September 2046, Saint-Cloud Racecourse near Paris, France


Elena and the Oiseaux family had all kept very busy with the work of the stable and with training Mignone, and when the day of the race arrived in September, she was ready. The high-strung filly was also probably the most calm of them all. Jacques was practically hopping around, Henri was talking to the jockey non-stop, and Lucille, weak though she was, kept obsessively reading the racing program and checking the odds.

Elena kissed the filly, hugged her, and wished her luck. She shook the jockey's hand encouragingly and wished him well. Then she firmly led the family to their owner's box high in the stands. The Oiseaux were still all anxious, and Elena couldn't take it anymore. "I'm going down to the field," Elena announced and bent to kiss Lucille on each cheek before leaving.

In the crowd of hundreds of standing spectators, all waiting for the horses to be brought to the gate, Elena found some peace and quiet. Elena said her prayers then reached up to rub the silver horse Lorenzo had given her. Elena took a deep breath; she was ready for anything.

"I knew you'd be working with horses," said a familiar voice in Italian from the crowd pressing behind her.

Elena wasn't ready for this. Slowly she turned, totally, completely shocked. Was it…?

It was. It was Marcellino, and he was smiling at her. "So, I saw a photograph in a racing magazine of a beautiful silver grey filly from France," he said. "Standing behind Reine des Etoiles, her face partly in shadow, was an unnamed 'groom.'"

He had come for her! But he was being cool, taking it slow, and she could match his tone. Anything to keep from driving him away. She smiled her most motherly welcome smile. "I was trying for total shadow, actually. Thank God I failed."

"Vale," he said with a nod.

It was one of her Spanish phrases; he must have remembered it from his childhood. She started toward him but he forestalled her with, "I told my wife I would come see the filly run, and if I liked her, maybe make an offer."

"You can talk to the owner, but she's not for sale," Elena answered automatically, but she could tell that was not what was troubling him now. Marcellino hadn't told his wife all the truth, and he didn't like it. "Not being able to be totally honest—that's going to be the hardest part," Elena admitted, wanting to be honest herself, although she hadn't told her son all the truth either.

"I know," he agreed. "I'm not much for secrets. I'll have to … I'm not sure how I'm going to manage that."

Neither was she. If all went well she'd tell him about swords and headhunting another day. Maybe she should start with the story of how she'd avenged his father and protected others by killing Shaw. Or maybe not.

"But right now I wanted to tell you something else," Marcellino was saying. "I have been doing some thinking." He smiled ruefully. "You always told me I 'thought' too much, Mamma."

He'd called her "Mamma" again. Elena's heart soared right out of her chest.

"I understand that for you," he said, lowering his voice, "we, Papa and I, are just a small part of your life—"

"Not a small part! An important part!" she protested. "A very important part!"

"I believe you. But a short part, anyway. You have to look at your future, and consider your own life, after Papa and after me. I understand that. And this … this immortality must be secret. So you couldn't come to the funeral or my wedding. I see that."

"Thank you," she said and then immediately followed it with, "I'm sorry. I truly wanted to come, to see you and Angelina."

He nodded unhappily. "I know." Then he reached into his pocket and handed her a package, smiling slightly. "It's a vid of the wedding."

"Grazie mille!" she said, hugging the package joyfully to her chest then putting it in her jacket pocket. She came closer to him but did not yet touch him. She knew he wasn't finished having his say, wasn't ready for the big reunion quite yet. He was like a thoroughbred, on a hair trigger and easily spooked.

"But I wish you had told me, right after the accident." A man in the crowd bumped against him. Marcellino shrugged it off, intent on her. "That's what I didn't understand. I thought you trusted me," he whispered; she had to strain to hear.

"I do," Elena replied strongly. How to explain it? "At first, I didn't want you to have yet another shock. And frankly, I couldn't have … I couldn't even face you … I thought I'd have time to talk to you later, when I felt more … like myself. At that time I was in such deep mourning for your father. Almost thirty-nine years…" Not to mention, she didn't mention, the drownings, the cold, the darkness, being hunted by that damned Immortal. Oh, and the lust for Duncan MacLeod. She'd been a mess; she couldn't have inflicted that on her son. She told Marcellino, "I wanted to be strong for you." The way she always had. The way a mother should.

But he was a grown man now. He had different needs than a boy. "I'm sorry," she told him earnestly. "That means I didn't give you the chance to be strong for me."

He nodded once, his jaw tight. "We could have taken turns, being strong for each other. We could have shared…"

"We could have shared our pain," she whispered, remembering her conversation with Jacques Oiseaux. The Oiseaux men each became stronger because they were able to cry and grieve and pray together. Elena reached out to her son, and this time he took her hands in his, holding them fiercely. "I'm so sorry, m'hijo," she said softly.

"So am I." Then he took a deep breath. "I knew it was you, before we even got in the car. Everything else could be faked: a lookalike, photos, research about the family. But your voice—no one forgets his mamma's voice, and that Spanish accent!"

Elena smiled. She still remembered, from the seventeenth century, her own mother's voice humming to her.

"But when you finally did tell me, I felt you'd deserted me for two years, forgotten about me. That I didn't matter."

"No!" Elena exclaimed. Dimly she realized they were in public, at a racetrack, and that Mignone would be running soon. That she wasn't paying attention to the race. She dismissed it all. Her son mattered most of all. "If anything," she said, "I loved you too much. And telling you at all might still be a mistake. My friends, my immortal friends, said I shouldn't burden you with this secret."

"It is a burden," he agreed. "A family burden."

Ah, God bless our close-knit Italian family of the two of us! Elena thought, triumphant. But there was more to say. She was determined to tell him as much as she could. "Plus, they said after a few years, as you aged and I didn't, you might grow to hate me," she admitted.

"I spoke to one of those 'friends.' More accurately, he spoke to me."

"What?" Elena said, suddenly afraid. "Who?"

"MacLeod."

Duncan! Elena breathed a sigh of relief. No upcoming duel there.

"…been your friend a long time," Marcellino was saying. "He explained some things I didn't quite understand. He said I wouldn't, or couldn't. But he was very persuasive."

Elena wasn't sure if she was grateful to Duncan or irritated at his meddling. No, she was definitely grateful. "He is a good friend."

"A really good friend?" Marcellino asked, a small catch in his voice.

Typical Italian male, Elena thought, jealous and overprotective. Well, they were both adults and she'd been a widow for two years, so … she simply nodded then remained quiet while her son mulled it over.

"While Papa was alive—"

"No!" Elena interrupted. "Your Papa was my love for all those years. No one else!" She had absolutely no guilt on that score.

Marcellino seemed satisfied, good. Then he asked, "Did you mean I might envy you?" She nodded again. "Did Papa grow to hate you?"

"No. He always loved me."

"And so will I."

That was all she needed to hear. She rushed into his open arms and gave him the big hug she'd been saving since she'd seen him, alone and forlorn, on television on the deck of that rescue ship. He hugged her back for a long time. "!Gracias, Jesus!" she whispered earnestly.

"Amen," he replied.

Dimly she heard an announcement. "The race!" he said, twisting to watch the horses being loaded into the gate.

Elena stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of Reine des Etoiles, tossing her head and flicking her ears, then settling down under a pat from her jockey. Elena kept hold of her son's hand and smiled at him through her tears. "Please come celebrate with Mignone's family after the race."

He smiled at her, rubbing tears from his own eyes. "She's going to win, eh?"

"Of course."

"Of course," he repeated with a smile. "Oh, I have a photograph for you." He reached into a pocket and handed Elena a photo of himself and Angelina.

It was a formal portrait, he very handsome in a nice pinstripe suit and the tall blonde Angelina in a loose— Elena's vision blurred. On the track behind her the gates opened and the eager racehorses pounded out in a burst of speed and power. Elena didn't even look. "When?" she asked Marcellino in a whisper.

"Middle of November," he answered, laughing over the roar of the crowd. "It's a girl. You're going to be a grandmother!"

"A girl!" Elena said eagerly, happily. "!Dios mio! How wonderful, Marcellino!"

"We're calling her Elena Gina Ponti," he said right into her ear.

Elena leaned against her son and sobbed while Marcellino continued to laugh. He had to hold her up to keep her from collapsing. And she missed the race.


Mignone had come in second, missing first by only half a length. In the owners' box, Elena introduced Marcellino as her second-cousin from Italy. Henri popped the champagne, and they toasted Mignone. Then they took turns toasting each other and the jockey until all the champagne was gone. They watched a vid of the race, and Elena finally got to see Mignone's triumph. Marcellino gave Elena another hug before they all went home.

Elena said farewell to Mme. Affellah then joined Duncan at the Phinyx school in the Austrian Alps, where he was teaching dance to hundreds of very enthusiastic girls. "I came to visit Connor this summer and ended up with a job," Duncan explained. He bowed low then smiled and extended a hand in invitation, "Senorita, would you dance the tango with me at the next class? They need to see how it's done." Elena took his hand with a wickedly sexy smile, and that afternoon they showed the girls how it was done.

Elena reunited with Lucien and his young wife, and on the second day Elena and Lucien, along with a few of his students, including, surprisingly, Cassandra! went parcours in the village. There was only one minor fall, and the mayor did not seem to mind.

At two a.m. on the third day at Phinyx, Elena and Connor walked into the dojo, each carrying a real sword, again. Connor turned off the cameras while Elena locked the doors. Then Elena drew her broadsword and tapped it on the wooden floor. "Desperta ferro!" she said.

Connor took his katana out of its carrying case then slowly drew the blade from the scabbard. "En garde," Connor said, and they fought.

A week later, as the four Immortals sat for dinner, Elena said, "Lucille Oiseaux, one of Mignone's owners, died yesterday. I need to go to France for the funeral."

Duncan sighed and shook his head, while Cassandra nodded, saying, "You did say she was ill."

"The cancer finally took her," Elena explained to Cassandra and Connor. "She was just holding on until the race. And Henri and Jacques will probably need help at the stable, so I may stay for a while. And my granddaughter is due to be born in November, so—"

"So after France, you're going to Italy," Duncan finished for her, understanding immediately. "And then?"

"Argentina," Elena announced. "And I'm going to stay for a while. I haven't lived there for decades, and I want to go home."

Later that night, when they were alone, Elena gave Duncan a brilliant smile. "Come spend Christmas with me?"

"Yes," Duncan agreed. "Though I'll have to come back here in January; I promised the girls I'd dance with them at the Twelfth Night Ball. But after that…"

"After that," Elena agreed, and that evening they bid each other a sweetly enthusiastic farewell.

At Lucille's funeral, Elena saw that Henri and Jacques were indeed in shock, and they gratefully accepted her offer of help at the stables. But come November, Elena said farewell to her French friends, humans and horses alike, with tears and promises of visits, then left for Italy and waited there.

On November 13, 2046, she was in the maternity ward of the San Pietro Hospital in Rome, where her proud son was showing off his Elena Gina.

"She's beautiful," Elena said. A shock of black hair and Lorenzo's brown eyes. Good strong lungs. A perfect little Italian princess. "Thank you," she said as Marcellino handed her the baby. "Welcome to the world, nietecita," Elena whispered, staring into the wise eyes in the ancient newborn face. "Welcome to your home."


Christmas Eve, Argentina


Elena, dressed in a brilliant red peasant skirt and white blouse, paused as she was bringing the soup spoon from the pot to her mouth then closed her eyes. The Immortal thrum filled her head, but she felt no danger. Not from Duncan MacLeod, who early that morning had come to her estancia, as promised, to help her celebrate la Navidad, Christmas.

The smell of the meats, the asado and the roasted pork, competed with that of freshly baked bread to fill the spacious, sunny kitchen. The Nochebuena feast would be ready for tonight. "We'll be back later for the meal," she said to the cook, Aurelia, and Elena put the spoon down without tasting.

She started to walk then ran out of the house, past the beautifully appointed table set with delicate rose china and elegant crystal, past the decorated tree and the presents underneath, past the bells and colored balls, past the wreaths and other greenery, and under the carefully hung mistletoe—a tradition she had learned in America—to meet her love.

Duncan swung his leg over his mount and jumped to the ground, smiling at her, for her, and she leaped into his outstretched arms. He swung her around, her skirt billowing, and they kissed thoroughly, while the two horses stood patiently waiting. "You going riding in a skirt?" Duncan asked.

"Why not? Is traditional for an Argentine woman to look feminine for her man." But she undid the button at her waist and slid the skirt off, revealing black skin-tight riding pants underneath.

"That's a feminine look, too," Duncan said, with an appreciative glance at her backside.

Elena laughed and left the skirt on the porch, then, for a lark, took a running start and leaped onto the back of the gelding Duncan had brought for her. But the horse didn't like the running or the leaping or something. He spooked and unexpectedly reared up then bucked and kicked for several minutes, while Elena fought him. When she finally got the gelding under control, patting his neck and talking softly to him, Elena was already both exhilarated and exhausted.

Duncan, who had stayed well out of the way, was laughing softly while Elena patted the horse. A young Indian girl came up when the gelding had settled down and brought Elena her hat.

"Gracias, nina," Elena replied, taking her riding hat and putting it on.

Duncan mounted and leaned back in the saddle. "And here I thought you'd be a riding expert by now."

Elena's eyes narrowed. "I'm still better than you, and I'll beat you to the cabin," she declared. With a soft kick and a cry of "!Epa!" she urged her horse into a fast trot, with Duncan following close behind.

They trotted past the outbuildings, the planted crops, and onto the grassy pampas, where they finally broke into a full gallop. Long hair flying free, a good horse under her, and the man she loved beside her. No Immortals trying to kill her. No loved ones dying on her. Her first grandchild, named after her. It didn't get any better. Elena Duran laughed out loud, thinking, "It's good to be home at last!"


NOTES

OTHER STORIES FEATURING ELENA in this story-universe

"Hope Remembered III: Confidante" (set in Nov/Dec 1996) Soon after being tortured by Bethel, Elena gets a visit from Cassandra, who is trying to recover from her recent encounter with the Horsemen. (Hurt/comfort)

"Hope Triumphant II: Sister" chapter 2 (set in November 2006) To celebrate ten years of freedom, Elena and Cassandra go on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, where they meet a very old acquaintance. (Humor)

"The Only Game in Town" (set in January 2007) Elena is hunting Peter Shaw and pays a visit to Connor's family in Edinburgh along the way.

"Hope Triumphant III: Anamchara" (set in 2042) After losing everyone she loves, Elena visits Cassandra and Connor at the Phinyx school, then find Duncan.