Den of Chaos Fiction
Highlander: the Series

Conjugal Visits
by Taselby

 

This story is rated Adult for violence, sexual content, unpopular ideas, and other things that I can't think of right now. Duncan & Methos belong to the usual goon squad of lawyers and faceless corporate entities. This little outing is making no money. No harm, no foul, eh?

Many thanks to elynross, as always, for her mighty editorial prowess. She always makes me look better than I am. Thanks to Sig for the title, long phone calls, the beer & Cheese Nips, and late-night hand waving. Thanks to Killa for the endless questions, limitless patience, cries of "more!" and far, far more than I can say here. You guys made the difference.

Thanks also to the FWE team. This originally appeared in FWE4.

Questions, comments, and silly remarks can be sent directly to me, Taselby, at <taselby@tenebris.org>


"I will be your rock,"
he said to me,
"I will be Gibraltar
to you.

"You can lean on me,
or just look at me
and know I'm here."

-- L. D. Headrick

Late May, 2128

Waking alone in the dark was nothing new to Duncan MacLeod. He shrugged off a dream of red blood and white sheets and lay still for a moment, trying to find some measure of comfort in the familiar stench of damp nylon and the hollow, amplified sound of his own breathing, the breath itself the only trace of warmth in the close darkness. There was no peace here. Of late it seemed there was no peace to be found anywhere.

Certainly there was none in the subtle ache of Methos' presence under his skin. He almost laughed at that, the black irony of Methos being under his skin, but he settled for a grimace as he threw off the chill blanket and groped for his boots. Stiff, cold leather over stiff, cold feet, trying to convince himself that Methos had merely risen early, and was even now building up the fire, or mending the broken strap on his pack, or--

Or just quietly fled the confines of the tent and whatever horrors dwelled therein, as he had three nights out of five.

Duncan stepped out into the pre-dawn gloom, exchanging one kind of darkness for another, and stared for a long moment at the miserable wet ball huddled beside the remains of the fire. Out here in the freezing mud, Methos slept like the dead. Duncan gritted his teeth at the abandonment, frustrated that whatever devils Methos fled in the small hours of the night, whatever peace he sought, it apparently couldn't be found with him. They never really talked, spending these sweet, stolen days in conscious denial and a frenzy of contact. Even now, aching and angry that with so little time left Methos still couldn't turn to him, the urge to touch was almost overwhelming.

He just wasn't sure whether to stroke the pale cheek, or kick the old man solidly in the ass.

Duncan pulled a blanket around his shoulders, draped another across the sleeping form, and poked at the coals of last night's fire, feeding it small sticks a few at a time until there was enough of a blaze to make coffee. He sighed at the impossibility of his own situation, tossed a few handfuls of grounds into the pan, and settled down to wait for the water to boil.

This was his favorite time of day, the misty hour before sunrise, though there was precious little pleasure in it this morning. With the steep mountains surrounding them, the wet smells of earth and pine, and the river gurgling softly beyond the trees, this scene might have been lifted whole from any number of similar days all the way back to his mortal life. He enjoyed the peace of the land, the rare feeling of seclusion, even the physical labor that the wilderness demanded. Routine tasks, performed so many times over the years that they became a kind of meditation in themselves...a kata of daily living. Gathering wood and water, building a fire, preparing food and shelter...

And as in earlier days, never believing at the beginning that the end would come so soon.

"You're brooding again. You promised you wouldn't brood," Methos said softly.

"Sorry. It's the place," he lied smoothly without looking down. Another skill perfected over time, but deception brought him no peace. "It reminds me of Scotland."

If Methos saw through the deceit, he gave no sign of it, but then he was a master of this game, as well. He snorted and sat up, stretching, acknowledging the extra blanket with an arched eyebrow. "Scotland never had mountains like these."

"That's true." Duncan poured two old-fashioned speckleware cups of the bitter, unfiltered coffee and determined to change the subject. He didn't care about the place. This lonely valley was beautiful, but they could have been on a short ration survival trek in the middle of the Mojave for all he cared. Just so long as he got to be with Methos. Under his skin, indeed. Pity that didn't seem to run both ways. "Are you all right?"

Methos shrugged dismissively and dragged a hand over his face and scalp, scratching at the stubble on his shaved head. Not quite enough yet to call a real haircut, as things went. "Yeah, except I feel like I slept on a rock."

Again he wondered where Methos was living, and tried to remember which cities had been targeted for parasite control in the past weeks. He sighed internally and tried to abandon the train of thought. As a tactic it was about as successful as trying not to think about polka dotted elephants. Even though it was part of the plan that they not know each other's locations, Methos occupied his thoughts at a level bordering on obsession. A pointless, utterly compelling waste of time. In any event, the sweeps were useless as a way to locate someone, since some areas had such frequent outbreaks of lice and other vermin that the residents were rounded up and shaved twice a year or more in an effort to control disease. Duncan himself had once been subjected to disinfection and a full body shave during an outbreak of skin mites near his home. It had been a thoroughly humiliating experience.

Methos paused and looked around the clearing. "It rained last night."

Duncan made an effort not to stare at Methos' scalp, instead following his gaze around the camp. Fine, they could make idle chatter about the weather, if that's what Methos wanted. Why did they keep doing this? "No," he said quietly, "just the mist. And that's not what I meant."

"Yeah, but let's not talk about it today. It's not so bad anymore, really. I just..." He stared down into his coffee. "The tent was a bit small. That's all."

"Have it your way." No use mentioning that Methos almost always got it his way, or that today was all they had. In the morning they would load their packs and hike out in different directions. Paths of least resistance always ran downhill. The cold seeped through layers of dirty blanket and heavyweight denim, numbing Duncan's ass. He wondered if Methos felt that way all the time now. Deadened.

No, not all the time, he thought, remembering the frenzy of sex over the past few days. Fast, rough, desperate couplings, harsh exclamations of need and desire... Methos was almost the same as ever. Quicker to anger, maybe, quicker to withdraw.

Quick to take the opening he was given and change the subject. Methos looked around pointedly. "If I had it my way, we'd be in a penthouse suite at the Regency Arms with hot showers and prompt room service, not freezing our asses off in the middle of Yosemite."

Duncan laughed at the predictable grumble and rolled a sip of coffee across his tongue. "The Regency burned down fifteen years ago."

There was a long pause while Methos gazed off at a fixed place on the tree line, the exposed skin of his scalp gleaming dully in the faint light. At last he spoke, any hint of playfulness in his voice gone. "I must have missed the CNN coverage."

Duncan winced, inwardly cursing himself. "I'm sorry, Methos. I didn't mean--"

"Stop it. It's not your fault," Methos said, scrubbing a hand firmly across his face, not so much removing the traces of dirt as artfully rearranging them. Duncan thought briefly of wiping at the long dark smudge along Methos' jaw, but decided to leave it. It made him seem more real, somehow, young and tangible and earthy, sitting here in the half-lidded twilight with a dirty face. "Besides, I said I didn't want to talk about it today."

The sky had lightened to a deep periwinkle blue, revealing the white mist that clung thickly to the mountainsides. It was easier to look at Methos in profile this way, the familiar planes of his face highlighted by the ruddy glow from the fire. "Maybe we should talk about it. It was my fault."

Methos slid his eyes closed and drew two heaving breaths before visibly shaking off whatever thought or memory had gripped him. "Jesus, will you let go of the guilt already?"

Duncan sighed, not liking the direction of the discussion, but unwilling to let it go. This was as much as they'd ever talked about what happened. "Only if you will."

"Ah, but I've got you there." Methos' face twisted in a smug grimace. "I'm not the one who's spent years of sleepless nights brooding about something that can't be changed."

"Aren't you," Duncan said simply, surprised that his voice didn't crack under the strain of old griefs. It was something less than a question, given weight by the blanket Methos still had wrapped around his legs, the dampness of his clothes from the misty night outside.

"No, I'm not." Shaking off the blanket, he stood and paced around the camp in a pretense of cleaning up, but Duncan saw it for what it was: distance. Whether Methos sought distance from him or from an uncomfortable truth, he didn't know; the end result was the same.

Why did he even bother anymore? It was the same argument, the same tired, threadbare roles that they had played a hundred times before, and nothing ever seemed to change--certainly not the outcome. Duncan would let go of the argument in a moment, savoring these precious hours while they lasted, unwilling to waste them fighting a battle he couldn't win. Methos would talk when he was ready. If he was ever ready.

He took another long drink of the astringent coffee and quit lying to himself, at least for the moment. He knew why he did it. Because in the morning they would pack their gear and take down the tent and hike out in different directions, and Duncan would feel like he'd been torn in half.

And Methos would whistle a jaunty tune as he strode off down the trail. God, he could be a cold bastard.

Setting his empty cup aside, he got up and checked the tent pegs, packs, and a couple of traps set nearby, while Methos cleared the non-existent debris from the camp perimeter. Movement felt good, even if it was make-work.

After a few minutes the sound of thrown branches and stones trailed off. Duncan smiled. "You're only scaring off lunch, tossing stuff around like that."

A snort. "Aren't you optimistic? I'd hardly call one skinny rabbit over the past week worth the effort of maintaining the traps."

"We might catch more if you'd quit throwing rocks into the underbrush."

"We might catch more rabbits if your traps were better."

"You're more than welcome to lay your own snares--"

"Oh, no, no," Methos cut him off. "You hunt. I fish. That's the deal."

"The deal since when?" Duncan fought the urge to look up from his task. He wasn't sure he wanted to see if the familiar, teasing tone brought the same light to Methos' eyes that he remembered. It made him ache that it had been so long since they'd played this game.

"The deal since you can't catch any decent rabbits."

"I can't catch them if they keep getting scared off." The words fell into a sudden quiet space, the birds and rustling branches stilled as though the entire forest held its breath.

Methos crouched down beside him, lifted away the pack he was mending, and caught his eyes. "Let go of it, Duncan. It wasn't your fault." Shivering off the sudden intensity, he shrugged and yanked twice on a strap, testing it, exhaling roughly as another stitch popped free. "Anyway, who knew they were still looking? Thirty fucking years in a cave..."

Duncan forced a small smile, crawling inside with the need to do something, and picked up the lighter tone that was offered. "It was twenty-seven years--I counted--and a desert island."

"It was a cave. A cave on an island is still a cave. I hate caves. And I hate coconuts. And I bloody hate the ocean..." Methos wandered off into a litany of despised things from the island. Spiders, snakes, stingrays, sunburn. Solitude never made the list.

Duncan jammed a loose tent peg back into the ground with murderous force, entertaining brief fantasies of breaking Methos' neck. "I take it that Bora Bora is off the list of favored retreats then?"

A quick nod. "Especially since it started looking more like Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break." Methos sighed and set down the pack. "Except all the limber young co-eds have been replaced by little old ladies in muumuus and that wretched blue sunscreen, carting around oxygen tanks instead of tequila."

He didn't have to add that almost every place was like that now, crowded and dirty, overflowing with people. The loss was unimaginable, that not so long ago the whole world was wild and beautiful as this lonely valley, and now... Now there was so little wilderness left. So little of anything that was good remained.

"...like it's been overrun with geriatric Smurfs. Duncan?" Cold fingers cupped his jaw, gently guiding his face up. Methos' mouth twitched with what might have been amusement. "Thought I'd lost you there for a moment."

A slow breath, and a voice rougher than it should have been. Duncan told himself it was only the cold, and almost believed it. "I'm not that easy to lose."

A thumb stroked firmly over his cheek, tracing the bone. It was a struggle not to flinch from the icy touch. "Your hands are cold," he said at last.

Methos quirked half a smile in mute apology. It was as much as Duncan had seen him smile in years. "Well, you know what they say."

Cold hands, colder heart? "Yeah, I know what they say," he breathed as Methos leaned in for a kiss. There had never been much that might be called romantic between them, but these past years, even the few gestures of casual affection they'd shared had vanished. When every touch was an invitation, a kiss was as good as a plea.

It had been a lifetime ago, that long afternoon beneath the pecan tree. Methos had smiled at him then, warm and open and unreserved, and touched him. His skin had been so hot... They'd stayed in the spreading shade all afternoon, laughing and touching, making love and listening to the sound of the leaves in the breeze.

Not long after that, challengers had started coming, sporadically at first, but with increasing frequency as the months passed; with them came the merciless and inevitable horde of Watchers, incessant as mosquitoes. No amount of speculation could tell them where the crucial connection had been made, when the names Methos and Adam Pierson had first been linked. All that mattered was that at some point, the lines between a Watcher's oath and the Game had blurred, as they had so many times before. Soon the headhunters were coming in numbers, calling Methos by name. Something peaceful in him seemed to die under the weight of all the Quickenings that followed.

But that one afternoon remained, perfect and untainted in Duncan's memory, heady with the sound of Methos' laughter and the scent of the pecan tree.

Now he took what Methos gave and asked for more, pressing harshly into the kiss. Cold, hard fingers buried themselves in his hair, but the mouth beneath his opened to him, hotter than the morning coffee, sweeter than sunshine on a September afternoon. It wasn't nearly the same, but it was close enough to make him feel dirty and faithless to the memory. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the roughness of chapped lips, the clammy chill of exposed skin where it brushed against his. The shape of the body was the same as ever.

The same as ever... Methos' hands were abrasive under Duncan's collar, scratching at the back of his neck.

Some painful bubble of desperation burst inside him and he shoved Methos back onto the damp ground, darkly satisfied at the small grunt and gasp he made. Kisses turned brutal, bites tearing at the chapped lips, already cracked from the wind and cold. Duncan's teeth scraped along the unshaven jaw, savaging the pale neck. Underneath him, Methos twisted, panting harshly, filling the air with small, sharp sounds. Duncan sank his fingers into the layers of dirty wool and slammed Methos' shoulders back into the ground, leaning down heavily to hold him in place. Methos' skin was cold, even under the collar of his sweater.

Duncan just bit harder, hard enough to hurt, to wound, pinning him to the ground with the weight of his body, thrusting dry against a convenient hip. His mouth flooded with the sharp metal-salt tang of blood. The faint noises Methos made were almost lost under the deep rasp of his breathing, and his hands in Duncan's hair tightened, pulling, painful. He didn't care. It was good, good to finally hurt a little outside like he hurt on the inside, good to finally have some kind of genuine reaction from Methos, good to bury his mouth against that cold flesh and try to call the heat back to the surface.

Beneath the blood and the corrupt scent of old wool, Methos tasted like salt and damp. He tasted like tears. Skin pale and perfect under Duncan's hands and mouth, heat flowing only where he'd broken through and made Methos bleed.

That stopped him short. Shakily, he leaned his head against Methos' heaving chest, as if seeking comfort--as if he had the right to ask for anything just now. Methos lay perfectly still, permitting the intimacy, if not encouraging it. The message was clear: any solace Duncan received would have to be taken; none would be volunteered. "Methos?" he asked, looking up.

"Do you feel better now?" Methos asked, his voice steady and inflectionless. There were smears of blood on his mouth and neck, and dark bruises showed where his sweater had been shoved up.

"Not really." Duncan sat back on his knees, the soft ground yielding gently. It was only the truth. The urge was still there, the terrible desire to beat a reaction out of Methos, to provoke with pain where pleasure had failed, to hurt him back the only way he could. And hard on the heels of that... He wouldn't call it guilt. Frustration, grief, the kind of itch he might scratch with a bar brawl. An impotent desperation that demanded action, any action--even an incorrect one. Even a suicidal one.

Methos looked at him steadily. His face was pale, and he was trembling, but that was probably just the cold. No one could be so cold for so long and not show it. "Do you think it might help if I threw you down in the mud and hurt you for a while?" He asked the question as if he hadn't been doing just that, inflicting pain, for the last fifty years.

Duncan licked his lips and tasted blood. "Probably not."

"Let me know if you change your mind," Methos said, pulling himself upright, insanely close, far too intimate after what Duncan had done.

Duncan nodded slowly, faintly sick, staring at the livid bruises on the pale throat as they cycled slowly through the spectrum of healing. Again the cold fingers were on his face, pulling on his chin, stinking of blood and dirt. He closed his eyes, content to let Methos have his way, to let him take whatever vengeance he desired. Maybe physical pain would be an improvement after all.

That slow, burning mouth moved against his, the mild contact more hurtful now, in this context, than any sharp words or blades that had ever come between them. The ground may have yielded, but Methos did not. The hard body and hot mouth pressed him back, relentless and quietly demanding, making him bleed in their own way. Clothing was opened with a rough jerk at the fastenings, the necessary flesh exposed, but no more than that. Duncan surrendered, taking what pleasure was offered. He reached for Methos, unsure which of them he was trying to reassure.

It didn't last long. Nothing lasted. That was the ultimate lesson of Immortality.

"Come on," Methos panted against his chin when the tremors eased, "I'm freezing, and we need to catch some breakfast."

He shook his head and held on, trying to ignore the golden fingers of sunlight sifting over the eastern Sierras. "It's too late to fish. There's bread and cheese, and some rabbit left from last night. We can fish this evening."

Methos sighed and leaned against him, the weight sweeter in his memories than in reality. "All right, but I'm still cold."

"It won't kill you," he whispered, kissing Methos again. But when Methos resisted, he let him go.

Neither of them made any effort to get the breakfast they'd talked about, instead falling back into the pattern of make-work and silence, sharing the few genuine chores of campsite maintenance. Duncan took up the pack he'd set aside earlier and resumed mending it. Methos stoked the fire and dumped the remains of the coffee, drying the pan with economic motions. It was terrifyingly domestic. Duncan ached in places he'd forgotten he had.

He'd seen a movie once, ages past, about a man whose grief on losing his lover was so great that he defied the gods and turned back time to save her. He coveted that strength, that kind of power, wishing he could stop the world and rewind, make things happen differently. He'd walk singing into hell, like Orpheus, if he could--though he doubted Methos would appreciate being cast as Eurydice, the original damsel in distress.

He almost laughed at the image, but then remembered that Orpheus had never saved Eurydice, and he had lost his head in the end.

Duncan had come so close to that ending that thinking about it made his neck itch. Lost in desolation, blind with grief at the price of his failure, and making a valiant effort to simply neglect himself to death, it hadn't been the maenads that found him. It had been Amanda.

A sharp snort got his attention. "What are you brooding about this time?"

He shook his head and knotted off another stitch. "Nothing important." That was the truth of it. Memories, fantasies, endless games of "what if" that he tortured himself with: none of it mattered. Glancing around at the undeniable now of their lives--mud and pine needles, a tidy ring of stones around the fire, two packs, a saucepan and coffee mugs, an old-fashioned green nylon tent with yellow stitches in the corner where Methos' sword had torn it late one night--it could have been home. He'd certainly lived in worse places, worse conditions. It should have been home. Home was where the heart was.

It made him sick to think that this was all they had left, that this was all they might ever have: handfuls of stolen days, bitter as ashes.

"Good. Then quit it. I swear, you should join Brooders Anonymous."

"I tried it once. They said I was too far gone."

The day continued its inexorable march forward. The hours drifted past unremarked, though not unnoted--yet another battle Duncan couldn't win.

Methos crouched by the fire and fed it twigs one at a time, apparently lost in thought. It was a waste of effort, a waste of wood. The sun would clear the summit soon, and the wind would die, the freezing night becoming another muggy, stagnant, sweltering day. Duncan made a conscious effort to relax and let it go. Dry wood was plentiful enough if one knew where to look, and unlike other things, cost only the effort of collecting it.

Methos looked thin and pale, rangy and raw in a way his sweater couldn't disguise. The stubbled curve of his scalp accentuated the hard angularity of his features, drawing them out into harsh points of jutting bone. The image was grim and alien, sorrowful in an indefinite way. Methos' hand shook. Something in Duncan twisted, angry at the display of weakness, angry at his own reaction. He clenched his jaw against the hot, metallic taste of adrenalin, the sudden need to lash out.

"Stop looking at me like that," Methos said quietly.

"Like what?" Like Methos was a fair target for all the rage and frustration of the past fifty years, like hitting him would feel better than anything else right now, like anger and pure force might succeed where love and patience had failed. Like Duncan could make everything right again if he could just get through to Methos. If Methos would let him in.

"Quit staring at me like I'm a goddamned bug!"

Duncan severed the yellow thread with a rough jerk of his knife and set the pack aside carefully, resisting the urge to throw it. A small part of him noticed that it was the same thread he'd mended the tent with a few years ago. He gritted his teeth. "Since you seem to be making the rules today, why don't you tell me exactly how I'm supposed to look at you?"

Eyes hardened almost imperceptibly, and Methos dropped the stick he'd been poking the fire with, rubbing his hand across his jeans. "So it's finally my turn to make the rules. I was wondering what it might take. Do we just trade off every century or so, or is there some other scheduling system you haven't told me about?"

Duncan swallowed hard, forcibly relaxing his grip on the utility knife. It wasn't weighted for throwing, but he could probably make do with it. "Oh, you've always made the rules, Methos. A master plan slithers into that brain of yours, and nothing in the world stands in your way. You want it, you get it, and to hell with the rest of us who are along for the ride."

Methos acknowledged the hit with a tight lifting of his chin, changing the shadows in his eyes. "Fuck you," he said.

"Been there, done that." Dropping the knife, Duncan stood and reached for the button on his jeans. "Or maybe you'd like to do it again, since that's the only thing we seem to get right."

Methos stood with him, mirroring his stance aggressively. "Is that what you call getting it right? The rules must have changed a bit while I was out of circulation. I don't remember bloodletting being part of your repertoire."

It was an effort not to look down as the words struck home. The wounds had faded, but the dark smears of dry blood remained, livid and accusing. One more brutality heaped on top of the rest. One more failure on his part. "So much for variety being the spice of life."

"Sorry, am I boring you? Anytime you're tired of me..." Methos gestured minimally toward the trail. Everything was small motions, tightly controlled.

Duncan clenched his jaw until his teeth creaked, remembering a time when Methos had spoken with his whole body, enthusiasm for things and ideas spilling out of every pore, his passion for life overflowing into every movement. His passion for Duncan eloquent in every touch, in every shared pleasure, every shared pain.

Their craving for one another had been a tangible thing. That was the punch line of this cruel joke: it still was. Duncan was still unable to walk away.

It always surprised him, the flavors that anger came in, the endless variety of it. Heady as old brandy, its potency only increased with age. Restraint was slipping away from him. Sand between his fingers. Time on his hands.

Time better spent doing any of a hundred other things, except that right now, Duncan couldn't think of one. Tomorrow stole toward them at a dreadful pace, measured out in inches as the shadows crept back.

All the pains now were solitary ones. Oh, the infliction was mutual enough, but they were endured alone.

He ground out words, every muscle in his body tight and aching with the need to let go. "There's an original solution--when the going gets tough, the tough get packing. That's still your answer to everything, just walk away?"

The shape of the body was the same as ever, but the cruel twist to Methos' mouth seemed new. "Really, Duncan, you must learn a new song one of these days. That one went out with boy bands. If you recall, we tried it your way before. Not exactly what I'd call a stunning success."

"It would have worked if we'd stayed together."

"It would have gotten us killed!"

Duncan swallowed hard against the constriction in his throat and hoped he didn't sound as broken as he felt. It was hard to move with so many pieces of him unanchored and drifting inside. "Survival at all costs?"

"Yes!" Methos snapped. He took a step, moving closer as though it were a conscious effort, all his natural grace eclipsed by the tightness of his control.

Another bit of Duncan tore loose inside. It was a familiar feeling, the pain barely noted. "No! Not any cost, Methos."

Methos glared at him, eyes burning. "Nothing else matters if you aren't alive to enjoy it."

"I'm not enjoying this!" Duncan roared, kicking at a dirt clod in frustration.

"All you ever have to do," Methos grated, lifting his chin, "is not come. This was your idea, these little... conjugal visits."

Was he being tested? Love, faith, endurance, what was he supposed to answer with, to call on? He breathed, reaching for calm, struggling for things that should have come easily. The dull metal flavor of Methos' blood was still on his tongue. "No, don't you dare lay all this on me. What about you? What do you want?"

"The same thing I've always wanted." The shadows in Methos' eyes shifted again.

Duncan stopped struggling and paced around the clearing. It wasn't precisely calm that he found, but the dark undercurrent he yielded to held some measure of the peace he sought. "No, damn you, answer me! What do you want?"

"I'm not going to have this fight again--"

Duncan cut him off. "We never had it the first time!" A steadying breath, then a wrenching admission. "I would have stayed with you forever if you'd let me."

Methos stared at him with a flat, familiarly unreadable expression, infinitely defensive, perfectly Methos. It touched that tiny spark of hope in Duncan that something of his Methos--the warm, generous lover he remembered--remained. "This isn't a fairy tale, Duncan."

"Sure it is," he said with a small smile, "we're just not to the 'happy ever after' part."

Something like pain flashed across Methos' face, but it was smothered too quickly for Duncan to be sure. "There is no 'happy ever after,' no Prince Charming riding to the rescue, don't you get that yet? We don't get happy endings!"

"I don't believe that. I never needed Prince Charming, Methos. I only needed you."

"You sanctimonious son of a bitch. Don't you talk to me about need. Where the fuck were you when I needed you?"

Duncan thought he'd long ago reached the limit of Methos' ability to hurt him, but he was wrong. His head throbbed, the forest swimming around him in a blurry smear of green and brown. Remembered stench of disinfectant and burned flesh made the bile rise in the back of his throat as that day came rushing back--his world destroyed with a clumsy assault and a handful of words in a newspaper story. "I thought you were dead," he said too quietly.

Methos was dead, and Duncan had made a fair attempt to follow, as they had followed each other everywhere for over a century. Grief, then rage and despair, had consumed him, and he'd welcomed them, filled himself with them, used them as fuel for his vengeance until--until he could follow. He and Methos had always followed one another. It had seemed inevitable that this time would be no different--until Amanda came and convinced him otherwise, helping him put the pieces of his life back together.

The loss had been unbearable, but somehow he had borne it. He'd never really forgiven her.

"You were dead," he repeated more forcefully, torn open again at the memory.

Methos pressed into his space, pale and terrible, wild-eyed in his vehemence. He gripped Duncan's shoulder with a hand that stank of turned earth. "I wasn't dead!" he shouted, so close that Duncan could smell the traces of stale blood.

Duncan shoved him off and swung, all the grief and misery of the past years coming into sharp focus as his fist connected solidly with Methos' jaw. The impact rocked up his arm, the coiled thing inside him shuddering at the force of it. The feeling was less one of pleasure than a brief surcease of pain as Methos stumbled backwards, surprised, and Duncan hit him again. And again.

"You were dead!" Small droplets of blood flew as he struck yet again, shouting and cursing, not knowing exactly what it was he said, only that every blow loosened the knotted thing within. Something in his hand crumbled with a faint popping sensation, but still he kept pounding. Physical damage was a simple thing, easily healed.

Methos stepped into the next swing, blocking and returning with fast, hard punches of his own. "Damn you!" he cried, his mouth a bloody mass, filled with red teeth. "I wasn't dead!"

Duncan's head snapped sideways, black stars exploding in his vision. Staggering, curiously numb, the urge toward violence drained out of him like water from a broken vessel. A small, detached part of him noticed that even as wasted as Methos was, he was still stronger than he appeared. As he'd always been, always had to be.

Methos swayed on his feet, chest heaving, face contorting with something more than pain. He spit and dragged a hand through the blood on his chin, leaving a long, red smear across his jaw. The cut over his eye had already faded, leaving its memory written in the dark, sticky rivulets left behind. "I wasn't--" he repeated quietly in a broken voice. "I was only dead to you."

"Methos--"

"No," Methos cut him off, stepping back in a defensive posture. "You never came."

"No I didn't! I never came!" he shouted, head throbbing in time to his heart. "I looked for you. I called our friends liars, and I killed Watchers, and I felt like my fucking heart had been torn out!" He paused and wiped his unbroken hand across his face. "But I never came."

Methos trembled as if he were about to fall. "I needed you to come."

"Prince Charming riding to the rescue?" he said more bitterly than he intended, heedless of what Methos' admission might have cost.

Methos stiffened, color draining from his face beneath the mask of blood and dirt. "Right. Foolish of me," he said without inflection.

"Damn it, I didn't mean--"

"What? You didn't mean that I was naive to cling to the Victorian fantasy of you coming to save me? My knight in shining armor." He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and spit again. "Don't flatter yourself."

"Why bother when you're doing such a good job?"

"That's right. You always were the hero of the story."

"I thought it wasn't a fairy tale."

"And I thought you were going to tell me when we get to the 'happy ever after' part," Methos said, then looked curiously at Duncan. "Or did you already have that with Amanda?"

The blade slid home so cleanly he almost didn't feel it. An instant later the pain registered. "Go to hell."

Methos' eyes glittered. "Been there, done that," he chanted. "The interrogations were all right, I suppose, but the real entertainment was listening to them argue about whether or not to kill me. One of them had the balls to suggest that I should be executed for violating the oaths I took in 1985. Waved a sword around for emphasis while he did it, too."

"Methos--"

"Opportunities for escape were somewhat limited until they moved me to another facility, so I can see that it was laughable I'd cling to my one remaining shred of hope."

Duncan's head pounded as if it would burst. "What do you want from me? I'm sorry for being human, sorry for not finding you, sorry for the whole miserable, fucked-up situation." A breath, and a voice that no longer surprised him with its roughness. "I'm sorry that my life went on without you."

Methos was rigidly still and silent, mouth compressed in a pale line, as though afraid of what words might escape if his control slipped.

Duncan sat heavily and propped his arms across his knees, probing at the broken place in his hand. Focusing on the hot throbbing of displaced bones made this easier, however slightly. He heard his own voice speaking as if from very far away. "After the fire, I woke up in the morgue." Swallowing against the constriction of his throat and the taste of bile, he sucked a long breath of clean air to remind himself that the stench of burned flesh was only a memory, then continued. "I learned later that the bodies were taken to different hospitals, but I tore that morgue apart looking for you."

"I wasn't there," Methos said thickly, still standing.

"No, but some of the others were." He closed his eyes, mentally peeling back the sheets from those burned, disfigured corpses as he had so many times since in his dreams, hoping and dreading to find Methos there. Instead he'd found the man who pulled out a gun and shot first, a Watcher tattoo still visible on the charred skin of his wrist; the young blonde woman who laughed too loud in her chianti, a neat row of bullet holes lined up across her chest; and the dark man who had grabbed at Duncan's sword arm--another Watcher. Methos had shot him in the head. Duncan could still vividly recall the muffled sound of the silencer and the hot droplets of blood that had sprayed across his face.

"I tore that morgue apart. I would have torn the world apart to find you. God knows I tried to do just that the first year." Duncan wiped his hands on his thighs and looked at Methos. Something was going on behind that clouded gaze, but damned if he knew what it was anymore.

Maybe after today he'd finally have the strength to walk away and not look back. It certainly seemed to be what Methos wanted, walling him out first with silence, and then more and more detachment as the years went by. Theirs wasn't the easiest arrangement; maybe Methos just couldn't handle it anymore. There were certainly enough times when Duncan had just wished for it to be over.

But if that was true, why did they keep coming back? Methos had tossed it in Duncan's teeth earlier--all one of them had to do was just not show up.

Methos sat down next to him, glancing over briefly before staring out into the underbrush. "I'd dream sometimes that you came. The first year was fairly easy," he said with a wry twist of his mouth. "At least they didn't make me eat coconuts."

The wind had died, and the air grew close and heavy. Methos offered no further details of his captivity, and Duncan didn't press him. The silence was an uneasy one. Duncan felt a directionless urgency growing, an impetus toward action, but ignored it--or tried to.

The lonely years of Methos' exile seemed uncomplicated, blissful, even, in contrast to the crushing certainty that the Watchers had killed him. Despite the multitude of tragedies in his life, Duncan had never believed that God was capricious or cruel, but he'd never come closer than then. The headhunters had given up, bored or frustrated, or perhaps believing the lie that Duncan had told--that Methos was dead. Funny how prophetic that lie had been.

At the time there had been a kind of fierce, dark joy in the secret, the ache of separation blunted by the knowledge that Methos would return. And Methos had come back to him, lean and tanned, tiredly grousing about coconuts and so hungry for contact that Duncan had been hard-pressed to keep the car on the road.

Methos' stomach had growled, and they'd stopped for dinner, Duncan busily sneaking kisses and making jokes about tropical fruit. He'd just poured the last of the wine when the violence exploded around them.

He remembered it in vivid fragments. Hot things--the smell of gunpowder, a spray of blood, bright flames licking hungrily up the drapes; cold things--the look in Methos' eyes as he snapped a man's neck, the curiously chill sear of bullets tearing into his back, the hollow ache in his chest when he woke in the morgue. His rage when he realized that Watchers had done this. His despair when he knew that Methos had been taken from him.

Duncan pushed away the sick vertigo of one particular memory, a year later--the day his denial had run out and he'd grieved in earnest, believing in his heart that Methos was dead.

The threat seemed perfectly clear in hindsight, but at the time he'd been too busy protecting Methos from headhunters to worry about the escalating level of scrutiny and outright interference from an organization he still unconsciously associated with Joe. When Methos went into hiding, the Watchers went away, and Duncan hadn't thought any more about them until he woke in the morgue and Methos was gone.

He should have known; he should have seen it coming. Shapiro and Horton had been Watchers, too.

Methos touched him, and Duncan looked up from where he'd been kneading his hand. The pain was almost gone now. He'd have to hit something else soon and break it again. He wished everything were that simple.

A warm spot bloomed where Methos' hand rested across his wrist. "It wasn't your fault, Duncan."

He shook his head, not even questioning that Methos could still read him so precisely. "They followed me to get to you."

"Yes, they did."

"Aren't you angry about that?"

"Yes, but let's not fight about it any more today."

Dark laughter bubbled out of him from someplace deep. So this was it, they'd come full circle, ultimately going nowhere. "If that's what you want." Something rustled in the underbrush, but a fat rabbit for dinner was probably too much to hope for. "Why wouldn't you let me come with you?"

Methos let his fingers drop from Duncan's wrist, leaving a cold place. "We talked about this at the time."

"No, you talked about it at the time. I went along with your plan, but I never agreed."

Methos got up and retrieved a canteen and a scrap of rag from his pack, returning to his spot beside Duncan. "I didn't want to run forever, and that's what it would have taken if we'd stayed together." He sighed and scrubbed at his hands with the dampened rag. "It's romantic, isn't it, the idea of being sword and shield to one another, fighting back-to-back until the end?" He clutched the rag, staring down into his hands, white-knuckled with strain. "I couldn't do it. Suicide missions were never my strong point."

Duncan reached out and cupped the back of Methos' neck, running gentle fingers over the fine bristle at his nape. His own spine was a knotted cable, and creaked at the effort. He swallowed, throat constricting. "Dying together was never the idea."

Methos was probably trying for a steely glare, but only managed to seem brittle. "Dying separately, then. They kept coming, Duncan. We ran and hid and fought and killed, and they still kept coming. It wouldn't have been long before we were overwhelmed."

"So that was it? Was it so easy for you to leave me that way?"

"No, but it was easier than watching you die because of me." He made a small, choked noise. "I can't--I can't watch you die." The rag was turned and twisted restlessly, any pretense of washing abandoned.

Duncan shifted, trying to ease the tension in his back. The air was hot and sticky on his neck. "Watching would have almost been easier, I think," he admitted softly.

Methos turned toward him, brows knitted. "I'm sorry--"

"Stop," Duncan said with a slight shake of his head. "It wasn't your fault."

Methos looked at him strangely for a moment, then scratched his head and stood. He glanced at the sky. "Come on, by the time we get to the lake, the fish will be jumping."

As an avoidance technique, Duncan had heard worse.

The lake was like a sheet of glass under the afternoon sun. Nothing breathed, nothing moved, save the short waterfall splashing at the near end. Trees and mountains ringed the long, narrow strip of water with an air of patient acceptance, quietly measuring out time in seasons and centuries. Warm air pressed against his face, ripe and heavy with humidity. The fish weren't even close to jumping.

And it wasn't even close to mattering.

Duncan followed Methos along a slab of pale granite that fell away in a steep angle down to the waterline, heat shimmering up from the stone as the sunlight reflected. Sweat stung his eyes, and when he mopped his face, his hand came away dark with filth. Maybe Methos had the right idea about hot showers and prompt room service after all. It was easier to avoid pursuit in the wilderness, true, but there had to be a hotel or village inn somewhere offering enough anonymity to satisfy Methos' paranoia.

It had rained that last night in the brick house. They were lying together in the wide bed, listening to the patter of the rain on the pecan tree when the first tingle of presence roused them. They barely had time to pull on pants and grab their swords before the first of four challengers kicked in the front door, shouting Methos' name.

He and Methos had each killed one, standing guard for each other while the Quickenings raged. The third Immortal fled, and the fourth was left on the kitchen floor, Methos' favorite dagger buried in his chest. The pecan tree had been split by lightning, heavy limbs crushing the fence and part of the roof. The house was destroyed, their lives in that place destroyed.

They stood together in the rain, shirtless and barefoot, and watched all of it smolder. Salvaging what they could, they left that night. Methos smiled wolfishly, teeth gleaming white in the darkness. "Just because I'm paranoid," he said, "doesn't mean they're not out to get me."

At the time, Duncan could only laugh. In hindsight, it was something less than funny.

They found a shaded outcropping of rock at the water's edge and sat, the silence for once not feeling forced or awkward. He stripped off his sweater and tossed it behind him. He was picking at a knot in his boot laces when he caught Methos watching him.

"You want some sunblock?" Methos asked.

"No, I'm all right," he said, still working at the stubborn knot.

"You'll burn."

"I'll heal. Anyway, that sunblock doesn't like to come off, and I don't want to look like a Smurf for the next two days."

"Lobsters are preferable to Smurfs?"

He nodded. "Tastier with lemon and butter, anyway." The knot came free. The boots and heavy woolen socks were tossed beside the sweater, and he sighed as he swung his feet over the edge of the rock into the water. "Damn, the water's cold."

Methos arched an eyebrow at him almost playfully. "Now who's scaring away dinner?"

Duncan grinned. "Nothing will be biting for hours yet, and you know it."

"Maybe."

"Maybe." A long stretch sideways and he caught the strap of the small pack he'd brought and pulled it to him. "Here." he tossed over a small package. "Make yourself useful."

Methos peeled back a corner of the wrap and sniffed at the contents. Pale lines tracked down the back of his neck where sweat had washed away some of the grime. "Rye bread?"

Duncan smiled. "I figured someone should make sure we ate."

"Nice to see your confidence in my fishing skill is intact." Methos tore off a chunk of black bread and tossed it to him. Duncan added white cheese and the leftover haunch of rabbit to the meal, and they passed a canteen of lukewarm, tinny tasting water back and forth to wash it down.

A bird called out in the distance, the shockingly lonely sound ringing off the stones and water.

Methos scanned the sky, looking as lost and forlorn as that solitary bird.

Duncan turned to face Methos, wet feet leaving dark spatters and smears on the rock as he folded his legs under himself. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," came the automatic response. A moment later Methos shrugged in vague apology and said, "I'm just not used to so much quiet anymore. It's always noisy where I live. The noise was good after--just after."

There was nothing to say to that, really, so Duncan didn't bother with platitudes or empty reassurances. It wasn't even close to being all right, but it would have to do. The small waterfall nearby bubbled and splashed, obscenely cheerful.

Methos continued to stare out over the water. Duncan tried to follow his lead and relieve some of the awful tension with that simple trick, but he failed time and again, his eyes sliding away from the simple beauty of natural forms and coming to rest on Methos, who looked decidedly unnatural at the moment. Filthy and thin as a street urchin, he picked blindly at a split fingernail, gaze steady and focused on some detail Duncan couldn't see.

"Did you really kill Watchers?"

"Yes."

"How many?" Methos continued to face the water, mouth lifting in what passed for a smile these days. He sounded eminently pleased at the idea.

"I didn't keep track."

"Why did you do it?"

Duncan shifted, uncomfortable. The half-dry denim was scratchy against his legs. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"No," Methos turned to look at him seriously. "You're the one who said vengeance never solved anything."

"I don't know. It made me feel better."

"Did it really?"

It was unnerving the way Methos looked through him. That level, knowing gaze took him back decades. "No," he admitted after a long moment. "And it didn't bring you back."

Methos nodded thoughtfully, as if he were about to say something. Apparently thinking better of it, he stood and walked off to relieve himself against a tree.

By the time Methos returned, Duncan had scooted to the end of the rock and was dangling his feet in the clear water again. The ghost of a breeze sighed across his back.

Methos crouched beside him, staring down into the water. "You're scaring the fish again."

"I'm sure my toes are no threat to your prowess, Master Angler." He stretched, making himself as broad as possible to catch more of that delicious breeze. Methos was still looking at the lake as if it were a foreign thing. Duncan smiled. "You should take your boots off and do this."

"No, thanks," he said, shuddering. "I don't like the water very much."

"Methos, you swim like an otter. I've seen you."

Methos nodded. "That's because I hate drowning."

"What?" Duncan laughed.

"I learned how to swim," Methos explained with exaggerated patience, "because I hate to drown. I can run, too, and have been known to do so while avoiding other kinds of deaths. That doesn't mean I like to do it for fun."

"All right," Duncan said, viciously stifling his grin and assuming a more serious expression. At least he hoped it was serious. Turning the bulk of his attention back to the bright spangles of sun dancing on the lake, he wiggled his toes pleasurably and sat otherwise motionless for the full half minute it took Methos to relax slightly, still squatting beside him on the blunt edge of the outcropping.

Duncan braced himself, gripping the edge of the ledge with his legs as he swept his arm up and under Methos' hips where he crouched, shoving hard. He couldn't have planned it any better. Methos gave a single surprised squawk and overbalanced, almost flying into the chest-deep water.

He rushed to the surface in a great plume, sputtering incoherently. Duncan gathered himself, waiting until Methos had a chance to draw at least one heaving, outraged breath before he dove from the rocky platform and tackled him back into the water.

The shock was incredible, icy needles stripping away warmth and breath. He wrapped both arms solidly about Methos' chest and pushed against the rocky bottom, propelling them to the surface.

"Have you lost your mind?!"

Duncan pushed the hair and water from his face and laughed, full throated and unreserved, for the first time in far too long. "No," he panted.

Methos was sodden, perfectly ridiculous in his outrage, his sweater drooping off of him. He scowled at Duncan.

Duncan laughed harder and splashed him.

"Hey!" Methos wiped his face again.

This was still foreplay. Opening exchanges. Goading and testing one's opponent. Duncan launched another double-handed volley.

"Knock it off!" Methos splashed back halfheartedly, color rising in his cheeks.

"Make me," he said, opening his stance and beckoning. "Come and get me."

Methos stripped off his sweater and tossed it over Duncan's head onto the granite bank, where it landed with a soggy splat. He bared his teeth. "You are going to be so sorry."

"Promises, promises," was all he managed to say before the first heavy scoop of water caught him in the face.

Splashes were returned and returned again. Duncan couldn't see, just kept hammering away, flinging huge handfuls of cold water in Methos' direction. Shouting, laughing, grinning until he thought his face might split, exulting in the rare sound of laughter returned.

"You better give up!" Methos shouted over the din of the water.

He redoubled his efforts. "No quarter!"

"You--" Methos gasped out, still flinging water furiously, "you asked for it!"

"Ha!" he barked in response, raking both arms across the surface. A huge wave caught Methos squarely in the face.

Crying out, Methos covered his face and bent down defensively.

Duncan's triumph was short-lived. "Are you all right? What happened?" Dread filled him, a cold place blooming low in his chest. It couldn't be serious, not physically serious, at any rate. Duncan waded over and laid a gentle hand on his back, leaning down to look. "Let me see," he said, lifting away a concealing hand.

The diabolical grin was the only warning he got before a strong hand clapped across the back of his neck and plunged him under.

He came up spitting. "You sneak!"

Methos held a hand up and took a step back, wheezing with laughter. "Hey, wait-- waitaminute!"

The surge of warm emotion was so sudden and unexpected that for an instant he didn't know what to do. A fast underwater grab for Methos' waistband and a hard pull brought them chest-to-chest, and he savored the press of skin against skin.

Methos met him more than halfway in a deep, hungry kiss, sweet with the taste of lake water. Large hands spread over his back, pulling at him, cupping his ass, tangling in his hair to guide him back every time he tried to break the fierce kiss even to breathe. He pushed at Methos, urging him toward shore, and they staggered, half-swimming, fingers fumbling clumsily underwater with stubborn fastenings, unwilling to bear even the least space between them.

It was dizzy, surreal. Methos pushed him up onto the rock, pulling at his sodden jeans. His mouth was everywhere--licking at the water trickling down his chest, tongue searingly hot over a chilled nipple, lips sliding wetly up his neck--as he climbed onto the rock and straddled him. Rough friction as they pressed together, tease, promise, and demand all in one.

Duncan groaned and pushed back as they rocked together, slow and hard, the pressure nearly painful. His mouth was covered with kisses, firm nips and moist brushing of tongues, none lingering or giving him a chance to relish the individual sensations, but that was all right, too. His hands traced the lean, corded strength of Methos' back and arms, muscles standing out firmly as he supported his weight on one hand.

Teeth found the sweet spot under Duncan's ear, making him catch his breath and grind himself upward again. It was wonderful, aggressive, demanding, even needy in the odd ways that Methos expressed his need by exerting control. Heat from the rock baked into his back. Control was taken, reaction required, and Duncan gave both freely, spreading his legs as Methos shifted to lie between them.

Methos pulled back and looked at him. They breathed together for a long moment, chests laboring almost in sync. It was a striking juxtaposition, heated stone behind him and the cool shape of Methos above. The immediacy of the contact eased, residual pleasure still throbbing through him. He reached up to trace the familiar line of Methos' nose.

Methos flinched at the touch, something crumbling in his gaze. A long tremor ran through him, and he moved back further, the rhythm of his breath faltering and unsteady, falling out of time. The real distance could only have been inches, if even that, his knees still resting lightly between Duncan's thighs. Only inches between them, so close that any motion might have been enough to bring them back into contact. The gulf felt like miles, widening with every heartbeat.

"I'm sorry." The words themselves were almost inaudible, their impact devastating. Methos sat back on his heels slowly, his face twisting subtly with what might have been quickly repressed pain. He tore his eyes away from Duncan's and looked everywhere, anywhere else.

"Don't do this," Duncan said. He levered himself up and reached for Methos, needing to touch him. Distance served nothing. He didn't recognize his own fear for what it was, didn't notice the tremor in his hands until his hesitant caress stuttered across Methos' shoulders. "Don't shut me out like this."

"I can't--" Methos bit off whatever else he might have said and shrugged against Duncan's hands, refusing to meet his gaze.

Not knowing what else to do, Duncan held on, kneading carefully in a fruitless attempt to steady himself, to reassure Methos. Duncan didn't know how much strength he had left after so many years of needing to be strong, but he'd give it. "Please," his voice cracked on the word. So much for that idea.

If strength was gone, frustration and fear swelled inside him to replace it as Methos struggled more determinedly against his grip. "Please," Methos said tightly, once again all tense control. "Let me go."

Letting go was the last thing Duncan could do. He held tighter, digging his fingers into the pale shoulders with bruising force. He'd lost Methos once, let go of his hope and grieved. He didn't think he could survive that loss again. "No!" his said, voice rising with something close to panic. "You're not going to shut me out like that&nbsp; again--"

"Don't do this to me--" Methos started to shake under his hands.

"Don't close yourself off from me--"

"Don't make me do this!" Methos shouted, quaking as if he were about to come to pieces right there in Duncan's hands. He shoved away from Duncan, falling backward onto the rock. "I can't do this again!"

Something hot tracked down Duncan's face. "Do what? Live? Feel?" His voice cracked again, but he was beyond caring.

Methos looked in his direction, but the way emotions churned behind his eyes, Duncan doubted that he saw anything beyond whatever inner landscape commanded his attention. Two great shuddering breaths later, effort written in every line, Methos pulled his focus outward. He blinked once, slowly, eyes burning, red-rimmed and achingly tired. "Why do you keep coming back?"

Something in Duncan's chest twisted, deep and painful. "Because I love you."

"You're miserable!" The shout rang off the rocks.

"So are you!"

"Yes! Something we can finally agree on. We're both fucking unhappy."

The coiling thing inside Duncan shifted, squeezing around his heart. He couldn't breathe. "So that's it? We just walk away?"

Methos' head drooped, neck tight and trembling. "You don't need this."

"I need you!"

"You don't need me!" Methos stood and paced angrily away, deepening physical gulfs along with emotional ones.

"You're wrong," Duncan said simply, shaking his head in denial. Distantly he wondered if Orpheus and Eurydice were ever reunited in the afterlife. Romantic, if they were; tragic, if not. The stuff of great drama, either way, unlike this. He couldn't think of a word for what this was, and briefly thought of asking Methos, but squelched that notion along with the slight surge of hysterical laughter that threatened to follow it.

Fucking miserable, that's what it was.

It was then he realized he was still sitting half-naked on the hot rock. It would take two full days to hike to the main trails. He glanced at the sky, quickly adding time and terrain. Even if he left this minute, just stood up and walked over the south pass, he'd never make it to a decent campsite by nightfall.

He got up and collected his things with hands that didn't shake quite so badly anymore. One boot lay uncomfortably close to Methos under the shade of the spreading deciduous tree that had sprouted in the black earth where the rock ran out. Bending down to get the boot, he felt light fingers brush his shoulder. He froze.

"Duncan..." Not an intimate touch, for all that it seemed to linger endlessly. Surely no more than any friend would offer as comfort, or use to attract one's attention. He struggled not to flinch, not to squirm out from beneath the craved, unwelcome contact and scrub his shoulder clean of its memory. Struggled not to grab the long fingers and pull them to his lips, his face, and--

He forced the words out again, "You're wrong."

Methos sighed, voice thick, laden with doubt and darker things. "What do you need from me that you can't get from Amanda?"

Feather light, his head rang from the sudden spike of adrenalin. Methos weighed nothing, less than nothing, as Duncan swept him back, slamming him hard against the tree trunk and pinning him there with the weight of his body. "I need you. Amanda isn't you, she can't give me you!" Trembling with the need for violence, he drew his fingertips slowly down the side of Methos' face. "I love you."

A single tear fell down the pale cheek, following the path of his fingers. Methos closed his eyes, whispering, "Please don't do this to me."

There wasn't enough air. Methos drew the breath from Duncan's body the same way he pulled the strength from Duncan's bones. Until finally, now, there was nothing left to give. Duncan sobbed, dropping his hands before the urge to hurt Methos became irresistible. "Do what?"

"I can't need you like this again!" Methos shouted hoarsely. Covering his face briefly in pain or shame, he collapsed back against the tree, sliding down as though his support had been cut from under him. Tears seeped from his clenched eyes. "I don't want to love you anymore."

"Oh, God, Methos..." The words squeezed out past the hard lump in Duncan's throat. His own foundation torn away, he followed him down, kneeling in the leaves and cool earth. Reaching out again, he hesitated, stopping short of actual contact. He wasn't sure where to begin to soothe this, not sure if it could be righted at all. "That's not the answer."

"I just--it hurts too much," Methos croaked. "Everything hurts..." Bright tears ran down his face unheeded. He didn't seem to have any fight left in him at all, hunched brokenly against the tree, weeping in protest of everything Duncan desired. There was no resistance as Duncan gathered the long body against his chest, rocking gently.

He rubbed his cheek against the shaved scalp, the dark bristles not quite long enough to be soft. It was prickly, abrasive without quite crossing over to irritation, very much like the Methos he remembered. "Yes," he said softly, "but the love is supposed to be worth the pain."

Methos leaned heavily against him. "Is it worth it?" he asked.

"Yes, it is," Duncan lied, stroking Methos' back and shoulders. "Every minute."

Methos' breath caught, and he buried his face in Duncan's chest. The wide shoulders, far thinner than they should be, shuddered once, twice, then began heaving in great silent sobs. Methos was right; everything hurt, but letting go was no longer an option, if indeed it had ever been. So Duncan did the only thing he could and held on, chest tight and painful, helping Methos ride out the wave, his own throat aching with unshed tears.

At last Methos slowly sat up and wiped his face, looking at Duncan with eyes the decayed green of aging pecan leaves. Duncan laid two fingers against his lips before he could say anything. "Shh, it's all right," he whispered, wanting to believe that it was so, carefully tracing the familiar mouth. Gradually the exploration moved on to the rest of Methos' face, fingers trailing curiously over cheeks and chin, eyelids and brow, grazing the delicate arch of his ears.

Methos closed his eyes as Duncan brushed across damp lashes, leaning into the contact as Duncan bent and touched their mouths together.

"Don't shut me out again," Duncan pled quietly. There was no more shouting left in him today. If Methos wanted to continue the fight, he'd have to do it on his own.

"It's hard." Methos made a small motion that took in the humid valley and their entire situation by default. A sharp exhalation that might have passed for laughter on some other day escaped him. "So much easier to just not feel anything. No pain, no fear, no anger..."

"No peace, no comfort, no love."

"No love," Methos echoed. "No loss."

Holding Methos while he could, Duncan pressed his mouth to the prickly stubble on Methos' head and breathed the clean residual scent of lake water. "That's not survival, Methos. That's living death."

Methos trembled once more as though releasing a long held breath. "I'm just so tired," he said, catching Duncan's hand in a strong grip. "I'm so lonely without you."

A tightly coiled spring unwound all at once inside Duncan, the unexpected release shocking, enervating, as though the clenching brace of anticipated pain had been all that kept him going. A wave of exhaustion rolled over him, a warm, sweet sensation following close behind. His mouth found Methos', a soft, uncomplicated meshing filled more with love than desire, laid over with the salt traces of their tears. Lingering remnants of fear that at any moment Methos might again decide that it was too much--that indifference and isolation were the best, least painful course--colored his relief, lending the contact a bittersweet, dreamlike quality.

His heart pounded. Large hands pressed against that impossible rhythm and eased him back just far enough for Methos to look searchingly into his eyes. Duncan nodded in reassurance. "It will be all right," he said again.

Methos nodded in response, laying his hands more firmly over the terrible pounding in Duncan's chest. "It has to be, doesn't it?" Methos said, the slight sardonic arch of his brow taking off the sentimental edge. "Happy ever after and all that, yes?"

"Right."

Duncan's teasing, tender caress down the arch of his nose made Methos smile. Hesitant and lopsided from years of neglect, the grin made Duncan's heart ache. "Kiss me some more," Methos said.

"Yes," he agreed. It was the best idea he'd heard all day.

Again, Methos took his breath, but this time it was joyfully given.

Leaves gave a dry crackle of protest as he eased Methos back and gave full license to his hands and mouth, touching, kissing, tasting his fill. One sensitive place after another was kindled into rosy alertness, kisses laid like contrition on the smooth throat. Methos' hands spread across his back, fingers sinking into his hair, urging him closer, closer. Methos moved against him, with him, strong and responsive, more alive than Duncan had seen him in years. It was almost more than he could bear.

Methos sighed and pulled at him, sliding a thigh between Duncan's own and pulling hard on his ass to bring their groins into contact. They rocked together like that for a long moment, the hard ridge of Methos' arousal tantalizingly obvious even beneath the concealing layers of denim. The world spun, narrowing to the scent and sighs of his lover, and the sweet caress of skin-on-skin. The blunt edge of pleasure cut into him, slow and ecstatic torment.

"Duncan..." Methos groaned into Duncan's mouth and rolled them, quirking an apologetic grin as he sat up.

The air was close and hot, but cold washed through Duncan to his bones. "What's wrong?"

Brows knit in confusion for a second before Methos smiled. "I've still got my boots on, that's what. Unless you have a new fixation I should know about...?"

"You mean besides satin pumps? I found some blue ones last month in just your shade." Duncan picked up the opposite foot and started working at the knotted laces.

Methos nodded approvingly. "Size 12?"

"Uh-huh." The laces were hopelessly tangled. "But I forgot to pack them." Frustrated, he gave up on the knot and pulled hard on the boot.

"Hey! There's a foot in there," Methos complained, tossing the other boot and sock behind him.

"Oof!" One last upward haul dumped Methos over onto his back, the stubborn boot coming free with a wet, sucking sound. "Not anymore."

Methos reached up awkwardly and stripped off the sock. He chafed at the abused ankle. "Ow."

"Methos."

"It hurts."

Duncan took a deep breath, trying to release it slowly and not in one explosive sigh. Guiding Methos' hands away, he laid the foot against his chest and massaged the perfectly fine ankle. "We can stop if you don't want to do this."

Methos tried to look casual. Not a bad trick for a man flat on his back on the ground with no shirt, assorted debris sticking to him. "No, it's just--"

Duncan leaned over and slowly licked Methos' anklebone with a broad, flat stroke. "Mmm?"

"Uhh." The air of affected casualness vanished. The strangled sound that escaped Methos wasn't exactly the reaction he was hoping for, but it was close enough to suit him. He continued, pushing up the pants leg and varying firm swipes of his tongue with wet kisses and soft nips. Methos writhed, doing everything in his power to spread his legs without moving that ankle.

"Duncan..." he groaned.

That was better. If Methos were reduced to a one word vocabulary, Duncan could think of few better choices than this. Yes had all sorts of potential, true. Please and more would likewise have been perfectly acceptable--

Methos made a small, suffering noise deep in his chest, and the raw, animal sound of it cut through Duncan like a knife. No more teasing, no more pointless games and avoidances.

Releasing the captive ankle, he reached up and stroked wide hands down Methos' chest and flanks, feeling the tense mesh of muscle and bone, the fast, strong throb of his heart. He knew this body as well as his own. Every curve and hollow, every sensitive place.

Methos caught his hand, pulling himself upright, meeting Duncan halfway. "Is this a one-man show, or can I play, too?"

Duncan was tempted to tell him no, to lie back down and cooperate, but one look at the flush in the pale cheeks, the playfully debauched way leaves stuck to his hair, and Duncan just nodded. "I didn't know you needed an engraved invitation."

A tiny shake of his head. "Just you." Methos' mouth found Duncan's, hungry and aggressive, one hand tangled in his hair, the other working open the fastening of his pants.

So simple, the way balance was restored with small gestures--a slow hand on his hip that made him catch his breath, the way Methos turned toward him when he touched his face...

It had been so long since Duncan felt this tangible sense of partnership. They'd never meant for it to happen, denying the intensity of this thing between them, insisting that it was a casual affair when it was clear from the beginning that nothing about it had ever been casual. They had been laughably naive for men with so much combined experience, wasting so many years hurting one another with pointless games and assertions of their independence.

What was so awful about dependence, about needing someone else? He needed Methos, craved the comfort of his presence, and enjoyed the feeling of being part of the whole, that his strength alone needn't always suffice. He and Methos had leaned on each other for so long that Duncan had stumbled when that support was taken away.

Even so, the joy of having him had been worth the pain of his loss. It was a risk Duncan would take--had taken--again and again.

They shed the last of their clothing and lay back on the impromptu bed of leaves and damp fabric, pressing, stroking, kissing, awakening with touch. Duncan kept the pace deliberate and slow, exquisitely gentle as he bent to take Methos' cock into his mouth.

The hand on his head tightened, and Methos sighed a long string of liquid syllables.

Duncan lifted his mouth and laughed. "You need a new line. I understood most of that."

"It's not nice to be a five-hundred-year-old cock-tease, Duncan."

"Who's teasing?" he asked, lowering his mouth again.

Methos arched into him, leaning up on his elbow and petting at Duncan's head and back, open and honest and begging for contact with every motion. Tenderness surged through Duncan, almost overwhelming. He leaned in deeper, nothing awkward in the fit of his mouth, the rush of scent and taste heady and intoxicating.

"I can't reach you from here," Methos complained mildly, still petting at his head and back.

Duncan shook his head minimally, quieting the protest with the effortless wet glide of his mouth. Mutuality would come soon enough, but for the moment he didn't want to move, wanted to enjoy Methos' response without distraction. He knew this body so well, the shape of him the same as ever, the tense flex and release of his belly and thighs an eloquent testament to his pleasure. The hand on his back stilled, warmth spreading outward from the spot near his neck where it rested.

So much that he wanted, and so little time. Steadying his own faint tremors by the simple expedient of holding onto Methos, he wondered when they had lost that old trick of falling into each other, leaning into each other's strength, seeking comfort there.

Methos twisted, grabbing Duncan's hand and pushing it down between his legs. "Please--"

"Shh," he soothed absently, touching where Methos guided, stroking gently. Nothing rushed, nothing hurried. They had time. Not enough for everything that needed to be done, needed to be said--but there was time enough for this. He laid his cheek against Methos' thigh, breathing the warm scent of him.

"Duncan--" Whatever else Methos might have said was lost in the soft, despairing noise he made when Duncan slid his fingers further back and pressed slowly inward. Even after so many years, the stunning intimacy of this had never faded. The sense of trust and vulnerability were as potent, the pleasure of pure observation as visceral, as the first time he had done this, had touched Methos simply for the joy of watching his lover respond. The delicate flutter of the pulse against his fingers was immediate and alive. Methos panted harshly, his struggle to hold still so wonderful and obvious.

Slowly, gently. There had been enough pain between them. There would certainly be more, he knew the truth of that as completely as he knew the sun would rise tomorrow, but for now--for now he could pretend that it would be otherwise.

Methos lay quietly, surrendering himself to Duncan's touch, small shudders, quickly suppressed, flashing through him at odd moments. Duncan rested his head against a lean thigh, pressing a kiss to the cool skin. "We can stop if you want," he whispered.

"Don't stop," Methos said, his eyes closed tight.

He laid a hand against Methos' chest, feeling the tense shivers and fast-pounding heart. "You're shaking."

Methos caught his hand in a fierce grip, his fear and desperation palpable in the close air. "Don't stop."

Moving over him, Duncan pressed forward gently, letting Methos set the pace, as it seemed he had always done. Joined, he paused there, trembling himself now. It was more than he expected--the homesickness, the grief, the love that washed through him. Duncan held on against the unforgiving tide, not moving, barely breathing as he struggled. It wasn't fair that they had to fight so hard now for things that used to come easily. The sense of safety he had with Methos was gone, another relic of the past. Now he was acutely vulnerable, naked to his bones, and determined not to hide any of it.

The ache of arousal was heavy and sweet. Methos sheathed him, anchored him, completed him in ways he didn't recognize until they were together again and some hitherto unnoticed need was suddenly filled. This time the need was Methos', and Duncan prayed that he was doing the right thing, that his strength alone was enough to see them through. He leaned down over Methos, sheltering, and laid a kiss in the center of his chest.

"Please move," Methos begged, twisting fractionally, shifting them, the serpentine undertow delicious and irresistible. They rocked together slowly, hands stroking in encouragement and reassurance, lips kissing and caressing any flesh within reach.

It was devastation; it was grace.

Kisses were moist and open-mouthed, an unreserved expression of tangled emotions. This was where they had always been at their best, these moments when complicated things became clear, distilled to the essence of what mattered. Whole, together.

Alive.


Through the trees he could just see sunlight gilding the western mountaintops with the rich golden colors of impending sunset. He noted it absently, time's resolute march onward, and then set aside the knowledge in favor of this denial.

The aftermath felt like fallout from a battle, the field littered with bodies, giving Duncan no real clues as to the victor. If indeed there could be a winner here, with the stakes so ambiguous and so high all at once, the certainty of a continued future possibly nothing more than an extending of pain. Maybe he was wrong to fight for what they had. Methos had accused him often enough of living in the past.

How could he not, when the past was so much more pleasant?

They turned, and Methos lay against his chest, allowing himself to be held, to be comforted. Duncan ran his fingers over the nape of Methos' neck, the bristles there soft and prickly at once. Just like Methos, really. Or just like he used to be.

Doubt assailed him. Had he really done them any favors here today? Perhaps numb indifference was the wisest course, after all.

Part of him refused to believe that. Life was preferable to death, feeling to numbness, even when that feeling was pain. Pain was often the first sign of healing, and coming back to life always hurt. Always.

He ran his fingertips along the graceful curve of Methos' head and smiled at the sigh he got in response. "I miss your hair," he said.

Methos stiffened, not moving so much as an inch, but the air of lazy contentment vanished, leaving a wary defensiveness behind. "Yes, well there are a lot of things I miss," he replied with an acid note. "At least hair grows back."

A faint breeze carried the cool scent of evening and wildflowers. Duncan sighed and wrapped an arm more securely around Methos, relishing the touch of so much bare skin. There were really no reassurances he could make. Everything sounded trite and meaningless, even to himself.

Hair grew back. Physical injuries repaired themselves. Time moved on.

And other, invisible kinds of scars endured, mental and emotional limbs atrophied from lack of use. What a fool he was to think that everything could be made right with a little "true confession" and sexual healing. It was a step, yes, but the road was very long.

And so much of it had to be traveled alone. At moments like this he got desperately tired of so much waiting, so much separation. Methos might wish for hot showers and prompt room service, but all Duncan really wished for was peace and privacy, for the luxury of living their lives together now.

Methos sighed and shifted, gradually relaxing again under Duncan's touch. This was luxury, this time alone. Sweet and dangerous, priceless beyond measure.

There was perhaps an hour of light remaining when the faint splash of a leaping fish caught Duncan's attention. He brushed a kiss against Methos' head in brief apology, then said, "We should set the poles if we want to eat tonight."

Methos grumbled low in his chest, but made no effort to move. "Food is overrated."

Crickets sang along the water's edge. It was a peaceful, summery sound. Duncan smiled. "You won't be saying that later."

"Mmm. Depends on how distracted you keep me." Another fish jumped.

Duncan poked him gently in the ribs. "Come on, for that much distraction, we're going to need our strength."

"There's a flaw in that somewhere," Methos complained mildly, but got up anyway.

They made it back to camp just after true dark, tired and happily laden with two heavy-sided trout, cleaned and ready for cooking. This time Methos built up the fire while Duncan pulled bedding from the tent and laid it outside in a warm pallet big enough for two.

And while the fish baked, it seemed there was time and energy for a little more distraction, after all.

Much later, Duncan straightened the mess they'd made of their bed and kicked off his boots, stretching out to look at the stars. With no moon to compete, the Milky Way was a shimmering stripe across the sky, brighter than he'd seen it in a long time. He picked out six constellations before giving up on the game. It was far too easy with this many stars out.

Methos sat on the edge of the pallet facing the fire. Duncan stretched over and stroked his back. "Come to bed, Methos."

"All right." Methos lay down, pulling up the zipper on the double bag, and after a moment Duncan moved over to spoon against his back, reaching around to find his hands. Strong fingers twined with his, and he sighed, brushing a kiss across the back of Methos' neck. The fire popped, homey and relaxing.

"Duncan?" The sound rumbled through Methos' chest, a vibration felt more than heard.

"Mmm?" he breathed against Methos' nape, laying another kiss on the vulnerable juncture of neck and shoulder. A long shiver coursed through the lean body.

"I'm still cold," Methos said quietly after a while.

Duncan pulled him closer still, wishing again for the kind of power to make this right, to find easy solutions to these complex problems. "I know."

The nylon bag gave a slick, synthetic rustle as Methos twisted in his arms, turning onto his back. Firelight gilded the edges of his face, casting the rest into darkness. Shadows had always loved Methos. He looked at Duncan steadily. "I don't like it."

Chest tightening painfully, he swallowed hard and pressed close, offering himself as a shield against the cold and darkness, and kissed Methos' temple. "Then let me warm you."


Waking alone in the dark was nothing new to Duncan MacLeod. The dream slipped from his grasp, leaving him with a vague, unsatisfied feeling, a dull ache of incompletion. Awareness of Methos' proximity burned through him, offering nothing but more itches he couldn't scratch.

He sighed and rubbed his face, already far too awake for yawns. Methos sat opposite the fire, the flickering light doing nothing to illuminate him. A log popped, sparks dancing upward on the heat plume. "I thought brooding was my job," Duncan said more harshly than he intended.

Methos looked up, the darkness moving across his face in unexpected ways. He shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry, I never did have much respect for boundaries."

Duncan sat up at that, stretching a sore place in his back while he tried to distill the meaning behind the words. Boundaries? Ready to ask what Methos had meant, he looked over, then stopped. Methos was dressed to travel, his packs resting beside him. There was no excuse for the cold lump that gathered in his belly. He'd known that they would leave this morning, known it from the beginning. It shouldn't have come as a shock.

And yet it did.

Looking around, it was plain that Methos had been up for a while, if he'd even slept at all. The tent was struck, the gear divided, and the packs apparently ready to go. In an hour or two, the only remaining evidence of their presence would be the cold ashes of the fire, drenched and covered in dirt. It was wrong somehow that their time here could be erased so easily, that they made as little impression on the land as they did on one another's bodies. So much damage, and not a single scar to show for it.

Methos shifted restlessly, looking uncomfortable and preoccupied. Duncan smiled at the dark humor of it, knowing that look so well. "Getting an early start?" he asked, more as an excuse to break the silence than out of any real curiosity. Of course Methos was leaving. He had never been one to postpone the inevitable.

"I thought it might be easier."

"Easier for whom?" Duncan bit off the rest of it and reached for his boots. "Never mind. It doesn't matter."

Smiling tightly, Methos glanced down into his hands, clasped casually between his knees. "Will you go back to Madrid?"

Methos knew where he lived. Their gazes locked for a long moment in silent acknowledgment and understanding. Boundaries, indeed. Duncan couldn't even be surprised. When no other revelation was immediately forthcoming, he pulled on a boot and sighed. "Yes, I suppose I will." There was a brief impulse to ask where Methos would go, what part of the world he called home now, but he refrained.

When Methos looked back up at him there was something dangerous and despairing in his eyes. "Come with me."

Duncan's fingers fumbled on the laces, something inside him going cold and still at the words. "What?"

Heart hammering in the ensuing silence, he closed his eyes, unable to look at Methos. He'd dreamed about this, fantasized in idle moments about just the two of them, together again like they used to be, back-to-back against the world. It would be magnificent drama, thoroughly romantic suicide.

"People disappear every day, vanish off the face of the earth without a trace. Let's do that. There are places we can go--"

"It's not that easy anymore," he said, not yet able to look up.

"It can be." Methos' voice flattened defensively.

A vicious bark of laughter escaped him. "No. Forty years ago, maybe. Now? I'm being watched, Methos. They know where I live, where I work, where I like to get my dry cleaning done--you know damn well the only reason they didn't follow me in here is that they know better than to get that close when there's a shortage of witnesses and places to hide." He shook his head slowly in frustration. "And they'll be right on me again as soon as I come out of the back country."

"I don't care about the Watchers anymore."

Duncan took a slow breath, trying to soothe the twisting knot in his gut. "Do you hate me so much? I always knew you could be cruel, but this--"

"Damn it, will you look at me?"

No. He didn't want to look at Methos, didn't want to put a face to this new torture. Everything he wanted, craved, dreamed about, offered to him at a price he wouldn't, couldn't pay. It was an indescribable torment. "No."

He didn't want it like this, didn't want to hear the stifled pleading in Methos' voice, the loneliness that drove him to do this. Slowly strangling off the parts of him that were screaming to take what was offered and damn the consequences, he forced himself to look at Methos.

He hadn't visibly moved, but the tension in his posture was clear, clasped hands between his knees tight with strain, eyes shadowed from lack of sleep, face sharp and hawkish in the red firelight.

Duncan remembered the gentle warmth of his unreserved laughter and was hard-pressed not to close his eyes again. "I will not help you die."

Methos shook his head. "It's so simple for you to leave? I'm not the only one who can be cruel."

Anger would serve nothing. He forced his down, struggling not to raise his voice. "Apparently not. I'll walk away from you a hundred times before I watch you die when I might have prevented it."

The sun was coming up, faint silvery light painting the landscape in shades of gray and black. Methos looked like his own shade, the color of ashes in the gloom. "I thought I got to make the rules?"

Duncan thought his heart would break. "You did. You made them five years ago."

Methos exhaled and dropped his head as if holding it upright required more strength than he could summon. "Bastard."

"Yes," he said softly, going to Methos. "I'm sorry." Crouching down, he laid one hand on Methos' shoulder and kneaded gently, wishing strength could really be given so easily.

"Don't apologize for getting what you want." Methos closed the distance between them, holding tightly in a fierce embrace, burying his fingers in Duncan's hair. Duncan held on as long as he could, breathing into Methos' neck, committing the scent of him, the solid breadth of his body, once again to memory. As if he could ever forget.

Silvery light slowly turned golden as time slipped away from them. It was another piece of bitter irony to add to his collection. They were Immortal; time was supposed to be on their side. Time healed all wounds, conquered all enemies, erased all boundaries. Or was that death? A frisson of cold swept up his spine, and he held on tighter.

At last Methos relaxed and pulled back, eyes moist and intense, his face set in troubled lines. He started to speak, then paused. Duncan waited, cherishing the warm touch of Methos' fingers where they curled against his nape.

"I love you," Methos said.

Duncan nodded, swallowing past the thickness in his throat. "I love you."

Methos stood, stepped back, and shouldered his pack. He turned toward the north trail, just visible in the encroaching dawn. At the trees he stopped, looking back with a faint smile. "Duncan, do you remember that little valley in the Canadian Rockies, the one with the noisy stream and the steep walls?"

He smiled. "Where you lost your footing and slid, and I spent half the day picking brambles out of your ass? Yes."

"That's the one. Second week of August, next year." Methos smiled, shifted his pack again, then vanished into the forest with long strides.

Duncan waited, staring into the darkness where the trail turned between the trees until the sense of Methos' presence faded, then set to the task of dismantling what remained of the camp.


October, 2128

Duncan palmed open the lock and backed through the door, balancing two sacks of groceries and a bundle of laundry, cradling his phone against his shoulder. "You worry too much, Mavis," he said absently, soothing the nervous woman on the other end of the connection. "The group is very good; I saw the application disc myself. I'm sure everyone will have a wonderful time."

Mavis made a few more twittering noises in her street level mish-mash of dialect and slang, clearly not comforted by his reassurances. He barely heard a word of it. The details didn't matter, not really. She did this every time the Arts Center scheduled a new exhibit or event, so he was subjected to this conversation every month or so. She needed to whine and be reassured, and so he made the appropriate comforting noises at her. It was a familiar ritual.

A package was sitting on the kitchen bar.

He stared at the plain box, mentally pushing aside Mavis and her insecurities as cold dread crept up the back of his neck. Groceries were set on the floor and the laundry bundle tossed carelessly across a chair. Mavis was still chattering, something about musical instruments made of natural bone and protesters threatening to picket the performances. "Well, I'm sure they'll have a lovely time, too," he responded, losing patience.

It was old-fashioned, oblong, about the size of a large bakery box, wrapped in real wood pulp paper and twine. Something about the way it sat looked heavy, weighted with implications and dread possibilities. It was unaddressed, which in itself was no surprise. The kind of talent it took to circumvent the layers of security systems on the building was its own kind of calling card; the sort of person who would do such a thing was another question entirely. He thought briefly of Amanda, but dismissed the notion. He hadn't heard anything from her in years.

No, not Amanda. Other possibilities were quickly considered and dismissed. Cory had been dead for thirty years. Kit or Walter might pull a prank like this, but neither of them had the skills needed to bypass the security. Methos...

His heart lurched in his chest. The room suddenly seemed very cold.

Mavis continued her inane babbling. He thumbed the connection closed without saying goodbye and dropped the phone on the counter, refusing to consider what else the box might be of a size to hold.

Steeling himself, he opened it carefully, running his fingers over the rough, fibrous texture of the paper. He took a deep breath, swallowed his nervousness, pulled back the paper, and lifted the lid.

Whatever gruesome spectacle his subconscious had anticipated, it was happily disappointed. He looked quickly at the contents. Nothing more sinister than news discs from a variety of World Press Corps bureaus, older data cartridges and CDs, books, and file folders with yellowed pages peeking out of them. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to give him, among other things, what amounted to copies of daily newspapers. He picked a news disc at random, dated a month ago, and slipped it into the DAT reader.

Body Of London Businessman Found In Home (wpc) London -- Nellis Burcher, former chairman of International Assets, Inc., was found dead in his home Thursday. A spokesman for the city police department said that while the cause of death has not been determined, homicide isn't being ruled out. The 91-year-old businessman, who retired in July, was described as a "reclusive hermit" by neighbors and colleagues. Police are also looking for anyone who may have information regarding a distinctive tattoo found on Burcher's wrist....

He inserted another disc, dated a week later.

Murder Investigation Called Off (wpc) Geneva -- Police have halted the investigation of 47 murders in eight countries. A spokesman for the International Police Agency (IPA) said the murders are consistent with ritualistic cult activity. Each of the victims bore the same distinctive tattoo, which police have identified as the insignia of a previously unknown cult. Families of the victims are calling for independent investigations of the deaths, citing mishandling of the case by the IPA. William Finch, a lawyer for one victim's family, has already filed a lawsuit against IPA. According to court documents, Finch claims the IPA purposely overlooked certain pieces of evidence. He is seeking restitution and a reopening of the case. Finch's lawsuit indicates most of the victims were either employed by or linked to International Assets, Inc., yet police failed to investigate this connection....

Duncan scanned the headlines quickly. One disc after another chronicled the deaths of Watchers around the world, none dated older than four months ago. Vaguely nauseated, he reached under the discs and cartridges and pulled out a heavy folder, and another, and another. There, in a series of letters, Watcher field notes, and printed emails dating back over 130 years were the chains of evidence and revelations that had destroyed his and Methos' peace.

One envelope was new, the plasticky texture of synthetic paper a jarring contrast to the natural grain of the older pages. A single neatly folded sheet bearing a Watcher insignia at the top slid out, and he read it with his heart in his mouth. Pushing the laundry aside, he sat heavily, numb with shock.

Dear Mr. MacLeod,

This letter is to inform you that certain regrettable practices and policies of my predecessor have been corrected, and the personnel involved have been dealt with. I'm sure you understand that in the course of business, these unfortunate situations sometimes occur. It is my hope that the enclosed documents may serve as a gesture of good faith and express to you my sincere commitment to avoiding similar situations in the future. Please consider this letter and accompanying materials as our final communication in this matter.

Sincerely,
Maria Terrones, Director

He stared at the paper until his eyes lost their focus, the page dissolving into a shapeless gray smear as words and letters blurred into one another, losing individual meaning under the weight of their collective message. It was over.

Fifty years of pain, of running, hiding, separation, uncertainty, and death, and just like that, it was over. It seemed too simple. There had been no arch-villain to fight, no great beast to kill, no tremendous obstacle to overcome to make them worthy of this gift.

This simple, unbelievable gift from a woman he'd never met, paid for in blood.

Methos would approve.

He squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden, wrenching loneliness that swept over him, and the unexpected ache of loss. The first warm droplet struck the back of his hand, barely noted. Then the reaction set in, and his breath caught, the sense of release disorienting, leaving him stripped. What was he, what were they any more, except the product of their burdens?

He wouldn't see Methos for almost another year. Bleak laughter welled up inside him and mingled with his tears until he couldn't tell the difference between the two, and he buried his face in his hands and wept.


end

--With love to Killa, for sitting beside me on the ledge when she couldn't talk me down.

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