The pounding on his door woke him.
Cursing, he looked at the clock and grabbed his sword. He wasn't expecting a Challenge; a Challenging Immortal wouldn't knock on his door at 3:30 in the morning. No, it was probably either MacLeod or one of the Clan MacLeod, and although he wouldn't need the sword, it was a good prop to ward whomever against turning late night visits into habits.
He started worrying when he didn't feel any Presence. "Who is it?" he demanded. Challengers might not knock on his door, but stupid mortal Hunters might.
"Adam, it's Joe."
His hands trembled as they disengaged the locks. There was something in Joe's tone.... The door finally opened and one look at his mortal friend told him all he needed to know. There was only one person he cared about enough to warrant Joe's arrival on his doorstop with eyes that sad. In an instant he ruthlessly cut himself off from all emotion save his love for Joe. Rules of war: attend to the wounded, then mourn the dead.
The mortal was soaked as if he'd been out walking for long hours in the rain which had fallen constantly in Paris for the past two days. His skin was gray and he leaned heavily on his canes.
"Come on in, Joe, and let's get you dried out," Methos said calmly, reaching out to take some of the mortal's weight.
Unfocused eyes looked at him. "You know?"
"I do now. But details can wait. Your skin is like ice. I'm going to draw you a hot bath. Come with me," he gently ordered.
He sat Joe on the closed toilet lid and started the water. Then he turned to Joe and began undressing the man. It should have been difficult peeling him out of the wet clothing, but Methos was a child of the battlefield, and skill was skill. With equal ease, he removed Joe's prostheses and laid them aside before scooping the man into his arms and easing him into the tub.
"You have your balance?"
Joe nodded. "What's in this water?"
"An herbal mixture I put together for when I'm stressed. I've gone through quite a lot of it in the past several years."
Joe smiled. "Nice."
Methos patted his shoulder. "Just sit there and let the heat seep into your bones for a while. You want coffee, whiskey?"
"If I start drinking, I'm not sure I can stop."
With a nod of understanding, Methos sat on the toilet and started drying the plastic limbs. It all felt so unreal. Joe in his bathtub, Mac.... Damn it, he thought he would know. After that freakish double quickening in Bordeaux, he thought he would know if Duncan.... No, he couldn't start down that road now, not when Joe needed taking care of. The Watcher was still bleeding. "Let me get you something to put on."
He returned with boxers and a T-shirt.
"Just put a towel on the floor and sit me on it," Joe instructed. Methos dried him and helped him dress. "Damn, man. Do you own anything that's not three sizes too big? Just how much of you is real?"
"A question I ask myself often, Joseph." He picked him up and placed him on the bed.
"Sorry about turning you into my personal U-Haul."
"Apologize to me again and I'll set you on the curb. Back in a second." Methos returned with a full brandy snifter. "Nurse that while I put your clothes in the dryer."
"We'll talk when I return. I promise. Get under the covers if you get cold."
He picked up the wet items and headed to the laundry room stuck in the back corner of the flat. Seeing some of his worn things tossed around, he decided just to wash everything. That took all of five minutes and he looked around for something else to do. Anything that would keep him from returning to the bedroom where Joe wanted--needed--to tell him what had happened. He didn't want to know the details, did he? Wasn't it enough that MacLeod was...? All he needed to know was a name. But Joe needed more, and the patient always came first. So with a sigh, he headed back to his room.
"How are you doing?" he asked, testing Joe's forehead with the back of his hand. "You seem warm enough. Maybe a bit too warm. I might have some aspirin left from--" He started toward the bathroom.
"No, Methos, don't go. Listen, I know you don't want to hear this."
I don't. I never ever wanted to hear this.He perched on the edge of the bed, near Joe's blanket covered thighs. "Go ahead, Joe. Tell me. Mac was somewhere in Ukraine researching a relic for an old friend, right?"
"It was an ax head, found in some peat."
An ax head. In Ukraine. Silas' face danced before him and he had to struggle to keep his soul from ripping wide open. "Someone Challenged him?"
"It was a fair Challenge?"
"I--I don't know. We lost contact with the Watcher soon after."
Didn't matter. The Challenger was dead. Death so willed it. "So there hasn't been a--recovery?"
Joe shook his head. "The area's pretty remote. Jenkins was calling in on a sat phone. Usually they survive a quickening if you're not too close, but Mac's...." His voice broke.
"Duncan had amassed a lot of power in his scant years," Methos finished for him. A flash of blue lightning caught his attention and he looked down to see that his nails had dug deep gouges where they lay on his boxer-draped thighs.
"Oh, God, Adam. What are we going to do without him? Damn it. I shouldn't have gotten close to him. I shouldn't have--"
"Loved him?" Methos shrugged. "He was an easy one to love. All that nobility and decency. A honest-to-goodness hero, Joe. Just like on the movie screen."
"But he was real--and fallible."
But not this fallible. He wasn't supposed to die, damn it! "Who, Joe? Do we have a name?"
"Jenkins didn't know. I guess we'll get a detailed description when he checks in."
Methos nodded. "Where's your car?"
"Out front. Why?"
"Because you were drenched. How did you get so wet?"
"I stood outside your door for a while, trying to figure out how to tell you. But I should have known you'd already know. You and Mac had some kind of mojo going ever since Bordeaux."
"He told you?"
"Nah. I'm a paid observer, remember? I know when one of you guys senses another. Even in a friendly place like my bar--" Joe grinned-- "Mac stayed tense until he could see who the Immortal was. After Bordeaux, I realized that every time he relaxed before seeing who came through the door, it was always you coming to mooch a beer."
Methos gave him the expected retaliatory glare. "Yeah, I could recognize him, too."
Joe laughed. "Hell, Adam, you've recognized them all for as long as I've known you for an Immortal. Oh, you covered it up pretty well, pretending not to know it was Mac or Richie or Amanda. But on occasion, if you were well-buzzed or exhausted, you forgot to act on edge."
Methos smiled self-deprecatingly. "Guess that's what I get for hanging out with a Watcher."
"Something you learned to do, or is it natural?"
"I honestly don't know. It wasn't until I got with the Horsemen that I realized I could recognize Immortals by their Presence. Before them I never really met an Immortal more than twice; either I left or I fought."
"No Immortal friends?"
"Not that many Immortals. Travel was a pied back then. Never really got far from home."
"What about your teacher?"
"Can't remember him or her."
"Really? I just thought you were bullshitting when you said you couldn't remember anything before you took your first head."
"The only bullshitting going on with that is that I don't even remember that first head. I'm taking it on faith that the Watcher records are accurate."
"Shit, Adam. That might've not even been your first head."
"Yes, that's a possibility I've considered."
"What is your first memory?"
Methos shrugged, allowing Joe his questions tonight, knowing the curiosity was countering the pain. "My first crystal clear memory is my fight with Tec'Amin."
"That was your fourth Challenge, according to the Watchers--fifty years after the first one. Jesus Christ, man. We know fifty more years of your history than you do?"
"And that doesn't drive you nuts?"
"Tec'Amin was my first clear memory. There are others that I get in foggy bits and pieces, and from those I realize I really don't want to remember."
"Oh." Joe was silent for a few seconds. "You ever tell Mac this?"
"And have him go all broody on me? No."
"Maybe he would have looked at your Horsemen years differently."
"He had to accept that part of my past on his own."
"Hell, Adam, he couldn't even accept his own past that well. Keane did a number on him. Reminding him of Culloden and Sean Burns. You watched him kill Burns, didn't you?"
"And I saw him almost kill Richie. Then we both saw him-- He loved that boy. I know he did."
"Yes, you both did."
"I didn't think he'd ever get over that. I'm not sure he did."
"Richie was more than a student to him."
"And I thought you were more than just a friend to him. Why did you leave after Rich's funeral? Did you go looking for Mac?"
"Why not? You knew he had to be a mess inside."
"MacLeod killed a student, Joe."
"And that meant you were scared of him? No way in hell I'm buying that. You stayed on his tail and in his face during the entire Dark Quickening."
Methos sprawled across the bed and rested his chin on a hand. "I was afraid for him, Joe. There were Immortals out there waiting for MacLeod to screw up, waiting for a legitimate chance to Challenge him--and killing a student is right up there with two-on-one or using mortals."
"They wanted-- But surely you've killed students before? And Richie was out on his own."
"Not really. Maybe after another decade he would be considered an independent Immortal, but in our world, he was still a student--and a harmless one at that. Everyone knew he adored his teacher. What Mac did went against traditional Immortal law."
"So Mac was fair game?"
"Led some of them on a merry chase."
"And the others?"
"There were five Challenges won by an unknown Immortal that year."
Methos shrugged again.
"You set yourself up as his protector from the very beginning, didn't you? You called the police when you didn't think he could defeat Kalas. You took Kristin's head. You gave up Galati to the Watchers, started a fire when you didn't think he could take Kronos, and killed Silas because he would have been after Mac's head."
"I thought he was--too important to lose."
"Too important to the Game, or to you?"
Methos smiled bitterly. "Doesn't matter now, does it?"
Joe gave a big sigh and drained the snifter. "With my history and my line of work, I've gotten used to losing people suddenly, but...but he's one I didn't think I'd lose, you know?"
"Already had my will worked out and everything. Guess it goes to you now--my private journals and all. I was gonna give Mac his and you yours. Got some secrets about the Watchers too."
"I don't want them, Joe."
Joe snorted. "What you mean is that you don't need them. Know everything you need to know, don't you?"
"If that were true, MacLeod would be sitting here with us."
"I want him here with us, Methos," Joe said softly. "Sure, sometimes he could be a stubborn, unbending jerk, and sometimes his ideas of loyalty and honor and crap like that could get--" He paused, searching for the right word.
"Tedious," Methos obligingly supplied.
"Tedious, but dammit, he was our tedious bastard, you know? Shit, how are we going to tell Amanda?" Joe asked suddenly. "Do you have her number? We should call."
Methos placed his hand over Joe's. "Not the kind of news you need in the middle of the night. It'll wait."
Joe looked down at their matched hands. "Should I not have come here?"
Methos shook his head. "You needed a friend."
"And what about you? What do you need, Adam?"
For this to be a nightmare."I don't know." Methos gave a dry chuckle. "MacLeod always accused me of having a plan for every contingency. However, I seemed to have missed one."
Joe squeezed his hand. "The Methos. I don't think he ever really knew what to make of you. He expected another Darius, and ended up with someone who was less and more at the same time. You frightened, fascinated, disappointed, and surprised him constantly."
"I hurt him, too."
"You hurt each other. That happens when two people are so much alike."
Methos sat up and fluffed a pillow. "It's apparent that the brandy is going to your head. Just slip under the covers and go to sleep. You'll make more sense tomorrow."
Joe obediently maneuvered beneath the sheet. "I'm not drunk. You're both loyal to a fault, and honorable to boot."
"I'll accept loyal."
"You should. You couldn't kill your 'brothers' after three thousand years. And you have honor--it's just not as easy to label as Mac's." Joe gave a wide yawn. "You didn't spike that brandy, did you?"
"No, you're just tired, Joe. Rest."
"And things will be better when I wake?"
"Probably not. But eventually."
"You speaking from five thousand years of experience?"
"Yeah, I am."
"I didn't mean to put you out of your bed."
Methos smiled. "Joe, I lived through times where only five in one bed was a treat. When I'm ready for bed, I'll just move you over."
"You never moved Mac over."
"I'm just a man, my friend, not a saint."
"I better get back to my laundry." Methos stood and leaned over Joe to kiss his forehead. "Sleep well."
Joe reached out to grab his arm as he started to leave. "For what it's worth, I think you wouldn't have been sleeping on the sofa much longer. The love was there, and the trust. All you needed was time."
"And it's the one thing we didn't get. Go to sleep, Joe."
"Good night, Methos."
Methos hit the light switch. "Good night, Watcher."
Joe woke to the sounds of someone trying to move quietly. Slowly cracking open an eye, he saw Methos stuffing clothing into a duffel bag.
"Is this the morning after kiss-off?"
Methos smiled. "I wondered if you were going to wake before I had to leave. How are you feeling? Do you need aspirin?"
"One brandy isn't enough to give me a hangover. Where are you going? And if you sleep as noisily as you pack, I'm betting you never came to bed."
Methos came over and helped him sit up. The task was so matter-of-fact that it took Joe a second to realize he should have been at least halfway embarrassed by how much help Methos had given him. But neither the bath last night nor the casual way Methos had hauled him around had felt awkward. Maybe that was what had made friendship with young Adam Pierson so easy; the fresh-faced Watcher had never reacted negatively to his disabilities. He took it all in stride--just like the doctor he had been, and probably would be again.
"I had laundry to do--"
"And Watcher files to tap."
"You're going to Ukraine, aren't you?"
"My flight leaves in a little over an hour."
"Why? What can you do?"
"Now that it's too late, you mean," Methos said dryly.
Joe stared at him. "C'mon, Adam, you can't be feeling guilty over this. And don't give me that shit about not feeling guilt."
"Take away my best material, why don't you?" Methos said with a brief grin. "No, I'm not feeling guilty, just sad."
"Then why are you going?"
"Aside from the fact that Jenkins hasn't reported in yet?"
"He hasn't?" Joe glared at Methos for the momentary distraction. "Aside from that?"
The Immortal sat on the edge of the bed. "You know that I never wanted MacLeod's quickening."
"But the thought of it rattling around in someone else is disquieting."
"If not Mac, then you?"
"Something like that. Maybe it's that mojo in Bordeaux that you keep harping on," Methos said with a smile.
"And maybe it's that honor thing you keep denying," Joe countered. "Listen, if this Immortal took out Mac--"
"I'm not MacLeod, Joe. I'm not even considering a fair fight. I want what I want--and I'll do what it takes to get it."
"What if the person's not in the area?"
"Then I'll find him."
Joe shivered at the strength of that vow. "Adam--Methos, don't get so caught up in avenging Mac that you forget your own life. I don't know if I can handle losing both of you."
Warm hazel eyes stared solemnly at him. "You won't lose me. There was only person I was willing to give my quickening to. Now that that's no longer a possibility, count me in for the Gathering."
"You plan on being the One?"
"Gods, no. But the Three or the Four I could possibly manage."
Joe looked at him approvingly. "You're a dangerous bastard, aren't you?"
"Quite. I think you're all set." Joe followed Methos' glance to where his prostheses lay on the bed, his carefully folded clothing beside them. Then Methos handed him a key ring. "Stay at Chez Pierson as long as you want. And feel free to return if Watchers and/or well-meaning friends start to get to you. Mi casa es su casa."
"You said the same thing to Mac, didn't you?" A tight nod. "Go and bring our boy home, Methos."
"I promise, Joe."
Methos spent the flight worrying about himself. Why shouldn't he? It had already been too long since he considered himself the most important Immortal in his universe. Now that MacLeod was... Damnit. That was the problem. MacLeod didn't feel gone to him. The link that had sprung up between them in Bordeaux still thrummed with power. It had taken him a while to accept that constant sensation in his head. It wasn't quite like the feel of a Presence. It was less pervasive, a warmth keyed to a specific area of his brain. He'd discovered no intrinsic value of having it other than letting him know the Highlander was alive and well, and apparently that was wrong. Unless...unless the link was so deep that it had transcended death.
Fuck. That was a cheerfully ghoulish thought, wasn't it?
"Can I get you anything?"
Adam Pierson shook his head. "I'm fine. Thank you."
The stewardess smiled and moved to the next row.
"I'm fine" had to be the most enduring lie of all times, he thought as he stared out the window. Just when had people stopped telling the truth about how they were? Or had the question ever really been sincere? Had anyone ever cared how their neighbor was feeling? Had he ever cared? About people other than those he'd adopted at the time? Maybe while he was mortal. He gave a rueful grin. Oh, the number of niceties and social graces he'd given his forgotten mortal years. Who was he trying to kid? He'd probably been just the same sarcastic, cold-hearted son of a bitch as a mortal as he was as an Immortal. Leopards rarely changed their spots.
And Duncan MacLeod wasn't supposed to die.
He couldn't get away from the feeling that this was wrong. Sure, he'd railed against death before. Look at how hard he'd tried to save Alexa. And her death still hurt. But it didn't feel wrong, not like MacLeod's death did. He should be accepting this better than he was. When he'd met MacLeod, when he'd settled his hopes on MacLeod, he'd known there was a chance--hell, more than a chance considering the Highlander's penchant for Challenges--that Duncan would die long before the Gathering ended. Of course, that hadn't stopped him from meddling where he could, or intervening when necessary. What was that black American leader always saying? Keep hope alive, that was it. He'd tried to keep hope alive.
And failed. There was nothing left to do except avenge his friend and mourn. If it wasn't for Joe, he'd take MacLeod's quickening from his killer and just keep moving. But he couldn't, wouldn't, do that to Joe. Not to the mortal who not only kept his identity a secret despite the oath he'd taken, but who also stubbornly held onto the friendship they had. For ten years hed pretended to be a harmless Watcher researcher. That alone should have been enough to make Dawson despise him. But Adam Pierson hadnt just been Joes colleague, but a close, personal friend. He should have outed him not only as an Immortal, but as the ever-elusive Methos. Instead, hed continued to be a steadfast supporter, even when the hounds of Hell nipped came out of the past to bite him on the ass. Loyalty? Joe Dawson had it in spades. How could he not repay it in kind?
So for Joe he would endure the final gathering of the patch-worked Clan MacLeod. He'd console Amanda, and swap Duncan stories with those who came to pay their last respects to the man who'd united them together in defiance of the "there can be only one" rule. Eventually they'd all go their separate ways, and he'd settle down to be Joe's friend until the mortal's end. Then he'd once again become a myth among mortals and Immortals. Adam Pierson and Methos would cease to exist. Pierce Adams or Benjamin Matthews or someone else would rise out of the darkness, and if this new guy spent a little too much time wandering the woods of Scotland or could be found once too often in a blues bar, no one would notice. And even if they did notice, no one would piece the story together. He would be just another mysterious figure haunting old haunts.
Christ, but he was tired of being the one left to remember. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." Yeah, when? It sure as hell hadn't happened at the first coming. He'd spent those thirty odd years shackled to a wall in an underground chamber where he was made to perform entertaining perversions for individuals and groups. The Romans were a dour lot, but they loved a good show....
By the time he'd escaped, the resurrection was an old rumor and the so-called disciples were off committing the Acts. So, no, there had been no comfort then. And he had serious doubts about looking forward to the foretold second coming. He'd watched so many gods--big "G"s and little "g"s--wax and wane along with their civilizations. Who knew if anyone would care if and when the second coming came?
Weary and heartsick, Methos retrieved his sword from customs at the airport in Kiev and got on a bus to the countryside where MacLeod had gone missing. Thankfully, it wasn't crowded and no one took the seat next to him so he could brood in peace. Ah, Highlander, you're already becoming a part of me and I haven't even retrieved your quickening yet. What will you do to me then? Will I suddenly be hit with boy scout tendencies? Will I go off to fight windmills?
He looked at his reflection in the bus window, not liking the grim smile that glared back at him. He'd taken thousands of quickenings and nothing of the host, of the Immortal, ever remained past an hour or a day. He still heard Silas and Kronos, but that was more out of familiarity than actual post-quickening residue. And that's all he would have of MacLeod, too, just mere familiarity to fall back on where once there had been solid strength and warm comfort.
Sometimes he got so tired of Immortality.
He was dead on his feet by the time he stumbled off the bus. The town where both MacLeod and the Watcher had been staying was more of a village than an actual town. One small inn, located on the only real thoroughfare, a.k.a the Ukrainian version of Main Street. Shouldering his pack, he trudged in its direction. Although exhausted, he nevertheless noticed the stares he was getting and the hostility emanating from the natives he passed. Paranoid on the best of days, he quickly catalogued the weapons on his person. Pistol in his pocket. Knife at the small of his back. Sword in his coat. It was such a bitch to travel by air; he'd had to have a "man" meet him at Boryspil Airport. Thank God the arms network was so organized.
"No vacancies," the woman at the desk said in very broken English before he could speak. She was an older woman, petite with gray hair braided and wrapped around her head.
He replied in the dialect he'd heard the others around him whispering in. "But I have come a long way. Please, pani. Any small room will do."
She was startled, along with the eavesdroppers nearby. "You are not one of them," she replied in her native language.
"One of who?"
"The infidels in the forest."
Methos stiffened. "That sounds very disturbing," he said carefully.
"Oh, it is," she replied, relaxing. "They came about two weeks ago, and they do strange, dark things out there. Maybe even--human sacrifice." She whispered the last two words.
Human sacrifice? Immortal sacrifice? No. That would mean that MacLeod would be irretrievably lost, another Darius....
"Oh, you poor dear. Look at how pale you are, and Tibby keeps you standing here listening to an old woman babble. Franz, take him to Room 5. It is close to the hall facilities," she said to Methos, assuring him that he had her favor.
"Thank you. I am grateful."
He frowned bewilderedly. "I'm terribly sorry. There must be a guest registry I have to sign. Too much travel, I suppose. Pierson. Dr. Adam Pierson."
"Of History, not Medicine, I'm afraid," he said as he scribbled his name.
"A professor. That is nothing to be ashamed of, young man. What brings you here so urgently?"
"I am looking for a friend." He fumbled in a pocket for a moment. "His name is Duncan MacLeod."
Tibby frowned. "He was here not three days ago. A very polite young man, such as yourself. He has gone missing?"
She crossed herself. "I shall say a prayer for your friend, Professor."
"Thank you, kind lady."
"Off with Franz then. Or are you in need of some food? Light meals are included with your fee."
"Just rest for now. But I look forward to breakfast."
Tibby looked pleased at the comment, and Methos followed Franz up the stairs and down the hall. After carefully locking the door, he sprawled fully-clothed across the bed. It'd been so long since he'd last slept, but five minutes later, he realized it was going to be even longer.
With a sigh, he sat up, shrugged out of his coat, and removed the cell phone from its pocket. "Joe, it's me."
Methos wiped a hand across his face. "It might be more--complicated than we first thought."
"Why? What's going on?"
"There are rumors that there's some kind of cult operating out of the woods near where MacLeod was last seen. A cult that might be into human sacrifice."
A long silence. "Damn."
"What are your plans now?"
"To find out all I can. Anyone heard from Jenkins yet?"
"No. And headquarters is starting to get worried."
"Maybe they should be. Maybe MacLeod's not the cult's only victim."
"Adam, maybe they just killed Mac. Maybe--"
Methos hated hearing the hope in Joe's voice. "You read Jenkins' report. He's a veteran in the field, Joe. He knows a quickening when he sees one."
"Don't. Don't do this to yourself...don't do it to me. Please, Joe."
"God, Adam, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make it worse for you."
"I'm not sure it can get worse," Methos said with painful honesty.
"You would have been good together. He needed you in his life, just like you needed him."
"Well, if I needed him for anything important, I guess that's shot to hell now," Methos said bitterly. He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Joe. I'm tired, you know."
"Why are you talking to me instead of sleeping?" Silence. "Adam? Methos?"
"When I close my eyes, I see him, Joe."
"Shit. You gonna make it, Adam? I swear I can't survive losing both of you at the same time."
"Nothing to worry about. I'm--I'm okay. It's just that here I was bound and determined to get Duncan's quickening, and now.... I'm just tired of losing the ones I love." His voice dropped to a whisper as he tried to choke back the sob in his throat.
"Listen, the Watchers are going to be there soon. Come back, and let them handle everything. Okay, buddy?"
"No, it's not okay. This is something I have to do for...sanity's sake."
"Is that the key, Adam? Is that how you've handled the pain in your long life? To face it head on like this?"
Methos sighed and fell back across the bed. "I need to make sense of it, Joe. If I don't, the questions never go away--and I do mean never."
"I knew I should have gone with you."
"No!" he said, panicking. "I WILL NOT HAVE YOUR LIFE AT RISK. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, JOSEPH?"
"Is that your 'I am god, do not fuck with me' voice?" Joe asked a moment later.
Methos chuckled softly, feeling himself retreating from the edge. "Yeah, Joe, I guess it is."
"Not bad for a pansy-assed professor. Don't worry. I'll stay here. You're under enough strain. I don't want to add to it."
"Thank you," Methos whispered. He cleared his throat. "Think I'm going to try for that nap you suggested earlier. I'll talk to you when I get some information."
"Or if you just need to talk."
"Or if I just need to talk. 'Night, Joe."
"Rest well, my friend."
But he didn't. Every time he drifted off MacLeod's voice called to him from a distance, or a flickering light would beckon, and he would walk in that direction, only to fall into a dark pit. Then he would jerk awake, panting alone in his room. By the time the sky brightened, he was a miserable wreck. With a groan, he went across the hall to wash.
Feeling marginally better, he went down to the main floor.
"You're up and about early, Professor. Thought for sure you'd be sleeping in," Tibby said as soon as she spotted him.
"Much to do today."
"Then you'll be needing a hearty breakfast. And I won't be accepting any excuses." she added when he opened his mouth. "Apparently someone has been letting you get away with it too often."
Her chastisement sent him back to several warm spots in his past. He obediently sat at the table and helped himself to the dishes already sitting there. When he'd apparently eaten enough to satisfy her, she sat down beside him.
"You go to look for your friend?"
"That could be very dangerous."
"If Mr. MacLeod was captured by the infidels...." She made the sign of the cross, indicating her lack of hope.
Methos rested a hand atop of Tibby's. "I promised another friend that I would bring this one home--no matter what. I intend to make good on that promise."
"They are very evil," she said softly.
"I can be very evil, dear lady."
He let a little of his past show and she flinched. But she recovered quickly and lay her hand on his cheek. "May God be with you on your quest, Professor. I think between you and Him, those people in the woods will regret what they have done."
"Regret is sort of a specialty of mine," Methos said quietly. He pushed away from the table and grabbed his coat from the rack where Tibby had hung it.
"Growing up, I often wished for a friend like you," Tibby said, walking with him to the door.
"And now you have one."
She put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Don't let them get you, too."
Methos leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I am very hard to get. I give you my word; I shall return."
Two hours later, he was trudging across the countryside in search of "infidels". Despite possessing the magical key of Tibby's approval, he'd gathered little information from the townspeople, including the constable. They honestly hadn't known anything. The strangers that had passed through the town had raised their hackles, but like the prey they were, they had retracted into their shells and hoped they werent noticed. It was an attitude Methos appreciated. He had adopted it on many occasions: as long as you leave me and mine alone, I don't care what you do. However, they hadn't left his alone. But for that minor slip, the cult could have done as it pleased. He didn't care about what god or gods the mortals worshipped. He didn't care if they ran naked in the woods, or even if they dabbled in human sacrifice. That was the complete irony of it. He cared for so little, yet the "so little" they'd found.
Like Joe, he had assumed that he and Duncan were a "when", not an "if." He'd taken it slowly with the Highlander. A little time to convince Mac that a homosexual relationship wasn't that bad of an idea. The man wasn't a complete virgin; just rooted a bit too deeply in his childhood Catholicism. That plan had been going along fine until Kronos appeared. The truths he'd brought to light had been a major stumbling block. Mac bedding a man on a regular basis was a doable goal. Mac bedding a self-confessed mass murderer? That would take some time to work around. But things had been progressing nicely due to the unmistakable UST--he really needed to stay away from the internet fanfiction sites--the Unresolved Sexual Tension that colored whatever air they shared. Sparring in the dojo. Painting a house. Attending a wedding. Fighting in a church when Mac hadn't been Mac, but some evil--and devilishly attractive--parody. Dark and dangerous and sexy as hell.
So many moments in so little time, Methos thought as he left the main road and veered into the forest. He'd lived a lifetime in the few short years he'd known Mac. He'd gotten back into the Game, loved and buried Alexa, left the Watchers, put the Horsemen to rest.... The Highlander had torn his life apart, made him re-examine everything he'd ever done, and re-think everything he was about to do. Who'd last had that much influence on him? Kronos? But Kronos had had centuries to mold him. MacLeod had had less than a decade. Always had to be ahead of the curve, didn't you, Duncan?
Such self-confidence was rare in an Immortal so young. Sure, they all spent the first hundred or so years completely full of themselves, cocksure of their ability to live forever. Even those who swore they were going to stay out of the Game were pretty confident. Then reality would strike. The cocksure would run into someone who they managed to defeat only by sheer luck. The ones "out of the game" would be suddenly and unexpectedly dragged into it. Confidence turned into terror and they faced what every Immortal eventually had to realize: their lives depended on the death of others, which meant their continued existence was not a given but an acquired. It was during this second or third hundredth year that most Immortals died--shaken in their confidence, or simply craving death. A coming of age depression. It was only around the five hundred mark that an Immortal would make peace with what he was and how he had to live his life.
But MacLeod seemed to have skimmed through his "teenage" years. There had been moments of doubt--questions about his fitness to judge others, the quandary of judging himself. And there had been bouts of penance following the deaths of Sean Burns and the Ryan child. But the centuries of decline had been avoided. Methos wondered how much of that had been due to Ian and Mary MacLeod's upbringing. Had Duncan realized how lucky he'd been to have them, what a gift his clan had been to him? Even Ian's brutal rejection hadn't been enough to negate all the previous love that had been showered upon the MacLeod heir.
He gave a sad smile at the thought of the two of them together. A child of love and a child of something so terrible that not even Immortal memory could recall. A relationship doomed to fail. But, oh, how sweet the trying could have been....
Regrets. He knew the uselessness of them--and the inevitability of their existence. Hadn't he known the moment he'd looked into Kronos' eyes that he'd regret teaming up with him? Hadn't he briefly hesitated before grabbing Cassandra? Hadn't he wavered as he sat waiting for Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod to appear at his flat? Millennia old--and still a fool when it came to people, when it came to love.
Methos' head jerked up as a scent teased his nose. A gasp escaped his lips as the recognition slid into his gut and yanked hard. The scent was almost as familiar to him as his own. Something he'd smelled on a daily basis for a long, dark while. The scent of death, decay, rotting flesh, sprays of black, spoiled blood.... He fought to stay upright, to not drop to his knees and vomit. No! For all that he was, for all that he'd been, he'd given up the right to react like a normal person. He'd forfeited his chance to act shocked and appalled and...human. He'd played death so often that to be disgusted now would be a mockery of the state itself.
Gritting his teeth, he let the smell guide him forward.
It was the Watcher, Jenkins. His remains lay just beyond a tree. A smashed cell phone lay palmed in a severed hand. A long cut bisected him from chest to crotch. So. There had been a sword involved. Still, it was a relief that he hadn't stumbled upon Duncan's body, that it wasn't Duncan's severed head he was burying in the black peat, that it wasn't over the Highlander's grave that he was mumbling words designed to speed the departed to his final destination. Once hed seen the gold cross around Jenkins neck, the priest he'd been off and on throughout the millennia bade him to offer the Watcher words of peace and salvation. Final rites after the fact. Darius would approve.
Wiping the dirt off his palms, Methos continued forward, more determined than ever that whoever--mortal or Immortal--was responsible for the death of Jenkins and the loss of Duncan would pay in ways that had not been seen on the face of the earth in a very, very long time.
It wasnt often that Methos considered Immortal memory a gift, but today he was grateful for it. Although he hadn't hunted human prey since he rode with the Horsemen, the intricacies of the sport flowed back to him as if he'd only given it up recently. He quickly cataloged the forest, moving instinctively toward the most inhabitable part. Soon he was seeing traces of human activity. Heel marks in the dirt. A twig whose end was chewed and spat out. Urine spattered on a tree trunk. Cigarette butts littering the ground. And gum wrappers. Amateurs.
Crouching in tall underbrush, Methos closed his eyes and opened himself up to the environment, a gift not of the Horsemen, but of several years of Eastern study. There. Two men, fifty meters away. More beyond that.
Taking out the two men was easy. Too easy, actually, but he filed that thought in the back of his head later angst-filled reflection. Just like riding a bicycle, he thought bitterly. A hand to the mouth, and a dagger through the ribs and straight to the heart. Quiet and quick. Like working in a slaughterhouse. He refused to acknowledge the tremble in his hand.
He moved deeper into the woods. More people. Maybe too many. Was he going to have to go back for more firepower? C4 was always fun to work with. Far more stable than dynamite and easier to transport. Gas? Maybe not. The area was too open. Machine gun? Noisy. Not that C4 wasnt noisy, but it covered much more territory. A block of it here, a block of it there. Ah, the wonderful world of plastique.
As he debated his options, he realized something was--calling--to him. A siren's song that glided along his spine. Presence. He grinned. Hot damn! Mac wasn't lost forever. He focused, trying to determine the exact location of the other Immortal, and found not a soloist but a choir. A team of Immortals? Like the Horsemen? The thought burned low in his belly. No! Never again! His hand went unerringly for his sword.
He shook his head at his foolishness. One sword against a group of Immortals? He was playing the role of avenging fool, not suicidal fool. Nah, hed promised Joe. Okay, back to considering firepower. He risked moving in closer in order to get a better "sense" of what he was up against. And that was when he felt it. A literal rush of Presence that washed through him and over him and flooded him. A Presence he knew. A Presence he recognized with blinding joy.
He dropped to his knees and doubled over to keep from screaming in exultation. Duncan lived. Somehow the stubborn, idealistic, moralistic, atavistic Highlander still lived. Methos took a moment to wallow in the knowledge, to let the beloved Presence warm the soul that had gone cold when Joe had arrived at his door.
As soon as the emotional side stopped screaming, his analytical side took over. He was, of course, ecstatic that Duncan was alive, but why was he? Fact: Jenkins had witnessed a quickening. Supposition: Jenkins had been brutally murdered because of what he'd seen. Fact: there were a number of Immortals in these woods. Supposition: they were working in tandem with the mortal "infidels." Fact: Duncan MacLeod was alive. Supposition: he wouldn't be alive for long. Whether he was here with friends or enemies, Duncan would not tolerate the unnecessary death of mortals. Hell, the man could barely forgive himself for their deaths in battle. So either Duncan was scheduled to die or he was going to Challenge someone soon--and die because the people who had delivered death to Jenkins were not the type to play fair.
Fact: he needed to know what the hell was going on. Fact: he couldn't get closer without risking one of the Immortals picking up his Presence. Fact: there was a lone mortal sentry stealing a puff several meters away. Fact: he was rather skilled at making mortals talk.
Fact: he had lost none of his skill.
Fifteen minutes later, he knew exactly what was going on. The mortals were the disciples of an Immortal named Kreshin. Kreshin had had them gather up seven special sacrificial offerings. They had miscounted and had eight, but their mighty god had opened up the excess and drank all of its power as an appetizer to the main course--a ritual of some kind involving the seven being beheaded sequentially which would allow Kreshin to ascend to a new level on the hierarchy of the gods. Methos smirked--seven quickenings at once would definitely have Kreshin being lifted to newer heights. Of course it was never the fall that killed you, but the landing.
The good news: Duncan was one of the seven; he wouldn't die until the ritual. The bad news: the ritual was scheduled for midnight, which--however cliched--was less than five hours away. Not enough time to get more firepower. Not enough time to get backup. Not enough time to turn the forest into one big boobytrap for the hundred followers of Kreshin. Well, not a hundred anymore, Methos admitted as he stared at the dead informant. C'est la guerre.
You know what you have to do, Brother.
Methos frowned. Is that you, Silas?
You know what to do, Methos. You told me about it, remember?
No, I didn't.
Yes, you did. It was after that time Caspian went mad and killed all our servants and he bashed in my head with a rock when I tried to stop him. Don't you remember?
Methos nodded. Kronos had wanted to Challenge Caspian right then and there, but Methos had argued for Caspian's life. Why? Because he'd been there, in the dark place Caspian occupied.
I can't. I vowed never to take up that mantle again.
But it's to save MacLeod. You can do anything to save MacLeod. You even killed me.
Methos flinched. I didn't want to kill you.
I know. And you don't want to become him again either, but it's to save MacLeod.
Why do you care? You hate MacLeod.
But I love you.
You were my favorite.
I know. That's why you sat with me while I healed and told me of your past. It was something only you and I knew, Brother. I knew I was privileged.
I don't want to do this. MacLeod may never forgive me.
But he will be alive.
I don't understand why Kronos and Caspian treated you like such a simpleton. Your thoughts may be less complex, but basic principle is basic principle, no matter how confusing more intelligent men make it.
The one you call for...he's not intelligent, Brother. He is jut a tad above a wild animal.
You fear you will lose control of him?
He is not easily tamed. He has no fear. Only sheer will can leash him.
You have that, Methos.
He wearily leaned back against a tree trunk. Bitching and moaning to a figment of my imagination is not getting me closer to my goal, is it?
MacLeod's life is in your hands, Brother.
Methos nodded grimly. So be it, Brother.
Methos followed the scent of water to a stream flowing through the rich, dark soil of the area. He rubbed his hands across his face with resignation, then proceeded to peel off his clothes. Folding them carefully, he sat on the edge of the stream and began coating himself with the mud. As he did so, he regressed further and further into his mind to a point where he had no feeling, no thought other than revenge.
In the dusk a figure rose from the ground, so dark that it appeared to be a shadow, not a man. Even so, the birds stopped their singing. The crickets hushed their chirping. The night predators, who had just began stirring, paused and cast their keen senses out into the growing darkness. Something was wrong. Something was different. There was a new predator in the area. Something powerful. Something to fear. Alarmed, they reconsidered their hunger and waited for the danger to pass.
The shadow noted the silence as he slipped over his head the sheath that held his blades. He gave a jerked nod. The lower animals had felt his presence. The higher ones, who thought themselves too smart to rely on their senses, would not know he was there until it was too late. It was as it should be. He walked into the dense copse of trees and blended into the rest of the shadows.
The Hunter had been reborn.
Duncan MacLeod was pissed. At Kreshin for using mortals the way he was. And at himself for getting trapped in the Immortal's travesty of the Game.
Duncan frowned at the voice in his head. Yes, damn it, he'd been playing boy scout, he supposed. After retrieving the ax head, he should have caught the bus back to the airport. But he'd wanted to enjoy the peacefulness of a place far removed from the bustle of modern times. If he closed his eyes, he could almost be back in Glenfinnan. So he'd started out walking, figuring if he got tired, he'd just flag down the bus when it came past him on the road.
He hadn't gone far when he was caught up in the sensation of Presence. Tensing, he'd placed his hand around the familiar hilt of his katana. A male Immortal had come running out of the woods.
"Please, it's my mortal companion," he'd cried, not a sword in sight. "He's fallen into an abandoned cistern and I can't get him out."
The old Timmy-in-the-well trick, MacLeod? Only you would fall for that.
Duncan hated to admit it, but the Methos-in-his-head was right. He should have been more alert. In his defense, however, it hadn't been until he actually saw the mortal at the bottom of the old well that he'd shrugged out of his coat and rolled up his sleeves to help. By the time he realized he was surrounded by mortals, Kreshin was already admiring the katana.
The first shock had come when Kreshin didn't take his head. The second shock arrived when he felt the Presence of several more Immortals. Herded along by Kreshin's army, he entered a camp of some sort--a large tent surrounded by stacks of bedrolls--and he was placed in an iron cage along with the other Immortals he'd felt. There were eight of them altogether, six men and two women. Before he could ask what was going on, the smaller of the two women was grabbed and dragged outside where she was forced to kneel before Kreshin.
"I'm sorry, my dear," Kreshin said as he pulled his sword. "But the ceremony calls for seven strong warriors and I've found a more worthy replacement for you. However, even though you won't be part of the main meal, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy you as an appetizer."
"No!" Duncan yelled, but the sword came down before he could complete the cry.
Kreshin grinned at him and braced for the quickening. Duncan looked away as the man absorbed the unknown woman's essence, knowing that the way Kreshin had obtained it was obscene and against all the rules.
"Tasty," Kreshin commented when the furor of the quickening was over. "Attend me." Four of the mortals rushed to his side. But before they could disappear into the large tent, another mortal came running up and whispered something into Kreshin's ear.
"The phone?" Duncan heard Kreshin ask.
"Awaiting your orders, my lord."
"Kill him. And leave his remains for the jackals to gnaw upon."
The mortal raised an eyebrow as if to say there weren't any jackals in Ukraine, but a glare from Kreshin made him merely bow and back away before running off. Handing his sword to one of his attendants, Kreshin ordered it cleaned, then disappeared into the tent with his men.
"We are so fucked," one of the Immortals said as he slid down against the metal bars.
"Someone want to tell me what the hell is going on?" Duncan asked.
"You got Linda killed, you bastard!" another man yelled, shoving Duncan against the cage.
Instinctively Duncan shoved back. Before the man could come at him again, the remaining female Immortal and another male, grabbed him.
"Stop it, Pieter!" the woman said sharply. "It does us no good to fight among ourselves."
"Linda is dead!"
"And it is not this man's fault. I'm sure he did not ask to be Kreshin's captive."
"No, madam, I didn't," Duncan agreed. "My name is Duncan MacLeod."
"Bettina Woodard. This is Pieter Ivanov. Please forgive him for his attack. The lady murdered was his wife of forty-six years."
"I'm--" Duncan didn't know what to say. Sorry seemed so inadequate. "How long has Kreshin held you captive?"
"We were picked up five days ago. Pieter and I are old friends." Duncan nodded, knowing what that meant. "He, Linda, and I were in Chernihiv for a reunion of sorts. Many years ago Peter and I met there. He was a monk and I was in desperate need of holy ground. Linda was somewhat younger than we were and she liked listening to us talk about the old--" She stopped suddenly and gave Duncan a rueful look. "None of this is useful to you in the least, is it? Sorry. They gassed our rooms at the hotel. We woke up here in the cage. Two others were already here and the other two showed soon after."
She paused and glanced at the man who had turned away from them. "Kreshin had never been happy with Linda. He scorned her for being small and weak. If it is any consolation, you didn't just happen to replace Linda. Kreshin went in search of you. And I'm sure if he had time he would find a male replacement for me as well. I don't think he believes that women can be warriors."
"I have met very fine warriors of your sex."
"And how many of them have walked away with their heads?"
Duncan flushed and turned away. According to Methos too many of them had. But in his own mind, too many of them hadn't. Nefertiri...Ingrid.... "When is this ceremony supposed to take place?"
"In two days. The moon will be full then. See the posts?" Bettina pointed toward the seven pillars planted in a semi-circle near the tent. "We suspect we will be tied to them and then beheaded."
"No Immortal could withstand that many simultaneous quickenings!"
"The alignment of the stars and the moon is supposed to focus the energy or something. Every so often Kreshin feels it necessary to come out to us and tell us about the wonderful fate that awaits us. Asshole."
"What plans of escape have you all tried?"
"Elliot--" she nodded towards the man who'd help her restrain Pieter--"used to be a thief about sixty years ago. He tried to pick the lock, but says it's impossible. Even if we could open the lock we are constantly under mortal guard."
"Then our best time for attack will be when they come to get us for the ceremony," Duncan said firmly. "Will you introduce me around?"
By morning Duncan knew everyone's name and strengths. If all went well, at least one of them would escape--and it would only take the one missing to completely screw up the ceremony. Of course the downside to that particular plan of action was that Kreshin would be so pissed that he'd probably behead them for the hell of it. Still, he couldn't take all their quickenings at once so someone should survive long enough for the escapee to return with help.
They spent the day honing the plan and memorizing the guards' routines. Kreshin, apparently satisfied with his seven captives, stayed mainly in his tent calling for this man or that. Dinner was a communal affair for the camp. The meal was prepared and the men who were on patrol drifted in, ate, then headed back to their posts, making the camp seem a little crowded. All in all it was a boring, but tense time, and by nightfall Duncan was quite ready to sleep and rest for the battle to come.
The camp was more lively the next day as it readied for the ceremony. Kreshin came out and stared at them for nearly an hour. The mortals bustled about making sure the posts were firmly settled and the camp clear of debris. It was just as the sun was going down that Duncan and his fellow captors noticed that something was wrong. There werent enough mortals. The dinner had been cooked, the captives fed, but where were the patrols who should have been showing up? Did it have anything to do with the upcoming ceremony? Was Kreshin afraid the light show was going to cause the locals to come running so he had his men spread out closer to the edge of the woods? Or did he want to limit the number of his men who witnessed the actual ceremony? Was this part of the plan or was something happening?
"Whatever it is, the mortals didn't know about it," Bettina said. "Look at how apprehensive they are. They keep looking towards the woods, expecting their brethren."
Duncan nodded and kept a close eye on the camp as the guards lit torches to fight off the descending darkness. Then something skittered along the edges of his senses and he froze. Presence. He looked toward the big tent. No, it wasn't Kreshin. He looked around and noticed the other Immortals hadn't felt it. What the hell? His sensing range was better than some Immortals, but surely one of the older--He stiffened. Methos. It had to be Methos. No other Presence affected him like the Old Man's. Ever since that bizarre double quickening, he knew when Methos was approaching.
Duncan closed his eyes and tried to contain his anxiety. He was relatively sure he was glad Methos was there, and for the time being he wasn't going to dwell on the fact that he wasn't totally surprised, but the idiot wasn't alone, was he? Did he know how many men Kreshin had? How could one man go up against a mortal army led by an Immortal? He shook his head, soundlessly naming himself an idiot. Of course Methos knew exactly what he was up against. Methos...Methos wasn't a mere man; he was a self-acclaimed guy. A five thousand year old guy who'd just happened to have spent several lifetimes coordinating the destruction of mortals on a large-scale basis.
He was going to be saved by Death.
And how do you feel about that?
He couldn't fault the voice for sounding bitter. A mixture of shock, disbelief, and disappointment had combined to physically rock him when he'd found out about Methos' past. He'd reacted, then acted, fully aware that the practice often left him remorseful and angry at himself. But Cassandra had been there, suffocating him with her hatred of the Horsemen, and the situation had rapidly spiraled out of control. He had condemned Methos for his past, and Methos had reacted typically--i.e. expertly confounding the truth and the lies, meshing them so seamlessly that Duncan couldn't make heads or tails out of what was real and what was fabricated. What benefits Methos gained from such games only Methos truly knew. In the end, Duncan had given up trying to make sense of all of it, and just resigned himself to the doubts he had about his friend because Methos was his friend--and he wasnt going to let his doubts push Methos away.
And now, the ignored enemy, Death, was riding to his rescue. Was his sense of relief hypocritical?
Sure, the circumstances were different.
Times were different.
And his life was in real jeopardy.
Picked, ginned, and spun the cotton to make the T-shirt.
He could hear Methos explaining why hed given Galati to the Watchers-- "It was a simple choice: Jacob Galati, or you. And since I don't give a damn about Jacob Galati, it wasn't that difficult to make it." He'd called the man on it and sent him running off to Tibet to contemplate the 'error' of his ways. But now Methos was probably using the reasoning again...and there wasn't an ounce of righteous anger to be found in Duncan MacLeod.
Why? What had changed? Duncan had no doubt as to the whereabouts of the missing men. Methos wouldn't risk the chance of someone regaining consciousness too soon or escaping restraints. He was outnumbered and outgunned. There would be no half measures, nor any moral battles. Methos would do what he had to do, and Duncan could find no fault in that. In fact he even admired the focus the older Immortal had. Think. Act. Live with the consequences. Something to aspire to.
So you have your answer.
Yes, the answer to what had changed--him. Black and white just didn't exist for him anymore. Time and experience--and a certain old man--had revealed to him the various shades of gray and now he saw them everywhere he looked. A good change? Duncan shrugged, not really knowing the answer. Perhaps his strict Catholic upbringing had made him too judgmental, too eager to place people and events into columns labeled "good" and "evil." But it was what he'd known, and it had served him passably well until the recent past.
When had it started to fall apart? When Tessa died? Was his forgiveness of her killer the official start of his change, of his awareness that there was some flexibility in the goodness or badness of a person? Then the lesson had been pushed in by the dark quickening. To have such indisputable evidence of the evil within himself.... The dark quickening had battered his restraints, but the thoughts and actions had been his own. He had tried to kill Richie. He had seduced the captain's wife. He had beheaded Sean Burns. The voices urged, but they hadn't had the final say; he had. The black in him. Methos had given him the opportunity to regain the white, and now inside he was truly gray, and it colored every perception, every thought.
The Presence strengthened.
"Another Immortal?" someone whispered.
Duncan knew with surety now that it was Methos. He'd recognize that Presence anywhere. But it seemed...altered, discordant, tainted. Death and Methos didn't feel the same? Damn. The Watchers would have a field day with information like that. Maybe he'd talk it over with Methos and see how the man felt about sharing the observation with Joe. Methos was awfully fond of the mortal and liked making sure he was one up on the Watcher Council. Perhaps it was a gift to Joe for keeping Methos' identity a secret. Or maybe it was just Methos' way of being a good friend.
He squinted through the darkness, trying to find his friend. But he couldn't see a thing. Methos seemed to be taking the Eastern philosophy of becoming "one with the shadows" to heart.
Kreshin hurried out of his tent, the light from one of the torches glinting off the sword his held low against his side. "Who is there?" he shouted. "Guards!"
Nothing moved in the camp.
The torches flickered, yet there was no wind.
Kreshin backed toward his tent, only to let out a squeal and turn abruptly. Hi sword came up and Duncan heard it rasp against another blade. Damn. How had Methos gotten behind Kreshin without the man seeing him? Actually, how had he crossed through the light of the torches without any of them seeing him? He pressed his face against the bars of the cage, determined to follow the fight in the fluctuating light. Kreshin, who he could see better than Methos for some reason, was a good fighter. His stance and technique showed a skill most petty self-gods like him didn't bother to learn. He flowed with his blade, his strokes complete and well-timed. But it was obvious from the beginning his opponent was better. Although the fighter was hard to see, his sword wasn't. It became the mirror opposite of the one attacking, every move counter-moved, every stroke blocked. When Kreshin showed signed of exhaustion, the other blade went on the offensive, moving so swiftly that it was impossible to follow in the bad light. The whipcord action stopped as Kreshin's sword flew from his hand, glittering as it somersaulted between torches.
The actual beheading was unseen in the shadows, but the caged Immortals felt the building of power as Kreshin's quickening leached from his body. Suddenly there was a funnel cloud forming at the base of the torches, flashes of lightning streaking from it as it roared toward its destination. Duncan caught a glimpse of a dark form as it was engulfed by the cloud. But the only sound heard was the crisp snap of the lightning and the thud of falling debris as the tent collapsed. The torches soon followed, toppling as if a true twister was passing through the camp. Nearby trees followed, felled by the quickening that refused to submit.
Eventually the lightning dissipated, the smoke cleared, and an odd silence descended. The caged Immortals held their breaths for a long moment before someone spoke.
"Is he dead?" Bettina whispered.
Duncan would have wondered the same thing if he hadn't been able to still feel the altered Presence. The others flinched defensively as the Presence approached, but the approach stopped and something landed at Duncans feet. From the jangle, he knew it was a set of keys. A second later the Presence faded. He wondered if he should be worried that Methos hadn't spoken to him. But then, Methos hadn't said a word since he'd arrived, not even a grunt during the heat of the battle.
They wasted no time freeing themselves. They lit the torches and found their swords, their relief in being armed again palpable in the cool evening air. Since Duncan was the only one familiar with the area, he led them toward the town, knowing they could make arrangements to get home from the inn there.
"Someone want to tell me what the hell happened?" Pieter asked as they made their way through the forest. "Who was that guy?"
Duncan shook his head. "I can't answer the second one," Duncan said honesty, "but the first one is simple."
Pieter peered at him, straining through the darkness. "And the answer would be?"
Duncen cocked his head to one side confidently. "We were rescued."
"I'm telling you--it had to be that crazy old Immortal Kreshin was looking for," Elliot said as they neared the inn.
"What Immortal?" Duncan asked. Kreshin had been Hunting a specific Immortal?
"That was why these woods were chosen," Elliot explained. "There were rumors that an Immortal lived in this area, a hermit who was as dumb as a brick, but he had a way with animals. He was supposedly a big, fierce man and way old. Kreshin hoped to get his quickening for the ceremony."
Duncan frowned. They couldn't be talking about Silas, could they?
"Kreshin should have known better than to shat in someone else's woods," Bettina said bitterly. "Hermits can be very territorial."
"Did anyone even get a glimpse of him?" Pieter asked. "It was very eerie. If it hadnt been for the sound of steel upon steel, I would have thought Kreshin was fighting the shadows."
"The sound--and Kreshin's head falling to the ground," Bettina said with a grim grin. "Whatever recluse or phantom haunts those woods is a force to be avoided. He could have beheaded all of us."
"I think all he wanted was to be left alone," Pieter said quietly. "I think I know how he feels."
Bettina put her arm around him and murmured words of comfort.
Duncan winced as he thought of Linda's death and was glad it had been avenged. He looked down the darkened street and noticed with relief that the inn still had its lights on.
"Madame Neskorozhana," he said gratefully as Tibby came out of the back room when they stepped inside. "I know that it is late--"
"Yes, yes, Mr. MacLeod. Your party is welcome here. Food is on the table and I hope you don't mind sharing rooms," Tibby said quickly, motioning for them to go into the dining room. "Just warm bread and some spread, I'm afraid. But breakfast will be more substantial. Come."
Duncan grinned with the rest of them and headed toward the table. But before he sat down, he touched Tibby's arm and said softly, "Where is he?"
Warm, brown eyes looked up at him. "Sometimes for the greater good, a good man does awful things. The professor is up in your room, but I think he needs some time alone to make peace with himself."
Duncan blinked. "He told you--"
"Nothing. But it was in his eyes, Mr. MacLeod. In that one, the truth will always be in his eyes to one who cares enough to look for it."
Duncan nodded solemnly at her wisdom. "Thank you, Madame. I will consider your words."
"Do that, Mr. MacLeod."
Twenty minutes later, he was standing at the door, looking at the key the proprietress had given him. Room 5...and Methos. What to say to him? Beyond "thanks" of course. Lately, he'd adopted the unflattering habit of needing to be saved and Methos had had the dubious honor of being the one to save his hapless ass. Why? Not why was Methos was the one who saved him--although that was definitely a question that needed to be examined--but why after nearly four hundred years of self-sufficiency, he'd suddenly turned into the damsel-in-distress du jour? Maybe it was some kind of Immortal coming-of-age thing. Maybe this was the reason why the number of Immortals below the age of five hundred was disproportionately greater than those above that age. A built-in psychological self-destruct button. He'd watched a lot of his contemporaries crash and burn in recent years. In fact, most seemed to do it in his face, and he'd had a hand in their destruction.
Perhaps it was more than just psychological, he rationalized, wrapping his hand around the doorknob. Perhaps it had to with the world and societal changes. Maybe the 500-year mark was the magical point where the world changed so much that you had to change with it or be swallowed up by it. The changes were gradual, but there had to be a moment when all that was at your beginning ceased to exist--at least on the mortal plane. And to get through that moment intact, you needed a mentor--someone who had walked the path and could steer you away from the traps and pitfalls. Darius, God rest his soul, should have been his guide, maybe had led him past earlier dangers. But the Watchers had taken him away--
And Methos, a Watcher himself, had taken Darius' place. Coincidence or design? Had Methos felt guilty because it was his organization that had killed Darius? Had he come out of the shadows as penance, as a way of balancing the evil his own kind had done? Had he felt obligated to assume Darius' responsibilities, which included a wayward Highland lad on the brink of self-annihilation? Was that what he was to Methos, an obligation?
The door jerked open, and Duncan had to scramble to stay on his feet.
"I don't bite," Methos said, padding away from the entry, his back to Duncan. "Best grab the shower before you have to stand in line. There are clothes for you on the bed. Because of your past generosity, rental fees won't start until tomorrow."
A lamp by the bed dimly lit the room. Duncan picked up the folded sweats and saw that a razor, toothbrush, and toothpaste were on top of the stack. "Methos--"
Methos didn't bother to turn around from where he was standing in front of the window. "Shower, MacLeod. I'm sure you need it."
Duncan nodded and turned to leave. But he had to ask the question which had been nagging at the back of his mind. "How did you know?"
"The Watchers. Joe."
"Joe told you I had been captured?"
"Joe told me you were dead."
Duncan startled. "What?"
"Nothing. Enjoy your shower."
Efficiently dismissed, Duncan left. The bathroom was right next door. Convenient. He set the clothes down on a shelf and leaned back against the wall to remove his shoes and socks. Now he was an obligation that needed to be clothed and told when to shower. No wonder Methos hadn't shown any interest in fucking him. He was too busy burping him instead.
Duncan undid the buttons and shrugged out of his shirt. Fucking Methos or Methos fucking him. Made no difference really. Just a recurring fantasy he'd had since the first time those changeable eyes had looked into his. But while Methos had seemed to be flirting with him at times, the old man had always--always--slept on the sofa. Even when the world around them was giving them a break, Methos had remained distant--close at hand but untouchable.
He shaved on automatic, not even looking in the mirror. The brushing of his teeth was just as mindless. He turned on the shower. His baggy trousers slid to the floor as soon as he unzipped them.
And now, Methos was not only untouchable, but angry. Because he'd had to save Little Duncan again. Because he had to revert to being something he despised to protect a certain Scottish neck. "Sometimes for the greater good, a good man does awful things." Madame Neskorozhana had the right of it. Methos just hadn't saved him, but six other Immortals as well. The decision had been a correct one.
Maybe that was what was bothering him. He was starting to understand, even appreciate, Methos' motivations. Did he want to change that much? Did he want to throw Duncan MacLeod away and become a Methos clone?
You think that's what I want?
I don't know what you want. I never have.
He skimmed out of his briefs and stepped beneath the weak, but hot, flow of water. God, it felt good to wash off the stench of captivity. Dead. Joe had told Methos he was dead. Why? And why had Methos come if he thought him dead already? Duncan smiled sadly as he bent over to let the water massage his scalp. That would teach him to presume he understood Methos' motivations. The man was beyond enigmatic.
Someone tapped on the door.
"Out in a second," Duncan yelled and cut off the water. He grabbed one of the towels on the rack outside the shower and quickly dried off. He stepped into the sweats and reached for the door. Bettina stood in the hallway. "I hope you haven't been waiting long," he said politely, although he knew that had to be one of the briefest showers he'd ever taken.
"No. I was getting Pieter settled."
Duncan grimaced, remembering his part in the Immortal's tragedy. "How is he?"
She shrugged. "Numb."
"Is there anything I can do? Will you be all right tonight?"
"Pieter and I have weathered many storms together. This too we will survive."
Duncan smiled. "He's lucky to have you."
"No, I am the lucky one in that he is willing to let me help him. No one has ever trusted me that much. I'm honored by his gift."
Duncan leaned over and kissed her cheek. "If you need anything, just ask. I am just in the next room."
Duncan grabbed his dirty clothes, shoes, and a towel to continue drying his hair. He let himself into the room to find Methos still staring out the window. Must be some view for a moonless night.
"You were right. A shower was just what I needed." Silence. He figured Methos was really pissed at him if he let such an obvious lead-in go to waste. He looked at the single double bed. Would Methos volunteer to sleep on the floor? Or had he asked the proprietress for a bundle board. In this part of the world, such things probably still existed. "Thank you."
"For knowing what you needed?"
"For coming to my rescue. I know it must have been inconvenient for you to drop everything and--"
"I thought you were dead!" Methos cried.
Duncan dropped the towel he'd been rubbing his hair with. "Methos?" In the dim light of the lamp, he thought he saw Methos' shoulders shaking. Lithely, he approached the other Immortal. Gently, he turned the man and looked at the wet cheeks and closed eyes whose lashes still held drops of glistening tears.
"I thought you were dead," Methos repeated in a whisper.
Duncan wrapped his arms around the trembling man and held him close. "No, Methos," he murmured. "I'm here."
Methos nodded but didn't stop crying. One of the things Duncan envied was Methos' ability to grieve openly and unashamedly. It seemed so cleansing and healthful, as opposed to the dark broods he sometimes slipped into. He'd watched him mourn for Alexa, for Silas, and for Byron. And now he saw that Methos treated relief in the same manner. It was probably the way he handled all strong emotions. "I'm sorry you were put through this," he said softly as the tremors started to quell. "I don't know how--"
"Jenkins. He was a researcher sent here to find out what he could about Silas. Since Silas had been out of the system so long, the Watchers were trying to find out as much of his back story as they could. He apparently saw you taken, and then a quickening."
Methos pulled back to look at him, but Duncan refused to let him out of his embrace altogether. "Who?"
"Linda was the wife of one of the Immortals you saved. Kreshin thought she was too weak for the ceremony he'd planned and when I was captured, I replaced her as number seven. So he took her head--as an appetizer, he said."
"I wish I could say he was a sick bastard, but he wasn't, MacLeod. He was just your typical petty Immortal with a god complex." Duncan nodded. "Jenkins called it on his satellite phone, but the transmission was cut off. We thought it was because--" Methos looked away.
"Because of my quickening." Duncan couldn't keep a finger from tracing the strong jawbone of Methos' profile.
"I found his body, along with the smashed phone. His was not a pretty death."
"I think I remember Kreshin ordering his death but I didn't know it at the time. You say this Jenkins was in research. Had you worked with him?"
"Once or twice."
"Everyone knows the risks when one joins the Organization. Being a researcher doesn't mean you're beyond them. Look at Don."
Another loss Methos had suffered. The recent years had been a bitch to both of them. He cupped his hands around Methos' chin and leaned forward to brush his lips across the other's. Then he let his hands drop and stepped back, allowing Methos to react in any manner he wanted to.
But the man merely reached out to trace his own lips. "Why?" he asked.
"Because it's something I've wanted to do for a long time."
"Why hadn't you?"
Duncan shrugged. "Arrogance. I thought there would always be time. But if you had not pulled my ass from the fire again--"
Methos silenced him with a kiss of his own, one not quite as chaste as Duncan's.
"Why?" Duncan asked.
"Because it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. And because when one gets to erase a regret one should do it as promptly as possible."
A smug smile appeared. "You regretted not kissing me?"
"Among other things."
Duncan looked at the long fingers petting his bare shoulders. When did fingers get to be so sexy? "I wouldn't want you to regret the other things either." Just one taste maybe? His mouth engulfed one of the digits and he gently suckled it. He looked at Methos to get his reaction and his mouth dropped open as he fell into the now golden stare.
Methos smiled. "Do you want me, Duncan?"
"Yes," he hissed.
"And what of your regrets--in the morning?"
"I won't regret it, Methos. You may think of me as a naïve and trouble-prone child--"
Duncan nodded. "Look at how many times you've had to rescue me."
"So? You would have--and have, in fact--done the same for me."
"But not as many times." Duncan argued.
"We're supposed to keep count?"
"No, but--" He paused and sighed. "How do you do that?"
"Fuck with my mind. I never know whether I'm coming or go with you."
"If I have a vote in the matter, I vote for coming. And the fucking I was thinking of occurs a lot farther south than the mind."
Methos frowned in bewilderment. "Can you what?"
Methos pursed his lips together and pretended to think. "Yes, I think that can be arranged. But about me seeing you as a child, I don't. I see you as a man, Duncan MacLeod. Fully matured, fully capable of higher reasoning, although I can't say I always agree with the reasoning. But that's not because your reasoning is flawed, but because it's colored by your less than pragmatic tendencies which are refreshing, yet disturbing in a MacLeod did what!' sort of way. When did you get so paranoid?"
Duncan blinked trying to unravel all that Methos had said and decide whether he'd just been complimented or insulted. Admitting defeat, he focused on the latter part of the conversation. "Paranoid? Must be the company I've been keeping lately."
Methos nodded. "You and your companions have had a rough go at it, being Kreshin's captives."
"Not exactly what I mean--" Duncan cut off the sentence. What was the use? He was slowly coming to the conclusion that Methos lived in a universe that was all his own. And he'd just offered to show it to him in the most intimate way possible. They could always argue later. "I want you," he whispered, content to let the philosophical discussions of what had occurred in the woods wait until morning.
"You have me," Methos promised.
Despite that it had been some time since Duncan had a good night's sleep, he woke early, instantly aware of where he was and who he was with. He and Methos had fucked--no he' thought they were going to fuck, but it turned out to be...more. He'd been stunned by the tenderness of the older Immortal. He'd made Duncan feel cherished and adored. Not exactly how it'd been in his fantasies. Maybe because he hadn't dared to dream of such things.
He looked at the body sprawled beside him. Methos had been restless ever since he'd dozed off after the last time, and since he'd never known the man to fall off one of the various sofas he staked claim to, he could only guess that the restlessness had something to do with the killings. Maybe Methos had once been a violent man, but he wasn't anymore. That was clearly evident. How did one go from cold-blooded killer to kill-only-if-pushed? And what kind of strength did it take to make that kind of change?
There was no sign that Methos was awake other than the words he'd murmured. "Yes," Duncan answered truthfully. The body beside him grew even more still and he hastened to add, "But not for the reason you're thinking."
"By all means, tell me what I'm thinking," Methos said coolly.
"I don't regret making love with you, Methos. However, I do regret what happened earlier in the night."
"The mortals I killed."
Finally Methos turned his head, and glittering eyes bore into Duncan's. "You know my choice when it comes to you. I've never lied about that."
"I know. I'm just sorry you had to drag out Death from whatever rock you'd buried him under. I know it must have--"
"That wasn't Death." Methos turned his face back toward the ceiling.
"That was someone worse than Death in the forest yesterday."
Worse? Duncan frowned and lifted his head so he could see Methos' face. "Who was it then? To whom do I owe my life?"
"The Hunter. Older than Death, more lethal, although his kills numbered less overall."
"I don't understand."
"There was a timeframe to be considered. There was no time for the antics of Death."
Antics? He shook his head as he pictured Methos frolicking amongst a field of bodies. Older than Death? Just how many mass murderers had his friend been? "Explain what you mean by worse," he demanded.
"Death...felt, MacLeod. He enjoyed a good pillage, delighted in a plan that worked out exactly as he expected. He sat around the campfire with his brothers and told humongous lies, laughing as they tried to discern fact from fiction. Later, perhaps he would lay in the arms of one of them, and speak of things past or things future. Death was a killer, but he was human."
"And this Hunter?"
"Was the world's first robot. He felt nothing. He shared nothing. He walked the earth without speaking, fulfilling his primary purpose with ruthless efficiency."
"And what was his purpose?"
"To eradicate certain bloodlines from existence."
Methos sighed and threw an arm across his face, blocking Duncan's view of his eyes. Hiding the truth, Duncan realized, remembering what the hotel owner had told him.
"Once upon a time there was a farmer. A man with a wife, six children, and an extended family who'd taken him in and formally declared him as one of their own. He was so honored by that gesture that he worked especially hard so that they knew no want, knew no hunger, and the only pain came from a skinned knee or a burned thumb. But one day, one long bloody night, plus another day all of that was taken away from him. His wife, his daughters, his mother and aunts were raped until their blood turned the dusty soil into mud. He and his sons and father and uncles were violated as well. Then they were gutted and when finally the farmer awakened, his eyes beheld the fly-encrusted remains of what he once had. Perhaps if this had been the first time that it had happened, he could have mourned and gone on. But it far from the first. The farmer moved over to one of the bodies that did not belong to him, and tasted the blood of his enemy. In that moment, the Hunter was born.
"For over two hundred years, the Hunter tracked down first the men who actually destroyed his family, and then their families. Age, sex, status--his victim could be a leading religious figure in the area--it didn't matter. The Hunter tasted the blood of those who killed his family, then sought out that blood until it ran no more. He did it without anger, without excitement, without any thought other than to find the next. Whole villages went to bed at night and did not rise in the morning. Children went to gather wood and never returned. Once, women were surrounding another giving birth--even the child did not escape the Hunter.
Duncan closed his eyes, not in anger but sympathy. The rage after the slaughter of Little Deer and her people had nearly destroyed him, would have if not for Jim Coltec. To go through it time and time again.... "What happened?"
"The Hunter finally succeeded. There was no trace of those bloodlines anymore. Genocide in the truest sense of the word. So he returned to where he'd buried his family and he lay down and slept on the hallowed ground. The seasons came and went and still he slept. He woke periodically as his Immortality battled his total apathy for living. Eventually he woke to find himself off the hallowed ground and at the feet of his own kind. Finally, he thought, it was over. But one of the three who loomed over him, pleaded for his survival. He bathed him and fed him and coaxed him back into living. The Hunter died and in his place Death was crafted. Death was very similar to the farmer. Death took care of his family and enjoyed the life that he led."
"But the world had grown smaller and Death's family started to encompass more than just the three who were like him."
"And Methos came into being?"
He took down his arm and rolled over to face Duncan. "I have always been. I'm not fractured--like Quentin Barnes-slash-Michael Moore." Duncan nodded, remembering his friend who suffered from a disassociative disorder. "All of me exists all the time. But I am a tessellation; a mosaic arranged on sand. Although you see all of me, what you see changes as the tesserae move about. Sometimes the picture is harmless, like Adam Pierson. Sometimes it is deadly, like the Hunter. But the pieces are all me; they are Methos. To accept me is to accept all of them," he quietly challenged.
"That's a lot to accept," Duncan replied solemnly.
"I know. No one has ever quite achieved it."
"Yet you still hope, still think it's possible." Methos shrugged. "How? How have you held onto hope for so long? Where do you find the strength to face another day when you know that all you hold dear can be stripped from you in the blink of an eye?"
Methos moved forward and kissed him. It wasn't a chaste kiss, but neither was it erotic. However, it touched Duncan in places that hadn't been touched since...Tessa. It suddenly became clear to him that he couldn't allow Methos to be a one night stand or the occasional fuck-buddy. If that was what Methos was expecting, he was in for a shock.
"That, Duncan, is the how and the why of my survival, the source of my hope."
"Sixty-eight wives," Duncan mumbled.
"And countless lovers. When I'm drowning in remembered pain, they--and now you are added to their number--are my lifeline. Who can get lost in the darkness when they know such a shining light awaits just a few steps away." A hand reached out to stroke Duncan's hair.
Duncan captured the hand in his hair and brushed his lips across the callused palm. "Your answer is too simple. I've lost too many friends to believe that love is the answer to everything. I've known love, experienced love, but I don't know if I could survive another massacre, the sudden ripping away of all that I love. Amanda lived through the plague and there are nights that she has screamed herself awake because of memories of that time. Darius once told me that if he didn't have God to lean on, he would have fallen despite the light quickening. But you, you have faced much more than we, yet when I look into your eyes, I don't see despair or apathy or weariness or anger or fear. Yes, I can see your great capacity to love. But I also see...acceptance of what was, what is, and what will be. That's what you want from me, isn't it? What you think I'm capable of achieving.?"
"I believe that if I can learn acceptance, there is hope that anyone can."
"Some people can't learn, Methos. It is not in their nature."
"And some people merely need to be taught."
Duncan rolled away. "I haven't even gotten around to accepting myself fully. When I think back to Sean's death...and Richie's, I have accepted responsibility for what I've done, but--"
"You haven't made peace with yourself."
"Not like you have. Having your tiles rest atop sand is unique, my friend, a rarity. Most of us are mortared in place and a shift brings cracks, not a new mosaic."
"Steven Keane came after you because of Sean Burns, yet you didn't yield to his blade. Last week you and Joe were talking, and you laughed about something that Richie had done.... You are not cast in cement, Duncan. The shocking fact that we are here in this bed together after what I did yesterday tells me that you are shifting quite nicely."
Duncan smiled. "Shocking? You think it's shocking that we reached this point? I think it's more shocking that it took us this long."
"It's like I taught all my daughters--some things are worth the wait."
"And what did you tell their boyfriends?"
"That I keep my knives sharp and my guns clean."
The bed shook with Duncan's laughter. "I'm thankful I never ran into any of your daughters."
"I'm thankful for that as well," Methos said dryly.
"Besides, I'm not sure they would have appreciated me dumping them for their father."
This time it was Methos who caused the bed to shake. "Couldn't you see us on one of those horrid American talk shows? My Father Stole My Boyfriend!' on the next Sally Field Show."
"Um, wasn't Sally Field the Flying Nun?"
Methos stared at him speculatively. "I thought you didn't watch television?"
"It was the sixties. Since I didn't get the whole drug culture--"
"You decided to watch a teenage girl with wings on her hat. You continually amaze me," Methos said, grinning widely.
"I bet you spent the whole decade stoned."
"No," Methos said quietly. "I had enough of that when I was with Byron."
Duncan winced. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to remind you--"
"More acceptance," Duncan murmured and Methos shrugged.
"Actually, I spent the decade fighting for civil rights in the American South."
"You were a Freedom Rider? I didn't think you got into local politics."
"As usual I was dragged kicking and screaming into it by my testicles."
"Meaning someone you cared about was involved."
Duncan's mouth dropped open. "You were married that recently?"
Methos nodded. "Her skin was the color of perfectly made hot chocolate. We met in law school in New York. I knew there was danger in us going to the South, but she had a strong streak of justice in her--much like you. She died--we died--when the house we were renting was bombed."
And Duncan thought he was having a bad century. "Damn, Methos. I'm so sorry."
"Pain gives us a keener perspective on joy."
Duncan thought back to the times he had with Tessa and Richie. Pain and joy. Would he give up the joy if that meant getting rid of the pain? It sounded like such an easy choice when the pain was immediate. But now, now the joy was such a precious memory. "You never got it, did you?" he asked suddenly.
"Didn't get what?"
"Why I reacted like I did about the Horsemen."
"Despite my urging to do otherwise, you'd put me on some pedestal and Kronos and Cassandra threw baseballs at it until it shattered. What's not to get?"
"That it all wasn't about you being a murdering psychopath."
"Really? What was it about then?"
"Yes. As I said, I betrayed the image you had of me."
Duncan shook his head. For a clever man, Methos was being incredibly dense. "Not the image. You betrayed me."
Methos sat up. "How?"
"You didn't tell me."
"I knew how you would--"
"React. I know that you think you know me so well, and yes I would have been outraged, but...."
"You should have told me. I shouldn't have had to learn it from Cassandra and Kronos."
Methos gave him an incredulous stare. "Oh, come on, MacLeod! I was supposed to tell you my long dark history just because we were friends?"
"I always thought we were more."
"Fuck." Methos collapsed back against the headboard. "Duncan...even as close as we are now, I can't promise you that I will tell you everything about my past. I can't. I can't allow myself to go back there. The tragedies, the horrors, even the joys...they're not safe to visit. If I go back, I might get--lost. Do you understand? My past is treacherous territory and there are dangers: sinkholes that if I fall into, I can never climb out of; traps that will grab hold of me and never let me go; memories and dreams that would like nothing better than to become my unreality. I have to keep moving forward, Duncan. I have to keep changing. I have to keep running. If I get caught, then I become another Kronos, another Caspian. Look at Cassandra. She let the past catch her. I don't want that. I don't--I can't--" He shuddered and buried his face in his hands.
Duncan sat up and pulled the man into his arms. "You are one truly complicated son of a bitch, aren't you?" The head resting against his chest nodded. "Is every part of your life such a minefield?"
"Pretty much," Methos whispered.
"Regardless of where we go from here, I want you to know that you don't have to navigate the field alone. Sometimes it helps to have a buddy there, helping you scout ahead. That's what I'm hoping for, you know. Someone to help me around my own minefields."
"You can quit hoping."
Duncan smiled. Methos could go on and on--and end up saying nothing. Or in four short words, he could change the universe. "Thank you. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to get up yet, so why don't we get under the covers again and work on attaining joy."
"Great joy," Methos corrected.
"How about mediocre joy?" Duncan teased, nipping at Methos' bare shoulder.
"Moderate," Methos countered.
Methos tugged a tuft of Duncan's chest hair. "I'll remind you that you said that when you come to my flat begging for a shag."
"Me begging? I think not," Duncan said in an affronted tone. "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I don't beg for sex."
"Why beg when a good pout is all that's necessary?" Duncan stuck out his bottom lip in an exaggerated pout, then batted his eyes. "There. How can you possibly resist me?"
Methos had to grab his stomach he was laughing so hard. "You're absolutely right, MacLeod. You are irresistible." Abruptly the laughter stopped and his eyes grew serious. He leaned forward and breathed against Duncan's lips. "Absolutely irresistible."
Hours later, they made their way downstairs.
"Good morning, Tibby," Methos said cheerfully as the petite woman came out of the kitchen. "Are we too late for one of your wonderful meals?"
Tibby blushed. "I saved your breakfasts, Professor. You're not all that late. The others just left." She bustled back into the kitchen and came out with a tray. "But I'm afraid you're going to miss the morning bus."
Methos shrugged. "That will give me time to enjoy your company and," he grabbed a fluffy biscuit, "gain a few pounds from your cooking."
"A few more pounds would do you good, Professor. I'm starting to wonder if your friends take proper care of you." She glared at Duncan.
"He eats me out of house and home on a regular basis," Duncan said defensively, as he reached for his napkin.
"Then perhaps you need a bigger house," Tibby snapped and headed back into the kitchen.
Methos looked at him and smiled impishly. "Well, the refrigerator on the barge is a bit on the small side--"
"Perhaps if I took out some of the beer," Duncan countered.
Methos scowled and studiously focused on eating.
They both looked around as the bell tinkled over the inn's door. Tibby appeared before they could get a glimpse of the new arrival.
"Constable Moldev, did you come for breakfast?" she asked the man who wore a rumpled suit and held a battered hat in his hand.
"I heard you had some late-night visitors and thought I should check to see if there was some trouble."
"No trouble at all," Tibby said. "Mr. MacLeod's friends needed a place to lay their heads for the night."
"Mr. MacLeod? So, Dr. Pierson, you found your missing friend?"
Methos deliberately took a long moment to swallow his juice. "Yes, Constable. As Tibby said, he was with other friends. Just forgot to leave me a note, I'm afraid."
"And here we were worried that you'd met with some misadventure, perhaps at the hands of visitors in the woods."
"Sorry to worry any of you," Duncan said flatly.
"Well, I was concerned so I checked the woods this morning. Very quiet. Could it be that the infidels have left?"
"Anything is possible." Methos smiled as Tibby poured him some coffee.
"Will you gentlemen be staying long?"
"We're leaving on the next bus," Duncan answered.
"Ah, then our little town will be left with only its natives. Perhaps things will go back to being dull. I happen to like dull."
"I just bet you do," Methos muttered. "We'll be leaving," he said loudly. "But we shall return to visit with our friend Tibby. And of course, if she ever needs my help, for anything, she need only to call me."
"And why would she need you, Dr. Pierson?"
"Wishing for dull does not make it so, Constable."
The man's eyebrow quirked upward. "You know something, sir?"
"I know a lot of things."
The constable appeared to wait for an explanation of that but when none was forthcoming, he gave a sharp nod. "Have a safe journey home, gentlemen."
"We'll do that," Duncan replied. They watched the man leave. "Where was he when there was actual trouble?" he fumed.
"In his little office doing officious paperwork, or so I was told," Methos said. "I merely saw him twiddling his thumbs."
"So he's become skilled enough to do that now?" Tibby asked with feigned surprise.
"They say practice does wonders," Methos said with a grin.
"You see, Mr. MacLeod, this is why you must count on your friends when you are in trouble and not on the so-called authorities."
"Trust me; I am grateful for all my friends, especially those who go the extra mile not only to save me from outside dangers, but from myself as well," Duncan said solemnly, looking at Methos.
Tibby nodded. "Good friends are hard to come by."
Methos shrugged. "I don't know about that. Sometimes you just look up--and there they are."
Duncan's eyes lit up as he remembered the first meeting. So long ago, yet only yesterday in relation to their long lives. "Blessings come when we least expect them."
"But laundry--laundry comes every day," Tibby said as she pulled a laundry basket out of a closet.
"May we help?" Duncan offered.
"Of course not. You are paying guests!"
Methos started gathering plates from the table. "MacLeod's paying, not me. So your argument won't work with me."
Duncan tried to look affronted at Methos' assumption, but to be honest, he'd suspected he'd be paying all along. Guess it was a good thing that Kreshin and his men hadn't "rolled" while he was unconscious.
"So in what century were you an innkeeper?" Duncan asked as he watched, and occasionally helped, Methos efficiently strip the beds.
"Fourteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth. Nineteenth in a way; I wasn't the owner but a worker at one of the big hotels in London."
"Is there anything you haven't been?"
"Well, up to last night your lover would have been at the top of the list."
Duncan smacked him with a rolled up pillow case. "I'm serious."
"So am I," Methos declared, pinching Duncan's ass before gathering up an armful of linens. "I don't know, MacLeod. I can't remember everything I've done. I just became whoever and whatever I needed to become to survive at the time. Whether it was farmer, king, god, slave, butcher, baker, candlestick maker--I did it."
"Don't tell me--you coined the phrase renaissance man', right?"
"Now that you mention it..." Methos grinned. "You're pretty good at bed-making, too."
"Years of monastery living."
"I remember that. Getting up at the crack of godawful dawn. Getting knee-cramps during prayers. Eating food as bland as river water. The only thing worse than my monastery days was the Watcher Academy. Boooring."
"Speaking of Watchers, are they the reason the constable didn't find anything in the woods this morning."
"Probably. Joe said a team would be arriving soon. I'll have to write them a thank you note, I suppose."
"So how did Joe take the news of my survival?"
"He doesn't know yet."
Duncan slipped a pillow into a fresh covering. "I just assumed you called him before I got here last night. Why didn't you?"
Methos shrugged. "News like that deserves to be shared in person."
"But the Watchers--"
"Were on their way anyway. They don't know that you're alive. They were coming to find out what happened to their own. They're always afraid of someone going rogue."
"Why did they let you go so easily?"
"I wouldn't call it easily and they didn't exactly let me go."
"You're still a--"
"No, but I'm periodically checked out--Watched--to make sure I'm not doing anything I shouldn't be doing."
"Like consorting with Immortals?"
"And other Watchers as well. You're not the only person Joe catches hell over."
"It's amazing that he doesn't hate us both."
"Joe? He thinks the whole situation is funny as hell."
"They were going to kill him!"
"Yeah, and because of how Jack Shapiro screwed that up, Joe is literally untouchable. You think Horton caused a split in the Watchers? That was nothing compared to the Joe Wars.' How do you think he got to be a territory chief and still maintain active field status? The man's a fucking hero to his contemporaries and a legend to the younger agents. By gods, he's an inspiration. If I could be mortal, I'd want to be Joe."
"He's a good man," Duncan agreed.
"One of the best I've ever met."
Duncan nodded. "So he's protected, but what about you? You don't seemed concerned that they might find out you're an Immortal. You haven't exactly been low profile lately."
"If they didn't catch on when Kronos and the others were in the picture, I think I'm relatively safe. At least from being outed as Methos. As far as Adam Pierson is concerned, I'll just pretend I'm a novice under your wing."
"No way in hell am I going to get blamed for your underhanded tac--"
"--tics and your overall lack of preparedness."
"You don't even work out on a regular basis!"
"Just because I don't get up and go running every morning doesn't mean I don't work out."
"Oh, I'm sure lifting all those beers is a great way to strengthen your wrists."
"You're a snob, MacLeod. Didn't your Eastern masters teach you anything?"
"Yes, that one should possess a strong mind and a strong body."
"If one is properly disciplined a strong mind is a strong body."
"You're trying to tell me that you don't have to exercise because your mind is so strong?"
"You're the one implying my body is weak."
"Not weak, just--"
"Soft? Odd, that's what Kronos said. That I had grown soft. But he's dead, isn't he? And so is Kreshin, in case you've forgotten. Strength isn't everything." Before Duncan could react, he had him pinned on the stripped bed. "See what I mean?"
"But sometimes strength makes a difference," Duncan replied, flipping them both over.
"Not when you're clever," Methos said smugly, and Duncan frowned at him. "Beneath you was the position I was desiring in the first place."
Duncan's eyes widened and he smiled. He'd been wondering if Methos was going to be stubborn about getting together again. "Thought you said I was going to have to beg?" he challenged.
Methos' eyes lit up with amusement. "The day is still young, MacLeod."
By the time they finished all the rooms, the day was considerably older and Duncan had indeed begged. They headed downstairs with Methos carrying his bag and Duncan hauling the dirty laundry.
"Thank you for you help," Tibby said as she showed Duncan where to place the soiled bedding and towels. "I could have done it myself in far less time--but perhaps had far less fun?"
Methos laughed aloud. "I'm going to miss you, dear heart." He gave Tibby a squeeze. "Here's my card. If you need anything, or someone gives you trouble, or you just want someone to talk to, call this number. If someone other than me answers it, just tell him or her your name and I will contact you as soon as possible."
"I don't think--"
"Tibby, you are my friend. I don't have many of them so I tend to be possessive of the ones I have. Promise me you'll keep in contact, or I'll have to keep tabs on you another way. And as I was telling MacLeod earlier, I'm very clever."
"No doubt about that," Duncan agreed, refusing to feel the blush rising in his face. "It's best to do as he asks."
"Perhaps I shall--just to make sure his other friends are taking care of him properly."
Duncan was amazed at how many people wanted to mother Methos--a man so old he couldn't even remember his own mother. From the stories Joe and Methos told, Don Salzer had practically adopted Adam. And Joe himself...Joe had been a staunch defender of Methos during the entire Horsemen affair, and although he constantly griped about Methos' ever-growing bar tab, he nevertheless let it grow. Then Duncan had to look at himself. He'd wanted to protect Methos from Kalas. He'd worried constantly about Methos when he'd left with Alexa--except for the time of the dark quickening. And he'd told the truth to Tibby when he said Methos was constantly eating him out of house and home--not to mention sleeping on his sofa and basically having full run of all his residences. Well, at least the sleeping on the sofa was about to stop.
Duncan reached out and enfolded her wrinkled hands in his. "By all means stay in contact, but know that you needn't worry about him as long as I am around."
She looked up into his eyes for a long minute. Apparently liking what she saw, she nodded. "By the way, Mr. MacLeod, the constable came by again. Someone one found a valise by the side of the road and turned it in. Apparently there was some article of identification inside and he realized it belongs to you. I told him you were helping me and couldn't be disturbed so he left it in my custody."
Duncan gratefully retrieved his bag. "Thank you for everything, Madame Neskorozhana. Your hospitality has made this trip bearable."
"I am sorry you ran into such troubles, but I am glad that I got to meet the Professor because of them. I'll be calling you, Professor, I promise you. And here's a snack for you to carry on the bus."
Duncan waited until they were walking toward the bus stop before laughing. "Sixty-eight wives and how many maternal substitutes? You collect mothers like--"
"You collect Immortals?" Methos interrupted, giving Duncan a knowing look.
Duncan stopped laughing. "That's something I can't stop, Methos." Would all his Immortal friends be the excuse Methos used to back out of what they'd started?
"I know. And I can't stop Adam Pierson from looking like the posterboy for the Motherless Child.' It's who he is."
Duncan just looked at him. "I don't think Adam Pierson' has a thing to do with it. He's not the first tessellation to have that effect, is he?"
Methos scowled. "Too much thinking can be quite unattractive."
"Then I'll just have to improve my begging skills," Duncan replied calmly.
Methos looked extremely grateful that the bus showed up just then. He remained quiet on the bus ride, begrudgingly offering Duncan a couple of the cookies that Tibby had packed for him. Arranging a flight back to Paris was easy thanks to the passport that was still in Duncan's bag. Of course the fact that Methos requested first class seating also smoothed the way; first class was never sold out.
Methos tried to nap on the way to Paris, but once again his sleep was restless. Oddly energized, Duncan tried to figure out what was bothering Methos so badly. When it hit him, he wondered why it had taken him so long.
"Methos," he whispered, although there was no one near them.
"What is it, MacLeod?"
"I forgive you."
"For what?" Methos didn't seem angry, just tired.
"For whatever you think I should forgive you for."
Puzzled eyes looked at him. "Why?"
"Because you want my forgiveness, and although I can't give you the acceptance you think I'll one day be capable of giving you, forgiveness is within my power to grant."
"I see." Methos relaxed into the curve of the seat. "I want a house on the Riviera."
Duncan smiled and shook his head.
"A manor in England? A plantation in the West Indies?" Duncan continued to shake his head. "So this granting of my wants has limitations? Figures."
Duncan snorted and placed his hand on the armrest atop the cool hand already resting there. "What do you really want, Methos?"
Methos shrugged and turned his head toward the window. "Some place to call home."
Duncan squeezed his hand. "You already have that."
Methos returned the squeeze and fell into peaceful slumber.
Joe picked up the phone, then put it down again. There was no one to call. He couldn't bring himself to tell Amanda the news without knowing the whole story. And he wasn't going to call Adam. The man had enough on his plate; he didn't need an overanxious Watcher nagging him. Besides, he had a pretty clear picture of what had happened in Ukraine. The report had come early in the morning. Clean-up had been accomplished. The remains of one Watcher, two Immortals, and one hundred mortals had been recovered and properly dealt with. The Watcher and the Immortals had been taken to the mortuary. The mortals had been disposed of.
One hundred men.... He'd have to make sure to tell Adam that he'd done what was necessary. Maybe Mac wouldn't have appreciated it, but he wasn't MacLeod. Sometimes you had to get dirty to get what you wanted. Sometimes you did things that you knew you were going to have to learn to live with later. Sometimes the ends did justify the means; and you clung tightly to the ends so that you didn't have to focus on the means.
Sometimes you just had to accept that honor was just a word.
Of the two Immortals, neither was Duncan MacLeod. One had been a female--Linda Jacobs Ivanov according to the records. She'd probably been just a random sacrifice. Her Watcher said that she, her Immortal husband, and an Immortal friend had disappeared recently. Maybe the others had been killed in another location because the other Immortal found had also been identified: Kristov Kreshin. Kreshin had disappeared off the Watcher radar about twenty years ago. A mean son of a bitch with a history of playing by his own rules. But so did Adam.
He had no doubt that it'd been Adam who had killed Kreshin. Jenkins' body had been found in a shallow grave, but there was evidence that it had been exposed for a while. Only someone who cared would have bothered to take the time to dig Jenkins a grave. And Adam could be the only reason why MacLeod's body hadn't been recovered. If he knew the Immortal well, and he did, then Adam was probably on his way to Scotland to bury Duncan in his native soil. It was what Duncan would have wanted.
What Duncan would have wanted. Damn. It just didn't seem right that he'd outlived MacLeod. What was he going to do without the Scot spicing up his boring life? Permanent retirement from the field was first up. There wasn't any other Immortal he wanted to Watch--except the one the Watchers still knew nothing about--and that one he could Watch from his bar stool. Adam wasn't very active in the Game and now that MacLeod was gone, he could easily see the Immortal going into near-seclusion. He just hoped the seclusion didn't include him. No. He wouldn't let it. Adam always declared he didn't feel guilt, but the right combination of words, plus a certain look or two, could usually hook the old man. It was probably wrong to force the man into hanging around, but he wasn't going to lose both of them. Besides, Adam would probably secretly applaud his tactics.
Sometimes you just had to accept that honor was just a word.
Yeah, but the problem was--would he get the chance to launch his scheme? Although Adam had sort of promised to come back, he couldn't shake the feeling that maybe he wouldn't. He knew Adam Pierson well, but Methos...Methos was a horse of another color, no pun intended. With Methos fooling around with his own Watcher files, it was hard to believe anything written in them. All he could do was add together what he knew about Adam Pierson and what Methos had let slip from time to time, and come up with--
Joe tried not to let the relief show too broadly. He shoved to his feet. "Adam! You're back."
The Immortal stood in the doorway, leaning against the ajar door. "I am. And I have news."
"I know. I read the Watcher report this morning. And for the record, the only part of the report I care about is that you killed the son of a bitch who killed MacLeod."
A small, grateful smile. "Thanks, Joe. But you're only partially right."
"You did kill Kreshin, didn't you?" All this and Adam hadn't gotten MacLeod's quickening after all?
"I killed Kreshin," Adam confirmed. "But Kreshin didn't kill Mac."
"Then who did?"
"No one. Because I'm not dead, Joe." MacLeod gently pushed in beside Methos.
"Shit," Adam hissed, and hurried over to the desk and scooted the chair beneath Joe before he could collapse. "Breathe, you bloody mortal." He knelt beside the chair and grabbed Joe's wrist.
"I'm fine, damn it!" Joe pulled away from Adam's medical care. Once a damn doctor, always a damn doctor. "Neither one of you thought this was something I should know?" he asked, sounding angry, but just looking bewildered. And happy.
"I thought a certain someone had told you," Duncan said defensively, his eyes flicking toward Adam. "But he explained that we needed to be here when you found out--and for once, he was right. Can I get you something, Joe?"
Adam shook his head. "Go out to the bar and get a glass something sweet. A soda, perhaps."
"Whiskey, Doctor Adam," Joe growled. Duncan left. "You son of a bitch."
Adam straightened and rested against the corner of the desk. "Joe, the last time you talked to me, I wasn't--in the best of places mentally. Would you have believed me if I'd told you MacLeod was alive?"
Joe looked up at the hazel eyes staring at him, challenging him. And he met the challenge. "Yes."
Adam blinked. "Then I apologize for underestimating you."
"It's yourself you should apologize to." A blank look. "You're always underestimating yourself, Ad--Methos. Hell, if anyone could bring MacLeod back from the dead, it would be you."
"I didn't bring him back from the dead."
"Then he's doing a pretty good imitation of being alive," Joe replied, reaching for the glass as Duncan returned. He frowned as Coke slid down his throat. "Wait til the next time you think you're getting a beer," he threatened. "I take it you took out Kreshin before he could take out Mac."
"Not just me, Joe," Duncan said quickly, "but six other Immortals as well. You're looking at a genuine hero."
Methos rolled his eyes. "Insults won't get you what you want, MacLeod."
"And what is it you think I want, Methos?"
"To go home."
Joe recognized the smile MacLeod was bestowing on Methos. Finally. "So you leave me lying in your bed to go hop into someone else's?" he teased, letting them know he knew.
Methos shook his head. "It was my bed so I wasn't the one doing the hopping."
"But I paid for it," Duncan argued.
"Paid for it? I don't remember charging you one bloody dime!"
"Charg--" Duncan flushed. "That's not what I meant!"
"See, Joe, that's what happens when you give away the milk before the cow is purchased. You get accused of being a whore!"
"I'm not accusing--Damn it, Methos--"
"Adam. If you're gonna yell my name use Adam please!"
"Adam! You are the most infuriating--"
Duncan stopped yelling as Joe's laughter filled the room.
"Oh, God, I'm so glad that neither one of you is dead," Joe said, hiccuping as he tried to get his laughter under control. He stood and walked over to MacLeod. "It's good to have you back, Mac." They shook hands, then hugged briefly. "By the way, I was in his bed alone."
Duncan smiled. "It doesn't matter. There's so much of him, I'm pretty sure I can't handle it all by myself."
Joe's eyes widened. "That's rather modern of you, MacLeod."
"And being in a serious relationship with a male isn't?"
"Actually, the practice is not modern at all," Methos began, shutting up when two pair of eyes glared at him.
"Serious relationship? Is that what you have?" Joe asked curiously.
Duncan shrugged. "We'll just have to see how it goes. Right, Adam?"
Methos flipped awkwardly through Joe's Rolodex. "Whatever."
Joe lifted an eyebrow. "You're right, Mac. He is a handful. You have your work cut out for you."
"That's why I plan on relying on my friends for help. You gonna be okay now, Joe?"
"I'm fine. Just gotta figure out what to tell the Watchers about what happened in Ukraine."
"Not a problem," Methos said. "Kreshin's men killed Jenkins, Kreshin killed his men, then MacLeod killed Kreshin."
"Still a crafty old bastard, aren't you?" Joe said, admiring the simple elegance of the plan.
"I try, Joe," Methos said, his put-upon tone warring with his cheeky grin.
"Come on, Adam, let's leave Joe to his Watcher duties."
Methos gave the Rolodex a final spin. "Sure, Mac. Where are we going?"
Joe, who'd turned down plenty of opportunities for homosexual encounters both in and out of the Army, felt himself being aroused by the look Methos now gave MacLeod. "Get him out of here, MacLeod, before my bar gets closed down for having a public orgy."
"We'll be around, Joe," Duncan said, wrapping an arm around Methos and guiding him toward the door. "And if you miss us for a couple of days, we might be at the beach."
"Yeah, seems Ive grown rather fond of sand art. Such a vastly changeable and fascinating medium."
Methos literally purred, and Joe went from being aroused to just being too damn hot. He tossed back the remaining Coke in the glass. "Good night, guys."
"Night, Joe," they chorused.
Joe watched them disappear, then settled in behind his desk again. He reached into the lower drawer and pulled out a bottle of glenfiddich. He'd thought he and Adam could mourn in private, but now he was going to use it as a toast to the damnedest, weirdest, most powerful, most interesting, and probably most amusing Immortal couple to walk the face of the planet.
He didn't envy them the problems that lay ahead of them...but he did envy them the love.
With a sigh, he turned to his computer, logged onto the Watcher network, and typed in the lies that would protect his friends. As a Watcher, he'd vowed to stay on the outside and never interfere. As a trusted friend, he was well ensconced on the inside and interfered constantly. But if he ever needed help in doing the balancing act, he knew he wouldn't have far to look.
How does it feel to be as many people as you have been, old friend?
He smiled as he remembered the look the Immortals had shared.
Apparently, it felt just fine.