"The Turning of the Year", Chapter #15, Sins of Omission series by Leslie Fish
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Author's Notes:
Usual disclaimers: not my character, not intended to infringe on copyright, not making money from them, etc. I'm just playing with the Highlander characters and universe, and maybe giving them a little free advertizing.

SINS OF OMISSION, Part 15:
THE TURNING OF THE YEAR
by Leslie Fish

Packing up and driving to the airport was laborious enough, especially considering that Methos wanted to arrive early. Getting through the airport - and the usual problem with the swords - was worse, especially when both of them felt the touch of another Immortal's quickening-field brush theirs. A swift look around the boarders in the waiting room revealed Joe in the VIP seating area, and Cassandra close beside him.

Damn! Methos thought. "It's Cassandra," he murmured, "With Joe."

Duncan huddled down in his coat. "I don't want to deal with them just now," he said quietly.

"We won't have to. They're riding in the first-class section, if you please."

Duncan gave him the ghost of a smile. "Lack of rank hath its privileges," he misquoted.

Methos duly laughed, but reflected that being around crowds - though inevitable at this point - wasn't doing Duncan much good. How would he fare in New York?

Boarding took forever, but once Duncan and Methos had settled into their seats, the sense of Immortal presence faded. Silently thanking the gods in general that he'd gotten seats far enough from the first-class section, Methos shoved their carry-on luggage under the seats and got both of them settled as comfortably as possible. Duncan didn't have that giveaway absorbed/distant look, but he was silent and withdrawn anyway. All Methos could pick up from him was a sense of patient low-grade misery; Duncan didn't like the crowding, and it was going to be a long flight.

As soon as the airliner was steady on course, Methos flagged the nearest flight attendant and negotiated pillows, blankets, headphones, and a pair of stiff drinks for the two of them. Duncan objected to none of it, nor to Methos fussing to get their seats, trays, drinks and bedding just right, but he did insist on choosing his own music channel on the headphones. A glance at the dials revealed that he'd picked, yes, the Classical channel - turned up to maximum volume. A subtler examination of the blankets and chair-arm confirmed that Methos could reach a hand to Duncan without anyone seeing. The cabin temperature was comfortable, and the drinks weren't at all bad.

As soon as Duncan emptied his glass, he leaned back in his headphones and did his best to fall asleep.

Best thing for him, Methos judged, watching carefully until he saw that Duncan's breathing was deep and regular. He could faintly hear the tinkle of music from the man's earphones, and knew that Duncan had surrounded himself with a small cocoon of music - outside of which was the general all-muffling hum of the engines. Asleep or not, so long as he kept his eyes closed - and clearly he wanted to - Duncan would hear and notice nothing outside himself.

Good. Methos surreptitiously reached under the seats and pulled out first the laptop, then The Book, finally the next blank disc. With any luck, he'd have time to copy all the latest entries onto the disc before Duncan woke. In the muffling white noise of the engines, the tapping of his keys was soundless.

Unnoticed, unwatched, Duncan slipped from the blankness of sleep into the next piece of Connor's memory.

*****

When he disembarked at Naples Connor was all business, icy-calm and self-controlled. He dealt with the major banks, knowing they would have translators, and used them to negotiate with the local brokers. He also used their advice in obtaining temporary quarters and a teacher of Italian. He did no socializing, but concentrated on watching his investments - a game he found he was beginning to enjoy - and learning the language. His studies progressed rapidly enough that by the time he had enough accumulated money to fund another venture, further east, he was competent in Italian and could make his way around any eastern port that regularly dealt with Neapolitan merchants.

His next voyage took him to Antioch, where he spent another six months in similar studies, this time with Persian - a tongue which, the Neapolitan brokers assured him, he would need along the ancient overland route, the famous Silk Road, to China. Other merchants also insisted that there were much quicker ways to China than Marco Polo's route.

Connor couldn't have said what forces drove him to this ascetic life of exclusive commerce and learning and travel, only that he sometimes woke shaking from dreams of some formless demon pursuing him. By the end of that year he was ready to move on, further east, with an overland caravan.

The caravan-master, a burly man named Rhamad Singh, from the fabled land of India, was impressed that Connor traveled light, spoke Persian, carried a functional Japanese sword as well as a flintlock rifle, and took particular care in hiring reliable caravan-guards. He was more impressed still at seeing Connor fight beside the guards when a hopeful gang of local bandits attacked the caravan three weeks into the journey. Connor, for his part, had found the release of combat strangely refreshing; those bandits had been terrible shots and hardly any better with scimitars, and he'd handily defeated every one he could reach. After that, Rhamad Singh happily taught Connor to speak Chinese and ride a camel, and the journey was long enough that Connor learned both subjects well.

During the long and generally monotonous days of traveling from city to town, oasis to waterhole, Connor gradually wore away his fear and rage and grief. The dream of shadowy pursuit faded, burned off by the relentless sun and the predictable work, and Connor began to enjoy the journey. At every sizable city where they stopped, he sampled the local foods instead of sticking to his usual iron rations. At Singh's urging, he sampled the local amusements and women, too. He revealed his skill at blacksmithing, and Singh responded with details on which wares would bring the best prices in which districts, how to deal with greedy bureaucrats of the various empires, and what particular dangers to beware of at various stops on their route.

Between good luck, adequate planning and the number of sturdy guards, most of the hardships of the Silk Road never materialized, and the journey slowly turned into a vacation tour. Enjoyment worked its way through Connor, from the outside in, until one morning he woke up and realized that he was genuinely happy - for the first time since Heather had died - and he began to wish that the journey would never end.

Nowhere on the Silk Road, during all the months of travel, did he ever feel the presence of another Immortal.


*****

Methos flicked a surreptitious glance at Duncan and noted that the man was smiling faintly. Reassured, he resumed typing - very quietly, very fast.

*****

At Sian, at Singh's urging, Connor finally traded his 'foreign' wares for raw silk - and he was amazed at the amount that Singh's clever bartering brought him. Connor found himself torn between the sensible course - turning around and going back the way they'd come - and staying longer in this strange and beautiful land. Singh, seeing the dilemma, solved it for him.

"Brother of my heart..." His endearments were always flowery. "Greatly as it grieves me to lose your company, yet in good faith I would see you do well. Therefore I'll go with you further on the road, southeast to Canton. There you may, with half of what remains of your silver, have the silk spun into fine cloth - and thereby sell it for at least three times the price of the raw thread."

It was an enticing prospect. "That would take a month, at least," Connor considered. "Could you afford to wait so long in the city before turning home again?"

"Perhaps not." Singh shrugged elaborately. "But you, my most charming companion of the road, could take up your goods and take ship from Canton at any time you wished. The Company of Merchants of London has a dock and trading-house there, and would doubtless be happy to carry you and your silk all the way to London for a share of the sale-price on the English docks. Ah, take care that they charge you no more than five-per-hundred of the price - unless you wish to sell the cloth to them outright, in which case take not less..."

But Connor was no longer listening. He was jarred to realize that he'd come halfway round the world from Scotland, and Tom Cavanaugh's London, only to find more Britons. The world that had seemed so vast was suddenly small again.

Then again, if he wished to stay for a time in China, he could do worse than to attach himself to a wealthy English merchant house.

"I know of no one in all this land, save you," he pondered aloud, "And I doubt that I am yet so proficient in Chinese as to do well alone..."

"Cantonese, I taught you," Singh corrected, "I confess, with this city in mind. I'll accompany you there, and take you to the trading-house - and I pray you shall introduce me to the merchants there, for I speak not that tongue."

Connor saw where Singh's not-unfriendly machinations had been aiming all this time, and laughed aloud. "I'll do it," he agreed. "And perchance stay long enough to greet you at the end of your next trade-journey."

That made Singh laugh in turn, for they both knew that the trip so far had taken most of a year.

Connor chuckled, that small dry laugh that his friend found so endearing, and considered that he would not at all mind living in or near Canton for the next few years, or decades. By the time he'd be obliged to move on, the king of France would surely be dead. No one in Europe would remember him, except the Immortals he'd met with Thomas, and no doubt they'd be scattered too by then.

He'd be anonymous, safe, and free.

Not to mention rich.


*****

The flight attendant's announcement of lunch roused Duncan from the memory. Annoyed, he stretched and wriggled his shoulders in the cramped space, and pulled the earphones off his head. A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention and made him glance at Methos.

The man had the book spread out on his lap, on top of what appeared to be his closed laptop computer, and seemed thoroughly absorbed in it. Probably the half-seen motion had been Methos turning a page.

A warning twinge from his midsection reminded him that he was indeed ready for lunch. The flight might take over twelve hours, but they were chasing the sun across the Atlantic; noon here and now was hours away from noon in Scotland.

But there, Methos was closing the book and pulling out his drop-down table. "I don't suppose," he said, "That the food will be much better than tolerable."

"If nothing else," Duncan offered, "We can make do with the beer nuts."

"And the beer," Methos added. "With enough beer, we can sleep through this interminable flight."

The comment made Duncan glance at his watch and note how much he'd slept already. His body was either reacting to the shock of seeing Connor's ghost again - and seeing that Methos saw it too - or else it was gathering resources to face the Big Apple. He remembered that they would be landing in New York on New Year's Eve, the crowds would be hideous and the traffic would be worse. It would be best to face that with his physical reserves as fully replenished as possible.

Duncan sighed and watched as the flight attendant came rolling her cart up the narrow aisle. However bad lunch was, he'd eat - and then do his best to fall asleep again afterwards.

Methos would probably miss the company, but he could busy himself with the book.

*****

As soon as the airliner was at cruising altitude Cassandra pulled a little black book from her purse, picked up the provided phone and began making calls. Joe watched, listened and marveled as Cassandra made arrangements to have her New York house opened and a car waiting for them at the airport. He felt as if she were pampering him, and that was both embarrassing and...well, enticing. It had been a long time since a woman had pampered him, particularly a stunning beauty like this - let alone an Immortal, and a witch as well. Joe suppressed the urge to pinch himself and be sure he wasn't dreaming. Instead he made himself concentrate on business.

There: she'd hung up the phone.

"When we land," he said, "Hang back a bit and let me talk to Mac. I'll get his itinerary, and then we can take off for your place."

"Why do you want me to hang back?" Yes, she picked up on that.

Joe shrugged. "Frankly, I'd rather you don't spook Methos. Scare him, and he might talk Mac into running off to some bolt-hole where it'll be hard to keep an eye on them."

"Him, afraid of me?" Cassandra looked halfway between offended and amused. Then she laughed: a low, throaty chuckle that did odd things to Joe's spine. "Well, let him be scared for a change. All right, I'll keep out of sensing range - for awhile."

"Okay." Joe grinned. "After that, to be honest, I'll just want to get a hot bath, a good meal, and a nice comfortable bed." He caught himself, guessing how that must sound, and hastily added: "After a flight this long, that's all I'll be up for." Damn, even that sounded suggestive! Cool off, you old fool.

Cassandra gave him a sweet smile, with nothing sly in it. "That sounds good to me, too," she said. "I think we can leave the plotting and scheming for tomorrow."

"Amen," Joe agreed, trying not to think of the last call he'd made before getting on the plane - the one which had guaranteed that a couple of Watcher field operatives would be waiting at the airport to follow, discreetly, both Methos and Cassandra. Those two needed to be kept separated for awhile, and he couldn't watch both of them at once.

*****

Duncan dutifully polished off the almost-tasteless airline lunch, then summoned back the attendant and ordered another Scotch. One more, he guessed, would make him just fuzzy and relaxed enough to slide back into light sleep - light enough that Connor's next memory would come easily and clearly, and he'd have no trouble recalling it all on waking. That was a far better way to spend this interminable flight than watching the G-rated comedy starting up on the overhead TV screens.

When the drink arrived he slugged it down quickly, noted Methos' worried glance and tossed him a reassuring smile. No, he wasn't trying to drown his sorrows; this was all to a purpose. He set the plastic cup aside, put on his earphones, closed his eyes and let himself sink into the music - it sounded like something by Brahms - and shut out the rest of the world.

The interior vision wasn't long in coming.

*****

Connor had put on his old sark and tartan, and when he strolled up to the door of the trading-house the English merchants came piling out the door to stare at him. Connor looked them up and down, enjoying the moment.

"Well now," he said, remembering to use the city pronunciation, "'Tis halfway 'round the world I've come, only to find more Englishmen. And have you come for the silk-buying, then?"

The merchantmen looked at each other, then to a gray-haired man who stepped forward and introduced himself as Sir Bertram Whiteside. "'Twas for the silk, indeed," he said, shaking Connor's hand firmly. "And do I take it, sir, that ye've come for the same?"

"Truly," Connor grinned. "I came overland by the old road, and purchased a goodly lot of raw silk. 'Tis being woven and dyed just now, here in the city, thanks to the aid of my good caravan-master, Rhamad Singh here."

On that signal, Singh stepped forward with a broad smile and offered his hand. Whiteside took it, listened uncomprehendingly as Singh smilingly called him a great foreign slab of beef, and raised a questioning eyebrow at Connor.

"He saith," Connor translated freely, "That he's delighted to make your acquaintance, for he knoweth the Silk Road and its cities well, and would be happy to purchase cargoes for you in future."

Whiteside looked from one to the other, while Singh happily rambled on about how quickly these English foreigners made up their minds. "I would," Whiteside ventured, "Require to see the goods he's brought already ere making any promises."

Connor translated back to Singh: "He's interested, but wants to see the silk first."

"Only a babe would do otherwise," Singh retorted. "Let us betake him to the looms where your cloth is being made, and see with his own eyes what good I can be to him."

"He agrees, sir," Connor explained to Whiteside. "Wilt come with us to the factorium and see both the silk Singh helped me to purchase, and the cloth being made of it even now?"

Of course Whiteside was interested, though cautious enough to summon a trio of armed bravos, and the lot of them made their way through the raucous streets of Canton to the weaving-house of Singh's choice. Whiteside was visibly impressed with what he saw, and invited Connor and Singh to dinner.

By noon the next day, after a long morning of haggling, the agreements were drawn up and signed. Whiteside and his company agreed to buy Connor's entire stock outright, when the weaving was done, for not less than 2000 pounds sterling - which Singh thought a tolerably reasonable price. Singh agreed to bring the results of his next expedition to the company, and Connor agreed to remain with the company as translator - likewise for what Singh considered an adequate wage.

"A good day's work," Singh chortled as they walked away from the docks. "Now we must find you a decent house and servants - and also a good teacher, for your Cantonese is, if I dare say so, barely adequate to the task you have assumed."

Connor laughed and draped an arm across Singh's shoulders. "Ye've done well for me, my friend - and even better for yourself, I'll wager. Why return all the way to Antioch when the English can bring those Italian goods by sea, here to Canton?"

"Why indeed?" Singh smiled. "I'll make but this one last march to settle affairs along the route, and afterwards venture no further than the north of Hind. This new sea-trade shall mean the end of the old Silk Road, I fear. Come, let's to the nearest wine-shop and mourn properly the death of an era."

Within the fortnight Singh assembled another caravan and set off again on the road, and Connor was settled into his new house and profession. The servants - a cook, an elderly housekeeper, a secretary and a gardener - were marvels of quiet efficiency; if they were also spies for some friend of Singh's, they were wonderfully discreet otherwise and Connor had no cause to complain.

The teacher Singh chose, a rotund and jolly middle-aged man named Lee Quang, spoke Persian fluently - and from his familiarity with Singh, Connor guessed that it was to him that the house-servants reported. He was certain of it when Lee Quang happily offered to improve Connor's Cantonese in exchange for no other fee than Connor teaching him English in return. Trade - with all its attendant plottings and machinations - seemed to be the blood and soul of the city and all its inhabitants.

In any case, Connor judged that he could trust Lee Quang's guidance.

His days fell into a predictable routine: rising at dawn, a light breakfast at home, then a short walk to the house of the Company of Merchants of London where he spent the day translating between the Englishmen and the locals. The other Englishmen seemed a little in awe of him and the Cantonese seemed to regard him as something more than human, but Whiteside regularly took him to luncheon and discussed the day's work with an easy familiarity. At sundown Connor proceeded to Lee Quang's house for dinner and lessons, which often ran late into the night.

On Sundays, in the European tradition, the merchant-house was closed. Connor would go straight to Quang's house and spend the day with him, and the lessons turned into walking tours of the city. Quang made effort to get Connor into proper Cantonese dress, though the tailors despaired of height and muscular build, and to teach him the proper manner of using chopsticks and tea-bowls. Then there were visits to temples and tea-gardens where Quang pointed out exquisite bits of artwork, or where the musicians were considered exceptional. It dawned on Connor that Quang was grooming him to be an adequate gentleman in Cantonese society, and he bluntly asked why.

"My estimable student," Quang smiled over a delicate porcelain bowl of jasmine tea, "I know well that the Europeans are here to stay, and we must make effort to understand them. You, I confess, are the first of them to make serious effort to understand us. For that reason, you are a jewel to be treasured - and polished."

Connor nodded thoughtfully and sipped his tea - he was beginning to appreciate the subtle differences in the flavors - and considered that he could do worse than to become a bridge between the different peoples. There had to be some other use for his immortality besides the distant Game that Ramirez had warned him about. Surely God had never created any creature without its purpose, its place in the grand scheme of life, and that had to include the Immortals.

Now that he was half the world away from the religious squabbles of Scotland, Connor had begun to think of religion itself in a different light. Ramirez had told him that there were all sorts of holy ground: all they had to be was sacred by somebody's faith, any faith at all. He'd seen in his travels that all men believed in something beyond themselves, but that something took countless forms and inspired countless speculations.
We're all just guessing, Connor concluded, But something is there. And that something included a vast, rarely-glimpsed pattern that included all things and had some huge unguessable purpose. He might as well call it God as karma, fate, dao, or anything else.

So he had a place in this world, and this city, and Singh's or Quang's personal plottings. Connor sipped his tea again and considered further. Yes, the sea-trade meant more markets, more wealth, and more contact with various Europeans. Quang, and Singh, and he couldn't guess how many other Asians desperately needed to comprehend these foreigners, gain allies among them, and explain themselves to the foreigners as safely as possible.

No wonder Singh had been so eager to be introduced to Whiteside.

He'd seen for himself that, aside from Whiteside himself, very few of the Englishmen at the trading-house shared that understanding - or need. Even Whiteside didn't know as much Cantonese, or as much about China, as he did. Surely Quang - and probably Singh, too - must know that by now.

"Would you like me to introduce you to Master Whiteside?" Connor asked casually from behind his tea-bowl.

Quang raised appreciative eyebrows and rubbed his cheeks. "I would indeed," he said, "But only in the proper setting. I am but a humble scholar-"

That made Connor grin.

"-and no merchant. I would not have him think me a useless ornament to a busy trading-house."

"If I teach you English half as well as you've taught me Cantonese, Whiteside will see your value as a translator - and guide to the city." Connor took another leisurely sip. "Then I'll not be so rare a treasure."

Quang looked pained. "Does possessing a ruby make the emerald's value any less? My worthy student, you are one of their kind; to be blunt, they would trust you before any Cantonese, or Hindustani. That places your value, as the English holy book says, 'far above rubies'."

"I'm unworthy," Connor murmured automatically, mind racing. He hadn't heard of any missionaries at the trading-house, but Quang had managed to obtain and read a Bible - though he could barely speak English as yet, and Connor hadn't begun to teach him the letters. Singh must have done it, obtained the book in Antioch - or possibly in the lands of the Rus, which he also visited - had it translated into Persian, and gave it to Quang. That meant both of them were intensely concerned with comprehending Europeans - particularly these new ones, different from the Rus, with whom China had certainly had dealings for centuries. Perhaps they meant to play off the Europeans against each other - for better prices, if nothing else.

In any case, yes, they desperately needed good contacts with the English. Right now, the best contact they had was himself. He'd best make it clear, starting now, that he'd be no blind tool.

"So," he smiled, "What have the birds reported about our friend Singh?"

Quang started, at which Connor suppressed a smile, then nodded in appreciation. "So you observed his collection of pigeons on your journey?" he countered.

"Indeed." Connor shrugged. "'Tis a method often used by the Europeans. How fares Singh?"

"He progresses well but slowly, since he has begun searching through silk-producing villages between here and Sian, in hope of obtaining more raw silk for the looms of Canton. In truth, if he can load his camels and mules heavily enough, he may return much sooner than originally expected." Quang took a thoughtful sip of his tea. "And you, my friend as well as student, should learn more of the better society of Canton."

"My manners are hardly good enough to visit any nobleman's court without disgracing myself," Connor demurred.

"Ah, but not so poor that you would be unwelcome at the better class of art houses," Quang smiled over his tea. "Come early next Sunday, and I shall introduce you to the House of Silver Lotus."

"Of course I'll come," Connor promised, wondering what this next stage in his education would be.


*****

Duncan was pulled back again to the here and now by the intrusive voice of the captain announcing their approach to Kennedy International. He suppressed a groan, thinking of the unavoidable miseries of the next hour, at least, until he could reach the safety of the New York apartment. He remembered that on the trip out to Scotland he'd slept most of the time, aided by the sleeping-pills that Joe had thoughtfully provided and that Methos made sure he took. He didn't remember much of the trip, and for that he was grateful.

A glance showed Methos efficiently stuffing the book back in the under-seat luggage, closing the fold-down table, and generally getting ready to leave. Methos, he could trust, would take care of the wretched details and get him to quiet and safety as fast as possible, bless the man.

That reminded him of another duty; half of Methos' present would be delivered to the apartment, but he had to pick up the other part himself. That wouldn't be easy on New Year's Eve, but he owed the man the effort, at least.

*****

Cassandra was waiting by the doorway, her driver already loading their bags into the trunk of the midnight-blue Mercedes, when Joe came back from the luggage-carousel.

"Did you talk to him?" she asked, not needing to ask whom she meant.

"Just for a minute." Joe paused to admire the car. "They're going to Mac's apartment, where they expect to stay the night and all of tomorrow. Can't get to Connor's lawyer or bank until the 2nd. I guess we're at loose ends too."

Cassandra smiled and opened the rear door for him. "In that case, let's go to my place, kick off our shoes, eat delivered Chinese food and watch the celebration on TV."

"Sounds wonderful," Joe laughed, settling himself on the seat. His face was a little flushed, and Cassandra wondered if he'd overexerted himself. "Can we get something to drink besides tea?"

"The house has an adequate wine-cellar," Cassandra promised, slipping in beside him. "Would you prefer plum wine or saki?"

"Damn, I haven't tasted plum wine in..." Joe ducked his head, revealing that the pinkness of his cheeks was a genuine blush. "Cassie, you're spoiling me. It'll be hard to go back to cheap rental Chevys after riding around in your Mercedes."

"The Watchers don't pay you enough," Cassandra pronounced, as the driver closed the trunk and came around to the front door. "And who says you have to go back? We're going to be working together on this project, aren't we?"

"As much as I can," Joe promised, "But I'm supposed to be Mac's Watcher, remember. Wherever he goes, I've got to follow."

"Does any law say that I can't follow too?" Cassandra marveled at Joe's startled look. "His powers could start to manifest at any time, and I'd better be nearby when that happens."

"Damn, yes. Uh, I guess we'll be hanging out together quite a bit." Oh yes, he was definitely blushing.

Like a schoolboy. Why? Cassandra clasped his hand gently and extended a cautious psychic probe toward him.

The answer was right on the surface, and she was grateful that the noise and motion of the car starting covered her reactions when she found it.

Goddess, he's fallen in love with me!

Oh yes, his feelings were bright and clear. It was her own that were suddenly chaotic: a wild mix of amazement, bewilderment, gratitude...and a definite warmth.

At that moment Cassandra realized that she'd fallen in love with him, too - and that was simply too astounding for words.

*****

The package was waiting at the apartment office, just as promised, and the secretary whined about having to stay in on New Year's Eve to wait for it. Duncan took the package and gave her a generous tip for her trouble. She was speedily locking up the office as they reached the elevator, and outside by the time it arrived. Methos stared pointedly at the carton, which was big enough to hold a basketball, but said nothing. Duncan grinned to himself, and kept silent. Methos unlocked the front door, and they stepped inside.

The apartment was no different from the last time Duncan had seen it, and that was exactly the problem. From the livingroom he could look out over the rooftop where Connor had died. He made haste to pull the curtains and turn away.

Methos caught the gesture, hurried the luggage into the bedroom and asked Duncan which he wanted first: bath, delivered food, or sleep.

Trying so hard to give me whatever I need, Duncan understood, But what do I need right now?

Not sleep, no: after all those hours on the plane he was jittery and restless. He wasn't hungry, either; the cardboard airline food had killed his appetite. He could guess what was likely to follow a bath, and realized that he didn't want that, either - not within 50 feet of where Connor had died. Not yet, at least.

Then he remembered the package in his hands and the small task he'd promised himself. "Do you know of any clothing stores that would be open tonight, at this hour?" he asked.

Methos sighed, looking oddly defeated. "The mall," he mumbled, "Near Faith's emporium. I believe we can see the fireworks from there."

"Let's go, then." Duncan set the package on the coffee-table, picked up the keys and paused to squeeze Methos' near shoulder. "I have to get you something."

"You needn't go out on my account-"

"It's part of your overdue Christmas present."

"Oh. ...Well, in that case... No, give me the keys; I'll drive."

They took the time to fit their swords back into their coats before heading out to the street again.

The streets were crowded with revelers, and the crowds thickened as they approached the mall; their presence did nothing to help Duncan's restlessness, and he was grateful that Methos had taken over the driving. The mall too was surprisingly crowded for New Year's Eve, though most of the action clustered around the restaurant and the bar, as might be expected. Just reaching the store he wanted was an ordeal, especially since the route took him past Faith's place - locked up now, and silent: a fitting domain for her ghost. He looked away as they walked past.

Once inside the door, Duncan had another thought. "Er, Adam," he nudged Methos, "Why don't you go busy yourself in the pants department? This is supposed to be a Christmas present, after all."

"Ah, surprises," Methos guessed. "I'll go pick out something tight and sexy, shall I?" He managed to swing his hips suggestively, just once, as he sauntered away.

Duncan chuckled and headed for the section that held sweaters.
It didn't take long to find what he wanted and pay for it, the clerks being remarkably eager to help; either they were being paid fabulous overtime, or they wanted to get out in time for the midnight partying too.

Duncan couldn't feel Methos' Quickening as he went to the door, or outside either, but he found that he had an indefinable feel of roughly where the man was: just out of sensing-range, following him at a polite distance. He can feel where I am, too! Duncan marveled. Was this another effect of the Double Quickening, or a gift from Connor's Quickening? Perhaps he should talk to Cassandra...

No, he didn't want to talk to her just yet. In fact, he didn't want to deal with anyone right now. The crowds depressed him, and the restlessness was back. He should head for the car...

And there was Faith's darkened emporium, with the stairs curving toward the upper terrace.

Faith. My Kate. Another one gone.

He knew this was only rubbing salt in his wounds, but he felt impelled to go to the empty shop, peer through the darkened windows, and finally climb those stairs to the terrace. Penance? he wondered as he came out on the bare platform. Was there any way, now, to atone for what he'd done to her all those years past? Kell had taken her Quickening, he'd taken Kell's, and perhaps in time he could find a way to contact her as he had Connor. Perhaps there was still a remote chance that he could, someday, be forgiven.

Yes, from this height there was a good view of the city. He set down the bag with the sweater in it and moved toward the edge of the terrace. Oh, there: the fireworks were starting. Either it was later than he'd thought or the show was intended to go on for a good while, ending with a grand crescendo just at midnight. He remembered some arrangement like that, the last time he'd been in town for New Year's, with Connor...

This time the pain came not as a sharp stab but a leaden weight. It didn't wring tears from him, but threatened to drag his heart out of his body, straight down to the center of the earth. He stood very still, watching the fireworks, thinking of nothing, and waited patiently for the tide of grief to roll out again. Fireworks bloomed in flowers of red, green, blue and gold while he watched.

The edge of a Quickening-field touched him, drawing away a portion of his awareness. Methos, come looking for me, he guessed.

In the next second he knew it wasn't Methos. The feel was wrong: a different tone, not heavy but sharp, vaguely familiar. He turned fast, right hand going for his coat, ready to pull out his sword - distantly marveling at how good his survival reactions were, regardless of what he was feeling.

The figure that came down the escalator and paced slowly across the terrace was slender, swordless, familiar and unbelievable.

Kate?!

*****

Methos froze as he watched the woman approach Duncan from the shadows. Even at this distance, thanks to much plundering of the Watchers' records in the past few weeks, he knew exactly who she was.

His first thought was vast relief at seeing that she wasn't carrying a sword - or any other visible weapon. His second was a surge of terrified jealousy, which he promptly recognized and suppressed. His third, as he watched her move closer, and saw Duncan's reaction, was a coldly calculating hope that the woman would - for once in her life - think of Duncan's feelings and be kind to him.

Methos held his breath as he watched Kate step closer to Duncan, let him wrap his desperate arms around her, and touched him gently. The look on Duncan's face was almost ecstatic. Yes, of course: she was alive after all, and he might yet be redeemed.

That's it, Methos thought, watching. Kiss him. Tell him all is forgiven...

As if at his word, the two figures pressed close for a long moment, silhouetted against the fireworks.

Yes, that's it. Methos ruthlessly squelched his jealousy again. Now take his hand and lead him away. Take him to bed. I'll follow discreetly...

But instead the woman pulled away. She said a few more unheard words, turned and walked off, leaving Duncan empty-armed, reaching futilely after her.

You bitch! Methos seethed. Just a little tease, then walk off? What game are you playing? ...Oh Duncan...

He waited until Kate was safely gone, then moved forward until his Quickening-field touched upon Duncan's. The man twitched at feeling it, turned away quickly, noticed the bag he'd let drop and picked it up.

"Shopping done, then?" Methos asked lightly, coming up to him. "Enjoying the fireworks?"

Duncan heaved a quiet sigh. "Not really," he said. "Let's go home."

Methos remembered the bottle of brandy he'd picked up, and was exceedingly grateful.

*****

Joe and Cassandra sat on the large bed, nibbling their way through the shrimp cocktail and watched the display on the large TV screen across the room. Cassandra noticed that his glass was almost empty, and poured more champagne into it.

"This," Joe commented, "Has got to be one of the better New Year's Eves I've ever spent. Sitting beside a beautiful woman, eating seafood, drinking very good champagne and watching fireworks between our feet." For once it didn't matter that two of those feet were plastic.

Cassandra giggled, then smothered a most unladylike burp. "Perfect," she agreed, running a sly hand up his arm. "No work, no worries, nothing to do but enjoy ourselves."

"Amen." But Joe remembered one nagging duty. "I wonder how Mac's doing."

Cassandra frowned for a moment, then closed her eyes and put on that odd distracted look. "He's fine," she announced. "Going back to the apartment."

"Damn," Joe marveled. "How far does your empathic sense stretch, again?"

"With someone I know, a long way." She smiled, and pulled back to the here-and-now. "I think I could sense you for a good thousand miles."

"Damn," Joe murmured again, feeling a goofy smile spread across his face. "How did I wind up with a prize like you? I still think I'm dreaming. Pinch me, will you?"

Instead, Cassandra reached over and began unfastening his shirt. "This is real," she promised. "Please believe it - and that you deserve it."

Joe could think of nothing to answer that. To slow down his automatic reaction, he held out a shrimp to her lips. Cassandra happily nipped at it, but didn't stop unbuttoning his shirt.

Hey, you're in heaven, you fool! Joe reminded himself. Enjoy it while it lasts.

On the screen, a golden chrysanthemum bloomed, glowing, across the night sky.

*****

By the time the globe dropped and the new year was formally ushered in, Duncan and Methos had drunk the brandy down to the philosophical stage.

"But what does the Double Quickening mean?" Duncan asked, a little sloppily. "How much fufh-farther will the link go? How far off can you sense me?"

"A little beyond the range of my Q-field," Methos admitted. "I expect it'll grow, with time."

"Shared Quickening," Duncan mused. "Sort of the Immortal version of a Blood Brotherhood ritual. ...You know, we ought to do that too, sometime."

"Why not?" Methos agreed. "We've shared everything else." His gaze fell on the ornamental dagger posed on the mantelpiece. "Why not right now?"

"Why not? No time like the presen'." As an afterthought, Duncan emptied his glass.

Methos climbed unsteadily to his feet, tottered to the mantelpiece, took down the dagger and brought it back. He sat down beside Duncan and began solemnly rolling up his left sleeve. "Is that thing sharp enough?" he asked.

"Sure is," said Duncan, copying him. "Keep all my knives sharp."

"Who goes first with the cut?" Methos pondered.

Duncan peered thoughtfully at the dagger. "It's got two edges," he announced. "Put our arms together with the blade between 'em, and cut both at once. Fitting."

"Right," said Methos. "Here, sit facing me. Arm... Just clasp my hand. Right. Now get it between us..."

"Uh, are you sure you're sho-sober enough to do this?"

"Trus' me, I'm a doctor. Or used to be."

"Yeah, 450 years ago, in Heidelberg."

"Simple cutting doesn' change. Hold still..."

Methos gave the dagger a sharp pull. They both grunted in surprised pain, and blood began to flow from both cuts. Methos dropped the dagger, which fortunately missed his glass, and pressed their arms together. "Hold tight," he murmured. "We bleed into each other's wounds...old fashioned way, but better than the later one."

"What's the later one?" Duncan asked, gritting his teeth against the pain.

"Later...spill our blood into a cup, and we both drink it."

"Uck."

"As I said, I like this method better. Hol' still, now."

"Right. Stings a little."

"It'll heal soon. We can stand it that long."

"Sure. I've taken worse, God knows."

"Me too. ...Ah, there."

A flare of blue lightning sizzled between their close-pressed forearms.

"Was that you, me, or both?" Duncan wondered.

"Both, I think. All right, we're now officially Blood-Brothers."

Methos released Duncan's hand and started to pull his arm away, then felt the sharp tug at his skin. He looked, then yelped.

"Wha...?" Duncan looked too, then was shocked speechless.

Between their arms, an inch-long strip of smooth unbroken skin joined them like Siamese twins.

"They healed together!" Methos gasped. "I've never seen anything like that! ...Of course, never tried..."

"Cut it away!" Duncan wailed. "Where'd you put that dagger?"

"No, wait!" Methos clutched Duncan's other hand, staring at the connecting bridge of skin, a memory from last night resurfacing. "Leave it for...give it ten minutes before we cut ourselves free. That should do it."

"Do what?"

"Think, Duncan!" Methos turned wild but jubilant eyes on him. "It takes maybe... I forget exactly, but less than ten minutes for the blood to...circulate completely through the body."

"And that means?"

"It means we share each other's blood forever after. We'll always have some of each other's cells, never be without them."

"Oh." Duncan calmed, staring at their joined skin. "Yes, that's a good thought."

"It's more than that," Methos panted, so fiercely exited that it almost sobered him. "We've shared a Quickening, shared blood..."

"Shared more than that," Duncan smiled, remembering.

"Duncan, think! We've all heard that old prophecy, 'There can be only one', and we all believe it, right?"

"Yes." Duncan turned grim. "I don't want to believe it, don't want to have to..."

"Think! Think!" Methos pleaded. "What if there's another way?!"

"...Another way?"

"To fulfill the prophecy! What if two become one?"

"What if we are..."

"...One?"
Duncan got it. He looked from their joined skin to Methos' face, then back. "Then we'll never have to fight each other."

"And what if..." Methos whispered, caught up in an expanding vision.

"...all of us..." Duncan continued for him.

"Half of us," Methos amended bitterly. "Sacrifice the other half to those shared Quickenings."

"Even so, half of us live. We become one. The Game ends, and we survive. Not just one alone..."

The two of them looked from the wall clock to their joined arms to each other, waiting out the time, eyes meeting in a fierce and wondering hope.


--END--