This story is rated R for violence, language, and suggestive stuff of the m/m variety.
Methos, MacLeod and other characters you recognize are the property of corporate suit-types at R:D/P and their fleets of lawyers. Mores the pity. Jean Parker is my very own.
My endless thanks to elynross for her mighty editorial prowess, knuckle-slapping, hand-holding and general support. She kept telling me I could do it until I finally believed her. Thanks also to Killa for reading, encouraging, and begging for more.
"In existence there is nobody who is superior and nobody who is inferior.
The blade of grass and the great star are absolutely equal...."
-- Osho, The White Lotus, Chapter 6
The quickening is pain. Pure, undiluted anguish and agony on levels that most mortals never know or would ever survive. Physically, it's a neural overload, orgasm gone horribly, frighteningly wrong, perverting what should be pleasure into a dreadful torture. Mentally, it's an assault on the mind and soul that you cannot refuse. It is rape.
If I were feeling any more maudlin, I'd say that it was a kind of penance for the lives we lead. Everything else in an Immortal's life is bought and paid for with the quickenings. Kill or be killed, live with a sword in your hand, or die on your knees. Whatever else calls us -- medicine, philosophy, world domination -- we are Immortals first. The sword is first.
Watchers speculate, wonder, gossip among themselves about what it feels like, how it must be to be one of us. Immortal. To know the tedium of the passing centuries, to taste the fire of the quickening. They see only the surface of it, the wind and lightning, hear the groans that might be pleasure or pain or fear, see the helpless jerking of an overstimulated body and the trembling weakness in its wake. They can guess, but they don't know. No one really knows.
No one knows how much I hate it. And hate myself for the time, long ago, that I used to love it.
The young woman across from me hasn't yet learned these lessons, hasn't had time to realize the lie that teachers tell their students, the betrayal we make them believe. Teachers tell only half the story: that the quickening will make you strong. Never that it will erode your soul.
The evidence of her Immortality whispers to me, making my head itch in places I can't scratch. It feels like a bug crawling up the back of my neck, or someone walking over my grave. She displays her ignorance of everything from polite behavior to personal grooming in the way she struts and postures like a cheap thug. The leather wardrobe straight out of a low-budget, post-apocalyptic movie isn't doing anything to improve my opinion of her, either. Rude, unlettered, and unbathed, and the whole world owes her.
I resist the urge to laugh in her face -- or turn her over my knee. Infant. "Go home, girl, and live a little longer. I've got no quarrel with you."
She grins savagely, a glint of insanity in her dark, beautiful eyes. Why does she have to be so young, so lovely? Why is it easier to kill the ugly ones? Don't they have just as much right to live?
"Maybe I've got a fight with you, rich-boy. I don't like the way you dress, or talk, or look. You think an expensive coat and snooty accent make up for that face?"
"Let's not get personal. We don't have to do this, you know. Let me buy you a drink." I don't want to fight tonight, or any other night. Home, and books, and beer, that's all I was after this evening. There's a whiff of woodsmoke on the wind, a taste of rain in the air. Not far away is the muted noise of traffic and people, though too far away to help me avoid the challenge. Stupid girl, too eager to die.
She spits, limbering her sword arm with swings that are supposed to look graceful and intimidating. "Only one, rich-boy. What's the matter, scared to fight a girl?"
I shake my head slowly, sadly. "Your funeral." I am afraid, but not for the reasons she thinks. I know I can kill her, and I don't want to. There's a strange formality in removing our coats, a heightened level of commitment. You can always put the swords away, but once the coats are off, that's it. You both know the fight is real.
"Yours first. Jean Parker."
"Nice to meet you."
With no more preamble than that, the fight is joined. She flings herself into the circle of my reach, offering me a dozen opportunities to kill her in the first exchanges. I take none of them, choosing instead to just hold her off, hoping she will exhaust herself and see the futility of this madness. It's too fine an evening for someone to die.
She's a child, and fights like one, flailing ineffectually at my defenses like an angry toddler. It's no effort at all to hold her off, wary of the cutting edge of her sabre like I would be the teeth of an angry animal. I hate to slaughter children, even dangerous ones.
Young and greedy and reckless, I imagine she challenges every Immortal she comes across, hungry for the power, the quickening. So far she's been fortunate, killing those weaker or stupider, escaping those more powerful, her limited success in the Game owing everything to luck and nothing to skill. If I were more generous, I'd take her as a student, or give her to MacLeod and see if he could nurture the spirit and fire in her. Temper it with a little judgment.
This isn't even exercise. If I were more cruel, I'd find out who taught her and go kill him for turning loose a child so ill-equipped to play in the big leagues. Fact is, there's not much anyone can do for her. Hotheaded and stupid, she runs on machismo and women's lib, a testosterone high worthy of Ryan at his motorcycle-riding best. I can admire that, in a way. But she was born too late to have much of a chance in the Game at all. Caution might have served her well, but here she is, in a dark Seacouver alley, courting courting Death with a diamond ring.
Oh, I know her, leather pants and piercings and all. I was like her, once. The fight was everything; it was life. I sleepwalked through the tedium of living, barely aware of anything except those few minutes that I had a sword in my hand, fighting for my existence. It was good with a mortal, but an Immortal duel.... The quickening was rebirth, better than sex, better than anything, even with the pain. It was power, and I was powerful to receive it. I was a god. I believed then that I was in control, taking, raping my opponent of his strength. Later, I realized that they were slowly robbing me of my soul.
This girl could have been me. Young, outcast, angry. Vengeful. Wanting a piece of my own back from a world that turned away from me, that drove me out for being different. That called me a demon and burned me. I don't want to kill her for being young. That's the one thing that time will always cure you of, and I want her to have that time.
"Walk away, child."
"Fuck you! Stupid old geezer.... You're mine!" she snarls, beautiful in a dark way, all hard muscles and sharp lines. There is little in her body that's recognizably feminine. Her features are small, but not delicate in the way generally associated with women; she is short and angular, and even her breasts are only tiny points under the torn T-shirt. She's far too thin. I wonder when she ate last.
I shove her off of me, encouraging distance with a slice to her side.
She takes the hint and backs off a bit, circling, looking for an opening. So obvious, leading with her eyes. It's like playing chess with a gradeschooler, I'm always eight moves or more ahead. She can't be more than fifty. In another century, or five, she'd be a force to be reckoned with, but she'll have to get past her anger, her greed, first. And she'll have to get past me.
Enough of this. Enough circling in dirty alleys waiting for children to discover wisdom. She's already tired, having worn herself out uselessly searching for holes in my defense. The holes are there, I'm sure, but she looked too long in all the wrong places. I'm bored with this game. She wasn't even entertaining at the start, and what little amusement she did provide has palled. I'm wet and cold, and I want to go home.
Two passes, and she's on her knees in the stagnant water, surrounded by garbage. This is the fate that waits for us all, save one: dying on our knees in parking lots, in garbage dumps, in alleys. Stinking, filthy places. Waiting for it, knowing we have failed, listening for the near-silent hiss of the sword that will take our heads, our lives. Our quickenings.
All life is a terminal disease. Even our lives.
There is no gentle passing for our kind, no easeful death in the soft embrace of sleep and age. I envy Joe his mortality. Not the wasting, debilitating effects of time, the slow betrayal of the body as it fails, one system after another, until even the mind is gone, but the chance for a graceful passing. I don't want to die, still loving life even more than I hate the quickenings. But I gave up on my bid for the Prize, if it exists, long ago. It is only a matter of time before a challenger comes who is better, faster, and luckier than I am.
Then we will have come full circle. For if this angry, vengeful, rabid child is the me of my youth, then when my turn comes, I will be her, on my knees in the rank water, dying on the edge of someone else's sword. Again the rapist, stealing a portion of someone's soul.
I look at her for a long time, and she just stares back, trying to hide her fear. She isn't bold enough to command me to do it, the survivor in her still too vital to yield gracefully. I realize now that I don't know her at all. A name and an attitude, and a handful of shabby tricks with a sword. Leather and earrings and beautiful, frightened eyes. That's all. The rest... the rest is my own to reconcile.
I grieve for her, for the potential that was real or imagined. For all our kind that might have done so much and are instead lost to this genocidal madness. If she asked me to spare her, I would. But she won't, pride and fear conspiring to choke off her voice. The dark head tips back to expose her white throat, the black hair falling in a way that evokes too many memories.
She opens her eyes to look at me, and I strike. She dies without a sound, her severed head rolling away with a flat, syncopated thumping on the asphalt. The body falls, twitching. She's gone. No longer a beautiful, terrible waste of a life, just a corpse.
I hate killing children.
The quickening is pain.
II: Sedimental Journey
"All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full."
Methos wandered in the damp and dark, not quite without purpose or direction, but close enough to suit his sense of self-deception. It wasn't something he had given any thought to, wasn't something he would have felt inclined to give any thought to, even if the process had gotten that far. As things stood, this was a moment much like any other, flowing from the future through his life and awareness to trickle off into the bottomless past. The unexamined cravings that guided his steps were easily endured, quickly forgotten.
The rain that had been threatening all night had finally come, summoned perhaps by his own rage and melancholy, and now drummed steadily down on his head like...well, like rain. He had to smile at that, at the simple, constant obstinance of the weather and its rejection of metaphor. So now he was wet, and he was cold, lips and nose numb, lungs aching with a clarity that was denied to the other dull, erratic pulsing in his body. And he smiled again, tasting the sweet cold water, stretching his numb lips at the perversity.
Or was that perversion? It didn't matter. At least the wetness and cold were real, were things he could ground himself in, unlike the slippery flow of one instant to the next or the imprecise rhythm of his own breathing.
Soon his feet splashed through enough puddles and pools to bring him into collision with another moment to which he refused to give any thought, and he stood at the back door of the loft, filled with dull aches of another sort as MacLeod's presence rolled through him. He didn't bother knocking, not even for the sake of politeness. His own presence announced him better than any mere rap of knuckles could. The moments slid past, and the door slid open, tense surprise flowing across Mac's features to be replaced by concern as the steely glint of the katana was tucked away.
"Methos? Come in."
Finding no reason to have come this far only to refuse such a reasonable invitation, he did, dragging leaden feet across the threshold, hanging his dripping coat with only a slight hesitation and noting the water on the floor with mild detachment. It collected under his boots in dark beaded pools that marked the progress of his passage through this place. This place where MacLeod was.
It was a foolish sentiment; he knew that, and still he came.
"Are you all right? You're soaked." Mac's voice pulled him back to the absurd impermanency of the moment and the inappropriateness of his own presence here.
"I'm fine. I should go home now." Home alone, away from where MacLeod was. Wasn't that the plan tonight? Books and beer, solitude. Isolation. Silence to listen to the rain and to count the slippery moments as they sped past, carrying everything with them.
A dark crease appeared between Mac's eyebrows, and he stepped back, a leading gesture that invited Methos to follow him into the somber depths of the loft. So Methos followed, drawn by MacLeod's soothing presence and the faint, homey scent of cinnamon that hung in the air. Behind him, his footprints were already drying, vanishing from the polished floorboards and taking the evidence of his passing with them. It wasn't important. Time trickled off into the past.
Soft fabric engulfed him, and he leaned into it, giving no thought to struggle as a towel was rubbed over his head. "Sit down and take your boots off. Do you want something dry to put on?"
Methos shook his head and set the towel aside to peel off his sweater. The T-shirt underneath adhered to his skin in a clammy sheet, but would dry more quickly than the heavy cable-knit. "I won't rust. You got any coffee?"
"Sure, hang on."
Too soon, a warm mug was pressed into his hands, stinging his skin as the heat called blood back to the surface. MacLeod knelt at his feet, too familiar, and began picking at the soggy, knotted laces of his boots. "You want to tell me what happened?"
The coffee burned his mouth and throat, but he sucked at it like it was life itself, watching Mac pull off his soaked boots and chafe at his bloodless feet with the towel. "I...I found a present for you, but I broke it. You wouldn't have liked it anyway." The thought was funnier than it should have been, and he began to laugh, the unfamiliar noise of it boiling up from someplace dark inside him. He shouldn't be here, shouldn't let Mac care for him like this, or touch him so intimately, shouldn't laugh at the thought of Jean Parker lying in pieces in that alley like a broken doll. An inappropriate gift.
But he did. He laughed at the absurd perversion of it, laughed like a dam had burst inside him, laughed like he'd cried the night Alexa died. Selfish noises owing nothing to mirth or grief, and everything to exhaustion and frustration and self-mockery. He recognized it, knew it for the vain self-indulgence that it was, and still he continued, wheezing out gasping barks of sound until his chest ached and his throat was dry. Mac's hands stilled on his bare feet, resting there without even the modest barrier of the towel between them. "Methos?"
Sobriety returned in an instant, the laughter dead along with the impulse that had spawned it. "What?"
"Nothing important." And that was the sad truth of it. A fierce young life snuffed out, an unwelcome quickening forced into him; it was nothing that should have upset him this much. Jean Parker had been a rabid dog, a danger to all of them with her reckless indiscretion and crude excess. It had been a necessary thing to kill her, and chance or circumstance had put him in the way of doing what needed to be done. Again.
And he had done it, again.
After all, somebody had to.
He hunched over his knees until he could smell the sweet clean fragrance of MacLeod's hair, intermingled with the lingering animal scent of wet wool from his own sweater, and drew a slow breath over the familiar, almost comforting ache that bloomed low in his chest. Something about the way Mac rubbed at his feet was so intimate, so unselfconscious. There was the urge to touch him in return, to complete the circuit of contact and ease the terrible loneliness that had overtaken him tonight. Somewhere in the the shadows clinging to the edges of the room, a clock was ticking.
A stray lock of hair dangled temptingly from Mac's temple. It was shockingly easy, requiring no thought, no awful introspections or self-examinations. Goaded on by the rain, the soft ticking of that invisible clock, and the sense of internal sinking that always seemed to accompany quickenings, Methos reached out and smoothed that renegade curl back into place behind Mac's ear.
MacLeod looked up, less surprised perhaps than he should have been, his grip tightening slightly on Methos' bare feet.
Methos' heart pounded double-time, a forced march through broken countryside, and time continued to trickle past, the instants evaporating with every breath.
"Life is too short," he whispered hoarsely.
And the effortless intimacy of the moment splintered as MacLeod laughed.
It didn't matter that it was a warm laugh, full of affection and friendly amusement. It didn't matter that Mac sat back on his heels and smiled up at him. It didn't matter. Methos' head throbbed as blood rushed up with astonishing pressure to color his face. Anger and foolish shame competed, congealing together with the dizzy sinking vertigo that already gripped him. Anger won, and he snatched his feet away, not caring that MacLeod had already ceased kneading them.
"What's so goddamned funny?"
"Nothing. That's just an odd thing to hear from you, considering."
Mac rose gracefully from the floor and stepped over to the kitchen island to pour his own cup of coffee. He lifted the decanter questioningly, but Methos shook his head. Moving back to settle in the opposite chair, Mac sipped thoughtfully at his mug. "Well, considering your age for starters. It's not every night that five thousand years of walking human history sits on my couch complaining about the brevity of existence."
The anger flowed away and was replaced by a vague, leaden melancholy. "I don't want to be walking history. That's not what I come here for."
"I know," Mac nodded, understanding. "And most of the time I forget just who you are."
Methos heard the rest of it, hanging unspoken in the air. What you are. "But sometimes you remember."
There was the slightest pause. "Yes, I do."
On any other night, Methos might have been moved to lighten the subject, or to break the mood entirely with some sharp remark. But tonight, with the weight of the quickening calcifying, scraping at the raw places in his soul, there was a reckless sense of safety. Something about the late hour and the darkness and the warmth of the close air. The windows thrummed softly in the rain and wind. The loft seemed isolated from the world, cocooned and sheltered apart from time. He could say anything here, confess anything, without risk or recrimination. He smiled, a bare stretching of lips in acknowledgement of uncomfortable truths. That sense of safety alone should have been enough to send him packing -- but not tonight. He glanced down into his cup. "I'd change that, if I could."
"Why?" Genuine confusion. Of course Mac didn't understand. He wasn't on the other side of it that often.
"I don't like to see the awareness of it in your eyes. How old are you?"
"You know how old I am."
"Do you ever remember a time before you existed?"
"I was born in 1592...."
"Yes, but do you remember not existing in 1591? Do you have any awareness of not being?" The detail of the discussion was making Methos' head hurt. He didn't want to be so precise tonight. That lock of hair had escaped from Mac's ear again. Methos wished he were sitting closer so he could smooth it back again. If Mac would let him.
"Of course I don't remember that."
"Congratulations, we're the same age. So no more about it." Methos stuck out a hand smartly, as if to shake on it and seal the bargain, but Mac just looked at him like he'd gone insane.
"We're not the same age...."
"Sure we are. So is everyone. I don't ever remember not existing. Neither do you, neither does anyone. All lives are exactly the same length: one lifetime. Thirty years, five thousand years, what's the difference? We get what we get, and it's not enough."
Mac chuckled uneasily, but didn't press the debate any further. "You sound like you've seen a ghost."
There was a pang of memory, already fading, of Jean Parker's dark hair and angry, greedy recklessness, of the history he'd presumed to craft for her in his imagination. The sad kinship he'd felt. "Maybe I did at that."
Mac's eyes were dark over the rim of his cup, thoughtful, seeing too much. "You took a quickening tonight."
"Yes." No evasion.
"Someone you knew?"
Again, images of Jean Parker surfaced, beautiful and proud, careless and starved for things that she alone could have known. "No. I thought so at first, but I was mistaken. I didn't know her at all."
The moments slid past, one after another, beaded like pearls on a strand. Clotho's thread. He recovered enough of himself to begin to notice the tight dampness of his clothes, the sticky chill as they clung and chafed. But his feet were warm where Mac had rubbed at them.
And the warmth was real.
"I didn't want to kill her," he confessed at last.
"Sometimes there isn't a choice."
Another sad, private smile. "You don't understand. There was a choice; there is always a choice. And I killed her anyway." He peeled himself off the cushions and went in search of more coffee.
When he returned to seek a dry place, MacLeod was still in the chair, wearing that same thoughtful look. "I wish you'd stop doing that," Mac said.
Methos stopped in front of the sofa, oozing bland indifference. "Doing what, getting coffee?"
"Pushing me away. Painting yourself in the worst possible light."
Something hot slithered up his spine, tight and heavy with the need to lash out. Restraint came with a false smile and a mouthful of scalding coffee. "It's only the truth this time."
Mac snorted and set his own cup aside. "Part of it, anyway. Who challenged?"
"Uh-huh. And did you fight fair, or knife her in the back before you hacked her head off with a dull spoon?"
Tension spiraled higher at the faint mockery in Mac's voice. "God damn it, Mac--"
"So let me see if I have this right, so far. You took a challenge you didn't look for and didn't want, fought fair, and won?"
"She wouldn't walk away!" he shouted.
"And that isn't your fault," MacLeod said quietly, too reasonable by far.
The rain hissed and drummed in the sudden silence, mournful and violent all at once. Methos breathed the dry, cinnamon-scented air, and time flowed past. A bead of water trickled its way between his shoulder blades.
It itched, and the irritation was real. He savored it and refused to scratch.
"I need something stronger than coffee," he said at last, more to fill up the consuming quiet than out of any real desire.
"All right." MacLeod rose to pull a pair of tumblers and a bottle of scotch from a kitchen cabinet. For lack of anything better to do, Methos followed him, standing too close, knowing that he trespassed in MacLeod's space and yet unable to do anything else. There was too much safety here tonight.
MacLeod poured, the warm scent of whisky rising around them, the light clink of glass on glass hanging in the still air. Turning, Mac stopped short, liquor splashing over the rims of the tumblers as he avoided collision with Methos. Small amber beads of whisky gathered on the floor, the exact color of the wood, and for a long moment, neither man spoke.
Methos watched the golden droplets clinging together, already anticipating their evaporation, transformation, disappearance... the term didn't matter. Soon enough they would be gone, vanished from his awareness. Remaining only in his memory, like so much else. His heartbeat ticked like a metronome in his ears, urging the process on, faster, faster. The scent of whisky in the close air intensified, and MacLeod breathed.
And the breath was real, the air moving across his cheek in a ghostly reciprocation of imagined caresses. Not everything resided in memory. Not yet. Not while there was time.
So little time, and so much quiet safety here tonight.
Methos breathed, counterpoint to MacLeod, so close he could taste the other man's warm exhalation. He breathed, and the words followed without effort. "If I went out into the rain and came back in, would you rub my feet again?"
Mac didn't speak, didn't need to speak to fill up the sudden quiet lull, and Methos didn't look up to encourage him. The room was already full, overcrowded with passed moments, missed chances, dead opportunities. How many evenings not unlike this one had they spent in far less safety than was offered tonight, killing time?
Killing time, just to watch it die. God, it was a wonder that there was still room for the two of them here, in the midst of so much carnage. So much waste.
Another span of irretrievable moments vanished, sacrificed to his hesitancy. He swallowed thickly. The whisky was drying on the floor, disappearing inward from the edge, leaving little dark scars behind. Mac made no move, no sound. Methos wondered briefly that Mac could be stunned into silence by such a simple thing. It didn't matter. Soon enough one or both of them would be gone, residing in a memory. A watermark on the soul.
"Would you like me to?"
He looked up at the honesty in the question and found Mac watching him with the most wonderfully unreadable expression, full of so many utterly delightful feelings that he couldn't begin to sort them out. Just MacLeod being so perfectly himself. Some tight and tangled thing inside Methos began to unravel at the sight of it, and it was easy, far easier than he'd ever imagined it would be to just say the word. "Yes."
The smallest smile touched the corners of Mac's eyes, but his voice was low and serious. "I think we might be able to skip the actual rain part, if that's okay."
Breathing, point and counterpoint. Wonderful, dizzy, oxygen-drunk vertigo. Methos' feet felt leaden, nailed to the floor, and it must have been true, because his head was so dangerously light. Buoyant. He glanced down and back up again quickly, unable to resist the urge, surprised to see that his head was the same distance from his feet that he remembered it being and not drifting balloon-like near the ceiling. His heart squeezed out a deep, strong rhythm, suddenly too big for his chest.
Point. Counterpoint. Entwined respirations making love in lieu of actual bodies. The whisky droplets were gone, leaving behind only faint brown rings. Methos felt himself unraveling at a furious pace, something dark and tense skeining out of him at breakneck speed. Another long pause, and then more words, only marginally more difficult. "I'm in love with you, you know that."
MacLeod's smile, however ghostly, vanished, taking the safety of the moment with it. He looked down, those penetrating eyes no longer able to hold Methos' own. "Yes, I know."
He was suddenly glad that his feet were so cemented to the spot or he might have fled, might have fallen, if the whole of him had felt that weightless. Grounding, that's what it was. Solid foundations. Stability was good. Restraint was better, purchased at a fearsome cost as he reached out an unshaking hand to take one of the drinks from Mac. He sipped and sighed, the soul of civilization, and conjured a pained smile to hide the wound. "That's not exactly the response I'd hoped for."
A faint grimace tugged at Mac's face in a dim parody of the earlier smile. Words were forced out past the fresh tension, the new stumbling block that Methos had laid between them. "I realize that."
A breath, and then another, moving the big shoulders as MacLeod clearly struggled with something, searching for words. "Why are you doing this tonight?"
The knife in his gut twisted slowly, the dull blade of rejection clumsy and tearing, torture instead of execution. So this was MacLeod's version of the gentle let-down. Not even a smile and an offer of friendship to ease the sting. No matter the name or manner, it was still the same. Methos had been on both sides of it too many times before not to recognize it now. Fingers tightening around the tumbler of whisky, he grit his teeth. Hurt anger swelled and simmered, filling the sudden void in his chest where his heart used to be. The first line of defense. The thin veneer of civilized behavior held by the smallest of margins, but inside part of him was screaming. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. My mistake." He moved to step past MacLeod toward the sofa.
A hand was pressed into his shoulder, warm through the thin fabric of his T-shirt. No real impediment to his escape, but Methos stopped anyway.
"No, you don't get to just drop that on me and then act like it was nothing."
"Let me go," he demanded without heat, the cold knot in his belly coiling tighter, tighter. It wasn't running, he told himself firmly, it was retreat. A tactical withdrawal before the damage he'd wrought was further compounded. Sure. "Look, it's all right. You don't feel the same, so that's the end of it. Where did you put my boots?"
They were so much a part of each other's space. No safety zone, no margin for error. MacLeod stared at him, frustration and disbelief shortening his movements to bare chops, thinly restrained gestures that Methos almost mistook for violence, save that there was no harshness in Mac's face. "Don't play ignorant with me, and quit trying to be such a martyr. We've both known about this for months, and you pick tonight to get confessional?"
"Sorry, Mac, martyr is really part of your job description, not mine. Will you get out of my way?" Familiar defenses settled into place, easing his terrible exposure somewhat. He needed to go.
And still that gentle, frustrated compassion in Mac's voice prevented him. "Not this time, no. Why did you come here?"
"Fine, we can do it the hard way. You didn't come for a fresh towel, a bit of cryptic conversation, and a quick seduction."
"Well, more's the pity if I did. You certainly nipped that in the bud with your charmingly romantic response. 'I know.' I'll cherish it forever. You really missed your calling as a poet." He was ranting now, he knew that, and was still unable or unwilling to stop. The wave of hurt that had begun earlier seemed to find its natural crest in MacLeod's rebuff, in the bruised feelings he'd known better than to ever confess.
"Would you shut up for a minute!" Mac snapped, stepping back from the intimate press of bodies.
"Why, MacLeod, I'm fairly swept off my feet. Now where the hell are my boots?"
"No, you can't have them."
"You're not serious. You think a little thing like being barefoot will stop me from going?"
"Oh, I forgot, they didn't have shoes when you were a kid. You had to grow up and invent them yourself, right after you were done discovering dirt. If you really wanted to go, you'd already be gone."
Strange, that they could be so close, almost heart-to-heart, each feeling the heat and breath that flowed from the other.... That they could exist that way in conflict, but never that softer closeness, those struggles of a different kind. Thunder rumbled in the distance, artillery fire on a foreign front.
MacLeod turned away suddenly, pacing the length of the kitchen and back again, an absent hand running quickly over his head. The refrigerator droned irritatingly in the background. Methos found himself balanced on his toes, tension singing through him so fiercely that he should have vibrated with the force of it.
"Why are you doing this?" Mac stood in front of him again, jaw thrust forward determinedly. It was almost too much temptation, the way Mac's jaw begged to be struck. One sharp blow with his fist would do it. So easy, it would be no challenge at all to move this conflict from the verbal to the physical. A quick twist and upward jab... he wouldn't even have to put much of his weight behind it. Mac would respond to that; he knew the intimacy of violence well.
But there were other ways to bridge distances. Mac was so close. If his jaw was begging for violence, then his eyes, the set of his mouth surely pleaded for something more. There was the urge to lean forward those last few inches and simply take what he wanted, to cover that proud mouth with his own, burying a hand in MacLeod's hair to guide him. Claiming him, conquering that stubborn will....
Defeating him. Subjugating him.
Mac was close enough to touch without effort, that one renegade curl at his temple offering itself to Methos' fingertips again. But this time it was not so easy, and he forbore.
As if unaware of his struggle and the seduction of the stray lock, Mac continued. "I don't want to fight about this tonight, Methos. It isn't the time for it."
"By all means, let's find something else to fight about."
"Is that what you need?"
"No," Methos croaked, looking away from the stark temptation of that curl. "Is that what this is?" Funny, it didn't feel like a fight anymore. That had been another moment, another time. His jeans were dry now, chafing against his thighs. The rough caress of the denim was soothing in a dark way. Something inside him twisted. "I don't want to fight anymore."
Mac smiled again. Relief, concern, affection. "Then let's not. What happened tonight, Methos?"
A thousand responses sprang to mind, some few of them even involving actual words, but none of them real. Only fabricated scripts from private fantasies, false and wooden now even in his own imagining, confronted with the reality of MacLeod's response. Oh, God...it hurt.
But the pain was real.
"Nothing, Mac." Wasn't that the point? "It doesn't matter."
MacLeod looked at him again, through him again, seeing too much, the steady brown eyes knowing the lie for what it was, but not ready to call him on it yet. He gestured at the glass, offering refuge in quiet mundanities. "Can I fill that for you?"
Methos glanced at his empty glass. The smoldering need to lash out at something had faded, but didn't depart entirely. There was no real reason to refuse the whisky, though, so he held out the glass for more. With a little luck and a lot of liquor, he could get drunk.
"I should go home now," he repeated, numb and angry and hurt and still sinking inside himself in the wake of the quickening, as though he were Talos with the pin pulled from his heel. He made no move toward the door.
MacLeod shook his head in dismissal and leaned back against the counter, turning his glass in his hands. "You thought you knew her."
"I was wrong." Denial so flatly obvious even he could see through it. MacLeod let it pass without comment.
The storm outside whistled and moaned, making the loft into a bubble of calm, sheltered, isolated. Wasn't that what he'd craved tonight, isolation? What was he doing here in MacLeod's space, offering up bits of himself like bright coins in a fountain? Throwing himself away, a piece at a time. Dying, a heartbeat at a time, every wasted second carrying them all closer to the end. There was no such thing as forever; some lessons apparently bore repeating.
"She's dead now. It doesn't matter." Methos spoke quietly, as if to himself. "She was a brutal, cheap, posturing thug with no manners and no sense who needed killing."
"And you didn't want to kill her."
"That doesn't matter either. None of it matters, Mac. It's all might-have-beens, because she's dead."
"You didn't want to, but you killed her anyway," Mac continued his own thought, heedless of the interruption.
"Yes, aren't you listening? She wouldn't walk away." Methos' head pounded. He shouldn't have come here tonight.
"You said she needed killing."
"Yes. And I killed her. My socks needed washing yesterday, too. And I did that. Let it go, Mac."
"But it needed to be done."
Methos' chest constricted, rage and frustration crawling over his skin with sharp-clawed feet, demanding action, begging a crude, brutal display of force. Why couldn't MacLeod just accept and let it go? Nothing was salvaged by talking about it, least of all Jean Parker. She was meat. Carrion. It sang in his veins now, the violence he'd been so reluctant to yield to earlier.
"Don't make this more than it is. It was nothing. She was nothing. It's over now, just let it go."
Mac moved closer, if that was possible, all gentle concern, picking at this sore topic like a fresh scab. "Methos, who did she remind you of? Was it Kronos?"
"No!" It was done before he knew it. The crack of splintering wood and the satisfying crunch of breaking bones reached his ears, soothing the dark and twisted knot inside him an instant before the pain registered. He breathed, ragged gasps whistling in his nose, small steps from becoming sobs. "Not everything comes back to Kronos." Hanging his head, feeling the small bones of his hand shifting against one another, he repeated the evening's mantra again. "It doesn't matter."
Mac reached for him, touching him, one warm hand on Methos' back to steady him as his damaged hand was lifted carefully from the ruin of the cabinet door. "Of course it matters," Mac said simply, turning him toward the sink to rinse the blood from his knuckles. "Everything matters."
Mac stroked Methos' healing hand gently under the cool water, washing away the blood. So much blood for a relatively minor wound. Methos watched the small cuts sealing themselves, felt the crumpled bones popping back into place, fascinated as always by the way his body repaired itself. Always ready for the next fight, never remembering the last one.
That wasn't quite true. Jean Parker's body certainly remembered her last fight.
Life was too short.
The blood was gone, and still Mac lingered, holding Methos' hand under the water, running a thumb absently across the palm. Breathing, deep and slow, not the point and counterpoint of that earlier intimacy, but an intensely private rhythm that wandered off on its own, lost in complex thoughts.
Slowly, Methos' hand turned, cool water splashing over his knuckles as he laced his fingers with Mac's, squeezing gently. MacLeod looked up and met his eyes, unsurprised. The gaze held, firm and unwavering even when Methos had no more strength to resist and leaned in for a kiss.
Sweet, leisurely devastation. MacLeod's free arm came around him, but his mouth offered no more than it was asked for. At last Methos pulled away, trembling, and pressed his head to Mac's shoulder. He had no more stomach for conquest.
"She reminded me of myself, about a million years ago," he whispered, the words finding form without conscious thought, betraying him yet again.
The half-embrace tightened securely, shoring up his sudden weakness. The water in the sink continued to run, but there was no longer any pretense of washing away blood, no more excuse for the desperate way their fingers twined together.
It hurt to know that this was all there was, the comfort of a good friend, the clutch of a warm body, but it was no more painful than anything else chance had laid at his feet tonight. If he imagined anything more than friendship lay behind the gesture, well...that pain at least had the virtue of being self inflicted. He knew his fantasies for what they were. "I don't want to die."
Cool hands trailed over his cheeks, leaving dampness in their wake. Methos flinched back from the contact and the exposure he felt, but resistance was indeed futile as those same strong hands cupped the back of his head, neatly preventing escape. Everything moved so slowly tonight, lending exaggerated significance to the smallest details. The taste of salt and whisky, the bright gurgle of water in the sink, the scratchy brush of stiff denim on his legs. The solid support of Mac's hands on his head, touching him again, too knowing. He yielded to the knowledge there and relaxed into Mac's strength, allowing himself to be held thus. If Mac insisted on being the strong one tonight, Methos was just weak enough to let him.
Mac's face was a study in confusion, dark and serious, stray thoughts and things almost said running riot behind his expression, too obvious, too easy to read. He studied Methos as if he'd never really seen him before, or might possibly never see him again. "No one else is going to die tonight."
Methos nodded, choosing to believe the promise, if only for the moment. A warm, sweet ache swelled inside him at the thought of Mac making him promises, looking at him that way. The sound of his own heartbeat was loud in his ears as he reached for that errant curl again, in defiance of his better judgment, and smoothed it back with careful fingers. Mac just kept looking at him with that curious expression, accepting the touch without comment.
Acceptance. No fear of rejection for that benign caress, but neither any hope of the response he'd craved. Just Mac enduring the touch because he thought Methos needed to touch him.
And maybe Methos did.
Grudgingly, Methos pushed away from that contact, and this time Mac let him. He stood tall, drawing a lungful of the warm, dark air to steady himself, and another. "Well," he said with false brightness, "isn't this a cozy scene. I suppose if I really put an effort into it I might manage weeping and vapors, too, but I wouldn't bet the box office on it."
Smiling at the joke, Mac brushed at the few splinters and chips of varnish on the counter. "She was that good?"
Dark laughter exploded out of him unexpectedly. "No, Mac. No, she was that bad."
"I don't understand," MacLeod said.
"Fine. You're not going to let this go, are you?" Methos cranked off the forgotten tap and picked up a neglected glass of whisky. Fidgeting, stalling, grounding himself in the ordinary. A splinter of wood floated on the surface. He couldn't remember whose drink it had been and didn't much care. The liquor was warm and smoky on his tongue as he drained off half and offered the rest to Mac. "She didn't deserve to die."
Accepting the glass, Mac sipped thoughtfully at the remainder of the whisky. "And you did? Is that what this is about?"
"Yes. No...." An uncomfortable shrug. "Maybe. At the time? Probably. Now? I've been lucky so far. Someday soon that luck is going to run out."
"You don't know that."
"Spare me the platitudes and reassurances, Mac. Naivete doesn't become you. Whether you believe in the Gathering or not, there are fewer of us every year. We're killing each other faster than we can be replaced. 'There can be only one' is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Every time you see more than three Immortals in one city, someone is calling it the Gathering." Mac set the glass aside and waved off the protest already forming on Methos' lips. "I'm not a fool, Methos, I know there are fewer of us all the time. Why borrow trouble? For all we know, we could all be wiped out by some giant asteroid tomorrow."
Despite himself, Methos smiled. "I saw that movie. 'Deep Armageddon,' or something, wasn't it?"
"Something like that, yeah." Mac led the way back toward the sofa. "Maybe we can rent the video tomorrow."
Methos looked at the brightening windows. "It is tomorrow." The silence, all he had craved earlier, seemed overpowering now, uncomfortable.
MacLeod sat back on the sofa, the cushions creaking in faint protest. Methos paused only long enough to refill the abandoned tumbler of whisky before following. He sipped and turned the glass, staring down into the amber liquor. The question found its own way out. "How long have you known?"
Mac reached for the glass, never questioning that Methos had brought only one, never doubting that he would share. "How you felt? A while now."
Shifting on the soft leather, Methos glanced down to note the dark stain of water damage when he could no longer hold up his end of the weighted gaze between them. "You never said anything."
"What should I have said? I figured you'd tell me when you were ready."
A bitter smile. "And look what it got me."
"I thought we were going to find something else to fight about," MacLeod said, teasing gently.
"There's nothing to fight about, really." The harsh stretching of lips softened into something colored by real affection as he reached out, taking the warm glass from Mac's hand. It wasn't Mac's fault that he didn't feel the same, but still Methos tried hard not to think about the heat and subtle texture of skin where their fingers touched. Time slithered through his grasp, abundant and precious. Irretrievable.
"Did you know," MacLeod said in a tone clearly meant to lighten the subject, "that the first direct record of whisky making is in Scottish records from the 1400s?"
"Alba go bragh. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Whisky is a fairly recent thing."
"So things change. A few hundred years ago there was no such thing as whisky, and now look." He gestured at the glass Methos turned with short, tense motions. "Sometimes, even for me, it's easy to forget that life hasn't always been this way, that things can change so quickly."
"And sometimes you remember."
"Sometimes," he agreed with a slight smile. "You reminded me tonight."
Although Mac didn't move, Methos still got the impression of restlessness from him, as though he wanted to get up and pace, or hold something solid in his hands. Methos wanted to get up and pace on Mac's behalf. Long seconds ticked by, deducted from some eternal cosmic ledger, but instead of slipping away into nothingness, they seemed to accumulate, gathering weight as they collected, discarded and unused, around their feet.
"You kissed me."
He'd expected the reckoning to come eventually, and he braced himself for the full assault of Mac's outrage, or slighted masculinity, or even, God help him, Mac's understanding. He gripped the glass so hard he thought it might crack and swore to himself that he wasn't going to run from this tonight. "Yes."
"Why did you stop?" Bemused affection in that familiar face, not the caretaker role that Mac wore so easily, but something else, something touched with the same warmth and gentleness, the same lack of surprise that he'd been seeing all night.
Something deep inside Methos settled into its foundation, heavy and satisfied. Earlier he'd felt so raw, so abraded and worn down, forgetting that erosion was only the first step in the construction of new earth. Erosion, drifting sediment, strata. Layers. So many layers to his and Mac's friendship, could he have missed this? Had he been wrong?
"I didn't want you to stop," Mac said seriously.
Time being a precious thing, part of him was glad when Mac didn't wait for him to finish his ruminations, but simply kissed him.
The second taste of MacLeod's mouth was even softer and more destructive than the first.
"Mac--" Methos gasped for air and was pulled under again. Held, touched, pressed back against the cushions by determined hands and the sweet weight of Mac's body. And that mouth, that fiery, generous mouth. No hesitation, no holding back, it gave and gave, unstinting, asking nothing but that Methos accept the gift. "Wait-- Mac--"
Heedless, a firm caress trailed sweet havoc down his chest and belly. All he had to do was relax and take what was being given. Mac knew how he felt, how he wanted this, and offered now without being asked. He could do that, close his eyes and let MacLeod touch him, let friendship and comfort be enough tonight.... He caught the wandering hand and held it resolutely away, trembling, panting into the broken kiss. "No."
Mac leaned into him for a long moment before he spoke, breathing heavily, as affected as Methos was. "Why?"
"You can. It's all right."
He had to ask the question. He hated himself for the doubt, the hesitation, the greedy craving inside him that couldn't let this be only about friendship and desire, even just this once, but still he had to know where they stood. "Are you just giving me what I need, MacLeod?"
"Jesus, but everything with you is difficult. No, Methos, no, I'm not just giving you what I think you need." A smile simple enough to break him. "I can wait if you're not sure, if you're not ready...but I'd really like to kiss you again."
Methos' mind spun, at odds with the fierce clamor of his body's demands. "Wait...I thought you didn't feel that way about me."
Again the smile, shadowed now by what might have been regret, but still knowing, beautiful, and perfectly MacLeod. "You mean that you think I'm not in love with you."
"That's the general impression you gave, yeah. When feelings are returned, the traditional response is 'I love you, too,' not 'I know.' "
"It's more complicated than that."
"Has anything between us ever been easy? Besides, I didn't want you to think I was saying it just to make you feel better."
"Oh, heaven forbid we should make me feel better."
"Will you please just shut up and kiss me?"
The wind and rain had stopped sometime in the last few minutes, banished, perhaps, along with his own rage and melancholy -- or perhaps not. Coincidence, random convergences of independent and individual timing, accounted for far more than most people would ever believe. Then again, maybe some things happened for a reason. Possibly there was something to thank Jean Parker for, after all.
"Kiss you?" he breathed, suddenly weightless in the clear morning light. "I think I can do that."
And with no more thought, he did.
Note: "Alba go bragh" is a Gaelic expression. It means "Scotland forever."
In existence there is nobody who is superior and nobody who is inferior. The blade of grass and the great star are absolutely equal...
-- Osho, The White Lotus, Chapter 6