This story is a direct sequel to "The Causes Remain," and while reading that story first isn't absolutely necessary, many of the references and developments here will make a great deal more sense if you do. More accurately, many of the references and developments here will make no sense if you don't.
This story is rated NC-17 for adult content. This means mature themes, language, graphic violence, unpopular ideas and sexual content including M/M sex. If you are under the age of consent for your area or if the exploration of these themes disturbs you, please read no further. If you persist in reading this story despite my warnings, 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, Amanda, Joe's Bar, Le Blues Bar, the Loft, the Dojo (elsewise known as DeSalvo's Martial Arts), the Barge and the concept of Immortality are all the property of someone else with more lawyers than me, and are used here without permission. There is no money being made from this endeavor (gods know) and no harm is intended.
"The Hollow Men," by T.S. Eliot, is used without permission.
The characters of Ehren, Benoit, Volete, Meara, Seireadan and assorted incidental personalities are my own creation and property, as is Methos' identity of Simon de Boulogne. Please do not use them without my permission. Top-40, aka Andi, knows who she is, and appears here by her own consent.
Niam and Gaviota are the creation and property of Lillian Wolfe, and are used with permission. The full story of Niam can be found in "No Fool," by Lillian Wolfe, appearing in Dianne Smith's zine "Potpourri." Gaviota appears in the story "Demons at Bay," also by Lillian Wolfe.
The First Crusade is the property and responsibility of the Catholic Church, and all leaders and real figures associated with it now belong to history. I wasn't there, I didn't make it up, and it wasn't my fault.
A very special thank you goes out to my Beloved Betas (tm): Sara, Rene, Juanita and Beth, and to my endlessly tolerant alpha readers Methosgrrl, Lillian and Maygra. These lovely women have listened to me alternately lecture, rant and whine, and I cannot thank them enough. Any correct spelling, punctuation, continuity and other nifty things you find here are entirely their responsibility. Likewise any errors you may encounter are my sole fault, and the direct result of my not listening closely enough to their sage advice. Mea culpa. Special thanks to my fic crisis counselor, Janis: even a one storey window is too high to jump from. Special thanks also to my beloved and most-tolerant husband Don, and to anyone else who had to put up with my immersion in medieval history for the past few months.
Is it like this
--T.S. Eliot, from "The Hollow Men"
Seacouver, February 3
The loft was cold and dark, the heavy air still bearing the faint fragrance of coffee and nutmeg. Duncan winced slightly at the over-loud sound of his keys as they landed on a convenient tabletop, and moved automatically around the silent room, switching on lamps to dispel some of the pervading gloom. He gave a quick twist to the thermostat, and the heater came to life with a shudder and a groan. Thunder growled a distant counterpoint, vaguely complaining, but he couldn't tell about what.
The silence was overwhelming, perversely accentuated by the steady drumming of rain against the roof and windows. Mac sighed and cast a surreptitious glance at his guest. Methos moved like a ghost, seemingly disconnected from his environment. Mac shouldn't have worried about being caught observing; Methos' gaze was shuttered, all of the old Immortal's attention focused inward in the aftermath of Seireadan's Quickening. He spared no attention for Duncan.
"Would you like a drink? Coffee? Scotch?" Silence. He tried again, "Beer?" More silence. Duncan really wasn't too surprised. Methos hadn't spoken since they had retrieved his abandoned sword, and before that only to utter increasingly terse, single-word commands directing Mac to the location of the weapon.
Duncan watched as Methos walked slowly across the loft, dreamlike, stripping off his wet clothes and scattering the soggy lumps of fabric across the floor in a direct line to the bathroom. The door creaked shut, and a moment later he heard the soft hiss of the shower.
The scorched, piteous remains of the morning coffee disappeared down the drain with a gurgle, and Mac focused on measuring the grounds for a fresh pot. It was easy to center himself in the physical motions of tidying up the loft: hanging their coats to dry, collecting the few dirty dishes to be washed later, setting out some dry clothes for Methos. The swords would need caring for, but they could wait too.
His wandering thoughts were more difficult to rein in. There were no incidental details to consider, Duncan told himself yet again, repeating the phrase like an internal mantra. He filled his mind with the scent and image of coffee as he poured, firmly pushing away other thoughts of Meara, and her father, Methos' sharp features spattered with blood, his long fingers tangled in the girl's hair as she died, screaming...
No. No incidentals. Whatever Methos had done in the past, he had surely paid for many times over. Today had been like any other challenge. They were Immortals; this was what they did. Seireadan had challenged, Methos accepted, and that was that.
Except that Methos had been losing, and Mac interfered.
The shrill chirp of the phone startled him, and Mac jumped, sloshing coffee over the counter. He reached for the handset, stifling a curse.
"Do you have any idea what kind of a ruckus you two stirred up today?" Joe's voice was tight with irritation, no small amount of which was obviously directed at Mac.
"Hi, Joe. Nice to hear from you. How are things at the bar?" This would have to be dealt with eventually, but Mac was just as willing to put it off, along with everything else, until later.
"For God's sake, Mac, you blew up a shopping mall in front of several hundred witnesses, some few of which were Watchers, off-duty police officers and mall security!"
Duncan sighed. Joe wasn't going to let this go so easily. "Nice guess, but I'm not the one who did it."
"Yes," the Watcher hissed, "I know that too, thanks to Adam's very thoughtful tour around the main promenade looking like a walking advertisement for Mercy Trauma Center! His very accurate, if unflattering description is now featured on every police blotter from here to San Diego, 'wanted for questioning' in what is shaping up as a fairly spectacular homicide and bombing."
Mac's grip tightened on the handset. "Look, Joe, blame the Quickening on me if you need to. I'd just as soon keep his name out of this if we can. The rest of it... The rest will have to be dealt with later, I don't have time for it right this minute."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Is he all right?" Joe's voice was heavy with concern.
"Yeah, he's going to be fine. It was just a rough Quickening, is all. I need to go now. We might come by tomorrow for lunch."
"Sure, Mac. You take care, and if you need anything, you know where I am."
"Thanks, Joe. I'll see you tomorrow." The line was disconnected with a soft click.
This was a whole other world of trouble, one that would still be there tomorrow. God, hadn't there been enough for one day? It was only as he reached for his now tepid cup of coffee that he realized the shower was still running.
Duncan opened the bathroom door slowly, unleashing a tremendous cloud of hot steam that clung to his face in a humid sheet.
"Methos? Are you all right?"
There was a long silence. "Go away, Mac."
Something in the weary voice alarmed Duncan. "Come out of there," he coaxed. "I made some coffee." The thick vapor in the air was starting to make him light-headed.
"I'm fine, Mac. Go away."
"Methos..." Duncan was becoming terribly frustrated and alarmed. He slid open the shower door to better confront the situation, and released, if possible, even more hazy clouds of scalding steam. Methos was hunched on the tiles, hugging his knees, his face pressed into his kneecaps. Water pounded on his neck and shoulders.
"Come on out of there." He reached past the huddled form to turn off the water, flinching a bit as the pure-hot spray scalded his arm. Methos' shoulders and other exposed skin was flushed a deep, angry red. Mac held out a soft towel with one hand, offering the other to help Methos rise.
Red-rimmed hazel eyes glared up at him as Methos deliberately stood on his own, ignoring the proffered hand. He snatched the towel away from Mac and began roughly scrubbing himself dry.
"I found you some dry sweats. I left them on the bed for you." Duncan tried to project nothing but gentle concern, pushing aside the screaming frustration that was building in his chest.
Methos narrowed his eyes, staring at Mac for a long moment before the Highlander turned away, unwilling to bear the vaguely-hostile scrutiny. There were other things Mac could be doing, better ways to spend the evening than looking after this stubborn, moody, unpredictable old man. He could do the dishes, catch up on the laundry... Hell, he could clean the oven. Sharpening his sword probably wasn't a very wise task right now, given his mood. It wasn't that he was that personally fond of Methos at the moment, but there were things in the loft that he'd rather not see demolished in the Quickening. When was the last time he'd defrosted the freezer?
"Mac." Duncan hesitated in the doorway. Methos sounded so tired and... old.
"What?" He tried to make the word as neutral as possible, glancing back over his shoulder at the too-thin, towel-wrapped form.
The hard eyes softened a bit. "Thank you."
Mac returned a tiny smile, and headed out into the loft.
Methos hadn't thought he would ever feel warm again. Even now with the painful redness fading from his skin and the soft, oversize sweats sheathing his limbs there was still a lingering knot of cold settled low in his chest that hot showers and warm clothing could do nothing to banish. He trembled with anger and frustration, leaning heavily against the wall in an effort to regain some control over the thinly-restrained need for violence.
Gods, he hated Quickenings, hated the intimate contact and struggle for dominance with the mind of a dead adversary. There was something inherently distasteful about it, that last assault of a defeated will, the deceased's last grasping struggle for life. It was almost like rape: a violent, unconsenting union that you were helpless to refuse. That, as much as anything, was what had moved him to absent himself from the Game.
Methos raked a hand through his damp hair and breathed, trying to ground himself in simple things. Truthfully, it wasn't usually this bad, but the lingering taint of Seireadan that colored his perceptions made him feel unclean. He fought the urge to climb back into the shower and scour himself until he bled. If he were at home, in his own Paris flat, he might have done just that, and then gotten blind drunk, not going outside for a week or more.
But he wasn't at home, and Mac, in his protective concern, wouldn't afford him the privacy or the understanding to deal with this on his own. Methos' emotions churned, the accompanying rush of adrenalin screaming at him to run, to fight, to shout and smash things. Restless anger swelled at the thought of MacLeod, meddling boy scout that he was, following Methos to a Challenge, driven beyond logic and reason to protect a man who had lived for so long without needing anyone's help. Loathing and shame were directed at himself for failing to kill Seireadan on his own, for allowing himself to ever be in the position of needing rescue, and ultimately, gratitude to Duncan for being there to save his skinny neck, because Methos wanted to live.
The last cut deepest of all. Methos owed MacLeod, and the ancient Immortal didn't much care for the burden of personal debt.
"Are you all right?"
His thready grasp on control snapped in the face of MacLeod's obvious worry. Methos spun, bristling with tension, glaring at the man watching him from the kitchen. "Damn it, Mac, how many times do I have to tell you I'm fine! I'm not your student and I'm not your woman, so save your concern."
Duncan stared across the loft for a long moment, shock and hurt giving way to a tight determination in his features. "Fair enough," he finally answered, covering the plate of sandwiches he'd been assembling with a clean towel. He dusted his hands on the legs of his trousers and gestured for Methos to follow him to the lift. "Come on."
Methos hesitated, suddenly suspicious. "Where are we going?"
"Downstairs. Come on." Mac stood in the lift, waiting.
Methos wasn't in the mood to play games with MacLeod, but he followed him into the lift without comment.
The dojo smelled like wood and dust and sweat, and might have comforted Mac with the cozy familiarity of its echoes and scent if he hadn't been wound so tight with worry for his friend. He hated to resort to this, but obviously a more gentle expression of his care hadn't worked. He removed his shoes and strode over to a wall rack, selecting two fighting staves. Swords were not a good idea right now.
"Here." He tossed one of the heavy staves to Methos, who caught it easily, held parallel to the floor in an unconscious 'ready' position.
"What is this, MacLeod?"
"It's a staff," Mac answered with exaggerated patience, deliberately provoking the old Immortal. "You know, a big wooden stick?"
"Haven't I fought enough for one day?" The irritation in his voice was rising, and Mac noted the way Methos' hands tightened rhythmically around the smooth wood.
"Apparently not. Let's just get this over with now, before we end up shouting in the kitchen at 2 am again." Duncan tested the weight and balance of the solid oak staff, positioning his hands for a better heft. Neither of them had made a move to get the cushioning floormats. Just as well, a few bruises wouldn't do them any harm.
"En garde!" Mac called out the traditional warning, and after a heartbeat's pause, swung.
It was a less than friendly match, more intense than a mere spar, but not quite a full-out contest. They circled each other like wary predators, looking for openings as signs of weakness. Duncan wasn't sure how long it had gone on, but both of them were soaked in sweat, his slacks torn and dirty. Methos was limping from a vicious leg-sweep Mac had swung at his knees, and carried his left arm at an odd angle. Duncan wasn't sure if he'd broken the shoulder or not, but Methos had uttered no cry of pain, and made no move to halt the duel.
Duncan himself wasn't doing any better. Sweat stung his eyes, and he ached from a dozen minor blows. He was beginning to feel like a tenderized steak, but was just as unwilling to stop. Methos needed to do this, to work out whatever anger and adrenalin remained from the Quickening he had taken earlier. Mac chanced a closer look at his friend. Methos was hawk-faced with concentration, his eyes distant and slightly glazed. Duncan wondered if he even remembered who he was fighting.
The pace of the assault changed just then, and Duncan cursed himself for his inattention as Methos pressed him back with a flurry of strikes, each cracking sharply against the sturdy wood. Mac raised the staff higher to defend his head, barely meeting the savage rain of blows that flew about him. He had severely underestimated both Methos' skill and the aftereffects of the Quickening. He was suddenly very glad not to be sparring with swords.
He realized his mistake even before Methos swung for his vulnerable feet, but was unable to fend off the sweep that caught him just above and behind his ankles. Mac landed on the wood floor with a solid thud and a rush of air from his lungs. He glanced up in time to see Methos over him, his face a mask of grim determination, pulling back the long staff for a head-shot that would surely break his neck.
Panic flared, and cold adrenalin seared through Duncan's limbs with a single uncontrolled spasm as he called out. "Methos!"
The lean figure hesitated, and the hawkish mask slipped, the hazel eyes clearing as he realized what he was doing. Chest and shoulders pumped rhythmically as breathing became erratic and uncontrolled, the warrior's discipline fading as awareness returned. The weapon was slowly lowered and then tossed aside with a loud clatter and Methos turned away, covering his face with his hands.
Duncan saw the slender shoulders begin to shake, the tremor running the length of the long body before Methos crumbled to the floor in a boneless heap.
Methos pressed his head to the cool floorboards, trying desperately to control his breathing. He just wanted to be left alone, gods, why couldn't Mac just leave him alone... He was so tired of being alone. //Breathe... just breathe,// he told himself, //and thank every god you can think of that you weren't using a sword.//
Mac's hand was a faint warmth on his back, and despite himself, he flinched at the contact. "Methos? It's all right."
"Mac, please..." he groaned into the floor, but he didn't even know what he was asking for. Please go, please stay, please don't leave me alone...
Duncan tugged him up by his shoulders, denying him even the dignity of that small camouflage. Earnest, concerned brown eyes searched his for a moment before a broad hand came up toward his face. Again, Methos flinched, shying away from the touch. Duncan gentled him again with a reassuring squeeze to his shoulder and proceeded to wipe his cheeks.
It was only then that Methos realized he was crying. He tried to gather himself with a ragged breath that sounded, even to his ears, remarkably like a sob, and found himself folded back into Duncan's arms. Then the rocking begin, and the light stroking across his shoulders, and Methos surrendered his control. The shudders started in his chest, and he gave in to them, pressing his face into Duncan's shoulder, letting the Highlander hold him steady against the violence of the sobs that tore through him. It was a long time before he could calm himself.
Mac spoke lowly, like he was soothing a wounded animal. "Methos, it's all right. I'm not going to hurt you."
Methos turned his head away. "Aren't you?"
Duncan made no reply to that, but urged him to his feet and led him to the lift. "Come on. I don't know about you, but I need a shower and something to eat."
"You can have the first shower, but only if you promise to come out this time."
Methos smiled tiredly. "No, you go ahead. No, really, go on. I'm feeling... better. Besides," he teased, "you smell worse than I do."
Duncan scowled at his friend in mock-irritation, glad to see a hint of his usual humor returning. "Fine, have it your way, but if the water is all cold, you have no one to blame but yourself." Mac gathered clean clothes and headed for the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later Duncan emerged clean and damp, adjusting his sweats, and found Methos sprawled across his bed for the third time in as many nights, sound asleep. Mac released the breath he'd been holding, relieved that Methos was still here and hadn't taken the opportunity to disappear.
He couldn't help but smile at the picture the oldest Immortal presented when sleeping. All of the defensive, wary lines of his face were erased, the sharp cynicism of his features was softened, and he looked ridiculously young. Duncan sighed. That face was too innocent to have known such evil; those elegant hands, even now lying gracefully across the dark pillowcase, were too beautiful to have done such harm. Awareness of his own dark side still provided Duncan with only a minimal grasp of Methos' shadow-self. He accepted that people could and did change, but it was still troubling to see Methos and know that those hands could as easily inflict pain as pleasure, as readily dole out death as love. Know that the supple body and the clever mind it housed were the same that had broken Cassandra, that had killed Meara, that had loved Alexa. The same body that had shuddered, and surrendered and wept in his arms, the same person that had loved him only last night.
Methos looked too young to be so old, too innocuous to be so complicated, his 5000 years marking him no place save for his eyes and spirit.
Duncan shook himself and went to the kitchen. He was too tired, and the loft too quiet for those kinds of thoughts tonight. It would all still be there in the morning. He managed three bites of one of the sandwiches he'd prepared earlier before wrapping them both and putting them away for the next day.
He tucked two oversize quilts around himself and Methos before finally stretching out to sleep beside his friend. His last thought before drifting off was that he needed to talk to Methos about adopting this new custom of sleeping under the covers, rather than on top of them.
Duncan awoke in the soft light of early morning and burrowed deeper under the quilts, instinctively reaching for the solid warmth of his bed-mate. His eyes opened fully as his searching hand encountered only a cold pillow and empty bed.
Methos was gone.
Paris, September 4
The glass was beautiful, tall and fluted in the modern fashion, the elegant lines accented with a chasing of hand-etched wildflowers that caught the candlelight in a delicate grasp. It looked almost ethereal, like a faerie confection spun out of moonlight and cobwebs that might vanish if you breathed on it improperly, not the mundane solidity of leaded crystal. The champagne had just been poured, and Duncan waited, fascinated by the ghostly breath of tiny water droplets that clung to the surface. It seemed like a tragedy when the first one fell.
He shouldn't have come here, not when there were any one of a dozen suitable restaurants in the city that he could have chosen instead. This one conjured too many memories, too many ghosts from the past. He and Tessa had come here often, celebrating new commissions and sales of her artwork. That center table there was where he and Richie had sat one night after the opera. Rich's wild gesturing to illustrate some profound musical point about how terrible opera was had accidentally caused a waiter to spill a tray. Mortified, Richie helped clean up the mess, and then had refused to ever return here. The corner table, the dark one wrapped in shadows was where he and Methos had been seated as Mac gladly paid the forfeit of another lost wager with the wily old immortal. Another golden bead of moisture slid off the glass, leaving a dark spot on the tablecloth.
Methos had remarked once that Mac should seek professional help for his compulsion to wager. Duncan had only smiled, wondering if Methos knew how much he enjoyed the forfeits, regardless of who won the contest in question. Dinners, nights at the theatre or opera, bad movies, loud rock concerts, weekend hikes in the mountains north of Seacouver, and one absolutely revealing trip to a university planetarium had been some of the results of their innumerable tests of skill, willpower, and intellect.
The contests themselves had been half the pleasure for Duncan.
The Maitre 'D escorted a lone diner into the elegant dining room and Mac tensed, reaching for the expected surge of Presence in his ears as he did a double take of the tall man's lean frame and sharp features, the easy grace of his movement. Disappointment was a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. It wasn't Methos.
"Duncan, are you all right?" The soft question intruded on his thoughts from across the small table. Lost in the maze of his own memory, he'd almost forgotten she was there.
Slightly embarrassed to be caught woolgathering, he looked up at his companion for the evening and plastered on as sincere a smile as he could manage. "I'm terribly sorry," there was an instant of panic as he fumbled for her name. //Carol, Carolyn?// "Karen. I thought I recognized an old friend."
She made a mock-serious face. "Be careful. When a man's attention wanders so easily, a woman can begin to feel unappreciated."
He took her hand across the table, falling into the role of charming host. "How can I ever make it up to you?"
A well-groomed eyebrow arched at him playfully. "You can start by ordering dinner."
The rest of the evening went smoothly, and if he didn't encourage her to linger overlong with the dessert and brandy, she wasn't complaining.
Karen was seen safely home, delivered to her door with a friendly, if passionless kiss. Duncan politely demurred the invitation inside for coffee, telling himself he was being a gentleman. Finally outside in the crisp Paris autumn, he found a wonderful comfort in the movement of cold air against his face.
No, his excuse of "gentlemanly" behavior wasn't entirely honest. The evening was an ordeal, but one that he easily endured with Karen's bland, if pleasant company to distract him. Forthright with himself, at least, he admitted the true reason for his need to escape.
He missed Methos. The almost-encounter this evening with the strange sharp-faced man in the restaurant and all the pained frustration it summoned was a testament to the layers of deception Duncan had shrouded that fundamental emptiness with.
The sense of hurt and abandonment that he had felt when Methos vanished without a word had gradually faded into calm acceptance, even relief that he was free to think about what had happened between them without the Old Man's acid observations getting in the way. Weeks passed, and Mac tried more to be patient and understanding about his friend's apparent need for distance. Weeks became months, and his patience likewise grew slowly into concern, and outright worry for Methos' safety.
He needed to find him.
"Jesus, Mac, you look like Hell."
"Thanks, Joe. You're looking lovely as ever."
The bartender raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't comment. It was just as well, Duncan didn't really feel like a verbal sparring match tonight, even a friendly one. Mutely, he accepted the short tumbler of scotch passed to him, nodding his thanks. He glanced at Joe, considering how to phrase his request. It had become easier to ask favors of the grizzled Watcher, but this was more difficult because of its personal importance to him.
"No, Mac, I haven't heard anything."
"I didn't even ask yet."
"You were about to." Joe picked up a glass to polish, and cast his eyes reflexively around the interior of the bar. It was nearly deserted, but would fill up quickly when the after-work crowd arrived in an hour or so. He heaved a sigh. "You haven't been exactly subtle the past couple weeks, you know. If Adam doesn't want to be found, you ain't gonna find him. He's the best there is at disappearing."
"Is it that obvious?"
Joe smiled. "Only to me, and it's my job to know these things." He paused and set the glass down. "Mac, I don't know what happened between you two after that whole mess last spring, but I do know this: he will come back when he's ready to, and not before."
Duncan sipped at his scotch and let the subject drop. Had he been wrong to wait so long before looking for Methos? Joe was right, Methos was the best there was at slipping away into a new identity. For all of Mac's searching, it was as though Methos had simply woken that morning, stepped out of the loft, and vanished off the face of the earth. A sudden memory flitted through his mind of Methos, having dragged him off to yet another in a long series of movies, squinting irritatedly at the screen as Tom Cruise and a company of high-tech superspies infiltrated strongholds and stepped glibly into new identities.
"Amateurs," he spat.
Mac bravely kept from laughing. "Shh!" he scolded, "you wanted me to come see this, so hush and let me see it!"
"At least the Bond films know they are full of themselves!"
Methos was petulantly silent for the rest of the screening, but announced his intention later to drop a note to the screenwriter and let him know how inaccurate his scenario really was.
//Well,// Mac corrected himself, //Methos' actual words were 'let that self-deluding idiot know what a load of crap he's managed to squeeze from the point of a fountain pen.'// It had been a good evening.
Had he driven the old Immortal away? True, he'd followed Methos to the Challenge against his explicit wishes, and had been there for those vulnerable moments in the aftermath of the Quickening, but they had been there for each other like that before, after Kristin and Kronos. Was it the unexpected complication of sex that had been added to their friendship? Things had changed for Duncan during those quiet, needy moments in the dark. New possibilities had blossomed, and for the first time in too many years he'd felt the subtle weight of loneliness lifting.
Duncan knew that he wasn't by nature or inclination a lonely or solitary man; he had friends, lovers, and an intimate network of those closest to him that served as his surrogate clan. Family. That support structure had served him well until Methos came along and blithely defied categorization, while filling up empty places Duncan hadn't realized existed.
He'd been as unpredictable as a summer storm, demanding, irritating, at times infuriating. And Duncan missed him, needed him. Wanted him with a startling intensity that time and distance had done nothing to dull. It was all out of proportion. They had only shared the comfort of a single night, and Duncan really had no serious prior experience with men to explain away this... craving.
But he didn't want a man in his bed, in his life; he wanted Methos.
Pulled from his thoughts, Duncan looked up to find Joe watching him with amusement twinkling in his blue eyes. "Stop what?"
"You're brooding again, and it never helps anything. Stop it."
Joe was relentless. "I swear it must be something in the scotch, or all the peat-smoke you must have breathed as a kid. Have you thought about switching your drink to a nice Kentucky sour-mash, or maybe Puerto Rican rum?" Joe paused, scratching at his beard. "Maybe you were dropped on your head as an infant. What do you think?"
Mac smiled. "I hate rum."
"Beer then? I have some nice American lagers, a few Irish ales?"
"No, thank you, Joe. I think I'm done with my brooding ration for the day." He sipped again at his dwindling drink, savoring the warm smokiness that lingered in his throat. "Are you playing tonight?"
Joe nodded. "We should be doing a couple of sets later on, once the crowd comes in. Stick around and listen, if you've got nothing else to do. Jack, the bass player, broke his arm last week, and the woman replacing him is something to hear."
"Yeah, little redheaded gal from Geneva, plays bass and trumpet, of all things, and sings like a horny angel." Joe's eyes brightened as he warmed to his subject.
Duncan smiled and drained off the last of his scotch. "I'll have to hear that, then. Is she..." The rising pressure behind his ears was compelling, and he turned expectantly toward the door.
The newcomer was huge-- a barrel-chested giant of a man, with limbs like those typically found on old-growth trees, and thick, neatly trimmed blond hair and beard. His eyes scanned the dim interior of the bar briefly before lighting on Mac. He strode over, his heavy footfalls clearly audible, even against the music.
Duncan assessed him with a warrior's eye. If it came to a Challenge, reach and strength would be the blond man's, speed and agility the Highlander's. The contest would come down to endurance, and Duncan's ability to stay out of the way of the man's blade. One solid hit, backed by the implicit power of those arms, would likely be enough.
The big man stopped in front of Duncan's stool, clearly appraising him in return. Mac sat up a little straighter, but made no overtly hostile moves. Best to keep this amicable, if possible. "You looking for me?"
Gray eyes narrowed speculatively. "Maybe. Depends on whether you're that Duncan MacLeod character I've been hearing so much about."
"That's my name," Mac admitted without conceding anything else.
The other man pulled himself up even taller, if that were possible, and stared down at MacLeod without expression. "Well then, you misbegotten, haggis-eating offspring of a Highland sheep, I believe we have a debt to settle."
"Really. And what might that be?"
The icy countenance thawed, and the beard was split by a huge grin. "I believe you owe me a drink."
Mac laughed. "Oh, no, Ehren. I remember the way you drink; I can't afford you. Sit down, what have you been up to?"
"Time enough for tales. First I think you ought to see after your friend there. He looks a bit faint."
"Mac, I swear: one of these days..." Joe was glaring at him with a combination of exasperation and murderous intent.
"Sorry, Joe. Ehren's an old friend. Ehren, this is Joe Dawson, another friend. He takes care of the bar and the music here."
A slablike hand was extended over the bar. "All the important things. Pleased to meet you."
"Pleasure's all mine. What can I get for you?"
Ehren cast a quick glance at Mac, and sighed. "Heineken Dark. I'm sure he'll never forgive me another noseful of schnapps this millennium."
Mac snorted, grinning. "Not after the last time. But schnapps was better than the gin."
There was another smile and a deep rumbling laugh as Ehren slapped a hand on the bar. "What was that girl's name?"
Outside London, England
"Bessa!!" The cry rang out in the smoky tavern for the hundredth time that night as old Georges once again summoned his best serving girl to the back of the room to pick up more plates of food and cups of gin for the boisterous crowd of drunk merchants. Duncan was never sure how Georges managed that kind of volume with his voice, pale and reed-thin as the old man was. Duncan smiled. It seemed that the more ghostlike and washed-out Georges appearance became, the stronger and more penetrating his voice grew.
Bessa laughed and pushed the mop of black curls out of her eyes, dancing sideways to avoid the too-insistent hands of the drunken patrons as she weaved her way carefully past the table Mac shared with Ehren.
Big fingers reached out to catch her arm. "Wench! Another cup," Ehren barked at the girl.
"Aye, a moment."
"And some food please," Mac added. "Whatever's on the spit."
She smiled and disappeared in the haze and gloom.
The meal arrived faster than he expected: a simple plate of roasted meat, bread and stewed vegetables and a cup of resinous, sharp-flavored gin. Duncan steeled himself against the unfamiliar texture of the meat and tucked into the meal. It was hot, and he hadn't had to kill it himself. That alone made it worth the price.
"Deo gratias. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." Ehren's deep voice fitted itself with remarkable ease around the simple blessing. There was an old, formal phrasing to the Latin that reminded MacLeod of a priest he knew once in a big cathedral.
Duncan paused mid-mouthful and reflexively crossed himself. "Amen."
They ate in silence for a while before he spoke again. "Were you a priest once?"
The woolly blonde man smiled peacefully, thinking before he replied. "No, that was never my calling. My sword in God's service: that's my burden," the toothy smile turned feral for an instant, "banishment of unholy things on a more physical level than with a priest's censer and crucifix. Even God needs soldiers for holy causes." He tossed back the last of his drink, roaring. "Girl!! Another cup!"
Duncan let the rest of the meal pass without conversation.
Later, he and Ehren were both deep into the cups of raw-tasting gin, laughing at three men in a corner shouting out another endless chorus of a popular, and rude, drinking song. Bessa still trod the tired, familiar paces of the tavern-girl's dance from table to table and the patrons still made a steady flow in and out of the dark room. The smell of burned meat and tallow candles competed with the piney scent of spilled gin.
The song ended in an ear-splitting attempt at harmony, and another began in a tangle of mismatched notes, only to trail off as the door opened.
Ehren was pushing back from the table even before Mac got a look at the strangers silhouetted in the doorway, the bright colors and beadwork of their clothes picked out by the firelight. Moorish traders.
"Your heathen kind aren't welcome here, Infidel." The slurred, drunken challenge fell into the sudden silence.
A soft, richly accented voice floated out of the shadowed door. "We're traders on the road, and desire no trouble. Only rest and food."
"Get out," Ehren snarled, reaching for his sword.
"NO!!" Old Georges barked, elbowed his way to the front of the tavern, Bessa following in his wake. "If you have a fight, take it outside. No fighting here."
"Come on then, you black-skinned heathen dogs. Let's see what color you bleed." Unsteadily, Ehren pushed forward toward the door.
Duncan grabbed at a thick arm to restrain the big Immortal. "Ehren!! Come on, let's go." Fortunately Ehren was too drunk to put up more than a token resistance as Duncan dragged him out the kitchen door and into the cool night air.
The wind was cool and puckish, tugging at the tails of his long coat and ruffling his hair like a possessive lover. It was late. The waning moon, just a few days past full, was already slipping low in the western sky, and the wet streets were taking on the dank, corrupt odor of 3 AM. Methos sighed, adjusting the weight of his large duffel bag across his back for the hundredth time that night.
He had finally given up struggling, finding in surrender a measure of peace that had eluded him previously. It had been a long fight with himself, filled with private promises and bargains, oaths that he realized he would break even as he made them. In the end, it had taken him seven months to come back and face MacLeod, and another few hours wandering Paris to gather his resolve before he realized that whenever his attention lapsed, his feet inevitably turned him toward the Seine. And MacLeod.
This was harder than he had expected it to be. Methos could see the dark shadow of the barge rocking gently on the river, one side limned with tarnished silver from the failing moonlight. He didn't need the soft yellow light gleaming from the far portholes or even the tidal surge of MacLeod's Presence, still two or three paces away, to tell him the Highlander was home.
Methos just knew Mac would be here. Mac would always be here, even when Methos was no longer welcome to share the warmth of his hearthfire.
He took another deep breath, tasting the fish-tainted air and tried again, vainly, to settle his burden more comfortably across his back. Tired eyes slid closed, and, like stepping into an abyss, he took the final paces into the invisible circle of Presence.
//This was a mistake,// the thought flashed across his mind as the deep signatures of two Immortals pulled at his awareness. //Amanda? So much for the hope of a private little reunion. Well, if she's here, maybe Mac will at least have a semblance of civility.// Composing his face into familiar lines, he strode boldly up the gangplank toward the door.
Somehow, despite the lateness of the hour, he hadn't really expected to be greeted at the door by a sword.
"MacLeod," he acknowledged formally, moving his hands carefully away from his sides. Damn, he'd forgotten how fast the man could be. //And beautiful,// he added as he watched the shift in Mac's expression from neutral defensiveness to recognition and //welcome?// as the katana dropped. "You saving that up just for me, or is it a free sample you pass out to all your guests?"
"M-- Adam, come in." Methos noted the quick correction. Not Amanda then.
He shook his head minutely. "You have company--"
"And now I have more." Mac was firm. No quick escapes tonight. "Let me take your bag." Methos surrendered the heavy duffel without argument, but kept his coat as he followed Mac into the main room.
And stopped cold, blood draining away from his limbs at the sight of the huge blond man standing warily by the sofa. Remembered scents of steel and horses, the sharp, green smell of trampled grass washed over him. In the reaches of his memory a crowd was cheering, and a woman was weeping, the memory itself now all that remained of them. His memory, and this man.
Duncan glanced between the two of them. "I take it you two know each other?"
"You might say that, eh, Simon?" Ehren flashed a small smile, visibly relaxing. "You look smaller."
"And you still look like a shag rug. It's been a long time." Methos hung his coat and accepted a beer from Duncan before sitting at the opposite end of the couch.
Something dark passed quickly across Ehren's open features, but was gone too fast for Methos to identify. "Too long."
"Simon?" Duncan quirked an eyebrow at Methos.
Ehren feigned shock. "Duncan MacLeod, do you mean to say you haven't been properly introduced to Simon de Boulogne, second greatest knight of the first Crusade?"
"Don't start..." Methos warned.
"Knight? Second greatest?"
"Of course," Ehren confirmed in his powerful voice. "Second only to myself, naturally."
Methos' eyes snapped open. "Second to you? Hardly. And let's not forget who pulled your woolly Saxon hide out of that brawl outside Semlin when Godfrey was about to step in and let the villagers imprison you for inciting riot."
"I wouldn't have been there long."
"No, only until they found a tree big enough to hang you from. Come to think of it, they may have just skipped the hanging and cut your head off straight-away. Inside a week your empty skull would have been grinning from the gatepost."
"It wasn't that bad." Ehren's gray eyes narrowed mischievously. "Anyway, it was only fair of you to rescue me. You started the fight."
Mac snorted, choking on his scotch. "What?"
Outside Semlin, Serbia, Byzantine Empire
The tavern was dark and smoky, reeking with an unwholesome combination of unwashed bodies, fish oil lanterns, cooking odors and rye beer. Most of the Crusading army was camped on the outskirts of town or along the riverbank, waiting for tomorrow when they would begin the monumental process of carrying all the horses and gear across the icy Danube, but some few dozen of the knights, the wealthy or restless, were prowling the streets of this small outpost on the Hungarian side of the river. The delay at the Hungarian border two months previous had cost them precious time, and everyone was starting to chafe a bit at the perceived idleness. Snow had begun falling in October, and it was only a matter of time before the first big storm came. They needed to get through the southern mountains before that happened.
Methos grinned at the air of desperate festivity that infected the Crusaders, and took another mouthful of the strong beer. He'd realized before they reached Bavaria that most of these young fools were going to their deaths. What was the real difference if you were dead from hunger or cold in the mountains, or dead from a Turkish sword in your belly? Dead was dead, and the scavengers fed just as well from either corpse. He pushed away a vision of sleek, fat carrion birds circling in a desert sky. A whiff of smoke and burned meat caught at his nose, but it was only the haunch of mutton over the fire.
Truthfully, he'd known since before they had ever left Boulogne. Succeed or fail in this ludicrous mission-- very few of the young boasters here would ever live to know. What was he doing here, overdressed for the madness of this funeral parade? Certainly old enough to know better than to get caught up in the mindless fervor of opposing superstitions bound up in a plot of land that men had died over too many times already. Ancient Heirosolyma.
Jerusalem. Christians, Muslims, Jews, they could all get together and carve the city up like a meat pie, and choke on their portions for all he really cared. Soon, too soon, they would all be dead. And their gods and dreams, all their lofty ideals and petty rivalries would die with them.
"Simon, I've heard of men seeking visions in the bottom of an ale-cup before, but I never took it literally until tonight. Enjoy yourself! You act like the guest of honor at your own wake!" Benoit laughed and passed him a fresh tankard, signaling to a thin, stoop-shouldered matron for more beer.
Methos shook himself out of his thoughts and accepted the full cup with a grin. "In vino veritas; in cervesio felicitas."
"What?" Benoit combed an absent hand through his dark curls. "My Latin is terrible, you know that."
"In wine there is truth. In beer there is joy." He drained off a substantial portion of the bitter brew. He didn't bother to scold the boy about his Latin. There were more important things in the world than mastering the intricacies of a dead language. Like enjoying yourself. Like staying alive. Besides, he liked the boy, had been taken with him ever since they had fought together against Henry IV of Germany at Canossa three years before. Benoit was everything a young knight should be: loyal, brave, beautiful, and showing excellent promise in the arts of war. It was a joy to watch him fight.
Add to that already remarkable package a healthy dose of irreverence and outright skepticism where the Church was concerned, and Methos could even forgive the boy for being such a miserable failure at languages, mathematics, and other forms of abstract thought. Pity there was nothing Benoit could do to be forgiven the absolute sin of being a third son. Except find his fortune in the Crusade.
So Methos was here to help ensure that his young friend didn't find his death instead.
Blue eyes sparkled in the semi-darkness, and Benoit's face lighted in a sly grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were pining for Volete."
Methos grimaced faintly. "I have the utmost... faith in Volete's ability to look after her own best interests. She has the estate, she has the children, and by now I'm certain that she has every relation of hers in Flanders flocking at the gate."
Dear Volete, lovely and cold as a viper. She was his other reason for being here on this fool's errand. Things had never been warm between them after he took over the lordship of her dead husband, Robert de Boulogne's estate. The lands and titles had been granted to Methos by Godfrey, Count of Flanders after Robert had lost a tournois to Methos and gone mad, killing Methos' horse and very nearly Methos as well. Robert had been arrested, ruled against, and summarily boiled alive for his treachery.
Imagine Methos' surprise to arrive at the estate and find not only Robert's three children in residence, but his young widow, gravid with a fourth. Invited to stay, Volete had been absolutely terrified of displeasing the new lord, and frankly, Methos had never given her any cause not to be. He would have been well within his rights to turn her out, penniless, or to reduce her and her children to little better than household slaves. It was a moment of uncommon sympathy for her situation that allowed her to stay.
He should have known something was up when she began to seek his bed at night. Her sudden yearning for companionship he attributed to loneliness, to need, even to a desire to please him and gain his favor. It wasn't until last winter, when she announced the impending birth of "his" child, that he realized the depths of her deception.
Lovely, treacherous Volete. The Crusade had seemed like a good choice in comparison. She had her lands, her children, and her freedom for as long as he cared to stay away. And he would never return.
Idly, he wondered who the father of her child was.
Sighing dramatically, Benoit had abandoned him with another full tankard of the black, bitter beer, wandering off to pursue more... cheerful companions. The smoke was thickening as more mutton-fat fell into the fire, and some inebriated fool in the far corner had started a round of a popular, and irritating, drinking song. Methos wanted nothing more than to be gone from here, astride his horse and with 1000 leagues between himself and anyone who ever heard the name Simon de Boulogne. If he could have convinced Benoit to join him, he would have left that very night.
The smoke and stench of the fish-oil lanterns made his eyes sting, and the off-key bellowing of that group in the corner was beginning to grate on his nerves. There wasn't enough liquor in the whole of Europe to blunt his awareness of that horrific wailing. He was about to rise and leave when the slobbering drunk seated beside him on the bench chose that moment to fall over, retching sour beer and less wholesome things into his lap.
Irritation flared. Methos lashed out with an elbow as the man sat up, knocking him off the bench. The man landed against another's legs with a grunt and spray of blood from his broken nose. There was a horrible gurgling noise as more blood and vomit flowed out over the third man's boots.
The brawl escalated rapidly after that.
Methos sported the remains of a cut over his eye, the blood covering the right side of his face in an unintended parody of war-masks from earlier days. The fight had spilled out onto the street, men writhing and shouting challenges and denouncements to one another as they pounded any convenient body with fists and feet and whatever weapon came to hand. Methos had already stumbled over one dead body, face down in a mud-hole, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. There was a sweep of Presence in his ears, and fatigue vanished with the accompanying rush of energy. He looked around, seeking out the source of the sensation. He knew it was likely Ehren, but there was no percentage in foolish chances.
"Simon!" A meaty hand clapped over his shoulder and spun him around. Methos swung out automatically, his fist connecting with all the power he could put behind it.
Ehren rocked back on his heels, and looked thoughtful for a split second before returning the blow in kind. Methos went down in the muddy snow, spitting blood and rubbing his jaw, laughing.
"What's that for?" the big Saxon bellowed.
"Because the whores are ugly and the beer tastes like a rat drowned in it." He gathered his legs and sprang again at the other Immortal, grateful of Ehren's presence for the first time on this gods-forsaken trip.
Methos was all innocence. "You were the last one standing. Was it my fault Godfrey assumed you were the ringleader?"
"You could have said something!"
"I did say something; I told him that we were only defending ourselves. We weren't exactly popular in Hungary, you know, and Baldwin was still hostage to our good behavior."
Mac, who had been watching the exchange like a tennis match, finally inserted a question. "Godfrey of Bouillion?"
Methos curled his lip. "Yeah, pompous ass. Faced him once at Canossa when he was in the armies of Henry IV. His brother Baldwin was an ass too, but at least he was an honest one." He drained off the last of his beer, and rose from the couch with one smooth motion. "Anyone want something while I'm up?"
It wasn't long after that Ehren made his apologies and left, perhaps sensing the tension in his old acquaintance, the forced note to the light banter and reminiscences that Duncan had noticed immediately. It was all too apparent that he and Methos spoke almost exclusively to Ehren, sparing only polite offers of fresh drinks and equally gracious acceptances for each other.
Now, with Ehren, and the easy distraction he provided, departed into the damp night, the silence trembled between the two remaining friends. This wasn't how Duncan had expected the reunion to go.
//And are we even still friends; do we even have that to fall back on?// He noticed that neither of them had finished their drinks, unwilling to test this uneasy silence with words, or perhaps afraid of what they might have to say.
There was safety here, in the silence, but Duncan had never been one to cling to shelter and wait for situations to resolve themselves. He drained off the last of his whiskey, as much for strength as an excuse to speak.
"That's the last beer, can I get you something else while I'm up?"
Methos looked up, pulled from his own thoughts. Duncan could see the choices warring behind his eyes.
"Yeah, thanks. Whatever you're pouring is fine."
Generous portions of single-malt were dispensed into heavy tumblers, and he passed one to Methos, their fingers brushing casually. Methos' hands were cold. Duncan deliberately sat at the far end of the soft leather couch, one of his first purchases upon returning to Paris. //If you build it, he will come.// He wondered if Methos were as keenly aware as he was of the many levels of give and take between them tonight.
The uneasy quiet stretched out again.
"I should go." Methos stood with a single fluid motion. "I'm sorry, Mac, I shouldn't have come here."
"Don't go." It was less than a command, but not by much. Duncan paused for a breath, forcibly softening his tone. "Please stay."
"You need a reason?" But Mac could clearly see that Methos did. The company itself was no longer enough of an excuse. "All right. It's late, and we're both tired, and there's no real need for you to wander off in the freezing damp to find a hotel at this hour when it is warm and dry here."
Duncan leaned forward to pick up Methos' abandoned drink and offer it back to him like a talisman. It was a tangible symbol of hospitality, of Methos' welcome here.
"And I would like you to stay." The words fell into the empty air like a charm, the incantation needed to awaken the talisman's power, and Methos took the glass from Duncan's fingers for the second time that night.
The chamber was slightly smoky, smelling of mold and damp wool despite the warmth of the night, the walls a web of tangled shadows in the flickering torchlight. There was no comfort here, no peace that could be handed him with the lands and titles and sturdy stone walls.
There was nothing for him, nothing of him here. Methos' eyes swept the dark walls and faded tapestries. Even now the rich designs were beginning to decay, the household too poor to keep them in repair. If he only stood here long enough, everything would rot away around him. Everything.
He would stand alone in the center of a pile of death and dust, the screams of the dying his only company.
Someone was singing... A soft, light soprano (could he say soprano, had that word been coined yet?) drifted up behind him, and the chamber seemed larger, less like a mouldering crypt and more the woman's nest of drapery and toiletries that it was.
"My lord?" Methos didn't want to see her, to remember the softness of her features, the sadness in her eyes. But the compulsion was too great, and he turned slowly, the whole scene sluggish and surreal in the dark torchlight.
"Volete." She was lovely, as she should be, plump and soft. She smiled at him, her large eyes deep and sorrowful, wary of displeasing him. After a long moment she resumed her melody, lilting and melancholy, a children's song that he had never learned and no one else remembered. Like so many other things, lost to time.
She was rocking slowly in time to the music. He took a step and saw the infant nursing sleepily at her breast, the last son of her dead husband.
*Dead because you killed him,* a sinister voice whispered.
//I didn't kill him.//
*Maybe not, but you were the cause. And here you are, Old Man, in his house, in his bed, with his wife... his children...*
//I didn't know...//
*Would it have stopped you if you had?*
Volete's song changed then, descending into a broken keening as she clutched the child to her chest. Methos stilled her swaying with one strong hand on her shoulder, reaching down to touch the small, blonde head crushed to her. He recoiled instinctively from the moist, icy flesh. The child was dead.
Volete's wailing continued unchecked.
*See? The world crumbles around you, and only you are left unscathed. Everything you touch is destroyed; everything you love dies.*
*Kalanthe, Czigany, Feoras, Meara, Antonius, Lilitu, Portia, Gráinne, Benoit, Dolan, Gaviota, Elinore, Annah...*
*...Lucian, Tsidhqiyah, Iona, Eyslk, Byron, Bennu... Methos the myth,* the voice sneered, *you have no name to call your own, no people, no home. Shelley knew you for who you are, wandering Jew, cursed and alone... No place will ever shelter you, no one will ever love you...*
The shrieking faded in the background, a distant counterpoint to Methos' own harsh breathing and the dreadful rhythm of the voice.
*Cassandra, Feich, Niam, Hlut-heri, Defena, Jens, Bo, Alexa...* The roll of names went on into the night.
Morning came entirely too soon, intruding on Mac's sleep with bright, cheerful insistence that he rise and face the coming day. He shifted and stretched, blinking against the golden light, trying to banish the last muzziness of sleep from his brain. The barge was quiet. The hush was so complete that he could hear the low water sounds from the river and the distant cry of birds.
He reached for the muted hum of Methos' Presence, trying to tell himself that the Old Man had only gone up on deck, or to use the bathroom, but the silence was total. Methos was gone again.
"Damn!" Duncan flung himself out of bed and yanked on a robe, running a hand frustratedly through his hair. If Methos kept on with this pattern, he was going to force Duncan to give up sleep entirely. //Well, not entirely,// Duncan mused. //I could always sleep bodily across him, or chain him to the bed.// He laughed at the image. //Yeah, definitely chains. That has all sorts of potential.//
Ten minutes later he was summoned from the bathroom by a surge of Presence.
"Good morning." Methos came inside carefully, being certain of his welcome before moving to set a large paper sack on the coffee table and shrug out of his coat. "You're up early." He had hoped to be back before MacLeod woke up.
"I could say the same about you. I never marked you for much of a morning person."
"Ah, I have been many things, MacLeod," he intoned playfully. "But you're right about mornings. Once you've seen your first million or so sunrises, they start to lose their appeal."
"I bet. So what's got you out this early?"
Swallowing, Methos pushed aside the remembered scents of torches and rotting stone, the horrible litany of names that had finally driven him from bed and out into the pre-dawn chill. "I just didn't sleep well, and thought I might secure some breakfast."
"Sounds good." Mac moved off into the galley to make some coffee as Methos began spreading the contents of his bag across the low table.
Later, after making serious inroads on what Methos termed "the most miserable excuse for breakfast ever devised by a civilized nation," namely the French staples of croissant and fruit, they sat back, sipping on the last of the coffee.
"You know, I've never understood how the French can be such magnificent chefs, and still get up every morning to this mockery of breakfast. The Irish, now there's a people that can fix breakfast. Guinness in the morning, how can you go wrong?"
"Yeah, but what else do they serve with it?"
"Mac, after a couple of pints of stout, who cares what else they're serving?"
Mac sighed, cradling his mug in his palms. "Methos, don't do this."
"Do what, mock the French? The French need mocking; the English realized this centuries ago."
"Why did you come back?"
Methos' heart began to pound. He had a sudden urge to run, or fight back with humor, sarcasm, anything. Like so many other things, he'd known this talk was coming, just not so soon. "I told you not to ask questions that you really didn't want the answers to."
"What is it? What's so terrible this time? If you're in trouble..."
Methos levered himself up off the sofa, covering his restlessness with the simple motions of refilling his coffee. "Let's not do this right now, please."
"Fine, if that's the way you want it." Mac stood and began folding the blankets tossed across the chair.
The temperature in the room seemed to drop suddenly in the enveloping silence. Why was Duncan's acquiescence so much more threatening than his arguing?
"No." The blankets were set aside and Mac turned, his face stony. "I'm not going to play any more games about this, Methos. Stay if you like, otherwise you know where the door is. No one is keeping you here, and no one is asking anything of you that you don't want to give."
Methos set the coffee pot back on the warmer with a gentle click and closed his eyes. Here was the rejection he'd sought to avoid. He couldn't have engineered this better if he tried.
Gods, his head was pounding; he wanted to run like he had wanted few things before in his life. Methos would rather live out his days with the polite fiction of Mac's friendship intact than have to face this rejection. But he was trapped now. Leaving would kill the strained connection between them as surely as staying would, and he could summon no glib lie to his lips that might appease Duncan. Regardless, he was tired of lying. He leaned heavily on the counter and murmured a reply.
Fine, better to kill it quickly. None of this half-assed piecemeal stuff to leave it bleeding and maimed. Cut clean. Methos drew himself upright, but still couldn't bring himself to look at Mac.
"I said I missed you. There. I have used you poorly, abused what little remains of our friendship, traded on your honor and loyalty, manipulated you with my lies and taken you to my bed for my own selfish reasons. I then vanished without so much as a 'dear Mac' note for over half a year, and now have the unmitigated gall to come back here because I missed you. Was there anything else you wanted while I'm still here, my heart on a plate, perhaps?"
"No, I think that about covers it." The leather upholstery creaked slightly as Mac sat down. Methos still couldn't move, couldn't look at him for confirmation of the damage he'd just inflicted.
"Maybe... maybe I'm asking the wrong questions. I still don't understand why you left like you did."
"I don't know. I couldn't stay."
"But why? I would have said before that there wasn't anything we couldn't face, nothing we couldn't deal with together. Now? Now I don't know. When you walk out that door, I don't know if you're coming back."
Now he looked up, drawn as irresistibly by the heaviness and resignation of Mac's voice as by the words themselves. There was no censure in the dark eyes that watched him from across the room, only an aching sadness. He moved slowly to the sofa, perching warily on the far arm.
"After all that's happened, would you still want me to?"
"You're not the only one that means what he says, Methos," Duncan said, rising. He closed the short distance between them and reached out a careful finger to brush back a stray lock of hair from the pale brow. "You never gave me the chance to tell you... To tell you how much I needed you there."
Methos felt trapped, helpless. This wasn't what he'd expected; he hadn't prepared himself for this. Duncan's fingers traced the contour of his cheek lightly, warmly, making his breath catch and speech become an uncertain thing. He wanted those hands on him, wanted the remembered gentleness and strength of Mac's body, the soft heat of his mouth. Wanted it enough to come here from half a world away, across oceans of silence and hurt. He turned his head away as Mac leaned in to kiss him.
"This is a bad idea." It was a token protest and they both knew it.
Duncan nodded, cupping Methos' chin and guiding him back. "Terrible idea..." he breathed as their lips met.
The kiss was everything Methos remembered, everything he'd fantasized it to be. Teasing, testing, it was comfort and confirmation all in one. How could he have doubted this, feared this? Yearning and joy spiked with a razor edge that healed even as it cut. He groaned and pressed himself deeper into the embrace. He needed to touch, to give, to return the reassurances and soft promises the Duncan made so effortlessly with his kiss.
Could it be this easy, this simple to lose himself in the warm, coffee flavored touch of Mac's mouth and the steady, sure pressure of his hands? Yes... Mac was so real, so solid, rousing needs that went deeper than Methos' body, exposing places in his heart that had long since been shuttered away. He could sink himself in the pleasure of Duncan's touch, the security of his presence. It would be so easy to let Duncan love him.
Until the next time.
That was the thought that shattered him. There wasn't any question in Methos' mind of what Duncan was offering: love, acceptance, family, home... All of the things that Methos craved on various levels. But it was only a matter of time before the next dark spectre from his past surfaced, drawn by the bright flame of Mac's power or the rumors of Methos' existence. There, again was the old question: how much was Mac really prepared to forgive? Methos hoped he was never forced to find out.
He twisted his head to the side, severing the kiss even as he pushed Duncan away with shaking hands. "I'm sorry, Mac. I can't."
Somehow, he got his legs underneath him and stumbled to the door, grabbing his coat on the way. Leaving was the hardest thing he could ever remember doing.
He spent most of the morning wandering blindly along the damp, narrow streets, trying to calm the deep ache in his body and the sucking emptiness in his chest. By early afternoon the former had largely taken care of itself, as these things would, and the latter... Well, he had given up on that as a lost cause. If he closed his eyes, he could almost still feel the fiery imprint of Mac's fingers on his face and neck, taste the lingering warmth of coffee on his tongue. Methos felt like he had been branded, marked so that everyone could see what a coward he was. Everything he had claimed to want had just been offered him in that one, gloriously brilliant moment, and he had reached for it, only to realize that it was faerie-favors. Offered, promised, sincerely meant, but all the same, unattainable. He was chasing a pot of gold, grasping for a nixie's necklace while drowning in the water sprite's lethal kiss. It was a victory of ashes.
Methos was prepared to go on missing MacLeod for the rest of his life.
After the first two hours or so, he'd finally fallen silent, abandoning the string of curses directed at himself, the whims of fate, the perversity of life in general, and (just for good measure) again himself. Methos had by no means exhausted his substantial wealth of foul language, but his heart really wasn't in it, and he was beginning to repeat himself.
Lunchtime found him in a park, silently flicking stale popcorn to fat, insolent pigeons. City birds were all the same, rude and lazy, acting as though French fries and bread crumbs were their gods-given due. He almost smiled, remembering a time when, failing to produce a suitable tribute, he'd been chased across a similar park by a large flock of angry ducks. He'd given only an instant's thought to defending himself against their pursuit before abandoning the notion. It really would have attracted more attention than he wanted at the time to carve up the pond's population with a broadsword, but neither was he willing to stand still for the assault. So he fled, trailing enraged ducks behind him like a police escort. Death, routed by waterfowl: what an image.
Mac would've never let him live that one down.
He sighed, tossing another bit of corn to his "admirers." //Maybe I should start cursing again.//
A tug of Presence in his ears cut off that train of thought, and he looked up, barely interested. Paris was an Immortal Grand Central Station, and no sane person would Challenge him here in the open, regardless. After a moment, Ehren's broad form detached itself from the business-suited crowd and moved toward him, secretaries floundering in his wake like pleasure craft behind a military cruiser.
Ehren stopped just outside the circle of pigeons Methos had acquired, and eyed them speculatively. "I'd give up trying to be the Bird Man of Paris. Doesn't suit you."
Methos shook his head gently. "No, just fattening them up for dinner."
"Hmm... Tasty enough, I suppose, but hardly worth the effort of plucking them."
There was a long pause before Methos replied. "Never thought I'd see the day you'd complain about food."
Ehren smiled at that and waded through the throng of feathered bodies to sit on the bench beside Methos. "That's the truth. In Antioch we paid gold for chickens not much bigger than your friends here."
"Antioch was difficult for everyone." Methos grimaced, unwilling to rekindle the memory of the siege and it's aftermath. Over a year of disease and starvation had left all the knights little more than bone and sinew. It wasn't the worst thing he'd ever endured, but that didn't make it any less difficult to think of the stench of the raw sewage and bloated bodies in the streets, the faces of his friends as they died, one by one, and he survived. As he always survived.
"You know they're still talking about us?" The change of direction was sudden and disorienting.
"Who's talking about what?"
Ehren chuckled deep in his chest, like thunder rumbling. "Historians. Some fool monk, Albert of Aachen, wrote down an account of the battle. He recorded that the Crusaders were assisted by 'an army of saints and their own dead, risen to help them rout the Turkish army,' or some such nonsense." He scratched at his beard, grinning.
Methos laughed, despite himself. "I sincerely hope we weren't supposed to be the saints. No matter. I wasn't going to lie about in the sun, waiting for the Turks to come and collect my head to fling at the walls. The historians can make up whatever explanation for it they want. I just wanted out of there."
Ehren nodded. "Antioch was a cesspool, and a damnable hot one at that," he paused before continuing.
"It was a filthy habit the Turks had, defiling the dead. We all should have stayed, and made sure they and that heathen babble they called a religion were stamped out for good. They've brought nothing but evil to the world." The big man's voice was filled with heat, gray eyes narrowing with real anger as he spat the words. He cut himself off with obvious effort before reaching out a warm hand, clapping Methos on the shoulder and moving to rise. "Come on, Simon, let me buy you lunch. We can catch up on old times."
Methos was silent, disturbed by the changes in his old friend. He tossed his empty bag of popcorn into a trashcan and followed Ehren toward a row of cafes on a nearby street, almost grateful for a chance to focus on someone else's problem. They walked along at a brisk pace, the dark-suited crowds swirling around them.
July 1, 1097
The battle flowed around him like a tide, fluid and irresistible as it carried him along, stripping away all thought in a mad struggle for survival. Here in the heart of the conflict, there were no ideals to embrace, no strategy, no grand tactical plan. Existence was defined one breath at a time, turning from one dying foe before he had even fallen to the ground to block the sword of his companion. If you were lucky, you caught the Infidel's sword with your own, if not, it was your blood watering the sand underfoot.
The air rang with the musical sound of sword on sword, counterpointed by shouts of challenge, and the screams of dying men and horses. Methos' eyes burned as he blinked away sweat and dust and blood, squinting into the early morning sun. There was no way to tell who was winning. If more of the bodies at his feet wore the dusky face of their opponents, well, the Turks had owned the advantage of superior numbers to begin with.
He kicked another body off his blade and left it to twitch on the rocky ground as he spotted a familiar face.
"Benoit!!" he shouted, and began cutting his way through to the young knight. Methos laid his sword about him like a scythe, forcing a path into the circle of chaos surrounding his friend.
"Simon!" Benoit pushed away the last of his immediate opponents and offered a hand to help Methos up the short rise. "If I had known you were coming, I'd have saved a few for you."
Methos laughed. "Careful. Isn't lying a sin?"
Benoit shrugged and shook some of the blood off his sword. "Probably, but I don't see a priest around to scold me for it. Have you seen Ehren?"
Benoit nodded grimly. "I hope he's all right."
"He's fine. The walking carpet can take care of himself, if he hasn't fainted from the heat."
Benoit was willing to take him at his word, and said nothing further as they rejoined the battle. There was no explaining to the boy that if anything permanent happened to the big Immortal, everyone on the plain would immediately know. Methos and Ehren's friendship was forged as much from mutual need for protection as from any commonality of purpose. Accidental beheadings in the midst of an army were high on the list of things to be avoided, especially for the surviving Immortal in range to catch the freed Quickening. Being burned as a demon wasn't one of Methos' favorite ways to spend an afternoon.
Thought was again banished as the world narrowed to the automatic motions of swordplay, his nostrils filled with the scents of dust and blood and steel.
He saw Benoit again, perhaps a hundred yards away, engaged with a small man who was obviously trying to escape. It was a vision that Methos would always remember. Benoit had lost his helmet, and his black curls were dampened with sweat, his face flushed from the heat and exertion as he swung his long, bloody blade in wide, fierce arcs. The dust and sun wreathed him in light. Benoit looked like a god. Methos watched as the Turkish soldier backed away, unwisely moving behind a large warhorse. He sighed, and paused to catch his breath as the scene unfolded. Small difference if the man was cleanly run through or stupid enough to get his brains kicked in. Dead was dead.
The huge gray shifted, sensing the movement behind him, and Methos unconsciously held his breath, anticipating the crushing lash of hooves. The small man jerked his head around, as though seeing the horse for the first time, and swung out a deadly arc with his curved scimitar. But he didn't swing at Benoit, or at the mounted knight.
Methos barely registered the sight of that razor edged crescent sinking deeply into the fleshy tendons of the horse's leg before the sound of the animal's scream reached him. He was running even before the horse fell, crushing both Benoit and the startled rider as it rolled.
"Benoit!!" Not dead, please. No, not dead. Methos knelt beside the young knight, relieved to see familiar blue eyes staring up at him from the suddenly pale face.
Benoit spat a mouthful of bloody mucous and wheezed a curse. "Get this damned animal off me so I can breathe."
Methos nodded, and moved to urge the panicked, struggling animal to its remaining feet. He knew the horse would have to be put down, but couldn't spare any concern for its suffering at the moment; one of the others would deal with it, surely.
"Be still," he commanded as he saw Benoit trying to rise.
"Don't be ridiculous," Benoit wheezed. "I just got the breath knocked out of me; I'll be fine in a minute."
Methos considered for a moment, taking in the scene around them. He sighed, resigned. "You're a fool, but I can't leave you here." He helped him to stand, and pulled Benoit's arm around his shoulders for support.