Sins of Omission, Part 10
Hasten the Day

By Leslie Fish

“’Tis Boxing Day, mo brochair.”

Duncan’s awareness surfaced slowly through thinning layers of sleep, wondering briefly why Connor had spoken. By the time he pulled his eyes open, and saw Methos cuddled asleep beside him, he guessed that the voice had been a dream – another echo of Connor’s Quickening. Grief stabbed him again and held for a long moment, but the pain was dull, a little more distant than yesterday, or the day before. When the spasm faded he realized, as the distant sounds of tinkling carols told him, that it was indeed the day after Christmas. It would be just like Connor to nag him about his duties.

He’d forgotten to get presents, though he’d received them.

There was still time to rectify that. Glencoe was large enough to have a record store; he could probably find a Blues album that Joe would like. As for Methos… What on Earth could he find that was fitting? There had to be something, somewhere. Duncan raised his head and looked closely at his sleeping companion.

Sometime during the night Methos had slid down on the pillows, and now the morning light, faint through the curtains, gently outlined the elegant bones of his face, the long curving column of his neck, the arch of his shoulder – all utterly beautiful. Duncan gazed long at the sight, then found his eyes wandering back to that slender neck. It was intolerable to think that a sword could ever cut through it, take this beloved incredible creature away from him…

An idea blossomed, and Duncan realized what he wanted most of all to give Methos for this season’s gift.

Get the measurements right… He slipped one hand gently up to Methos’ throat, measuring with his fingers. Five finger-widths from jaw to shoulder, two and a third hands around…

Methos stirred faintly, and opened one sleepy eye. “What are you doing?” he murmured, not apprehensive, only curious.

For answer, Duncan leaned over him and softly kissed his throat.

Methos smiled, gave a long sigh, and let his eye slide closed.

Duncan kissed him again, this time on the cheek, patted apologetically and pulled reluctantly away, out of the warm and welcoming bed. Methos snuggled deeper into the pillows and sank back into sleep, probably assuming that Duncan was only trotting off to the bathroom.

Instead, Duncan padded quietly to the desk where the laptop waited, trying to remember if it contained an internal modem. A moment’s examination showed the welcome port for a common telephone-jack. He smiled and plugged it in, opened the laptop and waited for it to activate. Did he need a password to get to the Internet? No, there was the display menu, with the familiar little image. Now, how well did this track-ball work?

A few minutes of rolling and tapping brought him to the site he wanted: Kirby Forge, Arms and Armor. Duncan smiled and scrolled through the catalog listings, already knowing what a special order would cost him, thinking of the details he wanted.

Methos stretched, yawned, reached out a hand and found that he was alone in bed. The discovery wasn’t disturbing – he could feel Duncan’s presence close by – but it was enough to tug him awake. He pulled his eyes open, briefly wondering how late it was and when he’d finally gotten to sleep, and saw Duncan sitting on the other bed shrugging into a clean shirt. The half-opened bathroom door revealed a still-fogged mirror. Good signs, those; perhaps his highlander wouldn’t need to be reminded to eat, either. Methos stifled another yawn and shoved himself upright.

Duncan, pulling on a sweater, glanced at him and smiled. “Hungry?” he asked. “We can get something fast in the coffee-shop.”

“Yes, that would be fine,” Methos agreed, taking care not to look surprised. Duncan was willing to go out? Among crowds? This was a surprising improvement. “Do you have anything particular in mind?” he asked, almost too casually.

Duncan pulled up his plain dark trousers and fastened them. “I need to buy a few presents,” he said. “It’s still not too late.”

“Ah, right.” Methos managed to keep an idiot’s grin from spreading across his face. Duncan was coming back into the world, thinking of something – anything – other than his loss and those damned memories. Hallelujah! “I suppose I could do a bit of shopping myself.”

The coffee-shop was almost empty, and they ate fast. A quick stop at the front desk yielded the needed information, and Duncan set out at a determined pace for the nearby shops. The crowds on the sidewalks were thin, likewise moving purposefully; Duncan flinched slightly at their presence, then resolutely strode on. A faint smile spread slowly over his face as he walked, cheeks reddening in the frost-tinged air. Methos trotted dutifully at Duncan’s side, delighting in how healthy, how contented, the man looked today; the dragging grief had loosened its hold on him, at least for awhile, and Methos was utterly grateful for that.

Duncan led the way into a shop loaded with CDs and audiotapes, looked around quickly, then headed for the section marked “Blues”. Methos followed, grinning, and wasn’t surprised when Duncan picked out an album of classic Bessy Smith – nor when Duncan asked the check-out girl to gift-wrap it.

The next stop was a clothing store, where Duncan selected a dark green shawl of thick satin-woven silk – wonderfully elegant, horrendously priced, and doubtless for Amanda. Again, Duncan asked for gift-wrapping. He was, Methos noted, able to talk to strangers today – at least long enough to make his purchases. A good sign.

Then out into the cold again, this time to a gift-shop. Once inside the doors Duncan became curiously shy, and gave Methos an almost embarrassed look. Methos guessed what that meant – that Duncan meant to find a gift for him – smiled, and deliberately turned his back to study a case full of artful but unoriginal glassware. He noticed that he could tell from the feel of the Quickening, not just from the quiet footsteps, when and how far Duncan moved away from him.

The Double Quickening, he marveled. Why did it take so long for us to realize what it could do? So much time wasted…

But he knew the answer. They’d been too careful, tiptoeing around each other, after that hideous mess with the Horsemen. It had been months before they’d drawn close enough to touch, even so much as a pat on the shoulder. It might have taken longer yet, if not for that ghastly business with O’Rourke… No, even after that Duncan had kept his distance, reworking his personal philosophy again, coming up with a healthier outlook but going at it alone – not wanting to burden his friends with his internal troubles, damn him for a chivalrous fool. Methos laughed silently at himself, recalling how he’d kept track of Duncan’s wanderings from a distance, following him unnoticed, grateful for the foresight that gave him a ready and waiting residence in just about every city of the world. It might have taken another year, even two, more, for Duncan to settle down and approach again…

…if it hadn’t been for Connor. And Kell.

Methos winced at the irony. Kell had forced Connor into his suicidal strategy, and Connor’s death had driven Duncan into Methos’ arms – and bed – where they’d finally discovered the true depth of the Double Quickening, among other things. Connor had given them this unity, even while his memory – and memories – remained as a third presence between them. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, having Duncan meant having Connor’s ghost too.

“Love me, love my dog.” Three in a bed. I’ll do it. …Gods, I’m besotted…

He felt that presence shift again, and saw Duncan make his way to the check-out counter. Methos paced after him, slowly, allowing time for the salesman to wrap the packages and stuff them in a shopping-bag.

“Finished,” Duncan announced, sounding a little weary. “Now back to the hotel.”

So, he wasn’t up to a long trek away from his haven just yet; still, this outing had been a healthy exercise. Methos strode dutifully at Duncan’s left side – shield-side, he remembered – all the way back to their hotel room, watching the man for any signs of tension. None were readily apparent, but Duncan looked distinctly relieved as he locked the door behind them and set down the shopping-bag.

“Let’s all have dinner in the hotel restaurant this time,” he said, pulling off his coat. “I’d like to see their whole menu.”

Good sign! “On me,” Methos volunteered. “I believe it’s my turn, anyway. Let’s hope they have a decent beer.”

Duncan nodded agreement, but then that look – that abstracted look that Methos was coming to hate – slipped over him again. “I should get back to work,” he murmured.

Methos bit back a retort that he knew he’d regret, and only shrugged. “Will you be all right if I go drop in on Joe for awhile?” he asked, managing to keep his voice light.

“All right,” Duncan echoed, turning toward the desk – and that damned book.

“I’ll be just next door,” Methos promised, as if Duncan hadn’t known that already. Silently cursing himself for an impatient fool, Methos turned and fled.

Behind him Duncan picked up the book and pen, kicked off his shoes, settled on the nearer bed and assumed the lotus position.

Joe was awake, dressed and busy with his computer and some papers when Methos came in. He looked up, caught Methos’ expression, and shoved his work aside. “New developments?” was all he said.

“I’m just overreacting,” Methos admitted, slumping into the nearest chair. “He’s really doing well, actually went out gift-shopping this morning – oh, and we’re both invited to dinner in the hotel restaurant, for a change – and I ought to be grateful, god knows, but the moment we came back I could see those damned memories taking him over again, and I felt so ridiculously jealous… I’m babbling, aren’t I?”

“You’re in love,” Joe smiled. “You get frantically protective when you’re in love.”

Methos abruptly remembered Alexa, and the insane risks he’d taken trying to save her. Why, he asked himself for the hundredth time, Why did I fall like a toppled tree for a woman I knew would die? --Not in fifty years, or even twenty, but just one-- “I’m a fool for love,” he groaned. “A perfect idiot for it.”

“Thank God you are.” Joe leaned closer. “You know what happens when you can’t love, can’t be bowled over by it, can’t feel that strongly anymore.”

Methos only bowed his head and nodded once.

“So think about this; diving into those memories has eased his pain, enough that he could poke his nose out of his room for awhile. You know that’s progress. You don’t have to worry about him, and you don’t have to be jealous of Connor.”

Methos took a deep breath and let it out slowly, deliberately calming himself. “Sometimes I’m shamefully grateful to Connor,” he admitted, “And sometimes I want to kick his ethereal arse.”

“You’re not alone in that,” Joe chuckled. “That reminds me: have you seen any sign of Duncan manifesting Connor’s psychic talent?”

“Nothing so far.” Methos frowned. “And that reminds me. I got the damndest phonecall last night. From Cassandra, if you please.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “What did she say? And when was this?”

“Close to ten, I think. All she said was: ‘I won’t hunt you. Merry Christmas.’ I must admit I’m grateful, but I wonder what brought that on.”

Joe chewed his lip for a moment, looked away, then squared his shoulders. He reached for the clutch of papers near his computer and held them out. “I got a somewhat longer message,” he said. “The envelope was shoved under my door this morning.”

Methos took the papers as if they were explosive, and began reading.

25.12.02

Merry Christmas, Joe.

To finish your case-notes on the Horsemen incident, here are some details that may explain much.

I encountered Kronos while visiting New York City, three weeks before I came to see Duncan. We met purely by accident, while crossing a civic plaza. I felt the edge of a peculiar Quickening, thought it was Connor, and – foolishly, I know – gave myself away by looking about to see where he was. You can imagine my reaction when I saw Kronos staring back at me from across the crowd. I recognized him, even without his war-paint, even after 3000 years. I don’t know if he recognized me, or only saw another immortal, but he projected at me.

Here I must stop and explain. Kronos too had a psychic ability: only a particular empathic talent, but he knew how to use it well. He could project a feeling of absolute terror. I believe he could also sense that emotion in others, and enjoyed it; it would explain much about his character.

Methos snapped his head up and stared at Joe. “Kronos? Psychic?!” he whispered. “I lived with him for centuries, and I never— I thought it was only me…” He paused, remembering. “…But that would explain…”

“Read on,” Joe smiled sourly. “It does tie up a lot of loose ends.”

Methos turned his attention back to the paper.

He may well have used it on his ‘brothers’ to keep them under his control.

“He did!” Methos gasped. “He did that…”

He probably used it with mortals to ensure his conquests, and so that he could enjoy drinking their terror back from them. With other immortals, I believe he used it to scare them off or to weaken them in combat. When he projected at me that day, it could have been for either reason.

In any case, I hurried away quickly and took the first plane I could catch back to Scotland. As soon as I returned home, I hired private detectives to trace him. They reported him moving toward Vancouver, which is why I hurried there to warn Duncan I suspect that Kronos also used private detectives to find Methos, and myself.

“By the way,” Joe drawled, “How did you first find out about Kronos being in town?”

Methos shivered. “You remember a young Immortal named William Armour? No? He was a newbie, hadn’t even found a teacher yet, when Kronos found him and made him an easy meal. His Watcher didn’t know who the winner was, but the description she gave was…recognizable. As soon as I read that file, I knew.”

“And began warning every Immortal in reach?”

“There weren’t that many. I went to Duncan personally, and… Well, you know the rest.” Methos returned his eyes to the letter and read on.

Another reason I went to Duncan was that I had trained him, in earlier years, to shield himself from psychic projection. I hadn’t known at the time that Kronos was still alive, but I had a prophecy concerning Duncan and wanted to give him every advantage in the battle I foresaw. For reasons I’m still trying to determine, Duncan proved better at such shielding than I was. It didn’t help him resist The Voice, as the experience with Kantos proved, but it sufficed against Kronos.

The Voice has limitations. It doesn’t work against subjects who are already enthralled by someone else, as Kantos showed me once during what you might call a Wizards’ Duel between us. I can disrupt it only momentarily, as I did when Kantos first fought with Duncan. It didn’t work against any of the Horsemen, possibly because they were ‘blanketed’ or immunized in some fashion by Kronos’ projection-field, or perhaps because his ability distracted me from the precise state of mind I must have in order to use The Voice. I’ve also met a few individuals, mortal and immortal, who have a natural resistance to it.

In any case, I had to spend extraordinary effort in maintaining my own shield against Kronos’ empathic projection, which, I realize now, is why I fought so poorly when I challenged him in Vancouver. Kronos also had the ability to dampen, or reduce, his projection, which is why I didn’t recognize his Quickening when he and the others came to my hotel room in Bordeaux. Once he’d captured me, of course, he made no effort to restrain himself. Maintaining my shield during those long hours in his presence was difficult, not to mention distracting. I was in no condition to think very clearly, and frankly I’m still amazed that Methos could.

“Immunized,” Methos muttered, re-reading that last sentence. “All those centuries with him…I got used to it.”

“I’ve heard it said that you could get used to hanging, if you could live long enough,” Joe considered.

What Methos may not think to tell you is that, during the last battle with Duncan, Kronos was projecting furiously. I had great difficulty fighting it off while I stumbled about in the dark, trying to find a way out of that maze. You can’t imagine what an incredible relief it was when Kronos finally died, and the pressure was lifted. In the backlash, I confess, I wasn’t thinking very well when I came upon Methos after the battle. If Duncan hadn’t shaken me out of my confusion, I might very well have taken Methos’ head.

Once I had time to return home and settle myself, I was able to review and analyze the incident. It was at that point that I realized Methos had indeed saved me more than once. I still don’t understand his reasons, for I can’t believe he did it out of any affection for me; certainly he did it to keep Duncan for an ally, but why he prized Duncan so highly then eludes me.

Since the incident, as he revealed the other day, he’s been psychically bonded to Duncan, which explains his protectiveness now. It’s ironic, almost Karmic justice, that the witty psychopath is psychically chained to a would-be victim of his endless manipulations.

Methos looked away, and sighed. “I don’t suppose she’ll ever believe that I’m not…” he murmured.

“She hadn’t seen you in 3000 years,” Joe reminded him, “And she didn’t get to see much of you this time around. Give her time to learn otherwise.”

“You know,” Methos considered, “The very shields that Cassandra gave him may be suppressing the psychic abilities Duncan got from Connor.”

“We ought to tell her that.” Joe reached for the letter, but Methos had already dropped his eyes to the paper again.

I have, as you might guess, been keeping an eye on Duncan. He did, after all, take Kronos’ Quickening. He might have taken Kronos’ empathic ability with it – or, worse, aspects of Kronos’ personality. You must admit, his behavior since then has been erratic. He’s also suffered some serious emotional injuries, culminating with the death of Connor and all that implies. You can understand why I’m concerned. If he shows any sign of manifesting Connor’s abilities – or Kronos’ – please contact me immediately.

Trusting your discretion,

Cassandra

“No!” Methos snapped, shoving the letter back at Joe. “There’s nothing of Kronos in him! I would have seen…felt…” He shuddered.

“I’ll ask this just once,” said Joe, putting the letter away beside the computer. “Can you be certain?”

“Yes.” Methos hesitated for a moment, then plunged ahead. “Joe, the link between us is deepening. When we’re touching, we can pick up each other’s feelings – even thoughts, images, memories…”

Joe did a double-take at that last word. “You mean, you’ve been seeing Connor’s memories too?”

“Just one of them. I held him while he rode through it, and I saw…” Methos shook himself. “Hell, I’ll copy it out of the book while Duncan’s sleeping. But we experimented a bit, and he managed to see one of my memories. We’re that close. If there was anything of Kronos, I would have felt it – and recognized it. I swear, there’s nothing. Whatever tricks Cassandra taught him as a child, that ‘shielding’, it held against Kronos. He’s safe on that score, I promise you.”

Joe leaned back and eyed him thoughtfully. “Then why,” he asked carefully, “Didn’t it hold against the Dark Quickening?”

“Good question.” Methos rubbed his chin, thinking hard and weighing possibilities. “My best guess is that he didn’t expect to catch anything like that from his old friend, and didn’t shield himself – not that I think he does it consciously. I wish I could simply talk to Cassandra, get her input on this, ask her precisely what training she gave him back then and how she did it… Well, it’s not a burning issue at the moment.”

“It’s also possible, although she doesn’t mention it,” Joe considered, “That she reinforced his, ah, shield-training while they were together in Bordeaux.”

“Not unlikely…” Methos twitched briefly in agitation. “I wonder if she also tried to make him hate me, while she was at it.”

“If so, it didn’t work.” Joe smiled. “Adam, I really think you can stop worrying. Go on back in there and watch over him while he remembers and writes.”

Methos glanced at his watch, and at the same moment his stomach rumbled softly. “I think,” he grinned, “That we’d best order some lunch first.”

When Methos returned to the room next door, he found Duncan peacefully asleep on the far bed. The book lay on the desk, held partly open by the pen. Methos turned up the room’s heat by five degrees, then cautiously touched Duncan’s shoeless foot. The highlander didn’t stir, and all Methos could read from the contact was the warm blank depth of dreamless sleep.

The book tugged at him like a magnet.

Methos yielded to the temptation, opened his laptop, reached for the book and opened it. Duncan had written a surprising number of pages since the last time Methos had looked; his usually graceful handwriting was stretched to a barely-legible scrawl, as if he’d written in a frantic hurry. The memories were coming thick and fast. No wonder Duncan needed extra sleep.

As Methos read, and typed, he was struck by the vivid emotional power of the memories and the stark clarity of Duncan’s writing.

Connor’s turning him into a poet! he considered, as he read the account of that first Christmas mass with Heather. I never saw him write like this before…

Right after that came an anecdote about Connor walking home from mass with Heather, their hands tightly clasped, looking into each other’s eyes so much that they stumbled off the path into a snowdrift. MacDonald, in exasperation, cut a switch from a nearby tree and threatened to “lash their arses” if they didn’t keep their eyes on where they were going. Halfway home, he’d been obliged to use it.

Methos smothered a laugh as he typed, and read on.

Then there was the account of Boxing Day, and the party at the local chieftain’s house, where Connor and Heather danced themselves into exhaustion so as to wear out their frantic passion. Connor had first realized, then, that Heather not only loved him but wanted him – as much as he wanted her – and had danced like the very devil Afterward, he had counted it a victory that he could kiss Heather without getting an instant erection. Angus MacDonald had been obliged to walk between them, holding up both of them, all the way home, and his comments were certainly worth recording.

That was the point in the narrative where Duncan had succumbed to fatigue – psychic or physical. Methos glanced at him, and typed quickly. Gods, this biography was turning into an epic – and fascinating. He hadn’t known Duncan could write like this. For that matter, he hadn’t known that Connor possessed depths like this. He’d always thought of the man as cool, self-contained, cerebral and a loner, perfectly at ease with his own company. He’d known about Connor’s beloved first wife, but would never have imagined a raging passion like this.

Ah, Connor, was it the slow erosion of all human contact that made you so willing to die, in the end?

Methos felt tears mist his vision, and angrily blinked them away. As he typed in the last words, he considered that perhaps Connor’s trouble was that he had loved too many things more than his life – and lost them all. All but one…

But then, what had happened to Connor’s wife, Alexandra, and adopted son John? The Watcher records said only that they’d separated, nothing whatever about the nature of the separation. Why had Connor lost his emotional contact there?

Well, that wasn’t relevant now. Finish transcribing the book…

Done. Methos closed the laptop, closed the book and set it back where he’d found it, exactly as Duncan had left it, and glanced thoughtfully toward the bed.

Duncan had moved in his sleep, and now lay cuddling the end of the pillow. Whatever he dreamed, if he dreamed, he needed to hold something – or someone.

Methos glanced at the door to make certain the dead-bolt was thrown, the chain was fastened and the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign was out, then quietly kicked off his shoes and slid onto the bed beside Duncan. All he had to do was pull close, wrap an arm around the man and lean into his shoulder, and Duncan cuddled against him like a sleepy kitten without ever coming near to waking.

The mightiest warrior of the age, Methos marveled, almost dizzy with the perfection of the moment, So needful, so trusting, so gentle… And he’s mine.

Utterly contented, Methos lay still and reveled in his good fortune until sleep stole up and pulled him under without warning.

Hogmanay was celebrated in no one house but the middle of the town square. Bonfires were lit there, enough to warm the air even on New Year’s Eve, and trestle-tables groaning with food and drink flanked the cleared center. Though a collection of minstrels played, there was little dancing – not in that slushy snow that thinly covered treacherous cobblestones. No, the center of the square was given over to bell-dancers and wassail-singers, and finally a mummers’ play – “The King of Egypt’s Daughter”. Heather and Connor stood close to one of the fires, chewing happily on sweet bread and sausages, watching the festivities, laughing with their mouths full at the mummers’ antics.

When the Woodcutter’s Youngest Son and the Great Pasha fought for the hand of the King of Egypt’s Daughter, despite the silly posturing and the clatter of the wooden swords, Connor felt an unaccountable chill creep down his back. He sought Heather’s hand and clasped it, grateful that the hard work MacDonald had made him do all morning kept him from his usual embarrassing reaction to her touch.

Finally the Woodcutter’s Youngest Son slew the Great Pasha, but fell mortally wounded himself, and the King of Egypt’s Daughter wept and wrung her hands over him. Then out came the Grand Doctor, whose costume suggested more of the sorcerer than the physician, who sang and chanted nonsense words and threw artfully-smoking powders into the nearest fire, and finally gave the Woodcutter’s Youngest Son a magical potion that restored him to life. The young hero jumped up, kissed the king’s daughter, and they led a merry dance around the square.

The music was sprightly and the mood was joyful, but the scene raised that chill on Connor’s back again.

The young bridegroom, dead and revived: himself, slain and revived. Faery blood...  

He couldn’t be alone in this. There had to be others.

Then Heather planted a quick kiss on his cheek, and he forgot everything else.

Behind them, MacDonald coughed wetly in the cold and muttered that March couldn’t come soon enough for him, either.

Methos wakened to feel Duncan pulling out of his arms, and opened his eyes to meet the man’s apologetic look.

“I have to write it down, quickly,” Duncan explained. “Ah, what time is it?”

Reluctantly, Methos raised his arm to glance at his watch. “Three o’clock. With luck, you can finish the latest installment in time for tea.”

Duncan only smiled and went to the book.

Methos, watching him, slowly realized that he knew exactly what Duncan was writing. He’d shared that dream, shared Connor’s memory, without noticing anything odd at the time. He’d been touching Duncan, wrapped tight against him in fact, and they’d shared a dream…

Either the psychic link between them was deeper than he’d thought, or Connor’s Quickening was bleeding into him.

Methos lay very still, except for a persistent shivering, wondering which was worse. If their minds were that closely bound, then Duncan might pick up his dreams, too – and some of those were nightmares. If Connor’s Quickening was seeping into him through the link, then…

Then I can ask him! Do you accept me as Duncan’s lover…

Methos ruthlessly quashed the thought, rolled over and burrowed into the pillows. He’d best catch some more sleep if he wanted to be awake tonight, to copy the next installment into the computer, while Duncan slept. And best that they…well, make love certainly, but not exactly sleep together.

Besides, he’d gotten into the habit of watching over Duncan while the man slept. Somebody had to watch over Duncan; the highlander was so vulnerable…

The wedding party sang and drummed and piped them home from the church, and the sun peeped out from between thick clouds to mark their path. Heather was blushing and radiant in her crown of woven wheat-ears and flowers, and Connor could scarcely breathe for looking at her. This, he decided dizzily, was truly the happiest day of his life; he’d never known such joy. His ever-eager passion had transmuted into a bright and timeless ecstasy that painted the whole world in light, and Heather glowed at the center of it like a multicolored flame. Connor couldn’t take his eyes from her, even knowing that his mother strolled in the crowd close behind him. Da and Angus couldn’t steal away, but at least Mam was here as witness to his happiness.

The wedding-guests were too many to fit at the table in the half-ruined old tower, but the excess found seats among the stones. Hard-bread trenchers sufficed for plates, and – praise all the saints – most folk had brought their own cups and eating-knives. The older married women wove through the crowd, giggling like girls as they set down platter after platter or poured waiting cups full of sweet red berry-wine. Connor and Heather sat together at the center of the table, hands clasped, with eyes only for each other. MacDonald coughed discreetly from his place at Heather’s other side, and Mam sighed fondly from near Connor’s left hand. Connor knew he should speak further to her, but he could barely draw his eyes off Heather.

“Oh, Mam,” he managed to say, “I’ve never been so happy in my life!”

“God bless ye, then,” she answered, but he was already turning back to fill his eyes with Heather, seeing nothing else.  

Only the skirling of pipes and the shout of the guests roused him to look as the main course was set down before him – an enormous platter holding an entire roast young pig. Recalling his duties, Connor stood and carved the meat, giving the first portion to Heather, the next to Mam, the third to MacDonald. When enough slices were carved, MacDonald took pity on Connor and tended to the portioning out. Snickering women filled the trenchers with other dainties – sweet-stewed beetroots, boiled-barley dressing with greens, honeyed pear-slices, peas with chopped nuts – and made certain the bride’s and groom’s cups were kept filled. Every mouthful was as delicious as the food of the angels, but Connor – delicately feeding Heather a slice of the roast pork – was certain that its magical taste came from the joy of the day.

The pipers left off playing to eat and drink their portions, while other guests stood up and toasted the happy couple. Some of the toasts were solemn, more were merry, and not a few were distinctly bawdy – but everyone sat silent and respectful as the bride’s father stood up and sprinkled a handful of barley-corns over the pair. The solemnity was spoiled as MacDonald was shaken by another spasm of coughing, but Connor salvaged the moment by reaching for Heather and kissing her soundly before everyone’s eyes. Finally the simple oat-cake was brought in, and Connor broke it in two and shared it with Heather. The guests cheered, and the pipers took up again. Soon enough, the guests began getting up to dance.

“They bid fair to go on for hours,” Heather breathed, smiling into Connor’s eyes.

“Happily they do,” Connor agreed, filled with the sight of her.

“Let them disport, then,” she said, firmly pushing her bench back from the table. “We’ve a better celebration awaiting us.”

Not until she stood up and tugged impatiently at his hand did Connor realize what she meant. Blushing like a rose, he made haste to stand up with her – and then follow her pulling hand away toward the bedroom. The crowd cheered and shouted encouragement, and Caoithlin MacLeod laughed in satisfaction, watching them go.

Behind the firmly closed and barred door, which shut out none of the noise, Heather went to the new wide bed and boldly flung herself down on it. Connor stared at her, his fingers of their own accord unfastening the brooch that pinned the tartan at his shoulder. He remembered vividly the frantic hunger of the past few months – quick stolen kisses that had left him dizzy for long minutes afterward, the time MacDonald had caught them frenziedly rubbing against each other in the hayloft – and was dimly amazed that he felt no urgency now that the prize was within his grasp. He only watched, entranced, the fallen tartan pooling around his feet, as Heather unfastened the ties of her bodice and pulled them away. Her diamond-bright eyes were fixed on him, as his were upon her, and they undressed with dreamy slowness. At last Heather was down to her shift and bridal wreath, and paused, watching him. Connor’s hands encountered no more cloth, and he realized he was naked – and Heather’s gaze was running up and down his body. He froze, wondering suddenly if she truly found him fair or was disappointed at what she saw.

“Ah, my beautiful man,” she breathed, reaching for him. “Come to me, love.”

Connor floated – there was no other word for the feeling – the two steps to the bed, and then up onto it, and then down, down, gently as a feather, onto the soft bedclothes beside her. Lightly as the touch of mist he ran his fingers through a lock of her hair, shaking loose a pattering of barleycorns, and then to her velvet cheek. Her hand crept up to the back of his neck and pulled his face closer, and he sank slowly into another kiss. Ah, her lips were so warm, and her tongue flickered at him so teasingly… His body drifted against hers like a cloud breeze-blown into another, the two blending smoothly, becoming a single being, a single feeling. Only the texture of her thin shift between them reminded him that they hadn’t already joined utterly.

Connor struggled to remember, as his hand slipped down to the hem of her shift and burrowed under it, that he would be breaking her maidenhead; surely that must be painful, but he must not hurt her. He must remember his mother’s hurried words of instruction, and the refrain of the old song he could dimly hear the guests singing—

“Gently, gently, Johnny oh,”

--but the feel of her bare warm skin under his hand was smoother than the

 finest silk. Ah there, up to the sculpted complexity of her knee—

“I put my hand all on her knee,

And she said: ‘Do ye want to see?’”

--and she drew a deeper breath as his hand skimmed up to the span of her thigh, pale as a square-cut holly log but so soft—

“I put my hand all on her thigh,

And she said: ‘Do ye want to try?’”

--and up to the glorious hill of her near buttock, like a pale satin pillow, so soft and smooth and warm, and then her arms came up around him and pressed into his ribs and back, and the soft squeezing was like nothing he’d ever felt before, nothing he could name. Then she rolled against him, freeing more of her shift so that he could push it up as far as her arms, and suddenly her bare flesh was sliding hot and smooth against him and he thought he’d faint at the feel of her—

“I put my hand all on her quim,

And she said: ‘Would ye then come in?’”

--and there, oh there, her fuzzy quim was grinding against him and he was hard as iron and burning and all his body silently screaming for him to plunge deeper and her silken thighs were coming up to wrap around him—

“Gently, gently, Johnny oh…”

--oh careful, careful, he must not hurt her, sliding, go slowly, slowly into the clinging wet heat that squeezed so tight around him, slowly, and there a slight resistance that must be her maidenhead, and what should he do now, feeling like this? How could he stop?

Heather made a soft little sound and arched up against him, and the resisting surface suddenly parted and let him slide deeper. She yelped and pulled back a trifle, and Connor froze, terrified that he’d hurt her, but she drew a deep breath and arched up at him again, and he slipped deeper into that tight-gripping heat and felt his mind dissolve. After that there was nothing but his awareness riding stunned in flesh that burned and blindly thrust, could only move and cry and feel…

…and the feeling lasted forever; he pumped helplessly on the edge of release, then over the edge, falling forever, dimly hearing soft voices crying together, vaguely knowing that at this moment he was in heaven and the moment could stretch for eternity…

Duncan pulled himself up, panting, unsurprised to find that the crotch of his pants was wet. God, Connor… He didn’t know whether to feel awed or furiously embarrassed, and finally settled for humbled. It had been a long time since he’d felt an all-consuming passion like that…not since Tessa, in fact…

Except for Methos.

Almost guiltily, he stole a glance at his enigmatic lover. Methos was curled into the pillows like a sleeping puppy, looking surprisingly younger in sleep, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Ah, let him sleep; Duncan suspected that the man had stayed awake half the night guarding him, for every time he’d come close to waking he’d felt Methos grip him gently, ready to offer comfort or drive away demons, as needed.

…or offer passion…

For an instant the memories collided: Connor with Heather, himself with Tessa, himself with Methos – all alike, and yet so wildly different. The blazing peak of need and release might be the same – were they exactly the same? – but everything leading to it… God, what a difference the mind makes to the body! To every touch, every feeling…

For just that reason, he understood, he had to write down everything – even this – about Connor. No fragment of that life, that mind, those memories, could be lost.

Duncan drew a deep breath and reached for the book and pen.

Joe picked up the phone on the second ring, guessing who it was. “Yes?” was all he asked.

“I take it you’ve found and read my letter,” said the unmistakable voice on the other end.

“Yes, and it explains a hell of a lot.” Here’s the chance: take it. “Cassie, what’s the connection between immortality and psychic energy? Are the Immortals more often psychic than us ordinary folk?”

Cassandra drew a deep breath before replying. “I’m convinced,” she said slowly, “Especially after that business with the second Sanctuary, that the Quickening power is psychic energy. I don’t know why Immortals don’t use if for communication more often – possibly because so much of it is tied up in maintaining our physical integrity, or perhaps because most of us simply don’t experiment with it, or practice… But yes, I believe that Immortals are more often psychic than mortals are. There’s myself, there was Jim Koltec, Garrick, Nakano and then Kane, Darius’ holy man – Darius himself I suspect – and I mentioned Kronos, and Connor, and I’ve…heard of a few others. I have my suspicions about the Dark Quickening, and Ahriman.”

“Ahriman?” How deep into my notes did she get? “I originally thought he was a powerful, psychic Immortal, but then…”

“You had to pull your people out before more of them were killed. I understand.”

“What I don’t understand is how anything…human could have power like that, create solid…objects, appear halfway around the world…”

“Joe,” Cassandra said quietly, “Under the right circumstances, I can see halfway around the world. It wouldn’t be impossible to project an image that far.”

“Oh.” Joe remembered meeting one of those ‘projections’, and shuddered. “What about creating solid objects at that distance?”

“How solid? How large?”

“A woman’s corpse.” A pair of legs, solid enough to walk on…

There was another long pause. “For how long?” Cassandra asked quietly. “How long did the materialization last?”

Joe paused to remember. “Less than 48 hours in one case, only a few moments in another.”

“I see,” Cassandra breathed. “And did the corpse vanish all at once, or did it…flicker?”

The legs went in an instant. “We don’t know. Sophie’s corpse was in the mausoleum at noon, and gone when the undertaker showed up at 2:30. Soon afterwards, her real body was dragged out of the Seine.” Quite a commotion that caused, too. A nude corpse disappears, then reappears – fully dressed – in the river where it was first found. The Paris police are still dithering over that.

“Interesting…” Another pause. “I confess, I read your notes…” She didn’t say exactly which notes.

“Well, I did say you could look at anything in the computer.” Joe grinned to himself. “How long do materializations usually last?”

“Not long; they take considerable power. In this case, they vanished as soon as Ahriman had no further need for them.”

Joe ground his teeth, remembering. If I’d given in, the legs would have vanished as soon as Mac was dead. Deals with the devil are like that.

“What I find significant is that Ahriman could use direct psychic influence only on mortals, and not for long; he influenced that poor girl just long enough to make her jump into the river and drown, and he took over the gardener for only a few moments…”

“And the gardener died soon thereafter,” Joe reminded her.

“Stroke,” Cassandra noted, “Probably from mentally fighting the takeover, poor man.”

“Very likely. Ahriman also managed to strangle the professor, and set a fire that killed his daughter.”

“Probably telekinesis, and pyrokineses. But you’ll note that he could not take over Duncan, nor kill him directly. The most he could do to any Immortal was communicate, project a shape, and cast illusions. I suspect this is because the Quickening-energy provided a sort of shield.” Cassandra took a deep breath, then said in a rush: “And the shielding I gave Duncan as a child probably helped.”

Aha! “Just how did you give him that shielding, Cassie?”

“…Whispered instructions in his ear while he slept.”

“And…did you also do that while the two of you were hunting Kronos?”

“No. He was awake and willing then,” Cassandra admitted.

Oho! So you did do it, and you couldn’t make him give up on Methos… “And that’s why he was able to take Kronos’ Quickening with no ill effects?”

“None that we know of. Joe, have you seen anything—“

“All I’ve seen with Mac is that the psychic link between him and Methos seems to be strengthening.” Joe grinned to himself, choosing his next words with exquisite care. “When they’re in physical contact, Methos can pick up whatever Mac thinks or feels strongly.”

Cassandra gasped audibly. “And does it work both ways?”

“Only with considerable effort on both their parts.” Joe’s grin widened. “Frankly, Methos is scared to death of it.”

“He should be,” Cassandra muttered. “Joe, which of those two would you say has the stronger personality?”

Yes! Joe had been waiting for her to ask that. “My money’s on Mac. Methos may have 5000 years to draw on, but he’s…mutable, willing to change. Mac’s the prototypical stubborn Scot – and if that isn’t enough, he’s got Connor to back him up.”

“I see.” There was another long silence while Cassandra chewed that over. “Joe, we have to meet.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “Fine with me,” he said calmly. “When and where?”

“Tonight? The same restaurant?”

“Ah, it’ll have to be late; Duncan’s taking us both to dinner.” Precautions: what if she tries to use The Voice on me?

“Ten o’clock, then, at the bar.”

“All right. See you then.” Call…ah, Witherspoon! Get a hidden mike, and have him watching. Warn Methos not to open the door after eleven…

The phone clicked silent. Joe hung up, thought for a moment, then began jabbing in a new number, fast.

Methos awoke to a familiar hand tugging his foot and a faint rumbling in his belly. “What time ‘sit?” he mumbled.

“Nearly seven,” Duncan smiled. “Dinnertime, I believe.”

“Ah, I slept through tea?” Methos crawled out of bed and searched for his shoes.

“So you should be hungry.” Duncan’s stomach growled, as if on cue, making both of them grin. “Let’s go collect Joe, and head for the restaurant.”

Ten minutes later, the three of them settled around a rear table in the hotel restaurant and picked up their menus. Christmas decorations still hung in odd corners, and carols still chirped quietly from the discreet speakers. Duncan, Methos noted, was wearing his long jacket – possibly with his sword in it – and there were certainly bulky objects in his pockets: good signs, even if he still wanted to keep as far as possible from everyone else in the restaurant. Joe, on the other hand, was a little distracted under his leftover Christmas cheer, as if something were bothering him. The menu turned out to be limited, and they settled for variations on a theme of classic roast beef, with beer. The courses passed quickly, with Joe admitting that the locals at least knew how to treat good beef.

“And how are the memoirs coming along?” he finished innocently.

“Connor’s wedding,” Duncan announced, ducking his head – but not soon enough to hide the quick blush on his cheeks.

“Oho,” Joe grinned. “Say no more.”

“Good progress,” Methos deflected him. “At this rate, I daresay Ramirez will be showing up soon.”

Duncan nodded thoughtfully, and finished off the last of his beef. Finally he raised his glass, drawing the others’ attention. “In honor of the season,” he began, “I may have been a little slow about Christmas, but it’s not too late. Here—“ He reached into one pocket and pulled out the brightly-wrapped album. “For you, Joe. Belated Merry Christmas, and happy Boxing Day.”

“Thanks, Mac,” Joe smiled, carefully unwrapping the gift. “I always wondered why they call it Boxing Day…”

“Because,” Methos smirked, “That’s usually when the fights start.”

“Methos…” Duncan warned.

“Well, when Uncle Edward gets the fine bottle of whiskey and Aunt Ellen gets only a pair of wooly socks, you know there are going to be fights.”

“Methos!”

“Hey, a re-mastered Bessy Smith!” Joe marveled, staring at the revealed album.

“It’s called Boxing Day because that’s when people traditionally go about giving presents – usually in boxes.” Duncan glowered at Methos.

“Or plastic cases, as in this case. Thanks, Mac.”

“Don’t I get a present?” Methos asked, looking contrite.

“A lump of coal in your socks,” Duncan threatened, trying to look serious.

“There have been times and places, I’ll have you know, when the coal was more valuable than the socks.”

“A wheelbarrow-load, maybe.” Joe turned over the album to study the liner-notes. “You can’t make much of a fire with one sock-full…”

Duncan sighed, reached into his other pocket and came up with a small square box. “Yours, Methos,” he said. “Not the real gift – that will have to wait a few days – but a promise that the real gift will come.”

Almost shyly, Methos pulled away the ribbon and paper and cardboard, revealing a small pewter statue of an armored knight. “…Sir Galahad?” he puzzled, staring at the figurine.

“No, just an armored knight.” Duncan caught Methos’ eyes, and smiled. “Just a promise.”

“I’ll be patient,” said Methos, running his thumb over the knight’s tiny shield. The sword, he noted, bore a passing resemblance to his own Ivanhoe. Was this supposed to be himself? A knight in…well, not exactly shining armor… It was ridiculous, of course, but he felt oddly touched. He also wondered what this symbolized, what the real gift was, and just what Duncan was thinking.

There was, he recalled, a way to find out.

He flinched away from the idea, a little more frightened than he cared to admit.

 “Must you go straight back to…work?” Methos almost whined as they left the restaurant. “You know what they say about all work and no play.”

Duncan thought for a moment, glanced toward the front door, then shrugged back into his jacket. “I think I’d like to go out and have a look at the sky,” he compromised.

Methos pulled on his own coat, and followed without a word.

Outside the door Duncan paused for a moment, then turned and walked into the parking-lot. Methos guessed it was to avoid crowds; the lot was empty save for quiescent cars. The sky above was cloud-patched, with only a few stars showing. Duncan looked up, and sighed.

“It was always rare to see the stars in winter,” he murmured. “Only on nights when it was too cold to snow…”

“And then, I daresay, people stayed indoors and huddled around the fire,” Methos guessed, shivering.

“Not always,” Duncan smiled. “A wee pot of coals under the cloak could take you a long way. I remember a few nights under the stars, with no shelter but my tartans, and no fire but a pot of coals – and a bag of kindling to feed it. ‘Twasn’t comfortable, but I survived with my toes intact.”

Methos was searching for a witty reply when he felt the edge of an approaching Quickening. He froze, seeing Duncan react too.

“Who the hell?” Methos growled, feeling automatically for the sword under his coat. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Wait, wait…” Duncan was wearing that distracted look again. “I recognize that…” He straightened abruptly. “It’s Cassandra.”

“Shit! Inside, now!” Methos snapped, grabbing Duncan’s arm.

“She’s probably here for me,” Duncan guessed, nonetheless following Methos’ dragging lead.

“In that case, let her come knocking politely – with witnesses about.” Methos all but hauled Duncan back through the doorway, back into welcome light and heat and the presence of strangers. “Upstairs…”

The edge of Immortal presence faded as they hurried toward their room, but Methos didn’t relax until they were safely inside – with the door locked, bolted and chained. “I’ll call Joe,” he muttered, reaching for the phone. “Tell him.”

But the phone in Joe’s room rang half a dozen times – they could hear it, dimly – and no one picked it up. Methos slapped down the receiver with a Latin oath, and frowned further as he saw Duncan wearing that distracted look again. Worse, the highlander dropped his coat on the end of the bed without bothering to take the sword out of it, then settled near the pillows in the half-lotus position.

Back into the damned memories, Methos fretted. And where’s Joe? Am I all alone here?

There was nothing to do but draw his own sword, check for the pistol in his waistband, sit down on the other bed and wait for someone to approach the locked and chained door.

And of course, no one did.

Joe looked up from his laptop at the motion near the door, glanced quickly to where Witherspoon sat at the bar, and smiled at the oncoming figure.

“You’re early, Cass,” he said.

“I’ve been, as you Americans say, ‘casing the joint’.” Cassandra slid gracefully into the other chair at the little table, and slipped her coat off her shoulders. She wore a russet wool dress under it. “I believe Duncan was outside for awhile, but he’s gone now.”

“Upstairs,” Joe guessed, “Chewing through more of Connor’s memories . He’s deeply absorbed in them, working through his grief that way, I think.”

“There are worse ways.” Cassandra tapped her fingers on the table for a moment. “Soon enough, I expect, he’ll find evidence of Connor’s psychic powers. Tell me when that happens.”

“As soon as I know,” Joe promised. “Have you considered that the very shielding you gave Duncan may be blocking his…acquired psychic abilities?”

“It shouldn’t,” she frowned. “The shielding is – I don’t know how to put this in layman’s terms – angled outward. It wouldn’t hold off a Quickening, or any powers that came with it. But it did shear away Kronos’ personality… Hmm.”

“It didn’t hold against Connor’s.”

“No, but he wanted that. I can’t imagine him shielding himself against it.”

“No, he didn’t. …Getting back to Ahriman: Cass, I’ve been looking through all my notes on that ugly episode, and damned if I can tell if his powers were simply psychic or…something else.” He turned the laptop toward her. “There’s the record. See if there’s anything you can’t explain.”

Cassandra duly reached for the keyboard and poked through the file with an ease that implied familiarity. “No…” she muttered, “No…no… Illusion, projection… Astounding power, but recognizable technique… Joe, are you certain these are the words, the meditation, Duncan used to defeat the thing?”

“That’s what he told me later, over his first scotch in a year. ‘In vino veritas’, as they say.”

“Or ‘in whiskey, willingness’.” Cassandra tapped an elegant fingernail on a particular line of print. “’You are me…I am everything, in being everything I become nothing – therefore you are nothing’… Yes, I think I understand.”

“How did that work?” Joe asked, waving to the waiter. “By the way, would you like another eggnog or an Irish Coffee?”

“Irish Coffee, please.” Cassandra leaned back in her chair and stared at the screen. “My goddess, I fell downstairs and landed on my feet!”

“Two large Irish Coffees, extra cream, please.” Joe shoved a handful of bills at the waiter. “How do you mean, Cass?”

“The shielding I gave him. I thought it was for use against Kantos, and Kronos later, and it probably did help there, but… Goddess! I got the prophecy wrong! It wasn’t Kantos, but this… Ahriman. And it worked.”

“Worked how?” Joe tugged his coat lapel away from the hidden microphone, hoping that Witherspoon was getting all this.

“Illusions were all it could give him; his shields held off everything else.” Cassandra turned wide eyes toward Joe. “And when he deliberately went into meditation, linked with it – on the astral plane, you might say – and then did that ‘everything, nothing, you are nothing’ visualization… Joe, he drained the thing! Drained its psychic power and dissipated it all over the whole wide world. No wonder the visions stopped. I don’t think he realized exactly what he was doing, but it worked.”

“You didn’t know, he didn’t know…” Joe shivered. “God damn, but we were all lucky!”

“Those Malaysian monks who gave him the technique, I’ll bet they never used the words ‘magic’ or ‘psychic power’ – just called it ‘ki’, and left him to imagine what that was. But his instincts were good enough, or his faith…” Cassandra shook her head, amazed. “So incredibly close.”

Witherspoon, Joe noticed, was bent low over the bar, jotting notes. The waiter was also approaching. “Ah, here come our coffees. Maybe there is some Providence that looks out for our interests. –Thank you, right here. Oh yes, that’s what I’d call a large Irish Coffee! Cheers.”

They sipped their drinks for a moment, Joe with gratitude, Cassandra with appreciation.

“Superb,” said Joe, finally setting down his glass. “Cass, we’ve got to preserve all this for the next Millennial Champion… Hmmm, by the way, do you have any idea why Ahriman pokes his head up only once every thousand years?”

Cassandra shook her head. “Only guesses. Perhaps it takes him a thousand years to accumulate enough psychic energy to make the effort…though I hesitate to think of how he goes about gathering that energy.”

“Sacrifices?” Joe shivered. “Worship? Collecting followers, and draining them? Or…taking heads?”

“Any of those might work.” Cassandra shrugged. “Or perhaps he’s just insanely superstitious, and believes in numerology.”

“When we find out who the next Champion is,” Joe considered, “We’ll have to warn not only him but all his friends: the tactics, the dangers, the temptations…” He shuddered again, remembering. “The sooner we can find out who he is, the better we can forewarn him.”

Then he realized that Cassandra had closed her eyes and raised her hands beside her head. That gesture was significant, he recalled; she was meditating, or something…

Her eyes snapped open and fixed on Joe, and her jaw dropped. “Temptation!” she whispered, staring at him. “Goddess! He offered you—“

Too late, Joe remembered what that gesture meant; she’d been reading him. He ground his teeth and looked away. “It was the right choice,” he mumbled. “The legs would have vanished as soon as he was done…”

“But you didn’t know that then!” Cassandra reached across the table to clutch his hand. “Goddess,” she repeated softly.

Joe could think of nothing else to do but pat her hand. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he tried to explain. “I’ve gotten used to these pins, and I knew not to trust any deal with the devil, and…”

“And you would not give up your friend.” Cassandra squeezed his hand briefly, then released it. “Real heroes never claim that title.”

“Huh? …’Friend’? Of course I do.”

Cassandra only blinked rapidly, several times. “Do you know if Ahriman tempted others?” she said huskily. “Besides what’s in the record?”

Joe shook his head, glad to be back on firmer ground. “The priest, Sophie, her brother… That’s all we know about.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What about…Adam Pierson?” she asked, flicking her gaze briefly around the bar. “Reading between the lines, I know he was there.”

Joe was suddenly sorry that he’d asked Witherspoon to listen in. “He vanished,” Joe replied quickly, “Soon after Richie died. I think he helped Duncan get to Malaysia, but then he took off and I didn’t see him again – not until the whole mess was over.”

“How very typical.” Cassandra smiled, not prettily. “I wonder what Ahriman offered him, and if he took the offer.”

Joe bit down on a sharp retort, and made himself think clearly. “All I know for certain is this; after we’d dealt with Richie’s body, we sat down and analyzed what had happened – and for some reason, Adam no longer doubted that the demon was real.”

Duncan was scribbling furiously in the book, his breathing harsh and his face tight. Methos glanced at him worriedly, then looked back to the door. A bad memory: Duncan would need comforting after he finished writing it down; doing that without relaxing vigilance would be one hell of an exercise.

The sudden ringing of the phone made them both flinch. Methos bounded off the bed and grabbed the receiver before the damned thing could make more noise. “Yes?” he snapped at the phone.

“What did Ahriman offer you?” said that horribly familiar voice.

Methos gasped, and slammed the phone back into its cradle. Of all the insane things to say— What did the woman want? Was she trying to shake him, scare him, into doing something stupid that would get him killed? She’d said she wouldn’t hunt him, but that could be taken several ways…

Duncan finished jotting, closed the pen, shut the book around it and set them aside. “Who was that on the phone?” he asked.

“Cassandra!” Methos snapped. “God, what does that woman want?”

Duncan shifted until he was facing Methos on the opposite bed. “What did she say?” he asked, very calmly.

Methos opened his mouth, closed it again, and finally slumped in defeat. “She asked…what Ahriman offered me.”

“Ahriman?!” Duncan sat up quickly. “Why would she be asking about that?”

“I don’t know. She did ask about…you, and psychic ability. Perhaps… No, I can’t understand how her mind works.”

Duncan leaned forward and took Methos’ near hand between both of his. “Just to forestall her, give the answer to me. How did Ahriman try to tempt you?”

Methos heaved a vast sigh. “Not tempt: scare,” he said through his teeth. “I realized it was real – you weren’t just hallucinating – after Richie…” He paused, giving Duncan an aching look.

“Say it,” Duncan insisted. “It can’t hurt me now.”

“…I saw…” Methos set down his sword to rub his eyes. He didn’t withdraw his other hand from Duncan’s grip. “Your sword. You’d left it beside…the body. Joe was crying and didn’t see it, but I did. The sword—“ He looked up at Duncan. “I saw it glowing, Duncan – and not with any leftover discharge from the Quickening. The wrong color, the wrong feel. Nothing was touching it, but it glowed. That’s when I knew.”

“You knew it wasn’t just me; something weird really was happening.”

“More…” Methos pulled a deep breath. “When I told you, earlier, that I’d never met a demon, it wasn’t quite the truth.”

“You— Why did you say it, then?” Duncan frowned at him.

“’Demon’, the English word…” Methos waved his free hand in a frustrated circle. “It means something specific: an evil spirit out of Christian mythology. When you mentioned the name ‘Ahriman’ – Persian, originally – I thought of the Moslem myth: ‘Djinn’, genie. I’d never met any of those. That’s as far as I thought. I’m sorry.”

Duncan gently rubbed the knuckles of Methos’ hand. “Then what are you thinking of now?”

“I can’t believe how stupid I was,” Methos muttered, unconsciously leaning toward that comforting touch. “I’ve never met a free-floating spirit, true, but I have seen…” He bit his lip for a moment, then plunged on. “In ancient times, Immortals weren’t always hidden from mortals. Quite often we were…demigods, divine heroes, goddesses-on-Earth. Not the big gods of important natural forces, no, but lesser divinities.”

“Like…” Duncan struggled for an example. “Cheiron, and Hercules, and…”

“Herakles,” Methos agreed. “Yes, like that. And some of us had psychic abilities, as Cassandra does now.”

“Like Kantos, and Garrick?”

“A few were even stronger.” Methos met Duncan’s eyes. “Darius’ holy man. His original name was Djanos, and he was an incredibly powerful telepath.”

Duncan tightened his grip as he strung the facts together. “Djanos— Could he project thoughts over great distances?”

“Yes. Much further than Garrick could.”

“And— and illusions? Even solid ones?!”

“They seemed solid to the…recipient.” Methos twitched his shoulders, remembering.

“Sophie’s body…” Duncan frowned further, remembering. “That wasn’t an illusion. It was solid, and not just to me.”

“’Tulpa’,” Methos whispered. “Thought-form. A technique still taught by Tibetan monks. There’s a story…”

“Did you ever see it done?”

“Yes. Once. A Tibetan monk, centuries ago. And yes, he was one of us.”

“Then Ahriman…” Duncan clutched Methos’ hand tightly, making him wince. “When you helped me get to Malaysia, the monastery, you knew? Why didn’t you tell me then?!”

“I wasn’t sure!” Methos almost cried. “I had only guesses. All I knew was that the monks could teach you psychic defenses.”

“But afterward? When I came back?”

“I didn’t dare get near you!” Methos clapped his free hand on top of Duncan’s, and deliberately opened the empathic channel between them. Look! he pleaded silently. See what I saw! “I was coming back from the monastery when I saw him, right there in the street, wearing his old armor and war-paint—“

“Kronos!” Duncan breathed. “I saw him too, at the end…”

“Then I knew, I knew the damned psychic had noticed me, caught up to me. I ran, literally, to the nearest temple. Joined in the service, the chanting, deliberately blanked my mind of everything but the chant, the meditation…”

“It worked?”

“It kept him out, or away, until he got tired.” Methos felt his breathing fall into the old meditative pattern. “I was willing to stay there for days if I had to, but when I poked my nose outside the temple again, he was gone. I paid the cab-driver double to get me to the airport fast, and I kept repeating the chant in my mind all the way there. And on the plane, all the time I was awake.”

“You went back to Paris?”

“For awhile, long enough to help Joe. We went over everything we knew, came to some conclusions…”

“About Ahriman,” Duncan guessed. “That’s when Joe sent the Watchers out looking for a real Immortal. It took them a year to find that cave – where they died.”

“Before then, I saw the thing again.” Methos shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “I guessed that it couldn’t get at you in the monastery, so it was sniffing around among your friends. I saw it, and ran for the nearest church.”

“Did that keep it away?”

“Not until I joined the old women reciting the Rosary.” Methos gave him a brief half-smile and a mental image of himself, the only man present, surrounded by a clutch of determined crones. “They were enough to scare the ‘demon’ off.”

Duncan caught the image, and chuckled despite himself. His grip relaxed.

“I knew I couldn’t keep chanting or meditating for long, but I saw that other people’s chanting, meditating, projected a sort of psychic shield. I did some fast thinking, sent off a long email to Joe, then took myself to Father Paul’s old monastery.”

“Joe never mentioned that.”

“I asked him not to.” Methos bowed his head. “I admit I was a coward, Duncan. I ran, I hid, I never faced nor fought the thing.”

“I’m not blaming you.”

“It’s just that…when it appeared as Kronos, I knew how thoroughly it had read my mind. I knew which of my buttons it could push. I know my weaknesses; I knew where it could break me. I knew I was the weak link, so I got myself under cover. I’d told Joe all I knew, and I hoped he could run with it. I’m sorry I…couldn’t be there for you.”

Duncan raised a hand to Methos’ bowed head and softly stroked his hair. “It was enough,” he said quietly. “We didn’t figure it all out, but we found a way to defeat Ahriman, and that’s what matters.”

“…Sorry…”

“You did the right thing.”

Right then the phone rang again, making them both jump.

Methos swore furiously – in Platt-Deutsch, of all things – and Duncan dived for the phone.

“Cassandra?” he asked sternly into the speaker. A pause, and then his expression changed. “Damn, Joe! I thought it was… She is? …Hmm, yes. …I’ll be right down.” He hung up the phone, then turned to Methos. “Cassandra’s downstairs, in the bar with Joe, discussing the whole Ahriman problem. I’ll go talk to her. You stay here.”

“Duncan—“

“No, I’ll be safe. She won’t harm me, and I can give her the information she wants. Besides…” He picked up his coat, letting Methos see that the sword was still inside it. “If anyone tries to attack me between here and the bar, I’ll be ready for them.”

“Right.” Methos managed a lopsided grin, and told himself that Duncan’s confidence – and willingness to go down to the bar alone – were good signs. “I’ll just sit here and catch up on research, shall I?”

“Don’t worry about me,” Duncan smiled, pulling the coat around him. He went to the door, marveled briefly as he opened the deadbolt and chain, and left.

He’ll be all right, Methos repeated to himself until it became almost a chant in itself. Finally he shook off the mood, got up and re-bolted the door, then went to the book and opened it.

It was late summer by the time Connor finished the sword to his satisfaction. The blade rang like a bell when tapped with so much as a fingernail, and rebounded like a plucked lute-string when struck with a hammer. It was extraordinarily hard to sharpen, but likewise hard to dull, as subsequent tests proved. MacDonald had absolutely refused to sacrifice an anvil for the classic test, so they used a log instead; Connor had split the log lengthwise in two strokes, and the edge was still sharp enough for shaving when he’d done. Almost reverently, the two of them attached the guards, the overskirt with the name ‘MacLeod’ on it, the oak-wood grip and the black-iron pommel.

“Ye’re apprentice no longer, but a master now,” MacDonald pronounced, peering fondly down the taut-string straightness of the blade, “For here’s tha master-piece, in truth.”

“Now we must make a sheath for him,” Connor agreed. “Plain wood and leather, naught to attract the eyes of thieves, but sturdy enough.”

“Leather within,” MacDonald insisted then paused to cough again. The wet summer hadn’t helped him to shake off last winter’s congestion. “Soaked in oil, so as to slick the blade whenever he’s sheathed. I learnt that trick of my father—“

That was when they heard the crash of wood and crockery, and Heather screaming.

Connor snatched the sword out of MacDonald’s hands and ran for the door. The blacksmith turned and grabbed his heaviest mallet off the wall, and came running after.

Three unkempt horses stood tied near the door of the house, which was wide open. More shrieks and smashings sounded from inside. Connor dashed through the doorway with his sword held high—

Which was all that saved him from the down-sweeping blow of a heavy saber. His blade caught and turned the attacker, as if with a mind of its own; Connor angled the sword to let the enemy blade skim off it, and in the same move turned and swung. He caught the man – dirty, bearded, in rags of mixed tartan – across the ribs and crumpled him. Leaving MacDonald to finish him, Connor plunged further into the house – toward the knot of struggling figures beyond the overturned table.

The central form was Heather, fighting like a cat, kicking and scratching furiously in the grip of two more ragged men. They turned as Connor ran toward them, and one gave a shout – not of fear or warning, but of recognition – and dashed at Connor, leaving Heather free to claw and bite the other man.

It was the man’s fierce and eager look that told the tale. Connor realized that this was no random robbery, but a trap – set specifically for himself. Had Heather not fought so fiercely – as even now she had grabbed a broken pitcher and was beating the third man with it – there would have been two men waiting at the door to strike at him when he came in. Behind him he could hear grunts and thuds and clangings, and knew that the first robber was not down but busy with MacDonald.

In the next second, Connor’s sword came up and caught the second man’s blade. He didn’t deflect it away but forced it down – all those months of smithing had indeed thickened his thews – and then returned with a backhand blow that chewed deep into the robber’s shoulder. The howl of pain and sudden blood shocked him, but only for an instant. Heather was still screaming, and the third man might harm her at any moment. Connor yanked his sword free and stabbed low, felt the impact, saw the man gasp and fold and drop his sword, and knew that it was a killing blow. With no further thought, he turned again and darted toward Heather.

Oh Jesu, the man had drawn a hatchet, and was swinging it! Heather, God be praised, had ducked behind the table. Roaring in fury, Connor fell on the man with an overhand stroke that would have split a log. The robber saw it coming and tried to block with his hatchet. The sword chopped down, slamming the hatchet into its owner’s breast and cutting into his face besides. The man stumbled backward with an absurdly tiny yelp and crashed into the wall, blinded with his own blood. Connor wrenched his sword back, and the hatchet came with it, clinging where its haft had been cut halfway through. Ignoring the extra weight, he swung again. Awkward now, the sword struck lower than he’d aimed – into the join of neck and shoulder – but deeply enough to put the robber down. The man dropped to the floor with the whimper of a single word.

“—demon—“

Connor froze, realizing where this attack had come from, and why.

 Glenfinnan: probably nasty Father Alastair.

 But how had anyone known he was here in Glencoe? He’d told no one but Mam, who’d come to his wedding, and who would she have told? Angus, probably, but he’d have the sense to be silent. And Da, of course…

Oh, Lord: Da was known to brag in his cups. Given enough ale, or whiskey, and provocation, he’d be likely to boast that his son was well-married and well-apprenticed in Glencoe. Yes, he would. Oh, Da…

That meant more hopeful robbers would come, soon enough. Best to prepare.

Pulling his sword free of both body and hatchet, Connor turned to look for Heather. Oh, there she was, peering around the far end of the table, silent now and unhurt. She darted out of her hiding-place, pausing only to throw the remains of the pitcher at the fallen robber, and ran to Connor. He barely had time to turn his sword away before she was in his arms, clutching hard and pressing fiercely. Connor squeezed back with his free arm, feeling the same familiar reaction stiffen him. For an instant he thought he might take her right then, just like that, pressing her against the wall, his sword still encumbering one hand, and was amazed at himself.

Then Heather peered past his shoulder, gasped, pulled out of his grip and ran around him. Turning to follow her, Connor saw that the combat by the door was finished, but not well; the first robber lay sprawled on the floor, his head ruined from a hammer-blow, but MacDonald was also down – and clutching at a spurting wound in his chest. Heather ran to her father and crouched beside him. Connor dropped his sword and hurried after her.

One look was enough to tell that the wound was mortal, and MacDonald had bare moments to live. Connor took the man’s near hand and clutched it, helpless to do anything else, silently cursing the fate that had made him so able to heal himself and so useless at healing others. Heather clutched at her hair and began to howl. MacDonald halted her with a wet cough, trying to speak, but only red froth pouring from his mouth. He held out his free hand to her and she grasped it, though it was covered with his own blood. MacDonald tried to speak again, and again failed. He gave up the effort and instead pressed his hands – and their hands – together.

Connor understood the gesture exactly. “With my life,” he promised. “And I’ll love her as long as I live.”

That was the answer MacDonald needed. He smiled briefly, but it turned into a grimace as he struggled to breathe. Then the wrenching coughs began, the blacksmith struggling to drag air into his ruined lungs even as his blood spilled out and death dragged him down. He didn’t go gently but fought for every second, his hands clamped blindly on Connor’s and Heather’s joined hands, and when his grip finally relaxed his bleeding had stopped too.

Connor silently reached down and closed the man’s eyes while Heather began to wail wordlessly. Lord, Lord, this was because of him! If he hadn’t told Mam where he was, hadn’t invited her to his wedding, or had warned her to keep the secret from Da…

Oh, and what could he tell the folk of Glencoe, when they learned that their blacksmith was murdered?

…He’d have to conceal what he knew, say only that these strangers had done it, passing robbers who attacked his wife first. No one but himself knew just why the last of the robbers had called Connor a demon with his dying breath. There was no sign that they’d come from Glenfinnan; look -- their tartans were mixed rags, probably stolen from other victims. He didn’t recognize them himself, and he knew every man in his old village. They might have had his story – and possibly encouragement in their hunt – from Father Alastair, but the wicked old priest would never admit to it, so there was no proof. And that might be wrong; it might not have been the priest who gave these strangers the story.

No, there would be no justice exacted from Glenfinnan, no blood-feud, nothing. He’d already taken all the vengeance he could by slaying the robbers. It would end here.

There was nothing he could do about Father Alastair.

 “So that’s his story, is it?” Cassandra gave Duncan an appraising look, noting how calm he seemed for all that grief appeared to have aged him. “Running and hiding, that sounds in character, but I’m surprised to hear that… ‘Adam’ would make good use of a church.”

Duncan sighed. “He believed he was dealing with a powerful psychic, and apparently he’s had some experience with them. The point is, that tactic worked.”

“Yes, it would,” Cassandra murmured, gently extending an empathic probe at him. No, there was no sign of psychic overshadowing or interference – not that she’d expected Methos to know any such tricks. There was only the vast grief, looming in the background of Duncan’s mind like a nearby mountain, and the feel of a peculiar Quickening – Connor’s, no doubt – that included a tight packet of unassimilated memories. There was no sense of subdued psychic powers; it would take a closer probing to find them, and she couldn’t do that just now. The constant sub-tone of aching sorrow made her wince and withdraw. “Duncan, the more I hear, the more I’m convinced that this ‘demon’ of yours is, in fact, a very old and powerfully psychic Immortal.”

“It’s possible,” Duncan admitted, rubbing his forehead. “But then, why has no one ever met him, or heard of him?”

Cassandra steepled her fingers, considering just how to put this. “In ancient times, it wasn’t uncommon for Immortals to play the part of minor gods – even to believe the role themselves.”

“I saw a case of that,” Duncan frowned.

“I don’t think he believed it himself,” Joe clarified. “He played an Aztec god among Brazilian Indians, and played Jesus here.”

“There have been those who believed,” Cassandra insisted. “A touch of insanity would certainly help.”

“Cahill,” muttered Duncan. “He didn’t last long.”

“Consider how such an Immortal would survive,” Cassandra went on. “He’d play his role to the hilt, believing in his limitations and his legend. Joe, you mentioned that the professor found the Ahriman shrine in a cave in Iran…”

“Right,” Joe grimaced. “His partner died there under mysterious circumstances, and so did two of our best researchers a year later.”

“I’d guess that it was defensive,” Cassandra sprang her revelation. “They were getting too close – literally.”

Duncan did a classic double-take. “You mean, he lives in that cave?! He’s there? Physically?”

“We were that close?!” Joe twitched one hand toward the pocket where, Cassandra knew, he carried his .45 automatic.

“That cave, or one connected to it,” Cassandra amended. “It’s an old volcanic area, with lots of lava-tubes and other volcano-related geological formations. Think: the legend that hell is under the earth, full of pits of ‘fire and brimstone’ – sulfur – where did that originate?”

Joe and Duncan only looked at each other.

“If Ahriman believed his own legend, he’d remain hidden in his underground realm – receiving worshippers in secret, sending only his agents and his psychic probes or projections out into the world. If he never went outside, nobody would encounter him.” She smiled bitterly at the irony. “He’d become more legendary than Methos.”

Joe winced, and she remembered that she shouldn’t mention that name at all in public, even without linking it to ‘Adam Pierson’. Such carelessness might damage the fragile link she’d established with Duncan, and Joe.

“Living in a cave…for two, three, four thousand years…” Duncan shook his head in horrified amazement. “How could anyone stand— Oh hell, the hermit! The last Millennial Champion: he’d lived in a cave for centuries…and he was more than a little insane.”

“Ahriman might not have been so isolated,” Joe pointed out. “For all we know, for all the legends say, he could have a whole clutch of—of servants down there with him.”

“Hell,” Duncan whispered, and shivered visibly. “Hell on Earth, literally.”

“Or under it.” Cassandra paused, snagged by an ugly thought. “The entire Middle East has been a hellish place to live for the last two thousand years and more. I have to wonder how much Ahriman’s presence had to do with that. Does he inspire all the vicious little wars and fanaticisms there? Does he feed off them in some psychic fashion?”

Duncan and Joe exchanged glances again, but Cassandra didn’t notice. Another idea had just occurred to her.

The Middle East had once been the Four Horsemen’s territory.

They had not been knowing servants of Ahriman; in all her time among them she’d never seen them worship anything, or even respect anything beyond themselves. But could they have been his unknowing tools? …If so, then their vicious slaughters – and Kronos’ psychic power, and their mad cruelties, and their later resistance to The Voice, and their bizarre enduring unity – might not have been entirely their own doing. If that was so, then Methos might truly have changed his personality – or at least lost its extremes – simply by getting out of range. Had Ahriman appeared in the form of Kronos only because he knew that Duncan would hate that, and Methos fear it, or because it was a form he knew from ancient times?

“Are you telling me,” Joe’s voice broke in on her thoughts, “That the way to have peace in the Middle East is to kill just one Immortal?”

“Not that quickly,” Duncan murmured, eyeing Cassandra. “Old hates can last a long time after their original cause is gone.”

Cassandra shook her head to clear it. Back to the original problem: Ahriman. “If he’s remained in his little kingdom all this time,” she said slowly, “He’ll have had plenty of time to meditate, without distractions…” Like Connor! “…to practice and expand his psychic ability. That means his power, and his attacks, grow stronger with every cycle.”

“But right now,” Joe guessed, “Being defeated – psychically drained – just four years ago, he’s at his lowest ebb. God, if we can just find and kill the son of a bitch—“ He tugged at the lapel of his coat.

“We save the world.” Duncan sounded resigned, and tired. “We don’t have to wait the thousand years, or find the next Millennial Champion.”

Cassandra caught her breath and stared at him. Duncan was planning his next crusade, when he was too battered and exhausted to deal with daily life. “There’s no rush,” she said quickly. “He’ll be weakened, low in power, for decades at least. All we’ve come up with tonight is speculation, and we need to hunt for evidence. I’ll need time to do more research before we start planning to take him.”

“I’ll have to do some research of my own.” Joe glanced toward the bar, where only a lone patron remained, as if considering another drink.

Alcoholism, Cassandra remembered, was a common occupational hazard for bartenders. She shouldn’t encourage it, especially in a man like Joe Dawson. Best to finish this quickly.

“Well, enough,” she said, pushing back her chair. “I daresay we all have a lot to think on, and it’s growing late.”

“It is that,” Duncan murmured, looking toward the ceiling.

“Okay,” Joe agreed, reaching for his laptop. “When do we get together again?”

Cassandra paused to think that over, considered Duncan’s condition, and decided to put no more pressure on him. “I’ll have to do some reading,” she hedged, “And I can’t say how long it will take me, but I’ll keep in touch.”

“Call me tomorrow?” Joe asked, almost plaintively.

Cassandra smiled at that. Considering his job, the man probably didn’t have much time for socializing – even though he was good company. Excellent company, in fact. “I promise,” she said.

Methos finished typing the last sentence, rubbed his eyes for a moment, then carefully closed the book and set it back exactly where he’d found it. Now to save the file and close it…

He felt the familiar psychic buzz approaching the door, and hastened to finish his task. A moment later Duncan came in, looking tired but not upset.

“So how is the Dragon Queen this evening?” Methos asked, discreetly closing the computer. “Earnestly telling you that I’m in league with the devil?”

“On the contrary,” Duncan smiled as he closed the dead-bolt and put up the chain. “She dismissed you as a topic not worthy of consideration.”

“That’s an improvement,” Methos grinned with relief. “I’m delighted not to be the center of attention, for once.”

“She did agree with your assessment, though.” Duncan pulled off his coat, drew out the katana and set it carefully beside the near bed. “She’s convinced that Ahriman is a psychic Immortal, and has some ideas on how to hunt him.”

“Hunt him?!” Methos raised both hands in not entirely mock dismay. “Then I daresay the old monster has met his match. By all means, let those two fight; I’ll sell tickets, and clean up on the popcorn concession.”

Duncan laughed, toed off his shoes and settled on the bed. He glanced only once toward the book, then looked back at Methos. “I’d be quite happy, really, if Ahriman did turn out to be just another Immortal,” he said. “If he has a head, it can be taken. Thus ends the problem.”

Methos pointed an admonishing finger at him. “You,” he said sternly, “Are not going demon-hunting.”

“Once was enough,” Duncan agreed. “Besides, I have…another task to finish.”

“Yes,” Methos sighed, thinking of devils and deep blue seas, rocks and hard places. “Meanwhile, are you up for a nice, long, hot bath?”

“Convince me,” the highlander smiled.

“As the mawster wishes,” Methos drawled. He got up, strolled into the bathroom and started the water in the bathtub. “Does milord have a preference in bath-salts?”

Duncan’s only reply was two syllables of a soft laugh.

That too was an improvement, Methos decided, as he tested the water with his hand. Duncan could laugh again, at least a little. The pain of his monumental grief was slacking off – or else Duncan was chipping away at it through the memories, rather like carving away a mountain with a pickaxe.

Methos smiled at that image, recalling that he had, back in the late 1800s, seen a small mountain of coal carried off in just that fashion.

As soon as the last of the Immortals had left the bar, Joe whispered into lapel: “Okay, Witherspoon: get over here.”

The forgettable-looking Watcher picked up his notebook and drink, slid off the barstool and came over to Joe’s table. He looked as if he needed the drink. “Good god,” he muttered. “Good god.”

“Did you get it all?” Joe reached for the microphone under his coat.

Witherspoon paused for a mouthful of whiskey before answering. “Every word,” he said, a little shakily. “On tape, and notes too.”

“Then you can see what an interesting opportunity Cassandra has dropped in our laps.”

“Lord, yes! The research— Where do we begin? Psychic Immortals…”

“Better than that.” Joe absently patted his pocket, feeling the hard weight inside. “We have a chance to, literally, kill the devil.”

Witherspoon nearly spilled his drink. “What are you thinking?!” he gasped. “We can’t interfere—“

“I know,” Joe forestalled him. “The rules, the oath, the traditions – believe me, I’ve heard the routine far more than you.”

“With good cause,” Witherspoon scowled.

   “And look at the information I’ve gotten us as a result. You can’t argue with the results.” Joe interlaced his fingers, sure of his ground. “Just how long have the Watchers been around, now?”

“Roughly four thousand years. You know that as well as I do.”

“And how long, do you think, has Ahriman been playing his thousand-year-cycle game?”

Witherspoon opened his mouth, paused to think, then closed it again without a word.

“Right,” Joe grinned toothily. “Was our original purpose simply to study the Immortals – or gods, as some of them were then?”

“There’s some evidence that we began as a priesthood…” Witherspoon admitted softly, “But…we don’t know which god.”

“Not Ahriman, I’ll bet.” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “It just might be that we always were intended to hunt out the devil, and lead the angels to him.”

“Joe, you’re getting into dangerous waters again.” Witherspoon clutched his drink and tried to frown warningly. It didn’t work.

“Think about this,” Joe insisted. “If he isn’t rooted out of his cave, Ahriman just might have enough psychic ability to win at the Gathering. Would you want that thing to be The One?”

Witherspoon said nothing, but expressions flickered over his face like heat-waves on fresh-forged iron.

Joe sat back and grinned to himself. Witherspoon, he knew, wasn’t an activist but certainly was a sympathizer with the old Sanctuary crowd. If his biases could be deflected toward this new hunt, if he could spread the word among his fellow-travelers…

Then Duncan would be safe from them for a good long time, possibly forever.

And then again, the Sanctuary faction just might satisfy – or exhaust – themselves on the task of beating the devil.

Duncan felt his chin touch the water, and realized he was falling asleep in the tub. Time to get out, definitely, and head for the nearest bed. He hadn’t realized how tired he was, how much these past two weeks had taken out of him.

There, Methos was flicking open the drain and tugging at his arm. When had he come in? And when had he stripped down to a bathrobe? He was offering a large towel, and an arm to lean on… Gratefully, Duncan took hold of both, and let himself be helped out of the tub.

“To bed, love,” said that welcome voice. “You’ve had a busy day.”

Didn’t really do that much… Duncan tried to recall, as Methos half-steered half-carried him to the open bed. Just walked around a little, and remembered a lot.

Well, of course it made sense that those memories should wear him out. Going through them was reliving Connor’s life from the inside, in all its immediacy, almost like having him back again.

Ah, those sheets were warm and the pillows so soft… And Methos was pulling away the towel and rolling him gently onto his belly. Did he want to— Not tonight, honey, Duncan smiled faintly. I’m too tired.

Then he heard the faint sounds of a bottle-cap being unscrewed, and a moment later felt warm oil dribbling onto his back. Backrub, he guessed, and then felt Methos’ hands descend lightly onto his shoulders and begin gently spreading the oil. Oh yes, that felt very good. He could easily sink into sleep this way. His awareness narrowed down to no more than the sense of touch, feeling those warm hands circling, spreading the oil, stroking smoothly, out to his hands and back, then down, and down…

When the touch reached his feet, it changed. Methos’ fingers pressed deeper, combing along the muscles, probing at specific spots, untying tiny knots that Duncan hadn’t known were there. He groaned softly at the pleasure of feeling his body melt under those knowing hands, conscious of nothing else except the warm background hum of Methos’ presence…

…and a sense of tight concentration, determined purpose, that could only be coming from Methos himself.

Too sleepy to think any further, Duncan only wondered dimly what that purpose was. The strong fingers pressed deeper, as if reaching for specific nerves, and Duncan felt odd little sparks of sensation flash elsewhere in his body. A muscle in his thigh twitched, then relaxed, leaving him with a sense of release and a brief faint taste of sour milk. Knuckles prodded firmly at his heels, and he felt the echo between his buttocks. A firm touch circled just under his ankles, and a faint itching budded at the root of his cock. He arched up his hips, just enough to rearrange himself, give the organ room to stretch if it would, and settled back down.

Through the touch, the link, he could feel Methos note the movement – and smile in satisfaction.

Duncan puzzled drowsily over that as those knowing hands worked higher: up the tendons of his ankles, onto his calves – kneading broadly, pressing at specific points – brushing lightly over the backs of his knees, then up onto his thighs. It occurred to him that he’d felt this once before, Methos’ clever touch reducing his muscles to jelly, prodding his nerves into obedience, taking command of his body. He hadn’t been afraid then, and he wasn’t now – even as his thighs twitched and spread of their own accord, and the blood began pulsing lazily but heavily in his groin – for he knew that Methos absolutely would not harm him, but the man had a purpose in doing this and he dizzily wondered what it was.

Ah, and now those hands were stroking, kneading, pressing artfully at his buttocks, making the muscles jump and quiver, fanning the itching heat in his cock and raising an answering echo inside him. Duncan groaned helplessly, remembering where this feeling could go, powerless to stop it and not even willing to stop. He gasped, once, when those cunning fingers danced around his hip and tickled there, making him arch up again, and then darted under his belly to grasp his thickening shaft. He froze, waiting for the next move, but the capturing hand only held him, warm and patient, promising the inevitable finish but not hastening it.

Now Methos’ other hand slid smoothly between his buttocks, oiled slick and hot, and stroked teasingly at the tender skin of the orifice, wakening the nerves, making him remember how penetration felt. Duncan heard his panting breaths change to tearless sobs as his body yearned, wanting more. Until the last few days he’d never thought much about that part of his body, thinking it a dirty hole and nothing else; he’d never imagined that it held so many nerves, or hid a secret pleasure-point inside him, or could rouse and yearn so eagerly…or that so much of his body could feel the same. Methos had shown him such wonders in himself…

Oh, but now those fingers were drawing away, sliding up to his waist, and there, that hand pressed down firmly and inched up his back, making ribs and spinal-bones click into place. Up, up further to his neck, where fingers spread and rubbed gently, knowingly, from the base of his skull down to his shoulders and back again. And was that other hand tightening on his cock, or was he swelling into it? Duncan managed to wriggle in that grasp, which accomplished nothing, and whimpered softly as the sensations swept him.

Now Methos bent close, the heat from his bared body settling over Duncan like a soft blanket, and breathed a warm wind into his hair. “Thou shalt not again go hunting demons,” he said, very quietly, very firmly. He repeated it in Latin, then in Gaelic, his lips so close that Duncan could feel as well as hear the words. “Not again demons to hunt shalt thou go.”

Sex as a weapon, Duncan feebly remembered, But I gave him permission…

The knowing fingers pressed particular points in his shoulders, making his arms twitch and then go limp as boiled cloth, brooking no argument, almost literally printing the words into his flesh. “Thou shalt not again go hunting demons.”

No, Duncan silently agreed, guessing that Methos could feel his answer. No…He had no intention of going after Ahriman again. Once was enough; too much sorrow there. He’d done his job, paid his dues, and no one could ask more of him. No.

Methos either didn’t hear or didn’t believe, for he didn’t end his persuasion. Now his knees slipped between Duncan’s spread thighs and his mouth pressed close, kissing, licking and nibbling in counterpoint to his skimming hand. The other hand squeezed softly, released, then rippled on Duncan’s swollen shaft, making him writhe helplessly. Again, he repeated the binding-spell in Latin, then Gaelic.

“…no…” Duncan managed to whisper, feeling his body surge helplessly in response to that mouth, those hands. God, what further consent could Methos want of him? His mind was already reeling, his body stretched out and writhing like a torture-victim on the rack… Torture by pleasure. Yes, yes, I’ll agree to anything…

…Long ago, not long enough, he’d been tortured for real, with pain. He’d held out, then, until unconsciousness took him. His will had held against pain, but he had no defense against this. My weakness…and he knows it.

Then Methos settled on his back, all smooth and solid heat pressing his body down, down into the soft sheets and firm grip, other hand still stroking and pressing any flesh left exposed, and licked and nipped softly at his arched neck. Duncan felt the long stiffened shaft slide between his buttocks and rub along the exposed channel, teasing, promising, and gave a wordless wail of need.

“Thou shalt not again go hunting demons.”

God, that spell, repeated nine times in three different languages, impressed on his brain and nerves so he couldn’t forget it and now aimed through the psychic link with all of Methos’ ferocious will behind it—

I submit! I submit! Duncan tried to cry out, but managed only a muffled scream.

Methos understood, nonetheless. His free hand grasped Duncan’s hip, his body angled slightly, and the tip of his shaft began pressing – there, at the ring of muscle that fluttered open in desperate welcome – and slid smoothly inside.

Duncan writhed and bucked madly, his body struggling of its own will not to escape but to gain more, more of this unbelievable feeling: the hot smooth column climbing up him, higher and slowly higher, stretching the sensitive flesh until the quivering nerves were laid bare to the touch, climbing toward that hidden place that could trigger blind ecstasy, higher… And that other hand was beginning to move, stroking, squeezing, making the blood pound like a hammer, trapping his consciousness between those two blazing points of contact and driving his body to surge between them, back and forth, frantic, wanting…

Ah, there! The velvet tip touched the trigger-point inside him, and dropped him into a seething ecstatic chaos of heat and thrusting and pulse, pulse…

– a sudden vision of Connor feeling this, thrashing like this, for the same reason—

…and a bright timeless explosion into a blazing brightness beyond comprehension, beyond thought.

Methos pulled up the blankets and cuddled his sleeping highlander close, sliding that silky-haired head into the hollow of his shoulder. He softly kissed Duncan’s forehead, getting no response and expecting none, for the psychic link showed him nothing but warm and deep unconsciousness. Ah, what time was it? He’d lain stunned to blankness on Duncan’s back for what might have been twenty minutes or an hour… Not that it mattered. He fumbled for the sword beside the bed, clasped the grip and pulled it up beside him. He might be too exhausted to get up and look at that journal yet, but he was never too tired to fight for his life – or Duncan’s.

Fool, he chided himself. Nobody’s going to crash through that triple-locked door…

His imagination promptly conjured up intruders with axes, bolt-cutters and police battering-rams – and himself holding them off with a sword while Duncan dived to safety out the window.

Fool for love! Perfect idiot for it… But was I ever in love like this?

Looking back on the last shining hour, he knew that he hadn’t needed to work sex-magic; Duncan had no intention of chasing after Ahriman again, didn’t need such forceful persuading. I just wanted to be sure… But his old habits of ruthless self-honesty cut in. “Lie to others; not yourself.” …I enjoyed that.

Gods, yes, he had enjoyed driving his brawny lover to thrashing helplessness, to breathless-shrieking ecstasy, to the limit his body and brain could hold. Gods, he was so hot! …and I could ride it with him, taste it, feel it…feel him feeling me… Methos closed his eyes and panted as the memory swept over him, held for a long moment, and finally let go – simply because he was too drained himself to maintain an erection.

Eventually coherent thought returned. Telepathic love? he wondered dizzily. Is that what makes such a difference? He could remember previous passions – no, don’t think of Alexa! – when he’d felt, he could have sworn, that same closeness: feeling what they felt, knowing their response to his every touch. Had it only been keen observation, and sympathy? One thing he’d always lacked before had been psychic ability, outside the usual Quickening-sense, of course; yet he’d slipped so easily into this link with Duncan – without any of the training that Cassandra insisted was necessary, thank you – that now he had to wonder. Had he always had a touch of latent talent, perhaps an empathic receptive sense, that was triggered only on the rare occasions when he fell truly in love? Had the Double Quickening only amplified an ability that was always there?

Shaken with wonder, Methos bent to kiss Duncan’s soft hair and breathe his clean animal scent. He felt undone, his senses adrift and magnified, profoundly shaken but without fear; such a marvel, to learn something new about himself after all these centuries…

Quietly as the ticking of a clock, he grew aware that there was someone else in the room with them.

Methos pulled Duncan closer and gripped his sword, peering, listening. No, this was impossible; there’d been nobody in the bathroom, or closet, and no one had come through the door. It was different from the sudden edge of another Immortal’s aura, not something new but more like an amplification of a presence already there…

Methos shivered as he guessed what this had to be.

Connor’s Quickening. Bleeding over…

When he saw the figure take form at the foot of the bed, Methos knew he wasn’t seeing it with his eyes.

It was very clearly and vividly Connor: same deep-set eyes and high forehead, same tall coltish body, same somber expression. His clothes varied, instant by instant, between antique highland tartans and modern trenchcoat and what might have been 19th-century oriental pajamas. His eyes were fixed, thoughtfully, on Methos.

My one chance to learn— Methos pulled a deep breath and asked, in a tight whisper: “Do you accept me as Duncan’s lover?”

Connor looked him up and down before replying. “Do you intend to keep him from women?”

It was the last thing Methos would have imagined, and though he’d seen Connor’s lips move he knew that he hadn’t heard the words with his physical ears.

“No,” he whispered back. “Nor would he ask it of me.”

“No jealousy, then?” Connor smiled briefly. “Yet you love him.”

“More than my life.” Methos felt another answer surge out of him, all in a rush. “If I must die, see to it that my Quickening goes to him.”

Connor raised both eyebrows – an expression Methos had never seen him use before – and laughed softly, that quiet little sound that seemed so incongruous coming out of a body that big. “Well, what’s perversion to a creature that cannot breed?”

Methos blinked, jolted to remember that Connor had grown up at the end of the Middle Ages, when such things were important.

Then Connor walked around the end of the bed, as naturally as any living man, and leaned close to peer fondly at Duncan. He murmured something brief in Gaelic that Methos didn’t catch, but which made Duncan smile vaguely in his sleep. Methos wondered if the ghost would feel solid to the touch, and feared it might.

Connor straightened up and looked again to Methos. “Take care never to hurt him with your love,” the ghost said.

Methos only shook his head mutely. No, he’d watch himself for that, never do that to Duncan.

And Connor vanished – sight, presence and all – as instantly as a light turned out.

Methos let go the sword to wrap his other arm around Duncan and clutch him, shaking. Hallucination, he tried to tell himself, knowing it was a lie. The truth was too awesome to take all at once.

But at least he had his answer.

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