Image: Eva P.

 

Disclaimer: Characters from the television series Highlander belong to Panzer-Davis productions.
The plot (what there is of it) is mine. No infringement of basic human rights is intended, although a surprising number of glasses were damaged in the writing of this fiction. Don't sue, I've got nothing you'd want.

Warnings: oh, the usual, for stress, angst, seriously understated plot.
This story was inspired by a line from The Eurhythmics: "Love is a stranger in an open car." But accompanied, for some reason, by endless repetitions of Icehouse and Christina Amphlett, Love in Motion.

 

Alien Corn
Jay Tryfanstone

 

Duncan felt unaccountably restless. He rose from the line of young greens he'd been tending in the familiar light of a red-tinged sunset, stretching his aching back. Looking up, he squinted into the streaks of coloured light that painted the darkening sky. Another day, another evening, another quiet meal and another lonely night. It was not what he wanted tonight. He was hungry for something, his skin crawling with need. It was too quiet. The last of the cicadas folding their wings for the encroaching night, and above the pines the bats had begun to stir, one or two venturing out in abrupt and stuttering flight.

With sudden decision, he walked to the farmhouse and cleansed himself in the cool spring water from the spigot he'd set up years ago. The soft sand soap slid over his skin like a blessing, washing away the dust of a day spent in the fields. He dressed carefully, in the tactile warmth of his homespun woven shirt. He'd paid dearly in wool for that weaving, but it had been worth it for the satisfaction as his skin breathed against the soft warmth.

He laid a fire in the grate and set candles against the encroaching night. Stood back, looked at the stacked wood and the waiting hearth. Not quite what he wanted. In the open kitchen, he moved the heavy scrubbed table aside and slid his fingers around the large slate slab that covered the stairs to the cellar. Raising it, he headed into the musty, dry darkness with sure steps. Three steps from the ladder, and his hand closed round the smooth neck of a precious pre-war bottle of red wine. He cradled it carefully, climbing back up the ladder. The pressings from his own grapes were good, but carried none of the subtle taste and authority of this, the glorious last of the Rothschild vintages. He set it to warm near the hearth, and gave it the last two of the Venetian glasses for company. It looked right.

All that was missing was company. And Duncan smiled to himself. There had been no company for years now, no one that he had cared about or trusted enough to invite into this space. His neighbours were pleasant enough, concerned, as he was, with the turning of the seasons and the harvest, lending a hand to each other with the grapes and the olives, attending each others' weddings and funerals, evincing no curiosity or passion or interest in the stranger in their midst. That was how he had wanted it.

Tonight, it was not enough.

He left the fire and the wine and the friendly shadows of the kitchen. It the low barn, he kept the last of his vehicles, the battered 4WD he'd traded a small fortune in rubies for, fifteen years ago. Under the debris of seasons' worth of sacks and grime, he kept a few precious cases of the acrid sugar-beet fuel the government had issued, many years before, when there had still been a government. Duncan found he was whistling to himself as he stripped the tarpaulin off the car. They'd managed well enough without.

Except for the cities.

The engine turned over at the first try. He'd kept it oiled and pristine, just in case. Struggling with the harsh fuel, the engine stuttered and steadied the noise obscene in the silence. He left the engine running as he went to open the high gates, and swung out onto the dust of the track without looking back.

The countryside was silent. Candlelight was gentle in the night: he might know when he passed his neighbours' houses, but he could not see them in the darkness. And soon he was swinging onto the battered concrete of the highway, leaving the gentle hills behind and heading into the city. Under his hands the car felt alive, alien. It had been years since he'd driven anywhere, and he enjoyed the feeling of unlimited power at his disposal, driving recklessly fast over the uneven surface. There were still wrecks at the side of the road no-one had bothered to clear away, twisted, angular skeletons that his headlights illuminated briefly before glancing away. He felt invigorated, free, as if something was about to change irrevocably. Out of pure instinct, he leaned back against the seat for a reassuring moment that pressed the steel of the katana into his back. There were knives sown into his clothes, a gun in the glovebox. He'd left the shotguns in the house. It had been years since someone had come after him, and when they had they'd been mortal, a group of half-feral teenagers after his winter supplies. He was not even certain if there were any immortals left on the continent, although he'd heard things were easier in America. But then, everything had always been easier in America, and he had no desire to go and find out, even if he'd been able to negotiate passage across the Atlantic. There were skippers who still sailed, black marketeers trading in gems and desperation. Not for him.

Twenty kilometers to the city. Duncan took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the scent of the sea and the juniper that had colonised the verges of the highway. He had no idea what he was looking for, but this...this seemed right.

It only started to feel wrong when he hit the suburbs. No one lived here but the absolutely desperate, the mad and the hungry. He negotiated the junctions with care, watching the night, knowing silent and resentful eyes watched his passage. He drove in the middle of the road and did not stop.

Halfway to the centre, he saw another moving vehicle. It shocked him: he felt like stopping to wave: what do you feed yours on, then? He slowed the car, but the other vehicle came towards him at speed and he realised it was full of grim faced youngsters, pale in the light of his headlights as he passed. The driver was watching the mirror, and the boys in the back seat had their faces turned to face the road behind them. He drove on with caution, and the next car was not such a shock. More boys. He had seen no one walking.

There were lights, coming into the centre, haphazard strings of flickering bulbs that only confused the darkness. In those lights he could see people, moving with scuttling speed among the damaged buildings, clutching packages. Their heads did not turn for the sound of his engine. He wondered if it was normal for them, if there were numbers of cars still moving in this battered place, or if they had learned not to look. He cruised, slowly, wary, glad of the reinforced steel struts of the car and the reassuring weight of the sword at his back. The air smelt of pain, acrid and ashy on his tongue. He could see, now, the scars of fires and shattered windows of the buildings. It had not been easy here, when the first bombs had struck.

When he turned onto the main boulevard, there were more people and more vehicles, battered, cruising slowly, all with crowds of people inside, hanging out the windows, shouting. He was unused to the noise, startling at the backfire of coarse fuel and the sudden sound of music. Music. They had generators, these people, living a twisted form of the life their parents had taken for granted. Now, he watched heads turn as he drove by. He was the only one alone in a car, but no-one stepped forward. He laid a hand on the old Luger lying on the dashboard, just in case.

He still had no idea why he had come, but the febrile air of the city itched at his skin. He wanted something from the night.

He thought he was dreaming when the first touch of immortal presence ghosted across his mind. He caught his head on the headrest, turning, could not see. But there was someone there. Shocked, he halted the car in the middle of the street, and noted the shadows shift at the side of the road. He ignored them, craning his neck to see behind him. Half his mind noted, amused, that he had halted at an intersection as if the dark lights would somehow spark to life - red, red and amber, green. Go.

Behind him he heard the roar of a supercharged engine. He heard it before he saw it, a long, low-slung cabriolet that pulled out of one of the sidestreet. It was a monster, a behemoth: an American import with streamlined sides and tailfins that must have been at least a hundred years old. Between the battered buildings, the noise of its engine reverberated through the street, stirring the watchers to strained stillness. In Duncan's astonished gaze, eyes widened, he saw the car slip smoothly into the centre of the road and move slowly towards him, looking, in its polished promise, as if for all the world it was participating in some kind of veteran parade.

There was a single figure in the driving seat. Slight, but something about the set of the shoulders told Duncan he was male. The face was hidden by the shadows of a trilby hat that should have looked absurd but did not. There was something about the dreadful stillness of the man that sent shivers down Duncan's spine. He could feel the quickening shiver in his bones. This man was immortal. As the car neared, he felt a trace of familiarity in that quickening, tried to chase it with his mind and could not. It had been so long since he had seen one of his own kind. Was it for this, then, that he had left the farm? Was it the gathering now, in these blightened times? Had he been called to this stranger's blade like a bull to the slaughter?

He thought, then, of the frightened eyes of the man who he had killed twenty years ago in Marseilles, the last of his kind he had seen. And killed, in the darkness of an alley where Duncan had gone looking for...something. Not this. Even as his hand reached up and loosened the katana in its sleeve, he sat strung and still, waiting. If this was it, then, the last gasp of a fundamentally flawed race, he would meet it with pride.

He could feel the power of that anachronistic engine in his diaphragm as the car drew up beside him and stopped. Light swung across the paintwork, dipped gliding over the empty leather seats. Beside him, the stranger turned his head. Something about the way he moved struck a single memory in Duncan. He felt it twist and break, like the dying whine of a snapped harpstring.

Under the shadow of the tilted trilby, Methos' eyes meet his.

Shock thrilled his body. He could not speak. He could feel his mouth open in shock, in astonishment, in a sudden and blinding wave of fear. Death looked back at him out of his friend's eyes with a cold and glassy composure.

Then Methos smiled, and Duncan thought he had never seen such a frightening expression on the face of any other human being. There was a predator's fine grace in that smile and the taste of battles won. Power, harsh edged and unconcealed.

Smiling, Methos gunned the engine. It roared under his touch held in place, it seemed, only by the slender gloved hands that rested on the steering wheel. He looked up at the blank traffic lights, and raised a hand to the Highlander, sitting dumb-struck in the seat of his own battered car. Three fingers spread in the pale light, two..and Duncan belatedly realised what Methos was doing, and reached for the gear stick as the last finger fell and the car beside him screamed. It was fishtailing away from the lights as Duncan hit first gear, the wide tyres spewing litter and dust into his windscreen. Second gear, third, recklessly gunning the engine as he followed the low dark gleam of the car in front of him. Methos' head never moved, never rose to check the mirrors, but in front of him as he forced the stuttering engine of the 4WD to unexpected speed the convertible slowed a little, staying a steady fifty meters ahead of him as it roared up the street. In the corner of his eyes, Duncan realised that other cars were spinning away from the road, leaving the space clear: he cosseted the 4WD through fourth gear, watching the speedometer needle rise: 70, 80, 90, and the convertible was still accelerating. This was madness; a dangerous madness that left him laughing as his hands grew slick with sweat on the wheel. The blood was singing through his veins: he hadn't felt this good since..

Since the last time he was with Methos.

Duncan considered that thought with dawning horror as the convertible suddenly swung sideways, performing a broad U-turn in the road that, at this speed, was near suicidal. The Scotsman fought the wheel and the brakes, following, and blessed the Mercedes' stiffened suspension as the tyres slid and then gripped the road. He was still laughing, but as he drew up alongside the purring convertible he realised that Methos was not. The figure was too still. He could not see, under the trilby, the other man's face as his head turned. One finger raised, the older immortal flicked the brim of his hat in salute. Then the car moved again, slowly, almost walking pace.

Unsure now, Duncan fell in behind the convertible as it processed slowly up the boulevard. He could see, now, heads turn in the shadows as the cars passed, but the figure in front of him never stirred. He felt the cold sweat break out under his knees and on his hands. Was this what it had come to, a final fight in the night-lights of this dying city? He could not encompass it.

The convertible slowed and pulled in, parking alone sideways to the street. Duncan stopped the 4WD inches away from the gleaming paintwork and turned his head. Methos had climbed out of the car, and was talking to a pair of men who had stepped out of the shadows: heavies, in torn leather, one of them holding a hefty blackthorn club. Something changed hands, and the two men moved to span the pair of cars, keeping watchful eyes on the street.

Through the darkness, Methos walked towards him, steps light on the cracked tarmac. Behind him, the sea mist was rising from the shore, tracing the air with seaweed and decay.

The other immortal came to a halt in front of Duncan. He stood lightly, on the balls of his feet, his hands free by his side. He was not reaching for his sword. Duncan opened his mouth to say - what? - and closed it again.

"Good evening, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," Methos said, his voice astonishingly urbane. His Italian was precise and carefully enunciated his face dispassionate. "Care for a drink?"

Duncan could not believe the man's composure. He felt himself to be torn apart, riven: the unexpected meeting, the anticipation of disaster, and the memories of a friendship that had vanished in the ashes of a third, annihilating world war. They'd been on different sides of the ocean, he and Methos, when the fires of hell had burned bright across the garden of the West.

"Long time no see," he said, amazed by the ease of his own voice.

Methos tilted his head to one side, the gesture astonishingly familiar. "Indeed," he said. "But it's cold outside, MacLeod, and I'm thirsty. Come on." He turned, leaving the Highlander to follow wonderingly in his wake.

Across the pavement, Duncan could hear the muffled beat of music coming from somewhere underground. He was not surprised when Methos' figure ducked in front of him, suddenly seeming to sink into the pavement. A basement club, and one that Methos knew well, judging by the confidence with which he negotiated the steep steps strewn with litter Duncan did not want to identify. The older immortal was still graceful, the slender lines of his body held tall in the dark. At the metal-sheeted door, he turned back. 'Don't be surprised by anything you see." He warned the Highlander, his eyes steady and unamused. Then he opened the door.

The first thing Duncan noticed was the noise. Music, loud, drumming through his skin, an insistent backbeat. And then the smell, the smell of many people in a small space, skin and sweat and smoke, something that seemed incredibly strange now although he must once, he thought, have been used to it. Ahead of him, Methos had shouldered into the darkness without hesitation and Duncan followed. People. Lots of people, a heaving mass of leather and chrome and studded silk, and a febrile energy that spilled across the room. He smelled danger in the set of a man's shoulders, the quick, assessing glances. He noticed that people moved aside for Methos he headed to the makeshift bar, leaving a careful space around the other man. What was he here, then that they did this? There were people here Duncan would not like to meet in a dark alley. In fact, most of them. And that included the women, he thought to himself.

Methos had reached the bar, stood waiting as the people in front of him moved out of his way. The barman nodded, once, at the immortal and bent down. When Methos turned, he was carrying two glasses and a bottle of something amber that Duncan devoutly hoped was what it promised to be, although how Methos found whisky in this day and age he had no idea. Somewhere along the way, Methos had removed and discarded the hat. His skin was pale, almost translucent in the dim light, and his eyes were fever-bright.

"Upstairs," he said shortly, again, as he passed Duncan so close that the Highlander could smell the petrol and smoke on his coat.

At the side of the club, a rackety wooden staircase guarded by more men (what pull did Methos have?) led up to a plain, exposed mezzanine floor where a few figures huddled around small tables. One or two looked up, nodded, at Methos' approach but none stood to great the immortal. Feeling like he was taking a bit part in a nineteen-fifties horror movie, Duncan followed.

Methos placed the bottle and glasses on one of the tables, his head tilted as he poured a generous inch of golden liquid into each glass. He passed one to Duncan, still standing.

"Slainte," the older man said, unsmiling, and lifted the glass to his lips. When he lowered it, he was smiling again, but Duncan could see the tension in the muscles around his mouth. "Welcome, Highlander. Be seated."

Warmed, astonished, by the fire-grain of the first good whisky he had tasted in decades, Duncan sat. "Where are we?" he asked.

Methos shrugged, looking at his glass. "A club," he said. "My club. Someone needed to do something.."

"It's very..." Duncan said, at a loss. It was nowhere he would choose to drink. Even the music was edged with a blatant desperation.

"I know," Methos answered. For a second, his voice seemed very tired. "But these are strange days."

"And I am astonished," Duncan said. He was, still reeling, off balance with a flood of memories and questions. "What are you doing here? How did you get here? Have you heard-"

Methos' raised fingers stopped him. "Sometimes it's better not to ask," he said. "There are some things I don't think you want to hear, MacLeod."

Duncan leaned back in his chair, holding the glass carefully. He looked at Methos. In this light he could see the shadows of weariness under the other man's eyes, the tension in the set of his shoulders. Methos was thinned, strung out. Were it not for the other man's control, Duncan had the impression that he would be twisting in his seat, eyes following the crowd, glancing to the lights and the crowd and the other people around other tables.

"It can't be an easy life," he observed.

"No," Methos said. He raised a glass in salute. "But it has its compensations."

"How are you?" Duncan asked, fascinated by the practiced turn of Methos' wrist, turned bone rounding under the ivory skin, as he drained the first glass and poured another, glancing at Duncan's almost untouched dram. He was so thin, tight as piano wire.

"Fine," Methos said. "How are you? How is Amanda?"

"I'm fine," Duncan said, automatically. "I have a-"

"I don't want to know," Methos said. In the darkness, his green-edged eyes met Duncan's. "Don't tell me, just in case."

So Methos had no intention of taking his head this meeting, Duncan thought. He hadn't been certain. There was an edge to this stranger that he did not trust. Methos was more...Methos, no trace of the mild-mannered Adam Pierson that Duncan had once known. This man had power and used it.

He dropped his eyes to the table. Mahogany, worn, but still beautiful, with a fine, rich grain... "Amanda died in Berlin," he said. "In the first month. It was an accident. Flying debris." He could see, with a familiar sense of horror and grief, Amanda's bright hair on stones of the pavement, smeared with blood and dust. An old grief. He put it by.

"I'm sorry," Methos said. He was watching the crowd.

Duncan shrugged.

"Joe?" He said.

"I don't know," Methos replied. "I was a bit busy myself at the time, I thought-"

"Did you not check up on him?" Duncan said, sharply.

Methos looked up, his eyes blazing. "Who do you-" Then he stopped, visibly recollected himself and said, quietly. "It's a long time since anyone questioned what I did, Highlander. As far as I know, Joe had gone to his daughter's. He was as safe as anyone could be. It got ugly, at the end."

"Seacover?" Duncan said.

"Yes," Methos said. "The naval bases. And then it seemed like every damn immortal in the world decided that it was the gathering and Seacover was the place to be...They were flying in when people were fighting on the docks to get out," he said. There was no expression in his face, but Duncan could imagine what it had been like. Paris had been bad enough, but the Immortals there seemed to have gone to ground with the first sound of flying shrapnel.

Or maybe, gone to Seacover.

"Was it the gathering?" He asked, forcing a smile. Obviously, they were both still here.

"No," Methos said. "But it came pretty damn close, with all of us in the same city."

Duncan spun the whisky in his glass. Lazy, gentle curves, reflecting the light in gold and amber circles of memory.

"Is it the gathering now?" he asked. "Is that why...I had to come?"

"I don't know," Methos said. "I was..surprised..when I saw you."

"You don't feel an irresistible urge to chop my head off?" Duncan said, but Methos did not smile.

"No," The older man said. "But I do feel an irresistible urge to stop you asking questions I don't want to answer. How did the harvest do, MacLeod? What was this year's vintage like?"

Duncan frowned. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Look around you," Methos said, exasperation plain in his voice. "See anyone else wearing homespun with dirt in the cracks of their hands?"

No. Of course not. But, prompted, Duncan watched the crowd for a few moments. An eclectic mixture, he decided, and would have given a lot, in that moment, for a breath of pine-scented air from his own hills.

"MacLeod.." Methos said.

"Last time I looked," Duncan said. The older man's edginess was beginning to affect him, like he'd lost an extra layer of skin, prenaturally sensitive.

"What are you doing here?"

Duncan choked on the mouthful of whisky he'd been attempting to swallow. "What do you mean?" he said.

"It's been a long time." Methos said. "I thought...Why did you have to appear out of the woodwork now, MacLeod?"

"What?" Duncan said, in disbelief. "Methos, did you think...?"

Methos said nothing.

"I've never been so surprised in my life," Duncan said honestly. "As when you drew up in that car...what is it with the car? What is it with this club, for god's sake? What are you doing?"

Leaning in the chair, Methos met Duncan's eyes. "You didn't come looking for me, then?" he asked.

"Methos, I had no idea you were here!" Duncan said, exasperated. How long had it been, and the old man was still playing games with his head.

"Okay," Methos said. "So you just randomly came here, to my town, to my club.."

"I live here," Duncan said, furious, and then checked himself. "Well, near here."

"Shit," Methos said.

There seemed no answer to that one, and Duncan gave none.

Eventually the old man looked up. "Not quite the welcome you expected is it, MacLeod?" he asked, with a smile that twisted his lips and did not meet his eyes. "Fact is, I didn't expect to see you again. It's come as a bit of a shock."

"So I gathered," Duncan answered dryly. "Remember me? We used to drink together. It'll be in your chronicles, Methos."

"I left them-"

"What?"

"There didn't seem...oh, look, MacLeod, this isn't going to work. Go back to your vines. Take the whisky. Are you all right for money?"

"Fine," Duncan said shortly. "I'll leave you to it, then." He stood up, looked down at the other immortal with distaste. "I'll meet you at the gathering, then. When it happens."

"I don't think you will," Methos said, to the table, and Duncan had opened his mouth for a stinging retort (what did the old man think he was playing at?) when the world's oldest immortal stood up. "I'm sorry, Highlander," he said. "I let my tongue get away with itself. I really hadn't expected...look, do you want to wait upstairs? I've got business to take care of, but we can talk after, if you like."

Duncan looked at the older man. Methos seemed quite in earnest, his eyes bright, open. He was hiding something, the Scotsman was sure, but he wasn't going to let this unexpected meeting slip away from him. News, of any kind, would be good, and even with Methos' strange moods it was good to be with someone of his own kind, for once.

"Where's upstairs?" he asked.

Methos sighed. He seemed to collapse a little in his clothes, as if something had happen that cut him to the bone. "Are you sure?" he asked.

Duncan frowned, but Methos' quick assessing gaze had already moved past him and to the men on the stairs. He crooked a finger, and one came running, a limber boy with a shock of tousled blond hair who gave Duncan a suspicious glance before standing before the older man.

"This is a friend of mine," Methos said. "Take him upstairs, give him something to drink, show him the bath. Feed him."

"Not hungry," Duncan interjected, and Methos shrugged again.

"Don't feed him, then. And keep watch on the stairs. I want to know.."

"I know, I know," The boy said. "You don't need to worry, Mr Rahman, I'll watch for you." His eyes were eager under the tousled fringe.

"Good boy," Methos said absently.

So Duncan turned and followed the boy up the steps to the next floor. The hatch at the top of the stairs was barred and padlocked, and Duncan watched as the youngster fumbled with the keys.

"Mr Rahman doesn't let everyone up here," The boy said, giving Duncan one bright, suspicious glare. "You two know each other?"

"Yes," Duncan said.

The boy fell silent, lifting the hatch with a grunt of effort. Above him, darkness swept down from the narrow opening.

"Lights are on the left," The boy said, his tone resentful now. "I have to close the door before they get turned on."

So Duncan went up alone into the darkness of Methos' home. Standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for the thud of metal on wood, he smelt the air. It felt dry and musty, shot with the smell of smoke and something that was almost burning, but was not...electronics. He huffed in surprise, and the hatch slammed to behind him.

He stood still for a moment, then reached out his left had. Under his fingers, he felt the warmth of wood, and then the sharp edges of a small metal box with flick switches, of the kind he had become accustomed to in..oh, the nineteen-thirties. He flicked them all.

For a moment he was afraid that nothing would happen and he would be left here in the darkness. Then he heard the buzz of electricity above him, and the arc lights crackled into life.

There was nothing there.

He was standing on a broad wooden floor that stretched the length of the building. On either side, the walls were shuttered with great metal casings. The roof was open to the rafters, echoing, strung with cables that looped crazily in and out of the wooden struts. The floor was bare, the back wall covered with a vast mirror. He turned, astonished, and then gasped. On the wall behind him Methos had hung an array of swords that glittered angrily in the cold white light. Beneath the swords stood a low wooden pallet, the blankets disturbed and huddled against the wall.

There was nothing else in the room at all.

At a loss, Duncan walked towards the display of swords. It was an eclectic mixture that Methos had here, two claymores, a cavalry officer's saber that dated to the Napoleonic wars, a kris..thirty or forty blades, polished and gleaming against the brickwork.

Trophies.

Duncan remembered to breathe, and sat down heavily on the Methos' bed. This was no home. It was a killing ground. Looking at the floor, he could see the scuff marks of sustained practice, almost smell the sweat in the air. Was Methos headhunting? How long had he had these blades? Dear God, Duncan had not even thought there were so many immortals left, and to see that collection...but then, had Methos always had these swords? Duncan hoped against hope that these were relics of five thousand years, but he doubted it. There was something about that silent display that hung blood-edged in the silence, as if each sword remembered the moment of taking and bled out into the room. It was an uncomfortable feeling, oppressive in the space, and Duncan drew his body around himself among the blankets. Was this how Methos did it? 'Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly...'

He shifted again, uncomfortable, and in moving, discovered something small and hard-edged caught in the folds of a gray utility issue blanket. His hand reached out, untangled the object, and nearly dropped it in astonishment.

In his hands he held a remote control.

Unbelieving, he turned it in his hands. He hadn't seen a remote for nigh on fifty years. The contrast of smooth black plastic against his work-roughed skin seemed absurd: the peasant meets the space age. Even so, the buttons were worn, the impressed letters devoid of paint. Duncan turned the remote over and over again, disbelieving.

Then he pointed it randomly at the metal sheeting, and started pressing buttons.

Somehow, he was not surprised when the metal sheeting started to shiver and retract. The noise was horrendous, a grinding of gears and metal against metal that shuddered through the space and set the swords trembling on the wall behind him.

On the floor below, Methos cocked his head to the very distant rumble. So.

Standing, Duncan walked forward. The screens on both sides were rising slowly into the roofspace, and the space in the room was darkening. On his right, the shutters were rising to reveal the dull black glass of non-reflective windows. He looked out. Dull in the thick glass, he could see down onto the street. His car, Methos', the small scurrying figures of people moving in the darkness. He was high enough to see across the rooftops of the battered buildings opposite, but in the misty darkness the view was limited. From here, though, Methos could see all the approaches to this building, a God's-eye view. It made Duncan dizzy, and he turned back in the room, only to halt in astonishment once more. Windows again, tilted and dark. And a bank of computers and monitors that hummed softly to themselves, LED lights insistent, screens dark. No wonder the space had smelt of electronics. And then Duncan realised, with a shock, that none of the children downstairs would recognise that dust-and-burning scent, so reminiscent of the twenty-first century that he could almost taste the pizza.

No wonder Methos kept this treasure house hidden.

It had been a while, but Duncan had not forgotten. He took a good look at the system before he started pressing buttons, following the mess of cables and the server, the battered keyboard Methos must use most, the screen to hub connections and the random collection of security monitors above his head. Then he reached out and pressed a single key on the board.

The screens flickered into startling, silent life.

Cameras, then, for the monitors. He had expected that, but perhaps not the scope of the old man's network. He had cameras around the building, on the approach roads, in the club. There was one that showed Duncan himself, sitting in the single chair, small against the weight of the windows and the bank of monitors above his head. There were a couple showing Methos himself, seated at the table beneath him with two swarthy, thickset men and a third-empty bottle of whisky. As he watched, Methos frowned, and one of the men fumbled at his clothes, laying something down that sat small and winking emerald green on the table between them. Methos shook his head, sharp, and the two men exchanged glances. One half-rose, and then, out of nowhere, Duncan saw the massive shape of one of the doormen guiding the man gently back down.

Methos had not shifted a muscle.

Duncan shivered. He found the scene oddly disturbing, and removed his gaze from the monitor, looking out and down into the darkness of the club beneath him. Someone was dancing on the bar: two men had cleared a space to beat the hell out of each other whilst the doormen watched. He caught the glitter of diamonte and the startling gleam of hair coloured and teased into shapes that seemed alien and distorted. It was too much. He felt unbearably depressed and overwhelmed. This was not living. It had nothing to do with the rhythm of the seasons, spring equinox and harvest, sun's rise and nightfall gentle over his terraced hills. He felt out of place here, in this place that stank of misplaced passion and a control so absolute he shuddered to think of it. This had been a mistake. The impulse to close the shutters, leave the room untouched, and run, was almost irresistible. His skin crawled.

Duncan looked again at the monitor that showed Methos at table. The old man was alone now. He was raising his glass again, and as the Highlander watched, Methos swung around in his seat. His eyes, shadowed in the light (green-gold, with mischief and laughter sparkling in tiny gold flecks that one could see if the sun hit him just so, that pale skin flushed under the light.) rose unerringly to where Duncan stood. Elegant, completely self -possessed, Methos raised the glass in an age-old salute and drained it.

Duncan turned away. He did not want to see more. Going to the middle of the floor, he sank to his knees and closed his eyes, centering himself. With weary concentration, he began the series of katas that would take him through this space.

Later, much later, weary and stretched, he opened his eyes. Nothing had changed. Rising, he peered out of the windows at the street. Less busy now, but there were still people moving furtive in the shadows. He watched for a while, and then braced his shoulders and turned back to the monitors. Beneath him, the club seemed even more crowded, the people pressed close, dancing. There was a weary energy about them, eyes too bright. Duncan watched as someone chopped out a line on the bar, the white powder dull under the strobe lights. The barman laughed, rolled a note and passed it across. He watched the bodies heave and stumble to music he could only feel as a bass-beat under his feet.

Then, reluctant, he dropped his eyes to where Methos sat. He was not alone. Across the table sat one of the most beautiful women Duncan had ever seen. She wore full evening dress, diamonds sparkling around her neck and in the black weight of hair pulled up into a heavy chignon. Her skin was creamy under the lights, inviting the touch of a hand to that pristine rose petal softness. Methos was leaning back in his chair, eyes half-lidded, as the women talked, her mouth opening in silent speech, light thrown from the bracelets on her arms as she gestured. Methos was saying nothing. She stilled eventually, said something sharp, definite. Methos shook his head. The woman sat still for a moment, then stripped, slowly, the jewels from her wrists and neck, bent her head to remove the small, bright ear-bobs. She laid the jewels in the middle of the table and looked at them. Then she pushed then across to the old man.

Methos shook his head again.

He could see the shock in the lines of her body. She was older than he had first thought, a jewel in this setting. She bent her head, then, looking weary. Methos said something else then, looking up at the blond boy who'd let Duncan into the loft, and the woman half-rose from the table turning away. Then, visibly, she pulled herself together and turned back to face the immortal. She said nothing, but stood straight and proud under the lights. And then, very slowly, she stripped off first one glove and then the other, rolling the silk down to her fingertips, the fabric gleaming dull next to the smooth cream of her skin. Across the table, her eyes watched the older man. Then her fingers moved to the front fastening of her gown. Stop it, Methos, Duncan thought horrified as her fingers traversed the small buttons, laying aside the fabric with desperate care, revealing the shadowed curve of her collarbones, the gentle rise of her breasts: more buttons, and the dark shadows of her cleavage showed as her hands began to shake. She stopped then, but Methos said nothing, and her hands crept back to buttons, lower and lower until the rose pink of one nipple came into view and the only thing holding her dress up was the hand she had clasped across her heart. She said something then. Methos did not answer.

She took her hand away and let the dress drop onto the floor in a slow whisper of silk.

She was amazingly beautiful, and Duncan felt himself stirred to hardness even as he could have wept for the pity of it. Her body was lush, Mediterranean, the curve of breast and hip deeply indented, her pubic hair black, dense and soft and inviting...There were tears held in the swimming darkness of her eyes.

Methos stirred then, lifted a finger, and Duncan saw the blond boy move. He came to a halt by Methos' chair, eyes averted from the naked women in careful politeness. Another finger, and the boy knelt, raising his head in obedience as Methos leaned forward and down. His hand threaded itself through the boy's hair with bruising force, tilting the boy's head up. And slowly, his eyes never leaving the woman in front of him, Methos bent his head and claimed, with force, the sweet softness of the mouth that opened so eagerly to his own.

Duncan could see blood on the boy's lips when Methos was done, but the old man's eyes had never left the woman standing in front of him. She was crying openly now, the tears making silver tracks on her cheeks. She said something, and Methos shook his head again. Duncan could see the shudder that ripped through her body. Shaking, she bent then to the folds of the dress, and Methos raised his eyes frowning to the blank windows above his head.

Duncan had never seen Methos commit an act of such calculated cruelty before. He remembered, shaking himself, that moment in the street when the car drew up beside him and Death had looked back at him out of his friend's eyes. Which was the lie, then? Who, what...Beneath him, the woman was half dressed, clutching the slipping silk around her body. Methos' eyes were still on the space where Duncan stood. Even as Duncan thought to himself, I can't let this, images of the woman making her way back through that vicious crowd playing in his head, as he began to turn to the hatch to beat his way down the stairs and make - Methos moved again. He was still frowning. He stood up, startling the woman in front of him, and pushed the jewels back across the table to her with jerky speed. Then he said something, short and staccato, and on the woman's face bloomed a smile of such sweetness that Duncan felt his heart twist in his chest. She would have knelt then, and kissed his hand, but the boy was already moving forward, handing her gloves and jewels and holding up the dress fabric with gentle fingers as he ushered her away.

Alone again, Methos poured the last quarter inch of whisky into his glass and turned to face the windows. His face was expressionless as he raised the glass in salute and then, turning, flung glass and whisky down into the crowd below with vicious power.

Sickened, confused, Duncan turned away. He wanted to leave, but could not face the climb down the stairs and the look in Methos' eyes. He crawled into the blankets instead, shivering, coccooning himself against the dark and the pitiless glare of the arc lights. He had thought he would not sleep, but he must have, for later he woke mazed to the sound of the hatch hitting home.

The lights were still lit. Duncan rubbed at his blurred eyes with one hand, pulling the blankets around his body as he sat up. His skull throbbed with the pain of a stinging headache. He could feel the quickening warning his bones.

Methos stood in the centre of the floor. He was swaying gently, his hands open and empty by his sides. His eyes were blank, his face expressionless. The light gleamed dully from his disheveled hair, and his skin looked worn and bruised under that merciless white clarity. He looked older, battered. Drunk. Duncan could smell the whisky from where he sat. Carefully, the Highlander drew his feet up under him and placed his hands, palm up and empty, on the gray wool of the blankets where the older immortal could see them. He watched as Methos, frowning a little, tracked his eyes over the huddle of blankets and Duncan's body, coming to rest finally on those resting hands.

"Duncan," he said. His voice was very tired.

Duncan said nothing, letting his eyes rise to meet that dull gaze. Methos' eyes were bloodshot, red-rimmed. As Duncan watched, he folded his long body around itself to sit down abruptly on the bare floor.

"You're dead," Methos said to the other immortal.

"So what's it to you?" Duncan said.

Methos considered that for an instant, his head on one side.

"I don't know," he said, and giggled inanely into the space. Slowly, shaking, his body curled up and fell onto the floor, his hands coming up to cover his head. He was still giggling, the noise stretching, madness, into the spaces of the loft. It went on for minutes, descending into a trail of hiccups that shook the thin body lying in front of the pallet. Then it stilled, Methos lying lax and careless.

Duncan considered for a moment. But he could not leave the old man lying on the floor: he rose, disentangling himself from the blankets, and walked over to the man who lay silent on the wooden beams.

As he neared, he realised that Methos' eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. Not knowing what else to do, he settled himself onto the floor by the older man, and was surprised when Methos suddenly rolled over to face him. One hand, thin, clawed its way across the floor and fastened onto his wrist: Methos' fingers were fever-hot, bony, disturbing. Duncan could not remember the other immortal touching him before. Oddly, the man did not seem to want to say anything, his eyes fixed on Duncan's face.

"What are you doing, Methos?" he said gently. "What's this all about?"

"Methos," The man said. "A name to conjure with..I here abjure my books...you're still here."

"Yes," Duncan said.

"It's Rahman now," Methos said, with startling clarity.

"I know," Duncan answered.

"It doesn't seem to stop them," Methos said. "Why can't they see..." His voice trailed off.

"See what?"

"Death..oh, what webs we weave...you haven't come here to die, have you, `cos I don't think I could.."

"I'm dead already," Duncan said.

"Oh, that's all right then," Methos said comfortably. "Is it warm there? I'm so cold."

Indeed he was shaking still, although Duncan could feel the heat rising from his skin with the smell of sweat and whisky. The Highlander pried Methos' fingers from his wrist, the grip surprisingly strong, and as the older immortal pulled his hand back, cradling it. Duncan bent and took the other man's full weight in his arms. Methos was heavier than he expected the muscles of his body firm under Duncan's hands. It took a second for the old man to realise what had happen, so Duncan managed to get him to the bed before he started to struggle. The Highlander dumped Methos' twisting body into the nest of rumpled blankets, watching as the older man dragged himself into their midst. Methos said something in a language Duncan didn't know, and then his eyes opened again and he seemed to recognise the Scotsman.

"So cold," he said. "Turn out the lights, oh, turn out the lights, mine eyes dazzle..." He was laughing again, little sick gulps of laughter, as Duncan went to the switchbox and plunged the room into darkness. He made his way carefully back to the bed, reluctant, and cautious knelt to fumble his way into the scratchy Methos-whisky-smoke scented huddle. The old man was still shaking. He pulled the thin body back against his skin, feeling Methos relax into the warmth. "Duncan," the man said, surprised.

"Still here," Duncan said. He hadn't realised how cold he had himself had been, but Methos beside him was bright heat. He arranged the man's body against his own cradling it, wrapping his arms around Methos' chest and curving his legs around the other man's. It felt curiously right. He fell asleep with Methos' hair tickling his nose, too tired to reach up and push it away.

He woke to the feel of Methos' hands on his body, and froze. The man was stroking his chest, his back, a ceaseless and trembling touch that was mapping every each of his body, Methos' whisky-scented breath hot on his skin. "Bright boy," Methos said to him, muffled under the blankets. Duncan found his own hands were wrapped in the older immortal's hair, brittle under his fingers, strands catching on the roughness of his own work-worn skin.

"Methos, stop," he said, unwilling to move, Methos' hands leaving a trail of warmth that spread across his body. This was...unexpected. He'd known, of course, that over the course of his long life Methos had taken male lovers to his bed, but those bright eyes had never met his with any discernible trace of need. Nevertheless, the hands that touched his skin did so with intent to rouse and he could feel the heat of the other man's erection against his thigh. "Methos, what are you doing?" he said, and gentled his fingers across the thin skin of Methos' head and shoulders. His skin was fine to the touch, warm, it felt like touching something dangerous, as if Methos might suddenly snap under his touch. He was reminded suddenly of Methos laughing, his head thrown back in the summer light, sitting in a cafe on the edges of a park in Paris. That man seemed so different from the immortal who lay in his arms that Duncan felt he had entered into some strange and threatening dream. This Methos was dangerous, vulnerable, sharp-edged with the blue sheen of a blade raised from blood. There was a word for it, but under Methos' questioning hands Duncan forgot. His body was warming to the caress, responding: he could feel his sex start to swell. The other man realised too. He was crooning gently under the blankets, and Duncan shuddered when he felt Methos' first wet, open-mouthed kiss on his skin.

"Stop," he said again, but it was half-hearted: he hadn't realised how much he had craved the feel of someone else's skin against his until he awoke to that slow touch. Even this, scented as it was with fear, the other man's hands hasty and sometimes awkward. It was happening too fast. Methos' hands seemed everywhere on his skin, his quickening thick in the air. The older immortal was burrowing under the blankets, shaking his head to be free of Duncan's constraining fingers, and as Duncan let go he felt the heat of Methos' mouth close over the head of his cock. Instantly, it seemed, he was fully hard, groaning as his body thrust up into the welcoming warm velvet-soft space. There was no finesse about Methos' technique: he was forcing a pace that left Duncan's mind stumbling in the wake of an almost painful, exact pleasure. He had forgotten, but his body had not: he came almost instantly, in stutters, an abbreviated and uncomfortable orgasm that left him unsatisfied and wanting more.

He could feel Methos' mouth slip away from his cock, the other man's head lying heavy in the cradle of Duncan's hips. His hands had stilled now, and lay lightly on Duncan's body. The Scotsman didn't know if the older immortal had come or not, but, even after this half-forced coupling, it seemed discourteous to leave his partner unsatisfied. He went questing beneath the blankets, feeling Methos move as his body shifted. The older man was turning away, but Duncan reached for and gathered him in, back to chest (Methos' skin felt so dry, like paper over a light) his hands gathering around that strung body. Methos was still shaking. Without thinking, as he would have done with Tessa, with Amanda, Duncan turned that warm mouth to his and kissed it. He could taste himself on Methos' mouth, bitter as dill, felt the shock span Methos' bones before the lips under his opened and responded. He didn't let himself think, exploring that mouth, the taste of whiskey and come and something that was indefinably Methos, something that tasted of sand and bitter water. Methos was so hot. He was burning up under the blankets and still shaking, but the taste of his mouth was intoxicating, unexpected. Duncan took a deep breath and went back for more, little nibbling touches, a smooth and gentle seduction, enjoying the way Methos' body loosened and turned to his. He'd never been a selfish lover: his partner's response was as much a part of love-making as his own, and Duncan found himself heating to the small desperate sounds Methos made in the back of his throat and the way his hands shifted and loosened, kneading Duncan's back. Methos wanted, needed this.

"What do you want?" he asked, against the sharp bones of Methos' shoulders, resting his lips on that fine-grained skin. Methos only laughed, but there was no humour in his voice. "Everything you've got, Highlander," he said, and Duncan gave it to him. There was an unexpected pleasure in the turnings of this angular body, the way Methos rose to his touch: he never forgot who it was he was loving. And loving was the word. On Methos' skin Duncan wrote the passion of a thousand lonely nights, the loneliness and the need and the remembrance of how it felt to come alone to the sound of his own breathing. He wrote joy, too, remembering, Jo's smile and Amanda's quick grin, Richie's valour and Methos' own quicksilver mercurial laughter. He wrote a past that only they two shared, made of the night a gift and presented it gently, with care. He had thought it might not be enough, had thought that Methos would want more from him than he was prepared to give, but when at last the old man spread his legs and Duncan slid home (oh, so hot) into his body, he knew he'd done it right. Methos arched like a bow under that first touch, gasping around the fingers that covered his mouth. His hands left Duncan's body abruptly, shuddering, his head was thrown back, as near a picture of abandonment as Duncan had ever seen. The Highlander felt then, the rush of awe at this blind trust: he held his power lightly, moving inside Methos with small increments, his own skin sparking under the pleasure of what he was doing. It had been years. The other man's body was rising beneath him, demanding more: he gave it, a little harder, a little faster, watching the flush spread across Methos' skin, knowing it was the pleasure of his body that pleasured Methos that pleasured him, a tightening spiral of desire that spun their quickenings together until he could almost feel Methos' shuttered mind. He'd known that. Methos' body might be his (for now) but the other man's mind was his own. And, suddenly, he wanted more. He leant forward, held Methos' head, feeling the change in angle as his cock slid across the other man's prostate. "Methos," he said, and watching the other man's eyelashes tremble. He said it again, and Methos opened his eyes and looked at him as Duncan reached to Methos' cock and slammed into his body and Methos was screaming, coming with his eyes wide open, fixed on Duncan, splayed and held and stripped bare. It was like watching the apocalypse again in someone else's eyes: the fire and the pain and the desolation and the want spread out and undefended. It was almost too much, but Methos was owed for this gift: Duncan held those frightened eyes as he came himself, golden fire stripping mind from body for a few precious moments.

When it was over he just wanted to forget, bury himself in the blankets and the warmth of the body that had surrendered so unexpectedly to his, but Methos pulled away and stood unsteadily in the half-dark.

"I need to shower," he said, his voice still not quite even. He hesitated for a moment, and Duncan thought he might be going to say something else, but then the older man turned on his heel and left Duncan alone.

He tried to sleep then, hoping that when he awoke it would be morning and Methos would be gone, but could not. He could still smell the loneliness on Methos' skin, and it frightened him.

After a space of time, he could hear the other man moving sure-footed in the space of the loft, hear water steam, and was not surprised when the footsteps padded back to the bed accompanied by the heart-warming scent of fresh coffee. He heard Methos hesitate before setting the mug down, and sat up. His headache had vanished, but his body felt stretched and tense under the superficial release of lovemaking.

"I didn't know if you were awake," Methos said, his face grave and unsmiling.

"Yeah," Duncan said, reaching for the mug Methos had placed on the floorboards beside the bed. "Morning."

"And good morning to you," Methos replied. He looked clean and fresh, dressed in nondescript gray sweats with a towel round his neck. Water still sparkled on the tips of his short dark hair.

Duncan leaned back against the wall, the mug clasped in his hands. "Well," he said. "What do we do now?"

Methos sat crossed-legged on the floor, head turned to watch the false dawn through the open windows.

"You go back to your farm," he said. "I don't want to see you again, Duncan. I really don't want to see you again."

It felt like a stab to the heart. Had he been so needy?

"Okay," he said, and took his first mouthful of the bitter black brew.

"So easy?" Methos said, and laughed. "Oh, Gods, Duncan, I didn't know what I was going to have to do to get you to go away..."

Shocked, Duncan sat up straight in the blankets. "Christ, Methos," he said. "Is that what all this was about? Did you want to frighten me away?"

The other man laughed, short and harsh in the space of the loft. "Oh, I've always been your whore, Highlander," he said. "I just hadn't realised." He stopped abruptly.

"It was sweet, my friendh" Duncan said, catching and holding the green-gold eyes until Methos was the one who had to look away. Then he rose and dressed, and all the time Methos was looking out the windows. He sat unnaturally still, but Duncan knew that the hands cupped around the coffee were shaking.

Then he left.

When he got back to the farm, heedless of the wondering eyes of his neighbours as they saw him drive past in full daylight, he smashed the glasses into the cold hearth. Then he took the wine and put it away.

Later, as he weeded and tended the new crop, he thought about the room with its killing surface, the pallet and the swords on the wall. He thought about the naked woman and the jewels on the table, about the car and the hat and the vulnerable exposure of that mezzanine floor. He considered the computers and the look in Methos' eyes when he came. He found himself waking sweating in his bed, remembering the touch of Methos' hands on his body. 'I've always been your whore.'

When it was late summer and the corn was standing high in the small fields, he drove back to the city. He started in the cold pre-dawn of another lonely night, knowing that when he got there the older immortal would be sleeping: there was a part of him that wondered if their coupling had left some trace of Methos' quickening in his mind, for he found himself thinking of the other man often. Sometimes he had tasted defiance on the wind, sometimes fear and a wrenching courage that forced through the fear. Once or twice he thought he tasted death, but it was not Methos'.

He took offerings with him from the farm, and gathered more as he traveled into the new day. He saw no one, when he drove into the city. Drawing up again beside the strange car, he noted the two men in the shadow's of Methos' building, feeling their eyes as he bent to the back seat of the open vehicle. Here, tied into a small bunch, he left his gift for the older immortal. Corn, still faintly green, from the ripening fields: a sprig of last year's olives, withered now. Rosemary, for remembrance, and pansy; a single early pomegranate still too bitter to eat. Methos would know what he meant.


Then it was winter, and Methos had not come.


It was spring when he arrived. Unseasonably, February blew in with a biting wind, chasing sleet down the bare terraces of the hills: Duncan had moved his calving nanny into the kitchen, by the heat of the range. It had been a hard labour for both of them, and he was just settling back on his heals to watch her suckle the slimy kid for the first time when he heard the door open. He spun round, reaching for the katana with blood-red hands, and then realised it was Methos. The man looked worn to a shadow, frail, snow clinging to his hooded coat and the fur of his gloves, but he was smiling.

Duncan stood, aware of the first faint mews of the suckling kid behind him.

"Is it over?" he asked.

"Yes," Methos said. He had stopped smiling. "Did I read the message right?"

"Yes," Duncan said. "I had thought you'd come earlier, though."

Methos grimaced. "You underestimate our numbers, Highlander." He swayed on his feet, and for the first time Duncan saw how tired he was.

"Sit," he said. "I have brose and bread...you need to eat."

"Am I welcome?" Methos said.

"Oh yes," Duncan said. He opened his arms, and the older man walked into them. They clung together for minutes, not moving: Duncan could feel the beat of Methos' heart and the strength of his quickening, uneven, chancy. He said into Methos' ear: "Are you all right?"

"I don't know," Methos said, honestly. "Sometimes I feel there are so many people under my skin.."

"Can you manage?"

"I think so," Methos said. His hands slid down Duncan's arms to grip his fingers.

"You are home now," Duncan said.

"I know," the older immortal replied. He breathed deeply, let go. When he stepped back both of their hands were red.

Fin.