Methos did not quite understand MacLeod's invitation. He delivered it simply enough, just an offer to buy a few rounds of drinks at Joe's bar. The after-hours time did not surprise him; Mac always preferred staying late, after the crowd dispersed, when he could talk freely. The Scot was the epitome of calm, the deep voice smooth and casual. No, it was something in his eyes that Methos immediately suspected--and a faint aura of tension in the strong body.
He had spent thousands of years reading body language and placing the characteristic patterns people used to hide their feelings and intentions. Kronos had been one of the more difficult to discern. It had taken years to learn the hidden meaning in the Horseman's body language; several decades of studying before Methos could manipulate him to his own ends.
Duncan MacLeod, however, was exactly what his chronicles depicted; noble, honorable, daring, full of easy laughter and a bit of scoundrel. Where women were concerned, he was the consummate gentleman with a code of chivalry that frequently got him into trouble. Through it wound a strong sense of justice and all of it was captured and held together by his immortal strength. And to top it all off, MacLeod seemingly remained unconscious of the effect he had on people. A natural leader with no particular pride associated with it.
"Just a round of drinks, Adam, you needn't look so suspicious," the dark immortal stated evenly.
"Hmmm. And who else is invited to this after hours event?"
"Rich, maybe a friend," Duncan looked at him, amused by the wariness. "Joe, of course."
"Well--it is his bar. Couldn't bloody well leave him out."
"And he is my Watcher."
"There is that," Methos agreed with an inscrutable smile. What he really wondered about was the casual mention of a friend. And why was Mac standing there in his doorway as if waiting for an actual confirmation that he would come? Usually he just left it up to Methos to attend or not appear at all. He narrowed his eyes at the tall figure and slowly nodded an assent.
See? Clear as tap water. This was something important, for MacLeod shifted slightly on his feet, pleased. The next breath he took was deeper, as if he had unconsciously been taking shallower ones waiting in anticipation for the answer.
There certainly was more afoot than a casual drink and conversation. He wondered some more about the friend MacLeod was expecting and then dismissed it. He knew the young Scot was fond of him even though he took great pains to annoy him on occasion. Duncan MacLeod was not known for putting his immortal friends in jeopardy with other immortals.
So it was with piqued curiosity that Methos entered the bar at Joe's late in the evening and claimed the corner seat facing the door. All the patrons had gone. The glowing "closed" sign was still a bit crooked, he noted. Richie Ryan was already downing beers and from the slight flush on his face and the animated voice, he had been telling wild stories.
And he was too young to even have "good old days" yet, mused the oldest immortal.
Rich brought more liveliness to their lives than they could even begin to tell him, but he was still rebuilding the trust in his old mentor that had been savaged during the dark quickening. At first the young man was sullen and angry, bitterly defiant at any gesture of peace from his teacher. It had required months of work, relaying the foundation shattered by a sword.
It was a tentative and guarded relationship that the two had finally established. MacLeod was still anxious to earn the faith of his former student, but dared make only subtle attempts to draw the young immortal back in.
Rich was alternately aloof and then friendly in the normal fickleness of youth. He wore a façade of self-assurance that left no room for leaning on his old master, yet he clearly longed for family-- a place to run to, a stronghold to seek shelter inside. It was as if he needed a little more inspiration to step fully back into companionship with his mentor, but stubbornly refused further overtures from Mac.
"And he won't listen to Dawson either," murmured Methos beneath his breath. "Or the resident wise man," he added as an afterthought.
There had to be someone else coming. Most likely an immortal judging by the careful subterfuge the Highlander had woven here. He watched the young Scot through narrowed eyes. MacLeod was too casual with his body language, trying to throw off any hint of watchfulness. Yet his eyes strayed around the room and raked over the door frequently. He turned the glass of whisky around in his fingers and let the ice melt instead of drinking, inattentive to Rich as he talked and laughed.
Methos nursed his first beer slowly along, lifting it to his lips and barely taking a sip. He was not alarmed to feel the thrum of immortal presence when it finally arrived in a wash that sat Rich straight up in his seat. Even MacLeod looked around for the strength of the signature, habitually trying to pinpoint the location before the person in question arrived.
The oldest immortal didn't move, just turned his head slightly and met the Highlander's gaze. MacLeod had noticed that he didn't react with his customary wary glancing about and a frown creased the younger man's brow. It was particularly gratifying to see that expression. His favorite past time was staying one step ahead of the Scot and watching the recognition of it cross the handsome face.
Then the door swung open and MacLeod rose smoothly to his feet to greet the newcomer, obscuring them completely from view as he did so. Methos could swear the Scot did it deliberately and when his line of sight cleared, he knew why.
Shit! The casual dress, the panther-like stride, the deep-set eyes burning in an average face -- the unmistakable features of Connor MacLeod. He approached the table on a direct course until he stood right in front of it.
Shit, shit, shit, Methos repeated. This was a man he had not counted on meeting. And Duncan had set up this little rendezvous deliberately.
"Connor MacLeod, you've met Rich Ryan," Duncan announced. He stood just a step away from his clansman, watching.
"Hey man, nice to see you again," the young immortal said. "And under better circumstances too."
"You've put on some weight since I saw you last."
"Finally got a job that pays. Now I get three squares a day."
Connor's voice was full of soft consonants. Methos had to strain to hear the intonation in the words. The elder Highlander raked his eyes across him, dismissed him, and looked at Joe Dawson. Methos had the impression that he had just been slighted, which did not bother him in the least. Strike another for his habitual slouch and unobtrusive demeanor.
"Joe Dawson, Connor MacLeod," Duncan intoned smoothly.
"You're the god damn Watcher." The Highlander said it crisply, almost menacingly.
Joe sighed and cast an accusing look at Duncan. "Did you have to tell him everything, Mac?"
"Just enough, Dawson," interjected the elder MacLeod, cutting into the other man's reply as it started.
"Connor..." Duncan put one hand on his kinsman's shoulder and had it shrugged off. "Don't whittle at him. I told you about the Watchers."
Oh, now this was getting good, thought Methos. The two Scots squared off, their body language strong and expressions quarrelsome. Connor merely turned his head to lock eyes with the younger MacLeod and Duncan pivoted to face his clansman.
They were nearly equal in height. Methos thought Connor MacLeod was supposed to be much shorter according to his chronicle. He definitely was smaller and leaner all around compared to the swarthy younger man. Duncan was solid, rounded and athletic. A mere glance told anyone that he hid a perfectly honed body beneath his clothing.
His clansman however, was physically average. Slightly built with a finer bone structure. The tan trench coat hung on his body, loose and full of angled shadows. His hair was cropped and unruly. Nothing in his physical form hinted of the strength that his chronicle reported... so where did they get the idea, besides from the fact that he was still alive and had killed several particularly nasty immortals along the way? Or did he just use some trickery to slay the Kurgan?
"He's been my Watcher a long time and my friend for five years," Duncan was speaking firmly. "He's saved my butt a few times along the way too."
"Gave up just watching, did he?" crisply interjected the older man. Duncan glared at him. Methos saw the smile twitch across Connor's face, the barest trace and almost missed. "You surround yourself with people to save your ass, don't you? Lightens the load on me."
"Connor," Duncan warned.
Methos had the impression that this bit of verbal fencing was common between these two. There was a certain timbre to Duncan's voice--an easy familiarity and eagerness for the conflict. Even the body language hinted at it. They were certainly at odds, but empty of true malice.
Mentor and student: Connor wielding the old power of the relationship and Duncan, no longer the pupil, tossing off the subordination and jockeying for a position of equal strength and standing. It was delicious to watch from the outside. Methos had never seen MacLeod with his old master. It smacked with ghostly echoes of riding with Kronos.
And then the older Highlander turned his head, dismissing Duncan as a matter of course, and fastened upon his face with intelligent unsettling eyes. That was it, Methos noted grimly, feeling the thrill of tension run through his body with light fingers. It was that gaze. Severe, formidable, a wildness that was seldom seen all locked up within and exuded like a birthright through that stare. God, this man truly was dangerous! Everything that Duncan MacLeod radiated through sheer physical power and beauty on the exterior, Connor MacLeod hoarded within. It escaped only through the striking eyes.
"Connor, this is Adam Pierson."
Methos merely inclined his head slightly, weighing and measuring the man who faced him and studiously keeping his face and body language blank. Still, the Ivanhoe was a comforting weight against his thigh. Even more so when the next words raised the hair on the back of his neck.
"I know who you are, Methos." The soft voice was full of ice and all the emphasis rested on the name, fairly hissing the ending out.
"Connor?" Duncan smoothly interceded, placing his hand again on his clansman's shoulder. He refused to let it be shrugged off this time, tightening his fingers in the canvass coat. "I didn't know you two had met."
"We've never met," Methos corrected. He eyed the deadly older Scot a moment. "How do you know me?"
"Cassandra is my good friend."
Shit. Shit and shit! Almost enough to cause him to break his casual pose, but not quite. How much had she told him about the Horseman camp? He didn?t want to wade through this old horror now and he definitely never wanted Duncan to know his sordid and brutal past. He had to get out of this?right now! Surprisingly, it was Duncan who rescued him.
"Connor, Adam is my friend. I wanted you to meet to avoid this very thing. You're both my friends and I want you at peace with each other in case you ever met... out there."
Connor turned under the grip on his coat, brushing it off, visage confrontational and hard. "Why? So we wouldn't fight on account of you?"
"Dammit Connor." Duncan leaned his face closer to speak, biting each word off neatly. "He?s saved my life, several times. I owe him."
"And what am I?" snapped the elder man undaunted. The eyes were savage as hooks in a face of stone.
That stopped any further tirade, Methos noted, but the strong stance never changed.
"Connor," Duncan entreated carefully, "I owe you both. I asked you here to come to an understanding, so it wouldn't come to swords. I don't want either of you to fight."
"Or what? You'll come for me if I kill him?" returned Connor tersely.
Duncan leaned, breathing directly into the other man's face. It was an ancient form of threat, invading personal space and using superior height to advantage. The older Highlander held his pose under it, but the blue eyes narrowed and he lifted his chin to view the taller man more clearly.
There had not been a sound from Joe or Rich during the entire exchange. How had they arrived at this place, Methos wondered, both Highlanders staring eye to eye?
"Why are you acting like this?" Duncan demanded carefully. He was poised like a cat ready to pounce.
"You knew exactly how this would be! I came here expecting to meet you alone and you toss in a Watcher and another immortal. Rich, I expect... but not him." The elder MacLeod's voice was almost savage. "Did you forget what I am? Who I am?"
"No Connor--but I thought--"
"How do you think I've survived for this long, you stupid git? There are three immortals in here and a goddamn Watcher! How did you think I would react?"
"They aren?t here to fight!' Duncan flared back at him. "Rich knows better than to try for you and Methos doesn't look for fights!"
"Well, Duncan, you know what I always say?" Connor breathed out sinisterly.
"I know it, damn you," he swore stridently in the other man's face, "there can be only one. Do you think I haven?t heard that twenty million times or more?" The younger man tossed his hands up in a gesture of pent-up tension. "But that isn't why he's here and that's not why you came -- so don't turn it into swords. Don't do this! I came to make a truce and you?re overreacting!"
There was a pause of one breath before Connor spoke again.
"What's the matter, Duncan, got no balls to let play out what you've started?"
It almost came to blows then. Duncan shifted his weight incrementally, pulling power into his shoulders?but then halted. He settled back on his heels with a shiver, tilting his head slightly as if his neck was strained by the effort of maintaining mastery over himself.
Connor never moved. He merely eyed the furious younger Scot for a moment before he turned his head away, again effectively dismissing him. Methos thought it was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen.
Connor faced him, eyes like shards even in the dim lighting. "Do we have a problem, Methos?" he asked bluntly. He waited like a hawk kiting midair over prey on the ground.
Methos gave him a few heartbeats of tense waiting before answering, face belying nothing. "You're not a man I would care to cross swords with," he returned perfectly neutral. He didn't add that it would be a pity to slay Duncan's only kinsman.
"Good. You're not a man I would want to have to kill." And then the old Highlander turned from him in the same manner he had turned from Duncan moments before. It was the most arrogant and self-confidant dismissal Methos had ever received from another immortal and for an instant his brain simply paused at that act, replaying it.
Duncan sighed heavily, still standing beside the table. Connor spun away and glided around through the open bar, never touching anything and looking everywhere. His shoes crunched on peanut shells that had been tossed carelessly on the floor. Rich let out a breath that he had been unconsciously holding and ran fingers through the blonde hair on his head.
"Mac, what the hell is he doing?" asked Joe quietly after a moment.
"Looking for all the exits."
"Did I ever tell you your kinsman was damned paranoid?"
"You don't need to," he replied dryly. "I've known him 400 years."
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Rich added.
A most astute observation, Methos thought. He watched the prowling Highlander from the corner of his eyes.
"He'll be all right after a fashion. Just let him work it out." But Duncan watched his one time mentor wander also. "I put him in a difficult place, deliberately. He always walks out the tension."
"Hell of a lot better than fighting it off," Joe commented brusquely. "For a minute or two, I thought he'd go a round with you."
No answer there, Methos noted. Yes, better than fighting or yes, going kinsman against kinsman? My, these two were like a pair of hounds circling stiff legged for a while and here he was under the impression that clan was the end all and be all between Scots. Hmm, he would have to inquire about Mac's perceptions of that. Come to think of it, the younger MacLeod seldom talked about or even visited his teacher. And he returned to the Highlands even less frequently according to his chronicle.
Connor had circled back to the table and drew up close to Duncan. He reached slowly for the inside of the younger man?s arm above the elbow. Duncan met him halfway and they locked arms in an old embrace without a word, dropping straight out of the tension as if by some prearranged signal. It was uncanny to watch the body language shift again.
"Good to see you," Duncan remarked.
"Next time," chided Connor, "do it the right way instead of springing it on me. You hid him within the ringing of both you and Rich."
"I know. But he would have refused to come and you would have asked me who he really was, then caught me in the deceit."
"You never were much of a liar."
"Something you forgot to teach me," Duncan retorted.
Connor smiled that light disappearing smile again and swung on Methos. "We have another acquaintance in common, Adam Pierson." He looked sidelong as he spoke, drawing out the moment as if searching for the words. "Let's see, you knew him as... Tak Ne."
"Ramirez?" The oldest immortal swore internally at his blurted response. His old friend. He had not heard that name for a thousand years. His reaction had been impulsive and now the Scot was intently scrutinizing him. He composed his startled face.
"He said that he's not surprised to see that the little fox is still alive," Connor added almost as an afterthought.
Methos? eyes widened and his response slipped out unguarded. "Ramirez is dead."
"Yes, he is," the older MacLeod affirmed with that same flitting smile, but there was not a trace of humor on his face. He sat down near Richie and poured a drink.
In the silence following his words, Duncan reclaimed his own chair and conversation sprang up lightly around the table... but Methos was silent, hearing the echo of a man?s voice from long ago and transfixed with shadowy memories.
He almost never worked out with an audience. He hated the scrutiny that reminded him of years in the camp. Too many times and in too many lives, his marketable body had been used for show and gain and ill purpose. He had spent years learning the trade of the flesh. For thousands of years it was only the carved perfection in his form that kept him alive before he gained knowledge and a sword.
It was an unspoken understanding between them; Duncan went out for a run at precisely 5:00 am and Methos arrived at the dojo at precisely 5:10 am. He was gone again by the time Mac was back, sweating and exhilarated by his jog. Methos made certain to sweep and wipe down any sweat he left on equipment so there would be no need for Mac to clean up after his ghostly guest. He did not want companionship when he stretched out and trained. The young Highlander respected that.
So it was highly irritating to feel the hum of immortal presence in the deserted dojo. His mood only deepened when the immortal in question moved into view. The two of them stood and looked at one another for a moment before Methos turned away and resumed his morning routine.
Methos decided he just didn?t give a damn who watched him today.
Especially this man.
He moved through his stretches with focus and purpose, reaching wide until his spine popped and then curling in on himself as if to disappear. Balance and breathing and listening to the sing of muscles as they pulled like levers on his bones. Standing on tiptoe, arched like the carvings of Icarus on the Great Temple and then spinning out of the tension with his arms slicing circles around him. The handful of sawdust on the floor was slick and noiseless, turning the surface into the perfect medium for his morning ritual.
Connor MacLeod watched him, nursing a cup of coffee that sent wreaths of steam across his face. He made no pretense to hide his scrutiny -- he just stared with that forbidding gaze from the office doorway. Without even looking, Methos could feel those eyes and he knew exactly what the other man saw. He was slight and slender, tendons and bones and muscles all unified under alabaster skin. Veins spread like spiders across his pectorals and down the flat planes of his arms. His was the body of temple carvings and old paintings, the face on a coin of some forgotten realm. Silhouetted against the bank of windows in the loose linen pants, he knew nothing of his anatomy was hidden.
And today, he did not care.
He followed very ancient exercises of balance and strength, holding each form aligned from his fingers to his back and down the curve of buttock to the straight line of leg. He was a crane, a swan, a line on a building, the curve of a bowl. Every pose was crafted by years of practice. He moved through them with ease: dancing, gliding, flying effortlessly. And when he was done, his body was damp with sweat and fully alert.
"What are you to Duncan?" came the voice from the office doorway.
"As he said. A friend."
"What kind of friend?"
Methos snapped the towel across his naked shoulders and padded barefoot to stand a few yards from him. He could decipher little from the Highlander's expression; his face was granite, his body language a fortress.
"The kind who stands near to help when he turns evil." It was both an example and an accusation.
The Scot never even flinched. Only the narrowing of the blue eyes gone to black in the lighting gave evidence of his anger. Methos credited him with remarkable self-control. Duncan could not have fallen under the tutelage of a stronger man, he mused.
"A true friend would have made sure he didn't fall into evil in the first place."
Touche. Methos inclined his head slightly, contemplating his friend's mentor. The MacLeods were so similar and yet so disparate. Training Duncan must have been like mixing fire and water and yet as sweet as a homecoming.
"That I helped him and you didn't?"
"Who said I didn't?" And Connor turned away and took the elevator to the loft.
Methos just watched him go, unable to voice any response to the words hanging softly in midair.
His neck hurt. He was immortal and he still had pain in his neck. Staring at the computer screen and comparing notes with a half dozen books did not help in any fashion. The light overhead was not bright enough to illuminate the old writings in the Chronicles and the desk light was too overpowering for the monitor.
Methos swore, again, and leaned back in his chair to rest his eyes a moment.
How did he get himself into these predicaments anyway? Becoming a friend to Duncan MacLeod was easy given Mac's general predisposition to cordiality. Methos never suspected that fraternization with the younger MacLeod automatically meant making peace with the other one. And why wasn't their common denominator in Duncan MacLeod enough to soothe the older MacLeod? It was perfectly obvious that they were both fond of the younger Scot so why was he stubbornly elusive to friendship?
Methos groaned and rubbed his eyes. It seemed so many lifetimes ago riding with Kronos and perpetrating such acts of cruelty. But no matter how many times he changed his name and fled a continent... it seemed to find him again. As if he was haunted by the spirit of the Horsemen even to the present age. He had not realized that Cassandra was still alive, let alone a friend to the older MacLeod. It made him shiver wondering if Kronos might also still live.
"Connor MacLeod is my oldest friend, Methos," Mac had told him in a moment of privacy.
"He is not your oldest friend," corrected Methos, deliberately misunderstanding to annoy the younger immortal. He received a long-suffering look for his trouble, but little more.
"Find a way to harmony with him."
"Your kinsman is more of a pain in the ass than you are, and I thought you were tops in that department."
"Methos?," Duncan warned.
"Have you noticed that your clansman is a grouchy old coot and makes no effort at socializing? Do you think that I can somehow do this all by myself?" demanded Methos.
"Yes." Duncan looked him full in the face. "Use some of that knowledge from all your years of living and find a way."
The ache in his neck had gone away and Methos reopened his eyes. He surveyed the wreck of his desk; papers scattered, hasty notes scribbled on post it notes, half of an apple left unattended amidst the volumes he had been pouring through. The cursor on the computer screen blinked on and off at him, waiting for instruction.
"I can't do this by myself, Mac," Methos said to the empty room, "and he's not trying."
Joe Dawson was surreptitiously refilling glasses at the table, Methos noted with wry humor -- right under the noses of the two Scots. He lounged casually in his chair and studied the crossword before him without really seeing it.
The younger Highlander was telling terrible jokes and laughing a bit loudly-- with Rich joining right in the foolery after two beers too many. It had been like this all evening: Joe plying the Highlanders with whiskey, Rich telling wild tales and Duncan practically tap dancing to drag Connor out of his sullen watchfulness.
Methos sighed. The whole week had been a frozen stalemate with the older MacLeod. Duncan seized every chance to keep them all together, walking a fine line between wariness of the two of them face to face and determination to make them fast friends.
Friends! Like anyone could get through the guard of Connor MacLeod? He had tried to talk to him, made the attempt to forge some alliance between them if only for Duncan's sake, but the elder Scot brushed him off disinterestedly. It was like chinking stones at a lake; a lot of energy for little result -- the lake remained steadfastly unchanged.
But these stakes were much higher.
Alliances between immortals not completely unheard of, but rare. Very unlikely unless there was some foundation to rest the peace on... some constraint that turned them away, even temporarily, from the dictates of the Game. He didn't want to have to face and kill the Scot at some point in the future, but if they didn?t find some common ground... he left the thought unfinished.
The elder MacLeod was a stone, Methos grumbled to himself. The chronicles he had dug through painted him perfectly: ill humored, paranoid, reclusive, an aggressive hunter with biting, acerbic humor. Connor was completely unlike his younger counterpart and Methos had run out of energy searching for a truce. He recognized with irritation and a bit of sadness that if the two of them were to meet without Duncan's stabilizing presence it would likely end in a battle of swords.
So here they were again, after hours at the same table where the first clandestine meeting had taken place. Joe was craftily trying to get them sloshed so Connor would relax and Duncan would calm down. It was a feast for Methos' years of people watching.
And it was a little tense, with Duncan sitting beside his clansman trying to lighten his humor, Rich gesturing with both hands while he talked, and Connor sitting partially turned away from him -- an insult in itself.
He moved subtly in his seat, wryly gratified to note that the older Highlander raised his head very slightly. So he was watching him in his peripheral vision, wary as ever despite the whole week in each other's company. The previous days had been filled with this same barely civil little dance, Connor refusing to yield up any ground and Methos too intrigued by the dynamics to give way and searching for some link with which to fashion neutrality.
Methos spun back into focus and realized, somewhat belatedly, that Duncan and Rich both where trying to cajole the elder MacLeod into a game. It was a storytelling kind of whimsy that they sometimes engaged in when bored. For them to ask Connor to play it? Trying to bell the cat aren't we? he mused.
"Come on, Connor. It's harmless. Kind of like telling old tales."
"Yeah, and Duncan tells some whoppers if you pick the right word!" added Rich with enthusiasm.
"And Richie tells you ones that make you wet your pants laughing?."
"Hey, just because mine are actually funny. Better than all your stunts with Fitz or trying to act."
"TRYING?" protested Duncan loudly.
The verbal tug of war continued. Connor did not seem to be listening to any of it. Joe refilled his glass again and the older man downed it without hesitating.
How many shots had he drunk tonight? Methos abruptly wondered. The first bottle was empty and they were ¾ of the way through the second -- was Dawson actually going to get him sloshed? Only the two Highlanders were drinking the Scotch and it dawned on him that Duncan was only on his third glass. With sharper scrutiny, it became clear that the older MacLeod was indeed a bit tipsy. The hard planes of his face were more relaxed, the intense eyes less sharp and watchful.
Why would this craggy old giant decide to let his guard down now when all week it had been a standoff?
The tirade between Rich and Duncan wound down and Duncan turned earnestly to his teacher. "Come on, clansman. You have lots of stories to tell." The younger Scot reached out and touched Connor's sleeve, a physical appeal suddenly put into play. "I never know the question to ask to get any of them and this is an easy way. You never know what you'll get until the words are given and I want to hear the tales you have hidden in there.'
A stilted pause followed. Methos barely heard the slow assent from the elder Highlander, but there was a stir of surprise in the listeners: Duncan grinning and Rich?s voice rising with a loud "alright!" Joe nodded to himself as if he had single handedly won his cause with two open bottles of Scotch.
"...And someone gives you a word or sentence and you tell us the first story that comes to mind," Duncan was finishing the explanation.
This was going to be fascinating, Methos thought... a tale from Connor MacLeod. Unfortunately, he was sitting off to the Highlander's flank and did not have a clear view of his face. There was minute satisfaction that Joe Dawson also was sidelong. Watchers should not have the choice seats in the house all the time anyway.
It wasn't important, Methos surmised... he had spent the last three years observing Duncan MacLeod's body language. It shouldn't be difficult to read Connor through the mirror of Duncan's reactions. Although, he added mentally, he had been surprised at how dissimilar these two were. Like comparing a graceful and aesthetically pleasing Doberman and a spotted Pit Bull.
"The first thing that comes to mind." Connor's voice was sifted with accents and strong drink. "Good or bad."
Here Duncan hesitated before answering, suggesting that he had suddenly become aware of the pitfalls of this game. He eyed his kinsman with serious dark eyes.
Ahh, there's the rub, Methos thought. With almost 500 years of history and some notorious fights along the way, there were bound to be some perfectly nasty messes lurking in the old Scot. The conversation went back and forth a few more times and he was surprised to see Duncan abruptly turn to him.
"Adam, you choose the spring board for Connor."
Damn him, damn him and damn him yet again! The bloody boy scout was still attempting to make things nice-nice. He wanted to tweak his ponytail - sharply. But they were all waiting upon him and Connor had turned his head to hear him so he said the very first thing that came to his mind. "No stone unturned."
True to form, as soon as the words were spoken the response started.
Connor never moved from the pose he was in; shoulders back, hands dangling over the edges of the chair arms... but his eyes went faraway, staring suddenly at something just off Duncan's left shoulder. He failed to draw the next breath on time.
Duncan, watching firsthand, was roving his eyes across Connor's face trying to read the expression. Methos could see the curious mix of eagerness and tension in the young Highlander as he waited for the results of the impromptu challenge.
Two heartbeats and Connor turned his head, very slowly, and looked fully at his kinsman. His breath went out in an audible rush, then a controlled inhalation. Methos could tell by the tightening of the darker man's face that this was not going to be fun.
The interminable wait.
"Barkeep, I need a drink." Joe leaned after the shot glass, but Connor picked up the half- drained water tumbler and poured the residue into the glass nearest to him and shoved it at the Watcher. Dawson filled it without a word.
Methos stared aghast at his suddenly diluted beer. There was any number of things he wanted to shout at the ruin of a perfectly fine brew, but the words simply failed him.
"Connor?" Duncan toned guardedly. "If this is bad, you don't have to do it. We can choose another..."
"What's the matter, Duncan. Got no balls to finish what you start?" The older man's voice was shadowy with amusement and sharpness mixed.
Duncan sighed heavily. Methos suppressed a chuckle. Richie failed the attempt and laughed aloud, squelching it at a glare from Joe Dawson.
Methos had to admit that the older Highlander irritated his younger counterpart more successfully than he had ever been able to do. The history between this two was a veritable treasure trove -- but Connor was talking and his words were barely audible. He had to listen carefully to hear the unspoken beneath the spoken.
"He used to send me away. Just like I did to you. Stupid stuff; fetch water from the Loch, go for a run, get some berries for dessert... he knew it would clear my head from all the words he filled my day with. Help me make sense of all he tried to pour into me. I couldn't ever get away from him except to lie with Heather and even then, sometimes, he'd shout at me to quit dawdling at something I knew well and get down here to do something truly useful. This day it was to fetch some deer meat." He shook his head. Methos got a glimpse of the wry grin as he spoke aside to someone not in the room. "As if by afternoon any was to be had, you sorry excuse..."
"I headed my horse back as evening came," he turned his face back to Duncan and fixed there, as if he alone was present.
The words, Methos knew, would come quickly as the scene became real. The younger MacLeod did the same thing once you got him going.
"...Funny. I always knew when a storm was brewing up in the Highlands, but this one--aye, she caught me unaware. The ground was quiet and the atmosphere suddenly seemed to draw in on itself, like God decided to soundlessly clap His hands and all I could feel was the passing of his sleeves. The air trembled and far away I saw lightning and the clouds spin. It was nameless and full of dread and I dug my heels into the stud and set on a gallop for home. We nary fell on the way. He scrabbled along the cliffs and lochs and flashed through the moors. He never lost his stride. If he did, I would have fallen ass over teakettle and broken all my bones."
The delivery was smooth, enunciated conversationally. Traces of Scot's brogue crept in and out of the voice. Methos spared the thought that he had never imagined this man capable of winding a story out so articulately and with such vivid imagery. And he never gestured at all and never changed his tone.
Duncan had an unsettled look to his face as if he recognized the account and Joe leaned closer over the table. Rich frowned very gently, giving his eternal youthfulness an older appearance.
"We fairly flew o'er the ground and rode under the brow of the mountain. The tower was half down and the air spiked with electricity. The stones were flung in a tumble. I swung down from the horse and left him, stumbling around the boulders, looking for Heather and calling--" He lifted his head and Duncan flinched when Connor called aloud, lost in the vision, "Heather? Heaaa-therrr!" He turned his face to the side and called again and there was a wistful and haunted quality to his voice.
There was a long pause as if he listened for a reply that would never come, before his tale resumed. "I nary found her. I found Ramirez, though, and it stopped me full in place and I stared at his legs sticking out of the pile of stones. Stupidly, like a sheep looking at moving water, wanting a drink, but mystified and frightened by the motion of it flowing."
"Then I laughed, in surprise and delight. By damn, he was immortal! I had plumb forgotten," and he laughed aloud, the familiar triple chuckle but sounding dry as a crow and full of darkness. "So I moved stones, turning them over and off, thinking all the while what deviltry I would give him because he couldn't get his sorry ass out of the way of an avalanche and it was my house that smacked him and I could see the next hundred years full of time to heckle him in all manner of ways about this?"
All the words were coming fast and right on top of another. Duncan sank down on himself seemingly without even moving, eyes hooded. Methos had the dizzying sensation of a catastrophe even as the soft consonant voice lurched on.
"...down to the last few rocks, fingers bleeding and my back screaming at me and realized that something was amiss the way the final ones were lying there. I looked up and around." And he did, searching unseeing through the empty room.
The move made Methos close his eyes for a moment in abrupt comprehension. He knew the rest. He had perused Connor MacLeod's chronicle when he first infiltrated the Watchers and checked out the major players in the endless game. He read it again two days ago trying to puzzle out a path of peace between them.
"And then I saw it off to the side. I don't know why I didn't spot it before. Ramirez. Just his head, eyes open in surprise and a great gout of blood from his mouth. How the blood pools under a fallen skull ... you would never imagine just a head could hold so much crimson." He looked fully at Duncan. "I just stood again, stupidly looking from his head to his body, back and forth, back and forth. Ahh, you would have laughed to see me so silly, like watching fast tennis -- ka-pink, ka-ponk, ka-pink, ka-ponk."
Methos watched the tableau unfold; Duncan reaching out, one hand for a knee and another for a shoulder while Connor sat frozen, fingers now curled like claws over the armrests. Dawson, under his breath and barely audible even as he sat right beside him, was swearing. Rich was absolutely pale, eyes wide, mouth set straight in a line.
"And it spiraled in from somewhere far away, the comprehension of what this really was. That he truly was dead and the slice across his neck wasn't from any crushing rock, but a sword, and what the lightning was that I had watched from far away -- aye, and the spin of dark clouds."
"My teacher was gone and never coming back and I had so much left to learn and so much left to say that I'd na're get to say. He'd not sit and smoke up my house with that god damn pipe and call me bad names and pat me on the head like some common lap dog and tell me: "...and I had such fine hopes for you, young Connor," in that patronizing voice of his that made me want to throttle him." He gasped the last words and stumbled to a halt, trembling very finely under Duncan's dark hand.
"I staggered away from the ruin of what he once was, screaming, and it was that sound that brought Heather out from hiding. My cry of pain and horror brought her out, finally. Her eyes were red, her dress torn--" he clipped the words out tightly. "She said she was trapped in some rubble."
Something unsaid there, Methos suspected... Duncan had closed his eyes against some stab of distress.
"She came running to my screaming, answering the pain she heard in me the only way she knew. I laid her back across the grass and swept her skirts up around her hips and had her right there in the open -- just like all those men in clan limping back from battles and the women streaming out from Glenfinnen to see who lived and who lost. And they would get into them right in the streets, settling their battle kilts 'round them like a cloak, trying desperately to get away from the nightmare of the fight and the blood and the killing."
Connor's voice was getting softer as he spoke. "Behind would come the body of their boy. Or brother. Or father. Hacked to death. I found out, same as they did, that no matter how hard you scramble and how tight you hold them, you can't outrun the agony that sits dark as a wing across your back. I loved her strong and fierce over and over, but I couldn't shake the pain and the death and the loss."
Here he stopped. Methos could tell by the way Duncan tightened that Connor had slammed back into the here and now. He had to be staring with that formidable gaze at him.
"Nineteen months I had my teacher, Duncan, and then I lost him. I was 24 years old. Some day it will be your turn." His tone was gentle. "And your soul will bleed for me."
Duncan flinched yet again and a flicker passed through the dark eyes.
Why had he ever thought this man was made of stone? Methos wondered. When had he made such a mistake in reading another lately? Like an onion, the more you peel back the outside, the more layers you find on the inside. The sense of loss and aloneness, the fear and uncertainty when you were on your own as a new immortal -- all the feelings from thousands of years ago that he had forgotten. Now they were fresh and new as a wound.
"No stone unturned."
That was meant for me, Methos decided. The Highlander had tossed it over his shoulder almost carelessly and Methos had to admit that he had no biting comment to send back. The tale of the death of his old companion and Connor's first teacher had pulled all the fight out of him and he abruptly recognized the chance to find the link with this man.
"He was my very good friend," he acknowledged, allowing the truth and longing to enter his voice.
"I know. He told me. It's the one thing we have in common... we both know Ramirez and not many alive do anymore," Connor returned stunningly over his shoulder. He looked straight at Duncan. "I don't want to play this game anymore, kinsman, and I'm dead drunk and you'll have to keep the watch for me."
Connor tipped his head back without waiting for the reply, resting it against the wooden chair and the wall with a sigh. Then he was gone where a tall glass of fine scotch takes an immortal -- for a little while.
Methos was certain he didn't hear Duncan's agreement. He hadn't even noticed when Connor had downed the tumbler of whisky. He stared fascinated at this unexplainable Highlander collapsed in his seat. There was much more here than he understood and many things he wanted to ask. Ramirez, even in death held power over them both. A fragile alliance but it was a start.
Duncan moved, scraping the chair softly as he sat closer to the vulnerable immortal. The unmistakable act of standing guard. "I'm not ready to lose my teacher," Duncan said quietly and to no one in particular.
From the corner of his eyes, Methos watched the statement register in Rich?s face. It had dawned upon him that someday Mac would be gone forever and he would have only memories of these moments with his mentor. It seemed fitting that the gaudy and proud Ramirez could reach through one student and the next, skipping his wisdom through three generations of immortality. If he was here, Methos registered suddenly, he would be as proud a... a peacock. He stifled the mental groan and laughter at the thought.
"You do know what this is really about, don't you, MacLeod?" Methos calmly inquired after a few moments. It was time to play at teacher for a moment. "Why he is so frosty to me and has pricked you so hard?" There was a long pause while the younger man thought.
"Try." He tipped his head sidelong as if the answer required great thought. "Connor is no longer your teacher and perhaps wonders if you are replacing him even as a friend and brother."
Methos merely looked at the young Scot, his silence the only answer required.
"You?" Duncan snorted in derision. "You're old and sometimes wise and you make me think. A good friend, but no one can replace him, not ever. He's clan."
"Maybe you should try telling him that sometime?" The words came from Joe Dawson.
Methos smiled very faintly. Count on the old bartender to rush in where angels feared... if only to bat someone on the head.
"You've barely seen the man in the last five years," the bartender continued, "and you hardly ever speak of him. Hell, it's no wonder he thinks you?ve walked away from him. Your chronicle reads like some old western called "the MacLeod Brothers" for hundreds of years. Then it just stops. Even I think you've drifted away from him and I'm just the god damn watcher!"
Dawson paused in his tirade a second to see if Connor heard this last, then went on undaunted. "Connor doesn't hang with many mortals, let alone immortals. When Kastagir went down -- well, he was one of the last besides you. He gestured emphatically at Methos. "You've probably been telling him all about Adam, trying to convince him why he's a great friend, instead of letting the two of them find their own way." He leaned over his hands on the table and looked exasperatingly at Duncan. "Christ, Mac, you don't have to save everyone, you know!"
"This one is the most important to me of all, Dawson," the young Highlander snapped back, pricked by the words.
The bartender leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "I know it. This was the big one for you to try to smooth out. I'm sorry."
There was a long pause. No one moved or spoke. Connor slept soundlessly under Duncan's watchful gaze.
"You're right about one thing though, Joe," Duncan admitted finally. "I haven't stayed much in touch with Connor lately." He sighed, sounding regretful. "And it's been one reason or another, none of which are very valid. Just keeping him at a distance. I guess I never thought it would hurt him, he's such a rock. He's never told me that story before. Never shared what it must have been like for him, so young, to lose his mentor so soon. Christ, only nineteen months?" He sighed heavily and regarded his sleeping kinsman a moment. "I need to turn over some stones too, don't I?" he commented to no one in particular. "Like a boy in the creek looking under each one for whatever treasure he can find..."
To his left, Rich Ryan was studying Duncan as if deep in thought. Methos was pleased to see the youth making the connections... he was seeing evidence of some of the strongest ties that immortals could form besides lovers. A foundation built not with hands, but in the heart.
Foundation. The support upon which everything else was laid. Methos thought back through the millennia of his life and found very little solid ground. Wandering as a vagabond, brutalized for centuries before finally becoming free. Surviving by instincts of self preservation so strong...
He looked across the five feet of space at the collapsed Connor MacLeod. If it were not for Ramirez, the Highlander would be dead. If it were not for Tak Ne, centuries before then, Methos would be dead. Ramirez, their one intersection point. A single man fashioning the footings of armistice between immortals compelled to fight in a game so old that it's beginnings were shrouded in mystery, but relentless in it's clarion call.
Methos smiled to himself. He knew enough about fighting; he just managed to find a way to be where the fight wasn't. It was not always what you knew about the game that kept an immortal alive-- it was who you knew. And he was one man who always tried to make peace with the lions ... even the surly ones.