Preemptive Strike by Ishafel
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Author's Notes:
Written for Chinae in the Highlander Shortcuts 09 Exchange

MacLeod was the kind of idiot who thought it was a good idea to move to a war zone and teach arithmetic and art appreciation to underprivileged orphans. Joe was the kind of idiot who was so dedicated to his job and his friends that he went with him, even though he knew it was a stupid idea. Methos was the kind of idiot who loved them both too much to let them get themselves killed.

That's how he found himself in Kabul, in the middle of the American occupation. The city was a beautiful ruin, a whore torn between right and reason, the way cities always were just before the end. Methos was in Rome, Constantinople, Paris, Sarejevo, Alexandria when they burned the libraries.

The people were quick to anger and quick to forgive, with clever faces and strong hands and stronger faith, opportunistic and altruistic by turns. Which is to say, they were like people always are, caught up in a war they cannot stop and do not understand, eager to save what can be saved and make a profit from that which cannot be saved.

MacLeod made sure their children had food and books, as much as he could. Joe wrote passionate reports for the Watchers, and objective ones for a French website, an ugly American who cared too much. Methos worked at the refugee camp as a doctor. He smuggled medical supplies and antibiotics into the city, and antiquities out of the country.

He did not think too much about what Mac would say if he knew, or maybe he thought too much about it and that was why he did it. He was a good doctor, and a better gun runner-- no one has more practice, after all-- and the rebels trusted him. They were fanatics, but they weren't fools. They weren't even bad men, his little band of guerrillas.

They were hungry and hopeless, younger sons and little brothers, and the world had moved on without them and it made them angry. They were afraid, afraid that if they don't control everything they won't control anything. Methos knew them. Methos had been them.

It wasn't an excuse. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he did it anyway because he wanted to.

MacLeod and Joe had rooms at a hotel in the heart of the city, where most of the American civilians were quartered. Journalists, medical personnel, private security, missionaries, and assorted vultures. The hotel's sole redeeming quality was its bar, stocked before the Taliban came to power and locked away since. In the six months since the war began, the Americans had drunk their way through three-quarters of its stores.

Methos had a house on the edge of the city, and carefully stocked boltholes inside and out, but he spent most of his nights at that bar. He told Joe wild, mostly true stories, and horrified MacLeod whenever possible. "Kronos and I sacked this city once," he said, one night when things were comparatively quiet and three of them were alone.

Methos had a Belgian passport and visa, because he'd always liked the Belgians and because he thought there might be a time when it was better not to be American. The Afghan people hadn't all thrown flowers at the feet of the invaders, no matter what the American press would have liked the world to think. He spoke French, with the flat Flanders accent of a farmboy turned doctor turned mercenary. "It was easier than you'd expect. Then again-- who hasn't conquered this city? The Persians, Alexander the Great, the Greeks, the Kushans, Tamerlane, an emir or two, the Reds--."

"Meth-- Hans Peter, shut up," MacLeod hissed.

"Let him talk," Joe protested. He was pretending to be drunker than he actually was. Methos saw through him, but he let him get away with it anyway. He liked to talk.

"Well," he said. "It was called Kabura then, of course." He never finished the story. The door to the bar opened, and Rashid came in. He was Methos's contact in the rebel camp, a mechanic and amateur archeologist with two beautiful, devout daughters and a beard that would make the Prophet proud.

The Palace Hotel was not, of course, forbidden to Afghans. How could it be, when the Americans were there as liberators? That was the old colonialism, which no one present would admit to believing, if they did believe it-- but other than the hotel staff, there was not an Afghan present. Conversation stopped when Rashid came in, and he knew it.

"Rashid," Methos said, filling the awkward pause. "Old friend. There is not trouble at the camp, I hope?"

Rashid's eyes flicked to the glass in his hand, and away. "No," he answered. "Not at the camp. It is my son, Doctor, that is ill, and I wish for you to come to my house and treat him."

Rashid had no sons. "As soon as I finish my beer," Methos said mildly. Rashid protested and MacLeod frowned. "What exactly is the problem?" Methos asked, purely to prolong the moment.

"It is his stomach. And he is feverish, I think. Very-- not well." For a man whose life depended on deception, Rashid was a terrible liar. "You will come?"

He could say no, but that would be purely for MacLeod's benefit. "Of course," he said. "You will have a payment for me?"

"You will go to Paradise and there will be many virgins waiting to please you," Rashid said, like a caricature of a Taliban member. For a fanatic, he had a surprisingly sharp sense of humor. It was difficult, sometimes, to remember that this is a man who would walk into a crowded marketplace with twenty pounds of C4 strapped to his chest. "Yes, of course I will pay, Doctor."

MacLeod looked between them, dark eyes dismayed. Joe looked down into his beer. Only one of them understood Pashto, but somehow Methos thought it was the other who suspected what was really going on. "Don't wait up," he said to both of them, and smiled at MacLeod. After a moment Mac smiled back, and if Methos's heart skipped a little he didn't let it show.

If MacLeod had had braids, Methos would be dipping them in inkwells. His beer was gone. He set the glass gently on the table and followed Rashid outside.

They were breaking curfew, technically, although Methos's papers identified him as a doctor and he was unlikely to get into trouble. The difficulty wasn't being stopped-- it was being shot by trigger happy soldiers who thought, justifiably, that all men were the same in the dark. He and Rashid moved in the shadows, as quietly as they could.

They were not challenged, or shot. Methos's little house was empty. He had a woman who came to cook and clean, but she went home at night. His medical supplies were in a pair of locked trunks in the bedroom. "Gunshot wound?" he asked, and Rashid nodded.

"It is in the belly," he said, gesturing with both hands. "So." He looked like he was describing a girl in late pregnancy. Methos packed the usual: forceps and gauze sponges and sutures and a transfusion kit, antibiotics and lidocaine and anesthesia.

The last time he went to medical school it was in London, and they were just beginning to do research on blood types. Immortals were universal donors, always. Methos would love to know what that means, if it means something. Medicine had changed tremendously since then, but the principles were the same. Catching up had been mainly a matter of understanding the technology. He'd always been good at technology, and out here no one is going to notice anyway.

He handed one bag to Rashid and slung the other over his shoulder, and they went on. Rashid's house was dark, too, but only because the windows were covered. There was no electricity at night in that part of the city, but the oil lamps provided a hazy, warm light. There were half a dozen men in Rashid's kitchen, besides his daughters and the wounded man on the table.

When Methos came in, they all began to talk at once. A raid, on the American barracks, beautifully executed, had Methos heard? It would be on the news, in America, they would be cowering like dogs--. No one in America cared about Afghanstan, but Methos didn't say so.

These men had only the most tenuous connection to Al Qaeda. Their tiny, ill-thought out raids did nothing but prolong the war, and their deaths were meaningless. He did not say so. He would have, once. He had said worse things to men he liked better.

He has done with lecturing. He sent most of the men out. Rashid stayed, and Farouk, who was the leader. The women stayed, heating water over the stove. For as long as he could remember, women had done that. Long before they knew that it did any good, they boiled endless pots of water over open fires, whenever there was a crisis at hand.

"He is gutshot," Farouk said matter-of-factly. "You will do what you can for him?"

"Yes," Methos said.

"Good. He is a little fool, but he is my brother-in-law and my wife loves him." He was holding something wrapped in cloth-- he handed it to Methos. "Thank you, Doctor Guttman."

When he was gone, Methos unwrapped the package. It was a cup, small, but very finely made. He held it to the light.

"It is valuable?" Rashid demanded.

"The Holy Grail," Methos said dreamily, "the cup in which Joseph of Arimethea caught the blood of Christ--." Rashid wasn't familiar with Indiana Jones, apparently. "That was a joke. It's Persian, a thousand years older than Christ. Lovely piece, but not terribly valuable."

Which was a bald-faced lie; the cup was gold, and the inlay ruby, and it was museum quality. More than worth thirty dollars in prescription drugs. But it wouldn't do for the rebels to think they were overpaying him. Methos had had a cup like this once, old even then-- a gift from one of the Ptolemies. He wrapped it and stowed it in the corner of his bag before he moved to look at the man on the table.

Boy, really. The face was beardless, the eyes shadowed by lashes as long as a woman's. He'd been covered with a sheet for modesty's sake. Underneath it he was naked except for the stained bandages covering his abdomen. Methos unwrapped them, carefully, and Rashid paled and turned away.

The wound was fresh, which was positive, but very ugly. If it weren't for the antibiotics, he would be a dead man. Even with the antibiotics it was going to be touch and go. Rashid's older daughter made tea and took it out to the other men. The younger daughter scrubbed in and assisted with the surgery.

She was very good. Not strong, but deft, with small, quick hands and a solid mind and strong stomach. Methos could have made a surgeon of her, or she could have made something else of herself. She was too clever to be wasted as another good Muslim woman, raising sons to be sacrificed to the war and daughters to be sacrificed to the hearth.

But she was not his daughter, and Methos knew better than to interfere. If she wanted something different, it might be worth it. But he did not think she was unhappy, and he would not make her so, merely to satisfy his own conscience.

It took four hours to extract the bullet and patch the boy's intestines back together. Four hours sweating, blinking in the smoke from the oil lamps, fingers cramping around a ten-blade. If he were human he might faint at the end of it. Instead he wiped his face on his robes and drank the coffee the older daughter made for him.

The boy on the table would live. Methos stayed with him until he began to regain consciousness. By then, it was almost light, and the air was clean and damp on his face. He thought once, that he felt the faintest brush of presence, at the edge of his senses. It might have been only tiredness. So far as he knew, he and MacLeod were the only immortals in Kabul. AN I.E.D. could do a hell of a lot of damage even if it didn't kill you. The others probably had more sense.

Whoever this was, if it was anyone, they slid away and were gone. Not hunting, not tonight at least. Methos wasn't, either. He went home and slept for an hour and a half before he had to be back at the camp.

It was a well-known fact among medical practitioners that the less sleep you had the night before, the busier you would be on the day. Methos saw patients for nine hours straight, and then crawled out the back of the tent before he could be made to see them for nine more hours. His eyes were crossing, and his knees ached from standing. He sat on the ground and lit one of the cigarettes he got from a soldier from Virginia with the clap. Turkish tobacco, brought to Afghanstan by way of Richmond. He hadn't smoked in decades, but it seems like a desirable trait for Hans Peter Guttman, M.D. and drug runner. In fiction, all of the bad guys-- and most of the doctors-- smoked.

His eyes were closed, and he was almost asleep despite the cigarette in his hand, when he felt someone looking at him, someone mortal. It was a useful thing, instinct. He didn't open his eyes, and the person limped closer. Joe, then. Something heavy dropped to the ground inches from his right hand. He knew the sound a bottle made, and he blinked up at Joe even as his fingers closed around it.

A water bottle, the plastic cool to the touch. He twisted the lid off and drank gratefully. "Put that out before you set yourself on fire," Joe said, and Methos scraped dirt over the cigarette butt.

"Please tell me you don't have an embarrassing medical condition you need treated," he said.

Joe didn't smile. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Hans Peter?"

Methos would have preferred gonorrhea. "Sit down, Joe," he said. "I can't see you, the sun's so bright."

Joe snorted with annoyance or possibly disgust, but he sat, awkwardly. Methos felt guilty, despite himself. It was hard for Joe to get up without something to grab. On the other hand, he wouldn't be walking away, which was nice.

The most important part of being a double agent, or a criminal, was denial. Never admit to anything, no matter how good the evidence was against you. He could have stonewalled Joe, but he didn't have the energy. "Same thing you and MacLeod are doing. Helping people."

"Helping yourself, more likely," Joe said. "That kid last night, he wasn't a civilian, and he didn't get gored by a goat. Spare us both the lies."

"You followed me? What did you do, sneak up and look in the window?"

"I knew you'd go to your place first. I followed you from there. And I went over the garden wall."

Methos was quietly appalled. Farouk, with all of his caution, his passwords and secret knocks and escorts, outdone by a fifty year old amputee journalist and blues guitarist. "They'd have killed you if they'd caught you."

Joe looked sheepish. "I took backup."

"MacLeod? You and MacLeod spied on me? What did you do, make him wait at the end of the block with a cell phone?"

"You might as well have run an ad on CNN announcing you were up to something, Meth-- Doc. What did you think we would do?"

It was a fair point. As was usually the case, Methos was no longer sure what he was thinking. "Well," he said. "You caught me."

"Damn straight," Joe hissed. "Treason. I never thought you'd do something like that."

Methos sighed. "It isn't treason. I'm not an American citizen. They asked for my help, and I gave it. Should I have let that boy die?"

"Maybe," Joe said slowly, "maybe you should have. He's a terrorist, Methos. What if when he's healed he blows up a bus full of kids?"

"What if when he's healed he fathers a kid who cures cancer?"

Joe scowled at him, frustrated. "Look," Methos said. "I'm not MacLeod. There aren't any black and white solutions as far as I can tell, and I spent a long time looking. People-- are people. You save them when you can, and you kill them when you can't, and you hope that in the end it more or less comes out even."

"I guess you got a lot of work to do, then, getting it anywhere close to even." Joe's voice was cool, his jaw tight.

"No," Methos said, with equal coolness. "I don't do guilt, Joe."

"Then I guess you must be getting paid pretty well, huh? Seeing as you're risking your precious neck every day you spend in this--." He gestured with one arm, eloquent, the refugee camp, Kabul, Afghanstan, the Middle East. Disaster upon disaster.

"You could say that," Methos agreed.

Joe closed his eyes. "What is it?" he asked. "Opium? White slavery? Methos--."

"High opinion you have of me. It's not quite so terrible as that, believe it or not. I'm not even sure where one sells slaves these days." Joe's face didn't change, which means he hadn't ever thought those were real possibilities, which was nice. "Antiquities," Methos said.

"Yeah?"

"Do you know how old this city is? Older than they think, even. They went to war with almost everyone, and they traded with everyone. They don't realize-- mortals never realize what it is they're losing until it's gone. Three thousand years of history, Joe, think of it, destroyed to pay for three thousand lives lost." Someone was calling his name from the other side of the tent. He hadn't got long before they found him. "I killed more than that," he said tiredly, even though it didn't exactly help his case.

"Okay," Joe said gravely. "Okay. I just wanted to know you had a reason for it."

His nurses were there, smiling enthusiastically, no doubt wondering what the hell he'd been doing. "Merci," he said to Joe in Guttman's French, pulling him to his feet. "Merci."

He spent three more hours in that tent, listening to heartbeats, checking eyes, splinting a broken arm, wishing for a portable ultrasound and an MRI and a digital xray. He felt a little better, not much, and he still had to go to Rashid's and check on his patient there. It was nights like this he was glad he wasn't actually a doctor, with a mortgage and a fortune in loans to pay back. He could quit whenever he wanted to.

Joe was waiting for him when he was finally ready to go. Methos was too tired for more than a smile. "Hey," he said. "You're escorting me now? To keep me out of trouble?"

Joe smiled back, and something in Methos's chest loosened. Of course, then Joe ruined it by saying, "You're going to have to tell MacLeod something, you realize that."

"Yeah," Methos said. "Just trying to decide what'll be most palatable."

"Maybe you should try the truth."

Despite himself Methos snorted. "That'll work, I'm sure."

Joe grabbed his arm and pulls him to a stop. "What is with you? I thought Mac was your friend."

"What? He is."

"Treat him like a friend, then. Tell him what's really going on, instead of saying what you think he'd like to hear."

"Maybe." Methos sighed, starting to walk again. "There's just something about the way he looks when I've disappointed him. It's like a dog that knows you're leaving it, those big mournful brown eyes and that droopy mouth and wet nose--."

Joe was less than sympathetic. "For Christ's sake, Doc. You're worse than a twelve year old girl where MacLeod is concerned. Make a move, or don't-- but decide one way or the other."

They were almost to Rashid's street, and Methos said, "You're right, Joseph Dawson. I'm going to do it."

"You're going to what? Ask MacLeod out on a date? Confess everything to him?"

"Decide," Methos said sweetly. And hammered on Rashid's door a moment later, while Joe melted back in to the shadows.

Only Rashid and his daughters were home. Methos didn't ask where the others were. They'd moved the wounded boy into the small bedroom built off the kitchen. It was too warm, windowless, miserable even at night, but despite this he was conscious and improving. His cheeks were still smooth as a child's, and he blushed whenever Rashid's younger daughter was in the room. She didn't raise her eyes, but Methos could feel her not-looking, fierce as a fire at his back.

He wanted to say to her, not this one, of all of them. The boy was a terrible soldier; he would make a worse husband. And that was leaving aside the damnable religious fanaticism.

She wasn't his responsibility. He helped where he could, but there was nothing he could do that would help her and not make things more difficult for her. She had to want things to change-- that was what the Americans don't understand. Governments didn't dictate policy, people did. They wanted the Taliban in power, and nothing would change here until they wanted something different, more.

He was almost finished when he felt an Immortal nearby. MacLeod, no doubt. He didn't hurry, packing his things. He was too tired to hurry, even if he wanted to.

"You look rough," was the first thing MacLeod said to him.

"Ouch," Methos said, blinking in the black street. "Joe sent you to babysit me, not criticize my looks."

MacLeod's teeth were so white they glowed in the dark. This was probably due more to Immortality than it was to Scottish dentistry. "Joe didn't say not to."

"Remind me to thank him in the morning." But the words trailed off into an enormous jaw-cracking yawn, which rather spoiled the threat.

Methos lived less than a quarter mile from Rashid-- much less if the streets were straight and clear and there were no patrols to dodge-- but he was so tired he was stumbling by the time he reached home. "I'm out of condition," he said apologetically to MacLeod. "Time was I could have crossed the Sudan on no sleep, with only a camel-load of beer."

"Liar," MacLeod sounded affectionate enough, his hand on Methos's elbow. "I'm willing to bet you never went anywhere without a caravan of beer behind you."

The door wasn't locked; the Afghans knew who Methos worked for, and they respected his privacy. Also the only things worth stealing were locked away upstairs. Methos fumbled the door open and let MacLeod in.

"You're sure?" Mac asked. "I mean, we've been over here three months and this is the first time I've gotten past the door."

"Whatever," Methos answered, flopping down in the only chair. "Do your worst, MacLeod. Have your way with me. I'm too tired to resist."

He was dimly aware of MacLeod fussing, making tea, but by the time the water'd boiled, he was asleep where he was sitting, face down at the table.

He was still there in the morning, fully dressed, forehead pillowed on one numb arm. MacLeod was gone, and there was a cold mug of tea by his elbow. He fished out the fly and drank it anyway. MacLeod had rearranged the silverware and done the washing up and probably baked bread and folded Methos's laundry as well. Methos despised both domesticity and efficiency, especially early in the morning. He staggered upstairs and lay down, but even with the curtains drawn the house was like an oven.

He wished he were somewhere else, somewhere on the Atlantic coast, without his conscience and Joe and MacLeod to trouble him. Somewhere with ninety-six different beers on tap, and air conditioning and a stiff sea breeze.

After a while he thought of the cup he got from Farouk, still in his bag. He dug it out and unwrapped it. It was as beautifully made as he remembered, heavier in his hand than it looked like it should be, solid and cool to the touch. He wished it could tell him how it came here, who made it and who commissioned it and who loved it, all those long years ago.

Sooner or later, everyone and everything came through Kabul, they had said once, if it lived long enough. Mughals and khans and legionaries and missionaries. Sooner or later every empire went to war with Kabul, if it lasted long enough. The Americans were only the latest; the city would survive them, and they would not be the last.

Methos was impossibly old, and even he couldn't remember when there was not a settlement here. The things he had-- the things he saved-- would keep until there was peace. There was space under the floorboards for the cup, next to a ninth century Qu'ran that was as fine as any he'd ever seen. They'd be safe in Methos's vaults in Stockholm, and, Kabul being what it was, someday they'd be back.

He'd just stowed the cup when he felt MacLeod come back. "Mac?" he called down the stairs, just to be sure. Immortals avoided this part of the world like the plague-- beheading was still a little too common for comfort-- but that didn't justify carelessness.

"M-- Doc? I've brought breakfast."

Of course he had. "Give me minute," Methos yelled back, carefully fitting the boards into place. He managed a bath, more or less, in the tepid water in the basin, and puts on a clean shirt. He could shave at Joe's, later, when there might be hot water.

When he got downstairs, MacLeod was laying out bread and hummus and lentils on the table. Rashid and most of his fundamentalist friends ate smuggled, stale Trix and Cap'n Crunch-- Methos had explained to them that the Captain was a famous American military hero like Washington and the elder Bush-- but it didn't surprise him that MacLeod had chosen something more traditional.

"You're up early," he said, and Mac smiled, a little shyly. He seemed happier than Methos has seen him in a long time. But then, domesticity was MacLeod's thing. He was the type to enjoy having someone to look after.

He was far too nice, and far too young, for Methos. Methos had to keep reminding himself of that. This one was worth waiting for. Waiting was not really in his nature. He tore off a piece of bread and used it to scoop up some of the lentils. He was suddenly starving, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. There was coffee, too, and he drank it gratefully.

Once he'd eaten enough that the edge was gone, he looked up and caught MacLeod watching him. The other man blushed and turned away, and then dragged his eyes back. He was brave. Methos had always admired that courage, even if he didn't understand it. "I guess you want to know what's going on," he said, mostly to put Mac out of his misery.

"Oh. No, Joe told me, more or less."

Methos blinked. "He did?"

"He said you were helping the rebels. Why didn't you just tell us?"

Apparently Joe hadn't mention Methos's foray into smuggling. "It is treason," he pointed out. "The less you know, the safer you are, and all that."

"You thought I'd be angry about it," Mac said, and he had the gall to sound hurt, like this wouldn't have been a perfectly reasonable assumption on Methos's part. "Methos-- they're human beings. You didn't think I'd want them to suffer, did you?"

"They're terrorists," Methos answered, watching MacLeod through narrowed eyes. "Bad men, MacLeod."

"So are we bad men, some of the time," MacLeod said. "You can't think that matters, Methos. Not when it counts. What you're doing is heroic."

Methos had been played before, by masters. MacLeod was not even being particularly subtle. "Also, I've been transporting antiquities out of the country illegally. Or possibly not illegally, since they're gifts from the last recognized Afghan government."

MacLeod just smiled and ate a piece of pita bread. "I know," he said. "I've known for a while, actually-- before Joe found out. But I wanted you to tell me."

"How did you know?" Methos demanded. What he meant by it was, why aren't you furious?

"It's what I did for years-- antiques. You really think there's anyone in the business I don't know? Three different dealers called me to ask if I knew a Flemish guy with a big nose, who might be able to get things out of Afghanistan."

"My nose isn't really that big," Methos argued. "Not big enough to identify me, anyway. And I'm Belgian, not Flemish."

"Yeah," MacLeod said. "Whatever you want to tell yourself. But, see, this guy's not a dealer. As far as anybody knows, anyway, he's not selling. And if he's working for a collector, he's kept it very quiet. So they guess he's stockpiling them for someone-- maybe for the Americans, or for the Afghan government in exile, or for himself-but only if he's very, very wealthy, and people like that mostly don't do their own dirty work."

"Which do you think it is?" he asked. Mac smiled at him, and he was so close, Methos could have leaned across the table and kissed him. He had no intention of doing so-- but that didn't mean it wasn't tempting. MacLeod was lovely, and knew it all to well.

"Not altruism," he said, and Methos winced a little. Maybe it was just as well they were on opposite sides of the table. "But I don't think you're intending to go into the art business, either. You must be collecting, then."

Methos got up and began to stack the dishes. The truth, Joe had said. Be his friend, and tell him the truth. He looked at his watch, but for once there was time enough and spare. "Before Alexa," he said finally, his back to MacLeod. "Before any of this." Joe. The Watchers. MacLeod. Before Afghanistan was such a clusterfuck, even. "In 1936. I lived in Berlin. There was a woman, of course: Raisa. She studied piano at the conservatory, and I taught at the university. It was all very proper and suitable for once, and then Hitler came to power."

He sighed, remembering. "They were Jewish. Wealthy, liberal, intellectual, and Orthodox. And so, at the time, was I. When the time came, I was one of the first into the lifeboats. I begged her father to move them to safety and when they would not go, I begged Raisa to elope with me. We could emigrate to America as man and wife, build a life together."

"She was very young," he said, remembering her dark hair and dark skirt, and her white face and blazing eyes. "Fiercely loyal to her family and her God, and she had a terrible temper besides. We fought about it." They had been vicious, both of them. She had called him a coward and a traitor, and he had called her an idiot, and walked out. "I left the country the next day. She stayed. And the irony of it was, she was pre-Immortal. It wasn't really her family, her God. I hadn't told her. I wanted her to choose, and she chose them. She died with them in a gas chamber, and they burned her body."

Methos turned around and looked at Mac. The other man's face was pale and set, his mouth thin line. "I went back," he continued. "After it was over. The house was a burned out shell. Everything was gone-- even the piano, which was a Steinway concert grand, the size of an elephant. All I had of Raisa was a handful of letters and a bad photograph."

Despite the heat, he shivered, thinking of the ruined house, the ruined street. "Years went by. I happened to be flipping through a Sotheby's catalog, for an auction I had no intention of attending. And there was a painting in it-- a Picasso. It was in her father's study, behind the desk. It was like seeing a ghost."

"Did you buy it?"

Methos laughed. "No. It was overpriced, and the provenance was iffy. No way of knowing how it'd gotten from Berlin to London." He met MacLeod's eyes. "People don't survive, Mac. That's what five thousand years teaches you. They die, even the Immortals-- especially the Immortals. Things survive, and sometimes they're all we have left of people."

"That's crazy," MacLeod said. "Even for you. Not everyone dies, Methos--."

"Well," Methos agreed. "Not everyone, yet."

MacLeod winced, and Methos wondered who he was thinking of. Richie? Tessa? "I save things. I save artwork, antiquities, because in the long run they're what matters. In five hundred years no one will remember that kid I saved at Rashid's the other night. Chances are, whether he lived or died makes no fucking difference to anything."

"That," MacLeod said after a while, "is the most depressing thing I've ever heard." He got up and walked across the kitchen and kissed Methos on the mouth, hard. He had kissed a lot of people-- MacLeod-- not that Methos hadn't kissed more, but a lot for a man his age. He was good at it.

He tasted like Nescafe, and his hands were on Methos's shoulders. It took Methos a moment to push him away, which was not something he was particularly proud of. "Stop it, Mac," he said when he could breathe again. "You really think that's what I want from you?"

MacLeod looked confused, and a little crushed. "It isn't?" he demanded.

"I'm too old for pity," Methos said, with a patience he didn't actually feel. "Joe told me to try telling the truth, so that's what I'm doing. We could do this, and it would be nice for a while, and then it wouldn't. Because at the end we would tear each other apart. Some day, maybe, when we've both grown up a little."

"I thought this was about me," Mac said quietly. "All of it. I thought you were-- I'm sorry, Methos."

"Hey," Methos touched his shoulder. "Not your fault. Mine. I never do anything simply if I can complicate it beyond belief. Some of it was about you."

"Not most of it, though."

"No," Methos agreed, watching him go.

That night he went back to the bar and sat with Joe, drinking bourbon because the Americans had finished off the Scotch. "Kronos and I defended this city once," he said, remembering. "It was Kabul by then, and not much different than it is now." He had kissed Kronos in the hall, very early in the morning, and watched him die at the gate by noon. He had died twice himself, in the evening, when the city fell.

"That so?" Joe asked, slurring the words, pretending to be drunker than he was, too drunk to remember anything the next day. Methos let him get away with it, because he wanted it written down. He wanted to be remembered.