sat down by his shot glass. Joe maneuvered into the interior and grimaced at the untidiness of the barge and the reek of alcohol. “I, uh … got a call from Stewart, that he … um … lost his assignment somewhere in the area.”
“So?” Duncan asked with a sigh. Dawson was studying him intently. I’m drinking hard and I don’t even have the katana nearby. He would notice something like that.
“So … um, Stewart is your kinsman’s Watcher. Did Connor drop by to see you?”
Duncan closed his eyes and leaned back against the couch. Did Connor drop by? Dropped by, dropped a bomb, dropped off the face of the earth. Yes, indeed. He had dropped by. Duncan chuckled, his head swimming with the alcohol that would wear off quickly and leave him in just as much torment as before. Immortals could never stay drunk enough, long enough.
“Mac? You didn’t fight with him, did you, he’s your—?” and Joe stopped, frowning at his friend and at the tear in the front of his shirt. He levered himself into the nearest chair, still staring at Duncan.
“Clansman.” Duncan winced at the word. My drink must be wearing off. A simple word and all its inward connotations shouldn’t cause so much pain. “Nope. Not like that. But we did have words.” Words: a deluge of words, words of unmaking and unbinding, words and the ultimate comprehension of them that could tear two kinsmen apart. “I didn’t know he had come to try to help me during that quickening of Coltec’s.” He tossed back another whisky.
“Well, I wasn’t sure just why he was there, because he never came near you. He was as uncivil as … well, worse than his usual. Everyone stayed clear of him.”
“Everyone?” Duncan peered over the glass at the mortal, picking through his features for clues.
“The Watchers. We were more than busy enough tracking your activity. We pulled people from all around to keep tabs on you … even Stewart. He thought it was funny to be watching you, only to find his usual assignment skulking around the area as well. Gave me hell because he thought I’d expect journals out of him for both of you at the same time.”
“Connor never told you what he was doing?” It was a simple question that held so much distress.
“No, I never spoke to your kinsman.”
“But … didn’t you call him after I killed Jim Coltec?” Duncan bewilderedly asked.
“I called Methos immediately, and then I was busy tailing you from the bar. I didn’t get on the horn to Connor until after I untied you from the weight rack,” the grizzled Watcher explained. “When I phoned his place in New York to tell him about Coltec, he was already gone. His secretary said it was on ‘urgent business.’ Surprised us all when he showed up where you were.”
This brought Duncan’s head up. Who called Connor? Someone got to him before Joe Dawson and brought him in, but who? Who would know the connection between teacher and student, and that we are clansmen? Who would understand brotherhood like that? He seldom spoke of Connor, as a means to keep him protected from those who would use him as leverage, and he knew his kinsman did the same. Connor said he ‘sent some of them away because I might kill them’. The ones he knew I loved … God … Amanda, Grace, a few others we both knew? He rubbed his head, trapped in a quagmire of thought. He kept watch over me in my madness and prevented some from getting in my way.
“Mac, we need to locate him.”
Dawson’s words snapped Duncan back out of his thinking.
“The paperwork on what happened with you is done," Dawson said, "and Stewart’s ready to get back on the job.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Duncan admitted softly.
“What? You said he was here.” Dawson sat up straighter, studying Duncan with a more thorough look.
Duncan returned the scrutiny and shrugged. “He’s in trouble, Joe. Better warn Stewart to stay clear of him.” “Mac? What kind of trouble … is he off on a fight? Damn! And not a man on him? Double damn!”
“Worse than that,” Duncan slowly relayed. “I said some things to him. As usual, he was reluctant to tell me what he was up to, and I interpreted it poorly. I shouldn’t have suspected him of wrong motives, but I did … I accused him of wanting me dead or wanting to kill me himself. Quite possibly the worst accusation I could level at a man like Connor MacLeod.” He paused before adding gloomily, “He was … very angry.”
“I bet he wanted to slug you,” Dawson observed.
“He never intends to see me again.” Like Methos and Rich, only along a deeper level, where clan lives. I’ve known Connor for four hundred years. How could I suspect such a thing of him? “It took Connor a long time to heal psychologically after he killed the Kurgan, and now…” Duncan looked across the low table at his friend. “He’s emotionally battered. I think he’s unstable.”
“How unstable?” Dawson quested, searching Duncan’s face.
“Bad.” How do you explain the inexpressible? That you broke the trust and heart of a man like Connor MacLeod?
“Damn! Where did he say he was going, Mac?” the Watcher asked grimly.
“Home. But Joe,” Duncan added sadly, “I don’t know if he can make it. Something is wrong inside … with Connor. I hurt him, badly. If he faces a fight…” He let the words trail off.
The grizzled Watcher summed it up almost immediately, reading between the lines. “Christ! That’s all we need: another one! First you go on a wild streak, and now your clansman is emotionally trashed? What if some punk immortal tries for him tonight? And he’s got some powerful forces in him besides the Kurgan: Gasa’dian, Tambur, Kane … damn it to hell and back!” Dawson rolled his eyes and groaned at the ceiling of the barge, then groped for his cell phone. “I’ve got to find him. And what the hell are you doing still sitting here if your clansman is in trouble?” The Watcher was punching buttons as he spoke.
Duncan blinked. Haven’t you heard me at all? “Connor told me to let him go … and he meant it. He faced me over his sword, Joe. Connor has never faced me like that, not even way back in the Highlands. I’ve broken his trust.” Somewhere, it grieved him that his last look at Connor would be etched as that broken shell he had faced at the doorway.
“So, he doesn’t trust you,” returned Dawson. “Well, Methos didn’t trust you much when he went after you either, but that didn’t stop him from going. Where is Methos, by the way? He hasn’t answered for hours at his flat.” He listened to the tone in his phone a moment.
“I don’t know where Methos is.”
“Well, you’re as helpful as a blister tonight, aren’t you?” He dialed another number and groped in his pocket for a notebook. “Stewart? It’s Dawson. Listen, your mark is on walkabout and he might be headed for home. Yeah, I know there are two airports. You run the first level check and I’ll start the second level. Is your list of his aliases up to date? Good. We’ll see if we can dredge him up. Call me if you find him!” Dawson rattled off the terms quickly and then lowered his tone. “Hey, James? Be careful, will you. Rumor is that Connor may be going to ground after a bad encounter with my guy. If his MO is screwy, give me a ring back … I’ll see what I can do. If he’s okay then let him go and stay out of his way. If not, we might need to run some interference on the side.” A pause while he listened to a buzz of words through the cell phone. “I know. This is like trying to leave hell. Slippery as snot on a doorknob and we’re not out yet! Get moving!”
Duncan looked at his Watcher. “You’re going to try to intercept Connor?”
“Of course we are,” he muttered, back to flipping pages in a notebook. “All bets were off when you went AWOL. Why do you think Adam Pierson was running loose in the field when he’s in Research?” He paused and looked at Duncan, his expression harder. “Your kinsman is a hard ass and watching him is like watching a tornado—but he’s still considered one of the good guys, you know. And damn it, I’m not willing to lose him just because you’re still finding your way back from a dark quickening, and he got in the way! Jesus Christ, it’s like a debris field around you, and you’ve been okay for two days!”
Dawson didn’t wait for an answer. He heaved himself to his feet and seized the umbrella and cane as an afterthought while he punched numbers on the cell phone again. Halfway to the door, he pivoted to look at Duncan.
“You might be able to find him quicker. You know Connor—you know what kind of funks he can fall into and where he might go to wait them out. You, of all people, may be able to reach him and help him get stable again. For God's sake, man, don’t let him become another casualty in this mess!”
Another casualty. Another casualty. Another… the words repeated inside his head after Dawson shut the door … casualty. Like a battlefield, with me at the center and all the wounded spread out around me and struggling away.
“You’re the best I’ve ever seen, MacLeod.” Methos.
“I was willing to pay that price.” Connor.
“I think you need a friend, who knows all your demons and deeds, and accepts you anyway.” Methos.
“Because people who love you are willing to pay whatever they must, to heal you or free you.” Connor.
“I had to try to reach you, to help you get back out of the darkness.” Methos.
“There is no power on earth that could have kept me from you, save death or a cell.” Connor.
“I am not your foe. I was never your foe. And I would still come. It’s what friends do. You are too important to lose, whether you believe it or not.” Methos.
“It hasn’t been about YOU for days now. It’s about those who have been hurt and how you help them heal. THAT is the task of a clan leader.” Connor.
The task of a clan leader. Duncan was on his feet, staggering from the Scotch and fumbling for his coat. His sword was up on the headboard of his bed. The keys escaped him for a few minutes, until he found them on his cluttered desk, and then he was outside in the cold rain, shaking his head to clear it and punching buttons on the cell phone at the same time.
“Dawson,” barked the phone. “What’ve you got?”
“Joe, it's me.”
“Mac? What the—where are you?”
“I’m almost to my car. I’m going to cruise the side streets to the airports. Connor left on foot. Knowing his frame of mind, he walked instead of calling a cab.”
“In the driving rain?”
Duncan grinned on his end of the phone, the first genuine smile in many days. “Connor likes to walk to clear his head … and what’s a little rain to an old Highlander?”
“Christ! I hope you’re feeling well, Mac, because I’m not watching you, and neither is anyone else.”
“I’m all right, Joe. Let’s just track him down. If you spot him, ring me, and I’ll come and get him.”
“Hopefully without a brawl,” Dawson muttered. “I don’t want to see swords out between you two, damn it, or I might be sorely tempted to shoot you both!”
“Hopefully without a brawl,” Duncan admitted. “But I’m sure there will be some words, Joe. Call me if he turns up.” He shut the phone and tossed it into the side seat. I should have had coffee. I should have stopped to think more clearly. I should have … a lot of things. He cut the corner and bounced across the curb on his way north. Sitting around reflecting on how I feel about what happened hasn’t led me towards more healing; it’s led me farther into the darkness.
“‘Change what you are thinking about and change what you are doing: that will eventually change your feelings.’ Wise words, Darius,” Duncan said aloud. “If you’re watching from up there, help me find Connor, and then I need to catch up with Methos. We’ve got some healing to do as well.”
Walk. Retie your coat, it’s loose. Wait for the bus to go by. Watch the dog shit, or you’ll smell it for hours. Get away. Get away. You’re going home, home where it’s safe. Go around the puddle. Quai des Celestins is northeast. Did you even read the last sign?
Connor didn’t care; he just walked through the downpour with his head down. The rain flattened his hair and streamed behind his ears, dripping along an uneven turn in the collar of the canvas coat to the shirt beneath. His fingers were icy, and it took two tries to tie the belt into his familiar jerk knot. Part of his mind kept the direction and voiced orders, winding around obstructions on the sidewalk and the occasional pedestrian … but inside, far away from the cold downpour, there was a shattering wall of hurt slowly burying him.
And the laughter. He could hear that laughter again. After years of silence, it boomed around inside his head: gloriously mad and delighted.
Take Phillipe and cut across, or follow the Seine and turn on Rue Saint Paul? Your shoes are soaked, better recheck the lacing so they’re snug. Take Geoffroy and get away from the water. Get away. Get away, he commanded to himself. The laughing jeered at him, chafed him, stabbed him. Shut the fuck up! he snarled at the laughter. Connor stopped, pawed his hair out of his eyebrows and stared at the street. Rue de Jouy? He’d turned too sharply. For a moment he stood, wavering slightly in the middle of the sidewalk with the rain pelting him.
Get away. Get away. Get away. You’ve got to get home!
He had done this before, this stunning stagger away from pain. Way back in the beginning, when he was new and young, when the clan MacLeod had lifted their hands against him and beaten him within inches of his life. The fists and branches were hurtful, but the rocks were far worse. The women aimed for his eyes. One clansman kicked him so hard in the genitals that he fell agonized, but unable to even curl up around the searing, sickening pain, because they had tied his arms outspread in stocks like some mockery of Christ. In rage and fear, they drove him out of the village of Glenfinnan.
But Dugal MacLeod was there, jostled along in the throng of shouting Highlanders. A beloved kinsman and Connor’s truest friend! A clan brother raised beside him as a boy and with whom he’d shared every secret dream in his heart. Dugal would succor him—he would shield him! And the torn and victimized Connor looked into his eyes with profound relief when Dugal reached him and swung him around in his hands.
“DUGAL!” he gasped, desperate for this kinsman to protect him in a world suddenly, horribly gone bad. “Dugal,” he whispered more softly, full of absolute trust and certainty. Here was one man upon whom Connor placed his whole faith.
Get away! Get home! You’ll be fine once you get home. The laughter, by Gods, the laughter is going to drive me mad! Wait, I'm supposed to turn right at this corner. Or is it the next one? Where is that park with the fountain? Shouldn't it be to the left by now? The laughter crashed through his thoughts, mocking and jeering, dragging the memories out against his will. He staggered in the rain and put a hand against the building near him.
Dugal … Dugal MacLeod did not spare Connor. He did not shield him or protect him on that terrible day. He held his crucified kinsman upright with one fist so he could slug him with all of his strength … and the blow reached deeper than any rock or branch could ever touch. Something inside of Connor MacLeod died on the wide path below the mountain. It expired without a whimper or thought, like something foolishly hopeful, suddenly gutted from breast to flank. The trust in the brotherhood of Clan was broken.
Keep walking. Don’t think. You have to get away. Get yourself home. You can rest and think at home. It’s a long way to Charles de Gaulle Airport and you have to keep walking. Keep walking and don’t look back.
He had walked back then, in 1536, walked and walked and walked. Trying to escape the betrayal and grief and suffering. He remembered every word, every curse, every stone, every kick, and every globbet of spit that had been hurled at him. He went forth from his clan and roamed wild in an inhospitable land. And his heart was dead, shut away cold and lonely. He would never trust a clansman again. Ever.
Until Duncan MacLeod.
The laughter! Shut up, damn you! I won’t listen to you! Just keep walking, Connor, keep walking. You’re crossing Rue Des Francs Bourgeois now, see? Don’t forget where you are. You have to get away. Get away and get home.
Connor had sworn never to trust a clansman again, but Duncan looked out at the world with hopefulness and longing, returning again and again to talk to Connor regardless of how brusque the older Scot was. And in the younger immortal’s placating and trusting eyes, Connor saw his own eyes, looking to Dugal so many years previously. The pugnacious older immortal remembered keenly the anguish of that betrayal so long ago. Duncan’s quiet entreaty for something more from him than just an immortal teacher cut Connor anew with strong emotions. They battered at the walls he had erected, churned his mind, and shone a light in all the dark and gloomy places in his soul.
In the end, the older Scot could not neglect the sad yearning for clan and kinship that Duncan held forth pleadingly to him. Painfully and hesitantly, Connor MacLeod decided that there was room in his heart for just one kinsman and let down his guard. It was terrifying to reopen to potential hurt, but he suffered his apprehension in silence.
They became friends … then brothers. Kinsmen. Immortal clansmen. Everything that Duncan needed to fill the emptiness in his heart, the elder man gave as best he could from a soul once betrayed in full measure. And in the giving, he found a way to revive something that had died nearly ninety years before within him. Where there had been treachery, there was trust. Where there had been no guard at his flank, there stood a dark warrior. Where there had been no flesh and blood kin, the lightning that bound them into the same race amongst men made them so. Connor held back the world for his kinsman-student—and he loved him best of all.
Must get away! Get away! The laughter … the laughter in my head! Turn right here … no—go left. Where’s the damn sign? I can’t feel my hands anymore. Put them in your pockets, stupid. Shit, the dog shit around here! The laughter—shut the fuck up! Walk. Keep walking. You have to go on. You have to get home where it’s safe.
‘I will never be a kinslayer,’ Connor often said to himself. Dugal was a kinslayer, for he had destroyed Connor in a way that left him dead within for a long time. And that particular form of living death was worse than being physically dead. The dead felt nothing. Especially not the festering fury that choked up his throat every time he heard the name of his village. (The laughter! Gods, make it stop!) Heather was a measure of peace, but she knew of his pain and how deeply he felt the betrayal of his clan.
I will never be a kinslayer. A kinslayer is the worst betrayer of all.
Then the phone had rung in New York … and his entire being had focused on Duncan MacLeod.
“There are some other people who are going to try to help him,” said the odd English voice over the phone. A shrewd voice, a cool voice. Connor had wanted to kill the little bastard over the dreadful news he had just delivered, as if he was announcing a new stock tip.
He had gotten off the phone and immediately scrambled for his surveillance equipment and hired a private jet. He called Chaser and sicced the computer hothead on the Watcher files. They had hacked into the site to pull chunks of information out, and Connor borrowed a micro-laptop from the whiz kid to take with him. Between the information pirated from the Watchers and his own sources for immortal hunting, Connor expected to locate Duncan within the day. Maybe even within hours.
I have to find Duncan! I have to help him! Can’t this damn plane fly faster? Shit! He alternately meditated and was agitated on the flight to the Northwest, then cursed the Fates and rerouted to Paris to catch Duncan. And, when he saw him, he understood the role he must play … for Duncan was evil and strong and his skill with the blade was flawless. No simple sword fight would avail against this juggernaut. A dark swirl of death surrounded the younger Scot with little sign of recovery.
A fist laid itself around Connor’s heart and slowly closed icy fingers. And he watched. And he wept. And he sharpened his dagger. And he knelt and prayed, a man who rarely prayed, until the fear choked his voice. He was alternately too hot and too cold and could not eat. He took his belt in a notch before the first week was up.
I cannot kill him.
I cannot kill him.
I cannot kill him.
Don’t ask this of me, please, don’t ask this of me.
I cannot kill him.
But he also knew, because he was the man who loved the best and who best understood the essence of who Duncan was, that he could kill him. He could free him from evil and give him peace, and he thought nothing of the immortal rules he would break—for it had nothing to do with immortality. This was a clan issue. A brother issue. Something kinsmen did for one another. It would cost him his soul, for he could not live as a kinslayer, a betrayer like Dugal; but Connor MacLeod had sworn his life to this particular kinsman, and it was a small matter to die.
He would need to come in hard and fast, without warning, and as Duncan turned to see who it was, Connor intended to use the sorcery of his old master Nakano to take his only clansman down without a fight. It was important, most of all, that Duncan be spared the sight of a kinsman coming to slay him. A clansman had betrayed Connor once and he had never forgotten the pang of that comprehension. He didn’t want Duncan to suffer with the knowledge that it was Connor who wielded the blade. There would be no swordplay—this wasn’t about swords. It was about taking a brother home to himself.
There also would not be any spoken good-byes. Connor hoped Duncan would understand, felt sure that his own quickening would tell him as the energy met up, felt confident that his young countryman would know, from somewhere in their foundation as clan, that this was the way it had to end. The older Scot wasn’t sure how much he could comfort his stricken clansman’s soul for the journey, but he would get him back to the wild land of their birth and set them both free. The airplane flight, then the drive, then the long walk up the mountainside of his choosing would be the only time left to carry this man … this time, truly, in his heart.
His soul was sick, sicker than it had ever felt, and his eyes in storefront windows were terrible. He couldn’t look at himself anymore. He was dying on his feet, watching from afar, trying to prepare for something he could not do, but would.
That laughter amidst the pain … Connor was on his knees in the torrent of rain and had no idea how long he had been down. There was something wrong with his chest and it ached and burned. The laughter was becoming the only thing in his mind, eclipsing rationality and his course. Where am I? De Sevigne? Where is that? I’m supposed to be warding Duncan … no, that’s not right either. Walk, Highlander, just keep walking. You have to get away, get away, get away. You have to get home. Find the way home.
The laughter went on and on and on within his head … laughing at the joke. It was insanely hysterical and brutal as a blade, the culmination of everything in this long immortal life. To be betrayed by one clansman when he was an eighteen-year-old boy and now, to be betrayed by the only other clansman he had dared to open his heart to. Ahh, yes, it was funny as hell. Laughing, laughing, laughing, laughing and his eyes were burning and he couldn’t catch his breath at all and he was soaked and cold and stiff.
He fell once. Twice. Stumbling in the downpour with his mind unclear and his soul full of tragedy … and when the three men spotted him from the shadows of the alley, Connor didn’t even register his danger. In an instant, they were on him … and their blows felt just like those that put him in agony when he was a boy on the Highland hills.
Day Three, middle of the night
Duncan prowled the streets for hours, but found no sign of Connor MacLeod. The rain blurred the scenery and Duncan dismissed it, relying on his immortal signature’s warning. At half past one a.m., he caught a faint tingle and pulled over. But walking around the block did not turn up any presence and he was wary with every corner he turned. I’m getting tired and edgy after so much on top of all the restless days and nights, too.
At two thirty in the morning he crossed the signature of another immortal and slammed on his brakes to avoid losing it. He left the car half on the curb and went trotting back down the street, all of his senses straining … and it wasn’t Connor. It was another man, neatly dressed and walking beneath a wide umbrella. They both stopped the instant they spotted one another.
“I don’t think I’ve met an immortal in such a rush to have a battle,” declared the cool voice. “I’m Paul LaQuinn and you are…?”
“Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod and I’ve no quarrel with you,” he returned, holding his hands up empty. “I’m looking for someone else. Have you seen any others out on the street tonight?”
“That depends on what you wanted them for, now, doesn’t it?” smoothly returned LaQuinn. He rested the umbrella across one shoulder and adjusted the glove on his right hand.
Duncan was irritated by the delay and he scowled. “I’m looking for a friend. He’s a little shaggy in appearance and is wearing white sneakers and a gray coat. Have you seen anyone like that tonight?”
“So you lost a friend? Tsk, tsk, you should have stayed with the boy if you were worried about him.”
Duncan took a step closer and studied LaQuinn’s face. His clothing looked well cared for and there wasn’t any blood on him … but his pupils were dilated strangely. His eyes darted around as if he couldn’t focus on one object and give it his full attention, a curious counterpoint to his obviously practiced calm voice. His fingers fidgeted on the handle of the umbrella, unable to hold still. These little clues spoke volumes of his heightened state of energy within—like an immortal fresh from a beheading. “Did you fight tonight?”
LaQuinn shook the raindrops off his umbrella and closed it up with a flourish. He was standing under the eve of a storefront and used the bounce of streetlight off of the windows to check his hair. Duncan felt the rage pounding inside and pressed it down firmly … there may have been no fight at all.
“I met someone, if that’s what you want to know. And he was certainly shaggy and unshaven, but … oddly enough, I can’t seem to remember a thing about his coat! Imagine that?” he slyly said to Duncan’s refection in the window. “I must be getting senile in my old age.”
“Did you fight with him? Did you kill him?”
“Of course I killed him, silly MacLeod,” LaQuinn snapped. “It’s what we do, and a rainy night is always a fun fight. All that slipping around that one can do in a duel … even in tennis shoes.”
Duncan had the katana out in an instant, and his opponent laughed at his fury. The Scot faced a terrible decision. If he killed this man, what would happen to his precarious footing on the edge of evil? Yet, if LaQuinn had slain his distressed clansman, there was nothing short of death that would be adequate vengeance. Duncan felt the balance of his life hanging … and there was no way out of it. He had to know the truth and there was only one way to get it: he would have to take it.
The other man crooked his finger at him and led him down the alley and out of sight of the street. In short order, the fight commenced, winding through boxes and litter on the ground. Duncan fought his impotent anguish inside at the likelihood that his kinsman had been slain on the street, as well as the fight outside.
To have lost him, like this? To have destroyed him in my home and then never have the chance to tell him that I was a fool? That I love him and owe him everything? I am damned, damned for my whole eternal life! Duncan choked on wretchedness that blurred his vision, struggling to focus on the fight in front of him and not the nightmare within. I’ll pay any price, go any distance, to get him back! He’s my kinsman! Please don’t let him be gone! I—can’t—lose—this—man!
Duncan cut through a drainpipe and let it fall, driving LaQuinn back a few steps from his close attack. He threw the closest object at hand next and struck his foe on the shoulder. In a second he was on him, bearing him down on the concrete beneath him with the swords locked near the hilt. LaQuinn bucked him off, powered by obvious zeal and strength from a recent kill, but Duncan chopped sidelong at his ankle desperately and brought him down again. This time, he pinned him with the flat of the blade against his Adam’s apple. They stared, eye to eye, panting.
“The coat? Remember the coat, now?” Duncan gasped. LaQuinn looked angrily back and then rethought his wrath when the Highlander pressed on the blade slightly. A crimson line appeared beneath it.
“Stop! You’ll mar my neck!” he managed under the pressure.
“I’ll mar more than your neck if you don’t remember more quickly!”
“Black. It was a black coat, and he was smoking a cigarette!”
Duncan froze. It wasn’t Connor! It was the punk who had tried for me two days ago! I still have a chance! Sweet relief made him giddy, and LaQuinn croaked in alarm as Duncan leaned on the blade, shifting his weight. The Highlander struggled to his feet and raced back down the alleyway, leaving the rumpled other immortal staring from the ground after him. He backed the car off the curb with a thump and continued his search, leaning over the steering wheel as if that would help him see.
The hours passed. Duncan quartered the city with no luck and he was tiring. He rolled the window down to keep focused on his driving amidst looming exhaustion. Looking down alleys, driving through parking lots, watching the sky apprehensively for glimmers of lightning through the rain, Duncan searched. He checked all the churches along various routes, even Darius’, but Connor wasn’t there. He slammed on the brakes at one point and nearly bolted from the car … then realized he was looking at a statue in the park. The image of the concrete was smeared through the wet windows and, from the distance, it looked like his clansman’s pale trench coat. Duncan cursed and put his head down on the steering wheel for a moment, just to rest his eyes. A car driving by reawakened him fifteen minutes later.
“I can’t keep driving all night without catching a nap. He may have checked into a hotel or be on a flight out already. Or worse,” he spoke grimly, “he just curled up in a dark alley to sleep.”
He revisited the alternative: that his kinsman had encountered another immortal and failed the fight. Emotional stress was the culprit in many battles that otherwise would be won by sheer ability. How many times had he himself been told to flee a fight when he was in an uncontrolled rage? And when he grieved, to stay on holy ground until he was stable—no matter how enormous his death wish? Methos had told him about “lacking the fire” to fight. A suffering immortal was a prime target for others less honorable. He frowned, remembering the unshaven and unclean appearance of his clansman. Was he still watching me these last three days, while I got my bearings? Just to make sure I was truly stable, and it wasn’t some ploy of evil?
He searched for his cell phone and found the battery dead. The whole world is conspiring against me. His eyes were so tired that they itched. It took him forty minutes to get to the barge, and when he swung the car and parked, the shimmering eddy of immortal presence washed over him.
“Not again,” Duncan murmured. Now is a horrible time for a fight. “Who is it this time?”
It was Connor MacLeod.
Duncan exited the car without even being conscious of it, focused entirely on the wraith-like vision of the long gray coat. The rain was a steady downpour that chilled the top of his head—another thing the younger Highlander ignored. He walked beside the Seine as he approached, mentally calculating how far he would have to jump to clear the railing and get over the side if the other immortal attempted to fight. But the elder Scot didn’t reach for his sword and didn’t even turn his head to view Duncan on approach. The scrutiny of the dark water remained his sole focus.
Six feet away, Duncan halted. His kinsman looked dreadful. The rain had soaked through the canvas coat and it clung to the slighter man, shrinking his appearance. His characteristically unruly mop of hair was matted flat and fit him like some odd skullcap.
“Connor,” Duncan eventually said. Why did you come back? Where did you go? Are you all right? Come with me, and we’ll drink some Scotch to warm our bellies and then talk. Why did you come back? Help me to help you, because the clan has to survive and whatever the price, I will pay it. I will pay it and pay it again if I have to. The steady tumult of words raced around inside his head, but all he could speak was the name. I’ve said too many words to this man already. “Connor?”
No response … no reaction at all, as if the older Scot did not hear him. Despite the steady torrent of rain, Duncan knew he had been heard. He stepped closer, balancing his weight evenly in case the other immortal chose to clinch with him. The silent treatment from Connor can last years, decades. And when he chooses to vanish, he can drop off the earth. But he’s here, now, after he walked away. Why are you here, Connor?
“Conchobhar?” he asked, reverting back to the old tongue—the tongue of clansmen from an era long passed—and the elder MacLeod turned his head, finally, with the familiar name. Duncan saw the features of his face; the set jaw, the sweep of brow, those same old eyes … but saw emptiness in the visage he stared into. No fire, no spark, no intellect, no wariness, no argument, and no grief. There was nothing left of the man his mentor once was … as if he was broken, a soul dropped off a cliff in the Highlands. Everything had been reduced, distilled, boiled away by betrayal and suffering on top of weeks of exhaustion.
Nothing left … but the boy.
“Why are you here, Conchobhar?” Duncan asked. What do you need? What can I do? Where can I take you to find yourself? What must I say to breach this gap and bring you back? I’ve been broken and was rescued; now you are broken and must be rescued. What must I do? “You said you were going home.”
“I came … home.”
Duncan could barely hear the halting words above the drum of rain on the concrete and wooden benches, the clapping sound of it hitting the water near them. Three words that said nothing and everything at the same time. Because ‘home’ is where the clan is and where kinsmen are. And, betrayed or not, when you know you’re in trouble—all roads lead to the brother at your back. It was what I expected from you, not realizing that you were helping me with my ultimate need: to be freed from evil if all else failed. The man at my back who would pay any price. Like Methos…
“Come with me,” Duncan said, extending one hand. “I’ll take you home. Just come with me.” He didn’t touch him, merely made the gesture—just as Methos had made gesture after gesture to him in his own darkness. He has to come because he wants to come. I can’t force him any more than Methos could force me. To his relief, Connor followed without argument, walking back up the long planking and stepping through the portal he had backed out of many hours ago.
The lighting of the barge told an even grimmer tale to the darker immortal. His wandering clansman was soaked, his jeans wet clear up to his knees and the sneakers leaving watery prints. There was grime covering his right side, like he had fallen, and his skin was white with cold. He never sought shelter—he’s been out in the elements all night. Muddy handprints were smeared across the light colored coat and the collar was torn. Duncan wordlessly folded back the edge and regarded the discoloration on Connor’s shirt. The garment was ripped and bloodstains extended down his chest. The crimson had faded to pink in the waterlogged material around his throat.
"Somebody fought with you.” He didn’t expect an answer or explanation. Connor still had his head, so it was likely a common brawl in some alley in the middle of the night. One lone man, wandering aimlessly, was a tempting target for the rougher crowd of mortals. Did you die tonight Connor? How many times did you die tonight because of all of this?
Connor didn’t look at him. In the light of the barge, Duncan could see that the haggard, older Scot was trembling with cold. Duncan could tell by his stiffness and gritted teeth, that his clansman was resisting the impulse. Without a word, Duncan put a shot of whisky in his hands, then another, and watched him drink with hands that could barely keep the glass still.
“Come on. A hot shower will help.” Duncan pulled the coat off and then peeled the wet shirt over Connor’s head. The elder man did not resist, nor did he help. Duncan stripped him out of the rest of his clothing in the confining bathroom, turned the shower on full blast, and prompted him across the threshold. He left Connor standing with the hot water cascading down his head and shoulders, and went to build up the fire.
A quick survey of the discarded coat yielded nothing except the carefully hidden sword. His wallet was gone. He had likely been mugged on the street. Duncan shivered at the sight of the katana, sheathed inside the harness of the coat. Did he even take his sword out? If it had been an immortal… He left the thought unfinished, burdened enough with guilt and anxiety. The men who jumped him must not have felt the strip of steel through the reinforced canvas that prevented the coat from molding around its outline. And with the extra padding on the left shoulder to keep the trench coat hanging correctly, they wouldn’t have noticed that Connor fought with a forty-inch sword down his side. And he may not have fought back at all… Duncan took a deep breath and fought down the chaotic dismay of this discovery. He’s here and he’s alive and I’m not letting him get away again until he’s more stable.
He drank a shot of Scotch to settle his nerves and pulled out some sweats for Connor to wear before going back to the bathroom. The steam boiled out when he opened the door … accompanied by the coppery scent of blood—fresh blood. Duncan’s heart went to ice, and he shoved back the door to the shower and saw Connor sagged in the corner, the hilt to his dagger in one hand. He was glassy-eyed amidst a swathe of bloody water, and the frisson of immortal healing danced across his chest in loops and arcs of azure fire.
“NO!” the younger Scot shouted, galvanized into action, and he twisted the blade out of the other immortal’s hand. “No, Connor, no.” Where are you? he mentally cried, evaluating the evidence of profound blood loss in the other man. Connor’s pulse was rapid and his skin ashen. I killed and killed, Duncan thought savagely. I tore apart my barge and collapsed in a church when I had lost who I was—he is choosing pain and death? Where the hell are you in there?
He hauled Connor up bodily and half-carried him out of the shower. It took twenty minutes to get him into the clothes and put in bed, and by then, the older man was shivering again. Through it all, Connor never said a word, never looked at him, and never acknowledged him. It was as if Duncan did not exist, and his attention was fixed on a point far away in some depth. At least, in a rage, there was fire and fight in him. This emptiness is terrible, Duncan thought. Where are you in there? He crawled under the pile of blankets and rested his head against Connor’s, as if by sheer physical proximity, he could reach him. Where are you? he demanded and he put his hands around the icy ones of his clansman, willing connection. Help me to help you, damn it! Where are you? Where are you?
The fire popped and crackled. The bed was warm and the crisis temporarily on hold. The whisky soothed his distressed nerves. Four days of trauma, following weeks of imprisonment beneath a dark quickening, were quickly catching up with him. Overwrought and exhausted, Duncan fell asleep with his hands locked around Connor’s wrists to prevent him from escaping … and his mind was still questioning, Where are you?
Dreamscape: The sky was wrong.
It was the first thing he noticed; the heavens were a shade of rust and the stars looked larger than normal. It was eerie daylight, but he could still see the stars and none of them were in the correct formations. I’m dreaming again? But, this doesn’t look familiar … this must be Connor’s vision this time. Try not to struggle out of it before you figure out what has happened with him, Duncan reminded himself internally.
He heard the winds whispering, circling the tall grass at his feet and stirring his hair. He listened to the murmur and grew aware of a prickle along his nape, the tingling sense of being watched from behind … and in this unreal landscape, it could be anything and anyone.
He whirled and saw the towers, stabbing obscenely into the sky and looming over him. Black with blacker windows, they raised out of an enormous bulk of a building that blotted out most of his field of vision and filled him with the instinct to back away. It squatted in a landscape that spread away flat in every direction. The lush grass beneath his feet ended right at his toes. The citadel sat in a circle of burnt ground, crouched like something dead. Duncan gaped at it, filled with foreboding and an undeniable instinct to flee from the menacing sight.
And he ran…
…straight for it, denying his trepidation and the fear that skittered along the back of his mind. The ground was hard and the charred grass crunched beneath his boots. His heart pounded. The air felt icy in his lungs. He raced to the bulwark and seized the iron-shod doors, hauling with all his might to open them … but they held fast. I have to get inside! he clamored internally. If Connor can’t use active resistance to keep me out, he would use passive resistance in any form he could! Despite the overwhelming impressions to flee this desolate place, Duncan knew he had to get inside. His arms ached from the strain against the recalcitrant doors. The long coat tangled with his knees and he threw it off. I have to find a way in!
The mammoth doors refused to open, and he raced around the perimeter, jerking on smaller side doors and trying to reach the open windows. He wedged a fist in one fissure and scaled the wall as far as he could go, desperate to reach the ledge below a cavernous opening, but the distance was too great. He dropped back to the burnt earth.
He circled the building and clawed his way up a blackened tree, but still could not reach any windowsill. He hacked the wood around the hinges of one small door until he feared he would break his katana against the stone. He seized a rock and beat the hasp into a lump, trying to break it loose. His knuckles bled where he accidentally struck them and, though dreaming, the pain felt as real as Kol T’ek’s touch when he drew out Duncan’s rage at the slaughter of his Indian family.
The aura of impenetrability surrounding this place remained strong … but the urgency to get inside rose to a clamor in his head, driving him doggedly on. He spied a narrow window six feet over his head. He could not reach it by jumping, but he pried a half-buried boulder up and wrestled it beneath the darkened aperture. He crushed two fingers and the muscles in his back strained with the labor. The sweat dimmed his vision as he jumped off the precarious perch, hitting the wall hard, grappling the rough rocks for purchase to reach the ledge. The imperative to get inside propelled him to leap again and again, cracking his knees and scratching his forearms on the unyielding stone.
Finally, with hands numb and battered, he caught the sill and pulled himself up. The window was too narrow for his shoulders and he forced his way through sidelong, tearing his shirt and skin. He struggled, like a rat caught in the neck of a bottle, and thought nothing of the fall that surely awaited him once he got through. When he did, he tumbled straight down in the dark and landed with a crash on bare stone. It took a few seconds to heave unsteadily to his feet and look around.
It was dimly lit within, this forbidding citadel in a desolate landscape. All the walls were bare. A castle completely bereft of everything a castle should contain. No chairs, no tapestries, no tables, no curtains, no jewels, no finery, no incense, no people, no pictures, no fireplaces—nothing. For an instant, Duncan regarded the surroundings. I’m dreaming and this one isn’t my own. This is Connor’s, he reminded himself internally. Don’t be afraid of the dreamscape; it will show you the truth in a mix of lies.
He could hear someone weeping, so faintly and so softly that the sound twisted and seemed to come from every direction. As soon as he registered it, he was running; searching, slamming open doors along the corridor he found himself on, and hunting for that voice of grieving. Down, down, down the dim hallways, peering in rooms completely empty, his footsteps echoing, his anxiety multiplying with every passing second—Duncan searched for that elusive haunting voice. The stone was cold and every door unlocked. The corridors went on and on, branching out into still more hallways like a vast labyrinth, and Duncan sprinted down each one, tattered shirt fluttering and his heart hammering.
He found him along one nondescript passageway that spidered off from a network of hallways, in a room without ornament or pretentiousness. It was just another door that he slapped open as he searched, but it stopped him dead. He was so shaken that it didn’t dawn on him that there was no immortal presence here. The walls were covered with paintings and the air choked with sorrow. Five hundred years of grief, alive and in midair, escaped like breath as he opened the door. Connor. Undeniably Connor MacLeod. He’s here.
Duncan heard the voices and saw the images as soon as he cleared the threshold, and he froze. The phantoms had come to haunt. Some were talking, some were shouting, and many were laughing—derisively and scornfully. They were nearly as tangible as the evil that had faced him across the holy spring and he shuddered. Don’t be afraid of the dreamscape, he reminded himself. Find Connor.
“He’s in league with Lucifer,” said one voice. “Drinking with us, are you?—He has a demon.—It’s not natural.—You’d better go, Connor.—I’ll say it then: you’ve the devil in you.—Connor MacLeod was my kinsman; I don’t know who you are.—Burn him!—We’ll banish him!”
The voices were bitter and harsh, and the laughter in the background added to the mix. Duncan didn’t recognize any faces or anything of the situation. They had rarely spoken about Connor’s banishment from his clan, and the melee of voices and spectral images made little sense to Duncan. He could see his mentor, bowed in the lowest portion of the room as if held there. A ring of stone circled him. What is happening? The pictures on the walls were unfamiliar. None of these are in that rotunda of his. Who are these people and what do they mean?
“You’d better go, Connor.—Burn him!—I’ll say it then: you’ve the devil in you.—Connor MacLeod was my kinsman; I don’t know who you are.”
Duncan remembered the run to get here, forging onward against the impression that something was warning him away. The struggle with bulwarks that defied admittance. The ground beneath his feet, burnt, as if the battlements had been set afire. Home is where the clan is and where kinsmen are. When in trouble—all roads lead to the brother at your back. Back to clan. And this clan banished him, he considered. But that was a long time ago. Why is Connor here, now?
“We’ve been kinsmen twenty years!” The voice was unmistakably Connor MacLeod’s, bewildered, accented, and haunted with old pain. Pleading for the restoration of kinship.
Duncan heard the timbre and focused, remembering vicious words exchanged in the barge hours earlier: “I’ve been a fool to let a kinsman get so deep in me again.” We’ve been kinsmen four hundred years—and I betrayed him! Connor went back to the last clansmen in the last clan … because his present-day kinsman tore his heart out! The visage of this tremendous fortress in a conflagration stunned him.
“Connor MacLeod was my kinsman; I don’t know who you are.” The voice was cold and unfeeling and spoke in the language of the Highlands, the language of his and Connor’s childhood.
“I know who you are,” Duncan said aloud, “and I will not give you up so easily.” He took a step and passed through the apparition nearest him. It clung like vapor for an instant, and then he was striding through the midst of a clan of specters, straight on course like an arrow. “I know exactly who you are, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.” Mentor, friend, kinsman, brother, Duncan ticked them off mentally, gathering his will and determination. The click of his boots echoed off the wall, and some disjointed facet of his mind commented that the room sounded empty even though it was full of noise and people.
“You can run and you can hide, you can even drive me away for a while, but I can find you. And I’ll not let you go. I will never let you go!” He stepped over the jagged ring of stones into something wet and slippery. God, the blood! So much blood, as if the whole world was bleeding into the circle. He reached and turned the man in the center across his lap, his hands encountering rough tartan where there should have been other garments and the pale visage above it was the face of a boy. A pale countenance, gasping in pain, dying away, yet never dying.
“I’m here, Conchobhar,” he said softly. “I’m here.” The blood streamed over his forearms and coated his thighs—an inhuman fount, as if hundreds of men were bleeding out within the circle of stones. It was horrifying and made Duncan tighten even farther into his resolve to see this through. This is a dreamscape, find the symbolic meaning to this. Somewhere, in all this misery, he must have given you the key! Think!
“I am immortal, Duncan. I expect to see the blade in every man’s hand—I just never expected to see it in yours. Never, in yours.”
Connor, sagging in his shower, a knife in his hand.
“The dagger,” Duncan demanded. He had tried to learn some of the mysteries this man had attempted to impart to him hundreds of years ago in the Highlands … none of it ever worked until he was determined enough, resolved enough. Today, in this place, Duncan’s resolve was like steel. “Show me the dagger.” He conjured up all his will, insistent and determined. “SHOW me the blade, damn you!”
The images swam and stretched and the colors washed to silver as if negative images. When the seething ceased, Duncan saw the handle of a knife in the Scot’s chest and he jerked it out. It was his own blade, with the MacLeod crosspiece, and Duncan was not surprised to see it. “I’m here, Connor,” he said hoarsely, tossing the dagger away. “I set this blade in you with my foolish misunderstanding.” Real strength is not evil, he mentally chided himself. Real strength is powered by love. He bent low, whispering: “I’ll not be letting you go, so you might as well quit this. I will not give you up.”
He sat for a long time in an empty room with his broken kinsman across his knees. Eventually, he slept and the dream faded away elusively, but Duncan did not let go of the clansman he had struggled so hard to find.
Vigorous pounding on the door roused him out of sleep, and Duncan tugged his arm out from under the body next to him and reached for a robe. Six thirty-five in the morning? He went to the door groggy, smelling of Scotch, barefoot, with his hair awry, and opened it.
Joseph Dawson, looking haggard and worn past his true age, stared back at him. He took in the Highlander’s unkempt appearance and his eyes narrowed. “I tried to call you and no one answered.”
“Joe,” Duncan mumbled, trying to get his foggy mind to work. His robe was sloppily tied and he tugged at it to wrap it more securely around him.
The grizzled bartender glanced past Duncan to the bed and the single outline of another person. “Jesus Christ, MacLeod? Have you lost your wits? I’ve been out all night tracking every passenger list for flights to Scotland or New York, looking for your clansman, and YOU pick up some woman for a romp?”
“Joe,” Duncan attempted to turn the irritated man’s ire.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” he demanded. “I’ve got twenty men pulled off their targets on a manhunt for him, and you’re home diddling some tart? I hope she was worth it, because we haven’t found your kinsman. Not even a trace of him!”
“Joe,” Duncan countered, and put up a hand to stem the flow of exasperated words from his friend. “That’s not a woman.”
Dawson paused and cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, you really have gone off the edge with all of this, haven’t you.”
“No, it’s not what you’re thinking,” Duncan returned, finally finding his voice and his intellect amidst his weariness. He pushed the Watcher firmly back out of the doorway until they were both outside under a dawning Paris day. “Joe, that’s Connor.” He waited for the exhausted and frustrated man to assimilate the name.
“Connor MacLeod? That’s Connor?” Dawson exclaimed. “Why the hell didn’t you call me? I found Adam at the airport on his way out of town. He bailed on his flight to help me look for him, then complained about being an immortal bloodhound the whole flipping time. And, if and when he even found Connor, the bastard would probably try to kill him!” The Watcher paused and rubbed his head as if it ached. “Where did you find him?”
“I came back to the barge to catch a nap and he was here,” Duncan explained, chagrined that he hadn’t thought to call off the search. “Look, he was a mess after being out all night, physically and mentally. It took me a long time to get him settled. I would have called you, but … I … he … I was afraid he might bolt again.”
Dawson passed a weary hand down his forehead and scratched his beard. “Okay, all right. I understand. Casualties first. Like in war. Jesus, we’ve been at this for a long time!” He eyed the Scot guardedly. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Connor’s been quirky for years, but I’m sure I can help him. I won’t let him go until he is OK.” Duncan mentally replayed the words the Watcher had said. “You found Methos leaving the country?”
“Yeah. He said he was going ‘walkabout’ with Alexa and would call me sometime. He also said,” and Dawson looked thoughtfully at Duncan’s face, “that you didn’t want to see him anymore. Ever. Would you mind explaining that, especially in light of recent events?”
“It’s a misunderstanding on my part. Do you know where he went?”
“Yep,” and the Watcher regarded him a moment, speculatively. “He’s sitting in my car over there.” Dawson pointed to his vehicle a short distance away. “He didn’t want his ‘radar’ to set you off.”
Duncan went down the gang plate barefooted, aware of the spiteful taste in his mouth and his disheveled appearance and dismissing both. Give him the truth, he demanded of his inner strength. The immortal signature of Methos settled in over him with striking familiarity. He saw the car door swing open as he got closer, and then he was facing the habitual guarded expression of the eldest immortal. For a moment, they stared at one another as if strangers.
“MacLeod.” He looked him up and down with an inscrutable expression.
“I found Connor. He was a mess, but he’s sleeping now. It was … a crazy night getting him settled. I think he will be fine after a few days.” Duncan searched for the right words to convey what he was feeling, what he had come here to say to this man. “I learned something, though, through those hours in the rain searching for him. Something I didn’t quite understand before.”
Methos said nothing and his eyes betrayed nothing, wary and shuttered against him like a friend discarded.
The younger man leaned closer and said very quietly: “He was too important to lose and I would have done anything to save him.”
The elder man turned his head slightly, crinkling into his trademark sly smile. “Anything?”
“Anything.” Duncan let the seriousness into his eyes. “Something an old man told me once. It took me a long time to get that concept, it seems.”
“I wonder if your kinsman will be quicker to grasp that nuance than you were,” Methos smugly returned.
“Humpf, Connor is much more stubborn than I.” Duncan shifted on his feet, suddenly aware of the cool early dawn air and his poor attire. “I’d ask you to stay a while and talk, but…”
Methos shrugged in his coat and glanced at the sky. “No, that’s not a good idea. Sounds like Connor isn’t at his best. And even if he was, your kinsman is known to be more of a hunter than a peacekeeper. Not a man I want to have much dealings with.”
“Yes,” Duncan admitted ruefully. “He plays hard and for keeps, I’m afraid, and tends not to be friendly with many immortals. He can be…” Duncan hesitated a moment, considering all the private arguments they had struggled through in 400 years. “…extremely quarrelsome. Even with friends. Especially with friends.”
Methos looked piercingly back at him. “If you’re destined to play in a deadly game, it’s best to fall under the tutelage of a man who fights to win, MacLeod. Only the truly tough survive long enough to teach others.”
Duncan blinked. Methos had just complimented his mentor … and he was right. Connor was grouchy as a badger and had pushed for every inch of skill when he trained Duncan. The younger man wondered, not for the first time, who Methos’ teachers were, who had taught him the skills to survive so long.
“It’s starting to rain again,” Methos announced calmly, snapping Duncan free of his inner reflection.
“Who called Connor and told him that something had happened to me, Methos?” Duncan asked. He was certain he already knew, but he wanted to hear it himself.
The other man shrugged, a self-depreciating gesture. “Adam Pierson phoned him. I suspected you’d told your old teacher about the Watchers long ago. He was pissy to talk to, until he heard what I had to say.” Methos looked away at the skyline an instant. “The only thing he had to offer was ‘He has to remember who he is.’ I thought he would rush right to you, but I obviously guessed wrong.”
Duncan opened his mouth to contradict, but then reconsidered. There wasn’t enough time, standing here nearly naked in the early morning, to explain what the elder Highlander had done. And it struck him, with the bizarre humor of the emotionally drained, how comical it was that both of these men had come to help him, and the whole time they had somehow managed to avoid each other!
“Where will you be?” Duncan queried. As soon as he asked, he knew Methos wouldn't answer. Methos seldom told anyone where he was going, choosing to appear and disappear at whim. And usually right on time, he internally confirmed. It was foolhardy to reject the insight and sheer conniving of this man. I must remember that in the future if I get cross with him again. He is a valuable friend, despite how annoying he can be. His thoughts twigged to another irritating friend, sleeping like the dead one hundred feet away. And one more, leaning on a cane at the door of the barge. I’m surrounded by people that I need.
“I’ll leave Dawson an email. When things are more settled…” Methos left the sentence unfinished.
“I’ll get in touch.” Duncan put a hand on the lean shoulder near him and remembered breaking it over and over. “We have to talk.”
“There’s nothing more that needs to be said, MacLeod,” Methos said dryly. “Watch your head.” He sat back inside the car and stared up at Duncan. “And stay out of trouble for a while, will you? This rescue stuff is hard work, and I have a rendezvous somewhere with Alexa and a beach.” He paused before adding, “Don’t forget to track down Rachel MacLeod after a bit. She’s worried about you.”
Duncan refrained from adding, “With just cause.”
Inside the barge, Duncan made coffee and munched a leftover bagel. Connor slept the sleep of the over-exhausted, without a twitch, and the younger immortal let him. He didn’t feel all that rested himself, deep down inside, but he pulled out a journal that he had kept for years anyway. He wrote notes for himself in these pages; words of wisdom and things he had learned the hard way. In quiet moments, he reread it to remind himself of events long gone that had stretched him and forced him to grow. Nothing was dated in here and nothing need ever be, for Duncan could remember each entry by the incident surrounding it. He thought for a moment, and then started writing.
When you’re hurt and in a rage, find the strength to walk away instead of fighting—but also have the courage to return and admit that you’ve changed your mind. Don’t let pride prevent you from coming back to say, “Let’s try again.” You can save a friendship that way.
One man in a thousand, Solomon says, Will stick more close than a brother. But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side To the gallows-foot—and after! Kipling
He sighed and closed the book, resting his head against the back of the chair. His barge was still a mess, and the tang of sweat and grime clung to the air. Undoubtedly, there would be more emotionally intense conversations when Connor finally awakened. But for the first time in weeks, Duncan felt like he had taken the first steps in the right direction. Connor had been there all along; he was just the last man in the line to aid Duncan—the one whom Duncan had no skill to escape, nor power to overcome. If any immortal had a blueprint to Duncan’s soul, it was this one.
“I don’t have to live in fear,” he said abruptly, grasping the most important concept of all. “I don’t have to live afraid of my immortality … because of Connor!” He sat up, staring at the bed and the slumbering man in it.
My God! he thought. I have a fierce shepherd who can stop me if he has to, despite any of the rules, no matter how strong or evil I get! His eyes went soft and unfocused, thinking. And I have another friend who stands ready to aid me in my darkest hour; another man who knows exactly who I am! Two circles of guardianship around me—one to help me recover myself, and one to free me from evil if the first man fails.
The fire popped in the quiet. Duncan felt the wonder of being handed back his life, shattered and marred though it was. I don’t have to live in fear…
“I will not live in fear,” he whispered. And then, as both a promise and threat to something lurking in his soul: “Do you hear me? I will never fear you taking over again. Never! Because there’s someone who can stop you!” And he’s willing to pay a terrible price for it, but that is who HE is—a clansman. That’s what clansmen do!
An appalling thought encroached upon his sudden hope. What if Connor has to kill me and HE becomes overwhelmed by the same darkness? The thought of the reclusive elder Scot overwhelmed by savagery shook him—and his trust faltered, sickened. The potential of being crushed again by a dark quickening surged over him like so many demons and Duncan closed his eyes in misery.
I can’t go on like this, he thought. I have to trust that Connor will be safe and that he can somehow manage this. I have to trust that he can take care of me, because I can’t go on without it. I can’t live with this kind of foreboding hanging over every fight. He said he came to stop me, to carry me home. I have to have faith that he can.
The veracity of his words reached into the dark places in his soul and drove the shadows out. “I have a true kinsman at my back,” the Scot announced aloud. In a blink, all the fear of his future fled away before the certainty of this simple fact.
And I thought he did not come to help me.
Connor had come. Methos had come, too. “I must figure out a way to introduce those two some day. They are both too valuable to me to lose, and I don’t want them to kill one another.” He eyed the lump in the bed, who was snoring softly. “I hate this game. Getting these two on peaceful terms will be quite a task.”
He was still exhausted, as if the battle in his soul during the past weeks had left him battered inside. “I should rest while Connor’s still down.” He sighed. “I don’t know what I’ll be facing with him when he’s finally awake.” He rechecked the locks and the fire before stretching out on the bed with a comforter.
“I wish you’d tell me you’re okay,” he softly whispered to the pale features of his clansman. “I don’t want to go to sleep and have you creep away quietly on me before we can talk … without me knowing that you are well. That ‘we’ are well.” There wasn’t any response. Connor slept on, looking gaunt and oddly fragile, with dark circles below his eyes. Duncan sighed. “I’m not the most patient waiter, Conchobhar.”
He pulled the pillow around his ears and fell into sleep.
Dreamscape: “Oh, no, not again…”
“I don’t want to do this again,” Duncan said aloud. “I’m too tired for this struggle again.” He was standing in the same expansive plain of grass, watching the wind tousle the verdant color like it was water. The sky was still a queer color of rust and the stars were misplaced. He was facing the wrong way, again. “Why are you always behind me?” he announced, intuitively knowing there would be no answer. He’s where he’s supposed to be, he mentally murmured.
The prickle of something at the back of his neck was absent, however, and Duncan turned slowly around to regard the fortress and the tall spires. He felt nothing at all: no emotional foreboding urging him to flee, but nothing welcoming either. The windows were dark and the doors shut. There wasn’t any sign of life, and Duncan sighed heavily. “Why am I here again?” He stared at the citadel, wishing for some sign. “Are you all right? Can you at least tell me that?”
Nothing. The bulky building remained silent as a shadowy tomb. Duncan closed his eyes and listened for any thread of thought or impression. “Are you all right, Conchobhar? Talk to me—because I’m afraid for you.”
Still nothing, except for the wind stirring the tall grass behind him. That’s right, he reminded himself, the ground is dead around this place, incinerated. It was a particularly forlorn thought and Duncan opened his eyes to stare down at the ground at his feet—and found it tinged with green. He blinked and looked again. Where there was once charred soil and fire-scorched rocks, new grass was growing, pushing straight up from the ground like so many tiny spears. He surveyed the circle of burned ground around the castle … and everywhere, the grass was coming up and reclaiming the blasted landscape. Life, coming up from death. And, though he had not heard a word spoken, Duncan knew his kinsman was healing.
He sat down at the edge to watch with a sigh, propping his chin on his hands. “Thank you,” he added in the direction of the quiet building in the distance. “You must be exhausted and recovering, too.” He watched the grass growing beneath the ruddy sky and somewhere between wondering if he could actually see the blades lengthening and counting them, he fell asleep, slumping slowly over until the green seemingly swallowed him whole.
Day Three, 1 p.m.
Duncan woke up stiff and pulled his hair from its curl around his neck. The barge was cold and his comforter was missing. For a moment, he just lay there, staring slightly unfocused at the ceiling … then the memories of the previous few days returned with a rush and he sat up, alarmed that Connor might have risen before him and left.
But the elder Scot was still asleep, partially wound up in the missing comforter, as well as managing to appropriate both the pillow on his side of the bed and Duncan’s as well. The younger man smiled his relief at seeing the other immortal and at the same time he muttered, “Bed hog.” Connor used to steal the majority of the blankets when they'd lived like vagabonds in the Highlands, but always denied the fact. He looked careworn even asleep, and the several days’ growth of beard made his appearance worse. His hair was a heap.
Mine likely is, too, thought Duncan. We’ve been through hell and it shows. It’s going to be a hard day. Connor will have his guard up, and it will be difficult to get through to him. He was contemplating quietly brewing some coffee when a raspy voice interrupted the thought.
“What are you doing in my bed?”
“It’s not your bed, Connor, it’s my bed,” he replied conversationally. His kinsman hadn’t moved from the tangle of bedding and his eyes were only half-open. For all appearances, he was on autopilot for a few moments more … until he remembered. Duncan watched those hooded eyes, wondering what he would be able to salvage once the bitter scene in the barge was revisited. Help me, he said internally, help me find the words to unlock this man…
“This is your bed?” Connor’s eyebrows furrowed a bit.
“Yes, this is my bed.”
“Was I in it first?” The gray eyes were unblinking now, steadily gazing up at him.
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then it’s my bed. What are you doing in my bed?”
Duncan leaned over on one arm, painfully aware of the thin coating of humor that was being painted over the hurt. “You’re sure a growly Gus when you wake up, even when you filched my pillow for half the time!”
“My bed, my pillows,” Connor replied, not missing a stroke, “including the blankets.”
Duncan rolled his eyes dramatically, but then chose a more direct path to their situation. “Quit arguing with me, will you? We have more important things to talk about.”
“I’m not arguing, I’m making conversation.”
“And the last time we 'made conversation' like this, you hit me with a left hook right about now,” the younger man reminded carefully. “You planning to hit me again?”
“Should I?” Connor’s tone was brittle beneath the words.
Duncan considered for a moment. “Maybe you should, if it would help you feel better.”
“It wouldn’t.” Connor began pulling the blankets away and untangling himself from the pillows, appearing to be in retreat already. He was swinging his feet over the side of the bed when Duncan asked, “Where are you going?”
“I need to piss. Is that okay with you?” smartly replied the older Scot, but he remained seated on the side of the bed, facing away. One hand rubbed a spot on his chest absentmindedly. “What the hell were you doing wandering around in my dreams?”
“Trying to find you.” Duncan skirted the bed and pulled up a chair, effectively cornering his kinsman where he sat. “Trying to help you.” The elder man was still rubbing his chest as if some phantom wound ached, and, though clearly he had heard Duncan move, he would not meet his gaze.
I have to finish this, no matter what it costs me in pride, Duncan reminded himself. I don’t have much in the light of day to be proud of in the last three weeks. “I don’t know how I ended up believing you wanted to hurt me, Connor.” The older man made as if to rise, to pace away, but Duncan shot out a hand to halt him. He snared the bottom of the sweatshirt and endured the glare he received. “Don’t fight with me, Connor. I have to talk to you about this. I have to tell you the truth.”
“You fucking told me the truth already!” the elder MacLeod retorted, but he did not strike the hand on his shirt away. He stayed on his feet, like a man braced for a blow.
“I gave you my rage and confused emotions—those aren’t rational. You came in when I was at my worst … and I took it out on you.” To his relief, Connor had no sarcastic reply to this. He sat back down on the bed and stared at the opposite wall, every bit a man radiating profound self-control. Duncan let them both breathe for a moment, trying to focus his scattered thoughts. I have to reach this man. I have to get through his mistrust and anger somehow.
“I could offer you all kinds of guesses, but,” Duncan offered quietly, faltering at the appalling memories, “I don’t know if any of them is the sole truth about my state of mind. That quickening I took was powerful and destructive … and I’ve had some quickenings that bothered me for days afterwards.” Duncan was gratified to see that the other man had unclenched his stubbornly set jaw and appeared to be listening, apparently willing to hear him out.
“I was evil and I did evil things … and I liked it. I killed for the fun, Connor, for no other reason than fun! I murdered people, innocent people, and set fires and stole things. But the first thing I did was attempt to kill Richie.” Duncan hesitated, unwilling to watch the reaction as he continued, but unable to look away.
“Rich asked me, right before I had him down for the last stroke, if this was how it was supposed to be: the teacher kills the student.” He choked, replaying his derisive words in his head. He knew he would hear them for the rest of his life. “Like perhaps this was the whole point behind taking an immortal student and I’d only neglected to tell him that part. An easy, trusting prey.” He strangled to a halt, winded and choking.
“And you transferred that across to me,” Connor added begrudgingly, “even though part of you must have also known how ludicrous that was.”
Duncan nodded grimly. “There was damn little in my head that was straight. I was sleepless, and then when I did sleep, I was having nightmares. In the daytime I was having dreamscapes … every deed I had committed kept replaying and replaying. I was angry with myself and angry about what happened to me. I couldn’t get my thoughts torn away from everything that I’d done, everyone I’d killed or attempted to kill—every act that was just for bloody sport. I couldn’t fathom why you weren’t there to help me, and I wondered if you had abandoned me in an hour of need. I remembered how I tried to kill my own student, how I loved the killing and … just … I was lost and hurt and you weren’t there and you didn’t call and even after I got home, you weren’t there and you didn’t call.” Duncan halted, beleaguered with the enormity of his offenses and the brutalized feelings that came with them.
“I targeted you, with my rage and suffering. You stepped right into my self-damnation, and I slammed everything that was bottled up inside into you, like a sledgehammer.” He looked into fierce gaze of the man across from him, felt it sear and tear into him. “And it was all wrong. All of it born out of misery and pain. Stupidity—like one parent blaming the other one for the tragic death of a child. You couldn’t get me turned until you had hit me and hit me and hit me again with my own Goddamn foolishness. But,” he added morosely, “by then, the damage had been done.”
Connor looked away from him and Duncan waited. It was a long moment before the older immortal took a deeper breath and let it out with a sigh. “You hurt me more than I thought anyone was capable of, Duncan."
Yes. It was a sad internal admission. I struck blindly for the one place where you have always had confidence and tore it away.
"I don’t trust you anymore.”
Duncan swallowed, hard. Hundreds of years of kinship was twisting and buckling in his hands like a live thing, but he dared not close his grip around it—he’d already savaged the faith they both once had in each other. “I know.” Duncan had to steady his breathing before he could speak again. “I don’t blame you for not trusting, not after this—I’ve lost belief in myself, too. But I can’t let this destroy us. You mean too much to give up. If I don’t try, then this dark quickening has consumed me, completely. I want to find the first steps to rebuilding the trust.”
“Where did you find me?”
“I didn’t,” Duncan returned slowly, curious at the turn in conversation. “You came back to the barge on your own.”
Connor deliberated that news silently. Duncan watched the muscles clench and unclench in his jaw. “Obviously, I’m not willing to let our friendship go because of you being a shit head," Connor said finally. "And it still hurts like hell, but some of this was my fault. I pushed you too hard.” The older Scot looked at him with beleaguered and haunted eyes. “I was prepared to have to kill you and still had all my guard up, even though I knew it was probably over. I should have soft-touched you instead of being an asshole.”
Duncan resisted the urge to add to that personal assessment. “Would you have really killed yourself, Connor?” Duncan whispered, still uncertain of how he felt about that revelation, “if you would have had to take me?”
“I’m not a kinslayer, and I won’t live being a kinslayer.” Abruptly Connor was somewhere else, his gaze fixed and focused internally on some old wound. “I’ll not be like you, Dugal! I won’t!” he snarled bitterly.
“Steady,” Duncan warned, reaching for the nearest arm and knowing he might have a struggle to deal with. But Connor did not resist the hand on him, just continued to sputter hostile words beneath his breath. If I could get hold of the clansman who did this to this man back there in the Highlands, I’d carve his tongue out, mentally threatened Duncan. Jesus, underneath this tough exterior, he’s as fragile as an egg.
The elder Scot shoved his hand away a moment later. He wiped his palm along his brow as if he had blundered into something foul and had to remove it. “Sorry. Bad memories,” he admitted.
“And I’ve brought them all to the fore again and added more,” gloomily intoned Duncan. “You know my heart, Connor. You know me best. Tell me: what do you need from me to heal this?”
Connor flicked his eyes away and then back again, thinking. “You know what I really need?” he asked.
“What?” Duncan returned, prepared for anything.
“To piss. Now, will you let me past, for Chrissakes?”
Duncan blinked, and then groaned. “Idiot,” he said as Connor went around him. The other man threw some equally barbed comment back … and it was comforting to be name-calling for a few moments in the lull.
Duncan put some coffee on and while it perked, cut some cheese and smoked turkey. Connor was a long time in the bathroom and Duncan suspected he was trying to settle his battered mind with some meditation. He handed the older immortal a plate of food and a cup of coffee when he finally emerged.
“Lots of sugar,” Connor remarked after a sip. The meat and cheese on his plate had vanished, wolfed down by a man who obviously had lost weight in the previous weeks.
“The way that you like it.”
“You’re always trying to sweeten my disposition.”
“Somebody has to, though I fear it’s a lost cause.”
“The world will get along just fine with me once it starts seeing things my way.”
Silence for a moment. “What about us, Connor?” Duncan reminded him and then sat and sipped, yielding the discussion to the other immortal. He watched him nurse his coffee, then rise and wander through the barge.
“We’ll be fine, Duncan,” the elder man finally said, looking out one porthole. “Eventually, we will be fine."
“Those are easy words to just hand me,” the younger man returned, and he came to stand behind him. “I need more than just placating words.”
“I’m not placating you, Duncan.” Connor turned to look at him. “We have hundreds of years of kinship between us. It’s not worth throwing away like this. It will take more than some false conclusions reached in a moment of duress to shake me.”
“It did shake you. I watched it happen, remember? I saw your face, your eyes … I hurt you—badly.” And Duncan saw it again, that flare of agony that he’d seen before in Connor’s gaze and the elder man shivered all over, stricken.
“Don’t,” Connor whispered. “You’ll break me open…”
Duncan planted a hand on either side of the porthole, corralling his old mentor between them, and called his name once, twice, inwardly cursing his stupidity for driving the discussion too deeply. He’s got a fragile grip here, damn it! Remember that! If you want him stable, then you can’t keep forcing him back into this! He held his pose, but did not touch him, afraid that if he did his old companion would crash again—falling into that bleak domain within full of treacherous clansmen. He watched the struggle from the outside, feeling helpless, as Connor swung his head with his eyes closed. They stood in a breathless stalemate, until the old Scot drew away from the bitter memories with a shuddering breath and pushed past Duncan’s confinement. He seized the kitchen towel from the countertop and wiped his eyes and blew his nose on it, before dropping it to the floor.
“Guess I’ll be doing laundry,” ventured Duncan.
“From the looks of this hole, you need to do more than laundry,” snorted Connor. He rubbed his face and pulled, hard, at the nape of his neck—a man navigating the gap between pain and humor.
“Want to stay and help?” Duncan twitted lightly back.
“Hmph. First rule is, if you make the mess, you get to clean it up.” He looked at Duncan and his expression was calmer, his gaze clearer. “We will be fine, now that we both have the truth. Give me some time to let the freshness wear off and we’ll get back together and just … ‘be’ for a while. Go riding, shoot some pool, play some cards. I need some space to get my head back in order ... I’m getting too crazy even for me.” He quirked a lopsided smile and let it fade away to seriousness again. “And, damn it, you mustn’t get broody and flail around with all of this instead of doing what you should be doing for the people who got hurt. You can’t bring back the dead, but you can make sure that the living are taken better care of, especially any children. Get yourself on task instead of sitting and muddling with this and you’ll get stable faster.”
“I know,” Duncan returned, but felt the surge of uncertainty surrounding the wounds in his spirit. Nothing had changed within himself—just the people around him were better. Methos was gone and now Connor was obviously leaving. Duncan would be alone again with the horror of his ruthless deeds. It was one thing to have someone from the outside tell him to move on; it was another thing to do it.
His voice was ragged when he spoke aloud, “I know I’ve got work to do, but, I feel … like I’ve lost myself, somehow. As if who I am has been torn away.” The maelstrom surrounded him, swallowing him in a wall of unresolved hurt. Duncan closed his eyes, exhausted from fighting everything within him. “I feel terrible inside. Like my soul has been raped for weeks, and everything I am has changed. I don’t … I don’t know … I don’t think I can…”
“Find the way back out to yourself,” added Connor softly. “Find the way home.” His voice sounded distant, though Duncan knew he was only step away from him.
The way home. Does he understand how utterly undone I am? How heavy this load is and how fragile my grip? Duncan felt a hand land on his shoulder and pull. He went with it until he felt the sweatshirt against his hands and he tucked his head against his kinsman, as he had before in moments of crisis and loss. Then he was falling, falling, away and down, spinning into the grief and regret and shame that lived hitherto unvoiced within. And while he wept for the dead and the dishonored and the trusts betrayed, Connor rested his cheek against his head and held on.
“I have seen dark days and slowly returned, Duncan,” quietly said the elder Scot when the storm had passed. “The only thing that got me through was knowing I had a kinsman in the world who somehow, someday, might need my help. I need you there, to keep me from being swallowed up by this Goddamn immortality. I need you … and you need me. When I’m fragile, you’re strong … and when your world tanks, I’m the anchor that holds the end of the line. That’s what clan is, and you’ve always known that.” Connor’s hand tightened on his shoulder reassuringly. “You will find your way. It just takes some time. You’ll never be quite the same, but perhaps you’ll be a better man for walking this bleak road.”
The younger man sighed. Of course this man would know how I feel. He’s my brother. “And if it happens again? If I fight and it happens again?” Duncan softly said. “I can’t go back to that darkness, Connor, I just can’t!”
A pause. “I doubt it will, but just remember that you won’t be alone. You have many friends willing to help you, and they will rally just like they did this time.”
“And you?” Duncan whispered, needing to hear this aloud. “You’ll take care of me, if I can’t be stopped?”
“As long as I’m living, you will always have a clansman.” He said it as if knowing exactly what Duncan needed to hear. Gray eyes met dark ones to seal the words. “I can carry you home, no matter how far you’ve gone from yourself. My love is wider than your need will ever be.” He turned away, searching with his eyes along the floor, and Duncan recognized the familiar retreat from strong emotions. “Where are my tennis shoes? You didn’t chuck them out, did you?”
“No, you really would kill me if I did that,” returned Duncan, bemused. “They’re on the other side of the stove, drying.” He watched as Connor slipped them on and tied the laces. Not surprisingly, the Scot didn’t seem to care that they were still wet. “You’re sure you have to leave right now?”
“I need to get home. I just left everything sitting, and I’m sure Rachel is worried about me. You’re okay, and we’ll be okay, so I should go.” He glanced over his shoulder with a knowing look. “I’ll call you as soon as I get home. I’ll call every damn day, if you want me to bug you. And I’m only a fast flight away. In the meantime, clean this barge and then work on repairing some of the damage you caused.”
“Back to giving me orders, I see.”
“You always did need to stay busy to keep out of trouble. I’d have thought twice about taking you on as a student if I’d known how much mischief you can get into,” he complained. “I wore my ass out running all over, my phone bill is going to be a killer, and I haven’t slept for two weeks.”
“That’s what kinsmen are supposed to do, isn’t it?”
Connor paused and looked at him, the challenging old look that was achingly familiar to Duncan. “Yes, it is. But your bill is going to be a million trillion dollars … and some change.”
“It will take me another four hundred years to get it to you. Is that okay?” Duncan smugly returned. He sifted through the nearby drawer for some bills and a credit card. “Here, snare a taxi and put the flight on my credit card. Your wallet went missing during the night.”
Connor closed the distance until they were face to face and then took his arm, forearm to forearm. “Brothers.”
“Yes.” His eyes were watery. He dug his fingers into the strength and security of the arm he held. “Brothers. Next time I forget it, please just slap me.”
“Gladly. Now go to bed, Duncan. You look like crap."
“So do you,” Duncan fired back at the bedraggled face.
“I’m supposed to look like this,” Connor announced. “I escape all those pretty china dolls that you pick up, and get all the unruly girls who can fuck all night without taking a breath and invite their friends, too!” He leered smugly at Duncan.
“You maniac!” Duncan laughed, bemused. “No wonder you look like a wild dog all the time!”
“Heh, and I don’t disappoint, either!” He squeezed Duncan’s arm tight and then let him go.
Connor retrieved his coat and checked his katana before letting himself out of the barge. Duncan watched him stride away through the porthole until he was lost in the Parisian afternoon, then he crawled into bed, exhausted, treasuring the words spoken like they were rare jewels.
In an instant, he was asleep … and this time, there were no dreams of dying friends and crying women, bloodshed and pain, nor towers beneath strange stars to plague him.
MacNair June 1, 2002
Story concept set forth by my Connor muse, summer 1999, while watching “Something Wicked” and “Deliverance” for the first time. I blithely and idiotically asked where he was during all of this. [Slaps brow.] Never again, sez I! Never again!
I did not expect to ever have to write this one. To all the readers who asked what Connor had done to help Duncan, and what Duncan and Connor’s concept of “clan” is, thanks for the curious questions. You never let me forget that you wanted to know and thereby kept the muses jiggling my elbow about writing this.
The “without whom” department:
Sharz, the testing wall for all MacNair stories. She survives the hair-raising things I hand her to see if they will fly, and manages rounds and rounds of editing without losing her humor. Blessings on you!
lynnann, our second line of editing and a staunch supporter. Thanks for all your encouragement, dear!
Rhiannon Shaw, who held my hand and sent hugs and scrutinized Methos’ role in here for me. She also assisted with editing and we had some jolly laughs at what she found along the way! Rhiannon’s Eyrie is located at: http://www.ejai.org/eyrie/index.html
Janeen Grohsmeyer, who was willing to tackle this hellpiece and ferret out the final editing problems. She was not only willing to wander around in hell with me, but made sure I didn’t lose my way and remain stuck in hell! Janeen’s archive is located at: http://users.erols.com/darkpanther/
These four encouraged, critiqued, discussed, and edited this monster, sometimes for several rounds per section, and the story is stronger for all their time and input.
Celedon and USTADAWN provided photo help and montages. These talented ladies have sites at: http://members.tripod.com/~Celedon/index.html and http://www.hometown.aol.com/ustadawn/montage.html
Mz Lizzy helped with the age-old question of, “How do immortals carry their swords?”
According to various “Watcher” sites online, Jim Coltec spelled his name as Kol T’ek back in 1872.
MacNair’s stories are archived at: Daire’s Laire;
Connor’s Rotunda. You will find the sequel to this story, “No Stone Unturned,” there also.