AN EYE FOR AN EYE


The Cell - Waking


Methos woke in darkness. Even so, he immediately closed his eyes, and his sigh of relief was long and heart-felt. When those two women in the alley had kidnapped him, he'd been very much afraid it was the end. Yet here he was.

But where, exactly, was here? And what was it? Also: who and why and when. A veritable heavenly host of questions came crowding into his brain, but he placed them aside for now. First, what was this place?

It was, as he'd already noticed, dark. Mind-boggingly dark. The kind of utter darkness that encouraged your eyeballs to trigger the optic nerve, just for the hell of it, so your brain would go and invent colors. Close your eyes, open your eyes … no difference. Utterly dark.

Underground, probably.

Or maybe the underworld. Perhaps he really was dead, and this stygian blackness was the afterlife? Pretty dull, if so. On the whole, he'd rather be in Valhalla.

But no. He wasn't dead yet. He was breathing, lying on a firm yet yielding surface, neatly covered with a blanket, even over his toes. Someone had tucked him in. How sweet.

Someone had also changed his clothes for him. The trousers and loose shirt he wore were pajama-like, soft and warm. He was missing his shoes, his socks and his underwear, as well as his wallet and keys and comb. Also missing were his knife, his lock-picks, his file, his phone, his stun gun, and his sword. His razor-sharp wit was his only weapon now. And his hands and feet. And a well-placed elbow or knee. Or even teeth or a fingernail. He could do a lot with those.

Time for the other senses. He could hear his heart beating. This place was that quiet. "Hello?" he tried, and the dark velvety silence swallowed his voice. An underground, soundproofed room. A room that could endlessly absorb a man's screaming, with no-one in the sunlit world the wiser.

He reached out cautiously to either side then lifted his hands straight up, finding only air. He wasn't in a coffin, thank the gods. Methos despised being buried alive. The air smelled of antiseptic, a hospital smell. This room had been thoroughly cleaned. Removing the blood and sweat and (possibly) tears of the last unlucky occupant? Or just good housekeeping?

His lips tasted, faintly, of bitter salt, and his mouth was dry. He'd been drugged as well as dead. Which meant one of his captors had medical training; dosages were tricky with immortal healing. He had no idea how long he'd been unconscious. Hours at least, possibly days. Or weeks. He really hoped he hadn't missed the launch date. Or his date with MacLeod.

However long he'd been under, they'd kept him fed and hydrated. That was temporary, but still good. Methos sat up, and at his movement the lights came on, a soft glow from high above. The room was about four paces square, softly padded on the floor and all the walls, empty save for the blanket over his legs and a squat toilet and a waist-high water basin in the corner. He stood, and the lights brightened a bit more. Methos felt his way around the room and located a small pass-through at floor level (for food, he hoped) and the door. Locked, of course. This room was his cell.

Well, he had been in worse situations. He might have woken to find himself tied down and naked, left to wonder if he were in for a sex game, a torture session, or medical experimentation.

Maybe even alien abduction.

Not bloody likely. Those women in the alley had been immortals. But clearly, they wanted more than just his head, or they'd have taken it by now. So … all in all, good. Or at least, not utterly hopeless. He was alive, he was alert, and that meant he had a chance of getting out of this. Though he strongly suspected not everyone had. Those women had been calm and unhurried, practiced. They'd done this before, caught an immortal and brought him here. And then ... what? He was grimly certain he would find out soon.

When he lay back down the lights went out, and he was in total darkness once more. Perhaps they expected him to start screaming? Begging? Asking them questions?

Too bad. He knew how this game was played.

Methos closed his eyes, pulled the blanket over his shoulders, and went to sleep.


MacLeod Farm in the Highlands, Saturday, 13 April 2052


In the Highlands, Connor came home to cold suspicion and a gun pointed at his head. He stopped walking and carefully held his hands high. The armed young man near the barn didn't waver. "Graham," Connor called reassuringly. "It's Mike Audren, your cousin." Grandfather, really, but kin was kin.

"Mike?" Graham repeated, peering across the gravel drive, his face unsure but his stun gun still steady.

"I came to the family picnic five years ago, remember?" Connor prompted. "You offered to take Alea's friend horseback riding but she was pregnant, and you slept outside that night."

Graham was grinning now. "You slept in the cottage, with Laina." He put his gun away, walked through the flock of scratching chickens, and came over to shake Connor's hand.

His grip was firm; the lanky teenager Connor remembered had become a young man. The toddler he'd carried about on his shoulders would be twenty-three this summer. It didn't seem that long ago.

"It's good to see you," Graham said.

"You, too," Connor said. "But that was a hell of a greeting," he observed, though truth be told, killing strangers was an ancient tradition in the Highlands.

Graham didn't apologize for it. "We've had some troubles. How is it in North America?" he asked as they started walking.

"They have a lot of troubles," Connor replied. The school had been an oasis of well-prepared calm, thanks to Ceirdwyn, but the trip to the coast had been a walk through hell, and the journey home had taken more than a year. Getting this far into the Highlands hadn't been simple, either, what with the state of the roads, the lack of fuel, and the bridges gone. When Connor and Graham reached the stables, all was quiet. The fields were empty too, save for a few sheep. "Did you sell the horses?" Connor asked in surprise.

Graham shook his head, his mouth tight. "We ate them."

Connor swore under his breath. He hadn't thought the hunger would reach this far.

"The weather's been bad these last four years," Graham explained. "Snow, sleet, either no rain or no sun. So… no grass. We'd put up hay, but not enough. After the bridge went out, and with the snows last winter, no food was getting through. Not for the horses, not for us. Dad said it was for the best."

"Yeah," Connor had to agree. He'd told Colin stories about some hard times. He hadn't thought his son would have to live through them. He should have been here to help. He should have stayed.

But he was back now, and he and Colin could make up for lost time. They would go fishing together, build a stone wall or plant potatoes, whatever needed to be done. For however long.

Graham was looking up at the square window to the hayloft. "Ian, Orla!" he called. "You can come down now." He turned to Connor and said, "I told them to hide."

Connor nodded in approval.

Two small heads popped up, side by side, looking down at them, just like Sara and Colin used to do. They looked like Sara and Colin, too: same round faces, same curious stares. But one of these children was a tow-head, and other had coppery-red hair. Colin and Sara's hair had been brown. John had had black curls.

Connor blinked then smiled up at his great-grandchildren. Alea had been expecting a girl, so Orla was her daughter, and Ian would be Graham's son. But which was which? It was hard to tell at three years old.

"Come down and meet your cousin Mike," Graham said, and the heads disappeared. Thumps sounded on the stairs, and then the two children came walking between the stalls, holding hands. They took refuge near Graham's legs, peering out at Connor

"Mike, this is my son, Ian," Graham said, tousling the tow-head's hair. "And this is Orla, Alea's daughter."

Connor went down on one knee. "I'm pleased to meet you Orla, Ian," he said to them. "I'm your cousin Mike."

The red-haired girl tilted her head to one side. "Ian and I are cousins," she informed him. "So you're an old cousin, like Cousin Graham."

"Very old," Connor agreed gravely.

"I'm three," Ian announced. "How old are you?"

"Old as dirt and young as mud," he replied, which made Ian and Orla laugh and avoided the question long enough to let Connor do the math. He'd taken the name Michael Connor Audren in 2034, which meant he had to be at least thirty-eight now. He'd have to take on a new identity soon.

Ian tugged on his father's pant leg. "Can we go to the daffodil hill now?"

"We were just on our way to see if any are blooming," Graham explained.

"I know one is," Ian told him.

"You don't need to come, Mike," Graham said. "I'll walk with you to the house first."

"No," Connor said. "I'd like to go see the flowers." He'd sometimes dreamed of them these past four years, that river of gold and white flowing down the hillside, those thousands of bulbs the work of Alex's hands. He'd dreamed of Alex, too. He would visit her now, and Rachel and Sara, and then he would finally go to see his son.

"Let's go," Ian said, now tugging on his father's hand, and the four of them trudged up the long hill together. Halfway up, Ian got a pebble in his shoe and Graham knelt to take it out, then started cursing at the wet knotted mess of shoelaces, so Connor and Orla went on. The hill was frozen brown, speckled with snow and dusted here and there with thin blades of pale green. None of the daffodils was in bloom yet. Spring was late this year.

The snowdrops were up, and their tattered white blanket had spread beyond Alex's grave, touching the edge of Rachel's stone and almost reaching the three purple crocuses atop Sara's plot. New stones had been added since Connor had last stood here. A granite plinth next to Alex's grave was titled "In Memoriam" and bore the surname MacLeod above John, Gina, David, and Cynthia. All four had the same death date: October 21st, 2048. No bodies were present, of course, just the names. The entire family was buried in the ash an ocean away.

A headstone on the other side of the path read "Alan Carter, 2009-2052" and Connor had no idea who that was. But to the left of Sara's grave was a stone for Oona, his daughter-in-law. She'd died the year before, the day after New Year's, at the age of only fifty-three.

"Damn," Connor muttered in dismay, wondering how she had died.

And there was yet one more grave, set between Oona and Sara. This one was markerless, too recent to have a headstone. The bare dirt was clotted with tiny crystals of snow, and footprints still showed here and there, some tiny, some big.

Orla had bent to sweep aside the snow from a wooden sign set flat to the ground, and when she stood, Connor could finally see the name of the dead.

Colin Duncan MacLeod.

"No," Connor protested, unthinking, frozen in pain. The name wavered and blurred, but when he could read the marker again, Colin's name was still there, and the earth of the grave was still raw.

A small hand nestled into his, the fingers lining up along his thumb. "He's very sad," a clear high voice announced, and another small hand found his on the other side.

Connor held his great-grandchildren's hands tightly, tiny anchors of life in a treacherous sea. "How?" He managed that one word, his voice strangling.

"Grandpa had a balloon in his head," Ian replied.

"Brain aneurysm," Graham explained, holding his son's other hand, so that the four of them were linked like a chain. "At least it was quick."

But too soon. Too fucking soon. "When?" Connor asked. That word didn't come out easy, either.

"Last month." Graham reached out and brushed a dusting of snow from his mother's tombstone, his hand lingering. "Dad was fine that morning. It had snowed, and he said he was going to come here to light candles."

Connor had lit a lot of candles over the years. When Colin and Sara were eleven, after they'd found about immortality, they had come with him to Heather's grave. They'd been properly quiet and respectful as he lit a candle and told them some stories, but Connor had noticed a bit of restlessness in them, and anyway, he'd wanted time alone. "You should go see the waterfall down the hill," he'd said, and they'd leapt away, bounding like deer over tumbled rock walls and tussocks of grass.

"They're strong, Heather," Connor had told his first wife as he watched them run then turned to kneel in the damp grass. "And fine," he'd added, reaching out to touch her gravestone, worn smooth by more than four centuries of wind and rain. "As ours would have been." Should have been.

But if Heather had borne him children, they'd have been dead and buried long ago.

"Dad never came back for lunch," Graham was saying. "We found him here, lying between my mother and Aunt Sara. There was a candle at each grave, burned down, and one next to him, untouched. Like he knew." Graham drew a long, shaking breath. "So we buried him right here, and we lit that candle for him, and Will and Alea and I stood vigil as it burned down."

Connor nodded as he cleared his throat. "He would have liked that." He tilted his head back and stared at the sky, a mass of sullen gray, tattered in the west by the ceaseless wind. The wind that carried the souls to the sea, so his grandmother used to say, and bore them away to the far isles of the west, home of the dying sun. "When I die," Colin had sometimes said, "I want to be buried here, on the hill. Like Mom."

Now he was. And so were Sara and Rachel, and John had a tombstone here, too, though his bones lay in far-off lands. Connor hadn't expected to come home and see all four of his children laid out in one neat row.

"Come," Graham said to the children. "Let's go look for that daffodil."

Orla squeezed Connor's fingers before she let go. Their voices faded quickly, tattered by that chill west wind, and Connor stood there motionless for a good long while before sinking to his knees and laying his bare hands upon the grave of his youngest son. It took another long while before he could whisper, "Goodbye."


When Connor finally came down off the hill, Graham was working in the garden next to the house. The chickens were scattered around him; the children were nowhere to be seen. "I would have warned you," Graham said in apology as he stood and wiped the dirt from his hands. "I'd forgotten you and Dad were friends, that you went fishing every autumn."

Those fishing trips had been a few days out of a year, scraps of time, scattered much too wide. In the beginning, it had all been crammed together: crying babies, feeding time, changing diapers, sleeping, and feeding time again. Then came the playful years of tossing baseballs, riding horses, and teaching Colin how to track rabbits and play cards and use the forge. Connor had watched Colin grow from child to man, become a husband and then a father, take over the farm, bury his mother and his sister, and smile as he talked of his first grandchild.

No more.

Graham was heading to the house, and Connor followed through the garden that he and Alex had planted, past the stone wall that he and Duncan had built, and up to the farmhouse that he had lived in for years. "Everybody's back from town," Graham said, opening the door, and Connor abruptly found himself in his own kitchen, painted the wrong color and crowded with people he didn't know.

"This is my cousin, Mike Audren," Graham announced as heads turned their way. "This is Fila, mother of Ian, and her parents, Philippa and Andrew Barton," Graham said of a young woman setting the table for luncheon and a middle-aged couple bringing over food. The younger woman smiled, the older woman nodded to him, and the man set down a soup kettle to shake Connor's hand.

"And here are Coby and Neill," Graham said, and a pair of freckled redheads, one pouring water from a jar into glasses and the other slicing bread, said hello. "They live in the guest cottage and help with the farm. We'll be planting potatoes this afternoon."

There was a definite pause, and Connor roused himself to say, "Maybe I could help."

"Good," Andrew said with an approving smile. "Would you care to join us in the meal, Mike, before we go to the field?"

Connor suspected that if he hadn't offered to help, he might not have been invited to eat. "Thank you, I would like that," he said, and Fila set another plate and bowl on the far side of the squared table, making the total only seven. "Alea and Will aren't joining us?" Connor was eager to see his other grandchildren, to see how much Will had grown. He'd be eighteen now.

"Alea's upstairs with the children," Andrew said, pulling out a chair for his wife and then sitting next to her. "And Will stayed in town."

"With Betta?" Coby asked, sliding onto a bench.

"That was last month," Fila informed him. She and Graham sat opposite her parents. "Now it's Kyla."

"That Will," Neill said, joining Coby on the bench and shaking his head with profound admiration and a touch of envy.

Apparently, Will had grown quite a lot. Connor took the solo spot, next to an empty chair. Probably Alea and Will usually sat on that side. The table was missing two of its leaves, making it square instead of long, but it was the same table Connor had brought to the farm fifty years before, and John's initials still showed. Connor searched the underside of the table with his fingertips, tracing out the lines that formed CDMcL and SHMcL, where Sara and Colin had hidden (so they thought) their own brands.

Philippa led the blessing, and the meal began.


The Cell - Wondering


When Methos woke up, it was still dark. The silent room still smelt of cleanser.

Nothing had changed, except that he needed to piss. He got up, made use of the toilet in the corner, and then decided to get some exercise. Stretches, pushups, sit-ups, jogging round the room. He ended up right where he had started. There was nowhere to go.

What did they want from him? Why go to all this trouble and then just leave him? Who were they, and why was he here, and where the hell was "here" anyway?

Methos took a calming breath and silently recited the first twenty digits of pi. Don't get rattled, don't freak out. Play your own waiting game, not theirs, and be ready to make your move.

Or … perhaps … the entire game was in the waiting. Perhaps they were going to make him wait for days, possibly years, just to see how he reacted. Perhaps this was an experiment after all. He amused himself—and perhaps his captors—by reciting in full the names of every bone in the hands and feet, dexter and sinister. Then he did the other hundred-odd bones.

Apparently, someone had been listening, for a few moments after he finished, the ceiling screen switched from illumination to interactive. Methos selected a newsfeed, and its timestamp told him he'd been nabbed three days ago (assuming the feed was not recorded or manipulated). His employer might have reported him missing by now. Or simply fired him. Or both.

Methos took his time exploring the options. The ceiling reacted to voice, eye movement, and hand motions. It was out of reach, and so there was no chance of taking it apart and making a radio or a weapon or any such Tom Swift contraption. His free time was obviously designed to be more passive than aggressive. He could select from an immense library of video, audio, or plain text, or set the screen to show the clouds or the night sky, the stars wheeling slowly above. He settled for medium intensity lighting, stretched out on the floor, and read bits and snippets of various things for a few hours.

At the approach of an immortal, he got to his feet, but it was only a meal, placed inside the pass-through for him to retrieve. The small doors were connected, so that when his side was open, the other was closed, and vice versa. No grabbing the hands of the guards through the bars. The food was spicy pea soup inside a bread bowl. No spoon. He ate the soup and then the bread, licked his fingers clean, and scooped water from the basin with his hands. In lieu of a toothbrush, he scrubbed his teeth with his forefinger and scraped away tartar with a fingernail.

Then he lay down again and watched a documentary on the lives of silk worms. When it was over, he set the ceiling to night sky and considered the situation. Room service, peace and quiet, plenty to read, a chance to watch every single episode of Dr. Who… why, he might have paid for a vacation like this.

But his vacation would not have included the locked door.


The MacLeod Farm, Saturday evening


The potato planting had lasted until it was nearly too dark to see. Hands cold and muddy, tired in body and soul, Connor stood and stretched, his muscles protesting, then joined the others for the trek back to the house. "We've a bed for you tonight, if you like," Fila offered. "And a bath before we eat dinner."

"I'd love all three," Connor replied. "Thank you."

The bathwater was hot but just enough to wash in, no luxurious soaking, and Connor finished quickly then went to the kitchen to help. The room smelled of baking bread, and Alea was stirring soup in a kettle at the stove, hair tied up in a ponytail, wearing a sweater and jeans. Orla and Ian were at a low table in the corner, solemnly counting silverware. "One, two, three, six, twenty-leven, ten…"

For a moment, Connor saw Alex at that stove, and Sara and Colin were toddlers again. John sat at the long table, his homework spread around him in neat piles, while Rachel sat in the rocking chair near the stove, a cat on her lap, and the family was together again.

But when Alea turned and smiled in delight to see him, the name she called out was "Mike!", not Connor, and she greeted him with a hug, not a kiss. "It's wonderful to see you," she said warmly.

"You, too," Connor replied. He didn't want to let go of her hands or to stop looking at her. In the shape of her eyes, the curve of her cheek, the way she moved and the way she smiled, he could see traces of Sara, of Alex, and even of Alex's mom. Alea carried on the family tradition of beauty, in her own unique way. Smoky black hair framed a lovely face with crystalline blue eyes, and her skin was the shade of coffee with cream. "You look good," he told her. "Motherhood agrees with you."

"Most days," she said, grinning, a lightning flash that dazzled, and then she looked him up and down. "You look good, too. Just the same as I remember."

Connor let that slide by.

Then she asked, serious now, "Did you find Uncle John, when you went to North America?"

"No," he had to tell her. "Only ash."

She nodded slowly, unsurprised. "Uncle Colin had a marker set in the graveyard for the family two years ago."

"I saw," Connor replied. "That's good." They smiled at each other a little, and he finally let go of her hands. There was work to be done and children to be tended to, so Connor set the table with Orla and Ian's help while Alea went back to the stove.

"Did you ever find a daffodil in bloom?" Connor asked his great-grandchildren.

"Of course," Ian replied as he reached up to place a fork on the table. "It told me it was awake."

"Told you?" Connor repeated.

"He hears plants," Orla explained. She was doing the spoons.

Connor had been down this road before. "Did you know your Great-Aunt Sara could hear trees?"

Ian nodded. "Daddy told me. After I said the potatoes were thirsty. He said I have 'the ear.' My Grandpa did, too. He heard horses and birds and cats and dogs."

And people sometimes, Connor knew, though Colin had learned early to block that out.

"I have the sight," Orla piped up. "Like Cousin Will."

The talent was showing up younger in each generation; Sara and Colin had been teens when their dreams began, and Will had been seven or so. "What do you see, Orla?" Connor asked.

"Shadows." She looked up at him, her nose wrinkled in adorable perplexity. "But yours is the wrong color."

"It's gray," he assured her. "Like everybody's."

"Sun shadows are always gray," she told him seriously. "Soul shadows are different colors. Mine and Ian's are dark and furry, and Tiger's is blue, but she's a cat, and grownups' shadows are red or brown or sometimes green, except for Uncle Colin's was all white and misty, the morning that he died, and so was Mrs. Culbert's last week, and everybody went to her funeral today."

"A death poukah," Connor said, and both children stopped and looked up at him. "On the day you're born, a group of poukahs wait in the shadows." Connor said, sitting down to repeat the story his mother had told him, five centuries before. The children gathered near. "When you breathe for the very first time, one poukah comes forth and claims you for its own. It sits on your shoulder or follows you close, and you can never outrun it or hide from it, no matter how far or how fast you go, for all your living days."

"What do they look like?" Ian wanted to know.

"Anything they want to, or nothing at all. Some say," Connor said, leaning closer and speaking more softly, "they have sharp claws, dark fur, and eyes of gold, and their tongues dangle long and red." He decided not to mention the hook on the end of the tongue or the circle of needle teeth that latched onto your heart and slowly sucked it dry. Those details had given him nightmares for years.

Even so, Ian and Orla's eyes were wide, and they shivered with delight. "Poukah," Orla repeated, "I like that. Poukah," she said again, trying out the word, and then Ian chimed in, with the both them chanting: "Poukah, poukah, poukah."

"Don't," Connor ordered, with a bit more force than he'd intended, and they went silent straightaway, eyes wide again. Some stories dug their claws in deep. "Don't ever call it by name," he warned then added a smile to lighten the mood. "You might wake it up."

"Is yours asleep?" Orla asked. "Is that why your shadow is dark, like ours?"

"Maybe," Connor said with a shrug. "Maybe I'm not going to die for a long time. Like you." He winked and they giggled and the shadows faded away. "Let's finish the table." He stood and went back to placing knives while Orla followed with the spoons. Soon everyone arrived, and the room grew noisy with chatter and laughter during the meal.


After dinner, by the fire in the living room, Connor sought out Graham to say what he should have said earlier that day. "I'm sorry about your father. And your mother."

"Thank you." Graham drew a long, steadying breath before saying, "It was such a shock when Dad went. With my mother, we had warning. The cancer took time."

Connor winced and said, "I'm sorry," again, because there was really nothing else to say.

"It was for the best," Graham said resolutely. "At the end, she was tired and hurting. So we had one last Christmas and New Year's together, and then Dad helped her go."

"Damn," Connor muttered. He had helped his wife Alex let go of life, after she had helped him let go of her. "That's hard."

Graham nodded but said, "It was good that we all had the chance to say goodbye."

Connor had lost that chance forever with his sons.

But Alea said, "Did you give Mike the letter Uncle Colin wrote him?" and Graham snapped his fingers then beckoned Connor to follow. All three of them went down the hall to the study, where Graham began rummaging through the oak roll-top desk that had been in the family for nearly fifty years.

But other things in the study had changed. "Where are the paintings?" Connor asked, motioning to the bare wall.

"You mean the fellow in the kilt and the woman with the butterflies?" Alea asked, and when Connor nodded, she said, "I'm not sure, but Philippa would know. She's been cleaning the house from top to bottom since she moved in two years ago."

She had better not thrown them away.

"They're in the attic," Graham said, without looking up from his search. "In his will, Dad said he was leaving them to you, along with a few other things. I'll bring them down tomorrow."

"Thanks," Connor said, not trusting himself to speak more.

"Hah!" Graham exclaimed with satisfaction then came over with a sealed envelope and handed it to Connor. "Dad always did say you'd come back. He was sure of it."

Connor held the letter carefully, reading and re-reading the name of Michael Connor Audren, written in Colin's sprawling hand. "I shouldn't have been gone so long." He shouldn't have gone at all. He rubbed his hand across his eyes and told his grandchildren, "It's been a long day."

"You're in Will's room tonight, since he's not here," Alea said then offered, "I can show you the way."

"No need," Connor replied. That had been Colin's room, back when he had been a boy. They all said goodnight, and Connor made his way up the stairs.

The room looked much the same: the narrow bed next to the window, the dresser and bookshelves pushed up against low wall under the eave. The books were different, more fiction and no veterinary care. One of Will's shambles was hanging from the ceiling: a sea shell, a scrap of cloth, a braided loop of horsehair, and intricate knotting in some pattern that Connor couldn't see. Connor gave it a push, and it twirled slowly around, then unwound the other way.

Then he sat on the bed, neatly slit the envelope with his knife, and found a smaller envelope, this one addressed to Connor MacLeod. Connor opened it then finally unfolded the farewell message from his son. It was dated from January the year before, the day after Oona had died.

"Dear Dad," it began, and Connor had to stop right there, his eyes closed tight and his breathing slow and controlled. It took him a long while to read it all, to get to the closing line that brought him to tears— "Your loving son, Colin Duncan MacLeod"—and then to the addendum that made him smile: "PS: Don't forget to have fun!"


The Cell - Asking


Methos woke at the approach of an immortal, but no food arrived this time, just a click as an intercom system turned on. Finally. He sat up promptly, and the stars on the ceiling were quickly obscured by the light of the "morning sun." He was tempted to ask: "How may I help you?" with all the faux cheerfulness of a clerk in a shop selling shoes, but that might make him seem glib and experienced at this sort of thing. Best to be the bewildered and frightened innocent. "Hello?" he called, letting his voice quaver a bit. "What do you want?" He waited then followed with the classic, "Why am I here?"

A computerized voice replied, "To tell the truth."

So, this was to be an interrogation. On both sides, because he was going to learn some things, too. Voice recognition wouldn't work, not with a computer doing the talking, but speech patterns always came through.

"May I ask what this is about?" Methos said next.

"You were found next to a decapitated body."

"Yes," he admitted. "But I did not kill her."

That passed without comment. "Do you always carry a sword?"

He was an immortal. Of course he carried a sword. But not always. Not in the shower. And not right now. "No," Methos answered truthfully. "Do you have a sword?" Again, no comment. "Who are you?" he asked next. No answer came, and Methos suggested, "Shall I call you John Galt? Grand Inquisitor? How about Cassandra?" He waited two heartbeats for an answer before adding, "Eblis O'Shaughnessy?"

"Our names do not matter."

Nameless, faceless, voiceless… That was good. It meant they were taking precautions so he wouldn't be able to hunt them down later, which meant they might let him go. "I can see why you don't want to tell me who you are." Agreeing with captors made them more agreeable. "But would you mind telling me what you are?"

"We are the Immortal Tribunal."

Methos stifled a groan at the name. This group of legalistic kidnappers was even more pretentious than he had feared. One of Cassandra's many networks? It matched her modus operandi to a T. Perhaps she was watching him, right now. Perhaps she was the one he was talking to.

Cassandra had changed a lot from the ravening harpy who'd shrieked for his head half a century ago, but she would still get satisfaction in seeing him imprisoned. After all, he'd stripped her naked and left her spread-eagled in his tent for days, feeding her sometimes, raping her frequently, killing her on occasion. Taming her.

Was his imprisonment her long-delayed revenge? He knew damn well that Cassandra could be patient, devious, manipulative, and utterly ruthless when she needed to be. Rather like himself. But he didn't think these past decades of friendliness had been merely an act. He hadn't misread her that badly; he knew her too well. This wasn't revenge, but it might be a lesson. Or it might be someone completely different, and Cassandra wasn't behind this at all.

Best approach: forget about Cassandra (if it were her, she'd be gleeful at thinking she'd duped him), and make whoever was behind this question the legality of their own proceedings until they convinced themselves to let him go.

"A tribunal?" he repeated. "So, I get a lawyer?"

"What law do immortals follow?"

Survival of the quickest. And if you weren't quick, you were dead and your quickening was gone. "I get a champion?" he tried next.

"There will be no fighting."

Methos marshaled his patience. "I don't understand. How does this work?"

"Tell the truth."

They'd said that before. "And then…?"

"Then we decide."

Wonderful. He could stay alive, as long as he pleased them. "What gives you the right—"

"The Game," the voice interrupted. "The Game that favors those with might."

It was tradition. A bloody stupid tradition, but who was he to argue with millennia of practice?

"Might does not make right," the voice went on, "and no one should be forced to play."

Methos resisted the urge to clap in slow and sarcastic rhythm. It sounded lovely, but it wouldn't work. People wanted the Prize, and they liked the quickenings. They wouldn't stop. But it wasn't wise to argue with your captors. Time for another approach.

"I've often said exactly the same thing!" Methos said. "The beheading and the one-on-one… it never made sense, and it's not fair. And trial by combat, I mean, that's positively medieval." Older than that, actually, but no reason to bring age into this. "But with your tribunal, now we have police. Or perhaps. .. referees?"

"As you like."

"Referees for the game," he said with enthusiasm. Duncan needed a vacation, after all. "Have you been doing this long? I've never heard of you before."

"We are here now."

Not long then. Not organized anyway. Methos suspected that some of the individuals responsible for the "shoot then behead" cases that Duncan had been worried about had coalesced into this tribunal. Had they met each other by accident? Or had someone with a penchant for organizing groups of women who would "make the world a better place" given them a hand?

But it was clear they didn't want to talk about that, so he went back to the Game. "Can you stop it completely?" he asked with mounting excitement. "Can you stop the Game?"

"What do you think?"

"Well…" Now to impress them with his thoughtfulness. "It won't be easy. Some people really like the quickenings."

"Do you?"

"No," he said quickly, but that wasn't truthful, and (more importantly) it wasn't believable. "I mean … a quickening is intense and exhilarating, but I don't like to kill, and I don't want the Prize. I don't even like to fight!"

"How many quickenings have you taken?"

"Three," he answered promptly, as if the number were burned into his brain. Actually, he'd lost count long ago. "I've been really lucky. They came after me, and I just did what I could to survive. But I don't want to play the Game." That was true. "You don't need to 'remove me for unnecessary roughness'." Not during this millennium, anyway.

"Is James Coulsen your real name?" the voice asked.

"It's what I'm called now. So, real as any, I suppose."

"We would like to know more about you, and the person called 'Mr. Coulsen' seems to have existed for only a few years. What other names have you used?"

Methos recited a few from the last half century, which was safe enough. He'd been quite respectable lately. Time to protest his innocence again. "I did not kill that woman in the alley," he said, with a rare combination of complete earnestness and complete truthfulness.

After a very long pause, the voice said: "This tribunal agrees that you did not kill her."

"Oh, that's…" What was a word that would convey gratitude and relief and yet the conviction that it could not possibly have gone any other way. Ah, to hell with it. "That's excellent. Thank you. Can I have my things now, please? I really need to get back to work."

"However," the mechanical voice went on, "this court finds that that further investigation is warranted."

"But … you just agreed that I didn't kill her." Bewilderment and consternation rang clear in his voice. "What exactly am I on trial for?"

"Your life."

Bloody hell.


The MacLeod Farm, Sunday morning


The next morning, Graham handed Connor a box with the pair of paintings, a family picture album, a worn horseshoe, three wooden mixing spoons, and a book of poetry that bore the inscription, "Love is for poets" above Rachel's name.

"Dad didn't leave you any money or anything of real value," Graham said, sounding apologetic. "Just some mementos."

"They're fine," Connor replied. They were priceless.

"It's Sunday, so Fila and her parents and Coby and Neill go into town," Graham said next. "Are you a church-goer?"

"Not really."

"Me, either. Ready to plant more potatoes?" They went out into the fine soft rain. Lunch was soup again, a meal that filled the belly and stretched the available food. After, Connor took the children outside and told them stories as they weeded the garden, and then they played a game of making faces at each other, each more horrible than the last, until Ian and Orla were giggling helplessly on the ground.

Alea had come out from the kitchen to watch. "You're good with them," she said when Connor joined her near the doorway. "And those two can be a real handful, especially when they're together."

Connor had no doubt of that, seeing as "those two" were already busy dumping dirt on each others' feet. "I've taken care of twins," he explained.

"I wanted twins," Alea said. "I'm still hoping Orla could have a little brother or sister."

"That would be good," Connor agreed.

Alea turned slowly to him, her lovely eyes direct and wide. "Would you like to help?" Her voice was husky, and the hand she placed upon his was warm.

Connor realized, too late, that she wasn't talking about babysitting. "Alea…" He pulled his hand back. "I can't." In this, he could tell her the truth. "I'm sterile."

"Oh," his granddaughter said, transparently disappointed. "I'm sorry."

"Me, too." Yet for once in his life, he was grateful for it, and the convenient excuse it gave.

But her hand wandered back to his, and her smile returned. "We could still—"

"No," he said immediately.

Alea froze, this time blinking in surprise and some hurt. "I thought…" She drew her dignity about her like a cloak. "Yesterday in the kitchen, you seemed glad to see me."

"I was," Connor protested. "I am. But … we're kin."

"Only in name. You're my Great-Aunt Rachel's third cousin four times removed or twice fourth or something, and anyway, she was adopted, plus Mom's biological dad was some stranger. Graham –and Ian now—carry the MacLeod name, but none of us has any blood connection there."

Connor had been born as a MacLeod, lived as one, and died as one. He'd shouted that name in battle and carved it into tombstones and finally claimed it again for his own. But as for bloodlines… "True," Connor admitted.

"Which means you and I aren't related," Alea summed up.

"It's … not appropriate," he told her.

"Because you were friends with my mother?"

"Alea—"

"I'm not fifteen now, Mike," she interrupted. "The age difference isn't that much anymore."

Oh, but it was.

"I've known you since I was eight, and you look as young as Graham." Alea tilted her head, just like Sara used to do. "How old are you, Mike?"

He could tell her. He could pull out the portrait and other family pictures, explain immortality, tell her his name and call her granddaughter, call Will and Graham grandsons. He could live here, in his own house on his own land, watching Orla and Ian grow up, and have a family again. Maybe he could—

"You must be more than thirty," Alea said, still digging, as stubborn and curious as Sara and Alex had been.

But she wasn't them, and he couldn't tell her who he was without telling Will and Graham, and then probably Fila would know, and most likely her parents, too. A secret known by more than one is no secret at all. Connor had to lie, and he had to convince her to leave him alone. "It's not appropriate because I'm involved with someone." Sort of. He and Chelle did have a date scheduled for next year.

"Seriously?" Alea asked.

That was a more a statement of disbelief than a question about that status of his relationship, but Connor answered quietly, "I'm hoping so. If she'll have me."

"Oh." Alea finally backed down. "I'm glad for you." She sounded sincere. "I suppose it has been almost four years since Sister Laina died." She added quietly, "And Mom."

They were both silent then, remembering. "Did they ever find out?" Connor asked. "Who set the bomb?"

"A suicide bomber. He worked at the hotel."

That explained access, but not motive. "What group was he with?"

She shrugged. "None. He had been a member of Threeco—that group for ecology, economy, equality—but they'd asked him to leave years before. Too radical, even for them. His target was the bankers, not Phinyx."

A solitary madman, killed by his own devices, with no one left to blame. How convenient. Connor decided he'd find Erika and get the real story later.

Alea stretched up and kissed his cheek, then tossed her hair back and smiled at him. "I really am glad for you Mike. I just wish I had better timing."

"Sorry," he muttered, with a shrug and an apologetic smile.

"I'll warn off Fila for you," she said next.

"Fila?" Connor repeated blankly.

"Ian needs a little brother or a sister, too."

"What about Graham?"

"They're together, yes, but her cycles started over a year ago, and she hasn't gotten pregnant yet. And since we all live together, Fila doesn't want to ask Coby or Neill or Will, even though all the girls say Will's a lucky charm."

Connor stopped himself from asking "He's magically delicious?" and tried to banish the image of a prancing leprechaun yammering on about hearts, moons, stars, and clovers. John had liked the advertisement and eaten that breakfast cereal for years. He'd introduced Sara and Colin to it, too, and they'd been distraught when the cereal disappeared from stores in the UK.

"Will's started three children so far," Alea was explaining, "four if Betta carries to term, and she's already past the first trimester, so that's good. She and her sweetheart are planning to get married this summer."

"And her sweetheart knows? About the baby?"

"Well, of course Jamie knows. He's the one who asked Will for help."

"Oh," Connor managed to say. The sterility plague and the volcano had turned marriage inside out and upside down.

"Speak of the devil," Alea said next, for Will was returning, bearing a large wheel of cheese, with Coby and Neill walking by his side.

"Is that your stud fee now?" Coby was teasing. "A wee bit of cheese?"

Will blushed but answered stoutly, "Nothing wee about it." He set it on a garden chair and came over, grinning ear to ear. "Sensei Mike!"

"Will," Connor replied, grinning, too. Like Graham, Will had gone from boy to man. He was taller than Connor by half a hand-span. They shook hands, and Connor found that Will was also plenty strong. "You look good," Connor said, giving the young man a judicious glance and then an approving nod. "Still doing kata?"

"Almost every day," Will assured him then started grinning again. "Want to see?"

"Sure," Connor replied, and there on the lawn next to the garden, the two of them went through a sequence, side by side. Alea soon joined them, and Ian and Orla left their pile of dirt and came too, following along with tiny footsteps and earnest eyes.

Sara and Colin had started at about that age, and John, too. Rachel had been a bit older when Connor had started to teach her, in that old gym next to the bowling alley. They would go out for ice cream afterwards and then walk home. A hundred years ago.

"Sensei, please excuse me," Will began, "I'm confused. I thought it was the right foot here?"

"So it is," Connor agreed, focusing again on the moves. "I'm the one who is confused. Thank you, Will." After the final bow, he explained, "Sorry, I was watching the little ones," and they all turned to watch as Ian and Orla practiced bowing to each other.

"Cute," Alea said fondly.

"All kids are," Will said, smiling now.

Connor couldn't fathom Will's casualness. "Don't you miss your own?"

Will seemed puzzled by the question. "Ian and Orla are my own."

"You mean your own kin?" Connor said.

"I mean my own children."

"I asked Will to be father to Orla," Alea explained. "And we're both godparents to Ian, just as Graham and Fila are godparents to Orla."

"I've been a donor three times," Will said. "But those children aren't mine; they're gifts. They have parents of their own."

"I see," Connor said, still trying to adjust. His children had all been "gifts" too, and that was great, but he had never been the one to give a child away. He wasn't sure he could.

"Can we do more later, Sensei Mike?" Will asked. "Philippa will be wanting this cheese. And I'm hungry."

"Of course," Connor said, and then Ian and Orla decided they were hungry, too, and Alea took them back inside.

Connor went to restack a section of the garden's rock wall, where a small gap was developing. Winter frosts took their toll. He started taking the stones down, setting them in order on the ground. After a few minutes, Graham came from the house to help.

"I've forgotten to do this," Graham said, taking a rock from Connor's hands. "My father used to check the wall each spring. Winter frosts take their toll, he'd say."

Connor took a deep breath before wrestling a rock free of the wall. "Is that enough?" he asked, stepping back from the wall and letting Graham take charge.

"A bit more on the right side," Graham said and they took down two more. Then Connor and Graham rebuilt the garden wall, stone by stone. "Did my father teach you stone stacking?" Graham asked, starting on the final course.

It had been the other way around. "Yes," Connor lied. "Fishing streams have a lot of rocks to practice with."

Graham laughed. "That's how he said his father taught him."

"And taught you, too," Connor said, for he and Graham had spent many happy hours building dams in streams and creating walls and faerie forts.

But Graham shook his head. "I don't remember my grandfather. My mother said he lived here for a bit, when I was little, but I was only five when he died at sea."

Connor took his time in laying a capstone atop the wall. "I'm sorry."

Graham shrugged. "We all have our time. Someday I'll teach Ian to rebuild this wall, and I hope he'll teach his children." He wedged the final capstone into place and gave it a pat. "This wall will outlast us all."

"Let's hope so," Philippa said, coming through the garden with an egg-basket on her arm. "It's nicely done."

"It'll last for a while," Graham agreed. Then he clapped Connor lightly on the shoulder, a silent thank-you, and went back to the house.

Philippa stayed, watching him. "You seem to be a man of many skills, Mr. Auden," she noted. "Did you grow up on a farm?"

"Yes," Connor answered. "And please, call me Mike."

She nodded and tugged her coat a bit tighter against the wind. "Ian and Orla were quite taken with the death poukah."

"My grandmother told me that story."

Her smile was fleeting. "So did mine. But in her story, poukah have teeth." She tilted her head to one side and asked, "The children's talents don't bother you, Mike?"

Connor shrugged. "I've known others, and Sara and Colin had dreams. Seems it runs in the family."

"So it does," Philippa agreed. "My grandmother had the sight, so Ian gets it from both sides. It's a pity we don't know anything about Orla's bio-father. Family is so important, don't you think?"

This close to the house, Connor could read the name MacLeod carved into the stone at the door, a home-steading gift from Duncan decades ago. "I do," Connor agreed.

She faced him straight on, the fine wrinkles around her eyes deepened with concern. "Then please understand that when I say this, I'm thinking of the family first. I've a bit of the sight myself, and I see a red mist all about you, Mike. Violence and death are following you."

They always were.

"That doesn't surprise you," Philippa observed, watching him closely.

"No," he had to admit.

"You're a good worker, Mike, and you're kin. And I do like you. When Alea and Fila ask you to give them children, I've no quarrel with that, but with Ian and Orla—and, God willing, more—to protect here, I'm afraid I must tell that I hope you're not intending to stay."

The slow breath Connor pulled in was a swirl of hot anger and hurt, carried by the familiar cool air of that tasted of home: the grass and the dirt, the water of the loch and the mist in the air, the smoke and the dusty stone. But he let the air out and unclenched his hands, letting the anger go, too. She was right. The Highlands were home, but he had no place here now.

"This was just a visit," he told her. He couldn't add the reassuring smile. "I'm leaving in the morning."


Connor announced his plans at dinner. There was surprise and regret, and the children asked for another story before he left, but no one pressed him to stay. That night he slept on the couch downstairs, since Will had returned and the house was full.

Connor woke before dawn, packed his things, then wandered about the quiet rooms, touching old furniture, remembering old times. The cat appeared from nowhere and stared at him with solemn eyes. "Hey, Tiger," Connor greeted her, and she led the way to her food bowl then waited with imperial aplomb.

While he was getting the cat food, Orla appeared in the kitchen doorway, her red curls in wild disarray, her pajamas a riot of purple and orange. "Good morning," he said.

"Good morning." She came in and climbed up on a chair. "Can you tell me another story before you go?"

Over bowls of oatmeal, he told her the tale of the man who stepped into the faerie realm and danced with the queen one fine evening in May. But when he came back home the next morning, everything and everyone he knew was gone. For in that one night in the faerie realm, many years had gone by. Someone else lived on his farm, trees had been cut down, and the buildings in the town were new. Only the mountains and the loch and the sky were the same.

"The flowers could be the same," Orla pointed out. "They grow every year."

"That they do," Connor agreed.

"Did he go back to the faerie queen?" she asked.

"No, that door opens only twice a year, and it's not easy to find."

"Then where did he go?"

"Why, he went wandering," Connor replied lightly. "Out across the hills."

"Did he find a new place to live?"

Why not give this story a happy ending? "After a while."

"Good." She went back to eating her oatmeal. While he was rinsing the dishes, she tugged on his pant-leg. "When you come back here," Orla announced, looking up at him with Sara's eyes, "I'll see you on the daffodil hill." When Connor squatted down to face her, she added, "I'll be old then."

The sight wasn't to be argued with. "I'll look for you, Orla," he promised then leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, as his mother had done for him when they had said farewell, centuries ago. Orla kissed his forehead in turn, the touch of her lips butterfly light, then gathered up her cat and went back upstairs to bed.

Connor finished neatening the kitchen. Before he left, he lay on his back under the table and took out his knife. Next to the initials that Sara and Colin had made, he carved his own name: Connor MacLeod.


The Inquisition


Time dragged on. Methos ate, he exercised, he read, he slept. He read and slept again. But three days after the conversation, he woke in complete darkness once again. His mouth was dry and his lips had that bitter taste. He'd been either drugged or dead when they moved him to this room. He was face down, lying on a table of unknown height, and he couldn't roll over. Straps encircled his wrists and ankles, a belt ran around his waist, and restraints kept him from turning his head. The back of his neck felt disturbingly bare.

This was not good.

At least he still had clothes on, and the room wasn't freezing. He didn't have much time to spend reviewing the situation, however. The mechanical voice, somewhere off to his right, said, "Good morning, Mr. Coulsen."

"Not from where I'm strapped down, it isn't." He managed to keep the tone light.

"This would not be necessary if you had told us the truth."

In his case, he was fairly certain that the truth would not have set him free. "We're immortal," he said, reminding them of that shared bond. "We lie to survive. It becomes a habit."

"We understand that. Yet now, you would be well advised to be honest."

Definitely not good.

"Do you see the blue light in front of you?"

"Yes." A small circle of pale blue had appeared. With no reference points, he couldn't tell how far away it was.

"Tell the truth, it stays lit," the voice explained. "Lie, and it goes out. Would you like a demonstration? You can lie as much as you like while you test it."

Permission to lie. How generous. But he needed to know more, so he rattled off a string of sentences, from the mundanely true (he liked chocolate cake) to the blatantly false (he was the Queen of Sheba). It kept pace, flipping off and on. But any of those could be easily verified, so he said some more trivial things that no one but he would know. The light was never wrong.

"How do you do that?" he asked, genuinely curious, because he'd beaten lie detectors before.

"It is a truth-teller."

"Not helpful," he pointed out.

"Not meant to be," came the quick rejoinder.

This one was sharp. Probably a specialist, brought in for his interrogation.

"Has the truth-teller's accuracy been demonstrated to your satisfaction?" the voice said.

"So far," he admitted. "What happens if I lie?"

"It will not be pleasant. Would you like a demonstration of that?" it offered.

Methos suppressed a shudder as imagination and memories supplied examples of unpleasantness. "No."

"Just tell the truth, Mr. Coulsen. Keep the light blue."

Right. The blue light. The restraints. The lack of weapons. The back of his neck being bare. Fuck.

"Are any of the names you gave us your birth name?" the voice asked.

"No."

"What is your birth name?"

"I don't know. I'm an orphan, like you." Always try to build a connection.

"Where were you born?"

Methos answered honestly. "I don't know."

"Where was your first death?"

"I don't know. There were trees," he added, trying to be helpful, then added, "Sorry."

"How old are you?"

Ah, yes. He was surprised it had taken them this long to ask. "I don't know." He waited for a follow-up question to that, but perhaps the inquisitrix had a list, for the voice went on.

"Have you ever been married?"

Finally, something he could answer. The inquisitrix was doubtless getting irritated with him. "Yes."

"Have you ever reared children?"

"Yes." Time to make himself sympathetic. "Nearly a hundred. Most of my wives were widows with children of their own."

"How many wives?"

This one, he actually knew the answer to. He could lie and face "unpleasantness" or he could tell the truth and build that bond of trust. "Sixty-nine."

That answer gave the voice pause. "Are you more than a thousand years old?"

"Yes."

"More than two?"

It seemed the inquisitrix have never heard of a search algorithm. "Yes," he admitted then set to work forestalling the inevitable questions. "As I told you, I don't know exactly how old. I remember when Rome ruled the world, but the first time I went to Egypt, the pyramids were already there." Not very old, but there. Now for more truth, carefully told. "I've been many different people in those years, done many things. Done things I wish I hadn't. I have killed and raped and tortured. I've helped burn cities to the ground and I've sold people as slaves. I was in an army, and that's what soldiers did, so that's what I did." The light hadn't flickered at all.

Methos took a deep breath and went on. "But some years, I was the farmer. I was the one killed. I have been raped; I have been tortured. I have watched my family burn alive, and I've seen my wife and children sold as slaves, and I have been a slave myself.

"I've also been a monk, a scholar, a doctor, and an engineer. I'm not the man I was thousands of years ago." Below, the single pale light burned blue. Methos closed his eyes in relief, glad to have tap-danced his way through that minefield of a confession.

"We appreciate your candor, Mr. Coulsen."

Oh, goodie.

"We do have a few more questions."

Of course they did. Methos sighed.

"How many mortals have you killed?"

He'd once boasted to Duncan that he'd killed ten thousand. The real number was higher, but Methos didn't know what it was, so again, he told the truth. "I don't know."

"When did you last kill a mortal?"

"Ah…1999. Or maybe it was 1998. In Paris." An explanation was clearly in order. "He was about to shoot someone."

"How many heads have you taken?'

The Horsemen used to keep count, as a competition, but Methos hadn't bothered since then. "I don't know."

"When did you last take an immortal's head?"

Methos hadn't taken Grace's head, even if he had received her quickening. Before that… nothing in Canada, nothing while he was trapped in the ice, nothing while he was married to Marika… Ah, yes. That road trip in France with Joe Dawson. "About fifty years ago," Methos answered then volunteered more. "His name was Morgan Walker. He was threatening some mortal friends of mine."

"Did you enjoy it?" the voice asked.

"I don't like to fight."

"Do you like to kill?"

Methos took a deep breath. "No." Beneath him, the little blue disappeared. "Damn," Methos swore softly. He'd hoped…

The voice was silent, and the pain began. The intolerable itching started in his hands and feet, and his muscles contracted, pulling fingers and toes into claws. The itch became heat became burning, slicing its way up past wrists and ankles into his arms and legs, like red hot splinters being driven along the bone, scraping closer to his heart with every shuddering beat.

Abruptly, at his shoulders and his hips, it stopped and then was gone, and he was left to twitch all over and to attempt to unclench his fingers and toes. And to try to remember how to breathe. If that nerve induction wave had reached his heart, he'd have died.

"We did advise you to speak the truth," the voice said. "Lying leads to pain. You would do well to remember that."

"Don't you mean: 'Learn this lesson well'?" he shot back, but that got no response. If Cassandra were listening, she was being remarkably restrained.

"Mr. Coulsen, in view of what you enjoy, we trust you will understand our hesitation in releasing you."

"Look," he began, scrambling to salvage what he could and convince them to let him keep his head, "part of me likes to kill, yes. We all do. People—mortal and immortal alike—are bloody murderers. If we live long enough, we find that out. You know that," he said with matter-of-fact persuasion, as he might share a truth with a well-trusted companion whom he knew would understand.

"I do," the voice agreed.

Thank the gods. At least the Tribunal wasn't all young idealists with no experience. "It's what we are, sometimes what we have to be," Methos said, hammering that point home. "But I don't kill for fun—"

"Not anymore," the voice broke in.

"Not anymore," he agreed. "I avoid killing, when I can." He had one more truth to share: "I have changed."

He held his breath, and the light stayed blessedly blue.


The Highlands


Connor couldn't quite remember how it had happened. There had been a bar, crowded and noisy. There had been a bottle (maybe two) of whisky, sharp with the taste of smoke and the lick of fire, served by a waitress with tired eyes and a pretty smile, and an ex-boyfriend who wouldn't leave her alone. Connor had stepped in, and there had been words, fierce and bitter, a young man's anger gone astray. Then the fighting began.

He remembered the first blow (an angry punch easily deflected) but not the second or the third. Or the last. He did remember catching a glimpse of the bartender scooping up the darts and hiding them away, before Connor ducked to avoid the stool being smashed against the wall as others joined the fray. There was shattering glass, and yells and shouts and grunts of pain, and above all the fierce bloody joy of fighting in a classic barroom brawl. Connor waded into the thick of it, and soon his knuckles were smeared with red.

Somewhere, a woman started screaming, over and over, high and shrill, and hands grabbed at his arms. Connor broke a wrist and whirled, shoving someone else to the floor, then abruptly he was alone within a circle of people, all staring at him.

The bar door opened, and cold air swirled across the floor as a gray-haired woman came into the room. A man caught her by the arm, saying, "Ilene, don't."

"But—"

"John is dead."

Connor knew that. Colin was dead, too. So were Sara and Rachel and Anne and Brenda and Alex and Heather. They all died.

The waitress asked him, "Why?"

Connor answered simply, "Everyone dies." He couldn't stop that. He'd tried. He looked into her pretty eyes, glimmering with tears, and the brutal truth sliced home. "But not me."

"No," Ilene was moaning, and she dropped to her knees next to a body on the floor, then said it again and again, that one word blending into a single, anguished scream. People turned their faces away. Her grief was too naked to be borne. Finally, the man knelt and pulled her closer, and Ilene fell weeping against him, quiet now.

"Why?" the waitress asked Connor again. "Why did you kill John?"

"What?" Connor asked then shook his head with an incredulous laugh.

"Jesus," a man in the corner swore in disgust. "The murdering bastard's laughing again."

Connor turned, but only part way, because there were people all around him and no one had his back, and protested, "I didn't ki—"

"Show him," the waitress ordered, and with eerie silence, people stepped aside. The waitress's ex-boyfriend lay crumpled on the floor, his face bloody, his body very still. Ilene was still weeping by his side.

Connor didn't remember hitting the boy, not after that first punch. It had been a free-for-all. Except … wait, yes, he had hit him again. And again.

Now there was blood on his hands, and a ring of accusers, and a cold, creeping sickness in his heart. Philippa had been right, but the violence and death hadn't been following him; he'd been carrying them with him all along. Within him.

Just as Cassandra had warned.

"Holy Mother," Connor breathed, but couldn't finish the prayer. Ilene was staring at him, eyes red with tears and fierce with hate, and Connor knew why: he'd just killed her son with his bare hands for no reason at all. "I'm sorry," he told her, a useless whisper of an apology.

"Go to hell," she spat back.

He already had. He had the devil in him. Another woman had told him so, long before, in another room full of silent people with angry eyes. His laugh this time was of despair, for he carried hell within him, too.

A broken chair leg slammed against the back of his head, and a red mist filled his eyes as he stumbled and nearly went down. "Laugh, will you?" someone growled, and this time the chair smashed into his right knee. His leg buckled, and a brutal fist found his head before he hit the floor. More fists came, and heavy boots, and curses raining down. Connor didn't fight back. He didn't defend himself either.

This was pain he deserved.


The Cell - Waiting


Methos woke up in his cell. They'd tucked him in again.

He stretched, arms and legs reaching to the four corners of the room, fingers and toes blissfully uncurled, then rolled over and buried his face in his arms. As interrogations went, that had been fairly civilized. On the one hand, that truth-teller meant they didn't bother inflicting pain unless you lied. On the other hand, the truth-teller meant they knew exactly when you lied.

Methos didn't like other people being in his head. And he didn't like being here.

He rolled over onto his back, put his hands behind his head, and stared at the gently glowing ceiling. As prisons went, this was remarkably civilized. But it was still a prison. Methos contemplated ways he might escape.

Eventually, food arrived. As usual, he ate, read on the ceiling vidscreen of the doings of the world outside, exercised, washed, and then lay down again. Time to select the evening's entertainment. That movie about Hawkeye and Black Widow's adventure in Budapest? A documentary on the mathematics of origami? Perhaps a novel: Crime and Punishment.

Perhaps not.

Methos didn't want to like to kill, but he did. Half a century ago, Methos had taken four heads in four years, and he'd also killed a few mortals during that time. Those killings had been too many, too frequent … too tempting.

He'd managed well enough after he'd taken Kristin's head, but then Kronos had come, calling forth the wolf within. Methos had held on grimly, even when Silas had died at his hand, but the next night there'd been that immortal challenge in a muddy field, and the wolf ate him alive.

Methos had immediately gone to holy ground, quiet and safe and serene, but soon he'd been back with Duncan and then Joe, those Boy Scouts who led such very interesting lives, and there had been plenty of good reasons to kill.

The wolf didn't need a reason, other than it was fun.

"Down, boy," Methos murmured then flipped a hand at the vidscreen to turn it on.

He was halfway through a movie about political intrigues between improbable tribes of feral house-cats when an immortal came near, the movie went dark, and the intercom turned on. Methos didn't bother to sit up. The time for chit-chat was done. "Tell me," Methos said, "when your tribunal condemns someone, are you the executioner?"

"No."

"Do you lot take turns? Roll dice to see who gets the quickening?" He waited and got nothing. "A volunteer then? Someone who thinks killing is fun?" The voice didn't answer, and Methos asked curiously, "Do you bring in a mortal to take the head?" Still no answer. "If you're not here to talk, I'd like the movie back on," Methos said.

"I am here to talk," the voice said. "I am not here to answer questions."

"Ah, yes," Methos drawled. "That's my job." It was also, he reminded himself, his ticket out. "What else can I say?" he asked, resolving to be helpful and cheerful. "I told you that I've changed, and you know it's true; your light stayed on. I'm not a headhunter; I'm just trying to survive."

"It is true that you believe you have changed," the voice admitted. "But people can delude themselves in many ways, especially when it comes to addictions. Can anyone vouch for you? Does anyone else believe this about you?"

Joe had, bless his heart, but he'd been dead for thirty years. Duncan did, and Cassandra did, too. Mostly. Amanda and Serena and Elena would probably all vouch for him, though they didn't know all of what he'd been. But it didn't matter; Methos wasn't about to name names. "Since you have been such 'hospitable' hosts," Methos replied, "I trust you will understand my hesitation in telling you the names of my friends."

"We are not vindictive or unreasonable."

No one was, at least in their own mind. "How many immortals has your tribunal condemned to die?" Methos asked. The voice didn't answer, of course. It wasn't here to answer his questions. But he could give them a reason to question themselves. "What's your kill rate? Fifty percent? Seventy-five?" He waited a beat. "Or do you kill them all?"

"We kill only when necessary," the voice answered.

Methos muttered, "I've heard that before," and then there was a click and his movie came back on.

The next morning during breakfast, the voice informed him: "This tribunal recommends you be held, pending further investigation."

"Held how long?" Methos demanded, but there was no answer, and the immortal was gone. He stared at his bread-bowl grimly. Perhaps he should start rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude.


The Water


Connor revived in the water, half-beached on a stony shore, while frigid waves lapped at his thighs and shoved his feet to and fro. He gagged and coughed, spewing up bitter water and tasting fresh blood. Just that exhausted him, but his body was shivering with cold, so he forced himself to move. Using his elbows, he dragged himself forward, scraping bare flesh across sharp rocks and slimy seaweed, then collapsed on the beach again. Cold, dank fingers still clutched at his heels, and the waves sounded close behind him, relentless, the dark heartbeat of the loch.

It could still drag him under. It could pull him down, into the green-dark lair of the water horse, with its garden of skulls, carefully tended, and the gently swaying flowers that once had been maidens' long hair. Those tresses, black or golden or brown or copper-red, flowed upward, ever searching, and should a man enter those black waters, the tendrils would softly circle a wrist or an ankle, twining tighter, pulling down. Down to the silent sunless garden, the dead all laid out in rows, never to return, while the dark heartbeat of the loch went ceaselessly on.

So his grandmother had told him, many years ago: the dead never return. But Connor had returned, many times. The water horse took him for rides, but it never took him home.

He'd died in the bar, with the back of his skull staved in. The vengeful beating had gone too far. He'd been dead while they carried him out and then stripped him, for he had no memories until he woke up naked in a fishing boat in the middle of the loch with two very surprised men.

"God almighty!" the thin one exclaimed, his eyes showing white-rimmed with fear.

The other fellow had better reaction time. "Die, you murdering bastard," he growled, grabbing a board and smashing Connor on the side of the head with it, so that Connor fell backwards, dizzy from the blow and half-blind from the dried blood in his eyes.

"Remember in the bar, Alan?" the thin one asked urgently. "He said everybody died, except him."

"Everybody dies, Charlie," came the grim promise, with a fear fueled to viciousness, and the board came whistling for Connor's head again.

Connor managed to get his arm up for protection, but his ulna cracked at the blow. Connor grunted with pain and kicked out, his heel connecting solidly with Alan's ankle, and the next blow went sideways, slapping into the gunwale. Connor was scrambling to get to his feet when Charlie punched him in the nose with a metal bar, and then Alan came back and swung again.

The protruding nail dug in deep then raked sideways, yanking on Connor's left eye. There was a pop, surprisingly loud, and then a rip of white-hot pain.

"Jesus," Alan said in disgust.

Hot fluid was gushing down Connor's cheek and cold air was where cold shouldn't ought to be. He couldn't stop his screams, even as he was frantically feeling around with his good hand, hoping to find his eye.

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" Charlie was yelling, and a stun gun burst blazed along Connor's ribs and up under his heart.

Jesus God almighty, he'd been shot with his own damn gun. Every single muscle in Connor's body clamped down tight and twisted, while his fingers knotted into claws. A pool of blood gathered in one cheek from his bitten tongue, but he couldn't unclench his jaw or swallow or even move. His eyelids fluttered over empty air.

"Get rid of him!" Charlie was babbling. "We have to get rid of him now!"

"Shut up," Alan ordered. "Calm down. We'll burn his clothes and the current will carry him away."

"No," Connor tried to say, but he was thick-tongued and helpless, and rough hands heaved him over the side.


He'd drowned, and then he'd woken, and then he'd drowned again. The water was always icy cold. Eventually, he'd washed up here, bloody and half-blind, with death at his heels and hell following close behind, a murdering bastard who had the devil in him.

Rain fell, pinpricks of cold on naked skin. His body started to shudder, and Connor curled into a ball, head to knees, arms close to his sides, hiding his face from the world.


To be continued in "The Hunters", wherein Cassandra and Duncan and Chelle go looking for their friends