DISCLAIMER: Highlander the Series is property of Rysher Entertainment. The characters Duncan MacLeod, Adam Pierson/Methos, Joe Dawson, and Richie Ryan are used without permission, but with great reverence. The other characters and the story itself belong to Jennifer Allen, copyright 1997. Please send all comments to email@example.com, especially if they're good. If you distribute or save this story, please leave the header intact.
WARNING: This story contains scenes that are both violent and sexually graphic. If either of these offend you, please select another story. If they don't offend you, then sit back and enjoy the ride.
TIMELINE: The events occur during Highlander's fifth season hiatus, as that's were we are when I started writing this. Richie has left Seacouver after "the other Methos" was killed by William Culbreath, and Methos is hanging around being Methos. They also occur after the trilogy I wrote (Consequences, Accusations, and Retaliation), which is why the calendar year is 1997 instead of 1996. You don't need to read those stories to understand this one, but JL and Bryan are introduced in those stories, and the relationships will make more sense if you do. My trilogy is also the source of any comments made about going to Peru, or about the Immortals Lucas Buck and Alaric Sutkin. All of my fanfic can be found at http://www.jendaveallen.com/Fanfic/ficidx.htm, or you can email me and I'll send you a copy.
Seacouver, December 1997. JL closed the ledger book with a satisfying thump and leaned back in her chair, trying to stretch the kinks out of her neck and shoulders. It had been a long week, but getting Joe to spend Thanksgiving with his niece, Lynn Horton, had been worth it. Joe warned me that running the bar would be a lot harder than I anticipated, she thought with a sigh. Unfortunately, he was right. As usual. But it's 5:30 Monday morning, Joe's plane lands in less than seven hours, and all I have to do is stay awake long enough to pick him up at the airport. Pushing back from the table, JL grabbed her coffee cup and walked over to the bar. Dubiously eyeing the substance that had been coffee a few hours ago, she shrugged and poured half a cup, thinning it out with a healthy dose of Irish whiskey. Lifting her cup to the silent assemblage of tables, chairs, and bottles surrounding her, she grinned. "I have survived," she announced to them triumphantly. "No matter what anyone says, I have survived. With seven hours to spare, the books are balanced, the joint is clean, tonight's band is booked, and I've even replaced the table, chairs, and glassware that got caught up in the 'animated discussion' that Vaughn, Travis, and Cindy had the other night. The only thing left to do is figure out how in God's name I'm going to stay awake until 12:14 when Joe's plane lands." Taking a sip of coffee, JL grimaced and decided that the first order of business was to go somewhere that had fresh coffee. Pulling on her coat, she walked outside and locked the door behind her. It's definitely winter, she thought glumly as she pulled her collar closer around her neck. There's a cold wind and lots of rain. At least in summer it's a warmer wind and lots of rain. Unlocking her Mustang with the remote control, JL dashed out to her car and started the engine. She toyed with the idea of going home and taking a nap, but she knew if she closed her eyes, she wouldn't have a prayer of making it to the airport in time. With a heartfelt sigh, she headed over to an all-night diner where she hoped that Steve, the night shift's chief cook and bottle washer, would be as bored as she was and eager to kill a few hours catching JL up on the neighborhood gossip. True to form, he easily kept her amused until he got off work at 7 a.m., but JL couldn't persuade him to stay and keep her company any longer than that.
Five and half more hours, she thought as Steve left, struggling to keep her eyes open and her head off the counter. I've got to come up with some way to stay awake. Colin is snug in his bed, Methos is a royal grouch if you wake him up, and even Duncan isn't this early a riser, especially since Karen has been giving him a reason to stay in bed. When did I hear Joe say she went to work? Eight o'clock, I think. That's only an hour--maybe I can go over to the dojo and do some stretches until he gets up. If I stay downstairs he won't feel my presence so I won't bother him until he's had his coffee. Better yet, maybe I'll just curl up on one of his exercise mats with a note taped to my forehead that says 'Please make sure I'm awake by 11:30 a.m. or Joe will be stranded at the airport.' Now there's an idea. Maybe he'll be so moved by pity that he'll leave me in my corner and he'll go to the airport. Turning the corner a couple of blocks from the dojo, JL shook her head and laughed softly to herself. More than likely, though, he'll just throw cold water on me and make me join him for a practice session or his morning run. Considering the weather I'd really prefer the practice session, but Duncan can be fanatical about running sometimes. I've really got to find a teacher who appreciates the needs of a dedicated night-owl. Even Jim and Bryan were morning people compared to me. Maybe I can study with Amanda for a while. Now there's a person who appreciates the benefits of being out and about after the rest of the world has gone to bed.
As she parked next to the dojo, her headlights illuminated a familiar dark blue van across the street. She studied it curiously, wondering why someone was Watching Duncan at this hour. Shutting off the engine, she turned her collar back up to ward off the rain and sprinted over to the van. She knocked on the back door, turning the handle cautiously when she didn't get an answer. The door was unlocked, but the van was empty. Climbing in, she found a cold cup of coffee and a plastic box containing a half-eaten salad on the dashboard, a completed crossword puzzle tossed carelessly on the floor, and her top-of-the-line Nikon camera lying on the passenger seat. Picking up the camera, JL scowled angrily. Justin, you are going to regret leaving my camera in plain sight in an unlocked car, she vowed. She cost me a fortune, and you promised you'd treat her with more respect than you do me. I swear, if someone had stolen this camera, even the fact that you named your daughter after me wouldn't have been enough to save you.
Putting the camera's strap around her neck and tucking it carefully into her coat, she got out of the van and went to find Justin so she could discuss proper camera-security measures with him. The gloom had lightened slightly with the rising sun, but she had to get her flashlight from the car to see anything that wasn't near a streetlight. She whistled softly as she walked so she wouldn't startle Justin--the last time she'd done that he'd almost broken her arm when he grabbed her and shoved her against the nearest wall. Justin didn't answer her whistle though, so she kept walking toward Duncan's building and cautiously entered the alley. Light streamed from the loft windows where Karen was presumably getting ready for work and Duncan was making breakfast, so JL kept her flashlight pointed downwards to avoid attracting attention.
Under the fire escape, her flashlight reflected off something metallic. Leaning down, she recognized the piece of metal as a Celtic ponytail holder still neatly wrapped around a short, dark ponytail. The flashlight beam bobbled as her hand trembled, its uncaring beam revealing the ragged stump that had once been a neck. Fighting desperately to remain calm, JL prayed she was wrong and slowly lifted the head so she could see the man's face. His eyes were closed and mud obscured the half that had been lying on the ground, but JL recognized him instantly. "Justin," she whispered, falling to her knees and cradling the head in her arms. "Justin. Who did this to you?"
Heedless of the mud soaking through her jeans, JL rocked slowly, no longer seeing Justin's head in her arms. Instead, she was back in San Francisco in 1985, meeting Justin for the first time when he came to visit Bryan Cutler, who had been Justin's commanding officer in Vietnam. She remembered sitting across from him in Jim and Bryan's solarium, fascinated by his war stories. He told her about the day he'd learned about Immortality--he had been wounded in the leg and Bryan had carried him to a foxhole to perform some first aid and wait until darkness to work their way back to their own lines. They had both thought they were going to make it when a hand grenade landed in the foxhole with them. Justin still looked amazed when he told her how Bryan hadn't even hesitated before throwing himself on the grenade and shielding Justin from the explosion. The force of the blast had thrown Bryan's body on top of Justin, so when the Viet Cong had come to check the results, they had assumed that both men were dead. Justin had been so shocked that he had barely reacted when Bryan had started breathing again a couple of hours later and carried him to a MASH unit. When Justin had recovered, Bryan had explained how he had managed to survive having his guts splattered over the inside of the foxhole. By this time, Jim and Bryan had told JL of their Immortality as well, so she could talk freely to Justin about his feelings on the subject. She didn't mention the Watchers, though, until four years later when she was certain that she could tell him without his immediately telling Jim and Bryan. She had submitted his name to the Tribunal for consideration, and they had agreed that she could try approaching him. She smiled fondly as she remembered his childlike glee at being invited to join the Watchers--when she'd picked on him about it, he admitted that he'd always wanted to be part of the "cool table" in his high school lunchroom but couldn't figure out how to get in. Being with the Watchers was like being part of a special clique, and he loved it. The Tribunal agreed to let JL give Justin his basic training, and they started spending all of Justin's free time together. JL had told Jim and Bryan that she was a freelance photographer, so she told them that she was giving Justin photography lessons. Which was partially true, as photographing one's subject was an important part of a Watcher's job.
JL shifted as the rain began to seep under her collar and run down her back, but her mind was still lost in the past. She remembered taking Justin to a Watcher party in 1991, only to have him abandon her so he could dance all night with a Watcher named Colleen. They glided around the dance floor as if they'd known each other for years, then the scene shifted suddenly in JL's memory and they were dancing their first dance as husband and wife. JL was standing next to Bryan, as uncomfortable in her Maid of Honor finery as he was elegant in his Best Man tuxedo. Bryan's arm slid around her waist, and she settled back into his arms with a sigh. It was 1993, and she had been Watching an Immortal named Lucas Buck for over two years now. Justin's wedding was a welcome break from observing Lucas' evil hobbies, but she still felt a twinge of jealousy as Justin and Colleen danced. She'd broken up with Adam Pierson when she'd taken the Lucas Buck assignment, and she still missed his cynical observations now and again. Adam had met Justin when JL had begun training him in San Francisco, but, if Justin had invited him to the wedding, he had declined to come.
In her memory, Justin suddenly turned away from Colleen and approached smiling proudly, showing JL a carefully wrapped bundle. "Look, JL," he said. "Isn't she gorgeous? Just like her mama. And her twin brother is equally dashing." Rocking the baby gently, Justin glanced up at her shyly. "We even have the perfect names for them. We're going to call them Joanna Lynn and Bryan James. That is, if you don't mind."
"Mind?" JL whispered incredulously. "Why would I mind?" Hugging both father and daughter, JL felt tears sliding down her cheeks. "No one ever offered to name their baby after me before. Of course I don't mind."
Justin offered her the baby, laughing when JL declined to hold her with a panic-stricken expression. "It's OK, JL," he told her. "Not everyone is cut out for motherhood. But if it weren't for Bryan, I wouldn't have met you, and if it weren't for you, I wouldn't have met Colleen. Then this precious little girl and her brother wouldn't be here. So it's only fitting they should be named after the people who made them possible." Kissing his daughter gently on the forehead, Justin laid her back in her crib and offered Bryan James for JL's inspection. "They're going to be Watchers, too, you just wait and see. It's going to be a grand family tradition."
As the rain soaked through the last dry spot in her coat, JL felt a sudden wave of nausea. She clutched Justin's head a little tighter, willing the sickness to pass. Part of her mind urged her to get up and be ready to defend herself in case Justin's attacker came back, but the thought seemed to come from a great distance and she couldn't bring herself to really care. Justin's memory smiled at her again, inviting her to relive his joy when she'd discovered that she was an Immortal as well as a Watcher. He'd acted as though she deserved such an honor--in fact, he'd been more excited about it than she had. He'd even offered to give up co-Watching Richie with Colleen so he could Watch her, but she'd laughed and pointed out that she couldn't influence assignments anymore. His expression had been so crestfallen that she'd told him she was planning to move in with Richie, at least for a while, so Watching Richie would be just like Watching her. It had worked that way, too, for about six months. Then she and Richie had drifted apart and she'd gotten her own apartment. Justin had seen the signs before JL had, and he'd had a great apartment all lined up for her when she finally realized that she and Richie weren't going to be the next Jim and Bryan. Or even the next Duncan and Amanda, for that matter.
She remembered sitting next to Justin on the steps of her new apartment. He had one arm around her waist and she had her head on his shoulder while little Joanna and Bryan, now more than three years old, investigated each crack in the sidewalk with amazing intensity. "Are you all right, JL?" he had asked softly.
"Why wouldn't I be?" she had replied with a sigh. "I knew it wasn't going to last forever like Jim and Bryan will. Granted, I thought we'd make it longer than six months, but it's probably better this way. As it stands now, we're still friends. If I'd tried to force myself on him much longer, we'd probably end up challenging one another."
Justin had snorted and held her close. "You know what your problem is, little one?" he had said. "You still love Pierson. I can tell. And he's not good enough for you."
JL was about to protest when a hand clasped her shoulder and she felt someone kneel down next to her. Still uncertain if this was real or just another memory, she tried to shrug the hand off and was disappointed when it wouldn't go away. A softly accented voice spoke in her ear, but her mind was too numb to process the words. The voice was rather pleasant, though, so she didn't try to interrupt him until he went to remove the head from her lap. She tried to hold it closer, but the cold had stiffened her fingers and he worked it gently out of her hands. She gazed unseeingly at her empty lap, then felt herself being picked up and carried like a child. Duncan, she thought numbly. It must be Duncan. She wanted to struggle and go back to Justin, but her body began trembling and all she could do was bury her head in Duncan's shoulder and cry. She hated herself for being so weak and emotional, especially in front of someone whose respect she had worked very hard to earn. He's going to think I'm a fool, she thought despairingly. Kneeling in the mud crying like a baby. What kind of warrior acts like that? And what kind of warrior lets someone walk up behind them when they should have felt them coming? Oh, God, Justin. This is my fault, isn't it? If I hadn't gotten you involved in the Watchers, you'd be home with Colleen and the kids right now. Please forgive me, old friend. I never meant for this to happen to you. Never. She felt Duncan set her down and remove her coat and sword. He was still talking softly, although he no longer waited for a response. He wrapped her in a blanket and propped her up against the arm of the couch, returning in a few minutes with half a cup of hot coffee. Gently bending her fingers around the cup, he urged her to drink it. She managed a small sip, using both hands to steady the cup. Really seeing him for the first time, she tried to smile, but quickly gave it up as a lost cause.
"JL?" Duncan said softly. "Are you all right? Can you tell me what happened?"
"No," she whispered. "It doesn't make any sense."
Duncan nodded. "Who should I call, JL?" he asked. "Methos? One of your Watcher friends?"
JL just shook her head numbly. "I don't know. I wish Joe..." Choking back another sob, she shivered and looked away.
Duncan pulled the blanket tighter around her and said, "I'll call Methos. He'll at least know who you'd want me to call."
JL watched him walk over to the phone, then noticed her new scimitar lying on the coffee table. She remembered how Jim and Bryan had given it to her after hers had burned in a car crash last March. It had truly been a group effort--Bryan had forged the blade, Jim had cast the brass crossguard in the traditional elongated-diamond shape, and Justin had carved the mahogany hilt. Her vision blurred again as she remembered them presenting it to her, and how proud Justin had been at being included in such a project. He'd added the intertwined horse symbol that represented the Celtic goddess Epona, apologizing for mixing cultures but insisting that she shouldn't turn down any kind of protection she could get. "Besides," he'd rationalized over a glass of Irish whiskey at Joe's, "I love the design. So you're stuck with it."
Duncan was gratefully surprised that Methos answered the phone on the second ring. "Methos," he said, "it's Duncan. I need you to get over here and help me with JL. She's..." Glancing at the couch, he saw JL staring vacantly at her sword. The coffee cup fell out of her suddenly nerveless fingers, the hot liquid making fiery streaks on her cold hands, but she didn't even blink. "Just get over here now," he said quickly. "I'll explain later." Hanging up, he decided that he needed a more drastic way of getting her attention. Unwrapping the blanket, he picked her back up and carried her into the bathroom. Pausing only to take off his shoes, he stepped into the shower and turned on the cold water, thankful that Karen had already left for work and wouldn't be walking in on this particular scene.
JL was jolted back to reality by the stream of cold water coursing down her back. Sputtering, she pushed away from Duncan until he set her back on her feet, but her legs refused to hold her and she had to rest most of her weight against his chest. He let her lean against him, steadying her with one hand while turning on the hot water with the other. JL waited until the stiffness worked its way out of her legs, then she finally faced the spray and let the water course over her face and chest until she stopped shivering. Turning off the water, she leaned against the tile until it occurred to her that Duncan was still standing patiently behind her, waiting for an explanation. Turning back around slowly, she looked at him standing there, still fully clothed and dripping wet. Dropping her eyes, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Mac. You must think I'm a complete idiot."
Duncan stepped forward and brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I think you're acting like someone who just lost a very good friend. As I recently told Richie, it's when we stop being hurt by such things that we have to worry. Now that you've warmed up, let's get you dried off." Leaning out of the shower, Duncan grabbed the towel hanging nearby. Politely holding it up and averting his eyes, he waited until she had shed her clothes before wrapping her in the towel. "Fortunately, Amanda loves these huge, fluffy towels. They're practically blanket-sized. Now if you would be so kind as to toss me one from that closet, I can dry off and find you some sweats."
JL nodded and stepped out of the shower. Handing Duncan a towel, she leaned against the wall and gazed absently at him. Starting slightly when he cleared his throat, she sighed and turned her back. "It's not like I haven't seen it before, Mac," she said with a spark of her usual humor. "Remember Peru? They had you quite prettily chained to that wall for everyone to admire."
Duncan grumbled something, then they both straightened when they felt the presence of another Immortal. "If that's Amanda," JL commented, "I'm going out the window while you explain this."
Duncan laughed. "If that's Amanda, I'm going out the window myself. But it's probably Methos," he assured her. "I called him when we came back upstairs, remember? He must have actually listened when I said it was important and hurried."
The door opened and closed, then Methos' voice echoed through the loft. "Mac?" he called. "JL? Where are you guys? Where's the fire?"
JL slipped out the bathroom door and flung herself into his arms. He caught her with a look of surprise, his eyes widening even further when Duncan emerged from the bathroom and Methos saw their matching towels. "Pardon me," he said with a raised eyebrow. "Did I interrupt something? I thought you said you needed my help."
Duncan nodded. "We do. Someone died outside my dojo last night. He was beheaded, but I didn't feel a Quickening."
Disengaging herself, JL curled up on the couch. "It was a Watcher," she said softly. "Justin Waldron."
"Justin?" Methos asked in surprise. "Your protégé? Who would want to behead him? He wasn't one of us."
JL shrugged. "If I knew that, I wouldn't be here. I'd be cutting whoever it was into little, tiny pieces and serving them en brochette." Staring at her scimitar still lying on the coffee table, she shivered. "I don't even know why he was out there all night," she admitted. "Have you heard anything?"
"No." Methos sat down next to her and put his arms around her. "I'm sorry, JL," he said softly into her hair. "I know how much you liked him."
"Yeah," she mumbled back. "Bryan too. I should call him...Oh, God, Colleen. I have to call Colleen."
"Later," Methos replied, holding her tightly while she fought off another round of tears. He glanced significantly up at Duncan, who nodded in silent understanding and laid a pair of sweats on the coffee table before pouring her a glass of brandy. When she had herself back under control, JL thanked him and sipped the drink, then stood up and traded the towel for the sweats. Duncan turned politely away from her, but Methos studied her body unabashedly. She'd been an Immortal for almost two years now, and had spent much of that time in an intensive training regimen so she'd have the chance to keep up with the older players in the Game. Her muscles had filled out nicely and she'd picked up a little weight. Methos had always regarded her as too thin and was constantly badgering her to eat a balanced diet, and he was glad to see she had been. I wonder if her stamina has improved as well, he thought idly. She always claimed she couldn't keep up with me, but she seemed to keep Richie happy. For a while anyway. I'll have to ask Mac what happened to them- -she'll never tell me the truth.
JL pulled the sweatshirt over her head and looked at Methos. "Quit staring," she told him with a toss of her hair.
"Quit getting undressed in public," he responded promptly. "Besides, I've seen it all before anyway."
JL and Duncan burst out laughing, and Methos looked at them curiously. "Forget it," Duncan told him. "You had to be there."
"Apparently," he agreed. "Shall I call Colleen?"
JL shook her head slowly, glancing at the door. "Not yet. I need to investigate it a little more. Examine the scene. Try to..." JL's voice broke slightly and she hugged herself tightly. "She's going to ask why," she continued softly. "And who." Picking up her camera, she checked it automatically, making sure the rain hadn't gotten into the case. By the time she was done, Duncan had started a pot of coffee and was putting on his shoes. JL looked at her own mud-soaked sneakers distastefully, deciding it would be just as effective to go barefoot.
Methos walked up behind her and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "I can take care of this, JL," he offered. "I've investigated a few deaths in my time."
"Can you lift fingerprints?" she asked. "Do you know the proper series of photos to take to get the crime scene from all angles? Do you know how to search without destroying potential evidence like I probably did when I moved Jus...Justin's head?" Angrily wiping away a tear, JL managed a small smile. "I appreciate the offer, Methos, I really do. But I was a private investigator in Los Angeles, and I learned how to do all of this stuff. We've got to get everything we need from the scene before we call the police, because we may not have access to their investigation." Pausing long enough to accept the cup of coffee Duncan handed her, JL nodded her thanks and cradled the warm cup in her hands. "Besides," she said firmly, "I owe it to Justin. Come on, let's get going before someone else finds him and calls the real detectives."
Methos nodded and followed her to the elevator. Duncan joined them, closing the wooden gate and pressing the Down button. As they descended, JL looked at Methos. "Why is Duncan at DefCon 3?"
"What's DefCon 3?" Duncan interjected.
JL grinned. "It's Watcher shorthand that we stole from the military. DefCon 5 means the Immortal is basically out of the Game--avoiding other Immortals, living on holy ground, whatever. They only get Watched a couple of times a day, if that. DefCon 4 is the normal state of affairs--the Immortal is active but there aren't any Challenges looming on the horizon. Generally you Watch such an Immortal during the day, but go home to bed when they do. DefCon 3 means you expect your Immortal to get into a fight relatively soon, and you need to keep them under 24-hour surveillance so you don't miss it." Pausing while Duncan lifted the downstairs gate, JL smiled wryly. "That's as high as you can go with the Tribunal's blessing. DefCon 2 is when you're friends with the Immortal and you give him information at his request. You still don't volunteer anything, though, and you certainly don't help him directly. DefCon 1 is total involvement, possibly even to the point of taking action against another Immortal. It's a very dangerous state to try and live with. It takes constant negotiation on both sides, and is, as you recently learned, punishable by death."
Methos grinned. "It also takes a serious capacity for abuse and a tolerance for frantic phone calls at ungodly hours."
JL nodded agreement but Duncan shook his head. "8:30 is not ungodly," he insisted. "It's the best time of the day."
Both Methos and JL snorted derisively, and Duncan sighed. "So why am I at DefCon 3?"
"What? Oh, yeah, that was the original question, wasn't it?" Methos replied "I'm not sure, actually, but I can check."
As they entered the alley, JL grew quiet and began professionally assessing the scene. The rain had washed away any obvious clues, but she steeled herself and carefully replaced Justin's head where she had found it and began taking pictures. Methos studied the scene from a distance, trying to get an idea of where Justin and his assailant had been standing. Duncan checked the rest of the building and the parking lot, looking for anything unusual or missing. When he returned to the alley, Methos was examining Justin's head and measuring the distance between it and the body. Shaking his head, Methos examined Justin's hands, looking for evidence of a struggle.
They were almost finished when a car drove up and parked behind Justin's van. Duncan saw a very tall man with graying black hair emerge from the car and stretch before he knocked at the door of the van. Duncan remembered seeing him in Joe's bar, but they'd never been introduced. JL looked up and whistled, and the man looked at her with surprise.
"You guys remember to call me Adam Pierson," Methos said quietly as the man started towards them. "I'm not ready to come out of my nice, safe closet quite yet."
Walking across the street, the man gave JL a stern look. "Don't you know I'm supposed to be invisible?" he chided her with the ease of long familiarity. "Blend right into the background? Not get whistled at by my assignment."
JL gazed up at his 6' 8" frame and laughed. "Invisible? You? Mistaken for a tree, maybe, but not invisible." Growing serious, JL glanced at the alley. The man followed her gaze, then moved past her and strode over to Justin's body. He examined it silently, careful not to disturb anything. Reaching out, he gently lifted one of Justin's hands, then came back to the others.
"This sucks," he announced. "Justin deserved to watch his twins grow up." Looking at JL, he shook his head. "Have you called Colleen?"
"Not yet. What do you make of the scene?"
The man sighed. "Not much. Cause of death is glaringly obvious, but the reason he went down without a struggle isn't."
"Are you sure he didn't fight?" JL asked.
The man nodded and walked over to the body. "Look at the mud. You can still see the impression of his knees where he knelt right there. Yet there's no sign of anyone else except for these prints, here," he continued, pointing to the ones JL had made when she had found Justin's body. "And these aren't fresh but they're more recent than Justin's." Measuring the prints against his hand, he glanced at JL's ill-fitting sweats and tapped her knee with his forefinger. "I'd say you made them when you found him."
"Impressive," Duncan said quietly from behind JL.
JL and the man both glanced at Duncan, and JL smiled. "I believe that's Duncan's subtle way of requesting an introduction," she commented. At the man's nod, JL continued. "Duncan, this is Colin Jamison, formerly of the Boston Police Department. Colin's the one who made it his personal project to get me off the streets, help me stop taking heroin, and convince me to move in with Joe. All in all, a rather minor player in my life. And, just to prove that he's a glutton for punishment, now he's my Watcher, too."
"I've seen you at Joe's," Duncan confirmed, shaking Colin's hand. "Oh, wait, I'm not supposed to admit that, am I?"
Colin smiled back. "It's OK. I'm used to being seen. That's why I Watch pip-squeak here." Ducking JL's punch, Colin winked at Duncan. "She's the only one who can successfully ignore me trailing after her. Been ignoring me since 1973, in fact."
"What now?" Duncan asked. "I assume calling the police isn't an option."
"Actually, it's our best option," Colin replied. "I know a couple of discreet people on the force. I'll call them and then go over to Colleen's."
"Do you want me to go with you?" JL asked reluctantly.
"No," Colin replied, giving JL's shoulder a squeeze. "I've had to do this before--even had psych courses in it back in Boston. You can stay here and talk to the cops with Adam. You did find the body, after all, and you need to tell them whose knee prints those are."
"Joy. What if they realize we delayed a couple of hours before calling them?" JL glanced back at Justin's body and sighed. "What if they send someone who's not discreet?"
"Relax, JL," Colin reassured her. "I'll check our list of contacts and call it in."
"Colin, wait," JL called. "Why is Mac at DefCon 3?"
Colin glanced neutrally at her and shook his head. "I can't tell you that, JL, and you know it. Ask Pierson to find out for you. He has less to lose."
"And that means what, exactly?" Methos asked him.
"It means I saw the front seat of Bryan's Jaguar after you and Richie were kidnapped by Aurelia's gang last March," Colin said slowly. "And there were enough bullet holes in that car to convince me that a firing squad doesn't have the same effect on you that it would on me. So you're welcome to go to DefCon 2 if you want, but I'm taking the ethical high ground as long as I can." Turning back to JL, Colin smiled encouragingly. "I'll be in touch, JL. If the cops give you any trouble, call me at Colleen's."
"Which translates into whatever's going on, it hasn't been 100% confirmed or he'd have told us," JL said as Colin drove off.
Methos glanced at her. "Are you sure? He didn't seem particularly friendly today."
"You're just miffed because when I told you he knew you were an Immortal, you didn't believe me. You got lucky with Kristen--her Watcher wasn't there and the kill was attributed to Duncan. But if you're going to get back in the Game, people are going to notice."
Methos sighed. "I suppose. Maybe by that time, it won't be such a big deal."
"Maybe," JL agreed. "It would be nice. I liked being a Watcher and prying into other people's affairs. They were always so much more interesting than my own."
"And so much less stressful," Methos agreed with a laugh. "I'll put out some feelers. When's Joe due back?"
"Joe!" JL exclaimed, looking for her watch. "What time is it?"
"Quarter to eleven," Duncan replied.
"His plane lands at 12:14. I'd better go home and change." JL searched her pockets frantically, looking for her keys.
Duncan caught her hand gently. "Your keys are still upstairs with your clothes," he reminded her. "I'll go get him. I'd rather do that than answer the policemen's questions, anyway. Besides, I saw even less than you did. Southwest?"
"US Air," JL replied absently. "Flight 109 from Boston via Pittsburgh."
"Got it. I'll fill him in on the way back. Where will you be?"
"Asleep," Methos said firmly. "Even if I have to sedate her. Tell Joe we'll call him." Raising a hand to forestall JL's complaints, Methos shook his head. "I know you haven't slept for more than six hours any night this week, and you look like hell. We'll talk to the cops and go back to your place. You can't help find Justin's killer if you're too tired to see straight."
JL sighed. "I don't know how you expect me to sleep now. I'll just see his head lying there in the mud."
"I'll stay with you until you fall asleep," Methos promised. "I'll even give you one of my patented massages. And if that doesn't work, I'll pull out one of Darius' tea recipes. I'm sure you have all the necessary components growing in your shower."
"You mean you'll poison me," JL retorted.
"You'll get over it," Methos replied calmly. "But you're going to need your wits about you if you're going to help me solve this thing."
"Help you? You mean you're actually getting involved?" JL asked in surprise.
Methos nodded. "Things are better with the Watchers, but they're not perfect. And if Colin, you, and I start investigating it, maybe the Tribunal will be willing to let us work on it instead of sending some by-the-book bureaucrat. We need to solve this and do it fast before the accusations start flying again."
"Amen to that," Duncan agreed. "Especially considering that he was killed under my window."
"Did you know he was there?" JL asked.
Duncan nodded. "Yes. Well, I was fairly sure, anyway. Yesterday Karen mentioned seeing a dark-haired man get out of a blue van, empty a thermos, and walk around for a bit before getting back in the van. I walked past to see if he was an Immortal and recognized him as one of Joe's poker buddies. I just assumed he was Watching me during Joe's vacation. I didn't ask him directly because I didn't want to get him into trouble." With a small shrug, Duncan turned back to Methos. "Thanks for the help, Methos," he said. "I'll go to the airport. Lock up when you leave, all right?" Giving JL one last sympathetic hug, Duncan got into his T-Bird and drove off.
JL watched him leave with a sigh. Methos put his arms around her, and she nestled into him silently until the police arrived. She moved off with the detectives and told them what she little she knew, only omitting the fact that they'd just investigated the scene themselves. When she got back to Methos, he was trying to find a gentle way of breaking the news to Bryan over the phone. When he was finished, JL took the phone and shared condolences with Bryan herself, promising to meet him at Joe's bar that evening. Closing the phone, she slid it back into Methos' pocket and shivered. "It's cold out here," she commented.
"That couldn't be due to someone's bare feet, now could it?" Methos asked innocently. "Come on inside. You can take a hot shower, thumb your nose at the pneumonia that would probably love to take root in your lungs, and I'll take you home. I take it Bryan's flying up here?"
"Yes. Bryan and Justin became very close after doing four tours together in Vietnam. Justin didn't have any family of his own, and Bryan was more than happy to adopt him the same way he adopted me." JL rested her head on Methos' shoulder. "You know Bryan," she said softly. "He never could resist a stray. Especially one who watched him recover from falling on top of a hand grenade. You weren't there, but Bryan was the best man at Justin's wedding, and he's baby- sat for the twins more than once."
Methos nodded. "He always was good with kids as long as he can walk away when he's had enough. This is a horrible thing to say, but I'm glad he's got something to keep his mind off Jim. I hate it when he mopes. Not only is it unpleasant-- it's dangerous. I guarantee you that Bryan will take at least one head before he and Jim reconcile."
"What about Jim?" JL asked. "I bet he won't take any."
"Read their Chronicles again, little one," Methos replied with a snort. "He'll take at least two. He just won't mope between times. At least, not visibly. Jim mopes inside, and that's not good either. No, it's better for all concerned when those two expend their energy on each other. Unfortunately, nothing anyone can say will help. They'll just wake up one morning, move back in together, and that will be that. Peace will be restored."
JL laughed and gave him a playful shove. "Grates on your nerves, doesn't it?" she taunted. "None of your clever ploys or a propos stories work on them because they know them all."
"Hush. Or I'll make the tea before I try the massage."
JL smiled evilly but stayed silent, unwilling to give up a massage for the rat poison everyone knew that Darius had called tea.
JL surprised herself by managing to get almost six hours of sleep before Justin's death invaded her dreams and woke her up. She untangled herself from the sheets and looked around blearily, not sure where she was or how she'd gotten there. The subconscious hum of another Immortal filled her mind, and she almost called out Richie's name before she remembered what had happened that morning. Getting up, she peeked out her bedroom door to find Methos curled up on the couch with a beer and the newspaper. Strangely pleased to find him still there, she slipped back into the bedroom and took a shower. Pulling on jeans, a T-shirt, and her favorite sweatshirt, she wandered out into the living room still combing her hair to find Methos arranging Chinese take-out on two plates. "Hungry?" he asked her cheerfully, handing her a plate of fried rice, an egg roll, and cashew chicken without waiting for an answer. "I ordered sake, too."
"Isn't that Japanese?" JL asked, watching him take the ceramic sake pitcher out of the microwave and carefully pour two cups.
Methos shrugged. "Technically, but it's good, so why quibble?"
"I'm not," JL replied, sipping the hot rice wine. "Did you talk to Joe?"
"Yes. He went over to Colleen's, but he said he'll open the bar tonight. He also said you don't need to work tonight if you're not up to it."
"I'm up to it," JL replied, nibbling at her chicken, "but I'd rather work on the investigation. We should probably start with Justin's files. Maybe he annoyed someone and this wasn't a random murder."
"Beheading isn't the way most random criminals go, JL," Methos pointed out gently. "Besides, everyone liked Justin."
"True," JL agreed with a sigh. "But it would be so much less complicated than I have a feeling this is going to be. I'm afraid this is going to stir things up between Immortals and Watchers again."
Methos studied her for a minute, then he reached over and took her hand. "This isn't your fault, JL," he said softly. "It wasn't anything you failed to teach him, or anything you taught him incorrectly, that got him killed."
JL looked startled and a little guilty. "Will you quit reading my mind?" she grumbled.
"It's natural, JL. Every teacher feels that way when they lose a student, but you have to let go. Eventually, the student has to sink or swim on his own merits."
JL squeezed his hand then picked up her sake. "But if I hadn't gotten him into the Watchers..."
"He wouldn't have met Colleen, or had twins, or had all the great times you, he, Jim, and Bryan had in San Francisco. And he still might have died young. There are no guarantees, JL. That's the only constant in the universe."
"Richie said you didn't do profound, oh wise and ancient one," JL teased him.
Methos laughed. "Once in a great while, just to keep people off balance. But never on command. That would be too predictable."
"OK," JL replied agreeably. "You do spontaneous profundity. Got it."
"And people wonder why we broke up," Methos groused. "You're constantly picking on me."
JL arched an eyebrow. "As I remember it, we broke up because you were a royal pain about my taking the Lucas Buck assignment."
"That too," Methos acceded. "But you came through it with flying colors, so I will hereby admit that I overestimated Lucas' attention to detail."
JL stared at him quizzically. "Um, was that an apology?"
"Sure," Methos said airily. "More sake?"
Laughing, JL accepted another cup and clinked glasses with him, spilling a little of the hot wine when the phone's sudden ringing startled them both. Setting down her cup, she idly wiped her hand on her jeans and picked up the phone. "Dawson," she said into the receiver.
"Cutler," Bryan's familiar voice responded. "I'm at Joe's."
"We'll be there in an hour," JL promised.
"Be drunk by then," Bryan replied.
"Me, too," JL responded with a chuckle. "Methos bought sake."
"Good. I hate getting drunk alone. Bring Methos along. We'll get him drunk, too."
"Will do. Bye, Bryan."
JL hung up and grinned at Methos. "Bryan wants us to get drunk with him. Shall I get out your grass skirt?"
Methos groaned. "Oh, God. Drunk for Bryan means alcohol-poisoned for anyone else. He's got a capacity that's the envy of every Irishman he's ever drunk with."
"So we'll have Joe water our drinks. Or triple Bryan's. Be brave, my friend. We shall survive."
Shaking his head, Methos just sighed and dug into his dinner. When they'd finished and rinsed the dishes, they drove to Joe's bar. Opening the door, they felt the buzz and spotted Bryan sitting near the stage listening to the band with a half empty bottle of Irish whiskey sitting in front of him. He glanced up as they came in, gestured to the waitress to bring another bottle, and refilled his empty water glass with whiskey.
"Guess he wasn't kidding about getting drunk tonight, was he?" JL observed wryly. "Well, I was going to invite him home tonight anyway, so I'll play designated driver."
Methos looked surprised and vaguely disappointed, but JL was already heading over to the bar to give Joe a welcome- home hug. Shrugging, Methos walked over to Bryan's table and sat down. "Sorry about your friend, Bryan," he said, pouring some whiskey into the shot glass Bryan wasn't using. "It was quite a shock."
Bryan nodded sadly. "He was a good kid. Pulled four tours with me in 'Nam before I talked him into going home. I almost made him a partner in our dance studio when he suddenly got this urge to learn photography from JL." Glancing up to make sure JL was still talking to Joe, Bryan sighed. "I should have done it anyway. He'd be alive now."
"Don't you start blaming yourself, too," Methos implored him, giving Bryan's hand a sympathetic squeeze. "JL already thinks that if she hadn't recruited him into the Watchers, he'd still be alive. I don't want both of you wallowing in self- recrimination."
Bryan raised his eyebrow thoughtfully. "Why is it," he asked finally, "that everything comes back to you? I can't feel guilty because you can't be bothered. Aren't you going to tell me it's not my fault?"
Methos shrugged. "I could, but you already know that. You can't protect them from everything."
"Protect who from what?" JL asked, coming up behind Bryan and wrapping her arms around him. "How are you?"
"Besides being sad, lonely, and sexually deprived, fine. How about yourself?" Moving his chair back from the table, Bryan patted his lap invitingly.
JL looked playfully wary. "Sexually frustrated, you say? Maybe I should sit over there."
Bryan laughed and pulled her onto his lap. "I promise to restrain myself. Now if the old man was going to sit here..."
"Not in your wildest dreams, Cutler," Methos growled. "I'd sooner go back to living with my thirty-second mother in law."
Bryan shuddered dramatically. "That would be a no," he translated for JL. "Even I remember that harridan. She made Machiavelli look like a pussycat. How did you end up dealing with the lack-of-an-heir issue?"
"We moved to Florence. Quietly and in the middle of the night."
JL laughed and stole a sip out of Bryan's glass. "Typical. Why deal with what you can run away from?" Winking at Bryan and completely ignoring Methos' scowl, she settled deeper into Bryan's lap. "Where are you staying tonight, Bry?"
"I'm not sure. Colleen might call me if she wants to talk. Joe said I could have your old room at his place, and that handsome young blond is making eyes at me."
Glancing around, JL shook her head. "Sorry to disappoint you, Romeo, but he's looking at me. Has been ever since Richie left. Some men just won't take a hint." Pulling Bryan's head down, JL kissed him passionately. "This would work better if you stopped giggling," she whispered in his ear as she let him go.
"Sorry," he said with another chuckle. "I'm not used to trying to discourage handsome young men. It just feels wrong, somehow."
"I don't care how it feels," JL replied. "Did it work?"
"No," Methos said with a smile. "He just looks thoughtful now."
JL sighed, then straightened as she felt another Immortal enter the bar. The three of them looked at the door until Duncan walked in and nodded to them. Karen Orsini was in her usual position, draped artfully over Duncan's arm with her perfectly-curled shoulder-length black hair framing her heart-shaped face, her bangs barely clearing her sapphire blue eyes. "I can't believe he's dating that phony," JL muttered. "She's so, so..."
"Drop-dead gorgeous?" Methos supplied helpfully.
"Artificial," JL stated firmly.
Bryan studied her with a puzzled expression. "Who is she?" he finally asked.
"Karen Orsini," JL replied. "A receptionist at the new medical center who moved into town a month or so ago, and who moved in on Duncan about a week after that. Why?"
Bryan shrugged. "She looks familiar, somehow. But at my age, everybody looks familiar."
"Tell me about it," Methos agreed. "I realized about five centuries ago that there are only a hundred unique faces and the rest are just variations."
Duncan seemed headed in their direction, but Karen stopped him and whispered in his ear. He looked surprised, then nodded agreement. Karen disentangled herself gracefully and walked back towards the ladies' room while Duncan continued over to their table. Bryan slid his arm under JL's legs and rose to his feet, effortlessly holding JL with one arm while shaking Duncan's hand with the other.
"Show off," JL grumbled good-naturedly, squirming her way out of his arms and regaining her feet. "Thanks for meeting Joe for me, Mac."
"No problem, JL," Duncan replied, smiling at the interplay. "The police were almost done by the time we got back, so they didn't ask me as many questions as they might have."
"Did they find anything?" Bryan asked.
"Not that they shared with me," Duncan said. "But the police and I don't get along too well."
Bryan nodded sympathetically, then dug his cellular phone out of his pants pocket. "Excuse me," he said. "I suppose I should answer this instead of just enjoying the vibration." Opening the phone, he said "Hello? Oh, hi, James. How's Dublin?" as he moved off into a quiet corner.
"Feeling better?" Duncan asked JL.
"Yeah," JL said with a nod. "Whatever else may be written about Methos, it should be noted that he gives a great backrub. And nobody orders Chinese take-out better."
Methos snorted. "I'd have cooked, but the only thing you had in your refrigerator was beer."
"Had?" Duncan countered. "I'm glad you cleaned someone else out for a change."
"Oh, here we go," Methos said, rolling his eyes piteously. "Why must you always pick on me?"
"Because it's fun," JL replied promptly, making room for Joe as he worked his way over from the bar and settled into a chair.
Bryan rejoined them as well, but he waved away JL's offer of a chair. "Jim says 'hi,'" he told them, "and he sends his condolences. If you want to call him to talk about it, JL, feel free. Collect, of course," he added with a wink as he reached for his coat. "He's staying with Sean in Dublin. Joe probably has the number, because I saw Jim's Watcher trailing his cab on its way to the airport."
Joe winked back at Bryan. "Of course we have it," he agreed. "And no, I won't tell you what they've been up to." Ignoring Bryan's sigh, he turned to Duncan. "Police give you much trouble, Mac?"
"Not really. Karen and I got taken to separate corners where I told my detective that I was with her all night. We must have given them similar stories because they left relatively quickly."
"Where is Karen tonight?" Joe asked.
Duncan shrugged. "She said she had to make a quick call and then use the ladies' room," Duncan replied. "Maybe her call lasted longer than she thought."
"And where are you off to, Bryan?" Methos prompted.
"I called Colleen," he answered, "and she agreed to let me sleep on her couch and baby-sit tomorrow so she has a chance to make some arrangements. Want to join me, JL?"
"Me? Baby-sit? You must have me confused with a patient, compassionate, masochist." Sipping her drink, JL glanced at Methos. "Take him," she suggested.
Methos looked up in surprise. "Me? I think not."
Bryan shook his head. "Be that way, all of you. I'll go it alone. There are only two of them. You guys are cowards." Glancing towards the ladies' room, Bryan looked thoughtful. "Your girlfriend, Mac," he said, putting on his coat. "Is she from San Francisco?"
"No, Los Angeles. Why?"
"She looks familiar," Bryan replied with a shrug. "But I'm in Los Angeles a lot, too. Maybe I saw her there. Well, goodnight, all."
"Night, Bryan," JL said, giving him a kiss and a hug.
As Bryan walked out the door, Karen came out of the ladies' room and joined them. "Hello, everyone," she said. "Is there any news about that poor man in the alley?"
"Justin?" JL said sharply. "No." Walking up to the bar, JL signaled to Mike and ordered them another round of drinks.
"Why doesn't she like me?" Karen asked them, batting her eyes in a way that Methos knew would make JL gag.
"She's a bit standoffish," Methos replied, hiding his amusement with an effort. "It takes time for her to warm up to a new face." Getting up, Methos wandered over to the bar to talk to JL while she waited for the drinks so he could snicker in peace.
"JL isn't the only one," Joe said softly. "I'm sorry, Karen, but they aren't a particularly trusting pair."
Karen smiled gratefully at Joe, and he gazed at her blue eyes until Duncan's voice broke him out of his reverie. "Karen," Duncan asked her, "did you notice the man who was sitting here when you walked in?"
"Not really," Karen replied. "Why? Who is he?"
"Bryan Cutler," Duncan told her. "A friend of ours who also knew Justin. He thought you looked familiar."
"I'm not sure," Karen said thoughtfully. "As I said, I didn't really look at him. I was a waitress while putting myself through school, so I might have served him dinner." Gazing at Duncan through her lashes, she smiled coyly. "I've been told I have a very distinctive face."
"Face number 37," Methos muttered, returning with the drinks. "With a touch of 56 around the eyes."
"What?" Karen asked.
"Nothing," Methos replied. "We were just talking about how people look alike after you've seen enough of them." Setting the tray on the table, Methos looked at Joe. "Did you get the files?"
"Yes," Joe told him. "They're in my office at home. I'll show you."
"That's all right, Joe," JL cut in. "I can find them."
"All right. I suppose you'll get involved regardless." Reaching in his pocket, Joe handed a ring of keys to JL. "They're in the file cabinet, top drawer. Stay out of the rest of it."
Looking at the keys in wonderment, JL blinked innocently at Joe. "Keys," she said sweetly. "How quaint. And how blissfully unnecessary." Tossing them back to Joe, JL winked. "I've been picking your locks since I was sixteen years old, Joe. Why start using keys now?" Turning to Methos, JL looked at him expectantly. "So are you ready?" she asked.
"Hey, wait a minute," Methos protested. "Whose investigation is this, anyway?"
"Mine," JL replied. "I'm taking over because I've got more investigative experience than you do. But I'm willing to share the scut work."
"You are too kind." With a sigh, Methos finished his beer and put on his coat. "Good night, all," he said. "Watson's work is never done. Don't forget your deerstalker, Holmes, my man. It's cold out there."
"Guard your own ears, Watson," JL replied. "And grab that magnifying glass."
Looking around, Methos shrugged and picked up the remains of Bryan's whiskey. Peering at JL through the glass, he checked its magnification properties and nodded to himself. JL laughed and ruffled his hair, then grabbed her coat and headed out with him.
Duncan watched them go with a smile. "Those two should have this wrapped up by breakfast," he observed. "If they can stop bickering long enough."
Joe sighed. "I'm not so sure. Justin didn't have any enemies that I know of. If it was random, well, that's really hard to solve."
"Any other, um, options?" Duncan asked hesitantly, glancing at Karen.
"Not at the moment," Joe replied. "I'll keep you posted." Getting up, Joe paused to give Duncan's shoulder a supportive squeeze. "We'll figure this out, Mac," he promised. "Sooner or later."
"I'm hoping for sooner," Duncan replied, "but the way my luck's been running lately, I'm not going to count on it."
Bryan sat on Colleen's porch, smoking a joint to calm his nerves while the twins slept. It had been a long night--Colleen had finally fallen asleep around dawn and the twins had gotten up a scant two hours later. Bryan had managed to keep them amused until almost ten, but the effort had exhausted him and he was glad to see Colleen emerge from the bedroom and give him the chance to take a shower and fix lunch. Now Colleen was off with her sister talking to funeral directors, and Bryan was praying that the twins would sleep until she got back. To make things even more complicated, Bryan's goddaughter, Celeste, had called out of the blue and told him she wanted to talk to him. He'd been amazed that she was in Seacouver, but she had promised to explain it all when she saw him.
Bryan had almost dozed off himself when a car pulled into the driveway and a dark-haired woman got out. He studied her curiously as she walked up and sat down next to him. Duncan's girlfriend, he thought as she sat down. Karen, as I recall. What could she want with me?
"How are you, Bryan?" she asked.
"Celeste?" he replied, his eyes widening in shock as his tired brain finally recognized her. "What in the world are you doing here? And what happened to your magnificent blonde hair? It used to be long enough for you to sit on."
"It's a long story, Bryan," she said, looking nervously around. "Have you got time? And, more importantly, are we alone?"
Bryan gestured to the baby monitor sitting next to him. "As I told you on the phone, I'm baby-sitting for Colleen's twins. She's off with her sister right now, and I'm not sure when she'll be back. Why all the secrecy?"
Karen got up and paced a little, then crossed her arms and looked at Bryan. "I know after Dad died I told you I was OK, but I guess I over-estimated my ability to cope. I, well, I..." Twisting her hands together, she looked about to cry. Bryan eased her down into a chair and knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his own.
"It's all right, sweetheart," he soothed. "I told you I'd be there for you any time you needed me, and I meant it. Your foster-father was my friend for centuries, and I'm your godfather. You can tell me anything, Celeste."
"I know," she said, smiling shyly. "I'm just embarrassed. I really messed up this time." Gazing at Bryan with sad eyes, she sighed. "You know I finished my nursing training, right? Well, I was working a couple of weeks after Dad's death when my supervisor started hassling me. I lost my temper and stormed out. Instead of going home and cooling off, I, well, I went to a bar." Getting back up, she resumed pacing. "I know it was stupid," she admitted, "but I did it. Then I continued my brilliant streak by getting in my Ferrari and hitting a couple of parked cars and mowing down some innocent mailboxes. When the police got there, they found a couple of ounces of marijuana in the car, and they arrested me for possession as well as DUI. I ended up in all kinds of trouble that Daddy's lawyer spent a couple of weeks straightening out, and I ended up losing my job at the hospital."
Bryan glanced guiltily at his joint in the ashtray and got up to wrap his arms around Karen. She was two inches taller than his 5' 9", but she bent down so she could rest her head on his shoulder. "I just needed a change," she told him finally. "A vacation, a chance to regroup. So I decided to have an adventure. You know that Daddy told me I was pre-Immortal on my twentieth birthday. Well, after that, he started teaching me how to use a sword and how to change identities so I could hide my Immortality. We went to the records office and ended up creating Karen Orsini." Pulling back so she could look in Bryan's eyes, Karen smiled hopefully. "I thought if I had to concentrate on being someone else, I could forget about Daddy for a little while. You understand why I did it, don't you?" she implored him.
"Sort of, I guess," Bryan said slowly. "But why Seacouver?"
Karen shrugged. "I always loved the house Dad bought overlooking the Sound. It seemed like the perfect place to re- evaluate my life."
Bryan nodded. "Been there a few times. But why the name change? Celeste Genrette is a beautiful name."
"I thought so too," Karen replied, "but now it's got a police record attached to it, and Karen Orsini doesn't. I had to give up my nursing certification, of course, but I wasn't really happy doing that anyway. The hours were grueling and the work was a lot harder than I thought it would be. So now I'm an administrative assistant at the local medical center. It's kind of boring, but there's lots of potential for advancement."
Bryan studied her for a moment, fighting to suppress a smile. You're amazing, Celeste, he thought to himself. Already changing identities like a pro just because you ran into a little legal trouble. You and JL are going to find out you have a lot more in common than you think. She's on her third name now, but she's a bit older than you are. Aloud, he finally protested, "You should have called me. I could have helped you."
"I was embarrassed. It was so stupid." Straightening her dress and dabbing her eyes with a tissue, Karen smiled weakly. "Besides, I was still kind of mad at you for not avenging Daddy."
"We've been through this, Celeste," Bryan replied firmly. "It was a fair Challenge that Roger instigated. The man who took his head doesn't deserve to die because he defended himself. Those are the Rules of the Game, and I know Roger explained them to you."
"I believe you now, Bryan," Karen said earnestly. "Really. That's what I spent most of my time thinking about while watching the water roll up on the rocks. And, after I got a little distance between me and Daddy's death, I started to see your point. It must be a very hard way to live."
"It has its benefits, too, Celeste," Bryan countered. "Roger loved life a great deal."
"Could you please call me Karen, Bryan?" Karen asked. "I'm afraid if Duncan hears you call me Celeste, he'll want to know why I've lied to him, and I really don't want to get into it all. He'll never respect me if he knows what an idiot I really am. Not to mention that fact that I haven't told him that I know why he keeps a sword under his bed."
"I doubt he'll think you're an idiot, Cel--I mean Karen. And if he finds out from someone else, he's bound to be angry," Bryan pointed out.
Karen nodded. "I know. I guess I thought I'd have my head on straight and leave before the issue came up. I never dreamed I'd see anyone here I knew." Putting her hands on Bryan's shoulders, she looked at him imploringly. "Please don't tell him, Bryan. I can't deal with all of it right now. It's too stressful, and that's just what I'm trying to avoid."
"I'd be a poor godfather, Karen, if I didn't tell you that you're making a mistake," Bryan told her gently. "This kind of lie never works in the long run. Watch any episode of any soap opera and you'll see what I mean. It's almost impossible to hide the fact that Immortality and all its trappings don't surprise you. Did you question his habit of keeping his sword under the bed?"
"A little," Karen admitted. "But he had several pat answers that he obviously expected would work."
"Don't we all," Bryan said with a grin. "Still, you basically lied to him, and made him lie to you in return. That's not going to sit well when he thinks about it later. Please tell him. It's so much easier to keep track of the truth, and it means you and he can share so much more together. If he knows he doesn't have to hide his Immortality from you, he can tell you wonderful stories, share his views on history, and generally impress you even more than he already has. Plus he could continue your sword training. He's supposed to be a good teacher."
"Maybe," Karen said doubtfully. "Your advice always has been right before. I'll have to think about it and figure out the perfect time to tell him. I'm sure it will come someday. Promise you won't do it for me?"
"Well," Bryan agreed hesitantly, "I guess so. It's your life, after all, and you're not really hurting anyone, just denying your chance to have a meaningful relationship. But you'd better really think about telling him. And don't wait for the 'perfect moment.' There's no such thing in a case like this, believe me."
"I'll tell him someday, I swear," Karen replied, hugging him. "I love you, Bryan," she said in his ear.
"I love you, too, Karen," Bryan replied, "even if you're every bit as stubborn as the old coot that raised you. Don't be a stranger, and don't hesitate to call me if you need me."
"I promise." Glancing at the baby monitor that was now relaying the unmistakable sounds of children stirring, Karen smiled and gave Bryan another hug. "Well," she told him, "looks like your break's over. I'll see you around sometime."
"Sure. How'd you like to start repaying my kindness right now? I could use some help."
Karen smiled sweetly. "I'd love to, really, but I have to get back to work. Sorry, Bryan."
"Sure you are," Bryan groused as she headed for her car. "Hey, Karen," he called after her. "What did you tell the police about the night Justin died?"
"Nothing much," she replied. "Why?"
"I was hoping you heard something," Bryan told her. "Was there anything the slightest bit unusual? Even the smallest piece of information might be important."
"Nothing special," she responded, frowning in concentration. "I woke up for about half an hour when Duncan came back to bed because he was cold and I had to register my complaints, but that's all."
"What time was that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Karen replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Around three or four, I guess. He's a restless sleeper sometimes, so I've gotten used to it. Why?"
"No reason," Bryan admitted. "Just grasping at straws. Take care, sweetheart. And call me before you get into an accident next time, OK?"
"Promise. Bye." With a wave, Karen got back into her car and drove off.
With a sigh, Bryan watched her turn the corner before going back into the house to get the twins up from their nap. She's just like her foster-father, he thought ruefully. Too stubborn to ask for help and overzealous enough to consider elaborate plots and charades as a way to 'relax.' I can see why Roger told her she's pre-Immortal--she's taken to it like a bee to honey. I still remember the first time Jim and I had to change our names. It took us weeks to readjust and stop answering to Benedictus and Julius. Now I can change names without batting an eye, and I usually remember to call my friends by whatever name they happen to be going by at the time. Too bad Benedictus isn't as timeless at 'Duncan.' Then I could drift through the centuries with only one name to remember, too.
Steeling himself, Bryan opened the door to the twins' bedroom and prepared for another grueling session playing 'horsy' before Colleen came home and let him flee to the relative peace and quiet of Joe's bar.
Having parked behind JL's Mustang and Methos' rental car, Duncan wasn't surprised to feel the buzz of another Immortal as he walked up to Joe's front door. He expected one of them to answer the door so they could investigate the buzz, but he could see Joe emerging from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "Hi, Mac," he said, opening the door. "You're just in time for lunch."
"I just dropped by to find out why I'm at--what was that?--DefCon 3, JL called it." Sniffing the delicious smells coming from the kitchen, Duncan nodded thoughtfully and took off his coat. "Then again," he said with a grin, "lunch does have a certain appeal."
Joe chuckled. "JL explained the DefCon system to you did she? That girl loves anything even remotely high-tech. Come on in and join me in the kitchen. I need to finish the salad."
Duncan followed Joe into the kitchen, raising an eyebrow when he saw the table was already set for four. "I guess I am getting predictable, aren't I?" he observed. "Unless JL and Methos aren't your only luncheon guests."
"Actually," Joe replied, tossing the salad, "it was Methos who said you'd be here. It's going to cost JL $5, too."
"She bet against me, did she?"
"I bet you'd call first," JL replied from the top of the cellar stairs. "I thought I was the only one who dropped by Joe's unannounced at mealtimes." Glancing back at Methos, JL winked at Duncan. "Besides the World's Greatest Freeloader, here, of course," she continued. "But he doesn't count. He always shows up when there's food."
"Or beer," Methos said agreeably, dropping a stack of photographs on the counter. "And the combination is irresistible. Anyone else want one?"
JL nodded and got the glasses while Joe and Duncan put the lasagna, garlic bread, and salad on the table. After they had had a chance to rave about the cooking, Duncan waved a forkful of lettuce at Methos. "So, why am I at DefCon 3?" he asked. "Or can't you tell me?"
"There was an unconfirmed sighting of Kassim at the Sea-Tac airport," Methos replied. "The Watchers figured if he was here, he was here for you."
"I thought we settled that mess in Paris last year," Duncan muttered.
"You might have," Joe said. "The sighting was unconfirmed, remember. I have a call in to Kassim's Watcher, but he hasn't returned it yet."
"Would Kassim kill Justin?" JL asked.
"And then not come up and Challenge me? No, I don't think so," Duncan replied thoughtfully. "He kidnapped Rachel, but he didn't hurt her. I didn't even have to threaten him unduly to get her back."
"Some people would consider a sword at their throat a rather large threat," Methos said dryly. "Especially when it's as sharp as your katana. Toss me some bread, won't you?"
JL tossed him a piece of garlic bread then politely offered the basket to Duncan with a demure flutter of her eyelashes. He laughed and accepted the basket, selecting a piece of bread and passing it to Joe with a wink at Methos.
"Was there anything in the photos?" Joe asked before JL and Methos could escalate the food fight.
"No," JL replied with a sigh. "Just Justin lying in the mud and some shots he took of Duncan and Karen out on the town. Have you heard from the police?"
"I called while you were downstairs developing the pictures," Joe reported. "Still no leads."
"What was the time of death?" Duncan asked.
"Somewhere between three and five am," Joe replied. "Did you hear anything? Notice any strange shadows? Anything at all?"
Duncan shook his head. "No," he said slowly. "In fact, I slept through Karen's alarm and didn't wake up until I smelled the coffee she made."
"Energetic evening?" Methos inquired with a lascivious smirk.
"None of your business," Duncan informed him primly. "Get your own love life, already."
"Done that," Methos replied easily. "I've found it's much easier to pick on yours, especially considering the vast number of options that gives me." Ignoring Duncan's glower, Methos turned back to JL. "So, Holmes old boy, what's next?"
"I guess we question Karen. Maybe she remembers something she didn't tell the police. We could talk to Colleen, but I'm fairly sure I knew about all of Justin's friends, enemies, and acquaintances. We talked nearly every day since I moved back to Seacouver."
"You don't think it was an Immortal?" Duncan asked.
"If it was," Methos answered, "it was a young one. Justin's neck was hacked--whoever it was took at least four separate strokes to get through it. None of us would have been that sloppy."
"But why would a mortal use a sword?" JL countered. "Maybe we're just supposed to think it's a young Immortal, or a mortal emulating an Immortal."
"Which leaves us back where we started," Methos said with a sigh. "Our only hope is that we can find something in Justin's personal files that wasn't in his Watcher reports. Assuming he kept personal notes, that is."
"He did," JL confirmed, "although they tended to be comments about which shutter speed works best for various light conditions. He was almost as fascinated with cameras as I am." JL paused for a second, then purposefully shook off her memories of teaching photography to Justin. "I'll call Colleen and ask if we can see Justin's files," she promised, "right after lunch. I wonder how Bryan's doing as a baby-sitter?"
"One step away from a nervous breakdown, I'd wager," Methos said. "He likes kids, but I don't think he's ever dealt with twin two-year-olds. They were still babies and basically immobile the last time he baby-sat, weren't they?"
"That they were," JL agreed. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall, but he'd probably swat me for laughing too hard."
Duncan shook his head at their teasing and wiped his hands on his napkin before picking up the stack of pictures JL had just developed. Most of them showed the crime scene, but there were half a dozen that Justin had taken of Duncan and Karen at dinner. Duncan studied them curiously, trying to figure out why Justin thought Coquille St. Jacques and Lobster Newburg were critical to the annals of Immortal history. JL noticed his expression and stood up so she could look over his shoulder. "He's playing with the light off Karen's necklace," she explained, holding up two other shots next to the one Duncan was looking at. "See how different patterns catch the light depending on how her body is angled? And the candle on the table adds even more reflections." Studying the pictures, JL sighed. "Man, that's a beautiful piece. It must have cost a fortune."
Duncan shook his head. "The original would, but this is a copy. The edges are too smooth and the patterns too symmetrically cut. It's based on a Greek design that was popular in the second century, AD."
"Early third," Methos corrected. "And it's more Roman than Greek."
"Are you sure?" Duncan asked.
"Like he'd admit it if he wasn't," JL muttered. "If I were you, Mac, I'd ask Bryan for confirmation. He was around then, too."
"He was more into fancy sword belts, armlets, and headbands around then," Methos replied. "Still is, actually. It broke his heart when the headband craze faded out again in the seventies."
JL shrugged. "Broke his heart when they went from those cute little Roman skirts to pants, too, but he managed to recover," she pointed out. "Of course, that might be where his fascination for kilts came from."
Methos chuckled and raised his beer. "Another mystery solved," he acknowledged. "I never could understand why they embraced the Scottish culture so completely after being raised in Italy, but that might just be it. They're suckers for the sight of bare knees and plaid." Getting up, Methos began gathering the dishes. "Why don't you call Colleen while Duncan and I clean up?" he suggested. "And take Joe with you, because he cooked all this."
JL nodded absently and gathered up the pictures. Methos watched her and Joe walk down the hall into the living room, smiling to himself at the way she unconsciously adjusted her stride to match Joe's.
"She seems to have recovered fairly well," Duncan observed as he loaded the dishwasher.
"I'm not so sure," Methos replied. "Do you remember the first time you lost someone you cared about? Not a clansman killed in battle but a true friend who died unexpectedly?"
Duncan winced, thinking about Deborah Campbell reaching frantically for his hand as the ledge crumbled under her feet. It had been a very long time before he'd been able to sleep without seeing her broken body lying at the base of the cliff. "Yes," he said softly. "And it still hurts."
Methos nodded. "Well, Justin is the first true friend JL ever lost. She's not one to make friends easily in the first place, so when she does, they're very special to her." Shaking his head, Methos put the remains of the salad into the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. Offering one to Duncan, he hopped up on Joe's counter and regarded the can thoughtfully. "I think," he said finally, "that she's a lot like Jim in that she holds her emotions inside and puts on this great act that everything's OK- -up until she shatters." Sipping the beer, Methos leaned his head against the cupboard door. "Bryan calls it a symptom of their 'addictive personalities.' JL did heroin. Jim's drug of choice was opium. He spent the better part of a decade lost in some private fog."
"What got him out of it?" Duncan asked. "Bryan?"
"No," Methos replied. "Bryan finally got disgusted and left him languishing in some opium den. When Jim's protector stopped showing up, the proprietor sold him into slavery. He snapped out of it when they branded him."
"That would do it," Duncan agreed with a sympathetic wince. "He's lucky he didn't end up purchased by a sheik looking for another eunuch."
"A fact that I've pointed out to him more than once," Methos said. "He turns a lovely shade of white and settles right back down." Glancing toward the living room, Methos put on his most casual air. "Speaking of what could have been," he said quietly, "what happened between JL and Richie? They seemed rather fond of each other after we got back from Peru."
Duncan nodded. "They were. I'm not sure what happened, exactly, because Richie couldn't explain it. He thought they were just beginning to click. He did admit that he was beginning to feel the tiniest bit crowded trying to keep his schedule in synch with JL's, especially when she started working nights at Joe's bar and he began thinking about racing motorcycles again. He was going to propose a couple of minor changes when she walked in and announced she'd rented her own apartment across town. He tried to talk her out of it, but you know JL. When she makes up her mind, reasonable discourse isn't much use."
Methos rolled his eyes in agreement but refrained from commenting as JL's footsteps sounded in the hall. "I called Colleen," JL said as she walked into the kitchen, frowning at Methos until he reluctantly slid off the counter. "Bryan said she's still out with her sister, but he offered us $100 apiece if we come help with the twins. He thinks we can contain them if all three of us work together."
Methos chuckled and grinned at Duncan. "Coming?" he asked him.
"No, thanks," Duncan replied. "I'm not sure I'd be welcomed. I might remind her of why Justin was in the alley."
"Good point," JL agreed. "You might not want to come to Joe's tonight, either. We're having a private wake for Justin, and there will be a lot of Watchers there."
"Call me if I can do anything, though," Duncan said. "Are you taking up a collection for Colleen?" At JL's nod, Duncan sighed and continued, "I want to contribute. I know we never formally met and I didn't have anything to do with his death, but it would still make me feel better."
"Sure," JL answered. "Thanks. I know Jim and Bryan opened a trust fund for the twins the day they were born, but Colleen will need all the help she can get right now. Tell Joe and he'll take care of it. Shall we go, Watson?"
"We shall, Holmes," Methos agreed. "Although I still think I should get to be Holmes today. I do have considerable seniority on you, after all."
"Holmes is not based on age but on merit," JL informed him primly. "You've got to earn it, Mr. Relic." With a final wink at Duncan, JL dashed for the door before Methos could swat her properly.
Duncan laughed softly as Methos chased her out the front door. He stood for second staring off into space, his fingers drumming nervously on Joe's countertop. I never sleep through Karen's alarm, he thought. Much less her shower and the racket she makes getting coffee. Why was that morning any different? Odd, very odd. Karen says I woke her up getting back into bed around three, but I don't remember that, either. If I'm blacking out again--but no, he decided firmly. If I had killed a man that night, I'd remember it. I'm sure I would.
Forgetting that he meant to talk to Joe about contributing to Colleen's bereavement fund, Duncan just said good-bye to his friend and walked out to his T-Bird. Driving home, he tried to recall every detail of that night before he'd fallen asleep, but nothing unusual suggested itself. He remembered taking Karen out to dinner and a play, then going home for a night cap and a game of chess. She had managed to make him work for the victory, then she'd made him work in other ways that didn't have anything to do with chess pieces. He'd fallen asleep curled up with her just like he had almost every night for the past few weeks. I'd remember killing someone, he insisted to himself. Wouldn't I? Parking at the dojo, Duncan went inside and changed, running through his kata over and over until exhaustion drove out his last lingering doubts.
The next day, Joe attended Justin's funeral with JL and Methos. Bryan sat up front with Colleen, holding her hand as she sat with one twin nestled under each arm and her family close by. Almost a dozen Watchers were in attendance as well, and Joe couldn't help noticing how they occasionally whispered to one another and gave Bryan, and even JL, suspicious glances. Joe had listened to them speculate about Justin's killer at the wake the night before, and he'd had to use all his self-control to keep from smacking them when they started questioning Duncan's innocence. JL had defended Duncan staunchly, trying to convince them that it might not have been an Immortal who killed Justin. Joe had hoped they'd believed her, but the tension in the air today didn't bode well for the future. Luckily, JL and Bryan were both too preoccupied to notice the sideways glances they were getting. Methos seemed uncomfortably aware of them, though, because he was sitting next to JL and she was holding his hand tightly enough to make him wince occasionally. He leaned over to whisper in her ear and stroke her arm with his free hand. Joe sighed at the tense but determined look on Methos' face--he was glad Methos wasn't abandoning JL just because it looked like a Watcher was getting involved with an Immortal, but he could imagine the comments that were going to be made when the Watchers got together after the funeral. They'd already made a couple of guarded ones when JL and Methos had left the wake together, but they had grudgingly accepted Joe's explanation that JL had offered to combine her investigative skills with Adam Pierson's research skills to catch the killer. Even the most traditional among them hadn't been able to fault JL for wanting to find her protégé's killer, even if she wasn't a Watcher anymore. Especially with Colin towering over them telling them they'd better deal with it, or else.
They really would have believed her if they had seen them both poring over Justin's files when I got home at 3 a.m., Joe thought. I don't think they got more than two hours of sleep, then they were at it again right after breakfast until we had to leave for the funeral. Methos was about to start on Duncan's Chronicles when we had to leave, but he seemed more reluctant to read them than I expected. I thought he'd have already read everything we've got on Duncan, seeing as how he's made Mac his latest project.
Joe brought his attention back to the funeral as people began getting up to pay their last respects. He joined the line and was just moving away from the coffin when his cellular began vibrating. Moving away from the crowd, he flipped it open and said, "Hello."
"Mr. Dawson?" an unfamiliar male voice with a very familiar Scottish accent said.
"Speaking," Joe confirmed cautiously.
"My name is Cameron MacLeod," he said. "I'm calling on behalf of the Tribunal. Do you have time to speak to me?"
Joe glanced over to find JL and Methos talking to Bryan and Colleen. "Yes, for a little while," he said. "I'm at Justin Waldron's funeral."
"My condolences," Cameron responded promptly. "I'll make this brief, then. The Tribunal has reviewed your request to keep the investigation of Justin Waldron's death 'in house' as it were, and to allow the Immortal JL Dawson access to Watcher files so she can assist in the investigation with the Watchers Adam Pierson and Colin Jamison. That is an accurate summary of your request, is it not?"
"It is," Joe replied. "And I know it's extremely unusual, but this is an unusual case."
"So it is," Cameron agreed. "It's the first time on record a Watcher has turned out to be a pre-Immortal. There have been rumors of an occasional Immortal infiltrating our ranks, but I prefer to believe that those are just ghost stories."
Joe thanked the gods that picture phones hadn't been invented yet so Cameron couldn't see him blanch and glance nervously at Methos. "Me, too," he finally managed. "What about my request?"
"We have decided to let you proceed under the following conditions," Cameron replied. "First, Adam Pierson and Colin Jamison should be the only people with direct access to Watcher files. If Miss Dawson needs to know any information contained therein, one of them can summarize it for her. Second, I expect a written report faxed to me at the end of each day summarizing your progress--or lack thereof. It doesn't need to be long or brilliantly written, but it does need to be prompt. Finally, I want to be contacted the instant you reach any conclusions. Have you considered what you'll do if an Immortal is guilty?"
"Yes," Joe told him. "Both JL and Justin's friend, Bryan Cutler, have expressed a willingness to handle that situation."
"Bryan Cutler is involved as well?" Cameron asked disapprovingly.
"Not as intimately as JL," Joe reassured him. "But as you can see from Justin's dossier, he and Bryan became friends in Vietnam and have remained close ever since. Bryan has done a great deal to comfort Justin's widow." Joe could almost see Cameron's frown, and he held his breath waiting for the explosion. Cameron let him wait for almost a minute before he finally responded.
"Well," the Scotsman acceded, "what's done is done. I assume Bryan already knows of our existence?"
"Yes," Joe replied, "but he respects our position and hasn't tried to contact or get rid of his own Watcher. His lifestyle didn't change at all after he found out that he was being Watched."
"I appreciate your honest assessment of the situation," Cameron said, putting enough emphasis on the word 'honest' to let Joe know that, if Bryan's name hadn't come up, Cameron would have been greatly displeased. He paused, and Joe heard the rustling of papers. "All right, Joseph. If you agree to our conditions, then it's your show. If you need help, we'll give it to you. But if it looks like you're stalling or not going to be able to solve it on your own, I'll have to get directly involved. I know the Tribunal elected me because I'm a MacLeod and they have some silly notion that I can keep Duncan MacLeod from getting upset about our investigation purely on the basis of our common ancestry, but we both know that's nonsense. My staying out of it will do more to keep my Clansman calm than any amount of name-dropping. However, I hope you realize that I am every bit as uncompromising and stubborn as any MacLeod ever born, so I'd better not hear anything from anyone that leads me to believe that you aren't pursuing this to the fullest. If Duncan is involved, even in the slightest, I expect that to get reported. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Joe replied. "I'll make sure it's run by the book."
"Excellent. If your daily reports are adequate, I won't plan to come out there personally for a couple of weeks. Good luck, Joseph."
"Thanks," Joe said, flipping his phone closed before he whispered, "for pointing out yet again how much trouble I'll be in if they ever find out Pierson isn't the mild mannered Watcher he pretends to be. No Immortal shall have direct access to Watcher files my sweet aunt."
A footstep sounded behind him, and Joe turned to see Methos approaching with a questioning expression. "The Tribunal has elected a liaison to deal with us. It's Cameron MacLeod. Ever heard of him?"
Methos nodded. "He Watched Kanwulf the Viking for the last 14 years of Kanwulf's life, without ever interfering in any way that anyone could prove. Although," Methos added with a sly smile, "there were some wags at European HQ who couldn't resist pointing out that Kanwulf's reign of terror did end very quickly after he started posing as the MacLeod parish priest by day and digging up their ancient grave sites by night."
"You think he set Kanwulf up with Mac?" Joe asked sharply.
"Me? No," Methos admitted. "I think Kanwulf set it up himself to lure Duncan home so Kanwulf could get his ax back. But I was impressed that Cameron could sit in church during the day and listen to that man preach the word of God when he knew the truth. That makes him the first MacLeod I've ever met who could control his temper when his own best interests ran contrary to his sense of honor."
"That isn't very encouraging," Joe said with a sigh. "He wants daily reports, and JL's not supposed to have direct access to the files. He's giving us two weeks before he comes out here himself."
"Marvelous. Well, at least he's enough of a realist to accept that JL is going to investigate this, and that we'll get further if we cooperate." Turning around, Methos watched JL stand at the grave and stare at the coffin as if she could will its occupant back to life. Smiling sadly, he walked over to her and gently drew her away from the grave and back to Joe's truck. "Come on, Princess," Joe heard him say as they approached. "We've got stacks of papers to read before we sleep. Just don't tell anyone you're reading them yourself instead of having them summarized for you."
JL smiled distantly at him and got in the truck without one word of protest at being called 'Princess.' Joe and Methos exchanged worried glances, then Methos got in back with JL and Joe slid in behind the wheel. JL was silent, her head resting on Methos' shoulder and her eyes glassy and reserved. About halfway home she suddenly sat up and addressed Joe. "What do you know about Corey Williamson's death?" she asked.
"Corey Williamson?" Joe repeated. "The Watcher who died in Los Angeles last May? I wasn't there--Justin was."
"I know. I read the entry in Justin's notes, and the one he entered in Duncan's Chronicle. But did he tell you anything else about it? Any other details?"
"Because Corey was beheaded, too," JL explained. "Maybe they're related."
Joe stiffened, staring at her in the rear-view mirror. "You don't really think Duncan murdered Justin, do you?" he demanded.
"Did you think he would murder Corey?" she replied defiantly.
"He didn't. At least, it wasn't confirmed," Joe hedged.
JL shook her head. "Justin interviewed a witness who saw a man fitting Duncan's description going through Corey's pockets and looking at his ID. Why would Mac rifle a dead body he'd just run across? And you did give him credit for the Immortal who was found on the scene. Roger Genrette."
"I gave him probable credit, yes," Joe replied. "Nothing definite, because Justin lost them in traffic outside the nightclub and didn't pick them up again until after the Quickening. It could have been Greg Powers, too, as the entry also says."
"But the witness didn't see Powers, did she?" JL insisted. "I vote we go to the dojo and ask the source."
Joe glanced in the mirror at Methos, but he just shrugged. "Can't hurt," Methos conceded. "You know she won't let it go until she questions him anyway. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation." I hope there is, anyway, Methos continued silently. If you're losing it again, MacLeod, somebody else can take a turn dragging you into that spring. I'm way too old to go through that twice.
Joe just shook his head and drove them to the dojo. Duncan was working out on the punching bag when they arrived, but he took one look at their somber clothes and serious expressions and took them all up to his loft without question. "So," he said when he'd poured drinks and everyone had settled in, "what's the problem?"
"There probably isn't one," Joe said quickly before JL could launch into her interrogation. "Just a mystery we were hoping you could clear up."
"What mystery?" Duncan prompted.
"Why you killed Corey Williamson in LA," JL stated flatly.
"Corey Williamson?" Duncan said in surprise. "Was he a Watcher? He didn't have a tattoo."
"He was allergic to the ink," Methos supplied. "Or terrified of needles, depending on who you believe."
"You knew him?" JL demanded. "Why didn't you say so?"
"I knew of him," Methos corrected mildly. "He was a loner who didn't have any friends in the Watchers anymore. Even his own mentor got sick of his attitude and quit contacting him. But his reports on Roger Genrette were neat, timely, and thorough, so they let him stay." Methos blinked innocently at JL's accusing stare. "Well," he said defensively, "I just happened to stumble over the report and I read it. I knew Roger Genrette too, for that matter. Bryan Cutler introduced us back in the early 1800's or thereabouts." Methos raised his glass meaningfully towards Duncan. "Bryan and Roger were good friends, actually. Bryan called me a couple of months ago looking for the name of the Immortal who killed another one of his friends, and he pestered me until I gave it to him. I assumed he'd do the same thing over Roger Genrette, but he didn't. He might not know Genrette's dead yet, or he might be running the investigation with his own contacts down in LA. I won't tell him that you were involved, but I'd be very careful around Bryan until Jim comes home, just in case he finds out somehow. I'd hate for him to take his frustration out on you, and only Jim can get through to him when he gets vengeful."
"Why would he?" Duncan asked. "Genrette died in a fair Challenge, but it wasn't with me."
"It wasn't?" Joe said in surprise. "But why were you searching Corey's body?"
Duncan sighed. "Well," he replied, "it's complicated. I went to LA to see Greg Powers' new exhibition..."
Los Angeles, seven months previous. Duncan toasted Greg's success and his plans to go back into medicine again, then went back to chatting with the girl he'd met on the dance floor. Greg was likewise occupied when they felt the presence of another Immortal enter the club. Looking up, they saw a tall man with dark brown hair and dark eyes stroll into the room. His smile was properly charming, but his eyes gleamed with a hunter's lust when he saw Greg. Greg started to move toward the dance floor, but the stranger cut him off neatly and whispered in his ear. Duncan watched them, knowing that his plans for the evening had just changed. Greg's look of annoyance when he returned to the table confirmed it, and they both reluctantly released the girls back into the throng.
"Who was he?" Duncan asked as they left the club. "And why you?"
"His name's Genrette," Greg replied. "Roger Genrette. Ever heard of him?" When Duncan shook his head, Greg shrugged. "I met him last week in a bar. We exchanged names, I invited him to my show, then we parted ways."
"Maybe he didn't like your photographs," Duncan said with a grin. "He's doing this to strike a blow for good taste and artistic integrity."
"Very funny," Greg growled. "I hope you're still laughing if he goes right through me and takes offense at your dull Scottish wit."
"Never happen," Duncan reassured him. "I bet I could take him easily." Greg glared at him menacingly, but Duncan just laughed again. "I'll be your second, though," he offered. "Carry your sword and all that."
"I can carry my own sword," Greg retorted. "But you can tag along if you want to see how a real swordsman fights."
"Do you really think he's that good?" Duncan asked innocently. "Oh, you were referring to yourself. Sorry." Dodging Greg's half-hearted punches back to the car, Duncan was still laughing when they reached the Challenge site. He leaned against a tree, content to hide in the shadows so Genrette wouldn't feel double-teamed. The park was deserted, and they were far enough off the path that only the full moon lit the clearing. Genrette didn't even glance in Duncan's direction when he strode onto the scene a few minutes later and drew his sword. Greg's attempts to dissuade Genrette failed quickly, and the two men began circling. Duncan studied them intently, his heart sinking when he realized that Genrette's confidence wasn't a bluff. Greg was driven to his knees and barely managed to recover before Genrette could land a killing blow, but he was staggering badly and Duncan felt himself unconsciously grip the hilt of his katana tightly enough to make his fingers ache. Greg stumbled again, but it was Genrette who fell to his knees this time--staring down in shock at the hilt of Greg's hold-out dagger protruding from his heart. Greg tossed his shaggy black hair in his signature 'hey, what can you do?' gesture, then he neatly disarmed Genrette before lifting his blade for the killing blow. Genrette looked like he was going to plead for mercy, but Greg didn't wait to hear his request before bringing his sword down in a final, flashing arc. The Quickening roared through the trees, breaking branches and shattering distant street lights throughout the park. Greg knelt in the center of the storm, trying to absorb the power while the deep wounds Genrette had inflicted on him began to heal. Duncan was about to go over to him when a man burst from the trees on the other side of the clearing.
Grabbing Genrette's sword, he attacked Greg, shouting, "You've ruined everything, you son of a bitch! You've ruined everything!" He wielded Genrette's blade awkwardly, his swings obviously driven by anger rather than skill.
Duncan assumed he must be Genrette's student, come to watch his mentor in action. Greg should have been able to deal with him easily, but he was still stunned by the Quickening and the loss of blood, and he was having trouble regaining his feet. The man scored a hit on Greg's arm as Duncan leapt into the fray, using his katana to deflect the man's blade away from Greg's head. At Duncan's urging, Greg stumbled off into the darkness toward the car while Duncan blocked his crazed assailant. He intended to simply disarm the man and try to reason with him, but, as the man swung at Duncan's neck, he slipped on the bloody grass and Duncan's instincts took over. The katana flashed out almost of its own accord and Duncan watched the man's headless body topple to the ground next to Genrette's, almost as if someone else had been responsible.
As Duncan's pulse returned to normal and no trace of a Quickening appeared, he realized that his opponent wasn't Genrette's grief-stricken student after all. Examining the body, he discovered that his opponent was at least 60 years old and about 50 pounds overweight. He couldn't imagine why this man had tried to avenge Genrette, but he certainly wasn't Immortal, or even pre-Immortal. Duncan automatically checked the man's wrists, but they were devoid of tattoos, and any pendant he might have been wearing was lost in the trampled grass of the clearing. Duncan looked through his wallet, but all he found was a California driver's license and various credit cards with the name Corey Williamson. He glanced up when he thought he heard a twig snap on a distant bush, quickly replacing the wallet and grabbing Greg's dagger from Genrette's chest before following Greg into the darkness towards his car.
Duncan got up to refill the drinks and give them the chance to assimilate his story. When he sat back down, he sipped his brandy and looked at Joe. "I expected you to talk to me if you had any questions," he said. "But when you didn't, I assumed you'd seen it."
Joe shook his head. "Justin volunteered to follow you to LA that trip," he replied. "He saw Genrette Challenge Greg in the club, then lost you in traffic. He didn't get there until you'd already left the scene."
"Then how did you know I searched Corey's body?" Duncan asked.
"There was another witness," Joe informed him. "Probably the twig-snapper you heard in the bushes. Justin found her crying over Genrette's body."
"Celeste Genrette," JL supplied. "Roger's foster-daughter and Bryan's goddaughter."
"Bryan has a goddaughter?" Duncan and Methos asked almost simultaneously.
JL nodded and got up to raid the bowl of fruit on Duncan's kitchen counter. Methos looked at her beseechingly, and she sighed and snagged him a beer while she was up. Returning to the living room, she put the bowl on the coffee table and selected an apple. Duncan had to suppress a chuckle when he saw her expression--it was almost identical to the one Joe wore when he was contemplating how much he could tell Duncan about Watcher affairs.
"I don't have any first-hand information about Bryan's relationship with Roger Genrette," JL finally said. "They didn't visit him while I was Watching them so I couldn't find a reason to ask them about him. I did re-read all the relevant Chronicle entries last night, though. Bryan met Roger on Manhattan Island in 1730. Jim was away on business, so Bryan was at loose ends. He and Roger first met briefly in a tavern, then Roger happened to be in the neighborhood of Bryan's hotel when it burned to the ground. Roger rescued Bryan, and they became friends. They ran a whole series of land deals all across the New World for the next fifty years or so, until Roger decided to explore Europe. They exchanged occasional letters until 1967, when Roger moved to Los Angeles. Since then they've visited each other a few times. The only time anything more exciting than dinner got reported was in 1971 when Roger and his mortal wife Karlene adopted Celeste as a newborn and invited Jim and Bryan to share the joyous event."
JL bit into her apple and regarded them thoughtfully. "I do have some additional information that's not in the Chronicles," she admitted quietly. "Roger and Karlene named Jim and Bryan as the baby's godparents, and they went to the christening, bought her a silver rattle--the whole rich godparent enchilada. At Celeste's tenth birthday party, Roger told them that his wife had an inoperable brain tumor and didn't have much longer to live. They got extremely drunk and more than a little maudlin, and ended up making a mutual pact with Roger saying that they wouldn't fight each other until the Gathering and that they could always call on each other for support. They also promised to protect and care for Celeste as long as she lives." Shaking her finger sternly at each of them in turn, JL said warningly, "None of this is supposed to be public knowledge," she told them, "so don't go questioning Bryan about it. If Methos didn't even know about their godparent status, then it's something they obviously went to some lengths to keep private. Why, I'm not exactly sure, but Bryan's bound to figure out that I'm the one who ferreted it out and then opened my big yap to you guys."
"Meaning you ferreted through his desk and read his diary," Methos translated.
"It was Jim's diary in his safe, actually, but you have the idea." Taking another bite of her apple, JL continued with a small shrug. "What can I say? I was still in my aggressive stage back then, and they left me alone in the house over the weekend. I planned to file an official Chronicle entry, but, as I was typing in up, I had a vision of how pissed they would be if they ever found out. So I decided I'd wait until they contacted Celeste and I could wheedle the story out of them more honestly, but it never came up."
"I am so glad you're out of the Watchers," Methos observed dryly. "With my luck, they would have assigned you to Methos and I'd have been blown long ago."
"What makes you think they didn't take me back for such a special assignment? Especially when I offered to do it for free?" JL asked with a perfectly straight face. She couldn't hold it very long, though, at the stricken expression on Methos' face. "Relax," she said with a grin, "none of us have sold you out. Yet, anyway."
"So where is Celeste Genrette?" Duncan asked, eager to get back on the subject.
"I talked to our people in LA," Methos replied, "and they aren't sure. We don't keep separate files on relatives unless we have reason to believe they're pre-Immortal or if we're planning on recruiting them. And Celeste isn't the Watcher type. According to the information we do have, she's the typical blonde rich kid--lots of hair, jewelry, and flash. When Roger was alive, she drove a Ferrari, spent money like it was water, and managed to pursue a nursing career without breaking a nail by batting her eyes and looking helpless. Definitely not someone who would do well at observing someone subtly."
"I called in some heavy favors with my old contacts in the Los Angeles police department," JL continued, "and I got them to ask around for me. A month after Roger died, Celeste got into a fight with the nurse manager and quit. According to Roger's accountant, Miss Genrette decided to travel while she re-evaluates her young life. She bought an open-ended ticket to Paris and a Eurail Pass, got a substantial amount of money in traveler's checks, and picked up stakes. She calls in occasionally to make sure everything's running smoothly with Daddy's investments, but the accountant doesn't have a forwarding address for her because she doesn't have a fixed itinerary."
"According to our Paris branch," Methos offered, "Genrette's townhouse is empty. With a six month head start, she could be anywhere by now."
Finishing her apple, JL got up and tossed the core and Methos' empty beer can into the trash. "Besides," she continued with a small shrug, "according to Justin's report, Celeste didn't get a good look at you anyway. She just described a tall, dark-haired man in a long coat. The only reason Justin knew it was you and not Greg was because he knew you were wearing your duster and Greg was wearing his short leather jacket. When Justin talked to Celeste, he was very careful not to give her any information. The police investigation didn't even manage to identify the considerate photographer who comforted Celeste at the scene, much less identify the killer." Smiling reminiscently, JL stood behind Joe and idly rubbed his shoulders. "I can't tell you the number of times Watchers have claimed to be freelance photographers who 'just happened' to be in the area photographing trees in the moonlight, old bridges, abandoned warehouses, or whatever. I'm not sure what they did before cameras, though."
"They carried sketch pads and pencils and claimed to be artists," Methos replied. "At least, that's what the lady I ran into claimed when I cornered her after one of my fights back in the 1300s." Striking a model-like pose, Methos batted his eyes at JL. "In fact," he informed her archly, "she said I had perfect cheekbones and she just couldn't resist sketching them."
"So lying is a time-honored Watcher tradition," JL said with a sweet smile at Methos. "Doesn't surprise me a bit. Shall we return to our paperwork, Watson?"
"You go," Methos said with an exaggerated pout. "I'm staying here where I'm appreciated."
"You can if you want," Duncan replied, "but I'm getting ready to go to the opera with Karen tonight."
With a piteous sigh, Methos trailed after JL and Joe, but the last thing Duncan heard as the elevator began its descent was JL's surprised squeal as Methos launched a retaliatory tickle-strike.
The next evening, Joe arrived at work to find JL behind the bar trading half-hearted insults with Methos and Bryan. Both she and Methos had spent the day at JL's apartment going over Duncan's Chronicles, and they both looked tired and discouraged. Bryan was doing his best to cheer them up, but it was obvious that it wasn't working. Joe walked over and took the seat next to Methos, gratefully accepting the beer JL drew for him. "You look as depressed as we do," Methos commented. "What's up?"
"Kassim's Watcher finally called. The sighting was a false alarm." Joe sipped his beer and glanced at Bryan. "How's Colleen?"
"Better than I expected," Bryan replied. "Her sister got someone to watch the twins and they went out to dinner and a movie."
"You didn't volunteer this time, Bryan?" Joe asked with a grin.
"Nope. Nor did she ask me. I guess I looked too worn out after the last time."
"How long are you staying, Bryan?" JL asked. "And are you free tonight?"
"I'm not sure," he replied thoughtfully. "I promised Colleen I would see that the person who killed Justin met the same fate that he did, but, if we can't identify the killer, that's going to be hard."
"You never learn, do you?" Methos said reprovingly. "Never promise to help anyone. It only gets you into trouble."
"You might have them convinced that you never help anyone, old man," Bryan protested quietly, "but I know better. I've seen you do it more than once."
Methos looked around to make sure no unauthorized ears were listening, then he turned back to Bryan. "Seen me, yes. But never heard me. If I'm inclined to help, I help. I just don't promise to do so first in case I change my mind. And I never make commitments that cover an indefinite period of time or an entire family." Raising his glass significantly, he studied Bryan intently. "Just as the sins of the father shouldn't reflect on the sons, neither should his heroics."
Bryan groaned. "This is about the trust fund we set up for Justin's twins, isn't it?"
"Money isn't the issue, Bryan," Methos insisted, "and you know it. You promised to avenge Justin. How long before you promise to protect his family? Assuming you haven't already, of course. And you can't. Nor more than you can protect JL. Or Joe. Or anyone else for that matter." Laying his hand on Bryan's shoulder, Methos gazed at Bryan until he was sure he was paying attention. "Listen, my friend," he said softly, "you are old, but I am much, much older. The longer you live, the more likely you are to find your promises, however well intentioned, leading you into trouble. It's amazing how many times a vow you make to one person ends up conflicting with an oath you make to someone else when the participants all live for centuries."
Bryan shrugged slightly. "If you stop caring, though, you stop living and start merely existing. And I want more than that out of life."
"So take it," Methos replied. "Just shut up about it before you do. Ask Mac about it if you don't believe me. He's gotten burned more than once, and he's still a baby compared to us." Draining his beer, Methos grinned. "How about taking in a movie ourselves? We can go see that new Jackie Chan picture, First Strike. I hear he ends up using a big stepladder as a weapon, a shield, and a cage during a fight with a bunch of guys wielding bamboo staves."
Bryan laughed. "You are the only man I know who can go from deeply philosophical to Jackie Chan in the space of a breath. But what the hell. I love watching his choreography, and his buns aren't bad either." Draining his drink in turn, Bryan tossed some money on the bar and grabbed his coat. "See you around, kid," he said to JL as they left.
JL sighed and cleared their glasses. "Great," she complained to Joe. "There goes my evening. I was planning to invite Bryan home tonight. We have a lot to catch up on."
"You need your sleep anyway," Joe told her. "I can't stay much longer because I take over Watching Mac from Tammy Coltrain at 7 a.m."
"If Kassim's not in town, why is Duncan still being Watched all night?" JL asked.
"Just a precaution," Joe replied. "I still think a beheading in Duncan's alley has to relate to him somehow, even if we can't see how quite yet. Did Colin turn up anything?"
JL shook her head and sighed. "No one in the neighborhood saw or heard anything unusual. None of Justin's friends remember him being upset or worried about anything other than Colleen's cold. Without Kassim in the picture, we don't have a single useful lead. Right, Colin?" she added as Colin hung up his coat and walked over to the stool next to Joe.
"Right," Colin agreed. "Whatever the lady says." Smiling gallantly at JL, he glanced at Joe out of the corner of his eye and spoke in a stage whisper, "What did I just agree to, Joe?"
"Helping me tend bar tonight," JL said promptly. "Unless you're busy."
"Me? Too busy to help you? Never." Colin walked behind the bar and poured himself a scotch. "Especially when there's alcohol involved."
Joe laughed and decided JL was in good hands. After all, he reminded himself, Colin saw her through her heroin withdrawal, and, no matter how badly she feels about Justin's death, it can't hold a candle to that. And with his wife visiting family back in Boston, Colin's got nowhere to be tonight, either. Pushing back from the bar, Joe waved at them and headed home so he could get some sleep.
He tossed and turned a bit before he finally dozed off, and his dreams were anything but restful. They took him back to the dojo the night Duncan took the Dark Quickening and tried to kill Richie. This time, however, Joe imagined that it was Justin Duncan was fighting with, and Joe's gun refused to fire. Justin's head rolled across the floor and Duncan began laughing cruelly at Joe's helplessness. Duncan was advancing across the dojo floor with his bloody katana pointing directly at Joe's heart when the alarm went off and almost gave Joe heart failure. Fighting to calm his nerves, Joe disentangled himself from the bedclothes and slid into his wheelchair. He felt much better after his shower, but he couldn't shake the memory of Duncan's expressive face twisted by a hatred he couldn't control. Come on, Joseph, he chided himself silently as he dressed. You've been through this a hundred times already. You know damn well that if Duncan we being controlled by the evil he's absorbed, you'd notice. His dark twin was about as subtle as a freight train, and he couldn't hide his anger for more than a few minutes at a time. 'Skippy,' as JL so irreverently dubbed him, is well and truly gone. At least for now, anyway.
Driving to the dojo, Joe concentrated on the audition tape of a new blues band. By the time he parked outside Duncan's, he felt much better and could even enjoy the music. He decided that Duncan would recognize his car wherever he parked it, so he took a spot next to the door. He knew Tammy had a customized Ryder truck, and he soon spotted it parked acrossed the street. Pulling a flashlight out of his glovebox, he flicked the beam on and off three times. When Tammy didn't acknowledge his signal, he sighed and walked over to her truck. He tapped on the back door with his cane, but she didn't respond. He checked the cab, but she wasn't there, either. He looked suspiciously at the alley under Duncan's window, but dawn was more than half an hour away and he couldn't see anything. Walking slowly over to the alley, he found Tammy's body lying almost exactly where Duncan had said they'd found Justin. Above him, a light went on in Duncan's loft, the occupants oblivious to the fact that a bad situation had just gotten worse. Joe trudged back to his car and got his camera, photographing the truck, the alley, and the body of woman that he'd worked with for the last 23 years. He had just finished photographing everything he could think of when he heard someone walk down the outside stairs, get into a car, and drive off. Checking his watch, he was surprised to find that almost an hour had passed since his arrival. The car's engine had been much quieter than the T-Bird's, but he checked Duncan's parking space just in case. As he'd suspected, Duncan's car was still there and Karen's was gone.
Putting his camera back in his car, Joe made sure the lights were still on in Duncan's loft before he climbed the outside staircase and knocked on the door. After a few moments he knocked louder, but he still didn't get a response. Puzzled, he wondered if Duncan had left with Karen, but he knew Mac was always careful to turn out the lights before he left. Giving the door a couple of final loud knocks, Joe was about to give up when he heard a muffled crash and a curse. A minute or so later, the door opened to reveal a tousled version of Duncan that Joe would have sworn was extremely hung over. "Duncan?" he asked in alarm, "Are you all right?"
"I guess," Duncan replied muzzily. "I must be, right? What time is it?"
"Eight o'clock," Joe told him. "Your lights have been on for an hour and Karen just left, so I came up." Moving past Duncan, Joe studied the Immortal's puffy eyes. "You look like you had a very, very long night."
"Not especially, no," Duncan replied tiredly. "But if I look even half as bad as I feel, I can see why you'd think that. Do you smell coffee?"
"No," Joe said. "Shall I make some?"
"Please." Sitting down, Duncan rubbed his eyes. "I haven't felt like this since, since..."
"The morning Justin died?" Joe suggested softly, praying it wasn't true.
"Sort of," Duncan admitted. "Only this is worse. Much worse. Why?"
Joe started the coffee and sat down across from Duncan. "Because," he said slowly, "I came here an hour ago to relieve the Watcher who followed you home last night. Did you see her?"
Duncan shook his head, wincing at the motion. "No. I assumed someone was probably out there, but I specifically didn't look for them. We went to the opera, stopped by your bar and spent about half an hour chatting with JL and Colin, then came home. I didn't even drink that much."
"I hate to say this, Mac," Joe said, "but I really wish you had. In fact, a hangover would be a very good thing right now."
"Why, Joe?" Duncan asked, his concern reflected clearly in his eyes. "Don't tell me it happened again."
Joe nodded sadly. "The Watcher I was supposed to relieve is lying in your alley just about where you told me you found Justin. No sign of a struggle, either. I don't understand it. Tammy's been a field agent for almost 40 years. She's one of the best we have. Had," he corrected himself quietly.
"I'm sorry, Joe," Duncan said.
"Me, too, Mac. Me too." With a sigh, Joe got up to get the coffee. Glancing over toward Duncan's bed, he noticed the overturned nightstand that must have accounted for the earlier crash. Walking over to it, he straightened the table and froze, staring at something under Duncan's bed.
Duncan had thanked him for righting the table, but, when Joe didn't move, he got up and came over to see what Joe was staring at. His katana lay half under the bed where he must have kicked it when he got up, its normally pristine blade marred by a small, dark stain near the guard. Joe used the tip of his cane to slide the sword out from under the bed, where the light made it abundantly clear that the stain was dried blood. Duncan bent down to pick it up, but Joe caught his arm. "There may be prints, Mac," he said tightly. "Don't touch it, and I'll call Colin and JL. They know how to dust for them."
"Joe, I didn't..." Duncan began, dropping to his knees next to his sword but not touching it.
"I know, Mac," Joe said softly. "Maybe you just missed that spot yesterday after you sparred with JL. She was complaining that you cut her a couple of times, and that you two got so involved you ran late. Come on, Mac. Let's get some coffee." Drawing Duncan away from the bed the way Methos had led JL away from Justin's grave, Joe eventually got Duncan seated on a kitchen stool. Pouring them each a cup of coffee, Joe called JL and let her cellular ring until she answered it. Filling her in quickly, he was gratified to hear how quickly she managed to wake up and ask rational questions. Hanging up, he returned his attention to Duncan. "She'll be here in half an hour with Colin in tow," he told the Highlander. "And she says not to worry. She thinks it's blood from yesterday's sparring session, too."
Duncan smiled wanly and nodded. "Sure, Joe," he muttered without conviction. "It would be the first time I didn't clean it properly since I got it, but I suppose it could happen."
Joe sighed and refilled their cups. He called his house but the machine picked up before Methos answered. "Adam?" he said, hoping his houseguest was in the kitchen but not wanting to leave his real name on tape just in case. "You there? We need to talk to you." When Methos didn't answer after a few seconds, Joe sighed again. "When you crawl out of bed, Adam, come on over to Duncan's. It's urgent." Hanging up, Joe studied Duncan over the edge of his coffee cup. The Immortal looked slightly less tired, but Joe hadn't seen his look of intense concern since Duncan had tried to win back Richie's trust--and come very close to losing him to Haresh Clay before he could reach his friend. Sipping his coffee, Joe sighed softly. Please, he implored any deities that might be listening, don't let this turn out to be another aspect of Duncan's Dark Quickening. He's been through too much to go through that again. Refilling their coffee cups, Joe couldn't help touching the reassuring weight of the .38 revolver in his pocket. If it is, though, this time I'm not untying you. At least, not until Bryan and Methos are around to take charge of you.
Fortunately for Joe's nerves, JL's arrival interrupted him before he could work himself up too much. Her hair was still damp from the quick shower she'd taken, and her 'professional' look meant she was keeping her emotions in check through sheer force of will. He knew she couldn't have gotten home much before 3 a.m., and the dark circles under her eyes confirmed that she hadn't slept as long as she needed to. Stifling a yawn, she hung her coat on Duncan's coat rack and took a Snickers bar out of the pocket. Nibbling on the chocolate, she studied the katana silently while Joe explained the events of the morning. When he was done, she opened her briefcase and began assembling her fingerprinting supplies while Joe poured her some coffee. At the sound of footsteps on Duncan's stairs, JL got up and opened the door to admit an equally-drowsy and damp-haired Colin.
"Same basic MO," Colin told her, giving her a quick hug as he entered. "Is that coffee?"
"Yes," Joe replied. "Here. I'll make another pot."
Walking into the kitchen, Colin nodded at Duncan and accepted the cup Joe offered him. Studying Duncan over its rim much as Joe had done earlier, Colin looked as if he were about to speak then just shook his head and drank his coffee.
"Say it," Duncan said wearily. "Your police instincts say I'm guilty."
Colin sighed but continued to meet Duncan's gaze without flinching. "That they do," he finally agreed, "but my Watcher instincts disagree. You, however, might benefit if I do treat you as the prime suspect."
"How?" Joe asked sharply.
"Because," Colin said, obviously choosing his words carefully, "if we assume you're innocent then we won't tear this place apart looking for clues. We won't test the blood on your katana to see who it belongs to. And we might miss a clue that could prove your innocence--or someone else's guilt." Pausing to sip more coffee, Colin picked up an apple from Duncan's fruit bowl and polished it against his shirt. "JL and I talked about this last night," he continued. "We think it's a frame. And frames can be very, very hard to pull off. If I do a thorough investigation and take nothing at face value, it might just clear you."
"But it might convict me, too," Duncan said quietly.
"Does that mean you think you might have done it?" Colin asked in surprise.
Getting up and pacing over to the window, Duncan leaned against the sill and stared out at the alley wall. "I don't know anymore," he half-whispered.
"I do," JL said firmly. "You aren't a cold-blooded killer, Mac. Even in your dark phase, you didn't kill Joe when you had the chance. And the motivation." Walking up behind him, JL squeezed his shoulders reassuringly. "If having a bad night was proof of anything, I'd be locked up for life. Come on, let Colin run a full investigation. Show them you've got nothing to hide. Show yourself you've got nothing to hide."
"And if I do?" Duncan asked, still staring out the window as images of Richie kneeling helplessly on the dojo floor while Duncan mocked him swam before his eyes.
"Then we'll deal with it," JL replied, turning Duncan around so she could look him in the eye. "But we've got to know what we're dealing with first, right? Right? At least, that's what you old and wise types are always telling me."
Duncan nodded to himself, then straightened and smiled gratefully at JL. Turning to Colin, he said, "Do whatever you need to do."
"Who made the coffee?" Colin asked promptly.
"What?" Duncan replied in confusion. "Joe. Why?"
"Have your hands been in water this morning?"
"No," Duncan told him. "Why?"
"Good," Colin said, rummaging through JL's briefcase and eventually producing some plastic evidence bags and a thin black case. "Have a seat," he told Duncan, gesturing to the kitchen stool next to him. When Duncan sat down, Colin said, "First off, let me see your hands." Taking Duncan's right hand, Colin studied it intently, then used a small silver probe to remove some scrapings from under Duncan's fingernails. Tapping the material he removed into a bag, he labeled and sealed it before repeating the procedure on Duncan's left hand. When he finished, he regarded the Highlander quizzically. "So, what did you wear to bed last night?"
Duncan arched an eyebrow but Colin continued to look at him steadily. "Nothing," Duncan finally admitted.
"Let's go into your bathroom, then," Colin replied. When Duncan just stared at him, Colin smiled. "I apologize for being so intrusive, but I really need to examine both your body and your robe for blood stains, mud streaks, or anything else that would prove you were at the scene of the crime. Even if you showered after the murder, you might have missed a spot, just like you did with your sword." When Duncan tensed, Colin shook his head. "I'm pretending that I believe you're guilty here, remember? I don't really expect to find anything, but I have to look."
"Get his prints first," JL commented. "Then he can take a shower and wash the ink off before it sets."
"I think we have them already," Joe told Colin.
"Probably. But this is more official, anyway, and it will look great in the silly report I'm supposed to send in." Getting a stamp pad, Colin took an index card out of his pocket and expertly got a set of Duncan's prints. "I assume you found prints on the sword, JL?" he asked belatedly.
"Yes, boss," JL replied, busily transferring the prints from the katana to a stack of index cards using cellophane tape. "Lots." Duncan watched in fascination until Colin rested a hand on his shoulder. "Shall we get the rest of this over with?" he said. "Before Bryan shows up and offers to conduct the exam personally?"
Duncan almost smiled as he grabbed some clean clothes before preceding Colin into the bathroom. Taking off his robe, he tried to stand still while Colin looked him over. "All right," Colin said after a minute or two. "No blood, no mud. Told you I wouldn't find anything." Picking up Duncan's robe, Colin looked that over as well, but the fabric was clean. "Two for two," he said cheerfully. "Now I'll go check your sheets, duster, clothes, and shoes for traces of blood."
"And if you find any?" Duncan couldn't help asking.
"We'll run it through the lab and figure out whose it is," Colin replied. "I have a couple of friends on the force who'll run the samples during lunch if I promise to make it up to them. And Bryan can translate the results into English for us--JL told me that he recently dusted off his lab skills when he volunteered to help an AIDS research team."
Duncan nodded and turned on the water as Colin went back out to join the others. He stood under the hot water for almost an hour, images from his Dark Quickening passing in and out of his mind like thrusts from an opponent's sword. The buzz of an approaching Immortal snapped him out of his memories, and he dried off and dressed hurriedly. Emerging from the bathroom, he saw JL examining the dirty clothes in his hamper while Joe, Colin, and Methos stood around the kitchen island, deep in conversation. They stopped talking when he approached them, but Methos smiled warmly. "Morning, Mac," he said cheerfully. "Feeling better?"
"A little," Duncan confirmed. "I just hope we can end this thing before anyone else gets hurt."
"You know," Methos replied, "we were just discussing that very same thing."
"Did you come to any conclusions?" Duncan asked warily.
"Certainly," Methos said. "Tell him, Joe."
"Me?" Joe exclaimed, startled. "But it's your idea."
"You explain it better," Methos responded uneasily.
"What idea?" Duncan insisted.
Methos and Joe just looked at one another, but Colin just snorted and addressed Duncan. "We think you should go into protective custody," he said. "For your sake as well as ours."
"What kind of protective custody?" Duncan demanded.
"Well," Joe said slowly, "'custody' is probably a poor choice of words..."
"Will someone just explain this idea already?" Duncan snapped, his annoyance making Methos back up half a step. "You," he continued, pointing at Methos. "Talk. Now."
Methos glanced at Joe, then shrugged slightly. "Going on the theory that someone is setting you up, there's no reason to think they'll stop until they get what they want. Which is probably to rattle you so badly that they can take your head. You know--fill you with doubts, make you question your right to go on living--all the games you can play with an honorable man's mind. Especially one who cares about people other than himself." Hearing a soft snicker, Methos glared at JL, but she was busy taking a sample of the dirt on the bottoms of Duncan's boots. Glancing up, she smiled innocently at him, and Methos shook his head. "Anyway," he continued, "if you have an iron-clad alibi, then everyone will be certain you're innocent, and the culprit won't have a chance to strike again."
Duncan nodded thoughtfully. "If I'm certain I'm innocent, then I won't get rattled, just angry. But how can I catch this guy from jail?"
"Not jail," Methos told him. "Just somewhere secure, with cameras covering the entrances and no way to sneak in or out."
Duncan studied Methos' face and frowned. "That sounds a lot like jail to me."
"Remember the estate we used before we went to Peru?" Methos replied. "It's got lots of rooms and Bryan's security system is still in place. Nobody can get in or out without setting off the alarms. Plus it's remote, so there's no chance of some innocent bystander getting killed if your playmate can't find a Watcher hanging around. We can set up our base of operations there--move in Joe's computer so we can access the Watcher database, hook up a fax machine, turn on the satellite dish. Make it as painless as possible."
"And give Bryan something to do with his days now that Jim's gone," JL added. "He needs to burn off nervous energy as much as you do. You guys can spar all day if you want."
"Who's baby-sitting whom?" Duncan asked.
"Depends on who you talk to," JL replied with a grin. "Look, Mac, I know it's a pain, and it's not fair to you. But what happens if your playmate decides to up the stakes and take out an entire bar full of your friends? He must know you awfully well to think he can get to you this way, so he probably knows you carry Bruce Korland's Quickening. And that Korland loved burning down bars."
"Karen's in danger, too," Methos pointed out. "She may be pre-Immortal, but he's beheading people, not just killing them. She won't be able to feel him coming any more than the Watchers could, and she'll be just as dead."
"Karen's pre-Immortal?" Joe asked in surprise.
"Uh, yeah," JL confirmed. "Didn't I mention that?"
"No," Joe replied. "You didn't."
"Sorry. I guess I just took it for granted that your psychic powers would work on Karen, too." Turning back to Duncan, JL smiled encouragingly at him. "It could even be fun. Remember all those great practice sessions we had? All that time working with quarterstaves trying to burn off the results of the cooking competition you and Bryan had going?"
"I'll think about it," Duncan promised. "I'd like to find another way that doesn't involve moving."
"I could put surveillance cameras in your loft," JL replied, "but with only one room, you'd have zero privacy. At least on the estate, the cameras wouldn't need to be in your bedroom. Just on your bedroom door and the corridor leading up to it. Besides, your playmate wouldn't necessarily know that your loft was wired, and he would probably kill at least once more before he realized that the game was over. If we move to the estate it sends a very clear message that might just save someone's life."
"You could stop Watching me," Duncan offered.
"True," Methos replied, "but that won't keep Karen or your neighbors safe. Just because the killer has chosen two Watchers so far doesn't mean he wouldn't be willing to kill any random person he can get his hands on and dump their body in your alley."
Seeing the indecision on Duncan's face, JL smiled encouragingly. "Look, Mac, why don't Colin and I go get the blood analysis run through the lab? That way we'll know if the killer has been in your apartment. Then you can decide whether you want to go to the estate."
"All right," Duncan agreed. "I promise to think about it while you're gone."
"Good," JL said. "Can I take the katana? I called Bryan about doing the work-up, and he said he wants to check the blade itself for traces of DNA."
"I suppose," Duncan reluctantly agreed. "Let me get her scabbard." Putting his sword away carefully, he handed it to JL. "Now, remember," he said warningly. "I've seen you look at her covetously. No sparring with her, and don't let Bryan scratch the ivory."
JL yawned and took the case. "You got it, boss," she said in a credible imitation of Richie's most bored voice. "See ya. Come on, Colin. Let's go play Quincy and run some blood through the lab."
"How about you run and I nap?" Colin asked as they left, the closing door cutting off JL's reply.
"Well, I've got to inventory the bar and explain to Jason why we might need his estate again," Joe told them. Turning to Duncan, he smiled reassuringly. "Coming in tonight?" he asked. "I'm trying out a new band."
"Sure, Joe," Duncan replied. "I'll bring Karen after dinner."
Joe nodded and headed for the elevator, giving Methos a wave good-bye as Duncan lowered the gate. Duncan watched the elevator move out of sight, then looked at Methos. "So, ancient one," he said, "what's your real take on all this?"
Methos shrugged. "That JL will undoubtedly want to watch whoever Watches you tonight unless we move to the estate," he replied, refilling his coffee.
"You know that's not what I meant," he protested.
"It's all I know," Methos said, dropping onto the couch, "I don't have a clue who's doing this." Running a finger through the condensation on his bottle, Methos sighed. "But I'll lay you odds that the blood is from the Watcher who died last night."
"It's too easy, too convenient," Methos replied. "You're one of the most meticulous men I know. You'd have either cleaned it thoroughly or not at all."
"It was a small smear. What if I cleaned it in the dark?" Duncan began to pace, but Methos caught his arm as he passed the couch. Gazing down at his friend, Duncan finally gave into his worries and sank down to his knees, resting his forehead on the back of the couch. "What if I did it, Methos?" he whispered. "It's what we're all wondering, isn't it?"
"Then we'll work it out," Methos said firmly. "You can look me right in the eye and tell me that you didn't kill them on purpose, can't you?"
"Yes," Duncan replied. "I'm absolutely certain that I don't consciously remember killing them."
"Then if you're guilty all we need to do is figure out which evil Immortal is taking you over at night and causing havoc. It's actually a really good thing that Bryan's here. He hypnotized JL when she and Alaric were co-existing, so to speak, so he has experience separating one personality from another. If anyone can turn up clues in your subconscious, it's him."
"Hypnosis?" Duncan said, raising his head in alarm. "I'd be helpless if he did find out that I killed Justin. Weren't you complaining about the fact that Bryan vowed to kill Justin's murderer before he had any real facts to work with?"
"Bryan wouldn't kill you that way," Methos said confidently. "He's too honorable and too sure of himself with a sword. You've sparred with him--you know what he can do when he's motivated. And I have a feeling if you feel the least little bit guilty, you don't fight at your best. And that will be all the advantage Bryan will need." Sipping his coffee, Methos smiled thinly. "Besides," he continued, "Bryan's really gotten into psychology these last few centuries. If you didn't do it on purpose, he'll probably be more interested in seeing if he can cure you than ending up with your obviously-warped Quickening."
"That's comforting," Duncan muttered. "I never thought I'd be better off insane."
"You're not insane, Mac," Methos assured him. "Just a bit wobbly right now. It will pass, trust me."
"Did you ever go through a Dark Quickening, Methos?"
Methos gazed into his coffee cup for a long time before he said quietly, "How do you think I learned about the spring? Lucky guess?"
"Did you ever get flashbacks?" Duncan asked.
"No," Methos said with a small shake of his head. "For a while, I kept thinking every nasty comment I made or every intense emotion I had was the prelude to another bout of insanity, so I know where you're coming from. But it always turned out to be my naturally sarcastic nature coming to the fore. Nothing more earth-shattering than that."
"I hope you're right, Methos," Duncan replied, crossing the room get some orange juice.
"Me too," Methos muttered, too softly for Duncan to hear him. "Me too."
After spending the afternoon sparring with Duncan, Methos was happy to settle in with a beer and watch Duncan make dinner. It was almost ready when they felt the buzz and heard a knock on the door, followed by JL's voice as she opened the door. "Hi, guys," she called. "It's just us. What is that? It smells great."
"Something red," Methos replied helpfully.
"Marinara," Bryan said, "garlic bread, and a Caesar salad. With fresh fettucini ready to cook."
"Even you can't smell a Caesar salad," JL retorted.
"Well, no," Bryan admitted. "But it goes with marinara."
"Did Colin get the blood samples analyzed?" Duncan asked nervously.
Bryan glanced at Methos, who nodded almost imperceptibly. Turning to Duncan, Bryan nodded. "Yes," he replied. "The blood was Tammy's."
"There was more on the hem of your duster," JL added, "as if the corner had been dragged through one of the blood spatters. Whoever did it certainly wasn't trying to avoid her blood."
Duncan stared at them. "Then I'm, I'm..."
"Being framed by someone with access, brains, and a very sick sense of humor," JL interrupted. "Plus someone who is either mortal himself or has an extremely competent mortal henchman who could sneak in here and plant the blood without waking you or Karen."
"That's impossible," Duncan protested. "I'm a light sleeper."
JL shook her head. "I'll bet you're very sensitive to feeling a buzz but not to the stirrings of mortals. I used to wake up when Richie went to the bathroom because the intensity of his buzz changed slightly, but I didn't even notice when Colin got up yesterday morning."
"You slept with Colin?" Methos demanded.
JL raised an eyebrow. "And this matters to you how, exactly?" she asked dryly.
"I just, well, I thought..." Methos stammered.
"Not that it's any of your business," JL told him, "but that's how we met. Look, you've been making jealous comments about Colin since I met you, so I'm going to explain our relationship to you. But only once, so pay attention." JL smiled grimly and stared at some private vision over Methos' shoulder. "I was turning tricks near Boston Common one afternoon, and he was looking for some lost waif to save. I couldn't afford to spend time with anyone who wasn't paying me, so he did. Just talking made me nervous, though, because that wasn't what I expected from men in those days. Not to mention the fact that I had quite a bit to hide. So I insisted that we have sex first, figuring he'd be sufficiently repulsed to leave. He decided to humor me and talk afterwards. Ever try to convince someone who's 6'8" that you don't want to listen to them anymore when they're lying with their arms around you? It's like getting out from under a boulder. It's ironic. I was afraid he'd crush me, but he turned out to be one of the gentlest men I've ever met." Shaking herself slightly, JL refocused her attention on Methos. "Anyway, after he decided to help me get away from my pimp, he'd spend whole days with me trying to convince me I'd be better off with a 'nice man.' I can't say I listened all that hard, but it was relatively easy money, so I pretended to."
"Wasn't that illegal?" Duncan asked. "Especially for a police officer. I mean, whatever his motives, he was soliciting a prostitute."
JL shrugged. "He was never very good about following the rules, especially the ones he deemed stupid. And he thought having to arrest a prostitute when there was a chance to save her from herself was stupid. He was glad to leave the force when Joe offered him the option." Turning to face Duncan, JL handed him his katana. "Back on the subject, Mac," she said briskly, "I'm worried about Joe. He won't stop Watching you, and he's already declared his intent to take the night shift indefinitely. So please--for his sake if nothing else--move into Jason's with me, Bryan, and Colin."
"And me," Methos put in.
"Don't discourage him," JL retorted, swatting Methos. "What do you say, Mac? Just for a week or so while we track down a few loose ends. You won't even have to stay there during the daytime if you really get stir-crazy. It seems to be the early morning that attracts our suspect the most."
"Besides," Bryan added, "we can exchange some more recipes. As I recall, we were vying for who could make the best veal cordon bleu when we had to take off for Peru and rescue Methos and Richie."
"All right," Duncan agreed reluctantly. "I don't want anyone else to die on my account." Stirring his marinara sauce, Duncan shook his head. "What am I going to tell Karen?" he wondered aloud. "She's going to be here any minute."
"Tell her you have to go out of town on business," JL suggested. "She's unlikely to become Immortal in the next week or so. And even if she does, Joe can bring her to us."
"What if she's involved in this?" Methos asked suddenly. "I mean, she certainly has access."
"There's no motive," JL replied. "I don't like her all that much, but she doesn't strike me as a cold-blooded killer."
"Why don't you like her?" Bryan asked neutrally, careful not to seem too interested in the answer.
"I'm not sure," JL admitted. "Probably because she's drop-dead gorgeous and I'd kill for a body like that."
Methos snorted. "You'd hate it. Men staring at you wherever you went, whispered comments, vast amounts of money and time spent on makeup--you'd be dressed in old jeans and a ripped sweatshirt after a week."
"Probably," JL agreed with a laugh. "But I still can't wait until she finds out how easy it is to break a nail while you're sword fighting. Not to mention how she'll take to having to wear sensible shoes."
"JL," Bryan scolded gently, "that's as sexist a comment as I've ever heard. You should be nicer to her--after all, you might end up working with the same teacher."
"Duncan?" JL asked. "I can train with him while Karen's at work. Come on, Bryan. Let's hit the bars and have some fun."
"What about the marinara?" Bryan said, sniffing the sauce Duncan was stirring.
"It's for Karen," JL replied firmly. "We'll get dinner at the Double Header. You always said it had the best selection in town. And the food's not bad, either."
"You remember too much," Bryan groused as he went to retrieve his coat.
"Hold on," Duncan said. "Methos and I were talking about hypnotism. I'd really like to get to the bottom of this, and the sooner the better."
Bryan looked surprised, but Methos gave him another tiny nod. "Sure," Bryan replied with a shrug. "Have you ever been hypnotized before?"
"No," Duncan replied, taking the sauce off the stove. "I never needed to."
"You look nervous, and this won't work unless you relax," Bryan pointed out. When he saw Duncan glance at Methos, he grinned. "Got it. JL, Methos, go downstairs awhile, OK? You can argue about Colin."
Methos pouted, but Bryan just pointed to the elevator. "Go," he said firmly. "I wouldn't go under with you in the room, either."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, old friend," Methos retorted, but he wandered into the elevator with JL. As they descended, he looked at her thoughtfully. "Seriously, JL, why Colin?" he finally asked.
"Why not Colin?" JL responded. "I just went through all this. He's a wonderful guy who cares about me more than anyone. He spent years helping me get off heroin."
"He's married, JL," Methos protested.
JL shrugged. "Not happily. Peggy took the kids and went back East ostensibly to visit her family, but she hasn't told him when, or if, she's coming back. She hates the hours he keeps, the friends he's made, and the fact that his world just doesn't revolve around her." When Methos shook his head, JL growled at him. "Don't pull that disproving act with me, pal. You gave up your right to comment on my social life when you broke up with me six years ago."
"Getting involved with Colin would be a mistake," Methos insisted.
JL snorted and drew her scimitar. "Shut up and defend yourself, Methos. You can give me some useful advice for a change--like how to beat Bryan the next time we spar."
Methos drew his sword and grinned. "Advice I've got in plenty. Miracles, now they're harder to come by." Dodging JL's angry thrust, Methos laughed and began circling. They were deep into the match when they heard the elevator and felt someone enter the dojo. Breaking off his attack, Methos glanced at Bryan as he lifted the elevator's gate, reading his student's lack of success clearly in Bryan's face.
"No go?" JL asked.
"Nope. He couldn't relax enough to go under before Karen came home. He did agree to meet us at Joe's tonight, though, and then go on to Jason's estate with us."
"What about Karen?" Methos asked.
"I suggested he bring her, too," Bryan replied. "She could be in as much danger as the Watchers if this guy decides to strike again."
"Joy," JL muttered. "Karen and me in the same house. Good thing it's a large one."
"Do you have a crush on Mac?" Bryan asked her. "Because you're acting very catty."
"I'm not jealous," JL insisted. "I just don't like her. She's spoiled, totally self-absorbed, and is probably only after Mac for his money."
"Whereas you love him for his mind?" Bryan scoffed. "Come on, JL. You promised to try to be more tolerant of other people."
"You guys are just full of useless advice," JL groused. "Can we please go to dinner now? I have to be at work in two hours and Joe complains if I eat all the pretzels."
"All right," Bryan agreed. "But we don't have to go to a gay bar. If I'm going to be sleeping on the estate, there's no point in flaunting what's not available."
"If you're buying, we can go wherever you want," JL said agreeably. "If I'm buying, it's McDonald's."
Bryan laughed and ruffled her hair. "You don't have to resort to threats, JL," he told her. "I'll be happy to buy. We're not dressed for anything too fancy, but we can do better than McDonald's. Wendy's, at the very least." Walking out to his car, Bryan glanced up at Duncan's windows. This isn't going to be easy, Karen, he thought. I want to defend you every time JL starts attacking you, and I can't because I'm not supposed to even know you. But it's too dangerous for you to stay out here alone, so we'll just have to be extra careful. I infiltrated enemy armies for the Glory of Rome, then the Glory of Scotland, then the Glory of the Allies, then whoever had the best cause at the time. This should be a piece of cake. Glancing at JL and Methos already settling back into argument mode in Methos' car, Bryan sighed softly. Of course, I wasn't trying to hide my activities from Methos, but what's an assignment without a little danger thrown in? That's what makes life worth living, after all.
Watching Bryan pull out of the dojo parking lot from the window of the loft, Karen was much less certain of her ability to continue treating Bryan as a stranger. She had walked in the door just in time to see Bryan giving Duncan the same reassuring smile and handclasp that she'd seen him give her father before one of his Challenge fights, and she had barely been able to control her anger before either of them looked at her. She couldn't understand how Bryan could be so friendly with her father's murderer, even if he claimed to understand why he'd done it. But her control reasserted itself quickly and she hugged Duncan and shook Bryan's hand as if meeting him for the first time. If Bryan felt awkward he hadn't shown it, but he had excused himself fairly quickly claiming that he had to rescue that thin Englishman named Adam Pierson from JL's teasing. Karen had murmured the appropriate 'Nice to meet yous' and 'I'll see you arounds' as he left, but she was glad he was gone so she could concentrate on Duncan. All I have to do, she thought as she poured the wine while Duncan dished up the pasta and unwrapped the garlic bread, is get you to confide in me and tell me what they're thinking about these murders. If I get lucky, you'll tell me about your Immortality, too, and I can act all surprised and shocked. I'll bet you won't bother to mention the fact that I'm going to be an Immortal, too, but Daddy told me that years ago. Then we can get serious and I can ask you, subtly of course, how it felt to murder my father. When Duncan finished putting dinner on the table, Karen shook herself slightly and smiled at him. "Thanks for making dinner again, Mac," she said, giving him a quick kiss as she sat down.
"No thanks required, Karen," he replied with a smile. "You know I like to cook for you."
"And a wonderful trait that is, too," she said with a wink. "How was your day?"
Duncan sipped his wine and shook his head, obviously trying to decide what to say. "It was long," he said finally. "Let's eat first and then we can talk about me. How was your day?"
Karen smiled brightly. "Busy. Some kid came in coked to the gills and caused all kinds of havoc." As they ate, Karen filled him in on the details of the Seacouver Medical Center, knowing that pushing Duncan would just make him even quieter. When they were done, Karen rinsed the dishes and joined Duncan on the couch.
Duncan poured them each a brandy and sat with his back against the arm of the couch so she could snuggle up between his legs. When they were settled, he sighed and spoke softly into her hair. "I wish there was a way to keep you out of this, Karen," he said, "but I'm afraid there isn't. There was another murder last night, and you could be in danger."
Karen gasped and put on her best shocked expression. "Last night?" she exclaimed. "Who was killed? And why would they want to kill me?"
"A woman named Tammy," Duncan told her. "She was left in my alley just like Justin was. We still don't have any idea of who the killer is or why he's doing this, but we have to take some precautions."
"What kind of precautions?"
Duncan hugged her close. "Whoever is doing this is also trying to frame me for it. He broke into the loft and left some blood on my katana."
"Your katana?" Karen asked, suppressing a smile. "You mean that sword you insist on keeping next to the bed? How did they..." Karen paused and twisted around so she could look into Duncan's eyes. "Oh, my god," she breathed. "You mean they were in here? Standing over our bed while we slept? Why didn't they kill us?"
"I don't know, Karen," Duncan admitted. "Whoever it is might be trying to get me arrested rather than killed."
"For some people, being locked up for life would be much, much worse than death. Maybe whoever this is thinks I'm one of those people." Duncan took a sip of brandy and stroked her hair. "Or maybe they're trying to convince me I'm going crazy and get my friends to abandon me. I've made some fairly serious enemies in my time."
"In the antique business?" Karen asked. "I didn't realize it was that competitive."
Duncan smiled wryly. "Let's just say I wasn't always an antique dealer," he replied. "And that I'm older than I look."
"Nonsense," Karen scoffed. "I've examined every inch of you several times, Duncan MacLeod, and you are definitely not old. In fact, you don't have a single wrinkle or scar anywhere at all."
"Good Scottish genes," Duncan said uncomfortably. "But that's not important. What we need to do is move to a safer place."
"Where?" Karen asked in surprise.
"My friends have an estate half an hour north of here. It's a beautiful place with lots of rooms, a sauna, a Jacuzzi--even a ballroom. It will be like going to a really fancy resort."
"Which friends?" Karen asked, afraid she already knew the answer.
"JL, Adam Pierson, Bryan, and JL's friend Colin. You remember Colin--we met him at Joe's bar last night."
"Why them? What's really going on here, Mac? I'm not getting the whole story, am I?"
Duncan sighed again. "It's a long story, Karen, and it's very hard to explain. Suffice it to say that JL and Colin are trained investigators, Adam Pierson is a perpetual graduate student who can research any subject you care to name, and Bryan's a security expert. Together we're going to figure out who's doing this, and why."
Karen shuddered and snuggled closer to Duncan. "Isn't that dangerous?" she asked him. "I mean, you could just let the police investigate it. That's what they're for, isn't it?"
Duncan hugged her, then gently lifted her chin with his hand so he could look into her eyes. "Karen," he said earnestly, "do you trust me?"
"Of course," she responded promptly. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't. Why?"
"Because I need you to understand why I can't rely on the police for this. Like you, they have a hard time believing in an antique dealer with the kinds of enemies that I have, and they ask far too many questions."
"What are you hiding, Duncan?" Karen said, pulling away a little. "Are you wanted somewhere? What is there for the police to find?"
Duncan looked into her blue eyes and tried to anticipate what her reaction would be. I've never told anyone I've only known for a few months, he thought, but it might make the difference between life and death this time. And you'll have to know eventually anyway, so I guess it can't hurt to prepare you for it, even if only a little. Richie certainly didn't think it applied to him when I told him about myself, and there's no reason you should either. So you'll still have your chance at a normal life, at least for a little while. Brushing back Karen's hair gently, Duncan kissed her forehead and then extricated himself from the couch. Selecting a dagger, he knelt before her and said simply, "Don't be afraid," before plunging the blade into his heart.
"You told her?" Methos whispered to him that evening at Joe's bar as soon as Karen moved away from his side to go to the ladies' room.
"Yes," Duncan told him. "I thought she deserved to know what was really happening here."
"How'd she take it?" JL asked from behind the bar.
"Better than I expected. It's hard enough to be told about Immortality much less find out you might be a pawn in a very deadly game." Duncan shook his head and drained his scotch. "She doesn't want to move onto the estate, though. She insists that she'll be fine in a hotel until this is over."
"Why? What's she got against living with us?" JL asked with a maniacal leer.
"Cut it out," Methos chided her with a laugh. "I don't blame her for being afraid of you." Turning back to Duncan, he regarded his friend seriously. "Did you agree to that?"
"I can't force her, Methos," Duncan replied, "although I almost wish I could. I told her about the dangers and she agreed that her apartment might be too vulnerable but that a hotel will be safe enough."
JL shrugged. "She may be right. After all, if he were going to take a hostage to get to you, he's had lots of chances. It doesn't fit the profile we're building."
"And what if he changes his profile?" Duncan asked. "I mean, none of us really know what he's going to do when I move to the estate, do we?"
"True," Methos agreed slowly. "But we can guess. This guy must be sure he can't win a direct confrontation, or he'd just step out of the shadows and Challenge you. And getting you angry can't be in his plans, either, or he would have played his cards very differently. No, this guy wants you uncertain, confused, and guilty. Not angry. So if Karen takes some reasonable precautions, she should be fine."
Karen's return interrupted them, and Duncan rose to give her a hug and offer her a choice of stools. She chose the one between Duncan and Methos, which earned her an appreciative sideways glance from Methos and earned Methos a sharp snap from JL's bar rag. Both Methos and Karen jumped when the rag connected with Methos' hand, but JL was already heading down the bar to wait on other customers before Methos could retaliate with more than an indignant glare.
Duncan chuckled and helped himself to the bottle of scotch that JL had left within reach. Refilling his glass, he smiled at Karen. "How are you feeling?" he asked her.
"Still a little overwhelmed, I have to admit," Karen replied, glancing at Methos.
"It's OK," Duncan assured her. "He knows. So does JL, Joe, and Bryan."
"What do we know?" JL asked, returning from the other end of the bar. "Refill, Karen?"
"Yes, please," Karen replied, sliding her wine glass across the bar. "He means you know, well, what he is."
JL nodded. "Hell of a concept, isn't it?" she asked cheerfully. "Made me rethink a few things when I first heard about it."
Karen leaned across the bar slightly and smiled. "Do you ever wonder what it would be like?" she asked wistfully.
"Sure," JL replied easily. "But in this case, wanting is definitely not the same as having. From what I've seen, living forever just gives you more chances to make the kind of enemies that would send James Bond ducking for cover."
"There's got to be more to it than just that," Karen said. "I mean, what about friendships? Can't those last forever, too?"
"Yes," Duncan agreed. "They can. The problem is friends tend to be quiet while enemies get rather flashy."
Karen beamed at him, and JL rolled her eyes.
"So Mac tells us you're not moving to the estate with us," Methos commented before Karen could notice JL's silent sarcasm. "You're going to miss some seriously good food. Duncan and Bryan have a competitive streak when it comes to cooking."
Karen nodded and sipped her wine. "So Duncan told me. But I'm taking some night courses that start day after tomorrow, and I don't think I can handle adding an hour a day to my commute. Right now it's only fifteen minutes. And Duncan said we could still go out--he just couldn't spend the night."
"I can relate to not wanting to get up any earlier than is absolutely necessary," JL agreed. "I'm not much of a morning person myself. What courses are you taking?"
"I'm working on my MBA," Karen replied. "I don't want to be a receptionist all my life."
Methos nodded. "I always loved school, myself. It's graduating I seem to have a problem with."
JL winked at him, then glanced up as Bryan and Joe began another set. "First time I've seen Joe ecstatic about the band not showing up," she observed. "He had Bryan roped into playing with him about two minutes after they were supposed to get here."
"I can see why," Karen said. "They're both very good."
"That they are," Duncan agreed. "Come on, let's get a table near the stage and enjoy it." Picking up their drinks, Duncan followed Karen to a table and settled in.
"Was it something I said?" JL asked Methos when they were out of earshot.
"Probably," he replied, "although I'm not sure what, exactly. Maybe he just wants to savor this time alone."
JL harumphed and poured herself a glass of water. "Did you and Bryan set up the computer at the estate?" she asked casually.
"Yes," Methos said, "and no, you can't have my password. It's for Watchers only. Cameron MacLeod said so."
"Cameron MacLeod. He's the Tribunal liaison elected to make sure this is handled efficiently and with as little interference as possible."
"Like Duncan's gonna take any flak from the Tribunal just because it's a MacLeod giving it to him."
Methos chuckled dryly. "You don't see him here, do you? So I'd say he shares your assessment of the situation."
JL nodded. "About time they used a little sense," she commented. "What's our next step, Sherlock?"
"I thought you were Sherlock," he teased.
"Not since we ran out of viable leads," JL replied with a grin. "I only want to be in charge of the easy cases."
"Figures." Sipping his beer, Methos held up one finger. "Let's run through what we know and see if it gives us an idea of where to go next. First, the killer overcame two people who were relatively fit and had lots of field training without a struggle. How do you do that?"
"Get behind them and knock them unconscious," JL replied. "A bruise wouldn't have had a chance to form before they died."
"OK," Methos replied. "How else?"
"Drugs," JL replied. "You know, we never did run a tox-screen on the bodies. A beheading generally rules out poison as the cause of death."
"True. Do we have blood samples?"
"Of Tammy's blood," JL answered. "Colin took some when he investigated the body, but no one thought to do it with Justin. We might be able to get a sample from Colin's police contacts, if they took any."
"That's OK, at least we have something." Holding up a second finger, Methos continued, "Second, he had access to Duncan's loft to plant the bloody smears on Duncan's katana and his duster. Speaking of which, did Bryan tell you why he discounted both those pieces of evidence so quickly?"
"The nail scrapings Colin took show that there were no traces of blood under Duncan's nails. We took turns getting the katana bloody and wiping it clean as carefully as we could, but we all ended up with faint traces of blood until we washed our hands."
"How does he know Duncan didn't wash his hands?" Methos asked.
JL chuckled. "Because what he did find confirms that Duncan is a hands-on kinda guy in the bedroom, if you get my drift. If he'd washed his hands after he went to bed, then there wouldn't have been any traces of, well, Karen."
Methos glanced at Duncan and couldn't help laughing softly when he imagined how embarrassed the Highlander would be if he'd still been listening. Shaking his head, he returned his attention to JL. "What about gloves?"
"We didn't find any," JL replied, "and Colin organized a Watcher search team that looked everywhere--in the apartment, the dumpster, and the dumpsters down the street. If he'd bothered to hide the gloves carefully enough to keep us from finding them during a surprise search, he'd have made sure he cleaned his blade completely. Colin was right about the benefits of treating Mac as a suspect from the onset. He could look Bryan straight in the eye and swear that Duncan wasn't out of his sight after he agreed to the search."
Methos nodded thoughtfully. "OK. How could he get into the loft?"
"Easy," JL replied. "It's empty a large part of the day, and Mac doesn't have a security system to speak of. Anyone could get in there and plant a timed-release bomb that sprayed a sleeping agent instead of exploding. If they used the right stuff and it went off when Duncan was already asleep, he'd just sleep deeper and not even notice. And people who rise with sun can generally be counted on to be sound asleep by three or four am. Oh, wait, Karen was up and about as usual, wasn't she? An aerosol bomb would have affected her, too. Well, there are other ways to administer drugs. We could ask Mac if there's something he normally eats or drinks at night that Karen doesn't."
Methos shook his head at her. "You're very good at this, JL," he said. "I hope you don't follow Amanda's lead and become a criminal mastermind because we'd have a wicked time catching you."
"Yeah," JL replied dryly, "that's exactly what keeps me on the straight and narrow, too. My concern for how much inconvenience my activities would cause you."
"As long as you have your priorities straight," Methos said amiably, holding up three fingers before JL could warm to the debate. "Third, whoever it is isn't very good with a sword or they'd just Challenge Duncan outright."
"Unless they want him to suffer first," JL replied. "He's made plenty of enemies who didn't think that just killing him was sufficient punishment. Joe told me about some guy named Simon Killian who wanted to lock Duncan in a cell for seventy five years before he killed him. If Amanda hadn't batted her devastating brown eyes at Joe and begged him for help, Duncan might still be there counting ceiling cracks."
"Sounds perfectly charming. So where does that leave us?"
"With number four," JL answered promptly. "He's also got a lot of information about Mac because he knows which buttons to push. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he'd read Mac's Watcher file."
"Don't even think that," Methos said with a shudder. "Besides, a Hunter wouldn't kill other Watchers when he already had access to Duncan's apartment."
"Maybe it's another combination like Horton and Xavier St. Cloud," JL replied. "Horton killed his own people as casually as he killed Immortals."
"If it's an Immortal willing to use the Watchers to get to Mac, why didn't they kill him in his bed last night? The Watcher could have slipped in, stabbed Mac through the heart, and let his Immortal companion come in and finish the job."
JL shrugged. "I guess we're back to the suffering theory. Or maybe..." JL's voice trailed off as she stared at Joe and Bryan playing together as if they'd been on tour for years.
"JL?" Methos prompted.
"What if Duncan's not the main goal, Methos?" she said softly. "What if the perpetrators want the war that Jack Shapiro almost started? What if the whole purpose of this exercise is to make Watchers think they're being stalked by Immortals and they need to defend themselves?"
"Who in god's name would want that?" Methos asked in horror.
"Horton's buddies, for starters. We never were sure we got them all--we didn't even know they'd killed Irena Galati until Jacob told Duncan and Duncan told Joe. Or maybe it's just some Immortal who wants the Watchers to give up and go away, and Duncan happens to be a handy Watcher-magnet."
"So what do we do?"
"Well, they seem to be focusing on the Watchers assigned to Duncan, so we watch Duncan's Watcher. Or better yet, we convince the Watchers to stay home and we pose as Duncan's Watchers ourselves. If we work together we can avoid traps that one person can't."
"Or we can die together and end up dumped in Duncan's alley," Methos pointed out.
JL laughed and held up her half empty water glass. "That's what I love about you, Methos," she said. "A pessimist would see this glass as half empty, but you go the extra mile and see it falling to the floor and breaking into razor-sharp glass shards."
"I don't cut my feet on broken glass very often, now do I?" Methos challenged.
"You're impossible," JL sighed, ruffling his hair. "Think about talking Duncan into going directly to the estate. Or you can join me while I Watch him. But I'm not letting Joe do it, and that's final," she said as she moved down the bar to fill another order.
Methos turned back to the stage and watched Joe and Bryan exchange the triumphant smile of musicians who are perfectly in synch and loving every minute of it. He couldn't imagine Joe ever considering Bryan an enemy, but then, he hadn't expected the Tribunal to put a gun to Joe's head and seriously plan to pull the trigger. That was a pile of glass shards I wish I'd seen forming, he thought sadly. It would have saved a lot of wear and tear on everyone. Jack Shapiro almost destroyed all of us by killing Jacob Galati.
"Well?" JL said, interrupting his thoughts with a patient look that clearly suggested he quit wool-gathering.
"Sure," Methos replied, lifting his glass to her. "My first field assignment. This is truly a historic occasion."
JL laughed and clinked glasses with him. "Stick with me, kid," she said with a wink. "I'll teach you everything you need to know about tailing the elusive Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod."
"Oh, goody," Methos responded without much enthusiasm. "I can see it now. We'll spend the night parked outside Karen's hotel while they make mad, passionate love until dawn."
JL shrugged. "At least we'll have each other to talk to," she commented. They regarded each other silently for a moment, then said simultaneously, "Better bring a book."
Their laughter attracted Duncan's attention, who excused himself from Karen and reclaimed the seat next to Methos. "You two sound happy," he observed. "Good news? Like the name of the killer?"
Methos shook his head. "JL and I just tried to insult each other with the same line at the same time," he replied with a smile. "What are your plans tonight?"
"We're going to enjoy the music then go back to Karen's hotel for a couple of hours, if that's all right with you."
Methos sighed. "Told you," he said to JL. "It's gonna be so boring."
"Not if the killer shows up to see what Duncan's up to," JL replied, but she didn't seem very confident that that would happen.
"You two are going to follow me?" Duncan asked. "Why?"
"So Joe doesn't," JL replied. "He'll trust us to report anything critical that needs to get into your Chronicle. Besides, if there is another Immortal hanging around, we'll feel him coming. Don't worry, Mac," JL added. "I promise not to let him peek through the keyhole."
"That's comforting," Duncan grumbled. "I'll still know you're out there, somewhere. What if I mistake your buzz for the killer's? Or vice versa."
"We'll stay in the parking garage with the T-Bird while you're in Karen's room," Methos told him. "This guy doesn't want to confront you directly, but he might decide to try and tamper with your brakes. Assuming, of course, he suspects anything's going on at all. So, if somebody does come within range of the hotel room, assume it's not us."
"And if Karen can't make you forget that we're in the parking garage dying of boredom, she's not half the woman she thinks she is," JL commented.
"Meow," Methos muttered.
"Beg pardon?" JL asked archly, daring him to repeat it.
Duncan laughed, sparing Methos the decision. "You two in one car all night?" he said. "You'd better leave all your weapons locked in the trunk."
"As long as I'm the only one with the key," JL replied.
"Yeah," Methos retorted. "Like you're the only one who's learned how to pick a lock over the years."
"They've changed a little since Butch and Sundance's time, you know," JL shot back. "Have you broken into anything more recently without Amanda there to help you?"
"Enough, enough," Duncan said laughing. "I'll take Karen back to the estate instead."
"That's all right," Methos assured him. "She doesn't scare me. Much, anyway."
"Besides," JL agreed, "Karen doesn't want to spend the night because it will lengthen her commute, and she shouldn't drive back from the estate alone at night. We're all going to be too tired to escort her. Joe and Bryan have that ensconced look that says they'll be playing until the wee hours, Colin and I got a whole three hours sleep, and Methos claimed he was reading Chronicles all night. No, I'd rather sit outside Karen's hotel and then go to the estate knowing I can stay there."
"We can use the time to go over some more files," Methos added. "Maybe our exhaustion will grant us visions of the killer."
Duncan shook his head and grinned. "All right, all right," he said. "I get the hint. I'll make it an early night. Shall we go?"
"Sure," Methos replied, draining his beer. "You ready?"
JL nodded and signaled to Mike to take over the bar. Waving at Joe, she indicted that she and Methos were going with Duncan and Karen. Joe nodded absently, still involved in his music. Bryan gave them a quick smile, but he needed all his concentration to keep up with Joe's guitar riffs. Smiling fondly at both of them, JL put on her coat and followed Methos out to his car. "Want me to drive?" she offered.
"Sure," Methos agreed, tossing her the keys. "You can describe your incredible techniques for tailing a suspect while I nap."
"This is going to be a long night, isn't it?" JL said with a sigh, starting the engine and following Duncan out of the parking lot. Gliding effortlessly into traffic, she followed Duncan's T-Bird as if she were really following someone who didn't know she was there, keeping two or three cars between them and not rushing through any lights even if Duncan made them and she didn't.
Methos watched her study the traffic intently, taking care not to lose sight of Duncan's car while she waited for the light to change. "Doesn't the fact that you know where he's going make this rather pointless?" he asked.
"Practice, oh lazy one," she replied with a shrug. "I don't get to do this much anymore, so I have to take advantage of my opportunities whenever I can."
"Doesn't the fact the tailee knows we're here invalidate this as a practice session? I mean, he knows you're back here so how can you tell if he's spotted you or not?"
JL sighed and caught up with Duncan before the next light. "You're a pest. Shut up and let me play."
"Whatever you say," Methos replied, reclining his seat and closing his eyes. "Wake me up when we get back to the estate."
Methos studied his surroundings curiously. The sun blazed down from a glorious blue sky, artistically strewn with fluffy white clouds. The tall grass whispered softly to itself as the breeze chased the clouds around, and birds soared on the resulting thermals. Methos smiled as he recognized Benedictus Cornelius' villa in the distance. When he'd taken the boy in as his student he'd only seen his potential as a swordsman, but Methos was perfectly happy to take advantage of Benedictus' financial assets as well. Settling down under an oak tree, Methos basked in the sunshine and congratulated himself on getting both Benedictus and Julius Octavian away from Alaric Sutkin. They'd be a formidable pair of fighters before too much longer, but he was in no hurry to release them into the world--at least, not until the grape harvest was over and he'd gotten his share of the wine. 152 AD was shaping up to be one of his best years yet. Smiling contentedly, Methos closed his eyes. A light, fluttery touch along his ear annoyed him, and he tried to brush the offending insect away. It retreated for a moment, then came right back. Opening half an eye, he tried growling at the butterfly that kept mistaking him for a flower, but it didn't pay any attention. Brushing it away again, he tried to get more comfortable on the uneven ground. The butterfly attacked his ear with a vengeance this time, and he swatted at it so hard that he almost broke his hand against the car's dashboard. Looking around in confusion, Methos tried to match the cramped interior of his rental car with the beautiful Italian meadow he'd been dreaming about, but he couldn't seem to focus on either one until JL's familiar voice cut through the remnants of his dream.
"Did you kill it?" she asked mildly.
Methos sat up and readjusted his seat. "Kill what?" he grumbled.
"Whatever you were yelling at in whatever language that was," JL replied.
Methos shot her a withering glance, then started to stretch. Stopping suddenly, he looked back at JL where she sat casually twirling a feather in her right hand, her eyes gleaming with cruel mirth. Grabbing the feather, Methos shook it at her. "I should have known. You'll get this back after class, young lady, if you behave yourself."
JL chuckled, trying to regain her feather. Methos managed to keep it just out of her reach though, tickling her with his free hand when she tried to grab for it. "All right, all right," she said finally, out of breath from laughing. "Look, Mac's been upstairs for two hours, and I've gotta go. I figured you'd rather be awake and alert than napping if the murderer comes by."
"Two hours?" Methos asked, looking around. "It felt like minutes."
"Best I could do," JL replied. "I had too much water at the bar, and, with a partner, I don't have to try and use a cup. So I'm off to the rest rooms. You want some coffee?"
"Sure," Methos replied. "Extra large."
JL nodded and got out of the car, heading for the elevator into the hotel. Methos watched her go, then rummaged around in his back seat until he found a pad of paper and a pen. Getting out of the car he stretched, wincing as his joints popped and cracked in annoyance at having been forced to sleep in the car's bucket seat. Hopping up on the hood, he put the pad on his knees, chewed his pen top awhile, then started writing. By the time JL returned with the coffee, he had three columns labeled "Innocent," "Probably Innocent," and "Possibly Guilty" drawn on the pad. JL handed him his coffee and took the pad.
"Innocent," she read. "You and Joe? That's it? What about me?"
"You're in the next column," Methos replied. "Probably Innocent."
"Along with Mac and half the Immortals in Mac's Chronicle," she replied. "Why does Joe rate Innocent and I only rate Probably Innocent?"
"Because Joe was home with me the night Tammy was murdered," Methos replied, "so he couldn't have killed her. And he was in Boston the night Justin died, so that makes him innocent."
JL snorted. "You're too trusting. Maybe he only pretended to go to Boston."
"You think?" Methos asked with a smile.
"I think it's as likely as my having killed Justin," she replied. "But the real problem with this list is your Possibly Guilty column. Celeste Genrette? I thought we decided she was in Europe. Cory Raines? This isn't his style. He gets off on being killed by mortals, not killing mortals. Jennifer Hill? Why would she? Richie was the one who killed her husband, not Duncan."
Methos shrugged. "If it was a good list, we wouldn't be sitting in this cold, damp garage watching the T-Bird rust," he said mildly. "You have better suggestions, feel free to write them down."
"I have a feeling we need to go further back," JL said. "Joe and I were talking about this earlier. Mac tended to make a lot of enemies early on that he left standing--people like Gavriel Larca and Simon Killian. They've been popping up these last few years after nursing their grudges for a couple of centuries and raising all kinds of havoc." Sighing, JL tossed the pad back to Methos. "Fortunately, he's gotten better about killing the people he pisses off these days."
"Fortunately," Methos agreed. "So we go further back and find out where every Immortal Mac ever contacted is right now. Shouldn't take more than four or five years."
"I didn't say it would be easy," JL said with a shrug. "Didn't even say it would be fun. But I can't think of anything else to do. Can you?"
"Yeah," Methos replied. "Sleep. For about twelve hours."
"Drink your coffee," JL suggested. "I had them make it extra, extra strong."
Methos sipped it and smiled. "That's better," he acknowledged. "I still can't help feeling that we're missing some obvious piece to this puzzle..." Feeling a buzz, Methos set his coffee on the hood of the car, drew his sword, and ghosted behind a pillar while JL crouched behind the car. The elevator opened and Duncan moved out quickly, his hand on the hilt of his katana. Methos relaxed and stepped out from his hiding place, resheathing his sword as he did so. "Have fun?" he asked Duncan. "You look like a man who successfully forgot all about his poor, weary friends."
"Completely," Duncan agreed with a smile. "You never even entered my mind until I felt your dusty old buzz."
JL chuckled and went back to her coffee. "You didn't miss much," she replied. "He slept almost the whole time. I can't tell you what a relief it was."
"Fine," Methos sniffed. "Be like that. I'm going home. Are you coming, JL, or do you and Mac want to pick on me behind my back?"
"What fun is it if you don't hear it?" JL asked good-naturedly. "No, I started the ride with you and I can finish it. I take it you want to drive?"
"Yeah," Methos said, getting in behind the wheel. "Shall we?"
JL saluted him, then rescued his coffee and pad off the hood. "See you at the estate, Mac," she said with a wave.
Methos accepted his coffee cup and sipped it while Duncan started the T-Bird. Following him out of the garage, Methos glanced at JL. "How tired are you right now?" he asked.
"Actually I think I'm getting a second, or maybe third, wind. Why?"
"Because I want to show you something," he replied. "It's up the road from the estate, and the visibility is reasonably good tonight."
JL shrugged. "Sure," she said. "As long as it isn't too far. What is it?"
"You'll see," Methos replied mysteriously. JL looked at him curiously, but he just laughed. "Patience, JL. Everything in good time."
"God grant me patience and I want it right now!" JL quoted with a smile. "Sure." Settling back in her seat, JL watched the city give way to the mountains. Her coffee helped keep her awake, but she couldn't help yawning occasionally. Turning on the stereo, she found a classic rock station and tried to lose herself in the music and stop thinking about Justin and how every day that passed made it less and less likely that they were going to find his killer before he struck again. An image of Joe lying in the mud came into her mind, but she resolutely banished it. If anyone's going to be this bastard's next target, she vowed silently, it's gonna be me. Not Joe, not Colin, not anybody who can't feel him coming. Next time, he won't find his target quite so easy to subdue. And if it's not an Immortal, well, I'm still tougher to kill than I look.
Methos saw the determination in her face and reached over and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. She smiled at him, silently acknowledging his support. As they passed by Jason's estate, JL glanced up at the house and pulled out her cellular. "Colin?" she said after dialing a number. "Don't panic when we don't come in right after Mac. Adam's got something he wants to show me and we'll be along shortly...What? No, he's doing his inscrutable act. Pretending he doesn't even hear me talking to you....Yes, Sir, Father dearest. Whatever you say. Although it was mostly your fault....Yeah, right. See you then. Good night." Putting her phone away, JL glanced at Methos. "Colin says not to keep me out too late," she told him. "He thinks I didn't get enough rest last night."
Methos raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. JL drank some more coffee and stared out at the darkness. She was almost asleep when Methos pulled off the road and stopped. Forcing her eyes back open, JL looked down at Seacouver spread out below them in a glittering blanket of lights. Methos was right--the visibility was uncharacteristically good, and they could see the whole city nestled on the shore of the Sound. After a few minutes, JL shook herself and looked at Methos. "So now what, Methos? You subtly put your hand on my knee and see how far up my thigh you can get before I protest? We try to kiss without getting impaled by the parking brake?"
Methos laughed. "Careful, JL," he warned. "Someone might mistake you for a romantic. Besides, the hand on the thigh thing only works if the girl's wearing a skirt."
"Ha," JL snorted. "You've never parked with a professional. If I wanted to I could make you a very happy man without ever getting out of the car."
Methos glanced around at the cramped interior and shook his head. "Not without being a contortionist," he said. "This isn't a limo, you know. It doesn't even have a back seat to speak of."
"Who needs a back seat? There's plenty of room up front."
"Right. For some things, maybe, but you couldn't make me very happy. Just moderately satisfied."
"Wanna bet?" JL challenged. "If I can make you very happy right here in the front seat, you have to be my slave tomorrow night. And I do mean all night, too. Full body massage with scented oil, peeled grapes, really expensive wine. The works."
"And if you can't?" Methos inquired. "Can you peel grapes?"
"I won't have to," JL said firmly. "Is it a bet?"
"Who decides if I'm very happy or just moderately satisfied?" he asked suspiciously.
"You do," JL replied. "Although if you claim you're not happy but you still fall asleep in five minutes, I win by default."
Methos shrugged. "What have I got to lose?" he said. "I can peel grapes with the best of them if I'm properly motivated. So what do we do?"
JL reclined the seat and turned around so she was facing the back of the car with both of her knees braced against the passenger door. "First, you slide over here," she replied. "Even I can't work around a steering wheel."
Methos slid over to the passenger seat, and JL straddled him. He kept expecting her to laugh and call it off, but she began unbuttoning his shirt and caressing his chest. He tried to reciprocate, but it was hard to get his arm up past the car door. "Just relax," JL whispered in his ear. "Let me do the work."
Sighing, Methos relaxed into the seat and let her play. He thought about resisting and trying to win the bet, but she knew him too well. Her fingers found all his sensitive spots, and she remembered exactly how hard he liked to be nibbled and when to kiss him. He lifted his hips obediently when she wanted to take his jeans off, the cool air against his naked skin making him even more responsive. He felt her shift as she took her own pants off and he caressed her gently as she kneeled above him. When she finally took him into herself, he arched his back and let himself fall into the rhythm they'd worked out years ago. She'd been an athletic partner when he'd first met her, and the intense sword practice she'd put in since she became an Immortal a year and a half ago had improved her muscle tone even more. Her control had improved as well, and she took him to the edge four times before she finally let him explode within her.
When the world stopped spinning, Methos stroked her back and kissed the top of her head. She was kneeling on the floor between his legs so she could rest her upper body against his chest, but he knew she couldn't be comfortable. "Guess you win," he murmured. "Unless you'll let me try for two out of three."
JL chuckled and kissed him. "No fair changing the bet now," she said. "You owe me a whole pile of peeled grapes."
Methos nodded and closed his eyes. "Tomorrow," he promised. "Tomorrow."
"Right," JL said with a laugh, working her jeans back up. "Tomorrow. I guess I'm driving home, hmm?"
"Please," Methos whispered, stretching before putting his pants back on. Readjusting his seat, he looked at JL. "Why?" he asked finally.
"Why what?" JL responded.
"Why make a bet like this? Why have sex with me after all these years?"
"Why not?" JL inquired. "It was fun, wasn't it? We've been digging through Chronicles, autopsies, blood analyses, and other gruesome things for so long that we both needed at break. It's not like it means anything."
"Doesn't it?" Methos asked softly.
"No," JL replied. "Not to me. You know that. Like Tina Turner says: 'What's Love Got To Do With It?'"
Methos shook his head. "If you say so," he replied softly.
"What do you think it means, Methos? That this is my desperate attempt to win you back?"
"Is it?" Methos asked.
"No," JL said firmly, glancing at Methos. "I don't think you're shallow enough to want a relationship based solely on sex. Until I learned I was pre-Immortal, I couldn't figure out why you wanted to date me back in '86, but I knew it wasn't just for sex. You could have had half the women in that room just by smiling at them."
Methos shook his head. "You overestimate my charm, JL," he replied uneasily. "I'm not Don Juan. And I didn't date you just because you were pre-Immortal."
"Then why? Because I was Watching your students?"
"Because I liked you," Methos insisted. "Because you and I share a cynicism that's lost on most people. Because I'd never met anyone who could go through Jim and Bryan's private diaries and not get caught. And no one ever offered to make love to me on the Head of the Tribunal's desk before."
JL chuckled. "That was fun, wasn't it?" she said fondly. "The look on his face when he walked in and found us picking up his papers with your fly open and my shirt half unbuttoned. You'd have thought we were cursing in front of the pope."
"We're lucky he thought he'd interrupted us before we inaugurated his desk and not after," Methos replied. "He would have thrown us both out of the Watchers on our ears."
"I don't think it was our ears he was really concerned with," JL retorted. "He did file a report with my supervisor. Who, of course, happened to be Joe."
Methos' eyes widened. "Joe never mentioned it to me," he protested.
"He just told me not to get caught again," JL said with a shrug. "I think he was too amused to say much else."
"JL," Methos began, then stopped as JL pulled up to Jason's gate and keyed the remote.
"What?" JL prompted as the gate swung open and she headed up the drive.
"Nothing," Methos replied. "I'll see you at breakfast."
"Make it lunch and you've got a deal," JL responded. "I told Colin where we slept the last time figuring we'd use the same rooms." Parking the car, JL got out and looked up at the house. The porch light was on, but the rest of the mansion was dark. "Unless, of course," she added softly, "you'd like to share mine."
Methos leaned his elbows on the hood of the car and smiled at her. "This starting to mean anything yet?" he asked.
"Just keeping an eye on my grape-peeler," she said with a toss of her head. "If you decide to run away, who's going to give me my full-body massage and buy me expensive wine?"
"What about Colin?"
"Colin can't afford expensive wine," JL said with a grin. Looking at the serious expression on Methos' face, she reached across the car and took his hand. "I wasn't going to tell you this because it's really none of your business," she said, "but the other night when Colin slept in my bed, I slept on the couch. We just talked. About my losing Justin and about him possibly losing Peggy. We haven't had a physical relationship since I got my head on straight, and we're not likely to. We'll always be friends, but the thought of having sex with him reminds me too much when I had to work the streets to keep a heroin needle inserted in my arm. I don't ever want to go back there, much less relive it."
Methos smiled and squeezed her hand. "Good. I'd hate to see your friendship ruined because he blames you for his marriage breaking up."
"He doesn't. So what will it be, Methos? One room or two?"
"One," Methos replied. "That gives us one less bed to make, too."
JL laughed and moved toward the house, sliding her arm around his waist as they went through the door and kissing him most of the way up the stairs to her room. She thought about letting him go for two out of three after all while she brushed her teeth, but he was sound asleep by the time she got back in the room, still mostly dressed and sprawled diagonally across the bed. Smiling, she finished undressing him and got him under the covers with only a minimum of incoherent grumbling on his part, then she curled up with him and fell instantly asleep.
Waking up around 11 a.m., JL stretched and rolled over to kiss Methos, but the other side of the bed was empty. Sitting up, she stared at the other pillow, trying to remember if she really had slept with Methos or if she'd just imagined it. Her clothes were tossed on the floor where she'd left them, but his were gone. The other pillow looked as if it had been slept on, though, and the scent of his cologne clung faintly to the pillowcase. Great, she thought, curling back into a ball under the blankets. He's so impressed by my display of decorum last night that he couldn't get out fast enough. He probably even left money on the dresser. When am I going to learn to stop acting like a whore? It may be too late for me to play hard to get with him, but I could quit mentioning my 'professional' past at least. He offered me lots of chances to tell him I care about him last night, and I laughed every one of them off. Brilliant, JL, absolutely brilliant. The buzz filled her mind and she peeked out from under her blankets. She expected whoever it was to continue down the hall, but he knocked on her door. Before she could answer it, Methos came in with a breakfast tray. Closing the door with his foot, he lifted the tray with a flourish and waited patiently while she arranged herself.
"Breakfast," he announced in his stuffiest English accent as he set down the tray, "is served." Lifting off the silver plate cover, he revealed Eggs Benedict and home fries along with juice and coffee.
"Thank you, Jeeves," she replied with a grin, "but I can't eat all this. There's about eight million calories here."
"Jeeves has to eat, too," he said with a wink. "And if you think he'd pass up a chance to eat with a beautiful naked lady, you're crazy."
JL cocked her head and looked at him thoughtfully. "I don't recall any of those English movies showing the butler dining with the lady of the house in her bed, dressed or not."
"Life isn't like the movies all the time," Methos responded cheerfully. "Besides, I'm hungry, and, technically, I'm not on the slave clock until tonight. You said so."
"All right, all right," JL agreed with a laugh. "You didn't make this did you?"
"No, Mac did. He had to put his lunch plans on hold to do it, but I asked quite sweetly. That man is disgustingly chipper in the morning."
"Did he wonder where we were last night?" JL asked. "We did rag on him for keeping us out so late and then we were later still."
"No," Methos replied, "but he had that knowing smirk he usually reserves for Richie when he drags into the dojo after a night on the town. He must have seen us come in. I vaguely remember feeling his buzz while we were trying to get the door to your room open."
"It would have been much easier if either one of us had actually looked at it rather than just groping for the knob."
"True, my dear, but then we would have had to stop kissing long enough to do so, and that would have been a shame."
JL tried to hide her pleased expression by studying her eggs, but Methos caressed her cheek and eased her head up with a gentle hand under her chin. "When are you going to learn to take a compliment without flinching, little one?" he asked softly. "Occasionally you really do deserve one."
"When you quit calling me 'little one,'" JL grumbled, kissing the palm of his hand.
"OK, Princess," he replied with a wink. "Whatever you want."
JL sighed piteously and dug into her eggs. When they were done, Methos ruffled her hair and picked up the tray. "I've got to go down and start digging further back into Mac's sordid past. We can play with the grapes later." Giving her a kiss, Methos picked up the tray and headed out. Closing her door, he leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to decide what his next move should be. Feeling the buzz, he glanced up to see Bryan walking down the hall looking like a man who had been out all night and hadn't had his coffee yet. Bryan looked at Methos, looked at JL's door, then looked at the breakfast tray Methos was carrying. Shaking his head, he continued on toward the kitchen without commenting.
"Go ahead, say it," Methos said, following him down the hall. "I'm doing exactly what I said I wouldn't do--getting involved with her again."
Bryan shrugged. "You're both consenting adults, Methos. What could I have to say? Besides, if I had this relationship thing down pat, Jim wouldn't be living in Dublin right now."
"But you don't think it will work."
Bryan stopped and studied Methos. "If you're looking for a reason to stop this relationship before it starts, that's what we in the psychology field call 'a really, really bad sign,'" he said finally. "But if you're willing to work at it hard enough, and put up with the fact that the thought of commitment terrifies her and makes her extremely defensive, then who knows how long it will last?" Bryan studied the wall beyond Methos' shoulder for a while, and Methos watched him sift through all his psychology training trying to find just the right words. Methos had had enough experience reading Bryan's expressions that he could tell when his student had found the concept he wanted to express but was still working on the phrasing. He also knew enough to remain silent and let Bryan think, because the few times he'd pushed him for an explanation, he'd wished Bryan had changed the phrasing, too.
"I'm trying to find a euphemism for self-centered," Bryan said finally as he resumed walking toward the kitchen, "but there aren't any good ones. And my advice to you isn't going to be worth much if I'm more concerned with your feelings than the truth. So the truth is, you can be very self-centered at times. You have to be, to survive people constantly trying to kill you. People like Mac, though, they get self-centered when they fight and stay open and friendly when they're relating to non-combatants. They have an easier time trusting people, being patient with them, and seeing things from their point of view." Walking into the kitchen, Bryan stopped talking when he saw Joe and Duncan fixing lunch. He poured himself a cup of coffee and grinned. "Great session last night, Joe," he said. "I haven't had that much fun since that Christmas you spent with us back in 1990. Remember that Gibson you found at that estate sale? I must have spent a month getting that baby back in shape, but it was worth it."
Joe nodded. "I'll bet. Whatever happened to her? You promised you'd play her for me when you got her restored."
"She's around somewhere," Bryan said with a shrug. "I kept meaning to call you, but I wasn't sure what I'd done to JL to make her leave us. She claimed it was a photo assignment that she couldn't turn down, but I knew she was lying about something. Being a coward at heart, I decided not to confront either of you until I had some idea of how mad you were. Had I known she was going off to Watch Lucas Buck, well, that would have been different."
"Yeah," Methos agreed. "You'd have killed Lucas and kept JL."
"Exactly," Bryan said. "She made a great aerobic dance instructor. Had the drill sergeant voice down pat. And she could have made the Olympic fencing team easy. Would have been cheating for me to do it, but I could have had a nice, vicarious life through her until she became Immortal." Glancing at Methos, Bryan snagged a bagel and drifted toward the living room. "Call me when lunch is ready," he told Duncan, "and I'll make dinner."
Duncan nodded and watched Methos trail after Bryan. "I'll bet those two think they're subtle," Duncan commented to Joe loudly enough for Methos to hear him. "Like we're not supposed to know that they are planning to resume some intriguing conversation when they get out of earshot."
Joe sighed. "I've know Methos for over a decade. I'm getting used to not hearing the really interesting parts of his conversations. Hell, I usually have a hard time understanding the parts I do hear."
Glowering at them over his shoulder, Methos shut the kitchen door on his way out, then caught up with Bryan as the other Immortal settled onto a couch. Methos took one of the armchairs, sitting sideways so he could dangle his legs over the arm. "So I'm self-centered, am I?" he said bouncing his heels off the side of the chair.
"Yep," Bryan answered around a mouthful of bagel. Pausing to finish chewing, Bryan smiled. "Cute, but self-centered. But so am I, so don't get your nose too far out of joint. As I said, self-centeredness can be a survival tactic. And it's not the same as selfishness, either. The problem is that when you're dealing with someone like JL, you need lots and lots of patience. She has tremendous problems with relationships because she escaped her father's abuse only to be turned into a prostitute by the guy that picked her up at the bus station. For the first fourteen years of her life, sex was either a punishment or a business transaction, not anything you'd want to do voluntarily. Kind of colors your view of the world, you know?" Sipping his coffee, Bryan gazed at Methos. "I feel weird about this, because I remember counseling JL for hours over her relationship with Adam Pierson long before I knew it was you she was talking about. I kept trying to get her to bring you back to the dance studio so I could meet you, but I can see why you thought that wouldn't be such a great idea."
"What did she say about me back then?"
Bryan shrugged. "Many things. We'd already been acquainted for a year and a half before she met you, so we had a decent relationship going. She knew she could talk to me about anything and I wouldn't judge her or make fun of her. Which was, by the way, a quality she really liked in you as well. Nothing she told you surprised you, much less disgusted you. Problem was, she knew you didn't trust her. She didn't know why, but she knew something wasn't quite right."
"What do you mean? Of course I trusted her," Methos protested. "I slept with her, didn't I?"
Bryan raised an eyebrow. "You wouldn't even admit your Immortality when she signed on to Watch Lucas Buck, and you knew what Lucas would do to her if he felt her presence. If you had told her the truth--both about yourself and about her pre-Immortality--she might have listened to you. I'll bet you had people tracking her whereabouts on a daily basis for the entire time she Watched Buck, but that doesn't make up for the fact that you didn't confide in her when she really needed you to."
Methos dropped his eyes and drank his coffee. "I tried everything else I could think of to get her reassigned, but I settled for convincing Colin to transfer to the LA branch and keep an eye on her personally. He was the only one I trusted to keep her out of trouble, and his cover as an Los Angeles Police Officer gave him the resources to do it with or without her consent. It had been almost two hundred years since I'd even spoken to another Immortal, Bryan, much less confided in a mortal. I couldn't find the words anymore. I wasn't even talking to you and Jim at that point."
"Colin was a reasonable choice," Bryan grudgingly agreed, "if you really were out of options. But you weren't. You left your hole card unplayed because maintaining your anonymity was more important to you than JL's life. Let's not sugar- coat this, Methos. You could have stopped her, and you didn't. The question is, now that you're back in the Game and slowly rebuilding your connections, are you going to continue keeping secrets from her because it's easier? Lies of omission are still lies, however well intentioned. She's spent most of her life living one kind of lie or another--from playing the loving daughter to interested sex partner to Watcher. Liars can spot other liars a mile away, so it's not going to work in the long run. And I have a feeling she'll be one of those Immortals who can nurse a grudge for centuries until the time is right to let it out. She has an amazing amount of patience when it comes to setting traps or scoping out weaknesses. Don't underestimate her, my friend. She could grow up to be another Kalas if someone hurts her badly enough."
"And you think that someone could be me."
"She harbors the suspicion that she loves you, Methos. She knows she has a warped definition of 'love,' but you've gotten inside her defenses, seen the horror that lurks within, and come back. For whatever reason, you're important to her. And that gives you the power to hurt her. To this point, only Joe, Colin, myself, and Jim share that power." The sound of the kitchen door interrupted them, and they felt a buzz soon thereafter. JL wandered into the room and regarded them thoughtfully.
"I don't want to know, do I?" she asked.
"It always has to be about you, doesn't it?" Bryan asked with a wink. "What's up?"
"Lunch," JL replied, "for those of you who don't have work to do and didn't just eat breakfast. I'll be back in a couple of hours. It occurred to me last night that our killer might want to check out Duncan's loft now that it's empty, so I'm going to raid the security system in my apartment and move some of the cameras to Duncan's loft. Then we can tie those cameras into the estate's security system and monitor any activity at the loft from here with the master remote control you set up for me."
"But we'll be too far away to do anything if the culprit does show up," Methos pointed out.
"We don't need to stop the guy, we just need to see him," JL reasoned. "I told Mac I was planting the cameras, so he knows not to take Karen there for an evening romp. The hotel's safer anyway."
Bryan faked a look of disappointed that Duncan knew about the cameras, and JL swatted him reflexively. "Spare me," she told him. "Mac's not your type, and we both know it."
"Considering the current state of my love life," Bryan grumbled, "I could make do. I'd just have to gag him if he got on one of his chivalric, holier-than-thou kicks."
"I have a hunch you'd have to do a bit more than that," Methos replied with a wink. "Handcuffs might be a start."
"I'm out of here," JL announced quickly. "I need to maintain an aura of plausible deniability if Mac comes looking for co-conspirators. Bye." With a wave, she sauntered out the door.
Bryan chuckled as she left, then got up and stretched. "What are you going to do today, Methos?" he asked.
"Buy some good wine, scented massage oil, and grapes," he replied easily, heading for the kitchen. "Right after I read a few of Mac's Chronicles. And you?"
"Mac and I are going to work on disarms. He wants to learn how The Other Methos managed to take so many swords away from their owners so easily."
"Like you know."
"Of course I know," Bryan replied. "He took Jim's sword out of his hands like taking candy from a baby. We both spent a couple of years with him learning how to do that." Opening the kitchen door, Bryan looked back at Methos' stunned face. "Coming?" he asked.
"I can't believe you bought that garbage," Methos finally sputtered, joining them at the kitchen table. "You knew he wasn't me."
Bryan shrugged. "I never said I bought his rhetoric, I just said I learned his disarm techniques. We called him M.E.T.H.O.S. As in short for Misguided Evangelist That Hinders One's Survival. But the man could take a sword away from damn near anybody. If he hadn't read William Culbreath wrong, he'd still be out there leading the young and trusting into the path of an oncoming sword. Accidentally, of course."
"Of course," Joe commented. "You two must have been a great disappointment to him when you returned to your violent ways."
"I'm sure we were. But I couldn't take another one of his sermons without trying to cut his head off. And, even after all the training we did, I still wasn't a hundred percent certain I'd even get close. So why try?"
"Hard to believe he was really that good," Duncan said.
"It's amazing what fanaticism can do for your ability to focus," Bryan replied. "And he was one solidly-entrenched fanatic. We confronted him about the fact that he couldn't be the real Methos because we knew the real Methos, and he just arched an eyebrow and replied, 'Do you now? How nice.' Not much you can say to that."
Methos snorted. "Let's drop this, shall we?" he suggested. "Joe, did you bring the Chronicles I asked for?"
"They're in my car," Joe replied. "How far back are you going to go?"
"All the way to Glenfinnan if that's what it takes," Methos replied. "Somewhere out there is a very angry Immortal with a very large grudge. And I'm going to find him."
"Spoken like a true researcher," Bryan said. "Personally, I'm gonna stab Mac a couple of times and then take in a show."
"We'll see who stabs whom," Duncan replied cheerfully. "I'm not a total novice to disarm techniques, you know. And when they work, I'm the one who ends up with the sword."
"Still wouldn't wear your good clothes," Methos advised. "He likes to stab people. Makes him feel macho."
"I take it you're not practicing with us today, Methos?" Bryan inquired dryly.
"Me? Can't. Like I said, I've gotta dig through the sordid remains of Duncan's past with Joe and Colin. Should be educational."
"Let me know if you find any snippets of stupidity for my scrapbook," Bryan said. "Although you'll have to go some to match Connor and the barmaid fooling around on the bar in public."
"If anyone can do it, I'm sure Mac can," Methos replied, grabbing a beer and wandering out to Joe's car, completely ignoring Duncan's glare.
"Where is Colin?" Bryan asked.
"Running errands," Joe replied. "JL is going to set up her own cameras in Duncan's loft because they're already modified, but she needs more cables and whatnot."
Bryan nodded and gathered up the rest of the dishes. "You might want to keep this security system, Mac," he said. "It's a brilliant piece of engineering."
Duncan grinned. "Which means you designed it, right?"
"Precisely," Bryan agreed with a wink. "Well, me and JL, with a tiny bit of input from Jim. Our basic improvement was to create a handheld master remote that controls the cameras. It has a 3" TV screen--sort of like a security Watchman. You can attach it to your belt and check any of the cameras from anywhere in the house. If you've added sound pickups, you get sound too. Makes a bit more sense in our multi-floor townhouse than in your one-room loft, but it still might be handy to check your front door while you're in the dojo."
"That's all right," Duncan replied. "I'm sure it's a marvelous invention, but I'm perfectly happy opening the door when I want to know who's out there."
Bryan sighed and looked sorrowfully at Joe, who just chuckled. Shrugging, Bryan finished loading the dishwasher, then dried his hands and crooked a finger at Duncan. "Right this way, laddie," he said in his best Scottish accent. "If it be trickery ye be wantin' ta larn, I be the chap ta teach ye."
Joe smiled to himself as he watched them jostle each other as they headed for the ballroom that they'd converted into a practice hall, then he made his way into the dining room. Methos was neatly dividing Duncan's Chronicles into three piles. "OK," he said when Joe came in. "I figure we'll read the Chronicles and make lists of potential enemies. Then I'll get into the database and see who's still around and who isn't."
"Is the modem working?" Joe asked.
"No need," Methos replied. "I have a copy of the CD-ROM we made. That will do for most of these guys."
"I thought you told Mac all copies of that had been destroyed."
"I did, didn't I?" Methos replied innocently. "Oh, well, I can't be expected to remember everything, now can I?"
Joe sighed and settled in to re-read Mac's Chronicles. They were both deeply engrossed when JL and Colin came in.
"Hey, guys," she said. "How's it going?"
"Slowly," Joe replied. "What time is it?"
"Almost six. Colin and I have been working in the control room, and now we can monitor the dojo from here."
"How long have you been back?" Methos asked.
"About an hour and a half. Didn't you hear us come in?" Colin replied.
Methos shook his head and stretched. "Six o'clock? Damn. Forgot the wine, too."
"That's OK," JL told him. "This probably isn't a good night for it anyway. We can do it some other time."
"Do what?" Colin asked her.
"He lost a bet," JL replied casually. "If that's OK with you."
"Sure," Colin said. "Sorry. Didn't mean to pry into your personal business."
"Yes you did," JL told him fondly. "But don't worry. I have the situation under control."
Colin shuddered dramatically and went off to the kitchen to check on dinner. Joe was careful not to look at either of them, but JL could see his shoulders tighten a little. Walking over, she rubbed his back until the knots eased. "I should get to the bar," Joe murmured as she worked.
"No need," JL told him. "I called Mike, and he said he could handle it. But you can go if you want to."
"I'll stay for dinner, at least," Joe replied. "It smells too good to pass up."
As if summoned by discussions of dinner, Bryan appeared and regarded the table thoughtfully. "Guess we eat in the kitchen," he said. "In about 15 minutes if you're hungry."
"Starved," JL assured him. "I never did get lunch."
Methos and Joe nodded agreement, and Bryan vanished back into the kitchen. JL gave Joe's shoulders a final squeeze and went after Bryan to see if she could help with anything.
"Joe..." Methos began.
"Please don't involve me," Joe interrupted him. "I've seen that look in JL's eyes before. If you two want to make bets and share bottles of wine, go ahead. But I'm out of it this time. I'm too old to play middle man."
"I wasn't going to ask you to," Methos protested.
"No," Joe said as he worked his way to his feet. "Not today. But you will. I'm just preparing you for my answer. So consider yourself prepared."
Methos sighed as Joe walked toward the kitchen, then put a bookmark in the Chronicle he had been reading and followed. Good thing I'm not much on taking advice, he thought, or I'd be sleeping alone tonight. But what would be the fun of that? Entering the kitchen, Methos walked up behind JL and hugged her. She gave him a kiss over her shoulder, leaning back against his chest for a minute before they both sat down at the table.
"Find anything?" she asked him.
"A couple of possibilities," he replied. "But they could be dead. Haven't cross-checked them yet." JL nodded and caressed his leg under the table. He smiled at her, then winked at Bryan who was trying desperately to ignore them. "You two have fun?" he asked Bryan and Duncan.
Duncan nodded. "Yeah, but you were right. He does like to stab people."
"What did I miss?" JL asked.
"A disarm session," Bryan replied. "And you broke my shoulder once and my ribs twice, so you've got nothing to whine about."
"Sounds violent," Colin said.
"It was," Bryan assured him happily. "Tremendously stress-reducing. We're going running tomorrow morning, too. Figured we'd head up the mountain and watch the sunrise from the overlook. Want to join us?"
"Who, me?" Colin asked in amazement. "If I was a pre-dawn kinda guy I wouldn't be watching the night owl here, now would I?"
"What about you, JL?" Duncan asked with a grin.
"Can't," JL replied seriously. "I made a deal with Colin. He doesn't complain about going to bed in the wee hours, and I don't get up before 11. It can be a bit restrictive, sometimes, but it works for us."
"Don't even look at me, Cutler," Methos threatened. "You know how I feel about running in general, much less about running up a mountain road in the dark. You two psychopaths go right ahead. Pre-dawn is prime computer time--network traffic is almost nil. Even AOL users can log in at that hour."
"Do you have any idea what he's talking about?" Duncan asked Bryan.
Bryan nodded. "He said 'no.' The rest is just rationalization."
"Ah," said Duncan. "It's good to have a translator along for a change."
Methos growled but Bryan just waved off his complaints. "You guys need any help with the research stuff?"
"No," Joe replied quickly. "I barely got permission for JL to read the files, and that was only because she's already read them anyway. We'll handle the research. You guys can relax."
"Want to go trolling for enemies, Mac?" Bryan asked.
"Pardon?" Duncan responded blankly.
"We'll go to town and you'll drift in and out of unsavory places with me trailing you. Give the guy a chance to try and ambush you in a dark alley. If he does, I'll pounce on him."
"What will that accomplish?" JL wanted to know.
"If this guy's plan is to make Mac think he's guilty, then the least we can do is make him think it's working," Bryan explained. "When I'm upset, I hit the dives down by the waterfront where no one knows me. Then I can drink myself silly and pretend that's what's making me feel miserable."
"Isn't that just another form of self-deception?" JL asked.
"Certainly. But sometimes I get jumped by a marauding band of muggers that I can beat senseless. That usually makes me feel much better."
"What if Duncan gets ahead of you and you don't hear the ambush?" Colin asked.
"He wears a transmitter," Bryan answered, "and tells me where he's walking so I can follow at a discreet distance. If he grunts, ooffs, yelps, or goes thump, in comes the cavalry. I just happen to have the stuff with me."
"You've done this before, haven't you?" Joe asked.
"He's a very sensitive guy, you know," JL told him. "Gets upset very easily."
"So does Jim," Bryan added. "We both have very delicate natures that need constant attention and physical outlets."
"As I already pointed out," Methos said dryly, "he likes to stab people."
"Not all people," Bryan said with an angelic expression. "Just bad people."
"And rapidly-healing people," JL added.
"Yeah," Bryan agreed. "Them, too."
"You guys are all nuts," Colin observed.
"Took you this long to figure that out, Colin?" Joe asked him. "What have I been saying for years?"
Colin snorted and started clearing the table. "What if our mystery man attacks the cavalry instead?"
"It's a two-way transmitter," Bryan replied. "If I get jumped, Mac comes to me."
"Did you think of that before or after the cavalry got jumped for the first time?" Methos asked him.
"What do you think?" Bryan challenged.
"After," JL and Methos replied in unison.
"You cut that out," Bryan admonished JL. "You're my student. You're supposed to defend me."
"Was it after?" JL insisted.
"Well, yes, but that's not the point." Getting up, Bryan carried the rest of the dishes over to the counter. "Shall we try it Mac? I promise I've gotten all the bugs worked out of the system."
"Why not?" Duncan replied. "Karen's going out with some friends from work, so I don't have anything else to do. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"Be careful," JL warned them both. "Don't forget that this guy is either mortal or uses mortal henchmen. You can't count on feeling a buzz before you get attacked."
"Yes, Mommy," Bryan told her playfully. "I'll even wear my jacket and mittens."
"A fearless crusader fighting ruffians in mittens? Now there's an image," Joe said with a chuckle. "Somehow I can't see Superman going for that particular look."
"I try not to be a slave to fashion," Bryan said with a wink. "It's too hard to keep up with. Come on, Mac. I'll get you wired up and we can hit the seedy side of Seacouver."
"See you tomorrow," Duncan said as he followed Bryan upstairs toward the bedrooms.
"Think they'll have any luck?" Joe asked.
"Probably not," Colin replied. "Direct confrontation doesn't seem to be on this guy's agenda. But they might find some muggers to beat up."
"I'd better call off Bryan's Watcher," Joe decided. "The way things have been going lately, she'd be the one to get jumped."
JL looked thoughtful but Methos caught her hand. "Oh, no you don't," he told her, drawing her into a hug. "No shadowing the shadow. It will really look like a trap if more people start tagging along. Bryan's violent, not careless. He won't take any chances with Mac's head. Much less his own."
"Aw, she just wants to get out of reading stacks and stacks of Chronicles," Colin told him. "And we're not going to let you. So there."
JL stuck her tongue out at Colin over Methos' shoulder, but she didn't try to refute his claim. Instead, she snuggled closer to Methos and whispered, "Can we please tell him who you are? He's already kept your true nature a secret for months, and I know I'm going to forget and call you 'Methos' in front of him sometime. Especially if we're all working together."
Methos sighed and looked at Colin. This from the girl who's only 37 and is already on her third name, he thought. Which makes this a test of my trust. She trusts Colin, so I'm supposed to. But most people who figured out that I was Immortal would have felt the need to let me know they knew just to see my reaction, and he didn't bother. I guess he can keep a secret. Bryan's right. I've got to start trusting again sometime. Might as well start now. Letting JL go, Methos leaned on the counter and looked at Colin. "Do you have any idea who I am?" he asked him.
Colin looked up in surprise, obviously thinking this was a trick question. When Methos continued to gaze at him steadily, Colin shrugged. "Either someone who's looking to kill Methos, or someone who wants to hide him. Seeing as how Joe's not upset about you working on the Methos Chronicle, I'd guess the latter. Which, I suppose, would make you Methos."
"You don't seem surprised," Methos said.
Colin shrugged again. "If I were an Immortal who got caught working on the Methos Chronicle, I'd claim to be Methos too. Who's going to contradict the oldest living Immortal? By definition, you pre-date everyone still left in the Game." Putting the last dish in the dishwasher, Colin closed it and turned back to Methos. "I know you're not abusing your position with the Watchers to kill other Immortals, so who you are and what you've done don't concern me. All I want to do is make Justin's and Tammy's killer pay for his crimes."
Methos shrugged. "Can't argue with that logic. Shall we resume our research?" Sliding his arm around JL's waist, Methos escorted her from the room. "Now remember," he warned her, "you're not allowed to read this stuff. So you'll have to forge my handwriting when you take notes."
"Yours?" JL asked with a laugh. "I'm better at Joe's. Lots more practice, you know."
"Whichever," Methos said agreeably. "Just as long as Joe doesn't mind."
Joe sighed as he followed them into the livingroom. "When has my minding ever stopped you?" he asked piteously. "But you'd better be extremely rusty, JL. You promised me you'd given up that particular hobby."
"Yes, sir," she replied with a wink. "My forging is as rusty as Methos' sword skills, I swear."
Joe picked up the Chronicle he'd been reading, devoutly hoping that JL was kidding. He had seen Methos practice with Bryan out in his backyard recently, and Methos had managed to disarm his student with a move that was anything but rusty. Better check the ledgers at the bar again, he thought, just in case. She wouldn't steal from me, but she might order a ton of beer nuts as a joke. She does have a warped sense of humor at times. Shuddering at the thought of his bar being covered by a ton of beer nuts, Joe sighed again and went back to reading about Duncan's adventures with Lawrence of Arabia.
Duncan walked into the kitchen at 5:30 the next morning, inhaling deeply to savor the smell of coffee. Bryan folded up his paper while Duncan poured himself a cup and joined Bryan at the table. "Why is it that coffee always taste better when someone else makes it?"
Bryan grinned. "I'm afraid you'll have to ask Jim that. He never gets up before I do."
Duncan sipped his coffee and glanced at the headlines. "Any reports of two duster-clad crusaders cleaning up the waterfront?" he asked with a wink.
"Nope. Might make the evening edition if they decide a scruffy band of reprobates warrants a story. But I doubt it."
"I have to admit," Duncan told him, "it was kind of fun. Although I felt like an idiot laughing at your stories when no one else could hear you talking to me through the transmitter."
"That's the best part," Bryan replied mischievously. "It's like having an itch you can't scratch. The more you shouldn't laugh, the more you want to. You had a few good stories, yourself."
"I wonder if our intrepid researchers had better luck tracking down actual leads than we did."
"Not by the time I went to bed, which was around eleven. But Methos looked like he was just waking up."
"I'll go check," Duncan said, getting out of his chair. "Maybe they left a name scrawled on a pad somewhere."
Bryan looked doubtful but picked up his coffee and followed. They had both felt a buzz when they entered the kitchen so they knew somebody else was still downstairs, but the study was empty. Bryan tapped his shoulder and pointed to the living room. When they reached the doorway, they could see Chronicles covering the coffee table and Methos and JL asleep on the couch. Methos was lying on his back with his right arm around JL, his left hand dangling just above the floor near a cascade of papers that had probably fallen out of his hand when he fell asleep. He stirred slightly when he felt them come closer, his left hand automatically searching for the hilt of his sword. Bryan slipped silently across the floor and slid it into his questing fingers with his foot, being careful to keep as much of his body out of sword range as possible. He smiled fondly as Methos closed his fingers around the hilt with a relieved sigh and fell back into a deep sleep. Coming back to Duncan, Bryan gestured him back into the kitchen before he spoke.
"Couldn't have been asleep for more than an hour," Bryan decided. "Otherwise they would have awakened when they felt us come into the kitchen and not fallen right back to sleep. Last time I tried to slip him his sword so he wouldn't wake up he stabbed me right through the lung. Never even opened an eye."
Duncan nodded. "They looked extremely uncomfortable, though. Sleeping like that can't be good for your neck."
"No," Bryan agreed, "but it's great for cementing their relationship. Looks like they're back on track."
"For how long, though?" Duncan asked. "They're constantly bickering."
"If Methos isn't whining he isn't happy," Bryan replied. "Trust me, I lived with him long enough to know. As to how long, who can tell? The real problem I see isn't their bickering, it's their stubborn streaks. If they clash over something important, the fallout is going to be impressive."
Duncan sighed. "Well, I'm sure they can take care of themselves. Shall we run?"
"We shall," Bryan agreed. "Right after I get JL's camera and take a picture of them carelessly strewing Watcher files all over the floor. By the time we get back and showered, they'll be ready for breakfast."
Bryan and Duncan ran easily together, neither one feeling the need to turn it into a race. Duncan was used to running in the park, though, and the steep mountain roads were making his legs ache more than he wanted to admit. Bryan looked completely relaxed, as if he went mountain climbing every day.
"You could...at least...have the...decency...to pant....a little," Duncan told him, only having to exaggerate his breathing slightly to get the desired effect.
"Sorry," Bryan replied without missing a beat. "You have to remember that I run in San Francisco almost every day. Not only do I get practice dodging pedestrians and cars, but I'm also going up and down hills constantly. It's part of the reason we moved there. We've never been so physically fit in our lives. Any of them."
"Does it...make up for...the earthquakes?" Duncan asked.
"No, but then there's Big Sur, Yosemite, and the redwoods. You should come stay with us sometime, Mac. It's a great state to wander around in. Lots of elbow room if you know where to go. I'd be happy to show you and Karen around."
"Better...get in shape...first," Duncan replied.
They reached the overlook with fifteen minutes to spare, but Seacouver's usual cloud cover didn't do much more than lighten slightly. "I hate to say this," Bryan commented, "but that wasn't worth getting up for, was it?"
Duncan grinned. "It's not the end that matters, it's the path to it."
"So I should shut up and run back, content in the knowledge that I have already done my exercise for the day even though it's not even eight o'clock yet?"
"Precisely," Duncan replied.
"If you insist," Bryan said. "But a beautiful sunrise would have encouraged me to do this again tomorrow."
Duncan stretched. "I know what you mean. I think I'll try to convince Karen to spend the night at the estate and sleep in tomorrow myself."
Bryan glanced at him, trying to decide how much he could ask about Duncan's relationship with Karen without arousing Mac's suspicions. "Speaking of Karen," he said casually, "have you decided what to do with her once she becomes one of us?"
"Do you mean am I going to train her myself?" Duncan asked. When Bryan nodded, Duncan shrugged. "I'm not sure. I've never trained someone I was romantically involved with before. I know every time I watch Richie fight, I'm afraid he'll get caught by some move I failed to teach him and I'll feel responsible. I can't decide whether the romantic aspect would make me feel even worse."
"Personally," Bryan said, "it hurts me just as badly whether we were lovers or not. It's the young ones that really get to you."
Duncan nodded. "I was friends with a pre-Immortal who died in a car accident when she was just a teenager. She wanted to be my lover as well as my student, but, because I had changed her diapers, I just couldn't see her that way. I ended up sending her off with Amanda."
"I've watched a few grow up myself," Bryan agreed, "and it does change the relationship." Staring out at the city, Bryan stretched a little, then glanced back at Duncan. "So what kind of Immortal do you think Karen will make?" he asked.
"I'm not sure about that either," Duncan said slowly. "Sometimes I think she's got the strength to take on the world, but other times she seems incredibly young and fragile. Like all would take is a single chink in her armor to bring her down. She doesn't seem to take anything seriously for very long, and she'll have to work awfully hard to become a dedicated swordswoman. JL may be a night owl, but she's at the dojo working out every spare moment she's got. She's been willing to work on anything I tried to teach her until she got it right--even some moves that it took her months to master. I just don't see that kind of self-discipline in Karen."
Bryan nodded. "I had a student like that once. He thought he could coast through sword training the way he coasted through school. I kept him on holy ground for almost five years, but he finally got bored and ran away one night." Bryan sighed and shook his head. "The fool lasted about three years before he lost his head. And I'm told he died with an extremely surprised expression on his face."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. They always think they're ready long before they are. But I figure I'll just take my relationship with Karen one day at a time. We might not even be together anymore when she becomes Immortal. For all I know, Amanda might breeze into town and shanghai her into one of her schemes. Shall we head back home?" Bryan nodded, and they headed back down the mountain.
Bryan ran silently, concentrating on keeping his footing on the slick pavement. No self-discipline, hmm? he thought to himself. You're really going all out to hide your true nature, aren't you, Karen? Roger told me that he decided to tell you about your pending Immortality so you'd understand how important discipline and physical fitness would be to your survival. He said you were the most promising student he'd seen in decades, and, when we sparred in '94, I had to agree with him. You can be flashy and vain, it's true, but when you set your mind to something, that's the end of that. Like that time in Los Angeles...
Los Angeles, 1994. Bryan stood in the doorway of the restaurant, watching the rain fall as he waited for Celeste to come back from the ladies' room. They had just finished an elegant dinner and he had closed a major business deal, so even the unexpected downpour couldn't ruin his mood. He glanced toward the rest rooms and decided he'd waited long enough to call for the car. Stepping outside, he gave his ticket to the valet and waited on the sidewalk under the awning. Two men joined him near the valet's stand, and they exchanged polite smiles before continuing their conversation about the latest Hollywood sex scandal. A black Lincoln pulled up with his Jaguar right behind it. He began to walk past the Lincoln when the back door opened and one of the men standing behind him thrust a gun into his back and pulled the trigger. He stumbled into the Lincoln and heard the door slam and the tires squeal before he lost consciousness.
He awoke with a bright halogen light shining in his eyes. When he tried to block the light with his hand, he realized that he was chained to a cement pillar. The rain reverberated off a tin roof and echoed through the building, telling him that he was probably in a warehouse of some kind. His heart was pounding and his back ached where he'd been shot. Running through a few calming exercises, he got his breathing under control and pulled against the chains as hard as he could. The steel was unbreakable, though, and the bolts that held the chains to the support pillar looked newly set and equally durable.
"He's back, sir," a voice said from the darkness, and Bryan swiveled his head toward the sound. A figure in a long coat stepped in front of the light, but Bryan didn't feel the presence of another Immortal anywhere nearby.
"Welcome to Hell, Mr. Cutler," the man said softly. "Or should I say Mr. Carlson? Or Mr. Carter? Or Benedictus Corelius?"
"What do you want?" Bryan asked.
"You, Benedictus. Or, rather, your head. The rest of you is of no interest to me."
"Who are you?" Bryan demanded, squinting into the light in an effort to see the man's face.
"My name is James Horton," the man said, holding out his hand. Another man stepped forward and handed him Bryan's German backsword. "And I am your judge, jury, and executioner."
"Why?" Bryan asked. "What did I ever do to you?"
"You exist. That is crime enough. I shall not rest until you and your kind are no longer a threat to humanity. There can be nothing greater than the power of man."
"I'm a man just as you are," Bryan said.
"Blasphemer!" Horton roared. "You are a monster, not a man. But your death will help humanity."
"How?" Bryan asked, desperately trying to figure out how he could reach through the madness that was obviously twisting his captor's mind. "What good will killing me do?"
"First," Horton proclaimed, "there will be one less monster vying to control us. Second, I shall use your head to bring your demented lover into my trap. By the time I am done with him, Julius Octavian will beg me to end his worthless existence."
"You're mad," Bryan whispered, his heart racing again when he thought about what seeing his head would do to Jim.
Horton laughed. "I was blind but now I see," he chortled. "I used to Watch and now I kill. You will not rule us, do you hear me? We will hunt every one of you down first."
As Horton lifted Bryan's sword, Bryan felt the buzz of an approaching Immortal, then a gunshot echoed through the warehouse. Bryan saw Horton stagger and drop his sword, then stumble off into the darkness on the arm of one of his henchmen. Roger Genrette's voice echoed through the warehouse as he mocked the fleeing men, but only a couple of return shots answered his challenge. Roger fired into the darkness again, but the slam of a car door and the squeal of tires told them that Bryan's captors had escaped.
The halogen light that had been blinding Bryan was suddenly extinguished, but the afterimages kept him from seeing anything but spots until Roger and Celeste came up next to him.
"You all right, Bryan?" Roger asked, reaching up to unlock Bryan's wrists.
"I am now," Bryan answered. "That was bizarre. All those guys were mortal but they knew several of my aliases, not to mention my Christian name. And I haven't gone by 'Benedictus' for quite some time."
"What did they look like?"
"I couldn't see a thing with that damn light in my eyes," Bryan said. "I got a name, though--James Horton. I'll do some checking when I get home and let you know what I come up with, but without a description, it's probably hopeless. How did you find me?"
"Celeste," Roger said proudly. "She jumped in your car and called me on your car phone, then tailed the Lincoln all the way back here without being spotted. I tried to get her to stay out of it, but she insisted. Isn't she great?"
"Yeah," Bryan replied, hugging Celeste. "She certainly is. I owe you my life, Celeste, and probably Jim's as well. How can I ever repay you?"
"Oh, I don't know, Bryan," Celeste said with a laugh. "How about leaving me your Jag?"
"You don't need a used Jag, sweetheart," Bryan told her. "You need a brand new, bright red Ferrari." Celeste squealed happily and hugged him again while Bryan looked at Roger over her shoulder. "And I," he continued, "need a very stiff drink."
"Not to mention a new shirt," Roger added with a laugh, putting his arm around Bryan and leading him out of the warehouse.
Duncan stopped at the gate and keyed open the lock before he realized that Bryan was still running down the roadway. He whistled, and Bryan came to a confused halt and turned around. "Going somewhere?" Duncan asked him.
"Sorry," Bryan said. "Got caught up in the rhythm and spaced out, I guess. Maybe I should have had another cup of coffee before we left."
Duncan laughed in agreement and led Bryan in through the back door so they wouldn't get close enough to the living room for Methos and JL to feel their presence. Duncan took a shower and put on jeans and a T-shirt, then went downstairs to start breakfast. Bryan joined him shortly thereafter, and went to wake up JL and Methos when the French toast was ready.
JL and Methos both came in and sat down heavily, still half-asleep as they simultaneously reached for the cups of coffee Duncan had poured for them. When Methos was on his second cup and looked awake enough to talk, Duncan asked him if he'd found any leads.
"No solid ones," Methos replied. "A couple of possibles, like Felicia Martins. She knows better than to take you on directly, but I'm not sure this cat and mouse stuff is her style. She does have a rep for killing mortals to make her quarry angry enough to screw up, though. Her Watcher hasn't gotten back to me yet on her current whereabouts."
"This doesn't feel like Felicia's work to me," Duncan said. "She wouldn't have passed by the opportunity to kill me in my sleep."
"So why'd you let her go?" Methos asked him.
"Long story," Duncan muttered.
"Ha," Methos said shortly. "Same story, different girl."
"Ignore him, Mac," Bryan advised. "He's always grouchy until he's had a pot of caffeine. You'll notice that JL hasn't even said 'good morning' yet."
The sound of a cellular phone ringing interrupted them, and JL stuck her tongue out at Bryan as she got up to answer it. Ten minutes later she wandered back into the kitchen and yawned at them before attacking her French toast with sudden vigor. "What's up, JL?" Methos asked her.
"I just remembered we talked about testing Tammy's blood for traces of poison. I'm going to drive over to the lab and con one of Colin's friends into doing it for me," JL told him. "I made sure he introduced me the last time we were there in case I needed them again. Then I'm going to call Richie and see if he had any brainstorms. I called him after Justin died and promised I'd keep him updated."
"I didn't know Richie knew Justin," Bryan said.
"They played pool together a couple of times a week," JL replied. "Justin could give Richie some real competition, unlike yours truly. Plus it distracted him from Colleen. He assumed Justin was his only Watcher, so if he didn't see Justin, he stopped looking."
"Devious," Bryan said approvingly. "Your idea?"
"Joe's, actually," JL replied. "He's had the most experience with Watching an Immortal who recognizes you on sight." Finishing her breakfast, JL rinsed off her plate and gave Methos a kiss. "See you guys later," she said. "I have no idea how long this will take, though, so don't hold dinner on my account."
"Shall I get wine?" Methos asked.
"If you want," JL said with shy smile. "It will keep if we don't get to it tonight."
Methos nodded and watched her head upstairs to shower and change. Running his hand through his hair, he leaned back in his chair and tried to stretch the kinks out of his neck. Bryan got up and knelt behind him, his expert hands finding the tense muscles and convincing them to let go. Methos sighed happily while he worked. "It's been too long since I slept on a couch," he said. "Now I remember why I've been avoiding it."
Bryan chuckled. "You two looked adorable," he said. "I'm glad I got pictures of it."
"You didn't," Methos said, straightening. "You don't carry a camera."
"JL does," Bryan replied. "Constantly. Just wait until she develops her current roll. She'll be amazed. I have to remember to tell her that I want a set."
Methos sighed and shook his head slightly, unwilling to interrupt the neck rub. "We kept meaning to go upstairs but it just never happened. We moved into the living room because it was more comfortable, then she got cold and we curled up together. Next thing I knew, I was under attack and we were heading for the floor."
"It was just a friendly tickle," Bryan replied with a grin.
"There is no such thing as a friendly tickle," Methos growled. "No such thing at all."
"At least JL broke your fall," Bryan said, giving Methos' neck a final squeeze. "She's the one that bounced off the coffee table."
"And I'm sure once she wakes up enough to realize what happened she'll be back to talk to you about it," Methos warned him. "And I, for one, want to be there to watch."
"What are your plans for the day?" Duncan asked.
"More research," Methos said with a sigh. "Which reminds me, have either of you seen Colin?"
"Not yet," Duncan answered.
"Well, throw some more French toast on," Methos told him. "I'll go share the joy of being up before lunch. Joe should be here in about an hour to resume his efforts as well."
"What about us?" Bryan said. "Can we play researcher, too?"
"No, you can't," Methos said firmly. "I've got to side with Joe on that one. How often do you visit Glenfinnan?"
"Me?" Bryan asked. "I spend a couple of months in the Highlands every few years or so. You know I own a cottage less than a day's ride from Glenfinnan, because my groundskeeper has called to report you living there more than once."
"Do you remember the man who owns the Inn?" Methos asked. "Cameron MacLeod?"
Bryan nodded. "Big guy, kinda gruff with a suspicious nature that made me a little nervous. I had a feeling he wasn't buying my usual 'just passing through' line. Has an equally-suspicious niece named Rachel who watches the Inn when he's not home."
Methos nodded. "He's the Tribunal's liaison. If he finds out that you're even in the same room with our files, he'll skin me and Joe alive."
"A MacLeod?" Bryan mused. "Interesting choice."
Duncan shook his head and went back to his French toast. "They don't really think I'd take Watcher interference any better if it came from a MacLeod, do they?"
"I hate to tell you this, Mac," Methos said, "but most people would consider this entire investigation interference. We're at DefCon 1, and Cameron's not the only one who's going to be watching how we handle it."
"DefCon 1?" Bryan asked.
"Mac'll explain it to you," Methos said, heading for the stairs. "I'm going to go wake up Colin."
"Looks like it's going to be just you and me again today," Bryan said. "I think I saw a chess set in the library. You can tell me all about DefCon 1 while we play, then we can go back to stabbing each other. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Duncan replied. "After we feed Colin. Someone his size probably eats a lot of French toast."
Nodding, Bryan cleared the table in preparation for the second sitting. While he was putting out Colin's silverware, he suddenly looked up at Duncan. "Did JL say who called her?" he asked.
Duncan considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "No, she didn't. Why?"
Bryan shrugged. "Nobody calls JL at that hour of the morning and expects to actually hold a coherent conversation with her. She wasn't kidding about not getting up before 11 because she rarely goes to bed before 3."
"Maybe it was an casual acquaintance," Duncan replied. "I'll bet they don't do it again."
"I'll bet not," Bryan agreed with a laugh.
After Colin had finished breakfast and the dishwasher was running, Duncan and Bryan retired to the library to amuse themselves while Methos, Colin, and Joe continued searching through Duncan's Chronicles. Felicia's Watcher checked in around noon to tell them that Felicia was currently in Spain, and Methos decided it was time to blow off some steam by practicing with Bryan. As he neared the ballroom, he heard a loud crash followed by some inspired cursing and peals of laughter. Running into the room, he skidded to a stop in front of Bryan, who was trying to extricate himself from an aluminum stepladder that twisted around him like some kind of modern sculpture. Duncan was leaning against a nearby wall laughing hysterically, unable to help Bryan worm his way out of the twisted metal frame.
Standing with his arms crossed and his laughter held in check by a supreme force of will, Methos regarded his student sternly. Bryan gazed up at him, his face flushed from embarrassment or exertion. "That's it, young man," Methos intoned. "No more Jackie Chan movies for you. And if you're wearing koala undies, I really don't want to know about it."
"I told you it wasn't possible to use a ladder that way," Duncan managed to say around his laughter, "at least, not without lots of movie magic to make the fight sequence look seamless."
Bryan sighed and looked up at Methos. "OK, OK, you've had your laugh. Now help me out of this!"
Grinning, Methos held the ladder while Bryan untangled himself. Leaning the ladder against the wall so Bryan wouldn't be tempted to kick it across the floor and end up breaking his foot, Methos turned back to Bryan with his sword in hand. "Let's see if you do better with more traditional weapons, shall we? Or have you given up on boring old swords?"
Bryan retrieved his backsword from where he'd put it when he started playing with the ladder. Bowing formally, he and Methos began circling. Duncan expected it to be a very short fight, but Methos had knocked a tremendous amount of rust off his skills in the past few years. Duncan could tell that Methos and Bryan had practiced together by the way their rhythms matched perfectly, and he had to admit that Methos' two hundred year layoff was officially over.
While Bryan and Methos were sparring, Duncan got cleaned up and started lunch. Methos looked much more relaxed when he joined them after his shower, and he returned to the research project with more gusto than Duncan thought their current lack of progress really warranted. By early evening, though, Methos' enthusiasm was beginning to ebb again, and Colin and Joe were no better. The three of them joined Duncan and Bryan in the living room to watch the five o'clock news, and Methos soon gave up doodling on his notepad. Tossing it onto the coffee table, he suddenly realized that the chart he'd made in the garage the night he and JL had Watched Duncan was still on the first page. Before he could retrieve it, Bryan reached over and picked it up. "So," Bryan said, "what have you done so far? Decided that you and Joe are innocent. Well, that's a start, I suppose."
"Bryan," Methos began, but he stopped when he saw Bryan stiffen.
"Celeste Genrette?" Bryan said quietly. "Why is her name here?"
"It's a long story, Bryan," Methos said.
"Tell it to me," Bryan insisted, his voice unnaturally calm.
Methos glanced at Duncan, but Bryan's gaze never wavered. "All right," Methos said finally. "First, do you know that Roger Genrette is out of the Game?" Bryan arched an eyebrow and nodded curtly. "Do you know who did it?" Methos continued. Bryan nodded again, but Methos just lifted his eyebrow in return.
"Sorry, I didn't know this was a quiz," Bryan said after a moment. "The Final Jeopardy question is 'Who is Greg Powers,' right, Alex?"
"Right," Methos agreed, relaxing slightly.
"What does that have to do with Celeste? Or Justin's murder?"
"Justin reported on Roger's death," Joe told him. "For a while, we thought Duncan was the one who killed him."
"Why?" Bryan asked Duncan.
"Because I was there that night," Duncan replied, "and I killed a man named Corey Williamson, who attacked Greg while he was still weak from the Quickening. Apparently Celeste saw the fight and described me to Justin. She didn't mention Greg, though."
Bryan stared at Duncan, habit making his face impassive while his thoughts whirled. The old man was right, he thought dazedly. Promises can come back to haunt you. Right now I've got a sick feeling I've vowed to kill the girl I'm sworn to protect. But Celeste couldn't have killed two people in cold blood. She's just a kid. A kind, compassionate kid who neglected to mention talking to Justin at the scene of the Challenge, and who claimed she couldn't even remember what the Immortal's sword looked like even though Roger and I both taught her that an Immortal may change their face, their hair color, and their name, but they rarely change their sword. Oh, Celeste, what have you done? What have I done?
"Bryan?" Methos said, shaking his shoulder gently. "You still with us?"
"Celeste wouldn't murder anyone," Bryan said emphatically. "She's a good kid. A little flighty, but a good kid."
"No one's accusing her, Bryan," Methos assured him. "We just want to talk to her. Do you know where she is?"
"Not exactly," Bryan hedged, "but I can find out. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Where are you going?" Methos asked him as Bryan headed for the coat closet.
"To find Celeste," Bryan replied. "I know where she'd go if she were in town." Turning back to face them, Bryan leaned against the door frame. "Celeste is my goddaughter, as you may or may not have known. But Justin was my friend, long before he was a Watcher. And his life is no less important to me because he was mortal or because I only knew him for a few decades instead of a few centuries. But I want to talk to Celeste first, all right? I want to hear her side of the story myself. I'm sure she's innocent. She has to be." Giving the doorframe a solid punch, Bryan spun and walked out the door. Colin looked at Joe, but Methos shook his head.
"I wouldn't follow him right now," Methos advised. "He'll be watching for you, and he'll lose you in the blink of an eye. If he does find Celeste, he's not going to want any witnesses."
"Do you think he knows where she is?" Duncan asked.
"Yeah, I do," Methos responded. "He was too calm, too controlled. If he didn't know, he would have been more upset and used the phone to check around a bit."
"But why would Bryan lie for Celeste?" Joe wondered.
"He didn't lie," Methos replied. "None of us asked him about her, because we pretty much discounted her as a suspect and we didn't want to bring up the whole Roger Genrette thing. Trust me, if he hadn't already had time to grieve for Roger, he would have hit the roof. He talks a good game about not avenging fair Challenges, but I've seen him find other reasons to Challenge the victor more than once. Especially over someone he liked as much as Roger."
Methos paused when the phone rang and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" he said. "Yeah, we're all here. What's up?...The television's already on...All right, hang on." Methos put down the phone and walked over to the TV, studying the new piece of equipment that had been installed on top of it. After a few moments, he gingerly pushed the most likely- looking button and glanced suspiciously at the television as if he expected it to suddenly explode. Instead the picture went to static and was replaced by a view of the inside of Duncan's loft. The camera was across the room from the bed and was focused on the couch in the center of the loft. Methos regarded it curiously, then shrugged and went back to the phone. "Got it," he said. "We are now watching an empty loft. Why, pray tell? Surely you don't think the couch is our killer, do you?...You have absolutely no grounds to complain about my sarcasm, little one, considering you can't say hello without being sarcastic...All right, all right. Bye." Hanging up the phone, Methos sighed. "Now JL's being ultra-secretive. She said the show should start shortly, though."
"What show?" Colin asked.
"Beats me," Methos admitted. "I just push the buttons. JL does the complicated stuff and picks mercilessly upon me. For all I know, she is planning a sting operation on the poor unsuspecting sofa. She's always hated black leather furniture, especially in the summer. Drinks, anyone?" Methos added, heading for the bar.
"I thought you said your cameras were outside my loft," Duncan said to Colin.
"We put one inside to cover the elevator and the inside stairwell door," Colin replied, "but it's obviously been moved. When I left, the other two were outside the doors to your loft--both the one at the top of the outside stairs and the one on the roof that leads to your spiral staircase. JL was talking about putting in a fourth one in the dojo to get the elevator and the stairwell doors from that floor, but we didn't have enough components. I don't know if she got around to it today or not."
Methos produced a good bottle of red wine and some wine glasses from the bar, and he was pouring a round of drinks when the sound of Duncan's elevator issued from the TV. They heard the gate slide up, then the sound of women's voices. JL walked into the camera's line of sight and stood near Duncan's armchair, setting her briefcase carefully on Duncan's coffee table. They heard Karen offer her a drink, then Karen came into view as she walked over to the sideboard and selected a bottle from Duncan's collection. JL accepted a glass of scotch and settled into the armchair looking like she was ready for a round of girl-talk.
"Wish I had the parka concession in Hell right now," Methos commented, "because I can feel the temperature dropping from here."
"Hush," Joe said. "This must be important or JL wouldn't have moved the surveillance camera to cover it." Methos shrugged and turned up the volume. JL was listening to Karen complain about the office politics she was enduring, and Joe grinned to himself as he imagined her expression--when she'd started working behind his bar, he'd taught her how to look interested in the most banal of conversations and to sound sympathetic without having to really listen more than a fraction of the time. He had a hunch that was exactly what she was doing now.
"Why is she interested in chatting with Karen?" Duncan asked.
"To put her at ease before she starts interrogating her," Colin replied. "I taught her that."
"Interrogate her?" Duncan said with concern.
"Let's face it--none of us knows what's going on," Methos said, gesturing at the TV, "and we won't until JL's ready for us to know. Which means we'll find out when Karen does. So watch the TV and be patient. There's no fast forward button on this particular contraption."
JL opened her briefcase and took out an 8x10 photograph. "Here," she said as she handed it to Karen, "I thought you might like this."
Karen reached out to take the picture when Duncan's phone rang. Karen and JL looked at each other, then Karen smiled apologetically and got up. "It might be Mac changing our dinner plans," she told JL. "Hello?" she said into the phone. "Oh, hi. What's up?...I'm sorry, I must have turned it off and forgotten to turn it back on...Uh, sure, but now's not a good time. I've already got plans. How about later tonight? I could meet you at my hotel around 10:30...All right. Good bye." Returning to the couch, Karen smiled again. "I've got a friend at work who's having an even harder time with the politics than I am. I promised to meet her for a strategy session tomorrow, but she says she won't be able to sleep. I'll have to ask Mac to make it an early night, or to wait while we decide how to handle our supervisor." Taking the picture, Karen blinked in surprise, then smiled. "It's beautiful," she said. "Where did it come from?"
"I'm a photography bug as well as a private investigator," JL replied, "and I was teaching Justin both professions as well. One of the games we liked to play was to draw the name of one of our friends out of a hat and then tail that person for a while trying to get some candid shots without their noticing us. Kind of like counting coup, in a way, and it let us practice both crafts at once. Anyway, we were using my camera to make sure no one had an equipment advantage, and I just finished the roll that was in it. When I developed the pictures, there it was. I'd forgotten that Justin had drawn Duncan's name a couple of weeks ago, and he must have followed you to dinner. The picture came out so beautifully that I enlarged one for you and one for Duncan."
"A photographic coup counting game?" Joe muttered. "Gotta remember that one. It's even better than shadows in moonlight."
"I love the way the light is reflecting off your necklace," JL continued. "Where in the world did you buy it?"
"It was a present," Karen said with a pleased smile. "A dear friend gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday."
"It's lovely," JL repeated, reaching into her briefcase again. "Must be one of a kind."
"Oh, I'm sure it is," Karen said proudly. "My friend has impeccable taste."
"That he does," JL agreed. "In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out he'd made the necklace himself. Or, at the very least, designed it."
"Oh, my god," Methos said softly, leaning forward as if he could get closer to JL. "She's not going where I think she's going, is she?"
Duncan hushed him and turned the volume up on the TV.
"How could you know who gave it to me?" Karen asked JL.
"Because I lived with him for six years," JL replied. "Your dear friend is your godfather, Bryan Cutler. And that makes you Celeste Genrette."
They couldn't see JL's expression, but Karen was obviously shocked. While she stared at JL, Methos turned to Joe. "Tell me," he almost begged, "that she's not confronting a cold-blooded killer without backup. Tell me she's got Watcher support waiting in the wings."
"If she does," Joe said softly, "they didn't clear it with me. And I left strict orders for them to clear everything with me."
"Quiet!" Duncan snapped.
"...be mistaken," they heard Karen say. "I don't have a godfather."
"Really?" JL said sweetly, handing her another picture. "Then someone else with your face and eyes has your necklace."
The picture trembled a little as Karen took it, and they could see her control herself with an effort. She looked at the picture for a moment, then tossed it on the table. "That isn't me," she said. "I guess the necklace isn't as unique as I thought."
"Yes it is," JL replied, taking the necklace itself out of her briefcase. "I took the liberty of retrieving this from your hotel room. There's a jeweler's mark on the back, near the clasp. It's Bryan Cutler's. I've got a few pieces with the same mark myself. He told me he became interested in fine metal work when he decided to make fancy crossguards, hilts, and engraved blades. He perfected it because he enjoys designing things, and because being a jeweler can be an extremely lucrative profession." Laying the necklace on the coffee table, JL sipped her scotch, then leaned forward a little. "Personally I think it's because he loves melting gold down and watching the liquid metal run into the mold. It appeals to the pyromaniac in him." Sitting back, JL crossed her legs and tossed her head. They couldn't see her expression, but Methos inhaled sharply when she immediately put a hand on her forehead.
Celeste smiled sweetly, reinforcing Methos' concern. "Are you all right?" she asked JL solicitously. "Maybe it's a touch of the flu. I can't tell you how many cases of it we've had at the clinic this winter."
JL muttered something, drew her 9mm Glock, and tried to stand up. Celeste's smile turned into a sinister leer as JL fell heavily back into the chair, her handgun making a loud thump as it fell to the floor. "Well, well, my dear," Celeste almost purred. "You do seem sick. Let's see what I can do about it." Getting up, Celeste kicked the gun away from JL's limp hand and walked toward the front door, disappearing from the camera's view.
Methos cursed softly as the wine glass he was holding shattered in his grip. "You're faking, right JL?" he whispered, ignoring the blood mixing with the wine as it ran down his hand. "You've got to be. You're going to pick up your gun any second now, right?"
Joe nodded agreement silently, his face pale and his hands tightly clenched.
"Call Bryan," Colin said suddenly, startling them both. "If he went to town he might be able to get there in time."
Joe reached for the phone but Methos caught his hand. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," he said hoarsely. "Bryan's code of honor is even more deeply entrenched than MacLeod's. And it's even more complicated because he's refined it over 1,800 years. He made a vow to Roger Genrette that he'd protect Celeste. Has JL ever said he made a similar vow to her?"
"No," Joe admitted, "but she's his student. He obviously cares about her. He wouldn't let her die, would he?"
"Probably not," Methos said, "but he might try to break it up and take Celeste into hiding somewhere. And if he does that, JL will hunt him down no matter what it takes. She might even Challenge him over it."
"Bryan wouldn't accept a Challenge from her, would he?" Duncan asked. "I know I wouldn't, under similar circumstances."
"He might not get the chance," Colin said tightly, pointing to the TV.
JL sat unmoving, her head hanging forward on her chest and her right hand dangling over the arm of the chair. Celeste stood in front of her, idly twirling JL's scimitar in her hand with a practiced ease. "Well, well, well," Celeste gloated. "What shall I do with you? It would be a shame to waste your death when I'm so close to my goal. And this just might do it." Pacing in front of the couch, Celeste continued to let the scimitar move in slow, easy circles that would limber up her hand and prepare her for a fight.
"I can't believe I trusted her," Duncan whispered. "Much less lived with her."
"Don't feel bad," Joe told him. "We all believed her. Even JL only disliked her on general principle, not because she really thought Karen, I mean Celeste, was hiding something."
"I'm calling Bryan," Methos decided, picking up the phone. "It can't be worse than this." Methos dialed Bryan's number, then looked up in surprise when a distant ringing sounded off to his left. "You don't suppose..." he said.
"The library," Duncan said with a groan. "We were playing chess when he decided to call Jim. He wasn't home, so Bryan left a message asking him to call back. He left the phone on the table next to the chess set in case he did. I bet he never picked it up."
Methos sighed and hung up the phone, silencing the distant ring. "Damn," he whispered. "Figures Mr. Always- Electronically-Equipped would pick today of all days to forget his stupid phone. And I don't know the number for the phone in his rental car."
Karen returned their attention to the television by snapping her fingers and striding over to JL. "Of course," she said happily. "This will be perfect. I'll behead you here and put your body in my trunk. Then, when I'm having dinner with Duncan tonight, I'll slip out and move you to his trunk. After that, a simple tip to the local cops will get him arrested, and Bryan angry enough to do what he should have done in the first place. Kill the bastard who killed my father." Raising the scimitar over her head, she smiled cruelly. "Thank you, JL," she said. "You are going to be the straw that broke the MacLeod's back."
"JL!" Colin cried out as if she could hear him. For a moment it almost seemed to have worked when JL suddenly struggled to get out of the way, but she only managed to lift her head for a moment before it dropped back to her chest. Methos clenched his fists and prayed to gods long forgotten, while Joe crossed himself and prayed to the one who currently held sway in the world.
Just before she was about to strike, Karen screamed and dropped the scimitar, reaching for the hilt of a dagger that had suddenly materialized in her right shoulder. For half a second Methos thought he'd managed some strange kind of wishful telekinesis when Bryan's voice echoed through the loft. "Back away from her, Celeste," he barked. "Now."
Celeste just whimpered, tears streaking her face as she gingerly felt her shoulder. "You hurt me," she choked out, gazing at him in astonishment.
Bryan strode into the camera's view from the doorway, his sword drawn and his shoulders so tense that his muscles bulged under his polo shirt. He stared at Celeste for almost a minute before he relaxed slightly and made his sword vanish as if he'd never been holding it. His back muscles didn't unclench, though, and he didn't move any closer to Celeste. "Why?" he asked, his voice more sad than angry.
Celeste stepped towards him, holding her left hand out to him beseechingly. "Bryan?" she whimpered. "My shoulder hurts. Please, Bryan, don't be angry with me. I'm your goddaughter. You love me."
Bryan snorted, kneeling down to pick up JL's gun without taking his eyes off Celeste. When a small tear trickled down her cheek, he rose, pocketed the gun and walked over to her, gently removing the dagger from her shoulder. Pulling out his handkerchief, he held it against the wound. "Here," he said softly, taking her left hand and placing it against the handkerchief, "put pressure on it with your hand."
Celeste sniffled and did as she was told. Bryan went to JL and checked her pulse, then lifted her easily and carried her to the bed where he laid her down in a more comfortable position. Straightening, he looked around curiously, studied the chest at the foot of Duncan's bed for a moment, then shrugged. Walking back to the couch, he sank down heavily and looked at Celeste. "You lied to me, didn't you?" he said. "You recognized the Immortal you saw in the clearing with your foster-father's body after all."
Celeste came over and tried to snuggle up next to him, but he waved her away angrily. She dropped her eyes and moved over to the other end of the couch. "I didn't lie when I talked to you, I swear," she pleaded. "But your questions got me thinking about what I saw. And then I found some files in my father's study--files that had pictures of people. I remembered you asked about the sword he was carrying because you said faces could change but swords seldom do. And that's when I saw it." Shifting uncomfortably, Celeste peeked under the handkerchief and then pushed it back against the wound. "There was a picture of Duncan holding an ivory-hilted katana. And then I knew."
Bryan shook his head. "You were wrong, Celeste," he said wearily. "You didn't see the actual Challenge, did you?"
"No," Celeste admitted, "but I saw Duncan look at Corey's wallet and then pull a dagger out of my father's chest. That's not fair, is it?"
"Anything's fair, as long as it's one on one and both parties have fair warning," Bryan said automatically. "I obviously carry a dagger myself. What's not fair is drugging someone and then taking their head while they're helpless."
"I had to," Celeste protested. "Justin recognized me, I know he did. I had to kill him before he told MacLeod."
"And the other Watcher? Tammy?" Bryan said angrily. "Did she recognize you, too?"
"No," Celeste admitted grudgingly. "But I just, well, I..."
"You wanted to destroy the man who killed your father," Bryan interrupted, his green eyes growing cold and angry. "Who was next on your list, Celeste? Joe, right? You figured if he turned up dead and you could pin it on Mac, I'd kill Mac for you. Assuming, of course, JL didn't take him down first."
Celeste dropped her gaze and whimpered a little, but Bryan just kept staring at her. She finally looked up at him and nodded once. "You wouldn't avenge my daddy," she whispered. "But I knew you'd avenge your friends. Especially if it couldn't have been a fair fight. And if Duncan thought he had killed Joe, he probably wouldn't even defend himself."
Bryan relaxed suddenly, his anger replaced by a resolute expression that made Celeste visibly shiver. "You are a murderer, Celeste," he said, his voice as devoid of emotion as his face. "A cold-blooded and unrepentant murderer. And you've managed to make me an accomplice before the fact."
"How?" Celeste asked, her voice trembling.
"You lied to me about why you were covering up your identity, and I believed you. Duncan just told me that you saw him the night Roger died and described him to Justin. Up until then, I didn't even know he was in LA that night, or I would have known you were here for revenge, not R&R. And I could have stopped you before you killed Tammy." Standing up, Bryan gestured to the elevator. "Get up," he commanded her.
"Where are we going?" she whimpered, trying to disappear into the couch.
"Downstairs. It's the epitome of bad manners to unleash a Quickening in a friend's apartment if you don't have to." Gesturing to one of Duncan's antiques, Bryan smiled grimly. "Not to mention expensive, if the friend had good taste in objets d'art. I'd prefer to leave the building, but I'd rather pay Duncan for the damages than risk letting you get away."
"But," Celeste stammered, "I'm not, I mean, why would there be a Quickening?"
Bryan stared over Celeste's head for a moment, then he looked back down at her. "The worst fate I can imagine," he said softly, " is to die alone, without another Immortal around to take my Quickening. It's how we pass on who we are the way mortals pass on who they are to their children. In a way, it's the only kind of Immortality we can really count on. If I take your head right now, you won't truly be Immortal, and there won't be a Quickening. But I'm not that cruel. I'll kill you first, then take your head when you've become Immortal. Carrying your Quickening with me into the future is the only leniency I can grant you."
"You can't do this, Bryan," she protested frantically. "You owe me your life, remember? When I saved you from that awful man? James Horton?" Bryan hesitated and Celeste looked suddenly hopeful. "I saw a picture of him, you know," she told Bryan. "Joe had us over for dinner once, and I was looking through a photo album on his coffee table. There was picture of Horton with his arm around Joe's shoulders, and another with Joe as Horton's best man. They were brothers-in-law, Bryan. And Joe's a Watcher. He had to know what Horton was doing."
Bryan's gaze grew distant as he remembered that night in the warehouse. "That's right, Celeste," he finally agreed. "If it hadn't have been for you, Horton would have killed me and then most likely followed through on his threat to throw my head in Jim's face so he'd just submit to Horton's sword." Shaking off the memory, he continued firmly, "And if it had come to that, I would have died to protect you." As he gazed at Celeste, Bryan's resolution faded to a look of intense sadness. "The problem, Celeste," he continued softly, "is that I owe you my life. Not Justin's, not Tammy's, and not JL's."
"But..." Celeste began.
"Would you prefer I just hold you here until JL wakes up and let her do it?" Bryan interrupted angrily. "The result would be the same." Taking a deep breath, Bryan controlled himself with an effort. "A vow, Celeste," he continued in a much calmer tone, "is a sacred thing. I never break an honorable vow made to an honorable person. But you, Celeste, you have no honor. You drugged and killed helpless people, you made love to Duncan while planning to destroy him, and you didn't even bother to get all the facts before you started killing. Duncan didn't kill Roger, Celeste. I didn't know he was even there, which is why I bought your bullshit about wanting to 'reevaluate your life.' Roger was killed by a different tall Immortal with dark hair."
"Who?" Celeste demanded.
"It's not important," Bryan replied. "What is important is that you dragged me into this, and I'm going to drag myself out. I can't bring Justin or Tammy back, but I can avenge them. And that's precisely what I intend to do."
"Please, Bryan," Celeste begged, crying in earnest now.
"The time for tears is over, Celeste," Bryan told her coldly, reaching down and grabbing her wrist hard enough to make her cry out. She tried to struggle, but he twisted her arm up behind her back and marched her out of sight.
Methos closed his eyes as the sound of the elevator gate echoed through the loft and Celeste's cries faded as the elevator carried her down to the dojo. "He's going to be a wreck," Methos said quietly, getting to his feet. "I should get over there."
"Wait," Duncan said. "Look."
Turning back to the TV, Methos' eyes widened as he realized that the view had changed. Now the TV showed the outside stairway leading up to Duncan's front door, Bryan's rented Mazeratti parked hurriedly at the base of the staircase. "Did you do that?" Methos asked Colin.
"Nope. JL took the master remote in case she got time to hook up the fourth camera," Colin told him.
"So who's running the remote?" Duncan asked. "JL?"
"That, my friend, is the $64,000 question," Methos replied. "I don't think JL is recovered enough yet. She looked pretty well out of it. Maybe she had backup after all."
"It's definitely not JL," Colin said, pointing to the TV. The camera showed the inside of the loft again, with JL still peacefully curled on the bed. After a minute, the view changed again to show the roof camera for a second, then went back to the one outside Duncan's staircase. The streetlights had come on, but Bryan's Mazeratti was still the only thing in view.
"Looks like whoever's running the remote isn't particularly happy with the current selection," Joe observed. "I guess JL didn't get the dojo camera set up."
The camera suddenly showed flashes of light coming from the dojo's windows, but Celeste's Quickening wasn't strong enough to break any of the glass.
"Good for you, Bryan," Methos murmured. "There was a time when he couldn't have broken his vow no matter what. The Roman army I found him in had adopted the Spartan philosophy of 'come back with your shield or on it.' Flexibility wasn't a desirable trait to them. Took me decades to get the idea of 'extenuating circumstances' across to him."
Duncan snorted. "You sound proud of teaching him how to break his word."
"I didn't teach him how to so much as when to," Methos replied. "Same distinction I've been working on with a particularly stubborn Scotsman lately."
"I don't need you to..." Duncan began.
"Look," Colin interrupted, pointing at the TV. "Something's going on."
The trunk of the Mazeratti opened silently, then Bryan slipped out of the shadows and used the open trunk lid to block any potential witnesses' view of the tarpaulin-wrapped body he placed in the trunk. Taking a jacket out of the trunk, Bryan closed the trunk lid and put the jacket on as if that had been his sole reason for going into the trunk. He stretched and rolled his head from side to side as if to loosen the muscles, using the movement to check the street for passers-by. Apparently satisfied, he closed the trunk lid and climbed the staircase back up to the loft.
"Not bad," Methos commented, "except that he didn't come down the staircase. If someone was watching, they might wonder why he materialized out of the shadows like that, or why he got a jacket just to go back inside."
"You're paranoid," Duncan told him, going over to the bar to get some damp paper towels. Handing them to Methos, he said gently, "You might want to take care of those bloodstains before they set."
Methos looked down at his bloody hand and pants in surprise, the pain of the broken wine glass having been forgotten in his concern for JL. "Yeah," he muttered. "I guess I should. Jason probably doesn't want bloodstains on his sofa, either."
The television again showed the interior of the dojo, with JL still lying on Duncan's bed. She groaned suddenly and forced herself to sit up, trying to find her sword. She made it to the edge of the bed by sheer willpower before she paled and looked like she might be sick. Bryan sprinted across the room and caught her before she fell, gathering her up in his arms and settling onto Duncan's bed with his back against the wall. "Easy, little one," he soothed. "It's OK. It's just me."
"Bryan?" JL said in confusion. "What are you doing here? Where's Karen?" Pulling away from him, she looked around for some sign of what had happened. "I get the feeling I missed something really, really important," she admitted finally.
"You could say that," Bryan agreed with a chuckle. "Like getting your idiotic head cut off by going in without backup."
"She couldn't take me from the front," JL said defensively.
"Right," Bryan responded, ruffling her hair. "That's why your scimitar is lying on the floor by the chair where Celeste dropped it seconds before she was going to swing it at your unprotected neck."
"Why didn't she?"
"Because she had a dagger in her shoulder and it hurt," Bryan replied. "And because I was about to take her head."
"I'm sorry, Bryan," JL said, cuddling back into his lap. "You were supposed to watch it go down at the estate with Methos there to give you moral support. I didn't want you to have to deal with it personally." Rubbing the back of her neck, JL sighed. "I can't believe she drugged me. I watched her pour the damn drink and I swear she didn't put anything in it."
"Scotch, right?" Bryan said. "From the bottle sitting on the sideboard?"
"Yeah," JL replied. "So?"
"From the half-empty, previously-opened bottle?" JL buried her head in his chest and didn't bother to answer. "I'll take that as a 'yes,'" Bryan said with a laugh. "Next time watch them pour it from a fresh bottle. Better yet, don't drink anything at all."
"I wanted to make her feel at ease," JL said, pulling away and carefully working her way to her feet. Satisfied that she wasn't going to pass out again, she walked over to the sideboard and picked up the bottle. "What a waste," she said with a sigh. "This was good scotch." Walking toward the kitchen, she left the camera's field of vision, but the sound of liquid splashing into the sink made it clear she was dumping out the scotch. "Bet she poured Duncan's nightcap with her very own hands both nights when Justin and Tammy died," she said from the kitchen.
Bryan ignored her, gazing silently into the distance with the same expression Duncan had seen on Methos' face at Alexa's funeral--that of a man who's been hurt more times that he cares to remember and knows it isn't over yet.
"Hold it together, Bryan," Methos said softly, as though repeating advice often given. "Focus on what you have, not what you've lost."
JL came back with two cans of beer and held one out to him. "Bryan?" she prompted gently.
He started a little, then took the can. "Sorry. Some days it's harder to accentuate the positive than others. Focus on what you have, not what you've lost."
"Ah, now there's a Methosism for you. Goes well with 'Guilt is for wimps,' and 'Flee first and ask questions later.' The man should be writing fortune cookies."
Bryan chuckled. "Wisdom couched in an easily-remembered phrase is still wisdom," he retorted. "Look how popular Yoda was when Return of the Jedi came out. I heard you mutter 'Do or do not. There is no try.' more than once."
"So how did you know what I was doing?" JL asked.
"I didn't. But when I found out Celeste was a suspect, I knew I had to talk to her. Good thing I didn't wait for our 10:30 appointment."
"Seriously," JL agreed. "But how did you know Mac wasn't the one who killed Roger?"
"Roger loved inside information like no one else I ever met," Bryan replied. "He used to write me constantly asking me if I'd heard of this Immortal or that Immortal and how good they were. When telephones became common, my very first call was from Roger asking if I'd ever run across someone named 'Amanda.'"
"I take it you said yes," she observed with a chuckle.
"Of course I did," Bryan replied. "And he listened to me. But after Karlene died, he stopped listening as often. I think part of him was ready to call it a night." Bryan got up and paced in front of the bed. "That's how I knew who killed him. You see, Roger called me and asked for my opinion of Greg. I told him that Greg was a friend of mine that I'd just finished writing a medical school recommendation for, but he didn't care. He had a lot more information about Greg than I did--told me how long it had been since he fought, what style he usually used, and where he kept his hold-out blade. I asked him where he got that information, but he wouldn't tell me until I asked him point blank if he had a Watcher on his payroll. When he found out I already knew about Watchers, he admitted that he'd been buying information from his Watcher since 1987."
"That's probably why Corey freaked when Greg killed Roger," JL mused. "He was watching his goose lay its last golden egg."
Bryan nodded. "Could be. Money has motivated more than one attempted murder. Anyway, when Roger didn't call back to brag, I called Greg. He told me about the Challenge, but he didn't say anything about Mac or Corey. I guess Greg figured if I was mad, why get Mac in trouble too?"
"But you weren't mad at Greg, were you?" JL asked.
"No. I told him the same thing I told Celeste. It was a fair fight that Roger initiated. Greg was just defending himself."
"What did Celeste say about the killing?"
"Not much. She said she saw a tall dark-haired man with a sword. Because I'd already talked to Greg, I just assumed that was who she meant. I tried to get her to describe his sword just to be sure, but she couldn't. I wanted her to calm down a little before I told her that I wasn't going to Challenge Greg, so I stalled by promising her that I'd investigate it. She eventually claimed to agree with me that Greg wasn't at fault, so I thought it was settled." Bryan dropped heavily back onto the bed and hugged his knees to his chest. "At least, that's what she told me the day after I saw her in Joe's bar. And, like a fool, I believed her."
"So you didn't tell her who really killed Roger?"
"By name? No, I didn't. I knew he was going to Med school in Los Angeles, and I was afraid she'd seek him out and do something stupid. If I had, maybe Justin and Tammy would still be alive." Sighing, Bryan rested his he head on his arms. JL reached over and rubbed his shoulders, obviously searching for something comforting to say that wouldn't sound trite. Before she thought of anything, Bryan straightened. "I wonder where Celeste went wrong," he said. "She was a sweet little girl when I knew her."
"That was a long time ago, Bryan," JL replied. "You never saw her while I was Watching you."
"Well, no," Bryan admitted. "The last time was in 1994 when I went down for a meeting. We went out to dinner."
"Whatever she gave me had me drifting in and out there, but I thought I heard her say something about saving you from James Horton," JL said. "What was that all about?"
"He had me kidnapped outside the restaurant Celeste and I were dining at. Took me to a warehouse and told me how he was going to cut off my head and use it to torture James before he killed him, too. Said it was for the greater glory of man, or some such rubbish. After you told me about Watchers, it occurred to me that the information he had about all my aliases most likely came from my Chronicle. You were still adjusting to your Immortality, so I cornered Joe and got him to fill me in. He told me that Duncan stabbed him once and left him for dead, Joe shot him once and thought he was dead, then Duncan stabbed him and made sure he was dead. Man was one tough son of a bitch. What I don't understand is how someone like that became a Watcher."
JL shrugged. "He was a decent guy once upon a time. He just got a series of really nasty assignments-- including five years with the Kurgan--and he snapped. It happens, Bryan. Watchers are no different from anyone else. Hell, I snapped, too, when I Challenged Lucas Buck over Richie. Sure, I beat him in a fair fight, but I knew the man never bothered to practice and got all his experience killing those who were already broken. If he had been a better fighter, say Alaric Sutkin instead of Lucas, I probably would have shot him the same way I did Lucas' henchman. Just because I'd do it again doesn't mean I had the right to."
"But that was different," Bryan protested.
"Not really. It was murder with extenuating circumstances, but it was murder. Aren't you the one who keeps saying that self-deception isn't healthy? The real difference is I didn't generalize Lucas' behavior and apply it to all Immortals. But then, I knew you two, and I'd Watched Mac for a while, so I had no reason to. Horton never Watched an Immortal who had one shred of decency in him."
"No excuse," Bryan muttered.
"And he eventually died for it," JL replied. "Won't bring Darius back, but it probably saved a lot of other lives. Just like killing Celeste did. You didn't do it only for Justin and you know it. You did it for all the people she had yet to target."
Bryan sighed. "I should have tried to counsel her," he said. "I owed her that, at least."
"Why didn't you?" JL demanded.
"Why didn't you run off with her and try to help her?" JL sat on the edge of the bed and studied Bryan intently. "You always see the best in everyone, or, at least, a way to get at the best. Why not this time?"
"I don't know," Bryan said hesitantly.
"The hell you don't," JL replied abruptly. "Your gut told you the same thing mine did the second she realized I knew who she was. That she was a sociopath unhindered by remorse. I was conscious enough to hear her plan, Bryan. She was going to plant my body in Mac's trunk so you'd Challenge Mac. While sharing a romantic dinner with him, laughing at his jokes, and batting her baby blues at him like he was God's gift to the world. Great image, hmm? How cold do you have to be to pull that off?"
"Cold," Bryan agreed, getting up to pace across the floor. "But you've got to admit that she did have one thing right."
"And that is?" JL asked.
"Mac is well worth staring at," Bryan replied with a wink.
"Beg pardon?" JL said in confusion. "Where is this coming from?"
Bryan shrugged and sat on the chest Duncan kept at the foot of his bed. "I've been working out with him lately, and I've grown more appreciative by the day. He's everything a man should be. Tall, dark, muscular, honorable." Looking down, Bryan hit the top of the chest with a solid thump. JL flinched visibly and caught his hand, but Bryan pulled it back. "He's everything that foolish little runt I've been dragging through the millennia isn't," he continued, "and I can't tell you how attractive that is. For the first time in my life I can't remember why in God's name I ever fell in love with Julius The Twit Octavian." Slamming his heel against the side of the chest, he bounced to his feet and drained his beer in one swig.
"Um, Bryan," JL began, but Bryan just took her by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes.
"Do you know the only thing wrong with a man like Mac?" he asked her.
"He's devoutly heterosexual?" JL hazarded.
"Nope," Bryan said dismissively. "He's too big to fold up and fit into a cedar chest." JL's eyes widened in shock as Bryan flipped open the lid of the chest he'd been beating on and lifted Jim out by the collar of his shirt the way you'd lift a cat by the scruff of its neck. Jim dangled helplessly, his collar effectively choking him. With a snort, Bryan tossed him on the bed and watched him bounce. The master remote dropped out of Jim's hand and Bryan picked it up. He froze as he looked at his own image on the remote's tiny screen.
JL had started edging toward the door as soon as she'd seen Jim drop the remote, but she was only a quarter of the way across the loft when Bryan spun and snapped, "JL! Tell me this isn't being fed to the estate and recorded for posterity."
"I, um, could," JL said, "but I really don't think Mac's ever going to want to wrestle with you again."
Methos watched the look on Bryan's face change from embarrassment to anger, and he began laughing as his tension finally eased. "'Exit, pursued by a bear,' as the Bard so eloquently put it," he quipped.
"To the moon, Alice, to the moon..." Bryan sputtered in his best Ralph Kramden voice, lunging for JL seconds before she broke for the door. Their movement took them off camera, but JL's shrieks indicated that she hadn't managed to escape.
Jim sat up in the bed and massaged his arms, trying to get the feeling back before Bryan returned his attentions to him. He stood up and did some stretches, then reached in the box and retrieved his sword. Glancing toward the kitchen where JL's cries for help could still be heard, he shook his head and got Duncan's sheets and blankets from the bathroom and replaced them neatly in the chest. Closing the lid he smoothed the comforter and made sure all was in order before he regarded the kitchen with his arms crossed and gave a piercing whistle. "Time out," he called. "Enough is enough."
"Who asked you?" Bryan demanded, but JL's helpless laughter stopped. Bryan wandered back into the picture, straightening his clothes before running a comb through his hair. "What are you doing here, anyway?" he finally asked. "Did she call you?"
"She?" Jim asked, mimicking the emphasis he'd placed on the word. "You mean JL? No. I waited to call her until this morning when I actually got to Seacouver in case I changed my mind."
"He was supposed to be my backup," JL groused, dropping onto the couch. "Some backup. You said you'd be able to pop out of that chest ready for anything. You didn't even squeak when Celeste was waving my scimitar around."
"I said I could stay in there for half an hour or so," Jim retorted. "I didn't start to stiffen up until you windbags began rambling on interminably. Besides, I knew it was Bryan who came into the room just before she decided what she was going to do to you."
"How could you know that?" JL demanded. "Celeste didn't see him, so there's no way the camera could have. There are several Immortals in residence around here, you know."
"When you've been with someone for 1,800 years you get to know them by feel," Jim replied. "I can tell Bryan's buzz when he enters a room alone. But he shouldn't have been able to recognize mine mixed in with yours and Celeste's. How did you know I was in the trunk, anyway?"
"Smelled your cologne when I put JL down on the bed," Bryan replied curtly. "Plus I saw your Watcher loitering out front. "I've yet to meet a Watcher who can loiter convincingly."
"That's because if they can loiter convincingly, you never meet them," JL interjected quietly.
Bryan glared at her then returned his attention to Jim. "So why are you here? Your new boyfriend walk out on you already? You max out your credit cards?"
Jim glared back at Bryan and tossed his head. "Forget it," he said. "I don't need this crap." Striding toward the door, he brushed angrily past Bryan, who made no move to stop him. JL looked from one to the other, summoned her courage, and stepped in front of Jim.
"Jim," she said quietly, "you said you weren't going to let him piss you off before you told him why you were here." Jim glowered at her but stopped walking.
"I don't care why he's here," Bryan sulked. "He shouldn't be. I can handle this."
Jim whirled and thrust his fist at Bryan. "Well, forgive me for thinking you might need a sympathetic shoulder to cry on after losing Roger and Justin in the space of six months," he snarled. "And forgive me for hoping I might find one, too. They may have met you first, you selfish bastard, but they were my friends, too. Justin's son is Bryan James, remember? I delivered those kids, for Christ's sake. But that's always the way it is with you, isn't it? You're the only one who feels anything. The only one who needs anything. Well you can just go back to Duncan for all I care. You never could resist a Scotsman, much less a MacLeod." Whirling around again, Jim headed for the door, his eyes bright with tears he refused to shed.
Bryan watched him go in shocked silence until JL walked up and punched him. "What are you waiting for, you idiot?" she asked. "Go after him."
"Do you really think he wants me to?" Bryan asked.
"How old are you?" she demanded. "How long have you been doing this? Get your butt out that door and catch him before he gets away."
"Make my apologies to Mac," Bryan called back as he trotted out. "Tell him there's nothing wrong with being straight, and he's not really my type even if he weren't."
JL shook her head and laughed as the door opened and closed with a bang. Tossing her hair she retrieved the remote and grinned at the camera. "Thus ends another performance of Immortal Insanity Theater," she said in her stuffiest English accent. "We hope you have paid attention to this evening's performance, as I devoutly hope that it will not be repeated. And I also hope someone will tell us how many shades of red a certain Scotsman went through before the true point of that little speech was revealed." Giving the camera one final bow and a thumbs up, she pointed the remote at them. "See you at Joe's," she added with a wink. "Th-th-th-that's all folks." With the click of a button, the TV went dark.
In the ensuing silence, Duncan looked at Methos and asked piteously, "How come I'm not Bryan's type?"
Methos stared at Duncan for a second, then sat back on the couch and laughed helplessly. Duncan tried to keep a straight face, but he soon joined in only to be followed by Colin and Joe. When they had regained their composure, Methos reached over and patted Duncan's shoulder reassuringly. "I'm sure he didn't mean it," he said, still chuckling. "Of course, the only way to be sure is to ask him out on a date and see if he says yes."
Duncan raised an eyebrow and shook his head. "Ignorance is bliss," he replied. "Oh, and Colin? I expect those cameras will be out of my loft before I get home from Joe's, right?"
Colin chuckled and nodded. "Get right on it, I promise. Although we could leave the one on the roof if you want extra security up there."
"Thank you, no," Duncan replied. "As we've just seen, it's far too easy to move them around."
Colin nodded and went to pack. Joe began gathering his Chronicles, letting Methos and Duncan help carry them out to the car. Walking back into the house with Duncan, Joe laid a friendly hand on his arm. "You OK with all this, Mac?" he asked softly. "I know you liked her."
Duncan smiled at Joe and nodded. "I will be. It's a little unnerving to think I bought her story so completely, but so did Bryan and he's known her for years. I'm willing to accept the fact that she was just an extremely good liar." Pausing to pick up a stack of Chronicles, he smiled again. "Thanks for sticking with me, Joe. Another person might have been quicker to find me guilty, especially when I started to doubt myself."
"That's what friends are for, Mac," Joe replied. "To keep you from running yourself into the ground. Remember that the next time you start feeling overwhelmed, will you? Then maybe we can head your next guilt-trip off at the pass."
"Ha," Methos interjected as he walked passed them. "MacLeod and guilt will always be a couple until he gets over this chivalry nonsense."
"If your life is so together," Duncan challenged, "why are you always drifting around like a ship lost at sea?"
"Won't be for much longer," Methos replied with a wink. "Although how long I'm going to stay in port is a different question entirely. And one that, unlike you, I don't intend to over-analyze. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a bet to pay off."
After Jim and Bryan left, JL planned to pack up her equipment and meet Methos at Joe's bar to have a drink and discuss grape peeling, but he called while she was still taking the cameras down to tell her that he had some errands to run and he'd drop by her place sometime in the next few days. She accused him of trying to welsh on their bet, but he insisted he was just postponing it and hung up. She tried to remember if she'd insulted him during her conversation with Bryan, but she couldn't remember saying anything more sarcastic than usual. Colin arrived in time to help with the last few details, and he gave her a humorous account of the by-play that had gone on at the estate during the performance. She tried to find out why Methos wasn't going to Joe's, but Colin disavowed all knowledge of Methos' motivations.
Deciding to get a drink anyway, JL entered the bar to find a much larger crowd of Watchers than she had expected. They all seemed to think that she'd solved the case single-handedly, and she had admit to being rescued by Bryan more times than she cared to count. She was on her way out when Jim and Bryan showed up, and they insisted she drink with them before she left. She almost convinced them she was exhausted, but they started telling stories that got increasingly outrageous as they got progressively more inebriated. When Duncan got into the act she knew she had to stay, and, by the time they were ready to call it a night, her sides hurt from laughing so much.
Giving Jim, Bryan, and Joe a kiss goodnight, she drove home and walked slowly up the three flights of stairs to her apartment, her hand trailing wearily along the railing. When she reached her landing, the buzz of another Immortal brought her instantly alert. Drawing her scimitar, she advanced slowly toward her door, listening intently for any suspicious sounds. Her door was still locked and her security system looked undisturbed, but she had cannibalized most of it for use in Duncan's loft. Unlocking the door, she pushed it open and lunged inside, her sword ready to strike the moment she found her target. The living room was dark except for a flickering light coming from the direction of her bedroom. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed a familiar coat lying across a chair, and an empty bottle of beer sitting on her coffee table. "Adam?" she called, deciding there was no reason to advertise that she knew who Methos was, much less expected to find him in her apartment.
"In here," Methos replied from the bedroom. "Put your sword away and come here. I'm freezing."
"Freezing?" JL asked, sheathing her scimitar and walking across the room. "Why are you free..." Her voice trailed off when she reached the bedroom door. Dozens of candles were burning on every surface, and strategically-positioned incense burners made the room smell like sandalwood and vanilla. A bottle of Dom Perignon rested in an ice bucket, and two crystal champagne glasses and a bowl filled with grapes reflected the candlelight on the table next to it. Her nightstand held a glass bowl of water positioned over a small candle, a vial of what JL assumed was massage oil floating in the warm water. In the center of it all, Methos knelt silently, giving her a chance to take it all in. He was wearing a short, white toga that came off one shoulder and ended in a pleated skirt trimmed with a geometric pattern sewn in golden thread. The geometric pattern was repeated on the white belt around his waist and on the white armbands he wore.
JL stared at him, stunned into silence. He rose gracefully, the hem of his toga barely covering the tops of his thighs. He kept his eyes down as he approached her, then he knelt at her feet and kissed her hand. Clearing her throat, JL tried to speak several times before she finally managed, "What is all this?"
"You won yourself a slave, mistress," he reminded her. "This is what a proper Roman slave owner would come home to. Well, maybe not to a third-floor walk-up with a waterbed, but candles, incense, and a properly attired slave."
"You, um, always travel with this stuff?" she asked weakly, feeling like she'd walked into someone else's dream.
"No," Methos said with a wink, "but Jim does, especially when he thinks he might want to seduce Bryan."
"Uh, right. Yeah, sure. Whatever. I need a drink."
Methos laughed and kissed her hand again. "As you wish, my lady." Taking off JL's duster and tossing it into the living room in the general direction of her couch, he led her to her favorite chair and gestured for her to sit down. When she complied, he poured two glasses of champagne and brought one over to her. Taking her hand he gently nibbled on her fingers before closing them around the stem of the champagne glass. Going back for his glass and the grapes, he knelt beside her and fed her a couple of grapes while she stared at him silently. He smiled indulgently, then kissed her before leaving the grapes within her reach and gliding into the bathroom. JL heard the water run for a few minutes before Methos emerged and came back to her chair. Setting her glass on the table, he helped her to her feet, slowly undressed her, and led her to the bathroom, where a hot bath strewn with rose petals waited for her. "What's the matter, little one?" he asked her when she stopped in the doorway. "Beginning to regret challenging me to impress you?"
"I don't remember doing that," JL replied. "I was just looking for a backrub and a way to release a little tension. This is, well, it's, it's..."
"Working," Methos finished for her. "Perfectly, as a matter of fact."
"If you say so," JL said, getting into the tub and trying to relax when he began washing her.
"I say so," he replied, working carefully so he didn't splash any water on the floor, "and I should know. I put my time in on both sides of the master/slave relationship when I was younger."
"What was it like?" JL asked.
"Nowhere near as romantic as this is going to be," he replied. "Reality is rarely any fun at all."
"So I don't get to order you around like a real slave? Make you clean my grout with a toothbrush and all that?"
"Nope," Methos told her. "I'm strictly a pleasure slave. I won't follow any commands that aren't sexual in nature."
"Nice work if you can get it," JL muttered.
"The best," Methos agreed. "And I think you'll find I'm a very advanced student when I become inspired."
"Where was this side of you when we were dating the first time?" JL asked. "I don't think you ever brought me flowers, much less sprinkled them in my bath water. Not that I could ever understand what all the fuss was about, anyway. Sex is sex."
Methos just smiled and rinsed her off, then helped her out of the tub and dried her off with a fluffy towel he'd warmed in the dryer. "You know," he commented, "way back when, we actually had to lie on the towels to warm them. Dryers would have been a lot easier."
"Was that before or after you had to walk uphill both ways to fetch the hot water, old-timer?" JL asked with a soft laughed. "You're crazy, you know that?"
"So I've been told. Frequently." Tossing the towel on the floor, Methos scooped her up and carried her back to the bed. Lying her on her stomach, he arranged the pillows so she could still breathe while he massaged her back with the warm oil. JL closed her eyes and sighed contentedly, Methos' ministrations and the gentle rocking of her waterbed almost lulling her to sleep. Methos let her drift, working his way down from her shoulders all the way to her toes. He remembered every inch of her body from their previous encounters, but she'd never let him touch her before without flinching when he got near her back. Now she just murmured contentedly as he worked. That car fire you were in had unexpected benefits, little one, he thought. The scars your foster-father's belt left on your back are gone. Time truly does heal all wounds, doesn't it? Especially if you have enough of it. And I just happen to have a reasonably good supply that I'll be happy to share for a while, now that you're ready to take what I have to offer. Making his way down to her feet, he massaged them until her breathing evened out and he knew she was on the verge of going to sleep. Moving slowly, he began caressing her lightly, awakening her nerve endings as easily as he'd relaxed them earlier. Not much point in slogging your way through the millennia if you don't learn anything, he complemented himself as her body began to respond before her mind noticed what was happening. And this has always been one of my favorite subjects. Not to mention the only one I've never tired of. Even the thrill of taking someone's Quickening got old eventually. But this, this is something I could do forever.
By the time JL realized that Methos had abandoned his massage for other avenues of attack, she was already having trouble concentrating. She was used to being in control of such encounters, but Methos wouldn't even let her roll over until her nerves were on fire and she'd given up hope of doing anything other than reacting. Part of her struggled frantically, terrified of the helplessness that came with losing control, but that part was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of Methos' touch. Finally allowing herself to do nothing but feel, JL arched into Methos and moaned in ecstasy as he shattered the last of her defenses and showed her exactly what all the fuss was about.
A lifetime later, Methos held her close while the last trembles worked their way out of her body. She buried her face in his chest, avoiding his eyes while she struggled to stop panting. Methos kissed the top of her head gently, tightening his arms around her for a second. "Did I please you, Mistress?" he whispered into her hair.
"Damn," JL muttered into his shoulder. "God damn."
Methos nodded happily and kissed her again. "A nicer compliment I have never received," he told her. JL just trembled again and tried to pull away from him. "Easy, JL," he soothed, keeping her in his arms. "It's all right. Let yourself relax. Let yourself feel." Working himself up so he was sitting with his back against the headboard, he gently repositioned JL so he could look in her eyes. She tried to hide in his shoulder again, but he shifted and caught her chin in his hand. "What's wrong, JL?" he asked. "What are you afraid of?"
JL just shook her head and trembled again. "I don't know," she finally whispered, so softly he had to strain to hear her. "Bryan and I, well, he tried to teach me how to respond. He kept telling me I was missing something, but I didn't really believe him. I just knew sleeping with him made me feel secure somehow. Safe, even." JL shifted and leaned against Methos' chest. "I don't know why he indulged me," she continued, "but he did. Maybe he felt guilty for bringing my nightmares back by convincing me to talk about my childhood. Or maybe he wanted to try being a sex therapist. The more I think about the whole thing the less I understand why they took such good care of me. I just thank god they did."
Methos sighed. "Bryan may have you convinced he's a saint, little one, but believe you me, he doesn't do what he doesn't enjoy. If he took you to his bed it was because he wanted you there. Whether it was to indulge his heterosexual tendencies, play sex therapist, or cement your friendship doesn't matter. He must have been interested, and he'd be annoyed to hear you say otherwise."
JL just shrugged and looked away. "It never felt anything like this, though," she said finally. "Although the last few times with Richie were getting fairly intense."
"Ah ha," Methos said. "That's why you broke it off, is it? I thought you gave up on him awfully easily. You realize, I hope, that I'm not going to fall for that particular ploy. If you run off and get another apartment, I'll be on your new doorstep within hours."
JL shrugged again and rested her head on his shoulder. "So tell me, Mr. Wizard, was it taking Kristen's Quickening that made you a sexual master or were you holding out on me six years ago?"
Methos hugged her and laughed. "If I'd done that to you six years ago you would have taken off the second I fell asleep and never come near me again. You weren't ready to accept sex as anything other than a necessary evil back then, Bryan's fine efforts not withstanding."
"So what changed?" JL wondered out loud.
"You, of course," Methos replied. "You're finally beginning to have some semblance of a self-esteem. Starting to believe your own press, as it were. And it's about time, too."
"Yeah, right," JL muttered into his shoulder.
"Yeah. Right. Absolutely right. Face it, JL, you are a worthwhile human being, like it or not. And I'm not alone in that opinion, either."
"Oh, you're just saying that so I let you spend the night."
"Just the night?" Methos asked. "How about the week? Or the month? Or the rest of the century?"
JL stiffened and looked up at him, trying to decide if he was serious. Methos brushed her hair out of her face and smiled fondly, then leaned down and kissed her. When he finally pulled back, he stroked her hair again and said softly, "I won't make any promises, because I still think you've got to leave room for extenuating circumstances. But if you'll have me, this is where my current circumstances make me think I'd like to be."
"And if circumstances change?" JL asked him, glad that her voice only trembled a little instead of cracking completely.
"Then we either change with them or go our separate ways," Methos replied. "But you can't cover every contingency, no matter how hard you try. You've got to take life the same way you take heroin withdrawal--one day at a time. But you can spend your life hiding from the world or living in it. And I guarantee you, my dear, living in it is much more fun and presents lots more options. Trust me, I've tried it both ways, and I know."
"Trust you, hmmm?" JL said softly. "Sounds dangerous. But you just proved conclusively that it could have some rather nice benefits, too, so maybe I will. I've never been trusting before. How do you do it?"
"Well, first you curl up with me and let my poor, exhausted body get some rest. We can work out the rest of the details tomorrow."
JL giggled and slid down under the covers, lying on her side so Methos could snuggle up against her back. "You realize, don't you," she said suddenly, "that this means one of us ought to learn how to cook."
"Why?" Methos asked sleepily. "The Chinese place stop delivering?"
Chuckling happily, JL moved a little closer to him and wondered what kind of arguments they'd have while trying to 'work out the details.' I've given up heroin, she reassured herself silently. How much harder can giving up my independence be? Sure, I only lasted a couple of months with Richie. And the only reason I made it through six years the first time I dated Methos was because he was in Europe half the time. But I've changed, right? It's a new day, new leaf, new relationship. Besides, if he can do this to me every night, I'll be too busy purring like a kitten to argue with him. Or I'll feel compelled to kill him because he's made me soft. Oh, well, like the man says, you can only handle life one day at a time. And kittens have to grow up and start hunting on their own sometime. So I'll purr now and save the claws for later.
Drifting off to sleep, Methos thought he heard a cat meowing in the darkness, but he couldn't find the strength to open his eyes and investigate. Tomorrow, he promised himself. I'll deal with it all tomorrow.