She Who Watches, Part 3
She Who Watches
Part 3
by Sandra McDonald

While in the Watchers, Methos had made it a habit to memorize the names of fellow workers assigned to Immortals of particular interest to him. He'd also downloaded a copy of the Watcher directory and printed it out for further reference. As Friday morning dawned cold and rainy, he made Duncan drive him to the bank where he kept the information in a safe-deposit box. It took only seconds to find the home address of Gisele Pelisson.

"Who is she?" Duncan asked.

"Richie's Paris Watcher," Methos answered. "Not the friendliest woman I know."

"We'll be charming," Duncan said, without any trace of humor, as he pulled the car away from the curb and merged into morning traffic.

Methos waited until they were parked outside Gisele's apartment building in the neighborhood of Sacre Couer before saying, "I'd best do this alone."

"No. I'm coming with you."

"She knows who you are. She knows you're Immortal. She'll stick fast to the rule about not interfering in any way."

"And you think she'll talk to you, instead? You're not a Watcher anymore."

"True," Methos agreed. "But she thinks I'm mortal."

Duncan's hands tightened on the steering wheel as he glared out the windshield at nothing Methos could see. "I don't know . . . " he started, then stopped. After a few seconds he continued, "I don't know that it's safe to leave me alone."

"It's only unsafe if Cassandra is around. That's my theory, at least."

Duncan's knuckles tightened. "We don't know if she is or isn't."

"If she's here, you're unsafe whether I'm with you or not. This will only take a few minutes."

He slid out of the car, half expecting Duncan to follow him. The Highlander stayed in his seat. A chill breeze flapped at Methos' jacket and he buttoned it against the cold morning. A woman walking a horde of yapping poodles blocked his crossing for a moment, but he finally made it across the sidewalk to the entrance of Gisele's building. A security door barred his way. He traced the list of residents until he found her name and then pressed the buzzer beside it.

"Oui?" a voice crackled from the intercom.

Methos turned so that the security camera could see him more clearly. He switched to French and said, "It's Adam Pierson. I've come for Margaret Allen's things."

Several seconds passed before the electronic lock buzzed to let him enter. Almost as an afterthought, Methos stuck a discarded grocery flyer in the door to wedge it open. He didn't quite know what to expect from Gisele Pelisson, and a little backup might not be a bad thing.

Methos climbed a narrow set of stairs to the third floor. Gisele's door, for apartment 3B, lay directly to his right. She had no welcome mat out for visitors, and the small doorknocker mounted below the peephole looked tarnished from disuse. He rapped against the wood. Gisele opened the door with the security chain still latched. Methos tried to look as innocent and harmless as possible.

"We've met," he said. "Back at headquarters, more than once."

"You're no longer part of the organization," she said. Her eyes had dark circles under them, as if she'd been up all night, and she wore a black bathrobe. Gray hair streamed in limp waves down her shoulders.

"No," Methos admitted. "But I still have friends. Do you have Margaret's things?"

Gisele gave him an appraising look and closed the door. He heard the chain retract. She swung the door open and let him step into a small foyer decorated with a print by M.C. Escher. The small, extraordinarily tidy living room beyond the foyer contained more books, a few mismatched prints, a computer on a desk, and a large white sofa with a hostile-looking black cat perched on top of it.

"Nice kitty," Methos said.

"She bites," Gisele warned.

I'm sure she does, Methos thought, but kept the words to himself.

Gisele disappeared down the hall. Methos slid toward the computer desk and the graphic display on the monitor. He saw the floor plan for a building with a courtyard attached. Gisele's returning footsteps made him spin around.

"Nice place," he offered, feeling exactly like a kid caught with his hands in a cookie jar. "I like the views."

"Yes," Gisele said in a brittle voice. "They're wonderful for watching congested traffic."

In her arms she carried a brown coat and matching purse. She thrust both into Methos' hands and then moved past him to turn off the computer. "Those are Margaret's things," Gisele told him. "Her suitcase is in the hall closet."

"I'm sure she'll appreciate it," Methos said. "She wanted me to apologize for dragging you to that racetrack last night."

Gisele turned back to him. Her flat blue eyes fixed on his face. "She told you everything?"

"Not everything," Methos hedged, wondering if some quiz lay ahead of him. "She told me you both found Richie Ryan with his head still attached."

Gisele's lips tightened. "She shouldn't be telling you anything. You're not a Watcher."

"No," Methos agreed. "But I remain interested."

"Interest can get you killed."

"It doesn't keep you from being a Watcher."

"Nothing could stop me from that," Gisele said firmly. "In any case, Mr. Pierson, you've gotten what you came for. Tell Margaret I'll be filing a negative report on her today. Watchers do not interfere with Immortal affairs - what she did last night was inexcusable."

Methos let puzzlement cross his face. "What she did? Go to the racetrack?"

Gisele folded her arms. "You know she did more."

"Well, yes, I do. But you couldn't know for sure - unless you circled back and watched her leave the racetrack with Ryan."

The clock on the wall ticked loudly. "So what if I did?" Gisele asked after a moment's pause. "It's my job."

She had just confirmed what Margaret had said - Richie was alive. Not that Duncan would believe, not without the evidence of his own eyes. Methos put the information aside for a moment and allowed admiration to edge into his voice. "You must have done it on foot. They would have noticed a car following them to the barge. You hid and saw Ryan and Connor MacLeod kidnapped. You probably saw me take an impromptu swim as well."

"What you do is none of my business."

Methos continued unabated. "Most Watchers would have given up then and called it a night. But I'm guessing you're too dedicated for that. Too professional. Did you hail a taxi? You must have. Flagged one down and followed the van. Not many would be that courageous."

"What I did," Gisele said, "will be in my report. Which you won't get to read, despite your blatant attempts at flattery. Do I look so deprived and unhappy that you can charm information out of me?"

Methos decided not to answer that specific question and chose another tactic. "Whatever you believe about your vows, if you make no attempt to stop an injustice you become part of it. Cassandra is not playing the Game fairly by any stretch of the imagination. You know where she took Ryan and MacLeod, don't you?"

Gisele gestured to the door. "Good day, Mr. Pierson."

"Is there anything I can say that will persuade you to help?" Methos asked.

"No."

"Then what if I just look at your computer for a moment?" he asked, and slid past her to thumb the control for the monitor.

Gisele grabbed his arm and yanked him away before the flickering lines resolved back into an image. Surprised at her strength, Methos nevertheless twisted from her grip and tried to grab both of her wrists. He had no desire to hurt her. She threw a hard punch into his sternum, simultaneously knocking him backward and driving the air from his lungs.

While he struggled to recover, Gisele adopted a karate pose.

"Try it again, Pierson," she warned.

Someone pounded at the door and shouted, "Adam! Adam Pierson!"

Gisele turned, gaping at the sound of Duncan MacLeod at her door. Methos staggered back to the computer and focused on the title flickering over the schematic. Gisele yanked him away and drove a knee into his stomach. He went down to the carpet in a heap and a grunt. Methos heard splintering wood and raised his head in time to see Duncan appear in the doorway.

"What the - " Duncan growled.

"Stay back!" Gisele warned, resuming her stance.

Duncan looked at her with an incredibly tolerant expression. "I don't think you want to try that on me."

She must have remembered his background, for she lunged to a nearby writing desk and pulled a small handgun from its top drawer. Her hands shook as she took aim at his chest.

"That won't do much either," Duncan said dismissively. He looked at Methos. "Will you get up so we can go?"

"Do you know where we're going?" Methos demanded, staggering to his feet.

"Le Musee de Cluny," the Highlander answered.

Methos glanced at the schematic on Gisele's computer screen. "But how did you know - "

"I checked my answering machine. Now come on - "

The Highlander left. Methos gave Gisele a wide berth as he circled after his friend.

"Nice moves," he said.

Gisele didn't drop the weapon. "Get out," she ordered. "Never come back."

"I'll send Margaret back for her own things," Methos said, and departed with his bruised dignity in tow.

***

Richie's blood thundered through his veins, a giant icy river of fear crashing around inside his body. His heart did a wild thump-thump jig in his chest as Cassandra's men escorted him down a long stone corridor lit by old electric lights. Archways led off into darker areas. As his captors marched him along Richie caught sight of large stone tablets, small iron grills, shadowed inscriptions. A staggering thought occurred to him then, one he tried to deny almost immediately. They couldn't actually be on Holy Ground. . . But no one who'd lived with Tessa Noel in Paris and been subjected to her endless field trips to museums, cathedrals and historic monuments could ever mistake a crypt when he saw one.

Holy Ground.

He didn't know if the thought reassured him or frightened him even more.

The two mortal men led Richie into a chamber of Gothic proportions. Any furnishings, decorations or dead that it might have once contained had been moved. A banquet table filled with food stood far to one side, while Cassandra stretched on a red velvet chaise lounge directly ahead.

"Do you like it?" she asked. "I got the idea out of a horror movie."

Richie almost retorted that she herself was out of a horror movie. Memories of the ropes helped him keep silent. Cassandra waved a lazy hand at her employees and they left immediately. Richie stood fifteen feet away, his skin crawling. He would have felt much better with fifteen miles between them. Fifteen thousand miles, and a few centuries as well.

"Will you fetch that bowl of dates?" Cassandra asked, smiling sweetly at him. "I wanted grapes, but they're out of season."

Richie looked at the table. At her. He thought about what she had promised earlier, and about the pain he had suffered. He knew what Connor and Duncan would do, but didn't know if he had the courage to do it himself.

"Richard," she said, her smile turning into a pout. "It's just a bowl of dates."

He didn't want to be a coward, he didn't want to be her slave, but he didn't want to be in horrible pain again, either.

"Please?" she asked silkily.

If she hadn't said it that way, he might have capitulated. At least on a temporary basis, until he could figure out some way to escape with Connor at his side. But Richie had always been too good at picking out contempt in people's voices - contempt and condescension both. She figured she already had him. She thought of him as already beaten. Well, she was close, but he still had a little fight left in him.

"You're supposed to have some special abilities," he said. "Make me."

Cassandra's eyebrows arched. "I could," she agreed. "Quite easily. But it's more fun for me when you do it of your own free will."

Richie's heart skipped a beat. But no, dammit, he wouldn't give into that sickly fear clawing around the inside of his chest. He might not be very brave at times, but he was braver than that.

"I hope you're patient," he returned.

"Why fight me?" she asked. "No one's going to rescue you. You'll never escape."

"Is that what you told Amri?"

Her expression darkened. "You will not speak of him."

"You haven't told him anything about being an Immortal. He even thinks you're his mother - "

"You will not speak at all," she said, in a deeper voice, and Richie felt the words sink into his brain like boulders dropped into a smooth, dark lake. He opened his mouth to prod her further but no words came out. His vocal chords did nothing but sit in his throat, useless folds of tissue.

A new kind of fear stabbed through him, one as forceful and frightening as when he'd thought he would lose his hands. Words were the first tools he'd learned to use in his childhood in Seacouver. Tools and weapons both. They'd persuaded more than one aggrieved shopkeeper to hang up the phone to the police, charmed several different teachers into notching C's up into B's, and even given Duncan MacLeod pause for thought in a darkened antique store one fateful night. He couldn't imagine being struck silent for the rest of his life, unable to talk to anyone. Panic must have crossed his face, because she laughed.

"Don't look so frightened, Richard. I'll let you speak again. Someday. If you please me. Now bring me those dates."

He glanced irresistibly at the buffet. Golden table legs glinted beneath the thick black tablecloth. The dates sat surrounded by cheeses and vegetables, little pastries and cakes, apples and oranges and bananas. His stomach reminded him that bread had been too pitiful a breakfast. His knees trembled, a humiliating knock-knock-knock that wouldn't stop no matter how much he wished it would.

"Richard," Cassandra warned, her voice full of a new coldness. "Do it now. Or would you rather we start your lessons all over again? I have plenty of rope, you know."

Richie hesitated.

Then, with shame crashing through him, he stepped toward the table.

***

Margaret entered the Cluny Museum complex through an entrance in a large stone wall running down Paul-Painleve Square. A light drizzle had begun to fall, sending early-morning tourists toward the cover of large arches. Margaret tilted her head upward, noting dozens of small turrets, short towers and ugly little gargoyles. Lace-like decorations hung over niches where statues had once stood. She saw no immediate clue as to where Richie or Connor might be, and despair swept through her at the idea of searching the buildings room by room in what could very well be a futile endeavor.

Still, getting out of the rain had to be better than standing outside in it. Margaret ducked to her right and paid thirty francs to a sour-looking man at the reception desk. She picked up a brochure printed in English but decided not to check her coat in the cloakroom. A quick look at the building's restoration dates told her the main structure wasn't much older than Duncan MacLeod. That bit of trivia stuck in her head despite the need to concentrate on the more serious problems at hand, and she gave herself a mental kick.

The high ceilings, Gothic architecture and subdued lighting leant the chambers of antiques a somber setting. A group of young schoolgirls in black and gray uniforms huddled around a nun, reminding Margaret of her own days at St. Mary's Prep. She passed by tapestries, textiles, plaques, tombstones and sculptures. The brochure told her the second floor held even more treasures, everything from crowns and reliquary to choir stalls and lustreware. It did not, however, tell her where to look for missing Immortals.

Not in the rooms open to the wandering public, obviously. Cassandra wouldn't be that reckless. Having visited every museum in Seacouver and surrounding areas as a chaperone on school field trips, Margaret knew that certain rooms remained off-limits. Administrative offices, storerooms, rooms whose conditions were too fragile for heavy traffic. Attics and gabled rooms high in the complex might be candidates, but basements seemed more likely.

Margaret paused by a gilded seventeenth-century casket to flip through the brochure. The building had been the Parisian residence for the Abbots of Cluny, whoever they were. Roman baths near the property dated all the way back to the third century. At some point the main building had also been a Benedictine Abbey, and had housed both Henry VIII's daughter Mary and James V from Scotland.

An abbey? Holy Ground. Margaret knew Cassandra wouldn't have missed that fact. But more importantly, abbeys usually had burial crypts - underground hiding places where one could easily stash a stray Immortal or two.

She started to look for the stairs.

***

They passed Notre Dame on their way to the Cluny - they could have even stopped back at the barge for beer with just a minute's detour. Methos didn't suggest the idea. Duncan swung into a parking space on St. Michel boulevard with only a few centimeters of clearance on either end. He lurched out of the car before Methos could even undo his seatbelt.

"MacLeod, wait!" Methos snapped. "We can't just storm in there."

The Highlander stopped in his tracks. "Well, hurry up, won't you?"

"Hold on." Methos moved down the sidewalk past Duncan and peered over a low stone wall into an excavated area just off the street. He squinted at the outline of the area, trying to clear centuries of dust from his memory. He could feel Duncan's impatience emanating through the air, trying to hurry him along. Rain splattered the sidewalk and worked itself into a thin trickle down Methos' neck.

"The Roman baths," Duncan said curtly. "Wonderful. This is no time to relive fond old memories."

"I never had much fun here anyway," Methos returned, almost absent-mindedly. Paris had changed drastically since its infancy, and he remembered the layout of too many cities, too many freeways, too many old places now submerged beneath layers of modern civilization. Methos turned, eyed the Cluny, then spun to look down the boulevard.

"What are you looking for?" Duncan demanded.

"If she is using the Cluny as a headquarters, you can be sure she's not going in and out through the front door. If memory serves, there are crypts underneath this whole area that nobody's ever excavated."

"Do you know how to get in?"

"I used to know," Methos admitted. "There was a pub over there, run by one of the most ruthless scoundrels in the city. He had a secret passage in the wine cellar. And over on that corner, a bakery owned by a raging Louis sympathizer - "

He stopped, sure that Duncan did not want to hear more. The pub and bakery both had been replaced by small office buildings. He doubted that he'd find any way underground through their foundations. Methos eyed the baths again, a nagging memory trying to work its way to the forefront of his skull.

"This way," he announced with a sudden decisiveness. "That chapel over there."

"I don't see a chapel," Duncan protested.

Methos led him down a narrow alley between an Indian food mart and a computer repair shop. The chapel's spire barely peeked up into the sky behind a chimney and satellite dish. The tiny stone building, stark and simple in its architecture, stood in the center of an old graveyard. Whoever maintained the grounds had let them fall into neglect, with plastic bags and other trash lining the wrought-iron fences. The rusted gate protested mightily as they pushed their way into the yard.

Methos remembered the holy ground as having been much bigger in the eighteenth century. He was still trying to adjust to its postage-stamp size when Duncan said, "The chapel door's locked."

"So?" Methos asked. "You want to take time to find a locksmith?"

Duncan favored him with a sour look and broke down the door.

"We'll need a flashlight," Methos suggested. "It's dark down there."

While the Highlander hurried back to the car, Methos looked at the broken and faded tombstones dotting the yard. Several markers had been removed. He couldn't find one for his old friend Henri, a barkeep who had saved Methos one night in 1778 from an Immortal hunting heads. Methos had been holed up in a damp, dank riverfront tavern on a two-day drunken bender, mourning the death of Voltaire. Paris in those days was a dangerous and rowdy city, full of flaring tensions, only a year away from turbulent revolution. Methos had stumbled to the alley to relieve his bladder and found himself facing a large samurai sword. Henri had chased off the would-be challenger with a pistol, then hauled Methos to a spare room and let him sleep off the liquor. They'd been friends for ten years afterward, until Henri's death from smallpox.

"I'm sorry, my friend, that I can't find you," Methos said to a dozen dreary graves two hundred years later. "You were a good man."

Duncan's return with a large flashlight interrupted Methos' thoughts. They went into the dust-covered chapel. Broken pews littered the floor, and the large simple cross hanging over the altar had fallen askew. The lock on the cellar door broke under Duncan's weight, and they descended down a long flight of steep stairs to a locked iron gate. An old, sour smell rose up from the darkness beyond the gate, and a deep chill permeated the air.

"That way?" Duncan asked.

Methos nodded.

It took more brute force to open the gate, but after only a few minutes of delay the two Immortals started into the labyrinth. Duncan, who said he'd been in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera house, complained that the tunnels and passages before them now were utterly confusing.

"Just don't get lost," Methos advised. His sense of direction and memory told him they were on the path to the Cluny, despite the confusing twists and turns. His chest felt tight with impending dread. He couldn't shake the irrational thought that something larger than just another Immortal lay ahead. Something dark and foreboding, an old presence in the earth stirring from its rotten grave, shrugging aside maggots, rearing a sightless head -

"Methos," he heard Duncan say. A warm hand clutched the ancient Immortal's shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"We're going the right way," Methos said, forcing down a shudder.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Methos did not consider himself a superstitious man. He didn't believe in ghost stories or ancient evils. But his fingers touched the reassuring hilt of his sword just the same.

Ten minutes later the tunnels abruptly sloped upward, and crypts began to appear to their left and right. An electric light mounted on the wall appeared ahead, an incongruous sight. Before they could reach the summit of the tunnel a mortal man appeared and caught sight of them.

"Who are you?" he called out, his voice harsh.

Duncan switched off his flashlight. "The welcome wagon."

The mortal fired a gun in their direction. The blast sounded extraordinarily loud in the confining tunnels. Methos felt something hot and stinging sear his right shoulder as he threw himself against the rough stone wall to his left. "Did you bring a gun?" he hissed to Duncan.

"Since when do I carry a gun?" Duncan retorted.

The mortal ran off. Methos and Duncan cautiously followed him to the junction of corridors. Methos could feel the wound in his shoulder already healing, but it hurt like a fire-hot poker prodding into his flesh. The sweeping sensation of another Immortal's presence caused him to momentarily forget the pain. He and Duncan approached a large wooden door.

"Cassandra?" Duncan asked.

Methos pointed to the door's deadbolt. "I doubt it."

Duncan undid the bolt, then stood aside and eased the door open. "Who's in there?" he called out from the side, unwilling to risk an attack.

"Who do you think?" Connor growled, and appeared in the door frame. Duncan gripped his arm immediately, relief sweeping across the younger Highlander's features. Methos felt a brief pang of jealousy watching their reunion. No one had greeted him with such old familiarity and affection since - well, since Silas, in the ancient woods of Siberia. Methos immediately pushed that thought aside.

Connor looked tired but fierce. He asked, rather urgently, "Where is she? And where's Richie?"

Duncan blanched. "It's true? Richie's alive?"

"Margaret tried to tell you," Methos reminded him. He didn't mention that Gisele had confirmed the same information.

Connor said, "He was alive and kicking just a few minutes ago. Do you know where they are?"

Methos indicated a corridor. "That way, maybe. But they know we're coming, and they've got guns."

Connor growled, "Bullets don't stop us."

"But they slow us down," Methos reminded him.

Connor only grunted. He took a closer look at Duncan, whose face had paled to the color of milk.

"Richie's alive," he said, sounding dazed.

Connor gripped both of his shoulders and looked at him squarely. "Yes, he's alive. It's up to us to make sure he stays that way."

"She can't take his head," Methos said. "This is Holy Ground. The museum was once an abbey, and even the Romans had a temple here."

Connor frowned. "She can still hurt him."

"Let's find them," Duncan said, with a menacing undertone that almost made Methos' goosebumps rise. A wronged Duncan MacLeod was a dangerous Duncan MacLeod. And Cassandra, Methos knew, had wronged him in a most grievous fashion.

Connor nodded and took the lead.

Methos and Duncan followed with drawn swords.

***

Loathing himself, hating his own weakness, Richie walked to the banquet table as if caught in a particularly persistent nightmare. The silver bowl of dates felt smooth and heavy between his hands. He lifted it and started toward Cassandra, each step like wading through hardening concrete. Tessa had liked dates. She'd tried to get him to eat them, too, but he thought they looked too much like little legless cockroaches. Thinking of Tessa only made him feel worse, so instead he tried to make his mind a blank. He was convinced Cassandra had further humiliation in store for him, and as he stopped a few feet away from her, she proved him right.

"Put them down on the floor and kneel," she said.

Richie put the bowl down. Heat rose in his cheeks as he went to his knees. The stone floor dug through the fabric of his jeans, and his hands trembled at his sides. He still had his shirt on, but he could feel her gaze piercing it straight to his skin.

"You have no idea what it's like to be made someone's slave," Cassandra said, her voice unexpectedly stern. "To be dominated, day and night, by someone you loathed and feared. I lived like that for two years under your friend Methos. Did you know that?"

Richie's head jerked up. "That's not true," he tried to protest, but no sound came out of his throat. Tears of frustration burned his eyes.

"He was a monster. He still is. And he's making Duncan into the very image of himself." The sternness fled as she smiled sweetly. "You're lucky, Richie, that I saved you from their influence."

He couldn't speak, but some gestures didn't require vocal accompaniment. Hot anger made him clap his left hand to the inner crock of his right arm and bring up his right fist. Cassandra scowled in annoyance.

"That was a mistake," she promised. "One which you'll pay for, mark my words. Your stomach hurts, Richie. It hurts very badly."

Agony shot through him. Richie's belly exploded with cramps that tore through him like a mini-Quickening. He fell to the floor, curling into himself, unable to scream. He heard a sharp crack that sounded like a gunshot, but it was a distant event and not important to him. Seconds later, one of Cassandra's mortal men burst into the room.

"They're here!" he exclaimed. "MacLeod and Pierson! I saw them in the tunnels."

The words rang in Richie's head - Duncan and Methos? Come finally to the rescue? More cramps drove hope from his mind, and he gasped for air against the horrible ripping sensation.

"Impossible!" Cassandra said.

"Mistress, I saw them myself!"

"Tell everyone to evacuate," Cassandra snapped. "Meet at the rendezvous. I have to find Amri."

She rose from the throne and stood above Richie. Her towering figure loomed in his blurred vision. "Stay here and wait for them, Richie. Be my bait. Do not leave this room."

Barely aware of Cassandra and her man departing the chamber, Richie lay gasping on the floor trying to fight off the cramps. I've got to find Mac, he thought to himself. Got to warn them all.

But he couldn't even get up off the floor or cry out a warning.

***

Margaret followed the stairs to the basement of the Cluny and tried four locked doors before a fifth led her to another flight of stairs. This one ended at another locked door that utterly refused to budge no matter how hard she rattled the doorknob. She didn't have a hairpin to pick the lock, and wouldn't even have known how to if a pin became available. Just as she decided to retreat and try some other route, the door burst open and two large men came through.

"Who are you?" one demanded.

"I was - looking for the ladies room," Margaret stammered.

"It's not that way," one of them snapped, but neither man stopped before continuing up the stairs. They were obviously in a hurry to get somewhere - or to get away from something. Margaret grabbed hold of the door and slipped inside before it closed completely. She found herself in an unfinished cellar. An open gate led down a flight of stairs. Heart hammering, mouth dry, she followed the steps down. She heard footsteps and stopped in fear. Voices floated up to her.

"How many men does she have?" That sounded like Duncan's voice.

Connor answered. "I counted at least six, all mortal."

"They do all her dirty work, I expect," Adam Pierson commented.

"So where are they?" Duncan asked.

Margaret almost revealed herself to them, but a stern reminder of her vows held her back. Her job was to Watch, not become even further involved. Maybe now, as events seemed to be rushing toward conclusion, she could remember that. Creeping forward in the darkness, she followed the sound of their voices down a tunnel to a large chamber, into the land of ghosts.

***

Connor found the vaulted room of shadows first. Methos, just behind him, saw Richie on the floor but refused to hurry into a trap. Duncan rushed ahead without regard and crouched beside his former student. Richie looked alive and aware, but in an obvious state of distress. He lay curled into himself, gasping.

"It's all right," Duncan soothed, cradling Richie in his lap. The Highlander's face colored into a mixed canvas of relief, affection and concern. "Everything's going to be fine - "

Richie shook his head. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He shook and trembled as if in horrible pain. He clutched Duncan's shirt with clawed fingers. Duncan tightened his grasp and looked helplessly at Connor. The older Highlander came to their side and asked, "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Duncan said anxiously. "I don't see any wound. But he's in pain, and he can't speak."

Methos' first thought was that Richie had suffered some kind of hysterical muteness - Cassandra could have put him through any number of ordeals in the short time she'd held him - but he had no time to further develop the notion. A deep chill swept through him, cold enough to slow his blood. Thin lines of light appeared in a web just a few feet away, and he automatically raised his sword. A familiar face appeared in the spinning lines, followed by a sturdy body. Details fleshed themselves in with startling swiftness.

The ghost before him gave him a joyous smile. "Methos!" Silas called out. "Did you ask him if I could keep the monkey? I've always wanted one as a pet!"

Methos tried to shake his head, to deny the vision, but his body had frozen in place. More images appeared in the cold, dusty air of the crypt. The dead rose in symphony, ghosts as far as he could see, horrific images pulled from his memory. He didn't recognize other images, but guessed they came from his companions' minds. Connor, Duncan and Richie stood as equally paralyzed as Methos felt, their expressions reflecting the same horror his undoubtedly did.

This is madness, Methos thought. But powerful, seductive, mesmerizing madness. A red fog seeped from the stone walls and drifted along the floor, turning his ankles to ice. He couldn't have moved even if a razor-sharp sword swung toward his neck.

Alexa reached for him. Kristin Gilles sobbed on the floor. Silas' expression turned dark with fury as the ghost accused him of murder.

"Do you like what you see, Methos?" Cassandra asked from behind him. She appeared in the corner of his vision, her face bright with amusement. Amri stood by her side, his face not nearly as bright or engaging. "I've arranged all this for you."

He found he could speak, with enormous effort. Sweat broke out on his face as he said, "Then let . . .them go."

"The others?" Cassandra asked. "Why should I do that? You're all my little playthings now, aren't you? Kneel before my power, Methos."

He found himself dropping to his knees without decision or free will. Had there ever been a time when he'd controlled his own body? His sword clanged to the floor, no longer useful to him. A familiar figure moved in the shadows behind Amri, her form hesitant and unsure in the eerie spectral light. Despite the fact Margaret Allen had as little chance as the rest of them, Methos found inner strength to force out more words and distract Cassandra from the Watcher's presence. "Not . . . your power.. . his."

"Amri is my complement," Cassandra said. "He's young, but very powerful. Together we are undefeatable. He knows what you did to me. He knows what must be done."

But Amri's words betrayed her. "Can't we stop now?" the younger Immortal pleaded. "Please, Mother?"

Methos caught a glimpse of the schism between them, but it was too little of an opening too late in their confrontation. He didn't have enough time to exploit Amri's doubts. He didn't have enough strength to turn him against Cassandra in her mad quest.

"These are the men who would destroy us both," Cassandra replied darkly. "It's either them or us, Amri. Trust me. I know what's best."

Behind them, Margaret Allen heard the lie. Prompted by mounting terror, she had kept to the shadows of the chamber to watch the confrontation at hand. The ghastly images hovering in the air frightened her more than anything she'd ever seen in her entire life. Connor, Richie and Duncan stood like statues in the midst of the ghosts, as helpless as infants. Cassandra and her companion had taken on Adam Pierson to torment, and had him on his knees on the stone floor.

She had no gun to fire. The nearest sword lay at Methos' side, equally useless to her. She had no weapons to use against Cassandra, nothing to break the ancient Immortal's concentration.

Except the truth. Or what she understood the truth to be.

"Liar!" she cried out. "Adam Pierson never hurt you!"

Cassandra turned toward Margaret. At the very same instant, Amri's gaze on Methos changed expression. The strained indecision that marked his features darkened into something deeper and vengeful. In the split seconds of comprehension offered to him, Methos understood that Cassandra's pawn knew more than he'd ever let on to her - and that he hated her more than she could ever understand.

Amri's force strengthened on Methos, stripped him of the right to choose his own fate, forced him down a path of action and doomed him to hell.

With just a few fluid extensions of his muscles, Methos the puppet picked up his sword, lunged forward and lopped off Cassandra's head on Holy Ground.

***

Connor saw the twisted hag that looked like Heather shriek and scream out in pain. A jolt pounded through his body, breaking him of the paralysis that had seized his muscles. The ghastly visions in the hall streamed upward toward the ceiling, merging into a spinning blackness with screeches and howls. The chamber shook beneath his feet and Connor staggered, grasping at mid-air for some sort of balance. He saw Methos standing nearby, his expression dazed, his bloody sword at his side. Margaret Allen, not far away, had her hand clasped firmly over her mouth.

Cassandra's head lay against Methos' boots, surprise frozen on her features.

Amri wore a look of triumph.

"Thank you," he said to Methos. "I could never have killed her on my own, no matter how much I wanted to."

Connor instantly surmised that Methos had not killed Cassandra of his own free will. Methos knew killing another Immortal on Holy Ground was forbidden. But Amri, who had been kept ignorant of so many things, knew nothing of the horrible consequences.

Or maybe he did know. Maybe he'd known all along, and still used Methos as a tool of destruction.

"You fool . . . " Connor growled, stepping forward, venom in his voice. "Don't you know - "

"It doesn't matter," Methos said flatly. He lifted his gaze to his Immortal companions. Dull resignation reigned in his eyes. "I'm done."

"Methos - " Duncan gasped, stepping forward, but the time for farewells had run out.

The Quickening rose in arcs of red-hot light from Cassandra's body and blasted into Methos' frame. Connor grabbed both Duncan and Richie and threw them to the floor, half-shielding them from the devastating power shooting through the air. He was too far from Margaret to offer her the same protection. The older Highlander had been through powerful Quickenings before, and he had survived bone-jarring earthquakes, but never had he experienced the two simultaneously. He could feel his brain bouncing around inside his skull and all the muscles of his body vibrating in tension. Dust burned beneath the onslaught and ozone filled the air, making it hard to breathe. The stone floor buckled and heaved like the deck of a whaling schooner caught in a hurricane, tossing their bodies like limp rags.

Methos' screams rode the wild currents of air blasting down from all sides. The cries were unlike any the older Highlander had ever heard in his entire life - those of a man being consumed by fire from within and without, of someone strapped to an express train of agony on a plummet into hell. Connor tried to see Methos, to bear witness to his friend's final agony, but the Quickening distorted every detail. The air between them shimmered like hot air rising off a desert highway, and the red bolts shaded every detail with the color of blood.

Chiseled stone broke free of the ceiling into giant pieces, pounding down with such force the floor cracked open. A giant split appeared beneath Richie and Duncan, endangering them both. Connor pulled them to safety with a split-second to spare. Another chasm opened up beneath Amri, and Cassandra's former student fought against being swallowed alive.

"No!" Amri shouted. "I forbid it!"

But all the power of Amri's ego couldn't match the power of a wrongful Quickening. The fragile hold he had on the edge of the chasm fragmented, sending him plunging downward. Margaret fell victim to the same rent in the ground, tumbling in with a squeak of surprise. Only at the very last minute did she find a handhold. Connor climbed over Duncan, fought his way across the heaving chamber and latched onto her wrists.

"I've got you!" he shouted.

"Pull me up!" she pleaded.

Connor pulled mightily, hindered by the shuddering ground and falling rock and the bolts of Quickening zapping perilously close to his head. He dragged Margaret to the level of her waist, then grasped her belt and hauled back more. Just as she collapsed onto safe ground Methos' scream cut out, and the howl of a vast and horrific wind filled the air.

Connor covered Margaret. Suction tore at their hair and clothes. A great outrush of air made Connor's ears pop, and a geyser burst out of the rip in the ground. Black water shot upward for a few second like the spurts of a massive, severed artery and then died away. The wind abruptly stopped, leaving behind a silence broken only by sobs from Margaret.

"It's all right," Connor murmured, patting her on the back. Although he didn't remember absorbing any of the bolts himself, his body hurt like it had been pummeled by a battering ram. His clothes stank of fire. He sat up dizzily, his gaze going first to Duncan and Richie. They looked as confused and exhausted as he felt, but neither had been seriously harmed by the Quickening or its aftermath.

Connor turned to where Methos had been.

"No," Duncan said behind him, a shaken protest. The numbness of denial had already begun to sink in for Connor's kinsman. "No."

Connor didn't answer.

Only a column of charred ash stood where Methos the Immortal had once been.

***

Two days later

Connor went to Gisele Pelisson's apartment and retrieved Margaret's suitcase, coat and purse. Margaret had protested that he didn't have to do it, but he said he owed her at least that much. She wondered how Gisele liked the idea of Connor MacLeod appearing on her doorstep. When he brought her things to the small hotel near Les Invalides, she worked up enough courage to ask how Richie and Duncan were doing. She didn't expect intimate details, but she wanted to know if they had recuperated any from the shock and sorrow of that morning beneath the Cluny. Two days after the fact, she swore she could still feel the earth shaking. She couldn't bear to watch any of the news reports detailing the inexplicable earthquake that had shaken the city. Her body ached with cuts, bruises and general soreness. Her dreams came full of ghosts and screams and blood.

"They'll recover," Connor said, a note of distance clear in his voice. No matter what gratitude he felt toward her, obviously he still protected his clan's privacy first. "It just takes time."

"And you? He was your friend too, wasn't he?"

"Are you asking as a Watcher?"

A flush rose in Margaret's cheeks. Truthfully she answered, "No. I'm quitting. It's not worth it anymore. My family is more important."

"That's a wise sentiment," Connor said. He gazed around her room and at the rain splattering against the windows. "Yes, he was my friend. I'll miss him."

Margaret could think of no words of condolence that would be useful to a man almost five hundred years old. He'd seen death before. He'd lost friends. He probably rarely lost them in so horrible a fashion as that which had befallen Adam Pierson - no, not Adam, Methos - but he'd lost them just the same.

"I'm sorry," she said, the words sounding woefully inadequate.

Connor nodded very briefly. He took a deep breath and then looked her in the eye. "Do you have a flight yet back to the States?"

She nodded. "Tonight."

"Good. I'm flying off in the opposite direction, so we won't be sitting together." Connor gave her the briefest of smiles to show he was joking. He shook her hand. "Thank you again for all you did. The Watchers are losing a good woman."

Joe said the same thing a few hours later, when she went to help him check out of the hospital. His physicians had pronounced him healthy enough for discharge. Sorrow weighed just as heavy in his features as it had in Connor's - Adam, or Methos, had apparently been a close friend.

"Don't even mention the Watchers to me," Margaret said gloomily. "Especially since you're quitting yourself."

"Yes, I'm quitting. Again. I'm tired of field work, and I want to relax for a change. But you - hell, you're the only Watcher in modern history to have witnessed a Quickening on Holy Ground! All you have to do is say the word, and they'd probably give you a plum teaching assignment at the academy."

"I don't want to be a teacher." Margaret didn't mention that writing her report had been one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Separating what had been real from her own terrified impressions had been tremendously difficult, and the memory of Methos' screams had echoed every keystroke into her borrowed laptop computer.

Joe methodically packed get-well cards, boxes of chocolates and a few articles of clothing into a tote bag. "You could just go back to watching Richie. It's hard to do once you've lost your objectivity, of course - "

"That never stopped you," Margaret said, raising an eyebrow.

"Point taken." Joe gazed at her speculatively. "You still haven't talked to Bill, have you?"

"I'll talk to him when I get back. See if I can make him understand any of this craziness."

"If you want me to have a word with him - "

"No," Margaret said flatly. "No words with him. It's my responsibility."

Joe shrugged. "If you say so."

"I do." Margaret watched him pack two of the hospital's towels in his tote bag. "Are you leaving Paris, too? Along with Connor?"

"Yes. The four of us are going away to some island called Hydra to scatter Methos' ashes into the sea. I think he would have wanted that. The man hated boats, but he liked Greece."

"Joe, how is Richie doing - really?"

"Not well, I guess. He and Mac were here this morning, but I sent them home - they're exhausted. Richie won't talk about whatever Cassandra might have done to him, and Duncan's all broken up over Adam's death." Joe abruptly stopped packing. Margaret rose from where she'd been sitting on the bed and wrapped her arms around him.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You're all broken up, too."

She knew then that Paris would forever and ever be stamped as a city of sorrow in her heart.

***

She helped Joe back to his apartment and got him settled before saying her final farewell. Margaret took a taxi back to the Left Bank. Traffic had snarled the area for a mile in all directions, and she impatiently decided to walk the last few blocks to her hotel. She paid the driver and climbed out into the rain. She supposed it was fitting that her last day in Paris be full of gray dreariness, the exact complement of her mood. All the people she passed had their faces turned down, and their black umbrellas shook in the gusts of wind off the river.

She thought briefly about her decision to quit the Watchers before shrugging off any lingering doubts. The horrific images under the Cluny and the fear of losing her life had finally made her realize her true commitments and loyalties were to her family. She didn't believe she could return to watching Richie's life unfold without wanting to help him, and that might endanger her above and beyond acceptable risk. Besides, she no longer wanted to be part of an organization that believed she should have left Richie to his own tragic fate.

She would miss it, certainly. She hoped she would still keep some of her Watcher friends back in Seacouver, and that they wouldn't drift far apart without the glue of Immortals to hold them together. Margaret didn't think she would find another activity quite as exciting as being a Watcher, but the trade for security and truthfulness would have to compensate.

A man trying to match her hotel's address to a slip of paper in his hand blocked Margaret's path. "Excuse me," she said crossly, before catching sight of his face. "Bill?"

"Hello, Margaret," her husband said, just as startled. He had a suitcase in his hand, the old leather one she'd given him for Christmas just before they married. Not a romantic gift, but a lasting one. His pants looked rumpled and his raincoat had a rip at the elbow. He seemed utterly incongruous, her husband standing in Paris.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, bewildered.

Vulnerability stole across his face. "I thought - it seemed like a good idea - well, hell, I came to see what you were doing. Joe Dawson gave me your address."

"Joe?" she asked.

"He called yesterday."

Margaret couldn't decide whether to be furious with Joe or admire the way he'd lied to her in his hospital room. Lied by omission, if nothing else. "What else did he tell you?" she asked cautiously.

"Just to give you a chance. He said you could explain everything."

"I can," she said, although butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the idea of voicing the truth. Almost shyly she asked, "Do you really want to hear it?"

Bill replied, with more than a trace of exasperation, "I just flew halfway across the world! Of course I want to hear it."

"Okay," Margaret smiled. The story wouldn't be easy, and by the end of it he might think she was insane, but she had the sudden and joyous feeling things might just work out after all. *But I'm still quitting the Watchers,* she thought firmly, as if Joe Dawson might be able to read her mind across the city.

"Let's go inside," she suggested. "What did you do with the kids?"

"They're at the Briere's house. JoAnne said she was happy to take care of them."

Margaret opened the hotel door. "You're drenched. You must be tired, too."

"Yeah. And I have a little headache. Do you have any aspirin?"

"Yes," she answered. "I'm always prepared."

***

Burning darkness confined him, ripped him apart, blinded him, filled him with red light, scattered him through time, solidified him on a rocky hillside with sand scouring his skin. Barely capable of holding his identity and thoughts together, Methos realized his suffering had temporarily ceased. He could barely see past the light burning into his eyes, but the swirling sand that flayed at his body like a tiny thousand razor blades receded and left him in peace. He had a body, which surprised him. He'd almost forgotten what that was like. Although he remembered the events under the Cluny Museum, he couldn't honestly have said if one day or a thousand had passed since their cataclysmic conclusion. His death had become an inferno of torment, a hell without end.

But now, a desert filled with the heat of the sun. A white and blue sky stretched up, up, up toward the universe. Vast stretches of lonely land surrounded him for miles, with no signs of life or civilization.

"Methos," someone said from close by. He turned in the sand and found a friend standing behind him, his form almost indistinguishable in the blazing light.

"Darius? Is that you?"

"Yes."

The other Immortal stepped forward. Methos could have wept for the kindness and love shining from his eyes. The image of Darius wore his brown priest's robes and a simple wooden cross. He looked as strong and confident as Methos had ever known him. But the real Darius was dead, wasn't he? Heinously killed in his own church by mortals, his Quickening lost to the world. And he, Methos, had also been killed - destroyed and damned to an eternity of suffering for the unpardonable crime of taking a head on Holy Ground.

"Where are we?" Methos asked weakly. "Are you just an illusion, part of my torment?"

"No, my friend. Your torment is over, if you choose it to be."

A fierce, hot wind howled out of the valley around them, swirling in dusty eddies at Methos' feet. He saw leather thongs tied to them - funny, but his last distinct memory of footwear had been a pair of worn brown loafers. He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

"I choose it to be," he murmured. "Please, Darius. Don't be an illusion."

A warm hand cupped his chin and lifted his head. Methos opened his eyes and gazed into the compassionate eyes of one of his oldest, dearest, deadest friends.

"I'm not an illusion. This is your second chance. Contrary to the laws of nature, but allowable under the right circumstances."

"The laws of . . . but I'm dead. Nothing can change that."

Darius smiled softly. "Sometimes there's a way. If one tries hard enough, if one knows the right people. . . You've been given a special dispensation, my friend. Go make right what once went wrong."

"A dispensation?" Methos asked in bewilderment. "From whom?"

Darius smiled enigmatically. "From the winner of the Prize. A friend of yours."

The priest leaned forward and planted a kiss on Methos' forehead. He felt the distinct, warm touch of lips on his skin. The wind dissolved Darius' form, carrying him in streams of color into the sky. Methos almost called out after him - what exactly was he supposed to make right? - but the warning buzz of another Immortal made his pulse quicken.

Remember this, Darius' voice ordered in his head, as clear and loud as if he stood right next to him. If you try to contact yourself in any way, your chance is over. You will go back to where you were.

A cold chill ran through Methos' body at the thought. Swallowing hard, he looked down at himself. Not only did he have on sandals, but some unknown force in the universe had clothed him in a short tunic of dark woven cloth and given him leggings as well. A crossbelt over his chest carried flint, a knife and a leather canteen. The sword at his hip looked old and strong, shaped by an ancient forge. He put his hand to the worn wooden hilt but didn't pull it loose. Despite Darius' promise and threat, he couldn't truly be sure anything he saw or experienced was real.

Methos cautiously climbed the rise and looked down a steep, treacherous slope. The body of a woman lay not ten feet away. She'd probably died of exposure and thirst, but her Immortal body had brought her back for more punishment. Her dark hair lay in knots and blood stained her robe. He knew her, and with a cold flash of insight knew what had been done to her. Her captors had taken great pleasure in tormenting her. Methos felt ill at the memory.

She gasped beneath the harsh sunlight, disoriented by those first few seconds of returning life. He knelt by her side - not close enough to touch her, and just out of reach of her knife.

"You're safe now," he said, using the ancient Semitic language they'd once called their own.

"You!" Cassandra spat out, in terror and loathing both, and jerked backward. If she'd had the strength to stand, she probably would have already been running. "No! I won't go back!"

He raised his hands in a supplicating gesture. "I'm not who you think I am!" he said firmly. "I'm not here to take you back. I've come to help you escape."

She scowled in obvious mistrust. "Liar!"

"No, I promise. Let me help you. I can take you to where there are cities. I can teach you things you don't know about yourself - such as why you keep waking up from the dead."

Cassandra made a warding gesture. Suspicion and hatred still dominated her features, although her eyes betrayed a glimmer of hope. She'd always been curious, and certainly not stupid. Perhaps she saw something in his expression that lent him credibility. Perhaps she believed that on her own, she had little hope of ultimately surviving the harsh desert or of outrunning the Four Horsemen.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"You can call me . . . Adam."

"Adam," she repeated. Cassandra sat up and pushed hair from her eyes. "But you look just like . . . is this some trick of the gods?"

"Of maybe just one of them," Methos agreed solemnly. He held her gaze. "I know those men hurt you. I know they killed your tribe, as they've killed so many others. But I also know their tactics and the way they think. If they come looking for you, I can help you escape and outwit them."

"Can you help me kill them?" Cassandra asked bitterly, drawing together the ripped hem of her clothing. Hatred seared her voice. "I swear, one day they'll grovel at my feet. I'll make them pay for what they did."

Methos held back a judicious comment about vengeance. The world restored to him was young and full of promise. Cassandra still suffered from the trauma of her ordeal, and couldn't be expected to easily forget or forgive anything. But he had a few thousand years to teach her.

"I can teach you how to fight. And how to win. Will you let me help you?" he asked.

She looked at him for a long moment, torn between mistrust and need.

"Yes," she finally said.

Dispensation.

***

Richie woke to late-morning sunshine streaming through the open windows. The village of Hiros lay quiet and peaceful just outside the rented room he shared with Connor. Their host had furnished his house in bold primary colors - a forest-green dresser stood in one corner, the beds had bright red headboards, and thick yellow paint covered all the walls. Richie could smell the sea salt and the comforting odor of newly baked bread. He shifted slightly and found himself tangled in sheets and a rough cotton blanket. His sleep had been restless, filled with dread and distorted images. He sighed at the memory, wondering when or if he'd ever have peaceful dreams again.

"Rise and shine," Connor said, startling him. "I'm hungry."

Richie had sensed another Immortal's presence nearby, but hadn't realized someone was actually in the room with him. He turned his head to see Connor sitting in an armchair, leafing through an international edition of Playboy.

"Where'd you find that?" Richie asked with interest.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Connor retorted. The tip of his sandal edged a Greek copy of James Joyce' Ulysses sitting neglected on the floor. "I tried that, but there are no pictures."

Richie yawned, sat up and scratched at an itchy spot on his bare shoulder. He didn't ask why Connor had decided to hang out in their room when sunshine, fresh air and breathtaking scenery beckoned from outside. In the days since their arrival on the island of Hydra, Connor had assumed a subtle, protective role over him. Not that Richie needed physical defense - the only dangers on the island came from stray sheep, too much wine and utter boredom - but he appreciated the gesture just the same. The events that had started at the racetrack and ended at the Cluny had left him feeling vulnerable and shaky.

Connor didn't coddle or fuss, like Duncan would - he was usually just nearby whenever Richie looked, engaged in his own activities, but ready to listen to anything Richie might want to say. Richie supposed he might eventually grow sick of Connor's attention, but for the time being he found it oddly comforting. Just being out of Paris and visiting someplace sunny and quiet helped too, even if Hydra was the most boring place on earth and their stay, so far, felt more like a lengthy funeral than anything else.

Richie wasn't even sure why they had come to the island. They'd flown from Paris to Athens and taken a ferry. Hydra didn't have any cars, so they'd hired a donkey team to take them up into the mountains to Hiros. An old Greek Orthodox monastery lay just outside the village. According to his chronicles, Methos had been especially endeared of the place and had spent several happy years there engaged in research. On their first night, the four men had stood on a cliff overlooking the sea and sent Methos' ashes scattering to the wind and water. Connor had given a brief eulogy while Duncan hung his head in silence. Richie, who hadn't really known Methos well, felt excluded from his friends' deep grief. He also felt partially responsible - if Methos hadn't come to rescue him from Cassandra, he'd still be alive. But that was a topic he had yet to broach with anyone.

Since that night, Duncan had spent most of his time wandering the twisting mountain trails or pacing the narrow strip of beach below the monastery's northern walls. He joined Connor, Richie and Joe for meals, but had little to say to them from the depths of his sorrow. Whenever he looked at Richie, he took on an expression of such relief that Richie grew embarrassed. He knew Duncan had mourned for him, had blamed himself for Richie's "death," but now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up, did Duncan have to keep looking at him as if he was some kind of living miracle?

"If you sit there and daydream all day," Connor said, breaking into Richie's thoughts, "we'll never get any food."

"That would be horrible," Richie agreed, and scooted out of bed. He went to the bathroom, dragged on jeans and a wrinkled shirt, and slipped one sneaker on after the other as he followed Connor down the stairs. Bright sunlight bounced off the village's stone buildings and the pleasant spring temperatures kept the air mild. Almond, olive and fig trees lined the cobbled main street. The owner of the taverna agreed to make them lunch. They sat at a worn wooden table in the shady town square and ate thick pork sandwiches. Joe appeared several minutes later, using his cane to thwart the skinny white chicken pecking at his prosthetic legs.

"Damn chicken," Joe scowled. "It's been following me for days. I think it tried to serenade me last night from under the bedroom window."

"We heard," Connor said. "I think it likes you. It's always good to make new friends."

"I like my old ones better," Joe shot back, sitting next to Richie.

"I do, too," Connor admitted softly, and from his tone Richie guessed he meant Methos.

A flashback of the ancient Immortal's screams cut through him like a knife, and Richie fought down a shudder. He reached for his glass of lemonade and ignored a sudden concerned look from Connor. "Where's Mac?" he asked Joe, hoping for a change of subject.

"I don't know. He left before sunrise."

Richie wrapped both hands around his glass and asked, hesitantly, "Do you think he's going to be okay?"

"In time," Connor said.

Joe agreed. "He thought he lost you. But then he got you back, and lost Methos. It's been a hard week."

"Yeah." Richie looked down. He knew that Cassandra's use of him in her scheme of vengeance had nothing to do with him personally - he'd been another of her tools, like Amri. The mystery of that strange Immortal and his awesome powers had been swallowed up by the earth, and might never be answered. But even knowing he'd been nothing more to her than a tool didn't erase Richie's aching bitterness. His cheeks burned at the recall of how he'd done her bidding like a slave, and how he would have done more if not for the rescue.

"Richie?" Connor asked.

Richie blinked up at the older Highlander. "I think I'm going to go find Mac," he said suddenly. "I want to talk to him."

Connor just nodded.

"Try the beach," Joe suggested. "Hey, if you're leaving, can I have the rest of your sandwich? I'm starving."

Richie hurried out of the village to the steep, twisting path that led down through a grove of orange trees. He couldn't explain his urgency to see Duncan, and he had no idea what he really wanted to say. Duncan had half-carried him from beneath the Cluny, taken him back to the barge, given him food and water and tucked him into bed. Richie had been too physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted to do anything more than follow simple directions. He hadn't noticed the invisible wall between them. That barrier still existed. It had traveled with them on the plane and ferry and into the mountains, and it consisted of more than just those looks of relief Duncan kept throwing at him or sorrow over Methos' death.

Richie intended to break down that wall. He wanted his mentor and friend back in his life one hundred percent. To let the division continue to exist would be like giving Cassandra her final victory, and he wouldn't let that happen.

Beaches were not Hydra's strong point - the narrow wedge of sand between the towering cliffs and deep blue Mediterranean flooded at high tide, and thick slabs of rock in the water kept any would-be swimmers away. Richie found Duncan standing near the waterline, his hands folded across his chest, his gaze fixed on the horizon. He turned at the sensation of Richie's approach and gave him that patented relieved look.

"Hey, Rich," the Highlander said.

"Mac." Richie stopped just a few feet away. Before he could lose his resolve he asked, "How can you blame yourself?"

Surprise crossed Duncan's features. He turned his face to the water so that Richie couldn't see it. "Blame myself for what?"

"For Cassandra. For me. For Methos. Everything, basically. I know you, Mac. You could corner the market on guilt." Richie took a deep breath. "I just forgot it for a little while."

"I don't 'corner the market on guilt,'" Duncan said, sounding a little annoyed. "I take responsibility for events I caused."

"You caused Cassandra to kidnap me? To fake my death? How did you do that, Mac? She tricked you, like she tricked the rest of us. She made you think some guy was me, and she made you think you were taking my Quickening. You were duped."

"I should have . . . " Duncan started, then stopped. His shoulders squared, but he still wouldn't look at Richie. "I should have figured out what was going on sooner. But no, I honestly believed I was some kind of champion for the world. That there was some demon running around. What kind of egotism is that?"

Richie hesitated, then put his hand on Duncan's arm. "Hey, if I were going to pick a champion for the world, you'd be my number one draft choice, Mac. So she preyed on your ego a little bit. She also put ideas into your head. You weren't the only one."

Duncan didn't answer. Richie wondered if he was doing more harm than good. "Look," he said, trying a different tactic, "She got the best of all of us. It's done and over with. If you let it eat you up inside, she wins. If I can put it out of my head, so can you."

The Highlander turned to him. "Have you?" he asked gently.

Richie's mouth opened with the beginning of a lie, but he closed it quickly. "I'm doing the best I can," he offered. "Some days are better than others."

"Yeah." Duncan took a deep breath. "I know."

The older Immortal stretched out his right arm, put his hand on Richie's shoulder, and drew him into an embrace. Richie went willingly, glad for the feelings of relief and love sweeping through his chest. Duncan's arms were strong, his affection genuine. They would get past this and move on with their lives.

"No more demons," he heard Duncan say.

Richie smiled. No more demons. Duncan released him and they broke apart with silly grins on their faces. The warning tingle of an approaching Immortal hit Richie's nerves, and he looked around in expectation of Connor. But the dark-haired man standing at the base of the grove path was not Connor MacLeod.

Alarm made Richie shrink backward, and he bumped up against Duncan. Coldness swept down through his body, ice-cubes running in his veins. Denial followed only a second later - not real, not real, not real -

Duncan stepped in front of Richie, shielding him. The movement annoyed Richie, but he understood it. They were defenseless.

Neither had brought their swords from their rooms. They'd been too difficult to conceal beneath lightweight spring clothing, and no one wanted to arouse the villagers' curiousity by carrying them outright. Besides, neither had expected to need them on the peaceful, isolated island.

But they hadn't expected to see Methos, either. Or his ghost, which stood not thirty feet away looking as strong and solid as the day he'd died. He wore khakis, sandals and a blue shirt, and had his hands in his pockets.

"Mac?" Richie asked sharply.

"It's all right," Duncan said automatically. He lifted his chin and called out angrily, "Whatever you are, you're a trick."

"Hardly," the image of Methos answered. He looked calm and slightly amused. "I'm as real as you are. Just a few thousand years older than the last time you saw me. I'm sorry I'm late - I had to find Margaret to see if she knew where you'd gone, and she took some persuading."

Richie's anger rose at the thought of someone threatening his Watcher and rescuer. "If you've hurt her - "

Methos looked surprised. "Hurt her? Why would I hurt her? No, she's enjoying a very nice second honeymoon in Burgundy. She just didn't believe I was real."

"I don't either," Duncan said.

"Neither do I," Richie echoed.

Methos removed his hands from his pockets and spread them in a gesture of harmlessness. "It's true. I'm as real as you are. I am Methos. I was destroyed on Holy Ground. And then I was given . . . a second chance."

"To do what? And who gave you a second chance?" Duncan demanded.

"I don't know who. I have a few theories . . . " Methos shrugged. "But it's just speculation. Suffice it to say I was thrown back in time to the Bronze Age, and given the opportunity to intervene in Cassandra's life in a positive way. To turn her away from the path of vengeance. My younger self was still around - I took great pains not to cross paths with him - so I took a new name and charted a different path through the world.

"I spent hundreds of years teaching Cassandra. We visited every major civilization in history. I took her to the best philosophers in history, and taught her as much swordwork as she could learn. It truly was a second chance, for both of us. Sometimes boring for me, since I knew all the really important things that were going to happen, but I did make several hundred million pounds in the automobile and computer industries."

Richie frowned. He'd watched enough "Star Trek" to guess about time-travel. "But nothing changed. You say you went back and taught her and improved her life - but I still remember everything she did."

Methos gazed at the rolling waves of the sea for a moment, then fixed on them with profound disappointment in his eyes. "In the end, I made no difference. After she left me, she turned her back on all she knew in favor of vengeance and hatred. That was her choice to make. She made her own life miserable. And she lost her head."

Duncan stood silently, absorbing the information. Richie didn't know if he believed this restored Methos standing in the sand. Could such a fantastic tale be true? He supposed Immortality was full of stranger stories.

"Tell us everything," Duncan finally said. "The whole story. All the details."

"That may take awhile," Methos said, with a small smile.

"We've got time," the Highlander answered.

"Good," Methos said. His voice held a note of relief. "Let's go back to the village, shall we? I don't want to repeat thousands of years of personal experience all over again for Connor and Joe. And it's a tale best told over many, many pitchers of beer."

He started up the path. Richie and Duncan didn't move. Richie asked, "Do you believe him?"

Duncan hesitated. "Do you?"

"I don't know. A few years ago I wouldn't have believed in people running around with swords."

The Highlander gazed after the figure that looked so much like his dead friend. "It sounds like something that would happen to Methos."

Methos turned on the trail. "Well?" he called down. "Are you coming or not?"

They left the beach for the shade of the trees and climbed up the steep mountain path toward the village. The Mediterranean fell away beneath them, a vast glittering blue as far as the eye could see. Richie stopped once to look back, struck by the beauty of the rocky island. For the first time in several days he felt renewed and rejuvenated. The life and friends he'd known before the arrival of the so-called demon had been restored to him. He hadn't taken the opportunity to thank Margaret again in Paris but when he got back to Seacouver he would make the time to do so. His friends had saved him from Cassandra, but his Watcher had given him back his life. For that he would always be grateful.

He had his whole future ahead of him, as bright as the sun, as mysterious and dangerous and beautiful as the encompassing sea.

"Rich?" Duncan asked from several feet ahead of him. "Everything all right?"

"Everything's great," Richie reassured him, and quickly caught up to his teacher on the path. "Let's go see if this guy is for real or not. I'm in the mood for a good story, aren't you?"

THE END


Liked it? Hated it? Comments, please! Sandra1012@mindspring.com

Author's Notes: This story is dedicated to my very good friend Janine Shahinian on the occasion of her birthday. Happy Birthday, Janine!!! My immense thanks go to Angela Mull, JoAnne Briere, Melanie Riley, Rachel Shelton and Cindy Hudson for their beta comments and nitpicking. Any remaining typos and goofs are entirely mine.

It's not necessary to read the others, but this story does have a small prequel called "Epilogue to Archangel." The story of Connor, Methos and the Gestapo is told in "The Battles We Lose." How Connor took care of Richie after Tessa's death is in "Obligations." An entirely different spin on the Archangel arc is addressed in "Michaelmas." You can find those, and other stories, at my web page.