Virginia City, Nevada
October 26, 1875
Methos sighed and scratched at his nose, knowing that he was leaving a wide streak of white dust across his face as he did so. There was no help for it. He could start the day perfectly clean, be as tidy as he could, and still end up looking as if he'd been rolled in flour and grit, like a leg of chicken to be pan-fried. Today he worked alone, perched atop a rickety cradle, facing the exterior wall of Monaghan's mercantile with some fancy imported stone scroll-work the Irishman wanted. It was careful, slow work, the stone both heavy and delicate, and it had to be positioned perfectly so that the seams aligned.
The wind blew strongly from the west, and he turned his back to it, letting it cool the sweat that was already turning the stone-dust into an itchy glue that adhered to his skin. He snorted and reached for his trowel, resigned. It was going to be another unseasonably hot day. At this early hour the wind was cool, but not cold, and there was still no hint of moisture in the air. He glanced up at the sunrise behind the far hills and extinguished his lantern. From the workman's cradle he could see most of the city, down the hill to St. Mary's of the Mountains and St. Paul's Episcopal standing side by side like sisters vying for the attention of a single suitor.
Behind them lay Chinatown and nearby, his own tiny house where Elinore was doubtless readying to cook something utterly inedible for lunch.
The brisk wind was filled with the sweet scent of a cookfire. Maybe in the spring he and Elinore could leave here. He thought Heinrich Schliemann was still excavating Troy, and if not, surely there were other places in the world yet to see. He could take Elinore to see the Taj Mahal...
Shouting erupted behind him, and the smell of smoke intensified. "Fire!" a man's voice cried out.
Driven by the wind, and the dryness of the wood and grass, the fire spread faster than the swarming firemen could keep up with it. Fire engines from the Eagle Engine Co. #3 and from the Knickerbocker #5 had been lost before Methos' eyes, cut off by the sea of flames.
The sound was deafening. Gunshots cracked through the thick air, men and women and horses screamed in pain and fright, glass shattered under the force of the heat with a curiously bright sound, buildings fell, and everywhere was the living roar of the fire itself. The flame spared nothing. It consumed wood and brick alike, leaping easily across the wide streets now cluttered with furniture and other goods abandoned in the rush to safety.
The heat at Methos' back was overwhelming as he worked, shovel in hand, clearing a firebreak at the entrance to the Ophir mine shaft.
"Jack!" The voice was familiar, but the face was the same soot-black mask worn by all those trying to save the town from total destruction. White eyes and teeth gleamed at him as the man shouted over the fire. "Jack! Leave that. We're going to dynamite it!"
Methos swabbed his face on his shirt and swallowed, tasting the ash in the air. "What?" he shouted.
"Dynamite!" The man, Kirby, Methos realized, cried back. "The headworks have already caught on the far side. We have to seal it, or lose the whole shaft!"
Leaning heavily on his shovel, Methos nodded his understanding. If the wooden timbers in the mines caught, the whole of the Comstock would be wiped out. It wasn't so much that he cared about squeezing the hillside below for all the gold and silver that could be eked from it, but he'd come to care for these hardy, generous, reckless people that worked the mines and the town above. He panted and mopped at his face, looking around at the utter devastation.
The fire already licked at the western face of the Ophir headworks. All the men from the mine had been evacuated, and Kirby and a small group of others ran about the building, setting dynamite charges that would seal the shaft and prevent the fire from going underground. Methos moved back to a safe distance and lay prone on the ground as the charge was detonated.
Even so, he felt bruised all over.
He picked himself up and almost brushed reflexively at his shirt before stopping himself. He was as black and sooty as Kirby was. "Where next?"
Kirby mopped a sleeve across his brow and pointed to the south and the Consolidated Virginia mine dump that blocked their view of most of the city, visible over the heaping mounds of dirt only as a smoky heat shimmer. "Gene said that Mackay was going over to seal the collar of the Con. Virginia shaft."
Something inside Methos went cold at the words. "What? How far has the fire spread?"
Scratching at his neck, Kirby shrugged. "I'm not sure. Last I heard, St. Mary's had caught, and there's not much hope for saving Chinatown..."
Methos never heard the rest. He threw down his shovel and ran.
Too far, too far around the bulk of the Con. Virginia dump, around the burning rubble of Chinatown. Union Street was still largely clear, but H Street was already deserted and aflame. He picked his way across the piles of abandoned belongings discarded in the haste to flee the fire and approached his house with a tangible sense of dread.
The small wood-frame house with the cheerful yellow door was already burning on the south and west sides, the apple and apricot trees gone, and the rest of the garden was buried under a layer of charred rubble and soot. He kicked open the door, fanning aside the heavy smoke.
"Elinore!" The tidy parlor was gray with smoke and soot, the air thick and unbearably hot. The kitchen was in flames, but he checked it anyway. Jars of preserves exploded from the heat with sharp pops, adding the stench of burned fruit and pickles to the air.
"ELINORE!" He cried out again, deliberately not thinking of reasons that she might still be in the house and not answer him, already fearing the answer. His heart pounded from exertion and dread.
He found her in the bedroom, lying down on the bed as if in sleep, her dark hair loose and fanned out across the coverlet, that awful, threadbare apron clutched in one bluish hand. Gasping in the dense smoke, not caring that he burned his throat, he touched her with gentle care. He was unsurprised at the boneless flexibility of her limbs, at the dry, half-lidded eyes that stared up at him from the livid face. She had been dead for at least half an hour, smothered by the smoke and heat. Oddly, there was only a sense of calm at finding her, a feeling of sad closure.
The temptation was there to lay her back on the bed and let the flames take her, but Methos had promised her a home and a name, and his protection while he lived. He couldn't abandon her now. Tenderly, he brushed back the dark curls from her face and gathered her to him, carrying her from the house as he had carried her into it two years previous. He never noticed the tears leaving pale tracks down his soot-blackened face.
Shortly afterward, the engine companies and volunteers pulled out, and the city was abandoned to the fire. Later that day, thousands wandered aimlessly among the smoldering ruins, weeping and cursing, salvaging what they could. Methos made no attempt to save anything. Nothing could be saved; it was a lesson driven home to him again and again. Stopping only to make arrangements for Elinore, he walked out of town much the same way he had come in, empty-handed and alone.
Behind him, as the sun slipped behind the Virginia Range, a strong west wind picked up and transformed the city into a featureless sea of blowing ash, quietly echoing with the cries of the homeless.
When he came out of the past, he found that he was driving along a steep, winding road. It took him a moment to recognize the Geiger Grade, to realize that he was headed back towards Virginia City. Until this trip, he'd not been back since the fire. There'd been no point; the only thing left that he'd recognize would be the mine dumps and foundation scars. Nothing left but scars. There had been nothing worth taking, and he'd left nothing behind. Nothing but bittersweet memories of a fragile, broken woman who hadn't wanted what he had to offer, only the one thing he couldn't give her. He'd never figured out whether her death was an accident, or not. He wasn't sure it mattered; either way, all that was left was the sense of failure, one that was settling around him again like a heavy weight.
He saw a herd of wild horses and slowed, admiring their rough beauty. He'd heard their numbers were growing, that they'd settled in around the edges of Reno, sometimes traveling through the communities at the edges of town. It always heartened him to see that something stayed wild. Sometimes he felt as if his whole life had been a process of watching the world be tamed, step by step, watching wild things be domesticated for the amusement and pleasure of the human race. Now there was an odd reversal happening, people working to restore predators hunted almost to extinction, land bought up to keep it from being stripped in the name of productivity. Now wildness was encouraged for people's amusement and entertainment.
A car behind him honked impatiently, and he sped up, his mind reverting to his last sight of Elinore, frail and small in the makeshift funeral home. He didn't know if he'd done well by her, leaving her to the care of strangers, but he didn't think it would have mattered to her. She'd been at peace, finally, in a way he never could have made her. He'd left, burdened only with a sense of having failed her, but that burden had noticeably lifted the further he'd gotten from Virginia City, in distance and time. He'd had a lot of practice outliving guilt and despair. Nothing too bad that you couldn't outlive it. Duncan would figure that out, too, realize that sometimes the only way to take care of things was to leave them behind, let time fill in the emptiness that words never could.
And if you waited long enough, even the scars went away.
Reno Blues Festival Rancho
San Rafael Park
Duncan got to the festival just as it opened to the public, forcing him to greater lengths of patience, reason, and understanding than he had to spare just now. The self-important guard on the employee's gate refused to listen to his claims of working with Joe, or of being a personal friend, roadie, accountant, antique dealer, masseur, or gigolo of any of the other musicians that he could think of off hand, and he wouldn't send anyone to ask. So Duncan waited in line while his tension ratcheted higher and higher, the muted murmuring of the crowd scraping on his nerves like sandpaper. Now inside, he swept through the maze of tents and stages, stretching his perception for any tingle of Immortal presence.
He wasn't sure why he bothered, he knew Methos was gone. Vanished in the night like so many times before, except, like the last time, Methos had left no clue as to where he'd be, and this time Duncan had shown him the door personally. And he wasn't even sure why he wanted him back, given how nasty things had gotten. Unfortunately, he loved the bastard, and he couldn't help but think that the feeling was returned. And misery loves company. Sometime last night or this morning he recognized that Methos was in as much pain and confusion as he was, and if he had a chance, he was determined to try and work it out. And although there was no point in hoping that Methos would be here, blithely twisting cables and tuning guitars for Joe, it was all he had left. At least he finally felt like he was doing something instead of sitting back passively while events unfolded around him.
Ralph and Eddie Parker were already playing a set on the main stage, the low, smoky sound of piano and trombone more appropriate to dimly lit clubs and expensive bourbon than diet colas and a grassy field in the Reno sunshine. He didn't pause to listen as he cut through the vendors toward the second stage.
There was still no sign of Methos, or Joe, just an amplified Celtic band outfitted in Renaissance Faire versions of Highland dress. His head spun with the surrealism of an electric bass and a traditional bodhran driving a power version of an old Irish jig. The music was good, but what were these guys doing at a blues festival? He shook his head and continued on his way, scanning the crowds and the booths, hoping to see someone he recognized, see if anyone had seen Methos. His eye caught that of a busty girl in a green bodice, and she smiled at him from behind a vendor table covered in T-shirts and cassettes. He flashed a friendly smile back, but kept moving.
Realizing that he'd covered most of the grounds by now, he stopped in front of an Egyptian art booth, which oddly enough was immediately next to a beer truck. Damn Methos anyway! If he lived to be a thousand he'd never be able to look at beer, or book stores, or almost anything ever again without thinking of his...//Lover? Are we still lovers? Are we even friends?// He hated this feeling, this limbo in which they seemed perpetually stuck, neither blessed nor damned. Couldn't move forward, can't go back...
Lost in his own dismal thoughts, he was rocked by the impact as someone crashed into him from behind. He started to turn, taking a breath to offer assistance, or apology, if necessary, expelling it harshly as a sharp boot connected forcefully with his shin. "Hey!"
"God damn it! Can't you fucking tourists watch where you're going? Just stand there like a friggin' tree, with about as much brainpower, in the middle of the walk. Open your eyes once in a while, for Christ's sake, and get the Hell off the path if you gotta rubberneck! Shit!"
"Vanessa?" He looked down at the mouthy redhead.
"Mac!!" Again the compact body was launched at him, strong arms latching around his waist in a greeting as enthused as the cursing had been. His arms came around her more to keep his balance than from any expression of affection.
"Hey, there." Impatient for her to complete whatever private ritual demanded the curses and the hugs, he pried her off of him. "Have you seen Joe? Or Adam?"
"Nah," she waggled the ever-present bass guitar case at him, smiling. "Joe won't be in 'til later. I sat in with Dave and the guys earlier."
"The gates just opened."
"Yeah, come on." She grabbed his hand and dragged him almost-unresisting through the growing crowd. "We gotta talk."
"Have you seen Adam?"
"That's what we gotta talk about."
"Hold that thought, gorgeous."
After a few minutes he gave up struggling and trying to get any more out of her, content to see where she would take him. He already knew he wouldn't find what he was looking for here, and he'd learned quickly not to stand between Vanessa and her goal, mostly from stories the rest of the band told. He watched in bemusement as she parted the crowd in front of them with an array of curses and calculated swings of her bass, reminding him of a pilot boat in a busy harbor, guiding tankers out to sea. Red curls flounced in the wind, and her short, stocky legs ate up the ground faster than he would have thought possible. Too soon she pulled him past the stubborn gate-guard and up a seedy looking side street adjacent to the sprawling park and nearby university. At the peeling, green-painted door of a tiny pub she finally drew a halt to the forced march, turning to regard him with a curious gaze.
"You got money?"
He nodded, confused. "Yes, but why...?"
"Good. C'mon." The unruly curls bounced again in a satisfied nod, and she dragged him forward into the smoke-filled darkness.
It was like stepping back in time to bars decades gone, except that the lights were electric and the music was canned, Country 'n Western wailing loudly over the speakers. The air was heavy with smoke and the scent of alcohol, an aroma that had to permeate the walls since it was far too heavy to have been produced by the few patrons scattered about at this early hour.
"Hey, Mickey!" Vanessa bellowed in a voice Duncan had never heard before, surely an unexpected by-product of years of vocal training. "Gimme a couple drinks!"
Mickey looked up from behind the bar. Fat and sallow from too many hours indoors, he looked haggard and weary, as if he'd been here all night pouring liquor for indifferent customers. "Sure, Nessie. You want the usual?"
"No..." She stole an appraising glance at Duncan, then swept a look around the room and pointed at a back table with a certainty worthy of a golden retriever. "Sit."
Mickey made a low noise of protest. "Hey, don't you want to sit at the bar?"
"What, and stare at your homely mug all day?" Vanessa leaned over the scarred surface of the bar. "Let me have that one, third from the left."
"Yes, glasses, ya moron. Two. This ain't the back country. And ice. Hey, and give me a beer."
"The cold kind." The requested order was produced on a tray that had clearly seen better days, and she turned, looking flatly at Duncan. "You aren't sitting."
He looked sharply at Vanessa and her sudden transformation. He'd never spent much time with her apart from the band, or at Joe's, and now he realized why -- she frightened him, and he was suddenly, shamefully glad that she wasn't a pre-Immortal. She gestured at him again, and since he really couldn't think of a reason not to obey, he led the way to the indicated table, far to the back and bathed in the jaundiced light of a beer sign, thinking that "Nessie" was perhaps not as inappropriate a nickname as he'd first thought.
Seated to her satisfaction, she poured for him from the bottle of dark liquor and swigged from her own beer. Duncan refused to look at the label on the poison-on-the-rocks she was pushing toward him.
When she didn't immediately volunteer any more information, he decided to venture a question. "Vanessa, what are we doing here?"
"We're drinking," she said, like he was asking her what year it was, or what color the sky might be.
"Well, yes, but...why?"
He sighed and sipped at the glass in front of him. Ugh. This stuff could be used to soak rust off a radiator. Oh, well. Not like it would kill him. He drank more. Maybe a change of subject would work. "Have you seen Adam?"
An unenthused nod. "Yeah, tall guy, dark hair, nice nose." She drank more beer.
Duncan liked Vanessa, really. Joe liked her. She had a voice that gave new meaning to all sorts of words used to describe blues singers, like 'rich' and 'smoky' and 'smooth,' a voice that was easily three times too big for her short, stocky body. It would be A Bad Thing to kill her in a fit of frustration. Joe would be upset.
"No...Well, yes, but have you seen him lately? Since yesterday afternoon? You said we needed to talk about him."
"Yeah, you've seen him? Or yeah, we need to talk about him?"
"Both." She smiled at him benignly when he growled, reminding him of a badger he'd once cornered. The badger hadn't looked intimidated, either.
He wanted to bang his head on the table. Actually, he wanted to bang her head on the table. Instead, he drank more of the foul, brown-colored paint thinner masquerading as whisky. "Where? When?"
She looked at him over the wet rim of her beer mug. "You should get out more, Mac. You look like you're about to bust an aneurysm over the Jolly Green Giant there."
Not completely understanding her reference, he let it go without comment.
Thirty seconds later, Vanessa was still silently drinking beer in the sickly yellow light, and he'd exceeded his limit of patience. "So, what does that make me, Little Sprout?"
She looked at him like he'd grown horns. "No, that makes you Gawain."
There was really nothing he could say to that. He sipped at his flavored turpentine and decided to ignore the fact that she was quite mad. "You said you saw him?"
He ground his teeth, praying fervently. //Dear God, give me patience and give it now.// "Where?"
"He was at Circus Circus with Dave. Last I saw him he was face down in a shot glass, trying to pull the bottle in after him. Gotta tell ya, you're a better man than I am to put up with that." She reached over to refill his tumbler.
"His drinking? He..."
She waved a tiny hand, cutting off his explanation. "No, we all drink like dehydrated guppies. Part of the union by-laws, y'know. Smoking is optional. I mean the performance."
"Pure Shakespeare. I mean, it was that good. Not too dramatic, but very, very memorable. What I could understand of it. Very passionate." She paused thoughtfully. "Must be a helluva lay."
He groaned inwardly, reviewing last night's argument and speculating on the content of Methos' oration. "There are compensations," he offered blandly.
"There'd have to be." She drained her mug and got up, heading to the bar to pester Mickey for another.
In the meantime, he continued drinking the potent brown liquor, trying not to think about it too much. It really wasn't so bad once he got over the way it stripped the feeling off of his tongue. He drew his finger through the condensation on the scarred table, trying to recall what he knew of Gawain, wondering what Vanessa had meant and afraid to ask. He was pretty sure he wouldn't like it. His ruminations were interrupted as Vanessa returned triumphantly with her beer.
"Y'know, I never woulda figured you for being gay."
"I'm not gay," he replied automatically.
She blinked at him. "Call it what you want, but going by Adam's personal overshares last night, you two are real close. And frankly, I don't get it. Don't get me wrong, I like Adam fine, but I like a lot of people. Doesn't mean I'd sleep with them."
He smiled. "It's complicated."
She snorted indelicately. "That's kinda obvious. Let's review. Adam's kinda snarky, drinks like a fish, bitches loudly and extensively about you and your relationship in public venues..."
"Aren't you listening? Keep up, man. He gave a ninety-minute dissertation about you personally, your shortcomings as a partner and general human being, to anyone who had the time to listen. He can't seem to decide if he worships you like a pagan god, or hates you for leading him around like a blue-ribbon show dog."
The close air of the bar was suddenly cold and heavy. He tossed back the contents of his glass in a single gulp. "He said he hated me?"
"Get a fucking clue! That's the least of what he said. Shake him off, Mac." She was nearly shouting in her urgency to make a point, the yellow light bleaching her face and hair to an unwholesome pallor.
He shook his head. "I don't want to lose him."
"Then you got a real wide streak of self-abuse. Never figured you for that, either. Maybe my radar's bent, but you can do better."
"I don't think so." The music had changed in the background, something mournful and angry all at once. "You don't really know him."
She pulled at her beer again, tight with resignation. "Fine, have it your way, Prince Darning. He treats you like shit, and you keep going back for seconds."
"Prince Darning?" Another reference he didn't quite grasp.
"Yeah, always putting it back together. Just think about it. You two are like night and day, right down to your shoes. I can't even start on that one. You're both miserable, Adam has some serious problems all on his lonesome, he disses you in public, and you're not even gay. Yeah, I can see why you're together. Sure. Do both of you a favor, Mac, and lose him. Cause I can tell you this: he never will."
The ice in his glass clinked faintly as he drained off the last of the liquor and water in the bottom. "I wish I shared your optimism."
Vanessa rolled her eyes. "You're hopeless, you know that? Okay, just one more bit of advice: ask him who Elinore is. She played pretty heavily in his trip down relationship lane last night, too, and I'd say that's someone he's got some unresolved feelings for."
Duncan looked at her, seeing her genuine compassion, and it settled like salt in the new wounds she'd ripped. "I appreciate the advice." He pushed back from the table. "Thanks for the drink, Vanessa. See you later." On the way out, he tossed a bill on the bar, nodding to Mickey.
Outside, the bright summer sun made his eyes water, and he tried not to think about what Vanessa had said as he walked down the street. Tried not to wonder if she was right. Then he remembered the pain in Methos' eyes, the words they'd both spoken with intent to wound, and he knew she wasn't. If he could find him, he wouldn't let Methos drive him away anymore, no matter what he did. And surely Methos would at least let Joe know where he was going.
Distances in Nevada aren't like those in other parts of the world, as if the Silver State quietly rewrote the laws of nature to suit itself, simply ignoring or altering those that didn't fit its personal vision of The Way Things Should Be. The miles of highway between the Blues Festival and Boulder Cove evaporated under the wheels of Duncan's rented car, disappearing in a vision of evergreens and steep mountains as he anticipated the first glimpse of Tahoe through the trees.
It had been too long since he'd been back here, breathing the serenity of the earth and sky, the trees and stones and water. Restored, Tahoe was almost fey, a bit of paradise fallen to earth -- as long as paradise included casinos on South Shore and tourists all along the eastern rim. Fool that he was, he'd wanted to make some memories with Methos in this place where ancient and modern melded, envisioning music and fun and nothing but pleasure. He'd rented the cabin for a month, hoping that the extended break would give them time to work out whatever it was that was happening between them.
//Idiot,// he accused himself for the hundredth time as the car found the cabin seemingly on its own. Well, there was no reason he couldn't just stay here till the month ran out, swimming and gaming, visiting the area museums and ghost towns. He could go to concerts and shows. Hell, Jerry Thomas might even still be tending bar up at the Delta in Virginia City. There was plenty to keep him occupied, give him time to plan what he'd say to Methos when he saw him. If he saw him. He felt that grief again, but put it away. He wasn't ready yet to start mourning.
Far out across the water a bird cried out once, the sound ringing eerily off the naked rock.
He gathered his light jacket and a shopping bag that had been left in the car overnight. It was still early, the sun barely brushing the tops of the Sierras on the Western shore. There was more than enough time to make plans for the evening, to get dinner, go to a show. He could probably even go back to the cafe and see if that nice waitress was busy. //Uh-huh, and I'm sure she'll be happy to drop her plans on a Saturday night to come keep me company, the man who took half an hour to order pancakes.// He could almost hear her, Of course, just let me call my husband and mother and seven children.
The door was unlocked.
Preternaturally calm, every sense stretched, he stepped inside, dropping his bag and jacket to the side just as the sweep of presence pulled at him. The katana came to hand without thought, and he moved clear of the doorway, waiting.
Methos stepped out of the bedroom, large and silent, his broadsword gripped with deceptive casualness. Duncan felt an overwhelming relief at the sight of him. The angular face was flat and unemotional, except for the hazel eyes regarding Duncan with a wild look that he'd only seen once before -- when Methos had him pressed up against the wall the night before. He might have been a stranger for all the recognition Duncan saw in him. Nothing about him looked familiar, nothing looked safe, and yet Duncan felt a surge of arousal, a feeling of near awe, a desire to lose himself in Methos' fierceness.
And God, he was beautiful. Duncan drank in the sight of him, relaxing his stance, realizing exactly how sure he'd been he'd never see him again. Tall and broad, a green silk shirt Duncan had given him draping loosely across his wide shoulders, moving faintly with every breath. Was it a good sign that he was wearing the shirt?
Veins and muscles in his forearm stood out, twitching as he adjusted his grip on the sword. Gracefully balanced on bare feet, he was a vision of lethal power. This wasn't some out-of-practice player, willing to give his life up to the better man. Had Duncan ever seen this man before? Had Methos let him? He had a sense of being lost in Methos' vast experience...and he wanted it, wanted to give in to him, to feel small and young, and out of control. To break Methos' control.
They stood that way for a long moment, appraising each other in a way that made Duncan's mouth hot and the fine hairs on his neck stand up. He felt his lips trying to pull away from his teeth in an instinctive snarl, the confrontation of predators. The old question hung in the air, almost audible. How good was Methos? If, at the last, it came down to just them, who would win? Could he do it? Could Methos? Maybe the damnable Game would finally resolve things one way or the other. He felt a twist of an icy knife in his gut at the thought. Too many questions and no answers.
Methos' grip on the broadsword was minutely adjusted again, and the cold eyes flicked down and up, a gaze so potent that it was almost tangible, sending a flood of heat through Duncan, followed by a sharp chill. "For me? Really, you shouldn't have." The tone was flat and serious, a cold mockery of the light words.
There was a pause, a single breath of pure confusion, as Duncan wondered if he'd spoken aloud, Methos' words echoing his own dark thoughts too closely. "What? God, no!" He flipped the katana out of the ready position he was holding it in and up behind his arm. "You startled me, that's all. I didn't expect you back."
Methos twisted his lips at him in a parody of a smile and slackened his grip on his sword as he shifted back toward the bedroom. "Don't worry, I've just come back for my things. I'll be out of your way soon enough."
Duncan felt a terrible emptiness welling up, reminding him of his earlier feeling that Methos was dead to him, gone as if he'd never existed. "Don't go."
Methos turned back to look at him. "What?"
"I don't want you to go. We need to talk."
"Seems to me we've already had this discussion. This isn't working, MacLeod. I thought we decided that last night. You do remember?"
Heat rose to his face at the memory, but whether it was arousal, shame, or anger that colored his cheeks, he didn't know. Truthfully, there wasn't much in him left to care. "I remember. And I still don't want you to go," he repeated, clinging to the spare expression of that one overwhelming need. "I need you to stay." He knew it was time for him to stand firm under the oncoming blow. Whatever problems they had, they could work them out. Better this than nothing at all, which was the only alternative; he could see that, now. They'd come too far to go back.
Methos whirled on him angrily, flinging his sword to the floor with a muted clang. "No! What you want is to not be alone! You want to play some version of the white knight, but I'm not cut out to be your damsel in distress. I can't give you that, and frankly, I'm tired of trying."
"Methos, I've spent a good portion of my life alone! I like company, yes, but the longest I've ever stayed with anyone is with Tessa." Duncan stalked further into the room. "I don't want to rescue you! I want to be with you!"
"I can't do this anymore, Mac. I-- I can't put myself aside anymore."
"Well, who the hell asked you to? You think I want somebody else, somebody that's quiet and obedient and less trouble than a five-thousand-year-old asshole? What is it with you and this need to see yourself as some kind of camp follower, or good little wife, best seen and not heard? You think that's all I want you for? Someone to keep the home fires burning? Is that how I treat you?" He stalked off to toss his sword down on the table, leaning on it for support. "If that was all I needed, I could get it for a lot less trouble someplace else. Easy, you are not." He took a deep breath, trying to quench the flare of anger. "God, Methos, do you think that badly of me?" He turned his head to look at Methos.
As he watched, Methos seemed to shrink slightly, pull in on himself, withdrawing, and it undercut Duncan's anger. He stood a moved a few steps closer to him. "Why do you do that?"
"Do what?" Methos looked startled.
"Always make yourself seem smaller. Don't do that. Don't...don't be less than who you are with me, Methos. You don't need to hide from me that way."
"For you? Or for me? Do you think I'm that shallow?" He could see Methos' temper flare, and he found himself glad of it. "Or do you think you're that frightening? You make it too easy for me, maybe. Too easy to forget who you are. Is that what you want?"
Methos closed his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck, as if it was too tight, and his anger seemed to ebb again. "I don't know what I think, anymore, Duncan. I'm just tired of-- I can't exist only in terms of what you need. I'm not your student. I'm not your teacher, and I'm for sure not your goddamn trophy wife, to follow you docilely hither and yon. And like it or not, I'm not Adam, either. All or nothing, Mac. You don't get to pick and choose what parts of me to want anymore."
Duncan stepped closer and confronted him. "And what, exactly, is it you think I need you to be? What is it you think I can't handle? And where do you get off thinking you're the only one in this relationship that's having trouble adjusting? You don't exactly come across as being open and sharing. Maybe you need to stop picking and choosing what parts of yourself you show to me, anymore. I'm an adult, Methos, not a child."
Methos looked at him, startled. "You haven't proven yourself very willing to deal with some of the parts of me you've seen."
"Well, the feeling is mutual, Methos. We both have our illusions, don't we? I'm sorry if I can't quite assimilate things as fast as you'd like, but I think I've done a pretty good job."
Methos leaned back against the wall, his exceptional care betraying his brittle mood, his silence betraying nothing.
Duncan let the silence stand until he couldn't bear it any longer. He opened his mouth and surprised himself with what came out. "Who's Elinore?"
Methos' head snapped up almost audibly. "What?"
"Elinore." Duncan watched him closely, wanting to catch his reaction, uncertain what he hoped for.
Methos' eyes slammed shut and his face went blank, sweeping away the flash of pain there before Duncan was quite certain that he'd seen it. They opened again almost immediately, the new and improved expression betraying nothing but a bland bewilderment, although the tension in his shoulders betrayed a deeper sentiment. "Elinore? Where did you hear about Elinore?"
Anger and hurt flared, hiding the surge of guilt. After all this, Methos was back to concealing things. Duncan wondered who he was protecting. "Vanessa mentioned her."
Methos smiled at that. "Ah, Vanessa. She doesn't care for me very much, does she?"
Duncan smiled thinly. "No, she doesn't. Not much at all. Now, me, she likes."
A slow shake of his head back and forth, a bitter smile. "Don't worry, Mac. There's no one else. Elinore's been dead for more than a hundred and twenty years." There was a pause, as if what followed was harder to say, and when he spoke, his tone was bleak and lifeless. "She was my wife." Methos stared out the window. "She wanted more than I could give her, too."
"More than you can--?" Duncan's confusion deepened. "What is it you think I want that you can't give, Methos? How is it I ask too much of you, exactly? From where I stand, you're the one whose needs aren't being met." He ran a hand through his hair, his breathing ragged, feeling vulnerable at the admission. "It doesn't seem to me that this is about what I want, at all. What about what you want, because hell if I can figure it out!" he snapped in frustration. "I'm not allowed to keep you, I can't let you go--"
There was a short bark of sound that might have been mistaken for laughter on some other day, and Methos turned to fully face him, all confusion stripped away, leaving him curiously naked in his anger. "Let me go? Excuse me for mistaking this grand gesture for the foot in my ass that it feels like. You can't throw me out and then play the abandoned lover the next day! You don't get to play that game."
"Like hell! You'd decided to leave before I had anything to say about it! I think I was the abandoned lover, if my memory serves me. Who went out and got himself laid?" He took a deep breath. "It seems to me that we've both been playing a lot of games, only we haven't been on the same field. So, what game are we playing this time? Tell me, Methos, because I'll do my best to learn the rules this time, if you'll play fair." Duncan could hear the desperation in his own voice, but he was past caring.
"No more games, Mac. This one's for keeps."
"Is that supposed to be some kind of joke? For keeps? You've had one foot toward the door the whole time we've been together."
"Jesus, MacLeod, I'm surprised you don't chain me to the bed at night. I live in your house, eating your food, on your schedule. I even wear the fucking clothes you give me. Pardon me for feeling a little kept!"
"Don't give me that crap. It's your home, too, in any way that matters. I'm sorry if you don't like the gifts I get for you. I'll stop. And if the living arrangements bother you, fine. That's easy enough to fix. I'll sell the barge and the loft, and we can find a place together, anywhere you'd like. We can get a joint checking account. Split the bills. I'll do the shopping, you clean the bathroom; I'll wash the clothes, and you can put them away. Hell, we can even get monogrammed towels, if it will make you feel more at home." He stopped for breath, running a hand through his hair in a tight gesture. "Anything you want, Methos. I mean it."
"It's not that easy, Duncan. "
Duncan wondered if he looked as bewildered as he felt. "So that's it? You just go? Tidy little solution you've got there, and it applies to so many things. Were you the one that coined the phrase? 'When the going gets tough...'"
Methos glared at him, his eyes as cold and hard as agates. "I don't need this."
"Then tell me what you do need! You know, I'm not exactly new at this relationship thing. Tessa and I had a good one, and I don't think she ever felt like she was nothing but a prize poodle. And I don't think I treat you like one, either! I'm sorry if I failed to realize that you're such a shy and retiring person that you're incapable of expressing your needs."
"That's not fair, Mac!"
"Isn't it? Somehow, sometime, you've decided that being a part of my life, letting me be a part of your life, is a one-way street, and you're stuck at a dead end. You don't want to be with me? Fine! Go, leave, lead your own life the way you want to live it, in glorious solitude. But don't blame me because you can't figure out what you want. Or if you can't be happy with what we have." He took a deep breath. "Or if I'm not enough for you."
"Duncan, it's not-"
Duncan interrupted him. "What are you so afraid of?"
"Don't lie to me. You don't want to talk about it, fine. I'll talk. You want to know what I'm afraid of?" Duncan sucked an unsatisfying breath of air and gripped his courage with both hands before continuing. "I know that there is nothing I can do, nothing you'll let me do, to make up for the differences between us. Whatever your reasons were for coming back to Paris and agreeing to stay with me, I'm afraid that it won't be enough for you in the long run. That I won't be enough to keep you interested." Duncan stopped to see if this was having any affect on Methos, but the most he could see was that he still had his attention.
"I'm not stupid, Methos, I've felt you drifting away, and nothing I do seems to matter. I am terrified, every single day, that you'll leave, and I'll never see you again. That the next I'll hear of you is a midnight phone call from Joe, telling me that someone's taken your head."
The silence was overwhelming, making the sound of his own heart seem like thunder in his ears. Methos just stared at him with that damned blank expression that could mean anything from pity to rage. It didn't matter. Nothing really mattered. Duncan surrendered the field to his opponent and paced numbly through the living area, leaning heavily against the back of a chair to look out the window at the sharp sweep of the mountains, back-lit by the dying sun. Behind him he heard the ghost of bare feet over carpet as Methos moved, and he braced himself for the slam of the bedroom door. The dull thump of a body against the sofa cushions made his heart pound anew.
But Methos said nothing.
The silence was tight and uncomfortable between them. It lay heavily in the air like a tangible barrier, an unbreachable wall. Methos' presence, his utter nearness, coupled with that sense of uncrossable distance, was its own special torment. The room was filled with questions, accusations, desires...the dreadful urge to say something, anything, to break the thick, melancholy spell of the quiet, and the absolute fear that almost anything said at this point would be the wrong thing.
That Methos had remained this long was a kind of victory in itself, but just now, in the potent silence of the darkening room, the victory tasted like ashes.
The sun fell behind the Sierras with a brief splash of rose and violet before the sky settled easily into the more somber colors of twilight: soft blues and grays and blacks, highlighted by the diamond-bright gleam of early stars and the lights on the far shore of the lake. The sound of crickets carried faintly through the open window, and Methos shifted on the sofa with a dry sound of cloth-on-cloth, but still didn't speak. Perhaps there was nothing left to say.
Duncan swallowed tightly, trying to moisten his mouth. He faced the large windows, watching the day's descent into darkness with a sinking heart. He didn't need to look behind him to know that Methos was still there, watching him. The sensation of that gaze on his back was as potent as the low throb of Immortal presence that permeated the room. He drew a slow breath of the heavy air. "Can I get you a beer?"
"No, thank you," Methos replied quietly.
There was no place here to find purchase, nowhere to hold on as the words slid down into the consuming silence, but Duncan took another breath and tried again. "Are you hungry?"
"No, Mac, I'm not hungry." A dry, tired rasp of breath slipped almost unnoticed into the quiet. "Am I a guest now?"
"No. I just...I feel like I should do something."
"Then by all means, do something."
A wave of deep frustration rolled through Duncan. He ground his teeth at the force of it, biting back the sharp words that readied themselves on his tongue. There was a sense of being on the verge of something wonderful, or terrible, or both. He steadied his breath and went and grabbed himself a beer, nearly draining it with the first drink, hoping it would bolster his courage to get through this to whatever was on the other side.
Tension coiled through his back and shoulders, calling for motion, physical action to ease the pressure of the moment. Instead, he turned and leaned heavily on the back of the chair, digging his fingers into the soft upholstery, watching the man on the couch. Methos had abandoned his typical boneless sprawl in favor of a wary perch on the edge of the cushion, the bright eyes regarding him with cold attention. Taking a deep breath, Duncan ground out the words like broken glass, "Why did you come back to Paris?"
Methos looked at him curiously, and Duncan wondered what was going on in that inexplicable head of his.
"You want to know why I came back, or why I stayed?"
"Either. Both. Why are you here, Methos? Why are you with me at all? Because it sure doesn't seem to make you happy."
Methos clasped his hands in front of him and looked down at them. Duncan felt a sudden relief as that bright regard was removed. "Why do you think?"
"I have no idea. I'd like to think it was maybe because you missed me." Duncan took another swallow of his beer. "Did you?"
"You have no idea."
Duncan felt a warmth bloom low in his belly at the intensity of Methos' tone, a warmth that was intensified by the look in Methos' eyes when he looked back up. He suddenly felt a little unsteady, and he didn't think it was the beer. He put down his bottle, bracing himself on the chair. "Vanessa said you said you hated me, sometimes."
Methos smiled slightly. "I seem to have had made quite a fool of myself last night."
"Yeah, I heard. Is that a good sign?"
"Do you really think you have so little to offer me?"
This time, Duncan was the one who looked away. He shrugged, not trusting his voice. "Sometimes." The word was ragged, proving him right.
"Surely you have more respect for me that that?"
Duncan looked up, bewildered.
"You really think I'd waste so much time on someone I didn't think was worth it?"
"I figured I had good amusement value." He couldn't keep the faint bitterness from his voice.
Methos' smile was wiped off his face. "Now, that hurt."
"More than if I'd said I felt like a prized pet?"
Methos stared at him for a few moments. "We're quite a pair, aren't we?"
"At this point, I'm not sure what we are. Do you hate me sometimes?"
Methos sighed. "Sometimes, yes. But no more than I hate myself. Because, despite myself, I can't seem to stay away from you, no matter how badly it seems to work for us both." He rubbed wearily at his eyes, his shoulders shuddering once in what might have been a silent laugh. "And it's not you, Mac. It's me. I know this will never work, but hope fucking springs eternal."
"Then why are you doing this? If you want out so badly, I won't stop you, but--" Duncan recoiled and took a step as Methos surged up, his eyes flashing, as if he were unable to sit still any longer, stalking around the chair to confront him, the fierce intensity of his low, even tones piercing Duncan's heart with a painful joy.
"I don't want out. I never wanted out. That's the punchline of a very sad joke. You really want to know what I'm afraid of? I am losing myself in you, and it may kill me, and I still don't want out. But it feels as if you hold me at arm's length."
It was the naked hurt in Methos voice as much as the unshielded clarity of his eyes that swept the ground from under Duncan's feet. To hear that admission, to know that Methos, with all his years, all his experience, was as lost and scared as Duncan himself. He realized how much his reactions to Methos' past hurt, as if he was rejecting Methos himself, and he wanted to try and take that pain away.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I-- It's not that simple, Mac..." Methos sighed, even as he leaned his head back, accepting the soft kisses Duncan brushed along his cheek and jaw.
"Yeah, you've said that, but I think it can be. Just say it. Tell me what you need. Tell me what you're looking for. Because I can tell you what I need, Methos. I need you. I don't want you to leave, but you're right, we can't go on like this, either."
"What? Tired of fighting-as-foreplay already?"
Duncan silenced him with a kiss that left them both breathless. "Yes. Aren't you? And quit trying to change the subject. I won't hurt you."
With those words, Duncan flashed on his dream, on Methos, battered and bruised, and he pulled back, though he kept his hand against Methos' throat. "I don't...I don't want to hurt you."
"Well, that counts for something." Methos opened his eyes fully and looked at him. "But we all hurt each other, Duncan. That's life." His gaze faded slightly. "Sometimes I have trouble remembering that."
Duncan pushed aside his fear and reached out, as much from the need to touch Methos as the real belief that he might fall without support. And Methos was there, strong enough to support him, to hold him and all of his insecurities without wavering, without flinching. For a long moment it was all he could do to stare into the unfathomed depths of those familiar eyes, dizzy with the vertigo of seeing so much. So much loneliness, so much understanding, so much human need.
"I thought--" What had he thought? If anyone was lost it was Duncan, uncertain of where to begin, what to give, where to find a solid place to hold on. He realized that in his own need to protect himself from Methos' expected departure, he'd confused and hurt his lover badly. He'd resisted making himself too vulnerable, too open, and managed to drive them apart. It was time to change that. "I thought you were holding back from me. I didn't realize--" He took a deep breath. "I never meant to hurt you. You were just so much more than I realized..."
Methos' hands were big and warm on his arms, steadying him with a strength he'd never really believed was there, despite being shown time and again. He leaned into that strength and fought the urge to close his eyes, reaching for what was being offered, understanding the risk. He'd forgotten that love without risk wasn't love at all. So, maybe it wouldn't work out, but maybe it would.
"I know, Duncan." Methos leaned in close, holding him, pressing their heads together, whispering, "I'm sorry. I didn't trust you, I guess. Or maybe I didn't trust me. I didn't know whether you'd be able to handle it, or not, after Kronos, after Seireadan -- whether you wanted to know." Methos pressed his mouth to Duncan's neck, and Duncan could hear the plea in his voice. "I can see it now, but I never knew you felt overwhelmed. I thought you were pushing me away, no matter what I did, so I just made it easy for you."
Pushing him away? It took all the strength left in Duncan's arms to pull Methos closer, craving the feel of him, desperate for his warmth, suddenly unable to tolerate any space between them at all. "I-- I didn't know. I didn't realize--" He shook his head, having no further answer, even though he knew Methos couldn't see him. "And what do we do then?" he whispered.
"Well...some of us try and keep it from hurting by holding back."
"That's us, then. Tried that, don't like it. Next option?" He stroked lightly along the nape of Methos' neck.
"I suppose...we can try living with it. Through it. I'm not sure I remember how. I'm too used to living past it. Mortal time makes it easier."
"Together?" Duncan's voice was rough. "Somehow?"
"I'd like that." Methos' voice was equally rough and intimate.
With that admission, their openness, their vulnerability complete, words were too dangerous. Duncan didn't know which of them started it, who moved first, but he didn't care. Needing to remove the distance that had come between them, they met in a kiss driven equally by relief and passion. Their arms moved to hold tight, their lips and tongues trying to reestablish an intimacy that had been lost before it was securely anchored. Breathing was secondary to the harsh demand of that kiss, the desperate, wet feeding of desire and soothing of fear.
And still Methos held tight to him, all solid strength. It felt so good, to have someone to lean on, and Duncan felt something give inside, some last hesitation, a peevish reluctance that muttered faintly and was gone. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had pleaded with Methos to let this odd relationship be about the moment, not about the end. But then Duncan himself had been the one to brace and guard against the anticipated ending, every joy they shared colored by a premonition of doom -- a prophecy they'd nearly brought to fruition as Methos let Duncan's self-defensiveness drive them further and further apart.
He shuddered as Methos rubbed against him, insistent, urgent, as if trying to burn away the angry words and distance in a fiery closeness. Feeling him, the hardness of him, his desire, there was the old tickle of fear at the base of Duncan's spine, a fear of getting too close, and he acknowledged it, embracing it. He was afraid, trembling, his heart hammering in a way that it hadn't since that first unexpected night in Seacouver. But his fear hadn't stopped him then, and he wouldn't let it stop him now. Finally he acknowledged that it wasn't about Methos -- he had never feared Methos, or anything Methos could do to him. He had feared himself and his own ability to satisfy, to be enough.
"I want you." The words were spoken before he'd realized his intent to say them, and whatever reactions he might have expected, Methos' sudden stillness wasn't numbered among them. Methos pulled back and looked at him, and Duncan felt laid open, spread bare under that piercing gaze. Then those warm hands reached for him, cradling his head, stroking and soothing as Methos guided the next kiss, and the next, his hunger obvious and demanding until Duncan was shaking with anticipation and need.
"All right," Methos said quietly, drawing him toward the bedroom. "I think I can deal with that." His smile was devilish, and it made Duncan's toes curl. "Come on."
Methos felt like his whole body was humming, with desire, with undiffused tension, with uncertainty -- with blissful relief. He'd been walking a knife's edge since he'd seen Duncan in the doorway with his sword raised, his face so stern and earnest. He'd wondered if that would be one of his last images of the man, since he didn't think he could handle being near him anytime soon if things completely fell apart. It had seemed fitting, somehow, that the tension that had always been between them should finally erupt into something lethal. This, even while the rational, unromantic part of his brain was acidly commenting that it was unlikely that Mac was after his head.
And now the knife had sliced open their unspoken wounds, allowing the resentment and bitterness to start to drain like so much pus, hopefully leaving the flesh healthy and able to heal. Even if it left scars. There were always scars, but sometimes they made things more interesting. He knew that nothing was solved, nothing was really changed. All the sincere words in the world couldn't make the changes, but they could open eyes that had been too fond of their narrow perceptions. Looking at Mac now, he could still see the uncertainty, the hesitation that was so out of place in this strong, secure man. It wounded him anew, that his selfishness had been the source of so much pain, even while he knew that they'd both been blind. But it humbled him to realize that even with those fears, Duncan had made a conscious choice to make that first step, to open himself up when he wasn't sure what the response would be. Methos didn't know if he'd have had the courage.
Maybe sometimes he was the student, after all. He stopped, and one after the other he raised Duncan's hands to his lips, pressing warm kisses on the knuckles.
"What is it?"
Methos smiled at him. "Nothing. I just wanted to." When Mac tried to pull him closer, he resisted, then smiled more wickedly.
"What?" Mac sounded decidedly more nervous.
They had moved into the bedroom now, and Methos felt very vulnerable, his normal emotional controls not cooperating. As he let himself feel it, his hunger alarmed him a little, the ferocity of it taking him by surprise. He wanted to indulge it, to feed it, but he didn't want to push Duncan too far, cause more damage than was already between them. He wasn't sure how much of Duncan's attitude was a reaction to his fear that Methos would leave, and he didn't want that.
The room was quiet, except for the sounds of their breathing, and the silence was deafening, overwhelming, a living thing surrounding them with its vibrancy, heightening everything. It was the kind of absolute quiet that filled up a room until the very air sang from the intensity of it. This was the hush of breathless waiting, the calm after a cleansing storm. The silence that comes when all the words are said.
Thinking over what was said, remembering Mac's fears of being overwhelmed, Methos let go of Duncan's hands and was startled by a glimmer of disappointment on his face. "What do you want, Duncan?"
Duncan laughed raggedly. "What do I want? I want you, your passion, your aggression, your hunger...don't hold back for my sake. Oh, I want this, Methos. So badly it scares me. And I'm not fragile. I won't break."
Methos shuddered, the words touching some deep part of him. He studied Duncan's face intently, silently, looking for any reluctance, and he could almost feel the tension building. After so long, he wanted to savor this, Duncan's submission, his voluntary relinquishing of control.
"My choice? My game, my rules?" He kept his voice low and husky.
Duncan swallowed and nodded mutely. Methos could see arousal and hesitation warring in him, and he could almost pick out the moment that arousal won.
He stepped close, sliding his hands to curve around the back of Duncan's head, kissing him briefly, but fiercely, and stepping back. "Then take off your clothes."
There was no hesitation on Duncan's part, but his fingers fumbled with the buttons anyway. Methos didn't move to help, just watched. It was no strip tease, there wasn't even anything particularly elegant in Duncan's movements, but there was a familiarity and ease to it that was as arousing as the most titillating display. When he was done, his clothes strewn on the floor, he just stood there, flexing his hands, shifting his weight, somewhere between nervousness and eagerness.
Methos stroked his fingers along Duncan's throat to his shoulder, then stroked his palm down over the curve of his chest. "Now mine."
Unlike the morning before, Duncan made no teasing moves, but his breathing roughened as he obeyed. Again, Methos stood passively, moving only when necessary. When they both stood naked, he pulled Duncan in for another kiss, a softer, but no less hungry one, and pulled back. "Turn around."
He stroked his hands from Duncan's waist up the broad back, savoring the feel of powerful muscles, then cupped them up over his shoulders, stepping close behind him, pressing his body against Duncan's, sliding his erection along the curves of his ass. He closed his eyes, feeling the heat between them, then pressed his lips to the smooth shoulder softly, almost reverently. Then he began to run his hands slowly over Duncan's body, possessively, tracing each curve of muscle, his movements strong and sure, his head tucked against Duncan's so that his breath stirred the hair on Duncan's temple. He kept his eyes closed, breathing in the scent of him, listening to him, feeling his body shift and tremble under Methos' hands.
He knew the maddening feel of such a slow exploration when you were expecting something harder and faster. He knew the pleasure of it, and he wanted to make this good. He bent his head to lick along Duncan's throat, then bite along the curve, softly, but always with enough pressure to make them both aware of what he could do. Over and over the same curve of skin he kissed and bit and licked, his hands continuing their slow ownership over chest and belly and thighs, cupping and fondling between his legs, but never with enough motion, enough intensity, to do more than tease.
Duncan laid his head back along Methos' shoulder, his breathing ragged, his eyes closed, his passion evidenced by the small groans of pleasure elicited by this move, or that. Methos was in no hurry, and he took his time until they were both flushed and trembling. Pressing forward, Methos guided Duncan to the wall, and taking each of his hands in turn, placed them against the wall, nudging his legs apart with his knee. He stood back, stroking his hand over Duncan's back and ass, slipping his fingers along the warm crevice.
Moving to the bed, he found the lubricant and returned to Duncan's side, setting it on a table before continuing his caresses, this time letting one slippery finger slide more deeply, stroking it back and forth from perineum to anus, his other hand curving around to stroke and fondle Duncan's cock, the pressure firm but gentle. Duncan groaned and moved, seemingly unable to decide if he wanted to push forward or back.
"Don't move, Duncan. Just let yourself feel it."
"You're a teasing son-of-a-bitch, aren't you?" he said in a rusty voice.
"This shouldn't be news to you. Do you want me to stop?"
"God, no. If you stop, I'll kill you."
Methos laughed and kissed his shoulder, continuing to stroke and fondle, letting his fingers press more firmly, but not penetrating, until Duncan spread his legs wider, groaning, obviously finding restraining himself difficult. And still Methos continued, his own body hot and needy, his eyes consuming the passionate display before him. Beads of sweat rolled down Duncan's back, and Methos bent to catch them on his tongue, eliciting groans and murmurs. He thought of things he wanted to say, but he couldn't find the words and hoped his touch would convey how he felt.
Pulling his hands from Duncan's body, he reached for the bottle, noting idly that his own hands shook as he prepared himself, touching himself lightly, knowing he was close. He saw Duncan watching out of the corner of his eye and changed his motions, touching himself more firmly, pulling along his length, shuddering when Duncan pushed his hips back without seeming aware of his own movement.
He moved behind him, resuming his teasing stroke for a few moments, then pressing harder, holding on to Duncan's hip with the other hand, restraining any movement away -- but there was none. Duncan pushed back, taking him in, moving against his hand. Methos increased his motions, his own hunger pushing him, finding no reluctance, no resistance. He stood there, fucking Duncan with his fingers, listening to him, watching his hands try to find purchase on the wall. He was so caught up in the beauty of Duncan's passion that the single spoken word startled him.
"Please." It was low, and hoarse, and aching, and more than he deserved. It stripped him of what few defenses remained, threatening to leave him broken and scattered, and in that moment he realized just how deeply he wanted to give himself over completely into Duncan's care, to lose himself in him. It felt so good to give himself up like this. He fought the urge to apologize, to beg to exist only in terms of what Duncan needed. To confess everything and hand over the few pieces of himself that remained. No terms...on either side.
Removing his hands, he stepped in behind Duncan, sliding his cock along the slickened skin, groaning when Duncan pressed back wantonly, reaching his hand back to grab Methos' hip to pull him in. Suddenly awkward, Methos guided his cock against Duncan, pressing gently, his other hand resting on the small of Duncan's back. They both groaned as he slid past the first ring of muscle, then Duncan shifted again and pushed his hips back, and Methos slid in deeply, floundering briefly until he grasped Duncan's hips, bracing himself, relying on the other man to support them. The heat and pressure were intense, and he pressed in hard, wanting more, wanting deeper, wanting to climb inside this desperately desired, passionately loved man.
He felt Duncan pulling away and briefly tried to stop him, not wanting to lose this feeling, but then he felt the movement, and it was even better. So he started moving, slowly and carefully, biting his lip at the intensity of it, willing himself to gentleness, not wanting to give any pain, any discomfort. When Duncan growled beneath him and started trying to speed things up, he laughed, his laughter interrupted by a broken gasp as Duncan flexed around him, urging him on. His control snapped, and he ceased worrying about Duncan's pleasure, his body driving him to take his own as he began to thrust, Duncan matching him move for move.
When he felt himself getting close, he wrapped his arm around Duncan's waist and reached with his other hand to stroke Duncan's cock, his movements strong and hard, counterpoint to his thrusting hips. Duncan stilled with a small, broken sound, then tightened around him as he climaxed, hips convulsively thrusting into Methos' hand.
It was that small thing that undid him, and he came.
They'd both been rather unsteady in the shower, but they'd managed to wash each other clean and dry off before stumbling to bed. He had almost dozed off, lying there, sated and at ease for the first time in what seemed months. The heavy arm lying across his stomach only added to his comfort.
"Will you stay?" The words were whispered across his shoulder.
"What?" Methos felt the tension returning already.
"Are you staying?" Mac's voice was stronger now, as if he hadn't really intended the first question to escape, but since it had, he had determined to follow it.
Methos felt a deep sadness that Duncan could still be so uncertain, but he knew he shouldn't be surprised -- and that Mac's uneasiness was perfectly understandable. There was no way that one romp, no matter how good, could mend all the hurts they'd inflicted on each other, intentionally and unintentionally. "What are you talking about?"
At first there was no response, then Mac rolled over on his back, one hand still against Methos' hip, as if he couldn't quite bring himself to not remain in contact. "Nothing. Let's just go to sleep."
Methos sat up and turned on the light. "I think that'll be a little difficult now, don't you?" He looked down at the other man, who was staring up at the ceiling. "Look at me, Duncan." Methos waited until he had his attention before expressing his own fear. "Did you let me do this just to keep me from leaving?"
"No! Of course not. I wanted it. I just--" He broke off and sat up, clasping his hands around his knees.
"You just what?" Methos almost smiled; there was something almost engaging in this uncertainty.
"It's just-- I still don't understand why you stay."
Methos fell back against the pillows, staring at Mac's broad back. //Lord, have I undermined his self-certainty this badly?// He remembered thinking that talking hadn't actually changed anything. He hadn't expected to be proven right quite so soon. "What do you mean, Duncan?" He kept his tone gentle.
"I...sometimes feel like I railroaded you into this, this...whatever it is we have."
"You don't think I'm old enough to make my own choices?"
"Did I give you a choice?" Mac was quiet for a moment. "I just wondered if you haven't thought better of it."
Methos raised one hand to stroke along Mac's back. "You have such a tremendously generous spirit, you know that? You're not perfect, by any means, but I stay because I want to. Because I want to be with you."
Mac was quiet for a long moment. "Things haven't been going very well for us, have they?"
"And you think that's all your fault?"
"Well, I'm the one who's been dragging you around hither and yon, not listening to you, not trying to understand you--"
"I've been doing my fair share of that, you know. I've not even been listening to myself very well."
"I'm the one who hasn't been giving you what you want." There was an extra note of pain.
"Which would be...?"
"Space, partnership...in bed, as well." Mac's voice trailed off.
"You've given me plenty of space, Duncan. Maybe too much," he said, acknowledging that most of his feeling of being smothered stemmed from his own irrational fear of getting too close, being too vulnerable. "And surely you don't really think I'd leave because you wouldn't let me fuck you?" Methos had to wrestle his anger back down, knowing it was a blanket for his own fear. "If so, you don't think very much of me."
"That's not what I meant--"
"Then perhaps you should tell me precisely what you did mean." Methos breathed deeply, knowing he had to see this through, not willing to let the secrets start all over again already. "Christ, Mac, if you don't enjoy it, we don't have to do it! You think I just stay for the sex? I can get that anywhere." He winced, thinking of the night before.
"It has nothing to do with that. It never did. That's not why. And I did enjoy it. God, did I enjoy it."
Methos smiled at that, running his hand along Mac's arm to his hand, pulling it back so he could rub his thumb along the wide palm. "Then why?"
"That first night, when I pulled back -- I'd forgotten about it, you know? Because it had nothing to do with you making love to me. That was just coincidence. I remember looking up and really seeing you for the first time, how powerful you were, and it stunned me. I froze, and by the time I-- it was too late."
"So, you're saying that it wasn't about sex at all?"
"No, it was about me, about realizing how little I knew about you, how...small I feel sometimes, compared to you. For the first time, it hit me how...real you are. How much of you there is. And that both frightened me...and attracted me. And after that...it's like it reminded me, but I never really thought about it, I just reacted. I didn't think about how it would seem to you."
Methos wasn't sure what to say. "It's okay, Duncan."
"No, it isn't. It hurt you; you thought I was rejecting you."
"Weren't you? Isn't that what you're saying? That who I am is too much for you?" Methos felt himself getting cold, in spite of Mac's earlier wantonness, his lack of reluctance. After all, it really wasn't about sex, and maybe nothing had changed. Maybe what Mac had felt just confirmed that he wasn't ready to handle this, to deal with Methos' and his unwieldy past. Just that quickly, Methos found himself back on the knife's edge -- but he kept hold of Mac's hand.
Mac ducked his head. "Maybe, but not often. There's so much of you. It scares me, sometimes. Intimidates me. You say you're 'just a guy,' but you're so much more than that, too." He paused. "But I want to find out who you are, not just who you let me see because you think I can't handle it. You shouldn't have to pay the price for my insecurity."
"Is it insecurity, Mac? Or do you just have a hard time letting someone else be the strong one, like I said?"
"Isn't that the same thing?"
"Maybe. But maybe a part of you wants that, wants to let go of the burden of being the one in control. You're too used to being the stronger one. The one in charge."
Mac grinned. "You never met Tessa."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. I shouldn't--" Mac broke off as Methos laughed, and turned to look over his shoulder at him. "What's so funny?"
Methos sat up and kissed one strong shoulder. "You are. Not everything is your fault, you know. It's as much my fault for letting you get away with it, for not talking to you. It was easier to hold back, not to have to deal with whether you could handle it or not. So, let me have my own flaws and faults. I've certainly earned them." He cocked his head. "You do know I have faults, right?" He pulled back until Mac was lying against the pillows, then bent over him with one hand on his chest, looking down into his eyes.
"A few." Mac smiled slightly.
"You're too prone to martyrdom, Duncan. And you're too over-protective. I'm not Tessa. I'm not even Amanda. I've been taking care of myself for a very long time."
"Oh, like I'm the only martyr in this crowd." Duncan rolled his eyes, then looked serious. "Maybe that's part of it, though. Maybe it feels like you don't need me."
"You mean, if I can take care of myself, what do I need you for?"
"Yeah." Mac's voice was rough, and he looked down, but he lifted his own hand to cover Methos' hand where it lay on Mac's chest.
"What do you need me for?"
Mac lifted his head and met his eyes again, his puzzlement evident. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said: what do you need me for?"
"For friendship, companionship-"
"You don't think I need those things, too?" He heard the wistful note in his voice and smiled at the look on Mac's face. "I don't need you to be anything for me, to do anything for me. I just want to be with you. I want to be your friend, your lover -- part of your life."
"You are, all that and more. But sometimes I need to be needed."
"I-- I have trouble with that. Because I've survived so long on my own. But I can try. Sometimes...sometimes I even want it."
Mac smiled at him. "That was hard, wasn't it?"
Methos nodded, watching his hand trail down Mac's belly, curving along the edge of the sheet. "Yeah, it was. It's...hard for me to admit that maybe part of me likes letting you be in charge, likes just following you around. But I want a shared life. Something we make together, for however long it lasts."
"You don't think we'll last?"
"I think that life has no guarantees, even for Immortals. But I don't want you holding back from me because you're afraid I'm going to take off without warning. I'm not like that, Mac."
"You left after Seireadan. Seven months."
Methos nodded, acknowledging the truth. "Yes."
"Will you do it again?"
"I...I don't know." His honesty cut deep.
"Methos, did it ever occur you to maybe try and let us handle things together? That leaving won't protect me from anything? Besides, you'll just miss me again."
Methos smiled at the reminder of what he'd said when he'd finally showed up on Mac's doorstep, seven months after walking out on him in Seacouver. "Do you remember the first time we met?"
He looked up and met Mac's eyes, loving the impudent grin on his face. "Okay, stupid question. You walked in, knowing there was another Immortal, no hesitation. And you knew who I was. There was no doubt in your mind, was there?"
"No. It made sense."
"Did it? I could have been some random Immortal, hiding out in the Watchers, spending my time diligently tracking down the oldest of us so I could take his head."
"I suppose you still could be."
Methos cuffed him lightly, and Mac grinned wider. "Right, the first lie I tell you is to confirm that I'm the world's supposedly oldest living Immortal. You might have noticed that pretending to be me isn't the world's healthiest occupation."
"Neither is being you. Yet, you trusted me. Why did you trust me?"
"I have no idea. Not really. Partly I trusted Joe, and I trusted what I knew of you. And I knew that you were a protective bastard, not a head-hunter. After all, what's one of the first things you did?"
"Drank your awful beer?"
"You tried to protect me. You bought into my outward appearance, and you decided to set yourself up as my protector."
"I had ulterior motives."
Methos slid his hand along Mac's hip and smiled when he squirmed. "That's a nice thought. But do you remember what I answered then?"
Mac intoned, "'You cannot fight my battles for me, MacLeod.'"
"Something like that. It's still true. But it was a very charming offer. We can't fight each other's battles, Mac."
"Do you remember what I told you about Seireadan?"
Methos squeezed his hip, flashing on that moment from his dream, catching Mac's sword, feeling the panic of having someone that trusted him that much, to give himself over so willingly. "Yeah."
"It's still true, Methos. I'm still willing to hold your coat while you fight."
"And what if I choose not to fight? Will you follow me then?"
Mac reached a hand up and stroked his cheek, bringing their eyes together again. "I can try. If you'll try to stop thinking of them as 'my' problems and 'your' problems, and give us a chance to consider them 'our' problems."
"We're Immortals, Duncan. We can live past some problems. We don't always have to rush in and solve them all."
"That's not me, Methos."
"But sometimes it's me, and if there's going to be any kind of 'us,' you have to let me deal with some problems my own way. This is always going to be a struggle for us, Mac, how we deal with things."
"This is part of who you are."
"And if I want to learn who you are, I have to also to respect who you are."
"Yes." Methos resumed stroking his hand along Mac's stomach.
"Then you have to learn to stop protecting me. I'm a big boy, I can handle whatever you throw at me -- as long as you're honest with me."
"Honesty is not always a survival trait, Mac."
"No, it isn't. Neither is trying to fix everything by yourself, whether by leaving it behind, or trying to wait for it to be over."
"You're saying you want a compromise."
"I think we can manage it. We're both adults, more or less."
"Maybe we can take turns. This week's problem, we use my solution, next week, it's your turn." Methos slid his hand until it rested over the larger, squarer hand on Mac's belly.
"Maybe we can take it one problem at a time."
Judging that their serious talk was running down, Methos smiled. "In that case, we have a problem."
Methos slid his hand down to where Mac's cock was beginning to stir. "I think it's my turn to problem solve."
"I see." Mac grinned. "Tell me the truth, you really are only in this for the sex, aren't you?"
Methos smiled slightly, cupping his hand over the heated length. "Mmm-hmmm. So you'd better keep me happy, don't you think?"
The pause was just a moment too long. "I'll try."
Methos bent and gave him a swift kiss, followed by a sharp bite to his lower lip. He pulled back and watched Mac's tongue slide out to soothe his lip. "You can't make me happy, Duncan. It doesn't work that way, you know that."
"All I know is that I'm happier with you, than without you."
"Always?" He could see Mac struggling to give an honest answer.
"I can't change who I am."
Mac looked up. "Don't be ridiculous. Of course you can. You have. The question is why you think you have to in this case. Or maybe why you think you haven't."
Methos blinked at him. "I--" He shut his mouth again, and Mac grinned.
"About that problem." His eyes gleamed devilishly at Methos as he tried to slide the sheet back, pushing his hips up into Methos' obstructing hand.
Methos stroked Mac's hair out of his eyes. "Do you have plans tomorrow?"
Mac stopped, looking startled at the interruption. "Beyond helping out Joe? Not really. You have something in mind?" He gasped as Methos bent his head, lipping the outline of Mac's erection through the sheet.
"Mmmm...There's an old friend of mine -- and Elinore's." He looked to see Mac's reaction, but he seemed distracted. "I ran into him yesterday. I think you'd like him. Kinda strange."
Mac groaned slightly as Methos exhaled, heating the cloth and the flesh beneath. "One of us?" he asked breathlessly, unmindful of the ridiculousness of his question.
Methos nodded, amused by the slight whimper the motion elicited as he rubbed his lips and nose back and forth. Then he ran his teeth lightly up and down, causing Mac to flex his fingers in the bed-sheet.
"Jerry Thomas?" Mac's voice was hoarse, as if it was considering a temporary vacation.
For long moments there was silence as Methos continued to tease him through the sheet, bending to heat the cloth over his balls, tonguing it until was damp. Then Methos pulled back and nodded, blowing on the cooling cloth, watching Mac's reactions. "You know him?"
"Mmmmm." Mac shook his head in disbelief. "It's such a small world."
Methos idly stroked Mac's leg, lost in thought until Mac cuffed him gently on the head. Methos squeezed his thigh and smiled, bending down for a long kiss.
"I bet he's got some stories to tell about you."
"I'll worry about that tomorrow."
"Good, because right now, our problem is reaching crisis proportions, and I want to know what you're going to do about it."
"Hey, my problem is your problem, right?"
Grinning, Methos pulled back the sheet and set to problem-solving with a will.
He took Mac's cock into his mouth, lost in a surge of lust and love so inextricably intertwined he couldn't have sorted them out if he'd wanted, and he no longer wanted to. He felt Mac's hands slide down to twine into his hair, to hold him, guide him, and Methos let him. Rapidly losing himself in the press of those hands, the smell and taste of the body beneath him, he felt once more that odd feeling of not knowing where he ended, and where Mac began.
It no longer seemed such a problem.
Historical Notes: The Great Fire of 1875 is factual. It destroyed a half-mile square section directly in the heart of town, causing a then-estimated $10 million dollars in damage. Miraculously, though well over 2000 people were left homeless, only three people are reported to have died: two men killed by falling rubble and a young girl, Mary Jane Simpson. A memorial to her stands at the entrance to the Virginia City Cemeteries. Reconstruction was begun in 1876, and many of those buildings still stand today.
Professor Jerry Thomas was an actual historical figure long before his fictionalization as an Immortal. He was the original head bartender at the Delta Saloon in 1863 and eventually went on to tend bar in San Francisco.
The Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, was one of the richest ore deposits on earth, eventually producing more than $400 million dollars in gold and silver ore and shaping the history of the American West. There is no way to include complete information on the rich history of this era and its participants here.