Author's Note: This story was originally published more than a year before the episode "Judgment Day" aired.

Sanction

"This is Joe Dawson we're talking about," Milo Sanisan said. His eyes flicked around the room, looking for support he didn't find. "He's been one of us since he was a boy."

Reanna Bouvier shifted in her chair. She was a small woman, slender and graceful and proportioned in such a way it would be easy to mistake her for the child she hadn't been in more than two decades. Facing a man twice her age and more than three times her weight, she focused her attention on him so singularly and with such fierce intensity that the heat of her gaze intimidated him, Milo Sanisan, a man of impressive bulk, to an uncomfortable fidget.

"Who he is doesn't matter," she said. "What matters is that he crossed the line." Her voice had no inflection, no depth, no resonance, no emotion of any kind. But though she spoke with the clinical detachment of a computer, her eyes burned with ebony fire. They glowed savage, lighting her expression with the same zeal that drove a dozen generations of fanatics who'd shared her chosen avocation.

Unlike the vast majority of the scattered occupants of this large, dimly-lit room, Reanna Bouvier possessed no concept of middle ground. She made no allowance for shades of grey, tolerated no excuse from those who would seek to mitigate the world by calling it modern, or complex, or relative to the perspective of the observer. Bouvier's sole reality was black or white, with nothing worth considering between. Right or wrong. Good or evil. Mortal or Immortal. Watcher or not.

She was a Watcher to the very marrow of her delicate bones. In her assessment, those who did not share her passions for The Order were not.

"He's crossed the line," she said again, "and now it's time for him to pay." When she looked around the room as Sanisan had done, it wasn't to seek support, but rather to seek supplication. Every set of eyes she met conceded. They looked down, looked away. Their unwillingness to engage her creased grim satisfaction into the folds of her ferocious expression.

For several long moments, no one said a word. She nodded her approval. They were as she expected them to be: Capitulant to the fire of her devotion. She drew a breath to declare Dawson's fate, but a calm voice from the back corner of the room spoke before she could put her edict to air for the official record.

"I think what Dawson is trying to do has merit."

Reaction rippled through the gathering of Watchers; not only at the opinion, but equally at who expressed the opinion. Giovanni Carspachi was a quiet man who kept to the shadows and held council with his own thoughts. Though nearly thirty years a Watcher, he'd rarely, if ever, offered an opinion in open tribunal.

Reanna's gaze cut through the room to focus on the dissenter in the corner. Though a far less imposing man than Sanisan, Carspachi was twice the threat to her agenda. She'd worked with him before, but in the breadth of who he actually was and how he might react to her modes of persuasion, she knew little beyond a name she could match to a face. The indifference with which he met her scathing disapproval benchmarked him an opponent to be handled with caution. They might listen to Sanisan; but they would follow Carspachi if she let him take the lead.

"A Watcher's duty is to watch," she said. "We have laws. We have rules." She directed her rhetoric back to the assemblage in general. "Joe Dawson has broken every one of them. He has broken every rule a Watcher is sworn to uphold. He has --"

"Sometimes you have to break the rules," Giovanni said, "in order to make a difference."

His interruption was a challenge. She turned on him like a pack animal put to direct attack. "Watchers do not make a difference." Her tone was cutting, condescending. "Watchers watch. If you don't understand that, Carspachi; then you don't belong here any more than Dawson does."

She expected him to rise to her aggression. He surprised her by offering a conciliatory smile instead. "I've been a Watcher for longer than you've been alive, Reanna," he said. "I'm pretty sure I understand the job."

"Perhaps you understand the job," she retorted, "but you don't appear to understand the calling."

He chuckled, a choice that undermined her more effectively than any aggression he could have offered. "It's only a calling to the young," he assured her. "Once you've invested a couple more decades in The Order, I'm sure you'll begin to see how rules made for one generation are not always applicable to the choices faced by future generations. Joe Dawson and I – as well as a few others in this room – have aged to a long-term perspective you don't yet possess. If you'll grant us the opportunity to share that perspective, perhaps you can learn something from it that will serve you in the future."

"What I can learn from you, and Watchers like you, is treason."

For a quiet man of ordinary countenance, Giovanni Carspachi managed the inflections of danger effectively. Shouldering himself off the back wall of the room, he took a step forward in a way that made those closest to him take a step back. His expression gave no quarter for a resumption of civilities abandoned; the line of his posture made clear how he took the implications of her barely-veiled accusation.

"Are you threatening me with sanction now?" he asked, eyes glittering in the half-dark as the crowd around him once again flexed with the ripple of small rebellions put to air. "Careful, Bouvier," he advised. "Unlike Dawson, I'm here to defend myself."

Where Sanisan garnered no support, Carspachi served as a catalyst to those who listened, but did not agree. The cold of his evident fury was contagious. It spread through the room like a virus, tainting sentiments to a degree that forced her to adjust the vein of her attack to address a mounting backlash of opposition.

Rather than respond to Carspachi directly, she shifted her point of address to the gathering as a whole. Softening the intensity of her righteous ire to make it more palatable for general consumption, she allowed, "I understand that many of you feel a strong loyalty to Dawson. I respect that loyalty -- I even share it once. Years ago, Joe Dawson was worthy of your respect, and of mine. But that changed. He's changed."

She paused, looked around the room. No one spoke to the silence on the table. Neither Sanisan nor Carspachi challenged, but it would be a mistake to assume their lack of response bore any relevance to their level of opposition. They were waiting, as were the rest of the Watchers, for her to continue.

She continued. "When I became a Watcher, I took an oath. I swore my loyalty to the cause. I swore to serve it, to protect it, to give my life in defense of it." Her voice darkened. "And I swore to kill for it, if necessary." She met Sanisan's eyes. He looked away. "Joe Dawson has become a threat to everything we are. He is a collaborator, a Judas Iscariot. He consorts with the enemy and betrays the sanctity of our inner chambers."

"Immortals are not are enemies," Carspachi said.

"Dawson makes them our enemy," she argued. "By betraying our secrets, he's given them knowledge of our existence. For the first time in a dozen centuries, they know we are watching. And because they know what we know, what we see, they will hunt us. Whether in fear or for the mere sport of it, they will look for us and wait in ambush for us and kill us as we watch."

"I do feel more vulnerable now," Jeff Mathers agreed cautiously, "in ways I never did before."

"You never know when one of them knows," Karl Reinchek added. He held up a wrist, exposing his tattoo. "I feel like a Jew in old Berlin, marked for identification, marked for death."

"Because of Joe Dawson and his unholy alliance with Duncan MacLeod," Reanna said, "everything we are is jeopardized. Because Dawson broke the rules, they know who we are."

"It was Horton who exposed us," Cassie Yates challenged. "He's the one who killed Darius; the one who showed MacLeod there was something to see. That was Horton, not Joe."

Bouvier shook her head. "For all his many sins, Peter Horton never betrayed the cause." A murmur of resentment circled the room. She lost ground to the perception she spoke in defense of a traitor. "He never divulged our secrets. He never told an Immortal of our purpose, or of our past. Regardless of what else he might have been, he was not what Joe Dawson has become."

"He was a murderer," Carspachi said.

"He murdered Watchers," Sanisan added.

"Horton killed Gary Blout," Senya Montenegro offered. "He would have killed Joe too, if MacLeod hadn't stopped him."

"Horton was wrong," Reanna agreed unequivocally. "He broke the rules, and he died for it. But the fact still remains that Peter Horton never betrayed the Watchers. If MacLeod had tracked Darius's death to Horton -– "

"Darius's murder," Carspachi corrected grimly.

" -- Horton would have died without MacLeod ever learning of the Watchers, without MacLeod ever being told who we are, or why we exist. MacLeod learned about us from Dawson: Dawson, who gave him a Watcher journal; Dawson, who recruited him to Watcher business and who has, in return, gifted him with knowledge that gives him an advantage over his opponents. It is Dawson who betrayed us, and Dawson who continues to betray us every day."

"She's right," Theo Ruffio said. "Dawson compromised us all by telling MacLeod things no Immortal should ever be told. He put us all in danger."

"Being a Watcher has always been dangerous business," Stephan Kei argued.

"Not as dangerous as it is now," Ruffio insisted. "If Immortals still didn't know we existed --"

"Immortals know we exist because of Horton," Cassie interrupted impatiently. "Darius wasn't even in the game any more. He lived on holy ground, for God's sake. He was no threat to anyone, mortal or Immortal."

"Joe still shouldn't have told MacLeod about us," Claire Winnaborne chimed in. "It's against the most basic rule. We're not supposed to interfere."

"And God knows how many of them MacLeod's told," Kyle Winnaborne added. "You know he told Amanda, and she really gets around."

"Listen to me," Cassie demanded, raising her voice to be heard above the growing dissention. "By killing Darius – by killing him in a way no Immortal ever would – Horton not only exposed our existence, he made us a threat to every Immortal, good or bad. He gave them a reason to fear us, and what Immortals fear, they kill. All Joe Dawson did -- all Joe Dawson has ever done -- is try to minimize that damage. His work with MacLeod makes it safer for Watchers by making it clear we aren't a threat to them. That we can work together, even be friends."

Reanna laughed a harsh, acid laugh. "Friends." Her tone was derogatory. "Watcher and Immortal? How much more do you need to know to see how deep Dawson's treason runs? He's feeding information to an Immortal. He's doing the one thing we all swore we'd never do: interfering. By tipping the scales in MacLeod's favor, he affects the destinies of us all. He has to be stopped."

"Joe doesn't give MacLeod that kind of information," Sanisan said. "He's a Watcher, not a grifter out to rig the game."

"And MacLeod gives as good as he gets," Cassie added. "He's helped us a dozen times. Found Watchers who'd gone missing, taken care of Immortals who were hunting us."

"MacLeod saved my son when Svenji took him to use him against me," Laird Benerdsen said quietly from near the door. "He did it because Dawson asked him to."

"He does a lot because Dawson asks him to," Cassie said. "Darius was MacLeod's mentor, his closest friend. Of all of them, he's the one with the most reason to hate Watchers. But he helps when Joe asks him for help. He does it because they're friends. Joe's work with MacLeod has changed things. It makes things better."

"MacLeod caught Karl once," Carmetta Mastriantani offered. "Had him cornered. It was after he'd taken Dunagan's quickening. He knew Karl was one of us, knew he was Dunagan's Watcher, but he let him go. He just let him go."

"MacLeod has never killed a mortal or an immortal who wasn't trying to kill him," Kei said.

"He killed Steven Peters in up-state New York," Kolya Breena argued.

"That was Michael Moore," Tressa Valens corrected. "The crazy one. MacLeod was looking for Steve because Dawson asked him to, but Moore had already killed him."

The conversation denigrated, fracturing into a dozen smaller discussions. It continued for several minutes, the quiet buzz of anarchy gaining momentum until Bouvier broke it clean with a sharp slap to the flat of the table. As loud as a gunshot and as unexpected as a full-blooded curse at Sunday morning mass, she broke the escalating disorder to virtual silence.

"Do you see what he's done to us?" she demanded. "We've become bickering children, without focus or direction." Her gaze swung on Mathers. "There was a time, Jeff, when you would have taken cyanide without a second thought if an immortal compromised your cover. And Theo --" her attention shifted, "I remember a young man who asked to be assigned to Alexei Voshin because he'd heard Voshin made Hitler seem affable." She turned her intense gaze on the gathering in general. "Dawson has done this to us. By breaking our sacred traditions, by compromising our solidarity, he has taken away everything that makes us strong."

"Time has taken away what makes us strong," Carspachi said. "Time, which moves on while we refuse to do the same."

"Exactly," Cassie agreed. "The Watchers have stagnated. As a twentieth century organization, we still live by a fifteenth century code. There are no concessions for the changes that have taken place in the world."

"Immortals haven't changed," Breena muttered. "They still kill for sport."

"Immortals have changed," Cassie insisted. "Those who've survived have adapted with the times. Joe is only trying to do the same thing. He knows the stagnation of The Order is what paved the way for Horton's rise to power in the first place. And he knows it will happen again unless something changes. Joe isn't breaking rules for the fun of it. He's trying to find a new way. He's trying to build a bridge between the past and the present; between Immortal and Mortal. He's trying to save us all."

"He has no right," Reanna said.

"Who has more right?" Cassie demanded. "Who better to institute change than Joe Dawson? He knows more about Immortals than anyone in the organization. He has more pieces to the puzzle, a more comprehensive view of the big picture. Who better to chart our course than a man who's devoted his life to studying the map?"

"Our course has been set for a thousand years," Reanna said.

"A thousand years ago, the time of The Gathering was a myth," Sanisan said. "Today, it's a reality ... an imminent reality."

"All the more reason to stay true to our oath," Reanna insisted stubbornly. "The end is close at hand."

"Yes," Giovanni Carspachi said, his tone fierce enough to drop the entire room to silence for the second time in as many minutes. "The end is close at hand. And you're a fool, Bouvier -- you're all fools -- if you think the world will go on if the wrong Immortal takes the prize."

For a long moment, no one said a word. "The Gathering is here," Carspachi went on finally. "It is now. This is the only time we have to make a difference in who wins and who loses."

"We are Watchers, Carspachi." Reanna's voice was very quiet, very dark. "Who takes the prize is a matter to record, not to influence."

"For a thousand years, we've watched them," Carspachi countered. "For a thousand years, we've learned about them. For what? So we can record who takes the prize? Or so we can know who should take the prize. Who must take the prize, if mortals are to survive."

Again, absolute silence. No one said a word, not a mutter crossed the chasm between Carspachi's proclamation and the reality that had been the Watcher organization for as long as any of them could remember, and longer.

"That isn't a choice for Joe Dawson to make," Reanna said finally. "He's not a member of The Ruling Council, or of The Ethics Committee. He's just a Watcher who's forgotten how to watch. He's become a participant. He's crossed the line."

"He is doing what he thinks is right to make sure someone like Alexei Voshin or Adjen Croix is not the last Immortal standing," Carspachi said. "And although he may not have the authority to make the choices he is making, he does have the broadest perspective for making those choices, and the best sense of historical context in which to make them. And I am not convinced they are the wrong choices." Giovanni Carspachi looked around the room, meeting the gaze of each Watcher in turn. "I'm not convinced," he said, "that they aren't the only choices we can afford to make if we want mortals to survive the games Immortals play."

"You're right, Giovanni," Reanna allowed after a long moment. "He doesn't have the authority to make the choices he's making. For whatever reason he's making them, he doesn't have the authority; he doesn't have the right." Reanna Bouvier stood. "I didn't come here to debate this with you," she said to Carspachi, then to the room in general. "I came here to inform you of a decision already made. Dawson's been warned about his activities by the Ethics Committee. He chose to ignore those warnings. So now, for crimes against the Watcher Collective, Joe Dawson has been found guilty." Her voice rang out crystal clear and authoritarian in the dim, cramped room. "And in keeping with the Watcher code, the Ethics Committee has called for sanction. The Ruling Council agrees. And so it shall be done."

A murmur circled the room. It was rebellious, discontent. It flexed and twisted and coiled itself in and about the gathering of Watchers who whispered among themselves in the dark.

"And so it shall be done," Bouvier repeated louder, more fiercely. It was a demand for allegiance, a Watcher credo put to voice under The Ethics Committee's color of authority.

Among the gathering of Watchers, each man and woman was put to the task of standing up to be counted in the name of their oath to The Watcher Order.

"And so it shall be done," someone said.

Voices whispered. Voices protested.

"And so it shall be done," Reanna Bouvier insisted.

Voices capitulated. Voices joined the call to which they had devoted their lives and their allegiances. "And so it shall be done."

"And so it shall be done."

"And so it shall be done."

Standing in the shadows, once again leaning into the darkness of the room's farthest corner, Giovanni Carspachi listened to them come together to speak as the unified voices of The Watcher Order, but he did not join the call.

--

Standing awkwardly, buttressed by a cane in either hand, Joe Dawson watched his blues bar burn. Flames licked the night sky with delicate tongues of intense color. Geysers of black, oily smoke spouted from broken windows, fouling the air. Though a dozen firefighters scrambled in and out and about the blaze like so many frantic ants, it made little difference in the end. The bar was gone. By the end of the hour, it was nothing more than a handful of dreams and a disintegrating framework of charred timbers.

Dawson sensed MacLeod, rather than heard him. The Highlander approached from behind, his silent step a habit of instinct rather than intent.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

Dawson shrugged. He didn't turn. "Don't know. Doesn't really matter now."

"Did everyone get out?"

Dawson nodded. "Started before we opened for business. Was only me and Justine in the place. Went up like grass and kerosene."

"Grass and kerosene." MacLeod frowned. "That's an odd way of putting it."

Joe didn't answer.

"Almost makes it sound like you think it was set," MacLeod pressed.

"If the shoe fits."

MacLeod's eyes narrowed. He glanced from Dawson, to the dying fire, and back to Dawson again. "You're saying you do think it was set?"

One corner of Dawson's mouth pulled to a wry grin. " Could have been Spontaneous Blues Bar Combustion, I guess."

MacLeod watched the Watcher more carefully. He noted a dozen details about Dawson's demeanor that didn't add up. Suspicion lit the darker recesses of Highland eyes. Suspicion not only of the fire, but equally of his friend's discomfiture. Joe wasn't much for self pity. The bitterness eroding his features was a new thing, a disturbing thing. "You have any idea why?" he asked after a long beat.

"One or two. But like I said, it doesn't really matter now, does it?"

"It matters to me," MacLeod said.

Dawson chuckled. Shifting his gaze from the crumbling remains of a blue's bar he'd spent the vast majority of his adult life envisioning to face a man he hadn't ever, for that same vast majority of his adult life, thought to be addressing on a one-to-one basis, he said, "Thanks, Mac. I 'preciate the sentiment." He turned to walk away.

"That's it?"

Dawson glanced back to the fire. "Looks like."

"That bar was your life."

"Nah. It was just a building. Four walls and a stage."

"What about your records?"

"A bit out of date anyway. Should have gone to CDs a long time ago."

"You know what I'm talking about."

"And you should know why I'm not talking about it."

"Does this have something to do with them?"

"Everything has something to do with them, Mac. They are pretty much the sum total of my life's work." Dawson looked up, met MacLeod's unblinking gaze. "Doesn't speak very well of my life does it?" There was an unnatural neutrality to Joe's eyes. His expression was studiously blank. "As for my records, don't lose any sleep over it. I know I won't."

"You're saying this was Watchers?" An instinctive resentment swelled through every fiber of Duncan MacLeod's being. The easy grace of his stance became all angles and aggression.

"I'm not saying anything. I really don't have anything to say."

"Your own people did this to you?"

Dawson snorted. "My own people." He shook his head, the bitterness in his expression rising to the surface for the briefest of moments before once again, sinking to places where it existed unspoken, if not without voice. "Ain't that a kick in the ass?" He turned away from the fire. Slow and awkward on his matching set of canes, he started down the walk, saying, "Go home, Mac. There's nothing more to do here."

MacLeod caught Dawson's arm as he passed. Joe pulled free. "I said go home." His eyes were dull, shielded. The charade of indifference was even less convincing under the duress of close-quarter inspection.

"I heard what you said."

For a long time, neither of them spoke. It was Joe who broke first -- Joe who looked down, who looked away – but it was MacLeod who spoke, saying, "Talk to me, Joe. Tell me what's going on."

Joe smiled. The expression was nothing that resembled mirth. "Just a little corporate housecleaning. Downsizing, I think it's called in today's world. Nothing to get your knickers in a wad over. It happens every day."

"They burned your bar. You could have been killed."

"Nah. If they intended to kill me, there are less flamboyant ways of getting it done. Ways no one would question as anything more than the inevitability of the way I lived in younger days." He jerked his chin at the pile of smoking rubble that was all that remained of his dreams. "This is a show. A warning."

"A warning to you?"

"A warning to others. Easier to keep the troops in line when you show them what happens to the guy who falls out of step." Dawson's smile deepened. Bitterness ripened to a mordant circumspection. "Or it could have been faulty wiring. Bad breaker. Too much spark, not enough amp."

"Your wiring was up to code. You had it inspected last month."

"Tricky business, wiring," Dawson said. "Doesn't give much warning when it goes. Hard to tell exactly when you're going to get burned, or how badly."

For a moment, MacLeod said nothing. When he did finally speak, it was to make an offer: "Why don't you stay with me for a while. At the dojo."

Dawson smiled. "Thanks," he said, "but I can handle this."

"Can you?"

It was a challenge. Joe's response was unequivocal.

"Yes. I can. I've reached a certain level of respect in the organization. If it wasn't an accident, it was a mistake. I'll get it straightened out."

The fire was mostly smoke and ash now. Charred timbers like skeletal remains cut across what had once been the stage. "This was no accident, Joe," MacLeod said grimly.

"Then it was a mistake. A mistake I will correct."

MacLeod had centuries over which to learn when someone was lying to him. He'd become very good at it, and Dawson wasn't a man who lied enough to have much practice. The conclusions the Highlander reached about the conflagrant demise of Joe's Bar and the probability of it being either an accident or a mistake were written in every line of his posture.

As good as MacLeod had become at reading lies, that good had Joe Dawson become at reading Duncan MacLeod. He'd become an expert at anticipating the intentions of an Immortal he'd watched for twenty years before they ever met.

"Stay out of it, MacLeod," Joe warned.

"Stay out of what?"

The two men stared at each other for almost a minute before the expectancy in the Immortal Highlander's gaze once again turned Joe Dawson away. In the weary tone of a man too tired to argue any longer, he repeated, "Stay out of it. At least until I know how far this is going to go." His expression had lost its bitter edge. In its place were the dark hues of resignation, of acceptance, of surrender.

"How far what is going to go?"

"I'm asking as a friend," Dawson said. "If you are my friend."

"Is that what this is about? Us being friends?"

"I mean it, MacLeod. Stay out of it." Joe Dawson turned and walked away.

--

Reanna Bouvier placed a snub-nosed .38 in the palm of Steven Gatterly's hand. "It's your duty," she said. "He betrayed The Order; he's become a liability to the cause. The Committee issued a terminal sanction. You've been chosen to enforce it."

Gatterly turned the gun over and over in his hands, both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with its metallic weight. "I've never done anything like this before," he said.

"There's a first time for everything." Reanna voice was hard, as were her eyes. "You're a Watcher. You took an oath."

Gatterly glanced around the dim alley. He could see others in the shadows, but he couldn't make out their faces. "I thought burning his bar was the sanction."

"The bar was a warning to others. This --" Reanna indicated the gun with a small inclination of her head, "-- is for Dawson. The Ethics Committee was very clear. If you don't think you can do it, tell me now and I will find someone who can."

He slipped the gun into his pocket. "I took an oath to live and die by The Committee's rulings." Squaring slender shoulders as if pulling himself to every inch of height acquired over the nineteen years of his short life would somehow make him more convincing, he said, "If their ruling is sanction, then it's my duty to carry that ruling out."

Reanna Bouvier nodded her approval. "You're a credit to The Order, Steven Gatterly. The Committee will know how deep your loyalty runs."

Gatterly stepped back. Deep inside, his belly wrenched with the dull fear of eternal damnation. "I want it on record," he said, "that what I'm doing, I'm doing for The Order. My father knew Joe Dawson. My grandfather knew him, as did both of my uncles." Gatterly struggled to keep his voice even. "Joe Dawson isn't a traitor. He wouldn't betray the Watchers, and he doesn't deserve to be sanctioned."

"Joe Dawson got your father killed," Bouvier reminded him. "He told MacLeod who Andre Tennison's watcher was; MacLeod told Tennison how and where to find him."

"I know. But I still want it on record: I'm only doing this because it's my duty as a Watcher."

Bouvier's eyes narrowed. They were angry, and they burned with a fire she wielded the way an Immortal wields their sword, eviscerating those who would stand in her way, decapitating those who would presume to lay claim on a prize rightfully hers.

"For whatever reason you do it," she said, her voice as cold as her eyes were hot, "just make sure you do it."

--

The street was deserted, the air was still and crisp. Joe Dawson's canes tapped a syncopated rhythm on the sidewalk as he navigated the three hundred yards from parking lot to front porch stoop. It was getting late and his conservative neighbors had already tucked themselves in for the night. Only the moon had stayed up to wish him pleasant dreams.

It was a disappointment, but no particular surprise, when a youth dressed in black accosted him three yards shy of his own front door. The young man didn't speak, but he had a gun, and it came up awkwardly as if it had better things to do than point at a man pegged with plastic legs.

Joe sighed. Settling into the canes, he faced his fate with quiet acceptance. He'd known this bullet would be coming since the bar went up in a fiery conflagration around him. Though he'd hoped for better from the cause to which he'd pledged his life, he hadn't really expected it. The Watchers, as an organization, were nothing if not consistent.

The youth took a step closer, and then another. Though Joe didn't recognize him, his features were vaguely familiar. He looked scared. He looked young. Peeking out from under his left sleeve, the rounded edge of a Watcher tattoo verified beyond any doubt exactly who he was and why he was here.

"Do you know?" the boy asked. His voice was tight with panic. Or perhaps, it was anticipation.

"I know a sanction when I see one, son," Dawson said not unkindly. "Let's just get on with it, shall we?"

His calm unnerved the young gunman. The boy licked his lips, glancing furtively left, and then right, and then left again.

"What's your name, son?" Dawson asked.

The youth's eyes narrowed. His finger whitened slightly against the trigger. "Why?" he demanded as if suspecting a trap.

Dawson shrugged. "Just curious. Seems only right that a man know the name of his executioner, don't you think?"

The boy's expression twitched. "Gatterly," he said almost belligerently. "Steven Gatterly."

Dawson nodded. "Paul's boy," he said.

"Yes." Gatterly's voice was a challenge. "Paul's boy."

"Your father was a good man," Joe said. "He told me you were planning to go into the service. It made him proud to think of you following in his footsteps."

"He thought you were his friend," Gatterly said.

"I was his friend. We worked together for several years in Germany."

"He'd still be alive if you hadn't told MacLeod how to find him."

Dawson frowned. "What?"

Gatterly shook his head like he was trying to dislodge an unwelcomingly persistent thought. "It doesn't matter. That isn't what this is about."

But Dawson wasn't letting go. "You think MacLeod killed your dad?" he asked.

"No," Gatterly said. "I think you killed him."

"Me?"

"It doesn't matter. I'm not here because of that."

"That may not be why you're here," Joe said, "but I'd rather not die thinking you believe I killed your dad. Paul was my friend. So were his brothers. I'd known them all since they were far younger than you are now."

"It doesn't matter," Gatterly said again.

"It matters to me."

"If it mattered so much to you, you wouldn't have …." Gatterly cut himself short with an effort. He shook his head again, trying to shake the anger out of his eyes. "It doesn't matter," he repeated.

Dawson studied the boy for a long moment. He saw anger. He saw fear. But most of all, he saw an overwhelming sense of despair as the young Watcher struggled to find a way to do what he'd been ordered to do.

"I wouldn't have what?" Joe pressed. "Why would you think I killed him? Who told you that?"

"I didn't have to be told. I saw the evidence. I know what you did."

"What I did?" Dawson's frown deepened. "Tell me what I did, Steven," he suggested. "Tell me how I killed your father."

The accusation came out in a single burst: "You told MacLeod he was Tennison's watcher. That's how Tennison knew where to find him. If you hadn't told MacLeod, MacLeod wouldn't have told Tennison, and my dad would still be alive."

Dawson was shaking his head in vigorous denial. "I told MacLeod about your father after he disappeared. He was helping me try to find Paul, just like he's helped me find other Watchers who've gone missing in the line of duty."

"You're lying." Gatterly voice climbed through tense to the verge of shrill. "You're trying to cover up the fact that you broke the code. But I saw the evidence. There's a Watcher video record. I saw you tell MacLeod my father was Tennison's watcher."

"I did break the code," Dawson agreed. "And I did tell MacLeod your father was Tennison's watcher. But I did it after he went missing, son. After he'd been missing for several days. I knew there wasn't much chance he was still alive, but Tennison was just enough of a bastard to keep Paul ---" Dawson changed what he was going to say to something else "—to keep Paul alive if he thought it gave him an advantage against other Immortals. I knew it was a long shot, but it was the only shot I had, so I took it."

"You broke the code," Gatterly said again.

"The code is archaic," Dawson snapped. "It was designed for times when a man could hide in the shadows and observe without being observed. These are not those times. They haven't been for almost a hundred years."

"It doesn't matter. None of that matters. All that matters is that you broke the code. I know you didn't mean to get my dad killed. I know you didn't think MacLeod would betray you by telling Tennison. But he did. And you did. No matter what you intended, if you'd honored the oath we all took, my father would still be alive."

"Your father's body would still be missing," Joe said. "That is all the difference keeping my oath would have made."

"It doesn't matter. None of this matters. This isn't about my father. You've been sanctioned for treason by the Ethics Committee. I have my orders. It's my duty as a Watcher to carry them out."

"Then carry them out," Joe said.

Gatterly's hands were shaking. He shouldered sweat off the side of his face, then shifted both feet, trying to find a more stable stance.

"Go ahead," Dawson urged. "Do what you've been ordered to do. If nothing matters except that I broke the code, then pull the trigger, because I did break the code, and I will break it again."

Gatterly shifted his grip on the gun. He lifted it higher as if that made it point harder and threaten more threateningly. "I'll do it," he said fiercely. "You don't think I will, but you're wrong."

Glaring at the son of a man he'd considered one of his closest friends for a dozen years, waiting for the boy to shoot him and be done with it, Joe Dawson felt suddenly old, suddenly tired. The outrage of being accused of Paul's murder faded to dull; the anger that outrage spawn bled away until it no longer mattered.

He realized then how long he'd waited for this moment to arrive. How long he'd been looking over his shoulder for an assassin in the shadows. How long he'd spent wondering if his car was being rigged in the street while he talked to MacLeod in the bar; or if he'd get run down in a parking garage by a man who never put his foot to the brakes. How long he'd know this was the only end he could really expect; how long he'd know it was less a matter of if than simply a matter of when.

How tired he was of the continual waiting, and how relieved he was, in some ways, to finally have it here.

"No, son," Dawson corrected quietly. "I know you'll do it. You took an oath, and you're Paul Gatterly's son. He was one of the best I ever worked with. He knew his duty, and he did it well. I don't doubt his son would be any less a Watcher than he was. If your orders are to kill me, then you will kill me."

"Then why don't you run?" the youth demanded.

"Because I'm no longer equipped to run." Dawson tapped one artificial leg with the corresponding cane, then settled back to his ungainly, wide-legged stance. "And I'm too damned old to fight. That leaves acquiesce or begging, and I never was much for begging."

The conflicting emotions that waged war on one another in Steven Gatterly's expression put Joe to mind of the dozens of young Watchers he'd mentored over the years. Their fear, their pride, their honor, their awe, their desperation … it all came back to him now, all those emotions elbowing one another aside to find their moment in the sun, all struggling to co-exist as an entire generation of young men and women followed in their forefather's footsteps by dedicating their lives to a cause most of the world would never even know existed. An archaic cause that may have meant something once, but that only seemed to mean sacrifice and tragedy as the time of The Gathering came upon them.

Watching Gatterly try to screw up the courage to kill him, Dawson felt an unexpected pity for the boy, remembering what it was like the first time he killed a man, remembering what it was like the first time he lost a student to an Immortal who took umbrage to discovering himself being watched. "Go ahead," he said, giving Gatterly permission to do what he had to do. "If you don't do it, they'll just send someone else."

Gatterly shifted his grip again. His young features set themselves as he sighted down the barrel at Dawson's head. "I'm sorry, Mister Dawson," he said.

"So am I," Dawson agreed.

As Gatterly's finger tightened on the .38's trigger, the night itself seemed to move. A gathering of shadows shifted, sliding between the armed youth and his intended target. When the shadows settled, they became a man … a man who looked more dangerous than any shadow ever could.

Gatterly stumbled back, nearly losing his gun in the process. "Who are you?" he demanded.

Duncan MacLeod smiled. Balanced between the grace of a dancer and the coiled energy of tiger just short of the pounce, he stood between Joe Dawson and the barrel of Steven Gatterly's gun like an Immortal shield in a long, black coat.

"Who are you?" Gatterly demanded again, gripping his weapon tighter, bringing it back to level.

"Damn it, MacLeod," Dawson said. "I thought I told you to stay out of this."

"You did," MacLeod agreed. "I guess I'm not the friend you thought I was."

"MacLeod?" Gatterly's eyes went wild in his head. His already evident panic escalated by a factor of ten. He looked instinctively to Dawson, paradoxically seeking advice from the man he was ordered to kill.

"Don't look to him for help," MacLeod chided,. His tone was conversational, almost amused. "He's the guy you're going to shoot, remember?" Smiling a thin, dangerous smile, MacLeod took a step forward, and then another. He was watching Gatterly with an intensity of focus that would have unnerved even the steadiest hand. On an inexperienced Watcher trapped between an approaching Immortal and a sense of duty that wouldn't allow him to retreat, the effect was devastating.

"I am Duncan MacLeod, of the clan MacLeod," the Highlander told the trembling Watcher before him. "Perhaps you've heard of me."

Gatterly stumbled a small retreat. His hands were shaking almost as badly as his voice. "Stop! Stay back. I mean it … stay back!"

"Or what? You'll shoot me?" MacLeod's expression flickered from patronizingly amused to darkly dangerous in less than a heartbeat. His eyes glittered with threat; his smile became a predator to prey. "Go ahead then, Steven Gatterly, son of Paul. Go ahead and shoot me." He took another step forward. Gatterly took another back. "Shoot me," he said again. Then, more fiercely, "Shoot me."

"Leave the boy alone, MacLeod," Dawson said.

MacLeod ignored him. "What?" he asked of Gatterly. "You don't want to shoot me now? Or you do? Make up your mind, boy. But let me give you a little piece of advice first: Never shoot a man unless you've got a big enough gun to kill him." He smiled from the teeth out. "All it does is piss him off."

"MacLeod," Dawson snapped.

"Stay out of this, Joe."

"Stay out of this? Stay out of this?" Dawson was righteously indignant. "What do you mean, stay out of this? I am this. The boy was sent to shoot me, not you."

"I don't think he wants to shoot either one of us." MacLeod's chest was nearly flush against the barrel of Gatterly's gun now. "I think he wants to put the gun down and run away. Isn't that what you want to do, boy? Run away?"

"I have my orders," Gatterly managed with an effort. His face was utterly devoid of color. He stared at MacLeod like he was a specter made flesh from the younger man's darkest dreams.

"Your orders," MacLeod repeated. "Watcher orders. So tell me this, Steven Gatterly, son of Paul: Are your orders worth dying for?" Gatterly nodded, but he didn't look convinced.

The Highlander struck so quickly Gatterly never saw it coming. One moment the young Watcher had the gun; the next, MacLeod did. He held it up, ejecting the clip from the weapon's grip. It fell to the street with a clatter. "Run away, boy," MacLeod whispered, his voice enough to scare a felon straight. "Run back to your little Watcher friends and tell them I'm on my way."

Gatterly blinked. He stood, frozen in place, barely breathing.

"Go!" MacLeod barked.

The authority in MacLeod's tone galvanized Gatterly into motion. Stumbling awkwardly, he turned and ran back into the alley from which he'd emerged a handful of minutes before. The shadows of the narrow corridor swallowed him up, and he was gone.

Joe Dawson sighed. "That boy will have nightmares for years," he said.

MacLeod grunted. Tossing Gatterly's gun aside, he said, "I thought you said you could handle this."

"I was handling it," Joe returned mildly.

"By getting yourself shot?" Though his expression remained neutral, an edge of anger whetted MacLeod's tone sharp. "Do you think you're immortal, Joe? Because I can tell you from a position of authority: You're not. If that boy had shot you, you'd be dead."

"I know that."

"Then what in the hell were you doing?"

Dawson met the angry glare of a man who looked far younger than himself; but who was, in reality, much, much older. "I was playing by the rules," he said. "For a change, I was doing what Watchers are supposed to do: Play by the rules."

"This isn't a game, Joe."

"Coming from you, that's damned funny." He gestured at the stoop with one cane. "Mind if we take this inside? You may be impervious to the cold, but this old, mortal body is getting chilled to its old, mortal bones."

"I won't stand by and let them cut your throat because we're friends, Joe. They killed Darius. They killed Andreis Vlednichek. They are not going to kill you."

"Well, not tonight anyway."

"Not any night," MacLeod said. "If I have to take on the entire Order myself, I will."

"Oh that would definitely help my case. I'm sure you weed-whacking Watchers left and right will absolutely prove how right I am in thinking Watchers and Immortals don't have to sit on opposite ends of the bus." Dawson started himself in motion, heading for the porch. "And technically speaking, they weren't going to cut my throat, they were going to shoot me."

"Technically speaking," Reanna Bouvier said, stepping from the same alley into which Gatterly had vanished moment's before, "we still are." She held a nine millimeter berretta with a silencer. It was trained on Joe Dawson's chest. "Hello, Joe," she greeted conversationally.

"Reanna," Dawson allowed. "Can't say it's a surprise to find you on the pushing end of this action. Always the fanatic; ever the advocate for violence."

"I've missed you, too, Joe," she said. "The way you sit down and chat with Immortals over coffee, tell them all our secrets, give them a little insider information to make the game play a little more to your tastes."

Behind her, Steven Gatterly had re-emerged from the alleyway as well. He held a gun again, and like Reanna's, the point of its focus was Joe.

"Back for more, boy?" MacLeod asked.

Gatterly didn't answer. He kept his eyes, and his gun, on Dawson.

MacLeod studied the boy for a moment more, then dismissed him to turn his full attention to the woman. "Why don't you introduce me to you're friend, Joe?" he suggested.

"Reanna Bouvier," Dawson complied. "Duncan MacLeod."

Reanna smiled. "Oh, I know your dog well enough, Dawson. Everyone in The Order knows your dog." She smiled at MacLeod, but kept her gun on Dawson. "I was hoping you'd show up tonight, Highlander. In fact, I was more-or-less counting on it."

"Always happy to oblige." MacLeod took a small step her direction, but she didn't respond by refocusing her weapon on him. If anything, the way she adjusted the berretta's barrel made the weapon a more overt threat against Dawson.

"Now, now," she warned. "Wouldn't want Joe to pay for your lack of discretion, would you? Take a step back … there you go. And keep your hands away from the coat. I see even a hint of that Katana of yours, and we're all going to find out what the inside of Joe Dawson's head looks like."

"This doesn't have anything to do with you, Mac," Joe said. "This is Watcher business. I want you to go. Just turn and walk away."

"I'm not going anywhere," MacLeod said.

"No," Reanna agreed. "You're not."

"This is between me and the Ethics Committee," Joe said.

Reanna chuckled dryly. "It was never between you and the Ethics Committee, Joe." Her eyes stayed on MacLeod; her gun stayed on Dawson. "It has always been about me and MacLeod."

"You're one of Horton's people," MacLeod said.

Dawson jolted like he'd been kicked. Reanna Bouvier just smiled. "You're very perceptive, Mister MacLeod. And very attractive."

In one smooth move, she swung the berretta from Dawson to MacLeod and pulled the trigger. The bullet caught the Highlander high in the chest. He grunted, staggered. His hand groped for the hilt of the Katana, but he had neither the strength nor the dexterity to untangle it from the folds of his coat.

Joe Dawson closed his eyes and turned his face away.

Blood frothed to MacLeod's lips. He dropped to one knee. His eyes lost their focus and rolled back in his head.

"Too bad you're one of them," Reanna said. She pulled the trigger again, and MacLeod went down hard. Flat on his back, an awkward sprawl of limbs and coat, he convulsed twice – almost as if in protest – before settling to a grotesque, deadly still. His eyes were open, staring at the sky. He breathed in wet, sucking gurgles for almost a minute before he died.

"Damn you, Reanna," Dawson whispered.

"Oh give me a break, Joe. We both know I haven't done much more than give him a bloody nose at this point. It will be fun to watch him light up when I take his head though. That always makes for a spectacular show." Her gun swung to him as she spoke. "You, on the other hand," she said, the berretta's muzzle only inches from the side of Dawson's neck, "won't be quite as pretty. You will, however, be just as dead."

"Why are you doing this?" Dawson asked.

"You know why."

"Peter's dead."

"But the cause lives on. Which is more than I can say for you. Or for Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod." She smiled. "400 years, and he goes down without striking a single blow. To tell you the truth, I expected more."

"Reanna?" Gatterly's voice quavered. Still half hidden in alleyway shadows, he was dead white and slack-jawed with stun. His gun had fallen to his side. It hung limply from one hand, pointed nowhere, threatening no one. "I don't understand."

She glanced to him and laughed, a hard, dismissive expression of utter contempt. "Your father is spinning in his grave, Gatterly," she said.

"It's true then?" he whispered.

"You wouldn't know the truth if it separated your head from your body." She turned her focus back to Dawson. "Goodbye, Joe. Tell Peter I said hello." Her finger whitened on the trigger.

The night popped. Once. Twice. Reanna Bouvier dropped dead without making a sound.

For a long moment, the world hung in a suspension of disbelief. Dawson reached up, touched his neck. Near the mouth of the alley, Steven Gatterly's gun dropped to concrete from where it still dangled at the end of his arm. He hadn't moved, hadn't fired his gun to find it was never loaded.

Dawson stared at his hand. Clean. Dry. No blood, no mortal wound. On the sidewalk at his feet, however, blood pooled beneath Reanna Bouvier's head, soaking her hair to a glistening black in the wan wash of winter moonlight.

"What the hell?" Dawson muttered.

A whisper of movement dislocated the darkness as a man brushed by Dawson to kneel at Bouvier's motionless body. He checked for a pulse, then crossed himself, holstered a silenced .380 in the small of his back and stood.

Giovanni Carspachi's expression was unreadable. "I'd have taken the shot sooner," he said, his tone clean of any implication of apology or regret, "but I had to wait until I was sure she was alone, and that I understood her game."

"Understood her game?" Joe repeated. "Wasn't it obvious? Her game was pop the Dawson."

"Her game was pop the MacLeod," Giovanni corrected. As if on cue, MacLeod groaned. He shifted in a puddle of his own blood, coughing in a way that sounded like it was tearing him apart. "She used you as bait, to draw him out, to make him vulnerable. She knew better than to face him on a level playing field, so she made it about you and waited for him to show up in your defense."

"And if he hadn't shown up?"

Carspachi half-smiled. "I'm not a fool, Joe. Don't play me like I am."

"I told him to stay out of it."

"I know you did. The same way you knew he wouldn't." MacLeod groaned again. His movements became more focused, more aware. "The Hunters are still a strong faction within our ranks," Carspachi went on. "Your work with MacLeod is a wedge in the breach."

"Hunters aren't Watchers," Joe said coldly. "If it takes a wedge in the breach to split them away from us, I'm more than willing to pound that one in myself. Even if it costs me my bar. Even if it costs me my life."

"Even if it costs MacLeod his life?" Carspachi asked.

Dawson's expression hardened. "Go to hell, Carspachi," he said. Moving cautiously on the blood-slick sidewalk, Joe made his way to MacLeod's side. He leaned down as far as he could without losing his balance and asked, "You okay, Mac?"

Slowly, painfully, Duncan MacLeod opened his eyes. He blinked several times, working to focus on the figure who stood above him, swaying slightly. "Oh, I'm great," he managed coarsely. "Always a rush to take a couple of bullets for a buddy."

"You should have stayed out of it like I asked."

MacLeod snorted, then winced. Struggling himself upright with a tight-featured grimace, he pointed out, "If I had, you'd be dead now." Though no longer bleeding, MacLeod's body was stiff and sore and full of badly lacerated organs. Bracing one arm against a pair of broken ribs not yet healed, he accept the hand Joe extended and pulled himself to his feet. A jagged cough doubled him over. He retched blood, lost his balance. Dawson stepped in to keep him from falling.

For several minutes, MacLeod stayed that way, doubled over, leaning into Dawson for support. His breathing was labored at first, congested with blood and bile and sundry other bodily fluids the ilk of which are wont to collect in the body cavities of corpses. As time passed, he became stronger; his breathing, less labored; his color, less waxy. He straightened when the pain would let him, stepping away from Dawson's support to establish a tenuous balance of his own.

"You look like hell, Mac," Joe commented.

"I'm getting too old for this shit," MacLeod returned. When he reached up to wipe the bloody froth from his lips, pain detonated inside his chest. He blanched visibly, hissing a handful of colorful Scottish blasphemies. His shoulder dropped, and his arm followed. "Damn it." He reached over with the hand that had been bracing his ribs to explore a higher-priority area of damage. "I think that bitch broke my collarbone." His fingers worked a patch of bloody shirt, pushing, prodding, poking. "Yeah. It's broken. Brace my shoulder, will you?"

Joe placed the flat of his hand against MacLeod's biceps. The Highlander leaned in to it, gritted his teeth, and pushed three fingers under his collarbone in such a way that it snapped audibly. One knee buckled, but he didn't fall.

"I hate breaking my collarbone, Joe," he said, his eyes closed, his features struggling to maintain a passingly neutral expression. "They don't heal for shit, you know. That son of a bitch is going to hurt for weeks."

"Well next time I catch wind one of my people is planning to shoot you, I'll tell 'em to stay away from the collarbone."

"And the knees," MacLeod said. "The only thing worse than collarbones is the knees."

The pain was passing, and MacLeod made himself open his eyes. Less than three yards away, Steven Gatterly was watching his first Immortal rebirth. He looked both sick and deeply disturbed. Seeing the young Watcher's dull-eyed fascination, MacLeod took offense, demanding, "What are you staring at, boy?"

Gatterly took a step back. He gaze jumped to Dawson, then Carspachi, before swinging back to MacLeod. "I'm sorry. I've never … I mean … this is my first time."

MacLeod laughed a coarse, harsh laugh. "It's been a couple of hundred years since I've been somebody's first time," he said.

Dawson smiled. "Yeah, well don't get used to it. Recruitment's down, and the fresh ones are hard to come by."

Rolling his shoulders with the caution of a man expecting pain, MacLeod tested his collarbone, grimacing at the way it still grated when he moved. His head ached, but it was getting easier to keep a focus in the chill winter dark. When he tried to take a step, he stumbled, but caught himself with an awkward twist of compensation that set off a dozen fires under his ribs, in his belly, in his chest. Though he grabbed Dawson for stability again, he released him more quickly this time, needing only half as long to find a balance that was twice as steady.

"I don't understand," Gatterly said, watching the Highlander's painful effort to stay on his feet become less painful with every passing minute. "Why would you …." Whatever the young Watcher was going to ask, he thought better of it at the last minute. His question dropped off to nothing.

"Why would I what?" MacLeod asked.

"You didn't … you could have … why didn't you …"

MacLeod glanced to Dawson. "Don't you teach them to speak in full sentences at that Watcher school of yours?"

"You could have killed her," Gatterly blurted out. "When you realized it was you she was after, you could have gotten to her if you tried. I don't understand why you didn't."

"Because I didn't really want to see what the inside of Joe's head looks like. Some things are better left to the imagination. I'm pretty sure that's one of them."

"But …"

"But what, boy?" MacLeod's tone took on an edge. "How clearly do I have to say it?"

"You would have died for him." Gatterly voice was muted with revelation. "You would have died for one of us."

"Joe is a lot more than just one of you," MacLeod said, "and it takes more than a gun to kill me."

"She would have taken your head while you were down."

"She would have tried." MacLeod's breathing was getting easier with every passing moment. His balance became more stable, his posture less corrupted by pain. His ribs were knitting themselves whole again. His lungs regenerated lost tissue as veins and arteries and nerves re-wove the disruption of shattered chaos into elaborate patterns of neural integrity that formed the complex tapestry that is life.

Because Gatterly was still staring at him like he expected something more, MacLeod said, "If she'd had the gun to your head," his eyes flicked to Carspachi, who was watching their exchange in silence from the half shadows, "or his, I would have played her game differently. But Joe's my friend. That may not mean much to a Watcher, but it means something to me."

"You're an Immortal," Gatterly said as if that single fact trumped every word MacLeod said.

MacLeod shook his head. Turning to Dawson, he said, "Last thing I really need right now is another run-in with the local cops. They already think I run the mafia or something, with all the dead bodies that turn up in my immediate vicinity."

"You good to drive?" Dawson asked.

"I'll manage. What about you?" His eyes flicked meaningfully to Giovanni. "You okay here?"

"I'm fine," Dawson assured him.

MacLeod's eyes narrowed. "You're not lying to me again, are you, Joe?"

"If I'm lying, I'm dying," Joe said.

MacLeod laughed. It was a coarse, painful laugh that forced him to hold tighter to his ribs to keep from coughing. "Very funny," he grunted.

"I do my best." Joe's expression sobered then, and he met the Highlander's question with a confidence he hadn't felt since well before the first time MacLeod asked if he was in over his head. "I'm fine, Mac," he said. "It wasn't an accident, but it was a mistake." He inclined his head slightly in Carspachi's direction. "A mistake that's been rectified."

"It wasn't a mistake, Joe. It was a setup." He looked to Gatterly pointedly, and then to Carspachi. "A setup your own people bought."

"Some of my people. Not all of them."

"It only takes one."

Joe smiled. "In either direction. Now if you'll get the hell out of here, Carspachi and I have business to discuss. And it isn't the kind of business I'm prone to discuss in front of you."

MacLeod considered Carspachi for almost a minute without speaking. He examined every aspect of the circumspect Watcher who'd watched him murdered without interfering, but who'd also watched him reborn, watched him vulnerable in a way Immortals are rarely vulnerable; again, without interfering. Eyes guarded in their opinion, posture edged with cautious tension, the Highlander held out one bloody hand. "Duncan MacLeod," he said warily.

Giovanni took the proffered hand. "Giovanni Carspachi. And I know who you are, Mister MacLeod. We all know who you are."

"Forgive me if I don't find that comforting."

"I didn't say it to be comforting. What you and Dawson are doing breaks new ground. That isn't always a comfortable process. Or a safe one."

"Nothing's safe around you people," MacLeod countered. "We may take each other's heads, but at least we have rules."

"We have rules, too, MacLeod. You and Joe aren't very good about following them."

"Is that a threat?"

"More of an observation."

"I'm an Immortal; he's a Historian. It seems like an obvious reason to compare notes."

"Obvious, perhaps. Not necessarily … obedient. And the Watchers value obedience.

MacLeod grunted. "Probably why you grow people like Peter Horton." He turned to Dawson then, asking, "You sure you're okay with this?"

"I'm sure."

"Is that the obedient answer?"

Joe smiled. "Go home. I'll call you tomorrow."

MacLeod nodded. He looked over to Gatterly. The young Watcher was still staring at him with a fascination that bordered on compulsion. "I wouldn't have spit on Andre Tennison if he caught fire in the street," MacLeod said. "And I certainly wouldn't have betrayed Joe by repeating something to him I was told in confidence. If I had been told. Which I wasn't. At least, not until your father was three days dead. And only then, in hopes he could still be saved."

Gatterly opened his mouth to respond, but MacLeod silenced him with a flick of his fingers. "Believe me or don't," he said. "I don't really give a damn. But Joe cared about your father. They were friends. And despite the fact that you were willing to shoot him on the word of woman who sent you to face me with a gun that wasn't even loaded, I have to assume that means he cares that you don't think he is the reason your father died."

"How do you know my gun isn't loaded?"

"Because if it was, she wouldn't have turned her back on you. She was a Hunter, and she told you as much. Unless you're one of Horton's people, too; you wouldn't have survived to pass that information on." MacLeod looked at Bouvier's body. "They took a monk's head in his own rectory. Killing you wouldn't have given them a second thought."

"She used me as bait," Gatterly whispered, seeing it now. "She used me to draw you out, thinking you'd kill me to save Joe."

"And I would have," MacLeod assured the youth, "without a moment's hesitation." Then he smiled. "Welcome to the Watchers, Steven Gatterly, son of Paul. You might want to learn to sleep with one eye open." He bent down, retrieved the Katana that still lay in the rich, deep puddle of his own blood. Flicking it the boy's direction, he added, "And learn to hold on to your gun. Even if it's not loaded, it might buy you a step or two if you throw it accurately enough."

MacLeod slipped the Katana back into the scabbard rigged into the folds of his custom-tailored coat. It vanished in the shadows, invisible to even someone who knew it was there. "Joe," he said, inclining his head Dawson's direction.

"Mac," Dawson returned.

MacLeod stepped over Reanna Bouvier's body and headed back into the nightful of shadows from which he'd come. He passed Carspachi on the way, pausing when he was shoulder to shoulder with the man to say, "I know who you are, Carspachi. You might want to keep that in mind."

"Is that a threat, MacLeod?"

"Call it an observation."

"I'll take it under advisement."

MacLeod met the other man's eyes. "You should," he said. And then he walked away and disappeared into the night.

--

Joe Dawson eased himself into an overstuffed chair and set his canes to one side.

"Interesting man, your Highlander," Giovanni said, handing Joe one of a matched set of gin and tonics. "It makes more sense now."

"What makes more sense?"

"Why you've had such trouble keeping your distance."

Joe's eyes clouded with anger. "I don't have trouble keeping my distance." His words were clipped; his tone, terse. "I was MacLeod's watcher for fifteen years. In all that time, he never even knew I existed."

"Until you started breaking rules."

"He's the one who made contact. When Peter murdered Darius on holy ground, he crapped in our coffee. And then MacLeod brings me the Watcher journal. I had a choice. I could either look like another Horton to him, or I could try to look like something else. I thought it served The Order's best interests for me to look like something else."

"That was a while ago, Joe. If there ever was one, the need for you to interact with MacLeod ended when you killed Peter Horton."

Dawson shook his head. He was glaring into his gin as if looking for someone who understood even the barest basics of what he and MacLeod were trying to do. "Peter fucked us, Giovanni," he said finally. "Darius was an Immortal icon. All of them knew him, or at least knew of him. Murdering him on holy ground, of all places …" He shook his head again.

"It made us dangerous to them," Carspachi said when Joe didn't go on. "And that made us targets. All of us."

Dawson look up, surprised. "Yes," he said after a beat. "It did."

Giovanni sipped of his gin. He offered nothing more.

"I felt I had to do some damage control," Joe said. "Convince them Peter wasn't who we are. That they didn't need to view us as threats. That they didn't need to hunt us to protect their heads. MacLeod was the best way to accomplish that. He'd seen Peter try to kill me. He was at least willing to give me a chance to prove him wrong in thinking Hunters and Watchers were merely different shades of the same color."

"So you maintained the contact between you."

It was Joe's turn to choose silence as an answer. Joe's turn to study Giovanni and judge him by the way he chose to continue.

"Even though it is against every tenant of the Watcher code. Even though you were warned to stop, or there would be consequences. In spite of all that, you maintained contact."

"I felt it was the right thing to do."

"And you felt you had the right to make that call?"

Joe took a long draw on his gin, then met Carspachi's gaze. "My life to risk," he said. "I felt I was accomplishing something. I felt MacLeod and I were making a difference in the way mortals and Immortals view each other. I figured that was as good a cause as any to die for."

"Dangerous choice," Carspachi noted. "Taking the one precept on which the entire Order is predicated and trying to change it."

"That's the one that needed changing," Joe said.

Giovanni didn't say anything. When it became evident he wasn't going to, Joe asked, "Are you saying I still have a problem?"

"I'm saying it's a dangerous choice."

"Is that why you're here?"

"I'm here because someone tried to pass herself off as a representative of the Committee and use their authority to execute a terminal sanction they didn't declare or authorize."

"Then it wasn't you who burned down my bar?"

"The Committee didn't sanction you."

"I hear a 'yet' in that statement."

Carspachi's expression didn't change. "You have good ears," was all he said.

"So what happens now?" Dawson asked.

"I suppose that's up to you."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning you can either continue, or you can discontinue."

"And if I choose to continue?"

Giovanni shrugged. "That's your choice."

Dawson leaned forward in his chair. "I know you're a member of the Ethics Committee," he said. "So let's just cut to the chase and I'll ask you this straight up: Will the Committee sanction me if I continue working with MacLeod?"

"I can't answer that."

"Because you don't know? Or because you can't tell?"

"Both."

"Can you offer any advice?" Joe asked after a moment.

"My advice would be that you sever your connections to MacLeod. I believe you were told as much more than nine months ago."

"I'm not very good at doing what I'm told."

Giovanna took another sip of his gin. "Dangerous choice," he said.

"Dangerous? Or terminal?"

"Dangerous," Carspachi said. And then he added almost like it was an afterthought, "Less dangerous than it was nine months ago, perhaps."

Dawson's eyes narrowed. "Are you saying I'm making headway?"

"I'm saying it would be a dangerous choice to continue what you are doing."

"I need more than that."

"I can't give you more than that."

"Do I have advocates?"

Giovanni's smile was so subtle it didn't actually change the lay of his expression on his features. "Do you think you'd still be alive if you didn't?"

"Are you one of them?"

"I think your ideas are … interesting."

"Interesting enough to keep me alive?"

"Interesting enough that I was outside your house tonight instead of home in bed with my wife."

"Then you weren't acting under Committee direction?"

"The Committee can be a little slow to respond. And Reanna didn't really look like she was going to be in town long."

"Just long enough to call a sector meeting and announced I'd been sanctioned by the Committee."

This time, Carspachi's smile did change his expression. "You have very good ears," he said.

"This town has good acoustics," Joe returned.

"Did she tell you there wasn't much support for the idea?"

"They told me no one called Reanna on her claim to be representing the Committee."

Giovanni nodded. "Sanisan, too, then," he surmised. "Were there others?"

"Several. But that's not really the point, is it?"

"I didn't realize you had a point."

"You let her claim stand."

"That's the thing about anonymous membership. Hard to point out a pretender without supplying credentials of your own."

"You could have at least warned me."

"I didn't think you needed warning." He took another sip of his drink. "Seems I was right."

"You used me as bait."

"I needed to know her game. I thought she was after MacLeod, but I needed to know for sure. And you weren't bait. You were chips … chips that were already in the pot when I sat down at the table. If I'd lost, you would have lost, too. I assumed you would prefer I win. I made my choices based on that assumption."

"I would have preferred not to have my bar burned down around my ears," Dawson said.

"That was unfortunate," Carspachi said. "But necessary. Horton's people are still among us, Joe. They believe very strongly in his cause, and they're very difficult to spot. Sometimes, we have to give them enough rope to hang themselves."

"Or me."

"I wasn't worried about you."

"Damn generous of you."

"I had Reanna covered. And your people are loyal. I wasn't too worried about any of them picking up her flag and running with it."

"Were you worried about Paul Gatterly's boy?"

"Gatterly was never a threat."

"He damned straight was a threat when he had a gun pointed at my head," Dawson said angrily. "In case it escaped you, Giovanni, I'm not immortal. If he'd dropped the hammer on me, I'd be dead, sanction or no sanction."

Carspachi dismissed Dawson objections as irrelevant with a flick of one hand. "You were never in any danger from Gatterly. He's young, green. And you can be very persuasive when you want to be."

"Despite what the Committee might think," Joe said, "I'm a Watcher to the core of my soul. I believe in the Order, and I believe in the disciplinary code."

"Your point being?"

"My point being I thought the sanction was authentic. I wasn't trying to be persuasive."

"You don't have to try, Joe. Like most Watchers, Gatterly looks up to you. He respects you, what you've accomplished in the organization."

"Yeah. I was feeling that respect earlier tonight."

"She had to use the boy's father to even get him in the room with her plan. And even then, he didn't hold you responsible enough to follow through."

"I wasn't responsible."

"What she showed him made it look as if you were. But even with that evidence, the only real leverage she had was his need to live up to his father's legacy. Without Paul or his brothers here to advise the boy, he was easy prey for her particular brand of blasphemy; wrapped up, as it always is, in the rhetoric of loyalty to the Order. He was susceptible to her manipulation of his sense of duty, and her ability to wield a man's vulnerabilities against him for her own dark purposes. And still, even then, Gatterly couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger on you. If the Committee ever does sanction you, it will fall to one of us to carry out the sentence because none of your people will do it."

"Gatterly isn't one of my people. I don't even know him.

"But he knows you. They all know you, Joe. And they all respect what you're trying to do. It frightens them, but they respect it."

"Does the Committee?"

"I can't speak for the Committee."

"I think it's a fair question. Does the Committee respect what I'm trying to do? I know it frightens them. I know it's a dangerous thing for me to do. But what I need to know is whether they're waiting for the right time, or waiting because they think there might be some merit to what I'm doing."

Giovanni didn't answer immediately. He drew on the remnants of his gin and tonic, considering it, considering Dawson, considering how much of the truth he was willing to share with a man he might one day be ordered to kill. "The Committee is split," he said finally. "They agree that you're crossing lines no Watcher should ever cross. But many of us are loathe to sanction the one man who may hold the key to our future in his hands."

"You think MacLeod is the key?"

"I don't know."

"What do you know?"

"I know Immortals are a part of our world," Carspachi said quietly. "I know until we stand face to face with them in the sun instead of watching from the shadows, we will never see them as they truly are. And I know in the time of the Gathering, seeing them as they truly are is more important than it has ever been at any other time in our history."

"You support the idea of influencing the outcome of the game then," Dawson said.

"The Ethics Committee considers ethics, not doctrine. It's not my place to support any idea as heretical as what you suggest."

"You don't support it then."

"I didn't say that. I said it isn't my place to support it." He hesitated, then added, "But I do think it's worth considering. And having met MacLeod, I'm willing to consider it more seriously."

Dawson smiled. "Is that an official opinion?" he asked.

"The Ethics Committee doesn't render official opinions on Council sentiments," Giovanni returned. "But it is my personal opinion. And I can be very persuasive, when I want to be."

--

"You look better than the last time I saw you," Joe Dawson said from the dojo doorway.

MacLeod paused in his workout to acknowledge the greeting, then continued on, working for several more minutes before slowing into a cool down and stepping off the exercise matt in the middle of the floor.

"I feel better," MacLeod said, picking up a plastic bottle of water and downing it in one long, sustained draw. He wiped his face with the back of one arm, then added, "As they say, time heals all wounds."

"I doubt they had you in mind when they came up with that one."

MacLeod shrugged. "If the shoe fits .…"

They walked together to MacLeod's office, instinctively seeking the privacy of the smaller room despite the fact there was no one else in the cavernous dojo.

"So," MacLeod said, taking a perch on the corner of his desk.

"So," Dawson repeated.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything more.

"If I'm causing you a problem --" MacLeod started.

Joe cut him off before he could finish. "No."

"No, what?"

"No, you're not causing me a problem."

"Then explain the concept of sanction to me."

Dawson settled back against the office wall. "We have an Ethics Committee," he said. "They decide whether or not a Watcher's broken the code; and if they have, what the punishment should be."

"And Carspachi's part of this Committee?"

"The membership is anonymous. That's part of their effectiveness: It could be anyone."

MacLeod grunted. He leaned across the desk and pulled a small, white hand towel from one of the drawers. Wiping his face down, and then his neck, and then his arms, he said, "Sounds like Big Brother is watching."

"More like Roman Catholic guilt. A little threat of all-powerful omniscience to keep the choirboys in line."

MacLeod pushed to his feet. He began to pace. "And they've decided you broke the code by becoming friends with an Immortal."

"I did break the code," Dawson said calmly. "I've broken it several times."

"So they burn down your bar."

"Reanna burned the bar. She wanted me to think I was being sanctioned so I'd come to you for help."

MacLeod snorted at the idea. "She didn't know you very well," he said.

"She didn't know me at all."

MacLeod nodded. "There was no sanction from your Committee then," he surmised.

"No. The Committee doesn't like what I'm doing, but they don't dislike it enough yet to do anything about it."

"Yet?" MacLeod pressed.

"Yet," Dawson agreed.

MacLeod frowned. "That must be a comforting thought."

Dawson smiled. "A decade ago, they'd've cut my throat for giving you Mei Ling's journal."

"And now?"

"Now, they just tell me to watch my step."

"Walking on eggshells?" MacLeod suggested.

"More like thin ice. But for the time being at least, it seems to be holding my weight."

"Carspachi told you this?"

"Yes."

"And you trust him to tell you the truth?"

"As much of the truth as he's allowed to tell me."

"And he would know."

"He would know."

MacLeod shook his head. He wiped his face and neck with the towel again, then draped it over one shoulder. "I didn't realize it was such a risk to be my friend," he noted wryly.

Dawson smiled. "I'll be sure and let you know when the risk isn't worth it." He shifted slightly, turning himself in the small office. "I need to get going. Things to do, people to see."

MacLeod followed Joe to the door of his office. "I'm looking to diversify," he said as Dawson worked his way across the empty dojo. "If you know of any good investments ...?"

Dawson glanced over his shoulder. "Anything specific in mind?"

"I was thinking a bar. I've always been partial to the blues."

Dawson stopped. His expression was so deep in his features it was hard to read what he was thinking. "The Order will re-build Joe's. They owe me that much."

"They owe you a lot more," MacLeod said.

"Be that as it may, I'll be lucky to get the bar."

"Carspachi's doing?"

"His opinion carries weight. In that matter, and others."

"Enough weight?"

"Time will tell. I appreciate the offer though."

MacLeod shrugged. "Just a thought," he said.

Dawson nodded. "See you around, Mac." Carefully, cautiously, he resumed his journey across the dojo's wide, cavernous gym. MacLeod waited until Joe was almost to the far wall before he turned back and re-entered his office. He settled into a chair, picking up one of a dozen invoices stacked on the corner of his desk.

"MacLeod," Dawson called from across the dojo. MacLeod looked up. Joe was standing in the doorway that opened onto the street. His slightly stilted frame was silhouetted by strong sunlight streaming in from outside.

"Thanks," he said.

The corner of MacLeod's mouth lifted slightly. "See you around, Joe."

Dawson shouldered the door aside and stepped out onto the street. The door shut behind him with a quiet click. The day was bright and warm and beautiful. The air smelled like coffee and car fumes. A woman walked past him, and he turned to watch her go. She smiled at his attention. He smiled back.

"Nice day," she offered.

"Yes, it is," he agreed. "A very nice day."

She walked on, and Dawson headed for his car. Steven Gatterly was waiting for him when he arrived. Leaning against the roof of Joe's car like he'd been waiting there for some time, Gatterly was facing the wrong direction to see the older Watcher's approach.

"Hello, Steven," Joe said.

Gatterly jumped. He pushed up off of Joe's car, swiping at the finish like a kid caught with cookie crumbs on his shirt. "Mister Dawson …" he started.

"My name's Joe," Dawson said. He gestured slightly with one cane. "You wanna get that door for me?"

Gatterly opened the driver's side door. Steadying himself with one hand on the door, Joe tossed both canes into the back seat, then he lowered himself into the car and pulled each leg in after him, adjusting them carefully until they fit under the steering wheel without creating a bind. "Thanks," he said. "Give her a heave shut."

Gatterly started to say something, then thought better of it, and merely closed the car door instead. Joe put his keys in the ignition, started the engine. He rolled down the driver's side window with a press of his left thumb.

"You going to get in?" he asked the young Watcher still standing outside. "Or did you come all the way down here just to be my doorman?"

Gatterly started a little in surprise, but he didn't have to be asked twice. When he was settled in his seat, Joe shifted the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.

"I assume you're here to talk about your dad," Dawson said. Again, Gatterly was startled. He started to open his mouth to reply, but Joe cut him off, gesturing toward the dojo and saying "Give MacLeod a wave," as they passed. MacLeod was standing in the doorway, watching them. His expression split the difference between warning and threat.

Unsure what else to do, Steven Gatterly did as he was told. He gave MacLeod a tentative wave.

The Highlander's expression broke to a grin. He was laughing when he went back inside.

"From now on, always wave when you see MacLeod. It will amuse him until he gets over the urge to hurt you." Dawson reached out and turned the radio on. A smooth riff of sultry blues filled the car. He kept the volume low, a soundtrack to their conversation rather than an active participant. "Never a good idea to piss an Immortal off," Joe advised. "They have very long memories, and they carry swords everywhere they go. Now about your dad. Did he ever tell you about the time we got drunk in Berlin and woke up with Hagen Daaz on our wiener schnitzels?"

-finis-