Thanks to Tansy for beta-reading, and to Tritorella, MacGeorge, Cathy Butterfield, and other members of the HL Writers Workshop for advice and instruction. This story is still full of flaws, but it could have been much worse.
In fact, to prove that assertion, let me mention that this is the first HL story I ever started, many years ago, and it used to include Connor, Rebecca, and many coincidences before it rambled aimlessly to a finish. Of course, it still does some of that...
Involved by Laura Mason
Duncan bent over a vine, still a little clumsy at handling the grapes he'd been conscripted to harvest. He straightened for a moment to stretch his back and wipe his face, squinting in the bright October sun as he noted the position of the guards and his men.
There it was again -- the unmistakable Presence. Once more he scanned the area, searching for the other immortal. No one met his eyes. The prisoners remained bent over their work; the guards stood in their positions, calmly watching the workers. He stooped and returned to his own labor, praying there wasn't a newly-made immortal among the prisoners.
He'd never intended to remain in German custody for nearly a month after he'd been caught up in their search for harvest workers. He'd gone to Reims to act as British Intelligence's intermediary with the fledgling French Resistance, knowing there was important work he could do. He should have made his escape weeks ago, before they were transported to Champagne-Ardennes. Instead, he'd become one of the leaders of the group of prisoners now housed with him in the abandoned farmhouse.
But he'd been drawn into a leadership role after hearing rumors that they were all headed for camps in Germany once the harvest was finished. No way to know if these men would be manning the short-handed factories of the Reich or be sent straight to concentration camps. Helping the others escape had seemed like the right decision, but it had led to his current dilemma. Once he'd been marched into the fields, where they joined other groups of prisoners, he'd felt the Presence for the first time.
Now Duncan felt unable to leave, his mind full of the horrors that could be inflicted if their captors somehow learned about an immortal. Of course the Nazis would want an army of undying soldiers, and Duncan had lived long enough to have a healthy fear of being experimented upon. He had to find this other immortal and include him in their escape, particularly if he was unaware of his true nature.
But the men of his camp had no reason to delay and were tired of his excuses. The escape plan was ready, and they wanted to implement it in time to disrupt the harvest. Jean-Paul had even promised to put him in touch with the Resistance in Chalons once they were free. Perhaps he could come back for the unknown immortal. Wiping his hands on his slacks, Duncan rose again, ready to give the signal.
Just then a disruption started at the edge of the field. Guards were running, guns drawn, and all work stopped as the prisoners, too, moved closer to the excitement. He joined them, looking for a chance to use this distraction of the guards to his group's advantage, but fearing their escape had been delayed another day. Jean-Paul met his eyes with a frustrated shrug as they neared the commotion.
He finally got close enough to see two men locked together in a fist fight, surrounded by cheering prisoners and laughing guards. The presence was nearby, and Duncan concentrated on the crowd until he realized one of the fighters was the immortal. He took just one step toward them, wanting to stop the fight before any guards could notice this man's bruises healing, but he was held back by several of his men.
"The Commandant is here. Leave them," Jean-Paul hissed angrily. Duncan understood his frustration at yet another delay and nodded to him, pulling himself free.
The Commandant's arrival meant the guards finally moved to break up the fight and pull the two men apart. Duncan realized that he knew one of them -- it was Andre, who'd just been moved to their camp last week. The other, the immortal, was a stranger. He was tall and thin, and had evidently been in custody a long time as he looked half-starved. His emaciation emphasized the sharpness of his features. His hair fell over his face as a guard forced him to his knees and held him while another kicked his ribs.
When the immortal looked up again, Duncan saw blazing hazel eyes that flickered toward him with clear recognition before moving to glare back at the guards. This man was an experienced immortal after all, and Duncan felt a moment's anger at the time he'd wasted worrying about the fool.
"French pigs! On your knees." The Commandant struck the immortal again, then motioned to Andre. "Take that one to the wagons, clean him up." Punishment was not done in private; interrogations were. Fortunately, Andre didn't know the details of their escape plan, just that they were moving today, which was no longer true. But was there any way to keep the guards from noticing that this idiotic immortal was healing?
But it wasn't necessary to distract them. The Commandant ordered the guards to line up the prisoners to view the punishment for fighting. Once they were standing there, silent, the German made a brief speech in French.
"We will not tolerate troublemakers." The Commandant motioned to his two guards, who yanked the Immortal to his feet, then stepped well back from him, holding his arms outstretched. "You have nothing to fight for any more. If you perform the work of the Reich, you live." He drew his Luger. "If you disrupt the work of the Third Reich, you die." He casually fired a bullet into the immortal's head and the guards let his body drop in the dirt, then began herding the other prisoners back to their work.
Duncan resumed working within view of the Immortal's body. He knew head wounds could take a long time to heal, but hours later when the sun was high overhead he was sure the man had revived. Still he hadn't moved, hadn't made any noise, evidently playing possum until he could get away. Not as big a fool as Duncan had thought, then. Still, there were better ways to escape than getting killed where you'd revive in front of a hundred people.
He was wondering what had happened to Andre, who still hadn't been brought back, when the prisoners were ordered to their meager mid-day meal. Duncan hung back as the others lined up, trying to move toward the area where the Immortal had been shot. He realized as he approached that he no longer felt presence. The man was already gone. The ground was disturbed so it looked like an animal had dragged him away. Clever, Duncan thought, before his attention was drawn by a car pulling up where the prisoners were in line. Two low-ranking soldiers disembarked and spoke to the guards.
Duncan realized their guards were pointing at him just as his arm was grabbed from behind by another guard, shoving him toward the food line. The soldiers moved toward him, weapons in hand, and gestured for him to step away from the others.
"You will come with us."
"Why? What have I done?" With one brief look at Jean-Paul, Duncan moved toward them, his arms upraised.
He was grabbed and pulled to the car, where his hands were secured behind his back with rope. They pushed him into the rear seat roughly, then climbed in the front and drove away from the vineyard.
They were so young and poorly trained. Leaving him alone in the rear seat was stupid, and they weren't even watching him, too busy chatting about some bar singer. Duncan took advantage of their error as soon as the car moved out of sight of the vineyard. He slowly, carefully worked his bound hands under him, tucking up his legs as Amanda had taught him, working his arms around them to bring them to the front of his body. It wasn't easy to do quietly, particularly when raising his body off the seat. He must have made a noise, because the guard in the passenger seat finally turned to see what he was doing. Duncan slammed his still-bound fists into the man's face, seeing out of the corner of his eye that the driver was drawing his sidearm. Quickly Duncan threw his arms over the driver's head, immobilizing him, and used his own head to smash the driver's face into the side window, cracking the heavy glass. The driver went limp, his foot still heavy on the accelerator.
Before Duncan could get his body over the seat and get his hands into a position to control the wheel, the car went flying off the road. There was a moment of being airbound, followed by a crash that threw Duncan over the seat and into the wheel and dashboard, striking his head. Duncan wanted to keep moving, to get out of the car immediately, but he was forced by dizziness to lay there for a few minutes, breathing, healing.
The two Nazis weren't so lucky; the passenger was dead and the driver looked badly injured. A wound on his head was bleeding heavily, and Duncan thought the man would be unconscious for hours. But he couldn't take any chances. Duncan managed to painfully work the rope off his hands, then used it to tie the driver's hands behind the seat. Duncan was still moving slowly, and everything seemed to take far too long.
Duncan wished for an easy way to hide the car; the first people going past on the road would see it, on its side in the ditch. There was no way to move it, however, and the area alongside the road was flat, open fields in both directions. He sighed, grabbed the driver's Luger and tucked it into his belt, and stood for just a moment longer, looking at the sun and thinking. He'd been given a chance to make his escape. He couldn't go back to camp; the others were on their own now. Duncan began walking in the same direction they'd been driving, staying in the ditch alongside the road.
He'd been walking for about half an hour when he reached a crossroad and realized he'd need to cross in the open before continuing southwest. He waited, crouched in the weeds, to see if there was a patrol, but the roads were empty in all directions. Just as he rose to make a run for the far side, he felt it again -- immortal presence. He'd inadvertently followed the other man, and Duncan knew how suspicious it must seem. He would be ready to kill if he thought a strange immortal were shadowing him. His situation was growing even more dangerous.
He ran across the road, crouched low, but heard someone calling "Halt! Arretez!" just as he reached the other side. He straightened and raised his hands, then was hit at the knees by a strong body and knocked off the road. They rolled further into the scrub as gunfire raked the road where he'd stood.
Lying there slightly dazed, it took a moment to realize that the other immortal had risen and was returning fire. Where the hell did he get a gun? The now-familiar figure dropped next to him. The silence that ensued probably meant he had killed or seriously wounded the guard.
"Thank you," Duncan said, meeting the man's eyes. "I was just trying to escape the camp, I wasn't deliberately following after you. I know it must seem..."
"Are you all right? Come on, then, let's move before more of them come to investigate." The man slung the rifle over his shoulder and started to walk away. Oddly enough, Duncan found himself following him without question. They headed southwest again, keeping well off the road.
"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," he said when it became apparent the other man wasn't going to speak.
"I'm impressed." The man switched to English. "Is this a challenge? I really wasn't going to fight you for knowing enough to head in a direction opposite Germany."
"An introduction, nothing more." Duncan, too, changed language.
"No questions, no challenge. You must have a brain after all." The man quirked his mouth at Duncan.
"Me! I'm not the fool who got myself shot in front of the entire camp."
"No, that's true." The man looked away for a moment. "It wasn't planned, I just let that damn spy get under my skin."
"What spy -- not Andre?"
"Yes, Andre. Why are you shocked? The Germans have been training infiltrators for years. This was probably a training exercise before they send him somewhere to do real damage."
"My God. I thought you were crazy."
"Well, I can understand that. I think I'm crazy, too. Getting involved in a mortal war..."
They reached an elevated section of the road and Duncan stopped, an arm out to halt his companion, and pointed ahead. "What building is that?"
"Hopefully, it's the place I've been looking for." They proceeded more cautiously until they had a clear view of a chateau evidently being used by the Germans. There were guards and staff automobiles at the front doors, and Duncan knew there would be perimeter guards as well.
"We should go back and circle further from all this activity."
"Listen, I don't know what you think you're doing--"
"I'm going to find Andre and slit his throat before he betrays anyone else. You do whatever you wish, MacLeod." And the man quickly moved forward, keeping to the trees for shelter and circling to the rear of the building, until he found one of the guards. He glanced back quickly, acknowledging that Duncan had followed him, then crept close, grabbed the guard from behind and swiftly broke his neck. Duncan crept closer as he lowered the dead man to the ground.
"Listen, it might be simpler if I know your name," he hissed to the immortal searching the body, pulling out ammunition and stowing it in his pockets. This must be how he'd acquired the rifle he was carrying.
"Michel Varens. Take some of this..."
Duncan took the guard's revolver, stuffing extra shells into his pockets. "How can I help you?"
"I don't need your help." Varens was shoving the German's knife sheathe inside his own shirt.
"I know. Do you have a plan?"
"Just to get inside this place, kill that damn spy, then get out of here. After that, you're on your own. If you're not up for this, you can leave right now." There was a challenging look in Varens' eyes, but also humor -- as if he knew what the answer would be already.
They moved onto the grounds of the chateau, and managed to get next to the building. Varens climbed through a window without either of them seeing any other guards, but their luck didn't hold. Just as Duncan finished climbing in the window, the door to the room opened and two German officers casually walked in, then quickly raised an alarm when they saw the ragged prisoner standing in front of them, weapon in hand.
Duncan found himself held by two burly guards in a room full of officers. Varens was nowhere in sight, though Duncan expected him to be brought in each time the door opened. He was pushed into a chair and his arms were secured with rope. Then the guards were dismissed and four officers remained in the room. Their questions were simple; who are you and why have you come here? Duncan had no desire to answer even those simple inquiries, which led to the two guards being called back into the room to beat him into a semi-conscious state.
The officers promised to return shortly, but continued interrogation was far from Duncan's mind as he endured the pain. Where was Varens? How had the other man simply vanished? As the beating continued, he couldn't help wondering if he'd been betrayed. He knew nothing about Varens; he'd simply accepted his word about Andre and his motivations for approaching the chateau.
Another heavy fist connected with his stomach and the room began to spin. The last sound Duncan heard before he gave in to the pain was someone shouting in German.
His first thought was that the pain had stopped. He could still feel his body healing, but no new injuries were being inflicted. With that realization, Duncan came fully conscious and aware of his surroundings. There was heavy black smoke in the air, but silence in the chateau except for the faint hissing of a fire.
Duncan coughed as he struggled with the ropes still holding him to the chair, noting dead bodies at the door to the room. The door was wide open and the smoke was pouring in from there, but the two soldiers hadn't died from smoke inhalation. They had been shot.
With a final lunge that left several layers of skin behind, he freed his arms at last and rose. The window he'd entered through was behind him, and he quickly raised the pane and took deep breaths of clean air. He could escape this way; there was no good reason to chance going further into the building, where the fire was raging.
Except that Varens might be in another room, a prisoner, just as he'd been. He had to search the chateau, or as much of it as he could reach. Despite his mistrust of the other immortal, Duncan couldn't abandon him. He walked back to the doorway, stepping over the bodies but then stooping to search them, grimacing with distaste. Dead, these soldiers no longer projected the evil he'd seen while they were beating him. They just looked like very young men whose brief mortal lives had been wasted.
Once again armed, he proceeded to the smoke-filled hallway and immediately saw a familiar form in blood-soaked work clothes. Varens was dead; he'd been shot numerous times, but he was still clutching his Schmeisser. Duncan still knew very little about this immortal, but felt glad to know Varens was decent enough not to leave a fellow immortal in Nazi custody.
He dragged the body back into the room and then to the window, his eyes streaming and his lungs protesting the activity. He couldn't manage to lift the dead weight while his own body screamed for oxygen, so he levered Varens up and pushed until he dropped out the window. Then Duncan threw himself out after him, landing hard half atop the other man.
After a minute of grateful breathing, Duncan rose and started to drag the dead man into the cover of the woods. He couldn't hear any soldiers fighting the fire; they must all be dead. But the plumes of black smoke would attract notice, and more Germans would be arriving. He wanted to get them well away from the place before dark. They'd need food, water, clean and whole clothing.
Duncan knew he was using these thoughts to distract himself from the knowledge that the man he was dragging along and planning to travel with must have killed dozens of people in that building. Mortals. Non-combatants as well as soldiers.
Once they were hidden among the trees Duncan stopped to rest and stared at the face of the still-dead man. Healing was underway and Varens should revive soon. Right now, apart from being very pale, he simply looked peaceful. Young, perhaps younger at his first death than Duncan had thought. Not that appearance meant anything with immortals. He had no way of knowing this man's age, and in fact he wouldn't know anything unless they spoke and Varens was more forthcoming than he'd been so far.
He'd just stretched out on the ground, resting his back and still breathing deeply as his damaged lungs healed, when Varens coughed and began to revive. Duncan turned his head to watch him, and could pinpoint the moment he revived. Varens became perfectly still; he didn't gasp or move until he'd checked his surroundings. Then Varens relaxed, took a deep breath and began coughing again.
"Thanks. I suppose you got me out of there?" Varens sat up, still coughing, and began to inventory his weapons again.
"Found you in the hallway. Thanks." Duncan coughed again, too, though his breathing was starting to feel normal at last.
"Shouldn't I be thanking you? And shouldn't we be moving away from here now?" Varens rose, though it was obvious he wasn't fully recovered, looking ready to lead the way again.
"Can we settle a few things first? Let's decide where we're going from here. I think we should head south and then get out of France altogether. It's too dangerous, even in unoccupied territory."
"I can walk and talk at the same time, MacLeod, as I'm sure you could learn to do despite the handicap of a Scots background." And the exasperating man was off, headed back to the northeast -- the way they'd come.
"You're going the wrong way, you know," Duncan called after him.
"No, I'm not," Varens replied. "I'm sure you can take care of yourself from here, MacLeod. Don't worry your pretty little head about me."
"Where are you headed?" Duncan growled as he rose and quickly followed him. "Don't you want to get out of Occupied France?"
"Not yet. I'm not going anywhere until I find Andre."
"He wasn't in the chateau?"
"No. I searched all three floors. Found a nice radio, found some off-duty soldiers. No sign of him, though."
"You're actually headed back to the camps, then?"
"Why?" MacLeod asked, but Varens only gave him a dirty look. "Seriously, why is it so important to stop Andre? You said yourself that the Germans are training infiltrators. Andre isn't the only one. Is it worth getting recaptured just to kill him?"
"We need to find water." Varens looked down at himself. "And I need some cleaner clothing."
"I know. I've been thinking that myself." Duncan accepted the change of subject, and accepted that for some reason, Varens felt obliged to stop Andre. Revenge, no doubt. Well, Duncan had outgrown that type of behavior, but he had good reasons of his own to visit the camp. Maybe he could help the men he'd been leading to actually escape. It was worth a try. "I'll go along if you agree we search my camp first. It's most likely he's still there."
"Suit yourself, MacLeod. I don't need you."
"I'm only here because of you, you know." Varens shot a disbelieving look at him. "It's true. We could have escaped last week, but when you wouldn't meet my eyes or acknowledge my presence, I thought you were a newly-made immortal. I wanted to get you out of there before the Germans found you."
"You're unbelievable. I'm sorry I didn't challenge you in front of the whole camp, MacLeod. I'm sure that would have been the smart thing to do."
Duncan shrugged. "It's a legitimate concern."
"You're a fool if you worry about anyone but yourself."
"I suppose you were leaving me with the Nazis at that chateau?"
"If I'd known what a pain in the neck you are, I would have!" Varens snapped, but then looked repentant as he continued. "Andre would have betrayed you whenever you tried that escape plan."
"True. Of course, I still would have gotten away."
"I don't buy that, MacLeod. You'd be so guilty about leading mortals into danger you'd probably give yourself up."
Duncan didn't reply, wondering why Varens sounded as if he knew him. Perhaps they had a mutual friend? He resolved to ask about it, later. "Varens. I'm coming along whether you want me or not. Everyone saw you killed this morning. You can't go wandering through the camps now."
"I'm not planning a dramatic homecoming, MacLeod. Just get in, get him, get out."
"This is crazy." Duncan stopped walking. "You'll be killed or captured. Do you know what they'll do to you if they find out you're Immortal? You'll be tortured..."
"Turn around and walk away, MacLeod. No one asked you to get involved in this." Varens' eyes were so hard Duncan took a step backward before he could stop himself. Then his fists clenched and he started to move forward, but he stopped himself when Varens continued. "It's.. personal. You don't have to come, I don't need your help. I just want..."
"To kill him." Duncan finished for him.
"If we can do this safely, we will. If the guards have been increased or it looks too dangerous, we just get out." Duncan stared at Varens, who looked away without answering. "Right, let's go over weapons. I took a knife and a pistol off the guards. You?"
"My knife. The damn rifle is empty, but we'll get more clips off the guards. Now where was your group of prisoners being held?"
"They called it the Benoit farm, to the south of the fields we were harvesting. Maybe two miles at the most. There's about 20 men being held there."
"Let's get in that area, then rest until nightfall. We'll see if we can steal some clothes or food along the way. Sound good?"
Nine hours later they crept into the camp easily, despite a doubled guard. Varens killed the guards silently, knife work, and Duncan followed, watching his back. Another day he might have tried to talk Varens out of killing. They could simply disable and bind the guards. But they were in enemy territory, he reminded himself, and there were innocent mortal lives at stake. The soldiers weren't responsible for Germany's politics, but they were ruthless in carrying out their orders. He stifled his objections.
As they crept up to the barn, now the prisoners' bunk house, he caught a glimpse of Varens' face in the moonlight. The man's face was blank, and his eyes were dead. Duncan knew if he'd tried to interfere in any way, his body would be lying next to those of the guards, dead. At least, temporarily.
They'd entered together, Varens covering his face with a kerchief. The first goal was to find Andre, which Varens quickly did. He gagged the man and held him while Duncan bound his hands. Then Varens led the German outside, leaving Duncan to find and wake Jean-Paul.
"Duncan?" The mortal sat up in his bunk. "We thought you'd been killed."
"No. I've been busy. The guards are dead. Wake the others." A few more whispered instructions and he left to find Varens and their prisoner, knowing the men planned to vanish into the countryside, trying to find their way back to their families.
Varens was waiting at the place they'd arranged. Duncan saw the fear and guilt in Andre's eyes as he approached. Whatever he'd done to Varens, Andre seemed well aware of the consequences. Varens moved off quietly, dragging Andre, and Duncan followed, trying to remind himself that Andre would betray and kill people. It didn't matter; the look on his face would still haunt Duncan.
They'd been moving for almost two hours when Duncan finally called for a brief rest. Their path led across the lightly wooded terrain not far from Chalons. They were making for the Marne River, in hopes of following it south past Dijon and into unoccupied French territory. It seemed impossible to Duncan that they would ever get that far on foot, but it was the only plan they had right now.
Varens hissed "Wait here." He started to lead Andre off, one hand on his still-bound arms.
Duncan had set aside many of his own scruples about killing mortals during this horrible night, but he wasn't ready to stand by and watch Varens kill a man in cold blood.
"What are you going to do?"
"Mind your own business, MacLeod." No longer dead, his eyes burned with rage.
"You can't just murder him."
"I'm not you. This scum is not worth your compassion." They were gone, and Duncan didn't follow. Fifteen minutes later the screams began, and he rose and walked in the opposite direction. They were far from any villages, though he doubted anyone would have the courage to investigate that noise. Finally the screams became weaker, turning into moans and sobs. Silence at last. He walked back.
Varens came back after about half an hour but he didn't speak, and Duncan simply started hiking, headed in the direction Varens chose. A few hours later they finally heard the rushing water of the river and paused to rest. Dawn was brightening the sky, and Duncan saw the blood -- Andre's blood -- on Varens' clothing. He expected to feel sick, but he only thought that it was too noticeable.
"You should try to wash some of that off," Duncan offered. Varens just nodded, his face again expressionless. Duncan was tired, but his mind still puzzled over Varens. He'd only spent a day with him, and he'd seen many different men. Which was the real person? Neither of them had a sword right now; there wasn't going to be a challenge. But was this someone he could call a friend? They could help each other find a way to free territory. They'd already helped each other. But part of Duncan thought it would be best simply to get as far away from this man as possible.
He looked over again and realized Varens was exhausted. He didn't feel much better himself, but he knew they weren't well-concealed enough to take a proper rest.
"We should take half an hour. Get some sleep."
Varens only nodded in reply. Duncan managed to doze off and when he woke about twenty minutes later, a glance at Varens showed the man hadn't even shut his eyes. He looked like death warmed over, as the phrase went.
"Do you want to tell me what this was all about?" Duncan whispered. "I can recognize revenge."
"Let it go."
"You need to talk. You can't even rest. You'll collapse if you keep this up, and we'll never get out of here."
Varens stared at him for a moment, then replied. "Paul was a teacher, and he was outspokenly anti-German. We were dragged out of his house and placed under arrest shortly after the invasion. I couldn't leave without him. I was trying to work out a plan...
"He realized Andre was giving information to the camp commander. He managed to tell me about it two days ago, but that same day they killed Paul."
"They grabbed him at the vineyard, I saw it. Of course they beat him first, then shot him in the stomach and left him to bleed to death slowly. I was there but I couldn't do anything. I saw him watching me..." Varens trailed off and looked away into the night. He rose and walked off toward the river.
Duncan sat alone in the dark, remembering all the times he'd watched mortals die alongside him. The guilt could be overwhelming. He closed his eyes and heard himself persuading Diane to get inside the bomb shelter...
When Varens returned, his clothing wet and free of blood, they resumed their journey down river.
Two days later the rain began. They were already cold and hungry, and now they were miserably wet, the mud slowing their pace even more. Duncan looked around, grimacing as the rain drove into his face. It was getting darker by the minute and they were far from any villages. Not that they could seek out the local tavern in their current state.
They had a little money, very little, just what they'd taken from the guards. They were both dirty and unshaven. No, even if they found a town or a farm, they couldn't risk being seen by anyone. Varens appeared to still have problems sleeping; he was hollow-eyed and obviously needed a warm meal. Although he was leading the way, claiming familiarity with the area, Varens seemed to be sleepwalking. They hardly spoke to each other.
The night promised to be a miserable one: wet, cold and comfortless. Duncan was about to suggest they halt at a large tree looming up ahead when he froze. Both men's heads came up at the sound of voices nearby. Duncan hissed "Back to back. Now!" and they moved together, weapons held steady, scanning the area.
"Drop your weapons." A woman's voice, filled with menace. She stepped out from behind one of the trees, a tiny fierce figure pointing a shotgun at them. A signal from her hand and she was joined by five other figures carrying a variety of weapons.
"Dee, the lantern, please." A young girl, no more than twelve, came forward with a lamp, which the woman took as she approached them. "I did ask you to drop your weapons, didn't I?"
"You did, Analena, but you know you don't frighten me." Michel's voice carried to her and she gasped, then lifted her lamp higher. Then she ran to him, grabbing him in a hug, and Duncan saw Varens whisper in her ear as they embraced.
She pulled away and proclaimed "Michel! My sweet cousin! I thought you were dead." She looked at Duncan and continued, "You look exhausted, have you been walking all day? Dee, run to the house and heat some soup. And lots of water, too. Rene will help with the wood." The girl and one of the men walked off rapidly.
"Ana, we need your help."
"I haven't grown blind, Michel. You and your friend are welcome, and if you've caused trouble for the Boche you're even more welcome." Duncan smiled wearily, almost swaying on his feet in relief.
The woman turned and spoke quietly with the group "This is my cousin Michel. I'm going to hear his news before we make any further plans. We'll meet tomorrow instead." She spoke more quietly to several of the men, and soon they'd vanished into the night, each headed in a different direction.
Varens smiled as she turned back to them. "This is Duncan MacLeod; he helped me escape. Can the rest of it wait until we get out of this damn rain?"
"Everything can wait until you've been fed and cleaned up." She took his hand warmly, then turned and led them in the direction opposite the river. The rain was still pouring down, but Duncan felt better knowing there was shelter and food ahead.
As they followed her, he spoke to Varens in a low voice. "You led us here and you couldn't tell me you were looking for a friend?"
"I didn't know if she was still here. There's been a war on, MacLeod."
"I see. Didn't want to disappoint me if she was gone?"
"Something like that," Varens answered before speeding up to walk next to Analena. MacLeod shook his head. He had the strangest feeling that finding her was only one plan among many. If her house had been deserted, they might still be following the river looking for the next person on Varens' list.
After half a mile of walking she brought them to a small stone cottage with two outbuildings, one obviously a barn and the other an outhouse. There were no other buildings in sight.
They followed her inside a warm kitchen that seemed heavenly. The fair girl was at the stove stirring a fragrant pot. Duncan got his first clear look at Analena and guessed her age at 50. Her light brown hair was cut straight at her chin line, well-mingled with grey, and she had the short, strong body of a farm laborer.
Analena smiled at them and said "Bath or food? I'll leave the choice to you."
"Baths." Two voices spoke together, and they smiled at each other as she led them to a washtub set up near the fireplace.
"Sorry I can't offer you hot running water and a large tub. Or dry clothes. But we'll leave you in peace for a few minutes." Analena motioned to the girl. "This is Deanna, my daughter." She moved the pot to a cooler area on the stove and left the room. "There's more hot water in both kettles. Help yourselves."
The men stripped off their shirts and washed themselves in front of the fire, which provided the only light in the room. A straight razor had been left on the table, and they shaved and laughed at the comfort of it all. Warmth and food close at hand -- it was like a miracle.
"So who exactly is your friend?" Duncan asked half an hour later as he re-buttoned his shirt.
"There's a village half a mile away called Poiterre." Varens seemed incapable of answering a direct question, but Duncan let it go.
"I'm back." Analena entered carrying a lantern. "Dee --- oh, thanks, Michel," as he moved to empty the washbasin in the yard. "I'm sorry I don't have clean clothes for you, but I'll see what I can find in the attic tomorrow. Come, let's eat now." She settled them around the table as Dee served thick bean soup into large bowls. Analena brought a loaf of bread out of a cupboard, and both men sighed happily.
"Ana, I don't suppose you've kept in touch with your heritage..."
She laughed. "Just wine, Michel, no beer. Now introduce me to your friend."
"Well, it's almost perfect." He smiled back at her, then said "MacLeod, this is Analena Storne. We've known each other for years, since her childhood." They shook hands over the table and smiled.
"May I call you Duncan?" At his nod, she continued "And you must call me Ana." Duncan smiled in reply. "You've met Dee, so we're all comfortable now, right?"
"Where is your husband? Why aren't all your children here with you?" Varens was eating as he spoke.
"I lost Robert almost four years ago, Michel. Adrienne and her husband fled to unoccupied territory, but my Marc is a prisoner. I had a card from him in July, saying he was working in a factory. There's been no word since."
"I'm sorry." He'd stopped shoveling food in and looked genuinely upset.
"As you've already seen, I'm keeping busy. Dee's mother died last year and we decided to keep each other company." A warm smile at the tired young girl across the table was returned, brightening the solemn young face for just a moment. "Now tell me what you've been doing for the last five years."
"Living, teaching. Boring things. Perhaps MacLeod can tell you more interesting stories."
"You're dismissing a lot of life as boring, Varens," Duncan couldn't help commenting.
"That's because daily life is boring," he replied, calmly taking more food, though his eyes were blazing. "For us ordinary mortals."
"You don't seem to be French, Duncan. Have you traveled much?" Duncan smiled at Ana with gratitude, since her graceful introduction of a new subject kept him from yet another petty argument with Varens.
"I'm Scots, but I've been living in London, managing a horse breeding concern for a friend. The last time I was in France was a visit to Paris in the summer of '39. I was selling some property I'd inherited." In light of Varens' unwillingness to talk, Duncan did his best to talk about more pleasant days. He told them about the capitol, answering Ana's questions about what had changed since her last trip to Paris.
"My friends Robert and Angelina came into the city to attend the opera with me. They insisted on stopping for me, but once we were en route the traffic became heavy and their driver got into an argument with another driver. We were sitting there, annoyed but unable to proceed, when the passenger in the cab got out and started walking. It looked like a good idea to us, so we did the same.
"Gina was in a very light dress, so Robert insisted on giving her his jacket to wear. She looked less elegant in his coat, but she admitted it was warmer. As we're walking down the street, an automobile pulls out of the snarled traffic and cuts over, close to the pavement, and splashes mud on all three of us."
"Oh, how awful!"
"But that's when the funniest thing happened. We're standing there, staring after the very rude driver who splashed us, looking bedraggled. Then another car comes past, stops, and the driver tries to hand us money. He mistook us for beggars."
His listeners laughed obligingly but Duncan found himself a little sad at the reminiscence. He hoped his friends were safe now, but there was no way to know. Still, his story seemed to have loosened all their tongues, and they remained around the table long after they'd finished eating and drained the bottle of wine, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the feeling of safety.
Finally Ana seemed to note the time and she sighed. She sent Dee to bed with a hug, then turned to them.
"Now for some serious conversation. Michel, help me pull this bench closer to the fire so we can talk." Once they were settled, she began. "Would one of you please explain to me where you came from and who is after you."
Varens remained silent, so Duncan once again spoke. With occasional one-word amendments from Varens he brought her up to date on their attempt to escape occupied France. Ana watched them, seeming to note Michel's silence as much as what Duncan told her. She sighed.
"As you saw, I'm attempting to organize a Resistance group here. We've heard from our friends and families in Paris and Dijon, and we want to be part of the Maquis."
"What can you do here in such a remote area?" Varens asked.
"We have ideas. But that's enough talking for one night. Let me get you settled. I wish the house could accommodate you, but I'm afraid there are no extra beds. You should be comfortable in the barn." She gathered blankets from a closet shelf and peeked out the door. "At least the rain has stopped, now that you've had a chance to dry off a bit."
Ana led them to the barn and left them in the loft, pulling clean straw into piles. Wishing them a good night, she carried out the lantern and they settled down in the darkness, pulling their blankets around them.
Too tired to talk, Duncan soon drifted off. He slept without dreaming.
Duncan woke when Michel rose in the faint light of dawn and climbed down from the loft. He watched as the man walked to the outhouse to relieve himself, then headed toward the house. Once he disappeared inside, Duncan traced his path slowly, wondering if anyone else were awake yet, and why Ana didn't have her door bolted in these uneasy times. He supposed she trusted Varens.
When he finally knocked softly on the kitchen door, Dee opened it with a shy smile.
"Am I too early for breakfast?" Duncan smiled back at her, and entered the kitchen to see that someone had already built up the fire and drawn water. Varens was making tea while Dee stirred porridge. Such morning chores were part of a routine very comforting to Duncan, and they seemed very familiar to Varens as well. Duncan wondered again about the man's age, and why he couldn't seem to get any real information out of their conversations.
When Ana joined them, they were all eating. She smiled brightly at Dee and kissed her cheek, then patted Varen's face affectionately. "I suppose you'll be eating me out of house and home."
"Actually, I don't think we should spend even one more night here. Though I will confess your barn is the most comfortable place I've been in months."
"Then why not stay and enjoy it? For a few weeks, at least. Then I can get identity cards and demobilization papers made for you and Duncan so you don't have to avoid settled areas."
"Thanks. That would make life easier."
"What every fugitive needs." Ana smiled at Varens as she accepted a cup of tea.
"I don't know how we can repay you." Duncan thought of the drain on her resources as he spoke.
"You can work with us," she suggested, but Varens immediately demurred.
"I'll work on your farm, Ana, but not with this resistance group you're forming. I'm not looking for more to do in your damn war."
"It's everyone's war." Duncan said, unable to keep silent. "We can't just let Germany do whatever it pleases." He saw Ana's bright, hopeful look and Dee's admiring gaze and realized he'd just gotten himself involved again. His own mind was castigating him before Varens began.
"Spoken like an idealist. You may not believe it, but we can get out of the way and let Germany and France fight their own battles. No matter which ideology you're spouting, dead is dead. We shouldn't be involved at all."
"But you've admitted you're already involved. Why not see it through?" Ana spoke again. "You could join us..."
"Ana, I cannot make you understand. But I won't do this."
"Michel, please. We want to do good work here, important work. Helping families get to unoccupied territory. Children. Adults the Nazis would want -- scientists, teachers, Jews." Varens wouldn't even look at her as she pleaded. "No matter what you say, I don't believe that you want to let them win this war."
"Why are you even asking me? You have MacLeod now, and this seems right up his alley. He'll gladly die to free children and persecuted refugees. Noblesse oblige, and all that crap."
Duncan started to protest, but Ana cut him off. "I know you, Michel. You don't want to die for any cause, so you'll make sure our plans are successful."
"Well, if you trust me to plan, here's what I propose -- forget this foolishness and come with us. We'll get out of occupied territory and drink martinis until the damn war is over."
Ana shook her head at him, looking unsure as to whether she should laugh or cry. Dee simply looked horrified.
"Can I ask what you'd like me to do?" Duncan interrupted, and she decided to laugh. Varens, on the other hand, rose with a disgusted grunt and carried his bowl to the washbasin.
"I'll help Dee with the chores." He walked out the door quickly, and when Ana motioned Dee followed him looking unhappy.
"You've made a conquest already, Duncan." She met his eyes a moment, then blushed and continued. "My Dee thinks you're wonderful. More tea?"
"Thank you. Of course, I'd really love coffee."
"Coffee? We haven't had that in a year. And soon the only tea will be herbs from my garden." She refilled his cup, then settled across the table from him and began to talk.
Early November 1940
Dee didn't speak often, Duncan noted, though she smiled at him frequently now. She had even grown used to Varens' presence in the two weeks they been living here. She no longer shrank away from him when he helped her lift a bucket or carry firewood.
"She's recovering," Ana said quietly as she sat beside him with her knitting. She adjusted her chair to get more light from the fire as she smiled at him, her eyes showing that she'd noticed him watching Dee. "She only needs time."
Duncan shrugged at her and went back to his work which was spread across the kitchen table. He wanted to take care of his stolen weapons, and he'd offered to work on Ana's elderly gun as well. Her group had not yet needed to fire their weapons, which was just as well since ammunition was in short supply. At the two Resistance meetings he'd attended, finding supplies for their guns was one of the priorities they'd all agreed upon.
Ana's friends and neighbors were determined to work against the Germans and help those who wanted to leave occupied territory, but they had few opportunities in such a remote area. They had no radio equipment, and their only contacts were family members in other towns and villages They seemed to consider Duncan an expert -- he'd already been given credit for disrupting the wine harvest, courtesy of Ana's retelling of their escape. He knew he could provide leadership to these people, but he preferred to assist Ana in that role. She was a competent and brave woman, and she would still be here if he needed to move on.
It was fully dark outside and their evening meal was over. Now Dee was finishing her chores and they were looking forward to a few hours of relaxing. Duncan found these quiet times and the family atmosphere very pleasant. Ana didn't own a chess set, but they played simple card games with Dee and chatted about anything that came to mind.
Oddly enough, Varens seemed uncomfortable once his work was done for the day. Duncan had watched the man in danger, fighting for his life, and he'd been cool and efficient. He was familiar with farm work and caring for animals, and rarely needed direction from Ana. But he was totally out of place in a cozy domestic scene as far as Duncan could see. Varens rarely contributed to the conversation and had never joined in their games. Dee's coolness might be the reason for that choice, but sometimes Duncan thought Varens was uncomfortable with Analena, too. Yet Varens had come here seeking her assistance...
"Michel, Dee, come sit and relax. It's been a long day." Varens obeyed, sitting as far from the fire as possible while still inside the kitchen. Duncan thought he felt the man's eyes on him, but when he looked up Varens was staring at the fire.
Dee moved close to Ana and spoke to her so softly that Duncan couldn't hear more than a murmur. At Ana's nod, Dee left the room. She returned a few minutes later reverently carrying a book in both hands. She presented it to Ana, but Ana didn't take it.
"I have a headache, Dee, and you know my glasses were never replaced. I think perhaps Michel should read tonight." Dee turned to Varens, looking reluctant yet hopeful. Ana continued, "This book belonged to Dee's mother when she was a child. We've been reading a story whenever there is time." Her eyes were on Varens and Duncan could plainly see 'please?' in her look.
Dee moved a few steps closer, holding the precious book out to Varens. He took it carefully, read the spine, then opened it to the bookmark.
"Everything in its right place by Hans Christian Andersen," he read aloud, his voice soft. He cleared his throat and began, a little louder, "More than a hundred years ago there stood, near a forest, a manor house that had a moat around it..."
He wove the tale with great skill, changing his voice for the different characters and pausing for the most suspenseful moments. All three listeners were attentive, Duncan setting aside his work to enjoy the entertainment.
"Eventually everything is put in its right place. Eternity is long, a lot longer than this story." When he closed the book, carefully marking the page, three bodies relaxed and sighed. Duncan felt that somehow he'd made the tale into a story about the transience of war, and touched on immortality, too. He must have shared tales around a fire for centuries.
After a moment of silence in the room, Dee stood up and accepted the book as he solemnly handed it back. She moved to Ana for a kiss and a "sleep well, love," then left the room. When she was gone, Duncan returned his gaze to the strange man intently watching the dying fire.
"Thank you, Michel. That was lovely."
"Bring back memories, Ana?"
"A few, mein herr."
"You have a gift for storytelling."
"The gift is Andersen's, MacLeod. I simply know how to read," Varens snapped, then moved to bank the fire.
Ana exchanged a look and a shrug with Duncan, then wished them both goodnight as they left for the barn. They heard her latching the door behind them, the sound loud in the early night.
Duncan spoke again once they were settling in their beds in the loft. "You've raised children, haven't you?"
"Yes." The short answer was meant to reveal nothing, but Duncan understood the look in Varen's eyes.
"Been married, too." No reply to that. "I envy you. I've never really had a wife."
Varens was silent and Duncan thought he wouldn't answer. Then he spoke quietly.
"I always swear I'll never do it again. Then I meet someone remarkable, and I forget how much it hurts."
Now Duncan was the one left with no reply. Varens had opened up, revealed some of his pain, and Duncan wanted to respond. But his remark hit too close to Duncan's own feelings, and those feelings were too painful to acknowledge. He hadn't discussed Diane's death with anyone, and he certainly wouldn't start now. Instead he let the statement hang between them long enough that Varens' breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep.
But Duncan stayed awake, wondering if meeting someone remarkable could indeed make his own pain recede.
Later that month
Duncan MacLeod settled into his bedroll in the loft and smiled. A job well done, a group safely on their way out of occupied France. It felt good to be making a difference in the war. This work was certainly important enough to risk remaining in occupied France, and it felt right to be facing the same dangers as the brave mortals who worked with Ana.
Varens was already curled up in the corner of the loft. Duncan wondered again why the man was still with them, when he refused to go on missions. He did attend the meetings with the others, and he seemed to spend a lot of time holed up in Analena's study with maps. Could he be spending this long planning his own way out of France? That was ridiculous, he could have gone with this first group they'd smuggled to halfway to Lyon.
Duncan realized that he would miss Varens if he did leave. The man could be very entertaining when he wished. Not that he relaxed enough to actually talk very often.
He was kind of lazy. Well, no, that wasn't really true. Varens behaved as if he were lazy, but he certainly held up his end of the chores around the cottage, as well as working on Rene's adjacent farm while they'd been away. Ana seemed very relieved to have his assistance, even in such a limited fashion, in exchange for the papers and clothing she'd provided.
He wondered if Varens would spar with him tomorrow. He felt a need for some regular exercise. They could use wooden staves since neither man had a sword. Perhaps on his next trip to Dijon, Duncan could find a black market contact and try to get a sword for himself -- and one for Varens, too. A belated Christmas present. The members of Ana's group had what they considered more 'practical' weapons, shotguns and revolvers which they'd hidden from the Germans sent to confiscate them. But Duncan wanted a blade, and he was sure Varens felt the same.
He drowsed off, thinking about the sword he'd hidden before his capture and wondering when he'd get back to Reims to retrieve it.
The next morning he overslept and when he reached the cottage, Ana was alone in the kitchen.
"Good morning," he said, a little sheepish.
"Are you rested at last?" Ana asked, quickly moving to the kettle and pouring water into the teapot. "I'm afraid you all overexerted yourselves getting back here so quickly."
"No, I'm fine now. I haven't slept this late in years." He sat down with a plate of porridge she'd been keeping warm on the stove. "I think it might be the familiarity of the barn smells. It reminds me of my childhood."
"I'd never have thought of you as a farmer, Duncan," she teased.
"More of a herder, I suppose," he replied.
"Well, you are late, Sleepyhead, so you'll forgive me if I start my work while you eat."
"Of course." He continued his meal as she filled a pail with hot water, knelt, and began to scrub her kitchen's stone floor. "Did Varens go to Rene's?"
"He walked Dee to Poiterre for our marketing. But I wouldn't be surprised if he stops there on his way back. When we saw how tired you are, we knew Rene might need help."
Duncan ate, pondering the mystery of Varens. He'd almost forgotten that Ana evidently knew about the man's immortality. Private time to ask her about that was scarce.
"How did you meet Varens, Ana? If you don't mind telling me..."
"I just assumed you already knew that tale, Duncan. I'm glad to tell you."
He pushed aside his bowl and joined her on the flagstones with a second scrub brush. "Let me help you with this." She smiled and began her story.
"I grew up in Alsace, as you might have guessed from my accent. Our village had a wonderful schoolteacher, Herr Heinz. I was a little in love with him, like all the girls. I would sketch him in my notebooks and in the back of my texts. I thought he knew everything. He told wonderful tales while he taught us and made everything so interesting. Though he often made mistakes in arithmetic, and then he would laugh when we caught them."
"Yes, that is his name now. I will always remember him as my favorite teacher, though." Ana sank back on her heels, her eyes distant. "The schoolhouse was built on low land near the river, land no one wanted. There was a flood that year, and he was caught in the current while getting us out of the building. Two children were washed away with him. Their bodies were found later, but not Herr Heinz. He merely vanished."
"Now imagine eleven years have passed. I am a young lady, engaged to be married. My mother brings me to Paris to shop for my wedding clothes -- did I mention I was an only daughter? My parents spoiled me quite shamefully."
Duncan smiled at her. "Yet you've turned out very well, I think."
"Flatterer. My mother has collapsed back at our hotel, and I am still wandering the Left Bank, buying books and pretending to be sophisticated in my new outfit. Then I turn a corner and see Herr Heinz, alive and well, buying books."
"What did you do?"
"I fainted right there in the book stall. When I awoke, he was reviving me, making sure I wasn't hurt. He didn't recognize me at all, I think. If he had, he probably would have vanished."
"I believe that," Duncan said exasperatedly. "How can you be so accepting about his selfishness?"
"Oh, it's taken me many years to accept that my wonderful teacher isn't perfect. But you must understand that when I finally got to really know him, I was an adult. By then I'd seen my own children disillusioned with me, just as I'd been with my own mother. Didn't you have that experience with your parents, Duncan?"
"I left home," Duncan lied, then looked at the floor carefully and began scrubbing again. "I guess I missed that."
"Ah." Ana didn't push, and Duncan was grateful. "Well, we are in Paris. I tell Herr Heinz who I am, and he of course denies knowing me. But I had been sketching his face for too long -- I knew who he was, and," Ana actually blushed, "I pretended to still be faint and weak. He took me to a cafe to rest and have a drink. I wouldn't let him leave me. My first thought was that Herr Heinz had forgotten who he was, that he'd been badly injured in the flood. Then I thought perhaps he was ashamed that he'd been unable to save Dara and Max, the children who'd died in his care."
"He offered to see me back to my hotel, and as we waited for a cab, I finally realized he hadn't aged -- he looked younger than Robert, my fiance. He put me in the carriage, still denying everything." She smiled sadly. "Then my week in town ended, and I returned home, married, moved to this farm with Robert, had two wonderful children. I was too busy and too happy to worry about the mystery of Herr Heinz."
"But he led us here, looking for you. He knew you live here."
"Well, Duncan, you must imagine another twenty-seven years passing."
"You went to Paris again?"
"No, actually Michel came here! He looked absolutely ill when I walked up and spoke to him. But he could not deny me; he hadn't changed at all. We managed a friendship of sorts, mostly because I don't ask him too many questions."
"That's quite surprising. Why would he come here?" Duncan stopped, realizing how rude his comments must sound. "I only mean that this is a very remote place to visit for no reason."
"But he had a reason, the best in the world. He was with his friend, they came to see Paul's ailing mother for Christmas. I saw them at church with her shortly before her death. Michel and Paul stayed here nearly two months, selling her farm and clearing up her affairs. But it's true, it was still a great coincidence -- though I told Michel it was obviously meant to be. And now it does seem fortunate that he knew I was here to help you both."
"His friend's name was Paul? The same man he was captured with?"
"I shouldn't be coy with you, you're a man of the world. I'm fairly sure they were lovers. Paul was never subtle about that sort of thing, despite the church." Ana's color had risen again, no matter how calmly she spoke, and she busily concentrated on her floor.
Suddenly Duncan understood Varens' murder of Andre, and realized he might have done the same to avenge a lover. Then he paused, his own actions since coming to France illuminated. Duncan *had* done the same. He'd watched Varens killing Germans and never said a word, but told himself that he didn't kill mortals. As if giving information to British Intelligence wouldn't cause deaths. He'd come here looking for vengeance for Diane, and lied to himself about it.
"Paul is dead, isn't he?" Ana asked, dragging him out of his thoughts, her eyes sad. "I thought he must be, Michel is so obviously suffering."
"Is that why you're letting him stay, even though he won't help you?"
Ana looked at the floor, moved her brush halfheartedly, then looked back up at Duncan. "Forgive me. I should have told you before now. Michel does assist me. He has planned all the escape routes since you joined us. This morning we fought because he is refusing to plan the next action. It will be very dangerous. But I know that by nightfall he will be back here, studying the maps and making plans."
"He was angry with you?"
"More worried than angry. He thinks we're taking too many risks, trying to do too much."
Duncan thought a moment. "So he doesn't disagree with what you're doing, but he wants you to stop doing it?"
"It's his way of showing concern, I think."
"I don't know him well enough to say. But isn't it odd that I've been living with him for months and don't feel I know him at all?"
"He's always seemed to keep to himself. Perhaps he thinks it's safer that way."
"Safe," Duncan snorted. "He can't be harmed, but he lets you risk your life..."
"I meant he tries to protect his heart, Duncan, not his life. There are many types of courage."
Duncan looked at her rueful smile and nodded his head. "Aye, I know that. I never told you the whole story of the day we met." Duncan spent the next half hour talking to Ana as they scrubbed, relating the full story of that day and Varens' revenge on Andre for the murder of Paul.
"So I know he's not a coward, Ana," Duncan concluded. "But I don't understand how he thinks."
"Neither do I, Duncan. But I know he'll put himself at risk when he cares for someone, and then when he sees you or me doing it, he'll say that we should do nothing, risk nothing."
"He's not taking a risk, he's immortal like..." He cut himself off, aware of what he'd almost said, and saw full understanding in Ana's grey eyes.
"I know you're like him, Duncan. I see how quickly you recover from any injury. Don't worry, I don't believe the others have noticed. It's only because I know about Michel that I could make such a crazy guess."
"I appreciate you keeping my secret."
"I'm glad to do that, Duncan, because I'm very happy to have met you. Having known you both, I believe those blessed with your gift are all extraordinary people."
Duncan thought about some of the truly evil immortals he'd known. Even the 'good' immortals were forced to become killers to stay alive. "Not really."
"I'm glad Michel will have a friend like you to be with him through the ages."
Duncan finished his scrubbing and stood up. "I don't think we can become friends, not when he's so alien to me. He doesn't want my friendship, anyway. He seems determined to make me dislike him."
"Give him time, Duncan. I believe he already is your friend, but it may take a long time before he can admit it. I can see that he cares about you." With a last swipe of her brush, Ana accepted Duncan's hand to rise and brush herself off. She then placed a soft kiss on his cheek before carrying the buckets out the door to empty them.
He'd been gone two weeks, taking refugees halfway to Dijon. The travel had been slow, particularly on their way south with the exhausted group. Both ways they'd hid by day and walked at night through fields and along rivers, rarely lucky enough to have a clear path.
He stumbled toward the barn with his knapsack, wanting to clean up a little before he went to the house for a meal, and felt Presence as he approached. He was surprised Varens was still here -- then he pulled his knife just in case it wasn't Varens. As he entered he first saw Ana's cow, then Varens behind her, watching the door with his knife ready.
Duncan smiled and called to him as he sheathed his own weapon. "You're still here."
"Yes. Welcome back," and though Varens didn't return his smile, Duncan felt sure he was pleased to see him. He did come out and put away his weapon. "Does Ana know you're here?"
"Yes. I just wanted to change and wash up." He headed for the loft, noting that the small game traps which had hung on the staircase were gone. Varens was doing some hunting for their meals. He changed his mind about going upstairs, instead heading to the trough of clean water first, where he stripped off his shirt.
As he was washing, Varens entered carrying a bale of fodder. He stood still, staring at Duncan for a moment, then continued into the stall with his burden. When he finally emerged, he didn't look in Duncan's direction.
He finished his cleanup and headed back to the stairs, chilled but unwilling to put his dirty shirt back on. Varens was leading the cow back to her stall, and Duncan once again tried to make conversation with him.
"You're very good with animals."
"I'm sure you've had friendships with some very special sheep yourself, MacLeod," was the dry reply.
Duncan tried not to laugh aloud as he replied "It is odd, though, that you aren't better with Dee."
"Dee? She's not a cow, you do realize that?" Varens was being playful, he realized, suddenly aware of his bright eyes and wry grin. He'd never seen the other man look so carefree.
"I'm sure you've raised children. In fact, Ana said she idolized you when she was a child."
"Dee doesn't need me doing anything for her. She has Ana, and now she has you." Varens' voice had grown cold again, a clear sign he wanted the subject changed.
"So you do know how to treat children," he pushed.
"Yes, I can indulge them when necessary to earn a livelihood. That doesn't mean I choose to join you and Ana in cheerful lies to hide the bleakness of life for Dee." The clipped tones and the way he stalked off prevented Duncan from pursuing exactly what he'd meant.
His anger led Duncan to speculate. Perhaps Varens found himself caring about these people, despite his own unhappiness about becoming involved in the war. He wondered if Varens had once had unrequited feelings for Ana. That might explain why he was still here, particularly if Ana now returned his love. The apparent age difference shouldn't matter. Connor had been fortunate enough to have his Heather with him well into her old age, and he'd loved her just as dearly then as in her youth.
Usually he enjoyed thinking of Connor's great romance, but tonight it just made Duncan dissatisfied. He didn't want to think of his own loves, either. Besides, he was getting cold. He went up the stairs and put on clean clothes. Ana had done a marvelous job of altering and combining clothes to make them shirts and slacks. She was even preparing a Christmas dinner for them tonight, and had several gifts hidden away for Dee.
Ana was a wonderful woman, determined and brave. Stubborn, too, with quite a temper. He'd been here long enough to see all that. She and Varens might kill each other. Why was he worrying about Varens' love life? Duncan walked to the house, confused, trying to cheer up for their holiday meal.
He joined them around the kitchen table for the small feast, noting that Varens was already refilling his wine glass.
"Normally we'd be going to Mass now, not eating this early," Ana fussed, pushing Dee into her seat. "But I think the Lord will understand that Duncan is very hungry, after doing such good work for him." She smiled at him as she set down the platter of roast chicken.
Varens was very quiet but the meal progressed pleasantly, and after they finished, the other immortal seemed to shake off his mood. He told a few outrageous stories as they roasted nuts and Duncan joined in, telling only happy tales. Ana then told them about her first Christmas dinner as a newlywed, a disaster of inexperience and insufficient food. When she concluded, they were all laughing. Duncan saw the joy in her eyes as she looked across the table at Varens. He fell silent, feeling disgruntled again.
When they finally returned to the barn, close to midnight, Duncan was silently reminiscing about his long and varied past. These thoughts couldn't be shared with Ana and Dee, but Varens would understand.
"Families are different yet always the same, aren't they?" He pulled off his trousers and shirt and lay atop his blankets, enjoying the cool air.
"I wouldn't know." Varens, on the other hand, was pulling on an extra shirt before lying down and wrapping up in his blankets. Ana had given him an extra blanket, from what Duncan could see.
"As immortals I think we make our own families, eventually," Duncan continued, wondering about Varen's childhood but not wishing to pry. He'd been fortunate to have loving parents and a happy home, but that didn't seem to happen to most immortals. Still, he wanted to discuss this with Varens, though he was struggling to find the correct words.
"I grew up in a village that was very much like one large family. What Ana has done, taking in Dee and making her part of her family, that's just what would have happened in our clan." Varens didn't answer, but Duncan sensed he was still listening in the darkness. "Ana is a very loving woman. The best thing about our lives, I think, is the chance to meet so many special people..." His thoughts lit on Diane, then Little Deer, and he quickly wrenched them into other channels. He didn't want to talk about loss tonight; he wanted only good memories. Duncan's thoughts briefly flew to a Paris church, wondering if his friend Darius was safe.
They heard rumors -- the only alternative to German propaganda was such rumors -- of food shortages, arrests, beatings. Of course, other rumors spoke of crowded theaters and nightclubs, the Nazis behaving like tourists and being given elaborate dinner parties by Paris society. Whatever the truth was, Duncan knew Darius would be working to help people however he could.
"Aren't you supposed to believe that all people are 'special,' MacLeod?" Duncan came back to himself with a start. He wondered briefly if Varens was being playful again, or trying to make him shut up. It was too dark to see his face, but the tone of his voice seemed inviting.
"Have you met Darius?" he asked, ignoring the comment and continuing his own train of thought.
"The priest? I've heard of him."
"He's an amazing man," Duncan continued, remembering the excitement of meeting such an ancient immortal. "You must have heard the legends about him -- his age, and the way he changed after killing the oldest living immortal."
"Do you believe in legends, MacLeod? Perhaps he's just a coward, hiding on Holy Ground because he's afraid to fight." Varens wasn't using that mocking tone that always provoked Duncan; he seemed genuinely curious.
"No. If you'd met him you'd know that's not true." Duncan sat back up, knowing he wouldn't sleep for a while. "Darius has courage, though he doesn't behave as I was taught. It takes courage to face violence with non-aggression."
"How long have you known this immortal?" Varens sounded sleepy, but he wasn't cutting off the conversation.
"We met at Waterloo. I was fighting with the British and he was on the battlefield, assisting the wounded. Saving lives. He called life a mortal's most precious possession. I'd been raised to be a warrior, but knowing him has shown me another way to live. In the Great War I volunteered as a medic instead of fighting for Britain."
"Yet here you are, up to your eyebrows fighting the Germans. So you don't always agree with Darius."
"I told him long ago that I can't be like him and stand by when others are killing. But the work I'm doing here is the type of task Darius himself would chose to do."
"You sound like he's your father. He'd be so proud of you," Varens snorted, rolling away from him.
That stung. But he avoided arguing, replying "I think he'd approve. I'm helping innocent people."
"Are they all innocents? Do you know they're blameless, simple people caught up in the war?" Varens now sat up and turned back to him, his eyes glittering in the faint moonlight. "The 'innocents' you're helping could be scientists who've developed horrible weapons. Or infiltrators like Andre, who you'd be helping into position to betray the real innocents."
"Ana's contacts wouldn't..."
"Ana doesn't know what she's doing." Varens' shout echoed off the walls for a moment.
"Maybe not. Perhaps none of us do. But we can't all keep your cool detachment from life." Duncan was angry now, though he was still speaking quietly. "Oh, wait, wasn't that you slaughtering Nazis because your..." He caught himself. "Your friend died?"
Varens threw off his blankets and left the loft. Duncan heard his steps fade once he was down the stairs. He didn't suppose Varens had gone down to wait for midnight, and watch the animals bow to the Christ child.
Duncan couldn't seem to have a pleasant conversation with the man. Every subject led back to this war, and they were both too raw to discuss it. He rolled over, covering himself and thinking that Varens would find the cow better company than he'd been.
He arrived at the kitchen just in time to hear an argument through the closed windows.
"That's it, I've had enough of this! I am leaving tomorrow, Ana, and you can plan your own damn raids." Duncan peered in the window, even though he knew Varens could feel his presence nearby. Varens looked as if he'd run most of the way from town, where he should be right now, doing their marketing with Dee. "Hijack the train, indeed. Do you think you're in the American West?"
"Michel, please have a seat. You know you're free to leave at any time. But I honestly hope you won't. Our chances of success will depend on careful planning. This is a very complicated task."
"Why? Why do you feel that you must do this? A trainload of prisoners is bound for the camps in Germany. Oh, no -- Ana Storne and her Highland warrior will stand between all of these people and death. Oh, no doubt a few mortals will be sacrificed, too. And in a week, another train full of people will go to the camps! You can't save them all."
"I must do what I can. Do you see anyone else here who is able to do it?" Ana looked just as angry.
"Even if you could kill Hitler, you won't end oppression or war. There will always be another dictator, ready to wipe out villages or nations."
"Aren't you the one who told me we should live in the here and now, not in the future or the past?" Ana rose and put a hand on Varens' arm gently. "You've lived too long, I think. You see an abstract war. I only see one train, filled with shivering people."
"I'm not above it all, Ana. I see people I love dead, I see others I love in danger, and I don't see anything that will be gained by your death!" Varens slammed his fist into the brick of the fireplace, and Ana cried out.
"Michel, mon dieu, please calm yourself." She grabbed a cloth and began cleaning the blood off his knuckles, but Varens pulled away from her.
"You are not responsible for anything the Germans do, and you cannot stop them."
"They are trying to destroy entire races of people." Michel opened his mouth, but Ana waved a hand to silence him. "I cannot ignore it."
He shook his head but didn't reply. Duncan moved away from the window and headed to the door again. As he opened it, Ana spoke.
"I know you feel differently, and you are free to go. We shall muddle through without you."
Michel slammed past him, knocking Duncan into the wall without apology, and headed toward the river.
"Varens!" Duncan called after him, but he didn't stop. Ana joined him in the doorway. "I thought perhaps he would spar with me today. I could use the workout." He came inside with her and carefully closed the door against the frosty air.
"I'm afraid I've upset him too much today, Duncan. Another time." Ana turned to him with a smile. "We have a source for explosives in Luneville."
"Explosives?" They'd wanted ammunition before.
"We have plans for them, Duncan. You and Albert could make contact on your way back from the rendezvous."
This was the plan that had Varens so upset. Ana looked quite calm and she'd never done anything reckless. But Varens wasn't a coward, and he trusted his judgement as well... Duncan hesitated only a moment; he'd given his loyalty to Ana and her band weeks ago.
"Tell me what you need."
One week later
Duncan pulled himself out of the swampy water, gasping for breath, feeling the massive healing still underway in his body. What a disastrous end to their journey. He and Albert had been stopped by a German patrol while headed back to Ana's farm at last, three days late and unsuccessful in getting her supplies. Their papers were inspected and then they'd been released, but as they started back down the road, the Germans opened fire.
Duncan had shoved Albert into the woods ahead of him, feeling the bullets tear into his body. They only made it a little closer to the river before he'd collapsed and, evidently, died. It looked as if Albert had dragged him further, then covered him with leaves and gone on. He hoped the man knew to stay in the river for most of the trip, to avoid further patrols.
Duncan sat for a moment, breathing, until he felt able to walk. Then he tumbled himself into the water, headed back toward Ana's farm. He'd have to remain out of sight; his work here was done now that Albert had seen him 'die.' But Varens would come looking for him, he was sure of that. It was odd to feel that sure about someone so unpredictable, but Duncan just knew.
After an hour he heard splashing and moved to the riverbank as quickly and quietly as possible. The water sounds had stopped as well, and he braced himself. No presence, so it wasn't Varens... When he saw movement he jumped out and tackled -- Ana. He rolled them both over in the mud, apologetic.
"Merde, Duncan, is this how you treat someone who comes looking for you?"
"Keep quiet, Ana. This place is crawling with patrols..." They crept to a clump of underbrush as Duncan whispered, "Tell me you brought me some food. I'm starving."
She pulled bread and cheese, rather mashed, from her pocket. "It's all we have, but please eat as much as you wish. I ate this morning." He sat beside her, quickly demolishing about half the food supply. Then he re-wrapped the leftovers and handed the bundle back to her.
"You're very cautious." She smiled as she tucked the food back in her jacket pocket.
"I've been hungry before. I like knowing there's something for later."
"Thank you for saving Albert." She rose. "We need to head back. You can hide near the barn for a day or two. I've hidden a pack with most of your clothes and the papers you'll need to travel."
Duncan nodded sadly. "I'm sorry, but you understand I must move on now."
"Of course. Don't worry about Dee; I'll keep her away. She's been crying ever since Albert returned." Ana started walking and he followed her as quietly as possible.
"I'll ask Michel to prepare a map for you both, and I'll see if anyone has contacts further south." There was a noise overhead and they both ducked. Birds flew away and they exchanged smiles, then continued tracing the path back to the house.
"The Germans seem to have stepped up patrols in this area. Something has changed, and we need to figure out exactly what it is," Duncan told her. Then he realized what she'd said. "Varens is coming with me?"
"He was packing to come find you, but I asked him to help Rene finish the repairs to his barn first. No one will notice that I've been gone." Not really an answer, but he left it.
"You can't be too careful right now. You may wish to postpone all your plans for a month or two."
"I don't think I can, Duncan. The Germans won't wait for us to be ready. And it is never completely safe, you know."
He did know, so he didn't reply as they continued walking. After about an hour they were forced to stop and hide again. Darkness fell, and they decided to stop for the night. They were not very far from the cottage, but patrols were everywhere, and the wind occasionally carried voices and even gunshot sounds to their hiding place. Neither could sleep.
As the dawn finally lit up the sky, it was much quieter and they felt hopeful until they saw plumes of black smoke in the direction of the town. They headed home quickly.
He smelled the smoke before he reached them. The barn was gone; only a smoldering pile of rubble remained. The stone cottage had resisted the fire, but the roof was smoking and there were two bodies crumpled in the yard. There was Varens, curled over little Dee.
Ana cried out and ran to them, frantically calling Dee. When Duncan reached them and felt Dee's cold skin, looking for a pulse, he knew they were too late.
Varens had not died quickly; his body was bruised and burned. His fatal head wound was evidently slowing the healing.
Ana just sat there, holding Dee's hand, staring at the ruin of her farm. Duncan feared the entire group of resistance fighters had been destroyed. There seemed to be smoke in the direction of Rene's farm and the village, too. He couldn't bring himself to tell that to Ana yet. She looked utterly devastated, probably in shock. She had not shed a tear.
Varens coughed and moaned, and Duncan helped him sit up. "Dee?"
"I'm sorry," Duncan replied, still supporting him, knowing there was nothing else to say. The placement of their bodies had told the story plainly enough. Despite the horror around him, Duncan felt warmth toward the contrary man in his arms. Varens might never have admitted affection for Dee, but he'd tried to protect her. It was enough.
"Damn it." Still looking away from Ana and Dee, Varens leaned into Duncan and wiped a hand over his grimy face. Then he turned to his friend who was standing up at last. He started to rise, saying "Ana, I..."
"Damn you!" she screamed, throwing herself at him and hitting at his chest with her fists. Varens merely embraced her, sinking back to the ground as she sobbed. "No, no!"
Duncan heard Varens' whisper of "sorry, sorry" as he walked away to let them mourn. He headed to Rene's, determined to know the worst.
When he returned hours later to report, Varens had pulled Ana inside the ruin of the cottage. She lay on the kitchen floor with her head in his lap, evidently asleep.
"It's worse than I thought. Everyone is dead at Rene's farm, and there are bodies in the street of the village. The houses are empty and most have been burned. They seem to have killed or arrested everyone in this area."
"We'd better plan to move on, then. There's nothing to stay here for. Ana can come with us, maybe catch up with her daughter."
"I'm not dead Michel. I do have something to say about this," she croaked, her voice nearly gone from weeping.
"Of course, Ana," Duncan interjected. "We were just thinking aloud. Nothing is final."
"I can still lead the train raid, whatever you think of me." She struggled to her feet as she spoke, refusing help from either man.
Varens looked truly crushed. "Ana, love, please don't speak that way. You have done good work here, helping people. Today is not your fault. This is war, this is what happens in war."
"I was supposed to be leading them."
"But they would have been fighting the Germans without you."
"You told me it was wrong to get involved..." she began, her voice full of tears.
"But you don't believe that. If I do, it's because I'm an old cynic. I don't want you to be one, too." He tried to smile for her, though it was a pitiful attempt. "I shouldn't have tried to tell you what to do."
"Michel." She let him hug her again, and even managed a sad little half-smile for Duncan, tears running down her face.
Duncan noticed the small box behind a row of preserved vegetables in the cellar.
They were eating Ana's supplies and not replacing them. Varens said it didn't matter, because in a month they'd be in Switzerland. Ana also said it didn't matter, but her tone seemed to express "we're all doomed and will be dead soon." He tried to keep a middle ground himself. He couldn't see a way out of France right now, but they couldn't stay here much longer.
The box was an artist's colorbox, filled with pastel crayons and charcoal. Under it were some old, curling sketchbooks, half-filled with drawings evidently from years before. There were sketches of the farm, of a man who must be Robert, of babies sleeping. Then nothing. Duncan tucked the books under one arm and grabbed the box along with the beans. He headed up the steep steps with his bundles.
The damaged cottage was their only shelter, and living in it without a roof was taking a toll on them. It was cold still and many nights were wet and miserable. They were afraid to have a fire in case the Nazis were still watching the area.
"Are you opening another bottle, Michel?" Ana asked as Duncan entered the kitchen. Exasperation was in her voice. He set the sketchbooks and box down at the doorway, then brought in the jars.
"I didn't think we needed to worry about it," came back in a clipped voice.
"Green beans tonight," he said, feeling both their eyes turn to him as he spoke. He smiled, and they both snorted and returned to their own tasks.
Ana's anger was better than the days of total silence that had come before. She'd gone into shock when she finally saw the village, and simply curled up on her bed for two days, refusing to eat. They'd hunted, gathered food, and slept on the kitchen floor together, waiting. The third day she'd finally cried. That was the worst, for both of them. Varens seemed no more adept at comforting a weeping woman than Duncan, but neither one could leave her. They sat with her, holding her or not, bearing witness to her grief.
Now Ana almost seemed normal, doing her share of the daily chores -- but she was often angry. Duncan knew these emotions were normal and healthy, and he wished Varens were capable of showing some forbearance. He never ignored her moods or pointed remarks. No, Varens always had to answer back and get the last word. Well, perhaps it bothered Duncan more than Ana.
She was insisting that they could still carry out the train raid in two weeks, although they had no weapons, few supplies, and nowhere to take anyone they might free. They both reasoned with her, but Duncan's logic wasn't working. Neither were Varens' sarcastic remarks.
"I'm building a fire. It's foolish to eat cold food when we're freezing." She was wearing one of Duncan's spare shirts -- their only extra clothing was from the pack she'd hidden in the woods for him -- under her coat, even indoors. She felt the cold even more than Varens.
"It's more foolish to get killed tonight, Ana."
Duncan sighed softly, wishing for five minutes of silence. They'd been sniping at each other all day and his nerves felt worn. Although he tried to stay out of their way, his patience seemed to anger them both, drawing fire as it did now.
"Are we boring you, Duncan?" Ana, falsely sweet, was looking at him with fire in her eyes. "Shall we discuss my raid after your nap?"
"Actually, I was wondering if you'd do me a favor, Ana." He went to the doorway and brought in the sketchbooks and supplies. "I know it's probably been years since you worked on these..."
"You found my books. But how did you know these are mine?" she asked, wonder in her eyes.
"You did mention your sketching. And there are none of you, Ana."
"Oh, it's been years since I looked at these." Varens quietly opened jars and prepared a simple dinner while Ana showed her work to Duncan, speaking about each one. "See, here's Marc in his cradle. He was the best baby, so sweet."
They set aside the books to eat, and it was blessedly silent at last. Ana had a far-off look in her eyes. But Varens, who'd been staring at him for a few minutes, broke the spell.
"What favor did you want?"
"Yes, Duncan, why did you bring me these?"
"Actually, I was going to ask if you would sketch Dee for me, Ana." They both looked shocked. "You knew her so well, I'm sure you could draw her from memory. And then I would have a way to remember her, too. For the rest of my life."
He saw the understanding in Ana's eyes, and knew she understood what he was promising. Varens merely looked confused, and Duncan remembered that he'd never told him that Ana had guessed he was immortal. Varens cleaned up the kitchen while Ana pulled out her pencils and set to work.
The next morning she was still drawing. There was Rene, there was Albert. Each sketch had names and dates, and a notation: "killed by the Nazis" or "missing; believed in Nazi custody." There was Dee, in a dozen poses. Dee reading her mother's book, making porridge, laughing with the cow. Ana's first sketches were rough, but now she was in control of her talent again. Her neighbors and friends took shape under her sturdy square hands, alive again.
Varens came into the room and stood behind her, and he gasped. Duncan looked and saw his stare focused on a page lying apart from the rest. A young man, maybe 30, and an elderly woman.
"That is for you, Michel. In memory." Ana wasn't looking at him, but Duncan saw his eyes close and emotion twist his mouth for a moment.
"Thank you." He took the paper and left the cottage with it. Ana kept drawing, ignoring Duncan as he made tea and washed his face quickly.
"Ana, please rest for a moment. Have some breakfast." Breakfast was the only normal meal they got, though their only choice of food was porridge.
"I will," she said, but she kept working. It wasn't until Varens entered the room again and put his hand over hers that she stopped. He moved her to the table, put food in front of her, and watched her until she ate.
"You should sleep this morning, Ana," Duncan suggested. "We'll keep a watch for you." There wasn't much to do, though Varens was still spending time with their maps. Duncan thought he should check the traps, maybe try to find some game. They could dry the meat for the road.
"Can one of you find a way to a post office for me?" Ana was very serious. "I want to mail a package to my cousins in America." She must have seen the confusion in their faces. "I want to send my sketches to them, so that no matter what happens there will be a record of Poiterre. Of what happened here."
"The Germans control the mail, Ana." Varens sounded unhappy to remind her. "They'd never go through, not with your notes on them."
"Then we'll take them to Switzerland and send them from there. Or I'll erase my notes and send a letter later, once we're safe." She was crying again, but not hysterical. "I want them all to be remembered."
"We'll do it somehow," Duncan promised, understanding how she felt. "I swear I'll find a way."
The night before they left her farm, Ana called Duncan into her room. Despite the smoke damage and the lack of all the small, personal belongings that had been broken or stolen, it was still a cozy place. A singed quilt was on the bed's frame. It would be rolled up in the morning with the possessions she was carrying. Her sketches were rolled and bound already, even the older ones. Ana had identified each one, even putting approximate dates on them.
But two sheets were laid out, still flat. She presented them to Duncan.
"For your memory book, Duncan MacLeod. For the rest of your life."
The first was a sketch of Dee, her shy smile true to his memories of her. The second was a surprise to him, showing him with Varens, talking as they often did beside the fireplace at night. As with her lost friends, the sketch was a good likeness of both, flattering in some ways, harsh in others. Without his animation and motion, Varens seemed all angles and nose -- but there was love in the sketch, too, softening his features and shining in his eyes. Ana's fondness for her teacher seemed to glow off the page.
"Thank you. I'll cherish them both." He carefully rolled them together, wondering why Ana seemed disappointed. "I'm surprised you haven't included a self-portrait for me."
"These are all my self-portraits," she replied, staring at the roll of drawings. "They have all been part of me."
They'd fought for two weeks over this plan, and Varens had sworn it couldn't work, but the train halted almost precisely where they'd planned for it to be. Duncan felt a little more confident, and saw Ana felt the same as she stood at her post. They both watched Varens' attempt at distracting the guards who climbed down off the train.
His carefully-prepared speech about the bridge being damaged ended with him being shot, as they'd expected. His clothing was too ragged not to cause suspicion. Two soldiers and the civilian train operator moved down the tracks and slowly began to clear the blockage they'd placed on the rails. But no other guards came off any other cars.
Duncan and Ana ran back to the last two cars and Duncan quickly uncoupled them from the rest of the train. As the train began to move again, they pried open the door on the last car. When it finally swung free, they saw the car was full of people, too tightly packed to sit, apprehensive as the light flooded in. A child cried softly.
"Please come out of the car quickly and move into the woods," Ana began, noting that train's engine and the front cars were now well away. "We mean you no harm. Please remain quiet." She knew the gun in her arms was frightening them, but she couldn't safely set it aside. "Carefully, please. We're planning to head for unoccupied territory immediately. To get you to safety."
Duncan moved to the other car and opened it, glad to see it didn't contain any more refugees. The group was already larger than they'd planned for. This car was full of loot -- art, furniture, and a safe. He set to work trying to open it, hoping to find currency to pass out to their group. Then they'd be able to buy supplies and split up into smaller groups as necessary.
"The damn Boche steal everything," Ana said, standing in the doorway and looking at the car's contents. "There's nothing for them to eat..."
"They've only been traveling for a day. At least they have their coats and hats," he said. "I was afraid we'd be fighting the weather as well."
"True," she sighed, looking tired. He turned back to the safe, wondering if they could really help these people. While their own packs had dried foods and they each carried a water skin, the people they'd just rescued had nothing but the clothes on their backs. They would need a miracle of loaves and fishes every day they were on the road. Varens had joked about finding a market town to occupy. And that reminded him; Varens should have joined them by now.
"Where is Michel?" Ana asked at the same moment.
"I'll find him in a minute. You stay with the refugees." The safe was open now, and Ana came in to empty it as Duncan jumped out of the car and walked toward the river gorge and the bridge.
The group of refugees was now huddling at the edge of the trees, Duncan noted. They might be Jews, Communists, anyone the Germans felt was undesirable. There seemed to be a few natural leaders among them who'd kept them moving together and managed to calm them. Ana joined the group and appeared to be speaking with them as he moved away.
Their plan called for getting the group to unoccupied France, then finding a way out of the country. They knew they might need to split up right here, with each of them leading a smaller group. Duncan hoped they could instead turn these refugees loose to find their own way, in much smaller groups to throw off any pursuit. Lacking any up-to-date information on German activities or reliable ports, it seemed the only way to ensure some of them would get to safety. Varens had prepared a dozen hand-drawn maps to share with them.
Just as Duncan approached the area where he'd last seen Varens, close to the rubble they'd used to block the tracks, he heard a loud explosion and saw a fireball ahead, down the track, toward the bridge. Ana came running to him and they headed toward the fire, signaling to the refugees to stay in place. Bodies were scattered alongside the track beyond where the engine had been stopped, soldiers and civilians, all very dead.
"He's blown the bridge with the train on it," Duncan said. "And he'll bring the whole damn army down on us if we don't move right now."
"Michel insisted we shouldn't try to disrupt the railroad," Ana said, sounding confused. "I wanted to, there is no point in rescuing one train load of people when there will be another in a few days. But I couldn't see how..."
"Damn him, where did he go? Do you think he's been injured?"
"Duncan, we have to get out of here. I have the maps, and the refugees are splitting into groups, ready to travel." Ana wiped a tear off her face angrily. "They told me it's true -- towns all over France are willingly deporting their Jews." Duncan knew she hadn't wanted to believe the rumors, but there was nothing he could say to comfort her.
"I've got to find him, Ana. We'll catch up with you." He started stripping weapons off the dead soldiers, then he sighed. "Damn." He held up a grenade. "I think this is how he did it; these Nazis are always armed to the teeth."
"I can't believe he left now, with all these people depending on us."
"I don't believe he did it deliberately, but he might have been injured getting the train in position to destroy the bridge."
"It doesn't matter why he's not here. We can't wait for him. Our duty is to these people now. If we move on as we originally planned, perhaps he'll join us in a day or two."
"I can't." Duncan looked just as surprised as Ana when he spoke. "I'm here because I didn't want him falling into enemy hands and couldn't escape without him. And that was before I knew him. He's saved my life..." He shrugged. "I can't leave."
Ana nodded. "I'll go with the refugees, Duncan. You find Michel and get him to safety."
"The plan..." Duncan began.
"Don't worry. You'll catch up later. But instead of the original route, let's head east now, toward Sarrebourg." Ana looked at her map quickly. "Then we'll turn south. They're more likely to expect us to head west, back to Nancy."
She handed one of the maps to Duncan and as she continued, he wrote the town names on the back in pencil.
"When the group splits up, I'll be headed for Epinal, and then to Dijon and our friends there. You have the contact names. If all else fails, I'll get word to you there." Ana hugged him quickly, then smiled at him.
"You're a good man, Duncan." She kissed his cheek twice. "That's for Michel. You give it to him for me." She headed back to the group of refugees as Duncan bent over the corpses closest to him, salvaging as much ammunition as he could carry. Then he headed down the track, toward the bridge.
Hours later Duncan found Varens' body, washed up with debris from the train. If he'd tried to flee the explosion, he hadn't gone fast enough or far enough. In fact, he was probably lucky to still have his fool head attached; the damage to his body was still healing.
Though Duncan wanted to stay close to the river's abundant drinking water, knowing how dehydrated Varens would be, he couldn't risk it. It was sheer luck that no authorities were nearby. He'd seen people on the far side of the river an hour earlier. So he moved his surprisingly heavy body up the slope and into the woods. Then he returned to refill his water skin, wishing that Varens' hadn't been lost.
He had to get the still-dead man warm somehow, but they couldn't risk a fire. Instead he removed the wet and torn clothing from Varens, stripped himself, then wrapped them both in his coat and shirts. He'd been wishing for months to find a sword, but tonight he merely wanted more clothes, a blanket -- some way to help Varens heal faster and to keep them both warm. Hungry and exhausted, Duncan finally fell asleep.
When he woke up, he realized two things almost immediately. Varens had revived and was very tense in his arms. When he identified the second thing, the tension was explained -- there were voices nearby, speaking French, not German. Still, they were tangled together in the underbrush, their weapons just slightly too far away.
"No shooting, MacLeod," Varens whispered softly, directly into his ear. "God knows how many people that kind of noise would attract." Duncan merely nodded agreement as they untangled and unwrapped themselves, retrieving weapons first despite their nudity. He waved at Varens to dress first as he stood, holding a knife, watching for anyone approaching them. The man could certainly move quietly when necessary, and he was nearly silent as he pulled on one of Duncan's shirts and his own tattered slacks. Then he pulled a gun strap over his head, filled his pockets with ammunition, and finally came to Duncan and relieved him of the knife.
Duncan dressed quickly himself, smiling a little at the loss of his flannel shirt. But he had another, and Varens' shirt was really no more than a rag now. Still, they couldn't leave it here, so he stuffed it into his pocket along with the rest of the bullets. He donned his coat last, then picked up his own gun. Ready to move, he nodded at Varens and they began quickly and quietly moving. Duncan chose their direction, east toward the rising sun, but Varens didn't question it, he simply followed silently. Perhaps the man was finally beginning to trust him.
Two hours later, munching on stolen apples and finally heading southwest again, Duncan admitted he'd been wrong. Varens didn't trust anyone; he'd merely known that arguing with the enemy on their heels was stupid.
"Only Ana would head toward Germany with a bunch of people she'd just rescued from the damn Germans," Varens groused despite his full mouth. At least he had the energy to grumble while still walking.
"We're all doing the best we can." Duncan wanted to throw the core of his apple at him. Not one word of thanks for coming after him, pulling him to safety, keeping him warm. What an insufferable jerk. He couldn't believe he'd actually thought the man was interesting or likeable. How could Ana misjudge someone so badly?
Then Varens smiled at him, cheeks still full of apple. "That's what makes it so frightening, Highlander." And his voice and the look in his changeable eyes made Duncan shiver. He'd never before found chipmunk-cheeks attractive. He'd rarely found men attractive, to be frank. But Michel Varens was damned attractive. Damned seductive. He thought about Ana's "kiss for Michel" and his face flushed. Older immortals were different; Connor had warned him and experience had shown him. Better to keep his distance, though Duncan couldn't find words to silence Varens.
So they plodded along, the constant grousing fading as Varens tired. They still moved as quickly as possible, hoping that Ana was ahead.
Tired of apples and carrots stolen from farm storage sheds, they'd stopped early tonight and hunted for dinner. A rabbit was cut up, wrapped in wet leaves and buried in the coals of their fire now, a fire they'd only risked because they were in a heavy forest where the smoke should be diffused.
It was very pleasant to smell even that small amount of meat cooking and to feel some warmth at last. They'd slept outdoors, huddled together under Duncan's coat, for a week now. The weather had been damp and cloudy. There was still no sign of the others, though Duncan supposed that was to be expected. They were following Duncan's compass and hand-drawn map, avoiding villages. Ana would be doing the same, staying under cover and quiet. They might even pass each other on the way to Dijon.
It was too cold to bathe, and shaving was a distant dream despite the razor in his pack. In fact, they were both looking much as they had months ago when they'd first found Ana's farm. But even battered, dirty and under-nourished, Duncan found Varens attractive enough to consider taking a little comfort in his body on their road, a bit of rough-and-tumble sex that would help them both stay warm. The biggest obstacle was how to approach someone who was sarcastic, rude, and treated you like a simpleton.
Still, Varens was very entertaining at dinner, telling Duncan stories of his few sea voyages, and times he'd lived in monasteries that reminded Duncan of his own misadventures on Holy Ground. Duncan's tongue was loosened by the food and the fire, too. As the night continued he began to speak of his homeland. Somehow, before he realized what he was doing, Duncan found himself relating the story of the Witch of Donan Woods.
"Beautiful she was, and glowing as she came out of the water. Her skin so fair, her body so lovely. She saved my life that day, and she taught me what it means to be a man as well."
Varens was completely silent, not even looking at him. For a moment, Duncan wondered if he'd dozed off. Then Varens spoke. "Cassandra. You said her name was Cassandra?"
"Aye." Duncan felt almost drunk, remembering her. "Fair and perilous, a mighty sorceress. I never knew that bliss again until I met Debra..." The intensely painful memories of his home washed over Duncan in an instant -- being disowned by his father, believing himself a demon, watching his cousin die at his own hand. Being unable to prevent Debra's death, just as he couldn't save Diane... He was suddenly too close to tears to speak.
"Highlander, I think it's time to sleep." Duncan was grateful for the reprieve, for words that allowed him to stand and stamp out a smooth sleeping area, to perform the nightly rituals of this odd adventure without further talk.
But when he lay down, Varens didn't join him. There was frost on the ground, but the man stayed apart, close to the dying fire instead of lying next to Duncan. Somehow, it felt like yet another rejection.
The weather improved slightly as they finally left Dijon and headed south again, toward Lyon. They'd both chafed at the delay, but they needed to wait for new forged identity papers before attempting to cross the demarcation line into unoccupied territory. Ana had left a note for them with the only contact Duncan knew, and they stayed in his home for two days, studying the maps to Lyon. Another night was necessary, spent powering the clandestine printing press by taking turns on a bicycle-generator in the basement of the church, and they had their identities.
But no one could forge them the laissez-passer they each would need. So they carefully invented stories for their new personas. Duncan needed to attend his father's funeral in Charolles. Varens' was simpler; he was a low-level bureaucrat who needed to inspect the mines in the south for the Vichy regime.
As with all those traveling in France now, when they reached Macon they stood in line for hours to get their application papers, and then waited again to have them approved. Varens was in a disguise of sorts; he had eyeglasses and a battered, elderly suit that was ill-fitting and somehow made him seem shorter and very harmless. Duncan was in vineyard workman's clothing and felt secure in his knowledge of grape harvesting since his enforced labor as a prisoner. His disguise was a jagged piece of metal he'd inserted in his own right thigh, his "wound" from the war. Only Varens knew how he'd achieved such an authentic limp, one that would stand up to scrutiny if necessary.
Their requests were both denied that first day. Three days later, Varens re-applied and was granted his pass. But he refused to leave without Duncan, who waited in the line again for a full day without being granted an interview.
"You must leave, Michel. I'll catch up to you. After all, Ana will be worried by the delay."
"You didn't leave me behind, and I'm not leaving you here to rot, either. We can go without the damned papers."
"No, it's too dangerous. Better to cross at an official checkpoint than risk capture."
"You really are obsessed with those camps, aren't you?" But Varens looked ashamed of himself before he even finished speaking. "Fine, we'll do it officially. I'll find a way to get your damn pass signed."
The next day Duncan was accompanied to the Town Hall by Vera, an elderly woman from their contact group. She stood beside him and patted his shoulder while he sobbed loudly into his handkerchief. Vera played her part perfectly, loudly insisting that her farmhand needed to go home, now. He was less than useless to her like this! His father was dead, and he wanted to bring his maman back here to live with him, so he could care for her. They'd already caused him to miss the burial!
When Duncan left an hour later, he had his pass. They set off immediately, with many thanks to Vera, who was more interested in the cash Varens handed over than their gratitude.
Their last scare in occupied territory was just outside of Chalon, where they barely avoided a military patrol. They dived into the underbrush as the heavy boots marched past on the road. It wasn't that they expected anyone to be looking for them here in connection with the train explosion. And they were still in their disguises, carrying their identity cards. But two such men shouldn't be traveling together -- particularly with Varens' pass dated a full day earlier.
For that matter, two healthy men of military age shouldn't be wandering the French countryside at all. Such a thought led to worries about Ana's safety. Did she have new forged identity papers now? What if the group they'd met betrayed them for the train explosion? Perhaps Ana had been captured and even now was on a train headed to a camp in Germany. The note he'd received in Dijon was almost two weeks old.
"MacLeod? Are you hurt?" Varens, sounding very concerned. Duncan forced himself to rise out of the crouch he'd remained huddled in, lost in his thoughts.
"I'm fine. Just worried about Ana and the others." He stood up straight, breathing deeply. "If we don't find her in Lyon, I'm going back."
"What?" Varens stared at him, open-mouthed.
"If she's been captured, I need to know. I can't just abandon her."
"You are completely insane. You left her because you couldn't abandon me. Now you want to turn around and march right back to the Nazis?"
"Yes, if she isn't there and we don't get any word from her."
"She'll be there, I know Ana. She'll want to stay and work with the Resistance in Lyon now."
"You may be right. I hope you're right. But if not, I have to go back."
"Fine." Varens started walking again, Duncan following him. When Varens didn't continue to speak, Duncan called his name.
"Michel -- Do you mean it?"
Varens turned, his face annoyed. But as he met Duncan's eyes, he seemed to relax. "Yes, Highlander, it's fine. You are who you are. I suppose I'm lucky you haven't been dragging me all through the countryside looking for her already."
"So you won't try to stop me?"
"Stop you? No. Go with you and make sure you don't switch over to some other hair-brained, too-noble scheme to spank the Nazis and help the Noble People of France? Yes." He continued walking and Duncan followed, smiling, his heart lighter than it had felt for a year now.
They reached Villefranche at nightfall and had no idea how to find Ana's contacts. The town had been badly damaged by the fighting, which was apparent as they searched for an inn or cafe. Scaffolds and ladders leaned on buildings along the main street, and freshly repaired and newly-painted buildings made up the rest of the town.
It probably shouldn't have been a surprise to find Ana atop one of the ladders, painting trim on a window.
"Michel! Duncan!" she exclaimed, hurrying down the ladder to throw herself into their arms. "You are scarecrows every time I see you. Don't you two ever bathe without me?" she joked, and they laughed with her in relief.
"We've missed you," Duncan whispered in her ear during another long hug.
"There is much work to be done here, as you can see. Come, let me introduce you both to Henri and his family. I've been staying in their home."
Henri's hospitality included baths while Ana went to finish her work. He brought them clean, plain clothing and seemed very happy to get Varens' suit to be cleaned and used for their own supply of disguises. When Ana returned they all sat down to a simple meal. Ana chattered throughout, telling Henri stories of their time on her farm, then switching to stories of the work the Resistance was doing here. Duncan thought she was behaving almost like the Ana he'd known before Dee's death and the slaughter of her neighbors.
"Our train refugees are mostly still in France, but they have new, non-Jewish identities which should keep them safe for a time." There was still a shadow in her eyes, though, and he thought the pain of knowing how ordinary, good people could be turned to help the Nazis was a part of that shadow.
"Are you ready to move on now, Ana?" Varens asked the question Duncan had been avoiding. Typical.
"Move on? But there's so much to do here, Michel. Good work."
"Yes, but we agreed--"
"I was discouraged then. I thought there was no more use for me. But my darlings, I have found a place here."
"She certainly has," Henri added. "We welcome Ana as part of our group. We need you all."
Varens looked distinctly unhappy, but Duncan tried to smile for her. "We're very pleased for you Ana, though I don't believe we can stay here permanently."
The fond, rueful smile Ana sent to him made it plain she wasn't fooled by Varens' silence or Duncan's politeness. Henri and his wife excused themselves and left the three of them at the table alone.
"Michel, France is my homeland. I cannot leave her in a time of need. I appreciate your concern for my safety, but safety isn't enough for true happiness."
Varens looked as though she'd slapped him. "I know that, Ana, I..."
"I know you do, my wise friend. Get some rest tonight. You and Duncan will wish to move on quickly. Henri will see about maps and new papers for you. Duncan, where are you headed?"
"Marseilles, I suppose, and then to England."
"We have contacts in Lyon. We'll get you that far safely." Ana took their hands in each of her own and pressed them. "You are both very dear to me. Goodnight." She left them at the table, Varens silent, staring at his wine glass.
"Well, you told me she'd want to stay here and work," Duncan began, fiddling with his fork. "She's recovering. That's good to see." No response. "Ana needs to be busy."
"Ana needs a spanking," Varens snorted, and for the first time Duncan plainly saw the fear in Varens' eyes and all his concern for his friend. Perhaps it was because they'd spent so much time together, but Varens -- who had seemed so incomprehensible -- was now an open book to him. Then Duncan blinked and wondered when he'd gone from thinking Varens was in love with Ana to only seeing her as the other man's dear friend. He rose, not sure if he wanted to be alone to think or just to finally get some real sleep.
"I'm heading upstairs, Varens."
Duncan found his way back to the attic, where two straw pallets waited for them. He stared out the tiny window at the night sky for a long time, thinking about Varens.
Duncan had always had immortal friends, and he knew he was lucky to have them. It was wonderful to be himself when he was with them, with all his years of experience openly on display. It was a blessing to reminisce about the past and make plans for the future without subterfuge.
Somehow, Duncan knew Varens didn't have such friends. Ana was the next best thing -- a mortal who understood without asking too many questions. She kept the secret and accepted the difference in their lives, though her grief over Dee had understandably included anger at their invulnerability...
Duncan felt that kind of anger at himself once again, just as he had when he revived and Diane didn't, down in that airless hole he'd led her into... He slammed his fist into the windowsill, then watched it bleed and heal. The only scars he could bear for Diane would be inside him.
He climbed into his bed, shaking with the cold, and when Varens came in Duncan pretended to be asleep.
In four days they had their papers and were ready to leave. Duncan found Varens in the kitchen with Ana when he rose that morning. Both looked a little angry.
"Duncan, I'm so glad you've come down. Take Michel to Lyon so I can get on with my work."
"You could be doing real artistic work in Geneva, not painting walls," Varens muttered.
"Painting walls suits me, Michel. I'm just a peasant girl, you know." She hugged Duncan with a smile, patted Varens' shoulder, then left the house with a bucket and her brushes.
"It's her choice, Varens. Let her live her own life." Duncan filled a bowl with still warm porridge from the stove and sat beside the other man who was still lingering over a cup of tea.
"I know. I just want her to consider all her options." Varens looked around the room, and out the window, then continued in a lower voice. "Their lives are so damn short. She's already raised a family and worked hard for twenty-five years. She could have some fun now."
Duncan smiled at him around a mouthful, then swallowed. "You have a point, but you know as well as I do she is having fun here, making a new family for herself."
"Until the Nazis come back, or she goes off on some adventure and gets herself hurt." Varens shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I'm trying to repay what I owe her."
"We both owe her, though I think she believes it's settled. Though we could stay here and work..."
"That's not what I mean."
"No, but what she's done for us, saving our lives and keeping our secrets -- there's no way to repay it, ever." He quickly finished his cereal and stole Varens lukewarm tea to wash it down.
"Hey!" Varens playfully slapped at his hand and they rose to wash up and finish their preparations to leave.
Half an hour later they heard a commotion on the street, but ignored it as they bid farewell to Henri and Lilly. They started down the road, knapsacks full of food and hiding weapons under their coats, and saw a crowd around the old bank building. There was thick dust rising from the area, too, and it wasn't until they were passing that they realized a wall of the building had collapsed.
"Wasn't Ana painting..." Varens began, then ran toward the rubble. Duncan followed him, and they both began helping to move the stones and timbers, looking for the injured. What they found were two dead, an elderly man and Ana. They'd both been crushed, and Duncan just stared at her stupidly while the man was carried away from the debris by a sobbing woman and boy. Several men offered to help them carry Ana's body to the church, but neither Varens nor Duncan answered.
Duncan was seeing Diane, grey in death, her clothing dusty and torn just like Ana's. When the men finally picked up Ana and carried her off without them, Varens grabbed Duncan's arm and pulled him back to the street, and began heading out of town again.
"We can't just leave."
"She's dead, MacLeod. There's nothing to do for Ana any longer."
"But ... a funeral. A eulogy. You know her better than anyone here."
"It doesn't matter. Let's go."
"No, goddamn it!" Duncan was furious now. "You can't get a woman killed and then just leave her like some dog in the street!" He swung at Varens, who avoided the punch and grabbed his arms, immobilizing him, though Duncan managed to knock him off his feet and they ended up in the dirt of the street, still struggling.
"You're thinking of someone else, Duncan," Varens hissed. "You didn't get Ana killed... I didn't lead her here... she chose this herself, just as you said."
"You heartless bastard," Duncan yelled, kicking him in the knee and then punching Varens when his grip loosened in reaction. "You don't know anything!" He threw the other immortal down and struggled to his feet, chest heaving. Duncan thought he was going to die from anger.
Varens was breathing heavily, too, and looked up at him, his mouth bleeding and his face scratched. "I know we need to leave. I know Ana doesn't need us here, not anymore." He rose and wiped his face. "You once told me you recognize revenge. I know guilt when I see it, Mac."
Varens limped off down the street, retrieving his knapsack and not looking back. Duncan was still shaking with anger, but he followed him.
"You shouldn't have come after me in the first place!" Varens shouted. "None of this would have happened if you'd gone with Ana and the refugees."
The day after leaving Villefranche was not going smoothly. The cold weather returned, and Varens had been almost completely silent since they left the town. Duncan understood that he was mourning his friend's death, but he couldn't stand the silence. He'd tried to converse on some neutral topic, but they couldn't agree on anything. They'd somehow wound up in a flurry of useless, angry "if onlys," and now this last comment left Duncan speechless. But only for a moment.
"You ungrateful brat," he managed. "I should have left you there to be found by the Germans? Maybe you'd like to see what their doctors would do to someone who revived from death while in their custody?"
"Maybe I can handle my own life, MacLeod, without some Scots child acting as nursemaid. I managed to get this far without your assistance, and I think I can manage to survive in the future without it as well."
"I've forgiven a lot in your behavior, Varens," Duncan replied with some heat. "I know you've lost Ana and your friend, but you're not the only one who's suffered in this war--"
"Don't! I refuse to discuss this with you. Don't forgive me anything, MacLeod. Just leave, go and have a great war." Varens tried to turn off in a different direction, but Duncan grabbed him and threw him against a tree, blocking him with his own body.
"You are coming with me. I won't let you go haring off into the Nazi's hands exposing all of us..."
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll vanish, find a nice cave to live in until the war is over!"
"You would, wouldn't you?" Duncan mused, staring at the face so close to his own. "You could just stand by, let the Germans overrun the world, let civilization be destroyed -- "
"It's been destroyed before, MacLeod, and while the plumbing is nice, I don't think today's version of civilization is perfect."
"I don't understand you," Duncan complained, moving back a bit but not freeing the other man. "You cared about Paul, you cared--"
"Do not mention his name!"
"You cared enough to help Ana plan her raids. You even cared enough to save me..." Duncan paused for a moment of thought. "Is it just that your friend's death hurt so much? Is that what's frightened you?"
"I'm not afraid, MacLeod! And Paul wasn't my friend, he was my lover." Varens shoved him away and brushed past him at last, moving off again. "I'm sure that fact will convince you that I'm too alien for your friendship or concern."
Duncan followed him, angry at being dismissed, and spun him around again with one strong hand. "Why? Do you think I've never felt love for a man? You're wrong." And then he crushed Varens against another convenient tree and kissed him. The sarcastic mouth was warm and sweet despite their beards and filth. After a moment of shocked surprise, Varens returned the caress, his tongue joining with Duncan's in an incredibly tender exploration, his arms coming up to hold Duncan close to him. There was no force, no dominance, just sheer pleasure until they had to stop to breathe. Duncan pulled back, gasped, then returned to the mouth that had flowered into a paradise for him.
Without planning it, the tree where they stood became their camp for the night. Duncan's coat was frantically spread for a groundcloth, and their bodies were quickly bared and finally brought together, wrapped in a blanket. Baths would have been wonderful, but they were too aroused to regret the impossible. Hands and mouths touched, their body musk ignored in the delight of hearing the other moan or feeling him respond.
Duncan had started this to prove a point, not realizing he had any feelings for Varens. But the more he explored the beautiful, truly responsive body next to his own, the more he wanted to keep doing this, again and again. Varens was a skillful lover, turning every touch into a delight. His kisses were intoxicating. And the look in his eyes when Duncan touched his cock brought him to the very edge of orgasm himself.
"You're beautiful," Duncan whispered to his otherworldly lover, stroking him firmly, holding him close.
"MacLeod... Oh please..." He couldn't articulate his wish, but Duncan felt he knew just what to do. His big hand gathered both their arousals together, and he began to pump. His mouth moved to Varens' neck, kissing and sucking, and his lover came with an incoherent cry, his body arching in Duncan's embrace.
A moment later Varens pulled away and turned his attention to Duncan's erection, using his hand and then his mouth to carry the Scot to earthshaking pleasure. Duncan screamed "Michel!" as he came, then pulled his lover up closer to him, wrapping him in his arms and pulling their blankets close again. Varens -- no, Michel -- stiffened for a moment, then seemed to melt into the embrace, his head resting on Duncan's shoulder, his breath warm on his neck.
Duncan had believed sex with Michel would be no more than he'd done with other friends, simply satisfying their needs. It wasn't. This simple act had seemed less like sex and more like -- love. He'd used that word before, with Brian and Fitz and Warren, but he'd meant brotherly love. An affection, camaraderie and loyalty that could be expressed sexually, too. But he didn't feel brotherly with Michel. This man, so annoying at times, was addictive as well.
His thoughts in turmoil, Duncan lay with Varens for more than an hour, silent. Duncan assumed Michel slept. Dusk turned to twilight, the moon rose, and sleep still eluded him as they held each other. His mind kept examining their strange relationship, marveling at how raw he still felt over Diane's death, and Ana's, too. Yet he realized he'd been slowly healing since meeting Michel. Somehow Varens had brought him back from the grief-numbed way he'd been living. Tonight's lovemaking had completed the transformation. Duncan felt like himself again, like someone Connor would recognize. Finally, still wrapped tightly in Michel's arms, he slept.
At dawn, they ate heartily from their supplies and started off again. It only took a few hours before they were bickering again, but the edge was gone. Michel's comments made Duncan smile as often as they stung now, and he only had to catch the other man's eyes to see sexual heat behind the conversation, no matter how banal.
They had set the pattern for the week ahead that first night. They walked each day through the rugged country, their progress still slow. The stopped only when absolutely necessary -- usually to steal food or hunt. They talked for hours, about current events and past lives. They argued for hours, about philosophies and fighting styles and the Game. And each night, they wrapped up together in blankets and made love for hours, despite their exhaustion.
They were finding more abandoned farmhouses than they'd expected. It seemed many of the people in this area had been nervous about being close to the occupied territories, and left to stay with their families further south. The natives' panicked dispersal became a blessing to the two weary travelers.
It was easy to carefully break into these homes and give themselves some comforts that had been scarce far too long, such as sleeping with a roof to keep off the rain. Often they found a mattress to unroll for a truly decadent night. They didn't usually light a fire, just the same -- no telling whose attention that might catch. But they could wash up, shave and feel civilized again with protection against the elements and the harsh winter weather.
Inside or outdoors, each evening ended the same -- with them kissing, writhing together, igniting each other's passions far into the night.
Tonight they were finally near the end of their journey. Another day and they should be in Lyon. They feasted on wine and dried meat, found hidden in the attic of their shelter, making the night a real celebration.
"This is truly awful sausage," Michel complained. "But I suppose I just miss bread."
"No, it truly is terrible," Duncan said sadly, then laughed at the other's startled look and took another swig from the bottle. "They didn't put in enough garlic and other spices. It won't kill us, but it's not good at all."
Sharing laughter, food and drink was very good. Duncan was overflowing with cheer.
"Duncan, I'd like to ask you a favor."
"No, I won't start a fire so you can burn the sausage up," he giggled, his eyes dancing at Michel's mock-glare.
"Seriously, a favor. Please?"
"Certainly. What do you need?"
"Make-- Fuck me tonight." He continued in a rush. "We've never done it, and I want to... If you want to..."
"Michel," Duncan began, looking somber.
"Please? I'm not drunk, I know what I'm asking." He met Duncan's eyes steadily, his face burning.
It was a pleasure, incredibly intense. Duncan thought of it as lovemaking, though they both used the crude term Michel had chosen to refer to their act. But the love was obvious to Duncan, at least, as they moved together as one, kissing and readying each other for the physical act of penetration.
Duncan watched Michel's pale body glow in the moonlight, writhing on his fingers as they stretched him. He stroked the long lines of the lean body, kissing and biting and marking him, temporarily, with his hands. He decided to control his lover tonight, to truly dominate him for the first time.
Michel sucked at Duncan's nipples, then his cock, wetting and readying it to enter his body. When he was finally positioned, facing Duncan though he'd tried to avoid it, Duncan froze, his cock just pressing on the entrance to Michel's body.
"Say my name," he husked in a tone of command. Duncan shifted forward, his hands coming down on Michel's wrists, holding him still.
"Duncan..." he breathed softly, and the Highlander pressed forward, his engorged member stretching Michel oh-so-slowly. Duncan exerted terrible self-control, moving at a snail's pace and driving his partner into a frustrated frenzy. Michel couldn't push back, not in this position, he couldn't rush it... he controlled nothing. The penetration continued for an eternity, until both men were shaking and sweat poured off their bodies. Duncan's dark eyes devoured his every twitch and moan.
Then he held still, staring at Michel, his breath coming in shallow pants now. He waited, buried to the hilt, his balls tight against the beautiful arse he possessed. Then it came, the moment of surrender. Michel relaxed, accepting his bulk, accepting his mastery. And then howled in joy as Duncan pulled back and slammed back inside him, fucking him with all his strength. Mine, he thought, lost in the ecstasy in the other man's eyes as his orgasm came with that first stroke.
"Duncan, Duncan," Michel moaned as the Scot continued to pound into him for what seemed like hours. His body was already recovering, his cock again hard and he was still imprisoned, his face revealing everything he felt. Duncan felt sure his own was just as transparent, revealing his love, possessiveness and tenderness. He stared down at Michel, everything he wanted and nothing he could have. But he had it right now, and his body would enjoy it. His soul might never forget this night with this terribly seductive and beautiful man.
When Duncan finally froze, holding his lover tightly and pouring his seed inside him, Michel came for the second time and passed out. Duncan carefully withdrew from his body, settled beside him, and kissed his cheek gently. "Mine," he said just once, testing what his brain and body had claimed. It was true, he knew that now.
"I love you." Whispered in the darkness hours later as they held each other. Whispered far too softly to wake the man in his arms. "I don't understand you, but I do love you."
Relieved to have said the words, Duncan closed his eyes and slept, dreaming of hazel eyes watching him, and Varens whispering "I love you, too."
They would reach Lyon tomorrow, Duncan thought as he piled their blankets together.
"Last night on the road, eh?" Michel smiled at him from across the room, and Duncan merely opened his arms in reply.
Somehow he knew without discussing it that their relationship would change once they left France. It was plain in Michel's eyes, in his kisses -- usually so needy and demanding, but tonight sweet and slow. Duncan's hands roamed, memorizing the planes of Michel's face and body.
Later, as Duncan was thrusting slowly inside his lover, Michel reached up and put a hand on his face.
"Duncan, I need to tell you something--" he gasped, his face caught between bliss and concern.
"I know, Michel. I understand, don't worry," Duncan rasped, his arms shaking and his body still moving, though he tried to stop.
"No, not that... my name, it isn't Michel..." Duncan thrust hard, cutting off his words.
"I know, Herr Heinz. I've been around long enough to understand."
"But you -- oh, god, yes Duncan, just like that." He panted and Duncan smiled down at him, circling his hips and watching Michel writhe.
"You want me to call you by your real name?" He thrust again, hard.
"Yes! Oh, please--"
"Tell me." Duncan slowly pulled out and held, sweat pouring down his face, just as close as Michel seemed. He began a steady rhythm, chanting the words, watching as Michel's eyes rolled back and his hands clutched at the blankets.
"My name... is Methos..."
Duncan slammed back into him and froze, coming at the same moment Michel screamed, his body twisting as his orgasm took him. Duncan collapsed on top of the other man, and it actually took a few moments of breathing and recovering before he even realized what his lover had said.
"Methos? But..." Duncan pulled back and looked into ageless eyes staring up at him, sated and full of love. He believed. "Methos," he whispered, rolling to the side and putting his arms around him. His true identity explained so much about this contradictory man, though he was not at all what Duncan would have expected from the oldest immortal.
He might have expected someone wise, like Darius, or someone very reclusive. He didn't expect a 5000-year-old man to be seductive, beautiful, and so full of love for mortals it damaged him. And how could anyone be so afraid of pain, yet still reach out and invite more heartbreak into his life?
Duncan knew that Methos had done that again, these past months, with him. Despite losing Paul this man had given love to Duncan, and Ana, and even Dee. And lost two of them already.
They rested for a while, and Duncan woke thinking about 5000 years of loss. He made love with Methos once more, and realized he was crying as he drove into the scorching body beneath him, feeling his own losses reflected in Methos' eyes. Only 300 years, and he'd lost so many. It felt like they were all there in the room with him as he kept pumping into Methos, seeking release as his ghosts hovered over him, watching him, asking why he was still strong and whole.
Then Methos touched his face, and Duncan opened his eyes. He was alone, alone with Methos' eyes full of understanding. Duncan came with a groan, his body trembling. "I love you, Methos," he whispered, and he watched those expressive eyes close in bliss.
When he carefully withdrew from his lover Duncan was sore, and he knew Methos would be more so. He took time to clean up, lovingly thanking Methos through his touch, though they both remained silent. Duncan felt somehow lighter. When they finally curled up together, he fell asleep immediately.
He woke alone, Methos' knapsack gone.
He wasn't taken to the radio room -- Duncan had no idea which building housed their equipment. But the coded message he sent through Emil brought a response. Colonel Parkinson told him to stay put until they sent a contact name in Marseilles, where a group of smugglers were working with the Free French. The last words were personal, a dry 'glad you're alive' that made him smile as he read.
"Very, Emil. Thank you for your help with this."
"Mr. MacLeod, I have been hearing your name for months from people staying with me who you'd started on the road. I'm glad to assist you." Emil glanced around the tiny room one last time. "If you're comfortable, I'll let you retire now."
"Very comfortable, thank you. But I wanted to ask if there's anything I can do here, while I'm waiting for another message. Could anyone use help?"
"We are as short on able-bodied men as the rest of France. I'm sure I'll find something you can do."
By the same time the following night, Duncan was exhausted and glad of it. The bed felt wonderful when he stretched out -- he'd hardly slept the night before, missing the warm, familiar body next to him.
Today Emil had set him to work repairing a roof, and promised him easier work tomorrow indoors at Laurent's shop. At 72, Laurent needed someone to unpack the heavy boxes, and to whitewash his back room. Duncan gladly agreed to the tasks, needing to keep busy, not just out of sight. Besides, he wanted to earn his keep, just as he had with...
Duncan rose despite his aching legs and lit a candle. Then he picked up his pack and dug inside, quickly finding the thick roll of drawings. Ana's legacy, which he'd vowed to preserve. When he got to the coast, he'd get them sent to America, to the cousin whose address was inked on the roll. Surely his contacts, particularly underworld contacts, would know of a way to send them. He set the roll to one side and continued his search.
His own drawings were at the bottom of the pack, a little mashed and battered. He spread them open with a sad smile. Dee looked out at him, caught in a shy smile, and Duncan saw Ana in her. It didn't matter that they weren't related by blood, Dee had been Ana's daughter. Now, in death, she was Ana's legacy. He would remember them both, just as Ana planned.
His hand shook a little as he lifted Dee's portrait and revealed the other sketch. There he sat with Michel in Ana's once-warm kitchen. Methos, not Michel. He knew that was his real name; in fact it suited him better than the false one. But Duncan would always care for Michel as well as Methos.
In the portrait, Methos was looking at him. It was a look Duncan had seen a hundred times, on their road south, around campfires and in abandoned houses. Love. It was only now, looking at Ana's sketch, that he realized the look had always been there, months before he recognized it. Ana had been trying to show him her friend's feelings.
Duncan carefully re-rolled his treasures, ignoring the tears on his face as he replaced them inside his pack.
"Do you believe in legends, MacLeod?"
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