|The Causes Remain
This story is rated NC-17 for adult content, including adult language and the graphic depiction of sex, both hetero- and homoerotic, rape, and violence, including torture. If you are under the age of 18 (and do not have your parent's consent... yeah, right) or the exploration of these issues does not appeal to you, PLEASE turn back now. You have been warned. If you persist in reading this despite my warning, don't come crying to me if you get offended. You know if you should be here or not.
Methos, Adam Pierson, Duncan MacLeod, Joe Dawson, Joe's Bar, Mike, and the concept of Immortality are the property of someone else with more lawyers than me. I claim no ownership, no money... Just for fun, eh? I promise to return the guys relatively unharmed when I am done with them (which is turning out to be longer than I thought, but who's complaining?...). ;)
Methos' identity of Ceallach is my own creation, as are Gráinne, Seireadan, Meara, and assorted incidental characters.
Thanks to my Beloved Betas(tm): Juanita, Beth, Merry, Rene, Tuckerlair, Rienna and Methosgrrl (who swears that none of the following is her fault), who have been amazingly tolerant of my eccentricities, and without whom this story would not be half so coherent and even more delayed than it already is. I have nothing but my endless thanks to offer, and the threat of more stories to come! Any correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, or continuity you find here is entirely their fault (despite Methosgrrl's protestations). All mistakes are, of course, my own. Mea culpa. Another extra-special thanks goes out to my husband Don, and to everyone who had to listen to me rant endlessly about Irish history and language during the writing of this story.
Notes on language: This story contains several words and phrases in Irish Gaelic. Due to the limits of my own knowledge and resources, I have necessarily used modern Irish throughout, even when Old Irish would be appropriate. I have also simplified usage for the sake of clarity, and not used the vocative forms of address in personal names. For more information on the structure and pronunciation of modern Irish, please visit a wonderful resource page, <http://www.lincolnu.edu/~focal/irishsp.htm>. For the Irish-impaired among us, pronunciation of names may be roughly approximated as: Seireadan (Sheridan), Ceallach (Kelley), Gráinne (Grawn-ya), and Meara (Mara).
Since feedback is the coin of the realm for fic-writers, please direct all questions, comments, and silly remarks to me, Taselby.
"Stant belli causa." --Virgil
The causes of war remain.
"No, wait, you're not listening to me." Methos leaned across the small table, speaking loudly to be heard over the music.
Mac smiled. "I'm listening, you just aren't making any sense."
Methos squinted. "I'm serious. If you want to really understand why Rome fell, go read Ausonius."
MacLeod was skeptical. "Ausonius? The poet?" Bass guitar and drums throbbed heavily in the background. Where did Joe find some of these bands?
"Yes, the poet. The very bad poet." Methos stopped to sip from his beer and made a frustrated motion with one hand. "The man sat around writing greeting-card verses and plagiarizing Virgil while the borders of the Empire crumbled like rotten cheese. And the people loved him for it." He laughed ruefully, a rare smile lighting the sharp planes of his face.
"From Virgil to Ausonius in 400 years," Methos shuddered in mock-horror. "You know, I think the barbarians had to invade, just to put an end to it."
Mac smiled at his friend's good humor, yet was clearly still digesting this. "But what about the heavy taxation, the corrupt government, the invading Goths?" Mac enjoyed these discussions, liked hearing Methos' unique views on real versus recorded history. He had missed these talks more than he realized during their estrangement. The truce between them was still a shaky one, defined more by the topics they would not explore than by the familiar way they interacted. World history was safe to talk about, personal history was not.
Methos shook his head dismissively. "Yes, those are valid points, but Ausonius' popularity is the key. A window, if you will, into the mindset of a population that allowed those other things to continue. His so-called poems..."
His voice trailed off as both men fell silent and turned toward the door, a tingling pressure building behind their ears, the unmistakable sensation of another Immortal's Presence washing over them.
MacLeod sized up the man as he entered, and watched the auburn-haired stranger as the newcomer scanned the dark bar for the source of the other signatures he sensed. He was tall, richly but conservatively dressed in muted colors, and stood with a predatory stillness as his eyes flicked from table to table. Mac automatically double checked the proximity of his coat and the katana secreted there.
The stranger's gaze settled on them, and he strode across the intervening distance with fluid grace. Methos stiffened beside MacLeod as the stranger approached. Every warning bell in Mac's head went off, shrieking danger as Methos and the other Immortal stared at one another. A less-than-friendly smile stretched the newcomer's lips. Mac's fingers itched for the weight of his katana.
"Rómhánach!" the stranger exclaimed, laughing too brightly. "By the gods, it is good to see you. I was certain that you had lost your head to an angry father or a jealous husband, by now." He paused, looking hard at Methos. "You look different, time has changed you, mo chara."
Mac's mind raced, translating the Gaelic even as he considered the implications of the suggested history the two men shared. Rómhánach... Roman?
MacLeod saw Methos sit up a little taller and flash a dangerous smile in return. "Time changes us all, Seireadan. You more than me, I think."
Seireadan waved a hand in negation, and sat down in an empty chair to join them. "The moon changes her aspect, but her essence is the same. You, Rómhánach, are like a river. The course is the same, but fresh waters are ever-flowing."
"Let's dispense with the cheap metaphors, Seireadan. Are you just lonesome for my company, or is there something you wanted?" Methos' tone was pleasantly conversational, but Mac could read the the tension in every line of the slender body, down to the subtle leaping of one tiny muscle where the old Immortal clenched his jaw. Mac remained silent but ready, willing to let this angry reunion play itself out.
Seireadan sighed dramatically. "Ceallach," he addressed Methos, just a hint of venom in the rich voice, "must I always remind you of your manners? Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"
"Ceallach? I'm touched that you remembered." Methos leaned back a bit, and nodded slightly. MacLeod wondered again what old game they were playing.
"Seireadan, this is Duncan MacLeod. Mac, Seireadan is an old... acquaintance of mine." There was just enough stress on the the word to renew Mac's sense of alarm. He let his knuckles trail unobtrusively over the fabric of the coat beside him as he extended a hand across the table.
"Any friend of Adam's... Pleased to meet you." It was not precisely a lie.
"And you." The handshake was perfunctory, the hand cold and dry. MacLeod noticed that the man's eyes were a bright, grassy green.
Seireadan raised a coppery eyebrow and turned the depthless gaze back to Methos. "Adam, is it? Ah, Ceallach, you really have changed. You should have helped me finish what I started."
Methos shook his head. "Help you? Not in this lifetime, or any other. You couldn't have stopped it even if I had. Patricius was a good man, the best for the job. If it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else, someone less sympathetic to the Irish."
Seireadan flushed, his knuckles tightening on the edge of the table. "Less sympathetic?" he hissed angrily. "Because of you, Ceallach, he lived to destroy them. I find it difficult to think of less friendly actions."
"And what? You wanted to kill him, were you going to kill all of those that followed him? Did you really want another war? Would that have saved your people? How many more... how many would have died to satisfy your twisted sense of cultural purity?" Methos drained his glass and set it aside, forcing a note of calm into his voice. "You didn't look me up just to stroll down memory lane."
"No, Ceallach, Adam," he spat the name like it left a bitter taste in his mouth, "whatever my ...regrets, we both know the past cannot be changed." The hair at the back of Mac's head began to creep at the note in Seireadan's voice. Something else was being said below the surface of the words. "You are a hard man to find." The green eyes were bright and cold.
"I've been around."
"Yes, I've heard from time to time when you surfaced, but by the time I arrived, you were always gone." Another exaggerated sigh. "The village just wasn't the same after you left, so many little details that could have used your personal touch. I suppose I missed you; you always had the most delightful sense of humor, so entertaining. I could always count on you for something educational to fill a long afternoon. I've been wanting to catch up on old times, as it were, for close to 1500 years now. And here you are."
"And here I am." Methos' voice was dangerous. "I'm done with easing your boredom, Seireadan, and any debts between us were settled long ago. I seem to recall a rather pointed discussion we had about that at the time. So what did you have in mind now? Get drunk, assault an apple tree, sacrifice a druid for old times' sake?"
Mac had only once seen that particular burning in the clear hazel eyes of his friend, and shied away from the memory of having that baleful expression turned against him. This was not the time to allow himself to be distracted by past hurts. Methos looked like a stranger now, and a deadly one. MacLeod was hard-pressed to reconcile this man who sat poised with lethal intensity with the one who had gleefully slandered Ausonius from that same chair.
Seireadan leaned forward, baring his teeth in a grim parody of a smile. "I was more in mind to finish the ...discussion we were having when that meddlesome priest interfered. You do recall?"
Methos' grin was savage. "I've forgotten nothing, Seireadan. And as I remember it, you were never that good a conversationalist."
"Oh, I think you'll find my debating has improved since we last spoke."
The Challenge was out in the open now, and hung motionless and silent in the air between the two men. There was no way around it. MacLeod found his mouth suddenly dry, his hands clammy from a rush of fear and adrenalin. He wanted to take this challenge for Methos. Every protective instinct in Mac screamed for action, to step between them and remove the threat to his friend. For once he didn't care about honor, or the Game, or playing by the rules. He just knew he did not want to risk losing Methos to this offensive man. Was this how Amanda and Joe felt every time he went off to face an opponent?
Methos rose first, coat in hand. "Then let's take this discussion outside, shall we?"
MacLeod had never seen his friend like this, not even Kronos had conjured this level of barely-leashed violence in the old Immortal. Methos was flushed and rigid, his nostrils flaring in rhythm with his deep, steady breaths. A cold, homicidal light burned in the hazel eyes, and Mac worried briefly that Methos might draw his sword and press his attack here in the bar.
Seireadan swept a long, appraising look up Methos' body, and Mac felt himself coloring at the intensity of it. Seireadan leaned back in his chair, meeting the murderous glare in Methos' eyes without flinching. And then he laughed.
"Oh, sit down, Adam," he said disgustedly. "Unlike some of us, I still keep the old ways. Surely you haven't forgotten the date?"
MacLeod scowled, not understanding. "Tonight's the first of February."
"It's Imbolc," Methos clarified, his eyes never wavering from his adversary. "Very big in druid circles. You can't hide behind your religion forever, Seireadan." Something in the old Immortal's face twisted, a faint, vicious smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Tell me, did you ever pass the final initiation, ever become one of the priests? Too bad you let yourself be distracted from your training so easily, but I guess you must be used to failure by now. Come look me up another night, and we'll finish that chat." Methos turned on his heel and stalked out of the bar, jerking on his coat as he went.
MacLeod calmly drained his scotch and rose, slipping on his own coat. He spared one flat, hostile look for Seireadan before following Methos out the door.
There was no air. Methos gasped, sucking in great heaving lungfuls of the icy wind trying to calm himself as he marched down the sidewalk with long, angry strides. He swallowed hard against his rage and disappointment, the unexpected intensity of his need to kill the druid. How does the saying go? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world... Seireadan is alive. Methos had never considered the possibility that the druid had managed to keep his head, but on further thought, he really shouldn't be surprised. Seireadan was a survivor.
Methos pulled his coat closer around himself and continued to pound his boots against the wet sidewalk in an even rhythm. Lost in thought, he ignored the bitter wind as it pulled at him, slapping the tails of his coat against his long legs.
The warning buzz of another Immortal washed over him, too close. He turned, reaching for his sword even as he cursed his inattention, and saw MacLeod trotting up the sidewalk toward him. Methos swallowed the sour disappointment that it wasn't Seireadan changing his mind, or some other opponent, some convenient target to vent his anger on.
Still, he slowed and allowed Mac to fall into step beside him.
Methos almost smiled at the Highlander. Mac's face was so open, the questions chasing themselves across the dark eyes, the expressive brows knitted in concern.
Methos breathed deeply again as the flood of adrenalin receded, leaving a trembling weariness in its wake. He wasn't ready for Mac's questions, but didn't see any satisfactory way of avoiding them. He would not risk their fragile friendship to lies again.
The blocks flowed by under their feet. Methos spoke first, lips thick and numb with cold. "What do you want to know?" It was easier this way, to volunteer these painful shreds of his past instead of having them torn from him unwilling, and then twisted back on him, delivered like the Gorgon's head, turned to destroy.
The eerie silence lingered for another half block, until Methos was nearly jumping in his skin, ready to confess to anything just to fill up the quiet. That thought made him angry again. Who was Duncan MacLeod to do this to him? Who did this ignorant Highland barbarian think he was to stand there and condemn Methos, Methos, with his silence?
"How long were you in Rome?" Mac asked quietly.
Methos could have wept with relief as the rage flowed out of him yet again. He could see it in every line of Mac's posture, the questions he wouldn't ask, the advantage Methos had given him that Mac wouldn't press. He closed his eyes to the stinging, frozen wind and relaxed, letting the memories swell up and take him. His face softened wistfully.
"Have you ever had a place where you felt safe, like you were home? Rome was like that for me... I belonged there..." He scrubbed a hand across his face and stretched his lips in a self-mocking smile. "I should have known better..."
Rhine Garrison of the Roman Army, 406 AD
Methos had spent too much time in Rome. The bustling anonymity of the metropolitan crowds had been a refuge to him in those nervous days after his departure from Kronos and the others, and as the years passed, he found himself returning again and again to the familiar, comforting structure of Roman life. The Legions in particular had become a home to him. Methos returned there every century or so to remind himself of what he had left behind in those sun-blasted deserts, and more importantly, to remember why he had left it.
The Legions and the Horsemen were almost frighteningly similar, like two sides of the same coin. There was in both a sense of discipline and loyalty, the heady abandon of battle, and absolute devotion to the group. There was brotherhood, but this time it was without Kronos' manipulations to taint it.
And so he had found himself there again, submerging himself in the strict discipline of military life. In the last bitterly cold days of the year that would come to be counted as 406 AD, Methos was stationed to a border outpost on the west bank of the Rhine, wet and freezing, keeping a bored, contemptuous watch on the barbarian hordes that seethed on the opposite bank of the river. He didn't know the names of all the different tribes that paced the far side, the filthy fur-wrapped savages that hooted and howled, snorting and brandishing crude weapons at the clean-cut Romans. Like the rest of his brother soldiers, Methos was enveloped in an insulating cocoon of smug superiority. He had lived long enough to realize that Rome might not be eternal, but an empire that had survived over 1100 years, that had stood longer than the Horsemen had ridden, was more than sufficient to endure the gibbering insults of some smelly Goths that were kept firmly in place by the surging river.
It was still dark when he was wakened by the sound of activity in the camp. Men were shouting, too many voices to distinguish what the commotion was about. Methos rolled out of his blankets and pulled on his boots, wrapping a heavy cloak about his shoulders to ward off the bitter cold. Outside the scene became no clearer to him. Sentry fires cast a dim light on the milling soldiers as they ran about with a shocking lack of order and discipline. Methos walked through the camp, dreamlike, looking for an officer, or for anyone who looked like they knew what was happening. The sky across the river began to lighten to the faint silvery color of pre-dawn. Something gleamed dully in the pale light.
The river... Feeling flowed away from his limbs in numbing shock. Methos spun and ran for his tent with sudden wrenching fear, desperate to get his breastplate and sword.
The river Rhine had frozen solid.
It was as though the world had held its breath waiting for him to realize the significance of the frozen river, as if this drama were being played out for his benefit alone. Even as he ran for his tent, he heard the thunderous roar of the attacking barbarian tribes as they raced across the ice, too numerous to be counted.
Methos never reached his sword. The dangerous, slippery ground and the confusion of milling soldiers all screaming and struggling to mount a defense combined, slowing him so that he was caught in the first wave of the attack. Light exploded in his eyes as a crushing blow to the back of his head forced him down to his knees. He caught a glimpse of thick, leather-wrapped legs as another impact shattered his skull. The mud and filthy snow swept up to meet him as he felt his life slipping away.
He awoke later with a painful, shuddering breath to find himself trampled, half-sunk in the snow and frozen mud. He had no way of determining how long he had been down. The river had thawed, burbling with exaggerated cheer in the background, and some of the bodies had begun to putrefy, filling the air with their stench. Methos scowled in disgust. Even dead, the barbarians stank. It was dark out, and the sentry fires were extinguished, never to be lighted again. The plain was heaped with bodies. Methos had never seen so many dead in one place before, not even in the worst days of the Horsemen. His ten thousand were nothing in the face of this slaughter, this absolute destruction of life. Everything was gone. The outpost had been razed to the ground, and the stoic, handsome, disciplined Legions he had thought of as brothers were slaughtered to a man.
He would shed no tears for them. Methos scraped the icy mud from his aching limbs the best he could, gathered what few supplies he could salvage from the disaster, including a short sword the Goths had overlooked, and looked one last time at the ruin of his home. All that remained were scraps of fabric, broken bits of pottery, and the thousands upon thousands of mangled, half-frozen bodies heaped everywhere, as far as he could see.
Rome was dead to him now, and would be to the world soon enough when that angry sea of barbarian warriors reached the peninsula. He was so tired... Very well, he sighed, straightening his shoulders resolutely, pulling the wet, filthy cloak closer about his shoulders. If the uneducated, unwashed barbarian hordes would take over the world, then he would become one of them.
Homeless again, Methos turned his steps north, into the frozen wind.
The wind pulled at his eyes, made them sting treacherously. Duncan's silent, patient presence beside him was less than comforting tonight. The solid, unshakable reserves of Duncan MacLeod, that Methos had once thought he could lean on, shelter in... had since become a slippery jumble of boulders, precariously balanced and waiting to fall. One wrong move, one incautious word could destroy them both.
Methos swallowed once, trying to moisten his dry mouth, and spoke carefully. "I was in and out of Rome for centuries after I left Kronos. Romans were a decadent, lazy, self-important people. History has never yet managed to capture the sheer depth of their selfishness and cruelty, the horror of their amusements. I was..." he paused for a breath, looking down at the wet sidewalk. "The Legions were a good place for me then." Methos looked up, the hazel eyes shadowed with old memories, and chanced a glance at MacLeod.
Mac's face was filled with conflicting emotions, and Methos tried to wait until they sorted themselves out, all the while promising silently, No more lies, Mac... no more lies. His shoulders and back ached with tension as he held himself tight, waiting for the other man's response. How many times would they have to play this scene? Methos now had still one more reason to relieve Seireadan of his head, simply for heaping yet another strain on his delicately-repaired relationship with MacLeod.
Duncan shook his head minutely, shivering off some unvoiced thought or feeling, and laid a warm hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come on, let's go..." he hesitated briefly on the word, "let's go home."
Methos knew this place. He had been here before, this tiny green bowl of a valley, nestled in between low hills. This scene was wrong, though. The colors were too bright, the sounds ringing in his ears hollowly. The grass was impossibly green, shimmering in a hundred brilliantly surreal shades as the wind teased and parted it, making it tickle at his bare calves as he walked. The bright, yellow sunlight was warm on his back.
A soft laugh made Methos look to the side, and she was there, tall and black-haired the way he remembered her, her tunic belted like a man's as she waded beside him, barefoot in the tall grass. An uncommon smile lighted her strong features. "Gráinne?" he asked, confused.
"You think too much, Ceallach," she chided him as she often did, pressing herself into his body, grabbing a handful of his long hair to guide him into a savage kiss. Methos yielded to it, as he had on a hundred golden days like this one, drawing her down beside him in the deep grass. She smelled of leather and oil, like a warrior.
She roughly shoved him over onto his back, lifting his tunic without preamble to stroke him to hardness. The perfect blue dome of the sky spun above him as his breath quickened, only to be shut out by her shadow as she straddled him indelicately, guiding his erection into her. Yes....
They were rolling, and the world seemed to spin dizzily with them as Methos pinned her, holding her strong, scarred arms down, imprisoning the narrow wrists against the damp earth. He pounded his hips against her, grinding himself deeper into her slick heat. A voice cried out, but he didn't know whose, couldn't tell if the shout was of pleasure or pain, and it didn't matter... Nothing mattered but the writhing form beneath him, the welcoming loins he drove into, the red sunlight splashing on her face. Methos bent to kiss her...
...and tasted blood. He cradled her against him, his arms shaking, whispering her name, "Gráinne," over and over like a charm that would make her whole again. The grass under his knees was trampled flat, pounded into the dark mud, soaked in the blood of the warriors around him. The scent of it was overwhelming, the sweet grass and rich earth mingled with the sharp metallic tang of blood and the stench of torn bowels. It was the smell of death. The field was filled with the shrieks and moans of dying men.
This, too, was wrong. The colors too clear, too bright, the scents and sounds too immediate to his senses. Was this the way it had happened? Was this the truth of it? It no longer mattered as he looked down into her face again, still keening her name. Despair swelled up and threatened to engulf him. This was wrong... It hadn't been like this, had it?
Her strong face was a mask of blood and woad, the whites of her eyes shining, starkly brilliant, like stars. Methos pressed a hand to her side in a futile effort to staunch the wound there, willing her to breathe, to heal... to live.
"Ceallach," she wheezed, touching his face with a cold, filthy hand. "Tiarna..." she smiled weakly at the joke, her teeth stained red as blood filled her mouth. She had only called him tiarna, lord, before when she was angry. Gráinne's limp form spasmed in his arms, coughing, struggling for breath as a red froth pulsed at her sensual lips. She whispered again, the secret name she had coaxed from him against his better judgment, twisting it to her language.
"Miotas..." And the light in her eyes was gone.
Methos woke to the sound of his own screams.
Something held him in the darkness, and he fought against it, thinking only that the neighboring tribe had returned, that the battle was rejoined. His sword, where was his sword? He kicked and screamed, shrieking curses at his enemy...
Until he registered the panicked voice calling his name, and the softness of the mattress against his back.
"Methos!" Duncan shouted, "Methos, wake up!" The dark shadow of MacLeod's torso loomed above him; the large hands shook his shoulders.
"Mac?" Methos asked, disoriented. "Is that you?"
"Yes," there was an amused chuckle in the darkness, "who else would I be?" The weight pressing into his shoulders eased with a soft creaking of springs and yellow light flared as Mac switched on the bedside lamp. Methos squinted blearily up into the concerned eyes of his friend.
Mac smiled gently. "You had a nightmare." There was a long pause filled with the soft ticking of clocks. Methos' heart hammered in his ears. "Want to talk about it?"
"Not right now." Methos tried very hard to remember how to breathe as the crushing intensity of the dream choked the air from his lungs. A flood of memory, the sounds of screams and the sharp scents of blood and grass, rolled over him like a tidal wave, threatening to sweep him away... away from his tentative hold on the relative security of the present and back into the nightmare. Methos tightened his grip on the soft blanket covering him, trying to ground his senses firmly in the immediate sensations of this quiet moment.
"Duncan, what time is it?" Methos desperately hoped the trembling he felt inside wasn't audible in his voice.
"Not quite 3 a.m." Mac's concern was too obvious in his dark eyes. Methos pulled himself away from the memory of other dark eyes that searched his face... blood bubbling on the soft lips...
Mac misinterpreted the other man's silence. "You dozed off while I was cooking, remember? I tossed a couple of quilts over you and let you sleep, you looked like you could use it," he explained, filling up the quiet.
Methos nodded, wiping a hand across his eyes to banish the last of his dream. "You can save the recap, Mac. I remember." He tried to smile gamely. "Well, at least you didn't kick me out on the floor. I hate waking up with a foot in my rump. Is there any food left?" He slid out of the blankets and rolled away from Mac's reassuring presence, his comforting warmth. Methos sighed at the sight of Duncan perched protectively on the edge of the bed. Leave it to the Clan Chieftain to try to parent a man thirteen times his age. But Methos was glad of the company tonight.
Duncan watched Methos pad silently toward the bathroom, still concerned about the dream that left the older Immortal screaming in his sleep. He rose from the bed and adjusted the sweatpants riding low on his hips. He knew Methos well enough to understand that the Old Man would talk when he was ready, and not before. Duncan could only resolve to be a willing ear when the time came.
In the kitchen he pulled bowls and pans out of the refrigerator, and set about rewarming the remains of dinner. After a moment's thought, he put a pot of coffee on to brew. Something told him that neither of them would get much more sleep tonight.
Later, after the food was gone and a second pot of coffee brewed, Duncan took down a bottle and laced the steaming mugs with liberal amounts of scotch. They were deep into their second cups of liquored coffee when the companionable silence began to stretch too thin, tension building in the uneasy quiet.
Duncan watched Methos from over the rim of his cup. The old Immortal stared blankly into the dark coffee, almost visibly withdrawing. Mac could sense him pulling away, retreating into the shadowed core of his memories. It happened to all of them. There were so many vivid moments frozen forever in an Immortal's mind, so many recollections from the long lives. And so few of the memories were happy ones.
A slight tightening at the corner of Methos' eyes told Mac of old pains. He spoke, breaking the moment with the first thing that came to mind before the other man could completely lose himself. "I didn't know you spoke Gaelic."
"What?" Methos blinked at him, confused. He looked as if MacLeod had suddenly offered him bowling lessons or free glamour portraits.
Mac took another swallow of his coffee, savoring the slow burn of the whisky at the back of his throat. He firmly stifled a chuckle at the look of absolute bewilderment on Methos' face. "Gaelic," he repeated, clarifying. "You were shouting in Gaelic. I never knew you spoke it, is all."
"Oh." The hazel eyes cleared a bit as Methos understood. "I speak a lot of languages, Mac. It was a long time ago."
Methos hesitated, letting the words drift into the silent kitchen. Mac had the odd thought that the other man was waiting for permission to continue. Methos gripped his coffee mug with both hands, and looked at Duncan for a long steady moment before taking another swallow. Mac wondered what sort of test he had just been subjected to, and whether he had passed.
Methos drained his coffee with a casual toss of his head, and reached for the scotch bottle, pouring a generous splash into the green ceramic cup. His voice was detached, clinical, as though he were reading someone else's record of events in an old book. Mac winced inwardly at the tone, and the obvious pain it was supposed to conceal.
"After the..." Methos stopped and sipped from his cup. "After Rome was gone, I made my way to Ireland. The world had been given to the barbarians, and the Irish were the worst of the lot. I'd known men recently come from Britain and Wales who literally peed themselves at the mere mention of Irish raiders."
Methos knew what Mac was doing, and he silently cursed the Highlander for the effort. The overwhelming flood of memories receded, bottled in by the structure of talk... by Mac's silent insistence on hearing the tale. Mac was trying to gentle the memory by coaxing Methos into sharing it. Methos did not want to remember it at all.
Methos sipped at the fiery, smoky scotch in his cup, and struggled with how much to reveal. Mac made a good show of tolerance and acceptance, but how much was he really prepared to hear? The Horsemen had been the longest, most consistently violent episode from Methos' past, but it was by no means the full extent of his shames. At least his time with Kronos had been largely unburdened by the niceties of conscience. The full realization of what he had been, the things he had done, had come later. The smaller crimes of later days took on an exaggerated significance when weighted down by-- he struggled with the word-- regret. He closed his eyes to block out the sudden vivid image of a rainy afternoon, his feet sinking in the cold mud, blood running freely over his chest and arms. Somewhere in the distant past a crowd was shouting, and he was screaming...
"Is that when you met Seireadan?" A softly accented voice pulled him back to the present, to the mundanities of kitchens and coffee cups and dirty dishes in the sink.
Methos stood with a sudden, restless motion and began to pace along the counter. "Do we have to talk about this now, MacLeod?"
"We don't have to talk about it at all. We can just wait until he comes for your head and see if we can all sit down for tea and get acquainted then, before he kills you!"
"Oh, yeah. Thanks for the vote of confidence there," Methos spat back.
Mac rose carefully and began clearing the last of the late supper from the table with an offensively bright clinking of plates and forks. He piled the dishes in the sink with a clatter. "Methos... don't do this. Let me help you this time. If you'll tell me..."
The absolute gentleness of Mac's tone, his relentless insistence, went over Methos like nails on a chalkboard and the tenuous grip on his temper slipped. "Tell you what? You're just not going to let this go are you?" Methos interrupted him with a shout, the anger and frustration spilling over into his voice. He could feel the fragile bonds of friendship between them crumbling under the strain, and perversely, it only served to push his anger higher. "There is nothing I can say to you that will change anything about what happened. Don't you understand that yet, MacLeod? Nothing changes anything."
Mac's voice began to raise. "Well it might help if you'd ever talk to me!"
Methos fixed him with a flat, belligerent stare and folded his arms defiantly. "Fine. What exactly would you like to hear?"
"Methos..." Mac shifted uncomfortably, a note of warning in his voice.
"No, you started this. What do you want to know? What painful, humiliating piece of my past would you like me to trot out and display for your amusement? You already know about Kronos, so how about something else for your entertainment tonight. How about when I was a prostitute? No?" Methos looked around with sharp, jerking motions, pretending to consider his choices. "All right. What about the time I was a paid assassin? No, not that." He stalked the length of the counter, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. "Let me think..."
The smoldering anger, the resentment in Methos' eyes was completely out of sync with the dark cheer of his voice. "I know. Let's talk about when I was a slave."
Mac winced at the words, reaching out a hand in what was surely meant as a comforting gesture. "Methos..."
"No!" Methos shouted at him, slapping the hand away, "I don't want your fucking sympathy, and I don't need you to be my keeper. What? Do you think I sat around for 5000 years waiting for the great Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod to come and... and pat my head and tell me it was going to be all right?"
"Damn it, Methos, I'm not trying to 'pat your head.' I just want to help you, and I can't do that if you won't let me." Mac's volume crept steadily upward, keeping pace with the other man's.
"Help?" Methos barked the word in a parody of a laugh; his sarcasm was a tangible thing in the air. "You want to help me? Like you helped me when that Jakob Galati business went down with the Watchers? Very helpful, there the way you got Joe out of town for a while so things could cool off. And, hey, I gotta say, that was very supportive, the way you stood by me when I was trying to keep the two of you alive. 'One of them or one of us.' What a pep-talk. You have a real gift for saying just the right thing, Mac." Methos continued to pace restlessly, his motions tightly controlled. His hands shook as he gestured angrily.
"Oh, and um, thanks ever so much for helping me resolve that little problem with Byron. You're a real pal." The pacing turned and carried him across the room to where Mac stood silently against the bar, voiceless at this unexpected outburst.
"And let's not forget our old friend Kronos." A tiny voice in Methos' head was telling him to shut up, that he was pushing too far, but he resolutely ignored it, the momentum of the argument had built too quickly to stop now. And it felt good to finally tell Mac how these things had hurt. "You were so willing to believe the worst Cassandra could say about me, so ready to think that I had played you for a fool all this time... Where were you when I needed you then?" His voice broke on the last word, his throat thick with stifled despair.
"It might be easier if you would ever tell me anything! Your answer to a problem is to what... do nothing? You want to ignore it and just hope it goes away?" Mac took a step toward Methos, bristling with frustrated anger. "I can't do that, Methos, I can't just stick my head in the sand and hope to God that things manage to work themselves out. That's what you do-- you run from your life, you run from your problems. You head off to Tibet, or to wherever you were going to hide when I found you loading up your truck after Kronos showed up." Mac paused for a breath, his eyes hard. He spoke very quietly. "And what Cassandra said was true."
"Yes, but you didn't have to be so God-damned quick to believe her." Old sorrows swelled up inside him, and mingled with the new ones until Methos thought his eyes might betray him, like everything else, and start to cry. "You can stop trying to play the Clan Chieftain for me MacLeod. I don't need it, and I don't want it." He swallowed another breath and spoke with as much force as he could manage.
"You cannot fight my battles for me!"
"Well you certainly don't seem to be fighting them for yourself!" Mac shouted at him, too close, pressing Methos back toward the counter.
Methos' reaction was as instantaneous as it was regrettable. His arm swung up, and he watched with an odd detachment as Mac's head snapped back from the blow, carrying the rest of the Highlander backward, and over an inconveniently-placed chair. Mac was on the floor before Methos had even felt the force of the punch in his own hand.
Methos couldn't feel his body, and was only dimly aware of the sound of his own voice, shouting as if from a great distance. "Get up! You want to see me fight? Get the hell up off the floor and I'll give you a fight. Well? What are you laying there for, you started this. GET UP!"
Duncan was motionless, frozen with shock. One hand cradled his jaw where the blow had connected, and he slowly shook his head in negation. "No," he mumbled through closed teeth. "I don't want to fight you, Methos." His words were slurred, barely audible. Mac squinted in pain as he probed with careful fingers, assessing the damage to his face. "I won't fight you." Blood bubbled on the full lips as Mac remained on the floor, watching Methos with pain-clouded eyes.
Methos towered over Duncan, staring fixedly at him without really seeing, lost for an instant in the memory of other bloodstained lips. Adrenalin and rage slowly receded, pain and embarrassment rushing in to fill the void left behind. Methos felt almost as stunned as Mac looked, sprawled awkwardly on the floor. The angry flush drained from his face as he grimaced and gingerly probed at his hand, hissing as the bones shifted. The refrigerator hummed softly in the background. "I think I'd better go now," he said quietly.
"No, wait," Mac mumbled from between his teeth, cupping his jaw with one hand while trying to lever himself upright with the other. That condemning spot of blood stained his lower lip. Methos had been helpless to prevent that other tragedy, unable to mend the hurt. He hesitated over the decision for only an instant before extending his left hand to help the Highlander rise.
"Are you all right?"
"In just a minute. I think you broke my jaw." Mac righted the chair and sat carefully. Methos could see the dark bruise spreading along Duncan's face.
Methos gave a chagrined smile. "That's all right, your thick Scottish head broke my hand." He joined Duncan at the table and reached for the miraculously unspilled bottle of scotch with his left hand and poured fresh shots for them both.
The quiet stretched out again between them, less tense, but still crowded with things that needed to be said.
Methos sipped at his drink and sighed. What could cure, might also kill. He spoke in a dry, hushed tone.
"1500 years ago, I was a slave in Ireland..."
Ireland, 421 AD
There were no more thoughts of struggle left in him. Methos was exhausted and dehydrated, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth, his eyes sticky and unfocused. In other moments, other lifetimes, he might have laughed at someone in this situation, but somehow the image of a runaway slave's "welcome home" was less amusing when viewed from the inside. They were getting better at catching him, or he was far less adept at remaining uncaught than he should be. This was his third try for freedom from the mad druid, and he had the sinking idea that Seireadan would not be so casual about his prized possession's security again.
How long had he been tied here, naked to the elements? Certainly long enough for his fair, exposed skin to blister and peel in the punishing sun. He was a prodigious healer, all Immortals were, but there was only so much damage his body could keep up with at one time. Sunburn was very low on the list of priorities this week.
Methos sagged against his bonds, unable to silence the dry hiss of pain as the ropes bit into his raw wrists, bringing fresh blood to the surface. He was so tired; he had been hanging here too long. If left until tomorrow, he would surely die of thirst and exposure, so that meant that Seireadan would be back at some point today. The only condition of Methos' captivity was that his owner was forbidden to kill him. Cold comfort, that.
Seireadan had taken great delight in testing the limits of Methos' endurance, wanting to see exactly how far the half-starved Immortal's body could be pushed without succumbing to death, and how long it took him to recover.
There were days when Methos ached for the simple comfort of a clean beheading.
The sun was too hot. He was so thirsty he couldn't even sweat any more, and had already bitten through his cheek once to wet his parched mouth with blood. That hadn't helped him at all. It had been so long since he was given food or drink, the scant mouthful of salty blood had been quickly vomited up, and dried in a sticky crust across his chest and stomach. How many days had he been hanging here, tied to this post like an offering?
Methos closed his eyes against the bright afternoon, the restless way the wind played with the tall grass. He reached for the darkness inside him, trying to relax into it, to give himself to unconsciousness, or to the numbing release of death, however temporary. Thick and sluggish, his heartbeat continued to throb in his ears. Even that impermanent sanctuary was denied him. It was fitting, in a blackly humorous way, and he smiled painfully at the joke, lips splitting and trickling a thin stream of blood into his sparse beard. Even Kronos had made demands of him, had wanted things of him. Obedience, loyalty ...the use of Methos' supple body and keen mind, and once Methos had agreed, had submitted to Kronos' will, the torments had mostly stopped. Seireadan wanted nothing, made no demands, no overtures of peace. Methos was property. All Seireadan required of him was his presence and his pain. And his continued life.
Strange, that death would be denied to the one who had been on such intimate terms with it, had brought it to so many others. There was a certain justice there, too. The horror that Methos allowed himself to become in the name of survival, to please Kronos, and then to please himself... the pain he had inflicted... perhaps his death was too small a price to ask for the weight of his crimes.
The faint humming pressure of an approaching pre-Immortal built behind his ears, and Methos' breath quickened at the accompanying surge of adrenalin. No more... He tried to stand, to ease the strain on his aching arms stretched tightly above his head, but his shaking legs could no longer bear his weight. They collapsed under him, jerking his shoulders and wrists with a sharp flare of agony. His raw back scraped against the wooden post. He didn't even have the breath to cry out.
Red-rimmed hazel eyes slid open to see Seireadan approaching with casual strides, like this was no more than an afternoon excursion, a pleasant diversion from his duties. The druid gestured sweepingly with his staff and considered the scene before speaking. The soft, dulcet tenor was improbably beautiful, too fine a voice for such a man.
"Well, a wandering Roman dog returned to his master yet again."
Methos lolled his head back, exposing his throat in an intentional tease. "Have you finally come to kill me?" he croaked, his voice thick and rough, his mouth dry.
"Ceallach," the name was an insult, an irony, naming a slave 'warrior,' "we both know the answer to that. It is forbidden. And I would miss you." Seireadan stalked around the pillar, his garment flowing. "You are such a delightful companion, Ceallach. I find that I am never lonely with you here to keep me entertained." The broad end of the walking staff lashed out to strike Methos in the chest. Dimly, from far away he heard/felt the wet pop of a rib giving way, collapsing. Sparks of pain exploded in his eyes, and he whimpered through his clenched teeth. It was going to be a long day.
"What do you do with a runaway dog, Ceallach?"
You beat it...
The heavy, twisted stick swung out again, to the same tender place as before. Blood and bile fountained in his mouth, and he screamed with a voice he had forgotten he possessed, coughing, spitting, choking for breath.
"What do you do with a runaway Roman dog?" The knobbed end of the staff crashed brutally into his side again. Another rib popped free.
Methos shrieked and thrashed against the ropes that held him, tearing the skin on his wrists. Blood dripped steadily down his arms. It was a long, long time before he lost consciousness.
Mac drained his cup again, and reached for the bottle. He would have to open another one soon, this one was nearly empty. He tried not to let his discomfort show as he poured, a bit unsteadily, for them both. It was not so much the nature of Methos' admission that bothered Mac, as it was the unmistakable self-loathing in the Old Man's voice as he told the story. How could anyone hate himself so much?
"Why couldn't you have just told me before?"
Methos scrubbed a hand across his eyes and sighed tiredly. "What do you want from me, Mac? There are things in my past I'd rather not share, things I wish to gods I didn't recall. This is one of them." He accepted the drink Mac poured, tossing it back with a smooth motion, and held his cup out for more. "Do you think I sit at Joe's every time wondering what nightmare from my past is going to come traipsing through the door? I thought Seireadan was dead. I hoped he had lost his head and saved me the trouble of taking it."
"You're ashamed." Mac saw the old Immortal flinch as the words struck home. Sensing the soft spot in the wall Methos had been building all night, Mac moved in, hammering at the sudden breach. "Methos, it's not your fault that they forced you to be a slave. There is nothing shameful in it, or in anything Seireadan might have done to you. You did what you had to do, to survive." Mac reached sympathetically across the table for Methos' now-healed hand, wanting the clarity of physical contact.
Methos snatched his hand out of Mac's reach with a hiss and a jerk, retreating so quickly from the offered touch that his chair rocked back briefly on two legs. "You don't know anything about it, MacLeod." The old Immortal suddenly looked every one of his 5000 years and more. Tired, Methos looked so tired, eyes red from the late hour and the prodigious amount of scotch he had consumed, the years and the memories pressing him down like a physical weight. He leaned his face into his hands and looked back up at Mac, blinking owlishly in the garishly bright kitchen light.
"What am I doing here? Getting drunk and random, playing true confession at what? 4:30 in the morning? I must be getting senile." He made as if to rise.
Mac clamped a restraining hand across the slender wrist with perhaps a bit more force than necessary. "No, don't go, don't keep pulling away like this."
Methos stared at the dark hand on his wrist like it was a poisonous animal. His voice was low and dangerous. "Let go of me."
"No." Mac met his eyes defiantly, sure now of Methos' reasons for wanting to run from this. Avoiding this would not help anything tonight, but still Methos flinched from this topic like the painful wound it surely was. If he could only make the stubborn old man see the truth of it, to understand that despite the horror of his experience, he was not to blame for it.
"No. What, you want to break a few more bones? Fine. If you really want to we can stop pussy-footing around with bruises and fractures and go downstairs and do this properly, with swords. We can kill each other here and no one will care but the clean-up crew. But I won't let you go until we can get this over with, do you understand?"
Methos glared at him murderously for a moment, and then sat, his expression becoming flat and unreadable. Mac hated when Methos did that. talking to him then was like trying to reason with a wall.
Mac released his painfully tight grip on Methos' wrist and gathered himself for an instant before speaking. "Do you practice talking in circles? You keep telling me that I don't understand, that I'm not listening to you. Well, I'm listening to you now!" Mac's accent began to thicken, a sure sign of his weariness and distress, but he couldn't stop the elevating burr in his words even as he cursed the betraying brogue.
"So what, exactly, don't I understand? You were a slave, yes? You were Seireadan's slave, yes?" Methos' face was like a stone, giving Mac no clues about which direction to go, where to set his hammers to break this wall. He could feel Methos retreating, slipping away into his defensive shell, hiding behind the facade of the Oldest Immortal. Even gentle, cynical Adam Pierson would have been easier to deal with than Methos The Inscrutable. He continued blindly, letting the rush of his concerns set their own pace. He had to make Methos understand. "There is nothing shameful in things that you are forced to do. That's like blaming a rape victim for the violence that was done to her. That much I understand."
Methos looked at him dazedly for a long moment, and MacLeod fought the urge to smile at his triumph. The wall was coming down.
Then Methos began to laugh, a dark, humorless sound. "I was right. You don't understand. You don't hear what I'm telling you." He stood then, leaning across the table and speaking each word with clipped, icy precision.
"Forced me? Nobody forced me to do anything. There weren't enough men in the village to force me to do their will; there weren't enough slave-lords in Ireland to keep me in chains. I was death, Mac. Kronos couldn't keep me, you think some ignorant, woad-painted cattle ranchers could?"
Duncan faltered, staggered by the force of Methos' confession. The wall had been breached, but not fallen in the anticipated direction. "What? But if nobody... if Seireadan didn't force you..." The dusky face paled to a sickly greenish color as understanding, coupled with a rising horror, dawned in the dark eyes. There were layers of meaning to this revelation.
"You mean you let it happen?"
"Yes. I let it happen. Are you happy now? I surrendered my sword and gave myself into slavery. Are you happy?" Methos made an explosive gesture and stalked across the kitchen to lean against the counter.
Duncan struggled for words as he felt the situation slipping out of his control. "Methos, I... I don't... You are right, I don't understand, not that."
"Big surprise there. 'Duncan MacLeod doesn't understand.' Call the papers, there's a headline to stop the presses." Methos visibly cut himself off, rubbing a hand through his hair.
"Gods, it's come to name-calling. I have to go, Mac, before we really say things we're going to regret." He went about the loft collecting his things.
Duncan moved, standing at the counter, watching Methos with shadowed eyes. "Methos..."
"No, don't ask me to stay any more, Mac. I need to get out of here. I've had about enough of this cozy domestic scene for one evening. Look, I'll see you around."
The sound of the back door closing hung in the air for a long moment before being swallowed by the ringing silence.
Ireland, 438 AD
The sound of Gráinne's shrieking rang in Methos' ears, rising and falling in a steady cadence as she, yet again, gave voice to her anger. He had stopped paying attention to the content of her tirade several minutes ago, and instead concentrated on the vocabulary she employed. The range and breadth of her curses was almost poetic, lyrical in a dark way, though she certainly would have taken fresh offense at that thought. He grinned at the notion of telling her, seeing how high he could stoke her fury.
The easy rhythm of her profanities abruptly stopped, and she whirled on him, her black eyes gleaming. "What are you laughing at?" Her deep voice was low and dangerous. Gods, she was a treasure. Methos decided to toss some fuel on her fire, and chose his words carefully.
"Shut up, woman."
She exploded. "Pitiful, whining pup! You are not fit for pells, do not think to command me. Worthless, bookish manling that you are, more content to whisper with those spineless, stoneless Roman priests than to behave as a man aught... You, who cannot give me sons, you who cannot keep the stew pot from burning, you who..."
Methos let her continue on for a few more moments, enjoying the flush on her fair skin, the way she gestured with her lean, muscled arms, the gleam of sweat on her thighs where they showed under her short tunic. She wasn't a beautiful woman, quite the opposite, actually. Sunburned and scarred, nearly as tall as himself, her features too strong for the shape of her face, and a nose that had been broken more than once, she was every inch the hard-muscled warrior that he had first taken her for. She was temperamental, unpredictable, frequently violent, and utterly delightful to him.
He walked across the dark, single-room bráca they shared, watching the confused outrage play across her face. Methos stood close enough to feel her breath warm on his cheek, and whispered an endearment to her in Aramaic.
The flush in her cheeks deepened, and the black eyes narrowed. This time though, he was prepared. His left arm swung up to block the punch she aimed at his face, and he grinned savagely at her surprised expression. Busy with self-congratulatory thoughts as he was, he completely missed the left hook speeding toward his jaw.
"Do not mock me with foreign speech!"
His head rocked back with bone-jarring force and stars exploded in his vision. By the gods, he loved this woman! No delicate feminine struggles or dainty slaps: Gráinne hit like a man. And Methos returned the favor, sending her long-limbed shape sprawling with a well-placed strike to her cheek.
She lay across the pallet of blankets and hides they shared, panting in anger. He watched her, wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth with a thumb. "That hurt."
She laughed at him. "What a fierce warrior you are, Ceallach, to let a woman make you bleed." Her plain face was radiant with mischief as she swept him with a thoughtful gaze. "You make a better woman than I do. I would put you in a long tunic and teach you to spin, but your legs are too pretty."
Methos' breathing became ragged as she rolled to her knees and slid callused hands up his thighs in a slow tease.
"Did you cry on your virgin night, Ceallach? Did you bleed like a maiden girl?" She stood, circling behind him, stroking his hips and buttocks roughly through the coarse cloth of his tunic. Her voice was deep and throaty in his ear, her warm breath an almost-unbearable torment.
"Have you ever been with a warrior, Ceallach? I should have been born a man, to take you properly, to show you the real use of a sword..." Gráinne pressed her hips into him from behind, making false, teasing thrusts as she mocked him. A firm hand gripped his rising erection. "Oh, not so stoneless as those soft priests after all." Another hand tugged at the belts on his garment.
"You are too pretty, Ceallach. You should have been a woman; you should have been my woman." Her feinting thrusts against him were becoming more urgent, her breathing harsh with arousal. "Have you ever been with a warrior?" she repeated. "I bet you were a favorite in the camp... so pretty."
"Enough," he groaned, unable to stay still any longer. Methos pushed her down, stripping her belts and tunic from her roughly, before removing his own. Gráinne lay back on the blankets, watching him undress with dancing eyes. Methos knelt between her feet, parting her thighs with firm hands and moving up to sink himself into her familiar heat with one smooth motion.
"Ceallach," she laughed underneath him, "can you use a sword after all?" Gráinne shifted her hips as though looking for balance, and suddenly rolled them, grinning smugly as she held his wrists to the hard dirt floor. "Tell me," she taunted, "who has been giving you lessons?" She held him with her strong thighs, grinding herself against him in her own rhythm.
Methos waited, watching the bouncing sway of her breasts as she moved, pressing himself up to meet her driving motion. The pressure was building, but he wasn't ready to yield himself to it just yet. Patience... wait... There. Soon...
Gráinne's eyes glazed as her attention shifted inward, and she pounded herself down onto him with a desperate violence. Still he waited, counting the breaths... Not much longer... There. He toppled her over, back into the nest of blankets. She growled in irritation and tried to reverse the position again. Methos shoved her shoulders roughly back down onto the bed and drove himself into her. "No," he panted, "this way."
"Ceallach," her voice might have sounded threatening if she'd had any breath to put behind it. But it was too late for protests. With a soft cry, Methos yielded himself to the insistent pressure, the deep pleasure of her body. He moved over her more slowly now, riding the spasm, his long hair falling to either side of her face like a curtain. Leaning down along her body to kiss the full lips, he smiled, breathing heavily.
"Gods, woman, don't you ever shut up?"
"Jesus, Mac. Haven't you learned when to shut your mouth yet?" Joe admonished him even as he refilled the coffee mug Mac cradled in his hands.
"What were you thinking? I mean just what did you think you were going to accomplish?"
MacLeod twisted the coffee cup restlessly in his hands. "I don't know, Joe. I just thought... I thought if I could make him understand, if I could help him..."
"What?" Joe prompted.
"I thought I might be able to make up, just a little, for not helping him before, in Bordeaux."
"God, Mac... You two are still stuck on that Kronos thing? After all the times you and Methos have been here together, I thought..." Joe looked down into his own coffee and grimaced. "So your little attempt at playing 'kiss and make up' last night didn't turn out quite like you expected?"
"You could say that." Mac stood with nervous intensity, shifting uneasily under the Watcher's unsympathetic observation. "God, Joe, what have I done?"
"You don't seriously expect me to answer that." Joe's regard was unflinching. "Duncan MacLeod, you are a piece of work. Let me get this straight. You get the urge to play 'Mr. Fix-it' and make Methos feel better, so you interrogate and badger him like a Federal witness about something he already said he didn't want to tell you?" Joe was incredulous. "I'll give you some free advice. The next time you want to invade someone's privacy, go read their mail. If you get the urge to really hurt someone, stick a knife in them. It's simpler that way."
Mac opened his mouth as if to speak, but was silenced by the steely unforgiveness in Joe's posture.
"And do me a favor, Mac. The next time I have a problem, stay off my side."
"Now that's not fair!" Mac protested.
Joe's face flushed angrily. "Yeah, well neither is the way you're treating Adam. Sometimes, Mac," Joe paused for emphasis, "sometimes you're harder on your friends than your enemies."
There was no real response to that, and Mac watched as Joe moved down the bar to help Mike with the early afternoon lunch crowd.
Mac watched Joe polish glasses with firm automatic swipes of his towel, wondering if this was some special technique to ignore people that the Watcher had learned in bartender school. Maybe Methos had been giving him lessons, God knew they had apparently been trading notes on everything else. The hard part was that Mac realized that he was in the wrong here, knew that he could hardly have hurt and alienated Methos more if he had engineered their argument with that in mind.
Methos, true to form, had given Mac exactly what he had asked for, but not in the way anticipated. And just how did you expect it to be, idiot, Mac berated himself, cozy midnight confessions over coffee? Did you really think that you could fix this with the trite offer of a willing ear and a shoulder to cry on? God, I am as much of a fool as he accuses me of being. The coffee in his cup was cold, but he sipped at it anyway. What is the matter with me? All I know lately is that I don't want to lose him over this... over any of this.
The scant details that Methos had supplied about his years as Seireadan's slave refused to leave MacLeod alone. He turned the images over in his mind, ruthlessly reexamining them in the harsh light of Methos' stunning confession. How could he just let that happen? What could possibly have occurred to make him accept those abuses, to permit the loss of his freedom?
Duncan knew, on a purely intellectual level, that Methos was older and more complex, filled with more mysteries than Mac could have hoped to unravel in the brief span of their intense friendship. Every time he became certain, convinced that he had some toe-hold in understanding, some new detail would surface to shatter Mac's carefully-constructed image of the ancient Immortal.
There was Methos the Watcher, who got positively giddy over old books and fresh beer, the one who had loved Alexa. Methos the Horseman, the dark shadow behind Adam Pierson's eyes, had killed and raped without cause or consequence across two continents; he was the one who had broken Cassandra. Methos the sensualist wallowed in gross decadence with Byron. Methos the protector had Challenged Stephen Keane on MacLeod's behalf, and had killed Kristen for the same reasons. Methos the teacher was always needling him, questioning Mac's motives, his honor, his narrow views of right and wrong, coaxing him to better understanding with an anecdote, or a single well-placed word, or just a glance.
Add to this bizarre menagerie the roles Methos deliberately played, the identities he assumed, the facades he concealed himself behind, and the waters became impossibly muddied. How could MacLeod ever hope to understand this man; how had he ever dared to think he really knew him?
And now there was Methos the slave. Mac still could not accept this new addition to the collection. This Methos was angrier than the others. He hurt and hated with a startling intensity, the smoldering violence thinly restrained by the weight of his sorrow and self-loathing. Mac didn't know how to reach this new stranger that wore a familiar face, didn't know how to ease the deep wounds he sensed there. He wasn't even sure if it was his place to try.
Duncan missed the old days, before Kronos had come and shattered the easy trust Mac and Methos had shared, before the comfortable friendship was all but destroyed. Mac realized that the friend he had known was another false front, built from a handful of Methos' lies and MacLeod's own incorrect assumptions, but the companionship was sweet for all its deceptive beginnings. He missed the first Methos he had known: Methos the friend.
The distinctive tingling pressure of another Immortal's Presence swept over him in a slightly disorienting wave. Like every time, the fine hairs on Mac's neck bristled, and adrenalin flooded his body as time-honed reflexes prepared him for a confrontation. He automatically slowed and deepened his breathing in an effort to compensate as he turned toward the door, mentally composing an apology for Methos.
"Adam, I..." The words died on his lips as he got a look at the figure in the doorway. Too-broad shoulders and a soft fall of fiery auburn hair confirmed that this was not the man MacLeod expected.
"Seireadan," Mac acknowledged flatly.
"MacLeod, how nice to see you again." Seireadan sat beside him at the bar, ordering a Guinness draft from Mike, Joe apparently having found better distractions than polishing glasses that were already impeccable.
"Pity I can't say the same." Mac was in no mood to play word games with the druid.
Seireadan raised an eyebrow, but didn't take the bait. "I see you are alone today, not playing the Roman's shadow. Does he let you out often like this, or did you slip your leash?"
Mac smiled amiably, but his voice had a hard edge. "Let's quit the games, Seireadan, I'm not really that amused by them. I don't like you. I wasn't crazy about you last night, and I'm even less fond of you today. So why don't we take this outside and have done with it?"
"You really are the Roman's pet. A lapdog that thinks it's a mastiff, how droll." The green eyes glittered in the dim light as Seireadan sipped from his stout, considering. "No, Scotsman. You have exceedingly poor taste in companions, but that alone isn't enough for me to want to kill you. I've seen enough dead Celts without adding to the count. My quarrel is with Ceallach, and his treacherous head is the only one I want."
"I'm not his pet, I'm his friend."
Seireadan laughed with a display of even, white teeth. "Then you obviously don't know him as well as you pretend."
"I know him well enough." A sudden thought intruded on Mac. "Besides, I thought you were forbidden to kill him?"
"I see he told you part of the story. Did he tell you all of it? Did he tell you his crime, why he was given to me?"
MacLeod was silent.
Seireadan's voice was soft and melodious, still bearing the slightest trace of an accent. "So like a Roman, to deal in half-truths and lies. I'll tell you, I'll tell you all of it, and then you can decide how well you know your so-called friend...."
It was 4:00 when Methos walked into Joe's Bar, at once disappointed and silently grateful for the absence of other Immortals. In that respect, at least, the old saying was true: everybody did come to Joe's. The bar was dark and quiet, nearly deserted at this in-between hour. The lunch crowd had left, and the after-work patrons would not arrive for an hour or more.
Soft blues guitar wafted down from the speakers in the ceiling, slow and melancholy with a slight whisky-rough edge. Methos recognized the CD as a favorite of Joe's, but couldn't place the artist's name offhand. This was a bad idea. He shouldn't have come here, but the bar had been pulling at him like a lodestone all day with mute promises of cold beer and warm companionship. Now that he finally stood in the entryway, Methos was suddenly nervous. He shifted his weight uneasily between his feet, preparing to turn and go.
"Adam, come sit down," Joe called and waved to him from a side table. "Hey Mike, bring us a couple of beers, would you?"
Methos sighed. So much for quick exits. "Hi Joe, what's new in the world?" He did his best to project an air of casual friendliness in his best Adam Pierson mode.
"Thanks Mike." Joe accepted the pitcher of beer and two mugs, pouring for them both with easy grace. He passed a glass across the table, and fixed Methos with a steady gaze. "MacLeod was in earlier." His voice was deceptively nonchalant.
The bar suddenly seemed very cold. Methos stared hard at the glistening beads of condensation trickling down the side of the pitcher. "Oh, I see." He sat his beer down with a muted thump. "Is this the part where we make idle chit-chat? I ask after his health and general well-being, express my, um... good wishes for his future success and happiness? Or shall we just cut to the point and have me ask what he came to see you about?" The tone was bitter, angry, and far crueler than Joe deserved. Methos regretted the harsh words even as he said them. He was angry at MacLeod, and had no right to take it out on Joe.
"Oh, stop it," Joe scowled at him irritatedly. "Save the melodramatics, Adam. I'm not your enemy here, and neither is Mac."
"Sure of that, are you?" It was less than a question.
"Yes, I am." Both men sipped at their beers while they let that statement settle.
Methos broke the silence first. "So how much did he tell you?"
"Enough. Most of it, probably. Enough to know that he's worrying at it like a sore tooth, and you probably aren't doing much better." Joe scratched his beard thoughtfully. "You know, you two fight like an old married couple. If you would ever stop bickering long enough you'd realize that none of this..." he waved a hand in a sweeping gesture, "none of this really matters. Your past doesn't change who you are today."
"MacLeod doesn't see it like that. Some crimes there are no atonements for, and forgiveness is not a large part of his make-up regardless. Much as I would like to, I cannot be the person he expects me to be. My past is not so easily expunged. And to tell you the truth, Joe, I'm not sure if Mac and I will ever get beyond it. I'm not even sure I want to try anymore."
The music droned on in the background, softly irritating. Methos took a large swallow of his beer, cradling the nubby glass mug in his large hands. He glanced up at Joe, and sighed resignedly. "I can't keep doing this, Joe. I can't keep rebuilding this friendship over and over, just to see it destroyed again by the next dark figure from my past that comes strolling through the door. Trust is either there, or it isn't. Mac either accepts me, all of me, or not. He can't pick and choose what parts of me to be friends with anymore." Methos reached for the pitcher to refill his mug.
"Gods, Bora Bora is looking better all the time."
Joe's look cut straight through him. "So if hanging out with MacLeod is such grief, why do you keep coming back? Why aren't you sipping daiquiris and working on your tan?"
"You've got me there. I honestly don't know why. Maybe I will go find some desert island after this business is settled and just... well. No use making long-term plans until this is settled."
"What are you going to do?" Joe asked gently.
Methos deliberately misunderstood him. "Do? I'm going to find Seireadan and I'm going to kill him. I figure he's long overdue to lose his head anyway."
"No, Adam. What are you going to do about Mac?"
Methos exhaled slowly. He should have known the Watcher wouldn't be so easy to get around. He met Joe's eyes and answered honestly. "I don't know. I just..."
"Just what?" Joe prompted.
"I don't have so many friends that I can afford to throw them away. I don't want to lose him, Joe."
"So why don't you go tell him that?" Something bright and mischievous gleamed for an instant in the Watcher's blue eyes.
"It's not that simple."
"You never know, Adam. Maybe it is."
Methos' feet seemed to be on autopilot today, carrying him with a mindless determination to places that he promised himself he wouldn't go. He had certainly never meant to find himself at Joe's, but the Watcher had been good to talk to. Joe's insightful, no-bullshit view of people and events, combined with two pitchers of beer, had gone far to calming Methos' sense of fatalistic dread about the Highlander.
Methos allowed one tiny spark of hope to flare, nurturing the ember of belief that he and Duncan could indeed get beyond MacLeod's rigid inability to accept the horrors of Methos' past for what they were... past. And if they couldn't put this behind them for friendship's sake, well, it wouldn't be for lack of trying.
Seireadan's neck would still be there tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever Methos got around to it. Besides, odious as he was, the druid was an aside, a distracting annoyance. An annoyance with a sword and a chip on his shoulder, but still a sidebar to Methos' main concern of repairing his friendship with Mac.
Clouds were a dark purple bruise on the horizon, promising more freezing rain tonight or tomorrow. The dojo loomed across the street, tall and foreboding in the wan afternoon twilight. Methos recounted his numerous and convincing reasons for not wanting to be here even as his feet carried him unheeding across the litter-strewn asphalt.
He was halfway up the lift, still reciting all the very valid arguments for him not to be doing this when he felt the surging pressure in his ears that indicated MacLeod was home. Methos breathed deep, collecting himself, searching for the strength to do this still one more time.
Sometimes the only way out is through.
Mac was standing at the kitchen island, quietly imposing in a conservative sweater and the deft, easy way he wielded a long knife against a board full of vegetables. He barely glanced up at Methos' entrance, like the old Immortal had been expected and planned for.
"Hi," Mac greeted him in a warm voice, "have you eaten?"
Methos shook his head mutely, his mouth suddenly dry. He had anticipated many receptions here tonight, but dinner wasn't one of them. He covered his confusion in the automatic motions of hanging his coat by the door and adjusting the sudden tightness of his collar.
"There's a beer in the fridge, or I've got an open bottle of wine on the counter, if you like red Zin. Dinner will be a few minutes." Mac's tone was pleasantly hospitable. Methos had to blink and double-check both his location and the identity of the man briskly dicing vegetables in the kitchen. His head swam at the crazy surreal quality of the scene. This felt like nothing so much as an episode of the "Twilight Zone."
Numbly confused, and more nervous than ever, Methos drifted across the floor toward the refrigerator and the promised beer therein.
Three silent beers later, Duncan served steaming bowls of a sweet, spicy beef stir-fry and rice, and led Methos over to the couch to sit and eat. The old Immortal's paranoia was in high gear, and he barely tasted the food as he ate with automatic motions. Something was wrong, very wrong. Mac never... well, rarely ever, invited Methos to help himself to the beer. The Highlander's constant complaining about how quickly Methos depleted his stores had become something of a game between them. Mac was entirely too calm tonight, too polite, playing the role of the gracious host with practiced ease. Methos' back and neck screamed with tension as he waited for the other shoe to drop.
At last the empty bowls were cleared away, and the two men lounged at opposite ends of the soft leather couch. Methos watched as Duncan swirled his wine glass. Once, twice, three times and a sip. The glass turned and turned, the red wine gleaming darkly, like blood. Mac sipped again.
"I ran into Seireadan today."
Methos' hand went numb around the slippery sides of the beer bottle, and he nearly dropped it. His heart hammered so loudly in his ears that he felt like his head would burst. "What did he have to say?" The words were were forced around the stiff tongue and suddenly dry mouth by an effort of will alone. He didn't bother asking if the druid was dead. Mac's tone of voice eliminated that possibility from the start.
Mac shrugged and continued to spin the wine glass. "Lots of things, none of them very flattering." The dark eyes captured Methos' hazel ones with earnest intensity. "Methos, he said..." Mac took a breath before continuing.
"He said there were some things I should ask you about if I didn't believe him."
"And did you believe him?" Methos' voice was cold and flat, distant-sounding in his own ears. The tiny ember of hope that he, like a fool, had dared to nurture sputtered and died.
"I'm asking you, aren't I?" Frustration colored Mac's words, lending them a slight edge.
Methos sat his beer down with exaggerated care, and spoke very calmly. "I can't keep doing this, Mac. I cannot continue to have this same argument with you night after night."
"I don't want to fight about this, Methos, but I need to know. I need to hear it from you."
"Why? So you can look down on me one more time from the smug comfort of the moral high ground? So you can get your precious Highland sense of honor offended and condemn me for my past? You want to cast me out again for things I did over 1000 years before you were born?"
Methos stood, chuckling weakly, humorlessly. "I can't keep doing this. Gods, Mac, don't you understand that there is nothing you can say to me, nothing you can think about me, no dread imprecation you can lay on my name that I haven't beaten you to? What, you think I'm proud of the things I've done, the horrors I've been party to?" The smooth baritone voice cracked, and Methos drew a deep, shuddering breath to try and compose himself. This was easier than he'd imagined it to be, now that he had abandoned the false hope of saving the friendship.
"Yeah, Mac, I was good at what I did; the killing came easily to me. And gods help me, I liked it. I liked the sense of power that it gave me. But don't you think for an instant that I don't carry the weight of that evil with me every day, that I don't see it every time I look in a mirror.
"I have quite enough to deal with, thank you, without you trying to heap on more." Methos stopped his explosive ranting, out of words, out of breath, out of anger.
Mac's expression was unreadable. He set the empty wine glass aside.
"What do you want from me, Methos? Absolution? Forgiveness? I can't give it to you! You tell me that I'm too quick to judge, too ready to believe what other people tell me about you, so I'm asking you to tell me, and you're still angry?" Mac was very still, a sharp contrast to the other man's uneasy shifting. "You want me to accept your past? Fine, but I can't do that until I know about it, until you tell me."
Methos stopped his restive stalking and stared at Duncan blankly.
"Methos, this isn't easy for either of us, but I'm doing my best here. I can't accept what you've done until you do, first. Why don't you try a little of your own advice for a change?"
The old Immortal was stunned. He had had his words turned against him before, but never quite like this. "I..." he replied cleverly.
Methos folded his long frame back down against the creaking leather upholstery, reaching mentally for some cynical, distancing barb to toss between them, a smart-ass remark or acid observation with which he could shield himself, and found nothing. MacLeod had left him suddenly defenseless, and feeling very exposed.
"That's a first. I never thought I'd actually hear you say that," Mac chuckled.
"Well, there's a first time for everything, I suppose. I never thought I'd have to say it."
Mac was suddenly serious. "So can we do this? Can we talk about this without breaking any bones tonight? Will you tell me?"
"You should stop asking questions that you don't really want the answers to, Mac. You don't want to hear this story, believe me." This was simpler when he believed their friendship was dead. How many times did he have to kill it, how many times did he have to hand Mac the knife so the Highlander could cut out his heart and hand it back to him?
"No," Mac agreed, "but I think I need to hear it."
Methos took a breath and drained off the last of his beer. How many times could this fragile bond of friendship be destroyed? He focused on the rich detail of the table's finish, letting the sweep of the dark wood-grain fill his vision. He couldn't meet Duncan's eyes and still be able to do this.
"Her name was Meara, but I didn't know that until four years after she died..."