Two hours later, Benoit panted and moaned on his pallet as Methos removed the chain shirt as gently as he could. The black-haired man was cold and waxy-looking, shivering and sweating in tandem despite the heat of the day. The armor and the padding beneath came off, and Methos caught his breath at the sight of the injury. Benoit's belly was hot and rigid, colored in a spectacular range of purples and greens. Careful fingers assessed the rest of him. Miraculously, both of his legs were fine, if a bit bruised, but at least two ribs were broken, and his heartbeat was fast and thready.
A warning tingle of Presence swept through his ears, and Methos turned to see Ehren approaching. The big knight sighed roughly and settled to the ground on the other side of the pallet.
"What's the young fool gone and done to himself this time?"
Benoit coughed weakly and spat another mouthful of blood. "Horse rolled on me. Thought... thought it would be a good story to impress Marie with."
Ehren scratched thoughtfully at his beard. "That it is, boy. I do trust that the horse looks worse than you do?"
He nodded, smiling faintly.
"Good, I expect no less. At least I won't have to spend the night sewing you back together like young David the other week. Makes me feel like a granny with a homespun gown."
Benoit had drifted out of consciousness again.
Ehren looked at Methos for a long moment before speaking. "I'm no healer, but he's dying, Simon. We both know it."
Anger and grief spiked together. "No," Methos insisted. "I've seen men survive worse than this."
"Maybe," the blond man conceded, "but not this time." Ehren rose and spoke again with that same maddening calm that characterized everything he did. "Don't make him suffer, Simon, not when there's no purpose to it. I'll pray for you both." A pat on the shoulder, and Ehren walked off in the direction of the community fire.
Ehren guided them to a small German restaurant, ordering hot ham sandwiches and a bacon and cheese flavored potato dish for them both, and a large pitcher of dark, fruity beer to share. Truthfully, Methos never really tasted the food. He might just as well have been eating sushi, or enchiladas, or roasted beetles for all he noticed the flavor of the meal. It was an old survival trick: you eat what you're given when you are given it, and you don't be picky about what it is. He wondered what it was about Ehren that was putting him on edge.
He let Ehren have his way with the conversation, curious to see where this was leading to. All together it took forty minutes and a second pitcher of the rich beer for Methos to begin losing his patience with Ehren's rosy reminiscences of medieval Europe.
"All right, Ehren, what is it?"
"I told you, her name was Holde..."
Methos set his beer down with a thunk and stared flatly across the table at the other man. "What are you doing in Paris? If you were just here to visit Mac, you wouldn't be here now filling my ears with a catalog of your exploits."
Ehren closed his eyes briefly, suddenly looking very tired. Methos knew the feeling intimately.
The Saxon's big voice was very soft. "All right, Simon. You and I, we were never ones for small talk. You're partially right. I came here because I needed something from MacLeod, but now you're here. I'd rather have it from you."
Methos' hands went cold at the almost wistful tone. He was afraid to ask the next question, suddenly reminded of old maps that marked uncharted territory with "Here there be dragons." //Dragons indeed.//
"What is it you want?"
"We're neither of us creatures of this modern world. We were men back when it still meant something, when a warrior's oaths could be more binding than a king's. Look around you! There's no more honor here, no decency, no one has any loyalty to anything but their own false gods and twisted desires."
Methos cut him off. "Yeah, the decadence and corruption of the modern age. I've heard it before, more times than you'd probably believe." //Greece, Rome, China, America every twenty years...//
"We're warriors, Simon, soldiers of God. There's nothing here for us... for me, anymore. The Church is fragmented and corrupt, the women all act like harlots, the men are weak and greedy. Even the wars are empty! I can't defend a world I don't believe in."
"What are you asking me for?" Methos swallowed thickly, half-afraid he knew the answer.
Ehren looked at him levelly, his gray eyes intense and purposeful. "I'm old, and I'm tired. I've no stomach for the Game, and no craving for whatever waits at the end of it. The Lord only promised us three score and ten-- 70 years, no more; I want it to be over. I want you to take my head."
"We were friends once, do this last thing for me; let me die in peace. If not for love, then for honor. I'm not asking this lightly."
"If you're so eager to find death, there are likely half a dozen Immortals here in the city that would be happy to accommodate you. Don't ask me to do this."
"And surrender myself to an enemy's blade? Walk into a Challenge and hand my head to some young punk, some honorless dog who never knew the meaning of loyalty, brotherhood, sacrifice? An ignorant child, glutted on my Quickening, who will leave me rotting in some back alley to be discovered by vagabonds and police? Please, there is little enough dignity left in life; let me have some measure of it in death. Let me die with a friend at my side."
"MacLeod is your friend, you go ask him."
"You were my friend first."
Methos was silent.
Ehren's voice grew harsh, and he leaned across the small table. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to remind you of this, but there is a blood-debt between us, Simon, and I'm calling it in. You owe me."
"When?" He choked out the word.
"Tomorrow is soon enough." A rough, heavy hand closed over his shoulder and squeezed firmly. Methos looked up. He didn't want to look at Ehren, to see the peace in the wide, bearded face, the sheen of moisture in the gray eyes. He didn't want to want to see the gratitude, the love reflected there as Ehren turned away and vanished into the street.
Methos wasn't sure if it was the music, the liquor, or the smothered hope that MacLeod might be there that lured him into Joe's. Sure, the name on the front wasn't the same, and there was entirely too much glass and neon for this place to ever be truly convincing as a serious blues establishment, but wherever the earthy Watcher poured drinks and played music would always be Joe's. //Home is where the heart is.//
He navigated his way to a dark corner table, not needing to look at the stage to know that Joe was there; the soulful melody floating above the rhythm line was more than enough to give him away. Methos almost hoped he hadn't been seen, wanting to shroud himself in the smoky air and tidal motions of the crowd without being asked to participate.
He glanced up at the band, and Joe met his eyes through the hazy air, nodding a silent welcome. Methos flashed a small smile back. This was the wrong place to come if he was truly seeking anonymity tonight; Joe saw everything.
When the waitress came, in a fit of perversity and personal rebellion he ordered a bottle of tequila, real Mexican tequila, with a worm at the bottom. He'd had about enough of MacLeod's single-malt to float him to Scotland. Besides, he was here to drown sorrows, right? The colorless poison he'd ordered would strip paint off of a car; it should be enough to help him find the numbness he was craving tonight.
The blonde woman canted her head at him, pointedly staring.
"What?" What was a blonde doing working here anyway? For blues you needed brunettes and redheads; blondes were strictly rock-and-roll.
"I need to see some ID for that."
He stared at her dumbly. "You've got to be kidding me."
She shook her head. "Fork it over, Junior, otherwise you're drinking seltzer all night."
It was a struggle not to laugh in her face. He fought back the reckless urge to cause a scene and ask her if she knew who she was talking to, standing there in that ridiculous posture and demanding proof of age from him, eldest breathing creature on the face of the earth. He fixed her with a dark gaze, reaching into the breast pocket of his coat to produce Adam Pierson's Paris driver's license.
She scrutinized it for a long moment before passing it back with a shrug and a roll of her eyes. "That's what you're so shy over? 32's not so old, and you don't look a day of it. Relax!"
She flounced away, hopefully to retrieve his order. Methos just thanked the gods that she didn't have any gum to snap. Blondes were strictly rock-and-roll, and that one was top-40 at best.
The tequila was placed on his table in short order, and the waitress had the minimum of good sense needed to not comment. She bobbed away, her blonde hair clearly visible in the neon gloom, floating across the sea of darker heads like a message bottle lost at sea. //I wonder who I would send her to...// was the one random thought before he settled down to the serious work of getting drunk.
As much as Joe loved to play, giving himself over to the easy, sometimes effortless flow of music from his guitar, the sense of relief that washed over him when the warm-up set was over was nearly palpable. He was a man of two overriding passions, only one of which was his music. He counted himself fortunate beyond measure that both of his drives meshed and blended with so little conflict, brought together in one tidy location here in his bar. Even if the Watcher's weren't paying him, no force on earth could make him turn a blind eye to the human drama playing itself out around him every day.
He had seen Methos' entrance, coming in out of the evening damp like a wandering spirit, and he had likewise witnessed the stark determination with which his old friend had begun putting back the bottle of liquor that the new girl, Andi, had delivered to his table. This night, it was all he could do not to set the guitar aside and go to his friend.
By the time Joe got to the table, a third of the bottle was gone. He eyed the label, whistling through his teeth. "Careful with that stuff; it'll kill you."
He paused to take a closer look at Methos in the dim light. "Then again, the way you look, that might not be a bad thing."
"Mercy killings are overrated." The normally bright hazel eyes were dark, and far too sober for the amount of tequila he'd already consumed.
"Adam, what's wrong?" Paternal, protective feelings swelled. Joe had never quite managed to reconcile Methos the Eldest Immortal with shy Adam Pierson, Don Salzer's nearly-silent protege. The irrational urge to step in and defend the younger-seeming man was still powerful, even knowing that he didn't need Joe to be his shield.
Methos looked up at him with a wry grin (or was that a grimace?). "Only the perversity of the gods, Joe. Just that." He washed the words down with another shot. Joe could smell the potent tequila even over the smoke and spilled beer aroma that dominated the bar.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
There was a slight shake of the dark head, less negation than contemplation. "Would it make any difference if I did? Some burdens aren't halved in the sharing. Even a kid like you knows that by now."
"That's true enough, but sometimes a friendly ear can make all the difference." Joe hesitated as a thought surfaced. "Is someone hunting you?"
That brought out a low chuckle, ruffling the dark surface of Methos' calm. "Yes, but not like you think. Everyone wants things, even me. The catch is that none of us bother to consult with the others about our... desires."
There was a soft throb of bass tuning in the background, getting ready for the next set. "And what do you desire, Adam?"
There was another one of those enigmatic smiles that never touched his eyes. "How far would you go to spare a friend pain, Joe? And would you go the same distance to spare yourself?"
Methos' expression shuttered closed, and he turned back to the liquid companion he'd sought for the night. Joe levered himself up from the hard chair, suddenly uneasy. He didn't bother replying to the clearly rhetorical questions, mutely accepting the dismissal in Methos' posture without taking personal affront.
Joe mounted the stage and re-tuned his guitar with automatic motions. He played the set on autopilot, drifting from one song to the next, consumed with worry and a nameless dread.
Duncan MacLeod arrived just in time for the ritual worm-eating. Methos felt him come in, the wave of Presence sweeping through his ears like a sudden altitude change. There was a joke there someplace, but he didn't feel like searching it out. He looked toward the door, only mildly curious.
Mac stopped briefly at the bar for a word with Joe before turning and making his way to Methos' dark sanctuary. Shrouded here, and not nearly as drunk as he might have liked, Methos allowed himself the indulgence of admiring MacLeod as he walked straight toward his alcove, stepping neither to the left nor right, the people parting before him like grass in the wind.
Methos tore his eyes away from Mac's unintended display and tossed back the last shot of tequila, grimacing as it burned the back of his throat. He shook the worm out of the bottle and rolled it between his fingers, quirking an eyebrow at Duncan. "Buy you a drink?" he asked as the Highlander took possession of the opposite chair.
Mac shook his head.
"Good, then you can buy me one." Methos signaled to the bouncy blonde waitress, popping the worm into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. He felt strangely vindicated when Mac winced.
Top-40 sashayed up to the table, gathering up the empty bottle and casting a quick, appreciative glance at Duncan before turning back to Methos. "You can't possibly want more tequila."
Methos stifled the possessive urge to warn her off of Duncan. He certainly had no claim there, and the woman at least had good taste. He couldn't think of Mac kissing her. She would be all childish urgency, probably smelling of Love's Baby-Soft and bubble gum.
"Tequila? No, in honor of my Gaelic companion here, why don't you bring us a bottle of... what do you think, Mac? Glen-something-or-other, doesn't matter. Two glasses, no ice."
Mac caught her by the arm and shook his head minutely. "Two coffees, please. Black."
Methos just glared at him. "Leave it to you to ruin a perfectly nice drunk."
"Someone had to." Duncan hesitated, idly twirling the abandoned shot glass in the table's center. "Methos, we need to talk."
His lingering glow of drunkenness abruptly evaporated, leaving him feeling exposed and vulnerable. "Well, there you have the five most terrible words in this or any other language."
"What? We are talking, Mac. We open our mouths, words come out..." They both fell silent as the coffee was delivered. She wisely left the pot.
Duncan sighed and leaned into the table. "You aren't going to help me out here at all, are you?"
//No, and you'll never thank me for it.//
"Dammit," Duncan cursed mildly, "I'm not very good at this. Can we please go someplace quieter?"
Methos stood and reached for his coat, hoping he looked steadier than he felt at the moment. "It's your show." He let Mac lead the way out the door.
Duncan could feel Methos behind him as they hung their coats and stepped into the main room of the barge, but for all the noise that the elder Immortal made, Mac might as well have been alone. He moved around the comfortable space, switching on lamps, making his way to the galley to brew some coffee. He noted the soft sound of the cushions when Methos finally sat down.
The coffee decanter filled quickly. Duncan recognized it for the stalling tactic that it was, but still went through the motions of gathering and pouring two large mugs, taking the time to collect his scattered thoughts. He hadn't really planned much beyond getting Methos alone to talk. Now that he was here, Mac wasn't entirely sure how to approach the subject.
Back in the main living space, Methos was splayed across the couch with indolent possessiveness, watching Mac with a flat, incurious gaze. Duncan never could figure out how someone could look so boneless and so tense at the same time. He passed off one of the steaming mugs, noting that Methos was careful not to let their fingers touch.
Duncan sat across from him on the low table and sipped on his coffee. "All right, so what am I missing?"
There was no change of expression, no flicker of emotion in the clear eyes. "What do you mean?"
Mac swallowed his irritation, calming himself with a deep breath. "Fine, if you really want to play games about this, I can do that too. I must have missed something seven months ago when you felt compelled to fall off the face of the earth, and I know I missed something this morning when you lit out of here like a demon was nipping at your heels. So here is your great opportunity to point out all my shortcomings and mock my ignorance. Tell me."
Methos looked up at him angrily. "You just can't leave it alone, can you? What do you want to hear, MacLeod? You want me to come here nursing a broken heart and begging you to take me back? Don't flatter yourself. I hate to break it to you, but the 'roses and sonnets' thing just isn't my style. Why don't you call Amanda? She's more your type." Methos flung himself off the couch with restrained violence and began to pace.
The volume of Duncan's voice crept up to match Methos'. It wasn't quite a shout yet, but neither was it far from becoming one. "I'm not naive, Methos, and I'm not a child that needs to be told where his preferences lie. What happened meant something to me. Can you stand there and say that it was nothing to you?"
"If that's what you need to hear, yes." He turned on Mac, speaking in clipped, precise tones, his chest heaving. "You can't even say it, can you? We fucked. That's all it was, no more, no less. You were a convenient warm body to pass a lonely night with. It was nothing to me, and if I had known you'd get all weepy and sentimental over it, I'd have gone in the bathroom and jacked off instead."
The rich voice turned dark and insinuating. "If you're still so confused about your preferences, why don't you go find a willing young man and screw him silly until you get your head straight again." Eyebrows lifted with helpful innocence. "I can recommend a few, if you like..."
Duncan felt his face flush with anger and embarrassment as the abrasive words scraped over the vulnerable place he had just revealed. He felt weightless with the adrenalin-fueled need to lash out, to hurt Methos back. Payment in kind for the long months of loneliness and wondering, his confusing return, and the tantalizing nearness this morning that had been so abruptly taken away. There was a hot, metallic taste in his mouth that begged for words sharp enough to cut back.
A thousand hateful, hurtful things rose unbidden to his lips, waiting only for the breath to hurl them forth.
Methos' anger and acid denial were intended to hurt, and for a moment they did, burning like fire until Duncan noticed the misery in Methos' eyes and the rigid line of his body. It was then that he knew. Whatever it might have hurt him to hear the words, it had cost Methos ten times to say them. He swallowed the angry retort that had risen and looked at his friend again.
Pale and trembling, anguish etched in every line of his body, Methos waited. So Duncan gave him what he was waiting for.
"Fine, I can live with that. I want you. I'd like you in my bed, but I'll settle for your friendship. No one said anything about picking out monogrammed towels." He smiled faintly, just enough to take the edge off his words.
Methos jerked like someone had snapped his leash. "Excuse me?"
Mac fought the urge to smile. "You heard me. What are you so afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid." The paleness of his lips made that a lie.
"Then come over here and tell me you don't want me. Look me in the eyes and tell me, and I'll never bring it up to you again."
Wary belligerence rose in the sharp face as Methos turned, covering the few steps back to Duncan cautiously, as though anticipating a trap. He and Duncan stood face-to-face, only a few inches between them. Duncan could feel the warmth radiating from the lean body, and fought the urge to close the tiny distance and touch him, to press himself against that delicious heat. He couldn't fathom what had driven Methos' terrible need to flee this offered closeness. (Intimacy was the best word, but Duncan wanted so much more from the relationship than sex.) He couldn't let Methos go like this, regardless of his reasons for running.
Methos tipped his chin defiantly, a glint of steel in his eyes. "I. Don't. Want..."
He never got a chance to finish before Duncan's lips closed over his own.
Duncan's heart pounded. This was a risk, a tremendous gamble, and he had no real notion of what the odds might be. Methos tensed, and tried to pull back, but Duncan pressed his advantage of surprise, stroking the soft lips with his own, teasing with feather-soft touches of his tongue until they opened under the assault with a low sound and gasp of air.
They stood like that for long moments, touching nowhere except their seeking mouths. Kissing, nipping softly at lips and chins, soothing with the touch of lips or tongue as though all other possible contact were superfluous, as though nothing mattered but this warm caress. At last Duncan reached with gentle hands to touch Methos' neck, cradling the back of his head as he pulled back to look into the dilated hazel eyes.
Methos leaned his head back into the large hands, gasping for breath. His tongue flicked over swollen lips. "I don't want you."
Duncan kissed him again, pulling Methos tightly against him. There was no resistance in the lean body as his hands wandered over neck and shoulders, finally tracing the long planes of Methos' back with growing boldness through the thin sweater he wore. He drove the kiss unmercifully, advancing and retreating until they rocked together, swaying unsteadily like a sapling in the wind.
Warm, long-fingered hands cupped Duncan's face, easing him back. Methos' face was flushed, his eyes black with desire as he struggled for breath. "I don't want you..." he whispered again, with growing desperation, leaning into Duncan's chest. Mac's arms went around him automatically, as if he could fuse them together just like that, heart-to-heart, and never let go.
"I don't... I can't want you..." The words had lost their meaning, becoming a plea, a hopeless denial as Methos pulled at him, reaching hungrily for more kisses.
Duncan's head swam, his body singing with heat and desire. He needed Methos, needed to touch and hold, to wrap them both in this feeling until there were no more questions or doubts left. He began to steer them toward the bed. "Methos... Methos, please. If you really don't want this, say so now."
There was only an instant's thought of flight before those fathomless dark eyes caught his again. Gods, they were beautiful, as dark as earth, as black as a winter pond. //Damn you, Duncan... why is it that all my oaths are ashes in your gaze?// Methos could have run, taken the open door that Mac was offering and never looked back, but, oh... he wanted this. For the first time in centuries, he wanted the love more than he feared the pain, the rejection and condemnation that must ultimately come.
Recklessly, he threw away all his caution and fear, accepting the promise of this single night like the fleeting, ephemeral thing it was.
"Please don't stop."
Too soon they were on the bed, Duncan's broad shape leaning over him protectively, possessively. The sensual mouth was never still, never lingered even when Methos wished that it might have. Velvety caresses, less kisses than explorations, were traced across every new patch of skin that was exposed: his neck and shoulders, his collarbones, and the smooth swells of his chest all flowed beneath the mobile lips. Strangely, though Duncan was the one moving, Methos felt that he was formless and liquid... shifting endlessly like water. For this night at least, he was content to remain in whatever shape Duncan molded him. An arch and gasp as Mac found the tight, sensitive peaks of his nipples was rewarded with a skim of teeth, making him cry out again before the burning mouth moved on.
There was a deep, slightly nervous chuckle against his belly, and Duncan pressed a firm palm against the tight rise of his erection in an unmistakable promise before tugging at his pants. "You'll have to help me a little here. I'm not very good at this."
Methos gasped at the contact and murmured, "Faint praise..." as he reached for the button on his jeans.
And the mouth moved on.
//Oh, gods...// Methos was afraid to look, afraid to confront the reality of so many fantasies distilled into one shattering point of contact. The slippery, sultry heat of Duncan's mouth seared him, thrumming along his nerves like live electricity. Gods, he loved that mouth, had always loved that mouth... And now it was real, those sensual lips skimming along his sensitive places, touching, teasing, tasting... The big hands were kneading and stroking, one daring finger tracing a feather-soft line just there...
It was a dream, and he wanted never to wake from it.
He grabbed for something, anything to hold on to, to ground and orient himself. Duncan's hands were fanned out over his hips. Methos closed his fists over them in a crushing grip, wincing a bit as their combined strength drove fingers against the soft skin with bruising force.
He shifted and gasped, pressing gently against that warm mouth to ask for the rhythm he needed. The rhythm that Duncan just chuckled and continued to deny him. That was all right, too. //Anything you want... Anything, just touch me... Just please don't stop...//
And mercifully, Duncan didn't.
There was only the slightest warning before Methos splayed his knees apart and curled up off the bed, sucking air in great ragged lungfuls as his orgasm overtook him. Duncan held on, riding the spasm and spill with him, swallowing away the slightly astringent fluids of it, aching almost as if the violent release had been his own. He breathed with Methos, cradling the lean chest and hips, trying to calm the tremors under his hands. They were both shaking, breathless, dazed. His own arousal was still evident, but easily set aside for the moment as he slid up beside Methos and gently stroked the damp face.
The old Immortal looked at him with an unreadable expression, his eyes damp and shining in the dim light. His voice was soft and raspy. "Why are you doing this?"
Duncan thought his heart would break at the ancient hurt in that question. He kissed the salty cheeks and brow soothingly as he answered. "You still don't know?"
The words were barely audible, carried on the softest whisper of breath. "I'm not sure I want to."
"When you're ready, it will still be there."
Methos reached for him, easing Duncan over onto his back, and the exploration began again.
It was a little frightening, the artless intensity in Methos' eyes as he touched Duncan. Mac expected Methos to have more experience than himself in these matters, but he could sense none of it at work here. There was no studied technique in the slow, patient caresses and moist kisses, only a leisurely desire, a deep, reverent care, like Methos expected Duncan to break under his hands. It brought to mind the old wedding vow, "With my body, I thee worship."
There was a sharp, playful tug at the waist of his trousers. "You're overdressed."
"I was busy."
"Hmm... In that case I forgive you." Deft fingers unfastened the garment and eased it off, giving Methos' hands and mouth free access.
Duncan's breath caught, and anything further he might have said was lost. //Oh...// Nothing that moved so slow should feel so good, and it was better every time he opened his eyes and saw who it was who did such dangerous things to his body. His neglected arousal flared almost painfully. //Not yet, not yet...//
The bed shifted with a quiet creak of springs and a strong thigh slid between his with unexpected pressure. A warm, salty mouth moved possessively against his own. The kiss was savored for a long moment before Methos pressed their foreheads together, his voice low and darkly urgent. "I want you..."
He was suddenly very aware of Methos leaning over him, his large, powerful hands on either side of the pillow, the fathomless history stretching out behind him. Duncan had always thought of Methos as being small, fragile... weak, and now very abruptly he was not. Tall, nearly as tall as Duncan himself, and powerfully muscled for all his leanness, he was no softly feminine partner who would play at dominance, trying on an aggressive role like an oversize garment.
Duncan abruptly realized the error of his own perceptions, the ignorance of his pursuit. Transfixed by that gaze, he felt young and stupid, impossibly overwhelmed. Here was something fierce and elemental, lured in out of the shadows, and now he had no idea what to do with it.
Duncan had played control games with other partners before, but there had always been the security of knowing they were just that-- games. Safety had been in knowing that he could reassert himself at any time. There were no such safety nets here.
"What's wrong?" There was concern in the deep voice, and fears of a different flavor.
He looked up into the dark liquid gaze of his lover as Methos waited for a response. His lover. Methos was beautiful, not like a woman was beautiful, but he suffered no lack in the comparison. Lean and smooth, all angles and long planes, his face flushed and damp... Did it matter that he was strong and demanding, Duncan's equal and more-than-equal in so many physical pursuits? No. There were differences, but those alone were no cause for fear. He pushed aside his hesitation and leaned on the strained, fragile trust that stretched between himself and Methos. Whatever Methos was asking, offering, Duncan could give.
Their eyes locked for a long moment, and Duncan saw something crumble behind the deep, moss-colored gaze of his friend, almost heard the old defensive walls slamming back into place. Different kinds of fear flared as he sensed, saw Methos withdrawing. Silently cursing himself, and his doubt, he drew a breath to apologize and explain. But Methos spoke first, the silence having become its own answer. "It's all right; we don't have to." He shifted his weight, easing himself off of Duncan.
"No, wait..." Duncan grabbed at a pale thigh, preventing Methos' departure, but it was too late; the sharp face was shuttered, the openness and desire locked away. There was no obvious hurt written on the expressive features; there was little feeling displayed at all. Desperate to mend the wound he'd just inflicted, Duncan fumbled briefly under the bed for the required lubricant, knowing he should probably stop the encounter, but unable to resist the inertia of the moment, the terrible rhythm of the scene being played out. What was worse, to stop now or follow the painful turn of events to their conclusion? In the end it didn't matter, the pace of events demanding their own ending, and he could think of nothing to say that might make a difference. Simple apology seemed trite and empty, even though he screamed inside with the need to take back whatever he had done, to correct this misunderstanding. He pressed the bottle into Methos' hands, giving over control in what was now a meaningless gesture.
Methos hesitated, staring at the small pink bottle. He looked pale and sallow in the yellow light. Any other moment might have found him to be fair, even golden like an elder god, but not now.
The flat, contemplative gaze turned back to Duncan, and the lid of the bottle opened with a startling snap.
He could feel the faint trembling of Methos' hands as he applied the cool gel, stroking Duncan back to full hardness and straddling his waist with economic movements. Methos spared no preparation for himself, no teasing, smooth entry as he moved back and impaled himself on Duncan with one swift motion. A deep gasp and arch of his spine was the only betrayal of the pain he must have felt at the too-fast joining.
Duncan reached for him, wanting to gentle the hurt, the dark intensity and tension in Methos' body. This wasn't what he'd had in mind. Long fingers captured his before he could touch the straining body above him, pressing his arms back and using the leverage to grind down harder, deepening the penetration. There was no hurry, only a slow, leashed power that was one step removed from violence. Duncan wondered which of them the anger in those eyes was meant for.
When the orgasm came it was more reflex than passion, as erotic as a sneeze.
Duncan was torn by conflicting emotions. Shame and anger, pain and grief, and a terrible wrenching sense of loss all pulled at him. All of the tenderness and concern for his partner was still there, the need to hold and embrace, to touch and soothe, and he recognized his own craving for those physical comforts as well. But Methos gave him no opportunity to linger in the moment. There would be no soft afterglow to bask in tonight. Duncan watched as a remarkably subdued Methos slowly disengaged and slid off the bed. Methos' renewed, ignored erection bounced slightly at the movement, accusing.
"Methos..." Duncan made an abortive move toward him, still unsure what thoughts were churning behind the shuttered expression. Still half reluctant to speak for fear of driving Methos farther away. He only knew that as confused and hurt as he felt, Methos surely bled just as intensely.
"It's all right." The deep voice was distant, colored with detachment and dismissal.
Inadequate as they were, words were the only balm he knew, the only way he knew how to coax Methos from his defenses, to fix this. He tried again. "Methos, I..."
Methos didn't let him finish, sharply biting off a reply as he stalked off to the bathroom. "Not right now, Mac."
By the time Duncan emerged from his own turn in the bathroom, Methos was already asleep. It was a long time before Duncan's own churning thoughts allowed him any rest.
No sound, no motion, no faint tremulous stirring of air dared to disturb the deep silence. Even the throb of his own heartbeat and the quiet rasp of his breath were distant and liquid-seeming in the half light. The place was familiar, comforting even though he was given no details to recognize it by, just the soft, faded borders at the edge of his vision that dropped endlessly away as he walked through the open spaces. It reminded him of old sepia-toned photos from the last century, worn away at the corners until only the center of the image remained.
At the center of this image was Methos.
It was strangely appropriate to find him here, in this place of silence and shadows, standing in the twilight, waiting. He turned at Duncan's approach, but made no sound. There were no words of welcome, no acid observations, no riddles demanded in payment for passage. He just waited, watching Duncan with calm, serious eyes that held no anticipation.
Duncan made no move to speak. Breaking the quiet at this moment seemed like a sacrilege; whatever was happening here, this was not a place for words. He made a slow circle around the slender shape that both was and was not Methos, looking for a signal, some sign about what he was supposed to do next. Solemn hazel eyes followed his circuit, but gave him no clues about how to proceed.
This disturbed him on many levels. Methos was generally more yielding to life's currents than Duncan, but this bland passivity was wrong. Methos was a more vital force in Duncan's life than this pale creature who waited mildly for whatever was given him. A touch, a kiss, a blow to the face, it all seemed equal in those flat eyes.
"But it is the same, Duncan; there is only degree and intent. Don't you understand that yet?"
The deep, lightly accented whisper surprised him. Swallowing hard, he searched for his own neglected voice. "No, and God willing, I never will understand it."
Now the hazel eyes moistened, narrowing with sorrow, or regret. Methos' slight mouth twisted in a painful imitation of a smile. "Poor Duncan. Kisses sharp as knives, and you never know it."
Duncan reached out and laid a careful, gentle hand on Methos' shoulder. "What do you mean?"
Methos just looked sadly at the dark hand, and shook his head.
With a vague unease, Duncan lifted the hand away. His palm was coated in fresh blood. He scrubbed it off on his jeans with a convulsive jerk, and reached out again. And again. And, disbelieving, still again.
Every time his hands came away soaked in blood, though there was no mark on Methos. The only change in Methos was a deepening sorrow in the shadowed face, as if something indescribably precious were being lost.
Duncan was torn, wanting to touch, to comfort, to ease the pain and grief he saw, but still unable to look away from his blood-slickened hands... Why was there always so much blood between them?
Methos didn't speak again, merely looked long and searchingly at Duncan before turning and walking away into the endless twilight, leaving moist red footprints behind him.
Duncan woke with a startled gasp, his eyes snapping open in the soft silver light of early morning, and glanced quickly around the barge to orient himself. Everything was where it should be, traced in dim lines of gray and black in the dull light.
There was a sigh beside him in the bed, and the warm shape sleeping there shifted closer to him. //Yes, everything is where it should be,// he thought sleepily. //Everything.//
He pushed away the disturbing questions of his dream and reached for the solid comfort of Methos' back, snuggling close to ward off the sudden chill. Duncan very deliberately did not check his hands for blood where they rested.
Methos woke with a grunt of frustration, roughly scrubbing at gummy, sandy eyes that protested his efforts to focus. His hands still itched with the feel of the red clay urn from his dream. Over and over he'd desperately fitted the broken shards together only to watch helplessly as they fell apart again for lack of adhesive. He needed to fix the delicate ceramic, make it whole, erase the signs of crushing damage, but the sharp edges only sliced his fingertips and fell again to the floor, breaking again. The pieces became smaller and smaller as he worked, his hands ribboned with blood...
He forced his eyes open, filling his thoughts with the way light played across the ceiling, the sound of water on the hull, the dull scent of last night's coffee still tainting the cool air. Soon enough the dream faded and his heartbeat returned to normal. It was earlier than he'd expected, about eight or so, but there was no point to lie in bed sleeplessly. He eased himself from under the light restraint of Mac's arm, careful not to wake him, and headed for the shower, cold and empty-feeling, still rubbing at imagined bloodstains on his hands.
Under the steaming spray he coolly detached and pushed aside any remaining feelings about the night before. There was no point to linger over it. After all, he reasoned firmly with himself, Mac hadn't meant to hurt him. And besides, even if Mac had ruthlessly planned the entire evening and every nuance with malicious intent, it was no less than Methos had expected. He had been rejected before, and would be again. If he thought about it properly, this was a novelty. It was a rare thing to be repudiated on the very same evening you were seduced into a lover's bed.
//But that look in his eyes...// Methos had seen that look of fear, of faint revulsion, too many times before. So he just wouldn't think about it. The swirling thoughts were put away with only a little more difficulty than the accompanying emotions, and a wonderfully numbing unconcern filled him in their place.
A few minutes later, dried, dressed, and finishing his morning rituals, he still wondered at the nagging sense of foreboding that stubbornly clung to him. He had forgotten something important, missed something vital. What was it?
He set the feeling aside with the rest, for later thought, and went to see about breakfast.
At 9:17:34 , MacLeod awoke with a muted yawn and a sensuous stretch against the dark sheets. Not that Methos was paying attention.
Wandering over, he sat gingerly on the edge of the wide bed and held out a fresh cup of coffee like an olive branch. Mac took the cup and sipped carefully. "Mmm, heaven in a blue mug."
Methos smiled. "As long as you're not casting me in the role of delivering angel. I'm not a very convincing agent of the Divine."
"If there's anything to eat over there, I'll nominate you for sainthood myself."
"How quickly you forget. You said you'd cook breakfast next time."
Mac stared at him for a long moment before smiling. "Oh, I guess I did."
"So don't be all day about it." Methos stretched out on the rumpled bed and sipped at his own coffee. "I like my eggs over easy." This was an old role to play, the paces of it well-worn and familiar after so many years. He and MacLeod always seemed to return here, to the banter and teasing, like a kind of personal Holy Ground, a safe refuge to heal and take stock in. Nothing could hurt you on Holy Ground.
Mac cast a sarcastic look over his shoulder as he got up. "Do I have Your Lordship's permission for a shower first?"
"You're assuming you have any hot water left..." He glanced up from his cup and swallowed thickly, feeling his face flush at Mac's casual nudity. He chided himself silently over his reaction as he rigidly controlled his breathing, denying the suddenly powerful urge to touch. "Sure, take your time."
He'd lied; there was plenty of water left. Ten minutes later Mac emerged in a cloud of herb-scented steam, still gloriously unclothed. Eros brought to earth and instilled with human form, all physical desire and perfection.
"What?" Mac scrubbed at his hair with a towel.
"Nothing." Methos ripped his eyes away, aware that he'd been staring. He got up to refill his coffee, distracting himself while Mac dressed. //Damn the man!// And just for good measure, Methos damned himself too, for still inexplicably craving the feel of him. Some lessons were harder in the learning than others.
"What?" He snapped more harshly than he'd intended, his knuckles white against the black ceramic of his cup.
"What happened last night?" The question floated out gently across the barge.
Methos slammed the empty mug down with enough force to crack it in a gesture that was the only convenient outlet for the impotent frustration rising in him. Slivers of powdery white ceramic skittered across the countertop in an unintended echo of his dream. He took a deep breath to calm himself. "Nothing I didn't expect."
Duncan dropped the white sweater he'd been about to pull on. "I'm sorry if I hurt you..."
Laughter, even the slightly manic laugh that threatened, would not be an appropriate response to the absolute sincerity of that statement, and Methos firmly stifled the urge. "You didn't hurt me, Mac. Believe me when I tell you that I've been... entertained by the best. You'd have to try a lot harder than that to hurt me."
The taller man was across the barge in fewer steps than Methos had thought physically possible, gripping Methos' shoulders and holding his gaze with all the desperation those beautiful dark eyes could manage. "I didn't mean physically."
"No, will you listen for once? You..." He paused for breath, releasing his grip and pacing away a few feet, as though he needed distance for what he was about to say.
"All of a sudden last night I realized how absolutely wrong I'd been about you, about a lot of things. I... I feel like a child around you sometimes. You're so much more than I ever saw... and I didn't know what I was doing, what you wanted... what you saw in me that made you keep coming back."
Methos began absently raking up the hard clay splinters from the counter. Another deep breath. "Dammit, you don't make it easy to be around you."
Duncan looked up with a little half-smile. "That goes both ways, you know."
"Yes, it does. But so far as I knew, you did not." Methos' tone left no doubt about his meaning. "What is this, Mac? What are you looking for?"
He could see the thoughts chasing themselves across the Highlander's open expression. There was a pause before Duncan ventured an answer. "No, you're right, I've never seriously considered this kind of relationship before. All I know is that there is something about this-- about being with you-- that feels right. I don't know what I'm hoping to find with you, maybe nothing, maybe everything. Maybe we can just be friends sharing a little more than beer and bad movies." Again, the almost-shy smile. "Does it have to be so complicated?"
Mac was far too bold and self-possessed to ever be truly bashful, and Methos had to wonder if Duncan was really pressed to the limits of his confidence here, or if this was an unconscious manipulation. If so, it was a successful one. Did he truly know how thin Methos' restraint was right now, how little it would take to break his resolve? His fear, his doubt, even (perversely enough) the very intensity of his desire held him back by the thinnest of margins. Methos felt like he was suspended over a chasm by a net of spider's silk. An improper breath would be his doom.
"A week, a month, how long before you wake up and realize this is a terrible mistake, that you have no business in bed with a man? Do you come to this understanding tomorrow and show me the door, or do you wait a decade or two before you hand me my heart?" He shifted restlessly from one foot to another. "Or my head?"
MacLeod laughed weakly. "Sounds like you want a prenuptial agreement."
"Mac..." Methos felt boneless, unsupported now that his anger had been stripped away. "We're going to destroy one another."
"Why, because we're Immortals? Are you a soothsayer now, going to tell us our destiny?" Methos was hard-pressed not to look away from the intensity in Duncan's eyes as the Highlander continued talking. "Methos... no one knows the future. We may have a century to work this out, or we might not have a month. The point is, I'm not willing to walk away just because it's uncertain, or different. Or because I'm afraid."
"Afraid? Yes, but I won't let that stop me."
Remembered scents of blood and hot dust washed over Methos, the sting of tears (or was it only sweat?) in his eyes. There had been a face under his hands, pale and clammy even in the punishing heat, and he had stroked it, trying to soothe, to comfort. A rough, pain-filled whisper pleaded with him for things he wasn't willing to give. Please...
Methos shook off the memory, and looked at Duncan with rising hopelessness. He was running out of weapons for this fight; all he had left was the truth. "Duncan, I can't... I'm not strong enough to do this again."
"Why does it have to be about hurt, about how this will end?" Mac moved back into Methos' space like a wandering satellite returning home. It was strange that Duncan was the one seeking him out, needing his company, his presence. One hand caught Methos' in a firm grip, lending strength even as another reached for his face. Despite himself, Methos leaned into the comforting touch, pressing his cheek into the broad palm as the last of his resistance melted away. If this was destined to be pain, he embraced it gladly; if it was death, he bared his throat to the blade. Funny, wasn't it Duncan who just said he felt like a child?
Mac was still speaking, his voice low and intimate, pitched to calm. "I'm not ready to plan the rest of my life, Methos. I still want you; that hasn't changed, but we're not in any hurry, either. Can't this just be about us, right now?" He leaned in for a kiss, soft as a summer morning. "Right here?"
Methos pulled back and arched an eyebrow. "Right here?"
"Well, maybe over there..." He waggled his eyebrows toward the bed in an exaggerated leer, making them both laugh as tension dissolved around them, falling away like water.
Duncan dozed lightly, contented and happier than he had been in months. They had each been exquisitely gentle, trading pleasures in slow, careful touches, relearning, or perhaps only discovering for the first time what it meant to be together in this way. There would be time later to rebuild trust and rediscover the confidence to be bold, to take risks. This lovemaking had been a needed affirmation, a healing of wounded places; even now, the warmth of Methos against his side, long fingers tracing idle patterns over his chest made him feel safe and comforted. He could cheerfully spend the rest of his life this way.
Funny, the degrees trust came in. He and Methos could stand fearlessly confident with swords to each other's throats, secure in knowing that there was no threat of harm there, but *emotional* vulnerability... Well, that was a different animal.
For now, the acceptance of risk, the willingness to be hurt would have to be enough.
Duncan sighed, pressing his chest into the lazy caresses drifting across it as he stretched. "Mmm... you know what would make this perfect?"
He could sense the smile in Methos' voice. "What, bored with me already? The fickleness of youth."
"Silence, graybeard. I was thinking that it might be a good idea to eat soon. You know, keep our strength up?" Duncan peeped one eye open to look at his lover. "I mean, I'm fine, but an old man like you needs all the help he can get..."
"Old man?!" Methos sat up, laughter and outrage competing for dominance in his expression.
Duncan grinned and pulled Methos down for another kiss, effectively silencing him. By the time Methos sat back up his cheeks were flushed and his eyes slightly glazed.
"Come on. Food." Mac rolled off the bed and hunted for clothes.
"All right," Methos agreed breathlessly. "Food."
A few minutes later Methos stared blankly into an open cabinet. "Don't you ever cook anything here?"
"Yes, I cook here, I just haven't been to the market this week." Mac peeked over Methos' shoulder. "There's stuff for pasta."
"Oily noodles and basil?"
"Pesto, it's called pesto."
"Oily noodles and basil. It's revolting." Methos shuddered and shut the cabinet firmly. "Where did you toss my shoes?"
"Where are you going?" For a tiny instant the old fear that Methos wasn't coming back resurfaced.
"To the store, Mac. I have an idea, but I need a few things first." He sat to pull on his boots. "I'll be back in a little bit. In the meantime, why don't you... chew on a pine nut or something?"
As he walked back to the barge, Methos hummed softly, an ancient dirge with a beautiful melody in a minor key. He smiled and hefted his bag of groceries closer against a hip. He paid little attention to the people around him as he inventoried the contents of his bag, checking them against the recipe he remembered. Some substitutions had been unavoidable, but fortunately recipes hadn't always been the scientifically precise things that they were in this day and age.
He rounded a corner onto a deserted alley between streets, a shortcut, and nearly dropped the bag in surprise as a sensation of Presence washed over him. Suddenly his faint distraction, the feeling of forgetting something snapped into place as Ehren stepped into clear view.
"Nice of you to show up."
Methos set the bag down carefully, every sense alert. "I'd ask you what you wanted, but I think we covered that fairly well yesterday."
"So I thought." The tension in the air was palpable as the two men stared at each other. Ehren sucked another lungful of air. "Are you ready?"
Methos barked a short laugh. "To murder you? To be your proxy in this madness, this vain, self-indulgent, cowardly suicide? No. You go find someone else to do your dirty work."
"You owe me..."
"Owe you for what? For saving my life once, eight hundred years ago? For tolerating your petty hatreds, your greeds, your slaughter of people for no other reason than they had a different name for God? For killing a man I loved like a son?" Methos stopped for a breath, his anger swelling coldly, every limb rigid and trembling. "Just precisely *what* do you think I owe you for?"
Ehren's face was red, and he looked half again his regular size, inflated by rage. "Hatred? Slaughter? It's only right to hate the ungodly! The Infidel is everywhere; it is our duty to rid the world of his presence! He is a plague, a blight, and his death is no more burden on a Christian soul than putting down a rabid dog or a lame horse."
"They are people. Those villages we destroyed were full of people." Methos' stomach turned at the memory. So much death. Twice in his life now he had been party to the destruction of that region. The Horsemen had at least had the virtue of honestly raping and pillaging their way along the coast. They had only been four, the depredations lasting some thousand years. The Crusaders had hidden behind a shield of religious justification, and come by the thousands, for nearly as long.
"They were Infidels!" Ehren roared, his barrel chest heaving. "They deserved to die!"
"Why, because Urban said so? Because they had a different name for God? There was no lofty moral imperative for the Crusade! Urban was greedy; he wanted Jerusalem's wealth and Alexius' letter gave him the excuse he needed to go get it. Do you really think that if Yahweh himself materialized in a font of fire and told Urban to give peace a chance it would have made a difference? No." Methos shook his head bitterly. "Gods, more often than not, seem to say just what the clergy want them to."
"Maybe. You're not the first that's ever accused me of it. Urban's little treasure hunt made me sick then, and it makes me sick now. It, and you, and all the idiots like you who march off to their deaths drunk on religious insanity, convinced that the One True God is sitting on their shoulder."
Methos' hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically at his sides, itching for the weight of his sword. Neither of them had made a move toward a weapon yet, and he hoped to avoid it if possible. He liked Ehren, despite his old friend's blind spots. "Walk away now and let it be. I am not your instrument of convenience, Ehren; I won't play the reaper for you." The wind, cool and mischievous, pressed against his back, urging him closer, begging him to join the conflict and give himself to the violence rising in him. Methos stood his ground. "Please, just walk away."
"Honorless dog. I'd thought better of you, Simon, forgiven you your sins and believed you a true son of the Church." The bitterness in the big man's face was painfully clear as he reached into his coat and limbered a huge broadsword. The naked steel gleamed coldly in the afternoon light. "But to deny a brother this simple mercy... You would leave me to suffer, dying by inches just as you would have left Benoit. If you don't stand with the faithful, you will be counted with the Infidel."
The old denial, //You are not my brother// almost rose to his lips, but Methos choked it back. He didn't think he'd ever be able to say those particular words again. His sword came to hand between one heartbeat and the next. "Don't do this."
"My only regret is that I once called you friend."
With a faint internal sense of something breaking, Methos yielded his control, surrendering to the dark ferocity that sang in his veins. In a clash of swords, the Challenge was joined.
Let me be no nearer
Not that final meeting
His knees were cold. Wet and cold, in sharp contrast to his side, which burned with pain as the deep gash there slowly knitted itself back together. For several long moments he stared at his own reflection before he realized that he was kneeling in a pool of water.
Long moments before he realized that he breathed, he survived.
And Ehren did not.
Slowly Methos rose to his feet, even that tiny effort sending sparks of sharp agony down his side and into his leg, nearly buckling it under him. //Damn, must have cut a nerve.// He wheezed, gasping for breath, and forced himself to stand.
Quickenings were like fingerprints, each one as distinctive and unique as the Immortal they came from. To take one might leave him angry or grief-stricken, exhilarated or aroused. Right now he was only exhausted, the kind of bone-deep tiredness that affected the spirit as much as the body, the kind of weariness that made him want to lie on the pavement and weep from the depth of it.
Dead, Ehren was smaller than he had seemed when alive. Methos calmly cleaned his sword on the dead man's coat and tucked the blade away, grasping the corpse under the shoulders and heaving it up into a nearby dumpster. The head was tossed in afterward with an almost frivolous gesture, an afterthought. Methos stretched his lips humorlessly at the image that came to mind: one last free throw before the buzzer. He very badly needed a drink. Turning his steps out of the alley and toward Joe's, he abandoned the body to the police, the Watchers, or whomever was unfortunate enough to find it. The Saxon was in no position to complain or care about his treatment now.
Methos spared one last look over his shoulder at the gray dumpster and bloody asphalt. It smelled like rain today.
July 3, 1097
Benoit had drifted in and out of consciousness over the past two days, and it seemed to Methos that the boy's rest was a little easier today, more a natural sleep than the fevered tossings of the previous nights. True, the discoloration and swelling in his belly was just as extreme, but it had only been a little while. The boy... Methos stopped himself, and trailed a grimy hand over the pale, clammy face, smoothing back the black curls fondly. Benoit was a veteran of two wars, and a knight in his own right despite his youth. He was no child, and Methos did him no favors by referring to him as such, even in the privacy of his own thoughts.
It boded well that Benoit had survived this long. Crushing injuries to the belly generally killed quickly, within a day, the victim screaming and vomiting blood as his gut swelled, the ruptured entrails pouring out fluids. He'd seen men burst like overfull wineskins from the pressure of all the blood and water inside them. If Benoit could avoid having the wound sour, he might yet live.
Methos sighed tiredly and reached for his waterskin, tipping it up to drain the last few drops into his mouth. It was hot and gritty and tasted like leather, doing nothing to ease his thirst. The sand was everywhere: in his boots, his eyes, his hair. The water was full of it, and so was the food. It wasn't the worst conditions he'd ever endured, but it made a convincing case on the grounds of immediacy alone.
The only thing worse than the sand was the heat; it was persistent, never cooling off much even at night. Wounded soldiers that hadn't had the good fortune to die on the field were dropping off by the dozens from overheating and dehydration. Too many of the injured would have to be left behind when Bohemond mobilized the armies again in a couple of days.
Methos stood and stretched, pacing the feeling back into his legs outside the small impromptu shelter he'd erected to ward off the punishing sun. No matter how long he spent in the sun-blasted regions of the world, he never developed any resistance to sunburn. //Thus do the gods keep us humble,// he reminded himself, turning at the sense of an approaching Immortal.
"Ehren," he nodded a greeting.
"Simon." The big Saxon was red-faced and sweaty, emerging from the heat-shimmers like a desert mirage. "How's the boy?"
"Better, I think. He's sleeping easier, and awake more."
"Is the swelling down?"
"Not yet, but it's not any bigger, either."
Ehren only pursed his lips at that, casting a curious glance at the leather waterskin Methos still held. "You need to go fill that?"
Methos nodded, but looked back with concern at Benoit.
"Go on then. You've been tending him like a mother hen with only one chick. Even I can sit this nest for a bit."
"Thank you." Methos raked back the sweat-damp, longish hair from his eyes and headed off to find a water barrel.
The remaining water barrels were farther across the sprawling camp than he'd thought, and Methos had been delayed more than once on the way there and back as frightened foot soldiers and camp followers cried out for reassurances, sometimes falling to their knees and clutching at his surcoat as he walked by. Clearly no one else was making time to see to the emotional comfort of these wretches, lured away from their homes with the promises of grand adventure and riches, and a place in Heaven for them when they died. Gods knew physical comforts were at a minimum here, so more often than not he found himself stopping. A bland face was easy enough to assume, and a few soothing words really cost him nothing but the effort of speaking. It was enough that he knew the emptiness of his promises.
By the time he found his way back to Benoit's 'tent', Ehren was kneeling beside the young knight, praying quietly in Latin. Benoit had been moved outside the tent, and seemed unusually loose and pale even for one asleep or unconscious as Ehren straightened his limbs with careful motions. Methos stopped, observing the strange scene with an odd detachment.
It was exactly three heartbeats later that he noticed the unnaturally boneless loll of Benoit's head to the side.
The waterskin fell from nerveless fingers, splitting on a sharp rock and gurgling out its precious contents on the dry sand, unnoticed. Methos didn't recognize his own voice as he called out, "What have you done?"
Ehren looked up calmly, a trace of defiance in his gray eyes. "Nothing that he didn't beg me for; nothing that you weren't too weak or craven to do yourself. The boy was suffering, Simon! Dying by inches!"
"He was getting better." His hand ached for the weight of his sword, and only the awareness of the throngs of people around them held him back. This was not a fight for witnesses.
"We ride tomorrow!! Bohemond has given the word. Would you abandon the boy to the mercy of those who will stay behind?"
"To the nine Hells with Bohemond! Benoit was mine to look after. Mine!!"
Ehren's face twisted with a frightening mixture of understanding and belligerence as he stood. "You and I, and the rest of this company, have no choice. We are God's chosen, His anointed soldiers. We cannot abandon the Crusade, especially not for the sake of one mortal boy. Rejoice that he has found his place in Heaven and be done!"
Anger and grief swirled and spiked, finally settling into an icy calm. "Draw your sword."
"I won't fight you, Simon."
Methos' blade slid free with a nearly-silent hiss. "Draw your sword. I won't tell you again."
Ehren made no move to get a weapon. "Will you kill me in payment for the boy? Take the head of a friend, a brother knight who won't stand against you?"
"Wouldn't be the first time," Methos spat, but he staked his sword in the hard sandy soil with one smooth motion and glared at the big Saxon he'd once called friend. "Get out of my sight, Ehren. I can't look at you right now."
"Just go away. Leave me to tend my dead in peace." As he went to get his sword, Methos noticed that his fists were clenched so tightly that his roughly trimmed nails cut the palm, leaving little red half-circles, and his knuckles were white with strain.
Mac gripped the steering wheel with whitened knuckles, navigating his way through the wet, narrow Paris streets more by instinct than a conscious sense of where he was going. The highlights of two phone calls this afternoon destroyed his concentration with implied possibilities.
Hey, Mac, Ehren's deep, lightly accented voice drifted over the connection. Have you seen Simon today? There was something I needed to see him about...
Much later, the phone rang again.
Mac? Joe's voice was tight with some unspoken concern.
What is it Joe?
I think you'd better come down here for a bit.
Joe had offered no more details, and Mac hadn't pressed for any. It wasn't until he was halfway to the door, coat and katana in hand, that the other shoe dropped. Methos hadn't come back.
//No no no no no...//
The thought was there that he could call Joe back and refuse to come, refuse to hear whatever news the Watcher had for him that required his presence. He didn't want to know what couldn't be said over the phone. He wanted to stay home, and wait for Methos to come back from the store. He wanted to open wine and let it breathe, hoping that he guessed a good varietal to go with whatever the old Immortal had planned for dinner.
He wanted any number of things, none of which was to hear what Joe had to say. It was compelling, though. He had to know.
The bar was nearly deserted, the soft blues music playing over the stereo only adding to the air of desolation and abandonment. Mac stepped inside carefully, almost afraid to disturb the mood that hung motionless over the dark tables like a layer of cigarette smoke. He wasn't unprepared for the sensation of another Immortal here, but the overwhelming relief as he looked across the room and saw a familiar, lanky form slumped over a shadowy table took him by surprise.
Joe, and whatever he had to say was forgotten as Mac made a direct line for the dark corner table.
Bleary, red-rimmed hazel eyes looked up at him, blinking with the effort of focusing. "Shouldn't have come here," Methos muttered under his breath. "Sit down, Mac, and have a drink." He kicked a chair out on the other side of the small table.
"All right," Mac agreed cautiously. "What are we drinking to?"
Methos gave an enigmatic half-smile and looked down at his hands, the greater portion of his face lost in shadows. "Old friends."
Sudden fear rose up in Duncan and he reached out, capturing Methos' hand and turning it to see the dark stains still embedded in the skin. Blood. "Methos, what happened? What did you do?"
The long hand was snatched back. "What did I do?" Gone was the easy melancholy of the previous moment, replaced by a sharp, wary anger. Duncan had seen this face before, rage and hurt warring in the pale face. "That's what it always comes back to, isn't it? What I did. What you want. Your narrow vision of How It Should Be. What I did to Cassandra, to Meara, to Seireadan, that's all you care about."
"Methos, I didn't mean..."
"Didn't you?" Methos tossed back the last of the whiskey in his glass and fixed Duncan with a tired stare. "Either drink or go, Mac. Your judgments and your moral crises will have to look after themselves for a while. I don't have the patience or the energy tonight for this." He poured another measure of the dark amber liquor. "Drink or go."
It was only then that Duncan noticed the extra glass on the table. Something was both familiar and wrong here. He noted with casual detachment the dark stains on Methos' pants and sweater, a glimpse of pale skin visible when his coat opened wide enough to view the single large rent in the thick cable-knit. Methos had been fighting; it wasn't too hard to deduce whom his opponent might have been.
Duncan thought hard before he accepted that full glass and empty chair, and all that went with them. He'd been sincere in what he said earlier (God, was it only this morning?) about wanting Methos with him, making this only about the two of them. He'd been so naive. He'd only seen... only been willing to see Methos as a friend, a lover. He hadn't considered the whole man, despite the brief glimpses he'd had at the real person behind the myth and the facades.
He'd been more right than he knew this morning. Methos was more than Duncan imagined him to be. Endlessly complex, tangled in opposites, Methos was strong and fragile, brave and frightened, both ruthless and kind. He was the reed in the wind, bending with events rather than holding fast against them, swimming with the current...
Until Duncan had come along and taken that choice from him.
//Taken...// What had he really ever given Methos? Accusations, blame, censure, rejection... Judgments and moral crises. And still Methos kept coming back, returned again and again to Duncan's circle of intimates despite the sharp words and the harsh demands made of him. He'd even changed, setting aside centuries of survival instinct for Duncan's sake, and Duncan had taken that change and asked for more.
All along Mac had been telling himself that there was tomorrow, that these issues could wait, that he could deal with who and what Methos was at a later time. Suddenly, tomorrow was here, and Duncan was the one who needed to apologize, only hoping that this tomorrow hadn't come too late.
Methos watched him without expression as he sat down and lifted the short tumbler of whiskey. "To old friends."
The eyes are not here
The barge was cold when they came home, and again Mac noted the sense of deja vu as he tossed his keys into a bowl by the door and switched on lamps. Coats were hung and a dozen other tiny details of homecoming were taken care of with automatic motions.
Methos stripped off his ruined sweater with a smooth twist of arms and torso, unintentionally displaying the crust of dried blood on his side. He noticed Mac staring, but made no move to cover the mark.
"Well, so much for this sweater," he said lightly. "They do seem to have a higher attrition rate when I hang around you."
"You hinting for a clothing allowance?" The banter was flat, but only slightly so. They were both trying too hard.
"Nah, more fun to steal them from you." Methos reached for the button of his jeans and turned to the bathroom. "I'm gonna grab a shower."
Mac nodded, and set up the pot for coffee. As an afterthought, he laced two mugs with liberal amounts of scotch. It had been a while since he'd held a wake in proper Scottish fashion. Liquor and fond recollections of the deceased were the key ingredients, and if Ehren didn't approve, well, the intent was good.
Methos emerged in a cloud of steam and a thick robe just in time to take a fresh cup from Duncan's hand. The couch was chosen by mute agreement, and both men sat sipping at their coffee as the silence stretched out between them.
Not uncharacteristically, it was Methos who spoke first. "Mac, about Ehren..."
"He was looking for you earlier."
Methos nodded. "He found me."
The silence spun out again.
"Methos, I'm not going to pretend that it doesn't hurt that he's dead..."
"That I killed him."
"Yes, that you killed him. He was a friend, and I don't have so many old friends left." Mac paused for a deep swallow from his cup before setting the warm mug aside and reaching for Methos' hand. "But he was your friend too. I don't know what happened, but I do know that Ehren was... troubled." He threaded his fingers into Methos' and gave a reassuring squeeze.
"It's not easy to lose a friend."
"No, it's not." Methos' voice was low and throaty. Duncan glanced up and found the old Immortal watching him with suspiciously bright eyes.
There was still so much that wanted to be said, maybe that needed to be said, but there was no more room in this moment for it. A single evening could only hold so many truths, no matter late the hour or how good the whiskey was. Maybe someday Mac would hear the entire story of what had happened today, or perhaps not. This was a feeling, a situation that he understood all too well: the death of a friend by your own hand. It was still difficult for him to speak of Brian Cullen, or Jim Coltec, or Sean Burns. Or Richie.
He'd already lost one friend tonight; he didn't want to drive another away with misunderstandings.
Methos' fingers tightened against his own, guiding him back from his wandering thoughts. Duncan looked up into the clear, questioning eyes and swallowed against the tightness in his throat. "Sorry, woolgathering."
A understanding nod in reply. "Maybe I should go."
"Don't," he blurted without thinking, then realized that he was issuing more commands. "Please."
The cup was set aside and long fingers came up almost diffidently to trace the contours of Duncan's face, drifting without demand along cheek and brow. The soft touch, both less and more than a caress, finally settled beneath the plane of his jaw, drawing him forward into a kiss.
Less passion than reassurance, more comfort than need, Duncan took the offered warmth and returned it in kind, lending strength freely, giving without hesitation. It was a terrible thing for him to realize that while part of him, tightly shut away, still screamed with the need to insist on answers, to know why Ehren had died, he and Methos both hurt from the losses suffered today. It would be too, too easy to tear open those fresh wounds and make each other bleed again.
So he was careful. Duncan made no move to guide the encounter as he and Methos drew together on the couch, no effort to increase the intensity of the gentle touches they exchanged. It might have been comical under other circumstances: both of them so aware of the other, so fearful of going too far or inflicting more hurt.
Clothing was at last pushed aside, hands and mouths wandering farther afield into places that were both new and familiar. Was this only the fourth time he and Methos had ever known each other this way? Duncan felt like he had been here all his life, or waiting to be here. The lean, solid shape of this person pressed against him, giving and receiving pleasure... He wanted it never to end, wanted to hold on like this forever, just breathing each other, lingering in this dizzy instant where there was no hurt or confusion...
They leaned together, kissing desperately, hungry for the taste of each other, trembling on the edge of release. When it finally came, Methos following Duncan over the abyss a heartbeat later, the sensation was that of surrendering a long-held sigh, the sweet intoxication of breathing fresh air, a renewal of life.
The French term, la petit mort, had never been more inappropriate.
The kisses, starving, voracious, needy kisses more intimate than anything else their hands or mouths might have done, finally slowed. Minimal effort was spared for clean-up before they rose together, staggered a few paces across the barge and fell into bed, exhausted. Once again, tomorrow was soon enough to address any lingering details.
The church was nearly deserted in the mid-afternoon. Too late for the morning confessionals, too soon for the evening mass. Only the choir and a handful of the faithful, the fearful or needy, remained, basking in the cool, solemn light from the stained glass windows. He watched the dust motes dancing silently in the sunbeams for a long moment before he abandoned the perceived shelter of the vestibule and entered, genuflecting automatically to the altar. Methos had thought about coming back at another time, perhaps late in the evening when the church was certain to be empty, but discarded the notion as unnecessarily paranoid.
He selected a back pew and sat, listening to the choir rehearse and letting the peace of the place soak into his bones. It was strange to be here, on Holy Ground, without being driven, hounded here by one danger or another. The singing continued, and the sleepy sense of calm settled deeper into him.
"Can I help you, my son?" A low, concerned voice startled him into wakefulness. Methos realized that he'd been drowsing.
//Well, if an Immortal is going to take a public nap, a church is a good place to do it.//
He smiled at the young priest, aware of the incongruity of this man calling him 'son'. Even Adam Pierson was older than this child. "Thank you, father, but no. I'm just here to remember some friends." He wiped a hand across his face to banish the last of the sleepiness. "I'm afraid the... calm of this place is infectious."
"Of course. Please stay as long as you like."
"Thank you, father." There was a faint note of dismissal in his voice, and the priest left him to his privacy.
He'd been here long enough. The windows were growing dark as the afternoon wore on, and Mac would be expecting him for dinner soon. Methos rose and stretched, gathering his coat and bag. On impulse as he left, he stopped and lighted a candle, and another, and one more, leaving the votives there to chase away some of the evening gloom. Tiny lights against the encroaching dark.
//For Benoit, and Ehren, and all of us. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.// The thought was sincere, and the form familiar, even though he had no real faith to put behind it.
As he stepped out into the gathering dusk, Methos heard the choir begin one final song, and smiled as he hummed along. "Dona nobis pacem..."
Grant us our peace.
Those who have crossed
The Hollow Men
Mistah Kurtz --he dead.
We are the hollow men Shape without form, shade without color, Those who have crossed II Eyes I dare not meet in dreams Let me be no nearer Not that final meeting III This is the dead land Is it like this The eyes are not here Sightless, unless V Here we go round the prickly pear Between the idea Between the conception Between the desire For Thine is the This is the way the world ends
We are the hollow men
Shape without form, shade without color,
Those who have crossed
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
Let me be no nearer
Not that final meeting
This is the dead land
Is it like this
The eyes are not here
Here we go round the prickly pear
Between the idea
Between the conception
Between the desire
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends