|The Causes Remain
Ireland, 410 AD
Methos trudged across the low, rolling hillocks on legs that literally trembled from weariness. Hunger, now a constant companion, had settled into a burning, leaden pressure in his gut, and he cursed himself again for his carelessness. He had spent too much time in Rome, and his speech and bearing were marked as a result.
Ireland was not a good place to be for a Roman, as Methos had belatedly discovered. His scant personal resources were quickly exhausted and he had been hugely unsuccessful in attaching himself to any of the numerous small courts, or in hiring himself out as a mercenary in one of the ever-present tribal conflicts. Romans were universally mistrusted, and as a consequence, Methos was homeless, destitute, cold and hungry.
And more than a little insane. Only three weeks earlier, caught in a long stretch of open country between villages and unable to snare any small game or birds in the open grassland, he had been so desperate, so weak from hunger that he had tried to eat grass. Lucidity had returned to find him rolling miserably in the dirt, folded double around the crippling stomach cramps, his face smeared with green froth. The next day he managed to catch a young hare, and ate it raw.
He had even once madly considered selling his sword, the Roman gladius he had salvaged from the Rhine massacre years before. The short blade was the one valuable thing he still owned, precious to him in many ways, but it would have been enough to garner him passage on a ship to Britain or Gaul. A brushing encounter with the humming Presence of another Immortal was enough banish that thought. Methos would survive. He had been in more desperate circumstances before, surely.
Still, it rankled that he had been reduced to stealing, looting isolated homes and farms, but such was the price of his carelessness. The Roman army had largely provided for his needs, and before that... Well, entire villages had fallen at his whim in that nightmare orgy of violence he had endured with Kronos. It had been like waking from a dream, a night terror he had shuddered off and run from like nothing he had run from before or since.
That other Methos had waded in blood and death, in savage acts of selfishness and cruelty. And this cold, hungry vagabond had killed him, discarding that dark past like a shed skin. And leaving it behind.
Wind tugged at the dark clouds, and a cold, misting rain began to fall, soaking his hair and the inadequate rags he wore. The stinging wind-driven drops biting into his face were like the final insult. Exhaustion and misery were eclipsed by disgusted anger as he slogged through the wet grass and sticky mud, cursing this entire island, the climate, the populace, the convoluted language, and most of all his own blind stupidity and overdeveloped sense of irony that had trapped him here in this most-uncivilized corner of the world.
There, just over the next rise was a stone farmhouse, far from the sheltering cluster of the village proper. With luck, they would let him shelter for the night, and without luck, well... it wouldn't be too difficult to simply take what he needed. Methos regretted the necessity of theft, but survival was a little higher than pride on his list of priorities. His stomach rolled in anticipation at the thought of a hot meal.
The central building was tidy and well-maintained, like the outlying fields and low stone fences. Methos ducked through the single door and looked around the dark, smoky interior. Nobody home. He took an automatic inventory of items that could be bartered or sold as he moved directly to the the simmering pot hanging over the hearth.
Methos collapsed to his knees, gratefully snatching the stew pot from its hook and wolfing down large handfuls of the thick, hot stuff, not caring that he burned his hands and mouth, only caring that the food was fresh and filling, and warm. Gods... no emperor's feasting table had ever been better. He sucked another greedy mouthful off his fingers.
"THIEF!!" The word was a thunderous roar behind him.
Startled, Methos jerked back, lurching to his feet, his sudden motion upturning the pot. For the barest instant his attention was split between the large man advancing on him and the equally distracting sight of his almost-dinner flowing out onto the dirt floor. Confusion and grief swirled for a moment, mingling with his helpless frustration before focusing into a diamond point of rage.
Rage Methos turned against the man storming toward him.
Methos didn't even bother to draw his sword. The farm's would-be defender was not unskilled with with the long dagger he wielded, but he was no match for the long experience and tremendous desperation of the Immortal who had come to rob him. The pathetically uneven contest was over too soon.
Methos' memories of that rainy afternoon would be forever fragmented and unclear, viewed through the double distortion of time and killing fury. There would never be any recollection of how he disarmed and felled the large man, but the look of unbelieving fear in the brawny farmer's wide blue eyes as Methos squatted over his chest, raising the impromptu weapon of the iron stew pot, the breathless excitement as he hefted the dense bulk of it, the weightless rush of acceleration as he swung it down... These impressions would be forever embossed in his mind. Methos grinned at the choked, little-girl squeal issuing incongruously from the big man on the floor as the pot connected, bouncing off the hard head with a ripe, splitting crack.
It wasn't enough. Methos' overwhelming wrath demanded more. He swung the pot in a terrible, deadly rhythm, grunting and cursing, peripherally aware of the muted bell-like ringing as the iron pot glanced off the dead man's skull.
It still wasn't enough. Methos' arm burned with the effort of pounding this miserable, smelly farmer's head into a shapeless sack. And. It. Still. Wasn't. Enough.
Something pulled at his arm and he whirled, lashing out against the solid shape that had materialized beside him, sending it flying with a grunt and a clatter of broken crockery. Methos stood, dropping the bloody pot with a soft clang and stalked toward the young woman who lay dazed, sprawled on the packed dirt.
He gripped her roughly by her shaggy blonde hair, knocking her head back against the floor as his free hand ripped at her skirts. The fear in her blue eyes was sweet, almost enough...
Methos levered her white thighs open with cruel fingers and a strong knee, lifting his tunic to drive himself brutally into her as she struggled and bucked. He punctuated his rough thrusts with sharp, backhanded blows across her face. He watched her fear mingle with pain as bruises rose in her fair cheeks, her soft lips splitting under his blows, scattering droplets of blood in a fine mist across her skin. The fear in her eyes had been sweet, but her screams were sweeter.
He pounded against her, wanting only to hurt, to humiliate... to obliterate. He needed her pain and fear as much as he needed to wipe it from her, to utterly erase the terror in her wide eyes.
It was a long time before she stopped screaming.
Methos had been right: Duncan didn't want to hear this horrible story confirmed, to see the terrible truth of it in his friend's eyes. The tension in the room was so heavy, so thick that Mac felt immobilized by it. He had insisted on hearing this, despite Methos' warning, despite having already heard a version of it from Seireadan. But he hadn't wanted to believe. Mac had hoped, vainly, that Methos would lie to him, deny the truth of the offensive druid's words. He should have known better.
"I remember looking down at her afterwards. She was so young; I learned later she was only sixteen..." Methos spoke softly, still staring intently at the coffee table. "There was so much blood everywhere. I was still kneeling there when the villagers arrived. I imagine it was her screams that summoned them." There was a pause.
"I didn't even resist them as they took me away."
Duncan was a confused tangle of conflicting emotions. He didn't know what to say, what to do. He desperately wanted to be able to lash out at something, to transform the swirling, helpless anger into physical action, to make it right by an application of force or temper. He wasn't angry specifically at Methos, and this in itself was surprising to MacLeod. Rather he was possessed of a directionless, frustrated rage that could find no easy target.
Duncan's head ached from the twin burdens he labored under: the dreadful violence of the crime, and the equally fearsome anguish in his friend's voice as he recounted the grim madness-filled episode from his past, painful ground that Methos walked again only at MacLeod's urging. Duncan fought against the need for physical action, realizing that any such display would surely be misinterpreted.
It would be too simple to let Methos bear the focus of his anger, and Mac refused to let his friend become the target of opportunity.
Duncan took a deep breath, setting aside his own churning emotions with great effort, and tried to think of the friend across from him, clearly suffering with this memory. Methos would stare a hole in the tabletop if he wasn't careful, so intensely focused was his gaze. Mac shifted against the leather cushions, absolutely unable to remain still for a moment more.
"I don't know about you, but I need a drink. Can I get you one?" Duncan stood and walked as casually as he could manage to get glasses and whisky. He didn't bother with frivolities such as ice or coffee. This was definitely a night to drink the liquor straight.
He almost smiled. Two bottles in as many nights. If they kept up this way, he and Methos might have to join one of those 12-step groups.
Methos still hadn't replied by the time Mac returned with the short tumblers and tall bottle. The old Immortal was staring at Duncan suspiciously, like Mac had suddenly turned green or sprouted antennae. No, Duncan thought with a sharp internal wrenching, he's looking at me like he expects me to start shouting. And I suppose he has a right to. Mac poured for them both, and pressed a glass into Methos' hands. Both of them had trembling hands.
"Was that when you were given to Seireadan?" He asked the question as gently as he could.
Methos tossed back the whisky with one gulp. Duncan refilled it for him as he spoke. "Yes. Seeing as how I... Because Meara had no other family, the elders gave me to her betrothed. Imagine my surprise to find out he was pre-Immortal."
"There's something I still don't understand. Why didn't he just kill you?" Mac shoved away the image of the terrified girl, dying in a pool of her own blood, Methos' long, aristocratic fingers tangled in her hair, wrenching her head back... Duncan swallowed a mouthful of burning liquor, trying to rinse away the angry violence still rising in him. If he could focus on Methos, he could get through this. He couldn't let it be about the girl, she was beyond his ability to help or avenge. No, this had to be about his friend and the insulting, irritating Seireadan who wanted to kill him.
"Oh, that's the best part, when you know the gods are watching you." Methos took another large swallow of his drink. "He was forbidden to kill me. Anything else was fair, as long as I didn't die from it."
Mac was silent, waiting for Methos to continue.
"One of the village elders had a peculiar sense of justice. I had killed, taken the girl's life, and her father's, so I had to pay for those lives with my own. Not with my death, understand, but with my life. And Seireadan took the price of that crime out of me every day for seventeen years." Methos drained the glass again and exhaled sharply.
Mac's head swam. "Seventeen years?" The thought alone made him sick, dizzy with the implications of that kind of torture for that long a time. How could even an Immortal endure that level of abuse?
Methos nodded. "I didn't realize how long it had been until near the end when I started counting the seasons. I wasn't entirely sane anymore. There are still gaps in my memory from back then." He shivered lightly, turning the glass in his hands.
"How did you escape him?" Mac asked lowly, subdued by the task of trying to fathom Methos' experience. He couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of that much torture, and wasn't sure he wanted to.
"I told you Seireadan was a pre-Immortal, hadn't had his first death yet?"
Methos' grin was savage. "I took care of that for him. I behaved myself for a couple of years, and he got careless. He gave me an opportunity, and I took it. One sunny afternoon while his back was turned, I took a log of firewood and pounded his head flat. Then I ran, and kept running." There was a faraway look in the hazel eyes as he remembered. "I only wish I'd have had the time, or a sharp enough object to finish the job, but even a feeble Quickening would have attracted more attention than I wanted just then."
Mac was silent as Methos chuckled darkly. "It took him years to find me after that. The villagers, rightfully thinking he was dead, buried him."
"God..." Mac shuddered at the abrupt memory of being buried, smothered in black earth, trapped, suffocating again and again.
"Seireadan thought I was cursed, because I healed so quickly, thought my punishment was decreed by the gods. He believed that his own Immortality was given by the gods so he could continue the torture. For all I know he still thinks he's doing his religious duty in hunting me."
"No, he wants to kill you." Mac forced his mind to latch onto that singular point. That had to be the only issue here, that Seireadan wanted Methos dead, and Mac wasn't prepared to let that happen. All else was incidental. It had to be.
"Well, that's something. I was beginning to think he was a real one-trick pony." Methos was silent as Duncan refilled the tumbler again. The hazel eyes were less than sober as they focused on him. "Mac, I'd rather die than be under his power again. I can't do it, I won't."
"You won't have to." The words were a promise.
Methos shook his head wearily. "You can't..."
"...fight your battles for you. I know." Mac smiled and sipped at his own drink. "But just this once, can I hold your coat for you?"
It was very late, and they were very drunk, having drained the first bottle of whisky and part of a second one. They put back the liquor at a frightening pace as their constitutions restored sobriety at an unfortunate rate. It was difficult for an Immortal to really tie one on, but not impossible, so they had risen to the challenge by mute agreement. Neither of them particularly wanted to be sober tonight.
Methos wasn't sure anymore what they were supposed to be talking about, but he was glad to be here. There was comfort, however illusory, in the old forms and rituals of their friendship. He and Mac would be arguing again tomorrow, or in a week, or month, but tonight... Tonight was sweet.
Methos still wasn't sure what had happened, and truthfully, he wasn't inclined to examine it too closely. The evening was winding down on a good note, especially given that he had long since expected to be on the wrong end of Duncan's katana.
The two friends were sharing a quiet moment in between bursts of conversation and increasingly rude, funny stories, most of which seemed to feature Amanda. Methos envied her the long history with MacLeod. What he had said to Joe earlier was true: he didn't have many friends, and Duncan MacLeod was precious to him on many levels. He didn't want to lose Mac, and Methos determined to cheerfully remove Seireadan's head with his teeth, if that was what it took, to prevent just such an occurrence.
He jumped at the question, yanked out of his reverie. Methos was drunk, too drunk to stay here. All of his defenses were crumbled, and he needed time and distance to rebuild them.
"I need to go," he said simply, and staggered unsteadily to his feet.
"Why don't you stay? Neither of us are in any condition to be out." Mac turned on the charm with his best version--albeit his best drunk version--of the puppy-dog look that Methos could never resist. "Please stay? You can even have the bed again if you want."
"All right, you win!" Methos chuckled at Duncan's determination. "But the sofa will be fine." He didn't mention that he never slept well on Duncan's bed, for a variety of reasons.
Mac looked at him a little strangely, then staggered off to gather pillows and blankets.
The loft echoed eerily, emptily, like a vacant house as Methos stepped cautiously across the wooden floors. Shadows shifted and flowed around him, obscuring the edges of the room. The skin on the back of his neck began to creep at the unnatural stillness of the place, the heavy mass of unmoving air that pressed against his ears.
"Mac?" The word was swallowed by the utter silence, leaving no trace of itself behind. Methos' heart began to pound; he was afraid. He didn't want to be here, this dark imitation of what had once been a haven to him, as much a home to him as any he had ever had.
Methos wanted to run, to get away, to flee this cold, silent den and whatever secrets were concealed along the shadow-lined walls. Where was the lift, the door, the window? Panic swelled inside him, making his chest tight, his breathing harsh. He had to get away. Where was the door?
Something tugged on his arm, a sharp scrabble of long fingers and Methos lashed out with a wild backhand blow, connecting solidly. He turned blindly on the dim shape of his attacker, raining down panicked punches, his own breath whistling in unsteady gasps of fright. He continued beating on the form mercilessly until it stopped struggling, only then daring to move back for a better look.
//No...// Shaggy blonde hair fanned out over the wood floor of the loft. Her clothes were torn, bloody scraps of fabric, her once-beautiful face a broken, bruised mask. Blue eyes stared at him sightlessly, the pupils hugely dilated. Blood spread out in a dark, sticky pool under her hips.
Methos began to tremble as he knelt beside her, still-warm blood soaking the knees of his jeans. He reached to smooth the disheveled skirts, trying to cover her shattered, exposed body, to hide the bruised thighs and return her some of the dignity he had stripped away with her brutal murder.
She was so young, only sixteen... He pulled her limp shape to his chest, moaning softly, rocking her like the child she was. Methos pressed a gentle kiss to her cooling forehead, tasting the blood...
...Gráinne spasmed in his arms as he rocked her, tears streaming down his face. No...
Methos pressed his hand to the vicious tear in her side, feeling the wound pulse in time to her heart, slowing down. No... she had to live, she must live. He choked back his sobs as she smiled weakly at him, touching his face with the last of her strength. Her dark eyes were dull and glazed, the lids growing heavy as she leaked out her life between his fingers...
No. No... Nononono... His chest tightened until he thought he might implode. He couldn't breathe, couldn't cry out... There was no voice for his despair. He shifted, pulling the limp, dark-haired form against him...
...Methos shifted MacLeod's slack weight across his knees, pulling the Highlander against his chest as he continued to rock, keening like a wounded animal. Duncan's clothes were little more than shreds, his blood seeping out in a dark pool on the floor. Methos pressed vainly against the terrible wound in Mac's side... This was wrong... No...
Mac looked up at him with confused, pain-filled eyes, blood bubbling on his beautiful lips as he whispered.
One word, and the life faded from the shadowed eyes. Duncan's head lolled back...
...and toppled off, rolling with a grotesque, uneven thumping across the floorboards.
The scream ripped from Methos' throat with astounding violence.
Duncan opened his eyes in the darkness, wondering what had wakened him. He was about to turn back in to his pillow when he heard it again: a soft, irregular gasping and a low whisper of foreign syllables, too fast for Mac to identify.
"Methos?" Duncan slid out of bed and padded cautiously over to the foot of the sofa. Methos was dreaming, twitching in his sleep as the strange words poured over his lips. Duncan watched for a moment, unsure whether to wake the old Immortal or to let the dream run its course. Methos called out again, and the uneven breathing descended into rough sobs, tears seeping from under the tightly compressed eyelids.
No dream then, but another nightmare. Duncan's heart twisted to hear the harsh breathing swell into a soft keening, a mournful wail broken only by a single word Methos called over and over in his sleep: "Duncan..."
Mac shook himself. What was he doing, watching this? Bad enough that he had conjured this darkness with his relentless questions, he wouldn't stand here now like a voyeur and eavesdrop on Methos' dreams. He sat gently on the edge of a cushion. This had gone on long enough.
"Methos?" he called quietly. "Methos..." One hand stretched out to nudge the old Immortal awake.
At Duncan's touch, Methos screamed with astonishing power, a raw sound of unspeakable loss and fear. The lean body jerked upright in one convulsive motion, hazel eyes wide and panicked, open without really seeing. Cold hands flew at Mac's face, and he flinched, not knowing whether to anticipate a caress, a blow, or anything in between. The long fingers were quick and firm, exploring the column of Duncan's neck with steady pressure before dipping to pull up the tail of his t-shirt and spread, trembling, across the span of his ribs.
Methos pushed at the firm sides, searching Duncan's face with haunted eyes, still lost in the terrible dream he had not yet fully wakened from. Duncan allowed the unexpected intimacy, more from surprise than any conscious decision, and wondered what Methos was looking for in his body.
"Methos?" Mac caught the slender wrists before the hands could wander further.
"D-Duncan?" Mac could see full awareness dawning, the night terror draining away only to be replaced by a new kind of dread. Methos' body tensed, and the familiar defensive look rose on the sharp face. "Duncan, I'm sorry..."
"Don't apologize, please. There's nothing to be sorry about." Duncan kept his gentle hold on the cold wrists, idly stroking them in an attempt to soothe the old Immortal.
"No, I didn't realize... I never meant to..." Methos was clearly agitated.
"Shh. I said it was all right. You were dreaming about me?"
The light was dim, but Mac could clearly see the embarrassment flow across the mobile face. "I was talking in my sleep?"
"Shouting is more like it." Duncan paused. "Will you tell me about it? Please?"
Methos shook his head sharply in negation, an uncontrollable shudder coursing through him as he turned away. "No..."
Duncan's concern transformed to alarm. He moved his grip to Methos' shoulders, turning the old Immortal back to face him. "Methos, was it me? Did you dream that I hurt you?"
"Oh, gods, no... You..." Methos paused, his lean chest still struggling for breath in an uneven rhythm. "Duncan, you were dead... and it was..." the bright hazel eyes squeezed shut, "it was my fault..."
Duncan kneaded the hard shoulders reassuringly. Despite the unfathomable difference in their ages, something about Methos always aroused Mac's protective instincts. He wanted to hold him, soothe away the fear and hurt like he would a child. He had done that once before, held the familiar shape of Methos to his chest, rocking him, trying to gentle the wrenching sobs in the horrible aftermath of the double Quickening they had shared. Even now, the memory sent a sharp pang of sympathetic pain through him. For those few moments they had been so close, more than brothers, until wounded feelings and stubborn pride had conspired to separate them again. Now it seemed the circle had come round once more, bringing them together. It was so easy now to offer the physical comfort of contact, the warmth of a human touch. "It was just a dream. It's all right."
Methos shivered again. "No, don't." He pushed the soothing hands back to Duncan's side. "Please... don't do that right now."
Methos' head swam from more than just the late hour and after-effects of the nightmare. Did Duncan understand what he was doing? Did he realize how difficult it was for Methos to refuse that warm contact, the offer of friendship and maybe more? He looked at Duncan, perched there on the edge of the couch, another shadow in the dark room. If Methos relaxed his guard just a little, he could... No. Mac had no idea what signals he was sending out, and even if he did, this was comfort, not the passion Methos had hoped to see in MacLeod's eyes.
"Go back to bed, Mac." His voice was rough with frustration and disappointment.
Duncan hesitated. "I'm sorry that I caused any of this tonight."
"The dreams," Mac clarified. "What did you think I meant?"
"It's nothing. Go to bed, Mac." Methos turned away again, not willing to let Duncan see his face. He didn't trust himself tonight.
"No, it's not 'nothing,' I can see that much." Methos could hear the stubbornness rising in Duncan's voice. Gods help him, Mac was in full protective mode, and he wasn't going to let this go easily.
"Duncan, if there is any kindness for me in your heart, you will not pursue this tonight." Please, Duncan, Methos pleaded silently, please just go to bed... He could feel himself starting to shiver in reaction to the lingering nightmare and Duncan's nearness. Duncan was so warm, so alive. Methos fought the urge to touch him and confirm that vital heat.
A burning hand closed over his shoulder, turning him back toward the center of this conflict. That single contact, the solid touch against his shaking shoulder would be his undoing. Methos wasn't strong enough tonight to walk away from whatever Duncan was offering.
"Methos, if that's what you really want, I'll go back to bed."
"No..." He felt like a tumbling stack of dominoes, no longer steady enough to support himself. His trembling became convulsive quaking as the incredible heat of that solitary touch seared through him.
"Hey, hey... It's all right. Methos, it'll be all right." Mac pulled him around with more force, drawing him into a comforting embrace.
At least, that was the intention.
Methos threw himself into Mac's arms with a desperation that surprised them both, burying his face in Duncan's neck, breathing the subtle scent of Mac's soap and shampoo. He clung to Duncan like a lifeline, craving the feel of the Highlander's heart against his own. Methos knew the chance he was taking here, realized that if he allowed this to continue that morning would likely find the tenuous friendship utterly destroyed.
And at this moment, he didn't care.
Methos pulled back a little from the desperate embrace, and trailed easy fingers over the strong contours of Duncan's face, learning by touch. Methos moved so slowly, not wanting to frighten Duncan, wanting to give the Highlander plenty of time to resist or respond on his own. A thumb traced a feathery caress over the sensual mouth in a mute question. There was confusion and curiosity in Duncan's dark eyes, but there was also an answer.
The kiss seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Methos cupped Duncan's face, guiding the kiss, the softest brushing of lips as they breathed against each other. He wanted this so badly, but he needed Duncan to want it too.
"Duncan, I..." He murmured against Mac's lips.
"Shh." MacLeod pulled him back into the kiss, and hope spiked, along with desire. The unsubtle tangle of lips and tongues deepened quickly, too quickly. Methos savored the faint taste of whisky on Mac's tongue, forcing himself to go cautiously, to deny the rawness of his loneliness and need, the deep yearning to feel Duncan's skin against his own. He had wanted this for so long, to touch, to share this physical intimacy, and now presented with the chance for it, Methos was afraid. Afraid that Mac would stop him, and equally terrified that he wouldn't.
He let his hands wander down, exploring the muscular span of Mac's shoulders, caressing the neck, the blessedly whole neck. Trembling hands were steadied by the simple expedient of pressing them to Duncan's chest, firmly stroking the sturdy ribs and narrow waist in an unconscious echo of the earlier frenzy to escape his nightmare.
Both men hesitated as Methos skimmed the waistband of Duncan's sweats, the languid touch a tease, a promise, and another question. Response or refusal, Methos waited for the Highlander's answer as he toyed nervously with the tail of the old t-shirt Duncan had been sleeping in, slipping his fingers beneath it to sample the richness of the warm skin there.
MacLeod at last pulled away, releasing Methos from the shelter of his arms. Cold air swirled between them, and Methos fought to control his breathing, choking back the threatening sob even as he cursed himself bitterly. He would not cry; he refused to further humiliate himself with such an unmanly display at Duncan's rejection. Clenching his eyes shut to bottle up the dangerous pressure behind them, he could feel the shift of cushions as Duncan stood, doubtless preparing some moralistic denouncement, to be followed by a physical eviction from the loft. Methos had known the risk he was taking, but that didn't ease the pain of his failure.
He tried to salvage some of his shredded pride. "I'm sorry, Mac, this shouldn't have happened. I-I'll be going now..."
"What are you talking about?" Duncan's voice was confused, but not filled with the censure Methos had expected. He chanced a look, and saw Mac smoothly stripping off the dark t-shirt, revealing the shadowed expanse of his chest. Duncan reached for him, and Methos followed with stunned steps as he was led across the room to the large bed. "This is the only place you're going, unless you really prefer that freezing couch."
Duncan drew him down between the blankets, snuggling close for warmth. Strong fingers continued stroking him with soothing, not-quite erotic motions as Duncan continued speaking. "Methos, I admit I never expected this... but..." he paused, eyebrows knitting as he searched for words. "Please don't go."
Now the tears threatened to overwhelm him. "Duncan, I..." he faltered. There was no way to say it, to express how deeply this touched him. "I've wanted this for so long..."
There was still a need for caution. Methos had longed for this moment too many months to surrender to his urgency now, and Duncan, for all his bold willingness, was inexperienced in the ways of pleasure between men. The progression, the gradual increase in the intensity of the exploration, was agonizingly unhurried. Methos could have driven the encounter, asserted control and dominated the give and take of pleasure, and he could have made sure Duncan loved it. He could have called on his long experience to leave the Highlander a gasping heap of spent flesh and exhausted synapses, but Methos had left those days behind him with his other cruelties. He didn't want a conquest; Methos wanted a partner.
So instead he guided. Slowly, gently, a touch here, a whispered encouragement there, another article of clothing eased off of long limbs with painful deliberation until they were both nude between the rich sheets. Both trembling with desire, aching with the need to be touched.
Duncan moved over him in the darkness, kissing, caressing, groaning lowly at the heated glide of excited flesh as their bodies pressed together. Methos loved this, the warm sheltering breadth of Duncan's weight pressing him down... pushing against him. His hips bucked up to meet his partner's, their erections tangling together in an unbearably erotic dance. And for a few moments, it was enough.
Methos panted, breathless with desire. "Duncan, please? Will you?"
"Shh. Yes, just a moment." Mac nodded his understanding and lifted his weight from the smaller man, rolling aside.
Methos heard him rummaging in a drawer for the necessary lubricant. The anticipation alone of sharing that fierce union with Duncan was almost too much for the old Immortal. He gritted his teeth against the sharp spike of arousal that swept through him at the thought, stubbornly determining to wait, and have it all. He stalled for time to control his excitement; if Duncan touched him now, he would surely explode.
Mac turned back toward him, and Methos took the small plastic bottle from his hand. He turned his attention to MacLeod's body, plucking and teasing, kissing and sampling, stoking the fire of Duncan's arousal even higher. He needed Mac to enjoy this as much as he did, and in a way, he might have needed Duncan's pleasure more. Methos touched Duncan's face in a tender caress, pulling the younger man to him for a kiss as he pressed the bottle of lubricant back into the dark hand.
Methos slid away, rolling to lean his shoulders on Duncan's chest, waiting. "Please..."
Duncan breathed onto his neck, and Methos sobbed with relief as he felt the strong hand smoothing the cool gel into him, the fingers carefully stretching the tense passage. The light brush of Duncan's erection behind him was an unbearable tease. "Gods, Duncan... Yes, please, now..."
"Yes..." One firm hand on his hip to steady them, and Duncan began to press the union.
It felt like forever, the slow delicious sensation of being filled, with Duncan's warm shape behind him, holding him. It was a dream, a fantasy come true. Methos felt his eyes fill at the absolute ecstasy of it, thinking that it could not possibly be any better. And then Duncan moved.
The pleasure was irresistible. Methos could no more stop it than he could stand against the wind and command it to be still. Movement was everything. It consumed him, became him, he would cheerfully have died rather than cease that blissful rocking. And then there was more. An arm came over him and pulled him closer into the protective, pleasuring union, the warm hand trailing over his belly to grip his aching erection.
"Oh, gods, Duncan..." The firm, sure touch of that hand again changed everything. Methos was filled and surrounded, enfolded by heat and pleasure. It was all he could do to breathe, drawing in Duncan's scent, losing himself in the silken texture of his friend's skin moving along his back. The sensation trailed up his spine, filling his chest with a convulsive sob of pleasure that waited to be torn from his throat.
Methos cried out a wordless exclamation as his orgasm overtook him, pressing himself back into Duncan's embrace. Moments later he could feel Mac stiffen along his back, thrusting with deep, steady motions as he, too, surrendered to the release.
They drifted off to sleep that way, twined in each other's embrace, Duncan still trailing gentle kisses along Methos' neck and shoulders. For the first night in a long while, Methos' sleep was mercifully devoid of dreams.
Duncan shifted languidly against the warm sheets, savoring the delicious drowsy floating that only happened before waking. This was one of his favorite times, not quite awake yet, but neither fully asleep, when dreams were still real and the day ahead only a pleasant possibility. Mmm... he sighed slowly, registering the pleasant pressure of the body tucked comfortably against him, their long limbs embracing under the covers. He stroked his cheek against the warm head nestled under his chin, whuffing gently into the soft hair, breathing the lingering traces of soap and...
Full wakefulness intruded rudely on the moment as the awareness of last night's events rushed back, and Duncan's mind raced as he considered the implications of what had happened. What would happen now? What should happen? Where would this lead them to... or what if it didn't take them anyplace? Was Mac ready for either possibility? How would Methos react to their intimacy in the sober light of morning? Duncan squinted at the pale light streaming through the windows. What time was it, anyway?
MacLeod couldn't see a clock from his present vantage, and was still unwilling to move and risk waking his partner. The gray, wintry light from the windows gave him no clear indication of the hour. Methos rumbled contentedly in his chest and snuggled closer against Duncan, nuzzling into the Highlander's chest. Duncan wished he could see Methos' face just then, to perhaps gain some additional clue about how his friend... his lover might react.
And how did Duncan feel? That was the more difficult question, but one that begged an answer, hopefully one he could resolve before Methos woke. MacLeod was not ashamed of what they had done, but the absence of shame wasn't enough. They had both still been a little vulnerable in those dark moments on the sofa, but they had been sober, the intoxication long since burned away by their Immortal metabolisms. Besides, at no point in the evening had Mac been so inebriated that he didn't know what he was doing. He had told Methos the truth last night: he hadn't expected this, but Methos' fingers against his face, that subtle, shy kiss... Well, it had changed things for them both. Duncan had wanted that touch, had needed to feel Methos against him more than he ever would have imagined possible.
Duncan MacLeod had his own answers, or at least a beginning to them. This was far more than an absence of shame, more than need, even more than offering physical comfort to a treasured friend. Even now, the feeling of Methos sleeping in his in his arms filled something in him that he hadn't known was empty.
Methos stirred against him again, and Mac's chest tightened, wondering what would happen when he woke. There were rules for when you accidentally fell into bed with a woman, there were protocols to follow, rituals you observed. Duncan had no precedents to call on here. What were the rules between men? He didn't want this to destroy their friendship, but could they return to sharing beer and Methos' abominable taste in movies without having this subtext running through every invitation to dinner? Or would Methos follow the simple expedient of disappearing? Was this unexpected turn in the relationship something Mac wanted to pursue; was it something he could afford to ignore?
His tangled thoughts were interrupted by Methos' waking. The old Immortal stretched and sighed, moving back a bit to shift sensually against the sheets. Mac watched him, fascinated by the responses the movements stirred in him, the graceful motions reminiscent of other, less innocent activity.
"Good morning," Duncan said simply, still looking for cues on how to proceed.
Methos looked at him for a long moment, the sharp face mysterious and unreadable. "Good morning, Duncan."
The reply was perhaps a bit formal, considering their location and state of undress. Mac's confidence wasn't inspired. Methos was obviously playing the waiting game too. The hazel eyes flicked over Duncan's face, and Mac suddenly felt like an open book, like Methos knew every paranoid, uncertain thought in his head.
Methos smiled softly at him, a hint of sadness in his eyes. "Penny for your thoughts?"
I could do this, Mac thought as sudden fear shot through him, I could brush this off, blame it on the whisky, or on curiosity. I could claim to have just been swept up in the moment, and he would let me. And for a heart-pounding instant Duncan thought of doing just that, of taking the easy exit that Methos was offering, but he remembered, too, the crushing hurt in the ancient's voice when he thought Duncan had rejected him, and remembered his words. 'I have wanted this for so long.' He is going to lay here and let me break his heart.
Duncan couldn't do it. He was prepared for the consequence if he was wrong, if he had misread Methos about this, but he, himself, would not be the one to inflict the wound. Instead he smiled, studying his partner's face, and gently touched the vulnerable nape of Methos' neck. "I was thinking about how beautiful you are, and what a fool I was not to have seen it before."
Methos was caught off-balance. Duncan seemed to be doing that to him a lot lately, but this time the sensation was not entirely unpleasant. This hadn't been the wake-up Methos expected to receive, and he was in no way complaining. Tiny hairs prickled along his neck at the soft tickle of Mac's fingers at his hairline. Methos relaxed against the arm that cradled him, accepting this rare moment for all it offered.
"Beautiful is not a word often used to describe me." The words were self-depreciating, but the wistful tone softened their harshness.
"Then I will have to say it more often, because it's true. You are a wonder to behold." The gentle tease on Methos' neck became a slow caress, and he looked up to see Duncan's eyes darken with desire. Here at last was the passion he had hoped for, the fire that lay smoldering beneath MacLeod's surface, where Methos had long hoped to warm himself. He reached for Duncan, tangling long fingers in the warm silk of Mac's hair as they drew together. Seeking lips meshed with a deep groan and a rasp of stubble as tongues and teeth caught at each other, exploring at leisure this morning what might have been overlooked last night.
Their hands clasped together in a wordless sharing of strength. Methos took that mingled fortitude, that leashed power, and reversed it, easing Duncan back on the bed until the Highlander looked up trustingly into the hazel eyes. Methos moved over Duncan, leaning in for more sensual kisses, savoring the slow throb of Duncan's heart beneath his own. There was so much warmth in that golden, exquisite body, so much pleasure in the touch of that sweet mouth on his own. With a sudden pang Methos recalled the moist heat of those lips on his body, the soft kisses trailing across his throat like Greek Fire. He groaned against Duncan's mouth as the memory spiked through him, leaving aching arousal in its wake. Methos felt like he could die content, if only he might know the touch of these lips in his last moment.
It was a breathless minute, dizzy and dreamlike, suspended in time and sheltered from the world as they lay pressed chest-to-chest, heart-to-heart, hands and mouths embracing in the cool light.
With a hollow, rumbling gurgle, Methos' stomach growled loudly, Duncan's following in close sequence, like a canyon echo, and the realities of mundane existence intruded rudely on the absolute poetry of the previous moment. Both men paused in surprise at the interruption, humor dancing in Duncan's dark eyes, and their stomachs groaned again, an elongated sound that Methos thought sounded oddly like recordings of whalesong. It was too much.
Methos rolled off of Duncan and tossed an arm over his face, laughing helplessly. Soon enough he heard Mac succumb to laughter, chuckling beside him in bed. It was a minute or so before Methos caught his breath.
"Oh, gods..." he wheezed. "Breakfast?"
Duncan nodded, glancing over Methos at the bedside clock. "More like lunch. It's after 1:00."
"Really?" Methos didn't actually sound surprised. "Lunch then. Eat in or go out?"
Mac feigned contemplation. "Oh, I think we can manage to feed ourselves here, that is, unless you really want to go out..."
Methos' heart began to pound at the smoky look in Duncan's eyes. "No, here is fine."
"I was hoping you'd say that. Let me see what I've got..."
Methos caught his breath at the absolute perfection of Duncan's body. He had seen Duncan nude before, in casual glimpses that fueled his private fantasies for months at a time, but never like this. Never before had he viewed that glorious form with a full knowledge of the textures, the tastes, the scented hollows hidden in the taut skin. He had never been able to rightfully view Duncan's body with the appreciative admiration of a lover.
Too soon the view was concealed as Mac pulled on a dark robe, pulling another out of a wardrobe to toss to Methos. Oh, well.
He followed Mac to the kitchen and perused the refrigerator's contents, searching for ideas. "Tell you what, Mac. You go have the first shower and I'll look after breakfast."
"You're going to cook?" MacLeod was dubious.
"Stop that. Yes, I'm going to cook. I haven't lived on cheeseburgers for 5000 years, you know. And you fix dinner often enough." Methos shooed Mac off to the bathroom. "Go. I can to do this without a babysitter. I'll try not to break anything, I won't burn myself, and I promise not to run with knives, all right? Go!"
Duncan laughed and headed for the shower.
Methos was in an uncharacteristically good mood, but then this was an uncommon day. Oh, there were still things to discuss, issues to resolve, but with luck they had passed the worst of it with that startling development last night. And Methos refused to examine any serious topic too closely today.
He hummed softly to himself as he measured ingredients and stirred together a rich batter, then spooned it into a small-cupped muffin pan he found on a low shelf. The oven preheated as he thought. Eggs? No, fruit. Coffee and juice were prepared, and he continued humming the same ancient melody as pieces of whole fruit were sliced and cleaned. He very literally could not recall ever being this happy.
The phone rang. Methos set aside his board of nectarines and reached for the handset. "MacLeod's."
His good humor evaporated, and an angry, frustrated heat rose to his face as the caller spoke, his soft voice improbably beautiful, impossibly hated. "Well, Ceallach, this is a surprise. I was going to have your little Scottish lapdog deliver a message for me, but here you go and save me the trouble. Just as well, servants can be so unreliable."
Methos ignored the insults, they would be settled soon enough. "What do you want, Seireadan?" There was no use in asking how he got the number. Even unlisted telephone numbers were ridiculously easy to get when you knew how.
"Want? What I want you can't give me. But I'll settle for your head. Let's finish this, Ceallach. I'm weary of chasing you, my runaway Roman." He named a time and place.
"It's broad daylight, Seireadan. Do you really want a crowd?"
"It'll be private enough for us. And don't make me have to remind you to come, we both know how that turned out last time."
Methos gritted his teeth, determined not to rise to the bait. Soon enough all the old accounts between them would be settled. "I'll be there."
He glanced at the clock as the handset was replaced on the cradle. Two hours to wait. Finishing breakfast was a joyless chore.
Warm smells of coffee and nutmeg filled the loft, greeting Duncan as he emerged from the steamy bathroom. A happy tingle of anticipation glowed in him as he thought about spending the day here in lazy isolation with Methos, snugged in securely under warm blankets, listening to the wind and brewing storm. He tightened the belt on his robe and went to go offer Methos the bathroom.
He was a little surprised to find Methos seated on the couch. From what Mac could see from behind, the old Immortal was fully dressed, the set of his shoulders radiating tension. Duncan paused, a little confused by the sudden change in the signals Methos was sending out. Did Duncan miss something?
"There's coffee and juice, and fruit on the counter. Muffins will be about fifteen more minutes." Methos didn't look up from the task his hands were busy with. His tone was cool and businesslike, with none of the earlier warmth and humor. Something was very wrong.
"Thanks." Mac went to pour himself some coffee, wondering what the problem might be. Was it something he had done? If so, he could not pinpoint his oversight. No, this was new. He turned, determined not to let this fester into another sore spot.
"Methos, what--" he stopped mid-sentence. Methos was hunched over on the leather sofa, sharpening his sword with practiced motions, testing the edge for flaws with his thumb.
This was no misunderstanding. There was a deadly intent in Methos' posture as he stroked the polishing stones along an imperfection in the blade's razor edge. Duncan abandoned his coffee on the kitchen island and went to sit in the chair opposite from the sofa. "If this is how it's going to be, I'll cook breakfast next time."
Methos grunted. "Your breakfasts are fine, but if you ever try to make me drink another cup of that unholy brew you concocted for Christmas, it will come to swords."
"The wassail?" Mac's sense of dread was growing. The words of the banter were familiar, but the tone and pacing were off, leaving the exchange flat and meaningless.
Methos shook his head, still gazing intently at the shiny blade. "Mac, I've had wassail, and that wasn't it." He tested the corrected spot along his blade, hissing as his thumb came away with a deep cut. He sucked on the bloody pad before looking up, hazel eyes devoid of humor.
Duncan fought down the surge of protectiveness that swelled in him. "Is it Seireadan?"
Methos nodded tersely. "He called. I'm going to meet him and get this over with."
Duncan echoed the nod, a slow kind of fear building in his chest. Why today, why now? What kind of a cruel fate would take Methos away from him now, with the possibilities of their new discovery so lightly sampled?
"Does it have to be today?" Duncan realized the uselessness of the question even as it fell from his lips.
Methos nodded again. "This reckoning is past due already, Mac, and he is the one insisting on the timing of it. If I don't go today, then his requests will just become increasingly ...impolite." There was a bitterness to the words that went beyond the obvious statement.
"What do you mean, 'impolite'? I've seen what passes for civil in this man, and don't think I'd care to see him on less than his best behavior."
Methos glanced at the clock. "Go rescue the muffins. You deserve to hear the rest of the story before I go."
Duncan walked into the kitchen, a chill creeping across his neck at what Methos didn't say. He wanted to tell the story now in case he didn't come back.
The sound of Methos' voice followed Mac into the kitchen. "It was about, oh, twenty years or so after I'd escaped from Seireadan. I was still in Ireland, married and settled," Methos paused for a second before continuing, the rich voice tinged with a faint sadness, "well, as settled as Gráinne and I ever got. Christianity was still a very new idea on the island, and not a popular one, but I'd been spending some time studying with local priests. I met a man there, the local Bishop, who had the most unusual thoughts about slavery. He hated it, and that was a notion I was ready to listen to. The locals called him Padraig."
"You knew St. Patrick?" Mac was surprised.
"Yeah, he was one of the few truly good people I've ever met." Methos began to pack away his sword-cleaning supplies. "Anyway, staying in Ireland probably wasn't the wisest decision I ever made. It was only a matter of time before Seireadan found me."
Ireland, c. 446 AD
The months had passed quickly since Amalgaid of Hy-Amhalgaidh had sent his druid, Rechrad, in the narrowly-failed attempt on Padraig's life. Rechrad and his eight companions had been swiftly dealt with by Methos and Gráinne, discovered by chance as the white-robed assassins crept across the yard toward the main building of the monastic settlement. An overturned earthenware jar had given them away, waking the two warriors who still slept with soldiers' reflexes.
Still, it had been too near a thing for Methos' liking, Rechrad nearly succeeding in the murder of the elderly Padraig. Methos had grown fond of the earthy, practical, spiritual man, and with the priest's help had rediscovered a peace he had lost, or perhaps had never owned.
Methos was happy here, watching the seasons turn with mindless determination from one to another. He fed his hunger for scholarly pursuits with the monks, and his need for the physical with Gráinne. And if the Brothers disapproved of his swordwork, or his pagan Irish wife, well, they kept their own counsel about it.
He stood in the doorway of the small house the priests had provided for him and Gráinne, staring out past the fence toward the hills, at the tiny wildflowers peeking out of the tall grass. They had been here for over a year now, since before the assassination attempt. Methos had enjoyed his time here with the monks, and had taken rare pleasure in the long hours of study and the exhaustion of honest labor. It was fulfilling in a way he hadn't anticipated to build things, to nurture gardens, to help the settlement thrive.
He knew though that Gráinne was bored and restless, had seen the signs of her bone-deep unhappiness in her increasingly short temper and ever-longer expeditions into the surrounding hills. She was a creature of physical action. She craved the wind in her face and a sword in her hand the way some men lusted after strong wine. The same way Methos yearned for the almost-forgotten feel of a page, a scroll, or a book in his hands.
He sighed, looking up at the scattered, slate-gray clouds as though for guidance. The breeze tasted like rain again today. Perhaps it was time to move on, and trust that there would be an opportunity for scholarly pursuits later. After all, he had the luxury of time that Gráinne did not.
Glancing back over his shoulder, he looked at her, sitting on a narrow stool in the center of the room struggling to knot a new rug. He almost laughed to watch her, still having such obvious difficulty with womanly tasks. They had argued often over his adamant refusal to purchase a slave to look after the domestic chores, especially now that they were wealthy enough to afford one. Even after she had discovered his Immortality, Methos had never told her about the long nightmare he had endured as Seireadan's slave. He was glad that she had never gone against his wishes in this one thing. Gods help him, Methos would never again own a slave.
Gráinne snarled and tossed away the half-knotted tangle of yarn with a curse. "How can you be so damnably still, Ceallach?" she growled irritatedly. "I cannot spend my days like this, in these woman's chores while you contemplate meaning in scratches on a parchment. I need the sun on my back, and new hills under my feet. I will go mad in this place."
"I said I would teach you to read. There is still time to learn," he offered for the hundredth time.
She spat on the dirt floor. "It's unnatural. Knowledge should be sung, should be told around the cook-fire, not made into soulless marks on a page. Besides, you think too much as it is, tiarna. Who would hunt the hare if we were both like you, always bent over some new scroll, making your eyes weak with reading? No, Ceallach, you think enough for us both."
He smiled and stepped up behind her, kneading her strong shoulders. "Patience, we will not be here much longer. Soon the ground will be dry enough for travel, and we will go." He glanced at the uneven snarl of her unfinished rug and continued. "You know, you never had to learn rug-making if you didn't want to. The Brothers would have understood."
She made a face and leaned back into the massage. He noticed the way her tunic tightened across the swell of her breasts. "They understand nothing, but there are only so many times in a day that a sword may be cleaned, and the meadows are unpleasant to wander when the rain is too heavy."
She tipped her head back to look at him seriously. "Ceallach, I am tired of making rugs."
Methos leaned down to cup her breasts, testing their soft weight, teasing her already-tight nipples through the coarse fabric. "Yes," he breathed in her ear, "I know."
Gráinne reached behind to grip the backs of his thighs, pulling him tightly against her. He took the invitation and bent further to capture her upturned mouth in a rough kiss, pushing the hard ridge of his erection into her back in an unsubtle tease. She bit at his lips, digging her fingers into his legs. Even after so many years, the sex between them had never softened, never lost its rough, slightly violent edge.
After a moment she turned on the stool, reaching for his belts. Methos noticed the new threads of silver in her wild black hair with a tiny pang of sadness. It was always painful to see them aging.
He didn't get to linger in his melancholy for very long.
Oh, yes... She knew what he liked. One hand plucked lazily at the knot in his top belt while the other stroked him firmly through the rough cloth. His knees nearly buckled as she leaned in to breathe warmly through the fabric.
"Is this what you want, Ceallach?" she teased.
"Yes, yes..." He could already anticipate the moist heat of her mouth.
Gráinne was laughing low in her throat, nipping at the material covering his belly and hips, lifting his tunic with agonizing slowness when he felt it-- the too-familiar wash of Presence in his ears.
Arousal vanished, replaced by a cold lump of anticipation in his gut and the thready pulse of adrenalin in his veins. Methos stiffened and pulled away from her, tugging down his tunic with a firm motion. "Stay here," he commanded brusquely, snatching up his sword on his way outside. //She never does listen,// he mused as she followed him out, her own blade in hand.
Small hairs at the back of his neck prickled as he scanned the yard for the Immortal he sensed. A tall, red-haired man turned slowly, surprise and recognition lighting his features.
Seireadan smiled, a predatory gleam of white teeth. "Well, look what we have here. The gods are kind today, to deliver you back to me, Ceallach."
Methos' grip tightened on the hilt of his sword, and he stared coldly at the hated figure across from him. "Funny, I was just thinking the same thing. This is a lucky day."
Something was wrong here, if Methos could just put his finger on it. There was some important detail he had missed, and his mind raced to discover it. It came to him in a sudden rush of understanding.
"You didn't come here for me," he declared firmly. "What do you want here, Seireadan?"
The white, easy grin never faded, but the tall druid's body radiated tension. Methos had hit a nerve. "No, you are something of a surprise, Rómhánach," he drawled conversationally. "The gods were very angry at your defiance of their will, your attempt to escape the punishment they decreed." He gestured at himself with a sweeping motion. "You see? They would not permit you to kill me. They raised me up to be an instrument of their will, so that I might destroy you for them."
Seireadan chuckled and glanced around the compound. "I really should have thought to look for you here, in these places, sooner. A sniveling Roman dog running back to the sanctuary of the stoneless priests of your bloodless, sacrificed god. You are all alike."
The baleful emerald gaze settled on Gráinne. "And you, daughter? Would you be like him, throw your lot in with his and add apostasy to your betrayals?"
Methos could almost feel the heat radiating off of her as she shifted beside him, bristling at the many levels of insult the druid was dealing out. He gave a restraining grip to her shoulder and stepped forward. "Is this how you prove your strength, how you display your divine favor? You come here to bait women and kill beardless boys and old men? Rechrad couldn't kill Padraig, and he came at night with eight helpers. What makes you so bold to come alone at mid-day?"
Seireadan started, clearly surprised. "Yes," he hissed, "I came to kill the priest. Rechrad was an incompetent; he could not have succeeded if he brought twenty with him. Some things need to be seen to personally." He smiled poisonously. "Rather like the discipline of a runaway slave. Wouldn't you agree?"
"I am not so easily taken back. If you want to hurt the priest, you'll have to go through me to do it." Methos' knuckles were white on his sword, the fine wires of the hilt digging into his palm.
"Very well, Ceallach." Seireadan produced a short sword from a scabbard across his back. "I will kill you if I must."
"You can always try," Methos replied evenly.
There was a bustle of activity off to the side as brown-robed monks came boiling out of the doors to the main building. Padraig was at the lead, his wispy white hair fluttering about his head like vaporous thoughts drifting from his skull. His voice was entirely too big to be contained in such a frail-seeming body.
"You will not do this here!" He thundered. "You will not water my garden again with blood, I will not have it." Padraig's sharp eyes narrowed, studying Seireadan briefly.
"Get you gone from here, druid, and do not come back with such violence in your heart. I will go to my God soon enough without any help from your blade."
Seireadan glanced quickly about, his eyes lingering on Padraig, and on the two well-armed warriors facing him. He scowled tightly at Methos. "Another day then, Ceallach. The gods are patient, and it appears we both have time to wait." He spared a hard, hate-filled look for Padraig and the assembled monks before turning to leave with a flourish of pale robes.
Methos trembled with the need to pursue him. He turned, ready to yield to the desire and go after Seireadan and finish this, and saw Padraig watching him with serious, gentle eyes.
"Let him go, Ceallach, don't let him unravel the peace you've found. There's been no harm done here."
Methos sighed, letting the cold fury drain out of him with some difficulty.
Padraig continued, watching Methos with perceptive eyes. "I see," he nodded, motioning Methos to follow him as he walked, "you are angry, yes?"
"You want to kill him, this druid?"
"If you pursued him now, how long would you give chase? How long are you willing to hunt him to see that done, this killing?"
"As long as it takes. He needs killing, Padraig. Some men do."
The old priest nodded, his white hair floating like smoke around his ears. "There is much you don't tell me, Ceallach, but I have eyes. You have been a slave before." It was not a question. "Be still, I am not asking for the details. I was a slave once, and can guess at many things you might not wish to speak of. But whatever the means, you are a free man now."
They walked along the wooden fence in silence for some time before Padraig turned to him again. "Are you willing to give up that freedom, yours and your wife's, to satisfy the demands of your temper? Will you now be a slave to your own anger?"
Methos let the conversation drop. Like Seireadan said, they both had time to wait.
It was only a week later that Gráinne went out hunting and never came back.
There was finally a break in the weather, a brief sunny period in the long series of spring storms that lashed the island, and Gráinne was chafing to get outside and roam. Methos had asked her not to, in fact had forbidden her to leave, but he knew she would disobey. He never really worried for her on these expeditions, since she was a more than capable fighter, and often came near to besting him in their sparring matches. So that morning, he cheerfully commanded her to stay at home and went off for his customary talks with the Brothers.
Methos didn't start to worry until after the noon meal. By mid-afternoon, tired of restlessly pacing the fence, he went out after her. He searched the hills, hoping desperately that he was mistaken, that she was fine, or had merely twisted an ankle. A simple reason, a harmless oversight. She was fine. She must be.
Just before sundown, he found her. The grass around her bore mute witness to the violence of her struggle. The earth was gouged and uneven, the grass trampled and bloody. It was hard to look at her lying there, pale and blood-smeared, her strong body broken and bruised, tossed down on a hillside like a discarded doll.
Methos knelt beside her in the grass and gathered her into his arms, smoothing back the hair from her battered face. He could summon no emotions for her, could draw no grief from the great emptiness inside him.
She coughed as he pulled her to him, bloody saliva bubbling on her lips. "Gráinne?" He was so surprised that he almost dropped her, but managed to pull her closer to his chest, pressing a hand to the savage tear in her side that pulsed in time to her fading heart. No...
"Gráinne..." he whispered her name over and over, rocking her, willing her to live. Methos pressed his head to hers as if he could infuse her with life by proximity alone, as if he could use his body as a shield against death. The pulse against his fingers continued to diminish, Gráinne's eyes dulled as she struggled for breath.
The last of her strength was spent as she raised a cold hand to touch his face, and whispered what she had called his "faerie name."
"Miotas..." The light in her eyes faded and died.
He slept next to her there on the hillside, in the rain, and the next morning buried her in the meadow below. He was hard-pressed to recall ever feeling so alone.
Methos returned to the monastery only to collect his things. He spent the next ten years hunting Seireadan, but never found him.
The sky was a black and battered mass of rumbling thunderheads, the promised storm at last crashing down on the city like a hammer. The rain sheeted down in a fine, icy spray, slicking the sidewalks and obscuring visibility in the already-gloomy streets.
Methos was careful to arrive early to the rendezvous, wanting the illusory one-upmanship of making Seireadan seem late. Water cascaded off the low overhang where Methos waited, and he pressed closer to the wall in a fruitless effort to stay dry as long as possible, shoving his hands deeper in the warm pockets of his coat. This was a miserable day for a duel: dark, wet, and freezing cold, but he had fought under worse conditions.
Seireadan's choice of location was puzzling. A claustrophobic maze of small warehouses and narrow alleys near to one of Seacouver's shopping districts, the area reminded Methos of an old-style hedge-maze from a castle garden. Well, he thought, looking at the corrugated metal walls and broken-down pallets everywhere, maybe if Victor Frankenstein had had a hedge-maze. Hard to believe this place is spitting distance from a busy shopping mall. He had always hated labyrinths, even when they were in fashion. It was too easy to become confused, to get turned around, panic, and lose your head in more than just the figurative sense.
The wait was the worst part of any conflict. He hated the nervous anticipation of knowing the fight was coming, of stretching his senses for the warning tingle of an approaching Immortal. Better to just get the challenge over with; fight your best fight and face the consequences.
Methos' thoughts were interrupted by the tingling pressure in his ears that announced Seireadan's arrival like a faithful herald. Methos stripped off his warm gloves, unwilling to trust his grip to the slick leather, and limbered his broadsword. He noted with detachment how quickly his fingers chilled on the hilt. Best to end this fight soon, before they stiffened and grew numb in the bitterly cold rain.
Seireadan spoke first, his smooth voice offensive with false cheer. "So glad you could make it, Ceallach." He was a pale ghost in the shadowy street, the beige coat reminiscent of the robes he had worn so long ago. Methos refused to be distracted by the parallels his mind stubbornly drew. He had escaped Seireadan after seventeen years of starvation and torture. Methos would not be so easy to defeat now.
Methos adjusted his grip and gathered his resolve around him like a cloak. "Oh, I wouldn't miss this." He glanced around significantly. "Lovely spot you picked to die in, and such beautiful weather. You should have left me alone, Seireadan. You might have kept your head a while longer."
"No, Rómhánach, I still owe you for so many things, and I'm not one to leave such a great debt unpaid."
Methos raised his sword and beckoned with his free hand. "Well, come on then, because I'm ready to collect." His grin was savage as he baited his opponent. "If I had a rock handy, I'd pound your miserable head flat again, just for old times' sake."
Seireadan answered with his sword.
The alley sang with the sound of steel on steel as they traded blows, each testing the other's strength and skill. Methos was faster, but Seireadan was slightly taller and had a better reach; he was able to put more power behind his strikes. There was nothing polite or civilized in the way they exchanged these brief, testing passes. The thinly leashed fury that drove them, the bone-deep hatred fueling the conflict moved this well beyond any gentlemen's duel or ritual combat. This appeared to be exactly what it was, a savage, no-holds-barred combat to the death.
It was a nervous game of cat-and-mouse around the dirty gray warehouses. Seireadan obviously knew the area well, and he used that knowledge to his own advantage. Methos' world narrowed to the tight focus of sight and sound, the strain of trying to pinpoint Seireadan's location by following the hum of his Presence alone.
The cold rain ran over his face and down the back of his neck-- another distraction to ignore. There was only the low thrum of Presence in his ears and the possibility of ambush around every corner as Methos stalked through the maze of dirty buildings. The rain hissed and popped like a broken radio, drumming on the metal roofs and obscuring all other sound.
Methos took a breath and stepped from behind the shelter of another wall. He barely saw the faint glimmer of the sword arcing toward his neck in time to duck.
There was no time for conscious thought, only the faith and trust in reflexes that had seen him through so many challenges before. Seireadan followed the sword, appearing around the corner in a swirl of pale coat tails, and the fight was rejoined in earnest.
Methos was breathing hard, blinking away the blood and water that ran into his eyes as Seireadan advanced again. The druid was good, better than Methos had expected. Much better. The fight had gone on too long. Methos' ungloved fingers were stiff with cold, numb from the ringing impacts of the heavy blows he had deflected. He had been pressed back, and further back, until he climbed a jumble of crates to the dubious sanctuary of a low rooftop, gambling for the time to find an avenue of escape or attack.
Methos was losing.
Seireadan stepped carefully across the small roof, grinning in anticipation. Methos' only consolation was that Seireadan looked every bit as exhausted and cold as he felt. If he had to lose his head today, by the gods, the price would be as dear as he could make it. He beckoned Seireadan forward again. "Come on," Methos taunted between breaths, "what are you waiting for?"
His arm felt heavy and boneless as he swung up his sword to meet the flurry of blows. Methos noted with dull satisfaction the shallow cut he had earlier scored across the other man's torso, the scratch on his cheek. Seireadan was slowing down. But so was Methos.
Something tugged on his shoulder, and his hand spasmed open with a numb jerk. Methos heard his sword fall with a muted clang. Only then did he feel the pain of the crippling gash, his shoulder cut to the bone where his guard had dropped. Adrenalin blunted the agony, making his heart pound from more than exertion as cold chemical energy seared through his body. Two inches higher and it would have been his head.
Seireadan laughed. "Well, it looks like you are finally out of places to run to, Ceallach. I've waited for this a long time."
Strangely, Methos had no fear, only an irritated disgust that was partly aimed at his opponent, but mostly at himself. This was not how he had imagined the confrontation going, but he was not out of resources yet. He retreated across the tiny roof, regretfully abandoning his sword. "Sorry to disappoint, but you're going to have to wait a little longer."
He leapt from the rooftop before Seireadan could do more than utter a cry of protest at the loss of his prize.
Methos knew he was taking a gamble, but even the dicey sanctuary of a crowd was better than certain death on a dirty rooftop. It was farther than he expected, down an alley, over a cyclone fence, and a mad dash across a main road to one of Seacouver's shopping malls.
He wiped at the blood on his face and hands as he ran, cleaning himself the best he could with the rainwater. There was no way to disguise the tears in his clothes, or the slowly-healing gash in his right shoulder. Methos could only hope that people were too preoccupied with the pre-Valentine's rush to notice one much-abused Immortal.
Duncan congratulated himself on his patience and strength of will for waiting a full fifteen minutes before caving in to the need to follow Methos to this challenge. Mac didn't make promises lightly, and his offer to hold Methos' coat, to act as his second, was sincerely meant.
Well, in all honesty, only the first ten of those impossibly long minutes could be accounted to his resolve to be patient and wait like others had waited for him so many times before. Mac's restraint exhausted, the last five minutes were spent weighing his need to be there, to be a strong shoulder for Methos to lean on afterward, or if necessary to avenge the eldest Immortal who had become so illogically important to him. He balanced the urgency to go against the certainty of Methos' irritation at being followed.
Duncan felt like he could deal with any argument, any conflict with Methos as long as the cynical old man were still around to fight with him. This is about my friend, Mac repeated to himself, refusing to consider any incidental details. This is about being there for Methos. Seireadan's vengeance, however justified, would just have to wait. Duncan had the more immediate claim on Methos.
The reasons not to be doing this were numerous and convincing, and Duncan recited them all as he drove through the pouring rain.
Methos' only comfort was that the mall was too crowded for open combat. He threaded his way through the dense afternoon crowd almost unnoticed, only stopped by two good Samaritans who asked concernedly about his condition. Yes, thank you, he was very much all right, yes, he was certain he didn't need a doctor, or lunch, or a place to stay. Then a quick duck and twist thought the fluid mass of people, and he was away, moving again. Motion was the key to his survival.
The low hum of Seireadan's Presence had faded as Methos had crossed the highway, but he had no illusions about the mad druid's determination to have his head. Seireadan would be after him momentarily, crowd or no. He renewed his movement through the throng of people, his mind racing. Maybe there was time to find an exit and get a taxi to the dojo, or to Joe's, or to a convenient church. Methos was not above seeking holy ground when other avenues of escape were limited.
And the other avenues had apparently just been cut off as he felt the sweeping surge of Presence in his ears. Too much of a coincidence to hope that it might be some other Immortal shopper just out for a weekend spending spree. Methos caught a glimpse of coppery hair and a pale coat weaving toward him thought the press of holiday shoppers.
He wasn't going to be able to lose Seireadan here. The crowd had outlived its usefulness as camouflage, and Methos made his way to a staircase, up and across to a roof access. He checked the weight of the long dagger still secreted in the small of his back, wishing vainly that the needle sharp weapon were weighted for throwing. Pity he hadn't taken his pistol to Mac's last night, it would have come in handy today.
Methos' shoulder was almost completely healed by the time he emerged on the rainy rooftop. What pain and stiffness remained was simple enough to ignore as he drew the long dagger and waited for Seireadan to follow him. The crowd below had not sheltered him. All that remained was to find some bit of privacy for the duel and to fight his best fight, even under-armed as he was. The dagger was a faithful weapon, having saved his neck on more occasions than Methos cared to recall offhand, but he knew it was no match alone against the longsword that Seireadan wielded with such skill and power.
The roof access creaked open with a protesting squeal. "Well, Ceallach. Still running like a Roman dog, I see." Seireadan glanced around. "Seems you have at last run out of escapes."
Methos swallowed heavily and tightened cold fingers on the hilt of his inadequate dagger. There were too many things he wished he could have told Mac, but he firmly pushed aside that thought. Regrets would do him no good now. He channeled all of his determination and will to live up into his eyes, meeting Seireadan's gaze coldly. "I'm not done yet."
"Yes, well, we'll see about that. Unless you are planning on another diving lesson?"
"No." Methos blinked rainwater out of his eyes and opened his stance defensively. The dagger would give him an advantage in speed and control. He hoped it would be enough against Seireadan's reach and strength.
The first blow jarred his arm all the way to his still-tender shoulder, making Methos grit his teeth and retreat a half step back, trying to absorb the force. This wasn't going well at all.
Slowly, Seireadan drove him back, beating unsubtly at Methos' defense, pushing him back into a walled section of the roof where Methos would be unable to jump. There was a kind of dreamy pleasure on the druid's face that was out of sync with the sheer brutality of his attack.
Duncan had rolled down the car windows with a reckless disregard for the consequences of water on his leather seats. He strained his senses for the tingle of Presence, or for the flutter of long coats around the corners of buildings. But it was the brief spark of steel on steel on a high rooftop that captured his attention. What on earth are they doing at the mall?
He would never completely recall how he came to be there, struggling upstream in the press of shoppers like a salmon, desperate to reach the roof. That the challenge had gone on this long, that it had come here of all places, didn't bode well. Methos was a more than capable combatant, but he was also more than a touch paranoid in his need for privacy. He would not have willingly moved this duel to such a public location without dire circumstance as a motivator.
Mac's feet found the stairs, carrying him up two and three steps at a time. He quietly blessed Amanda, and all the miserable hours she had insisted he spend with her here. At least he knew his way around.
He flung himself through the roof access door into a wall of icy rain and the powerful wash of Presence. The solid weight of his katana was in hand without conscious thought of drawing the elegant blade.
"Well, Rómhánach, looks like your lapdog has slipped his leash again. Maybe I'll see to his better education once we are finished here." Seireadan raised his voice for Mac's benefit.
The tall druid stepped back a bit, and then Duncan could see Methos, looking very pale and small in his black coat, clutching a bloodied dagger in his right hand. Where was his sword?
The rich baritone had a raw, tired edge to it. "Oh, I don't know that you'll be in much of a condition to do anything when this is over."
"Now, Ceallach, you know the rules. Single combat. Your Scottish shadow there can't interfere."
Mac listened to the exchange, watching the exhausted resignation in Methos' sharp face give way to a tight determination. He knew that face, had seen the feelings flowing across the expressive features like water. Duncan knew, too, the man behind those deep eyes, at least as well as anyone ever knew the elusive Methos. He knew some few of the horrors Methos had been party to, and had seen some of the tremendous gentleness the old Immortal was capable of.
His grip on the carved hilt of the katana was painfully tight, the weight of the sword dragging on his arm. Duncan felt curiously light headed, as if that single burden pulled on him in ways he hadn't expected. The slender length of ivory and steel was indescribably precious to him, a tangible symbol of his life, his existence, as much a part of him as his Immortality. As much a part of him as Methos was.
There was no conscious decision to be made. Mac cried out a single word, unsure later whether it was a warning, a name, or something else, but it served it's purpose regardless. Methos' head swung up at the exclamation, the long arm snapping out to catch the katana as it sailed toward him.
Duncan counted the remaining blows of the challenge, watched the elegant set-up that ended Seireadan's life. Six. Six blows in two passes before the auburn-haired head came away from the shoulders, rolling aside with a grotesque thumping as blood fountained across the tan fabric of his coat. Rain hissed in a steady downpour, filling the sudden silence.
Methos looked up at Mac with a kind of panic as the Quickening struck. Dimly, Duncan could hear the sounds of breaking glass in the mall below.
It was long moments before Methos stopped screaming under the pain/pleasure of the Quickening. Mac winced in sympathy. It was difficult to watch the intimate fury of a Quickening assault anyone, no matter who, but Methos seemed to have more difficulty with it than most Immortals Mac had known. He let the spasms pass, giving the old Immortal time to recover on his own before moving closer to offer help as Methos lurched to his feet, shaky as a new colt.
Methos looked up at him, his face still haggard from the force of the Quickening. It was a rare, unguarded moment. Pain, anger and other emotions flashed across the hazel eyes too quickly for Mac to keep up with them, and behind that... Duncan could only call it a hardness, a vision of that unyielding steel core that let Methos endure the millennia. There was the briefest glimpse only, and then it was shuttered away, camouflaged, concealed, making Mac wonder if he had truly seen it at all.
When Methos looked at him again, it was as himself, all the surface Mac was accustomed to seeing in the sharp face, and none of the shadowed depths. Duncan wasn't sure what he saw there, but the old Immortal was clearly wrestling with something, the thin lips working soundlessly for an instant before Methos found his voice, harsh and gravelly from his exhaustion. "Duncan, I..." He blinked once, slowly. "Thank you," he said at last, simply, holding out the katana for Mac to take.
Mac tucked the sword into his coat, noting the traces of blood on Methos' hands. He thought hard for them both, and clasped that stained hand to help his friend rise. There were no incidentals to consider, no peripheral issues to cloud this reunion today.
Something warm and satisfying filled Mac's chest as he swung a supporting arm around Methos' slender shoulders. "Hey, what are friends for?" He wiped at the rain that trickled into his eyes, making them sting treacherously. "Come on, let's go find your sword and go home."
Methos sighed and leaned into the embrace. "That sounds like a wonderful idea."
The massacre of the Roman garrison on the Rhine in 406 is true. Three years later the barbarian army, led by Alaric the Goth, sacked Rome, carrying off tremendous wealth in gold, silver, and freed slaves. The sack of Rome, and the resulting fall of the Roman Empire is considered the historical beginning of the Middle Ages.
Ireland, or Hibernia as it was called then, was never conquered by the Romans, or any other invading force until the Viking invasions of the 700s. Many scholars have speculated that it was the pacifying Christian influence that made the Irish vulnerable to conquest. Others hold the view that conquest was inevitable in any case.
There is no way to include complete biographical detail on St. Patrick here. The assassination attempt made against him by the nine druids is factual, as are the names of those involved in it, but the date of the attack was not recorded, nor were any other details.
Druids were the religious and intellectual class of the Celtic peoples, and were as diverse and individual as any other caste. Seireadan is not meant to be typical of the druids.