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...Greatly Exaggerated

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1985 -- Central Park, New York

Kane had been tailing MacLeod all morning, stalking along at the very edge of both their ranges.  He wasn't worried about being spotted.  So far today he'd looked like a bag lady, a too-cool white boy in denims and spike hair, a conservative academic or businessman in tweeds and glasses, a police officer with a belly overhanging his heavy leather gun belt, and -- once, just to see if MacLeod would even notice -- a tiny Oriental man who closely resembled Nakano.  Kane had considered that last form the most amusing.  After all, without MacLeod's teacher, they'd have never met.  And without Nakano's power of illusions, he would have had a much harder time hunting immortals in the year since he'd finally escaped that damned cave.

Now, though, the pleasure of trailing another hunter was finally winding down and Kane wanted MacLeod's head before he went after the Kurgan.  He picked up his pace, to all appearances a teenager trying to get somewhere in a hurry... and cursed in phrases and combinations that a teenager would never have thought of when he saw the other immortal waiting on the bridge for MacLeod.

"Kastagir."  Kane barely kept his voice down as he hissed the name.  "Alive?!  Maybe I will get to kill you!"  Thirty yards away, though, poised and apparently ready for a fight, Kastagir suddenly grinned instead, a flashing joy of white teeth in dark skin and beard, and caught MacLeod up in a bear hug.  Which the other man returned.  Nothing even remotely sexual in the embrace, but just as clearly old and good friends.

"Well, well," Kane murmured, remembering to saunter along as his surprise ran its course.  "Maybe I should change my plans a bit.  Which one first?"  He watched, morbidly amused, as Kastagir reached into his robes and gi... and came out with a flask rather than a sword.  Both of the immortals drank from it, MacLeod after an initial hesitation of some kind in taking it.  "Smarter man than I thought, MacLeod.  You've heard of Kastagir's drinks, then?" 

Kane continued his slow retreat, catching periodic glimpses (all he dared take for now) of the two men talking, of MacLeod smiling, of Kastagir pounding on the railing of the bridge in emphasis or surprise.  And then they were gone, striding off side by side on some mutual quest that Kane would rather didn't include him.  Heedless of the other people around him in the Park, Kane let the concealing bends of light around him flicker and vanish, leaving him standing there in leather and metal.  Sunlight tangled in black braids, across the wickedly bright black eyes and equally dark mohawk and goatee as he watched them leave... and smiled.

"This could be fun."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kastagir strode down the street in the hazy light of the Manhattan night, eyes clear and shoulders loose as he hunted for the other immortals in the city.  Somewhere, the Kurgan prowled and that meeting couldn't be put off for much longer....  Immortal presence poured across his skin, brought him around with his back to a corner looking for the source, only to relax as he saw MacLeod walking up to him.

"Damn, man, were you simply trying to get a true fight out of me?" Kastagir complained in relief and amused curiosity both.  "What are you doing here?"

The Highlander shook his head, grinning and a little unsteady as he came closer.  Kastagir laughed at that.  "I've got some boom-boom if you need a hair from the dog."

"That dog already bit me," MacLeod said, only a few feet away now. 

At least he's not getting loud the way he usually does when he's drunk.  Kastagir frowned at that thought, brows drawing down and some part of him flexing and relaxing muscles in the old impulse before joining battle.  His instincts were rarely wrong; something wasn't quite right here.  In fact, it felt more wrong by the moment and he stepped back towards the alley.  "What--"

Then MacLeod's hands swung up, one grabbing Kastagir's wrist and the other driving a knife into his diaphragm.  Somehow Kastagir pushed back, feeling the blade tear at him even as his lungs were warning that they weren't getting enough air... and MacLeod blurred, shifting, stretching, changing.  The air shimmered around him like a bad force-field effect in a cheap science fiction movie and Kastagir recognized the man who finally appeared.  "Kane," he gasped.  "Still can't win a fair fight?"

 "Why should I have to?" Kane purred.  "You're certainly not man enough to fight me, and I can make you less of one if you insist."

Another immortal's presence shivered across their skins and Kane smiled wickedly at Kastagir, air shimmering and blurring around him to leave Kastagir staring at... himself?  He fought death off fiercely, not wanting to fall with two immortals there, and still black and grey crept in around the edges of his vision as the numbness spread through his body.

He saw Kane say, "I'll just go deal with MacLeod and come back for you.  Try not to go anywhere, hmm?"  A hard, sharp boot sole stomped pain through his belly and ribs, ripped the healing wound in his solar plexus even farther open.  A sharp tug at his shoulder rolled him face-first onto the ground as Kane took his scimitar.  Then his field of vision held nothing but trash as a pile of garbage, can and all, cascaded down over him. 

He had just time to curse all cheating bastards who'd use poison before the world faded away into nothingness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Ah, Kastagir."  The purring, rumbling voice was Kane's first warning that he'd found the wrong immortal.  He raised the stolen scimitar barely in time to block the first hammering blow, and in the next moment he was far too busy trying to hold off the Kurgan to worry about where MacLeod was or to curse the way this mischief had gone wrong.

Then he was battling for his life against another steppes raider, another man who cared only for the pleasure of the kill.  If they hadn't been so much alike, perhaps they could have worked together, but Kane simply wanted to kill him.  After all, there could be only one.  When he won, maybe he'd let the Kurgan see who'd truly been fighting before taking the oversized berserker's head.  Then he would go back for Kastagir--

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The stench was the first thing Kastagir noticed.  Sunlight was next, filtering green and amber through the trash on top of him.  He was cold where he lay on the pavement and his lungs felt full of stale air.  It took a moment's effort, and a deeper breath than he really liked, to get his hands under him and push up to his knees.  The corrugated steel garbage can rolled away as he did, an irritatingly uneven sound as an assortment of dents made it spin sideways.

Stains and odors decorated his clothes, and Kastagir groaned as he glanced around.  "Wonderful," he sighed.  "In the middle of Manhattan, I get to stagger back to a hotel like a drunk who's slept it off in an alley."  He patted carefully at his waistband and was pleasantly surprised to find his money belt still there and still full.  "Well, well.  This makes things a little easier."

The outer robes had to go, there was no question there.  Kastagir stripped them off regretfully, bundled them tightly, and stuffed them down to the bottom of the trashcan.  His white gi wasn't much better off, but it would do for now.  The stains on it weren't nearly as noticeable as complete nudity would be.  A quick swipe of hand across head got the worst of the trash out of his hair, and Kastagir strode out of the alley and down the street already making plans to acquire soap and fresh clothes before paying a visit to a willow grove he'd found in Central Park.  The water wouldn't be warm, but it would let him clean up in relative privacy without drawing too much attention at his hotel.

"And then I warn the Highlander that Kane is in town and find another sword.  I wonder why the bastard left me alive, though?"

Kastagir was relieved to find the drug store with only a few stares, and without drawing the attention of the police.  With the unwelcome publicity from the death in New Jersey, the police might be very interested in a man who--

''Headhunter 3, Cops 0!''  The headlines almost screamed at him and Kastagir forced himself not to snatch at the paper.

"Hey, that's not free," the bored looking girl behind the register pointed out, and didn't bat an eye when Kastagir reached inside the front of his gi, dug around, and came out with a five dollar bill.  She just rang up the paper and passed him his change, then went back to her copy of Mademoiselle.

Another decapitated body found...  Yes, yes, get on with it.  Ah, here it is...  Anyone with information as to the identity of John Doe, a black male-- Black?  Well, well.  I wonder who Kane ran into, the Highlander or the Kurgan?  I don't think anyone else is in town.  At this point, of course, I'm not entirely sure anyone else is still in the Game. 

That thought sobered him as Kastagir moved quickly through the store now, paper folded back into an untidy bundle.  He grabbed liquid soap and a generic shampoo, and resigned himself to a visit to the Salvation Army store two blocks down for clothes.  Sweatshirts and t-shirts he'd seen, but no pants. 

The clerk at the Salvation Army offered him the use of the showers in exchange for an additional donation, and Kastagir took her up on it without demur.  Clean and less visible in jeans and a faded grey and maroon sweater, he set about his next order of business -- warning MacLeod.

Unfortunately, Kastagir had only two pieces of information to go on:  a phone number left at an old drop point of theirs in Central Park, and a vague memory that Connor had said something about working in Greenwich Village.  "Now," Kastagir muttered to himself in his usual resonant baritone, "the suspicious old crow almost certainly lives nearby.  I wonder if the phone number is unlisted, or if there's perhaps some way to track him back by that number."

The dark immortal strode down the street as he considered the problem, but he allowed himself to be sidetracked by the smell of good food.  He'd been a soldier more than once and knew the truth of the old adage about eating and sleeping when one could.  He'd had a long night's healing to do on that poison.  Eating was a very, very good idea just then; sleep would have been a blessing, for that matter, but before he did that, Kastagir wanted a sword.

Even if I have to rob a museum to get one, he thought grimly, and barely remembered to smile for the waitress who came to take his order.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It took two long days to track the phone number back to 'Russell Nash' and Nash Antiques.  Two days in which the police refused to admit to any leads, and the press speculated more and more wildly as to the motive and methods of the grisly 'serial killer' in their midst.  And just before ten in the evening, as Kastagir had paced restlessly and recklessly through Greenwich Village, the compulsion to be in Manhattan vanished.  It worried him even as he felt himself unburdened, absurdly light and capable of all kinds of mischief or madness now that the dampening, sobering summons had evaporated.

So Kastagir sat on one of the stone lions in front of the public library in the streetlight glow before dawn, paced the steps to contain the burning energy of his frustration and concern, and, when the library opened, he was the first person through the massive front doors.  The reference librarian barely blinked when he asked if there was any way to trace a person's address from their phone number; she simply led him to a set of shelves and pointed to a series of books she called the 'reverse phone books.'  "If it's a listed number, it'll be in there," she'd said and left him to his search.

"That simple," Kastagir growled softly.  "I remember when the way to find him was by asking around the wharves...."  He chuckled as he headed down Hudson Street, remembering a few encounters.  "Or at the bars and brothels."

The morning seemed gloriously bright after the sleepless night, and he walked for the sheer joy of the unfettered, seemingly weightless movement, laughing as he went.  Taxis and tourists whizzed past, noises and scents assailed him, and he drank the air down like wine as he walked the two miles to Greenwich Village easily, remembering days when the options had been horses or his own feet.  His own reflection grinned back at him from the glass front of Nash Antiques, and he walked in without hesitation, wondering as he did if it was a bad sign that he couldn't feel an immortal anywhere about.

A faintly harried-looking blond woman was emptying and dusting the contents of a bureau, strewing pieces of silverwork around her as she went; at the sound of the doorbell, she glanced up at him.  "May I help you?"

"Kind lady, I do hope so," Kastagir rumbled.  "I'm looking for Russell Nash."

She paled when he said that and Kastagir frowned.  "What is it?"

"I... Mr. Nash is unavailable, I'm afraid.  May I help you instead?"  She straightened with an innate dignity that etched the frown more deeply into Kastagir's previously pleased mood. 

She looks ready to face a firing squad.  Old crow, what's become of you?  Kastagir summoned his smile back and, in a tone far lighter than he wanted to use, asked, "I do hope he's not ill?"

"I'm afraid I can't comment on that, sir.  I can take a message, but I don't know when...," she trailed off, clearly scrabbling for the tatters of her composure.

Kastagir shook his head slowly.  "No, thank you, though."  He adjusted his coat more carefully in an instinctive, worried check of his weapon and had already headed for the door when a thought brought him up short.  No.  Whoever she is, she's quite concerned about MacLeod... and trying desperately to conceal it.  I can't simply leave her like this.  More slowly, Kastagir asked, "Before I go, is there anything I can do for you, kind lady?"

She stared at him, blue eyes wide and startled in that fair-skinned face.  He had a moment to catalogue the faint lines of grief and worry around her eyes, the minor disarray of blond curls over the collar of a sea-green blouse, and the tightly clenched fists only partially hidden by the conservative navy skirt.  Then she exhaled, pushing her concerns behind her, too, and said firmly, "Thank you anyway, but I'm fine, sir." 

The resolve in her voice settled it for him. Never argue with a woman who's made up her mind, Kastagir reminded himself.  "If you say so."  He nodded to her, carefully polite, and walked back out the door.  His good mood had evaporated with the morning dew, apparently, and he strode back up 8th Avenue more slowly, ignoring the store fronts and people now as his thoughts spun, picking up facts and matching them to theories, then spinning them away and into different ideas.

So, the Highlander is gone, whether dead or hiding, who knows.  And the Gathering has dispersed.  Kastagir swerved neatly around a street busker setting up for the morning, absently dancing a few steps in time with a warm-up reel.  The laughter from behind him pulled a smile back to his own face and Kastagir nodded, his decision falling into place as neatly as the notes were falling into his ears.  Enough.  I'm immortal; I'll do what we always do when it all goes to hell.  I'll wait.

That one conclusion snapped into place with the same feeling of wholeness, of essential correctness, as a limb going back into joint.  The Gathering had pulled him here; now that it was over, though, Sunda wanted only to leave.  So leave he would.  Only his bags to gather, his hotel to pay, and then he would head to the airport for the first flight he could get out and away.  "I haven't been to the Cote D'Azur in ages, after all...."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cote D'Azur, a week later

Kastagir ran into the other immortal on a nude beach and had to smile at the odd practicality of the location.  The other man was young, slim, darkly-tanned, and muscled like a swimmer who'd gotten serious about his distance.  He was also backing away from Kastagir cautiously rather than in fright.  His first suggestion, in French, was, "I don't want a fight."

Laughter erupted from Kastagir at the very idea, visibly calming the youngster.  "This would be a damn fool place for me to have picked, boy.  What do you think I'm going to do, throw rocks at you?"

Dark eyes gleamed with a reluctant amusement as the youngster pointed out, "This wouldn't be a bad place for that, actually.  You're not here to fight?"

"Hell, no.  I'm here to enjoy the sun and the sights.  Particularly the female sights."  Unconcerned by his own nudity, Kastagir sat down on his towel and waved a hand to the other end of it.  "Have a seat.  Sunda Kastagir."

"Tahir Massot."  He considered the invitation for a moment, then sat down on the edge, distinctly more concerned with the rocks under him than the man next to him.

Kastagir nearly rolled his eyes at that.  "How long have you been in the Game, Tahir, and what idiot taught you?  I don't think you knew my name."

"Should I have?" he asked curiously, not scooting back but tensing his legs as if to move suddenly.

"No," Kastagir commented, "but I couldn't imagine what in hell you were doing sitting down in arm's reach of a strange immortal either.  Who did teach you?"

The man stared at him then.  "Immortal?"

Kastagir raised an eyebrow and nearly groaned. I wanted a vacation, not a student!  Damn.  On the other hand, he conceded, Farrell was a great deal of fun, and I like this one's gall in hiding from weapons-bearing immortals at a nude beach....  "Yes, you're immortal.  If you didn't know that, why did you think I wanted a fight?"

"Because every time I get this particular headache, some damn fool comes after me with a blade," Tahir said dryly, settling back onto his outstretched arms to soak up the sun.  He looked almost as unconcerned as he was trying to appear, Kastagir suspected.  "Immortal?"

"You don't remember dying, do you?" Kastagir asked cheerfully, putting pieces together swiftly. 

"Die-- You think I died?" was the incredulous response as the dark-skinned man sat straight up again, no longer trying to look calm or collected.  Shock wrote itself across almost slack features before a vivid presence animated his voice as he asked, "How?  When?"

"You tell me," Kastagir answered with a shrug of his own as he sprawled back onto an elbow to study Tahir more carefully in the rich light of the sunny day.  "Sometime before you started getting these headaches is all I know.  Let me guess, you're never clumsy, are you?"

"No, I...."  Tahir's words stumbled to a halt as he tried to process that and for a long moment there was nothing but the soft, eternal mutter of the surf pounding at the shore.  "Immortal?"

"Other than these headaches," Kastagir asked in amusement, "have you had so much as a pulled muscle that didn't heal almost immediately?"

"No, but I--"  He paled under that tan, then, and said softly, "Not drunk then.  Oh."

Kastagir raised an eyebrow expectantly and Tahir whispered in the same stunned voice, "I woke up outside my apartment building a couple months ago.  I thought I'd just gotten drunk and gotten rolled.  There was this dark stuff in my hair that I thought was mud...."

Kastagir couldn't help chuckling.  "Boy, there is a world of difference between mud and dry blood.  I suppose I'll just have to show you.  I certainly can't leave you like this."

"Show me what?" Tahir asked incredulously.  "How to die?"

 "No, how not to."  Kastagir shook his head, grinning, and took the moment to appraise his newest student.  His immediate impression was that if this slim, intriguing boy with his mixed Arab and European blood couldn't get a woman's attention in a bar, it was because he wasn't trying.  Hmm, or does he want women?  "Which means first we make sure you understand why you want to live.  So, men or women?"

"What?"  Tahir was staring at him, still shell-shocked. 

 "Which do you chase into bed, or run slowly in front of, however you like to stalk them," Kastagir said impatiently. 

"Um, depends on my mood?" Tahir said numbly.  "Lately women."

"Good enough."  Kastagir stood up, not bothering to regret the loss of a long day of beach and bare skin.  Why should he, when there were bars and drinks ahead of him, and a new student to learn, possibly a new friend to acquire?  "Come along then.  Let's go find a bar and good drink and women.  Tomorrow we'll talk about everything else."

"The last maniac chased me away from my job.  I don't have--"

"Money?" Kastagir asked, amused.  "Clothes?  Drinking preferences?  I'm buying, which means I'm picking the bar."

"I have clothes."  Tahir left the rest unsaid.

"Good.  Let's go."  Kastagir pulled him upright, nodded to himself at just how solid the muscle on Tahir was, and waved the man ahead of him -- then resolved to scold him later about accepting the order. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

December, 1999 -- Manhattan, New York

Kastagir sauntered slowly down the street, admiring the Christmas lights and decorations and wondering where his wretch of a student was this time.  Tahir has the most amazing ability to run late... I don't believe I turned him loose in Manhattan, much less near Christmas.  Ah, well, it's a good test for him.  I think he's ready to be leave the nest.  I might as well let him practice his solo flying here so that he can realize it, too.

So rather than wait for the young French immortal, Kastagir wandered farther into Greenwich Village, idly admiring the sheer variety of goods for sale.  One store sold nothing but decks of cards, both playing and Tarot.  The shop three doors down was full of richly dyed silks and woolens that made his fingers twitch with the urge to test the softness of the weave.  Across the street, a meter-long wooden dragon, intricately carved and painted, flew from minute threads over the bowed head of a mahogany weeping Buddha.  He crossed, stopped in to sniff the wood and stroke the Buddha's head, nodded appreciatively to the shopkeeper, and eventually wandered back out.

Still no sign of Tahir -- now fifteen minutes late, not even close to his record -- nor any sense of another immortal, and Kastagir shook his head, smiling.  He settled his coat more comfortably around him, both to check his weapon and to better cut the winter wind.  "What the hell, there are worse places to be waiting for that young idiot.  And I suppose that's what I get for not being more precise about where on Hudson to meet up...." 

A display of silver lights farther down the street caught his eye, and the dark, perpetually cheerful immortal wandered down through the other holiday shoppers.  Old memories tugged at him while he walked until he gave in and tracked the thought down.  "Ah, yes, the lovely blonde who was protecting the Highlander's privacy or his death, one.  I wonder if the store's still there?"

Nash Antiques should have been another block down, unless it had moved... and it hadn't.  In fact, the front window was still clean, the name still in gold letters, although the font had changed. Wonder when and how they broke the window?

He walked in, expecting nothing to come of it, and instead stared in surprise.  The woman behind the desk had aged, yes, added a few pounds and the lines of her face had blurred faintly as a result... but she was still lovely, still alert.  Kastagir smiled without thinking about it, and saw her smile back.  "May I help you with something, sir?"

"I dearly hope so," he said, not knowing until then that he was going to ask again, that in fact this was why he'd told Tahir to meet him on Hudson Street....  He smiled at the odds of Fate smiling on him and threw the dice anyway.  "I'm looking for Russell Nash.  I owe him dinner and drinks, you see."

"He should be here any minute," she told him pleasantly.  "Would you care to look around while you wait, Mr. ...?"

"Kastagir, Sunda Kastagir.  And you would be?"  Her eyes had widened and Kastagir frowned in automatic denial.  "If he told you about that mess in Boston, it wasn't entirely my fault he was so drunk."

"No, it--" 

She was still searching for words, and had yet to give him her name, when Kastagir felt another immortal move into range.  He turned in time to see the elevator open, to see MacLeod step out, already wary and suspicious... and then more completely shocked than Kastagir had ever seen him.  The grin spreading across Kastagir's face, however, could no more be denied than gravity or the sun's rising in the east.  He spread his arms wide, roaring, "MacLeod, you old bastard, why don't you ever write?"

And Sunda Kastagir had the pleasure of seeing that astonishment fade to suspicion, a momentary narrowing of eyes and focusing familiar from the press and pitch of battles two hundred years ago and more now... before even that melted under a growing smile as MacLeod took the five steps to him at a near-run.  Then the Scot was bear-hugging Kastagir until his chest creaked under the pressure and his lungs began to protest their starvation and he was seriously wondering if he was oxygen deprived already.  Because what he could have sworn he heard was, "Kastagir, you old bastard, leave it to you to miss your own wake!"

This may be a very good Christmas, Kastagir decided as he pounded MacLeod on the back and roared at the man to give him some air, damn it, and an introduction to the lovely lady and where, by God, was the scotch?  Superb, in fact.

~~~finis~~~

Comments, Commentary, and Miscellanea:

The title is from a common misquoting of Mark Twain, that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.  (The correct version is "The report of my death was an exaggeration.")  I couldn't resist when Raine suggested it -- it just reminded me so much of Kastagir....

Inspired, in general, and in ways I don't quite understand myself, by a quote from Tom Stoppard's "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"  -- "Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, or we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive, but we can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood.  Blood is compulsory, they're all blood, you see."