They drove back to the barge in silence. Anne stared steadily out the window, swallowing occasionally to keep back the tears that kept threatening to spill over. Duncan’s face was a mask of careful control. He solicitously helped her out of the car and up the gangplank, but as soon as they were inside he went directly to the phone, calling the airline number from memory and conducting a brief conversation in French.
"The next flight out is tomorrow morning. The ticket will be at the airport," he said, carefully replacing the receiver, removing his coat and hanging it on the rack near the forward door. "You should rest. Do you want anything to eat?"
Anne sat dejectedly on the bed, watching Duncan busy himself straightening his desk, putting away books in the shelves. "Duncan, I’m so sorry," she whispered.
"I know, Anne. Me, too," he responded. He stopped his busywork, briefly, leaning against the bookcase, head turned away from Anne. "I’ll fix some tea."
The rest of the day was awkward. Mac avoided touching Anne, who huddled in misery in bed. She was badly bruised and exhausted and eventually fell into a restless sleep in the late afternoon. MacLeod kept a watchful eye on her, sitting for a long time in the gathering dusk, thinking. Would it have been better never to have called her, letting her go on believing him dead, leaving her feeling lonely, guilty, angry? For a few hours he had lived with the blissful illusion that he might have a family, a real life, only to have it immediately snatched away. For him, it would have been easier never to have seen her again rather than feel this awful emptiness. But for her . . . he honestly didn’t know. At least she had some closure, had made a conscious choice. It wasn’t a choice he liked. There was a part of him that was deeply hurt, angry, rejected. The thought made his mouth twist in a sad smile. He ought to be used to rejection by now. He’d been rejected by the best of them, even his own father. Then he shook his head. None of that, he thought. Self pity is the last emotion I need right now, or ever.
He tried to read for awhile, but his emotions were churned up and he couldn’t relax, despite the fact that he hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours. Finally, in frustration he changed into several layers of exercise clothes and went out on deck. He slowly stretched, watching the lights of the city reflected in the turgid river water. Then he ran, moving quickly in the darkness along the Seine. The cold air chilled his face and hands, but they soon warmed with the movement, and he eventually found a steady rhythm, and gradually found his mind and body relaxing into the effort. He ran for an hour, circling back toward the barge for about a six-mile route he had used many times. Running at night in Paris was not generally considered a safe activity, but Mac was unconcerned. Anyone targeting him for a mugging would be unpleasantly surprised at the reaction they got. But tonight, he saw no one but a few couples, walking together or clutching each other in the shadows of the numerous bridges he passed. Their presence was an unwelcome reminder of Anne, and he again consciously pushed her from his thoughts.
Finally, he approached the barge. It was well after midnight, and it had turned genuinely cold, with the feel of snow in the air. He paced beside the barge, stretching, cooling down, and unwilling to go inside, his anger and despair rising again. He moved down river underneath the bridge span, where the paving stones were dry, and began the most familiar of his katas. He completed the cycle and began again in a deliberate attempt to exhaust himself. After three cycles, his clothes had soaked through and the chill in the air was now numbing his face and fingers. Breathing heavily, he returned to the barge, sitting on the ledge outside the pilot room, frustrated that he had been unable to achieve that feeling of well being he usually got after rigorous exercise. Sitting there in the dark, feeling the damp, cold air chill his skin through his sweat soaked clothes, the anger he’d been suppressing all day turned into an overwhelming sadness. She would be gone tomorrow, never to return. Tessa was gone, forever. The Gathering, the Game, had taken away any possibility for a real life, had put his friends, mortal and immortal, in jeopardy, and forced him to kill again and again. Was there something about him that attracted all this death? He knew immortals who lived for decades, centuries even, without taking a head. What was there about Duncan MacLeod that seemed to have other immortals circling like buzzards over a desert carcass?
An ugly, unwelcome thought intruded, one he had carefully suppressed for a long time. The thought was contrary to everything he believed, had fought for, for 400 years. -- Wouldn’t it be easier just to let go? What was the point, after all? Just to stay alive? What meaning did that have if staying alive was like this? Duncan shook his head sharply, chasing the despair away. It wasn’t the first time it had intruded, but it was a coward’s thought. He carefully cleared his mind, going through a meditation ritual, ignoring the cold. It took him a long time to get to that point where his thoughts were clear, that sense of hanging in a mental and emotional void, clean of extraneous, unwelcome, intrusive emotions. He concentrated on listening, feeling, sensing the space around him, gradually expanding his perceptual sphere further and further. Over the centuries, he had developed, in a deep meditative state, a capacity to sense beyond the normal human range of sight and sound. He could feel the scurrying of the multitude of river rats in the sewers nearby, sense the late night movements of an old man living above the small grocery store up at street level, Anne’s restless dreaming from downstairs. Suddenly his attention was caught by a familiar presence, as though it were very, very close, but he knew it couldn’t be close, at least not physically. Then it was gone, and MacLeod snapped out of his trance, uncertain what he had sensed was real.
He was numb with cold. His unerring sense of time told him it was between two and three in the morning. The city was fairly quiet, although Paris was never completely quiet. His body was exhausted, but his mind was clear at last. He feared that he would waken Anne if he went inside, and it was only a few hours until daylight, so he wrapped his arms around his legs, sitting out of the wind, and waited.
He had dozed a little, when a wash of awareness started him wide awake. He stood, a little stiff from the cold. He moved toward the door to the barge, ready to retrieve his katana in a few economical moves. A dark coated figure appeared in the light of the street lamp at the top of the stairs from the quay, and Duncan relaxed as Methos’ long legs carried him to the bottom of the gangplank.
"What are you doing out this time of night?" Mac asked.
"I might ask you the same thing," Methos replied, slowly making his way onto the barge. He joined the other immortal, sitting, watching the city. They had sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, when MacLeod said, "That was you tonight, wasn’t it? In my thoughts?"
Methos was silent, watching the river.
"Can you do that with everyone?" Mac asked. "Must come in handy sometimes." His tone was ironic.
"No, MacLeod," Methos said. "I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been meditating at the same time, if I didn’t already know you fairly well, and if you didn’t have considerable power yourself. You know, I didn’t even realize you could do what you did tonight."
"Do what I did? What did I do?" Mac asked.
"Don’t you even know?" Methos asked, looking at MacLeod in surprise. When Duncan just gave him an inscrutable look, Methos shrugged. "Expanding your range of perception like that."
MacLeod sat in silence for a minute. "I guess I hadn’t thought about it much. I only do it when I’m meditating, as an exercise. It was startling to have you suddenly, just, well, there. But you didn’t need to come out in the middle of the night. It’s not like I was going to run through the streets, peeping into people’s minds."
"That’s not why I came, Mac." Methos sat for a minute, trying to find the right words. "I felt . . . I felt your . . . despair." As MacLeod turned his head away and started to rise in rejection of Methos’ interference in his privacy, Methos grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. "Don’t, Mac. Hear me out." The two men looked at each other for a long moment, then MacLeod slowly sat back down.
"Of course, it happens to all of us, but you know that and have worked through it before. This . . . this is a little different, I think. The Gathering, well, it's affected you differently," Methos fumbled for words. Mac let the silence run for a moment in tacit acknowledgement of the accuracy of Methos’ statement.
"Do you know why?" MacLeod finally asked the whispered question, almost as though he feared the answer. "Is there something I’m doing, Methos?" He rose restlessly to his feet, pacing briefly back and forth. "Why isn’t it happening to everyone the same? You aren’t hunted like I am, even as Adam Pierson. Seems to me that if we are all compelled to hunt and kill each other, it should be more evenly spread around."
Methos sighed. "You aren’t going to want to hear this, Mac. You may even refuse to believe it, but it has to be said." Once again, the two immortals locked gazes.
"Well say it, damn it!" MacLeod muttered, finally.
"First, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, you have established one hell of a reputation as a fighter. Any immortal who is looking for a quick power boost is likely to come looking for you. Second, you have never made it a practice to hide your identity or location, so you’re not difficult to find. Third, and probably most important . . . your kind of power is like a magnet, Mac," Methos finished.
"Then why aren’t you hunted, Methos?" MacLeod demanded, standing, hugging his arms against the cold. "You’re the oldest, you have enormous power. I don’t see other immortals irresistibly drawn to you!"
"I’ve learned to hide very well, to stay out of harm’s way, and, you will note, Duncan, that I’ve stuck pretty close to you in the past couple of years." Methos replied
Duncan stopped in his tracks, and slowly turned to face Methos, the implications of what he had said suffusing his face with anger. "You are hiding? Using me as a shield?" he growled.
"Hey, they come, they find you, you kill them, you get stronger, I stay alive. Works for me," Methos said matter-of-factly.
Duncan’s strong, callused hands crumpled Methos coat and shirt collar as he dragged the old immortal to his feet, holding his face inches from his own. "How many people have I killed on your behalf, Methos?" he asked, carefully forming each word.
Methos pushed Duncan away, his strength surprising on his thin frame. "Be realistic, MacLeod. They would have come for you first anyway. Don’t you get it?" Methos asked, incredulous that the Highlander didn’t see it for himself. "Since the Dark Quickening, you reek of power! My power is subtle, hidden. This way, you do what you would do anyway, and I avoid the Gathering longer."
Duncan paced out to the end of the barge, staring downriver. Light snow began to swirl in the air currents around the barge. Methos followed slowly. "What can I do to stop it, Methos?" Duncan demanded. "I want to stop it. Anne’s leaving me because she can’t deal with the killing, the death." He turned to face Methos. "I don’t blame her, not really. But damn it, Methos, how long can this go on? It could last for years. . . decades, maybe centuries! Am I now destined to do battle, what, once, twice a week, for God’s sake? Nobody can live like that!"
"I know, Mac," Methos said, walking past him to the end of the barge and staring off into the dark water. "I’ve never seen anything like it. But I honestly don’t know how to stop it. Maybe this is the last one. Maybe the final storm is gathering. I can’t tell."
"Look, Methos," Mac said, turning his companion so they faced each other. "You said your power was subtle, hidden. Teach me, Methos! Teach me to hide the power."
"Teach you? I’m not sure how I do it! Besides, your power is different from mine, Mac! You’ve gotten yours through combat. I’ve gotten mine through survival. I’m not even sure they’re comparable!" Methos protested.
"Bullshit! The nature of an Immortal’s power is accumulated knowledge and strength. You’ve taken heads, perhaps fewer than I might expect, but you’ve lived longer than anyone. The power is basically the same! You’ve just lived with it, hidden it, managed to stay away from battle with it, for generation after generation." MacLeod paced the deck in agitation, finally turning back to Methos. "Please! I . . . it's . . . Methos, I don’t want to kill! It corrodes the soul, every single time. Someday, Methos. Someday it will destroy me, and I will become just like all the others." Duncan’s desperation was plain on his face. "If I have no chance for any kind of a life, eventually I’ll become everything I hate."
"You don’t give yourself enough credit, Mac," Methos said. "You’ve already fought that battle. There will never be anything like the Dark Quickening again for you. What you are, how you react, who you are, is fully and finally cast, my friend. You will continue to care because that is who you are. That it causes you immeasurable pain . . . I’m sorry, Duncan, but I can’t change that."
Duncan’s expression grew cold and closed. He crossed his arms, gazing sightlessly out into the blackness of the river. "Then end it, Methos. End it for me."
It was now Methos who grew hard and angry as he closed the distance between them. "I never thought you were a coward, Duncan MacLeod."
"Bullshit, Methos!" Duncan shouted. "That doesn’t work with me. This is a decision. Straightforward. A choice. Go on, or stop. Either choice involves its own kind of cowardice. To go on, I have to chose to kill over and over again, possibly my own friends. To go on, I have to chose to put those I care about in constant, possibly mortal danger, from which I cannot protect them. Not to go on . . . not to go on is really more a choice for life, their life," he finished quietly.
Duncan caught a sudden change in expression on Methos’ face, and he whirled around to find Anne standing at the top of the stairs to the barge behind him, wrapped in a blanket.
"Anne!" he cried. "You shouldn’t be out here, it's freezing!" He rushed to her side, hustling her back down the stairs. Methos followed slowly behind.
Anne sat on the rumpled bed, watching the two men. She didn’t know the tall, thin man, but instinctively, from both the old, closed look on the man’s face and the long dark coat he wore, he must also be an immortal, like Duncan.
Duncan introduced him as Adam Pierson, and went to make some tea for them all. Anne and Pierson shared awkward smiles, but Anne had heard enough of their conversation to not feel like social small talk.
As Duncan came back into the room with a tray, Anne asked flippantly, "So, what were you two talking about in the snow in the middle of the night, the usual immortal gossip?"
"Anne . . . ," Duncan started.
"No, Duncan," Anne retorted, angrily. "Don’t ‘Anne’ me! I heard what you were talking about. If you...," she struggled to control her anger, "If you think that you have the right to just decide to end it, Duncan MacLeod, you are seriously mistaken!" She threw off the blanket, her bare feet slapping angrily on the deck. "You arrogant bastard! You think that you can just go around deciding life and death, like it was a choice between fish or chicken for dinner?" She stopped in front of Duncan, who was clearly stymied for a response. "I’ve seen what you do, Duncan. I’ve seen how you react and why. How many people would be dead right now if you hadn’t acted, hadn’t been around? You don’t go around looking for people to kill, Duncan. You react to protect yourself, to protect others. You think he will fill that role?" She asked pointing at Pierson.
"Anne," Duncan took her shoulders and could feel her shaking with emotion. "Anne, sit down, please." He guided her back to the bed, sat beside her and tucked the blanket around her. "I didn’t intend for you to hear that conversation."
"Obviously," Anne retorted. "But I did hear it." She turned to Pierson. "I don’t know who you are, but clearly you are an important player in this...this Game you people play. He’s offered you his head, does that mean you take it, like some sort of Christmas gift?"
One corner of Pierson’s mouth curled at the thought. "No, Dr. Lindsay," he replied. "I’ve been trying to keep MacLeod alive since the day we met." He crossed his arms thoughtfully. "Duncan, Anne has in her few months of knowing you figured out more about who you are than you have yourself in 400 years. I told you during the Dark Quickening and I believe even more now, you are the best of our kind. One of the best I’ve ever seen. You can’t abandon the Game, my friend. You’d abandon the rest of us, your friends, the people who care about you, who depend on you."
Duncan averted his eyes from both of his friends, rose and paced to the other end of the barge. He hadn’t slept in a long time, his clothes were stained with sweat and his hair hung lank and tousled around his shoulders. His unshaven, granite carved face was dominated by his dark, sad eyes. He swallowed convulsively, paused and closed his eyes. "I’m know I’m tired and . . . and I know I’m upset about Anne leaving, but there comes a point when it seems impossible to keep going like this. When you know what tomorrow will bring, and you know it will be more death." He shook his head, attempting to brush away the sense of defeat. "I’m sorry. You’ve caught me at a bad time. Me...Adam, please go."
Without a word, Methos slipped out the door. Anne rose and put her arms around Duncan, holding him tightly, but he carefully, gently, pushed her away.
Pulling off his sweatshirt, he announced he was going to take a shower and try to get a couple of hours sleep before they had to go to the airport. Anne retreated to the bed, huddling under the blankets, tears again slipping down her cheeks.
Duncan stretched out on the couch, falling quickly into an exhausted sleep. Anne tiptoed quietly around the room, collecting and packing her belongings. She realized she had scattered her stuff all around the barge as a kind of territorial claiming activity after she arrived in Paris. There seemed to be far more to pack than she had originally brought. She was considering slipping out while Mac was still sleeping when she felt his eyes on her. He was awake, watching.
He rose silently. MacLeod always moved gracefully. He had the ability to slip ghost-like through space in an odd way that created an illusion of near-invisibility. She sat on the bed, fascinated, watching him dress. He was a remarkable creature, simultaneously feral, animalistic, wild, but also spiritual, intellectual, sophisticated. She didn’t know if it was because of his long life or just because he was Duncan MacLeod. She suspected a little of both. Either way, it was riveting, like watching a lion pace. And she was leaving him, walking away, knowing there would never, ever, be anyone like him in her life again. As real as the necessity of that act was, part of her screamed that she was insane to go.
Mac, dressed in dark sweater and pants, brushed his hair back smoothly into a ponytail. He had shaved, but his eyes were shadowed with sleeplessness. Their eyes met briefly as he reached for her luggage, but each of them quickly turned away. She couldn’t stand the silence on the drive to the airport.
"Duncan, will you call me when you get back?" she asked as they waited for the call to board the plane.
"I don’t think that’s a good idea, Anne," he said.
"I need . . . I need to know you’re okay. I’m not leaving because I stopped loving you, Duncan. You know that," she said.
"The effect is the same, Anne," he said, bitterness in his voice. Then he shook his head. "I’m sorry. I know this hurts us both." He sighed. "Yes, I’ll call. I’ll want to know how you are doing, as well. How the baby is." Then he smiled. "We’ll both get past this, Anne. Trust me. I’ve been there before."
He reached out and closed his hand over hers. "I’ll be all right. Like the energizer bunny, right?"
She gripped his hand tightly. "I once said I was bulletproof and you said no, I wasn’t. Well you’re not bulletproof either, Duncan. Not really. I have hurt you more than any bullet." She placed her small hand against his cheek. "I wish…" but she couldn't finish.
"I know," he whispered. He kissed her gently on the lips. "Be well, Anne."
She swallowed her tears, determined not to weep, nodded her head sharply, turned and left him.
He watched Anne’s plane disappear into the clouds, feeling empty and, once again, alone. He gradually felt his mood shift as the ‘long dark night of the soul’ he had endured over the previous two days shifted in his mind into history. It was a technique and an emotional defense he had developed over the centuries to keep perspective, to not allow the bad times to overwhelm him. He was still irritated at Methos, but that seemed to be a permanent condition. He was certain that if, as Methos asserted, there was a magnetic aspect to the Quickening power he had amassed, there ought to be a way to dampen its affect. He’d have to work on that one.
He took a breath, squared his shoulders and turned from the window, disappearing quickly into the milling crowd.