by Taselby and elynross
//I am far too old for this,// Methos told himself yet again as he stretched, leaning from side to side to ease the stiff muscles in his back. Immortality was really worthless when it came to the little things. Sure, coming back from the dead was a neat trick and a big hit at parties, but you still had to put up with all the little annoying shit: pulled muscles, insomnia, the occasional lunatic with a sword, bad haircuts, shaving, hangnails...
He smiled, picturing Joe's face at that last one. //Yeah, sure. What good is living forever if I still have to condition my cuticles?// Joe would kill him for that one, maybe permanently. He checked his watch and glanced again at the cluster of musicians hovering on the back corner of the stage, tuning with fierce concentration. The set should begin any minute now. He still wasn't sure whether he hoped that Mac would show up, or that he'd stay away. Either choice seemed fraught with difficulties he'd rather avoid. He wasn't quite ready to let go of his injured feelings of the morning.
As if on cue, the deep pull of Immortal presence swept through him, and he stiffened, searching the crowd for the source. It was probably Mac, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks. He wondered if Mac would ever learn that lesson.
There he was. Even with his ambivalence Methos was startled by the tiny pang of foreboding he felt at the man's approach, almost as if he wished it were another Immortal pacing toward him with that dark intensity. Typically, MacLeod walked like he owned everything in sight. Not arrogantly, no, just exuding that lordly air than made Methos so insane, both because it was so antithetical to Methos' own lifestyle, and because he found it so deadly appealing. The man drew attention like a corpse drew flies. It was tough to be invisible next to that. Impossible to be 'just a guy' when you kept company with Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Never mind being his lover, once that became general knowledge.
Although he had to admit, in contrast to Mr. 'I've got a blade with your name on it,' Methos could look pretty damn harmless in comparison. Unfortunately, that wouldn't carry too much weight with anyone seriously hunting. Mac would draw them in, whether he wanted to or not, and Methos would get tangled in the web trying to fly away. As if he could leave with Duncan in trouble. As if he could leave.
Just by virtue of association, Methos was back in the Game, playing for keeps.
Oh, he'd considered leaving, when his anxiety struck. Sometimes it appalled him how unthinkable it was when every instinct in him screamed for him to run as far and as fast as he could. But it seemed as if you had where Mac was, and you had everywhere else. Every time he'd thought about leaving, everywhere else just seemed a bit drearier than the Mac Universe. He felt like a junkie -- a Duncan junkie -- and like any addict, the thought of quitting cold turkey was worse than keeping up the habit.
It had been simpler before, when they were just friends, when Methos could tell himself that he came and went on his own terms. MacLeod was entertaining, diverting. It was just a game, and after all, he could stop seeing Mac anytime he wanted. //Yeah, right. 'I don't have a problem, I can quit anytime I want.'//
He had turned the corner long before that devastating night they'd fallen into bed. Methos wondered just when it was that he'd lost control of this relationship. Just when had he started thinking of himself in terms of MacLeod? MacLeod's lover. Was there no more left of him than that? Did Mac think of himself in terms of Methos? Would it make any difference if he did? His ruminations were interrupted by the voice of the source of his questions.
"I wasn't sure you'd be here." Mac stood beside him, staring at the stage, rigid, like he was braced for a blow. Fair enough.
"I could say the same." He said it as flat and tonelessly as he could manage, betraying none of the hurt he felt at Mac's words. It was a lie, of course. He'd known Mac would come to see Joe, if for no other reason. But Mac hadn't thought he'd be here. God, he really did think Methos would just disappear.
The hard line of Mac's body tightened almost imperceptibly. "I wouldn't miss it."
The silence between them was filled with the buzz of the crowd and the low throb of Vanessa's bass tuning.
"Mac..." Methos' voice trailed off uncertainly as he hunted for words to reassure Mac. "I'm not leaving. I told you that in Paris. I just needed--"
Mac looked at him, and Methos could see the relief in his eyes. "I just-- I'm sorry..."
"For what?" he asked, his air of indifference slipping a fraction. The last thing he wanted to hear was another blanket apology, no matter how sincere. He knew what Mac was talking about; he just wanted to be sure that Mac was as certain. Mac's tendency was to try and fix everything, find some way to take the blame, and Methos was afraid that he was too prone to letting him.
"This morning. Don't play coy with me." A fine edge of anger colored the words. God, he was easy to read, his emotional buttons laid out in all their day-glo splendor for Methos to see.
"This isn't the place for it, Mac." Avoidance wasn't the best path, but it was the easiest. He'd had a lot of practice taking the path of least resistance. He knew he wasn't being fair, but right this minute he'd rather have his toenails pulled out than surrender another piece of himself to Mac's keeping while he was feeling so vulnerable to start with. //Might as well just say here, Mac, have this lovely knife so you can carve out my heart with it.// He held himself still by sheer effort of will, staring at the stage, trembling with the need to run, to save himself. He didn't miss the irony; maybe Mac was smarter then he was.
"No, the cabin was the place for it, but you didn't want to discuss it then, either. We always seem to have the time or the place right, but never both." Mac followed his lead and stared at the stage as if he would burn a hole in it with his eyes.
All of the tension was back, the moment of relief gone as if it had never existed. Why did Mac pick now, of all times, to start pushing? He could feel the tension coming off the other man in waves. Except for the rigid similarity of their postures, they might not even be speaking to each other.
"Funny, how that works out." Indifference was a weapon, and Methos used it mercilessly. The best defense...at least leaves you alive at the end. More or less.
More people filled in around them as show time drew closer. The crowd gave an odd sense of privacy, a feeling of safety. Methos wasn't afraid of the confrontation that was coming, and stealing a quick glance beside him at the Highlander's dark face, he was sure it was coming, but he was very reluctant to face the consequences of it. Mac would push and press until Methos finally confessed what was bothering him, and then...
Then it would be over. No more waiting for the end. He glanced up at the perfect crystal dome of the sky. Deep, transparent blue, cloudless, so pure it looked like it would chime if you struck it with a fingernail. A beautiful, perfect day, and he was preparing for a tempest.
"Are you unhappy, being with me?"
It wasn't the question Methos had been expecting, and it cut into him so cleanly he didn't notice the pain at first. Then he wasn't sure whether he hurt more for himself, or for Mac. He turned his head and saw that Mac was looking at him, staring him straight in the face with that earnest brown gaze that made Methos want to roll over and offer the man anything he wanted. No terms of surrender, no attempt at defense. No quarter asked, none expected. He didn't have to give Mac the knife; he already had it. Anything more was merely Methos offering to sharpen it for him, to position it properly over his chest for the easiest cut.
"It's not about happiness, Mac." He swallowed hard, wishing he'd bought a bottle of water, wishing he could go get one now without looking like he was running again. Despite himself, he glanced down, unable to hold that gaze, another example of his not being able to hold out against Mac. "It's not that simple." Didn't he know nothing was ever that simple?
"Can you explain it to me? Are you bored?"
Methos shifted his weight uncomfortably back and forth on his legs, horribly aware that it looked like he was squirming. Again there was the powerful, growing urge to go, to flee, all of his internal voices insisting that it was the right and proper and sane thing to do. If he only ran and waited long enough, all of this would go away, and they could be happy together. //Listen to me. I sound like a Turtles song. Idiot. Might as well go buy him some candy and a ring. I could give him my letter jacket and ask him to the prom. It would do about as much good.//
"Mac, if I didn't want to be here, I would go." He tried to keep his voice light and sincere.
"That's what I'm afraid of." It was the low, rough sound of MacLeod's voice that surprised Methos. Apology was easy for Mac. He was always ready to accept the blame, the responsibility, when something went wrong. It didn't matter if it was really his fault, or not, he assumed the burden of it and the task of correcting it. It was his nature. Mac wanted to take care of those in his circle...his clan. But admitting a real fear was something else.
"What? My leaving?" He stared at Mac, not quite believing what he was hearing.
MacLeod shook his head. "Not that." He smiled ruefully as he caught himself in the lie. "Well, partly that, but mostly that you will just go, and I'll never know why. I'm afraid that one of these days you'll wake up and step off the face of the earth, and I'll never know what happened. What I did."
That hit too close to home. //Oh, Mac, it's not you, it's me. I don't know how to do this anymore -- if I ever did.// He looked away quickly, feeling too exposed, too transparent to those eyes. Mac knew, he knew how close Methos was to leaving again, to fleeing the closeness that he alternately craved and feared, closer than Methos himself had known. The need for motion bled out of Methos, leaving him cold and drained, even in the bright sunlight. He felt as if he might cry from sheer exhaustion and frustration. Methos was grateful when the music started, and the conversation stopped.
After the set, Mac and Methos were put to work helping the band break down the equipment and move it backstage to wait for the next set. Joe looked at them oddly a couple of times as they moved the stands and coiled cords in silence, but made no comment when they made their excuses and wandered off into the maze of vendors.
Mac kept pace with Methos as they walked, winding slowly through the narrow lanes between the tents and tables. They made a pretense of shopping, but neither of them was really looking at the merchandise. Methos could almost sense the tension radiating off of them, almost feel the words so thinly held back. He was surprised that people weren't bouncing off the waves, steering clear of them. Neither of them spoke.
Once upon a time, the quiet surrounding them might have been companionable, comfortable, savored because they knew there was no need to fill it up with things that were already understood between them. And then they actually tried making a life together. A brief, ecstatic honeymoon and then the cracks started to show. Now Methos realized how little they had in common, how very different their perceptions of everything were. Had he been so blinded by how he felt that he'd failed to see this before?
What had he called it once, Mac's offer of...what was this? Companionship, togetherness, closeness? That seemed a poor choice of words today with the silence so palpable between them, and love was a word they had both shied away from speaking. Faerie favors, that's what it was. Blinded by the glamour, you didn't see the junk in your hand. Being with Mac was like wishing on the monkey's paw. Oh, he got what he wanted, but never in the expected way.
At last Methos stopped, trailing his hand through the cold water in a display swimming pool. The tanned, bikini-clad salesgirl looked up from her lounge chair, but didn't come over to pressure them.
"I've thought about getting one for the loft." Mac's voice was a little too rough to make the small talk convincing, but Methos took it in the spirit it was intended, accepting the peace offering.
"Little small for a pool, isn't it, Mac?" The water felt good on his wrists. He thought about flicking a drop at MacLeod, but decided against it, looking back down into the bright water. The truce was fragile enough. Was it only this morning Mac was teasing him about playing? When had he grown so uncertain about everything?
That got a genuine smile. "Not a pool, a spa. One of those little bathtub models they have now."
"Are you going back to Seacouver after this?" Indifference was a shield this time, instead of a sword.
"I'd thought I might. If you'll come with me."
"Mac..." Methos paused, expecting Mac to cut him off with some verbal protest or reasoned coaxing. The silence continued unbroken as he dried his hands on his pants. The air here tasted like chlorine. Vaguely he remembered that chlorine was a poison. "You know I can't go back there."
"Why, because of Seireadan?"
Methos felt himself tighten at the mention of the name. "Among other things, yes."
"The police." It wasn't a question. "It's been sixteen months. The investigation is shut down, and you were never charged. 'Questioning,' Methos. That's all they ever wanted you for. They ask you if you did it, you say no, and they have to let you go. It's not that big a deal."
"A tidy little homicide, sure. But they're not going to be so quick to let go of a ritualistic decapitation coupled with the demolition of a shopping mall!" Methos spoke the words quietly, trying not to attract attention. "Mac, there are innumerable places in the world that are not Seacouver. I'm sure some few of them even have modern amenities such as blues bars, bookstores, and Wal-Mart. And the police, in these other mythical, unexplored places, aren't looking for me." Methos winced when he realized how close he'd come to confirming Mac's fear that he was leaving.
One eyebrow quirked up, disbelieving. "So, that's it?"
Methos nodded slowly. "I'm nervous enough just being back in the States."
The dark eyes stared through him, leaving Methos feeling like an open book, his pages turning slowly in the wind. It wasn't a familiar feeling, nor a comfortable one. Mac's head tilted, suspicious. "This isn't about the police, is it?"
Frustrated, he turned away. Didn't the man know when to drop a subject? Whatever happened to all that 'live in the moment' Zen philosophy he supposedly absorbed in the East? Let Mac get his teeth into a topic and he was like a terrier with an old wool sock. "I believe I just said that it was."
"No, you let me say that it was. Is this about us? Is that why you won't come home with me?" The volume of the conversation was slowly creeping higher. People swirled around them, the air stinking of hot dogs and beer, sunscreen and cotton candy.
Home. For some reason the word caught Methos off-guard, lodging in his chest and making it ache. "Didn't we already discuss this? If I didn't want to be with you, I'd leave." How many times did he have to say it? Methos wanted to grab Mac and shake him, screaming in his face to let it go. No good could come from this. //It's not my home, Mac. I don't know if I even have a home, anymore. I don't even remember the last time I had one. But oh, I'd like to be part of yours...if you'd only really let me.//
There were too many people for comfort. Methos itched inside his skin, craving silence and solitude. Claustrophobia scrabbled at his slipping control with sharp claws. The anxiety from his dream resurfaced to nibble at his restraint, blending with the impact of the actual crowd to make him feel as if nothing was quite real. He had to get out of here. Stealing another glance at Mac, he decided that the odds of luring him someplace more private to finish this discussion were minimal at best. Another image of Mac gnawing at a sock rose unbidden in his mind.
"Going along for the ride isn't the same thing as wanting to be there." MacLeod wasn't even looking at him, the tone so flat and casual that he might have been discussing the weather, or trading recipes for pot roast, but it hit Methos like a blow.
He stopped so fast that he was jostled from behind by a large woman who glared at him as she herded her brood of children around him. Every affectionate, sock-filled image suddenly vanishing from his mind, Methos was cold all over, his limbs heavy with dread. "Is that what you think I'm doing? You think I don't really want to be with you, that I'm...I'm using you as some kind of combination bed warmer and meal ticket?" He felt as if he'd never be warm again -- and some small part of him acknowledged that his reaction stemmed in part from hearing such things from Mac, things too similar to what he had been feeling about himself, hanging around planet MacLeod.
"Methos, that's not what I--" MacLeod backpedaled.
Anger and disbelief rushed in to fill the frozen void. "Christ, you do, don't you? You think I follow you like some kind of lost puppy, and you're the Immortal SPCA! Like I've got nothing better to do with my time than be your satellite! I've got news for you, MacLeod. I had a life before you came along, and I'll have one after you're gone. You are not the extent of my existence."
Having forgotten to control his voice in the flurry of emotions, Methos saw that they were gathering an audience. He absently noted the curious, faintly disgusted looks on the faces as they tried to act like they weren't listening. "Great!" He spun on a heel and started off between two rows of tents.
A firm hand snapped out and grabbed his arm, pulling him back toward the center of the conflict and the unexpected audience. "Wait!"
"Let go of me," he snarled, every inch singing with the need to lash out, though he wasn't sure who he wanted to hurt.
"Will you wait a minute?"
Did Mac really think that he would stay purely because it was commanded? If the relationship, the friendship, wasn't dead already, it was certainly on life support. And now Mac wanted to stand here in the middle of this circus and dissect the corpse. How much was Methos really expected to give here?
"MacLeod, let go of me now, or I swear we really will give these people a show they'll never forget." He looked significantly at the dark fingers starkly outlined against the pale linen shirt. Reluctantly, Mac released his grip.
"Will you let me talk?" Mac wasn't pleading yet, but he wasn't far from it. Strangely, that just made Methos angrier.
"Oh, I think we've said about enough for one day. Give Joe my apologies."
"Don't walk away from me!"
Methos strode briskly off into the anonymous masses and didn't look back. He just wanted to be somewhere else, some when else. He couldn't deal with this. He laughed bitterly to himself. They sure were making new memories, all right. God, he hated Nevada. Why did people always want too much of him, so much more than he could safely give...
Virginia City, Nevada
"Good night, Elinore." Jerry caught her in a light embrace and kissed her on the cheek. "The stew was delicious, as always."
"Thank you, Jerry. Good night." Elinore moved back quickly and unconsciously smoothed her dress, blushing a rosy pink at the compliment.
"Night, Jack. See you tomorrow?"
Methos shook his head, grinning wryly. "Probably not. Watching Sharon and his cronies cry crocodile tears over Ralston is getting a little old. Besides, there's work I need to do around here."
"More like crying over the Bank of California closing. I much doubt they batted an eye when Ralston washed up in San Francisco Bay." The small man shrugged eloquently. "Can't say I'll miss any of them much when they're gone."
"Nor will anyone, I imagine. I'll likely be by later in the week. Good night." Methos clasped the small, almost delicate hand firmly and watched Jerry stride off into the night, the song of his Immortality fading with distance.
Elinore glanced up from clearing the table. There was something thoughtful in her eyes, but she didn't speak.
He went to help her, stacking plates and cups in the sink.
She smiled. "Stop that. It's woman's work."
"It doesn't hurt me. Save the scraps. Little Mary up the street just got a puppy."
Elinore stopped, looking down at the table. "She's about six now, isn't she?"
He set down the plates with a dull clink, cursing himself. "Elinore, I'm sorry. I--"
"It's not your fault, Jack. It was...a long time ago." She said it lightly, dismissively, but he could see the tension in her pale face and the sudden stiff determination in her movements as she cleaned up the remains of the meal.
Abandoning the cluttered table, he stood behind her, tugging gently on her shoulders until she relented and leaned back on his chest. "Put that down."
For once, she yielded easily, dropping the bowl. It fell with a clatter, scattering the scraps across the wooden counter. Methos held her to him, rocking slowly, comforting her as if she were a child. Dimly, the memory came back to him. Elinore had told him everything after he had proposed marriage one night in the parlor of the D Street brothel: the husband that had beaten her, the infant daughter that had died, her own sense of unworthiness after surviving however she could -- because of how she survived.
In the end, her melancholy strength had won him, and he'd convinced her to come with him to the little house near Chinatown as his wife. A business arrangement, he'd said. She could cook and clean for him, and he would provide a home and a name for her, and his promise that no one would ever hurt her again. It was a promise he'd intended to keep, not knowing he'd break it most often himself, simply because she was so beaten down.
The night after the quiet ceremony at St. Paul's Episcopal Church he had made those promises again.
"While you stay," she'd replied quietly.
"No, while I live." He'd kept his own oaths as best he could, both the public ones in the church and the private ones to her, and did his best to soothe the broken spirit in her.
They had never spoken of love.
And that night, two years gone, had been the last time he'd ever seen her cry. Until now.
Elinore turned and pressed herself into the width of his chest, her shoulders trembling as she silently cried. "I'm sorry..."
"Shh...It's all right." He guided them into the parlor and down onto the small sofa, pulling her slight body back against his chest, rocking her and wiping her face. He was careful not to press her limits, not to offer anything more than comfort as she sobbed, grieving a child eight years dead.
It was half an hour or more before she quieted, lying still against him on the sofa. She accepted his embrace and even returned it, one small arm tucked behind his waist, the other slowly tracing the buttons on his shirt. Elinore looked up at him, her dark eyes red from crying, something serious and purposeful in her expression.
One button was worked open.
"Elinore...?" Even as he questioned her, Methos' body reacted to the prospect, his skin burning with the need to be touched. Oh, he wanted her.
"I'm...I'm not a stranger to it, Jack. Please?" She took a deep breath and slipped another button free.
It was suddenly very warm in the room, and his clothes were much too confining. It had been so long. Still... "Are you sure? I said I'd never force you."
"And you're not. Please?" Another button on his shirt was freed, and her other hand began toying shyly with the band of his trousers. "Don't you want to?"
"Yes..." He reached slowly for the buttons on her dress, watching her closely, but this time she didn't flinch or pull away. "Come on," he whispered, urging her to her feet. "Not here."
He led her to the bedroom, as slow and gentle with her as he could be, his hands trembling with excitement and the force of his restraint. Careful, careful... They kissed and touched, Methos giving her every chance to refuse him as he eased her back on the wide double bed. He coaxed and whispered, stroked and teased, trying to get her to relax, to ensure her pleasure before taking his own.
It was odd and sweet. Elinore was well acquainted with the mechanics of the act, but obviously unused to either consideration from her partners, or their concern for her enjoyment. After long minutes of his attentions she gasped and pulled at him, urging him over her, wanting to complete the connection. In the end, he was unable to bring her with him over the edge of release, one night insufficient to overcome too many years of abuse. He sighed, kissing her tenderly, brushing the sweat-damp curls away from her face. He'd wanted it to be perfect for her sake. Oh, well. There would be time enough to show her, to teach her the sensual delights still waiting to be discovered.
"Are you all right?" He breathed, still lying over her, careful not to let his weight crush her.
"Is it always like that?" He sensed rather than saw her breathless smile in the dark.
"No." He chuckled. "Sometimes it's better."
There was a long pause, and her breath caught in a short sob, the quiet, happy mood turning unexpectedly. "I'm so sorry..."
Concern swelled, and he hugged her to him, kissing and whispering soothingly. "No, that isn't what I meant, shh... There's nothing to be sorry for."
"I'm sorry I made you wait so long."
Again, he brushed away the tears. "Don't cry.You're worth the wait."
He stalked along the sidewalks, the bittersweet memories filling him. God, he should have thought about this before agreeing to come to Reno with Mac. He hadn't thought of Elinore in years, hadn't thought of that helpless feeling, of how he'd alternated between walking on eggshells and treading on glass shards, being so careful not to hurt her and hurting himself in the process. It had been one of his less satisfying marriages, driven by his own protective impulses and a genuine desire to give Elinore a little security, if not happiness. In an odd way, he felt the same way about Mac, not wanting to hurt him, wanting to give him time, but knowing that his own reticence only hurt them both.
And with both of them there was that feeling that there was only so much they could be comfortable with. With Elinore, he'd never even considered sharing his secrets. She'd been too damaged, too fragile. More and more he realized that he'd hoped for more from Mac, wanted to give more, but maybe he wanted too much. Maybe, like Elinore, Mac wanted only things he couldn't give.
He wandered aimlessly through the casinos, picked at the buffets with no appetite. After it got dark he walked the streets, watching the people, seeing the miniature human dramas unfold. He watched the johns cruising the streets, watched the whores transact their business, all of it so simple, so unemotional -- so appealing. A nice, tidy business deal, both parties satisfied, nobody hurting, no claims on either side. When she spoke, he'd already almost decided.
"You look like you could use some company."
Boulder Cove, Nevada
The door swung open silently, spilling pale moonlight across the carpeting, filling the room with the scent of the lake and the low throb of Immortal presence. Duncan watched Methos enter the cabin slowly and stop to let his eyes adjust to the silver-black contours of the room. He watched as Methos dropped his bag by the unused coat-tree with a soft thump and then sighed, falling heavily into a chair, bending to unlace his boots, seemingly unaware that he was being observed.
Duncan watched him, drinking in the sight of him, feeling like the Grinch with a heart grown three sizes. Until the moment he felt Methos coming towards the cabin, he really hadn't expected him to come back at all. Unfortunately, the bands on his heart didn't break; they just hurt like hell. He felt no relief; there was no sense that things would be okay this time. //You are not the extent of my existence.// The words made him ache.
He'd spent the late afternoon wandering aimlessly around the festival, drifting through town, trying to understand it all, trying to figure out what he could do to make it right, knowing that they had to talk. On a whim, he'd bought Methos a copy of "The Cartoon History of the Universe," then almost thrown it away when it occurred to him that he might never have the opportunity to give it to him. Methos hadn't said he was leaving, but...Duncan had hurried back to the cabin at that point, hoping that maybe Methos hadn't picked up his stuff yet. The fact that it looked like everything was still there hadn't reassured him. Methos probably had plenty of practice at just clearing out and leaving everything that didn't matter behind.
He'd spent the next four hours trying to figure out what he would say, desperately hoping he'd have a chance to say something, going over every bit of their conversation, trying to figure out what had caused Methos to explode so he'd know how to approach him -- because it was obviously past time to try and talk things out. Did Methos really think Duncan thought so little of him? Didn't he realize that the exact opposite was true? He wasn't surprised that Methos was leaving; what surprised him was that he'd stayed with him in the first place.
He spent a significant portion of time calling himself every kind of fool for not being what Methos needed, then calling Methos equally unflattering names for being so damn unclear about what he wanted from Duncan. And Duncan knew he wanted something, he just wasn't sure what it was. If only Methos would give him a clue -- one he could understand. At some point he'd realized that he couldn't spend his life waiting like this. Waiting for Methos to come home, waiting for him to leave, waiting for him to decide that he wasn't going to put up with Duncan's possessiveness, his insecurity, any longer.
And then he'd gotten angry. Rather, he finally admitted his own anger, feelings he'd pushed down in hopes that things would just sort themselves out, that Methos would start to trust him just a little bit more. Anger that Methos had left, leaving Duncan to cope with the police and the mall. Methos had never asked, but it had been a close thing that they hadn't arrested Duncan for murder.
And then there were the months of missing him, months of wondering why he'd left, whether he'd be back. Anger at all the times Methos had substituted sarcasm for explanation, silence for communication, remoteness for intimacy. Anger that Methos said he wasn't leaving, but he never acted like he intended to be around for more than a visit.
He had yet to figure out exactly what scared him so much, why the thought of Methos leaving was absolutely terrifying and yet strangely relieving. Maybe it was the idea of having nothing more to live up to. Or maybe it was just that if it was over, he could deal with it and move on, rather than hanging in this limbo of uncertainty.
He hadn't eaten by the time Methos showed up, but the bottle of Scotch they'd had in the cabin had been empty for a good while. His fear and anger, fed by the alcohol, had transformed into a tenuous despair that he tried to keep under control. Perhaps he had more hope left than he'd thought.
"It's late." The words slipped into the darkness like stones into deep water, vanishing quickly into the depths, barely marring the surface calm. Duncan winced inwardly at the sound of his own voice, low and rough with weariness and disuse. He'd meant to sound casual, as if it were his regular habit to sit up till all hours, drinking in the dark, waiting for his lover to return. Instead, he probably sounded like he felt: half dead.
Methos glanced up too fast, locking his gaze on Duncan like a target. His eyes gleamed faintly in the dark, revealing nothing. "I was busy."
The air was perfumed with salt and musk, a light, earthy scent. Duncan took in a lungful of that fragrance and did his best to keep any accusation from his tone, not until he knew what was going on, knowing even as he spoke that he hadn't succeeded very well. "You smell like sex."
Duncan felt the bands rip open so that his heart pulsed with a dull ache, pushing pain through his veins like blood. He was lonely and hurt and numb all at once, so detached from his own reactions that he might have been a voyeur, peering in on these world-changing events. Confused feelings and tumultuous thoughts churned inside him, holding him rigid on the small sofa. Methos hadn't left him even the one small area in which he'd felt secure.
"Why? What the hell did I do to deserve that?" Duncan sensed rather than saw the sharp face harden into that familiar mask. He could almost hear the thoughts rushing behind that impenetrable wall like a hidden waterfall, and the words, when they came, chilled him.
"Now, why don't you refresh my memory and tell me exactly when it was that you got your name tattooed on my ass. Was it before, or after you were handed the bill of sale?"
Duncan fought to control his temper, wanting to understand more than he wanted to indulge his feelings. "Damn it! I don't want to own you! I just--"
"Just what? Just want to know where I go and what I do and who I fuck? If that's not ownership, then what? We're not married, and no matter what you think, I'm not your little kept cabin-boy. We've made no promises here, Mac, taken no oaths."
Even through his anger Duncan felt the pain, waiting for him to calm down so it could express itself fully. It had never occurred to him that it was something they needed to discuss. //Would you stay, if I made you promises?// Duncan wondered. For a moment he felt like he'd say anything, do anything -- if it would all just start to make sense. "I think I deserve better than this."
Methos turned on him. "Maybe it wasn't about you, Mac. Maybe I just felt like a good hard fuck with no complications. Because tonight I didn't want to have to be patient, or kind, or particularly understanding. I told her what I wanted her to do, and she did it. And I didn't have to wait, or understand, or be a goddamned sensitive lover." The rich baritone descended into something cold and lethal, the words snapping out like thrown knives in the dark.
Duncan was inhumanly glad he couldn't see Methos' face. If his face had matched the tone of his voice, he wasn't sure what might have happened, what violence he might have done. As it was, his rage and sense of betrayal gave him something to concentrate on besides his own fear and sense of futility. He flung himself off the sofa, pacing, stalking in the dark. "Why don't you tell me exactly when you decided that you don't give a damn about me, or how I feel? Did you think I wouldn't care? Or are you just looking for an excuse to leave so badly that you don't care how much you hurt me in doing so? Because if you're planning on staying with me, by God it is about me. About us."
Methos just looked at him in silence.
"So, is this some statement of emancipation? You want your freedom, it's yours. I don't want to keep you someplace you don't want to be." The words poured out in a flood of pain and release. They'd never talked about the future, about next week, next month, next year. Duncan had just lived day to day, breathing a sigh of relief each night that found Methos still there, a silent prayer that he'd still be there when Duncan awoke. He guessed he'd always known that sooner or later he'd run out of luck.
"If I wanted to go, I don't need to make up excuses to do it, and I sure as hell don't need your permission." Methos poured the words out like poison. "That's kind of the point, now, isn't it?"
Duncan turned on him, clenching his fists to keep himself from striking out, trying to relieve the deadly anger that was consuming him. "What the fuck do you want from me, Methos? What do you need from me? Tell me what to do, because I sure as hell can't figure it out!"
Methos watched him dispassionately, seemingly untouched by Duncan's anger. "You should have been born earlier, Mac. You'd have made a hell of a martyr. Tell me, what bothers you more: the thought of me with someone else, or the fact that you didn't know where I was? Your little wandering satellite drift off without you?"
Duncan felt an almost overwhelming urge to hit him, and he was grateful that he was far out of arm's reach. He took a deep breath and struggled for calm. "Yes, it bothers me. A lot. Does that make you feel better? Are we keeping score? Should I get a paper and write it down?" He stopped himself before he really got going. Rational, right. The Scotch had been a really bad idea. Too bad there wasn't more. "Christ, you are such an asshole."
"I've had a lot of time to practice."
Duncan leaned heavily on the back of the sofa, staring down at the dim outlines of his hands on the fabric. "Why are you doing this? If you want to leave, then go. If you want to sleep around, I can't stop you. I already know you don't need me. You don't need to come back here and rub it in my face. There are easier ways to hurt me, if that's what you want." Like leaving.
Methos stood there rigidly, then sighed audibly, dropping onto the opposite end of the couch and rubbing his hands over his head. "In all honesty, Mac, I have no idea what I was doing. I wasn't thinking. And-- I didn't do it to hurt you. I just needed--"
"What? What the hell did you need?" Duncan wondered if Methos heard all of the pain and bewilderment in his voice.
Methos looked up at him, and Duncan realized he wasn't the only one in pain.
"What am I to you?"
"What?" Duncan looked up, confused at the sudden change of direction. He'd expected another outburst of uncharacteristically bitter anger, not this wistful, melancholy inquiry. His own anger was still building, and this sudden emotional change in direction was like whiplash.
Methos looked up at him, still speaking in that intense, sorrowful tone. "It's not a complicated question. What am I to you, Duncan?"
"Is this multiple choice, or an essay exam?" Methos didn't respond, probably knowing it for the stalling tactic it was. Duncan wasn't sure what Methos was after. The silence stretched out as he thought about the question and what he knew of Methos. The wily bastard was so many different things...
"I'll make it easier for you. Let's start with what I'm not. I'm not your student."
"No," he had to agree. If Duncan ever thought about Methos in terms of a teacher-student relationship, it was usually the other way around. Without ever trying, Methos shed knowledge like a cat shed hair. It was everywhere and unavoidable that some would be picked up.
"Or your teacher, whether you like it, or not." Methos stood up and began pacing closer in the dark room.
Duncan looked at him guiltily.
"And I'm not your woman." Closer, the deep voice carried an indefinable edge now.
"You cannot shelter me from my past, or protect me from the Game. You can't depend on me for words of wisdom or answers. And you sure can't lead me around like I was on a leash. I'm not your appendage, MacLeod." As he spoke, he continued the slow advance on the stunned Scot, who retreated step by step until he was backed against a wall. Duncan could smell the salt on Methos' skin and the raw, earthy tang of sex that still clung to him.
"No. I don't want you to be." His response was barely a whisper. There was something both threatening and arousing about the way Methos leaned into his space. Again, Duncan was struck by the difference between his perception and reality. Methos was big, suddenly aggressive, predatory. Dangerous.
A tiny jolt of fear, real fear, thrilled through Duncan's body, a single electric line through his chest and gut, down his spine straight to his groin. Oh, God. His anger dissipated, he was hard, more aroused with every breath of the sex-scented air that rolled off Methos in waves. He wanted to drop to his knees and pull Methos' cock into his mouth to see if he could taste the woman he'd fucked earlier, see if he could push this Methos, this wounded, wounding man, into losing control, into burning through all the hesitancies and restraints they'd put on around each other for far too long.
"So what am I?" This was the third time the question had been asked, and this time the ritual demanded answer.
"I... You...you're..." he swallowed hard, struggling through his body's reactions for the words to describe exactly what the old Immortal meant to him, knowing that in ancient times, an incorrect answer to a riddle often meant death. Taking a deep breath, he settled for honesty. "I don't know who the hell you are anymore, Methos. I thought I did, but I don't know who you are right now."
A grim smile touched Methos' lips, but he didn't relent.
"And that's a hell of a question to ask me after you come home after fucking some whore. What's this about? What did you need tonight?" Duncan took a breath and forced himself to finish the question, hating the hard, needy sound of his own voice. "What did you need tonight that I couldn't give you?"
"Someone a little more willing to let me be in control for awhile, maybe." The ache in Methos' voice did nothing to soften the harshness of the whispered words.
Duncan reeled, trying to understand. "Is this about coming back to the States? About this morning? If you didn't want--"
"Yes? If I didn't want, what would you have done? Left me alone? Come on your own and left me to my own devices in Paris? That didn't seem to be an option you were willing to give me." His emphasis made Duncan blush guiltily. "And that's beside the point, anyway -- or only a symptom. Let's start simple, Mac. What about what I do want?" Methos pressed closer, sliding a hand down to curve around Duncan's hip, a leg sliding between Duncan's thighs. "What about this morning?"
Guiltily, Duncan's mind flew back to that morning. Was it only this morning? He'd known...he'd known what Methos wanted, what was being asked of him, and he'd rejected the advance peremptorily, unable to go through with it. Even now he wasn't sure why. Maybe it was just another symptom. How many other times had he done that, dismissed Methos without considering how it seemed to him, just acted on impulse, without thinking? No wonder Methos felt like he was just tagging along.
Looking at him now, Duncan again saw how strong Methos was, how powerful. There was no softness in his gaze, no sign of backing down. Duncan licked his dry lips, wondering what had happened to the easy-going, amenable man he'd lived with all these months. Wondering if he'd been right in saying he didn't really know Methos at all. Wondering why Methos had kept this from him -- and realizing suddenly that he hadn't. He hadn't hidden it at all; Duncan just hadn't wanted to see it. Hadn't wanted to deal with it. So Methos had offered him exactly what he thought Duncan could handle and then waited for the time his lover would be ready to take more. Given the reprieve, Duncan had happily settled in to play house -- his house, his world, his rules. And because Methos hadn't left yet, Duncan had assumed he was happy. Small wonder that he accused Duncan of wanting to own him. Apparently Methos had grown tired of waiting and was looking for a down payment for his patience.
"This morning." Duncan swallowed thickly, fear and arousal pinning him in place as surely as if he were nailed to the floor. "You want to..."
Methos leaned in closer, not touching but still so near that Duncan could feel the heat pouring off of him. "Yes, I want to. Can you say it, Mac? I want to fuck you."
He breathed, forcing himself to say the words. "You want to fuck me..." He felt a shiver of anticipation.
With those words, the lethal mask slipped a bit, and there was a glimmer of the familiar Methos, his Methos, underneath, intense and tender. "That's part of what I want. Yes, I want to be inside you, to take you...I want to show you how good it can be. Sometimes, Duncan, just sometimes, I want to be in control. I want you to give me control. And I want to feel like more than someone who's following you around because I can't seem to leave."
His Methos he could talk to, not those other angry, bitter masks he wore. Not that other man who lashed out blindly, screwing strange women at a moment's notice. "You could have told me," he whispered hoarsely. "I didn't know it was so important to you." Duncan wasn't sure if he was lying, or not, but at that moment it didn't matter.
"I didn't think I'd have to spell it out, Mac. I thought it was pretty clear." Methos slowly placed one hand to either side of Duncan's head, caging him there against the wall, the plaster cool against his back. "And you're willing to do that for me, just because I want it?" Methos tilted his head, looking at him almost curiously.
Heart hammering like it was about to burst, Duncan took a shallow breath of that sex-flavored air, feeling Methos' cock hard against him, and knew he'd do anything Methos wanted, anything at all. He rolled the word out into the dark between them, feeling a tremendous relief. "Yes."
Methos leaned in to capture his mouth, slow and sweet despite his earlier claims of rejecting that softness. Duncan opened to the exploration, the kiss gradually deepening as they waded out into these untested waters. He imagined he could taste the lingering flavor of the woman Methos had been with earlier. One long, denim-sheathed thigh slid between Duncan's legs with insidious pressure, and his breath caught, his eyes closing. Excitement and fear were a potent cocktail, making his head light and his limbs heavy. The warm room was suddenly cold and airless, his heart thudding in his chest, lungs screaming for oxygen faster than he could draw it in. God, he wanted this, wanted Methos. Wanted to give him this.
Methos pulled back slowly until they were no longer touching, and Duncan felt chilled all over at the loss of that heated contact. Duncan's mouth was hot and swollen, achingly empty, abandoned. He opened his eyes slowly, looking up to see that same cold, curious look in Methos' eyes, as if he was untouched by their kiss. Their eyes locked, faces defined by shadows. Methos shook his head slowly, never losing contact with Duncan's eyes.
"I don't think so, Mac. I lost my taste for rape long ago, and I have no use for a martyr." Methos pushed himself away from the wall and walked off into the other room.
Duncan remained there against the wall, trembling, feeling burned, branded. After long minutes he heard the shower running.
Methos leaned forward and let the inadequate flow of hot water drizzle down over the top of his head. //God, you are such a selfish bastard,// he accused himself. Here he was, taking again as he was always taking. Mac had never done anything lately but give in the only ways he knew how, and selfish bastard that Methos was, he wanted more.
The girl tonight had been lovely and pliant, accepting his use and abuse of her body without complaint or hesitation. He was gentle, and she smiled at him. He was rough, and she thanked him for it. He sweated and strained and sought his own pleasure with no thought of hers, commanding her with monosyllabic grunts. Turn, up, yes, hard, fast, no, suck, yes, there...
He'd finished, crying out internally at the emptiness of the exchange, physically exhausted and emotionally dead. He'd finished, and she asked to be paid. So much simpler, when you knew their price up front...
Virginia City, Nevada
Morning came with a blast of cheerful yellow sunshine and the smell of coffee. Methos stumbled out of bed with every intention of finding the person responsible for scheduling morning so early in the day and killing them. Preferably killing them quietly, with a minimum of fuss, and then going back to bed. With Elinore.
The floorboards were cool under his bare feet as he pulled on his trousers and followed the enticing smell to the kitchen.
He blinked, double-checking the identity of the small, radiant woman bustling about covered in flour, cooking pancakes. Ultimately it was the familiarity of the shabby blue apron that identified her.
"Good morning." Elinore pressed a hot cup of coffee into his hands and motioned for him to sit while she finished up, turning back to the heavy cast iron skillet and the golden cakes rising there. As she glanced at him over her shoulder he saw the first completely unguarded smile he'd ever seen on her face.
"Good morning," he replied, still somewhat stunned.
He watched her, fascinated at the transformation. He might have sworn that his Elinore had been stolen in the night and replaced with this gay creature, like a changeling in an old faerie story. She bounced, she hummed, she turned the flapjacks like she'd never seen one before.
The misshapen cakes were set in front of him, along with a small can of warm syrup. She sat across from him, sipping her own cup of coffee, watching him eat with more concentration than the activity warranted. He ate, still looking to her for clues on how to proceed. If he hadn't known better, he'd have said that she'd poisoned the pancakes and was looking for the lethal effects of her handiwork. Her dark eyes drifted, losing focus, and a flicker of confusion crossed her face.
Methos lowered his forkful of semi-liquid pastry. "What is it?"
To his never-ending surprise, she blushed, smiling up at him shyly. "What do you think we should name him?"
His turn to be confused. "Name who?" Did she want a puppy, like little Mary? They could get a dog. He thought there was a new litter at Kirby's house...
The brown gaze again lost its focus, her voice low and dreamlike. "The baby. What should we name the baby?"
His flesh crept coldly across his shoulders. "Elinore..."
She shook her head and laughed, smoothing her hands down her waist and over the threadbare apron. "Oh, I know it might take a few months before we can be sure, but Jack..."
"You want a child?" He knew better than to ask the question, especially when he already had the answer he needed. His voice betrayed him, though, and the words fell from his lips. His fork struck the plate with a clatter.
Pure confusion in Elinore's face, like he was speaking a foreign language she had never heard. He could see the tension in her arms, the delicate muscles standing out as her hands twisted, out of sight in her lap. "Well, yes. Don't you? Isn't that why...?"
Something low in Methos' chest began to ache at her simple confession. She craved a child, a son of his body -- not him. He could well imagine the babe, grown to a man. He might have been tall, like himself, with the fine bones of his mother and her sad, intelligent brown eyes. Dark hair and his own unfortunate nose, a love for books and no skill for cooking. A man who would never hold a sword in his hand or know the smell of war.
It was a game he had played when he was younger, with other wives, imagining their children. This feature of his and that of hers...How they would grow and who they would marry and what trade they would follow. And privately, in his own heart, Methos grieved for them, just a little. Mortal children of mortal mothers, doomed to fade and die, if only in his imaginings. He had stopped playing that particular game long ago. There was enough real grief in the world.
Elinore, poor fractured doll, broken-winged bird. He would have given her anything -- travel, home, safety, promises of his heart, his love, if she had asked it -- anything. And she craved the one thing he could never provide.
He wasn't sure if he hurt more for her sake, or his own.
Apprehension grew in her nervous posture and expression as the silence drew out. Birds sang outside the window, but the sunlight was cold on his neck.
"Jack, what's the matter? Don't you want a child?"
Methos pushed away from the table, needing distance, space, motion to absorb some of the restless feelings rising in him. He'd known better than to ask. Briefly, he thought about lying to her and pretending to try for a baby. He could let her have the fantasy and pick names. He could even go so far as to build an extra room on the small house for the infant that would never come. And he knew there would never be one. Elinore would never betray him that way, filling her womb in the bed of another man.
He leaned hard against the counter. It was too cruel to lie to her and let her hope. "There won't be any children."
He could hear her face falling, the denial and disbelief in her voice. "What do you mean? Of course there will. I'm not barren. I've...I've had a child before."
"There won't be any children, Elinore. It's me. I can't give them to you."
"Are you sure? How can you know?"
"Because I know. No children. I'm sorry." If he repeated it often enough, maybe she would believe him. He couldn't look at her, couldn't bear to see the heartbreak in her face.
When at last the silence compelled him to look, he expected to see any number of things -- tears, grief, anger, even hatred of him for denying her the only thing she'd ever really asked for -- but there was little expression on her face at all. She stared down at her clasped hands with haunted eyes, pale and fine as a porcelain doll, so still she might not have been breathing.
"Elinore? I'm so sorry..."
She stood and began clearing the table with steady hands. "Can I get you some more coffee?"
Methos shook his head mutely, stopping when he noticed that she didn't look at him. "No, thank you."
She bobbed her head in what might have been a nod. "Excuse me then. I need to take care of the mess."
The next few weeks were consumed in a fury of scrubbing and canning. The apples were ripe, and the squash. Elinore baked and preserved and canned until the pantry shelves were full, and then she just stacked the brimming jars on the floor. Apple jelly, apple butter, preserved pie filling, quart jars of cider, some set aside unsealed to ferment, and every manner of vegetable she could eke from the late-season garden found their way in beside the tomatoes and apricots and pickles and corn. She made him four new shirts, a knitted scarf for the winter, and scoured everything that would hold still, until her knuckles bled. In some places the floorboards were bleached white.
She rose before him and frequently retired after, even when he urged her to rest, never complaining. Dark circles showed under her eyes, but she waved off his concern, answering only, "It will snow soon."
The weather remained unseasonably warm and dry. Elinore never sought Methos' physical attentions again, or accepted his touch for more than a moment.
And if she ever cried, he never saw it.
He felt the rush of cool air as Mac came into the bathroom, like Daniel into the lion's den. He put another checkmark on Mac's side of the invisible scorecard he was keeping tonight. Mac was either braver or stupider than he'd thought, and he'd never made the mistake of thinking Mac was stupid. He didn't look up from his contemplation of the tiles as the door closed behind him.
"Get out," he commanded harshly. The last thing he needed was to feel those sorrowful, brooding eyes on him. He felt badly enough. Maybe Mac was right, he was just looking for an excuse to get out. Funny, he'd never thought of himself as a coward.
The silence resumed, absorbing the words completely, as if they had never been spoken. His ears were filled with the steady hiss and gurgle of the hot spray on his head. The bathroom door didn't open again. He thought about revising his opinion of Mac's intelligence. //To Hell with it.// He grabbed a rag and began scouring himself clean, brutally scrubbing away the stench of the prostitute and her cheap perfume.
She had left him exhausted and angry, more at himself than anything else, and feeling grimy, dirty down to his bones. She hadn't had what he wanted. Fuck, he didn't even know if he knew what he wanted anymore, except to be away from here, from his own claustrophobic neediness. He deserved everything Mac had thrown at him, but he couldn't seem to admit that, couldn't seem to expose himself that badly, even now that things had begun a desperate, inevitable spiral downward. He scrubbed harder, washing his hair with the bar of soap rather than fumble for the shampoo bottle.
Rinsing quickly, he shut off the water with a vicious twist to the taps and flung open the door, reaching for a towel. Mac was sitting on the toilet lid, waiting.
"Haven't we said enough?" Methos made no attempt to disguise his tiredness. The towel was far too soft to give him the raw, nearly flayed feeling he was looking for. He scrubbed harder, trying to rub away the panic that was setting in.
Mac stood, the rigid, angry posture of his body completely at odds with the desolate sound of his voice. "When are you leaving?"
Methos halted the motion of the towel through his hair as the feeling flowed away from his hands. Already faintly sick from sleeplessness and general turmoil, he'd been looking forward to finishing his shower, exchanging a few more snipes with Mac, and going to bed. The sudden shock as Mac's words registered made his head throb. He didn't know why he was surprised, after the exchange they'd had, but he found he was. "Are you throwing me out?"
Mac shifted, the flow of thoughts clear on his face as he struggled for words. "Methos...you're obviously unhappy here with me. I'm not what you want; I can't give you what you want. Just do me the courtesy of telling me before you go."
Methos stared at him, not quite believing what he was doing. He dropped the towel on the floor, the words flowing angrily before he even realized what he was saying. "God damn you, you self-righteous prick! Don't you dare go all noble and self-sacrificing on me! You'd like that, wouldn't you? Do the good and right and proper thing and let me out of this relationship, be the one to put your own wants aside, take the blame, and say goodbye so that I can ride off into the fucking sunset and find true happiness. It's not that easy this time, Mac; you don't get to have the high ground."
Mac colored angrily, losing some of the tense restraint in his posture as his voice rose. "I'm not looking for the high ground! I just...I can't do this anymore. You said it first. We haven't made any promises here; we've never made any promises to each other! There's no reason for you to stay if this isn't what you want. It's not doing either of us any good, and I'm sure it won't be hard for you to find someone to give you a better time."
Methos winced at the bitterness of the last remark, the silence lying between them like a chasm. One by one his shields slammed into place. He would not show Mac how much it hurt, knowing that it was better for Mac if he left. Every detail of the tiny room was shockingly etched in Methos' awareness. The moist heat of the air, the sharp, green scent of the soap, the cheerful yellow tiles covered with a fine film of mist, even the textured weave of the bathmat under his feet would remain with him, perfectly preserved in his memory. He was absurdly naked, weaponless, underdressed for the occasion in the extreme. Mac blocked the only exit, stalking back and forth across the doorway like a caged cat trying to convince itself that the dish of meat being offered was poisoned.
Watching him pace, seeing the harsh lines of his face, Methos wanted to grab him and slam him against the wall, try to knock some sense into him. //You are what I want, all I want! Can't you get that through your thick, stubborn head?// But Methos had done an excellent job of making sure Mac wouldn't believe that, hadn't he? His head began to pound again. Immortals shouldn't have to get headaches. He felt himself shutting down, moving into straight survival mode. You couldn't survive if it hurt too much.
"Fine. I'll be out of your hair as soon as I can get dressed." Methos went back to drying his hair.
Mac's voice was rough and quiet, rubbing against Methos' nerves like gravel on a scraped knee. "I'm sorry, Methos. This-- It isn't what I wanted."
"You and me both, Duncan." More blanket apologies, absolutely sincere and equally meaningless. Methos pushed past him into the bedroom and began jerking on his clothes in the half-light spilling from the bathroom door. Refusing to look at Mac for fear he'd just fall apart. Such a delightful, maddening combination of keen insight and stubborn blindness. Times like this he wasn't sure whether to kiss him or slap him.
"Where will you go?"
Methos glanced up, lacing his boots with sure fingers even in the inadequate light. "I'll find someplace."
Mac looked hesitant. "All the hotels are full."
"Like you said, I'm sure I can find someone to entertain me."
There was a long silence, and when Mac spoke, Methos almost bled at the thinly disguised pain in his voice. "Don't go like this."
Methos closed his eyes, shutting out the beautiful sight of him. This was harder than he'd imagined it would be. "You know I can't stay like this."
There was nothing Mac could really say to that, and he didn't even try, watching silently as Methos gathered his bag and walked out, shutting the door behind him.
...though he'd never seen it, the place was familiar, as were the low sounds of animals and the sleepy murmur of the nearby village preparing for the dark. He was cold, the damp, tall grass tickling his legs with icy fingers as he followed a single beacon through the gathering dark, the faint, golden light from a farmhouse promising warmth and companionship, shelter from the night, food and drink.
A girl's scream cut through the gloom, stripping away the somnolent lassitude of the scene.
Suddenly he was running, heart racing, flying over the low meadow, the firm mud giving under his boots, the grass clutching at his legs, trying to slow him. He had to be faster than this, had to get there in time... He needed to run, to be there, to help the girl, but no matter how fast he ran he seemed no closer...
...and then he was inside, searching frantically for the source of that cry. It was dark and smoky, and...red. Fire and shattered crockery and blood, everywhere blood. Too much blood and destruction for one body. How many had died here? It looked like a slaughterhouse. The metallic reek of it hit him like a blow, overwhelming him, making his stomach churn even as his eyes continued searching, combing the dark, red room.
Motion and a swatch of yellow hair were enough to spur him to action, yanking on the shabby tunic and long hair of her assailant and pulling him away. Reed-thin, the man weighed less than nothing as MacLeod flung him aside. Blood, so much blood... The girl was dead, covered in blood and bruises, her dress torn and bunched around her waist, blue eyes staring sightlessly, one slender arm twisted at an impossible angle. Her beautiful face was shattered, bearing the stark imprints of wide knuckles.
He was too late.
Rage and helpless hurt mingled; it was hard to breathe, hard to see with his eyes flooding. He whirled on her attacker, ready to mete out punishment then and there. The pathetic, reedy little man hadn't moved, hadn't tried to run. He just sat there rocking and keening, covered in her blood. MacLeod jerked him up again, tearing the rotting fabric of the filthy tunic, dragging the man up to face him. Wide hazel eyes stared at him out of the sharp, blood-spattered face, uncomprehending.
MacLeod dropped him with a reflexive jerk, as if he'd discovered himself to be holding something unclean. He shouldn't be here, couldn't be here. He looked back to the body to confirm what he already knew...
Only to see Methos, his Methos, lying in her place, broken and bloody, wide eyes staring sightlessly.
"It's all right, Mac."
Confusion made his head swim as he turned again to face that other wretched specter who had resumed rocking on the dirt floor, hugging his skinny knees, long, matted hair obscuring his face. MacLeod reached out, and Methos flinched away from him, staring at the sword suddenly in MacLeod's hand.
MacLeod dropped the katana like a snake. "I won't hurt you."
The eyes still stared at him, flicking briefly to the corpse behind him before returning to their steady regard. "Won't you?"
Only then did MacLeod realize he was covered in fresh blood.
Duncan woke to find himself sitting bolt upright, staring down at his outspread hands. He was shaking, still expecting to see crimson stains on his chest and arms. Falling back to the pillows, he waited for his racing heartbeat to calm, the dream still vivid in his mind. What the hell was that all about? Hadn't he come to terms with Methos' past yet? Or was it even about his past? The dream kept blurring into the bitter exchange of the night before, and with Methos gone, there wasn't much point in dwelling on that. Duncan closed his eyes. He kept seeing the injured, yet resigned, look in the dream Methos' eyes, making him feel vaguely guilty, which made no sense. Wasn't he the one who'd been hurt? He tried to make sense of things, but he found he just couldn't deal with it right now, couldn't stay in the cabin a moment longer. He climbed out of bed and washed quickly, throwing on some clothes.
With a mixture of determination and regret, he abandoned the confining spaces, overcrowded with memories as they were, and walked up the highway that skirted the Lake. Looking out over the blue perfection of the water and the light mist that still clung to the far shore at this early hour, it was easy to imagine that it had existed thus, inviolate, since the inception of the world, set down by the hand of some benevolent deity. A mirrored sapphire placed amid the rugged glory of the Sierras.
Standing 6200 feet above sea level and reaching over 1600 feet deep into the heart of the mountains, the Washoe Indians of the region had had no name for it, calling it only "tahoe," their word for lake; for them it needed no other label. It was fitting, now, that the entire world called it such. It was Tahoe, the Lake, as if there were no other lake in the world. He'd always loved the Lake. He wondered if he could stand to come back.
Almost blindly, he turned in to a small roadside diner, absently noting the sign, "On The Rocks Bar & Grill," as he pushed open the old-fashioned Dutch door and followed the smell of food inside. His stomach growled as it took keen notice of the scents of eggs and pastry, syrup and smoked meats and coffee. He'd missed dinner last night, as his stomach was quick to remind him. With a sigh, he yielded to its insistent demand and waited for a seat.
It was crowded but quiet at the tail end of the breakfast rush, the diners appearing to be mostly locals, reading their newspapers and books as they finished the last of their juice or coffee. Scattered about were a handful of tourists, sunburned and excited, chattering and waving cameras, or peering intently at roadmaps, jotting notes on napkins. A young man in the back corner sported a T-shirt from the rival music fest up here, the Jammin' Jelly Jazz & Blues Festival.
"You ready? Just one?"
He snapped out of his crowd-watching daze and nodded, following the hostess to a side booth in the no-smoking section. He slid across the cracked vinyl seat and accepted a place setting from her. Leaning on one hip, she tiredly recited the specials from memory and handed him a menu. "Beth will be with you in a minute."
"Thank you," he called to her back as she trudged off with the same weary gait.
The menu was everything he expected: traditional breakfast fare at inflated, tourism-conscious prices. He was still trying to decide between the hash-brown skillet and the pancake combo when Beth appeared at his elbow. "You ready?"
He glanced up at her. The phrase and inflection must be some sort of waitress rite of passage. Beth was everything the hostess was not. Caught somewhere between youth and middle age, she was lovely in a dark, peasant way, despite the dowdy uniform. She shifted restlessly on her feet, but gave the impression of being eager to get his order rather than expressing impatience at his silence. Propping a hand on a full hip, she looked earthy and fertile, motherly and sensual in a pagan way. She would have been a captivating beauty if she took better care of herself.
"Mister?" She adjusted her glasses and smiled at him, and he revised his opinion. She was a beauty now, yellow apron and all.
"Uh... no. Can I have a few more minutes, please?"
"Sure thing. Thought I'd lost you there. Don't blow my record for me, okay? I haven't had a customer die in, oh...'bout a month now." She squinted playfully at him and brushed back a stray wisp of dark hair. "Get you some coffee while you think it over? Juice?"
"Coffee, please." She blushed when he smiled at her. Then she went off to fetch the decanter with a bouncy, ground-eating stride, her feet barely seeming to touch the carpet.
He resumed staring out the window, filling his eyes with the landscape and trees, not quite able to glimpse the water from this angle. He was spectacularly unsuccessful in not thinking of Methos. Being brutally honest with himself, it had been almost a relief to wake in an empty bed this morning, even with the shock of the dream, as if the other shoe had finally dropped and he could let go of the nervous anticipation of waiting. Methos had left him.
Methos was gone. He tried out the phrase internally, testing the edges of it like a new blade. A remarkably numb feeling followed, as though the past year had been a dream. No...if it were truly over between them, it would be as if the past eight years of the old Immortal's company had evaporated. Methos wouldn't be coming back now, or in a decade, or ever. He'd never tease Duncan about his chivalry, or poach his beer, or leave his books spread over the coffee table. He'd never again wake Duncan in the small hours of the night with kisses, pressing an erection into his hand.
The thought left a surprising void inside him, a loneliness he hadn't expected, a sharp grief. It felt uncomfortably like Methos had died. He twisted away from that thought, flashing on the body from his dream, remembering the painfully tender kiss they had shared last night and the cold abandonment when Methos had left to shower. He should have pursued the matter more forcefully, should have kept him from leaving and...
And what? He had offered what Methos said he wanted. He had wanted it himself! If that had truly been his need, the lack he felt, Duncan was sure that he'd have found himself tumbled to the floor and taken in short order. No, whatever it was, it wasn't just the sex. He was sure that the quiz about Methos' role in his life lay somewhere near the heart of it, but Methos being Methos, he seldom gave a complete or wholly accurate answer to any question. Even the right question. And Duncan was beginning to realize that in a very real way, Methos was right -- it wasn't all about Duncan. It wasn't all his fault, and he couldn't just fix it, no matter how much he might want to. And unless Methos opened up some more, decided to work with him, it was probably best to just let it go. And since when had he done what was best for him?
The rounded silhouette of the waitress hovered once again off the end of the table, offering more coffee. She smiled knowingly as she refilled the cup. "Need a little more time? You're welcome to take as long as you want."
"No, that's fine. Can I have the pancakes, please?" He'd lost his appetite, but he knew he'd only regret it later if he didn't eat something. He almost laughed at the irony of it. Survival was the first order of business. Methos would be proud. And he'd need all the energy he could muster.
He didn't really think he'd be able to find Methos if he had decided to disappear like he had last year, but he knew, too, that he'd never forgive himself if he didn't make the attempt. He'd start with Joe.
Circus Circus Hotel & Casino
Even before he opened his eyes, he knew it was going to be a rough ride. Usually he went from sound asleep to wide awake with little effort. This morning, however, his eyes didn't seem to want to cooperate, and his mouth tasted like something had crawled in and given birth before dying. Sinking back into sleep seemed the best option, but he knew it wasn't going to happen. He sighed and stretched, giving his eyes a few more moments to adjust, reaching for the warm body that should lie stretched along his back. When he felt nothing but empty space, he realized that Duncan must be in the bathroom, where he heard running water, but something about that idea felt wrong.
Full awareness returned quickly as he lay still, searching his senses for what was out of place. His head swam faintly with what might have been a hangover in a mortal, but any amount of liquor sufficient to make his head groggy the next morning would likely have killed a mortal several times over. God...what had he been thinking last night? Oh...Mac. He pressed his head into the pillow. Maybe if he smothered himself and died, his head would feel better when he came back, and he could avoid the morning after recriminations that were sure to take place. Then his eyes shot open as he figured out what was wrong: the silence in his mind that was usually filled with the song of Mac's Immortality, something he didn't really notice unless it wasn't there. And it smelled wrong, too. Everything smelled wrong. And if he'd stormed out on Mac last night, then who...
Still feeling groggy, Methos looked around the room. Oh, God, had he let himself be picked up? The mood he was in, he wouldn't put it past him to have done such an incredibly stupid thing. As he sat up, he realized that he was considerably less clothed than he had been the last time he'd been aware of such things. And peering under the blankets, it got worse: no, these were definitely not the boxers he'd been wearing the night before. He dropped his head on his knees, hunting his memory for curses sufficiently creative and vituperative to curse him for a fool. When he was done, feeling somewhat more clearheaded, if no better, he glanced dazedly around the room, looking for clues to what had happened. His bag was on the floor by the bed, which explained the change of underwear -- in part.
The guitar was a good clue. //Joe. Has to be Joe.// And he knew nothing would have happened with Joe. Unless it wasn't Joe. It wasn't like Reno didn't have a superabundance of musicians at the moment. He glanced around for his clothes, wanting something to put between him and whoever was in the bathroom, but there wasn't a sign of them. Sighing, he began composing an apology. //Gee, Mac, sorry I was such an asshole last night, can we work it out? Well, yes, I did actually mean most of the things I said, but...// No, he'd have to do better than that. He was genuinely sorry they'd fought like that, but the underlying issues were still there and would have to be addressed eventually.
A gruff, sleepy voice drifted from the bathroom door. "You feel like talking about it?"
Methos turned his head too fast, and the room spun dizzily. "Joe?"
Joe tossed a wadded-up towel behind him. "That's me, in the flesh."
"Joe, I...ah..." He fumbled for the right words to say, at the same time fumbling in his mind for a clue as to what he'd said the night before, how much Joe already knew. "What happened to my clothes?" Stalling. That was good.
"You put back more alcohol last night that any seven men could do. It was pretty impressive. You really want to know what happened to your clothes, or will you just take my word that they needed washing?"
"Well, when you put it that way..." Methos swallowed, vividly imagining the potential state of his clothes. He owed Joe much more than a simple thank you for this one. Reaching for his bag, he glanced over at Joe. "Okay if I use your bath?"
"Isn't it a bit late to ask, after we've already slept together?" Methos' felt his face freeze, and Joe laughed. "Calm down, old-timer. Hell, I'm not even sure you were still breathing when you hit the mattress. And even if you were my type, and you aren't, necrophilia is not numbered among my private pleasures. Get up and get dressed. The stuff you had on last night should be back from the laundry soon. And don't worry, you get to pay for it. I'll get us some breakfast, and then you and I are gonna talk, my friend."
A hot shower, clean clothes, and black coffee went a long way toward calming Methos' sense of dread and soothing his throbbing headache. It didn't matter that the alcohol was long since purged from his system. This headache was purely stress-induced. His neck felt like a column of steel cables, all knotted and strained to the breaking point. Any more pressure and he felt as if his head might literally fly from his shoulders of its own accord.
//Well, it would certainly save Mac the trouble of killing me himself,// he thought. That had been a lovely scene last night, so perfect in form and content that he doubted he could have consciously planned it any better. One of their best! Pity it had achieved almost the exact opposite of what he really wanted. Of course, what had he expected, showing back up at the cabin, obviously reeking of sex? They'd never actually talked monogamy, but he knew it had been assumed. He'd just...well, it was a hell of a blow for freedom, he could say that much. God...Nobody rattled him like Duncan did. He'd been feeling more than a bit guilty, but as soon as Mac spoke, all Methos' good intentions went out the window, and he went on the defensive. Why was it that every time they really needed to talk all of his careful, thought-out, reasoned arguments went straight out the window, and he caught himself shouting insults and accusations? //Let's be fair, it's not every time, just every time it's important. Personally important,// he amended. //Save the world? Sure, no problem. Talk about problems, or something I want? No way.//
He jumped a bit, startled. "I'm sorry, Joe, what?"
"More coffee?" The decanter was waggled in his direction.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks." The coffee was hot and black and entirely too strong. He deliberately burned his mouth on it, using the pain as a focus. //This is real,// he thought. //This is pain, not the insignificant little whining MacLeod subjects me to.// The problem was that he didn't believe it himself.
Joe sipped from his own cup, observing Methos over the rim with eyes that saw entirely too much. Methos was spending a lot of time feeling transparent lately. "You had quite a lot to say last night," he remarked, apropos of nothing visible, entirely too casual.
The room was suddenly cold and too small for comfort. Methos felt like the chair was shrinking, sinking into the bland carpet. "I did?"
"Yeah. Man, I'm still trying to figure out what language you were cursing in. Whatever it was, it was loud and sounded like you had to hack up a hairball." Joe's tone was still deceptively light. They might have been at the bar discussing baseball, or Methos' latest musical interest, or imported beer. He sensed rather than heard the steely reproach underlying the words themselves.
"I don't suppose this was here, was it?" He gestured at the hotel room, knowing it was too much to hope for.
Joe snorted indelicately. "In your dreams. You gave everyone at the bar who was willing to listen an earful. Combination language lesson and relationship advice. Dave came and got me about 3:30."
Gripping the coffee mug, Methos winced inwardly at what wasn't being said. He had made a royal ass of himself last night, and it had been up to Joe to rescue him from it and make sure he didn't get relieved of his inebriated head in the bargain. Thank you didn't begin to touch the debt he owed this man. "God. No matter how long I live, I never cease to marvel at my own capacity for self-humiliation."
"Well, you were certainly in rare form last night. So, what are you going to do?"
Methos blinked and sipped at the road tar masquerading as coffee. "About what?"
"It's a little late to play coy on this one. Those few friends and associates who hadn't figured out you and Mac were sharing sheets had that oversight corrected last night. When are you going back to face the music?"
"Don't you mean 'are you going back'?"
"No, I mean when. I was content to stay out of it this time, but you had to go and put me smack in the middle by getting me dragged into it last night. So, when are you gonna get out of my hair and go make nice?"
This coffee had to be penance for a mortal sin in some religion. "I don't know if I can go back, Joe. I may have burned that bridge last night."
"You want to talk about it?" He leaned forward across the small table, all sincerity.
Methos eyed him dubiously. "You really want to hear it?"
"You can spare me the sordid details, but yeah. Sometimes it helps to talk about it. Besides, I think you owe me the story for the room and board last night." The Watcher turned away for a moment, ignoring the pre-measured filter-packs provided with the room to scoop his own blend for a fresh pot.
"I can make that, if you like..."
"Sit down. You complaining about the coffee?"
"Didn't think so. Now, you were saying about you and MacLeod...?"
Methos shifted restlessly, finally yielding to the urge to stand and pace, seeking some comfort in motion. "I really don't want to talk about this right now, Joe."
"Fine, but you're going to have to talk about it eventually. If you leave it for later it'll only fester." Joe paused. "Unless you're planning on just leaving. You willing to give up like that?"
"Sometimes it's easier, Joe." Methos could feel Joe's eyes following him around the room before he spoke again.
"Is that how you've survived so long? Doing what's easiest, over doing what's right? Or doing what you want?"
Methos looked at him sharply. "What do you know about what I want?"
"I don't know what's happening between the two of you that makes you feel a need to get soused and publicly hack up hairballs at 3 a.m., but I know this: until recently Mac was happier with you than I have seen him in a long time. Since Tessa. So were you, for that matter. You're like a couple of teenagers in love. For your own sakes, and the sake of everyone caught in the blast radius, work it out."
Methos tossed back the last of his coffee with a grimace. "Love, or the lack of it, was never our problem, Joe."
Frustrated, Joe scratched his beard, looking up with those eyes that seemed to see everything. "So, what's the trouble?"
"You know how they say love conquers all, Joe? Well, they lied." Turning away again, Methos touched his wrist. He'd left his watch in the bathroom last night and grasped at the chance to change the subject. "What time is it? I have to go. You playing again today?"
"No. Got a set tomorrow at 4:00."
"I'll be there." Avoiding Joe's eyes, he didn't stop to pick up his clothes.
He stopped at the door, reluctantly. "Yeah, Joe?"
"Love doesn't do the fighting. It just defines the battle zone."
Methos paused a moment before moving out the door. "Thanks, Joe. I'll see you around."
He made his way out of the hotel, wincing at the bright sunshine. It took him awhile to find out where he'd parked the night before. Things were coming back to him in bits and pieces, and though it wasn't quite as bad as Joe had led him to believe, it was bad enough. He seemed to remember Vanessa in there someplace, telling him he really didn't deserve Mac. He was willing to concede that she was right. Mac would definitely be better off without him, whether he admitted it or not. And at least his failings wouldn't cost Mac much more than a few restless weeks, months at most. Sometimes the cost was so much higher...