The Calm That Comes
This story is rated Adult for graphic violence, language, and other awful things. Methos, Duncan MacLeod, and any characters you do recognize are the undisputed property of faceless corporate goons with more lawyers than little me. Any characters you don't recognize are probably mine. No profit is made from this, and no bad karma is intended.
Extra special thanks to elynross, without whose mighty editorial prowess this story would not be recognizable as being written in English. Thanks also to Kamil and Killa for all the listening, soothing pats on the head, reassurances and swift kicks in the ass when I needed them most.
Both of my grandmothers are named Wanda. This is for the one who remains.
This is a sequel to my story, "The Book of Lost Days." If you haven't read that story first, this one will probably not make much sense.
At the ragged edge of the silence
In the calm that only comes with the violent
Inside the heart and the hope of redemption
from "Sunday Morning Yellow Sky"
--Julie Flanders/October Project
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Now that's about the most asinine, idiotic thought to filter through my head in -- well, as long as I can remember. How pathetic can I get, sitting here in yet another dark cafe in an endless series of dark cafes, picking at the slowly congealing pool of grease my food swims in and brooding over my coffee like...
He would do this, sit here in the neon-colored gloom of a cheap all-night diner in the middle of nowhere, listening to the hard-eyed waitress drone on to someone, anyone who will listen, about her bills and her children and her no-good man and her aching feet. The rhythm of her speech is so perfect, the tone so passionless she might be cold-reading from a script. The bitch of it is, he would care.
No, the real bitch of it is that he'd have cared, and I don't. I don't give a damn about mortals and their problems. Their miserable, doomed existences and their short, wasted lives.... MacLeod cared about them all.
A weak fluorescent bulb flickers and pops over my head, and the waitress continues bitching about her mother to a truck driver at the counter. I'm tired. The eggs and potatoes sit like rocks in my stomach, but I don't even have the will left to be nauseated by the flavor of burned coffee and stale bacon grease in the back of my throat. Rage is a difficult emotion to sustain for any length of time, and I've been doing this for months now. Rage, hatred.... It eats at you, demands everything and gives nothing in return. I've been hand-feeding mine like a pet.
"More coffee?" she trudges over and asks in a bored voice, leaning heavily on one hip. I nod and push my cup to the edge of the table, not encouraging her to linger. She lingers anyway, pouring the coffee with more melodrama than I thought was possible, her fleshy cheeks bloodless and sallow under the insufficient light, hanging over her dirty collar in leprous looking rolls of unwholesome skin. She smiles at me with her yellow teeth, frankly appraising. "Get you anything else?"
I meet her eyes coldly. "No." She doesn't even flinch at the flat rejection, raking her eyes over me again before waddling off to resume her interrupted whine.
It stinks in here of vinyl and grease and unwashed bodies, the 2 a.m. crowd lethargic, blending into the atmosphere of desolation like so much window-dressing.
I'm so tired.
Before I can raise the coffee to my lips there is a flood of Presence and adrenalin that makes my stomach roll around the hard lump of greasy eggs. Shifting to the edge of the bench, I glance toward the door, only mildly curious. Challenges are all the same, only the faces differing.
The door swings open with a rusty creak and jingle of brass bells, and an Immortal saunters in with the grace and arrogance of a prima ballerina. Tall and slender, supple and androgynous as a willow-switch, he's dressed in the stark eyeliner and black-on-black of the Goth kids. I wonder that no one has told this pathetic wanna-be that he's years out of date.
He stares at me hungrily, black eyes in black rings against the too-pale face. "You're him," he announces boldly, balancing on the balls of his feet, too eager for action.
I don't bother to deny it. "I'm busy," I say, sipping at my coffee.
"Not anymore." One hand produces a gun, faster than I'd anticipated. He shakes his head playfully, believing he has the upper hand -- and maybe he does.
Suddenly the room is cold and silent, one collective held breath, loaded with dread. "My... aren't you the clever one?" I start to laugh. I'll give the kid this, he has balls.
His pale face flushes at the insult. I'm not impressed by his fashion sense or his gun, his cheap threats, or even his knowledge of my identity. Hell, half the world knows by now. According to his privately scripted scene, I should probably be on my knees, weeping and begging for my life. Mac's life I would have begged for. Never my own. Not anymore.
"You think this is funny?" he rages, chest pumping, face red. And it just makes me laugh harder. "YOU THINK THIS IS SOME FUCKING JOKE?" The gun swings out and fires once.
There is a loud pop, like a firecracker at Chinese New Year. No deep reverberating rapport like you hear in action movies, no loving, slow-motion footage of the muzzle flare or drawn out scene of the crowd gasping and screaming. No time to dive for cover. Across the diner, the fat waitress's left eye explodes in a gout of tissue and fluid, blooming like a red flower on the blotchy white skin of her face. Behind her, the wall is painted with blood and tissue, fragments of brain and bone that slap against the peeling wallpaper with a wet, sandy sound. Already dead, she rocks on her heels for a long moment, the ruin of her left eye still pumping blood, silently mouthing surprise before falling forward with a heavy, dry thump.
The burly trucker at the counter, tonight's recipient of her monotonous rant, squeaks pathetically in a little-girl note, but makes no move other than to stare at the body on the floor and the widening pool of blood around her head.
I note it all, uncaring. She's dead, and her children motherless, and it doesn't matter. Like Lady MacBeth, she would have died hereafter. Mortals die -- that's what they do. Immortals kill. Turning a level gaze back to Goth-boy, I take one long, deliberate drink from my cup. "Is that supposed to impress me? If you wanted to play, all you had to do was ask." I stand and gather my coat, tossing a crumpled bill on the table to cover my check.
He breathes heavily, the color still high in his face, and gestures gracefully with a slender hand. "Glad you could see it my way. After you."
We make it as far as the parking lot before I hear him stop and set his stance behind me, booted feet crunching in the gravel. I take three more steps into the pool of a yellow floodlight before turning.
"Isn't this a little public for a sword fight?"
"Who said anything about a fight?"
I'm moving before the thought fully registers, throwing myself down and to the side, gravel biting into my hands and knees, dust making my eyes sting. The first bullet zings overhead, a clean miss.
Fuckfuckfuck.... I'm too slow, too tired for this tonight. Adrenalin lends speed, but not enough. I'm not nearly fast enough. I've burned my reserves too carelessly over the past months, and tonight I'm going to pay for it.
Rolling, scrabbling, clawing at the slippery gravel.... Fuck! The gun spits again, and the rocks just off my hip leap up in response.
I'm not afraid: not to die and certainly not of this idiot fashion-victim taking potshots at me. It just.... It wasn't supposed to be this way. On my knees in some unpaved parking lot between the semi-trucks and the El Caminos. Rolling again, I get my knees underneath me and spring at him, tackling him to the ground in a cloud of gravel dust, gunpowder, and perfume. God, he stinks like a cheap whore and fights like a girl, all knees and nails. We struggle for the gun, desperation and sheer will to live lending us each an inhuman strength. The hunger for my Quickening is a bright madness behind the raccoon mask of his eyes.
The gun goes off again, firing wildly between us as he struggles, landing a painless blow low to my gut. In the instant of stunned surprise that follows, I slam a fist into his face, satisfied at the way his head snaps back. Was he shot? I rip the gun from his hand and fling it into the dark shrubs, casting a quick glance down his body. The air is filled with the tang of copper and cordite, but I can't see it.... I can't see the blood.
The night spins around us. I'm dizzy from exhaustion, from the struggle, from the way my pulse pounds too fast in my temples. Lurching up and shoving him away, I step back and reach for my sword, buying time, buying distance.
I stagger, my leg buckling underneath me with a horrible grinding sensation. What? An ill-advised glance down reveals the dark stain spreading across the waist of my shirt. No longer a test of skill and endurance, this has just become a race: Immortal healing vs. rapid blood loss.
Goth-boy knows it, too, and starts to laugh.
There is no pain, not yet. I steady my trembling grip on my sword, still favoring the wound in my belly. "Don't just stand there," I rasp, "you wanted me, come and get me."
"If you insist. Sure you wouldn't rather just yield now? I'll be quick--"
I answer with my sword, catching his nondescript blade with more effort than the move should take, my gut feeling loose and watery, offering no support. His sword is spare, severe, even. No decoration, no distinguishing marks, almost military in its lines. Too plain a sword for such a peacock. I wonder who he killed to get it.
Warmth and feeling flow away from my limbs, and my focus narrows, dangerously close to tunnel vision. There's no air out here, no traction in the slick gravel, no strength in my arms....
We stagger back and forth in a halting rhythm, grunting and panting, edging around the pool of yellow light. He scores on me, the cuts -- shallow or deep, I can't tell -- registering only as flashes of cold followed by the heat of flowing blood. Too fast. I'm bleeding too fast, cold and dizzy... tired. Adrenalin compensates, but not enough. If I don't end this soon, it will be ended for me. I feel so heavy.... It would be easy to just give up and let him have me. To just yield, to rest. Strength alone won't save me. I know that. Mac taught me that.
Burning, aching, angry at myself and him and every Immortal everywhere, I call on reserves of strength and will I no longer have, ignoring the dreadful sensation of grinding bones in my hip as I charge him. No plan, no finesse. Strength won't save me; surrender won't spare me pain. I love life more than I fear death, and I hate the Game more than the two combined and this stupid punk will not be the end of me tonight.
Eyeliner is running down his face like black tears, his mouth a perfect O of surprise as we tumble back to the ground. Pinning his sword hand roughly with one knee, I punch him again and again, breaking his nose and at least one of the bones in my hand, wheezing curses in a dozen languages. His mouth is a pulpy mass of blood as he grunts and cries out, his weaponless hand scraping for purchase in my coat and shirt...
And finds it. Sharp, strong fingers dig into the open wound in my belly, tearing.
I can't even scream, rolling off of him and curling defensively around myself, faint gasps of air whistling in my throat. I can't breathe.... Oh, God, darkness is so close, so easy.... I'm so cold, so tired....
The world rocks as my head is thrown back into the ground and he straddles my chest, wet fingers crushing my throat. Black stars dance in my eyes. He's not even bothering with a sword.
His lips are moving, but I can't hear anything aside from the pulse in my ears....
My dagger comes to hand, and I push up with more power than I thought I had left, ripping a long, deep gash in his gut. Quid pro quo. The rush of hot liquid over my hands and arms is scalding, acidic, flooding the air with a bitter, metallic smell. I shove him off of me and grope for my sword. I'm still bleeding too fast, craving unconsciousness like a drug, every part of me filled with that odd combination of pain and numbness and euphoria that precedes death. I need to finish this before.... Well, before.
I can't get up off my knees, but long hair still makes a nice handle as I wrench his head up, baring his vulnerable neck. He looks at me, too tired and hurt to really care that he's about to die.
I nod. "I'm him." And swing.
As the head hits the gravel I look up at the trucks and old cars, and the half-dozen or so stunned faces from the diner that witnessed the fight. Shit.
When the Quickening comes, all I can do is lie there and scream.
Death can be a pleasant thing, at least, what I can remember of it afterward. Drifting without form or care, cushioned and cocooned in wonderful nothingness.... Until like a drowning man too long away from the surface, you are overcome by reflexes stronger than yourself, and....
Coughing, rolling, cradling my still-healing wounds, I open my eyes to moonlit darkness. Gravel and glass and a half-dozen demolished vehicles, and Goth-boy's severed head staring at me with half-lidded eyes. Off to the side a woman screams, and my first thought is of Alexa, but she never screamed like that. Never in fear and horror. Bright squeals of delight and amazement, tears and rough-voiced confessions of her own fears late at night, but never... never that note of horror. And Alexa is dead.
There are sirens in the distance. I find my feet by sheer will and take a moment to clean my sword on Goth-boy's coat before stumbling away into the woods on the far side of the lot. No one follows me. Good. I've had enough of killing for tonight.
His hand is dark, large and blunt, rolling my captured bishop in quiet contemplation, the look in his eyes too solemn for the small smile that lifts the corners of his mouth. I can almost feel the heat radiating off of him, almost hear the vital throb of his heart, scent the soft musk of his cologne. Almost.
"What are you doing?" The question is light enough, the sound of his voice as familiar as ever, but the tone is serious.
"I'm-- I'm playing the game. That's why we're here, right? To play the game?" The queen in my fingers is my own, cold and dark. I can't remember where I was moving her.
That sad smile deepens. "Is that what you really want?"
No. There is an urge to speak other, more terrible words, but I am held to the ritual demands of the moment, the funereal pace of the game and the conversation. Frustration coils in my belly, tight and cold. "No. But I can't have what I really want, can I?"
"Even if I win?" I know the answer before he speaks, but that doesn't stop the hot sting of disappointment. Hope never dies peacefully.
"It doesn't work that way, you know that."
Yes, I know. Again the urge to speak in defiance of the moment, to rage and scream and insist that it has to be different now, or to throw aside the game and hold him, taste again the soft heat of his mouth, the sea-bitter salt of his skin. The cold shape in my hand distracts me from such fruitless melodramas. The icy black contours of the queen seem a fit match for the cold pressure in my chest that holds me motionless and silent.
She mocks me. No light, no warmth, no power suspended thus over the board. Pure destructive force rendered impotent not by capture, but by indecision. False hope. I look up at him, at the naked sadness in his eyes. He nods toward the board. "It's your move."
Yes, it was always that, wasn't it, Mac?
"So, let's play," I say, and slam the queen down into the center of the board, scattering pieces over the edge...
Morning creeps in with the cold breath of soft rot and the pervading stench of diesel fuel. It's dark still, sunrise at least an hour away, as I lie awake and listen to the rough chug of big engines and the muffled curses of truck drivers as they get ready to go. I roll on the bare mattress, grimacing at the way stiff clothing scratches and clings to me, trying not to notice the sour stink of blood and mildew in the air.
I get up, rubbing at gritty eyes, not bothering with the light. Clothes are peeled off and bundled into the trash, crusted blood is scrubbed off in a filthy sink, and I dress in the least-dirty clothes that come to hand. It's a simple enough process, familiar by long practice. Tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, there will be another flea-bag motel, and another challenge to face, and another Immortal to kill.
Life goes on. It's a simple truth, but a hard reality.
The trucks have all rumbled away by the time I emerge into the gray light, adjusting my bag over one shoulder. The road is flat and featureless, stretching out into the distance beyond the tiny oasis of buildings here, vanishing in the trees and hills and a wisp of morning fog on the horizon.
It's a long walk to the next town, but it's not like I don't have time.