Originally inspired by one of the Fifteen Minute Challenge topics. Betaed by hafital, who gives of her wonderful self in ways great and small. Extra {{{hugs}}} to Luminosity, Taselby, Carol, and Melina for being supportive in the face of my complete breakdown lack of self-confidence, and to elynross for making it better than it would have been without her. And finally, thank you to Unovis for the reality check. Any remaining mistakes or shortcomings are most definitely mine.

This story contains ADULT material and should not be read by minors. WARNING: more violent than my usual. If you like, you can also download a plain text file of the whole story.


by Killa

oh Lord we pay the price
with a spin of a wheel, with a roll of a dice
ah yeah you pay your fare
and if you don't know where you're going
any road will take you there

—George Harrison


December, 1998

A cold rain had been falling since morning, blurring the city into bleak monochrome. By midday, the depressing chill of the barge had come dangerously close to dragging Duncan's pensive mood into outright self-pity, so he'd escaped to the club for most of the afternoon. If his fencing partners provided little in the way of a real challenge, at least they spared him the unwelcome burden of his own company.

The rain had stopped by the time he left the club, the gray sky darkening fast toward dusk as the street lights came on early in the gloom, glittering on the wet pavement and the rain-beaded coats of passersby hurrying home from work. Stowing his gear in his car, Duncan considered his options. He'd thought about driving over to the bar, but Joe wasn't likely to be there for at least a couple of hours, and the idea of some fresh air sounded good. He could walk up to the square, maybe find something to eat. It might even help him get his head together about whatever it was he'd been wrestling with lately.

He started walking, letting whim and the flow of pedestrians choose his route. The sounds and the smells and the colors of the Paris streets, even the strangers he passed, felt intimately familiar, and it was easy to imagine he'd crossed paths with any number of them at the newsstand, the market, on the metro. Perhaps that was part of the problem, and it was ordinary restlessness that had been plaguing him. Perhaps his life here had become too much like going through the motions. Just play it by ear, was what he'd told himself in the weeks after that strange, silent battle in Darius's church. He'd gotten the idea that Joe might like to settle down for a while, and at the time it had seemed a good enough reason to stay, but maybe it had really just been easier than choosing something new. Somehow, weeks had become months, half a year, and he wasn't really sure what he was doing here any more, what it was he'd been waiting for.

His pensive mood settled heavily over him as he sat at a sidewalk café, sipping wine while he waited for his brochette. Paris had been a connection to Tessa, and Richie had been part of that, too, but Tessa had been gone for almost five years now, and Richie's death had been avenged months ago. He'd thought he'd come to terms with it, put it behind him -- until he'd very nearly given up his life to O'Rourke, unable to bear the thought of losing anyone else.

Being with his friends again, having Amanda and Methos and Joe with him again, he'd felt truly alive for the first time in far too long, but as the days went by, that too-brief moment of reunion was feeling more and more like a farewell party. Amanda had disappeared from his life as easily as she'd appeared. Joe was busy with his own life for once, and Duncan was glad to see it; he'd finally met the mysterious Amy, and seen how good she was for his friend. And as for Methos...

Duncan sighed, watching pigeons splash in a puddle near the curb. Methos was no less a puzzle than he'd ever been. He'd shown up in Paris without fanfare, saying nothing about where he'd been for the past year and a half, his answers on the subject decidedly vague; he'd just been there one day at the bar, same as always, serving himself beer from the tap and spinning stories to Joe as if he'd never been gone. Of Richie, of Ahriman, he'd said nothing. It was easier to just let it go, just pretend they were a couple of guys sharing a drink and bickering over unimportant things than it was to dig up the past. And just when Duncan thought he could deal with that, Methos had changed the rules again, passionately pleading with him to live, pulling another of his dramatic, eleventh hour rescues as if it were nothing. Only it wasn't nothing, was it? If he hadn't, Duncan would be dead; it was as simple as that.

That night had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. After the impromptu celebration on the barge, he'd hoped to see Methos again, maybe get a chance to catch up a little. He'd gone by the bar a few times, hoping to run into him there, but so far, no luck. He couldn't help the niggling sense that Methos was still mad at him about O'Rourke, or that maybe he was justifiably wary about letting himself get too close to the bulls-eye MacLeod seemed to have painted on his back. Maybe he'd been imagining the way they'd connected that night.

Then again, maybe it had nothing to do with him, and Methos was just busy, too. Maybe he had a new job, a new girlfriend, a new life. Maybe, he had the right idea, and Duncan ought to think about getting on with his own.

His supper came, and he ate it without really tasting it, his thoughts turning in on themselves.

The cafés were busy by the time he settled his check and took to the sidewalk once more. The clatter of dishes and glassware accompanied jazz and Latin and folk music, traffic sounds and laughter mingling as Parisians met their friends for a bite after work and tourists chattered about the things they'd seen that day. All around him, the wheel kept turning and life went on. It always did, eventually -- he knew that.

A young couple caught his eye, the woman's blonde hair shining for a moment in the glow from a street lamp as she laughed at something her companion had said; his hand rested at the small of her back, subtly protective. They crossed the street at the corner and Duncan lost them in the crowd.

Sometimes, he supposed as he watched them out of sight, letting go was just harder than other times. And wasn't that part of what Methos had tried to teach him, too? That life was about change... and about acceptance? Maybe it was the letting go he was having trouble with now. Amanda and Joe and Methos had all managed it well enough -- he should learn from their example. In many ways, he had, but in others...

For the first time, Duncan let himself think seriously about giving the barge up for good and moving away from Paris. Let himself accept the idea that Amanda was not going to be dropping in on him for a while, at least not the way she had been these last few years. That not long from now, Joe would be retiring from his duties as a field Watcher. Digging his hands into his pockets against the falling temperature, he let his long stride carry him in no particular direction, and thought about letting himself say goodbye.

A car horn startled him out of his reverie, and he stopped at a curb, realizing he'd lost track of direction. He looked up to get his bearings -- and had to smile. He'd wandered into Methos' neighborhood without realizing it. His subconscious trying to tell him something, no doubt.

He stood at the corner for a moment, glancing back in the direction of his car. Go on, or go back?

What was he waiting for? he wondered then, a weight lifting unexpectedly. For Methos to come to him, as he always had in the past? Wasn't it time to stop living life out of habit? Why not go see if Methos wanted to come have a drink with him and Joe? What was the worst he could do -- say no?

And if he said yes, maybe tonight was a good night for Duncan to say his goodbyes. One last night spent with his friends, like old times.

Decision made, he turned and headed for the next block, remembering a smaller side street that angled toward Methos' flat. The traffic sounds faded as he moved further from the main avenue, and he felt his mood lift at the prospect of seeing Methos. Perhaps more than he would have expected -- he hadn't realized he'd missed him quite so much, or that he'd been so locked into the idea that he had to wait for Methos to come to him. He found himself almost grinning at the thought of Methos' surprise when he saw him. Methos would pretend to be annoyed with him, of course, but he couldn't help feeling that deep down, Methos would be glad to see him, too.

He was crossing one of the narrow, winding side streets, still more than a block from Methos' building, when the buzz hit him, deep and strong as a hunting horn. Methos must be on his way home, he thought. He hurried toward the corner, expecting to see the familiar figure on the cross street up ahead.

But the shape that stepped from the shadows directly into his path, sword gleaming, wasn't Methos.

He checked himself mid-stride. And then straightened, feeling the turning of the wheel.

Tall, broad-shouldered, like Methos. Dark hair cropped short, olive skin, wide-set eyes -- and a broadsword that looked as though it could take down a telephone pole. But the man before him was no one he knew.

Duncan glanced up, hoping to see the windows of flats overhead, but they were in an alley between what looked like a shipping office and a hotel that was under construction, and it didn't look like either building was occupied. "I'm not looking for a fight," he said, keeping his hands where the other Immortal could see them.

"Nevertheless, you have found one." The accent was barely detectable, nothing Duncan could easily identify. What little hope he'd had of avoiding the inevitable died when the other man moved forward and he got a good look at the battle scars on his hands, the anticipation in his eyes. Whoever he was, he'd been around a long time, and he'd been raised to make war of one kind or another.

And he just happened to be hanging out in a dark alley, across the street from Methos' flat.

Duncan leveled his shoulders, the old determination settling over him. Every fight took a little more out of him, cost him a small measure of self he could never recover -- but this was who he was, what they were. Resigned, he accepted it, and readied himself to do what he had to.

"I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," he said, as he always had, and drew his own blade.

They fought in shadows on an unlit battlefield, the moon hidden behind the buildings. The crash of their blades echoed on the wet streets.

It was plain from the start that Duncan was outmatched in strength and in reach, and the impression he'd gotten of the power his opponent could put behind that massive blade had not been wrong. Already he was feeling like he'd taken a beating with a two-by-four. He was out of practice -- it had been a long time since he'd fought against anyone with this much experience. He'd have to count on smarts, speed, and luck if he wanted to live through this fight.

And he did want to live through it. That was something of a surprise. He'd sworn after O'Rourke that he wouldn't give up willingly ever again, but it was still a revelation to face a stranger's blade and know that he meant to be the one left standing -- if for no other reason, he was pissed off. This guy, this Roderigo Cantric, or whatever he called himself, thought he could hunt his friends? Skulk around in the shadows waiting for them to come home? He'd better think again.

Just one problem -- he had to stay alive long enough to bring the lesson home.

The bastard was pressing him hard. His methods of attack were half centuries-trained master and half military pragmatism, and Duncan couldn't be sure at any given moment which he'd have to defend against. It was the same essential strategy any good fighter relied on, but this guy had it down to an art form. And somehow, no matter how often he managed to deflect those powerful blows, the other man didn't seem to tire, while Duncan could feel his own reserves waning. The weight of that blade had to tell eventually, he told himself, so the longer he could keep moving, the greater his chances.

At last he managed to find an opening here, a gap there, and scored a few slices of his own to pay back the dozen or so that had stung through his own defenses, costing him strength in small measures. Like bee stings, his cuts seemed to goad his enemy; Cantric came at him with a brutal series of attacks that he barely answered, and he knew this was it, that neither of them could keep it up for long.

The buzz of another Immortal, when it came, tolled through him like cathedral bells. Methos -- had to be. And why the hell had he picked tonight of all nights to ignore his 'do nothing' credo?

For a moment, pressed as he was, he couldn't see him. Then, he did: there in the shadows at the mouth of the alley, the familiar shape.

He paid for his split second of distraction with a deep gash in his side, a tearing wedge of agony that stole his breath. In some distant part of his brain, he registered that Methos' pistol was in his hand.

He couldn't spare attention for it. The scent of blood filled his senses, and most of it was his own; he fought desperately now, but his strength was failing him. Hot steel bit into the back of his thigh and pain burned acid through his flesh, but worse, he felt himself slipping, going down hard as his leg refused to support him. Hamstrung -- the cut had sliced through his tendons. Through sheer force of will he got his sword up, blocking the blow he knew was coming. The shock of it echoed through his body. By some miracle of skill or blind luck, he managed to deflect the second attack, but a wave of weakness spread over him then and he could feel the blood running out of him like water. His guard was open. He willed himself to bring the sword up again -- and felt his body fail him, and knew that this time, will wasn't going to be enough.

Time dilated. He saw himself down, his leg useless under him, arms shaking with the effort to keep his blade up. He saw Methos, denial written in his face. He saw the alley and the silver outline of clouds reflected in a puddle and the broad blade flashing.

His own denial surged. Somehow, with a desperate, sideways stagger, he managed to be elsewhere when the sword cleaved the space where his neck had been. His counterattack was a clumsy, sideways slash, raw instinct and nothing more. His balance was shot, his leverage wrong -- but he felt his blade catch, muscle tearing at the back of his arm.

Something hit the ground with the too-familiar sound of cracking bone and soft flesh. He felt himself going down, unable to break his fall, locked with the other Immortal in the final embrace of death. The ring of steel died away in the night. He thought there was pain -- great, red waves of it -- but that was far away, a distant roar in his ears. Blackness swept across his vision, and the last thing he saw was Methos' face, white with shock, his eyes wide.

He thought Methos said his name. He tried to answer, tried to tell him it was all right -- but something wasn't. His shirt felt wet, and he tried to move the other Immortal off of him, but he couldn't move, couldn't breathe. Confusion swept over him. He was choking, and tasted blood, and then the blackness closed down and he knew nothing else.

It was cold in the loft. That was his first thought. Furnace must have gone out, was his second, and he stirred reluctantly toward waking, not really wanting to get out of bed to remedy the situation. Richie had kept him up way too late watching science fiction movies again, and all he wanted to do was pull the covers up and go back to sleep.

He seemed to have lost the covers somewhere, though, and consciousness intruded with unpleasant insistence. He was cold... and he'd been dreaming something, hadn't he? A niggling uncertainty threaded its way into his awareness, and he frowned. There was something he was supposed to remember. Something he'd wanted to tell Methos...

"MacLeod."

...something he'd wanted to...

"Come on, MacLeod. Can't sleep all day, you know."

He knew that voice. Sleep fell away, and he stirred, opening his eyes.

Not the loft. An alley...

He sat up. It was night, and only the moon gave light to see, a pale, distant glow in an overcast sky. He was cold because he was in Paris, it was December, and he'd been lying on the wet ground.

"Fitz?"

"We've got to stop meeting like this, dear boy. People will talk."

Fitz was sitting on a concrete stoop, pipe in hand, watching him with a bemused expression. Duncan touched his throat. There was no sign of the Immortal he'd been fighting, but what had happened?

"Is this it, Fitz? Am I--?" He struggled to his feet, looking toward the mouth of the alley. Methos had been there at the end of it, he remembered. Apprehension gripped him. Would he challenge the guy? And if he did, could he win? "Fitz, you have to let me go back."

"Don't worry, laddie. Your head's still attached. Well," he smiled, "more or less."

"Then I'm not dead?"

"Oh, you're dead, all right. Just not in any permanent sense -- unlike your new acquaintance." He drew on his pipe thoughtfully. "Not having very good luck these days, are you?"

It was no less surreal than it had been the first time. Duncan ran a hand through his hair, trying to figure out when, exactly, his life had gone completely around the bend. "Sure doesn't look that way, does it?" He paced a little, trying to get his head around it. "You know, I half convinced myself it was a dream before. My subconscious trying to convince me that I made a difference. That seeing you was just some kind of -- I don't know, death-induced hallucination, or something. "

"Oh, now, that's hardly very flattering."

"Well, what am I supposed to think? I mean... it's a lot to swallow, Fitz."

"Me being an angel, you mean? Or you mean the part about you making a difference?" He nodded as though Duncan answered him. "Well, you can think of me as an hallucination if it makes you feel better. The important thing is that you listened to what I had to say, and when push came to shove, you chose to live."

Duncan looked at him warily. "So what now? Did you come to give me another ten cent tour of the world without Duncan MacLeod? Because once was enough, believe me."

Fitz glanced around as if to see whether anyone was listening, then leaned forward conspiratorially. "I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm here on my own ticket this time around. Just wanted to check up on you -- purely personal interest, dear boy."

At that, Duncan smiled and relaxed a little. He came over and sat beside his friend on the stoop, dusting his hands off on his knees. "I'm okay, Fitz. Really. You did give me some perspective before, and it helped."

"If you say so," Fitz said, patting his knee.

"You don't sound convinced."

"Let's just say I know you better than you think." Fitz drew another mouthful of smoke, savored it, then let it out. "You're thinking of leaving Paris, aren't you?"

Duncan frowned. "How did you...?"

"Oh, I have my ways." He just smiled, and waited, his look expectant.

"I was thinking about it," Duncan admitted at last, looking at his hands. "Not much to stick around for any more. I thought maybe it was time I moved on."

"Decided what you want to be when you grow up?"

"Something like that."

"Well, here's another little secret for you, my boy. Growing up is overrated. And sometimes, we can travel the whole world over looking for something, only to find that the answer we seek is right in front of us." He finished the last draught of his pipe, then tapped it out against his hand and tucked it away in his breast pocket. "What's on your mind, MacLeod? What is it that you're trying to get away from?"

"I'm not trying to get away from anything, Fitz. I just feel like maybe it's time I... I don't know. Stop holding on to this life, I guess. Start over somewhere."

"Mmm," Fitz said, nodding thoughtfully.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Let me put it to you another way. What is it that's kept you here for so long?"

Duncan thought about that, deciding he'd been close to the truth. "Force of habit, I think. Joe has the club here... my friends know where to find me. And I guess I didn't want to let go."

"Let go?"

"Of Tessa. Darius." He smiled a little. "You."

Fitz nodded, understanding. "And your student, young Ryan."

Duncan's throat closed unexpectedly. "Yeah. Richie, too." He looked away, struggling against sudden heat behind his eyes. "Maybe Richie most of all, I don't know." He was silent for a moment, turning it over. "I don't know, Fitz. I just keep thinking--"

Fitz waited. Then prompted gently, "You just keep thinking...?"

Duncan didn't answer that right away. He looked sidelong at his friend, a man he'd seen killed before his eyes three years before, trying to decide whether he could bring himself to believe that this was real and not all in his head. "Fitz, can you... do you know where he is now?"

Fitz smiled, a look of such kindness that it threatened to undermine his hold on his emotions, already none too certain. "He's with you, laddie. You know that already. You don't need me to tell you."

Duncan nodded. He swallowed hard; somehow, hearing it was both harder and easier than he'd expected. He pushed himself to his feet and started pacing again, trying to put into words why he couldn't seem to move beyond it, even after all this time. "I keep thinking that there must have been something -- some way I could have prevented what happened. I've lost so many, Fitz, but Richie -- I can't get past it. I don't know why, but it's just a feeling I have that it wasn't supposed to happen like that, that something went wrong. That I went wrong."

"You're not responsible for his actions, MacLeod. He went to that racetrack all on his own, after you told him to stay put."

"I should have made sure. I should have known he wouldn't listen to me -- he never listened to me when I tried to keep him out of trouble."

"So what makes you think you could have changed anything? We all make our choices. Ryan made his, and who's to say it wasn't the right one?"

Duncan stopped and looked at him in disbelief. "How can there be anything right about what happened to Richie?" He'd always felt that there was an order in the universe, some purpose that made it all make sense. He'd seen so many things in his life that had challenged that belief, but nothing had shaken its foundations as deeply as the thought of Richie's last moments of life, the unbearable memory of that fatal stroke, of his own horror and denial and the bitter rage of Richie's quickening.

Fitz didn't immediately answer, but met Duncan's gaze with an even one of his own, letting the question stand between them. At last, he asked, "Are you sure you want to know the answer to that?"

For a moment, Duncan didn't grasp what Fitz was offering. And then he did, and caught his breath. "You could do that?"

"It would be different this time," Fitz warned. "That reality has its own Duncan MacLeod, and once you've changed his future, only he can determine its shape. You understand? Consider carefully, dear boy. Letting people you care about make their own mistakes can be damned difficult, as you well know."

He did know. But all he could think about was a world where Richie hadn't died by his hand, where that terrible wrong could be made right. It had been the dearest, bitterest wish of his heart since the moment it had happened, and now it was being offered to him. He didn't even have to pay the price of his soul -- all he had to do was say yes.

"What happens if I say yes?" he asked, torn with wanting to take what was being offered, and not quite trusting it. "This world doesn't change, right? I'll still come back here?"

"That's right, MacLeod. You can't rewrite the past. Once you've chosen your path, you can't change it, can't go back. Even I can't do that. I can only show you what the other paths might have looked like."

And Duncan chose what he knew he'd already chosen in his heart. "Then I'm sure. Show me how it could have happened, Fitz. I need to know."

Fitz sighed, and there was a great sadness in his eyes, but he nodded at last and rose, putting his arm around Duncan as he had once before. "I have a feeling I'm going to regret this, but... as you wish, my old friend. Let's take a walk together, shall we...?"

He was walking in fog so thick he couldn't see more than a step in front of him. At first, he could sense Fitz close beside him, the weight of his hand against his back, but then the weight fell away, and he was alone. For a time he couldn't measure, he knew only his own footfalls, the sound of his breath, and the feel of his sword in his hand.

Then, after a time, he became aware that he could hear something else, distant and faint. Voices, he thought. Somewhere up ahead. He strained to hear them, to follow their sound.

When he drew nearer, he realized that the voices were familiar. Nearer still, and he could make out the words, muffled and faint as if heard through an old telephone line, but growing stronger.

Look at the state of the world. War, famine, chaos. There has to be something to this prophecy...

Without realizing it, he shifted his grip on his sword, bringing it into defensive position. That had been his own voice, and he knew when he'd spoken those words. Knew he was almost out of time. He needed to warn them--

Look, if this is all in my mind, if I am crazy -- it's too late. If not, then there's nothing you can do.

The phone's ring trilled out of the gray fog, a little clearer, a little closer, and a chill wind stirred at the sound. The voices were clearer now, too: his own, and then Richie's, sounding as if it were right in front of him, just a few steps away.

"Mac, it's me. Look, I saw him, I saw Horton. He's got Joe."

Duncan froze where he was, trying to see. His heart raced, the sound of his pulse heavy in his ears. "Richie?" His voice came out a choked whisper, terror closing his throat.

"No, look, I know what I saw. I think they headed into the old racetrack."

"Richie! Where are you? I'm right here, but I can't--"

"Sorry, Mac." A shadow moved. There, in the fog, just off to his right--

His sword scraped against metal: a pay phone appeared out of the grayness, mundane and solid to the touch. The receiver dangled as if it had been dropped, the cord still swinging back and forth.

"Richie! Wait!" A gust of wind swept across his body, and with it, a sheet of cold, spattering rain. "You don't know what you're facing!"

It was only as he shouted the words that he remembered he'd said them before. The wind gusted again. This time, the fog thinned, and he saw the old concrete grandstand looming out of the night, saw the black sedan, its doors standing open, its headlights glowing red.

He broke into a run.

When he reached the old escalator, it was silent, a thick layer of dust coating its steps. No red mist glowed at the top; no figure rode down it to taunt him.

No, it wouldn't, he realized, listening hard for the sound of footsteps, for any sign of the demon. This time, he knew what he was facing. Ahriman wouldn't rely on the same tricks -- wouldn't count on his doubt of his own sanity. You don't even understand your place in any of this, do you? it had goaded him that night. But now, he did, and this time its tricks would have to be more subtle.

Think, he told himself, breathing deep and reaching for calm. You know this enemy. You know its face -- you've beaten it once before. It hates peace. Fears love. Your anger fuels it. Your fear gives it power. Never will I renounce the good mind.

Peace is the answer.

The sword in his hand had defended his life many times. It was a part of him, as much as his name. "But not this time," he said softly, and sheathed it.

He left the escalator and moved deeper into the shadows. "Richie!" he called out, listening to the echoes die away. Listening for footsteps underneath the soft hiss of the sheeting rain outside. "Rich, where are you? "

And then, far off to the right, he heard an echo. It might have been Richie's voice, he couldn't be sure -- but he hurried in that direction, moving as silently as he could without sacrificing speed.

Then he heard the gunshot. Forgetting about stealth, he ran.

It had killed Sophie Baines. It had killed Jason Landry in front of him, and burned his granddaughter Allison alive. Two Watchers in Iran, two more in the Dordogne -- how many others? And how had he let himself forget that Ahriman didn't need him to kill?

Rain swept into the open gallery, racing schedules and streamers blowing like wet leaves across his path. He slipped as he turned the corner, caught himself -- and then he saw him. Alive. But Richie's sword was in his hand, and he was embattled on all sides by an invisible foe, fighting desperately against no one Duncan could see. Duncan drew a breath to call out to him.

And hesitated, a grim possibility whispering itself into his mind. It could still be a trick. This might not be Richie at all. It would be Ahriman's kind of game, to show him the one thing he wanted most.

His hands flexed, and he thought of his sword in his coat, but then rejected that. It still wasn't an answer. Ahriman didn't want him dead, it wanted to hurt him, to make him hate enough to kill. So don't put the weapon in its hand.

He moved closer, wanting to believe it was Richie, and at the same time, wishing anything but for Richie to be here, trapped into taking this fight that should have been his -- a fight Richie couldn't win any more than he could. His eyes took in the bullet wound, the cuts, the blood, each one hurting him; he knew the desperation in Richie's face too well, because it had been his own. And what faces did it wear in Richie's inner sight? Horton? Kronos? Or did it take the form of Richie's own demons?

Even watching it happen, it was hard to accept. He couldn't see the enemies Richie fought, couldn't hear the clash of his sword against any real blade, but the force of the blows shuddered through Richie's arms, forced him back, and the cuts were all too real, gashes that appeared on his arms, his thighs, that cut through his defenses until he was staggering with pain, sweat running down his face. A deep one opened on his arm and he cried out, going to one knee. He gasped out a name, a breathless protest that had lost any strength or hope for salvation -- and Duncan knew, then, what face Richie's demon wore.

The teacher kills the pupil? Is that what this is all about? Is it because there can be only one?

It feared love, he reminded himself, because it fed on hate.

Making the leap of faith, he stepped out of the darkness and into the open, where Richie could see him.

"Richie, listen to me! That isn't me, Rich. It's the demon. It wants your hate, your fear. Don't give it what it wants."

"Mac?" Limping, he crouched to one side, and looked toward Duncan, but didn't seem to see him. Another invisible attack drove him backwards, drew a line of blood across his cheek. He fell back, breath sobbing. "I don't believe you. It's a trick."

Duncan closed the distance between them. He didn't know what Richie saw, whether it was distorted by some false vision, or whether he saw only another MacLeod coming to hurt him. Richie brought his sword up, but Duncan kept his hands open, fighting his own instincts.

"Richie, listen to me. I love you." His voice betrayed him, but he went on. "No matter what happens. Trust me, okay? You have to trust me." The despairing certainty swept over him that he was asking the impossible. How many times had he come after Richie? Confused by nightmare, lost in darkness -- but it had been him, those other times, his blade that had hurt this boy who had only ever stood by him, tried to be like him. And in the end, it had been his blade that had killed him. Richie was right not to trust him.

He had to try. "Richie, I know I'm asking the impossible, but listen to me. It wants to use us to hurt each other. We can't let it. Look--" He shrugged out of his coat, cast it away, out of reach. "You have to put down your sword, Rich."

Richie laughed, a bitter, desperate sound. "And I'm supposed to believe you?"

"You were the only one who did believe me, Richie. The only one who didn't think I was crazy. You know this thing is real. We can't fight it, but we can resist it together, if you trust me, and put down your sword."

"Mac?" He faltered. He was close to the end of his endurance, Duncan saw. The thing was toying with him, now, easily penetrating his defense. Richie's clothes were sliced in ribbons, and blood stained the wet concrete at his feet. "I want to believe you."

"I know you do, Rich." Tears slipped down his face. "You always did."

And Richie Ryan nodded, drawing a breath that sounded like a sob. Then, he did what his teacher had taught him never to do, and let go of his sword.

When it hit the ground, a shriek of rage pierced the air, reverberating off the concrete. It seemed to shake the very foundations of the grandstand -- seemed to tremble in the air as if it would crush them with the sheer force of its fury. Richie cried out and stumbled, raising his hands to protect himself and sinking into a crouch, and Duncan imagined he could see the flashing arc of the blade as it came for his neck, imagined he could feel its echo in his arms and shoulders, and the sickening shush of the ancient blade as it did its hideous work.

Then it was over, the echoes dying away into the night, leaving only the rain and the wind and the sound of Richie's sobs, of his own pounding heart.

He knelt beside Richie, relief flooding him, so intense it made his hands shake.

"Rich... you okay?"

Richie looked up, seeming to really see him for the first time. He drew a shuddering breath. "Yeah." His hands went to his throat, but it was whole. The cuts on his body were already healing. "For a second there, I thought--" He reached out as if to touch Duncan's neck, then looked over at Duncan's coat, cast aside with his sword. "How'd you know it was really me?"

Duncan's throat closed. "I didn't," he admitted. There were more tears, now, but he didn't care. "I didn't." He fumbled for Richie's shoulder; it was solid and real under his hand. Then his arms were around him, holding him close -- and Richie, whole and alive, hugged him back.

The world shifted subtly around them. The sensation was disorienting, a rushing sound in his ears and then a wave of something that felt like vertigo, like double vision. It was a little like looking in a funhouse mirror, the reflections distorting and stretching away into infinity -- then he was standing outside himself, seeing himself and Richie kneeling on the concrete, watching them as they finally let go and helped each other up, found his coat and Richie's sword, and walked away together, that other MacLeod's arm around Richie's shoulders.

Fitz stood beside him. "So, it's done," he said, watching them go. "You've changed his future for him, and he doesn't realize how close he came."

"Will he remember what happened tonight?"

"That MacLeod hasn't lived through what you have. Our experiences color our perceptions. He'll remember it, but it may look different to his eyes, his memories."

To his surprise, Duncan felt a spike of envy and resentment toward that other self. He wanted that second chance, so badly he could taste it. They started walking, following the direction the other two had gone. "Why didn't it happen like that, Fitz? Why couldn't I see that it was a trap the first time?"

"And if you'd known it was a trap, wouldn't you have still gone after him?"

"I suppose, but--" He tried to remember how it had happened that night, what he'd been thinking. It was so much easier to see your mistakes in hindsight. "I'll never understand why he came at me like he did. Why he didn't say anything--" He shook his head savagely. "I taught him better than that, Fitz. What the hell was he thinking?"

"He made a mistake. Something we all do, from time to time."

"Yeah." And saying it, Duncan recognized the anger he felt, acknowledging for the first time how deep it went. How long he'd been denying it. He'd directed it all at himself, at Ahriman, telling himself that Richie was the victim, that the blame was his alone. He hadn't let himself admit that he was angry at Richie, too. "I tried to protect him so many times, and he never listened. Not once."

"He was worried about your friend Dawson. He was worried about you. He didn't think about the danger to himself."

"He never did," Duncan admitted. They'd reached the ground floor. Their footsteps echoed down the long hallway, the sound of the rain muffled and distant. "So what happens now? How does it play out? Ahriman won't give up that easily." But maybe the body count wouldn't be quite so high, he thought. Maybe Sophie Baines wouldn't have to die this time. Maybe Joe's friends would be spared.

"Well, that's what we're here to see, laddie. That's what you asked for, isn't it? To know how things might have been different?"

They came to the end of the hallway, the ramp that led down to the parking lot curving away before them. Under the protective overhang of the entranceway he saw four figures, their silhouettes familiar. They stood talking, backlit against the acetylene glow from outside.

"Can they see us, Fitz?"

"From here on out, you and I are invisible as ghosts. They can't hear us, or touch us, and we can't interfere."

Duncan nodded, and drew nearer to the four men. The other MacLeod was talking, spreading his hands as if in persuasion.

"Look, whatever this thing wants with me, maybe it's not such a good idea for you guys to stick around right now."

But Joe Dawson was shaking his head. "Richie's right, Mac. You don't have to do this on your own."

"Joe, it came close to making me take Richie's head -- or making him take mine. Next time we might not be so lucky."

"Man's got a point," Methos pointed out.

Joe shot him a disgusted look. "Yeah, well, you want to do your disappearing act, you go right ahead, but I'm sticking it out. I don't know what the hell Richie saw, but I do know one thing -- Mac is not losing it. This thing is real. And whatever's going down, we're stronger together than apart."

"My sentiments exactly," Richie put in.

But MacLeod exchanged a look with Methos, a look that said the other two hadn't yet grasped how easily this thing could use them against one another, that he knew Methos had.

"Methos is right," he said firmly. "'You alone can stop him,' Landry said. It'll use any weapon it can against me, including any one of you -- we know that now. This thing wants me, fine. I'll give it a fight. But not at the price we almost paid tonight." He reached out and squeezed Joe's arm, preventing the protest he would have made. "I'm sorry about before. I should never have attacked you the way I did."

"Yeah, well, I guess you've got reason to suspect my actions where Horton is concerned. And this thing, whatever it is, seems like it's really big on pushing your buttons."

"No excuses, Joe. You deserve better from me." He ran a hand over his face, fatigue dragging at him visibly. "It's late, and I think it's finished playing games with us for tonight. Let's get the hell out of here. We can argue about it in the morning."

Rain still fell in slow sheets as they made their way back to the cars. The black sedan was gone; only MacLeod's Citroen and Methos' Volvo waited for them, and their headlights were dark, no red glow threatening in the night. Richie's bike stood a little distance away.

"You have a place to stay tonight?" MacLeod asked him, his hand on Richie's shoulder as if he needed to keep reassuring himself he was real.

"You sure? Safety in numbers, you know."

"I'm sure, Rich. I don't think it'll be back for a while, and I think I need some time alone." He smiled a little. "Haven't exactly been getting much sleep lately."

He'd still had so far to go, then, Duncan thought, to understand what he was facing. So much to learn. But he was right to put as much distance between himself and his friends as possible.

Richie's taillights disappeared down the ramp, and MacLeod joined Methos beside his car. Joe was already in the passenger seat, out of earshot. "You'll get Joe home?" MacLeod said, and Methos nodded once, glancing toward their mortal friend.

"You sure you're all right to get home on your own?"

MacLeod nodded slowly. "I'm okay. I think... I'm not sure exactly what happened in there, but I think we hurt it. I think it's going to have to regroup. We bought a little time."

Methos' expression was unreadable. "Well, that's good news, I'm sure." He opened his car door, getting in. "You take care of yourself, okay, Mac?"

"I will. You too," he added after a moment, but Methos had already shut the door and was starting the engine. MacLeod stood in the rain and watched the Volvo drive away, hands in the pockets of his coat.

Summer sunshine danced on the waves of the Seine, the barge rocking as a tourist boat passed by, closer than it should have. The laughter and voices of the boat's passengers and the growl of its engines washed through the open portholes. Duncan turned away from one of them, his eyes sweeping the barge, taking in the bare floors, the pared down furnishings. It wasn't quite as stark as it had been when he'd come back from Malaysia, but he recognized the signs that his alter ego was trying to simplify his surroundings, to seek the understanding he would need to defeat the demon.

"How long?" he asked Fitz, his eyes falling on the books that lay spread on the desk, the scroll cases. He -- that other MacLeod -- was following the same trails he had. Trying to learn the same thing: how to stop it.

"About a month, give or take. Sophie Baines has been helping him."

"Sophie... no, that's not a good idea. It'll kill her before it will let them work together." He counted backward, trying to remember the sequence of events, to think how they would play out in this new reality.

Footsteps sounded above, someone walking along the deck. The door opened, and MacLeod came down the stairs into the salon, Methos behind him.

"Look, maybe she decided to take a vacation," Methos was saying. He took his jacket off and hung it on the rack, holding out his hand for MacLeod's. Underneath he wore a t-shirt, and the June sunshine had brought color to his face.

MacLeod shook his head. Preoccupied, he went to the desk and sifted through the books and papers there, looking for something. "I don't like it, Methos. It already killed Landry and his granddaughter because they knew too much. I think somehow..." He sat down, finding the book he'd been looking for and opening it, running his fingers over the page. "I think those who study him become vulnerable to him. It gives him power, somehow. Brings him closer to you."

"Well, then, have you thought about the possibility that maybe that's a very good reason to let it be?" MacLeod, absorbed in what he was reading, didn't appear to have heard. Methos sighed and went to the galley. "Mind if I get a beer?"

"Help yourself," MacLeod said absently.

Methos did, popping the cap off and taking a long swallow. He ambled over to MacLeod's desk, leaning against the edge. "Mac... maybe you ought to think of getting away from Paris for a while." He fell silent for a moment, then gestured with the bottle. "I mean, maybe you shouldn't make it so easy for this thing to find you, you know? And you could use a change of scenery. It might even help you clear your mind, focus better."

MacLeod turned a page, not looking up. "The barge helps ground me. It's easier to keep my mind clear here than it is anywhere else."

Methos nodded as if to himself. He ran his fingers lightly along the edge of the desk, then took another swallow of his beer. "It reminds you of Tessa," he said after a moment.

At last MacLeod looked up. He met Methos' gaze for a moment, then sat back, thinking about it. "Yes, that's part of it."

"And what would she say, now, Mac?" Methos asked carefully. "What would she make of all this, d'you think?"

MacLeod's gaze didn't falter. "I think she'd tell me to have faith." A smile touched his face. "And she'd probably tell me to get out of Paris for a while." For an instant, the smile was shared; then MacLeod's faded, and he got up. "Anyway, as a matter of fact, I am leaving tomorrow."

"Oh?" Methos watched him as he went to the porthole and looked out, the afternoon sun slanting across his face. When MacLeod didn't offer anything further, he prompted, "Mind telling me where, or is it a secret?"

MacLeod said nothing for a moment, but then seemed to come to some decision. "I'm going to Basra."

"In Iraq?"

MacLeod glanced over at that, amused. "No, the other Basra, in Sweden. Yes, in Iraq. Landry went there just before he died. He was investigating a tomb site there, and I think he found something. He didn't have a chance to tell me about it, but Sophie thinks it could be the key."

"Hmm, I see. And what do you think the Iraqi army will think about that, when they find you poking around in one of their ancient tombs?"

"Well, I'll just have to deal with that if it comes to it, won't I?"

Before Methos could answer, the phone rang. MacLeod sobered, and he strode over and picked it up. "Hello."

He listened for a minute. From the look on his face, it was not good news. Finally, he said, "Understood, Joe. Thank you for telling me." Slowly, he put down the phone, the set of his face grim.

"That didn't sound good," Methos said.

"No." He met Methos' eyes. "Sophie Baines was found in the river this morning. She drowned last night. They're saying it was a suicide." He started to pace, rubbing his hand absently against his mouth.

"You don't believe that," Methos said, watching him. "Why not?"

"Why not? Because I know what this thing is capable of. It's killed before, Methos."

Methos straightened up. "You mean Landry and his granddaughter."

MacLeod looked at him sharply. "Of course I do. Who else would I mean?" He glanced toward the sleeping area, then started in that direction. "I've got to pack. Maybe I can fly out tonight." He went to the chest beside the bed and started pulling out clothes. Methos watched as he put them into a duffel, then picked up the bag and came back to the desk, adding books on top of the clothing. At last he zipped the bag closed, then leaned on the edge of the desk and looked around the barge as if trying to remember whether he'd forgotten anything. Methos was still watching him, not saying anything; at last MacLeod looked at him in irritation. "What? Aren't you going to tell me this wasn't my fault? That I'm not responsible?"

"Now why would I say something like that?" Methos asked mildly. "It's obvious I'd be talking to myself if I did, so not much of a point, is there?"

MacLeod glowered at him, but there was nothing he could say to that. His irritation leeched away, leaving grim determination. He straightened, lifting the duffle onto his shoulder. He put his laptop into its case, and shouldered that, too. "Richie's gonna want to know where I went. Tell him you don't know, okay? I don't want him following me."

"Hey, what do I know? I'm just a guy."

"Yeah." MacLeod looked at him for a long moment, the brief flicker of amusement fading. "Listen, Methos." He swallowed. "You told me something once. After I killed Sean. You told me that maybe there was more room in you. Do you remember?"

Methos' face went still. Then, he nodded. "I remember."

"I don't know what I'll find in Iraq," MacLeod said, his gaze intent. "But whatever happens... I need to know that you can do what needs to be done, if you have to. If it comes to it." He hesitated, and there was something bleak and knowing in his eyes. "And until then -- you stay away. Be my last line of defense. Can you do that?"

"Duncan--" But whatever Methos was going to say, he stopped himself. Instead, he drew a breath and nodded again; when MacLeod held out his hand, he took it, sealing the promise.

He watched MacLeod go. Watched him gather his coat, with his sword, watched him disappear into the stairwell. Listened as his footsteps passed overhead, and waited, head raised, until the rumble of the car engine faded away.

Then, he picked up the phone, and dialed one of the numbers on speed dial.

"Joe, it's me." He paused. "Yes, he told me about the Baines girl. He's on his way to the airport." Methos sat in MacLeod's chair, fingers running over the drawing that lay on the blotter: it was a rough charcoal rendering of a statue that bore only a passing resemblance to any living species of bird. "Joe, listen, I need to know if you've got confirmation of Mac's whereabouts last night..."

Troubled by what they'd seen, Duncan paced the foredeck, though in the small space he could barely go four steps in either direction.

"But this isn't right," he said to Fitz, who leaned against the rail. "Sophie isn't supposed to die for another year."

"You had the right idea when you went to that monastery. It was more than a haven for you. It bought you time -- bought the world time -- and it gave you the strength you needed to fight what you were facing. In this reality, you never went to Kuala Lumpur, and things moved along a little more quickly, I'm afraid. I keep telling you, MacLeod, you can't save everybody, no matter how hard you try."

"I know that, Fitz, but I thought--"

"You thought maybe by saving Richie, you could redeem yourself. And that if you could do that, then just maybe, nobody else had to die." Fitz sighed. "The problem with that, you see, is that it presupposes that death is a punishment. That somehow, your failures are to blame when you lose those you care about."

"But that's--"

"Ridiculous?" Fitz smiled affectionately. "My point exactly, dear boy."

Duncan came to lean beside him on the rail. "I guess I never thought about it like that. I mean, I know it doesn't work like that. Of course it doesn't."

"But sometimes it feels that way. I know, laddie. You wouldn't be who you are if you didn't take these things so hard." He squeezed Duncan's shoulder. "Believe me, I'm not trying to change you. Just trying to give you the big picture, as it were."

"So what happens to me in Iraq? And what was that about with Methos back there? He thinks I had something to do with Sophie's death?"

"He's worried about you. And he's not the only one."

The sudden shift from the bright sunlight on the river to the gloom of a covered car park left Duncan blinking. "I wish you'd warn me when you're going to do that," he muttered, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

"All part of the package, I'm afraid."

Duncan looked around the garage, its layout and numbering system familiar. "Orly Airport," he said. Just then, a car door slammed, and he saw the other MacLeod appear from behind a nearby van, the duffel over his shoulder. He strode toward the exit; after only a few steps, he stopped, stiffening with the tell-tale look of sensing another Immortal.

A motorcycle pulled into the garage, braking suddenly as its rider spotted MacLeod. It stopped a few yards away, and Richie dismounted, pulling off his helmet.

Anger darkened MacLeod's expression for a moment, but he controlled it. "You shouldn't be here," he said, and started walking again.

Richie fell into step beside him. "Yeah, well, neither should you, maybe. Are you sure this is such a good idea? I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but I seem to recall someone teaching me that walking into traps was not the best way to lead a long and healthy life."

MacLeod shot him a dark look. "Dawson's got a big mouth."

"Hey, don't blame him. He didn't know I was there."

"So you were eavesdropping."

"If you want to call it that." He took a few running steps to get in front of MacLeod, stopping him with a hand on his chest. "Mac, come on. Seriously, let's talk about this. At least let me come with you, watch your back--"

"Absolutely not." MacLeod sidestepped him and kept walking. "We've been through this, Richie. We already know this thing wants to kill you, and it wants me to do its dirty work. The smart thing to do is stay as far away from me as you can."

A look of mingled hurt and stubbornness flashed over Richie's face, and he stopped walking. "Fine."

Hearing the rebellion, MacLeod turned back. "Fine?" There was danger in his tone.

"Fine! You go ahead. But I'm not letting you push me away this time, Mac. You need help, and I don't trust Joe's little watchdogs as far as I can throw them. I may not be much, but I'm the best friend you've got right now. So you go ahead and get on that plane, but don't be surprised when you see me at the other end."

A change came over MacLeod then, so subtle that Duncan wasn't sure he'd seen it at first. Then MacLeod moved, two prowling steps forward. In a moment, his sword was in his hand.

Duncan started forward before he knew what he intended. "No--"

But Fitz's hand found his arm, stopping him.

MacLeod had gripped the front of Richie's shirt, his blade coming up to rest against Richie's neck. Richie, eyes wide and nostrils flared in fear, had no chance to draw his own.

"I suggest you rethink that decision," MacLeod growled. Then he grinned, a slow smile that chilled Duncan to the marrow. He'd seen it before, in a mirror in Le Havre. "And I suggest you listen to your friend, little boy. He knows me so much better than you do."

Then he let Richie go, and the grin faded, giving way to confusion. MacLeod blinked, and looked at the sword in his hand as if he had no idea how it had gotten there. His eyes met Richie's, and he backed away, horror dawning in his expression. "Richie." His voice shook. He turned the blade back, tucking it behind his arm. "I didn't--"

Richie took a half-step forward, but MacLeod brought up a hand as if to guard against a blow. "No. Get out of here." When Richie didn't immediately obey, he moved back again, face twisting. "For God's sake -- go."

At last, Richie fled.

When the sound of the bike's engine faded, MacLeod sagged against a nearby car, closing his eyes for long moments. Finally, he put the sword away. His hands shook as he took out his cell phone and dialed.

"Joe, it's me." His voice sounded as unsteady as his hands. "It's MacLeod. Yeah, I know, I'm in a parking garage. Joe, listen to me. Something just happened." He passed a hand over his eyes. "No, it's okay. No, I know -- it's not your fault. But you've got to keep him away. I'm asking you, swear to me on our friendship that you'll do whatever it takes to keep him out of this." He listened for a moment, then nodded. "And you stay away, too, Joe. If you need to send me something, artifacts, texts, anything -- you send it to the barge. No more visits, not until this is over." He pushed himself away from the car and started once more for the terminal, but stopped again in reaction to Joe's answer. "No! You listen to me, Joe. I'm dead serious about this. Stay away. Keep Richie away. And if you give a damn about your people, you'll keep them off my tail, or at least out of my reach. Do you understand me?"

Joe's answer must have satisfied him. Some of the rigid tension went out of his shoulders, and he started walking again. "I will. ...Yes, I will. I have to go, now, Joe. You take care of yourself. And watch your back."

He disappeared into the terminal as a jet's engine rumbled through the concrete; when Duncan turned back to look for Fitz, the sound faded and the concrete parking garage had become a tunnel, the soft light of late afternoon visible at the entrance. Fitz stood silhouetted against it, waiting for him, and he recognized the tunnel near the barge, the familiar quay beyond it.

Together, they walked out into the fading light. It was still summer, but the leaves had darkened since the last time they'd been there, and heat shimmered off the pavement. "You did go to Iraq," Fitz told him, watching a theater troupe setting up for the crowd of tourists. "And you did find the tomb Landry wrote about in his journals. It took you a little under two months, a handful of experts, and a quantity of money I don't like to think about to photograph, transcribe and decipher the writings in the burial chamber. For the past three days, you've been holed up in the barge trying to make sense of it all."

"But the answer won't be there," Duncan said, understanding. "He's -- I'm going about it from the wrong direction. The answer is in the places where Ahriman isn't." A troubling thought occurred to him. "In going to Ahriman's temple, reading about him... he's opening the door, isn't he? He thinks he's fighting it, when all the time he's getting closer to it. Letting it in."

A group that had stopped to take each other's pictures with the cathedral in the background chose that moment to move on, and he saw Methos' car parked under the trees. As he watched, Methos climbed out and turned to lock the door behind him.

"What's he doing here?"

"Same as always, I should think. He does like to stick his nose into your affairs, doesn't he?"

"Yeah. And he's liable to get it cut off if he keeps it up." Along with the rest of his head, he thought grimly. "Come on, Fitz." He started for the barge.

Fitz stopped him with a smile and a hand on his arm. "Why not take the easy way?"

Inside, the other MacLeod sat at the table, a gooseneck lamp beside him and pieces of his shelf clock spread out before him. Books and papers covered nearly every other flat surface in view save for the countertop in the galley, which was currently occupied by his laptop, a scanner, and a printer. But he had moved a stack of books from the table onto the floor to make room for the clock repair project, which seemed to be wholly consuming him at the moment.

From the looks of things, Duncan MacLeod had not been getting a lot of sleep lately. Eating and personal grooming seemed to have slid down his priority list, too, judging by the sharpness of his cheekbones and his three-day shadow of beard. When the aura of Methos' buzz reached him, he jumped, almost dropping the assembly. He swore softly, concentration broken.

MacLeod's coat was in reach, but he didn't draw his sword, just went back to the clock until the footsteps above descended the stairs, and a familiar knock came at the door.

"It's open," he called, barely looking up.

Methos came into the salon, eyebrows lifting as he got a good look at the landscape.

"You've been busy, I see. What's that you've got there?"

"Spencer & Hotchkiss. 1827, I think."

"Doesn't look like it's working."

"Not at the moment."

Methos came closer, hands in his pockets. His gaze traveled over the mess, then came to rest once more on MacLeod, missing little. "What's wrong with it?"

MacLeod finally looked up, one corner of his mouth quirking. "If I knew that, it'd be working."

Methos smiled a little at that, but his concern was evident. "I thought you went to Basra to make sense of all this. Looks like you're just making more of a mess here."

MacLeod went back to working on his clock. "And I thought I told you to stay out of it," he said, a subtle warning in his tone. "Seems to me I said the same thing to Joe. I'm sensing a pattern."

"Yeah, Joe's not very good at not caring about you. I noticed that, too." Methos wandered over to the desk, shifting some papers. "You seem to have some messages here." He tilted his head to get a better look. "Seventeen, as a matter of fact." When MacLeod didn't answer that, he held his finger over the button. "Mind if I see what's so important?" Without waiting for MacLeod's approval, he pressed it.

"Mac, it's Joe. Sergei told me you got back this morning. Listen, we need to talk. Give me a call, okay?"

The end of message beep sounded, and Joe's voice returned. "Hey, Mac. It's me again. I have some information you need to hear. It's important -- give me a call when you get a chance."

MacLeod rose as the third message began to play and came over, shutting off the machine. "Enough, Methos." He opened the recorder and popped the tape out, tossing it into the overflowing trash can. His look challenged Methos to say anything about it. When Methos only returned his gaze with that same faintly ironic expression he so often wore, MacLeod turned and went to the bar, getting a bottle of water out of the fridge. He opened it, tossing the cap into the sink. "I don't suppose there's any hope I could get you to leave without making my life miserable for the next half hour?"

"Mac." Methos drew closer, opening one hand. "Look around you. This isn't working. Whatever it is you... you think you're doing here, it's not giving you any answers." He stopped a little distance away, as if to offer no threat. "There has to be a better way to handle this."

MacLeod drank deeply, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm handling it just fine. Except for the part where none of you can seem to manage to do the one thing I asked of you."

"Yes, and I can see how well you're handling things."

Anger made MacLeod's jaw set. "What do you want, Methos? Get to the point."

"All right, then. Where were you last night?"

"What?"

Methos only looked at him with that level gaze, waiting. MacLeod's discomfort grew until he pushed himself away from the bar, going to the porthole and looking out over the river. The setting sun showed his pallor, and the lines of weariness under his eyes. He didn't see the way Methos moved back a little, subtly keeping a certain distance between them.

"I went to see Andrew Baines. I wanted to talk to him again, try to convince him to let me see Sophie's files." He looked bitterly at Methos. "Do I need your permission to leave the barge, now?"

Methos still hadn't taken his right hand out of his pocket, and his casual nonchalance about that fact was just a little too studied, a little too casual. "Two Watchers were killed last night in Marne-la-Vallée."

The angry line of MacLeod's jaw eased, and he frowned. "One of us?"

"Looks like it. Stephen Moreau and Antoine LaRouche were their names. They were on special assignment."

"Following me, you mean." His expression closed up again.

"They were killed not far from your friend Andrew's house."

"It wasn't a social call, Methos. I needed to talk to him." His patience was plainly wearing thin. "Look -- why come to me with this? If I knew anything, I would have told Joe."

Methos was watching him carefully now. All pretense at nonchalance had left him. "Whoever killed those Watchers didn't just take them out, Mac -- he cut them to pieces. The police are calling it a ritual killing. They're questioning people, looking for anyone unusual who might have been in the area last night. They're testing for metal residue to identify the murder weapon."

At last, the other shoe dropped, and MacLeod turned from the window, appalled. For a long moment, words failed him. "And you think I did this?"

"Somebody did. And it wasn't some cloud of red mist." Methos drew a step closer, hand open as if he were gentling a wild horse. "Mac, I saw the bodies."

MacLeod stared at him in disbelief. "Methos, you have to believe me, I had nothing to do with this."

"Do you remember walking home?"

"Yes, I--" But then something stopped him, and he hesitated.

"You've been missing time, haven't you?" Methos said gently. MacLeod shook his head, as if denying what he was saying, denying the pity in Methos' eyes. But Methos refused to let it go. "Richie told us what happened before you went to Iraq."

MacLeod stilled at that, and he drew a sharp breath. "Richie told--" It pushed him past the edge of his faltering control, and he looked like he'd taken a sudden cut to the belly. "It isn't enough that I have to fight this thing, now my friends are going behind my back informing on me? When exactly did this become a conspiracy against me? And who picked you to be the messenger?" He sneered, an ugly expression, unable to stop himself from lashing out in his hurt and desperation. "I'm surprised they thought you'd be man enough to face me. Not really like you to stick around when things get messy, is it, Methos? I would've thought you'd be on your way to Bora Bora by now."

"I haven't told you the rest of it," Methos said, as if the insults didn't matter. "It wasn't just the Watchers who were killed. Whoever did it went to their houses and killed their families while they slept. And they weren't just killed, they were butchered. Their wives. Their kids. Antoine LaRouche had three little girls. You understand what I'm saying, Mac?"

MacLeod looked as though he might be sick. The anger he felt at Methos' doubt was plain, but just as plain was the uncertainty, the questions. Had he looked at the clock when he'd gotten home last night? Was that why he'd thought something must be wrong with it? And why, if he had nothing to hide, did he look like a man who'd barely slept?

"So, I'm asking you again. Where were you last night?"

"Methos. It wasn't me. You have to believe me." But sick fear shadowed his eyes. He started to pace, shaking his head as if he could deny what he feared by sheer force of will.

"Believe me, Duncan, I would give anything to not have to ask you these questions. But I can't -- I can't just watch you lose everything that you are."

"Right," he said bitterly. "I'm too important to lose."

"You're too important to me. To Richie, and Amanda. To Joe."

At that, MacLeod paled. "Does Joe know--?"

"He's the one who identified what was left of the bodies."

MacLeod swallowed hard, as if struggling against nausea. "And does he think that I--?"

Methos said nothing.

At last, desperate, MacLeod turned to him. "Methos. Help me. You have to--"

"I'm trying, Mac." He spoke carefully, the way one might to a child. Or a mental patient. "But I don't think a holy spring is gonna fix this."

MacLeod's eyes widened as he understood at last. "You still think I'm crazy, don't you? You think -- you think that I--" Betrayal twisted in his expression. "Did you ever believe in Ahriman, or were you just humoring me?"

"Mac, I don't know what to believe any more--"

"Damn you!" MacLeod took a step toward him, a dangerous fury building in him, but Methos was ready for him. He moved back, and that was when MacLeod's eyes fell on the hand he'd kept hidden in his pocket.

"What do you have there, Methos? A gun? Gonna shoot me again? Shoot me and take my head, is that it?" Brightness shimmered in his eyes, but it wasn't rage he betrayed in his voice, it was relief.

"Mac." Tears were standing in Methos' eyes, too. He took his hand out of his pocket, revealing not a pistol, but a tranquilizer gun. "I want to take you to a place where you won't be able to hurt anyone. Where we can keep you safe, sedated, until we figure out a way to help you."

MacLeod's breath caught. Dawning horror wiped away everything else. "No. No, that's what it wants, Methos. I can't fight it if I'm drugged up, locked up--" He backed away.

"It's a place called Sanctuary, on holy ground, Mac. Connor's there. You'll be safe. I don't like it any more than you do, but--"

"Connor?" It stopped him. Then he started to laugh, a bitter sound as he understood all the ways he'd been deceived. "You knew. How long have you been keeping that from me? You know how many years I spent looking for him, what he means to me. You sat there last year and let me tell you about him for two hours, watched me grieve for him, and you never said a fucking word--"

"Mac, calm down! He came to me, all right? Four years ago, he came to me and asked me to help him. Made me swear never to tell you!" Methos drew a deep breath and visibly forced himself to relax, to keep his voice even. "Look -- Connor and I have known each other for over two hundred years. He trusted me, and so can you. It's gonna be all right, if you just--"

"No," MacLeod said hoarsely, shaking his head. "No, I can't." He was moving, circling toward the door, but Methos was still between him and escape. "Methos, you're giving it what it wants. You lock me up in that place and it's won -- that's the end of it. Game over."

"I wish there was another way. Believe me. If there was any other way--"

"Methos, you can't--"

"I'm sorry, Mac." He pulled the trigger.

MacLeod made a small, surprised sound. A slender, black dart had appeared just over his heart. A second later, he crumpled to the deck.

Methos stood over his friend's body, still holding the gun. MacLeod was out cold, the dart sticking out of his chest. His dark hair spilled across the wood floor.

Methos took out his cell phone and pressed a button. "It's done," he said, never taking his eyes from the body at his feet -- never taking his hand off the tranq gun, either. "Yeah, well, make it fast." He hung up and put away the phone. Then, slowly, he moved to the figure on the floor, and knelt beside it. He reached out and stroked the unconscious man's hair away from his face, a gesture of such tenderness that Duncan, watching, found himself catching his breath.

Methos pressed two fingers to the pulse point at the other man's throat -- only then did he put the gun away. He took out a hypodermic needle and pushed up one sleeve, pressing the needle into a vein and depressing the plunger until the chamber was empty. Finally, he pulled out the dart and straightened the lifeless arms and legs until MacLeod looked as though he'd simply fallen asleep.

But it was the look on Methos' face that transfixed Duncan. He didn't know how to name what he saw there.

When at last he made himself look away, he and Fitz were standing at the top of a grassy terrace, near the gates of an old monastery. Early morning sunshine filtered through trees green with late summer, casting long shadows beside the stone pillars that marked the approach to the front door.

Fitz started walking along the cobbled drive toward the main building, and Duncan automatically fell into step with him. He was getting used to the sudden shifts, and barely noticed it this time. "Fitz, what was he talking about? That can't be right. Connor would never do something like that."

"Well, as someone very wise once said, never is a very long time."

"It just doesn't make any sense. I know he was upset about something when I saw him in New York, but he would never do that. Put himself in the hands of the Watchers? Hide on holy ground?"

"And why would your friend make up something like that?"

That part of it was even harder to take, because if it was true, it wasn't just this Methos who had been lying to him, but his Methos, as well. "My friend -- hid it from me for years. From the day we met, he's been hiding it from me."

"As he swore to your kinsman he would."

Duncan had no answer for that, still not sure how he felt about it. "In the meantime," he said at last, "my friend also just shot me with a tranquilizer dart, pumped me full of drugs, and turned me over to the Watchers." He frowned, noticing their surroundings for the first time. "Fitz, where are we? Is this where Methos was taking me? I mean, him?"

"It's an old monastery. Looks positively medieval, doesn't it? The Watchers keep their little pet project in the basement." The sound of a car engine approached, and Fitz turned as they reached the front steps. "And speak of the devils." They watched the black SUV as it pulled up the drive and stopped. Two men Duncan didn't recognize got out and went around to the back while Joe Dawson managed his artificial legs on the passenger side.

His two companions lifted a gurney out of the back of the car. On it was the unconscious form of Duncan MacLeod.

"Maybe Methos was right," Duncan said, watching them maneuver the gurney up the front walk. "When I defeated the demon, I told it that without my anger, it had no substance. Maybe if it can't control me, it can't manifest."

But Fitz put an end to that hope. "He may have meant well, but I'm afraid your friend Methos has made things worse by sending you here, not better."

"Worse?" His eyes fell on Joe, navigating the stone steps in slow, painful increments. "How much worse?"

"I don't think I can tell you, laddie. I think you have to see it for yourself..."

They were under the ground, in an earthen-floored tunnel lined with stones and lit by fluorescent bulbs. Water trickled over the stones and pooled on the ground. One of the men from the SUV wheeled the gurney, the faint squeak of its wheels echoing against the stone, counterpoint to Joe Dawson's uneven tread as he led the way.

They turned and went down another tunnel, this one sloping downward, too, but lit by torches rather than electric lamps. It might have been two hundred years old, or a thousand.

At last the tunnel opened into a large underground chamber. Duncan had the impression of a cave formed partly from the monastery's foundations, and partly from a natural cavern, dimly lit by a single string of lights -- and then he saw them.

There were fifteen of the barbaric-looking contraptions, arranged loosely in a circle and connected by power conduits that ran haphazardly along the floor. Four of them were empty; one of these stood with its wrist and ankle restraints open, ready to receive a new occupant. And the others--

These were Immortals, he realized. He couldn't feel their Presence here, but the other MacLeod could: he was shifting restlessly on the gurney, his senses trying to warn him of danger nearby. Gut-level repulsion swept over Duncan. They were being held here like so much meat, drugged and catheterized, given nourishment through needles healed permanently into their veins. Some of them had to have been here for twenty years or more, for their hair and beards had grown nearly to the floor. Who they were, who they had been, was anyone's guess. But one -- his eyes searched the faces below the metal visors, looking for the one he sought -- there. Connor, his kinsman, insensate like all the rest.

"Connor, my friend, what have you done to yourself?" he murmured, though he knew only Fitz could hear him.

Just then, the string of lights overhead started to flicker. For a moment, they were plunged into darkness, the faint, distant torchlight providing only meager relief from it.

"What the hell?" That was Joe.

The small glow of a flashlight appeared. The other Watcher handed it to Joe, then disappeared into the shadows beyond its limited halo. "Must be a breaker. I'll take care of it. Stay with him."

"Hale, wait a second--"

"I'll be right back!"

The sound of his footsteps receded, and Joe was left alone with the drugged MacLeod. Perhaps roused by the auras of so many Immortals, he was stirring, his lips moving as his body fought the drugs and tried to wake. "Tessa?"

"It's okay, Mac. It's Joe."

"S'dark."

"I know it is, buddy. We'll take care of it."

"J-Joe?"

"Yeah, that's right. Listen, I'm sorry, but I have to do this." He'd laid the flashlight on the gurney, and there was a hypo in his hand.

"N-" MacLeod tried to reach for his hand, but was stopped by the restraints. "No more, Joe. Please. No more drugs. I won't -- I won't fight you. I want to stop this thing as m-much as you do."

"Okay, man. Take it easy. No more drugs. It's gonna be okay -- we're gonna find a way to help you."

"H-help me."

"We're workin' on it, my friend. You just gotta trust me."

MacLeod nodded a little, as if he understood. The effort to talk seemed to have exhausted him. "Trust you."

Joe Dawson patted his shoulder. His eyes shone suspiciously in the pale gleam of the flashlight. "You got it, buddy."

For a moment, Duncan thought the other MacLeod had passed out again, but then his eyes fluttered open. "But you believe me, right, Joe? You believe Ahriman is real?"

Joe nodded. "Sure I do. I believe you, Mac." The words seemed to stick in his throat. MacLeod's eyes closed, and Joe squeezed his shoulder, his voice rough. "Poor bastard."

Fluorescent lantern light appeared out of the darkness, moving closer until the circle of its glow reached them. "I don't know what's wrong with the lights, but I found this. Let's get this done, and get the hell out of here." Hale set the lantern down and turned to MacLeod.

That was when Duncan saw it: the hated red mist. It barely teased at the edges of his vision, and for a moment he thought he was imagining it -- then chill horror washed over him, and he knew he wasn't. "Joe. Joe!"

But Joe, helping Hale with the restraints that held MacLeod to the gurney, couldn't hear him.

Hurrying now, the Watchers finished with the straps. Hale wheeled the gurney over to the thing that looked like a medieval torture device, then turned to hook up the needle that would keep MacLeod sedated.

Except, he wasn't sedated. Joe had never given him the last hypo. In the split second before he moved, Joe realized his mistake, and opened his mouth -- but it was too late. MacLeod was already off the gurney and moving fast; in less than a second, he had his arm around Hale's throat. "Don't do it, Joe!" MacLeod warned, seeing his reach for the gun he kept hidden in his coat. "If you do, he's a dead man." Seeing Joe's hesitation, MacLeod smiled, that dark smile that made Duncan's skin crawl. "Oh, Joseph. Such a hypocrite you are. Talking about trust when you're about to lock your best friend in a hole in the ground for the rest of his life. You really are dear to my heart, you know that? The world needs more people like you." He moved closer, forcing Hale to move with him. His hands were positioned to break Hale's neck.

Joe Dawson took a careful step backwards, trying to keep out of his reach. "Mac, let him go. I know you don't want to hurt anybody."

MacLeod chuckled softly. "And I'm going to have so much fun showing you how very wrong you are."

"Forget about me, Dawson!" Hale ordered. "Shoot me if you have to, but stop him!"

Again Joe moved back, closer to the edge of the circle of lamp light. Decision flickered in his face, and he drew the gun. He pointed it at MacLeod's head.

"Drugging me won't solve anything, you know," MacLeod told him. "You're going to have to cut off my head, Joe. You should have done it long ago."

"I'll do it if I have to, Mac."

"Of course you will," MacLeod said with a smile. And his hands twisted, snapping Hale's neck.

Before Joe could react, MacLeod shoved the body at him, knocking him backwards. As he twisted and went down, he slammed into the gurney, his hands coming instinctively to break his fall. Hale's weight and the unforgiving metal did their work, and the gun flew out of his hand.

MacLeod, standing over him, kicked the gun away, then the cane. He shoved Hale's corpse aside and laughed at the sight of Dawson on his back, bruised, bleeding and helpless. "Come on, Joe. I'm waiting for you to take care of business. Weren't you going to kill me? But that's not looking so easy now, is it?" Casually, he drew his arm back and smashed Joe across the face, breaking his nose, making him cry out. Then he knelt on top of Joe's shoulders, straddling his chest, and put his hand over Joe's mouth and nose, cutting off his air. Blood ran out from beneath his hand.

Joe's struggles weakened. When he was nearly unconscious, MacLeod pushed himself up, then lifted Dawson bodily and threw him on the gurney. He fastened the straps around Joe's wrists and forehead, then his legs for good measure, testing them to make sure they were secure. Sounding as though he were choking on his own blood, Joe fought for consciousness as MacLeod patted him lightly on the cheek. "Now, you be a good boy and stay here, while I go take care of your friends outside." With that, MacLeod disappeared up the tunnel.

Duncan bent over Joe's battered form, beside himself with the need to do something, to help. "Joe, come on, now's your chance." He clenched his fists in frustration. "Fitz, we have to help him."

"Now, laddie, we talked about this."

Dawson was fumbling at his restraints, struggling to hold on to consciousness, to reach something in his pocket. His cell phone, Duncan realized. The other MacLeod hadn't thought to take it from him. The chance that it would work this deep under the ground was vanishingly small, but it was a chance.

"You wanted to know what would have happened if Richie hadn't died," Fitz reminded him gently. "You asked to see this."

"Fitz, I know, but I can't just stand here and watch him suffer like this!"

"It's not real, MacLeod. It never happened. This is just a might-have-been, a turn in the road."

"Then make it stop, or let me help him. Please." Fitz said nothing, and Duncan looked at him. "You can stop it, can't you?"

"If you're sure that's what you want me to do."

Footsteps echoed down the tunnel, and his doppelganger reappeared, a silhouette against the flickering torchlight at the tunnel entrance. The katana was in his hand. His own dark reflection, his future that could have been.

He swallowed. Drew a breath. "Fitz, wait." Something cold had come to rest in the pit of his stomach.

All I know is that evil exists in all of us, he'd said to his friend Joe Dawson not so long ago. When we deny that, we give evil power. He'd learned at great cost how very true that was, and that it wasn't a battle to be fought once and forgotten, but a lesson to be learned again and again, for as long as you lived. And what cost would be paid if he looked away from this darkness now, denied its truth?

"Finish it," he said, and steeled himself to look into the abyss.

MacLeod returned to Joe's side, amusement playing about his lips as he watched him struggle. "What've you got there, Dawson? A present for me?" He reached into Joe's coat and pulled out the cell phone. "Guess you won't be needing this." He tossed it away into the darkness; it crunched as it hit the stone floor. MacLeod circled the gurney, fingertips tracing idly over Dawson's body in a sensual caress. "So, you like to watch, do you?"

"Go to hell," Joe spat, jerking away from the too-familiar touch.

"Oh, come on. Admit it. You always got off on watching me take heads. That's really what the Watchers are about." MacLeod left Joe's side and moved into the circle of Immortals, the tip of his sword tracing over their necks as he passed each one. "You pretend to be historians, but the truth is you're a bunch of sick voyeurs, paying your five dollars to watch us through the peephole because it gets you off. Well, I'm gonna give you a show that'll jack you like nothing else, Joseph. Get ready for the ride of your sad little life -- your trick whore's about to show you something worth watching." He stopped before one of the helpless figures and drew a delicate line of blood from ear to ear, watching it well forth. Then he smiled, an almost seductive expression, and winked at Joe.

Joe yelled at him, but it was too late, the sword already in motion.

Held up by their restraints, the heads didn't even fall. One after the other, the katana did its work; MacLeod left only his kinsman alive, beheading the last of them as the first bolt of power lanced into him, opening his arms to welcome the storm.

And the storm came. With the fury of hell and eleven Immortal souls betrayed, it came, but the figure at its center laughed and called down the lightning, taking it into his body and asking for more.

When at last the assault of energy was spent, he radiated power like a dark sun. Afire with it, tiny currents still sparking along his skin, he wiped blood from his sword and licked it from his finger, then laughed at Dawson's expression. But he wasn't finished yet.

He went to Connor and loosened the metal visor that hid his eyes, lifting it back to reveal his face, deep in slumber. "And then there was one," he said softly. "Connor MacLeod. You thought you could hide from me, but there is no place to hide, not any more. Your brother wants to bring you home now."

Joe broke in. "Mac, you can't do this. You know you can't. It's holy ground. That's Connor -- your teacher, for God's sake! You've known him for almost four hundred years!"

MacLeod laughed, the ugly sound echoing against the stone. "What do you think I am, Dawson? You must know. You've been watching me kill for years. You just fooled yourself that I was like you -- I'm nothing like you. I've killed friends before, lovers -- death is in me, and I am death. The world will know that soon enough. You should have stopped me years ago, Dawson. Now it's too late."

And with that, he drew the ancient Japanese blade easily through Connor's neck, separating his head from his body.

Numb with horror, Duncan felt the breath rush from his lungs. He wanted to look away, but a cold wind suddenly rose in the chamber, lifting his hair from his neck, and he felt transfixed. Then, a luminous fog rolled over the floor, ghostly blue swirled with a scarlet mist he knew too well. He shook his head, not wanting to believe it. "Oh, Connor, no."

The first bolt of Connor's quickening struck the other MacLeod with merciless fury, and Connor's murderer shouted out his triumph even as it drove him to his knees. Then the maelstrom hit.

MacLeod had already killed nearly a dozen strong Immortals, but the rage of Connor's single quickening was more violent still, as if Connor knew what monstrous treachery had been wrought upon him and was seeking his revenge in the only way he could. His lifeforce bludgeoned his killer into the floor, seeking its price in his flesh, ferocious as a hurricane in that enclosed space. Joe Dawson turned his face away, unable to watch; the periphery of the storm whipped at his hair, his clothing, but the furious energy sought only one target.

Of course, all its rage was futile, for this was what they'd been built for, and even as the figure at the center of the storm gave way under the assault of raw power, he absorbed it, claimed it, made it his own.

This time, when it was over, the chamber rang with the silence.

The torches had gone out. Hale's lantern made the only circle of light in the blackness. By its faint glow, MacLeod overcame the last of the quickening weakness and staggered to his feet. He shook the blood off his sword, then wiped it clean on Connor's coverall. Abandoning the blade for the time being, he went to one of the restraining racks and seized hold of the canister fastened to its back -- the reservoir chamber used to dispense the powerful sedatives that had kept its occupant unconscious. With a grunt, MacLeod ripped it free. Its needle was still attached to the tubing, and trailed behind, bouncing against his thigh as he returned to Dawson's side.

Joe watched him, defiant, his struggle to overcome his fear plain on his expressive face.

"So, how about it, Joe?" MacLeod said casually, though his voice was hoarse from his screams. He laid the canister on the gurney beside Joe so that it nestled into the crook of the mortal's arm, then picked up the needle, examining the tip. "Was it good for you, too?"

Joe shook his head in denial. "Mac. Mac, you can't do this."

"Oh, but I am doing it." MacLeod smiled, as if overcome by affection. "See, that's the beauty of being me. I don't believe in 'can't' any more. Those days are over." He unwound the rubber tubing, and flicked the needle with his finger. "Not as sharp as it was, but it'll do the job." He seized the edge of Joe's sleeve and pushed it up, baring the vein.

Joe strained against his bonds, but they held fast. He was sweating now. "This is me, Mac. It's Joe. We've been friends for too long for you to--"

"Sorry, Joe. Time's up."

He was still smiling when he shoved the needle into Joe's arm, when Joe bit back his cry of pain, then gasped, a sound like a sob. He struggled harder, snarling, his face twisted with impotent rage. "You son of a bitch!"

MacLeod kissed him on the forehead. "Good night, Joseph," he said softly, and took the drip clamp off. He laid it on Joe's chest, retrieved the katana, picked up the lantern and walked out of that place; by the time the light had faded, no sound at all remained in the dark place under the ground.