The last days of the twenty-second century found Duncan MacLeod in one of his old haunts again, San Francisco. He'd only been living there a few weeks, and he didn't really know many people, but enough of the old city remained to remind him of long-ago days, enough memories of Brian and Kitt and Amanda, of Cory and Alec and Connor, to make it feel like home.
He'd opened up a dojo off of Fillmore. Business had been slow, but he figured it would pick up after the new year, and he'd taken on a couple of promising students who'd so far made it worthwhile. The day before, he'd signed the paperwork on a house in the old Mission district. Plans for its restoration were enough to keep him busy, and he was looking forward to getting in there and getting his hands dirty. Life was, for the most part, good -- and if there were certain people he missed more than he might have liked, at least he knew they were for the time being, well and happy and relatively safe.
It was Amanda who'd convinced him a change of scene would be good for him. Maybe she was right; maybe he had been a little down, a little less enthusiastic about the day-to-day living of life than he once had been. It wasn't anything in particular, just a feeling of melancholy that seemed to have settled over him these last few years, a certain tendency to think about the past more than maybe he should. Sometimes, lately, he found it was harder than it used to be to adjust to the ever-increasing pace of change in the world, the ever-greater complexity of life. He missed silly things, got nostalgic over the antiques he sold more than he ever had in the past. He found it took more effort these days to stick to a routine. Sometimes it seemed easier just to leave the shop to his two employees and spend the day reading, or working chess problems against an invisible opponent.
San Francisco had been a compromise. Amanda insisted he should go someplace new, somewhere he'd never been before, where he could forget about his dusty old antiques and do something completely different. Duncan decided that someplace familiar, someplace with mostly good memories and a youthful, energetic outlook, would do just as well. He hadn't lived in northern California for over three hundred years -- that was the next best thing to completely new, wasn't it? And the dojo would be good for him. He'd gotten a little complacent about keeping sharp these last few years, a little less conscientious about learning new skills. For too long, his exercise routine had consisted mostly of long runs and yoga for meditation. He'd only realized how lax he'd been when Nick had challenged him to a spar one day, bare-handed, and he'd found himself more evenly matched than he liked to think about.
Dead leaves crunched underfoot, scattering before his long stride. He'd walked from the dojo back to his flat, his hands in his pockets against the chill in the wind; it had been sunny when he'd left that morning, and he'd worn only a light jacket. Now the sun was going down, clouds rolling in from the north. There would be frost before morning.
Tiny white Christmas lights sparkled in the Japanese maples in front of his building, reflecting off the artificially frosted windows. As he reached the doors, they opened. His retinal pattern would be good until the end of the month, though he planned to be out of the flat by the next day; Amanda and Nick had invited him up to the chalet for the holidays, but he planned to spend the last days of the year working on the staircase in his new house, right after he put in the solar heating panels.
He walked up the three floors to the apartment, knowing he'd miss the customized enviro controls when he moved out. It would be a while before he got the new place wired up so it opened the door for him, turned on the lights, activated the temperature controls, put on music and asked him if he'd like something to drink, all before he'd taken two steps inside. "Whisky, neat," he said, and stepped into the living room as the automated bar complied, pouring two fingers of aged scotch into a glass, then sliding it forward onto the tray. The room started to warm up as he took the first sip; he slipped off his shoes and turned on the wall terminal, then went back into the hall to get the mail.
A handful of packages waited in the receiving bin. The packet of hardcopies from the real estate agency was the largest, and this he set aside to file. Two small boxes rested beside it, wrapped elaborately in gilt paper, labeled "Do Not Open Until Christmas, Or Else!" in Amanda's handwriting. These he put into the satchel that stood by the door, with a fond smile and the passing hope that whatever it was, it wasn't stolen.
He started to head back into the living room, then noticed that the 'receiving' indicator was lit on the mail receptacle. There must be another package in the queue, waiting for him to clear the bin. He touched the button; the light went off, a little hum vibrating against his fingertip.
A rectangular package appeared in the bin, about an inch thick, flat, and oblong, like a book. It was wrapped the old-fashioned way, in brown paper and tied with string, addressed as if it had been brought to him by a mail-carrier through sleet and snow and dark of night instead of by a matter materializer, beamed through the atmosphere to arrive instantaneously in his apartment. He picked it up; the weight of it seemed to confirm his guess that it was a book of some kind. The printed address label read:
Duncan MacLeod (of the Clan MacLeod)
San Francisco, California
U. S. of A.
Bemused, he set the package down on the hall table, took a sip of his drink, and pulled his pocket knife out of his jacket. He cut through the string, then slid the tip of the knife carefully under the edge of the paper, slicing it open. It fell back, revealing the leather-bound cover of the book within.
Seeing the quality of the workmanship, Duncan put his drink down and wiped his fingers carefully on his pants before picking up the book. Whatever this was, it was old -- at least a couple hundred years old, by the looks of it -- and in prime condition. It had obviously been cared for by someone who knew what they were doing. The cover bore the fingerprints of frequent handling, but there were no tears, the leather still supple, the mark of a beloved possession that had been well-tended. No title appeared on the cover or the spine, just a faded, hand-tooled insignia that looked like a roman numeral:
Duncan frowned. He checked the paper wrapping, but found no card or note.
He looked at the book again. Something did a little flip in his stomach, and his face felt too warm. His heart seemed to miss a beat, then start again, just a little faster than before.
Turning the book over in his hands, Duncan found himself hesitant to open it -- he wasn't sure why. A strange excitement was stirring in him. It felt like starting to wake after a long sleep, like remembering a long-forgotten piece of music, or the way the light had fallen in a particular room on a particular day long ago.
He took the book with him into the living room and sat down, resting the heavy volume on his knees. He ran his fingers over the cover; at last, with care, he opened it, curiosity overcoming the unexplained tension he felt.
The flyleaf was plain drafting vellum, unmarked save for the elegant calligraphy: four numbers, a year -- 1995. He'd been right about his guess on the age. But that thought was secondary to the little rush of heat that started in his belly and spread through him, the flutter he couldn't quite suppress. He knew what this was. Some part of him must have known when he'd seen the brown paper wrapping and that address, that (of the Clan MacLeod) inserted beneath his name, the amused teasing as familiar to him as his katana. But now he was sure.
He touched the numbers briefly, the memories welling up like a clear spring deep under the ground, spilling over him, cool and bittersweet. But why would Methos--?
He turned the flyleaf over. And there was Methos' familiar, elegant handwriting, long curls of ink spilling across the page in practiced order, telling the story of his life as he'd done for thousands of years. Almost since writing began, he'd said, but the telling of it wasn't the same as seeing it, holding it in your hands, knowing what that number on the spine meant.
Duncan's heart was beating heavily now against his chest, memories long put aside returning, a tangle of feelings he couldn't really name stirring in his heart and in his body, overwhelming. Twenty years had passed under the bridge since he'd last seen Methos, last talked to him. There had been letters over the years, but not many; in the beginning they'd told each other a little about their lives, what they were doing, but as the years had passed the letters had become notes, or postcards, little more than an address and a reassurance that things were all right, that life went on. They'd promised each other that much -- that they'd keep in touch, make sure they always knew where the other one was -- and as glad as Duncan had been that Methos had kept that promise, he'd come to realize in those first letters that Methos had meant what he'd said long ago, when he'd told Duncan that commitment to another Immortal was not for him. He sounded cheerful, in the letters, happy, even; it got harder and harder for Duncan to answer them, and after a while, Methos stopped writing.
It had been mutual, their parting. They'd agreed it was time for a break; that last run had been their longest yet, almost ten years, and they'd both needed space. After almost two centuries of their on-again, off-again dance of friendship and fighting and sex -- and fighting as prelude to sex -- they'd given it a real go: shared sweaters, shared bathroom, joint Christmas cards, the works. It had been good. Better than good, most days, when he was honest with himself; he was as happy with Methos as he'd ever been in his life, and it had been all the sweeter for having waited so long.
That last year, though, had not been their finest hour. He'd realized after the fact that it started to go south around the time Gina and Robert had been killed, though he hadn't put two and two together at the time. But they'd been killed just after New Year's, and by March he and Methos were well on their way to falling apart, Methos distant and avoidant, Duncan angry and betrayed. It was their old pattern of destruction, and in the fall of that year they'd finally agreed to call it quits for a while.
Duncan ran his fingertips over the even lines of script, barely seeing them. After ten more years, he'd finally admitted to himself that for a while had been Methos' way of making it easier on both of them. He'd accepted it; most days he didn't even think about Methos any more.
So why would Methos send this to him, after all this time? The ache he felt now ran straight through him, as fresh as if it was yesterday, and a part of him was a little angry with Methos for making him feel like this again when he'd thought he was past it. For sending him this beautiful, priceless thing that made him feel honored and touched even as it hit him like a blow to the heart, this thing that made him grateful for the gesture of trust and consumed him with curiosity even as the memories it awoke felt like they'd drown him. In all the years they'd known each other, Methos had never let him read his journals. He'd never asked, either -- had never gotten over his reluctance to ask Methos things like that. Even after two hundred years, Methos' rejection was still one of the things he found hardest to bear, and he'd perfected the habit of avoiding it when at all possible.
And now here he was with this book in his hands, a year of Methos' life given into his keeping with no explanation.
It was so Methos, he thought then, and had to laugh. Because that had always been a part of him, too -- those moments of unexpected, unlooked-for generosity, no warning, no explanation, just a gift given freely and without reservation. The memory of Methos offering him the MacLeod sword flashed in his thoughts, whole and undimmed by time. An act of trust, of love, so profound that it could change everything, could make all his prickliness and his abrasive comments and his cool detachment fade away as if they were nothing, unimportant.
Almost without realizing it, Duncan started to read, and it was as if he could hear Methos' voice, that familiar, resonant baritone in the room with him.
I can say without a doubt that there is not a single cliché about the passing of time that I have not heard, scoffed at, or made up myself, and that alone is a sign of having lived too long.
The thing I find hardest to understand about this decade is, what happens to the extra time we get back nowadays from all these time-saving inventions? The microwave oven alone should have initiated a revolution in cultural development, a New Age of Enlightenment at the very least. Add in HotBot.com, Federal Express, and the cellular telephone, and it's a wonder we even bother to get up in the mornings any more.
All this by way of saying that it looks like Don's really gung-ho on this little database project of his...
Duncan's hands moved of their own accord, the pages slipping through them. He would read it all from start to finish, would stay awake late into the night reading it, but he was remembering now, back down the years, searching for a name, a date, written somewhere in this book. That was why Methos had sent it to him, wasn't it? Why this volume? He cast his mind back, trying to remember the exact date. March, it must have been--
The pages fell open as he flipped through them, and a small piece of paper fell out. For a moment he just looked at it, not quite registering what it was. He picked it up. Written on it in the same flowing hand as the journal were a few lines of verse:
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm: for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away.
Duncan just looked at it, letting the words sink in. There was something not quite right with his heart. He swallowed with effort, making himself take deep, even breaths. Read the words again.
He knew the reference. Had Methos known the paper was there? Was it meant for him, or just a forgotten bit of some other lifetime, a reminder Methos had written to himself for some unfathomable reason he probably didn't even remember?
Then his eyes fell on the pages of the book, on the date of the entry the paper had marked. On Methos' words, written two hundred years before, the day they'd met.
I've met him. I sat right there and waited for him, Pierson-as-you-please, and he looked right through me and called me by my name. He knew.
Kalas was waiting for me when I came home. He very nearly had me. I'd already made up my mind that there was no way in hell I'd let him touch MacLeod, not while there's breath in my body -- not after, if I can help it. I could only see one way to be sure, so I took it. God help me, I took it. And MacLeod saw right through me. Refused to take my head, refused again even if it meant Kalas winning. Said I was too important to lose. Said he could take Kalas on his own.
I couldn't sit still for it. Not now that I know the chronicles weren't wrong about him. Joe Dawson wasn't wrong about him. Duncan MacLeod is everything that Dawson says he is, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let an upstart little bully like Kalas have his head.
I called the cops, broke up the fight. They'll match dear Brother Kalas up with the prints from the bookstore, and he'll go to prison for Don's murder until I think of something better. In the meantime, it's time for Adam Pierson to take a little vacation while I assess the damage.
MacLeod's got every right to be annoyed with me right now. I know that. I know it was a mistake to ever let myself get close to him -- maybe the worst mistake I've ever made -- and still I can't stop thinking about him. Can't think of anything but him, to be perfectly honest, and isn't this a lovely mess I've gotten myself into?
The sad thing is, I knew it would be like this. I knew, and still I sat there like an idiot and just waited for him to walk into my life, as if knowing what would happen would make it all right, as if I could keep everything under control. Well, newsflash, old boy. You are in big trouble. Not the short-term kind, either. I hope you've got good insurance.
Duncan heard himself make a choked sound, a breathless laugh that threatened to be something else. There was more to the entry, but his vision was blurred, making it hard to read. He clutched the little piece of paper in his fingers, crumpling it.
At last he set the journal aside and got up. It took only a handful of seconds to call up the comm address he needed. What had been unthinkable for so long seemed easy now, and he wondered why it had taken him so long, why it had seemed so impossible before. He swiped his fingers under his eyes and drew a deep breath, getting himself together, then touched the screen to activate the connection.
"You seem to be missing something," he said when Methos appeared on the screen.
Methos' grin looked like he felt, like he couldn't have kept himself from smiling if he'd tried. "Happy birthday," he said. His eyes crinkled at the corners. "How's San Francisco this time of year?"
"Depends. How soon can you be here?" Duncan's voice cracked a little, but he didn't care.
"Not soon enough," Methos said, and his was suspiciously rough, too.
Duncan touched the screen, letting himself remember what it felt like to hold Methos against him. A weight lifted from his heart that he'd carried so long, he'd stopped knowing it was there.
"I have a feeling it's about to get a lot better."