Time: Post S4
Thank you: Mitchy – beta extraordinaire who went way, way above and beyond the call of duty to make this readable.
Disclaimer: If you recognise a name, they're not mine. No profit being made, etc etc. Highlander property of someone who isn't me.
Well, no, life wasn't really much like an empty bottle of beer. But it wasn't much like a box of chocolates either, so his analogy had at least as much validity as a trite Hollywoodism. Okay, so that wasn't exactly something to celebrate in and of itself, but his version also had the benefit of experimenting with the simile in an enjoyable fashion that wouldn't leave him diabetic and thirty pounds over-weight. Destitute with alcohol poisoning, maybe, but it wasn't really as if he had to worry all that much about either fate.
"Either you've had too much or I haven't had enough." Joe grinned and pushed a fresh bottle across the bar, then claimed the empty that Methos had spent the last ten minutes staring at. "Five thousand years and the best you come up with is 'Life is like an empty bottle of beer'?"
Of course, now his assessment had been challenged, he felt the need to defend it. Unfortunately, all the correlations he was coming up with were as morose as he felt, and that wasn't something he particularly felt the need to burden the Watcher with. He picked at the new label and matched the other man's tone for lightness. "I could explain it but the sheer profundity would be too much for you. I'll tell you when you're older."
The answering snort bought a grudging grin and he glanced up from the sticky paper being methodically shredded under his fingernails. That was a mistake; Joe's gaze caught his own and held it firmly. "What's the problem? You can tell me, I'm a licensed bar tender."
"There has to be a problem for me to spend a little time ..."
"Six hours", Joe interjected with a pointed tap of his wristwatch.
"...in the company of ..."
"Nothing but beer"
"I'm not allowed an occasional quiet evening? MacLeod sulked for a decade; I didn't see you picking on him."
"First - he wasn't sulking, he was grieving, and second - that was a little before my time. As you well know. So, what's the problem? You can tell me, I'm a licensed bar tender who can cut you off if you don't spill."
"You're a hard man, Joseph."
Joe nodded agreeably and crossed his arms, leaning on the bar and making a show of settling down to wait for an answer. The Watcher hadn't been slow to learn when he could push and when he couldn't, to the extent Methos had taken to using him as a mental barometer on occasions. This behaviour would indicate he was closer to Adam and Adam was easy enough to cajole so, with a huff of breath more for appearance than real irritation, he raised his hands slightly and surrendered.
"Hypothetically speaking, if you had a friend, who had an acquaintance, who would shortly be arriving in town, and you were willing to bet not only your head but a fine set of kitchen knives that they would manage to incite, say, a Scottishly inclined person to the point of swinging a sword with little or no effort, but you really shouldn't let that happen ... wouldn't you think the best course of action would be to visit the scenic islands of Tahiti for a few years?"
Joe looked up, he assumed the man was taking a few moments to insert mental punctuation in the run-on sentence, and then looked back shaking his head. "Mac's not going to Challenge your friend, he wouldn't do that."
"I didn't say friend, I said acquaintance. And, also, I didn't say it was my acquaintance." A beat and he grumbled under his breath for a moment before admitting "Fine, yes, but please don't throw the word 'friend' around. I've known rabid bears that would make better friends than him. I called one 'Silas'."
The Watcher looked momentarily nonplussed, then shrugged and reached for a beer of his own. "Who is it? We have them on file?"
Idly he began to trace a pattern in the condensation on the bottle and watched it bead and glitter in the low light. It was pretty and, coincidently, a fascinating and aesthetic way to avoid looking at the other man. "You should do, I made sure his name was dropped a long time ago. Doyle, Michael."
"Michael Doyle?!" Joe's words were forced into a hiss by the presence of people close enough to overhear, but he still managed to convey the impression of shouting. "Holy … He's a walking disaster. I'm sorry man, but Mac would be doing everyone a favour if he put him down. Hell, I'd even have stood in the cheering section for St. Cloud if he'd tried it."
The tone forced him to look back up and he wasn't surprised to see Joe looked about as agitated as his tone. He tried to radiate sincerity, it wasn't hard given it was entirely real. "And you have no argument from me. The problem is I owe him something like a favour."
"Enough like a favour that you'd get in the way of him being killed?"
"And die screaming, I suspect, when MacLeod decided it was worth going through me. Or, even worse, he'd let Michael go and spend the next century giving me significant looks suggesting I should be wallowing in guilt."
Joe was quiet for a long moment as he began to stack the empties on the tray beside him. Finally he seemed to reach a conclusion and stopped, wiping his hands on the cloth hanging over his shoulder. "You want my advice?"
"No, I thought I'd tell you all this so you'd have the full story to put in my Chronicle post mortem. Give it a suitably stirring title - 'Should Have Caught Flight 18 Out Of Paris', or something."
He slumped further down in his stool, transferring his picking to the varnish of the bar top until his hand was swiped away with a pointed look from the owner.
"Tell Mac the situation before the guy gets here; don't leave it until he's hunting. You know how Immortals get when they're locked in; nothing gets in the way of the target. I mean, talk about single-minded."
As Joe didn't appear to be registering the irony, he waved with a bright smile. "Hello. Oldest living Immortal. Sitting right here - armed and single-minded."
"Sorry, man. Sometimes I forget. You want awe and respect, you should probably grow a long beard or something."
"So, to re-cap, your advice would be to confess all to the Church of MacLeod and cultivate facial hair?"
Joe grinned and spoke over his shoulder as he carried the tray towards the back. "Yeah, that's pretty much it."
He stood slightly and leaned over the bar to call after Joe. "Life is like an empty beer bottle, it leaves a lingering taste of bitterness." The audience was uncaring; Joe just shook his head and disappeared around to corner to the kitchens.
And he was alone again. The bottle label had lost its always dubious charms and the press of humanity was beginning to irritate rather than distract. It was time to go, if only back to the apartment where he could sulk, think even, without being interrogated.
It wasn't until he was sliding off the stool he had called home that the first hint of another Immortal began to slide across his awareness. Instinctively he considered trying to back out of range, but there was a bar behind him and, besides, it was already strengthening.
Vaguely he was aware Joe had returned and begun to speak, but the man had quietened quickly. Of course, he'd recognise the signs by now. The door opened and the bouncer beside it smiled to whoever was entering. It was almost certainly MacLeod but it never paid to become complacent.
Well, once, but that had been three thousand years ago and she had been an extremely attractive exception that proved the rule. He kept his hand inside his coat and his fingers wrapped around the hilt of his sword until MacLeod at last stepped into view.
After pausing to let his eyes adjust, MacLeod clocked them and smiled, then began to make his way with the minimum of ripples across the small but enthusiastically packed dance floor.
It seemed fairly pointless to attempt to leave now, so he reclaimed his seat as Joe greeted his charge with a grin and a bottle of beer. "We were just talking about you."
"Should I be worried?" MacLeod glanced between them, the sober expression he habitually wore belied by the gleam of amusement in his eyes.
"Naw, Adam was looking to talk to you."
"Adam was, was he?"
Both men studiously ignored Methos as they continued.
"Yep, he said it was pretty important."
"Did he? Should I be worried now?"
"Probably, you did bring your sword, right?"
He rolled his eyes and looked up from his reclaimed bottle; Joe really had given an entirely new meaning to 'Don't interfere'. "Adam is still armed and single-minded, Joe."
The Watcher chuckled under his breath and took a tray laden with bottles in hand to go water the band, leaving the Immortals in relative privacy.
MacLeod took an easy seat on the stool next to the one Adam had spent the last six hours planted on and waited in companionable silence for an explanation to be given. Adam suspected he probably wouldn't wait forever which, really, was unfortunate as he was still attempting to construct a sentence that wouldn't find him on the receiving end of a respectable Scottish tirade.
'My mate Mick is coming to town … Mick? Oh you know, Mick. He's the one who carried the Plague to villages for fun and profit. Had a pet rat called Christopher because they travelled so much …?'
No, that probably wasn't the way to approach it. There really was no good way to say this at all. He felt his expression begin to harden, the armour of Methos coming unbidden to cover the weaker Adam against a threat he was still only half serious about; saw MacLeod react to the change with a wary frown and tried to reverse the process. Time to stop playing games with your own mind, old man; it takes you at your word.
He was half successful, settling back into the relaxed sprawl habitual to Adam but unable to keep the edge from his tone as he finally spoke.
"Michael Doyle is coming to Paris; he may even be here already. He isn't a friend, but we do have a certain amount of history. I realise he is the lowest form of scum on earth but if you hunt him I may have to try and stop you, which I'd really prefer to avoid as I've never been a great proponent of personal harm."
MacLeod's forehead furrowed further, complete confusion in every line. "Who's Michael Doyle?"
The disbelief wouldn't be contained, sabotaging any chance he had to back out and count his blessings. "What do you mean, 'who's Michael Doyle?' You've never heard of him?"
"No, but I'm about to." MacLeod smiled but injected just enough command into his good-natured tone to make it clear backing out wasn't an option.
It was probably just as well - however the man had managed to live four centuries without coming across the name, it wasn't healthy for anyone if he remained ignorant.
"He's an Immortal with a flair for destruction on a massive scale. Not to property, to people. I suppose you could consider him an early form of biological warfare. I first came across him in the fourteenth century, but I imagine he's refined his methods since then. Essentially, he'd allow himself to catch something virulent and then go wherever he was paid to. Simplicity in action … I don't think the money meant much to him, honestly. More of a vocation with perks."
MacLeod's eyes were wide. He wasn't old enough to remember the horror of fourteenth century Europe and the death of one third of its population, but he was old enough to have seen the effects of the sporadic outbreaks of the seventeenth century. "Why hasn't anyone taken his head?"
"Probably because they couldn't catch him. He doesn't have any interest in the Game that I know of, so no compunction to stick around when he's Challenged. And I imagine if he can't run, he plays dirty."
"Like you." MacLeod smiled the not-quite smile again, this time there was hardness in his eyes as well, not quite suspicion but ready to go there. "Why are you protecting him?"
There was a question to steer clear of, so Adam chose to be affronted by the comparison. "Like me, but please note I'm not clinically insane and predisposed towards global genocide. It's an important distinction I want to make clear before you go on a rampage."
"I'm not going on a rampage."
"Not yet but I have faith in your consistency."
MacLeod had begun to relax into humouring, but now he tensed warily again. "There's more?"
How quickly they learned.
"There's always more." Methos passed a hand over his eyes and faced the unpleasant prospect that he may have to give away just a little more about his own history than he had really wanted to.
The spring had been kind, but the weather had been cooler than he'd remembered it being for some time. Still, Sicily was beautiful whatever the temperature. The orchards were blooming in reds and pinks with the promise of fruit in the months to come and the green vines were slowly deepening in colour as their harvests of grapes and olives grew upon them. The farm was a far cry from the glories of some places he'd lived and further still from some places he'd have preferred to forget, but he was proud and even warily happy to call it home.
"Mattio, you will grow roots and bear sour apples if you sit with such a frown any longer."
He laughed and pulled his woman down to the ground with him, softening her fall with his body and holding her close. He loved this land, but he loved this woman laughing with him more. He could imagine leaving neither which, he knew, was a dangerous thing. More dangerous still was the place of the sword, held over the door rather than sheathed at his side. But he could not bring himself to care, not today.
"See what you've done to my dress? You will have to sew me a new one."
Dark eyes teased him as a red mouth pouted. He laid kisses over them all, promising the finest dress she had ever seen if she would lay by his side and watch the clouds in the sky.
"And will the sky tend the vines? Will the clouds feed us in the winter?"
But she had lain as he had asked; letting him plait her hair with the tolerant bemusement she gave to each of his strange affections.
In the winter he buried her there, under the clouds and amidst the barren skeletons of trees.
"Tell me." The memory was cold and MacLeod's voice was warm as it intruded; it felt odd to be thawed into speech.
"He came to Sicily in the late thirteen-forties, when he left the island was decimated. You can't imagine it, MacLeod."
Independently his hands tried to shape of the scenes in his mind, weaving inadequately before him. "Fields rotting because there was no one to harvest the food … bodies burning in fires their religion prohibited … more of the dead just left in the street for dogs to eat.
"Then, in the winter, those that had survived starved but were thankful anyway because it seemed the sickness was gone. But it came back, Mac, it came back with the spring blossom. They said God withdrew his grace."
"But it wasn't God, it was Michael."
The reply was slow enough to come that gave him time to shake off the last of the unexpected mental sojourn into the past. He let out a long breath and focussed on the row of bottles on the shelf opposite. "Yes, Michael. Who then had a little jaunt into Italy and on to France and England and the rest, as they say, is history."
"You still haven't explained why you won't let his head be taken."
"You're very observant." He smiled as irritatingly as he could. "When Michael came to our village, I went out to meet him. Normally I'd have run, you understand, but I had a compelling reason to stay."
MacLeod mustered a smile, breaking through the frown that was threatening permanent residence. "What was her name?"
"Carolina. I loved her, very much." He was as surprised as MacLeod that he'd made such a frank admission and went on quickly. "Anyway, he introduced himself politely and said he'd spare my home if I'd turn a blind eye. He'd been paid well to kill Sicily, particularly its so very presumptuously thriving port, and didn't want to gain a bad name by defaulting on his contract."
"You didn't let him go …"
"Of course I didn't." Adam waved the slur on his honour aside, neglecting to mention how long he'd seriously considered it. "We fought and I was about to take his head when he told me doing so would make me the plague bringer, Death to all I met."
He also neglected to mention quite how hard he'd laughed at the metaphor the man had used.
"You have to understand we didn't comprehend the way diseases worked then, I couldn't take the chance. So I gave him his head on the proviso he left Sicily untouched. He left but, of course, it was far too late by then."
MacLeod nodded slowly in comprehension. "He'd already passed the contagion on."
"More specifically, he'd already passed it on to me. 'Rolina fell ill and I left her to track Doyle down. I found him at the docks about to board ship and demanded he tell me how to cure her. He gave me some of his blood and said she would have to drink it."
"Did it work?" The tone was entirely too relaxed, he glanced at MacLeod, who was giving every appearance of not being about to demand he got to the point. Adam resisted the pressing urge to ask if MacLeod was feeling quite himself and went on with the account instead.
It was easier to speak of now his mind couldn't smell the snow.
"Surprisingly, yes; but when I told her how she had been cured, she tried to give her blood to her brother. He died. Her mother died. Everyone died. Then, one morning, she was gone too."
"She caught it again?"
"She took her own life. She thought God had punished the village in return for her loving a man unnatural in His eyes."
And there was no doubt he truly was. The compassion was sincere and unrestricted and it made Methos' chest hurt. The rest of the story died unsaid. As much as kindness stung, seeing it turn to disgust would be worse. "Yes, well ..."
"But he still has to be stopped. And don't tell me about honour, you only have honour when it suits you."
"That's a terrible thing to say. Accurate, but you could have used kinder phrasing. I would have thought you'd be more supportive in my efforts to become a man of my word." He took a long pull on his bottle and tried to sound off-hand after swallowing the too-warm beer. "The thing is, honour aside, I'm not sure whether it would be wise to kill him. I've studied medicine and, while I'm no Grace Chandel, I can tell you something is definitely off with his biology. If his blood did cure 'Rolina it certainly shouldn't have and, even worse, I have no idea whether he's carrying a contagion at the moment."
"Even if he isn't he has to be stopped, Methos."
Hints were clearly not going to work; already the famous MacLeod jaw was settling into a purposeful jut.
Adam tore a long strip off the label. "I can't let you take his head, I have no problems encasing him in lead and burying him with all the other toxic waste."
"If we do that, the Gathering will never be over."
The reasonable tone was entirely too much and he laughed. "Has it occurred to you the Gathering may never be over? How many Immortals do you think are buried over the planet? Some may have thought it was a fantastic way to avoid the game."
"If they're buried, they'll be dug up. It's happening all over, Methos. Fate, destiny, magic, whatever you want to call it, it's making sure the Gathering happens. You can't tell me you want the last remaining Immortal to be a man who can lay waste to nations."
"I want the last remaining Immortal to be me or, as a very, very far second, Amanda - but only if she promised not to have a sudden attack of ethics."
MacLeod grinned, feigning hurt. "Why not me?"
"You'd give everyone a golden age of enlightenment. I wouldn't want to inflict that sort of unimaginable boredom on an unsuspecting world."
"That's very altruistic of you." MacLeod paused just long enough to raise Methos' hopes, and then dash them neatly. "You went after Michael, didn't you? After 'Rolina."
The insufferable child was really getting far too practised at keeping a conversation under his control. Or, conceivably, he himself was getting far too unpractised. Adam resolved to work on that. "Yes, yes I went after Michael. Happy?"
"Ecstatic. What happened?"
"I didn't find him."
"Why do I find that hard to believe?"
"You have an untrusting and cynical nature."
"Who is your master? Give me their name or Death's ride will begin over your headless corpse."
Methos shook his head against the memory and closed his eyes, one finger trying to push up glasses he hadn't worn for two lifetimes. "Mac, I haven't had enough to drink for this. I'm not sure I can drink enough for this, it may not be physically possible without some form of advanced pumping system."
He could feel the man's eyes on him as he stoically kept his on the small pile of shredded label he was tearing into finer and finer pieces. There was probably a simile there too if he chose to look closely but, as his earlier attempt had turned out so badly, he decided not to chance it.
MacLeod spoke quietly after a moment. "We can talk about this later."
Quashing a fairly absurd sensation of gratefulness, he nonetheless glanced over and was greeted with a grin as the man continued.
"Besides, Joe's band's about to start their set and if we talk through that he'll have both our heads and solve the problem for us."
The band had finished and the musicians were calling goodbye as they left in a flurry of guitar cases before Adam decided the label was as shredded as it was going to get without the invention of monofilament nail varnish. It probably amused and confused people in turns that someone of his age could devote their attention so completely to something so banal and pointless. He hadn't had the inclination to tell them that, at his age, you either found interest and purpose in everything or you found it in nothing. Anyway, he probably couldn't have said it without a Yoda impression which wouldn't have helped the solemn imparting of wisdom.
Wisdom. There was a double edged sword. Mac and Joe still occasionally looked at him like he had all the answers, not quite able to believe he didn't. Like he'd hold out on them if he'd figured it all out ... unless, of course, holding out was the wisest option. He toyed briefly with the thought that, perhaps, he was in fact incredibly wise and had somehow failed to notice, but dismissed the notion with the memory of the morning's Sock Debacle.
In fairness, he had a hard time believing he wasn't an all-knowing sage as well. Darius had been less than half his age and had held a greater understanding of the world than he could ever hope for. On the other hand, he liked to think he had a firmer grasp of people – most notably that they didn't change.
For a long time he had stopped seeing who was around him, they were all faces he'd known before. The clothes and accents might, might, alter but there was nothing new under the sun. A woman in the eighteen hundreds would ask his health, but he answered her twin from a thousand years before. Or he might as well have, they would react identically. He'd met them all already, even if they didn't know it. He'd killed them all already, even if they didn't know it. And, assuming the Gathering didn't descend on his head from above, he'd probably do it again.
He had wisdom; it just wasn't wisdom you'd want to bring to a dinner party.
Finally he became aware the stool beside him was no longer filled with six-foot of Son of Scotland and shortly afterwards he realised the club had emptied of patrons too. No marks for observation skills tonight.
He looked around to find Joe and MacLeod talking quietly by the drum kit. It was an odd sort of place for a clearly clandestine meeting and the incongruity made him smile as he stood and wandered towards them, burying his hands in his pockets as he went.
They turned to him with almost identically guilty expressions and he smirked. "This looks fun, can I join? Or is there a secret handshake I need to know? If you're planning to blow up Parliament, I'm afraid it's gone out of fashion." His tone was more cutting than he'd intended and he swallowed back the residual bitterness to go on in a friendlier fashion as they turned to look at him. "The set was great, Joe. Who's the new bassist?"
"You mean Pete? He's just covering. Al's kid is sick and he doesn't want to leave Meg alone with her." Joe shrugged minimally, relaying an uncomfortable worry absent from the casual reply.
"I'm sorry to hear that." And he discovered he was, too, which was encouraging. It appeared Adam had won out.
"We were just talking about Doyle ..." MacLeod coughed quietly and widened his eyes slightly at Joe, who went on without missing a beat "… and why Watchers don't interfere and couldn't possibly tell anyone whether he was in the city or not."
Adam looked down at his shoes, noted he needed to tie a lace, and then back up struggling to keep his expression dead pan. "It's a tragedy for the world of entertainment that you two aren't on the stage; I thought Vaudeville was a lost art."
"It's important to keep old skills alive" MacLeod's tone was dry as he stepped away. "Joe, I'll be at the barge for the rest of the night and tomorrow I'll be meeting Richie for lunch. Anyway, barring sudden acts of Gathering, you shouldn't need to Watch. If anything else happens I'll let you know."
Joe nodded as he packed away the rest of the instruments inside their covers. Methos stared at him, amusement warring with outrage. He settled on amused outrage, it seemed sensible. "Joseph, I'm almost certain there isn't a school of Watching entitled 'Ask For The Day Planner'".
"I didn't ask - he's just taking pity on a man of my years so I don't have to go out in the rain with binocs, catch pneumonia and die." Joe's exaggeratedly reasonable tone tipped the balance and Adam grinned.
"Heaven forbid you should lay down your life watching MacLeod have lunch, I'm not sure anyone would be able to ring the chapel bells at sunset with a straight face."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll try and aim for glorious when I go. Whatever happens, you are not writing the eulogy - you'd probably compare me to an empty can."
"Bottle. Probably of something imported, if it's any consolation."
MacLeod watched them for a moment, rolled his eyes and headed for the exit. "Later, Joe."
"I don't get a goodbye?" Adam tilted his head to watch him leave.
"No, because you're coming with me. You have a story to finish."
"I am? I do?" Methos planted his feet on the floor as MacLeod stopped at the door and raised an eyebrow. Brat.
"Yes. I have beer at the barge."
"I like to think my purchase price is a little higher than a beer."
"I have a case of beer and I'll let you steal food."
"I have a case of beer, I'll let you steal food and I won't tell Amanda you were the one who shopped her to the police last time she was here."
Well, that was just playing dirty. He looked to Joe on the unlikely chance he would find support there. "I didn't do any such thing!"
Joe snickered quietly as MacLeod shrugged with feigned sympathy and a growing grin. "Amanda can be so impulsive when she's taking revenge for the loss of two million dollars in shiny, shiny jewellery"
"I could begin to dislike you both intensely."
The Watcher attempted to look sorrowful and held a hand over his heart while MacLeod opened the door with a pointed look. "We'll somehow learn to live with the pain."
Methos rediscovered how to curse in a language that had been dead three thousand years as he trailed after the other Immortal, ignoring Joe's cheerful wave goodbye.
The streets were slick and dark with the February rain Joe had been complaining about. A light drizzle that insidiously soaked through to the bone had been falling all day, was still falling now and, even covered with grime and rain, Paris was beautiful. It had taken him ten years to notice but one night he'd looked up and seen it with new eyes.
That had been his first mistake.
He should have looked right back down again but, by that point, the Highlander had been speaking earnestly about right and wrong and refusing, against all reason, to take his head.
The second mistake had been to listen.
He followed MacLeod, eyes on the pavement, idly watching the duster snapping around the man's heels. His own coat never snapped but just hung there or, very occasionally, curled. Even his clothes lacked fire and dynamism. Depression threatened and, on its heels, the feeling another simile was sneaking up on him. He quickly spoke to avoid it.
"Is there any reason we're walking in the rain rather than driving in a warm car?"
"It's a nice night." MacLeod slowed his stride enough to drop back so they walked side by side.
"How very Scottish of you. You do realise that man has spent thousands of years advancing civilization with the single goal of not having to walk in the rain?"
"Why didn't you just leave?"
MacLeod had very nearly allowed himself be drawn into bickering but clearly wasn't going to get sidetracked easily tonight. Adam toyed with deliberate misunderstanding instead. It wouldn't work but it would annoy the Highlander and that seemed like an amusing diversion while his history was peeled away from him. "The barge is closer than my apartment."
He could almost hear teeth grinding before MacLeod replied. "Earlier. Why didn't you leave when you heard Doyle was coming to Paris?"
"I was thinking about it but Joe persuaded me to stay until you got to the bar."
"You sat there for six hours before you even talked to him."
"He has a very persuasive aura."
"Methos". The word was a warning drawl; lengthening vowels most who had known him, really known him, had preferred to keep as short as possible, spitting the name like a curse.
"As it's not relevant, I recommend you keep your interrogation to topics you'll actually get an answer on."
"So if I don't ask why you stayed, you'll answer everything about Doyle?"
"That isn't what I … did I mention the intense dislike?"
"Well, some things bear repeating."