Disclaimer: the following work of fiction is © 1998-2005 by Michael R. Vickery. The character of Duncan MacLeod is owned wholly by Rysher Entertainment, and no infringement of rights is intended by use of the name or character created and developed by said company. All other characters are original fiction, and any resemblance to real persons, either living or dead, is completely unintentional. No remuneration has been or will be received for this story.
Warning: this story is angst-ridden. There is no slash, no attempts to hook up established Highlander characters with anyone else (or each other) and no explanations for how someone who died in the television series didn't really die. The timeline for this story is irrelevant; all that needs to be said is that at the moment, Duncan MacLeod is alone on his barge in Paris. This story is rated PG-13 for violence and some strong language. It should also be pointed out that I have no working knowledge of the French language, though it is written from the viewpoint of someone who supposedly speaks it fluently. My apologies for bad grammar and word choice, as they are all my fault. Any and all corrections are welcome.
My eternal gratitude toward Remy (Hcymer@aol.com), BBC (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jim Bartlemay (email@example.com), Bridget (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Johanne Briere (email@example.com) for volunteering to Beta read and correct my English and French grammatical errors.
Almost. He fought to still his shaking hands, and mostly succeeded. Almost there, almost ready. Be easy, Ravon. It's almost finished, by God. He wiped cold sweat off his forehead and cursed the full moon that shone so brightly off the water.
Loud footsteps echoed along the Seine. The creator of the sound did not stalk or slink as did so many of his kind. He strode with power and purpose, intent in his goal and upright in his determination. He was not yet in view, but he was almost in range. The footsteps rang out strong, almost enough to drown out the pounding heartbeat.
There, he felt it. His quarry was in range. The footsteps halted abruptly, and there was a whisper of fabric in the night. That strong, fearless voice called out to him. "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Show yourself!"
Edouard brought his sword into guard position and stepped out from around the corner. His Arming sword reflected the bright light of the moon in direct challenge to the polished sheen of the Highlander's katana. "I am Edouard Ravon. I have come for your head, MacLeod."
The Scot frowned and settled deeper into his stance. Japanese, yet not. MacLeod had trained under too many mentors to be identified by any one or two styles, and Edouard knew he would not be able to anticipate which method would come into play at any given moment. Almost....
Edouard assumed a classic Cavalier pose, better suited for a fencing foil than his heavy blade. It was an unorthodox approach and had served him well in a dozen duels before; not this time. He willed his hands to stop shaking, and they did. The Highlander did not miss it, nor did he miss the shift in Edouard's eyes.
"You don't want this," he said, abruptly abandoning his guard. The katana dipped toward the ground. "Why are you Challenging me?"
"There can be only one," Edouard quoted, and leapt forward, his Arming sword flashing in the night.
MacLeod shifted to the left, and the blade passed through empty air. He still did not raise the katana, though he circled warily. Edouard immediately compensated and spun around with his sword slicing low. He managed to catch the edge of the Highlander's coat and sliced through it effortlessly.
To his surprise and disappointment, MacLeod merely looked annoyed. "Stop! What do you want from me?"
Edouard felt the blood rushing to his head, felt his joints loosen as they always did just after battle was joined. He was smooth and ready, and gave no answer as he pressed his attack. Forward, forward, step, thrust. He was good; he finally forced his opponent to move the katana to parry. He felt the shock run up his arm, and he felt the way the katana shivered under the blow. The Japanese never intended those dueling blades to fend off anything as heavy as a broadsword. MacLeod was forced to redirect the attack rather than risk shattering the blade on Edouard's sword. He did so flawlessly, and Edouard knew he would continue to do so.
"Dammit, man! Talk to me! Why do you want to die?" There was a glint in the Highlander's eye, and Edouard grinned exultantly. MacLeod was starting to get angry, and that was precisely what was needed. An angry MacLeod was a focused MacLeod; Edouard had seen it before. Come on, come on! he urged silently. Engage! Do what you've done so many times and engage!
Edouard swung wide and left a hole in his defense. He knew it as soon as his blade swept up, and waited for the shock of pain when MacLeod took advantage of it. It never came. The katana was almost invisible in the night, held point down with the edge away from the body, no light reflected against it making it difficult to track. Edouard muttered an old French curse and attacked again.
This time, MacLeod moved. He was poetry in motion, fluid and precise. Again and again he turned aside the hammering blows of the Arming sword, preserving the brittle beauty of the ancient katana. Over and over again he laid Edouard's defenses bare with his parries, and waited. He did nothing other than defend against the strikes that should have been crippling, but failed. Edouard was a master swordsman; MacLeod was better. But he would not attack.
A full minute had passed since the beginning of the encounter, and Edouard knew he had failed. He had no hope of breaking through MacLeod's defenses, but MacLeod would not take his obvious advantage. He would not take Edouard's head.
With a shrill cry of pure rage, Edouard lofted his sword over his head and brought it whistling down straight at the Highlander's brow. MacLeod shifted again, and was not there to meet the blade. Then Edouard felt something solid connect with the back of his neck, and the world died around him. Please, he prayed with his last conscious thought. Then there was nothing.
"Edouard, do you like this here?" Her voice, so sweet, so pure in his ears. It took him a moment to focus on the fact that she was asking him a question, rather than merely singing for his delight. "Well? Do you think it works or not?"
"Yes, it's wonderful," he replied, not really paying attention. She knew he was distracted and glared at him.
"If you're not going to help with this, you can at least go pick up some milk from the store," she told him. There was annoyance but no heat in her words.
"I'm sorry, love. I am. The picture looks good there, but what if you brought it up and to the left another ten centimeters? The Dali can hang next to it, below." He took the painting he was referring to and held it against the wall where he thought it would work.
"You want to put a naked woman and a half-drawn elephant next to a purple flower?" she demanded with incredulity. "You're insane!"
"Guilty," he answered with a quick grin. "But that's beside the point. Let me hold them and tell me what you think."
They traded places and she stood back to ponder the effect. With the wallpaper behind them, the combination of the unlikely pair was completely unprecedented...and it worked. "Damn you, Edouard. How do you come up with these things? Hold them there and I'll mark their places." He obeyed patiently as she fumbled for the light pencil and made tiny lines at the edges of the picture frames. There was enough gold and platinum in the pictures and frames to make them heavy, but he held them steady until she was finished. Then he carefully lowered them to the floor before turning around.
"You're beautiful," he observed quietly. His face was somber, but his eyes were alight.
She smiled at him, and patted his cheek. "So you tell me." Her long, dark hair was pulled back in a casual braid, and errant strands crowned her olive-skinned face and highlighting her golden eyes. She was not the most beautiful woman in the world, but his heart thought otherwise.
"I tell you because it's true." He stepped forward and bent down to kiss her forehead and cheek. She lifted her face toward his kisses in acceptance, then turned to reach for a hammer and a pair of nails.
"I'll put these in and let you hang the pictures."
A searing pain lanced through Edouard's head, and he opened his eyes with a groan. That was a mistake, and he shut his eyes quickly as he waited for the pain to pass. It did, as it always did. In a moment, he was able to open his eyes properly and take stock of his surroundings. It was a fairly large room, comfortably attired with several stuffed chairs, a low divan and a carefully enclosed firepit in the corner. Stairs led up toward a door that was closed, and from the way the room rocked gently, he guessed he was on a boat. The Highlander's barge, to be precise.
He was alive. Jesu Christi, iuvo me! The groan he uttered as he closed his eyes again had nothing to do with physical pain.
There came a soft rustling and a light footfall. He felt someone standing next to him, and then heard the sound of porcelain laid gently on a wooden surface. Then a crack, and a pop, and the smell of weak ale came to him. Beer. He yielded to the temptation of hoping that if he didn't open his eyes, everything would just go away. It didn't happen. It never did.
"Want to tell me about it?"
Edouard opened a baleful eye to look at the Highlander. He was standing a few feet away, patiently waiting for an answer to his question. Edouard saw no reason not to answer him.
There was a deep sigh and the Scot sat down in a chair next to the sofa. He leaned forward and took a bite-sized sandwich from the platter he had prepared while Edouard was unconscious. An uncomfortable silence followed as he chewed on the morsel, and Edouard made an automatic search for his sword. It was not nearby.
"Where is my sword?" he demanded.
"If I tell you, are you going to come after me again?" MacLeod asked flatly.
"What's the point?" Edouard demanded bitterly. "You won't fight me, so I'll find someone else."
Edouard didn't answer this time. He stood up and look around until he saw his coat hanging in the corner and his Arming sword resting on a table nearby. He went to the sword first and found that it had been well-cared for. It didn't surprise him that MacLeod would have respect for this weapon. He tucked it under an arm while reaching for his coat.
"You're not very gracious," MacLeod remarked. His voice remained cool and neutral, without a trace of accusation. He might have been commenting on the rain Paris was getting this year.
"Why should I be?" Edouard shot back. "I Challenged you, you beat me and you didn't take my head. Am I supposed to thank you for that? Fine, merci beaucoup et adieu."
An angry flash passed over the Highlander's face as he stood and crossed the room swiftly to tower over the smaller man. His dark eyes glittered dangerously. "Why me, then? You won't tell me why you're trying to commit suicide, so tell me why you want me to do it for you. You at least owe me that much."
Edouard muttered something under his breath too faint to catch.
Edouard pushed him aside and made his way to the door. "Because no one else is worthy," he said louder before slamming the door shut.
MacLeod stared at the door for a long time.
Knock, knock, knock.
She wasn't answering her door, so Edouard put down his package and tried the knob. Locked. He didn't have a key, but he hadn't lived so long to be thwarted by a simple door lock. With a quick glance around to make sure he wouldn't be interrupted, he easily slipped the latch. The door opened with a slight creak, and he picked up his package again. If she wasn't home then he would surprise her. The thought brought a smile to his face.
Her apartment was neat and comfortable, decorated sparsely but pleasantly in that way that always reminded him of her. He could smell the scent of vanilla candles she always loved to burn both to sweeten the air and save on electricity. She appreciated modern technology, but yearned for simpler times. He placed his hand on the worn antique couch she was constantly repairing and re-upholstering and thought of pleasant memories.
Halfway into the living room, he felt it. Someone was near. He automatically reached for the sword hidden in the folds of his coat, but relaxed as he realized it was probably her. Still, he didn't take his hand from his coat. It paid to be cautious, even when you were sure.
"Gabry?" he called. He heard a startled gasp to his left.
The bedroom. The door was slightly ajar.
The smile still on his lips, he pushed the door open to see her in bed with a man he didn't immediately recognize. Once noted, he ignored the man. She was heavenly, as she was the last time he saw her. Her hair was in wild disarray, beautifully displayed on the bed. Her full, sensuous lips were forming his name in shock. He never heard her speak. The package slipped from his arms and fell to the floor. The bottle of Rhone shattered, spilling the red wine over the floor. He closed his eyes tightly, wishing, praying, begging that when he opened them he would find her alone and waiting for him. He opened his eyes, and she was still with the other man. She was now scrambling to cover herself with the bedclothes, her mouth forming words he could not hear.
Something inside him broke, splintered beyond repair. He slowly turned and walked out of the apartment. His footsteps were slow and heavy, like an old, old man come to the end of his life. He didn't remember how long he walked the streets of Paris, only that the sun was peeking up over the horizon as he slipped his key into his door and collapsed fully clothed in his bed. He did not move for some time.
When he awoke the next day, he was dimly aware of his body craving food and a message light blinking on his answering machine. It was her, demanding to know what he thought he was doing, why didn't he call first and how dare he barge in like that? She never wanted to see him again, even if a thousand years passed. He was to leave her alone.
He nodded to himself. He could do that. He could leave her alone. He would leave her alone forever, as she wished. She had wished to separate for a while, and he did. She had wished to live on her own, and he agreed. She wanted to never see him again, and he could do that.
He reflexively checked the sword in his coat before stepping outside once again. He had no clear destination in mind, but it occurred to him that a good stiff drink was in order. Then, after he finished getting completely, thoroughly drunk, he would go out and hunt. Sooner or later, he would find a way to leave her alone.
Almost. Almost drunk. Edouard tossed back another glass of Chateau Potensac, a fine Bordeaux that warmed its way to the belly and helped him claw his way to oblivion. She would have appreciated it, though she would have scolded him for wasting such a good wine on a drunken fit of self-pity. She also would have suggested a Cabernet Franc, something from the Formentini vineyards. Damned Italian wines. Damned Italians.
The bartender approached with rag in hand, and swiftly ran it over a small drop of spilled liquor. The drop disappeared, and the bartender tucked the rag in his apron. "Encore?" he asked. He recognized the look on his customer's face and had made an attempt to talk, but the man simply ordered another round of Bordeaux.
Edouard nodded and held out his glass once more. The bartender filled it quickly and efficiently, then moved on to the next customer. Edouard sipped the alcohol this time, savoring the boutique: a '95, just come into its potency. He supposed it would be even better in sixty to seventy years, but he wasn't current on modern winemaking techniques. It didn't matter; this bottle was keeping him warm just the same.
A radio was playing music behind the bar, and it switched from whatever fad was current to something he hadn't heard in a few years. He recognized it instantly, and snarled.
"Just one year of love..."
"Turn it off!" he yelled, slamming his glass down. The bartender looked up, startled.
"...is better than a lifetime alone."
"I said turn it off!"
"Pardon?" The man was genuinely confused, the idiot. Edouard wasted no time, but hopped over the top of the bar and slammed his fist down on the radio.
"One sentimental moment in your arms is like a shooting star - " Click. Suddenly, strong hands grabbed him at the shoulders and began to shove him toward the exit. He twisted out of the grasp and stabbed his palm up into his assailant's face. He connected with the bartender's jaw and sent him sprawling. More hands reached for him, and he reacted instinctively to protect himself, blocking and striking as threats were identified and eliminated. The world became a blur of motion until someone broke a bottle over his head and he blacked out.
Pain, stabbing pain seared his brain and he moaned in agony, waiting for it to pass. His hands clutched at his head, and he felt his hair knotted with dried blood, though the wound that caused it was long healed. He smelled blood and urine and unwashed bodies too long in close proximity. "Please, not the Bastille!"
He heard coarse laughter nearby, and voices muttering low.
Then, the pain was gone and he lifted his head to find himself not in the Bastille as he had feared, but a modern jail. Probably just as bad, but they wouldn't cut off his head. There were six other men in the cell with him, lounging on thin cots or looking out the window. Two men sat in the middle of the floor, apparently shooting dice, having probably bribed a guard to bring them in. One of the men lounging on the cots was looking at him with a grin. He was fat and greasy and had at least three days growth on his face.
"Ah, the pretty boy has woken up at last!" The others looked up at this announcement and favored Edouard with a wide range of contemptuous looks. "What could a pretty boy like you be doing in a bad, bad place like this?"
Edouard sized up the fat man at a glance and decided there was no threat. The man was a bully and probably enjoyed inciting others to violence, but would never be able to stand on his own. If it came to it, Edouard would separate the man and stare him down, but he didn't anticipate an immediate need. He ignored the taunts and jeers of his fellow prisoners and looked for a clock. 10:22. Between his drunkenness and the blow to his head, he must have been out at least nine hours. It felt right; he was ravenously hungry after at least a day or two without eating. His memory was slightly disjointed and unreliable.
He paced out the length and breadth of the cell instinctively; fairly large, well-built and maintained. No serious cracks that could be worn away in under a month, and he didn't anticipate staying here that long. The bars were spaced close together, and a sturdy wire mesh blocked access to the glass panes of the window behind it. He and the other six men in the cell were not cramped; it could easily accommodate another half dozen or so before it became seriously crowded.
He continued to pace back and forth along the outside wall, angry and frustrated over the circumstances that brought him here. He didn't remember too much of the events leading up to his arrest, but he clearly recalled defending himself from a raging mob. At least nowadays the mobs weren't enamored of Madame Guillotine. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets to keep them from fidgeting overmuch and paced with his eyes fixed on his shoes.
"I said, sit down pretty boy! You make me tired just looking at you!" The fat man's voice rang out loud enough to break him from his reverie. Edouard looked up to see the fat man standing to one side with thick arms crossed and feet planted aggressively. Mentally, he kicked himself for not recognizing the growing threat and stopped it before it went too far. Now the other five were watching with that peculiar look in their eye that spoke of hunting packs with cornered prey. He had never meant to allow himself to become prey, and now he would be forced to rectify it.
"If you don't like looking at me, close your eyes," he suggested quietly. His eyes narrowed slightly as he assessed the man's belligerent stance and dilated pupils. The fat man was expecting an easy win and was clearly blind to the danger he was putting himself in. "I suggest you sit your own ass down before it gets bruised."
"Oh ho, look here friends! The little puppy has a bark to him! Never bark at the wolf, little puppy." The fat man swept his hand out in a wide arc intended to catch Edouard upside the head. It never had a chance to connect.
Anyone who blinked would have missed it. Edouard caught the careless swipe and twisted the hand and arm around, so the fat man was forced to kneel before the bones in his joints snapped. He gave out a sharp cry of pain as first his arm and then his knees protested the abuse given them.
Edouard intended to give the man one last bit of advice regarding his continued well-being when his attention was caught by the presence of another Immortal. His head snapped up and his eyes swept the room. He continued to grasp the hand and arm of the fat man in his strong grip, utterly forgotten for the moment.
"Attention!" cried a guard as he stepped into the room. Edouard immediately released the fat man, who collapsed blubbering to the floor. A step behind the guard was the Highlander. What the hell was he doing here?
"What do you think you were doing to that man?" the guard demanded.
Edouard gave a small shrug. "Teaching him to mind his manners."
"Est-ce que ca va bien monsieur?" the guard continued.
The fat man shook his head as if to clear it, then sighed, rotating his arm and wrist. "Ca va, je n'ai rien. J'ai juste été surpris." He lifted his head and glared at Edouard. "It will not happen again, I assure you."
The guard contemplated them for a moment, then directed a stern look toward Edouard. "Monsieur Ravon, you have a visitor." Then he stepped back to allow the Highlander to approach the cell.
Edouard stepped up to the bars and hissed, "What are you doing here, MacLeod?"
"To find out what you're doing here," the Scot replied easily. His stance was deceptively calm and relaxed. He could explode in any direction at the slightest provocation.
"That's none of your business," Edouard declared heatedly.
"That's true. And if you say so, I'll turn around and walk away. But you need help, and you need someone you can trust." MacLeod's voice dropped in pitch so only Edouard could hear. "I think I proved to you last night that you can trust me."
Edouard had no answer to this. But it was true; everything he had studied and learned about the Highlander said it was true. MacLeod was a man of honor and integrity. Once his word was given, he would move mountains to keep it. Edouard could not deny that MacLeod was a powerful ally if he so desired, and Edouard was having such an alliance offered to him.
Except that Edouard didn't want MacLeod's help. Not the way the Highlander was offering it. Edouard just wanted the suffering to end, and he went after MacLeod because the man could win and wouldn't abuse the Quickening. Edouard's shoulders slumped in despair. He could give no answer.
"Please, let me help. If only to talk."
Edouard paused for a long moment, then let out a long sigh of capitulation. "Oui."
MacLeod turned to the guard and favored him with his winning smile. "Monsieur, I have posted this man's bail. Please release him into my custody."
The guard looked at Edouard with great suspicion, then to MacLeod. He took the papers MacLeod produced and made a great show of looking them over. To his regret, they were correct. "Tout est en ordre, monsieur MacLeod. It is your head."
Both Immortals blinked at this statement, and independently concluded it was coincidence. MacLeod stared the officer's left wrist for a long moment, but Edouard couldn't figure out what he was looking for. Then MacLeod stepped back to allow the cell to be opened. Edouard let himself be processed.
A short while later, the two Immortals were on their way back to the Seine. Neither spoke a word the entire trip.
"Edouard? Edouard, pick up the phone! Edouard, you bloody fool, stop making me talk to this godforsaken machine and pick up! Edouard!"
There was a click, and silence reigned in the small room, except for the sharp, brief slash of stone on metal. It was a harsh sound, conveying more threat of violence and death than anything he could think of. It warmed and comforted him like nothing else could. The Arming sword was honed to razor sharpness, to the point that any slip of the hand would slice his flesh to the bone. It was a long habit born of necessity, and such slips were rare. Still, they happened and his bedspread was stained with blood from such occasions. He never noticed.
On the stand next to the bed sat a sheaf of papers detailing the movements and habits of Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Edouard was satisfied that he should be the one to take his head and end his suffering.
On the floor next to the stand lay the splinters of a picture frame. The window itself was shattered and the picture within much abused. But if you looked, you could still make out the features of a beautiful woman gazing upon the short, powerful man standing next to her. It was a look he knew well. A look that could melt him like spring snow during the thaw. A look that had inspired him for almost a century.
A look he would not see again.
The stone rasped along the edge of the blade over and over again, filling his ears and vying for dominance in his mind. It failed to drown out the memory of her laughter or stop the flow of tears from his eyes.
Edouard sipped the cognac lightly, admiring its fire and letting the eau-de-vie work its magic through him. He was still very tense and edgy, but the brandy was slowly relaxing him as it always had. He let his mind wander briefly back to older, happier times, a time before she came into his life. MacLeod sat across the room from him, tasting his own wine and watching him intently with his dark eyes. Edouard was distinctly uncomfortable under that gaze, but endured it stoically.
MacLeod set his snifter down with a sigh and stood up to begin preparation for dinner. Edouard's eyes lost their faraway gaze and locked onto him, assessing whether or not he represented a threat.
"Relax, Ravon. I thought a little spiced chicken salad would do us both some good." MacLeod walked over to his small kitchen and began to prepare the ingredients for his intended meal.
Edouard waited until the Highlander passed behind his vision, then went back to staring into his glass. The golden liquid brought back happy memories of his early days as a wine merchant selling the best stock of Cognac under his father's tutelage. MacLeod's vintage was at least as good as anything he and his father sold in those happy times, a fine Napoleon. His mind went to the process and history of the brandy as MacLeod puttered in the background. Abruptly, it occurred to him that the color of the Cognac in his hand was the exact same color of her eyes.
He wasn't in the mood for Cognac anymore. He put the snifter down and closed his eyes to banish the image of her eyes from his mind. He listened to the chop of the paring knife through raw vegetables behind him. He thought of the smell of summer apples in his family's orchard. He thought of the thrill of riding his horse along the country roads, racing past the peasants as if they stood still. He thought of the comfortable weight of his sword as he trained long and hard to become the deadliest swordsman he could become. He thought of the look in his mentor's eyes as he progressed, and the naked fear when he took his first head. He hadn't thought of Raul in decades. Raul who kept so much hidden, who said so little and did no more than required. He always wondered why Raul had taken him under his wing and taught him as much as he had. Their parting was abrupt and not entirely unexpected. He thought of the softness of her skin as they shared a bath, splashing scented water -
He stood up and headed for the door. He needed a breath of air to clear his head and unclench his fists.
"Is there something wrong?" MacLeod asked quietly. He didn't pause in his meal preparations.
Edouard didn't turn around. "I'm not going far. I just want to step outside for a moment. I swear I won't run away."
"I know. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"No, I'm not all right," Edouard replied in a low voice. "But you already knew that. I'll live; it's our curse."
He slipped into his coat, checked his sword, and slipped quietly into the night air of Paris. He stood at the stern of the barge watching the night lights flicker in the darkness. He schooled himself against thinking about her, tried not to wonder if she was there behind one of the lights. He utterly refused to allow himself to remember walking along the Seine with her warm hand clasping his arm. He shut down any thoughts about the smell of her hair as it mingled with the aroma from restaurants along Le rue Marbeuf. He almost succeeded.
A short while later, MacLeod stepped out into the night holding a plate. "Dinner, Ravon."
Edouard turned away from the night, accepted the plate with a word of thanks and followed the Highlander back inside. He was hungrier than he thought.
Parry, parry, lunge...merde! Edouard lost his sword for the fifth time that afternoon, and cursed bitterly as he nursed his aching wrist. After a few days of moping, MacLeod had announced that his skills were getting rusty, and he needed a sparring partner. He had taken Edouard to a privately owned fencing club, where they were able to duel without fear of interruption or unwelcome voyeurs likely to ask difficult questions. MacLeod was demonstrating a different disarming technique each time he forced Edouard to drop his sword. Then, he would explain the principles of the technique and drill Edouard until he was satisfied.
Edouard hadn't sweated so much during sword practice for nearly a hundred years.
"Don't let your frustration get the better of you, Ravon," MacLeod advised calmly. He stood with his katana tucked behind his arm, waiting patiently for his sparring partner to recover and re-engage. He didn't so much as show a drop of sweat on his forehead, damn the man. "You're picking these up very quickly. It's a credit to your ability."
"I feel like an errant schoolboy picking up his first fencing foil when we spar," Edouard complained as he settled the Arming sword into his hand and stepped back for a few practice swings to loosen his wrist. The ache was fading rapidly, and he waited until it was gone before settling back into guard position. "I pick my fights carefully, MacLeod; I always make sure I know how good my opponent is before I accept a Challenge."
"Before Tuesday," MacLeod noted cautiously.
"Before Tuesday," Edouard agreed. Without further discussion he leapt forward in a feint at MacLeod's sword arm, followed by a swift cut toward the forward thigh. MacLeod stepped aside at the last moment, lightly deflecting the attack with his blade and executing a flawless riposte. The tip of his sword stopped half a centimeter from Edouard's chest, over his heart.
Edouard tensed, then relaxed and laid his sword down. "I yield the field to you, sir." He bowed with Old World grace before sitting down heavily on the floor and mopping his face with the towel around his neck.
MacLeod knelt Japanese-fashion and regarded him intently. Edouard paused and looked back at him. "What now?"
MacLeod took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then said quietly, "Do you want to talk about her?"
Edouard was on his feet before he knew it and swinging his sword with all his might. There was no conscious thought, only action and reaction. When he regained his senses a split second later, he found that his blade had sliced into the Highlander's chest to draw a dark line of blood. Had MacLeod been any slower, he would have lost his head; the attack was wholly unexpected.
Edouard paused with his sword trembling over his head, breathing heavily as though he had just finished a twelve kilometer race. Deliberate thought was slow to return.
MacLeod stood five paces away, katana at his side ready for action. There was confusion and anger in equal measure in his eyes. Both of them tried to ignore the dark red stain growing on the front of his shirt.
Edouard opened his mouth but found it difficult to speak. Finally, he asked, "How do you know about her?"
MacLeod shook his head but did not relax. "I can't say, but I swear my sources are benign. I asked some questions of someone who heard about you, but they swore me to secrecy."
"You have no right, no right to meddle in such things!"
"You brought me into this, Ravon! You Challenged me because you can't bear to go on, and you made it my responsibility to do something about it. Since I won't take your head, I have to find another way."
"There is no other way!" Edouard brought his sword down with all the strength he could muster, and buried it solidly in the floor where MacLeod had stood not two seconds ago. He flipped forward, twisting the sword out of the floor in mid-leap and landed in a crouch before twisting to block MacLeod's blade with his own.
The battle was bloody and long. Edouard dropped any pretense of training or strategy, completely focused on sheathing his blade in MacLeod's body so he could take his head without interruption. MacLeod, for his part, ceased to merely defend and met blow for blow with equal ferocity. Within moments they were each bloodied and gasping for breath. The rage in Edouard's breast settled down into a wintry fury, and he decided on an uppercut, changing his mind at the last second to aim for the belly. He felt a cold elation as he felt the heavy blade sink home. His joy of victory was dulled as he realized MacLeod's katana had slipped through his ribs and pierced a lung at the same moment.
They both collapsed on the floor in tandem, dead in moments.
Edouard doubled over in pain as the first shock of breath rippled through his body. He ached everywhere, and breathing was particularly difficult. He lay still, concentrating on the location of each ache and pain until they gradually went away. He automatically reached for his sword, but couldn't find it. He was aware of another Immortal's presence nearby, but reasoned that if his head was still attached to his neck, then it would probably stay that way at least until he finished healing.
He sat up and looked for his sword. MacLeod held it loosely in his left hand while his own katana was tucked up underneath his right arm. He was watching Edouard without expression. "Feeling better?" he asked solicitously.
Edouard nodded, shuddering to think of how vulnerable he was.
MacLeod hefted the Arming sword, then tossed it back to its owner. "You fought far better that time than you did when we first met. It was much harder to anticipate your attacks."
Edouard reflexively checked the condition of his blade and found it to be satisfactory. He wiped away a small dot of blood near the guard. "I - I never did that before. I stopped thinking about it and merely fought. I was so enraged that I could not think of strategy or defense. All I could think of was your blood. I...I apologize, MacLeod. It was unwarranted."
"You've reached another level of mastery," the Highlander stated, ignoring everything else Edouard had said. "You've come to the place where all you've ever learned before was just preparation for this event. You've stopped fencing and started fighting. It's an important step."
"What do you mean?"
"You know how to ride a horse, right?"
"Well, there are technical aspects to riding a horse, and you can study them until you know everything you need to, in your head. When it actually comes to riding the horse and applying your knowledge, it's a completely different matter. You have to learn the personality of the horse, learn how to dominate the horse's actions and put all those facts to use. After a while, everything you learned about riding horses becomes automatic, and you stop thinking about it. You still do it, but you cease being aware of it. It's the same with your sword. You cease to think about what you're doing, and just do it. It makes you far more dangerous."
Edouard spent a while digesting this while tending to his sword. Everything MacLeod told him made perfect sense, but he never thought about it that way. Then he considered the Highlander's fighting style in this light. "You still apply knowledge. You still plan attack, strategy and defense in your style."
"To a point," MacLeod admitted. "The more I can read my opponent, the more I plan a strategy. The moment I realize I can't anticipate an attack, I stop planning and start fighting. There are times when I'm able to do both, but I'm still learning."
"Why didn't you take my head this time?" Edouard asked directly. "I might have taken yours. I was certainly trying hard enough."
MacLeod's face sobered quickly. "Even good men can be driven to desperate acts, when they hurt deeply enough."
Edouard glared at him. "You say that as if you could possibly understand. You can't!"
There was a moment of silence. MacLeod shook his head. "But I can."
"J't'adore, m'cher," Edouard whispered as he snuggled a little closer against her warm back. A languid glow settled over him as he breathed in her hair and he sighed contentedly. It would be seventy years tomorrow, and although he laid odds she thought he had forgotten, he had not. He had a surprise in store for her, to be delivered here at the house while he distracted her elsewhere. He smiled in anticipation of the reaction he would elicit.
"Adorares me," she replied quietly. She lay passively in his arms.
A moment later it occurred to him that something was wrong, and said as much.
"There's nothing wrong, Orso," she told him, invoking her pet name for him. She patted his hand gently, as a mother would for her child. "Go to sleep."
"Are you sure? It feels as if something is bothering you." He was now fully awake and focused on the problem...whatever it was. A cold dread had crept into his heart, but as yet it had no name. He didn't even have a glimmer of what had spawned it. All he knew was that whatever was bothering her would have profound consequences for him, as well.
"Yes, yes I'm sure." Her voice had a slightly exasperated tone now, deepening the dread growing inside him. "Now please, go to sleep. I need my rest for my meeting tomorrow."
They lay together awake, neither wishing to admit to the other that sleep was far away. His thoughts were filled with tormented images of ways he might have upset her or failed her, things that she might want to say to him but be afraid to. He wanted to squeeze her to his chest and tell her she had no need to fear him for anything she had to say. She could curse him and say the most despicable things. She could (and his heart nearly froze as the thought entered his mind) leave him and still have no fear of him. He would never hurt her or take any manner of retribution upon her.
But she knew this, and he did not want to hear her voice take on that annoyed tone again, so he let it be for the nonce. He would speak with her tomorrow.
What she thought of, he could not guess. But he knew she was as wide awake as he. He did not know when sleep finally overtook him.
When he woke to the buzzing of the alarm clock, she was not in bed with him, and he could not feel her presence in the house. He was extremely tired and took a cold shower to make himself more alert, trying not to hope for a hint of her presence. He failed to suppress his disappointment.
The day dragged by interminably, and he was forced to concede that he needed to leave early before he caused any more damage. His company was well-staffed with extremely bright and competent people. They were surprised to see him so disturbed, for he had always been the driving force behind the success of the business. This day he could not focus on the tasks at hand, but was constantly drifting back to his hopes and fears about her. With regret, he gave his people a word of encouragement and hurried out the door.
She would not be out of her meeting until at least 4:00, and he had several hours to kill. He called to confirm delivery of his surprise, and was relieved to discover all was well, and they were waiting for the appointed time. He wandered the city, carefully watching for tell-tale warnings of other Immortals and trying to stay out of trouble.
4:30 rolled around, and he made his way to her office shortly after 5:00. He whistled a merry tune in an attempt to bolster his spirits as he rode the elevator up to her office. He felt her presence as her floor approached, and a happy smile crossed his face. He could never be sad when he came near her. He slipped between the doors in time to see a tall, handsome fellow kiss her on the cheek and shake her hand. Her expression was caught between happiness and sadness.
"I take it your meeting was a success?" Edouard asked with a smile for her. The other man started at his voice and looked to see who had arrived.
"Very successful, thank you," she told him. Then she turned back to the man who was congratulating her. "Thank you, Davide. I'll call you next week."
Davide nodded and swiftly retreated from the lobby for his own office. It seemed to Edouard that Davide was acting suspiciously, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He decided to put it aside for the moment.
"What are you doing here?" she asked Edouard as she lead the way back to her office.
"I thought we were going out to dinner tonight," he replied. "Was I mistaken?"
"Oh no, Edouard, I'm sorry. I completely forgot, and I have to finish the changes to our proposal by ten to get them emailed back to the States. Can I take a raincheck?"
"May I bring you something while you work? I know how you forget to eat when you get into a project," he said with a grin. He laid his hands on her shoulders to massage them, but she shrugged out of his grasp.
"No, thank you. I've already ordered something from the deli and I really have to get this done now." She stepped behind her desk and began to sort through an intimidating pile of papers.
He frowned. This was not working out the way he had planned. "Maybe I could help you with something, so you can finish it early?"
"No, Edouard," she told him firmly. "This is for me to do. I'll be home later tonight."
Her tone stung him, but he struggled not to show it. He nodded silently and left without another word.
The ride home took an eternity.
It was very late before he heard the lock turn under her key, and he put down the glass of port he was sipping in front of the fireplace. He was slightly drunk and he knew it. He also knew it wasn't helping his mood. He continued to stare into the dying embers of the fire he had built hours ago. He heard her gasp of astonishment as she discovered his surprise for her, and her exclamation, "What is this?"
He didn't answer.
"Edouard?" she called from the hallway. When he still didn't respond, she began to wander through the house looking for him. When she found him in the den, she said, "Edouard, what is that in the parlor?"
"Your surprise," he answered quietly.
"My surprise? What do you mean? What is it?"
"You didn't open it." It wasn't a question.
"It's a Botticelli. I found it in Denmark last May, and arranged to have it delivered here tonight."
"What in the world possessed you to do that?"
The cold dread clutching his heart turned into a dagger of ice. Finally he turned to face her. "It's our anniversary tonight." He hoped his face didn't reflect his torment.
"Oh, Edouard," she said sadly. Neither of them moved for long moments, then she walked up to him and sat down on the couch facing him. "I wanted to talk to you."
He nodded, taking another sip of port to steady himself.
"I've been feeling hemmed in, lately," she began slowly. "Imprisoned in my own home. I - Edouard, I want to move out for a while, live on my own. Seventy years is a long time to be together, and I think we'll both benefit from a brief separation."
Separation. The word sent shards of pain through his soul, but he bore it silently. "Was it something I did or said? What did I do wrong?" He tried to keep the shaking out of his voice, but he heard it wavering and cursed his weakness. He needed to be strong now, of all times.
"No, no Orso. It isn't your fault. But the world is changing, and I need to change with it." She sat primly on the couch, not reaching out to him or touching him in any way. He laid his hand on the cushion next to her, inviting her to take it in hers, to touch him, to give him some comfort or reminder that she still loved him. She didn't move.
"Where will you go?" he asked quietly.
"Into the city. Perhaps somewhere along the Seine. I won't be gone long, I swear." Her eyes begged him to believe her. He wondered why he couldn't. But he couldn't look into those golden eyes and say no.
"Do you want me to help you look for a place, or help you move?"
"No," she said firmly. "This is for me to do." The same thing she said earlier in her office. She didn't want his interference. She didn't want his support.
She didn't want him.
"Give me a year," she said. "One year to re-discover the world and see the changes in it and in myself. Then we'll talk."
Not return. Talk. His heart was breaking into countless pieces, falling upon the floor with a crash that would wake the dead. A log popped in the fireplace, startling him. He discovered he had spilled some of his port on the rug.
She wanted to go. He couldn't stop her, though he wanted to so very badly. He could not say no to her.
She hadn't told him she had already signed a lease. She was gone by morning without another word to him.
"Was Davide the man she was with when you surprised her a year later?" MacLeod asked as he mopped the floor to remove their bloodstains.
Edouard nodded, focusing grimly on the stubborn stain in the hardwood under his hands. He was scrubbing with all his might, as if erasing the blood he had spilled might somehow sponge away the hurt still fresh after so much time. "I didn't really pay attention to him even then. I don't care that he was with her. I care that I was not. Am not. Will not be." He struggled for the words to explain the void in his heart and found none. He closed his mouth and continued to scrub with renewed vigor.
MacLeod was silent as he worked, absorbing the details of the tale Edouard had told him. Edouard knew MacLeod had never had such a relationship with another Immortal, though he had lost loves under numerous circumstances. Edouard had to admit that it was difficult to say whether it was harder to lose someone to death than to lose someone who chose to go away. Both circumstances had their own flavor of hell. At the moment, Edouard was deeply immersed in the latter.
"Have you spoken with her since?" the Highlander asked.
"No," Edouard said firmly. "She said she never wanted to see me again, so she won't."
"She hasn't tried to reach you?"
Edouard said nothing. Rather, as he scrubbed he considered what he had told MacLeod, and why. He realized he had told MacLeod things he hadn't spoken of in nearly a year, and smiled to himself when he realized how MacLeod had drawn it out of him. Sparring practice, indeed.
"She has? And you haven't responded?" MacLeod prompted. He was met with stony silence. "Edouard, you can't lose anything by talking to her if she's been trying to reach you."
There was another pause. "What about my soul?"
MacLeod found he had no answer to that. But Edouard answered it for him, though it didn't make him feel better.
"What if it's already lost?"
Edouard tried to still his hand as he waited impatiently for her to pick up the phone. He almost succeeded.
Come on, dammit. Pick up the goddamned phone! He shut his eyes tightly and hoped he would be able to find the courage to do this a second time. He almost didn't find it this time.
Ring, ring - click. "Allo?"
A great weight lifted from his chest, replaced by another completely different one. She was there, and he heard her voice with its unmistakable Italian accent she couldn't lose no matter where she lived or how long she was there. It sparked an emotion in him he didn't want to acknowledge. But now he had to talk to her.
"Hello? Who is this?"
"Gabriella," he said hoarsely.
"Edouard? My god, are you all right? You sound terrible!" The concern in her voice confused him. What did she feel? What did she want? He recognized that at some point in the past year (possibly longer, though he tried not to think about it), he had lost touch with her feelings and desires. He desperately wanted to understand, but it felt hopeless.
"I - I'd like to speak with you." He was trembling so badly he was afraid he might drop the phone, but he barely noticed. Every fiber of his being was focused on the voice emanating from the phone.
"Oh, Edouard, why didn't you pick up the phone? I tried to call you for days. Why didn't you talk to me then?" Her voice picked up the exasperated tone that made him cringe.
"I couldn't. I...just couldn't. Can we meet? I need to see you." I need to hold you.
"This is bad timing. Could I see you tomorrow night? At the Louvre. Eleven o'clock?"
"Are you with him?" He hadn't meant to say it, didn't even know he was going to. His own vehemence startled him. "I - I'm sorry. Don't answer that, I don't care. I just - tomorrow. Eleven 'o clock at the Louvre."
"All right, tomorrow then. Take care of yourself, Edouard. Don't lose your head." Click.
"What about my soul?" he asked again. He found no answer.
There came a gentle knock at his door. "Come," he called.
MacLeod opened the door and looked in without entering the room. "You spoke to her?"
He nodded, finally remembering to hang up the phone as it beeped loudly at him. "She - I'll see her tomorrow, at the Louvre."
MacLeod nodded. "Do you want company?"
"No, thank you. I should do this alone." This is for me to do. Oh god. Tomorrow couldn't come too soon.
Once again assuring MacLeod that he did not need backup for this venture, Edouard walked along the Seine for a mile or so trying to decide whether to walk or hail a cab. It was yet early in the evening and the middle of the week, so not only did he have the time to walk to the Louvre, but he expected it would be exceedingly difficult to flag down a cab. He elected to walk. The sun had set early, and low clouds made the night sky even darker. There wasn't much wind so he wasn't worried about being caught in a sudden rainstorm, but the night was chilly.
As he walked, he considered all the things he wanted to say to her, and alternately hoped and dreaded what she might say to him. Would she take him back? Would she send him away forever? Would she ask to remain friends? God help him, he couldn't stand the last possibility. It would kill him if that was what she wanted. To be near her, but not touch her, not taste her, not be an intimate part of her as he had been for so long. It would drive him insane.
But, wasn't he insane already? He put that question aside, for the moment.
Edouard found himself on the curb of l'avenue du Général-Lemonnier not far from the underground car park of the Louvre. It would be closing soon, and traffic was almost dead. He crossed the street quickly and checked his watch. 10:57. He was right on time.
He crossed the threshold of the car park and immediately felt the presence of another Immortal. A wide smile appeared on his face. Gabry...
Not a heartbeat later, a tremendous explosion went off around the corner, complete with lightning and thunder. A Quickening. Gabry, no! Edouard broke into a dead run, reaching for his sword as he moved. He heard the startled shout of an attendant behind him, but he paid it no mind. Please, let it not be her. Please, God, keep her safe!
His footsteps echoed loudly off the walls and he fought down his anxiety - he was taking too long! His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword as he rounded the corner and found a tall, dark man on his knees, his face still twisted in a mix of agony and ecstasy. On the ground beside him lay a small body clutching an elegant sword he knew so well. Edouard let loose an animal roar and attacked.
The dark man looked up in surprise and rolled away just in time to avoid decapitation. As Edouard swung around for another two-handed attack, he gained his feet lithely and brought his own Roman blade to bear. There was a heavy clang of metal on metal as Edouard's cut was stopped cold, but the dark man visibly winced under the onslaught.
"Did I interrupt something," he asked facetiously. "I do apologize, but I simply could not pass up the opportunity." His voice carried a cultured ring to it, that of a man long accustomed to nobility.
Edouard gave no reply except with his blade. Cut, cut, thrust, parry. He threw himself to one side to avoid losing an arm and came back with a deadly combination of feints and thrusts. The dark man turned them aside, but barely.
"Aren't you - " Clang. " - forgetting something - " Clang. " - dear boy?" The dark man stepped back with a deliberate opening for Edouard to overthrust, but the bait was not taken. Edouard paused to glare at him.
"You're supposed to give your name at the beginning of a Challenge," the man admonished. "Where are your manners?"
"I'll have your head, pig," Edouard spat. "I'll give you my name after I give you my steel."
They came together again with another clash of steel, and rebounded without effect. Two more exchanges went by, then Edouard slipped. His adversary took full advantage of it and slashed his sword across Edouard's forearm. Edouard gasped and stepped back, switching his blade to one hand. His left arm was now useless to him, and he knew he would not have the time to let it heal.
"First blood, how satisfying!" the dark man crowed. "Two Quickenings in less than an hour. What fun!"
Edouard narrowed his eyes and stepped into a classic fencing pose. It hadn't fooled MacLeod, and he didn't think it would fool this one either. He felt his body protest as his reserves began to drain away in the punishing stance. He willed his hand to stop trembling, and it did. Excellent.
Would you join her? something inside him whispered. He did not answer, but cleared his mind.
The dark man did not wait to press his attack. He knew the more he prolonged the encounter, the more difficult it would be to make his escape from les gendarmes. That, and it would give this madman he fought more time to heal. He circled to the left, trying to force Edouard to back into the body of the woman he had just slain.
Edouard backed up two steps, then launched an attack with blinding speed, performing a maneuver that should have been impossible for the Arming sword. He had practiced for years to make sure it wasn't.
Again their blades collided and parted, but Edouard did not relent his attack. He focused all his rage and skill into an onslaught that drove the dark man back. His opponent was briefly surprised, but not long enough to allow a serious advantage. He was, however, too late.
Edouard had taken the step beyond skill, and simply fought. One-handed, he beat away every sally by the dark man and forced him to retreat bit by bit. His world narrowed down to focus on the blade in his hand and the steel in front of him. All else fell away to a place beyond emotion or thought.
There was a clatter of metal as a sword hit the ground unsupported. Edouard blinked and discovered he had disarmed the dark man. A wry grin crossed his face. "MacLeod," he breathed.
"What?" demanded the dark man, eyeing him with dismay and attempting to position himself to grab his fallen sword.
"There can be only one," Edouard said louder, and swung.
A whisper of steel, then a soft thud as the dark man's head bounced on the pavement. Edouard dropped his sword and turned toward his lover's body. "Gabry," he whispered, and then the Quickening began.
"If you don't hurry, you're going to miss it!" she shouted up to Edouard. Her small, graceful body was practically bouncing with excitement as she searched the night sky. There, that was one! And there, another! "Orso, you're missing it! It's beginning!"
He stepped outside, carefully balancing a pair of steaming mugs as he walked up to her. His eyes wandered toward the sky as he beheld the beginning of the Geminid meteor shower. "Gods, they're beautiful," he said in wonder.
"Yes, yes they are! Oh Orso, look there! A fireball!" She pointed and clapped her hands with glee, sending her hair flying wildly in the night air. He smiled at her and handed her a mug of hot chocolate.
"Pretty Gabry, one might think you'd never seen a meteor shower before," he teased before kissing her temple affectionately.
"My father used to take me outside to watch them when I was young," she said with a smile. Even in the night, he could see her golden eyes shining bright. "It was something he and I did alone; no one else wanted to stand out in the cold. It became something just for us. They've always made me happy, because I'll always cherish that memory of him."
He wrapped his arms around her waist and looked up again. They watched the night sky fill with streaming balls of light, hot chocolate growing cold and forgotten in their hands.
"Thank you for sharing this with me," he whispered in her ear. She kissed him in reply and continued to watch the stars.
"Where will you go?" MacLeod asked as he watched Edouard pack a single suitcase. "I hate to see you leave like this." His face betrayed some inner torment Edouard could not read.
"Home," Edouard replied softly. He paused to observe his hand for a moment. No trembling. Good. "I haven't been to Cognac in some time, and I need to get away for a while. After that, who knows? Perhaps I'll take a retreat in Tibet, learn a few mantras from the lamas. I don't know. Nothing really seems important anymore."
"I understand," MacLeod told him, with feeling. "But should you feel so inclined, here are a few numbers you can call to reach me at any time. Don't hesitate to ask for anything you need."
"You're very kind," Edouard said as he accepted the slip of paper handed to him. "You've been kind to me from the beginning, and I'm afraid my manners were found lacking. One day, I promise, I'll call. Not soon, I'm afraid, but some day."
MacLeod nodded and stepped aside to allow Edouard out of the room. "One thing," he asked hesitantly as the smaller man started down the hall. "Did you get a chance to talk to her at all, before it was over? Did you get an answer?"
Edouard stopped and hung his head. Oh, Gabry... Somewhere, deep inside his soul, she was there. She was a part of him. He could seek oblivion as before, or he could learn to live again and fan the spark of her life within. He had yet to decide. He still had so many questions unanswered, and he expected they would remain that way. There was a part of him that said he could learn to live with it, and he felt it was the only thing keeping him alive.
He took a deep breath before he was able to speak again. "No," he said, and walked away.
Clenched in his pocket, he held a small, torn, bloodstained note in her flowing script. "My dearest Orso," it read. "I feel that the time has come to close this chapter of our lives, and I think you feel the same - " The rest was covered with her blood, and illegible. It was almost readable, but not quite. Almost.