by Taselby and elynross
Disclaimers: This story is rated NC-17 for adult content including mature themes, sexual content, and language. The characters you recognize belong to faceless corporate goons with more lawyers and money than we have, and we don't dispute that. However, the characters you don't recognize belong to us, and we're really hoping that no one disputes that, either.
The character of Jerry Thomas is on kind loan from Don C. and will be appearing in an as-yet untitled story sometime in the near future.
Special thanks to our beta readers and hand-holders, Rachael Sabotini, Luminosity, Killashandra, and Merry Lynne. Sometimes a swift kick in the pants is all it takes.
This story is a direct sequel to The Causes Remain and Twilight Kingdoms. Reading those other stories first isn't absolutely necessary, but many of the references and developments here will make a great deal more sense if you do.
Please send all questions, comments, and silly remarks to Taselby and elynross.
"Etiam sanato vulnere cicatrix manet." -- Roman Proverb
Methos' sword glimmered in the darkness, describing elegant, deceptively slow-seeming arcs that grabbed at the minimal light, casting lacy patterns in the air. The sword seemed weightless, the inertia of its motion guiding him effortlessly from one position to the next, sometimes striking his opponent's blade with a chime and a spark. Sometimes the invisible razor edge connected with clothing, or other soft things, and he was rewarded with a grunt or low gasp of pain. His anger grew as the fight continued, smoldering beneath his outward display of calm and absolute control. He was ready to be done with this farce.
The paving stones were slippery under his feet as his sword guided him around his opponent, a large shadow in the night bearing his own pale wand of death. The eyes...the eyes would tell him, but they were hard to see in the dark. Even the body, strong and agile, was muffled by layers of clothing to ward off the damp chill. Only his Presence remained unaltered, roaring like the ocean in the back of Methos' mind, silently crying 'Immortal.'
//There!!// He pressed his advance on the other man, forcing him backward over the slick stones. Eventually the man hesitated, either tiring or unsure of his footing, and Methos struck. The other man's slender sword skittered away in the darkness, and Methos pressed close, hooking the toe of one boot behind his ankle, sending him sprawling on the wet ground. The broadsword hovered lightly just under his ear.
"Yield!" Methos snarled, breathing hard.
A chuckle echoed off the walls. "All right," MacLeod panted, "you win. What's the forfeit? Gonna make me do the dishes for another month?"
Methos shook his head as he lowered his sword slowly. "The next time I get to beg off." He extended a hand to help Mac rise, pulling him up into a brief, passionate kiss. "You're lucky you can trust me, MacLeod. Are you all right?"
"Well, my sweater's seen better days, but yeah." There was a pause as he dusted ineffectually at his clothing. "Come on, let's find the katana."
"No thanks to you if it didn't end up in the river. Can't afford to be sloppy, Mac."
Mac shrugged and bent to retrieve his sword, closer to the water than made Methos comfortable. "We both know that if this had been a real fight--"
"Do we?" Methos shot an exasperated look at him. "Every fight is a real fight, Mac. Every one, you know that. Always fight to win." He tilted his head up into the mist, vapor wreathing his face as he spoke. "Let's get back inside before it really gets miserable out here."
The rain started again halfway back to the barge, an unseasonably cold drizzle that crept under coats and sweaters until there was no place on Methos' body that was warm or dry. He slapped his boots a little harder along the gangplank than was strictly necessary, trying to pound some blood back into his frozen toes. His sword clattered against the wall as he hung up his coat, and he flung himself down on the couch, again with gestures marginally bigger than the activity warranted, his discontent on display. He ignored his damp clothes for a moment, feeling the scratchy creak of damp wool on his skin and gleaning a small satisfaction from Mac's twinge of dismay as soaked boots thudded down on the wooden surface of the coffee table.
He continued picking at the spar like a scab. "You got careless, Mac. If I'd been--"
"But you weren't." Mac flashed a small smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring and continued puttering at the bar, pouring tumblers of whisky. The sharp, smoky scent of the liquor drifted across the room.
"It's not like you to take a spar so lightly." Methos' voice was tight with tension, a frustrated, directionless anxiety that had been building in him and refused to dissipate, no matter how he tried to let go of it. He knew Mac had noticed, that the spar had been an attempt to get him to loosen up, but apparently it had just given him a focus for his irritation. He clamped down further on his churning emotions, trying to bury the anger that simmered too close to the surface, threatening to erupt, not wanting to make Mac suffer for his moodiness. The light clink of the glasses as they jostled together scraped across his nerves like sandpaper. He caught the troubled look Mac gave him.
"It was supposed to be relaxing, Methos. What's the matter, anyway? You seem--"
Methos cut him off. "Nothing's the matter, Mac. I'm just...I'm just tired, and you were careless." He tried to soften his tone.
"You know, it wouldn't be so hard if you didn't insist on sparring in the middle of the night like this." Duncan stepped over the booted feet like they weren't leaving pools of water all over the delicate surface of his table and sat at the opposite end of the sofa, handing off the other glass of scotch he carried.
Methos breathed, reaching for calm, trying to fill himself with the rich, warm, peaty scent of the single-malt and the stale tang of cold smoke from the morning's fire. "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me. You're insane, doing katas on the deck in the middle of the day. Trust me, some day there's going to be a headhunter just out of range with his binoculars and a notebook, jotting down the finer points of your style."
Mac smiled more genuinely this time. "You make it sound like I should just sell tickets, or give public demonstrations. If someone is really out to get me, there are easier ways to do it than that."
"You think I don't know that? That's what bothers me. Sometimes I think you have a death-wish." He hunched forward over his drink, dropping his head when Mac started rubbing his shoulders.
"I'm glad you care." Mac's tone was amused as he stroked Methos' neck, curling his fingers around to stroke his check.
"Yeah, well I'd like to go on having someone to care about, thank you very much." He rubbed his cheek into Mac's hand, nipping lightly on his fingers. "You drive me insane." He went along as Mac pulled his head up, leaning into that warm, generous mouth. "Mmmm...Scotch tastes good on you."
Mac smiled. "Thanks."
Methos looked at him, watching his pupils dilate, feeling Mac's thumb stroking over his cheek, along his lips. His chest was tight with a mixture of need and panic. He kissed Mac's thumb, then set his glass down on the table before standing. "I'm going to take a shower." He hoped that it was clear from his tone of voice that he needed a little time to himself.
Under the stinging spray, he let the warmth seep into his muscles and bones, but it didn't displace his anxiety. MacLeod was up to something, and for all the Highlander's attempts at subtlety, he might as well have pinned a note to his chest announcing "I've got a secret." Methos didn't yet know what the secret might be, but whatever it was, Mac had been gently preparing him for it all evening. It made him all the more nervous because it was so unlike Mac, who was normally so direct.
He'd known he was in real trouble when he got back to the barge and found Mac busily preparing a dinner of Narsirk and brussels sprouts, saffron rice, and wine several times more expensive than they usually drank. Persian beef was a far cry from their usual dinners of pasta or take-out. Mac seemed to take the old adage 'the way to a man's heart is through his stomach' as seriously as any woman Methos had ever known, but it was the candles that had seriously put him on edge. Mac was a romantic, and a sensualist at heart, but he did not light dinner candles for any but special occasions. After clawing through his mental fil-o-fax and discarding any other possible occasion that he might have forgotten (including Queen Elizabeth's birthday, Father's Day, and the anniversary of his and Mac's first kiss computed on a lunar calendar), Methos rightfully concluded that Mac was up to something. He wasn't looking forward to finding out what was being served up for dessert, feeling far too much like he was being positioned over a mark on the floor clearly labeled 'stand here,' just waiting to have something unfortunate dropped on him.
Disquieted, Duncan listened to the muted hiss of the shower and sipped at his Scotch, swirling the fiery liquid absently as he watched the light play over the turbulent surface. This wasn't going to be easy. In fact, nothing seemed to be easy anymore. He'd hoped that Methos' voluntary return nine months ago indicated that the other man wanted something more, that he was willing to work at a relationship. Certainly there had been no more than a token resistance when Duncan had wanted to continue the interrupted physical closeness they'd begun that night in Seacouver, and what had started as a reaching out to each other physically had seemed to grow by leaps and bounds. It had felt so easy, so right, having Methos with him, satisfying so many needs in his life. Companionship, comfort, friendship, sex...it was all of that and more.
At Duncan's urging Methos had stayed on, fitting himself effortlessly into Duncan's life, Duncan's spaces, slowly bringing his things to the barge and lingering on as a kind of continuous guest. The offer to make the arrangement more permanent had always been there, unspoken, but Methos had never taken advantage of it.
And for months it had gone well, after Ehren's death, the two of them moving around each other easily, happily sharing the upkeep of the home, trading evenings at rock concerts and the opera, the theatre and the latest action movie. There had been many long, intimate talks, a lot of laughter, plans for trips to be made and things to be done. Methos had shown him a capacity for tenderness and laughter that he'd only suspected before.
But now...now it all seemed to be falling apart, unraveling as fast as Duncan could try to piece it back together. The spar tonight had been at Duncan's urging, after Methos had commented that they needed to get more exercise than the horizontal kind. The fact was that something was wrong, the quiet happiness they'd enjoyed was slipping away from them, and Duncan was at a loss to know what to do about it.
Methos had seemed so happy at first, but lately nothing seemed to please him. He knew that Methos cared about him, showed it often in his own inimitable, sarcastic way, but something was bothering him, and he didn't seem to be able to talk about it. Duncan had learned enough about dealing with Methos to know that sometimes it had nothing to do with him, and he just had to let Methos work it out in his own time.
He stood up and moved to build up the fire, taking out his frustration on the logs as he poked and stirred the embers back to life. The fire snapped and popped, fresh tongues of flame licking up the sides of the new wood he'd added. He sucked a deep breath of the dry, fragrant heat and reached for the calm he'd kept himself carefully wrapped in all night. Giving in to his emotions would get him nowhere, quickly. All he wanted was for Methos to open up a little bit, let him in -- not hold back so much. He'd learned a lot about Methos in the last few years: Kronos, Seireadan, Ehren. The bits and pieces kept adding up, fitting together into a not quite comfortable, incomplete picture that left him feeling as if Methos was almost more of a stranger than he'd been before. He knew that wasn't true, that he was finally getting to know Methos himself, as opposed to the various aspects that were trotted out to play, but he wanted so much to know more, to be able to understand -- and faster. He sighed. He'd forgotten exactly how much work went into a new relationship.
Methos the student, the storekeeper, the friend, the warrior, the lover...he seemed to slip from one to the other with little effort, but without giving Duncan much sign as to where he fit in with them. And lately he wondered if Methos was realizing this, as well. He took a deep breath at the momentary panic that set in at the thought of Methos leaving and went to pour himself another drink. He knew that if Methos decided to leave there wasn't much he could do about it, but he hoped that it wouldn't come to that, that Methos would give them time to be comfortable with each other. Unfortunately, it was almost as if the more settled things appeared, the more agitated Methos' response.
Methos wasn't gone long. Duncan watched him emerge from the bathroom in a cloud of scented steam to dig out clean jeans and a sweater, admiring the lines of his body, feeling his belly heat with the desire that was never far away. No matter how tense things got, so far the sex was always great. Hell, sometimes it was better for the conflict, their desire seeming to feed off the dark emotions and leashed passions that were never really very far away. He pushed that thought aside, not wanting to complicate the night any further by introducing sex into the mix. Getting up, he poured them each another drink, moving to hand one to the other man.
"Thanks." Methos' acknowledgment was polite, but cursory, though the accompanying smile seemed genuine enough. He moved back to the couch, staring into the fire. The hot shower and warm, dry clothes seemed to have mellowed him a bit, but it was like bailing out a leaky lifeboat with a teaspoon, never enough to make a real difference. Duncan didn't know what was eating at him this time, or any of the other times, but he was getting more than a little tired of it. Before, he'd simply bided his time and let the situation resolve itself, let Methos work out whatever was troubling him on his own. And thus far it had been a successful tactic. Truthfully, since Methos seemed more than a little reluctant to talk about anything even approaching personal, it was the only option left to him -- but this time it wasn't working.
Firmly pushing down another brief surge of frustration, Duncan tossed back his drink. He took a deep breath before speaking again. "Joe called."
Methos glanced up briefly before returning his gaze to the fire. "Yeah? What'd he want?"
Duncan grinned at the distrustful tone. "Maybe he just wanted to see how we were doing."
Methos snorted. "Not bloody likely. When's he coming back to Paris?" Duncan hesitated too long, and Methos turned to look at him suspiciously. "What?"
"There's this Blues Festival." Duncan looked up, but the flatly distrusting hazel eyes offered no encouragement. "In Nevada."
The level stare never wavered. "That's nice. What's it got to do with us?"
"No." Methos' tone was adamant.
"I haven't even asked you yet."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not going." Methos got up to refill his glass.
"In case it's slipped your memory, there are people in the States looking for me, Mac. You remember them, right? Shabby sport coats, badges, guns...oh, yeah, and that unholy determination to see me behind bars? I'm better off in Paris."
"Methos, it's not like anyone is going to know you! It's a blues festival. You know, big crowds, loud music, lots of beer?" He tried to keep his voice even. What came out was not quite wheedling, not quite impatient, but was apparently close enough to both to set Methos off. Even in the dim light he could see the firm set of the square shoulders and the dark, angry flush spreading up the smooth neck. "It's just a short trip. We'd be there and back so quick nobody would even notice."
"Mac, what part of 'I'm not going' isn't getting through to you?" Methos' voice deepened, darkening in a way that sent a shiver up Duncan's spine. Methos sucked a deep breath and shook himself, turning back from pouring his drink -- a double. "If you want to go, go! Drink, dance, have fun. I'm sure I can entertain myself until you get back."
"But I want you to come with me, Methos." Duncan moved in behind him, fitting his body gently against the slender man. He paused for a heartbeat to savor the heat and scent of him before leaning over to breathe in Methos' ear. "I've gotten used to having you around."
Methos tensed as if the words pushed at him. "You said yourself it won't be for long. I'll be here when you get back." He turned in the circle of Duncan's arms to look at him, seeming to see the doubt on his face. "I'm not going anywhere." Methos reached up to touch his cheek. "I won't leave while you're gone."
Duncan wasn't sure which of them Methos was trying to convince, and he felt the panic flaring in his gut again. He lightly replied, "Well, that's the problem, isn't it? I want you to go someplace. Nevada, to be exact. With me."
"Well, we don't always get what we want." Methos pulled away, draining his glass.
Duncan took a deep breath and swallowed his hesitation. In for a penny... "Joe wants us both to come, Methos. He specifically asked."
"Cheap shot, MacLeod. And cheap labor. You'd think he could find less expensive roadies than flying them in from Paris. Besides, I thought he was your Watcher? What's he doing in the States while you're still over here?"
"Well, I'm usually not over here this time of year, so he'd made arrangements." God, he'd known this wasn't going to be easy, but Methos seemed determined to make it as difficult as possible. He felt the beginnings of a headache creeping up the sides of his skull.
Mac kept his tone careful and even, but Methos heard the unspoken reproach as clear as a shout. //See, Mac? I'm complicating your life. A creature of patterns and a creature of randomness should never try and set up house together.// He couldn't seem to keep himself from pushing at Mac, responding too sharply.
Moving to the porthole, he felt the chill wash over him as he left the fire's heat behind. Methos stared out at the lights across the river, cold and distant, for all their brilliant glow. The embers snapped in the background. Methos hated the new style of sodium-orange street lamps; they always made it look to him as though the city was on fire. He smiled grimly. They had given him nightmares at first, full of smoke and screams, men and horses dying, cities in flames...
Nine months now, since Ehren's death. Nine months that he and Mac had each been trying to adjust to the other's quirks and kinks, and Methos wasn't sure it was working -- for either of them. He felt as if Mac was watching his every move, certain he was going to take off the minute Mac's back was turned, and the sensation was more than a bit smothering.
More than that, Methos was feeling...he wasn't sure what he was feeling. Restless. It wasn't that he wanted to leave, but part of him wondered why he'd ever come back, whether it wouldn't have been simpler in the long run to just keep going. He'd left Seacouver knowing that it was for the best, that he and Mac would never be able to get past all the complications and misunderstandings. And then one day he just found himself landing in Paris with this incredible sense of anticipation and uncertainty.
He hadn't expected Mac to want him, not really, but he had -- more fool him. He wasn't exactly getting a bargain, in Methos' opinion, and he'd almost decided it would be better for both of them for him to just fade away again. Instead, he'd grabbed at the possibility, ignoring the dangerous sense of happiness that had flooded him when he realized how good it felt to just let go and take the chance. Methos had accepted the odd, troubled relationship he was offered, at first hesitantly, but then with greater joy and commitment to making it work.
And they had worked at it, making one adjustment after another, being open to each other's interests, each trying to accommodate the other's needs. But lately Methos felt like things were a little unbalanced, with him living on the barge, adapting to Mac's social agenda, his routine. At the same time, he admitted that he hadn't brought it up, that a part of him was entirely too comfortable just settling into Mac's life. Was it possible for too much comfort to make a person uncomfortable?
Up till now, Mac hadn't brought up the possibility of going back to the States, though Methos had been expecting it. When left to his own devices, Mac would be in Seacouver at this point. He sighed, leaning against the wall. Sometimes he felt like a captive moon, orbiting Planet Duncan MacLeod. Mac seemed to have settled quite comfortably into a pattern, but Methos wasn't sure where he fit in the larger picture. He wasn't sure he was ready to be that...dependent. To risk so much.
At the same time, he felt as if Mac was holding him at arm's length, as if he wasn't really ready to deal with Methos, the five-thousand-year-old man -- which made it that much harder to open up. He'd tried to be patient, playing the game carefully, waiting for signs that Mac wanted to know more, was ready to see more, to move on, but nothing seemed to have changed. He seemed content with the face Methos had adopted. And whose fault was that? It was an easy enough mask to maintain. And it scared him more than a little that he seemed to be hunting for a place to lay it down. So, they'd started out reaching for each other, and now they seemed to be just maintaining the status quo, each waiting for something from the other.
He stretched, trying to alleviate some of the stiffness in his shoulders that never quite seemed to go away, lately. The touch of warm broad palms made him start, hands that seemed to know exactly where to knead. He hadn't even noticed Mac moving up behind him. The easy familiarity of those hands, the fact that Mac knew just what to do, just how to touch him, made him uncomfortable tonight.
"Methos," Mac said softly, "You can use a different name, somebody nobody's looking for -- I'm sure you've got one set up someplace."
Methos forcibly kept himself from stiffening; he wasn't sure whether that was bitterness in Mac's voice, or a simple acknowledgment that Methos always had alternative plans.
"Think of it as a vacation, a time away."
Methos didn't speak, but the words sounded in his head. //From what, Mac? What do we need a vacation from?// He sighed and made himself relax back against Mac, the tension in his shoulders yielding to the sure strength of those hands even as the rest of him perched on the verge of surrender to the determined power of that will. He didn't know anymore why he even tried to resist. He always gave in. It frightened him how easy it was to give in, yet another concession in an endless series of concessions. Sometimes he wondered if it was that very ease that was making him hold back. It shouldn't be that simple.
But why not? Why had it been so simple to just change his pattern of life for Alexa and not for Duncan? It certainly wasn't a lack of caring. And Mac was right; it was very unlikely that a brief trip to Nevada would stir up any trouble from Seacouver. He also had to admit that the thought of letting Mac go without him, leaving him here alone to stew in his own anxiety, wasn't very appealing. Hell, he might even miss the man. He was surprised at his own sense of relief when he pulled away from Mac's grasp and began pulling items out of the wardrobe.
"What are you doing?"
Methos looked up, startled at the note of fear in Mac's voice. He smiled slightly. "I'm packing. That festival is in Nevada, yes?"
"Yes." Mac's voice held a thread of suspicion and a rope of uncertainty.
Methos nodded. "You get to pick up the bar tab." He was startled at the warmth of pleasure that flushed through his system at the look on Mac's face.
Methos wove a drunkard's path through the swarm of people, his feet heavy and unfeeling on the tile floor, motion purposeful only in terms of away. There were people everywhere, pressing, crushing against him, pulling on his clothing, shouting, the din of voices like the roar of the sea, primal and unchanging. No language, no real message to be communicated, only the steady, deafening sound of the surf...a sea of bodies crashing against him.
Panic swelled. There were too many of them, too many eyes to see his exposed secrets. Away. Blood and water flowed off of him, the raw meat of his wounded shoulder there for the world to see, his coat shredded with jagged rents, his face pale from cold and fright and loss of blood.
Methos didn't want to die.
And death was coming. His personal reaper came in a swirl of pale coat tails, as wet and bloody as Methos himself, carried through the sea on the confident, determined stride of long legs. Walking on water.
Seireadan was coming to kill him.
Methos' arm pulsed twin agonies, sharp and dull, every bump and jostle screaming white fire in his body. Blood dripped steadily from his fingers. It was getting hard to breathe, the world darkening, focus narrowing to the person ahead of him and the reaper behind him. He was so tired, so afraid, his hands empty. The air tasted like copper and steel, roses and chocolate. Another breath and a push through the crowd... He didn't want to die, not with so much undone, so many things unsaid. Not with the memory of Duncan's body so fresh on his skin.
His stumbling feet found stairs, and they carried him up, toward the roof and back into the storm...
Methos came awake on the image of a glittering sword arcing through the air. He gasped for breath, surprised when his lungs took in air without effort and his limbs moved freely. He scrubbed at his burning eyes with shaky hands, casting his gaze around the dark room to orient himself. A quiet grumble from beside him stilled his movement, and he turned to look at his sleeping lover, bent to breathe in the scent of him, the salty, astringent smell of sex that still lingered. He ghosted gentle fingertips in a feather-light touch over Mac's hair, grounding himself in familiar things, tangible things.
They'd returned late from the party where they'd met Joe, the extended jam session having stirred them both to the point that even making it inside the rented cabin had been a chancy thing. Casual touches begun on the drive back had taken on a life of their own, the slow burn building until the men had fallen on each other in a desperate frenzy of need and desire. There had been no time taken for teasing play, no gentle extending of arousal. It had been hard and sweet, mouths and hands urgent and hungry, leaving them both relaxed and drowsy.
Now, sleep had fled. Methos rose and padded across the thick carpet with the grainy-eyed weariness of the sleepless, rather than the lush, heavy-limbed somnolence that would pull him back to the bed and down into dreams. Ironic that Seireadan should start haunting his dreams again only now that the bastard had been dead for over a year and a half. Moving carefully, so as not to wake MacLeod, Methos pulled on a robe and moved to stand looking out over the lake. He breathed deeply, silently, still raw inside and craving open spaces around him, as if the crowds from his dream still pressed against his skin.
He stood quietly, balanced forward on his feet as though poised for flight, clearing his mind, letting go of the last remnants of the dream, trying to fill himself with the stillness of the water, deep and black in the moonlight. Seireadan was dead, and the dead had no power that the living didn't give them. It was over. But the last moment of the dream still haunted him, the moment of catching the sword Mac threw him, the solid impact against his hand. He could still feel the flash of panic that had accompanied it, something that had not happened in reality.
The water was so perfectly calm it looked as if he could run across the flawless surface of it. How much things changed, how much they remained the same. Methos would never forget the first time he'd seen this lake, the brilliant sapphire gleam dulled and clouded with mud and silt, the rich forests stripped away from the steep slopes of the Sierras. Tahoe had been a wasteland, its timeless beauty sacrificed to the immediate greed of the Comstock miners in Virginia City. So much wealth, so much devastation.
Maybe it was good that Mac had brought him here. Maybe they could make some new memories together in this place. Maybe...
Virginia City, Nevada
"You don't have to do this, Jack." Elinore wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck, pressing her face into his shoulder as he nudged open the bright yellow door of the small wood-frame house.
"Of course I do. It's tradition. Besides, if I don't carry you over the threshold, you might stumble and offend the household gods. The...oof...Romans were very serious about that."
"Not to the Romans." Methos navigated them safely through the door and into the parlor on sure feet, at last setting his tiny bride on the sofa. "You stay right there and let me get the fire built up."
"At least let me help. Do you have a tea kettle?"
"In the kitchen. The tea is in the cabinet." He stacked the slender logs in the stove one at a time, encouraging the small fire to grow and watching Elinore carefully explore the kitchen. He sighed and dusted his hands against his trousers. She was so nervous. Even from here he could see her hands shake as she measured tea into the ceramic pot, spilling some of the water as she poured.
She carried the pot with tremendous care, as if it were a rare treasure and not a cheap, painted trinket from the mercantile.
"Elinore..." he began gently, laying a light hand on her shoulder.
The pot fairly leapt from her hands as she jumped and turned, ceramic and water exploding over the wooden floor in a shower of painted shards, the bright floral design shattered beyond recognition.
"Oh, Heavens, Jack!" Elinore dropped to her knees in the water and tea leaves, picking at the mess with her soft fingers before Methos could stop her, her pale face streaked with tears, bright spots of blood falling from her fingertips to stain her dress. "I broke it. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."
He knelt on the wet floor beside her and reached for her, at first shocked when she flinched from his touch. Pulling his hand back, he turned his attention to picking up the sharp slivers of broken pottery and did his best to project nothing but patient reassurance, reminding himself that this would take time. Methos smiled gently at her. "It's only a teapot. It's all right. Everything will be all right. I promise."
Mac murmured and shifted in his sleep, pulling Methos back to the present. The stars were slowly winking out of the sky, and he could smell the sunrise approaching. He looked over his shoulder and saw Mac move, reaching out in his sleep to the empty place where Methos had been lying next to him. A deep wave of feeling swept through him, making him feel as though he were sinking inside himself, distinct emotions so tangled together that he didn't even know where to begin to unravel them. It wasn't fair that one man could awaken so many strong and utterly contradictory urges in him. Methos wanted to cling to Duncan like a life preserver, to flee as fast and far as his legs would take him, to shelter him and guard him against anything that might harm him, to wrap himself in the Highlander's protection like a blanket. Go, stay, resist, surrender, hurt, comfort, love...fear. He wanted, he wanted.
He'd not only allowed Mac to drag him back to the States, but to convince him that he'd actually enjoy himself -- and so far, he had. Miracles never ceased. Maybe Mac was right; maybe this was exactly what they'd needed.
Methos waited in the softening darkness, utterly motionless, even breathing shallowly until Mac had settled back to sleep, drifting back down into the fathomless deep of dreams. Then, with one last regretful glance for the comfort of the bed and the rest again denied him, he put on a pot of coffee and went to take a shower.
Strong hands stroked Duncan's back and shoulders, slowly, irresistibly pulling him up out of sleep, out of the grip of some pleasant dream. It slid away, falling down like a bright trinket into deep water, lost. There was a pang of regret for the lost vision as wakefulness insinuated itself along with the warmth of familiar hands and the clinging embrace of soft sheets. He sighed. "Mmm... What time is it?"
"Early." Humor and affection colored the rich voice, but no trace of sleepiness.
Duncan lifted his head from the pillow, squinting at the windows, mole-like. "It's not even light yet." He dropped back down with a muffled thump.
"You said you wanted to see the sunrise over the lake."
Duncan groaned, burrowing deeper into his pillow. Of all the times for Methos to hold him to a casual wish. The man had a very wide streak of cruel perversity in him. "I said a lot of things last night..."
"So I shouldn't believe anything you said?" Methos' voice was playful, but it carried an edge of threat. Something thunked solidly against the bedside table, and a dark, wonderful smell found Duncan's nose. The ambush was complete.
He sat up, stifling a yawn and rubbing at sticky, dry eyes. He arched an eyebrow suspiciously at the cup. A bleary squint at Methos. "That better not be decaf."
The picture of slighted innocence. Methos must practice that expression more religiously than the sword. "Would I do that to you?"
"You might." Duncan reached for the cup like a life preserver, clutching the warm ceramic in both hands. "And I meant most of what I said, just not the bit about seeing the sunrise. Today," he amended, sipping at the coffee. "You do recall the insane hour we got back?" He sensed the minimal nod, more than saw it, in the dark.
"Yeah. Blues players are an insane bunch. Joe was definitely in his element. I don't know when I've seen him so happy. And that trombone player...Dave? I think he could probably out-drink me if he was really trying."
"Methos, he outweighs you by at least a hundred pounds."
An indelicate snort. "One-fifty."
"Whatever," Duncan sucked at the coffee, not caring that it burned his tongue. Only then did he fully open his eyes, allowing them to adjust to the early morning gloom. Methos perched on the edge of the bed, already showered and dressed in the light colors and cool fabrics the Nevada summer demanded. He looked absurdly alert. "Did you even sleep?"
"Not much, but it's okay. I had some things to catch up on."
Duncan shook his head, smiling. "Vacation, Methos. This is a vacation. You know -- sleep late, spend money, eat things that are bad for you...play?"
"Hey! I may not have invented play, but I was around while it was still under copyright. I can play. Besides, you know what you just described is my preferred lifestyle." There was a pause. "Sometimes I just can't sleep."
"Dreams again?" He set the coffee aside, concerned. He knew about Methos' dreams, although Methos was reluctant to discuss the details of them. Still, Duncan knew how often they'd driven him from their bed at night. Like the rest of their difficulties of late, the dreams had been getting more frequent and more intense. He'd hoped they'd left the dreams, along with everything else, behind in Paris.
He recalled one night when Methos had woken him, crying out in a language that Duncan had never heard, pleading, tears streaming down his cheeks. Unable to witness that pain and do nothing, Duncan had woken him. Methos had dried his cheeks with a look akin to horror and fled the bed, refusing to talk about it. Duncan had been hurt, but he hadn't pressed him, hoping that Methos would be more comfortable in time. Duncan had noticed that Methos seemed much more at ease sharing factual details, bits of his history, than emotional ones.
Methos shrugged. "Nothing important."
"Methos... you can tell me." There was a single breathless pause, and he thought for that timeless moment that Methos would open up and tell him. He wished Methos would tell him. Nothing in the dreams could be as terrible as the scenarios that Duncan imagined.
Then Methos looked away, suddenly evasive, and the moment was over. He got up, moving restlessly, covering the motion by looking out the window. Duncan could see the sudden tension in the line of his shoulders. "There's nothing to tell, Mac. Really."
"If you say so." Duncan was unconvinced, but he let it go. Methos needed his secrets, and as much as Duncan wished he'd open up a bit more, he didn't want to risk pushing him away. And he didn't want anything to spoil their trip. He glanced at the clock. "You know, sunrise isn't until about 5:30 or so, and it's not like we have to go any further than the balcony..."
Methos feigned indifference, but there was a slight quirking of his lips. "So?"
Duncan smiled slowly. The anticipation game, the negotiation, was part of the fun. "So why don't you come over here and give me a proper 'good morning' kiss?"
"Oh, no. You'll wrinkle me." Methos grinned.
"Since when are you such a clothes-horse? Besides, that's my shirt."
Methos preened. "But it looks better on me." There was a thoughtful pause, all pretense of pouting gone. One knee was placed on the foot of the bed. "Come here," he commanded.
"What?" Duncan raised one eyebrow. He wasn't resistant, just curious; the tone was one Methos rarely used in bed: arrogant, playful, demanding. He was a pale pillar in the faint, silvery light. Tall, bigger than Duncan remembered him being, confident. Methos was always bigger than Duncan remembered. He made such a show of being "just a guy," of being unimposing, that even knowing the truth, it was hard to shake the impression of him as smaller, shy, less than he in fact was. It made Duncan uncomfortable each time he realized he'd let himself forget again.
"You want your 'proper kiss,' you come and get it." The tone was predatory.
Every inch of Duncan's skin tingled in anticipation. Methos seldom imposed his own desires on their lovemaking, seemingly content to follow where Duncan led them. He was always an enthusiastic participant, but willing to let Duncan shape their activity. The idea that he might take a more assertive role was exciting, even as it was unsettling.
"All right." Duncan pushed aside the light blanket and crawled slowly across the bed.
"Ooh, feeling obedient today? I think I like you on your knees." The tone remained dark and deep, that tone that always thrilled and frightened Duncan, if only a little. He had no real fear of Methos, but every so often he was reminded of how young he was in comparison, of who Methos had been, and it always sent a little frisson of something like...fear, anticipated danger, up his spine. He looked up, pausing, suddenly intimidated. Methos placed his hands on his hips in an arrogant posture, surveying the bed, and Duncan, like the lord of the manor. There was a momentary shiver at the cool regard in those eyes, that look that said please me and expected no less. Then it was gone, and this was just a game again, the quiet humor in the hazel eyes revealed by the growing light from the windows. Duncan relaxed into the game, eager to play.
"So, what about that kiss?" Duncan was close enough to smell him now, soap and deodorant and warm body-scents teasing his nose. The bright tingle of his anticipation had crossed the line into budding arousal. Games were fine, more than fine, especially now that he knew they were playing by the same rules.
"We'll get to it. Unbutton my shirt." Methos leaned back a bit, pulling the shirt tight across his chest, inviting contact.
"Your shirt?" Laughter threatened, even as he nuzzled his way up the sleek torso, lipping at the buttons.
"I'm wearing it, aren't I? Careful...no wrinkles. I'll be very displeased if you wrinkle me."
"Of course, Master. Will you punish me terribly?" Duncan valiantly fought the urge to grin as he reached for the small buttons. Even more notable was the restraint he showed in not simply biting off the little white fastenings. After all, he'd only promised no wrinkles. In the end, though, impatience won out over playfulness, and he slipped the smooth fastenings through the fabric in a more traditional manner. One, two, three...the smooth expanse of chest slowly revealed was scarcely darker than the ivory shirt.
"You have no idea..." Methos' breathing caught as Duncan lightly stroked the exposed skin with his lips. Four, five, six... "I didn't say you could kiss me yet..."
Duncan carefully turned the crisp linen back, wary of creasing it, his tongue tracing faint, moist lines across Methos' chest. Gradually he worked his way over to one nipple and set in to stake a serious claim there in ever-narrowing circles, savoring the taste of the warm, clean skin. "Hmm?"
"Nothing..." Methos groaned, his fingers brushing lightly, rhythmically against Duncan's head, cupping and holding gently, tracing over his ears and throat in a way that made Duncan burn inside. In anyone else, Duncan might have called the behavior shy, but this man, even now struggling to control his breathing, stroking softly at the back of Duncan's head, was anything but shy.
Methos pressed his chest against the teasing mouth, deepening the contact. Duncan had noticed early on that Methos was always so controlled, so deliberate, though no less passionate for that. Lately he'd begun to wonder what it might take to break that control, to bring Methos to the point of expressing his desire more forcefully, and the thought gave him that same frisson of anticipated danger.
"May I take your pants off now?" Duncan smiled around the tiny nub he was teasing and moved his fingers to roll its opposite with firm pressure.
Methos jerked and gasped, rasping out a response in short words. "Shoes first. God..."
"Of course...no wrinkles." Obedience, and this strange formality Methos had instigated, might have benefits after all.
"No...wrinkles..." The hands danced lightly over Duncan's back and shoulders, petting at his jaw, gently encouraging. More.
He bit the sensitive nipple, scraping it with his teeth.
Methos cried out and jerked back from those teeth. Abandoning the game, he didn't wait for Duncan to finish undressing him. Kicking off his shoes and slacks, he pushed Duncan back on the bed, a gleam of something hungry and desperate in his eyes, something that both stirred and alarmed Duncan, that sense of danger stronger. What had began as play, a teasing game, quickly deepened into something with its own energy and powerful momentum as they wrestled and pinched, touched and nipped with growing ardor and abandon. Duncan savored the hunger that he sensed in Methos' movements and unaccustomed forcefulness, even as he felt an underlying anxiety. Be careful what you wish for...Duncan abandoned the old homily and stretched himself recklessly beneath his lover's ravaging mouth and hands. More, he silently urged, as he was bitten, pinched, and kneaded almost to the point of pain. Almost.
Hands and mouths wandered freely, tickling and soothing, licking and nipping, finding a hip there to slap, a tender place here to caress, an erection there to squeeze and stroke...
Harder. Down. Slower. Yes. Bite...
Soon enough there was no room for thought at all as he was stroked and petted, encouraged and aroused. Methos' touch was fire, burning away his reason, his ability to offer caresses in turn, everything, it seemed, but his voice, groaning out in response. So slowly, so gently, so completely was his body wakened, his excitement raised, that he barely noticed as Methos moved between his knees with that same caution. With that motion, the tenor of the moment changed again, slowing and deepening, unbearably intense, indescribably tender. The warmth over him vanished for an instant, returning with a lazy caress to his hip and the breathy glide of a smooth face over the soft skin of his belly and groin.
He groaned and pressed upward, and that hot, beloved, inhumanly skilled mouth opened to accept him.
Duncan felt like he was floating, anchored only by the smooth glide of the wet mouth over his cock. God, nobody ever did this as good as Methos. Hot, wet, with that dangerous glide of teeth just so...
Then Methos was petting between his legs, cupping his balls, searching beneath them. One long, spit-slippery finger teased at his entrance, easing inside with firm, gentle pressure. Duncan tightened slightly in reaction, and the rhythm faltered for an instant. This was familiar, the tense pleasure of a finger pressing inside him, although it was still something shockingly intimate, leaving him feeling uncomfortably open, exposed in a way he hadn't felt with other lovers, even under similar circumstances. Methos didn't speak, pausing in his attentions to stroke his face against Duncan's hips, catlike, reassuring. The single finger continued to move in tiny increments, twisting slowly, pleasantly.
After an impossibly long moment, Methos' mouth resumed its seductive pleasuring, and as Duncan began to relax, Methos slid his finger in further, pushing to the side to make room for a second. The movement was smooth, casual, as if this was something they always did, this...intimacy. It was as far as they had ever gone before, Duncan's silent hesitation and unspoken anxiety preventing his relaxation or enjoyment. Each time he thought that this time he would be able to go further. It was nothing he hadn't felt before, but....And each time Methos quickly relented, their pleasure seemingly unmarred.
Surprise, anticipation, fear, and pleasure all combined with a faint burning sensation as the tight muscle reluctantly yielded to the penetration. Neither of them moved, apart from the gentle motion of Methos' fingers deep with Duncan's body and his mouth stroking against Duncan's shaft. The room was silent save for Duncan's gasps and groans of pleasure
Even the low burning as the muscle stretched wasn't unpleasant. Quite the opposite. The slight pain was satisfying in a dark, dangerous way, like having his neck bitten too hard. Easy, it should be so easy to just...let go, relax, and let it happen. To let Methos have him, have all of him. To let him in.
The fingers moved again, so slow, so tight and slick...so good.
//I want this,// he repeated to himself over and over, a private mantra. And he did want it, almost as much as he feared it, this devastating intimacy. Even now there was a terrible urge to speak the words, to beg for the consummation, to throw himself on the sword. To embrace the devastation, the pain, the seductive pleasure of giving himself, the unmaking. He didn't know what held him back from finding this with this man, when it wasn't something entirely unknown. But it had never felt quite like this before.
Methos would unmake him, and part of him yearned for that, to be completely vulnerable, shattered and remade anew... It felt so good. Pain, pleasure...Duncan breathed, struggling to relax further, to be calm, to give himself to the feeling, but suddenly there was only dark anticipation and fear eating away at him with dull teeth. It was too much, too intense, too close. Methos looked up at him, gentle, questioning, and moved his fingers more deeply. The pleasure surged again, threatening to sweep him under. To overwhelm him.
//I can do this,// he reminded himself once more.
His eyes slid closed in acceptance and anticipation, even as his heart hammered, the rush of adrenalin and blood making his head light. The warmth covering him vanished as Methos raised up, and cold air poured over him, leaving him feeling defenseless and alone. Abandoned to the passionate hunger of those burning fingers, Duncan flinched from the sensation, and pain burned through him as he pulled off of the fingers, too fast.
He hissed and jerked away in shock, feeling exposed and vulnerable. Methos didn't pursue him as he moved away. Duncan pulled him up to kiss his neck, trying to apologize yet again for his clumsiness, his inability to let go. If there was another question in the bright hazel eyes, Duncan chose to misunderstand it.
In moments the lean body of his lover was turned and prepared, Duncan moving against him and inside him in the pale light, this pleasure that neither of them resisted. Methos moved with him, rocking slowly, accepting the give and take, the advance and retreat of Duncan's body silently, with none of the soft exclamations of pleasure that had escaped him before. Duncan gripped Methos' hand, stroking his body, his belly, and straining cock with coaxing motions until at last Methos yielded, eerily silent even in his release.
"Is something wrong?" Duncan already knew that there was, but he didn't know how to bring it up, didn't know how to explain something he didn't really understand himself. He wanted to be closer to Methos, wanted to give him whatever he asked for, but something held him back, some inner hesitation.
Not waiting for him to retrieve a warm cloth to clean them both, Methos rolled to the side of the bed with what might have been a carefully swallowed sigh.
"No, Mac, nothing's wrong." The carefully measured tone and the tension thrumming through his body made that a lie. Duncan suppressed the flare of anger, knowing that the lack of communication was mutual.
Duncan reached out to touch his shoulder. "Methos, I--"
Methos kissed his fingers lightly and stood up, gathering his clothes.
The silence was as deep and treacherous as an underwater cave. The right words were impossible to find, and the wrong ones... How could he describe a feeling that he wasn't even sure of? He felt the heat rising to his face as he struggled for composure, grasping for the words to say the right thing. "Methos, I'm sorry if--" He swallowed hard. "I can't--"
Methos cut off his awkward struggle with a slight shake of his head. "It's all right, Mac."
Duncan stared at the sheets, the floor, the walls, anything but his lover. He couldn't look at Methos right now, didn't want to see the carefully neutral expression he knew was forming on the familiar face. He didn't want to see the masks, the shields descending. He didn't know why this was so hard for him to accept. The enveloping quiet was like a deep well, steep and difficult to climb, with no place to find purchase.
There was hiss of running water and a low rustle of fabric as Methos washed and dressed. Duncan looked up at last to see Methos running his fingers through his hair, every shield carefully in place, looking as crisp and cool as he had when Duncan awoke.
Methos swept silently past him, picking up a mug of coffee that was surely cold by now from the dresser before stepping out onto the balcony overlooking the water. Duncan watched him cradle the mug and stare at the water, utterly motionless in the faint breeze.
Unable to stay in bed and do nothing, after a moment he pulled on a robe and followed him out, unconsciously mimicking his posture against the railing. The early morning air was sweet and cool, the scent of evergreens and the damp, fishy tang of lake water almost tangible on his skin. A water bird cried in the distance. Methos sipped at his cup.
"Isn't that cold?"
Methos shrugged and glanced down at the mug. "Even cold coffee is still coffee."
Not knowing what to say to that, Duncan looked back down at the water and the smooth, pale boulders jumbled along the shore. He made another foray into conversation. "I've always liked the rocks here."
An amused smile was his reward. Methos sipped at his coffee again and said, "It's a landslide scar."
"Really? How do you know?" Perfect. For all Duncan could tell, his and Methos' relationship might very well be in ruins, and here they were, casually discussing geology in the afterglow.
"If you look at the mountain, you can tell," Methos turned and gestured over the cabin's roof to the near slope. "Once you've seen enough of them, the signs are easy to read. The scars hang around for a long time."
"Oh." He shivered then, the sudden chill owing nothing to the cool breeze from the lake. Duncan wondered when Methos had first seen this lake, and if he had been here for the slide that gave Boulder Cove its name. He'd never mentioned that he'd been in this area before at all.
Methos looked at him and sighed, his eyes too old for the youthful face, seeing too much. "Listen, I want to go do some things in town. I'll see you later at the concert." The tone was as carefully neutral as the expression.
Duncan felt his face heat at the cool regard, ashamed. He didn't bother pointing out that nothing was open yet but supermarkets and casinos, or that there really wasn't any business to conduct on a vacation, or asking if Methos wanted some company. He hadn't been invited. The water lapped softly against the rocks, shimmering in the golden light. "We missed the sunrise."
Methos paused at the door. "It will be there tomorrow."
"Let's hope so."
Only after Methos was gone did Duncan realize that he had never gotten that kiss.
He went back inside and fell back on the bed, cursing himself for a coward and a fool. One of the few times Methos had been assertive and playful in bed, and he'd ruined it. He should have waited, should have been more accepting. He'd told himself over and over that there was nothing Methos could offer, or ask, that he wouldn't try to give. Methos had done the same for him, repeatedly given him space, or comfort, or the physical connection that he craved with a partner.
Too late, he realized that he should have swallowed his own sense of discomfort and vague guilt and pressed a little harder, found out what was really bothering the other man. There had been too many moments like this lately, where Duncan had uncharacteristically played the coward, letting Methos get away with a false assurance that everything was fine. Methos was the best there was at ducking a subject and avoiding direct answers to uncomfortable questions, and Duncan had let him get away with it. But he had the distinct feeling that this time Methos had only wanted him to ask again, to really want to know, and he hadn't asked.
That frightening feeling of exposure and vulnerability, of inadequacy, washed through him again, and he resolutely pushed it down. Methos had told him over and over not to ask questions that he didn't truly want the answers to, but sometimes...
Sometimes the real trick was finding the right questions to ask -- not to mention the courage to hear the answers. Sighing, he rolled over and hugged the opposite pillow, breathing the comforting scent of skin and shampoo that Methos left behind. Faintly, on the breeze from the window, he could taste the lake and the cool, green smell of sun-warmed grass.
Virginia City, Nevada
Methos drifted down the old plank sidewalks, dodging through the camera-laden crowd. He'd found an all-night cafe and sat drinking coffee mindlessly, thinking back over the morning. It was such a stupid thing to be upset about. Mac's reaction wasn't unusual; Methos knew that it wasn't something Mac was always comfortable with. Hell, at first he thought that he'd just moved the wrong way, pressed too hard, that his reaction had been one of pain. Then, when Mac had kept on, moving him, taking him, not saying anything...it had felt so empty, as if Mac couldn't be bothered to let him know what was wrong. It was foolish, but Methos had never doubted his own capacity for foolishness. And when Mac had pulled away, Methos had flashed on Elinore, on her reluctance to be touched or held. Was Duncan pulling away from him?
He sat, sipping at his coffee, until the sightseers showed up, allowing him to wander unremarked in the press. The Delta Saloon and most of the rest of C Street had been completely rebuilt after the fire, but many of the buildings bore the same familiar names, and even the mid-morning throngs of tourists were reminiscent of earlier days when this tiny tourist-trap had been a thriving silver boomtown of 20,000, rivaling San Francisco. A coat of paint, a layer of asphalt on the road, a parking lot where the International Hotel used to stand, different merchants in the storefronts, but the storefronts themselves of a type he remembered. Virginia City was like a grand matron in rouge and finery, still trying to pretend she was eighteen. So different, but so very much the same. He almost expected to see Elinore walking toward him...
Virginia City, Nevada
The sturdy, yellow-painted door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Methos nudged it wider with one foot and twisted to the side, stepping over the threshold with a wooden box under one arm.
"Where have you been?" Elinore's voice cut across the dusty air with a familiar note of fear and possession as she set aside her rolling pin and brushed her tiny hands on the worn blue apron she refused to give up. The small kitchen was covered in flour and stacked with canning jars and baskets of apricots.
//God help me, she's cooking.// He took the scene in with an air of resignation, setting down the small box he carried. "I went to the mercantile and got you some material for the dress you wanted to make and a few other things. It was supposed to be a surprise."
"Jack, you shouldn't have! You know we can't afford it."
His boots creaked across the wooden floorboards as he came to stand behind her, turning her back toward the pastry she was rolling. He hugged her slight frame to his chest. "I've told you before not to worry about what we can afford. I've got a good wage and nothing else to spend it on. Besides," he said with a smile, "I like indulging you."
She toyed nervously with the dough, pulling away from his embrace. There was a fine layer of dust and chalk along her back and hair where he'd touched her. "Still..."
"No. Enough of that talk. What's for dinner?" Dessert was obvious enough. Apricot pie. Another apricot pie in an endless series of pies. Still, he knew he should be grateful. In another month it would be apple. Heaven only knew what she was planning to can. Apricot jam, apricot preserves, apricot butter, all to sit uneaten in the pantry beside the tomatoes and corn and pickles and 'chow-chow' and God-only-knew what else she had squirreled back for the winter. Siberia should have such winters as Elinore prepared for.
"I'm making that stew you said you liked. Is that all right?"
"Yes, whatever you cook is fine. I've told you before." Truthfully, he hadn't actually said he liked the stew, only that it was better than the other stew, the one with turnips in it. Life in medieval Europe had left him more intimately acquainted with turnips than anyone ever should be, but he couldn't tell her that. Just like he would never again point out the shortcomings in her cooking. Some nights he was grateful that he couldn't actually die from bad food.
"Did you get Mr. Monaghan's building finished yet?" She glanced up at him with solemn eyes, waiting to see if he would let her change the subject.
Nodding, Methos reached past her and took half an apricot from a bowl. He popped it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully on the sweet fruit. "We should be done with the walls tomorrow, then a week for the mortar to set and it will be ready for the roofers."
"It will snow soon."
"It's only August. The roofers will be done in plenty of time to beat the weather. They should be, anyway. Monaghan's throwing enough money at everyone. Got workers swarming over the site like ants. You'd think he was building the Taj Mahal."
He looked at her, for an instant forgetting how very young and isolated she really was. "It's a building in India. Emperor Shah Jahan built it for his consort, Arjumand, in the early 1600s."
"Did she like it?"
"She never saw it. It's a mausoleum."
"Oh." She continued assembling the pie, humming softly.
Methos ate another apricot.
"Have you seen it, that building?"
The memory of the sun on the marble and the heavy, wet smell of the Jumna River rolled over him. "Yes."
Elinore stiffened slightly, spooning sugared fruit into the pastry with firm motions. "You sound like you miss it."
He sighed. Over two years and she was still afraid that he would leave her, following some male wanderlust over the horizon. "Sometimes. I'll take you there someday. How's the garden fence?"
"Still falling over. I braced it with a rock." She wiped a hand across her forehead, leaving a white stripe of flour behind. He was always struck by the image of how alike they looked at the end of the day, covered in the evidence of their work, wreathed in white dust.
Methos smiled at her, beautiful and comical in her plain dress and shabby, beloved apron, covered in flour and sugar. Her fingers were orange from slicing carrots. Giving in to impulse, he pulled her back to him, guiding her face up for a kiss.
She froze. He ignored her fear and continued kissing her gently, coaxingly. At last she responded, crushing her tightly-closed lips to his in a parody of passion. After a long moment he released her, stroking her hair soothingly. "Elinore...You know I'll never hurt you."
Dark eyes fixed on the floor, she nodded, one tear trailing down her face. She brushed it away, leaving another trail of flour. "If you--" She took a deep breath. "We can--"
He pulled her in and held her close, her head tucked into his shoulder "Shh... Stop that. I'll never force you, either, you know that." Inwardly he cursed himself for pushing her limits. He hadn't married her for love, but her earnest attempts to please him were endearing in their own way. Methos felt a very real affection for her, tough little survivor that she was, and he had known too many women in her situation not to understand. He'd been there himself more than once. Brutalized and broken, finding strength, survival, only in the ability to yield, to surrender to fate without shattering further.
"You're my husband." Her voice was muffled against his shoulder, her body tense under his hands.
"That doesn't make any difference."
"Yes, it does. Men have n-needs..." She still refused to look at him. Methos suddenly wanted to go find her dead husband and dig him out of the mine tunnel that had collapsed on him, just so he could kill him again. Him and every man she had ever lain under in the brothels.
"Yes, men have needs. So do women. Right now this man needs to go fix the garden fence, and then he needs to eat dinner." He placed one last kiss on the top of her head before heading out the back door.
Methos sighed. Mac was definitely not another Elinore, broken and battered by her past. But he'd sensed from both of them that uncertainty, that fear that he was only here for the moment, that they could turn around and he'd be gone. Did he really seem that flighty? That prone to running away? How did one go about changing that impression, except by not leaving? And how long would it take Mac to decide that Methos wasn't going to take off on him?
A near collision brought him out of the past, and he realized that he was standing outside the old Delta, breathing the familiar scent of sawdust and sage, smoke and beer. The ring of slot machines was new, or at least different from the last time he'd been a regular customer here, and not entirely welcome. Blandly, he accepted a coupon from the door greeter and pushed a quarter into a video poker machine, unsurprised when a pair of eights and single ace didn't pay off. Aces and eights were a dead man's hand.
It hadn't changed enough to be completely alien to him, even with the addition of the slot machines, video games, and souvenir stands, and that was the worst of it. He would almost prefer it had been razed to the ground rather than stand here like this, a mockery of his past. The old "suicide" Faro table was on display against the back wall, alongside portraits of the Silver Kings and some of Virginia City's prominent citizens, including Mark Twain and that murdered prostitute, Julia Bulette. Methos never ceased to wonder at the world and how little things really changed over time. Scarce more than a century gone and all people remembered were wealthy men, writers, and whores. Not a word for the others who had lived and died here, the miners and masons, shopkeepers, and innkeepers, the brewers and wives who were the heart and soul of the place, the Chinese and Jews, and all the anonymous thousands who had come here hoping to find their fortunes.
He sighed and turned away from the display, pushing his way through the massed bodies. Rich white men and whores. Days like this, Methos really hated the world.
The sweet smell of pipe tobacco and thrum of Immortal presence pulled him to the bar like a lodestone. The hair on the back of his neck stood up at the too-familiar sight of the narrow shoulders and striped shirt, complete with a red garter on the left sleeve. After his memory of Elinore, he wasn't even surprised to see him.
The man turned, setting aside the beer mug and polishing cloth. He gazed at Methos for a long moment before his face cracked open with a huge grin, his eyes brightening behind the small wire-framed glasses he wore. A fine-boned hand was thrust across the bar. "Jack! It feels like a hundred years."
That grin had always been infectious. Before he knew it, Methos was smiling back, shaking that warm hand. "It's been a hundred years." Hopping on a barstool, he took in the sparkling rows of liquor bottles and glasses on display. "They still call you Professor?"
"Yeah," Jerry answered wistfully. "It seems you can come home again, after all. What are you drinking these days?" He reached for a clean beer mug before waiting for the reply.
"What, do I have 'beer drinker' tattooed on my forehead?"
"Has the choice of beverage changed?" Jerry asked dryly, already pouring from the taps.
"Well, no, but..."
The grin widened as he passed the foamy lager across. "So what are you complaining about? It's good to see you, Jack. How's Elinore?"
Methos' grin faded as memory swelled again, this time sharp and sad. "Elinore's dead, Jerry. They're all dead. It's been over a hundred years."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, sometimes it's easy to forget, especially here." He indicated the bar and his old-fashioned clothing.
"Don't worry about it, happens to the best of us," he mumbled, unsure if he meant forgetting or dying. The easy cheer of the mood was broken, and a slow melancholy sifted into its place. Methos took a large drink of the beer, swallowing painfully past the lump in his throat.
"So, the house is gone too?"
"What? Yeah, lost it in the fire." The fire of 1875 still gave him nightmares. As long as he lived he'd never forget the stench, the scream of men and horses, or the sharp explosions as Elinore's jars of preserves burst in the pantry.
"Too bad. I miss Elinore, sometimes, and that turnip stew she used to make."
Somewhere behind him a slot machine rang and began spitting coins as a woman shrieked. "She killed you once with that stew."
Jerry laughed at that. "Yeah, but just the once. So, what have you been up to?"
Glad at the change of subject, Methos pushed away the memory. Sometimes it was good to have old friends who remembered the same things you did, but this was a path he'd just as soon not travel today. "This and that."
"No, Jack. What brings you here to darken my door? I'd be flattered if I thought you were just lonesome for my sterling company, but even back then you only came because Elinore chased you out..." There was a pregnant pause as the slight, dark-haired man looked at him. "I see."
Methos scowled, glancing over his shoulder at the hysterical woman, still bouncing and screaming. "See what?"
The air of smug certainty was almost visible in the air as Jerry picked up another glass to polish. What was it with bartenders and glassware? "Blonde, brunette, or redhead?"
Methos' heavy beer mug hit the wooden bar with a thud, sloshing suds over the lip of the glass. "What is it with bartenders? Are you all just frustrated priests and guidance counselors? Can't a man come in out of the weather to have a beer without being grilled about the state of his private life?"
"The weather is 82 and sunny. That's an odd thing to run from."
Nodding absently, Methos followed Jerry's gaze out the window. "Yeah. Beautiful, isn't it?" he said. "Everything a day should be."
"So why aren't you out enjoying it? Isn't it enough?"
Methos glanced back up. Both of them were aware that they weren't talking about the weather, but some things were easier to couch in metaphor. Again, he wondered how old Jerry had been when he died, certain that if he asked, Jerry would tell him. He sighed, smiling faintly. Sometimes the mystery was better. "I don't know. It's all anyone could ask for, but sometimes it feels like it still isn't enough."
"Is it the weather, or the wardrobe?" The blue eyes were too calm in that young face. Right now Jerry looked about seventeen with the old eyes of a professional therapist or palm-reader.
He sighed, frustrated, and set down the wineglass and towel. "You always were a bright one. If it's sunny outside, why are you packing the emotional equivalent of storm gear?"
"Even a stormy day has its pleasures." He thought of Mac and an impulsive camping trip. The thunderstorm had come on them unexpectedly, trapping them in the lee of a rocky outcropping. They'd made love in the rain, and Mac had been picking pine needles out of his hair for two days.
"Yes, and it still marks the passing of time. Nobody wants to picnic in it, though." Jerry's voice pulled him back again to this odd discussion. "Jack," he said gently, "it's not raining today. Which one of you is looking for dark clouds that aren't there?"
Methos twisted his glass, staring at the pool of condensation on the dark wood. "That's tough to say."
"And that's not an answer." Again that odd, maddening combination of youth and wisdom. He stretched and put away the neglected wineglass, and like that, the tension of the moment was gone. "Well, the day isn't over yet. Might get better, might get worse. The trick is knowing where to be if the weather changes."
Methos stared at him as if he were a djinn come to grant a wish, or an exiled god in disguise. "Where are you from?"
Jerry picked up the towel as another spotless glass found its way into the delicate hands for polishing. Methos had never seen him with a sword. "Home is where the heart is."
The empty mug was passed back along with a bill. "Thanks."
"On the house. Good friends are hard to find." The money was returned, Jerry's expression accepting no argument.
Duncan jerked awake, his limbs splayed as if trying to catch himself from falling.
//God.// It took long minutes of staring at the room around him and the bright patterns the sunlight made on the walls for him to extract himself from sleep and the remnants of a disturbing, but already fading dream. //Tahoe, I'm in Tahoe...Methos' dreams must be catching.//
He hadn't meant to fall back asleep, intending to stay awake and wait for Methos in case he decided to return. Unfortunately, he'd decided to wait horizontally, and the late night and libidinous exercise had caught up with him.
In the cold light of day, he wondered who, precisely, he was trying to fool. Methos wasn't coming back this morning, maybe not ever. The Old Man had an unparalleled capacity to disappear. He ran like a river... No. Rivers all ran the same direction, constantly, predictably, faithfully to the sea. He sighed and ran a hand over his face. Well, except the rivers here in Nevada, all flowing inland. He wondered if Methos had ever lived here. The decadent, pig-headed, contrary nature of the place seemed to suit him. Nevada seemed to have no natives, just a never-ending tide of people on their way someplace else. Methos would fit right in.
And wasn't he in a delightful mood this morning? //Methos says he's going to town, and I have it all decided that he'll just keep going.// When had he developed this disturbing lack of faith in them, in their ability to work things out? He glanced at the clock on his way to the bathroom. It was late, after noon, and he felt like he hadn't slept at all. If he hadn't yet left his mark on Methos, the old Immortal's fingerprints were certainly etched all over Duncan MacLeod. Up late, sleep later, drinking too much. And where was hedonism's poster child?
"Argh!!" The growl of directionless frustration was ultimately unsatisfying. If he were in Seacouver, he'd go downstairs and work out, beating on the bag until his knuckles were sore. He craved action, violence. Briefly he entertained the idea of hitting the wall, just to see how big a hole he could make, how much of a complete asshole he could be in the course of one morning, but he knew that the rental agent would never forgive him. Not that he cared overmuch for her good opinion. //No, Duncan, let's be honest. Methos would see it, and you don't want to give him that satisfaction.//
Funny thing was, Methos probably wouldn't even comment on it, just look at Duncan and arch that damned eyebrow and hang a picture over the hole. If he was going to go to all the trouble to break his hand and violate an innocent wall in a pointless venting of frustration, he wanted more reaction than the off-center hanging of a five dollar print. And Methos would probably go for black velvet, just to be obnoxious
He missed Seacouver. And there was the crux of it. He wanted Methos with him, but in his world, his places. Paris was fine, but MacLeod had become accustomed to indulging his wanderlust in carefully structured ways. Sure, there was the occasional side trip to Scotland, or Japan, or Tahiti -- or Tahoe -- but the bulk of his time since Tessa's death had been divided neatly between Seacouver and Paris, regular as the tide.
That thought caught him up short. It hadn't always been that way, had it? How could a man of four hundred become so set in his ways in such a short time? What exactly was he holding on to, shuttling back and forth, from the States to the Continent? Tessa? Richie? The illusion of a normal life he'd had with them? Whatever it was, he wasn't sure he was quite ready to give it up. At least...would it make a difference? Was that part of what was getting to Methos? The routine? Duncan's routine? For all that Methos complained about hating to move, his life was as unstructured as the wind. Maybe he was getting tired of Duncan's life. Maybe Duncan's life was too limited.
He'd stayed in Paris quite a bit longer than usual, hoping that it would appease Methos' own wanderlust if they stayed where Methos had established a name and a life, but he'd stirred up some unexpected resentments in himself. But surely it was worth it? If only he could figure out what was going on in that rabid mind. Surely he'd be back.
Methos had been a fairly established, if not constant, presence in Duncan's life now for eight years, appearing periodically as Duncan shuttled back and forth between homes. At first it had been a surprise, then a comfort. His dependence on Methos had started well before they became intimate. By the time Methos became a more-or-less regular fixture in his life, Duncan had practically started to take him for granted. Methos had blithely adopted himself into Duncan's life and intimate circle, and seemed willing to call Duncan's homes his own when he visited. Until Seireadan had found him.
Suddenly, shockingly, everything had changed. Even as the crushing weight of the revealed truths strained their fragile friendship to the breaking point yet again, they had become lovers. It was less surprising than it should have been, that night of fear and desire, and the seven month 'morning after' that followed. Thinking about it, Duncan realized just how abandoned he'd felt, that Methos had let him get so close, only to disappear. Even so, when he showed up in Paris, Duncan had lured Methos back into his life, but the terms had changed. And now they seemed to be changing again, and Duncan found himself more and more certain that Methos wouldn't like the new conditions.
For eight years Methos had been where Duncan was, seeming to know when he was needed, appearing without warning on a doorstep, bringing beer and friendship and that particular wry wisdom that warmed Duncan like a fire on a rainy day. Eight years, until Duncan craved his company, and then his body, his warm presence, like air. And now Methos was balking. Maybe he was tired of Duncan, tired of his inadequacies. Maybe trying to change their friendship had been a huge mistake. Maybe Methos just couldn't figure out a way to say he was leaving.
Tired of dwelling on them himself, he climbed out of bed. He'd come to Nevada partly for Joe's sake, and he still owed him his time and attention. And maybe Methos would show up, after all. Sighing at the pathetic nature of his thoughts, he made his way into the shower, studiously not thinking as he shaved, staring at his too-familiar features blankly.
It was too warm already for a truly hot shower, and the inadequate, tepid flow from the water-saver nozzle did nothing to curb his restless unease. Water drooling over his head, MacLeod watched the suds slipping away down the drain, feeling adrift and more alone than he had in years.
Reno Blues Festival
It reminded Methos of a medieval trading faire, although the music was better. Everywhere were bright tents and booths selling incense and cassette tapes, musical instruments, T-shirts, Native American and country-style crafts, ceramics, food, drink, candy, and other assorted trinkets. The variety was overwhelming, both to the eyes and the nose. //And the ears,// he added to himself as he maneuvered past a noisy booth selling modern grunge rock. Joe's set was scheduled for 4:00 on the second stage, which meant that the band would be setting up in about fifteen minutes. With a sound system already in place, there wouldn't be that much equipment to move, but Methos still wanted to find Joe and offer an extra pair of hands. Idle hands left him with far too much time to think. Something about having them occupied let him shut down that sometimes inconvenient process.
He paused in the center of the path and turned to get his bearings, feeling not unlike a tree in the center of a river as the crowd continued to flow around him. This place was built like a maze. Whoever'd drawn up the plans should be tested for astigmatism and dyslexia, and then summarily shot. The second stage should be somewhere over to the left...
"Oof!" Without warning something small and solid crashed into his side, and the world tilted crazily as he struggled for balance.
"Jesus Fucking Christ! You moron!" The foul-mouthed cannonball resolved itself into a diminutive, redheaded woman swinging a guitar case to punctuate her swearing.
The steady stream of curses trickled off as she peered closely at him.
"Adam? Hey, good to see you here!" Vanessa flung her arms around him enthusiastically, whacking him in the back of the head with the heavy black case. "Joe was looking for you guys earlier over by the main stage."
"I thought you guys were playing on the second stage at 4:00." Typically, once she recognized him, she was all exuberance with no apology offered for the impact or the outburst. Vanessa lived only in the present. //She'd make a hell of an Immortal.// He winced at the thought.
"Oh, yeah. I'm headed there now." She grabbed his hand and set off at a pace far brisker than her short legs should have permitted, dragging him along in her wake.
"Vanessa? You said Joe was looking for me?"
"He sat in with Ralph and Eddie Parker earlier."
"Sorry I missed that," Methos said with genuine regret. "But what did he need me for?" Vanessa was a dear and sang like a horny angel, to quote Joe, but getting information out of her was like pulling teeth. Shark teeth. And despite her enthusiastic greeting, she hadn't seemed to take well to Methos, though she appeared to be very fond of Mac.
"Oh, he wants you to come help wag the gear." She smiled and pulled harder on his hand, carving a path for them both with firm swings of her guitar case.