Disclaimer: Not our characters, damn it. Rysher: Panzer/Davis owns most of the rights, and Gregory Widen created most of the ones found here. Not for profit, no infringement intended. Many thanks to Cinel, Misha, and Tansy for the beta-reading; remaining problems are, of course, ours. Underlines indicate emphasis; italics indicate thoughts or dreams.
Rated R for m/f interaction.
Written with Raine_Wynd
Stirling, Scotland -- 1987
A silver cigarette lighter hissed into life with a click, and the wick of the taper candle flared into light. The hand holding the lighter was pale skinned, yet distinctly masculine, and moved easily to light a second candle on the white cloth-covered table, which had been set for two. The candleholders were delicately worked silver pieces, complementing the china pattern and the silverware. Burgundy poured into the fragile-looking wineglasses with frosted and twisted stems as the candlelight flickered across the owner of the hand. Faded jeans encased long, runner's legs and slender hips, while a royal blue shirt covered a washboard stomach and a broad chest. His face was highlighted by a straight nose, a wide forehead, full lips, and small eyes that missed nothing. Even as relaxed as he appeared to be, there was a definite aura of danger around him, as if he was a panther that had decided to be tame.
He paused for a moment, setting the wine bottle back into a silver bucket full of ice which rested on the sideboard next to several covered dishes. His eyes swept the scene, then he nodded once, satisfied. From somewhere in the house, a grandfather clock chimed the hour, and a key could be heard turning in the lock of the front door. A small smile tugged at his lips as he silently congratulated himself for his timing and his planning.
"Connor?" a woman's voice called. "Darling, where are you?"
He smiled, more openly this time. "In the dining room, Brenda," he answered, and his voice held a strong accent of unknown origin.
"Oh, you have dinner ready?" Brenda commented, sounding pleasantly surprised. "I thought you wouldn't be in until later, taking care of that Rosenberg deal you were telling me about yesterday." Sounding mildly distracted, her voice carried easily through the house. Aware that Brenda always took the time to put away her purse and keys and remove her shoes, Connor waited patiently.
"I saw your note," Connor answered. "How is Mrs. MacEwen?" he asked. His voice revealed nothing of the fact that he'd arranged for their widowed neighbor to call Brenda and engage her in conversation for two hours.
"Mrs. MacEwen called me and wanted to talk about police work. Her grandson is going to be a police officer, and she thought perhaps I could tell her something about it. I tried to tell her that police work in Scotland is probably a lot different than New York."
A slender woman with long brunette hair entered the room, still speaking. She was dressed casually in jeans and a striped camp shirt, and for a moment, seemed oblivious to the scene Connor had set, too caught up in her retelling to notice. Then she stopped, her eyes catching sight of the table.
"Connor," she breathed, stunned. "Darling, you didn't have to do this," she protested. "I mean, of course you didn't, but I didn't forget our anniversary, at least not this year, and I can't think of what this occasion ought to be--"
He cut off her tumble of words with a kiss. "I love you," he told her simply, drawing back to lead her to a chair, which he pulled out for her. Automatically, she sat down, her eyes shining with love.
Slipping into the chair beside her, he raised his glass and toasted her. It took her a moment to realize that he hadn't spoken of things long past, as was his usual habit whenever they drank wine or brandy, and her eyes widened. A little unsteady with the overwhelming emotion flooding her, she picked up her wineglass. "To my husband. I love you, Connor MacLeod."
Glass clinked; wine was sipped. Rising, Connor took his wife's plate and proceeded to fill it with a tantalizing selection from the dishes on the sideboard before repeating the process with his own plate. He had just passed Brenda her dinner when the phone rang.
"Let the machine pick it up," he told her. "Tonight's for us."
The look on Brenda's face revealed her reluctance. Not for the first time, Connor wondered if she was happy living so far away from everything she'd held dear. She'd been an expert in forensics, working for the New York City Police Department, when he'd first met her almost two years ago. She'd quit that job and moved halfway around the world for him, and he sensed that, as much as she loved him, she had an intelligent mind that was growing restless and bored with being a housewife. Still, she had made friends in the village where they lived, friends who'd come to expect that Brenda would be there for them no matter what, and Connor could see that she was thinking of one of them.
"Connor, it could be Mairi," Brenda said apologetically, confirming his suspicion. "You know she's been depressed lately, and I told her she could call anytime."
He sighed, aware that it was useless to argue. The phone rang again, and Brenda rose to pick it up from the extension in the kitchen.
Connor stared at what had been a meticulously planned romantic evening, and sighed heavily. He'd orchestrated it as much out of the potential pleasure of surprising his wife as to cheer himself up. This week, more than usual, he was feeling the weight of his years, and he knew it was because this was the week Heather had died. Remembering her only made him want to hold Brenda tighter, treasure every moment he had with her, remind her that he loved her. The Prize he'd won gave him gifts he was still struggling to understand how to use, but she was his serenity. One evening to thank her for that peace hadn't seemed too much to ask of the universe.
Eavesdropping shamelessly, Connor listened to her end of the conversation. He couldn't make out what was going on, but he gathered it had something to do with the book she'd authored. He'd been encouraging her to write more, but she hadn't seemed interested. He wondered now if she had merely been reluctant to reveal her work before she had confirmation of its publication.
She returned to the table, her cheeks flushed with excitement, her eyes glittering with animation. It dawned on Connor then that it had been a while since he'd seen her so full of life, and something inside of him felt jealous that a phone call could revive her spirit so. With the ruthlessness so characteristic of him, Connor shoved that feeling away and focused on her words. "That was Tiffany Corbin," she informed him breathlessly, "from Britannica Online. They want to use History of Metallurgy as a source and want my permission. They'll pay me for the use. Tiffany wants to meet with me right away so they can get the process started. Isn't that great?"
"You're not meeting with her tonight," Connor told her bluntly. The reply was automatic, honed into his reflexes from four and a half centuries in the Game, and he never stopped to realize that Brenda might not see his response as caution.
"Connor, this is Britannica, and she's only going to be here for--"
"Not at night, Brenda, and not without back-up." Connor looked up from his dinner, which was getting cold, and raised a surprised eyebrow at the mutinous expression on her face. "Brenda, it's not safe."
"This is Scotland, Connor, not Manhattan," she argued, large eyes wide with surprise and bright with annoyance now, rather than her previous enthusiasm. She held a bite of lamb suspended in the air, too startled to finish moving the fork to her mouth. "It's safe enough to meet her at the local."
"It's after business hours," he pointed out grimly and straightened up in his seat. There had been rumors these last few months, the sort of thing he had asked after automatically all his long life. Nothing specific, only surprise at opportunities missed, odd directions of inquiries, or contacts who had let themselves fall out of touch...if the Game was still going on, Connor would have wondered if someone was looking for him. Combined with the sudden interest in a book that had been in print for seven years, now, the rumors and uncertainties triggered his most paranoid instincts.
"Nice of her to claim she's with Britannica at a time when we can't check. Very convenient." His eyes darkened slowly from hazel to deepest green as suspicion and anger began to combine. Though he wouldn't admit it, the added detail that it was the anniversary of Heather's death disturbed him even more.
"Connor MacLeod, would you be so suspicious if the call was for you?" Brenda finally snapped at him as she set the food back on her plate. "Why shouldn't I meet with her? This is a wonderful opportunity, you have to know that!"
"Aye, Brenda, it is -- if it's real. I want you safe, that's all." He set his own fork down as well, giving up on the dinner as a lost cause now that they were both angry. Before he could continue, though, she cut in.
"Connor, the Game's over, you said so yourself. What are you worried about? All your old enemies are dead, after all. Why should this be anything other than what she says?"
"Why didn't this Ms. Corbin call during the day?" Connor countered, leaning forward in his chair. "There's a machine, Brenda, she could have gotten you. Why is she approaching you directly rather than going through an agent or publisher?"
"I don't have an agent," Brenda pointed out stubbornly, mouth tightening in annoyance. "And the publisher would have had to tell her I'm in Scotland, remember?" She paused then asked more slowly, "Dear, is this one of your premonitions?"
The temptation to lie, to claim that as a reason, was nearly overwhelming. Truth be told, Connor wasn't entirely sure it would be a lie, either. He'd had enough experience with precognitive dreams throughout his life to recognize that their meaning wasn't always easily deduced. Then again, the clarity of his psychic abilities had improved since taking the Kurgan's head....
"I don't like it," he told her finally, not quite answering her question. "It's short notice, Brenda. If she has so little time to meet with you, and she had to find you through the publisher, why not call ahead?"
Brenda wanted to snap at Connor, but her years with the NYPD made her admit he had a valid point. Aside from that, she knew he would always protect her, even if she didn't agree with his reasons; his protective streak was as much a part of who he was as his carefully honed paranoia. "Damn it, Connor, do you always have to be reasonable?"
That got a quick, bright smile that told her the evening might not be entirely ruined. "Well, if I don't give you reasons, you complain I'm being superstitious and set in my ways," he told her with a chuckle. "Set up the meeting for tomorrow, Brenda. We can check with Britannica in the morning and if she's legitimate, then it's wonderful."
"And if she's not?" Brenda wondered, but she gave him an innocent, flirtatious look as she offered, "And I like some of your ways."
Connor shrugged with an almost Gallic nonchalance. "Then I'll make some calls. Not all my old friends carried swords, Brenda," he commented. "And not all of the people I annoyed were immortal. Although I wouldn't have thought any of them could connect Russell Nash from Manhattan with Connor MacLeod in Stirling, Scotland."
"I still think you worry too much." She picked up her fork again and smiled as she said, "But dinner is wonderful."
"I'd rather you were alive to yell at me for worrying too much." Laughter tinged his voice, but his expression was still serious. "We'll check in the morning, Brenda, and with any luck you can tell me you were right at lunch."
"And how wonderful an agreement I've gotten from them." She smiled and reached for her wineglass. "I'll call, and I'll be careful. So," she asked in a husky voice, "did you have anything else planned for tonight, or shall I improvise?"
After more than four hundred years of being hunted by the Kurgan, not to mention other immortals, paranoia was good sense, not a psychosis. Two years of freedom from that threat hadn't eroded the habits yet. Connor fully intended to be at that meeting, but he'd mention that as an accepted decision over the morning coffee and hopefully Brenda wouldn't be awake enough to remember she hadn't explicitly agreed. Equally important, though, the meeting would take place somewhere other than his own house. If this was an enemy, or an enemy's spy, he'd not give them such easy access to his home as that. And if this Tiffany Corbin was legitimate, well, she could pay for the coffee. In the meantime, he and his wife had a free evening.
"Tonight, Brenda, I'm at your service," he offered and let her change the subject.
* * * * *
"You still light candles for me," Heather commented, sounding pleased and a little surprised.
"Aye, blossom, I do," Connor agreed. He knelt on the thick moss and its cold dampness seeped through the corduroy of his pants as he waited for enough wax to melt. Finally sure that the taper would stay in place while it burned, he tried to turn and found he couldn't move. It made an odd sense; he had to be still to allow Heather to move among the quick. He couldn't be dead, of course, but he could be still....
"Connor, I need you to do something for me. It's important."
"What, blossom?" Connor knew that tone. His first wife had always meant business when she spoke so. None of her mischief, her quick temper that had more than once led his Heather to chase him with a wood spoon or anything else handy; nothing so easy as her laughing desire for a new dress or an extra laying hen; this was something much, much more serious.
"You're a MacLeod, Connor. Remember that for me, love." Warm, fire-heated wool slid over his shoulders, the fabric draping along his arms and sides, pooling around and between his legs, until he could see nothing but MacLeod tartan. The light from her candle shone through it without setting the fabric alight, and it smelled of the herbs Heather had used to clean her hair.
"I don't understand," he pleaded, sliding back into the Gaelic of his youth.
Her words whispered in his ears, swirled around him in the eddying breeze from the loch which scented the air with snow. "Hold fast, Connor. Hold fast, my love."
"Heather!" Finally free, he spun in a pool of fabric to find nothing in the world but a candle and moss and the loch bright blue beyond the mass of wool anchoring him to the ground.
* * * * *
The smell of eggs and bacon pulled Brenda out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. As usual, Connor just smiled, knowing she wasn't entirely awake yet, and passed her a mug of the sweet, black coffee she'd gotten addicted to while working for New York's strangest. So Brenda sat down at the table and sipped it, letting herself slowly finish waking up as Connor casually mentioned, "I called a friend at the Victoria and Albert Museum this morning. Britannica does have a Tiffany Corbin, and she is associated with their online division."
Brenda blinked, then said, "Oh. Connor, darling, what time is it?"
He flashed her a quick smile. "A bit past eight. Neddy's always been a morning person, though, lass. I didn't wake him up, don't worry about that."
"And he had contacts like that at this time of the morning?"
"Well," Connor shrugged, turning the bacon to keep it from burning, "the man handles the web site for the V & A, Brenda. He knows some of his counterparts."
"Some of your friends," Brenda sighed and went to refill her mug, a little more awake now. She topped his coffee off as well and pulled out two plates. "Happier now?"
Connor didn't mention that Neddy Smythe-White wasn't a friend, simply someone who owed Russell Nash a few favors for bailing him out of a crooked poker game. Neddy's words, however, had reassured him that his presence wasn't required at the meeting. "A bit. I'd be even happier if you'd meet her someplace public. For coffee maybe?" he suggested calmly as he transferred eggs and bacon from the skillets to the plates. "Here you are," Connor added as she started to argue.
"Aren't you being a little paranoid about this?" Brenda finally asked, not entirely awake and annoyed, again, that Connor seemed to always wake up alert and coherent, no matter how much or how little sleep he'd had. It didn't seem fair.
"So long as you're here at the end of the day to tell me I was wrong, lass? No, I'm not." He flashed that wicked smile at her that always made Brenda want to first express her condolences to his mother and then drag him off to bed anyway. "And it could be worse. I could insist on being there."
"If you're this worried, then do it."
"And interfere with your independence?" he asked, amused. "Of course not. I just want you to take reasonable precautions, Brenda."
"Every time you talk about 'reasonable'," Brenda gave in, "I seem to lose the argument. All right, Connor, I'll invite her to meet me over coffee, darling, and we'll do it someplace nice and public."
He smiled at her, then turned his attention back to his own breakfast. "Then you can tell me over lunch that you were right."
* * * * *
Brenda walked into the house the following afternoon, calling Connor's name. She'd been hoping that he'd be home; she wanted to gloat a bit about the fact that Tiffany didn't seem like much of a threat. In fact, Brenda had been looking forward to telling Connor about the deal she'd just signed. No one answered her call, and she surmised he'd gotten tied up at the shipping company he owned. Sighing, she kicked off her shoes, set down her purse and keys, and went to check the answering machine.
The first message was from Connor, letting her know he was running late. The second was from Mrs. MacEwen, who wondered if she would be interested in seeing pictures of her soon-to-be-policeman grandson. Brenda smiled and made a mental note to visit Mrs. MacEwen that afternoon. The third message was from someone Brenda didn't recognize.
A strong male voice greeted, "Connor," then lapsed into Gaelic. Brenda's familiarity with the language had grown since her marriage, but the extent of her knowledge was still only a handful of phrases mostly suited to cursing and lovemaking. She couldn't translate what the stranger said from what few words she recognized. She did catch a name she hadn't heard in two years, and her blood ran cold at the sound.
Memories flashed through her: screaming until her voice was hoarse, a nightmare in leather and metal studs holding her hostage through an insane drive through the streets of New York and tying her up on a sign high above the city...believing that her death was at hand. The vicious satisfaction she'd felt at being able to help Connor defeat the Kurgan remained imprinted on her soul. To say that she hadn't been scarred by the Kurgan would be a lie.
In the weeks following the Kurgan's death, she'd woken more than once from dreams that he was still alive, but those nightmares had faded with Connor's help. Connor had reassured her that the Kurgan was dead, that the Game was over, that there were no more immortals save himself -- but who in the world would know about the Kurgan? And by that name? Brenda didn't want to think about the possibilities, but she'd seen too many crime scenes as a forensic pathologist; she knew just what some of those possibilities could be. She began to shake at the fearful images building in her mind.
Get a grip, Brenda, she told herself, forcing herself to exhale. Wait until Connor is home, then ask. It's not like you can trace the call; you're not a cop even if you did get trained by the NYPD. Panicking accomplishes nothing. She breathed deeply again, and decided to distract herself by cleaning the house.
Sweeping and scrubbing were too mechanical to divert her mind for long, but rearranging their books into a more coherent order led to thoughts of the contract she'd signed that morning, which led her to wonder where she had packed away her notes when she moved to Scotland. At one point, before the police work had begun demanding more and more of her attention and energy, Brenda had intended to do a series of articles on ancient armor, maybe a companion to her book on weapons. Somewhere, she was sure, she still had rough outlines and photocopies....
The appropriateness of distracting herself from thoughts of the Kurgan by contemplating armor never crossed her mind, or if it did, she hastily suppressed it.
She was almost too successful. If Connor hadn't asked her about any messages for him at the end of dinner, the call would've remained pushed back into the corner of her mind. She hesitated a bit too long in answering him. Suddenly, she wished she'd simply erased the message instead of keeping it.
"What is it?" he asked her, concerned.
She took a deep breath. "It's in Gaelic, I think. Something about..." She hesitated again and looked at him, meeting his worried gaze. "The Kurgan."
He didn't pause, but moved swiftly to his feet. "Maybe," he offered, "it's just someone researching ancient history."
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "But we'll find out if we need to."
* * * * *
"Connor, who was that on the machine?" Brenda asked later that evening, stepping into the study where he'd gone to listen to the tape he'd taken from the answering machine.
Startled by her voice, he looked up from his perusal of a worn plaid. For a moment, his eyes seemed unfocused, as if he hadn't been entirely there. "No one, Brenda," he told her in an icy voice that demanded she not pry.
She narrowed her gaze. "Connor, don't shut me out like that. I'm your wife, damn it. If anything's going on, I should know about it!"
"There's nothing going on, Brenda."
"Then who was that?" she insisted. "That was a long 'nothing' who knew about the Kurgan!" She stepped forward, closing the distance between them.
His hand tightened on the age-worn wool. "Not yet, Brenda. Don't ask me that yet."
"Damn it--" She broke off, hands fisted as she resisted the urge to try and give him a black eye or broken jaw. A small part of her mind didn't know which would be worse: if Connor let her or he didn't.... "Who was that Connor? And don't tell me 'no one', damn it. I gave up my career to come to Scotland with you. I gave up my entire life to share yours. Don't cut me off like this."
"You weren't the only one," Connor answered softly. She could see his temper flaring, cold, unstoppable. "I gave up my life, too, Brenda. Again and again. I left the woman I raised from a child to move here with you. And I'm telling you to leave this alone."
"No," Brenda said stubbornly, ignoring the little voice inside her brain that warned her that she was playing with fire. Connor rarely displayed his anger, and she fought the urge to back down in the face of it. "Whatever it is, we can handle it."
She stared at him, willing him to see how much she wanted to help, as the silence grew thicker with every passing minute. She could see the distance crystallizing in his storm-gray eyes, and knew that she'd struck a nerve. He was going to shut her out like some stranger, and she felt her stomach churn with anxiety and frustration. In some part of her heart she hadn't dared acknowledge until now, she had always been afraid that she'd never reach into Connor's soul, never completely banish the barriers age and experience had built. That she'd never completely know that she was everything to him, his partner, his best friend, his lover, his wife, the one that he loved more than anyone else. Panic rioted through her, and it fed her anger.
"Damn it, Connor, please," she snapped, unable to endure his silence any longer. "Don't you trust me?"
"And if it's not a matter of trust?" he asked her coldly. "What if it's safety, lass? Or old memories that won't be buried tonight but I can't talk about yet? Were you going to pry them out?"
"Is it, Connor? Are you going to tell me to leave this alone, the way you did with the Kurgan? That didn't work, Connor -- he came after me! Is this person going to do that? Do I need to start carrying a gun again, wondering which of my friends are in danger?"
Connor studied her, his eyes as cold and piercing as the winter storms off the Firth. "You chose to look for me, Brenda. You followed me home from that bar, knowing that at least one man had already lost his life over this Game. Regretting it at last?"
"No, damn it! But will you just once tell me something, Connor? You're so damned... Scottish," Brenda finally cried out, forcing her roiling frustration into words. "Only with you, it's not money you hoard, it's words and secrets. Damn it, whoever that was called here. I live here, too, why shouldn't I be able to ask who the hell it was? The Game's over, you said so yourself."
"And if I don't know who it was, Brenda?" He gave nothing away, holding his feelings and speculations as tightly to himself as he had in those first days she'd known him.
"Then why didn't you just say so? Why put us both through this?"
"Brenda, I don't know yet what's going on," he told her coldly.
"Would you tell me if you did?"
Connor studied her, impressed by her sheer stubbornness as always. A slow smile spread across his lips, the first crack in the icy rage of his temper. "Aye, lass." If you need to know.
She glared at him, still angry and suddenly reminded of just how much she didn't know, might never know, about her husband. He was a killer, a businessman, a lover...and that was only what she knew from her own experience. Connor MacLeod was four hundred and seventy years old and Brenda didn't believe she'd ever know everything about him. It was just too much to explain, too much time to try and catch up on when life insisted on going on and carrying them both with it. Once again, she was left taking something on faith...and this time it grated.
Connor held out a hand, a silent peace offering. "When I can, Brenda."
"I'm going to hold you to that, Connor," she warned him, her own temper still roused.
"I wouldn't expect anything else," he told her, that same irritating, arousing smile on his face. "Not from a spirited lass like you."
"You'd better not," Brenda told him, but she was starting to smile herself. "What, lunch tomorrow?" But she walked forward to take his hand anyway.
"Why lunch?" He rubbed his thumb across the inside of her wrist and back again in a slow, steady stroking motion that she found entirely too distracting. In the morning when she could think without his hands on her skin, she'd probably be annoyed. If, of course, he didn't distract her in the morning, too.
"You managed to check on Tiffany by breakfast," Brenda forced out, trying to think, trying to stay mad at the mercurial man she'd married. "But you had a name for that one. I thought I'd be generous and give you until lunch."
"Generosity like that should be rewarded," he told her with a chuckle, folding his other arm around her waist and scratching lightly across her back, seeking out all the familiar itchy spots where her hair had been rubbing against her shirt all day.
"Connor...." But his hands felt so good she nearly lost her resolve and purred despite herself.
"End of argument?" Connor asked lightly, smiling at her. "Because if it's all right with you, I thought we'd move on to the making up part."
She tried to hold on to her anger, but then he brushed his lips against the nape of her neck. The whimper escaped her before she could control it, and she groaned in realization. "Connor," she half-moaned in protest.
Her husband chuckled softly. "I thought so," he told her, and then kissed her when she opened her mouth to scold him for his smugness.
* * * * *
Connor waited until Brenda was sleeping before he slipped out of bed and headed for the study. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number that had been left on his answering machine, hoping it wasn't some vile hoax for reasons he couldn't fathom. Some part of him wanted to believe that was the real reason. That part didn't want to know that the peace he thought he'd gained by taking the Kurgan's head was nothing more than an illusion. Connor snorted in derision; he'd never thought to be more worried by hearing from Duncan than by not hearing from him....
"MacLeod," the kinsman he'd thought dead intoned sleepily in his ear.
"Duncan," Connor greeted, his voice almost breaking in relief. "Long time, cousin."
"Connor!" Surprise and pleasure overlaid the last vestige of drowsiness in Duncan's voice even as Connor heard a woman ask sleepily in French, "Who is it?"
"Go back to sleep, Tessa," Duncan told the woman in the same language. "Hold on a minute, Connor," Duncan warned in English, either forgetting that Connor spoke French or deliberately changing languages. "I'm switching phones so we can talk."
Patiently, Connor waited. An unconscious smile crossed his lips as he thought of other times he'd waited for Duncan to get out of bed.
A few moments later, Duncan exclaimed, "I've been trying to reach you for months! This was the last working phone number I had for you, and I didn't think I would be able to reach you. I heard about the Kurgan. Are you all right? Why didn't you call?"
"All right?" Connor laughed, tears in his eyes. "Hell of a Quickening. I thought I'd won."
"I thought you were dead," came the sober reply. Neither of them needed any explanation of what Connor thought he'd won; only one victory would ever mean so much to them. "The story I heard was that the explosions could be seen for miles."
"Aye," Connor agreed, shaken by the memories of lightning and glass shards and pain but not so much that he missed the implications of Duncan's call, his continued existence. He took a deep breath, willing himself calm. "The Game goes on, then."
"There are still those who play," Duncan replied, sounding more awake and more relieved by the word. "And then there're others who manage to keep their heads by sheer charm alone. Amanda sends her regards." He sounded faintly irked by that, and Connor grinned as he remembered some of his own encounters with the lovely thief.
A hope Connor didn't even realize he'd had blossomed with the remark. Though he'd reconciled himself to the thought that he'd won the Prize, that he'd never again be in the company of those who lived by the sword, who remembered what life was like when the mere onset of winter was a threat to living, Connor had to admit that it had been an incredibly lonely and depressing thought. Now he realized what the odd dreams he'd been having lately had been trying to tell him.
"The thief still bothers you?" he returned, amused, and trying to divert himself to a more pleasant subject. Amanda Montrose, or Darrieux, or whatever name she was using this month, was a much more enjoyable thought than years of grieving for friends lost to some damn Game that never had made sense.
"All the time. She's a bad habit," Duncan admitted.
"She's going to cost you your head someday," Connor warned him, suddenly serious and not willing to lose his kinsman when he'd just gotten Duncan back.
He could almost see the fierce expression as his former student replied, "Not if I can help it."
Connor chuckled. For a moment, he could pretend that nothing had changed, that the Quickening he'd taken hadn't changed his life, and this was just a purely social call, a means of staying in touch with the one immortal he considered to be family. His innate practicality, however, wouldn't let him indulge in the fantasy for long.
"How did you hear about the Kurgan?"
"Amanda's the one who relayed the story to me; I ran into her in a gallery in London about eight months ago. Up until then, I had no idea that you'd finally dealt with that bastard." Duncan paused. "Rachel said you'd gotten married."
"Aye. Her name's Brenda."
"Brenda," Duncan repeated, his voice clearly expressing his pleasure in the name. "Tell me about her."
"What, you can't spare a train ticket to come meet your new relative?"
Duncan did laugh at that. "For you, kinsman, I'll be there. Give me a day or so to explain to Tessa why I'm going to Scotland to visit a woman when we're packing to move to the States, though, and why I won't be able to go with her to see her family this weekend."
"Hooked up with another spirited one, did you?" Connor smiled at the thought. "And what are you doing back in Paris, anyway?"
"Moving. And before you ask, yes, she knows about immortals." He paused. "I hear you hooked up with a spirited lass yourself. Tell me about Brenda."
"What, and have you steal another good woman away from me?" Connor asked dryly, but a smile tugged at his lips.
A moment of stunned silence met his remark. "You're not still upset about that, are you?" Duncan asked, his tone incredulous. "That was fifty years ago! And you're not weaseling out of the question, Connor."
Connor smiled, enjoying the way his kinsman was so easily baited. "Aye, it was," he agreed blandly. "Call me back when you have your tickets. Brenda and I will meet you at the station."
The sound of a frustrated, resigned sigh resounded in Connor's ear. "Give me a few hours, Connor."
"Morning's soon enough," Connor told him, letting his voice make it sound like a concession to the less-skilled. His smile expanded to a grin as he thought about how Duncan would take that bait.
"Just because you waited until the middle of the night to call," Duncan started to argue, then stopped. A moment later the rich laughter Connor had never thought to hear again came over the phone. "Never mind, Connor. I'm glad you called. I'll talk to you in the morning."
Neither of them knew who hung up first. Both of them went back to bed still smiling.
* * * * *
Cold wind moaned through the cave, carrying the tang of ice-covered rock in and down through water-hewn chambers, across cane ladders, past roughly carved guardians. The frigid air twisted across the plaids, waking even a Scots Highlander used to the cold. Nothing was familiar for that long first instant of wakefulness. Then the distinctive scent of yak butter burning in the lamp reminded him where he was, and why: Nakano's cave, studying with the quick, misleadingly diminutive sorcerer.
Part of him knew that Nakano had been dead for centuries now, but Connor could feel the old tartan around him where he slept on the pad, the rough burlap pillow under his neck and that frozen, Tibetan wind on his cheek. He rolled upright, suddenly afraid he'd overslept, and saw Nakano sitting there in front of him. That tiny little man, as much his family as Ramirez had been, or Duncan still was, smiled at him fondly and motioned for Connor to wrap the plaid around him before he froze.
"Time you woke, Highlander. You needed the rest, but the pieces are in play and the Game is still in motion."
"You're dead," Connor pointed out.
"But you aren't." Dark eyes glinted with that familiar, knowing humor. Nakano added mildly, "And I did not put in such time and effort on you, Highlander, to see you die on me. Time you were up and doing."
"But I am up." Connor felt the cold air bite through the linen of his shirt and saw his teacher's sudden, fierce grin.
"Not yet, but soon." Nakano shook his head and said gently, "Trust me, Connor. Close your eyes."
Hesitantly, surprised but willing to trust this little man who had taught him such fine control of his sword, his self, his very perceptions of the world, Connor did just that.
Everything spun around him, a sickening sensation that he only faintly remembered from being very sick when he was younger or from long drops out of planes or off cliffs. The fragrance of heather wrapped around him, then, and the clean smell of wind over moss and water and rock tangled with a scent that shocked him with its familiarity. He could still feel wool and linen, though now the tartan was properly wrapped around his hips, and from somewhere he'd acquired socks and shoes. What he noticed most, though, was the solid body that pressed along his side as it dropped down onto the moss with him.
"Foolish and trusting, clansman."
Connor's eyes came open as he turned his head to see Ramirez stretched on the ground beside him, mirroring Connor's pose -- body tilted back and braced on his hands with his head tipped back to enjoy the bright sunshine that poured across the hillside.
"Of course I am," Ramirez answered with a laugh. "And I'm not."
That familiar, rich voice poured through Connor. It took the remembered scent combined with the hardness of muscles he'd strained against, and apparently memorized in his earliest training, to convince Connor it was truly Ramirez. For a moment, Connor felt the familiar sense of frustration at his teacher's riddles, and had to take a deep breath, aware that emotion would garner him nothing. "Then where are we?"
"Here and there," was the evasive, amused answer. "Mostly there in my case, and mostly here in yours." He smiled fondly at Connor. "It's not that important, Highlander. But I'm very glad you took that bastard's head. His quickening was a truly unpleasant place to reside for a few centuries."
"What's going on? Usually," Connor added dryly to disguise his own pleasure at actually seeing the peacock, "you only talk to me."
"Nakano's right," Ramirez told him gently with that smiling, reluctant stubbornness that had preceded some of their hardest, trickiest sparring sessions. "You've had your rest, brother. And truly, you've deserved it...and earned it. Time, now, though, to finish your training."
Connor couldn't help it: he laughed, a joyous roar of pleasure. "And what would Duncan say, to be hearing that his teacher isn't fully trained?"
"Then you'd best hope I don't tell him, pendejo. But for now, get up and go practice." The sardonic glint of humor warned Connor, though not in time: Ramirez reached over and pushed him, and the rock and moss dissolved under him. He slid away through a mass of people, most of them unknown, some of them too familiar as old enemies whose heads Connor'd taken. His only consolation lay in the fact that none of them seemed any more solid than what he fell through....
* * * * *
"Connor?" Carrying a cup of coffee and sipping from it as she went, Brenda stepped out of the house and into the garden behind it. She found her husband performing a kata in the early morning light. There was nothing really unusual in that; he'd claimed it was habit and his second favorite form of exercise. Light glinted off of steel, and for a moment, Brenda's heart leapt into her throat as she recognized the katana that her husband wielded. He had never, to her knowledge, exercised with it since the battle with the Kurgan. A wooden blade, yes, simply because he enjoyed the sword forms, but.... What is going on?
His back was to her as she stopped at what she hoped was a safe distance from him. Something was bothering him, but she knew better than to get too close when he had a weapon in his hands. He turned smoothly, finishing the set of exercises and sheathing the blade with a smooth exactitude that reminded Brenda of her own ability to readjust her hair without looking. It was a motion done so often that it needed neither sight nor attention to perform, and it drove home to her again just how different their lives had been.
"Good morning." He was smiling as he moved to kiss her. "Any more coffee?"
"An entire pot," Brenda mentioned, her mind working furiously as she tried to wake up and think simultaneously. "Connor, why do you have your sword?"
"I'd hate to get rusty on something that took me so long to learn," he replied with a shrug. "What do you want for breakfast?"
"You're trying to distract me." She handed him the mug of coffee and backed up a few steps and sat down on the stone retaining wall, heedless of the morning dew. "Just...just tell me, Connor, all right? I hate it when people try to break news to me gently. What's going on?"
He took a long sip of the coffee, searching for the best way to tell her. "A lot of things, lass. I was wrong."
Brenda quit studying the garden and asked grimly, "About what, Connor?" Old, rusty instincts borne of her years working with the NYPD groaned into life as her waking mind tried to cope with what he'd just declared. It wasn't often Connor admitted he was wrong about anything, and it scared her. Whatever it was that he'd been wrong about had to be huge.
He sighed and passed the coffee back. "Finish this first. You'd best be awake for this."
His eyes were dark green as he watched her drink, and that concerned Brenda. Connor's eyes mirrored his moods, most days, and that shade usually meant trouble. He was worrying or grieving, and either seemed a bad sign. So she finished drinking the coffee and forced her mind to be alert, calling on years of early morning classes and earlier morning police calls, before asking quietly, "All right, what is it?"
"The call was from my kinsman, Duncan. He's alive."
"And?" Brenda asked, unsure what that meant. "Connor, you're a MacLeod; half the island is kin to you, I think. Even to Russell Nash, you told me--" His solemn expression finally pushed the implication home. "He's immortal, too?"
"Aye," Connor said quietly. "About seventy years younger, but a MacLeod of Glenfinnan. I found him a few years after he'd had to leave the clan, the same way I had. He was a bit older than me when he died the first time, but--"
"You said the Game was over," she interrupted him, too shocked to bother with politeness, too angry to care. "That you'd taken the Prize."
"I know," Connor agreed, thumbs tucked over the waistband of his sweats as he admitted that their world had just altered, irrevocably. "I thought I had."
"You said you were hearing thoughts, knew skills you shouldn't have...."
"I did. That's what worries me." Connor walked over and sat down a few feet from her. "I haven't heard the voices as much this last year or so; that, I think, may finally be fading. The dreams haven't gone away, Brenda."
"So what's left? What are you trying to tell me? That you just imagined everything?"
"No, Brenda." Connor did understand how she felt; he'd spent considerable time trying to understand the sheer scope of what the Kurgan's Quickening had given him. If Connor hadn't won the Prize -- then he could only guess at the magnitude of what it would be. Something told him that he was closer to understanding it than most. That meant trouble, no matter how he looked at it. He also knew that mentioning all or any of that would do no good just now.
"I don't believe this." Brenda jerked to her feet and began to pace, gesturing as she did so. "You said it was over. That we had nothing to worry about anymore."
"I thought it was, lass," Connor told her, his own voice angry now. "Do you think I didn't hope to be free of it? Of almost five hundred years of fighting and running, never having a normal life -- even giving up my own name, Brenda, because it made me a target?"
"Then they'll be after you again," she snapped. "After us both."
"Aye, Brenda, some of them will." He met her glare steadily. "Would you rather I lied to you, like some child to be protected? You know this, woman. You remember the Kurgan."
"Yes, I remember," Brenda cried out. "And I remember you telling me it was over too, Connor."
Connor hated himself for saying it, but not telling her would have been its own kind of lie. "You're not in the Game, Brenda. You can walk out of it if you want."
She stared at him, unable to believe what he was saying. "Just like that. You can let me -- let us -- go like it's nothing to you? If I wanted to leave now, you wouldn't stop me, would you?" She watched his reaction closely and saw the cold resignation in his expression. Feeling the rejection like a blow to her heart, she could only widen her eyes and shake her head as she tried to comprehend what he was saying. "You would, wouldn't you? Damn it, Connor, I nearly died for you, and you want me to just walk out the door? After everything we've been through? Is it really that easy for you to decide?"
The quiet despair in her voice tore at Connor's heart, but there was no easy way of letting go. Not when the stakes were life and death. He steeled himself against the heartache he knew he was causing, and let his silence say everything.
"You self-serving bastard." The slap across his face stung them both, and Brenda looked shocked to have hit him. Nearly five centuries as a warrior, though, and he'd never had the slightest impulse to stop her, no need to keep himself from blocking it...not when he knew it was the least she could've done. For a moment, she appeared ready to apologize, then she stepped back. Without a word, she turned and stomped back into the house, slamming the door behind her.
A nasty voice in his head silently congratulated him for his success at pushing Brenda away. Another, more reasonable one, reminded Connor that by her actions, he'd gotten his answer: she didn't want to leave. Either way, he had to live with her until she did truly leave, and that meant trying to make peace. The last thing he needed was to go back into the Game with his mind and heart distracted. He was infinitely glad, though, not to hear Ramirez' voice offering the old advice that he must leave her.
Connor found Brenda standing in front of their closets. A suitcase lay open on the bed. Her arms hugged her stomach, and she flinched when he touched her. She jerked around, and he caught sight of her tears. Defiantly, she lifted her head. "I'm going," she declared. "You don't want me here."
"I do want you, Brenda. I just want you safe." He let the long centuries of hunter and hunted show in his eyes, the tired, cold numbness he'd learned to survive in the Game and win, and saw her flinch again, then straighten her shoulders under his gaze as if under a physical weight.
"Safe?" She choked on the word, and had to swallow painfully but she didn't back down. "Where would that be, Connor? It's not a pretty world out there, and even in this little village, bad things happen to people. I'm not some idiot you have to coddle; I'm your wife, and I used to work forensics for the NYPD, for God's sake!" Abruptly, she grabbed the suitcase and angrily threw it back into the closet. "I changed my mind. I'm not leaving you, damn it. Get used to it."
He whispered the words to her back, knowing she wouldn't understand the Gaelic. "It's regret I can't get used to, love, not you."
* * * * *
The mug broke, shifted off the counter by a careless hand when Brenda turned to dodge Connor. Their usual smooth ballet in the kitchen had vanished, victim to Connor's offer to let her leave and the resulting strain, and this was the result: old tea and soggy tea leaves splattered across tiles in pools around archipelagoes of broken ceramic.
"Damn it," Brenda snarled, crouching to reach for the larger pieces, more upset than the loss of one mug justified.
"Don't cut yourself, lass, I'll get it," Connor offered. A week ago it would have been nothing, a friendly offer from the man who'd spent centuries honing reflexes until he never cut himself with a knife, didn't think twice about sharpening already razor-edged swords. Now, suddenly, to Brenda it felt like condescension and she erupted.
"Why? Because I'm mortal, Connor? Because I'll bleed all over the damn floor? Well, fuck it, I can clean up blood as easily as tea!"
He froze, for once almost ungainly where he wasn't quite standing, not quite crouching. Brenda took in his still expression, the green eyes gone unreadable as that saturnine face, the way the light over the stove shot gold highlights through medium brown hair, and wondered in that moment if she'd ever really known Connor MacLeod. Or was he as evasive, as unreal, as the Seelie lords of legend, turning from fairy gold to oak leaf with the sunrise? Just who had she given her heart to?
The moment broke as Connor finished dropping to one knee beside her and said softly, "No, Brenda. Because it soaked your leg, lass, and I thought you might want to pull on dry pants before the stain set into those you like so much. Do you truly want the job? I'll let you have it if you do."
Her own amber eyes met his, startled and unnerved by just how much she'd let her anger affect her perceptions. He was right; these were some of her favorite slacks, and the tea was going to stain them, but, "No, Connor. I just didn't want you...."
He finished it for her, that rasping voice soft and ironic for once. "...protecting you. I know." A small wry smile twisted his mouth. "This once? I wasn't. Just your pants," he added, a fine vein of humor threading through his tone.
Brenda managed a small smile of her own. "And trying to get me out of my clothes again," she added widening the smile in wordless apology. The lightening of his eyes told her it was accepted, and they moved on. This time.
* * * * *
The fragile peace didn't last, however. It was as if the pieces that held them together were nothing more than gossamer threads, and the weight of knowing Connor wasn't the only one with an unusual gift of life was slowly snapping each thread. Brenda's initial anger simmered into a deep ache of hurt...and she no longer felt certain she had the words to stop feeling so betrayed. The small house, once so cozy, became too small for two people; the silences were longer, and the nights lonelier.
Three nights after Connor's revelation, Brenda stayed up late on the pretext of wanting to finish the book she was reading. As soon as Connor left the living room and she was sure he was in the bedroom, asleep, she put the historical novel aside, unclear who'd been doing what and completely unconcerned about either, and crept into the study. She wanted the answers Connor hadn't given her. There had been a time when she trusted him implicitly; now, she was convinced that her husband was hiding something.
And yet, there was nothing there that hadn't been there when she'd rearranged their books just a few days ago. Nothing except too neat books, and too little dust, and none of the clutter that a new set of articles would have inspired. Brenda knew her own working habits, the way she tended to work one point into the ground, piling reference sources around her until she had it nailed, then sorting them back into place before starting the next. This, though, held no clues for her, and she desperately needed some answers. Something, anything...but what was important here?
Brenda picked up one of the framed photos she remembered from his hidden room in Manhattan. The old black and white daguerreotype showed a cluster of men in Union Blue, trying to look solemn for the camera. One of them looked more amused than the others; another looked as if he wanted, very badly, to be frightened. The picture always drew a fond, paternal look from Connor that made Brenda wonder which of them he thought of as his son, but it meant nothing to her. She moved down the shelves, blindly searching, and paused in front of a leather case that held a set of lock picks and skeleton keys. Connor had only smiled when she'd found them the first time...smiled and said he'd taken them away from someone who was going to get into trouble with them.
Brenda nearly hissed in her frustration as she looked around the too familiar room. So many of the oddments on the shelves held memories for Connor, memories she'd never asked about, thinking they had time. And now time had run out, apparently, and she knew little more than when she'd started....
"All these damned things, and you'd think they'd tell me something other than he's a long-lived packrat," she swore bitterly.
"Looking for anything in particular, lass?"
The too gentle voice and the almost innocuous question brought her around to see her husband standing there, his eyes dark and angry in a frozen face that contrasted strongly with his soft tone. "I don't know," Brenda snapped at him. "You tell me."
"There's nothing here except me and thee, Brenda Wyatt MacLeod. Were you expecting to find something more?" He cocked his head to one side and regarded her from that same angry gaze.
When she shivered it wasn't from the cold, but Brenda went on anyway. "I thought you were asleep?"
"I woke to a cold bed and came to see where you were." He paused before adding softly, "I thought you'd fallen asleep reading. My mistake."
"The whole damn problem, Connor MacLeod," she snapped, ignoring her own diversion as if she'd never uttered the words, "is that I am looking for something, and damn if I know where it is."
"And what would that be?'
Connor didn't flinch when Brenda pointed at him. "You. The real you, Connor, not the mortal I thought I married. Do I even know you?"
She saw the muscles ripple along his arm, standing out at the elbow, although his hand was concealed behind his hip. The way his bare chest heaved under the breath he pulled in might have distracted her to other things, another time. Not now.
Connor said grimly, "So. You'll not leave me, but you'll not trust me, either? One thing proven wrong, one hope I held falsely, and now you don't know me."
He shook his head. "Nice to know that two years counts for nothing." Then Connor simply turned and walked out of the room, leaving Brenda to stare at the empty doorway and wonder when the rest of the house would come down around her ears. Maybe if she simply stood there long enough, it would.
* * * * *
He woke still tired, nothing he hadn't done before, but an infrequent occurrence these last several months. His body ached for the missing warmth on the other side of the bed, and Connor sighed, breath huffing out of him as he remembered the argument of a few hours before. No wonder I slept so badly, he thought ruefully. I let her pick a fight and struck right back. I'm older; you'd think I'd be wiser.
He could almost hear Ramirez laughing madly at the idea, and his own crooked smile surfaced as he thought about that. Ah, well, the lass is in the right and I'm in the wrong. A little hard for her to be spying in our own house, after all. Best I get up and go apologize.
Connor considered just how to do that for a long moment. Knowing Brenda tended toward oblique apologies herself, though, he thought it might be best to extend one to her. A drive up to Jedburgh, some explanation of why the ruins meant so much to him, might be precisely what was needed. It would be both a day away from his work, an apology in itself, as well as a glimpse into more of his own history, which would hopefully make it clear how much he regretted feeding her own fears and uncertainties.
If he hadn't already intended to apologize, the sight that met his eyes would have convinced him. Brenda sat, asleep, in the lovely but uncomfortable straight-backed chair that she'd retained from her apartment in Manhattan. She'd used it to stay awake during college study sessions, she'd claimed once, and he believed it. Connor shook his head ruefully and pulled a throw blanket around her before moving quietly towards the kitchen.
Neither of them had slept well, after all. Having coffee ready for Brenda before proposing the day trip seemed like a very good idea to him, both from his years of war experience and their time together.... The thought that winning his wife's heart back was akin to a campaign made him grin briefly.
* * * * *
"Oh, there you are, Brenda!"
Having just retrieved three bags' worth of groceries from the trunk of her car, Brenda paused and turned, seeing a heavy-set matron bustle towards her from across the road. Setting the load more firmly in her grasp, she smiled a greeting as she recognized her neighbor. "Good afternoon, Mrs. MacEwen."
Without missing a beat, the older woman took two of the bags out of Brenda's hands. "Go on, open up the door, I have these." With a nod of her head, Mrs. MacEwen indicated that Brenda should go first.
Aware that protesting would be useless, Brenda bit back the automatic denial of Mrs. MacEwen's generosity and did as suggested.
"Is this all, dearie?" Mrs. MacEwen asked, frowning as she set the bags on the counter in the kitchen.
Brenda smiled, then turned to reach for the pot of coffee in the coffeemaker next to the stove to pour herself a cup. "Just needed a few things this time. I'll do the monthly shopping next week." She raised a second mug inquiringly, an offer of coffee which was refused with a quick wave of a hand.
Mrs. MacEwen nodded knowingly. "I hadn't seen you or Connor in a few days. I thought perhaps you'd gone on vacation." She seated her girth on a chair at the kitchen table, her hands dealing with each of the grocery bags as soon as Brenda was done unpacking them.
Chuckling softly, Brenda began to put away her purchases. "No, it's just been...." She paused, trying to think of a way to avoid mentioning that she and Connor had been arguing, and settled for a fraction of the truth. "We went up to Jedburgh the day before yesterday, and Glenfinnan yesterday." Unconsciously, her voice softened as she remembered the trips.
"Oh?" Mrs. MacEwen prompted. "Does Connor have family there?" The tone of her voice reminded Brenda that she and her husband were still relative strangers in this village, and that even after two years, Connor was still an enigma to their neighbors. Briefly, the argument washed fresh in her mind, but she pushed it back, aware that Connor had, in his way, apologized.
For a moment, Brenda was at a loss as to how to answer Mrs. MacEwen's question without revealing Connor's immortality. Then she remembered how Connor had told her he was applying for membership in the Clan MacLeod as Russell Nash, and how he'd dealt with the questions at the ceremony inducting him into the clan. "Yes," Brenda decided, her mind going back to the day before....
"Where are we?" Brenda asked wonderingly, getting out of the car and stretching out the kinks in her muscles. Connor had told her their destination would be a surprise, that he had something to show her if she promised not to pester him with questions until they got there. She frowned as she remembered he'd withheld her morning coffee until she'd agreed, then shoved aside the discomforting thought.
Connor smiled at her and took her hand to lead her down the slight incline. As she walked, Brenda noticed that the path they were on held the faintest imprints of a trail. Then her eyes caught sight of the ruins, and she stopped, instinctively sensing that the cracked and ivied stones held answers to questions she hadn't asked yet.
"You lived here." She crossed the short distance to where Connor waited. "You built this."
"Aye. I lived here."
He smiled, half-chuckling at some memory. "At times." He paused and sobered. "I built it for my first wife."
Connor looked startled, and it was her turn to laugh softly. "You told me you'd been married before and that her name was Heather."
He considered her words. "Aye, so I did. She's buried in the hills, where the heather blooms brightest."
Something in his tone made Brenda take another look at her husband. "When did you meet her?"
"A few months after I was banished. Her father taught me blacksmithing."
"And how to build houses of stone?" Brenda teased him gently, hearing the grief behind the words. "Or did you learn a trade just so you could charm him into letting you court his daughter?"
Connor smiled. "Seems like you know the answer to that one already."
"So, did you meet any of his family?" Mrs. MacEwen's voice brought Brenda abruptly back to the present.
"What? Oh -- yes. That's why we went, after all." Brenda paused, thinking of all the minutiae that she'd learned, and not of the distant cousins on the MacLeod family tree she'd run across in Glenfinnan. "Mrs. MacEwen, did you think you knew your husband well? You told me he was the only man you loved."
The older woman laughed. "Well enough to know he'd surprise me just when I thought I had him figured out. Henry was a dreamer, that he was, but he gave me everything I needed while he was alive, and made sure I didn't want for much after that." Mrs. MacEwen's chubby-cheeked face glowed with fond remembrance.
Laying a hand over Brenda's, stopping her as she bustled around the kitchen putting away what few groceries remained, Mrs. MacEwen smiled at the younger woman. "Love isn't in whether or not you know whether or not he scraped his knee in school, or if his Aunt Mary approves of you despite his bad luck with women of questionable morals," she reminded Brenda. "Don't get me wrong; those are all interesting to know, and you can judge him by all that, that's for certain. Love, though, is in the other details, like if he warned you that his grandmother would talk your ear off given half the chance, or if you can predict that he'll always forget your birthday until the last possible minute, or if he always puts the toilet seat down when he's done. It's the reliability you want; that tells you if you can trust him with your heart, or if you're always going to have to show him."
"You make it sound simple."
Mrs. MacEwen's smile widened. "It is. You open your heart and you let him in. Living with a man's the harder part. Now, I could tell you stories about my Henry that could make you think twice about thinking men have changed in fifty years. You can change a man's clothes, but he'll always be looking at you like you're the only one who matters, and that's all he needs, all that he cares to know. You'll always want to know more, of course, but we women are never satisfied until we know everything."
Unable to help herself, Brenda laughed. "So you're telling me I might as well accept the way things are?"
"If you're asking me do I think you should keep Connor--" Mrs. MacEwen winked. "Dearie, if I was thirty years younger, I'd be doing everything I could to make you think tossing him away was a good thing, just so I could have him when you let him go."
Shocked, it took a minute for Brenda to realize the compliment in Mrs. MacEwen's words. "Sorry, but he's already taken," she said, her voice automatically frosting over with dismissal. Realizing how she'd sounded, Brenda quickly apologized. "Oh, dear, I didn't mean--"
Mrs. MacEwen's shoulders shifted forward in a slight reflection of the smile on her face, her eyes sparkling her pleasure in Brenda's response. "No need to apologize. I'd only be worried if you didn't defend him." She patted the younger woman's hand. "You have the rest of your lives to figure out how to be with him, dearie. Make the most of them. Time passes quicker than you know it. Speaking of which, I have bread rising that should be about ready to be baked, so I must go." She rose to her feet, then paused. "You needn't fret so, Brenda. Connor's a good man."
Brenda smiled. "I know." She stood to escort her guest out. Long after Mrs. MacEwen left, her words rang in Brenda's ears.
Maybe she's right, Brenda thought. Connor's had a lot of time and experience to learn not to share everything, to keep the things he cares about the most to himself for fear of them getting hurt or taken away. Maybe I'm being unfair and unreasonable. Maybe I'm just fretting over nothing, and besides, I really hate arguing like we have been. It makes me remember why I don't miss doing forensic work -- all that stress and confusion.
Still, I can't help wondering just what Connor hasn't told me yet. Something tells me it isn't going to be something I like. Maybe I should've insisted that he stay near Rachel, since she's the closest thing to family he has, but he told me he needed to get away from New York for a while. I wanted to believe him, and I do, but if I haven't told him some of things I don't want to admit to doing, what could he be hiding? He's only ten times my age....
Then, as if her thoughts conjured him, Connor walked into the kitchen, a dozen red roses in hand.
* * * * *
As was his usual habit, Connor woke with the dawn, but didn't slip from bed right away. Things had been going so well for them in the past few days that he wanted, selfishly, to hold on to that happiness. They hadn't been sniping over little things, playing out the week-old argument that had started when he'd offered her the choice of leaving him, and for a while it seemed as though the even keel of their relationship had returned. He smiled as a thought occurred to him. A picnic among the heather, in a spot he knew Brenda cherished, sounded like the perfect thing to do before he took her to meet Duncan.
Connor rolled over on his side, his eyes sweeping over his wife's sleeping form. She was curled away from him, one arm around the extra pillow, her high-boned face relaxed in sleep. Carefully, he extricated the pillow from her grasp. As he'd expected she would, she arched her back slightly, sighed, and then curled her body towards him before sliding deeper into sleep. He smiled, suppressing a chuckle, and tossed the pillow on the side of the bed.
For several minutes longer, he let her sleep, content to just study her. Love had been the last thing he'd expected to find when he'd been fighting the most important battle of his life, and yet...here she was. Carefully, Connor slipped from bed and headed for the kitchen to put wine, cheese, fruit, and the other necessary items for a simple picnic into a cooler. When he was finished, he headed back into the bedroom.
Gently, he kissed her, coaxing her into arousal before her mind could fully grasp her body's surrender to his touch. He loved touching her like this, loved watching her shudder and tremble without hesitation, knowing that her love for him was given unconsciously and freely. In these moments before the day began, Connor could believe that they truly had forever, that the only thing that mattered was how a caress here or a lick there felt.
Brenda awoke fully, Connor's name on her lips, as the passion he aroused in her peaked. Breathlessly, she murmured, "Good morning."
"Good morning to you," he greeted, unable to keep the satisfaction he felt about the way he woke her up out of his voice. "Sleep well?"
"Um-hmm," she agreed. "I was having such a lovely dream, and then I woke up to find I wasn't dreaming." She smiled and arched up slightly to kiss Connor, leaving him with no doubt as to where she wanted to spend the rest of the morning.
For a moment, he was tempted. They had hours before they were due to meet Duncan, and nowhere else to be until then. Still, it would take some time to get to the spot he had planned for the picnic. Desire warred with practicality, and for the next twenty minutes, desire won.
"You're up to no good, Connor MacLeod," Brenda said suspiciously as he stepped into the shower a few moments after her. She was just finishing shampooing her hair, and the back of her head was still getting drenched in water.
He looked at her innocently as he took a washcloth from the towel rack at the end of the shower stall and began lathering soap into it. "I can't scrub my wife's back?"
"You haven't offered to scrub my back in weeks," she countered.
Connor looked at her, silently asking if she was turning him down. As he'd expected, she sighed in frustrated resignation and turned so he could do exactly as he had offered, sweeping her hair forward over her shoulder in silent acquiescence. The water cascaded over her face, forcing her to turn her head so that she could breathe.
"I don't know why I bother arguing with you," she stated when he was finished and turned her around so that the soap was washed off and he could continue with her front.
He chuckled but didn't stop his ministrations, or his silent enjoyment of his hands on her body. She wasn't mad at him yet, and he intended to keep it that way for at least a while longer. As she rinsed off, he quickly attended to his own body, then rinsed himself off when she stepped out of the shower.
Wordlessly, she handed him a towel as she heard him shut off the water, then proceeded to finish towel-drying her hair. "You're up to something," she said again.
He smiled. "I thought we'd go out today," he told her.
Brenda looked at him warily, then shrugged. Abandoning her suspicion was her own offering toward the peace they were reweaving, one thread at a time. "All right, then." She smiled back at him. "But don't think I'm going to make a habit of being so agreeable," Brenda teased, remembering all the times he'd called her stubborn or spirited and made the words a compliment with his tone.
"I'd never think that," Connor agreed, and the light in his eyes was everything she'd hoped for.
* * * * *
"Mr. MacLeod?" The officer's words droned in his ear in the polite, carefully conciliatory manner of a man who knows he's walking on thin ice.
Connor recognized the tone, knew it meant he was attracting too much attention to himself, but just now he couldn't spare the man any more of his attention.
"He's not hearing us," another man's voice said. "Anything useful in that wallet?"
Not in the wallet. The only things that mattered were his wife's body in his arms, her blood on his hands, his pants, his shirt, the pieces of glass scattered everywhere. If he closed his mind to the stench of burnt rubber and twisted metal and held her closer, he could still smell the sweet, delicate perfume of her shampoo. He couldn't feel her heartbeat, though, couldn't hear it thundering through him like a deer he'd once chased, would never feel it again, no matter how much he willed it to be.
The first man answered, "Next of kin is Duncan MacLeod, but it says he's in Paris."
"No," Connor answered absently, never looking away from Brenda's face, from the red mark that would never blossom into a bruise now. "He's at the station in Edinburgh. We're supposed to pick him up."
"Which station?" the second man asked in a deliberately patient tone.
"Train station. He's coming in from London." Connor shrugged, not really caring. He could find Duncan at the station easily enough if he wanted to. It didn't matter now, after all.
"Mr. MacLeod." The firm tone brought Connor's head up for a moment. The change in angle splashed light across his vision as sunlight reflected from the shattered remnants of lights and grillwork, and it threw him back into that ghastly moment again.
They hadn't been fighting; Connor hadn't even argued about putting on his seat belt, although he was certain that any cuts would heal. Brenda had laughed, saying, "You're certainly in a hurry to introduce me to Duncan. He'll wait for us, I think."
He'd grinned, a quick flash of teeth as he drove. "Of course he will. And not let me hear the end of being late. Although he'd not embarrass you by asking why, at least."
"Oh, no," and he could almost see the amused, embarrassed twist of her lips, was just turning to look when he saw the car come around the curve. Connor had a moment to note the way the other vehicle's hood ornament aligned over the center of the road as the driver continued to come into his lane, horn blaring at him as if he were in the wrong. He slammed down the accelerator, swerving farther left to try and cut past the maniac, but couldn't completely avoid the other car. It slammed into them, forcing Connor's door into his side, crumpling Brenda's side of the car against the retaining wall with a sickening crunch of metal before the other car scraped past them, its damage done.
Blood splattered against the seats and windshield in pulses as Connor yanked the emergency brake to slow their speed. They were bouncing back from the retaining wall, spinning once, twice, nearly rocking over but somehow holding steady until they slid into the ditch at last...back on their own side of the road again. Connor had time to see the black humor in that as he turned to see how badly Brenda was hurt. Crimson spurted from between her fingers and her eyes were wide and panicked as she wrapped one hand around her throat, the other arm cradled around her ribs as more red seeped into the ivory wool of her sweater.
The red resolved itself into the caduceus on the emergency worker's patch as he yanked himself back into reality. Connor waved away any offer of help. "I'm fine," he growled. "It's not mine."
"Mr. MacLeod," the woman repeated gently, "you have to let us have her now. There's nothing either of us can do for her. I'm sorry."
Connor stared at his wife, at the incongruous eye shadow on those pale lids. Someone had smeared it, closing Brenda's eyes for him. Oddly, that attempt at compassion was what doubled him over at last, leaving him with the knowledge that, again, he had somehow traded a wife and love for what felt like all the pain in the world. There was nothing more he could do for Brenda now, as the day had come before when there was nothing more he could do for Heather. It had always been the hardest lesson of his life, one he'd learned the hard way from Heather's father, from Ramirez, from Nakano....
Eyes closed against the sight of her body, against old memories, Connor made himself let go.
* * * * *
Duncan paced the train station platform with restless impatience. It had been far too long since he'd seen his former teacher and kinsman, and now with the moment close at hand, he found himself wondering what had changed -- and just who was this rare woman who'd managed to steal Connor's heart? Duncan tried to remember the last one who'd taken Connor's heart, and found he couldn't. She had to be someone special.
Not for the first time, Duncan wondered what it had been like to finally take the Kurgan's head. He'd heard about him, of course, from Connor as well as from several others, and had managed to avoid dealing with the infamous immortal through some sheer chance of fate. Duncan knew that the immortal grapevine was strong, and it wouldn't be long before someone found Connor -- someone who wasn't a friend like Duncan was, someone who was more interested in getting Connor's Quickening. Although Duncan had taken care to make sure he wasn't followed, he'd known for a while that Europe was more densely populated with immortals than elsewhere. It was one of the reasons why he was moving to the States; he wasn't interested in having to explain everything about immortality, and there were a few things that he hadn't told Tessa yet.
But where was Connor? It wasn't like his kinsman to be so late, but Duncan couldn't feel another immortal anywhere around.... Then he felt a hand tap him on the shoulder, and he spun around, prepared to fight if necessary.
A policeman stood there. "Duncan MacLeod?"
"There's been an accident, and you're listed as next of kin. If you'll follow me, please?"
Duncan's thoughts raced. There hasn't been a Quickening; I would've sensed it, it would've lit up the sky and there'd have been no way to miss it. Connor's not dead, but something's happened. God, please, let everything be all right.
The universe, however, wasn't listening to Duncan's prayer that day.
* * * * *
"It's not your fault."
Connor barely heard the words his kinsman spoke so roughly. His ears were still full of the sound of dirt clods falling on wood, the minister's words of grief and condolence. And nothing Duncan might say would be anything but small comfort. "If we hadn't been arguing for days--"
"The driver of the other car was drunk, Connor." Duncan loomed over him, impeccable in his dark suit, voice harsh with his own sympathetic pain. "There was nothing you could do, not when he would've had trouble driving on the right side of the road even if he hadn't been drunk. I saw the skid marks when the police drove me to meet you."
"I should've told her sooner."
Growing impatient, Duncan grabbed his mentor's shoulder and jerked him around to face him. "Connor--"
"No, Duncan," Connor interrupted before Duncan could even start. "I gave up everything for her. I thought the Game was over, and if you hadn't called, Brenda wouldn't be dead. She was right -- I wouldn't have married her, knowing that the Game continued, that you were still alive. I should've known that the Kurgan wasn't the last -- just one of the oldest and the strongest."
"Oh no, you don't," Duncan retorted, hand tight on Connor's shoulder as he didn't quite shake his teacher. "You're not blaming me or the Game for this. And you're not taking blame -- or credit! -- for it either! It was one of those damned accidents that just happen, Connor. I know you, kinsman. You didn't do this."
"'One of those accidents?'" Connor mocked him, anger and grief twisted his voice although he wasn't allowing them across his face yet. "Any other cliches for me, Duncan?"
"Cliche?" Duncan growled, resisting the urge to reach out and hit Connor, aware it might yet come to starting a fight with his teacher to let the other man vent some of his rage at fate. "Don't start that with me, Connor. When have I ever lied to you?"
"As lousy a liar as you are, you'd be a fool to try."
"God damn it, Connor, the Kurgan is dead! And now your wife is dead, too, because some stupid fool went driving on three or four pints too many, but that doesn't mean he's going to come after me or be able to kill me! You are not chasing me off for the better part of the next four centuries, either, just so that I won't get killed by some doom you think is waiting for you! It doesn't have to be like this!"
"And what would you have me do?" Connor shouted back at him. "Be like you? Try to create my own clan, since the first one banished me? You haven't changed your name in centuries, Duncan! Everyone knows you, everyone comes to you! You think I want to become a clearing ground for every thief with a hard-luck story, for every damned headhunter who wants to try to take me on? I thought I was done with all of that! Have you seen Brian Cullen sober this century, man? I haven't! I took out the Kurgan, Duncan! Now there are immortals after my head that I never dreamed of, man! I won't have them coming after yours, too!"
"Those are my friends you're talking about," Duncan growled, finally getting a word in through his kinsman's tirade. "The only family most of us get is the one we take. You know this, Connor! Some of them would like to be your friends, too, the ones who aren't already. And they're not all thieves. Forgotten Rebecca? Or Darius? Or Grace?" His voice softened with grief as he said, "And no, Connor, I don't remember the last time I've seen Brian in his right mind."
Connor glanced at him, hearing more pain there than he'd expected, then nodded slowly. "I knew you two were close, lad, but I didn't know...."
A wry smile twisted Duncan's lips, sorrow and regret mixed with a rueful acknowledgment. "Aye, well you never did ask about some things." He pushed it behind him almost visibly and went on, "And you're not changing the subject on this. It is not your fault, Connor. No one thinks it was--"
"I'm alive and she isn't," Connor said bluntly.
"And you died, too, kinsman," was the gentle reply. "You came back; Brenda didn't. That isn't your fault, Connor. We both know that. You taught me that, kinsman."
"And if I was wrong?" Connor growled, the pain riding him too hard now. He turned away and felt Duncan's hand settle gently on his shoulder. The grip was meant to be comforting, but it reminded Connor too much of Ramirez' gesture when he was explaining something he knew Connor didn't want to hear.
"Then Ramirez was wrong, too, and everything our clan ever taught us," Duncan told him quietly, his words an inadvertent echo to his kinsman's thoughts. "Ramirez would be telling you the same things, Connor, the way you told me after Little Deer died. We are what we are, Connor. Being anything less betrays us and it betrays those we love. You know that, brother."
"She's dead, Duncan." Connor's hands were balled into fists with the need to hurt something, anything, to lash back at the world which had, once again, injured him. It didn't seem fair that only a few days ago his wife had been moaning his name in passion, and now she would forever be silent.
"Aye, Connor, she is," Duncan answered softly. "And she loved you. Do you think Brenda would want to see you like this?"
"Then what do you suggest?" was the snarled reply. Duncan let go of Connor's shoulder, leaving him alone and bereft for an instant. Connor spun to see where he'd gone, only to see Duncan gesturing toward the house with his hand.
"I suggest," he said quietly, "that we go spar and let you work some of this out." He considered the angry smile that creased Connor's mouth, the immediate slide into a battle-ready stance, and, already ruing the bruises and broken bones he foresaw, Duncan added, "With shinai, thanks."
"It won't bring her back."
Duncan shook his head slowly. "Nothing will, Connor. I'll settle for bringing you back, though." He smiled then, wide and open and loving. "Come and spar, Connor, and then we'll drink a bottle while you tell me about her."
"And your Tessa?"
"Will understand," Duncan promised. "I called her earlier and let her know I'd be later than I'd expected. Come on, Connor. I might even let you win," he goaded, and suppressed a smile when that comment started Connor stalking towards the house.
"We'll see who 'lets' the other win," Connor growled in Gaelic, unknotting his tie as he strode in the door.
* * * * *
The silver flask waited in front of him, held steady by a strong, dark hand. Somehow, Connor wasn't surprised to realize it was Kastagir offering the flask to him; the old pirate always did have a talent for knowing when he needed a drink and a friend.
"It happens to all of us, you know, MacLeod. If we're lucky."
"A lot of help you are," Connor told him grimly, but he reached for the drink anyway.
"There's no real help for this, Connor. You know it, I know it...even that stubborn student you trained knows it, or he wouldn't have gone home." Kastagir sprawled onto a velvet-covered lounge that hadn't been there a moment before and Connor smiled despite himself.
"Of course." Kastagir shrugged and picked up a crystal shot glass that also hadn't been there until he wanted it.
"If there's no help, why all of this?" Connor demanded bluntly. "And where's a chair for me?"
"Behind you, of course," Kastagir told him with an expressive shrug of those wide shoulders. The black immortal sighed in apparent contentment as he sipped at his glass. "Ah, Irish whiskey and Irish crystal. I knew there were things I liked about that island."
"The redheads? Or the blondes?" Connor asked him ironically as he sat down in the dark red leather chair Kastagir had somehow summoned for him.
"The brunettes weren't bad either." Kastagir smiled at him then. "And I'm here, old friend, because someone ought to be."
"Why am I drinking this stuff when you've got the good whiskey?"
Kastagir shrugged elaborately. "Because I always did know how to have more fun."
Connor shook his head. "You can't help with this."
"No, MacLeod," and his old friend smiled at him gently, "you can't help healing. You loved her dearly, Highlander; let it be. Would you wish her a life of grief if she'd outlived you?"
"No," he said slowly. "I wouldn't."
"She wouldn't have wanted it for you, either." The black man shook his head. "You always did make things too complicated. Idiot."
"I'm alive, too," Connor pointed out, but he couldn't put any kind of sting into the words.
"Good. Act like it. Drink that, Highlander, and tell me about her, why don't you?" Kastagir smiled at him again, a quick flash of white teeth in dark skin. With the humor that even death obviously hadn't quenched, he added, "After all, man, we have all night...."
* * * * *
The lock clicked into place with a slight clunk. Sighing deeply, Connor dropped the keys into a pocket of his trench coat and stepped away from the house, feeling as though he'd locked away yet another piece of his soul. In time, he supposed, he'd be back, but in the meantime, the memories were too painful, the dreams too freshly shattered. The investigation into Brenda's death was officially over, and he'd been cleared of any suspicion. He was free to go anywhere he chose, build a life again. New York City sounded good at the moment: Rachel was there, and she was the one woman he cared about who was still alive.
He took a deep breath, remembering how, just a few days ago, Duncan had argued with him over women they couldn't save, fought with him over the ones they'd had in common through chance, and then toasted Brenda, Little Deer, and all the others now gone who had mattered beyond words. His eyes closed briefly on a wave of pain. Deliberately, he forced them open again. Life went on; he would, too. He had a plane to catch, and it wouldn't wait for him. Nothing ever did, it seemed. Time changed a man, left him with scars on his heart that faded, and if he was lucky, healed over completely. He just had to be patient and let it happen. In the meantime, though, he had places to go, and miles to travel before he could sleep.
one clear morning
i coaxed an unconscious kiss
from your soft lips
one clear morning
your love shined so brightly
in the gentle dawn
one clear morning
we laughed like children
in the shadow of the rising sun
one clear morning
without any premonition
you were gone
~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~
Comments, Commentary, & Miscellanea:
Authors' note: Purely for the record. We've been working on this thing forever, largely due to Rhi's habit of getting involved in way too many stories at once (types Rhi). But we would like to say that, yes, the notion that Connor kept Duncan at arm's distance because of his fear of headhunters after him, and yes, Duncan's comment about 'some curse' were in fact written before that damn movie came out. No, we didn't have any clue it would be that way, either....(types Raine).
Timeline notes from canon (much thanks to Connor MacLeod's Multi-Universal Timeline compiled by Brian Haden HADEN@OKSTATE.EDU whom we thank for putting this together so we didn't have to, and quoted directly below). As with all fic, we decided to use what bits we wanted and put the others back.
"1985 - New York/Scotland: Beheaded Iman Fasil and the Kurgan; After more than 100 years apart, saw old friend Sunda Kastagir for the last time; Won the "New York Mini-Gathering of 1985"; Became the only Immortal on Long Island! (heh heh); Toured Scotland with his new wife Brenda Wyatt after the events in New York City; Two months later, they moved to London and he opened an antique shop in Camden Alley. (H1,H1S,HN1)
1986 - Scotland: Attended the annual meeting of the Clan MacLeod in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye and applied for membership under the name "Russell Nash", claiming to be the only living descendant of Connor MacLeod. (H3,H3S) Visited the remains of the Jedburgh forge where Ramirez and Heather were buried. (HN1)
1987 - Scotland: Connor and his wife Brenda were in a car accident; Brenda died, but Connor walked away unharmed. (H3,H3S)"
Tessa met and became a lover of Duncan in 1980, learned of Immortality in 1983 per Watcher CD.
A more updated version of the Connor Timeline by someone else is at: http://come.to/ConnorMacLeod, in case anyone else cares.