“Ice skating?” asked Joe, frowning dubiously.
“Certainly,” said Methos smugly.
“Let me get this straight,” Joe said. “You and MacLeod were comparing stories about the old days, and you were winning, as usual. Then he brought up winter sports, which he was pretty sure desert guys didn’t indulge in.”
Methos nodded. “Right so far,” he said, licking the salt from his fingers, and then reaching for the peanuts again.
Joe pulled them out of reach, ignoring the glare from the former Death-on-horseback.
“So you egged him on, and now you’re having an ice skating competition. Methos, do you even know how to ice skate?”
“Does Mac?” countered the eldest Immortal slyly.
Joe began to grin. “You devil,” he said. “He doesn’t, does he? Wait a minute. How do you know he doesn’t? He wouldn’t have agreed to a contest if he didn’t know how!”
“Oh, wouldn’t he? You obviously have no idea how far a certain Scotsman will go to protect his honor. A careful mention of sheep and certain winter activities, a judicious comment about kilts, and…viola! You have a glowering Scot who is ready for any contest I choose. I choose ice skating.”
“Okay, I get that part, but how do you actually know he doesn’t skate?”
“Remember how I can tell you’re lying, Joe? The funny thing you do with your face?” Methos crossed his eyes and screwed up his lips in demonstration, ducking as Joe snapped a lethal bar towel at him. “Well, MacLeod does this.”
He hung his head a little, pushed out his lower lip, ran a hand through his spiky hair, and darted a sideways glance at Joe.
“I’ll be damned,” Joe said, impressed. “When’s the contest, and what’s the bet?”
“Wednesday morning, ten o’clock. Winner gets the gift of his choice. Loser dresses as Santa and sings Up on the Housetop with appropriate arm motions. In a public place of the winner’s choosing.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, grinning.
Joe shook his head. “This, I gotta see.”
Wednesday morning dawned gray and wet, typical London weather for December. Methos drank several cups of hot coffee, ate a bowl of Weetabix, showered, and dressed warmly. He picked up a shopping bag, slung a pair of ice skates over his shoulder and hailed a cab. Joe Dawson did much the same, sans Weetabix, which he considered a particularly British sort of breakfast torture. He had eggs and toast. Wrapping up warmly, he went in search of his own cab. The two men met inside the arena at 9:50 a.m.
“Watson, the game is afoot,” Methos chortled, “or askate, as the case may be.”
Joe groaned. “You don’t think you’re just a tad overconfident?”
He gestured toward MacLeod, who was striding toward them, looking like the epitome of winter athleticism. His skates were also draped over his wide shoulder, and he was carrying a small duffle.
“Morning, Adam. Joe, good to see you. Adam filled you in, eh? Suppose he told you I get first crack at it. Watch my bag for me?”
MacLeod doffed his long coat and began doing a series of graceful stretches near the ice. He was wearing snug black ski pants and a thick, red cable-knit sweater. His dark hair was a little too long, and it curled softly around his nape and his face. The other skaters, mostly young mothers and their children, begin to slow down on their rounds as they caught sight of him. After a few minutes he sat down on a bench to put on his skates. He glanced up now and then to smile at the other skaters, who were practically crawling past him before shooting around the other side of the rink.
“He ought to sell tickets,” muttered Methos grumpily. Joe prudently remained silent, but his eyes were dancing.
They watched MacLeod carefully pick his way onto the ice, holding onto the rail. He looked wobbly. Several of the braver women came to a siding halt around him to offer help and advice, and Methos and Joe heard laughter, both masculine and feminine. Soon the mothers were glowing, and their children had stopped pulling impatiently on their hands. Instead, they were laughing, too. In another moment, MacLeod was in the middle of a little bevy of instructors, holding their hands as they towed him along. The motley group went slowly, and several of the older children ventured ahead to show off. Joe chucked to himself as Mac called encouragement to them and nearly fell down. He was rescued, but it was a near thing. He seemed to be having a grand time out there, and Joe decided he’d wait sitting down. Methos sat down beside him with a weary sigh. They watched MacLeod getting the hang of it, still the center of a growing group of admirers. When he passed the two men he dared to look their way and wave. There was a concert of shrieks and giggles as he ran amok before two women snagged him safely back into their midst.
“Okay, Methos, tell me the truth. Are you even as good as he is?”
“The truth? Nope, never was. But I can skate better.”
Joe gave him a hard look, getting a rueful shrug in reply. The two continued to watch, and MacLeod continued to skate, finally setting out on his own. He raised both arms in a victory salute as he sailed by, his face flushed and alight with joy in the moment. His entourage cheered. Joe cleared his throat and wiped his nose.
“Damn cold,” he said gruffly.
“It’s good to see him happy, Joe.”
“Yeah, well, there were times when I wondered…anyway, I’m glad you stuck around after Kell.”
“Guess I had to ask myself where I really needed to be. But I knew the answer all along: he’s too important to lose. Connor knew that better than any of us. Ready?”
He stood and waved at MacLeod, gesturing for him to return to the side of the arena. “I’m freezing, you Scottish show-off,” he yelled as MacLeod skated past in crack-the-whip formation.
He walked closer, waving his arms to get Mac’s attention. The line of skaters was rounding the corner with MacLeod on the end. It bore down on Methos, who had turned to speak to Joe. Joe pointed behind Methos, shouting, “Look out!”
Methos turned back just in time to see a wide, red wall hurtling toward him, then he was flat on his back and trying to jump-start his breathing, which seemed to be stalled. He finally worked up to a weak wheeze, which seemed to please MacLeod, who was hovering over him like a nervous hen with one chick. Soon he had remembered how the breathing thing went, and was doing quite well. Well enough to speak.
“MacLeod,” he said threateningly, his volume rising with each word, “what in the HELL…”
“Adam’s okay,” MacLeod broke in hastily, “he just had the wind knocked out of him. He’s fine! See?” Mac stepped back to let the small crowd of onlookers view the body.
Methos stared back at them, then put on a false smile. “Fine, I’m fine,” he said cheerily. “If someone might lend me a new spleen,” he hissed at MacLeod. He began struggling to his feet. “What in the HELL…”
“Adam, are you ready for your present?” MacLeod interrupted quickly. “I told the kids about our bet, Adam. Adam won! Right, kids?”
“But he didn’t even try to skate! That’s not fair,” protested a small red-haired boy.
“No fair,” came the chorus, and Methos looked to Joe for support. No help there, as Joe was leaning back against the bench, weak with laughter. The gaggle of young mums didn’t seem to favor him as the winner, either, from the look of them. Ah well, live to fight another day, Methos thought.
“Oh, let’s just call it a tie, shall we?” he said sweetly, winning smiles all around. MacLeod looked relieved.
“Does that mean you both sing the song?” asked a sweet-faced girl.
“I know that song! I can sing it!” several children shouted, and the mothers grinned at the two men, daring them.
MacLeod retrieved his bag from Joe and fished out a Santa hat and beard. He handed them to Methos, who donned them solemnly. Methos dug into his shopping bag and handed Mac another red hat and fluffy beard. Mac put them on, making a show of getting the hat just right. They bowed to one another, and then turned to the giggling children, raised their arms high, and began to sing.
After all the choruses, cups of hot cocoa and popcorn for everyone, and several rounds of thanks, the three men escaped. MacLeod had driven himself, so they all piled into the SUV.
“There are times when I wish the Watchers used videotape,” Joe declared. “No one will believe this even if I write it up.”
“If we’re lucky,” added Methos, shuddering. “My chest still hurts,” he complained, rubbing his breastbone.
“Maybe this’ll help the pain,” MacLeod said, tossing a small package to him.
Methos pulled off the red ribbon and ripped the Christmas paper off, and then looked inside the small box. “MacLeod, you shouldn’t have. Oh, let’s be honest here: you damn well should have! Anyway, thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” MacLeod replied, starting the car.
“You expected to lose?” Joe asked.
“Just prepared for either contingency,” said MacLeod with a smile. “And maybe it’ll keep Methos out of my fridge.”
“What is it?”
“Beer of the month club,” Methos said with satisfaction.