Up Near The Treeline

MacNair

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Author's notes: I started this with the intention to write a "companionship, peaceful story" between Duncan and Connor. I also wanted to give ConnorMuse (ConnorM) the chance to "say something" without the constraints of needing to tell a cohesive tale that could be put out on an archive. This began with no particular intent and drifted like snow - which only proves that you don't always get what you want when following a Scot around.

It takes the older Scot much longer to get to the heart of the issue, but it is usually worth waiting for. You have to be patient with him. He doesn't open the back door to the stronghold easily - even for friends.

BTW: Richie Ryan is not dead in my Muse's world. He is not usually the central topic of my stories, but he is never - ever - dead. Anything you read in here, you don't need to cringe at or feel as if I have made what Archangel did to Rich even worse. Young Master Ryan is alive and kicking.

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It had taken so much effort to persuade Duncan to come to New York for the Christmas holiday that Connor MacLeod nearly despaired. A long sentence of swearing in middle Gaelic finally convinced Duncan that he was serious in his invitation and that there would be hell to pay if it was refused. It was perfectly clear that his former student did not want to come. Connor ignored his complaints and discarded his excuses, exercising the same stubborn willpower born into the blood of all Scots and the younger immortal grudgingly relented.

The elder Highlander did his shopping, phoned Rachel and prepared his New York loft for a guest ... then waited. And waited. He watched his fish glide peacefully around their tank and listened to the city street far below. The snow came down lazily in huge flakes, majestic and glistening as if crowns for some hoary king below. Still, he waited.

Duncan was late, as usual.

The aura of immortal presence arrived eventually and Connor rose and climbed the staircase to greet him at the elevator gate. With the first glance at his kinsman, he knew the truth.

Duncan MacLeod retained all the classic elegance and fortitude that had been his since his death at age 30 ... but his eyes looked old, even older than his 400 immortal years. Against his Adonis refinement he was pale and unshaven. There were great dark circles beneath his eyes. He looked battered and worn - and the steady defiant look drilling into the elder MacLeod dared him to speak of it.

Connor did not say a word past the initial "hello Duncan." He took the small carry bag from his friend's hand and led the way to the guestroom even though Duncan certainly knew where it was. The younger man hung up his clothes without much conversation, obviously tight and irritated by being forced into this visit. Connor left him alone to put away his belongings and freshen up.

The elder Highlander sighed to himself outside the bedroom door. This was going to be a tough row to hoe, with Duncan being so stubborn and difficult. The two weeks seemed to stretch on endlessly before him.

"What are you making?" questioned Duncan when he entered the kitchen, studying the mixer and packages of graham crackers sitting around.

"Your birthday cake." Connor looked at him, his expression tranquil.

"You don't have to do that, you know," said the younger man.

"I want to." Connor watched him, but Duncan did not reveal anything more. The younger man had yet to even speak his name. This truly was going to be a test of wills and the older man steadied his normally irksome nature for the ensuing days.

Connor whipped the cream and added the powdered cocoa, leaning sidelong to cough through the cloud of confection that the mixer sent up. He took a spatula and battered the graham crackers, building the cake as if it was a solid masonry square. Duncan watched, but with part of his mind detached. The older man readily picked up his unwillingness to talk and, given to reticence himself, let the silence remain between them. He slid the cake in the refrigerator with no fanfare.

They went walking, mixing in the throngs of people in New York as if born to the crowds. The garish Christmas lights everywhere looked obscene against the pristine white of new snow that hung over the crest of every wreath. Beggars worked the street, dressed lightly in the bitter cold to wring more coins out of everyone's holiday cheer. Duncan, usually one to stop and leave money, just strode by them all.

Connor never said a word.

Duncan picked out a pair of diamond earrings for Amanda for Christmas. He asked a few questions about the landmarks that had changed over the years, but conversation was cool and superficial.

Connor bought nothing and asked nothing. It was not the time for questions.

They ate when they arrived back at Connor's place, which was strangely devoid of any Christmas trappings. While it was welcome after the false cheer and hype of the dirty city, the lack of any decorations seemed odd.

Duncan took a deep breath at one point during the meal and launched into a reciting of all the activities that had happened in the last two years, skimming lightly across the events as if he was a stone skipping across the top of life. He outlined the killing of friends and enemies and other friends that merely died of old age: the Watchers who Watched it all and never lifted a finger until one of them went renegade. Somewhere in the middle was a lover he decapitated because she forced his hand. And another lover who meant nothing, but she was needy at the same time he was and when the sex was over, it still meant nothing. His rich voice may well have been reciting the specifications of a Chevrolet.

Connor sat silently, a bell jar to catch every word and hearing the unspoken sorrow and bewilderment that his brother would not or could not share. Duncan was anchored to his control as if he were a strongman against some demon at the door.

And this demon knew nothing of rest. Of peace.

What did he know of peace? the elder mused. Funny how his voice inside always spoke Gaelic ... as if only the tongue of 475 years ago could hold the thoughts and meaning of his mind.

Duncan tried to make light of his time and training with Rich Ryan, but Connor could see right through him. There was a wistful quality in his voice that could not be mistaken. He left sentences hanging and looked away thoughtfully too many times when speaking of the boy. Richie had taken his first head and was lost somewhere in the world. Just another hand in the game.

The cock-eyed game, he said inside. Scots Gaelic did not manage that word very well, but the concept was certainly accurate. Connor had to stifle his grin.

It had been a hard month for the young Highlander. Tessa was gone and his young student was the very last link with her ... now he, too, was out on his own. This was a lonely and empty time in an immortal's life. The thrum of Duncan's presence was stronger, a direct result of fighting on a regular basis. Modern society kept the pace brisk between immortals. Telephones, computers, cars, planes; technology made it much faster to hunt the opposition.

The way to kill never changes though, Connor grimly reminded himself. The two katanas rested together nearby. He had not seen the two swords side by side for so many years that he had nearly forgotten what that image looked like. Two strips of shining steel, mirroring each other in a slight arc - topped by dragons. There be dragons here, he quoted internally.

Connor made tea fortified with whisky and they sipped it. Duncan had lapsed back into silence after his emotionless recounting of events in his life. The older Scot did not ask for more information. This was just like the evening news; once the headlines had been stated, there were slim pickings for something else noteworthy.

The football game was on and they watched it as the evening slowly descended. The elder man arbitrarily decided which was 'his team' and flipped a Ritz cracker at the huge TV every time the opposition scored. The floor was littered with cobble-edged circles - from the looks of it, he had picked the losing team.

"Must you do that?" abruptly demanded Duncan after another cracker bounced with a 'tink' off the screen. He was immediately chagrined by his irritation. "I'm sorry, Connor. It's your house."

"Yes. It is," dutifully reminded the other man. His voice was kind.

Duncan got on his feet, rejecting his friend's soft tone. "I'm tired. I'm going to bed." He did not wait for an answer, just picked up his katana and went to his room.

Connor sat for a while with the game pattering in the background, but Duncan never reappeared. He studied his hands in the blue TV screen light. The open mouth of the dragon sword snarled at him from the table, alone once more.

************************

The birthday came and went. Duncan expressed his thanks for the photograph that Rachel had snapped of the two clansmen together years ago.

Connor could remember that day. They had been partying and were both quite tipsy when she produced the camera. Duncan was beaming and pouring Scotch - at arms length and from a great height into his glass. He had his back arched like a cat against Connor, who was merrily reaching over and around him trying to shove his own tumbler under the amber waterfall of whisky. If his memory of that moment was at all reliable, he never managed to get his glass filled - Duncan had elbowed him away and accidentally poured the rest on the tabletop in the ensuing scramble. They had to get out another bottle ...several more bottles before the night was done.

Duncan studied the picture in the antique frame for a short time before putting it aside without more comment.

Still resisting, Connor sighed within. Had he ever been this impossible? He ignored the voice inside that reminded him that he certainly still was and ate cake instead.

Duncan ate a lot of cake and went to bed early to sleep it off.

The next few days were quiet between the two Scots. Duncan spent the majority of his time watching the news or 'picking up iron' as Connor would say. He lifted tremendous amounts of weight, pushing himself beyond his normal ability, grimacing and swearing with the sweat streaming down his face and chest.

The older Highlander did not bother to spot for him - he couldn't manage the lift alone and if Duncan simply failed, there wouldn't be any recourse but to let the weight crush him. Connor just checked on him every hour in case he needed to roll a barbell off of him so he could revive. He never had to.

"Thank God," Connor said to himself tightly. "What a bloody mess he'd make in there. The stain would never come out. I need a damn sign in there that says: No Bleeding on the Floor."

Connor lifted weights several times a week. Not very much in the way of pounds necessarily, but many repetitions. It never mattered with his body type how much or often he lifted. His build would never produce those great slabs of muscle that his clansman's body did. He lifted for endurance and to focus himself.

"It never was about strength of the body for me, was it?" he said quietly. "You told me and told me, you old peacock. I thought it was all about power and I hadn't any. I blamed you for 105 years before I finally understood with Nakano." He continued chopping vegetables in the kitchen, laughing at some inward joke. "Yeah, yeah, all that bullshit too, stupid sand dog. Ouch! Dammit - cut that out!" He sucked on his sliced finger while it healed, his eyes strange and distant. He swept the bloodied onions off the edge and into the trash. "Besides, I apologized, didn't I?" He grinned and started back to cutting the medley of bright produce. "I couldn't help that it was 400-some years late."

"Connor?" announced Duncan's curious voice from the doorway. "Who are you talking to?"

"What are you doing lurking in doorways, kinsman? Dripping sweat on my floor and stinking up my living quarters? Go take a shower," smoothly replied Connor. He looked up, face bland. "Don't you ever talk out loud to yourself?"

Duncan waited before answering. "I think you spend too much time alone. I hardly talk to myself at all."

"Go shower, Duncan." He did not look up this time and presently the shadow at the kitchen door vanished.

The evening was subdued. It was Christmas Eve and every television station had a special on. Duncan flipped the remote control channels over and over again until Connor wanted to hit him with it. He had to grind his teeth to resist the impulse and it was the first time that when Duncan sighed and retreated to his room early, Connor found himself glad.

He had tried silence. He had tried humor. He had tried to just get close enough to him ... but his former student resisted on every level, stubbornly fighting his own war without help. And Duncan MacLeod was not a man who could be bullied or strong handled into something. Maybe when he was a boy, but not now - in his full strength as an immortal, with such power harnessed in his body.

He was all grown up now.

"Try the back door, young Connor."

"What would you know? You had me almost cut my finger off today," softly spoke the older Highlander. His eyes shone in the lighting.

"You remember how. Try."

Connor got up and went to the bookcase. He shuffled a few things around and then heaved upwards, shifting the balance of weights in the walls with a soft thump and gliding the entire section of shelves up into the pocket wall. He pulled open the twin doors to the rotunda and stood a moment on the brink as he always did.

This was a sacred place hidden here - one that only a handful knew of: Rachel, Duncan, the current executor of his will. He breathed in the cooler air as if it was perfumed ... and it was, with memories.

Even unlit, he could see everything as if etched in stark relief. The high round ceiling that was balanced and mirrored below with the circular floor and horseshoe seating. Blades and garments and tapestries ringed the room. Jewels, paintings, pictures, hats. Old, heavy books written on parchment with his own hand holding the quill; later volumes filled by the peck of a manual typewriter. China and statues and artifacts from cultures lost to civilization and forgotten. Spices that had long ago lost their scent, but he was helpless to throw away because of what they represented to him. A torn cloth of a ship's sail. Blacksmith's tongs. A lock of hair. Dried flowers, childish drawings, an old telephone, a vase of peacock feathers, ancient paintings of elaborate goldfish. A sketch of a small dragon, done freehand. Swords and swords and more swords: arranged in circles on the wall, hung on stands, encased in dust free glass cases.

He entered it as if it was a shrine and, of course, it was - to him.

Here, he said silently as he crossed the floor. Here is where I fell when I made my flesh bear the witness of immortality for Brenda. Over there are the colors of my name. Up there is the portrait of my lass and myself.

He paused, directly in the center and knelt on one knee, stirring his hands one atop the other as if conjuring fire in his palm. It was graceful and patterned like some ancient art, practiced so many times that it flowed out of him ... but there was no flame and no outward sign of anything at all.

He smiled anyway, as if hiding a secret, and went to the wall and fumbled near the floor until he found the outlet and plugged the cord in. He had forgotten how many times he had been bitten by the current doing this in the darkness. It took him a minute, searching with the tips of his fingers to match the slots and prongs.

A thin Christmas tree stood at the apex of the circle. No ornaments except for a host of tiny white lights. There was not even an angel at the top. Very simple. Very plain. It was staggeringly beautiful in its starkness. The dark green of the tree with the bright lights made it look as if the stars themselves had come to perch amongst the branches.

Connor poured a tall Scotch and sat in the darkness, looking at the tree ... remembering.

He was just a boy then, not even as tall as his father's waist. The seasons were harsh for his frail body in the Highlands. He was nearly six feet tall before he ever was told how the clan feared he would not survive his childhood, so thin and sickly was he during the winters and wet springs.

His mother bundled him up warmly and his father led him out of the village, breaking the heavy snow with short steps for his little boy to step in them. Connor tried not to plead and dutifully kept up with his stalwart father. It was only when the grown man turned to look back that he saw the pale visage and sweat marked face of his son as he struggled up the mountain behind him, terrified of being left behind in the savage winter.

"Och, wee one? Why'd ye no ask me t'slow down?"

Connor had been too short of breath to reply. They rested often after that on the long trek and for the last 500 yards, the strong father drew his only son along by one hand to the crest. They stood together at the top, their breath blowing clouds of smoke as if their lungs were on fire. The wild land fell away below them.

"Squat down 'ere, laddie, and look. Can ye see?" his father had said, pointing across the ridge of the mountain at the sparse trees that struggled for life at the altitude. The Highlanders never came up this high. The trees were thin and practically worthless as building materials. There wasn't even any point in climbing the steep mountain to chop them for firewood - they were straggly piteous things. No good for anything.

"Like me," he said aloud to the room, lost in memory.

"See?" his father elaborated that bitter bleak night. "See how the stars shine thru' th' trees as if they sit on a'ry branch? Aye, ne'er a bonnier sight."

And it was true. At this height the fragile trees with their skinny branches were silhouetted against the sky - and the pinpricks of starlight glittered and winked through the boughs as if the stars sat upon each limb. Every tree, standing solitarily from its neighbor as if forbidden to be close to anyone, was aglow with a net of sparkles. It was a marvelous sight and the tired boy quite forgot his weariness.

Connor blinked and popped back rudely into the present. The dainty tree sparkled off to his right. He remembered cutting off nearly half of the fake branches when he first purchased it to make it thin enough for the lights to work their magic. They left the room in near darkness, only highlighting the tree itself. It was as if the whole thing floated a few feet off the floor and it looked just like the pines on the mountain so long ago.

He sighed. The trees he once saw had died. He had outlived them. If he weren't used to it, the thought would have stunned him. He sipped his whisky and watched the lights against the blackness. The loft was utterly silent and the hours passed without his notice until the creak of a board turned his head.

Duncan was standing in the doorway staring at the tree, sleepless in the middle of the night. The meager light was enough to glint in his eyes, but not strong enough to illuminate his expression. His body, backlit faintly from the other room, revealed nothing of his present state of mind.

They were in such close proximity in the living quarters that each could feel the other's immortal ring all the time. Sitting in the shadows with his younger clansman smitten by the tree, Connor realized that Duncan could not see him. He did not even know Connor was there and was completely unguarded.

It was like listening to magic somewhere living in his soul. Something vague and elusive when attempting to explain it ... but powerful and living when he stepped out of his intellect and into the wielding of it. He didn't have to close his eyes or say words - just reach with that deep part of himself to span the distance to another life, like a boy leaping rock to rock to cross the stream.

And he was helpless to prevent it after these days of sullen silence and suffering with his younger kinsman, trying so calmly and yet with this sense of desperation to find a way through the fortress Duncan had set around himself. Connor MacLeod instinctively reached with his quickening across the twenty feet of distance separating them and through the rubble of defenses Duncan had not yet raised to find him.

Breath and pulse and life. The image of lightning that burned in a great intricate pattern in a secret place. Close behind the engraving came the impressions: pain, hardship, depression and loneliness. Bitter defeat. Rage at the bloodshed. All of them were mixed in a morass of feelings, chief of which was sorrow and loss.

In one glimpse, everything that Duncan MacLeod held balanced and at bay was suddenly plowed and exposed as a new field. He was as damaged and combed thin as was the little tree he stared at.

The older man shivered just once, but it was enough to catch Duncan's eye. The dark Highlander hesitated a moment, then came to sit beside him. He leaned forward, hands clasped over his knees.

"I felt that, you know. Blast it, Connor, why won't you quit jerking on me?"

"You know why," he returned after a moment.

"I don't need your help!"

Silence. Connor listened to the beating of his own heart, the tempo and the tone of it. It was strange to think that some day he would die and this sound he had listened to for more then four centuries would cease.

"How do you do that anyway? I've tried and tried to figure it out, but I just can't," Duncan asked to change the subject.

"It's a kind of magic."

"You always say that," grumbled the younger man.

"Why must you fight with me so?" redirected Connor.

"Because you practically forced me to come here."

"I didn't see any handcuffs on you when you arrived, Duncan."

The man in question glared at him, easily seen from their close proximity. "You threatened to come to my place and crash for several weeks. You promised to tail me everywhere I went and generally make my life hell."

"Has it been hell to be here with me?" questioned the older man softly.

"No," he replied, thinking, "but that doesn't change the fact that you forced this on me."

"The choice was either 'hell' or 'not hell', which did you prefer?"

"Oh, shut up!" snapped the younger man. But still, he did not get up to return to his room.

"So when you go home in another five days, you will look back on this as a terrible Christmas memory..." gently said Connor.

Silence.

"I don't know," he sighed. "I just don't feel well and need some time and you won't give me any."

"I've given you my time."

"Not 'your' time, just ... time. I need time alone to sort things out, Connor. Can't you respect that?"

Silence.

"You've done the 'strong silent, need-nobody act' for months now, Dhonnchaidh."

"Don't start with my name! Don't start that!"

"You don't have any other name - or did you forget that, too?" snapped the elder man.

"God damn you, Connor MacLeod!" Duncan broke off the diatribe, fists clenched. If he didn't settle down, he was going to pummel his clansman senseless.

Connor was silent. He studied the lights in the tree. "Tell me your strongest Christmas memory, Duncan," he said.

"Why?" the dark Highlander asked sullenly.

"Because it will distract you from the urge to break my jaw."

"I think a broken jaw would shut you up for at least a minute or two. Might not be a bad idea." He did not even look at the man beside him.

"Just make sure you set it right. I wouldn't want my smoky good looks to be ruined."

Duncan snorted in derision. "Well, if I didn't it would just mean I'd get to break it over and over again until I set it right, now wouldn't it?"

"Would that help you?" Connor asked quietly, turning his head.

"No," he grumbled, trying to think through anger. "You're not to blame for my life. You just goad me too much when I want to be left alone."

"You hate being alone, Duncan."

The younger Scot could not argue with that truth, so he said nothing. It irritated him that this man beside him could provoke him so easily and could use odd talents to pierce through his defenses and render them all to kindling.

"Your strongest Christmas memory. Tell me what you remember," repeated Connor.

I'll give you a tale, you ass, Duncan thought darkly. And it was a clear enough memory that he could recall his own feelings about it ... as close as his next thought, every scene, the ice and snow and bitter cold.

************************

Nothing he had ever experienced in his 30 years of life prepared him for the isolation and despair of being cast out of his clan. The death of Robert, the loss of his first love ... shallow wounds compared to the emptiness of having his place in his society torn away. He had been a Clan chieftain's son ... the heir to the MacLeods. It had been his vision and focus, drilled into his head by fellow clansmen and his father until it became his only truth. A prince, born to rule by bloodline and birthright. His true destiny.

Now he was nothing.

The solitary villages he stopped at shunned him and drove him away. He had nearly been burned to death four times in the first year. He was a devil. They called him a bogle: a hobgoblin, a ghost.

As a child he had foolishly feared the lochs, believing the older boys' tales of the spirit that lived in the waters. Now it was the most common label applied to him; his boyish terror had come back to visit him and now lived as his own flesh - he was a kelpie, a water horse. The demon of the lochs.

For three years he wandered, scrounging out a bleak existence when it became clear that he could not even set his blackened soul free himself. Death itself shunned him. No one would speak with him. No clan would take him in. He wasn't even fit to fight at the front of another skirmish, fodder for the opposition.

Then he came. When every clan door was shut against him, Connor MacLeod found him and took him in.

Duncan was helpless to prevent his instinct to cling to this Scot who was willing to walk beside him. Under the weight of the years of loneliness and isolation, Duncan leaned all of his heart against this brooding man with the penetrating gaze. His gregarious nature was so needy that he would take scraps - and he did.

Connor talked of immortality and some strange game. He was irritable with Duncan's questions about the origins and reasons behind the rules he recited. Every day he savaged the younger Scot with the sword until Duncan could hardly block another blow. The older man berated and insulted and heckled him, knocking him flat again and again, pressing him beyond his skill.

In the evenings, the irascible older MacLeod ordered Duncan around as if he were a slave while he sat at the fire. The younger man chopped wood and hauled logs to fashion crude windbreaks when they slept in the forest. He had to care for Connor's horse, see to their meals and clean up as well ... like he was a serving wench.

Unless it was about sword moves or reciting the rules of this imaginary game - Connor seldom spoke at all to him. He ignored him as if he ceased to exist, spending long quiet hours sharpening his deadly katana.

Duncan was no longer alone, but he was still unworthy of attention and fellowship. His friendly nature wilted under the neglect and he wondered if his aloneness before was ever as painful as was his loneliness now.

The months passed and there was little change. Duncan improved his fighting skills slowly, pushed by his demanding mentor every day to work harder. Praise was something he seldom heard. Gaelic cursing he heard often. Connor seemed to dislike him and took delight in mocking him.

There were times when he was ordered to just stay away from the other immortal for entire days. He was sent away on foolish errands as if he was a small boy in the way. He suspected that the fierce older Scot took those occasions to enjoy the comfort of the lasses in the villages - leaving Duncan behind.

More often than not, he found himself far away in the depths of the wild north following the leading of this sullen man. They spent weeks in desolate uninhabited places, forsaken by civilization. Connor seemed to enjoy keeping to the isolated places, but Duncan longed for sights of villages and other humans. They quarreled often.

Duncan was in a war inside, afraid to leave the only person who would keep company with him and desperate to still associate in some small way with regular clan life. And Connor continued to emotionally shun him while hammering him nearly to death in the snow and rain and fog.

An Du'dlachd - December.

It would be Nollaig soon although Duncan wasn't sure of the exact date. Connor never took note of any particular day. The sunlight hours seemed merely the time to berate and torture him with endless swordplay. The older man had not killed him, but almost every week Duncan succumbed to a faint from simple blood loss.

He woke up still in the darkness of dawn and made a decision. He had to escape.

Being any place else and with anyone else had to be better than the life he currently was living. He was too afraid to linger and possibly face the older MacLeod, so he simply fled with his clothing, a little food and his sword. Afoot and in heavy snow, he struggled up the mountainside and trotted across barren wind-whipped ridges. He could only hope that Connor would chose to let him go and not brave the icy wind and snowfall trying to find him.

It took days to reach the nearest cluster of rude dwellings that led through the valley to a fairly large sized village. He was so disoriented by hunger and fear that he couldn't even place where he was. He pulled his ragged furs about himself, and sidled deeper into the shadows, trying to catch his breath. The constant exercise during his escape made the act of just standing still all the more sweet. The heat poured off his head despite the icy breeze that whipped his hair around and stung his eyes.

Exhausted, he slept crammed into a windfall that he found. The tangle of branches reached around him like claws and the wind moaned through the trees overhead.

The familiar stab between his eyes woke him. Immortality. Connor had followed him and found him!

For a moment, Duncan cringed in on himself just as he used to as a boy when afraid in the night. But there was no point in hiding from this ... and he was a MacLeod and cared about that name even if no one, even his own father, would claim him. He crawled from the deadfall to face whatever punishment the other Highlander meted out.

But it wasn't Connor!

A warmly dressed stranger looked back at him, his green eyes expressionless.

"Who'r yoo!?" gasped Duncan, amazed. Connor had spoken of other immortals and warned that he must be wary of them, but this man held no sword and did not leap instantly for some brawl as Connor had stated they would. He was garbed in a tartan Duncan did not recognize.

"A Highlander like yourself."

There was no danger in that statement, still - when the man took another step towards him, Duncan moved back with one hand on the hilt of his claymore.

"What's your name, my boy?" he inquired in an almost formal fashion. His accent was slightly odd.

What was this? Every Scot in the Highlands knew the story of the son of Ian MacLeod. Had they forgotten his name? The way the stranger said 'my boy' held some suspicious connotation and the accent was not true. Duncan felt the skin chill on the back of his neck.

"Why d'yoo want t'know?" he returned, suspiciously.

"I always like to have the name of the immortal I kill -" and then he lunged at him wielding a sword the likes Duncan had never seen.

Duncan scrambled frantically backwards and stumbled over the melee of branches that formed the deadfall. Never get your back pinned! Connor MacLeod's oft repeated words jabbed at him. He stumbled and went down, rolling hurriedly to get away. His sword snagged on the deadfall before it was half drawn - he wrenched at it desperately to get it free again and his fingers went numb from the stunning blow to the heavy blade that his foe landed. The claymore pitched from his fingers, landing and disappearing without a sound in the snow. Only its outline remained on the surface.

The strange immortal laughed and advanced leisurely. "Ahhh, a nice young one. Not very satisfying, but an easy morning snack nonetheless." He hacked aside an offending branch. "Come, little laddie. Just close your eyes and it won't hurt a bit."

He was fast! Damned fast. Duncan saw the blade as only a blur as his opponent flicked it through another branch and swapped hands in a blink. He scrambled away, circling around a stout tree. He had to get to his sword ... and realized with a sinking feeling of dread that he would never stand a chance even if he regained his blade.

This man was more skilled and they both knew it. Duncan was merely delaying the inevitable conclusion. Still, he struggled away through the snow, dodging around trees and the sharp upthrust boulders common to the high country. Desperation fueled his flight, but his killer followed right on his heels, laughing at the spectacle of the fleeing man in his tattered hides and torn plaid.

Be mindful of the terrain. Duncan remembered too late and slipped on the steep climb through the trees, trying to gain altitude to the level where the ground was free of snow from the wind. If he couldn't fight and win perhaps he could outrun him. He went down in a heap and spit slush when he surfaced. He swung his head wildly to find his attacker and lunged to the side an instant before the blade bit through branches and ice and stabbed into the frozen earth.

"Now, now. We must be friends or this will be a poor affair, laddie," the stranger hissed at him and advanced, sword level.

Duncan regained his feet on the incline and then lost them again, sliding five feet down the mountainside before grinding to a halt. He floundered desperately through the terrain, branches whipping his face and his lungs burning. Another obstacle beneath the snow caught his worn footgear and he sprawled in a heap with his attacker close behind. There was no more room and no more time...

Neither man saw him coming. Their own auras and the frantic flight hid his sound and presence until the gelding rounded the outcropping of stone on the cliff face and he came down off the steed, shaking off the heavy fur cape with the katana shining bright with snow reflection.

"Mac Leo'id!" Connor roared and flung himself at the other man. They met with a great clang of steel and instantly the sparks flew from the blades like embers from a stirred fire.

Duncan had practiced with Connor MacLeod for months - but never had he seen the other man unleash the full extent of his skill. He whipped through motions quickly, switching hands and foot leads precisely. The katana, lighter than any Highland blade and powered by obvious fury, set up a constant ringing song. Anything in the way of the sweep of blade was simply hacked off and he fought in deathly silence. Duncan abruptly realized that his teacher had always held back when they worked with swords; this was the true fight. And the true fighter.

The other immortal, however, was just as skilled. He met the attack with his full defenses and drove the Highlander back across the rim of rocks, raining the blows in quick succession and parrying each thrust. He had several inches of reach over the Scot and used it expertly, slicing open Connor's forearms with every opportunity. His lunges were strong and he used the slope to add height to his advantage, forcing the smaller man downhill. They circled like wolves when they reached the flat, setting their stance wide for balance and engaging the fight head on.

Connor's face was set with a death-like grimace. Duncan heard him grunt from twenty steps away and saw the blood staining the snow around the Scot's feet. His adversary's garments were barely stained yet. Another stab that was blocked, another that was narrowly evaded. A third that swept under defenses and took the older MacLeod beneath the ribs, forcing a cry from the locked teeth.

He is going to lose! Duncan scrambled, suddenly chagrined at his open-mouthed gaping all this time, for his forgotten claymore beneath the snow.

Duncan's movement, the flapping of his torn garments, drew the challenger's attention for a mere second - and it was all Connor needed. The Highlander swept the dragon sword ahead and licked his foe's chest open, twisting at the extension of his reach and dragging the bright blade through bone and organs in a ruthless sweep down the abdomen. The Scot did not linger at the grim task. Duncan noticed that his expression never changed from the frozen mask of fighting as the blade snicked through the neck and the head fell.

Like a stone only it bounced more, Duncan thought dizzily. He turned away, sickened. He had seen a head fall like that once before and it had given him no pleasure. He hurried from the scene to avoid the quickening. The older MacLeod had warned him to avoid entanglements in another immortal's quickening. He watched from a distance, listening to Connor scream and thinking how he had never heard him sound so human before.

Duncan went to him when the lightning was done. The elder immortal was kneeling in the snow. His plaid and sark were torn open and he streamed blood to his knees. It dripped off into the whiteness and the slush steamed where the hot fluid fell. Duncan gaped, stunned, at the terrible wound in the Scot's chest and the glistening sheen of exposed bone.

"Connor?" he said, alarmed and confused as to what to do.

"Duncan," he whispered. He held his head crookedly and a muscle in his left cheek twitched with spasms. "I didna' think I would get to you in time..." He coughed and held his fingers across his ruined chest. "Almost ... too late."

"Why d'ye come?" Duncan dared to ask. He had abandoned his teacher and fled. It would have been justice for him to die today ... but this immortal had intervened. After months of hounding him with sword practice and then ignoring him, why did he then save him?

"You have to live!" he said it as an oath sworn before witnesses and then whispered it almost to himself, "you have to live." He slumped sideways on the bloody snow. "Leave."

"I'll no' be goin' anywhere," replied Duncan, aware as he had never been before of his frailty before a trained immortal and jarred by something deeper and more stunning.

"I'm dyin'. Leave me," Connor whispered, eyes dilated and staring right through him. His fingers were still clenched around the bloodied sword and tremors coursed through his frame, one right after the other.

"I'll stay w'yoo."

"Go!" he ordered with a slightly stronger voice. "I die hard an' come back fightin'. Obey an' get you away!"

Duncan complied. The sky was so clear and the woodlands so silent. Far below was the little clan village, smoke pouring from fire pits and people bustling about with daily chores, unaware of the events unfolding on the mountainside. It was peaceful and still ... and Connor roiled the snow up as he thrashed his way into death and the familiar headache of his presence blinked out.

It was horrible and Duncan was glad he had been told to leave.

************************

"My dying in the woods made quite an impression on you," the older MacLeod remarked dryly. Duncan had lapsed into silence several minutes ago and had just sat as if stunned when his words halted.

"No. That wasn't the impression I came away with. I realized for the first time that you cared about me." He paused and then continued, "You cared about me, loved me, all the time. You just never let me see it."

"I couldn't. A teacher in school knows that you always start out strict with students, to teach them control and diligence to the task. Once you've established your authority, then you can lighten up later." Connor looked across the rotunda at something on the wall. "A lenient teacher finds that if they try to get tough later, the students rebel and believe them to be unkind and mean. You don't get to be their friend until the training is done ... and then, if you're lucky, you can be their friend."

"You should have been a schoolteacher."

"I don't have the patience," returned Connor.

"No, you don't," commented Duncan with humor. "You were damn uncivil and cranky with me."

Connor looked at his hands and sighed. "I was too hard on you at first. I was pretty young to be having a student. I got better at it, though, didn't I?"

"Yeah, after that day, you did. And I paid more attention to what you had to say, which helped." Duncan sat quiet for a moment. "You sure ordered me around during that first part - I had to do all the work while you..." he trailed off.

Connor remembered those nights, sitting by the fire while the young immortal toiled at thankless tasks. All the feelings came back; the uncertainty that he had what it took to lead a new immortal into his power, the concern for this young kinsman who was desperate to trust any person who would give him the time of day. Greater than all the rest, the terrible fear that he wasn't strong enough to be Duncan's shield until he was trained enough to win against another of their kind.

"You were fighting..." Duncan whispered it from right beside him and his voice was stunned.

"Yes," Connor replied simply. "Word moved quick about a man who didn't die, even back then. A lot of immortals preyed on the new ones. I had to keep us away from everyone else and make them really work to hunt you."

"You sent me away if you knew someone found us ... then waited for him. Jesus, no wonder you were so weary all the time," Duncan gloomily said.

"The fighting wasn't the tiring part ... it was the dying that pulled all my strength out."

Duncan reached to put a hand on Connor's shoulder and his eyes were huge. "The dying? You were dying a lot?"

"I was only 107 or 8 at the time, Duncan." Connor smiled slightly. "I was skilled enough to bring the fight, but not usually good enough to keep them from killing me. I just had to be sure I chopped their neck before I went down."

"Dammit," he swore. Connor hated to die.

And I was not really skilled enough with the blade either, the older man thought to himself. The katana was a light sword and he had trained with a heavy claymore ... his speed was the thing that saved him. And knowing the terrain. And having his own rage and pain from the loss of his clan and wife.

"I wouldn't let them have you and I never told anyone your name. I would not let them take you." His words were blurted out before he could think. "You were the only other immortal of my clan and you had to survive. You had to live. You have to live." The hand on his shoulder drew him back to the present, squeezing firmly. He was babbling and he never babbled. He sighed and realized it was early in the morning and he was very tired.

"I did survive, Connor," Duncan said quietly after a moment. "I'm still surviving."

"I think you're better then I am with the sword now. You likely could whip me in a real fight."

Duncan's grip tightened painfully. "No! No more than I would set my blade against Richie, Connor!"

"You're putting bruises on me, let go," he grunted. He rolled his hurting shoulder until it subsided. "You never can tell what the future holds, Dhonnchaidh. Rich is a player now ... if you two can forge a strong friendship, then maybe it will never come to that. And if you ever cross swords, but find some way out of it - it'll be that strong foundation of friends that will hold you and get you through the hardship."

The younger man sat silently. Connor wondered if he had said too much. He waited through the time without fidgeting.

"Friends, huh?" Duncan remarked. "It seems Richie and I have little in common."

"You just need to think of some common ground besides immortality." Connor thought a bit more. "Do you feel any better?"

"Not as angry," he said after a fashion, "but still ... pretty bad."

"Am I on the inside of your thick skin yet or still outside?"

"The inside, you idiot Scot." Duncan shook his head at him. "You really think I could beat you with the sword now?"

"Perhaps." Connor sounded much too serious for his own ears. "You've studied more of the martial arts than I have. Why do you think I work so hard to cultivate our friendship?"

"So I don't kill you?" laughed Duncan in disbelief, then added seriously, "because you love me."

"I don't love you, I endure you."

"And I've been enduring you my whole life it seems!"

The grandfather clock in the other room chimed the hour at 3 a.m.

"Merry Christmas, Connor."

"Same to you. Did you buy me a present?"

"No. I was too pissed at you," he retorted.

"Good. I didn't buy anything for you either."

"Cheapskate."

"How did you think I got my wealth?" he chuckled and was poked in the arm for his pains.

"Did you want something for Christmas?" Duncan asked, curious.

"You're here."

Truth, Connor thought to himself. The words were "bide Dhonnchaidh" in his head, meaning "stay Duncan" in Gaelic. He did not need to surround himself with friends; there were mortals and immortals alike the world over that owed him favors and he had never called them in. Just a handful of close friends was enough to keep his heart content - the man beside him was the dearest.

"You know," Duncan broke the silence, "that little tree looks just like those sorry ones on the mountains in the Highlands. You can climb to the treeline and look at them and all the stars sit right in the branches."

Connor chuckled his familiar laugh. "I know!"

************************

"Do you want to get a little sleep?"

Silence.

"No. Why don't you just make some of your gut-grinding coffee and we'll slug through the day."

"We can't miss the TV today ... at twelve they're running The Grinch."

"The Grinch?"

"You've never seen The Grinch?"

"Ummmm...no."

Peeking between his fingers in horror: "Gods, you haven't raised any kids. Poor deprived soul! You'll love it!"

"YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH. YOU REALLY ARE A HEEL. YOU'RE AS CUDDLY AS A CACTUS, YOU'RE AS CHARMING AS AN EEL, MR. GRINCH! YOU'RE A BAD BANANA WITH A GREASY BLACK PEEL!

YOU'RE A MONSTER, MR. GRINCH, YOUR HEART'S AN EMPTY HOLE. YOUR BRAIN IS FULL OF SPIDERS, YOU HAVE GARLIC IN YOUR SOUL, MR. GRINCH! I WOULDN'T TOUCH YOU WITH A THIRTY-NINE-AND-A-HALF FOOT POLE!"

Loving it wasn't quite the word, he had decided after about the fourth line. His clansman was singing with it, too high and off key - deliberately. Of course, it could be that the song actually was too low for the other man to match, but it was easier to think that Connor was jibing him.

"YOU'RE A FOUL ONE, MR. GRINCH! YOU HAVE TERMITES IN YOUR SMILE."

Duncan was writhing in the leather recliner, laughing, hands clasped atop his head.

"YOU'RE A FOUL ONE, MR. GRINCH, YOU'RE A NASTY WASTY SKUNK. YOUR HEART IS FULL OF UNWASHED SOCKS, YOUR SOUL IS FULL OF GUNK, MR. GRINCH, THE THREE WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOU ARE AS FOLLOWS, AND I QUOTE, "STINK - STANK - STUNK"!"

It was really too much after staying up all night ... they both took a nap, sprawled on the couch and chair with the TV running in the background.

************************

"Don't you ever do anything else but punish your body?" he asked after watching the third round of weights in one day.

"I train to stay strong, Connor. I depend on the strength in this body of mine," Duncan replied curtly, obviously annoyed. "You were the one who taught me to stay in shape for the fighting. I do."

"Yes, you do," he called. "But that doesn't mean you can't play and tone at the same time."

"Connor? What the hell are you bothering me in here for?" Duncan demanded, dropping the barbells back in the cradle with a crash.

The older man eyed him. Duncan was glistening with sweat, muscles swollen and the veins distended from exertion. His hair was damp and unruly. Part of it had escaped the hair tie and hung, slightly curled beside his neck. The peaceful respite of Christmas day had slowly given way to brooding after two days.

"Let's go shoot some hoops for awhile," the elder MacLeod suggested.

"Hoops?"

"Basketball. You know - run, dribble, shoot, score?"

"I know what it is, you asshole. I want to train, not play games."

"Afraid you'll lose?" Connor baited nonchalantly.

Silence. Duncan had one of those looks on his face and Connor knew exactly what that meant.

"Lose to your sorry carcass? I doubt it." Duncan popped his knuckles with a snap. "Lead on, masochist!"

They had to drag some crates around and sweep, but managed to clear the basement floor of the building enough to have room to move. Connor hadn't been down in the storeroom for months. There were some lights burnt out that needed to be replaced and a plethora of cobwebs that looked thick enough to actually catch one of them. The net was only half hooked up. The basketball needed air. By the time Connor had everything ready, Duncan was a silent storm and the elder MacLeod readied himself mentally for the fray.

They had not once practiced with swords the whole time they had been together. It was better not to swordplay when one of them was hurting. Tempers could get out of control and their usual insults created even more pressure.

I sure miss it, Connor thought as he checked the bounce of the ball a few times. Sparring with another immortal in my league is the greatest practice and thrill. Steel on steel, daring on daring, and physical strength has sometimes no bearing on the outcome at all. Nothing like this little skirmish will be...

The game was fast and furious. Duncan had precise aim, a slightly longer reach and superior muscle strength ... and he was determined to whip Connor's ass. The elder Highlander fell back on his speed and agility, outrunning and outmaneuvering his clansman at every opportunity. He could get off the mark like a deer and did so ... until Duncan took to waiting beneath the basket for his approach. Then it came down to skill and sheer muscle.

Connor was slammed over and over against the walls when he made a footing error and the younger man blocked him, planting his feet solidly and letting the other man's momentum bounce off of him. The older Scot hammered Duncan into the wall a few times, but mostly he just took the brunt of the younger man's simmering anger. He lost count of how many times the ball was slapped viciously from his hands, wrenching his long fingers. He lost count of how often the ball was passed at him with such force that it knocked the wind out of him when it caught him in the chest. Lost count of the midair collisions that made every rib shriek. He focused solely on remaining in the game.

Connor ached all over, but gradually the wrath faded from his clansman's expression. The pace slowed slightly. The older man had no grace left after the prior punishment and his shots mostly missed ... but the hitherto angry look in his friend's eyes was replaced with an amused one.

They played for almost two hours before Duncan called a halt to drink some water. "How ya' feeling, old man?" he cheerily called.

"Worse for wear. How's your ear?" Connor chirped back, finally getting his second wind.

"Sore. Pull your elbows in when you come down next time."

"Don't hang your ears out so far." Connor rummaged around in a box. "Something tamer?" He winged a Frisbee out at the darker immortal.

Tamer wasn't the correct word between two highly competitive Scots. They leaped like cats to catch the Frisbee in mid-flight, landing whichever manner they could. Connor thought he had broken his ankle - twice - in one of those landings. Duncan knocked himself silly against the wall a few times and laughed like a maniac. They played until the bright disc slid under a stack of packing crates that reached halfway to the ceiling. Duncan tried to get it out using a long stick, but it was too far to reach.

"Let's do this instead."

"What is that?"

"Haven't you seen a remote control truck before?" Connor put the second one on the floor. "I got these two years ago. They're a hoot."

"You're the hoot around here, Connor," Duncan chuckled, looking at him. "Do you always 'play' like this? I've never seen you so ... so ... well..."

"I'm eighteen, Duncan. Can't I play?" said the other man, amused.

Duncan thought for a moment. "Yes, you can." He looked at the vehicles on the floor. "How do you run these things?"

"I'll show you."

They raced. They crashed. They pushed empty boxes. They jumped ramps and charged through tunnels. They crashed some more. They competed over who could follow an obstacle course the tightest. They did flips. They plowed through empty cartons like bulldozers. They carted things around to see which rig could haul the heaviest load the farthest.

They played like boys, hunched over the controls and swearing as the batteries wore down and the two trucks went dead in the middle of the floor. Duncan had a fit of laughter when it was all over and Connor sat amused and just listened to him.

"Connor, why did you put me through all this?" he asked when he was rational again.

"You've forgotten how to play, Duncan." He said it very quietly into the stillness that had fallen between them. The younger Highlander was finally ready to listen. "You're an old man inside."

Silence.

"Who else do you know that is just a boy like I am?" he added. He looked seriously at the man sitting beside him, waiting for understanding to dawn. It took a few moments.

"Richie..."

"Rich Ryan is almost exactly the same age I am, trapped in the spirit and body of a young man. Immortality is a very hard life and I'm sure you've taught him all the seriousness of it." Connor looked fully into the dark eyes of his clansman. "Did you teach him that it's okay to just play sometimes?"

"No," he said slowly. "I don't just 'play' very much, Connor. Not like this."

"Teacher first. Friends later."

Silence. The dust that had misted the air finally settled. One of the florescent bulbs overhead winked out and left them in even dimmer surroundings. It was quiet in the twilight of the basement.

"Are you being the teacher with me again, Connor?" Duncan asked, not looking at him.

"We're all in need of instruction sometimes."

The dark immortal snorted beneath his breath. "And who's your teacher these days?"

"Oh, I have them," and the older man smiled to himself. "You told me earlier this week that you and Rich didn't seem to have much common ground. I just reminded you that common ground is sometimes made ... like our years in the Highlands, the trees on the mountains that fathers showed to sons."

Duncan sighed and leaned, hard, against his shoulder. Connor let his weight meet him and they sat for a long time in stillness. The two remote control trucks faced each other on the floor twelve feet away, silent and watchful.

"Why is it that Richie has captured my heart so, Connor? I've had students before, students I've cared for. I've never felt like this when they finally stepped out on their own the first time," he murmured. "I worked hard and have treated them all alike. But Rich - what is it about him? He exasperated me and made me angry and I thought I would be glad when he finally had it down enough for that first step away and I could set him free. But instead, I feel ... so ... so..." he halted and sighed.

"You want him to succeed with all your might and so you train him hard," Connor said quietly. "Harder than you were ever treated or thought you were even capable of treating another. You push him and hammer at him. Every time he is away, you worry. You wonder if he is listening and if he will remember when it's crucial to remember. You want to lock him away somewhere safe. You find yourself wishing you'd never met him just so you could live without this fear for him lingering like a haunt in your soul." Connor allowed the emotions into his eyes, letting Duncan see the truth. "You want to fight his fights and meet his battles just to see him live and you wonder if you will endure his death someday - sure somewhere inside that you cannot." He had to stop talking then, for the sweat must have trickled in his eyes and they burned and blurred in response.

"Oh God, Connor..." Duncan said and he swung a long arm around his mentor and tucked his face beside his neck, unable to meet that fractured visage. "Connor..."

"I can't breath when you do that," the elder man said after a moment or two. Duncan had a death grip around his neck. It loosened, but did not let go and Connor did not really mind. He ached all over from slamming into the wall so many times during basketball and pretending he could fly after Frisbees. Michael Jordon, he wasn't. "There is always one. One student that fits into your life at a certain time and place and you never forget and can't ever let go. No matter how old and stubborn they get, you are helpless to stop watching over them."

"And Richie is the one. For me."

Duncan's words were whispered somewhere into his damp hair and the older man replied softly, "Yes. I think so."

"And I'm the 'one' for you," the younger said gently to the older. There was no answer and none was needed. "Were you 'the one' to someone along the way, Connor - who was it?"

Connor took a deeper breath and rested his chin on the shoulder near him. He couldn't help the catch in his voice when he answered. "Ramirez and Nakano. Both of them. They died to save me ... to see me live." The younger Scot's grip tightened on him fractionally again and he could feel his breath and the pound of his heart. "You are my greatest thank-you back to them." Duncan trembled and Connor knew he was silently crying. "My gift to the men who protected me with their lives. And Richie Ryan is your tribute back to me ... one I treasure."

For a long time, Connor simply sat and held him, remembering centuries earlier when he had finally brought his student into his immortal strength enough to lighten the emotional load upon him and could walk in friendship beside him. The evenings by firelight telling stories, drinking ale, curling up by the tiny fire together for warmth. A clan themselves, numbering just two. He would braid Duncan's hair because he could tie it tight enough to keep it out of his eyes while they sparred - now almost at full speed. Times of sweet peace and companionship until finally one day, the recognition that they had become equals ... and then Connor sent him away into the wild world to find himself.

"I know exactly how you feel, Dhonnchaidh," and he swallowed the pain in his throat. "Exactly."

The younger MacLeod nodded against his shoulder in comprehension and then sighed, cried out for now. "Richie always thought you laughed at him."

"Not at him. I laughed when I saw him because he reminded me so of you. All the talking, all the outrageous ideas, all the hope and trust and - God, how you forget what it was like after 300 some years! Richie brought all the memories of you back fresh and new. I laughed to remember." Connor paused for a moment, then added humorously, "I don't miss all the sniffing around for a girl, though!"

Duncan jerked back and looked at him, amused. "I wasn't as bad as Rich is!" he protested.

Connor waggled one finger at him. "Do you want me to refresh your memory?"

"Ummm ... well ... I guess not."

Connor chuckled and then let the silence rest for a few minutes more. "Time for us to hit the showers, punk. You stink."

"So do you," Duncan shot back. "Don't use all the hot water this time, sadist!"

************************

"You think Amanda will like the earrings I picked up for her?" Duncan inquired. He leaned back on the stool in the kitchen and watched Connor work. There were only a few days left until he had to return home and he felt peaceful inside and out.

"No. She's stolen better ones in her life and that's not what she really wants for the holidays." Connor looked up and smiled slyly across the counter.

Duncan gave him an exasperated look. "Is that woman diddling us both? Again?"

"Don't get your shorts in a wad, Duncan," Connor murmured, measuring flour at eye level. "She doesn't show up here very often because I won't bail her out of her messes so easily like you will." He looked up, enjoying his clansman's irritation. "Worry when she decides she'd like to have both of us at the same time!" He ducked the spoon Duncan threw.

"Now THAT-" he threw another spoon, "-would be-" he tossed the wadded dishtowel, "-a truly horrible-" he hurled two spoons, one right after the other and caught Connor in his dodge, "-sight!"

"Ow!" the older man complained, rubbing his brow and grinning at Duncan. "What's the matter, kinsman - are you still laced a bit tight after all these years?"

"I don't share women," he scowled, but his eyes twinkled.

Connor stirred the batter in the bowl and regarded his littered floor a moment. "Amanda doesn't love me, she just loves sex. I think it's more that she thinks she would get a good bang and finally get to sleep at a decent hour when it was over." He wasn't surprised to see the younger immortal lean over the counter laughing.

"I think you've nailed it right there!" Duncan groaned when he found his voice again. "Two Scots should be just about right ... and what did she tell you she wanted for the holidays?"

"A photograph of you."

"She has pictures of me."

"Yes, she told me," he said patiently. "You always look 'ravishing and handsome and so ... so ... stuffy!' She wants one with a little more flair."

"?!" Duncan's expression said it all and Connor had to duck another spoon thrown at him.

************************

"Isn't that enough?"

"Are you always such a fuss-pot when your picture is being taken?"

"Right. Like you have photos taken of you all the time ... I bet you even wear your sneakers to pose in, too!"

"Leave my wardrobe out of this, will you?" Connor glared at his clansman. He had taken a bevy of pictures and Duncan looked brutally handsome in every one of them. Not one was what Amanda asked for. Something different, she had told him, something so unlike the charming and sophisticated Duncan MacLeod that she always saw. "You would have never made a living as a model, no matter how sweet you look."

"Sweet?" he laughed, incredulous. "I don't think I've ever been referred to as sweet before!"

"Sweet as in: spit out because it's too damn sweet," grumbled Connor beneath his breath. His clansman said something uncivil back at him. "Amanda wants a cocky self-assured lady-killer photo and you've got the goods, but not the attitude."

"That's because I'm not that way, Connor," remarked Duncan patiently.

"Take that shirt off and put the vest back on." He waited dutifully while the younger man swore and grumbled and finally complied. "You don't have that kind of attitude, but I bet if Rich Ryan was here - posing for some girl he's trying to get in the sheets with - HE wouldn't have any trouble."

Duncan burst out laughing, leaning on his thighs with the mental picture. "Oh God, that is how Rich is sometimes! Like this, see?" He stood and posed, imitating his hormone-driven ex-student, then turned out of that position and took another with just as much sultry attitude and mockery. It was during the final one, pointing at the older man, lip caught in his teeth and his entire form radiating arrogance and ego, that the camera flash caught him unaware.

"Yes!" Connor crowed with delight. "That's it!" Amanda was going to die when she got this one ... classic cool and so unlike Duncan that she would sit and stare and then burst out laughing. It would be her favorite photo of a man who did not exist in that state of mind. The charming thief had always treasured things she could not have.

The younger MacLeod was frowning at him. "Connor, what was all this "hold still I can't focus hooey you've been telling me all this time?"

"Just getting you to relax and think I couldn't catch the photo I wanted."

"I was right about you!" he said solemnly, rubbing one hand on his jawline.

Connor looked up from rewinding the film and caught the thoughtful expression. "About what?"

"You are a demon!"

"Only when I need to be."

Connor laughed aloud when the prints returned two hours later, leaned over his desk in the study surrounded with pictures. Duncan heard him from the other room and came to the doorway, eyeing him critically. Connor was breathless and had to wipe the tears away before he could see again. He waved the photo aloft as if it was a vanquished opponent's blade or a sheaf of found documents.

"It's perfect!" he touted, amused at the wary look on his clansman's face as he studied the portrait.

"Perfectly not me."

"Exactly. Amanda owes me big time for this one!" He grinned like an imp. "I'll have to think up a suitable payment for the little thief!"

Duncan was still distrustfully eyeing the picture as he spoke. "Do you know where she is on holiday?"

"I do." Connor regarded him quietly a moment. Amanda might just be the final cheer-up that Duncan needed for this gloomy period in his life. A bit of devil and angel wrapped in one package and able to stand close to him for a while and then go her way when he was stronger. "Would you like to know where she is? You can deliver this personally." Connor expected an assent and was startled when the answer was negative. "Why not, Duncan?" he questioned. "She would love to see you."

"I'd rather stay here with you." The younger man smiled like a rogue, his turn to be amused. "It must be your 'smoky good looks' that have captured me."

The elder MacLeod couldn't let that one slip by without reaction, especially when it was so obvious that he was being deliberately baited. "Well, it's taken you about 370 years to even notice! Guess I'd better lock my bedroom door tonight."

Duncan chased him clear through the apartment. They ended up in the basement and this time it was for a round of swordplay so fast and dizzying that Connor beamed most of the way through it, delighted in the spectacular dance of the dragons.

Afterward they played cards at the counter, laughing over inane jokes and sipping hot tea laced with whisky. Duncan held a good hand and kept his face as composed as possible around his glee. His clansman usually trounced him at cards, but Connor was lighthearted and played his hands with uncharacteristic abandon. An assortment of dried bow-tie noodles and flat lima beans scattered across the table. The younger man eyed them critically a moment. He had quite forgotten which represented the fives and which the tens ... again.

Duncan's thoughts flashed back: Connor used to do this in the ale houses when they were low on supplies ... play cards and win enough in trade to keep them a few more days until they found some game. He had envied his kinsman's stolid features back then when every thought of his own played itself freely on his young face.

The Highlands so long ago. Walking beside this man all those years. Duncan was caught up in remembrance. The snow on the mountains, the mirrored surfaces of the lochs, the staccato laugh of his clansman as they dueled around and around amidst tree snags and rocks.

"Tell me your strongest Christmas memory, Connor," he asked seriously.

"I don't pay much attention to holidays, Duncan," Connor returned simply. He was studying the cards in his hand and rearranging their placement, thinking.

"Bull. You know they're happening and you participate right along with the rest of us. Tell me one of your favorites." Duncan fixed him with a hard look as if knowing his kinsman would find some crevice to try to wiggle out of this. "I expect you to tell me about one, just as you pried one out of me the other day."

"And if I don't?" the elder MacLeod chuckled at him, clutching his fist full of cards.

"Then I will have to haul you down to the basement for some more basketball."

Connor groaned. Duncan knew his muscles still ached from the latest round this morning. Without a life and death struggle with the swords or hard practice, his clansman always hurt longer before he healed. A lover who had a tendency to bite and scratch was havoc. The younger Scot used to tease him about bite marks in strategic places until they faded off his pale skin.

"Taking advantage of an old man, aren't you?" Connor remonstrated. He scowled at the grin that answered him. "Well ... I guess last year was nice. It snowed heavy and the city was pretty still. Not much traffic or people out and about. No hunting. My pantry and liqueur cabinet were full."

Duncan chuckled. "You and Rachel must have had a peaceful Christmas. I know how you love it when it's quiet."

"Rachel wasn't here."

Duncan froze, frowning at the words just spoken. "What do you mean, Rachel wasn't here?" Connor looked chagrined at his lapse, but offered no denial of his thoughtless words. "You told me you were spending it with her when I called to invite you."

"I did not, Duncan," he said not unkindly. "I told you I had other plans. That's all."

"And I just assumed..." the younger Scot placed his cards, face up and uncaring on the tabletop. The game was over. "I assumed you meant Rachel and you just let me assume. You spent the God-damn holidays alone? Why? I asked you to come and be with me!" he demanded.

Connor sighed and put his cards aside. "You were with Tessa and Richie. You didn't need me as a loose cannon in your family."

"You are not a loose cannon. You are every bit as much a part of my family and how could you presume otherwise?" Duncan rebuked irritably.

"Tessa and Rich wouldn't have thought so."

"Don't you dare -," he barked across the distance, "tell me what my lover and..."

"Son." Connor finished the sentence in the stumble of Duncan's words. "You were making a family. Tess was your lover and you took Rich, a street orphan, into your midst. It was crucial for the three of you to be alone for the holiday to make yourselves into that family. You knew what he would be someday ... immortal. Like a son. Something permanent in your life if he could learn and survive."

"Where was Rachel, Connor?" Duncan asked very quietly.

"She was with her husband and left town to visit his extended family. I didn't belong there either."

The younger immortal's eyes were flinty in the lamplight. "So you just stayed away from everyone. Stayed home alone even though I know both Rachel and I invited you. I'm going to come around the table and straighten your head with a blunt object, kinsman." And he rose from his place and had a grip in Connor's sweater with one hand before his threatening words registered. "Tell me why this is a pleasant holiday memory for you?"

"Why are you cranky with me?" Connor asked softly, draping his forearm across the wrist that held him. A physical request to release him.

"I just want the truth and I know how slippery you are about these things, Connor. I'm trying to understand." Duncan bore the weight as the older man leaned his chin on the hand hung over his forearm ... the soft sweater bunched tighter in his fist, but the darker immortal did not let go. Connor wisely did not struggle.

"I'm not like you, Duncan," he reminded him. "I'm not uncomfortable alone." The grip pinched tighter, catching his skin slightly and he shifted to escape it. "And you won't get anywhere by trying to force my will either."

"I know," Duncan whispered and he leaned his head to rest it against Connor's, forehead to forehead. His clansman always met strength with more strength ... so he quoted aloud: "Blows and abuses I can take and give back again. Tenderness I cannot bear." The older man flinched under his grip, pricked. "It's one thing for you to push on me until I cave in - because you have all the power and control. It is another thing when I corner you and demand you to give me your truth, isn't it, Conchobhar?"

Silence except for the breathing and Duncan relaxed his grip on Connor's sweater, opening his fingers enough to circle his thumb encouragingly against his old friend.

"Why was being alone for the holidays a fond memory?" he asked softly. Gently, he said mentally, he's more fragile than he acts.

"There wasn't anyone who needed anything from me." Connor's voice was silky-rough through the words, struggling to define the impressions. "Rachel was home with her family ... you were with yours. Rachel needed to step away from my life to live her own. You were knitting together a boy's future and were with your Tessa. I was alone, but everyone I cared about was content and happy." He paused and took a deeper breath, pulling back enough so their eyes met. "All I've ever wanted is peace, Duncan. Peace for myself and for the ones I care about. Last Christmas gave me that.

"I wasn't protecting anyone. I wasn't responsible for someone else's happiness. I wasn't fighting for my life or avenging someone else. If everyone I loved was safe and cared for, then that was gift enough for Christmas. I'm at my best when everyone around me is stable." Here he stopped, as if exhausted by the cost of the words themselves and closed his eyes.

Silence. Duncan shifted his grip in the sweater to an open hand against his shoulder. "Haven't you done the 'strong silent, need-nobody act' long enough, Connor?" he quoted.

"And that's the other reason I was such an ass up in the Highlands at first," he responded abruptly, opening his eyes. The words came fast, as if he had held them dammed up within for years. "I had my Clan for 18 years and lost it. I had Ramirez for 19 months and lost him. I had my Heather for 51 years and lost her. For 35 years I went on alone and told myself to never care for anyone again."

Duncan spoke quietly into the sudden lapse of speech, prompting, "and then you heard about a Highlander that didn't die."

"I thought they were talking about me again and I couldn't figure out why it had come back up after all those years." Connor smiled, a swift quirk of the lips that vanished almost immediately. "But the descriptions weren't right and I set out to find who this was they were talking about."

"And you found me," the younger Highlander encouraged again, drawing the tale as a man draws water ... only this was with a tenuous rope.

"I found you and was only going to teach you what you needed to know and that's all. Just enough to survive until you could find another teacher." He sighed tiredly, as if spent. "I thought I'd set my armor around myself so well after all those losses ... but you ... you were like a lost puppy in a snowstorm and ... I ... it took a long time..."

"To learn to care. To love someone again," Duncan finished for him.

"Yes, it costs me so much," he whispered the words. "You taught me up in those wilds that I had no life without caring for something, someone. I didn't want to learn the lesson then and I hate living with the lesson now."

Duncan shifted his palm into a fist in the fabric again, this time to draw his old teacher close enough to lean his weight on Duncan's shoulder. "I know how much it costs you. You hardly let anyone past your guard even after - what - 475 years? And it's soon to be 476. You've built the barricade so high that no one can get in anymore."

Silence for a moment. "They still do. They find the way the same way you do."

"You left me a line in the back door a long time ago, Connor MacLeod. I just have to remember to never use a battering ram." He squeezed him tight with one arm until the faint tremors ceased and the resistance to the embrace began - then let him go.

Connor chuckled and pulled away, eyeing his younger counterpart with mock frostiness. "Pretty sneaky to yank on me like that."

"No different then flipping me inside out with that ... that ... 'magic' you do," he replied laconically. "Getting to the heart of the matter is hard work. It takes more out of you then a good knife fight ... I bet you're exhausted and just want to take a nap."

"I am and I do."

"Then go sprawl on the couch. I'll pick up and put the cards away."

He must have been tired. Duncan was finished in five minutes and stood looking down at his kinsman and brother. So much attitude and mettle on the outside ... serving only as a fortress for the young man that sought refuge within. And Richie would have to learn this self-same thing: to surround himself with a determined and strong personality in order to protect the boy living inside.

It came to Duncan suddenly, that Rich would do well to walk beside Connor MacLeod for a few years, watching the way the old Scot folded people around his formidable will. The impulsive young Ryan still needed instruction.

"You learned from me and I was brand new then. We do have teachers all around, don't we," Duncan murmured quietly so he did not wake his friend. "Can I convince you to take Richie in tow someday? For just a little while?"

Connor slept silently, hands loose across his abdomen. The dragon sword rested on the table, mouth agape and the eyes cold and sightless. Duncan chuckled as he laid back in the recliner. Connor and Richie would get in lots of trouble, he suspected. He went to sleep conjuring up the varieties of trouble a pair of immortal eighteen and nineteen-year-olds could get themselves into.

************************

"Do you think Rich will come back, Connor?" he asked at the doorway.

"I don't know, Dhonnchaidh. He may come back to you ... maybe someone else for more training." Connor studied the profile of his brother a moment. Duncan watched the flakes falling outside the lead glass panes of the door, seemingly unwilling or unable to see the expression that might coast across his clansman's face when answering. "Sometimes students are hounded back to their masters," he added. The younger Scot tightened fractionally at the statement.

"Do you think he'll make it in the game?" Duncan inquired next, face still averted.

The older man weighed the question gravely, summoning all he knew about young Ryan. For many minutes he stood silently in thought, remembering the boy watching through the window panes as they sparred and hiding in a car trunk on the way to a climactic end ... all the myriad things Duncan had told him about his new student over the years. There was only one answer to give and it was a question: "How do you feel about his training?"

The younger MacLeod sighed. "It was a while before I mustered what it took to start with him. I was too harsh at first-" He blinked, abruptly recalling Connor's initial training. "He was a quick study, but reluctant to apply himself very diligently." He smiled and snorted. "He was just as distracted by his surroundings and girls as I was in the beginning." He turned from the drifts of snow outside the front door and looked full in the older man's face. "Richie was a lot like I was when you first took me in tow and I taught him the same way you taught me." Connor nodded solemnly at his words. "I was more conversational though," Duncan added dryly.

"I bet." Connor clapped him solidly on the shoulder. "If you've trained him as well as I trained you, then he has enough footing to get started." A yellow cab pulled up, chains rattling as it ground to a halt outside the antique shop. "It's a harsh game. Only the strong-willed and stubborn survive."

"Like those Highland pines at the treeline, Connor?" Duncan teased, drawing comparisons to the man beside him. "They're not much of a tree, but are sure damned persistent!"

The older Scot smiled very faintly at his merry-eyed friend. "Yes. You should take Rich to see them sometime in the winter."

"I could just bring him here to see you."

"Take him to see the real ones first," he acknowledged the question hidden in Duncan's words. How much trouble would he get into with another young immortal in the house besides himself? Some slamming remote control truck races, he suspected and he doubted he would need to explain how they worked either. He grinned openly and the dark-eyed Highlander at his door laughed aloud and picked up his bag.

"I wish I knew where he was."

"A teacher never gets to know, does he?" Connor took the offered hand firmly. "It's part of the ending of the relationship before moving to the next level, I suppose. I lost you for years back in 1634."

"You weren't far from my thoughts, kinsman," Duncan said, gripping the hand he held firmly.

"I know you thought of me ... but not half as much as I worried about you!" The taxi outside tooted impatiently. Connor sighed, "Duncan."

"Connor."

Familiar as 'hello' was this unspoken 'goodbye'. The elder Highlander smiled at the number of years they had said hello and goodbye just this way. He watched from the chilly doorway as his clansman climbed in the cab and slammed the door. The window rolled down and Duncan called out through the soft flakes "Thanks, Nash!" as it scrunched away through the snow.

Connor shut and bolted the door. In ten minutes he was booting up his computer, logging into his secure server under an alias and opening his e-mail. It took a moment of decoding first one encryption and then the second layer before he got the answer he was looking for.

//Target located in San Diego, California // employed at auto body shop // apartment // free time spent on beach // no evidence of opposition//

He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. Duncan would have his head if he knew what he was doing ... and that he had kept it a secret. Teachers had to let go of their students just as much as the young ones had to step away from their cover of protection, but nothing prevented the mentor of the teacher from keeping an eye on the youngster. The Highlander stretched and studied the blinking cursor before deleting the message.

California. Big and bustling with people like in New York. Hot and sunny. Babes in thong bikinis.

"You have excellent taste, Rich Ryan. We would do just fine together for a while," he chuckled.

************************

On January ninth, Amanda met the postman in one of her standard short skirts. It made the old man grin and eye her appreciatively before resuming his tedious route. It made Amanda smile that she could tantalize forever just this way.

A package from New York? What had she ordered from New York that looked and felt like a book? The only thing in that busy town of interest was the art museum and the exhibit she was after had already moved on.

The paper fluttered down around her sitting chair. No return address. No letter inside ... just what - "Oh my STARS!" she gasped, staring at the portrait of Duncan MacLeod pointing roguishly back from the frame.

With one hand placed on her throat, the raven-haired immortal laughed in sheer delight. "Ooooo, Con-nor - Mac-Leod!" she slurred out in a long drawl, "how did you do this?" She prayed he had the negative stored in his fireproof lock box ... she had a half dozen friends she wanted to send this photo to.

"But first," she winked demurely at the exotic man in the photo, "I must plan a vacation to New York and romp your cousin absolutely senseless in bed first! And," she fairly purred, "he's just a young Scot. It may take awhile."

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MacNair

Dec 13, 2000

A very big thank you to Sharz and lynnann for beta reading! You gals really make me look good!

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