Duncan was silent for a long time. Fitz said nothing, just sat close beside him, their shoulders touching.
They were in Darius's church. Sunlight streamed through the small round window over the altar, and except for a few dust motes moving lazily in the circle of light it cast, they were alone.
He wanted to believe it was a lie. That Connor would never do that -- would never willingly put himself in a place like that. That there weren't still Watchers around capable of that kind of interference in the Game. That Methos and Joe hadn't really been keeping it from him all this time. All the levels and degrees of betrayal and horror made him feel sick, like he'd been a fool, naïve and trusting, and nothing was true any more. So much easier to believe it was all a trick, some kind of illusion -- except, he didn't. Since Richie had died, he'd been close enough to taste that kind of despair, hadn't he? He knew first hand how tempting oblivion could be. How much easier than risking your heart again.
He shoved his chair back and stood up, pacing angrily. "So, what? I'm supposed to see it's a trade-off? That if I didn't kill Richie, I was gonna lose Connor and Joe? Is that supposed to make some kind of karmic sense or something?"
Fitz shook his head sadly. "You still don't understand, do you? You still think this is about you. That all of this is some kind of punishment, your payment for the mistakes you've made. For all the people you couldn't save. You say you don't believe that, but in your heart, you do." He sighed. "Ah, laddie. I wish it was that simple."
A cold finger touched Duncan's heart, and he stopped. "There's more, isn't there? It doesn't end with Joe." Fitz looked at him, then, and Duncan saw there were tears on his face. "Fitz?"
"You said it yourself, dear boy. The ultimate struggle between good and evil is fought within one soul."
The chill spread through Duncan, making the hair stand up on the back of his neck. "Armageddon."
Fitz nodded, and his eyes were ancient and bleak. "The end of the world, my friend. And it began that night, but no, I'm afraid it didn't end there..."
Reality shifted. They stood in a swank penthouse office. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a breathtaking panorama of the familiar New York skyline framed a sky darkening toward evening, the lights of the city glittering against its vibrant backdrop.
One of the double doors opened. Duncan saw himself walk through it, and again he had that disorienting sensation of deja vu mixed with the funhouse mirror feeling. From outside, a secretary's voice could be heard, saying something about a man waiting to see him.
"Yes, I know. Not now, Marie," the other MacLeod said absently, his attention on a piece of paper he was reading. "I'm busy." He closed the door behind him, crossing the room slowly as his eyes scanned the paper.
He was dressed all in black: a four thousand dollar suit, black silk shirt buttoned to the throat, no tie; power radiated from him like heat from a bonfire, and it awoke every defensive instinct Duncan possessed. The familiar eyes were bottomless, impenetrable. MacLeod dropped the paper on his desk and picked up a remote control, pressing a button. A wall slid aside, revealing a bank of state-of-the-art audio visual equipment, and the flat screen TV turned on. MacLeod pressed another button and it switched to the news. The graphics showed election results coming in, and an announcer was saying that they'd have numbers for the senatorial race in North Carolina in just a few minutes.
Duncan turned to Fitz. "How much time has passed?"
"A little more than a year, since you -- since he wiped out the sanctuary."
"1998," Duncan said. "This year."
Fitz nodded. "And he's been busy. He left that place with the power of a dozen quickenings -- and something else besides. He took Dawson's laptop computer."
"The Watcher records? But I..." He broke off, looking at his other self, the dark reflection that stood before the television screen, a smile playing about his lips as if he were thinking about some terribly amusing private joke. "Ahriman. It's still in him."
Fitz sighed. "Not too many Immortals left by now, I'm afraid."
Duncan's breath stopped in his throat. He swallowed hard, feeling sick. "Who?"
"Too many to count, my friend. Old enemies. Old friends. And each one he kills makes him stronger. He made Jacob Kell look like a rank amateur -- that is, until he killed him and his little posse, and added their power to his own."
Duncan didn't recognize the name Kell, but it didn't matter; he'd known others. Kalas. Kronos. They were all the same. Their deaths were no loss to the world, but the power they held... "He's going to win the Game," Duncan said, and the words shook him, made him feel like the sick horror would choke him -- because even as he said it, he knew it was true. He couldn't look away from the monster that wore his face, the monster he might have become. His worst fear, made flesh. "In the end, there can be only one."
"He does still have a few friends left, though," Fitz said. As if he'd heard, the other MacLeod tossed the remote aside and turned, expectant, to face the doors just before they burst open.
It was Richie. He looked like hell, and his clothes had seen better days, as though he'd been on the road a long time. He carried his motorcycle helmet under his arm.
The other MacLeod smiled at the sight of him, a grin that showed too many teeth. He leaned back against the desk, crossing his ankles and folding his arms against his chest.
"Richard! So you're the one who's been waiting to see me. If I'd known you were coming, I'd've had my hair done."
The secretary appeared in the open doorway, out of breath. "Mister MacLeod, I'm sorry, I tried to stop him--"
"It's all right, Marie. Leave us." She did as ordered, closing the doors behind her; when she was gone, MacLeod pressed a hidden button, the lock engaging with an audible click.
Ignoring the threat in that shark's grin, Richie pleaded with him. "Mac, please, you have to listen to me."
"What, no sword this time?"
"What's the point?" Richie said bitterly. "We both know you can take me any time you want."
At that, MacLeod pushed himself away from the desk, circling him, menace written in every line of his body. "Then why are you here, little boy? I told you, I'll come for you when I'm ready."
Angry tears shone in Richie's eyes. "Like you came for Joe? For Connor? For Amanda?"
"Just like that. Bright boy."
MacLeod had stopped in front of his student, and now he reached out casually, brushing his fingertips along the collar of Richie's leather jacket, close to his throat. Richie held still, breathing hard and obviously afraid, but stubbornly refusing to back down. "So why haven't you killed me already? Huh, Mac? Why let me live, when you've killed so many others?"
"Because it amuses me." MacLeod shrugged, and his grin had become a sneer. "What can I say? I'm a big fan of dramatic irony." He caressed Richie's cheek, and Richie flinched away, his hands closing into fists. "Your friend Methos would appreciate that." He tilted his head, eyes glittering. "Did he send you?"
Richie laughed, but it sounded forced. "Methos? He's long gone. He's probably hiding out in a cave somewhere. You'll never find him."
At that, MacLeod laid his hand against Richie's throat, thumb playing over the adam's apple. "Oh, Rich. You know better than that." He smiled a little to himself, and Richie made a sound of pain. He squeezed his eyes shut, sweat breaking out on his face.
"Fitz, what's he doing to him?" But as soon as he said it, Duncan realized he knew. All that power inside of him. He'd known for a while that something was changing in his perceptions of the world, that he was on the cusp of reaching a new level of... something. Awareness. Understanding. The last few years, he'd started having dreams in which he knew things, sensed things, that he couldn't know. Feelings that weren't his. Sometimes, he got visions of things that were happening to other people, other places. Sometimes, it was just an insight he couldn't explain, but that he knew was right -- like when he'd known without question that Byron wasn't what he'd seemed, that he was dangerous. Sometimes, it was more specific. A vision that proved to be true; insight into feelings others kept hidden. Darius had hinted for years that he'd had visions of the future sometimes. Cassandra and Roland could control people with the Voice. If Connor was to be believed, Ramirez had been able to do more than any of them. Was it so hard to imagine that he, too, might eventually discover hidden abilities of his own?
This Duncan MacLeod was stronger than he'd ever dreamed of being. And if he'd learned how to use that power...
"Are you the decoy?" the other MacLeod growled, eyes burning with it. "Is that it? Are you supposed to draw me out into the open, so my dear friend Methos can take my head?" He chuckled low in his throat, and the hair stood up on Duncan's arms. Richie made a low, keening sound, deep in his throat; the vein at his forehead pulsed as if his heart were being pushed beyond its limits. MacLeod's thumb caressed his throat again, pressed harder on the vulnerable cartilage that housed his larynx.
"He doesn't know I'm here," Richie gasped out, trembling with some inner strain. Sweat rolled down his face, his skin as flushed as if he'd just run ten miles.
"Ah, Richie. Now, why don't I believe you?" At last MacLeod let him go, shoving him back in disgust. Richie made a choking sound and rubbed at his throat, trying to catch his breath. The look on his face was one of hatred and betrayal, all his idealism and hero worship burned away to ash. His eyes were hollow with it.
MacLeod had turned his back, attention captured once more by the news broadcast, the election results. The announcer was talking about the New York race now, and the unfortunate, sudden death of Al D'Amato some months before, which had left his seat open and threatened to give the state to the Democrats.
"What are you?" Richie Ryan asked the man who had been his teacher, his friend. "What did you do to him?" He might as well have been a gnat, for all the attention MacLeod paid him. Despair written all over him, he took a reckless step closer. "I know you're still in there. Somewhere inside that... thing, I know you can hear me. It's using you, Mac. You have to fight it!" Fighting tears, Richie reached inside his jacket, pulling out an automatic pistol. His hand shook. "You have to fight it."
"Go home, Richie," MacLeod said, sounding bored. "Tell Methos I send my love, and that I can't wait to see what little games he's got in store for me. Tell him I'm gonna love the taste of his Quickening." He glanced back over his shoulder then, and there was nothing human in his eyes. "And don't worry. I'll come for you sooner or later. I wouldn't miss it."
Richie's face twisted in a snarl, and he brought the pistol up, closed both hands around it, aiming for MacLeod's broad back, but before he could squeeze the trigger he cried out and crumpled to the floor as if run through, doubled over in agony. Heartsick, Duncan wanted to turn away, or go to him; all he could do was watch, his fists clenched in helpless impotence.
The other MacLeod just smiled, watching the young man he'd once considered a son writhing in nameless torment. "So predictable. When are you guys gonna figure out that it's not that easy any more? The day when you could have shot me in the back is long past, Rich. We're in the end days, now, and I'm getting stronger all the time. Your kind is in the last phase of its extinction."
"Mac--" Richie gasped, and blood welled from his nose, dark against the cream-colored carpet.
On the television, numbers for the New York race appeared at last, and MacLeod turned to watch, his smile turning to one of satisfaction as the results appeared. "Ah, that's my boy." He reached for the remote, pressing a button, and the announcer's voice rose.
"...death of incumbent Senator Al D'Amato, longtime opponent of President Bill Clinton, left the field wide open for Democratic challenger Charles Schumer. But after a fierce, whirlwind campaign that took the whole country by surprise, newcomer Alan Wilkinson won a decisive victory today, defeating Schumer and winning a valuable seat for the rapidly growing New Freedom Party..."
"Wilkinson." Duncan wrenched his attention from Richie's pain, chill realization washing over him. "Oh, no. It can't be..."
The image cut to Wilkinson's campaign headquarters, riotous cheering and balloons surrounding the familiar figure, who grinned with elation and raised his hands above his head in a gesture of victory. A banner stretched above him bearing the slightly altered but all too familiar slogan: A New Outlook for a New World. Ingrid had been right after all.
And Duncan MacLeod's phone was ringing, a discreet chirp in counterpoint to the grating sound of Wilkinson's self-congratulation. The figure in black muted the television and answered it. "MacLeod." He chuckled softly. "Yes, I saw. I'm watching it now." Richie was still panting on the floor, his cries turned now to faint gasps, consciousness fading. The stain of his blood had spread. "Tell him I told him it would be easy," MacLeod said, looking out over the city, the lights glittering below. "And tell him it's just the beginning."
"This isn't real," Duncan told himself fiercely, backing away from the thing that wore his face, that spoke with his voice. "It's not real."
As if his words broke the spell, he was in a park, and the sun was shining all around him. It dappled the grass beneath the trees, shone on the lake. Kids played frisbee with dogs and each other; somewhere in the distance, a car horn sounded.
"But it could have been," Fitz said beside him, subdued. He, too, had been affected by what they'd seen. "There are as many futures as there are choices, MacLeod."
They walked together down a paved path, the scent of honeysuckle a thick, sweet current on the wind. Duncan recognized the familiar landmarks of Central Park. His hands were cold, and he slipped them into his pockets; from the green of the landscape it was summer here, and the sun was warm -- hot, even -- but he didn't think the chill he felt would dissipate any time soon.
"All because Richie... because I killed Richie at the racetrack."
Fitz smiled sidelong at him, a fond look, but shook his head. "Because you loved him, dear boy. Because losing him gave you the conviction you needed to become the champion you were meant to be. That could never have happened if you hadn't loved him. If you hadn't been the man you are."
"And if he hadn't died."
"If he hadn't loved you, and Joe Dawson, enough to put himself in harm's way. It's all about love, MacLeod. You know that. You've always known it. It's all we have to keep us from the darkness."
Duncan nodded, pensive. He did know that, but it was still hard to accept. Still hard to get his head around it. Could the balance of the world really be so fragile, that the choices one person made could change so much? Darius had foreseen his own death, but he'd still chosen to meet it head on, not to run from it. And what would have happened if he had run? If Horton had come after someone else, or chosen another hunting ground, and Duncan hadn't pieced together what was going on? How many more of his friends might have died before Horton was stopped? He'd been angry with his old friend when he'd realized Darius had known, and had done nothing to change it. He'd never really understood until now.
"And Ingrid was right," he said, thinking of the choices they'd both made that night. The choice Methos had made to come with him to that rally, when he could have stayed safely out of the line of fire. How many times had Methos chosen to stand beside him despite his own feelings about Duncan's 'little moral dilemmas' -- and at what cost?
"Fitz, what about Methos? Could he have stopped it?"
Fitz's smile faded, but didn't entirely disappear. He turned his gaze back to the path. "Ah, yes, your friend Methos again. He always seems to turn up whenever you're in trouble, doesn't he?"
"You notice that, huh?"
"Indeed I do, my boy, but do you, is the question?" He nodded to himself, not seeming to expect an answer. "Yes, he's an interesting chap, that one. Not as much fun as me, of course, but I have to admit it sets my mind at ease to know he's around to keep an eye on you. You need someone like him to keep you honest."
Duncan had to laugh at that. "The day Methos keeps anyone honest is the day Amanda takes up knitting."
"And the day you need lessons in the boy scout code is the day I give up women. No, MacLeod, you need somebody who'll keep you honest with yourself, that's what I mean."
"Yeah," Duncan admitted. "He is good for that."
"And not a bad fellow to have at your back in a fight, if it comes to it."
"No argument there."
They walked on for a little while, the unanswered question heavy between them.
At last his old friend sighed, and looked up at him, his careworn face resigned. "You sure you want to go through with this, laddie? It isn't required, you know. You already averted this particular future, and nobody's asking you to do penance."
Duncan swallowed, hearing the answer in Fitz's reluctance, his compassion. Knowing what he'd already known, what he'd always known -- that nobody lived forever, not even Immortals. Not even Methos. He knew what it was like to watch Methos die at his hand. Fitz had shown him once before. And if every future was possible, one choice away from becoming reality, in how many of them did it come down to him and Methos in the end?
The not-knowing was worse than the knowing. "Show me," he said to Fitz, needing to know it all, to see the end of the dark road they'd started down. Needing to look it in the face, not run from it, because he'd learned more than once that the danger you couldn't see was the one that would kill you --
The park was gone. He and Fitz stood on a rooftop under the stars, a dusting of snow pricking his hands and face as it scattered before a freezing wind.
His heart felt tight, heavy in his chest. "When?" he asked. He recognized the where. They were still in Manhattan, not far from the office where Richie had tried to shoot his other self in the back.
"Two years from now. It's New Year's Eve, MacLeod."
"The eve of the millennium."
"That's right, laddie. But I'm afraid there isn't much to celebrate. The world has always had its share of war, poverty, disease...but nothing like what's coming, what's already started. Next month, Alan Wilkinson will be sworn in as the forty-third President of the United States, and at his right hand will sit a demon with the power of all the Immortals. Dark times ahead, my friend. Very dark times."
They stood at the edge of the rooftop, breathing the scent of frost on the wind. Behind them, a door opened, and footsteps crunched on the gravel and snow. Duncan turned.
Methos stood on the roof with them, taller than Duncan remembered. He stopped a little distance from the stairwell, looking out across the city and adjusting one of his black gloves, his eyes narrowed against the sting of the wind. He looked carved from ice himself, the planes of his face elemental and immutable. His heavy black coat blew against his body, weighted with hidden threats.
Emotion knotted in Duncan's stomach, affection and apprehension and grief all tangled up together, and in spite of himself, in spite of what he knew, his heart lifted with a traitorous spark of hope. Strength and power were communicated in every line of Methos' body, as though he had cast aside two thousand years of camouflage, of making himself small, hiding himself in monasteries and libraries and a grad student's baggy sweaters. This was the man Kronos would have killed for, he thought, his breath catching at the insight. This was Methos, pared down to the essential.
Then Methos stiffened, head lifting in a look Duncan knew too well. Something flickered over his face and was gone too fast to be read; he strode toward the middle of the roof and stood waiting, nothing save readiness betrayed in his body language or in his expression.
"Happy New Year, Methos," MacLeod said, stepping out of the shadows. He was barely more than a shadow himself in his dark clothing, but the katana gleamed in his hand, and the white flash of his teeth was briefly visible as he grinned. "Glad you could make it."
"Wouldn't miss it," Methos said, the wind ruffling his hair. "You always did throw a good party."
"You disappoint me, though."
"Not for the first time, I imagine. Were you hoping I'd bring the champagne?"
"I don't know, I just expected more from you, after all this time. And after what I did to Joe, and to Amanda, and Richie, too. But here you are, no helicopters, no shock troops -- I don't even think you've got a tranq gun under there this time. Mano a mano isn't exactly your style, is it? I might start to think you don't love me any more."
Methos smiled, a faint cant of his lips that made Duncan's heart hurt. "But you know that isn't true, don't you? The same way you know that I'm not trying to trick you."
The demon laughed, a low sound that raised all of Duncan's hackles. "You got me there, old friend. There isn't much I don't know these days. Not much I can't see. The future... the past. All the truths people think they hide from everyone. I can see it all now, and it's getting clearer every day. And soon, I'll have you, too, and then this body will be a fitting vessel for me." He'd drawn closer to Methos now, the sword held negligently at his side. "Except you still don't believe in me, do you, Methos? I can see that, too. You still think I'm a myth -- a figment of your friend's psychosis. You still think you can save him."
The flicker of crimson that surfaced in the dark eyes then might have been a reflection, a trick of the light -- except Duncan knew it wasn't. Seeing it, his stomach twisted, and he caught his breath. Hope died in his breast.
Methos' broadsword was in his hand. He held it before him and stood his ground. "Somewhere inside of you, the Duncan that I knew still lives. I didn't give up on you when you killed Sean. I'm not giving up on you now. I was willing to give you my quickening when we first met if it would help you, and I still am."
"No, Methos--" Duncan spoke without meaning to. He felt Fitz's hand on his shoulder. Of course, Methos couldn't hear him.
The other MacLeod was grinning now, circling Methos, his feet making no sound on the gravel roof. "Nice sentiment. I never knew you were such a romantic. Maybe you should write greeting cards instead of fortune cookies." The katana flickered, testing Methos' reflexes, not quite touching the heavier blade. "And you know, that might even have worked, if you hadn't been so very wrong about everything, Metarru."
For the first time, Methos betrayed a visible reaction. It lasted only a fraction of a second, no more than a flicker of doubt, quickly controlled. Amusement played over the demon's too-familiar features, seeing it. "And now you begin to understand. As they all do, in the end. As your friend did. You are the last of your kind, as is fitting, but I am older than you by far." The katana struck then, faster than thought. Somehow, Methos was faster still, and the attack slid harmlessly off his blade, but the demon only laughed. Mist the color of blood rolled across the snow-dusted roof, and its eyes were scarlet, inhuman.
"Cheap parlor tricks now?" Methos said, but he sounded less certain, breathlessness in his voice that hadn't been there before. "We owe each other better than that, Duncan."
"Ah, Methos. Your little romantic fantasies won't help you now, I'm afraid. I existed before time began, and I will exist when time is ended -- and for you, all that matters is that I am the last thing you will ever see." The smile wasn't human, either, and Duncan knew its voice too well. He wanted to close his eyes, wanted not to see -- but it was too late. Steel flashed, rang out across the night in a sudden, violent clash.
He'd always known Methos was good, and his friend fought now for more than just his own survival, but all his skill and strength wouldn't be enough. Duncan knew it, and still he couldn't help the racing of his heart as the blades met again and again, as time after time Methos managed to parry blows that should have met flesh.
It couldn't last. There had never been anything fair in this fight; he saw it in Methos' face when he knew it, when the truth came home to him and he knew that there was no hope here, not even the desperate one he'd counted on as a last resort. He fought gamely anyway. But the broadsword was a heavy weapon, meant to overpower an opponent quickly, and he was beginning to tire.
Heart in his throat, Duncan knew he was going to falter a second before he did. Still, he flinched when the katana at last rent cloth and flesh, when Methos fell back a little, hissing sharply, and Duncan saw the cut was deep across his sword hand. For a second, Duncan thought he might lose his grip, but he recovered, switching the blade to his other hand and shifting to a defensive posture, giving ground.
"Are you tired of fighting yet, Methos?" the demon taunted him, looking as fresh as when they'd begun. "Have I fulfilled your image of him -- of how this was meant to be? Or are you ready to admit that it will be a mercy when I kill you, when I take you inside me? We were close, once, you and I. The blood on your hands fed me, sustained me then. For a thousand years, my darkness lived within you, and yours in me. I've missed you."
"I'm afraid the feeling is not mutual," Methos said grimly. And attacked, for the first time taking the offensive.
It was a valiant effort, and the grace and power behind his attack took Duncan's breath, made him want to shout in pure admiration. His heart pounded. It hurt, because he knew it was the end, and still something sang in him, some fierce joy that made him want to run forward, to put himself between Methos and that fate, to somehow wrench the inevitable from the hands of the Universe and change it for all time, in every future.
But he was powerless here, and as he'd known it must, the end came. The demon's blade shone red with Methos' blood. The broadsword fell. At the last, driven to his knees, Methos closed his eyes and bowed his head, as if unwilling to see the face and form his death wore as it raised the katana for the last time--
"Enough, Fitz." Duncan turned away, his own eyes closing against what he'd seen in Methos' face, unable to bear any more.
They stood alone on the rooftop. The ring of steel, the smell of blood, the hateful red mist, were gone.
"It never happened, laddie," Fitz said gently, standing close, his hand a steadying weight against Duncan's back. "Thanks to you, and young Ryan, it never will."
The wind was quiet now, and snow started to fall gently, soft flakes that glistened in the moonlight filtering through the clouds, that melted on his skin. Duncan drew a breath, though it felt like it took more effort than it should have. His insides felt bruised, his heart clenched tight like a fist. Like a stone, heavy with grief and the helplessness he'd felt, the bitter knowledge he'd sought. He wished desperately that he'd never asked to see this, to know this -- and yet he knew he'd needed to look it in the face, to remember, and accept it, so that he could make sure it never came to pass.
He looked out over the city, making himself breathe the sweet, cold air. Far below, the traffic lights changed, red to green. One late-night taxi turned the corner and moved down the street, taillights fading into the distance.
"I should never have let you talk me into this," Fitz said beside him. "I knew it was a bad idea."
"It's not your fault, Fitz. I wanted to know. I think I... needed to know." He smiled a little, and wiped his face, feeling the wetness there for the first time. "You used to say I was a glutton for punishment, remember?"
"Yes, and you still are, you silly bugger. You never did listen to me, did you?"
"Well, maybe I should have a little more often."
"Oh, so now he admits it." Fitz glanced heavenward. "I hope someone up there is writing this down!"
A chuckle escaped Duncan, and if it was a little unsteady, he didn't think his old friend would mind. "Ah, Fitz. You always could make me laugh."
"Well, it's better than working for a living."
"Lucky for me."
Fitz's answering smile was fond, and sad, and Duncan knew it was time to say goodbye. The edges of his vision seemed to be blurring, and he couldn't feel the night air on his face any more. "We could do this again some time," he said, only half joking. "There must be some universe where you and I get pissed and sit around telling tall stories half the night."
"That does sound like fun. But if it's all the same to you, I'd rather you stayed out of trouble for a while. Your friends deserve a rest from the drama, don't you think?"
Duncan's throat closed, thinking of how ready he'd been to walk away from them tonight. "Yes, they do."
Fitz squeezed his shoulder, then smiled his lopsided smile. "I'll be with you, laddie, don't you worry about that. Just like Richie, and Tessa. Just like we always have been." He frowned, then, trying to look stern. "Now, there's just one more thing, and I want you to listen, because I'm overdue and you're almost out of time." And he was. Already, Fitz's voice sounded like it was receding from him; already, the city below had faded, and soon the rooftop would, too.
"I'm listening," Duncan said, trying to hold on to the illusion a little longer. Brightness flooded the edges of his vision, and he couldn't see Fitz any more. Could only hear him, fading now--
"Then, for the last time, will you please just do as I tell you and... look up!"
A light, stinging blow against his cheek woke him, and for a moment the deja vu was strong, disorienting. Where...? Not a train tunnel, this time, but a Paris flat, a couch, yellow lamp light making him blink, making it hard to see--
Methos. Slapping his face lightly, muttering about MacLeod's ancestry in unflattering terms. The sharp angles of his face were familiar, too, and the concern in his eyes, at odds with the rest.
"Finally," he said, and sat back, his hand falling away.
"No, it's the Easter bunny. Who d'you think?" Methos was sitting on the coffee table, as if he'd been leaning over him for some time, waiting him for him to wake up. Impatience colored his tone. Duncan frowned, noticing that there was blood on his face, a faint streak of it along his jaw. There was some on his shirt, too.
"You're bleeding," he said, starting to reach out.
Methos stared at him for a second in disbelief, then laughed, sardonic. "That's right, MacLeod. That's why you're lying on my favorite couch with your shirt cut to ribbons, dead to the world and ruining my upholstery -- because I cut myself shaving. That's good." He shook his head and turned away, dropping a blood-soaked cloth into the bowl beside him.
Duncan spread his hands against his midsection, remembering at last that he'd been fighting. The alley. Cantric... was that his name? An older one seemed to echo in his mind, just below the surface of conscious thought. "You saw the fight?"
Methos turned back, his eyes opaque as mirrors. "The end of it," he said shortly, as if the details didn't interest him.
"How long was I out?"
"About two hours, give or take." He stood up abruptly, picking up the bowl and moving away from the couch. "He did a number on you, MacLeod. Getting you back here was no picnic -- and you owe me a new pair of pants and a sweater, as well."
Duncan swallowed, tasting the metallic scent of blood in the room, feeling the residue of it still sticky on his skin. Methos must have disposed of the shirt he'd been wearing. From the looks of things, there probably hadn't been much of it left to save. He was thirsty -- desperately so, he realized, once the need had registered. His throat hurt as though he'd been yelling.
Methos didn't seem inclined to treat him like a guest now that he was back among the living, so he sat up, wincing a little at the pull of muscle along his collarbone. Instinctively, he touched the place; he felt something like a long welt, hot and a little tingly when he touched it. It stretched from the side of his throat down over his collarbone and toward the center of his chest, ending somewhere near his sternum. Beneath it he felt a bone-deep ache, and realized that broad blade must have nearly cleaved him in two. The bastard had almost had him.
And Methos was angry with him, that much was obvious. He said nothing when MacLeod came into the kitchen, just went on washing out the cloth and the bowl in the sink, but tension underscored every line of his body. It wasn't like him to be so closed-mouthed, either -- particularly not with such a ripe opportunity to take potshots at MacLeod for his high-risk lifestyle.
It pained Duncan more than a little, and he wondered if there was any way they could make it through the next half an hour without shouting at each other.
"Mind if I get some water?" he asked.
"Mind showing me where the glasses are?"
Methos still didn't look at him, but something that might have been irritation flickered in his profile. He put down the bowl, rinsed his hands, and turned the water off, then dried them on a towel. Then he reached up and got a glass out of one of the cabinets, filled it with water from the tap, and handed it to him.
"Thanks." Duncan brought the water to his lips; it was such a relief that he found himself closing his eyes, drinking the whole glass down in long swallows. A little ran onto his chest, cool against his skin.
When he finished the water and opened his eyes, Methos was still standing by the sink, his gaze on the place where Duncan had felt the scar tissue, his face unreadable. His eyes flicked away when he saw Duncan was looking at him, then lifted to his. The look was accusing.
"I know what you were doing out there, and just so we're clear, I don't appreciate it."
"I can see that," Duncan said carefully. "Want to tell me what I did wrong?"
"What you did wrong?" Methos smiled, but the expression was bleak. "Oh, nothing. Nothing anybody wouldn't do for a friend, right?"
Duncan felt as though he'd missed several important points in the conversation. "Come on, what's this about?"
Methos turned away, busying himself at the sink, folding the towel with too much care. "Where you get off casting yourself as my personal knight in shining armor, I don't know, but that schtick's getting a little old, don't you think? Isn't it time for you to work on a new act?"
Duncan kept a hold on his patience with both hands. Tonight of all nights, the last thing he wanted was to fight. "Methos, you're losing me here. Does this have to do with the guy in the alley? Was he a friend of yours?"
"A friend of--" Methos shot him a look of disbelief. He drew a breath, and for a second he looked as if he wanted to get into a real shouting match, or maybe just smash his hand into something. But something in Duncan's face must have convinced him that he really didn't know what Methos was talking about, because he controlled it with a visible effort. "I'm talking about my address, MacLeod. In his pocket. I'm talking about you deciding that you had to play hero just one more time, and almost bringing down half of Paris on our heads while you were at it. I'm talking about the insane mess that is my life every time you get within a five-mile radius!"
His voice rose, the list of Duncan's supposed sins obviously sparking off his temper again. Duncan felt helpless in the face of his anger, helpless to know what he'd done to cause it, and he was tired of feeling helpless. He'd had enough of that tonight to last a fucking lifetime, in fact, and the sudden memory of how it had felt to stand by and watch Joe and Connor die at his own hand, to watch Methos make an impossible stand and lose, made him feel shaky, his own temper dangerously close to slipping. Anger was easier than fear -- easier than looking that hellish nightmare in the face and knowing how much he still had left to lose, and he--
His perception shifted. A stillness opened within him, and he saw himself, and Methos, and what Fitz had been trying to tell him all at once, a kaleidoscope of faceted truths that fell together in his mind. What is it that you're trying to get away from?
What is it that's kept you here for so long?
He drew a breath, feeling a little dazed. "Yeah."
"Are you okay? Because I gotta tell you, you've looked better."
"I've felt better. Methos, what the hell are we doing?"
Methos blinked. Slowly, as if it had suddenly occurred to him that maybe Duncan MacLeod was not firing on all thrusters, he said, "We're ruining my couch, and having an extraordinarily stupid conversation. What did you think we were doing?"
"No, I mean, what the hell are we doing? Look at us." Duncan reached out and caught Methos by the wrist before he could pull away. Methos' skin felt cold. He tensed under Duncan's grip, but not before Duncan knew he'd been right. Sometimes the anger was easier than the fear. "You're still shaking. I can feel it." Methos jerked hard against his hold, but Duncan held on. "You're not the only one."
They stared at each other, joined by his merciless grasp on Methos' hand until, finally, Methos pulled free. "Good!" he snapped. "Maybe it'll stop you from being such a bloody arrogant--" Flustered, he struggled for a word good enough. "I don't need your protection!"
"You think I don't know that?"
"Could have fooled me!"
"Look, I didn't know he was after you, okay? But if I had, it wouldn't have made any difference. He didn't give me a choice, Methos!"
"There's always a choice. But how would you know? You wouldn't know how to walk away if I gave you a road map!" He was almost shouting now, but it wasn't anger Duncan saw naked in his eyes. He knew now what it really was, and knowing it made him feel like he'd run a long, grueling race and the finish was in sight. In his mind's eye, he saw alternate futures refracted from each moment, each choice, like a ray of light shone through a prism. And what would have happened if he'd chosen differently tonight, standing on that street corner?
"Methos--" He reached out again, but Methos pushed himself away from the sink and stalked out of the kitchen, out of his reach. A safe distance away, he stopped, his back to Duncan. An almost imperceptible tremor ran through him as if he, too, was close to the end of his endurance.
"You know what? You're right. This is stupid -- forget it. Look, if you want to take a shower, go ahead. Clothes are on the counter in there. I'm going to clean up the rest of this mess before it's too late to get the stains out."
"Dammit--" Frustrated, Duncan started after him.
When he saw Methos' face, he stopped, biting back the demands he would have made. He wanted to push the issue, perhaps more than he'd ever wanted anything; he longed to stop running at last and face this head on. He'd seen some of the bleak futures in which they hadn't, and he wanted to do whatever it took to obliterate every one of them, once and for all. But it wasn't only his choices that mattered here.
"Listen, I'm sorry about your couch, all right?"
It obviously wasn't what Methos expected, any more than it was what he'd intended to say. But for once, it was the right thing. Methos glanced at Duncan sidelong, some of the tension easing from his shoulders.
"My favorite couch."
"It's your only couch."
"Right, therefore it's my favorite by default."
They looked at each other, able to do it now, and the brittle anger that Methos had held around him like a shield seemed to have given way to something like his more usual air of amused exasperation.
He tilted his head, eyes narrowing faintly. "You really didn't know?"
"I really didn't." Duncan's throat felt tight. He smiled a little, and shrugged. "Just came by to see if you wanted to grab a beer. Bad timing, I guess."
"Certainly from his point of view, it was."
The urge to close the distance between them was strong, but Duncan pushed it down, willing himself to be patient, to go slow. Let him meet you halfway.
"I'm gonna take you up on that shower now," he said.
"Yeah, good idea."
He made himself go before he could talk himself out of it.
Showering in Methos' bathroom was an odd kind of intimacy, and he found himself wondering whether it had felt strange to Methos, those times when he'd stayed with Duncan at the loft, or the barge. He'd never thought about it before, but a bathroom was a very personal space, and it affected him now perhaps more than it should have. It was a good feeling, though, to wash his hair with Methos' shampoo, to clean his body with Methos' soap, to be naked in a place where Methos had stood naked many times -- a safe feeling, he decided.
The scents were unexpectedly familiar -- that was part of it. More than that, it felt safe because he felt trusted; Methos had given him permission to be in this space that was so personal to him. And in return, his own willingness to leave himself naked and vulnerable, weaponless, with another Immortal close by, implied that the trust was shared. So many little things he'd kept himself from thinking about too closely, from feeling.
"You've got it bad if you're getting poetic about his bathroom," he told himself under his breath, and had to laugh, because he knew it was true. It didn't hurt that delayed reaction was setting in, the aftermath of so much adrenaline and intense emotion leaving him shaky. But he was alive, and Methos was, and his heart felt lighter than he could remember it being.
He wrote Methos' name in the steam on the shower enclosure, grinning to himself as he got out and dried off. And if using his shampoo was strange, what did you call wearing his clothes?
He pulled on the jeans, finding them comfortable if a little snug, then wiped some of the steam off the mirror, examining his neck. The welt was almost gone now, just a faint red mark left at the place where his collarbone met his throat. The skin below was smooth and unmarred. In another hour or so, the scar would be gone.
The flat was cool after the warmth of the bathroom, and he was glad of the borrowed sweater as he came back down the hall, rubbing his hair dry with a towel. Methos was sitting on the coffee table. He'd done away with the sheet he'd used to cover the couch, and the bloodstained towels were nowhere in evidence. He'd changed his shirt and washed the blood off his face; he looked worn out, his elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped loosely between them.
Duncan sat down on the couch opposite him, their knees almost touching. That was startlingly intimate for them, too. A little frisson of tension rose between them, and Methos lifted his head as if wary of what he might do next, but Duncan didn't let it stop him.
"How would you know?" he asked without preamble.
The look Methos gave him said the jury was still out on whether he had, in fact, lost it. "How would I know what?"
Duncan's heart was beating too fast, but he didn't let that stop him, either. "It just so happens that I've gotten very good at walking away this last year or so. Which you'd know, if you'd been around. And if you want to talk foolish heroics, I hardly think I'm the one who should get a reprimand here, do you?"
Plainly disconcerted, Methos rubbed his hands on his thighs. He glanced away, pointedly not answering that, then frowned at him. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Not yet, but I will be."
Methos seemed to hear all the levels of meaning in it, for he looked keenly at Duncan then. "You mean that."
"Yeah, I do." It was hard to keep the lightness he was feeling inside -- and from the look on Methos' face, he suspected he wasn't doing a very good job of it. "Surprised?"
"Just -- glad to hear it."
"Me too. I missed you."
He doubted Methos could have looked more surprised if he'd put on Groucho glasses and started reciting the Aeneid in Farsi. Seeing him quite literally speechless was a rare and wonderful thing, and Duncan couldn't help it; he started to laugh.
Irritated, Methos found words at last. "What's so funny?"
"I wish you could have seen your face."
"Well, what do you expect? Drop a bombshell like that."
"I should have said it before. And I'm sorry I scared you."
There was no mistaking the color that bloomed in Methos' face. Predictably, his irritation sharpened. "If you want to throw yourself in front of every edged weapon in the northern hemisphere, that's your business."
Duncan knew that if Methos could have fled without it being obvious, he would have, but Duncan was in his space, making that impossible. So easy, he thought, realizing it always could have been. That it still could be. "Methos."
It took Methos a moment to realize Duncan was holding out his hand, palm up, between them. Duncan saw the hesitation, the uncertainty. The flush in his cheeks deepened. For a long, awkward span of heartbeats, Methos didn't move; then, slowly, he let himself reach out and clasped Duncan's hand in his.
Their knees brushed, and they sat like that for a long time, resting their elbows on their thighs and holding on, looking down at their joined hands. At last, Duncan said roughly, "Sometimes, it's better to fight. We both know that."
"Don't tell me what I know, if you don't mind."
"All right, then you tell me. Why is it so hard for us to admit we care about each other?"
Methos tried to pull away, then, but Duncan was ready for him, and held on. Methos gave him an irritated look. "Christ, MacLeod, what's got into you?"
"Maybe I'm just tired of playing games with you. God knows we're old enough to know better."
Methos tried to laugh it off. "You know, I'm starting to think some of your brains spilled out with all that blood. Do you even know what you're going on about?" It was forced, and Duncan knew he was afraid now, maybe more afraid than Duncan had ever seen him. He squeezed Methos' hand.
"Yeah. I'm talking about you and me, going around and around the same old track, as if we had all the time in the world. You'd think between us we'd know better. We're in a rut, Methos. We're both fools."
"Well, one of us is, at any rate."
"Both of us. But not any more."
"Right, okay, if you say so." He was obviously flustered now, losing the battle to keep his cool in the face of a Duncan MacLeod who'd decided to break all their rules at once. "You think I could have my hand back some time this century?"
"Why?" Duncan demanded, not giving him an inch of ground. "Got somewhere more important to be? Because I don't. I haven't for a long time." At that, Methos' breath caught, as if he couldn't prevent it, couldn't look away from what he saw in Duncan's eyes. A surge of hope rose in Duncan. "Tell me what you know, Methos. Tell me what you -- tell me how you feel."
If he had ever seen Methos more acutely uncomfortable, he couldn't remember it. "What do you want me to say, Mac?"
"I want you to tell me the truth, whatever it is. I want you to tell me if I'm more of a fool than I thought, for believing you might give a damn what happens to me."
"You're not." The words seemed to surprise him. Duncan knew how he felt.
"No?" His own heart was beating fast now, and his breathlessness threatened to become painful.
"God -- no, you're not." Methos finally pulled free and got up, and this time Duncan let him go. But Methos just stood before him like a man who was tired of running. "Yes, all right. I care for you. More than I should. It's nothing new, all right? Are you happy?"
Duncan caught his hand again, relief so acute he couldn't help the grin that escaped him. "Yes."
"That's all you have to say?"
"Yes, I'm happy. What else is there to say? It doesn't have to be so hard, Methos. It can be easy."
"Since right now."
"Come here." He tugged Methos down to the couch, close beside him. "See? That wasn't so hard."
"That's not the part I'm worried about."
"Which part then? This part?" Pulse racing, he did what he'd been wanting to do for what felt like hours; he reached up and slipped his hand inside the neck of Methos' shirt, spreading his fingers to stroke the warm curve of his neck. Methos made a soft sound like pain, his body yielding to it with a sweet helplessness that made Duncan's heart soar. He leaned closer, not meaning to, but compelled by the rapid beat of Methos' heart under his fingertips. "Or this part?" he said roughly, and touched his lips to the pulse point. Methos' long fingers flexed, grasping at Duncan's thigh as if he were suddenly dizzy, reaching for something solid to brace against; he arched his neck and his other hand found the back of Duncan's head.
"Yes, that, for starters," he gasped. "Mac, what are you--"
Duncan chuckled at that, but it felt curiously painful, everything in him curled into a knot of want as he breathed Methos' scent, warm and heady. "If you don't know, then you've been spending more time in monasteries than I have." The spot he'd kissed had felt silky and warm against his lips. He closed his eyes and tasted it with his tongue.
Methos moaned softly, and his head fell back, his whole body yielding as it had before, only more eagerly this time; in response, heat tightened in Duncan's belly and chest. He grew hard at the sound Methos made, so quickly it threatened to take his breath. He hadn't meant for this to go so fast, had just meant to breach his friend's tightly guarded defenses, but his own hunger caught him off-guard. He was on a hair trigger anyway, and tasting Methos' answering desire, feeling it in the warmth of his skin and the faint tremors that ran through him, his self-control was crumbling fast.
But Methos' hand came up between them, pressing against his chest. "Mac -- Mac. Stop." The obvious heat of Methos' body argued with the steady pressure he exerted. He extricated himself and got up, putting a little distance between them, closing his eyes as if in a struggle with his own better judgment.
Flushed, lips reddened with arousal, he looked good enough to eat, and it took all of Duncan's will not to press the issue, knowing Methos felt something for him, at least, knowing he could persuade him with the heat of his hands and his mouth if he tried. Cursing himself for pushing too hard, he drew a shaky breath and went to him.
"You're not gonna tell me you haven't thought about this."
"That's not -- of course I have, but--" Methos broke off, looking anywhere but at him, the lines of his face revealing an inner strain that awakened all of Duncan's protective impulses. Methos wasn't playing games with him. He was genuinely upset, and hiding it badly. Of course I have. That jolted in Duncan's belly, making him painfully aware of his erection. He wanted this more than was safe -- had wanted it for a long time, and hadn't admitted it to himself. He reached out before he meant to do it, his hand finding the back of Methos' neck. He stroked the pulse at the other man's throat with his thumb, feeling Methos shudder faintly at the touch.
He pulled Methos closer. Methos' hair felt softer than he'd imagined it would, and a thrill went through him that was half excitement, half fear, like standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
"Then what?" he said, and his voice was rougher than he expected it to be.
Methos' hands made a sharp, abortive gesture of frustration. "You have to ask? MacLeod--" He looked up at last. "There are reasons we've never crossed this line. You know that as well as I do."
"If so, they were stupid reasons. And look where it got us. Nowhere, that's where." He squeezed gently against the tension he could feel in Methos' neck. "Well, the hell with that. I'm tired of it. I want you in my life. Not just once in a while, but all the time. I want to know what it feels like to make love with you." He felt the stillness that came over Methos at the words, given voice after so long -- felt his heart tripping in answer. "What do you want?"
"It's not that simple," Methos said, but his voice betrayed him, breaking on the last word.
"Methos." His friend's arms were bare to the elbow, his sleeves pushed up. Instinct took over, Duncan's heartbeat feeling like it was pressing at his chest, his throat. Methos' hand felt warm, the skin of his wrist smooth where Duncan reached out and gripped it. After a long, breathless stillness, Methos' hand closed reluctantly over Duncan's forearm, and with an effort that looked like it cost him, Methos met his gaze. "Just tell me," Duncan said roughly. "Right here, this once, let's tell it like it is."
The hazel eyes were wide, Methos' nostrils flaring as if he scented danger, but he held himself still, head lifting.
"You don't ask much, do you?"
"Yeah." His courage made Duncan ache, the surge of love he felt so powerful it hurt. "I do. I'm tired of running." Without warning, heat shimmered across his eyes. "Aren't you?"
Methos drew a breath, a sharp inhalation like sudden pain. "Duncan." His grip tightened, pulling Duncan close, the heat of his body an unexpected homecoming. He held on, his other hand suddenly rough against the side of Duncan's face, and then their mouths were touching, and they were kissing, silky fire brushing against Duncan's lips and tongue, a shudder of heat unfurling.
It might have been a moment only -- he lost all sense of time and just closed his eyes and let it happen, let his mouth learn the warm, wet pressure of Methos' kiss, the heat that jolted through him in response. He thought he moaned faintly, and his body swayed against Methos', pleasure licking deep within him as they held on, held each other up. Methos' fingertips were wet on his cheek.
They broke apart, meeting one another's eyes with what felt like a terrifying recognition. His grasp on Methos' arm was a necessity, and he felt the same desperation in the fierceness of Methos' answering grip. He felt shaky again, like something had shifted at the core of himself.
Methos blinked, then drew a deep breath. The corner of his mouth lifted, and laughter sparked in his eyes, but with it was a kind of wonder, blinding to look at. "Well."
Duncan swallowed hard. "Well," he agreed. His voice sounded as shaken as he felt. For a long, painful moment, he couldn't think of a single thing to say, and the beating of his heart felt like a runaway train, scary and out of control. He was painfully hard. He drew a breath with effort. "Can we...?"
"Do that again?"
This time when Methos kissed him, they let go, and Duncan felt Methos' arms go around him, his warm hands finding bare skin under his sweater. His body melted against Methos, felt the solid strength of him and his hard readiness, the eager press of his hips. He made a helpless, hungry sound, and shifted. Methos rocked against him and moaned into his mouth. His tongue pressed against Duncan's, knowing him, touching something naked and needing within him. It hurt, made him want to curl up inside it. He couldn't feel like that again, couldn't bear it -- except he could, he did, because this was Methos, who knew him, understood him in ways that no one ever had, who had made running a way of life but who wasn't running now, when it counted, whose body was warm and strong and alive in his arms, whose hands were sure and demanding against his skin.
Hunger swept him, a deep current that matched the ache of need in his heart, that made him want to lie down and spread himself open to Methos' hands, his mouth, his cock. He opened deeper for Methos' tongue, kissed him back with a fierce desperation that felt like jumping off a cliff, like free fall. Fear ran through him like a river, but it didn't matter any more. He'd lived with that fear for years.
He broke away from Methos' mouth with effort, breathless and unsteady and not caring. Methos' eyes were closed, his lips red, his cheeks flushed; he was breathing hard, too, his hands braced against Duncan's waist as if to support himself. Duncan touched his face, and he opened his eyes.
"Please come to bed with me. I want to lie down with you, feel you against me."
Methos' eyes widened in response, and his breath made a little hitch in his throat. "I -- yes. Anything you want."
All the things he wanted pressed against his heart. "That could take a while. How much time have you got?"
A laugh escaped Methos, and he closed his eyes and leaned forward, his forehead bumping against Duncan's shoulder. "You're trying to kill me, aren't you?"
Duncan chuckled and held him close. "That definitely wasn't on the list."
When they could, they parted at last, and Methos led the way, turning off the light. Beside the bed, Duncan dragged Methos' shirt off and cast it aside. His own followed. His hands shook as he tried to unfasten the buttons of his borrowed jeans, but Methos helped him, bracing him as he got them off one leg, then the other. He stood up, naked in the moonlight, and a small sound escaped Methos, as if something had hurt him.
"Oh, Mac--" Methos reached for him and his mouth found Duncan's and it was hot, so hot, their tongues meeting as Methos' hand fit against him, gripping him without mercy. So good, to feel his hips surge in answer, to feel that intimate pressure between his thighs, to feel Methos stroking him and tangling one hand in his hair, urging him on. Methos' body slid against his. He wanted to slow down, to make it last, but he couldn't think with Methos' mouth tender and brutal against his.
He fumbled blindly, gentling the kiss and stilling Methos' hand on him until he could breathe again. His hand spread against Methos' bared skin, roaming hungrily, and Methos' nipples drew taut under his touch. The sound Methos made fanned his own heat, making him ache with a sweet anguish.
His love for this difficult soul, this man who had hurt him and tested him, who had kept him from despair and guarded his back more times than he could count, rushed up in him again without warning, and he sank to his knees, his arms catching tight against Methos' hips. Methos was hard against him. "Methos." His heart pounded. Methos' breathing was ragged, too, and Duncan looked up, saw his own fear reflected back at him. "Let me--" He struggled with the fastenings. Methos didn't protest, only spread his legs to give him more room.
At last his mouth found warm, bare skin and he closed his eyes. His lips parted and he let himself taste, tongue touching. Methos' hands came up at that, a sharp gasp escaping him as his fingers slid into Duncan's hair. "God, Mac--"
"Yes, for God's sake--" Methos' fierce plea broke off as Duncan finally got the buttons open and freed him, his cock a live thing rising to meet him, seeking his mouth as eagerly as his own pressed against his belly. Slippery fluid streaked his own thighs and he was shaking, struggling to undo the last buttons so he could pull Methos' jeans past his hips. "Forget it," Methos gasped, and he was shaking, too, his hands an urgent pressure against Duncan's head. Duncan gave up and spread his hand at the small of his back, took him deep.
Methos cried out when Duncan's mouth sheathed him, hips surging under Duncan's hands. Duncan closed his eyes. He wrapped one arm around Methos' waist, cradled him close, yielding muscles he'd forgotten. Even so he couldn't take Methos entirely, and he pressed frustrating cloth aside, gripping him. Methos' scent overtook his senses; Methos' hands slipped down his neck, a caress so tender that Duncan almost came then, pleasure and heat throbbing through him. He shook with it, but didn't let it distract him from the helpless surge of Methos' hips as he let go at last, let himself take what Duncan gave him.
Against the restraining grip of Duncan's fist and his encircling arm, Methos' thrusts became slow, deliberate, and Duncan gave way with his tongue and his throat, unable to breathe, not caring as he felt Methos surrender against him, into him, in long, shuddering strokes. A haze of euphoria enveloped him, lifted him out of himself; when Methos' climax came it was sudden and powerful and Methos made a sound so vulnerable that it was hard for Duncan to bear. Salty-sweet fluid surged over his tongue and he choked a little but held him close, letting it fill his mouth, swallowing it.
When it was over, they drew apart. Methos looked as dazed as he felt, as deeply shaken. They met each other's eyes because they couldn't do anything else.
Duncan shook his head. "It's all right." He tried to find words that would make this easier, that would let them breathe again, laugh maybe, go forward from this moment in one piece. It doesn't have to be so hard, he'd said. It can be easy.
"Come here," Methos demanded. That he could do. That was easy. His muscles protested as he urged them to cooperate, and he ached now from being so hard for so long, but he pushed himself up into Methos' arms. Methos stroked his hair back from his temple, then kissed him, taking his own scent from Duncan's mouth. He finished unbuttoning his jeans and slid them down with one hand, stepping out of them and urging Duncan down onto the bed.
The bedclothes were cool, but Methos was warm, body lithe and unbearably intimate against him, as he'd known it would be. Duncan closed his eyes and lost himself in the whole-body caress, the truth of it both comforting and erotic, both known and startlingly unfamiliar. It had been so long since he'd lain with someone like this, just pressed into the animal comfort of pure, sensual expression found between two people who chose one another freely.
And did they choose each other freely, he and Methos? Did Methos feel this, too -- this painful rightness between them when they touched like this, when they kissed? He closed his eyes and gave himself to the deep caresses of Methos' tongue, the slightly sticky warmth of his belly and the slide of Methos' strong thigh between his, needing this too much to question it any more. Tension flowed out of him like the tide ebbing as Methos traced the shapes of his calves and his feet with his own, as Methos' hands roamed freely over his back and into his hair, stroking him into a haze of pleasure that was both sexual and soothing, and purely hedonistic. His own fluid slicked the place where his cock slid against the hollow of Methos' hip, and he hovered near orgasm, neither seeking it nor fighting it, floating on waves of arousal that rose steadily higher until he thought he might shake apart.
"Doesn't seem real," Methos murmured at last. "Does it?"
Duncan made himself meet his eyes, though it was hard to look at him now that there were no barriers between them. "This is real," he said roughly, laying his hand against Methos' chest. Beneath his palm, the beat was strong and steady. "We're real."
Methos smiled a little, a lifetime beyond measure in his eyes. "Are you sure?"
Duncan found Methos' hand and moved it onto his cock, wrapping his own around it and pressing himself into Methos' hand. His breathing roughened. He held Methos' gaze. "I'm sure. More sure than I've been in a long time." Bright steel arced across his inner sight. "I know what's at stake now."
"Do you?" Something glittered then in Methos' eyes, unexpected.
Duncan just nodded, pressing himself into Methos' hand. Methos tightened his grip, and the throb of pleasure made him want to moan. He spread his legs, wanting more. "Because just so you know," Methos said, "if you ever die on me, I'll kill you."
"Same here," Duncan told him, his pulse racing now with the dark note in Methos' voice, the intensity in his eyes. He couldn't look away.
"Just so we're clear on that."
"Crystal." He held Methos' gaze, letting him see his need. "Are you going to make me beg for this?" His voice cracked when he said it.
"Would you?" Methos asked darkly. "Beg?"
Methos looked at him for a long moment, and what was in his eyes, Duncan couldn't have said. There were shadows there, and things he should fear, things he knew he would never fully understand. Then something shifted in the lines of his face, and Methos gently pulled his hand away from Duncan's, letting him go. "No," he said roughly, and his eyes suddenly shimmered. "No, you shouldn't have to--" He broke off, and touched Duncan's cheek with infinite tenderness, startling him. "I love you, Duncan. I wanted to say that before. When you asked me, and I couldn't -- but that's how it is. That's how I feel. I love you, more than I've ever loved any person on this earth, and that's the truth of it." His fingertips traced the shape of Duncan's face, the curve of his eyebrow and the line of his jaw. "And I may not be what you hoped for, but you never have to ask me to love you. Okay?"
Duncan drew a breath that felt like the first he'd taken in a long time. Something had let go inside him, some knot or fist he hadn't known was there, and his stomach felt like he was on the long fall of a rollercoaster's biggest drop, like he might never hit bottom.
Methos kissed him before he could answer. His body responded even while his mind was still reeling, struggling to encompass what Methos had said, and even more, the bone-deep certainty he felt that he'd meant it. And only now, believing it, did he know how close they'd come to missing their last chance.
"Shh. Let me--" Hands gentled him, his throat, his shoulder, his hips. "Just a minute." Methos left him for a few moments, rummaging under the bed. He came up with a box, polished wood and beautifully inlaid; inside this he found a small bottle. He smiled in relief and vindication, flashing his grin at Duncan, a look of such unguarded anticipation that Duncan's heart skipped. Happiness, he named that look, and couldn't help the way it made him feel to see it in Methos.
Opening the bottle, Methos squeezed clear fluid onto his fingertips, then a little more into his hand. It glistened, the rich scent unfolding around them, exotic, stimulating the senses. Duncan breathed deeply, his own anticipation spiking. He spread his legs, one hand against his inner thigh; their eyes met, and heat leapt between them. Naked and aroused as he, Methos knelt between his thighs and let his hand rest against Duncan's cock, slowly spreading the glistening oil over his shaft and the sensitive tip.
Duncan made a sound, his eyes closing as pleasure slid over him in a wave, his hips lifting into Methos' hand. As they did, Methos touched him with his other hand, letting drops of the warm oil slide over his fingertips and against his opening, rubbing them in to the skin gently, making circles against the tight muscle.
"Oh, God." Duncan choked, and tried to draw breath. Still Methos' hands stroked him in counterpoint, making him slick with oil and his own fluid. "God, Methos--"
"Shh," Methos said again, making circles, and circles, unraveling him in seconds until he was panting, his thighs trembling where he held them apart. Then, just when he could almost bear it, could almost hold still for it, Methos slipped a finger easily inside him.
Hot, and slick, and -- oh, God, he was going to come, he was--
He made another sound, thick and pleading, and Methos answered, pressing into him until Duncan could feel his hand pressed up against him, could feel Methos touching him deep inside--
He started to come apart a little bit then, his thoughts splintering into fragments, pleasure spiking hard through his body and making him groan softly.
So hard to make himself meet those knowing eyes, to look into that hot, proprietary gaze and acknowledge what Methos was doing to him, to feel his touch in a place so private, and to know it was written all over him how much this excited him, how much he wanted more.
But when he did, the radiance he'd seen in Methos' smile was still there, shining in his eyes, and it was just him and Methos, coming at last to the end of a road they'd been walking since they'd met. Methos just nodded a little, as if he'd spoken, and then withdrew gently, resting his oil-slicked hands lightly on Duncan's thighs.
"Ready," he said, though that didn't really begin to cover it.
Methos squeezed a bit more oil into his hand and spread it over himself, his breath coming a little faster at the stimulation. Then he cast the bottle aside and lifted Duncan's legs so his weight was supported on Methos' arms. Something that wasn't quite nervousness shivered over Duncan's skin, and he found himself flashing on that first day in Paris, when they'd met, the feeling he'd had that he'd never really acknowledged, that they'd met before, or known each other in some other place, some other lifetime. The way Methos' eyes had felt so familiar, as if they knew all his secrets.
He had none now, if he ever had. Methos pressed against him, his cock feeling impossibly big as it started to push inside of him. Duncan caught his breath, feeling the first squeeze of panic in his chest, fighting it. He'd done this before, but it had been a long time; Methos saw the sharp flicker of pain as he controlled it, and eased off a little, spreading his hands against Duncan's hips.
"It's okay," Duncan said, though it sounded a little strained even to him.
Methos nodded. He was breathing harder now, making more of an effort at control, leaning a little on Duncan's thighs. "I'll go slow."
Duncan chuckled a little, trying to relax. Despite the dull throb of pain, his arousal was acute. "Not too slow, I hope."
The shared laughter helped a little. This time, when Methos pushed inside him, he remembered to let out the breath he was holding; the muscle stretched, slowly, and a wave of something that wasn't pain unfolded within him. Cautiously, he drew another breath, and felt the pain easing. Methos was waiting, he realized. Trembling faintly against him with the effort, but waiting. He nodded jerkily, his hand seeking Methos' and curling around it. "Yes, that's--"
Methos let out the breath he was holding in a rush. "You feel so good." His voice shook. Duncan opened his eyes and sought his face, his breath catching at what he saw there.
With an effortless glide, Methos pressed the rest of the way inside him. Duncan reached for his hands and Methos laced their fingers together, letting Duncan's weight rest on his arms. Slowly, so slowly, Methos stroked himself inside Duncan. Once. Twice. A faint sheen of sweat sprang up along Duncan's skin, and he felt it when his body started to listen to the persuasion of Methos' cock, when the slow stroking began to awaken nerves he'd almost forgotten. Their eyes held, until Methos' closed and his breath hitched raggedly. "I don't think I can--"
"It's okay," Duncan said again, his voice sounding high and breathless in his own ears.
Methos rubbed his head against the inside of Duncan's knee, his breath coming faster. His eyelashes were dark smudges against his cheeks, fluttering faintly as he struggled now to make it last. He moved a little faster, and sparks cascaded within Duncan, his cock leaking slickness onto his belly. Then, at last, Methos stopped fighting it and let himself go, rocking hard against Duncan again and again; by then, the pain was a distant memory, and only pleasure welled through him, deep and irresistible. When Methos' hand at last let go of his and closed around his cock, Duncan groaned softly, giving himself to it, to Methos, nothing held back.
He could bear only a few strokes before orgasm came like a storm rolling through him, and he shuddered into it, crying out hoarsely; the powerful wave was still ebbing when Methos choked on a shout and gave himself to his own release.
Shaking in the aftermath, they held each other close, and Duncan thought it was because they couldn't bear to let go, couldn't bear to see the reflection of their own terror in one another's faces. Love and panic flooded through him for a long, agonizing span of heartbeats, bigger than he could contain, and he could feel Methos' heart against his own, racing just as fast, could feel the unsteadiness that ran through them despite both their efforts to control it. Somehow, in all his certainty, he hadn't really understood -- hadn't been ready for this. But there was no way you could be ready, was there? Because if you could, you'd never be able to make the leap.
The thought steadied him. He breathed a little, let the panic subside, let himself reassure them both with long, steady strokes up and down Methos' back. The shaking eased after a while, and they were able to let it go, able to give themselves instead to reassuring touches that said the things that needed to be said.
At last Methos drew the bedcovers around them, his hand guiding Duncan's head down to his shoulder. A wave of exhaustion swept over Duncan, mercifully taking the last of the tremors with it, and he closed his eyes, his arm finding a comfortable resting place around Methos' waist; once there, he thought he might not move again -- ever, if it was up to him. His gratitude for Methos' skill in managing such an arrangement without his help was profound.
Getting his tongue and his voice to cooperate seemed unimaginably difficult. "Methos." There was something else Duncan wanted to ask him, to tell him.
"I know, Mac," Methos murmured, from what felt like a long way away. A touch brushed against his hair. "It's okay. It'll keep."
Every part of him felt heavy, and warm, as if something soft and comfortable and infinitely safe were pressing him down. He gave in to it at last; under his cheek, Methos' breathing evened out, and they slept.
Someone was saying his name. It was warm where he was, and he felt so comfortable... he didn't want to leave, so he tried to ignore the someone, but they didn't seem to be going away.
Brightness suddenly shone against his eyelids, pulling him further from the comfortable haven of sleep. He covered his face with his arm.
"Come on, lazybones. You're gonna sleep the day away."
Sunlight slanted across the room through the opened blinds, patterned across the sheets and his nakedness. He blinked into it. Methos stood over him, showered, dressed, bright-eyed and clean-shaven, two white paper sacks in his arms.
"There you are. Thought I was going to have to resort to drastic measures there for a minute."
"I shudder to think," Duncan managed, shaking off the haze of sleep with effort. "Did you just call me 'lazybones?'"
"You heard me."
"Yeah, I heard you." He rubbed his eyes, ran the back of his hand along his jaw, feeling the roughness there. Summoning strength, he swung his feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. "Is that coffee? It smells incredible."
"The best café au lait in Paris. And not-too-shabby chocolate croissants. I'm saving them for people who're awake and dressed, though, and who'll go to the park with me, so get your buns out of bed, and let's go."
"Are you always this obnoxious in the morning?"
"I've been saving it up. And you're one to talk, mister ten-mile-runs before breakfast."
"It was five. And as I recall, you left me in the dust."
Methos shrugged. "Well, no substitute for natural talent, I suppose."
"Yeah, that must be it."
They looked at each other, Methos smug, Duncan pretending to be annoyed, and under it, shared laughter ran like a current, binding them and mirroring the brightness in the room. Duncan's heart felt too big for his chest.
A smile played around Methos' lips, his eyes warm. "I think you'd better get dressed, or this coffee's gonna get cold."
The hell with the coffee, Duncan thought. But Methos wanted to go to the park with him, and right now, Duncan didn't think he had it in him to deny him much of anything.
"I'm going," he said. Then he grinned a little and nodded toward the living room, feeling the flush in his face. "But maybe you'd better wait over there, just to be safe."
He pulled on his borrowed clothes from the night before, then went into the bathroom, splashed water on his face and cleaned his teeth using the tried and true finger-and-toothpaste method. Running his wet fingers through his cropped hair to tame it, he called it good enough.
He turned and shut the light off, and that's when he saw it. The morning sunlight shone in from the small bathroom window, refracted through the glass shower enclosure, and in the thin residue of steam that lingered he saw three words written under the faint outline of Methos' name:
You are insane.
He was still grinning when they left the flat.
"I'm going to sell the barge," he said.
Methos didn't say anything, just looked at him, pale winter sunlight turning his eyes gold. They sat on a bench in a little park a few blocks from Methos' building, a light, cold wind stirring their hair and leeching steam from their cups, warmth from their faces. To counter it, they'd chosen a spot in the sunshine and they sat close, Methos' knee pressed against his.
Duncan gave a half-shrug and added, "It's time," answering the question in Methos' eyes.
Methos just nodded. His gaze wandered to a man and a little boy who were stringing Christmas lights on the far side of the street, threading them around an ironwork fence. He sipped his coffee, and steam rose around his mouth and nose. "You've spent a lot of time here," he said at last. "After a while, everybody needs a change of scenery."
Duncan's arm rested along the back of the bench, not quite resting against Methos' shoulders. He moved his fingers lightly along the seam of Methos' coat. "Not sure yet whether I want to leave Paris. I was thinking maybe I could buy a place outside the city and renovate it. Someplace with a bit more space to move around. Where I could keep some horses, maybe." He shrugged again. "Just an idea." He watched the play of his fingertips. "What about you?"
"Yeah, you." Smiling a little, he gave in to temptation and let his fingers roam past the collar of Methos' coat, brushing the warm skin of his neck. He felt Methos' tiny shiver of response. "Think you'll stay in Paris a while?"
Methos turned his enigmatic gaze back to Duncan. "I'd been thinking about it. There's a teaching position open at the Sorbonne. They'd like to have me, but I haven't answered them yet."
"And what do you think you'll tell them?"
They studied one another, trying to read between the lines.
"Well, I guess that depends," Methos said at last.
"Yes, it depends."
"On...?" Duncan felt the smile that played around his lips. It was reflected back at him, glinting in hazel eyes.
"I think you know very well what it depends on," Methos said, lowering his eyes and lifting his coffee once more to his lips. He sipped it, the warmth turning his cheeks pink, and went back to watching the Saturday morning activities of his neighbors. A tiny, round, elderly woman bundled up to her chin walked a trio of white dogs, clucking to them every few steps. The father and child had finished wrapping the railing with lights and had started on the shrubs around the door. Other people passed by on the sidewalks and streets, busy with their lives, not noticing them, seemingly untroubled by any unexplained lightning storms or police sirens the night before.
Duncan let his hand rest on Methos' shoulder, barely touching. He remembered the sudden bright flash of Methos' pistol in the darkness as he'd knelt in front of O'Rourke. He remembered the way he'd felt when he'd walked into Joe's after a year and a half and felt Methos' presence, heard his voice -- the way it had felt like something crucial he hadn't known was missing settled into place. He remembered the curve of Methos' neck, a snowy rooftop and the flash of his own sword.
"Hey, you okay?"
He looked up. Methos was studying him, brows drawn together in concern. Duncan wondered how many times he'd seen Methos look at him just that way, and hadn't let himself look beyond the surface to understand what it really meant. "Yeah, I am. Listen--" He stopped. His heart was beating too fast, and for a fleeting moment he wished he could forget everything Fitz had shown him. Wished he could dismiss it as a dream, and go back to believing that this world was the only one that mattered, that saving those you loved would always be the right choice, that good would always triumph over evil.
But Darius had been right. Once glimpsed, the future had power over you; once known, the truth couldn't be unknown. And if Fitz was right, too, and there were as many futures as there were choices, then he would choose the one where he and Methos started from a place of truth, no more keeping silent about the things that mattered, no more denying what was in their hearts.
"Mac, what is it? You can tell me."
He wanted that future so badly he could taste it. Determination settling in his chest, he turned sideways on the bench and took Methos' hand, turning it over so their palms touched and he could feel the rhythm of Methos' pulse against his fingertips. Even that was hard. For so long they'd held themselves back from any touch, any intimacy that might risk making them vulnerable to each other. But now he knew what could happen on that path, and he chose to go another way.
"I need to ask you something. Not because I really want to hear it, but because I need there to be trust between us. You understand?"
Methos had gone still under his touch. Duncan squeezed their hands together a little, and made himself look up.
Methos was watching him warily, his face guarded, the old defenses going up in his eyes. But he didn't pull his hand away, and after a moment, he nodded.
Duncan's throat had closed. He went on anyway, knowing it was too late to do anything else. "Methos, where's Connor?"
Some part of him had still believed -- had hoped -- that it was as crazy as it should have been, to think that what he'd seen was real, that it was any version of the truth. To think that Methos could know anything about Connor's disappearance, could have had a hand in concealing it from the one person who loved them both.
That part of him had hoped to see disbelief in Methos' eyes, maybe even anger. But Methos' expression changed when he said the name, and what he saw told him his hope had been a false one.
Methos opened his mouth, but for a second, nothing came out. Color rose to his cheeks. "Connor?" he said finally, and his voice cracked. "Mac, what--?" But he stopped, and looked down at their hands. "What do you know about Connor?"
"I know that he's with the Watchers. He came to you, didn't he? Asked you to help him."
At his even tone, the set of Methos' face relaxed a little. He met Duncan's eyes. "How long have you known?"
Duncan swallowed. "Not long, and if I told you how I found out, you wouldn't believe me. Methos -- I am angry that you and Joe kept this from me, but I understand why you did. I don't have to like it, I just--" He closed his other hand over their joined ones, rubbing the back of Methos' thumb. "I needed to know."
"What are you going to do?"
He looked up, and their eyes met and held this time, and Duncan drew a breath that felt like it was the first he'd taken in too long. "Honestly, I don't know. Connor made his choice, and I can't say whether it was the right one -- but I can't help feeling that the whole thing is wrong, that it's a mistake. I can't believe the Watchers haven't thought about what might happen if somebody like Kalas finds out what they're doing."
"Well, you try telling them that. The Watchers are nothing if not nearsighted when it comes to their own best laid plans."
"You tried to talk them out of it," Duncan said with sudden insight. "Didn't you?"
"I've argued against it, yes. So has Joe. But there are people in the organization who are convinced they can control the Game -- and there are always Immortals who can't resist the temptation. It's like when two friends who are totally wrong for each other decide to get married, you know? When they both want it so much, there's no talking sense to either side."
Duncan smiled a little. "Sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
Methos' hand tightened on Duncan's. The lines of his face altered, his eyes shining a bit too brightly. "Well," he said after a moment, "I don't know about totally wrong."
"Sometimes two wrongs make a right?"
"Stranger things have happened."
Duncan just nodded, and they sat like that for a while, holding hands on a park bench in broad daylight. Stranger things, indeed.
So many things still remained unsaid between them, he thought they might need a couple of lifetimes just to have a chance at half of them. He badly wanted to talk to Methos about the experiences he'd had with Fitz, about his visions and dreams, and what they might mean. Wanted to ask him a thousand questions about his life, questions he'd wanted to ask since they'd met, to listen to him talk for hours. Wanted to know where he'd been for the past year and a half, and whether he could ever accept what had really happened to Duncan the night that Richie had died, and after, in Darius's church.
But this day would only happen once for them; they'd never have the chance to live it over. He made the choice then and there that this one day, at least, he'd have to remember without regrets.
"Come on," he said, tugging Methos to his feet. "I've got an idea."
"Does it involve Christmas shopping or the Eiffel Tower?"
Duncan laughed. "Oh, you think you know me so well. No, you old cynic. It involves you and me and a little country road, at the end of which is a place I know with the best wine list in France, and food so good it will bring tears to your eyes."
Methos pretended to consider. "Does it also involve a picnic lunch?"
"I assumed that was a given."
Relenting, Methos fell into step with him. "Okay, but we're taking my car. I remember what your car's like on little country roads, and it's an experience I don't care to repeat."
"Methos -- you've ridden in my car all of one time."
"Well, once was more than enough."
"And it wasn't a country road, it was a train yard! There's nothing wrong with my car."
"If you say so."
Duncan shook his head, impressed. "You really are this impossible all the time, aren't you?"
Methos' answering grin shone over his whole face. "Only with people I like."
They headed back through the park in the December sunshine, hands in their pockets, shoulders touching as they followed the bright path through the trees.