Pathways Through Darkness
by Meredith Lynne


"You're not alone. Not out here...and not in there."

Methos stretched out a hand and laid it gently over his friend's heart, taking comfort in the rhythm of the strong, steady beat beneath his fingertips. The briefest of touches...all that was allowed before Mac backed away from him, brow furrowed with confusion. Fear and anger flashed through those expressive brown eyes, always so kind before, only to be replaced with desperation...and hope? Quickly concealed, covered over with an anguish so deep it cut them both to the core.

The world's oldest living Immortal was running on empty, and he knew it. He was fresh out of ideas, fresh out of patience, fresh out of anything resembling a coherent response to the situation. The only thought in his mind had been to find MacLeod; in his arrogance, he'd assumed that would be enough. Surely the Highlander would listen to him. Surely there was no darkness in the man Methos couldn't banish. He hadn't really believed Duncan MacLeod could have moved out of his reach, become something...other...than what he had always been. Devoted friend, kind companion, defender of innocents.

His Boy scout.

The little chapel on the cliffs had convinced him. The man in there...the man who'd held a sword to his throat on Holy Ground...had not been Duncan MacLeod, couldn't have been. For a moment, Methos had seen his own death in that stranger's eyes, and he'd quailed before it, feeling terror. Feeling mortal.

[Duncan, I know what's happening.] Had he actually possessed the arrogance to say that? Was it any wonder, then, that the man had wanted to kill him? He'd used MacLeod's first name like a talisman, as if by naming him he could somehow reclaim the man he'd been. Failure, again, and rising panic as the Highlander advanced on him, eyes empty of anything resembling sanity, ready to break even that most sacred of the Rules in his madness. Held back by only the thinnest thread of reason, yet still moved to violence, he'd thrown Methos across the room like an ill-favored doll.

And yet... Mac had let him go.

The things Methos had promised to deities past and present would keep him busy well into the next millennium, should he live that long, but it had been worth it. Both of them had escaped the crucible with their lives...that time.

And then there was Sean. When he'd thought it couldn't get any worse... Hope flaring - [YES, Highlander, go to him, let him heal you if I can't...] - and then dying suddenly, as suddenly as Sean did, blotted out in a moment of irrevocable horror. He didn't think he'd ever be able to erase the image of MacLeod smiling over his friend's corpse, flushed with pleasure, delighted with the killing... it was at odds with everything he knew, that this man should wear such an expression. Watching him had been like looking into a mirror. The callous selfishness and thoughtless self-gratification of the man Methos had once been now twisted MacLeod's countenance into something ugly and foreign.

Mac had come for him again. And again, been unable to harm him. Maybe it was friendship...but maybe it was self-preservation, too. Maybe some part of Duncan MacLeod, a part that still remembered light, recognized in Methos something that was dark. Something that, unleashed into him with the power of a five thousand-year-old Quickening, could destroy the good in him utterly, forever.

Even with the death of Sean Burns on his conscience, MacLeod was an amateur in comparison with the man Methos had been. A little seduction, a few brawls, a bit of murder between friends... nothing unfamiliar to the world's oldest Immortal. A thousand years ago, Methos would have looked the other way. Two thousand, and he'd have joined the rampage. Three thousand, and he'd have orchestrated it.

Today, though, he'd torn about the City of Lights like a madman to stop it, a menace on four wheels as he'd tracked his quarry through the rain-slicked streets of Paris.

From the chapel to Sean. And from Sean, inevitably, to Darius.

A plan was needed and, being Methos, he had one. The trick would be to survive it, and to keep MacLeod alive as well.

[You're too important to lose!]

The words echoed now in Methos' mind, his own voice raised in panic. He didn't know where they'd come from, but they rang of deep truth, clear and strong. Too important - far, far too important - and not just within the context of the Game. Methos was exhausted beyond pretending and beyond caring who knew it; the casual friendship between the two men had deepened into something more than the oldest Immortal's quest to relieve his boredom or to challenge his intellect. Into something he feared to examine, but dared not deny.

Something vital that bound them together with a force like gravity, binary stars drawn into a shared destiny, interdependent.

Methos had not gone out of his way to gain MacLeod's trust; he'd assumed it as his right, had taken the role of mentor as if he'd been born to teach the man. He wasn't sure Mac had even been aware of that level of their relationship; the Scot's own style of tutoring, evidenced by his often adversarial and rocky relationship with Richard Ryan, was heavy-handed. Overt. Methos' methods were much more low-key, easing his friend into quiet moments of understanding. Only rarely direct, wielding wisdom like a sword only when other methods failed to penetrate the Highlander's cocoon of outdated ethics and dangerously selfless honor. Methos seldom offered answers, seldom led, relying on the journey to the question to deliver whatever insight his student might require.

His student.

It was a sacred bond, never formalized but etched deep in his heart all the same. It had seemed...safer, somehow...to let MacLeod think of him as nothing more than a companion. The two men had searched one another out again and again, fumbling by slow stages toward a friendship forged on their own terms, separate from the marrow-deep connection, the intensity that sparked between them like the clash of sharp-honed blades.

In an apartment in Paris, rather more expensive than Adam Pierson could afford, their eyes had met for the first time and something had clicked into place, almost audible. Permanent, precious. Predestined.

[Mi casa es su casa,] Methos had said, never guessing how completely, devastatingly prophetic those words had been -- until now. [My house. My home. My life. Yours, and yours mine.] Not given over, but shared. Not surrendered, but encompassed. Bonded closer than brothers, each a shield for the other against all comers. Neither prepared for it, both daunted by the strength of it, neither able to resist it. A friendship surpassing all that had come before.

Selfish. The gods knew the Highlander had needed a teacher more than he'd needed yet another friend, but Methos had allowed his own needs to rule him and now he paid the price. Authority had been sacrificed to affection, strength given over to subtlety. The moment of truth was upon them, and he was weaponless; the influence he might have wielded as MacLeod's mentor lost to him, he was forced to depend on the potency of that deeper bond -- known, accepted, but unspoken. Untried.

And so he had come here, to this darkened chapel, to this place that spoke to both men more of Darius than of gods. There was one chance, one hope for Duncan MacLeod, and Methos intended to see that hope fulfilled.

The alternative was...unthinkable.

On the way to the church, Methos found himself talking to Sean Burns. Praying, a less cynical man would have termed it; pleading was as far as Methos would go. Broadcasting hope to whatever part of Sean might have settled into MacLeod with the Quickening. [He needs you, Sean...we need you...be there for him. Be the balance. He can't reach himself...let him reach you...] The words became a mantra, repeating in his mind, an endless loop of supplication to a dead man. A man whose skill and courage might have saved MacLeod, eventually, but whose death...

Whose death might serve him just as well.

"Why are you in a church, MacLeod, why did you come?" He stood before MacLeod in the darkness before the altar and refused to back down. This was his last chance, MacLeod's last chance. Beyond this moment lay despair. "Because Sean Burns is with you. His goodness is a part of you, feel him." [It's enough. It's got to be enough. Now, Sean. Now or never.] "Take his strength, and yours, and come with me."

Eternal moments without breath, wanting to stop even his heartbeat lest the sound of it break through the tenuous connection that stretched between them. Caught between moments, searching earth-brown eyes for any trace of the man who'd come to mean so much to him.

And, at long last, finding it. Relief washing over him like a long-awaited tide, and his body sagging in its wake, momentarily weakened by the depth of it.

Faith rewarded, determination renewed, Methos held fast to the Highlander's gaze and called upon the last of his reserves to get both of them through the next vital steps alive.


Mindless chatter, he couldn't stop himself, needing to re-establish some sense of normalcy for both of them. Something the Highlander could hold on to, to remind him of brighter times. "There are, indeed, those who say...it's magic..."

And then there was pain, exploding into his head, the blow's force spinning him against the car.

"I can't do this."

The words hoarse, torn out of MacLeod's throat, a final warning before mayhem. Fear destroyed and remade Methos in an instant, energizing him. No time to think, he'd known there wouldn't be; the plan had been laid, and he acted without reflection, diving toward the backseat as words tumbled from his lips, anything to gain a few more seconds...

"Fight it! Fight it like you have fought every evil thing in your life, because that is what you are up against!" Reaching the weapon as MacLeod closed on him, the fire of murder in his dark eyes. Grasping it, shaking hands on chilled metal, wrapping it in a tartan that should speak to the depths of his friend's soul.

And offering it. Arming him. Handing over the sword, and his life, in a moment of fatalistic abandon. Surrendering fear to a trust so deep it defied questioning.

It simply was, and it was right. It blazed out of his eyes as they caught MacLeod's. Burned through the layers of anger and doubt and fear. Locked, finally, with the tenuous control the younger man struggled to maintain and fed it, reinforced it. [This is my faith, Highlander. Take it. Take whatever strength you need and fight your way back to me...]

"Remember who you are! Remember this," Methos commanded with all the authority he could summon. "It belongs in your hand. Take it!"

And MacLeod touched it. Took it. Fingers closing around it, clinging to the solid evidence of his identity. His father's sword, and then his; never claimed, never forgotten, all other weapons a substitute for this one...the one of which he judged himself unworthy.

Joe had told Methos the story. The father's repudiation, the mother's pleading, MacLeod's refusal to take the sword as his own. Four hundred years of self-doubt bound up in three feet of gleaming steel -- either the key to Duncan MacLeod's salvation, or the final tool of his destruction.

Was he Duncan MacLeod? Did he still want to be? Methos found he couldn't breathe, the air so thick with warring emotions he couldn't draw it in. The battle lines were drawn, etched deep in Mac's face, the stranger's face, darkness and light clashing in coffee-colored eyes. The oldest Immortal watched the struggle play out with nothing like the detachment he craved, his world hanging in the balance, MacLeod's fate and his own intertwined as they had been from the first moment of meeting.

This threat, though...this enemy...came from within. All said and done, MacLeod would have to fight this war alone.

The moment that seemed to span eternity lingered...tipped....and fell into the past. Fragile calm settled into the Highlander's eyes, held in place with an iron will. The first battle won, or at least stalemated, MacLeod turned from Methos and started down the trail.

Sword clenched tight in white-knuckled ferocity, held before him like a talisman.


Descent.

Methos watched him go, sitting among the leaves scattered about the entrance of the well, dampness from an earlier rain seeping through his clothes all but unnoticed. Overhead, the sky was swollen with incipient torrents, grey and bleak, distant thunder and flashes of far-off lightning eloquent warning of coming tempest.


Epilogue:

Hands behind him, clenched tight about the hilt of MacLeod's katana, Methos approached the pool. The Highlander stood waist deep in the water, sword just visible beneath the surface, silent. Unmoving.

Expressionless.

"MacLeod?" Breathless, desperate word, almost a plea.

Slowly MacLeod's head turned, eyes searching, finding the source of the sound. The sound of his own heartbeat roared in Methos' ears, fear and hope twisting in his chest as his eyes strove to pierce the shadows. Adrenaline arced through him like electricity, a bitter taste invading his mouth as he fought back panic...

...and their eyes met.

"It's over," MacLeod said, but the words were unnecessary; Methos could see the truth in the Highlander's earth-brown eyes. Confusion, grief, memory, pain...and relief, as deep as his own.

"Then...I think this is yours...?" Revealing the sword, lips quirking in a tired, rueful smile.

"Yeah...yeah."

Nodding, MacLeod reached up for his friend's hand, acknowledging Methos' need for the weapon with a smile of his own. A sound of pure release rumbled from Methos' chest, erupting into laughter, tension receding in an instant as their hands met and clasped. He closed his eyes, savoring the contact, reveling in recognition...[Yes...this is who you are...thank you...] The last only vaguely directed but heartfelt all the same.

Methos braced himself against the stone and pulled, a low sound of effort spilling from him as he pulled Mac from the water, throwing his weight back a step to regain leverage. Breathing deeply with exertion and elation.

Holding fast a moment more, his eyes were drawn back again to the Highlander's, seeking reassurance, anchoring himself to the confirmation he found in Mac's dark gaze. Confirmation, relief...and gratitude, as eloquent as it was unspoken, wedded to the trust that had always bound them.

Gratitude and trust he didn't deserve, close as he'd come to failure. The answering rush of emotion was too much, too strong. He ignored it, retreating toward humor.

"I was in the neighborhood..." Methos began, voice faltering as MacLeod's grip on his hand tightened almost painfully. His eyes widened, a momentary flash of fear...

...dispelled, as he was pulled forward, his hand released in trade for a rough, one-armed embrace, Mac's hand tight on the back of his neck. The hard knot of fear that had gathered in Methos' chest loosened suddenly, replaced by a fierce, raw joy.

[Welcome home, Highlander.]

His own arm closing around Mac's shoulders, Methos closed his eyes against stinging tears and returned the embrace, strength for strength.


End