What Happened Next
(A Sequel to Leah’s “Time and Tides”)

Posted By: VarReader
Date:
Friday, 22 December 2000, at 7:40 p.m.

Ironically, if Cassandra and Methos hadn't both been so intent on avoiding eye contact with one another, or even acknowledging one another's presence on the couch, none of it might have happened. Well, Duncan conceded to himself, it was still possible, but when he'd proposed watching the "Braveheart" DVD, his intention had certainly been to lessen, not increase, the tension in the room.

It would be a stretch to think of the atmosphere as warm, but Duncan felt an impartial observer might realistically consider it neutral. When Cassandra entered, Methos remained where he was, in the center of the couch. To be fair about it, his refusal to move didn't really seem like Methos' usual space-claiming tactics that physically announced words alone couldn't move him now that he was comfortable on someone else's furniture. Instead, it put Duncan in mind of a rabbit sinking down motionless once it caught sight of the shadow of a hawk. Actually, Methos reminded Duncan of someone. On a moment's reflection, Duncan almost groaned - Methos was doing his best inconspicuous Adam Pierson act. It wouldn't be like him to simply relinquish territory, but the ancient Immortal was doing his best to minimize his own presence.

As for Cassandra, once she'd overcome her unwillingness to enter the room at all, she seemed strangely able to ignore Methos altogether. She smiled warmly as she accepted a glass from Duncan's hand, which she held for a moment.

Her host was briefly flustered. Normally, Duncan would have simply sat on the couch with his guest. He wasn't going to insist that Cassandra pull over the not-nearly-as-comfortable chair from its place by the wall. However, if *he* took the chair, that put Cassandra on the couch right next to Methos -- which was really too much to ask. With a rather desperate smile, Duncan quickly popped the DVD into the player's tray, clicked the play button, then sank back into the couch, leaving such a wide space on his right that he nearly sat in Methos' lap.

"Hey -- " The protest died on Methos' lips when he saw MacLeod's expression. The smile was temporarily gone, replaced not by anger or threat, but a look of such flat seriousness that the only two options seemed to be drawing a sword or moving. Methos chose the latter, wedging himself against the couch's far left arm.

Duncan turned to Cassandra again, the overly bright smile returning as he indicated the comfortable empty seat beside him. Cassandra looked pained briefly, as though she'd really rather sit on the chair, or better still, leave. Then, as if agreeing with some inner resolve, she gracefully picked up the bowl of popcorn that was on the table, scooped out a handful and sat on the couch. Like Methos, she too hugged the armrest on her side.

Cassandra set the bowl of popcorn in front of Duncan deliberately, giving him an excuse to scoot back toward the center of the couch just as the studio logos left the screen and the movie began.

Duncan nodded to no one in particular, hoping he sounded extremely enthusiastic. "It won a lot of Oscars. I hear it's very good."

"Mmm," Cassandra nodded, attempting to sound suitably optimistic and indicating she'd heard the same.

"Mmm," Methos said dubiously, indicating he didn't think much of the Oscars as a barometer of quality.

Duncan was exasperated. "Methos, just because you're still pissed off about 'Annie Hall' winning doesn't invalidate every decision the Academy makes."

Methos automatically rose to the occasion. "I didn't -- " Cassandra stared straight ahead, very hard, Duncan stared worriedly at Cassandra, and Methos knew that there was no way on Earth he and MacLeod could enjoy their normal abrasive movie-watching banter. Focusing his own gaze intently on the screen to avoid anything even resembling interaction, he said as softly as he could, "I didn't say anything."

Those were the last words any of them spoke for about half an hour. Cassandra was regally still, evidently at ease, although her extreme motionlessness seemed enforced to MacLeod, as though even a reflexive crossing of ankles or tapping of fingers would indicate a reaction to the man sitting on the other side of the couch.

Methos early on started to lean forward, chin resting on his hand, then realized that this was a rather conspicuous position. He pushed himself backward on his feet, readjusting his seat, started to stretch his legs out, then decided against this as well and came to rest with knees and hips bent at right angles, one hand bracing his elbow as the fingers of his other absently tapped his cheek.

It seemed to Duncan that he had never in his life felt so impelled to fidget. He wanted to stretch an arm along the back of the couch; he wanted to cross his ankles; he wanted to scratch the bridge of his nose. Instead, like his companions, he sat very still and mostly kept his eyes on the screen. When he now and then surreptitiously glanced at the others, they both seemed to be studying the flickering images of the cathode ray tube before them. Since it was a damn sight better than the two of them glaring at each other, Duncan decided he ought to count himself blessed.

Then it came. None of them had really been prepared for it, as none of them had seen the film before (they'd all been leading busy lives since the film's original 1995 release, after all). Methos vaguely remembered reading that "Braveheart's" plot was powered by something awful that happened to William Wallace's wife, but it hadn't occurred to him exactly what it was.

On the screen that all three of them were watching, a man attacked a woman, laughing, amused by her efforts to evade his assault -- until she hurt him, just a little. Then he murdered her, cutting her throat in front of all those she knew as an example of what would happen to any who resisted his will.

Earlier, Duncan hadn't thought it would really be possible for the tension in the room to increase, but he felt the cushion beneath him shift slightly, responding to the stiffening of Cassandra's muscles.

Duncan took his eyes from the screen to look at Cassandra. Her position had changed, just a bit. Her eyes were still on the television, but her neck was almost imperceptibly lowered, the only indication of the effort she was making not to turn her own gaze on Methos.

Duncan, on the other hand, couldn't help himself. First his eyes, then his whole head, swiveled to take in Methos' reaction to the drama onscreen.

Methos had stopped drumming his fingers against his jawline and was now sitting with his chin cupped in his hand, spin curved just a bit as he leaned forward intently. But thinking what? Trying to read the other man's expression, Duncan was both so certain that the film had Methos full attention and so immersed in his own questions that when Methos suddenly turned to meet Duncan's studying gaze, it was all the Scot could do not to jump.

In response to the obvious scrutiny, Methos raised an eyebrow. When Duncan didn't speak immediately, Methos' other eyebrow lifted to join its twin. MacLeod started to speak, then discovered he didn't know what to say that wouldn't provoke one or both of his guests. He might be able to ask Methos what he thought of the sequence they'd just watched, the footage of the man injuring the woman simply because he could, but not with Cassandra sitting there to hear the answer. Then again, if only Methos would say the right thing ...

But that, Duncan thought, was a fruitless hope. He knew that one of the few areas in which Methos and Cassandra were in agreement was that a verbal apology would be a ludicrously inadequate salve applied to the damage done. Probably the best course right now was to encourage Methos to maintain his present silence. Duncan shrugged politely, trying to convey that he hadn't meant to stare, only to get a quick look-behind-you nod from Methos.

Perplexed, Duncan turned to see that Cassandra had turned her attention from Mel Gibson's lamentations and was now also scrutinizing Methos, her expression flat.

Methos looked from one to the other and back again. For the breadth of a second, he tried to refocus on the television, then gave up. "What?"

"Nothing," Duncan said.

"What do you think?" Cassandra asked, her question overlapping Duncan's statement.

"I truthfully have no idea," Methos replied. He experimentally swiped a finger across his upper lip and over his chin. "Have I got something on my face?"

"Of the movie," Cassandra persisted. "What do you think of the movie so far?"

Methos' mouth quirked, wrestling with a reply. He started to say something, stopped himself, tried again. He bit his lip, then snorted despite himself.

"Are you *laughing*?" Duncan was astonished.

"He thinks it's funny," Cassandra concluded flatly, as though she'd never expected anything else. "It's rape and murder. Hilarious, right?"

"No," Methos giggled.

Cassandra stood in a fluid, graceful movement. Behind her, William Wallace began thinking of revenge. "Duncan, I really feel like I'd better -- "

"Please don't go." Duncan had known Cassandra longer than anyone still alive, longer (if not better) even than he'd known Connor, whose death was still a source of fresh grief. The thought of Cassandra walking away, disappointed in him a second time, was almost too much to bear.

"He's right." Methos choked back an outright laugh. Suppression wasn't working; chortles were climbing up his throat and his eyes were starting to water. "It's not the movie, honestly."

Cassandra pivoted to confront him, anger finally coloring her voice. "Then what is it? What's so funny?"

Methos spread his arms, as helpless to stop the mirth shaking his shoulders as he was to prevent his eyes from tearing. "Us. Don't you see -- we managed to get into the same room together for Mac's sake, we got that far, and now all three of us are paralyzed by a shadow play. He's watching us to make sure we don't kill each other, and we're watching him to make sure he can see how well we're behaving, and we're all watching each other out of the corners of our eyes to see how we're reacting to the movie." He wiped his eyes. "Don't you think that's funny? A little?"

Cassandra thought it over. "No," she decided aloud soberly. "I think it's sad."

Methos exhaled, blowing away the last of the compulsive laughter on a breath. "I never said it wasn't."

Cassandra spread her hands impatiently, as though shaking off an invisible touch on her arm. "Why are we even trying?"

"Because," Methos began, then stopped uncomfortably. "Look, you know why."

"Because I'm supposed to think you're sorry?" Cassandra retorted bitterly.

Methos opened his mouth, then took note of Duncan and resolutely closed it again.

Rain beat insistently on the window in the dark, a steady, rhythmic sound they could all hear in the quiet. The Scot felt his own temper rising, just as he felt that he was somehow being used as an excuse for the other man's silence. "*What*?"

Methos squared his shoulders and sighed. The exhalation had the quality of an utterance: to hell with it, he'd speak his piece even with MacLeod standing right there. "I wouldn't expect you to believe anything of me. But we both know MacLeod's had some horrible losses lately and it's probably more than he can take right now to make him to choose sides. I'm guessing that you know that, and that you care about him even more than you hate me, and *that's* why we're trying." He shrugged. "I could be wrong, of course."

Duncan honestly couldn't tell who was more taken aback by the speech, Cassandra or himself. He managed to respond first. "This isn't about me."

"The hell it's not!" Methos snapped. "Cassandra came through the door because you were in here, not because of me. I certainly didn't hang around for the joy of being glared at. You've *made* it about you, MacLeod. And now here we are, in a room, and none of us have our swords out. This may be as good as it's going to get, but I'll tell you something -- this is probably why we *can* try, because it's really nothing to do with either her or me. You're the one thing we can agree on." He paused again, looking to Cassandra for confirmation.

Cassandra gave Duncan a searching look. "I don't want to hurt you. He's right about that." Her mouth twisted, despite her intentions. "I'm just not so sure about him."

Methos couldn't resist. "I talk a good game, though, don't I?"

Cassandra shrugged coldly. "You always did."

Duncan looked from one to the other, his emotions churning. If they could all get through what had happened in Bordeaux, surely they could get through this hour in his living room. Then again, in Bordeaux, he'd been furious, terrified and appalled -- but not embarrassed. It was a lot easier to deal with the self-proclaimed End of Time aiming a blade at your neck and even threatening the life of a loved one than it was listening to friends talk about their feelings for you while you were standing there. "I know this has been a lot to ask." His voice sounded thick, even to his own ears.

"You do want her to stay, though, don't you?" Methos prompted.

"I wish you would." Duncan closed his eyes, hoping he didn't look as miserable and tired as he felt.

He felt gentle pressure on his hand, Cassandra winding her fingers around his. "Sure," she said simply. "It's your birthday. If you can't have things the way you'd like today, then when?"

Duncan opened his eyes and smiled weakly. It made his head hurt to think of what they were all doing to each other -- him manipulating Cassandra and Methos into their bristling truce, Methos maneuvering Cassandra into a position where she could in good faith keep the peace without having to concede that perhaps the monster she'd hated all this time no longer existed in his old form, and Cassandra forcing Methos to for once say what he thought. Maybe Methos was right -- maybe this was as good as it would ever get. It was tense, it was tiring -- and it was so much better than losing one more person from his life that for one awful instant, Duncan was afraid he might actually weep with relief. "That's true," he nodded.

Methos raised an eyebrow, then a finger. "I think my birthday is -- "

He was interrupted by a roar from the television. "What's going on?" Duncan wondered. He returned to the couch, curious. Two huge groups of men were shaking their weapons at one another threateningly. "Is this the Battle of Stirling?"

"No clue," Methos admitted, having completely lost track of the plot.

"Maybe if you rewind it," Cassandra suggested pragmatically.

Methos looked at her. "Do DVDs rewind?"

"Try that little backward arrow," Cassandra indicated.

Methos pressed the arrow. The image jumped to a different frame entirely. He tried again. "Tell me when to stop," he instructed.

Cassandra watched the screen, waiting for a familiar visual reference to appear. "Keep going."

Duncan knew he should have been watching the image, but instead, he couldn't keep his eyes off the other two Immortals, both so intent on putting the conversation behind them both so caught up in what they were doing that they were actually being civil to one another. Maybe they'd be trying to find the right spot on the disk all night. "Yeah," Duncan encouraged. "Keep going."

END (wow, that took long enough ... )

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