Trust

Vi Moreau

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DISCLAIMER: Highlander the Series is a property of Rysher Entertainment. Characters are used without permission. The characters and stories created by the author are copyright by Vivian Moreau, 1996.

WARNINGS: This story contains scenes that are both VIOLENT and SEXUALLY GRAPHIC, including BAD LANGUAGE. Also, there is a liberal use of the name of God by one of the main characters. For those who might be offended, please realize that this fictional character is South American and very Roman Catholic, and God was an important part of the daily lives of 17th century Catholics. She is not being blasphemous.

One

New York, December 30, 1996

Elena fell, again, and slid across the ice. Like a living bowling ball, she knocked down two other skaters on her way. Duncan's contribution to the whole affair was to help the other two to rise as he followed in her wake, laughing at her and apologising to them all at once. When he finally caught up to her and gave her a hand up, she fought off the urge to pull him down.

"How," he crowed, "can you be so graceful in the dojo, so skilfull with a sword, and yet such a goose on the ice?"

"Because I like to have my feet on the ground, that's why!" she answered. "Skates are like skis -- slippery and treacherous! Besides, it's cold, and I don't do well in frigid weather. I'm a creature of the tropics, remember?" she groused. But the look on his face finally made her give in and laugh with him at herself. She'd never been able to resist his smile, and the fact that he was smiling at her made it all the sweeter.

Just two days ago she'd wondered if Duncan would forgive her for her lack of trust, and for the pain she had caused Connor MacLeod. But in spite of everything she'd gone through, she was blessed, she realized, to be loved by a man whose kindness to her seemed infinite, no matter how far she pushed him.

Now she was grateful that they were still together, for the moment, and after her confession to Duncan on Christmas Eve they'd spent a quiet Christmas Day talking, eating, and quietly getting re- acquainted with each other's bodies.

This visit to New York was more of a victory. The last time she was here, in October, she'd been captured and methodically tortured for twenty-three days by the Immortal Claude Bethel, an experience she was afraid would scar her for life. For her life. And getting away from Bethel, and having him be decapitated by Connor MacLeod, was not the end of her ordeal.

As Duncan hugged her to him, her mind went back: death, pain, fear, horror, mutilation, betrayal, lies, mistrust, anger, impotence, hopelessness, despair, and blunder upon blunder on her part -- the legacy of Claude Bethel, a legacy she couldn't escape no matter how she struggled and fought. And yet, here she was. Duncan had forgiven her. She'd made some sort of peace with Connor. It was the time to put all this behind her, to celebrate.

And yet, even in the circle of Duncan's arms, Elena Duran felt so cold. Maybe it was the weather. . .

Or maybe she needed to get away from Duncan's forgiveness, from his kindness. Even from Connor's own brand of comradeship. Maybe she needed to strike out, away from the MacLeods' protection, and seek her own peace and her own strength. Maybe it was time for her to forgive herself.

As she was considering this, she shivered, and Duncan, ever sensitive, asked her, "What's wrong, [querida?]"

She smiled at him. "I'm cold," she said simply.

He wrapped her up tighter. "Let's get back to the hotel, then. Some hot chocolate." Maybe he'd just imagined her pulling away from him. He'd been the one who insisted that she trust him, that she tell him the source of her quarrel with Connor, a quarrel that had left his kinsman, the man he most loved in the world, so deeply wounded.

She told him, and Duncan forgave her. By this point, Duncan realized, he'd forgive Elena Duran almost anything. Almost. But he wasn't sure if Connor had. Maybe that was the source of her current distress. Maybe she needed to talk to Connor again -- Connor hadn't said anything to Duncan, as usual. Sure, he decided, he'd call Connor when he got back to the hotel.

But as they walked into the hotel the concierge handed him a message from Connor, typically brief and direct: "Come celebrate the New Year."

Celebrate. That's what they needed to do, the three of them. Celebrate. And it never occurred to Duncan to wonder if the message had been for him alone, if Connor had meant to include Elena. But he, Duncan, meant to include her.

"It's an invitation from Connor. He wants us to come celebrate the New Year with him."

"Celebrate?" she asked. She wondered what Connor would mean by that word, decided it would involve liberal amounts of scotch. The man had been trying to get her drunk since he first met her. So be it, she decided. "Isn't January first his birthday?"

"Yes, it is," Duncan smiled; then, suspiciously, he inquired, "What did you have in mind?"

"Me?" she answered his question with her own innocent one. Anything Connor wanted to celebrate would be alright with her. She and Duncan had had a wonderful American style Christmas season in New York City, a city that partied three hundred sixty five days a year, and had spent the intervening days visiting shops, museums, tourist traps. They had gone horseback riding in Central Park, and horses always cheered Elena up. Elena had even attended Midnight Mass for the first time in decades, at the magnificent St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Duncan had come with her. There was nothing like holy ground, she thought, and as the organ swells washed over her, setting all her nerves tingling, filling her with music, she realized how wonderful, and how rare, it was to feel truly safe, even for an hour or two. On their way out, they'd stuffed the collection box with all the bills in their pockets, then had to go to the bank to get more cash to buy and send belated Christmas presents.

They went up to their suite to shower and change, and to make a few phone calls. Elena always called her ranch in Argentina during the holidays and at least once more during the year to let her housekeeper know she still had her head. This time she found out she also had a message from Maria Feliz Betancourt, asking her to come to Ciudad Mexico to celebrate the New Year.

"Another Maria?" Duncan asked, smiling.

"We're all Marias, Duncan. Every good Catholic family in Latin America calls their daughters Maria -- it's tradition, or Church rule, or the law, or something. My own name is Mariaelena; then there's Maria Cristina, Anamari, Maribet, Maria Isabel. . ." here she paused, still feeling a pang three years after Maria Isabel Alonso's murder. "Anyway, I think I'll go see Maria Feliz after the first."

Duncan turned to her, slightly worried. "If you'd rather go there than to Connor's. . ."

"Absolutely not, [querido.] I wouldn't miss an invitation from Connor for anything. I'm sure they're rare, and I'm very pleased he even wants me to come. He's been trying to get me drunk, you know, for years. I think he's curious as to what I'll do."

"What will you do?" Duncan asked, with a small prickle of concern. Unlike him, who tended to get silly and giggly, Elena usually drank when she was unhappy, which generally made her a sad drunk. And perhaps just a bit quarrelsome. Right. And Duncan did not want any trouble between Connor and Elena, please, no, not again, not this time.

"Don't worry, Duncan," she reassured him with a smile, with a squeeze of his arm. Then she deftly changed the subject. "I'm sure Maria Feliz would be pleased to go carousing after the new year -- any excuse, really. She really lives up to her name, you know."

Duncan hadn't missed her intention to leave. He'd long ago given up any notion of predicting the actions of the mercurial Elena Duran. Sometimes he wondered if she herself knew what she was going to do next. But for now, he decided to go with her flow. "Feliz?" he smiled. "Doesn't that mean 'happy?' What kind of a name is that? Sounds like one of Snow White's dwarves." Duncan didn't go to the movies, but he'd been caught up in the hoopla decades ago about the first animated motion picture, put out by Walt Disney, and had been so charmed he'd since made it a point to see Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty -- his favorite -- and other Disney classics. It was one of his well-kept secrets, and he knew if Richie ever found out Duncan liked cartoons, the redhead would tease him forever. . .and forever was a long time for them.

"I don't know her original name, but this is the one she gave herself. Must be nice. . ." she mused. Must be nice to be happy, to be so optimistic all the time. She shook herself. There was no need to be moody. Everything looked good. And although being with Connor still made her slightly nervous -- she wasn't still completely clear on how she stood with him -- Duncan would be there. And all she had to do was watch what she said. Say as little as possible. That's all. Even roaring drunk, she could manage that. Hopefully.

They spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for an appropriate gift for Connor's birthday.

Translations:

querido/querida (Span.)--beloved

Two

New York City, December 31, 1996

"For me?" Connor asked, tearing open Elena's package like a small, eager boy. "Aretha Franklin?" he inquired politely. "The Queen of Soul, right?"

"That's what they call her. Duncan didn't know much about her either. You'll like her, I think."

"Thank you," Connor told her, smiling his warm smile, the one that seemed to erase his coldness, his rigidness, that made her forget this same man who had saved her life had also threatened her head not once but twice, and meant it both times.

Connor had stopped by a deli, and Elena and Duncan had brought wine. So now they all ate big salads, munched on apples and grapes, made themselves thick sandwiches and emptied several bottles of wine while listening to Aretha croon about respect.

During 'You Make me Feel (Like a Natural Woman),' Duncan bowed, formally, and asked Elena to dance, and she followed along with the lyrics, whispering them in his ear. Leaning against each other heavily, they managed quite well, despite their ever increasing inebriation.

Connor sat and watched them, drinking, saying little as usual, but missing nothing. He nodded in obvious appreciation. "I think I like her as much as Ella Fitzgerald," he stated, pouring Elena a glass of scotch.

"Nobody sings like Ella; not that type of music." Duncan made his opinion known a little louder than normal. The wine and scotch were a strong combination, even for a man his size.

Elena eyed the scotch warily. It was a standing joke between her and Connor -- the only joke between them -- that she insisted she didn't like scotch, and he always pretended to be offended. But tonight was New Year's Eve, and she was with two men she trusted, mostly. So she up-ended the glass, letting the smooth smoky flavor slide down her throat and fire her up from her head to her ankles. It took an effort, but she refused to cough, instead letting out a small mewing sound which sent the Scotsmen, who'd been watching her intently, into gales of laughter.

Still shaking, Connor poured her another. "I thought you said you didna like scotch, Elena," he smiled at her -- triumphantly, she thought.

"You know," she said to him, conspiratorially, "after Maria was killed by Hunters and I started hunting them, every time I killed one of them I'd drown my sorrows in scotch; drink myself into a stupor. Maybe that's why I have something against the stuff. It brings back bad memories."

"Anythin' can bring back bad memories, Elena, if you let it," he said.

"Of course," she continued, emptying her second glass, not too slowly, "that was before I became intimately acquainted with a Scot and got to know the really fine stuff, like this." She smiled brightly at Duncan, paused, then asked, "What is this?"

"It's a special blend I got from a broker, a very special, small lot, bottled in Glenfinnan itself." Connor answered.

"Glenfinnan!" Duncan repeated happily, pouring himself two fingers and sipping carefully.

She tried rolling the strange word around on her tongue a couple of time, to the Scotmen's amusement. Finally, she gave up and added, in a whisper, "I really do like it, Connor, but, I'll never admit I said that."

"Why?" Connor asked, smiling mischievously, filling her glass a third time. Unlike her, he hadn't had any wine at all, and, she suspected, he'd started on the scotch before she and Duncan had arrived.

Duncan knew for a fact that Connor had started on the scotch earlier. For one thing, Connor was smiling more than usual. For another, he was being exceptionally nice to Elena. This was unusual, because the two of them usually found some reason to argue right away. But for some reason, Duncan realized, Connor had decided to forgive Elena, and Duncan wondered why. He also wondered if Elena realized that Connor had done so.

"Why? Why do you want to get me drunk, Connor? [?Porque?]" She drank most of the third glass, then got up from the sofa, next to Duncan, and went to sit by Connor; but she somehow missed the seat and slid down to the floor. She put a hand on the sofa behind her and tried to lift herself up. Connor emptied his glass, then put it down and pulled her up to sit beside him.

"Why do you think I want to make you drunk, sen'rita?" he smiled at her.

She thought it over. The smell of scotch filled her nostrils, making her slightly dizzy. "What do I think is the reason you want to get me drunk, or why do I think that I want. . .that you want to? What?" she asked. "I. . ."

By this time Duncan was laughing again, but he knew exactly what Elena was asking -- or so he thought. He also knew what the answer to her question was, and actually wondered why Elena was asking. With the MacLeods, it was a matter of trust, although apparently it wasn't as obvious to Elena as it was to him. But he said nothing, not wanting to give away Connor's game. "I'm sure he has a reason, Elena. Connor always has a reason for everythin' he does," he contributed to the conversation, which was taking rather an odd turn. He suspected not a one of them really knew what they were exactly talking about anymore. Except maybe for Connor.

Connor looked at Duncan sharply, surprising his younger kinsman, then back at Elena. "Why do you think, Elena?" he asked again.

"Think what?" she said, already having lost track of the conversation. Her mind felt dull, clotted. She was afraid if she shook her head it would gurgle. This is why she drank scotch before, she knew, to put herself into just such a state of forgetfulness. Because she didn't want to remember something. But what was she trying to forget today? What was so bad. . .

A sudden image flashed before her eyes, something she couldn't forget. A man crying, begging her to stop, "I'll tell you anything, please, just please stop!"

"I didn't want to hurt them," she whispered, in Spanish and so softly neither man caught what she said. She finished her drink and held out her glass.

"Wha's that?" Connor asked, next to her, filling her glass yet again.

"I just don't wan' to remember. . ." she began, but then she did remember, and she jerked back away from him with a loud gasp, as if in sudden, acute pain. And what she was remembering: Bethel's face next to hers, smiling at her, just before he plucked out her right eye. . . but it wasn't Claude Bethel, it was Connor MacLeod!

"Elena." She could hear an edge in Connor's voice, a concern just in that one word, and a command. He was calling her, calling her back; and that, or something else, alerted Duncan, because now he was leaning across the coffee table, asking her, "[Querida?] Are you alright?"

"I. . ." she put her hand over her glass eye, a habit she'd picked up when overtired or overtressed, feeling a phantom pain there, but then began to shake her head, began to say it was nothing, then realized why she had confused, just briefly, for an instant, Connor with her torturer, Bethel. Because Connor had taken Bethel's quickening -- a quickening she should have taken but had been too terrified to -- after he, Connor, had helped her get away from Bethel's torture chamber. He was here, Bethel was right here, in Connor's face, just for such a brief second. . .or maybe she'd imagined it. . .or maybe she was going mad. But instead of being repelled, she wondered, not for the first time, what a horror it must be for Connor, still, to live with Claude Bethel's soul inside his. She leaned toward Connor. "What is he like?" she asked him softly, her voice almost a caress. "[!Ay, Connor, que horror, Dios mio!]" she breathed out, feeling bad for him; for them both.

Connor was looking right at her, and she could tell he knew exactly what she meant. He paled; his eyes focused on her even more carefully, and he said, "Christ. . .don't you know?" in a voice that was almost a croak.

Duncan looked from one to the other, at Connor's suddenly pale, drawn face and Elena's frightened, then stricken face, all her color bleached out as a memory took its place -- he recognized the look -- but the memory of what? But then he, also, knew: Bethel. It was what the two of them, Elena and Connor, shared. It had to be.

"Don't," he said to her; to both of them.

But they recovered quickly; they were both too experienced with sudden bad memories that brought them vividly back to a place they didn't want to be, as though they were there, right now this second.

Connor leaned back away from her at last, taking another sip. It was obvious he wasn't going to say anything more, so Elena said, to say something, anything, to fill this awful moment, damn, was he angry at her? "The last time. . .the last time I got so drunk, like this, for fun, because I wanted to -- was in nineteen thirty. . .something. [En La Habana.] Maria Feliz and me."

There was a moment of silence, then Connor asked, "Another Maria?" with what she hoped was amusement.

Elena sighed, then smiled at his choice of words. How could the two MacLeods be so different, and yet so alike!

"They're all called Maria," Duncan said, cheerfully, the last few minutes all but forgotten in his present happy alcoholic haze. "All the girls are called Maria. 'T is the law or somethin'." He paused, drank, then added, giggling, "Even some of the men'r called Maria."

"Don't laugh," Elena snapped, swatting at him across the coffee table and almost falling off the sofa again. "I've known two Jose Marias, and one Angel Maria, and they were all men, believe me."

"And you know this from personal experience?" Duncan asked, still amused. Something had gone wrong, he knew, but he couldn't quite remember what.

"Yes!" she answered. "But I am no a slut."

"Nobody called you a slut, sweetheart," Duncan soothed her.

"Your kinsman here," she pointed sideways at Connor, "called me a slut! Remember?"

"I remember," Connor smiled. He seemed quiet again, content, although Elena could only guess at what lay under that hard surface. "You were a slut."

"Don't tell that to me, [!pendejo!] I am no a slut."

"Does she always get abusive in Spanish when she drinks?" Connor asked Duncan, as though she weren't there.

"Always," Duncan answered seriously.

Elena ignored them. "Now Maria Feliz -- she is a slut. If they wear pants, that's all she needs to know."

"What does she need to know?" Duncan asked, and Elena called out, "Shush! Do you want to hear the story, [?si o no?]"

"Abou' your gettin' drunk? Yeah!"

"La Habana." She paused. "Do you know what a Cuba Libre is?"

"Rum and Coca-Cola."

"Si. That's what we were drinking. And daiquiris. And straight rum, in little glasses. . .We went to every bar and every night club in the city, Tropicana, Sans Souci, and we danced the rumba -- can you dance the rumba, Duncan?"

She pronounced it funny, 'ruumba' and 'cuuba,' he thought; then Duncan realized that was the correct pronunciation. "Yes, and I can tango, too, which, if I remember correctly, you canna!"

"An Argentine who canna tango!" Connor muttered, loudly enough for her to hear.

"Hey, hey!" Elena protested, insulted, looking at Connor again. "Can you do the Highland fling? Besides, I was talking about my frien', Maria Feliz."

"The slut," Duncan put in. The thought of Connor doing the Highland fling, in his current state especially, made him bubble over with mirth.

"Yes. We went to a different cabaret every night, challenging everyone to outdrunk us, outdrink us. And I'm a big girl, you know, and can hold my liquor, so I beat everyone, and I didn't care when I lost, either. But the word got around, somehow, and finally at this bar, this tourist bar -- la Floridita, it was -- they were waiting for us. [Emboscada.] And they brought out this man, this [hombre montana,] to challenge me." She finished off her drink and stood, not quite steady, lifting her hand up as high as it would go. "He was two meters tall, at least. And two meters wide," she added, spreading her arms. "And two meters thick, too."

Duncan laughed, and Connor contributed, "Two meters cubed," and both men laughed.

"Yes. And he outdrunk me. But I tried, tried to keep up with him. I did. Do you know," she asked Duncan, leaning precariously over the small table between the two sofas, "that is possible to die drinking? To actually die?"

Duncan nodded sagely, taking yet another swallow. "Alcohol poisonin'."

Elena nodded, making a great effort to enunciate carefully. "And I always know, I always know. . .after all this time, I know when I'm dying. So I look over to Maria Feliz. Because she was my salvation. She alone could keep me out of the morgue, or a grave. I hate graves! And she was smiling at me. But. . ." here Elena paused, "it wasn't a happy smile."

"An unhappy smile?" Duncan asked.

"You know the smile I mean. You have worn it on your own faces, both of you. It was the smile of the predator. It was the smile that said: 'Now I have you!' Do you know the smile I mean? You know!"

Duncan nodded, and Connor said, "Aye." Connor was behind her, and Elena couldn't see his face, but Duncan could. And he saw that same smile on Connor's face as his kinsman remembered something. And in spite of himself, of who it was, of where he was, Duncan felt a shadow pass over him.

Translations: (Span.)

porque - why

querida/querido - beloved, my love

que horror, Dios mio - my God, what a horror

emboscada - trap

hombre montana - man mountain

pendejo - swine, bastard

seiza (Jap.) - traditional Japanese way of kneeling while sitting on one's feet

Three

"Do you know what I did?" Elena asked no one in particular. "I drank my last drink. Because I knew for a fact that it would be my last drink. And I toasted her, Maria Feliz."

"But she didna behead you." Duncan stated the obvious.

"[No, claro que no,] and later on I realize why not, of course not. I would never have gone drinking, gotten so drunk, with someone. . ." With someone I didn't trust, she wanted to say; she almost said.

But she didn't say it. Instead, in a moment of epiphany, she twirled to face Connor, and got tangled up, and wound up falling at his feet. Their eyes met: her one grey eye, his two. And she knew. Then Connor leaned over and laboriously pulled her up to the sofa, beside him, again.

And Elena closed her mouth, with an audible click. All she had to do was watch what she said. Say as little as possible. That's all. Even roaring drunk, she could manage that. Hopefully. But even roaring drunk, she felt her moment of victory. He trusted her. Connor trusted her. And also, somehow, he'd forgiven her. Although her mind was still fuzzy, this fact was crystal clear.

They sat for long minutes, in silence, each deep in his own thoughts, then Connor said, "The first time I got drunk on a *gude* bottle o' scotch was. . .I was wi' Heather. We were celebratin'. . ." Connor was saying, lapsing more and more into the brogue, and Duncan immediately tuned in. There was a quality in Connor's voice; a particular pitch; a melancholy, a sadness he rarely allowed to show through. Also, Connor rarely mentioned anything about his youth, about his days with Heather MacDonald, the Highland girl who'd been Connor's first and possibly his only true love, and Duncan wanted to hear. He glanced over at Elena, ready to warn her to be quiet if necessary.

But Elena had moved and was sitting in [seiza] at Connor's feet, like a student before her master. He could see her effort and concentration as she, too, sat listening closely, attuned to his voice, realizing this was a special occasion.

"My birthday. O'course, in those days, the new year wasna January first. I think. . .wasna it in March, Duncan?"

Duncan nodded absently, not saying a word, not wanting to break the spell. "Anyway, she'd gotten the bottle from a traveller; while I was away doin' some huntin'. Damn cold, 't was, and wolves threatenin' the sheep, the lambs, pickin' off the wee ones, so I'd gone out to hunt 'em down or chase 'm off. Never did find the bluidy wolves," he concluded, draining his glass.

"What 'bout the traveller?" Duncan prompted softly.

Connor focused his eyes on his kinsman. "Aye, the traveller. You see," he explained, leaning forward, carefully pouring himself another drink, "my Heather -- "he looked down at Elena, "she was sae beautiful, like you, but nae dark. She was fair, like'n angel. An' she had a kind heart. She could n'er stand to see ony creature suffer, nae mon nor beast. So she had taen this wanderer in for some hot food, an' some rest. An' he took wi' him an extra blanket, wi' a bit o' food stuffed in 't, too."

"And he left a bottle of scoch?" Elena asked in a hushed voice. She, too, was taken with the tale, its simplicity, and the simple emotion behind it. She'd never seen Connor MacLeod so vulnerable; never heard him open up like this to anyone, least of all to her. And to top it all off, he'd said she was beautiful.

"Aye; 't was all he had to gi' her for her hospitality. So when my birthday came 'roun' we opened 't and drank 't, and 't went down smooth, like naught I'd ivver tasted. Heather. . .her hair was gold, like the sun." He stopped, remembering.

It had gotten very still in the room -- the music had stopped, and the traffic sounds seemed very far away. "Did she have blue eyes?" Elena finally asked, a catch in her voice. She was remembering Gordon, his blond hair and blue eyes, eyes that were haunted by the bloodshed of the American Civil War.

"Aye," Connor whispered. "The loch, near the shore, was a wonderfu' blue; and the sky, on summer days, in the highlands so near the sun -- but they couldna compare with the blue of her eyes. My wee, bonnie Heather. . ." he drifted off.

Duncan unexpectedly felt his eyes sting, and as he looked across at his kinsman he was almost sure he could see unshed tears there too. But they never fell, and he'd never seen Connor weep, not even when his mentor had been in terrible pain. He decided it was a trick of the light.

Duncan did see, however, a tear slowly course down Elena Duran's left cheek, and she reached up and put her hand on Connor's knee, squeezing lightly, and said, in a shaky voice, "[Como la habeis querido.]"

"You loved her very much," was what Duncan made out, and apparently Connor understood, too, because he looked directly at Elena and said, "Aye. That I did." But then he seemed to shake himself slightly, sat back again, and looked across at Duncan. "Your turn t' tell a tale, cousin," he said to Duncan.

Connor's words had moved Elena so much she'd wanted to comfort him. But when she instinctively put her hand on Connor's knee, she'd been suddenly afraid he'd remove it, maybe even forcibly. But he didn't, and now she simply turned to face Duncan, wrapping her arms around her legs, her head resting against the sofa beside Connor's legs, her body warm and safe and full of food and glowing alcohol, and decided she liked this Connor MacLeod much more than the rigidly controlled warrior she was familiar with. She was sufficiently drunk to understand the feeling but not drunk enough to say anything to embarrass him, anything that would make him close up to her in the future. He'd gotten drunk in front of her; he'd trusted her, and she wasn't going to let him down, not if her life depended on it.

"Well, I don' have a story t' tell," Duncan said. "Abou' new years?" He considered it soberly, as soberly as he could, for a long minute, taking long swallows of his scotch. "There was the time in Paris. . ." but then he realized, even in his drunken stupor, that he was about to tell a story about Tessa, his lovely Tessa. . .but Tessa was gone, dead; and he was with Elena. It wasn't right. "Nae. 'T is no' right," he mumbled. But a melancholy seemed to have settled on him, and he slammed the rest of his drink, not doing justice to the fine scotch.

"What, [querido?] You can tell me, us." But Duncan shook his head, then reached to stroke her face, smiling sadly.

Elena kissed his hand, then shook her head. "But you are both so," she paused, "so sad! There must be some poem somewhere about a melancholy Scot, [no es asi?] This is a celebration! I'm going to call," she went to the phone, picked it up, "to someone who will cheer me up."

"D' you mean t' call Miyu in Japan?" Connor blurted out, suddenly.

Elena froze, holding her breath, gripping the receiver so tightly her hand hurt. Ueshiba Miyu, the young great granddaughter of Elena's Aikido master in Tokyo, was unwittingly the greatest source of trouble between Elena and Connor. When Elena was captured by Claude Bethel, Miyu had been with her in New York, and Bethel had convinced Elena -- convinced her by simply causing her pain -- that Connor had betrayed her. Worse: Bethel had persuaded Elena to believe the lie that Connor had 'enjoyed' little Miyu, had abused her.

But what Connor really held against Elena was not that she had believed Bethel -- after all, she'd had no real choice -- but that she'd told Connor all about it, afterward, unnecessarily.

("No. This is not about honesty, and you're not looking for trust. You want me to make you feel better. To take away your guilt," he'd said to her.)

He'd been right, of course, and he'd been hurt, far worse than she could have imagined. Far worse than she thought Connor MacLeod could be hurt. She'd misjudged him -- another in a long series of mistakes on her part. But he'd forgiven her. Just a minute ago she'd been sure that he'd decided to trust her, to believe in her. . .but maybe she'd made yet another mistake; maybe Connor couldn't let it go; maybe she'd misinterpreted his intentions. What had just been so clear was unknown territory, again. Maybe they were back to square one.

Duncan sat there, blinking, unbelieving. He'd been sure, even as drunk as he was, that Connor had forgiven Elena. He couldn't have been wrong about his kinsman's intentions; he couldn't have made such a blunder. He opened his mouth to say something, but then realized there was really nothing for him to say. This was between them, between Elena and Connor -- but still, he said, "Connor. . ." at the same time Elena, feeling like she'd been wrong, like she'd been kicked, feeling unaccountably hurt, turned slowly to Connor, whispering, "[Ay, Connor. . .]"

And Connor said, "I didna' mean that. Too much scotch, I guess. Sorry." His smile was so fleeting she almost missed it. But it was there. And so was his apology.

His apology. To her.

Elena could feel her heart pounding in her throat. She wanted to kiss him, to thank him -- instead she controlled herself and began, "Connor. . ." Then she got a glimpse of the clock -- and an inspiration. "It's eleven thirty. That means we still have time!"

"Time?" Connor asked.

"To go to Times Square! To see that lighted ball go down! To cheer in the New Year with all the crowds!"

"Wha'?" Connor asked, again.

"Si, come on! Duncan!" she went to him, trying to pull the younger MacLeod to his feet. "It'll be fun! We can dance in the streets!"

Duncan sat, shaking his head. "We're in nae condition. . ."

"Nobody is in nay condition! Is New Year's Eve!" she spoke across to Connor. "Don' you see? Everyone is happy tonight! Is a new year, a new beginning, a new start! Come with me, Connor," she coaxed him, holding her hands out to him.

Connor looked at her. "You're pushin', girl."

"[Si, claro que si!]" she exclaimed, smiling at him, no longer caring to guard her reaction. "I always push! Di'nt you know that about me, Connor?"

"Aye," he answered, but he took her hand and rose with some effort. "Come on, Duncan," he said to his kinsman. "Or you'll be lef' behin'!"

"We're goin' t' Times Square?" Duncan asked, standing unsteadily.

"I guess we are," Connor smiled.

Translations:

claro que si/no -of course/of course not

no es asi (Span.) - isn't that so

Four

New York City, January 1, 1997

Elena woke up with a start, lifting her head slowly, convinced that she was being watched. Head pounding, her mouth bleached dry, she looked out through a narrow slit and realized she was on the floor, looking up at Connor MacLeod, who was standing a couple of meters away.

He had a small smile. "I will admit, it is a good way to start the new year," he said, and his eyes travelled down her body.

She lifted her head further and followed his gaze. Elena was wearing a bra, a shirt, and a sweater. Nothing else; not even socks. Remembering Duncan's ardor of the night before, she silently cursed both MacLeods while Connor chuckled.

"I didn't know someone with your complexion could blush so. . . completely," he said, grinning.

She noticed his voice sounded hoarse -- maybe the after-effects of the scotch, or maybe his head was full of soft cloth, too -- and as their eyes met she clearly saw the amusement there. But she also saw, way deep inside, rigidly held back, a hot, smoldering look she'd seen too many times on too many men to mistake it for anything else. Maybe I can have some fun with Mr. Connor MacLeod, she thought, followed immediately by another thought, Richie Ryan's phrase du jour: "Don't go there."

She glanced around, and Connor said, turning to go, amusement still in his tone, "Duncan should know where the rest of your clothes are."

She got up with difficulty and stumbled into the hall, finding Duncan snoring lightly on the floor of a bedroom. His shirt was gone, but he still had *his* pants on! Worse: she could see one leg of her jeans under his torso. She looked around -- her panties had simply disappeared.

Elena considered the possibility of moving, in her present fuzzy state, a sleeping man who weighed ninety kilos. She'd have to get Connor's help, she decided. She'd also rather be run through with a sword than ask for Connor's help, she further decided. She damned both men to the lowest level of Dante's inferno.

She went into the bathroom, showered quickly, and came back with a dripping sponge. Slowly and deliberately, she squeezed the sponge over Duncan's face, and when he sat up, sputtering, yelling, "Hey!" she quickly snatched up her jeans and put them on, finding her way toward the smell of coffee.

"It seems your lord and master is awake," Connor said to her, nodding in the direction of the bedrooms. He was just pouring himself a mug, and she noticed, on the burner, an Italian espresso percolator, making that buzzing, bubbling sound that meant the coffee was ready. She gingerly poured herself some of the strong, black brew, added three spoonfuls of sugar, and took a large, steaming swallow, all the time aware of Connor watching her. His look was intense as always; but the heat was gone.

"Your kinsman is such a bastard," she answered, but she was smiling.

Now they studied each other silently. Elena still had questions for Connor. She wanted to know, really know, what it was like to have Bethel's quickening, a quickening she should have taken herself, but had been too afraid to try for. She also wanted to know if Connor remembered what Bethel had done to her, because if he did. . .she knew she could ask one MacLeod anything, but with this MacLeod she still had to tread carefully. Maybe more than ever, now.

She finally decided on small talk. "How nice. Did you get this coffee just for me?"

"I certainly wouldn't drink that mud! It's even more powerful than the scotch."

She liked his sense of humor. She took another sip. The roaring between her ears was slowing down. "I met an old peasant once in a cantina in Mexico, in the middle of. . .nowhere. He must have been ninety years old, and he was eating little peppers so hot they made jalapenos taste like dishwater. And he was popping them in his mouth like. . .like mints! So I asked him, '[Viejo,] aren't you afraid of what these will do to your intestines?' and he told me, 'Senorita, we were bred for this. All my ancestors whose stomachs weren't strong enough died out generations ago.' So I guess you can get used to eating or drinking anything."

Connor nodded. "Survival of the fittest."

"In more ways than one. Ten minutes after we spoke, I was fighting behind the cantina to keep my head." She sighed. "But the old man - - we had a nice conversation. He knew what he was talking about."

"Many mortals are very wise, Elena."

"Yes; I've just recently learned how strong, how resourceful they can be. The Oniocos. . ." she drifted off, thinking about the family of Mapuche Indians who ran her ranch in Argentina, and who knew about her Immortality. "I used to feel so superior to them, to follow the old adage: [Mas sabe el diablo porque es viejo que porque es el diablo.]"

Connor frowned slightly. "The devil is old?.?"

"The devil knows more because he's old than because he's the devil." As she said that, she saw Connor look over her shoulder and smile. Duncan.

"I agree," Duncan said, coming up behind her. "And right now, I feel like the devil."

"Do you feel evil, Duncan? Or old?" Connor asked, smirking.

Duncan glanced at Connor, who looked refreshed -- quite different from the way Duncan felt. He put his arm around Elena, heavily. "No, I feel like I'm in hell. Coffee," he said, and Connor handed him a full mug.

"Oh, you don't know what hell is, [!querido!] You left me half naked -- literally -- in Connor's living room," she said, elbowing him in the ribs.

"Wha'? Ouch!" he shook his head, spilling the coffee and rubbing his bruised ribs. "No, we were in the bedroom. You must have gone out there, maybe looking for the kitchen or something, and passed out." But he looked at Connor as he said it.

Elena remembered being thirsty, going looking for water late in the night; or early in the morning. "I hate you," she said, turning in his arms, then added, unexpectedly, "I'm leaving for Ciudad Mexico tomorrow. To see Maria Feliz."

Elena and Duncan had had a good week together, and now Elena, a very independent spirit, needed some down time alone to recoup. And after their very intense weeks together, while she was recovering from Bethel's 'attentions,' Duncan, too, needed a break.

"We should get back to the hotel, then," Duncan said, draining his coffee cup, wincing as the heat hit his belly.

"Why don't you stick around for a few days, Duncan," Connor invited, and Duncan, surprised and wondering what it was all about, nodded in agreement.

"I'll drop by tomorrow," he said, filled with curiosity.

They picked up their coats and swords and moved to the door. "Goodbye, Connor. [Feliz cumpleanos.]"

Connor nodded. "It seems we're destined to keep meeting."

"Yes, doesn't it," she agreed, but this time, it's different, Connor, she added to herself.

She stepped out into the hall, and Duncan said, "Connor."

"Duncan."

Then they left.

New York City, January 2, 1997

"Good morning, Rachel," Duncan said, smiling at the woman he'd known practically all her life.

"Happy new year, Duncan" she replied, smiling brightly. "I'm so glad to see you again under better. . .circumstances." She was referring to the last time Duncan had been in New York in early October, when Elena had been kidnapped, and he and Connor had spent days frantically searching for any trace of the Argentine Immortal.

"Me, too."

"How is Miss Duran? I only saw her that once, and she seemed so. . . confident. And kind, I remember."

Elena had told Duncan about meeting Rachel right here at the antique shop and the misunderstanding the two women had had over a young pre-immortal named Emma Cuzo. Still, although the word 'confident' certainly fit, Duncan was sure he wouldn't characterise Elena Duran as 'kind.'

"She's doing much better, thank you. Time will heal. And that confidence of hers will help, too."

"And a little help from her friends." She gazed at Duncan for a moment, then added, "Speaking of her friends -- how are *you,* Duncan?"

He could feel her sympathy radiating across the desk. "I'm alright, Rachel. Thanks for asking," he smiled softly, putting his hand over hers briefly.

She smiled back. "Well, Elena caused quite a stir around here. Connor told me something about what happened when we got together over the holidays."

"Yes, she usually causes quite a stir," he said wryly. Duncan had been so preoccupied with Elena, he'd completely neglected his kinsman during the holidays, and was glad Connor and Rachel had their little annual ritual. He knew Connor confided in Rachel, but not how much. "I'm glad he has you, Rachel."

"Well, we talk, sometimes. Not often; when he's in the mood. Mostly I talk, actually; but sometimes he tells me things. . ." Her eyes had gone out of focus, and she brought them back to Duncan with difficulty. Looking into them, he had the impression that, although Rachel welcomed her talks with Connor, she maybe dreaded them a little, too. "Anyway, he's expecting you. And you know, of course, that he's here," she added, amusement in her tone.

"Of course," Duncan bowed slightly, smiling again.

He found Connor in his weapons room, dressed in sweats and carefully cleaning a magnificent claymore. Connor's collection had some fine pieces. All of them, Duncan knew, had their own history, a special meaning for his kinsman, and he didn't allow dust or dirt to mar their beauty or value. Duncan was remembering their adventures with that particular claymore when Connor interrupted his musings.

"Duncan, I'm glad you could come. Did Elena get off alright?"

"Yes," he answered, curioser and curioser.

"Good. We have some business to attend to, you and I. And if she'd stayed, I would have invited her, too -- although a woman might have complicated things."

From long experience, Duncan knew Connor's code words, and business meant only one thing: Immortals. He felt his stomach tighten with foreboding. But Connor, as usual, was giving nothing away. "Is something wrong?" Duncan asked.

Connor carefully placed the heavy weapon back on its bracket and gave Duncan his fleeting smile. "Not at all. Why would anything be wrong?"

"Connor, what is this about?"

"It's about swords, Duncan. Two swords," he added, nodding at a [daisho:] a beautiful katana and its matching short sword, the [wakisashi.] "Hosokawa used a [wakisashi] similar to that one to hamstring you."

Duncan felt color rising to his face. Was Connor going to forever criticise him, forever think of him as the student who needed to learn? Wasn't Connor ever going to get past thinking of Duncan as the inexperienced boy he'd found on the rocks in the Highlands? And was Connor ever going to stop letting him know that he felt about him this way? "I'm not likely to forget it," he spat, thinking about Hosokawa Hiroshi, the samurai, who had fought him just months before in a mistaken bid to win Elena Duran. Hosokawa had defeated him fair and square, and only Elena's pleading, on her knees, had saved Duncan's head.

Connor ignored Duncan's discomfort. "We know Hosokawa was a student of Miyamoto Musashi, who developed the two-sword school, and that special two-sword defense of his." He paused, smiling, and added, "It must have been something to have had Musashi as sensei."

Duncan was feeling anger, humiliation, guilt, resentment -- but he knew Connor's story about the legendary samurai Musashi was leading somewhere. Connor never did anything without a reason. So in spite of himself, Duncan was interested, curious -- and silent.

"Musashi challenged every samurai he met -- and he was only defeated once," Connor continued.

"But they were duels to the death," Duncan protested. Then he remembered a story Hideo Koto had told him. "Someone spared Musashi; a samurai who used a [bo] stick instead of a sword."

Connor nodded. "That samurai's name was Muso."

"Your point?"

"Muso then founded his own school, the Shindo Muso Ryu, and taught his students how to defeat the invincible [juji dome,] the crossed swords of Musashi."

"Connor," Duncan said, impatient now, "I know this is leading somewhere."

"Don't you know patience is a virtue?" Connor said, using his superior, I-am-the-teacher tone. "Anyway, I did some digging, made some calls, and found out that a [sensei] of the Shindo Muso Ryu is living here, in New York. So I spoke to his grandson, and he said the old man -- his name is Kira Hideyoshi -- is in his nineties, crippled by arthritis and almost blind. But he's agreed to give us an interview."

Duncan figured it out quickly. "You mean to ask him to take us on as students. To teach us how to defeat Hosokawa. The two swords."

"If he'll have us. And, if you think you can still learn anything in your old age," Connor said, smiling.

"Watch out who you're calling old!" Duncan retorted.

Connor chuckled. "I made an appointment for one o'clock. Is your Japanese as rusty as mine?"

"Probably worse."

Connor nodded. "I asked his grandson to be our translator. Are you game, Duncan?"

For a reply, Duncan grinned. The fact that there was an Immortal who could potentially defeat him a second time troubled him. . .and apparently it worried Connor, too. And although Duncan owed Hosokawa a debt -- his life, to be exact -- it was always best to be ready for all eventualities.

"Why don't you check out of your hotel and come stay with me? That is, if you and Duran didn't trash my spare bedroom too badly."

Duncan ignored the comment. "Can we get in some sparring before lunch? Loosen up the muscles, get the blood flowing."

Connor bowed theatrically. "Your wish is my command."

Duncan snorted. "Yeah. Right."

Translations:

viejo (Span.) - old man

feliz cumpleanos (Span.) - happy birthday

daisho (Jap.) - two sword set: katana & wakisashi

sensei (Jap.) - teacher

bo stick (Jap.) - bamboo sticks used for sparring practice, safer than naked blades

Five

Mexico City, February 8, 1997

Elena Duran lay in a slowly spreading pool of blood, sobbing quietly. But she knew she had little time, and couldn't allow herself the luxury of this emotion. After all, she had been in this position before. So she wiped her eyes, getting blood on her face, too, swallowing the lump in her throat, taking deep, calming breaths. Then she gathered herself up, being careful not to slip on the bloodied tiles, stripped off her clothes and threw them on the floor, and showered. In a half hour she was dressed, packed, and on her way to the airport.

An hour later, on the airplane soaring north, she thought of Duncan's kind brown eyes. But when she walked, tiredly, into the dojo, the Immortal she sensed wasn't Duncan at all, but. . .

"Methos! [!Que buena sorpresa!]" she called out, her genuine pleasure somewhat dampened by the presence of the other man in Duncan's office: Joe Dawson.

"Well," Methos stood, smiling, "at least somebody's glad to see me!"

"Duran! I thought you'd still be with your drinking buddy Maria something in Tijuana," Dawson said.

"Dawson." She nodded at him, not bothering to correct him, being deliberately rude, she knew, resenting the fact that this man made it his business to know all about her private life.

"How are you, Methos?" she asked.

"Never better," he said, spreading out his arms. "I've just come back from meditating in Tibet. It might help, you know."

"Help with what?" she asked.

"With your present. . .state of mind."

"And what is my present state of mind, o wise one?" she asked sarcastically, but also curious.

"Well," he surmised, studying her closely, "you cut your visit short with your drinking buddy. And you look, frankly. . .dejected. Maybe something went wrong. I'd say your friend attacked you, but you were expecting it -- you're far too clever to be easily fooled -- so you took her head. Now you feel guilty and bummed."

Dejected. She'd have to work on her poker face, she decided. Methos had noticed something, and had made some good guesses. Maybe it was the way she could feel her shoulders slump, with exhaustion and regret. Or the way she could still smell Maria Feliz' cold sweat as her 'drinking buddy' had crept stealthily into Elena's bedroom, just hours before. Or the way she could still hear, in her head, the 'swish' of Maria Feliz' sword as it swept down towards her neck. It was amazing how much of the truth he'd seen, she'd given away.

But even Methos was not infallible, she thought, smiling sadly. "Do you know what the word [soberbia] means? [Altivez?]"

"[Altivez?]" he repeated. "Yes, I think. . ."

"[Arrogancia,] then."

"That one I know, Elena. But surely you're not referring to me," he said, in a mock-hurt tone.

"Holmes, you amaze me," she said; then, changing the subject, "When Duncan arrives. . ."

"I'm wrong. . .aren't I? Your friend didn't come for your head." He looked at her for a moment, then said, "Or she did -- but you let her keep hers, didn't you? You showed mercy. Good for you, Elena." He spoke to Dawson about her as though she weren't there. "It's got to be MacLeod's influence, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I'd say so." Dawson was obviously sceptical of Elena Duran's 'mercy.' There was no love lost between her and the Watchers.

"So, left to my own devices, I would automatically kill -- is that what you're saying?" she asked the other Immortal.

"It does seem to be your pattern," Methos replied matter of factly.

For some reason, Elena's feelings were hurt; but she was determined not to show it. "But by letting her live, I now have a new enemy, one who owes me, and therefore *really* wants me dead. I'd think you would disapprove of my tactics."

"She wanted you dead anyway, right? And I don't disapprove of mercy, Elena. I disapprove of stupid sentimentality. If that's the reason you let her live, well. . .that will get you killed, eventually."

"Something or another will get me killed, eventually. Maybe being around a five thousand year old Immortal."

Immediately the words left her mouth, she realized the implied threat. [!Cono!] She kicked herself mentally.

Methos was staring at her -- and for a very brief instant he allowed his mask to slip before her, and she saw the depth, the cunning, the ferocity of the centuries-old killer that he was. But it was like the thin shadow of a cirrus cloud passing over the sun, so fleeting and unsubstantial she decided she must have imagined it. Maybe.

"Funny you should mention that. You missed all the excitement here last week of the false Methos," he said. The smile, the charm, were back full force.

Elena took a deep breath, calming herself. Maybe she should say something to him, explain. Methos' complexity was unnerving, and she was too exhausted to cope. Or she was just out of her league. She needed some sleep, right away -- she hadn't slept for three nights. But what was he talking about now? "The false Methos?" she asked, trying to keep up with him. "How fascinating! What happened?"

"Well," he answered, coming around the desk and sitting in Duncan's chair -- maybe putting the desk between them? she wondered -- "the short version is that he lost his head."

"Now that surprises me, Methos," Elena said, resisting the urge to lean over the desk, to get closer to him, to push. "I'd think you would want such a man alive, to draw your fire. Unless of course, he was the real Methos," she couldn't resist saying.

Methos smiled, innocently this time. He could be so cute, she thought. "I didn't kill him," he protested. "But if you want the whole story, I'd be happy to tell you all about it, over dinner, tonight."

Her attention was on the ancient Immortal; but out of the corner of her eye -- he was on her left -- she caught a glance of surprise from Dawson to Methos. "Dinner? Very smooth," she approved. "And I would love to hear it. But, I think this evening I will be otherwise occupied. When Duncan arrives, please warn him it's me. I don't need anyone else sneaking up on me in my sleep."

She picked up her suitcase and Methos said to her, "You've been around too long, Elena, are too experienced, to let one betrayal get to you. The kind of life we lead invites such. . .actions." His voice was kind now, she thought.

She shook her head. "We can't help who we are or what we have to do. But there are some things we don't have to do."

"There can be only one, Elena," he said, almost chiding her.

She wondered if he was playing the devil's advocate, or really meant what he said. With Methos, she never knew. Maybe no one ever did. "Ah, yes. That excuses everything," she said, sarcastically.

He shrugged. "It excuses nothing -- but it explains a lot," he countered.

She felt tired to her bones. "I know," she sighed, and picked up her suitcase. Hopefully Methos' alarms were stilled, for the moment. He was the last man she wanted for an enemy. But just as she exited the office, she sensed a buzz from the front dojo door. Duncan! she thought, excitedly.

But she was disappointed yet again.

The Immortal who came through the door was tall and thin. His parka was dirty and torn; he was unshaven and looked unkempt and exhausted, maybe as exhausted as Elena felt. He also looked nervous, and came forward slowly.

In spite of his appearance, Elena was keeping in mind her [duena's] favorite admonition: "[Coitela]" -- caution. So she put her suitcase down again and walked forward slowly, too, glancing over her right shoulder at the office, noting that Methos had risen from his chair but was still behind the desk; but without taking her eye completely off the new Immortal, who was also looking toward the office. Well, she thought, if he's come for Methos, I'll just step aside. This could be interesting.

But she was a nearer threat, and the man turned to her. "I'm looking for Duncan MacLeod," he whispered in an accent. . .French.

Duncan? This was different, and Elena accelerated her pace, closing the distance between them quickly, aggressively, her body feeling looser, readier, her hand going instinctively toward her waistband.

The Immortal held his ground just inside the doorway, holding his arm out in front of him in a protective gesture. The fingers of his right hand disappeared inside his parka. "I'm not here to fight," he said. "I just need to talk to MacLeod, [c'est tout,] just talk."

Elena stopped. Duncan had lots of Immortal friends; and if this particular man was not a friend, she remembered the last time she'd stepped in between Duncan MacLeod and an enemy. Duncan had been furious with her; had actually scared her. . .

Seacouver, September 20, 1996

"Just what the hell did you think you were doing?" Duncan says, right in her face.

"Me?" she asks innocently. "He came in here with an attitude, and you know what a smart mouth I have. . ."

"He came here looking for me, and in the future, you will keep your smart mouth shut!"

He's furious, and for a moment Elena thinks he's taking his anger at Barada out on her. But then she realizes he's angry at her, too. And she realizes her mistake. And she realizes why he's angry. Damn, she thinks. "Duncan," she begins placatingly, "I didn't mean to. . ."

"What -- are you going to do my fighting for me now, too? Is that it?"

"No, [querido,] listen. . ."

"I won't let you fight for me, Elena!" he hisses at her, taking her uniform in his fist and pulling her close. She can feel his hot breath on her face. His eyes are shiny and so full of raw rage. . .

Seacouver, February 8, 1997

So Elena said, "MacLeod isn't here right now. I can take your name, tell him you were here. . ."

"Oui, please. Tell him. . .tell him it's Philippe Holz, he'll remember me. Tell him I need to talk. Soon. Today, Miss. . .?" No weapon was in sight, but Elena knew he was ready.

"Duran; Elena Duran."

He nodded at her and was starting to leave, backing away, when Elena called out, "How can he reach you? Why don't you wait?"

Holz looked at her, and beyond into the office -- she assumed at Methos. "No, I'll be back. In an hour, [d'accord?]"

"Oui -- he should be here in an hour," Elena answered.

Holz paused, still nervous. "Your are. . .a friend of MacLeod's?"

"A good friend."

He nodded, smiling slightly. "[Bon. A tout a l'heure, Mlle. Duran.]"

"[A bientot, M. Holz,]" she said, and he disappeared out the door.

As the other two approached, Methos asked Dawson, "Phillipe Holz? Ring a bell?"

"No, but I can look him up."

Elena, too, wanted to know about Holz, but she was not about to ask Dawson for help or even information unless someone's life was literally in the balance.

"You're very frisky for someone so tired. If he'd been a serious headhunter you might have been in trouble," Methos said to her.

"Not at all. I would have told him that you are my lover and my protector, and that he would have to fight you instead."

Methos laughed. "You would, wouldn't you?"

She paused, as though thinking it over, then said, truthfully, "No. I wouldn't."

"I didn't think so," Methos said seriously, but his eyes still sparkled. "Go on upstairs, [nina,] before you fall over. We'll tell MacLeod all about it," he promised.

Translations:

que buena sorpresa (Span.) - what a nice surprise

cono (Span.) - damn

duena (Span.) - chaperone, governess

escoces (Span.) - Scotsman

c'est tout (French) - that is all

d'accord (French) - agreed

a tout a l'heure/a bientot (Fr.) - until later

nina (Span.) - girl

Six

Seacouver, February 8, 1997

Duncan rushed out of the elevator into the loft. The new year had started off fairly well, with a new understanding between Elena and Connor, a change in their relationship which had pleased him, Duncan, no end. At least now he didn't feel like he had to keep the two of them separated any longer.

Then he and Connor had spent almost a month under the thumb of a ninety-year-old tiny Japanese who, like most [sensei,] was a despot and a perfectionist in the dojo. Duncan had learned a lot, and was quite satisfied, but spending time with Connor was stressful in itself. The two MacLeods knew each other too well, got on each other's nerves, pushed each other's buttons with practiced ease, and Connor never let up -- although this time had been better, Duncan supposed, because Connor, too, had been a student, rather than just the teacher.

He'd returned to Seacouver to find that Richie had broken up with Teri, didn't want to talk about it, and was moping around. To make things more interesting, Methos, that delightful irritant, had shown up with a tale about a 'fake' Methos who had led Richie, like a lamb to the slaughter, almost to his death.

Tonight, with Richie gone and everything calmed down, he was hoping for a quiet dinner with Methos and Joe Dawson. But when he came home, they'd met him with news that Elena Duran was back, that her friend Maria Feliz had tried for her head, and that she was, in Methos' words, seriously depressed. Also, Phillipe Holz had dropped by, and would be back. Holz was just about the last person Duncan wanted to see right now, especially since he had to deal first with Elena. As much as he loved her, he didn't know if he could help her, and that fact, alone, was frustrating. At least, he thought, he could listen, be supportive.

His arrival woke her from where she'd fallen almost into a stupor on his couch. She sat up abruptly as Duncan rushed to her, sitting by her side. "Elena! Sweetheart. It's so good to see you!" He took both her hands in his, kissed her lightly.

"Duncan!" she replied, touching his face. "As always, you fill my heart."

He smiled, kissed her hand, ran his fingers through her hair, making her sigh with contentment. "Look, I just talked to Methos. What happened with Maria Feliz?"

Elena hugged him. She wanted to cry, but wouldn't allow herself. "She came after me, Duncan. In the night. After a century of friendship; I was a guest in her home. . ."

He held her, wordlessly, suffering along with her. There was nothing he could say, nothing anyone could say. It had happened to him; it had happened to her before, too. This kind of betrayal happened to every Immortal, sooner or later. And it hurt every time; made them more aware of just how alone they really were. This time was Elena's turn, that's all.

He pulled back and looked at her more closely. In the dim kitchen light she looked wasted, exhausted, with dark patches under her eyes. There was a sour smell about her, and it struck him then that she'd fought Maria Feliz recently, very recently; that her 'friend's' blood was still fresh on her soul; that she must have come directly from the killing field here, to him.

He wished he could comfort her in some way, protect her from her own immortality. But it was impossible. They all die, he reflected bitterly, and before they die they all suffer. Shaking his head, trying to clear it of such morbid thoughts, he said, "Sweetheart, I shouldn't have woken you. You should get some sleep; unless you'd rather talk," he added.

She shook her head. "There's not much to talk about. And I can sleep later -- right now a shower, I think, and maybe some coffee. You're about to have a visitor; did Methos tell you?"

He was flattered, pleased that she was worried about him. "Phillipe Holz. But you don't need to worry about him. I'll make you some coffee while you shower. Hungry?"

She nodded. "Ravenous. I waited for Maria Feliz to make her move for three days. I was choking down food, and I couldn't sleep. I guess I kept hoping I was wrong, that she really wouldn't attack me." She stood and walked toward the bathroom, then turned to him again. "I wanted to ask her why, afterward -- but I couldn't face her, couldn't talk to her."

"Afterward?" he asked. He came up to her, concerned. "You didn't take her head? You had just cause."

So Duncan, too, assumed she'd kill automatically. She sighed. "I know, I. . .I wanted to give her another chance, I guess. Methos says I showed mercy because of your influence. I think he's right. I think he's usually right."

"Yeah." It was good to think he had a calming influence on Elena Duran, that he'd weaned her away somewhat from her more violent tendencies. But now there was something else for them to think about. "Do you think Maria Feliz will come for you again, here? Sometimes they do. . ." he broke off, thinking if Maria Feliz did show up, he'd intercept her and. . .and then what? He couldn't do that for Elena, either.

"No. And if she does. . ." she shrugged, then kissed him, lightly, on the lips.

Later, while she ate a fluffy cheese omelet and toast and two bananas and drank coal black coffee generously laced with sugar, Duncan told her about Phillipe Holz.

"It was right after VE Day; we were celebrating. . ." he began.

A farm outside of Paris, June, 1945

The only thing worse than having your sleep or a meal interrupted, Duncan thinks, sighing resignedly, is having a seduction interrupted. But the beautiful Francine will just have to wait.

He pauses in the tale he's whispering in the most perfectly shaped ear he's ever seen to look around. The farmhouse is quite crowded, filled with happy Resistance members in various stages of inebriation, and no one is obviously looking around. But the Immortal presence is strong -- it might even be more than one, he thinks. Definitely not something to ignore.

"Francine, I'm very sorry, but. . .I've just remembered I must meet someone."

"Another woman?" she asks, in mock-insulting tones.

"How could I even think about another woman, Francine," he smiles at her, kissing her hand, "while your are near?"

"Flatterer," she giggles; then adds, as he rises to go, "Hurry back, Duncan."

"As soon as I can," he promises. He steps outside, into the warm June night, into the dark welcoming trees, following an ever stronger sensation. Then he sees the Immortal -- a tall, thin man rushing towards him, headlong, his clothes askew, running, calling to him, "M'sieu! [Au secours!] Please help me!"

Duncan pulls out his katana just as the other Immortal stops, dead in his tracks, and puts his hand to his head, holding it as though he were in pain. The moon barely illuminates the man's features -- and they are distorted, Duncan can tell at a glance, by fear. And it's uncomprehending fear, Duncan realises; confused fear. He doesn't know, Duncan concludes in an instant. He doesn't know what he is - - but someone else does, he notes, as yet another Immortal breaks the circle. This one would be the hunter.

The man in the middle looks from one to the other. Even in the moonlight, Duncan sees him pale even further. "[Mon Dieu,]" he rasps harshly, looking from one to the other, frozen in terror.

The third Immortal pauses in his pursuit, looking over the new threat represented by the Scotsman. "Monsieur," he bows theatrically. "I am Phillip Ordway. As you can see, this one belongs to me. If you will kindly step aside, I would be honored to accommodate you at a later time."

Duncan steps forward. "I'm Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod; and I think you should let him go."

"Let him go?" Ordway asks, with an incredulous laugh. "Whatever for?"

Duncan sees the other man wince as Ordway laughs. "Because he doesn't know! He's an innocent, new to the Game. Ye can surely see that!" He points to the intended quarry. "He doesna even have a sword!" In a clearer part of his brain, Duncan can feel the effects of the wine, and hopes he's sober enough for a swordfight.

"So? His ignorance won't make his head roll any differently, or make his quickening any less. . .satisfying."

A headhunter, Duncan decides, swallowing his distaste. "The man deserves to know why he's dyin'!"

"Messieurs!" says the object of their discussion. "Why would you want my head? [Mon Dieu,] I don't even know you, either of you! I don't understand. . ."

"The only thing for you to understand is that you're mine! And you're not getting away from me. MacLeod can wait his turn." Ordway raises his sword in the other man's direction, and Duncan moves forward again, to intercept.

"I think you an' I will have our turn first, Ordway," Duncan says, engaging him.

Ordway is a fierce, agressive fighter who pushes Duncan to his limits; but the sound of their blades brings onlookers, and they're forced to withdraw with the usual: "We'll meet again, MacLeod."

"I'm countin' on it," Duncan answers, but by this time the new Immortal has vanished.

Seacouver, February 8, 1997

"And when did you see Phillipe Holz again?" Elena asked, drinking the rest of her coffee.

Duncan stood behind her stool. He took a sip of wine, its bouquet mixing with the scent of jasmine rising from her. He cleared his throat. "Not until the late 1950's. We got quite friendly, actually. And believe it or not, Ordway was still after him. It was the second time I fought Ordway. . ."

"You mean he didn't fight Ordway himself?" she exclaimed, turning to him.

Duncan shook his head. "When Ordway showed up, Phillipe Holz. . . he ran."

"And he left you fighting for him? Again? I can understand running the first time, when he didn't know. . .but a second time!"

"We all have our weaknesses, Elena. Holz has fought other Immortals. But Ordway scares him."

"Scares him. Well," she said -- then a sudden vivid image assaulted her, she strapped to a chair, naked, cold, in incredible pain, with Bethel's voice taunting her -- and she shook her head, blowing air out of her lungs with a quick exhale, to be rid of it. "A few months ago I might have called him a coward. Now," she said wryly: "If Bethel were alive and showed up here, I would break Olympic records trying to get away from him." She put a piece of toast in her mouth.

Duncan was a little surprised; he knew she didn't like to admit to fear. He rubbed her back..

"Besides, I met your friend Holz, you know. He may be afraid of Ordway, but he was certainly ready to fight me!"

"What?!" Duncan cried out angrily. "Damn it, Elena, you didn't. . ."

"No, it's not like that, [querido!]" she rushed to placate him, turning around to face him again, putting her hand on his arm. "I didn't challenge him! I remember Achmed Barada. I wouldn't make that mistake again, believe me."

Duncan took a deep breath. On this subject he was unyielding. "So what did happen?" he asked stiffly, calming himself.

"I just walked toward him -- I can be a bit aggressive, you know."

In spite of his anger, he was amused at her characterisation. "A *bit* aggressive?" he asked, sarcastically.

"Duncan, nothing happened. I was just trying to say that Holz is not fearful of every Immortal, that's all. Peace?"

She was smiling up at him, sitting in front of him. It was a smile he found difficult to resist. His fingers twined in her short curls and he pulled her head back, putting his glass of wine on the counter. Then, at her unspoken invitation, he bent down to kiss her, a kiss which became longer and deeper. She made a satisfied noise deep in her throat, and he slipped his other hand inside her shirt, playing with her nipples. She arched her back; her hand curled around the back of his neck and she pulled herself upright, intending to mold her body against his. . .but they were interrupted by the sensation of an Immortal downstairs.

"Ahhh," she complained.

"It's probably Holz," he whispered in her ear.

"Such sweet words. . .just what I was hoping to hear." She nodded slowly, pulling away from him. "Do you want to talk to him alone? I'm kind of curious about him, now."

"Come on, then."

Translations:

sensei (Jap.) - teacher

au secours (French) - help

mon Dieu (French) - my God

Seven

Holz was in Duncan's office, and he was not alone. As they entered, his companion turned, and Elena took in her breath sharply. She was staring at one of the most gorgeous faces she had ever seen.

"Duncan MacLeod, [mon vieux,] it is to good to see you again!" Holz exclaimed, shaking Duncan's hand warmly. "Let me introduce you to my son, Stephen."

The first thing Duncan thought was, he doesn't look like a Stephen; he was too dark. Duncan tore his eyes away from the boy's beautiful face to greet Phillipe, then offered his hand to the younger Holz.

"Stephen; this is Elena Duran, and my friend, Duncan MacLeod," his father said.

Elena, too, shook the boy's hand, and studied him briefly. Stephen Holz was twelve or thirteen, slim and compact, of mixed Caucasian and Asian parentage. He seemed to have inherited the best from both races: his hair was dark brown, thick, uncombed and covered by a baseball cap; he had the kind of black, thick, long eyelashes many women would kill for; his eyes, not quite almond shaped, were a hazel/greenish color with gold flecks, a combination Elena had only ever seen duplicated in cats' eyes. He had a broad nose and small, pink, pouty lips, set in a line Elena recognised at once as a combination of fear and exhaustion -- although he was valiantly trying not to show it. But his best feature, she decided, was his skin. It was a golden caramel color, so perfect he seemed to glow from within. Even his obvious tiredness and lack of cleanliness added to the package, making him look like what he probably was, a sad, tired, vulnerable little boy.

For a moment they stared at each other; then he said, with the voice of a curious child which could not be stilled, even by fatigue or fear, "What happened to your eye? I thought you Immortals couldn't get hurt."

"You were mistaken," she answered, smiling broadly.

"You're very beautiful anyway," he said.

"Thank you, Stephen." So are you, she wanted to say. "Spoken like the son of a Frenchman," she added.

"Stephen and I just got in; from Point Hope, in Alaska," began Holz. He looked at his son, then back at Duncan. "If we could. . ."

Elena, understanding, said, "Stephen: I'm guessing -- pepperoni."

"Huh?"

"Pepperoni is your favorite pizza. Am I right?"

"Yeah, I. . .I like pepperoni," he answered.

"Then why don't we go upstairs," she said, putting her hands on the boy's shoulders and steering him toward the door, "we'll order a pizza, I'll find us something to drink, and we'll let the men talk. Ok?"

"But. . ."

"That may not be a good idea, mademoiselle," said Holz.

"Come on, Phillipe. The boy will be alright without you for a while," Duncan said. He too, had seen Stephen's fear.

"I'm just not sure. . ." Holz began, and Duncan interrupted him, a little annoyed this time. "Phillipe -- you're the one who came to me, remember?"

"[Bien.] You are right, of course. Go on, son," he said, nodding at Stephen. "We'll be upstairs in a few minutes."

As soon as they heard the elevator, Duncan said to Holz, "What was that all about?"

"I just. . .you don't know. About Stephen. He is one of us, MacLeod. Or will be."

Duncan thought it over for a minute. He hadn't realised it -- the other Immortals' buzzes masked Stephen's weak one. "And did you think that Elena would take his head; is that it? If you think I'd have someone with me who would murder children. . .!"

"[Non, mon ami, non!] I apologise. I will apologise to Duran, also. I just. . .I worry for him, so much! Especially these days."

"Why especially? Why are you here, Phillipe?" Duncan asked, almost dreading the other man's answer.

"I am ashamed to say, it is. . .the same story as before."

"Ordway," Duncan breathed, thinking: not this time, Holz, I'm not doing this again, Ordway is your fight; and Holz nodded. "Phillipe, I can't. . ."

"Non, I know what you are going to say. But please give me a moment to explain. Five minutes, and I will leave if that is your wish."

Duncan sighed, nodded.

"Philip Ordway is still after me. For half a century he has been relentless -- I believe my beheading is his obsession. He just can't believe that I got away from him; that anyone can get away from him. And for over fifty years, I have run from him." He said this without apology, as a matter of fact only, by way of explanation. "Then, a dozen years ago I met a woman in Malaysia; an American missionary in the jungle who had adopted a mixed race child."

"Stephen."

"He was such a beautiful child. . .he still is, isn't he? And Carla -- that was her name, Carla Rogers -- we decided to get married. My first time, [mon ami;] and it was a mistake -- I see it now. But she was the most loving. . ." He paused for a moment, looking absent and dry-eyed; but Duncan had the impression Holz was dry-eyed because he had no more tears left to spill. "Anyway, one night, I sensed an Immortal. It was Ordway, of course, and especially with Stephen being. . .who he is. Well. We left the far east, left everything, and settled in a most remote area of Alaska. I felt sure there I'd be safe from the Game -- perhaps at least until Carla's death. And I was."

"Except Carla's death came sooner than you anticipated," Duncan stated in a matter of fact tone. It was a story he'd heard before -- one he'd lived through himself. He'd never managed to stay out of the Game for long -- why should Phillipe Holz be any different? And always, always there was some innocent getting hurt or killed; some loved one. Someone whose loss tore his soul, again. Someone he just couldn't do without.

"I don't know how Ordway found us. Stephen and I were fishing. When we came back, Stephen -- he tripped over his mother's body. She had been decapitated. MacLeod. If you could have seen his face; it would have broken your heart."

Duncan nodded, understanding that, too.

"We were together for twelve years. . ." Holz murmured, and these words hurt Duncan, viscerally. That was the amount of time he and Tessa had had together, too.

But something was nagging at him; didn't make sense. "Why would he let you get away, Phillipe? Why not just take your head in Alaska?"

"I wondered about that myself. Maybe," the Frenchman shrugged, "he wanted to see me run. Again. Like I did in Paris; in Montgomery; in Kota Baharu; in Point Hope. Over and over. He really wants to destroy me, MacLeod. He left a note, on her body. He said before he took my head he'd make me watch him kill Stephen."

Duncan looked at the other Immortal sharply. "Why? Does he know about the boy's Immortality?"

"I don't think so. I don't know! MacLeod, he has no mercy, not even for children. And I. . .I can't even protect my own son!" Holz voice was filled with despair. It seemed to fill the tiny room and threatened to swamp Duncan with emotion.

"What do you want from me, Phillipe?" he asked. But I know what you want, Phillipe, Duncan thought. I know exactly what you want.

"You see," Holz continued with his speech, as if he hadn't heard, "if Stephen were a mortal child, I'd shoot Ordway, then take his head and be done. But I can't do that. Stephen is one of us, and he has to learn the proper way to do things. He has to learn that you cannot run from your fears. And he has to learn how we defend ourselves, with a sword, one on one. If he does not learn this from me. . .I have to provide the example. Don't you see?" he cried out.

Now Duncan did see. He saw very clearly.

"You're going to fight Philip Ordway."

"Oui."

There was a moment of silence, then Duncan said, "The boy." It was a statement, not a question. Duncan already knew the answer.

Holz nodded. "I believe that you are the kind of man who cannot allow a child to be destroyed."

He said nothing else, and Duncan met his eyes for a moment, then walked to the window, staring out at the oncoming night. He was about to make a commitment, he knew, and there was no way out of it. Phillipe Holz had engineered it all very cleverly, he thought. Even if Duncan *wanted* a way out, he wouldn't, couldn't take it.

He turned back to the Frenchman. "I won't let Ordway get to the boy," he promised.

/////

Elena watched Stephen as he walked around Duncan's loft. Her exhaustion hung heavily on her, but she found him fascinating. Once again, his curiosity had taken over, and he'd forgotten his initial fear of Immortals. He looked at the books, which surprised and pleased her, then discovered the CD's. While he looked them over, Elena checked the refrigerator. "Juice? Spring water? Wine?"

"Got any soda?"

"No," she said.

"Any chips?" he asked. "Who is this Maria Callas, anyway?"

"A soprano. I have apples. And no, no chips. They're not good for you anyway."

"That's what Maman used to say. . ." he said, then looked down at his feet.

"Where is your mother, Stephen?" she asked.

He shrugged elaborately. "She was killed. Beheaded. By one of you," he added, looking at Elena.

And recently, she thought. Very recently. She heard the quaver in his voice, the grief and the anger. "I'm sorry," she said simply.

"Yeah. Well, it's all part of that Game you all play, isn't it? Dad's been explaining it to me. The Game. And the Rules. Except she wasn't in the Game, and she didn't know the Rules; but she. . ." He clammed up abruptly, apparently thinking he was talking too much.

The elevator started and Stephen jumped in surprise. "Dad!" he said with some relief, when Duncan and Holz came into the loft.

"It's alright, Stephen. We're safe here."

Elena noticed that Holz looked more at ease, less tense. She didn't have long to wonder what he and Duncan had talked about.

Stephen glanced at MacLeod a bit fearfully -- and Duncan couldn't really blame him. He turned to the father. "Can I offer you some wine, Phillipe?"

"I don't want to put you to any trouble. And we should really be going. Maybe you can recommend a nearby hotel?"

"We have a spare room, for guests; if you don't mind sharing," Duncan offered.

"And you can't leave before the pizza arrives," Elena added, following Duncan's cue. "I can't eat all that pepperoni by myself." She discovered, somehow, that she didn't want Stephen Holz to leave. There was something about the boy that stirred her; and it wasn't just his beauty, or the loss of his mother, or his fear. There was a connection. . .then Elena made a connection, in her own mind, and looked at Duncan sharply.

"We couldn't stay here; that would be too much of an intrusion," Holz protested.

"It would be safer. For both of you," Duncan said, and Elena felt the message pass between them.

"Well. . .what do you think, Stephen? Would you like to stay for a little while with Mr. MacLeod and Miss Duran?"

"Will we be safe? Really safe, from him? From Ordway?"

Holz shook his head. "There's only one way to be safe from Philip Ordway, Stephen. And that is for him to die."

The boy winced visibly. "You mean like. . .cut off his head?"

"Oui. And I intend to do it." He would have said more, but the pizza delivery arrived, interrupting them.

Stephen consumed most of the pie himself, Duncan noted, wondering, again, at the resiliency of children. Even a major trauma didn't quite dull a teenager's appetite, although Holz ate very little. While Holz and Stephen cleared and rinsed the dishes, Elena put her hand on Duncan's arm.

"Is he?" she asked, and Duncan nodded. Elena sighed, glancing at Stephen. His being a Pre-Immortal would cause complications, she knew. Already she felt like she and Duncan were being swept, willingly or not, into the Holz drama, and that Philip Ordway, the villain in the piece, was getting ready to walk on stage.

Eight

When they were done, Duncan took his two guests to their room. They went in through the outside entrance, and Duncan showed Holz the second exit -- for emergencies.

By the time they got back to the bedroom, Stephen was stretched out on one of the beds, sound asleep. Holz walked over softly -- moving quietly was a skill most Immortals picked up right away -- and touched his son's head. "Sweet dreams," he murmured, in French.

In the tradition of all sleeping children, he looked angelic, innocent, vulnerable, and Duncan became even more determined to protect him. But it would be best, he knew, if his father were the one to protect him. If his father lived long enough to protect him. He asked Holz, sotto voce, "Are you sure about this, Phillipe? About Ordway?" He wanted Holz to be sure; but he, Duncan, also wanted to be sure.

Ordway nodded, then shook his head. "Sure? Non. What I really want to do, [mon ami,] is run. Again. But I can't. Not any more. Besides, I owe Ordway now, not just for myself. For Carla, also." He walked up to Duncan, who was in the doorway, and said, "I have no way to ever repay you for this, you know. I already owe you my life, twice over. When I left you fighting Ordway in Alabama -- again -- I was so ashamed. That's why I've never contacted you. I felt sure you hated me, felt contempt for me, thought I was [lache,] a coward."

Yes, Duncan had felt contempt for Holz, thought him a coward, been angry when Holz ran again. Frankly, Duncan was surprised Holz had survived this long. And yet you've come to me anyway, Duncan thought. He wondered what this had done to Holz' pride, what little pride he had left. But he knew that Holz was willing to sacrifice his pride, his head, anything, for his son's sake.

"As long as we're here," Holz continued, "Stephen and I intend to make ourselves useful. Tell us any way that we can help -- we are not afraid of working. And I thought, perhaps, if you had some free time -- I imagine Duran is your sparring partner, but. . ."

"I'll spar with you, Phillipe," Duncan volunteered, glad the Frenchman had brought it up. It would give him a good chance to assess Holz' skill.

"I really need it. Carla was a missionary, you know, a deeply religious woman. She didn't approve of the Game; and so what little practice I got I had to hide from her. It was hard, doing something so foreign to her nature, her beliefs; practicing to kill. . .but she just didn't understand. Maybe mortals just can't understand."

Duncan distilled the important information from what Holz was saying. "So you're out of practice."

"Yes, I am, terribly. I haven't taken a head, either, since Alabama. Just before we met that second time."

"Phillipe, that was for. . .!" Duncan lowered his voice, afraid to wake up the boy. "Forty years ago!" he whispered.

"Oui. Hopeless. I am hopeless, [n'est-ce pas?] But," he clapped Duncan on the shoulder as they walked out into the hallway, "I am confident you will be able to whip me into shape. Starting tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Duncan repeated, walking away, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"And MacLeod," Holz called after him. "Show no mercy, [d'accord?]"

"No mercy, Phillipe," Duncan muttered, depressed. He came back to the loft and walked up to the bed -- and there was a sudden, hurried movement. Elena had risen on the other side and rolled to her feet in one swift motion. He could see the gleam of her broadsword in her hands.

Christ! No! he thought, his heart racing, realising his own katana was behind him, turning to reach it, and calling out, "Elena!" at the same time she said, "Duncan!"

"I'm sorry!" She dropped her sword on the bed and walked over it to Duncan's side. "I was dreaming, about Maria Feliz. This is just how she came at me, in the night. It's not Trent, I swear it!" She was referring to her own dark quickening, where the Australian Immortal Robert Trent had somehow, from inside her, convinced her to attack Duncan.

She'd been in the grip of one the nightmares she was so prone to, and Maria Feliz, her friend, her drinking partner, had snuck into Elena's bedroom in the pre-dawn light. But Maria Feliz' sword was huge, gigantic, growing in front of her eyes to enormous proportions. It extended from the doorway to the bed, encompassing, filling the whole room with silver steel, reaching Elena easily, cutting into her neck, from behind. . .and when she sensed Duncan's approach she'd seized her weapon from under the bed and rolled to her feet, thinking it was Maria Feliz coming for her.

But even before she actually went on guard she came fully awake and saw the bulk of the Immortal before her, realised it couldn't be Maria Feliz, it was Duncan, she was in Seacouver, [!mierda!] She'd drawn a sword on him, again, in this same room!

Now she stood before him, naked, unarmed, hands held out to her sides, seeing quite clearly the sword in his hand. "Duncan. . ." she began.

"No harm done," he said, adrenalin still pumping, his katana now pointing down. He put his sword on a shelf. "Come here." He held out his arms and she hugged him fiercely. They could each feel the other's rapid heartbeat, and hung on until it subsided.

"Trent doesn't affect me anymore -- he hasn't for a long time," she explained.

"I know, sweetheart," he soothed her. "You've had a rough time, and I surprised you. Just remind me not to startle you again, ok?" he smiled, becoming suddenly acutely conscious of her bare breasts pressing against him.

"I will." She pulled her head back to look at his face. "I'm sorry. . ."

"Shhh," he whispered, and she began, "About Holz. . ."

But Duncan wasn't thinking about Phillipe Holz or any other Immortal; except one. "Later," he smiled down at her.

Seacouver, February 12, 1997, 7 a.m.

As the music, turned on high volume, pulsed through the dojo, Elena matched her movements to the beat. Up, blow, down, inhale, up, exhale. She didn't pause when she sensed an Immortal, glancing at her sword a meter away. It would be a matter of seconds to drop the weight and pick up the weapon. But she did look at the door.

Slim, dark, with a long face and the brightest, most intelligent eyes she'd ever seen, Methos stepped inside and took off his coat.

"Good morning, Elena," he called out over the drumbeat.

"Adam." By mutual unspoken consent, she and Duncan never called him Methos where anyone else could hear -- especially another Immortal.

"Boyz II Men?" he asked, and she nodded.

"It's one of Stephen's cd's. They have a beat, and they can actually sing, harmonize. Better than that. . .what is it, when they talk trash with a drum in the background?"

"I think you mean rap," he answered, smiling.

"Yes. So. . ." she continued lifting, a little breathless, while the boyz sang "you were right theeeere, and I thank youuuu!" "What are you doing here so early?"

"Well, Richie told me you liked to work out first thing, so I thought I'd come watch."

"Watch me?"

He nodded. "I rather like the view, myself."

She shook her head. "You must have known hundreds of beautiful, exciting, intelligent women. I can hardly interest you."

"Well, I have known a lot of women," he said, modestly, she thought. Not! "But don't sell yourself short, Elena."

She shook her head again, putting down the weight. She had no real idea what Methos wanted with her, but she had a theory. Let's test it out, she thought. "I think the only interest you have in me is as a diversion, a skirt for MacLeod, someone to warm his bed. How shall I put this delicately?" she paused, then said bluntly, using one of Richie's phrases, "A place where he can get his rocks off."

Methos frowned slightly. "That's putting it rather crudely."

"But accurately, I think. I keep him happy, and that makes you happy. In fact, if I were to lose my head, your only concern would be whether MacLeod would get killed avenging me."

"But if what you say is true, Elena, which it isn't, by the way, then I'd want to separate the two of you. After all, you seem to keep getting him into trouble."

"No, [mi amigo,]" she disagreed, picking up the weight with her left hand and starting her reps. "Duncan MacLeod only does what he wants to do. The only man I've ever known who may be more stubborn is Connor MacLeod -- and don't get me started on him! Duncan," she continued, framing her thoughts, "has a very clear inner compass, and he doesn't deviate much from it -- except for the occasional human error, of course." She studied him briefly. "Am I wrong?"

"Not about MacLeod, mostly. But I quite enjoy your company, Elena, for your own sake. Believe me. I find you. . .refreshingly unpredictable. Which makes you, as I believe I said once before, dangerous."

Elena laughed. The idea that Methos thought her dangerous -- assuming it was true -- amused and flattered her. "Maria Feliz. . ." she paused, "calls -- called me [el diablo en bicicleta.]"

"The devil on a bicycle?" Methos asked.

Elena shrugged elaborately. "The question is: what is *your* interest in him?"

Apparently Methos had no trouble following her train of thought. He looked at her hard for a moment before answering. "Don't you know, Elena? He's one of the best of us."

She stopped lifting and looked at him again, surprised. He seemed perfectly serious, and it hadn't occured to her that Methos would have such thoughts; that he'd be concerned with anyone or anything besides himself. But then again, Methos had risked his own life, more than once, to save Duncan from the dark quickening. . .and hadn't Duncan told her that Methos had once offered the Scot his head? Or course, he'd probably figured Duncan wouldn't take it. Still. . .

She went back to her weights as the elevator started down. Trying to figure out Methos was a job completely beyond her. And she still hadn't answered him, so she said, honestly, "I know that I love him, [alma, corazon y vida,] that I would kill for him and die for him. Is there anything else?"

"You love him with your soul, your heart, and your life," Methos translated. "No, I guess there isn't," he said, as the elevator door swung up and Duncan stepped out.

"Don't believe anything he says," Duncan said to Elena.

"Oh, I don't, [querido.] But he says everything so. . .so eloquently, he's a real pleasure to listen to."

"It's that ancient charm of his. So what are you doing here, Adam? Isn't it too early for beer?"

"Actually, I came to gawk at your lover," he replied pleasantly, and Duncan snorted. "Besides, it's not too early for breakfast," he replied, holding up a paper bag. "I've been to the French bakery and the deli."

"Fresh bagels? Garlic? That's what I was smelling!" Elena said, her stomach growling.

"Still hot. And for your French friends, croissants right out of the oven. All we need is the coffee."

"So that's why you're here," Duncan said, smiling, resigned. If Methos had something on his mind, it was best to find out what it was. "Come on upstairs."

Translations:

mon vieux/mon ami (French) - my friend

n'est-ce pas? (French) - isn't that so?

d'accord (French) - agreed

mierda (Span.) - shit

mi amigo (Span.) - my friend

Nine

Elena discovered that Methos could drink his coffee as strong as hers. Maybe he was originally Turkish, she wondered.

Meanwhile, Duncan said, "So what do you want to know?"

Methos bit into a croissant, chewed, swallowed. "Only if you're going to fight for Phillipe Holz. Again. Third time's the charm, you know."

"And what do you suggest I do?" Duncan asked. "Leave him to Ordway? Let him die?" He'd sparred with Holz the day before and discovered just how unskilled and how out of practice the Frenchman was. Probably able to hold his own against some Immortals; maybe against many, on a good day. But Philip Ordway had been almost a match for Duncan in 1958, which meant he was not unskilled; and Duncan doubted that Ordway, a confirmed headhunter, was out of practice.

"So. He did ask you to save him," Methos said.

"For your information, Methos, Phillippe is going to fight Ordway."

Methos looked amused. "Is that what he told you?"

"Yes, and I believe him, and I'll tell you why. Because of Stephen Holz."

Methos was puzzled, and Elena was annoyed. Although she knew he'd figure it out, like she did, she didn't want Methos to know about Stephen Holz' immortality for one reason -- she was afraid Methos would tell Dawson. The Watchers would get their hooks into Stephen Holz soon enough, but the later the better, in her opinion.

"So he wants to look good for his son. Hardly a good reason to give up his head," Methos said.

"Honor is a good reason to give up your head," Duncan countered. "But then again, what do I know?" He smiled and shrugged. "I'm a boy scout, remember?"

"You keep reminding us every day," Methos smiled. "But what do you mean by honor? Holz has been running from Ordway for how long? Why stop now?" He paused, then added, "Because his son is now old enough to figure out what's going on. But why should. . .?" he drifted off, thinking.

"Look, the only thing Holz wants from me is protection for the boy," Duncan said.

"And why should Ordway threaten him specifically?"

"Ordway did kill Carla Holz," Duncan said.

"Well, yes, of course, to undermine his enemy, weaken him. And he plans to kill the boy for the same reason. Or does he?"

Elena was following Methos' reasoning with great interest. She could hear the boyz a capella version of the song, Yesterday, drifting up the elevator well. "Do you know," she put in, "that Sherlock Holmes once deduced, just from looking at the victim's body, that the killer had a dull penknife in his left pocket?"

"What?" Duncan asked, puzzled.

She smiled directly at Methos. "It's fun to watch a great mind at work."

Methos made a face at her, and she laughed.

"Seriously, Methos, do you think Phillippe should run away? Again?" Duncan asked, a little exasperated.

But apparently Methos had figured it out. "Stephen Holz, huh?" he asked, almost to himself, looking at Elena. He took her shrug and sigh as a confirmation. "I see. Well, let me tell you a story," Methos began, and Duncan groused, "Here we go again."

"Do you want to hear it, or not?" Methos said, pleasantly, and Elena said, "I'd love to hear it, senor."

"Very well. There once was a young Immortal who became the immediate and most unfortunate target of a much older, quite dangerous Immortal. Now the first time the old Immortal came for him, he, like Holz, didn't know what he was. But the kid lucked out; there were plenty of mortals around, and he managed to keep his head. That time. And the old Immortal left. For a while." Methos stopped, glancing around, checking to see if his audience was hooked. They were.

"Years later, the kid has had a mentor, learned the rules and how to fight -- but still, he's just a young Immortal and no match for the older man. And he finds out that his Immortal enemy is still after him and on his way. So, the young Immortal thinks about it for a while, really thinks about it. He puts flowers on his wife's grave, sharpens the sword his mentor left him -- still thinking all the while. Thinking about what he should do. What the right thing would be. Then, finally, he makes up his mind."

"To leave. This scene repeats itself a few times. Again and again, you might say, he runs. . ." A dramatic pause. . .

"So what happened?" Elena asked, deliberately taking the bait. "Did the older Immortal find him in the end?"

"Oh yes. They fought at least twice, as far as I know." Methos looked meaningfully at Duncan. "You know, the older Immortal didn't really have a name, at least not that any of us knew. We all just called him 'the Kurgan.' As for the young Immortal, eventually. . ."

Duncan shook his head. "It's not the same, Methos."

Elena was amused. She wondered if Methos would dare tell this story in front of the 'young Immortal' today. Probably, she decided.

But she agreed with Duncan -- it was different for Connor MacLeod. "But look," she explained. "Holz is terrified of this one Immortal only, of Philip Ordway. And it doesn't matter how much time passes, or how experienced Holz gets, or how many heads he takes. This fear is not something he's going to outgrow, to get over. Ever."

She spoke heatedly, and both men looked at her. They all, all three of them, knew who she was referring to: herself; and Claude Bethel. And for once, Methos said nothing. But she felt the color rise to her face nonetheless.

There was an awkward, silent moment. Then Methos said, pragmatically, "All the more reason for Holz to run," as they all sensed an Immortal, and there was a knock at the door.

"Come," Duncan called out, and the Holzes walked in. "Come in, Phillipe, Stephen. I'd like you to meet Adam Pierson." As the two men nodded at each other, Stephen cried out, "Hey, these are great!" as he bit into a croissant. "I've never had one of these," he said to Methos, eyeing him a little suspiciously.

"A French lad who's never had a croissant?" Methos said.

"We've been. . .away, Monsieur," Holz explained, a bit stiffly, and Stephen asked Methos, "So, are you one of them?"

"One of them?" Methos asked, looking puzzled, although Duncan knew better.

"Yeah, you know. An Immortal. With a sword and everything."

"Oh, one of *them.* Yes, actually. With a sword. And everything."

Stephen looked at him closely, obviously looking for the weapon. Apparently feeling safer in a group, he asked, "So are you really old?"

"That's not a polite question, Stephen," Holz explained, and Stephen laughed, a bit nervously, perhaps.

"That's alright. Elena wouldn't tell me either."

"You should never ask a lady her age, Stephen," Methos offerred, his eyes dancing.

"Adam is visiting here in Seacouver, Stephen," Elena explained. "Just like you and your father. I guess you're very popular, [querido,]" she teased Duncan.

"Perhaps, Elena, it is your beauty which draws men here," Holz said, and she laughed.

"The French haven't changed in three hundred years," she said.

"Or a thousand years," Methos muttered, loudly enough for only Duncan to hear.

They had quickly established a schedule: the men sparred in the morning, and Stephen had not wanted to leave his father's side, so he watched them at the old warehouse for the first two days. In the afternoon, they worked out a little, for strength and endurance.

But after watching his father get bested by Duncan over and over, Elena and Duncan decided it might be best for Stephen to be elsewhere, so Elena had come up with outings. Her first attempt, a museum, was not very successful, but this morning they had plans to go riding.

As they walked out after breakfast, Stephen asked, "So, what's your mare's name again?"

"Angelita," Elena answered.

"Is there, like, a stallion in this stable or something?"

/////

The stable was outside of town, and Holz had been hesitant about Stephen going so far without him, but Duncan had convinced him that Stephen would be safe with Elena. "She can fight if she has to, and she's smart enough not to get into that situation," he'd explained.

While Elena spoke to the owner, Stephen walked up to Angelita's stall, and when Elena caught up with him he was stroking the mare's nose. "It's like silk," he said. "She's so beautiful!"

"Yes," Elena smiled. "She loves the attention, and she likes you, too. Here." She handed Stephen a carrot, which promptly disappeared with loud crunching of large, yellow teeth.

"I guess now she'll really like me," he said, laughing; laughing even harder as the mare tried to bite the bill of his baseball cap. "Hey!" he complained happily, then asked, eagerly, "Can I ride her? Now? Today?"

For the first time, the little spot of fear in the back of his eyes was gone -- and so was the bravado that masked it. He just looked like what he was; an excited kid. "That's why we're here," Elena said. "But first, we have to saddle her."

Soon they were both mounted, and Stephen was very at ease around her and a natural rider to boot. In fact, it was difficult to get him off the mare, but Elena promised they'd be back the next day, and this became their morning ritual.

After only a week, Stephen was confident and cocky about his riding ability, and soon became an 'expert' on horses. But there was something else he wanted to learn, as Duncan soon found out.

February 20, 1997

The Holzes had left for the night, and Duncan and Elena were sitting before the fire, playing a fierce game of chess -- which Duncan was winning, as usual.

"Darius tried to teach me to play chess, you know," Elena explained, "after Don Alvaro had given up on me."

"Why would Don Alvaro have given up on you, sweetheart?" Duncan asked, all innocence.

"He said I had no patience. Can you imagine?" she asked, a bit insulted and amused at the same time. Elena Duran was not in the habit of fooling herself, and she knew patience was not her strongest quality.

"No!" Duncan exclaimed sarcastically, making a grab for her across the chess table, which she almost avoided. But not quite. He stood, put one hand under each of her arms, pulled her to her feet, braced himself, and lifted her over to his side of the chess table.

He looked her over with a pride almost of ownership. Tall, with short dark curls that were just growing back after having her head shaved by Bethel just five months before; high cheekbones and light brown skin, both a heritage of her South American native blood; one expressive light grey eye and one glass eye, also courtesy of Claude Bethel; pink, full lips and very white teeth. Her neck was more muscular than most women's, as were her shoulders and arms, rounded biceps and triceps tight inside a short sleeve cotton campshirt. Duncan ran his hands down her arms, to her waist and down around her back, cradling a round, hard ass, pulling her toward him, lifting her slightly to meet him face to face. She had a beautiful, sensual face, one he didn't seem to tire of looking at, and she was smiling at him seductively, lovingly.

"Alone at last," he murmured, covering her smile with his mouth, pulling her even tighter against him as they kissed and she linked her hands around his neck.

"Mmmmm," she murmured, rubbing her breasts against him, pressing up and down with her hips against his rising erection. "[Si, querido]."

/////

Later that evening

It was still early, and they were snuggling in bed after making love when there was a soft knock at the door. They knew it was not an Immortal, and Duncan looked at Elena quizzically, shrugged, and put on a robe to answer the door.

"Stephen." he said, surprised. "Come in." Even in the dim light he noticed the boy's nervousness, the fear of him, Duncan, which Stephen couldn't quite hide. No amount of friendliness on Duncan's part had completely erased that.

Stephen slipped just inside the door and no further. He was nervously twisting the ever present baseball cap in his hands. "Monsieur Mac. . .I mean, Duncan. Can I talk to you? Just for a minute?"

"Sure, Stephen, come on in. It's alright," he added, when Stephen hesitated.

"No, I. . .I don't want to bother you. Or Elena," he added, glancing beyond Duncan. "I just wanted to ask you?"

Duncan left the door partly open, not wanting to hem him in, afraid to spook him. "Ask me anything you like."

"I just hoped you could. . .could you teach me? I'd like to learn, well, karate or self-defense or something like that? Because my Dad, he doesn't know how, but I guess you do. . .don't you?"

Duncan leaned against the wall, casually, trying to put Stephen at ease. He knew how difficult this was for Stephen, how afraid he was for himself and for his father, how he was contrasting Duncan to his father and finding Holz lacking. But he didn't quite know how to make it easier for Stephen. In all his experience, Duncan had dealt very little with children, and he'd had to cast back to his own childhood, to when he was this age -- still a boy, on the cusp of becoming a man -- to try to figure out how the boy felt. And try to sympathise. And try to empathise. "You want to learn how to defend yourself? I think it's a great idea," Duncan said calmly, not wanting to embarrass him or scare him.

"Yeah? Yeah, sure it is."

"Then we'll start tomorrow. Agreed?" Duncan held out his hand, knowing one thing: that honesty and respect always helped any relationship. And Stephen shook it.

"Tomorrow. Thanks." He put on his cap and was gone.

Ten

Seacouver, February 21, 1997

Elena and Stephen had ridden out on an easy trail among the trees. Stephen had urged Angelita into a trot, but she stumbled and he went over her head, landing awkwardly, one leg bent under him.

Elena was off her mount at once, her heart thudding in her throat. She knelt on the ground beside him; he was crying silently. "[?Que os paso?]" she cried out. "Stephen, where does it hurt? Is it your leg?" she asked, easing him off it, carefully straightening it out, palpating it.

But as he sat on the ground crying soundlessly, tears sliding down dirty cheeks, arms at his sides, fists closed, she quickly realised his tears had nothing to do with pain -- not physical pain, anyway. Elena watched him, wanting to hug him, to comfort him. He looked so desolate. . .but she wasn't sure, didn't want to. . .

"She's gone. She's really gone," he murmured. He looked at Elena blankly. "She's really gone, Elena."

She pulled him to her, then, his face on her shoulder, and felt the hot tears on her neck, and held him tightly, wordlessly, rocking back and forth slowly. "I miss her so much," he said, and that phrase opened a floodgate of unbridled tears. "I'm scared. . ." he sobbed, "I want her back. I want her back," and she answered, "[Si, nino. Asi es. . .]" murmuring softly, as he gripped her and shuddered and emptied his grief and fear into her arms. After what seemed like forever he pulled back, sniffled twice, wiped his eyes on his sleeve and looked around him.

"Is Angelita alright? Is she hurt?"

That was the moment, Elena thought later, the instant she began to love, truly love, this boy, when in the middle of his grief, his fear, his loneliness, he looked around to find if a horse was alright.

Angelita was grazing nearby, and at the mention of her name her head came up. Wiping her own eyes, Elena said. "See, she knows we're talking about her. Let's check that leg, shall we?"

But Angelita was limping, and they had to walk her back, then poultice the leg, and they got back to the dojo hours after they were due. Holz and Duncan were waiting in his office, and Holz ran out to meet them at the doors.

"Stephen! You're alright! I've been worried!" he cried out, looking over his son's head at Elena, exchanging a concerned glance with her.

"We're fine, Dad. Angelita hurt her leg, and we had to take care of it, put a poultice on it, so it wouldn't swell up, you know." He was back to his usual teen bravado, Elena thought. She wondered if he'd tell his father about the tears, decided he probably wouldn't; wondered if she should. . .

"Well, [bien,] as long as you're not. . .hurt, or anything."

"Nah! We're cool," he replied, adding, "what's for dinner, anyway?"

Later that night

They were in bed, and Duncan asked her, "What happened with Stephen today?"

She shrugged. "He fell. And he cried for his mother. A little." She sighed, remembering harsh sobbing, whispered words, strong young arms wrapped around her, holding on to her as if he were drowning in those tears. "Actually, a lot. But he needed to, Duncan. He has this tough face that he shows the world, but he's so. . ."

"Yeah, I know."

"What about Holz?"

"What about him?" Duncan asked, but his tone was so disheartened that Elena sat up, turned on the light, and looked at him.

"What is it?" she asked, then guessed, "You've given up on him, haven't you?"

Duncan sat halfway up on one elbow and met her eyes. "If I don't stop it, Ordway is going to kill Holz."

Elena sighed again. Duncan wouldn't say this lightly. "Have you told this to Phillipe?"

"We had a conversation. He asked me to tell him, truthfully, if I thought he had a chance. I told him he should reconsider leaving, he could leave the boy here, I'd protect him. . .if and when Ordway showed up, I'd take his head, this time, and then Phillippe and the boy would be free. But he said he had to take a stand, not just for Stephen's sake, but for his own. To know that he could. Or to know. . .if he couldn't. He needs to know."

"He needs! But what about his son, about what Stephen needs?" Elena asked. She thought about Stephen, again. Thought about how sad and frightened he was now. Thought about how much worse it would be for him if his father died, too. The thought made her feel sick to her stomach.

But she had another thought, about Stephen being left behind, with her and Duncan. They could take care of him, for a while. At least until Ordway was killed, by somebody. Anybody. But Holz wanted to be that somebody -- it was important to him, important enough to die for, to leave his son an orphan. He was entitled to make his own decisions about his own life. And yet.

"Yes, that's the point," Duncan was saying. "Last time, in Alabama, I didn't take Ordway's head because I felt it wasn't my fight; it was Holz'. And it still is. Only this time, there's Stephen in the way. How's he going to feel, losing his mother and his father both? I don't know if I can stand by and let that happen, Elena," he said, earnestly.

"Duncan, I don't want Stephen to be hurt either, believe me; but it's Holz' decision to make, for himself and for his son. Not yours. You have to respect that decision. I just wish there was some way to spare him, them, both of them." Especially the boy, sobbing in her arms.

"Holz feels Stephen is ashamed of him, because he ran. He feels very strongly that he has to show Stephen what a man would do, should do. A man of honor. A man of courage. The kind of man Holz wants Stephen to grow up to be. I can't argue with that, can I? But. . ." he broke off, swallowing hard, completely depressed.

"Yes, but." She looked at him, hard, for a moment, wondering what he was going to do. "There is no good solution, is there, [querido?]"

Duncan shook his head. "Come here," he said to her, and she buried her face in his chest as he lay back on the bed.

"Well," she mused out loud after a while, "it took Ordway ten years to find Phillipe in Alaska. Maybe it'll take him another ten to find him here."

Duncan shook his head, again. "I'm not hard to find, Elena."

"And Ordway will come here, thinking this is where Phillippe would run, to you, again." Of course, she thought. "Maybe Phillippe needs to get away from here, buy himself some time."

"But this is where Holz has decided to take his stand, because he knows I'll protect Stephen. No matter what."

"We'll protect him, [querido,]" she said.

Duncan kissed the top of her head, squeezing her lightly. He knew Elena was getting attached to the boy, and even though Stephen was afraid of him, he could feel himself getting attached, too. Phillippe Holz had counted on that, too. Damn, he thought. Damn him.

Seacouver, February 25, 1997

Stephen went head over heels, landing hard on his back on the mat.

"Remember what I taught you about falling," The boy was tired, panting, hurting; Duncan hadn't even broken a sweat. "Curl, roll, and come back to your feet. On your back you'll get kicked again." He looked down on Stephen, and made as if to kick him; but the boy made a grab for Duncan's foot. He missed. "Good! Very good!" Duncan exclaimed, giving Stephen a hand up. "You're still thinking; still trying, still fighting back." In fact, Duncan was very impressed with Stephen. The teenager had a positive attitude; he worked hard; and he never, ever quit. In those respects he was very much like his father. But in one crucial factor they were very different: Stephen Holz was hungry. He didn't just want to survive, like Phillippe Holz did, to live and let live. Stephen Holz wanted to win.

And once he became an Immortal. . .

Elena and Holz watched from a bench. As always when he was watching his son, Elena saw a softness in Holz' eyes, a tenderness, a look very different from the one he gave anyone else. A look that made her heart feel warm with emotion and tight with foreboding at the same time.

"Elena. . .about Stephen. . ." Holz began softly, so as not to be overheard by the combatants.

Elena was feeling a little guilty this afternoon. "Phillippe, if it's about what I said to Stephen, I. . ."

"Non, non. You were right; you said what had to be said. He has to face these things; to get harder. And after all, he did ask."

That same morning at breakfast Stephen had suddenly turned to Elena and asked her, "So how did you lose your eye? Was it in a duel?"

Elena felt her mouth go dry. Claude Bethel and what he'd done to her was still fresh in her mind. And still made her mouth go dry.

"Stephen!" Holz said, chidingly.

"I just want to know, [c'est tout.]

"Believe me, Stephen, you don't want to know," Duncan said, grimly. He hadn't missed Elena's instinctive swallow.

"But I won't get grossed out or anything, I promise. Look, once I saw a pack of wolves bring down a doe. I was hidden, and they came my way. I saw it through binoculars. It was like I was right there, you know! And they, well, they literally tore her apart. It was really bloody and gory, but exciting, too. I can take it!" he summarised, bravely.

"But perhaps Elena doesn't want to talk about it," Holz volunteered.

Stephen obviously hadn't thought of that. "Oh," he said.

Elena smiled, but it wasn't a pleasant smile. "I don't mind telling you, Stephen -- if you're sure you want to hear."

"Yes. I'm sure."

"An Immortal named Claude Bethel tortured me for three weeks. At one point he decided to blind me. I was strapped to a chair -- even my head was in a vise. He took a palette knife -- like a butter knife - - and put it in the corner of my right eye, like this." She pointed with her index finger at the outside corner of her eye. "Popped out the eyeball, severed the nerve connections with scissors, then held my eye in front of my face and crushed it in his hand." Her voice was flat, emotionless, as though she were telling a story about lint. She noted her heartbeat hadn't gone up, she wasn't breathing harder, and she was proud of herself for her effort.

The effect on her audience, however, was a bit stronger, more obvious. Holz murmured, "[Mon Dieu!]" Duncan paled slightly, saying nothing; and Stephen obviously didn't know what to say.

After a long silence, Stephen finally stammered, "It. . .it must have sucked, I guess."

But he didn't guess, he couldn't guess, Elena thought. He had no idea, and she prayed that he'd never know. "It was the worst experience of my life, Stephen. But I'm getting past it, by drawing on my own strength, and with a lot of help from my friends." She reached over and squeezed Duncan's hand. He had stayed with her, pushed her, got her to use a sword again, loved her. And the image of Connor MacLeod being strong for her, too, helping her escape from Bethel, driving out of New York City in the night, letting her cry on his shoulder, came to mind as well. Richie. Teri. Anne. Carmela and Juanito Onioco. "Don't be afraid to use your friends, Stephen, when you need them," she had finished up, thinking ahead to the fact that Stephen, soon, was going to need his friends.

"I guess I was a little rough on him this morning, Phillippe," she said, watching Stephen and Duncan on the mat.

"I'm sure it was rougher for you. But what I wanted to do is thank you for being so kind to him, spending so much time with him."

"I enjoy his company," she smiled.

"That's so good to hear. And this business with the horses!" He laughed softly. "You have no idea what you've started. Every night he tells me tales of this mare, Angelite, how beautiful she is, how clever, and the other horses at the stables. Stephen loves animals, you know."

Elena started to answer, but Duncan was calling her. Duncan was pleased with the fact that Stephen had come to him for help; he felt he was getting closer to the boy, becoming more his friend and less someone to fear -- and he believed Stephen was going to need friends, soon. But he wanted Elena to show Stephen something, now, a little demonstration of [Aikido.] And after all, she had the twenty years of study in that art.

"It involves using your opponent's. . .no, allowing your opponent to use his own force against himself by yielding and producing a simultaneous counterattack. I think the Aikidoka call it [irimi,] don't they Elena?"

"Yes," she answered. "Put simply, when your opponent pushes, you pull; when he pulls, you push, thereby causing him to fall. This is called, [kuzushi,] or loss of balance. You throw your opponent by turning her attacking force against her, shifting her center of gravity, causing her to lose her balance through a turning movement." She smiled, remembering how many years it had taken her to perfect these techniques; how long especially it had taken her to accept the attack, to be strictly the defender rather than be the attacker herself -- the principle of the most defensive of the self- defense arts, [Aikido.] "I'll show you. Come and try to hit me."

Stephen paused. "Hit you?" he asked.

"You won't hurt me, Stephen. In fact, you won't even hit me. I promise."

"But I. . .I shouldn't."

Elena pursed her lips. Of course not. "Because I'm a girl, right?"

Duncan knew Stephen was struggling with the image of himself as a male, and probably didn't need to be taken down at this point by a female. He cursed himself for his lack of tact, then thought about it some more. Stephen was going to be an Immortal. He had to learn to defend himself against women, too. It was a lesson Duncan had learned the hard way; and one he found he was still learning.

"I'd just rather not, ok?" Stephen said, with some hostility.

"Stephen." Elena was thinking along the same lines as Duncan. She knew very well how deadly female opponents could be. "Come at me." It was an order, and she put steel into her voice.

Stephen shrank slightly from her tone, but then came back. "No! You can't tell me what to do! You're not my mother!"

"Stephen!" Holz was on his feet at once. "Apologise! [Immediatement!]"

"No, he's right, Phillippe," Elena answered. "I'm not your mother, Stephen. Right now I'm your opponent. And a female opponent can be just as dangerous as a male. Here, Duncan," she turned to the Scot. "Attack me. And watch this, Stephen."

Translations:

que os paso (Span.) - what happened to you

c'est tout (French) - that's all

Aikido (Jap) - Japanese martial art which uses purely defensive moves against an attacking opponent

muy bien (Span.) - very good

immediatement (French) - immediately

Eleven

Elena and Duncan bowed to each other and got set. She was out to prove a point, Duncan knew. And yet, he was not going to just allow himself to be brought down. She was going to have to work for this, he thought to himself, reaching for her, moving quickly, using his size, his own skills, his strength to counter her. . .and she seized his wrist, gave it a painful, complicated twist, and he wound up on his stomach on the mat, at her mercy, his arm twisted behind his back.

"See? Use his own inertia, his own strength against him," Elena was saying to Stephen.

She released him, and Duncan rose, rubbing his arm, and faced her once more. "Let's see you do that again," he challenged her. He winked at Stephen. Elena had had her moment. Now it was Duncan's turn.

"[Muy bien, querido,]" she grinned, getting into the spirit of it now.

He got set, then reached for her again. But this time he used her greatest weakness against her. Elena had only one eye. She had no bipolar vision, no depth perception. And although she relied on size, little back and forth movements were the worst for her to detect. So he pulled back his forward hand, slightly, at the last minute, and when she reached for it she just grazed his fingers, and with his other hand he pushed her back while sweeping her legs out from under her. She landed on her back, hard, stunning her a little, and he finished his move by pouncing on her, but she rolled out of the way, quickly.

Duncan was quicker. He grabbed at her left sleeve with his left hand, bringing her again onto her back, pulling himself up with his right arm, swinging his leg over hers, using his greater weight to try to pin her down. She struck at his face, but he turned his head and she hit his ear instead, making his whole head ring. Fortunately, he thought, she hadn't been really trying to hurt him. But this, too, he used against her. He shifted his weight back to his knees, now straddling her hips, grabbing her right wrist before she could hit him again, pinning her left arm down with his right, balancing his weight now as she tried to roll to her left, using his best weapons against her. All other things being equal, size and strength usually made the difference. And they did this time, too.

He held her down by his weight, panting down at her, making sure his face was too far for her to headbutt him. He shook his head to completely clear it after her blow to his ear, smiling down at her.

Elena shifted her weight, but knew from experience she wouldn't be able to get out from under him; he was too well balanced, too strong, too heavy. She smiled.

"Maybe not this time," she said, panting in turn. "Will you let me up now, Duncan?"

"Of course, sweetheart." He suddenly rolled to his left and to his feet, quickly, wanting to get away from any possible counterattack on her part -- especially a well placed kick. But she remained on her back, and he reached down to help her up. This, of course, was the most dangerous moment, as he was reaching forward, out of balance, and she'd try to use her weight to pull him down.

But she didn't. She grasped his hand and he gripped it tightly, to keep her from shifting her hold and taking his wrist again, then he braced himself and helped her to her feet.

And once she was on her feet, relaxed, she made her move, taking his wrist with her left hand, suddenly twisting her hand out of his, falling back down, backwards, and bringing him down with her, with another twist of his wrist, head over heels.

Duncan had been expecting a move on her part. He just had misjudged her speed, and her expertise. Again. But he knew that O Sensei, the developer of Aikido and Elena's master, had taught, "Where the wrist goes, the body follows." So, taking a cue from her, he concentrated on getting his wrist out of her hold, twisting back the other way, and getting loose just as he hit the mat.

He rolled to his feet, facing her, as she sprang up also. They were both breathing hard, smiling at each other, waiting, looking for another opening. But she stood, placed her feet together, and bowed. And he followed suit. The lesson for Stephen was forgotten. They were two strong, competitive adults, having fun and care for each other. And maybe, Duncan thought, this was a lesson for the boy, too.

"Let's call it a day, shall we?" Duncan said. "How about we go out for dinner?"

Stephen had been watching their struggle closely, silently, looking from one to the other, like a tennis match. Now he seemed to come back to himself. He turned to Duncan and exclaimed, "Pizza!"

"We can do Italian," Duncan said. "Elena?"

"Linguini in clam sauce," she answered.

"Phillippe, we'll meet you down here in an hour?"

"One hour, [mon ami,]" and he and Stephen left.

Duncan put his arm around Elena and they walked to the elevator. "One hour is not long enough for me to soak in a tub, Duncan."

"One hour is not long enough for anything," he replied, smiling slyly. "How many of those wrist holds do you know, anyway?"

"Hundreds," she answered.

Seacouver, February 25, 1997

While Elena was taking her shower Duncan heard a soft tap on the door. Stephen, he thought, and felt himself tense up. "Hello, Stephen," he said, as he opened the door.

"Duncan." Stephen came in a little further, this time. Since Duncan had been teaching him some self-defense, some of his fear of the Scottish Immortal seemed to have left him. But he was still wary, and yet another baseball cap was paying the price, being twisted and tortured in his hands. "Dad's taking a shower, and I wanted to ask you something."

"Ask away," Duncan said, unhappily, but pretending everything was alright.

"He's going to die, isn't he?"

It was a simple, direct question, and Duncan knew the boy was smart, perceptive, so he'd been expecting something like it, at some point. But he still wasn't prepared to give Stephen the simple, direct answer the boy deserved.

"Stephen. . ." How could he say this; how could he phrase it? "I think your father should reconsider. I think it's best if he left. . ."

"You mean ran away? Again? He told me, you know, how he'd run away before."

"There's nothing wrong with running, with living to fight another day." God, he thought, now I'm beginning to sound like Methos!

"He told me he was afraid of Ordway," the boy whispered, and Duncan knew how hard this was to say, how much it had cost him.

"Fear is a part of all our fights, Stephen. All of us are afraid, sometimes." And that, in turn, was hard for Duncan to say, but he felt he needed to give the boy something. "But even if. . .Stephen, Ordway is just a better swordsman, that's all. I don't think your father can beat him." There. He'd said it.

It was too dark for him to see Stephen's face clearly, but he could see the youngster's body language, the way Stephen's shoulders slumped with those words.

"But you can beat him," Stephen whispered.

Stephen was going to ask him to fight Ordway, to fight for his father, again. "It's not about me, Stephen. This is your father's fight, his and Ordway's. Not mine."

"But you can beat him," Stephen repeated. "You can save him." Stephen was speaking louder now, his voice catching.

Duncan could hear the urgency in Stephen's voice. He could feel himself being drawn into the boy's fear, his desperation. "Stephen, your father wants to do this; he feels. . ."

"I don't want him to die." Stephen's voice was shaky, now. In the dim light from behind him Duncan could see the glitter of tears on the boy's face. Stephen took a deep, shuddering breath. "Please," he said.

Duncan's throat was tight. He so much wanted to reach out and hug the boy, tell him everything would be alright. But. He shook his head. "I can't. . ."

"Yes, you can! You can save him! Please. . .please don't let him die!" he cried.

He'd come closer to Duncan now, and the light illuminated his face. Duncan could clearly see the tears, the fear, the hopelessness. "Please, Duncan!" he sobbed, "Please help him, please don't let him die!" And he started to sink into the ground.

Duncan held him up by his arms. The boy had clutched at him, grabbing the front of Duncan's uniform -- but Duncan felt as though Steven had reached inside him and clutched at his guts instead, twisting them. "Stephen, listen to me. . .Stephen. . ." He looked into the boy's face.

"Please!" Stephen cried out.

"I'll do what I can to save him. I'll try."

The sobbing didn't stop, but Stephen said, "You will? You promise?"

"Yes, I promise. Trust me. I'll do the best I can to save him." His voice was shaky, too. He wouldn't, couldn't let this child suffer any more. No matter what. . .

The crying slowly subsided, and Stephen seemed to gather himself. "Ok," he finally murmured, hiccuping.

"Alright?" Duncan looked at his face again. "For now, for tonight, let's go get that pizza? Agreed?"

"Yeah." Stephen nodded, then turned to go. "Thanks, Duncan. I won't forget this."

Duncan smiled at him as Stephen left. When he went back inside the loft Elena was standing in the kitchen. She had heard the end of their conversation, the boy crying, Duncan making his promise. She wondered exactly what he had just promised to do. She felt so bad for him, for both of them. Even worse, she felt helpless. She wanted to say something to make Duncan feel better -- she knew how hard this was on him, too. Instead, she kissed him on the cheek and hugged him, and he squeezed her briefly, then went in to shower.

When Duncan came out in his robe, Methos was sitting on his sofa, the ever present beer in his hand, and Elena was pacing.

"What do you want, Methos?" He was in no mood, not for coldness and sarcasm and cleverness and pragmatism, and not for advice.

Methos saluted him with his beer. "Actually, I came to see Phillippe Holz, to tell him about the monastery I just spent some months in. In Tibet. I'm sure they'll allow the kid to stay there; he's old enough. It won't be very much fun for him, but it'll be better than losing his father. Or his head."

"I already told Phillipe to leave, Methos. He won't."

"Then you should wash your hands of him. If the man's being suicidal. . ."

"What about Stephen? He was just here, you know, begging me. . ." Duncan stopped, feeling sick. Elena handed him a glass of scotch. "Thanks," he said.

"Elena told me. That must have been. . .unpleasant. Look, MacLeod, I feel bad for the kid, too. But you're not putting him in this situation. Holz is."

"Duncan, Methos is right. Phillippe Holz has to go. It's not fair, what he's doing to Stephen. Whether he takes his son with him or leaves him here with us -- which I don't think he'll do -- he can't stay and be killed in front of Stephen. Whatever his own pride tells him is not worth putting the boy through this. . .wringer. Tell him to run. It's the only way," Elena argued.

Duncan nodded. "You're right; it is the best choice. But I can't force him to leave. And I can't just wash my hands of him," he said, looking at Methos.

Methos contributed, "There is another way. Intercept Ordway and kill him before he gets to Holz."

"And how do you suggest I find him?" Duncan asked, exasperated.

"He's at this hotel," Methos answered, digging a scrap of paper out of his jeans pocket and handing it to Duncan. "He arrived yesterday."

Duncan finished his drink. He looked at the paper and put it on the table, started getting dressed. "Damn it, Methos! You could have told me this yesterday and saved me a lot of grief," he complained angrily.

"Ordway's Watcher just checked in with Dawson today. As a professional courtesy," Methos shrugged, but Duncan wondered if this was true. He often wondered if what Methos said was true.

But just as he was putting on his pants, they heard a cry, a scream, from below them.

"Stephen!" Elena exclaimed, going for her sword, running out the door. Still half dressed, Duncan picked up his katana and he and Methos quickly piled into the elevator. And as it ground its way down, slowly, taking too long, too long! Duncan heard, above the machine noises, above his own harsh breathing, the unimistakeable, familiar sounds of steel on steel.

Duncan's heart fell down through his feet and sank into the floor.

God, no.

They were already fighting. . .

Twelve

He opened the elevator doors just in time to see Holz cry out and limp back from a slash to his thigh, holding his sword too high, he wasn't guarding himself. . .

Stephen yelled, "No!" He was standing near the office door, fists clenched at his side, his body taut, on his toes, almost ready to rush forward. The two Immortals were in the center of the dojo, doing their deadly dance.

Elena ran in to Stephen, glancing at the fight as she went, noting with professional expertise the confidence and strength of Philip Ordway and the tentative, defensive position of Phillippe Holz. She knew Duncan would not interfere -- and for a moment, it occurred to her to step in. She had her sword in her hand, after all. But the moment passed, and she knew she couldn't. It was against the rules; against everything she'd been taught, everything that had been hammered into her about fairness, about one on one, about doing what was right.

Stephen looked past her. "Duncan!" he cried out. "Help him, please help him!"

Ordway slashed at Holz again, this time across the chest, and the French Immortal made a gagging sound, pulling his shoulders in, trying to shield himself, stepping back.

Duncan tore his eyes away from the duel long enough to look toward Stephen. "Get him out of here, Elena!" he exclaimed.

Elena took the boy by the arm. "Stephen; let's go!"

"No! I won't leave him!" He tried unsuccessfully to shrug out of Elena's grasp. "Duncan, help him, you said you'd help him!"

The words were like daggers in his chest. Duncan turned back to the fight as Holz lunged, out of balance, and Ordway neatly parried. Ordway's riposte slashed at Holz' chest, again, but the Frenchman managed to pull back at the last minute, getting only a shallow cut which nevertheless made him hiss in pain.

The boy cried out, again, "No!" and Duncan called out, "Elena!" But he didn't know whether he wanted Stephen to leave to spare him from watching this or to spare himself, Duncan, from having to listen to the child. He gripped the katana with a desperate intensity, feeling the carvings dig painfully into his palm. He'd watched Connor fight, and Richie, and Elena, and Fitz, and others, too, other Immortals he loved; and he didn't even care that much about Phillippe Holz. But in every other case they'd had a chance, a real chance to win, even if a small one. In every other case it had been more of a match, and one opponent wasn't completely outclassed, and terrified, like Holz was. He ground his teeth in frustration, in impotence.

Then Duncan realised what he was really looking at. Holz was fighting. Maybe because of the boy, or because he'd said he would; whatever the reason, in spite of the obvious pain and fear on his face, he was fighting. He wasn't running. But it was, for Phillipe Holz, a Pyhrric victory, as Ordway's sword got past his guard and plunged into his chest.

In the meantime, Elena, hampered by the heavy sword in her left hand, had pulled at Stephen, dragging him bodily toward the door. "Stephen, you can't help him!" she said to him. "You don't want to watch. . ."

"I won't leave him, no, let me go!" he was yelling, writhing, trying to break out of her hold. "Duncan!"

And suddenly Methos was there, in front of her, gripping her wrist. "Let him go, Elena!" he said, through his teeth. "He needs to learn, to face this!"

She shook her head, glancing at Stephen's pain-filled face, then turning to Methos. "No, he's just a boy. He doesn't know -- it will kill him," she whispered.

"Or it will make him stronger. And you have no right to take him away from his father. He wants to stay!" He was squeezing her wrist painfully. His eyes burned into hers; she had never seen such a look on the ancient Immortal's face. "He needs to stay; he deserves to stay!"

She stopped, looked at the boy, intent on the fight before him, not hearing what they were saying, and still trying to pull away from her. Feeling as though her heart would break, seeing the expression on Stephen's face, she nevertheless opened her hand, ready to snatch him if he tried to go toward his father. But he remained rooted to the spot, as he watched Holz scream once, stagger, and fall to his knees as Ordway pulled the sword out of his chest; the sword that was the only thing keeping him standing.

"No," Stephen said again, but this time softly, no longer yelling, as though he'd run out of breath and out of strength and out of hope.

Elena wanted to stand in front of Stephen, to block his view, at least, of what was coming, as Philip Ordway raised his sword over his head and called out, "There can be only one!"

But she didn't move in front of Stephen. And she didn't block his view. And it was a good thing she didn't, because she saw Holz raise his head, painfully, with great effort, and meet Stephen's eyes, and smile, actually smile, mouthing the words, "[mon fils.]"

The quickening hit Ordway. The lightning joined forces with the sound of the word, "NOOOOOOO!" torn from the boy's throat, filling the dojo, the force pushing all but Ordway back; breaking the glass of the office walls in a shower of glass. Two of the near windows exploded, and the sound of the lightning, the glass, the wind, Ordway's inarticulate cry of pleasure/pain, Stephen's scream of desperate denial -- all ripped through the room.

It was over. For a moment, no one moved. Then Ordway sagged, whispering audibly, "What a rush!"

Coming back to life, Stephen leapt toward his father's killer, screaming in a high pitched voice, "I'll kill you, you bastard!"

This time Methos reacted first, snatching the back of the boy's collar, pulling him back across the dojo floor, whispering, "This is a job for a professional, kid."

Ordway looked at Stephen, and said, still breathless, "We'll give him credit, kid. He didn't run -- this time. I guess he had some guts, after all." He looked Stephen up and down. "And *you* won't run, will you, boy?"

Duncan stepped forward, saying one word: "Ordway." And in that word was everything -- hate, anger, blood lust, horror, revenge, challenge, pride, plain love of battle. Everything that made him an Immortal and a warrior. He was avoiding looking at Stephen -- he knew Elena would take care of the young Holz. He concentrated all his thoughts, all his mind, on the business of taking Philip Ordway's head, now.

And he thought he detected a slight flinch in Ordway when he said the Immortal's name. And it made Duncan smile.

But if Ordway had flinched, he recovered quickly. "Don't worry, boy, I'll get to you. But first," Ordway turned to Duncan, "it's been a long time coming, MacLeod." The threat was palpable. He gathered himself up, raised his sword, got set.

Elena sheathed her sword and took the boy by both arms, pulling him again toward the doors as Duncan stepped forward. Duncan had said Ordway had been a match for him in the nineteen fifties, and although she hadn't seen much evidence of expert swordsmanship, Ordway hadn't really needed it against his first opponent. But he'd need it against the Highlander, she thought grimly. And although she had the utmost confidence in Duncan's abilities, she was a realist, and she didn't lie to herself, and she knew the possibility existed that Ordway might win. And if Ordway won - - my God, she would die! -- if Ordway won she knew what she had to do.

Everything they had done, every action of the Immortals for the last month had been based on the presence of Stephen Holz, on trying to do what would be best for him. And although every muscle in Elena's body screamed out, "Stay! Wait for Duncan! And if Duncan falls, avenge him! Kill the [pendejo!]" Even if she couldn't defeat Ordway. Even if she, too, lost her head -- she pulled Stephen to the door, waiting, ready, if Duncan died, [Dios mio!] to run with the boy, get him safely away. That was her first consideration. And she noted, with no small satisfaction, that Methos, too, was moving toward the door with her.

But she'd have time -- time to watch this fight, too, time to see the ending and either flee or stay and hug Duncan MacLeod afterward. Because Ordway was a headhunter; and Duncan had killed a lot of Immortals. Either way, the quickening would be grand, spectacular. And lengthy. And possibly one of the worst moments of her long life.

They stood just inside the doorway. Elena couldn't see Stephen's face, and she didn't really want to; not really. She could feel the tension in the boy's body, and felt him almost leap forward out of her grasp as Duncan attacked.

But surprisingly, it was over almost as soon as it began. Duncan methodically, coldly, simply overpowered Philip Ordway, impaled him, disarmed him, decapitated him.

Elena, Stephen and Methos had to step back, out to the entryway, outside the dojo itself, as every window exploded in turn, and pieces of equipment -- weight equipment -- were swept around like tenpins, like leaves in the wind. And in the center of the maelstrom Duncan stood, arms outstretched, holding his katana up in the air in triumph and victory and joy and agony, screaming.

Then it was over, again, and they walked inside the dojo proper, or what was left of it. And what had been added to it: two bodies, two heads, each separated from its owner. Holz lay where he fell, near the middle of the room, and Duncan and Ordway had fought around him, and in an ironic twist Ordway had actually at one point slipped on Holz' blood, still leaking out of his torso onto the wooden floor.

Stephen went to his father's body, knelt beside it for a moment, making no sound. Elena wanted to go to Duncan, who was on his knees, his bare chest spattered in blood, a wound on his upper arm still not healed, still taking large, heaving breaths, clearly exhausted body and soul, unable to even stand. But first she looked at the boy. Duncan MacLeod was a grown man, and he'd been through this before. He could take care of himself. But Stephen was a different story.

And after a moment, Stephen reached down and picked up his father's sword. Stood, holding it high over his head. And rushed, full speed, at Duncan. "You bastard! I hate you!" he screamed.

Duncan was still dizzy, weak. Ordway's quickening had been powerful; the other quickenings inside him overwhelming in their sheer numbers. He had no strength left. Still, trained as he was, no matter in how bad a shape, he saw the threat coming at him, the familiar figure with upraised sword. The figure that featured prominently in most of his nightmares, asleep and awake. And he instinctively raised his katana to block, then reached for the boy's wrist, wrenched the sword away from him, and stood, shakily.

His weapon gone, Stephen threw himself at the Highlander, almost bowling him over, pounding him on the chest, making pained, wheezing noises, while Duncan stood, bewildered, hurt, immobile, holding a sword in each outstretched hand. "I hate you! You promised! You promised to save him, and you didn't! You just stood there! You stood there and let him die, you bastard, you son of a bitch, I hate you!"

By this time Elena had come up, through the blood-drenched floor, and taken Stephen again, pulling him back and off Duncan.

"Stephen. . ." she began.

But the boy wasn't finished. "I hope you die! I hope someone takes your head! I hope you die, you bastard!"

In the back of Duncan's mind, a small, rational adult part of him understood the boy's grief, the boy's rage, the boy's blaming him for everything. But another part of Duncan felt overwhelmed, pained, and guilty, completely responsible. Because he had promised. Because he had just *stood there* and let Holz die. Because he had failed. And because of him, the boy was plunged into a misery beyond words, a misery he, Duncan, could have prevented; and could only dimly remember, thinking back to the day his own father died. He'd seen Holz look up, look at Stephen, smile, murmur, "my son," die in front of the boy's horrified eyes.

And Elena, too, felt helpless and hopeless, and guilty. She, too, could have interfered, come to Holz' assistance, and yet she hadn't. Because it was against the rules, the damn rules. And she remembered her own father's death, and how Don Alvaro had sent her away, ordered her to run, to save herself from St. Cloud's deadly scimitar. She tried to hug the boy, to hold him, but he was wild, wild with grief, yelling, repeating, "I hate you! You just stood there! I hope you die! I hope somebody guts you and takes your head!" blaming Duncan, oh God! what this would do to Duncan! She wrapped Stephen up, lifted him, bodily, pulled him away, away from the carnage, toward the elevator. As they stepped inside, the boy went deathly quiet, stopped struggling suddenly, turned to her, and slumped against her. And now he began to cry. She met Duncan's eyes, briefly, trying to reassure him with a glance, then closed the elevator doors and went upstairs.

Duncan stood, desolate, alone in the middle of the room, and Methos looked around him.

"Come, Highlander. I'll help you clean this up," Methos said quietly.

Translations:

mon fils (French) - my son

pendejo (Span.) - bastard, asshole

Thirteen

,i>Seacouver, February 27, 1997

"He's sullen," Methos whispered to Elena.

"Yes; and angry. And broken, I think." And she knew all about being broken, didn't she? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Nietsche. It was what Methos had said to her about Stephen, what she knew to be a fact. Her experiences with the Spanish conquistadores; with the Hunters; with Robert Trent and her dark quickening; and especially with her torture by Claude Bethel -- all these and others had broken her but failed to kill her. And ultimately, they had made her stronger.

But she thought about what Methos had said, his voice, his whispered. . .warning? Is that what it was? She turned to him. Methos was looking straight at her, serious, intent, with no trace of his usual cool, sardonic attitude. Maybe there was a third alternative. Maybe you could survive, but be so badly damaged you could never recover. Broken beyond repair. She personally thought the boy would heal, with time and love. But Methos' comment had given her pause. Maybe the ancient Immortal saw something there, something in the boy that she didn't see. And maybe she was being paranoid. "He still blames Duncan," she continued. "He didn't even want Duncan at the funeral."

But Duncan had been at the funeral, watching from a distance, staying out of the boy's sight. Grieving. Feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, of responsibility. He and Elena had spoken the day before and reached their agreement. "Go," he'd said to her. "He needs you more than I do." But by God, he needed her, too.

Methos nodded. "Not surprising. So, you're taking the kid to Argentina? Are you sure you're up to raising a child? It's not an easy proposition, you know. Especially this child."

He was back to normal, or maybe he'd never. . ."Adam , do you think. . .?" she began to ask him, then decided not to. She'd be watching Stephen closely, anyway. "Oh, I'll have plenty of help," she said. "A whole family there of Mapuche Indians, ready to welcome him, to love him. Other children for him to grow with, and other adults who've raised their own and who will give me much unwanted advice, I'm sure." She thought fondly of her housekeeper, Carmela Onioco, whom she had already spoken to on the telephone. "And plenty of animals -- horses especially. Gauchos. Fresh air. Lots of land. Adventure. And safety. I'll protect him. Besides," she added, "just how many children have *you* raised?"

Methos smiled knowingly and said, "Sometimes with MacLeod, I think that's exactly what I'm doing."

That got a smile out of her, her first smile in days, and she finally chuckled.

"It's good to see you smile again, Elena," Methos said.

A second smile from her. "Come visit us, Adam. You'll like the [pampa;] that is, if you haven't been there already. And it will be good to have an Immortal visitor who is not after my head." She paused, looking at him. "You aren't after my head, are you, Adam?" she asked, not being able to resist a little push.

He cocked his head. "Now, whatever gave you that idea, Elena Duran?"

She shook her head, then put her hand on his arm. "Please take care of Duncan." Her voice was earnest, serious, and she now knew that Methos could be serious, too, when it suited him.

"Oh, I do, Elena," he answered. "In my own way."

And with that, she had to be content.

Seacouver, February 28, 1997

Duncan drank some scotch and looked around the empty loft. There were still traces of her presence, but it was obvious Elena had left. They had all agreed it was the best thing. And it was. Still, he was left. Alone. Again. Except for. . .and then he sensed it, the presence of an Immortal, and thought, Methos, but habit and mistrust were too ingrained, and he glanced toward the elevator and toward his katana on a shelf nearby.

"Hey, Mac!"

The young man's voice lifted him, cheered him like almost no one else's would at this point.

"Richie!" he called out, genuinely glad to see his former student. "Come in!"

"Well, it's certainly nice to be welcome. And I see that we're drinking scotch," he continued, a slightly concerned tone in his voice.

Duncan shrugged and poured Richie a glass. "So. Did you find any of those answers?"

"No, not really, Mac. I'm still looking. It might take some time, you know," Richie grinned, sipping his drink. "As a matter of fact, I'm leaving the country, and thought I'd, well, check in with you, see how you were doing, before I went."

Duncan wondered if Richie had talked to Dawson, or to Methos; if he knew what had happened. If his arrival had been altogether a coincidence. "I'm doing ok, Richie," he answered noncomittally.

"So; Duran is still with her Mexican friends?"

"No. She's in Argentina. She's actually come and gone, while you were. . .traveling. Want to hear about it?" Duncan found himself wanting very much to tell Richie about it; to tell someone who would understand and would support him and who had been there, and who wouldn't offer sarcasm or reality or advice. Just sympathy, thank you very much.

"Sure," Richie grinned, again, and settled down on the sofa. "You got anything to eat?"

Duran [estancia,] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 27, 1997

Elena was in the middle of a complex sword-kata when she heard them at the studio doors. Normally no one interrupted her workout; and glancing over she noticed they were both at the door -- Carmela Onioco, her eighty-year-old Indian housekeeper, and her grandson, the ranch foreman, Juanito Onioco -- so Elena knew it was serious. Sighing, she reluctantly put down her sword and wiped her face and torso on a towel, signalling them to come in.

Carmela shuffled in, followed by Juanito.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Senorita," he began, and Elena interrupted him.

"What has he done this time?" Elena asked in a tired tone.

"He went after Carlos again. With an ax handle."

She glanced at them both, sharply. "Is Carlos alright?"

"We had to take him to the hospital with a cracked skull, Senorita. It didn't look serious, but there was a lot of blood, of course. And with a headwound, one never knows. . ."

"Yes, I know. [!Cono!]" Elena swore. "And I'm sure his mother's with him. What am I going to say to her?" she asked no one in particular, pulling a sweatshirt on over her tank top, almost in despair, much preferring to face an Immortal with a sword than an angry mother.

Stephen, or Esteban, as they called him here, had been in trouble almost constantly, fighting with other children, insulting adults, rebelling against every restriction placed on him, insisting rules didn't apply to him, and driving everyone around him crazy -- some days. Other days he had been so sweet, showing his best quality, generosity, that Elena had been moved. Like when he'd given one of his baseball caps -- one his father had given him -- to one of the little girls, to shelter her from the sun. It was a protective gesture, something Duncan, as opposed to Stephen's own father, would have done, Elena realised. And he was unfailingly kind to his favorite 'people,' the horses, and especially to Sparks, the gelding Elena had gifted him with on their first day there.

She had spent the first week almost like his shadow, worried about him excessively, but after that she assigned two carefully picked ranch hands as his bodyguard, to never let him out of their sight, and had been able to get some rest. And give the boy a break from her.

Nights hadn't necessarily been restful, either. Stephen had had at least two screaming nightmares, involving, surprise, a man coming at him with a sword. And he wasn't even an Immortal yet!

But although they rode together every day and spent all meals together, she seemed to have no time alone, always being interrupted by some of his 'antics.' And she knew for a fact the Oniocos didn't tell her everything Stephen did; only the serious matters.

Like this time. Like when he attacked another boy with an ax handle. [!Gracias a Dios!] there hadn't been an ax blade attached, she thought.

"He needs a man, Mariaelenita," Carmela was saying. "A father to show him, to teach him, to be strong with him!"

"I know that, too, Carmela."

"Senor Mac needs to come down here, spend some time with Esteban!"

"Duncan is the perfect person to be his 'father!' Duncan is strong, an Immortal, and a kind and good man. And he loves children. But Stephen still fears Duncan, a little, and blames Duncan for his father's death -- and I don't know when he'll get over that, if he'll get over it," she added, shaking her head.

"What about the other [escoces?] The cousin?" Carmela asked, exasperated.

"You mean Connor MacLeod?" Elena laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, I have no doubt that Connor could 'tame' our boy. Connor could tame a wild tiger! But. . .he'd be too harsh, I think. Stephen needs someone to love him, too, not just someone to beat him into submission. I could do that myself," she added, mumbling almost to herself. "I'm afraid Connor might. . ." she thought about if for a minute, thinking of the unyielding New York Scot, wondering what he was like with children, "break his spirit." Stephen was going to need his aggressiveness, his strong spirit, when he became an Immortal himself -- otherwise he'd be cut down almost immediately. "Besides, how can I ask MacLeod to leave New York. . .I can't!" And Connor is busy, anyway, with his own student, she reflected, thinking about Emma Cuzo, another pre-Immortal teenager, who fully lived up to the strong-willed, quick-tempered reputation her red hair brought to mind. Maybe Elena could ask Connor for pointers on how to deal with teenagers; or maybe they could trade students, she thought wryly, before bringing herself back to Juanito's words.

"I don't know about breaking his spirit, Senorita," her foreman was saying, angrily. "But Esteban did a pretty good job of breaking Carlos' head!"

"Yes," she answered, sighing again, heading toward the doors.

"What about the [gauchos?]" Carmela asked, suddenly inspired. "You could let him spend some time with Ramon Perez and his family. He has four sons, and won't stand for any nonsense from Esteban. And they'll keep him so busy riding and working all day he'll be too tired to get himself into trouble. And he'll spend a lot of time on horseback, which we know he loves!"

Carmela had warmed up to her subject, and Elena could think of only one objection. "I don't know. I don't want him to think I'm sending him away, giving up on him. . ."

"But he wouldn't be away, not really. You could see him every day, if you like. And he'd be doing something useful with his time, not just moping around."

"[Abuela] is right, Senorita," Juanito agreed. "He needs structure, and strength, and hard work never hurt anyone."

"But he already works hard, at the stables, doesn't he?" Elena asked, and the other two nodded. She'd made sure he had a job and responsibilities; maybe she needed to train him, exercise him more, exhaust him. She wasn't sure about sword work, but there were other things she could be teaching him. And she could force him to cooperate, even if she couldn't force him to learn.

"Perhaps working at the stables is not enough; leaves him too much free time," Carmela argued. "But with the [gauchos. . .]"

"I'll consider it," Elena said, seeing many good points, but unable to shake a feeling that Stephen would feel deserted, somehow. "I'm going to the hospital now."

"What about Esteban?" Juanito asked.

"Where is he?" Elena asked, pausing.

"Locked up in the woodshed. Again."

Elena looked out through the French doors. It was a nice, warm day. "Does he have water?"

"Of course."

"Then let him sweat it out a little," she said, and left.

Translations: (Spanish)

pampa - Argentine plains

estancia - Argentine combination ranch/farm

escoces - Scotsman

gauchos - Argentine cowboys

abuela - grandmother

Fourteen

Three hours later

It wasn't until Elena left the hospital, still a bit shaken after seeing Carlos' chalk white face and after her conversation with Carlos' mother, that she sensed the Immortal.

She glanced around the parking lot. There was no one in sight, but that meant nothing. The Immortal was there, somewhere, and Elena felt very exposed among the cars. Feeling the reassuring sword hilt in her hand, she walked in what she believed was the right direction. The Immortal presence became stronger for a moment, and she speeded up; but then it faded almost completely.

"[!Veni!]" she called out. "I'm here, senor or senorita! Don't go away and leave me disappointed." No answer, no Immortal, no buzz. She sighed, feeling slightly nervous -- she much preferred facing and fighting an opponent than playing these hide-and-seek games some of them seemed to favor -- and went back to the jeep, eager to get back home, but not particularly eager to face Stephen. However, Elena Duran had never been one to put off unpleasant tasks.

She talked to some people, got some information, then walked to the woodshed and got the key from one of Stephen's bodyguards. "He was yelling for you, senorita," the Indian told her, and she nodded. Inside it was dark and warm and wood smelling -- but she could also smell Stephen, his sweat, his. . .his fear?

She left the door open and the afternoon light streamed in. She wondered if Stephen would try to run out the door, but doubted it. He knew, from personal experience, just how fast she was.

He put his cap on and came toward her, and she was impressed -- another boy in his situation would have been too afraid, hung back, but Stephen always went forward, no matter what he had done wrong. Or maybe he just wasn't afraid of her. Maybe she should make it a point to make him afraid of her. . .she knew just how to do it.

"Can I get out of here now? It's been hours!" he began, then added, "Is Carlos alright? Nobody would talk to me."

Good; at least he was worried about Carlos, she thought. "Carlos is in the hospital with a cracked skull," she said simply.

"Oh," he answered, and when he offered nothing else, she asked him, "Did you intend to kill him?"

"No! I just. . ." He closed up, intending to be stubborn, perhaps, but Elena wasn't having any.

"Talk to me, Stephen."

He sighed, clearly unhappy, then said, "He just said. . .he said I thought I was better than anyone else, thought I could get away with anything, because of you. Because everybody's afraid of you."

Elena sighed, knowing that to be a fact, knowing her people both loved and 'respected' her. No, feared her. That was closer to the mark.

"He said if I weren't the senorita's son, he'd beat me up for sure. But it's not true. I don't depend on you! I can take care of myself. And I challenged him to beat me up, to just try it! But he wouldn't! He just walked away!"

The senorita's son, Elena thought, a little thrill coursing through her. But back to reality, Elena, she told herself. She had already heard the story from other children there, how Carlos had taunted Stephen, pushed him. And she knew she herself would have reacted the same way, at the same age, with violence -- but not such deadly violence. Don Alvaro, her mentor, would never have permitted it, not even against Indians. She was glad, in a way, that Stephen was strong and aggressive. But he had no judgement, and he'd gone overboard, and he could have killed the other boy. The key was for him to pick his battles, not get carried away every time over everything. She wondered if only time and experience could teach him this -- certainly anything she'd said and done, including blows, hadn't made a difference.

"So what did you do? Pick up an ax handle and try to beat his head in? Did you think this would make him or any of the others respect you?"

"No, I didn't mean to hurt him! Not that badly! I just saw it and. . .I guess I just lost it, that's all. He laughed at me, Elena!"

"Well, he won't laugh at you anymore -- but no one else is laughing, either," she said, sarcastically.

"I know, and I'm sorry," he said. "I really messed up." The light from the door illuminated his features, and as he lowered his head and closed his eyes, in real regret, she could see, Elena looked at those long, black eyelashes laying against his golden skin, and thought, again, what a beautiful child he was. And how this, too, probably worked against him with the other boys.

But he was admitting he was wrong, and making no excuses, not really, and Elena admired him for that, too. "Don't apologise to me! You will apologise to Carlos, and to his mother, who is very upset with both of us right now."

"I will."

"Good. Now: following your own logic, that you're responsible for your own actions, that you don't 'depend' on me. . .I can't very well just slap your hand and let you go, can I? You have to face the consequences of your actions, right?"

He shuffled his feet slightly, obviously nervous, but he couldn't very well disagree; he was too honest for that. Congratulations, Elena! she said to herself. You, a four-hundred year old Immortal, have just tripped up a thirteen-year-old boy on his own words.

"Yes," he finally said.

"Well, you'll have plenty of time to think about what you've done, what your punishment should be, and what you will say to Carlos. The doctor said he'll be back home in three days. In the meantime," she waved in the direction of the door and a woman came in with a tray and a canteen, and his bodyguard brought in a bucket, "a little isolation is good for the soul. Helps you focus. Think about the meditation techniques I showed you."

He looked at the others, then at her, stepping forward. "You're not going to leave me locked up in here for. . .for three days, are you, Elena?" he asked, incredulously.

"It could be worse, you know," she said, looking around. "You could be in a hospital room, with a concussion, an iv in your vein, and pain medication every four hours."

"But. . .no, don't leave me alone. . ." he began, his voice catching, and Elena shook her head.

"Sorry, the 'I'm-just-a-little-orphan-boy-and-nobody-loves-me' routine is getting old, Stephen. What you did was vicious, and you're just beginning to pay for it."

The others left, and Elena went to the door -- and Stephen was there, catching her shirt in his fist, whispering harshly. "Elena, don't leave me alone. I'm. . .I'm scared. . ."

She blanched, but her back was to the light and he couldn't see it. She plucked his hand off her sweatshirt and pushed him away, hard, watching him fall. "You'll just have to gut it out, Stephen." And as the bodyguard padlocked the door, she heard him cry out, once, "No!"

She waited for a moment, straining to hear if he said anything else, then started toward the house, wondering if she was being too harsh, if he was too scared, if she was doing the right thing. But he was silent. Then, as she came within a few meters of the front door, she sensed the Immortal, again.

And thought to herself, her teeth grinding together, good. She could really use someone to take her frustrations out on.

Elena walked into the house boldly, her hand at her waist, but noticed nothing amiss; obviously no one knew her visitor was an Immortal. As she entered the large living room, Carmela came up to her, excited. "Guess who's here, Mariaelena? Your friend, Maria Feliz Betancourt!"

But Elena had already seen her Mexican 'friend;' they had already locked glances. Maria Feliz rose from her chair, a glass in her hand, and put it down hurriedly. "Carmela was making me feel quite welcome, Eli," she began, her friendly, disarming smile spreading across her face. "She's as sweet as I remember. . ."

Maria Feliz had been at the ranch before and had charmed everyone with her unfailing good humor and her constant jokes. She's like a breath of sunshine, Elena thought bitterly -- except when she comes at you in the night with a blade. Elena was both sad and angry: sad because she knew unless she made a terrible mistake or slipped and fell, she'd be beheading Maria Feliz today, and she'd wanted to avoid that; angry because Maria Feliz had dared to come here, to her house, to challenge her.

"Shall I set up one of the guest bedrooms. . ." Carmela started to say.

Elena walked into the room, placing herself between Carmela and the other Immortal. "Maria Feliz will not be staying the night, or for dinner, Carmela." Without taking her eyes off her guest, she added, "We need to talk. Leave us, [vieja.]" It was a command, it was rude, and Elena figured she'd explain later -- right now, she wasn't sure just what Maria Feliz intended to do.

She heard Carmela gasp slightly behind her. There was a pause, then the Indian silently left the room, closing the double doors behind her.

"You could have been nicer to the old lady," Maria Feliz said.

"Excuse me," Elena answered, sarcastically. "I'm in a bad mood." She walked forward, into Maria Feliz' personal space, looking down on the smaller blonde woman. She regretted what was going to happen, but had no intention of letting Maria Feliz know that. "Tell me, did you get tired of slinking around parking lots? Is that why you're here, to face me at last? Very well. There's a place we can go and be private," she whispered harshly.

The Mexican's eyes widened, but she didn't step back. "Parking lot? No, I came directly here from the airport. And, no, Eli, that's not why I came, no! I came. . ."

Elena waited silently, a bit puzzled, and now a small alarm was going off in her head. Maria Feliz would have no reason to lie about being at the parking lot, would she? And if she hadn't lied, if it hadn't been her, then who? Something to think about, to consider, to worry about. Later.

"I came. . .to ask you to forgive me. For my mistake. For my betrayal."

Elena couldn't believe what she was hearing, but could tell that Maria Feliz was being sincere. "Forgive you?" she asked, then moved to the bar. "I see you already have a drink. Tequila?" she inquired, referring to Maria Feliz' favorite poison, the one they'd used, this trip, to get drunk on and rampage through the bars of Ciudad Mexico.

"Ah, yes. Eli. . ."

Elena poured herself some straight tequila, forcing herself to drink it slowly, to sip it, staying calm, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice and almost succeeding. "Finish it and get out or I'll kill you."

"Maria Elena. Please listen to me. Just listen. One hundred and thirty years of friendship, I hope, entitles me to ask you to just listen. Alright?"

Elena said nothing. The more Maria Feliz said, the colder, more detached Elena felt, as though she were closing a faucet, slowly. And she knew Maria Feliz could see it.

The Mexican Immortal licked her lips. "I was wrong. I was weak. I have no excuse. I wish I could say it was the alcohol, but it wasn't. It was greed, and evil thoughts, and total, complete stupidity. And envy. That's it, you know. I lay there at night, awake, thinking: the strong, the proud Elena Duran -- humbled, weak, vulnerable. At last, weaker than me. At last, *I* was the stronger one. I kept thinking about it, obsessing on it. I couldn't let it go; until. . .but I'm

not offering an excuse. All I can do is tell you that it will never happen again. Never. And ask you to please, please forgive me."

Her arms crossed in front of her, the drink in her right hand, her left hand ready to clutch her sword if necessary, Elena said, "No." And took another sip.

Maria Feliz began to cry, silently, large tears spilling out of her dark eyes and down her cheeks. It wasn't something Elena had seen often, because Maria Feliz was generally a happy person, a peaceful person, who spent a lot of her time on holy ground, who avoided fighting. And in truth, Elena had no idea that Maria Feliz had been envious of her, of her strength. And they had cried in each others' arms, in the night, reliving the horror that so often was a part of an Immortal's life. That, the fact that she had seen Maria Feliz unhappy, had seen past the mask, made the subsequent betrayal even harder to take.

"I know you believe in God. The Lord's Prayer asks us to forgive those who sin against us. In the name of. . ."

"You're being blasphemous, Maria Feliz. He can forgive you -- I'm sure He already has. I can't. I won't."

"I am so terribly sorry. I regret everything. Please tell me what I can say or do, Eli, [!por favor, te lo suplico!]"

Elena put her drink down and balanced her weight over her feet, getting herself ready. "For the last time, Maria Feliz, get out of my house while you still can."

"Will nothing satisfy you?" She was crying more loudly now, sobbing. "Will my head satisfy you? Will it make you feel better to take it? Is that the only way I can prove to you how sorry I am, to give you my life?"

"If I wanted you head, Maria Feliz, I would have taken it already. But for that, I'd have to hate you, I'd have to care one way or another. I don't care -- I just want you to go."

"That's not true! You do care!" she cried out.

Elena shook her head. "Not anymore." And it was true, she realised. She felt removed from the conversation, from the situation, as though she weren't there, as though she were absent, as though everything had been dissolved between the two of them, no longer being moved or hurt or angered by this little, insignificant woman. Beyond Maria Feliz' reach.

The Mexican shook her head in turn, almost violently, tears flying off her face in all directions. "Eli, I give you my head! Take it; punish me; I deserve it: but just forgive me first, please!" As she said this, she removed her sword, placed it on the sofa behind her, and came to kneel in front of Elena. "Say you forgive me!"

Elena didn't even feel cold anymore. She was cool, cool to the touch, unmoved and unmoveable. She wondered if this was how Mr. Cool, Methos, felt, untouched and untouchable. She leaned down, closer to Maria Feliz' tear-stained face, and said, in an even tone, "You think I won't be able to kill you. But you've misjudged me, again, Maria Feliz, the same way you misjudged me in Ciudad Mexico when you thought I was weak, when you thought you could take me. You think I won't take your head, but I will. If I think you're a threat to me, or to those I love, I will put my sword in your chest, again, then take your carcass to the river, separate your head from your body, and use you to feed the fish. And since I don't trust you, I consider you a threat."

As she was saying this, the crying was getting louder, more out of control. "Eli, please give me another chance, [!por el amor de Dios!]"

"I'll give you another chance. A second chance. You have one minute to leave my house." She leaned back, watching as Maria Feliz struggled to control herself, pulled herself to her feet, slowly, laboriously, like someone in too much pain or too weak to stand. The Mexican took her sword, stuffed it in her coat, shuffled to the doors like an old woman, then stopped there and turned. "I'll try again. I'll come back! I can't believe this is your last word!"

"My last word is: thirty seconds." And Elena followed her, to make sure she got in her car and left. When the Immortal buzz was out of range, she went back inside. Well, that hadn't been so hard, had it? she said to herself.

Translations: (all Spanish)

veni - come here

por favor - please

te lo suplico - I beg you

por el amor de Dios - for the love of God

Fifteen

Carmela was waiting at the base of the stairs. "What in God's name happened? Are you alright? Do you want to talk, [nina?]"

"No," Elena answered, and went up to her bedroom. She lay on the bed, still fully clothed, her mind whirling, feeling very strange indeed, and not liking this feeling of detachment, of uncaringness. This was new -- maybe she'd spent too much time with Connor MacLeod! But that was unfair. Connor's fault was not that he didn't feel, but that he felt too much. He just didn't show it.

Maybe it was Methos' supreme indifference that was influencing her. But that, too, she knew to be unfair, and untrue. Methos cared about something -- he certainly cared about Duncan MacLeod, and about who won the Game, ultimately.

It was just her, she finally decided. Maria Feliz' betrayal had killed a little part of Elena's heart, the part that felt love and pity for old friends who made terrible mistakes. She closed her eyes, feeling slightly ill, wishing she could sleep, knowing she wouldn't, then falling into a deep slumber anyway, almost immediately.

And dreaming.

In her dream -- what dream? all she ever had were nightmares -- Stephen was alone, in the dark, where Elena had left him, and he shrieked, and his head fell and rolled to her feet. And Elena, standing by helplessly, looked up and saw Stephen's killer. She thought for sure it would be Maria Feliz. But it wasn't.

It was Duncan MacLeod.

Elena screamed. But this time, when she sat up in bed, gasping, sweating, terrified, there were no strong arms to comfort her, no kind brown eyes to soothe her, no soft accent to caress her. She was alone.

And so, she realised, was Stephen. Maybe he, too, was having a nightmare. It was certainly a good night for it. Feeling not at all rested by her 'sleep,' sticky, a bad taste in her mouth. She stumbled downstairs to the kitchen, needing something to fill her empty stomach, and almost tripped over the young woman there, sitting in a chair, dozing. Elena knew that Carmela made sure there was always someone awake in the house while Elena was there, because the senorita was restless, and awake at all hours, and demanding. It was a kind, considerate gesture on the old woman's part.

"Senorita!" the young girl stood, frightened into total wakefulness by the presence of her mistress.

"It's alright, Maribet." In spite of everything, Elena smiled slightly, thinking of Duncan and her conversation with him about all Latin girls being called Maria. "Make me some coffee, will you?"

"Of course," she hurried to comply, then asked, "Shall I awaken [la vieja?]" It was the loving name everyone had for Carmela, and Maribet was clearly torn between disturbing the old lady and pleasing Elena.

"No, don't bother her." Elena sat at the kitchen table, musing, still thinking about Duncan. She'd have to call him, again. Stephen had now lapsed into violence, and she wasn't sure how to handle it -- that is, without becoming violent herself. That route was certainly an option, but only as a last resort. Duncan was a more gentle soul than she. And it was true that Stephen needed a role model, and Duncan was perfect, in many ways. Maybe she should just ask Duncan to come, or ask him if he thought he should come.

She sighed. She had always been decisive, until now; she had never felt so unsure about every move she made, not in her whole, long life. And it was wearing her down, she knew. She wasn't neglecting her workouts, or her fencing, because now there was someone else to protect. But she wasn't eating, she wasn't sleeping well, and she worried all the time. The worst part, however, is that she was starting to look longingly at the scotch, and not just to sip, either. She knew something had to change, Stephen had to change, or she had to, or something, someone.

"Here, senorita. I'm not sure how much sugar. . ." Maribet handed her a cup, and the steam and smell helped clear Elena's head.

"Gracias, [nina.]" She wanted to tell the girl to go to bed, but didn't want to get her in trouble with Carmela, so she merely said, "Good coffee."

"Thank you, senorita. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, gracias," Elena answered, walking outside. She was still worried about Stephen, and she was now thinking about the unknown Immortal she had sensed, and then somehow forgotten, damn it, that wasn't smart. And if it wasn't Maria Feliz. . .great, just what she needed. Something else to worry about, something else intangible, another ghost she couldn't just fight unless the Immortal made an appearance. Fighting, risking your life, was so easy by comparison.

She went toward the woodshed, and was gratified when Stephen's bodyguard noticed her, and challenged her. "Has he said anything, Fernando?" She spoke in hushed tones, and he answered in kind.

"Not a word, senorita. Not a sound."

Somehow, that didn't make Elena feel better. Now that she was this close to the woodshed, to Stephen, she could sense, in her bones, his unawakened Immortality, the connection between them.

And, apparently, somehow, so could he. "Elena? Is that you?" The voice, from inside, was muffled. "Are you there?" She said nothing, and he continued. "Elena? Please, can we talk? Will you please open the door?"

She considered it. The purpose of punishing him was to make him learn, make him understand, not make him suffer. She knew he was sorry. Maybe he had learned something, after all. And it wouldn't hurt to talk to him.

"Open it," she said to Fernando, and she stepped inside. The moonlight left a long rectangle of light on the shed floor, but he didn't walk into it, towards her, so she went into the darkness to him. She could smell him.

"Thanks. I knew it was you," he said, softly.

She smiled to herself -- there *was* a connection, just like her connection with little Miyu and with Emma. But she still needed to be firm with him. "What do you want, Stephen?"

"I guess you couldn't sleep either, huh?"

"No," she answered, noncommitally.

"I don't want to sleep. I'm. . ." She waited, knowing this was hard for him ". . .afraid; of nightmares." Oh, yes, we know all about nightmares, don't we, Elena? she said to herself. "Look. I'm sorry about what happened," he continued. "I know I deserve to be punished. But please. . .I just don't want to be alone like this, in the dark. Maybe. . .you could think of something else. I'd rather you beat me, or something."

"I'm not going to beat you, Stephen." Her coldness, her sense of detachment, were completely gone. This boy touched her, reached her soul. She was aware of him every second they were together, aware of everything about him -- he almost filled her consciousness. Only when Duncan was also around did she feel her attention stray from Stephen. She wondered if this passion, this intense caring, was what being a parent was about. And decided, for all its pain, that it was worth it, to have such a close bond with another human being. Isn't this why people loved, anyway? To be close to another person? To feel, for a while, less alone?

"So, can I get my sentence commuted? I'll. . .I won't ride, for a week, whatever. I'll stay away from the horses. I'll work in the kitchen. I'll scrub the floors. I'll do pushups. I'll be grounded."

"Well, you certainly have been thinking about it." She was pleased, and touched. For him to offer to stay away from his greatest love, horses, was quite a sacrifice, and showed the measure of his regret - - and his fear. She wanted to make him sorry, but not to make him more fearful. "I like some of your ideas. Let's sleep on it, shall we?"

"But. . ." he began, and she stepped toward the open door.

"Come on," she gestured, and he followed her outside, happily.

She put an arm around his shoulders, and they walked toward the house, companionably, warming each other, followed discreetly, she could hear, by Fernando, the bodyguard. "Stephen, you've been through a hard time, a terrible time. I can't minimize your suffering, and I can't make it better. But. . ." she stopped, framing her thoughts, wanting to get through to him, facing him, holding him by the shoulders. "You can't let what other people do ruin your life. Like Ordway." Or like Duncan, she thought to herself, but didn't say it. That conversation would come later. "You have to stay true to yourself. You take this pain inside you -- and believe me, I know about pain; all Immortals do, trust me on this one -- make it a part of you, of who you are. This is the hard part, the part that takes courage, maturity. You don't let it destroy you. You learn from it, and you go forward. You are in charge of yourself, responsible, as you said. Others can help you, and they can hurt you, but they aren't responsible for who you are, for who you become, ultimately. You are. You, Stephen Holz." She put her index finger on his chest. "You can beat this. You can get past this. We can help you: the Oniocos, the horses, the other kids, me, and Duncan, too. Our love can also become a part of you, of who you are. And give you strength to fight against the darkness. You're not alone in this fight, Stephen. But only you, alone, can decide to make it a fight; or you can give up. It's up to you."

She felt tired, so tired. She'd tried to tell him this before, in other ways. She didn't know if she'd been beating her head against a brick wall; she couldn't tell, by his expression, if she'd gotten through to him. And she was also taking a risk, she knew, that he'd say, "I give up."

"Elena, I know you. . .but I really miss them. My Dad, and Maman."

"Of course you do. I miss my mother, and my father. And it was centuries ago. But time will help, too. It does heal wounds. Trust me, Stephen. It will get better. You'll still miss them -- it just won't hurt as much."

"You really think so? It will get better?"

"Yes. I know it. Believe me. . .I wouldn't lie to you. I've never lied to you, Stephen."

"I believe you. I trust you."

"Good. That's a good start. Now you have to believe in yourself; trust yourself. Well," she smiled, leading him inside and pointing him to his room, "enough talk, eh? Try to get some sleep."

And when he woke up, later, crying out in the throes of another nightmare, she was there to hold him, to comfort him, and [!gracias a Dios!] he wasn't in the dark, in a woodshed, alone.

//////

The next morning, over breakfast, Elena told Stephen what his punishment would be; and then added, almost nonchalantly, "Remember what I told you last night, about getting help from your friends? Those who love you?"

"Yeah." Stephen was unhappy, but that wasn't surprising.

Maybe this wasn't the time, she considered, then decided to stop second-guessing herself. "I'm going to ask Duncan to come spend some time with us." She caught the dark look the boy gave her, but continued. "Duncan is a kind man, Stephen, and a sympathetic person. He lost his parents, too, you know, when he became an Immortal. They rejected him; called him a demon; threw him out to fend for himself in the Scottish wilderness. He knows how you feel."

"And he's strong. He was strong for me, when I finally managed to get away from Claude Bethel. Bethel stripped me of everything but pain and fear, and Duncan helped put me back together again; like Humpty Dumpty." She remembered thinking that.

"I hate him," Stephen said simply.

"We've been over this, the rule of non-interference. Rules we Immortals have to live by. Your father knew about it, told you about it. And I didn't interfere in his fight; neither did Adam Pierson."

"But MacLeod promised," Stephen insisted stubbornly, quietly.

"That's what made it so much harder for him, the fact that he couldn't keep his promise, the fact that he cares about you," she insisted, then decided to drop the subject. She studied him. He looked. . .sullen, that was the perfect word, and she suddenly remembered Methos. . .but by this time the boy had left the table at a run, and she decided he'd learn, Duncan would win him over.

And it really looked like Stephen had learned something -- he was grounded, worked hard all day, never left the house, never went near the horses, and mostly avoided Elena.

She didn't find out how badly she'd misjudged him until the next dawn. "Esteban is gone, Mariaelena!" Carmela rushed in with the news, waking Elena instantly, bringing her to her feet.

Elena immediately thought of the unknown Immortal, the one she had sensed, or even Maria Feliz could have come back; then she slowed her heart down, deliberately, and pulled on some clothes as she questioned her housekeeper.

"I take it you've searched everywhere; the stables."

"He was in the stables. He took his horse, Esparks. And in the middle of the night, Maribet says she saw him, in the kitchen, saying he was hungry, taking food with him, but she had no idea, of course."

"Of course not." This was better, Elena thought. The boy had simply run away. Not good, but better than it could be. No foul play involved. She'd just have to deal with him, not anyone else. Damn.

"Since he left on horseback, Juanito felt that would be the best way to track him. They're saddling a horse for you now, and we're packing supplies. He's headed west."

"Good. Coffee."

"I have a quick breakfast waiting for you. I know you'll find him -- try not to be too hard on him, Mariaelenita. He really worked hard yesterday."

"Yeah, and I think he fooled us completely," Elena muttered, rushing down the stairs. Just before she left the house she turned to Carmela. "Gracias," Elena said.

There were three ranch hands, including Stephen's two bodyguards, and Juanito took her aside just before she mounted. "I've called ahead; you'll pick up a [gaucho] tracker at Ramon Perez'. Senorita, Fernando and Jose Antonio want to come along, to help, to try to redeem themselves."

She looked the two bodyguards over. They were young, determined, stern-faced. . . and afraid. She could see that clearly; she'd seen that look too many times before. She felt her anger flare, then dampen. She should probably be angrier at Stephen, not at these two. "They can come along." But as she leaped nimbly onto her mount a girl came up, leading Stephen's horse. "Senorita!" she cried out, and Elena jumped off her horse and was examining the gelding at once.

He'd fallen off Sparks, was her first thought, but that was quickly belied by his cap, backpack and canteen, carefully hung over the saddle horn. She opened the pack, which should have been on his back, she was thinking, a sinking feeling starting in her gut, and immediately found the note, written in Spanish:

You took my student's head. Now I have your student. And you'll never see him again.

An Immortal.

No signature. No clues. [!Madre de Dios!] No Stephen, she thought, bleakly, hopelessly. She glanced west, then in the other directions, too, over the tall grass, scanning upward, looking for vultures circling, circling over a decapitated body, knowing they'd be visible on the plain from many miles away. Nothing.

Translations: (all Spanish)

gracias a Dios (Span.) - thank God

Seventeen

"Senorita?" Juanito asked. She turned to him.

"I'm going to Buenos Aires to find Stephen. Get me the jeep, Juanito. And you, Fernando and Jose Antonio." The stakes had changed, and now Stephen's head was in the balance, if not already lost. She felt excited and tense, scared and furious; fire and ice. A hunt; she was going hunting, and she'd done this before, and she was good at it. But this time, the boy was in the middle, again. She had no real hope she could save him -- but then, the note didn't say, 'I took his head.' It said, 'I have him.' Maybe, he was just a child, maybe. . .maybe he was still alive. If God was merciful. And if this Immortal was merciful. A tall order.

And if not, in any case, she would avenge him.

She looked at the two supposed bodyguards. "A thirteen-year-old boy.You were supposed to watch him twenty-four hours a day, simply keep him in sight. But I guess that was too difficult for you. He got away from you. And now, he'll probably be murdered. Because you made a mistake." Her voice was cold, dangerous. They couldn't meet her gaze. "But I'm going to be generous. I'm going to give you one more chance. If you ever screw up again, ever, in any way, I'll kill you both."

And with that she turned and went to pack.

Las Flores, Argentina, March 29, 1997, 8 a.m. As soon as the man opened the door she hit him in the face with the heel of her hand, breaking his nose and sending him staggering back. It was a killing blow -- at the proper angle and with the right amount of force, it was designed to drive splinters of broken facial and nasal bones into the brain. But Elena didn't want to the kill the Watcher; she just wanted his attention.

Elena's Watcher, Bernie Liebowitz, dropped the newspaper he was reading. "Duran?!" he asked.

"Sit on the bed," she ordered, and the other man stepped back as she advanced until the back of his knees hit the bed and he fell on it, holding his nose, moaning.

"Hello, Bernie," she said, a savage smile on her face. "Who is he?" she asked, gesturing at the man on the bed, who was still moaning, and had started whispering, "Ohmigod, my God, my God, ohmigod," over and over.

"He's a trainee. Let me get him a doctor!"

A trainee, she thought. Well, he'll sure get some training today. She shook her head nervously. "Sit on the bed, Bernie. We need to talk."

"But. . ." He looked at her as she went to close the blinds, and she shoved him onto the bed. "Sit!"

"At least let me get him a towel. . ."

"He can use his shirt," she growled, and finally turned to the young man, who was looking at her in open terror, still gasping, "My God, ohmigod, ohmi. . ."

"Shut up," she said, and he did. Then she walked closer, looming over him. "What's your name?"

"Juber. C-Carsten J-Juber."

"Goodbye, Carsten Juber," she murmured, backhanding him, pivoting to put her hip and shoulder and arm into the blow. He fell back hard and never moved.

"You've killed him, my God, no!" Bernie exclaimed, leaning over the other man.

"I didn't kill him, Bernie. I gave my word not to kill any more Watchers, remember?"

"But. . ." Bernie was looking at his associate, bleeding freely out of his mouth and nose, but with his chest rising and falling, obviously alive. "Why. . .what are you doing?"

"Actually, Bernie, I'm doing you a favor," she explained. "I know Joe Dawson was shot by his own beloved Watchers for consorting with Duncan MacLeod. I like you; we understand each other. And I don't want the same thing to happen to you. So we'll have a nice, private conversation, and you'll tell me what I want to know, and Juber won't be able to report you to the goon squad."

"You want information."

"Give that man a cigar," she smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile; it wasn't meant to be. Actually, Elena felt very little like smiling. "I'm hunting an Immortal who's been here today, around my ranch, maybe for the last couple of days."

"I can't. . ." he began, then changed his mind. They'd danced this same dance before, in Tokyo, and he'd wound up giving her everything she wanted. And he would again.

Sighing, defeated, he said, "I don't have to look up anyone -- I know which Immortal has been here, gone to your place. I thought she'd challenge you for sure."

Elena got very close to Bernie. "Who?"

"Her name is Hannah Swenson," he said nervously, leaning back away from her. "I know her Watcher, we. . .had dinner together last week. But he didn't give me that many details."

"Call him," Elena ordered.

He had to lean over Juber to get to the phone. "Please, let me call a doctor. . ." he began; but she shook her head, and he gave up and dialed.

Elena didn't seriously think he'd try to call for help -- Watchers were as secretive as Immortals were -- but she listened to his conversation anyway, impatiently. She could feel the heat building up inside her, the excitement, as she paced back and forth, realising her advantage. Her opponent didn't, couldn't know she, Elena, could get such detailed information, so quickly. And it made sense, somehow, that she was hunting a woman, that a male Immortal would have just killed Stephen outright. Taking him, saying, "You'll never see him again," sounded more like a woman to her. Of course, she was probably being sexist.

Bernie hung up and turned to her. "He checked out early this morning, last night, in a hurry. He. . .asked the hotel clerk to call the airport, make flight reservations for him. New York City."

[!Cono!] she swore to herself. Not New York! Not that rabbit's warren of cold asphalt, colder people, bad smells, worse memories. Not there, again. Her stomach felt tight, sick. "So that's where his Immortal, this Swenson, is going?"

"Yes, almost certainly."

"Tell me about her, find out about her," Elena said, urgently. "Get on your little computer. . .where is it?" she asked, twirling, looking around the room.

"Look, I can't get information online about her. Since the Galotti incident, security's been tightened. And I don't have Joe Dawson's. . . connections." He was talking quickly, trying to convince her, obviously frightened, trying not to glance at the bleeding man beside him. "But I can tell you what Fritz has told me about her. The Ice Queen, they call her. Very cool. From Finland, originally. Uh. . ." he was searching his memory, nervously. "Blond. Attractive. In her twenties. Strong. A good fencer, ah. . .I don't remember when he said she was born, I'm sorry."

"What about her students?"

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

"Alright, where in New York? Where would she go? Where?"

"I don't know. . ."

"Call your fucking friend!" she exclaimed, reaching over him, throwing the phone on his lap.

"He's in the air! En route! How can I reach him! Be reasonable, senorita!"

"I don't want to reasonable, Bernie." She took his shirt in her fist, trying to calm herself down, trying to keep from hitting him. "I want to find this bitch. There are millions of people in New York City. I want to know where she is, Bernie, where!" She thought of how Duncan couldn't find her, Elena, in New York, even after searching for days; and how it had taken Connor almost a month to hunt down Claude Bethel. She'd never find one Immortal there, never! "Where!"

"Please. . .if I knew, I'd tell you, I swear on my mother's grave!"

She pushed him back, then, against the bed, moving away from him. She didn't just want to hit him; she wanted to kill him. She wanted to kill somebody, make someone pay. The thought of Stephen, scared, vulnerable, so badly hurt by his parents' deaths, now in the hands of some cold Immortal whore bent on revenge; hurting him; scaring him; maybe, [!Dios mio!] killing him, making him an Immortal before his time, dooming him to an eternity of being a child, helpless, depending on others forever; or hiding on holy ground forever; or dying at the hands of the first adult Immortal who happened by. . .!

These thoughts, the same horrible, self-defeating thoughts, whirled in her head, as they had on her drive into town, over and over. She'd lost him; she couldn't protect this boy she loved so much; she was useless; she'd condemned him to death with her carelessness, her pride, her overconfidence. To death; or worse than death.

(You'll never see him again.)

She made a low sound, a wild animal snarl, and something red and bright gathered in her head, then exploded, flooding her with emotion, with fear, with overwhelming rage. She drew her sword, instinctively, brought it crashing down on the table in the room, smashing it, hitting it again, knocking the television off its stand, burying her blade in one of the chairs, then kicking it aside, breaking the mirror, slicing into the second mattress, letting out little grunts of effort, smashing, tearing, destroying everything in sight, using the last bit of her self-control to make a conscious effort to stay away from the two men on the bed. A conscious effort to keep from killing them.

Finally, her rage partially spent, panting, she looked over at Bernie, sitting very still and silent on the bed, a closed, terrified look on his face.

There was an urgent knock on the door, and rapid Spanish.

She went to Bernie, pulled his head back by his hair, laid her blade across his neck, and whispered roughly, viciously, in his ear, "Call me at Ma Maison in New York, Bernie. Get me an address. Don't let me down or you'll regret it, [os lo prometo.]" With barely a glance at the other man, the unlucky trainee, she opened the window and leaped to the ground.

And later, at the airport, she found out from a cooperative clerk at Aerolineas that her instincts had been right; that a Hannah Swenson had flown out in the middle of the night, to New York City. And that traveling with her -- [!gracias a Dios!] -- was a teenage boy.

Translations: (Spanish)

cono - damn

os lo prometo - I promise you

gracias a Dios - thank God

Eighteen

Seacouver, March 29, 1997, 2 p.m. As Duncan pulled up to the dojo, he sensed the Immortal. "Dammit!" he cursed, realising his peaceful time was at an end. After Richie left, he'd gone to spend a few days at the cabin, chopping wood, fishing, working out, patching part of the porch floor, doing a little hunting, enjoying the luxury of having to work hard for just day-to-day living. And especially enjoying the luxury of being alone and away from other Immortals, of being safe from the Game, if only for a while.

He sighed discontentedly. He remembered that after Little Deer was killed and he'd wanted to get out of the Game for a while, Connor had told him, "They'll find you."

But they didn't need to find him anymore. Now they were fucking waiting for him, he thought, bitterly. Richie had gotten on a plane last Wednesday, so it probably wasn't him. He hoped it was Methos, although he was a bit tired for the mental hoops and the emotional turmoil the ancient Immortal seemed to enjoy putting him through. Of course, it could be Connor, who showed up at will, unexpectedly; or even Elena, although he doubted it; or Amanda. . . Going through a mental catalog of the Immortals who didn't want his head, he'd started on a list of those who did want his head by the time he parked the car and walked up the dojo steps.

"Hey MacLeod!" He heard Joe Dawson's raspy voice echo through the empty dojo. And the Immortal sitting next to him, in Duncan's office, in Duncan's chair, in fact, drinking -- probably his booze, too, Duncan reflected -- was indeed Methos.

"Hello, Dawson. Methos," he nodded, heading toward the elevator. The others followed.

"I thought you said you'd be back today," Joe continued. "How's it going?"

"Why? What's happened?" he asked, glancing from one man to the other, immediately suspicious.

"You tell me, pal! You're supposed to be her lover, to understand her."

"Has something happened to Elena?" Duncan asked, slightly alarmed, as they reached the loft and he opened the elevator doors.

"Nah, she's fine, last I heard. But she left quite a mess behind her!" Dawson walked out with his usual difficulty, getting angrier by the moment. "Early this morning she crashed into Bernie Liebowitz' hotel room in Buenos Aires, put a young trainee who was with him in the hospital with a concussion and a broken nose, trashed the place completely, and threatened to cut Bernie's throat!"

"Threatened?" Duncan let out the breath he'd unconsciously been holding. "She didn't kill Bernie?" he said, partially relieved. When Elena and Duncan had first met, she'd been on a holy crusade against the Hunters; except she wasn't making much distinction between Hunters and Watchers, killing them both indiscriminately. They had come to swords over her actions. But she'd given Duncan her word that she wouldn't kill any more Watchers, and so far. . .

"No, she didn't kill anybody! Weren't you listening? She put a twenty-five-year-old green kid in the hospital, and now he's thinking of leaving the Watchers. In fact, Bernie's retiring, too. Says it's too dangerous, and we should be real careful who we assign to Duran!"

"Dangerous and unpredictable," Methos muttered.

Duncan ignored Methos' comment. "Why? Do you know what this is about, Joe?" Duncan asked, putting down his bag.

"Apparently she's hunting," Methos contributed. "Although you'd think she'd be busy enough with that boy. . ." he continued, drifting off.

"Hunting? Who? Why?" Impossible, he thought to himself, but they wouldn't be telling him this unless they were very sure of their facts. "No, she wouldn't leave Stephen to go hunting! Who is it?" he asked anyway.

Dawson let out a deep breath. "An Immortal named Hannah Swenson, and no, I don't have the slightest idea why."

"Hannah Swenson?" Duncan repeated, his heart sinking. Connor. "Connor knows her," he murmured softly.

"Yeah, he knows her alright," Dawson stated. "Since the 1780's. They've gotten together a few times over the years. Just recently. After Brenda MacLeod died, in fact, Connor and Hannah were together for a while. And just recently; just two years ago, MacLeod, in Scotland."

"Kind of like you and Amanda," Methos said. "On and off."

"Yeah. Like that," Dawson said in a low tone.

The other two waited for Duncan's reaction, while Duncan closed his eyes briefly. "Elena is hunting Hannah Swenson?" he repeated, almost in a daze. He thought about how he'd feel about someone hunting Amanda, or Elena herself.

He'd met Hannah once, near the turn of the century. She was a small, strong-looking blond who never smiled, never frowned, had very little to say. Curiously colored eyes -- blue or green, and full of intelligence, but with no passion, no emotion. Except for the one torrid glance he'd once caught going Connor's way -- or maybe Duncan had imagined it.

"What?" Connor had asked when the two MacLeods were alone, and Duncan had shaken his head.

"I just don't see what. . .she's beautiful, but. . .what do you see in her, anyway? She seems so cold, so. . .passionless."

Connor had smiled slightly. "Hannah's just shy, Duncan. Until you get to know her."

Duncan hadn't been impressed; in fact, he hadn't exactly liked her. And he hadn't gotten to know her. She was the opposite, he thought, of Elena Duran in almost every way. Not a good enough reason to hunt her, though.

But Connor obviously liked her, probably loved her, and maybe still did. Even if he didn't, even if their relationship right now was 'off,' Duncan knew Connor wouldn't stand by and let a lover or former lover be beheaded. Not without taking steps. This could be very bad; hell, it was very bad. Dammit, just when Connor and Elena had reached an understanding, a sense of trust, something like this had to happen. "Dammit!" he said, out loud this time. "Why, Dawson?" he asked again; then said, "I'm going to call her," he said, realising as he said it that he wouldn't be able to reach her if she were hunting, or on a plane to New York.

"That's probably her message on your machine," Methos pointed out, and Duncan walked over and hit the button.

"Duncan! [!Lo he perdido!] I lost him!" Elena's voice echoed, tinged with hysteria, just this side of tears. Duncan could hear her anguish right through the telephone lines, through the machine, through the static. He could feel it. "Stephen was kidnapped by an Immortal named Hannah Swenson."

Christ, Duncan thought. No! Not the boy, not again! Wasn't Stephen ever going to get a break, a chance?

"She says I killed her student, and so. . .I don't even know who it was, I suppose it's true! Duncan, I'm following her to New York to take her head. Stephen was alive on the plane, but when they get to New York -- I don't know what she'll do! I'm scared, Duncan. I hope. . .look, ask Dawson for her address. Call me at Ma Maison. . .and Connor was able to find Claude Bethel in New York. Maybe he can help me find her. Maybe he even knows her, eh?"

At the mention of Connor's name, Duncan paled.

There was a truly long pause, a sob, then a whisper. "I lost him, Duncan. I couldn't protect him. I failed, again. I'm sorry. . ." Click.

Duncan put his head against the cool brick wall, closing his eyes, a maelstrom of thoughts and emotions sweeping through him. He thought he'd found some measure of peace on holy ground, but now he felt simply overwhelmed by a series of events over which he had no control, as though he were on a giant roller coaster which ended in mid-air, speeding toward some inevitable horrible conclusion, about to fall in a hole of infinite depth. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and brought his thoughts back into focus. Philosophising about fate didn't fix things, didn't do any damn good except get him depressed, and he had to a find solution, even if he couldn't, even if he knew he couldn't.

"MacLeod. . ." Dawson began, and Duncan held a hand up for silence. The first thing to do was to call Connor.

"This is Russell Nash. Leave a message."

Duncan took a deep breath and said, "Connor, Elena is on her way to New York to take Hannah Swenson's head." Connor's former, maybe current lover. Cursing Connor's reticence, his secrecy, wishing he knew more about her, about his relationship with her.

"Elena thinks Hannah kidnapped Stephen Holz." He and Connor had spoken about the Holz boy just the week before.

"For revenge," he continued. "For killing one of Hannah's students. Elena said she'll check with you; she doesn't know where Hannah lives. Connor. . ." What to say to him now? Hold her until I get there and can talk to her? Choose between her and Hannah Swenson? Stop her? And how, pray tell, was Connor supposed to do any of those things without someone Duncan loved getting killed? And right now Elena was particularly dangerous, vicious -- he thought about Bernie and his trainee and about the Watchers and Hunters Elena had killed, and in some cases tortured -- so he had to warn Connor, who wouldn't be expecting it, who might be surprised, caught off guard.

"Elena may be out of control, Connor." It was all the warning he needed to give. Connor could put it together; he was smart.

Duncan hung up, angry at Connor and worried about him, both; angry at Elena, worried sick about her -- and feeling like he'd betrayed her. Then he tried Connor's cell phone. It was turned off, and there was only one reason Connor would ever turn off this phone: he didn't want to be distracted. No, he realised, Elena couldn't have reached him yet. It couldn't be her he was fighting. He hoped. He prayed. "God, no. . ." he whispered, almost to himself.

He called the airport next and hurriedly threw some things into a duffel bag. He could feel the other two men's eyes on him.

Suddenly Dawson said, "Alexander Caropolous."

"Who?" Duncan asked.

"Hannah's student. The connection between them. Duran took him, in Argentina, last December or thereabouts. He was pretty young -- Richie's age -- and had only been an Immortal about thirty years. Swenson had kind of adopted him."

Duncan nodded, remembering the Immortals who'd gone to challenge Elena at her ranch because they thought she was weakened, vulnerable, after her ordeal with Claude Bethel. After losing her right eye. Three challenges in six weeks.

But somehow Caropolous' mentor, his teacher, a woman who had 'kind of adopted him,' hadn't seen it that way. And obviouly wasn't as cold as Duncan had thought. And it made sense. An eye for an eye -- it was the same old story. There was even a certain symmetry, yin and yang. . .

"MacLeod," Methos said as Duncan walked into the elevator.

Duncan turned impatiently. "What!?"

"You've warned Connor. Now someone should warn you."

He looked at the old Immortal for a long moment, wondering, a little more worried for Elena, now. Finally, he said, in a flat voice, "Go to hell, Methos."

An hour later, sitting on another plane, going to New York, again, for the second time in three months, looking for Elena, again, wondering how she was, what she was doing, how far she had gone or was willing to go. . .

Last trip, in December, had been different, however. He'd gone to find out about the quarrel between her and Connor. And, with or without his influence, these two such important people in his life had worked it out, finally come to trust each other, maybe even care about each other a little.

But this trip was different, more complicated, more urgent, and this time around he wasn't drinking. He needed a clear head.

For one thing, there was Stephen added to the mix, an innocent child being ground between two feuding Immortals like grain between the millstones, suffering more than any child -- or any adult, for that matter -- should be made to suffer. God only knew what this would do to Stephen. Provided he survived.

And Elena, frantic, desperate, dangerous -- that same word, again -- strapped into the same roller coaster Duncan was on. Except she wasn't headed for a bottomless pit. She was about to run into a brick wall in the form of one Connor MacLeod. And Duncan knew her well. He knew how she would react.

And Connor. He knew Connor, too; knew what Connor would tolerate and wouldn't. What he didn't know, and wished he did know, was how strongly Connor felt about Hannah Swenson, how much Connor would tolerate from *her.* If he knew that, Duncan thought, he'd know whether to relax a little or to completely despair. Either way, good or bad, knowing was better than this uncertainty.

But he had a gut feeling that it was going to go sour. Because Connor was on that same joyless ride. And unless something happened, some miracle, Connor and Elena would wind up fighting each other, and it would all be over before he, Duncan, could get there to try to stop it. And no matter what the outcome, it would destroy them all. All three of them.

Unless. . .unless he wasn't giving them enough credit. Unless they both, both of them, were able to pull back from the brink at the last minute. Unless the fragile trust Elena and Connor had so painstakingly built, the care he hoped they had for each other after going through so much together, the common bond that held them together -- good and bad -- caused them to see reason. "Please. . ." he murmured to himself, "please don't kill. . ."

A stewardess leaned over him, startling him a little. "Are you alright, sir?"

He looked at her, forcing a smile. "I'm fine," he answered.

"Can I get you anything?" she insisted, and even in his worried state, Duncan heard the concern in her voice -- and something beyond it, too, the interested, sensual 'tone' that so many women took with him, all the time.

Scotch! he thought. He'd love a bottle of scotch! "No, thank you," he answered. As soon as she left his side, he picked up the onboard telephone and dashed into the washroom, dialing Connor's cellular again. A little over an hour had passed; and it was off, again.

Or still.

He closed his eyes, beating the telephone against his forehead, again and again. "Please, God," he murmured.

Eighteen

New York City, March 29, 1997, 7:30 p.m.

Good training and a willingness to keep learning all the time. Daily, grueling practice. Skill. Physical conditioning. Talent. Natural grace. Attention to detail. Taking advantage of your opponent's mistakes. Discipline. Honesty. Constant awareness, readiness. Knowing your enemy. Confidence, not arrogance. Agressiveness. A strong survival instinct. A willingness to kill. God's grace, for those who believed. A sense of honor and justice. A desire to do the right thing. These had kept Connor MacLeod alive for almost five hundred years.

But then there were the ladies. Lady Luck, who held all the cards; or maybe the Greek Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos; or the Roman goddess Fortuna.

Connor MacLeod was not a superstitious man -- not anymore -- and he didn't believe in coincidence, and he believed that a man made his own 'luck.' But sometimes he couldn't help wondering. He and Duncan had spent the month of January working with the Muso [sensei.] And just today, just two hours ago, he had beheaded a Chinese Immortal who had announced himself, rather loftily, as Chang -- the Chinese equivalent of Jones, Connor thought, amused at the time -- but who was a frighteningly skilled practitioner of the two-sword school. He'd have to call and tell Duncan, Connor thought, about the ladies, and remind Duncan that he, Connor, had had the foresight to prepare and train for just such an eventuality.

So maybe it was partially 'luck' (and partially his own skill with a sword, he thought, smugly) that he was sitting now, in a fancy French restaurant, with his cellular turned off, for once, sitting across from Rachel Ellenstein, celebrating her birthday with dinner and a bottle of Chateau Margaux from his own cellar.

He looked at the serene, healthy, happy, and still so lovely woman across from him; and she smiled back; her warm, loving smile, one that had changed very little over the years. She leaned over and put her hand on his. "This is so nice, Connor. I'd never been to Adrienne's before." She cocked her head, seeming to make a decision. "You know, when I told Emma that 'the boss' was taking me out to dinner, I believe she was jealous." Her blue eyes sparkled with merriment -- she was one of the few people who could kid around with him good naturedly and get away with it; even get kidded back.

Connor thought about Emma and her obvious 'crush' on him. "What do you mean?" he asked, smiling innocently back at her, already knowing the answer.

Rachel chuckled. "She has quite a case of puppy love; not that she could really help it, Mr. Nash."

"I'm that irresistible, am I?" he asked, amused, but also thinking about Rachel in her younger days, remembering another case of puppy love; and something much stronger. And she was still so beautiful!

Something in his tone or his face sobered her up -- she knew him so well, he thought. "I didn't mean. . .well. . .what shall we order?" she asked, recovering. He noticed she had made it a point not to ask him about this afternoon's 'activities,' and he didn't feel like talking, and yet after studying him briefly, she said, "You look tired tonight."

"Nah," he said, dismissing Chang and his two swords from his memory and from their conversation.

And as he was thinking this, he sensed an Immortal. Here. In a crowded, chic, Manhattan restaurant. Saturday night. He felt a flash of anger that their celebration was being intruded on; that this fine evening might end in an alley, swords sparking blue in the moonlight, with sweat and refuse and blood. And death. Again. He looked around him quietly, unobtrusively, as he had done so for centuries; but still, Rachel noticed.

"Is it. . .?" she asked, almost immediately.

Ah, the disadvantages of being with an intelligent, perceptive woman, especially one who knew you so well, Connor reflected wryly.

He shrugged. "I thought I saw someone I knew," he answered, shifting his weight in the chair, wishing he weren't so tired from his recent fight, peering into the bar, but seeing no one, no one looking his way, no one looking for him.

For a few moments more he sipped his cocktail, forcing his body to relax, although his mind was stirring, moving, his emotions rising. It was the ancient call to battle, a call his kind had answered instinctively for millennia, and he could feel it spreading from his head, sinking into his bones, piercing his soul. He felt frustrated, sitting here. The need to move toward it was strong and getting stronger; it was a siren song he couldn't resist, a clarion call he didn't dare ignore.

And yet he waited because maybe, just maybe, this Immortal outside wasn't here for him. Maybe he'd leave. Maybe tonight Connor wouldn't have to. . .but it wasn't going to happen, was it? Who was he kidding? If the other Immortal was going to leave, he would have already done so. Instead, he, his Immortal, was outside, feeling the same urge to come in looking for Connor that Connor felt to go out.

They hadn't even ordered yet. He sighed, looking at his trenchcoat -- he hadn't checked it at the cloakroom -- lying over the third chair, next to him, in its folds the sharp steel that was at once his damnation and his salvation.

About the time he made his decision, a waiter appeared at Connor's right elbow, startling him. "Monsieur Nash."

"[Merci,]" Connor said, taking the folded paper from the small silver tray, opening it, and reading:

Connor -

Need to see you outside, ahora mismo.

Elena.

Connor allowed himself a small, fleeting, ironic smile. It would be Elena, he thought ruefully, interrupting his evening, again, maybe sending the lives of the people he cared about into a tailspin, again. He wondered if this, too, was 'luck.'

But the note said [ahora mismo,] right now; there was an urgency there he recognised in the words, in the hurried, nervous handwriting, a worry he 'felt' he could read between the lines. And a nervous or worried Elena Duran made him very nervous, and worried him, too. But he didn't know Elena's handwriting, did he? Maybe it wasn't even her; maybe it was a lie, a trap. There was only one way to find out.

"Connor?" Rachel asked.

"I have to go, Rachel," he answered.

She closed her eyes briefly. He knew that worried look, too, but by now she knew what her role was. When she opened her eyes, looked at him again, it was that same face he remembered from the war, from her childhood, that suffering, innocent, trusting expression which had said to him so clearly, from the first time he saw her, "Now that you're here, I know everything will be alright." And he responded the same way he had always responded to her fears, the same way men had traditionally responded to women's fears -- by going to take care of it. Standing up, picking up his coat, holding it just so. . .

"Be careful, Connor." Three words. No "I'm afraid." No "when will you be back?" No "I wish things were different." No asking questions, clinging, making things harder for him, or for herself. Smiling. Confident. Proud of him.

"Hey," he smiled at her, his smile that was for her alone, then went toward the back door.

The back door was by the restrooms -- Connor always knew where the back door was -- and the Immortal presence was stronger here, closer. Just inside the door he shrugged into his coat and turned off the overhead light in the hallway, waiting for his pupils to dilate before he went out into the night, while he moved, warming up his tired muscles. Pushing the door open with one hand; with the other, slipping his katana out expertly, smoothly, in front of him, point up, blocking his vulnerable neck; calming himself, getting mind and body ready; pushing down the anger at having his evening spoiled and the pent-up frustration from sitting and waiting, and the voice that said, "I don't want to do this again." Saying to himself: "I'm ready."

The alley was dimly lit, but he saw her right away, against the opposite wall, only three sword lengths away.

"Took you long enough, Connor," she said.

He recognised Elena's voice immediately, and wondered how she knew where to find him, then dismissed that thought as irrelevant. She was here now.

But he automatically responded to something in her voice, an energy, a tension. His own voice was tight when he said, "Nice to see you again, Elena." And although she didn't know it, and he didn't want it to be; for him, it was a greeting to an enemy.

Elena expected to see the katana in his hand, expected him to be ready -- and yet facing him now, without her sword in *her* hand, hearing his voice and the stillness in it got her heart beating faster. But she pushed ahead. "I'm sorry to interrupt your dinner with Rachel, but this is important. I'm looking for someone; I hope you might know something about her. I need to find her tonight, right away."

Connor couldn't see her face clearly, but he heard the tautness in her voice, and the tiredness. She looked like she'd lost weight. The tension, the excitement in her body were obvious to him. And the danger. Never underestimate our Elena, he thought. He was reminded of water in a tea kettle, getting ready to boil over. And her words explained everything.

She was hunting.

Now Connor could understand her urgency, her need to talk to him, right away. And he wanted to have that talk, too. He sighed, still taut, his pulse just beginning to come back down to normal, slipped his sword back into his coat and asked her, "Who are you after?"

She could tell he saw her pressing need. Good; she could always count on Connor to catch on right away. "A Finn by the name of Hannah Swen. . ." But she didn't finish the name. She had come closer, under the light by the door, and was looking straight at him, and his expression didn't change, but she thought she saw something in his eyes, or a clenching of his jaw, and she realised: he knows her; he knows her well; intimately, she guessed, and she didn't think she was wrong. [!Madre de Dios!] This would complicate matters. "You know her," she stated simply, keeping her voice even.

"Yes," he answered, thinking of silky, hay-colored hair; eyes that changed from blue to green depending on the light, or on her mood; a lithe, warm body, lying naked, sensuously, on furs, in front of a blazing fire. . .

"Where is she?" Elena broke his reverie. It was a demand, not a question.

"Why do you want her?"

"She took something that belongs to me."

"And what would that be, Elena?" he asked, a little impatiently.

"A boy. A thirteen-year old Pre-Immortal named Stephen Holz, whom she kidnapped from my ranch in Argentina."

"No," Connor said.

Later, thinking about it, he'd wonder if he meant no, he didn't believe her, she was mistaken or dead wrong, or lying, Hannah did not kidnap children; or no, he didn't want to believe Hannah would do such a thing. But as soon as he said the word, he realised his mistake, because Elena Duran didn't make such a fine distinction. Her weight automatically balanced over her feet; he could see her get looser, get ready. After almost five hundred years of fighting, Connor MacLeod knew when he was about to be attacked -- and his brain, his instincts, screamed at him, get your sword, now, right now!

But this woman, this dangerous woman in front of him, set to attack him, was still Duncan's lover, and that fact weighed heavily with Connor. And he, Connor, knew her, and he had trusted her, and he believed her now, and there were damn few Immortals he could say that about. So he decided to take a chance, to wait, wait until she made the first move, hoping she wouldn't attack him, knowing if she did, he would retaliate, he would kill her if necessary; but trusting her, trusting his instincts, even though it might cost him, even though it might be a mistake, even though he was afraid.

"Elena, wait. . ." he said, hoping to reach her.

All the way on the flight up, pacing, re-reading the scrap of paper in her pocket, the only link she had to Stephen, the only thing she had left of him -- Elena had tried to calm herself, to stay on this side of the line, to stay in control, even as she could feel her nerves being slowly eroded by fear and the worst enemy, uncertainty. She'd tried meditating, finding her center; she'd tried listening to music; she'd tried calling Connor, twice, and Duncan, once, from her chartered jet, and gotten only the damn machines, "leave a message." And she hadn't left a damn message for Connor MacLeod. She needed to talk to him, to meet with him, and when she'd actually seen Connor, even with his sword in hand, she'd felt a small measure of relief, of assurance. He'd help her, she thought, as he had before.

But the word 'no' fell like a drop of acid on Elena's heart.

"Wh. . ." she interrupted him. "Do you think I'm lying? I know she brought him here, to New York, dammit!" She shook her head, unbelieving, actually hurt. "You don't believe me? And you're going to defend Hannah Swenson, aren't you? If you do, I swear I'll kill you, Connor." She could feel herself ready to explode; the loss of control, again.

"Elena, listen to me," he said, responding to her threat in a calm, deliberate tone, his mouth dry.

And the part of her brain that was rational, that remained calm in stressful situations; the part that wasn't strung out, sick with worry and fear and anger and fatigue; the part that remembered how he'd helped her, forgiven her, trusted her -- that part of her brain refused to give the order to attack. No. Not Connor MacLeod. Not him.

So, instead, she took a deep, ragged breath, trying to force the tension out of her body, letting it flow out and down through her feet and sink into the ground, only partially succeeding. She could see, with her threat, his tension, his readiness, although he hadn't taken out his sword again, although his voice was calm and his expression was unreadable.

"I don't think you're lying," he continued, meaning it. "I believe you, Elena," he added, relaxing slightly but not completely, seeing that she was pulling back, hoping they wouldn't have to fight. Hoping. "I didn't know she was back in New York," he added.

The ice within her melted a little. She believed him, too. "Look!" she suddenly exclaimed, reaching into her pants pocket, her sudden movement making him tense up again. "Do you know your Hannah's handwriting, Connor?" She handed him the piece of paper from Stephen's backpack. "This is all she left me," she said, her teeth clenched.

The smooth, rounded hand was unmistakeable. He closed his eyes, briefly, painfully, mouthing something she didn't catch, shifting his weight, and Elena saw his reaction, and realised just how important this woman was to him, how much this was affecting him. And she felt sick.

Dammit, Hannah! he thought to himself. What the hell are you doing? Why? Who. . .? But it took him only a moment to come up with a name, and he started to get the picture, started to understand, and it was bad news all around. "You took Alexander Caropolous' head?" he asked, bleakly.

"Caropolous? I don't know the name, I. . ." she shook her head, confused. "And frankly, I don't care, Connor." But then she remembered.

Nineteen

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 12, 1996

Even in her own living room in her own house, Elena sits facing the doors. As she senses the Immortal, she glances at the coffee table with her sword underneath, within easy reach, and continues sipping her wine, but switches the glass to her right hand, freeing up her sword hand. Another one, coming to challenge her at her own house! she thinks angrily. Another one! [!Mierda!]

The Immortal is small, blond, muscular, chronologically still in his teens. This is good news, she thinks. It gives her the advantage of reach and strength. He reminds her a little of Richie, complete with strut, looking young in experience as well -- although she knows this could be an act -- and he stands and openly studies her.

"Duran?" He's arrogant, practically sneering at her.

She nods, and he announces, "[Me llamo] Alexander. . ."

But she interrupts him, standing. "I don't care what your name is, [pendejo.] The only thing I care about is how long you're going to keep me from this [rioja,]" she says contemptuously, taking a last sip and putting the glass down. "Let's go."

She doesn't bother with conversation, and soon discovers that he is as inexperienced as he looks, and she dispatches him so quickly the wine bottle isn't yet at room temperature when she returns to it.

New York City, March 29, 1997, 8 p.m.

"Yes, if it was the same Alexander. . .he came right to my house. To challenge me. And I don't care anyway! I want Stephen back, if he's still alive! And I want her head! Tonight! Where is she?" she asked, insistently.

Connor understood how she felt, and knew she meant it. But he wasn't about to sacrifice Hannah Swenson. "No, Elena. Let me talk to her first," he demanded, trying to think ahead, what would he say to her after two years, how could she have. . .

"Give me her address, Connor," she pushed, getting closer to him, taking his sleeve in her fist.

He covered her hand with his. "Elena." His voice was cold, imperative, hiding a sudden flash of anger. "I'll talk to her. *then I'll call you."

She looked into his eyes and saw the danger there. But she didn't care. "Was New Year's Eve all an act for Duncan's benefit? You don't trust me, do you, [escoces]?" she asked, bitterly. "You never did, and you never will."

They were standing so close, to an onlooker they would have looked like lovers, whispering sweet words. He paused, thinking, considering: did he trust her, really? That was the crux of the matter, the bottom line.

"That was no act, Elena. I trusted you then. But can I trust you now?" he asked her, looking into her face. "Can I trust you to wait for me, not to do anything until I get back with the boy? Until I let you know? Look -- go to the loft, Elena. Wait for me. Give me some time." He leaned into her, still holding her wrist, trying to convince her, using the strength of his personality, imposing his will.

"You're going to protect her. . .you won't tell me where she is, will you." It was more a statement than a question.

She sounded lost, betrayed, deadly. "Elena, this is not the time. . ." he began.

She used his hold on her wrist to take him down; and she was so fast, so skilfull, that by the time he let her go he was on his back -- and already reacting, rolling away from her, but knowing he wouldn't be quick enough, he'd already seen her pulling out her sword, so he gritted his teeth for the line of fire her slash would leave on his back; or worse, she could impale him, put her sword into his lung, or in his spine. . .or in his neck.

But she didn't do any of those things, didn't follow through, and when he twirled to face her, katana in hand, she was standing, armed, but hesitating, actually looking slightly dazed. And he realised she didn't want this any more than he did; there was still a chance. So he pushed down the anger and the fear into that separate place where they wouldn't interfere, and he injected all the calm and reason he could into his voice, saying, "You don't want this, Elena; and neither do I."

In the meantime, Elena was holding her sword, deliberately not thrusting at his exposed back, thinking, [!Madre de Dios!] this is not what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be! and thinking, but it's already begun and I can't take it back, he'll never let me take it back. He had pulled out his katana -- but then he put his sword point down; saying something; echoing her thoughts.

"Put down your sword, Elena," he continued. He knew how desperate she felt, like a she-bear protecting her young, so that's where he made his appeal. "I can't very well bring Stephen back to you if I don't have my head, can I?" he smiled, a fleeting smile that was gone almost as soon as it appeared.

"Connor. . ." she said; then she, too, lowered her weapon.

He came right up to her, tense, ready, still on his guard, and whispered, "Trust me, Elena."

He was so close, he threatened to overwhelm her by his presence alone. She could see him slightly panting, smell his sweat. The katana at his side reflected the meager light. There was a fine sheen of perspiration on her body, and she felt cold. But even though she had attacked him, he wasn't retaliating, wasn't challenging her. And he was asking her to trust him.

("Trust me, Elena.")

She swallowed, nodded several times, her head bobbing up and down almost of its own accord. "[De acuerdo,] I'll wait, I won't ask you where she is, I'll trust you, for now -- but only for you, only because it's you, Connor!" She was speaking rapidly, breathing right in his face. "But I want Stephen back, unharmed, by midnight. Midnight -- that's my limit, Connor! Bring him to me at Ma Maison -- I'll be waiting, Connor," she whispered, then abruptly moved away from him into the night.

"Midnight," he repeated, heat and adrenalin filling his body. And as Elena quickly, silently disappeared down the alley, he took deep, calming breaths, slowing down his rapid heartbeat, his heaving lungs; shook himself; composed his features; and went to the Porsche.

New York City, March 29, 1997, 8:30 p.m.

Elena Duran walked the Manhattan streets, cursing herself for a fool. How could I have given him until midnight, all that time! Four hours -- what am I going to do with four hours? she asked herself. [!Idiota; imbecil!] What were you thinking, Elena? She didn't know where Connor had gone, where Hannah Swenson was, where Stephen was.

As she pounded her way west, almost instinctively again towards Nash Antiques, she barely noticed that most people actively avoided her. It was the second time she'd break in the antique store tonight -- the first she'd only gotten as far as Rachel's desk calendar to find out where Connor would be this evening. But this time she went on upstairs, to his loft, hoping to find something, somehow. He'd asked her to give him time; he'd said he'd talk to Hannah; he'd said he'd bring Stephen to her. . .and he would, too, she knew. No matter what his relationship was with Hannah -- they were lovers, dammit, and she, Elena, couldn't compete with that -- she knew that Connor MacLeod would never consent to a child's kidnapping.

"Trust me, Elena," he'd said. And she did. [!Madre de Dios!] Surely la Swenson would not kill a teenage boy, would she? Now, assuming she got Stephen back -- what would Connor do afterward, when she, Elena, went after Hannah's head? Fight for his lover, protect her? Would Elena wind up fighting Connor? God -- she couldn't think of a worse scenario! What that would do to Duncan, to all three of them. . .no, she couldn't fight Connor, she decided. No way. Not after all that had happened between them. Not with Duncan in the way, on top of everything else. She'd just have to find a way to convince Connor that Hannah Swenson was a cowardly, dishonorable, conniving, lousy bitch who deserved to die. That's all. Maybe not for vengeance, although that was certainly part of it, but to prevent her doing this again. All Elena had to do, while Hannah Swenson was convincing him, right now, in her own way, with her body, her smile, their memories together, eliciting his sympathy, appealing to his masculine pride, to his protectiveness, was to persuade Connor to let her, Elena, kill his lover. Easy. Simple.

She went up to Connor's loft -- thanking Amanda in her mind, again, for her lessons in advanced housebreaking -- and went directly to the liquor cabinet. She poured herself two fingers of good scotch -- she didn't drink any other kind any more -- and sat on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table, sipping. But she couldn't sit still for long, and as she rose to pace she noticed his phone message light flashing. She pushed the button.

She listened to Duncan's message, ending with his warning to his kinsman, and smiled bitterly. The MacLeods always came first with each other. She'd said as much to Duncan, and he had readily agreed.

The second and third messages were from her, Elena, just giving her name.

The fourth message was a woman's agitated, breathy voice. A Scandinavian accent. "Connor, I'm back in New York and I need to see you, tonight. Please, my love, call me; it's urgent. I need your help." Elena could hear the womanly plea to her man, the sensuality, the confidence that he'd drop everything and come to her right away. She ground her teeth together -- he was going to her, right away. And Elena was sitting here, helpless.

She swallowed the rest of the scotch and savagely lobbed her glass at the wall. The glass exploded, and Elena decided to exit before she did any more damage, like at Bernie's hotel room. . .

But the phone rang, and she picked it up. "Duran," she answered automatically, and heard Duncan's voice.

"Elena?" He sounded faraway, brittle -- and perhaps surprised, or a bit nervous. "Sweetheart! What's happened? Where's Stephen? Have you. . ."

She interrupted him, knowing what he really wanted to ask. "Yes, I've seen Connor, and I know about him and Hannah Swenson; and no, we didn't fight over it. And we're not going to." I hope, she said to herself. If God is good. "He's gone to 'talk' to her, and promised to bring Stephen back to me at Ma Maison. In fact, I should be getting over there now."

"Good, good," Duncan said, obviously relieved. "Why don't you do that, go there and wait. Take a hot bath, it will relax you. Or try meditating. I'll be there by one o'clock at the latest. Wait for me before you do anything else, [querida.]"

"Yes, Duncan," she answered, suddenly feeling so tired, so exhausted, being glad to leave matters to someone else, for now, allowing herself a moment of weakness. "I wish you were here. . .I wish you could hold me," she whispered into the telephone, her voice trembling, gripping the receiver.

"I know, sweetheart, I know," he soothed. "Me too. I'll be there soon. And Elena -- trust Connor. He always does what he says he'll do, and he won't let Stephen come to any harm. You do know that, don't you?"

"Duncan, yes, I. . .I better go. I'll see you. I love you."

"I love you too, [querida.] We'll get through this, together, all of us, I promise. Just hang in there, ok?"

She could imagine the small smile on his face, the light in his brown eyes. She nodded slightly. "Si," she whispered.

And all the way back to Ma Maison she repeated to herself: Connor said he'd bring Stephen back; that was the important thing, the only thing really.

And she plotted revenge against the Finn.

Translations: (Spanish)

mierda- shit

me llamo - my name is

pendejo - bastard, pig

rioja - wine from the Rioja region of Spain

escoces - Scotsman

de acuerdo - agreed

querido/querida - beloved

Madre de Dios - Mother of God

Twenty

Connor parked the Porsche in front of the Lexington Avenue brownstone, but he didn't sense the Immortal within until he was on the steps. Good, she's here, he thought, then realised he had expected Hannah to be here. As impulsive and unpredictable as Elena Duran was, her concern for Stephen Holz was genuine, and she was no fool -- she wouldn't have flown halfway around the world without being damn sure of her prey. Because, in effect, that's how he saw Hannah, his pale beauty -- as a particularly delectible morsel to be swallowed up by the dark war machine that was Duran.

He shook his head, smiling. Hannah Swenson was no fragile doe; she could take care of herself. But he was truly surprised at her actions. Kidnapping was simply not something she would ever do. But Alexander Caropolous had been so important to her!

An estate near Tampere, Finland, 1965

"Alexander, I'd like you to meet my very old, good friend, Connor MacLeod. Alexander Caropolous." The boy is slight and blond, and unsure -- but his handshake is firm.

"How do you do, sir? Hannah has told me a lot about you."

Connor smiles at Hannah, then turns back to the boy. "I hope you didn't believe everything she said, Alexander. And please don't call me 'sir.' It makes me feel. . .well. . .old," he quipped.

Alexander smiles, and Hannah beams; Connor can't remember ever seeing her so happy. In fact, if Alexander hadn't been her student, and too young, Connor might have actually felt jealous. "I'm so glad you two have met at last!" she says, taking both men's arms and walking between them as she leads them to dinner. "I'm sure you'll have a lot in common, a lot to talk about."

Connor smiles to himself. Other than their love for Hannah -- and he can see in Alexander's still guileless eyes that the young Greek really cares for her -- he doesn't think he'd have a lot in common with Alexander, who had been shot by kidnappers trying to extort money from his shipping tycoon father. And at the best of times, Connor never has "a lot to talk about."

Hannah is a proud mother showing off her cub. But there is more; there is genuine affection, and loyalty, and trust -- all the qualities that endear her to Connor. And Connor can see how Alexander returns her love: his little, constant courtesies to her, his smile for her, his gratitude. And later that night, in bed, Hannah explains to Connor how Alexander has filled a deep void in her life she hadn't even known she had.

"He makes me feel like a real woman, a mother at last. Immortality can be such a curse sometimes. Not being able to bear children -- I just don't know, Connor, if a man can understand what that really feels like; what a sense of failure, of incompleteness, it represents for a woman."

Her head is in the hollow of Connor's shoulder, and he turns to softly kiss her temple, her fine, pale hair still close to her skull, still damp from their lovemaking.

"And here I thought I made you feel like a real woman," Connor says, chuckling -- but he's not completely joking. He senses more here than just her desire to have a child, more than just a strong maternal instinct. He senses an intensity that he hasn't seen before in her. And yet isn't this one of the most intense bonds that exists, that between mother and child? And why should she be denied that bond, he thinks, especially when she feels so strongly about it?

"Of course you do, my love," she rushes to reassure him, turning to kiss him lightly, then snuggling into his shoulder again. "But this is different. Think about Rachel; about how you felt about her, especially when she was young and helpless."

The comparison doesn't seem to fit, somehow. "I understand what you mean, about the thrill of being a parent -- and the challenge," he adds ruefully, remembering Rachel's teenage turbulence. "But Alexander's an Immortal, Hannah; and, he doesn't seem that helpless to me." He rubs his chin against the top of her head.

Hannah turns to him, getting up on one elbow to look down on him. "Oh, but he is helpless! Against other Immortals! That's why he needs us, both of us, to teach him. To keep him from being swallowed up by the Game."

"Until he learns to take care of himself," Connor agrees, reaching lazily for her, thinking about matters other than Alexander Caropolous.

"But that will be a while yet. He's still so young!" she argues. "You will help me train him, won't you?" He can see her bright teeth, shining in the pale oval of her face. "You can teach him some of those fancy tricks of yours," she smiles, waving an imaginary sword in the air. He takes her waving hand and kisses it, then proceeds to kiss other parts of her.

And Connor stays with them, hardening the boy physically, teaching him the sword.

Alexander is a good student. He works hard, learns easily, doesn't complain, even under Connor's brutal training regime. But the two never really 'bond' the way Hannah hoped. Alexander wants Hannah to himself -- it is a natural, Oedipal response which Connor recognises and tries to make allowances for.

"What is it?" Connor asks Alexander one day, as the boy studies him covertly.

"I just wondered. . .you became an Immortal when you were, like, in your twenties? Not that much older than I am?"

The Scot smiles inwardly. "Physically, yes. But I've been around for centuries. Which is why I'm the teacher, and you're the student," he says, tapping Alexander on the chest with his sword.

"That's not what I meant," Alexander replies, a bit sulkily.

"Oh? What did you mean?" Connor asks, knowing exactly what Alexander is leading up to.

"I meant with. . .women. We're about the same, there."

Connor represses the urge to laugh out loud. "Where women are concerned, Alexander, there's a big difference between age and experience. Trust me."

"But all I have to do to get experience is to live long enough. Like you. Then, I can get the women, too. I mean, like Hannah."

And you can learn to be a bit more subtle, Connor thinks. "That's true. But living long enough. Now -- that is the hard part."

"And that's why you're teaching me to fight, right? Then we can be. . . the same. Equals."

But often Alexander doesn't even try to hide his hostility, and Connor knows Alexander is courteous to him not because of his affection for Hannah, or because it is the right thing to do, but because deep inside Alexander is afraid of him, of Connor. And Connor doesn't respond well to fear.

"Well, you must admit you're quite a formidable figure to him," Hannah says, explaining Alexander's fear, but also dismissing it, Connor realises. She doesn't want to hear anything negative about the young Greek. "But you can be a model to him, too. Someone he can emulate."

"He's not interested in emulating me, Hannah," Connor says, bluntly. "For that he'd have to respect me, not just fear me; to listen and care, not just obey. But he won't hear what I have to say about the Rules, about honor; even about what Immortality is. How to win a fight -- that's all he wants to learn from me; that's all he's paying attention to."

"Give him time, Connor. He's bright. He'll understand. How long did it take you to get used to Immortality?"

Another time, Connor and Alexander are sparring, and Connor gives one of his rare compliments, on Alexander's riposte. "Good," he says, then picks up a towel to wipe his face. And while Connor's face is covered, the boy takes a step forward, and Connor hears it and has an instinctive, gut reaction. Alexander is so close Connor can smell him; and it's the sudden, sour sweat smell of fear.

He drops the towel, meeting Alexander's eyes; and what he sees there, for just a moment, is a naked combination of greed, hostility, indecision, and fear. And Alexander is holding his sword up, both hands on the hilt, ready for a horizontal swing.

Connor sees the sword with his peripheral vision, but doesn't take his eyes from his student's. "Go ahead," he says softly. He feels calm and angry at the same time. It's a bad choice for Alexander to make, and he's already lost the element of surprise. But if the boy had been bolder, moved a little faster, had a little more guts, Connor thinks, he might have been able to pull it off. Maybe. Instead, he hesitates and loses.

"Neither have they heart to stay, nor wit enough to run away," Connor whispers, then adds, "Well?"

Alexander shakes his head and slowly lowers the point of his sword. But Connor reaches out suddenly with his katana, envelops Alexander's blade, and sends it flying. Then he places his sword at Alexander's throat.

The boy freezes in terror.

"You haven't been listening to what I've been saying, Alexander," Connor explains, leaning in very close, his voice calm and low. "Taking your teacher's head is definitely not the right thing to do."

"I wasn't! That's not what I was going. . .honest! Really! I wouldn't!" The teenager swallows convulsively. Connor's sword is touching Alexander's neck and had moved when he'd swallowed.

"Cowardice, betrayal, falsehood. A nice little package," Connor whispers, contemptuously, in the boy's ear. What upsets him the most is not his betrayal of him, Connor, but of Hannah. His katana hasn't moved a hair.

Alexander glares at him, fear replaced temporarily by anger. "She'll believe me, not you!"

"You may be right," Connor says. "And by the way -- considering your present situation, that's the first time you've shown any real [cojones.] Congratulations." He resists the desire to hit the boy, to draw blood, and simply walks away.

/////

When Connor and Hannah talk later, she says, "Oh, you can't seriously believe he intended to take your head!" She reaches up and cradles his face in her hand. "Alexander would never do that. I've heard about old grizzled warriors like you, who get a little paranoid sometimes. They imagine things. Too many years with too many Immortals coming for you can do that, you know."

"You're not paranoid if someone is really out to get you," he retorts, irritated at her blind spot.

"Alexander explained it to me. He says it was a mistake, a misunderstanding."

"Alexander always has a good explanation," Connor says, angry by now. "Hannah, I wasn't wrong. He told me you'd believe him, not me."

"Of course I believe you, love!" She puts her long fingers in his hair. "I just think you're taking this too far; too seriously."

Connor shakes his head in disbelief. "Hannah. I can't be his teacher."

"But Connor, you're the best," she says, meaning it.

"Look," he says, taking her by the shoulders, trying to soften his words. "Neither of us can be objective here. You care too much about him, and I just don't trust him anymore. I can't be Alexander's teacher," he repeats.

"Alexander is so special to me. And there's no other Immortal I trust him with. He swore to me that he never meant to attack you. He swore to me. Please, Connor. He's just a child; he's so new, so inexperienced. Maybe he made some sort of mistake, something you misinterpreted. How could he possibly be a threat to you? He needs you! Please, talk to him; for me?" She kisses his mouth, lightly; the tip of his nose; his cheeks; then stands on tiptoes to kiss both his eyelids -- each a light little peck which feels like a small, pleasant brand on his skin.

He agrees in the end, and Alexander apologises again for the 'misunderstanding,' and doesn't even come close to trying again. But Connor knows it's more because of the Greek's fear than his desire to do right. Hannah, however, is not hearing Connor, either, not on the subject of the boy. And Connor begins to see the outer edges of her obsession.

"He's a dedicated fighter. But he's weak, Hannah. And fearful. And he can't be trusted. I won't turn my back on him," he finally says to her, completely exasperated, wishing he could make her see what he sees. "And neither should you."

"It's all in your head! All your suspicions! He has done nothing against you, nothing! And he would never attack me! Tell me, who *do* you trust, Connor? Is there anyone you do trust? Or do you think everyone is after you?"

Connor thinks of several Immortals he trusts. There aren't many.

"Do you trust me?" she asks him, angrily.

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be in your bed," he retorts.

"So you trust me, but you just don't trust my judgement. Is that it?"

"Hannah. . ." he begins, and she reaches for him, puts her face into his shoulder. "Connor. He's my son." Her voice is muffled against his shirt. "Are you asking me to choose between you? Or to take his head because you have no faith in him? Or to let you take it?"

"No, I never expected that."

"Then what do you expect me to do, Connor?"

He sighs, then cups her face in his hands and looks down at her. He can see the struggle on her face; the terrible choice he's forcing her to make, because he has no choice himself. He knows that she loves him -- she's shown it too many times over the last two hundred years. But now. . . "You're doing exactly what I expected, Hannah," he answers, brushing his lips lightly against hers. "I just don't want you to get hurt. Or lose your head."

"Alexander won't hurt me!" she says with conviction.

Connor sighs again. Nothing he's said in the last weeks has made any impression on her.

(She'll believe me, not you!)

But he knows Alexander really loves Hannah, and even villains have mothers.

Connor hugs her hard, sadly. Then he leaves Finland.

Translations:

Twenty-one

New York City, March 29, 1997, 9 p.m.

And now Alexander, her beloved child ("the only person, besides you, who ever truly understood me; and the only one who ever really needed me," Hannah had said to Connor) was dead, beheaded after only thirty-odd years as an Immortal. Why had Alexander Carolopous gone after an experienced Immortal like Elena Duran? Connor thought, as he climbed the steps and rang Hannah's bell -- but the answer was obvious. Alexander had made the same arrogant, opportunistic, ultimately fatal mistake others had made, thinking Elena was weakened, broken by her experience with Claude Bethel. Hell, he even remembered quoting Neitzsche to Alexander: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

But apparently Alexander hadn't heard that, either.

Hannah opened the door, and Connor was immediately awash in her fresh scent, her almost ethereal glow.

"Connor, my love! I'm so happy to see you again! It's been too long. . ." He walked in, and she pressed him to her, then moved back, saying, "Let me look at you! You look. . .tired, I think. But, otherwise?"

He smiled, nodding, noticing she didn't look very fresh either, then pulled her toward him. "And you are beautiful as always." Their kiss was long, drawn out, familiar, with promises of more intimacies to come. But he was here for a reason, and in a hurry, so he broke it off and began, "Hannah. . ."

She interrupted him, taking him by the hand and leading him inside. "You got my message. And you came, just like I knew you would!" She gave him her warm, welcoming smile. That smile gave the lie to her nickname -- the Ice Queen -- the one he'd heard from other Immortals, including Duncan. "I just flew into New York this afternoon," she continued, over her shoulder. They went into her library, where she had already poured two glasses of scotch -- she did know he would come, and that thought both pleased and irritated him -- and held one out to him. "Connor, it's terrible! You won't believe what's happened!"

He refused her offered drink, and her eyes went wide in surprise. "Actually," he said, "I know what happened, Hannah." He took both glasses out of her hands and put them down on the bar. He was, in fact, angry at her, at what she'd done. But seeing her again brought back such good memories: of snowball fights, cold water melting down his collar, aiming a cold, wet snowball at Hannah's red hat, and missing; behaving like rambunctious children. And of having to warm up later, behaving like adults, in front of the fire, on those long, cold Scandinavian nights.

But now she looked haunted, her hair unkempt, uncombed. He could see the pain in her blue/green eyes, the strain around her mouth. Her pale complexion betrayed her. He could tell instantly that she'd been recently crying, and crying women, especially this woman, brought out a tender protectiveness in the Scot, a need to make it better. Connor knew how utterly devoted she had been to Alexander Caropolous, frozen forever at seventeen years old, and obviously still the most important 'man' in her life. In fact, the only real argument Connor and Hannah ever had was about Alexander.

("You don't understand him! Why, if I didn't know better, Connor MacLeod, I'd say you were jealous of him!")

("Believe me, Hannah, I am not jealous of Alexander." It was the other way around, he wanted to say; but didn't.)

("Well, then, are you worried about me? Do you really think Alexander would ever hurt me?")

(Connor considered it. The only person Alexander loved, obviously and tenderly -- besides his own self, that is -- was Hannah Swenson. "No," Connor finally agreed. "I don't think he would. Not you.")

("Then let's not discuss him anymore, shall we? We have more important things to talk about, you and I," she said, her voice husky. "And more important things to do," she added, touching his face.)

Connor started there, with Alexander. He took her hands in his, squeezing them. "I know Alexander is dead," he began, his voice soft, his grey eyes sympathetic.

Hot, sudden tears. "Oh, Connor. . ." He held her close, and she shuddered against him. "So many years, Connor. So many losses; and yet, this is the most terrible one, the worst! My Alexander! My son!"

"I know, Hannah. And I'm so sorry," he whispered. He tried to absorb some of her agony, knowing it was useless, knowing nothing could really make her feel better. And, this was not the time to give her an inventory of Alexander's failings, to remind her what he, Connor, had warned her about. "Why didn't you call me? You know I would have come."

"When I didn't hear from him at Christmas, I got worried. But you know how headstrong he was, how sometimes he just disappeared. I only found out he'd. . .lost his head a month ago; and for days, I couldn't even think, sleep; much less call anybody. Then. . .I had to track his killer down." Her voice had changed now, the sorrow interlaced with anger, with a harshness he recognised from long experience. Vengeance -- the only palliative for grief, sometimes; the only way to keep going forward, to keep from being overwhelmed, paralyzed, destroyed.

He sighed, knowing how hard this was going to be for Hannah. For all of them. "Elena Duran, I know. I just came from her."

"What? How did you know, what. . .you just came. . .from her?" She paled even further.

"She followed you here, to New York. You and Stephen Holz." He thought Hannah's eyes couldn't get wider, then he added, "Yes, I know about him, too."

She sat down, hard, as though all the strength had gone out of her legs, and he sat next to her, facing her. Her hands were still in his, and she was, for the moment, speechless.

"I don't know how you could have done this, how you could have gotten a child in the middle of this, Hannah," he couldn't help saying, in spite of her grief.

She searched his face, frightened he could see, but not of him, he knew; he hoped. "Connor, I. . .I know I was wrong; I know it. I never meant to hurt this boy; I didn't hurt him. But once I took him, I never should have; but it was done. . ." She was genuinely sorry, he could tell. "It was her I wanted to hurt; Duran! She took Alexander's head! And you. . .you know her? You just came. . .from her?" she repeated. Her voice had taken on an urgent tone, and she squeezed his hands.

"Never mind that, Hannah. We'll talk about it later. Now you have to let the boy go. I'm here to take him back."

"Back?" She looked at him wildly, one hand up at her neck. "Back to her?"

"Yes. Back where he belongs." He tried not to sound impatient. "It'll be alright," he reassured her. "Where is he, Hannah?"

"Connor, you're right, of course," she said, recovering, her hands and her voice trembling. "He's locked in the extra bedroom."

He stood at once, starting down the hallway, and she said, "Wait!"

"Hannah," he said, looking at her, really looking at her for a moment, without distractions. She was so lost, so full of sorrow. And afraid. He'd never seen her like this, so deathly pale. But there was no time, no time for her. Not now. "I'm going to go get Stephen now."

"And afterwards?" she asked, her eyes round, full of hope. She clutched his arm. "I didn't know how I was going to get myself out of this, with my head still on my shoulders. That's why I called you, so you could help me, as you have before. Come back to me, Connor. Afterwards." He winced inwardly at the desperate tone in her voice. "You will come back? Or will you go. . .you won't go to her?"

He shook his head, realising her misunderstanding, and hugged her to his chest. "No, it's not like that, Hannah; not at all," he said, looking into her worried blue eyes. Then he kissed her on the forehead. "Elena is Duncan's lover."

"Duncan?" she whispered hoarsely. "Your Duncan? Then she's not. . . you. . .oh, my God. . ." She sagged slightly against him.

"No, Hannah. She's not with me. Listen: I'll come back. And we'll talk. But right now the most important thing is Stephen Holz." He brought her hand to his lips, kissed it lightly, and said, "Later," fully cognizant of the promise, the commitment he was making. Because although she was wrong, she was hurting. And he'd known her too long, and cared about her too much, to just leave her like this, when she needed him.

He went back, unlocked the bedroom, and stepped inside. To his left, he felt the air parting just ahead of the sword, except it wasn't a sword, he knew, and he immediately, instinctively crouched and shoved quickly to his left, very close in to his attacker, *inside* the arc of the descending club -- it was a club, he saw -- and hit the boy on the chest with his shoulder. As Stephen fell back, Connor wrenched the club -- it was part of one of the bedposts -- out of the teenager's hand. He tossed the makeshift club away and turned on the light, looking down at down at Stephen, who was just sitting up. "Brave; but not very smart," Connor said.

Stephen Holz was as dark and as attractive as Duncan had described him. He was also afraid and angry, defiant, and definitely surprised. Not a 'scared' little boy at all. And apparently speechless. "You must be Stephen Holz," Connor continued. "I'm Connor MacLeod."

"Yeah? MacLeod? Like Duncan MacLeod?"

"Yeah, just like that," he answered, watching the boy mentally make the connection. He held out his hand to help Stephen up. But the latter refused it, getting up on his own. "Elena Duran is in New York, and I'm here to take you back to her."

"Elena's here?" He could see the hope in Stephen's eyes, briefly, then it disappeared as he said, "Why should I believe you?"

"I don't know, Stephen." Connor smiled, trying to put the boy more at ease. He noticed Stephen was sweating, and it looked like more than just fear. His eyes seemed too shiny. Connor thought Stephen might be sick, and that worried him. "Why don't you come with me and find out? Or would you rather stay here?"

Stephen shook his head. "She won't let me go."

"I think I can convince her," Connor said, smiling.

"You. . .you're an Immortal?" Stephen asked, his voice trembling, now, backing away from the Immortal.

Damn, thought Connor. "Elena's waiting, Stephen. She's worried about you. And she's nervous. That makes me nervous." His voice got firmer. "Now, I'm going to give you one minute to consider your choices."

He took less than a minute; then he left with Connor. But Connor could see Stephen didn't like being forced, didn't like losing. Duncan had told him that Stephen Holz would be someone to watch -- in the future, of course. And his kinsman was generally a good judge of character.

Twenty-two

New York City, March 29, 1997, 10 p.m.

Elena stood in the horse stance, in the middle of her suite, finding her center, her [chi,] the bright light within. She needed to calm herself, not just for when Stephen arrived, but to deal with Connor, too. And to deal with Hannah Swenson.

She breathed in cool air, taking in energy, using her natural healing force, rising with the inhale, and breathed out moist sticky heat, sitting with the exhale. Her hands moved along with her body in patterns that had been used for millennia to take tension and pressure and other negative emotions out of the body and let them sink into the ground. And with each conscious breath, each slow, deliberate, choreographed movement, she learned to trust; to control her environment rather than have it control her. So by the time she sensed the Immortal sensation, reverberating in her head, she was calm, peaceful, ready. And her broadsword was to hand.

"Come," she said when she heard a knock. And there was Stephen in the doorway, wrapped up in one of Connor's too big trenchcoats, with Connor behind. She opened her arms, whispering his name, and the teenager took three faltering steps and seemed to sink into her. For a moment, she couldn't say a word; but she had noticed the boy's flushed look, and he felt too warm to the touch. She held him at arm's length. "Stephen!"

"I'm alright, Elena," he said. "I'm fine, really." His voice shook slightly, and he cleared his throat. "I bet you were worried, huh?"

"Frantic," she smiled, swallowing thickly. "Are you ok? You seem hot." She put her hand on his forehead -- definitely above normal.

"No, I'm fine." But he shivered as he said it.

She briefly met Connor's eyes over the boy's head. "I think you have a fever. We might have to call a doctor. Are you thirsty? Does anything hurt?"

"No, I just. . .I'm really tired. Cold. And I am thirsty."

Connor picked up the phone and dialed room service, while she asked, "Did she hurt you, Stephen?"

"Nah. She just hit me once. Because I called her a liar, I guess." He smiled wryly, and Elena felt like her heart was being squeezed in her chest. "I guess that wasn't real smart."

"No, it wasn't," she agreed. But she wasn't surprised.

Stephen paused and glanced behind him at Connor, then took off the trenchcoat and returned it solemnly. "Thanks," he said, somewhat grudgingly.

"You're welcome, Stephen," Connor said, smiling. Their drive over had been mostly silent and tense. The mention of the name MacLeod had hurt Connor's case, not helped it; Stephen's mistrust and dislike of Duncan obvious. But when they arrived at Ma Maison, Elena's hotel, Connor saw the hope in Stephen's eyes, again, and the joy. The boy was so transparent, so innocent, so vulnerable. Connor couldn't help being moved, and a little impressed, too -- he liked the boy's gutsiness. He could see all of Stephen's feelings in the boy's greenish eyes, in his body language. Stephen Holz was incapable of subterfuge, and that was a lesson he'd have to learn, especially as an Immortal. To hide his feelings; and more difficult still, to control them.

Elena wrapped him in a hotel robe, and said, "You should get into bed."

"She said some terrible things about you. She said. . ." he glanced at Connor, again, then went on. "She said. . ."

She put her arm around him. "We can talk about it later, Stephen. Tomorrow."

"No, I want to tell you what she said. She said you're a killer, Elena, that you kill for fun, for sport, that you killed her son, but I told her. . ." he was starting to breathe hard, "I called her a liar, I said you wouldn't kill a kid." He paused, looking at her.

Elena sighed. "Look, Stephen." But she realised she couldn't put him off; he needed an answer now; he wasn't going to wait. "I don't kill for fun, Stephen, and I didn't kill any kids. Her 'son' was a grown man, an Immortal who came for me. I took his head. It's what we do."

"I knew it. I knew she was lying. I knew it!"

She smiled at his faith in her, but now she had other worries. "Stephen, I want you to go to bed now, alright?"

"Elena, can we go home? Right now?"

"Now? No, Stephen. Tomorrow. . ."

"No, not tomorrow, tonight! She said she'd come to kill you, Elena. We should go, now, tonight!"

"It's not going to happen," she assured him, hugging him.

But he pulled away from her, roughly. "She said she would. To take your head, Elena! I don't want you. . .I don't want to. . ."

"Stephen, you're not going to lose me. I'm stubborn and clingy." She crouched down to his eye level, facing him, holding his shoulders. He looked so vulnerable; he'd been through so much, she thought, and now Hannah had him scared all over again. Damn her! "I'm not going anywhere; I promise. . ."

"You promise! You promise!" Stephen jerked out of her hands again. "Maman promised; Dad promised. . .and Duncan promised. . .now you're promising! Everybody breaks their damn promises, damn it! The only one who kept his promise was fucking Philip Ordway!" He went to one of the bedrooms and stood at the door. "She promised too, you know. Hannah promised to kill you. I hope she does! I hope you all die, all of you!" His voice breaking, he added, "I hate you damn Immortals! All you ever do is kill everybody, or die!"

He rushed into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Elena stood in the middle of the room and lowered her head, closed her eyes. She would have given anything to have avoided this, to have spared Stephen any more pain. But it seemed the boy was destined to keep getting shafted. Over and over. In spite of her best efforts, of her will.

She turned to Connor, who had let the room service waiter and his cart in, right after Stephen's outburst, and was just paying him off. After the man left, Connor said, "Not shy, is he?" and he thought, Elena and Duncan are going to have their hands full with this one. Yes, indeed.

"He's just so upset. And he's sick, too," she added, feeling a flash of anger towards the Finn. She looked at the hot soup he'd ordered for Stephen, and the acetaminophen. "I'd better go to him. I'm sure this will make him feel better; and some rest will, too."

"You could use some rest yourself," Connor said.

She was tired. She put her hand up to her glass eye, aware of the phantom pain there, a throb that seemed to come when she was exhausted or overwrought. But she was pleased by his thoughtfulness -- and she'd seen evidence of this before, too. Lowering her hand, she came up to him. "Duncan said you always do what you say you're going to do. And you do."

He accepted the compliment with a nod, then asked, "You spoke to Duncan? Tonight?"

"Yes, and he's on his way here. It seems the MacLeods are always coming to my rescue," she grinned, her voice shaking slightly. "Connor." She put a hand on his arm. "Thank you for bringing him back. I'm so grateful."

"You're welcome, Elena. But I didn't do it just for you. I did it for Stephen, and because it was the right thing to do." She was nodding, touching him, smiling. She was glad, and grateful, and Connor allowed himself a flash of hope -- maybe she wouldn't go after Hannah, maybe it could end here, maybe. . .

But her next words dashed his hopes; his unrealistic hopes, actually. And he was angry at Elena, and at Hannah, and especially at himself, for being so naïve, so stupid!

She squeezed his arm. "Where is she, Connor?" Her tone, her whole body language changed instantly. He could see the predator again.

His face regained its impassive mask. "You're exhausted, Elena. Get some rest." It was an order more than anything else, his voice tired but firm. He pulled her hand off his arm.

"You still won't tell me."

"No," he said again, this time deliberately, remembering what she'd done last time he'd refused her. Not this time, he thought. But she just stood, looking at him angrily, and he added, "We'll talk in the morning."

He moved to the door, keeping an eye on her, and she said, "And what will we say in the morning? What will be different? Except that by then you will have slept with her; she will have seduced you!" she exclaimed.

"Leave it alone, Duran!" he warned, clenching his fists.

"But she won't leave you alone, will she? Is she going to make you feel like a real man, Connor? Fulfill all your fantasies?" she asked, viciously. "Pleasure you, spread her legs for you, fuck. . ."

He moved so quickly he surprised her, grabbing her by the front of her shirt, slamming her hard, painfully, against the wall, pinning her with his arms and shoulders and with his stare, his hot breath in her face. "Listen very carefully, Duran." His voice was cold and dangerous. "What I do is none of your damn business, and you will stay out of it. Understood?"

She was panting, struggling to get air back into her lungs. He knew instinctively that she was afraid, but she didn't show it. All he saw was her anger. "You know if it were any other Immortal. . .you might kill her yourself for what she's done!"

Without releasing his crushing hold, his voice softened somewhat. "Alexander Caropolous was her son! She adopted him, trained him, loved him as much as you love Stephen Holz. Maybe more!"

"No, don't you compare me to her, Connor!" she cried out, shaking her head, trying to catch her breath. "I would never have done what she did! Never! I would have gone directly for her head, for her; not anyone else!" Her voice was gritty, scouring him.

And Connor knew she was right, that Elena would never have kidnapped a child, no matter what the provocation; but until tonight, he would have bet that Hannah wouldn't have either. Slowly, watching her, he released the pressure on her chest and backed away. "Get some sleep, Duran," he murmured. And as he got to the door again, opened it, she stopped him once more with her words.

"Can I sleep, [escoces?] Won't she be coming for me, like Stephen said? Or for Stephen? Tell me -- does she know where I am?" she asked sarcastically.

Connor turned to her one last time. "No," he said, then went outside, closing the door behind him, leaning back against it for a moment, willing the anger down into its proper place, thinking how Elena Duran's words, her actions, always seemed to have this infuriating effect on him. How he had to watch himself especially around her, all the time.

And if Elena went after Hannah. . .maybe there was still a chance, when they all calmed down, that he could talk Elena out of it. Maybe Duncan could talk her out of it. But if Elena still went after his Hannah, he'd have to stop the Argentine. He had no other choice, did he? he thought, grimly.

And on the other side of the door, Elena pressed her forehead against it, pounded her head against it, furious at herself for saying these things to him, for pushing him, again, as she always seemed to do, after he'd saved Stephen, after he'd come through for her, again. And yet she'd said the truth, and he was going to Hannah, and she, Elena, would never, ever be able to convince him to let her kill the Finn and make sure Stephen was safe. And that, if he stood in the way. . . [!Madre de Dios!] And he would stand in the way, wouldn't he? He would protect his woman, no matter what she'd done, like it was bred into his bones for him to do. She sighed. Maybe Duncan could make him see reason, see what kind of a person Hannah Swenson was. Maybe.

Translations:

escoces (Span.) - Scotsman

Twenty-three

New York City, March 29, 1997, 11 p.m.

Connor decided to approach the problem logically, which was always his preference. He had the power, at least, to convince one of the women not to fight. He'd get Hannah to stop her vendetta -- it might take some doing, but he felt confident. Then, armed with that information, he'd convince Elena Duran that neither she nor, especially, Stephen were in further danger. Easy. Simple.

He smiled inwardly at the thought that he, Connor MacLeod, was going to act the peacemaker. And especially, that he was going to get between two warring women -- two warring *mothers* -- a dangerous place to be even if sharp swords weren't involved. But they were involved; lives were involved, heads were involved. And not just the lives of the two women, he thought, ruefully.

In spite of the popular saying, March was going out like a lion, and a frigid, drenching downpour had soaked Connor to the skin while he walked the block from his car to Hannah's house. For the second time that night, he climbed the steps to Hannah's door. He started to ring the bell, but the door opened before he could push the button.

Light spilled out into the night and Hannah stood in the doorway, smiling, holding her arms out to him. He stepped inside, and water puddled off of him. Returning her smile, he shook his head at her and said, "I'll get you all wet."

She frowned with concern. "Oh, my love, you're drenched all the way through! Come back to the bathroom, we'll get you dried off." She shut the door behind him, took his hand and led him back to her luxurious bathroom.

He was shivering from the cold rain. And maybe, he thought, from his argument with Elena, with anger at her so-called 'gratitude,' followed by her vicious words. He cursed her silently, furiously.

Hannah looked at him carefully, and he knew she could see his anger. But she didn't ask him anything. She caressed his face lovingly, then turned on the shower. While it ran, getting hot, she began peeling off his clothes.

He stood and let her undress him, her gentleness and the old- fashioned feminine attention soothing his tiredness and his fury with Duran. She untied his trenchcoat, removed it, and hung it up to dry, and he placed his katana against the bathroom wall.

"Mustn't let that get wet," she smiled, nodding at the blade.

She had changed into a thin gown, combed her hair, fixed her face. She no longer looked weepy or desperate -- in fact, she seemed nothing more than happy to see him. And if she'd looked beautiful before, now she was, in his eyes, a golden, radiant angel. It was the first thing he thought when he'd first seen her:

Bristol, England, 1771

Connor comes up on deck, buckling on his sword, following the Immortal call, sensing him -- her, he corrects, as he spots her running almost noiselessly along the docks -- long before he sees her.

"Look," he points out to Tyler, who was whittling in his spare time, as usual, and now stands up smartly.

"Seen her, sir. Looks like a nice little bit. Seems to be in a hurry, though," the ensign answers.

"I wonder why," Connor muses. As she darts in and out of boxes, equipment, etc., she's looking around with a kind of desperate intensity -- probably for him -- and behind her, both. The main reason an Immortal ran like that was to avoid another Immortal. But that is only the main reason.

"I'd say that's why, Cap'n," Tyler says, gesturing with his whittling knife.

"Wharf rats," Connor mutters contemptuously under his breath. There are four, no, five men chasing her. He doesn't think any of them are Immortal, but then they don't have to be, especially not five to overpower one woman.

Although she is heading in his general direction, she has slowed down, now, scanning frantically, clearly torn between going forward toward an Immortal or back toward the men behind.

Connor decides to make her choice easier. "Stand by, Mr. Tyler," he orders.

"Aye, Cap'n," comes the answer, and Connor vaults over the railing, landing smartly on the dock just a few meters in front of her. He'd risked breaking a bone in the jump, he knows, but sometimes you had to be a bit theatrical if you were going to rescue a fair maiden.

And in spite of the uneven lamplight, he can tell she is fair from the very light oval of her face inside the hood and from one white hand that clutches the long cloak around her.

She stops cold as he surprises her, her whole frame heaving from her exertions, and looks at him for a long beat, glances behind her, then looks at the black water. No doubt she considers a night swim the best of three evils, Connor thinks. She also obviously knows what he is, and that she's the same. And, at least she isn't panicking. Good. It means she's not totally new; he won't have to go into any lengthy explanations. If she stays around long enough to listen.

"I'm Connor MacLeod," he whispers, for her ears alone, smiling his most charming, his most disarming smile, bowing slightly, keeping his hands out and well away from the hilt of his sword.

"What you are, is in my way," she ventures breathlessly. She's not a native English speaker. He can hear the fear in her voice, of him or the others, or both, but she's not backing down.

Connor looks beyond her at the approaching men and his face and voice both harden. "Friends of yours?" he asks sarcastically.

"No. Are you?" She answers his question with a question.

He smiles again at her. "I'm not your enemy. And I'm not interested in your head. Not at this point. But if you want me out of the way. . ." he shrugs, stepping aside for her. But he's made her lose precious time, and the others are almost upon her, although they come to a stop, too, at the sight of Connor.

"You are obviously an officer and a gentleman. Will you help me?" she asks, straightforwardly, and Connor nods.

"Aye. That I will."

The boldest of the men behind her says, "Hey! She belongs to us, mate!"

"Wrong on both counts: the lady doesn't belong to you, and I'm not your mate," Connor begins, walking forward.

"The lady!" he laughs derisively, but she has turned to face them now, too; and standing next to Connor, he notes, admiringly, not behind him, she pulls a rapier out from under her voluminous cloak.

"Well, lookie here," the first man continues, his dark features, intent and serious until this moment, breaking into an amused grin. "She's got a sword!"

There's a snicker from behind the man, but someone whispers urgently, "Hey, Rob!"

"What a coincidence," Connor says, drawing his own weapon. "So do I."

But the man, apparently not completely intimidated by Connor's uniform, reaches for a pistol in his waistband.

Connor calls out, "Mr. Tyler!"

"Sir!"

The other four men glance up now at Henry Tyler, standing by the gangplank, a gun in each hand, both pointed in their general direction. Behind and beside Tyler are a half dozen more of Connor's crew, all armed and waiting.

"Can you see the pistol in this man's hand?"

"No, sir."

"When you do, shoot him, Mr. Tyler."

"Aye, sir."

The man's hand freezes, then lowers to his side. "I guess you and yer crew'r in for a bit'a fun tonight," he says, bitterly, raking the woman's figure with his eyes.

Connor's voice is harsh, vicious. He takes another step forward. "I suggest you bastards leave while you still live."

After they're out of sight back towards the town, Connor turns to the woman. His sword is still in his hand. So is hers.

"I hope we won't need these," he says.

"Depends on what you have in mind, Captain MacLeod." Now that he's close, he can see that her eyes are light, maybe blue or green, her skin pale, ivory colored. A tendril of wet hair sticking out from the hood is the color of clean straw. She reminds him of the pale angels in cathedral windows. Her breathing is just calming, but she's still trembling, although it's a mild night.

"I have in mind to sheathe my sword and escort you home," he answers. "But first, I have in mind to ask your name."

She studies him for another long minute, then nods and puts her sword away. Connor follows suit.

"My name is Hannah Swenson," she says, smiling this time. "And I would be quite. . .pleased to have your company home. But they might not have gone," she adds.

"In that case, we'd better get more protection. Mr. Tyler!" he calls out again, waving for the officer to approach.

"Sir."

"I'm going to escort the lady home. In case those. . .men are still around, let me have your pistols."

Tyler hands them over, butt first. "Aye, sir. And good luck to you, sir." He says this with a perfectly straight face, but Connor raises his eyebrows at him.

They walk to her inn without incident, and it's only when she pulls back her hood and takes his hand to say goodnight and thank you that he's truly stunned by her flawless skin, her perfection. And her eyes. . .not blue, not green, but some ever-changing color in between which seem, apparently, to alter with her mood.

At this point her mood is amused. "You might as well say it."

"Say what?" he asks.

"Something about my eyes. Everyone always makes some comment about my eyes; even those who are trying for my head." As her smile widens, her eyes seem to change color, again, getting almost violet.

He brings her hand up to his lips. "They are intriguing, and beautiful. I can't tell what color they are."

"They're the color of my soul," she says. "Good night, Captain MacLeod. And thank you again."

"It was entirely my pleasure, Miss Swenson."

New York City, March 29, 1997, 11:30 p.m.

He knew that now Hannah expected him to protect her, again. This time against an Immortal, as he had also done before. This time, against Elena Duran. And he really, really didn't want Hannah to lose her head. But she was an Immortal, and he wasn't Ivanhoe, and life was just not that simple, that black and white.

He knew if he made that decision, the commitment to protect her, he'd be facing a freight train heading towards him. With Duran and Duncan as engineer and driver. And yet, he knew he couldn't come to her tonight and desert her in the morning. He'd just have to make damn sure those circumstances didn't happen.

Hannah said, "What are you thinking?"

"Nothing," he said tiredly. "It's not important."

"Oh." She peered at him from for a moment. Then she reached up and kissed him softly on the lips as she untied his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. She hung those up, too. "Sit down, Connor."

He sat down on the toilet seat and she dropped down to remove his shoes and socks. He smiled down at her. "I'm getting the royal treatment, I see," he said.

Tugging off a wet sock, she looked at him. "Don't you always get the royal treatment here?" she teased him. "Okay, stand up and let me get these wet pants off of you."

Connor raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure a shower is all you have in mind?"

She kissed him again, pulling him up. "Well, you're cold and wet. You need to get warm and dry. There are various ways to achieve that." Pulling at the waistband of his trousers, she let them drop to the floor, and Connor stepped out of them, naked now, but feeling warmer already from her gentle, straightforward pampering of him. And from anticipation.

His thoughts strayed back to Elena Duran, and he contrasted the two women. They could not be more different, he thought.

"What is it?" Hannah asked.

"Nothing," he answered again.

She was studying him, he knew, looking for his reactions, trying to anticipate his moves, his moods.

(. . .by then she will have seduced you. . .)

Hannah knew just how to do it, too. And she wasn't asking about Elena, he realised. Maybe to give them both a break, or because she sensed his anger with the Argentine. Or maybe Hannah just didn't want to know.

Whatever the reason, Connor was content with silence, for now. There would be time enough for discussion, for confrontations. Right now, what he needed and wanted was no questions, and no pressure. He just wanted to relax in the warm refuge of Hannah's love. Though Hannah was by no means weak, she wasn't a 20th- century feminist, either. She had never had trouble with the idea of pleasing him, pampering him.

(. . .fulfill all your fantasies; pleasure you. . .)

He deliberately put Elena's words out of his mind.

Twenty-four

Hannah was reaching her hand into the shower, saying, "It's all ready for you, love. Nice and hot. Shall I scrub your back, as always?" She took off her gown in one quick gesture, and stood before him, also naked.

He gazed at her fair body, sheathed in rounded muscle; her pale- pink nipples; her wide, firm hips; and remembered how long it had been since he had made love to her, since he had watched her eyes magically change color from blue to deep aqua-green with passion as he lay above her, inside her. How long it had been since he had watched her ivory skin flush deeply as she became aroused, her nipples go rose-red as he licked them.

She put her hand on his erection, smiling at him, her eyes sparkling. "You do remember," she murmured.

He laughed, leaned over and kissed her. She parted her lips readily, eagerly, and he kissed her deeply. She stroked him, and he sighed with anticipation and pleasure.

Then she broke the kiss and took his hand. "Come on, my love. Let's get you warmed up and then we can go to bed."

They stepped into the shower and Connor let the hot water fall over him, soothing him, chasing the chill and the rest of his anger away. Behind him, Hannah took the soap and began rubbing it over his back and buttocks, using her hands to spread it, massaging the aches from his muscles as she went. She rinsed the soap off, then turned him gently to face her, soaping his chest, his arms, his stomach. He pulled her to him and kissed her under the downpour of hot water. She wrapped her arms around him, stroking his back. "Let me take care of you," she whispered to him. "I love you, Connor."

At her words, he pulled her closer, his embrace more intent, eager. Desire cascaded through him like the water falling down on his body. He picked her up, and she wrapped her legs firmly around his waist. Settling her further down, bracing himself, he entered her, and she gasped and tightened her legs around him even further as he began thrusting in the slow, controlled rhythm he knew she liked to start with. The hot water pouring down on Connor intensified the sensuality of their act, and he gave himself up to it.

"Connor, my love, yes," Hannah said. "Fuck me, yes! I love it when you're inside me. . ."

She liked to talk to him while they made love, telling him how much pleasure he gave her, how much she wanted him, describing her passion for him, what he did to her -- and although he himself didn't say much, it thrilled him to listen to her. He was growing more inflamed, more engorged, and he sped up, thrusting harder and more deeply, moaning softly with his own pleasure.

She whispered into his neck, "I want you so much, Connor. . .make love to me, you feel so good. . .you make me feel so good. . ." She trailed off again, and he could feel her body grow taut. "Harder, love, faster," she murmured.

He sped up again and she began gasping, thrashing in his arms, digging her nails into his back, her muscles spasming around him. As her orgasm enveloped her, he slammed himself into her fiercely. She was still coming when he reached his own climax. A tidal wave of pleasure swept across him; he thrust himself as hard and as far into her as he could. Hannah cried out ecstatically, "Yes! Connor! Take me, my love!"

Shuddering, shaking, gasping, they finally finished. Hannah smiled lovingly at him. "Connor," she sighed, "no other man has ever made me feel the way you do."

He smiled back at her. "Or as drenched, I'll bet," he said wryly, shaking his head and sending water flying.

She laughed. "That's what towels are for." She winked at him -- something else that belied her nickname, Connor thought -- and said, "Do you think you're warmed up enough, or do we need more?"

Connor kissed her for reply, and she slipped her legs down his wet body until she was standing on her own again. They finished the shower and stepped back out into the steamy bathroom. Hannah wrapped a large, soft towel around Connor and began rubbing him dry.

"Here, love," he said, wrapping her up with another towel. "You're going to get cold."

"No I won't! I'm a Finn. I've run out of a sauna, naked, into the snow. Remember?"

"I remember," he answered, with an exaggerated shiver.

"Come on. Bend your head down, and let me dry your hair."

He obeyed, and she rubbed his hair with another towel until all the loose water was gone. As she opened her mouth to say something to him, his stomach growled loudly. She looked at him, surprised. "Haven't you eaten anything today?"

And Connor remembered that he had missed dinner because Elena Duran had interrupted, and he hadn't had lunch. . .Rachel! he suddenly thought, it was still her birthday, and he hadn't even called her back to let her know he was safe! "Not much," he admitted.

Hannah tsked at him, wrapped him up in a robe, led him back out to the kitchen, and heated up a large bowl of stew and a hunk of buttered homemade bread for him.

He picked up her kitchen phone and said, "I need to call Rachel."

After he'd said a few words to Rachel and hung up, she asked, "How about if I warm up some brandy, too?" He nodded, his mouth full. He was hungrier than he had realized. She brought the snifters over, set them down on the table, and sat next to him, watching him eat.

"Are my table manners that atrocious?" he asked, feeling just a bit self-conscious.

"No. I just enjoy watching you," she answered, breaking off a piece of bread and eating it. "Just like I enjoy doing other things with you; and for you."

(. . .spread her legs for you, fuck you. . .)

She poured him some wine, too, and after he'd eaten his fill they sat in front of her fire, drinking the brandy. He noticed there was a white fur rug in front of the hearth, and that brought back memories of arctic nights. . .He took a sip, pushing those thoughts aside. "We need to talk, Hannah."

"Connor, we're both tired and need to get some sleep. Why can't we go to bed and talk in the morning?" she asked, stroking his face.

He took her hand, kissed it, and put it down on her own lap. "We need to talk now. Hannah, Elena Duran wants your head."

"That doesn't surprise me," she said, bitterly. "It fits her pattern."

"Pattern?" he asked.

"I don't know how much you know about her, Connor. But she has a reputation, from Caracas to Tierra del Fuego, for being a ruthless, coldblooded killer."

"Elena Duran can be nasty, and certainly dangerous -- I should know. But she's not coldblooded, or a headhunter, Hannah."

Hannah looked at him in surprise. "Well, she hunted Alexander," she said, her voice breaking.

"Hannah," Connor reached over to take her hand. "Alexander died in Argentina. On her ranch. He went after her."

"Is that what she told you? Oh, Connor, how could you believe that? Why would Alexander challenge an experienced Immortal? It doesn't make any sense!"

But it does make sense, Hannah. It makes all the sense in the world, he thought. "Hannah. Listen to me. Alexander is dead; and I'm sorry. But he was an Immortal, and that's what we do."

"How can you say that to me? I. . ."

"There's nothing we can do for him now. Now we have to think of you, and her." And Duncan, he thought. He leaned toward her, trying to convince her. "Love, she's going to take your head, and she thinks she has good reason. She's worried for the boy."

"The boy? What about my boy?" She was crying now, breathing hard. "Even if. . .even if Alexander went to her, challenged her, she could have shown mercy! The moment they crossed swords, she must have known. . .she could have spared him, Connor! She could have let him live!"

Connor wrapped his arms around her. "She could have," he agreed. "but she didn't." Her crying was affecting him again, hurting him in a deep, visceral way.

For a moment she pressed against him. He could feel her trembling, her heartbeat thudding against his chest. He'd never seen her like this -- she was truly brokenhearted, and he wished there was something he could do or say to make her feel better, knowing that the only thing he could do for her is make sure she survived.

She took a deep, heaving breath and asked him, "And you don't think she deserves to die, just for that? Don't we kill other Immortals, just for such a reason?" she asked him, her voice against his chest, appealing to him.

He pulled her away from him, looked into her greenish eyes. "If you fight her she'll kill you, Hannah." And I hope you're not going to ask me to fight her for you, he thought.

"Do you know what kind of person she is? Connor, do you know -- does Duncan know -- that she had a mortal lover, and when the poor girl left Duran and got herself pregnant, Duran killed her, in a fit of jealous rage? Did you know this about her?"

"That's not how it happened, Hannah. That girl was killed by mortals, by Hunters."

"I heard differently. Connor, I'm sure Duncan loves her, and I know how important he is to you, my love." Her eyes were blazing, changing to a bright green. "But Elena Duran is a killer! She killed my Alexander without mercy! And she'll take my head, too, Connor, or try!"

"Her main consideration is the safety of Stephen Holz. If we can assure her that you won't hurt him. . ."

"Hurt him! How could I? Do you really think I would hurt a child, Connor? Didn't I have every opportunity, when he was in my hands? I would never do such a thing!"

"Then I can tell her that. I can tell Elena that Stephen is safe, completely." It was more a statement, a hope, than a question. And in fact, he believed it himself. But he had to hear her say it.

"Of course, but. . .do you think that will stop her from coming after me? After what I did?"

Connor looked at her. If he couldn't be frank about Alexander, he could be honest about everything else. "I don't know," he answered. "But it's a start. Revenge is not all it's cut out to be. Maybe I can convince her -- maybe Duncan can."

"And you don't think he'd side with her, with his woman, against me? Against you?"

Connor sighed. "I don't know. But it's the only way I can think of to keep you both alive."

"You want her to live, Connor? After what she did?"

He thought about that. So far he'd been concentrating on Hannah's survival because he was sure she'd lose in a duel with Elena. But he really wanted Elena to live, too. And not just for Duncan's sake, either. For her sake as well. They'd been through too much together, he and Elena Duran, spent too much time opposing each other and put too much effort into becoming friends, of sorts. Connor had also put a lot of effort into keeping her alive, and now he wanted her to stay that way. So it was for himself, too. "Yes, I do," he said.

"Oh, Connor. . ." She buried her face in his robe, again. "You can tell her I won't harm the boy!"

"What about her? What about Elena? Will you go after her?" This was the moment, he knew, when she'd ask him to fight Elena. If she was going to.

But she didn't. "What good would it do?"

He hugged her. "I know this is not what you want. But are you content with this, love?" he asked her. "With letting it go? It's the only way for the bloodletting to end."

"I don't have much choice, do I?" she said, with some bitterness.

Connor wanted to breathe a sigh of relief -- it was the best he could hope for -- but he knew it wasn't over yet. She turned around and snuggled her head into his shoulder. For a long moment, they stared at the fire in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Then Hannah asked the other question; the one he was waiting for her to ask.

"If you can't convince her, Connor? If she comes for me. . ." she turned to look at him suddenly. "What will you do?" she asked. He could see the hope and fear in her blue eyes. And the pain. She was depending on him, trusting him, putting her life in his hands. Connor was the only one standing between her and a permanent death. And Christ, he didn't want this woman to die, this woman who for two hundred years had warmed him and loved him and made him feel like life was worth living, whenever they were together. Not another loss. Not another one, he thought, making it almost a prayer.

Looking into her eyes, he said, "I won't let her take your head, Hannah."

She nodded once, apparently satisfied, and leaned back against his shoulder. And afterward, in bed, she thanked him and bound him further to her in the best way she knew how, with her body and her soul and her love for him.

They made love, all the sweeter now because he'd gotten one of the two of them, however reluctantly, to call off hostilities. And as they lay on her bed, in the lush afterglow, her warm, pale body tucked against his, trusting him, counting on him, he murmured, "Let's go to Scotland. After this is all over."

"Scotland?" she asked, sleepily.

"Yes. I have a house there. . ." he started -- and he was taken back there, transported, to thoughts of Brenda. But this time she wasn't half-in, half-out of an overturned car in a ditch, blood pooling on the ground around her. This time Brenda was standing on a hill, shivering, smiling, calling him, the cool wind cutting through her brown curls, making them look like a halo around her head.

This, he knew, is what Hannah Swenson did for him, the effect she had on him. She was even able to transmute his sad memories into happy ones. Even when he'd fought an Immortal for her, she'd gotten Connor to spare him in the end. There was no death in her; she didn't make him think of death. To him, she was one of the best symbols of life he had because she brought him no bad memories, no sorrow or pain, no worries about whether she wanted his head. And he'd do his best, by God, to ease away her sad memories of that flawed boy, to help her bury them someplace deep down, where they wouldn't be so painful.

"Back home, you mean. To your home."

"Yes," he said, smiling at her in the darkness. "My home." He turned to her, kissed her lips lightly, and was able to say, softly, "I love you, Hannah."

On the edge of sleep, she stirred in his arms, then sat up to look at him, in the dark. "Connor. . .do you really mean it? Because you've. . . never said that to me before."

"Yes, my love. I really mean it," he reassured her, hugging her tightly.

Twenty-six

TRUST II (An Elena Story) PART 8

New York City, March 30, 1997, 7 a.m.

Duncan opened the door to Connor and immediately noticed that his kinsman looked tired -- maybe as tired as he, Duncan, felt. Obviously neither man had slept, but for different reasons. Duncan could guess, from Connor's disheveled look, the state of his suit, that he'd spent the night with Hannah Swenson. This was going to be harder than he thought, even harder than he imagined; he knew his kinsman too well.

When Duncan arrived at Ma Maison, he'd spent some time comforting Elena. Any thoughts he'd had about sparing Hannah had evaporated when he'd touched Stephen's forehead, and they'd sent for a doctor in the middle of the night when the teenager's fever had spiked into the low 40'sC. Although Stephen was not seriously ill, not enough to be hospitalised, the doctor advised they keep him in bed, warm, for one or two days, until his temperature came down to normal.

Deep in his bones Duncan didn't think Connor would abandon Hannah Swenson, but he owed it to Elena and to Stephen -- and to Connor, too -- to try to convince his kinsman. Because the alternative was. . .it wasn't good.

"Connor," Duncan said. "Come in."

Connor studied Duncan briefly, noted the tension -- no surprise there -- but his real worry was Elena. And she looked neither relaxed nor in a forgiving mood.

"You look tired, Duncan," he said, and then asked Elena, "How's the boy?"

"His fever went up in the night, but the doctor says he'll be alright," she replied noncommitally, but she was pleased that Connor was concerned. If he realised how much Stephen had suffered, their whole conversation might not be as hard as she thought.

"Hannah is genuinely sorry, you know. She was wrong in taking Stephen, and she knows it. It was not what she intended," Connor began.

"Oh? Maybe he held a sword to her throat and forced her to kidnap him," Duncan said, sarcastically, and Connor realised, right away, that he wouldn't be able to count on his fellow Scot this time. That he'd be ranged against the two of them. He'd figured that was the way it would be, and although it didn't surprise him, it hurt him.

"Duncan, she was wrong. We all know it. But the circumstances were -- are -- unique. She was acting against you, Elena. Not against Stephen."

"Fine," Elena answered. "*I'm* available any time."

Connor sighed. "She doesn't want to fight you; but she is worried that you'll come after her."

Elena smiled grimly. "And rightly so. Look: she's an Immortal. Surely she knew the consequences of her actions. So why don't you make this easier. Just tell me where she is. We'll fight one on one, as we should."

"Elena has just cause to want Hannah dead, Connor," Duncan put in. "Not just for what Hannah did, but for what she might do in the future. And ordinarily you'd see it right away."

Connor said, "If you mean that I'm biased in this case, the answer is yes. Hannah has suffered enough." He turned back to Elena. "You have the boy back, unharmed. All she has of Alexander is memories. He was her son," he repeated. "Surely you know how she feels; how you would feel if Stephen were killed." He was appealing to Elena's mothering instincts, trying to make her empathise with Hannah. But he could see that it wasn't working; that his mention of Stephen had hardened rather than softened her position.

"And what if she wants to give me some memories, too, Connor? What if she kills Stephen next time, beheads him? I can't watch him twenty-four hours a day!" she said, heatedly.

Connor sighed, again. "Hannah will not attack the boy. And she won't come after you, either."

"And I am supposed to believe this because. . .?"

"Because she told me she wouldn't."

Duncan said, "Maybe you believe her, Connor, but why should we? She's already shown her stripes!"

Before Connor could retort, Elena said, "Tell me. . .did she tell you this in bed, after she seduced you, after you screwed her? Or before?"

Connor's face colored, but he'd been expecting this and refused to take the bait.

"How did she convince you? Did she bat her eyelashes?" Elena continued, sarcastically, savagely, getting closer to him. She was so angry that he wouldn't even see her point of view, wouldn't even consider the possibility that Stephen was still in danger from this bitch. And he was comparing her, Elena, to Hannah, again. As if they were the same.

"Elena," Duncan warned.

But Elena didn't need Duncan's warning. This was not what she wanted to say; she'd made this mistake with Connor before. So she shook her head, holding a hand up between them, backing away from him, controlling her tongue and her temper.

Duncan picked up the thread. "It's just not good enough, cousin. You may trust her, but as you said to me once, you're not thinking with your head here."

Connor took his burning gaze off Elena and rested it on Duncan. "And is Elena Duran such an innocent herself, Duncan? Wasn't she killing Watchers when you found her? Killing mortals, and not just a few of them! But you managed to forgive her, didn't you? Was it her reasoned arguments, her logic, that convinced you? What head were you thinking with, cousin?"

It was Duncan's turn to darken, and he roared back, "It's not the same, and you know it!"

"Isn't it?" Connor snarled. He tried to keep the heat down, but Duncan's anger just seemed to stoke his own flames. Duncan didn't know what Hannah was like; had never liked her, understood her. And he had no right to destroy her.

Elena looked at the MacLeods, in each other's faces, and realised that once again she was causing a rift between them. And, God, she didn't want to do that. She didn't want Connor and Duncan to fight; and she didn't want to fight Connor herself; and she could see, clearly, that Connor really cared about this Hannah -- Duncan had told her that, but apparently even Duncan had not realised how much -- that he was not going to give in, was not going to let her die. Elena had thought about this, awake in bed, pressed against Duncan's reassuring warmth; thought about how important Connor was to Duncan. Hell, how important Connor had become to her, to Elena! Although their whole relationship had been marked by arguments, threats, and violence, she didn't want Connor MacLeod to be hurt. And -- let's not forget! -- he had saved her life; and rescued Stephen, too. So she took the only course of action left open to her -- and the one that felt right, somehow, maybe not in her gut or in her head; but maybe somewhere in her heart.

"Connor's right, Duncan," she added, in a low tone, not wanting to wake Stephen up in the next room. "It is the same. Look," she continued, striving for calm, "we all make judgements every day about who lives and who dies. Then we carry out our own sentences. We are truly judge, jury and executioner. And the only curb on our actions, the only control, is our own conscience -- or other Immortals," she added, looking at Connor. "I also know how mind- numbing grief can be; how losing someone you love can turn you into. . .can drive you mad, make you do things." She shook her head, looking into the distance, remembering.

Connor hadn't really expected her to agree with him on anything. He filtered her words, getting to the meat of her comments, stepped past Duncan, and stood before her. "And what is your judgement on Hannah Swenson?" he asked in a hoarse whisper, waiting for her very important answer.

"It doesn’t matter, Connor," she answered him.

He was puzzled, surprised, a little suspicious.

She glanced once at Duncan, and Connor didn't miss that look. "Because I'm going to let it go," she said, her voice shaking. "If you believe Stephen is safe from her, that's good enough for me. As far as I'm concerned, it's over."

She was looking right at him -- there was no question in his mind that she meant what she said -- but he needed to be sure, absolutely sure, so he asked her, "You won't come after Hannah?"

"No, senor," she answered, firmly, respectfully.

Connor turned to look at Duncan for a long minute. This had been too easy, and he was about to say just that -- but he decided to give Elena the benefit of the doubt, and asked her, instead, "Why?" Although he thought he knew the answer.

She answered his question with a small smile. "Because I owe you." And because you didn't bring it up, she added to herself, and you could have, very easily, and forced me to give in. But you didn't do it, so I had to. Somebody had to.

"You're doing this for me?" he asked. But there was no sarcasm in his voice, no anger. It was true; she did owe him. And she'd seen it, recognised it. He hadn't had to remind her, hadn't had to use his trump card. And his admiration for Elena Duran went up one notch.

Her smile widened. "I'm not doing it for her!" Then she got serious, again, and said, "I will not come after Hannah Swenson. You have my word, Connor MacLeod; [mi palabra de honor.]" She held her hand out to him, holding her breath, knowing this was a critical moment, knowing he would either trust her or he wouldn't; no grey area here.

But he took her hand without hesitation, without question. "Good, Elena. I'll tell her it's over." He paused, and added, "I'm glad." Relief flooded through him -- he felt that whoever had been squeezing him was finally releasing his stranglehold, and he could breathe freely again. He turned to Duncan and asked him, "And you, Duncan? Are you content?" But he was pretty sure he knew the answer to that, too.

Duncan and Elena had not quite discussed this possibility, her giving in to Connor completely. But it had been in the back of both their minds as probably the only way out of this mess without making it worse. "If Elena's satisfied, so am I," he answered, his voice tight, feeling that this wasn't quite right, but relieved also.

Connor nodded -- there wasn't the slightest doubt in his mind about Duncan's word -- and before he left, he turned back to Elena. "Thank you," he said to her, simply.

She smiled at him, "Thank you, Connor."

Out in the hotel hall, Connor heard Duncan call him.

Duncan came out, closing the door behind him. He felt slightly giddy, like they'd just gotten away from the jaws of some wild animal who'd been threatening to devour them. "Do you mind if I stay at your place? That is. . .if I won't be in the way," he added, thinking of Hannah.

Connor raised his eyebrows, questioning, nodding toward the door and Elena beyond, and Duncan said, a little embarrassed, "Stephen still hates me. He still blames me for his father's death."

"Yes, I noticed he didn't react well when I told him I was a MacLeod," Connor said, smiling slightly. "But he'll get over it, Duncan." He felt generous, filled with hope. Today, it seemed everything was possible.

Duncan didn't miss Connor's excitement, his joy. . .it was good, no matter what else, to see Connor, well, happy. It was rare, and it warmed Duncan. Maybe this whole terrible situation was really resolved, and without more bloodshed, thank God! But now, about Stephen. "Maybe. Eventually. But right now, all things considered. . ."

"You're right. You're welcome to stay, and you won't be in the way." He smiled again. "You know where I live."

"I'm glad things worked out, Connor," he said, sincerely.

"Yeah; me too. Duran does have her good points, sometimes. Later," he nodded, and went back to Hannah, to give her the good news.

Translations:

mi palabra de honor (Span.) - my word of honor

Twenty-seven

New York City, March 30, 1997, 8 a.m.

"It's over!" Connor said to Hannah, as soon as she opened the door. He walked inside and hugged her, then picked her up and twirled her around the room. He thought maybe he should apply for a job at the United Nations, as a diplomat, and laughed at himself for the notion.

Hannah giggled nervously. "What do you mean, Connor, it's over?" she asked him, when she could get him to put her down.

"Elena won't be coming after you, love. She's willling to let the whole thing end. Do you know what that means? It means you can go on with your life, with our lives -- even with mourning Alexander -- without having to look over your shoulder." Connor shuddered inwardly. Even he, himself, would not want to be hunted by Elena.

"Are you sure, Connor? What did she say?" v He stopped to cup her face in his hand and look into her still-worried blue eyes. "She gave me her word, Hannah. [Palabra de honor.] It's over."

"Love, I'm so glad, but. . .why would she? I was sure she wanted me dead."

Connor sobered slightly. "I'm sure she still does. But she was grateful because I brought Stephen back to her. Plus, she owed me a favor or two. The important thing is, she won't break her word. I guarantee it."

"Are you sure?"

"I am sure, Hannah. Do you trust me?" he asked, a bit irritated that she was still questioning him. But that was unfair -- after all, it wasn't his neck on the line, and she hated and feared Elena Duran; and didn't know her.

"Of course, my love! I trust you with my life!"

Which is, of course, exactly what she was doing, he thought. Again. "Then start thinking about packing; about shipping whatever you like to Scotland." He paused. "If you still want to go. . ."

"Then last night, what you said. . .you were serious."

He kissed her then, softly at first -- then their kiss expanded, deepened. He realised he was making a greater commitment to her now than he had ever made to her before, but it felt like the right thing. It was what he wanted to do. He wanted to celebrate, to show his joy, his love for her, now, with more than just words. However, words were important, too. "Yes, I was serious. I love you."

"Oh, Connor!" she exclaimed, and buried her face in his chest. Then she began to cry, softly at first, then earnestly, gravely. She must be so relieved, he thought. After everything she'd gone through; Alexander's death, hunting Elena, the kidnapping, even finding Connor again. She must be so relieved and so overwhelmed. And so he picked her up again, and sat down with her on his lap, holding her, hugging her against him, smiling, even laughing with relief also, while a flood of her tears soaked his shirt and suit coat.

It took her a long time, a lot of soothing from him, stroking her hair, telling her it was alright, it was over, she was safe, before she calmed down, and he finally looked at her tear-streaked face. Christ, she was beautiful! "You're beautiful!" he said to her, then added, to break the tension, "I wonder if this shirt will ever be dry again."

One of the two phrases earned him a smile. Wiping her eyes and nose, she said to him, "Do you need me to hang your clothes up to dry again, Connor?" Her voice sounded odd, but her intent was clear.

"Actually, I was thinking just that," he said to her, grinning.

"I have hangers in my bedroom," she said, smiling back. He laughed, then stood with her, carried her to the bedroom, and deposited her on the bed. He was soon out of his clothes, and neither of them bothered hanging them up. Connor lay above her, and made love to her again, and listened to her cry out his name, and saw her eyes change color, and felt truly happy, just being with her, for the first time. . .maybe for the first time since he'd last been with Hannah Swenson!

He finally left her when she insisted on feeding him breakfast and sending him home. "You're exhausted; you need some sleep," she laughed, pushing him toward the door.

"But you have such a nice, comfortable bed," he complained.

"I said sleep, and we could both use some. Go, go on, get out!" she said, grinning. But before he left, she reached for him and kissed him, and when it threatened to become serious, again, she said, "Connor!"

"I'm going!" As he drove toward Nash Antiques, it occurred to him that she'd never answered his question about Scotland. But it really wasn't that important. Maybe Scotland would never happen. A place was just a place, after all, and he'd been in so many places in his long life. It was the people, he'd learned over the centuries, who really counted. At any rate, they'd be together, for a while, and he'd be happy, for a while; maybe longer now that Alexander was gone. Throughout this whole, long night, Connor had tried, sincerely, to feel sympathy for the Greek -- but the best he could come up with was pity.

He walked into Nash Antiques, sensing the Immortal inside, and when he went upstairs he looked in the open doorway at Duncan, asleep in his guest room. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd stood over Duncan, guarding him, worrying for him, watching him sleep, and he was always struck by the same thought: how innocent, how at ease, how secure his kinsman seemed to be, asleep with Connor nearby. And although Duncan no longer counted on -- no longer needed -- his, Connor's, protection, a part of the teacher never left him, and a part of the student never left the younger MacLeod, and a part of their relationship would always be defined by this beginning, for as long as they both lived.

And just before he drifted off to sleep, Connor thought how safe he felt, asleep, with Duncan nearby.

New York City, March 30, 1997, 11 a.m.

"I'm fine, Elena, really. I feel good. And I'm hungry." Being hungry was always a good sign; and she'd touched Stephen's head, and he was cooler. So along with breakfast, she'd ordered a cd player, various cd's and headphones; insisting, however, that he stay in bed.

Then she went to take a long, hot, luxurious bath. And as she soaked, she sensed the Immortal. She wondered if Duncan had forgotten something, was coming back. But minutes passed, and the Immortal got no closer -- but he didn't leave, either. Or she didn't.

(Which do you prefer, nina? To meet an Immortal friend with a sword, be over-cautious; or to meet an Immortal enemy unarmed? her mentor, Don Alvaro, had said.) So Elena stood, stepped out of the tub, reached for a robe.

She slipped her sword out from under the bed as she left the bedroom. She knew there were no Immortals in the suite itself -- whoever it was was not that close. But this Immortal buzz was drowning out Stephen's, and as she crossed through the living room to get to his bedroom, to check on him, she glanced out the window, looking everywhere. From her window on the top floor of Ma Maison, Elena had an excellent view of Central Park. And as she looked out, studying the mid-morning crowd, she saw her, across the street.

Hannah Swenson. It had to be her.

Short, judging by the people walking past her, around her, most of the men staring openly or looking back over their shoulders after they passed. Long, beautiful, pale blond hair flowing out from under a wool hat -- running her hands through her own hair, Elena had a sudden pang of envy, thinking of her own long hair, before Bethel had shaved her head. Hands in the pockets of her white coat, boots -- serviceable ones, no unsteady high heels. Compact. Strong. And staring right at Elena.

Elena couldn't see her face, so she reluctantly reached for her glasses and put them on. But Hannah's expression was carefully neutral, like Elena's was. Elena was struck by how beautiful, how flawless, Hannah's skin was, how she looked like -- [!cono!] she looked like an angel, like a golden angel, one of the ones in the stained glass windows of cathedrals, in innumerable European paintings. And her eyes, Elena could see, even from this distance, were light. Elena smiled to herself. What was it that Connor had said, about Heather, that she was fair, "like an angel," with blue eyes. And Rachel Ellenstein was also a blonde. She could see the attraction Hannah Swenson would have for him.

For a long moment, the two women stared at each other, while Elena considered what to do. Did Hannah want to just look at her, satisfy her curiosity? Did she want to talk? To fight? Connor had said Hannah didn't want to fight her -- but he could be wrong. He could have misjudged his lover. If Hannah had come to fight her. . .[!Madre de Dios!] Her promise, Elena's promise to Connor. She'd given her word!

And by the way; how did Hannah know where Elena was? Connor wouldn't tell her, Elena, where Hannah was! But apparently he trusted Hannah with this information, told her, maybe in bed, maybe while they were. . .no, Elena thought, it didn't make sense! Connor would do anything to keep the two women apart. Giving either one of them the other's location was stupid -- and Connor MacLeod was not stupid. No.

Of course, that meant Hannah had gotten the location somehow -- by following Connor? Was that possible? Why not? But that also meant Hannah wanted, really wanted to find her, Elena. And there could only be one reason for that! Well, maybe she should just wait; or maybe she should call Connor, ask him to come collect his woman -- but even as she thought that, Elena dismissed it. There was only one way to find out what Hannah Swenson wanted. She would have to ask the lady herself.

And even as all these thoughts raced through her head and Elena made that decision, knowing it could be a mistake, knowing she could live to regret it -- or not live to regret it -- the other Immortal raised the stakes by smiling at the Argentine, then crossing the street towards the hotel.

Twenty-eight

The two women met behind the hotel. "What do you want, Hannah?" she asked. From closer up, Hannah Swenson was even more beautiful -- she looked like she belonged on a pedestal, in a painting. Next to the petite beauty, Elena felt like a large, scarred crow. But a small size did not mean the Finn wouldn't be dangerous. Fencers who didn't have much bulk, strength, or reach usually depended on speed and skill. In fact, a lighter weight could be an advantage, and Hannah seemed. . .but there was no way Elena was going to fight. She'd promised Connor!

Hannah laughed nervously, although her face betrayed nothing. "What do you think I want, [puta?] I want you to suffer. I want your blood on the ground. I want you on your knees. And finally, I want your head."

Elena ignored the insult, absorbed the anger, nodding, still keeping her distance. "I can understand that. Hell, I can even sympathise. But I thought we'd both agreed to back away."

"Back away? Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Connor MacLeod gave me that idea," Elena answered. "Remember him?"

The Finn got closer. "And what is he to you, [maricona?]" she asked, viciously.

Elena ignored that insult, too. "He's a friend; someone I trust -- and we don't have enough of those, do we?"

Hannah studied the taller woman briefly. "You say he's a friend. But you're afraid of him!"

"I trust him," Elena said, thinking that she probably was afraid of him. "And he trusts me. He also trusts you, Hannah; he said. . ."

"Connor MacLeod *loves* me, which is why you're going to lose your head, Duran. I will take it right now. And if I can't -- he has a high opinion of your skill with a sword, you know -- and you take mine, instead, Connor will hunt you down. So you see, either way, you lose."

Elena smiled grimly. Hannah was probably right. Even if she defeated the Finn, she could see herself explaining to Connor, giving him the adult, more serious version of "well, she started it!" But there was a third alternative. "I'm not going to fight you, Hannah," she said, backing out towards the sidewalk.

But Hannah's next words stopped Elena cold. "If you walk away from me, [ramera,] I'll hunt the boy. I won't even behead him -- I'll just kill him, and let someone else have his head. You have *my* word of honor on that."

Elena felt as though an iced hand had gripped her heart. It was the way Hannah said it, without inflection, without emotion, without caring. "I don't care about him, whether he lives or dies," Hannah added, stepping back, deeper into the alley, pulling out her sword.

Elena walked forward, bringing her broadsword out from under her cloak. Looking at Hannah's face, she could see where the name 'Ice Queen' came from. "Stay away from Stephen, Hannah," she warned, and then the Finn attacked her with finesse, moving quickly, very quickly, scoring a long, deep gash down the length of Elena's sword arm.

But it was the only time she was to touch the Argentine Immortal. Elena defended, parrying and sliding her opponent's weapon along hers, letting the other woman tire herself out beating against an impregnable steel wall, not even going on the offensive until she saw Hannah's labored breathing, the sweat on Hannah's face making it shine in the weak sunlight. Then, on one of Hannah's thrusts, Elena stepped forward and reached for her enemy's wrist -- and missed Hannah's hand altogether. Hannah hit her in the face, putting all her strength into it, breaking Elena's nose, knocking Elena down, then following through with a downward cut that would have beheaded Elena if she hadn't rolled out of the way and to her feet. Hannah was right there -- she was fast! -- but had mistimed her thrust, and Elena took advantage of the opening by slashing at her opponent's unprotected middle. Then, as Hannah curled up in pain, Elena's sword came up and she cut a deep gouge in that beautiful, ivory face.

Damn! Elena thought.

The Finn let out a shrill cry and backpedaled, windmilling her sword to keep Elena away. Elena could see the pain and the raw fear, now, on the Finn's face, as Hannah backed away and finally ran out the alley.

But the Argentine didn't follow. She was content to let Hannah run, but badly worried about Hannah's going to Connor, to lie to him, to get him involved in this. Her only way out was to talk to Connor herself, to convince him. . .oh, yeah, that was going to be so easy! But she'd given him her word -- surely that would count for something! He trusted her. Still, she wanted to simply follow Hannah, but she had someone else to worry about.

Stephen's eyes went wide with shock at the sight of Elena. "Don't worry, [nino.] Some of it is not my blood," she said, truthfully, touching her nose, making sure it had set properly, then scrubbing her face.

"What the hell happened? Was it Hannah? [Mon Dieu!]. . .she did come after you, didn't she?"

"Yes, but my head is still attached, as you can see."

"Elena!" He jumped out of the bed, rushing to her. "We have to get out of here! We can go. . .we can go to Alaska! She doesn't know about that place! We can hide there!"

Elena shook her head, taking him by the shoulders. "No, Stephen. We can't hide there. Ordway found your father in Alaska, remember?" The boy winced visibly, but this was no time for sentimentality. She had to get to Connor MacLeod, tell him what had happened, explain. . .

But Stephen was still thinking furiously. "Maybe we can go somewhere else, another place!"

Well, she'd just have to take the time to explain. A little. "Stephen, I don't run; and if I do, Connor MacLeod will hunt me; and he'll find me. No, I have to go talk to him. . .he'll believe me. I hope he will trust me, trust in my word, instead of believing her. I think he will. But not if I run. Can you understand that?"

"I just. . .I just want it all to end! Elena, I just. . ." He started to cry, long, wheezing sobs, and Elena held him for a minute, hurting to her very core. But she had no time for this, not now. "Stephen. Stephen, listen to me. Get dressed. Please get dressed now. We don't have a lot of time." She'd have to bring the boy with her; she didn't dare leave him alone, not with a vengeful Hannah Swenson walking around. She kicked herself for going out there in the first place, but she'd really felt she had no choice. And she kicked herself, further, for not beheading Hannah. But she couldn't -- she had promised Connor that she wouldn't come after his lover, and although she hadn't, technically -- Hannah had come after her, Elena -- her argument would not be strengthened if she brought Hannah's head to him in a hatbox.

While Stephen got dressed, she wrote an address and phone number down for him. "Stephen, I'm going to leave you at St. Paul's chapel. Now listen carefully. If I don't come to get you within an hour, call this number, Connor's number, at Nash Antiques. Either he or Duncan will come. Neither one of them will hurt you -- do you understand?"

"But what about you? Where will you be?" he shouted.

"I will be back for you. I really believe that. But if I can't. . ." the boy sobbed, starting to turn away, but Elena took his head in her hands and made him look at her. "[M'ijo,] I know how hard this has been for you," she added, hugging him, whispering encouragement. "I admire your courage so much, as always. I just need you to be brave for me, just a little longer. I need your help, Stephen. I can't do this without your help."

New York City, March 30, 1997, 11:30 a.m.

Connor had just flushed the toilet when he sensed an Immortal approaching, and quickly. He stepped into his bedroom, pulled on his pants and shoes, and opened the door, katana in hand, just as Hannah seemed to throw herself through the opening. As he caught her on his left arm, he saw the blood on her face, and the volume of blood on her stomach, under her coat. "Connor!" she whimpered, and he pulled her inside, looking into the dark hallway beyond her for whoever was after her, intending to let her fall to the ground if necessary to fight.

"Who is it? Who's after you?" he asked urgently, worriedly.

Panting, Hannah paused before answering. "She didn't follow me -- she wouldn't dare come here!"

"She?" Connor asked, starting to get a bad feeling. "Who is she?" he asked again, closing the door, sitting her down on the sofa. "Christ, Hannah!" he said, looking at the gash on her face. Her pale golden hair was matted in red. He felt her pain, and anger started to work its way through him.

She was breathing quickly. "I went out for a walk, to clear my head. . . to think. She was waiting for me! Elena Duran. She said she followed you."

Connor felt sick. No, my God, no!

"She's so fast, so strong. She thrust at me, wounded me. I cut her, but I couldn't. . .I managed to run out into the street, get away from her, and there were too many people." She shook her head, clutched at his arm. "Connor! I thought you said. . .you said she gave you her word. . ."

"When did this happen?" he muttered, stalling for time, trying to collect his thoughts.

("[. . .palabra de honor].")

"Now! I just came from her. She tried for my head!" Hannah cried out.

"Hannah, this is not possible." It's not possible, he said to himself. "Elena gave me her word. She wouldn't break it!"

"What? Connor, I'm telling you we fought! She came for me! She said she was afraid for the boy, for Stephen Holz. She was afraid I'd come for him, hurt him, but I didn't, I wouldn't, Connor; you know that! She said she couldn't take a chance, she had to kill me! She was mad, Connor, crazy!"

It made sense, Connor thought, Elena's going wild, protecting her cub at all costs. Her main worry had always been Stephen, rather than revenge against Hannah. But the Argentine had given her word! "I can't believe she would come after you, Hannah!"

"You can't believe. . .do you think *I'm* lying; is that it?" She put his hand on her waist, on the still damp blood there. "You don't believe me? What do you think -- do you think I cut myself, to fool you? Do you think I did this?" she pointed at her face, where the vicious slash Elena had given her had not yet healed. Connor looked at it and swallowed thickly. "After what you told me last night? That you loved me, now you. . ."

"Hannah, listen to me." He held her by the shoulders. "I just can't believe she would lie to me like this!"

("I will not come after Hannah Swenson. You have my word, Connor MacLeod.")

"Connor, she came for me, and I was lucky to get away with my head! Can't you see that she'll do *anything* to protect that boy! What can breaking her word mean, next to his life!? Connor," she pleaded, meeting his gaze, looking into his eyes, her own bright green with emotion, "what will it take for you to believe me? My dead body? My head on the floor? Connor!" She still gripped his arm, squeezing it painfully. "She's going to kill me, now more than ever, now that I got away from her once! She won't give up! She'll hunt me! What am I going to do if you don't help me?"

She was breathing hard, terrified, starting to hyperventilate. God, she was bleeding, he thought, his beautiful Hannah, she was hurt and frightened and running for her life, the woman he loved. . .so it was true?! That Elena Duran had lied to him, given her word, then attacked Hannah only hours later? He didn't want to believe it, but. .

("You won't come after Hannah?")

("[No, senor,]" she answered firmly, respectfully.)

Connor tried to still his own pounding heart. He felt hurt, surprised, frightened, angry. Everything he had assumed was righted was falling down around him, crumbling. He had to stay calm. If Elena had attacked Hannah; if Elena had betrayed him, he would kill the Argentine this time. But first, he had to ask the questions. He had to be sure. Damn her! he thought. If Elena had. . .

"Connor! Please listen to me!" Hannah was saying, appealing to him.

He shook her slightly. "Hannah, look. . .I'll be back. I want you to stay here." Yeah, with Duncan, he thought. But he was sure Duncan wouldn't hurt Hannah. "If she comes after you here, Duncan will help you." Connor was sure -- absolutely sure -- that if Elena came here after Hannah, Duncan would not let her harm Hannah. Because he trusted that Duncan would do the right thing, even if it meant going against his own lover.

"Duncan. . .he's here? But he. . ."

"Yes, he's asleep," he interrupted her. What Connor didn't want to do now was wake Duncan up. Because he was also sure that Duncan would try to stop him from finding, from killing Elena Duran. "But Duncan won't hurt you, Hannah. Do you understand me?" he asked her, standing, putting his trench coat on over his bare chest; Hannah standing with him, studying his face, following his every move. He had to go to Elena, now, had to find out the truth.

Because if Elena hadn't lied, then. . .then, Christ! Then it was Hannah Swenson lying to him, right now, to his face. But *that* wasn't possible; he didn't want to consider that possibility. He couldn't. Just last night, this morning, he'd said to her, for the first time, that he loved her. It was something he didn't say lightly; something he'd only said to a very few women in almost five hundred years. And after all this time, she wouldn't just throw that away, his love. Not this woman, whom he'd known for so long, who had always been such a joy, such a comfort to him. This woman whom he loved. She wouldn't lie to him. . .and she had said she loved him! She hadn't lied about that, not with her mouth, her body, the love in her blue-green eyes. . .and he could see how truly scared she was, see the sheen of sweat and the blood on her; smell the blood and the fear on her. Hannah had been fighting, and she was afraid. She was terrified of Elena Duran. There was no question of that.

"Hannah?" he asked her again, and she answered, "Yes, Connor?"

He took her by the shoulders, facing her. He had to ask her. "Hannah. I know you fought her; I know you're afraid -- but I need to know. . .you are telling me the truth. She came after you. You're not lying to me. . ." She couldn't be!

"Connor. . ." she broke off, large tears slowly coursing down her face. "Do you really still think that? That I would lie about this? How can you ask me, Connor. . .I love you. I wouldn't; I couldn't lie to you, I. . .there's a madwoman after me, I'm afraid for my life, and all you can do is doubt me; and believe her!" She started crying then, in earnest, her hands covering her face. "Oh, my God, Connor!"

He could still see the scar on her face, near her jawline -- the scar made by Elena Duran's blade. It was raw, pulsing, not healing. It marked her, his Hannah, and the sight of it infuriated him. He remembered, when he'd first met Elena Duran, a similar scar on her face, given to her by a vengeful Immortal -- and how hard it had been for Elena, how long it had taken her to heal! Now she'd done this to Hannah, scarred her the same way. He felt his rage building. And yet. . .

Translations: (Spanish)

puta - whore

maricona - dyke

ramera - prostitute

m'ijo-mi hijo - my son

Twenty-nine

For a long moment he watched Hannah cry. He wanted so desperately to believe her, even when a part of his mind said no, it couldn't be. That Elena Duran was a warrior, she had honor, she was not a liar. But maybe this time she *had* lied. . .and Hannah, his Hannah -- she'd never lied to him, not even about Alexander. He had a choice; and right now, until he spoke to Elena, he was going with his Hannah, with his heart.

"Connor!" she clutched at him. "I love you, Connor; please help me! You said you loved me! You said you meant it, that we would be together!"

He pulled her against him tightly while she wept. "Hannah, I do love you! I did mean it!"

"But. . .if you don't believe me, if you don't help me, I don't know what I'm going to do! Duran will take my head; I know I can't beat her. . ."

"It's alright, love. I'll help you. I'll take care of Elena," he soothed her, stroking her hair. God, he couldn't desert her now, when her life was on the line, when Duran had attacked her, his love.

The sobbing didn't stop. He could feel her body trembling against his. Muffled by his shoulder, she managed to say, "You will? I knew it, I knew you wouldn't leave me! I knew you loved me, Connor! I knew you wouldn't let her kill me!" She was hanging on to him, and he had to pry her arms from around his neck, soothe her, reassure her. Then he stood, again, this time with more resolve. He got himself under control until he felt cold, like ice, like a glacier, until everything became sharp, clear, simple. He'd get his answers from Elena. Then he'd make his decision. But he had a very damn good idea, now, what that decision was going to be.

As he went out the door, he sensed an Immortal. Not the two behind him in the loft. Another one. Elena Duran! he thought, and rushed down the stairs.

/////

The voices, the man and the woman speaking, arguing, woke Duncan. Like all experienced Immortals, he was a light sleeper, and particularly senstitive to being awakened with an Immortal buzz in the background. He thought a woman's voice had called his name out in a dream; but no, he was awake. . .

Duncan got up, put on his pants, and went out into the hall. But when he came into the living room he didn't see Connor, the Immortal he thought he was sensing. There were, in fact, no Immortals in the apartment.

And yet, Duncan sensed them. Them, he was sure there was more than one, and he'd heard them arguing. Who could it have been? He thought one of them had been Connor, and Immortals arguing usually meant only one thing.

He tried to pinpoint the source, but only knew it was somewhere nearby, probably downstairs. He glanced out the wall to wall windows in the living room, then went back to his bedroom to finish getting dressed and get his sword. That's when he looked out his window and saw Elena come into the back alley.

No, that was wrong. She wasn't coming in. She was backing away, and Duncan knew Connor's back door was under his window. And as she retreated, Duncan saw Connor coming out that door, advancing on her. And that's exactly, Duncan saw right away, what Connor was doing -- he knew his kinsman's body language too well. Advancing on her, on Elena.

Bewildered, frightened, with a whispered, "No," Duncan finished dressing in a flash and, katana in hand, ran for the stairs.

New York City, March 30, 1997, high noon

Elena had walked a teary-eyed Stephen into the chapel, with strict orders not to leave holy ground except in the company of herself or one of the MacLeods, and he had promised -- but his face as he looked after her, when she left, came close to breaking her. He was so young and so brave, and had endured so much. . .it wasn't fair!

She was still thinking of Stephen as she got to Nash Antiques and decided to go in through Connor's back door, which led directly to the stairs up to his loft. But as she came near it the Immortal presence she'd been sensing got stronger, and the door opened in front of her.

Connor MacLeod stood in the darkness of the doorway, and as soon as he stepped into the light of day, and she got a good look at his face, she backed away from him. "You're afraid of him!" Hannah had said, and at this moment, Elena thought, God, yes! Because Connor had already spoken to Hannah, and he was coming for her, for Elena; it was so clear from the set expression on his face.

He was going to kill her, now, right away.

"Connor. . ." she began, putting her left hand up protectively, and Connor glanced at it and saw the dried blood on her cuff, and the stain on her jeans. He didn't have to ask Elena -- Hannah had told him the truth. The two of them had fought!

"Didn't you even bother to wash off the blood, Elena, before you came after her again?" His voice was calm, unruffled, and Connor himself seemed almost serene. But his eyes -- [!Madre de Dios!] -- were so lifeless, so still, as though he were Death himself.

"No; wait," she answered, still backing away, and now glancing over his shoulder. Hannah had just come out the door, behind him, and he turned to her briefly, making sure, before he gave his full attention to Elena again.

"Connor," Hannah breathed. "Kill her!"

But Connor was only speaking to Elena. "You did fight her," he said, conversationally.

"Yes, Connor," Elena answered. But she didn't say anything else. And it wasn't because she didn't want to. Connor's eyes held her, fascinated, like the hypnotic gaze of a large, deadly serpent. Her lips were so dry they stuck together, and she had to pull them apart to get just those few words out. Her stomach hurt; she felt sick.

Connor paused, waiting. At least she was admitting it; at least she wasn't denying that she and Hannah had fought. He waited for an explanation; for an excuse; giving her a chance. He waited for Elena to tell him what happened, to tell him how it was all Hannah's doing, all Hannah's fault. He waited for Elena's words, maybe even her tears. But since she didn't say anything, in spite of her obvious fear, Connor decided to push. He drew his sword.

It was something he'd never done, she thought, not even when he'd threatened her before. The katana in his hand looked sharper, more deadly than any sword she could remember. But it broke her trance. "I didn't break my word, Connor. She came for me!"

"She's lying!" Hannah cried out. "Don't listen to her!"

Elena licked her lips. "You've already made up your mind, haven't you? About me? Except you're wrong! I never lied to you, not once. And now. . ." she sighed.

And then Duncan burst out the door into the alley. "Connor, wait!" The younger MacLeod was holding his own katana. "Don't do this! Let's talk about this!" He glanced at Hannah. "Whatever Hannah told you is a lie!" He moderated his tone, knowing that only reason, not emotion, could possibly sway Connor now, if at all, once his sword was in his hand. "Elena didn't betray you, Connor!" Duncan didn't know exactly what had happened, but obviously Connor believed Elena had betrayed him. And Duncan, too, could see signs that Elena had fought, and he could see the blood on Hannah Swenson, beside him; the slice on her face. It's not possible! he thought, frantically. "This is wrong, Connor!"

But Connor's answer was delivered in a voice, Duncan knew from experience, that allowed for no argument. That was final. "It's already begun, Duncan," he said over his shoulder, "and you can't interfere."

"Connor, no!"

Ordinarily, Connor would have winced at the desperate tone in his kinsman's voice. But he had already dismissed Duncan from his thoughts; as he had Hannah, for now. He would deal with them later, and in the back of his mind he knew there would be hell to pay; that this wouldn't end with Elena's death. But his full concentration, now; his only interest, was the Immortal before him.

Connor said to her, his voice laced with venom, "You knew Hannah wouldn't hurt Stephen. She had every chance to do so. But you still had to come after her; you couldn't trust my word; you had to be sure, you had to kill her, didn't you?"

Elena thought, this was what Hannah told him, of course. And he believed it. Why not? It made sense. But Elena had really hoped he'd have more faith in her. "I'm disappointed in you, Connor," Elena said. She knew her voice was shaking, but she couldn't do a damn thing about it. "I thought. . .well, hell, maybe we were both wrong. About each other." She was a little angry now; but what she mostly felt was despair. God, this isn't happening! she thought. This was one of her nightmares come true.

"You're going to need your sword, Duran," Connor said, getting into the en garde position.

But Duncan was moving forward, intending to get between them, and Hannah said to him, "No! You can't interfere! Your whore attacked me, Highlander!"

"You're lying!" Duncan threw at her.

"No, [querido,]" Elena said to Duncan, giving him a look that tried to express her love. "This is between Connor and me." She pulled out her sword then -- the broadsword Connor himself had given her! -- raised it up in front of her, kissed the hilt, at the spot where it formed a cross, and whispered, "[!Ayudame, Dios mio!]" But by this time, she'd made *her* decision; and it was, simply: I can't do this! So instead of getting ready, she put the sword on the ground and kicked it away from her.

The metal made a scraping sound as it skittered across the pavement.

Connor thought it ironic that she'd throw away the very sword he'd given her, but he didn't spare it a glance. It was a meaningless act of bravado, a gesture designed to deflect his intentions, to make him reconsider. And it wasn't going to work. Nothing she had said or done had changed his mind. Hell -- she wasn't even trying to defend herself! "You think this will save you?" he asked her, sarcastically, savagely.

Elena said nothing; just looked at him evenly, pushing the fear down inside her, where he wouldn't see it. She breathed a prayer to Don Alvaro, asking him to forgive her for not fighting to the end. But she couldn't bring herself to cross blades with Connor MacLeod, any more than she could with Duncan, not even to save her head. And she knew that this wasn't even a gamble; she knew that she'd already lost. However, as he took the few steps toward her, then came around her left side and behind her, circling her slowly, like the proverbial shark, like a predator circles its helpless victim, she wanted to break and run. But she closed her fists, and she screwed her heels into the ground, literally, holding herself in place by sheer will alone. And she remembered what Connor had said to her on a cold October night:

(". . .if I were your enemy, if I wanted you dead, I would come at you from the front, and you'd see me coming, and we would both be armed, and we would both have a fair chance.)

But now he was still behind her, right behind her, [!Madre de Dios!] He was going to cut her down from behind, and she wasn't armed, and she didn't have a chance! She closed her eyes, trying, willing to stop her body from shaking, and failing; waiting, imagining his katana slicing through her, sinking into her back and coming out, glistening with her blood; looking down at her ribs and seeing it growing, obscenely, out of her chest; but no, he wouldn't bother with any of that! Connor was too efficient for that. He'd just take her head off and be done.

Her heart thumping, all her senses alert, she could feel his eyes on her, and he came back around her right side, her blind side. She could hear his soft footfalls completing the circuit, back in front of her, so close to her she could smell him, she could smell Hannah's scent on him! Suddenly her hair was in his fist, and he was pulling her head back, exposing her neck for the killing stroke.

Duncan couldn't believe what was happening. He couldn't believe Connor was really going to kill Elena; he couldn't believe that she'd given up her sword. But if she thought Connor would show mercy because she'd left herself helpless, exposed, she didn't know what Connor was like, once he'd made up his mind. Duncan could clearly see Connor's fist, knuckles white around the hilt of the katana held down by his side. She was mistaken. And Duncan wasn't going to let Elena die for a mistake. Hell, he realised he wasn't going to let her die, period, not even by Connor's hand, and especially not because of Hannah Swenson.

So this time, when he said, "No, Connor," he put steel in it, and he was no longer asking his kinsman. He was telling him.

Elena heard Duncan's voice, and thought, [!Madre de Dios!] they're going to fight! The MacLeods! Fear and hopelessness, for herself, for them, filled her.

Thirty

Connor had circled, her, deliberately scaring her, but waiting too, waiting for her to say something, to defend herself, to explain, even now. She'd given up her sword. She was giving him her head. It didn't. . .make sense! And he, too, had heard Duncan behind him, and knew what it meant -- Duncan was going to break the rules; he was going to interfere; he was going to fight, him, Connor, because of her, because of this whore. . .

But he had trusted her, this 'whore;' and he remembered: ("I will not come after Hannah Swenson. You have my word, Connor MacLeod; [mi palabra de honor.]" She held her hand out to him. . .)

("I never lied to you, not once.")

And Duncan's voice, full of pain, of despair: ("Connor, wait! Don't do this! Connor, no!").

And as he felt her trembling, he put his face right into hers. He looked into the pallor of her face, the sweat there, her skin pulled tightly over her finely chiseled cheekbones, her lids so thin he could see the movement of one eye under one and the stillness of her glass eye under the other. It was the face of a woman he had trusted, he had believed, he had cared about; one whom Duncan still trusted and believed in and loved and was even willing to fight him for. Christ, there are so few of those left, of those we trust, of those we care about! he thought, dejectedly. So he asked her, softly, one more time, giving her one more chance: "Did you betray me, Elena?"

As she opened her eyes to look into his, so close she had trouble focusing on them, she thought about how he had taken their difficult, painfully-crafted relationship and thrown it away. How he'd spit on her, on her word, on her trust -- and her eyes filled with tears she could not, not even to save her life, stop from coming. And she said the only thing she could: "No, Connor."

No explanation. No excuse. No argument. Just a simple, straightforward denial. And the hurt on her face -- she wasn't just scared, or resigned, or even angry, Connor understood. She was hurt! And why would she be hurt? Because he hadn't trusted her, hadn't believed in her. Damn!

"She's lying! Take her head, Connor!" Hannah called out. "Can't you see what she's doing? Just kill her, now!"

"It's not going to happen, Connor," Duncan said. The instant Connor raised his sword, Duncan was ready to block it. This wasn't a fight; it was going to be an execution, and he was going to stop it. But his heart was in this throat, knowing what this meant, hoping he could make Connor stop, see reason, praying it wouldn't go too far.

Connor turned to look at Hannah, at his love, and he saw hate, and expectation, and impatience, and especially fear. She was waiting, waiting for him to behead Elena Duran and save her, and trusting him to do it, too, judging by the smile, full of relief? gratitude? with which she met his eyes.

When Elena noticed Connor turned to look at her -- not at Duncan; at Hannah -- Elena realised how much under Hannah's spell he was, and she had one last, sudden, terror-filled thought. So she grabbed Connor's trenchcoat and whispered to him, harshly, "Don't let her get her hands on Stephen! Please, Connor -- she told me she'd kill him; not even behead him, just kill him! Please don't make him pay for this! Please, Connor!"

Stephen Holz! Connor thought, turning back to Elena. The catalyst who had started. . .but no, it had been that other boy, Alexander Caropolous, who had started this whole chain of events, leading to this moment, when Connor was about to take Elena's head. And it wouldn't end here, either. It would continue on its merry, bloody way, ultimately, inexorably, with him and Duncan fighting each other. . . God! And Connor felt like he was wrapped up in these blood-soaked bonds -- they all were, and they were all being dragged along, even against their will, by these powerful, unbreakable chains. . .

No, he decided. He wasn't going to be dragged along by circumstances. He was going to find the truth. He'd looked at Hannah's expectant, fearful, desperate face, and her relief when she thought he'd kill Elena. Hannah Swenson was doing something she'd never done before -- urging him to kill. And threatening to kill Stephen Holz?! It was so completely unlike her. It wasn't her, it wasn't the Hannah he'd known for two centuries. This Hannah was desperate, fearful, vengeful. This Hannah was death.

And now he was looking at Elena's fear-filled face. If Elena Duran had her hands on Hannah, she would have finished the Finn. She was certainly skilfull enough -- the cut on Hannah's face could have easily been a decapitating blow; she would never have let Hannah get away! But Elena had chosen *not* to kill Hannah. Deliberately, he realised with a shock.

But he'd already known that, hadn't he? He just hadn't wanted to see it, to believe it. Elena had *let* Hannah get away. She hadn't gone after Hannah -- it had to be the other way around. She'd let Hannah live! And Elena had done it for him, for Connor, just like she'd given up her sword for him.

And that meant. . .God, he didn't want to face this! It meant that it was Hannah who had lied to him. That she had taken his love, his trust, and thrown it away. That her fear and hate for Elena were more important to Hannah than his love for her, and than her love for him, too.

It was then that he realised, he knew, with no longer a doubt, that he was looking at the face of truth, at the woman before him, so close, who had trusted him; who had not lied to him and had never lied to herself; who had actually told him too much of the truth; who was at the edge of a very permanent death, thinking not of herself but of an innocent boy.

And the truth shall make you free.

He whispered something very low in Elena's ear. Something meant for her alone. Then, to everyone's surprise -- including his own -- he released Elena and stepped back away from her.

/////

Elena watched Connor's face, his expression change as the realisation struck him, as he realised the truth, and the extent of his blunder.

When he whispered, his lips brushing her ear, "I'm sorry," she was furious. She wanted to hurt him, to hit him. She wanted to say, "Damn right you're sorry, you fucking bastard! You didn't believe me! You didn't trust me! You threw my word of honor out with the garbage, you came for me, you were going to take my head, you scared the hell out of me, and all for her, for that blonde bitch! And you were wrong, completely wrong! So now, you go to hell, [pendejo]!"

But his face, his expression, his pallor -- it wasn't just that he paled. He seemed to lose all his color, as though someone had punctured him and let all the blood out of his body, all the life out of his soul. She saw this and realised just how badly hurt he was, how guilty he felt; especially, how strongly he felt about Hannah Swenson, how much he loved her -- if the pain, the sense of loss on his face was any indication.

Then that look was gone, replaced by the famous Connor control, rippling over his face like one of those morph videos. But she still didn't say or do any of those things she thought of, because, well. . . you just don't hit a man when he's down, do you? And as soon as he let her go, the feeling that flooded her was a relief so strong -- he's not going to kill me! I'm going to live! [!gracias a Dios!] -- that she had to lock her knees to keep them from folding under her like the legs of a card table.

So the only thing she said was, "[!Ay, Connor!]" breathing out through her mouth, and breathing fresh air in, she wasn't going to die, she was going to live! God, it felt good!

And Duncan, too, felt a wonderful sense of deliverance, for the moment. But he knew this terrible day still wasn't done. There were still two Immortals with swords in their hands, himself included, and he felt sure Hannah had a sword inside her coat as well. But at least, thank God! Connor had seen the light, had realised that Elena couldn't have lied to him, couldn't have attacked Hannah. That meant, of course. . .

"Connor!" Hannah cried out, surprised, worried. "What are you doing? Why don't you kill her? Connor? What's happening, my love? I thought. . ." Then Connor turned to her, and she got a look at his face, and her voice rose one notch. "Connor, you can't mean. . .no! Connor, if you don't take her head she'll kill me -- don't you understand that? No matter what else, she'll still come after me! Connor!"

Her tone was pleading, desperate, and Connor felt it reverberate in the marrow of his bones, felt it cut into him like a blade. Even after what she'd done: lied to him, betrayed him, tricked him into almost killing a friend, unjustly -- he still felt her pain, sensed her fear, keenly. And those feelings were real, he knew. And he still loved her -- this wasn't something you just turned off, like a faucet, dammit. But he forced calm into his voice. "She won't come after you, Hannah; she gave me her word, and Elena Duran did not break her word; and she won't."

Thank God he sees that! Elena thought. But he was too calm, too controlled, too brittle. He was going to break; he had to.

"Connor, no! She lied to you!" Hannah cried out.

Connor shook his head slowly. "She didn't lie to me, Hannah. But you. . .you did."

"No, Connor!" she cried. "I love you!"

He winced visibly, then walked up to her, putting his sword away. "Did you say that so I'd kill her for you? Is that it?"

"No, Connor. . .I do love you, it's true!" Her eyes were, amazingly, dry, and the worst part was that he did believe her. She hadn't lied about this, not about loving him. His mind was perfectly clear: no more confusion, no more doubt. He could see right into her soul. But at the same time, he felt a deep, terrible ache. He had put his heart in her hand, and she had closed her fist.

More than anything else, Connor wanted to cry. But he didn't. The second thing he wanted most to do was to get away from this alley, away from the other Immortals, especially away from *her*. . .

He went to the door, but Hannah intercepted him. "Connor," she whispered, clutching his arm, trying to hold him. "Please, I love you. I didn't lie about that!"

"I know you love me, Hannah," he answered sadly. "But it's not enough for you, is it? I'm not enough."

She shuddered, crying, and he waited. Then she finally whispered, "No," and with that word, with that final admission from her, he closed his eyes suddenly, reeling back slightly, as though she'd struck him. "You just don't understand!" she cried out, gasping. "I want my Alexander! I want him back! And if I can't have him," she looked at Elena, "then I'll have her head instead!"

Connor shook his head, thinking how stupid, how vain, how naive he'd been. How she'd fooled him completely -- and Christ! how he'd almost killed Elena Duran! He knew he hadn't heard the end of that!

"I couldn't tell you that!" Hannah was saying. "How could I? I was afraid! I still am!"

"You don't have to be afraid of me, Hannah. I would never harm you," he said, meaning it.

"But she will; sooner or later, she'll take my head! Connor, I need you! Don't leave me! Please!"

He looked at his love, the woman he loved, for a long moment. Then he said, "You'd better stay away from Elena Duran, and from Stephen Holz."

"But she killed Alexander! I can't just let it go! I tried, Connor, I really did! I can't just walk away! You had a child. Think how you would feel if someone killed Rachel! You have to help me. . ."

"Hannah," he interrupted, "I think you'd better leave New York." He removed Hannah's hands, pushing her away, holding her at arms' length; then turned to the other woman. "Elena, I release you from your promise."

Duncan had gone over to Elena, knowing that she needed shoring up, and they had watched mutely, both aware of how shredded Connor was. Duncan wanted to yell at Connor, rant and rage at him -- but he didn't, he couldn't. He recognised the forced stillness in Connor's voice, had heard it before, and knew what it meant; knew how hard this was for his kinsman. In the back of his mind, he still saw Hannah Swenson as a threat, but he couldn't do anything about that either; not now.

Now Elena stepped forward, incredulous, and asked, "What?"

"I release you from your word, Elena," Connor repeated.

Hannah looked at the two of them in turn, as though she were watching a tennis match. "You can't! Don't you know what you've done, Connor? You might as well take my head yourself! You haven't just deserted me -- you have condemned me to death!"

Connor was silent, looking at her, considering that yes, she was probably right. But there was nothing he could do about it -- there was nothing he would do about it. It was up to Hannah and Elena, not him. And maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe he shouldn't have interfered in the first place.

With a cry of pure anguish, Hannah Swenson tore away from his grasp and ran out of the alley.

And without another word, devastated heart and soul, Connor MacLeod went back upstairs to his loft, alone.

Translations:

pendejo (Span.)- bastard, pig

Thirty-one TRUST II (An Elena Story) PART 13

New York City, March 30, 1997, 10 p.m.

Stephen was finally asleep, having gone to bed early in preparation for their return to Argentina in the morning, and Duncan was having a drink and thinking -- and fuming.

Elena had called Joe's in Seacouver to find a way to apologise to Bernie Liebowitz. But first, she'd wound up talking to Methos and answering his questions about Stephen and Hannah.

Methos had been silent for a moment, then said, "You didn't take Hannah's head. That would be Connor MacLeod's influence."

"I guess the MacLeods are really affecting my young, impressionable nature, eh?" she said, smiling.

Duncan snorted, and Methos laughed.

"By the way," she added, "you might like to know that after I get Stephen settled in Argentina, I'm taking a short trip to Ciudad Mexico." For some reason, Methos' opinion of her was important to her.

"To hunt her?" Methos asked, a hint of interest? in his voice.

"To forgive her," she answered.

"Good, Elena," he said, apparently pleased. "You're learning. Just. . .be careful. And here's Joe."

The conversation with Dawson did not go as well, although he, too, asked about Stephen. In the end, Dawson said, "Tell you what. I'll give Bernie your message, and let him decide."

"Alright, that will do," she said. "Thanks, Dawson. And, for the record, I am sorry."

"Yeah. So am I, Duran," he said, and hung up.

Elena looked at Duncan. "He's really pissed off at me."

"Can you blame him?" Duncan said.

"Well, Duncan!" she began, then sighed. "Anyway. . .hopefully Bernie will call me. So," she continued, "when are you going to go see Connor?"

"Tomorrow. After you and Stephen leave."

"I'm worried about him, Duncan," she said, remembering the stricken look on his face. "But at the same time, I just want to throttle him -- then take his head! "[!Cabron, asesino, animal!] He was really going to kill me!"

"He was," Duncan agreed.

"How could he do this to me, Duncan?"

Duncan just shook his head. There was nothing he could say, and he was furious at Connor, too.

"How could Hannah have convinced him?" But she knew the answer to that. "Damn it, she really hurt him, didn't she?"

"Yeah," Duncan answered, simply.

Elena wondered how she could have ever thought Connor MacLeod was cold. In fact, he saw the world 'feelingly.' The only difference between him and Duncan was that the elder MacLeod had learned to hide his emotions better, had better insulated himself. "Will he be alright?" she asked.

Duncan got up and walked over to her. "Yes, eventually. Connor is a rock, Elena. He may get scarred, but he won't crack. I promise."

She smiled grimly. "The beaches at Acapulco and Varadero were once covered with rocks, but constant pounding ground them to sand." And I've sure done some grinding away on him myself, she thought guiltily. She shook her head. "Does he have anyone to talk to? Anyone he can confide in?"

"Rachel, sometimes. But no, he doesn't talk to me, not about certain. . . he never has, and he never will." Elena sighed, and he put his hands on her shoulders. "I'll go see him tomorrow, [querida.] But tonight. . ." He leaned down and kissed her, softly, on the lips. She closed her eyes, and he said, "Let's not think about it. Just for a few hours, just for tonight," he said, hugging her against him, then kissing her again, longer and deeper this time, "let's make some good memories."

And, bodies intertwining in soft sheets, touching, breathing heavily, tasting and enjoying, pulsing and stroking, feeling heat and warmth and care for each other, embracing life, they made some good memories to remember.

New York City, March 31, 1997, 10 a.m.

Duncan went up the back stairs and into the apartment. The curtains were drawn against the day -- even over the floor to ceiling windows -- destroying the light, airy feel of the loft. Duncan had the impression of walking into a cave.

Connor was sitting on the sofa in the middle of the living room, his feet on the table next to two bottles of scotch and an empty glass. One of the bottles was empty. He sat in the darkness, in jeans, bare chested, a glass in his hand. He didn't seem to react to Duncan's presence, but as the younger Highlander approached him, Connor said, "A whole twenty-four hours before y' came to talk! That's a new record, Duncan."

His voice was irritated and slightly slurred, although not as much as it should have been, Duncan thought. But Duncan recognised a shot across his bow when he heard it, and he knew that the only strong emotion Connor ever willingly showed was anger, often masking other feelings. Christ, Connor was even back to the brogue again, and it wasn't just the scotch talking! And Duncan had a good idea what those other feelings might be. So he refused to take the bait.

He sat down across from Connor, saying nothing, noticing his kinsman's pallor, the dark circles under his eyes, the day-old beard stubble, the sour smell, the sorrow -- and the katana leaning against the arm of the sofa. Always within reach. He hated to see Connor like this, looking almost defeated. It hurt him in a deep, abiding way. "You look like hell," he said to Connor.

"Do I?" the other man answered. "As y' can see, I'm ready for you," he said, pointing in the direction of the bottles and the empty glass. "I hope y' don't mind that I started wi'out you."

Duncan had come prepared to rage at Connor, but the elder MacLeod's appearance took some of the wind out of his sails. "Have you eaten anything? Or even slept?" Duncan asked, instead.

Connor ignored the question, took another swallow, and asked a question of his own. "How piqued is th' lady?"

"Piqued?" Duncan asked, feeling a little heat. "Elena's ready to kill you! And you can't really blame her."

Good, Connor thought. He's beginning to get angry. Anger was something Connor could deal with. It was certainly better than sitting here, drinking, feeling sorry for himself, thinking about. . . "So why didn't she come t' yell at me?" he asked.

"She and Stephen left this morning. I don't think she wanted to see you, actually."

Connor leaned forward, feeling a bit angry himself. Something had just occurred to him. "I don' need her pity, Duncan," he hissed. "Or yours."

"Don't worry," Duncan said, with a humorless smile, and it wasn't pity, exactly, although he could feel his kinsman's anguish weighing on him, weighing on both of them, holding them down in their seats. But damn it, Connor should feel bad! "How could you do it, Connor?" he asked angrily, leaning forward. "How could you doubt her word? How could you threaten her like that? How could you make such a terrible, fucking mistake?!"

Better, Connor thought, leaning back. Duncan could really play right into his hands -- but he was aware that his kinsman could do something similar to him. Although not as well, he thought smugly.

And then he suddenly realised that this was the first time in twenty- four hours that he hadn't thought about Hannah Swenson. "She's gone, Duncan," he said, sounding almost like a lost little boy -- and hating the fact that the alcohol was affecting him. But it wasn't just the alcohol, either, he knew. Hannah had lied to him, used him, left him. He was alone.

Duncan didn't have to wonder which of the two women Connor was referring to -- he could tell by the hurt tone in his kinsman's voice. Hannah, of course. Dammit. Damn her! he thought. Well, they might as well talk about her. "Elena and I 'discussed' Hannah."

Connor took another sip. "Wha' about her?" he asked, as casually as he could. But what he actually wanted to say, to Elena especially, was: "Please don't kill her." Because, in his mind, knowing Elena Duran, he believed it was a done deal.

"Elena's not going after her."

Connor closed his eyes briefly. The surprise and relief he felt was so strong, surely Duncan, no fool, could see it. This was something else, he knew, that Elena was doing for him, for Connor, even after he'd thrown her sworn word back in her face. Because she owed him, and was paying her debt. "Good. I said before Hannah had suffered enough. I still b'lieve that."

Duncan knew that, in spite of everything, Connor still wanted Hannah to live. He could sympathise; hell, he could even empathise. But he couldn't understand it, not Hannah Swenson; and he was also worried about the others. "Elena doesn't think Hannah will harm Stephen. What do you think?"

It was obvious to Connor that Duncan didn't share Elena's opinion. "I'm hardly th' person t' ask, am I?" he said.

Duncan felt a little exasperated. "You know her best!"

"Do I, Duncan? No. No' this Hannah Swenson." Every time he said her name, he felt his heart tear. He could sense her receding; moving away from him, from his life; fading -- and leaving a gaping hole behind, in him.

"So what do you think, dammit?" Duncan raised his voice. "Is the boy in danger? I intend to go down to Argentina, to help Elena watch over him. Between the two of us. . .since Hannah doesn't seem to be willing or able to fight her own battles. . ." here he paused, knowing it was a low blow, hoping to see some anger in Connor, too -- something to take the place of his kinsman's obvious, hounding misery. But the elder Highlander had no visible reaction. He wasn't even going to defend himself, Duncan realised.

For a long time Connor said nothing, considering, a bit 'piqued' himself. Hannah had fought her own battles, more than once! Hell, she was fighting a battle right now, against rage and revenge and hatred and fear. And against love, too. And she was losing. But although he didn't want to; although he still very much wanted Hannah alive; he felt obligated to warn Elena. He owed her that much. Especially now. Especially after he had betrayed her trust, disbelieved her, come right to the edge of taking her head. "No' th' boy; but I think Elena should watch herself."

"Then you and Elena agree," Duncan said, still irritated.

"An' you an' I disagree. Surprise," Connor said, with his small, disappearing smile.

"Connor, what the hell are you going to say to Elena?"

Connor shrugged. "What can I say to her? That I was wrong? Do y' think it'll make her happier if I tell her I was wrong?" Besides, he thought, I've already said something to her. But it was for her, Duncan -- not for you.

"I think it will make her happier if you tell her you believe in her; and you won't mistrust her again!"

Connor nodded silently, apparently agreeing, and this, more than anything else, upset Duncan. Connor didn't give in so easily, and very, very seldom admitted he was wrong. And to be willing to admit it to Elena, of all people! Connor wasn't arguing; he wasn't insulting Duncan, pointing out what he, Duncan, had done in the past for a woman; hell -- he wasn't even saying anything about Duncan's intefering in an Immortal duel! God, Duncan thought, if Hannah Swenson were in the room right now, he'd be hard put not to kill her on the spot!

Thinking about just how badly his kinsman must feel ("She's gone, Duncan"), Duncan abruptly changed the subject and asked, truly concerned, "How are you doing, really, Connor?"

Connor shook his head. "Time for you t' have a drink, cousin."

"Connor. . ." Duncan began, intending to say he understood, he'd been there, he knew how Connor felt: deserted, rejected, even foolish. He didn't say it, however, knowing Connor probably wouldn't want to hear it anyway.

But what Connor really felt, more than anything else -- and he didn't share this with Duncan, either -- was bereft.

Translations:

cabron (Span.) - bastard, pig

asesino (Span.) - assasin, killer

Thirty-two

Duran [estancia] near Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 15, 1997, 8 p.m.

After two weeks of being frozen out, Duncan had found a way to get closer to Stephen -- horses, of course. Stephen was a natural horseman, and Duncan. . .Duncan could ride. Why hadn't he thought of it before? And while Elena went to Ciudad Mexico for a weekend, Duncan and the boy had spent all their time together riding, with at least one of the two bodyguards, now on full alert, armed and very motivated, shadowing them.

Now as they sat at dinner, only an hour after Elena's return, Stephen was telling her his adventures of the last couple of days. "I saw the black stallion with his herd. Duncan and I did! [Mon Dieu!] I can't believe how beautiful, how [majestique] he is!"

"Yes, isn't he?" Elena answered, her eyes sparkling in spite of her hangover. After Maria Feliz had offerred Elena her head, again, the two women had had a heartfelt conversation, several crying sessions, and more than one drink. Even Immortal constitutions could take only so much tequila, and although Elena had not drunk as much as her Mexican friend -- she couldn't bring herself to trust Maria Feliz completely -- she still felt sick the next day. So she contented herself with coffee and listening to the excited teenager.

"Anyway, I gotta get back to the stables. La Princesa is ready to foal, and I want to be there, ok?" Stephen asked.

"[Nino,] that could take all night!" she said, smiling indulgently. "Send someone to let me know, eh?"

"I will. Later!" He ran out, Fernando following discreetly.

"He seems very happy," she said to Duncan. She, in fact, was thrilled to find Duncan and Stephen on speaking terms, at least. At last.

Duncan smiled slightly. "He's tolerating me, anyway, although he hasn't got over blaming me. No more, 'I hate you!' on sight."

"That's because of the talk we had, [querido,] where I told him you were a very important part of my life also, and that it would be cruel and unfair of him to make me choose between the two of you."

For a brief moment, Duncan wanted to ask her whom she would have chosen, but decided it was an immature, selfish question.

Elena leaned closer to him. "I was thinking of a boarding school I know of in France, near the Italian border, for the next term. If he's ready to go. He already speaks French. It's on Holy Ground and it has stables, the two things he needs the most. If you agree, of course," she added.

"Whatever you think is best, Elena," he said, kissing her hand. He wondered if she had subconsciously answered his question. "He might do well with other children like him, so he won't be so singled out, as he is here. But until we know for sure. . ."

"Yes. Hannah," she said, her voice full of resignation. "Do you still think she'll try for him again?"

"It would be the best way for her to hurt you," he answered.

"What does Connor think?"

Duncan sighed. "He says he doesn't know her anymore. Damn, she really. . .hurt him, Elena." The thought angered him. "Connor doesn't give of himself easily; you've figured that out already," he added, sarcasm in his tone. "But he trusted her; he made a commitment to this woman -- hell, he was ready to kill you for her! He feels used and betrayed."

She sighed. "Hannah prefers revenge to love, I guess. I personally believe she couldn't help herself."

"And this is supposed to excuse her?" Duncan said, still angry, and now surprised at Elena's apparent generosity. Maybe her visit with Maria Feliz had mellowed her.

"No, [querido.] I just know how I felt when she took Stephen -- I wanted to kill, maim and tear. . ."

"Yeah -- but you didn't. She's the one who did the maiming and tearing." he said.

"But she lost Alexander. And, eventually, Connor, too. I didn't lose anyone."

Duncan wondered why he was being so hard on Hannah -- but it was because of Connor, he realised. "Well, Connor. . .I think he wants to talk to you."

Elena was surprised. "He said that? He wants to talk to me?" She hadn't told Duncan about Connor's whispered apology to her, that terrible day in the alley, figuring it was just between the two of them, herself and Connor. But then, she had never accepted his apology. Maybe that's what he was looking for. Forgiveness. From her. That was certainly something to think about.

"Well, not in so many words. You don't know Connor."

"I'm beginning to find out. Maybe I'll call him -- I guess I should let him know I don't hate him. But [cono,] Duncan. . ." she shook her head.

"Yeah, I know," Duncan said, leaning closer to her, kissing her softly. "He can be the most exasperating. . ."

"[Querido,]" Elena interrupted. "Let's not talk about it any more. I still have a hangover from Maria Feliz' tequila."

Duncan smiled slightly. "You have a headache?" He asked her, with a little smirk. "Maybe you should lie down. And maybe. . .I don't know. . ." he said, looking reflective, "you could use some company."

She smiled back, reaching for his hand, admiring the strength of it, kissing each finger in turn. "Oh, I think I'm too sick to climb the stairs, Duncan," she finally said.

He looked at her closely, the tired but conspirational smile on her café-au-lait face, her brilliant grey eye, her black unruly hair, her full lips. He could see the pulse at the base of her neck speed up as his gaze continued down to her full breasts, the nipples standing up smartly by now under her camp shirt, her rounded biceps under the short sleeves, her flat stomach, and her long legs. If there was one thing she did not look, it was weak. Nevertheless, he stood and leaned over her, slipping one hand under her knees and the other behind her back. When he stood again, she was in his arms. "Please allow me to help you upstairs, senorita. I wouldn't want you to tax yourself."

She laughed softly, deep in her throat, and could feel her body heat up even more as he touched her. The man took her breath away. She twisted a finger in one of his black curls. "You are such a [caballero, senor.] You sure know how to treat a lady," she whispered hoarsely.

"Oh, I've learned a few other things about how to treat a lady, senorita. Allow me to show you," he replied, carrying her upstairs. He sat on the bed with Elena on his lap while he unbuttoned her shirt and removed it and her bra. He bent his head to kiss her breasts, cradling them, pulling softly on each nipple in turn with his teeth. Elena arched her back, letting air out with a hiss, like a tire slowly deflating. While she stood and finished stripping, he quickly undressed, then sat back down on the edge of the bed.

Elena leaned over to kiss him and push him back down onto the bed, but he shook his head, smiling, saying, "Allow me to show you," and turned her around instead, sitting her naked on his lap, her back to his front. He hooked his ankles around hers and spread her legs open with his, kissing her softly on the back of her neck and shoulders. She made a soft sound, then said, "Duncan. . ."

"Elena," he answered, his lips hot against her. He slipped two fingers of his left hand inside her, and she arched her back. With his right hand he played with her nipples.

Elena reached back and put her fingers in his hair, raking the fingernails of her other hand against his thigh. She was frustrated because she couldn't reach too much of him -- she couldn't even kiss him.

But he could reach her! He put his thumb against her clitoris, rubbing softly, and she twitched slightly, then settled down to a rhythm until he brought her to a loud, shuddering climax. Then he swung his legs around onto the bed and lay back with her lying on him, and she raised herself up and onto his erect penis, feeling it slide silkily inside her, pumping while he still played with her breasts, moving her ass up and down until she felt him grab her breasts roughly, press her down against him, and burst inside her, crying out her name.

Elena lay back against him and, after a few minutes, dozed off on top of him, feeling warm, secure, and loved.

/////

Duncan was lying under her and shaking her shoulder. "Wake up, Elena," he was saying, and the urgent tone of his voice woke her faster than a splash of ice water. She rolled off him easily, and as he got up and put on his pants she realised what was so important.

She was sensing the same Immortal he was.

By the time they got dressed there was a soft knock on her bedroom door. Elena finished tying her shoelaces while Duncan opened the door for Juanito Onioco.

"Senor," he nodded, but looked past him at Elena. "Senorita. You have a visitor." His eyes widened slightly as he saw the sword Elena carried, at rest, behind her arm. He glanced at Duncan, who was similarly armed.

Elena walked out and Juanito fell into step beside her as they descended the central staircase. "Blonde woman, twenties, blue eyes." She told him, rather than asked him.

The Indian nodded, and Elena smiled at her foreman. "[No os preocupeis,]" she reassured him, then she went into the living room to meet Hannah Swenson while Duncan asked Juanito to send someone to the stables to check on Stephen.

Hannah had been standing, waiting. She moved toward Elena abruptly, nervously. Her pale blonde hair was matted and somewhat dirty. She looked unkempt, exhausted; her skin had taken on a greyish pallor. And the scar on her face was still not healed. She was too thin, skin and bones, and her nails were bitten down to the quick. If Elena didn't know better, she would have guessed Hannah was sick with some fatal disease. But then again, maybe she was. . .

"I had to come," she said to Elena, eyeing the Argentine's broadsword.

"I know," Elena answered.

But by this time Duncan had entered and said, "No, you didn't, Hannah." He was shocked by Hannah's appearance, still thinking of her only as the cool, beautiful Scandinavian Ice Queen.

"You don't understand," she said, addressing Duncan. "Maybe it's because you're a man. . ." She petered off, seemingly unfocused -- but when she turned back to Elena she was sharp as nails. "You understand, don't you, Duran?"

"Hannah, I do understand about your son. I know how you feel. But you can't bring him back. You're sacrificing yourself for nothing."

"Sacrificing myself?" She laughed mirthlessly, almost hysterically. "Do you know that I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think of anything else but you, here, with the boy, with Duncan, happily ever after? You took everything from me, and left me nothing!" she accused, anger and pain in her voice.

Duncan said, "And isn't that partly your fault, Hannah? You had Connor," he said calmly, keeping the anger he still felt from his voice. "You used him; you lied to him to try to get him to kill for you." But in spite of his anger, he couldn't help feeling bad for her -- she looked so damned miserable!

"I was wrong to use Connor," Hannah answered, her voice trembling. Her eyes never left Elena. "And I was wrong to use Stephen Holz. But now I'm doing it right."

"Hannah." Duncan tried again, looking at her, really studying her. The woman who had betrayed Connor, the one he'd wanted to kill himself -- this wasn't her. This was just a pale shadow, and he realised with a start that the emotion he most felt for her was pity. He didn't want this woman to die. "This isn't right. You don't have to do this." He closed on her, speaking urgently. "You don't have to die. You can walk away." He hoped he was speaking for Elena, too -- but surely Elena would show mercy. Surely she wouldn't want to take Hannah's head, not now. . .

She didn't. "Hannah, it's done. Can't you let this go?" Elena asked. Looking at Hannah, she knew for a fact that she didn't want to fight her, didn't want to kill her.

"But now it's just the two of us, one on one. As it should be. As it should have been from the start," Hannah said, as if the others hadn't spoken.

"Hannah. . ." Elena began.

"Where do you take them, to behead them, Duran? Where is your killing ground? Take me there; take me where you took Alexander."

"There's still time," Elena argued. "Go talk to Connor; he loves you. Maybe. . ."

"He's a fine man, for whom loyalty and trust are very important. I love him, you know, and I know he loves me -- but he'd never take me back. Besides, I have nothing left to give him." She sighed, then said, "There's a full moon out tonight."

"Don't make me do this, Hannah," Elena whispered, shaking her head. It was almost a plea.

"I don't have a choice, Duran. Why should you?"

Elena opened her mouth again, to say something -- then realised she had nothing more to say. So she simply nodded sadly, accepting, and the two women walked out together.

Translations: (Spanish)

nino/nina - boy/girl

caballero - gentleman

no os preocupeis - don't worry

Thirty-three

When Elena drove back to the ranch an hour later, she took the shovel out of the jeep, methodically kicked the soil off it, and put it back where it belonged in the tool shed. She was dirt-stained, her hands were covered with half-healed blisters, and dried blood made her pants stick to her thigh and right arm. Duncan was waiting for her, and he rushed towards her.

"[Querida,]" he said, seeing the tracks of tears on her face, holding her tightly for a long moment, warming her, loving her, trying to make her feel better. "Are you alright?" he asked in a whisper, and she nodded. Then, as they started back toward the house, they heard rushing footsteps.

"Elena! Duncan!" It was Stephen, running their way. "She foaled, she finally did! We thought la Princesa was in trouble, but she's fine. And her filly is a soft, tan color, like a light brown. And she's got the biggest brown eyes! Come see her!"

If Elena closed her eyes, she could still see her sword swing at that pale head. So she kept them wide open. "I'm so tired, Stephen. I'll see the proud mama and her new baby in the morning, ok? Now why don't you go to bed?"

"I'm too excited to sleep! So, Duncan, do you want to come see them? [Les chevaux?]"

Duncan had seen scores of mares and foals. But this one new life was special, and Stephen's excitement made him feel new again, cleansed, alive. And he wanted Elena, especially, to feel that too. "Come on, sweetheart. Let's go see that new filly," he said to her. And arm in arm, they followed the boy to the stables.

New York City, April 16, 1997

Connor opened the door, katana in hand. Elena stood there, waiting. And immediately, he knew why she was here. What she had come to tell him. Grief flooded him as he realized that Hannah was gone, that he would never again see her, never again hold her, never again hear her tell him she loved him. Even though he'd been expecting to hear this very news; even though his mind had given up Hannah Swenson weeks before; his heart still hoped, and the pain took him suddenly, wrenchingly. He turned away from Elena, wanting to hide his despair, his moment of weakness, from her especially.

He walked a few steps back into the room and stopped, taking a deep, ragged breath, calming himself, stilling the voice inside him that said, over and over, "She's gone! She's really gone!"

Elena had come in behind him. "I'm so sorry, Connor," she said. It was low and sincere and almost as full of grief as he felt. "She came to the ranch. Duncan and I both tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't listen." Remembering Hannah's words, she continued, "She felt she had no choice, and she gave me no choice."

"I know," he said hoarsely. "I know she didn't."

Elena moved around to face him, very mindful of the deadly sword still in his hand. She'd considered that possibility, that he'd strike out at her in anger or vengeance, but from his stricken expression, she believed -- she knew -- he was more hurt than anything else. How could she have ever thought this man had ice water in his veins?

"Connor, I wish. . ." she said, stepping closer to him. She wanted to touch him, to put her arms around him, to hold him, to comfort him, to somehow make up for the sorrow, for the hurt she had caused him, yet again. But he wasn't giving her the opening, and she didn't quite dare. Torn between the need to stay with him, to try to make him feel better, and the knowledge that he was a very private person, that he needed room to grieve, to be alone, she wondered whether to leave or stay. Finally she just murmured, ["Lo siento mucho."]

"I know you're sorry, Elena. And I know there was nothing else you could do. And no, in case you're wondering," his smile -- almost a grimace, really -- was lopsided, holding very little humor, "I *don't* want your head." He put his katana on the coffee table. "What I do want is for the killing to end." Bitterly, he added, "Alexander Caropoulos' legacy. It stops here."

She nodded. "I wanted to tell you personally. I felt I owed you this much. Now I'll go, if you like."

But by now he had cleared his head, pushing the pain deep inside himself, regaining control. And he had something left to say to her. "Will you join me for a drink first?"

He was asking her to stay, she thought; for a little while, anyway. "Only if it's scotch," she replied.

Her reward for that was a very small smile.

"What shall we drink to?" she asked, when he handed her the glass of golden whiskey.

"To life."

"And to happiness, Connor?" God knows we have so little of that, she thought. In spite of everything Hannah had done, taking her head had been particularly hard on Elena -- and she could see how hard it was on Connor.

He smiled again, a little. "If you wish," he said. Then he added, "I was wrong not to trust you, Elena. And I value your trust; more than you know."

She nodded, mutely accepting his apology, gratefully accepting his acknowledgement, and they raised their glasses and drank. "What will you do, Connor?" she asked.

He looked around the apartment, almost in a daze, she thought. "What I always do. Live, survive, fight."

"Sometimes I think surviving is highly overrated. But I suppose it's better than the alternative." She took another sip and put her glass down. "I better call Duncan."

He laughed wryly. "Yes, you'd better. Let him know I didn't take your head."

She dialed Argentina, and Duncan came on the phone right away. She heard the relief in his voice as soon as she spoke to him.

Meanwhile, Connor had walked over to the floor-length windows and was standing, looking out of them. After hanging up the phone, she went to stand beside him. "I guess I should go. I need to get back."

Connor nodded, turning to her.

She wanted to touch him, knowing that touch always made her feel better. But he was too hard a man; this wasn't what he'd want, especially not from her.

She wanted to say to him, "Connor, I owe you my life, and Stephen's, and yet I'm always hurting you. I never want to hurt you again." But that was too simple, and it wasn't true. And after all, there can be only one. . .

Still, she wanted to comfort him in some way. "Connor. . ." she began, but found herself with nowhere else to go.

"It's over now, Elena," he said tiredly, forestalling her.

"But I want you to know. . .that I care about you. . .that I grieve with you. . .that I feel so bad this happened and wish I could do something. . ."

"I know," he said, interrupting her. "I understand why you came. And I do appreciate it, Elena." It was a point of honor with her, and it couldn't have been easy to face him with this news. And she'd come also partly out of respect and concern and care for him. But right now he felt such desolation! And he needed to be alone with this grief he couldn't share with her. "Go on back to Duncan and Stephen."

She sighed. "I wish we were going to live happily ever after. But Duncan is going back to Seacouver as soon as I arrive. He and Stephen. . ." She shook her head sadly. As soon as Stephen had found out about Hannah's visit, he'd become fearful, moody, and angry, again. And all his bad feelings were directed at Duncan, again. So they had made plans for Duncan to leave as soon as Elena returned.

But this was not the time to talk about Stephen. "You told me once forgiveness could not be asked for. It had to be offered."

He shook his head. "We all knew that she wouldn't. . .couldn't let it go, Elena." I knew it, too, he thought, when I gave you 'permission' to take her head. He swallowed, wishing he hadn't listened to Hannah in the first place and had taken Alexander Caropolous' head himself. "You had no choice. There's nothing to forgive." He could tell by her face, however, that his 'logic' failed to satisfy her, emotionally at least. "But if forgiveness is what you want. . .you have it. Freely; with no ill will." He offered her his hand, to make sure there were no misunderstandings left between them.

Elena felt such gratitude, such luck that these two extraordinary men, the MacLeods, had come into her life, had blessed her, that her throat felt suddenly tight. She took his hand, her long fingers wrapped in his, reaching out to him, then pressed her other hand over it, squeezing his between both of hers. "[Ay, Connor,"] she whispered.

Connor saw her tears. He felt like crying himself, but not now, and never in front of. . .

"[Vaya con Dios, mi amigo,]" she was saying. "I hope when we meet again. . .things will be better." She raised her hand to touch his face, felt him stiffen, lowered it again. Still, looking at him, seeing the warmth in his eyes, she saw that he did trust her. . .but maybe he didn't quite trust himself. *That* she could understand, and that understanding was, in itself, a victory. Connor MacLeod did trust her; he'd told her so, and she believed him. And she hoped that fact could carry them; could make up, a little, for this pain.

"Yes," he answered.

And she turned and walked out.

Translations:

les chevaux (French) - the horses

lo siento mucho (Span.) - I'm very sorry

vaya con Dios, mi amigo (Span.) - go with God, my friend

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To the next story in the series, "Elena and Methos"