By Leslie Fish
Note: this story takes place after "Homecoming" (posted at http://freedom.tantalis.org), in which 'tis revealed that Connor is alive, disguised, a sorcerer, and living with Alexandra and John back in Scotland.
It was strange, Duncan thought as he glanced around the table, to enjoy Christmas dinner in a sizable crowd that contained only two mortals: Joe and Alexandra. Sandra, looking like an ancient queen in her holly-wreath and fur-trimmed dress, sat at the foot of the table refilling her glass with well-spiced -- and well-spiked -- eggnog. Connor, as befitted the master of the house, sat at the table's head looking relaxed but thoughtful. *I still have trouble with his new face,* Duncan noted, *But I recognize the expressions.* At Connor's right hand sat John, looking less tense than usual as he dug his way through the roast goose; the boy seemed to be coming to terms with immortality. Beside him sat Joe, happily addressing himself to the stuffing, almost ebullient with Christmas cheer. *It's relief,* Duncan guessed. *He's delighted that we're all together and safe, and this hellish year is over. ...As bad as the one when Richie died, and the one when I had my First Death and my clan threw me out...* No, he wouldn't let his mind wander down that road, not now. Instead he glanced to his left, where Methos was bantering playfully with Sandra again, this time over the merits of cranberry sauce. Now that he thought of it, Duncan couldn't remember seeing the ancient immortal so cheerful and lighthearted. *Maybe because he's been adopted into the mini-Clan,* Duncan considered. How long had it been since Methos had any kind of family, or community? How much had he missed it? That was something to be asked later, when they were alone.
"A toast," said Alexandra, drawing everyone's attention to her raised glass. She was smiling, but there was a determined look in her eyes -- a look that, Duncan noticed, made Connor stop chewing and frown slightly. "To a decently predictable future," she said clearly.
"Here, here!" Joe and Methos chorused, hastily raising their glasses. Connor and Duncan mumbled assent, and lifted their glasses too, a little slower.
John didn't touch his glass, but glowered at his plate. "Mom," he sighed, "You know that's not possible."
Before the ensuing silence could cast a gloom over the party, Joe cut in. "Hey, she didn't say 'absolutely' predictable: just 'decently', which is fine by me."
Connor darted a pitying look at his son -- strange to see that familiar expression in blue eyes instead of hazel -- and managed to smile. "I think I can predict good returns from those investments in the distilleries," he said, "And that the roof won't leak this winter, and that none of us will go hungry or cold before Spring."
Duncan caught that reference, remembering too many cold and hungry winters in the highlands, centuries ago. Methos probably caught it too. He wondered if anyone else did.
"The usual stuff, right," John passed that off. "What about the unusual? What about running into more headhunters, and having to fight again? How can anyone predict that?"
*Damn,* Duncan sighed. The boy seemed innocently determined to spoil the party. Obviously he wasn't at home with his own immortality yet.
"Oh, but that _is_ predictable," Methos put in smoothly. "On average of twice a year, given normal travel and contact with large populations, you're likely to run into another immortal -- and the odds are 50-50 that such will be willing to play the Game. One simply prepares for it, the same as preparing for severe storms -- which also come about twice a year."
"Depends on the climate," Joe artfully diverted the topic. "You don't get hurricanes in Nebraska, for example."
"No, you get tornados there," Alexandra grinned, following his lead.
"Earthquakes in California," Duncan added.
"Sandstorms in the Sahara," Connor put in.
"And the occasional monstrous snow-storm around here," Methos shuddered delicately. "I hope you put in a good stock of coal and firewood for the winter."
"Speaking of which," Alexandra turned to John, "Do you have enough warm clothes for college?"
"Mmmm..." John fiddled with his glass. "I'm...not certain I'm going."
Connor raised both eyebrows. "I thought you said..."
"I changed my mind," John answered quickly. "There's a community college down in the village; I can finish out my requirements there. I'd really like to stay close to home for awhile, catch up on some things..."
He threw an almost pleading look at Connor, who bit his lip and nodded once. Alexandra caught all that, and smiled bravely. "Well, then I suppose your old clothes will do," she said lightly. "There's no hurry."
There was a moment's silence as the implications of that passed invisibly around the table. Everyone relaxed imperceptibly, including John, and went back to eating the excellent Christmas dinner.
*Yes, time enough,* Duncan smiled to himself as he dug into the garnished asparagus spears. *That's beginning to get through to the boy.* He suddenly thought of Richie, felt a sharp pang of the old grief, and ruthlessly banished it. No, John would have a better chance, surrounded by all the protection Connor could give him. *And I can...*
That thought made Duncan stop and Methos, who was happily indulging in the pudding. *I want to stay, but what about you?* That was something else they'd have to talk over. *Later, later...* Right now, as Methos was always telling him, it was best to enjoy the moment and let tomorrow's troubles wait for tomorrow. He reached for the pudding and took a slice, reminding himself to be sure and compliment the cook.
After dinner the party drifted into the study, where the well-decorated tree stood in the corner, and the first presents nestled under its branches. Methos and Connor swapped tales of ancient Christmas and Solstice customs while Joe listened attentively -- and unobtrusively ran his tape-recorder. John wandered away early, and Alexandra soon followed. Eventually Connor gave a massive yawn, glanced at the door through which his wife had disappeared, made a playful comment about getting up early to see what Santa had left, and strolled out.
Methos got up and went to the sideboard, came back with a bottle of Connor's excellent brandy and poured small drinks for all who remained. Joe put away his tape-recorder and tonged another log into the cheery fire. Duncan judged that the moment was right.
"Would you feel restless if we stayed another month or two?" he asked, fiddling with his brandy.
"Not at all." Methos flowed into his chair and assumed his usual boneless sprawl. "Now that I've been unofficially adopted into the clan, I find I rather like it here. I daresay I could endure a highland winter here, so long as I didn't have to stick my nose outside. For a castle, this place is wonderfully warm and comfortable. Quite inauthentic, really."
"Connor did develop a taste for the creature comforts in his old age." Joe grinned at their faces. "Don't look so shocked. I figured out weeks ago who 'Roger MacCrimmon' really is. And no, before you ask, I didn't pass on that fact. Let the man have his peace for a few centuries, I figure."
"Thanks!" Duncan blurted, then caught himself. Of course Joe would think of that, consider Connor as a human being, not a study-topic.
Methos sighed and took a long pull of his brandy. "So," he went on, "I expect we'll all have a hand in the training and protection of our youngest relative."
"Yes. Give him a better chance than--" Duncan stopped fast.
But of course the other two caught that.
"Not all your students die young," Joe said quietly.
"I know." Duncan took a deep breath. "All right, I do look on John as a...second chance. What else can I do? Connor loves him so much..."
"And he's family," Methos added. "That's such a rare and precious thing with us."
"Yes." Duncan clasped his hands around his glass and stared into the fire. "I keep hoping we can...add to it."
"Increase the size of the Clan MacLeod, Immortal Branch?" Methos smiled. "' Tis a consummation greatly to be wished.'"
"More than that." Duncan drew a deep breath, feeling suddenly reckless, or desperate. "Did you tell Joe about the blood-brotherhood trick?"
"He told me," said Joe, eyeing them both thoughtfully. "And the effects of the double Quickening. Just what have you got in mind, Mac?"
"My impossible dream, my crazy hope, my Christmas wish: that the Game can end with most of us still alive, that the Gathering never happens and nobody wins the Prize, that we can live in peace finally, finally, after all these centuries of pointless killing." Duncan realized he was panting as if he'd just run a hard mile, and concentrated on calming his breathing.
"Amen," said Joe, lifting his glass. "I've prayed for that a few times, myself."
"Amen," Methos echoed quietly.
For long moments none of them said anything more. The fire sank down to a wide bed of glowing coals and a flickering comb of flames under the new log, but its warmth continued to fill the room. Unseen, a clock chimed softly.
"That's my cue," said Joe, levering himself to his feet. "Some of us have to be awake early, even on Christmas morning. Good night, you two."
"Good night," the others murmured, not watching him go.
The flames chewed further at the log, not diminishing it by much. The rest of the house was comfortably silent.
Methos finished his brandy and set down the glass. "It is possible," he said softly. "But spreading the word will take time. There will be more killings before this is done."
"I know," Duncan whispered.
"But I can think of worse causes to serve." Methos rested a hand on Duncan's shoulder, then pressed down and pulled himself to his feet. "We can leave the fire; it'll burn down safely by itself."
Duncan refused to take the hint. He kept seeing Richie, then John, in his mind -- and Connor, and himself. *Clan MacLeod. Family. I can't give it up.*
"Are you coming?" Methos asked, easing toward the door.
"In a while," Duncan promised. "I just have to...think a bit."
"Generally a useful exercise. I'll be in my room; waken me, if you need to."
"Yes," said Duncan, eyes held by the fire.
Methos shook his head, and padded out of the study. In a moment his aura faded.
*Whom do I talk to first?* Duncan pondered, sliding further down on the sofa in unconscious imitation of Methos' usual slouch. *Robert and Gina? They've been in love for 300 years. They'll listen. What other immortal lovers do I know? Amanda and Nick? Who else? It has to be with a lover or a friend...*
His attention was snagged by the feel of an immortal presence approaching, and a few seconds later the door whispered open.
*Connor?* Duncan wondered. *Why?*
"Oh, damn," John's voice muttered from near the doorway. "Who is it?"
"Only me," said Duncan. "Waiting up for Santa, I suppose."
"Damn," John repeated, and went to the sideboard. Duncan heard the clink of glass as the boy poured a drink for himself. John hesitated for long seconds, then finally padded over to the couch and slumped on the cushions. The glass in his hand, Duncan noted, was filled almost to the brim.
"Can't sleep?" Duncan guessed.
"No." John took a healthy mouthful of the amber liquid. "Holiday jitters, I guess."
Duncan made a noncommittal sound, and looked back at the fire. The silence stretched long.
John shuffled his feet, rattled his fingers on the glass, and ran his fingers through his hair. "All right," he snapped, "I know what you're thinking. Yes, I'm scared, and how do I tell my father that?"
"Scared?" Duncan marveled. He hadn't expected that.
"It's been creeping up on me, ever since..." John waved his hand vaguely. "Since that whole battle and everything. Since I got...killed, and came back, and... I've had time to think about it..."
"Ah. It's sunk in," Duncan realized. "The blessings and curses of immortality. It's a hell of a lot to accept, enough to make you want to hide in the wilderness somewhere." *For a year, maybe,* he remembered.
"I can't sleep!" John grabbed a handful of his hair and tugged hard. "Not unless I knock myself out with booze, so I won't dream, or wake up at every sound."
"Nightmares?" Duncan shivered, remembering.
"Yes." John took another gulp of the whiskey, not seeming to taste it. "And it's just as bad by daylight. Every passing car, everybody I see from a distance, I have to stop and look and wonder if it's another headhunter coming after us. And I keep remembering that other one, Kane, who kidnapped me when I was a kid... Dammit, I'm afraid to step out of the house alone!"
"That's why you want to go to the local college, stay close..."
"I wonder if I'll even have the guts to do that." John rubbed his eyes, then rested his face on his hands. "How do I live like this? How do I tell Dad?"
"Just say: 'I'm still in the panicky stage'. He'll understand." Duncan pulled himself closer and rested a hand on John's shoulder, noticing that it trembled. "It's happened to all of us. Just give yourself time to get over it."
"Get over it," John muttered. "I don't know if I can, or will. It seems to be getting worse. Can't sleep, can't stand to be alone."
Duncan remembered that John had also lost his dog, the faithful Finn McCool who'd slept at the foot of his bed for years. "Would getting another dog help?"
"I can't replace Finn!" John wailed, his grief still fresh. "Having any stranger around, even a dog, would only make it worse."
"Have you tried keeping a light on at night?"
"Yes. Doesn't help."
*A good warm lover might help,* Duncan considered, *But that's not something he can get overnight.* "Then use your knowledge to fight it. You know you're safe in the house, and you know your survival chances increase as you improve your sword-work..."
"I know." John lifted his head and reached for his glass again. This time he took a smaller sip. "I've been working out with Dad and Adam and you every day--"
*All three of us? Every day?* Duncan hadn't realized that; he'd only noticed that the boy's skills were increasing by leaps and bounds. "How many hours?"
"All day. It seems like that's all I do anymore. It's the only time I'm not scared."
"Reasonable." Duncan paused for a sip of his own drink. "When you get to where you can hold off one of us until you're both too tired to move, you'll stop being afraid." He made a mental note to arrange that sometime next week. "I don't mean to brag, but I'm rather good with a sword -- and Connor and Adam are better than I am. You have some of the world's best teachers training you."
"I keep telling myself that." John stared into the fire. "Then I think of everything else I have to learn besides swordfighting. Adam told me some things..."
*Maybe he shouldn't have, not yet,* Duncan frowned.
"God, I'll be years learning! Maybe a hundred of them. What if I stay scared that long? What if I never get over it? Will I have to be a hermit or something, stay holed up on holy ground?"
"We've all done that, for shorter or longer times. I've spent a few years in monasteries, here and there." *Connor did, and Methos.*
John gave a short, bitter laugh. "I don't think I could go without sex that long. It's been really hard this past month, with nothing but--" He broke off, looking embarrassed.
"You can get away with Flogging the Dolphin in a monastery," Duncan smiled.
John laughed again, but it sounded better this time. "I still don't think that would last me very long. Besides..." He looked away. "I'm not religious. I'd feel like a damned hypocrite for taking that route."
*A sense of honor,* Duncan noted. "You don't have to be religious to respect holy ground; it's a respite, if you need it."
"But I'd still be afraid, wouldn't I?" John leaned against the sofa's back-rest. "God, I'm so ashamed of this!"
"Don't be. Make yourself ashamed of being afraid, then resentful of being ashamed, and you'll tie yourself up in knots. Just accept the fear as something inevitable, like the weather, and get on with doing what you need to."
John nodded, then stared bleakly at the fire. "But I still can't sleep. I know it's putting me off my lessons. I was so clumsy today, I walked right into one of Adam's swings. Damn-near broke my arm. He didn't say anything, but I could see he knew."
*This has to change.* "You've got to tell Connor, otherwise he won't understand what's the matter. Meanwhile, would it help if I come upstairs with you and sit beside you until you fall asleep?"
John thought that over, and finally shook his head. "Not really. You might help yank me out of the nightmares sooner, but they'd still come. I'm better off with the booze, honestly."
"All right." Duncan glanced at the decanter on the sideboard, and felt an idea take shape. "But don't drink fast; you'll only make yourself sick. Sip it slowly, and pace yourself."
He patted the boy's shoulder again, got up and carefully set two more logs on the fire, trying to calculate how long the heat and light would last. After a moment's thought he went to the far corner of the room and turned on one of the low reading-lamps. The heat from the fire, he guessed, would keep the room warm for a few hours yet.
And this was Christmas eve. If his old habits still held good -- and Duncan guessed that they did -- Connor would come creeping down here shortly after midnight to stuff the other presents under the tree. When he found John passed out on the sofa...
"Tell Connor, as soon as you can find him alone," Duncan said, noting that John hadn't brought his sword with him, thank God. He picked up the decanter and set it on the coffee-table where John could reach it without getting up. "I promise he won't be ashamed of you, and he might think of something that could help."
John nodded dolefully, and pulled off his shoes.
*Good sign,* Duncan smiled to himself. "Do you want me to stay here awhile?"
"No, I'll be okay," John muttered, reaching for his glass. "Don't let me keep you up."
"All right." Duncan went out, closing the door softly behind him. A quick look at the clock in the hallway showed that midnight was fast approaching. *Connor will be down soon...* He hoped this would work, that admitting his weakness and letting himself be comforted would give the boy a way out. If Connor simply told John about his own first year of immortality, that might help too.
And if there were some way that Connor's psychic ability could help, he'd use that.
Duncan paced quietly up the stairs, and turned toward the door of Methos' room. He had a lot to tell his ancient friend.
By the time the sun came up on Christmas morning, neither of them could wait any longer. Duncan and Methos tiptoed down the stairs, paused to listen at the door of the study, then softly pushed the door open and poked their heads in.
The lamp in the corner was still on, and so were the lights on the Christmas tree. A cluster of prettily-wrapped packages lay in a jumble near the tree as if they'd been carelessly dropped there, not thoughtfully arranged. One of them, quite long, suggested that it might contain a sword. The fire was down to ashes and a few coals still stubbornly glowing, leaving the air warm.
At one end of the sofa sprawled Connor in his soft blue pajamas, head resting on the back-rest, thoroughly asleep, with a small throw-cushion on his lap.
John lay stretched out along the rest of the sofa, covered by Connor's bathrobe. His head was pillowed on the cushion in Connor's lap, and Connor's arms lay draped around the boy's shoulders. John was limply holding Connor's near hand, and his sleeping face was utterly peaceful.
Duncan and Methos looked at each other, then backed out and pulled the door shut behind them.
"I'd say it worked," Methos whispered. "Now what say we toddle back to bed and get a few hours' honest rest?"
"Oh yes." Duncan unsuccessfully smothered a cavernous yawn. "I think that's a better gift than the ones I put under the tree."
Methos wrapped an arm around Duncan's shoulders and steered him toward the stairs. "You seem to have a real gift for...gifts," he said. "And I'm feeling much more hopeful already. Merry Christmas, Duncan."
"Merry Christmas," Duncan managed around another yawn. He wondered what Methos had meant by that other, enigmatic phrase, but was too sleepy to think about it. He plodded up the stairs, thinking alternately of his comfortable bed and the warm assurance that this Christmas was one of his better ones.