by Meredith Lynne
Methos was tired; deep in his bones, in his muscles, in his heart. It took effort to draw in a breath, effort to expel it. Five thousand years bore down on him, closing his eyes, tightening his lips.
But those words... those words lightened the burden. You're too important to lose, Mac had said, with that quiet Scottish intensity, changing the world with a glance.
He spared a moment just to breathe, feeling something grey and viselike in his chest loosening by gradual stages. His position, ankles crossed, knees bent and hands resting on them, was close to his favorite meditation pose. It was good to settle back into himself, feeling clear and easy with his heart in the dark silence behind his eyes. The gentle ebb of lingering Presence generated by MacLeod's nearness washed over him like a soothing balm, and he felt his lips turning upward in a smile quite different from any he'd worn in a long time.
Mac's voice was concerned; he'd been silent too long. Opening his eyes, he let the smile widen. "Still here."
Mac tilted his head to one side, brown eyes searching. "No anger, recriminations, smart remarks?" he said warily.
"I'm fresh out of original angst, and I'm not keen to repeat myself," Methos said -- then laughed, shaking his head. "Sorry, Mac. I didn't mean to ruin the moment--"
"--but it feels good be back to normal?" Now Mac was smiling too, his entire face brightened by it. "I know."
"So young to be so wise."
"It's part of my charm," Mac said.
Methos smiled. Trading roles, trading places -- it was a good game, and he'd missed it more than he'd realized. MacLeod was quick of mind and took a real pleasure in showing it off. Almost as much pleasure as I take in seeing it.
"Are we, though? Back to normal again?" Mac tilted his head to one side -- a careful look. Cautious.
"As normal as you and I are ever going to be, I suspect." Methos rose and stretched to his full height, arms extended out to either side. Muscles complained in so many places it was a wonder he could move at all. If anything, he was more tense now that things had been settled than he had been before.
"That looks like it hurts," Mac observed from the bed.
"Like you wouldn't believe. If I'm allowed to leave now--?"
MacLeod nodded, smiling a little.
"In that case, I'm going to go home and get a shower and some sleep."
"You can shower here, if you want. I have to deal with what was almost breakfast anyway."
Methos glanced over at MacLeod, his lips forming a slight curve. "Thanks," he said. "But I've got to get away from here for a bit."
Almost imperceptibly, MacLeod's features tightened.
"Not for good," Methos said. "Not even for long. I just need some time to assimilate everything we've said." He shook his head. "You're right, I am too conservative. I don't shift gears as quickly as I used to."
"That I can understand. As long as you're not planning to disappear."
Methos put a hand on MacLeod's shoulder. "I'm not going anywhere," he said, his expression a promise. "As a matter of fact--" He found his coat, and fished into one of its pockets for a pad and pencil. "My new place," he said, scribbling. "Give me a call later? We'll go to Joe's or something."
MacLeod groaned. "Amanda."
For a moment Methos didn't make the connection. Then: "Ahh. She got to him too, did she? And he will have told her....?"
"That you're here, certainly, and heaven knows what else." MacLeod laughed. "I'm surprised she hasn't called."
"Probably afraid to," Methos said with a grin. "I'm--"
The phone rang, right on cue; the two men's eyes met, sharing laughter. "Go," MacLeod said. "If I survive, I'll give you a call."
"If you survive," Methos said, "you're a better man than I think you are."
Mac's laughter followed him as he left.
He grabbed the phone in mid-ring. "MacLeod," he said, still smiling.
A soft female voice spoke briefly, and Duncan listened. In the space of a moment, his heart went cold and his smile faded, giving way to something close to shock. Something related to fear.
Moments later, he replaced the receiver in its cradle and took his trench coat from its hook on the wall.
It had not been Amanda.
As good as it felt to be at Mac's place as a guest instead of an intruder, at the moment it felt even better to be away. Methos hadn't been lying when he said he needed time to assimilate the changes the night had brought. From despair to hope to the renewal of a friendship he'd thought was dead in the space of twenty-four hours was too much, even for a man who'd lived through five millennia of changes. He needed time to touch base with himself, to examine his thoughts about the past day's events.
The day was still in its early greyness, the air cold with the hint of yet another storm. The streets of Seacouver were dark and wet, reflecting the orange sodium glow of street lamps that hadn't yet noticed the coming of day. Methos felt a smile on his lips, and amusement at its presence turned it into something both pleased and mocking. He wasn't a man well-acquainted with happiness, and the quiet joy that underlined his every thought this morning both exhilarated and embarrassed him.
Not exactly dignified, he reflected, climbing the steps that led up to his apartment, but it certainly beats the alternative.
A few hours of light sleep, caught as he sprawled fully dressed on the low twin bed that came with the rent, took the dark circles out from under his eyes and restored his clarity of mind. A few moments of indecision on waking decided him against showering right away; the choice between the bathroom a grad student could afford and the luxury of MacLeod's facilities was an easy one to make. He stuffed a change of clothes into his battered duffel, ran a comb through his hair, and headed back down to the streets.
Once again, though, he found himself walking aimlessly, enjoying the damp air against his face and the freshness of the wind. It surprised Methos that he had no desire to retreat into his research. He liked his flat -- apartment, over here they're apartments -- and he'd planned to spend at least part of the day at his desk, working on his journals. Lately he'd been thinking a great deal of the time he'd spent in Ireland as Jamie Byrne, near the beginning of the American Civil War. Though technically no longer a Watcher, he'd been at it too long to give it up completely; he still kept the record, added to his Chronicle. Someday, I'll give it to Joe. I'll have to make sure they can authenticate it. He'll be the most famous Watcher in the world. The thought made him smile. Methos was extremely fond of Joseph Dawson.
After all, it was Joe who had sent him Duncan MacLeod.
He wondered if Mac knew that waiting for him that first day, knowing that his cover was in danger, had been the most excitement he'd had in ten years? Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was considered among the Watchers to be either the devil incarnate or the best hope for humanity, should he take the Prize. Methos had made a study of him, the dark, brooding Scot who'd caused such trouble in the organization. He'd cultivated Joe's friendship mainly out of curiosity.
And then Kalas had come, seeking out anything that would help him kill Duncan MacLeod. One of those things had been the Quickening of the world's oldest Immortal, AKA Adam Pierson, mild-mannered Watcher.
MacLeod had come to Paris to stop Kalas, and in a few short weeks made a complete wreck of Methos' cover and his life. Suddenly there were three people who knew him for who he was, and who persisted in using his real name no matter how he cautioned against it. And worse -- suddenly, there were three people who mattered to him. MacLeod, Dawson, Amanda.
Just as suddenly, he'd found himself having to work at being Adam Pierson. As if conjured by his name, the parts of himself he'd tucked away for survival's sake surged to the forefront, remaking him. He reveled in the Highlander's company not just for its own sake, but because it allowed him to drop his grad-student act and be Methos.
The familiarity of the buildings around him intruded on his thoughts, and Methos stopped, looking around to place himself.
A laugh escaped him as he read the sign across the street.
Shaking his head, giving in, Methos jogged across the street and took the stairs that led back to the loft.
His knock went unanswered, so he let himself in. It was a constant source of amusement that, in five thousand years of progress, no one had yet managed to invent a decent door lock. He found the loft empty, but otherwise exactly as he'd left it -- a state which, sadly, included the smell of burnt eggs and bacon drifting on the air.
"Amanda must have been impatient for details," he muttered out loud, divesting himself of his trench coat and starting on the dishes. The sheer domesticity of it was appalling, but so then was the smell.
A flash of Presence warned him of company moments before the elevator's motor groaned into life; Methos checked to make sure his sword was in grabbing range, but didn't take it up. It wasn't beyond the bounds of imagination that someone with a grudge could step out of the elevator, but it did fall into the category of 'highly unlikely'. After the events of the past few days, he didn't want to point a blade at anybody, let alone a friend.
It proved unnecessary. The new arrival was not going to win any popularity contests, but neither did Methos any pressing need to kill him.
"Hi, Richie," he said, drying his hands with a soft dish towel. "Mac's not here."
"I can see that," Ryan said. "You didn't...ah...?" Richie trailed off, and Methos grinned.
"Kill him? No. Other way around, actually. My chest still hurts." When Richie scowled, Methos couldn't help but laugh. Almost as much fun as teasing Mac.
"You're certainly in a good mood," Richie said, pulling a bottle of water from the refrigerator. "Does that mean Mac's in a good mood, too?"
Methos raised his eyebrows, considering. "He seemed to be when I left earlier."
"Can't blame him for that."
Methos laughed -- surprised, delighted by the joke. As far as he could recall, in the year he'd known Ryan, the only civil words the young man had spoken to him had been 'nice to meet you'. He wondered to what he owed the honor of Ryan's good humor, but wasn't inclined to push it.
"So, d'you want me to tell him you dropped by," Methos said, "or...?"
"I'll stick around, I think."
Methos smiled at that. "I'm washing the silver, Ryan, not stealing it," he said dryly.
This time it was Richie who laughed. A cautious truce.
"If you're going to be around for a bit...?" Methos said casually when the last of the dishes had been shelved.
Richie's eyes shifted from the magazine he'd been leafing through. "Yeah?"
Can't hurt. Might even help. "I need to get cleaned up. A friend with a sword in the living room means I don't have to bring mine into the shower."
"How do you know ~I~ won't try for you?"
Methos smiled. "There's too much of MacLeod in you for that."
"You think so?"
Richie went pink around the ears. "Mac has a lot of rules," he said. "Not all of them make a lot of sense to me."
"That's not an exclusive club."
"I just feel like they should." Richie shrugged. "I get it, up here --" he waved at his head. "--but in my gut?""You weren't born to them," Methos said. "And besides, who's to say Mac's rules are the right ones?"
"He's the most honorable man I know," Richie said quickly, defensive.
Methos waved the comment aside. "Yeah. But surely you've noticed that honor isn't always a convenient thing to have, especially MacLeod's particular brand. Sometimes it puts you in danger you might do better to avoid."
"So you think we shouldn't have any rules? Just play the Game and do whatever it takes to win?" Richie shook his head. "Doesn't seem right."
"That's not precisely what I said. MacLeod and I differ on this. I believe honor can be satisfied without taking unnecessary risks. Mac, on the other hand, believes that when the two conflict, honor is always the proper choice." Methos sighed. All he'd wanted was to take a shower, and maybe let the kid feel a bit protective, like an equal. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
"And when the two conflict, what do you choose?"
"It's not that simple. The term is situational ethics. Different situations require different reactions. You choose your battles, Ryan. You don't let them choose you."
"You'd run from a fight, then, if you didn't think it was an important fight?"
"Of course I would. And so will you, if you're smart. Because though today's fight may not be important, tomorrow's might. And if you fight and lose the one that's not vital, who will be there to fight the one that is?"
Richie was quiet for a moment, digesting that. When he spoke, his tone was thoughtful. "Does Mac know about that theory?"
Methos laughed. "Oh, he knows about it. He just doesn't believe in it. Your teacher believes that all the fights are important fights. Or rather, he always believes that today's fight is the most important fight."
"And you don't."
"No. I don't."
"So, you're saying that some of Mac's rules may be kind of subjective. Highlander rules, not Immortal rules?"
"Ryan, let me list them for you. One: No taking heads on holy ground. Two: There can be only one. Three: If you lose your head, it's over. The other things Mac has taught you are his rules, his beliefs. That's what a mentor does. You choose to stay with MacLeod because on some level, his beliefs appeal to you. He chose you as a student because he believes you can live up to his standards. For what it's worth, I believe you can, too. I just feel better knowing that you know the difference between rules and convictions."
"What about how you can't interfere with a challenge?"
Methos shook his head. "Tradition. Sacred tradition, but that doesn't make it a rule. I interfered with a challenge a month or so back. Threw firebombs at them until they broke it off, and nothing dire has come of it."
"What about one on one combat only?"
"But if you don't follow the traditions..."
"...then your fellow Immortals may decide you're too much of a loose cannon, and hunt you down. It's a good idea to follow the traditions as well as the rules, Ryan, but remember: No tradition is worth losing your head over."
Richie was shaking his head. "I have to think about all this."
"Yeah, you do. There are a lot of things to consider when you go into a fight. It's not just about you and the person you're facing. It's about the people you care about, the people he cares about. It's about the people who care about you." Methos paused, wondering how far to take it. "What d'you suppose your death might do to Mac?"
"I guess it would mess him up pretty bad."
"More than 'pretty bad', I think. So there you have a choice: Is what you're fighting for worth the possibility of causing Mac that kind of pain if you should lose?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Most people don't. Most people don't consider their own personal value when they fight. You have to realize, Ryan, that there is a great deal of good you can do in the world. You don't sacrifice that potential for just any fight. Sometimes you serve the world better by living for what you believe in rather than dying for it."
Richie looked at him, his expression serious. "There's more to you than I thought."
Methos rolled his eyes. "Gee, thanks, kid."
"I definitely have to think about this. Does Mac know you're trying to corrupt me?" He was smiling, but the question was genuine.
"I'm not trying to corrupt you, Ryan," Methos said. "Nor is this the wisdom of the ages you're getting here. It's just good sense."
"That doesn't answer my question," Richie said, grinning.
Methos smiled slyly. "No. He doesn't. Why don't we just keep it between us...?"
"Sure. Unless the situation changes..."
Methos laughed, and headed toward the shower. "You're learning, Ryan. You just may keep your head for a while after all."
"I have to know, Joseph."
Joe wondered how long Mac had fought the urge to call him, out of respect for the tentative steps back to friendship they'd just taken. When he'd heard Mac's voice on the line earlier, he'd smiled in a welcome his friend couldn't see. He'd looked forward to hearing a full report on the events after his departure the night before.
They met at a coffeehouse at ten, Joe grumbling half-heartedly at the general frilliness of the place and the worthlessness of designer coffee. The table they'd found was set off from the others by a few large plastic plants. Joe was pleased to find the cafe nearly empty, even though the bitterness of the coffee was an decent explanation for the lack of business.
He shook his head. Crazy, to think Mac had called just to talk to a friend. This was a business meeting, like dozens before. On further thought, Joe wondered why he'd expected it to be different. Gratitude hadn't improved MacLeod in the past; there was no reason to expect it do so now.
Joe pushed those thoughts out of his mind. The question was important and deserved an answer. Leaning close over the table, he spoke in a low voice in spite of their relative isolation. "Mac, if I knew, I'd tell you. You know I would. But Cassandra's Watcher hasn't reported in. Without that report, we don't know where she could be."
"What about plane tickets, hotel reservations? Come on, Joe, you guys have to have some way of keeping track of your people!" Frustration made Mac's voice harsh, and he closed his eyes, obviously struggling for control. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried. I didn't get any sleep last night."
"I know you're worried. What exactly did the caller say?"
"It didn't make a lot of sense," Mac said. "It was a woman, an older woman, and all she said was, 'Be careful, Cassandra Hunts.' Then the line went dead."
"Went dead? She didn't just hang up?"
"No. There was a blast of static, then a dial tone."
"Could have been a cell phone," Joe speculated. "A car phone, maybe, cut off by a tunnel?"
Mac shook his head impatiently. "It wasn't like that, Joe. The lady sounded scared."
"You think something happened to her."
"I think maybe Cassandra happened to her, Joe. And I think..."
Joe's eyes narrowed at the look of thinly veiled panic in the Immortal's eyes. "What is it, MacLeod?"
"Joe, I think she may have been one of yours. A Watcher."
Joe was shaking his head. "No. No, Mac." There was a roughness in his voice that had nothing to do with the early hour.
"Yes, Joe. Look, I know you've had people trailing me around Seacouver for a while. I know what they look like. One of them was an older woman, about forty. She comes on with the morning shift, doesn't she? She sits in a green Geo Prizm just down the street from the Dojo and waits for me to come out. She wasn't there this morning."
Joe's heart froze in his chest. "Marta. You're sure she wasn't there? Maybe in a different car?"
"I took the same route to the bagel shop that I do every morning. She follows me in, buys a chocolate chip bagel with cream cheese, a coffee, and a paper. Every morning for the past month, Joe, and today she didn't come."
"Maybe she knew you'd picked her out. Knew her cover was blown."
"She's known that for the past two weeks. The first time I picked up on it, I looked her dead in the eye, and she blushed. She smiled at me, Joe, it was actually kind of sweet. I nodded to her, and went on my way. If that didn't make her back off, I don't know what would have."
"This isn't happening."
"I take it she was a friend?" Mac asked kindly.
Joe's eyes darkened. "Is a friend," he said sharply. He let out a long breath, and let his gaze fall away from the Immortal's. "Sorry. Forget it."
Mac reached across the table and laid a hand on Joe's arm. "Find her for me, Joe. Find Cassandra, and if she's hurt Marta--"
"Don't pretend this is about Marta." Joe yanked his arm away. "You and I both know why you need to find Cassandra, and it has nothing to do with my world."
"Your world, Joe? Last time I checked it was our world. Or maybe I just imagined you saving the life of an Immortal last night?"
"Forgive me, MacLeod, if I'm a little bitter at the thought of losing yet another Watcher to yet another Immortal."
Mac's expression hardened. "I think maybe this is a good time to change the subject."
"Yeah, how's the weather in your part of town?"
"Damn it, Dawson!" The exclamation exploded into the stillness of the room, drawing curious glances from the employees behind the counter. Mac lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. "Whatever problems there are between the Watchers and the Immortals, it doesn't have to be like this for us. You're Joe Dawson. I'm Duncan MacLeod. Our friendship is about who we are, not what we are."
Joe shook his head. "You don't get it, do you, Mac? Can you honestly say we'd be sitting here right now if I were just the owner of your favorite bar?"
"If this is the way you feel, Joe, why did you come to my place last night? Why did you help me?"
Suddenly weary, suddenly impatient, Joe couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. "I didn't."
Confusion narrowed Mac's eyes. "You were there for me last night, when I needed you..."
"I wasn't there for you." Joe glared at MacLeod, honing his words to cut deep. If they found their mark, it was only justice. "I was there for Adam."
It felt good to be standing in the heat and steam, water pounding over him relentlessly, cascading down his body. Of all the new and sybaritic pleasures of the modern world, Methos often thought that this was the most perfect. Warmth suffused his skin and the muscles beneath, relieving the tension, easing and refreshing him. The moisture in the air was carried into his lungs, displacing oxygen, making him light-headed. Cheapest high in the world. And when it's over, you smell good. He braced his hands on either side of the shower, feeling the cool stone pressing into his palms, and smiled up into the spray from overhead. The water ran over his face, pooling in his eyes, trickling into his mouth, sweet.
Sweet, and cooling.
He pushed away, running hands over his wet hair to rinse away the last of the shampoo and then fumbling in the rapidly chilling fall of water for the shower release. One wrong, blind guess and ice was falling over him; a muffled curse, another swipe, and it was gone, pouring from the bath spout rather than the showerhead.
He slid the door open and reached for a towel; the flash of Presence hit him as he rubbed his hair dry. Methos froze, poised for movement, and listened. After a moment, the rise and fall of voices, calm and low, reassured him.
Moments later, a knock sounded loud and sharp against the door. He shook his head, sighing. Manners are not what they used to be. "I'll be out in a minute," he called, tugging on the clothes he'd scavenged from his apartment.
The knock sounded again, and he yanked the door open. "What?" he demanded.
"Pizza's here," MacLeod said calmly. Then, with a smile sweetly offensive: "Your hair's sticking up."
"Thank you," Methos snapped, turning to peer into the mirror and slicking a hand over his scalp. "If I hadn't been interrupted, I would've stayed in here until I was more presentable. And less naked," he added, grabbing the dark green pullover he'd hung on the back of the door and yanking it over his head. He felt absurdly self-conscious under Mac's gaze, a realization that only fueled his irritation.
MacLeod was trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile, no doubt at the idea of a five thousand year old man who was still capable of modesty. "Did you use all the hot water?"
"Yes," Methos said, his tone as smug as his grin and faintly sadistic. "I believe I did."
MacLeod was unruffled. "It'll heat again. Are you hungry?"
"Good. We'll eat as soon as you go out and get the beer."
"Me?" Methos pretended shock. "I just had a shower! I'm not going out again. And besides, I'm broke. That last flight from Paris maxed out Adam Pierson's only credit card."
"Fine," Mac said. "We can drink milk, I suppose. Or I could make some tea."
"Why don't you go out and get the beer?"
"Me?" Mac smiled widely. "I haven't had a shower. I can't go out like this."
Ryan's voice drifted over from the kitchen. "Are you guys going to hang out in the bathroom all night, or are we actually going to eat at some point? Like, preferably before I starve to death."
"Yeah, I can see you're in real danger, Ryan," Methos muttered. "What'd you feed him when he was growing up, anyway? Toxic waste?"
"Everything. We didn't have a lot of choice. Tessa and I just stocked the refrigerator daily and locked our door at night."
"I heard that, Mac," Ryan said, laughing.
Methos watched the two of them exchange a fond look filled with time and memory. He'd never known Tessa, but he wished he had; she'd touched MacLeod's life in a way he'd have liked to have understood better. He knew the story, of course: Richie's abortive burglary attempt, Connor MacLeod's intervention, Richie's subsequent "adoption" by Mac and his lover. Together, the three of them had made something with which Methos had very little experience. They'd made a family.
For a timeless moment, he let his mind slide back, away from the present. There had been many loves in his past, faces that appeared in his dreams with no names and names that flitted through his mind with no images attached. Alexa burned brightest, because she was the last. Mortals, all of them, ignorant of his true nature, accepting him for the lies he told, offering him whatever comfort he could find in their arms and hearts.
Tessa had known MacLeod for who and what he was, and Methos thought perhaps it was a blessing that she had been taken from him so quickly. Better that, surely, than the pain of watching her die slowly of age or infirmity, weakening while Mac remained young and strong. A glimpse of that pain had been granted Methos as he kept vigil at Alexa's bedside, watching her disappear in slow stages while he cursed himself for the eternal health he couldn't share with her.
Never again. It hurt too much, cut too deeply. He wondered if he'd ever be able to think of her without pain, as Ryan and MacLeod were thinking of Tessa now.
It passes, he reminded himself. Nothing lasts forever, not even pain.
A gentle hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present.
"You looked your age for a few seconds there," Mac said, his voice low.
"I felt it for a few seconds there." Methos took a deep breath and released it slowly. "A lot of memories. It's easy to get lost."
"I can't begin to imagine it. Five thousand years. It's hard enough for me to stay in the present, and I only have four hundred to worry about."
"I try not to think about anything that happened before the fifteenth century," Methos said, trying for a serious tone. "Nobody knew how to make decent beer until then. A shame, really; the Middle Ages would have been easier to face if I hadn't spent so much of them sober."
MacLeod's eyebrows climbed, and he lauhged softly. "Change of subject noted and logged. No more probing about your past."
"Anything before the Beatles is old news, anyway, Mac." Methos grinned, looking over at Ryan. "Did I ever tell you I knew John Lennon...?"
In the end, Ryan had gone after the beer, bringing back enough to last them well into the evening. The pizza had long since vanished, along with two of the six-packs, and the three Immortals had settled into a companionable debate. Methos kept things light, for Mac's sake. There was something troubling him; whatever it was would come out in good time, when MacLeod was ready to talk about it. For now, it seemed wiser to relax into the warmth of good company and hope, when the time came, it would be something he could help with.
"You did not give John Lennon the lyrics to 'Imagine'," Ryan said definitively.
"I'm telling you, kid, that was me. Listen, I'll play it again--"
"NO!" Mac and Ryan's voices rang out together, and Mac deftly disarmed Methos, putting the guitar behind him and out of reach. Methos surrendered the instrument readily enough in exchange for another beer. "Five times is plenty, thank you," Mac said, laughing.
"The fact that you can play it doesn't mean that you wrote it," Ryan added.
"Just listen to the words, 'Imagine all the people living life in peace...' I was in my pacifistic stage."
"Right. I bet you were," Mac said.
"You're just a couple of cynics, that's what you two are. No appreciation for great art."
"I hate to break this to you, after five thousand years and all," Ryan said, "but your singing voice and the term 'great art' do not belong in the same conversation. No one has mentioned that to you before?"
"And lived? No." Methos maintained an expression of deadly earnest until Ryan began to look concerned, and then let loose the grin he'd been fighting to keep hidden.
"On that note," Ryan said, "I'm out of here. I'm meeting someone."
"Someone of the feminine persuasion?" Mac asked, smiling.
"Very much so. Her name's Theresa. I told her I'd meet her for the last set at Joe's. Ya gotta love the blues," he added, his expression bewildered. "That kind of music just does something to women."
"Spare us the details, if you will, Ryan. I'm not sure my heart could take the strain."
With a casual wave, Richie grabbed his motorcycle helmet and gave the elevator a miss, using the door to the steps outside for speed.
Alone in the loft, the two men fell into a companionable silence. Methos sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch with his knees drawn up to his chest, while Mac took a similar pose on the opposite side of the coffee table. It was early yet, only a little after nine, but neither of them had slept more than a few hours since the morning before. Methos felt a warm haziness stealing over him, a combination of effects from alcohol and sleeplessness. He tilted his head back, felt the muscles in his throat stretching gently, and smiled. It was a measure of trust even he hadn't known he'd extended, this willingness to relax into such a vulnerable pose.
"Richie mentioned the two of you had a little chat earlier," Mac said, breaking the silence.
Methos laughed softly. "Did he cut class on the day you taught discretion, Mac?"
"The better part of valor?"
"The better part of survival."
Mac nodded; it seemed to be the answer he'd expected. "I think he just needed to touch base with me on the high points of your philosophy. You made quite an impression on him."
"Hopefully a better one than the first time we met."
"I think he was flattered that you wanted to talk to him at all, O Wise One."
Methos winced. "Not funny."
"Not meant to be," Mac said, but he was smiling. After a moment, Methos let his own features relax.
"He's a good kid. He's got potential. And he believes that every word that passes your lips is inspired from on high. You do know that, don't you? Ryan worships the ground you walk on."
"Maybe that's not such a bad thing, now that I have competition. You know, Methos...it's not so much that I disagree with your ideas..."
"...it's just that you think I'm wrong and you're right." Methos grinned, daring him to deny it.
"Something like that."
Silence again, for a few moments, as Methos waited for Mac to continue. When no further comments were forthcoming, Methos smiled. "We're not really talking about Ryan here, are we? Something's been eating at you all night. Are we going to talk about it?"
MacLeod met his eyes, shaking his head. "I don't even know where to start. It's been a rough day."
"Start at the beginning. Where did you go this morning, after I left?"
"To sleep--for a few hours, anyway. Thanks for taking care of the dishes."
"Is this how we're going to play it? I can do secretive and evasive, Mac, but I didn't think that was how you wanted it."
'No," Mac said, sarcasm dripping from his voce, "that's not how we're going to play it." He sighed heavily; Methos could see the point of decision approach, come to crisis, then pass. "Cassandra may be in town."
The words fell into him like stones into a still pool, the ripples spreading out, changing everything. Suddenly, the room seemed cold.
Heart frozen in his chest, Methos remembered.
She stood over him, the axe poised for a killing blow, and he wanted it. Silas' body lay mere feet from him, head cleanly severed, life gone. His brother. A thousand years of brotherhood.
And then Silas was in his head, his heart, crying out against his betrayal, his hurt and confusion howling down the corridors of Methos' mind, ravaging him. The pain of it, the sheer depth of it, threatened to overwhelm him.
And then there were the others. Countless, countless others. Three millennia of challenges offered, accepted, won. He'd loved Silas, had seen his simple nature as innocence; a blooded innocence, to be sure, guided by Kronos and Caspian and yes, even himself to kill again and again, but always just for his brothers, for the belonging, for the Horsemen. The best of them, he'd often thought, a man whose life could so easily have been redirected toward good...
Such a fool.
The wrongness, the twisted sickness of Silas, poured over him, through him. Challenges offered for sport, for the pleasure of the kill, pain dealt for the love of suffering... Tauntings, countless cruelties, hatreds burned deep... he shuddered under the onslaught, he shattered as the magnitude of his misjudgment screamed into his soul.
In the darkness of ancient nights, he'd had often held onto the illusion of Silas' innocence like a lifeline, a surety of light in the vast darkness of the Horsemen's world. An amulet of decency against the evil of Kronos and Caspian and yes, again, even his own evil. Someone who killed, but who might not have, had the circumstances been different.
And it was a lie, all of it. A lie he'd told himself. And now Cassandra stood over him with his brother's blade, an axe honed sharp, and he couldn't move to stop her. Didn't want to stop her, didn't care if she struck him down.
Then the voice came out of the howling dark, and pleaded for his life. Voices flowed over him, deciding his fate as he sobbed out his bitterness, his remorse. Footsteps, ringing against metal stairs, retreated behind and above; others approached.
Hands gripped his shoulders, strong and firm, turning him. Lifting him. He was insensate, stumbling wherever he was led.
Incoherent with grief, numbed and remade by the pain of Silas' Quickening, he leaned heavily into the support of the man who had saved him from Cassandra, feeling neither gratitude nor relief.
For the first time in five thousand years, he was ready to die.
The Horsemen were gone. All of them dead, even he was dead, slain by the knowledge of his own evil, remade into a man he was still learning to be after two thousand years. Cassandra, though, remained. Creating herself in the image of what Methos had been. Becoming Death, as he had once been. The circle closing.
He'd known she would come for him. Dreading it had become a hobby, and now the waiting was over.
He wondered if he would let her kill him. It would, he supposed, be the just thing to do. The honorable thing. He'd killed her many times, temporarily, and he owed her for those deaths. Even MacLeod might see it that way.
Methos broke away from that hurtful thought. Mac would be torn again, conflicted again, and he would have to choose -- again.
Unless Methos could find Cassandra first, and choose for him.
Duncan remained silent, knowing that the memories had to be allowed to run their course. Occupational hazard, Methos would have said, these occasional unwilling forays into the depths of time.
Keeping Cassandra from killing Methos had been a near thing, and there'd been a few moments when he'd been sure Methos didn't thank him for it.
Methos. Cassandra. It was beyond unfair that this should be happening again, but perhaps poetic justice that he should find himself in the middle of it when it did. The confrontation had been coming since that day in the Dojo, when Cassandra had come down in the elevator and gone after Methos with three millennia of hatred in her eyes. He'd broken the rules, then, without even thinking about it. He'd interfered, instinct driving him to protect his friend, who hadn't even drawn a sword. Do something, MacLeod! Methos had said, counting on Duncan's connection with Cassandra to somehow resolve the situation bloodlessly. And so he'd done something, grabbing Cassandra, telling Methos to go, praying they could sort it all out when the female Immortal returned to her senses. Those had been his last moments of certainty about Methos for a long time.
When Cassandra had fled the submarine base the day of the double Quickening, he'd half-carried Methos back to the Hotel de Seze and paid for another room, sitting beside him for hours until the worst of the storm passed. When Methos finally slipped into a restless sleep, Duncan had left without a word.
In the room he'd shared with Cassandra, Duncan had found her things gone and a note on his pillow. Three words, in her flowing, almost calligraphic script.
You owe me.
And maybe he did. But he didn't owe her Methos, and she would not have him.
"It's going to be fine." Duncan nodded, trying to convince Methos, trying to convince himself.
"Of course it is," Methos said dryly.
"I can talk to her. If she's even here. That's not certain. I got a call, a warning, but no one's actually seen her."
"And the caller was who, a concerned citizen? A prank? Someone calling numbers at random, on the off chance the name 'Cassandra' would strike fear into the hearts of strangers?"
"I think it was a Watcher."
"Bloody friendly of him, don't you think?"
"Her, and yes, I think it was. Especially since I'm not all that certain she's still alive. If it's who Joe thinks it is--"
Methos started, frowning. "Joe? What's--you've already been to Joe? When were you planning to bring me into this, Mac? Saving it for Christmas?"
"You know now."
"Yeah," Methos said in obvious disgust. "Thanks."
When Duncan didn't respond, Methos rolled his eyes. "Okay, so what did Joe find out?"
"I don't know. He'll call, though. For your sake, if nothing else."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Duncan sighed, closing his eyes. "It means that Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod is no longer of any interest to Joe Dawson. Lucky for us, you still are."
"Said something unpleasant, did he?"
"You could say that."
Methos eyed Duncan carefully. "You just went to him for information, didn't you. No 'Hi, how are you, nice day'.... Mac, when are you going to learn?"
"I was worried. I reacted without thinking."
"You do that a lot with Joe."
"I don't need you to tell me that."
Methos shrugged, spreading his arms expansively. "You need somebody to, and I'm the only one here. So, he cut you loose, then? What did he say?"
"Just that last night wasn't for me. That he didn't come here to help me. It was all for his good friend Adam Pierson."
"Jealousy, Mac? Come on."
"I'm not jealous. It just hurt."
"It was probably supposed to."
"What do you mean?"
"You hurt him...he hurts you. It's a common reaction, Mac, I can't believe you've never seen it. Why wouldn't he want to hit back?"
"Joe Dawson is not the kind of man who hurts people for the sake of hurting them."
"Yeah, well, it doesn't appear that turning the other cheek cuts any ice with you, does it?"
Duncan looked at Methos. That look was there, that irritating calm, that refusal to give any quarter. "Sometimes you're not very good company, you know that?"
"It's been mentioned to me," Methos said dryly, "on occasion."
"You do love to brood, don't you?"
The last remains of the meal had been cleared away, the last of the beer stored in the fridge with the two slices of pizza Ryan had somehow missed before he left. The clean-up had proceeded quietly, each of the men locked in contemplative silence as they worked.
Now, MacLeod had retired to the couch, a beer in one hand, his eyes open but unseeing.
It was Methos' considered opinion that, even for a Scot, MacLeod had raised brooding to an art form.
He stacked the last of the dinner plates onto a high shelf and dried his hands with the same towel he'd used that afternoon. Five thousand years old, and I'm reduced to doing dishes for an oversensitive brat.
Beyond a dark look, MacLeod ignored him. Methos shrugged inwardly, and reached for his coat. It was getting late, and it wasn't difficult to choose rest over needling Mac out of his mood.
When he lifted the elevator guard, MacLeod looked around, then stood up. "Where are you going?"
"Home. I have a few projects that could use some attention, and a little more sleep wouldn't do me any harm."
"Don't what? Don't sleep? I don't think I have that option, Mac, at least not over the long term." Methos' eyes narrowed. "What's with you?"
"You're tired, and you're not entirely sober. I just think it would be a good idea if you stayed here tonight. I'll make up the couch."
Understanding dawned. "You don't want me walking home alone," Methos said, grinning.
Mac avoided his eyes. "You're not in your best condition. If she's out there, you could end up in trouble."
"Trouble and I have an acquaintance of long standing, MacLeod," Methos said. He leaned against the wall, hands stuffed deep into his pockets. "And four beers, even good ones, don't make much of a dent in my sobriety."
"Look, I have to sleep, too. And I'm not going to be able to do that if you're out there on the streets with an old enemy hunting you. So as a personal favor to me...?"
Methos chuckled. "I'm five thousand years old. You really feel the need to play mother hen?"
"If you acted your age, maybe I wouldn't," MacLeod said defensively.
"If I acted my age, I'd bore you to tears, and myself as well." Methos laughed, but he shoved away from the wall and hung his coat back on the hook. "One condition."
"I get the bed."
"I get the bed, or no deal. I have a perfectly functional bed at my place, you know. I could just as easily use that one."
The phone put a stop to the argument with a shrill ring. Mac answered it; his expression darkening as he listened.
"I said I'd handle it," he said sharply to the caller. "No. Then tell Adam, he's part of 'your world', isn't he? No, he's not at home. He's here." Scowling, MacLeod extended the receiver to Methos. "It's for you," he snapped. "I'm going downstairs."
Methos took the phone, frowning in concern as MacLeod took the elevator down to the Dojo. "Pierson," he said.
"Adam, it's Joe."
"Well, that explains a lot."
"Nothing, Joe. Just talking to myself. What's up?"
"MacLeod asked me for some information on Cassandra."
"And you have something?" he said, his voice deliberately casual. One of the things that had kept him alive so long was the ability to learn from the mistakes of others; he wasn't going to give Joe any excuse to pull back when the information was so vital.
"Something, yeah. I thought MacLeod might want to know that Marta, one of the Watchers I've had on him, is fine. He seemed concerned earlier."
"Mac? Concerned about a Watcher?" Methos smiled, but kept it out of his voice. "He seem that type to you?"
A long silence answered him. "He told you about our conversation," Joe said finally.
"We've talked about a lot of things in the past twenty-four hours."
"I suppose you being there means that part worked out okay? You two are speaking again?"
"Yes. Ryan, too, oddly enough; the three of us killed several pizzas and two six packs this evening." Part of Methos was screaming at him to find out where Cassandra was, but another part counseled patience. Whatever Joe had to say would come out more coherently and completely once he'd gotten the problem with MacLeod off his chest.
"Good. I know it was important to you."
Methos sighed loudly. "Yeah, that was a really nice thing you did for me last night. I know how hard it must have been for you, knowing you were helping Mac, too. Quite a sacrifice."
"I just wanted to express my gratitude, Joe."
Methos smiled. "It's really none of my business. You and Mac, I mean. Besides, I'm sure he'll be fine in the morning."
The silence stretched out, the line between the two men almost humming with it. "What do you mean, in the morning? What's wrong with him now?"
"He was just a little upset when he left."
Joe's voice took on a worried note. "Where did he go, Adam?"
"I didn't get a chance to ask; he left pretty quickly." Not precisely a lie....
"Adam, you have to find him. You -- both of you -- are in danger."
"That's old news, my friend."
"Listen. Mac was right, it was Marta who called him. Cassandra had her, Adam."
Methos was suddenly less amused. "If that's so, how is it that the woman isn't dead?"
"It wasn't for lack of trying. Marta has several broken ribs, and a fairly serious concussion. She's in the hospital. Apparently Cassandra took her from right outside the Dojo early this morning."
"For what purp--" Methos stopped, interrupted and answered his own question. "To find out what Mac's been up to."
"Yes. She told Cassandra everything, Adam. Everything she knew, and she knew a lot."
"That a young Immortal fitting your description, one Adam Pierson, was rescued by MacLeod and myself and brought back to Mac's loft last night, and hadn't left by the time Cassandra got there."
Methos muttered a curse. "Is this going to be a problem for you, Joe?"
"No, I don't think so. The people I had Watching you and Mac for me are my people."
"What about Cassandra's Watcher?"
"We got lucky with him. He's fine, too, but he's blown. We no longer have a Watcher on her, Adam. It's not safe."
Another blasphemy, this time in a language lost to the world for three thousand years. "Tell me about Marta."
"She was roughed up pretty badly. Cassandra grabbed her just at dawn, took her to the place she's been staying. She beat Marta to find out about Mac, and then left her in a locked room, alone."
"How'd she get to a phone?"
Joe chuckled. "Cassandra doesn't keep up with modern technology. Marta had a flip phone in her pocket; when Cassandra had gone, she used it. Tried to reach me, but couldn't. So, she called MacLeod. Warned him."
"And then Cassandra came back."
"Yes. Smashed the phone, then smashed Marta as best she could. When she left the next time, Rick -- Cassandra's Watcher -- went in and pulled Marta out."
"That was a hell of a risk. We could've ended up with two dead Watchers."
"We take care of our own, Adam. You know that."
Methos sighed. "Yeah. I know that. Look, Joe, I want you to set up a meeting for me with Marta. Tomorrow, early. All right?"
"I'm with her now. Is there something specific you need to ask?"
"Yes, but I have to do it in person. I won't really know what questions to ask until I see her."
"You have a theory."
"I'll tell you about it in the morning, Joseph," Methos said firmly. "If I'm right, though, and I often am, you can relax a bit. Cassandra won't be coming back for Marta."
Methos watched, leaning against the wall of the Dojo, as MacLeod moved through the sequences of his workout. Beautiful. The swordsmanship was intricate, precise, flowing. Art. He smiled, remembering another workout, another time.
And he couldn't resist. He pushed away from the wall and moved closer, carefully. "MacLeod-san," he said, trying not to grin. "That katana is a lovely piece of art."
Mac pulled out of his stance, smiling at his audience of one, and waited.
"May I?" Methos continued. "I washed my hands this morning."
Without hesitation, Mac handed over the katana, hilt first. "Quite a blade," he said, amused.
Methos shook his head mockingly. "Still so quick to hand over your weapon, Highlander. I despair. "
The young Immortal gestured toward the center of the room. "Want to play?"
A smile quirked Methos' lips up at the corners. "I learned my lesson last time."
"You let me win last time," Mac observed.
"I let you win the fight," Methos conceded, grinning, "but the argument went to me."
Mac laughed, admitting it. "You taught me a lesson. Never give a five thousand year old man a sword unless you trust him."
"You did trust me then."
"And I trust you now -- but it's an informed trust."
Methos flipped the blade up into the air, and Mac caught it easily, returning it to the coat he'd brought down with him. "If you're done," Methos said, "Can we go back up?" The walls were a little too far away, the shadows too pronounced and numerous for his comfort.
MacLeod gave him a hard look. "Dawson said something you didn't like," he observed as they rode back up to the loft. "Want to share it?"
Quickly, Methos filled him in on the details of the conversation. MacLeod's face went pale behind its tan when he learned what had happened to his temporary Watcher.
"She's here, then." MacLeod said, stepping cautiously out of the elevator.
"Not at this moment, I should hope," Methos said, "but basically, yeah."
Mac turned to him, and Methos saw that the man was shaken. "I don't understand why she wouldn't just come to me."
"Mac... Why would she? You stopped her once. She's afraid you'll do it again."
"It doesn't make any sense, Methos. This isn't the way Cassandra works."
Methos watched as MacLeod busied himself, gathering blankets and a pillow for the couch. "So, would you?" he said quietly. The question had burned in him since MacLeod had first spoken her name.
"Would I what?"
"Stop her again."
MacLeod turned from the impromptu bed he was making and straightened. His dark eyes revealed confusion...and a little hurt.
"Methos... Did you listen to anything at all that I said last night?"
"It's a long way from deciding we can put up with each other to denying vengeance, a just vengeance, to a woman you've known for almost four hundred years."
"It's also a long way from reclaiming your best friend to letting a madwoman kill him," MacLeod answered, his voice cold. "You know, Methos, I don't think we covered all the right bases last night. Maybe when we finished with me trusting you, we should have moved on to you trusting me!"
Best friend. Methos turned, bracing both hands on the kitchen counter and trying very hard to breathe. How long has it been since anybody called me that? He liked the sound of it, but he certainly hadn't earned the title.
It was true; he didn't trust the Highlander. He didn't trust anyone. How could he? Mac had been hiding his Immortal nature for four hundred years; Methos had been hiding his for five thousand. Secrecy had become a part of him, distrust a shield, discretion his only watchword... He had to be that way, in order to survive.
His back to MacLeod, Methos spoke, trying to explain. "I have been alive for five millennia," he said, his voice low and heavy with the weight of time. "I have known, in that time, enough people to overpopulate a small third world nation. Have you any idea, any idea at all, how many times in my life I've been hurt by someone I thought was a friend?" He took another breath, fighting down panic. "I've been betrayed by more friends than you've ever had, MacLeod. You think I can just push all that away, pretend it never happened?"
"None of those people were me, Methos."
The older Immortal turned then, faced his friend. "You don't get it. Mac, there is nothing you can say to me that hasn't, at some point in my past, been a lie that I believed from someone I trusted."
"If you let that matter, Methos, you're a fool." Mac closed the distance between them, and lay gentle hands on his shoulders. Methos closed his eyes, shutting out the mingled concern and frustration in his friend's expression.
Silence. Methos waited.
"Open your eyes, Methos," Mac said softly. "We're not finished, and I'll not have you running out on me, not physically and not like this."
Jaw clenched with the tense effort to remain still, Methos complied.
"Good. Now listen. Trust isn't something you run out of. It isn't something you feel. It's something you do because of what you feel."
"It's not that easy, Highlander."
"It is. Whatever it is that ties us together is either strong enough for you to trust me or it isn't. That's a choice I've made. Now you have to make it. You don't get to stop halfway across the bridge, Methos. You have to finish crossing, or go back."
"You're asking me to put my life in your hands. I don't think I can do that."
MacLeod dropped his hands from Methos' shoulders and reached for his coat. Took the katana from it, and put it in Methos' hands.
The older Immortal's breath caught in his throat. He knew what was coming, and he wasn't ready for it.
Mac guided the blade up to his own throat, and held it there. Methos felt the weight of the sword in his hands like the weight of years. He made no move, held the hilt lightly, almost negligently, ready to drop it at any moment. He wanted to look away, shut out the insistence in the MacLeod's eyes, but he couldn't tear his gaze away.
"See how easy it is?" Mac said, the ghost of a smile playing about his lips. He let go of the blade, spreading his hands wide. "Look -- no hands."
Methos himself had done this, done it without thinking, when it seemed Kalas would win a year or more ago. He'd challenged Mac, then offered his head, holding a blade to his own neck the way the Highlander had just done. It hadn't been about trust then. It had been about making sure that, failing all else, his Quickening did not go to Kalas.
There was no greater trust an Immortal could give than this. MacLeod's offer demanded an answer, repayment in kind.
Easy, Mac had said. Sure. Easy if you loved your friend more than you loved your life. Easy if you were willing to die to prove it. Did he? Was he?
He knew MacLeod could not harm him. He knew it with every part of his heart and mind. It was written in the eyes, something Methos had rarely seen. Something running deeper, perhaps, than friendship could account for. He closed his eyes again, this time just so he could breathe, fighting the flush of adrenaline that accompanied that thought. It had no place here, in this moment.
Finally, he was able to meet MacLeod's open gaze again.
What risk is there, after all? he asked himself silently.
None, a voice murmured back. His own.
It was easy. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Methos lowered the sword, offered it. Brought the blade in close, just beneath his ear, never letting his eyes leave those of his friend. He tried to make the shared look convey his feelings: Fear. Hope. Trust. Certainty.
Mac held the pose for a long moment, standing still as marble, then nodded. He set aside the katana, and smiled. There was something like fierce joy in his dark eyes, and Methos was fairly certain it was reflected in his as well.
Joy. There was a scary thought. A large thought. Methos took refuge from its implications in small things...like a grin, quirking his lips up, easing the moment into something less intense. Something outside of the crucible that was burning away his defenses. "Mac?"
Relaxing, slowly. "I really, badly need a beer."
Mac's laughter rang loud in the stillness of the room, and Methos joined in, feeling the knotted muscles in his neck begin to untangle themselves.
Flowing beneath the laughter, shining words arranged themselves in Methos' mind, unexpected. He brought them forth wonderingly, amazed that they could be there, and be real.
Said them to himself quietly, testing them for truth.
I love this guy.
And then: May the gods have mercy...
Duncan listened to it falling, and wondered at the beauty of the sound. Yesterday's rain had seemed so much uglier, so dark and cold... This, though... This rain was like a curtain falling between his home and the world. Sealing him in comfort and safety.
Him, and Methos.
The distance between the couch and the bed was not so great that Duncan couldn't hear the soft breathing of his houseguest, or the rustle of sheets and blankets as he moved in his sleep. He felt a strong sense of satisfaction, knowing that Methos slept comfortably; the man had seemed so gaunt earlier, the skin beneath his eyes dark from lack of sleep.
It almost made him laugh, this protective instinct he was spending on a man who'd survived without him for five thousand years. Methos just looked so damned young... His first death had come when time had touched him but lightly; his face was unlined, his skin elastic and smooth, his body strong. Duncan's own first death had come to him when he was but a few years older than Methos' apparent age, but somehow, it seemed to make a difference. Even Richie, who stood in awe of Amanda and her mere one thousand years, seemed unable to think of Methos as any older than himself.
Methos. Adam Pierson. Duncan said the words in his mind, trying to sort the emotions attached to them. Very little in his life had prepared him for the kind of friendship he shared with the world's oldest living Immortal. Neither teacher nor student, father nor brother, Methos' presence in his life had become necessary in a way he couldn't define. It alternately amused and disturbed Duncan that it had taken him so long to see it.
The return of Kronos and the other Horsemen had pulled him away from that understanding, but couldn't block it for long. A part of him had raged against the violence and the killing Methos had done, but he had to admit that a deeper part had struck out at Methos not because of what he had done or who he had been, but because Kronos had threatened their friendship, and Methos had let him. The pain was equal parts jealousy and betrayal; in spite of all the things they'd shared and all the ways they'd come to understand one another, Methos hadn't trusted him enough to tell him about the Horsemen.
Now those wounds were finally beginning to heal, and though he had no basis for understanding and no way of explaining it even to himself, Duncan knew that his connection with Methos was both friendship and something deeper. Something that ran beneath the level of conscious decision. Instinctive. It seemed at times more a function of who they were rather than what either might feel; it had been incipient in them from the beginning. Contact only served to strengthen and deepen the tie into something that went beyond his appreciation for the man's complexity, beyond his joy in Methos' company.
A sound from behind broke into Duncan's thoughts, and he cleared his mind, listening. It came again... a whisper, low and harsh. Guttural. The words were barely audible, but he could tell from their cadence that they were of no language he had ever heard before.
The whisper stopped, cut off by a sharp inhalation, sounding like pain. Duncan rose from the couch and moved closer to the bed, unsure what to do.
Methos was in the grip of a dream, that much was obvious, and it didn't seem to be a pleasant one. In the myriad flashes of lightning illuminating the room in a slow, uneven strobe, Duncan could see that his friend's face was twisted into an expression built of equal parts panic and pain. The whispering began again, pulling him closer in hopes of understanding.
Nothing. The voice rose and fell in an unfamiliar pattern, syllables falling over one another until they were almost a chant. Duncan wanted to stop it, to somehow ease whatever night terror gripped Methos, but he was fairly certain he didn't want to get any closer. His knowledge of his friend's past and the proximity of his friend's sword combined in a telling argument against surprising the man.
Still, he couldn't bear the pain in Methos' voice, whatever it might be saying. Duncan moved to the foot of the bed, looking down on the man to whom he'd entrusted his life earlier in the evening, his heart near breaking at the anguish that twisted the sleeping man's features. Now that trust was being called upon, and to back away would be a small betrayal.
He didn't back away. He didn't think he could have if he'd wanted to.
Instead, he spoke softly, saying the older Immortal's name again and again, calling him forward, out of his dreams. It didn't take long. The whispers faded almost immediately, and seconds later Methos' eyes opened. There was no surprise in them; he hadn't expected there to be. He'd meant his voice as a safety line and a warning that he was near, and from the calm look in his friend's eyes, he'd been successful.
"Either you're getting smarter, or I'm getting scarier," Methos said quietly, waving a hand at the distance between them.
"Maybe both." Now that Methos was fully awake, Duncan did move closer, falling into a lotus position on the floor by the head of the bed.
"Thank you for waking me. You didn't have to," Methos said.
"You were having a nightmare," Duncan answered. A corner of his mouth quirked upward, half a smile. "It seemed like the thing to do."
Methos turned onto his side, propping his head up with one hand. "'To sleep, perchance to dream...'" he quoted softly. Then, in darker tones: "Hamlet had no idea."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"God, no. You'd put me away." Methos smiled a bit, reassuring.
Duncan nodded, letting it go, letting a comfortable silence fall between them. In the meager light from the window, brightened by occasional flashes of lightning, he could see the peace that had smoothed the nightmare's panic from Methos' expression. He felt safe observing, knowing his own features were hidden in silhouette.
"There was something I wanted to tell you," he said finally, his voice low. "When I heard you...I thought you might want to hear it."
It was hard to form the words; hard to imagine they would have the impact he hoped. The impact Methos said they could. Duncan felt suddenly unsure of himself, as if there were an unspoken question between them to which he might not like the answer. "Just this," he said quickly, rough-voiced, before he could change his mind. "That I do claim you as my friend. Nothing will change that. If it took being a Horseman to make you who you are, the price was not too high."
"Duncan MacLeod," Methos said, a note of wonder in the quiet words. "You woke me up to chase my demons away, didn't you?"
"You said it helped," he answered. "I didn't like the thought of you in pain."
"It's been a long time since that mattered to anyone."
"It matters a very great deal to me," Duncan said, surprised again at just how much it did; somehow, in the months since they had met, Methos' peace of mind had become essential to his own.
Met with only silence, he moved to rise; Methos' hand on his stopped him. The grip was strong, almost painful, but after a moment it eased. "Don't," Methos said.
Something in his voice changed the timbre of the moment. The single word was spoken as if through a struggle, though no trace of turmoil marred Methos' expression. Duncan turned his hand up, returning the grip, offering strength if it were needed.
Methos carefully, deliberately, laced his long, slim fingers into Duncan's, eyes still watchful, and leaned close. Duncan felt a tremor in the hand that held his, a trembling that telegraphed itself through their touch, along his own nerves, and found he was holding his breath. Methos waited, unmoving, a question in his eyes.
A question Duncan, to his own surprise, that he could answer.
If there had been a point of choice, a moment when he could have turned aside and taken some other road, it had passed unnoticed and would never come again. Here, now, there were no decisions to be made -- or if there were, they had been made and forgotten long ago. Duncan tilted his head, closing the distance between them, and he felt the touch of cool lips ghosting over his. The pressure was light, gentle...testing. Methos' mouth warmed against his, and Duncan's body responded, adrenaline flooding through him, bringing his senses alive. He parted his lips, and felt the silken feather-touch of Methos' tongue reaching for his. Desire rocked him, sudden and unexpected, what should have been mere comfort turning deep and electric.
He pulled back, shuddering with the force of his reaction and the rapid, pounding beat of his own heart. That Methos wanted him, he had suspected. There had been moments -- many moments, if he were honest with himself -- when he'd felt his own body responding to his friend's slender, athletic form and easy, casual grace. Even so, he had not been prepared for the intensity of this reaction. That a simple meeting of lips could tear such a desperate response from him was totally unexpected, and Duncan closed his eyes, swallowing hard and trying to recover his equilibrium.
It was not to be allowed, not yet. Long fingers stroked lightly over Duncan's cheek, drawing him closer, and again Methos' mouth found his, opened it. Teeth nipping gently at his lower lip drew a low moan and a need to be a part of the touch. He leaned into the kiss, softening it, making of it a trembling exploration that left both of them shaken when, after long, dark moments, it finally ended.
Seconds passed wordlessly, neither willing to break the silence and address the questions each found in the other's eyes. After a long moment, Methos pulled his pillow back underneath his head, and closed his eyes.
Duncan moved closer to the bed, folded his arms on the edge of the mattress, and rested his head on top of them.
Sleep was slow in coming; vigilant, Duncan stood quiet sentry against dark dreams.
Morning came gently, overcast skies softening the light. Methos' eyes remained closed as he awakened, his body still as his other senses reported safety. No movement stirred the air, no footsteps sounded against the floor; only the gentle whirring of the loft's heater and the easy rise and fall of breathing from the vicinity of the couch broke the silence.
When he was reasonably certain that all was well within the four walls of the loft, Methos risked opening his eyes. Feigning sleep had saved his life on more than one occasion, and over the course of fifty centuries it had become instinctive, a programmed response to unfamiliar surroundings.
Not that these could be said to be that unfamiliar. He felt absurdly, childishly safe in the confines of the loft, a sensation that irritated him whenever he gave it serious thought. He hadn't survived five thousand years by wandering about feeling ~safe.~
It wasn't until he turned onto his side, looking for a clock, that the images of his nightmare and what had happened afterward returned to him.
Minutes ticked by, marked by slow brightenings as the sun climbed above the cloud cover and shortened the room's shadows. Coherent thought was a fond memory as Methos' mind spun in a near panic, unable to comprehend just how much might have changed in those brief moments of lightning and darkness.
Mac had awakened at some point in the night and moved back to the couch. It bothered Methos a little that someone had been moving so near him, and he had slept through it. Still, he was glad of the distance between them. He wondered if it would be possible to get out of the loft without waking MacLeod or, failing that, to convince himr it had all been a bad dream. A quick catalogue of how often that had worked in other lifetimes turned up little that gave him any hope.
I know better than this. One of the constants of his existence was a consummate skill at complicating his own life. As if the Horsemen weren't enough. As if Cassandra weren't enough. If it were happening to someone else, I'd laugh for a week.
It wasn't looking very funny from the inside.
Work it through, Adam... The voice in his mind, counseling logic, belonged to Joe Dawson. No surprise there; in their work as Watchers, it was always Joe who could find his way through to the heart of any report while Methos himself was still cursing field agents for sloppy handwriting and bad grammar. Methos worked on intuition and insight, while Joe, basically, just worked. Those words, which Joe had said to him on countless midnight Library raids at Watcher Headquarters, had a calming effect, like a soothing tea. Work it through...
There is something supremely ironic, Methos thought with a wry grin, about the oldest living Immortal turning to a middle-aged Watcher for help with his sex life, even if only in his own mind. The thought buoyed his spirits somewhat; Watchers could be considered to be the world's oldest group of professional peeping toms, and Joe Dawson was one of the best Watchers he'd ever known. Wondering what his mortal friend would think of the events of the previous night was a pleasant distraction from wondering what MacLeod might think -- Or do, part of him muttered darkly -- about them. Joe would surely be amused. Certainly intrigued. And of course he'd--
Methos' eyes widened in an expression of equal parts horror and helpless amusement.
Dear Lord... Methos thought, dismayed. He'd probably want to put it in Mac's Chronicle.
Cursed with a vivid imagination, the thought of Mac's reaction to such a Record was more than Methos could stand. All the tension of the last few days had left him defenseless against the many emotions the Highlander could call forth from him; this was no exception. He couldn't contain it; he didn't even want to.
And so it was to a ring of laughter, free and unrestrained, that Duncan MacLeod finally awakened in the chill, bright hours of a Saturday morning.
Methos had very clearly lost his mind.
It was one thing to be a morning person. Never mind that he knew Methos was not. It was quite another thing to be given to fits of laughter at unholy hours when the only other person around was in a dead slumber.
Duncan clawed his way out of sleep, a feeling of disorientation sweeping through him. For a moment he couldn't remember if it was morning or evening; the twilight brought on by heavy overcast outside only confused the issue. Sitting up, he cast a dark glance over his shoulder at the world's oldest man, who appeared to be in the final stages of some kind of seizure.
"Must be nice to be so easily entertained," Duncan said, standing up to stretch. The couch was very nice, good leather, pleasant color...but it was also about a foot too short. His shoulders complained intensely as he reached up with both arms, filling his lungs with air. He held the breath for a moment, then let it out slowly, feeling the cobwebs clear from his mind as his heart rate increased.
The burst of laughter had been short-lived, but the recovery period seemed to be taking some time. Duncan ignored Methos and eased into a limbering routine, smiling and feeling surprisingly tolerant now that he was on his feet. He was as much a morning person as Methos wasn't, and by the time his long, slow stretches were completed, his initial irritation at being awakened had long since faded.
After only a few moments, he paused, the sensation of being watched interrupting his stretches. He lowered his arms and turned to find Methos sitting at the foot of the bed in a lotus position, eyes following his every movement.
"Good morning," Duncan said. "Interesting wake-up call you've got there. That happen every morning, or is it more of a travel alarm kind of thing?"
"Let's just say that a significant portion of my five thousand years has been devoted to the development of a truly sick sense of humor."
"How useful of you."
"Hey, you're the social conscience of this team. I'm --"
"--just a guy. Right." He leveled a frank gaze at his friend, wondering who was going to mention the topic they were both avoiding first. He rather suspected Methos' attempts at humor were nothing more than diversionary tactics, designed to give him a little space from which to bolt. Duncan himself wasn't certain what the previous night's moments of sharing and passion would mean to them, but he was long past the age of running from something simply because it was new and unexpected.
"What time is our meeting today?" he asked casually, setting out cups for coffee.
"If you think you're going without me, you obviously didn't get enough sleep."
"Ten, I believe," Methos answered. "Barring any tests or whatever they might spring on her." Duncan turned at the suddenly solemn tone in Methos' voice, studying the man. "She's lucky," Methos continued, eyes turned inward. "She'll be going home. So many don't, Mac."
"First time since..."
"...Since Alexa. Yes."
"I could go alone, you know. You can wait here."
"No, Mac, I have to be there." Methos' tone brooked no discussion. "I'll be fine with it."
Methos summoned up a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. "Ancient history," he said. "Don't worry about me."
Duncan poured a cup of steaming coffee and waited for Methos to cross the room and claim it. "I don't seem to have a choice," he said when their eyes met.
"Then get help," Methos said sharply, turning away from the look.
Duncan regarded his friend in silence. The green-gold eyes that refused to look at him were capable of so many shadings, so many variations of emotion; the past few days had been a crash course in the interpretation of Methos' many expressions. This one required no study, however: 'Defensive' was one he'd learned early on.
He set his mug down on the counter and moved a step closer, expecting to see Methos tense up and not being disappointed. Duncan reached up, and touched the other man's chin, turning Methos to face him again. Methos didn't resist, but the walls were still up in his eyes.
"We have to talk about this," Duncan said gently. "It's not just going to disappear."
"Don't patronize me, MacLeod. I'm thirteen times your age."
"And look at how much good it does you. Such maturity, Methos. I'm in awe." He smiled, tilting his head to catch Methos' eyes.
Methos sighed. "You are remarkably lacking in respect for your elders."
"I'm still waiting to find one who deserves it." Duncan smiled to soften the sting. "So...can we talk about what happened?"
Methos set his empty mug aside and folded his arms across his chest. "Is it really necessary, MacLeod?" The note of wistfulness in his voice was mirrored in his eyes.
Duncan let the question pass for a moment, simply looking at his friend. Methos leaned easily against the counter next to the fridge, feet braced against the floor in front of him, seemingly unaware of the picture he presented. Even tense, there was a fluid grace about him, as if even his smallest movements were under subconscious control. Though Methos was slimmer than Duncan, there was a sense of carefully leashed power in the lines of his long, lean form. He found that the physical responses he'd discovered the night before were still in working order; the need to touch, and be touched, was perhaps even stronger than it had been.
It wasn't the first time he'd found himself appreciating a masculine physique. It wasn't even the first time he'd acted on that appreciation, though the confused fumblings of youth could hardly be counted as experience. It was, however, the first time he'd ever felt an emotional connection to a man whose body stirred him. The first time he'd ever found himself wanting a man he knew and trusted...and cared for. Loved? Yes. A man he loved.
And it was that thought that sealed it. It was a step in a new direction, something only rarely contemplated...but it felt right. Love, respect, and passion were too rare a combination to be surrendered because the package had a "Y" where Mac usually preferred an "X". A hundred years ago, such a thought might have disturbed him; now, today, it brought only a flash of warm amusement. You're never too old to learn something new...
"You're beautiful," Duncan said finally, by way of answer.
"MacLeod!" The word came out strangled, Methos' voice strident with surprise. "Cut it out."
"I don't think I will," he replied, his eyes bright with incipient laughter. "Besides, you started it."
"I did no such thing."
"You've been watching me since I woke up," Duncan said smugly. "Did you think I didn't notice?"
"You were the only moving object in the room, Mac. Sue me."
The difference in their heights was exaggerated by Methos' habitual slouch, but not so much that the distance was too great. Carefully, watching the other man's eyes, Duncan raised his hands to Methos' shoulders, fingers sinking into the muscles at the base of his neck, kneading gently. A sharp gasp of pleasure rewarded him for his troubles.
"That's not fair, Mac..." Methos said, eyes drifting closed as Duncan's fingers found and soothed knots of tension.
"Not meant to be." Duncan eased his hands up, strong fingers pressing into the muscles that lined the bones of Methos' neck, and traced the strong lines of his jaw with the pads of his thumbs. A gentle pressure, tilting Methos' face upward. The hazel eyes had darkened, and Duncan could feel the racing of Methos' pulse beneath his hands.
"Are you ready to talk?" Duncan said softly, smiling. "The coffee is getting cold..."
Methos made a sound that was almost a moan, and pushed away from the counter, his hands moving up to Duncan's face and pulling it down to his. There was nothing tentative in this meeting, no sense of testing as there'd been the night before. Methos' lips were open as they met those of his friend, and Duncan welcomed them with rising hunger. He didn't know when control shifted, when Methos became the one directing the kiss, but neither could he find it in himself to care.
Oh, he wanted this. The tender trespass of lips and tongues, the warm, sweet taste of this man who held him now, resistance vanished... Last night had been a promise; this was the promise kept. Duncan's arms shifted, closed around the lean shoulders and pulled Methos' body against his, pressing close. Any distance between them seemed too much, and desire was too kind a word for the need that burned inside him, inside both of them, demanding everything and offering no quarter.
Duncan couldn't find his voice to protest when Methos' hands pressed against his shoulders, opening a space between their bodies, cooling. Eyes still closed, he could hear Methos struggling for breath. The tension in the hands clenched, viselike, over his shoulders bespoke a battle for control that matched his own.
Slowly, passion receded enough for clarity.
He opened his eyes, wary, afraid of what he might find in those of his friend. If he read denial there, or regret, he was going to break something. Possibly someone. Probably Methos.
He needn't have worried. Methos' hands had gentled on his shoulders, but remained there, a warm touch that remembered being more. A smile, slightly bemused, tilted the corners of his lips. The hazel eyes held affection, amusement, and no small amount of astonishment at what had passed between them.
"You win," he said softly, breathless. "We talk."
Methos wasn't sure what he needed more -- coffee, to banish the last fuzziness of sleep, or a beer, to take the edge off his senses. The fact that coffee was a stimulant and alcohol relaxed inhibitions made the decision that much harder; the effects of either, at this point, would be redundant.
He'd assumed that last night had been about comfort, something MacLeod had given in to out of kindness for a friend. It was almost laughable, now; whatever it had been before, what Mac was offering him in the kitchen had very little to do with comfort. It had been as pretty a seduction as any Methos had ever seen, and now the curiosity was driving him insane. Where had MacLeod had an opportunity to gain that kind of experience? Methos had read the Chronicles; hell, they'd been his bedtimes stories for a year before he'd ever ~met~ the man. If such a thing had even been hinted at, Methos would have known about it. If there'd been so much as a rumor, he'd spent enough money on enough nights at Joe's to have picked them up from the Watcher by now. Joe Dawson respected his assignment's privacy, but Methos had found that on occasion, he respected a really fine bottle of single-malt a little more.
The thought that there might be no experience in Mac's past was blatantly frightening. If this was the Highlander as an amateur, Methos did not want to be around when the man started learning.
It had been a very, very long time since Methos had felt compelled to restrict his affections to one gender. In so much time, the externals lost their meaning. Difficult to limit affection when it warmed his heart and body as well in either form. Difficult to limit love based on the taboos and customs of civilizations whose birth and fall he'd witnessed personally.
And those were just the surface excuses. At the heart of it was simply this: Methos had never been overly fond of limits.
The sound of the shower from behind the bathroom door shut off suddenly, and Methos deliberately turned his back to the rest of the room, leaning back against the center island with arms folded across his chest. Before leaving to get cleaned up, MacLeod had made it clear that they had much to discuss, and Methos wanted to be in control of his senses and emotions when that time came. The last thing he needed was to have his resolve tested by a half-naked Scot whose idea of a good time was to see how fast he could turn the world's oldest man into putty.
He was beginning to seriously wonder what he'd gotten himself into.
He loved Duncan MacLeod. It was a fact, an emotion that had grown steadily from the very beginning, winding its way through stages of friendship and trust until it was inextricably woven into the bond the two men shared. And Methos wanted him. This, too, had progressed beyond the point of plausible deniability. Taken separately, neither of these were a problem. Together...
Together they made the world's oldest living Immortal very, very nervous.
Methos had never been one to give hostages to fortune. He'd remained apart, detached, never quite offering everything to the people he allowed into his life. It was insanity to fall too hard, to get too close; there were so many ways a lover could be used against you. So many people willing to hurt anyone just to get to you....
Behind him, the bathroom door opened. Methos didn't move, even when the sound of footsteps approached. His hands tightened where they gripped his biceps, the discomfort bringing clarity but no keen insight into how to handle MacLeod.
"Are you all right?"
The voice came from the other side of the island, deep with concern, and Methos let out a pent up breath, relieved. Words, rather than touch. Words he could fight, but against touch he was defenseless when it came to Duncan MacLeod.
"I can think of ten reasons, just off the top of my head, why none of this should be happening, Mac," he said, striving for a reasonable tone.
Behind him, a sigh. Methos fought the urge to turn and look, an action that he was sure would end the conversation then and there. Nothing could be solved by whatever he might do confronted with the caring, pleading look Mac would almost certainly be wearing. The look that said clearly, Do the right thing...for me? That expression had worked too well, too many times in the past for the Mac to abandon the tactic now.
Just the thought of it made him want to turn and say Yes. All right. Whatever you want.
"Then it won't happen," Mac said softly.
Methos' heart seemed to still in his chest. If anything, that thought made him more uncomfortable than the alternative. "Well," he said after a moment, releasing the breath he'd been holding. "I'm glad that's settled."
"No, you're not. If you were, you'd be able to look at me."
"There's a difference between 'can't' and 'won't', Mac. I'm not looking at you because I'm not an idiot. I'd like us to try to have a conversation here. You know...one with words?"
"You've never had a problem doing both before."
"You've never looked at me like..."
"Like what?" Mac challenged.
"Like I'm a five course meal and you're fresh from a hunger strike," Methos snapped, exasperated. "It's unnerving."
Mac laughed, real amusement breaking through the tension. "You're terrified, aren't you," he said. Methos could hear Mac's smile in his voice. "You don't have to be."
It was a little too much truth. Methos sighed, eased away from the counter and turned. The smile, he found, was as compelling as he'd remembered. "What if I can't help it?"
"Then you let me show you that there's nothing to fear. Methos, I don't know what's happened here any more than you do, but last night changed things for me. I don't know any better way to put it."
"It changed everything, for both of us," Methos said.
"Does that have to be a bad thing?"
"There's no way for it to be anything else. Mac, we do this...we change our friendship in this way...and we just might lose our heads." His eyes pleaded with the Highlander for understanding.
"You're not listening, to me or to yourself. It's already changed, Methos. All we can do now is decide what to do about it."
"Standard response," Methos said, his voice low and direct. "Do nothing."
"And you think we can do that?" Half of a smile curved Mac's lips. "Really?"
"God, Mac, how can you take this so lightly? You should be the one fighting this, not me!"
"What, because it's new? Because it's different? Methos, you should know me better than that." Mac's eyes were stormy with a mix of disapointment and frustration. "Have I given you some cause to think I'd be that narrow-minded?"
"You've never given me cause to think you wouldn't be."
"Well, forgive me," Mac said, voice deep with sarcasm. "Let me just add that to my list of 'things to discuss with formerly mythical Immortal Watchers'."
Methos let out a startled laugh. "All right!" he said, trying to kill a treacherous smile. "Forget I asked."
MacLeod shook his head, watching his friend carefully. "Methos, this is a very simple concept. I care about you. You care about me, too, don't you?"
Heaven help me... Methos thought, feeling his resolve crumbling at the note of uncertainty in the younger Immortal's voice. He won't fight this, and I can't do it alone... "Of course I care," he said softly. "Never doubt that."
The relief in the Highlander's soft gaze was nearly Methos' undoing. He sighed, closing his eyes and struggling to think past his emotions. He loved Mac, and he wanted him, but he was so very, very afraid for him. For both of them. Though the Highlander might not be fully aware of it, they weren't talking about something simple. Allowing Mac to hold a sword to his throat had been a symbolic thing; allowing Mac to become his lover would put them both in danger that was very real.
MacLeod was a target because he wanted to be, his very nature a challenge to any Immortal looking for trouble. Anyone standing next to Mac for more than ten minutes was likely to get drawn into a fight. Methos, on the other hand, was a target for the simple reason that he'd survived five thousand years. He'd done it by being MacLeod's polar opposite, keeping a low profile and fighting only when it was unavoidable.
He wasn't about to change that without a fight.
So, one final effort. "They'll use us against each other," he said quietly, putting the force of his fears into calm, low tones. "Anyone who discovers what we mean to one other can hurt us through one another. Cassandra is already hunting us. Last night you wouldn't let me leave because of her. Do I move in here until she either goes away or kills one of us? I care about you, Mac, and I fairly love your housing situation, but I'm about two thousand years past the desire to set up housekeeping with anybody, let alone a man with more enemies than sense."
MacLeod gave him a look rich in disgust. "You're talking about dangers we accepted when we became friends. Kalas came for you; I killed him. Kristin came for me; you killed her. It'll happen again, whatever we decide to do about this...new development."
"And when Cassandra comes for me, Mac? When she makes you choose? Who dies then, Highlander?"
"If she makes me choose," MacLeod said deliberately, matching Methos' intensity, "she's already chosen for me."
Mac's words, so simple, stripped Methos bare, defenseless. The older Immortal knew what the statement cost his friend, whose ideas of morality began and ended with the protection of the weak, and whose sixteenth century sensibilities rarely let him see a woman as strong. "You would do that?" he whispered, slightly awed. "For me?"
Mac shook his head. "No. For myself. I will not lose you, Methos. Can't you understand that? What do I have to say to get through to you?"
"Nothing." His eyes found those of his friend, and the last vestiges of reluctance slipped away from him. Methos was done with fighting. Done with resisting something he wanted so much that act of wanting alone frightened him with its intensity. He stretched out his hand, offering, and tugged gently when Mac took it, pulling him in.
His hands moved up, glided over the smooth skin of Mac's throat, stroked the back of his neck. Mac tilted his head back into the touch, and Methos' breath caught in his throat at the sheer grace and beauty of the man he'd come to love. To be standing together, touching his friend in the gentle light of a hazy morning, was almost too much. There would be no backing down from this moment, no pushing away. Giving in to it was both easier and more frightening than he'd imagined it would be.
Mac held himself still beneath his touch, waiting, but Methos could feel the tremors that belied Mac's control, muscles shifting subtly under the smooth, bronzed skin. He traced a lazy pattern beneath the long fall of dark hair, skimming over sensitive nerve endings in a slow spiral caress. The touch drew a hiss of indrawn breath from MacLeod, followed by a nearly inaudible moan. Methos smiled, feeling his own response building, but holding back. For the moment he was content to revel in the slow, gentle seduction of his friend.
He leaned in, and pressed his lips softly to Mac's throat, barely a touch; his breath whispered over the taut skin, tongue reaching to taste here... and here... then moving on, lingering when rewarded by a gasp or a sigh. For long, sweet moments Methos explored with gentle lips, dusting light kisses over Mac's face, approaching but never quite touching his lips. Mac's mouth opened, sensing deprivation, and Methos smiled, anticipating the feel of those lips against his skin.
When he pulled back, his fingers traced the path his lips had taken, moving finally to trace the full, soft shape of Mac's mouth. A slight movement, and teeth closed gently around his fingertip, biting; the pressure increased, and Methos shivered, a shock of desire coursing through him from the point of contact. Mac's eyes met his, dark with promise and invitation.
"I think," Methos said unsteadily, trembling, "that the verbal part of this conversation is over." The last words were nearly lost as he gasped, feeling Mac's tongue darting against the pad of his finger, stroking over the skin in a deliberate rhythm.
He has no mercy, Methos thought, barely coherent. The gentle suction was evocative of images less innocent, bringing him to a sudden, aching hardness. God, how I need this....
Another bite, less gentle, drained the last of his resistance. Methos gave in to it, closing his eyes, shifting his hands. He buried his fingers in MacLeod's long, dark hair and tugged the taller man's head down, wanting to touch him, taste him. When Mac resisted, a frustrated moan escaped Methos' lips.
"I want you," Mac whispered, rapidly failing control roughening his voice.
"I know," Methos said, tilting his head back, feeling MacLeod's hands hard and strong as they gripped his shoulders.
"We have a little time," Mac said. "Not much, but--"
"MacLeod," Methos hissed, breath coming in rapid gasps, "If you say another word, if you wait another second..."
He didn't have to say it. The lips he wanted to touch so badly found his, soft, Mac's tongue swiftly teasing him, opening him to the kiss. Methos was shaken by the depth of his response, a need he hadn't felt for decades ripping through him, bringing him to a shattering awareness of touch. He nipped gently at Mac's lower lip, and was rewarded with a low moan; drew Mac's tongue into his mouth, and was rocked by its savage exploration. MacLeod's hands slipped down, fitting Methos' body against his growing erection.
"This is what you want?" Mac whispered against Methos' lips, shifting his body, building a heated friction between them. He turned his head, mouth slanting down across Methos' jawline, lower, settling in the sweet hollow just beneath his ear. Yesterday, MacLeod had pressed cold steel against the same tender skin; the memory, mingled with the silken touch of a warm tongue and gentle suction, was stunningly erotic.
"God, yes...." A gasp was torn from Methos' throat as Mac pushed at his hips, made a space between them, and drew a firm caress across the bulge beneath his zipper. The touch seared into him, the warmth of Mac's hand seeping through the fabric, the pressure both ease and torment. He arched into it, and felt more than heard MacLeod's groan as his response registered. Methos' own hands descended, pressing deep into the hard muscles of his partner's buttocks. The fingers that drove Methos close to the edge of completion receded, then found the snap at the waist of his jeans.
And both men froze, eyes widening in amazement and no little panic, as the first subtle twinges of Presence filtered through their mutual desire.
Methos struggled for control, his groin aching with the need MacLeod had coaxed from him, and backed away. He held a hand out when Mac would have followed him, keeping his partner at arm's length, and moved quickly, grabbing his sword from his coat. The elevator was moving, old gears groaning to life as the two men backed away from the razor edge of passion.
"Hello...?" a light, feminine voice called from the ascending lift.
Amanda. Methos glared at MacLeod, who raised his eyebrows and shook his head, denying any foreknowledge.
Methos leaned forward and pressed a hard kiss against Mac's lips, a promise of more to come. He pulled back, and whispered quickly, "I'll kill her and send the elevator back down. We'll deal with the body later; yes?"
"No," Mac answered with a shaky smile. "But I'm tempted."
MacLeod, ever courteous, waited by the elevator to greet his guest. Methos remained in the kitchen, leaning against the countertop and thanking whatever gods protected ancient Immortals that his pullover was long enough to conceal the evidence of his arousal. While fond of Amanda in theory, in practice his joy at seeing her knew definite bounds. Especially right now, he complained inwardly, sighing.
MacLeod lifted the elevator guard and stepped back. She breezed in without acknowledging the invitation, casting a brilliant smile over her shoulder at both of the men before settling herself in the center of the leather couch.
"So," she said, eyes twinkling merrily. "What've I missed?"
"Why don't I just go on ahead to meet Joe?" Methos deliberately failed to look at MacLeod. "You can catch up later."
"Why don't you stay right where you are?" MacLeod said, his voice deceptively pleasant. "As we planned."
Amanda glanced from one man to the other. "I was hoping you guys had kissed and made up."
"We were examining that possibility when you arrived," Methos said dryly. A noise that might have been a cough was rapidly smothered by MacLeod, and Methos kept his eyes averted, trying not to grin.
"So, are we all friends again?"
MacLeod sighed, and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Methos and I are fine. You and I, however...."
"Now, Duncan, don't be angry. I was only trying to help, and it seems to have worked out all right."
"Yes, it has -- after a great deal of turmoil that could have been averted if we'd been allowed to work things out in our own time." Mac's words were stern, but it was clear he was wavering between gratitude and irritation at Amanda's interference. Methos approved of the irritation; there was, after all, a certain principle involved.
"I'm not going to apologize," she said calmly. "I did a good thing, and you owe me. How about taking me to brunch?"
"I do not, and I'm busy." Mac cast a hopeful look at Methos, who had busied himself in deep contemplation of the ceiling tiles above him. "Methos and I have a meeting."
"In about forty-five minutes," Methos said. "Speaking of which -- can I use your phone?"
"Sure. What for?"
"If you insist on coming with me, I'd like to warn Joe."
An expression of pain flickered in Mac's dark eyes, and he pressed his lips together into a hard line. Methos closed his eyes briefly in mute apology. "To warn him to clear out any Watchers who might be lurking around," he clarified. "We don't need to have our involvement with Marta becoming part of her personnel file. In the past, consorting with the scions of the Clan MacLeod has proven unhealthy for certain Watchers." Methos hoped Mac knew better than to think it general goodwill that made him think of Marta's well-being; she had earned consideration by warning them about Cassandra. Still, Mac would probably count as kindness what Methos counted as a simple transaction. With an effort, Methos refrained from setting the record straight.
Mac's tension eased, and he smiled. "That sounds almost compassionate, Methos. Have you suddenly found a conscience?"
"I wear my heart on the inside, Mac," he said. "That doesn't mean I don't have one."
"What's going on, Duncan?" Amanda asked. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Not me," Mac said. "It's--"
"A mutual friend," Methos interrupted smoothly. He moved into the living area, between the other two Immortals. Then, turning to MacLeod: "Phone book, Mac?"
MacLeod took the hint. "I'll get it," he said, retreating to the kitchen, leaving Methos free to do what Mac probably couldn't: Lie to a friend.
"It's nothing you need concern yourself with," Methos said. "We're just visiting a friend of mine who's in hospital. She's a Watcher."
"She was attacked," Methos said shortly.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Amanda said. "I hope she'll be all right?"
"She'll be fine. But you see why it's not a good idea for you to come, don't you? Your Watcher would report the visit, and Marta would be in trouble."
"What about your Watcher, Adam?"
"Don't have one. Not an official one, anyway--Joe has a close friend keeping an eye on me, but he's not technically my Watcher and he only reports to Joe. So we're fine...as long as you don't tag along and mess things up for everybody." His words were harsh, but softened by the plea in his hazel eyes.
Slowly, Amanda nodded. "Okay," she said, shaking her head in resignation. "It's your party. I'll just stay here until you get back. Get some reading done, something like that."
"Not a good idea," Methos said. "You have to leave before I do, and take your Watcher away with you. They can't see Adam Pierson here, Amanda," he said gently.
Her dark eyes flashed, and she turned on MacLeod, who had just returned with the phone book. "You know, sometimes I think Jakob Galati had the right idea," she said with disgust. "I hate this! Sneaking around, hiding, and just when you think you've lost one, another pops up to take his place."
"Might as well blame me as the Watchers, Amanda," Methos said seriously. "It's my cover we're protecting. If I were living openly as an Immortal, none of this would be necessary."
Amanda's frown softened, became apologetic. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know why you do it. Methos has to remain a myth."
She stood up, and went to the elevator, pausing with a hand on the guard. "So I'll go," she said. "But I'll be back, and you can believe that Joe's going to hear about this from me. I'm not going to be run out of my friends' homes by little Watcher drones for the rest of my life."
"Thank you, Amanda," Mac said, smiling as the elevator began to descend. "We'll let you know when it's safe to come back."
"And we'll give you a number," Methos muttered under his breath, "so you can call first."
Methos couldn't help feeling a little paranoid as he and MacLeod rode up to the third floor of the hospital, the ancient elevator clanking with arthritic distress as it slowly heaved itself upward. He thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat, only moderately comforted by the hard length of metal that pressed into his ribs with the movement. "I hope Joe knows what he's doing," he muttered, hunching his shoulders. "All we need is another Dan Geiger lurking about, and I'm toast."
"Thanks for that thought," Mac said, not looking at Methos. "I was feeling a little too secure."
"I noticed," Methos replied. "Why d'you think I said it?" A quick grin softened the warning, but didn't detract from his intent. He wanted Mac on edge, as he was. Prepared.
The elevator ground to a stop, and Methos stuck his head out, sighting down the long white corridor in either direction. It wasn't really necessary -- if there were Watchers, he wouldn't see them -- but it made him feel a bit better nonetheless. "Come on," he said, turning left and moving quickly ahead of MacLeod. "It's this way."
"How do you know which way it is?" Mac said, hurrying to catch up.
"I had to bring Alexa here for some tests before we left on our tour. Marta's room should be just past the labs." Methos voice was neutral, not reflecting the pain that came with the memories. Being in the hospital made him uncomfortable on many levels, only one of which had anything to do with Cassandra; the thought of the mortals, the people, behind the doors that lined the hallway made him feel slightly ill. They were all so fragile...so easily broken and so very hard to repair. He'd spent at least one lifetime that he could recall studying medicine, easing pain, healing when he could. In the end, constant exposure to the inevitability of their deaths had been too much. Alexa's life had touched his so briefly that sometimes it was easy to lose the moments they'd shared in the vastness of his memory, but this... the sharp, chemical smell of mingled antiseptics, medicines, sterile cleansers... this would always bring the pain and horror of her death, and all the others, back to him.
Whatever life he might choose, now that his existence as a Watcher had ended, he didn't see the field of medicine in his future.
A hand on his arm stopped him just as they reached the door to Marta's room, his momentum spinning him to face MacLeod.
"Methos," Mac said firmly. "You don't have to do this. Go back to the loft. `I can handle this."
Methos took a deep breath, nostrils flaring, and avoided his friend's gaze. "No, you can't," he said. "Mac, I have a very strong suspicion that we're going to find more than a slightly worse-for-wear Watcher on the other side of this door. If I'm right..." He paused, and looked up into Mac's eyes. "If I'm right, Mac, she needs us right now a lot more than we need her."
Without another word, Methos turned and opened the door.
Inside, Joe Dawson was resting in a chair beside the bed, eyes closed; Methos wondered how long the man had been there, guarding his friend. The lines in his face seemed to cut deeper today, exhaustion adding years he hadn't earned to the rugged features. Methos stepped close, and rested a gentle hand on one shoulder. "Joe?"
Joe's eyes opened quickly, his body going on alert for a moment before he recognized the man beside him. A deep breath eased him out of his shock. "Adam," he said, smiling. "Good to see you."
Methos returned the smile, feeling better as Joe's expression lightened. "Same here. Listen, Joe...Mac's out in the hall. Go easy, okay?"
Joe nodded slowly. "How is he?" he said, voice low. "I wanted to call...to apologize, I guess...but..."
"But you didn't have anything to apologize for," Methos finished, smiling. "You're too good to be true, Dawson."
Joe laughed softly. "So I'm told."
Both men looked up as MacLeod entered the room, stopping just inside the door. Even now, with a stoic expression hiding the insecurity Methos knew he must be feeling, MacLeod was enough to take his breath away. Searching for distraction, his eyes fell on the woman sleeping peacefully in the hospital bed.
"How long has she been sleeping?" he asked quietly.
"About an hour," Joe said. Then: "Come on in, Mac. Shut the door, will you?"
A look of gratitude flashed from Methos to Joe, too quick for MacLeod to see.
"How is she?" A brief nod from Mac acknowledged Joe's greeting; all the reconciliation they could spare for the moment.
"Not as bad as it seemed at first. No concussion, for one thing...just a nasty bump. They confirmed that with X-rays last night, so she was able to get a lot of rest. Bruised ribs rather than broken, like we first thought, a sprained wrist...she got that during the escape, though. They're letting her go home this afternoon."
Methos looked at Joe speculatively. "Before I talk to her, Joe, I need to ask you a few questions. You had a chance to debrief her?"
"Not extensively, but enough to get most of the story. Just what I told you on the phone...why?"
"How did she seem?"
"Like she'd just been beaten up by an Immortal bitch," Joe said irritably. "How else was she going to seem? She was a little confused, a little out of it."
"Did she ask for anyone?"
Joe's brow furrowed. "Just me. What are you getting at, Adam? What's going on?"
Methos looked up at MacLeod, his eyes serious. "I'm going to need you," he said simply. It was a risk, calling so soon on the newborn trust between them, but Methos knew he couldn't do what needed to be done if he had to worry about Joe's interference. When Mac nodded, he turned back to the Watcher. "Joseph, I've got to talk to her, and I'm not going to be able to hold your hand while I do it. I don't think you're going to like much of what I have to do in the next few minutes. I need you to trust me. Can you do that?"
"Adam...what the hell are you talking about?" Something like panic had settled into Joe's expression.
Methos cursed under his breath, understanding settling in too late. A friend, Joe had said. Sure... a friend so devoted that she broke her oath as a Watcher to warn MacLeod about Cassandra, just because Mac was Joe's friend. A quick look into Joe's eyes confirmed it; whatever the woman on the bed might be to Joe, it went significantly beyond simple friendship.
"Trust me," he said again. "Joe, you and I have been friends for years. I wouldn't do anything that would hurt her, or you. You know that." Methos knelt, bringing himself down to eye level with the man in the chair. One hand squeezed Joe's shoulder, reassuring. "You have my word, Joe," he said softly. "Marta won't come to harm because of me."
Because of me, he repeated silently, bitterly, resenting the necessity of qualifying his words. It was closer than he liked to come to a lie to Joe Dawson.
A moment of silence elongated between them. Slowly, still shaken by the intensity in Methos' gaze, Joe nodded.
It was all Methos needed. His head jerked once in acknowledgement of Joe's trust, and he rose, turning his attention back to the woman in the bed.
"Marta," he said sharply, calling her out of sleep. There was no gentleness in his voice; there was neither need nor use for it at this point.
Her eyes opened instantly. He looked into them, hazel eyes searching bright blue. She was a handsome woman, still slim and athletic at fifteen or more years past Methos' apparent age. Somewhere between forty-five and fifty, he estimated, though she could have been younger; he'd never been good at guessing mortals' age. Odd, that it should be easier for him to judge years with ageless Immortals, but he didn't think he was too far off the mark with Marta. Her hair was dark, but held touches of silver at each temple; it was loose against her pillow, long and curling. There were lines at the corners of her eyes and lips; she smiled a lot from the look of it. Her face wasn't what he would call beautiful, but there was a certain charm to her strong, even features that few would fail to appreciate. It wasn't hard to miss what Joe saw in her.
She hadn't been sleeping. There was an awareness in her eyes too alert to have just come alive. "Joe?" she said, turning to find him. Eyes widening as she saw MacLeod. "Joe...what's going on?"
"Marta, this is Adam Pierson," Joe said. "He used to be one of us. And I don't think I need to introduce you to Duncan MacLeod...?"
"Of the Clan MacLeod," she said, smiling a little. There was awe in her voice, but it was tempered by maturity. "I didn't expect to ever meet you," she said.
Even now, Methos had to supress a grin as he watched MacLeod turn on the charm. "If all the other Watchers are like you," Mac said, smiling, "I might have to start doing some Watching myself."
The blush that rose in her cheeks, and the smile that accompanied it, brought her perilously close to beauty. Methos noted that her reactions were becoming less forced. More fluid. It was time to move.
He reached down and took her hand in his, looking into her eyes and pinning her with the intensity of his gaze. "Marta, I know what's happened to you. I know what she did." There was no need to question her; anything answer she gave would either be a lie or a truth calculated to mislead. Cassandra's mark was on her, in the walled off watchfulness of her eyes. It was a look he'd seen before, and it made his stomach lurch with sympathy. The knowledge of what this woman must be feeling cut through his practiced detachment and burned him with a cold, brittle anger. "She didn't beat you, did she," he said softly, with iron control. "You did this to yourself."
"I don't understand," Marta said, her voice high and sharp. "What are you talking about?"
"It's all right." He didn't answer, because he wasn't speaking to the woman who'd asked the question. He was speaking to the one behind the carefully calculated responses, the one behind the walls in her eyes. "I'm going to fix it so you can talk to me. You'll only have a few seconds, Marta, and I need you to make them count. All of our lives may depend on it."
Marta's look became frantic, flitting from MacLeod to Joe. "Joe," she said. "Joe? What is he...I don't want to talk to him anymore..."
Joe turned an anguished look on Methos. "Adam, stop this," he said. "That's enough."
"Joe, if I stop now, Marta is as good as dead. Trust me." His steady gaze called on the depth respect and friendship established between them long past. "I know what I'm doing," he said firmly.
Joe's lips tightened around another protest, and he turned away. Methos let out a long, low breath, relief slumping his shoulders. A quick glance at MacLeod, a slight nod. Trust, Methos thought with wonder. Hearing Mac say the words had been one thing; seeing the proof of them was quite another. Thank you, Highlander...
Methos reached down and enfolded Marta's hand in his own. He expected resistance, and was not disappointed; a vise-like grip, probably bruising, kept her fingers trapped in his.
"Marta," he said gently. "I'm starting now. Be ready."
From inside his coat, Methos pulled forth the dagger that served him as a back-up; it shone cold brilliance in the antiseptic glare of the overhead lights. Wordlessly, relentlessly, Methos pried open the woman's fingers and closed them tight around the blade. His own grip closed over hers, squeezing; a thin rivulet of blood slid down the blade.
"Adam!" Methos glanced up sharply at Joe's strangled outburst, but it wasn't necessary; MacLeod had Joe's shoulders in a firm but gentle grip, holding him at bay. A quick nod released Methos from worry; he turned back to the woman on the bed, finding both pain and fear in her bright eyes.
Slowly, unflinching, he slid both their hands down the blade. Blood flowed freely over the metal, staining it red.
A gasp of surprise and pain escaped Marta's lips, a cry bitten off sharply as the blade's edge laid her flesh open to the bone. Her hand convulsed, squeezing the metal, someone new blazing in her eyes.
"She's waiting!" Marta said quickly, her voice breaking, coming in quick gasps as she struggled for control of her body and her mind. "She's waiting, with others, mortals. Don't go to her! She wants MacLeod and then you--"
Her voice cracked, broke open over rapid, tidal breaths that contorted left her faint and shaking.
"No!" Methos shouted as Joe tried to break away from MacLeod, throwing up a hand to ward the man off. "It's all right," he continued softly when the fit of hyperventilation had passed and the rapid heaves of her chest had calmed. "Wait. I've seen this before."
In fewer moments than even Methos had expected, Marta opened her eyes. One look reassured him; she was there, rattled and afraid but still intact. Still sane. Methos took her hand in his again -- hers torn and bleeding, his already repaired. With his free hand and his teeth, he tore a strip from the top of the bedsheet and quickly wrapped it around her palm, training from another lifetime taking over as he calmly tended the wound.
He kept her hand when the bandaging was complete, and met her blue eyes. "Thank you," he said softly, with mingled gratitude and respect. "Oh, brave lady, thank you." He looked up, found confusion receding before relief in Joe's eyes. "Dawson," he said, smiling his own relief, "you give this woman a raise."
"I will," Joe said. "As soon as somebody tells me what for. What the hell was this, Adam? I need an explanation for this, and I imagine Marta does, too."
Marta answered for him. "Adam was right, Joseph," she said softly. "Cassandra didn't lay a finger on me. She's not that kind," she added bitterly. "She used...I don't know, some kind of hypnosis, maybe a drug...she told me to hurt myself, and I did." There was a note of bitter iron in her voice, something that made Methos re-evaluate the woman. She'd seemed soft...fragile...but he was suddenly aware of a vast reserve of hidden strength. He wouldn't want to be the one who'd put that tone in her voice.
"It's a power she has," Methos explained. "She can influence you with her voice, make you do things you wouldn't otherwise."
"How did you know?" Marta asked, her blue eyes direct.
"You're not the first pawn Cassandra has tried to sacrifice," he answered shortly. "You're just luckier than most of the others."
"When you spoke to me...not to what she made me pretend, but to me... I felt as if the cavalry had just thundered in. Thank you, Adam Pierson," she said. "I think I may owe you quite a debt."
Your life, he said to himself. He had no doubt that part of the compulsion Cassandra had laid on the woman's soul would have led her to her death. "Yes," he said out loud, smiling. "We'll have to discuss that. In the mean time, Marta...is there anything else you can tell us?"
"She meant for me to set up a meeting. You, Mr. MacLeod--"
"Duncan then. You were to meet her, just to talk. I was to give you the address of an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town."
Methos shot a glance at Mac, his lips pressed into a thin line. "Can I assume I don't have to say 'I told you so'?"
MacLeod ignored him. "That's crazy," he said bluntly, frowning at Marta. "How could she think I'd have anything to say to her after what she's done? After she beat up a mortal woman just to get information out of her? No," he said, holding up a hand as Marta would have interrupted. "Maybe your hands did this, Marta, but she was in charge of them at the time."
Marta met his eyes calmly. "It is crazy," she said. "But so is she. Her plan was to lure you there, and then have you taken by two mortals she's hired. They're...not good men, Duncan."
"Why does she want me?"
Marta shook her head. "I don't know."
"I know," Methos said coldly. He looked at MacLeod, a look designed to shut the man down. "I'm going to meet her," he said.
"No you're not!" The words exploded out of MacLeod without any hesitation. "You're not going anywhere near her. Marta, don't even think about giving him the address; he won't be needing it."
"This isn't your fight, MacLeod," Methos said angrily. God, but the man could be infuriating. "She doesn't want you; she's just using you to get to me. One way or another, she and I are going to have to face one another." He took a deep breath, and softened his voice. "I don't want it to be over your dead body, Mac."
Marta had turned her attention to Methos, and her eyes now widened. "You're not precisely who you say you are," she said.
"Are any of us?"
"Most of us are, more so than you, anyway. You're an Immortal."
Methos studied her for a moment, weighing his options. If she was going to be Joe's woman -- and from the look in his friend's eyes, if it hadn't already happened it would soon -- keeping the entire truth from her was going to be difficult.
"Yes," he said simply, watching her carefully. "I am. I have been for...quite a few years."
She nodded, seeming satisfied. It was more than Methos could say for MacLeod.
"We're going to talk about this," MacLeod said, his dark eyes filled with anger. "I'm not letting you walk into your death like a lamb to the slaughter. I don't care what you think you owe her."
Methos was too startled to stop the laughter. "Is that what you think? That I'm going to offer myself in your stead? I'm going to kill her, MacLeod. Need I be more plain? I'm going to take a sword and cut off her head. There was a time when I might've felt I owed her my life, but that time passed when she threatened you. The only thing I owe her now is a clean, swift stroke, and if she continues as she's begun, she can consider herself lucky to get even that."
MacLeod's eyes burned into his, unreadable. "You're sure?" he asked finally. "You have no plans to surrender yourself, or anything equally stupid?"
"None whatsoever." Perish the thought, Mac....If I'm dead, who's going to keep you alive?
Sighing, MacLeod looked away. "We still have to talk about it," he said calmly. "But not here. Joe...will you need help getting Marta home?"
Joe waved the suggestion off. "We'll be fine. You two go and do whatever it is you have to do."
Methos smiled. "You take care, Joseph," he said. "Of the lady, and of yourself."
Joe's eyes moved between Methos and MacLeod. "I'll want a report when the two of you come back," he said. The meaning in his tone was clear; the last two words were more important than the others. His eyes lingered for a moment on MacLeod's , and Methos could read the affection there. He hoped Mac could, too.
"Time to go," he said softly. "Mac?"
"I'll be calling, Joe," Mac said. "If that's okay."
"It's okay," Joe said quietly. "I'll be waiting by the phone, my friend."
Methos rolled his eyes. "God. Get a room."
Mac's thoughts were in turmoil as he and Methos stepped out into the corridor, closing the door firmly behind them. He couldn't believe the lengths to which Cassandra had gone to take him; she'd been a friend. The only person who knew him as he'd been in his childhood. The only living link to his brief mortality.
And now she wanted to kill him, and to kill Methos as well.
Methos had moved ahead of him, and Mac's eyes bore into his back. The set of Methos' shoulders screamed tension, and possibly anger; Mac was sure no small amount of it was directed at him. Nothing I can do about that, he said silently, barely keeping pace with his friend. Cassandra is my responsibility.
He wasn't at all certain Methos had been telling him the truth in Marta's room. The determination in those hazel eyes had seemed strong enough, but Mac could still remember the way Methos had looked beneath the axe Cassandra held over his head weeks ago. He hadn't moved, hadn't even tried to avoid a stroke that would have ended his life. Now he said he could kill her, could take her head without a second thought, but something in his words seemed...off. As if he had reached out for the callousness of his past and, finding it unattainable, had decided to fake it. At the submarine base in Bordeaux, Methos had been ready to die to escape the dark truth of his past. How much of that despair...that guilt...remained inside him?
Mac didn't want to find out.
"Adam!" he called, lengthening his stride to catch up. "Where's the fire?"
Methos turned on him, hazel eyes flashing. "Who do you think you are, MacLeod?" His voice was low, but carried as strongly as a shout. "You think you can keep me locked in your loft, safe and sound, and take out anybody who comes after my head? You think I want that?"
"I don't know what you want right now," Mac said truthfully, declining to fight. "That's what scares me."
"It's very simple. I'll use small words. I want you to stay out of my way."
"So you can kill Cassandra? Or so you can let her kill you?"
Methos shook his head in disgust. "One of these days I'm going to say something you actually believe, and the world will grind to a halt." He turned on his heel and started toward the elevator.
Mac was close behind. "Fine," he said as the door slid shut, locking them in. "I believe you."
"Right," Methos said, not looking at him.
"I believe you," Mac repeated softly. He stepped close, and ran a finger down from Methos' temple, over his jawline. Methos closed his eyes; Mac could see him fighting to hold on to his anger, and pressed his advantage. "Forgive me," Mac said. It was slightly less than a command, but not quite a request.
Methos tilted his head, turning his cheek into the caress. "You aren't playing fair, Boyscout."
"I'm learning." There was a twinge of guilt but Mac pushed it resolutely aside. His hand slipped behind Methos' neck and pulled him into a hard, demanding kiss. When he ended it, his friend's eyes were dark with need. "That's a prelude," he said softly.
"I can't wait for the opening," Methos said, his voice rough.
Mac smiled slightly and pulled away, waiting for the elevator doors to open. He'd been unaffected by the kiss, unable to share the passion he'd aroused in Methos. He wondered, briefly, if you could lie with a touch. If so, he surely had.
This time it was he who led the way down the corridor and out through the swinging glass doors. The sky was still overcast, but the rain was holding off for now; the day was bright, but grey. He led the way to the street corner and paused, waiting for Methos to catch up with him.
"Where are we going?" Methos asked, glancing around. "The T-bird's back in the garage."
"Something I need to do," Mac said shortly. People joined them at the corner, waiting for the light to change; he led Methos a short way down the street, out of the crowd's earshot.
"What is it, Mac?" Methos demanded. "What's wrong?"
A car sped past them, and another, racing to clear the intersection before the light changed. Looking up, Mac saw the signal go from green to gold, and braced himself.
It's not a betrayal, he told himself. It's a rescue.
He turned to his friend, met his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "I love you."
And as the next car raced for the intersection, Mac placed his hands flat on Methos' chest and shoved him. The sudden play of shock, confusion, and betrayal in the green-gold eyes was heartbreaking.
Methos never had a chance.
Mac tapped on the door to Marta's room, and waited for an acknowledgement before pushing it open.
"Joe," he said, nodding. Marta was sleeping, curled onto one side of the bed.
"Did you forget something?" Joe asked.
Mac cleared his throat, not really wanting to go on. "Little problem," he said finally. "I'm going to need your help."
Joe's lips pressed together into a hard line. "I'm busy," he said coldly. "Maybe another time."
Mac shook his head. "Not Watcher help. Sorry, I should have been clearer. Or maybe it is Watcher help. I don't know quite where to draw the line on this one." He tried a smile, and found it fit rather poorly.
He released a long breath when the chill in Joe's eyes shifted into curiosity. "What is it, Mac?" Joe asked finally. "Where's Adam?"
Mac winced. "That's kind of the problem. Adam had a little accident."
"He's in the morgue."
Joe let out a low whistle. "Not so little. Did anyone see it?"
"Half a city block," Mac said.
"How the hell did that happen?" Joe said, incredulous.
Mac studied the wall over Joe's shoulder. "He, ah, got hit by a car."
Joe's eyes narrowed. "A car," he said. "You're telling me that he just stepped out into traffic and got hit by a car? The most safety-conscious man in the world?"
"He may have had help. Look, Joe, we need to get him out of here. He's not going to be able to make it back to the loft on his own."
"Help?" Joe's expression made it clear that he wasn't moving without answers.
Mac sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. "I pushed him."
"You pushed him. You pushed him? Have you lost your mind?"
"Keep your voice down!" Mac hissed. "You'll wake Marta. Just listen to me, okay?" He waited for Joe to nod. "He was going to go to Cassandra, Joe. I couldn't have stopped him, and I'm not sure he was going to kill her. I think he might have been going to appease her. I couldn't let that happen."
"But to kill the man? Publicly? Mac...have you any idea what he's going to do to you when he wakes up?"
In fact, Mac had several thoughts in that area, and none of them were pleasant. "It was only a matter of time anyway, Joe. Hiding his Immortality from the Watchers and maintaining contact with me was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; he was planning something like this himself. I just...sped things along."
"I knew he was going to be a bad influence on you," Joe said. "But this...this is devious, MacLeod. Dishonest. Disloyal, even."
"Yeah," Mac said, coming to a better understanding of Methos' sense of humor. "Well. It takes all kinds to make a world, I guess. Are you going to help me or not?"
Joe glared. "Of course I'm going to help you. What do you need me to do?"
"First, I need to know where Cassandra is expecting me. Then, I need you to go down to the morgue and be there when M... when Adam wakes up. Get him out of here, back to the loft, and stay there with him until I come back."
"Who do they think they have?"
"John Doe. I was close enough to be first on the scene, and I fished out his ID before anyone was close enough to see. There wasn't anything I could do about his coat and the...ah...equipment inside it."
Joe nodded, his Watcher intincts taking over. "Good; that'll save him some trouble. Adam Pierson still has some good years left. And I should be able to get his coat and whatever's in it if we hurry."
"What does this mean in terms of the Watchers? How will they react?"
Joe considered. "I have no idea how the higher-ups are going to take it, but I think a little spin control can keep things on a friendly level. After all, Adam can't be held responsible for being an Immortal when he didn't know he was one, can he?"
Mac grinned. "You guys are as bad as the CIA. Maybe they'll just let Adam become his own Watcher."
Joe's answering grin was quick. "The CIA has wet dreams about being as devious and underhanded as the Watchers."
"I don't doubt it. You can handle this, then? Getting him back to the loft?"
Joe hesitated, glancing at the woman on the bed. "I can't leave Marta," he said. "She's--"
"Awake," Marta said, turning over. "I have been since you came in, Duncan." She sat up, her eyes bright with excitement. "We probably don't have much time."
"'We?'" Joe and MacLeod spoke at the same time.
"We," she answered firmly. "They were letting me out anyway," she added. "Might as well be now. Joseph, where did they put my clothes?"
Mac looked at her oddly as she gathered her things from the closet. "Why did you pretend to be asleep, Marta?" The memory of Cassandra's tampering was in the forefront of his mind, and he needed to be sure the mortal woman was completely free of that influence.
She held up her wrist in mute answer, the blue Watcher tatoo strikingly prominent against her pale skin. "Force of habit."
Joe shrugged, smiling proudly. "She's her own woman, Mac."
"Obviously." A sudden thought occured to MacLeod, and he grinned. "Joe...I have an idea."
"Oh, Mac. I'm not liking that look at all."
"You'll like what's behind it. I have it on excellent authority," he said, "that there's a new Immortal down in the morgue."
Joe's expression was wary. "And?"
"...and he's going to need a very special Watcher," Mac concluded, eyes on Marta's. "A Watcher who understands the value of discretion. Kind of like mine," he added, turning a warm smile on Joe.
"When he wakes up, Adam is going to kill you with his bare hands," Joe said, shaking his head. He was smiling, though, in what might have been admiration. "Jason was never intended to be Adam's permanent Watcher...and it would make all of our lives a lot easier...Marta?"
"Only if I get the truth," she said seriously, eyes flicking between the two men. "I want to know how long Adam has been an Immortal, how it happened, what's happened since. I'll keep it out of the Chronicle, if that's what Joe wants, but I want to know. I won't be in the dark about my assignment, is that clear?"
Slowly, Mac nodded, respect for the lady Watcher rising. "I'll see to it that Adam gives you the story of his life," he said. The abridged version.
"It's settled then," Marta said. "I'm Adam's Watcher."
"Shouldn't you ask your boss?" Mac asked, eyebrows lifting in amusement.
"I have a certain amount of pull," she said, grinning back at him. While Mac waited, she fished in her purse for a pen and paper and wrote quickly, tearing off a sheet. "Here's where you'll find Cassandra," she said, handing it to him. Her eyes were direct as they met his. "You come back," she ordered quietly. "For him."
Mac didn't need the slight incline of her head to tell him she was talking about Joe. He turned to his friend, unsure what to say, knowing that something had to be said before he could walk away.
Joe broke the silence before it could become uncomfortable. "Mac..." Joe's voice trailed off, uncertain. "About yesterday..."
"Stop, Joe." Mac knew what was about to happen; he'd let it happen far too many times in the past not to know the signs. There was the look of concern in the dark eyes, the thawing of cold glances; Joe was getting ready to apologize, to try to set things right between them. He probably didn't even know what he would apologize for, but he was about to do it anyway, because he was Joe Dawson. Because Joe Dawson was a man who had to make things better. "Don't say anything," Mac said quietly.
"No, I want to. What I said..."
"There's going to be time for this tomorrow, Joseph," Mac said kindly. "I don't want you saying any permanent goodbyes to me just now, so why don't we table it until I get back?"
Joe nodded slowly, taking the words as the reassurance Mac intended. "I'll hold on to the thought."
Mac smiled. "It's my turn, anyway."
Methos woke to lingering pain and a nearly overwhelming desire to kill. There was no slow ascent to consciousness, no haze over his thoughts. The knowledge of what had been done to him -- and by whom -- sprang full-blown into his mind the instant awareness returned.
There were no other Immortals in the room, which could only mean that MacLeod, against all sense, had gone after Cassandra on his own. The manner in which he'd chosen to implement his plan was nothing if not devious; if he hadn't been furious with the man, Methos might have fallen prey to a twinge of self-satisfaction. You do pick your moments, don't you, Mac. Two years we've been friends, and you have to start listening to me now?
The sound of low voices rising and falling in soft conversation told him all he needed to know about who was with him, and the subtle traces of his own scent on the sheets beneath him told him where he was. He spoke without rising, staring up at the ceiling and trying to keep a growl out of his voice. "Where is he, Dawson?"
"I don't suppose you'd buy that he went out for more beer?" Joe's voice came from the vicinity of the couch.
Methos sat up slowly, automatically crossing his legs beneath him in lotus and resting his hands on his knees, seeking the semblance of calm in the absence of its reality. His eyes met Joe's in a steady, calm regard that held no trace of amusement. "Where. Is. He."
Joe sighed, and glanced over at Marta. Methos acknowledged her presence with a brief nod before turning his eyes back to Joe.
"He went after Cassandra," Joe said, meeting Methos hard look without flinching. "But then, you knew that."
"I want the address. Right now. I don't care what MacLeod told you. I don't care what orders he may have given. I'm leaving here in five minutes, with the address you gave him, and I don't particularly care how much of a mess I have to make before I leave. Am I communicating?"
"I believe this is one of those times when you'll want to remember your Oath, Joseph." Marta didn't look at her friend; her eyes were on Methos alone. "I think that's our safest option."
"He's just talking, Marta," Joe said reassuringly, reaching for her hand and squeezing it. "He's not going to hurt either of us."
"Sure of that, are you?" Methos said.
"Yes, I am," Joe snapped. "You can cut the bad guy act, Adam. I know you're not going to hurt anybody and you know I'm going to give you the address, so why don't you skip the macho bullshit and try acting your age?"
Astonishment at Joe's tone mixed with genuine amusement at his final shot, and Methos wasn't able to hold back the chuckle rising in his throat. The icy danger out of his past, the easy callousness he'd been reaching for, slipped out of his grasp. Act my age--? "God, Joe," he said, shaking his head in admiration. "Does nothing frighten you?"
"It takes a bit more than a pissed off, half-naked Immortal without a sword," Joe answered, grinning.
Methos glanced down. Thank god for the sheets, he thought with rising humor. Taking stock, he was relieved to find his jeans were still where he'd left them; only his shirt had been removed, probably to bathe whatever wounds he'd sustained when MacLeod had killed him.
When his eyes met Joe's again, the coldness had been replaced by a hint of self-mockery. He turned his gaze then on Marta, who was still watching him with wary eyes. "I'm sorry," he said kindly. "I...got a little carried away. Joe knows me too well." He paused, waiting for her acceptance; when the message hit home in her eyes, he dredged up a smile.
"What are you going to do, Adam?" Joe asked. "About MacLeod."
"Just what I said." Methos rose from the bed and searched Mac's dresser for a decent shirt. "I'm going to find and kill Cassandra, and then quite possibly kill MacLeod as well. It depends entirely on how good he is at abject apologies and promises of undying gratitude for sparing his life."
Joe smirked. "Never his strong points."
"Then we'll just have to see, won't we?" Methos pulled a dark blue sweater over his head, adjusting the sleeves automatically. He'd gotten used to borrowed clothes in the past few days. "Now, Marta. The address?"
"Here." She'd written it on a post-it note, which made Methos smile. Three fates bound up in splashes of ink on a sticky square of yellow paper. Completely disposable. I hope that's not an omen...
"Thank you," he said, taking the paper and holding her hand a moment longer. "Your help has been invaluable to us." He smiled, turning on the patented Adam Pierson charm.
"I shouldn't have given Duncan the address," she said softly. "It was a mistake, wasn't it?" She bit at her lower lip, the uncertainty in her eyes making her look ten years younger.
Methos laughed softly, sharing an amused glance with Joe. "It's not an exclusive club you've joined, Marta. Nobody resists Mac when he's made up his mind. I've been practicing for over a year, and I'm still not any good at it."
"Better than most," Joe said, smiling. "And he knows it."
"Which is why I'm going to have to spend an hour at least getting tire tracks off my coat when this is all over. Just one of the many joys of friendship with Duncan MacLeod." Methos picked up the coat in question and eyed it critically. Good thing it's black...between the tire tracks and the blood, anything else and I'd be a walking advertisement for Immortality...
He shrugged into the coat, checking his weapons' placement in a practiced, subtle movement. "Joe, if he comes back while I'm away..."
"Thanks.""Be careful, Adam," Joe said quietly as Methos stepped into the elevator.
Methos smiled, pulling down the guard. "Is there some other way to be?"
The drive through rain and black satin streets seemed to take forever, though in truth the warehouse was no more than fifteen minutes from the loft. Each second that passed brought Methos closer to panic; fighting it back had become second nature, barely noticed as his eyes scanned the buildings, looking for the right number. The cell phone in his pocket remained stubbornly silent, as he'd expected; it had been too much to hope that Cassandra would have challenged fairly. Methos' hands clenched the wheel tightly, trying not to think beyond the moment. Find the warehouse. Worry about the rest of it later.
And there it was, corrugated walls rising over the street like those of a fortress. Methos climbed out of the car and went directly to the door, nearly ripping it off of its hinges.
Inside, darkness and silence. Empty. No Immortal Presence, no mortals...nothing. Methos cursed, his voice echoing against the far walls, and strode out into the center of the floor.
There had to be something. Only that thought held him on the razor-edge of sanity. Cassandra wanted him, and she would have known he'd come, would have made provision for his arrival. She would have left a clue, somehow, to bring him to her. He moved quietly among stacked boxes, searching, the dim light filtering through dirty windows just enough to throw pools of shadow against the floor and walls. Just enough to make the search a challenge.
He found it in a box in one of the far corners of the room. A cellular phone much like his own, a note taped to the back. A tremor shook him, a sense of foreboding triggering adrenaline into his system, chemical fear.
"Leave this place and he dies," Methos read aloud, his voice shaking. "Wait."
Wait. Oh, she'd learned. One word to freeze his heart in his chest, one word to bring the blind panic crashing down on him. Kronos had thought Methos understood the true use of terror better than anyone, but this was a lesson even for him. Wait, she instructed... and wonder. The words weren't on the paper, but she knew they'd be in his mind. Wonder where she was, where MacLeod was, what had been done to him. Was he even still alive? Was Methos' mission one of rescue...or revenge?
He closed his eyes, blocking out his surroundings and reaching deep inside for calm. She wanted him frantic; Methos couldn't give her that edge.
His teeth ached as his jaw clenched painfully. Leaning against a row of boxes, he waited.
There was nothing else he could do.
"Duncan...how can you have come to this? How can the man you were have become his?"
Her voice was so soft, so sweet. MacLeod closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of her, sickened at what she'd become. He didn't bother to answer; she'd been questioning him for hours, taunting him, and none of the answers he gave were the right ones. None of them appeased the hunger shining in her eyes, incandescent.
Her hatred made her beautiful. The bright eyes, the fire that had burned away the non-essentials until only the purity of purpose remained. Her color was high, cheeks reddened with the passionate intensity of loathing. MacLeod could almost feel the heat of it pouring off of her.
Gone were the trappings of high society, the jewelry and silk a hindrance long surrendered. Denim jeans and a dark sweater hung on her spare frame, fashion sacrificed to functionality. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face, put up in a high pony tail that made her look young. The irony was not lost on MacLeod: Three thousand years of hatred burning in the body of a woman who looked no more than thirty.
Useless to try again, but he couldn't stop himself. "Cassandra, it doesn't have to be this way. You can let go of the hate. You can start your life again."
She smiled at him, kneeling down and placing a gentle hand on his knee. He would have covered the hand with one of his own, if they hadn't been bound behind him. "I can't let go of hate, Duncan. I am hate." Her voice was soft, almost reasonable. "He has to die for what he did to me...to my people. Surely you know that. You've revenged yourself on others for less than the crimes Methos has committed."
"It's not the same," he said patiently. "What Methos did was over two thousand years ago. He's a different man now, Cassandra."
"Is he? Good for him, then. Perhaps if I'd become a different woman I could forgive him, too. But I wasn't allowed, Duncan. I was taken out of the life I should have lived and made into something ugly and worthless, something less than human, and I will never have back the woman I should have been."
"You could, if you tried. But you stopped trying a long time ago, didn't you?"
She was quick, and the pain excruciating. He gritted his teeth, determined not to cry out as she twisted the knife she'd sunk into his thigh and wrenched it from the flesh. "Don't be snide, Duncan," she said coolly. "It doesn't suit you."
One of a thousand agonies.
"He loves you very much."
Methos fought back rage, panic, his fingers tightening on the phone. It had been hours -- hours of insanity, hope warring with fear and despair until finally he shoved it all away, closed his eyes and wrapped himself in the bliss of numbness and shock. The shrilling of the cell phone tore that hard-won calm away from him, slamming him back into a maelstrom of quicksilver pain.
Her voice dripped with venom and madness; it sounded very like his own.
"If you harm him, you will die for it."
"Your presence in his life has damaged him far more than I ever could...but I'm willing to try, Methos. You will follow my instructions to the letter, won't you? For his sake?"
"Why are you doing this? What can you possibly hope to gain?"
"At first I just wanted your head," she said, laughing quietly. "But then I would have to carry you inside me for the rest of my life. That thought repulses me now as much as it did then, Methos."
"What then? What will it take, Cassandra? Tell me what I have to do."
"Listen to me very carefully..."
She was alone. No signature of Presence other than hers thrummed in his blood as he approached the condemned building, and fear rose up in him like he'd never known. Cassandra saw it, and laughed. Something tore inside him at the sound, something fragile and precious to him, and hatred welled into his heart to replace it.
"I knew you'd come," she said. "Duncan said you wouldn't, but I knew. You don't release things that belong to you so easily."
"Where is he?" Methos voice cut through Cassandra's laughter like a blade, his heart racing in his chest as panic threatened.
"You're too late," she hissed. "He's out of your reach now, Methos, as he should have been from the start."
"If you've harmed him--"
"A threat! How very original," she laughed, dark eyes gleaming with a hatred that had long since slipped into madness. He didn't know how he'd missed it before. Recriminations rose inside him, blame, guilt...he pushed it aside. He'd thought she posed no danger to MacLeod; he'd been wrong, and now he paid the price.
So would she.
They circled, blades leveled across the space between them.
"You're the one who killed him," she said softly. "Your touch is Death. Your love is Death. It doesn't matter who held the blade, Methos. It's you who struck the blow."
"Why?" Methos demanded, fighting back the fear in his voice, the crippling certainty.
Cassandra's whisper was thick with rage. "Because he begged me for your life," she said. "Because he loved you."
"He trusted you. He was your friend!"
"Until he was yours!" she shouted back, her voice hoarse with fury. "You turned him against me. You brought him into your evil, you made him a part of it. Of you." The words dropped into a hiss. "Duncan MacLeod was a good man, and you killed him, Methos, as surely as if you took his head yourself. And now you're going to die for it."
"Someone is," Methos confirmed, his tone sharp and cold as a blade of ice.
And then he struck.
She was no match for him. He could see it in the way she held her blade, the way her attacks faltered when they came together. Slowly, deliberately, he backed her down, his sword flashing out and tangling with hers, ignoring the occasional touch she scored.
Finally, the opening came. He took it without thinking, moving in, hand snaking out to grab her wrist and turn it. He heard the snap of breaking bones, and smiled, increasing the pressure until she cried out and dropped her weapon.
His blade at her throat, he pressed her down to her knees. The steel caught what light there was and reflected it up into her eyes, dark with hate and the rage of frustrated vengeance.
"You bastard," she said, gasping for breath, leaning away as he pressed the edge into her skin.
"Does this begin to feel familiar to you, Cassandra?" he whispered softly, matching her gaze with his own wine-dark fury.
"Finish it, Horseman," she grated out. "You've waited three thousand years."
"A few more moments won't hurt," he answered mildly. Casually, he drew his blade across her throat, just breaking the skin, moving around her body in a tight orbit. The circle never completely closed, flesh sealing itself as the edge passed through only to open again on the next pass. "First, you're going to tell me where I'll find MacLeod."
"Then you'll tell me where I'll find his body, Cassandra, but you will tell me, make no mistake." The promise in his voice ran strong and true; there was pain in it, and anger, and the ringing solidity of iron will. "Cast your mind back," he suggested. "You know what I can do. You remember, don't you? How long it can take to die? How many times you can come back, only to find more pain, more humiliation?"
"I'm not afraid of you now," she said. It was a lie; the low, dark tremor in her voice gave her away.
"You fear me now more than ever," he said, laughing in pleasure at the terror behind her bravado. It felt good, so right, that the woman who had killed MacLeod should know the same kind of fear she'd caused. It was a deep, powerful thing, to end a life that could have been eternal; Methos steeled himself against the shining rush of exhilaration. Deep breaths filled the silence between them as he fought for conrol, for a clear, sane space between two gathering darknesses: The evil in his past, and the despair that stretched out ahead.
And he found, at the last, that there was no such space to be had. When he spoke again, it was no longer from the knife's edge of control, but rather from the ease of surrender. "Before, it was training," he said softly. "I taught you, you learned, and it ended. You remember?"
"I remember everything," Cassandra whispered.
"Now, though," he said, letting the sword press deeper into the luminous glow of her throat. "Now I want one thing from you, Cassandra, one small thing. You will give it to me...or I will send you to hell with your soul screaming an agony it will never forget. Do you understand?"
She waited in silence, and Methos nodded slowly. He hadn't expected it to be easy. Part of him recoiled from what he was about to do, despising himself....but another part, a stronger and older part, rejoiced at the freedom. The wild darkness surged into him again, around him, and he couldn't stop the gentle, terrible smile that found its way to his lips through the horror.
The sword sliced downward, taking a layer of skin from her shoulder, down the outside of her arm, drawing blood and a cry of pain. His voice thick with passions three thousand years dormant, he said, "It begins."
Her screams echoed in his ears. Sweet.
It became worse.
Sickened, Methos stumbled out of the warehouse and into the street, the cold fire of Cassandra's Quickening burning deep and hateful within him. It hadn't taken long to break her; more than anything else, the memory of ancient pain had worked its way upon her soul. She'd sobbed out the address at the last, begging him to finish her, and he had -- at the last -- complied. It had filled him with a terrifying joy to see her cringing before him as she had three thousand years in the past, and it was that, more than her request, that made him kill her. Mercy, yes, but not for her. For himself.
Everything he had been was with him now. Shifting, rising. Integrating. The Horseman, just behind him in the shadows of his mind. And now Cassandra's Quickening was his; her hatred and the pain that he'd wrenched out of her last moments of life burned in his heart with a dark and searing flame.
She was well revenged upon him. She had won.
It took him five minutes to run the distance to the abandoned apartment building where, he was sure, he would find MacLeod's remains.
He saw the blood first. It covered everything: MacLeod's clothes, his face, his hair. The floor beneath him. The ropes that bound him. Everything was red. Even so, for a moment, relief threatened to overpower him; the throat was whole. MacLeod would live again.
But then...then he saw the unnatural angle of the arms, bent backward over the chair and around the support column to which he was tied. Dislocated, a cold part of him catalogued. Both of them. The same part of his mind noted the misshapen bare feet, skin purpled from the blows that had shattered the bones.
And then he saw the face.
It was unrecognizable. If not for the hair, if not for the clothing, he might not have known that the wreck of a body before him belonged to Duncan MacLeod. The jawbone was broken in several places, bone showing through the skin; it hung slack, revealing broken teeth and a dry, swollen tongue. One cheekbone had been smashed to concavity, the nose was broken and misaligned. Duncan's right eye was a ruin of blood and tissue.
Methos calmly, deliberately shut down the part of himself that cautioned against rage. It was to be his last moment of sanity for some time.
It took him fifteen seconds to kill both of the men Cassandra had set to guard MacLeod. He didn't use his sword. His fury was glacial, but it demanded contact. One man died as Methos crushed his windpipe. He watched this man's eyes as the air in his lungs became something useless to him, as his chest spasmed, trying to expand. It could have been faster, but Methos wanted to see the life fade from his eyes, leaving only the terror and pain of death behind.
The second man took longer. A large ring on his right hand matched a cut over MacLeod's forehead. This man died with Methos' hand around his heart. He cut deep with a blade he'd taken from the man's own hand, just under the ribs. His hand jerked upwards, behind the sternum until he could feel the waning drum of the man's pulse. He withdrew, dropped the dagger, and drove his hand deep, a motion learned in a time almost forgotten. The silken feel of blood and tissue over his skin awakened memories long buried, and his grip tightened, fingers sinking in, feeling the man's life force slip away.
At the end, the guard lost control of his bowels. The stench was as familiar as the sensuous glide of carnage over his hands; Methos' breath came fast and hard as his muscles clenched, yanking his hand down and out of the man's body, heart still clasped within his iron grip. The resistance as veins and arteries snapped away from the organ was too slight to be a hindrance; in the end, he stood with the man's steaming heart in his hand, blood coating his arm to the shoulder, a splash of blood over one cheek. The coppery smell of it brought a feral grin to Methos' lips, and a dark red rush of pleasure and adrenaline ripped through his body. He welcomed it, trembled with the force of it, allowing his eyes to drift closed for a span of seconds, savoring.
When the tremors had run their course, Methos' eyes opened. The red haze that had engulfed him retreated, but hovered just at the edge of sensation, waiting. With deliberate motions, Methos dropped the second guard's heart and wiped his hands on the coat of the first. He moved to MacLeod then, untied the ropes at his wrists and feet.
MacLeod wasn't breathing; that was to be expected. Methos had never seen anyone, Immortal or otherwise, with injuries so extreme over so much of the body. He carefully examined the worst of it, the eye, and determined to his satisfaction that enough tissue remained; it would heal.
Methos reached into the pocket of his coat and retrieved the cellular phone within. He dialed, waited, then spoke.
"It's over," he said.
"What happened?" Joe's tone carried a great deal of worry, and only the barest trace of recognition. "Is Mac all right?"
"He's dead, but not for long. He'll be fine. I've left quite a clutter at the corner of 2nd and Cross. There's a condemned apartment building. 5-D. You may want to send a few of your tattooed friends for the clean-up."
There was a moment of digestive silence as Joe broke that down into its many implications. "Are you all right?" he asked finally.
There was no answer to that question. Methos couldn't even think in those terms.
"Adam is dead, too."
Without another word, he closed the phone, disconnecting, and set about freeing his friend.
It couldn't be the loft, but neither could it be anywhere else. Methos' apartment was too small, and there were too few of the comforts MacLeod would need even after his body recovered. At the loft there was a soft bed that would be familiar to Mac, food both for the body and the soul, a tub to soak the ache from mending bones... but there would also be interruptions. Joe, Marta, Richie, possibly Amanda. Definitely Amanda; she'd had plans to return after her morning visit. God, was that just this morning...?
He would send them away, if they were lucky. If he were lucky. Otherwise, he'd kill them.
Methos parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant and on the wrong side of the street, right in front of the entrance to the Dojo. He opened the rear door and hauled MacLeod out, ignoring the flash of hot pain that shot through his arms and shoulders as he gathered the man's not inconsiderable weight into his arms. He didn't have the luxury of being gentle; if he were caught on the sidewalk with a dead man, there would be questions raised he wasn't ready to answer and repercussions he didn't even want to think about.
For once, Methos didn't curse MacLeod for the lack of security; he was glad to find the door unlocked, gladder still that there were no alarms to trip on his way in. Not so glad to find Ryan upstairs, pacing, sword at the ready and a fierceness in his eyes Methos had never seen there before.
"Get the guard up," Methos ordered. The authority in his tone was absolute, and it had the desired effect. Shocked out of his anger and fear, Richie dropped his blade without thinking and went to help.
The kid was quick; he reached beneath Mac's body and grasped Methos' arms, forming a cradle for the body between them and taking half of the weight. Methos felt fire searing along muscles that had gone dead from the weight and pressure, and winced in mingled pain and gratitude. Perhaps Ryan's presence wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"Bed?" Ryan asked, green eyes flicking over Mac's body and then up.
"Shower," Methos answered. "I couldn't save him; the least I can do is save his sheets."
Once in the bathroom, they leaned Mac up against the back of the shower and stripped him. It was all Methos could do to keep his last meal down; MacLeod was drenched in his own blood, drying dark rust-red over every part of his body. The wounds beneath were gone for the most part, but the blood was a potent reminder of the agony the man had suffered. Methos felt the darkness, the anger, rising in him again and clamped down on it, battling it away with closed eyes and steady, tidal breaths.
Many of the bruises had faded completely, and the ones that remained had gone greenish-yellow with healing. The cuts were completely healed. Only the bones had yet to knit, and Methos was glad of it; he'd not yet had a chance to fix Mac's shoulders, align them so they'd heal properly. "Hold him," he ordered Ryan, waiting only a moment for compliance. With a wrenching twist, Methos popped MacLeod's shoulders back into their sockets, first the left, then the right. Ryan's face was white, but his eyes were steady; he was stronger than Methos had thought.
"What's wrong with his eye?" Ryan said, low-voiced, as if he might wake MacLeod from death with too much noise.
"They tried to put it out. It'll be okay." Already, there was a slight swell beneath the eyelid, healing proceeding apace beneath the skin.
"Yes. All of them. Unpleasantly."
"Good." There was a note in Ryan's voice that suggested he might have liked to watch.
Methos waved Ryan back, away from the tub, and started the water running.
"You're going to...bathe him?"
Methos looked up, met Ryan's eyes calmly. "Somebody has to. You asking for the job, kid?"
"Then why don't you go get the bed ready? I'll call you when I need you."
"Right. Great. The bed." Ryan backed out of the room, closing the door behind him, and Methos sighed. The young were getting younger every day.
The water had warmed, and Methos dipped a soft cloth into it, running it gently over the Highlander's shoulders. In only a few seconds, the water ran red. He let it drain, refilled the tub; the sequence had to be repeated three times before the body beneath his hands was clean. Several times Methos had to stop, to back away from the tub and press himself against the far wall, squeezing his eyes closed and clutching his head between trembling hands as he reached for control of his anger. He wanted nothing more than to rend something, break something, shatter it beyond recognition. His enemies were dead, all the people who had brought the two of them to this little room. A room that should never have smelled of carnage and death.
They were dead, but the desire to kill had not been satisfied. He'd needed time to kill them slowly, but there hadn't been enough. He thought he might hate himself forever, for not taking the time to do it right, to give them the deaths they had deserved. And he thought he might feel that need forever.
He shook himself, and stood. Pushed away the darkness yet again. Mac still needed him.
Methos drained the tub again, and turned on the shower, letting the spray wash away the last of the blood from the porcelain and the body it supported.
"Ryan," he said, barely raising his voice, knowing the kid would hear him. The door opened instantly, proving him right.
"Here. What can I do?"
"Help me lift him. We'll get him dry, and then into bed." They worked in silence, Ryan supporting Mac's weight while Methos dried him with a large bathsheet. Minutes later, MacLeod was in his own bed.
"Adam..." Ryan paused, started again. "Methos, I need to know what happened."
"Give me a hand here." Together, they moved the heavy armchair from its place by the couch over to the head of the bed, and Methos sank into it, his body automatically conforming to the leather contours. "Rich, I know you want answers," he said, eyes drifting shut in spite of his best efforts to keep them open. "You'll have to get them from Joe. I can't do it now."
"Damn it, I--"
Methos' eyes snapped open at the tone of Ryan's voice, and the look in them stopped the young man cold. "Get out, kid," he said softly. "While I'm still in a mood to let you."
"This is a battle you're going to choose, then?" Ryan's voice was hard, edged, but there was a note of resignation in it. His eyes, too, were clearer, as if whatever had been pushing him forward had backed off.
Methos smiled a little, a vicious expression that felt both alien and comfortable on his lips. "It chose me a long time ago. Be careful it doesn't choose you, as well."
"I'll go downstairs," Ryan said. "But I'm not leaving. He's my friend. If that's not good enough, you're gonna have to use more than words."
Methos waved a weary hand at him, letting the anger slip out of his expression. "Just go. Call Joe, tell him everything's going to be okay. Tell him not to come over. I'll let you know when Mac comes out of it, all right?"
Methos closed his eyes. God, but I'm tired. "He's going to be fine," he repeated. Each time he said the words, he believed them a little less. Wouldn't do to let Ryan see that, though. "He just needs to rest. So do I," he finished pointedly, glancing at the elevator.
The sound of the elevator gearing up was like music. Methos sank even deeper into the chair, tension flooding out of him with the fading of Ryan's Presence. No need to pretend anymore. No need to keep his emotions leashed, his fears hidden.
Mac had been out too long.
He's an Immortal, Methos said to himself, trying to banish the sick dread that clutched at his heart. His head is still attached to his shoulders. That's all that matters.
If he'd been able to believe that, the soft groan from the bed wouldn't have been half so surprising.
Life and pain seeped into MacLeod's body as one, death giving way before the inevitable renewal of Immortal flesh. Neurons flared into white-hot agony in his feet and hands, joined by the dull, pounding ache behind his right eye. He tried to speak, to move, and managed only a groan and the twitch of a hand.
"It's all right," a voice said. He cringed away from it, panic returning, memory. He curled away from the touch of gentle hands, waiting for the hurting to begin again. How many times...? How many deaths...? He'd stopped counting, stopped caring, craving unconsciousness like a drug as she'd torn him again and again, waiting for life to return and then starting over. The question, always the question, where was he...? Where was Methos?
"I'm here, Mac," the voice said, whispering, cutting beneath the fear. Methos...? "You're at home, you're in the loft. It's all right..." The touch came again, soothing against his cheek.
And sanity returned.
"Shh. Don't try to talk yet. Your throat will heal more quickly if you stay quiet."
Something was wrong with Methos' voice. It was ragged, thick... Could he be...?
Mac turned, opened his eyes. From the right, there was only a blur -- light, but no resolution. From the left, though, he could see clearly. There were tears running down Methos' cheeks, and the hand that touched his face was trembling.
Mac wet his lips, swallowed. Forced out the words. "Are...you all right?"
He watched, relieved, as Methos' eyes widened, heard a strangled laugh rumbling from the man's throat. "You are a Boyscout, Mac."
"Somebody's got to be." The words were coming easier now, clearer. "Water...?"
"Five seconds. Don't go anywhere."
It was more than five seconds. Mac counted. Maybe he needs the time to get himself under control... He made it to sixty before Methos returned with a steaming mug. "What...?"
"Apple mint tea," Methos said, smiling a little. There was no trace of tears on his face, no redness in his eyes. "I understand it's great for coming back from the dead."
Mac sipped slowly, making a face. Methos had been right -- the stuff was awful. He surrendered the mug willingly when his friend took it and set it aside. He lay back against the pillows, reveling in the gradual surcease of pain. Methos reached out and pushed back a lock of his hair, fingers brushing gently over his skin, and Mac smiled. "That feels good," he said, letting his eyes close. His smile widened when the soft stroking continued.
"How are you?" Methos asked quietly.
"Mending. Feet are the worst. Right eye."
"Yes, I know."
"Pain's fading, though. I'll be fine in a few minutes."
"I am an Immortal, Methos. There are certain advantages."
Methos laughed softly. "So there are."
The caress stopped abruptly, the hand withdrawn. Mac opened his eyes, and caught his breath. The expression on his friend's face was...dead. Completely closed off, totally withdrawn. Concern for his friend returned full force. "Methos?"
"She's dead," Methos said shortly. The voice was the same as his face, revealing nothing.
"Change the subject, Mac," Methos said, cold eyes settling on his.
Mac nodded, frowning slightly. He was willing to do that, to do anything, to take that look off Methos' face.
For now. He didn't have the energy for a discussion anyway. "Methos?"
"Could you...get me something to eat?"
"You know I'm not much of a cook--" Methos began.
"I need strength to heal," Mac said, smiling ingenuously at the expression of consternation on his friend's face. A little food won't do you any harm, either...
Methos scowled. "Whining is a definite sign of improvement."
"I have ice cream in the freezer."
"Ice cream? You've been dead for over an hour, and you want ice cream?"
"It's strawberry ice cream. Practically health food. Vitamin C."
"I think we've been spending too much time together, Mac," Methos said, chuckling. "You're picking up bad habits."
"You pick up a few good ones, we'll call it even."
"Don't hold your breath."
Mac grinned, and sat up. Methos was at his side instantly, supporting him, checking his eye carefully. Mac batted his hand away. "It's okay now," he said, opening both eyes wide as evidence. Already, his vision was perfect.
"Fine, fine." Methos pulled back and started to rise.
Mac's hand flashed out, clamped down on his friend's wrist. "Wait."
Methos had frozen, eyes on Mac's hand. "That hurts," he said softly.
Mac let up a little, but didn't let go. "I'm sorry. I just...don't want you to go just yet. Would you stick around a while?"
The older man swallowed, cleared his throat. "A while?"
"A few hours?"
"No more than a day," Methos said.
"A week, tops. No longer."
"Pushing, aren't you?" Mac said, grinning. His hand drifted up, fingers skimming over Methos' throat, his jawline. "How long can you stay?"
Their eyes met -- locked and held. Methos leaned in close, so close Mac could feel his breath. "How long do you think you'll need me?"
"How long do you think you have?"
Lips claimed his, strong, soft, stealing the last of the words, and Mac pressed closer, opening to the kiss. It was slow, thorough, less passion than homecoming. Less heat than comfort. Methos' taste was as warm and unique as he'd remembered, his touch a welcome reminder of safety and peace.
When he finally pulled back, Methos was smiling. "I have as long as it takes," he said.
And reached for Mac again.