"Tightening Spiral", Chapter 29, "Sins of Omission" by Leslie Fish
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Standard fanfiction disclaimer: no harm, no foul, no money.

TIGHTENING SPIRAL

by Leslie Fish

Chapter 29, “Sins of Omission”


Amanda kept her eyes on Nick as he practiced. The mortal teacher was good, very good for a mortal: good enough to start Nick on his studies, at least. Soon enough her fledgling would need better teachers, but that time was not yet.


It still shook her to think of being a Teacher. She hadn't been anyone's Teacher in so very long, and the responsibility was crushing. With a twinge of old pain, she remembered Rebbecca.


“Well?” snapped Cassandra, impatient with the growing silence.


Amanda felt a frown crease her forehead, and smoothed it deliberately. She'd never liked Cassandra, and not just because the witch had power over Duncan. <i>I've never trusted fanatics,</i> she considered, <I>...And Cassandra has all the earmarks of one.</i> The problem was that she could never quite tell just what Cassandra's fanaticism was. The very idea of religious fanaticism in a Pagan was ludicrous, but her current story – bizarre as it was – seemed pointed in that direction. Amanda turned her head slowly, favoring Cassandra with a look of cool disdain.


“Darling,” she purred, “You must realize how utterly mad this story of yours sounds.”


“It's true!” Cassandra seethed. “There are people you could talk to who can confirm it.”


“Oh?” Amanda arched an elegant eyebrow. “Name them.”


“There's Joe, for one.” Cassandra actually seemed flustered. “Then there's Dr. Rabinowitz – do you know her?”


“Yes. Do go on.” Amanda wasn't about to yield an inch.


“There's Duncan MacLeod, if you can reach him, and...” Cassandra screwed up her face as if she'd tasted an exceedingly sour lemon. “...Methos.”


“Who's conveniently unreachable,” Amanda noted, not bothering to add that Methos was usually unreachable.


“He's with Duncan, on his island.” Cassandra's expression didn't change.


Amanda wondered again, briefly, just what was the problem between Methos and Cassandra. All she'd ever been able to pry out of Duncan, or Joe, was that Methos had done Cassandra some insult in the very far distant past. Amanda thought of various Immortals who'd done her harm in the not-so-distant past; she'd never bothered with them unless they'd crossed her path again, and she couldn't imagine why Cassandra made a point of carrying a grudge so hard for so long.


“Why haven't you asked Duncan to be your Mighty Warrior?” Amanda couldn't resist asking. “He did defeat your Ahriman once before, after all.”


“This is different!” Cassandra snapped. “Besides, he's still...hurting, and I don't want to interfere with his recovery.”


<I>Is that actual sympathy, or something else?</I> Amanda pondered. It would be just too delicious if Duncan had had a falling out with Cassandra. “Well, why not Methos, then?” she couldn't help digging in the needle. “He's far better at sword-work than I am.”


“Trust him? With a task like this?!” Cassandra's face was screwed up to the point where it resembled a prune. “He'd switch sides in an instant!”


<I>I doubt that,</i> Amanda smiled to herself. No, this was Cassandra letting a personal grudge interfere with her life, as usual. How delightful it would be to force the woman to choose between her precious ideal and her equally precious hatred.


“I'm afraid I can't help you,” Amanda shrugged elaborately. “For one thing, I'm not the world's greatest sword-swinger. For another...” She gestured toward Nick, noting with approval how the man's muscles stood up on his sweaty arms. “...I have a prior commitment.”


“To your latest Romeo?” Cassandra fumed.


Amanda's eyes narrowed to slits. “My Student,” she corrected.


Cassandra opened her mouth, then shut it again. She rattled her fingers on her purse, then slumped, finally stood up and walked away, saying nothing.


Amanda smiled wickedly, watching her go.


*****


After half an hour of concentration, Roger MacCrimmon was forced to admit defeat. He relaxed and let his Quickening pull back to its normal range, sighing at the effort and its failure to reach his brother.


<I>...He's got to be out of range. I'd know if he were dead...</i> Roger concluded. <I>He's probably on his island, out of touch.</i> That would also explain why there had been no reply to the phonecalls, or letters or cards. <I>The mountain won't come to Mohammed. I'm just going to have to go visit him myself...</i>


The sound of John's galloping feet sounded from the staircase, reminding Roger of his other duties. <i>Ahh, but not just yet.</i> With another sigh Roger slid off the bed, slipped into his shoes and went to catch the boy before he could take off again.


Familiar sounds of thumping shoes and bureau drawers opening sounded from behind John's closed door. Roger leaned against the wall and waited, knowing that the boy would throw a tantrum if anyone opened his door and walked in and would ignore anybody knocking. After a few moments his patience was rewarded as the door swung open and John came charging out. Roger grabbed him by the nearest arm and announced: “Tag!”


John spun around wearing a furious look, but didn't try – this time – to pull his arm free. He'd learned over the past few months that it was not a good idea to get physical in any altercation with Roger. “What do you want?” he snapped, doing his best to look fierce.

“I need to talk to you,” Roger opened carefully.


“So talk, but make it fast. I'm going out... to see a girl.”


It took no psychic ability for Roger to know that the excuse was a lie. John had no steady girlfriend, despite all efforts in that department – including Roger's birthday gift of the red sports car. The boy just wanted to avoid him. “All right, I'll be quick,” said Roger. “When are you planning on going back to school?”


“I'm not!” John put on that stubborn look which meant that he was trying to shock and defy, solely for the sake of defiance. “What do I need college for, anyway? I'll have my own money when I turn 25, and won't have to work.”


“That's five years off,” Roger said mildly. “What do you intend to do in the meantime?”


“Party, and get laid!” John gave a futile yank on his arm.


“The life of a playboy gets boring very fast,” said Roger.


He released the boy's arm, letting him stumble, and waited to see if John would think to ask 'how would you know?' Instead the boy hurried away, as if afraid of saying anything more. Roger watched him go, forcibly restraining himself from using his Quickening to follow John's progress. He already knew what was in the boy's head: a constant background tone of resentment and aimlessness, alleviated only briefly by cheap thrills.


At least – thank whatever gods there might be – the boy didn't amuse himself with reckless driving. Sandra had been very wise to pay for his basic and defensive driving courses; John might drive fast, but his training kept him driving well. He'd be safe on that score. Roger had made certain of that before giving John that flashy car. First Death by traffic accident could be more than temporarily fatal; too many serious collisions ended in dismemberment.


Roger shivered, and headed for the stairwell. Best to go see how Sandra was faring; she'd been taking the brunt of John's ill-humor for months now, and it was wearing on her.


*****


The little park sat in a triangle of land between the metro-rail station, the highway and a boulevard full of trendy shops. Though few other people were in the park at this hour, crowds passed constantly in and out of the station and along the boulevard. The noise, Cardinal Rincelli reflected, was loud enough to drown out a full orchestra complete with brass section. He couldn't imagine a more distracting place to practice meditation.


Yet that was what the Psychic Army was doing. They sat on the sun-baked grass, mortals and Immortals, doing nothing but listening to the music from the CD player. Rincelli marveled that they could hear it at all, but by now they knew the music by heart anyway; all they needed were the hints of music that could be heard through the ambient noise. None of them so much as twitched when the train rolled in, screeched to a stop, and discharged a bustle of passengers. Their concentration was amazing.


<I>If they can maintain their concentration through distractions like this,</i> the cardinal smiled to himself, <I>Ahriman won't stand a chance.</i>


He only wished that Cassandra would return soon, hopefully with some reliable Immortal who could function as the Sword to the psychics' Shield. He didn't really trust his little bunch of bigoted Watchers to take on Ahriman and behead him themselves, though it might come to that if Cassandra couldn't come up with someone soon. For a moment he actually considered taking on the task himself – and then smiled again as he imagined that: a fat old mortal cardinal, wheezing as he waddled through a cave system on the Iraq border, dragging a sword. <I>Better a pistol,</i> he thought. <I>Shoot the old monster at a distance, then use the sword to behead him...</i> Oh, but even that would be better done by a younger and fitter man. The cardinal sighed as he thought of his long-lost youth.


Then a stirring went through the group of psychics. As one, they sat up straighter and turned their heads – eyes still closed – toward the southeast. For a moment Rincelli could actually feel the edge of their psychic shield as it strengthened and expanded; it felt like heat, like pressure, like static electricity – but it was none of these.


In another instant the sensation was gone. Even as the cardinal wondered if he'd really felt that, he saw Father Liam stand up slowly and pace toward him.


“We can't hold off the attack much longer,” the priest said quietly. “I think Ahriman has discovered us.”


“How...how do you know?” Rincelli felt almost faint for a moment.


“A psychic probe brushed our shields. We've felt something similar before, but this was different – unfamiliar, stronger, and with a...a nasty feel to it.”


“And...” The cardinal remembered in what direction their faces had turned. “It came from the direction of Iraq.”


“I don't think he learned anything,” said Father Liam, “But he'll surely search again. We haven't much time. A few months, perhaps...”


Cardinal Rincelli thought rapidly about the political and military situation in Iraq, and what it would take to get his contingent there safely in the first place. He groaned inwardly, hoping that Cassandra would come up with her Sword very soon.


*****


Methos glanced out the window one last time, making absolutely certain that Duncan was off memory-diving and unlikely to return for at least another two hours. Much as he disliked the thought of Duncan soaking himself in Connor's memories, still less did he want the man here right now.


Taking a deep breath, Methos settled himself cross-legged on the bearskin rug before the fireplace. He closed his eyes, shuddered once, and dredged up the memories of how to go about this. He hadn't practiced meditation in this fashion for centuries and didn't really want to do it now, but knew he had to train himself for what his own needs had made inevitable.


He slipped into the classic breathing pattern – inhale to a slow count of three, hold for an equal count of three, exhale for an equally slow count of six, then hold for another count of three – and felt himself slide into the Meditative State, The Prayerful State of Mind, Alpha State by any other name, ancient and familiar. Indeed it was like riding a bicycle, something one didn't forget. Now the grounding: feeling out the Earth beneath him, easily done. Now the centering: feeling out his own body – and especially his own Quickening. Oh yes, everything accounted for and unchanged. No, he was not going to expand or contract his Quickening, as Duncan and Connor had done; he had a different task in mind.


<i>Calm,</i> he commanded himself. <I>Dead calm. See the rage but don't feel it. Use it. Translate it into an irresistible purpose. No matter what images he throws at you, feel nothing but determination...</i> Slowly, deliberately, he pulled up one of the images from his convoluted past: a glimpse, just a quick glimpse, of the temple at Carchemish.


He was able to hold it for all of 30 seconds before the ancient horror began to claw at him.


Carefully not letting himself panic, Methos pulled away from the image and called up something steadying, calming, as an antidote. Now his inner eye beheld the cool forest and the myrtle grove on the hill above Knossos – and never mind that those trees had been cut down, the land goat-grazed barren, long ages ago. He saw again the procession to the painted marble statue of the Great Mother, heard again the sweet harmony of the chorus, smelled the flowers and the incense, and felt the vast sense of peace and the oneness of all things. Deliberately, he encapsulated the whole feeling and its attendant images under a code-word. <i>Gaia...</i> Yes, the word reliably held the image and the sense. Yes, it would come when called.


Methos pulled back, thinking of nothing for long moments, knowing he'd have to repeat the exercise again while he could. Perhaps this time he could hold off the horrors of Carchemish for as long as a whole minute. Maybe tomorrow he could expand it to two minutes. He could do this...


...no matter how it hurt. He could, because he must. He could, because Duncan had done something similar when Ahriman had attacked him. If Duncan could maintain his Zen calm against the fresh – only a year – memory of killing Richie, then Methos could do it against the much older memory of Carchemish. <I>I can, I can.</i> He damned-well would wear the horror out of that memory, like chewing the flavor out of bubble-gum, until it could never be used against him ever again.


<I>Not by Ahriman, not even by my own damned subconscious...</i>


Methos gritted his teeth, then deliberately calmed himself, and turned again to that dark image.


*****


Joe had been waiting for the call, but the vibrating of the cell-phone in his pocket still made him jump. He pulled the phone out and opened it even as he headed for the bar's office, flicking a quick hand-signal to Mike, who nodded acknowledgement. “Hello?” he said, before he even passed through the office door.


“Joe?” Yes, it was Cassandra, and she sounded... well, 'frazzled' was the best word he could think of. “Are you alone?”


“Yes, all's well,” he said, closing the door behind him. “How are you doing?”


“Not so well... Oh, dammit, Joe! I haven't been able to recruit anybody!”


“The names I gave you—“


“Spartacus refused outright. So did Amanda. Ceirdwyn's off on her honeymoon – with Cassius Polonius, if you please! – and can't be reached. Alex Raven's disappeared...”


“I know,” Joe grinned sourly. “She seems to have made peace with Marcus Remus, and he taught her a few tricks for slipping her Watcher.” He held his breath, wondering if Cassandra would take the bait and ask the obvious question.


She did. “How did that happen? She's hated Remus for 2000 years!”


<I>Nearly as long as you've hated Methos,</i> Joe carefully didn't say. “Cassius got them to sit down for an arbitration, and when they'd thrashed out their quarrel they discovered that an old enemy had been keeping it alive for them, so they agreed to go after the enemy together and then go their separate ways. This was months ago; I'm surprised you hadn't heard about it.”


“I don't keep track of Remus,” Cassandra said stiffly. “And yes, before you ask, I did try asking him for help on the project. He...refused too.”


<I>I wish I'd been a fly on the wall for that conversation,</i> Joe grinned to himself. “So, who does that leave?” <I>As if I couldn't guess!</i>


“I don't know.” Cassandra sounded honestly lost.


“Well, if you can spare a few days from training the Psychic Army, why don't you come back here and spend some time with me? We can go over the Watchers' database again...”


“I'd love to, but I can't do it now.” The iron was back in her voice. “Don't worry, Joe. I'll eventually come up with somebody.”


<I>How eventually?</i> Joe wondered, biting back his impatience. <I>How long before you realize you've got to deal with Methos?</i> “Just don't pick anyone who's less than a top-quality fighter,” he reminded her. “We have no idea how good Ahriman is.”


“I'll think of something,” she promised, “And I'll call again later.”


“Can't wait,” Joe answered, sincerely. “Kisses.”


“Hugs. Soon as I can, love. 'Bye.”


Joe sighed as he turned off the phone and closed it, wondering who would be next to hear Cassandra's recruiting speech. She could search the Watchers' database with Rincelli as easily as she could here, and it was anyone's guess whom she'd pick. Maybe he could do some searching himself and second-guess her. Joe sat down at his computer and worked the mouse until the screen-saver faded.


What appeared next was the last thing he'd been reading, which was Methos' latest excerpt from The Book.


<i>Damn, I forgot about that.</I> Joe couldn't help taking up the account where he'd left off last night, for it made fascinating reading. Connor's secret use of Nakano's Trick was impressive, and Joe wondered how he'd kept that ability hidden all these years.


He suddenly remembered Cassandra's visit in Scotland, last Christmas – and realized, with a startling impact, that Connor had actually frightened her. <i>Nakano's trick, on top of the Kurgan's Quickening... What kind of powers did Connor have, at the end? ...And why didn't he use them against Kell?</i>


Joe stared at the screen for long moments, bitterly wishing that Connor was still alive.


*****


Duncan leaned against the tree, soaking in the peace of the island's autumn, quietly preparing himself for another dive into Connor's memories. He was up to the early days of World War Two, and knew that the memories would grow painful soon enough; he would need his trained Zen calm to face them. Another deep slow breath, and he was ready to continue. Duncan closed his eyes and turned deliberately to that place in the back of his mind where the packet of memories waited. There...


<I>Connor darted across the rubble-filled street and ducked into the shelter of a half-demolished building, clutching his rifle close. The sound of gunfire sounded less than a block away. He mentally counted his ammunition, calculated the distance to the storm-sewer outlet, and wondered how many Jews had escaped down it already. Had he lured the German troops far enough away from it? How soon could he turn back and make use of it himself?


Ah, not yet: here came a squad of them up the street, poking into the emptied buildings, firing at anything that looked like cover. A squad... But only a squad. The others must be busy elsewhere, probably on the next street over. Damn, but wasn't that where Alex Raven's contingent was stuffing more escapees into the sewers? He'd have to draw attention this way.


...No rest for the weary,” he muttered, pulling the rifle to his shoulder and sighting down it at the last man in line. Carefully, slowly, he squeezed the trigger.


CRACK! —Yes, and the last man dropped neatly, a small round hole suddenly apparent between his eyes. Hopefully the sound had echoed oddly through the ragged buildings, and the Germans wouldn't be sure where the shot came from. Yes, there: they saw their fallen comrade and dived for the nearest cover, looking around wildly to see the source of the shot. One of them, possibly the commanding non-com, fired at a semi-intact building across the street. The rest of them followed his lead, hiding themselves from the wrong angle of attack. Connor smiled grimly, aimed at another, and squeezed the trigger again.


The second man jerked and lay still, blood spouting from his neck. His fellows hadn't noticed yet, and were still firing across the street. Connor drew aim on the one who appeared to be the commander, and squeezed again.


That man didn't die inconspicuously. He jerked, gave a strangled cough, half-turned and fell on his back with blood spurting from his shattered throat. His remaining troops – all three of them – gaped for a moment, then started ducking and firing in all directions. That was surely noise enough to draw the rest of their platoon away from the next street. Connor guessed that he could creep away now...


Bitte, mein herr,” said a small voice next to him.


Connor flinched, barely remembered to keep down, and looked.


A little curly-haired blonde girl sat huddled behind a heap of bricks right next to him, peering up at him with solemn eyes. She'd been so still, so quiet, he hadn't noticed her. And she'd kept quiet while she watched him shoot the Germans, kept quiet until she knew which side he was on. So bitterly wise, and she couldn't be more than six.


Please, sir,” she repeated softly. “Take me away from here.”


Connor knew, without thinking, that he would have to do exactly that. Smothering a curse, he snapped off three more shots in two seconds, and killed the last of the German squad. “I will,” he promised the little girl, as he slung his rifle on his shoulder.


She made not a sound as he bent down and picked her up, and she kept perfectly still while he darted through the half-ruined building and into the alley behind, then between two more tottering ruins and away from the sound of German shouts and pounding boots on cobblestones. She said nothing until he ducked into the hidden storm-drain entrance two blocks away.


When he set her on her feet she calmly straightened her dress and said: “Danke shoen.”


Her courage shook him. “What's your name?” he asked, only wanting to reassure her.


Rachel Ellerstein,” she replied. “And you?”


Connor MacLeod,” he gave his real name, rattled by the thought that he had – in only a handful of seconds – tacitly agreed to take responsibility for this amazing child.


That's not a Jewish name,” said the little girl, looking surprised.


Connor couldn't help smiling at her. “No, and it's not German, either. Ah, where do you live?”


Nowhere.” Her face looked resigned more than sad, certainly not frightened. “My house blew up.”


Uh, and where are your parents?” Connor was almost afraid to ask.


Dead.” Honest sorrow stained her resignation, but didn't shake it. “They were too big to hide under rocks.”


Connor drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He knew without thinking about it that he was going to carry this child to safety – all the way to New York – and adopt her, and raise her as his own. He bent down to pull up the hidden drain-cover. “This way,” he whispered. “We'll be safe here.”


The little girl looked at him for only a moment, then clambered into the hole. As Connor slithered after her, pulling the manhole-cover in place behind him, he realized that she too had made a snap judgment — and found him worthy of complete trust – after watching him fight. He knew of adults, some of them Immortals, who weren't that keen-sighted.


*****

Duncan quietly shut down the memory right there, and rubbed his eyes until he saw sparks behind his eyelids. Yes, that was Rachel: Connor's adopted mortal daughter. He understood perfectly why Connor had loved her so much, why her death had hurt him so much. For all their brevity, mortal lives could blaze so brightly...


<I>Tessa!</i>


Duncan bit back a groan as that memory stabbed him, the old grief suddenly fresh. He rocked back and forth, knowing by now how to deal with this pain: let it roll through him, through and out, not resisting. He knew, he knew it would fade, fade as the sharp grief for Connor was slowly fading. Let it happen, endure, wait, it would pass – but oh, the pain while it lasted!


<I>...wait, wait...</i> Yes, it was passing, slipping away like a wave back down the beach. Duncan drew a deep breath and raised his head, slightly dizzy from the aftermath of the feeling. A few more measured breaths and even that faded, leaving him calm again. Automatically he reached for The Book and its pen, ready to write down the memory while it was sharp and clear.


As he flipped through the pages it occurred to him that he hadn't felt – or heard from – Methos. Usually these spasms of grief would reverberate down the psychic link, Methos would feel them and respond. Puzzled, Duncan stretched a tendril of his Quickening. Ah yes, there was Methos – inside the house, practicing...


Ah, practicing meditation! That would explain it. Sufficient meditation could not only draw the Quickening down to skin-level; it could also tighten the energy into an unbreachable shield. Despite his dislike of Nakano's techniques, Methos was willing to learn from them.


Reassured, Duncan turned his attention to The Book.


*****


It was the Hour of the Shield-Dance at the villa, the time before dinner, and by now everyone on the team had learned to join in. The psychics had also agreed on a Battle Anthem, which was actually a suite of songs. To the opening drum-beats of “Mille Annee Passe Sunt” they joined hands in their now-standard line formation: Father Liam first, then Lama Shendang, then Sally-Jean Funderburke, then Rabbi Zorbinski, Brother Enoch, Ibn-Suleiman, Father Tomas, Sister Felizia, and Mama Lavecchia bringing up the end. As the music swung into its droning, somber slow-march rhythm, they strode into the simple Grapevine Step and Father Liam led them steadily around the wide room.


All of them dropped into light-trance state and into rapport at the same moment, as had become second nature by now, and all of them could feel the shield rising. Under its cover, holding the all-important mood, each of them ran through the exercise-list of their own personal demons with no change in emotion. Father Liam studied the image of Annie Devlin with no more than a distant pity. Lama Shendang looked straight into the face of the Yeti with a smile of appreciation for the wide variety of living things. Rabbi Zorbinski studied a ranting Hitler with no more than a tired contempt for the lunatic and all who swallowed his flattering madness. Brother Enoch faced again the greedy headhunting Immortal, and felt only a cool sadness for the sheer waste of the Game. Father Tomas pictured Napoleon's soldiers, looting and killing gleefully, with no more than a lofty contempt for their childish viciousness. Sister Felizia remembered Mau-Mau goons making deliberate effort to slaughter and mutilate mortals and animals, and felt nothing but a distant disgust. As for Mama Lavecchia, no one could guess what had ever in this world frightened that placid old woman.


The music accelerated, swinging into the faster rhythms of “Saltarello”, and the little company of psychics increased the pace of the Grapevine Step. The emotional tone flowing off them like body-heat shifted from a calm determination to an almost merry exaltation. They circled and meandered back and forth across the floor, radiating a psychic wave that could be felt physically. The song ended and the music shifted again, into “Ya Hazain”, at which Ibn-Suleiman smiled faintly and added a skipping step to the dance. When the end of the song segued into “Es Der Ravi Tanz”, Zorbinski likewise added a skip and a smile, and Ibn-Suleiman did not lose his. By the last song, “Douce Dame Juliet”, the curtains were swaying as if windblown – but the windows were closed.


<I>They're perfect,</i> thought Cassandra, watching them in something close to awe. <I>Even physical weapons would have trouble getting through that shield!</i> No, in all her 3000 years experience, she had never met a unified psychic combat unit as strong as this one, not even the fiercely praying nuns of the Stella Maris sanctuary. <I>Still, it's time to start them getting used to body-armor...and perhaps physical weapons...</i>


She felt a stab of guilt that she hadn't held up her end, hadn't found them a competent Sword yet. <I>Dammit, it isn't my fault that no Immortal believes in Ahriman these days! No one but...</i> She bit off that thought. No, she would not involve Duncan in this. But, dammit, who did that leave?


<I>Methos.</i>


This time Cassandra actually paused to list some logical reasons why Methos was impossible before she shoved the idea away entirely.


*****


“We can always throw him out.” Sandra sat upright in the heavy oak chair, looking eerily like a judge pronouncing sentence. “He'll be 21 soon. The way the will is set up, I can legally give him an ultimatum: go back to college or be pitched out of the house. He'll still get his allowance, but then he'd have to live entirely off it. He'd have to pay his own room and board, which might be an enlightening experience for him.”


Roger MacCrimmon shook his head, hard. “I can't believe you're saying this!” he snapped. “Throw him out— He wouldn't last a month on the mean streets, and you know it! John's so damned naive about so much... “


“And that's our fault. We shouldn't have raised him as a rich man's son, protected and...well, coddled. Look, he'd be no worse off than your average college drop-out – better off than a lot of them, with his income – and most of them survive to grow up.”


“Sandra...” MacCrimmon pulled a deep breath. He'd never really discussed this with Sandra, though part of it she must surely have guessed. “He's a pre-Immortal. What if he gets himself killed far from home, revives where other people can see, and has no clue what he is or what it means? Never mind how...unspeakably cruel that would be to him; think what would happen if mortals learn about Immortals among them! This isn't just our secret, my love.”


Sandra froze, thinking that over.


“We have to keep him close,” MacCrimmon pushed the point home. “We have to keep watch on him, preferably without him knowing it. We can't send him away.”


Sandra rattled her fingertips on the arm of the chair. “In that case, why risk sending him to university? He could have gotten killed there, too.”


“There was much less risk there than out on the streets.”


“True...” Sandra sagged back in the chair, defeated. “Then how in hell do we make him stop sulking and pitying himself, and grow up?”


“I don't know,” MacCrimmon admitted. “All I can think of is to keep being kind and patient, and for me to keep trying to teach him martial arts.”


“And proceed slowly with the wedding plans,” Sandra finished. “Well, I've been patient this long...”


“I love you, you know.”


“I know. And I love you, too.”


*****


Methos hesitated for a long moment before picking up the cell-phone, wondering about his growing paranoia over the silly thing. <I>Of course it's a radio, and anyone with the right equipment can listen in,</i> he replied to himself, <I>But just who would bother? Who would think to listen in on me talking to Joe?</I> Ah, but the answer to that was too easy. <I>The rest of the Watchers.</i> Despite Joe's assurances, he couldn't be certain that all of the Sanctuary sympathizers had been rounded up and sent off to sunny Italy. For all he knew, they could be surrounding the island with any of a dozen kinds of surveillance gear...


Then again, they could just as easily be reading his email. There was no guarantee of secrecy with any electronics.


Methos swore, picked up the phone and dialed Joe's bar.


“Hello?” said the familiar voice.


“Ah, can you give us a delivery?” said Methos, doing his best to sound chipper.


Joe wasn't fooled. “Tell me what you need,” he said, something in his tone ringing just as false as Methos'.


“A case of LaBatt's Blue, and...the news,” Methos improvised, trying to laugh at himself.


“Coming in an hour,” Joe promised. “Meet you at the same old place.”


<I>The bridge,</i> Methos translated. “That'll be fine. An hour, then.”


“Right.” Joe hung up decisively.


Methos followed, a little more slowly, looking coldly at just what his problem was. <I>Combat mode.</i> Like it or not, most of his mind was preparing for the battle with Ahriman. His subconscious was giving him no other choice; he had to be in at the death of his ancient enemy.


But that necessarily meant taking Duncan along.


Methos leaned his head on his forearms and swore quietly in a dozen languages. No, he no longer feared Connor as a psychic rival for Duncan, but his own knotty subconscious had stuck him between two more miserable choices. He'd only traded one dilemma for another.


*****


“What, exactly, did you feel?” Cassandra asked. “What kind of psychic presence?”


“It was simply the touch of another presence,” Father Tomas tried to put the sensation into words. “A mind that was...distinctly not that of anyone physically present.”


“It was the...background tone of another personality,” Sister Felizia explained, “And it was not a...nice personality.”


“Not like that we've felt before, betimes,” Sally-Jean Funderburke still struggled a bit with Latin.


“You've felt another?” Cassandra caught that. “Before this?”


“Many times,” Doveed Zorbinski admitted. “I confess, it took me some time – and practice – to realize that it was the same mind, each time.”


“That was after we learned to sense the minds of others, generally,” Ibn-Suleiman put in, not to be outdone. “We learned that minds have different, hmmm, textures.”


“But this persistent mind,” Cassandra coaxed, “What was it like? Could you tell its source?”


“It didn't feel, well, malign,” Brother Enoch considered. “It felt only curious. It looked at us for awhile, and then passed on.”


“I thought it was something to do with the Church,” Father Liam admitted, “For I could tell that it came from the north and west. Rome lies in that direction.”


<I>Not a bad guess,</i> Cassandra thought. <I>If Rincelli could get permission for this project, then the Church must know something about psychic practice in general. It's reasonable that they'd study the phenomenon, possibly create another team of their own, for their own purposes...</i> “But this second mind,” she pulled them back to her original question, “This malign one. Why did you think it was Ahriman?”


“Direction.” Mama Lavecchia grimaced. “It came, most distinctly, from the east...and perhaps a bit south. We know what powerful psychic lives there.”


Cassandra leaned forward, trying not to let her tension show. “Could you pick up any of its thoughts? Could you tell what it learned of you?”


“Not much,” Lama Shendang laughed. “It touched upon us, just long enough to give an impression of its character, and then it fled away. I believe it did not like the taste of our shield, our combined mood.”


“Let's hope so,” said Cassandra. “If it didn't learn our purpose, we have a bit more time for planning.”


“We have time,” Mama Lavecchia smiled. “That old devil has not moved from his hiding-hole in all these centuries; I doubt if he would run away from them now.”


“But he might try to attack us, before we're ready.” Cassandra shuddered, thinking of how the monster might try to sow dissension among the psychics, of what he might try to make them do.


“I think we're ready,” the old woman smiled, “In everything but battle tactics. Hah, let him try to attack us by psychic means! We'll break his teeth.”


The others laughed – not fiercely but almost gently, as if planning to scold a naughty child. There was no anger or fear in them, nothing for Ahriman to use. Cassandra felt as if a weight was sliding off her shoulders. No, indeed, Ahriman could do nothing to her Psychic Army.


That left only the minor problem of the renegade Watchers.


And, of course, finding a reliable Immortal to be her Sword.


*****


Joe pulled himself out of the car, set himself carefully on his feet, and cast a calculating glance at the case of beer on the front passenger's seat. Walking around the car, opening the other door, picking up that load and closing the car-door after him would be a pesky little problem in logistics for a man with two plastic legs. He glanced toward the bridge and saw, yes, a tall figure on it walking toward him.


“Hey, buddy,” he called to the oncoming Immortal. “I'll swap you this beer for a computer disc.”


Methos smiled and picked up his pace. “How could I resist a bribe like that?” he smiled, reaching into his jacket pocket. “He's up to the 1940s now.”


“Ah,” was all Joe said. The Watchers' records on Connor were quiet extensive for that period, though there were plenty of tantalizing gaps that he'd love to see filled in. “You'll have to come and get the beer yourself.”


“Done.” Methos pulled the plastic envelope and unmarked disc out of his pocket and handed it to Joe. “Now if you'll just be so good as to unlock that bloody door?”


It took only a moment to complete the trade, but Methos paused to set down the beer on the ground. “Joe,” he said quietly, “I really do have to go on the Ahriman hunt. How can you get me in?”


<I>I knew something was bugging him.</i> Joe leaned his weight against the car's hood. “Cassandra's looking for an Immortal to be the warrior, the Sword for her Shield. She needs someone who'll believe in Ahriman and the necessity of killing the old bastard, someone who's a good enough fighter to take him down, no matter how good he is...”


“I daresay he hasn't had much practice, living in a cave for a few thousand years,” Methos smiled grimly. “Of course, I suppose he could call disciples to him, to teach him or to practice on.”


“We have no idea how good he is,” Joe agreed. “But Cassandra's running out of candidates, and out of options. Eventually she'll have to consider Duncan, or you. Or you could speed up the process...”


“I know.” Methos gave a flicker of that grim smile again. “I've been in contact with her, though she doesn't know it. Bless the anonymity of the Internet.”


“Aha! So you really are 'Adam Longstreet'?”


Methos raised a surprised eyebrow. “Very good, Joe.”


“Hey, ever since I ran into you, I've been suspicious of anybody named Adam who's got any contact with the Watchers, or the Immortals. You're making me paranoid, Old Man.”


“'Total paranoia is total awareness',” Methos quoted, then frowned. “I...fear that I'll never stop being paranoid if I don't go after Ahriman. That's why I have to be in at the death.”


“I thought it was something like that.” Joe looked him up and down. “Can you tell me just what dirt the old devil did to you?”


Methos quivered, though his face stayed immobile. He was silent for so long the Joe thought he might not answer, but finally he stirred. “Joe,” he said, very quietly, “I have reason to think that it was Ahriman who started The Game.”


Joe's jaw dropped. “...Huh?” was all he managed to say.


“I remember a time before, nearly four thousand years ago, before the Fall of the World...” Methos pulled in a ragged breath. “Back then, before Ahriman rose the first time, there was no Game. Can you understand me? There was no Game!”


“Then...” Joe got his voice to work. “There really was a time when...the Immortals lived together, like a tribe...”


“More like a...a professional association.” Methos tried to smile again, but it looked wretched. “Have you ever wondered about the old legends of elves, faeries, leprechauns, and the gods of ancient Egypt, and Greece, and all that?”


“...You?” Joe whispered.


“Just once, in ancient Egypt. I didn't like it.”


“But...” Joe drew a deep breath and shook his head as if to clear it. “When did it change?”


“Just over three thousand years ago.” Methos looked away, then looked at the ground.


Joe caught the reference. “About the time you joined the—“ He stopped himself just in time.


“Don't ask!” Methos snapped, his face going tight. “I'll tell you about it sometime, but... not just now. Suffice it to say, I badly need to kill Ahriman.”


“I see.”


“The problem is... Mac won't let me go alone.”


“Oh.”


“I mustn't let him be harmed!” Methos' eyes held a suspicious glitter, as if holding back tears. “That's the hard part. “How do I go to the hunting, with him tagging along, and keep him safe?”


“That,” Joe guessed, “Is what's chewing you up, right?”


Methos looked away quickly, and rubbed a hand across his eyes.


“Let him be your shield-mate, as the Vikings put it,” Joe suggested carefully. “Remember, he's faced this thing before.”


“And at what cost, we both know. He's only half-healed from this loss; I don't want the scars of that one torn open.”


Joe rubbed his chin, thinking fast. “He dealt with that one, remember. And don't forget, this time you'll both be under the protection of the Psychic Army's shield. ...Not to mention Cassandra.”


Methos twitched, and tried to smile again.


“I think she'll be willing to put aside her quarrel with you long enough to get Ahriman, and she wouldn't do anything to hurt Mac. ...Still, it would be best if you can settle with her before you go on the hunt.”


“I'd like nothing better,” Methos sighed. “Do you have any thoughts on how to accomplish that little thing?”


“No,” Joe admitted, “On that point, I confess, I'm shit out of ideas.”


“I'll think about it.” Methos resolutely picked up the case of beer and turned toward the bridge. “Thanks, Joe.”


“Eh? For the beer?”


“For being a good friend.”


*****


Cassandra searched further through the Watchers' notes, growing steadily more dismayed. No, there was no one else old enough, no one who would both believe in Ahriman and was good enough with a sword, and particularly no one with any proven psychic ability. It was plain that she herself was the most powerful psychic among the Immortals still living. <i>...And I,</i> she admitted to herself, <I>Am third-rate, at best, with a sword.</i>


That, she understood coldly, was why she had so often called on Duncan to fight her battles for her. There had been others before him, too: men both mortal and immortal. In a sudden burst of shame she understood that this was why Cierdwyn and Alex Raven – ancient Celtic warrior-women – had always been distant with her; their coolness was not jealousy, but contempt. To them, she must have appeared as weak and helpless as any 'proper' female of the 18th or 19th centuries. That was a bitter pill to swallow.


<I>Can I change?</I> she wondered. Was there time enough – and were there teachers good enough – to turn her into an expert, sufficient to take down an unknown quality as old as Ahriman, in only a few months' time? <I>Unlikely.</I>


No, there was no help for it; she must find someone else to be her Sword. But what possible candidates were left?


Despairing, she ran through the records again. Yes, there was one perfect candidate – brilliant with the sword, with proven psychic ability, and more than willing to believe in Ahriman – but dammit, he was dead.


“Damn you, Connor!” she whispered aloud. “Why didn't you ask for help? Why didn't you use the powers you got from the Kurgan, and Nakano? Why didn't you...”


She went quiet then, vividly remembering who had – in the end – gotten those powers, with Connor's Quickening. Her choices kept narrowing down, inevitably, to Duncan. But there were two very good reasons not to involve Duncan: first, that he was emotionally fragile right now, and second, any contact with him meant dealing with Methos, too.


For once, Cassandra could <I>feel</I> her automatic cringe at the thought of Methos. She recalled the words “conditioned reflex”, and felt a spurt of impatience at herself. Dammit, she should be able to think about that man calmly, rationally, without an emotional spasm, after all this time. She should be able to...


<I>What if I could manipulate Methos...</i> Once she dared to think of it, the idea had a certain appeal. If she could get Methos to go after Ahriman, if she could be sure of his determination to kill Ahriman rather than turn on his allies... If he died in the attempt, so much the better; he could distract Ahriman, at least, long enough for someone else to dart in and kill the monster. An Immortal was never so helpless as in the grip of a Quickening, and a Quickening as vast as Methos' would take several minutes to absorb. Ahriman would be helpless for that long.


Cassandra thought of herself absorbing the Quickening from Ahriman, just after he'd glutted himself on Methos, and wondered – slightly awed – if she could hold herself intact against that much power. She remembered Joe's account of the Dark Quickening, and what it had taken Duncan to pull himself out of it. <i>...And he had help, from...</i>


Oh no, it would be better by far to stick to the planned strategy: the multiple Shared Quickening, dividing all that power – and all that evil personality – among several Immortals, all of them trained to withstand it. It wouldn't matter, then, just who struck off the monster's head. Yes, better so.


Cassandra turned back to the records displayed on the computer's screen, still hoping for some hint of a better candidate, of some other way. If she didn't find one, she knew, then yes – she would have to recruit Duncan MacLeod.


And Methos.


*****


Duncan finished the last word, capped the pen and closed the book. For a long moment he leaned back against the trunk of the big Pacific Oak tree, thinking of nothing, letting the autumn peace of the island soak into him.


He might have stayed in that quiet state for longer moments if a squirrel scampering overhead hadn't dropped an acorn on his shoulder. He snapped his eyes open, looked up and – purely for fun – stretched out his Quickening to find the little animal. Yes, there it was, poised on its branch, furious about losing its meal but afraid to come down to the ground after it in the presence of that strange big creature. Duncan laughed, pulled himself to his feet and walked quietly away. Behind him, he sensed the jubilant squirrel plunging down the trunk after its lost acorn.


As he headed back to the cabin it occurred to Duncan that, yes, he was finally healing from the loss of Connor. His grief had sunk into the background, only rising again when he probed the memories. <I>It's getting better,</i> he told himself. <I>I'm getting better. I'll survive...</I> Nine months ago, he realized, he hadn't entirely believed that was possible. He paused for a moment, recalling all that Methos had done to help with that healing, and felt another wave of braided feeling sweep over him: immense gratitude, deep and abiding love, and – yes – a touch of expectant horniness. <i>...Something else I wouldn't have believed back then, either.</i>


Just then he felt the edge of Methos' Quickening, and knew the man had come looking for him – probably to announce imminent dinner. Duncan smiled, and hastened his steps. A few paces more, and he could feel Methos smiling back. Another step and the brush parted, showing Methos waiting for him. The man was holding a particularly large wild Morel mushroom, and was wearing a cloth shoulder-bag partly filled with other tasty mushrooms, as if he'd come out here for no other reason. Duncan strolled up to Methos and kissed him, without a word. The two of them turned and strolled back to the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, saying nothing, in quiet contentment.


At the cabin door Methos paused to heft the bag of mushrooms. “Beefsteak,” was all he said. Duncan nodded in perfect understanding, wondering how that medley of mushrooms would taste with beef.


It wasn't until dinner was almost finished that Duncan realized he hadn't exchanged more than a dozen words with Methos that entire day – or needed to. Between the psychic link and their close-as-skin awareness of each other's schedules, they had perfect understanding without spoken language. <i>At this rate,</i> Duncan considered, bemused, <I>We'll forget how to talk by the anniversary—</i>


And right there the grief reawoke and bit him.


“Duncan?” Methos asked aloud, seeing/feeling the change.


“I'm all right,” Duncan panted through the pain, “I just...remembered...”


“Connor?” Methos guessed, all too accurately.


“Another...two and a half months...”


“It's traditional to mourn for a year.”


“I can't swear it won't take longer!”


Methos reached across the table and gripped Duncan's hand. Again, no words were needed. Without actively reaching for the psychic link Duncan could feel Methos drawing the pain, draining it, as he'd done so many times before.


In time, less time than before, the pain faded and left Duncan slightly dizzy in a near-euphoria of release. Methos gently let go of his hand. “Dessert?” he asked, smiling.


“Oh yes,” Duncan agreed, knowing – not questioning how he knew – that dessert was homemade strawberry shortcake, larded with store-bought whipped cream.


He also knew that as soon as dessert was finished, they'd both leave the table and go upstairs. Possibly they'd stop to shower first, but in any case their final destination would be the bed. He hurried to clear his plate, then watched as Methos gathered up the dishes, put them in the sink and then headed to the refrigerator where the cakes were waiting. Duncan watched, imagining Methos with those clothes gone, moving like that. He was amazed at the slow but immense surge of desire that swept through him at the thought.


A single glance at Methos' face as he set down the little plates of shortcake showed that his lover was feeling exactly the same.


Duncan smiled and dug into his dessert slowly, savoring every bite, deliberately teasing himself – not to mention Methos – with prolonged anticipation. They both knew that the finish was inevitable, and there was no need to hurry.



--END--