Maurice’s dark, smoky cabaret was practically vibrating with sound. The last note of Joe Dawson’s killer solo still seemed to be echoing off the walls as the applause in the crowded club reached deafening levels.
Cramped in the limited space at their packed table, Methos stretched his long legs out in front of him and slumped a little to the side to get a better view of the stage. His shoulder banged up against the burning wall of muscle that had been keeping him warm on these cold winter nights.
He couldn’t help it. He looked over, the lure of Duncan MacLeod far more irresistible than even the finest music he’d heard this century.
The contact had obviously caught Mac’s attention as well. His eyes dancing with joy, a grin on his handsome, five o’clock shadowed face, the madly clapping Scott glanced over at him.
MacLeod’s smile changed, mutating to something less brilliant, softer and more intimate. Due to the bar’s overcrowding, their faces were mere inches apart, perfectly aligned for a kiss. With that frightening awareness that operated between them, Methos saw the same thought occur to his lover.
Shocked, he saw Mac actually consider the idea. Those dark eyes moved from Methos to Ritchie Ryan on Methos’ other side, then over to the two women beyond Ryan. MacLeod seemed to seriously calculate their chances of getting away with it, before his better sense prevailed. Instead of kissing him, Mac slung an arm across his shoulders and squeezed him tight, mouthing the word ‘later.’
Methos breathed a sigh of relief. Ritchie had just hit town this morning and they hadn’t gotten around to telling him about this new phase of their relationship yet. Even though Methos didn’t have any real affection for MacLeod’s young protégée, he didn’t think it fair for the kid to find out through a public kiss.
Not that such scenes were exactly Mac’s style, either, but MacLeod never ceased to amaze him. He never knew what Mac would and wouldn’t do.
To be honest, the fact that Mac was still sitting here like this, after more than three months of non-stop loving was a daily source of wonder.
The clapping eventually died down. The house lights came up, temporarily blinding everyone. Excited laughter, conversation and chair scraping replaced the applause as the patrons turned back to their tables.
Methos turned back to his own. Mac’s arm let him move, but once he was settled, the Highlander rested it against the back of his chair in a gesture that could have been casual, but wasn’t.
Methos knew he was a sap, but he loved the little ways Mac found of letting him know he was still thinking of him without throwing their new relationship in everyone’s face. MacLeod had a style that Methos had rarely seen the likes of. Though Mac never embarrassed him in public, there was never any sense of hiding what they had. It was there for anyone to see, anyone who knew them well enough to make the connection.
“Great show, hah, Mac?” Ryan leaned in close to shout his question over the din.
“Yeah, Joe was hot tonight,” Mac answered back, his smiling eyes moving to the foot of the stage, where Dawson was still surrounded by an adoring crowd.
“Speaking of hot, it’s gotta be ninety in here,” Ritchie commented, draining his pint and reaching for the pitcher. His black leather jacket was slung over the back of his chair. Even without it, his tight black tee shirt was stained with sweat
Duncan was just as soaked. He’d peeled off his outer layers and was looking gloriously steamy in an equally tight, pale gray tee shirt. His five o’clock shadow gave Mac a stubbly, rugged air that that scruffy Yank with the wrinkled linen suits and no socks who’d been so popular a few decades back would have died to own. The Highlander’s loose brown hair was beginning to drip with sweat, like it would at the peak of passion. And, that was so not an association Methos needed to make in this very public venue.
He shifted in his seat, his black jeans suddenly a size too tight in front. Unable to credit how aroused just looking at Mac was making him, Methos took another sip of his beer and dragged his eyes away from MacLeod. The empty chair near the wall was nowhere near as absorbing, yet even there Methos found something to focus him on Mac. MacLeod’s gray fisherman’s sweater and both their coats were there saving a seat for Dawson. The tangle of the garments struck Methos as deeply significant at that moment, seeming to illustrate how deeply and effortlessly their lives were meshing.
Realizing how impossibly sentimental that thought was, Methos’ gaze moved from his beer mug to the near empty pitcher on the table as he attempted to calculate how much he’d consumed. He was not pleased by the result. Two pints was not a sufficient amount of alcohol to cause that type of blubbering sentimentality. Next thing, he’d be wanting to exchange friendship rings with MacLeod, and wouldn’t Mac laugh himself sick over that?
Well, possibly not. It wasn’t as though he was the only one suffering these embarrassing impulses. But, MacLeod didn’t seem to find any of it embarrassing: not the stigma that came from loving another man, the baggage of Methos’ past, the sex or the tender streaks that hit both of them at unexpected moments. MacLeod had been as upright and honorable about their affair as he was about all else in his life, and Methos loved the man for it, with a depth and passion that terrified him.
Loving Mac this way, caring so much about another Immortal still scared him, but at the moment, Methos was doing all right dealing with it. It felt good to sit here and see his lover so relaxed.
Good, but unbearably warm. The heat and closeness of the room getting to him, Methos tugged at his collar. He was the only one of them still properly dressed. Though he felt like he were wearing a parka in a sweat lodge, the russet Henley he’d borrowed from MacLeod’s wardrobe was going nowhere. Old habits died hard. He’d rather be covered than comfortable.
“Damn!” Ritchie swore. He stopped pouring as he got a mugful of beer foam.
“Tough luck, kid. Looks like this round’s on you,” Methos laughed.
Ryan grimaced, looked around the packed pub, then shouted, “Francine!” to their waitress – who from all indications would be spending the next three hours taking drink orders at the bass player’s table.
“I’ll go get it from the bar,” Ritchie groused, sounding like he was going to have to walk to the brewery in Germany for the ale.
Methos shook his head as he watched the redhead disappear into the crowd. Ryan might live to be a thousand, but he had the kind of personality that Methos knew would never change. A hundred years from now, Ritchie would probably still be an annoying adolescent, providing he kept his head that long.
“Hey,” MacLeod leaned in close to be heard, “how are you doing?”
“Good beer, good music, good company…it doesn’t get much better than this, MacLeod…at least not in public,” Methos amended at the wicked arch Mac’s thick left eyebrow made.
“You’ve been awful quiet since that phone call yesterday afternoon,” Mac went on, straight-forward as ever when it came to tackling problems. “Is everything all right?”
Methos sighed. In times past, he was inscrutable, a mystery to even MacLeod. But these days he was an open book to his lover. He wasn’t sure if he liked being that obvious, but since Duncan never took advantage of his transparency, Methos supposed he could live with it.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Methos answered. “It was just the department head from the University. He, ah, wanted to know if I could teach a course this summer when one of my former colleagues goes on sabbatical.”
The last was hesitantly voiced. Until MacLeod had brought up the phone call, Methos hadn’t been certain if he would even broach the subject with MacLeod.
Methos’ priorities were clear, if not entirely logical. Being with MacLeod was of paramount importance right now. All else had to get in line behind that, even his current livelihood.
Teaching that summer course could put obstacles between them, the biggest being an ocean separating them. Mac usually wintered in Paris and returned to Seacouver in May. If Methos had simply kept silent on the matter, the classes he was currently teaching would have ended right around the time MacLeod normally flew home. He could have just followed Mac back, like he had the past three years. But that was back when he was with the Watchers, when he had a steady salary coming in. These days, his teaching was supporting him. Doctoring the poor for two centuries and his academic obsession for the millennia and a half before that had made him a better human being, but it had done little to enhance his bank accounts. He had several holdings to his name and a modest savings, but he was nowhere near as financially secure as MacLeod. He couldn’t take off for months on end anymore. The three months he’d spent hiding out after Bordeaux had put him in serious financial states.
And yet, despite his real need to teach that class, he was reluctant to make an issue of this.
For all of Duncan’s avowals, they were still living day to day, in love, in Paris. There was a certain magic to this city that got in everyone’s blood, allowed passion to take precedence over logic. But sooner or later, real life always intruded, even in the city of lovers. Methos had been determined not to rock the boat until absolutely necessary. If that meant refusing an attractive job offer so that he’d be free should MacLeod have to pull up stakes and head back to the States, so be it. Right now Mac was more important than keeping a roof over his head.
“What did you say?” Mac asked, referring to Methos’ conversation with the department head.
Methos looked for the telltale tension that would reveal Mac’s feelings on the matter, but MacLeod simply appeared curious, neither threatened nor stressed. It wasn’t at all the expression of a man whose life was about to be upended by someone else’s life choices. In the past that would have meant that the person Methos was with didn’t care if he breezed out of their life, but Methos knew better than to make that assumption here.
“I told him that I’d get back to him on it.”
“I thought you enjoyed teaching those philosophy classes,” Mac said, looking confused.
“I do, but…” Methos hedged, a little unnerved by MacLeod’s calm.
It shouldn’t be this difficult, Methos told himself, swallowing hard. He hated making assumptions, hated making plans. But…Mac needed him to trust him and they’d both agreed on honesty. More than that, there was a part of him that wanted very much to trust Mac, to be sure enough of their relationship to bank on it instead of just accepting everything as it came.
Taking a deep breath, Methos checked to make certain that the two blonde women who’d been crammed between their table and the next were out of hearing distance before he quietly admitted, “I enjoy being with you more. I thought if you were called back to the States, that I might come back with you for a while…”
His words seemed to hang there in the air like the tobacco smoke clouding the room. Methos’ heart was pounding at breakneck speed, the fear factor phenomenal.
For a moment, Mac looked as though he’d had the wind knocked out of him. Then the Highlander’s face gentled into that familiar, gut-wrenching expression he wore when they were in bed. Clearly seeing him far more thoroughly than Methos ever liked being known, MacLeod answered in an equally subdued tone, “Take the job if you want it. There’s nothing in the States that can’t wait – indefinitely, if need be.”
Methos swallowed, his relief almost leaving him weak. Mac hadn’t let him down yet. But MacLeod had such a self-sacrificing streak in him that Methos had to be certain staying wouldn’t be a hardship. “You’re sure it won’t be a problem?”
“We’re together now. If we’re gonna stay that way; we’re both gonna have to make adjustments in our lives. Right now you have a career that requires you to stay in one place for a while. I don’t. My business can be conducted here as easily as the States.”
MacLeod’s expression made it plain that this was no sacrifice to him, but rather something he’d expected, perhaps even planned on.
It wasn’t the first time the Highlander had adjusted his life to accommodate a lover. Methos was reminded of MacLeod’s Chronicle, the part where Dawson had mentioned MacLeod moving to Paris when Tessa Noel became curator of an art museum. Methos had seen how deeply this man loved, how totally Mac gave his whole self to love. But reading facts and being a spectator on the sidelines was quite a different experience from being the person to whom Duncan MacLeod devoted himself. Being on the receiving end was…like nothing he’d ever known.
There was a part of Methos that knew that he simply wasn’t worthy of this. He was no Tessa, no Little Deer. The only thing pure about him was the love he bore MacLeod. That this good and noble man could be equally attached to him was incomprehensible. But…for whatever reason, MacLeod did love him. As long as that was true, Methos was determined to die trying to live up to his lover’s expectations.
“Thank you,” the words came out as a strangled whisper. All Methos wanted to do at that moment was fling himself into Mac’s arms, the crowd be damned.
Mac shook his head, his loose brown tresses sliding over his broad shoulders in a glossy cascade. “Not for that-“
“Heads up, guys,” Ritchie Ryan warned seconds before he plunked a too-full beer pitcher down right in front of them.
Duncan and he both jumped like startled cats.
For the few minutes Ryan had been gone, nothing had existed in the world for them but each other’s eyes. While that was a wonderful thing in itself, it could get them into trouble. Ritchie Ryan was another Immortal. There was no way the kid should have been able to get that close without Methos sensing him.
Ryan, being the perspicacious observer that he was, didn’t say a word about the scene he’d interrupted. Though, to be fair to the kid, it wasn’t all due to Ryan’s faulty observation skills. Maurice’s had a standing room only crowd tonight, and there wasn’t much floor space left for even that. Every available inch was crammed with blues lovers. The canned music had started again, a classic twenties Bourbon Street sound that was hard to think over, let alone talk through. The bar was so loud that everyone in the place had to lean close as lovers if they wanted their conversation to be heard, so maybe it wasn’t that strange that Ritchie would fail to notice anything amiss, even if Joe had sussed them out on their very first day together. Privately, Methos suspected that Ritchie would have to catch MacLeod and him in flagrante delicto before Ryan would buy a clue.
Methos still wasn’t sure how they were going to handle tonight. Neither he nor MacLeod had been home when Ryan had arrived at the barge. The kid had stowed his gear at Mac’s like Ryan always did when he was in Paris, so now they had one of those awkward social situations on their hands that Methos had spent thousands of years learning to avoid.
Were he with anyone else, Methos would have expected to be put on hold until Ryan left, but he knew Mac well enough now to be fairly certain that wasn’t going to happen. Methos wished that he and Mac had had a chance to talk, but their schedules hadn’t allowed it. When MacLeod and he had made their planned rendezvous at the club tonight, they’d found Ryan waiting with a very amused Dawson.
“Marty said that there’s a record company representative here tonight,” Ritchie said, sliding into his chair and reaching out to refill all their mugs.
“Thanks,” Methos acknowledged Ryan’s pouring.
“Joe’s been hot enough to interest a record company, that’s for sure,” Mac said, tilting his own empty mug towards his student. “So what’ve you been up to, Ritch?”
Ryan’s broad shoulders shrugged. “Still traveling, tryna figure out what I’m gonna do now that the racing’s panned out.”
“Public deaths are such a bummer,” Methos softly interjected, too low to be heard by anyone but his two Immortal companions. His words earned him a sour glance from Ryan and a nudge in the ribs from Mac.
“Joe tells me that you’re not with the Watchers anymore,” Ryan commented in an equally low voice. “What’s up with that?”
Methos glanced at Duncan, genuinely surprised. He knew that Ryan had visited MacLeod right after Kronos and company had died in Bordeaux. Methos had been certain both Ryan and Amanda must have been told about Methos’ past and the events of last spring. He’d figured Amanda had lived long enough for her to accept his less than sterling past. But seeing Ritchie’s genuine curiosity, Methos realized that Mac had kept his secret, even when they weren’t even talking. That kind of restraint was nearly unheard of. Methos didn’t know anyone who could have resisted the opportunity to vent like Mac had. No doubt talking out of school like that would have violated MacLeod’s chivalric code or some other equally incomprehensible point of honor. Whatever the reason, Methos appreciated his lover’s restraint.
Touched, Methos fielded the question, “It was time to move on. I’d been there over ten years.”
Ritchie winced. “You figured that sooner or later someone was bound to notice you still looked twenty-four?”
Twenty-four? Did Ritchie really think he’d died that young? He’d been closer to thirty when his master had finally done something his Pre-Immortal constitution hadn’t been able to endure.
“Something like that,” Methos said, wondering if MacLeod would take issue with his evasion, but Duncan let the topic pass unchallenged. Uncomfortable with being the object of discussion, Methos turned the tables, coincidentally bringing the topic back to their problem at hand, by asking, “So, how long are you staying in Paris, Ritchie?”
“I don’t know. A couple of weeks, maybe. Thought I’d hang around until the weather got warmer,” Ryan answered, stretching out and taking a slug of his beer.
“Ah, we might have a problem there, Ritch,” MacLeod said.
Methos could see that his friend was uncomfortable addressing this subject in so open an area. “Perhaps it would be best to wait until later to-“
“No, now’s as good a time as any,” MacLeod answered.
Methos shrugged. Ryan was MacLeod’s student. It was his lover’s call to make. So long as the kid didn’t embarrass them all in a public scene, Methos couldn’t really care less what Ritchie Ryan thought of him.
“What’s up, Mac?” Ryan asked, finally tuning into the mood of the two elder Immortals.
His attitude regretful, Mac softly admitted, “This really isn’t a good time for me to have company. I’m sorry.”
With that infectious good humor that was grounds for beheading in Methos’ opinion, Ryan grinned and instantly assured, “No problemo, Mac. Joe offered me his couch when I blew in this afternoon. No wonder he looked at me so weird when I said I was bunking in with you. Where’s Amanda? She usually doesn’t miss Joe’s shows.”
Methos and Mac vented the same weary sigh at the same moment.
Mac glanced at him, shared a small smile before his face grew serious and he returned his attention to Ritchie. “Amanda’s not here, Ritch.
“So who’s the new lady in your life? What’s her name?” Ryan’s totally wicked grin gave his face all the appeal of a leering jack-o-lantern.
“There is no ‘her.’ Adam’s been staying with me,” MacLeod offered, an expression of almost laughable expectation on his handsome features.
Clearly, that was Duncan MacLeod’s idea of coming out.
To say that Ryan’s response was completely anti-climatic would be a gross understatement. The kid’s affable face remained completely unaltered as he turned to Methos and said, “Oh, yeah? Your place being painted again?”
MacLeod was sitting cattycorner on his left now that they’d turned back to the table, so he could see his lover’s responses out of the corner of his eye, even though he was focused on Ryan, who was seated on his right. Methos almost laughed at Mac’s dismayed wince. Of course, Ryan hadn’t gotten it.
Methos gave a slow shake of his head, almost enjoying this. Density like Ritchie’s was rare among their kind, but in Ryan’s defense, the kid was young, even by mortal reckoning of age, and, beyond that, it was Duncan MacLeod they were discussing. This wasn’t exactly a conclusion that anyone who knew the Highlander would leap to…ever.
His voice taking on that leading, irritating nasal tone that was no-doubt supposed to be humorous, Ritchie questioned, “So, you’re bunking in with Mac because…?”
“Because the prospect of leaving a warm bed at two o’clock in the morning to hike across town through the snow is less than appealing,” Methos smoothly replied.
“Damn it, Adam!” Mac exploded beside him as Ryan’s jaw all but dropped to his knees.
“I’m sorry, MacLeod. He was not going to get it any other way,” keeping in his chuckle took Herculean effort. The kid still had this stunned look about him, like he wasn’t sure what he’d heard.
Ryan turned to the more sympathetic MacLeod and persevered with, “So what you’re saying is that Me…Adam is staying with you, but the couch is still vacant?”
“Yes,” MacLeod confirmed with the patience of a saint. That it was important to Mac that Ryan support him in this was clear from the tense set of those chiseled features.
“And this is, like, not a joke?” Ryan checked, his expression as pathetically hopeful as Mac’s had been a moment before.
“Nope,” Methos drawled, waiting to see how Mac’s young protégée would jump on this.
Ritchie was a curious character. The kid could be as pig-headed and idealistic as a certain Scot they were both inordinately fond of, but Ryan also had a prosaic streak to him that Methos could only hope his lover would develop. A child of the streets, Ryan didn’t have to be taught caution. He knew the world was a dangerous place and people were rarely what they seemed. Ryan’s rough upbringing could give him a lais sez faire attitude towards his teacher’s new relationship or Ritchie could follow in MacLeod’s footsteps and judge them by his own morals. The fact that Methos couldn’t predict which course Ryan would choose spoke well for the kid. Despite the hero-worship going on with MacLeod, Ritchie had managed to maintain his own sovereignty.
Were he the sensitive type, Methos probably would have been offended by Ritchie’s shocked, “You and him…?” but since Methos wore pretty much the same look in the mirror nine out of ten mornings these last three months, he supposed Ryan could be forgiven.
“Yes,” MacLeod repeated once again, then asked the same question he had of Dawson the night they’d laid Mike Paladini in his grave. “Is this going to be a problem for you?”
Whereas Joe’s response had had true significance to Methos, he couldn’t be bothered with Ryan’s. Except…it would upset Mac if Ritchie spurned him, and for that reason alone this stupid twit of a child had better answer correctly.
Ritchie looked at MacLeod like he’d grown a second head. “A problem? No, but you just gave me a heart attack here. Give a guy a chance to recuperate, okay?”
Ryan took a deep gulp of his beer, his brown eyes straying from one of them to the other with a totally incredulous expression.
“I guess it’s none of my business how this came about, huh?” Ryan asked.
“Bright boy,” Methos applauded before MacLeod could go all honest and forthright on them.
“You, ah, you’re happy?” Ritchie asked MacLeod after a long moment, as though that was really all that mattered to him.
Someday he might be secure enough not to have to observe MacLeod’s response to that kind of question. As that day was still very far off in a murky future, Methos was watching Mac as closely as Ryan was as the Highlander nodded and answered, “Very.”
There was an air of peace around Mac as he made his admission that was almost palpable.
Sap that he was, the warmth that spread through Methos at Mac’s prompt response had him smiling over at his lover. He turned back to find Ryan staring at him with an indecipherable expression on his face.
“What?” Methos demanded with his usual testy bite.
“Nothing,” the humor in Ryan’s gaze belied the word.
“Then kindly stop gaping before I remove your eyes from your head,” Methos said, losing patience.
“Cranky, isn’t he?” Ryan courted dismemberment by asking of MacLeod.
Mac shrugged. A conspiratorial air coming over him, he leaned towards Ritchie and said, “He didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Biting back his laughter, Methos watched a fiery red blush rise from Ryan’s cheeks straight down his neck. Score one to MacLeod.
Though outwardly he maintained his annoyed front, Methos was secretly pleased. The byplay was very typical of MacLeod and Ryan’s normal teasing.
Ritchie opened his mouth to say something, but then Ryan’s gaze left Methos and MacLeod to settle on someone approaching their table. Methos hated to sit with his back to the door like this, but with the over-crowding, he’d really had no choice tonight.
A quick glance showed that it was Dawson who’d distracted Ryan.
Ritchie greeted the graying Watcher with genuine affection, “Hey, Joe! You rule, man! That was some show!”
“You were wonderful, Joe,” Mac seconded.
“Robert Johnson would have been envious,” Methos added, reaching over to clear their coats away so Dawson would have a place to sit.
“Thanks, guys,” Joe blushed, taking a seat.
Seeing that Joe’s brown tee shirt was as drenched as their own, Methos guessed that his friend’s throat was probably parched from all that singing he’d done. Without a word, Methos passed his half-finished beer to Dawson.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Joe acknowledged, draining the pint and reaching for the pitcher.
“It’s a big crowd tonight,” Joe commented, eyeing the standing room only audience.
“Good music has a way of doing that,” MacLeod said.
They fell quiet for a time, all four of them seeming to just enjoy being with each other.
Finally, Ritchie broke the quiet with, “So, Joe, you didn’t tell me why I was gonna be needing to borrow your couch tonight. I hope the offer’s still open.”
“It is,” Joe assured, his eyes glittering with amusement as he asked, “So they told ya, huh?”
“Yeah. Gotta admit, I still can’t believe it,” Ryan said.
Joe nodded, “You’ll get used to the idea. It sure beats having them snarling at each other every five minutes.”
“I suppose,” Ryan agreed, looking none too sure of that fact.
“We are sitting right here, you know,” Methos reminded.
“Of course, you are. We wouldn’t…what’s up?” Joe broke off whatever he’d been about to say to ask as MacLeod, Ryan and Methos all simultaneously straightened in their chairs and began searching the crowd.
“You expecting anyone?” Methos asked of MacLeod. The Highlander was like Immortal Central. Every one of their kind seemed to have some type of business with MacLeod.
“No,” Mac answered, his dark eyes roving the bar. “Ritchie?”
All that annoying Howdy Doodie enthusiasm was absent from Ryan’s attitude as he shook his head ‘no.’ Suddenly, Ritchie looked as tense and deadly as any Immortal in a first contact situation.
Taking a deep breath, Methos tried to focus on the new signature, but it was difficult to filter it out, what with Mac and Ritchie sitting so close. Whoever it was, he or she was fairly powerful, and probably a few millennia old. The buzz had that kind of ancient resonance to it. The stranger wasn’t even in sight yet and the room was ringing the way it usually would when someone with Cassandra or Kronos’ age arrived.
Methos’ guts constricted at the very thought of Cassandra. He didn’t think she’d be gunning for him, but he hadn’t survived five millennia by taking his safety for granted. Still, he’d been in Cassandra’s company within the last year – recently enough for him to recognize the signature of her presence. This did not feel like her.
Normally, this would be Methos’ cue to leave. However, there would be no fast exit tonight. There were so many people jammed into the club to hear Joe play that it had to be a fire violation. The crowd would make it impossible for him to get to the backdoor unnoticed. He’d rather face a hostile unknown with a wall at his back and MacLeod at his side than to brave the crowd with a vulnerable back.
So Methos sat stone still in his chair, feeling every drop of sweat slide down his face and back as he waited.
The mob blocking the area between the tables was still the same bunch of inebriated Parisians that had been there all night. Even so, the power of that ancient signature seemed to intensify, indicating a lessening of distance.
“It feels like…Darius,” Duncan said softly, still searching the crowd.
Methos sighed, “I feel like Darius to you. It’s the age you’re sensing, Highlander.”
“Aye, you’re right,” Mac admitted, looking chagrined.
“I don’t feel anything weird,” Ryan said.
“You will, in time,” MacLeod assured.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” it was Joe Dawson who caught sight of the newcomer first. The stranger had taken the long way around the room and approached through the milling crowd from the bar, rather than from the door, where all three Immortals were looking.
Methos, MacLeod, and Ryan all swung around to face this new threat…
After five thousand years, you saw a lot of faces. They had a tendency to blur in memory, particulars fading until Methos could barely recall the color of his first wife’s eyes. This face, however, would never fade. Even now, it had a starring role in his late night horror show.
This was the type of situation he’d spent three thousand years ducking out of rooms and leaving his life behind him at a second’s notice to avoid. The breath literally caught in his lungs as he met those icy blue eyes. Twenty feet away and they still froze him with dread.
The flashback hit like a front snap kick to the groin. Those same blue eyes, mad with hate and terror, long honey blond curls snapping in the wind as the blood drenched youth stood poised at a cliff edge. The command Submit or die! was ringing through the freezing air as the beautiful manchild glanced behind him, saw the three thousand foot drop at his back, returned his frantic gaze to Death approaching…and purposefully stepped backwards off the cliff…
“Alex Longford,” Joe identified the newcomer, respect and amazement creeping into his tone.
“That’s the guy you’re comparing to Darius?” Ryan stage whispered. “He’s just a kid, for God’s sake! How’d he even get in here? I got carded.”
“Appearances can be deceiving, Ritchie,” MacLeod voiced the comment Methos was too stunned to make.
“How old was he when he died?” Dawson asked in the same undertone they’d all been employing. “Sixteen?”
Methos stared at this vision from his past, trying to view him as the others at his table did. He supposed if you didn’t know this Immortal’s history, you might mistake him for any teenage kid, if you looked too quickly. The man who called himself Alex Longford these days was a head shorter than Ritchie, a curly honey blond, well built for his age beneath his black leather coat, but a teenager all the same. He was also more than 3600 years old.
“Methos?” Mac whispered.
“Adam,” Joe said, sotto voce, “you worked on his Chronicle for a while. How old was he when he died?”
His mind grasped onto the question, the logic of cold facts far preferable to the madness of memory.
“His chronicle says sixteen, Avignon, France, 1235,” Methos croaked.
“You sayin’ that’s not right?” Gods, now even Ryan was seeing through him.
“It’s about three thousand years off. And he was fourteen when he became Immortal, not sixteen.” Not taking his eyes from the approaching Immortal, Methos softly informed, “Like all old ones, the Macedonian has had many lives.”
“The…Holy shit!” Dawson exclaimed, his excitement at meeting this living piece of history thick as the smoke in the air.
“Why’s that sound familiar?” Ryan asked. Burdened by a useless, twentieth century public school education and lack of interest on his own part, the reference was apparently meaningless to him.
“The Macedonian was another name for Alexander the Great,” Mac supplied, properly awed, despite the question that followed, “You sure about that?”
“Totally,” Methos answered, barely breathing at this point.
“Every biography I’ve ever read said that Alexander the Great died at age 32,” Joe said. “Longford could never pass for that.”
Methos shrugged, “You’d be amazed what people will overlook when a general is winning all his battles. Besides, he looked quite different dressed for war. The sun, cold and wind of campaigns make everyone look years older.”
“Yeah, but…he’s almost a foot shorter than Ritchie,” Joe protested.
“Most of the world was a foot shorter than Ritchie back then,” Methos reminded. “I was considered a giant for millennia. Now, I’m just a little above average. In another millennia or two, I’ll probably be a dwarf.”
“You’re kiddin’ me, right? This kid is Alexander the Great?” Ryan sneered, still not seeming able to get past that fact.
“That kid conquered all the known world within ten years,” Methos corrected.
Joe added, “He’s done the same thing in the virtual reality computer game industry these last ten years. Longford’s not quite Bill Gates, but he’s certainly a ruling force in the cyberworld. You know that Alien Invaders game you were addicted to a few years back, Ritchie? That was Longford’s baby.”
“No shit? He still looks like a kid,” Ryan determined.
Surprisingly enough, it was MacLeod who corrected Ryan, “I don’t think so, Ritch. Most teenagers don’t move like that.”
Of course, Mac, with his martial arts expertise, would notice something like that.
The young man hadn’t walked like a conqueror when Methos last saw him, but few had when captured by the Horsemen. There was no mistaking that arrogant, macho strut now, though. MacLeod had it, as had Kronos, Grayson, and a dozen other Alpha males who knew their worth. It should have been incongruous on one so young, but the person in question carried it off admirably.
Alexander Longford approached their table like he had a battalion of troops at his back, like it wasn’t any problem for a child his age to confront three adult men. The truly disturbing part about the youth was that facing them wouldn’t be a problem. This five foot two bundle of post pubescent attitude was the reason the Horsemen were finally put out of commission two and a half millennia ago.
“It’s been a long time, Methullius,” Longford greeted them in English.
The language choice troubled Methos. The conversation at their table had been too low to be overheard. If this were a chance meeting, the other Immortal should have spoken in the native tongue of the land or the last language they’d shared.
Logford’s soft, upper-class British tone was totally at odds with the hate blazing in those crystal eyes. At least fate had spared Longford eternity with a child’s voice. He’d been taken after his voice changed, but not by much.
Methos stared at that wide face with its fine nose and strong square jaw, and wondered how he had ever seen a bed slave there. There was no softness to the features, no prettiness. This was the face of death, hard and ungiving and, yet, the youth was still beautiful, the way a lion was beautiful before it struck.
“A very long time,” Methos agreed. Swallowing hard, he decided to take the lead here. “Would you care to join me and my friends?”
“To drink to old times?” the scoffing rejoinder was not that of a teenager, rather, that of the general this man had once been.
Taking a deep breath, Methos struggled to ignore the tone. “If you like.”
“Would you really like for me to share my memories of our old times with your friends, Methullius?” Longford threatened.
For a noisy bar, the silence that followed that question seemed unnaturally complete. Methos could see in the other ancient Immortal’s eyes how very much he’d enjoy such an illuminating discussion.
“If that’s what you want. Or we could talk about the present, the changes we’ve made in our lives,” Methos suggested, sweating like he was mincing words with Kronos. He could feel all three of his companions watching him – Mac and Joe with informed concern, Ryan with complete incomprehension.
“I don’t care about the present. Our business has to do with the past - an old account that is long overdue. It’s time we settled the score,” Longford stood close to their table, speaking in a low voice that would barely carry to the laughing women on the other side of Ryan. The blondes both seemed absorbed in the conversation at the table beside them, completely oblivious to the drama being enacted several feet away.
Methos gulped. He’d known the challenge was inevitable. What man wouldn’t want revenge on the person responsible for condemning him to eternity locked in the body of a child?
“The man who wronged you is dead,” Methos softly offered in classical Latin, with no hope of being believed. He switched to Latin because this was a conversation that should not be taking place in so public a venue. A glance at Mac showed he understood. Joe also seemed to be following. More than half of the Watchers’ Chronicles were in Latin, so that was no great surprise. It was only Ryan who couldn’t keep up, and that was just as well, “I’m sorry for his offenses against you, truly I am, but…I haven’t used that name or sought out that particular company in over two thousand years.”
“Strange, a mutual acquaintance saw you in that company just last spring,” Longford countered in the same language, the contempt in his frosty gaze unbearable.
It had been too long a time since Methos had suffered such looks from strangers. He was no longer inured to them. Perhaps Kronos had been right. The life of a scholar and Watcher had left him weak. Of course, the fact that his former victim’s condemnation had nothing on his own only accentuated the sting of it. With the exception of two of the three men sitting at this table, it never mattered to Methos what anyone thought of him because they were usually clueless as to who and what he really was. The fact that Longford had every right to look at him that way made it all the harder to endure.
“Or are you calling her a liar?” Longford challenged when Methos made no response.
So, Cassandra had gotten her revenge, after all. She hadn’t wanted to risk MacLeod’s wrath herself, so she’d shared her discoveries with someone with a better chance of exacting vengeance – which was how Longford had known to address him in English. Hell, it was possible that Cassandra had told Longford everything about everyone at this table, including Joe’s involvement with the Watchers. This was not an Immortal to whom Methos would have entrusted such a secret. He hoped Cassandra had shown some discretion, but didn’t think it likely.
“No,” Methos shook his head, “we both know she doesn’t lie.”
Longford leaned in close, nothing the least bit warm in the baring of his teeth, which no doubt was intended as a smile, “So, let us dispense with this foolishness and go outside for a private discussion.”
“You don’t have to do this,” MacLeod interrupted in a completely non-confrontational tone. His Latin was rough, but Methos had never heard his friend sound more reasonable or persuasive in his life. “The man you hate died three thousand years ago. This man is a scholar and a Healer. He…”
“He laughed as he gutted my three year old sister on his sword,” Longford said in the same calming tone Mac had used. He was leaning in over their table, so even in the unlikely chance that the patrons at the surrounding tables would understand colloquial Latin well enough to translate; it was highly unlikely they’d hear anything.
Methos squeezed his eyes shut at the reminder, seeing the child even after all this time. There was no way to explain that the death he’d given had been a kinder fate than what Kaspian would have done to the little girl. Methos didn’t even attempt to make a defense. A man who could run with that kind of monster had no business seeking understanding from his victims.
“He is not that man any longer,” Joe entered the discussion, his Latin nowhere near as understandable as MacLeod’s.
“I don’t care if he became Christ after he left our holding. He will die for what he did to my family, for what he stole from me,” Longford hissed low.
To Methos’ shock Mac still tried to defend him, even after hearing that atrocity, “Killing him won’t bring them back.”
“But it may help them rest better…it may help me rest better. He stole my world, mortal life and manhood that day. His miserable neck is paltry recompense, but he will forfeit his head for what he did,” Longford swore.
Methos opened his eyes and looked up at his accuser. It was a small point, perhaps, but for the sake of accuracy, he had to remind, “I didn’t take your life. It was you who made that choice.”
“It was that or a fate worse than death,” Longford shot back. “Which would you have chosen?”
“The same I always have – life. My profession isn’t death anymore. The things of which you speak happened nearly four thousand years ago, in another world and age. I’m not the same man I was then, any more than you are. We can leave this in the past where it belongs…” Methos began.
“Of all the things I thought you, Methullius, a coward was never one of them. Cassandra said you had grown weak, that you had bedazzled good men to do your fighting for you,” Longford sneered.
“A desire for peace is not weakness,” Methos corrected, holding onto his patience because to lose his anger in an argument like this could be disastrous. They were in a public place. With thirty-six hundred plus years of hate burning in him, Methos couldn’t count on Longford to be rational. If the man lost his cool and attacked him here, no matter who was the victor, everyone in this bar could be injured or killed when the power of a Quickening as old as theirs was released.
“Call it what you will. There can be no peace with evil. We will fight. It’s what we do. And you will pay for the lives you stole,” Longford insisted.
Those who deemed Latin a dead language would never have done so had they heard the passion of Longford’s argument. Though the scholar in Methos could appreciate the elegance of hearing this language spoken in its native fluidity, instead of being massacred by a priest, he wished that the content of the words had been less disturbing.
“Very well,” Methos conceded, recognizing that there would be no reasoning with the man.
“Outside, now,” Longford’s chin gestured towards the door.
“I’m afraid I have a previous commitment tonight,” Methos denied.
“She said that you would be too craven to fight me, that you would run,” Longford sneered.
There was a part of him that wanted very much to show this fool how wrong both Cassandra and he were about him, but…that would violate every promise he’d ever made to himself concerning this type of confrontation. Stamping down hard on his anger, Methos took a deep breath and challenged, “Would the man you knew as Death be afraid to fight a child?”
“I do not fear you, Alexander of Macedon. And I will not run. But this is neither the time nor the place. Dawn is best for this type of discussion, is it not?” Methos offered.
“You will run…” Longford accused.
“I will not run,” Methos promised with what he hoped was flawless sincerity.
“Dawn, then,” Longford said, his eyes seeming to regret the decision already.
Methos nodded. He loved men of honor. They were so predictable. Dawn would give him plenty of time to put a continent between them.
Needing to at least make a show of intent, Methos asked, “Where?”
“The footbridge off de Gaul,” Longford said.
Methos gulped. It was coincidence, of course. There was no way Longford or anyone else could have known that that was the location where Kalas had come an inch from taking Methos’ head. He hadn’t even told MacLeod the embarrassing details of that challenge. So how…
It had to be coincidence…only…
Methos had lived in a time when there was no such thing as coincidence. A shiver ran through him as he realized the only way Longford could have found out those details – the witch Cassandra. Time was when Methos had been able to discern an enemy’s secrets in similar fashion. Science and cool reason had replaced magic in his world, but there were some like Cassandra who were still adept at the old ways. Kronos had scoffed at her magics, but Methos had known better.
“The footbridge at dawn,” Methos agreed, doing his best to disguise how unnerved he was by the choice.
“If you do not show, I will find you,” Longford warned.
Methos had lived too long to allow his sarcasm sway at a moment such as this, but he couldn’t help thinking that he’d be very happy to wait another four thousand years for the Macedonian to catch up with him again.
“I’ll be there,” he promised with the same sincerity millions of his gender used when they swore that they’d respect a woman in the morning.
Longford’s gaze turned from Methos to the other men at his table. Switching to English, the apparent teenager said, “Bid adieu to your friend. It will be a long while before you see him again.”
“You need to lighten up, man,” Ritchie, who hadn’t followed a word of the confrontation, sassed.
Methos had to hand it to the kid. There weren’t many men on the planet with the nerve to mouth off to a man who’d razed or sacked more cities than Ryan could name. But, then again, smarts had never been MacLeod’s student’s long suite.
“And you need to choose your friends better, youngster,” Longford replied, with the expression and tone of a man at least Dawson’s apparent age.
“Why you…” Ritchie started to rise from his seat.
MacLeod grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back down. “Let it go, Ritch. You got what you came for,” the Highlander said to Longford, “now get out of here.”
The Macedonian’s frosty gaze settled on MacLeod, “I’ve heard of you, Highlander. It is said that you’re a good man. Why would a man of honor keep such company?”
“How did you know my name?” Mac questioned, switching back to Latin. Methos’ lover’s instincts were nearly flawless. The man knew when caution was necessary.
“I was told to look for Duncan MacLeod and I would find Death in his company. My sources were not mistaken,” Longford answered in the same tongue.
“You and your sources are completely wrong. Death has been dead three thousand years. You can’t judge my friend on mistakes he made millennia ago when he was an entirely different person,” Mac hotly argued, the people at the closest table looking over at his upraised tone, those overhearing no doubt trying to place the hauntingly familiar lingua.
“Speak not of what you know not of. I was there. I am one of the few who has the right to judge him,” Longford rejected. “He was a monster.”
“And what makes you any better? I know what you were. History paints you with the same brush,” MacLeod said. His tone was lower, but his contempt was more pronounced for all of that.
“I was a general and king,” Longford said. “I did not make my life on the blood of children.”
“The people of Thebes and a dozen other towns might have felt differently,” MacLeod, who knew his history, challenged.
“I have no regrets for Thebes or anything else I’ve done. In times of war, men do whatever is necessary. I fought with honor,” Longford countered.
“That’s debatable,” Mac countered.
“You weren’t there. You can’t make that judgment,” Longford made the same complaint Methos had employed himself after Bordeaux. “There are none left with the right to accuse me.”
Such arrogance in one so young was disconcerting. Methos could see that his lover was ill at ease having this type of argument with what basically amounted to little more than a child.
“I’m left,” Methos softly interjected. “I lost a good friend at Thebes.”
“Then you can avenge him at dawn,” Longford said.
“Killing you will not bring him back, anymore than killing me will restore your family to you. The dead don’t care. You and I killing each other won’t change anything,” Methos tried again.
“Tomorrow at dawn, Methullius.” Longford turned back to Mac, “You and I will see each other again, no doubt.”
Mac was obviously as unimpressed with meeting Alexander the Great as he’d been upon meeting Lord Byron. MacLeod snorted and said, “Don’t count on it, not if you keep that appointment at dawn.”
Longford’s icy blue glare settled on MacLeod for a long moment. “Your honor is ill served by this association, Highlander. Be careful, lest you be judged by the company you keep.”
“At least my companion has the honor to regret the mistakes of the past. If I were you, I’d leave now. While you still can,” MacLeod added, something dangerous stirring in his dark eyes.
Astonished, Methos recognized that Mac was completely serious. Even knowing that Methos was in the wrong here, his lover was ready to take on one of the most brilliant generals in history for his sake.
“Till we meet again,” Longford nodded to MacLeod, turned on his heel and vanished into the crowd as quickly as he’d appeared. None of the Immortals at their table dropped their guard until that oppressive ancient Immortal signature completely faded.
“Damn, that’s not good,” Dawson remarked into the abrupt silence at the table.
“What was with the Italian, guys?” Ryan plaintively asked, the utter absurdity of the comment coming as almost comic relief.
“It was Latin, Ritch,” Joe patiently supplied.
“That kid really had a jones for your head, man. What the hell did you do to him?” Ritchie asked, in the same tone he’d use with MacLeod, like whatever was wrong, it had to be some kind of cosmic misunderstanding.
MacLeod intervened with, “We don’t need to get into that now, Ritch.”
“Come on, Mac! Give a guy a break!” Ryan whined. “I couldn’t follow a thing you guys were saying when you started jabbering away. What the hell is going on?”
“Ritch…” MacLeod began.
His nerves snapping, Methos turned on the kid. “You really want to know what I did to him?” Ryan’s eyes widened at his tone and whatever was in his face, but the kid nodded all the same. Only when he’d gotten that response did Methos lean in and continue in a furious whisper, “My comrades and I gang raped his oldest sister in front of him, put his mother, father, grandmother and younger siblings to the sword, then we spent four hours cutting into him to see how many wounds it would take before he became one of us. After that, I’d planned on taking him as a bed slave, but he decided that flinging himself off a cliff was a more attractive proposition. In retrospect, I can’t say that I blame him.”
The nauseated expression that came over Ryan’s face was fully worth the effort. The freckles stood out on Ritchie’s suddenly pasty face like smallpox eruptions.
“You…you knew about all this, Mac?” Ryan turned to his teacher, utterly lost. “Before you hit the sheets?”
Methos was impressed. Somehow, MacLeod managed to hold that horrified gaze and answer in a near normal voice, “I knew.”
Ryan’s next words were hardly surprising, “How the hell could you love someone like that? Christ, weren’t you the guy tellin’ me that you don’t talk to evil, you destroy it? That stuff-”
“Happened three thousand years ago. It has nothing to do with the man we know,” MacLeod insisted.
“Yeah, right. Can you spell hypocrisy?” Ryan sneered.
“Ritchie…” MacLeod pleaded.
“Forget it. I’m outta here.” Ryan started to climb to his feet, but Joe reached out to stop him.
“Cool down, Ritchie,” Dawson counseled.
“What? You, too? What is it with you guys? I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone here. Did either of you just hear what he admitted to?” Ryan demanded.
“We heard,” Joe said. “But that was a long time ago. You can’t…”
“Oh, yes, I can. I mightn’t know shit about Latin or Macadamians, but I know you don’t hang with killers. See you around, guys.”
“Don’t bother,” Methos said, rising to his feet. The child had not disappointed him. “I’ll be leaving now. Take care of yourself, Joe.”
He made a blind grab for his coat, was on his feet and into the crowd before MacLeod had fumbled out of his chair.
Methos heard MacLeod’s rumble of, “We’ll talk about this later, Ritchie,” before the noise swallowed him up.
It took him almost three minutes to make it to the door through the mob of laughing, smoking patrons.
After the heat and smoky clamor of the packed club, the bone-chilling air of the silent winter night was a shock. The freeze was so intense that it was actually hard to draw breath. It was late, the traffic unnaturally light, no doubt due to the numbing cold. The silence seemed absolute and accusative.
His heart was pounding like he’d just been run to ground, which he supposed he had been, figuratively speaking.
The temperature being the least of the shocks he’d endured tonight, Methos leaned against the brick wall outside and gulped in deep lungfuls of the freezing air. Well, he’d known nothing lasted forever. It was time to put Adam Pierson behind him and move on.
He almost moaned when he felt the familiar buzz of another Immortal approaching from the club entrance. Mac never knew when to leave well enough alone.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” MacLeod asked softly, coming up beside him to lean against the same freezing wall. Mac quickly buttoned up the long black coat he usually left open. Even with the heavy cable knit wool sweater back on, it was too cold out here to leave one’s coat open.
Methos didn’t even try for politeness. “What?”
MacLeod squarely met his gaze and said, “Me.”
It was Methos who was forced to look away. He was beginning to shake – from the cold, he told himself; although he knew better.
“Come on, the car’s over here,” Mac said, taking his elbow and guiding him between a parked Chevy and Volvo, out into the empty street.
Methos didn’t have the strength to deal with this. It was hard enough to pick up stakes and leave, even after a scene so unpleasant that it made it clear that he couldn’t afford to hang around here any longer. He was used to bad endings, hard as they were. What he didn’t know was how to handle Mac being kind to him, not tonight.
So, rather than make a fuss, he allowed himself to be steered into the Citroen.
The silence, unsurprisingly enough, was oppressive, at least from his side of the vehicle. MacLeod was…hard to read – subdued, but not emoting the fury, regret or disgust that Methos would have fully understood and forgiven.
“You can drop me off at my flat,” Methos said, trying for coldness.
“We’re together now. Remember?” Mac said, glancing over from the road. “We’ll stay at your flat, if you prefer, but I’m not leaving you anywhere, not tonight.”
“How can you want to be with me after hearing…?” Methos demanded, hating the emotion in his voice, but unable to do anything about it.
“I know what you used to be,” Mac said, “and I know what you are now. The two have nothing to do with each other.”
“But…” Methos slammed his mouth shut. Pride would not allow him to continue. Drawing his coat tighter around him to try to halt the shudders he didn’t seem able to control, Methos winced as his sword dug into his outer thigh. He shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable on the icy leather upholstery, or, failing that, to get warm, but neither seemed obtainable. The problems weren’t external.
MacLeod reached out and wordlessly snapped on the heat.
The blast of warm air felt like a lover’s embrace. Methos could have used one right now, but he couldn’t ask for it – would probably never be able to ask Mac for it again after tonight.
“Your place or mine?” Mac questioned as they paused at an intersection on St. Germaine.
“The barge is fine,” Methos answered.
MacLeod nodded and made the turn. After a few minutes of silence, Mac quietly offered, “You told me about your past yourself. Nothing that was said tonight came as a surprise.”
“It’s…different hearing it from the victim,” Methos pointed out, not understanding MacLeod’s current calm.
“It was…hard to hear, I admit it, but…you are not that man anymore. Did you think I would turn my back on you the first time trouble came to our door?” Mac sounded hurt, of all things.
Our door, Methos gulped, the lump those two simple words put in his throat insurmountable.
When he thought he could speak, he cleared his throat and croaked out, “No man could be blamed for bailing at such a time. What the Macedonian spoke of wasn’t even the worst of it. There are…things that make those deeds pale by comparison. How can I expect you to live with that?”
“I don’t live with it, Methos. You do,” Mac qualified. “You say you don’t feel guilt anymore, but I know what keeps you awake at night. The past is dead. We’ve both got to let it go.”
“That’s easier said than done, Highlander,” Methos said, staring out the window. He saw none of the sights passing there, not the lights of Paris, not even the Eiffel Tower glowing in the distance. All he could see was the parade of victims who haunted his dreams at night.
“No,” Mac said after a quiet time, “it’s not.”
Hearing the deeper meanings in the troubled tone, Methos forced his gaze back to his friend. “Not what?”
“Easily said. None of this is easy – for either of us, nor should it be.”
“Then why bother?” Methos asked the same question he’d needed answered from the start of their affair.
Mac’s broad chest heaved a sigh. It was a deep and weary sound. “Because you’re worth it. Because what you are has nothing to do with what you were. And because I love you.”
Having nothing to say to that, providing he was even capable of speech after such a declaration, Methos turned back towards his window.
They pulled up to the barge fifteen minutes later. It was all Methos could do to force himself out of his seat. He felt exhausted and battered, not up to the confrontation he knew must follow.
As he stepped from the warmth of the Citroen, a cold wind ripped at his face, dashing a hard wetness against it. He paused on the beginning to slick cobblestones to stare up at the pinkish sky. It was snowing again.
“Ah, snow again,” MacLeod echoed his thought, coming to stand beside him to the right of the gangplank. The man looked like a model in some trendy ad with the snow sticking in the impossible fan of his eyelashes and catching on his long dark coat. The gothic stones in the wall of the promenade in the background only completed the highly romantic image.
“It feels like it’s been winter forever,” Methos said.
Spring was just a few weeks away, but when he thought that far into the future, he could not see MacLeod there beside him. It wasn’t just his usual pessimism this time. It might have been fifteen hundred years since he used them, but no student of Myrddid’s could ever totally forget the skills the ancient Immortal taught. On those sleepless nights when Duncan MacLeod would be slumbering warm and safe in his arms and Methos would cast his sight forward to as close a date as this summer, Mac was nowhere in the picture.
Tonight’s encounter with Longford explained that. MacLeod might be saint enough to forgive Methos his past, but the Highlander would never run with him. That was simply not in his lover’s nature.
But Mac was here now, his for the moment. He had to concentrate on handling this right, so that in the future, if the opportunity to hook up with MacLeod should ever present itself, his running would not have left so sour a taste in the Highlander’s mouth that Duncan would want nothing to do with him.
MacLeod’s hand settled on his back, solid and steady as the man himself, so warm that it made Methos’ flesh ache with longing.
“We’ll get through this,” Mac promised.
“Yes,” MacLeod insisted. “Come inside. You’re freezing.”
Methos didn’t move, nor did he take his gaze from the sky, even though the falling flakes were making his eyes smart. His ears were already stinging like they were about to shatter from the cold and fall off the sides of his head.
Taking a deep breath, Methos made the first move towards the separation that was needed for both their sakes when he said, “I’m only going in long enough to pack my bag, MacLeod.”
“You’re gonna run?” After all this time and how well they knew each other, Methos couldn’t understand the shock in his lover’s voice.
"Martinique is lovely this time of year. Have you ever seen it in January?” Methos knew it was a useless attempt, but the part of him that had begun to believe in this man insisted that he make the effort, that he not make Mac’s choices for him.
MacLeod ignored his question. Gripping Methos by the upper arms, the Highlander turned him around until Methos had no choice but to lower his dripping face and meet the other man’s gaze. “I know that you do not fear him. Why would you run?”
Methos sighed. “You’re wrong, MacLeod. I do fear him. I fear them all.”
The expression of blank incomprehension Mac offered him was worthy of Ryan. “I’ve seen you fight. You’re not a coward.”
“It isn’t about cowardice, Duncan. It’s about fire. I told you the first day we met, I don’t have the passion anymore,” Methos tried to explain.
“And I’ve seen you fight,” Mac stubbornly insisted. “You’ve got as much fire as any of us.”
“You’ve seen me fight – for you,” Methos qualified. He’d fought three challenges in the past three years, all of them for MacLeod’s sake.
“So what you’re saying is that you care enough to die defending me, but not yourself? A man doesn’t survive to your age without being able to protect himself, Methos.”
“And if this were some headhunter come for a trophy killing, you’d be right. I could and would kill him in a second, but…”
“But?” MacLeod still sounded bewildered.
“Can’t you understand? There is no good outcome to my facing Longford or any of the others.”
“I’m not following you,” MacLeod said, still confused, but the hardness that had come with Methos’ announcement of leaving left his features.
“I am not you, Duncan MacLeod. I have no reason to expect to be the victor in trial by combat. If there is anything like divine justice, I will lose. I wronged this man – horribly. If I take his head, it is just adding another wrong onto my list of transgressions. If I had honor, I’d let him take mine, but…I don’t want to die.”
“My God, man…” MacLeod’s grip tightened on his shoulders. From the storm raging across those chiseled features, Methos half expected to be flung into the Seine like so much offal, but instead of pushing him away, Mac pulled him closer. In seconds, Methos found himself wrapped tight in a bear hug, barely able to breathe.
It was what his soul had been needing all night long. Despite his resolve to leave for both their sakes, Methos clung to MacLeod’s muscular frame, leeching the other man’s warmth into his own shuddering form.
After what felt like a mere moment, but must have been closer to five minutes, Mac pulled back a bit.
Looking up at him, the Highlander said, “And you call yourself without honor. I…misjudged you. I’m sorry.”
“Yet you’re doing it again,” Methos pointed out, too tired to be anything but snappish. He stepped free of MacLeod’s embrace, knowing he could never go through with leaving if there were actual physical contact between them. “This isn’t any noble decision on my part. I’m just…tired of the senseless slaughter. If I have to run to avoid adding another victim to my curriculum vitae, I will.”
“He challenged you here,” Mac protested. “You didn’t go hunting Longford’s head; he came for yours. And this one is hardly an innocent victim. Dante put him in the inner circle of Hell, didn’t he?”
“And where do you suppose your Dante would have put me?” Methos countered. “Alex Londford has a right to want my head. If he is a monster, than I am his Victor Frankenstein.”
“Longford has a right to want vengeance on the man who wronged him. You are not that man, not anymore.”
“Do you think that matters to him, MacLeod? He watched his entire family die before his eyes. He chose to fling himself to his death to escape us, not knowing that by doing so, he would condemn himself to eternity as an adolescent. He has a lot to hate me for.”
MacLeod was silent for a minute before gently offering, “Joe told me that you had reason to hate Darius. You didn’t spend the last fifteen hundred years trying to kill him.”
“Longford’s demon is no Darius. There was no mystical transformation in my case, Mac. I’m just a man…a very flawed one at that. And I did try to kill your Darius,” Methos corrected, needing this man to see him clearly and know what he was dealing with. “I came a hair’s breadth away from taking his head.”
“What stopped you?” Mac asked, seeming genuinely interested, not at all outraged by the idea of Methos hunting his mentor.
“What does it matter now?” Methos asked. There had already been too many side trips into his past tonight. All he longed for was blessed oblivion…and some more time with Duncan MacLeod.
Neither seemed an option tonight. The moment Mac got that tender look on his face, Methos knew he was doomed to give the man whatever he wanted.
“It matters to me,” MacLeod said.
“It’s nothing I’m proud of.” Sometimes Methos felt that he ought to prefix every discussion of his past with that line.
“Shall I tell you about the time I cowered on holy ground because I was too afraid to fight the man who’d just taken my teacher’s Quickening?” MacLeod asked.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live, Duncan. Fighting someone whom you know you do not have the skills to survive isn’t brave; it’s stupid. You live and grow stronger - that’s all that matters.”
“So, about the time you almost killed Darius…”
Methos drew a deep breath and got it over with, “He would not meet me off holy ground. I’d tried twelve times to challenge him; he always refused. I finally caught him off sacred ground – after nearly eighty years of waiting.”
“He was living up in that monastery where you left Ursa. A fever struck the community that year. Scores of people died in the nearest town within a three week period. When I came upon Darius, he was caring for a group of sick orphan children. I ask you, MacLeod,” Methos laughed without humor, “could it possibly have been worse? But I was determined. I hardened my heart to the children and forced him outside. There was no fight. He just sank to his knees before me in the pouring rain and mud of the courtyard.”
Methos could still see the brown-frocked monk kneeling at his feet in the mire with a blade at his throat, Darius’ red hair plastered against his head as the rain pounded down on them both.
“And?” Mac prompted.
“He said he was sorry for killing Myrddid and asked one favor in my old friend’s name – that I get the children back to his fellow monks. He was kneeling there at my feet with a blade to his throat…and all he could worry about were a bunch of pewling brats who probably wouldn’t last out the night.” Methos shook his head, still unable to comprehend that type of selflessness.
“What did you do?” Mac asked.
Methos found himself gravitating closer to MacLeod as the other man’s hand settled in the center of his back again. He blew out a deep breath, the steamy fog of which caressed Mac’s face before dissipating, then self-consciously admitted, “What do you think I did? I sheathed my sword and told him to go back inside. When he got to his feet Darius…”
“He thanked me for the stay of execution and asked where and when he should meet me to complete our business after the children were safe. Mac, Myrddid was the finest man I’d ever met, but not even he would have had the…” Methos shrugged, “I still don’t know what to call it – Nerve? Stupidity? Honor? - to make that kind of offer. Somehow that murdering barbarian had become something greater than the holy man he’d killed.”
“What did you do?” MacLeod asked.
Methos snorted. “Darius had a head when you met him; didn’t he?”
“I ran, all right? I got on my steed and put fifteen miles between us before I even slowed down.”
His testy response only seemed to please MacLeod.
“What are you smiling at, MacLeod?” Methos challenged at last, tempted to push the other Immortal into the icy Seine to remove that idiotic expression.
“You. You don’t know yourself at all; do you?” Mac asked, reaching for his face.
Methos batted the hand away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why is it that you only see the bad in yourself and not the wonderful?” Mac asked. The moronic smile was gone, but Methos was beginning to wish for it back. It was far preferable to the serious expression Mac wore now.
“Will you please remove those rose colored glasses?” Methos demanded. “I am not a hero. I am never going to be one. If I have done any good in my life, it was for my own selfish reasons.”
“Doctoring abused slaves in the 1800s was selfish?” MacLeod asked.
“How did you know about that?” Methos demanded, not knowing why he felt embarrassed that Mac knew about that period of his life. It wasn’t something he was ashamed of, and yet, it wasn’t something he ever spoke of. Search his mind as he would, he couldn’t recall ever sharing that particular confidence with MacLeod. All he could recall telling him was that he’d been a doctor.
“That time Jack Shapiro had Joe shot. You told Dawson when he was recuperating. Or were you lying to him?”
He had to give his friend points for asking the question. At least Mac knew him well enough now not to take everything he said at face value.
Methos sighed. “It wasn’t a lie.”
Dawson had had two bullets in him and been suffering with a 103° fever when he’d asked about Methos’ past experiences as a doctor. Realizing that the dank cellar they’d been forced to treat Joe in was hardly encouraging to either a patient’s recovery or his confidence in his physician, Methos had told Dawson about some of his most amazing cures, studiously neglecting to mention the scores he’d lost to gangrene and septicemia. Who would have thought Joe would have been coherent enough to remember something like that, much less relay it to someone?
“I don’t see how something like that could be seen as selfish. In my book, it’s pretty damn heroic,” Mac said.
“Everything’s heroic in your book, MacLeod,” Methos groused, sticking his hands deep into his pockets and hunching down into his coat. Between the wind, snow and emotional shocks of the night, he was feeling fairly battered right now.
“There isn’t anyone who would-”
“Oh, for…” Methos interrupted. “That was only one of the thousands of hats I’ve worn. I’ve been a priest and I’ve been a prostitute. I’ve been a doctor and a killer, soldier and diplomat…You name it, and I’ve probably done it at least once. But no matter what it was I did, I did it because I wanted to – for me, not for others.”
“What about Silas?” MacLeod demanded. “You’re not going to pretend that you wanted his head?”
“Low blow, MacLeod,” Methos hissed, turning his back on MacLeod so his lover wouldn’t see how hard that question hit him.
“You are not evil, not anymore,” Mac insisted, coming up behind him and slipping his arms around his waist.
Short of elbowing MacLeod in the stomach, his only other option for freedom was a swim in the freezing river. And…Methos didn’t want those arms to leave him. If there was a way he could arrange it, he’d love to take those arms and that embrace everywhere he went for the remainder of his days.
So, instead of breaking free, Methos leaned back, trusting his weight to the warm furnace behind him. Mac hooked his chin over Methos’ left shoulder and tightened his hold. After a few moments of just standing there in silence feeling like a fool, Methos took his just-beginning-to-warm hands out of his pockets and placed them on top of MacLeod’s. Methos couldn’t feel their joined hands through his thick coat. It was so cold out here; he could barely feel Mac beneath his palms and they were touching skin to skin there.
They stood that way silently watching the wind-swept snow fall into the black river for a long time.
Finally, Methos said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to say, Mac, but two wrongs will never make a right. My killing him will prove nothing.”
“And what will running prove?” Mac quietly questioned. “If you run, all you will do is confirm his opinion of you.”
“And my removing his head from his shoulders will somehow improve his opinion of me?” Methos countered. He generally had some foggy idea of how MacLeod’s outdated mode of chivalry was coloring a muddied issue, but today Methos was totally lost. “If I leave Paris tonight, Longford and I will both live. If I stay and fight, one of us will die. How is that better?”
“If you run, you will lose your life here. Cassandra has spoken to him. He will know about Seacouver. It won’t be safe for you to return there, either.”
“I am painfully aware of that fact, MacLeod,” Methos rasped out, dropping his gaze down to their linked hands, the knowledge that this might be the last time they would be free to see each other like this heavy on his breaking heart.
“You would let him take everything you love from you without a fight?” Mac asked.
“I took everything he loved from him once. They say that turnabout is fair play.”
“Don’t quote platitudes at me, Methos. This is our life you’re throwing away here!” though the words were said in anger, MacLeod’s arms pulled him tighter.
“Why are you tormenting me like this?” Methos demanded. “Do you think I want to give this up? Do you think it’s easy?”
“I think it’s time to stop running,” MacLeod said. “You have got to put the past behind you. You can’t do that if you cut and run every time someone from your past shows up.”
“So I should take the head of innocent people whose only crime was being in the path of rabid dogs in the past?” Methos asked. “I thought you, of all people, would understand why I can’t kill him.”
“Methos, this man is not innocent-”
“He was when the Horsemen met him. He was barely more than a child. You know what nutrition was like even a hundred years ago. Most of the time, a man’s sexual equipment didn’t even start working until he was close to twenty. Longford’s voice had changed, but…he hadn’t reached complete sexual maturity yet. He never will. He has lived almost four thousand years, commanded armies, reigned over nations, but he will never experience an orgasm. How forgiving would you be of the man who did that to you?”
He heard Mac hiss in a breath behind him. “How can you know all that? You said he killed himself rather than come to your bed.”
What a refined way of describing rape, Methos thought, only belatedly realizing that he had thrown doubt on his own probity again.
For once, talking about the past was preferable to dealing with the present. Taking a deep breath, Methos softly answered, “I was in Greece before he took Thebes. One of his camp whores was visiting an associate of mine. She bragged about Alexander the Third’s impotence. Mac, I was many things back then, most of them evil, but…even when I was a Horseman, I would not have inflicted that upon him. I would have kept him as my slave a year or two and then either taken his Quickening or made him one of us, had he pleased me enough to keep him around, but…even Death would not have condemned him to that.”
“You didn’t. He did it to himself,” Mac argued.
“He didn’t know…”
“Methos,” Mac softly interrupted, “it wouldn’t have mattered if he did. He still would have jumped.”
“How can you know that?” he demanded.
“Because I would have done the same thing. He made that choice. You might have driven him to it, but in the end, he still chose to take his own life,” Mac said.
“So how does that make what I did to him any different than what Byron did to Mike Paladini? You thought Byron worthy of death.” Methos reminded, completely lost. Mac had never had a sliding scale of justice. What was wrong for a stranger was just as wrong for his lovers, as Ingrid Henning had learned the hard way.
“You weren’t any different than Byron – four thousand years ago. Now…you’re not even in the same ball park. That’s why you can’t run, Methos. That arrogant bastard does not have the right in this. You are not the same man you were then, anymore than Darius was the man who slew your friend Myrddid.”
“So I should cut Longford’s head off because I hurt him too deeply for him to forgive me?”
“He challenged you,” MacLeod reminded, turning Methos around to face him. “You tried to bury the hatchet; he wouldn’t accept your peace offering.”
“Why should he?” Methos challenged, still not getting this. Mac was always on the side of injured innocents.
“For the same reason that you spared Darius. For the same reason I didn’t kill Kage. The people we confronted were no longer the same men who wronged us. Killing them would have made as much sense as killing a stranger on the street to avenge our dead.”
“MacLeod, I didn’t kill Darius because I was afraid to!” Methos spat, his teeth chattering so badly now that he’d stepped away from MacLeod’s shielding warmth that the words barely made sense.
“What do you mean you were afraid to?” MacLeod asked.
They really were like creatures from different planets, Methos recognized. As soon as either of them thought they were beginning to understand what made the other tick, they would inevitably discover that they had it all wrong. And yet, even with the mental misunderstandings, they still had a visceral comprehension of each other, like their souls groked each other even if their minds couldn’t even agree upon a common language. It made his head ache to think about it.
“It means that I didn’t want to take that Quickening into myself and find myself so changed that I’d offer my neck to the first headhunter that came along. I may have had a shameful, bloody adolescence, but for most of the past two thousand years, I’ve liked the man I’ve become. I didn’t want him subsumed in some mystical Quickening,” Methos explained, knowing that his chivalrous lover would never understand.
Surprisingly, Mac didn’t take issue with his statement. Instead, that impossible softness came over those chiseled features as MacLeod all but begged, “So don’t destroy that man now. Longford issued the challenge. You have a right to defend your life. Exert that right.”
“And take his head?” Methos quizzed, testing the waters here.
“Longford made this challenge. You didn’t.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to live with me if I do it?” Methos asked, genuinely interested in Mac’s answer. “No matter his mental age and development, he is still in the body of a fourteen year old. If I face him, one of us will die. You weren’t even able to kill that murdering brat of Amanda’s after he’d tried to kill you, and we both know that sociopath needed killing. Will your honor allow you to accept a man who would fight to win in such an unevenly matched playing field? Because if he does try to kill me, I will take his head if I am able.”
Mac paled at the reminder of the basic inequity of this challenge. The only color in his face was the cold reddened tip of his dripping nose. “Longford’s body might appear youthful, but he’s a warrior, not a back stabbing child like Kenny. His lack of physical maturity doesn’t exempt him from the rules of the Game. When you challenge someone, you take the risk of losing your head.”
“And if it’s I who loses his head?” Methos questioned. “Our kind do not live to be four thousand years old unless they can fight.”
Mac dropped his gaze. Methos knew how his lover thought. Mac was an expert in the arts of swordplay and self-defense. The Highlander had no doubt taken in the fifty pounds of muscle and foot in height that Methos had on his would-be opponent and drawn the natural conclusion as to whom the victor would be. But Mac had once again forgotten that skill wasn’t everything. Hate could sometimes carry a man farther than all the training in the world.
“He wants my head, Mac. All I want is to live. That gives him an advantage over me. And even if I had the fire for it, this is trial by combat. There isn’t a court on earth that would side with me.”
“You’re wrong, Methos,” MacLeod insisted. “You are not the same man who committed these crimes.”
“So you’re saying I should trust in divine intervention here?” Methos suggested, barely able to keep his sneer in.
“Do not mock me. If you want to put it that way, then yes, I think you should make a stand and trust in divine justice.”
Methos stared into those too earnest features, wishing to every god he’d ever paid lip service to that he could believe in just one thing as strongly as Duncan MacLeod did. “Do you honestly believe that the angels will side with one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Highlander?”
“No, but that man doesn’t exist, not anymore. I believe they will side with the man who spared that desert healer and Darius so long ago. I believe they will back a man who has spent the last two thousand years healing the sick and furthering Man’s knowledge. If you run tonight, you deny that man his right to stand up and say – this is who and what I am now. The past will haunt you forever. You will be a fugitive, skulking out of town every time another Immortal shows up. I love you, but I canna live like that.”
“So, what you’re asking is for me to make a choice – either I do this your way or we’re through?” Methos checked.
“This isn’t about what I want, Methos. If it were, then neither of us would ever have to fight another challenge,” Mac said.
“Then what is it about?” Methos demanded. “In one syllable, please. I need to understand this.”
“You’ve suffered too much to make the life you have here to throw it all away. We…we’ve just found each other. Give us a chance to grow. I need you in my life, Methos. I need to know that you’re not gonna be slipping out of town every time some ghost from the past shows up. You gave me your word that you wouldn’t desert me. Keep that promise. Make a stand. I swear that I’ll be right there beside you, no matter who comes to our door, no matter what horror story they have to tell.”
There was that our door again, Methos noted. He hadn’t expected MacLeod to pull out that promise, but, staring into that serious, snow-speckled face, Methos encountered something he hadn’t planned on – true fear. Mac was just as upset and afraid of losing him as he was of losing MacLeod.
He took a deep breath and weighed his options. Run, and lose MacLeod’s respect and love, or stay and finish what Death started four millennia ago. There was a time when one more death on his conscience wouldn’t have mattered, but…that time was long past. He’d promised himself he was done with the past, that he would never accept a challenge and end up killing those he’d wronged so long ago, but…MacLeod was right as well. He had a right to a life. He hadn’t issued this challenge. If he ran, he would lose everything that mattered to him, the most important thing being this shivering man standing beside him.
Methos gulped, then warned, “Some night that ghost might be Cassandra at our door, sword in hand. Are you going to stand beside me then?”
Mac didn’t like that thought, that much was plain. But the Highlander met his eyes and nodded, “Yes.”
That single word was as good as a solemn vow.
Methos dropped his gaze. “I…don’t know a lot about right, Mac. You understand it. Can you tell me in good conscience that taking Longford’s head instead of leaving tonight is the right thing to do? I promised myself that I’d never kill them, that I’d bring them no more harm than I’d already inflicted upon them…”
Mac’s rough palmed hand cupped his cheek and guided his eyes back up. That course skinned hand was a burning heat against his freezing flesh.
“He can walk away,” Mac said. “If he doesn’t…that’s his choice.”
“And that makes it right?” it was a moronic question, but Methos was truly lost. Twenty-one hundred years ago, he’d debated morals with Socrates and Aristotle. He played Devil’s Advocate on a daily basis while teaching doctorial classes in philosophy and ethics, had done so for centuries, but he hadn’t a clue as to what the proper course of action was in this circumstance, and, for perhaps the first time in his life, doing the right thing mattered.
“That’s not usually your line,” Mac gently commented, not answering the question, Methos noted.
“Answer the question.”
MacLeod bit his lower lip for a second, and then nodded. “He doesn’t have the right to punish the you that exists now for the acts of a you that has been dead for millennia. Stay. Face him. Let the field of honor decide who’s got the right in it.”
So Mac didn’t know, either. MacLeod’s best suggestion was that Methos leave it up to the fates that had historically snatched every moment of happiness from him. But if he left, he’d be willingly abandoning the one person who had never failed him yet, the lover who had just sworn to stand beside him, no matter what atrocity from his past showed up. Methos wanted this man too much to even try to make an objective decision.
“Leave it in the hands of the gods?” Methos quizzed. Even when he’d had belief in such beings, Methos hadn’t had the courage to let himself be judged by them. After three hundred years of science, the concept itself seemed nearly as primitive as reading the future in a handful of thrown chicken bones…but, Methos had once possessed the skill to read those bones. And, Duncan MacLeod, who knew right better than any man Methos had met throughout all of history, believed in him.
Mac nodded, something in his eyes seeming to say that MacLeod had no hope of winning here.
That, more than anything, decided Methos.
Mac needed to believe that the cause of right would always win. It was one of the most basic components of his lover’s character. And, for whatever reason, Mac had convinced himself that his lover was in the right here.
Methos knew if he sneaked off into the night like he’d done a thousand times in the past, Mac would be crushed. Duncan MacLeod’s righteous arrogance was his most irritating characteristic, but it was the trait that had allowed this young warrior to survive challenges that the Highlander had no realistic hope of winning. His friend needed that surety to survive. Mac had endured so many blows to his faith this last decade: nearly every old friend MacLeod encountered seemed to end up at the end of his sword, and those that didn’t were dropping like flies. Tessa, Darius, Sean Byrnes, Lucas Desiree, Jim Coltec, May Ling Shen and Fitz’s deaths had left MacLeod emotionally bereft and vulnerable; with the exception of Joe Dawson, Methos himself, that smart-mouthed kid Ryan and the none-too-reliable Amanda, Valicourts and Kit, MacLeod had very few members left of the clan he’d made for himself over the long centuries.
Methos knew that Mac wasn’t like him. Duncan needed people to believe in. With every new loss, a little more of MacLeod’s chivalric ideals seemed to drift away. The man Duncan MacLeod had been even so short a time ago as when Tessa lived would never have taken Ingrid Henning’s life the way this MacLeod had last year. As much as Methos wanted his friend to lose a little of his idiotic, idealistic blinders, Methos didn’t want Mac to become just another of their kind, killing automatically without rhyme or reason. This man was the best of them and Methos was determined to see that MacLeod survived the Game with his optimism and compassion intact. Methos certainly wasn’t going to be the one to take them from Mac, which his leaving just might do.
Though he didn’t understand it, Methos had observed the changes his loving had wrought in this man. Mac was much more his old self, far more given to laughter of late than brooding. If Methos were to cut the emotional legs out from under MacLeod now by running, his friend would doubtless survive, but the blow to MacLeod’s faith might be catastrophic. Methos knew how much it had taken for Mac to enter into their relationship – the leap of faith it had required to open one’s heart to a biblical monster. Add to that the cultural taboos Mac had willingly violated on Methos’ behalf and you had some fairly major emotional investment here.
Methos might never have asked MacLeod for that type of commitment, but he rejoiced in it. A man this good was careful with whom he became involved. To be deemed worthy by MacLeod of that kind of love, after everything Methos had done in his life, was the most affirming gift Methos had ever been given. To throw that gift back in MacLeod’s face now would be unconscionable.
So…he would stay, against his better judgment. Methos still felt that accepting the challenge was completely wrong, that the only right course was to run and spare both their lives, but…once again Duncan MacLeod was more important to him than morals. He’d stepped aside and let Byron die at this man’s asking. Now he would violate the only solemn vow he’d ever kept in his life for the same reason.
“All right,” Methos agreed, too drained by the events of the night to have any energy left for arguing.
“What?” Mac asked, his teeth visibly chattering.
“I’ll face him.”
A lesser man would have smiled over this victory, but Mac seemed to understand what it had taken. A somber set to his features, MacLeod nodded and rested his hand in the center of Methos’ back. “Thank you. Come on, let’s go inside.”
They’d been arguing on the quay so long that the warmth of the barge was actually painful. Methos’ face, ears and hands smarted like there was acid seeping through his skin. Seeing how red all of Mac’s exposed flesh had turned, Methos wondered if he were as bright.
The mood between them was subdued as they shook off the snow and removed their coats inside the door. The discomfort level was high. Another few minutes out there, and they both would have had severe frostbite. As it was, their hair was soaked, plastered to their skulls by the melted snow, their jeans not in much better shape.
While Methos made a beeline for the bathroom, Mac moved towards the fireplace.
Once he’d used the facilities, brushed his teeth and had a quick shower on the off chance that Mac might be feeling romantic after that horrible scene, Methos left the bathroom.
“Love the outfit,” Mac said, giving a small smile as he passed Methos on his own way into the bathroom.
Methos hadn’t thought anything would make him feel better tonight, but the sheer normality of that teasing comment raised his spirits immensely. He couldn’t help but glance down at the clothing in question. While his red socks, white long john bottoms and Mac’s borrowed, russet Henley were sexy by no stretch of the imagination, they were warm, and that was all that mattered to him at the moment.
Like a moth, Methos was drawn to the crackling fire Mac had started in the fireplace that dominated the center of the barge’s living room area. Startled, he saw that his lover had also left a tray on the nearby coffee table. Teapot, mugs, crème and sugar…Mac had read his mind. After pouring them both a cuppa, Methos stood in front of the hearth, soaking up its life-giving warmth, sipping his tea as he listened to the wind rage outside the portholes and the rush of running water from the bathroom. In the last three months, the barge had become more of a home than he’d had in what felt like forever.
He heard the toilet flush and some more water running, then a couple of minutes later Mac joined him.
Methos swallowed hard as he took in the burnished glow the firelight gave MacLeod’s skin. In that white terrycloth bathrobe, with his damp hair loose around his shoulders, Mac looked positively edible.
“Thanks,” Mac said, picking up the tea mug Methos had prepared for him.
Methos tilted his head in acknowledgement, watching as Mac settled into the corner of the couch.
MacLeod sipped his tea for a moment, then patted the cushion beside him. “Join me?”
Carefully balancing his tea mug, Methos sank down beside his friend. The speed with which MacLeod’s arm surrounded his shoulders cheered him. There wasn’t nearly as much conversation as usual, but the night had the feel of the dozens of others they had spent together in this room. Methos was still a little astonished by Mac’s acceptance. After hearing what he’d done to Longford, Methos wouldn’t have blamed his lover if MacLeod had needed some room tonight. But that banding arm was just as affectionate as on any other evening.
After an indecisive moment, Methos took his usual position, shifting so that his back was leaning against Mac’s side and he was nestled in the crook of the Highlander’s arm with the back of his head resting on Mac’s right breast plate. When MacLeod’s right elbow dropped down to circle his chest like it had every other night, Methos released a shuddery sigh and hugged Mac’s arm close to him with his free arm.
“I…need you to know something,” Mac said with ominous solemnity.
“Yes?” he waited, prepared for anything other than the words that followed.
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but…I’m very proud of you,” Mac said.
Methos hissed in a breath, feeling like a knife had just slid between his ribs. He was anything but proud of himself at the moment. He knew Mac had to have some twisted view of his rationale for lingering in order to have made that statement; the Highlander was no doubt proscribing all types of heroic motivations to his decision.
“Don’t delude yourself, Mac,” Methos warned.
“I’m not. I know that it’s not honor that’s keeping you here, that you’re doing this for me, out of love. Just know…I don’t take that gift lightly.”
Methos squeezed his eyes shut. By the gods, MacLeod did understand…
“We have to get up early. Did you want to just sleep tonight?” Mac asked.
“I won’t sleep, not tonight,” Methos denied. “You’d better go in without me.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” Mac chuckled, squeezing him closer, dropping a quick kiss on the vulnerable spot behind his ear.
Methos gasped under the contrast of the cool shiver that shuddered down his spine and warm spattering of tea on his tummy.
“Sorry,” Mac apologized, taking the mug out of his hand and squishing them both as he reached across Methos to safely deposit it on the coffee table. “Now let’s try it. Some of us don’t like to be distracted the night before battle. What do you normally do?”
Methos realized that this was the first night they’d spent together before either one of them met a challenge. Nerves hit everyone differently. Mac was just trying to figure out how to comfort him. His sarcasm getting the better of him, he sassed, “Leave town.”
To his surprise, that earned him another of those earthy chuckles. Mac asked around his laughter, “Barring that, what would you like to do?”
“Not to sound unimaginative, but I’m rather fond of what we do every night,” Methos quietly answered. Though that kiss MacLeod had given him seemed to indicate sex was where this was leading, he wasn’t taking anything for granted. The memories of those horrible things he’d done were so real to him tonight that Methos was a little repulsed at being inside the skin of the man who’d committed those heinous crimes. He couldn’t imagine wanting to voluntarily touch it.
“I was hoping that you’d say that,” Mac said. Methos could hear the smile in his voice.
The hand that had been resting so innocently against Methos’ sternum slid up to finger Methos’ left nipple through his rust colored shirt. Methos hissed in a breath at the sensation that skyrocketed through him. Not only could he feel it from the inside, but he could see that nipple go hard between Mac’s squeezing fingers and peak up to nearly twice its original size. Its neighbor was located and treated to similar teasing a few minutes later. Meanwhile, MacLeod put that cupid’s mouth of his to use, nuzzling and licking at Methos’ neck until the older Immortal was shaking as bad as he’d been out on the dock a half hour ago.
He felt unworthy of the gentle love play after tonight’s side trip into one of the darker incidents of his sordid past. Methos knew that had he been with any other man, if he were touched at all after tonight’s charming revelations, he would have been violently fucked through the floorboards. He would have understood and almost welcomed a partner purging his contempt on his flesh, but…astonishingly enough, this incredibly judgmental man didn’t seem to hold those acts against him.
MacLeod truly seemed to view those deeds as the acts of a completely different person, who just happened to have been inhabiting Methos’ body at the time. Though in his heart Methos knew that those types of crimes were forever beyond him, he’d never believed anyone else could be completely sure of him, never expected anyone who knew the whole truth to have such…trust in his integrity. Of course, Mac could just be visiting that same Egyptian river Pam Tillis had made popular a few years back. Denial was such a funny thing, but…Methos didn’t think so. The Highlander had been just as bothered by Methos’ recitation of his crimes against Longford as the other men at the table. It was only Mac’s love for him that allowed him to transcend the issue.
Methos could sense that love guiding every touch. He’d never felt anything like it. That tenderness was so far from what he felt he deserved tonight that it left his eyes stinging, swimming in burning salt water that he was too ashamed to let loose. He couldn’t stop the occasional droplet from seeping out of the corner of his eyes as Mac’s hands continued their loving exploration, but he was able to hold back the embarrassing display. It hurt to be so loved when punishment and abandonment were warranted.
Mac’s fingers gripped the bottom of Methos’ shirt. He lifted his arms as it was tugged upwards, turning and squirming so that MacLeod could pull his long johns, boxers and socks off immediately afterward. He ended up kneeling naked on the couch beside his lover, who was still wedged into the couch corner facing him. The cooler air pricked his flesh up in goose bumps or it might have been a reaction to what MacLeod’s gaze moving hungrily over his bared body was doing to him.
Bewilderment replaced the want on those perfect features as that roving gaze met his own. Methos tensed as Mac’s right index finger reached out to brush the wetness on his cheek.
To his shock and utter confusion, MacLeod didn’t interrogate him, confining his questions to a simple, “You all right?”
Methos wanted to offer some glib reassurance to convince his friend, but all he could do was fall into those bottomless brown eyes and nod.
Needing to take the emphasis off his fragile emotional state, Methos reached for the belt of MacLeod’s terrycloth robe. It opened immediately. Methos slipped the garment from those broad shoulders, his eyes doing their own reconnaissance. He could almost feel the beloved dichotomy of the firm softness of his lover’s chest with his eyes.
As ever, Mac gave into desire soonest, reaching out to grip Methos’ shoulders and tug him down into a kiss. That mouth was the most luscious treat Methos could recall, and for all his comparative youth, Mac knew how to use it. They sucked and kneaded at each other until a DNA test would have been unable to separate their saliva in any given sample.
MacLeod’s right hand swept from Methos right shoulder, down his side, over his waist, then down and inwards, homing in on a certain organ that was biting at the bit for some attention, as it were. Quicksilver delight danced through him as Mac’s rough palm circled his cock, sliding his foreskin up and down as he began a familiar, but totally devastating pumping.
MacLeod’s left hand settled between his shoulder blades and gave a gentle push. Never one to need a formal invitation, Methos leaned forward, ending up in a strange position. His upper left chest was pressed tight against the still sitting MacLeod’s right side, making their kiss that much more comfortable, but his lower body was still kneeling beside his friend.
They played tongue tag forever…until it penetrated Methos’ dazed mind that, although he was already well on the way to nirvana, he hadn’t touched Mac’s shaft at all yet. That being an unbearable lapse, Methos immediately ripped his mouth free.
MacLeod’s incoherent protest died as Methos’ teeth and tongue found that powerful neck. Mac was partial to playful nips there.
A man on a mission, Methos was glad of the time he’d spent in Tibet, for his current position rapidly turned into a yoga pose as he worked his way down Mac’s chest and abdomen. After three months of constant exposure, it should have been familiar, predictable territory, but Methos always felt almost awed as this invincible warrior arched under him, delivering himself up into Methos’ care.
Mac gave so much of himself, was so utterly there in the moment and open to the pleasure Methos gave that Methos was always sizzling at this point. And beyond that, every touch seemed to up the voltage of that weird energy web that always formed between them whenever they made love.
He could already feel Mac’s lifeforce pulsing through his skin, like the lightning of a Quickening. However, there was no pain, only nerve-melting pleasure, a delight so raw that it made a five thousand year old, sexually active male quiver like a virgin every time it jolted through him.
Methos’ tongue followed the intimate trail of dark body hair that arrowed down Mac’s flat stomach. Because MacLeod was sitting and not lying down, that erect cock nudged at his face before he’d even reached the pubic mound.
Dizzied by the heady blast of musk, Methos’ mouth started to water. He’d always had an oral fixation, but even if he hadn’t, the taste of that moisture-beaded flesh would have made an addict out of him. Crawling backwards on the couch, Methos gave himself some moving room. Once he had sufficient space to work in, he swooped down on that dewy, red prize like a descending eagle.
Mac’s cry as he was absorbed into Methos’ mouth filled the firelit barge. Everything about Mac was so beautiful in this flickering, romantic light. MacLeod was a glossy gold everywhere, save where desire had tainted him blood red.
Methos’ greedily sucked upon the ruddiest part, that salty, spicy, male flavor flushing through him. Mac was so thick here that Methos’ jaw actually ached from the stretch, but it was the sweetest strain Methos knew. Employing tongue and suction, he brought his friend to whimpering fullness.
He loved the rush that came from hearing this mighty warrior cry out his name with such naked need. Methos might have gloried in that sensation longer, but Mac knew the great equalizer where Methos was concerned.
Methos was there bobbing away, fellating that perfect cock for all that he was worth, arrogantly relishing MacLeod’s helpless surrender to the pleasure he could give, when Mac evened the score.
MacLeod was never a passive partner in passion. The Highlander’s hands were always moving over Methos when they did this, but Methos could pretty much ignore strokes to his neck, back, chest or flanks. Even when Mac took hold of his cock, Methos had a certain degree of control. But Duncan had learned his Achilles heel.
Just when Methos was feeling a bit too pleased with himself, Mac’s rough palmed, right hand brushed across his left buttock. Though he gasped a little around the seeping cock in his mouth, Methos was none-the-less still able to hold it together. That was, until Mac’s fingertips slid between the cheeks of his ass.
Methos’ entire neural system jerked with the pleasure of that touch. He released a muffled groan around the saliva slick shaft blocking his throat, wincing under the sweet agony as his nose pressed into Mac’s pubic hair.
Methos knelt frozen there in that awkward position, unable to move or breathe, every muscle taut with anticipation.
MacLeod didn’t disappoint him. The tip of Mac’s thick middle finger tentatively circled the tight, quivering entrance to his body that was hidden there.
Methos had never understood his over-sensitivity there, but it really was as if his sphincter were hot-wired to his groin. The second Mac’s finger rimmed him, he was propelled to a new level of arousal. His entire body broke out in a sudden sweat, everything freezing as Methos concentrated his entire being on that tight little hole.
He heard Mac’s left hand fumbling beside him on the couch cushion, but was too lost in the feel of that blunt fingertip pressing steadily against his center to even open his eyes to see.
His eyelids snapping apart, Methos lifted his head from Mac’s cock and cried out “No!” as MacLeod’s hand left its snug sheath between his cheeks.
“Ssssh,” Mac soothed, bending sideways towards him.
Methos face was pressed against Mac’s flat, muscular stomach by the move. Both of MacLeod’s elbows settled upon Methos’ spine for a second or two, resting upon his bent back as though Methos were a table as the Highlander’s hands worked at some unseen task that had nothing to do with Methos’ body.
A moment or so later, Mac’s right hand slid back between his buttocks. The middle finger returned to its former position, only this time it was slathered with gooey lubricant.
Methos’ rudimentary intelligence, all that ever operated once he was aroused to this level, realized that Mac must have had the lube tube in the pocket of his robe. That was his MacLeod. Like any good little Boy Scout, his friend was always prepared.
Methos sighed as that long finger slowly sank into him, past the knuckle, penetrating as deep as it would go. It circled inside him, thoroughly loosening him up before the index finger joined it.
MacLeod might have been a relative newcomer to sex between men three months ago, but his lover was a virtuoso at it these days. Mac made an art form out of such mundane tasks as lubricating. What the Highlander did when his cock came into play was transforming.
Mac spent a long time working the flesh back there until he was ready, far longer than any lover Methos could remember. Two, then three fingers moved in and out of Methos’ body in unison, circling, scissoring, and stretching Methos until he was receptive enough to receive the thick shaft that was waiting.
Methos considered their positions. He still had his head in the sitting Highlander’s lap as he knelt beside Duncan on the couch. Mac’s arm was draped down his spine, his fingers penetrating Methos from above. Interesting from an aesthetic angle, but as far as satisfaction was concerned, Methos was facing the wrong way.
Tomorrow’s battle heavy on his heart, Methos was fully aware that this was the last night he might ever have. It pleased him that he was doing what he loved best, with the person he’d loved most in his extensive lifespan.
Lifting his head from the crotch he was still pleasuring, Methos stared up at his lover’s face. Mac was so gloriously intent on what his fingers were doing at Methos’ anus, his soft expression as close to worshipful as Methos had ever seen. When they were touching each other like this, it almost scared him, for it was too close to the ideal Methos had searched his entire life for, but never found. He shivered, feeling his death upon him as he rarely had in five thousand years. Poe was right. The angels envied love like this.
“You ready?” Mac questioned, his voice thick with need, beads of sweat running down his face, glinting in the firelight like liquid diamonds.
“Always,” Methos rasped back, way ahead of the Highlander in the need department.
Mac’s fingers carefully withdrew.
“What’re you doin’?” MacLeod rumbled as Methos changed position on the couch, shifting to lie on his back.
Methos meaningfully lifted an eyebrow, pulled his knees tight to his chest and let his ingenious partner come to the proper conclusion.
An expression of unspeakable tenderness crossed MacLeod’s handsome features as he hastily knelt on the couch cushion between Methos’ upraised legs.
Methos watched the play of emotion across that beloved face as Mac positioned himself at the entrance to his body and began to sink in. Always so cautious, always so gentle, Mac never took Methos’ prior experience with men for granted as excuse to go for the gold without proper warm-up as so many other contenders in the past had done. Even with Byron, Methos was fortunate half the time if they used spit as a lubricant.
Methos memorized every fleeting expression as Mac fully sheathed himself, wanting to keep this image close to his heart tomorrow at dawn on that ill-boding bridge.
Mac’s bulk was as impressive as ever, the stretch uncomfortable, despite all the foreplay. MacLeod was just so thick there. Not as long as some Methos had known, but by far the meatiest. Adjustment was as deliciously slow as the penetration.
Mac knew what he was doing now and changed his entry angle slightly, at just the right moment to result in the internal collision that never failed to jumpstart Methos’ entire reality. One second, Methos was gasping in breath, trying to force his body to accommodate a bulk that was just too big for comfort, the next that intrusive, organic telephone pole was rubbing up against that internal pleasure button, catapulting Methos to another dimension.
The pleasure crashed through him like thunder, shaking all Methos was and knew with its brilliance. Groaning under the barrage, Methos wrapped his legs around Mac’s slender hips, dug his heels into those well-padded buttocks and spurred the man forward as he’d once spurred his warhorse on.
Mac grunted and fell towards him, plunging into him to the hilt.
Methos’ arms encircled those broad shoulders, holding Mac’s head to his shoulder as they both gasped for much needed breath.
The power exchange alone was enough to undo Methos. He felt like he’d just stuck his tongue into a wall socket; there was so much energy sizzling between their neural networks. Made dizzy by the deluge, Methos hung on for dear life.
“You okay?” Mac growled into his ear, seeming barely able to hold it together under the power jolting him.
This was getting almost frightening. Methos could see it in his lover’s eyes how alien this entire energy conduit was to Mac. Every time they got together, it seemed to hit them stronger, as though it were slowly building to something unknown, perhaps something totally unique to their kind.
Methos nodded. Knowing what he wanted, he brushed the dangling hair clear of Mac’s face and softly asked, “How’s your back, Highlander?”
“My back?” MacLeod looked like he’d just addressed him in ancient Sumerian or some other equally incomprehensible language.
Clutching Mac tight with both his arms and legs, Methos hoarsely ordered, “Lift me.”
After a bit of maneuvering on Mac’s part, Methos felt himself being carefully eased off the couch cushion. That javelin stuck up Methos’ center pierced him even deeper as his support was removed and that internal spike became his sturdiest hold on MacLeod’s body.
He’d never heard Mac give the kind of shocked moan that came when Methos’ body settled so deeply around his cock. Methos knew that he was not a slight man. Though nowhere near as dense as MacLeod’s muscular form, he was long. What there was of him was all corded muscle. This position wasn’t easy on Mac. The strain on his lover’s back and legs was phenomenal, but Methos knew from personal experience that the heightened sensation of this unprecedented, deep penetration far outweighed the discomfort.
It didn’t get deeper than this. For as long as MacLeod’s muscles could endure, this would be the ride of his life.
For Methos’ part, it was like being skewered on the end of a war pike. There was blessed little physical pleasure to be had from this end. Mac was too busy just trying to hold him up for there to be any friction against Methos’ prostate. Methos had endured tortures that hurt less than this, and yet…it was beautiful all the same. There was no more intimate gift he could give than this. This was as close as two males could get while maintaining separate bodies. Mac was owning him as only one other man had in history, and even there, that previous union paled by comparison.
A mortal would have crumpled after a minute or so; Mac held out for what felt like forever. Though his arms and legs were clutching MacLeod’s sturdy form with strangling tightness, Methos could feel his strained flesh starting to rip as his weight and gravity bore him inexorably down.
Grimacing under the intense discomfort, Methos buried his face in the crook of Mac’s shoulder.
Astonished by his lover’s prowess, he felt Mac stagger away from the couch. They moved away from the living room area, away from the warmth of the hearth, in the opposite direction from the expected bedroom.
Methos grunted as the support of Mac’s left hand on his back left him. He felt MacLeod’s arm sweep out in front of them. A couple of loud crashes followed. Methos opened his eyes as he was carefully lowered downwards. Shocked, Methos found himself deposited on the icy coldness of MacLeod’s now bare wooden desk.
At first he was confused by their destination, then he realized that the desk was the only piece of flat furniture in the room that was groin level. If Mac had put him down anywhere else, they would have lost the depth of this agonizingly intense union. He’d always known Duncan was a bright boy.
Methos was barely flat when Mac began moving.
Dazed, Methos realized that he’d finally found the ticket to circumventing his partner’s sometimes annoying protective streak. There was no restraint here. That sustained, almost Tantric pose had unleashed a part of Mac Methos had only seen rare glimpses of. The Highlander slammed into him full force, the way Kronos used to do when furious with him. Only…this wasn’t about anger. This was about need, and desperation, and a complex tangle of other emotions that even a five thousand year old man couldn’t define.
And it was about power: the simple dynamics that made every human relationship tick – the savage need to own, and the equally feral need to be owned. Methos wanted this man to mark him as his. He wanted MacLeod to brand his very soul, so that tomorrow when he faced that man he had wronged so terribly, there wouldn’t be even vestigial traces of the conqueror Methos had been all those countless centuries ago. There would only be this Methos, the one who was good enough for Duncan MacLeod to love.
For savage and wild as this was, it was still love. Methos felt as open emotionally as he was physically. Every time Mac slammed into him with all his weight behind him, their eyes would meet and a bridge would be formed between their very souls. Grunting and crying out at the force of the impact, Methos melted inside. Every thrust hit his prostate so hard on the way in that the agony transformed into equally piercing delight.
His eyes wide open, his face twisted with god knew what emotions, Methos saw himself in the tiny black mirrors that were Mac’s pupils, knew MacLeod was seeing himself mirrored in his own. At that moment, they were each other. There were no barriers, no yesterdays and no tomorrows, only the now and this intimate knowledge of death in life and pain in pleasure that would transform them the way childbirth did women.
And, then, there was the other kind of power to contend with, the kind that was sparking around them like a Quickening. This time, Methos knew it wasn’t just his imagination. Every time Mac rammed into him, blinding flashes of electricity bled out into the air around Mac like capillaries shooting out from a vein. Methos could almost smell the sulfur as the sparks faded.
Adrenaline, fear and desire combining, Methos squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the disturbing sight of those lightning bolts, concentrating on the equally devastating internal blasts.
Every time Mac pounded into him, he grunted as he slid up the desk. Mac’s hands on his hips would pull Methos back down as he withdrew from his body, then the process would be repeated with the next entry.
He’d been raped countless times in his life, but even there, where there had been no regard for his well-being at all, the sex hadn’t been this primal, this unbound. And yet, for all its unbridled savagery, Methos did not feel ill-used.
Methos sensed an almost imperceptible difference in the dynamics operating between them. Looking up at the sweating, grunting man owning him, Methos at last realized what was happening here. The final barrier, that of civility, had dropped away. Tonight they were showing each other a part of themselves that they had bared to no other lover. Methos knew that the ever-honorable Duncan MacLeod had never let himself go like this with a woman in his life. And, Methos himself…for all his savagery as Death, he had never allowed himself to be willingly taken like this. Kronos might have raped him this hard, but it had never been consensual. He wanted Mac to let loose on him like this. They might never have another night this rough and wild in their lives, might never need another night like this, but tonight there was something totally purifying about it. Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, what was left of them after this incendiary union would be something totally new…a love with no barriers.
Eventually, they reached critical mass. MacLeod plunged into him so deep Methos thought his lover’s cock would surface up his throat. With an almost audible, internal whoosh, Methos entire neural network melted, his cock spurting his liquefied self up at MacLeod.
It sounded like his coming scalded Mac, so nerve rending was the scream his lover released.
MacLeod stilled within him. Methos sensed, rather than felt the powerful spurts that bathed him internally. Mac’s back arched as the pleasure was ripped from him, his face a raptured rictus of its usual self.
Then orgasm passed and the Highlander slumped forward, burying his face in the hollow of Methos’ shoulder as the not inconsiderable impact of his weight knocked the breath from Methos.
For his own part, Methos wrapped his legs and arms around his collapsed lover, closed his eyes, and held on with desperate tenderness as he waited for his world to stop spinning.
They both groaned as Mac slipped his cock out a few minutes later, but neither of them moved yet.
Methos could feel both their hearts pounding like the thundering hoofs of an approaching cavalry.
Finally, Mac pressed a wet kiss against Methos’ neck and rose with a groan.
“Thank God,” Methos heard Mac whisper.
Forcing his eyes apart, the best Methos could offer was a semi-coherent, “Hmmm?”
“I was sure I’d ripped you to pieces,” MacLeod confessed.
Methos looked up in time to catch the blush. He lowered his gaze to the organic skewer that had given him such transcendental pleasure. Sure enough, it was just a normal, deflated penis now…a penis that, though smeared with the unavoidable, less than appealing mementos of where it had been, was remarkably free of blood.
“I’d’ve died happy,” Methos quipped, feeling strangely light hearted.
He could see Mac was having some trouble handling what they’d just unloosed on each other.
“Let it be, Mac,” Methos said, stroking the last of the perspiration from his lover’s brow and pushing the damp hair back.
“I…I never…” Mac tried to explain.
“Me, neither. I wanted it, though,” Methos admitted. If he didn’t return tomorrow, he didn’t want Mac off on a guilt trip over the most satisfying, if frightening sex of his life.
Methos sat up on the desk, doing his best to hold in the resultant moan. He could feel a dozen strains healing as he moved.
“Are you…I mean…”
Methos looked up at the incoherent, self-conscious half-question. “What is it, Duncan?”
Using Mac’s first name acted like a charm. It seemed to cut through his companion’s fretting like a katana through silk.
“I meant to comfort you,” Mac quietly offered.
“And so you did. Help me down?” Methos asked, even though he was fully capable of sliding from the desktop unassisted.
He hugged the Highlander as he was guided onto the deck. The pressure of those arms that immediately surrounded him was immensely reassuring. As recently as last week, Methos would have worried that he’d taken Mac too far, too fast, but he was as blown away by what they’d done as his less experienced companion.
Neither of them seemed to know what to say, so they just held onto each other until Methos’ shivering became too obvious.
“You’re freezing,” Mac whispered, his voice fond and loving as he pulled back. Mac’s gaze looked as sleepy as overwhelmed. “Let’s go to bed.”
A moment later, Methos was under the heavy duvet, with the living furnace of Duncan MacLeod pressed tight against his back and Mac’s right arm banding him, holding him tight against the Highlander’s chest.
Methos could feel the sleep stealing through his lover as he relaxed against the mattress. With a battle to be fought in a few, brief hours, Methos would find no rest himself, but it was calming to be held so close to MacLeod as the night ticked away.
For better or worse, for the sake of the man softly snoring behind him, he was committed to this fight tomorrow. Trying to still his mind, Methos lay there, attempting to synchronize his breathing to MacLeod’s. He wished the night would never end, that he could spend eternity under the loving weight of that warm body lying half on top of him, breathing in the lingering, gamy scent of their love making.
But all nights had to end, the best as well as the worst. Methos felt as though he had barely gotten comfortable when MacLeod was stirring behind him.
“Mmmm…” Mac mumbled, pressing his groin against Methos’ ass before he was fully awake.
Methos smiled into his pillow and arched backwards. They were angled right for once. Mac slid home on their first try. Knowing that his lover was still more asleep than awake, Methos rocked his hips back and forth, creating the friction needed to bring his sleepy friend up. All his night specters of death and mortality disappeared from Methos’ mind as that shaft pulsed to fullness within him. Once again, all there was in his world was this man loving him.
MacLeod’s sleepy morning erection turned to active interest. Methos knew the exact moment that Duncan woke up. Mac’s cock throbbed to living steel and the Highlander’s hips did their own pumping as Mac’s hand fumbled around in front of Methos for his cock. Two, three, six thrusts, some frantic pumping of Mac’s hand, and they were both tumbling over the edge into sweet oblivion.
“Good morning,” Methos greeted once he was able to think again.
“’morning,” Mac sighed, kissing the back of his neck as he slipped out of him. “You’ve been awake all night; haven’t you?”
Methos yawned and flexed under his lover. “Yes.”
Now that morning was here, all he really wanted to do was sleep. That was always the way with him – too nervy to sleep beforehand, then too strung out to perform at peak.
He shivered as Mac kissed the spot where spine and neck met. Methos thought he’d get a lecture, but Mac just squeezed him tighter.
“You up to breakfast?” MacLeod questioned.
“I’m coming with you as your second,” Mac announced. He felt MacLeod’s body tense, as if braced for an objection.
Methos, who’d expected nothing else, merely nodded. “I’d best go shower.”
He rolled over and made the mistake of looking into those impossibly expressive eyes. Guilt, worry, fear…it was all there, but mostly, it was love Methos saw there.
He gulped, found his voice and promised, “I’ll do what I have to this morning. I…want to live.”
Mac’s mouth opened as if to answer and then closed without saying a word. The Highlander nodded his understanding and together they left the bed.
Methos forced a smile as his be-robed lover’s eyes widened when he came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later. He’d known his choice of clothing would get a reaction. The jeans were his own, of course, but the gray sweater and black tee shirt he had on top of them were those that Duncan had worn to the club last night.
“I’ve got clean ones in the dresser,” Mac offered. “I sweated like a pig in those last night. They must reek to high heaven.”
His smile was legit as Methos replied, “I know. They do. That’s why I’m wearing them. You mind?”
He loved that bashful look Mac got when taken completely by surprise and the blush that followed it. With an audible swallow, MacLeod shook his head.
Appearing even more uncertain, Mac reached into his white bathrobe’s pocket as Methos neared the dining area table where MacLeod was sitting. “I wanted you to carry this with you.”
Methos stared in confusion at the object in Mac’s hand. The black rosary beads were wooden, ugly and probably at least four centuries old.
“You want me to carry your favor into battle?” Methos tried for his usual urbanity, but even he could hear the shock in his own voice. Of all things he could ever imagine Duncan MacLeod giving him, a set of Catholic rosary beads was probably the last thing on the list.
“These belonged to Darius. I think he’d want you to have them…for luck.”
Darius again. Sometimes Methos was almost jealous of the influence that monk had had over MacLeod. But not this morning. He’d take any help he could get with this upcoming confrontation.
Methos gulped and opened his palm to receive the gift. He wasn’t surprised by the buzz that hit him when the warm beads, smoothed by centuries of constant use, settled into his hand. Myrddid’s most intimate possessions had that same type of resonance to them, as though the power of the man who’d carried them were ingrained in the molecular structure of the mundane objects.
“Thank you,” Methos acknowledged, a little tight-throated already. There were so many things he still had to say to this man, the same impossible truths he’d never be able to voice, even if they had a million years together.
“Put them in your pocket,” Mac suggested.
“I don’t think so,” Methos said, then before Mac had a chance to react, he slipped the beads over his head and stuck them under his borrowed sweater. “It may be sacrilegious, but that’s the part of me I want protected most.”
Mac managed a small smile.
“I think we’ll have at least one angel on our side this morning,” Mac said. “Darius was a strong believer in redemption.”
Methos nodded. Wishing he could say more, all he could find was, “You’d better get dressed.”
Ten minutes later, they were leaving the barge. Methos paused in the doorway to take a long look at the familiar airy space.
“You’re coming back,” MacLeod firmly stated.
“Of course I am,” Methos replied, neither of them quite ready to deal with the reality upon them.
MacLeod knew as well as he did that Longford shouldn’t have lasted a year after his first death, let alone nearly four millennia. Immature Immortals were nothing but fodder. Methos had rarely met an eighteen-year-old that lasted longer than a decade. For this man child to have survived this long in active challenges, his talents with a sword must have been as developed as his battle tactics.
It had stopped snowing some time in the early pre-dawn hours and the wind had blown the clouds out. About an inch of pristine snow covered the dock. It shone unnaturally white on the ground under the starlight.
Methos drew in a breath of the cold, sharp air.
“Yut a hey,” he muttered with a shrug.
“No,” Mac said, stopping him at the top of the gangplank. “This is not a good day to die.”
Methos gasped as his mouth was taken in a kiss that was fully as possessive as the sex they’d shared last night.
When they parted, Mac said, “That is not an option here, so don’t even go there. You are coming home this morning.”
Methos nodded and gave his friend’s shoulder a squeeze, then started down the slippery gangplank.
Side by side, they walked the mile or so to the footbridge. The snow underfoot was just deep enough to be treacherous. With every step he took, Methos could feel the sword beneath his coat banging against his outer thigh and knee like a three-foot icicle.
It was so bloody cold. It hurt to breathe. Methos hated fighting in weather like this. A man made stupid mistakes on a morning this unfriendly.
All the way there, Methos harbored the absurd hope that his opponent wouldn’t show, but even in the dark, from nearly a quarter mile away, he could see Longford’s compact frame silhouetted at the foot of the dark bridge. The curls on his adversary’s bare head caught the starlight in a silvery halo. Longford looked like an avenging angel waiting there for him…and that was definitely not an image his nerves needed.
Immortals were a superstitious lot. Even the most rational of them had their quirks. Methos, who had prided himself on nearly a thousand years of cold reason, wished with all his heart that this challenge was being fought any place but here. He could still feel Kalas’ unstoppable weight bearing him backwards over that guard rail as he’d fought in defeat to keep his hand between Kalas’ sword and its intended target. He did not want to face Longford here, not with that kind of history playing through the mental flashbacks that none of them ever seemed to be able to turn off.
The bridge itself seemed evil, rising like an ominous, metallic spider web across the Seine.
The darkness seemed to close in around him, whispering of endings in the predawn chill. The sun wasn’t even near coming up. The only hint of it was a faint graying on the eastern horizon.
“So, you made it,” Longford commented in a puff of steaming breath once they came within hearing distance. His strong featured face was so hard and cold that it looked like one of the golden coins that had borne his image in ancient Hellas.
“I’m here,” Methos replied. “We can still walk away from this. We don’t have to fight.”
“You’d like that; wouldn’t you?” Longford sneered.
“Yes,” Methos answered simply and honestly.
“Our acquaintance was right. You are a coward these days,” Longford’s contempt was palpable.
It wasn’t good. Methos could feel his nerves cracking, his sleepless night catching up with him as he tried to reason one last time, “She does not know me! You do not know me! This will prove nothing!”
His outburst didn’t even ruffle the other ancient Immortal. Sounding almost bored, Longford shrugged and said, “Perhaps, but if nothing else, it will be over.” Those chilling blue eyes slipped past Methos. Longford’s chin gestured towards MacLeod. “He’s here to…?”
“Help bury you,” Mac said, nothing warm in his tone or features. His attitude seeming to change as he took in the comparative youth of Methos’ opponent, MacLeod made a final try for sanity with, “Methos is right. You prove nothing by this challenge, Alexander of Macedon. The past is long gone. Let it go. Let there be peace between you and my friend.”
Methos thought he could almost hear the voice of the man whose rosary beads he wore around his neck echoed in Duncan’s earnest tone.
Longford’s reaction was hardly surprising – to Methos. MacLeod still was delusional enough to appear startled by the degree of contempt his plea for peace garnered.
“One cannot make peace with monsters,” Longford spat.
A thoughtful, regretful air settled over MacLeod as his lover answered, “No, I don’t suppose one can.” Mac turned to Methos. The Highlander’s blunt, squarish hands rested on Methos’ shoulders as he looked deep into his eyes. “Come back to me, my friend.”
Then MacLeod totally shocked him by leaning in to give him a brief, but intimate kiss on the mouth, right in front of Longford.
His chilled lips warmed by the unexpected contact, Methos gasped as they parted.
MacLeod turned back to the third party present.
Longford was observing them with the kind of mild interest that only a pre-Christian could have. Strangely enough, the expression in that classical face seemed almost melancholic. “It’s like that between you; is it? He’s not worthy of you, Highlander. He’s no Hepheastian.”
Even though he knew it was foolish, Methos couldn’t help but tense at hearing his own feelings voiced by an enemy. He knew he wasn’t worthy of MacLeod, but for a stranger to be able to see that so clearly…
It was almost like MacLeod were reading his every thought. No sooner had Methos reacted to Longford’s words than Mac’s hand settled on the center of his back, offering his solid support.
“You don’t know my friend at all if you think that,” Mac answered, unruffled. “He’s a scholar and a healer-”
“And a child murderer,” Longford cut in.
“Not anymore. If you got to know him...” Mac protested.
“I’d love him, no doubt,” Longford snorted. “I don’t want to know him. I don’t care what piddling acts of kindness he’s done to dazzle your eyes and steal your honor. What he’s done can’t – and shouldn’t – be forgiven. I’m here to speak for the thousands of innocents who died on his sword. This is their day and they shall have their vengeance.”
“The dead don’t care about vengeance! The man you hate doesn’t exist anymore,” Mac insisted.
“Then he shall die in the monster’s place,” Longford shrugged.
“It could be you who dies here,” MacLeod reminded.
“So be it,” Longford answered.
“It’s useless, Mac,” Methos said, giving his lover’s arm a grateful squeeze. Turning to Longford, he said, “Let’s get this over with.”
Mac moved between them and offered up a version of the benediction that preceded most trials by combat. “Our claimants take the field today seeking justice in the sight of Man and God. Fight true and honorably. May the right prevail.”
Longford was apparently another enthusiast of this barbaric, absurd ritual, for he repeated Mac’s words in the same devout tone. “May the right prevail.”
Methos, who had no reason to believe that right prevailing would do him any good, remained silent.
“Your coats?” MacLeod offered, holding out his right arm.
Though he would have liked to keep its warmth a little longer, his long coat would only be an impediment in battle. Methos shrugged out of it and gave it over to Mac’s safekeeping.
“Mine too?” Longford questioned when MacLeod turned to him, seeming surprised by the courtesy.
Mac nodded, accepting the leather coat when Longford removed it.
It was almost like a challenge of old where the only thing that differentiated the combatants were the colors of the house they wore, Methos realized as he took in how similarly Longford and he were dressed. They were both wearing black jeans and heavy wool sweaters. Longford’s sweater was bone white, while the one Methos had borrowed from Mac was ash gray.
With a nod towards MacLeod, the Macedonian drew his sword.
Methos followed suite. His entire being was focused on staying alive as Alexander circled him, looking for an opening.
Methos saw one of his own immediately. He had a foot in height and a good eight inches in reach on his opponent. Either Longford was an over-confident fool, which Methos doubted, or this was a trap. Alex Longford was facing him as though they were equally apportioned. It looked like Methos could go right over the younger man’s guard before Longford would even know what hit him. Normally, he would have waded in, made his move and pierced the heart at that kind of advantage, but…
A man did not survive for forty centuries by making such mistakes, so he held back.
Besides, as he looked at that young, tense face, too much history was moving through Methos. As if it were just yesterday, Methos could see that same face grimacing, the slender form taut with agony as Kaspian cut into him again and again…
Methos knew himself a sentimental idiot, but the memory of the hours his brothers and he had delighted in torturing this youth were too heavy on his mind at the moment. Normally, Methos preferred to live free of the strictures of conscience, but when you were carrying something like that around with you, it was hard to move beyond it. Even now, in a life and death situation, Methos was loath to make the first move.
Alexander took the decision from his hands. Moving in, the Macedonian began a very frontal, open attack, thrust, parry, thrust…designed to take his opponent’s measure, Methos knew.
The former Horseman deflected every blow, but he held back, not following the leads Death would have taken and, incidentally, masking his true abilities as the shorter man exhausted himself with his volleys.
Longford was good; Methos had to give him that. Not as good as MacLeod, of course, but possibly as skilled as Methos himself. Within three minutes of joining the fight, Methos understood fully well how this boy had survived as long as he had. His swordsmanship was near faultless, his cunning and courage astounding. Time and time again, Longford waded in and took risks that a taller man would never have made, and survived them by benefit of his quick wits and breathtaking agility.
At one point, Longford got so close that Methos had to pull out his stiletto to deflect a killing thrust to the lung.
Longford gave a contemptuous snort, a stiletto instantly appearing in his hand as well. And then they were fighting two handed in the Florentine style, which had been called dimachaerus when Methos had fought that way in Rome. So many names, so many styles, but it all came down to the same thing – killing to stay alive.
Clash, clang, clatter…the rhythm of sword fighting was as familiar a backdrop to Methos’ life as the beat of his own heart. Like a dance, once learned and never forgotten, he fell into its seductive steps. His arms and feet moved independent of his mind, prisoner of this deadly waltz which only one of the dancers would survive.
Seeing an advantage, Methos advanced on his smaller opponent, driving him backwards.
To his surprise, Longford ceded the ground, backing up one, two steps, then quick as an arrow’s flight, the Macedonian was arching over backwards and Methos received a jarring kick to the chin as his opponent performed a back flip that Nero’s best tumblers would have admired – landing upright and agilely in an inch of slippery snow.
His senses reeling at the shock of the blow, Methos was barely able to pull himself out of the way of the sword lunge that followed inhumanly fast on the back flip’s proverbial heels. As it was, the thrust caught his left shoulder, digging in deep.
It was the shock of it more than the pain that stunned him. Longford moved so fast, in such unexpected manners that it was hard to anticipate where to defend.
As his blood seeped through Mac’s borrowed tee shirt and sweater, Death howled in fury inside him. And still, Methos held him back.
“Damn it, Methos! Fight him!” MacLeod ordered from the sidelines.
If he’d had the breath to spare, Methos would have laughed. He was fighting Longford. The only problem was, he was outclassed here. Though shorter and less dense, his opponent was the better fighter, just as Methos had attempted to warn his lover. Fire and hate were everything in a battle. While Methos had spent the last twenty centuries learning to heal, Longford had obviously spent them perfecting his killing techniques.
To his horror, as the sun began to rise behind the footbridge they were fighting on, Methos found himself seriously losing ground, being driven further towards the middle of the narrow bridge where his reach and the breadth of his swing became impediments at such close quarters.
So much for the mercy of angels, Methos thought as he took another blow. This one was to his brow, a nasty horizontal slice that bathed his face in a warm gush of blood and temporarily blinded both his eyes.
Methos didn’t need his eyes to know what would happen next. He’d danced this waltz far too many times in his past to be in any doubt.
For one unbelieving heartbeat, he stood there knowing his death was upon him, and then…
Death wasn’t upon him…it was within him. With a terrible, wrenching roar the conscienceless warrior Methos had chained to the wall of his soul two and a half millennia ago broke free of his bonds.
Death knew all the steps of the dance he’d just played with Longford, and then some. Primal instincts taking him fully over, Methos found himself dropping to his butt in the slushy snow and rolling over backwards. The whoosh of Longford’s sword passed so close to his face and neck that he could smell his own blood on the blade as it went by.
It had been three thousand years since he’d made that kind of move with weapons in both hands, but somehow Methos’ body remembered the doing of it. With just the slightest of slips on the soggy slush, Methos regained his feet without losing either blade or limb.
And Death still had him moving, spinning in a blind kick that somehow made contact with Longford’s sword arm. Death grinned at the satisfying crunch of bone, Methos wincing at the same sound. Both Methos and his evil twin breathed a sigh of relief as they heard a slushy swump, then Longford’s sword clanged to the concrete through the snow.
A few precious seconds bought, Methos’ hand fumbled to his face, clearing the blood out of his eyes with his sleeve.
Death instantly appraised the situation. Longford was scrabbling through the slush for his fallen weapon, his right arm hanging uselessly beside him. Death took in his opponent’s broken arm, and more importantly, Longford’s open guard and lunged as Longford regained his feet with his sword in hand.
Methos’ blade went deep into the young man’s side. The wound would have killed a mortal in moments, but Longford simply staggered and backed up some.
As if someone else were truly guiding this fight, Methos watched his sword thrust for the injured man’s side again.
Longford parried it away, just barely, but he didn’t move fast enough to prevent Methos’ stiletto from opening a six-inch gash in Longford’s left arm, which was now holding the sword.
Longford had just enough time to adjust his stance to deflect the next volley for his wounded side. This time, the Macedonian pulled back with a bleeding shoulder.
Horrified, Methos realized that Death was playing with Longford.
Hating the cruelty, Methos tried time and again to regain control, but Death was having none of it. The gentle scholar Methos had fostered these last thirty centuries had brought them to this strait. Methos could feel Death’s resolve to override him so that they would both survive. And there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do about it. Distracting Death at a moment like this was tantamount to suicide and, disturbing as his alter ego’s savagery was, Methos still wanted to live.
Vaguely, he wondered if Mac had felt like this during the Dark Quickening, as though there were truly two distinct versions of himself fighting for dominion of his soul. Methos had no doubts as to who was winning at this instant. Methos/Adam Pierson had no chance of standing up to this killer. What man or Immortal had ever stood against Death? With the way he was wielding his blades right now, even Duncan MacLeod might have fallen before him.
The artistry Death was displaying was astonishing. It was like the old days. Every time he pulled his blade back, there was fresh blood on it. Though every single gambit hit its target, none were clean, killing blows. He was cutting his opponent to pieces by slow degrees. And there was a part of him that delighted in that fact, a part of him that enjoyed the pain he was delivering as much as the challenge of battle…the same part of him that Methos had chained behind the heavy walls of his conscience three millennia ago. The beast was free and Methos had no idea if he had the strength – or the desire – to imprison him again.
He hadn’t lied to MacLeod when he’d said he enjoyed the killing. There was an exhilaration that came from stepping beyond the boundaries of decency and humanity that couldn’t be expressed. Until a person experienced the high that came from the total freedom of the kill, it could not be comprehended or related.
Methos could feel that bloodlust seeping through his veins like a fever. Death gloried in it, like an addict craving the needle’s sweet release, but the man that Methos had become recoiled from it. The beast was loose and Methos the healer was no match for him.
The bridge looked like a slaughterhouse at the moment. The sun had peeked over the buildings on the eastern horizon as they fought. Its golden rays highlighted the battle scene in sharp relief – seeming to spotlight the scarlet gore splattering pristine white snow in a ten-foot radius. There was enough blood soaking the surrounding slush for a bull to have been sacrificed here.
And still Longford fought on, with Death toying with him all the while.
The fight continued that way for too long a time. Longford was riddled with slashes from head to thigh. At first, Methos was relieved for the reprieve, more than willing to let Death defend them, but now…he could not do this, not anymore. He could not take pleasure in hacking off pieces of his opponent until the poor sod finally lost a supporting limb. That had not been his style for over three thousand years, and there was no way he was going to adopt it again now, certainly not with Duncan MacLeod, the most honorable fighter their kind had seen, standing by.
Longford was a mess. His left cheek had been cut open to the bone, his neck, shoulders, chest, hips and thigh were all sporting multiple, deep wounds. The younger Immortal’s sweater and jeans were in tatters, no part of his clothes unsmeared by blood. Though maddened with hatred, Longford was no fool. The Macedonian had recognized his peril and was fighting for his life now.
Realizing that he was pretty much in the same boat as Longford on a psychological-schizophrenic level, Methos did the same. Death could not hold dominion over his soul, not anymore. So, while that primitive holdover from Methos’ violent adolescence fought to keep them alive, Methos struggled to subdue the feeding frenzy.
No part of him unbloodied, Longford made a play for Methos, thrusting straight for the taller man’s heart.
Death responded instinctively, turning sideways so fast that Methos reeled dizzily inside.
Even with the fast move, Longford’s blade still caught in the heavy fisherman’s sweater Methos was wearing. The blow came so close to hitting its intended target that it sliced through the borrowed sweater and tee shirt from Methos’ throat to sternum. The icy morning air might have been responsible for the goose pimples that pricked up Methos’ skin, but Methos thought that it was probably the close call.
Death’s response to the near miss was instantaneous, however. Methos sword was moving almost as soon as Longford’s whizzed past. Only, this time Methos exerted his own will on the delivery. Death fought him, but Methos knew how to seduce that kind of animal. He allowed the image of a pulsing fountain of arterial blood to seep through his mind to his primitive side, presenting a picture of himself bathing in that gruesome shower. In the end, Death found the prospect of fresh blood more appealing than a battle royale for a scholar’s soul. Feeling his other half’s interest, Methos made his move.
Temporarily in control, Methos acted fast. Instead of going for another mangling wound that would prolong the fight, Methos turned the blade inward at the last instant and buried his sword deep in Longford’s chest.
Longford’s shocked outcry was music to Death’s ears. As the blood-drenched Macedonian sank to his knees, Methos kicked his adversary’s blade out of his hand.
Both combatants watched the sword clatter through the rungs of the bridge’s vertical guardrail and drop to the darkness below.
Their eyes met over Methos’ silvery blade as the older Immortal pressed his sword to his opponent’s bare throat.
Longford’s utter astonishment was clear. It was obvious that the Macedonian had never thought he could lose this particular battle.
For his own part, Methos crouched over the kneeling man, panting for breath.
Both of their exhalations were emerging as bullet like puffs of steam into the freezing morning air.
Like a batter at home plate, Methos lifted his blade for the swing that would give him the necessary momentum to act out the final scene in this four thousand year old revenge tragedy.
Death was eager for this one’s Quickening. What Immortal wouldn’t be? Longford was nearly as old as Methos himself.
Wondering if the power of it would melt the metal of the bridge they were standing on, Methos began the follow through.
The movement caused a shivery reaction at Methos’ bared throat. The rosary beads that the collars of Mac’s sweater and tee shirt had held firmly in place for their entire fight shifted, falling free through the jagged rent there. As Methos spun in for the killing blow, Darius’ rosary beads swung out in front of him. For less than a heartbeat, the ancient wooden cross at the bead’s end glinted in the rising sun.
A chill passed through Methos’ soul as his gaze fixed on that glowing symbol of faith. This was the wrong time for it - not that there ever was a right time for the freakish flashbacks that made up so much of an Immortal’s waking day – but a montage of images of those who had given him a taste of faith passed through Methos’ mind: Silla holding him as he sobbed with a scraped knee; Makur naming him heir to the throne of that Sumerian city state he’d ruled; the slave Cassandra showing him that the greatest conquests were not made with a bloodied sword, but with an open heart and gentle touch; the white bearded Socrates teaching him the meaning of truth; the balding Aristotle honing his mental skills; Morana offering the half-tamed barbarian her virginity; that crazed, gentle desert healer insisting that nothing broken couldn’t be fixed; the gold bearded Artos beaming as he called him brother and named him Champion; all the light dying in Artos’ blue eyes as the king stood over his wife’s bed, betrayed by both spouse and brother; Myrddid laughing as their naked limbs lay tangled in love; Myrddid again, dying as he tried to save Paris from the ravaging horde; Darius the conqueror taking Myrddid’s Quickening; then Darius the priest kneeling in the mire with Methos’ blade at his throat; His beloved Miche?l taking that spear to save his life. Brother Aiden refusing to release Methos’ hand as they both dangled over the prow of that stinking corrick as the sea raged beneath them on that ill-fated, tans-Atlantic crossing; Alexa Bond reaching for him as the life left her eyes; Duncan MacLeod on that snowy dock last night swearing to stand by him…
So much faith placed in him…so much faith broken…
The cross moved towards Longford, Methos’ blade following fast behind it…
Two thousand years of changing…all about to be blown so that the killer inside him could drink of his victim’s tempting Quickening…his two thousand year old oath about to be irreparably shattered, and with it, perhaps any hope he might have ever had of redemption. For Methos knew the beast within him. Once it tasted innocent blood, it would be a long, savage fight before it was subdued again.
The momentum of his swing was building, the deathblow descending…
Methos and Death screamed, “No!” at the same instant.
The internal battle was swift, furious and ruthless. Before the beast could strike, Methos brought those walls crashing down around it again, chaining Death back in the cage of conscience.
Stopping a swing like that mid-move was nearly as hard as conquering Death. Methos jerked his arms back, but it wasn’t humanly possible to halt the sword’s quick descent, so instead of stopping it mid-flow, Methos diverted it. Falling to his knees, he allowed the blade to crash through the pinkish snow at Longford’s side. It clattered against the ungiving cement with an impact so fierce that it nearly pulled the ball of Methos’ shoulder from its socket.
Gasping for breath in the icy air, unable to believe what he’d just done, Methos knelt there with his eyes closed for a long minute. He’d never felt anything with such intense clarity as he did Darius’ wooden rosary beads coming to rest against his throat a second later, their chill brush almost a ghostly benediction. For the life of him, Methos couldn’t believe what he’d just done.
Nor could his opponent. Methos could feel those disbelieving blue eyes digging into his face, could hear the other man’s ragged, liquid breathing. It would take a couple of minutes before that last blow to Longford’s left lung healed.
Knowing that his calm would shatter if he knelt here in the freezing snow for another second, Methos dragged himself up to his feet, his sword hanging heavy in his hand.
Still kneeling, obviously unable to move from his wounds yet, Longford stared up at him in visible shock.
“Finish it, Methullius!” Longford hissed.
Methos shook his head. “It’s done. Forty centuries ago the blood drunk beast that inhabited my body stole your life from you. I give your life back to you now. Go in peace, Alexander of Macedon. Live and grow stronger.”
“And that’s supposed to make up for it? The lives you snuffed cannot be replaced! The manhood you stole from me cannot be restored! Finish it, you simpering coward!” Longford yelled, fury, pain and madness all one in his tortured gaze.
Even when he tried to do the right thing, it never seemed to work out for him, Methos thought, staring shell shocked into Longford’s hate filled, blood-smeared features. When Duncan MacLeod had made this choice, the man he’d fought had walked honorably away, grateful for his head. This was…not what he’d anticipated.
Though, why he would expect things to work out right for him, Methos didn’t know.
He was totally hollow inside at the moment. Not knowing how to respond, he stood there quaking with the cold as the blood and sweat dried on his skin. His sword was still a leaden weight in his frozen hand. He could feel how strongly Death wanted to employ that blade right now, but…that wasn’t an option.
“It’s over,” Duncan MacLeod said from behind Methos.
He could hear the Highlander’s footsteps as Mac slushed through the snow on the blood soaked footbridge.
MacLeod laid Longford’s coat over the nearest railing, then came over to where Methos was standing.
For some inexplicable reason, Methos couldn’t bring himself to meet his lover’s eyes. He stood staring down at the gruesome pink snow at his feet as his friend came close enough for Methos to feel the lure of MacLeod’s body heat. It didn’t make sense, but he felt like he’d failed. He couldn’t make this right with Longford. No matter what he did, he was never going to make any of it right.
Methos didn’t protest as Mac removed the sword from his gore-smeared fingers. He stood still as a statue as MacLeod worked his coat over first his right arm, then the left.
Mac’s hands moved directly into his field of vision then as the Highlander attempted to bring the sliced ends of the gray sweater Methos was wearing back together. As Mac worked to make him warmer, Methos couldn’t help but notice that there was blood on MacLeod’s fingers…as if Methos had tainted his friend by association.
Methos gulped. Horrified, he felt his stomach roil. The bitter, salty sting of bile bit at the back of his throat. He tried to force it down, but he gagged before he could help it…then he sank to his knees in the bloodied slush and spewed.
Remarkably enough, Mac crouched there right beside him, holding onto him, holding him up until the dry heaves stopped.
“It’s okay,” Mac soothed, staying there in the freezing, soaking slush with him until the tremors passed.
Methos couldn’t even begin to imagine what his lover was thinking at this moment. He’d never felt so humiliated and battered in his life, not even as a child when he’d been passed around his master’s camp like a hookah pipe.
There was a moment when Methos stopped heaving, when he just knelt there, staring down at the yellow bile that was steaming its way through the blood-pinked snow, wanting nothing more than to fall flat onto his face into the disgusting mess he’d made.
But a square-fingered hand came into view. With the skin browned from drying blood, the white handkerchief it held was a sharp contrast.
Methos stayed completely still as his mouth was matter-of-factly mopped clean. The next thing he knew, he was being held tight to MacLeod’s formidable chest and Mac was pressing a kiss onto the crown of his head.
It was too much. If he’d had any defenses left, that gentle brush of lips would have destroyed them. As it was, all the old guilt, the relentless remorse, and the horror of how close Death had come to winning sovereignty over him again peaked to an unbearable whirlwind of emotion.
He’d almost lost himself to that devil again. After three thousand years of growing and learning, he’d come a heartbeat away from reverting to that murdering beast. Even now, he could feel that side of himself restlessly stirring, craving the blood and Quickening of the crumpled man on the opposite side of the bridge – the man who would kill Methos without hesitation.
Methos tried to hold onto his control, but…subduing Death had taken the last of his strength. Before Methos even knew what was happening, the tears were streaming down his face and he was sobbing into Mac’s coat.
The warrior he’d been was appalled by the disgraceful display. All he could think was that Longford was seeing all this…and even knowing that he was embarrassing both MacLeod and himself before his enemy, Methos still couldn’t stop.
But Mac didn’t abandon him. MacLeod held onto him and stroked his back and hair as the cathartic storm worked its way through him. Methos had never known anything like the harbor of those loving arms.
Finally, the outburst ran its course. When the pain had stilled to hiccupy sobs, Methos at last lifted his face from MacLeod’s chest and dared his lover’s gaze. Feeling as though he’d failed on all fronts, Methos didn’t know what to expect.
“You okay now?” Mac asked, only concern in his face and eyes. Methos searched, but he couldn’t find a trace of condemnation.
“I…I don’t know why…” he tried to explain his unforgivable breakdown. It seemed every time he turned around, he was sobbing in front of MacLeod and that just wasn’t his usual style.
“Don’t you?” Mac questioned.
Somewhat chilled by MacLeod’s serious visage, Methos mutely shook his head.
“You’re not the man you were four thousand years ago and you can’t be that man again,” Mac explained, his voice soft and patient.
Wondering if Mac realized how close a showdown he’d faced with Death, Methos swallowed hard and quietly admitted, “I could be. It would be so easy to…”
“But you choose not to,” MacLeod said, sounding like that one fact was the only thing that mattered in the end.
And perhaps he was right. Choice was all that had ever stood between Methos and Death.
Too aware of their disapproving audience of one, Methos tried to find a way to say what he needed to express at this moment in a manner that wouldn’t further embarrass them both. Finally, the words of the tongue he’d used the longest, the lingua that was closest to his soul came out. Longford’s chronicle gave no indication that the man had spent any time in Wales, so it was a fairly safe bet that their words would be private. Of course, there was an equally large chance that Mac wouldn’t understand either. “Mae fy nghalon I dy galon. ”
My heart is your heart. They were the same words Mac had given to him a few months ago, the simple statement that had changed Methos’ reality.
Mac’s brow crinkled at the ancient Welch. For a moment, Methos was certain that his lover didn’t get it, but after a moment, comprehension dawned in Mac’s dark, sensuous eyes. Clearly, the roots of Scottish and Welch were similar enough for Mac to get the gist of it.
To Methos’ unending shock, Mac leaned in and kissed him full on the mouth – a truly heroic gesture, considering the disgusting state of his mouth at the moment.
“You ready to go home?” Mac asked when they parted a moment later.
Ready to follow this man into the mouth of Jonah’s whale, Methos gave a shell-shocked nod.
Together they rose in the slippery slush, helping each other up. Mac bent to retrieve Methos sword from the snow. The Highlander wiped it clean of blood and slush on his own coat before handing it to Methos.
Thinking that this man was going to kill him with stunts like that, Methos gulped and sheathed his sword. Mac’s arm settled warm across his shoulders as they turned towards home.
Longford still knelt there in the bloodied snow, his wounds healing on him even as they watched.
“It’s over,” MacLeod said to the Macedonian. “My friend has given you your life today. Be grateful for it and go in peace. If you come hunting him again, it will be me you face next time and I won’t be so generous.”
Before Methos could react to that last bit, Mac was steering him off the footbridge.
“Can you walk it?” MacLeod asked as they both eyed the windy, snow-covered promenade that would lead them back to the barge.
Their two sets of footprints were the only ones visible among the seagull markings, which was a good thing. They both looked like refugees from a Hammer flick. The last thing they needed was a gawking audience as they made their way home.
The wind off the Seine was sharp in their eyes and faces. Methos was already shuddering in his perspiration and blood soaked clothes.
Methos snorted. “Do you really think a taxi will stop for either of us?”
Mac’s gaze roamed from Methos’ bloodied outfit to the Highlander’s own stained coat and jeans. “Guess you’re right.”
“Come on, let’s go home,” Methos found a small smile as he set one exhausted foot in front of the other.
As they set out side by side into the freezing wind, Mac’s arm settled around him again. He couldn’t help but draw nearer to that warmth. His teeth were already chattering so hard they felt as though they’d fall loose from his head.
After they’d put some distance between them and the footbridge, Mac commented, “I’ve never seen you fight like that before.”
“You still haven’t. That…wasn’t me,” Methos explained, then softly offered, “I nearly lost myself out there this morning, Mac.”
Mac’s arm squeezed tighter across his shoulders. “I know. But you found your way back.”
“Just barely.” Methos stared out across the piercing blue waters of the Seine. His emotions were so raw this morning that he couldn’t hold in his gasp of surprise. The morning light was hitting Notre Dame’s rosette windows on the other side of the river. The stained glass transformed the familiar landmark of the cathedral into something sublime, a blinding kaleidoscope of blues, reds, yellows, whites and greens.
He saw Mac turn to see what had caused the reaction, then MacLeod’s attention returned to him, the Highlander’s face gentle and almost glowing with emotion.
“You did the right thing, by yourself and by Longford. That’s all that counts,” MacLeod answered.
“Is it? This morning I nearly unleashed a monster on the world that would have made Kronos seem like a penny ante hoodlum,” Methos warned his friend. Every time he thought about how close Death had come to wrestling control away from him, he felt like vomiting.
“I think you might be exaggerating there,” Mac gently said.
Methos stopped walking. The icy slush seeping through his leather boots and biting into his already frost bitten toes was enough to make him moan with agony, but he withstood its pain as he looked into that nearby face and corrected his lover’s misapprehensions, “No, MacLeod, I’m not exaggerating. Death had Kronos’ thirst for blood and my intelligence. He is not someone you want to face – ever.”
The wind whipping his long brown hair about his cheeks and shoulders, Mac gave a slow nod, his face very solemn.
“Is he there with you all the time?” Mac asked, making an obvious effort to understand.
Though he wanted to look down, Methos held his lover’s eyes and nodded. “He’s never been as close to the surface as he was this morning. I think…I think my life bores him. Most of the time, it’s like that part of me isn’t even there anymore. It’s only when I have a sword in my hand that things get dicey. Usually, I can control him, but when I start to lose…”
Mac nodded, comprehension clear in his eyes. “You want to live, so you let him loose.”
“And every time Death comes out to play, it is weeks before I feel myself again,” Methos said.
“How do you feel now?”
“Physically?” Methos quizzed, not wanting to go where Mac’s question led.
“No. I can see you’re half frozen. That’ll heal. The other…”
Methos stared into those troubled eyes. He didn’t want to talk about it, but…Mac was trying to understand a part of him that most lovers would do anything to avoid acknowledging.
“Truth?” At Mac’s nod, Methos hesitantly admitted, “After Death takes over like that, it feels like…like my mind’s been raped. He’s done things I can’t stop and…most times it’s all I can do to get control back from him again.”
Though Mac winced and his arm squeezed him tighter, the Highlander seemed lost for words.
When there was no withdrawal, either emotional or physical, Methos softly finished, “And I’m afraid that some day Death will be too strong to stop, that I’ll be the one who ends up locked up inside my own body.”
After too long a silence, Mac said in a guilty tone, “I wish you’d told me about this before.”
Methos sighed and reminded, “I did tell you – the night we got together.”
“I didn’t understand,” Mac confessed.
“And now that you do?” Methos asked, feeling like his whole world were riding on the other man’s response, which, of course, it was.
“There aren’t many who’d care to cohabitate with Death, Highlander.”
Mac’s unfeigned shock was comforting. It was clear that the idea of bailing had never occurred to Duncan.
“I’m not cohabitating with Death. I’m living with you,” Mac said.
“And Death lives inside me-”
“Where he has been safely imprisoned for nearly three thousand years and will remain for three thousand more,” MacLeod cut in.
“How can you know that? You saw…”
Mac didn’t let him finish. “I know it because I know you. Even though you do not believe it and can’t see it in yourself, I know your goodness. I saw you demonstrate it today on that bridge when you spared that ungrateful bastard. It doesn’t matter that Death comes out to protect you. You have and always will defeat him. You’re stronger than him, Methos. Death knows it, even if you do not.”
After all that heaving, his mouth was too dry to even try to swallow.
MacLeod had such faith in him. What in the name of all that was sacred had he ever done to inspire it?
“If I’m so strong, why do I feel so…banged up inside?” Methos challenged, hating how thin and raspy his dry voice sounded.
“Because you’re not like Longford and me,” Mac instantly replied.
Not sure what that meant, Methos tensed and asked, “In what way?”
“What you told me the day we met about not having taken a Quickening in two hundred years, that was true; wasn’t it?” Mac questioned.
“Yes,” Methos nodded, not seeing where this was leading, but appreciating that MacLeod knew him well enough now to take nothing for granted without confirmation.
“Methos, I haven’t gone two years without taking a head. I’ll bet your friend back on the bridge hasn’t, either.”
“So?” Methos quizzed.
“So killing is second nature to us; while you…”
“Yes?” Methos waited, braced for a charge of cowardice.
“You’ve managed to do what we all pay lip service to – rise above the Game. You’re willing to sacrifice everything you love to avoid killing,” Mac said.
Someday, Methos was determined to count how many sighs he vented on a daily basis when dealing with this frustrating, idealistic man. “That has as much to do with fearing coming under Death’s influence again as avoiding the Game, MacLeod. The answers are never that simple with me.”
To his surprise, MacLeod grinned at that. “So I’m learning. Come on. Let’s get you home and warmed up.”
MacLeod’s arm settled back over his shoulder again, guiding him towards the barge that was still a good half a mile in the distance.
“That’s all you have to say about it?” Methos demanded, unable to believe that Mac’s acceptance could go this far.
“I tell you I’ve got a monster inside me waiting to pounce and all you can do is offer me a cup of tea!”
MacLeod gave him that same infuriating laugh the Highlander used with Ryan sometimes. Methos didn’t understand it. MacLeod was less than a tenth of his age and yet he could so often feel like a child in front of the man.
The Highlander calmed himself with an effort. After gasping in a few icy breaths, Mac sobered and said, “I’m sorry. I know you’re troubled, but…the only monster on that bridge today was Longford.”
“How can you say that? I told you how close I came to-”
“But you didn’t do it,” Mac mildly interjected. “You didn’t want that fight. He forced it upon you. Even when you were in it, you fought a totally defensive battle until he backed you into a corner and left you no choice. Yes, when you lost your cool it was a frightening thing to see, but in the end when any one of us would have taken him, you let him walk away. Those are not the acts of a monster.”
“You wouldn’t have taken him,” Methos protested, leaving the rest to think about later, when he was better rested.
“Don’t be too sure of that,” Mac countered.
“You let Stephen Keane walk away in exactly the same circumstances,” Methos reminded.
“Longford was no Stephen Keane,” MacLeod answered, something dark moving through his face.
“How was he different?” Methos asked, once again failing to understand the fine points of MacLeod’s code of honor. Normally, he wouldn’t care. It was all just so much romantic drivel, but today he was so tired that any distraction was welcomed, even the moral equivalent of counting the number of angels that would fit on the head of a pin.
“Stephen Keane gave me an opportunity to try to explain my actions. I think if I had been able to offer an adequate explanation for killing Sean, we might have parted without a fight. Longford didn’t care about anything but killing you.”
“Blood for blood, without remorse, an eye for an eye…it’s the oldest law in the universe, MacLeod. The only difference between Keane and the Macedonian is that Longford was born before the age of chivalry. Just like me.”
“Aye, but you acted with honor today and spared him. Do you think he’d’ve done the same?” Mac challenged.
“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t do it for honor’s sake,” Methos shrugged. He didn’t need MacLeod to tell him how monumental a mistake he had made on that bridge today, but the prospect of loosing Death terrified him far more than facing Longford again at some future date.
They fell silent again.
In truth, Methos was so cold and exhausted that he could hardly string two words together. He just put one stinging foot in front of the other and hung onto Mac’s greater bulk for dear life.
Finally, they made it to the barge. Methos took the gangplank so fast that he nearly measured his length, but Mac’s hand stopped his fall. Then they were inside, their frozen flesh smarting as it thawed out in the barge’s glorious heat.
Methos bent to remove his soaking boots…only to find himself toppling to the wall as the room reeled around him.
“Whoa there,” Mac soothed, catching him once again. “Let me do it.”
Feeling like an incompetent child, Methos held still while MacLeod knelt at his feet to undo his wet boots. Mac took the socks as well, then reached for the fastening of Methos’ blood soaked jeans, which were frozen stiff from his knees to ankles.
He stepped into an icy puddle as he pulled his leg out of the pants, but even that slight discomfort was an improvement on feeling Longford and his own blood solidify against him. Disgusted, Methos saw that the wetness had leeched through his jeans. His white boxers were stained all over with browning blood. Methos didn’t need any prodding to get out of those. Then he was leaning over so that Mac could remove the sweater and tee shirt he’d borrowed this morning. Both were ruined.
“Sorry about that,” Methos said, shaking with the cold as Mac held the sweater up between them to study the nine inch rip from the collar down.
“Don’t be. It could’ve been your throat,” Mac said.
As Darius’ rosary beads settled back against his neck, Methos took hold of them to remove them. Oddly enough, he felt a great reluctance at letting them go. “You’ll be wanting this back.”
In the act of removing his own soaked clothing, MacLeod looked over at him.
Methos shivered as Mac’s dark gaze moved up his naked frame to the object under question.
“Why don’t you hold onto them,” Mac suggested, his expression unreadable.
“But…these were Darius’…”
Mac pulled his tee shirt over his head and gave him a sad smile, “I don’t need things to remind me of Darius. I think he’d want you to have them. Keep them.”
Shivering from more than the cold this time, Methos let the wooden beads fall back against his neck. He knew he couldn’t make a habit of wearing them like this – they were too easy a target – but, just for tonight, it felt good having them close.
His stinging fingers and toes hurt more and more as they thawed. All he wanted to do was get under the covers and lie still while his frozen flesh melted.
“Bed?” Methos asked hopefully once Mac was fully undressed.
“Shower first. We’re covered with blood,” MacLeod determined.
Methos allowed himself to be steered to the bathroom. It was a tight fit, but they both managed to make it into the shower.
Normally, sharing a shower with Mac would be a dream come true, but this morning Methos could hardly keep his eyes open. He leaned against the slick tile wall and just let the hot rush of water sluice over his leaden limbs.
The hot water was an agony in itself as it bounced off his frostbitten toes and fingers.
Both he and MacLeod let out a groan as the heat penetrated, even Immortal healing not up to painless recovery from hypothermia. Mac reached out for him under the worst of it, pulling Methos forward so that he could shelter against the Highlander’s denser form. Methos pressed his forehead to Mac’s muscular chest, squeezing his eyes closed as the agony shot through his hands and feet.
It took several minutes, but eventually their extremities thawed out enough for healing to take place.
Methos winced when, after lifting his head from Mac’s chest, he saw the brown spot he’d left behind on his companion’s water slick sternum. Gods, he must have been coated in blood…
Too exhausted to move, Methos watched his lover soap up a washcloth.
“I’m not an invalid, you know,” Methos said as MacLeod started to wash the blood that the hot water had failed to dissolve from Methos’ body.
“I know,” Mac’s smile was strangely shy. “I’m just…grateful to have you here. Humor me, okay?”
He’d fought a challenge this morning at this man’s request; there was no way he’d refuse to allow MacLeod to do anything he wanted to his body. Besides, it felt good to just stand there while that soapy washcloth cleaned the gore off him.
“You are tired; aren’t you?” MacLeod observed when the playful cleansing of Methos’ genitals produced no reaction what-so-ever. A lesser man might have been amused, but Mac only seemed concerned.
Methos shrugged and stifled a yawn. Now that his frostbite had stopped stinging, it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. “I promise to ravish you as soon as I wake up.”
Mac smiled, leaning forward to give him a quick kiss in the steamy intimacy of the shower before the Highlander moved to deal with his own ablutions.
Apparently, a thorough toweling dry was part and parcel of the MacLeod special, for Methos found his skin patted to nauseating pinkness.
Then, finally, they were in the sleeping alcove.
Methos crawled under the duvet, with Mac right behind him. Those powerful arms encircled him, a hairy leg throwing itself over his own. A couple of breaths of air that somehow still smelt of their loving and Methos’ eyes were sinking shut. His last conscious awareness was that of Mac’s lips kissing the back of his head.
He didn’t know how, but somehow the events of this morning left Methos feeling freer than he had in millennia. It didn’t make sense, but he felt changed inside, subtlely altered, like somehow all those old guilts had been wiped clean. Puzzling over the strange phenomenon, Methos fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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