A sequel to "Duet." I should have known better than to claim PWP with the first one. I'm sure the muses are laughing their lovely assets off somewhere. As always, all my thanks to Ellen, for beta-duty and encouragement above and beyond the call. I honestly don't think I'd still be doing this if it wasn't for her positive reinforcement and general extreme coolness. (A fact for which you all may or may not be thankful!) Also, thanks to Bone for being reeeeally patient.
This story is SLASH and contains homoerotic content, so if such things offend you, please don't read it! You've been warned.
It had been the coldest April MacLeod could remember. Hoary frost encrusted the new spring grass along the verge, and the edges of the windshield sparkled with ice crystals as he drove south toward Paris. It was already well past midnight; tomorrow would be the first of May.
Still, the persistent chill that he felt tonight had little to do with the unseasonable cold. The man he had left in Normandy haunted him, the remembered plea in that tormented face a cold heaviness he couldn't shake. He couldn't help thinking there should have been something he could have done, something he should have done. And yet there had been nothing. The only thing Cochrane had wanted of him, he couldn't bring himself to give.
What would become of his old friend now? He'd called Cochrane's wife, and could only hope that she'd be something real enough for Cochrane to hold onto, that the man wouldn't just go out and find some other willing sword to give him what MacLeod couldn't.
The chill ran deeper still, like a cool stone resting against his heart, that bleak, unwelcome kind of speculation that he tried never to indulge, or acknowledge, because what was the point, after all? What would it help, when you lived by killing your own kind, to let yourself think too much about how narrow the line could be between love and hate? Between trust and betrayal? How did a man think about that and trust anyone at all?
The abrupt trill of the cell phone startled him from his dark thoughts. Looking at the display, he frowned, not recognizing the number. Automatically memorizing it, he answered on the third ring. "Oui?"
There was a little silence at the other end. A sliver of apprehension touched the back of his neck like a needle pinprick of ice, but before it could slide any deeper, a familiar voice melted the shard with the quiet sound of his name.
"Methos." Duncan started to relax, then the frown returned. "Is everything all right?"
"Fine. Actually, I think that was my line."
The other man's voice was low, just slightly rough around the edges with the lateness of the hour. Duncan couldn't have stopped the little warm spark that the words lit in his chest if he'd tried.
"Checking up on me?"
"Yeah, well, someone has to," the old man said irritably.
What was it about that snarky, prickly defensiveness that made Duncan want nothing more than to turn the spiny creature over and expose its soft underbelly? Yeah, and lick him into submission. He fought the grin, knowing Methos would hear it in his voice. "Don't worry, I won't tell Joe."
"That you're gunning for his job." Duncan sobered, not much liking the weariness in the other man's voice. It wasn't like Methos to be even a little bit slow on the uptake. He found himself remembering how pale and thin the man had looked that afternoon, the wan detachment he hadn't spared much thought for at the time.
"...did you find him?" Methos was asking, and it took Duncan a moment to remember why Methos had been checking up on him in the first place.
The chill settled again. "Yeah, I found him."
Duncan cradled the phone close, peering out into the thick swirls of white fog that enshrouded the road ahead. "You were right about Donnelly. He was Warren's student."
"But not any more, I take it."
"No, not any more. Maybe it was that place, I don't know. I think it did something to Warren...confused him, somehow. He took that boy up there, and he killed him." His hands tightened on the wheel. "I say it, and I still can't believe it."
"It happens, Mac. It can happen to any of us. Sometimes it just gets to be too much--you know that."
"Yeah, I know." Duncan sighed. "Maybe he'll be all right, now that he's got his memory back." He didn't know which of them he was trying to convince.
There was a little pause at the other end of the connection. "You telling me you just left him up there?"
The reproof seared Duncan's raw nerves, touching off the nagging feelings of guilt and inadequacy like a match to dry tinder. His voice rose, a little defensively. "I didn't know what else to do. He begged me to kill him. What was I supposed to do?"
Methos said nothing.
Anger sparked in the Highlander, his temper already frayed by weariness and the evening's events. "Come on, Methos, you can't be serious."
"He's a danger to all of us. You said it yourself."
"I am not going to kill a friend in cold blood. I don't care what he's done!"
"And what if he really is unbalanced? If he could kill his own student, what else might he be capable of? A lot of time has passed since you knew him. A lot of water under the bridge. And he can't be thrilled to have gotten his memory back, thanks to you. You be careful, that's all I'm saying."
"Always am," Duncan growled, trying hard not to let the old man's cynicism get under his skin.
Methos snorted, eloquently expressing his opinion of MacLeod's idea of caution. "All right, don't get your knickers in a twist. You're probably right. I just think you might try remembering now and then that not all of us suffer from your overdeveloped sense of virtue."
"Wait a minute, I didn't quite catch that. Must have been the connection. Did you actually say I was right about something?"
"Smartass. Just for that, I take it back."
For the first time in many months, something glinted in the long-suffering tone like a coin at the bottom of a dark pool, a hint of lightness that had been missing too long. It suddenly hit Duncan how much he had missed this difficult, infuriating presence in his life, how grateful he was for the twists of chance that had made it possible for him to know this man.
"Listen...you holding up all right?" he found himself asking quietly, before he could think better of it.
For a moment Methos didn't answer, and Duncan feared he'd stepped over a line he shouldn't have. But he heard the other man clear his throat softly, and something about that faint sound--the intimacy of it in the close darkness of the car--squeezed his heart and bloomed low and warm in his belly. He could almost see Methos shrug.
"All right, yes. Haven't been sleeping too well, but otherwise all right. You know how it is."
"Yes, I know," Duncan agreed. He searched for something else to say, knowing nothing he could say would really help. Time was the only thing that could really make a difference. At last, his throat tight with self-conscious discomfiture, he said, "Any time you want to talk, I'm here."
He thought maybe he'd surprised Methos, because it was a moment before the answer came. "Thanks, Mac. I'll keep it in mind."
Duncan found he was pressing the phone tightly to his ear. Maybe it was the combination of the late hour and the quiet, snow-cloaked night--or maybe he was just tired, his defenses weaker than they should be--but the husky voice was doing dangerous things to his nervous system. Stop it, he warned himself fiercely, forcing himself to take a deep breath and ease up on his grip on the phone. Wrong, wrong, this is exactly the wrong time for where this is going, and you know it.
But apparently his mouth hadn't quite caught up with his brain, because what he said was, "Maybe I can take you to lunch tomorrow?"
Again Methos didn't immediately answer, and Duncan's stomach sank. Stupid. Unbelievably stupid, in fact, and now Methos would turn him down gently and save them both from his idiocy.
"Maybe," Methos said then. And the glint of brightness surfaced again, faint and fleeting and warm as sunlight, thawing the freeze that had closed around Duncan's heart. "I've been having a craving for dim sum..."
"Done," the Highlander said, unable to keep the smile from reaching his voice. "Dim sum it is."
The smile found an echo in the other man's, "Night, Mac." Then came a soft click, and Methos was gone.
"Night, Methos," Duncan murmured to the silence, putting down the phone. And may Morpheus guard your dreams, old man.
The tea house Methos had picked had proved to be a good one, brightly lit, with wide aisles for the dim sum ladies and their carts. In the course of the leisurely afternoon, the two of them had emptied a truly astonishing number of the little bamboo steamers, devouring everything from the traditional barbecue pork buns and sticky rice to steamed scallop dumplings, stuffed peppers, and curry chicken pie. Methos was showing no signs of slowing down; Duncan had given up trying to keep pace some time ago and was now content to share the other man's obvious enjoyment vicariously. It pleased him to see his friend put away so much food when it was plain to see that the man hadn't been eating well, if at all.
"Luk Yu?" he tried, enjoying the game almost as much as he was enjoying watching Methos eat.
"Well, yeah, of course. But what about outside of Hong Kong?"
"Yank Sing," Duncan suggested.
"In San Francisco?"
Methos gave him a 'you've got to be kidding' look and popped the last fresh shrimp dumpling into his mouth, not deigning to answer.
"Well, what about Ocean Star, then?"
Methos considered. "Mm." He swallowed the last bit of dumpling and took a sip of tea. "Good one. But if you're talking Los Angeles, I like Empress Pavilion, personally."
"Never been." Duncan thought a moment. "Oh, I've got one. Golden Unicorn, in New York."
"Not much on atmosphere, but the food is incredible."
Methos made a face. "I hate New York. I don't know if I'd go there even for really great dim sum. You gonna eat that?"
Duncan suppressed an indulgent smile and pushed his dish across the table. Methos maneuvered the fried taro cake deftly and began nibbling at it with intent focus; the Highlander watched him, his gaze lingering on that mobile mouth just a little longer than he meant it to. "There was this great place in Bavaria," he said, distracting himself with a sip of tea. "If I had to pick just one, that would probably be it. Damned if I can remember the name of it, though."
"Mm. In Donauwort? Just down from the cathedral?"
"That's the one."
"Yeah, I know it. You're right, great food. I don't know about best in the universe, though."
"You're just impossible to please," Duncan complained.
"Well, what's the point of picking 'the best dim sum in the universe' if you're not gonna keep your standards high?"
Duncan snorted faintly. "I guess."
"Did you know that the original Luk Yu was known as 'the Immortal of Tea'?"
"Yeah. Famous scholar during the Tang Dynasty. Traveled all over talking to tea planters, tea processors, tea connoisseurs, you name it. He was really nuts for the stuff. Devoted his whole life to tea."
"Real life of the party type, obviously." Duncan turned and saw one of their diminutive hostesses approaching with a cart of sweet dumplings and cream buns. "Think you can handle dessert?"
Methos polished off the last of the taro cake and shook his head, pushing his chair back a little. "I don't think so. If I eat any more, I'm going to turn into a dumpling."
"Well, what about some mango pudding then?" Duncan tried his most cajoling smile, and Methos rolled his eyes.
"Have mercy on an old man, will you? I'm not as young as I used to be."
"All the more reason to live a little."
Methos sighed and gave in. "You have a point. All right, stuff me like a Christmas goose, see if I care."
Duncan's grin turned wicked. "That's okay, I'm gonna make you run it off later."
"I should have known there was a catch in there somewhere."
"Come on, it'll be good for you. You're not as young as you used to be, you know."
The other man's eyes narrowed. "You'll pay for that."
Duncan smiled up at the hostess who had arrived at their table. "I don't doubt it."
One plate of yellow cream buns, one dish of mango pudding, and four cups of tea later, they at last made their way out of the restaurant and into the grey, late afternoon chill. Bellies warmed by the food and hot tea, they walked in companionable silence, tucking hands in pockets against the cold wind that had blown up off the river.
Duncan was a little surprised to realize how easy it could be, to be with him like this. How comfortable. Admittedly, he'd been making an effort to keep the conversation light, to distract Methos as best he could from the pain, the memories. Admittedly, it couldn't last, especially not when his own thoughts kept brushing dangerously close to certain other memories...certain sweet, too-vivid moments in the dark. But oh, it did feel good to just be with him, no distractions, no one pointing guns or swords at them, nothing but a quiet afternoon together and time to heal the hurts they'd both suffered in recent months.
He'd known last night that there was danger here. Known that his own loneliness was a threat he would need to guard against, if he wanted to keep Methos' friendship. Are we still friends? he had asked Methos that night, it seemed a lifetime ago. That still had to come first. No room now for his own insecurities...his petty jealousies, if he were to admit the truth. He already wasn't too proud of the way he'd acted in recent days; in his obsessive concern over Warren, he'd come perilously close to pushing Methos away just when the old man needed someone to listen, someone to be there for him.
He glanced sidelong at the other man's sharp profile and saw that he had been quiet too long. Methos had gone away inside himself again, his eyes bleak, a thousand miles away. As if confirming his intuition, Methos stopped at the next corner, glancing away down the cross street before turning to Duncan with a relaxed, easy smile that might have fooled him if he hadn't seen the emptiness a moment before.
"Listen, Mac...thanks for lunch. You were right. I feel a lot better, getting out and seeing the light of day for a change."
"Any time," Duncan said huskily, fighting the urge to swallow against the sudden betraying roughness in his voice. "I meant that."
But Methos was already drawing into himself. He colored faintly, and his eyes dropped as if unable to hold Duncan's gaze. "Yeah. Thanks. Anyway, I think I'll just walk for a while, if you don't mind. Get my head together."
The tightness in Duncan's throat had become an uncomfortable ache, and his heart sank as he realized that he was further gone than he had guessed...that knowing the danger might not save him this time. "All right," he said, trying to keep it light, not to give himself away. Methos was already moving away almost imperceptibly, putting distance between them. Be careful, he wanted to say, but that would be ridiculous, of course. The idea that anyone should tell Methos, of all people, to be careful--
"Methos," he said, just as the other man turned to go.
Methos turned back, it seemed reluctantly.
"I'll be home later," Duncan said without thinking about it, the words leaving his lips of their own accord. "If you want to come by. Any time. Okay?"
Methos only looked at him for a long moment, his expression utterly inscrutable, his eyes almost a stranger's. Then the moment passed, and Methos nodded slightly. "Okay," he said, surprising Duncan, perhaps surprising them both. "Maybe later, then."
Duncan nodded, watched the other man's retreating back for only a moment before he turned, heading back the way they'd come. He didn't look back at the solitary figure in the grey longcoat, but the momentary image stayed vivid in his mind for some time.
It was snowing lightly when Duncan left the barge, the delicate flakes barely more than a light mist against his face. He debated a moment, then jumped down to the quay and broke into a jog. It might turn nasty later, but he could still get in a good run before dark, and he needed the exercise to help him get his own head together.
He'd thought he'd dealt with this months ago, and the little wake-up call he'd gotten over the last twenty-four hours was really throwing him for a loop. This was more than loneliness, more than casual attraction--far more than concerned sympathy for a friend in need. He should have known. Should have guessed when he'd returned home from Moscow and his heart had missed a beat at the sound of Methos' voice on his machine. Even after all these months, that voice could still do things to him that no one and nothing else could.
For the first time, he admitted to himself that it had hurt, more than he'd acknowledged at the time, to see Methos give himself so completely to a girl he'd known only a few days. To know that there was nothing he could offer against that kind of undeniable lightning strike, against a dying girl's need for what Adam Pierson could give her. It had cost him more than he'd recognized, to fade into the background, as he'd promised he could.
Now she was gone, and Methos was alone and hurting...
Damn. He'd better stop this and soon. Whatever there had been between them, whatever might lie in their uncertain future, what Methos needed now was a friend, plain and simple. Tess had been a part of him for thirteen years, while Methos had known Alexa Bond only six months, but the pain was the same. No matter that the man had lived longer than any civilization in history, he could still feel, could still love--and that in itself was a miracle Duncan would do well to respect.
He ran faster, seeking the clarity that can sometimes come from the rhythm of your heart racing hard and fast, pumping blood through your body, making your lungs work and your pores sweat and your feet fly over the ground. Six months...had it really only been that long? Sometimes it seemed as though his life were some sort of crucible, a refining fire that burned hotter and more intensely as the years passed. Sometimes he longed to let it blaze out of control, just let it consume him in one last white-hot flash and then the sweet bliss of nothingness. Sometimes the need to stop fighting, to stand still just for a moment and let the conflagration overtake him, was overpowering.
It almost had, quite literally, in that dark alley where he'd killed Jim Coltec. Only Methos had saved him. Only Methos, when not even the memory of Tessa had had the power to stop him; when not even the cold-blooded murder of a good friend had been enough to touch the pain, to slow that self-destructing, self-destructive orbital decay.
The snow was falling harder now, but Duncan ran on, pushing his body for more against the burn of muscles and lungs and heart. He ran until the burn became almost agony, a different kind of fire, this one bearable. Wherever Richie was now, maybe he was doing the same thing, pushing through the pain--or running from it. Was he alone somewhere, or did he have someone like Amanda, someone to take his mind off what had happened? Was he wishing his teacher dead right now? Was he even alive?
Stop it, the Highlander told himself fiercely, coming raggedly to a halt, breathing hard with the exertion. He began to walk the muscles out, tilting his head back to feel the snow on his face, his closed eyelids. He had to believe Dawson would tell him if something happened to Richie; even if their own friendship didn't survive this last round of damage, he thought Joe would do that much.
Breathing returned to a more normal rate, Duncan turned and began running slowly back toward home. Still too soon, instinct told him, to try to contact Joe, or Richie. He needed to give them both time...and himself, as well. Time to figure out how he was going to face them again, how he could ever ask either of them to trust him again. Time to decide if he even could be trusted, or if he'd been a fool to ever think of himself as anything more than a well-trained, efficient killer.
Wet through now with perspiration and fallen snow as he jogged through the gathering dark, he found himself thinking of Warren Cochrane again. Cochrane had never been the most pragmatic of men, but he had been a good man, a man of honor. Duncan would have followed him into battle, had trusted Cochrane to guard his back countless times.
And now? Could he say the same?
That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question, Methos' voice said in his head, as clearly as if the man himself were right there beside him. Methos, the ultimate pragmatist. Methos, who had chastised him for leaving Cochrane alive, but who had never given up on him, not even in his darkest hour, when Duncan had demonstrated all too plainly that to trust him was to invite death.
Methos, who had been a truer friend than he had ever guessed.
He didn't begin to know how to tell Methos what that had meant to him. What it still meant to him, to know that there was one friend in the world who had seen him at his worst and who could still stand to look at him without condemning him, or fearing him. But if he couldn't find the words, at least he could keep the trust and keep a lid on whatever this thing was he was feeling. Not push him. Be there for him, if Methos would let him. It couldn't be what he would like it to be, not now...but he could live with that.
A man of honor lives with what he does, Rachel had told him. Rachel, and Methos, and Amanda, those spots of brightness in his life that had made him think there were still some things worth fighting for, worth living for.
Duncan chose that moment to look up from the snow-dusted pavement; he couldn't help an ironic laugh as he saw where his feet had carried him. Lamplight fell softly across the Shakespeare & Company sign. Inside somewhere a warm light glowed. He knew he should keep going; he didn't want Methos to sense him and think Duncan was checking up on him. He stopped, though, just for a moment...until he felt it: the faint, distant hum of the other man's buzz, prickling softly along his nape.
Feeling absurdly better, he turned and made for the quay, and home.
Thawed by a hot shower, a fire in the stove, and a warm robe, Duncan found himself considering the contents of his refrigerator without much enthusiasm. He'd shopped that afternoon on the way home with some idea of cooking for Methos, on the outside chance that the old man should take him up on his offer of company. It seemed a bit foolish now, but he supposed it was best to be prepared. The thought made him smile a little, remembering the muttered 'Boyscout' Methos had jabbed his direction the day before. He could think of a few merit badges he wouldn't mind working on...but that line of thought was a straight road to trouble if he followed it too far.
Considering that between them they'd probably eaten enough that afternoon to sink a barge, Duncan settled on a bottle of mineral water and a pear; these rather ascetic selections in hand, he padded on bare feet, first to the stereo for Ravel, then to the bookshelf. Adding a worn volume to his bounty, he retired to the couch and settled in for a quiet evening.
Some time later, he woke from a deep sleep, disoriented, on his feet and moving before he was really awake. He was most of the way to the door by the time the buzz of Presence fully registered. He waited, listening, but neither friend nor foe appeared; neither did the buzz fade or disappear.
Moving silently, Duncan went topside, the thin blanket of snow melting against the soles of his feet as he headed forward along the deck. Recognizing Methos' car parked in the shadows just down river, he flipped his sword blade down, tucking it behind his arm with practiced ease. He wondered what time it was. It felt late...maybe after midnight. He was surprised Methos would risk driving here in his own car; usually the man was obsessively cautious about his comings and goings from the barge for fear of being spotted by a Watcher.
Rapidly losing his body heat, feet freezing on the deck, Duncan waited; he could see Methos sitting in the Volvo, but the other man made no move to get out. At last, getting impatient, he wrapped his robe tighter and went down to the car.
The driver's side door was unlocked. He opened it; Methos looked up at him as if seeing him for the first time. Duncan hid his concern, keeping his tone neutral. "You coming in?"
Methos nodded, as if it hadn't really occurred to him, but now that Duncan mentioned it, it sounded like a good idea. "Sure."
Freezing his ass--and other unmentionables--off, Duncan had to practice patience. "Well, come on then."
Methos got out of the car, his eyebrows rising when he saw the sword. "That for me?"
"Only if you don't hurry up and get inside."
Duncan's mood improved in direct proportion to the unfreezing of his feet. He took Methos' coat and put it away with the katana, stirred the fire and fed it, then padded towards the galley. "You want something to drink?"
"Mm, something hot?"
"Sure. You like cinnamon?"
Methos nodded, wandering towards the stereo, and Duncan saw in the moment before he turned away just how tired the other man was. Haven't been sleeping too well, Methos had said. Not at all, from the looks of things. Not sleeping, not eating, and he'd spent far too much time down in that basement in the days since they'd buried the girl.
He'd really loved her. Duncan had known that, of course, from the beginning. But he felt it now with a certainty that made his chest ache dully--with sympathy or some other less noble emotion.
Deliberately not watching Methos, detouring to the bar for the whiskey, Duncan found himself remembering the days after Tessa had died, those first terrible days when he had been almost unable to tolerate anyone being near him, even Richie. Maybe especially Richie, because Richie had seen him with Tess, had been part of their life together. Impossible to shut the pain away when he looked at Richie, because Richie knew too much. All he'd wanted to do was go away, far away where no one would look at him, or talk to him, and drink himself into unconsciousness. Though he hadn't thought of it since, he remembered now with vivid immediacy how real the feeling had been, that if no one looked at him, he could just stop thinking, stop hurting, just stop.
And yet, Methos had come to him. It didn't matter what he'd promised himself, he couldn't help the way that realization affected him, the warm pleasure he took in seeing Methos making himself at home on the couch, as if he might be planning to stay a while. He found himself wishing that Methos didn't have a flat of his own so close by. He liked the idea of having the old man here with him--liked it too much, probably. In spite of their myriad philosophical differences, the two of them had proved remarkably compatible when it came to sharing quarters, and he had always enjoyed Methos' company, even when the man was at his most infuriating. Maybe especially then, he thought with an inward smile.
But tonight Methos had traded Ravel for Duke Ellington, the comfortable melodies of Mood Indigo taking the place of their usual verbal sparring. Duncan heated water for coffee and tried not to be too obvious in his Methos-watching. What could he say, to let Methos know it was all right to lean on him? He'd said pretty much that very thing with his body, once, and Methos had heard him loud and clear. But whatever they might have shared in the dark, it hadn't really made it any easier for them to talk to one another, had it? They'd known each other more than a year now, had connected on so many levels it sometimes seemed as though he had known the man all his life, and yet somehow words always seemed to get them into trouble. He sighed and stole another glance at his visitor. Maybe what his friend needed wasn't a sympathetic ear, but just refuge, for a little while.
Methos had picked up Duncan's book and was flipping through it. "Was that you, earlier?" he asked, his tone casual. "At the book shop?"
Duncan's face warmed, and he dropped his gaze back to the task at hand. "Yeah, just out for a run." He could feel the weight of those hazel eyes; it felt like they could turn him inside out without half trying.
Methos made a noncommittal sound, but let it go. "Interesting book," he said instead, glancing at the spine. "The Born-Einstein Letters. Did you know him?"
"Einstein? No. He got out of Germany before my time. I did meet some of his colleagues, though, during the war."
"Rough time to be a physicist. Or a poet, for that matter."
"Rough time for everyone," Duncan agreed. He glanced up, seeing Methos was turning pages again, more slowly now. "He never really believed the implications of his own theories, you know. Right up until the day he died."
Methos put down the book. "Funny, that. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
"Food for thought, yeah." Putting the finishing dollop of cream on two mugs, Duncan brought the hot drinks over to the couch. He watched Methos sip, and the other man made a faint sound of approval, eyebrows arching in eloquent appreciation at the bite of the whiskey.
"There's more where that came from." Duncan considered the couch beside Methos for about half a second, but still too aware of that momentary brush of their fingers as the cup had changed hands, he decided on the safer course and took the chair instead. They sipped the toddies in companionable silence, listening to the music of another era.
Duncan wondered idly where Methos had been during the War. It seemed to be some sort of unspoken rule that you didn't ask Methos things like that; if you did, you'd get nothing more than that unique brand of snide, convoluted misdirection that Methos saved for anyone gauche enough to stick their nose where it didn't belong. The very music selection was odd, though, out of character for him. It wasn't like Methos to wax nostalgic about anything. In fact, now that Duncan thought about it, he didn't think he'd ever known Methos to listen to anything recorded before the punk era.
Then he looked at Methos, and something in that angular face, the way he had closed his eyes and sat listening with that quiet stillness--Duncan knew instinctively that Alexa had loved this music.
There it was again, that almost uncontrollable desire to do something, to take away that quiet pain, to somehow reach out, make Methos let him in. He didn't much like the way it made him feel, the strong protective streak that made him want to offer comfort in any form Methos would take it, the undeniable resentment and jealousy that the dead woman evoked in him. The combination was dangerous and could end up hurting both of them, badly, if he didn't get a handle on it. But sitting there with both hands locked tight around his coffee mug, he ached with a hunger to pull the other man to his feet, lead him up the steps to the bed, and just lie down with him, pressing their bodies as close together as they could get, for as long as Methos would let him.
For a moment the need was so strong, so vivid, that Duncan felt his skin flush with imagined heat. Against his will, he found himself remembering every moment when Methos had ever touched him, sense-memories so powerful they made his breath catch, his sex growing hard with the rush of remembered pleasure.
If Methos had looked at him then, or spoken, Duncan didn't know if he would have been able to keep from making that first, disastrous move. His heart was beating too fast, a thread of panic winding through him; he felt suddenly naked in his robe, utterly transparent.
But Methos didn't look at him. Didn't even seem to know he was there, so inward was his focus. Somehow, it was that more than anything that saved Duncan from himself. Methos hadn't come to talk, and he certainly hadn't come here for what Duncan was thinking about. The man had lost more in his attenuated existence than the rest of them could even really conceive of, and he must have managed well enough on his own many times in the past. Yet here he was, letting Duncan take care of him, shelter him, letting the Highlander just be with him in this unguarded and deeply personal moment that Duncan surely had no right to share. Painfully aware of every unworthy thought he'd ever permitted himself to indulge about Alexa, every moment Methos had spent helping him that he might have spent with her, Duncan kept his mouth shut, his hands to himself, and got himself under control.
And when the CD was finished, and Methos came back to the here and now, it was only the safe kinds of comfort Duncan offered: more of the whiskey-laced cinnamon coffee, for starters.
"You feel like a game of chess?" he asked quietly when he came back from the galley. He expected Methos to turn him down, and had already resigned himself to a long night, alone and sleepless. "You owe me a chance to win one back, you know."
Methos looked at him, surprised. "You still remember that?"
"Don't tell me you're not keeping score."
Methos only shook his head, but the upturned corner of his mouth told another story. "Maybe another time. I think I'm too tired to concentrate. Don't want to make it too easy for you."
Duncan had to smile. "Trust me, you never do." He chuckled a little. "I know, part of your charm, right?"
Methos' smile reached his eyes. "Right."
Duncan thought Methos would go, then. He would think better of this, would get up, thank him for the coffee, and get out of there before Duncan could do or say something stupid, something that couldn't be taken back in the morning. Dangerous, the small hours. A man might say anything, might easily tell too many truths in the hours before dawn. He gathered himself to say goodnight as if it were any other night, as if it didn't cost him anything to have Methos here, or to watch him leave.
Instead, he found himself mesmerized by the reflection of firelight in the other man's eyes, the subtle shifting of gold and amber as those eyes studied him, seemed to read him easily.
"Let me ask you something," Methos said seriously. "Are you tired?"
Duncan blinked. "Not at all," he answered without thinking. "Why?"
"I'm sure. I'm not a bit tired." It was the truth. At that moment, he didn't think he could have slept if his life depended on it. "What did you have in mind?"
"I just have the strongest, most irresistible urge to stay up all night and watch terrible 'B' movies until I pass out. What do you say?"
Duncan had started to grin before the words were out of the other man's mouth. "I say it sounds great. But we'll never find a place open at this hour."
"Oh, ye of little faith." Methos sat up and shooed him toward the other end of the barge. "Go. Find clothes. We are on a mission."
Only too glad to indulge him, Duncan went.
The light woke him, finally, spilling from the porthole, creeping over the couch until it touched his face, and he couldn't ignore it any longer. Blinking in the sun, Duncan cast about for clues to where he was and why he felt so disoriented and out of sorts; his eyes fell on the two coffee mugs and innumerable beer bottles littering the coffee table, and he remembered.
He sat up, knowing already that he was alone on the barge, the rest of the evening slowly coming back to him. He'd lasted until around five, which was somewhere in the middle of bad movie number two, and excellent six pack number three, if he recalled correctly. Methos had still been going strong, last time he'd glanced over to where the old man had camped out on the pile of cushions on the floor. Some time between then and now--whenever 'now' was--Methos must have gotten up, spread the duvet over him, and quietly made his exit.
Duncan got up and made his way to the bathroom. Turning on the shower, watching the water fall against the tile and slowly start to steam, he tried to shake the melancholy that had settled over him with the morning sun. He felt oddly detached, the years weighing on him like gossamer veils of dust and age. Maybe it was seeing Cochrane after so long that made him feel the centuries so. Or maybe it was just that he had been spending too much time alone, forgetting to connect with his mortal friends as much as he should. He missed Tess, with a soul-deep longing that settled into his bones, and made his throat ache. Tessa had understood him like no one else, and sometimes he wished so badly that he could talk to her again he couldn't think about it too long, or it would overwhelm him.
This morning, he wanted to talk to her about Methos. About what he was getting himself into, playing with fire the way he was. About how to go slowly and not get either one of them burned.
He smiled inwardly, stripping out of his jeans and T-shirt and stepping into the shower. Tessa had never been any better than he at going slowly. Passionate and impulsive, both of them, when it came to getting what they wanted, and it had always been fireworks between them. And what would she have made of Methos, he wondered? Probably would have put the old man in his place, if anyone could have. Talk about fireworks. He could just picture it. Instant friction--but they probably would have ended up fast friends.
"God help me," he murmured, chuckling at the thought, but the laughter didn't really help much. It was more than a little unsettling to realize, in the cold light of day, that he was now thinking of Methos and Tessa in the same breath. It didn't take an Einstein to recognize that he was getting in deep.
The water beat down on his shoulders, a soothing rhythm heating his skin, and Duncan closed his eyes, raised one arm against the wall, and leaned his forehead against it. Giving in at last to the ache in his chest, the insistent hardness between his thighs, he curled his hand around himself and began a steady stroking, seeking some outlet for the tangled knot of feeling inside of him. It wasn't what he needed, but it was better than nothing, and if the orgasm made his loneliness worse, at least he had the momentary relief of physical release to comfort him.
"Hi, it's me."
"Me? Sorry, don't know any Me."
"I'm making risotto. Care to join me?"
"Is there an ETA? I have to close up the place."
"How does an hour sound?"
"Save me a seat."
"One might suspect," Methos observed, as he spooned up the last bit of rice and mushroom from his bowl, "that you were trying to fatten me up."
Duncan gave his best innocent look. "Well, you have to eat, and I like cooking for someone besides myself now and then."
Methos eyed him over the rim of the bowl, his gaze sweeping the Highlander's body, awakening a responsive heat Duncan couldn't deny. "Something tells me this sort of thing is not in your regular repertoire."
Duncan got up, taking the empty bowl from him. "I take it you hated it then?"
"Mm, terrible. Is there any more?" At MacLeod's look, he shrugged. "I have to make sure."
Having eaten their fill, they polished off the second bottle of the excellent Nebbiolo Methos had brought; Duncan was feeling it now, a low, pleasant buzz of warmth in his face and extremities.
Mellowed by the wine, Methos surprised him. "Thank you, Mac, that really was delicious."
Absurdly pleased, Duncan was hard-pressed to keep his face from betraying his satisfaction. "My pleasure. The wine is great, too. Perfect choice."
"I'm still gonna make you eat lentils and chestnuts one of these days."
"Promises, promises." Duncan finished his wine and set the glass down. "You feel like a walk?"
Leaving the dishes by unspoken consent, they moved to get their coats.
The water level was still high, but with the flooding past for the time being, MacLeod had moved the barge back down river to its usual spot. Tonight the cathedral glowed softly through the light mist that had risen off the water; the night was warmer than any in the weeks previous and smelled of spring. Without planning it, their feet carried them along the same route they'd followed on another night, a year before, when Kalas had been hunting.
As much as Duncan enjoyed Amanda's company, as much as he wanted to see Joe and Richie again and work on healing the damage he'd caused, he couldn't help being grateful for this time he'd been given, this chance to have Methos all to himself.
Feeling immediately guilty for the thought, he glanced at his companion. Methos seemed better tonight, more himself, though lines of exhaustion still etched his face. As he had so many times before, Duncan wondered what intricate paths of thought and feeling meandered behind that enigmatic expression. Keeping pace beside him, Methos might have been a thousand years in the past, or only a handful of months, for all Duncan knew. The thought discomfited him, his curiosity sparking. Did Methos ever think of it, that night they'd shared in Seacouver? If he did, what did he think about? Did he remember it as vividly as Duncan did? Did the memory arouse him, trouble him in the small hours of the night? Maybe he wished it had never happened, or worse, never thought of it at all.
"You're quiet tonight," Methos said, startling him out of the quicksand of his own thoughts.
He managed a shrug and kept his tone casual. "Just thinking."
"Mm. Deep thoughts, no doubt. You've got that Scottish brood perfected to a real art form, you know."
Is that Scottish guilt I sense? The memory ambushed Duncan gently, making his breath catch with an unexpected pang.
"What did I say?"
Duncan looked away, shaking his head slightly. "Nothing." He could sense Methos watching him and mustered a hint of a smile, meeting the other man's eyes. "It's nothing really. Just...old ghosts, I guess." And then, without knowing he was going to say it, he confessed, "I went to see Tessa today." As soon as the words were out, he wished he could take them back. The last thing Methos needed was to be reminded like that. How could he have been so thoughtless?
But Methos only looked pensive, if a little surprised by Duncan's admission. He had put his hands in his pockets, even the mild chill enough to redden his fair skin. "We should count ourselves lucky, you and I," he said, eyes on the grassy slope in front of him. "You know that, don't you?"
Duncan knew exactly what he meant. That in all the world, he should have found Tessa Noel and been allowed to share what he had shared with her--it was so much more than he deserved, and any price he paid was worth the cost. "I know," he agreed. Feeling the knot in his chest ease for the first time that day, Duncan leaned slightly closer to Methos, their shoulders brushing lightly as they walked. "Present company included, old man."
"I see, a few glasses of wine and you go all sentimental on me," Methos scoffed. "Next thing you know you'll be wanting me to sing Loch Lomond with you, or some such foolishness." The tone was derisive, but he didn't move away, and the pinkness in his cheeks was not from the cold.
Duncan found himself grinning, a weight lifting from his heart. "Oh, ye'll take the high road--"
Methos stopped dead in his tracks and shot him a look that might have frozen the Loch itself. "Think again, MacLeod, or you're walking the rest of the way by your lonesome."
"You're no fun at all, you know that?"
"Yes, but the city of Paris will thank me for years to come."
They returned to the barge almost two hours later, having gotten onto the topic of revisionist history--a favorite and ongoing debate--and lost track of what direction they were walking. It was such a beautiful night that Duncan suggested a nightcap topside, and Methos readily agreed.
They sat comfortably under the arch of the night sky, two glasses and an open bottle of port between them. Unable to let it go, Duncan worried at the topic, trying to decide if it really mattered whether or not the fate of the Peloponnesian War, and thus the entire Mediterranean region, had turned on the late night defection of one Athenian politician. He just found it difficult to accept the idea that individuals didn't matter in the big picture. It went against everything he'd been taught, everything he believed in.
"That looks painful," Methos commented. Duncan gave him a questioning look, and Methos touched the tip of a long, tapered finger to the spot between his own eyebrows. "Shouldn't frown so hard, your face will stick like that."
Duncan chuckled grudgingly and took a small sip of the port. "Too late, I think. And I still think you're wrong, you know."
"That's because you're stubborn."
"Maybe. But Methos, it doesn't matter how many examples you come up with, the bottom line is, your premise is wrong. Because if the actions of one individual don't matter--if history writes itself, like you're saying--then what's the point? What would the world be like if Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln had just sat back and watched the weeds grow?"
"You're not listening to what I'm saying. What I'm saying is--"
"I know what you're saying. You're saying, if it hadn't been Lincoln, it would have been someone else. If it hadn't been Alexander, it would have been someone else. Right?"
"And what about Da Vinci? What about Shakespeare?"
"But see, that's my point. Shakespeare was a genius--one in a million. But it was the Renaissance that enabled Shakespeare and Da Vinci to make history. It was the world they lived in that made them stars. If Shakespeare had been born eight hundred years earlier, or in another part of the world, he might not ever have learned to read. If he'd been born a hundred years later, he might have been burned at the stake. It was history that made Shakespeare. And Alexander, and Da Vinci."
"You ever think maybe your perspective is, I dunno, a little jaded, maybe?"
Methos swirled his port around, watching the golden liquid paint the sides of the glass. "Hey, I just call 'em like I see 'em. Call me up in about four thousand years, we'll compare notes."
The Highlander rolled his eyes. "You're impossible. That's the easy answer, isn't it? I can't possibly understand, because I'm really just a kid who happens to have been around a few centuries."
"All right, answer me this. Why can't you accept what I'm saying? What is it about the idea that history shapes itself that's bugging you so much?"
"It just seems pointless to me. I mean, what does it matter, then, what we do? What we choose? Why should we try to live a good life, to make a difference, if the end result is the same whether we fight for what we believe in, or do nothing?"
"Oh, it matters, all right. It matters to you, and to the people you care about, certainly. And to the people whose lives you touch. I'm not saying it doesn't matter. All I'm saying is that you, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, are a product of your own history."
"Now you're splitting hairs."
Methos shrugged. "If you say so." He stretched his denim-clad legs out in front of him and sprawled to the fullest extent the chair would allow.
Averting his eyes from the way the worn seams hugged the insides of those long thighs, Duncan made himself relax, sipped his wine, and let the tension slowly ebb away. "I guess I just don't like the idea that people--the people I care about--don't count in the big picture. I like to think that when Darius chose to lay down his sword, that it counted for something. That he made a difference. That Tessa did, and Fitzcairn."
"And Alexa," Methos said softly, watching the lights on the river.
"Yes. And Alexa." Duncan watched his friend's expression, waiting to see if he would say anything more. Methos' face was carved in ivory, sharp in profile against the lantern light, his breath barely visible in the chill.
"I know, Mac," the other man said at last, turning to pour each of them another glass. "Believe me, I know."
Such an old, old weariness in that tone, that Duncan found he had no more arguments left in him. It hadn't occurred to him that Methos might be playing Devil's Advocate, that he might have been egging Duncan on, hoping for the very passionate debate he'd provoked. But Duncan himself was weary and lost in shadows now, and the only passion he felt was the deep longing to lose himself in this man, to touch and be touched, to remember how it felt to be held by one who truly knew him.
"Listen," Methos said, when the silence went on too long, "it's late, and neither one of us got much sleep last night. I should go." He rose, shrugging on his coat. "Thanks for dinner." He started toward the ladder that led down to the main deck, but had only taken three steps when Duncan stopped him.
The other man turned back, eyebrows arched slightly in a question. Duncan had risen to his feet and closed the distance between them.
"Will you stay?" he asked in a rush. That steady, unblinking regard, that nonplused expression, unnerved him, and the words spilled out hurriedly. "On the couch, I mean. It's just...I know you haven't been sleeping, and I thought maybe you'd be able to, if you stayed here." He bit his tongue against the urge to backpedal, knowing he'd already said enough. Too much, maybe.
"Okay," Methos shrugged, mouth quirking upward. "Worth a shot, right?"
While Methos made up the couch, Duncan dealt with the supper dishes, seeking refuge in the mundane. He could do this. Keep it casual, don't push. If there was one thing four hundred years taught you, it was that timing was everything.
He was tired, he realized, stifling a yawn as he finished up in the kitchen. He couldn't help it; as he headed to bed, his gaze strayed towards the couch, where Methos had already settled in, nothing much showing save his nose and the dark thatch of his hair. Duncan's fatigue-hazed mind filled in the details, guessing boxer shorts and nothing else under the down comforter. How clearly he remembered that beautiful, pale skin against his own, those taut curves of muscle and sinew in a body so eloquent in its passion that it could make a convert even out of a devoted lover of women like himself. Stop thinking about it, he ordered himself sternly. You're just making yourself crazy.
But of course, once he'd climbed under the covers and lay staring up at the shadowed beams, sleep felt a million miles away, and it was all he could think about. What had possessed him to think this was a good idea? And what had made Methos agree to stay?
There was a soft rustling from the couch, cloth shifting against cloth.
"Methos?" he whispered. "You awake?"
A pause, and then, "Yeah," came the quiet answer. "What's the matter, can't sleep either?"
"Maybe it's catching."
"For your sake, I hope not," the other man said ruefully; the low voice seemed to curl gently, intimately in Duncan's belly.
He cast about for something, anything, to distract himself from his too-vivid memories. "Have you talked to Joe?" he asked, lighting upon the first thing that came to mind. "Does he know...?"
"About Alexa?" The roughness was so slight, Duncan might have imagined it. "Yes, he knows."
Duncan hesitated. How did he ask what he needed to know, without it sounding as pathetic as he feared it would? "He didn't happen to say anything about Richie, did he?"
There was a little silence. "No, I can't say that it came up."
"Did he...has he said anything else about what happened?"
Another pause, and Duncan realized that if Joe had spoken to Methos in confidence, he could hardly ask Methos to betray that. "Haven't you talked to him?" Methos said at last.
"Once. To thank him for calling you."
"That all you talked about?"
"I told him I was all right, and that was about it. I didn't exactly get the idea he was all that thrilled to hear from me."
"Well, you know. He probably just needs some time to work it out. Think about what happened."
"I'm sure he'll call when he's ready. Or just show up on your doorstep, like the rest of us are always doing." There was a smile in the other man's voice.
"I'm sure you're right." Duncan even almost believed it. It was a relief to have someone to talk to about this. He'd tried to talk to Amanda, but the words just hadn't come. Now, with Methos, in the familiar, coccooning security of the quiet night, he drew a deep breath and at last voiced the fear that he'd kept buried for so long, a shudder touching him. "I can't stop thinking about what would have happened if you hadn't been there, Methos. I can't ever repay--"
"Enough, Mac. We've been through that, and I told you, it's no big deal. You put it behind you."
Face warm with too much feeling, Duncan swallowed. "It's not that simple," he said roughly.
"Yes," Methos countered, "it is. It is exactly that simple. It's over now. You are okay. I am. Joe is, and he will come around when he's ready. Ryan, too--and if he doesn't, you go and find him, and you explain it to him until he listens. Okay?"
Struggling with what Methos was trying to tell him, Duncan sighed at last and made himself relax. He laid his arm over his eyes, a cool pressure against the heat that had risen there. "Yeah, okay. I hear you." He knew Methos' answer was too easy, but it was very tempting to do as he said and just let it go.
"Good, glad to hear it," Methos said on what sounded like a yawn. "Does that mean we can go to sleep now?"
Smiling a little in the dark, Duncan let himself imagine that long-limbed form burrowing deeper into the couch, the amber eyes heavy-lidded with sleepy, good-natured tolerance. "No more talking for tonight, I promise. Go to sleep." He hoped he'd been right, and Methos could. The faint lapping of the water against the sides of the barge had always been one of the best soporifics he knew.
In spite of his own weariness, Duncan lay awake for some time, listening to the soft, even breathing from the couch, waiting to hear the slowing of that rhythm that would let him know Methos had dropped off at last.
He fell asleep, still listening, and dreamed of the silent falling of snow.
He supposed it was progress that Methos wasn't gone when he woke to find pale morning coming in at the portholes. But the early hour and the smell of brewing coffee somehow told him, without the need for words, that Methos hadn't slept.
Duncan was a little startled at the sinking heaviness of his own disappointment. He hadn't realized how much he'd been hoping he could give Methos this...how much he'd liked the idea that the old man might take comfort in his presence, enough to find some measure of peace. But why should it be so, just because he wished it? It was arrogance and wishful thinking, nothing more, just as Methos had accused him of last night during that argument that hadn't really been one.
The sound of the shower running told Duncan where Methos was and awakened an inevitable flash-kaleidoscope of stirring images, almost laughably predictable. He got up and pulled on a pair of drawstring pants, entertaining idle thoughts of a good, hard workout later. Pure physical exhaustion, a cure for all manner of ills--maybe even for an overactive imagination. And if Methos joined him? Now that was an idea, considering where it had gotten them last time.
He shook his head with a rueful grin and headed for the kitchen in search of coffee. Maybe Amanda was right; maybe he did have some latent masochistic tendencies he wasn't aware of.
He was standing at the counter, still working on his first cup, when Methos appeared, skin pink from the shower, hair sticking up in wet spikes. Then Duncan saw what the flush of steam and the caffeine couldn't disguise, what they had perhaps been meant to disguise.
The other man smiled tiredly, the hazel eyes acknowledging his worried frown with a flash of something that might have been affection, or irony, or both. "It's not that bad, really."
"Yeah. Life goes on, right?"
Duncan nodded, wanting to say something else, uncertain what would be the right thing. An offer of breakfast was on the tip of his tongue, but Methos was already making subtle progress toward the door.
"You have to go?"
"Well, you know. Some of us have to work for a living." Methos gathered up his coat, running a hand absently through his hair.
"Get someone to look after the store," Duncan suggested impulsively. "Take a day off, and let's do something. We'll get out of the city for the day, take a drive somewhere."
Methos gave him a look that spoke volumes and read him like a book. "I don't think so," he said, with something like regret. "I've gotten too far behind as it is, and I still have to put away the stuff in the basement. I've got a million things to do."
"I could help you, later." Duncan knew he was pushing, but he couldn't seem to help it. "We could order take-out, or something."
Methos had reached the foot of the steps. "Look, Mac--" He drew a deep breath. "I don't know if it's such a good idea that we be seen together. I've taken a hell of a risk as it is, and if things weren't such a mess at Headquarters, I'd probably be in hot water already."
Stung, Duncan felt a spark of deep resentment at the thought that Methos would choose the Watchers over him, even now. Sometimes he really hated that fucking organization, even if they did serve an important purpose. Intellectually, he knew that it wasn't the whole Watcher network that was to blame for taking people that he cared about away from him. But in his heart, it was sometimes hard to remember that.
He busied himself at the sink. "Well, guess I'll see you around then."
Methos sighed. "Come on, MacLeod, you know the realities we live with. You were happy enough to come calling about your friend Cochrane, just because Joe wasn't around to lift the files for you. There's a price to be paid for that, and you know it as well as I do." Duncan looked up reluctantly, and Methos gave him a crooked grin. "Besides, aren't you sick of me yet?"
"Now that you mention it," Duncan muttered. But he couldn't sustain the anger against that combination of wry, self-deprecating humor and unavoidable truth. He shook his head in mock-disgust, before he slipped and conceded Methos the point. "Go on, get out of here."
With Methos gone, Duncan found the day stretching out ahead of him, the barge suddenly seeming very small and constricting. The weather had warmed up considerably, yet nothing he might ordinarily have done seemed to appeal. It didn't take him long to decide that a drive still sounded like a good idea, even without company. Maybe he'd go see Father Beaufort. He could use a little quiet, to sort himself out.
Stepping out into the sunshine, he was struck by the odd feeling of waking from a vaguely remembered dream to find that the world had returned to some familiar, mundane order, both reassuring and depressing in its normality. Spring was in the air, he realized, that's what it was. He had always loved autumn best. That was when the earth underwent transformation, when you could feel the power of winter coming and the hand of Time shaping the world. Spring, with all its bright color and young, new life, usually just made him feel old.
When you start to think you are, you are, he told himself, shaking off the momentary funk and unlocking the car. His gaze fell on the barge, the sight of its familiar silhouette against the backdrop of Notre Dame awakening a restlessness, a need for change that he hadn't felt in a long time.
By the time he got back, well after sunset, it was clear that the hint of spring had only been a tease; a chill licked the steady wind from the northeast, carrying a distant warning of snow. He hurried up the gangplank--and the Presence of another Immortal ran sharply up his spine.
Methos, he thought immediately. Then, belatedly, he wondered if it might be Amanda, or even Richie, and wasn't sure which of the three would be more welcome, or more troubling, to his peace of mind right now. It really didn't occur to him until he'd reached the bottom of the steps, and no familiar voice called out to greet him, that it might not be a friend waiting below.
Sword drawn and poised to block a swing at his throat, Duncan opened the stairwell door, stepping cautiously into the shadowed room. But no flash of steel, no ambush awaited him, only the crackling of a fire in the stove and the warm glow of the reading lamp in the sitting area.
A familiar, lanky form was stretched out on the couch, the dark head bent over a paperback book; Methos looked up, gaze sweeping over Duncan, his expression utterly opaque. "I was starting to wonder what happened to you."
That look chilled Duncan more deeply than the wind had. He wasn't sure what he'd done to win the other man's displeasure, but decided discretion was the better part of valor until he figured it out. "I decided to go for a drive after all. Went looking for an old friend." He put his sword away and crossed towards the couch, but Methos said nothing more, only went back to reading. Noticing Methos' coat laid over the bar some twenty feet away, Duncan frowned. "You should be more careful," he said quietly, moving to pour himself a drink.
Methos was silent a moment. "What d'you mean?" he said at last, an undercurrent in the deceptively casual tone that made Duncan's head come up, putting him instantly on his guard.
He touched the coat, feeling the outline of the broadsword in its hidden sheath. "What if it hadn't been me, just now? What if it had been someone else coming here looking for me? It does happen, you know."
Still Methos didn't look up, but there was a tension in his body that set every instinct Duncan possessed on alert. "Can't imagine why. You keep such a low profile, after all." Methos turned the page, tone shifting from snide to bland in a flash. "So, did you find him?"
"Your old friend, the one you were looking for."
"Oh. No, I didn't. He's in Amiens." Duncan drank down half the liquor in his glass, then refilled it. "What about you? Did you get everything put away?"
"What do you think?"
"Methos." The Highlander made an effort to keep his own temper from fraying. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"Such as why you're giving me the acid treatment, for starters."
At that, Methos at last raised his head, looking at Duncan as if only then realizing the way he'd been acting. Some of his stiffness melted away, revealing a deeper strain. "Was I?"
Duncan relaxed a little. "Yeah, you were." He pulled out another glass and put it down on the bar. "Think you could use a drink?"
Methos nodded, something like gratitude, or apology, touching his expression; Duncan poured the Glenmorangie and brought it to him. "You want to talk about it?"
Methos leaned forward, bracing elbows on knees, staring at the glass cradled between his hands. "No, not really. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." He shrugged dismissively, taking a swig of the scotch. "It wasn't a good day."
"I got that idea." Duncan sat down, mirroring his friend's posture.
"And I guess I'm just a little embarrassed to find myself hanging around like some tiresome old relative who doesn't know when to clear out."
The other man's eyes rose to his.
"Any time, remember?"
"Yeah," Methos said huskily, his gaze dropping back to his glass. "I remember. Thanks." He cleared his throat. "You know, I didn't even really mean to come here. I left the shop and started to walk, and next thing I know, I'm looking up, and there's the barge." Duncan smiled a little at that, remembering his run in the falling snow. "I wasn't even going to come in, but...I couldn't seem to help myself."
"So much for keeping a low profile."
"No kidding. I think I'm slipping in my old age."
"Well, I'm glad you decided to stay." Duncan sipped at his whisky, trying not to betray how glad. "You hungry?"
"Not really. You?"
"No, but I could fix you something."
"Yeah, you can fix me another one of these."
Duncan got up and went to the bar to get the bottle; he sensed that it was going to be a long night and thought they might need a lot more scotch before it was over.
"You look tired," said Methos, when two hours had slipped away, and the bottle was pretty much done for. They hadn't talked much--or rather, they had talked a great deal about things like Jarmusch films, and the comparative merits of Highland versus Islay island malt whisky, and not at all about more dangerous subjects.
"I look tired? How long's it been since you slept, Methos?"
"Long enough," the other man admitted. "But that's beside the point. One of us ought to be able to sleep, that's what I'm getting at."
"And what about you? This can't go on forever, you know. What if someone came after you, in the shape you're in? Reflexes off, reaction time down--you wouldn't stand a chance."
"Oh, thank you very much. So glad to know you have so much confidence in me. You know, how d'you think I got to be this old, anyway?"
"Sometimes I wonder. Hey, where are you going?"
"Home, Duncan. Go to bed."
It was the 'Duncan' that made him get up, follow Methos toward the door. "Wait. What are you gonna do when you get there?"
Methos gave him a strange look. "I don't know. Read my book, probably."
"Well, why don't you stay here and read? The light won't bother me, and it would make me feel better."
"Come on, give me one good reason." Duncan knew he had gone too far. He knew it. Somewhere in the last thirty seconds or the last three days or maybe in some moment that had slipped away months before, he had taken that last crucial step past a threshold that couldn't be recrossed.
Methos' expression said that he could think of ten reasons without breaking a sweat, but all he said was, "This isn't a good idea, Mac."
"So what?" Something reckless made Duncan's pulse speed up quietly, slow heat squeezing his heart. "I can handle it, Methos. Whatever you need from me, or don't need, I can handle it." His voice had betrayed him, going rough at the edges; he held the hazel eyes with his own, willing the other man to believe him. "You were there for me when I needed a friend. Let me return the favor, that's all I'm asking."
Those mutable eyes regarded him solemnly, seeming to see every shading of truth and fiction in him, every unspoken hope. And in the end, he didn't know whether Methos believed him, or whether it was only that he was too tired to argue about it, but the other man sighed at last. "What am I going to do with you, MacLeod?"
"Is that a yes?"
Methos rolled his eyes in eloquent disgust. "Yes, that's a yes." He dropped his coat onto the couch and moved off towards the bathroom, shaking his head. "You are such a pain in the ass."
"Now where are you going?"
"To use up all your hot water, of course. You'll be sorry, mark my words."
But Duncan wasn't, not even a little bit, and if Methos needed a few minutes alone to deal with what Duncan had asked of him, well, that was all right, too.
The Highlander changed into a well-worn pair of sweats, and after a moment's consideration, dug out a second pair. He hesitated at the bathroom door, listening to the water run, then slipped the clothes onto the edge of the sink and eased the door shut again.
Ridiculous, the way his stomach was behaving, like a bridegroom's. He'd asked Methos to stay--in essence, to trust him, to rely on him to make this okay, make sure no permanent damage was done here tonight, to either of them. Whatever you need, or don't need. He'd said he could handle it. Had that been the truth?
Examining his own motivations with the most brutal honesty he could muster, he found that everything else came second to the profound wish he felt, that Methos could find some measure of peace with him, some release for the tightly held knot of grief the old man was guarding so carefully within himself. Duncan knew that feeling too well. How you tried your best to keep still, hold so tightly to the anger and pain, keeping it close instead of letting it move through you, as if to let it go was to let her go.
Methos was close, though, he sensed that, too. That strained look Methos had given him earlier, when Duncan had confronted him with his own snappishness: unnamed fear beneath the unfocused anger.
Duncan paced distractedly around the room for a minute or two, suddenly not at all tired. He found the book he'd been reading two nights before; turning, his eyes fell upon Methos' battered paperback, lying on his coat at the end of the couch. A haunting illustration of a woman, indistinct and worn, graced the cover, and he had the strange feeling that he'd seen the book before, though he couldn't remember where. Maybe one of Tessa's, he thought, with no small amount of irony. Not daring to think too much about what he was doing, he picked the book up and took it with him.
When Methos came out of the bathroom, Duncan was settled comfortably, propped up against a pillow, reading by the small light built into the head of the bed. He felt the other man's eyes on him; he swore he could feel it when Methos looked at him, like the pale warmth of a shaft of winter sunlight you could feel touching you even with your eyes closed. He didn't look up, only kept on pretending to read as if he had forgotten there was anyone else in the room; meanwhile, he was intensely aware of Methos' every move as the other man moved away towards the couch. Finding that his host had seemingly forgotten to provide bedding, Methos would--yes, coming towards him now, standing just there at the edge of vision, just below the shallow step that led up to the sleeping platform.
He sensed it, the moment that Methos took in the paperback lying face down on the night table, an unspoken invitation. Duncan summoned every bit of control he owned, resisting the need to look, keeping his whole body relaxed and open, his whole manner matter-of-fact. Only when Methos took the first step closer to the bed did he at last look up, meeting that bright, mutable gaze with his own.
Methos' expression communicated a rather bemused incredulity and no small measure of wariness. But something else won out--something quiet and still, that Duncan couldn't have named--and Methos came by slow, gliding steps to stand beside the bed.
"You're crazy, you know that?"
Duncan looked back at his book. "Probably," he admitted, fighting the warmth that tried to rise to his face.
Still Methos stood there, looking down at him. "Certifiable, in fact."
"If you say so." Duncan turned the page as if he had actually read it.
And Methos, after another long moment, picked up his book, tucked the edge of the bedclothes back, and climbed into the bed.
Too attuned to that warm presence beside him, to the other man's scent and the fragrance of his own soap on that velvet-smooth skin, it was some time before Duncan was able to focus on the text in front of him. But slowly, gradually, he was drawn in by something that spoke to him in the great physicist's later letters; he finally relaxed and began to lose himself in the weariness and loneliness of an old man isolated by his intellect and separated from his homeland.
He couldn't have said when it happened, when he first became aware that something had changed. He knew only that one moment, everything was all right, and the next...
Beside him, Methos hadn't moved. His head was still bent, his book still propped open on his knees, but there was a stillness in him that hadn't been there before. A nameless pressure squeezed Duncan's insides gently, making it harder to breathe; obeying an overwhelming instinct, he reached out, his hand closing gently over Methos' on the bed.
His heartbeat, slow and heavy in his ears, counted out the seconds as they sat like that, saying nothing. That terrible stillness went on; the back of Methos' hand was cool against his palm, the elegant fingers curled beneath his own roughened fingertips. The barge seemed darker, somehow, and quieter, as if the world had narrowed to the inside of this room, this warm haven that consisted only of himself and Methos, and he was painfully aware of every breath he took.
Then the other man gently disengaged from the light contact, put down his book, and got up; at the door, he kept going, his bare feet making no sound at all on the stairs.
Duncan found him near the wheelhouse. The night was unusually dark, brooding snow clouds cloaking even the stars, and in the dark clothing, his face hidden by shadows, Methos was almost invisible; it was only the white vapor of his breath that gave him away.
"Go back inside, MacLeod," he said roughly, turning away when Duncan drew near.
"Come with me," Duncan answered, his own voice hoarse with emotion.
"Duncan. Please. Just go." The words splintered in Methos' throat with the effort it cost him.
The Highlander took a step forward. "No," he said, and reached out.
The surge of violence, the incoherent snarl when his hand met the warm curve of his friend's shoulder in the dark, was not entirely unexpected. The force of it caught him off guard, though. He wasn't quite able to duck fast enough. The unaimed blow glanced off his jaw and into the glass pane of the wheelhouse; the impact and the sound startled him, though he wasn't really hurt. He didn't let it stop him. When Methos staggered, the desperate fury fading as quickly as it had come, Duncan was there to catch him.
Methos made a broken sound, raw with pain. He caught himself on Duncan's forearms, his grip like iron; the tears broke like a summer squall, sudden and fierce, racking his body with the wrenching harshness of a man who seldom cries. "I've got you," Duncan murmured, not sure if Methos heard him. "It's all right." He bent his head to his friend's, just letting Methos lean on him and cry it out.
They ended up sitting side by side on the low cabin roof amidships, Methos leaning half against Duncan, his face hidden in his own arms, Duncan's hand against his back as the storm finished working its way through him.
At last Methos drew a deep breath and let it out, lifting his face to the sky. The skeins of his tears had painted faint trails on his cheeks and along his jaw, and matted his eyelashes into wet spikes--but he was breathing easier now, and straightened away from the warmth of Duncan's body. "Ah, shit," he sighed glumly, wiping his face with the backs of his hands. "I really didn't mean for that to happen."
Duncan drew a deep, quiet breath of his own, reluctant to break the contact of his palm against the other man's back. "It's okay. No harm done." Well, that was mostly true, if you didn't count the way his whole body protested the loss of Methos' weight against his shoulder, the warm pressure all along the length of his thigh.
Methos frowned at him, trying to examine his face by what light there was. "You okay?"
Duncan found a smile somewhere. "I'll live."
"Yeah," Methos said softly, dropping his gaze. "Don't we always?" The firestorm of grief had passed, but there was still a deep sadness in him, in those wet, leaf-colored eyes, and it welled up now like a slow, inexorable sea. He got up, moving a few steps away, arms tucked tightly around himself.
Duncan rose, closing the distance between them. "Methos." His hand found the other man's shoulder. "It's okay. I do know." As if the words tapped that old pain, he suddenly found himself swallowing hard against the vivid memory of standing like this with Tessa, only a few feet from here, not long after Darius had died.
His words, or his touch, seemed to breach something in Methos, too, for a slow shudder moved through the other man, and Methos bowed his head for a moment, closing his eyes against it. At last he opened them again, gazing out over the river. "It's never the same, is it? You tell yourself that it'll be easier this time. That it'll be worth it. And it is, but..."
"But every time, it's like it's the first time."
Methos nodded, lips curving faintly. He was silent for a long moment, and Duncan could see the shimmer of reflected lamplight from across the river, the tears welling fresh. "She had the best laugh. I mean--really the best, you know?"
"Yeah," Duncan whispered, not trusting his own voice. Giving in at last to the ache he felt, he cupped his palm against the bare, warm skin at Methos' nape, fingertips brushing the soft down of his hair. And when Methos moved, yielding to that touch and leaning into him, it really was too much to ask that Duncan should deny him.
That was how it happened, that one of them turned, and Duncan found himself with his arms full of Methos, that lean body pressed close against his, the other man's face hot and damp against his neck. For a long moment, neither of them moved, and an observer might almost have believed that it was only comfort, nothing more. Then Methos shifted, and Duncan made himself breathe, and abruptly his body registered everything: the supple, hard, muscled feel of him, the heat of him, the warm musk-salt and spice scent of him, a rush of sensory impressions that assaulted the Highlander and left him reeling. And before he could even try to get himself together, Methos' face lifted, his mouth seeking Duncan's with an artless, annihilating tenderness.
Undone, Duncan made a faint, pleading sound and melted against him, his mouth opening helplessly to meet that hungry caress of lips and tongue. Like kissing flame, or pleasure itself. How had he forgotten? Fingertips pressed gently at the base of his skull, and Duncan found he was trembling under the intensity, the intimacy of tasting Methos' hot tongue pressing softly against his own. Too much. He suddenly felt like he was going to cry, or come, from that devastating, knowing assault.
Desperate, he broke away, half leaning against Methos because he couldn't help it--but he saw Methos' eyes, wild and lost someplace deep inside himself, and knew he'd been right from the beginning. "Don't," he warned, voice ragged, shuddering away when Methos would have kissed him again.
The other man drew back in confusion. "Why?"
Duncan held his gaze intently. "You know why." Denied hunger made him harsher than he meant to be. "Because you're not finished grieving for her, because you're doing this for me, because you think you owe me for something, and you don't have to do that, Methos. I told you, I can handle it."
Disbelieving, Methos crowded close until he'd backed Duncan up against the wheelhouse. His hand found Duncan's arousal, palm measuring his length, pressing against him through the cotton trousers. "You want this."
Jaw set, knees threatening to betray him at the caress, Duncan fought for control. "Yes." He drew a deep breath, pulled the hand away and closed both of his own around it, then let Methos go. "But what I want more is for us not to rush this. Plenty of time, remember?"
Methos was searching his face, as if not quite believing he was real. "But you--"
"It won't kill me." Seeing the deeply buried glint of relief hidden in the other man's eyes, a shaft of light broke through the tight knot of his own wanting, and he chuckled a little. "I don't think so, anyway." The temperature had been dropping steadily since nightfall, and with the easing of his body's fierce imperative, Duncan found himself shivering slightly. "Listen, what do you say we take this inside? I don't know about you, but my feet are fucking freezing."
After a long moment, Methos nodded and grinned ruefully. "That's not the part of me I was thinking of, but yeah." He hesitated, glancing toward the quay. "I should probably--"
"Not a chance," Duncan forestalled him, straightening away from the support of the wall, able to do it now. "You're staying here, no arguments." He mustered his sternest look, not that Methos had ever let himself be bullied into anything he didn't want to do.
But Methos gave in gracefully, for once, offering not even so much as a token protest.
Lying awake, Duncan listened to the faint, familiar creaks and groans of the barge and wondered when exactly it was that he had passed the point of no return where Methos was concerned. When had he reached the place he found himself at now, where it had become so important not to take any false steps on the uncertain road that lay before them? He couldn't be sure. All he knew for sure was that he couldn't be satisfied any more with the glimpses and tastes he'd been given; he wanted more.
It hadn't been a lie. He'd been right about Methos not being ready, about him needing time to grieve, to heal. But it hadn't been the whole truth, either. The whole truth was that Duncan wanted something he couldn't have without a little patience, a little sacrifice...a lot of sacrifice, his body told him, stirring with the memory of that warm hand pressing intimately between his thighs.
But he was in deep now, and he needed to know. Needed to be sure. He still didn't know why Methos had balked, all those months ago. And if he had given in tonight, taken what had been offered so temptingly, he might never have known whether Methos had turned to him out of pity, or some desperate need for human contact. He was just selfish enough to want something different. To want to know, when they finally made love for real, together, both strong and ready and with their eyes wide open, that it was only him and Methos in the bed, and no unhappy ghosts.
The light in the galley clicked off, and he was very aware of the soft footsteps that padded across the floorboards, then paused at the bottom of the steps near the foot of the bed. "Mac?" the whisper came out of the darkness, as the other man hesitated. "You awake?"
"Yeah, come on up."
Methos came up the steps, and Duncan heard him set his glass of water down on the night-stand.
"You sure about this?" Methos asked, the shape of him a tall, angular silhouette beside the bed.
"I'm sure." Duncan pulled back the covers. "Get in here, will you?"
Methos got in. After a long, awkward moment, Duncan sensed the other man relaxing a little, getting more comfortable. He could just make out that aquiline profile, as Methos lay on his back, carefully taking up exactly half of the bed and no more. As Duncan's eyes adjusted to the dark, he could make out the long, curling lashes, the delicately sculpted lips.
Methos turned his head on the pillow, sensing he was being stared at. "What?" Annoyance sharpened his tone.
Duncan sighed, mustering the appropriate matching tone of long-suffering tolerance, and opened his arms, waiting. "Are you gonna get over here, or am I gonna have to get rough with you?"
Methos looked at him for a long moment. "As tempting as that sounds..." he murmured at last, but there was a roughness in his voice, and he couldn't quite finish. He didn't say anything more, just shifted over, curling his body into the place Duncan made for him, letting Duncan fit himself against his back, letting Duncan's arms close lightly around him.
Within a few minutes, Methos was sleeping deeply, dead to the world and snoring softly.
"Night, Methos," Duncan whispered, smiling against the other man's shoulder. He lay awake for a while, finding in that quiet, rhythmic sound a satisfaction as deep as any he had known; in the end he followed, forehead resting against the curve of Methos' nape, breathing in time with the man whose dreams he guarded.
Musical notes: Duke Ellington just seemed to set the mood for this story. If you're interested in this sort of thing, I was listening to "I'm Beginning to See the Light" because it reminded me of Alexa slowly warming up to Methos; "I Got it Bad, and That Ain't Good" because for me it echoed the longing that Duncan's feeling; "Mood Indigo" for Methos; and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," just because.
Book notes: Methos is reading The Girl in a Swing, written by Richard Adams. The Born-Einstein Letters was written and compiled by Max Born.