Author: Paula Stiles
Title: Armed Intervention
Feedback address: thesnowleopard@hotmail.com
Rating: R
Keywords/Comments:├ŐFirst story in a series
Character listing: DM, J, M, Amy Thomas, OMCs
Short teaser/summary: Worried about Methos' erratic behaviour, Joe investigates the Old Man's whereabouts during the Ahriman crisis--and finds out far more than he feared.

Disclaimer: Panzer/Davis own Methos, Joe, MacLeod and the Highlander universe. I don't own Don Henley's 'I Will Not Lie Down', The Beatles 'I Am the Walrus', The Boxtops' 'The Letter' or John Denver's 'Leaving on a Jetplane', either. Atticus and Petronius are mine, so I get to do whatever I like with them. Spartacus and Crixus are historical figures (as well as escaped slaves), and therefore belong to nobody. This is just an experiment. I'm having a little fun and am not getting paid for it. Some dialogue from Highlander episodes "Indiscretions", "One Minute to Midnight", "The Messenger", and "To Be" is used. Incidentally, I'm using only the series and the 'Director's Cut' of 'Endgame' as canon, and am dating 'Endgame' to the winter of 2001/2. Everything else is merrily ignored.

Archive: Seventh Dimension. All others, ask, and ye shall probably receive permission.

Note: This is the first story in a series.

Many thanks to Judith Hill for whacking out the inconsistencies and typo bunnies from this little tale, and for many discussions about Methos, Roman history, sword types and other fun topics. Thanks also to Rachel Trench for providing a cheering section and warning me about MacLeod's car.

These, and my other stories, can be found at: http:www.geocities.com/RainForest/Andes/3071/arch.html


ARMED INTERVENTION

Woke up with a heavy head and I thought about leaving town.
I could have died if I wanted to, slipped over the edge and drowned.
But, oh no, baby. I won't give up that easy, no.
Too many timetracks in the sands of time.
Too many love affairs that stop on a dime.
Ohhh, baby. Think it's time to make some changes 'round here.
Yeah, gonna tear it up
Gonna trash it up.
Gonna round it up.
Gonna shake it up.
Oh, no, baby. I will not lie down.

Paris, May 19, 1997
Richie comes to me first. The kid walks up to me where I kneel in my garden, planting flowers in the dirt. He circles around me, sword in hand, head cradled like a fencing mask under his left arm.

"I know you, Old Timer," the head whispers. In Richie's right hand, the sword glows with the fires of Hell--the way I saw it glow after MacLeod killed him tonight.

Joe limps up behind Richie, grinning like a skull. "I know you, you crafty son of a bitch," he says. I gape back at him. I'd think that he, at least, would understand. I didn't know. How could I? I honestly thought that MacLeod had lost his mind. Yet...swords just don't glow like that. And I don't know what that means. I've never seen it before. Ecclesiastes was wrong. There is always something new under the sun--especially if it is evil.

Behind Joe, Don and Christine Salzer walk down the steps into the garden hand in hand. Christine glares at me, while Don looks on blandly.

"We know you, you treacherous bastard." Christine speaks for them both. Don can no longer speak, after all, since he died without a tongue. His silence still hurts. Christine never did like me. She was always jealous of Don and me, but Don.... I would have saved him, if I could, but again, I didn't know. I didn't know Kalas was after me, didn't know that he would go after Don to get me. I wanted to take that bastard's head for Don, but I was too weak in the end. Too old.

Charlotte pads across the soft grass to me and lays a hand upon my head. "I know you, Benjamin," she says gently. She pulls her robe closer about her broken body. Blood trickles down through her lovely, dark hair and drops onto my hand.

A bearded man in a black, ankle-length robe with a red cross on the chest stumbles into the garden on blackened feet. The smell of charred flesh hangs about him like a swarm of flies. He holds out his hand to me. Cradled in it are bones from his own feet. Oh, no. No. It was so long ago. Not this, too.

"Je te connaiz, Iudas," he hisses. Damn you, Girard. I wasn't the one who betrayed you. It wasn't me! Don't you remember? I suffered, too!

Alexa, love, where are you? Why won't you come?

The last figure to enter the crowded garden stands just over five feet tall, but he carries himself like a warrior. Though he's dressed in a slave's blue tunic, he wears a centurion's armour. His face has mummified after a month hanging on a cross in Campania. The sight of him makes me want to weep. I still remember climbing that cross, trying to drag him back to the ground, so I could give him a decent burial. I failed at that, too.

He levels his gladius at me. It glows red. "Te noui, gladiatore," he rasps. "Pugnaui pro te et me interfecis. Te noui, Spartace. Te noui!" Behind him, six thousand crosses stretch into the shimmering, infinite distance, down the long, long Appian Way. A rich man's revenge against a slave who dared to humiliate Rome. I can smell them, baking in the heat for months after their last battle. Six thousand men. *My* men, whom I killed.

I run down the Via Appia, screaming, but there is no sound. Crows flock on the crosses, pecking at the faces of my men. I cannot hear them. No sound. Just the rotted smell of dead men and the bright sun burning down on me. Let it all burn....

When I wake up on Joe's couch, I cannot remember how I got there, or that I've agreed to arrange for Richie's funeral in the morning. I only know that I have to leave. I gather up my boots, pack my bag, and flee. It doesn't matter that I'm leaving my best friend behind, alone. It doesn't matter what Joe will think when he wakes in the morning to find me gone. What matters is that I get away. I run and run and run until I drop. I get up and run some more. It is over a year before I stop long enough to think and plan--let alone feel. By then, it is too late.
*********
From: "ROG"
To: "J. Dawson"
Subject: I'm Baaaaaack
Date: Sat, 31 Aug 2002 16:12:06 0000

Hullo Joe,

You really should consider changing your handle. What would poor MacLeod think? Oh, wait, he's still living in the age of blunderbusses and wax-sealed letters, isn't he? No danger there.

Hope Amy's ok (is she speaking to you, now?). I sold that white elephant I was living in last week and decided to go back to basics (backpacking). I've been missing the good old days at Shakespeare & Company; think I'll try to get another job there. I'll be in town on Wednesday or Thursday night. Thought I'd drop by, catch up with you. I don't want you to get *too* complacent about my bar tab. Has it hit the quintuple digits, yet?

Be seeing you,

M
*********
Paris, September 4, 2002
It was a quiet night at Le Blues Bar. Joe's daughter Amy Thomas had shown up, so he decided to catch up on the old times they'd never had. She'd spent the past year in Singapore doing research, after the Immortal she'd been Watching disappeared in the World Trade Center disaster in New York the previous Fall. She stayed in touch, but not with much regularity. Joe was making better progress with her than he'd expected when a tall, red-headed man in his late 40's wandered in through the door. He came up to where Joe and Amy were chatting at the bar.

"Joe Dawson?" he asked, with a professionally amiable smile. As he reached out to shake hands, Joe saw his Watcher tattoo.

"Uh, yeah," he replied, shaking the man's hand. "Can I help you?" He glanced over at Amy, who looked confused.

"Chris Mancuso," the man said cheerily. "I'm with the office over in Seacouver,
now."

"You're a long way away from home, Chris," Joe said. "What can we do for you here in Paris? Can I get you a drink?"

"Thanks, a Miller beer, if you don't mind." Mancuso sat down. "I'm afraid I'm here on business, Joe."

"Oh?" Joe watched Mancuso uneasily. This sounded like Immortal trouble, but who could it be? Mac was in America, but Joe was pretty sure that he was over in New York. Mac's present official Watcher made little effort to keep Joe in the loop. Professional jealousy, Joe supposed. Fairhead was an ambitious little weasel, and didn't like Joe. Joe probably still knew more about MacLeod's movements (by hearing about them directly from the source) than Fairhead did. Methos had last emailed him five days ago. The Old Man had been local all summer and was still Watcher free (although he liked to joke that he did a pretty good job of Watching himself). He and Joe had come to an 'understanding', a few years back, but Joe was never quite sure what that understanding meant. Apparently, it didn't involve Methos hanging around Paris, or keeping in touch with any kind of regularity. Even though the Old Man came by the Bar several times per week, at the moment, Joe had no idea how long this would last. Amanda...Joe didn't have a clue about her. Wherever she was, he was pretty sure that it wasn't Seacouver.

The three Watchers settled down at the bar together for a quiet drink before Mancuso got down to the subject of his visit. "I'm not here about an Immortal," he explained. "I'm here on internal business--one of our own."

The words chilled Joe. God, let it not be another Peter Horton. "A rogue Watcher?" he asked. "Hunting Immortals?"

Mancuso shook his head. "No, nothing like that. I wouldn't call him a 'rogue', exactly. You made a request two months ago, to the Cold Cases section of the Watchers about the Ahriman case five years ago. I work for them."

Joe shivered. "Oh. That." Methos had been acting odder than usual since May, right around the time that Ahriman had tricked MacLeod into killing Richie, back in '97. In fact, he'd been acting just as he had when he'd first returned after that horrible year lost to Ahriman.

At the time, when Joe demanded to know where Methos had been, the Old Man replied evasively, "Here and there. There, mostly." Joe finally decided that he had waited long enough to find out where "here and there" had been, and decided to ferret out the truth on his own. He put the request in to the Cold Cases section about 'Adam Pierson' in June, the day after Methos had shown up in the bar, having disappeared for a week with no explanation. It wasn't the first time Methos had skipped town, but it was the first time he'd done it after making plans with Joe. Cold Cases was no help. After a month, Joe gave up on them. When they never bothered to email him back he moved on to other, hopefully more productive, inquiries.

"A lot of fallout from that one," Mancuso continued. "Four Watchers and one Immortal dead. Your assignment, Duncan MacLeod, going nuts and killing his student, then disappearing off to some monastery for over a year. And there was that missing/AWOL Watcher who used to hang out with MacLeod so much. You asked us to trace his movements."

Amy looked puzzled. "Missing Watcher?" she asked.

"I used to work with him," Joe explained to Amy. "The guy who was assigned to the Methos myth." Oh, Christ, Methos. *Now* what? "Adam Pierson," Joe clarified, as neutrally as he could manage, considering how pissed off he was at the Old Man right now. Bad enough that Methos was the eldest known Immortal, that his five thousand years of life so often made him as difficult to fathom as the Sphinx. Did everything about him have to be like navigating a mine field? What bad karma had caused Joe to be the one to find out that Methos had infiltrated the Watchers as mild-mannered grad student Adam Pierson in the first place?

"That flake?" Amy said incredulously. "What did he do now?"

"You know about him?" Joe was astonished.

"Of course! Adam Pierson is one of those bad examples that they show you in the Academy of how *not* to be a Watcher. Not as bad as Horton, of course, but definitely not a positive role model. I understand they revised the psychological profile testing after he disappeared into thin air."

*Little girl, you have no idea.* "He's not that bad," Joe hedged. "Adam's backed me up in some bad situations. He's a little strange, I'll admit, but he's a good guy."

"Uh huh." Amy sipped her watermelon Bacardi Breezer, looking unimpressed. "Right. Aside from designing that CD-ROM database that almost got the entire Watcher organisation exposed to the world, and going off on walkabout all the time, he's Mr. Dependable. Did you know that he went to live in some concrete shack in *Africa* for seven months back in 1991? I understand he came back with a trucker's tan and some silly story about how he'd heard that Methos was down there. Because Don Salzer covered for him, nobody could go after him over it. Yes, he sounds like just the kind of person *I'd* want in my corner during a crisis."

Joe made a face. He remembered that little stunt very well--it had been he, not Salzer, who had covered for Methos on that one. He decided not to mention that fact to either Amy or Mancuso. Covering for Methos was a habit he'd acquired while he still thought the Old Man was Adam Pierson. He'd always thought of Adam as a big, goofy kid who absentmindedly violated procedure almost every day. Don had been just like that when he'd been at the Academy. There were still stories floating around about his sillier missteps. When MacLeod told him that Pierson was really Methos, Joe had laughed out loud. It made perfect sense. Methos must have chosen his Watcher mentor very carefully, and then temporarily modeled his own eccentricities on Don's. Joe even noticed a few of his own quirks in the Old Man. Whatever you might call Methos (and right now, Joe had a few choice words prepared for their next encounter), he was a fast learner.

To Joe's utter astonishment, Mancuso came to Me--Pierson's defense. "Don't be too hard on the guy, Miss," he said. "I suspect that he was under a lot more pressure than his superiors realised when he disappeared. That incident where Director Shapiro turned Hunter and put Mr. Dawson here on trial really seemed to shake him up." Both Joe and Amy winced. That scrape had been a lot closer than Joe would have liked. He was glad to know that it made Amy uncomfortable, too. He hadn't realised that she knew about him, at the time, but she had already been following his career. She was one of the few people still in the organisation who saw him as a good Watcher. He was grateful for that. But he'd never tell her that if Adam Pierson hadn't treated him after he'd been shot, he would have died. That was another fact about his friendship with the Old Man that he didn't feel comfortable sharing with her. He didn't want her putting two and two together and coming up with a whole number.

"A lot of people were shaken up by that," Amy insisted, unimpressed. "They didn't turn renegade and just quit."

Joe remembered Methos' words of self-loathing and bewilderment after giving up Galati to Shapiro to save MacLeod from Watcher Hunters. Galati was MacLeod's friend, but he'd also murdered Shapiro's son. After Shapiro killed Galati in front of MacLeod, Mac had turned his back on both Joe and Methos. Joe tried to get Methos to go after Mac, but the Old Man had been too sick at heart to do it.

"What about you, Joe?" Methos had snarled. "Who do you go after? I am five thousand years old. I don't know who I am anymore. I just helped set up one of my own!"

"I did not know they were going to kill him," Joe insisted, but his defense had sounded weak, even in his own ears.

"You keep telling yourself that, Joe," Methos had retorted bitterly. "Maybe you'll start to believe it." And then he had walked away, too, not just from Joe and MacLeod, but from the whole Watcher organisation. With Joe and Mac yanking his loyalties in opposite directions, freezing him out when he vacillated, it was no surprise when he burned off his own Watcher tattoo and dropped out of sight. It had only seemed surprising at the time.

"He had his reasons," Joe said. *I just can't tell you what they were,* he thought morosely.

"So did a lot of people," Amy insisted. "But they didn't just quit."

"Maybe," Mancuso acknowledged. "But they hadn't lost their mentor to an Immortal headhunter the year before, and they hadn't caught Hell for something that really wasn't their fault."

Joe was impressed by Mancuso's demonstration of compassion. Was the cold attitude in the Watcher hierarchy towards Methos finally thawing or was this some sort of set-up? It was a funny sort of irony that a group of people who had spent so much time looking for the all-wise Methos now ostracised him and refused to believe anything that he said.

"*Everybody* is on the database now," Mancuso was saying. "It's no real secret that they took Pierson on board to design the model we have now, and used his files and organisational structure even after he left. Basically, he's the author of the Watcher database, but he'll never get the credit. Not in a million years. If that jerk in charge of the European division during the early '90s hadn't been such a dinosaur, maybe Pierson and Salzer wouldn't have needed to go sneaking around behind his back in the first place. If Shapiro could get away with early retirement for murdering an Immortal right in Watcher Headquarters, then surely we can cut Pierson a little slack, you know? As far as I can tell, he was only a little eccentric before. It was only after Shapiro went bad that Pierson started acting really erratic. Considering what I just dug up, maybe somebody should have talked to him before he disappeared." He picked a portfolio out of his briefcase and opened it, pulling out a thin file.

"I think you should look at this, Dawson." He handed Joe the file. Joe opened it to see a police photo of Methos, looking more than a little battered. The Old Man was listed as a John Doe. In the picture, Methos' eyes were glassy, as if he were drunk. Stupid of him to let his picture be taken. Or to let himself be arrested. Completely uncharacteristic.

The piece of paper underneath, attached to the photo by a paperclip, was even more disconcerting. It was a police commitment order for a 'John Doe', obviously the man in the photo, to Seacouver County General for psychiatric evaluation.

"What the Hell?" Joe said softly, half to himself. Before he realised it, Amy had tugged the folder out of his hand. He grabbed it back, but not before she'd spotted the photo. Her face went still.

"He escaped after four months," Mancuso explained. "Just walked away from a supervised trip to the movies and disappeared off the map, again."

Joe read onward. "It says here that he spent a lot of the first week 'under restraint'."

"Probably bouncing around a rubber room tranked to his eyeballs. He apparently calmed down enough to get himself off the grounds with a chaperoned group ten weeks later. He was smart; he didn't take off on the first trip. He waited until after the third outing, when they'd relaxed their guard with him, to give them the slip. They're not very happy with him, of course."

That sounded just like Methos. What had he been doing in a mental hospital for four months? Joe read the escape date again, and shivered. Methos escaped only a week before he'd popped back into Joe's life, acting as though nothing had happened, and helped him save Amy.

The way he might just pop into Joe's bar any minute, now. "So, what does this have to do with me?" Joe asked. He needed to get this man out of the bar before Methos strolled in. He needed to talk to Methos--he glanced down at the report again and swallowed. He *really* needed to talk to Methos.

Mancuso rubbed the bridge of his nose, looking weary. "Did you look at the reason for his arrest?"

"Ummm," Joe flipped through the folder until he found the police report. He read it twice over before saying, very quietly, "Jesus Christ."

"No kidding," Mancuso said, smiling without humour. "I would call lying down on a set of train tracks with your neck on the rail to be a pretty serious suicide attempt, even if Pierson were an Immortal, wouldn't you? The cops who pulled him off the line certainly thought so. Looks as though Adam Pierson has taken his research a bit more to heart than anybody suspected. Either that, or the rumours about him being Methos are true."

"You don't really think he's Methos, do you?" Joe asked, praying that the answer was 'No'. Amy rolled her eyes, but thankfully did not laugh out loud.

Mancuso chuckled. "Joe, I'll admit to still looking for Santa's reindeer on Christmas Eve at the ripe old age of 45. I'll even admit to believing in Atlantis. But Methos the Five Thousand Year Old Immortal? That's a bit far-fetched, even for me."
"You don't think he's an Immortal at all. Or even a pre-Immortal."

"Well, he could be," Mancuso shrugged. "But I doubt it. Nobody ever did prove anything, one way or the other. Since he seems to have taken his Watcher Chronicles with him, they've never been able to figure out just what kind of damage he did to the Methos project. Either way, he's unbalanced. He certainly isn't who he seems to think he is. That puts him and the rest of us in danger. Remember that false Methos who surfaced a few years ago? God, did that man cause trouble before he got himself killed. Think how much uglier it could get for an ex-Watcher pulling the same stunt."

"How did you match the photos?" Joe asked. "I thought that Pierson had destroyed all of his files before he left."

"Oh, that turned out to be easy enough," Mancuso said. "I found a photo of him and Don Salzer at some dinner in Salzer's old chronicles. After that, I used it to match up with John Does in the areas where Pierson had been seen. Since Pierson was spotted hanging out with Duncan MacLeod in Seacouver a few years back, that was one of the first places that I tried. I hit paydirt."

"I see." Methos wasn't going to be happy to hear that he'd left a photo of himself in the Watcher Chronicles. "What do you want me to do?" Joe asked.

"That's what I was going to ask you," Mancuso replied. "I heard he got mixed up in that bad blood between the MacLeods and Jacob Kell earlier this year. Rumour has it that he's back in town finishing his PhD degree. I heard he used to hang out here pretty regularly. I thought we might be able to catch up with him, finally. We take care of our own. We have to. You know him better than I do. What do you think?"

Inwardly, Joe groaned.
*********
"When were you planning on telling me that your best friend is the oldest Immortal in the world?" Amy said, after Mancuso had left the bar.

"Amy, it's not what you think--" Joe began.

"Don't lie to me, Joe," Amy snapped. She never had quite gotten into the habit of calling him 'Dad'. "That's Ben Adams in the picture, but it's Adam Pierson, too. Most people in the Watchers who believe that Adam Pierson is Immortal believe that Kalas killed him for the first time--and we both know that Ben Adams is over two hundred years old. How does that work?"

"Amy," Joe sighed. "It doesn't really matter. You wrote him up as Ben Adams and he's no longer with the Watchers. He won't betray us. He just wants to be left alone."

"I'd like to know the real identity of the man who saved my life four years ago, Joe," Amy said. "I think that I'm entitled to know that, especially since I wrote up Walker's killer as an unknown Immortal."

Joe looked into his beer. "I see."

"He's Methos, isn't he?"

Joe glanced up at her warily. "What makes you say that?"

Amy leaned forward and smiled sardonically. "Joe, I sneaked back with you to see that fight, remember? Walker never really had a chance." Her face twisted with hatred for the man who had kidnapped and threatened her. "Not that the bastard deserved one. Of course, *Walker* didn't realise how outmatched he was until it was too late. You once said that Adams had walked away from a fight with Walker, over the death of a woman. Why wouldn't Walker think that? But it was obvious after Adams electrocuted the both of them just to break that deadlock, that Walker was completely outmatched."

"That doesn't make him Methos," Joe hedged.

"Then there's the fact that no one ever got a positive photo identification on the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, the one who survived, although you reported that he was probably Methos. You never did explain how you identified him as that. I don't know exactly why the Council let you get away with that. I suppose they saw you as the only Watcher who'd ever got close enough to him to get a positive ID, and let it go."

Joe watched her with a reluctant admiration. "That's quite a theory you've cooked up, but it doesn't make Ben Adams Methos."

"Maybe not," Amy conceded. "If they aren't one and the same, though, I'd be very curious to know just what it is about you that makes you so attractive to ancient, mysterious Immortals who have managed to avoid Watcher surveillance for hundreds, even thousands, of years."

Joe chuckled. "Gee, thanks a lot, Amy. And here I thought we were working out some kind of mutual understanding."

That got a smile out of Amy. "I'm your daughter, Joe, not an Immortal." She reached out and squeezed his hand. "I'd like to think that that's a unique relationship, especially since you were once willing to betray one of your best friends to save my life."

"You're my daughter," Joe replied, touched by this unexpected moment of understanding. "Of course it's unique."

"Good," Amy replied sweetly. "As it's such a unique relationship, I'm willing to wait until you're ready to tell me the truth about your best mate Ben in your own time."

*This is just not my day,* Joe thought.
*********
Paris, September 5, 2002
Duncan MacLeod didn't have a clue what he had done to deserve the Old Man's savage wit, but he was wishing he could just take his own head to avoid any more of it. He should have stayed in New York.

"What is wrong with you, today?" he snapped finally. "Are you still hung over?"

"No, MacLeod, I am not hung over," Methos shot back from MacLeod's couch, where he was sprawled in his usual proprietary manner, "because last night, I was never drunk. What the Hell made you think that?"

MacLeod reviewed the available evidence from the night before. Walking into a crowded third floor student flat on the Left Bank at 11 pm, the first thing he'd seen was Methos brandishing a plastic cup full of beer and dancing up close and personal with a strawberry blonde Danish girl in a miniskirt and a bustier to the tune of a '60's rock song entitled "Leave My Kitten Alone". Ten minutes later, Methos got both himself and MacLeod evicted from the party for fighting with the girl's hulking Norwegian boyfriend.

"It might have been after you punched that girl's boyfriend in the chest and told him that his skull would make a pretty fine addition to your collection of coffee mugs," MacLeod decided, as he poured himself another cup of black coffee. "Besides, that girl was jailbait."

"You are all jailbait to me," Methos snorted, waving his hand dismissively. "He dumped beer down my shirt. What was I supposed to do, invite him to an afterhours tea party?"

"He only dumped beer on you after you told him that if he did it you'd hit him," MacLeod pointed out. "He was looking for a fight and you handed one right to him."

Methos just rolled his eyes and stretched his arms above his head. "I wasn't lying, then, now was I? And what was all that about grabbing me and getting me off into the kitchen to 'give me time to cool off'? I was handling the situation just fine on my own. I didn't need you getting in the middle of it. Since when did enjoying oneself at a party enter the French penal code as an offense, anyway? Really, I can't win with you, some days."

Though MacLeod was thinking exactly the same thing about Methos, he chose not to say it. "You were dirty dancing with his girlfriend, and you had been drinking all night. As for 'handling' the situation, you were about ready to put the guy through the wall."

"You always say that like it's a bad thing," Methos grumbled. "MacLeod, I'd been nursing that one bloody cup of beer for two hours before you showed up. And as for the girl--hey, she wanted to dance with me, and I didn't see his name tattooed on her ass, okay? Here's a news flash for you, Mac: women are free agents these days. If the boy wanted to get killed over his nonexistent rights to somebody else's body, that was his business. You can be such a Cro Magnon, sometimes." He sighed theatrically. "I really don't know why you showed up there in the first place."

"You invited me," MacLeod reminded him. "You said I needed to get out more."

"Well, yeah, but I didn't ask you to come be my chaperone, *Dad*."

"Well, at the time, I didn't know that you'd *need* one, Old Man."

The Buzz that hit them both diverted the conversation onto a completely different track. MacLeod froze, coffee cup in hand. Methos sat up, eyes widening.

"Are you expecting company?" Methos said, now looking more like the star of a Wild Discovery documentary than a hungover postgraduate student in Ancient History at the Sorbonne who dressed like a homeless person.

"No," MacLeod admitted. Methos swore in three languages, only one of which MacLeod could identify.

"It's bad enough when it's one of your friends," Methos griped.

"You mean, like you?" MacLeod asked sourly.

"Methos!" The shout came from outside the barge. Any retort that Methos had prepared went by the wayside. "Methos, you coward. I know you're in there!"

Methos jumped off the couch, pulling on his jacket. He looked upset. "I really hate that there is no back way out of here."

"What, so you could run--sorry--beat a strategic retreat?" MacLeod asked snidely.

"Something like that." The shouting continued. "Although I wouldn't run. Turn my back on an enemy? Very bad idea, that." Methos stood in the middle of the floor, chewing on his lip and eyeing the stairway.

"The last time I turned my back on you, you shot me," MacLeod said, going for his sword, which was propped up near the phone. "Wait here. I'll go find out who it is."

"No," Methos said suddenly, as if MacLeod had just made up his mind for him. "Not with somebody who's bellowing my real name in a public place. Who knows what lies he'll tell you about me?"

"Or truths," MacLeod growled.

Methos shuddered. "I sincerely hope not. You know more than enough about me, already." Pulling his jacket tightly around his body against the early afternoon drizzle outside, he trudged up the steps to the barge's upper deck. MacLeod followed him.

As he came up the steps, MacLeod heard Methos complain, "Hey, maybe you could yell a little louder. I don't think they heard you down in Barcelona." As soon as he got up on deck, MacLeod saw the challenger.

The Immortal who stood on the cobblestoned bank of the river looked barely twenty, and acted less. He waved his sword, a cutlass that looked like a costume prop, at Methos threateningly when MacLeod appeared.

"Only one on one, Methos," he yelled.

Methos shoved his hands in his pockets and glared down at the boy. "You must be very young if you're going around reminding everyone about the Rules. How do you know that I am Methos, anyway?" He jerked his head at MacLeod. "Surely he looks more the part than I do."

The challenger grinned. "He--they said you'd be the one with the jacket, big nose, and bad hair."

"I prefer the term 'aquiline' for the nose," Methos observed acidly. "Much more elegant, I think, than just 'big'. The hair is unfortunate, but not fixable, either. You should see it long. As for the jacket...." he spread his hands, opening the jacket. "It's useful for hiding things. Who is this 'we/they'?"

"Come down and fight," the challenger said, instead of answering Methos' question.

Methos glanced at MacLeod, then sighed. His shoulders slumped. "Not here," he said. "It is much too public, and I'd still like to visit my friend and mooch his beer after today. He won't let me do that if I wreck his barge with a Quickening."

The challenger laughed. "My, aren't we cocky?"

"No," Methos retorted. "Just very, very good. Possibly even the best. Or did you think I got to this point without fighting anyone?" MacLeod was startled to hear Methos admit to any exceptional skill. How had Methos convinced himself that he was 'the best' when MacLeod had beaten him every time they sparred together? "Go away, little boy. You'll only catch your death, here."

"You can either pick a spot or I can come up there and ruin your friend's nice, little boat, asshole," the challenger said nastily. "Your choice."

"Fine. My choice; your funeral." MacLeod could hear Methos' temper fraying. Methos named a square a few miles away, suggesting that the challenger meet him there in an hour. The challenger acknowledged the arrangement before turning to walk away. Before he left, however, he glanced back and pointed at Methos.

"Don't even think about trying to duck out on me," he warned. "If you don't show up, I'll come find you. This will be the first place I look."

"Oh, child. I will be there, whether you like it or not." Methos watched the departing Immortal until he disappeared onto a side street. "I need your car, Mac," he said.

"No way," MacLeod said, heading back down the stairs and into the kitchen for his car keys. Methos followed. "I'm coming with you," MacLeod declared, snatching the keys up from the counter and dangling them in front of Methos' face.

Methos regarded him for a few seconds. He shrugged. "Nannying me again, are you? Whatever. If you think that you can explain your excess presence at my challenge to that walking dysfunctional brain stem, you go right ahead. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of the great Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod? But I'm driving." He made a grab for the keys. MacLeod pulled them out of reach.

"Not *my* car, you're not," he insisted. "Now, let's go. I want to see what the ground is like at the site."

Methos rolled his eyes. "I think I prefer you thinking that I'm the spawn of the Devil to you treating me like a child. Fine. You drive, then. You're like a constipated tortoise on the road, anyway. I ought to be able to get in a nice nap on the way there."

They arrived twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Methos did, indeed, nap. Methos' challenger had not yet arrived, giving MacLeod time to check out the ground. The garden was small, just a space behind an unoccupied house. Nobody, it seemed, was willing to brave the fine drizzle falling from the dull grey sky to visit it.

"Not too bad," Methos said approvingly, planting his sword's tip in the spongy ground and leaning on the hilt. "A bit slippery, but it's better than those cobblestones in front of your barge. I didn't expect an idiot like that boy to pick a nice, sunny day for a Challenge. Heaven forbid that it be convenient for anybody."

"This isn't funny, Methos," MacLeod growled back. "This kid could kill you. Stop treating it like a game."

Methos snickered. "MacLeod, it *is* a game, remember? The Game."

MacLeod's retort was curtailed by the challenger's Buzz. This kid, MacLeod decided sourly, had a really irritating sense of timing. The challenger came through an archway into the garden, swinging his sword as if it were a child's toy. Gripping his own sword, MacLeod watched him approach. He glanced at Methos. The Old Man stood, his hands resting on the hilt of his Ivanhoe sword, smiling. How he managed to look both as innocent as a puppy and as lethal as a fossilised velociraptor claw always mystified MacLeod. Unfazed, the kid approached Methos and stopped a few feet away. He glared over at MacLeod.

"I thought I told you not to bring your friend, Methos," he snapped.

"As a matter of fact, you didn't," Methos responded. "I wouldn't worry about him, though. He's much too honourable to challenge you while you're helpless."

The challenger scowled at MacLeod. "How do I know you're telling the truth, you old bastard?"

"You don't," Methos retorted. "You can either fight me, anyway, or you can simply walk away. It's your call." He lifted his sword and held it out before him. "Shall we?"

The challenger leveled his own sword at Methos. "Let's do it," he snarled.

Before the last word had left the kid's mouth, Methos leapt at him, lashing out with his sword. Though the challenger blocked in time, he was physically driven back by the blow. As MacLeod watched, startled, Methos drove in like a shark, throwing his opponent off balance. Clearly, he had no intention of playing with his challenger, only finishing the fight with a minimum of effort. Within seven moves, he had disarmed the challenger. The cutlass flew from the kid's hand. Panting, the challenger dove after it. Methos kicked the weapon away before the kid could reach it.

Methos placed his sword on his opponent's neck. Caught on his hands and knees, the challenger froze. MacLeod saw that he was panting now with fear, as well as with exertion. Yet, he still did not voice it. MacLeod waited for Methos to deliver the coup de grace. Methos raised the sword, gripping the pommel with his other hand to increase the force of the blow. The challenger shut his eyes. Methos hesitated.

"Tell me who set you on me and I'll spare your life," he said.

"Fuck you!" The kid snarled back.

Methos sighed, bringing the sword down level with his shoulders. "Child, the information is worth far more to me than your head. It's a gift. Take it. Tell me who gave you my name and I'll let you walk away."

"Piss off!" The challenger lunged towards the cutlass. Methos kicked him in the face, knocking him down. As the kid struggled back to his knees, Methos came up behind him and swung the Ivanhoe, one-handed, connecting with a meaty crunch. The challenger's head flew off his shoulders, thumped to the ground, and rolled a few feet before it stopped. A grimace of terror and defiance still distorted the head's features. As MacLeod watched, the face relaxed into slack death. MacLeod turned his attention back to Methos.

The Old Man stood over the sprawled body, head bowed, shoulders slumped. "Shit," he said, sounding tired and sad as the glowing fog of the challenger's Quickening rose about his feet. "I wish the little git had just told me." The Quickening hit him. It was as small and pathetic as its source. It consisted of eleven bolts of lightning that made Methos grunt in agony, but not scream outright or convulsively fling away his sword. After a minute or so, it died away. Methos turned and staggered back toward MacLeod. MacLeod caught him as his knees gave out.

"He was a fucking car mechanic," Methos growled, the cadence of the challenger's accent still echoing in his voice. "Can you believe it?"

"Come on, Old Man," MacLeod said, anxious not to explain a decapitated body with a cauterised neck to any authorities. "Let's get out of here before the police show up. You can tell me about it back at the barge."

Methos snorted. "There's nothing to tell, Mac." His voice was already back to normal. "That's what's so sad about it. And don't start in about how I should have waited for him to get his sword back, first."

"I didn't--" MacLeod protested. The Buzz of an approaching Immortal interrupted him.

"Not *again*," Methos complained, pushing away from MacLeod and raising his sword. MacLeod drew his katana.

An Immortal walked through the archway. The newcomer was a tall man with graying red hair. He wore a black wool overcoat. When he saw Methos, he smiled.

"Hello, Pierson," he said. "Long time, no see."

"Chris Mancuso," Methos replied, sounding wearily amused. "Son of a bitch. I should've known."
*********
"Mark! I didn't know you were coming to the convention this year." Hearing his name being called, Mark Gibbon peered out from under the table that he was setting up to see Jerry Merrick, an inker from Whatever Comics, standing a few feet away.

"Hi, Jerry," he replied, as Jerry ambled over. "Yeah, I hadn't been to a comic con in awhile, so I decided to come after all." Mark liked Jerry, even if the kid was a hopeless geek and UFO watcher. Jerry might possess the social skills of an iguana, but anyone who was willing to put up with that got a friend more fiercely loyal than a pit bull.

His hands shoved in his pockets, Jerry watched Mark work. "Well, it's just, you know, you've always avoided Paris in the past," he explained. "I'm kinda surprised to see you here, especially at such a little con."

Mark chuckled. "I like little cons. There's not as much commercial crap and I can talk to the fans longer. Besides, I thought it was time to give Paris a try." It had been nine years since he'd snuck in for Darius' memorial service, after all. Maybe it was time to test the boundaries of his 'treaty' with Adam Pierson a bit. For all he knew, the bastard might have left town years ago.

"Okay," Jerry let it pass. "So, you finished 'Barbaros' yet?"

"Yeah, I've got the galley proof at home ready to send in for the final edit. I had a poster of the cover made up. I brought a bunch of copies with me as a promotional. Hang on. Let me finish this table, first." Mark locked the braces in place, before crawling out from under the table. He stood up, ran a hand through his black, curly hair a few times, and brushed himself off. "Get me that tablecloth, could you, Jerry?"

"Sure." Jerry pulled out the cloth from one of the boxes Mark had brought in from his truck. With the expert flick of an experienced convention guest, he unfolded it across the table.

"Thanks, Jer. Here, help me with this, will you?" Mark pulled a poster out of its tube and carefully unrolled it. As Jerry moved to catch one end of it to keep it from unrolling, his mouth fell open.

"Holy shit! This is the new cover?" he asked.

"Yep." Jerry didn't need to be asked to help tack it up on the background behind Mark's table. Mark would probably have been hard put to stop him. Between the two of them, Mark and Jerry soon had the poster set up and smoothed out. Mark stepped back to admire it.

The poster was a panoramic view about two feet long and a foot and half wide. It showed a field in ancient Italy, in the aftermath of a great battle. Some sections of the field remained pristine and golden. Others were torn up into clods of mud and blood. Still others burned. In the foreground stood a single, triumphant figure. He wore a white tunic and trousers, a leather cuirass, boots, and a grey skull mask lifted to reveal his blue-painted face. His long brown hair blew in the wind. Blood covered his sword, which hung from his hand, all the way to the hilt. His green eyes stared coldly out of the picture, as if warning viewers that someday they would join the mangled bodies heaped about his feet.

"Damn! That's the best one so far," Jerry exclaimed.

"I thought you might like it," Mark purred. "I figure the exposure can't hurt. It's not as though I'm working for DC Comics."

Jerry laughed. "Oh, yeah. Like DC or Marvel Comics would ever do anything like 'Barbaros'. I don't think so. The closest they ever got was "Kill Your Boyfriend" with their Vertigo spin-off line. That was just a "look how crazy those Brits are" experiment, I think."

"Here, take one," Mark pulled another poster tube out of the box and handed it to Jerry. Jerry looked startled, as he always did when Mark showed him an unexpected kindness. No matter how many times Mark was nice to Jerry, he could never seem to convince the poor kid that he was being sincere.

"Thanks, Mark. That's great," Jerry said. He stared again at the poster behind the table. "Man, I wish I could do your realism. How do you manage that?"

"It's real because I take it from real life," Mark answered with more honesty than was perhaps safe for him. "Real people that I've known." He stared critically at the poster. "Of course, it's been a while since I've seen the guy I used for this scene. I may have gotten a few of the details wrong." And if Adam Pierson happened to wander in and take insult at it, well, that was what the whole business with swords and challenges was for.

Jerry shook his head. "Mark, you're such a kidder. You must really scare the fans sometimes." Despite his paranoia about black helicopters and government conspiracies, Jerry was quite naive about the hidden dangers of the world around him. "I mean, come on, if you really took that from real life, you'd have to be, like, two thousand years old."

"Yeah, I would," Mark admitted. "Then again, maybe I am."

Jerry laughed. Mark laughed, too, even though he was being serious. Sometimes, the best way to lie was to tell the truth in such a way that nobody would ever believe you.
*********
Capua, 74 BC
Marcus Atticus sat down gingerly on the wooden bench next to Petronius, before handing one of the two cups of wine that he was holding to his companion. The afternoon sun filtered through the awning which flapped in the wind above their seats. The crowd in the amphitheatre seemed larger than usual on a non-festival day. Petronius, himself, was in an excellent mood, his usually grim, swarthy face transformed by a smile. The old soldier enjoyed a good fight in the arena more than sport with a beautiful woman. Twenty years on the borders of the Republic had hardened him to any sight of blood or suffering.

It was dangerous for Atticus to spend too much time around Petronius. Even with only one eye, the vicious old Italian might eventually notice that Atticus had aged little in their twenty years of service together. Still, Atticus enjoyed Petronius' company. Petronius knew no fear, and he respected Atticus, which was no mean thing.

"So, whose funeral are the munera commemorating today, you bloodthirsty old bastard?" Atticus asked. "What have we got, a few pairs of criminals dying for some minor bureaucrat whose nephew made a fortune tax farming in Africa?"

Petronius grinned and licked his lips. "Better. Much better. Who cares about a few escaped slaves? They're nothing compared to a good gladiator fight. You know that. That's what I've been waiting for."

"Of course," Atticus laughed. "How many pairs of fighters this afternoon?"

"Three. But I'm only interested in the first combat. That one will be the best, you'll see. Seems the nephew in question was able to scare up a few extra denarii to stage some decent fights this week. I knew you wouldn't show until after lunch."

Atticus grimaced at Petronius. "I had business to attend to this morning, Petronius. I told you that."

Petronius snickered, grabbing his crotch under his tunic. "Oh, I know what your 'business' was, old friend." He leaned over and elbowed Atticus in the ribs. "That Nubian whore of yours has been keeping you in bed longer than usual, I see. She's been making a fair pile of denarii off you in the past few weeks. I can still smell her on you."

Atticus rolled his eyes, but let it pass. A blast of the trumpet announced the commencement of the afternoon's entertainment. People in the crowd stirred, chattering to each other excitedly as a door opened in the podium wall below. First came the referee for the fight. Normally, there were two. Two men, each bearing a lance, a long, straight sword, and an oval shield, trotted out onto the killing sands in his wake. From a different door, a swordsman with gladius, legionary's scutum, and helmet stomped out into the sunlight.

"What, one samnite against two galli?" Atticus said disgustedly. "That's it? And where's the other referee?"

"It's called limiting your acceptable losses. They'd rather lose one referee than two, on top of the three gladiators." Petronius put a finger to his lips. "Just watch. You'll like this."

Below, in the arena, a third door opposite Atticus and Petronius opened. At first, nothing happened. Then, as if he were entering a garden in his villa, a fourth man strolled out. He wore only a ragged-edged, knee-length blue tunic, instead of the traditional subligaculum [loincloth] and balteus [belt] of a gladiator. He was very tall, long of limb and fair-skinned--some sort of German or Gallic barbarian. His shaggy, brown hair had grown out from what appeared to have once been a military cut. He was clean-shaven.

"He's Thracian," Petronius chortled, passing a handful of honey-coated sweetmeats to Atticus. "An army deserter, so they claim."

"Thracian? He's not armed like a thraex," Atticus noted, puzzled. "Where's his helmet and shield? What is this, an execution? He looks like a criminal. It's past lunch. I thought they had dispatched all the noxii already." A Thracian gladiator usually carried a curved sword and wore a fair amount of armour. The barbarian thraex had nothing but his tunic, not even sandals. He did not seem concerned. He swaggered further out into the arena, turning his head to watch each in turn of the three other gladiators closing in on him.

"Trust me," Petronius echoed the barbarian's casual attitude. "He doesn't need any weapons."

As the samnis and the galli tried to hem him in, the thraex went to the wall. He sidled along it towards Atticus and Petronius, disappearing from view for a moment under their side of the podium. The spectators around Atticus and Petronius booed and began to throw trash into the arena.

"Fools," Petronius spat, as the three other gladiators also vanished under the shadow of the podium. "He's just started."

"Well, I'm impressed so far," Atticus said sarcastically, then shut his mouth as he felt the familiar signature of an Immortal. Was it one of the gladiators or someone in the crowd?

"Just wait. He's setting them up--Ah!" At Petronius' exclamation, the thraex burst out into the middle of the arena, dragging the samnis, with his own gladius, by the throat. As the two fighters went, the Immortal signature faded. A broad trail of blood soaked into the sand behind them while the crowd roared in approval. The chosen victim had become the hero.

His shield lost, the samnis scrabbled at the sword hooked under his helmet near the pommel, even as it cut through his windpipe. Halfway out to the middle of the arena, his arms fell limp. With a final crack and a twist of the sword from the thraex, the samnis' head came off. His body dropped to the sand. As if this signaled something to him, the thraex stopped and spun in place, kicking the samnis' head away. He swung the sword in a wide arc, spraying blood across the sand. After a pause, the two galli crept back out into view. They looked unnerved. Atticus didn't blame them. The Immortal obviously wasn't the samnis.

The thraex did something then that made Atticus sit right up on his bench. Holding out his left hand to the remaining gladiators, the barbarian sliced it open. He rubbed his palm down over the right side of his face, leaving a broad, dark swath of blood. Some of it was the samnis'; most of it was the thraex's own. He smiled at his foes, baring his teeth.

Atticus stared at the man, puzzled. He had seen that marking before. So simple. So brutal. Where....

Atticus' head snapped back. The breath hissed through his teeth as he remembered. It had been over three centuries ago, before his first death. Barbarians had come down from Gaul and overrun Rome, taking everything but the Capitol Hill, burning the city around the fortress. Among them had ridden four men more noted for their butchery than the others. Two of them had been unremarkable in their brutality, mere barbarians. The third had been of different quality--subtle, clever. Still, he had been a barbarian, too, interested only in gold and plunder. The fourth....

While the others wore black, he wore white, and rode a white horse. While they painted their faces with black symbols of rude complexity, he favoured a single, broad blue stripe down the right side of his face. He had been literate, educated, merciless. When the senators first tried to pass off a useless treaty on the barbarians, he had caught the ruse. Ordering the offending scribe brought before him, he hacked off the man's limbs in front of the horrified ambassadors. After that, he forced them to kneel in the man's blood and swear to new terms.

"That man is no deserter," Atticus declared.

Petronius shrugged. "You know how some of the recruiters are. They make mistakes."

Atticus snorted derisively. "You mean they kidnap freemen and make up some cover story when they sell them to the arena. He's probably still wearing what he had on when they took him off the street."

"Who cares, when you end up with a magnificent specimen like our fine Thracian down there?" Petronius retorted, unperturbed. "Look at him now. He's stalking the galli. How sweet."

The thraex was indeed stalking the two remaining gladiators. Goaded by the referee and the crowd, who were impatient to see the fight proceed, the two galli were trying to hem in the thraex, to wear him down. Instead, he was the one doing it to them. Paying no heed to the referee's barked orders, he remained in a crouch, waiting while the galli circled in. When one of them came within two swordlengths, he lashed out at him, causing the man to skitter away. The other gallus came at the thraex's back, casting his lance. The thraex, probably alerted by the hiss of the lance cutting through the air, threw himself prone onto the sand. The lance thumped into the ground beyond his head. When the gallus leapt forward to stab the thraex with his sword, the barbarian rolled onto his back, grabbing the other man's shield and dragging the gallus towards him. Using his enemy's own shield to protect himself, the thraex brought up his sword, impaling the gallus on its point. The gallus fell forward onto the thraex.

Above and behind Atticus and Petronius, several women shrieked in outright orgasmic delight. The enjoyment that some women took in seeing men die in the arena chilled Atticus. The Roman optimates might fool themselves that their women were tranquil keepers of the domestic hearth. He knew better. He had seen barbarian women in battle. As far as he was concerned, more women were maenads than mothers. They might worship Juno and Vesta by day, but by night, they still bowed down to Hecate. The gods alone knew what would happen if they ever gained dominion over the world. How many women, he wondered, waited for that day, honing their castrating knives in secret?

Untroubled by such musings, Petronius shook his head and laughed. "There'll be some hard-pressed husbands in those households, tonight."

"They should ban women from the games," Atticus said darkly.

"Good luck trying that, Marcus," Petronius snickered. "You'd sooner get them to give up their own children."

Out on the sand, the thraex had thrown off his opponent's body, losing the gladius in the process. He scrambled to his feet. The surviving gallus pressed his advantage by trying to stab the thraex with his lance. Dodging the lance, the thraex sprinted back to the wall, where he led the gallus on a wild chase around the arena. Normally, the galli's relative lack of armour gave them an advantage in speed. The thraex, however, had longer legs than his remaining opponent and no armour at all. He stayed well ahead of the gallus. The crowd seemed undecided about this tactic--half of them booing the thraex, the other half shouting advice at him. The thraex ignored both sides. After all, it was his life, not theirs, at risk.

The thraex turned at bay at the other side of the arena. He leaned over, holding his ribs and panting as the gallus advanced on him. When the gallus came close enough to skewer his prey, the thraex pushed off from the wall and sprinted back out into the center of the arena. He had been shamming his windedness, very clever. The gallus pelted after him. The thraex ran straight for the dead gallus. Reaching the body, he somersaulted over it and landed on the other side, going into a roll. As he came back up, he scrabbled for the dead man's lance, yanking it out of the sand. The crowd went dead silent. Seeing the thraex grab the lance, the gallus ran forward to stab him in the back. Before the gallus could get close enough, the thraex rose up on one knee, turned and threw the lance. It struck the gallus in the belly, which wasn't as quick a kill as hitting the chest, but was a good enough target. The gallus went down.

The thraex stood up and yanked the gladius out of the first gallus' chest. The other gallus was rolling around in agony a few swordlengths away, trying to pull out the lance out of his gut. Stalking over to the gallus, the thraex looked down at the wounded man. He cocked his head to one side, obviously considering how best to proceed. The crowd was screaming its bloodlust. Petronius leapt to his feet with the others, waving his thumb at the thraex in the unmistakable gesture of death. It was just as well that the spectators wanted the fatal outcome. The gallus was already mortally wounded. Even if he were not, Atticus doubted that anything would stop the thraex from sating his bloodlust on his hapless opponent.

As the gallus' convulsions weakened, the barbarian placed his bare foot on one side of the man's jaw and rolled his head sharply to one side. The gallus' body jerked as his neck snapped. His hands and feet beat at the sand for a few more moments, even though his head lay at an unnatural angle. The thraex watched the gallus' death throes with a look of detached interest, then turned his attention to the referee.

A shout of laughter broke from the spectators at this new development. Backing away from the thraex in obvious alarm, the referee then ran to the nearest door and pounded on it. When the door opened, he disappeared inside. It shut in the pursuing thraex's face. The barbarian slammed against the door, roaring in frustration--the first time Atticus had heard his voice. He turned back into the arena, eyes wild.

"Here comes the fun part," Petronius said, licking his lips in anticipation.

Atticus stared at Petronius incredulously. "What fun part? The fight's over."

Petronius laughed. "Now, they get to put him back."

Two doors opened in the podium. Four men ran out carrying two nets. Seeing them, the thraex tried to get back to the wall. They cut him off. There was nowhere to go. Refusing to accept the outcome, the thraex charged one of the unarmed netmen, slashing his arm before the other pair could come up from behind him and throw their net over him. He tried to cut at the choking strings with his gladius as the second net went over his head, as well, to no avail. Down he went, thrashing and howling in rage. He was still fighting the nets while they dragged him out of the arena.

"Is he a prime example of barbarian *uiritas* or what?" Petronius leered.

"He's got balls. I'll give him that," Atticus admitted. *Not to mention a real sense of showmanship,* he thought. "What's his name?"

"Spartacus."

"Spartacus," Atticus repeated, half to himself. *You used to have another name,* he thought. *When I last saw you.* Somehow, he did not think that Death found Italy any more impressive this time around than when he had left her burning at his back three centuries ago.
*********
I'm brave enough to be crazy, strong enough to be weak.
See all these heroes with feet of clay whose mighty ships have sprung a leak.
And I want you to tell me, darlin', just what do you believe in now?

Paris, September 5, 2002
"It was Atticus," Crixus (currently masquerading as fearless Watcher Chris Mancuso) murmurs to me as we walk back to MacLeod's car. It took us several hours to find a decent place to bury the car mechanic's body. It's already getting dark. Neither Crixus nor MacLeod understood my need to give my challenger his own grave, however anonymous. Being warrior-types, they tend to leave their victims for the Watchers to clean up, trusting that the forensics won't catch up with them. In the end, I dug the hole.

"Uhhuh," I reply noncommittally, tossing MacLeod's shovel into the boot of his car. I'm tired. I ache, and I have a feeling that Crixus knows more about my latest kill than he's let on so far. This has something to do with Marcus Atticus, I can tell. Global warming is Atticus' fault, too, according to Crixus. Crixus has hated that man for over two thousand years. I wish he would let it be.

"Sir, you have to take this seriously! He's here, in town. He's after your head!" A few lengths ahead of us, MacLeod looks back over his shoulder, obviously curious. Crixus has shunned him, trying to chivvy me off alone. I have no intention of letting him do that.

"I just killed somebody. I'm shattered," I tell him. "Why don't we continue this neverending conversation over a drink? A friend of mine owns a nice little jazz place near here, Le Blues Bar. He's a Watcher. You guys can play happy secret societies."

Crixus looks uneasy. "That might not be such a good idea. We've, um, already met."

"I see." And I do. This is a Crixus head game all the way. "Let me connect the dots: you pop into town looking for me, hook up with the local Watcher network to see what you can find, and decide to have a little fun with them while you're at it. How am I doing so far?"

Crixus scowls at me. "Don't be such a hypocrite. You used them for ten years." He would think that. That tattoo on his wrist is only temporary--like a false ID pass to get him into a company that he wants to raid. Crixus spied on high-tech corporations for a living before he joined the Watchers in the 1980s.


"Not to hunt; never to hunt." I'm surprised by my own vehemence. I try to tone it down because I've caught MacLeod's attention. He's hanging back a bit, eavesdropping more obviously than before. Crixus seems too wrapped up in our argument to notice. MacLeod isn't a high contrast object on his radar.

I count to ten silently in Hittite. "I am getting a little tired of explaining my membership in the Watchers to all and sundry. Technically, there is no prohibition against an Immortal joining the Watchers. It is one of those loopholes that people create with their own preconceptions, like: 'No man born of woman can kill me'. As long as I followed the rules, I did not violate my oath. Therefore, I could be a Watcher in good standing."

Crixus stares at me. "Are you seriously telling me that you considered yourself to be a real Watcher? Oh, come on. Adam Pierson wasn't even a real person!"

"'Watch and record, but never interfere'," I retort. "I watched, I recorded and I stayed the Hell away from other Immortals. That's about as non-interfering as you can get." I raise my voice. "I was not some meddling busy-body, like some people I could name." MacLeod's shoulders jerk as he straightens in outrage. He stops dead and rounds on us.

"Just what is that supposed to mean?" he demands.

I smile at this opportunity. "Oh, so you were listening to us, after all."

MacLeod flushes when he realises I've caught him out. "I wasn't--I dinna.... Well, what am I supposed to do when some strange friend of yours shows up in town out of the blue?"

"For a start," I retort, "I would prefer that you not kill this one." Crixus turns pale. He hasn't fought much, lately. MacLeod looks as though he'd like to rip my head off with his bare hands. As fun as counting coup on him is, antagonising him isn't the best of ideas right now. I need these two in sight and in earshot. They are sincere men of principle. I don't trust either as far as I could throw them both at once.

I turn to Crixus. "MacLeod's got a point, Chris," I say. "Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of him. If you don't like that, feel free to employ that return ticket to wherever that I am sure you have in your wallet."

Crixus looks disgusted; he knows when he's been outmanoeuvred. "Fine," he sighs. "Lead on, MacDuff."
*********
Joe looks up at our arrival. When he sees us, his face screws up--he always was a lousy liar. The question is, what is he lying about today?

"Nice to see you again, Mr. Mancuso," he says. "I see you found him."

"Yeah, something like that," Crixus replies before I can think of something suitably obscure and insensitive. "I followed the lightshow."

"I see." Joe looks as though he is weighing his options. "Who was it this time, Mac?"

I glance at MacLeod, who gazes at the stage rather than meet my eyes. The least he could do would be to take the credit for me, but he is too honest to let me off the hook. May the gods damn honest men.

I pull out a chair from one of the tables, collapsing on it with a sigh of relief. "Actually, it was me, Joe."

Joe laughs. "You? Mister I-Don't-Want-To-Get-Involved? What did you do? Sleep with his sister?" So much for the respect of my so-called friends.

"If I did, it wasn't that memorable," I sneer. "I'd swear that I'd never seen him before in my life, and he didn't supply either a name or a reason. Somebody set him on me. He didn't supply that person's name or reason, either, although I did give him a chance to tell me. He did not take it."

"His name was Greg Johnston," Crixus speaks up helpfully. "He was 37 years old. His first death occurred in 1982, near Sarasota, New York, where he crashed his car into a tree. He's won six challenges since then. He didn't win this one."

I fold my arms and cock my head to one side. "You would know all of this because...?"

Crixus turns to MacLeod and Joe. "I need to speak with Mr. Pierson alone. Do you think you guys could go hang out somewhere for awhile?"

"Sure," Joe says, just as MacLeod is indignantly gearing up to say 'No'. MacLeod looks surprised. He is not the only one. "I've got something out back I've been meaning to show you," Joe tells him. So much for my plan to keep Crixus from getting me off alone. Thanks a lot, Joe, old buddy. I watch them head out back, feeling no small resentment. The 'something' is probably some titbit of information that Joe would never deign to pass on to me. After all, I'm an Immortal, he's a Watcher. It's not his job to make my life easier, now is it?

I turn my attention back to the immediate problem, which is Crixus. "You set me up, didn't you, Crixus, old pal?" I snarl as I go to the bar to grab myself a much-needed beer. "Why don't you go ahead and tell me how this improves our venerable friendship?"

"It wasn't me," Crixus replies. "It was Atticus."

"Bollocks," I say. I have done enough manual labour for one day. I let him get his own bloody beer. He does so, comes back and sits down across from me. I can see that he is about to try to sell me prime swampland in Florida.

"He's in town," he says.

"Who? Atticus? You said that, already. So what?" As it turns out, I've known for months. Atticus' current incarnation is a well-known, freelance comic book artist. The local comic book shop that I like to visit has been speculating about his appearance at this week's Ages of Gold convention for months. I've been following his latest four part series, 'Barbaros', with a fair amount of enjoyment. The son of a bitch did once swear to make me pay for sacking Rome in 394 BC. If caricaturing my years as Death in a comic book is the worst thing that Atticus plans to do to me this millennium, I wish him all the best.

Crixus, of course, doesn't give a damn about quiet, amiable pursuits like comic books. "What do you mean, so what?! He's broken the agreement, that's what."

I suck down a good portion of my beer. "That agreement was fifteen years old," I say, setting the beer back down on the table. "It was time to renegotiate it anyway."

"He doesn't want to renegotiate, Sir." Ah, here's the hook. "He's hunting you! And you're letting him!"

"He hasn't hunted me in over eight hundred years," I retort. "He's not going to start again now." At least, I hope not. I had my chance to kill Atticus over two thousand years ago. If I were going to do it, I would have done it then.

"He murdered your wife! He killed my entire family!" And here is the line.

"That was Darius," I correct him. "Who is now dead."

Crixus spits on the floor. "Good riddance, too. A penitent monk, my ass! He just needed an excuse to hide out on Holy Ground for sixteen centuries. But what does it matter? You know Atticus was the one who put him up to it. Are you telling me that you're willing to overlook all the loved ones he's killed while hunting you? Are you seriously going to let their shades go unavenged?" Now, that would be the sinker.

I shrug. "They're dead. We're not. Killing Atticus won't change the former condition, but going after him may well change the latter. Your family and my wife died two thousand years ago, Crixus. It is past time to let it be."

"I have never understood this." Crixus shakes his head in wonder. "Why? Why won't you do it?"

"I had my chance." Having drained my beer, I start picking at the label.

"It's not as though you've got no taste for killing. I've seen the bloodlust in your eyes. I've seen you mad with it! Why? Why spare him when you haven't spared so many others?"

I look Crixus in the eye for the first time since we entered Joe's. "You want to know why? You really want to know?"

Crixus glares back at me. "Yes."

"All right. I'll tell you." I sit up straight in my chair and push the beer bottle away. "When I led you all against Rome I had just spent a thousand years killing. I killed over ten thousand people in that time, Crixus. Not by proxy, not from a distance, and not indirectly. Those were the ones that I killed with my own hands and my own sword. I spared Atticus simply because I could. When they brought him to my tent in Picenum and forced him to kneel in front of me, I realised that I didn't *have* to kill him. Oh, I'd've enjoyed it. And it was probably the smart thing to do. Hell, they would have probably called me Jupiter incarnate after seeing the Quickening. But I did not have to do it. I could choose not to."

I tap my head with my finger. "That day, I chose not to. I thought with my head and not with my balls, for once. That one decision became the watershed between the creature I was and the man I am now. I've changed. Someday, I would love to find somebody who believes that, but I honestly have. I like the way I am. I do not want to change back. As long as I don't kill Marcus Atticus, as long as I live and let him be, I really don't think that I have to worry about that."

Chris just stares at me, unblinking, for a moment. Then, he gets up, drains his beer, carefully puts the bottle back on the bar, and walks out.

I sigh. "I didn't think you'd understand," I tell the empty air. I go get myself another beer.
*********
Joe hoped he was doing the right thing. He knew he was risking pissing Methos off in a big way but he had to get MacLeod into the loop on this. It was a damned shame Mancuso had to blow Methos' big secret right in front of Amy. Methos wasn't going to appreciate finding out how many people knew his business tonight.

"I don't think we should leave Methos alone with that guy, Joe," MacLeod said, as soon as Joe led him through the curtain into his backroom.

"Mac, we need to talk," Joe insisted, dispensing with the preamble. "I think you should look at this." He picked up the file that Mancuso had given him and held it out to MacLeod. Mac grabbed it out of his hand, looking impatient. As he flipped through the file, though, the look changed to puzzlement, then concern.

"Who gave this to you?" he demanded.

Joe jerked his chin back toward the curtain. "Methos' buddy, Chris Mancuso." *I should have known Mancuso wasn't being straight about that,* he thought.

MacLeod's face tightened with anger. "That son of a bitch. And you trusted him?"

Joe stared at MacLeod, confused. "Considering the way the Old Man's been acting lately, I don't have any reason to believe that the information's false, if that's what you mean. Mancuso's a Watcher. What reason would he have to lie?"

"Well, for a start, he's also an Immortal. He's obviously some sort of fraud."

Joe tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "Damn," he said, half to himself. "I thought something was up with that guy."

"Then, why didn't you check up on him?" MacLeod began to pace back and forth in front of Joe's computer.

"I did," Joe protested. "The problem is that he checks out." MacLeod stopped and glared at him. "I looked him up in the database, Mac. He's been a Watcher since 1988. It's all in there--picture, background info.... Even his fingerprints matched."

"You checked his *fingerprints*?" MacLeod asked incredulously.

Joe gave him a disgusted look. "Mac, you give 'em a drink, you dust the bottle with talcum powder and you match 'em up with the file. It ain't brain surgery. He probably even knew that I was doing it. Look, they seemed chummy enough out there. They're probably having a good laugh together at how they both managed to fool the Watchers for so many years. I don't think the Old Man's gonna lose his head tonight. Anyway, we've got a bigger problem."

"This, you mean." MacLeod held up the file. "You think this is real?"

Joe nodded slowly. "Like I said, the Old Man's been acting real funny lately. I mean, he's always a bit gun shy, but.... I dunno. I'm just worried about him, okay? I think we should talk to him--together."

MacLeod burst out laughing. "Oh, he will love that."

Joe chuckled. "That's why I think we should do it together. That way, he can't weasel out of it."
*********
The first indication that things, as usual with Methos, were not going to go according to plan came when they went back out to the bar. Methos was sitting there alone, morosely nursing a beer. It did not look like his first.

"Hey, where'd your buddy go?" Joe asked, as he and MacLeod got drinks and sat down at the table. As they'd agreed in the backroom, Joe sat across from Methos and MacLeod sat next to him.

Staring at his beer, Methos shrugged. "We had a chat about old times--exchanged a few frank and honest opinions. He left." His voice was a monotone. He looked up and his eyes narrowed. Damn. He'd noticed that he was boxed in. In order to leave, he'd have to get past either Joe or MacLeod.

"You and MacLeod finish your bit of business?" he asked, sounding warier than Joe had hoped.

Joe glanced at MacLeod, who looked uncomfortable. "Uh, yeah," Joe said. "I just had to tell him, um, something that I'd heard about the barge."

Methos looked skeptical. "Right. I'm sure that whatever Immortal who's got MacLeod's back up this week will appreciate all those DIY tips you've been passing on to Mac about fixing up that boat."

Joe thought that Mac let the jibe pass with unusual restraint. "Methos," Mac said. "We were wondering if we could talk to you. Something's come up."

"Can't it wait? I really am shattered tonight." Methos rubbed his face with his hand. There was sand in his hair. Joe, looking at him, suddenly realised how tired he must be. "That Quickening took a lot out of me."

"I thought you said it wasn't that large of a Quickening," Joe pointed out.

"Sometimes, it's the little ones that knock you on your bum, Joe," Methos explained. "You don't get enough energy to make you jittery, but you're still as drained as if you'd taken in a big one. It doesn't help when you have to dig the guy a grave afterwards." He stood up. "I'll see you guys tomorrow. You can tell me all about Mac's barge project then, okay?"

"But--" MacLeod began.

"Not tonight, Mac. I've got a headache." Pulling on his coat, Methos edged past MacLeod and Joe. For a wild moment, Joe considered sticking his cane out and tripping the Old Man to keep him there. He wisely discarded the idea. Methos really didn't look in the mood for that.

"That went well," Joe said, after the door closed and Methos' steps faded.

"You could have stopped him," MacLeod accused him.

"So could you," Joe shot back. "Why didn't you?" MacLeod looked down at the table. Joe grimaced in near sympathy.

"That's what I thought," he said, draining his scotch.
*********
Mark had packed up his table for the night and was heading out to his rented van when he felt a Buzz. He stopped and pulled his weapon, a replica of a 15th century, hand-and-a-half Bastard sword, out of his coat. Turning in a slow circle, he saw no one.

"Who's there?" he called, confident that he could take his challenger, as long as he could see him--or her. Although Mark tried to look harmless, it was only camouflage. He had racked up twelve challenges in the past five years. Somehow, the others kept finding him. The human population of the world increased every day--Mortals and Immortals alike. The young ones were, if anything, more ferocious than the few ancients whom he encountered. The old ones usually just wanted to live and let live.

As Mark backed towards his van, his stalker stepped out of the shadows into the dimly lit parking lot. Sword drawn, the man approached to within three swordlengths.

"I think you know who I am, Atticus," he said.

"Crixus," Mark said, fishing the name out of his memory like a rotten apple core out of the pocket of an old coat. The man was Spartacus' Gallic lieutenant from his original rebellion. Until Crixus had spoken, Mark honestly had not remembered him. He raised his sword. "I'll bet I know why you're here."

Crixus smiled coldly. "I'm not here for an autograph, Atticus, if that's what you were thinking."

"So this is a challenge. Does Spartacus know you're here?" Dammit! He should have known that Pierson would never let his violation of the treaty go unchallenged.

Crixus circled to Mark's right. Mark turned with him, holding out his sword in defense. "You didn't answer my question, Crixus."

"There can be only One, Atticus. You know that." Crixus pointed his sword, a Viking-style blade, at Mark. Mark angled his own sword to block the intended move.

"Bullshit," he spat. "This doesn't have anything to do with the Game. You're here for revenge, pure and simple. Otherwise, your boss would have come instead."

Crixus grimaced in rage. "You killed my family! You killed his wife!"

"And you killed my friends! Both of you! A lot of them!" Mark didn't bother to say that he hadn't been there when Crixus' family had been killed. After he heard that Spartacus was hiding out in Gaul, Mark had sent Darius after the man. He himself had just died in front of two generals. He couldn't risk going after Spartacus himself, no matter how much he longed to do it. Darius had been acting on Mark's orders when he raided Spartacus' village. Killing Crixus' family had been a bonus.

"Then you don't deny it, you murdering bastard?" Crixus was closing the distance between them.

"I deny nothing!" Mark said indignantly. "Unlike you, I take responsibility for my actions. You had options, Crixus. Much as I used to hate your boss, I have to admit that he deserved better than a lieutenant like you."

Crixus sucked in his breath. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

Mark's temper, already frayed, snapped. "I mean that you have been faithless to Spartacus for over two thousand years. If you'd let him take you over the Alps instead of staying to plunder Italy, even if you hadn't taken your Germans and Gauls off to the slaughter, leaving him without good men at the worst moment, who knows what he might have achieved? You could have spared six thousand men a slow death on the cross along the Appian Way. You could have had Rome! But no, you had to go your own way to Hell, and drag him along with you."

He narrowed his eyes as a thought came to him. "Is that what you're doing now, Crixus? Either way, I'm screwed, is that it?" Despair filled him. If he killed Crixus now, Pierson would have to avenge the death of his lieutenant. He would come after Mark. And Mark no longer had the heart for that fight.

"You're a dead man, Atticus," Crixus confirmed Mark's fear with a grin. "I'll take your head if I can, but if you kill me, Spartacus will come after you. He'll kill you, Atticus."

"Maybe," Mark admitted. "Then again, if you win, maybe he'll kill you for disobeying him."

Crixus snorted in disgust. "A graduate student in history and a comic book artist; how have the mighty fallen." He attacked.

Mark parried the first blow, the second and the third. He ducked the fourth, and dodged the fifth, but it was only a temporary strategy. Crixus was taller than Mark, though not in as good shape. Though his sword was shorter than Mark's, it was also lighter and he really knew how to use it. He was too fast for Mark to fake him out or avoid him until he tired. Each of his blows was getting closer to its goal.

"Dammit, Crixus!" Mark blocked a beheading swing and tried a disarming move that did not work. "Stop this!"

"Fight, Roman!" Crixus shouted. He struck again.

Mark didn't catch the move in time. Crixus' sword sliced into his side. In agony and fear, Mark struck out, one-handed, straight from the shoulder. He felt his sword connect with Crixus' neck, cutting through before he knew what was happening. Sword and headless body fell away separately.

"Oh, Jesus," Atticus whispered. "I should have just stayed home." He would never know whether Crixus had made a mistake, or whether the Gaul had deliberately dropped his guard. As the first bolt of the Quickening hit, Atticus realised that either way, it didn't matter.
*********
Don't you ever get lonely?
Don't you ever get down?
Don't you ever tired of all the wicked tongues in this town?

I wish they'd stop hovering over me. It's bad enough when MacLeod gets it into his head that I'm manipulating him or Joe starts calling me a "calculating son of a bitch". That's unpleasant, but all I need do to get away from it is leave town. This...this worry, this fear of theirs is corrosive. It gets into my head like a bad cold and then *I* start believing that there's something wrong. At my age, I can't afford to start second-guessing myself.

Even the short walk home exhausts me. I get in the door after fumbling with the keys at the lock for an infinite time. Ground in habit makes me close and lock the door behind me, shutting out the very last of the daylight. I don't know what gets my legs to carry me through to the bedroom, instead of just letting me lie down on the floor. After that, my battered old memory fails.

BANG! BANG! BANG! "M. Pierson!" The first thing that I notice is not what wakes me up. There is a cat sitting on the pillow I've got jammed over my head. He is purring and drooling on me, kneading the pillow and my scalp, and he is damned heavy.

"Silas," I grunt. "Get off my head."

BANG! BANG! BANG! "M. PIERSON! Are you in there, M. Pierson?" Lots of neighborhood noise today.

Knead, purr, drool. Knead, purr, drool. "Cat, get OFF!"

"M. Pierson, it is the police! Open the door!" Pierson...Pierson.... Oh, Hell. That's me. Shoving off cat and pillow together, I sit up. What is the time? The time, I need the--

Sweet Heaven, I've slept for over twenty hours. My sword is still in my coat, from when I used it to kill that nameless brat yesterday morning. Though I wiped the blade clean, some blood always remains, along with the blood of a dozen others. I watch enough real life crime shows to know that, forensically speaking, the Ivanhoe is a murderer's nightmare.

I drag myself out of bed. Lacking a better plan, I yank my sword out of my coat, sheath and all, and shove it under the covers. Hopefully, these people have merely come to talk, not search. I stumble out to the door, the cat whining about my feet, and open it. Standing in the doorway are two policemen.

"Hullo?" I say. I don't have to try to sound confused.

"M. Adam Pierson?" One of the policemen says, his expression flat.

"Um...yes," I admit. "Can I help you?"

"M. Pierson, do you know a man named Chris Mancuso?" He looks a bit like Joe--has that air of been there, done that, don't care to repeat it. Maybe that's why I feel as though I've seen him before.

"He's a friend of mine." I say. What has the idiot done now? "Is he in some sort of trouble?"

"I am very sorry to tell you, sir, that M. Mancuso is dead. His body was found in a parking lot a few streets from here."

An electric shock shoots through my head down into my gut. The September sky behind the officers sharpens into diamond brightness. The officers, themselves, darken to silhouettes cut out of the sky. As they speak to me, their voices blur into a rising and falling hum. I feel sick, two thousand years of equilibrium knocked askew.

Something nudges my ankles. I look down to see Silas circling my legs. Augh. I slept in my boots. They're still muddy from digging that hole. No wonder my feet itch. Silas meows.

"M. Pierson?" the other officer says.

"I have to feed the cat," I say.

"M. Pierson, you need to come with us to identify the body."

"Yes," I say. "After I feed the cat."

"M. Pierson...." he says to my back.

"Let him do it," the older one tells him.

I shuffle into the kitchen and feed the cat, who immediately abandons my ankles for the food bowl. He purrs as he eats. I crouch down and stroke his fur. At least I've made somebody happy today.

When I come out of the kitchen, the two policemen are waiting for me, still standing in the doorway. "Shall we go now, sir?" says the older one. I nod wearily. They both step aside to let me go out to the police car.

At the station, they ask me questions. The policemen don't seem hostile or suspicious. When I answer them, I watch in mild disinterest as I seem to slip further and further down their list of suspects. Did Mancuso have any enemies? When did I last see him? What kind of mood was he in? I keep my answers vague. It helps that I hadn't seen Crixus in the eight years before he came back to town, and that I have no intention of turning in my main suspect. If I decide to do anything about Marcus Atticus, I'll take care of it myself. I'm of two minds about it. Atticus broke his agreement to stay out of Paris and now Crixus is dead.

On the other hand, it's probably Crixus' own damned fault. If he challenged Atticus, he must have hoped that I'd take up the challenge to avenge him if he failed. I never liked Crixus' manipulations. I won't let them survive his death. If Atticus challenges me, that's different, but Atticus won't challenge me. He would have taken Crixus' mobile phone and called me, if he wanted a fight. He hasn't, and the mobile was found with Crixus. For now, I'm willing to call that a truce.

After an hour, the policemen escort me down to the morgue. I don't like this place. I've awakened on a slab more than once, though not recently. Today, it's not my turn. When my time comes, I hope there will be no slab, no dissection, no chill humiliation. The worst thing about death, though, is that we no longer control what happens to our bodies. I can only hope that I'll be somewhere where I won't care.

The policemen do try to be gentle, not that it helps. The coroner asks me if I'm ready. I say yes (I'm not). He pulls back the sheet, past the neck, where the separation between head and body is obvious. It looks like a clean cut, at least, a quick death, almost painless. Some Immortals hack heads the way a logger chops down trees. It is not a pleasant way to go. You're in agony, not quite dead, your Quickening leaking inexorably out....

"It's him." My voice is so flat, I don't recognise it.

"This is Chris Mancuso?"

Not exactly. "Yes."

"You are certain?"

"Yes."

"Very well. Cover him back up, please." For a second before the coroner pulls the sheet back up, I think that they mean me, not Mancuso. The second policeman, the older one, shakes my hand.

"Thank you for coming, M. Pierson. Again, we are very sorry for your loss." The words are shopworn, but the intent behind them is generous. "You have our deepest sympathies. You are now free to go."

I blink at him. "That's it?"

The policeman hesitates. "There is one more thing," he says slowly. "Did you once work with a man named Don Salzer?"

I *knew* I should have switched IDs. What have I been thinking, playing at being Adam Pierson for so long? I should have moved on.

"We used to work at Shakespeare & Company together," I say warily. "We were friends. I'm afraid he's been dead a long time."

"He was murdered in 1995, yes? I remember that you testified against the man."

"Yes, I did," I admit. "He tried to kill me, too. I'm only sorry that he didn't last longer in prison." What I'm really sorry about is that I didn't get to take Kalas' head myself. I made certain that the police found the body. I wanted that case closed. This man must have been part of the investigation. That's why he looks familiar.

The policeman nods. "I understand," he says. "You must have wanted revenge very badly."

I could beat around the bush. Then again.... "Wouldn't you?" I say. He smiles wryly. He has no evidence of my involvement, of course. "Officer," I continue. "I'm very, very tired. I just lost a good friend. I had to identify his body in your morgue. If you do have one more point, please get to it."

"Your friend Mancuso had a tattoo on his left wrist," he admits. "A circle with lines through it. Your other friend, Don Salzer, had a similar tattoo. I wondered if you had noticed it."

"No." I shake my head. "They were both very reserved, even with me. Neither of them liked to roll up his sleeves, if you know what I mean. Do you think that this has something to do with their deaths?"

"It's possible that there was a link," he replies. "I would advise you to be very careful. You may know something that you do not realise could be useful to the investigation." *Or that you don't want to tell us,* he doesn't add. I hear the warning, anyway.

"Thank you for your concern, officer," I tell him. "I think I'll be fine." He lets me go then. Sometimes, Adam Pierson can be useful. He's good at being disarming. It is one reason why I made him up. Maybe I didn't want to just play innocent for a few years, maybe I wanted to try being innocent. It didn't work very well, in the end. It only depressed me. Still, I had some fun. Don was a good friend. Joe is a good friend. MacLeod...I don't know what he is anymore.

Leaving the police station, I see a familiar woman coming up the corridor from the entrance. It's Amy Thomas, Joe's daughter. When she sees me, she starts, but doesn't ignore me, or try to hurry past the way so many former Watcher friends do. Instead, she walks up and shakes my hand.

"Hullo, Dr. Adams," she says, not loudly or to draw attention. "It's been a few years."

I raise my eyebrows and she smirks. "A few, yes," I say. I lean close. "Keep your arms covered," I add quietly.

Her eyes narrow, but she doesn't ask why. I take her by the elbow. "Let's go get a drink," I say. "Catch up on old times."

"All right," she says, with no protest. Ah, she knows about Mancuso. Joe and MacLeod have been telling her tales, I see. This should be interesting.

Amy wastes no time. No sooner have we stepped onto the sidewalk than she turns to me. "They brought you in about Chris Mancuso, didn't they?" she says, right to the point. "MacLeod told Joe he was an Immortal."

"They wanted me to identify the body," I hedge. "It seems he'd lost his head." Her faces twists in sympathy.

"I'm sorry, Ben. I understand that you were friends."

"I suppose we were. They noticed the tattoo. One man asked me if there was a connection between Mancuso and Don Salzer."

Her eyes widen. "He was one of the Watchers that Kalas murdered, wasn't he?"

"Yes." Joe has kept her well informed, or maybe they lecture about Don's 'martyrdom' at the Academy now.

"We'll have to watch out for them," she says, tugging her sleeve down over her tattooed wrist. "We don't want to arouse any suspicion with the police. Paris is too important a city to evacuate." She points down the sidewalk at her car. "Let me drive you home. You look like you've had quite a day."

"No kidding. And I've only been up for two hours." I look her up and down. Short skirts look good on her. I put a hand on my hip and crook my elbow in invitation. "I thought we were going for a drink."

She puts her arm through mine. "I think you'd fall asleep in it," she says. I suppose she's right. "I'll drive you home."
*********
"Joe told you about Mancuso, did he?" I say as we near my apartment.

Amy pushes her hair back from her forehead, looking embarrassed. "Well, no..." she admits. "I was there when he came in to see Joe the other day."

"I see." So much for the patented Dawson damage control. I'll be lucky if half of Paris doesn't know my real name by the end of the week.

"Did Joe tell you why he came?" Amy asks. "Did he show you the file?"

"What file?" I feel cold. Crixus, you son of a bitch, what have been telling my friends?

Amy looks as though she's regretting her slip. "Joe said he was going to tell you."

No. Nonono. Crixus, you bastard. Tell me you didn't dig up what I think you dug up.

I turn to face her. "He didn't tell me. What file?" Amy pulls into the parking lot to my apartment. My truck sits a few cars away. Amy brakes the car and turns off the ignition. She sits for a few minutes, in some sort of consideration. "What file, Amy?" I repeat.

Amy sighs. "Mancuso had a file with him, from Seacouver. It had a police photo of you, attached to a psychiatric commitment order to the Seacouver County General Hospital."

Oh. That file. "What was the date?" I say.

"June 15, 1998." The date sounds about right. Not that I remember that month well.

"Are you all right, Ben?" Amy asks, looking concerned.

"Oh, sure. Absolutely. It was years ago. I'm completely over...anything, everything. I don't know." I lean forward and bang my head gently on the dashboard. Deep breaths, here, Old Man. I mean, what the Hell. MacLeod's had at least two breakdowns since I've known him (even if he thinks that a Dark Quickening and battling the forces of Ahri-what's-his-name don't count). What're a few straitjackets between friends? Okay. So, I had a few bad months back in 1997 and '98. A few really, really bad months. A few 'somebody take my head, please, to spare me the effort of getting up in the morning' months, to be exact. It's not that big a deal. Happens to me at least once every century or two. It's not the worst that I've ever been. That breakdown only cost, oh, one thousand years or so of my humanity, and at least ten thousand lives.

Amy puts a tentative hand on my shoulder. "Um, Ben. I know that this has all been a shock to you, but maybe you should try to get some rest. It can't hurt. You could go stay with Duncan MacLeod for a few days until you get your balance back. Joe's explained the situation to him."

"Has he." This is bad. Obviously, Joe and MacLeod think I've gone off my head, and they've recruited Amy as the shepherd to bring me back into the fold (and here I thought Joe loved his daughter). I can see where this is going. Amy will drive me over to MacLeod's, where a few days will turn into a few weeks, maybe even a few months or years. MacLeod will shadow me constantly, like some home care nurse. Eventually, he'll grow tired and impatient. Then, he'll pass me on to the next starry-eyed Immortal as if I'm one of his precious antiques. I should be grateful it won't be Richie. Worse yet, Joe might persuade the Watchers to take me back in. Maybe they'll try to lock me up in Sanctuary, safely tucked away in some virtual reality.

How dare they? Do they think that I'll like being put away any better because it's my friends doing it? Wasn't it bad enough, waking up in that Seacouver hospital among strangers, with no idea what I'd done the previous week? Thank Heaven I'd recovered enough sense at that point to play it meek until the staff turned their backs. That was hardly my first jailbreak!

It's no great task to fool strangers. My so-called friends, now, that's a different story. Joe and MacLeod know too many of my tricks. They'll both watch me like jackals in the grass, damn their eyes. And look! Joe has already recruited the next generation of Dawsons to the task. Amy may be young, and still stupid, but she's got her father's blood in her. I'll need to shake her off my track as soon as I can, or she'll have my treacherous old carcass in the trap by day's end.

What all my well-wishers need is a good scare. MacLeod first, I think. It's time he stopped putting me in the category of 'women, children and doddering Ancients', and started taking me seriously as a fellow killer. I don't like to make any more enemies than I have already got, but I'm not going to let him and his pet Watcher put me in a cage. If there truly were something worse than death, then looking at life through a set of padded bars would qualify for me. I don't do well in captivity. I'll admit to many failings, but never to that one. Too many would be willing to try to prove me wrong. MacLeod, for one.

The first thing I need to do is pass on some information--from Amy's lips to Joe's ears. I lift my head and smile at her. She smiles back tentatively, not sure what's going on. Good. Very good.

"Thank you for the ride, Amy," I chirp, which is hard with my voice register. "It was lovely of you to offer. I really do appreciate it."

The look on Amy's face as I open the car door and get out is worth the invention of the Polaroid camera. "But--but...don't you want me to drive you over to the barge?"

"Oh, no." I smile, showing my teeth. In past millennia, I sometimes filed my canines down to points. They always grew back. "I have to get my sword first. Don't worry. Just tell him I'll be along presently." I back away from the car, projecting enough psychotic cheer to make certain Amy knows that my trip to the barge will not be a social visit. Then, I turn and head into the building. Behind me, I hear Amy grind her starter in her haste to get the car going. She peels out of the parking lot, headed for Le Blues Bar, I presume. Poor kid. I'll make it up to her later--once I've established the ground rules with all of my potential nannies.

Crixus is lucky he's dead. If he weren't, I'd kill him myself.
*********
Paris, September 6, 2002
MacLeod awoke with his heart banging at his ribs and his clock alarm ringing in his ears.

"Shit!" he gasped, sucking in breaths. He rolled over, grabbing his head. "Ohh, Jesus. Oh, God...."

The nightmare fragmented in the morning light, leaving a rotten taste in his mouth. Ahriman had been in it, wearing his Kronos mask--and Methos. Ahriman had killed Methos with his own sword. Why hadn't Methos run? He always ran....

MacLeod got out of bed to make himself coffee. He liked to rise early. Coffee didn't help, so he meditated for an hour. Meditation proved a disaster. Every sound in Paris seemed to assault his ears. He fixed and ate breakfast. It gave him heartburn. He tried Tai Chi; more heartburn. By nine am, he despaired of entertaining himself. He went to a local market to buy fruit and vegetables for dinner.

It would be so easy (he told himself as he picked through the grapefruit) to dismiss Methos as a cynical, calculating son of a bitch. Those people never died. You could rely on it. MacLeod needed somebody to rely on. Darius had given him advice and forgiveness; he had died. Tessa had loved Mac with all of her strength and fire; she had died. Richie had stood loyal to him to the bloody end; he had died. Connor had offered him true kinship; he, too, had died, in the end. Joe wasn't dead, but he did get a little greyer each year. In a decade or two, MacLeod would lose him. Amanda gave him brightness and joy, but someday someone would take her head. She was smart and skilled and tough, but she wasn't strong, and she wasn't skilled enough to be the One. As for Kate, MacLeod was grateful to have his wife back. When she returned from Zurich, he hoped to visit London with her for the week. But Kate had been damaged in their centuries apart. Unreliability was the byword of her character.

"People die, MacLeod. Immortals die," Methos had once told him. Surely such a man could be relied upon to always survive. He might be selfish. He might be cynical. He might disappear at the first sign of any peril, but he would never die. He would never take on MacLeod's challenges for him. He would never let himself be mocked and ridiculed by his friends for being only human. He would never have lain down on a set of train tracks, and tried to die. Surely, MacLeod told himself, as he paid for his produce and headed home, this was another one of Methos' games, another unfathomable plan. Much better to believe that, than to believe that Methos had no plan, that he could be frightened and angry and confused. And ill.

*God,* MacLeod thought, trudging back to the barge. *For years he's been telling me that he could take care of himself, and I've been trying to protect him, anyway. Now, when he really could use my help, I don't have the vaguest idea what to do.*

Chopping up vegetables didn't help either.

MacLeod was working on sword katas when his cell phone rang. Breathing heavily, he set his sword down on the couch, went into the kitchen, picked the phone off the counter and turned it on.

"MacLeod," he said.

"Mac?" It was Joe. "Mac, where are you?"

"I'm at the barge. Why? What's going on?" Mac came alert at the tension in Joe's voice.

Joe sighed. "I don't have a lot of time to explain. Mancuso is dead."

"Dead?! How?"

"The usual way." Joe's sense of humour was even blacker than usual. "He lost his head. Turned up on the Left Bank near the rue Mouffetard early this morning. I take it from your tone that you didn't know about that."

"I didn't kill him, if that's what you're thinking," MacLeod snapped.

"Good. That simplifies things a little. Jason Anders, the new European section head, is still bouncing off the walls over the fact that Mancuso was sporting a Watcher tattoo. But that's not important right now. What is, is that Methos thinks you *did* do it, and he's headed your way with a sword and some serious fucking attitude." As Joe spoke, MacLeod felt a Buzz.

"He's here now," he said. The silence as the Buzz approached was unnerving. Methos knew how to sneak.

Joe swore. "I'll be right over." The phone went dead.

"Was that Joe?" MacLeod looked up. Methos was coming down the steps from the upper deck, sword drawn. One corner of his mouth twisted in a smile. "Warning you, was he? Good timing."

"Methos," MacLeod said, backing away from the phone and the stairway. "I just heard about Mancuso. I'm sorry. You must be pretty upset."

Methos raised an eyebrow. "Upset? You kill every friend of mine that you meet and you think that makes me upset?" He reached the bottom of the steps.

"What are you talking about?" MacLeod cursed himself silently for having left his katana on the couch when he'd gone to answer the phone. "What's got into you?"

"Nothing." Methos tapped his head. "Nobody in here but us chickens today. What's the matter, Mac? You were all hot for me to stick around last night. Seems you and Joe had something to tell me. I'm just here to continue our little chat...about your barge."

Dammit! How had he found out about the file? "Your friend Mancuso seemed worried about you," MacLeod equivocated. "We wanted to talk to you about it. Whoever killed him might be after you."

Methos chuckled, his expression bland and innocent. "He'd have a much better chance against me if he hadn't left his sword on the couch."

MacLeod backed towards the couch. "I didn't kill your friend, Methos," he insisted. "Not this one," he added, since he had killed at least three of Methos' old comrades, as far as he knew.

"Uhhuh. Should I take the word of Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod about that?" Methos waggled his sword at MacLeod. "Or maybe...I should simply take your head!" He leapt at MacLeod, slashing at him. MacLeod yelped when the blade scored his chest. He backed up, barely catching hold of his katana as he flipped backwards over the couch. Methos' Ivanhoe bit into the top of the couch a second later.

"Methos, stop it!" MacLeod gasped as he scrambled away from the couch towards the bulkhead. "We don't have to do this!"

"Why not?" Methos wrenched his sword out of the couch and stalked around it. "It's what we do. Isn't that what you're always telling me?" He mimicked MacLeod's accent, "'Stop playing around, Methos. This isn't a game.' But it is a game, MacLeod. And you know what? It's so much fun, I think I'll start playing it again." When he struck, MacLeod got his sword up, barely in time. "It's better if you have your sword, though. More dangerous, of course, but it makes the kill sweeter."

MacLeod shoved Methos' sword off his own and scrambled away. To his surprise, Methos did not follow. MacLeod got to the bulkhead and stood up. The Old Man stood near the couch, sword resting on his shoulder. His expression was as blank as it had been in MacLeod's dream. He strolled after MacLeod, as MacLeod backed toward the stairway to get out onto the upper deck.

MacLeod groped for a way to stall the Old Man. "Methos, why are you doing this?" he panted. "I didn't kill Mancuso. I don't want to kill you!"

Methos snorted. "Who says that you could? I don't like people who lie to me, MacLeod. I don't like it when they laugh at me behind my back. I do not consider them friends."

"Nobody was laughing at you." MacLeod continued to back towards the hatchway. Methos followed him, but made no move to stop him.

"Yeah, you and Joe were gonna tell me the score after you'd had me locked up--for my own safety, of course." MacLeod had to admire the way Methos could get to the point. "You lied to me."

"You haven't always been honest, either, Methos," MacLeod snapped. He regretted the snipe as soon as he said it, but it was too late.

"Since when? Might we be referring to the Horsemen, MacLeod? That was none of your affair, and if Cassandra hadn't played on your misplaced sense of chivalry with her little 'gift', you might have noticed that. I could have called her a liar. I could have said that she was insane. I didn't. You asked and I told you the truth--which made her look damned good, I might add." Methos leveled his sword menacingly.

"And what about Keane? I didn't see you rushing over to my apartment for advice about him, oh no. It would be much too embarrassing, admitting that you weren't any better than the rest of us, that you'd killed in anger, that you enjoyed it. You knew I was in town. I know that Joe told you. Oh, yeah, you were still mad at me, but you certainly haven't been shy about grabbing me for a shot of ancient wisdom before or after you found out I wasn't perfect. Yet, an old enemy with a legitimate grudge against you rides into town and, ooh, look, I don't exist."

MacLeod tried to defuse the situation. "Methos, let's both put our swords down and talk about this. I'm sure we can work something out."

Methos laughed, fierce and jagged. "This from a man who's gone off with the fairies at least twice in the seven years that I've known him." He attacked MacLeod, cutting down diagonally. MacLeod leapt back before he could be slashed open from shoulder to hip, tripped over the steps to the upper deck, and landed on them. As Methos drove in with another overhand swing, MacLeod rolled to one side and brought the katana up. Caught up by the force of his maniacal rush, Methos impaled himself on the point.

Methos didn't look down at the katana buried in his abdomen, though it must have hurt badly. Instead, he lowered his sword and put it against the side of MacLeod's neck. MacLeod, stunned, gaped at him.

"Checkmate," Methos said calmly. "Joe told me that you used this trick on your friend Consone. Did you think you were the first one to ever think of it? You are so young. I have *forgotten* more techniques than you have ever learned." He was already gasping for breath, as his body began to shut down. "It would be so easy to take your head, and by the time I woke up, the only thing left of the Perfect Immortal would be a headless body and a wrecked barge."

MacLeod swallowed against the cold metal at his throat. Methos' eyes, though already turning glassy, were calm and deadly serious. He would do it. "I didn't kill Mancuso," MacLeod insisted.

"I know, or you'd be dead already." Methos let the Ivanhoe fall away from MacLeod's neck. Shaking in agony, he braced his sword against a step and shoved himself off of MacLeod's katana. MacLeod winced at the sound and feel of metal scraping against bone, and the sucking noise as the blade came free.

MacLeod let his sword drop. "Then, why?" he asked plaintively.

"Just...making...a point," Methos panted, as the Ivanhoe clattered on the deck. Eyes rolling up in his head, he collapsed backward, landing with an ungraceful thump. He shivered once, twice, then lay still. Around his body, bright red blood appeared in a pool that slowed even as it spread. It was going to make one hell of a stain on the deck.

Still gasping for breath, MacLeod got up off the steps. He went over to the body and stuck his katana through its heart. Picking up the Ivanhoe, he walked over to the phone (watching Methos the entire time), and called Joe.
*********
Capua, Italy, 74 BC
The guards drag me down the filthy alleyways of the carceres. Disgusting creatures, these city people. They live piled on top of each other like ants. Give me the free steppes again, or the desert. I fight these things all the way. Always, in the first few moments after the arena, I am wild. I scream and kick and hack at the netting that smothers me. How dare they drag me out of the arena like a Circus beast? I am Death!

When the bloodlust ebbs in my head, I stop fighting the nets and let the guards drag me. What will come next is a kind of reward. I lick my lips at the thought of it. No palma, no praemium, no corona, no lap of honour around the arena for me. I am too dangerous to be allowed on the editor's platform to receive the palm branch, money or the laurel crown. Besides, my customers await.

I glimpse a tall, red-haired Gaul as they drag me past the slave quarters. He has been watching them bring me out to the arena and back for weeks, though they keep me in another pen. I am getting a reputation amongst the other slaves. I hope it is a bad one.

The guards drag me to a hut set off from the other buildings. Inside, there is a low bed, with chains and cuffs attached to the wall at its head. The guards drop me on the dirt floor. All of them pull knives. The leader grabs my sword hand and poses his blade over my face.

"Let go, Spartacus," he warns. I open my hand slowly, not out of fear, but to annoy him. Another man takes the gladius, when the leader cuts it loose. As each of my limbs is freed, a guard grabs it. They fear me, and they do not trust me at all. Someday, I will get loose and I will cut all their throats, one by one. They know this. I see it in their sweaty faces and the way they grip their knives. I am the monster that haunts their nights.

Once they free me from the nets, they haul me up onto the bed and chain my wrists to the wall. I accept it, until one of them comes too close while yanking my tunic down to cover my knees. I grab for him, yanking the chain tight. I miss his throat by only a finger's breadth as he stumbles back. I smile. He deserved it. Whose sensibilities did he think he was protecting? The customer's? Hardly. I am sure she spent my entire fight hoping for a glimpse of what she will be getting now. She is expecting a half-naked gladiator, still charged with bloodlust from the arena, not her husband the Flamen Dialis.

My intended victim flees, glancing over his shoulder in terror. He is fortunate. The first time they brought me here, after the arena, I throttled a man before they could get me off him. I was so angry, and I did not yet know about what came afterwards. My first fight, I think, was supposed to be a game of cat and mouse, with me the mouse. I should have died. In the arena, with no time to heal, nowhere to run, I was as vulnerable as a Mortal. I got through that fight on arrogance and rage alone. I was Death! No one was more surprised than I, at the end, that I had survived, let alone won, against two armed and armoured men.

Their duties concluded, the other guards back out warily. The last one to go is the man who always guards the door while I conduct my 'business' for the ludus. As usual, he looks amused. Sick bastard. I think he volunteers for the post, just to listen to me work.

"You enjoy this, don't you?" he asks. He always asks. Instead of satisfying his curiosity, I put my hands over my head and stretch like a great cat. I almost purr. I laugh at him as he leaves the hut, shaking his head.

Of course I've enjoyed it--all five times. I will enjoy this time, as well--more than the killing in the arena. Scrambling for my life in the sand to entertain some fat praetor does not please me. Giving his wife the ride of her life afterwards--that does please me. And I will bet a praetor's wife is first in line today. I have fans in Capua.
*********
Paris, September 6, 2002
Joe stood on the deck of the barge, flexing his fingers over his cane. They still ached from gripping his brake handle on the drive over. He shouldn't have driven so fast. The handles weren't as responsive as a normal footpedal system on a car. What if he'd had an accident? How would that have improved the situation?

For the life of him, he couldn't think of much that would improve the 'situation' at this point--but total honesty might be a good start. Yeah. He'd try that.

He glanced apprehensively through the doorway to the lower deck. Methos' body sprawled a few feet away from the bottom of the steps. It was hard to tell from the deck, but since the barge and the rest of Paris were still intact, that hopefully meant that the Old Man's head was still attached to his shoulders.

"Mac?" he called. "Everything all right down there?"

"Yeah, hang on. I'll come up and get you." MacLeod called back up. He appeared a moment later, and came bounding up the steps.

Shoving Methos' file under his arm, Joe put a hand on MacLeod's shoulder and stepped through the door. He clung to his cane the whole way as he crept down the stairway. This wasn't easy, even leaning on Mac the whole way. With each step, Joe missed the big elevator up to Mac's dojo in Seacouver. It had been much better than these frigging steps. Someday, he was going to fall and break his neck on the goddamned things.

Joe felt a stab of relief when he saw that Methos' head was still fully attached to his shoulders. Once safely on the lower deck, Joe limped over to Methos. The Old Man sprawled near the base of the stairway, eyes half open. Someone, most likely MacLeod, had shoved a katana into his chest, pinning his body to the deck. He had another deep wound under his sternum. It pained Joe to see his friend lying like a pile of rags tossed onto the deck.

"Just what the Hell has gotten into him?" Joe demanded, as MacLeod came up beside him.

Mac sighed. "You tell me," he replied. "Or better yet, ask him--" He jerked his chin at Methos' supine body. "--when he wakes up." When he reached over to pull the katana out of Methos' chest, Joe put a hand out to stop him.

"Wait," he said. MacLeod stared at him, puzzled. "We need to talk about this," Joe said. "Or were you planning on just giving him back his sword and letting him stagger on home the way he is?"

MacLeod's mouth dropped open. "Are you kidding? Joe, he's soaked in blood. He'd get arrested inside of five minutes. And there is no way that I'm giving him back his sword." He gestured angrily at the corpse. "I think he's done enough damage with it already."

"You can't keep him pinned like a bug to your deck forever," Joe pointed out. "Mac, think about it. He's gonna get himself killed if he keeps this up. Don't you want to find out what's going on?"

Mac folded his arms, looking stubborn. "He just attacked me in my own home and caused a few hundred euros worth of damage, which you and I both know he will never acknowledge, let alone pay for. And when he wakes up, he'll be a complete bastard just to get out explaining any of it. You know that, Joe."

"Yeah," Joe sighed. "Okay. Give him a change of clothes when he wakes up though. A shower should improve his mood, considering that he's wearing the same shit he had on yesterday."

MacLeod's face twisted in annoyance. "Fine," he said. "If that's all it takes, we'll be better off than we usually are with him."

"Mac," Joe pleaded. "Give him a break. He just lost a good friend. It's messed him up."

"It doesn't excuse his behavior," MacLeod grumbled.

"Oh, yeah?" Joe held out Methos' file and shook it at MacLeod. "How would you feel if this were your file, Mac?" Mac scowled, looking stubborn. "C'mon, Mac," Joe snarled. "Tell me how thrilled you'd be if this were all about you whacking Sean Burns--or Richie."

MacLeod turned pale. "It's not the same."

"No. You're right. It isn't. Methos didn't kill anybody while he was out of his head."

"Not as far as we know," MacLeod snapped. "He could have killed Mancuso, himself."

"We don't know that for sure."

"He tried to kill me," MacLeod protested.

"If he'd wanted to kill you," Joe replied savagely, "you'd be dead."

A nasty silence fell between them. Mac broke it first.

"I'll go get the clothes," he said wearily. "And make some soup. He'll need something to help him replace all that blood loss when he wakes up."

"Thank you," Joe called after him, as MacLeod went off to the bedroom. It could have been worse. MacLeod could have dumped Methos in the river, sword and all.

MacLeod came back out with the clothing. "I found some stuff that Methos left here a few years ago," he said, carefully laying out a faded green henley shirt, jeans, socks, boxer shorts and a towel next to a slash in the top of the couch.

"Did he take that chunk out of your couch?" Joe asked, noting that the slash seemed new.

"Yeah," MacLeod looked annoyed. Joe laughed.

"The towel is a nice touch. I think he'll like that." Joe grasped the hilt of MacLeod's katana, which still protruded from Methos' chest, and glanced over at MacLeod. "You ready for this?"

MacLeod squared his shoulders and shook his head. "No."

"Me neither. Here goes." Joe tugged on the sword. It took four good yanks on the hilt to remove the sword. Joe nearly lost his balance as the sword came free. He felt like King Arthur dragging Excalibur out of a rock. As he stood holding the sword, trying to figure out what to do with it, MacLeod took it out of his hand.

"Let's keep all the sharp, pointy objects in the house out of range, shall we?" he said. Joe shrugged and turned his attention back to Methos. As he watched, the body on the deck lost its grey flaccidity. It took longer than he had expected--there must have been a lot of internal damage. Methos twitched as small arcs of blue energy sparked over his wounds. His body arched violently in a crackle of energy, then flopped back down. For a few seconds, he lay motionless.

Methos gasped. "Ow," MacLeod said, sounding almost sympathetic. Seconds passed before Methos breathed again, a choking, agonized sound. He blinked, then winced, coughing up blood. Closing his eyes tightly, he rolled over onto his side, and rubbed his face with his hands.

"Agh," he complained. "Couldn't somebody have closed my eyes for me? I hate when they dry out."

"I tried, but they wouldn't stay closed," MacLeod said. "Sorry."

Joe stayed out of reach while Methos struggled to sit up, looking dazed. Blood caked the hair on the back of the Old Man's head. His clothes were soaked and he stank like meat in a slaughterhouse. He probably had bruises on his back, as his body tended to higher priorities. Joe watched him, feeling pity. He couldn't yet gauge the older man's mood. Methos was cagey at the best of times. This was not one of those times.

"How do you feel?" Joe said, as Methos' eyes focused on him. They still were glazed, but at least they now looked living.

Methos scowled blearily at him. "Like I've been had."

"Yeah, well, we can talk about that," Joe admitted. "Why don't you take a shower, first? Mac got you some clothes."

"Really." Methos didn't look reassured.

Mac frowned at him. "I'll get you some juice," he said, going off into the kitchen.

"Ugh," Methos said. "Juice. He's trying to poison me."

"Methos," Joe sighed. "Be nice. You did just try to kill him, you know."

"'Nice' is overrated, Joe," Methos replied. Shakily, he got to his feet. Joe offered an arm, but the Old Man wouldn't take it. Instead, he leaned against the bulkhead, looking very pale. No wonder; he'd just bled to death.

"Maybe you should try it sometime," Joe suggested. "Nice guys don't have to finish last, you know."

Methos leaned his head against the bulkhead. "Oh, they never finish last, Joe. Not nice guys. No, they always finish first, right after they've sold off impious bastards like you and me to the arena."

Unsteadily, he pushed himself away from the bulkhead (where he left a large, brown stain) and headed for MacLeod's living room. Joe followed him, trying to figure out a benign way to bring up Mancuso's file and hopefully jolly Methos out of his bitter mood, too. At least the Old Man no longer seemed homicidal.

"You know, you never did tell me why you decided to help me out with Amy in the end," Joe said. "Especially after I sold you out to Walker."

Methos, who was gingerly pulling off his sodden coat, looked confused by the change in subject. "Didn't I? I'm sure I did."

"You said it was because you were easily amused, Methos," Joe growled.

"Right. There's your answer, then."

Joe fought down the satisfying, but impractical, urge to slap Methos up the side
of his head until he became cooperative. It would not, of course, work. He changed tactics.

"You told me how you figured it out, but you didn't tell me why you went
along with it. You didn't look too amused after you got shot." He'd meant to worm an explanation out of Methos a long time ago, but he'd never been able to get the Old Man drunk enough.

"You were shot?" Mac said, coming out into the living room with a large glass of orange juice and a couple of bananas. "When?"

"Hey, you got me shot--Buddy," Methos retorted. "You're the one who pulled out the gun and escalated the situation. I told you it was a bad idea, and you just accused me of being a coward."

"Joe got you shot?" Mac said.

"I didn't call you a coward," Joe protested. Had he? It had been four years ago. Surely, Methos wasn't going to keep holding that against him.

"Oh, yeah. Like not actually using the word means anything. You ignored me. You ignored my advice. What the Hell did you think it meant?" Methos was beginning to look pissed off with the conversation. Getting him drunk first would have been the better plan.

"Waitaminute," Mac said. "Joe, you got Methos shot? When did this happen?" Joe winced. He'd forgotten that he'd never told Mac about Walker--or Amy.

For the moment, he ignored MacLeod, concentrating on Methos. "Methos, stop changing the damned subject and answer my question! Why did you go along with it? You knew it was a trap."

"Well, yeah, but you were in my car."

Joe's mouth fell open. "What?"

"You were in my car." Methos looked at Joe. "You know. My car? After I got shot and woke up? And then we ran out of gas...and then you *laughed* at me." Here, he glared at Joe. "As far as I'm concerned, it all went downhill from there."

"You could have just left me behind," Joe snapped.

"Oh, believe me, I thought of it," Methos snapped back.

"HEY." Both Joe and Methos stopped bickering and stared at MacLeod. "What," Mac continued, with visible restraint, "are you two talking about?"

"Ask Joe," Methos said, pulling the coat off completely and dropping it in a sodden heap on one of MacLeod's more expensive-looking rugs. "I think I'll take that shower now."

Mac frowned down at the stain spreading on the rug. "Here," he said, shoving the glass of juice at Methos. "Drink this first. Maybe you'll be in a more reasonable mood after you get your blood sugar back up."

Methos took the glass of juice, drained it and handed it back to MacLeod. "Okay, Mom. I took my medicine. Can I go play now?" Without waiting for a response, he turned and headed towards the bathroom, picking up the pile of clothes on the couch on his way. Joe thought that Mac might have a stroke when Methos lingered to admire the wedge he'd hacked out of the couch.

"Christ, he's a pain in the ass," MacLeod grumbled, after Methos was safely in the bathroom. He picked Methos' coat up off the rug, staring at the huge stain it left in obvious dismay. Joe decided not to point out the stain on the wall. Mac would notice it soon enough on his own.

"Well, one of the things you do when you get older is stop worrying about what other people think about you," he said.

"Know all about that, do you, Joe?" Mac asked sourly.

"Yeah, Mac, I do. When you have less time to learn things, sometimes you learn 'em faster."
*********
Gods, I'm tired. I'd love to stay in the shower under this stream of water for hours. Unfortunately, MacLeod's spartan hot water tank will only allow me 20 minutes, at best. I could fall asleep here, until the water turned ice cold. I close my eyes and lean my forehead against the tiles.

This day has not gone at all well. I planned it all so carefully on the way over to MacLeod's, and then when I got here, I just...lost it. What the Hell was I thinking? Isn't refusing to take the head of somebody who didn't want mine what got me into this mess in the first place? MacLeod may be a self-absorbed pain in the ass, but he doesn't want my head. Such Immortals are thin on the ground. I suppose what I should do now is apologise and pay up for the damages.

Faintly, through the running water and steam, I hear Joe and MacLeod yelling at each other. Now what?

"Why the hell didn't you just call me in London?" MacLeod shouts. "I could have been back in a few hours." What, are they still talking about that business with Morgan Walker? What a waste of breath.

Joe's response is mostly inaudible--something about, "It was an emergency. We didn't have time." I suppose that's true. That's how I always figured it. I was just a convenient port in the storm when his daughter got kidnapped.

"That's never stopped you before," MacLeod says. "You could have at least called me. You had the time. Methos is an unreliable son of a bitch at the best of times and yet you went running to him right after you'd kicked him out of your place for breaking into your files!" Well, thank you, Duncan MacLeod of the sheep-loving Clan MacLeod. Isn't it fun what you hear when your so-called friends think you're out of earshot? Bugger the apology, I think--and the monetary compensation.

Joe's answer is so quiet that I cannot hear any of it. Fine. Don't defend me. See if I care.

"Don't give me that, Joe," MacLeod snarls back. "And just when were you planning on telling me that you had a daughter, or that she was in the Watchers? *He's* worthy of that confidence, but I'm not?" Oh, my. And here I'd thought that Mac had known about Amy all along. That will teach me to assume anything about Joe Dawson.

Again, I can't hear Joe's answer. I'll bet it's, "It never came up." Joe is as close-mouthed as I can be when it comes to skeletons in the closet. I just have more of them than he does.

"Well, I could say the same about that, couldn't I?" MacLeod retorts. "'It never came up.'" Yes! Right on the money. "And maybe I didn't want the Watchers tracking Kate down and harassing her. She's been through enough."

Oh, Kate. Dear Kate, MacLeod's mad wife of a few hundred years. Talk about a skeleton in the closet! Even I was impressed when Joe told me about her. MacLeod, of course, couldn't be bothered to call round and fill me in. Once his little crisis with that psychopath Kell was over, neither Joe nor I was of any more use to him. Joe got a message on his answering machine saying that the MacLeods were off on a much-delayed honeymoon, and that was that until the end of the summer. Joe then spent the next few months emailing me "informational" questions about my past and driving me insane with bitching about how MacLeod hadn't been in touch whenever I was in town. He also went to three outdoor Jazz concerts and four movies with...yours truly.

Okay. MacLeod might have a point about the buddy thing, after all.

It's got very quiet out there, of a sudden. Leaving the water on, I step carefully out of the shower and go over to the door. I put my ear to it. Now, I can hear both sides of the conversation.

"It doesn't matter how you put it, Joe," MacLeod is saying, much more quietly than before. "He's more your friend than I am. He always has been. You've known him longer, and you've known him as a Watcher, not as an Immortal. If it ever came to a challenge, you'd side with him over me."

"Oh, come on, Mac," Joe says, sounding defensive. "Methos and I fight like cats and dogs half the time. You and I get along a lot better." Uh uh. I don't buy it, Joe. Don't think MacLeod does, either.

"No." MacLeod's got that martyred tone that he likes to adopt when he's been hurt and is trying to be noble about it. "No matter how angry you are with each other, no matter how long he's been on walkabout, within five minutes after he steps in the door, the two of you are back into the same routine. You're swapping company injokes and stories about some Watcher you both knew years ago. You argue about Watcher history and theory. You practically finish each other's thoughts. I'm left out in the cold."

"Aww, Mac...." Joe says, then seems to run out of things to say. I can't blame him. *I'm* speechless. Isn't MacLeod the least bit aware that Joe has spent almost a quarter of a century building his life around him? Joe used to bore Don and me silly with endless tales about Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Don liked to tease him about his 'Highlander obsession'.

"Look at you," MacLeod rolls on. "The guy is running around challenging people and insulting all his friends, and you're trying to tell me he's just confused? The two of you live by some sort of shorthand code that nobody else can break. You've probably been like that since you first met."

Were we? Can't remember now. It's all mixed up with my mentoring dance with Don. Those were good years. What happened? Oh. Right. Kalas and MacLeod happened. Funny. I'd thought I was tired then. Kronos put paid to that delusion. Not much to show for twelve years as a Watcher. A few more dead friends and another bad reputation. So, what else is new?

Unbidden, a memory of a very drunken night with Joe comes to mind. It was the spring of 1989, I think. Don had gone off to some conference and I'd headed over to Joe's apartment where we'd demolished a liter or two of gin between us. I'd had a good time teasing Joe about MacLeod, until he'd told me, very defensively, that while Don and I were his friends, MacLeod was his assignment, and that he did know the difference.

"I mean, it's not as though Don would ditch you to go buddy up with Methos, if he ever met him," he'd said, oblivious to my reaction, which would have been damning if he hadn't been staring into his glass.

"What if he didn't have to?" I'd blurted out, with that suicidal kind of impulse that makes drunk drivers lead cops on wild tractor trailer chases. Much to my belated relief, Joe had returned to the subject of Duncan MacLeod without acknowledging my question. If he remembered what I'd said the next morning, he never mentioned it. I haven't touched gin since.

I've had enough inadvertent truths about my friends for one day. I'm cold. I think I'll try the shower, again. Then again, maybe I won't. The water's gone ice cold. Damn MacLeod and his miserly household appliances.

"Methos!" Joe calls through the door. "You about done in there?" Guess he's had enough of the truth from Duncan MacLeod for one day, too.

"Yeah, yeah," I grumble. "I'm coming." Shivering, I reach for the towel and start sorting through MacLeod's clean set of clothes.
*********
MacLeod pulled up a comfortable chair across from the couch and sat down. He could already tell that this was going to take awhile. The only time Methos had ever been completely straight with him, MacLeod had regretted it.

On the couch, Methos huddled under a blanket, drinking soup. He seemed subdued. Maybe it was because he wasn't occupying the entire couch with his usual sprawl. Joe had settled down next to him, holding his cane between his legs. MacLeod watched them both. He felt a twinge of the jealousy that had caused his fight with Joe while Methos had been in the shower. He ignored it. This wasn't the time.

"All right, Methos," he said. "Why don't you tell us who your friend Mancuso really was?"

Methos stared morosely into his soup. "I don't suppose it matters anymore," he muttered. "His name was Crixus." The name seemed oddly familiar.

"Crixus?" Joe looked startled. "You mean, the guy who rode with Spartacus? His main lieutenant?"

Methos nodded. "The one and the same."

"Amazing," Joe looked stunned. "The guy knew Spartacus--the gladiator who took on the whole Roman Republic."

"And lost," MacLeod pointed out. He was not as impressed as Joe by the association. A former friend, Karros, had claimed to have fought with Spartacus, and he had turned out to be a fanatic in the end.

"But...that doesn't make any sense," Joe protested. "I mean, there's only one other Immortal in Paris besides you guys this weekend, and there's no way he could have done it." Methos choked on his soup.

"Anybody we know?" MacLeod asked, interested.

"Joe," Methos said sharply. Joe shot him an exasperated look, then turned back to MacLeod.

"His name's Marcus Atticus," Joe said. "Right now, he's pretending to be a comic book artist named Mark Gibbon. He's the main candidate in the Watcher files for having been Spartacus."
*********
Capua, 74 BC
"Tell me again why we're doing this, Marcus," Petronius grumbled, as he and Atticus threaded their way through the carceres, the warren of housing behind the podium. "I don't do boys."

Atticus laughed, short and ugly. "Did that Thracian look like a boy to you, Petronius?"

Petronius swatted at a fly. "No. He looked like some big German bastard out of a bad wine dream. All the more reason not to go find him in the slave pens."

"Just bear with me," Atticus said. "I want to check out something."

"Make it quick," Petronius muttered, as they passed an open hut in whose shade sat four women dressed in highborn matron's garb, fanning themselves. "We shouldn't be back here."

*Neither should they,* thought Atticus. He nodded to the women. They gazed coolly back at him. The stink of the carceres seemed less pungent in the presence of their perfumes. Before Atticus could think of some respectful and polite greeting, Petronius grabbed him and shoved him down the makeshift alleyway.

"Don't waste your time on those patrician sluts," Petronius said, as soon as they were out of earshot of the hut. "At least your Nubian is an honest whore. D'you think they're all here to see him?"

I think they're paying to do a lot more than 'see', Petronius," Atticus retorted.

Petronius shook his head. "Lucky bastard."

Atticus shrugged. "Maybe." Such women were impossibly far above his station. The only way one would ever sleep with him was for the same reason she'd sleep with a gladiator--to satisfy her taste for a bit of rough. Atticus had more respect for himself than that. He stuck to honest whores.

They turned right down another alleyway, as the referee had told them. At the end, they saw a guard lounging on a stool outside a hut. Nearing the hut, Atticus felt the Buzz of another Immortal.

As they approached, the guard opened one lazy eye. "You're joking," he said, when Atticus handed him the wooden token he'd got from the referee.

"We only want to talk to him," Atticus said, ignoring the innuendo.

"Don't they all. You'll have to wait. He's busy."

Petronius leaned in, smiling in impersonal threat. "We want to see him now."

The guard folded his arms, clearly unimpressed. Atticus pulled out his coinpurse and handed over two silver denarii. The guard fingered them, then bit each one.

"Looks like you just jumped to the front of the line," he said. Having established that the coins were genuine, he stood up. He flung back the curtain and entered the hut. Atticus followed cautiously, Petronius at his back.

As he stepped through the doorway, Atticus recoiled from the reek of blood and rut. Inside, in the sun-shot gloom, the thraex lay on a rude wooden bed. His blood and sweat-stained tunic was shoved up around his waist. A woman, naked, straddled his hips. At the sound of the intrusion, the woman moved to get up. Putting one hand on the small of her back and thrusting the other into her red-gold hair, the thraex pulled her back down on top of him, her head buried in his neck. She squeaked, but struggled only a little before acquiescing.

"Get her her robe," the thraex told the guard. Looking bored, the guard went to a pile of matron's garments in the corner, picked out a long overtunic, and tossed it onto the woman. Then, he went back outside. The thraex pulled the robe over the woman's shoulders, covering them both. She huddled against him, too embarrassed, perhaps, to leave after her first impulse. Through it all, the thraex's gaze never left Atticus and Petronius.

"What do you want?" He snarled. His Latin was clear and grammatical, but there was a foreign underburr, Gallic, or maybe Scythian.

"We wanted to talk to you," Atticus said.

The thraex's short, guttural laughter shook both his body and the woman's. He held out his hand, yanking on the chain that attached his wrist to the wall. Atticus saw the cuff on the other wrist, dull gray against the woman's hair.

"Speak your mind," the thraex said. "I'm a captive audience."

*Gods,* Atticus thought. *It is him, the Horseman. Death. What is he doing here? Is this another plot to destroy Rome? Are his brothers riding down here even now?*

"You seem a little tall for a Thracian," he said.

"You seem a little old and grey for a catamite," the thraex retorted. "The patricians in Rome must be desperate this year." A snort of laughter, conveniently muffled in the thraex's shoulder, shook the woman. "What do you want?"

What did he want? What would coming here accomplish?

"They call you Spartacus," Atticus said. "What's your true name?"

The thraex lightly bit the woman's shoulder, who moaned and writhed against him. "Zi-mezena Methos [the Horseman Methos]," he growled in Thracian, with an unsettling smile. "Buzas Romenos."

"Who're you calling a 'goat', slave?" Atticus snapped.

"They say that you're an army deserter," Petronius broke in before Atticus could embarrass himself. "Is that true?"

"It's as convenient a cover story as any, I suppose," Spartacus/Methos said calmly. "You'll have to ask the lanista in charge of my school about it. He's the one who made it up." A fly buzzed sporadically in the corner.

"You're claiming that you've been unjustly sold to the arena?" Petronius said, looking curious. "You don't seem very upset about that."

Methos cocked his head, eyes wide in mock innocence. "Why? Would it help?"

"Are killing men and servicing highborn whores all you care about?" Petronius sneered.

"Oh, no. I consider those to be the perks of the job. It's not as though I could refuse." Methos sighed as the woman moved against him, but continued to watch the two Romans through half-closed eyes.

"I would think that a man who fought so hard in the arena today would care more about his freedom, Spartacus--or whatever you call yourself," Atticus said, disgusted, though he understood some of the other Immortal's coldbloodedness. Death in the arena would literally free zi-mezena Methos for his next life.

"I care about nothing that you can take from me." Methos grinned, showing canines that had been filed down to points. "I am free, more than any of you Romans. And I will leave this place when I choose." Atticus shivered. He felt as though a great cat from the Circus had padded up to him to look him full in the face.

"If you die in the arena," he taunted, shaking off his dread, "what will your freedom be worth then?"

Methos licked his teeth. "Little boy, are you challenging me?"

"My name," Atticus snarled back, "is Marcus Atticus."

"Very well, Marcus Atticus. Are you challenging me?"

"In the arena?" Petronius burst in. "Are you crazy, Thracian? There's no way either of us would degrade ourselves to satisfy your bloodlust."

Stroking the woman's hair, Methos turned his unsettling gaze on Petronius. "I am what you have made me." Atticus did not think that he meant only Rome and its inhabitants. "I fought for my life today and I won't apologise for it. If I shed blood in your arena, it is because you lust to see it. Don't blame me if you do not like what you have invoked--or if your women like me better for it." He glanced back at Atticus, who was having difficulty concentrating on the Thracian's words instead of his actions. "Well, Roman? Are you here to challenge me?"

"No," Atticus spoke thickly. It did not matter that Methos was clearly the older Immortal, and might easily beat him. Those were the risks of the Game. He had no idea what would happen if the Mortals here witnessed a Quickening. He did know that he wouldn't risk Petronius' friendship over it, even though he might be unleashing a great threat on Rome. And he was damned if he was going to watch this barbarian fuck some patrician slut senseless right in front of him.

"Then we have no further business," Methos said. "Unless, of course, you'd like to join in. My bedmate seems to find your presence very exciting." The woman giggled, and Methos chuckled low in his throat in response. When he slipped a hand under the woman's robe, she arched her back, letting the garment slip to her waist.

"Gods," Petronius burst out. "I'm not staying to watch this." He yanked at Atticus' tunic. "Come on, Marcus. Let's go." Atticus let himself be dragged back out into the sunlight.

As he retreated, Atticus heard Methos say to the woman, "Now, where were we? Right...here, I think." The woman groaned. Atticus felt grateful at that moment that his tunic was loose. The guard laughed at them as they fled.

"Hope it was as good for you as it was for him," he called after them.

"Sick bastard," Petronius said, as they headed back out to the street. "That's all those barbarians are interested in--blood and women. They'll overrun us some day, you'll see."

Atticus had a feeling that Petronius was right, and that Spartacus the Thracian Horseman was only the vanguard. It didn't matter. Someday, he was going to find something that zi-mezena Methos did care about, and take it away. And only then, once they'd established for good and all who was the Roman freeman and who was the barbarian slave, would Atticus take his head.
*********
Ohh, ain't no tiger; ain't no little lamb.
Suppose you tell me, mama, who do you think I think I am?
And ohh, baby. Don't you give a damn?

Paris, September 6, 2002
The body heals, but pain stays. Your mind may forget as soon as the pain stops. Your body remembers it forever. I am going to remember those two stabs MacLeod gave me for a few years, I think. If it weren't for that bloody file, I'd have left already, gone off to Bora Bora or other parts warm and sunny. I need to get the thing back. I don't like the effect it is having on my so-called friends, not at all. For now, they're skirting the subject, but that will not last. They're...hovering, closing in on me like a couple of overeager sheepdogs. Damn Crixus.

"I don't understand why Spartacus would kill his oldest lieutenant," Joe says, looking puzzled. "It doesn't make sense." Since I didn't do it, I don't think I'll share my thoughts on the subject. No need to make matters worse.

"That's because he's not Spartacus," I mutter into my soup, shivering under the blanket MacLeod grudgingly gave me. I don't know why I bother. Neither Joe nor Mac is listening to me.

"Maybe they had a falling out," MacLeod says thoughtfully. "Two thousand years is a long time." MacLeod should almost understand that. He's had enough trouble keeping friendships for less than a quarter of that time.

"Oh, they hated each other all right," I say. "But Atticus wasn't Spartacus." MacLeod gives me a suspicion look. *What's the Old Man trying to pull now?* he must be thinking. He is such an easy read.

"I wonder when it happened?" Joe muses. "I mean, was it a recent falling out or--"

That's it. "HE IS NOT SPARTACUS," I shout, startling myself. MacLeod and Joe stare at me in astonishment. "*Okay?*"

Joe recovers first. "Then, who is?"

I roll my eyes in exasperation. "Atticus isn't a Hunter. Crixus must have gone after him. He's hated Atticus' guts for centuries. He must have challenged Atticus and lost. End of story. Leave him alone."

I shouldn't still be so touchy about it, but what other people see as an inspiring legend is one of the worst failures of my life. I hurt. I just died. A friend of mine just died, and he is not coming back. Crixus was a pain in the ass, but then, most of my friends are. Look at Mac and Joe. They are trying to get me locked up and rehabilitated for reentry into civilised society, when all I want to do is crawl off into a hole somewhere and sleep for a few years. If my cat can understand that, why can't my so-called intelligent friends?

MacLeod says slowly. "Mancuso called you 'Sir'...." Why, you rat bastard. You *were* eavesdropping on us. Still wrapped up in his speculations about Atticus, Joe takes several seconds to catch on.

"You're kidding," he says finally. "No way." He peers at me, then pokes me with his cane. "*You're* Spartacus?" I really don't want to discuss this, but if it means that I can weasel that damned file out of their hands and keep them away from Atticus, then I'll happily tell them any bedtime story that they like. Except for the one about a set of train tracks, a glowing red sword, and a certain incriminating file.

I hunch down on the couch, refusing to look at either Joe or MacLeod. "Joe, why are you always harassing me for information about my past when you refuse to believe any of it? What's the point?"

"Well, it's just--I mean, Spartacus is one of the greatest underdogs of all time...." Joe trails off, clearly nonplused by this revelation.

"Only because of that stupid movie from the '50's, Joe." Goddamnit, Dawson, let it go. This is not one of my better memories.

"Well, it's not just that!" Joe splutters. "Spartacus is...Spartacus! The gladiatorial slave who took on Rome and beat her armies for three solid years."

"I know that, Joe. I was there. Remember?" Boy, was I ever....

"Are you telling me that you didn't *like* that movie?" Joe demands. MacLeod laughs out loud at Joe's outrage. I ignore him.

"Joe, it's fiction," I say tightly. "It's not even based on history. It is based on a socialist novel by Howard Fast about the legend of Spartacus. Kirk Douglas in those daft little shorts and that chainmail scarf, all sweaty tan and rippling muscles--he wasn't *me*. That slave girl who supposedly bore Spartacus' child and escaped to parts unknown didn't exist. There is no way that she could have. Even if I could have fathered a child, I still was not capable of having a non-abusive, Hell, non-lethal relationship with a woman, at that point. I was still used to skinning them alive on the first date."

"You didn't!" Joe interrupts indignantly, though MacLeod looks as if he believes it. Figures.

To be honest, I don't remember if I ever did or not. It was so long ago. I close my eyes. Some days (today, for example), I can hear Kronos laughing, feel one of Silas' great bear hugs if I sit quietly and wait for it. We all have limits, even us monsters. Kronos would never have turned on a brother. Silas would never have seen an animal suffer, no matter how small or vile. Caspian would have never left the Horsemen. Me? I would never torment or kill a creature that couldn't fight back. Cassandra would call me the worst monster who ever lived, but what about Dresden or Hiroshima? What about the ovens at Auschwitz? Every one of the ten thousand whom I killed had some chance of killing me. I was always within striking distance when they died. Could Hitler say that? Could Stalin? I may be a bloody-faced barbarian, but it was the heirs of Rome who created the atom bomb.

"Maybe that was Caspian's specialty," I admit finally, opening my eyes. "Although I won't say that I've never done it." I give Joe a pleading look. "All I am saying is that I wasn't this great, Hollywood underdog hero, okay? How many times do I have to tell you that I'm just a guy before you'll start to believe it?"

Look at me. I look more like a wet rat than a timeless hero. When I became Spartacus, I was still a Horseman. Granted, I was a confused and lost Horseman. But I was still more than arrogant enough to feel that Rome needed taking down a peg and that I was just the man to do it. Who knows? I might have pulled it off, too, if those bloody Germans hadn't insisted on running off with Crixus and getting slaughtered by the thousands.

By the time I went into that final battle, I had thoroughly exhausted any bloodlust or love of war that I had ever had. I just wanted it all to end. Three thousand years seemed like more than enough time on this earth. I sent two centurions to their Maker before they took me down and I was very surprised when I woke up later. I suppose that I must have been so hacked up that they didn't recognize my body. I am sure that they looked. Crassus certainly wanted my head on a spear for his victory procession.

"Why didn't you just get your men out of Italy, then?" MacLeod says, with a hard look. "Did it amuse you to lead seventy thousand men to their deaths?"

I roll my eyes and sit back against the couch. "Haven't you been listening to me? They wouldn't let me. They hated Rome. They wanted revenge." You'd think that after Mac's personal guerrilla war against the English, following Culloden, that he'd understand. Three hundred years ago, he might have. But I think that MacLeod has long since shed his wild clan ways. He is now the perfect 21st century humanitarian. That kind don't understand anything.

"But...what about Paul Karros?" Joe asks. "He used to claim to have fought with Spartacus. You never said anything about meeting him."

"Well, if I did, I don't remember it," I reply acidly. "I had seventy thousand men under me. If Crixus hadn't been a ringleader, I probably would never have met him, either. I've found a handful of men in the Chronicles who fought with me (or claimed to have, anyway), but Crixus was the only one whom I knew personally. And I didn't trust even him with my real name."

"So, what did you do then, after they crushed the rebellion?" Joe asked.

Haven't a clue, really. Crixus found me after the battle. He came looking for my body to give it decent funeral rites. I don't remember much for the first few decades after that. Eventually, I hooked up with Julius Caesar in Egypt. Now, there was a man who could plan a raid. I smile fondly.

"Got drunk," I say.

"That's it?" MacLeod says incredulously. "You got drunk?"

I think about it a bit more. "Got very, very drunk," I say. Heaven knows I needed it, after I saw all those crosses on the Appian Way.

That son of a bitch Crassus, he was a real piece of work. Thank God the Parthians got the bastard in the end. My only regret was that they beat me to him. My head hurts. Maybe I should just forget the file and go to Bora Bora now. I think about buying tickets, taking care of the cat, getting to the airport, the plane trip.... Is there any way that I could just lie low in my apartment for a month or two? Probably not. Joe knows where I live, and he knows I'm in town.

"How did you end up being a gladiator, anyway?" MacLeod asks snidely. "I thought you were still riding with Kronos in 73 BC."

"Waitaminute," Joe says. "You told me that you were in Rome in 74 BC. You said you had a bet riding on Titus Marconus when he got whacked by that jerk Aedilius."

"Never heard of either one of them," MacLeod says.

"They were before your time," I tell him sweetly. "Yeah, Joe, I had a bet on Marconus. I still think that sniveling little weasel Aedilius cheated. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. I caught up with the little git a few days later and relieved him of both my money and his head. Problem was, his backers showed up while I was recovering from his Quickening. Next thing I knew I'd been sold off to the arena. I understand they made a tidy sum off of me."

Joe gapes at me. "You never told me that. You just went on and on about vomitoriums and crap like that."

Oh, boy. That conversation was years ago. For a Mortal, Joe has one long memory. "I didn't have time, Joe. Mac walked in right then, saying that Amanda had been kidnapped. Then, you got kidnapped. At what point was I supposed to continue the conversation?"

"And you met Crixus in the arena?" MacLeod asks, getting to the point, he thinks. That's right, Mac. Let's stay far away from discussing that file.

"I didn't 'meet' anybody in the arena," I retort. "I just killed them." I met Crixus during our escape. He got word to me that he and a couple of other gladiators were planning a jailbreak. He thought my...participation might help their chances. He was right. I sent him back the plan that got us out of there. About seventy of us escaped. It was supposed to be two hundred, even though I told them not to get their hopes up. After we got out to Mt. Vesuvius, they started looking to me for the next plan.

"So, was Atticus one of your men?" Joe asked.

Oh, how I laugh. "I'm sorry," I say, wiping my eyes. "That was just--you have no idea how funny that sounded. No. Atticus was not one of my men. He'd be insulted at the mere suggestion that he could have been. And he'd be pretty insulted if he found out that somebody thought he had been Spartacus. I would advise you not to try and approach him about it. Atticus was a veteran of the Roman Army, not a gladiator. We, um, met while I was doing my other job for the ludus."

"Which was?" MacLeod prompted.

I smile slyly. "Giving the patrician matrons of Capua a walk on the wild side, you might say." In the resulting silence, I drain my soup. I'm starting to shiver again, and black stars swarm the edges of my vision. I need rest and sleep, or I'll be a sitting duck if Atticus does decide to come after me.

"You're kidding," Joe says.

I shake my head. "Nope."

"They really did that?"

I nod. "Yep."

"*You* really did that?"

"It's not as though I had any choice, Joe." I slouch down on the couch, remembering some of the more inventive ladies that I 'met' in that job. "Not that I minded." Thank Heaven I'm so tired, or I might embarrass myself.

"Jesus Christ," MacLeod says.

I snort. "It was a few years before his time, actually. Atticus was pretty humiliated by the encounter, although I think that the intention was to humiliate me--and my companion of the hour." I grin in a most unsettling manner. "But you can't humiliate a man who knows that he's a god. I wonder sometimes if Atticus realised that I was a few tiles shy of a full mosaic back then. Not that it matters now. He never did forgive me for sparing his life."
*********
Atticus noticed little of the convention. His mind was on his fight with Crixus, and the consequences. All day, passersby had been discussing the power outage that Crixus' Quickening had caused in the con building the night before (not that they knew the reason). With every comment and speculation heard in passing, Atticus felt the tension in his head coiling ever tighter. Crixus' Quickening had been old and powerful on its release. There was no way that Spartacus could miss the news of the results. He had to know what had happened by now. The back of Atticus' neck itched, as he waited for the Immortal signature that would signal Spartacus' arrival. He didn't expect the man to charge in, sword first. Spartacus was more than capable of strolling in with the kids lining up for autographs to issue his inevitable challenge.

*You bastard,* he thought. *Don't you dare come after me, here. This is my world, not yours.* He didn't know that for sure, of course. For all he knew, Spartacus could be a comic book fan. He knew nothing about the man's current life. He didn't even know where to find Spartacus.

As the day drew out and no Immortal appeared, Atticus tried to tell himself that Spartacus had seen through his lieutenant's plan, that he wouldn't blindly avenge Crixus' death. Atticus had broken thirteen hundred years of habit when he had finally agreed to a treaty with Spartacus. It seemed too much to expect that the barbarian might still want peace, after eight hundred years of uneasy truce and the death of an old friend. Damn Crixus. Atticus sincerely hoped that he was burning in Hell.

The tattoo Atticus had found on Crixus' wrist worried him. He had been stalked before by Mortals with such tattoos, and Spartacus had worn one during the last renegotiation of their treaty, through Darius, 15 years before. Who were these people? Were they allies of Spartacus, or some Mortal organisation that the barbarian had infiltrated? He would have to watch out for them. Spartacus might not come at him directly.

"Mark? Are you okay?" Mark looked up to see Jerry standing right in front of him.

"Sure," he said. "Just fine." *My life used to be so uncomplicated. Why the Hell did I come to Paris? What was I thinking?*

Jerry came round the table and sat down next to Atticus. "You've been signing autographs like a zombie for the past three hours. Maybe you should take a break. Go take a walk, clear your head."

"I'm fine Jer. Really." Mark forced himself to smile. *I don't want to take a walk. That's what got me in trouble last time.* The last thing he could afford to do right now was isolate himself. Once he got himself alone, Spartacus was bound to come after him. Atticus had been kidding himself, thinking that he could coexist with a barbarian. The man had always been mad and unpredictable, and his followers were worse.

"Look, is there something I can do? You're in your own little world today," Jerry said, looking exasperated but sounding worried.

Atticus stared at Jerry wistfully. He'd been taking the kid for granted, just as he had once taken Petronius for granted. Even though he had known Petronius was Mortal, had seen him age over two decades, he had never thought about losing the tough old centurion until that day in Picenum when Spartacus had smashed the Consul Publicola's two legions. One moment, they had been fighting back to back, the next, Atticus had felt a cold wind where his friend should have been. Turning, he had searched frantically for a glimpse of Petronius in the mass of screaming, panicked, blood-spattered men. Petronius had disappeared, cut down somewhere in their midst. Atticus never saw him again.

Atticus had found maybe a double handful of good friends in the two thousand years since Spartacus' revolt--most of them Mortals. He'd cut Petronius' life short by dragging him into his vendetta against Spartacus. They would have been called up anyway, he'd told himself afterwards. The revolt had caught Rome with her best legions outside of Italy. The consuls had desperately needed men like Atticus and Petronius. Atticus was sure that Petronius would have survived, though, if Atticus hadn't been so obsessed with destroying Spartacus. It was his fault that they hadn't avoided the worst of the fighting. As much as he had hated Spartacus, in his heart he'd known all along whom he should blame for Petronius' death.

What if Spartacus didn't come at him directly? What if he came after Jerry? More likely, what if one of Spartacus' fanatical friends came after Jerry? *I didn't want this to happen,* Atticus thought. *I don't want to fight him anymore. I thought I could prevent it.* Maybe that wasn't possible. Maybe, in the end, it was Atticus or Spartacus, Roman or barbarian, with the world not big enough to keep them apart.

If Spartacus or his followers came after him here, Atticus wouldn't hesitate. The treaty was broken. Blood had been spilled. If Spartacus chose to fight, Atticus would be ready for him.

Atticus smiled fondly at Jerry. "Don't worry about me, Jer. I'll be fine. Maybe I will take that walk." He scrawled a "Be Back in an Hour" sign on a sheet of paper, stood up, and left the auditorium. Jerry looked unconvinced but let him go. Good. Atticus didn't know what Spartacus intended to do. He did know that when it came to a final showdown between Roman and barbarian, Jerry Merrick would not be caught in the middle. This time, whatever happened, Marcus Atticus was not going to let his friends get hurt.
*********
Picenum, Italy, 72 BC
We've won again. We won't win forever, but this day we have won. Seruus Uictor. I ride slowly through the bloody field, past slaves cutting the throats of centurions and fighting over the best armour and weapons. One thing you can say about my army, we have made do. The men shout, giggle and swear. The women work silently, smiling. They remind me of the women from Caspian's tent, those who survived longer than a month. The seruae, ancillae and familiae who join my army have no place else to go. They will never desert.

I'm still shaking from the last cavalry charge that I led hanging half off my horse in my impatience to strike men down and screaming like a madman. We drove the disintegrating second legion onto the lances and swords of my infantry. In the first horrible moment of the clash, I thought my men would break, but with the first legion already shattered, the second had no chance. The rest was just mop up. People fear the Roman Army because usually it can prevail, even with bad leadership. Usually, but not today. Not against me.

I ride past a pile of bodies, where the Romans made a last stand while their general fled. A wounded man calls to me as I pass by. Only gradually does it sink in what he wants. I've gone several lengths before I realise it. I turn the horse around. Tired as he is, he obeys me without protest. He's a good horse. I won't be letting the Romans get him back.

I approach the man, who gazes at me from the ground--no, not at me, at my waterskin."Aqua, aqua," he moans. He's one of the lightly-armed auxiliaries. Only chainmail for him, and it didn't hold up. He has a gash in his belly just under his cuirass. If the slice on his thigh and the infection from his mangled shield arm don't kill him, that hole in his belly surely will. I could leave him there. Now that he's got my attention, I won't. I have been where he is before, and nobody gave me water. Maybe, if I help this poor sod, the gods will send me somebody with a little compassion the next time that I'm down.

Dismounting, I approach him with caution. A gladius lies near his right hand, but he makes no move towards it. I crouch next to him, then unhook my waterskin.

"Not been your best day, has it, poor sod?" I say, getting under his shoulder and lifting him up. He sucks frantically at the waterskin. As he's slowly bleeding to death, he must be very thirsty. I notice greying hair under the blood. Rome is desperate, sending old men and children against us, while she pulls her best legions back from the provinces. It has made my men cocky. They won't be so cocky once we're surrounded, but it will be too late, then.

I almost don't notice when he reaches for the gladius. Startled, I drop him and scramble back. He scrabbles for the sword, even as I reach for my own.

"Non...non," he begs. "Sis...." It's not until he lifts the sword across his thighs and tries to point it at himself, that I understand. I approach again, very cautiously, kneel down, and grasp the gladius over his fingers. I pull the hilt up and back until the point rests on the tunic under his cuirass. He nods, his eyes clouded with pain. "Sis...." Please.

I shove the gladius down and in, fast and hard. His body flops in agony under my grip. He gasps once, twice, still fighting in spite of himself, then he goes still. As I watch, his eyes glaze over. I wait for a moment or two, but he doesn't move anymore. He's done.

A good death. That's the best you can hope for in this world, and the thing you're least likely to get. Wiping my hands on my tunic, I stand up and turn back to my horse. I remount and ride back up the hill to my tent. Once there, I dismount, then unsaddle my horse, rub him down, and feed him. One of my men would undoubtedly volunteer to do this for me, but I learned long before I joined the Horsemen that your horse eats and rests before you do. When I'm done, I let a man lead him away, then enter the tent.

A man brings a pitcher of water into the tent. He pours some of it into a basin, before mixing me a large cup of wine. When he starts to help me unbuckle my armour, I wave him off. If it's a woman, and I can anticipate some bedsport, that's one thing, but only a man who's gone soft from easy living would need a manservant to undress him. I compromise by letting him bring me food and water, refusing the rest. I'm sure it makes me look stronger in his eyes. Certainly, I've impressed my entire army by wearing only my traditional armour of wrist bands, boots and a leather cuirass over my tunic. My brothers used to marvel at my recklessness, until they got used to my ways. Life is nothing without a little risk.

I am astonished to see these former slaves fight for the privilege to wait on me hand and foot. Me! A nomad who has wandered plain and desert for months, even years, on end, relying on nothing but his wits, his sword, and a good horse. I used to have to train slaves with fear and beatings. These men do far more for me without the least prompting, simply because they think I've freed them. I'll remember that, after this is all gone.

Crixus was the worst of them. He built me up to impossible heights, that one. In the end, even I couldn't satisfy his lust for Roman blood. I've not seen him since he ran out on me with most of our Germans. I was almost glad when the Romans took him down at Apulia. Maybe that will teach him some real loyalty. I hope his first death hasn't been his last, but battle is uncertain. He could easily have lost his head by now.

I scoop up water from the basin to wash the blood from my face. Before the battle, I marked my face with the traditional stripe down the right side, over my eye, in my own blood instead of blue paint. Though I no longer see the dead with that eye, I do it for luck. When I was Death I never lost.

I stare at this reflection of a wild-haired barbarian in the water. How Kronos would laugh at me now to see me. Oh, Brother, you seem further than Olympus today. I have been trapped in Italy for three years, playing first the mercenary, then the gladiator, now the rebel leader. My heart had been dead for so long that when it came back to life after we escaped to Vesuvius, it was like reviving a dead limb. I felt agony at first, desperately wishing that I could go back to being Death. But afterwards--oh, how long it's been! I feel as though I've spent a thousand years in a cocoon. Now I'm free I want to spread my wings and fly!

A man enters the tent. "Sir," he says. "We have prisoners."

I straighten. "How many?"

"Nearly three hundred, Sir," he replies. I can see his anger, barely reined in. He wants them dead. I'm sure that all of my men want them dead.

"We will hold games," I say, struck by an idea. "Gladiators fighting in pairs, in honour of Crixus and our comrades who died at Apulia. Let their blood honour our comrades' memory." That auxiliary that I killed was lucky. He didn't die in shame, the way these survivors will.

Both the messenger and my manservant of the day look fiercely pleased. Once again, I give them what they want.

I hear shouting outside, then an Immortal presence. Pushing aside the curtain to the tent, I stand in the doorway. Some of my men are dragging a centurion past the tent. Eyes wild, his helmet, shield and gladius lost, he's fighting them, cursing. He is the Immortal.

"Stop it!" I call sharply to my men. "Bring that man here." Startled, they all look up. The prisoner almost breaks free, but my men catch him again and haul him up to me.

"What are you doing with this man?" I say. I've had to personally rein in the men of my army before. Indiscriminate carnage is good policy for a small group like the Horsemen. For us, trying to fight our way out of Italy, it is disastrous. We've been delayed by carnage too long already.

"He's one of the prisoners, Sir," says a man who's been my daily manservant before, a compact Sicilian with a sharp temper. "Tough bastard. No matter what we do to him, he won't die."

I draw my sword. "Bring him into my tent. I want to talk to him." They hesitate. I laugh. "You've tied him so he can barely move. I'm armed. What can he do?" I step aside and hold open the curtain. Reluctantly, they bring him in, cheated of their plaything. Never mind. They will find many more.

They force him to kneel in the center of the tent, not far from the now blood-stained basin, then leave. I watch him. He stubbornly ignores me, staring straight ahead. I've seen him before, but I don't recall where. I try to remember every Immortal I've met, so that I can be prepared for any challenge. After so many years, though, it's difficult. I've met many of our kind and killed almost as many. The few survivors should stick in my memory, but it is the many dead that I tend to remember.

"We've met," I tell my prisoner. "Recently, more or less." He doesn't acknowledge me, but I see his jaw tighten. He remembers me.

A Roman...a Roman.... Where--Oh. Little wonder that I didn't recall him immediately. I was distracted at the time, and I have been many places in the past few years that I'd rather remember than that sewer of a ludus in Capua. He'd seen me before that, too, of that I'm sure. It could have been that time we Horsemen came down with a group of Gauls and burned Rome. He might be that old.

"You had a friend with you last time we met," I say. "What happened to him?" His face is blank, but he starts to shake. "Dead, is he?" No answer. "Here?" He doesn't respond, but I know. The man is dead.

I circle him. "Marcus Atticus," I say slowly. "That was your name. Didn't much like my getting a highborn piece that wouldn't look at you twice in the street, as I recall. She told me that she paid well for the privilege." Again, no answer. Not much sport here.

I place my sword on the back of his neck. He doesn't flinch. "I could kill you right now," I say. "I should kill you. My men would call me a god, once they saw the Quickening." I giggle at this. "It's what we do. It's what *I* do best. I have probably killed more people than anyone you will ever meet." I raise my sword. Atticus only raises his chin, to make it a cleaner kill. I stop.

I can do this. I have done this. I ought to do this. This man could hunt me long after all of these Mortals and their petty empire are dust. But I don't have to do this. I don't need to kill Atticus. As I gaze down on him, this new idea fires my imagination. This is a new option. I can spare this man's life. It will be messy. It will cause problems that killing him would solve before they've begun. I will certainly regret it, but whatever comes of it, I won't be bored. I came to Rome because I was tired of the Horsemen, tired of being the strongest and most feared creature in the known world--Death Incarnate. I want life.

"No." I lower my sword. "Parco te interficere--I spare you." He breaks then, glaring up at me in disbelief and hate. "I'll send you back to Rome, to tell them what happened here," I say. "If it helps, I would have spared your friend, too." I go to the basin and lay the sword across it. I stare at my reflection in the blood-stained water--the blurred streak of blood across one eye, the wild hair--and don't recognise myself.

"You don't understand why I'm doing it, do you?" I say, half to my reflection, half to the man behind me. "Is mercy so hard for you? Do you think it's difficult to become a Roman? It's not." I turn, raising the gladius. He pales, glancing at my face, then the sword, then my face again. He doesn't know what to think.

I grab a hank of my hair and saw it off with the gladius, close to the skull. I do it again, on the other side of my head. I continue until my hair is as short as any Roman Army recruit's. Casting the clumps of hair into the basin behind me, I smile at my enemy.

"See how easy it is to become a Roman," I say.
*********
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.
If the sun don't come, you get a tan
From standing in the English rain.

Seacouver, June 14, 1998
Been sitting here every day, watching the trains go by. Not sure why. Just woke up one day and noticed my situation: living in a hotel, on the run, no more friends, no more life back in Paris. All gone.

It wasn't cowardice, I swear. I saw Richie's sword glow. I saw it! Red as the fires of Hell. MacLeod was gone, Joe crying on my shoulder. Nobody saw it but me. Of course they didn't. It wasn't *real*. I never lied to MacLeod. I've never seen a demon--ghosts, phantoms, delusions and hallucinations, yes! But not a demon. I'm dangerous like this. Can't go near Joe anymore. Have to stay far, far away. Like I should have stayed away from Crixus.

I'm so drunk. Can't walk, let alone run. Too bad. Running's good for my head. My head needs it today. Got a rotation, now: scotch, whiskey, rum, tequila, liquors, beer and wine. Today is.... Look at the bottle, Old Man. Today is tequila.

I slap myself--still numb. A punch, a pinch--still numb. Had a small part of me clear, at first, at the very top of my head. That went under days ago. Whatever happens to me next is completely in the hands of the gods. If they exist. Six thousand crosses, just to teach me a lesson? Seventy thousand men dead in battle to punish me for killing ten thousand just for fun? If gods exist, then they are cruel bastards. Jealous. No. No, demons, no gods. Welcome back, Brother....

I'd be Death again if he'd have me back. He's too small, anyway, outgrown armour. Gonna have a hangover from Hell, but not if I stay drunk. I'll drink 'til the DTs hit. Pink elephants and spiders under my skin. I can't wait!

They should have let Crassus take my head. Safer, that way.

I'm rocking back and forth, singing to myself. How I ended up in the Seacouver trainyard is beyond me. So tired. Should go back to the car and sleep. Got no ID. Don't want anybody to know me anymore.

"You don't look well, Brother." I look up. Why can't I see someone I want to see, like Alexa? Alexa, love. Oh, you died too soon....

"Kronos," I say. He looks like he did when we first met--wild. I knew wolves more used to humans than Kronos.

He crouches in front of me, looks me in the face. "What are you doing to yourself, Brother? This won't get you what you want."

I nod, over and over. "Yeah it will." I slur.

He takes my face in his hands. "What do you want, Brother?"

I smile. "Wanna die. Gonna die today."

He looks sad. "Why?" he asks.

"'Cause I'm drunk enough today." I turn my face away.

He shakes his head. "Do you even understand what's happening to you?"

I giggle. "Me drunk. You dead. Me dead soon, too." I hold up the bottle, mostly upright. "Drink?" He pushes the bottle away. Ungrateful bastard.

"Can't you feel it?" he raises his head, sniffing the oily trainyard wind. "Six billion of them, who knows how many thousands of us, closing in around you, caging you in plastic and glass. All the forests are being cut down, the deserts and tundras drilled and polluted with oil, prairies and grasslands ploughed under for highways and farms and cattle. No escape, no sanctuary, no freedom. And worse, how many of them even notice anymore? How many of them boast that there are no more frontiers, that they've conquered everything? They've been in cages so long, they think it's natural. They don't *want* to be free--and they don't want you to be free, either, Brother."

I laugh, hard. "Yeah, so let's kill 'em all. Right, Kronos? Sure. That works." I'm too drunk to have a conversation with Kronos, even if he is just a pink elephant.

He grins. His face paint writhes. "You have to admit, Brother, my solution had a certain elegance to it, a wonderful simplicity. And whatever you may say about the Black Death, killing half the population of the world with plague did solve some of the Mortals' problems. But you're right." He sits down next to me. "It couldn't have worked. They wouldn't have learned a thing. We would only have postponed the inevitable."

"Lovely," I say, pulling my jacket closer about me. "Why am I talking to you? You're not real."

"Not real?" Kronos' voice deepens. "Or not Kronos?" His eyes glow red.

I grimace skeptically, then drain the bottle. "Oh, sure. Right," I say. "Must be farther gone than I thought. Got Mac's delusions of grandeur now."

"Ah, MacLeod. He's been busy, being the Champion. Do you know what the Champion is?" Kronos asks.

"He's supposed to save the world," I recite dully. "To prevent it from falling into a thousand years of darkness."

"That," Kronos says impatiently, "is what MacLeod knows. I want to know what you know about the Champion."

"Nothing," I say blankly. "None of it's real."

"That's not what MacLeod believes," Kronos purrs. "Nor what your friend Joe believes, nor what that poor lad Richie believed, now is it? How can you be sure?"

"It's not real," I growl back. "No demons. No Champions. Good men do evil. Evil men do good. Nobody's pure. Everybody's damned."

"Are you sure?" Kronos puts an arm around my shoulder. "What if you're the back-up plan, Brother?"

I snort bitterly. "I'm a drunk in a trainyard, talking to myself. I'm nothing." I thought I was something special, once. I was wrong. These five thousand years have been a fluke.

"That's the beauty of back-up plans, isn't it?" Kronos says. "They always come from the people you least expect. That's what made your plans so remarkable, Methos. You were a genius at anticipating all the variables."

I stare at him in disbelief. "You think this is a *plan*?" I begin rocking again. "Turning into a drunk, abandoning my friends, homeless--that's my plan?" I punch myself in the face, barely feeling it. "Is this part of the plan?" I hit myself again. "Is this?"

Kronos slips behind me and wraps his arms around me, immobilising me. "Shh, Brother. It's all right. Let me in. Let me take you home where your friends can take care of you."

"Let me go," I growl.

"You're not well, Brother," Kronos whispers in my ear. "And your friends still need you. Let me take you home."

"Let me go now!" I struggle against him. The bottle shatters on concrete.

"There are things to be done, Brother," Kronos sings in my ear. "And only you can do them. You need help. Let me take you back."

I stop fighting him. "Go away," I say, tired. "You're not my brother. You're a pink elephant. My brother is dead." I'm such a bastard. My brothers died, and I never mourned them. I start to cry. It doesn't last long.

Kronos lets go of me, and withdraws. "Madness and persecution, Brother. Don't think I'll let you end it all here just because the road ahead is long and hard."

"Bugger your road. I'm outta here." I scramble to my feet and stagger out to the train tracks. Today, I'm just drunk enough to do this. A train will do the trick. No more dreams, no more bloodlust, no more need for control. Nothing at all. The peace of the grave. Everyone finally safe from me, from Death. If you were waiting for me, Alexa, I'd've gone sooner.

"Don't do it, Methos," Kronos calls after me. He laughs. "People might miss you, old friend."

"I doubt that, Brother," I say. He doesn't reply. I lie down on the tracks, arms spread, neck on the rail. I close my eyes, hum a little tune, and fall asleep.

The ceiling is white. That's my first coherent thought. I can't move. That's my second coherent thought. Don't panic. That's my third. Douglas Adams would be so proud.

"Where's my towel?" I ask the ceiling.

"If you struggle," a voice says. "They'll only put you back under."

"Kronos?" I say weakly. He stands next to the bed, smiling. It's not the cruel expression that I expected. I look down. I'm in five point restraints. Oh, perfect. This is bad.

My head feels thick, some sort of sedation. "What happened?" I say, desperate enough to wheedle information from a figment of my own imagination.

He leans on one of the bed's metal railings. "You didn't die."

I giggle, feeling ill. "No. Really? This isn't Hell, then?"

"You've been here a week," he continues. "As you can see, you haven't been in your right mind. Try to look on the bright side: they are taking you off the Suicide Watch today, and the hospital can't afford TV monitors of their rooms. So, you and I have a few moments to talk--alone."

I close my eyes, breathing as deeply as I can, silently reciting a half-remembered Buddhist mantra. It doesn't help. When I open my eyes, Kronos is still there.

"Why?" I say. My head is clearing, but not fast enough. Must be time for my medication.

"Because whoever I am, I didn't want you to die," he replies, with infuriating vagueness.

"You've put me in hospital!" I rasp. As the drug recedes, it's harder to fight my panic. I cannot afford to panic.

"Perhaps," he continues over my outburst, "I'm your guardian angel." I laugh. "You think that's funny, Brother? Haven't you ever wondered how you came to live so long, with the risks you take? You would need a heavenly host on continuous watch. This isn't your first attempt to get yourself killed, you know, not even your first this decade. Of course, I could be an hallucination, some shadow creature from your unconscious."

"I prefer that option, I think," I snarl. "At least then, I can figure out how to shut you up!" I yank on the restraints, trying to reach his throat.

Kronos smiles. "I thought you might. It makes you feel most in control of the situation." More gently than anything I have ever seen him do, he puts his hands on either side of my head and kisses my brow. "Good luck, brother. Don't forget that you'll need to go through Hell first to get to where you're going, so don't lose your way."

I stare at him in horror. "You're leaving? Just like that?" I struggle against the straps and cuffs holding me to the bed. "What am I supposed to do now?!"

"You'll think of something, Brother." Kronos smiles infuriatingly. "You were always good at jailbreaks, and nobody can do cute like you. You'll think of something, if you calm down long enough."

"Kronos, no. Don't leave. I take it back...." He walks out the opening door, passing through a nurse as she enters the room with a medication tray. Forcing myself to stop fighting the restraints, I relax back onto the bed. This woman is the first key to my getting out of here. I have to impress her--somehow.

"Hello," she says, smiling cautiously. I hope I didn't give her that black eye. "How are you feeling today?"

I put as much 'cute' as I can into a hurt, little boy smile. "Confused," I admit, with a catch in my voice. "I seem to have lost some time...."
*********
September 6, 2002
MacLeod is talking, but it's hard to focus on his words--even harder to care about the tone. I'm so tired.

"Atticus hates you because you spared his life?" He says incredulously. "He killed your wife and your friend Crixus' entire family!" He flushes at my sharp look, having just admitted to eavesdropping on my conversation with Crixus. Instead of backing off, he ploughs on. "He killed Crixus, and you still won't challenge him?" He shakes his head in amazement. "I don't understand you, Methos."

"On that, we agree," I reply sarcastically.

"Is that why you've been so jittery the past few months, because you knew he was coming to Paris?" Joe asks. Why do my friends have to be so perceptive? Why can't they all be dumb and easily led?

"Something like that," I say, trying to mask my unease. The boys in that comic book shop I visit have been all a-twitter about Atticus' coming here. Apparently, he didn't make the final decision to come until last week. It violates our agreement, of course, but I can see why he decided to give it a go. I would have.

"You buy *comic* books?" MacLeod says. Joe gives him an impatient look. I grab the opening.

"Is there something wrong with comic books?" I ask innocently. This kind of conversation I can handle in my sleep. That is fortunate, as I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open.

"Well, they're not exactly high literature, are they?" MacLeod says.

"So, what? It's not as though I'm lacking in intellectual stimulation. On average, I read five languages in any given day that I work on my thesis. As for high literature, have you read Moby Dick? Ulysses? Lady Chatterley's Lover? The Maltese Falcon?"

MacLeod squirms under my sarcasm. "I've read the last two," he says defensively.

"Ah. Those I can see," I muse. "Well, two out of four isn't bad, I suppose. Do you realise how popular that industry is? Did you know that Joe has one of the original Batman comics? Not the first one, of course. He'd never dare take it out. Still, he has a couple of Golden Age comics. When he is in an especially good mood, he lets me read them."

Joe snorts. "Getting back on track, here," he says, looking exasperated. "What are you gonna do about this guy Atticus?"

"Me?" I shrug. "Nothing."

"Why not?" MacLeod exclaims irritably. "He's hunting you."

I grimace. "No, he's not. Crixus was hunting him. He's just here doing his job, which is selling his comic books." If I keep telling myself that, maybe I'll believe it.

"How can you be sure?" Joe demands. Joe, please. I'm tired. Let me crawl back into my hole. Apartment. Whatever.

"Aside from the fact that he doesn't know where to start looking?" I point out. "Atticus won't come after me. A good friend of his set up our initial truce. We renewed it in front of him most recently in 1987. Atticus won't go against that."

"Maybe you could get the friend to arrange another truce," Joe suggests.

Oh, how I wish. "I can't. He's dead."

"Who was he?" MacLeod asks, curious.

Should I tell him? He won't like it. "Darius," I say.

MacLeod stares at me in shock. "They were friends? How...why? Why would he get involved in your feud?"

I look at the floor, feeling sad and drained. I've never, no matter how angry I've been with him, wanted to tell Mac this. I don't know if he'll forgive me for it.

"If I tell you, will you promise to leave Atticus alone?" I say, begging a little.

"Methos, stop playing games and tell us!" Joe snaps. He's losing his temper with me.

I raise my head and meet MacLeod's eyes. "You won't like it."

"Tell us anyway," MacLeod says, looking steadily back at me.

I sigh. "Atticus didn't kill my wife, or Crixus' family. He'd run afoul of a crooked senator, shortly before he located me in Gaul. The senator had Atticus murdered, so Atticus had to lie low for a few months and establish a new identity. Meanwhile, he sent a friend of his after me, a general who had two legions under his command...."

"Darius," MacLeod whispers, looking sick. I feel so sorry for him. I wish I could have avoided this, but I can't have him going after Atticus.

I nod. "I told you you wouldn't like it. Now, will you leave him alone?"

MacLeod looks away. He has known about Darius' dark past for a long time, but always on an intellectual level. Unlike me, Darius, in his perpetual monk's robes, always looked the part of the saint. MacLeod has never met one of Darius' victims before, so it's been easy to intellectualise what Darius did. He cannot comprehend that Darius might have been like me once, might have done evil and enjoyed it. I suppose it never occurred to Mac that I might once have suffered at Darius' hands.

Movement beyond MacLeod's shoulder distracts me. Even though the porthole in the bulkhead must be ten feet above the waterline, someone is peering through it. It's Kronos. When he sees me, he waves. Seeing him, I suppress an hysterical giggle.

I stand up, pushing my soup cup into MacLeod's hands. "I have to go," I say. "I haven't been home in hours, and I need sleep." If I am having visions of dead Horsemen floating outside Mac's portholes, then I need to get to someplace very, very quiet and just breathe for a few days. The only other alternative is to get drunk, and that ended badly the last time I tried it.

"Wait." Joe grabs my arm. MacLeod looks surprised. I think he was about to let me walk out. "We haven't finished talking about this." Joe says.

I stare at him. "You have got to be kidding. We've been doing nothing but talk for the past hour." Don't do this to me, Joe.

"No. You've been snowing us for the past hour, Old Man." As I reluctantly sit back down, Joe pulls out a file--no, *the* file--and hands it to me. When I open it and see my mug shot, the room tilts. I do not remember having this picture taken.

"What is this?" I say, furiously treading water inside my head. In the sudden heat of the room, I smell dead men.

"Your friend Crixus brought it over from Seacouver," Joe says, through fog. Of course he did. That had been my biggest fear about Atticus' coming to Paris--not Atticus but Crixus. Atticus only wanted to kill me. Crixus....

This is even worse than I thought. For at least the third time in the past 24 hours, I think that it's just as well that Crixus is already dead. How did he find this thing? I always dreaded that another Watcher would find it and recognise me. Why did it have to be Crixus? Did he know about my hospital stay all along? Did he visit me while I was out of my head that first week? That would explain the bossy attitude this time round. My adventure with trains must have reminded him of when I ran shrieking down the Appian Way two millennia ago, trying to drag my dead men down from their crosses. He'd seen me at my most vulnerable then. Damned if the bastard hadn't taken advantage of it, too. By the time my head had cleared, Crassus had bought his urn, Crixus had got me married off to wife number 26 and Darius was marching my way with an army. I wish I could say that I loved my wife, but I don't remember her well enough to know. I do know that she didn't love me. She did try to sell me out to Darius, after all.

"Methos?" I blink. How long have I been sitting here? Joe has a hand on my shoulder. He leans forward, peering at me in concern. "Are you okay?"

"Sure." I chuckle, as if Joe has handed me an old speeding ticket. "I'd forgotten all about this. Just a little misunderstanding with the Seacouver Police. I got too drunk one night and ended up in a fight with them. Since I didn't have any ID on me, they clapped me in hospital for a few weeks."

"'Little misunderstanding', my ass," Joe retorts. "They were seriously considering just letting you spend the night in the drunk tank, since they couldn't prove that you were doing anything worse than being drunk and stupid. Then, you tried to put your head through a two-way glass window during your psych evaluation. *That's* what got you committed."

"Oh," I say, nonplused. I don't remember doing that, either. "Must've been the DTs," I say lamely. "I'd been drunk for a few days."

"You know, that's exactly the same look that you gave me when I caught you hacking into my files a week after you escaped from there," Joe says.

Feeling lightheaded, I hang an arm over the back of the couch, turning my body until I am face to face with Joe. "Are you calling me a liar, Joe Dawson?" I say, very quietly.

"Yes," he replies. His voice echoes in the room.

"Stop it," MacLeod says, before either of us can push it further. I look away first.

"Just tell us what Ahriman did to you," Joe pleads. I'm sorry Joe. I will never tell you that. Not ever. How can I tell you what he did when I am not even sure myself? What do I do, admit that I've spent half of my 'out-of-town' trips these past few years lying in bed in Paris, staring at the ceiling? Should I admit that I have spent weeks on end in my apartment doing nothing more strenuous than watching videos and feeding the cat? I don't think so.

"Nothing," I say, my tone false and light. "Look, I'm sorry that I left like that after Richie died. I panicked, okay? I had to get away for awhile, that's all."

"Methos, look at me." I do. Joe looks me in the eye for a long time. Then, he slumps in apparent defeat, which I don't believe for a nanosecond.

"Yeah, sure," he concedes. "That must have been it." That's my cue to leave, before he comes up with some new strategy.

"I really need to get home," I say, standing up again. Surreptitiously, I stick the file under my arm, intending to take it with me. It is way past this old Immortal's bedtime. I can hear Kronos singing 'Danny Boy' outside the porthole. I hope I'll be fit to drive.

"Your coat is still in the laundry," MacLeod points out. "It won't be dry for at least an hour."

"That's okay," I reply cheerily, because it sure beats screaming. "My car's down the street. Shouldn't attract too much notice with a sword for that short a distance." I stop on a thought and stare at MacLeod. "You are giving me back my sword, aren't you?"

Looking resigned, MacLeod gets up and goes into his kitchen to retrieve the sword. As he comes back out, I notice that Joe looks unhappy but doesn't interfere. Nor does he say anything about the file. As I take the sword from MacLeod, I cannot resist baiting him one last time, pulling the Ivanhoe halfway out of its sheath right in front of him.

"Just checking for damage," I assure MacLeod, noticing his shudder. "I see you cleaned it. Thanks." I move up the stairs to the outside hatch, escape at last. "Sorry about the mess," I call over my shoulder as I leave. "Just give me a bill at some point and I'll pay it."

Kronos joins me as I walk down the gangplank, floating up from the waterline. "Did you have a nice chat?" he says.

"What the Hell do you want?" I snap, keeping my voice low. "You're dead. Bugger off!" Thank Heaven that the quay is deserted at this time of the evening, and that MacLeod keeps his portholes closed on the quay side to shut out the smells and noise from the shore.

"Brother, I'm hurt," Kronos says, looking nothing of the kind. "Surely you noticed the signs that I was coming back. Or were you hoping that it wouldn't happen this time?" I had noticed, as it turns out, but the beauty of chronic depression is that it increases exponentially one's ability to do denial.

Take today, for example.... "I'm going home," I declare. "I am going to take a nap. When I wake up, you will have returned to whatever dysfunctional part of my brain you came from and I won't see you again for at least another fifty years."

He stays over the water as I hurry towards my car. "You're always leaving me, Brother," he calls after me. "What does that say about our friendship?"

"That it is over!" I hiss over my shoulder. "I hope," I mutter to myself, much less confidently.
*********
Joe watched Methos leave, still trying to find some way to get through to the Old Man. It had been unnerving, handing the file to Methos and then seeing him just...stop. Methos must have been gone for at least a minute. Joe was pretty sure that he hadn't realised what had happened. He was beginning to regret that Crixus had ever walked into his bar, let alone shown him that damned file.

He'd let Methos take the file with him, having made a copy of everything in it for himself. Not that he had to tell Methos that. Maybe getting that file back would make the Old Man feel better, even if it didn't undo the real damage. Hopefully, Methos would be more willing to accept help after he'd had some sleep. Then again, maybe Paris would be treated to a pig and sheep airshow this weekend.

After Methos left, MacLeod turned to Joe and said, "You didn't believe any of that, did you?"

Joe sighed. "I don't know what to believe about him anymore. He's lying about some of it, that's for sure. I'm just not sure which parts. I wish his favourite response to pressure wasn't taking off for months on end." He levered himself up off the couch with his cane and a hand on the armrest. "I'm gonna go check out this Atticus flake tomorrow, see what he knows. Maybe we can figure things out from there."

"I'll come with you," MacLeod said, going for his coat.

"No," Joe said irritably. "Not when the guy can sense you at a hundred paces. I'll do it myself."

"Joe," MacLeod warned. "He's Immortal. He just killed somebody. He could be dangerous."

Joe chuckled. "Relax, Mac. I've been watching you guys for years. I'll go talk to him at the convention, where he can't do anything to me. And if he gets frisky, I've got a gun. It'll be fine."
*********
Paris, September 7, 2002
Joe limped into the convention, keeping off to one side of the doorway to avoid being knocked over by impatient kids. At least the entrance had had a ramp. He shouldn't complain, but he got damned tired of feeling grateful to architects who remembered that people without the full use of their legs might use their buildings. He got a map at the Information Desk, looked up 'Mark Gibbon's' desk, and circled it with a pen. The desk was near the centre of the hall, prominently displayed on the map. Atticus was a popular artist.

Joe hoped that Atticus wouldn't be too big a jerk. For all Joe knew, Atticus could have nothing to do with Methos' problems, which were starting to look major and long-term. Atticus might be just another victim of Crixus' head games. The fight between the two of them must have happened in the parking lot. The con building, and several other nearby businesses, had suffered a blackout for several hours on the night Crixus had died.

Joe wished he could get Mac more on board with helping Methos. It didn't help that Mac had such an investment in seeing the Old Man as indestructible. Joe wasn't going to make the same mistake. He'd had a buddy on the Seacouver Police Force. A fellow Vietnam Vet, Abe had finished his tour a year before Joe lost his legs. Joe liked hanging out with Abe because he had a good life and a good attitude. He was funny and dependable--divorced, but he had a good relationship with his ex and kids. One day, without any warning sign or apparent changes in his life, he'd put the barrel of his service revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Joe always wondered, afterwards, what he'd missed, what had set Abe off. He didn't intend to lose Methos in the same way.

As Joe turned the corner of the line of stalls leading to Atticus' table, he saw a pudgy young man with dark hair sitting at the table. The kid didn't match the photo that Joe had seen in Atticus' file. Was the guy out getting lunch or taking a leak? Or had he decided to call it a day? It was only one in the afternoon.

Joe stopped in front of the table, waiting behind a short line of kids getting autographs. The poster behind the table caught his eye. The figure dominating the foreground of the poster looked familiar. In fact, it looked just like Methos with long hair and face paint.

"God," Joe said quietly, gripping his cane hard. It wasn't every day you saw your best friend's dark side tacked up on a wall for everybody to see, as if he were Darth Vader or the Joker. Joe was still wrapping his brain around the Spartacus gig. This was a bit much.

"Pretty impressive, isn't it?" said the kid at the table. Joe realised that he had moved to the front of the line.

"Um, yeah," Joe admitted. "Looks a little like a friend of mine."

The kid laughed. "You have a friend who looks like that? Now, *that's* impressive."

"Just a little," Joe said. *Maybe two thousand years ago,* he thought uneasily. He'd confirmed at least part of Methos' story--Death and Atticus had met, and they'd hated each other. "What's it for?"

"The comic's called 'Barbaros'," the kid said indulgently. "It's a four part series about a guy who lives forever and how he overthrows various ancient empires." That sounded like Methos! "A friend of mine drew it. He's stepped out for a minute, but you can talk to him if you wait."

"What empire is that one for?" Joe asked, curious.

"Rome. 394 BC, when the barbarian Celts came down and burned the city. It's the last issue, I'm afraid. The first two were the fall of Troy. Issue One was based on the Iliad and Issue Two was from the Odyssey. The third issue was Babylon. I liked Babylon, though I think Mark's favourite is Rome."

"Huh," Joe said, amused. "From the looks of that poster, you'd think he'd been there."

"Yeah, Mark's funny that way," the kid replied cheerfully. "He just has this talent for bringing ancient civilizations to life, you know?"

*Oh, yeah. I know.* Joe leaned forward. "Do you know when he'll be back?" he asked. "I'd really like to talk to him. I think we've got a mutual friend."
*********
It was the second day since he'd taken Crixus' head, and Atticus had seen no one from Spartacus' camp. The waiting was the worst--for an attack that could come from any quarter, or might not come at all. The savage had to know about his lieutenant, by now. Couldn't he acknowledge it in some way? What was Atticus supposed to do? Put an ad in the paper saying, "Sorry I broke our truce and killed your friend. Can we renegotiate?" Not hardly!

On his way back from lunch, Atticus caught sight of a fan at his table, talking to Jerry. At first, he took no note of him, until he came close enough to see the visitor's body language. The fan, who had white hair and seemed to be in his early fifties, carried a cane. He leaned forward over the table as he and Jerry laughed at something together.

There was no reason for Atticus to be suspicious of the visitor. Many different types of people came to comic conventions. Out of habit, though, he approached cautiously, so that neither Jerry nor the man noticed him in the busy con atmosphere.

"His name's Adam Pierson," the fan said. "I think your friend Mark might know him."

*Pierson!* Atticus ducked down the aisle behind his table. He felt no presence from the man, so he must be a Mortal. He had to be with Pierson. This had to be some sort of challenge. But to come here and be so brazen about it--bastard!

Could Spartacus be trying for a truce? No. This wasn't his style. He'd have come himself. This must be one of Crixus' lieutenants, or one of Spartacus' people who felt the same way as Crixus. Atticus sucked in a deep breath, steadying himself. Maybe it was time to disappear, after all. He'd go in smiling, take care of this guy, make sure Jerry was safe, and then take off for parts unknown. It wouldn't be the first time.

First, though, he had to take care of Spartacus' assassin. Hopefully, he'd have a chance to do it quietly, but if the guy had a gun.... Well. He'd burn that bridge after he'd crossed it.

He walked back up the aisle, turned it and ambled down towards his table. Jerry and Spartacus' hitman were still chatting. He walked right up beside the guy. With the noise of the convention, neither man noticed him until he stopped at the table. Looking up, Jerry saw him first, and grinned.

"There you are," he said. "Mr. Dawson here says you've got a friend here in Paris."

"Yeah?" Atticus replied casually, shaking 'Mr. Dawson's' hand. "No kidding. Small world."

"His name's Adam Pierson," Dawson said. "He's a researcher here in Paris. He and his buddy Chris Mancuso were just talking about you a few days ago."

"Oh, yeah. I remember them." Chris Mancuso--that would be Crixus. That clinched it. If Dawson had known Crixus, then he wasn't here for any friendly chat. Crixus had never kept his hatred of Atticus secret. Did Dawson know anything, or had Spartacus and Crixus kept him in the dark? "We corresponded about some historical background for this comic I've been working on. Pierson's been doing something on the Assyrians for the past few years." *Try the past fifteen. Spartacus always knew how to milk a good thing.* "How are they doing?"

"Fine, just fine," Dawson smiled. Was that a trace of discomfort? "Though I haven't seen Mancuso in a couple of days. He said he was going to the convention, but we haven't heard from him since. Seemed kinda odd, so I thought I'd come over and check it out, see if anybody'd seen him." So. This was a fishing expedition. He knew something. How much remained to be seen.

Atticus smiled back, just as insincerely. "Wish I could help, but no." He glanced at Jerry. "You seen him, Jer?"

"Uh, no. Don't think so." Jerry looked spooked, but was playing along. He must have caught on to something in Atticus' tone. That was the problem with having friends. They knew you too damned well.

"Jer, I gotta get something out of the van out back," Atticus said. "I'll ask around about this Mancuso guy." He glanced at Dawson. "You can come along if you want."

Dawson took the bait as smoothly as a fish. "Yeah, I think I will," he said.

"I'll come help," Jerry said. Atticus cursed silently, but kept his smile in place. He'd just have to deal with the extra complication. One way or the other, Dawson had to go. This way, at least, the man might be more trusting.

"Sounds great," Atticus said brightly, and led the way. He took a route out past the restrooms, down an empty hallway to the back parking lot, where he kept his van. The rental company hadn't been pleased about having to replace the van wrecked by Crixus' Quickening. Atticus had been forced to pay through the nose for that. He waited until Dawson came right out into the parking lot, then ducked behind the man, grabbed him, and slammed him up against the wall.

"Hey!" Dawson yelled, struggling. Atticus felt hard plastic where the most of the man's legs should have been, as he knocked the cane out of Dawson's hand.

"Mark, what're you doing?" Jerry yelped.

"Get the door, Jerry," Atticus snapped.

"But--"

"Goddamnit, Jerry! Do it!" Dawson was groping for something in his coat. Atticus grabbed his hand and smacked it against the wall. Dawson grunted in pain. A gun dropped to the pavement. Atticus grinned in triumph and crouched down to pick it up. Looking terrorised, Jerry closed the door.

Atticus pocketed the gun, then dragged Dawson around to face him, nearly knocking the man down. Dawson was breathing heavily. He glared down at Atticus.

"What the Hell do you think you're doing, man?" he blustered, as Atticus patted him down. No more guns, but Atticus did find a cell phone.

Atticus grabbed Dawson's left hand and shoved up his jacket sleeve, exposing a tattoo identical to the one Crixus had worn. "What's this?" he hissed. "Your friend Crixus had one just like it, and so does your other friend Pierson. Are you here to kill me, too?"

"No!" Dawson looked upset.

"Bullshit," Atticus drawled. "Spartacus sent you, didn't he? Or was it Crixus?"

Dawson shook his head vehemently. "No. I'm not here to hurt anybody. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on. Pierson was saying all this wild stuff about you hunting him, but he said you'd come to some kind of agreement. He said he didn't want you hurt!"

"Uh huh," Atticus said skeptically.

"Mark, what is going on?" Jerry said, sounding bewildered. He tugged at Atticus' shoulder.

Atticus shrugged him off. "It's okay, Jerry. I'll explain in a minute."

Dawson put up his hands. "Atticus, Crixus was acting on his own. Nobody is trying to kill you, I swear!" Watching him, Atticus saw fear in Dawson, but it didn't seem to be for himself. It must be for Spartacus. Atticus felt nothing.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "This has gone too far and too long. It's time to finish it, one way or the other." He held up Dawson's cell phone in front of his face. "Call him, Dawson."

Shaking, Dawson took the cell phone and tapped in a number. He held the phone to his ear for several seconds.

"Spartacus?" he said. Atticus sucker-punched him in the face. Dawson's head smacked against the wall. As the phone dropped from Dawson's hand, Atticus grabbed it. Shoving the dazed man against the wall to keep him upright, Atticus put the phone to his own ear.

"Joe? Joe, where are you? What's going on?" The anxious voice had a Scottish accent. Spartacus had used a different accent in '87, something English. It wasn't him. Atticus turned off the phone.

Dawson groaned, rubbing the back of his head. Atticus watched him with near sympathy. The man did have guts. Spartacus still knew how to pick them. When Atticus thought the man could hold it again, he handed the phone back to Dawson.

"I think we both know that wasn't him, *Joe*," he said amiably. "Whatever you're calling him these days, it's not 'Spartacus', now is it? Get it right this time."

His jaw tight, Dawson took back the phone and punched in another number.
*********
I hear ringing--repeated, insistent. Leave me alone, dammit. I'm sleeping.

"This is Adam Pierson. Leave a message after the beep." Click.

Must have been a wrong number. The phone rings again, goes through the answering machine, hangs up. The phone rings again--

"Oh, fuck *this*." Yanking back the covers, startling the cat, I jump out of bed and sprint to the phone. I pick it up on the third ring.

"This had better be a fucking emergency," I snarl into the phone.

"Spartacus," says a voice, not-quite-familiar. "Your language hasn't improved at all."

I swear in a language I don't otherwise remember. This is an emergency.

"Atticus," I say. "Don't tell me you're still pissed off about that patrician slut I was rogering when we first met. Trust me, she wasn't worth it. What happened to our agreement?"

"It went south when you started sending your minions after me," he retorts. Minions? I'm not the only one whose language has not improved.

"Hey, Crixus challenged you on his own lookout. You won. End of story."

"That's not who I mean."

I grip the phone harder. "What the Hell are you talking about?"

"Does the name 'Joe Dawson' ring a bell?"

I sit down on the floor. Hard. The jarring clears my head.

"What's the matter, zi-mezena Methos?" he taunts. "Have I got something that you care about?"

"If you kill him," I promise with utmost sincerity, "I will cut you apart, limb from limb, before I take your head."

"That's up to you, Spartacus. Win or lose, he's safe--but only if you show up."

I don't waste time on any more threats. "Where?" I say.

He names a construction site not far from the comic convention. Six o'clock. Another anonymous, industrial wasteland in which we fight our ongoing, useless, genocidal war of attrition. Lemmings. That's what we are. Lemmings jumping off a cliff.

"Sounds perfect," I say, with not enough sarcasm. "Put him on the phone. I want to talk to him."
*********
Joe rubbed the back of his head, where Atticus had smacked him against the wall, and wished, for the fifth time in as many minutes, that he'd brought Mac with him. This Atticus guy was like an old grenade, buried in a backyard somewhere for years--and Crixus had dug him up and pulled out the pin. Joe should never have just walked into Atticus' firing line, especially since Atticus must have spotted Crixus' tattoo. After Crixus' challenge, there was no way that Atticus could see anybody with that mark as a friend. Methos had been right.

*Old Man, if we both get out of this alive, I swear that I will never ignore your advice again.*

Atticus finished giving directions to Methos, listened for a few seconds, then handed the phone over to Joe, his expression bland. "He wants to talk to you," he said. He looked neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the acceptance of his challenge. Joe took the phone and held it up to his ear.

"Adam," he began. "I think we have a prob--"

"You miserable git!" Methos cut Joe off as though the Mortal Watcher hadn't even spoken. "What the Hell are you trying to do, get yourself killed? Idiot, selfish, lying--Why didn't you just listen to me? I should have known you'd pull a stunt like this!"

"I'm sorry," Joe said sincerely. "Look, Adam, don't come. Don't risk--"

Methos' laughter rang out of the speaker as if it came from the infernal depths. "You just don't get it, do you? You want to die? Fine! I am coming over there right now. I am *finally* going to take that goddamned centurion's head, and then, you stupid son of a bitch, I swear by every god I don't believe in that I WILL KILL YOU MYSELF!" The click when Methos slammed down the phone on his end sounded anticlimactic in the wake of the Old Man's frantic rage.

Atticus' face was unreadable as he plucked the phone out of Joe's hand. "Well," he said calmly. "It sounds like he's coming." He hauled Joe off the wall and pushed him towards a dark brown van. "Let's not keep him waiting."
*********
The empty beer bottle smashing against the kitchen wall makes a most satisfying sound. Who cares if it'll make a stain? Dishes crash into the sink, glass and pottery shattering. I stomp into the bedroom and grab the sword out from under the pillow, yanking the blade out so hard the scabbard thumps into a wall, knocking down a map of Tibet.

Idon'tcareIdon'tcareIdon'tcare. Let the stupid, Mortal son of a bitch *rot*.

Silas' yowls of terror, muffled from under the bed, wake me for a moment from nightmare. I drop the naked sword on the bed to go retrieve the cat from underneath it. Silas fights me, covering us both with dustbunnies before I can drag him out. I sit in the middle of the floor, and hold him tightly until he stops struggling. He clings to me, digging his claws into my shirt and panting in fear. His rapid heartbeat echoes my own. I rock, stroking his fur to soothe him.

"Shh, shhh, Little Brother. It's all right. Big Brother's upset, that's all. He's not mad at you. Shhh...."

But it's not all right--not at all. And I do care--too much to walk away. That's the Hell of it.
*********
MacLeod pulled up in his Citroen, in time to see Methos leaving his apartment building and heading out to his SUV. MacLeod called out to him. No response. What had got into the Old Man *now*? Frustrated, MacLeod pulled up behind Methos' Jimmy, blocking him from leaving. This definitely got Methos' attention, for he stopped dead next to the driver's side door, his back to MacLeod. His shoulders slumped, and he bowed his head. MacLeod wasn't sure if this was a good sign or not. When Methos turned around, his face was neutral, almost friendly. MacLeod wasn't fooled, not after the Old Man's attack on him at the barge. He pulled up his parking brake and waited as Methos approached the car. The Old Man was still wearing the clothes he'd put on yesterday at the barge, under a dark-blue, calf-length jacket with fraying cuffs. Methos repeatedly shook his keys on their chain.

"Hey," MacLeod said, ignoring Methos' agitation. "Going somewhere?"

Methos leaned into the open window, resting his forearms on the door. He smelled as though he hadn't had a shower since yesterday, either, and his hair was greasy and unkempt. Disgusted, MacLeod had to lean away to avoid him. Methos' normally light green eyes seemed almost black. Mac glimpsed the Ivanhoe in its scabbard inside Methos' jacket. Its gilded hilt gleamed ominously. The Old Man wasn't going to make this easy. What a surprise.

"Gonna go buy some beer," Methos said, smiling blandly. "I'm kind of in a hurry, here, MacLeod. You mind moving your car?"

"You're in a hurry to go buy beer?" MacLeod asked, incredulous that Methos wasn't even trying for a convincing lie.

"Yeah, the store closes in 10 minutes. Mac, my refrigerator is completely empty. I'm a little anxious to get down there, okay?" Jangle, jangle went the keys.

"Uh huh. The store wouldn't be run by a guy looking for somebody named Spartacus, would it?"

Methos' hands closed tight over his keys. "Excuse me?" His tone stopped just short of challenge.

"Spartacus," MacLeod repeated. "I just got a very strange call from a man looking for somebody named 'Spartacus'. When I asked what he was talking about, he hung up, but the caller ID said it was Joe's cell phone. When I tried calling him back, though, the line was busy--for several minutes."

Methos shrugged. "Haven't seen Joe all day. Maybe one of his waitresses called in sick. Some of them can come up with some pretty long excuses."

"What's going on, Old Man?" MacLeod said quietly, dropping all pretense. "Are you really Spartacus?"

Methos bared his teeth, refusing to be baited. "I don't know what you're talking about, MacLeod. I really have to go. Why don't you just move your bloody--" He stopped, closing his eyes, took a deep breath, held it, and let it out very slowly. MacLeod could almost hear him counting to ten in some dead language. When he opened his eyes, he said, "Get out of the way, Mac. It is none of your business."

"It is if Joe is in danger," MacLeod challenged. Methos must be out of his mind if he thought MacLeod was just going to stand by and let this farce descend into tragedy.

"Joe will be perfectly safe," Methos retorted. "As long as I show up on time. That is not something that you are helping me do. Now, move that big heap of classic rust you call a car, or I will show you the power and beauty that is four-wheel manual drive, okay?"

"I'll come with you," MacLeod said.

"No. You will *not* come with me." Methos' tone was level, but uncompromising. "This is my bloody challenge, not yours, and I've had quite enough of you interfering in my battles, lately. Bugger off back to the barge and do some waiting of your own, for once. Joe will be along presently. Hopefully, so will I." With that, he turned back to his truck.

MacLeod watched Methos get into the SUV and rev it up. Methos was serious! He was really going to do this! As the truck backed toward his car, MacLeod pulled ahead, clearing Methos' path before Methos could hit him. The Old Man drove off without glancing back. After a few seconds, MacLeod pulled out and followed Methos' truck at what he hoped was a safe distance. He didn't give a damn what Methos wanted; he wasn't going to let the Old Man get himself and Joe killed over some 2000 year old feud.
*********
Brundisium, 71 BC
"Spartacus!" Atticus screamed into the face of the battle. "Show yourself!" He tried to cut his way faster through the press of sweating, cursing, raging men, slipping on the blood-soaked ground, while the sun blazed overhead. No Immortal presence touched him. Yet, he knew Spartacus was here. He had to be.

The Romans were fighting hard and well, almost as well as the slaves. Of course they were. Crassus watched them from his horse. They dared not lose in his sight and survive. The battle was going back and forth, with legionaries and slaves in looted armour all mixed up. After Crassus had decimated his disobedient legions on the borders of Picenum, the Romans dared do nothing else but win. 50 cohorts of men had each been forced to choose one of their own by lots, and then the other nine had beaten the unlucky tenth man to death with clubs. All because a rich, patrician snob like Crassus wanted glory. No army of Rome had ever suffered the ancient humiliation. Atticus hoped that no Roman army would ever suffer it again.

A slave smacked Atticus in the face with his shield, spinning the Roman around. He grappled with the slave, to keep his footing. If he went down in this, he'd never get back up. Stabbing the slave with his sword, he shoved the man away from him into the crowd. He looked up to see Crassus watching the battle from the hillside. The general looked confident of the victory his troops would buy for him.

The slaves were losing, but victory seemed uncertain. The slaves fought well because they had no choice. Far better to die with a sword in your hand than nailed to a cross. And Spartacus still led them. This victory would be hard. Crassus would downplay his losses to the Senate, afterwards, just as he had at the Isthmus of Bruttium.

Atticus blocked a thrust from one of his own men, who'd been blinded by blood. He ducked under the swing of a slave's sword and smashed his shield into the face of another slave, breaking forward a few precious paces more. He didn't care anymore who won the battle, or even if he survived, if only he could get to Spartacus first. Rome was a highborn whore, rutting with every barbarian and slave she could find, then crying rape when she was caught out. She had had virtue once, but not since that barbarian bastard had left her to burn three centuries ago.

*I'll kill you for that. My Rome was beautiful, then. Look what you've done to her, Spartacus. See how easy it is to become a barbarian.*

The Buzz hit him. He sucked in his breath--and nearly lost his head in the moment of distraction. An enormous Gaul, tall as a tree, knocked him right off his feet. He brought up his shield, blocking one wild cut, then another, before the slave was swept away by the battle. Atticus scrambled to his feet, leaning on his shield, and staggered forward. It was then he saw Spartacus.

From four lengths away, zi-mezena Methos looked the same--the same blue slave's tunic, the same leather armour, the same bloody face mark--but the short hair was still a shock. Spartacus was fighting his way on foot past Atticus towards Crassus, where the Roman general surveyed the battle from horseback. The barbarian general led a wedge of men, who dwindled as they advanced. Atticus envied those men. Their leader might be a laughing savage. They might be scum. But at least they followed a real man, and not a titled moneybags. Atticus might wish Spartacus would get to Crassus, if Atticus hadn't intended to kill the barbarian first.

The men around Spartacus went down, one by one. The last one to die was the little Sicilian who had tortured Atticus in the slave camp. Atticus laughed. As the Sicilian fell, two centurions attacked Spartacus in tandem. Spartacus sidestepped and gutted one, then turned and slashed the other one's throat. That was his last bit of luck. He only advanced a few feet before a spear struck him in the thigh. He yanked it out and limped on. An auxiliary attacked him from behind, knocking him forward. His face twisted in pain, the barbarian general swung around, almost decapitating the man with a wild cut of his sword. More men came at him in the crush. Spartacus fought them off, but not before being slashed in the arm. Brought to bay on top of a hillock, the barbarian sank to one knee behind his shield. His face showed such sadness that Atticus almost pitied him. He must know he was lost. As a group of centurions closed around him, he forced himself to his feet using his shield, slashing at his enemies with his gladius. He got one, a young centurion who had come too close and dropped his guard, but five more replaced the unwary recruit. Atticus caught a glimpse of Spartacus, his head thrown back, sword flung away in his agony, before they dragged him down. The barbarian fell forward onto his own shield. The battle rolled over him, covering him like the waves of a bloody sea.

"NO!" Atticus screamed, but the others could not hear him. "Take his head! His head! Cut off his head!" Even as he fought to close the distance, a slave attacked him from the side, stabbing him in a hole in his armour under his arm. Atticus staggered back, to be slashed from behind by another slave. As he himself sank under the weight of his enemy, he still tried to see Spartacus, or at least the start of a Quickening--some proof that the barbarian was dead. But as his eyes dimmed, he saw nothing. Rome was lost. Spartacus lived. Only Atticus knew yet what that meant, and he was dead.
*********
Turn this thing around. I will not go quietly.
I will not lie down. I will not go quietly.
I will not lie down. No, I will not lie down!

Paris, September 7, 2002
"Kid, you gotta help me out here," Joe said, trying to reason with Atticus' friend Jerry. They were in the back of Atticus' van, headed toward the rendezvous with Methos. Joe didn't want to know why Atticus kept handcuffs in his van (it looked like it had been news to Jerry), but they chafed. With his hands bound and his cane gone, Joe was pretty much helpless, which really pissed him off.

*You should have listened to the Old Man,* his little voice of reason, which he'd been ignoring all day, told him. *Oh, shut up,* he told it wearily. He looked over at Jerry and tried again.

"Jerry, they're gonna try to kill each other. I'm sure you don't want Mark to die anymore than I want Adam to die, right? Maybe we can work together on this."

Jerry gave him a terrorised look. Poor kid. He'd really gone through the Looking Glass, today. His best friend was a guy who lived forever--except now, he and another immortal guy were going to try to kill each other, with swords. And, by the way, kid, black was white, up was down, and boy, did Joe know that feeling.

"We gotta do something, Jerry," he said reasonably.

Jerry just shook his head. "Man, I don't even know what universe I'm in today, and you're asking me to help you? I don't even know you!"

"That's the way it goes, sometimes, kid. Look, you've got to trust me here, or these guys are gonna kill each other."

"Mark said that they fight until one cuts off the other's head," Jerry said. "So that means that the one that wins lives, right?"

"Yes," Joe conceded reluctantly.

"Is your guy any good?" Jerry asked.

"Yeah, kid, he's pretty damned good." Joe shifted his hands inside the cuffs, wishing the floor of the van weren't so hard. His butt was falling asleep. "He's also a little out there right now. He didn't want this any more than Mark did, but this friend of his--"
"Chris Mancuso," Jerry said, showing that he'd been paying attention all along.

"Mancuso, yeah," Joe said. "This guy was messing with my friend's head, and Mark's, trying to get them to fight. They never would have done it otherwise, I don't think. My friend...he's been going through a bad time, lately. Nothing to do with this, but Mancuso came in and made it worse, just to get him to go after A--Mark. He still wasn't gonna do it, but now...."

"Now, he will?" Jerry asked plaintively. "Now he wants to kill Mark?" Joe nodded. "But why?"

"Because we're friends," Joe said. "Even though Adam talks a real good game about looking out for number one and bugging out when the going gets tough, I've only seen him do it once." The image of Richie's headless body came to mind, unasked. "And that once messed him up pretty bad. He won't do it again. He'll come in like the Wrath of God and unless we can get your friend Mark to stand down, one of them is going to die. It's as simple as that."

The van slowed, then turned to the right, seconds before it stopped. Gravel crunched as Atticus came round the back. Joe's heart sank.

"Jerry..." he said desperately, holding out his bound hands.

"I can't, man. I can't help you." Jerry shook his head, looking torn. "Don't you understand? He's my *friend*."

Joe slumped. He did understand. That was the problem.
*********
Joe watched in apprehension as Atticus paced slowly back and forth, sword drawn, in front of an empty doorway. Construction workers had built up the wood frame of a house on top of the concrete foundation, but little else. There were puddles and litter everywhere. The evening summer sun bathed the construction site in a red glow as it set over the site's office trailer. Enough light for dying.

"Maybe he won't come," Jerry said, obviously having forgotten that his friend would kill Joe if Methos didn't show up.

"He'll show," Atticus said, coming back to Jerry and Joe. "Jerry," he said. "When Pierson gets here, I want you to get yourself and Dawson to a safe distance. And stay away from the fence, or anything else metal."

"But it's just a sword fight," Jerry protested. "What's the problem? He wouldn't attack us, too, would he?"

"No!" Joe said angrily. "He wouldn't!"

Atticus smirked. "Pierson's state of mind is going to be the least of your worries, Jerry. Just keep well out of the way. I don't have time to explain."

"Mark--" Jerry began. He stopped as Atticus raised his head, with a look that was all too familiar to Joe. Atticus turned towards the chainlink fence that surrounded the construction site and raised his sword.

"Spartace!" Atticus shouted. "Hic es?"

"Sum." The flat, affirmative response announced Methos' presence. Joe's heart sank.

Methos strolled through the gate. Even at a distance from Atticus, he towered over the Roman. No wonder the Romans had feared the Celts. Methos pulled out his sword, shrugging off his long coat. His graduate student camouflage of jeans, henley shirt, and hiking boots looked as wrong as pink flowers painted on a rocket launcher.

As Joe watched, Methos raised his sword and pulled it across his left hand. Blood welled up. With no change in his blank expression, Methos raised his hand to his forehead, and drew the palm down across one eye. It left a broad, bloody stripe down the right side of his face. He held out his hand, showing the wound as it evaporated in blue sparks. Barbaros the Horseman, was here.

If Atticus was impressed, he didn't show it. Jerry looked ready to throw up. Joe would have laughed--if he'd thought the Old Man was joking.

"Spartacus sum," Methos intoned, still advancing. "Methos Eques sum. Mors sum." He cocked his head to his right, as if listening to his dead brothers, Silas, Caspian, Kronos, as if his blood-painted eye saw them in the spirit world. "Romane, tuam mortem ueni uidere." He leapt straight at Atticus.
*********
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain't got time to take a fast train.
Lonely days are gone. I'm a-goin' home.
My baby just wrote me a letter.

He's very good, is Atticus. I nearly lose my head in the first rush. He sidesteps and swings high at me as I throw myself at him. I miss him completely. He almost gets me but I trip over a paint bucket and fall through an empty doorway, just ahead of his sword.

"You're tall; be small," someone once told me (in translation). He was Sicilian, I think. A short man can gut you, should you never learn how to crouch.

Wakeupwakeupwakeup, Old Man! Atticus will gut me if he can. He pursues me into the skeleton of the house. I scramble away, blocking him twice before I find my feet again. He feints high and strikes low, trying to get under my guard. I dodge behind a post. Damn the Ivanhoe. Too long for one-hand, not enough handle for two, too bloody heavy and it handles like a pig. Very distracting. Against Atticus' hand-and-a-half Bastard sword, it'll get me killed.

Isn't that the point? Don't I want to die? Make up your mind, Old Man!

I grab the Ivanhoe's pommel and swing, high to low. Atticus leaps back, out of reach. The Ivanhoe's momentum overbalances me. He nearly gets me, then, with a two-handed return swing inside my guard. *He* has enough handle, damn his eyes, and more than enough balance to kill me. I roll under the cut, out of the way, coming up behind a doorframe.

Alexa, love, you've been dead so long. Why do you feel so near? You loved me once, I know it. How can you love me still? The dead feel nothing....

Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more.
Listen, mister. Can't you see? I gotta get back to my baby once more, anyway, yeah....

She loved that song. I am falling in love with the Bastard. I'll almost not mind when it cuts off my head. Atticus and I exchange cuts and blocks, up and down a future hallway, kicking up sawdust, neither one getting an advantage. Atticus swings at me. I deflect his blade low, then come back up with a beheading cut. He jumps back, backpedals. I pursue him with a wild, horizontal swing. Thunk! Right into a post. A mercury switch falls onto the concrete and shatters. The house is a-rockin', don't bother knockin'....

It's stuck! I can't believe it! I laugh. Atticus is coming back fast. Do something now, Old Man, or lose your head! I yank the hilt down, putting my whole body into it. Snap! The sword is free and so am I. I back up. As Atticus' cut goes wide, I return my own, just missing. I'd have cut his throat with the snapped-off extra length left in the post. Good news, though. The Ivanhoe is better balanced than me, now.

We square off a few feet away from each other. I see Joe, outside the house, being held back by a friend of Atticus. He will miss me when I die. But I so want to sleep.

Got to get back to my baby once more....

I raise my sword. Not a word throughout the fight. I'm too winded from lying in bed drooling on myself for weeks at a time. Atticus, maybe, has been giving up too much swordplay time to his art. He's breathing hard, as well. Oh, we are a pair! Finish it, Old Man, one way or the other. I charge, yelling.

Atticus crouches, his sword blocking my path. I cannot stop myself; he will gut me. I cut across at shoulder level. If he crouches any lower, I'll be too high. Does it matter? No. I trip over something, almost colliding with him. The Ivanhoe connects, hard, right before the Bastard carves high into my belly, cutting off my battle cry. I grunt in agony when Atticus' sword turns my path. As I slide off it, Atticus' head and my body hit the ground simultaneously. I curl around myself. Can't breathe, let alone think. I see white fog--my Quickening or his?

Where are you going, Old Man? To Hell, if I don't mend my ways.

The fog flows over me, smothering me. Nonononono. I don't want this. Don't want it; make it stop, please. Gods, it hurts. My guts are hanging out. Can't get loose from Atticus' body. Well, this is a fine kettle of fish. He is still trying to drag me down, down to Hell. His face is turned away. My enemy is dead. Why am I so sad?

The first bolt of lightning throws me off Atticus. I see Crixus, smiling. A grey-haired legionary, sun-dark and scarred by hard years of fighting. Darius, riding straight-backed and arrogant, in a Roman general's armour, walking through a silent, rain-soaked churchyard in monk's robes. The guy guarding Joe, reluctantly being coaxed onstage to take an award. Flashes of a life that will blow away on the wind as soon as the lightning ends.

The Quickening lifts me to my knees, making me throw back my head and scream, even while it heals me. Nonono. Thunder and fire and pain, inside and out. Choking on the smell of sulfur. Devil, get out! I cannot escape it. Let me out. Make it stop!

The Quickening recedes. I fall on my face. All gone. All gone.

The concrete tastes foul, and grates against my cheek. Am I still alive? Seriously? What is wrong with me? I can't even get myself killed. Am I really that stupid or is Kronos right about that heavenly host? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? You'll need that many to keep me alive, Brother. Never did believe in angels....

I try to raise my head. No luck. I roll onto my back, instead. I feel a Buzz. Blinking, I look up to see MacLeod standing over me. Above and around us, the framework house has caught fire from the Quickening, smoke turning the Highlander into a shadow. Good. Let it burn. Let it all burn. I should have died at Brundisium. MacLeod coughs, then crouches by my head and grabs my shoulders. As he lifts me up, I see what saved my life--my feet are still tangled in electrical wiring stretched across the concrete. I tripped over a goddamned bundle of wires. Talk about the luck of fools and tired old men. Crassus never found my head, either....

"Come on, Methos," MacLeod says. "Let's go before this place falls down on top of us." He untangles my feet--such a dutiful lad--and starts to drag me towards the doorway. Oh, look. There's Atticus. I shove MacLeod away. Fire. Roman funeral rites. The least I owe Atticus is a proper funeral.

"Methos, come *on*." MacLeod grabs me again. I can't fight him for long--too weak and tired. I shrug him off and crawl over to the body.

"Help me!" I say. I turn Atticus' body over. It takes most of my remaining strength.

"Methos, leave him!" MacLeod shouts at me.

"No! Get his head." I arrange Atticus' arms, folded across his chest. All gone. All gone. We were the last ones. Why have they all left me behind? Don't I deserve to die? His sword--I pick up the Bastard, regretting its loss already. Then, I spot the Ivanhoe, a few feet away, barely visible through the smoke. Yes. That's better. Let him have my sword. Broken, useless, a headless sword for a headless man. Atticus would appreciate the gesture. I giggle.

"Where do you want this?" MacLeod appears at my shoulder, with Atticus' head. I don't look at it. He grabs my shoulder and shoves the head in front of my face. "Methos, tell me where!"

"Put it back on his shoulders," I say. I watch, on my hands and knees, as he tries, but the head doesn't quite fit. It keeps rolling to one side. I giggle again, breaking into a coughing fit. Mac swears loudly. Panting, he puts the head back in place and jams it onto the neck, using a rock to prop it up. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again.... If I burn, will I fall to pieces or will I come back? Or is it a moot point because MacLeod will rescue from myself, whether I like it or not? I turn away from the body and crawl towards the Ivanhoe, startling MacLeod.

"What the Hell are you doing?" he yells, coughing. I don't answer. I want that Bastard, and I can't have it unless I give the Ivanhoe a proper send-off. The house is burning merrily now. We're not trapped the way we would be in a real house, but MacLeod still needs to get out of here. So hot, and it's hard to breathe. A post falls down further in, making the ceiling beams sag.

I get the sword. MacLeod grabs me from behind, his breathing in my ear rapid with panic, and drags me back to the body. He still cares, even if I don't. Atticus looks almost asleep--almost. I do know the difference. I place the Ivanhoe at Atticus' side, under one arm. Kneeling there, I try to think of some old Latin prayer. That's when MacLeod slaps me, knocking me over. I stare up at him, confused, as he looms over me in the smoky gloom.

"For Christ's sake, Methos!" he shouts. "*Joe* is out there!" I nod slowly. Mac is right. I don't want Joe to see me burn. Grabbing the Bastard, I let MacLeod pull me up. I lean on him the whole way out of the house, using the Bastard as a crutch and choking on smoke.

Joe and Atticus' friend are waiting for us. Joe pulls me into a hug before I can stop him. He's crying--very unnerving. I won, didn't I?

"It's okay, Joe," I wheeze, but he doesn't let go. I was angry at him. Can't remember why, now. I watch Atticus' friend over Joe's shoulder. The kid looks as dangerous as a stuffed toy. But then, the road to Hell is paved with unwanted teddy bears. He stares at the burning house, shivering.

"Jesus," he says, over and over. Guess it was his first Quickening. Don't think he'll be a threat for the moment.

Joe finally lets me go. He pulls back to look at me. I just stare back, too tired to fake it anymore. You want to lock me up, Joe? Go right ahead. I think I could use the rest.

"I thought he was gonna kill you," he says. Oh. Now I remember why I was angry.

"I thought he was gonna kill you, too, Joe," I say. "Next time, listen to me. Okay?"

He nods. "Deal," he says. Yeah, right. That'll happen.

"We have to get out of here," MacLeod says, practical for once. "That fire will attract attention, even if the Quickening didn't." He looks over at Atticus' friend. "Look, um, Jerry, you can come with us or you can stay here. It's your choice." 'Jerry' (is that really his name? Poor kid.) stares into the fire. I don't think he heard you, MacLeod.

"I'll take care of it," Joe offers, while MacLeod hands me my jacket. MacLeod's nose wrinkles as I put it on. I suppose I should take a shower at some point. "We'll have to get M--Adam's truck out of here before the cops arrive, anyway, and I'll need Jerry to drive it," Joe is saying. "I think it's safe to leave Mark's van. Nothing too forensically interesting in there." He turns to me. "Adam, you got your keys?"

I stare at him blankly. Keys. "In your jacket?" Joe suggests gently. Oh, yeah. Keys. In my jacket pocket. I put them there so they wouldn't melt in the Quickening. I pat myself down until I find a bulge, then pull out a set of keys. Magic. Joe takes them out of my hand.

"You'd better get Adam back to your car," he tells MacLeod. "I think he's running on fumes."

"I'm fine," I say, because it is expected of me.

"Whatever," Joe says, shaking his head. "Just go with Mac, Adam. Please?"

"Are you sure we should leave you alone with this kid?" MacLeod says, looking uneasy. "What if he tries something?"

Joe chuckles. "Mac, Jerry's not having a very good day. As long as I stick to words of one syllable, it oughtta be fine. It's not as though I can make any sudden moves. Just get the Old Man out of here, okay?"

While MacLeod hesitates over how to do the Right Thing, I wander off towards the gate. "Mac, where's your car?" I call over my shoulder. Like a genie, MacLeod appears at my shoulder, grabs my elbow, and steers me off to the right. Magic. I yank my arm free, tired of being Machandled. Imitating an offended puppy, he takes the lead. He's trying to help, I know. I should thank him. Really.

Fortunately, MacLeod has parked nearby. I stand, hands shoved in my pockets, watching him unlock the car without setting off the security system. Interesting process. I never bother with such things. If thieves want my truck, they can bloody well have it. I can always go back to riding horses.

"I had a horse, once," I say suddenly.

"What?" MacLeod says, looking puzzled. Am I making sense? Maybe not.

"A horse," I explain. "I had a horse."

"I'm sure you've had lots of horses, Methos," he says, turning back to car. Of course. Why would I be saying anything important?

"He was a nice horse," I continue anyway. "I took him from the Romans." This makes MacLeod look up. "I don't think they treated him very well. I swore I'd never give him back. At Brundisium, I took him out in front of my troops and killed him in front of them. I told them that it meant that I wouldn't abandon them, that I would either find a new horse or we would lose, and I wouldn't need a horse anymore. But really, I just didn't want the Romans to have him. It didn't seem fair." I stare, eyes unfocused, at the car. "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he would have survived. Atticus could have had him. Atticus would have treated him well."

MacLeod comes around the car, unlocks the passenger side, and approaches me. He stops a few feet away, not trying to touch me. "Methos," he says. "Why don't you get in the back seat? You could get some sleep on the way back."

"What?" I blink at him, focusing on him with difficulty. "Oh. Sure." I go to the car and crawl in.

"Ow!" I slice my hand open on the Bastard as I lay it on the floor next to the back seat. I'm more tired than I thought. I stare at the sword. It is smeared with blood, most of the way down its length--my blood. Does it matter? There is blood all over me--my hands, my face--and most of it is mine. And I won. Why is that? Never mind. I am far too tired to care. I lie down on the seat. Oh, to be horizontal forever.

"Methos?" MacLeod says anxiously. "What's wrong?"

What's wrong. Good question. Furo ergo Methos sum. "Scabbard," I mutter into the seat. "Need the scabbard."

"You're not keeping that--never mind. It's probably in his van. Stay here; I'll go get it."

"Okay." That is an excellent plan. I should help by pulling my feet in and closing the door, but I can't be bothered.

I fall asleep before MacLeod gets back.
*********
All gone. All gone. Smoke and ash.

The camp has changed since I last saw it. Aircraft contrails litter the blue sky overhead. Instead of buckets, the slaves now carry large, red plastic jugs on their heads. In the distance, I see a vast shanty city at the edge of the desert.

Silas comes out of his tent, arms spread wide in welcome. "Brother! You've come back! Welcome! Welcome!" He grabs me up in a great bear hug.

"Silas," I say, confused. "What are you doing here?" Something is wrong, but I can't remember what it is.

"I've been waiting for you, Brother! Look! I kept your tent just the way you like it. Come in!"

"But--Silas. We don't live like this anymore." Something is wrong. Silas shouldn't be here. He opens the tent flap. I peer in. As I do, he shoves me inside. Inside, it is dark as a tomb. Hot and close. No. I don't want to be in here at all.

I turn in a circle, like an animal in a cage. I can see nothing. Where is the tent flap? Where is the exit?

"Silas, let me out," I say.

"It's where you belong," Silas calls from outside. "You know that, Brother."

The tent closes in around me, animal skin folding in on my face. I sit on the unseen ground and clasp my knees, trying to get more space, but there is no space. I shiver. It is too hot. I'm thirsty.

"Silas, Brother, please," I beg. "Let me out. I won't kill you again, I promise." He does not respond.

The air is burning hot. I smell smoke. I cannot see the flames but I can hear them--crackling, coming closer. Brother, please, don't let me burn---
*********
Paris, September 8, 2002
MacLeod leaned over the bed and shook Methos' shoulder. The Old Man's skin was hot and dry.

"Lemme out," Methos told the pillow.

"Methos," MacLeod said. "Methos, wake up." He shook harder.

Methos woke with a gasp. "Silas?"

"Your cat is in the kitchen, ignoring me," MacLeod informed him. "I fed him, in case you were wondering."

"What?" Methos stared at him.

"Silas," MacLeod explained. "Your cat. I fed him. That's what you meant, right?"

"My cat," Methos said blankly. "Oh. Right. My cat. Fed him, did you?"

"Yes," MacLeod replied, hoping that Methos now remembered what planet he was occupying. MacLeod hadn't believed Joe, at first, but after the cat had answered to the name, he'd had to accept that Methos had really named a cat after one of his brother Horsemen. According to Joe, there had also once been a Kronos and a Caspian. MacLeod silently added this bit of information to his list of Things Never to Tell Cassandra About Methos.

Methos giggled. "Silas knows a sucker when he sees one." He propped himself up on one elbow. "Oh," he groaned. "I feel like the day after my last Aerosmith concert."

"You like Aerosmith?" MacLeod blurted out. Didn't Methos have any musical taste at all?

"Not since that concert, no," Methos admitted. "The ribs feel okay, now." He felt his side. "No more headache." He rubbed his head, looking relieved. "Guess that was just a concussion, not a skull fracture. And, um...." he gazed at a spot past MacLeod's shoulder for several seconds. "I think I've finally stopped bouncing off the walls from whatever was in those little blue dots the guy two seats down gave me."

MacLeod took Methos by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Methos, you were not at an Aerosmith concert last night, you were in a challenge. You took a Quickening, remember?" He shook Methos a little. "Do you remember?"

"What the Hell are you talking about, MacLeod?" Methos said irritably, pushing MacLeod away. "I haven't been to a rock concert in over fifteen years." He paused, holding his head. "Must have been Atticus."

MacLeod felt sick. "Do you remember anything else that you got from Atticus?" he asked. *Aside from his sword, which you've clung to since you took it off his body.*

Methos shrugged. "No," he said. MacLeod didn't believe him. Instead of saying so, he handed Methos the glass of juice he'd brought from the kitchen.

"Are you planning on turning into a reasonable human being any time soon?" he asked, as he pulled up a chair next to the bed.

"Hey, you woke me up, remember?" Methos retorted, between sips of juice. "You want me to be 'reasonable', let me get up on my own." He grimaced at the juice. "What is this stuff, anyway? And why is it so hot in here?"

"It's Lucozade," MacLeod replied. "And it's not hot; you're still dehydrated from the fight."

"So you gave me a sports drink?" Methos looked bemused. "Are you saying you think the Game is some kind of sporting event?"

"It'll replace your electrolytes," MacLeod said, trying to ignore Methos' complete lack of gratitude. Maybe it was part of the depression.

"I don't want to replace my electrolytes." Methos set the glass on the floor and lay back down, pulling the covers over his head. "I have survived 23 fights in the arena, countless battles and Heaven knows how many challenges without Lucozade or anybody nursemaiding me. I think I can take it from here."

MacLeod sighed. Joe had warned him this would be difficult. "You've been in those clothes for three days, now," he said, standing up. "Why don't you take a shower? You'll feel better. I'll go make you some soup...or something--"

"Will you stop hovering over me!" Methos threw the covers back and sat up. Alarmed, MacLeod backed up when Methos pulled Atticus' sword out from under his pillow and came after MacLeod.

Not *again*. "Methos! What the Hell are you doing?!" MacLeod yelped.

"Making a point," Methos growled back. Methos pressed the sword, still smeared with dried blood, against MacLeod's throat. MacLeod backed up further. Methos followed him.

"What--why are you doing this?" MacLeod didn't think even Joe had considered this problem.

"Because the indirect approach is not working," Methos snarled. "Because I am apparently incapable of getting it through your thick, Highland skull that I do not need you to hover over me, nursemaid me, feed either me or my cat, fight my battles for me or otherwise treat me like a senile old goat! I do not care what guilt debt, karmic imbalance or martyr complex you are trying to work off. You are not doing it on me! If I choose to go on a month-long drunk, sleep with half of the prostitutes in Paris and top it off by driving off a cliff a la Thelma and Louise, I will!" MacLeod found himself with his back to Methos' open front door. "Get out, MacLeod. I'll call you when I am feeling 'reasonable'." A final prod from the sword forced MacLeod to back into the hallway. The door slammed in his face. Hoping the Old Man might wake up a bit more and change his mind, MacLeod knocked on the door and called Methos' name for several minutes. Methos never responded.
*********
Joe laughed so hard he nearly fell off his stool. Even MacLeod's stony look couldn't sober him for several minutes. Finally, as MacLeod grew more and more dour, Joe put up his hands.

"Okay," he admitted. "I can see why you wouldn't find it very funny, but--I mean, come on, Mac. You actually sat and watched him sleep for *seventeen* hours? And when he finally woke up, you gave him Lucozade?" Joe laughed again. "What were you thinking?"

"I was worried about him, Joe," MacLeod said, with what Methos liked to call 'the wounded deer look'. "He was dead to the world by the time I got him back to his apartment. Anybody could have taken his head when he was in that state." He stared morosely into his scotch. "I suppose I shouldn't have woken him up."

"You woke him up?" Joe choked. "I'm surprised he didn't take your head. Mac, he's ten times as old as you. He's one of the toughest human beings on the planet. You're humiliating him, here, don't you understand?"

"I know that, Joe," MacLeod ran his hand through his hair. "It's just--I'm worried about him. He acted as though he *wanted* to lose against Atticus."

"I know. He's a mess right now," Joe said quietly. He'd finally gotten through to MacLeod. Hallelujah. "Does that mean we're on the same page with this?"

MacLeod nodded. "I wish Sean Burns were still alive," he said. Oh, Lord. Better not skip down that memory lane. MacLeod getting drunk and maudlin over killing Sean during one of his own breakdowns was not going to help Methos.

"That's a thought," Joe said, anxious to deflect MacLeod back to the present concern. "Sean's staff kept the hospital going after he died. They still treat Immortals there. Maybe I can give them a call, see if they have any advice about how to deal with him."

MacLeod perked up at that. "That's a good idea. Sean always kept good staff around him." Great. Another guilt trip averted.

"Meanwhile," Joe continued. "I'll check on Methos tonight, see if I can get through to him."

MacLeod scowled. "Good luck doing that."

Joe snickered. "Luck won't have anything to do with it. I'll just bring him beer."
*********
Paris, September 15, 2002
"Methos!" Joe banged on the door. "Methos! Hey, open the door!" Silence. He banged some more. He could stay here all day, if he had to. He rapped on the door with his cane.

He heard the thump of bare feet, then the door unlocking and opening. Methos stood in the doorway, wearing boxer shorts and a grimy white t-shirt. His greasy hair stuck up one side, his face was pasty and the bags under his eyes seemed larger than usual. This was getting to be a worrying pattern. He'd looked like crap every night this week. If he'd taken a shower or shaved since his fight with Atticus, Joe couldn't tell.

Joe snorted. "You look like shit," he said. "What've you been doing all day while the rest of us worked for a living? Do you like just lying in bed, getting drunk and jerking off, or something?" He knew the words were a little harsh, but tea and sympathy got a guy booted out the door when it came to Methos. MacLeod had found that out the hard way.

Methos sniffed and turned his back on Joe, moving back into the studio apartment. Cautiously, Joe limped after him. He noticed that Methos wasn't carrying his--Atticus'--sword anymore. Maybe he had just been lying in bed and getting drunk, then. Joe wasn't sure that was a good sign. Methos' obsessive, violent practice with his new toy/spoil of combat had at least been a sign of interest in something.

"I got a call from Atticus' lawyer yesterday," Joe said, watching Methos head to the fridge. The Old Man showed no reaction to the news as he pulled out two beers. "Atticus left you all the rights to his works, if you survived him. The will goes back to 1987. I also got a call from his agent, who said you had to make a decision pretty soon on whether to go ahead with publishing the last issue of 'Barbaros' or the contract would be cancelled. He faxed me a release form for you to sign in case you were ready to give the green light on it."

Methos handed him a beer, popped his own open and sucked down a large swallow. It was obviously not his first of the day.

"Show me," he grunted. Joe fished the paper, and a pen, out of his pocket and handed it over to Methos. He was glad he'd looked the contract over carefully before bringing it; Methos signed the paper without reading it. The Old Man's hand shook as he wrote, so that the signature was more illegible than usual.

"Thanks," Joe said.

Methos shrugged. "Least I could do, considering that I did kill him. Is that it?"

"Methos...." Joe groped for a way to tell the Old Man without hurting him further. "Atticus left you *everything*. I don't mean his material assets. His buddy Jerry got the house and car and most of the money. The rest went to friends and various charities. What I mean is...he left you his, um, his stuff. His art. He had things he'd made going back at least two thousand years--comics, drawings, paintings, illuminations, Byzantine icons, even mosaics. The lawyer's got a list. The guy was good--really, really good--at what he did. He seems to have been most active since the 13th century, and a lot of the stuff is on more or less permanent loan to museums all over the place, but...I mean, this stuff is priceless. It's like your journals, or something. It's an irreplaceable part of history. I know he was your enemy, but I'd like to know what you plan to do with it."

"Do with it?" Methos regarded Joe, his expression flat. "Nothing. Sounds as though it is all fine where it is."

"You're not gonna throw it all into a pile and burn it?" Joe asked.

"I already lit Atticus' funeral pyre," Methos said. "Anyway, that was Crixus' style. I don't have any problem with Atticus leaving something for posterity. Bully for him." He wandered over to his bed. After some hesitation, Joe followed him. Joe was surprised to see a journal volume lying on the blanket.

"Been writing it all up?" Joe asked.

"Something like that." Methos sat on the bed, pulling up his knees and wrapping his arms around them. His attitude was strange. Clearly, he didn't want to talk, but Joe was pretty sure Methos wanted him to stay. Joe decided to take a risk. Carefully, he positioned himself next to the bed, and sat down, hard, next to Methos, who sat playing with his own toes. Joe hoped the Old Man would be with it enough to help him get back up, because he didn't know if he'd be able to do it on his own.

"Methos, what's going on?" Joe asked gently. "This guy Atticus, he hated your guts. And I know Crixus was your friend, but he was a real piece of work, too, you know? Why are you missing them so much? What's really wrong?"

"Nothing," Methos muttered into his knees. "Everything. I dunno...." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Maybe I should go on vacation again."

"I'd say that was a great idea," Joe said, "if I thought you were in any shape for it." Methos didn't respond. Joe decided to take another risk. "Why did Crixus bring that file here, Old Man? What happened out there in Seacouver?"

"Nothing," Methos mumbled. "It's not important anymore."

"Methos, I'm your friend," Joe protested. "Just tell me. I ain't going anywhere."

"Until I light your funeral pyre," Methos replied morosely.

"Until then, yeah." Joe shook his head to dispel the image of a skeletal house burning down around a dead Immortal. "I'm not Immortal, Old Man. I can't promise you any more than the years I've got left." He waited. It didn't take long.

"I saw Richie's sword glow," Methos explained quietly. "At the racetrack. Right after MacLeod left, when you were crying on my shoulder. I looked down at the Kid's body and I just...saw it. I couldn't believe it! It glowed! I thought I was losing my mind."

"Ahriman has that effect," Joe admitted. "He's a clever bastard." The memory of his own temptation by Ahriman hurt. He had wanted his legs back so much. He still wanted his legs back.

"Clever, my ass!" Methos rocked back and forth, looking agitated. "Joe, I am old enough to know when I am losing the plot. Swords do not glow! Dead friends do not drop by for quick chats! There is no way it could have been real. No way! And yet--I saw it! Do you have any idea how I am when I'm out of my head? You think MacLeod with his Dark Quickening was dangerous? You have no idea."

*Dead friends? Better let that go for now.* "You should have told me," Joe said. "We could have helped each other."

"I could not afford to be anywhere near you, Joe. I was not about to put you in harm's way." Joe watched Methos, feeling sad, but not very surprised. The Old Man had not survived five thousand years by being a trusting soul.

"What about the train tracks?" Joe asked, because he had to know. "Were you serious about checking out that night?"

Methos looked him the eye. "Very."

"Why?" Joe was bewildered. "You were free and clear. You could have gone anywhere. It's not as though you've never taken the next plane out of Dodge before." He regretted saying it immediately, but he couldn't take it back.

"You would think that, Joe," Methos replied sourly. "MacLeod is your big hero. Me, I'm just the fall-back plan whenever MacLeod's not available, right?"

"That's not what I meant, Methos," Joe floundered. "It's just...you're smarter than that."

"Smarter?" Methos giggled, a sound that made the hair rise on the back of Joe's neck. "I was drunk, out of my head and homeless. No friends, my life smashed to pieces, and it was all my own damned fault. Putting my neck on that rail seemed like a great idea, at the time." He rocked harder, shivering, the journal lying forgotten next to him.

Gently, Joe put an arm around Methos' shoulder. "It's okay, man. Just take it easy."

"I'm so tired," Methos whispered, as if Joe were not there. "Shouldn't be so tired. Shouldn't be so *old*. Should know better than that." His head dropped onto his knees.

"It's okay, Methos," Joe said, feeling like a complete bastard as Methos began to cry. "It's gonna be okay."
*********
Paris, September 30, 2002
The bar was crowded for a Monday. One of Joe's barstaff hadn't bothered to show up--for the third time. Three strikes, and she was out, in Joe's opinion. If Claudette cared more about her new boyfriend than her job, that was fine with him. Meanwhile, Joe was stuck on the bar until Marie showed up at four.

He wasn't thrilled. Methos had asked him last night if he was free for the afternoon. Joe had said 'yes,' of course. He'd made a point of visiting Methos every night since Atticus' death, to make sure the Old Man was okay. For a couple of weeks, Methos had been in bad shape. He'd even given Joe a key, since he couldn't be bothered to come to the door. Every time Joe let himself into the apartment, Methos would be lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. The only thing he ever bothered to do was feed his cat. Joe would fix him some dinner, get him to wash up, maybe watch a video. Methos showed no interest in any of these activities, but he did cheer up visibly in Joe's presence. Joe figured he'd better not look a gift horse in the mouth. He'd just assume that Methos liked having him around.

This week, though, something had caught the Old Man's interest. Methos wouldn't tell Joe what it was, but he seemed very pleased with himself about it. When Joe asked him what was going on, he laughed and wouldn't say. Last night, though, he'd been excited, almost manic. Like a kid in a candy shop. God, he'd even cleaned out the catbox and put out the garbage for the first time in three weeks. Joe had no intention of disappointing him, just because some dipshit barmaid hadn't bothered to show up for her shift.

When he had a minute, Joe called Amy on his mobile. "Hi, honey," he said, as soon as Amy answered. "Are you free at all this afternoon?"

"Uh, not really, Joe. Why? Is this company business?" Great, an opening!

"Yeah. It is, as it turns out," Joe said. "Do you know how to tend bar?"

"I've done it once or twice." Amy sounded suspicious. Paranoia ran in the Dawson genes. "This business...it doesn't involve our friend, the good doctor, does it?"

Joe sighed. "He wants to show me something, Amy. He's really excited about it. You know how he's been the past few weeks. I don't want to disappoint him."

"I see," Amy said. Joe had no doubt that she did. Joe had told her much of the story--the Spartacus bit, anyway. He'd fudged on the part about the train tracks. Better for Amy to see Methos as a wounded hero than as a fruitcake. She'd wanted to visit Methos, but Joe had talked her out of it. It would have humiliated the Old Man.

"I'd really appreciate it if you could help out, honey," Joe said. "I think it's important."

"All right," Amy conceded. "I'll try to be over there within the hour."

"That would be great, Amy. Thanks." It was noon, now. Methos had said he'd come by at three. That gave Joe maybe an hour or two to teach Amy the ropes. No problem. He'd taught guys how to handle guns in less time.

Half an hour later, Jerry Merrick walked into the bar. *Oh, shit,* thought Joe. He'd forgotten all about his open invitation to Jerry to "come in anytime". Joe had wanted to ease Jerry into the Watchers, without the kid realising that his only other option was a bullet in the back of the head. Jerry had been friends with one of the few ancient Immortals left, and he'd seen a Quickening. Even if Joe had ever felt comfortable about making uncooperative witnesses 'disappear', the Watchers wanted Jerry alive and working for them.

How Joe was going to keep Jerry from blowing Adam Pierson's cover with the Watchers, when both the Atticus and the Old Man had used the name 'Methos' in front of the kid, was a whole other can of worms. Hopefully, in all the excitement over the Spartacus story, Methos would be temporarily forgotten. Maybe the legend of the great and ancient freedom fighter would even soothe the shock that such an old Immortal had infiltrated ('joined', Joe reminded himself firmly) the Watchers.

At least the stunning amount of money that Atticus had left Jerry had made the kid happier about moving to Paris than he might have been. Previously, Jerry had been living in a trailer park with his dog, just outside of Savannah, Georgia. He'd taken to the idea of the Watchers better than Joe had hoped. Then again, Savannah, Georgia was the kind of place that made Immortals and the Game look mundane. Savannah was like New Orleans, or St Andrews in Scotland, or Paris, or maybe even Seacouver: it had its own thing going, its own vibe. It was full of odd forms of life, and weird pockets of alternate reality. It straddled the crossroads between the high road and the low road, the border between real life and fairyland.

"Uh, hi, Jerry," Joe said, as Jerry found a stool across from him. "How's your dog settling in?"

"Oh, he's still pretty freaked out," Jerry said, his hands in his pockets. He glanced around the bar in nervous twitches, as if he expected Joe to throw him out for staring at the tables. "I guess I'm lucky I didn't decide to move to Britain. I hear they stick your animals in quarantine for six months--and they make you pay for it."

"Yeah, they do," Joe said. "Have you been thinking about my offer?"

"Sort of." Jerry was trying to be cagey. Man, was he lousy at it. "You really have a complete file of Mark's life? All two thousand years of it?"

"More or less," Joe said. Admitting this to Jerry had been a calculated risk. "You could add a lot. I'm sure he told you stories. He would just have pretended that they weren't real, or happened to some historical figure. So. Are you in or out?"

"Oh...I guess I'm in," Jerry said. Joe let out a quiet sigh of relief. "Now, what?"

"Now?" As Joe groped for a bone to throw the kid, Amy walked in. "Now," he said brightly. "You learn how to tend bar." Amy approached them. Joe turned to her. "Amy, honey, this is Jerry. I told you about him, remember?"

Amy nodded warily. She watched Jerry, who was staring, slack-jawed, at her. Joe got the feeling that Amy was way out of Jerry's usual league.

"Jerry has decided to join us, Amy. He's going to help you tend bar. I thought you might teach him the ropes." Amy smirked. She understood perfectly well that Joe didn't mean bartending.

"Good," she said, putting an arm around Jerry's shoulders. Jerry looked as though he'd just won the Lottery. "Jerry, let's talk." She steered Jerry towards the backroom.

As they went, Joe heard her say, "Here is the deal, Jerry--may I call you Jerry? We are Watchers. We observe Immortals, and we record what they do." Joe noticed that she did not mention the Non-Interference Rule. "Immortals are people, just like us, except that they don't age, they can't have children, and the only way you can kill them is by cutting off their heads--as I hear you've found out. Most of them live quiet lives, for the most part. Unfortunately, it is a central part of their lives that they engage in something called the Game, which you have also witnessed. They engage in single combat to the death, and they all believe that they will do so until there is only one left. This makes their lives, overall, violent and uncertain. Since we watch them at fairly close quarters, this can make our lives, overall, violent and uncertain." Amy knew this first-hand. "Any questions so far?" As they disappeared into the backroom, Jerry looked sick. Joe didn't hear him ask any questions.

Joe chuckled and turned back to the bar. Jerry was in good hands.
*********
So, kiss me and smile for me.
Tell me that you'll wait for me.
Hold me like you'll never let me go.
I'm leaving on a jetplane.
I don't know when I'll be back again.
Oh, babe, I hate to go.

I have an Alexa soundtrack in my head from our time on the road. I remember all of her favourite songs--I wrote them down once, and the circumstances surrounding them. This one was on when our plane took off from the US. I turn up the radio and dance around the kitchen slowly, the Bastard in my hand. I've been playing with it on and off since I killed Atticus. It doesn't matter that I am procrastinating. I've been procrastinating for three weeks. A few more minutes won't matter.

The song ends. I lay the Bastard on the counter. Quit stalling, Old Man. You did tell MacLeod that you'd call him when you were 'reasonable'. So, are you reasonable, today, or not?

I pick up the phone and dial the number. MacLeod answers it on the second ring. "Hello?"

"Mac. Hi," I say. Wow. That was original.

"Adam! How are you fee--doing?" Why does he have to sound like such an eager puppy dog?

"Oh, fine. Mac, um, I was wondering if you could come by Joe's around three? There's something I wanted to show him. I thought you might like to come along."

"Sure!" Perfect. Now, I feel even more like a heel. "We're meeting at the Bar, right?"

"Yeah." Get on with it, Old Man. You owe him this much. Pay the debt and get it over with. "Um, Mac. I do appreciate what you tried to do a few weeks ago--"

"Don't worry about it," he says hurriedly. "You've done the same thing for me--many times."

"--but I don't want you to do it, again," I finish.

"I see," he says, in that voice that means he is not getting it. I do not want to get into a pissing contest with him today, but I definitely do not want to have this conversation in front of Joe. Nor do I want to have it in person, certainly not off Holy Ground.

"Let me ask you a question, MacLeod," I say. "Would you have challenged Atticus if he had won?"

"What?" He sounds shaken.

"It is a simple question, MacLeod. Would you have done it? Knowing that I wouldn't want you to do it?" I know the answer. I just have to get him to admit it out loud.

"I...Methos, he was hunting you." If somebody is bugging this conversation, they are getting an earful.

"Not anymore," I insist. "Not for a long time. What if he was? Cassandra was, too. What made her right and him wrong?" Getting into dangerous waters, now. Here be dragons. Encouraged by his silence, and the fact that he hasn't hung up, I forge on. "You see Spartacus as a great freedom fighter. Atticus thought Spartacus was one of the most dangerous enemies Rome ever had. He had a point, you know. And he is hardly the greatest enemy from my past. You think Kell was bad--or Kalas? There are worse Immortals out there, MacLeod. Far worse." Worse than Kronos? I don't know. My worst enemies used to be friends. I'm my own worst enemy.

"Methos," he says. "You can't continue to win challenges if you go in expecting to lose. It's gonna get you killed." Oooh. Well, I did start off this conversation with too much honesty.

"So, your solution is to lock me up and throw away the key?" Keep it up, MacLeod, and I am out of here, lock, stock and cat. Bora Bora is starting to look very nice.

"I just don't want you to get hurt, Methos." He sounds stung. Good. He might start listening, for once.

"You know, Crixus wanted to protect me," I say, keeping my tone light. "Kronos wanted to protect me, too, in the beginning. Kronos was a good friend, in a feral sort of way, before he tried to become my keeper. Are you planning to become my new keeper, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod?"

I can hear him breathing. I guess he hasn't hung up. "What about Joe?" he asks finally.

"Joe is...Joe," I say. "Don't ask me to explain it."

"It's because he's Mortal, isn't it? He's less of a threat to you."

"Maybe." But probably not. Horton was Mortal, and was he ever a threat. More likely, Joe just understands. The VA tried to stick him in a hospital when he got back from Vietnam. Watcher medics have been trying to get him off those prostheses and into a wheelchair for years, ever since he was at the Academy. He had to fight to get his first field assignment--and his second. Yeah. Joe understands all about padded walls and fur-lined cages.

MacLeod sighs. "Methos...I don't think I can just stand by and watch you do this. It's like watching you do a high-wire act over a sea of knives."

Welcome to my world. "I don't expect you to watch me do anything, Mac," I say. "I am just telling you the way things are. How you deal with it is up to you."

"You're not going to change your mind, are you?" he says mournfully.

"Not on this. No."

I think of a man who once pretended to be me. "Can anyone live for five thousand years and say they did nothing? Risked nothing? Merely stayed alive? It'd be pointless," he'd said during our only meeting, smug in his little garden. Out of the mouths of babes and fools. Did he even realise whom he'd been addressing? I doubt it. The only thing remarkable about me is my age--and that is a fluke. What is there for anyone to notice? I only ever wanted to live one more day.

"All right," MacLeod sighs, admitting defeat. "What is this big secret that you want to spring on me and Joe?"

I grin. "Oh, no. You want to find out what I am up to today? You show up at Joe's, three o'clock sharp. See you then." Laughing, I set the receiver back in its cradle. He'll come. Mac never could resist bait.
*********
Just to be a pain in the ass (since it is expected of me), I show up ten minutes late. Let 'em sweat. I drive up and park behind Joe's truck, just outside the bar. As I get out, I feel a Buzz and see MacLeod hurrying out to meet me.

"Don't come in," he says.

"I beg your pardon?" I stare back at him, bemused.

"That friend of Atticus is here," MacLeod explains. "Joe doesn't think he's really up to meeting you, right now."

"Okay, that's understandable," I admit, since I don't want to meet him, either. Not when I've got his dead best friend's sword in my jacket.

"I'll go get Joe," MacLeod says. "He's been waiting for you." He glares at me accusingly. "You're late, you know."

I smile back. "I know." Wouldn't want to act 'out of character', not for MacLeod. Makes him too nervous.

A few minutes later, Joe comes out. He limps over to my car.

"Okay, Methos. Mac and I are both here. What is it?" he says, getting to the point, as always.

"We're going on a little outing," I say. "Don't worry. It's nearby."

"What, you hid this 'something' of yours in the neighbourhood?" Joe snipes.

"Not exactly." I could explain, and get them both into the car within seconds, but where is the fun in that? "Don't you trust me?"

"No," Joe and Mac say in unison. You've got to love solidarity in your friends.

"Fine," I say, opening the driver's side door. "I'll just go my merry way, then, since I'm not allowed in the bar for the moment."

"Wait!" Joe breaks first, of course, but MacLeod is right behind him. MacLeod puts his arm across the car door, blocking my entry. Joe lurches up and grabs my arm. I feel a stab of contrition. I was only having a little fun with them. I didn't mean to give them such a scare. I must have crashed harder than I thought, after Atticus.

"We'll go, Methos," Joe says. "No questions asked."

"Okay," I say. I unlock and open the back door for Joe, then push MacLeod's arm aside and get in.

"You're not driving, are you?" Mac exclaims, obviously horrified.

"Yep." I lean over and unlock the front passenger's side door. "You coming, or not?" He hesitates, glancing at Joe, who's already going for the backseat. "I can get Joe," I say. Reluctantly, Mac goes around the front to the passenger's side door. Once he's safely out of the way, I get out to help Joe.

"I can do it!" Joe grumps at me and lets himself fall sideways onto the seat. I help him get his legs inside, anyway, then gently shut the door.

As I slide back in the car, MacLeod gripes, "I still think you shouldn't drive."

"Too bad," I chirp. "'Life is full of disappointment.' Isn't that what you told Walker, Joe?" Joe mutters something under his breath and stares out the window. MacLeod folds his arms and stares out his own window, temporarily subdued. Blackmail is a beautiful thing. It means you don't have to compromise all the time.
*********
"'BIBLIOPOLA'," Joe reads the stencilling on the door out loud, slowly. "Doesn't that mean, 'The Book Seller' in Latin?"

"Yep," I say, heading towards the small kitchenette in the back, out by the garden door. I've put a refrigerator under the sink. It wasn't an exact fit, but it will do for now. "You guys want a beer?"

"Um, sure," Joe says.

"You have beer?" MacLeod snorts. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Do you want one or not?" He can be snarky on his own time.

"Yeah. Okay." I bring out the beers and open them in front of Mac and Joe. It's a Cameroonian custom, to avoid the suspicion of poison. I liked it; I kept it.

"So, this is gonna be a bookstore?" Joe says, taking his beer. I nod. "When did you buy this place?"

"I first contacted the realtor in August," I say. "But I didn't finalise the sale until this week. As you know, I've been a little distracted, lately, and the money from selling my house back in London only just came through. I didn't want to tell you guys until I was sure I had it."

"It's very small," Mac says, ever the optimist. He is right. It's smaller than my entire apartment, little more than a hole in the wall.

"Property isn't cheap over here, Mac," I retort. "The property taxes, alone, are stunning. I don't know if it'll be an advantage over renting long-term. We'll see. Besides, I had certain requirements, so I compromised on size."

"What kind of requirements?" Joe says suspiciously. "And what the Hell happened to your going back to Shakespeare & Company?"

"I liked the back garden," I say. "And the cellar is pretty dry, considering how close to the water we are. Good for storage. I made sure that the floor was nice and solid, so that it could take the weight of all the books. Shakespeare & Company...didn't work out." I lasted three days before I quit. I kept imagining Kalas ripping Don's tongue out in the back room. "It had all changed; nobody left from the old days. So, I decided to start fresh. I've had a mind to start my own little bookstore for some years, now. I just couldn't do it while I was still in the Watchers."

I glance around at the half-finished shelves and boxes of books scattered around the room. "I know it's not much to look at right now," I admit, "but I should be able to keep it going for five or six years. People like to hang out in these kinds of places, even if they'd rather buy at Barnes & Noble Bookbarn. Who knows? I might even make some money off of it now and then."

"It's nice," Joe says, swigging his beer. "Your kind of place."

"Thanks, Joe," I reply. "That means a lot. You guys want to see the back garden?"

I take them out back and show them the sundial, the bird feeder, the little bench under the wall. The garden looks good when the sun is out. The weather is warm, a last bit of summer before the cold sets in. Joe and Mac make appropriately approving noises. Joe even settles on the bench for a few minutes. I can see they're warming to this place. They probably feel that it is good for me. I am way ahead of them on that one.

"Well, I think this calls for a toast," Joe says, after I've shooed him and MacLeod back inside. "I think we'll need some more beer."

"No problem," I say. While they head back toward the front, I get the beers out. A flash of movement out in the garden catches my eyes. I peer out through the window. Oh! It's that little old man, M. Laborde, from down the street. I've seen him both times that I've come here. We talk about World War II--*the* War to him. He used to fight with the Maquis down in the Hautes-Alpes. He sneaks in through the back gate, somehow. I think he likes me. When he sees me, he waves. As I wave back, I see somebody fade in through the gate behind him. Fade. I nearly drop the beers. So cold. I shiver. It is Kronos.

"Methos?" Joe sounds very far away. Kronos waves to me. As I watch, he and M. Laborde disappear. Kronos merely fades all at once. M. Laborde fades in...pieces. I swallow, my mouth is so dry. Can't drop the beers. Joe and Mac would notice.

"Methos? Is everything okay?" MacLeod asks from a few feet behind me.

I blow my breath out, lower my head and shake it a little. Not real. None of it is real. I force myself to smile. I am five thousand years old. I can do this. I turn around smiling.

"Just looking at the garden," I say. "Alexa would have loved it." It's a low blow, but it works. MacLeod and Joe both wince in sympathy, and the matter is dropped. No questions asked. I hand them their beers. I'm still nursing mine, since I am driving them home.

"Well, here's to your new business venture," MacLeod says, as we raise our bottles. "May it prosper and never fail."

"Not until I sell it to some gullible entrepreneur for an outrageously inflated price, anyway," I add. Joe laughs.

"Cheers," Mac says.

"Sante," Joe adds.

"Iechyd Da," I say, because saying it in Welsh is good for confusing people, and because the Welsh are good at winning when they ought to lose. We clink our bottles together. This is a good omen. I am starting this new venture with the blessings of two good friends.

It's good to be alive.

END

For now, but Methos and Joe will return in "Both Sides of the Story".