ORDEAL IN NEW YORK

Suzanne Herring and Vi Moreau

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Standard disclaimer: the concept of Immortality and the characters of Connor MacLeod, John MacLeod, Duncan MacLeod, Rachel Ellenstein, and Richie Ryan belong to Rysher and are owned by them. This story is for fun, not for profit. For legal types, this means the authors don't make a dime off of it.

This story universe resides in a no-demon zone. Thus, in this story universe, Richie was not killed by Duncan. In fact, he lives a prosperous, happy Immortal life--insofar as Immortals can be happy.

Chapter 1: The Nightmare

Ezeiza International Airport, Buenos Aires, Argentina December 18, 2001

John entered the jetway quickly, not looking back at his "uncle." He didn't want to look back, to see Duncan's familiar face--the face of a man he'd thought he knew, a man he had looked up to, a man he had loved. A man he'd wanted to be like when he grew up. A man he'd thought he *would be like* when he grew up. The face of a man who was now completely alien to him.

Just like his father.

John stumbled slightly as he boarded the plane, and the stewardess stepped forward quickly to take his arm. ["?Se siente Ud. bien, Senor ...?"] She glanced quickly at the boarding pass he held tightly in his left hand. With a small frown, she asked, "Are you all right, Mr. ...?"

"MacLeod," John answered, then murmured, "Yeah, I'm okay." He didn't resist when she led him to his first-class seat. He stood, blocking the aisle and staring at the empty seat, then jumped when the stewardess efficiently took his duffel bag from him and placed it in the overhead compartment. He had forgotten he was even carrying the damn thing.

The stewardess waited a brief moment, then said gently, "Would you like to sit down, Mr. MacLeod?"

"What? Oh, sit. Right." John plopped down, slouching gratefully, the cushioned leather surprisingly solid and real beneath him. "Sorry," he added, not looking at her.

"That's quite all right. Can I get you anything?" the stewardess asked, her voice still gentle.

John looked up and actually focused on her. She was dark-haired and olive-skinned, her cheekbones high and hinting of Indian parentage. A very nice body, too, even covered in the navy blue and white one-piece uniform. Very attractive--and normally he would have been very attracted. Normally he would have been flirting with her from the moment he entered the plane. But he wasn't interested. In fact, he felt nothing at all. The stewardess didn't look that much like Elena, but her coloring, her high cheekbones, reminded John of the Argentine. "No, thanks, I don't want anything," he muttered.

The stewardess frowned again with professional concern, while other passengers filed past her. Now John wondered if she'd been trying to flirt with him, but he wasn't sure and, frankly, he didn't really care.

"If you want anything, anything at all, Mr. MacLeod, just call. My name is Graciela."

John nodded silently and fastened his gaze on the back of the seat in front of him. After a brief moment, Graciela moved past him to the aft section of the plane.

He sat, unmoving, trying not to think, while the coach-class passengers boarded the plane and struggled back to the cheap seats with their carry-on luggage and children and whatever else they were dragging to New York. The noise level increased, drowning out his own swirling thoughts. No one sat next to John, for which he was grateful. The last thing he wanted right now was small talk with a stranger.

There were the inevitable delays, but finally the plane taxied to the runway. Then came the comforting roar as the engines powered up for take-off. John's stomach tightened momentarily as they left the ground. A stewardess--not Graciela--began droning through the familiar safety routines, in Spanish and then in English.

John ignored her, looking down at the airport buildings as the plane rose swiftly into the air. Duncan was down there on the ground, watching him take off. But the thought of Duncan wasn't comforting. Not any more. John no longer knew Duncan. His "uncle" had become someone who carried a sword and did bloody deeds in hidden places.

It was like suddenly finding out that your family was part of the Mob, John thought. That the expensive prep schools and gourmet foods and vacations to Europe had been paid for with drug money and crime instead of the legitimate business you always thought your family had been in. His thoughts seemed distant, and he felt detached, but he still shivered slightly.

Graciela reappeared. "Would you like a blanket, Mr. MacLeod?"

John blinked up at her. "What?" he replied.

"Would you like a blanket? You look cold." She smiled at him, her brown eyes soft and friendly.

That dead Immortal had had brown eyes, too, John remembered. He'd gotten a real good close-up look at them. He shivered again.

Graciela took that as a yes, whisked a blanket from the overhead compartment and leaned over him, tucking him in the way she might have a baby.

He got a good glimpse of her cleavage and a strong whiff of her lily-scented perfume. Normally, he would have enjoyed the closeness of a beautiful woman, but none of this felt real. He didn't feel like John MacLeod flying on a plane to New York. He was having trouble remembering who he was. He had to struggle to simply say, "Thanks."

She smiled at him again. "Is there anything else I can get for you?"

He wanted to say, "You could try and get my life back for me." But he simply shook his head and punched the "recline" button.

"Very well," she said, then quietly walked away.

John closed his eyes. He'd used up the supply of adrenaline which had driven him this far, and he felt exhausted and numb. Stephen, Elena Duran's adopted son, had stayed up late with John last night in Argentina, talking. And even when they'd finally stopped, John hadn't been able to sleep. He'd just lain there in bed, thinking about the fight and what Stephen had told him about Immortals and their rules. John's life, like Stephen's before him, had been unexpectedly turned upside down.

And always there was that memory of the decapitated head. John suspected that image was permanently engraved on the inside of his eyelids. But despite the image, John finally drifted off, his body giving in to the tremendous strain of the last two days.

==========================================

It's a familiar dream. So familiar that, even asleep, John knows he's dreaming. He shudders restlessly, moans slightly.

He's ten. His father meets him at Newark Airport in New Jersey, walks him to a sedan, opens the passenger door. "Where's the Porsche?" John asks.

Connor shoves him. "Get in the car, you little punk," he says.

John, confused, hurt, gets in, wondering what's wrong with his father.

The driver's door opens and a huge, long-haired, black stranger gets in.

"Who--who're you?" John squeaks.

The man laughs nastily. "A friend of your Daddy's," he says.

And then the real nightmare begins.

Except this time it's different. This time, Kane changes back to Connor. Suddenly they're in Elena's ballroom. Connor is unlacing John's boxing gloves.

==========================================

John moaned again, louder this time. His fellow passengers looked at him. Graciela and a colleague exchanged worried glances. The stewardess draped another blanket across her sleeping passenger, but she didn't wake him.

John burrowed into the blankets, his dream continuing remorselessly.

==========================================

Suddenly Kane bursts into the ballroom. Connor pushes John, sending him sprawling, and Kane begins attacking Connor with his sword.

"Dad!" John shouts.

"Get out!" Connor shouts back, fending off Kane's sword with a weight bar.

"No!" John shouts, and he jumps Kane from behind, bringing him down.

Now Connor has a sword, but Kane has disappeared. Now it's only John and Connor.

Richie appears from nowhere and tosses John a sword. "You can take him, kid!" Richie shouts.

"No! I don't want to!" John cries out. "He's my father!"

Connor advances, his katana in his hands. He's smiling a cold, deadly smile, and John is more frightened than he's ever been in his life. Connor raises his katana.

John swings his sword and watches in horror as Connor's head falls to the floor and slides right into his boxing shoes.

"NOOOOOO!!!!" he screams.

===========================================

"Mr. MacLeod!"

"Wha??? Wha???" John jerked awake, banging his head against the window, his heart pounding. He gasped, looking around wildly. God. Oh, God.

He was on a plane going to New York. It was a dream. Just a dream. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, to bring himself back to reality--even the numbness he'd been feeling before would be better than this.

Graciela stood over him, looking worried. Leaning over, she said quietly, "You were having a nightmare. You were calling out." Now she looked embarrassed.

John took a deep breath. He could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks, the eyes of the other passengers watching him, speculating, curious. "Okay," he said. "I'm sorry. Thanks for waking me."

"It must have been a pretty bad dream," Graciela added. "[Una pesadilla.]"

"Yeah," John said. "It was."

"Would you like a drink? Or something to eat?"

No, John thought dully. The idea of food made him queasy. "No. I wouldn't." And after a second, he added, "Thanks anyway."

"You haven't had anything since you got on the plane," Graciela said. "Aren't you hungry? Or thirsty?"

John slowly shook his head. "I just need..." What? He wasn't quite sure what he needed. But not food. Definitely not food. "Maybe some water," he finally acquiesced.

"I'll bring it," Graciela said, giving him a hundred-watt smile, happy to finally have something to do for him.

When she brought the water back, John thanked her again. Then, stumbling slightly over the words, he said, "Graciela, will you do me ... a favor?"

"Of course!" she replied, still smiling.

"I'm exhausted and I really need to get some sleep." John stopped for a moment, trying to remember where he was going with this. He sighed, then spoke again. "But if I start dreaming like that again, will you wake me up before I get too loud?"

Her smile turned maternal. "Of course I will," she said. "Don't worry. You just get your rest."

"Gracias," John said. He sipped the water, then leaned back. He simply couldn't stay awake any longer, even though he was afraid to fall asleep. He'd just have to take his chances.

Translations: (Spanish)

?Se siente Ud. bien, Senor? - Are you all right, sir?

pesadilla - nightmare

Chapter 2: Lies and Memories

New York City

December 18, 2001

By the time John's plane finally arrived at Kennedy Airport, and he got through Immigration and Customs and eventually to Connor's Hudson Street loft, it was almost eleven p.m. Red-eyed and exhausted, John let himself into an empty apartment. He closed the door behind him, glad that his father--that *Connor*--wasn't home. John needed a little time to regroup.

He stared at this place where he'd spent a few years, one of several homes he'd lived in with Connor. Now it seemed like a movie set--an illusion. Like Duncan's familiar face hiding the stranger that was the *real* Duncan. The "public" areas of the apartment--sunken and raised spaces creating living and dining rooms and the kitchen--were tidy, as usual. Connor was almost compulsively neat, and John remembered his father explaining it.

"There's just no room for disorder on a ship," Connor had said. "And when you've spent as many years at sea as I have, it becomes second nature."

Lots and lots of years, John thought. Connor had seen everything from sail to the entry of steamships to modern ships. John had been awed and amazed by Connor's tales of life on the high seas. He'd been awed and amazed by all of Connor's tales, listening to them avidly, wide-eyed, asking Connor to tell them over and over.

=========================================

"Tell me about the time you fought the slavers off the coast of Africa, Dad!" John exclaims. He's eight, and this is one of his favorite stories.

"Again?" Connor says, smiling, his gray eyes crinkling at the corners. "For a bedtime story?"

"Yeah!" John says.

And Connor complies, telling John about the slave-ship and the pitched battle, how Connor and his men chose to board the vessel rather than use their powerful cannons, which would have destroyed the ship and its precious, living cargo. And Connor also tells John about the Immortal he fought and then threw overboard--the Immortal who had meant to make a great profit at the end of the slave ship's journey.

"And what about when you opened up the hold?" John asks, eagerly, wanting to hear about the men and women and children his father had freed.

Connor grimaces. "They were stuffed in there like sausages." He shakes his head. "A lot of them would have died before they ever reached America. We had to help them out, because they could barely walk.?"

John nods, imagining himself dropping down into the hold next to Connor, joining their hands to lift the semi-paralyzed human cargo up to the waiting hands above.

And after Connor kisses John good-night and smoothes John's hair and turns out the light, John relives the rescue again, thinking of the times to come when he will stand beside his father, fighting enemies both mortal and Immortal and saving innocent lives.?

==========================================

And never--not one single time--had Connor ever mentioned anything about beheadings, or rules that required you to stand by and watch while a man was killed, or getting sliced open and dying and coming back to life. John had thought that Immortals simply ... never died. And he had never, for one moment, suspected that Connor was hiding something. As far as John had been concerned, Connor had been just like Sir Gawain, one of the heroic knights of the Round Table. Duncan, too, had been one of those brave knights from Camelot. Good guys, both of them.

("Connor loves you, John," Duncan had told him.)

John shook himself, rolling his shoulders to try to ease some of the knots that had settled in, trying to think clearly, trying not to think about what a gullible fool he had been. He kept looking around the loft, trying to spot any clues he might have missed. Had to have missed. The truth had to be here, somewhere, if he only looked hard enough. But he saw nothing incriminating--it was the same as always.

Even when Connor was gone, his personality dominated the place. His photographs, paintings, sketches, and memorabilia were everywhere. John stepped behind Connor's desk to look at the sketch of Heather--his father's first wife--and then at the painting of Sarah, one of Connor's lost loves--that woman who had looked so amazingly much like Alex. Slowly, he moved along the wall, examining the photographs and drawings and sketches of Connor himself, inspecting them for any signs that this man was something other than he appeared to be.

He stopped in front of a model of the "Howell" the two of them had built when John was nine. They had "kit-banged" it--taken an eighteenth-century sailing ship model and customized it with parts they made themselves. John picked the model up, clenched his teeth, then deliberately grasped the main-mast between his thumb and forefinger and snapped it in half. He broke the other two masts, then ripped the canvas sails and dropped them and the ruined ship on the floor.

Then he caught a glimpse of a photo on Connor's desk--himself, Connor and Tessa--taken about eight years ago in the lobby of the Empire State Building. John froze, staring at the photo. He'd liked Tessa so much... But then John shook his head. "Richie," he muttered. Richie Ryan had taken that picture. John couldn't believe how close to Richie he had become, how he'd thought of Richie as family, as a cousin, maybe even as the brother he'd never had. John picked the framed photograph up, started to throw it against the wall, then decided he couldn't do that to Tessa's memory. Tessa was dead; she had died the same year that picture was taken. She'd been a mortal; she hadn't been a part of the Immortal *conspiracy*. But Richie--as far as John was concerned, Richie might as well be dead. Gripping the photo tightly, John carefully put it down and looked at the next picture over, a small one of himself, Connor, and Alex on the day Connor and Alex--now divorced--had gotten married. John clearly remembered how proud he'd been on that day, being his father's best man.

"You knew what he was, too, didn't you, Alex?" John said, looking at the smiling faces. "That's why you left him, isn't it? I wish you had taken me with you." Alex had walked away from Connor and remarried. She had children of her own now. She was leading a normal life, away from the bloodshed, the killing, the lies. He closed his eyes for a moment, blinking hard, then opened them again. He wanted to throw that photo against the wall, too, but refused to do that to Alex any more than he would do it to Tessa's memory. Connor, on the other hand, deserved--

Connor's appointment book, lying open to today's date, caught John's eye. There was a note on the page in Connor's neat, angular handwriting. John grabbed the notebook and read out, "L. P66, 24."

Still holding the book, John dropped his long body into a slouch on the antique pale-yellow French sofa in the sunken living room. He was simultaneously filled with exhaustion and nervous energy. All he wanted to do was collapse into bed, although he doubted if he could--or would want to--sleep. Too many chances for another nightmare, like on the plane. But first, he had to think about this cryptic note, try to decipher it.

He closed his eyes, leaning back, stretching his legs out before him. Think, John! he said to himself.

(John swings a sword... Connor's head...)

John sat up sharply. Christ, no, he didn't want to go to sleep--he didn't want to dream again! He rubbed his tired eyes and stared at the note, trying to think and wishing he had a tennis ball to squeeze. But he didn't feel like getting up and looking for one.

"L. P66, 24," he said out loud, saying the letters carefully, as if studying a foreign language. His mind was blank. "L, L, L, L, L. Lettuce, linebacker, link, limbo, lilly." He exhaled, disgusted. "Forget it," he muttered to himself.

"P66. P. P. Wait a minute..." John closed his eyes, trying to remember...

============================================

"Are these your logbooks, Dad?" John asks, opening one and staring at the crabbed, faded lines of script.

"Yes, they are, John," Connor replies, taking the book from him. "This is the log of the 'Howell.'"

John squints at the ancient, yellowed pages. "I can't read it," he complains.

"That's because it's written in code," Connor answers. "Sit down, and I'll teach it to you."

=========================================

John had been nine when he'd found Connor's logbooks stored away among his father's treasures. It had taken nearly a year to read them all, with Connor helping him decipher the notes and codes. Finding the logbooks had led to building the models--John had wanted to *see* the ships his father had sailed. The Howell had been the first one they'd built. John had loved building those models with Connor, sitting beside him, each of them wielding a pair of tweezers for the tiny pieces, John listening as Connor explained every detail...

John shook his head. That was a lie, too. It was all a lie. He re-focused on the book in his hands, forced his thoughts away from his treacherous memories, gritted his teeth, and concentrated. A moment later he had it.

"P is for ... Pier," he said, triumphant. "Pier 66. And 24 is..." He closed his eyes again, then opened them and said, "2400 hours--midnight. I remembered, Dad. I'll bet you didn't think I would, did you?" The "L" wasn't a code, and John suspected it was someone's initial ... some person ... some Immortal! John looked at his watch. It was 11:30. In a half-hour, Connor would be on Pier 66. For what?

John didn't have to cudgel his tired brain too hard about *this*. A deserted pier. A midnight meeting. A man who carried a sword. No, scratch that. A man who *killed* with a sword. Connor had to have killed a lot of times in nearly five hundred years, John thought slowly, his fingers drumming on the arm of the couch. It was like ... serial killing in slow motion, over centuries. And here in this appointment book was a note by that same serial killer about a midnight meeting.

He rubbed his eyes and stared at the note. These few little symbols said more to him and clarified everything far more than all of Duncan's diplomatic attempts to "explain things." And left a cold sense of despair in the pit of his stomach.

God, he'd never thought Immortality was anything like this! He'd thought of it as an endless stream of days in the sun, forever young, invulnerable to pain or death--a golden dream, real and alive in his house and in his heart, a secret just between him and an elite few.

But those moments in Elena's dojo had drained the golden glory right out of his dream and replaced it with another color entirely. And John's father, Connor MacLeod, the man who had adopted him and raised him and loved him and who had meant everything to him and whom he had wanted to be like more than anyone else in the world, was a murderer. That was the cold, savage, brutal truth. His father was a murderer. And so were Duncan, Richie, Elena--every other Immortal John knew.

Everything Connor had ever told John was a lie.

And worse: Connor was about to murder again. Right now. Tonight. Add another head to the bloody count.

That sharp realization finally coalesced John's swirling thoughts and confusion and numbness into fury and determination and a violent sense of betrayal. By God, Connor wasn't going to murder anybody else! Not if John had anything to do with it. John was going to stop this madness. And he was going to make his father explain things to him. Everything. Connor owed it to him. Connor owed him an explanation for why he'd made John believe that he was one of the good guys.

When he wasn't.

And even as John thought it, he knew that somewhere deep inside, he still wanted--*needed*--to believe that Connor was like Sir Gawain, from the Round Table. A tiny voice deep inside him kept whispering that Connor *had* to be one of the good guys. Because if Connor MacLeod wasn't one of the good guys, then what did it mean for John MacLeod?

(The head slid across the floor with a guttural, sucking sound, slamming into his boxing shoes.)

John jumped up and grabbed his coat. It wasn't far to the docks.

Chapter 3: New York City at Midnight

John took the bus and the subway as far up the west side of Manhattan as he could, carefully checking out the few occupants riding them this time of night. He knew his size would deter most of the mundane dangers--muggers and such--but he had no desire for any confrontations. The one he was heading for was enough. Ultimately he had to get out and walk, and it seemed as though he had the city to himself. Shivering in the cold, he hurried across the Hudson River Highway, grateful for the light traffic at this time of night and grateful even for the cold, which was evidently keeping petty criminals inside.

He arrived at the pier. Dark shapes rose in the distance--the warehouses that had once been stocked full of goods when this pier and others had served the bustling commercial shipping of New York City. They were all deserted now, boarded up, broken windows gaping like missing teeth.

There was a padlocked steel gate, at least ten feet high, across the gravel drive that led back into the depths of the pier. John trudged up to it, his boots crunching on the rocks, his breath forming a fog just in front of him. There were no warnings of electrification, so he figured he'd just climb the fence if he had to. But when he reached the gate, he took the padlock in his gloved hand and stared at it. The lock was open, but the hinge had been turned back and left just above the hole so that it looked closed. Somebody had picked this lock, and John had a feeling it had been picked very recently. Like ... tonight. By someone who carried a sword. John shivered and pulled his coat more tightly around him. Despite the cold, he was sweating.

"What am I doing here?" he muttered. There was a knot of fear in his stomach, but John knew he really wasn't that afraid of this place, no matter how deserted and dangerous it was. He wasn't quite sure what he was afraid of. He shook his head. He didn't really have time to do the self-help routine right now. He took a deep breath, swallowed, tried to loosen up a little--he was so tired that his vision was blurring a little. Or maybe that was only the cold. He pushed the gate just wide enough to let him in, and it swung open more quietly than he would have thought. He walked through the gate, pulled it closed behind him, and stepped into the shadows of the first warehouse...

And tripped over a deep rut, invisible in the shadows. He nearly went sprawling into a mound of dirt and trash, but managed to regain his balance. "Damn!" he said, then bit his lips. He didn't want anyone to hear him. Picking his path more carefully now, he slipped up to the warehouse door. He could feel the empty, dark bulk of the building, a sense of weight above him, all around him. But he could see little else besides the stray reflections of moonlight from unrusted metal and from the shards of glass in the high windows. Carefully, he tried the door and--like the gate--it, too, swung open.

Cursing silently to himself, he stepped back, away from the door, remembering how all the cops in all the shows he'd ever watched had made sure to stay to the *sides* of the door so they wouldn't get blasted by someone.

And then he remembered--he didn't have to worry about getting shot. The only weapon he had to worry about was a sword. Stephen Holz had said so. And of all people, Stephen ought to know.

=========================================

Two nights ago, a lifetime ago, in Argentina

The knock on John's door at the estancia is soft and almost inaudible. Assuming it is Duncan, wanting to talk to him again, John ignores it. He prefers to lie in the dark, staring at the ceiling.

The soft knock comes again, then an equally soft voice, not Duncan's. "John, open up, it's me, Stephen."

Stephen is the one person John actually doesn't mind talking to right now. He and Stephen are in the same boat, after all--they're both adopted children of Immortals.

"Come on, John," Stephen says again. "Let me in."

John rolls over on his bed, switches on the bedside lamp, and says, "I'm coming." Barefoot, he pads over to the door, unlocks it, opens it.

The two stare at each other for a moment. Then Stephen says, "I thought you might want to talk, [mon ami.]"

John takes a deep breath. "Yeah," he says. "To you. Not to Duncan or Elena or Richie. They're not out there, are they?"

Stephen looks offended. "Of course not! You think I'd do that to you? We mere mortals have to stick together. I came to see if you wanted to talk about--what happened today."

"Okay," John says, waiting while Stephen comes in, then shutting and locking the door behind him. "Let's talk. But first..." He switches off the bedside lamp and pulls open the curtains. The full moon shines in, illuminating the room.

"Yeah, cool," Stephen says, as the silver moonlight fills the room.

The two of them settle on the chairs and Stephen leans towards John and says, "You were lucky, you know."

"Lucky! How the hell do you figure that?" Now it is John's turn to be offended. He rubs his hand over his chest, where the sword cut still smarts, leans over to the bedside table and picks up a tennis ball, and begins squeezing it rhythmically, first in one hand, then in the other.

Stephen watches for a moment, then quietly says, "I saw my own father beheaded right in front of me."

John gasps. The tennis ball falls to the floor. "How...? God, I mean, it must have been horrible for you!"

Stephen's face is grim in the moonlight. "You have no idea. My father--Phillippe Holz--was being chased by this guy who just wanted to kill him. Father had gone to Duncan for help--Father wanted to fight the guy, but he was no swordsman. And I--I asked Duncan to protect my father, to keep him from getting killed." Stephen stops for a long moment. Then he begins again, his voice quieter. "But I was too late. The bastard found Father and they started fighting ... right in Duncan's dojo."

"In Duncan's dojo? Was Duncan there?"

"Yeah." Stephen turns to look John squarely in the eye. "He sure was. So was Elena and another Immortal friend of Duncan's, too. And me."

"What happened?" John asks Stephen, leaning towards the younger, slighter boy.

"You know how Richie wouldn't let you help Elena?"

John nods. He's still angry about that.

"Well, it's a rule. Immortals aren't supposed to interfere in one another's fights. And mortals aren't supposed to interfere, either."

John swallows. "So...?"

"So ... they stood there while this Philip Ordway just toyed around with Father and then cut his head off. *Then* Duncan fought him and killed him."

Stunned, John says, "You mean ... they just let--"

"Yeah," Stephen replies bitterly, the light of the bright moon full on his face, etching the lines of pain and grief in stark relief. "The rules. The fucking, unbreakable Immortal rules."

========================================

New York City

It was the same moon illuminating this pier tonight, John thought, looking up at it. Just the same in Argentina and here--and the same swordfighting, the same killing. The same rules. Carefully, he stuck his head in the warehouse door, then stepped in, hunched over, really afraid now that he might be stabbed ... or he wasn't quite sure what.

("Beheading is the one thing Immortals can't survive.")

John shivered. Damn, it was cold out here! And the warehouse was empty. No one was here but him--and something scurrying around at his feet, twittering and scrabbling, that he couldn't see. He shuddered with the instinctive dread of rats and hurried out of the empty building.

John looked down the pier. There were several more warehouses before the pier ended. He cautiously rounded a pile of nasty-looking debris and headed for the next building. He hunched down in his coat, his hands in his pockets, hiding less from the stiff cold wind than from the sense that someone was watching. Someone with a sword. Someone who couldn't die. Someone who wouldn't be ... afraid. While John felt his own fear growing, all the time. Now he wished he had given in to Duncan and let him come along.

This warehouse was empty too. John's exhaustion--that was all it was, he told himself firmly--was catching up with him again and he stumbled over the rough, uneven, treacherous ground. The next warehouse was clearly empty--a great gap had been torn out of one side and the moonlight lit it brightly.

John moved on to the next building. This was the next-to-last warehouse before he reached the water. He was so tired. He really didn't want to look into the row of broken windows stretched out in front of him. Frankly, he told himself, he had about gotten to the point where, if he found nothing here, he'd be just as happy.

But that small part of his mind that had never been afraid before but was tonight--and not of this place--whispered to him that he had to go on. There had to be another way for Immortals than killing. He had to confront Connor and force Connor to admit it. No matter what.

He clenched his jaw, closed his fingers into fists, and moved to the last warehouse. It had to be the one where Connor was going to kill somebody tonight. John put his hand on the doorknob, then stopped. His heart was beating wildly--he could feel it pounding against his ribs. He could also feel his rage rising again, as well as his need to make Connor tell him ...

Suddenly, John thought of something that froze him in place. Something obvious, something he should have thought of before. Long before. But he'd been so totally focused on Connor--confronting Connor--that he hadn't seen this one little flaw in his plan.

What if *Connor* wasn't here yet? What if the *other* Immortal was waiting inside that warehouse?

Oh, Christ. John remembered his nightmare about Kane. Hurriedly, he removed his hand from the knob, but as he turned away, the treacherous ground got him again. He stumbled backwards and hit the door with a solid and very loud thud.

The next instant, the door was opened and John almost fell in, backwards, but he thrust his left leg behind him and again managed to stay upright. Then he closed his eyes because someone had suddenly turned the lights on. He started to step back.

And stopped, immediately, because there was something sharp as an ice-pick at his throat.

"Well, well, what have we here?" a very French voice said calmly and with some amusement, right in front of John--and between John and the door.

John took a deep breath through his nose. That voice had almost sounded like a caricature of the way a Frenchman should sound. Except that John was suddenly sure that this was the real thing. John couldn't see the speaker, but he could sure feel the man's sword at his throat. And John was blinking now, the afterimages--white blobs--bobbing up and down John suddenly had a convulsive urge to swallow, but he froze it, clamped down on it. "Aagh," he managed.

Now the other man circled John. The sword moved, too, and instead of the point, now the blade rested against John's pulse. He felt a hand move up and down his body, very thorough, missing nothing, first one side, then the other. Shit! He was being frisked! After a moment, the blade moved away from his throat, and John completed his interrupted swallow.

In the next instant, the man partially circled John again, so that his right side was to the door. John turned to face him and studied the man who could have just killed him.

The man was about Connor's height, maybe an inch or two shorter. He was darker of hair and eyes than Connor, but his skin was almost as fair. His long hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail and he was dressed well, as if he were going to a business meeting. John, with the eye of one accustomed to wealth, could tell at a glance that the charcoal Armani suit had probably cost a few thousand dollars. And the man wore it comfortably, as if it were a second skin. The only jarring note was the gleaming blade he held in his gloved right hand, now casually down by his side.

"Who are you? And why are you here?" The Frenchman spoke again, his voice elegant, cultivated, sounding almost as many notes as a glass of fine Bordeaux.

But John didn't have any time to identify them all, hell, to even notice them, really, to pay much attention to cultivation or savoir faire. He swallowed again. At least the man wasn't trying to kill him. At the moment.

John clutched once more at his reason for being here, wishing desperately that Connor would show up. But John had the moral high ground. *He* wasn't a murderer. He said, "I came here to stop this." He gestured at the sword. "It's the twenty-first century. You don't have to kill somebody to resolve your differences--"

"To resolve our *differences*?" the Frenchman interrupted, laughing harshly. "This goes far beyond *differences*. And you are a fool to be here. Do you even know what is going on?"

John didn't care about the insult, but the dismissive tone of voice made him angry. "Yeah," he retorted, "I know a couple of psychos are about to start whacking each other with--"

In a move John didn't even see, the man suddenly had the point of that deadly sword right over John's heart. What John could see, all too well, were the rhythmic vibrations of his own heartbeat in the glittering, minute, identically rhythmic vibrations of the blade.

Chapter 4: Playing the Game

The Frenchman now leaned over his blade, his face so close that John could smell wine and garlic on his breath. In the stark light of the warehouse, John could see the clarity and intensity of the man's eyes, the dark brown irises, the black pupils, the neatly groomed mustache, even the individual nubs of closely shaven whiskers on his cheek.

"I said," the Frenchman repeated, his tone now deadly and completely unamused, "what are you doing here? I did not expect this of Connor MacLeod. His reputation is one of honorable combat. So why did he send you here? To distract me?" He looked around the warehouse quickly without moving the sword an iota. "Are you setting some kind of a trap?"

John's head started jerking left and right even before he told it to move. He stared down at the Frenchman, and before he knew it, his mouth popped open and, horrified, he heard himself say in an aggrieved tone, "I *told* you why I'm here. To stop this! And Connor doesn't even know--"

At that, the Frenchman frowned and looked at John again, that careful measuring gaze that John was starting to get pretty tired of.

"He'd be pissed if he knew," John muttered. And then he shut his mouth, clamping his teeth together, not wanting anything else to pop out of his mouth.

"So. You do know Connor MacLeod. [C'est ca?] Yes?"

The pressure of the sword on John's flesh intensified a little, and John simultaneously wanted to piss and give this frog a taste of his right cross. John's fingers curled into a fist, reassuringly firm, reassuringly capable of knocking a man out. And then he remembered again why he was here, and he opened his hand. "Yes," he answered, reluctantly, feeling somehow that it was wrong to admit anything, yet not knowing what else to do.

"Yes," the Frenchman repeated. "You admit it. Somehow ... I think you are telling the truth." The Frenchman shook his head. "But if you know Connor MacLeod, then you must surely know that you cannot 'stop' this. This is Immortal business. The Game." He shrugged eloquently. The movement did not stir the tip of the sword at all.

John could still feel its lethal pinprick weight, pressed lightly against his chest. "Ze what?" he repeated involuntarily, then cursed to himself.

The Frenchman raised an eyebrow, but repeated, "The Game."

"I don't know what you're talking about!"

"The Game. The Prize. There can be only one. *That* Game."

John stared, silent, not wanting to understand, as the Frenchman raked him once more with that X-ray stare, seeing far more of John than he had any right to.

"You truly do not know." Again, the Frenchman shook his head, sadly. "All Immortals must fight each other to the death. The last survivor will have all the Quickenings of all the Immortals who have ever lived. With the last Quickening, that survivor will win the Prize!" The Frenchman's voice rose with passion at the end.

John felt cold at that passion, but still he asked, "What Prize?" Something else about Immortality, John thought, that he didn't know, didn't want to know, had to know.

"The power of all the Immortals. And we must fight until only one of us remains, and he will claim it. *That* is The Game."

No! John shook his head again, dismayed, incredulous, rejecting everything the man said. "The power of ... What power!? You can't be serious! You mean, Immortals fight each other--and cut off each other's heads--for some prize!? That's *crazy*!"

"Nevertheless, it is true." Lasseigne stiffened, then smiled coldly. "And you can ask MacLeod himself, because he is here."

John caught the blur of the door swinging open, just in time to see Connor's katana enter the warehouse. In an instant, Connor was inside and poised in the en garde position. The whole thing happened so fast that John hadn't really been able to see the transition. Connor wore the same smile John had seen in that nightmare on the plane--an icy, deadly expression that chilled John with a terrible sense of deja vu. It was the most frightening smile John had ever seen, the kind he'd imagined a professional hitman might have as he aimed a rifle at his victim's head and gently, lovingly, stroked the trigger. And it was on his father's face.

Connor immediately absorbed the sight of John standing stiffly under the Frenchman's sword. "What the hell is this, Lasseigne?" Connor said, cold and hostile. "When did you start taking hostages?"

And John said, "Dad!"

Lasseigne's eyebrows rose up together in eloquent, startled surprise, then dropped again in equally eloquent comprehension. "Ah," he said, nodding. He removed his sword from John's chest and took a step back.

To John, it felt as though an anvil had been lifted. He took the first deep breath he'd managed all night.

"John--"

"Dad--"

"What were you thinking, Monsieur MacLeod?" Lasseigne interrupted, calmly, chidingly, an aristocrat explaining things to commoners, unfailingly courteous. "This boy knows nothing about the Game. He is your mortal son, almost a grown man--and yet you told him nothing about Immortals, the Game, the Prize?" The Frenchman shook his head again, sorrowfully. "It is lucky for you both that I think before I act. Otherwise, this young man would be dead now. And it would be your fault, Monsieur, for not telling him the facts of Immortality."

Connor took a deep breath, felt himself go cold all over. Yes, he was lucky all right. He took a good look at John's pale face and his round, frightened eyes. Damn! This wasn't the way he'd meant for his son to learn about the Game. But that wasn't Lasseigne's business. None of this was Lasseigne's business.

"John," Connor said, steel in his voice, "go home. Now."

Stubbornly, John shook his head. "No! I'm not going anywhere. This guy," he nodded at Lasseigne, "said all Immortals have to ... to fight until there's only one left! For some kind of Game, some kind of Prize! That's crazy, Dad! And you can't just ... kill him! It's not right!"

Connor took another deep breath, feeling the frigid air enter his lungs, feeling his own desire to get on with the fight, the blood surging through his veins, wanting John to go, get away from here. Because he, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, was here for a duel. A duel he was ready for. He wanted to fight. Now! And John had no business being here. John was stopping him. And John was in grave danger. "John! This isn't the time or the place. You shouldn't be here!"

Lasseigne said, pointing his sword at John. "Because you did not tell him, Monsieur MacLeod, one of us will have to take care of this later. Explain it all to him."

John felt a cold, cold trickle of sweat slip down his spine as the full meaning of "one of us" and "later" penetrated.

Connor turned to the Frenchman, a snarl on his face. "I'll worry about my son, Lasseigne."

"But, you see, Monsieur MacLeod," the Frenchman said calmly, coolly, "he is my concern, too. I am an honorable man. When I behead you, your son will be my responsibility. As will his grief."

And John saw these two men, arrayed against one another, heard Lasseigne calmly discuss taking his father's head. His heart, already pumping rapidly, began to beat even faster. Somehow, despite what he'd seen in Argentina, what Stephen had told him, what Lasseigne had told him, he'd expected Connor to tell him it wasn't so. That there was some kind of mistake. That he, Connor MacLeod, was no killer. That the two of them, John and Connor, could go home, could go back ... and John could retrieve his golden dream...

But John saw now that there was no mistake. Both of these men had come here to kill. This Game, this deadly Game, was all too real. And Connor played it. Had played it all his life. Was ready to play tonight. And from all appearances, *wanted* to "play."

Connor snarled again. "Don't worry about that, Lasseigne. As I said, I'll deal with my son. Later. Tonight--after I deal with you." He smiled savagely.

Lasseigne shook his head, smiling compassionately, gently, pityingly. "But however much you discount the possibility, Monsieur, it may be that I will have to deal with it. Therefore, I offer you the chance to postpone our duel."

But postponement was the last thing Connor wanted. No, not quite the last thing. Lasseigne's pity and his compassion were the last things Connor wanted. Not Lasseigne's pity for John, nor the Frenchman's compassion for Connor himself.

Connor had been preparing for days, getting ready for this fight. The strong, steady pealing of Lasseigne's Immortality rang in his veins, his bones, his soul, calling him like a bell to this unspeakable and unavoidable sacrament of blood and death and power. He wanted to fight. He needed to fight. He had to fight. Now.

"No," he growled. "There won't be a postponement. We'll settle this now. And John. For the last time, goddammit--go home."

John threw his head back, his hands once more curled into fists, his body still trying to deny what he now understood. That whether he wanted to believe it or not, one of these two Immortals was going to die tonight. That an Immortal died whenever two of them came together. That one of the men who died tonight might be his own father--and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do about it, ever. Except go home. John could feel that secret, invincible golden part of himself begin to shatter. It numbed him. And he knew he couldn't leave. Regardless of what he might want, this was the truth of Immortality. He shook his head at Connor and stood his ground.

It wasn't what Connor wanted. But few things in life were. He shrugged. "Stay out of the way," he ordered his son, then turned all of his attention to Lasseigne. "En garde."

The Frenchman nodded, a slight tilt of his aristocratic head, his eyes never leaving Connor's. "As you wish, Monsieur." He smiled, not at all compassionately or gently or pityingly. And then, he attacked.

John watched. He didn't know one of these men at all and now, he realized, he didn't know the other one either. Connor, at this moment, this man so eager to fight, so obviously enjoying this duel to the death, was a stranger to him. Just a man. No, not a man. Someone--some*thing* he'd never seen before.

So he watched, not wanting to watch. Wanting to be anywhere else in the whole world, wishing he could run away, turn things back. He wished he'd never gone to Argentina. Never seen Elena fight that crazy Immortal. Never seen her behead him.

John swallowed. His mouth was dry, and his hands were very cold. He was cold all over.

He was going to see somebody else get beheaded tonight.

Connor gasped in sudden pain as Lasseigne's blade scored a cut across his right forearm.

"Dad!" John cried out, then closed his mouth again as Connor glanced his way, involuntarily--and paid for it by taking another deep slash on the same arm, across the bicep.

"Damn!" Connor snarled.

Lasseigne pulled back. "[Attendez,]" he said. He looked at Connor, shrugged, then turned to John. "I am an *honorable* man, John MacLeod. So this one time, I will not take advantage of your interference. This one time, only. Next time you distract your father, however, I will not hesitate. Do you understand, John?"

Connor bristled, pointing his sword straight at his opponent. "Don't tell my son what to do, Lasseigne."

"Someone has to, MacLeod. You should be ashamed that you have left him in such total ignorance. Look where it has brought you--and him."

For answer, Connor attacked.

John stayed silent, took care to get out of the way, staying as far from the two swordsmen as he could.

It wasn't like the fight Elena had at all, John thought distantly. This wasn't some vicious assassin coming after his father. This was ... art. Choreography. It was beautiful, like watching a building implode in slow motion, like watching planes in a dogfight, roaring and firing overhead. Beautiful ... but the blood was red ... just as red as the pool of blood Elena had died in...

It was happening too fast for him to really grasp it. John had seen Connor practice before, spar with Duncan ... but he had never seen anything like this. When Connor had practiced with Duncan, they had knocked each other down, crossed swords, but ... something had always been missing, John realized now.

Death.

It was in the warehouse tonight, a tangible presence.

"All Immortals must fight each other to the death." Lasseigne's words. John started to shiver. Man, it was really cold in this fucking warehouse. The steel blades clanged against one another, the two men--Immortals--grunting and yelling and cursing.

And John really, really wanted to be elsewhere. But he had to stay, had to watch, had to understand why his father had to kill this Frenchman, who was so obviously not one of the bad guys ... whose sense of honor apparently even included the son of the man he'd come here to kill. If this was a movie, he'd hope both of these guys could realize that they were on the same side.

John's thoughts twisted to Richie.

==================================

New York, two years ago

"Okay," John says. "Did *you* know you were going to be Immortal?"

Richie laughs. "Are you kidding? I was a street punk, a nobody. *Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod* was like a different species from me. I never dreamed I'd be immortal. And if anybody had told me I was going to be, I'd have laughed in his face!"

==================================

The sweating bodies danced around each other in the freezing warehouse, and John hurried to keep out of the way of the deadly blades. He leaned against an old post, watching. But his mind was otherwise occupied. The one thing John hadn't asked Richie, he thought now, was how he felt when he found out he *was* Immortal. But John *had* asked Stephen a burning question, that last night on Elena's ranch.

==================================

John looks at Stephen. "But there is one thing I want to ask you. Have you ever ... do you think you might..." He trails off.

Stephen returns the older boy's gaze steadily. "You mean, do I think I'm one of them?"

John nods.

"[Mon Dieu,] I hope not," Stephen replies fervently. "It's the last thing I'd ever want to happen to me."

====================================

John shivered again, stepping away from the post, running now, to move out of the way. His back was turned when he heard a human cry of pain followed by a metallic clatter. Quickly, he turned.

Lasseigne's blade--yes, definitely Lasseigne's because Connor still had his--was bouncing across the concrete floor. John looked up, away from the Frenchman's sword.

Lasseigne was kneeling on his right knee, his left leg hanging uselessly beneath him, blood streaming from the hamstring.

John met Lasseigne's brown eyes, full of ultimate, intimate knowledge, as Connor stepped back, raised his sword and swung it. Lasseigne managed one last, eloquent, ironic shrug. Then suddenly, where Lasseigne's eyes had been, there was only air.

John stared at the empty spot that had been Lasseigne's head, his eyes tracking back and forth, then slowly, involuntarily, he turned and watched as the head hit the concrete with a sickening, meaty thud. John swallowed. His legs buckled, and he fell to his knees, his stomach vomiting up the water he'd drank on the plane and then spasming emptily, convulsively, again and again and again.

Translations (all French):

c'est ca - that's it

attendez - wait

mon Dieu - my God

Chapter 5: Pyrrhic Victory

As Connor swung his blade across Lasseigne's neck, time slowed and slowed again and then stopped for him. It always happened, this seemingly eternal moment before the Quickening began. Connor breathed deeply, waiting, focused. Lasseigne's head hit the concrete and simultaneously a movement from the corner of his eye caught Connor's notice. Incrementally, he moved his head and saw John kneeling there on the concrete, wiping his mouth, then quickly standing.

Connor flinched at the revulsion on his son's face. What was John doing here? Why wasn't he in Argentina? Something must have happened. He shouldn't have sent John there. But it had seemed like the right thing to do, under the circumstances.

============================================

Eight days ago, New York City

Connor is a few minutes early to the bar for his meeting with Rene Lasseigne. And Lasseigne, typically French, is a few minutes late. He apologizes languidly--traffic--and then, like a couple of business executives, they each have a drink and discuss the regrettable necessity of certain aspects of their "business."

"It is just, you see, MacLeod," Lasseigne says, smiling coolly, his slim, strong fingers wrapped negligently around his snifter of expensive brandy, "there can be only one. Passe, I know, but ..." He shrugs, an elegant, weary, intrinsically Gallic gesture. And he sips his brandy. The smile never touches his eyes.

"I understand," Connor replies, sipping his whisky. "Shall we pick a day?"

Another languid shrug, a twirl of his thin mustache. "I am at your disposal, Monsieur."

"At my disposal," Connor repeats. "Good." He hasn't heard that phrase in two centuries, not since long before Napoleon's time. In fact, everything about Lasseigne is old-fashioned, cliched even. Like a character out of a Dumas novel, Rene Lasseigne is slim and dark, long-haired, delicate-looking. He's fastidious, almost effete, in his mannerisms. At any moment Connor expects the Frenchman to take a lace handkerchief out of his sleeve or pull out a snuff box. But Connor also knows that Lasseigne is no storybook cut-out figure. He's the real thing, and these French fops are all about pride, honor--and steel. "A week, then?" Connor says.

"So long?"

"I have some other matters to take care of," Connor replies, both put off and amused by Lasseigne's obvious enthusiasm.

"Ah. Of course. [Les affaires.] Your last will and testament and so on. Plus, time to say goodbye to someone special, perhaps?"

Connor smiles, saying nothing.

"[Bien.] A week, then."

After making parallel notes in their appointment books, the two Immortals part. They do not shake hands, but Lasseigne bows, one aristocrat to another. Connor laughs to himself and returns the bow.

Then he goes home and surprises John with a trip to Argentina. And after John had left, safe with Duncan, Connor had gone to see Rachel and had one of his less cryptic conversations with her. She had reluctantly, unhappily, agreed to call Duncan if Connor became separated from his head.

=========================================

But Connor had not become separated from his head. Lasseigne had lost and now Connor could sense the Quickening emerging from the Frenchman's headless body...

John spoke, revulsion and horror in his hushed voice. "Why did you kill him? He wasn't a bad guy..." But his voice trailed off.

Connor knew that John wanted an answer, an explanation. But Connor couldn't... Spirals of light were uncoiling sinuously from Lasseigne's body, seemingly groping for a direction, a target... Connor took a deep breath as the serpentine streaks of light slithered toward him. And he watched John's face as the boy realized there was only one direction in this place. Only one target.

Connor's head fell back, and he closed his eyes, unconsciously parting his lips, panting slightly, anticipating the moment to come, the pain ... the pleasure. His right hand was still clenched around the hilt of his bloody katana.

The first of the lazy beams struck Connor with a sharp explosion of ozone and lightning, and he gasped, opening his eyes for an instant, watching the light leap for him in jagged, hammering strokes. He closed his eyes again, then bit off a cry as a sharp spasm flung his arms out, sending the katana clanging across the concrete floor.

The Quickening took Connor, the lightning strikes of Lasseigne's soul frying the air, filling it with the smell of ozone as their bodies formed a closed circuit, Connor himself being the path of least resistance. He began to scream hoarsely as he fell to his knees, once again becoming the essential ceremonial vessel in this mystery of Immortal transmigration. Lasseigne's *essence* poured into him, filled him, challenged him for dominance, pleasured him agonizingly ... erotically, penetrated him, took him, surrendered to him, became a part of him, and subsided into that hidden, subterranean part of him where all those other Quickenings lived. He was himself. The vessel was once again empty.

Connor gasped, head down, sucking in deep breaths, filling his lungs with air. It had been a good Quickening. Lasseigne would not come back in his dreams and nightmares to haunt him, nor would Connor have to fight to stay himself as he had had to do with the Kurgan. He knelt, immobilized, spent, waiting for the rubber bands in his limbs to transform themselves back into muscles and tendons and ligaments.

Connor could hear John's breathing, could feel his son standing, watching, waiting for it to end--and of course John had no idea what "it" was. And then Connor heard his son take a faltering step towards him, then a second and a third, carefully going around Lasseigne's decapitated body and the blood on the floor. At last John stood in front of him, and Connor could feel his son's eyes on him, on Connor, the victor of the duel, kneeling before John like a supplicant, panting, sweat and blood dripping off him.

You enjoyed it," John said, his voice raw with accusation and disgust. "I saw it in your face."

Connor, his head still bowed, still gasping for breath, did not respond. But he thought, Yes, I did, boy. I did enjoy it.

John went on. "You *liked* killing him, and you liked that--that--"

"Quickening," Connor croaked, almost inaudibly. He still did not look up at John.

John backed away. "I don't know you," he muttered. "I never knew you. All those stories you told me ... But you never once mentioned *this*!" There was a pause. Then, in a toneless voice, he said, "Who are you?"

Connor slowly lifted his head, sweat dripping from his face, exhausted, spent, despairing. "I'm your father, John," he whispered.

"No," John said, taking another stumbling step back. "No! You are not my father. My father is dead. *You* killed him. And I hate you. I *hate* you!"

Connor flinched, then said, softly, "John."

John saw the flinch and heard the anguish in Connor's cracked voice, but he hardened himself to Connor's suffering. What right did Connor have to suffer? John was the one who'd been lied to, betrayed, made a fool of. *He* was the one whose world was crumbling, faster and faster.

Connor rose tiredly to his feet as John, standing on the other side of Lasseigne's body, watched, waiting, his arms crossed, his body stiff, his jaws clenched.

They simply stood then, looking at each other, Connor drained and sick at heart over what his son had just witnessed, had just said. After a long moment, Connor looked around the warehouse and at the headless body which lay between them. What he wanted to do was to go to John right now and try to explain, to repair the gaping rupture between them. But it would have to wait.

"John, watch Lasseigne's body," he said, calmly, neutrally, feeling anything but.

John drew himself up to protest, but Connor was already out the door. "Like Lass ... he's going anywhere," John muttered, not wanting to name the dead man.

A moment later, the door opened and Connor returned.

John stared at the body bag draped over Connor's arm. "Christ!" he said, repelled. "You're all prepared for this, aren't you? You get off on it!"

Connor walked around John and Lasseigne, laid the body bag out by the Frenchman, unzipped it, and spread it open. "Get his feet," Connor said, kneeling to grasp Lasseigne's right arm. He wanted to drag the body into the bag, avoiding the blood on the floor and that still dribbling from the neck.

"No!" John shouted, appalled. "You can do your own dirty work!"

Connor, still kneeling, said, his face and voice expressionless, "John, I need your help. And, no, I don't 'get off on' it. But I've got to get him out of here. The sooner we do that, the sooner I can answer your questions. So pick up his feet." He waited a long moment, but John didn't move. Finally, Connor added, in a soft, placating voice, "Please, John."

Gritting his teeth, John pulled off his gloves and stuffed them into his coat pockets, then bent over awkwardly and grabbed Lasseigne's legs. The body was heavier than he had expected and he nearly dropped it. But they got the Frenchman's corpse into the bag. John left Lasseigne's legs sprawled out and turned away, wiping his hands on his clothes. Let Connor fix the corpse. Connor was the murderer; he'd had lots of practice at this.

Connor glanced up at John's back, but said nothing, just quickly straightened Lasseigne's legs and tucked them neatly inside. While John's back was turned, Connor quickly went through Lasseigne's pockets to remove any identification, and to retrieve one other item. Then Connor grabbed the overcoat that Lasseigne had tossed to the floor and used it to wrap up the head.

John heard Connor's footsteps on the concrete, a grunt, a soft thud, then the sound of the zipper snicking closed. John shuddered. This was worse than any horror movie he'd ever seen. He turned back around. The only remaining sign of Lasseigne now was the blood all over the concrete and the obviously full body bag. John looked at Connor challengingly.

Connor raised an eyebrow. "All right. Let's get him out to the car."

John crossed his arms across his chest and glared at Connor.

"John," Connor said, very quietly, commandingly, "Help me carry him out to the car. And then I'm going to show you something."

John waited, just long enough to make his point, then bent to pick up the body bag. The two men muscled it to the door, where they stopped for Connor to shut off the light switch with his chin, and then on to Connor's Porsche and into the trunk. They had to fold Lasseigne's body up to get him into the tiny compartment, and John thought about the slaves his father had supposedly rescued, their bodies all spooned tightly together ... John shook his head, repressing the memory.

Just before closing the lid on Lasseigne, Connor grabbed a flashlight and gestured for John to follow him.

John followed wordlessly to a Ferrari parked next to the warehouse. He hadn't seen it before--it was on the opposite side of the warehouse from where he'd entered--but he realized it must be Lasseigne's. Connor stepped over to it, and John also realized Connor had the keys--his father must have rifled Lasseigne's body for them--and was opening the trunk.

"Look at this," Connor said, shining the flashlight into the Ferrari's trunk so John could see.

John looked at Connor, then down. He already knew, in his gut, what he was about to see. But it still took a moment for him to register it: another body bag, a twin to the one in Connor's car--the one containing Lasseigne's body. John raised his eyes to meet Connor's. He felt very, very cold and completely numb.

Connor said calmly, "That one was for me, John. You understand that, don't you?"

John nodded slowly. He didn't want to understand this either. But he knew what Connor was telling him. That secret part of him, already half-smashed and shattered, fragmented a little more. He closed his eyes and took a deep, ragged breath.

Connor watched his son absorb another painful truth of Immortality. God, he'd never wanted John to know about all of this, much less actually see him kill a man and take a Quickening. He loved John so much and now--now he was afraid he was losing his son, that John was receding even as he watched. He could feel John's revulsion and disgust, and though he wanted to put his arms around John, he felt that if he even got close, John would recoil; John might even want to hit him.

Connor didn't want to risk either of those things. And he had to get Lasseigne's body--and himself and John--out of here. No telling if someone might have seen the lights of the Quickening and possibly called the police.

He closed the Ferrari's trunk with a sharp click. "John, I'm going to get rid of the body now." Hopefully, he added, "Do you want to go back home?" Maybe he could spare John a little--

"No," John answered, shivering, wanting more than anything to leave. But he couldn't. He felt driven, compelled, the way a dying man might feel compelled to buy his own coffin and plan his own funeral.

Connor sighed, despondent and discouraged. Neither he nor John were to be spared anything, it seemed. "Then let's go," he said softly, knowing that this bloody night might be the last thing he and his son ever shared.

Translations: all French

les affaires - affairs, business

bien - good

Chapter 6: Down the Precipice

Connor headed north towards the Lincoln Tunnel and then west into New Jersey. He kept heading west along the highways, then left those for roads of more dubious maintenance as they entered the marshy wastes. As far as the eye could see, under the cold light of the moon, there was nothing but muddy, grass-filled water, broken only by sad-looking clumps of bushes and lone stands of ghost trees. Only the occasional car passed them now, lonely fellow-travelers.

Connor was glad there had been no rains lately; these low stretches of pavement flooded easily. Surreptitiously, the Immortal watched his son, trying to guess what was coming next. But John gave him no hint. Connor wanted to ask John why he was there, what had happened in Argentina--it was obvious *something* had happened in Argentina. This whole fiasco bore the indelible imprint of that bitch, Elena Duran. Indeed, Connor could feel his own anger flaring as he thought about it--he'd sent John down there to keep him from finding out about his duel with Lasseigne and somehow, Elena Duran had fucked up and sent John home just in time to watch his father take a head. And it wasn't just that. John had *known* somehow. Something more had happened in Argentina. And where the hell had Duncan been?

But Connor pushed his anger down. Instinctively he knew that any show of anger on his part would drive John even further away. And he also knew, at the same level, that he'd better not ask John about Argentina, that his son would see it as an attempt to divert him. John would despise him even more for that.

Connor knew this was the most delicate moment he'd ever face with his son, and he had no idea what to say. So he retreated into the behavior he knew best--silence.

John, too, sat silently, watching as Connor expertly negotiated the labyrinth of marsh and little two-lane roads. He felt alienated and distant, as though there were a million miles and a million years between him and the man--the Immortal--sitting next to him. The green lights of the dashboard cast an otherworldly glow on Connor's face, enhancing John's sense of distance and strangeness. But beneath the numbness and the shock, John could feel his rage at the lies and the betrayal bubbling like some venomous brew in a witch's cauldron.

Connor's expert driving through this wasteland only infuriated John more. Connor was taking them into the marshes of New Jersey, weed-filled and ugly. This was Mob Country, where the Mafia reputedly hid the bodies of their victims. He could guess what Connor's knowledge of the area meant. My father, the hit man, John thought bitterly. But Connor didn't do it for money or because he had to. Connor did it because he wanted to. And because he liked it.

John gritted his teeth as Connor kept glancing his way, starting to speak, then turning back to his driving. John's numbness was wearing away. The rage was boiling over, and his father's abortive efforts to speak just made the situation worse. Of its own accord, his right hand went digging into his pocket for a tennis ball to vent his rage on, but came up empty. Instead, he clenched his fist, feeling its solidity, thinking of the time he had hit Connor and knocked him out. He'd like to hit Connor right now.

Finally, the cauldron of anger boiled over. John turned to Connor, and in a grim, bitter tone, asked the question that had driven him here, the question that lay at the core of his sense of betrayal. "Why did you lie to me about Immortality?"

Connor sighed silently. He had never wanted this to happen. Why couldn't he have waited to fight Lasseigne? But he knew the answer to that. The Immortal bloodlust had been on him, the need to fight and kill and take the Quickening, and that pull was strong--even, for an Immortal, primordial. And far more important, he didn't want to give Lasseigne any more of an advantage in a duel, where mental preparation was almost as as skill with a blade. But even if John, with his boxing and karate training, understood about preparing for a match, his son was a child of the late twentieth century. He wouldn't understand about lust for blood. Connor despaired of ever explaining any of this to John so that he would understand it, much less accept it.

There was a long silence, during which Connor carefully negotiated a turn-off from the side road they were on to an even more marginal road that was broken and potholed. He downshifted the Porsche to first gear to handle a sharp turn and shifted up again as the road straightened. Then Connor said, his voice as wary and as cautious as his driving, "I never lied to you, John. I just ... didn't tell you the whole truth."

John banged his fist on the dashboard, and Connor turned to look at him, calmly. He didn't even blink, John thought, furious, glaring at his father before shouting incredulously, "Goddammit, is that the best you can do? I've seen beheadings and heads sliding across the floor and people coming back from the dead and I've seen you haul a man's headless body into a bag--and that's the best you can do?! You fucking son of a bitch." The last line was delivered evenly, almost coldly, and John turned away again to look out the window.

Connor blinked. Heads sliding across the floor? Lasseigne's head had not slid across the floor. John must have seen that in Argentina ... but whose head? It couldn't be Duncan's, or anyone else's he knew--John would have told him about that, he would have gotten a phone call. He swallowed the immediate panic and his instinctive, angry reaction, then swallowed again, to wet his dry throat. John had never cursed him before. And his son had never turned away from him like this before, either. This reaction was exactly what he'd feared would happen when he told John the truth. It was exactly the reason he had held back. And now John had found out in the worst possible way. "John ..." he said softly, belying his inner rage with this situation, with Duncan, and most of all, with Elena Duran. But John's back only stiffened and he didn't answer.

Connor sighed audibly this time. Looking around, he decided this place was as good as any. He braked the Porsche and it bumped slowly to a stop. He turned off the ignition. For a long moment, the two of them sat silently in the car. Outside, the bright moon lit the dreary view, casting stark black shadows across a gray landscape. It was a perfect match for the atmosphere inside the car, Connor thought.

The silence stretched out. His son sat just a few inches away. But at this moment, Connor knew John was further away from him than if they'd been on different continents.

The Immortal searched for the right words, the magic words which would explain, justify, excuse, pardon. Once again, for the thousandth or millionth time, he wished he had Duncan's fluency and eloquence. But words had never come easily to Connor, and as he examined and discarded each line, each phrase, he grew increasingly more desperate, more sure that John was going to step out of the car and disappear into the night and that he would never see his son again. He struggled to speak, even opening his mouth twice to begin. But the words failed him.

At last, John broke the silence. He turned to face Connor and said, "You *did* lie to me. All the stories you told--you made me think Immortality was some kind of gift, something wonderful. I thought an Immortal could live forever, see everything, do anything he wanted, go anywhere. You never once mentioned anything about killing people. About cutting off heads."

Connor thought about Kane. He'd never inquired too closely into what John knew or guessed about that Immortal. At the time Connor had been grateful that John hadn't asked any more questions about that terrifying moment in his young life. Now he wished John had asked; maybe if Connor had told John more then, maybe... Maybe Lasseigne had been right, and Connor had made a terrible mistake.

Duncan had been the first to tell him, in no uncertain terms, to talk to John. "He's not a boy anymore, Connor. In the mortal world, that is. He's a man, and he's your son, and he loves you, and he deserves to know the truth. I tried hiding it from Tessa, and you remember how she took it. Hell, you yourself were mad at me for not telling her..."

Rachel had made a similar argument, from her own point of view. "Maybe you just don't understand what it is to be mortal anymore, Connor. It's strange enough for him that you don't age, that soon he'll be 'older' than you are. John needs to know the whole truth about you. Yes, my dear, even the killing. You must have more faith in him. He can take it. He loves you. We both do."

Even Connor's ex-wife, Alex, had urged Connor to tell John. "Just because I can't live with this constant fear doesn't mean John can't. You're his father, and he loves you. Talk to him."

Although Connor had disagreed with them all, he'd realized that it was his own fear of losing John--the way he'd lost Alex--rather than his fear of hurting John, that had kept him silent in the recent years. And he had *never* wanted John or any mortal he loved to see him behead someone, or take a Quickening.

But it was all a moot point now...

When all else fails, let's try the truth, he thought. Even if it is a little late. Connor was not used to being solicitous, but now his own voice sounded almost dismayingly soft and conciliatory as he said, "I--John, I didn't want you to know about that part--" He stopped, then tried again, his voice low, guilty. "I was going to tell you about the ... the killing. But not about the rest of it ... I didn't think you needed to know about that at all. Ever. But--"

John interrupted, gasping in disbelief. "What?! You--"

But Connor had finally found the words to speak and, once started, he didn't want to stop--he might not be able to start again. "No. Not while you were still a boy--why should you? I managed to keep it from you for all these years. But now you're eighteen, going to college. An adult. I knew it was time and I knew you needed to know some of it--but then ... things came up, and I had to send you to Argentina to--and I never wanted you to know about *this*, not *this*, John..." He stopped, because John was staring at him, his bewildered expression a mix of anger, confusion, and ... something else, which Connor couldn't identify.

John heard Connor's words, but somehow he couldn't seem to absorb them. "... I didn't want you to know about that part ..." John played the words back in his head two or three times, but it was as if they were in Chinese. However, deep inside of him, that secret, golden self that had always formed his core--that part heard. And understood. And already half-destroyed, fragmented, shattered, that part began sliding towards a precipice from which he knew it could never retreat.

Chapter 7: Birthright

Panicked, his heart pounding, but not sure why, John sat up straight. "You came out here to get rid of Lasseigne's body, didn't you?" he said in a rush.

Connor, confused at the sudden turn, nodded. "I can do it, John," he said. "You've helped me enough."

"No." John shook his head decisively, as if that could move the precipice further away, as if he could avoid facing what he already knew. "Let's do it." And John quickly opened the door and stepped out of the car.

Connor had never been the kind of man who vacillated and it wasn't his problem if other people did. But right now this was the last thing he'd expected. He almost asked John if he was sure, but the slamming of the passenger door and long habit stopped him. Still hurt and worried, and now bewildered, he shook his head, then got out on his own side, careful to keep his feet on the pavement because the water was just inches away. Not that it mattered, really; he'd be getting wet enough in a moment.

He walked around to the trunk, his sneakers sure and silent on the broken pavement. John was already waiting. Connor took a deep breath. He unlocked the trunk and popped it open.

John leaned over, as if eager to start the grisly task. He began fumbling with the body, but Connor stopped him.

"You take his feet, I'll take ... the other end," Connor said. "Just like in the warehouse."

"Yeah," John said, not thinking about the warehouse or Elena's ballroom or that head smashing into his shoes. He was not thinking about any of that. He was not. He picked up Lasseigne's feet and the two men, grunting, lifted the body from the trunk and lay it on the pavement.

"What now?" John said, also not thinking about the precipice or the blood-stained gold of Immortality or the contradiction in terms at his feet.

"I weight him down, then take him out there," Connor replied, gesturing to the swampy ground around them. "He won't be found for a while. If ever." If Connor was lucky. And if Connor was even luckier, none of Lasseigne's friends would come to New York looking for revenge.

"Weights?" John asked and looked in the trunk again. Sure enough, there were a couple of twenty-pound weights, the kind that went on the end of a barbell. He looked at Connor.

Connor shrugged. "It's better than concrete blocks," he offered.

"Yeah," John said. Or cement overshoes, he wanted to say, and stifled a hysterical giggle. It came out as a strangled swallow. He quickly reached in and pulled one of the weights out. "How do you...?"

Connor looked down at the corpse, then back up at John. Even though he had meant to tell John about the Game, about the killing that was necessary to survive, he'd never planned to explain the meticulous, tedious, homicidal details. Much less let John witness them. *This* was not Connor's fault, and he felt another flare of anger at Elena Duran and at Duncan for putting him in this position. But again, he pushed the anger back down. Calmly, he said, "I put them inside the body bag."

"Yeah," John said again, repressing another hysterical giggle. "I can see how that'd work better than concrete blocks."

Connor knelt down and unzipped the bag all the way. John handed him the first weight and Connor tucked it in, placing it neatly between Lasseigne's booted feet. He waited. After a moment, John handed him the other weight.

Connor placed it on Lasseigne's chest, then re-zipped the bag and stood up.

"You've had a lot of practice at this, haven't you?" John ground out. The sight of the headless body had banished the hysteria and started his heart pounding again. He was really doing this. He, John MacLeod, was here in the marshes of New Jersey under a full moon standing over a dead body--a man whom his father had killed. And John could tell that this was just standard operating procedure for Connor. It made him sick and angry all over again.

Connor didn't answer. There wasn't much point in it. He squatted down again to get a grip on the slippery bag and then he began to drag the weighted body towards the nearest pond, softly lapping practically at his feet. Not a pond, really, just a large puddle, but big enough to hold a man's body. And deep enough to hide it for a few years at least. And by then, there wouldn't be enough of Lasseigne left to ever know what he'd looked like. No way to identify him. Immortals didn't have dental records.

Wordlessly, stoically, John bent over and picked up Lasseigne's feet again.

Connor started to protest, but John's grim expression stopped him. Connor didn't know why John was doing this, but he was. Mentally, Connor sighed again. He wanted to ask John what he was thinking, why he was doing this--but he couldn't. He had no choice but to let events take their course, and his helplessness and lack of control galled him.

The body swayed slightly from side to side between the two men, and they grunted in time to the motion. Connor, walking backwards, leading the way towards the pondlet, was the first to step into the ice-cold water. He sank in it up to his knees--the high marsh grass had hidden the real depths.

"Damn!" he muttered, as the cold water immediately penetrated the sneakers and soaked his feet. "You might want to skip this part, John."

John dropped Lasseigne's feet and wiped his hands on his pants. He stared at Connor. "What did you say?" he said, his tone once again incredulous and angry.

Connor opened his mouth to speak, but he had somehow triggered John's rage and bitterness again and John charged on.

"Don't you think I might have wanted to skip *all* of it?" John shouted. Then he took a deep breath and asked, much more calmly, "Why did you adopt me, anyhow?"

"Because I wanted a son, a family," Connor replied, also outwardly calm, despite the storm raging inside. "You know that."

John turned away. He raised his head to the sky and said something, but at that moment a cold wind whipped by and took his words with it.

Connor began to shiver. It was cold out here, dammit, and standing knee-deep in ice water holding a cooling corpse didn't help. He might as well be barefoot for all the protection his shoes gave him. He had rubber boots in the car, but he hadn't quite dared use them. John was repelled enough and Connor would recover from cold feet. "What?" Connor said, some of his frustration seeping out into his voice.

John heard and turned back around. "I said, I never believed that. I always thought..."

Now it was Connor's turn to stare as, at last, he began to see a glimmering of what was happening to John. And it stunned him. "John," he said, his voice soft and despairing, "What did you ... you didn't think--"

"That I was Immortal, like you? Yes, of course I did! What else could I think?" And that golden part of him, the part of John which had always believed that he was Immortal, always taken it for granted such that John had never even needed to question it, began again its slide to the precipice. Only this time there was no stopping it, no avoiding it.

"But I told you--" Connor began.

"Lies, all lies! You told me fairy tales!" John shouted, waving his hands wildly. "You told me about living forever and sailing ships and adventure and fighting for freedom and all that crap! How could I not believe I was Immortal! You made it sound like ... like something I was going to inherit when I grew up. Like a ... a birthright! Why else would you adopt me?"

Breathing hard, he closed his fists in impotent frustration and anger. "But you're a liar, it was all a lie, from the very beginning. You never told me about any of this." He opened his right hand and pointed to Lasseigne and the marshes. "And now," John added softly, "I don't even ... I don't even know who I am. Or who you are."

Connor closed his eyes briefly, opened them again. John had never called Connor a liar either. But now John was accusing him of something worse, of having adopted him just because he was an Immortal. And from his point of view, with justification. He'd never seen John so hurt, and he didn't know if he could ever make it up to his son. "John--" Connor began again.

John shook his head. "Just tell me the truth, once and for all," he ordered. "Am I immortal? Am I ever going to have to do this?" And again, he pointed to Lasseigne, while that once-invulnerable part of him shuddered at the edge of the precipice, waiting.

Connor sighed deeply. He still held onto Lasseigne; he hadn't wanted to drop the body into the shallow water and then go fishing for it in the slime and the weeds. What a place, he thought, bitterly, sadly, for his son to face The Truth. "You are not an Immortal," he said evenly, his mind racing, understanding, seeing how a young boy would have assumed what John did. He looked straight into John's eyes. "You have never been an Immortal and you never will be."

"So you didn't adopt me to train me, to raise me to--" John couldn't finish.

Connor shook his head. "No. No, John. I simply wanted..." But he trailed off. At that same instinctive level, Connor knew that John would not hear this now and could not understand why Connor had wanted a family so much. He had tried to give John everything the boy needed, and he'd thought he'd done it. How was he to have known that he couldn't give John the one thing he really wanted?

John stood, frozen, trying to realize the enormity of what he'd lost--what he'd never really had--and what, as he stared at Connor's burden, he'd never need to do.

Connor shifted Lasseigne's body, which was starting to slip out of his freezing fingers. He couldn't feel his feet anymore, but he could feel John's suffering. "John," he said, as gently as he could, "I have to finish this." He nodded to Lasseigne. "I'll be back in a moment."

John, staring, struggling with the destruction of his future and the loss of his identity, didn't answer, and this time he didn't offer to help.

Connor lurched backwards on his numb feet, dragging the body on, and when the water was hip-deep, he let Lasseigne go. The corpse sank down among the weeds, leaving only a ripple behind. And soon even that was gone.

John stood, watching, his supposed Immortality somehow tied to Lasseigne. And as the dead man slipped irrevocably into the water, John's golden, Immortal core also slipped irrevocably over the precipice. He was left standing in a smelly, filthy marsh: cold, small, insignificant, alone.

And, above all, *mortal*.

Slowly, John turned towards the Porsche, walked over and got in. There would be no dream for him--no dream of endless years, of time to try everything, do everything. He would have only one life. It seemed so shrunken compared to the vistas of time John had always unconsciously assumed would be his. He was mortal. He could die. He would die.

While Connor would go on, forever. John couldn't comprehend it; the loss of his fictitious Immortality was too great, the grief too fresh. He looked at his strong hands. They were fighter's hands, and they had won victories for him.

But one day, those hands--veined, trembling and liver-spotted--would be wrapped round a cane. John could see that day. Connor would come to visit him, looking just the way he did this moment. And John, if his memory wasn't too far gone, would pretend that Connor was his son. Or his grandson. Connor would help him up and John, aged and weak, would shuffle around, leaning on Connor and the cane. And then would come the day when Connor would bury him... John clenched his young, strong hands into tight fists and closed his eyes against the vision of those not-so-distant days. The only saving grace was that he would never have to behead a man, or bury the corpse.

But right now that was small comfort. He'd gone from forever to a single lifetime in a few short days, a few short hours. And he could not grasp it, nor hold forever in his hands, no matter how hard he tried.

Connor opened the driver's door and got in. He was shivering and wet, covered with slime, and he smelled of marsh gas and worse. He immediately started up the ignition and turned on the heater. Then he turned to John, who had involuntarily and unconsciously moved further away from Connor as soon as he'd gotten in the car. Connor noticed it and died a little inside, but said nothing. He had told John, over and over, that he wasn't an Immortal. For John to have still believed that he was, after all of this--Connor didn't know which was worse for the boy, to have found out the truth about The Game or about his supposed Immortality. And both at once. Dammit. The one thing he was sure of was that, somehow, Elena Duran had triggered this whole mess. The bitch.

He wanted to get his hands on her, right now. And God save Duncan if he tried to stop him. Connor wasn't used to being placating, passive, or on the defensive. Tonight, he'd had to force himself to be all those things with John, restrain himself, and he would have to keep doing it, too. But there would be no need to restrain himself with Elena Duran. No need whatsoever. He felt a savage pleasure at the thought, but let no sign of the savagery or the pleasure show on his face.

Instead, quietly, gently, softly, he said, "John, let's go home."

Home, John thought. I'd like to go home.

But he couldn't. He couldn't sleep under the same roof as this man, not after what he'd seen tonight, learned tonight. It was impossible. Stephen was right. This man--this Immortal--was a killer, as they all were. It wasn't fear for himself, of course. John knew that Connor would never harm him. But he could still feel his flesh trying to crawl away from the killer sitting beside him. No, he couldn't stay with Connor.

Nevertheless, this man was the only father he'd ever had. And John knew that the question he had to face now and in the years to come, besides the one of his own lost immortality, was whether he could bear having this killer for a father, knowing what he now knew. Or whether he could walk away, never to see Connor again.

John shook his head. "I'll pick up my things at the loft," he said, "but then I'm going over to Rachel's. For tonight."

Connor felt his heart plunge through his body, right through the ground beneath the car, and into free fall. Was he going to lose John? Right now it was his greatest fear, because whatever John thought or believed, Connor truly loved his son. Connor's mouth worked again as he tried again to find those magic words, the ones that would repair and heal and soothe. But the only ones that came were, "And after tonight?"

"I don't know," John said, turning away, gazing unseeing out the window, his fists still clenched, still holding onto nothing. "I just don't know."

Epilog Part 1

New York City

December 19, 2001, 3 a.m.

Connor sat on his sofa, an already-opened bottle of Glenlivet in front of him. The crystal glass he held in his hand, filled with the amber liquid, felt cold but familiar. Whisky was always there for him; it never left him, never betrayed him--and never surprised him.

The phone rang, and he looked over. Rachel.

He picked it up, but before he could even say hello, she began, breathlessly, "Connor, John burst in here telling me that he saw you kill--behead a man. Tonight. I thought John was in Argentina. How...? Is this true?"

"Yes, it's true, Rachel."

A pause, then she asked, "How could this happen?"

Connor thought about it only for a moment, then he summed it up in two words: "Lousy timing," he said, and drank down his whisky.

"Timing?" she repeated incredulously. "Connor, I've never seen John so upset. Do you know what he's doing now?"

No, but you're going to tell me, Connor thought. And I won't like it.

"He's crying. I can hear him through the door of the guest room. Connor, I don't believe I've heard John cry since that time he broke his knee when he was eight years old."

Connor flinched and closed his eyes, imagining that strong young man, his son, reduced to tears. It's the last time I heard him cry, too, he thought. John hadn't even cried when Kane kidnapped him, and he must have been wild with terror. Connor reached for the bottle and poured himself a double Scotch. He didn't even have to open his eyes--he'd done this too many times, too many late nights, alone and unhappy.

"He called you a liar. He said you've always lied to him," Rachel said.

"I know," he answered. Rachel had seen him die and revive the first time they'd met, during the War. He hadn't had to lie to her--she'd asked about the 'details' of his life, and he'd told her everything, including about the beheadings. Rachel hadn't rejected him. She hadn't told him she hated him.

She took a deep breath and murmured, "I'll talk to him."

Connor breathed a small sigh of relief. Rachel Ellenstein had the gift of being able to calm him. Already, just listening to her voice, he could feel the alpha waves beginning to dance in his head. But if she was going to talk to John, she needed to know the whole story. "He thought he was an Immortal, Rachel," Connor explained.

"What? But ... you've told him many times ... I've heard you--" Her voice was a little less calm now.

"Nevertheless..." Connor said, then emptied his glass.

Silence for a moment, then she said, "Poor John."

Yes. Poor John. And now Connor waited for Rachel to say it, to blame him, Connor, for everything, for not telling John, for lying, and more, for being a killer, just like John had blamed him, just like he was blaming himself.

But when Rachel spoke again, she said, "This must be terrible for you. I'm sorry you're alone, but ... I think I need to be with John."

"Absolutely," he agreed, letting out the breath he'd been holding, feeling a little guilty. He and Rachel had had their differences, but in half a century Rachel had never failed him. He should have known that wouldn't change, even now. "Thank you, Rachel," he whispered.

"I'll call you tomorrow," she promised. "And Connor--"

"Yes?" he said, waiting for her to tell him she loved him, to console him, to be unquestioningly there for him.

"John loves you," she said, then hung up the phone.

Connor stared at the handset for a moment, then put it down and shook his head. He'd known Rachel ever since she was a child, and she still managed to surprise him. And she had consoled him. A little.

He poured himself another whisky.

//////////

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires

December 19, 2001, 4 a.m., (3 a.m. in NYC)

Elena sat on a rocking chair in her bedroom, near the glass doors leading out to the balcony. The bedroom lights were dimmed, and she looked out at the pampa. It was very late, and she could see the stars gleaming in an endless black sky. The breeze wafting in through the open doors brought in the faint odors of horse, hay and manure from the nearest stable, and the odor of grass and flowers from the fields. The pleasant combination of smells reminded her that she was home, surrounded by the people she loved and the things she truly valued. She relaxed in total comfort, her bones sinking into the softness of the chair's padding, rocking softly in time to an old aria of Pavarotti's, playing through the speakers. Her eyes closed, she let her mind drift like the breeze outside, emptying it, thinking of nothing in particular. She smiled and relaxed into a complete meditative state. "[Dolce far niente,]" she said to herself. It's sweet to do nothing.

After a few minutes she came back to the real world and took a sip of her last cup of coffee before she went to bed, knowing she wouldn't get much sleep tonight anyway. Then she looked across the room at one of those people she valued so highly.

Duncan's head rested on the back of an armchair on the other side of the unlit fireplace, his eyes closed, contentedly listening, keeping time with one foot as the music flowed through him, his long legs stretched out in front of him. In his left hand was a glass of whisky. His right hand was on top of the head of Raul, one of the older, larger ranch dogs, one of the ones who wasn't supposed to be inside the main house but had sneaked in anyway, and that Elena had indulgently and surreptitously allowed into their bedroom. Duncan's long lean fingers slowly rubbed the old dog's head, and its tongue lolled out in complete satisfaction. Dog heaven, Elena thought, amused.

Her gaze went up his hand to the thick wrist of Duncan's right arm, his swordarm. The muscles and tendons shifted under the skin and curly dark hair as he caressed the old animal's black head. Then she looked on up to his shoulders, the spread of them, the solidness of them, [!carajo!]--she could feel her nipples hardening just from looking at him, thinking about him, anticipating. So much for a relaxed state of meditation, she thought, amused, as she took deep breaths, calming herself, but quietly so as not to disturb him. Then she continued her scan, down to his bare chest, which was moving softly with his own slow breathing.

Instead of going on down, to his pajama pants, her eyes went up to his face. That's what caught her, what had always moved her, what still held her in thrall. That wild dark beauty, the planes of his face, the high cheekbones almost rounded in relaxation, comfort, and trust. His firm chin, dark with a black stubble; his thick, sensuous mouth; his long black hair, held back with a clip; tiny, sexy tendrils curling at the nape of his neck. His eyes--his best feature--were closed, so she couldn't see them or the warmth he held there for her, just for her. But she could imagine that warmth; she could feel it. Sitting there, contented, Elena Duran felt her hard heart soften, reach out to this man, melt a little, just from looking at his face.

Her one good eye misted slightly. However long she lived, she would always hoard as a treasure trove, in the back of her mind, these few short-lived moments of pure joy, of perfection, when all was right, when the pain and fear and death that generally filled their lives receded to a dim echo. If only for a little while.

[Gracias a Dios.]

//////////

New York City

December 19, 2001, 4 a.m.

The whisky in the bottle was more than halfway gone--had he really drunk that much so quickly, or was it already open when he started tonight? He couldn't remember. Maybe he'd drink himself to death. But no, not tonight. First he had a little telephone call to make.

Because Connor had decided that it was *not* his fault. He wasn't to blame. He'd had everything all planned out, well under control. Sure, he'd waited a long time, but he had been going to tell John. He had been going to tell him this very vacation, in fact, before John went back to university. Connor had planned on it. No, his mistake had been in sending John to Argentina, anywhere near that bitch Duran. Connor had managed to ask John one or two questions before the boy had left for Rachel's, not even wanting a ride from Connor, and he'd found out that Elena had been attacked at her ranch by "some big bearded dude with a humongous sword, and she cut his head off, then she died." That must have been the head John had seen sliding on the floor.

So she had managed, somehow, to let John see her behead someone, probably see the Quickening, too, see her die--and that series of events had sent John back to New York, where it had happened all over again. This time with Connor.

How could she have been so careless? So stupid? So fucking useless? It looked as though Elena Duran had single-handedly destroyed one of the best relationships he'd had in his five hundred years. Damn her!

He pushed the speed-dial for Duncan's phone number. And while it rang, he stretched his legs and poured himself another drink.

Translations:

estancia (Spanish) - Argentine combination ranch/farm

dolce far niente (Italian) - it's sweet to do nothing

carajo (Spanish) - damn

gracias a Dios (Spanish) - thank God

Epilog Part 2

Duran estancia, Argentina

December 19, 2001, 5 a.m. (4 a.m. in NYC)

Duncan and Elena both deliberately ignored the first buzz of the telephone. But it was Duncan's cellphone, and he opened his eyes and raised his head, looking over at the nightstand where the phone was ringing. Not too many people knew that number. Besides, he knew exactly who was calling.

Elena also knew who was calling. So much for peace, happiness, and the perfect moment, she thought wryly, as she walked toward the phone.

Duncan let out a deep sigh, then shifted to sit up, and the dog whined softly as Duncan stopped petting it to take the phone Elena had brought him. He didn't even glance at the display to see who was calling. "Connor," he said.

He had time to take one breath before Connor asked, sarcastically, "How the hell did you let this happen?"

Duncan briefly reflected that somewhere along the line they'd gone from not saying goodbye to not even saying hello. But he clearly heard the tightness--and the accusation--in his kinsman's voice. He was also a little surprised. John had absolutely insisted that he be the one to talk to his father, so what about that father and son talk? "Didn't John tell you--"

"Never mind what John told me, Duncan," Connor interrupted him, savagely. "I sent him there to get him *away* from a duel."

Duncan had suspected that's why John had come--because Connor had "business," and Connor wanted to keep his son away from it. My God! Had John seen--

Connor interrupted Duncan's thoughts. "I want to know how John wound up in the middle of a beheading in Argentina."

"He wasn't in the middle of it," Duncan replied, with a little heat of his own. Although technically, John had been in the middle of it. John could have gotten killed, and that must be what was upsetting Connor. Duncan understood that. "Some bastard named Angel Gutierrez came after Elena, right into her house, and John happened to be with her at the time."

"He did, huh? And where the hell were you?"

"I was out riding with Stephen." It was very important, he knew, that his reason for not being with John did not sound like an excuse.

Connor said, "So, while you were bonding with her son, my son was facing an immortal swordsman."

He'd said *her* son, Duncan noted. "Dammit, Connor, I couldn't be with John every minute," he answered, smarting, as Connor had intended. "Elena sent him from the room, and John wouldn't go!"

"I raised him as a MacLeod!" Connor retorted. "Did ya really expect he'd run and leave a woman t' die?"

"No, of course not," Duncan agreed. "Look, Connor, he wasn't hurt, not too badly." Not physically, anyway. "Elena protected him." She had kept John alive--just barely.

"He wasn't hurt *too badly*!" There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Then Connor spoke again, his voice even colder, more savage. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure she really protected him. Let me talk to her, so I can thank her properly."

*Her*, Duncan thought--not even her name or anything. Just *her*. And that pause--didn't Connor know that John had been cut? Duncan's eyes flicked over to Elena, who looked at him questioningly. Then he asked Connor, "How's John?"

"How do you think? He's just fucking wonderful!" Connor replied, his voice brutally sarcastic now.

Duncan winced at the anger and sarcasm in his kinsman's voice. "Connor--"

"Don't say you're sorry, Duncan."

Duncan was stung--he had not been about to apologize, but to sympathize.

"Just put that bitch the hell on the phone!" Connor snarled.

It was practically--hell, it was an order. Also, although probably no one else would have noticed this, especially over the telephone, Duncan knew Connor. His clansman had been drinking--and not a little. The talk with John must have gone really badly, damn! Which meant that Connor was more than just angry at Elena--he was also upset, worried, maybe even frightened about John's reaction, about what John had said, or what he would do. And if Connor hadn't known that John had been hurt--oh, Christ, Duncan thought. Duncan knew Connor loved his son deeply, without reservation, but he also truly believed that John loved his father a great deal as well. This could be really bad, Duncan thought.

So Duncan swallowed his own anger about Elena, for the moment, and tried saying, reassuringly, "Listen, Connor. John loves you very much--"

"Duncan, my relationship with my son is none of your fucking business, and it never was! Now put that fucking bitch on the phone!"

Now Duncan was certain that John had reacted badly. Dammit! Duncan was also sure Connor wouldn't discuss it, wouldn't let Duncan talk to him about it. Well, Duncan would just have to *insist* that they talk about it. Duncan might even have to resort to asking John himself, and he would if he had to. He needed to know--apparently John had seen something else, in New York, as well. Maybe even another duel, another Quickening. Connor's own challenge. Damn! Timing was everything.

But Connor had no right to take it out on Elena. She had done the best she could. Swallowing his anger, Duncan said, in the most soothing tone he could muster, "Connor, this has been hard on all of us, including Elena. And this was not her fault!"

"Yes, my heart bleeds for her," the elder MacLeod interrupted. "Let me tell her how sorry I am about her troubles."

"Dammit, Connor!" Duncan said, forgetting everything else in his defense of his lover. "You can't blame her completely for this! You should have talked to John earlier; you should have let him know--" But that was water under the bridge, and such recriminations wouldn't help the present situation. So he stopped himself and sighed unhappily.

Connor did not reply to that, and Duncan realized there was nothing else he could really say--he could either let her get on the phone or not. Well, he knew Elena could take care of herself. So he looked at her, a question in his eyes, and gestured toward the receiver.

She nodded, a look of resignation on her face.

So reluctantly, he handed her the phone, shaking his head slightly, mouthing the words to her, "He's been drinking." He said out loud, "He wants to talk to you."

Finally, Connor thought, Duncan was going to stop defending the bitch and put her on the phone. Connor gathered his energy, even sitting up on his couch, draining his glass. Because of her--damn, if he didn't have to stay in New York to deal with John, he'd be on a plane down to Argentina right now, to give her his opinion of her in person.

Elena took the phone unhappily, but this had to be faced. It could be worse--he could have flown down to chew her out in person. Maybe even... she put the phone up to her ear as she paced up and down, saying, "Hello, Connor," softly. Then she waited for him to have his say. She had already decided she would not argue with him.

"What the hell were you doing, Elena?"

"Connor, I know I screwed up. I was not ready. I was caught with my ... what's that damn phrase, my pants around my feet--"

"You mean with your thumbs up your ass," he said viciously.

She took a deep breath, accepting it, especially because it was true. She should have been more careful about Angel. She had been warned. So because she felt guilty, and because John had been scared and hurt, she was determined to take some abuse from Connor. Some.

Connor said, his voice cold, deceptively calm, "Did you know, Elena, that Rachel has been with me for over fifty years? And John since he was six years old?"

"Yes, Connor," she answered coolly.

"And in all that time, neither one of them saw me take a head. Did you know that?"

She started to answer, again, "Yes, Con--"

But he interrupted her. "John came close once. With Kane. But he didn't see the actual duel. He certainly didn't see the body. And especially, he *never* saw a bluidy decapitated head sliding across the floor! Did you know *that?* How the hell could you let *that* happen?!"

Now she could really tell that Connor had been drinking. Once again she was glad he wasn't here with her. He sounded so controlled, and yet so angry. Maybe too angry. "Look, Connor--" she began, one more time.

"What? What the hell can you possibly say?"

She could hear the savagery under the control, now. This was more than just being angry because of what happened to John. Something else had happened. But she doubted that Connor would tell her. All she could do was state her case. "And I let John get into a dangerous situation, I know."

"Really?" he said, scathingly.

Elena winced. She sat down with the phone, pressing it against her ear, crossed her legs and leaned forward. She was not going to make any excuses, and she would tell him everything, face him as she always had. She felt bad--the thought of what could have happened to that wonderful young man if she'd failed made her stomach feel queasy. She said the only thing she could, again. "Yes, I was surprised and I screwed up, Connor."

There was a moment of silence, and then he asked, "Where the hell was *your* sword Elena?"

Elena paled slightly, a little angry now herself. She'd had to choose between getting to her sword--a sword Connor had given her, in fact--and getting John out of the way of Angel's blade. And Angel had surprised her quite thoroughly, hadn't he? She had been challenged before many times--been surprised sometimes, too--but she hadn't expected to be attacked in her own house, in the middle of the day. However, she was not about to make any excuses to Connor. "I couldn't get to it," she said stiffly.

"Oh?"

It was amazing how much contempt and disdain he put into that one word. He must have had a lot of practice. Of course, nothing like this had ever happened to him! she thought, with some heat, but what she said was, "I'm sorry John saw that head there on the floor, and I'm especially sorry I put your son in danger. I'm sorry he was hurt and frightened. I apologized to him, and now I'm apologizing to you. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," he repeated, bitterness and sarcasm rolled into one. More than anything else at this moment, he wished he were there in Argentina, with her. Connor had hit female Immortals in duels, of course, but that was a matter of life or death. Other than that, he had never intentionally hit a woman. But this once, he was willing to make an exception. He wanted to beat Elena Duran into the ground, break her, hurt her. He could feel the anger, the bloodlust, building up inside him, while he just sat there talking--words, useless fucking words! And he realized, very suddenly, that he was willing to do more. At this moment he was willing to kill her.

"Yes, I'm sorry, Connor."

"You fucked up, you almost got my son killed, you let him see a beheading, and you're sorry," he said softly. Apparently all she could say was that she was sorry, over and over again. He paused, then asked her, "Is that supposed to make it all better, Elena?"

There was so much controlled rage in his voice she was sure if he were here he'd hit her. Probably more than once. "No, Connor." She didn't know what else to say to him, and eventually he'd have to stop attacking someone who didn't fight back. She had originally planned to ask him to forgive her, like she'd asked John, like she'd asked Connor himself to forgive her once before. But he was so arrogant, so sarcastic, so vicious ... she wondered what John had said to Connor--

[!Cono!] she suddenly realized, if John had rejected Connor, like John had rejected Duncan and her, too ... but John wouldn't! John loved his father; he had made that so clear! But could that be why Connor was being so nasty, not just because she'd made a mistake?

"Connor--" she began, to try to make him feel better, if she could, but he interrupted her one last time.

"Listen very carefully, Elena Duran," he said in a measured, even, deadly tone.

Elena's gut tightened. She knew exactly what was coming.

Connor went on, still quiet, still measured, and now very, very deadly. "I think you should be glad we're so many miles apart. If you ever go near my son again, I will take your head. Do you understand?"

This was the real thing. Elena felt the threat across the intervening distance, and she shivered. "Yes," she answered. She hadn't expected quite this reaction. Maybe if she-- But then she heard the click in her ear, and the dial tone.

Elena looked at the telephone for a moment, then pushed the disconnect button. Only Connor would make her feel even more guilty, insult her, threaten her, scare her, and then hang up on her.

"Well?" Duncan asked, coming up to her. But he had some idea of the abuse Connor must have heaped on her.

Elena stood. "He blames me and he hates me; but that's nothing new," she said, flippantly. She was not about to tell Duncan that Connor had actually threatened her head. The situation was stressed enough among all the MacLeods as it was. Then, more seriously, she said, "I wonder what happened with John. I think ... John was pretty upset. And so is Connor, isn't he? I hope they can work it out."

"They will, sweetheart," Duncan said hopefully. "It might not happen right away; it might not be easy." Especially if John had seen Connor fighting. And taking a head, Duncan thought. This will be hell on Connor, although he'd never say it, never admit anything. "But in the end ... they've always been very close."

"Not close enough, apparently."

"They love each other, Elena. And they're both MacLeods. That counts for something," Duncan insisted.

"And love never fails. Yes, I know," she soothed him. It was true. John would forgive Connor, and Connor would forgive Duncan, too. They were all MacLeods. But she wasn't. She snorted in amusement, letting her chill dissolve in the warmth she saw in Duncan's eyes. She put her arms around his waist and he pulled her close. She added, "I'm not a MacLeod. Do you think Connor and *I* will ever be able to work it out?"

"You're practically a MacLeod," he reassured her. "You're with me, and that means you're part of the family, part of the clan. Whether you want to be or not--and whether Connor wants you to be or not," he added, ruefully, his fingers light on her shoulder. He kissed her softly on the forehead, breathing in her warm scent.

Elena was reassured and moved by Duncan's inclusion of her in the clan. It was the first time he'd said something like this to her. Connor's feelings on the subject, however...

"Connor knows it, too," Duncan continued, as though reading her mind. "You did save John's life, and he'll see that." Then he added, smiling wryly, "He'll forgive us. Eventually. One of these decades. Or centuries."

If he didn't take her head first. "It's a good thing I'm Immortal, then," she answered, chuckling dryly.

Translation

cono (Spanish) - damn

End

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