by Laura Mason
Duncan MacLeod threw himself back on the sofa, tired of fussing with the fire that seemed incapable of warming the barge this night. He pulled his sweater closer around his neck and picked up his book again, wondering why his concentration was so poor. Surely he wasn't expecting any challenges at this time of year. Even the most evil immortals seemed to vanish for the holidays, and it was less than a week until Christmas.
After tossing uncomfortably for another ten minutes, he rose, grabbed his coat and sword, and left the barge to wander the banks of the river, hoping a few hours of exercise would tire him enough so he could rest.
It was his birthday. He hadn't really celebrated his birthday for years, not since he and Tessa and Richie had lived together. Tess always made a fuss, elaborate cakes she'd actually try to bake by herself -- Tess was a fine cook, but her baking skills were hopeless. They'd wind up with something that looked incredible but tasted like sawdust. Even the icing she'd color and sculpt so carefully tasted wrong, somehow. But when they ended up together in bed, the cake mashed and frosting smeared in their hair, the flavor was completely unimportant.
He missed Tess. He couldn't even think about Richie, that wound was too fresh, too horrible. But Tessa -- he could remember her in loving detail, think about her beautiful smile, the softness of her hair. The loving battles over his need to protect her and her need for independence. Her insistence on remaining with him, even in the face of danger. She was so brave, yet he remembered her as so fragile and tiny. Even the hands that she claimed were "paws," which he knew were strong from the demands of her artwork, were half the size of his own. But it didn't matter; Tess had a lion's heart, utterly courageous. Lost to him now.
He felt swamped in sorrow, about to drown in it. Which was ridiculous. Enough time had passed, five years he'd been without Tess. Long enough to accept the loss, to move on. Yet he hadn't. Oh, he hadn't been celibate all these years, but there had been no love like Tessa in that time. Amanda's easy camaraderie, which included lovemaking, was the closest he'd come. Maybe her recent involvement with Nick was part of his depression tonight. He'd hardly seen Amanda since her return to Paris.
He missed so many friends. He'd give anything to have Fitz alive in the world, or Darius. Someone to visit, someone to jolly him out of his depression and share a meal with him. Instead, Joe's decision to visit his family stateside for the holidays had left him completely alone, anticipating a solitary restaurant meal for Christmas.
He was lonely, plain and simple. That's why he was thinking so much about Tess, about lost chances and the eternal loneliness of immortality.
When he finally headed back toward the barge, he was exhausted. Though his heart was still heavy, he knew he'd be able to sleep at last, sleep and forget about all the death, all the missing ones. And then he felt it, the unmistakable buzz of presence coming from his residence. He realized he didn't have to wonder who it was, he knew that presence as if it were a part of him. Still, habit made him draw his sword as he approached and opened the door.
The room was bright, every light on. There was fresh coffee brewing, something was in the oven and smelled heavenly, and the stereo was blasting holiday music -- not one of his CDs, he was sure. He heard the shower running and knew where his uninvited, unexpected guest was.
He moved to the door and rapped on it lightly. "Methos? Did you drown in there?"
"Very funny, MacLeod. This stupid boat needs a heated towel bar, you should get yourself one. That damn fireplace does nothing for the temperature in here!" The door opened, steam rolled out, and a wide-eyed, wet-haired Methos peered out. "Damn. Get out of my way, Mac." He made a beeline for the fireplace, wearing only his jeans, and began pulling clothing out of his pack, which had evidently been left there to thaw out. "Bloody hell. This is still wet. Can I borrow a sweater and some socks, Mac?" But he was already in the dresser drawers, pulling out a thermal shirt, a cashmere sweater, and two pairs of socks before MacLeod could answer him.
"Good to see you, too, Mac." Evidently his sarcasm was unaffected by the cold. "Happy birthday, by the way. And happy holidays, all that jazz. Listen, if you won't talk, will you pull dinner out of the oven and set the table?" Silently, MacLeod moved to obey him, his mind racing.
He'd never expected to see Methos tonight. Possibly never again. They'd never really recovered from the events -- was it over two years ago? -- that led to Richie's death. Methos had been around, on and off, but their friendship had never recovered, never returned to the easy companionship they'd shared before Kronos came to Seacouver. Even when Methos saved his life the night O'Rourke took Amanda and Joe hostage, he'd had difficulty speaking to the man. And that vision he'd experienced, where he "saw" Methos become evil again, ride willingly with Kronos, kill Richie --
Somehow that was the most disturbing part of the dream, the part that he still had nightmares about. He never dreamt of Tessa, living with her husband and children but unable to create. He didn't wake up screaming for Amanda, killed in his vision by renegade Watchers, or Joe Dawson, who'd become a pathetic wino. But the image of Methos and Kronos presiding over Richie's death, that was a frequent companion. Did he even trust Methos any longer?
"Mac, I'm starting to get the impression you didn't want company tonight. Are you expecting someone? Should I leave?" Methos, wearing more of Mac's clothes than one man should need indoors, was staring at him pathetically, his still-damp hair crazily poking out and his hands tucked in his armpits, as though he were freezing.
"Have a cup of coffee." He didn't know what else to do, what else to say. He was so unsure of his own feelings that he couldn't speak, couldn't reassure Methos. It might be best if he left, if they never saw each other again. He'd been wishing for a companion, but not Methos. Not someone he could never know or trust, someone whose ideas were so different from his own. Someone who manipulated and angered him so easily.
Not Methos, that was the bottom line. He wanted a friend, true enough. A companion, a buddy, even a lover. Not a challenge, a disruption, teacher-protector-betrayer. Even as he dished out the food, a frittata, and Methos joined him at the table, he was thinking of how to word his request to be left alone, to be freed from the chaos Methos brought to his life.
But the words remained in his head, never voiced. They ate, drank coffee, devoured toast with far too much butter. Methos talked, long stories about his latest trip, then mentioned running into Warren Cochran while in Canada. Methos reported that Warren seemed to be recovered from killing his student. Subdued, but again looking for causes to champion, people to protect. MacLeod knew it wasn't his imagination when he felt Methos' eyes on him as he concluded the tale, watching MacLeod as he sipped his coffee thoughtfully.
"So Mac. What have you been up to?"
"Seen Amanda lately?"
"No, she's in town and she's opened a club. But she's.. we've been too busy to get together."
"I hear Joe went to Chicago for the holidays."
"Yeah. Even a Watcher deserves a holiday now and then."
"True. I suppose I don't have to ask if there's anyone new in your life. Spending your birthday alone -- unless she's working tonight?"
"No, Methos. There's no one in my life, no one at all." He felt his control breaking, but couldn't stop. "There won't be anyone in my life, I'm a killer and a danger to those around me. My immortality has become a curse to me, and I'm doomed to a life alone, solitary, with memories of the dead for company, those I've failed, those I've killed. Only this and nothing more." He stopped the rush of words, suddenly ashamed of his self-pity. Methos knew the loneliness, the loss. He'd seen him bury Alexa, knew there were sixty-eight wives dead. "I'm sorry, Methos."
"No need, Mac. I understand." There was no sarcasm in the words, and the sympathy was so unexpected that MacLeod looked up and met the hazel eyes for the first time that night. "I do know what it's like, MacLeod. The losses, even what you and Cochran have gone through. I've killed a student, more than once."
MacLeod's mind projected an image of Methos kissing Richie gently before swinging to take his head. "No!" The dead silence made him open the eyes he didn't remember closing. "I'm sorry, I'm remembering something..." He moved from the table to the chair next to the fire, but Methos was right beside him in a moment.
"What is it, Mac? What have I done now?" The voice was strangely gentle, despite the harsh question. "Does it profane Richie's death to compare it to Silas'?"
"Silas was your student?" His head shot up in astonishment.
"Yes. I realize I wasn't tricked by a millennial demon, I *was* actively trying to kill him, but it hurt nonetheless. He was my student, my friend and brother for a thousand years. And despite the Horsemen, a gentle soul." Methos looked into the fire. "He was only as evil as I taught him to be."
"I didn't realize. I'm sorry, Methos." He knew it was time, he'd have to confess now. Methos was being honest with him, and he owed the man reciprocal candor. At the very least. "Last year, when O'Rourke shot me, I had a dream while I was unconscious." He felt Methos' eyes on his face, but he couldn't meet them. "In this vision, I'd never been born. And things were wrong, all my friends were still being hunted by Horton and his group. Joe couldn't stop them alone, the Watchers had disintegrated." He stopped, unable to go on.
"And? What did I do, MacLeod?"
"You loved a girl, a Watcher. Horton killed her, tried to kill you. Kronos saved you." He choked on the words, Kronos as savior, and felt the anger wash through him again. "You went back with him, rode with him again, willingly."
"No, that's not all. Richie needed a teacher, and you found him. Then you killed him." MacLeod's face was anguished. "It wasn't even a challenge, you just made him kneel and took his head."
"I killed Richie? Hm. Tell me how it happened, everything. Didn't he try to defend himself?"
"No." MacLeod choked and sobbed. "He never even lifted his sword, didn't even have it up protecting his throat like I'd taught him! I saw him, there were so many of them taunting me, and when I swung -- he never expected it, never believed I'd kill him." He was melting into tears, sliding out of the chair and into Methos' strong embrace, and howling his loss and anger. "I never believed I'd kill him, and I don't know why he trusted me, even after those other times."
Methos held him, stroked the hair out of his eyes as his tears wet the borrowed sweater. MacLeod gasped for air and continued sobbing. It felt like the torrent of tears would never stop.
When MacLeod came back to himself, he was on the floor, his head in Methos' lap. Methos' hand was on his chest, his head twisted back against the cushion of the chair, asleep. He'd pulled the comforter over the two of them without moving too much or waking MacLeod. Duncan lay there, looking up at the stretch of exposed neck, feeling the warmth of the hand on him. The last time he'd looked up and seen Methos, he'd been following Fitz's instructions, making his way back to this time, this reality.
Tonight he'd done it again, made his way back from the isolated hell his own guilt had driven him into. He wondered if Methos had somehow known, somehow discerned what he was going through. Just what was this connection between them?
Laying there, listening to Methos' soft snores, he realized that the story of "running into" Warren was a lie, one of Methos' more transparent attempts to help him. Methos had searched out Warren Cochran, no doubt using Watcher resources he wasn't welcome to use. What was he hoping? To bring Warren to MacLeod so they could share the guilt and grief and horror of what they'd both done? Or simply to give MacLeod a chance to forgive Warren, and thereby himself?
*Methos is going to have a very sore neck,* he thought, and moved to an upright position.
"Methos?" He gently shook him, then smiled at the sleepy eyes as they opened. "Thank you. Above and beyond, my friend. I appreciate it."
"No big deal, Mac. Can I have the sofa?" he yawned as he cracked his neck. "You don't mind if I stay tonight?"
"You're welcome. Let me say it once and for all, my barge is your barge. I'm glad to have you here with me." Methos' genuine smile was a beautiful thing.
"Glad you've re-furnished the barge since last year's fire sale look." MacLeod remained on the floor, watching the older man gather blankets, perfectly at home, and move to the sofa with pillows and his bedding.
"So which hotel is Warren at?"
"What?" Methos spun so quickly it was comical, and MacLeod felt like laughing for the first time in months.
"Well, I suppose you might not have dragged him all the way here, though you *are* a persistent lad." MacLeod smiled at the astonishment on his friend's face. "Still, I'll bet we can be wherever Warren is in a day or so. Maybe spend the holidays together?"
"Don't worry, Methos. It was a great idea, one of your better plans. Let's see, how would Amanda put it? Manipulative, sneaky -- just like you!" And he did laugh, loudly, still able to hear when Methos joined him.
"I said you were bright, MacLeod. Cochran's at the Imperial, room 825. Give him a call, I'm getting some sleep."
"You can afford to put Warren up there, but you're sleeping here?"
"What makes you think I'm paying?"
"He's a Scot like me, remember?"
"Fine. Well, I can afford it because I don't spend recklessly on myself. When you have a perfectly comfortable sofa, why do I need hotels?"
MacLeod laughed and moved to the phone. By the time he hung up, having arranged to see Warren the next afternoon, Methos was asleep. MacLeod shut off the lights, stoked the fire, and then stood where he could see the tip of Methos' nose poking out of the blankets he was cocooned inside.
Maybe it wasn't the kind of friendship he'd expected. It wasn't comfortable, it wasn't easy. But it was -- cherished. He felt beloved and he treasured Methos in return. Maybe that was the kind of friendship he needed, after all. MacLeod fell asleep, listening to the other man's breathing in the darkness.
The poem: The first two stanzas of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," as assigned by Erin Logan, who may have hoped for an Amanda story but got this. Inspired by certain elements of these stanzas and the overall mood of the piece.
Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door -
Only this and nothing more.'
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.
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