Highlander: Time and Again - 14 - The Grand Illusion by Emby Quinn
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HIGHLANDER
The Grand Illusion
Fanfiction by Emby Quinn


Disclaimer: I do not own Highlander or any of the characters therein, nor do I own any characters based on actual historical personages. All original characters are my own creation.--eq

Ootoyo Shrine
Kyoto, Japan
20 April, Present Day

The plum blossoms were over; only a few blooms still clung to the gnarled trees, spots of startling red against dark green leaves. The season for cherry blossoms was just drawing to an end, but the trees along the Philosopher's Path were still covered in ethereal clouds of pale pink and white. The camellias were just beginning to come into full flower, spreading their delicate petals open to the warmth of the April sunshine.

Often at this time of year Kyoto was full of tourists and sightseers who flocked to the city to marvel at the beauty of its flowers and to enjoy the gentle, warming weather. On this particular morning, however, the Philosopher's Path was quiet, and only one couple walked underneath the light shower of petals from above. Their progress was momentarily halted by a group exiting the shrine--a young bespectacled elementary school teacher leading a double line of students across the bridge. Both the man and the woman stopped and bowed politely from the waist as the group passed. The plump little teacher smiled and bowed in return, as did the boys and girls lined up behind her. Well, most of them, anyway. The teacher took note of those who didn't respond and made a mental note to lecture the class about proper manners on the bus when they were returning to the school.

Methos straightened up and looked over at his companion. Smiling a little, he reached out and brushed a few of the cherry petals out of Lucinda's hair. "We could have timed our visit better, I suppose," he said. "The hanami season's almost done."

"Maybe we should come back in autumn," Lucinda suggested as they walked across the bridge. "The maple trees are gorgeous when they turn."

"Mm, yes, I remember." He reached out and took her hand. "Ginkaku-ji's just ahead; do you want to stop by the Golden Pavilion before lunch?"

Lucinda shook her head. "What for? The real Ginkaku was burned down in the 1950s by a mad monk."

"Not for the first time. The Golden Pavilion has always been a target for arson. It was torched half a dozen times during the Onin War alone."

.Lucinda sighed, exasperated. "Do you always have to know everything?"

"Hey, I like to keep up with current events, you know?"

"The Onin War was five hundred years ago."

"Well, it was current at the time."

They passed through the stately torii gate and walked up the stone steps leading to the shrine. Both paused at the font beside the path to wash their hands and rinse their mouths. Methos dropped a handful of coins into the offering box just beside the main entry, and along with Lucinda he bowed and clapped his hands twice in the accepted Shinto fashion before going inside.

Try as she might, Lucinda couldn't convince Methos to have his fortune told while they were there. "I'd honestly rather not know what the future holds. If it's good, it'll be a pleasant surprise, and if it's bad, I don't want to worry about it till it happens." In lieu of this, he stood in front of the inner sanctuary and recited a passage in Tibetan, after which the smiling priest gave him a page of rice paper parchment beautifully inscribed with red kanji and the seal of the shrine.

"I didn't know you collected goshuin," Lucinda said as they were leaving. "What was it you were saying?"

"A passage from the Heart Sutra," he answered, tucking the carefully-rolled up parchment into his pocket. "Do you know it?"

"Only in Japanese."

He smiled and checked his watch. "It's still early yet. Want to stop for some cha while we're here? There's a cozy little tea-house just up the way a bit."

Before Lucinda could answer, a familiar--if dreaded--sensation arrested them both, stopping them in their tracks. Gods, why now! Methos groaned inwardly, scanning the path ahead. A young Asian woman was snapping photographs of the cherry trees, oblivious to the fact that her male companion stood frozen at her side. Methos met the man's icy glare, and shook his head once. No, we're not looking for a challenge, can't we just forget about--oh, bugger, he's coming this way.

"Kazuo?" the girl called, lowering her camera. "Kazuo, doko-e? Nani-gata no?" The man didn't even glance back at her.

Methos started as he felt a hand close around his arm. "Adam, let's go," Lucinda muttered urgently. "Come on."

Maybe it was because he didn't like being told what to do, or maybe it was because they were only a few steps from holy ground, or maybe it was just because he hated having this pleasant early spring day disrupted by the intrusion of yet another deluded power-player in the ridiculous Game, but instead of retreating, Methos decided to stand his ground. "I won't fight him," he assured Lucinda quietly. "And he won't dare start anything in such a public place. Let me deal with this."

"But--"

"Ohayou," Methos said firmly, looking dead-on at the approaching stranger. "Kyou wa ii-tenki desu, ne?"

The stranger obviously had no interest in the weather. "Doite yo," he commanded, gesturing Methos out of the way.

"Well, there's no need to be rude about it." Methos' eyes narrowed. It was about that time that the connection clicked on in his brain. I wasn't in his way to begin with. Why does he want me to step aside? To talk to Lucinda, I suppose. But he wouldn't have any reason to unless--

Lucinda stepped out from behind him and addressed the other man. "Ossu, Kiriyama-san. Hisashiburi ne."

He nodded once, sternly. "Sugu sumu kara. Youi dekita?"

"Kazuo!" The girl with the camera came up behind him. "Dare da no?" she asked, looking curiously at Lucinda.

Lucinda immediately slapped on a "happy gaijin tourist" face and smled at the confused young woman. "How do you do?" she said brightly. "I'm Lucinda Pierson. I tutored Kazuo in English a while back."

"Aa, so desu!" The girl shook her hand and bowed, obviously relieved of the worry over a potential romantic rival. "Atashino namae wa Tokunaga Hitomi. Kiriyama Kazuo-san wa atashino innozuke."

"Omedetou," Lucinda congratulated them both. "This is my husband, Adam."

"Hajimemashite," Methos said to the girl. "And congratulations on your engagement."

"Thank you." Hitomi looked at Kiriyama, puzzled. "Is something wrong?"

Lucinda started to speak, but Methos cut in smoothly. "We were just telling Kazuo-san that we don't really have time to join the two of you for lunch. It'd be lovely to let him and his teacher catch up, but we've got to be at the Shinkansen station by one o'clock to catch our train to Tokyo."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Hitomi said, looking down at her shoes.

Kiriyama glared daggers at Methos, but his voice was perfectly polite when he spoke. "Perhaps another time, then."

"Oh, I'm sure we can work something out." Methos took Lucinda's hand. "Come along, darling, we've got a train to catch." He could feel the young man's gaze all but burning holes in the back of his long coat as they made their escape.

Flight 396
Over the Pacific Ocean
20 April, Present Day

Within the hour they were on the bullet train--not to Tokyo, but to Osaka. At Kensai Airport Methos booked passage on the next flight to California, and neither one of them really relaxed until they were safely airborne over the Pacific.

"That's the one troublesome aspect about visiting Kyoto," Methos said. "Lovely city, very atmospheric, but the fact that it has no airport makes a quick getaway nigh impossible." He took Lucinda's hand. "I'm sorry we had to skip Tokyo."

"Just as well, I suppose," she sighed, settling back in the window seat. "It would probably break my heart to see Tokyo now. It was completely destroyed during the Second World War. I wouldn't recognize any of it."

"You never were all that fond of change." Methos squeezed her hand. "It's inevitable, you know."

"I know."

"Now then, are you going to tell me what all that was about?"

Lucinda sighed and let her head fall back, closing her eyes. "It's a long story."

"It's a seven-hour flight."

She groaned. "How about I don't feel like going into it?"

Methos shrugged. "Fine."

"Thank you."

There was silence for a while, undercut by the subtle hum of the jet engines outside and the scattered chatter of the other passengers.

"I mean, I wouldn't want to pry," said Methos.

"Good."

Another brief silence.

"I'm not going to force you to tell me."

"I appreciate that."

Silence.

"Of course, I thought we were done with keeping secrets from one another, but if you don't want to share with me, that's your decision."

Lucinda opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him. "I'm not keeping secrets from you," she protested. "It's just not a nice story, it happened more than a hundred years ago, it's long since over, and I'd rather not talk about it."

Methos patted her arm. "It's all right."

"Thank you." She closed her eyes again.

Silence.

"Mind you, I've never refused to tell you about my past when you've asked, no matter how painful or unpleasant--"

"All RIGHT!" Lucinda shrieked, sitting bolt upright. All eyes turned to her, and at once she shrank down into the seat. "Sorry, sorry," she murmured, her cheeks flaring. She waited tensely until she was no longer the center of every passenger's attention, then huffed a weary sigh. "You really can be a right bastard sometimes, you know?" she grumbled.

"It's part of my charm," Methos said, smiling indulgently.

She rolled her eyes. "You know I was sent to Botany Bay in the early 1800s."

"Yes, you told me that much."

"In 1860 I bartered passage aboard a Dutch trader bound for the Far East. They were looking for native English speakers who could teach the language to Japanese businessmen. There weren't many women hired for the job, so I was something of a curiosity when I arrived in Dejima. One of my first students was from a poor but influential Satsuma samurai family. His name was Kiriyama Kazuo."

"Ahh. The plot thickens."

"He hated me at first sight. I would have refused to teach him, but one, it was my job, and two, he was pre-Immortal. It wasn't easy, but he managed to learn a fair amount of English before I got another assignment--English tutor to the Emperor."

"And this was in...?"

"Let's see...1867, as I recall. Right smack in the middle of the Meiji Restoration, when the old anti-foreigner Shogunate was overthrown. I found out later that Kiriyama had joined the Shinsengumi. Not surprising, since he hated Westerners."

"Don't tell me," Methos interrupted. "You joined the Ishin Shishi? The forces fighting for the Emperor against the Shogun's Shinsengumi?"

Lucinda scowled. "Do you want to tell this story?"

Methos held up a hand. "Go on."

"Actually, I had nothing to do with either side--not directly, at least. Contrary to popular belief, women warriors weren't unheard of in Japan, but the Bakumatsu was a civil war. I was a gaijin--an outsider. Put simply, it wasn't my fight, and even if I'd wanted to help, I wouldn't have been welcome. I was the Emperor's English teacher, and that was that."

"Will wonders never cease?" Methos marveled, shaking his head. "I never thought you of all people would pass up the chance to champion a worthy cause."

"Both sides had merit."

"In that sort of conflict, both sides often do. The traditionalists fear the destruction of their beloved culture, while the progressive faction sees the benefits of progress and adaptation."

"Exactly. Actually, the Emperor was pretty smart for a sixteen-year-old boy."

"That would be Meiji, correct?"

"Right. He saw both sides with amazing clarity. He didn't want his people to lose their culture through assimilation--he wanted them to join the modern age on their own terms. He envisioned a Japan that remained in touch with its divine origins while being able to deal with the world outside on equal footing."

"Sounds like quite the visionary."

"He was."

She was quiet for a moment, and Methos looked at her expectantly. "But this Kiriyama character can't still be fighting the civil war. Particularly if you never participated in it."

Lucinda sighed. "It's...complicated."

Methos nodded. "It usually is."

Satsuma Province
Shiroyama, Japan
14 September, 1877

"UTE!"

Lucinda winced visibly as the guns of the Emperor's forces cut into the samurai charge. The fighters under the great general Takamori Saigo were brave, but bravery wasn't bulletproof, and they fell by the hundreds under the hail of machine gunfire.

She didn't want to be here. Her place was back in the new capital, helping the Emperor understand the nuances of Western politics and listening to his insightful poetry. She was no stranger to battle, or to death; she'd fought a losing battle against the Normans at Hastings, she'd seen hundreds die during the Great Plague, and she'd lain among the 5,000 slain at Agincourt. Somehow groups of human beings always managed to find new reasons to kill each other, be it borders, beliefs, or the color of the enemy's skin.

She found herself sympathizing with Saigo's samurai as they continued to fall before the roar of the guns. She hated guns with a passion. Killing from a distance was frighteningly efficient--and, to her mind, far too easy to achieve. If death became too accessible, it became the most expedient answer to any dispute. For death to be avoided, it had to be feared. It had to mean something.

Yet to the fighters on the battlefield below, death had been preferable to living under the new regime. Thousands of lives, some of them too brief (but they were mortals, and for mortals life was always too brief), cut short. And for what?

The war was over, had been over for nearly a decade. The leader of these rebels, Takamori Saigo, had fought to restore the Emperor to power. He'd withdrawn his support shortly thereafter and returned to his home in Kagoshima. When the government canceled pensions for Saigo's samurai, they rebelled--understandable under the circumstances. But they were hopelessly outmatched, and they must have known it from the outset. Particularly with the import of guns and cannon from France and England, there was no hope for the rebels to overthrow the firmly-established government. Yet here they were, refusing to retreat, dying by the thousands.

Why?

The guns finally fell quiet. Nothing moved on the field below. As the Emperor's soldiers ventured forward to take prisoner any survivors, Lucinda closed her eyes and turned away.

I'll never understand these people, she thought grimly. Never.

After night fell, Lucinda stole away from the camp and went to the battlefield. The dead lay where they'd fallen, including the great general himself, who had died by his own hand rather than be captured. She stood on the bluff overlooking the carnage, took her rosary from her pocket, and began quietly reciting the Prayers for All Souls.

"O God, Creator and Redeemer of all that live, grant to these departed souls the full remission of all their sins, that through our pious supplication they may obtain Thy pardon which they have always desired, Thou who livest and reignest world without end."

She recited the familiar words she had said over the fallen on a hundred battlefields--each of the five decades of the Rosary, with supplications for the souls of her parents, her brother, her friends, even enemies who had died by her own hand. She knew that there were few Catholics who had died on this battlefield, but it was her simple belief that God was universal, and that all forms of worship were but separate paths to the same destination. In truth, she prayed as much for the solace of her own soul as for those whose bodies lay in the darkness below.

"O Father, open to these souls the gates of Heaven, and grant them the peace to be reunited forever in--"

Her voice died in her throat, and she clutched the wooden beads tightly in her hands. An Immortal presence had just flared to life nearby. She turned and looked, but saw no one anywhere near her on the bluff. Then she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and she looked down on the battlefield.

One of the bodies was moving.

Without any thought for her own safety, Lucinda leapt down and hurried across the field, careful not to step on any of the bodies in her path. She reached the other Immortal just as he managed to get to his feet. "Daijobu," she said as soothingly as she could. "Kowaitte ne, shikashi, tetsudau wa--"

The samurai spun to face her. There was a jagged slash across his face that was closing up even as she watched. His black-pearl eyes were wide and wild with shock and burgeoning rage.

She recognized him at once. "Kiriyama? It's you?"

With a roar of anger he grabbed up his fallen katana and slashed at her. She rolled out of the way barely in time. When she got to her feet, her own Viking longsword was in her hands. "Kiriyama, I'm not here to fight you!" she protested. "I know what's happened to you. I can help you!"

"Kuso shite shineeeee!" Kiriyama screamed, pressing his attack. Lucinda retreated, holding him off as best she could as he drove her across the field and into the trees. Between blows, Lucinda tried to reason with him, but whether she spoke English or Japanese, he seemed not to even hear her. The words "Immortal" and "fushi" made no impression at all.

"I can teach you how to survive!" she shouted, trying to keep a tree between them at all times. "You need to understand what you've become, or you will die!"

"Damare!" He continued to press his attack, driving Lucinda further and further away from the field and the Emperor's camp beyond. Before long, she was completely lost in the forest. Worse, Kiriyama showed no more sign of fatigue than she felt. Her attempt to wear him out--her strongest battle strategy against other Immortals--simply wasn't working.

But worst of all was the simple fact that Kiriyama was better in close quarters than she was. The thickness of the forest limited her ability to swing and parry with her sword, while Kiriyama's samurai training was geared towards fighting in narrow, confined spaces. It was all she could do to protect herself--she couldn't have launched a counterattack even if she'd wanted to. And sooner or later, she knew, she would make a mistake and he'd get past her frantic guard.

It happened shortly before dawn. Lucinda was fighting on her last reserves, no longer trying to speak, unable to spare breath for words, when she tripped backwards on a tree root and nearly fell. She managed to keep her footing, but before she knew what was happening, Kiriyama thrust his katana through her torso. She saw the grim satisfaction on his face as he ripped the blade out of her. She gasped with the searing pain and choked on her own blood. Her knees felt weak as water as she turned and stumbled back. He'll take my head if I let him--not because of the Game, but because that's what samurai do to their opponents--I can't let him kill me--dear God, help me!

A red torii gate loomed to her left, and in desperation she threw herself through it, landing with a heavy grunt on the path before a small Shinto shrine. Kiriyama came after her, but he stopped just on the other side of the gate, a confused and frustrated expression on his face.

Lucinda dragged herself towards the shrine steps. "Holy...Ground," she croaked. "Dame da yo..."

Her vision was greying out, but she fought to retain consciousness. Finally, Kiriyama turned his head and spat with frustration. He turned his back on her and disappeared into the darkness.

The stylized frame of the torii hung before her darkened vision. The image followed her down into oblivion.

Los Angeles International Airport
Los Angeles, California
21 April, Present Day

"Divine intervention?" Methos scoffed as they stood in line at customs. "Lucinda, really, you should know better than that by now."

"Just because you're an atheist--"

"Agnostic," he corrected. "Remember, I'm older than any extant religion. How could I possibly believe in a 'Savior' younger than I am?"

"All right. Just because you have no firm belief in a higher power doesn't mean it doesn't exist. You're very old and wise, my darling, but even you don't know everything. Anyway, whether it was just a lucky chance or an act of God, it saved my life."

"And since Kiryama thought you were dead, and didn't know he had to take your head--"

"Right. But now that he knows I'm alive, he feels he's left something unfinished, so he's duty-bound to kill me. And by now, he probably knows how."

"Well, we can't have that." Methos traced a finger along her jawline. "I happen to like your head right where it is."

"That makes two of us."

The trip through customs was the usual nuisance, particularly for a pair of Immortals trying to ensure that their swords wouldn't trip any alarms. Eventually they made their way through and caught a taxi to their hotel. As usual, Lucinda offered to arm-wrestle Methos for first crack at the shower; as usual, Methos tossed her over his shoulder and carried her into the bath with him, ignoring her protests--since he knew as well as she did that they weren't sincere.

Some time later, Lucinda was combing out her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, studying her reflection critically. "Do you think I should grow out my hair again? It's been short for a good twenty years now."

"Do whatever you like with it." Methos fell backwards with a grunt onto the king-size bed, stretched out at his full length. He was wearing a T-shirt and a clean pair of well-worn jeans, but he was barefoot, and his hair was still damp from the shower.

"Hey, I'm looking for input here," Lucinda called over her shoulder. "Since when do you not have an opinion about anything and everything?"

Methos tucked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. "It's the twenty-first century, love. Husbands aren't supposed to tell their wives what to do."

"I'm just asking your opinion."

"Honestly, it makes no difference to me. You'd look beautiful no matter what you did with your hair."

Lucinda smiled in spite of herself, set down the comb and walked into the room, sitting down at the foot of the bed. "Somehow you always know just the right thing to say."

"Mm."

She picked up the remote and turned on the television, flipping through the channels with only mild interest. "Maybe I'll go with a different color for a while. Amanda seems to have fun doing that."

"Just don't go black again--I never liked that look on you."

"Ah-ha!" Lucinda said triumphantly. "I finally got an opinion out of you!"

Methos opened one hazel eye to look at her and impertinently stuck out his tongue.

She giggled and stretched out on the bed beside him and set the remote aside. Methos raised his head a moment, then let it fall back to the pillow, groaning.

She looked at him. "What?"

"The History Channel?" he asked her with a touch of scorn. "Couldn't you find anything else?"

She shrugged. "It's interesting for the point-and-giggle factor alone."

Methos scoffed, grabbed the pillow and crammed it over his head. "Don't expect me to watch it," he muttered in a muffled baritone.

"Suit yourself."

"I would if I had a gun."

Lucinda sat up, reached back and pulled the pillow away from his face. "I said suit yourself, not shoot yourself."

"Wouldn't do any good anyway, I'd just wake up with a headache." He grabbed the pillow back and shoved it behind his head.

Lucinda snorted and shifted position to stretch out on her stomach facing the television, her chin resting on her folded arms. Methos rolled over, snuggling back against her side, and drifted into a doze.

It was perhaps an hour later that Lucinda reached out and shook him. "Methos. Methos, wake up!"

He started and sat bolt upright. Lucinda was kneeling on the bed, her eyes wide and wild with alarm. Methos tensed in anticipation, but he didn't feel any tingle or buzz that would announce the approach of another Immortal. "Lucy, what is it?"

"Look!" Lucinda pointed at the television.

Methos looked. "Oh, for--are you still watching that rubbish?" He reached for the remote to turn it off.

She snatched it away from him. "No. Just look. Wait till they show him again."

Methos could have taken the remote back, but Lucinda's apprehension seemed very real. Obediently he turned his reluctant attention to the television program. It was some sort of documentary, obviously; just now a pale-skinned woman with hair dyed blood red was gracing the screen, talking dreamily about some nonsense involving a Ouija board. Then the scene changed, and a man appeared.

"There!" Lucinda gripped Methos' shoulder hard enough to hurt. "Do you see?"

He felt a disturbing twinge of recognition, but at first he couldn't identify the man. Five thousand years of existence meant a lot of old acquaintances, and it took him a minute or so to match the face to a name. Once he did, he could scarcely believe it. Coincidence--it had to be. But it wasn't just the man's face; the green eyes, the curly black hair, the long straight nose, the deceptively even timber of his voice, the unsettling way he would look steadily at someone without blinking--

The program cut for a commercial break. "Please," Lucinda said dryly over the thrumming music of a Mazda commercial, "just tell me I'm imagining things. Tell me it isn't him."

Methos took the remote away from her--this time she didn't resist--and he muted the television. Then he turned to look at her. "I'm not supposed to lie to you, you know," he said quietly.

Lucinda's shoulders sagged. "Oh, God..."

Methos wrapped his arms around her and drew her head to his shoulder. "This seems to be the week for encountering old acquaintances," he said. He looked at the set; the program had started again, and they were still interviewing the man with long, carefully-groomed wavy dark hair. Methos' eyes narrowed, and he pointed the remote at the screen as if it were a weapon and hit the red POWER button. The image of the smiling, nodding man winked out.

Pity it wasn't so easy to shut off the real Vlad Dracula.

Eastern Europe
22 June, 1461

"We're lost."

"We're not."

"All right, then where are we?"

Methos looked around and pointed. "Just past that great whacking tree."

Lucinda growled and reined in her horse. "I knew we should have stopped and asked directions."

"From who? A passing cow?" Methos checked his stallion and half-turned in the saddle to face her. "Most of the villagers in these parts have never seen what's over the next hill, Lucy. Trust me, I know where we're going."

"We're supposed to be headed for Greece."

"We are heading for Greece."

"But where are we now?"

"I have no idea what they call the place these days," he said, as patiently as he could. "I'm fairly sure we're south of Romania, and we're fairly well west of the Carpathian Mountains. We should reach the northern border with another day's travel, provided we don't stand around here all day growing moss." He tapped his heels on his horse's flanks and started off again along the well-traveled road.

Lucinda urged her horse forward until she caught him up. They rode on for some time in silence until she chose to broach the subject again. "I'm not trying to be difficult, love. It's just that you told me you'd spent the last hundred years or so traveling--"

"Well, I had to do something while you were off carrying Joan of Arc's fleur de lis banners for her."

"Don't go there," she warned. "If you've been on the road all this time, I would think you'd know the area better."

"Borders change with the seasons in this part of Europe. Whole generations of peasants are born, grow up, grow old and die without knowing which king, baron, duke or prince holds their lands. Even the mapmakers in Hiedelberg can't keep up, and you know how dedicated they are. Besides, we're being followed."

It took Lucinda a moment to register his last statement. "What? Where?"

"Don't look. Someone's been tracking us for the past ten minutes. They're doing a fairly good job of staying out of sight. I think five...no, six."

"Three to one. Bandits, you think?"

"Most likely."

"Armed?"

"They'd be pretty piss-poor bandits if they weren't."

"Three to one." Lucinda shook her head.

"Yeah," Methos agreed. "Hardly seems fair."

"Think we should give them a chance to surrender?"

He smirked. "Of course not."

Moments later, the bandits were upon them--two on horseback from behind, four on foot from the trees. The footmen converged on Lucinda, thinking the woman the easier target. Methos was tempted to withdraw and watch the fun from a safe distance, but just then one of the riders closed with him, drawing a sword.

Methos grinned savagely. Idiot, I was fighting on horseback before your race was even thought of. He wrapped the reins around one hand and grabbed the pommel of his riding saddle. As the mounted bandit came within reach, he spurred his horse forward, and as he rode past he swung his leg up sharply, knocking the other man off his horse. The riderless beast galloped away down the road, and Methos reseated himself and drew his own sword as he approached the other man on horseback. On his way, he slapped the flat of his blade against the skull of one of the four squaring off against Lucinda. The man dropped without a sound.

The rattle and clatter of an approaching carriage froze them all in their tracks. Methos reined in his stallion, gripping his sword tightly. Now what! he thought, pained, and looked over at Lucinda. She was off her horse and had two of her assailants on the ground, and the third trapped against a tree with her sword at his throat.

No self-respecting bandit would be riding in a carriage, of course, particularly not with armed guards riding before and after the vehicle. All the horses were sleek and black, their coats satiny and gleaming in the dappled sunlight. The carriage itself was also uniformly black. The procession came to a stop, and the two mounted guards who rode in front brought their arbalests to bear. "Put aside your weapons," one of them ordered, "and stand down."

Methos immediately sheathed his sword and gave Lucinda a sharp nod, indicating that she do the same. She snarled and gave her captive a rough shove backwards before putting away her sword. The man stumbled, his face a mask of shock and horror. He turned on his heels and took off into the trees.

Before he could lose himself in the woods, the second forward guard tracked him with his heavy crossbow and fired. The bolt caught the man between his shoulderblades, and he fell with a heavy thud and didn't move again.

"No one else is to move," the first guard commanded. He fixed his cold steel gaze on Methos. "Your attire identifies you as a stranger to these lands."

Methos nodded once. "My name is Philip Metzger. This is my sister Lucrezia." He glanced at Lucinda. "We are travelers in your fair country, on our way to Greece. These men attacked us, no doubt intending to rob us."

By this time the other two guards had come around the carriage, each armed with a lighter crossbow, carefully trained on the lot of them. Three of the men were still unconscious; the one Methos had unhorsed was cowering against a tree; and the remaining mounted man had dropped his sword and was holding his hands above his head, trembling visibly.

The carriage door opened. Methos saw a blue shield emblazoned on the door, bearing a gilded eagle which held an arrow in one clawed talon and a sword in the other. A crown was poised above the eagle's head. A royal carriage, then. This is either going to be very good or very bad. He tensed as a too-familiar tingle of alarm shot through his nerves, and he heard Lucinda gasp as she felt it as well. Make that "very, very bad".

The Immortal who emerged from the carriage did not look overly intimidating at first glance--he was of average height, shorter than either Methos or Lucinda, and rather stocky and graceless in his movements. His hair was so black it reflected no light, cascading in a tumble of inky curls around his broad shoulders. His eyes swept from Methos to Lucinda, acknowledging that he had felt their presence even as they had sensed his. Those eyes were a vivid, startling green, almost luminous in the fading light. The man was richly dressed, but not overly so as many eastern European nobles were. His voice, when he spoke, bore the unmistakable weight of one used to giving orders and having them instantly obeyed.

"I had heard reports of bandits on these roads," he said. "It saddens me to find them all too true." He addressed the mounted soldiers. "Detain the criminals who have dared assault this lord and lady on my lands."

The remaining bandits were quickly restrained, their hands bound behind their backs, and then tied together with a long rope that knotted about each of their necks. Those unconscious were revived with rib-cracking kicks, and when all were on their feet they were taken behind the carriage.

Methos dismounted as the noble approached. He bowed respectfully. "Our thanks to you, your Highness. We owe you a great debt."

The noble arched one thick black eyebrow, but he was smiling. "It is I who are in debt to you, Master Metzger, for allowing this travesty to occur in my country. Prince Vlad Dracula does not tolerate bandits or thieves, and to have visitors assaulted here shames me deeply."

Methos' stomach lurched. Dracula! The mad prince of whom the Turks themselves are terrified? How did we cross into Wallachia without my realizing it? No matter, the important thing is that we take our leave as quickly as possible. Methos fixed a tranquil smile on his face. "The matter is of no import to us, your Highness. Your diligence and love of justice are well demonstrated here. Surely my dear sister and I have already detained you entirely too long, so we'll just be on our way--"

"I won't hear of it," Dracula interjected. "The least I can do is invite you both to stay the night as guests in my castle. We can reach the place by dusk, even with the baggage we currently have in tow."

"It would pain our hearts to inconvenience such a noble personage--"

"It is no inconvenience." Dracula waved his hand. "It is a matter of honor. I would have you leave Wallachia with pleasant memories, good sir. You and your charming sister will join me for dinner at the palace tonight. You will both ride in my carriage, of course--you must be weary and shaken after your ordeal."

Out of the corner of his eye Methos saw Lucinda being assisted from her horse by one of the soldiers. Through the ever-tightening knot in his throat he managed to say, "It would be our greatest pleasure to join you, your Highness." Particularly since we obviously have no other choice.

Radisson Hotel
Los Angeles, California
21 April, Present Day

"...And you still won't stop and ask for directions," Lucinda scolded mildly, settling against him.

"That's because I usually know where I'm going, and if I don't, I can generally work it out on my own." Methos kissed the top of her head. "Why are we talking about this now? It's late, there's nothing worth watching on the television, and tomorrow we'll be well away from California and its resident crazies."

Lucinda bit her lip. "Don't you think we should just--"

"No. I don't."

"But what if he's--"

With a groan of impatience Methos slid his shoulder out from under Lucinda's head and sat up, bending over her with a slight scowl. "We're not the Immortal Police, Lucinda. We can't go chasing around after everyone who we think might be doing something wrong."

"We went after Gilles de Rais."

Methos' face hardened. "He was slaughtering children, and I knew I couldn't stop you going."

"Erszebet Bathory."

"That was personal."

"And this isn't?" Lucinda raised up on her elbow. "After what he did to you, I'd think you'd be more than happy to get some payback."

He rubbed the back of his hand across his brow. "Maybe I gave up being vindictive for Lent."

"Except you're not Catholic, and it's past Easter."

"All right, maybe I'm just not as vindictive as I used to be."

She folded her arms and gave him a look. "My name isn't Duncan MacLeod," she said. "I know you better than that. You're not scared of Dracula, and you're not protecting me, so there's got to be something else going on--"

Suddenly she was pinned to the bed, Methos looming above her, his long fingers digging into her shoulders hard enough to hurt. His teeth were bared in a feral snarl as he lowered his face close to hers. "You want to know?" he hissed. "Fine, I'll tell you. I'm not scared of Dracula--I'm scared of me. Scared of what I might do if I see him face to face." His eyes were as cold and hard as weathered jade. "I've lived every day of my life for the past two thousand years walking a line between sanity and madness. There's a part of me that loves killing. I'm good at it. I've always been good at it. I spent centuries murdering and marauding across two continents with my brothers. Do you want to see the man Kronos knew me to be? Do you want to share your bed with the murdering bastard who slaughtered Cassandra's people and took her as a slave, killed and raped her until he broke her to his will? Is that what you want from me?" He screamed the last words into her face.

Her collarbones throbbed under his iron grip, but Lucinda didn't flinch or look away from him. She met his burning-cold gaze with eyes that were accepting rather than defiant. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I never meant for you to think I wanted you to trot that part of yourself out for my amusement."

"It's not that--I just..." His anger crumbled away and he suddenly found himself dangerously close to tears. "Oh, Lucy, I don't want to walk that path again. You didn't see what I did to Bathory because I didn't want you to see. And Corvus--I liked humiliating him the way I did before I killed him. Every time I take a life, it brings me one step closer to the edge of--of this huge black gulf that's still inside me. Someday I'm going to fall in, and--with or without the Horsemen--Death will be back." He released his hold and wrapped his arms around her, letting his forehead drop onto her shoulder.

She stroked his back gently. "I think you're underestimating your own strength--you could never be the man you once were. What did you call it? Your 'angry adolescence'?" She smiled a little at his weak chuckle. "The creature called Death is gone, Methos. If Kronos couldn't call him back, no one and nothing can."

He raised his head to look at her. "I hope you're right."

"I am," she assured him. "I know you better than anyone, and certainly better than you wish I did." She took his face in her hands and drew him close for a kiss.

Castle Dracula
Wallachia
22 June, 1461

The evening was warm and clear. The sun was just beginning to set, and a light breeze blew over the open field outside the castle walls. It was rather pleasant, really, or would have been--under different circumstances. Methos and Lucinda sat at an elegant table with Dracula, who sipped from a golden goblet and carried on a pleasant conversation with his guests. Methos managed to keep a bold face on, but Lucinda was visibly pale, unable to touch a bite of the sumptuous dinner laid out before them. Several elaborately-dressed handmaidens used folded paper fans to wave away the flies that buzzed in gathering swarms around them.

The flies were the least of the inconveniences. The moans and cries of the dying bandits, impaled on sharpened wooden stakes imbedded in the ground, were difficult to ignore. Even worse was the stench of the rotting corpses, those who had been subjected to the same grim punishment in days and weeks past.

"Your sister seems to have no appetite, Master Metzger," Dracula remarked idly, but his green eyes gleamed with unmistakable displeasure.

Methos hurried to soothe the Prince's wounded ego. "Lucrezia eats little when we are traveling, your Highness. Indeed, she has lost nearly half a stone's weight since we left Heidelberg. I assure you, she means no insult."

Lucinda boldly took a morsel of food from her golden plate, and did her best not to choke on it. Dracula relaxed visibly and picked up a bit of bread. He reached out to one of the dying bandits and dipped the bread in a rivulet of blood pouring from the man's gouged shoulder.

Not a word, Methos warned Lucinda with a look. She lowered her eyes in her best imitation of maidenly modesty and set her fork down.

A gust of warm wind hit Methos full in the face, bringing with it the sweet-rot reek of decaying flesh. He jerked his head back reflexively and wrinkled his nose just as Dracula turned towards him again. He quickly schooled his expression back to a pleasantly bland mask. "These varlets smell little better dead than they did alive," he said wryly.

Dracula looked at him for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. "Truer words were seldom spoken, my friend." He glanced at Lucinda, who sat silent, head bowed, her hands in her lap. "But perhaps this evening's entertainment is too much for your sister. A woman's sensibilities are so much less sturdy than a man's, wouldn't you agree?"

"I would not think of correcting such a wise and just ruler in his own garden," Methos replied smoothly.

Dracula clapped his hands, and the serving-girls rushed to attend him. "Take the lady Lucrezia to my wife's chambers, that she may refresh herself," he commanded. "Her brother and I will be done here shortly."

None too soon, Methos thought with cautious relief as Lucinda was led away by two of the girls. He forced himself to finish his wine as Dracula set to his bread.

"I do not tolerate thieves, liars, or any other sort of criminal in my country," said the prince. "At a spring in the town square here, there sits a goblet of gold, such as the one from which you drink now, so that passersby may quench their thirst. Do you think anyone has taken it from its place?"

"I'm sure no one would dare," Methos said.

"Quite right. I am generous to my friends--and unforgiving of those who disobey or mock me."

Just at the moment that Methos noted the change in Dracula's tone, the two remaining servant girls suddenly took hold of his arms, one at either side, and pulled them behind his back. He struggled to free himself, but these were sturdy Slavic women, used to physical labor. He might have managed to overcome even their combined strength, but in another moment a thick cord was wrapped around his neck from behind by one of Dracula's castle guards. His breath was shut off in his throat, and he choked for air, fighting vainly to fill his already aching lungs.

As hi vision began to dim, he saw Dracula rise from the table. "Do not kill him," he heard through the roaring in his ears. "Not yet. We shall introduce him to Wallachian justice...but be sure to put him upwind of the others. His nose is evidently quite sensitive."

No sooner had Methos had the thought of feigning unconsciousness in order to escape than his senses left him in earnest.

When Methos regained his senses, it was full dark. Reflexively he tried to move, only to feel an intense, burning pain shoot through his body. His feet dangled uselessly in the air; when he reached for the knot of agony in his chest, his hand closed around the shaft of the stake on which he'd been impaled.

At least I've still got my head. The thought was small comfort. Any attempt to move brought fresh agony. Once he'd been well accustomed to pain, but his tolerance had obviously decreased over the centuries. He wouldn't be able to pull himself free of the stake on his own.

His eyes rolled upwards toward the cold, pitiless stars. He knew many of them well, had even named some of them himself; but what good was all his knowledge now? What escape could there be for him, left to suffer endless agony on this thrice-damned pike? Of a certainty, he would die. It might take hours, or even days, but life would leave him--only to return. Over and over again.

Did Dracula know this? He was himself Immortal, but instead of challenging him, he'd subjected Methos to a fate which was perhaps worse than final death.

Don't be a fool; nothing's worse than losing your head. While you're still alive, there's still a chance of escape.

The night air was cold on his skin. For the first time he realized he'd been stripped naked, like the other impalement victims in Dracula's grim forest of corpses. He shuddered involuntarily, and once more his pierced body was wracked with pain.

For hours he hung there helpless--how many, he didn't know. It was still dark when he heard the sound of hooves approaching--then the unmistakable presence of an Immortal. Dracula, come to gloat over his plight? Or perhaps a night sentry, coming to make sure none of those still living had managed to pry themselves free--not very likely, that, but still within the realm of impossibility.

"Methos...!" He managed to turn his head towards the voice, and saw Lucinda, clad only in her camisole and pantaloons. Her sword was slung into the belt she wore under the tailor-made traveling dress she had evidently lost or discarded. She was riding her mare and leading Methos' stallion behind her.

"How--how did you--" Methos choked on his own blood when he tried to speak.

"Don't," Lucinda cautioned him. "We've got to get out of here. Dracula's guards will be on us at any moment." She braced herself in the saddle, reached up to grasp him under the arms, and grimaced as she tried to free him from the stake. His agonized scream stopped her efforts. "Oh, God," she gasped, looking over her shoulder, fearful of pursuit. "I don't know--Methos, I don't know what to do...!"

"Ki..." He spat blood and forced the words out. "Kill me."

"What!" She looked at him, stricken. "I couldn't--"

"Kill me!" he shouted at her. "Then pull me off. It's the--only way..."

A shout in the distance made her start. Panting with frustration, she pulled her dagger from its sheath on her thigh. She hesitated only a moment. "I'm sorry," she whispered as she plunged the short, sharp blade into Methos' heart.

For perhaps the first time in his long life, Methos welcomed death. He struggled to raise his hand, managed to brush trembling fingers against her stricken face. "Thank you..." he rasped, and let the blackness swallow him up.

Radisson Hotel
Los Angeles, California
22 April, Present Day

Methos ordered breakfast in the room the next morning, since he and Lucinda had yet to get out of bed. They didn't make it out of the room until close to eleven, and then only because Lucinda wanted to snag a taxi and make a sweep of Rodeo Drive. Methos welcomed the chance to spend an afternoon catching up on his journal, but he insisted on heading down to the lobby with Lucinda to see her off.

The elevator doors opened on a scene of hapazardly organized chaos. For a moment the pair of them stood transfixed at the sight of various styles of fashion neither one of them thought they would ever see again, from fitted corsets to plate armor to doublets and hose. Methos felt a momentary sense of displacement that almost made him dizzy, as though he'd encountered some bizarre time anomaly.

Then a rather rotund, slightly balding Superman wandered past, and Methos realized what was going on. He began to chuckle. Lucinda looked at him strangely. "Did someone reschedule Halloween and forget to tell me?" she asked.

He shook his head, still snickering. "It's a fantasy convention," he said. "Don't tell me you don't have those in New Orleans?"

"Those science fiction things? I've heard of them, but I've never been."

"Oh, you should, at least once. You meet all manner of fascinating people."

She groaned aloud.

"What?"

"I'm not sure I'm up to meeting anyone you would consider 'fascinating'."

"What, have I worn you out already?"

She punched his arm lightly as he grinned at her.

The next moment, they both froze in their tracks. Methos took an automatic step to one side to put his back closer to the wall as his eyes scanned the crowd at the convention's registration table. No one met his gaze. Then he heard Lucinda mutter "Oh, bloody hell," and turned his head to look.

A pair of piercing green eyes locked with his. The man stood in the doorway, as straight and proud and arrogant as he had ever been. As he watched, Vlad Dracula's full lips curled in a smile of recognition.

Methos spat out a word he reserved only for times of great stress--a foul epithet from an unnamed language, the tongue of his birth. He grabbed Lucinda's hand and plunged headlong into the crowd of costumed convention-goers. He could feel Dracula's Presence following, staying close, hot on their heels, a constant pulse at their backs. Methos spat another ancient curse and banked off to the right, towards the stairs, still dragging Lucinda behind him and trusting her to keep up as best she could with his rapid stride.

"What is he doing here?" she gasped as they headed for the fire exit.

"Maybe he likes The X-Files. How the bloody hell should I know?" Methos paused only for a moment in front of the double doors, marked with a forbidding sign: Emergency Exit Only, Alarm Will Sound. "I think this qualifies," he said, reaching for the steel push-bar.

"Wait--please!" Dracula stood at the other end of the short walkway, a hand extended imploringly. "I swear on my honor, I mean you no harm. I only wish to speak with you."

"Some other time," Methos called back, and shoved at the bar.

The door refused to open.

Who the bloody hell locks a fire door! he wondered crazily. Behind him, Lucinda dropped his hand and took a step to one side. "Try to get past him," she muttered softly, reaching into her coat. "I'll keep him busy till you're clear."

"Lucinda, we can't fight him here!" Methos hissed at her.

Dracula ventured forward, holding both hands before him now, palms-up and empty. "I understand your trepidation," he said in carefully measured tones, "but truly, I am glad to see you both. There is much to be set right between us."

"Is there a problem?" Methos stifled a groan as a security guard appeared behind the prince.

Dracula turned and spoke in English--American English, in an accent that was unmistakably Midwestern. "No problem, sir. I think my costume might have freaked out my friends over there." He flashed a completely un-Dracula-like grin, open and friendly, at Methos and Lucinda. "We were just going to get some lunch."

"You can't get out that way anyway, sir. It's locked; it only opens when the main fire alarm's tripped."

Now he tells me, Methos thought wryly.

"Well, we won't keep you; I know you're busy with all this going on." Dracula beckoned to the other two. "Come on, guys, let's go find Carly."

With no other choice, Methos took Lucinda's hand again, and the two of them followed the former Prince of Wallachia out into the main lobby. Before they could lose themselves in the crowd, a woman with long dark hair accosted Dracula, her eyes bright and worshipful. "Where did you go, David?" she asked. "I thought you'd abandoned me."

"Perish the thought, Carly. I found a couple of old friends and I didn't want them to slip away."

Carly looked curiously at the pair of them. "Who are they?"

"I don't know what their names are now..." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "But they're old souls, Carly. Vlad told me so."

It was all Methos could do to keep from rolling his eyes.

"...It's almost like channeling, but it's stronger than that. It'll be sixteen years this November that Vlad came to live inside David, and none of us have ever regretted it." Carly was holding forth over a corner table, just big enough for the four of them, at the Dome--since "David" had insisted on treating "Vlad's" friends to the best Los Angeles had to offer. "We first contacted Vlad on a ouija board, and then he started talking through David, and we eventually invited him to come stay with us. When he's not with David, he's sort of in a timeless state--'dimensionally impaired', David calls it. Vlad uses David to move around in our plane, and it's really worked out best for all of us."

Even with Carly's ceaseless rambling, this was certainly a vast improvement over the last time they'd dined with the Wallachian, Methos had to admit. Not an impaled corpse in sight.

Carly cast the pair of them a look of pathetic gratitude. "You have no idea how wonderful it is to talk to someone who really understands," she said with heartfelt sincerity. "I can always tell when someone's just playing along. You know, they played that television special last night--"

"We saw it," Lucinda affirmed.

"--Yes, wasn't it just awful? I mean, they were so patronizing." Carly shook her head. "But we--David and I--both felt it was important to get our story told, to let people know that death isn't the end--and most importantly," and here she took hold of her husband's hand, "to let people know that Vlad Dracula wasn't the monster history has painted him to be."

Dracula smiled and spoke in the heavily-accented voice he reserved for "Vlad". "Adam and Lucinda know the evils I have done in the past, dear Carlotta."

"That's just it," Carly insisted. "It was in the past. You're not that person anymore--and David and I are so happy to have you here with us. We're the luckiest people in the world."

Lucinda cut a look at Methos that said, plainer than words, I can't take much more. Methos responded with a single twitch of his eyebrow and a slight intake of breath. I feel your pain.

The meal was pleasant enough, particularly since Methos and Lucinda weren't called upon to do much more than make interested noises while Carly chattered amiably away and Dracula switched from one persona to the other for Carly's amusement. At last Carly excused herself to go back to the hotel; she was scheduled for a panel on medieval folklore. She and "David" would be hosting another panel the next day on the Dracula legend.

After she was gone, Lucinda looked directly at Dracula. "Have you ever considered putting her in therapy?"

Dracula chuckled benevolently. "Carlotta is harmless. Indeed, I find her quite charming--and endlessly amusing. What harm is there in indulging her romantic fancies? After all, I am not truly deceiving her. 'David Mackenzie' is the name I chose for this life, and I am 'channeling' Dracula's spirit, am I not?"

"Not too much of it, I hope," Methos murmured. "One impaling was quite enough."

Dracula actually looked slightly abashed. "I would like to apologize for that--Adam," he said, using the name Methos had given him. "Very few of my...victims managed to escape me. I believed erroneously that you were showing me disrespect. I assure you, you have nothing to fear from me. I avoid others of our kind on most occasions, but when I saw the pair of you together...I wanted to make sure there was no lingering ill will between us."

Methos felt Lucinda tense, and he squeezed her hand warningly under the table. "None at all," he said smoothly. "We wish you nothing but the best."

They made firm plans to meet for breakfast the next morning with Dracula and Carly. By six o'clock, they were packed and on their way to the airport. The hotel room was paid for through the weekend, to allay suspicion.

"If he gets suspicious?" Lucinda asked as they rode in the taxi.

"So what if he does? Neither one of us mentioned New Orleans, and even if he does track us down, the truce should keep him at bay. Besides...I'm not sure old Vlad even wants to fight us. Maybe he really did just want to connect with a couple of old acquaintances who aren't self-deluding, or patronizing his slightly eccentric mortal wife."

"Do you really believe that?"

Methos leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "It would be nice, wouldn't it?"

The Montecito
Las Vegas, Nevada
27 April, Present Day

A week in Vegas seemed the perfect antidote for their hurried escape from Japan and the full-on craziness of meeting a middle-class Dracula and his devoted (if somewhat disconnected) wife. The Montecito was a beautiful hotel with a hospitable staff and a lavish casino where Lucinda promptly lost enough money to earn them a complimentary suite, meals included.

"Next time, I pick the numbers," Methos scolded her lightly as they descended to the underground parking garage.

He was only teasing her, but Lucinda was indignant and still stinging a bit over her losses. "What's wrong with the numbers I picked? That wheel was rigged, I tell you."

"Not in Ed Deline's house," Methos said with conviction. "I've known the man for twenty years, and it would be beneath his dignity. Besides, casinos don't have to cheat--they make plenty of money by being perfectly fair...if a five percent house percentage could be called 'fair'."

"And what exactly do you know about casinos, Mister Perpetual College Student?"

Methos sniffed with derision. "I was here when this place was built, you know. Personally, I always thought the waving neon cowboy was a bit over the top, but I'm glad they're finally fixing the old boy up--"

As soon as they stepped out of the elevator, both of them froze. The rush of Presence was immediate and unmistakable; there was something almost hungry about the sensation. Lucinda looked at Methos with alarm. Headhunter, she mouthed, and the elder Immortal grimly nodded. Before they could get back on the elevator, the doors had closed. Methos' heart sank in direct reverse proportion with the rising of the car. His mind began racing with the desperate efficiency that had kept his head attached to his shoulders for five millenia. The stairs? No, too far. I could pull the fire alarm--no, that's out of reach, too. Who the hell installs a pull-switch for an alarm so bloody far from the lift!

A dark silhouette stepped from behind a concrete pillar. When he moved into the pool of light cast from an overhead fixture, the fluorescent illumination glinted off the countless rhinestones and well-polished studs set in the white leather jumpsuit. The strange Immortal tossed his matching cloak back with a toss of his arrogant, pompadoured head.

"I am Vrej Ratavoussian," he said in thickly-accented English. "And one of you must fight me. Now."

Lucinda made a small, strange choking sound. Methos took her arm and said, very politely, "Will you excuse us for just a moment?" He pulled Lucinda behind another pillar before she could completely break down.

"Will you be quiet! It's not funny!"

"But--but a Russian Elvis impersonator!"

"An Immortal Russian Elvis impersonator with a sword. I've heard of this guy. I was hoping someone else would've whacked him by now."

Lucinda struggled to master herself. "So--what are we going to do?"

"You'll have to kill him, I suppose."

"Me? Why me?"

"Come on, Lucinda, I know you're better than he is."

"And you're better than I am. Why don't you take him?"

"Because I have no desire to talk like Elvis for a week."

"And you think I do! Forget it!"

"Look, there's only one way to settle this. Jan ken pon."

Lucinda grumbled, but she held out her right hand at elbow level, fist clenched. Methos did the same, and they pumped their forearms up and down three times in rhythm. Methos threw paper; so did Lucinda.

Methos rolled his eyes. "Again."

This went on for approximately six and a half minutes. If Methos threw rock, so did Lucinda. If Lucinda came up with scissors, Methos did too.

The clash of steel on steel made them both freeze in mid-throw. They looked around either side of the pillar just in time to see a black-clad figure swing a gleaming katana through the air, neatly severing Ratavoussian's head at the neck.

Lucinda's breath caught in her throat. "Impossible..."

The first flares of the Quickening clearly showed the spare, angular figure of Kazuo Kiriyama, clutching his sword tightly in both hands as he rode the fury of the lightning striking around him. The overhead lights burst one by one, headlights exploded in sparks, and any number of expensive car alarms were set off.

Methos grabbed Lucinda's wrist. "Come on!" he shouted, dragging her towards the fire stairs.

"He followed us here," she panted as she struggled to keep pace with Methos, who was taking the steel steps two at a stride.

"Brilliant deduction," Methos shot back at her over his shoulder. "How fast can you pack?"

"But how? We didn't leave any word in Los Angeles, we didn't tell anyone where we were going. How did he find us?"

"I'd opt for pure dumb luck. It hardly matters. We're out of here."

Lucinda waited until they had reached their posh suite on the seventeenth floor before she tried again. "Methos, we can't keep running. What if he follows us back to New Orleans?"

"We won't go back to New Orleans. How does Bora Bora sound to you?"

"That isn't the answer."

"Indonesia, then? No, wait, half of it's still underwater. How about Australia? I've never been, you know, and you did say you wanted to show me around."

Lucinda's response was pre-empted by the telephone. Both looked at the device as it repeated its muted yet insistent ring.

After the fourth ring, Methos asked mildly, "You gonna get that?"

Moving stiffly, Lucinda went to the bedside table and lifted the receiver. She spoke quietly, but without any hesitation. "We don't have to do this, Kazuo...It's been such a long time...we both have new lives...it's not going to change anything, can't you see that?...I see...Tomorrow night, then. In the desert, off the highway, ten miles east of Vegas...No, I won't run away."

She hung up with a sigh of resignation. After a moment she turned to Methos, obviously expecting an outburst.

He only shook his head at her. "The wonders of the twenty-first century," he said. "When challenges can be issued by telephone."

"I tried to talk him out of it." The words were defensive, but Lucinda's eyes begged for his understanding.

"I heard." Methos' voice was very quiet, carefully non-judgmental.

"He tracked us here from Los Angeles." Her voice was edged with desperation. "He'd follow us anywhere--even back to New Orleans. And he wouldn't give a damn about the truce. He'd cut down every other Immortal in the Quarter if he had to, just to get to me."

"Who are you trying to convince?" Methos asked. "Me, or yourself?"

The look she gave him was heartsick and stricken. She sank down on the edge of the bed and put her head in her hands.

When Methos' shadow fell over her, she looked up. "You can beat him," he told her in a voice she hadn't heard in centuries--the voice of Metthias, her stern yet patient teacher. "You are older and far more powerful than he, and this time you are not sickened from watching brave men die in a futile battle they knew they could never win."

"Kiriyama is samurai--"

"And samurai are trained to fight in close quarters, not open desert. More to the point, they are sworn to fight for their masters, not for themselves. Whatever high-minded ideals Kiriyama may lay claim to, he's turned this into a personal vendetta that flies in the face of the code of bushido--the warrior's path. He doesn't care who gets hurt or killed--just so he gets what he wants."

She studied his calm, perfectly placid expression, and curiosity overrode her trepidation. "I would have thought you'd be trying to talk me out of going to face him, not giving me a pep talk."

"When you've lived as long as I have, darling, you know better than to waste your breath." Methos knelt in front of Lucinda and took her slim, cold hands in his large, warm ones. "I also know that you're better than he is--if you go out there and fight your best fight, you will beat him." He squeezed her numb fingers. "And afterwards--I will be waiting for you."

If he had spent days choosing his words, he could not have said anything more effective, or anything more likely to see her through the fight to come.

Outside Las Vegas, Nevada
28 April, Present Day

The sun had just disappeared from view, leaving the distant neon glow of the Vegas Strip as the only bright spot on the distant horizon. At the foot of a flat, nondescript mesa, Lucinda sat on a convenient rock and waited. She wore a black turtleneck, well-worn jeans, and sturdy black boots. When the air began to get chilly, she shrugged into a black leather jacket.

When she heard the sound of a powerful engine approaching, she stood up. A large, red-finished Harley-Davidson Softail Classic sent up a spurt of sand as it stopped several yards away from her. The rider was clad in a white racing jumpsuit with red stripes down the sides. He removed his helmet and set it carelessly on the motorcycle's seat.

Kiriyama nodded his head in the curtest of greetings. "You're here."

"I said I wouldn't run."

He reached back to the bike and drew his sleek katana. "Ikimashouka?"

Lucinda did not move to draw her own sword. "I understand your need for closure," she said with genuine compassion. "I know what it's like to watch your whole world crumble--to have everything you've ever known, everything you believe in, swept away like sand on the tide. I respected your world, Kazuo-san. I never would have destroyed it."

"Liar!" he shouted, gripping his katana till his knuckles turned white. "You poured poison into the Emperor's ears with your foreigner's talk about progress. Progress!" He spat the word like a curse. "Thousands of years of honor and tradition, shot down with the guns and cannon of your 'progress'!"

Lucinda shook her head. "You are so wrong, Kazuo-san. Meiji was a visionary. He saw at once that the outside world would devour Japan if his people didn't learn to change with the times. The destruction of your history was precisely what he was striving to avoid. It's because of him that there's anything left of the world you knew at all."

"Are you going to fight or talk me to death?" Kiriyama demanded.

"What about Hitomi?" she pressed, grasping for any reason to forestall a confrontation she had never wanted. "How will she feel when you don't come back to her?"

He laughed at that. "As if the feelings of a silly girl would make any difference. Anyway, she's not waiting for me. She's dead."

"...What!"

"When I told her I was leaving, she made such a fuss that I broke off our engagement. She went home and hanged herself."

Lucinda heard the carelessness in his tone with cold revulsion. "She loved you!"

"She believed herself in love with me--romance is just another one of your Western fictions. More fool she if she killed herself over it."

Lucinda's eyes narrowed. "And I actually thought you were worth saving," she muttered. "It wasn't bad enough that you shame your family honor with this needless challenge. Now you've destroyed a beautiful, innocent young woman who never did anything to deserve it. You might as well have wrung her neck with your own hands, and you don't even care." She drew her sword from its hidden sheath with a ring of seasoned, well-tempered steel. "Kusottare," she hissed. "You're not a samurai. You're a waste of space, and you should have died a hundred and forty years ago."

Kiriyama was given momentary pause by the flatness of her voice and the black fury in her blue eyes--not a mindless rage that would make her careless, but a pure, methodical anger that would give her focus. For the first time, he felt a jarring jolt of fear.

But he shook it off quickly. He was samurai, and this woman--this gaijin--was nothing. He would make short work of her, and avenge the death of his world.

He charged at her, his sense of purpose undimmed, and she raised her sword to meet his.

The fight was brutal, and it went on far too long for Methos' liking. He was stretched out prone on the cooling sand, just out of sight, and he was having considerable difficulty keeping track of the two of them through the narrow view of the rifle scope. He didn't have a mount for the weapon, and his trigger arm was getting tired.

You can't interfere, said a voice in his head, with a faint but distinctive Scottish burr.

Shut up, Highlander. I couldn't keep her from this fight, and I won't interfere--not unless it looks like it's going against her.

Methos, you can't do this. It's against the rules of the Game.

Bugger the Game, and bugger the rules. I don't care. I lost her once, and I will not lose her again. Not like--damn! Where-- While arguing with his conscience (which seemed to have permanently assumed the identity of one Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod), he'd lost track of the fighters. He peered through the rifle-sight, scanning frantically for any movement. There was the motorcycle, but--

The first blue-white flash of lightning made him cringe away from the sight. With a cry, he dropped the rifle and scrambled to his feet. He stared at the blast and fury of the Quickening, but he couldn't see anything through it. The Harley erupted in a shower of sparks and fell over, but he could see no other movement.

He took off running towards the mesa, sword in hand, tearing across the sand like the desert-dweller he'd been millenia ago. By the time he got close enough to see anything significant, it was over. The ground at the foot of the mesa had been fused to smoky glass for a space ten yards across. The motorcycle was a burned-out, sparking ruin. In the heart of the blast radius knelt a lone figure--blonde head bowed, Viking sword laid across her knees. Before her lay a body clad in a white leather racing suit, lacking a head.

Methos slowed to a walk as he came within sensing range. Lucinda looked up at him, spent and weary and profoundly sad. "You were supposed to wait at the hotel," she said, but she didn't seem surprised to see him.

"I got bored." He walked cautiously across the fused sand and put his hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"I will be." She took his hand and pulled herself to her feet. "I'm alive."

"That's always a good thing." He put a steadying arm around her waist and led her away. "I told you, didn't I?"

"You did." She nodded. "It was--different, this time. He gave me a reason to fight him."

"Did he?"

"Yes--and there was more than that. I had a reason to live." She smiled and touched the side of his face. "And I had your faith in me."

Methos smiled and cuddled his cheek into her palm as they walked, resolving then and there never to breathe a word about watching her through a rifle scope. He had had faith in her--but this was Las Vegas, where a wise man always hedged his bets.