The leader of the new band scheduled to debut that night at Joe's seemed convinced that the sound level on the speakers to the bass guitar was too low. He and Joe had been arguing about it for over an hour, with the barkeep determined that his patrons would not suffer hearing loss in sacrifice to this musician's ego. But it was a tough battle and he was losing patience.
"For the last time, Sam, it's plenty loud! Run it up any further and you not only lose the balance with the piano and drums, but you'll blast people right out of their seats." Joe growled. "Now keep the level reasonable or take it somewhere else!"
It was a shocking tirade coming from one of the most laid back blues men on the circuit and the whole bar went silent for a long, embarrassing moment. Joe looked around the room at the small afternoon crowd in disgust. "Anybody got a problem with that?" When there was no answer, he stumped back behind the bar and noisily unpacked some newly delivered cartons of liquor.
The noise level had finally risen back to its usual buzz of background noise when he heard a heartbreakingly familiar voice behind him. "Don't break anything important, Joe."
Joe froze, but didn't turn around. It must be his imagination, he decided. He had been stressed out for so long about MacLeod he didn't remember feeling any other way, and now he was sick at heart over Richie's death. Adding the Oldest Immortal back into the mix and knowing that everything they had done, that all the terrible sacrifices Mac had made had been unnecessary, had all been just too much. He needed a vacation.
"Get any of the good stuff in?" the voice said again, and Joe closed his eyes, took a deep breath and turned, only opening his eyes after a slow count to three, convinced he was on the near edge of a nervous breakdown and afraid of what he might see.
His worst fears were realized. There, just as in days of old was Duncan MacLeod perched on a barstool, dark eyes focused on him with warm regard, mahogany hair curling gently around his shoulders. Parked on the next stool was Methos, looking even more smug than usual. How many times had they sat there just like that before the upheaval of the last year when the world turned upside down and MacLeod had been lost to them in every way that was really important? Mac hadn't been to the bar in over a year and Joe had never expected to see him there again, but the scene was so familiar, so ingrained in his memory that it must have just taken over his imagination. Joe shook his head to clear his mind and sighed, turning back to his task. "I've gotta take some time off," he murmured to himself, occupying his mind and his hands in order to stave off the tears that were creating pressure behind his eyes and a lump in his throat.
"How about a beer, at least?" Methos voice asked. "I know I'm a little behind on my tab, but maybe Mac is feeling generous tonight."
Stop it! Joe told his brain. Just stop it!
"I don't think this was a good idea," Mac's soft burring voice could be heard behind him. "I think we should have called first."
There was a pause in the hallucinatory sounds and Joe breathed a sigh of relief. It's stopped, he thought. Maybe I'm not crazy, just a little strung out.
"Joe?" the gentle voice called. "Joe, are you okay?" A hand touched his shoulder and he spun around, almost dropping the bottle of Wild Turkey he had been holding.
His gray eyes once again met gentle brown ones. He felt the solid warmth of the hand touching him, could see every detail of the familiar face he had Watched for twenty years. His mouth went dry. He laughed nervously. "I, uh, this is embarrassing," he stammered and looked nervously around the bar to see who was watching, then leaned close and whispered. "You're…not really real are you?"
Mac quickly came around behind the bar and folded the big man in his arms, whiskey bottle and all. "I think the answer to that is yes, but it may be too metaphysical for me to handle at the moment, old friend."
Joe stiffened at the touch, his eyes darting around in panic, finally meeting those of the Oldest Immortal, uncertain whether he was a credible source of reality either, but the hard-angled face was smiling, an unusual warmth in his eyes, and he nodded. "It's okay, Dawson," he said. "He's real."
He extricated himself enough to put down the bottle, then pushed what he still suspected was a phantom figure before him away to arm's length, holding him there. He carefully inspected the man before him. Yes, it looked just like Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, broad shoulders, long hair, dark loose turtleneck sweater and black jeans -- but the wrong vintage. This one had a slight smile on his lips and a light in his eyes. This was the old one, the original. Not the newer version. This one didn't scare you half to death just to look at him and see the stark power behind dead, expressionless eyes.
"Joe?" the phantom said. "I know the past year has been hard on you. But you stood by me, didn't let me chase you away. You remained a friend no matter what, even when I was no longer a friend to you, or even anyone you recognized. There are no words that can ever express what that has meant to me, even when I was…even when I couldn't tell you." The small speech came out in an uneven rhythm as though he was having a hard time finding the right words.
Joe's mouth opened, then closed. "How?" he finally managed to ask.
MacLeod seemed unable to say any more. He just shook his head, patted his shoulder and headed back towards his seat before they made too much of a scene in front of a room full of people.
"Maybe we ought to take this to the office," Methos tilted his head towards the back of the bar. "But first I really need a beer," he added plaintively.
Joe felt numb, unable to make his mind settle on any particular thought or emotion. Beer. He could do that. A familiar chore. He pulled two cold long-necks out of the small fridge under the bar, popped the tops and handed them over. Both men picked them up and drank. It was such an ordinary thing. So normal. It was like being transported back in time to an era when hope was still possible, when friendship and laughter were regular parts of everyday life. When Richie was still alive and MacLeod was…MacLeod. Tears suddenly spilled over and washed into his beard.
Methos stood, gesturing with his arm again towards the rear, and Joe found his cane, painfully aware of needing its support in making the long distance between the bar and his office.
Joe followed the two men into the back room that served as storage and office, complete with shabby couch, liquor cartons stacked four high and four wide in the back, and a well-used desk housing an incongruously powerful computer system, a fax machine, a printer and a sophisticated speakerphone with several lines. While the ambiance hardly conveyed senior executive status, it had all the necessities the Northwest Regional Director of the Watchers required to track the movements of Immortals, world-wide. Given his special status as Watcher to Duncan MacLeod, he could have demanded more luxurious trappings but this set-up had suited him just fine for years. As long as he had the latest in computer and communications equipment to do the job, the surroundings and furniture were irrelevant.
Joe took his time as he brushed away the lingering dampness on his face and leaned up against the closed door as though afraid the two Immortals might try to escape. Methos draped his long frame on the couch and Mac sat in the chair behind the desk, looking up at him with an odd, sad expression. It had been so long since he had seen any real emotion in that dusky face, Joe could hardly take his eyes off of him.
"Mac? I…I don't know what to say. What's happened?"
Mac looked distinctly uncomfortable. His hand went to the high collar of his sweater, rubbing his neck as though there were an irritation there. "I'm, uh, still a little dazed about the whole thing. Maybe Methos should explain." He looked over to the other Immortal, whose expression twitched just a tiny bit in impatience, Joe observed with a perception honed by a lifetime of interpretation of human behavior and expression, mortal and otherwise.
"Mac, you've hardly spoken since it happened. I think you ought to try to tell it."
MacLeod studied the label on his beer for a minute before taking a drink, swallowing, pulling in a deep breath and closing his eyes as though he was required to concentrate very hard on the words he was using. "Somehow, Methos took back…that is he pulled away from me…the…some of the power that…the reason I couldn't," he stopped and exhaled in frustration. "I can't think!" He shoved himself up out of the chair and paced in the small area behind the desk. "Everything is all jumbled up!"
Methos surged up off the couch, stopping Mac's pacing with a hand on his arm. "Relax, Duncan," he said softly. "Your mind and emotions will reorder themselves, just give it a little time."
Joe was surprised and moved by the tenderness between the two men as Mac leaned into the Oldest Immortal for a moment and Methos clearly provided a reassurance and strength to the one man in the world Joe would never have believed would require or accept such support. Methos turned to the Watcher with a rueful smile as he gave a reassuring pat to the Scot's shoulder and returned to his sprawl on the couch.
"Okay, here's the deal," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I knew I couldn't make it right. I can't go back in time and correct all the existing connections, but I could take some of the load. I figure Mac's strong enough to deal with most of what he had, but it was the total of all those lives, those Quickenings, that just…smothered him. So," the man shrugged, "I went through the Ceremony." He held up his hand, long fingers splayed out to show a bright red scar cutting diagonally through the palm. "Of course, it nearly killed him since he wasn't exactly a willing participant, and it ruined some perfectly good clothes and made a hell of a mess of the loft, but…it made the difference, Joe." The hazel eyes were tired and hollow with strain, but full of satisfaction. "He's a little confused because suddenly all of his senses have shifted on him, but give it a little while and I think he'll be fine."
He took a long pull on his beer. "And from now on, the Ceremony will be a little different, won't it, Highlander?"
MacLeod had reseated himself, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, still tense and wary. He looked up at both of them and nodded, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth. "Yeah, that's for sure," he said quietly. Then he shook his head slowly. "All this time…I was doing it wrong, Joe. I scared the hell out of Methos when we did it the first time and when he jerked back, cutting me off, I thought I was hurting him. So in all the Ceremonies afterwards I let everyone share in the connection -- except me. I was…buried under them all after awhile." His voice had gone soft, introspective, but it had lost that jerky quality as he let his mind free associate. "It wasn't how Darius had intended it to work. I should have realized…"
"Duncan!" Methos growled.
Mac raised his hands with a small chuckle to ward off the Oldest Immortal's ire. "Alright, alright. No more self-flagellation. I promise."
"Yeah, right," Methos muttered dubiously.
"Mac?" Joe's voice sounded a little breathy, causing the Immortal to look up. "I need to sit down."
Mac immediately jumped up, and would have helped the mortal to the chair except that Joe Dawson was not a man to whom one offered unsolicited aide in such things. Dawson sat heavily as Mac and Methos shared concerned looks. Mac couldn't help himself, though and knelt next to the mortal's chair, looking up at him.
"Joe, this has been so hard on you, I…"
"Enough of that, Mac," Joe said gruffly. He reached out and clasped his friend's thick forearm and pulled him into an embrace. "I'm just so glad you're back. I've missed you." The voice finally gave into the tears that had strained it and Joe Dawson wept unashamedly into his best friend's shoulder. Wept for a year of unbearable pain. Wept for the horrible loss and fear he had felt for so long. Wept for Richie. Wept for joy.
It took a good half-hour for the two men to reweave the threads of their composure. Mac's emotional control was almost non-existent, swinging wildly from laughter to tears to frightening shadow-moments of his former icy distance. They hovered close together, talking in intimate tones, Mac leaning up against the desk near his friend, arms tightly crossed. Methos watched them for a few minutes as Joe reached out to touch the Highlander periodically, as though to reassure himself the man was really there. Then the Oldest Immortal slipped out the door, leaving them alone.
They emerged to find Adam Pierson tending bar while working on his third beer and listening to the band practice. Once Mac had scanned the room to check on Methos' whereabouts he retreated to the men's room while Joe found his way back behind the familiar comfort of the bar.
"You guys okay?" Methos asked Dawson, passing a towel to him to officially relinquish his temporary stint as substitute barkeep.
"Yeah," Joe sighed. "He seems confused, disjointed, almost like he just woke up from a coma. He talked about you a lot," Joe eyed the Oldest Immortal closely. "He's afraid you'll leave again."
"Afraid?" Methos looked startled, then his expression relaxed into studied neutrality. "Only yesterday he told me all I brought in his life was upheaval and if that's why I came back, then he really wanted me to leave." Methos slipped gracefully past his friend and back around to the front of the bar, carrying his beer with him. "And he was right, of course. I used to think he was the one who brought chaos into my life. Now it's the other way around."
"Then you are planning to leave." It was a statement, not a question.
Mac retreated into the welcome solitude of the small bathroom, locking the door behind him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, seeing a flushed, bright-eyed stranger, eyes red-rimmed from weeping. He leaned his forehead against the cold surface, concentrating on breathing deeply, on getting his heart rate under control since nothing else seemed to be within his grasp at the moment.
God, this was hard! It was so much easier when things were so…neutral, when there were no feelings to consider, only facts, only duties. No, he told himself, shaking his head violently. Don't go there. That's not life. That's a living death. But now everyone's emotions, his own, Joe's, Methos', strangers on the street…everyone seemed to be screaming at him, crowding his mind with confusion, as though everyone's feelings, including his own, had been turned up to maximum volume. Part of him couldn't get enough of it, like a man dying of thirst he drank it all in. But it prevented coherent thought and conversation and time and again almost drove him to his knees in over-stimulation.
The first few hours had been a gradual understanding, with Methos' help and buffering presence, of all that had happened, of all he had done -- and not done -- he upbraided himself. No. Don't do that. Methos is right. You did the best you could and if it wasn't good enough…that ugly sinking feeling lodged in his chest again. It hadn't been good enough. He hadn't been able to protect Richie. If he hadn't chased him away, if he had just managed to communicate that he still cared, maybe Richie would have stayed closer. Maybe he would have been able to…
He gripped the edge of the sink until it hurt, trying to make himself stop, but bile rose in his throat and he had to move quickly, retching violently into the toilet behind him.
"I don't know if or when I'm going to leave, Joe," Methos frowned at the all-too-perceptive Watcher. "Mac needs to find as normal a life as he can, under what are admittedly difficult circumstances. I'll help him if I can. I suspect things will be a little rocky for awhile." He finished off his third beer and looked with a frown towards the back. "Like right now," he whispered and quickly headed to the back of the bar.
Methos stood outside the locked bathroom door, listening uncomfortably to MacLeod's distress. "Mac?" he called. "Mac, unlock the door."
There was silence for a moment, then the sound of running water. By the time MacLeod finally emerged, he was pale but calm. "Sorry I took so long. You can use the facilities now. What's wrong? Too many beers already?" he joked with a weak smile. He started to slip by, but Methos caught his arm.
"Mac, you've got to stop…" he started.
"I'm okay," he answered quietly. "Like you said, it's just going to take a little time."
The periodic bouts with depression kept the Oldest Immortal close for the next several weeks. Some evenings he would drop into the dojo finding MacLeod had physically exhausted himself into insensibility, his customary response to stress. Other times Mac would be in a state of almost manic joy and the Scot would drag him all over the city trailing a phalanx of Watchers behind them, visiting museums and parks, stopping to talk to children and old people in sweet, gentle tones, reveling in the sheer wonder of living and feeling. The worst moments were those of dark, paralyzing despair, where he would sit for hours in the loft grieving for Richie and all those he had lost over the years as though the wounds were fresh and immediate.
Gradually the wild mood swings began to even out, the visits to Joe's just for an evening of friendship and music and drink more common. But with the beginnings of normalization of his emotional state came a restlessness that his responsibilities with the Community did not address.
"You want to what?" Joe frowned.
"Teach, Joe," Mac replied. "I used to teach at the University a couple of times a week. I don't see why I can't do that again. After all it's not like I'm on the hunt all the time. The action has slowed a lot over the past six months. I can't just sit around all day waiting for someone in the Community to die, for God's sake!"
"That's not what you do, Mac, and you know it. And how can you risk being out in public if a Quickening hits out of the blue? You have responsibilities, and having some kind of public job is too dangerous." Joe responded. "I'm sorry, I really am, but I think it’s a bad idea."
"Damn it, Joe, I can't just be the Community Policeman for the rest of eternity!" Mac snapped.
Joe leaned up against the bar, his face thoughtful and troubled. "And what about your Watchers? How are they going to stay as close as they need to if you're out wandering around in public all the time?"
"Oh, for God's sake, Joe, you watched me for centuries while I was wandering around in public. There's nothing that different about this!"
"Of course there is!" Joe protested. "If a Quickening hits or some new information needs to get to you quickly, and we're forced to stay at a distance…it’s a disaster waiting to happen."
"You guys have just gotten spoiled, that's all," Mac growled.
"That's not fair," the mortal growled back.
"Okay, okay," Methos interjected from his perch on the next bar stool, "Let's look at this thing rationally. Mac wants a life beyond what he does for the Community. That's not unreasonable. Seems to me there's gotta be a way to work this thing out."
"Look," Joe said, "I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it's too soon! It's only been a year since this thing started, and only a few weeks since…well since Mac started getting his bearings back. Don't you think it's a little soon to dive into some big social life? What happens the first time you get taken by a Quickening? What do you do? Say 'Excuse me while I absorb a little excess psychic energy here? Pardon the mess?'"
"I can't hide in a closet for the next hundred years, Joe! I don't know how I stood it for as long as I did!" Mac studied his scotch thoughtfully. "I feel like a caged animal."
Methos and Joe shared a long look. Joe opened his mouth to speak when Mac continued.
"And with all due respect, as much as I know I'm responsible for the Community, and you and Marcus want me to focus exclusively on their welfare, I'm a little old to have to ask anyone's permission to do anything."
"I wasn't implying…"
"No, but that is the result, isn't it? I've already called the head of the Art History Department and she wants to meet with me on Friday. The semester starts in three weeks and if they get enough students signed up, she said they'd be delighted to have me teach." He looked up at his two friends with a bit of a smug twinkle in his eyes, trying to diffuse the hostility he had created. "And I've never had a problem with the popularity of my classes."
Methos made a disgusted noise. "Right. And I'm sure it's the irresistible fascination with medieval armor that makes half the coeds on campus flock to sign up."
"Hey, can I help it if I have such a riveting teaching style?" Mac teased. "And I'm sure the consistent over-subscription to your classic languages classes has always been because there is such a high demand for Latin, Greek and Ancient Sumerian."
"Of course," the Old Man smiled enigmatically. "Any discerning person knows that a well-rounded education must include knowledge of ancient languages and cultures." He took a long swallow of beer. "And I am, after all, a brilliant teacher."
Joe shook his head and smiled. It felt so good to have the two of them back, sniping playfully at each other. It might be worth the risk to get Mac permanently back to his old self again.
"I've sat in on both your classes and both of you are excellent teachers, no matter the original reason the students enroll," Joe observed. "You bring history to life in ways us mere mortals just can't match. Look, Mac, I want you to do what makes you happy. I really do. I just don't want to risk everything we've worked for, everything you've sacrificed."
"I'll be careful, Joe," Mac reassured him. "But I'm going to start living again and if that involves some risk and inconvenience for you guys, well, I figure you'll find a way to deal with it." He pulled his money clip out and extracted some bills. "And I start tomorrow morning. I'm going for a run. Outdoors. In the park. I dare you to find somebody who can keep up," he grinned, left some bills on the bar, nodded at Methos and sauntered out the door.
Methos stayed through the evening, seeming to have an infinite capacity for beer, but periodically Joe would spot him in a dark corner, leaning against a wall, in the enthusiastic music-loving crowd but never a part of it. Always holding something of himself apart. After the band's last set the late-night customers quickly disbursed and Joe did a final call, finding only one, slightly sodden Immortal as his last patron. Methos found his way to a barstool and watched as Joe finished cleaning up.
"You seemed awfully anxious to get Mac back in circulation," Joe observed.
"Why should that be surprising?" Methos asked. "It was my fault, after all, that he was out of circulation to begin with."
"Well," the bartender chose his words carefully, all the while polishing an already-spotless glass. "You've been babysitting him like an anxious mother hen the past few weeks. Upset every time he gets into a depression and just as worried when he gets into one of his manic phases."
"So," Joe sighed, "Once Mac gets back into circulation, into a routine and a more or less normal social life you may have let a golden opportunity pass you by."
Methos eyed the Watcher suspiciously over the lip of his beer bottle before he took a long swallow. "An opportunity for what?"
Joe just looked at him. Finally one corner of the bearded mouth twitched upwards.
"What, Joe?! Don't keep me in suspense here!" Methos insisted.
Joe was silent, then shook his head.
"You don't think…Joe! Mac is my friend!"
"Methos," Joe replied softly. "I've been watching Duncan MacLeod for twenty years. I've seen that look on countless faces in that time and you've got it as bad as any of them. Now Mac doesn't normally swing in that direction but for you, he might make an exception. But I seriously doubt if he's going to make the first move, especially not right now when he's feeling particularly uncertain and vulnerable." Joe emphasized the last phrase with a raised eyebrow and a smile.
"Joe, please! I'm a little old for lustful infatuations."
"None of us is too old for love. You wouldn't have done all this just out of duty or guilt, and certainly not for lust. It's not your nature."
"Unrequited love, Joe? Sounds like something out of a bad romance novel."
"Why do you think it's unrequited?"
"Okay, assuming for one small second that I were among the thousands of hormonally challenged who are after the Highlander's bod -- first, as you say, he does not swing in that direction and, second, he has given absolutely no indication that he would, if asked, most particularly with one pale, skinny, elderly Immortal who more or less constantly irritates and criticizes him."
"And who he holds in enormous awe and respect, and who confuses the hell out of him, and who he watches all the time when he thinks no one is looking, and who he is desperately afraid will leave as soon as he turns his back," Joe countered.
"Emotional dependency is no basis for a relationship," Methos growled. "Especially one as fraught with unlikely possibilities as…as what you posit might be the case, not that it is, in any event."
Joe gave up polishing the glass and put it away, lining it up with its brethren, all shiny in a row. "I'm sure as hell no expert on this subject, Methos. But I do know one thing. Mac has very strong feelings about you. Whether he's sorted out exactly what they are, I don't know, but unless you do something to change his present view, I suspect he will make up his mind that he doesn’t understand you, and that you are too distant and too deep for him to comprehend. After all, hasn't that been the image you've cultivated with him all this time? The enigmatic, mysterious, hyper-critical 5,000-year-old man who has taken an odd and entirely paternalistic interest in a young, foolish Scotsman?"
Methos played thoughtfully with the condensation ring his beer bottle had left on the bar. "Do you really believe that's how he sees me?"
"Half the time he's scared to death of you. He wants to please you but hasn't a clue how to do it and still maintain his canon of ethics. I've never seen anything like the constant tension between you two and it was only a few nights ago, when you were watching him listen to the new singer we had in here on Saturday night, that I recognized what the hell was going on." Joe leaned on the bar, close to his friend of ten years.
"Advising a 5,000 year old man on affairs of the heart is a ridiculous thing for me to attempt, but if my own small experience has taught me anything, its not to let opportunity pass you by. You are two extraordinary people, my friend. It should come as no surprise that you are attracted to each other."
"And if you don't do something about it, and do it now, he will have made up his mind that your interest in him is beyond his ken, or its just the same mindless lust that he gets from half the world's population because of what he looks like and he will steel his heart against the hurt of having fallen for you, as well. Then, Old Man, it might just be too late."
"Joe," Methos voice had gone cold and distant, "I don't have long-term relationships with other Immortals. It's a disaster. It's always a disaster. It will always be a disaster. He'll eventually manage to get himself killed and that will be that." He carefully replaced his beer bottle on top of the moisture ring it had already created. "I don't need that kind of grief, Dawson. I've had more than enough already."
He turned, picked up his coat that had been draped over the next barstool and headed to the door.
But the smoky voice behind him interrupted his progress. "That's a hell of a poor excuse, Methos. Remember, the Game is supposed to be over."
The tall, lean shadow paused. "I'm not sure for him it will ever be over, Joe. He will always find a battle to fight, some cause, a purpose that will put him in jeopardy. I'm not sure I want to be around to watch it happen."
Joe watched the door open and close, and stood for a long moment in the silent, empty bar. Not for the first time since he became a Watcher, he desperately wished for more years than he knew he had. Because this particular story, he was sure, would not see its climax for decades, if not centuries, to come.
~ finis ~