It was planned as a winter vacation, a trip to the Rockies; the young Canadian had laughed and joked, assuring the Highlander that Alberta was more than a mere prairie. "If you keep complaining about missing the mountains," she had grinned, "I could drop you off in Saskatchewan, which is about as Lowland as you can get. They say that on a clear day, you can see the back of your own head." The relaxed, easygoing mood continued as they travelled by rail. It was cheaper than flying, and more pleasant than the highways. The idea of a rail voyage was perfect for both of them: nostalgic to the elder, exciting to the younger. As an unexpected bonus, the train was large enough that they could get away from each other for a while; neither one of them realised that such privacy would soon become a luxury.
§ § §
Duncan at least, could still meditate; all her favourite relaxation methods were impossible. A single deck of cards would have given her something to take her mind off the situation. She craved a book, a magazine, a newspaper—anything. But the last straw was yesterday, when she used up her last scrap of clean paper. The level of tension in the tiny cabin was given vivid form by two blades lined up down the centre of the room.
The constant ache in the back of her skull rose to a new level and the frustrated writer literally snarled. "You said that you were going to stay on your side, MacLeod." She had never used his full name before, a fact that worried him greatly now. Barely controlled tension crept into his own voice as he answered; "I did, for both our sakes. But the hearth is in between and we are running out of heat. Or doesn’t a city-girl notice that kind of thing?"
Deb snarled again, an irritating habit. "You don’t have to tell a Northlander how to deal with the cold. I’ve waited half an hour for Transit in weather worse than this!"
"Excuse me? Did you say a Northlander? Don’t you even think about comparing homelands with me Young Lady."
"That’s another problem, you still think of me as a child. I died ten years older than Richie did, and although I may not have had much practical experience in my life, I’m intelligent and I learn fast. I am no one’s pet project and I will never be anyone’s pet."
The words were vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place them; instead, he turned to the practical task of stoking the fire from their dwindling supply of wood. She just needed some time to think, they both did; time alone. It was beginning to look like the only time they would be alone was when one of them died. He shook his head roughly to clear it; those kinds of thoughts wouldn’t help either of them.
§ § §
Duncan lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He had taken the bed the first day, before the meltdown, and now both of them refused to even mention sleeping arrangements. He wondered about those strange words that Deb had thrown at him in anger: "I am no one’s pet project and I will never be anyone’s pet." There was something familiar, and very unpleasant, about that particular phrase. He had only known the girl for about two years, less if you considered that she had spent a year alone with Cassandra; what did it mean?
He closed his eyes; heard a voice—the ruins of a voice—"So you’re MacLeod’s new pet project. Or should I say his pet?" The Halloween party… how could he forget? He remembered that night, that moment when she stood there, facing his enemy, while he could only watch and wonder if she would survive. But she had survived… "Only I will remain, and thus will I prove that I am stronger." Maybe she was right; maybe he was underestimating her, treating her like a child. Her talents and experiences went beyond her years; her imagination and conviction could take her places he might never see. If she survived the next few days physically and emotionally intact. Even now he could feel her, faintly, at the edge of his awareness; what was she going through, her senses bombarded constantly, with no rest and no chance to be alone?
The next morning Deb announced that she was going to have a soak. She had discovered, quite by accident, that submerging in water up to her nose seemed to blunt the Buzz somewhat, letting her feel almost human. The day of her first bath Duncan had also discovered something; the universal truth that no matter how long a woman stays alone in a bath, even if it’s hours, a man should never, ever go in to see if she has drowned. Ever after, she had carefully switched the word "soak" for "bath."
She stepped out of the tiny bathroom humming a jaunty tune; Duncan took this as a good sign until the song itself bothered him. "Debra," he asked carefully, trying to seem casual, "where’d you hear that music?" For once she didn’t snap at him in irritation; "It’s just a tune stuck in my brain. The kind you never know where it came from and you can’t seem to get rid of it."
The answer seemed to worry him a bit. "It’s an old English drinking song." She shrugged at this, smiling, until he added "over 200 years old." The smile seemed to freeze on her face. There was a long silence before she quipped, a little too briskly, "Must have picked it up at that Immie Party, the Gods know there was enough drinking that night." Instantly she wished she could have taken back the words.
"What else happened that night?"
Memories haunted her eyes—[I’m as real as you make me, Child]—"I don’t want to talk about it."
"You’re a storyteller, you talk about everything."
[My lady, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost] "Not… everything."
Duncan took a guess, a stab in the dark so to speak; "Kalas’ words could always wound deeper than his blade. You know he loved to mess with people’s minds." From across the room he could see her flinch, a very palpable hit.
"I also know he worked best when he used the truth." She looked at him warily; "What am I to you, truly? A friend, an ally, a lost child? A stray you picked up at the morgue and now feel obligated to care for? Am I just another… pet project?"
He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. His clan once believed that a Bard could see the truth in a man’s soul. "Truthfully? I’m not sure. You are… a fresh perspective on life; a reminder that an Immortal can create as well as destroy. You’re something new and special and…beautiful; something—no, someone—I wouldn’t want to lose."
She tried to say something, stopped; looked at him as if reading his soul. She nodded once, slowly, then turned away. It was the longest conversation they’d had in days. There was a sense of something unfinished, but at least it had been a start. As if their mood and the weather had been feeding off each other, the storm broke during the night. The next morning, Duncan found her curled catlike in a beam of sunlight; settled in a nest of blankets and reading the only thing available: her own stories. She had needed to take down the steel barrier to do it, and their two blades leaning side by side in a corner seemed like an unspoken peace treaty.
She waved her hand at the view outside; "I think I’d almost forgotten the sun." The light sparkling off the unbroken snow was a breathtaking sight, and the air itself seemed crystal clear. Their ordeal wasn’t over yet; the air out there was cold enough to freeze your lungs and they both knew it. "On a day like today you can understand why Canadians have a love/hate relationship with Winter."
"Oh, and I wouldn’t know anything about winter."
"Please, no more stories about how you spent two generations wandering the Highland wilds, with nothing but a pile of furs and whatever you could carry on a horse."
"In a kilt!"
She rolled her eyes dramatically, "In a kilt."