Disclaimer: Characters from the television series Highlander are owned by Panzer-Davis productions.
The adorable Foots belongs to Unovis, and is used with permission.
Unovis also produced the quickest and most professional beta I've ever seen, for which I am profoundly grateful, although any mistakes are of course my own. (If you haven't read anything Unovis has written, run, don't walk. Go now.)


I am also extremely grateful to Eva, who produced the lovely illustration you'll find at the bottom of the page. I was rather hoping there would be a thank-you piece of fiction by the time Misrule posted, but no, not yet. There will be.

Medieval Christmas fluff.

 

Misrule

Jay Tryfanstone
August 2005 - December 2006

On the twelfth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.


Day One
Sunday December 25th

On a cold morning in December (To be exact, Sunday, the 25th day of December, a morning that silvered the grass and skinned the duck pond with crackling ice) Methos answers the door. He has not been answering the door since the beginning of the month when the man from Lyon and Turnbull had delivered his recently purchased twelfth century copy of Juvenal's satires. Thus the action of leaving his comfortable chair by the fire is indicative of a caller beyond the usual. Indeed, were it not for the uncomfortable and often regretted fact that, for various reasons best left unstated, Methos knows only too well who is standing on his doorstep before he leaves his chair, this particular call would go as unheeded as every other.

On this occasion, however, Methos raises his head, frowns, cocks his head on one side, and lays Juvenal (carefully, for one should never irritate a satirist) to one side. He is whistling as he collects an unsheathed rapier from the umbrella stand -- not that the weapon is important. At this particular point in time Methos has, on and around his person, two throwing knives, a skean-dhu, a loaded Glock and a half-forgotten Swiss army knife together with a length of fishing line. With these weapons - and these alone - he once managed to dispose of a quartet of eager headhunters whose abrupt disappearance from Watcher records has been hotly debated ever since. There will be no unexplained disappearance on this occasion. There are, however, some inexplicable circumstances concerning this particular caller which Methos, walking to the door, is considering even as he lays hand to latch.

One: the man standing outside his door (and note that Methos betrays no confusion over gender) has been ostensibly missing, presumed sunk in Scottish Sturm und Drang, for approximately three years, four months and seventeen days. Two: the cause of this understandable if frustrating absence was the death of this man's close relative. In addition, said relative not only the bad judgment to manipulate his own disappearance, but to do so at his relative's hands, thus kick-starting said Scottish brood. Three (and most important): there are certain actions in Methos's past - his immediate past - which would probably not read well to a man of Duncan MacLeod's sense of honour. Truth be told, he is not at all certain that the Immortal outside his door is here for his beer or his Quickening.

He has been many things in life, but it takes a coward to own true bravery. He opens the door.

So certain is he of seeing a particular, annoyingly handsome countenance (although he is prepared for any emotion ranging from animalistic rage to quixotic humour) that the absolute absence of presence strikes him like a knife: he steps backwards, steps forward, blinks and is confronted in that instant with a view of twigs.

"Take this, will you," a recognisable voice says from the other side of the foliage.

If it is a challenge, it is the strangest challenge he has ever met. He files the scenario for future analysis, and sets his hands to the red terracotta pot that encloses the roots of the tree. It is not, as would be expected, given the season (although Methos has no quality of expectation when it comes to religious festivals: he's done them all, and would be no more surprised by a Christmas that featured maypole dancing than he was by one which involved the sacrifice of both animate and inanimate possessions) a Christmas tree. The branches are bare of needles, indeed of leaves, and shape of it is similar to a lollipop set in a chimney. No doubt there is a reason for this which will become clear at some later date, although at this particular point in time its appearance in his hands is bemusing. He backs away from the door and sets the pot carefully down beside the umbrella stand.

What follows him into the hall is a tottering pile of gaily-wrapped parcels set above a pair of legs wearing a battered pair of jeans and a pair of feet wearing rather handsome handmade brogues. Just visible between layers of packaging are a pair of large and capable hands, and the swinging edges of a leather overcoat.

The evidence is unmistakable. Duncan MacLeod has come to stay.

"Give us a hand, then."

Whilst the idea of disappearing at a fast pace down the hall springs to mind, Duncan clearly expects a measure of courtesy he has no means of knowing is an acquired disguise. He sets a hand to the parcels, sighing under his breath, and manages to guide them safely to the floor. In the belief that his head will not be shortly departing from his shoulders, he takes a closer look, and is disappointed to discover that neither boxes nor bags feature any inscription resembling the insignia of his favourite off-licence.

"Give us a hug, then," says his least favourite Scotsman but one.

"Up yours," Methos says. "What is this, Happy Christmas? Surprised you didn't bring the carol singers."

He is waspish, and knows it. The chances of finishing the Juvenal translation in time for a grand bacchanalia on Twelfth Night have just reduced from an average ninety percent to somewhere around zero.

"And call that a Christmas tree?"

The last time he saw this man they tiptoed round each other on edges of grief and betrayal. He doesn't do sympathy well. If Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod is looking for consolation, he can find it on his own time. There is, after all, a locker at Heathrow with two passports and more than a couple of bankbooks, and the name on them is not current currency.

Duncan laughs. It's a whole laugh, if just a little shaky round the edges, and it sounds good.

"Anyone would think you weren't pleased to see me," he says.

Methos places that comment into the file marked pending and stands up. The tone might have been injured but the face is smiling and the eyes softer than he has seen for years.

"Good to see you, Mac," he says. "Did you bring beer?"

"Later," Duncan says. "With the carol singers."

Unfortunately for Methos, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod is indeed telling the truth, although he will not discover this for another ten days. In lieu of this revelation, however, Methos, in the belief that his world is still fairly steady on its axis, cocks his head on one side, smiles briefly and with welcome (without showing his teeth, for one alpha male in this particular relationship is more than enough) mutters the word "Tea" and exits, pursued, to the kitchen.

In the year 1765 Methos, comfortably ensconced in a hotel in Whitechapel, was charmingly seduced by a pert and enthusiastic redhead who heralded her arrival in his room, his bed, and ultimately his household by the fragrant provision of a dish of finest Bohemia. Whilst the redhead has long since departed, the fondness for tea remains. He has several varieties of loose leaf on his shelves and a cornucopia of teapots in which to brew them.

Unfortunately, the brewing of tea, once commenced, is a largely inactive process, especially if one's guests are prepared to make themselves free of one's crockery. Methos turns round from the counter and discovers that Duncan MacLeod has not only set out two mugs, milk, and sugar: he has seated himself on the far side of the kitchen table and is regarding the senior Immortal with a smirk that quite clearly states Methos is now expected to communicate.

"OK, Mac," Methos growls. "Spill. What is it?"

This reactive comment is a mistake. Quite suddenly, Methos's future, which up to five minutes ago contained only a comforting fire, an extremely interesting text and a large-scale delivery of food and beer in approximately three days' time, evinces the kind of uncertainty best expressed by the multitudinous options of an Xbox shoot'em up. The Immortal opposite appears to believe that normality consists of a series of challenges, mishaps and misendeavours that would leave a lesser man panting and probably headless. In the circumstances, Methos should be more than happy to skirt merrily around the issues of Duncan's arrival without ever inquiring why, what! or (sotto voice) I'll get the Uzi, then.

"Happy Christmas, Methos," Duncan says.

"What?"

"Happy Christmas. Methos."

"What?"

"Well, let's see," Duncan says. "There was a man, once. He was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. You may have met him, not that you'd mention it."

"Mac."

"Oh, you prefer Hanukkah?"

"Where's the body, Mac? What is it this time? Tell me it's not magic again. I really hate magic. It's not natural."

"Can't I just want to spend some time...with my oldest friend?" Mac says. He has that damnable grin on his face again, the one that says 'I know something you don't and it's probably going to be fun.'

Duncan has a very strange idea of what constitutes fun. "Have some tea," Methos says, grumpily.

"Snark," says Duncan MacLeod.

"How long are you staying, then?" Methos asks.

"Christmas. New Year. Twelfth Night," says Duncan. "Got plans?"

The temptation to say yes and without you is almost overwhelming. In retrospect, Methos considers this to be one of the less interesting missed opportunities of his attenuated career. Unfortunately, in the last two minutes, the images of his (dusty) chess board and his brand new terry-cotton bathrobe from Liberty's, bought for Joe's visit last spring and unworn since, spring to mind. MacLeod might be annoying but he is at least both a worthy chess player and undoubtedly decorative, in that kind of annoying I'm so handsome you can't even touch me kind of a way.

"Hmm," he says, at last, in a kind of noncommittal fashion intended to express both you can stay and I'll toss you out on your ear whenever I feel like it, so don't go bringing the heads home.

"I did bring supper," Duncan says winningly.

Now this is a better offer. Methos allows himself to unbend, for Duncan is a very good cook and his own efforts have seldom gone past baked potato or pizza for one. Tonight, for example, he was planning on omelette, albeit with a very good stilton, but two eggs are undoubtedly better than one, particularly when someone else does the washing up. He raises an eyebrow and allows himself to smile through the steam of his teacup.

"Seriously, no trouble?" he asks, just to make certain.

Duncan cocks his head to one side and raises an eyebrow of his own. "No," he says, eventually.

That evening, he cooks gamebirds, sweet and aromatic, swimming in a gravy of their own rich juices, curiously unseasoned. Methos fetches salt. After a moment's thought, he gets bread as well, to mop up the gravy. Duncan just smiles at him, but he reaches for the salt bowl and eats the bread.

It's a gastronomic moment sufficient to make Methos forgive the unexpected intrusion into his life for some days to come, but it's a great pity the symbolism doesn't occur to him until considerably later.

Day Two
Monday December 26th

Methos wakes to the smell of good coffee and reaches for the Glock under his pillow. Frankly, this is a more than reasonable reaction, given that the eldest Immortal has spent the vast majority of the last five years living on his own, and the smell of coffee would unmistakably indicate the presence of someone else in his own house. The coffee is near, the pressure in his skull is sadly familiar, and the gun to hand: he has it aimed before he opens his eyes.

"It's not good manners to shoot your own guests," says his guest, brown doe eyes blinking over a well-filled mug.

"It's morning," Methos says. He does not expect callers before eleven o'clock: he sleeps naked, and Duncan does look remarkably good in the navy blue bathrobe.

Undeterred, his guest sets the mug on his bedside table, grins engagingly, and strides out the door with what is undoubtedly a hitch of his well-shaped backside.

Methos leans back on the pillows and looks down at the gun.

"Fuck," he says. It's not a good start to the day.

Damn good coffee, though. He's reconciled about halfway down the mug, and by the time he gets to the bottom is prepared to contemplate the world with a certain degree of equanimity. By the time he has dragged himself out of his bed and into the shower the smell of bacon has begun to wreath up the staircase and the world is undeniably a brighter place, if present some two hours prior to what Methos would normally consider acceptable. He finds himself whistling as he dries himself off and drags out a clean pair of jeans, and by the time he gets downstairs is ...almost...looking forward to the day.

Indeed the day is only improved by the sight of his own kitchen table, which contains, rather than the miso soup of his usual brunch, grapefruit, coffee, croissant, napkins, and a steaming plate of bacon, mushrooms and scrambled eggs. There is also a teapot, covered with a tea cosy. His guest, clad in a pair of corduroy trousers and a fisherman's sweater, stands at the Aga.

"Morning," Methos says, and buries his nose in the abbreviated copy of the Times which is propped by his plate.

"Coffee?"

"Tea." He reaches out a hand, grasps the handle of the teapot, noting incuriously that he does not recognise the cosy (alarmingly bright, it appears to portray a pair of mated parrots) and pours himself a mug. There is a very interesting article on long-term tax-free savings: he makes a mental note to e-mail his broker, and moves on to peruse the review pages. The noise of cutlery on crockery from the other side of the table is not really distracting: almost tolerable, in fact, an acceptable price to pay for the sort of breakfast which should rightly appear in a Dorothy L. Sayers novel. No devilled kidneys, of course. He sneaks a quick look around the edges of the paper, just in case, but no. His guest, however, has finished eating and is now sitting, looking abominably wide awake, with the kind of suppressed energy that only a three-year-old child or Duncan MacLeod can summon at this time in the morning. His guest, clearly, has plans.

"What?" Methos says.

"Did you know you've no Christmas cards up?"

It is the twenty-sixth day of December, St. Stephen's Day. For most of the modern world Christmas is over. For Methos, and for Duncan, Christmas, or the turning of the year, has just begun. For Methos, recently, Christmas - a Victorian invention garnished with ruddy-cheeked cherubs - has been better ignored than celebrated. Furthermore, Methos has not deigned to open his post for the previous two months, surmising - largely, correctly - that the vast majority of his mail contains either bills or cyclical exhortations to enroll in dubious schemes to either consolidate his debts or obtain startling amounts of credit.

"Hmm?"

"Methos. When's the last time you went for a walk?"

There is clearly a connection between these two statements that Methos fails to discern. Possibly something to do with Poland. He looks over the top of the paper again, but Duncan's face, open, smiling, and innocent to a degree that immediately sparks Methos's deepest suspicions, does not change.

"Mac?"

"You'll wilt if you stay here much longer. I want to explore. Get your boots, Old Man."

It is a beautiful day, cold and crisp, with a pale winter sun sliding through the kitchen window that gives an unlikely promise of warmth. It has been days since he has gone for a walk, weeks since he has spent time with another human being.

He folds the paper up and lays it on the table.

"Do I get breakfast like this tomorrow?" he asks suspiciously.

"Of course," Duncan says. "If you come out for a walk today."

As this was the very bargain Methos had been playing for, he does, indeed, retrieve boots, overcoat, mittens, scarf and hat and, thus attired, sets out from his own back door to accompany his guest on a guided tour of the grounds. Duncan is favourably impressed with the parterre, curiously interested in the duck pond, and childishly pleased with the peacocks, but it is the sight of the stand of Scots Pine that sets him stalking towards the horizon. By now, Methos's book is calling him, not to mention the bottles of beer in his pantry, but as he has done so often he follows in Mac's footsteps as if attached by an invisible leash. It is an uncomfortable reminder of the past they both share, but the relationship appears lost on his guest. By the time Methos catches up to the Scotsman the man is regarding, with rapt eyes, a ten-foot sapling which appears to have nothing remarkable in its growth pattern other than an unusually verdant set of branches.

"It's perfect," Duncan MacLeod says, with satisfaction.

"What?" Methos asks, unwisely.

"Do you have an axe?"

"On me?" Methos says, bemused. Then light dawns, uncomfortably twinkly. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" he asks, unwilling to voice what must surely be a misplaced conjecture.

"It's Christmas," says Duncan MacLeod. As if the arrival of a relatively recent phenomenon, which is in itself a watered down Christian reconstruction of a festival largely consisting in all its incarnations of large amounts of marzipan and misplaced cheer, all of which Methos could very well do without, should actually mean something.

Or at least, these are the thoughts which are running through Methos's mind as he lays hand to axe and with a few well placed and somewhat forceful strokes, causes the sudden demise of a tree which he himself had planted some twelve years before. Expertly judged: he allows himself a moment's satisfaction as Duncan is forced to leap back from the falling trunk. It takes two of them to drag the tree back to the house, where Duncan fusses merrily about pots and containers until the thing is standing, green and lowering, at the heart of Methos's entrance hall. There is no doubt that the tree looks absurdly pleased with itself, exuding the clean smell of pine resin and bonhomie. Methos gives it a look that is intended to convey with no small emphasis the fact that he, Methos, was once Death, scourge and slayer of pine trees across the entire known world, and goes for beer. The tree is not noticeably quailed, although his guest, apparently content, has unbent enough to allow Methos to escape into his library.

It is three hours, two beers, and one quarter of a satire later that Methos calls to mind the second property of Christmas Trees, namely, decoration. In an instant, half a hundred items of which he would, on the whole, rather his guest remained ignorant spring to mind. He shuts his book, finishes his third bottle of beer and sets out to protect his household forthwith. A quick survey of the kitchen and rooms adjoining reveals nothing more than a clean draining board and his own boots, stuffed with newspaper and neatly placed on a tray by the back door. A glance out the window discerns Duncan's annoyingly showy BMW, innocently at rest. A quick circuit of dining room (dusty) drawing room (dust-sheeted) and billiard room (best not to mention) unearths no trace of his guest. He is reassured, however, mounting the stairs, for from the half-open door of the ballroom comes the sound of Pequita's aria from The Magic Flute.

Like the curious child in the fairy tale, Methos opens the door.

In the short years of their friendship, there are many characteristics of the Highlander Duncan MacLeod that have spurred Methos to exasperation, laughter, mockery, and on one sweet and never-to-be-forgotten occasion downright murder. The one thing he has never (successfully) been able to deride, however, is the Highlander's physical beauty. Seeing Duncan wrapped in a coat, through a blur of early-morning or late-night curmudgeonness, disguised, up to this moment Methos has successfully denied the memory of what all his senses have been telling him since the day they met. Coming upon the man, suddenly: a man wearing nothing but loose gi, a man of extraordinary power and beauty, gilded by the light of the seven great windows, in front of which he passes and re-passes, concentrating, his very form a miracle of aggression tempered with discipline...Of such men are myths made. Methos, to his lasting embarrassment, finds his mouth dry, his breath stopped, and his blood rushing with such speed from his brain to his lower extremities that he might as well have been turned upside-down.

To be so disconcerted in the environs of his own house is less than acceptable. He is reminded, at once and vividly, of another salle in another city, of another occasion when he bent once and humiliatingly under the blade of the man who is currently, unaware, performing a kata in Methos's own ballroom. One hand on the wood of his eighteenth century paneling, he limps away to the easement of an extremely cold shower. By the time he emerges, cross-grained, disconcerted and decidedly limp, he has come to the conclusion that this whole visiting thing - despite his own actions of the previous three years - is Not A Good Idea.

Sadly, at the very point at which he has screwed both mouth and stomach to the expulsion of this uninvited guest, he hears the slam of his front door. A betowelled rush to the window reveals only the uncommunicative rear of Duncan's car, heading out of the driveway at some speed.

Methos, beset by both an overwhelming relief and the devastating disappointment of failed self-preservation, retires to his library.

Two further hours and a single stanza later, one with a particularly witty turn of phrase that leaves a sense of contentment in its wake, equilibrium is restored. He listens to Duncan's car pull into the drive with only the faint sense of both relief and trepidation that the return of one's houseguests should bring and even bestirs himself to put the kettle on. Miscellaneous thumps from the hall herald the Scotsman's arrival, but the expected tall figure does not materialise in the kitchen. Ergo, the mountain goes in search of Mahomet - or should that be the other way round? - coffee mugs grasped in one hand.

Blinking...does not help.

His hall. His tree. His fireplace.

What exactly is the point of this mess, and is Duncan really wearing a string of tinsel around his neck?

He is.

He turns round and smiles, exactly as if the only thing Methos's house needed was an application of holly and red ribbon, as if the only thing Methos needed was a Scotsman festooned in pine needles and Christmas cheer. When he sees Methos's face the smile only deepens.

"It'll be all right," Duncan says. "You wait. I'll fix it."

Precisely. Methos skitters through decapitated baubles and retreats once more to the sanctuary of his library. By the time Duncan is done, just about midnight, Methos is well into his sixth bottle of Black Sheep, lying on his back in the window seat staring at stars which are not the stars of his childhood, and does not care.


Day Three
Tuesday December 27th

Revisionism is only for the faint of heart. Methos, coming down to breakfast in his dressing gown (a concession to propriety only the sneaking suspicion of potential concupiscence could produce) accepts the desecration of his hall with equanimity and reassures himself that, so long as his guest is in residence, breakfast will indeed remain a repast of unequaled magnificence. The smell of bacon is glorious. The coffee, he finds, is not only Kenyan but already steaming in a mug by his chair, and The Times is unfolded and ready to read.

Unwilling as yet to acknowledge the source of these joys, he sits down, opens the paper and reaches for his fork. It is twenty, very pleasant, minutes later that his guest clears his throat and taps a spoon on the glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

"Methos."

"Mmm?"

"If you really don't like it, I'll take it down."

Methos looks up. His guest, his bête-noir, his beloved, is looking at him with the apologetic stare of someone who, aware he has offended, has yet to determine both cause and conditions.

It is not, after all, a particularly ugly tree.

"It can stay," Methos says.

"Good," Duncan says.

"But you take it down," Methos warns. He finds himself, suddenly, on the receiving end of a grin that, while it may not launch a thousand ships, should certainly rank in the annals of subversion - Clause IV, Logical Thought Processes may well be disturbed by a patented Duncan MacLeod Grin.

What did he say?

Oh yes. Oh no.

Methos opens his mouth to make a snarkily sound comment on the subject of guests, Christmas, and not overstaying their welcome, and stops. If he is to be honest with himself (and he does try to be) he likes having Duncan MacLeod in his house. The cooking is great, the scenery exceptional, and the expense of having the man watched is considerably less. He says, instead, "Just keep it up till Twelfth Night."

".... I'll do my best," Duncan says, with a layer of amusement under his voice that Methos does not place until reacquainted with his library chair, his fire, and his manuscript copy. He sighs, puts that particular comment down, with a moment's regret, to the juvenile nature of youngsters, and refills his pen.

The one thing that Methos has not predicted, in all his late-night reflections on Having A Guest (or more particularly, on having Duncan MacLeod, who will never, he thinks, be naked in his bed, though there's no harm in dreaming) is the curious ability of people who live in a village to know precisely what their neighbours are doing. Just about twelvish, and just about time for the first bottle of beer, he puts down his books, exits the library, and enters the kitchen to discover that not only is his guest in undoubted possession of every utensil available, so too are at least five different people Methos has not seen since the harvest bazaar. The table is covered with trays, the sink is piled high with saucepans, and someone has rifled his stockpile of aprons. The air is thick with the smell of mixed spice and raisins, and the bottle of rum by the Kenwood is three-quarters down. Mrs P., his housekeeper, is in possession of the worksurface and at the table Mrs Pearce and Miss Appleby are slicing apples: Mrs Wycherly is supervising the Aga with the aplomb of a woman born baking, and Thomas the Post is propping up the door.

"Adam!" says Mrs Wycherly. "My dear Adam, how lovely to see you have guests! How lucky we could come over to help!"

The witch. After the summer fete, Methos had found the woman arse-over-tits in the hallway armoire: she had, she said, been looking for the water closet. He'd taken to keeping stuffed rodents in the cupboards, until Mrs P. complained.

Come to think of it, Mrs P. wasn't due until after New Year. And what the two lady librarians are doing here is beyond him. At least Thomas the Post he can suppress with a glare - you think I've forgotten the parcel from Foyles? Methos says, silently, and Thomas lets go of the door and leaves without a final meringue.

"How unexpected," Methos says.

The path between kitchen door and pantry is blessedly unencumbered, although if he'd wanted anything other than a liquid lunch - a cheese sandwich, for example - he might have had to resort to behaviour that predated the current century by a reckless degree. There is, however, a case of rather good microbrew sitting by the icebox. Methos cracks open a bottle.

"It's been years since we had a proper Christmas up at the house," Mrs Wycherly says. "The Vicar was mentioning it at the coffee morning yesterday. You were there, weren't you, Maud? I didn't want to think of Sheila with all this to do on her own."

She looks up and smiles at Mrs P., but Methos's housekeeper is wrist-deep in the innards of a capon and does not reply.

"Of course we came right over right away," Mrs Wycherley adds. "And to find the first guest as well!" She favours Duncan with a glimpse of some alarmingly mismatched dentistry. "My dear boy, you must tell me how you and our Dr Adam met: such a good influence in the village, you know, not at all like those jumped-up celebrities one reads about in the Mail."

Duncan, de-stoning the kirsch soaked cherries Methos had laid down at the back end of the seventies when these things were acceptable, smiles and raises an eyebrow.

"Good influence?"

He says, fortunately, nothing more.

"Oh yes! Why, Sheila was saying only the other day that Dr. P. was the only one who got her youngest interested in anything other than boys."

Methos, who has an alarming recollection of being ambushed by a fourteen-year-old child of doubtful virtue and dangerous precocity behind the village hall, remains diplomatically silent. He does, however, make the mistake of looking at his guest, a man considerably older and of more experience than the uncalled-for assistants. Duncan, straight-faced, pops a cherry in his mouth and licks his fingers.

Methos blinks, looks away, and catches Mrs P, cleaver in hand, denuding a fresh capon of both beak and legs. Nature red in tooth and claw.

"...at sixth form college," Mrs Wycherley finishes. "Now, how many of those tartlets would you suggest? Adam, you will be inviting the chapel as well as the church, won't you? And of course the Vicar just loves my lemon cake. Perhaps I should bake two?"

Inviting the church?

When did he do that?

He looks back at his guest. Duncan salutes him with a raised eyebrow and nods his head to the garden door.

"...duck eggs," Methos says, and flees.

He is indeed followed.

"Invite the church?"

"You don't have to be here."

"Mac."

"Can't you just smell the mince pies?"

Methos can smell more than that. He sighs, considers geese, rottweilers and Roman city walls, and retreats to the unscented pages of his manuscript via the kitchen. Mrs P. has started on the third capon, and just how many people had Duncan invited?

It is four hours later that he realises he's forgotten to ask when, and it is evening before he dares approach the kitchen.

The room is as pristine as if the whole scene had been a kirsch-tinged figment of his imagination. There is a pot on the stove that smells of good red wine and chicken stock, and there is a round of barley bread on the side, and a bottle of raisins soaking in brandy.

He eats alone and knows it.

Day Four
Wednesday December 28th

Not the smell of coffee but the sound of the telephone. A civilised man, Methos has no extension in his bedroom, but like any householder he is alert to the sounds of his own house. It rings once, twice, and is answered. The rhythm of Duncan's voice is clear, but not the words. A question; an answer; laughter, intimate. The clock reads 7.30am. He rolls out of the covers and tiptoes sideways across the floor: there are three creaking boards directly between door and bed.

It's cold.

Duncan laughs again. He says, "When will you get here? Do you want me to pick you up?"

He says, "Yes, of course."

He says, "There must be a map somewhere around here."

He says, "Bring olives. Bring cheese." He listens a while, and laughs. His voice is low. He is talking to someone he knows well. Methos wonders bad-temperedly if he should have given Duncan the room with the oversized tester and put peas under the mattress. Then he removes the peas and adds a camera. Perhaps he could blame Joe.

Duncan says, laughing, "I haven't told him yet. We'll see."

Methos, cross, puts Duncan and Joe in the same bed. It doesn't work. Joe rolls over and laughs at him. Duncan does nothing, just looks at him through the hangings. No matter how he tries, Methos can't decipher the expression on the man's face. He banishes the image.

"We'll see you on the second, then," Duncan says. "Oh, and Joe? - Happy Christmas."

Methos hits his head off the door and walks back to bed, treading deliberately on all three boards. Downstairs, Duncan shouts - "I heard that. Are you up?"

"I'm not here," Methos says to his pillow.

He is still, resolutely, not there when Duncan arrives with coffee. The Highlander doesn't knock. Either he has planned out Methos's floorboards or his step is light enough not to spring them.

"You're awake," Duncan says. He holds the coffee somewhere near Methos's nose, duvet covered, and then puts it on the table. He sits on the bed. Methos, shocked, sits up, looks down, and makes a grab for the bedclothes, only to find them caught under Duncan's considerable weight.

"I invited Joe."

Duncan's shaved. He is wearing chinos and a sweater Methos thought he himself remembered owning, one that very probably looked better on the Highlander than it did on himself. But then, everything looked better on the Highlander, even Amanda.

"Do you mind?"

The man doesn't get up, and the bedclothes are still caught under his thighs. There is not enough hair on Methos's chest to be considered insulation: there have been times when such sparseness has been a distinct advantage, but right now he feels horribly overexposed. He grabs a spare pillow: there are plenty of those.

He'd like to say yes, but he can't. "No. Go away."

"Does your hair always look like that in the morning?" Duncan asks. "He's coming on Monday. I thought I'd pick him up from Gatwick. Is that OK?"

"Fuck off, MacLeod," Methos says. He's giving his best narrow-eyed glare, but Duncan's head is on one side, intrigued rather than intimidated. He must be getting old.

"I'll take that as a yes, then," Duncan says. He stands up. He glances at the window, and for a second there is something about the set of his shoulders that is incredibly vulnerable, a softened curve. Methos thinks of Duncan gathering his family like a fucking mother hen.

"Invite who you like. I've got more than enough bedrooms."

"You mean that?" Duncan says. There is something about the way he tries to hide the hope in his voice that could push Methos towards finding a larger, heavier, and quite possibly studded door to hit his head on.

"Yeah."

"Thanks," Duncan says.

"Don't clear out the wine cellar," Methos says, warning.

"I won't, I promise."

"And don't expect me to play mine host for the populance."

"I won't."

Duncan's eyes are frighteningly intent. It's too early.

"Get off my bed."

His guest opens his mouth, closes it, looks down at the bedclothes, and leaves in silence.

Methos thinks, 'am I imagining things?' and pulls the bedclothes over his head, remembers a moment when it was he lying on Duncan's bed and then thinks rather desperately of something else. It is midday before he gets up.

He is coming down the stairs, with more stealth than a man should have to own in his own house, when the telephone rings again. Struck by the vision of arresting his guest's incipient malice at source, he takes the stairs two at a time, but Duncan still reaches the phone first. There are some unfair advantages to modern genetics, Methos acknowledges, as he slides to a halt a foot from his guest's outstretched hand. Duncan has reached the handset first. His eyebrows signal wry amusement. Methos attempts a glower and finds himself snagged by the waistband of his jeans.

"Hello," Duncan says. "The Manor. Oh."

His face changes as his eyelids drop. He leans back against the paneling of the stairs and pulls Methos with him. Duncan's arms are dense with muscle, and his hold unbreakable without unseemly scuffle or grievous bodily harm. Tight as the older Immortal holds himself - because Duncan must know he is well within Methos's personal space - the arm does not let go, urges him instead to prop his body alongside Duncan's own. There are not two inches between them and if he unbent even a little there would be none. He can feel the heat rise from his guest's skin, disconcertingly intimate. If he does not say something...

"Who?" Methos mouths.

"Amanda." Duncan tightens his arm and adjusts the receiver to lie between them.

"..of course I'll come," Amanda says.

It is not a spurious intimacy. He can smell the Highlander's cologne, and each breath he takes warms the space between them.

"And the old man reappeared? I wouldn't miss.."

Duncan's eyes flick up. He is so close Methos can see the little gold flecks among the hazel brown of his irises, the tuck and fold of the smooth skin of his eyelids. Duncan's flesh would taste clean, slightly salty.

"Just a little trouble in Amiens. Taking the long way.."

Duncan's eyebrows arch. Question mark between his brows. 'Think, fool,' Methos thinks, but intelligent thought has migrated south and taken up sunbathing somewhere around the region of his crotch.

"...probably around the second," Amanda says. "I'll be in Seattle for the New Year."

Oh yes. Visitors. He nods. Duncan's hands tighten and loosen, a non-verbal thanks. Methos thinks once and viciously of Duncan falling to his knees - now, a tree toppled, a hunger - jackknifes away from that arm and heads to the kitchen. He knows Amanda's calls. The man will be busy for at least another twenty minutes, which is time enough...Methos opens the fridge and helps himself to orange juice drunk straight from the carton.

If he is really clear-sighted about this, this something, this unspoken connection, this...whatever it is, it's not...friendship. Does Duncan actually know what he's doing? Is it possible that Methos has become, God help him, an actor in some drama of the Highlander's own devising? That scene with the cherry. What was practically an embrace in the hall. 'What is it Duncan isn't telling me?' Methos thinks, and then, rueful, 'Did I really invite Amanda?'

After a fruitless moment or two that encompasses hidden cameras, undercover operations, bad phraseology, and the chances of asking the man directly what the gameplan was, he gives up and makes brunch. For two.

"Amanda. Do you mind?"

Duncan, coming in the kitchen door, closing it and leaning back, looks at him as if what he thinks matters.

"Not at all," Methos says.

But he does mind, somewhere behind all the centuries when he didn't: he minds in a part of him that still owns possessiveness and thinks the idea of purdah an entirely acceptable convention.

"You have nothing to worry about," Duncan says, and looks at the table. "And you made lunch."

What does the man expect?

"Duncan?"

"Lamb stew for lunch, then?"

"...have some bread."

After all, when it came to avoidance, Methos had a few years on his guest.

The telephone went again halfway through the afternoon. By the skin of his teeth and still with his pen in one hand, Methos gets there first. Duncan, running, flattens them both against the stairs and grabs at the handset.

"Omph," Methos says, and would have doubled over were it not for thirteen stone of Scotsman holding him upright. And then- "Hello?" and Duncan's hand closes over his and wrenches the phone down between them.

"Adam?"

Oh bloody hell, Methos thinks, and thrusts the speaker at Duncan. "I think it's for you," he says, and extracts himself from the man's hold with some force. The library at least is sacred space.

"Claudia?" Duncan says.

Methos considers his own foolishness in the reflection of an eighteenth-century mirror. Sum: one improbable Immortal, well beyond the age when discretion should outweigh virtue and surely by now too old to be swayed by a pair of brown eyes and a neat posterior.

No.

When the phone rings again he ignores it. He ignores dinner as well, although the arrival of his guest, much later and in silence with a bottle of very good whisky, is just about acceptable. Duncan lights the fire. Methos pours the malt, and they both watch stories unfold in the embers.

There's no fool like an old fool.


Day Five
Thursday December 29th

At 2.00pm he is restless, unable to focus his thoughts on the written word. At 2.30 he goes for coffee and finds the kitchen deserted, with only Duncan's coat on its hook testifying presence. The BMW is still in the drive. At 3.00 he is wandering round the library, pulling out random texts, checking the tail end of half-forgotten phrases, the scattered DNA of his mind. At moments like this he wonders if he is no more than the sum of what he has read.

Outside it is raining, dull and steady, the end of the drive greyed into invisibility.

At 3.36 he gives up and looks for Duncan, who is not hard to find once he admits desire, although at first all Methos sees of him is one hand (broad, with fingers that taper at the ends: a swordsman's hand) flung over the back of the sofa, and a television screen on but barely audible. The screen turns red, green, gold and flickers: five gold rings emerge from a CGI sea. He walks round the sofa and sits on the edge of it: Duncan's legs, splayed, pull back and make room. He leans back. The jagged edges of discontent smooth. Just to be annoying, he sprawls, encroaching on the Highlander's space, denimed thigh capturing Duncan's bare toes. Duncan wiggles them but does not retreat. Methos considers turning up the heating, if Duncan will insist on walking round with no shoes on. They have still not looked at each other.

On screen, a man with a headset and a large microphone is talking to an anonymous woman in the garish red, white, and blue of a UK team jacket. The words are inaudible, but from where he sits Methos knows Duncan's eyes are fixed on the screen.

"Turn it up," he says.

"Mmmm?" Duncan says, and points the remote at the machine.

"-thank you, and good luck," says the man in the headset. The screen clears. Music. An enclosed hall with taped out basketball lines. A sparse crowd. Two men in masks. Duncan's toes twitch.

Two men in masks with swords.

Salute.

Guarde: engagement. Thrust, counterthrust, lunge: an ugly scrambled move that must be an attempt at d'Envir's enveloppement. Disengage. At this rate, it'll take seconds. Thrust again, point unsteady. Footwork could be better. Tierce, quatre, cientre. Over. The opponents fall apart: there is desultory clapping.

The Olympic symbol flashes on screen, very briefly.

Another pair. Salute. Guarde.

"Watch this one," Duncan says. "There's a piece of footwork...see?"

"Almost as if you could pull into tierce from there..."

"I was thinking Fendente. I'll rewind."

The tape whirrs: they watch again.

"You could do either," Duncan says. "Look at the angle of his foot, and the way the blade curves..." His toes twitch again.

"You'd lay yourself open on that left side, though," Methos says.

"Maybe you've a wall there..."

"Maybe there's two of them."

"Pessimist."

"Reckless infant. Is this the one with the Viktor/Sherman fight in it?"

He feels, rather than sees, Duncan's head turn.

"You haven't seen this before?"

Methos shakes his head, "No."

Duncan's feet rock Methos's thigh, not gently.

"Call me reckless?"

Methos flicks his eyes sideways ('most of us know how to run') but Duncan is watching the screen fast forward. He contents himself with excavating the Highlander's feet and propping them against his leg. Duncan has two long, black hairs on the long toe of his left foot. Methos pulls one out.

"Ouch,"Duncan says. "Don't do that."

He pulls the other one, just to be irritating." All done."

"I was cultivating those."

"What for, the National Hairdressing Championships? Mac, what you had there wouldn't make a decent toupee for a flea."

Duncan's head turns on the back of the sofa. He looks up. The Highlander's face is relaxed, his eyes wide between black lashes. He hasn't shaved, and the curve of his lips is lax and bountiful. As if in ague, Methos's skin flushes cold, apart from the spot where the Highlander's toes touch his leg. There, there is heat. He should never have looked up. He can't move. He can move. He pushes Duncan's feet away and curls himself up in the corner of the sofa. Duncan turns back to the screen, but his toes inch over the leather, stopping only millimetres from Methos's skin.

"Watch this," Duncan says. His voice is half a tone lower than it should be.

Two men in masks.

Salute. Guarde. Thrust. Counterthrust.

There is something altogether too phallic about this, like watching porn with someone you don't know well and are not entirely certain you want to know better.

An elegant disengagement. Watch the feet, watch the eyes. Don't watch the sword.

Rapprochement. Thrust, guard, thrust. The blades move almost too fast for the eye to see. It has never been his style of fighting.

"Look-" Duncan says. "Here."

His toes twitch again: they rest against Methos's leg.

Oh, now that is good. A point scored en avant, a swift retreat, a feint to the left and then a ...

"Play it again," Methos says.

Duncan rewinds, presses play.

There it is, point scored, retreat, feint - he still can't quite see...

"Slower?"

"No, look-" Duncan says. His feet are suddenly on the floor, all his body energised. He looks round - there's a pool cue propped against the wall. "It's the footwork for the feint. He leads with the left, not the right..." Half a pool cue lands, jolting, in Methos's lap. "Stand up, man. See, Viktor has the leading edge turned to the side, here, but his feet are like this. Sherman thinks he's going to lead into couinterfeint, does exactly the right thing - yeah, that's it - but Viktor leaves himself enough time to take the blade through, here - move! - here -"

Wood raps wood. Methos finds himself weaponless, his hand stinging.

"Again," he says, and bends to retrieve the cue.

"Leading edge, feet, yeah? - and so -"

He tries an engagement en avant and nearly pulls it off.

"Again."

He pulls back in time, but Duncan follows. Lunge, cut, second cut, defend - crack! His knuckles sting.

"Again."

Retreat, feint: attack! - cut left, cut right, forward, Duncan steps back - and trips - falls! His neck is bare. Step forward - fuck. Never forget the feet - he's falling, snaps the pool cue across his palms and goes for Duncan's throat with the wood. Duncan's eyes watch him come. At the last moment the Highlander's hands pull the cue up and over his head: a second more and his windpipe would have been crushed. Methos tries rolling but Duncan's knees have come up behind his back, spreading and holding his legs. He pulls up, but Duncan's hands hold his on the cue. Their faces are inches apart. He closes his eyes.

"You knew I'd catch you." Duncan says.

"No," Methos says. He pulls back again, and this time Duncan lets him go. At the door, he turns round, and Duncan is still lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.

"Beer?"

"Aye."

When he comes back Duncan is watching the swimming.

They don't touch.

He turns up the heating, but he is still cold.

Duncan cooks stirfry: Methos makes gooseberry fool, which doesn't go with stir fry but does with the rich sauterne the Highlander unearths from the cellar. They watch a film about men driving, long, endless dust covered roads. Duncan thinks it's a great movie. Methos writes letters he'll never send to people only he remembers.

When he goes to bed he lies in the darkness thinking, what was that all about? Two men in masks. He dreams of a harlequin diving into a swimming pool, and wonders of what betrayal he is frightened. His lips are numb: he dreams cocaine kisses, then blood. That's not unusual.


Day Six
Friday December 30th

"Should we talk about it?" Duncan asks, somewhere after the second cup of coffee and before the porridge.

Methos could say, what? He could say, this house party you insist on throwing, this attempt to disrupt a comfortable and satisfying retirement, the way your hand felt over mine? He could say, where did the game go, when did you change the rules, are you going to explain?

He doesn't. He says, "No," and reaches for the marmalade. After a pause, "Do you know what you're doing?"

Duncan smiles and says, "Yes." It's a smile that shows all his teeth. Then he says, "Have you any eggs?"

"What?"

"Christmas pudding? You've a mould in the larder."

"You're joking."

"No. And you'll have a shilling piece somewhere, Old Man?"

He has a set of charms that date to1652. He unearths them, although not, thankfully, any inclinations of his own to domesticity. Duncan bakes.

It's a recipe that uses six fresh goose eggs and the jar of Henessey-soaked raisins that have been stewing since Wednesday. The pudding, mixed, smells of alcohol and good cheer: baked, it will feed a small regiment. Dragged once again from the book of the cynic, Methos stirs as requested.

"Did you wish?"

"No," he says, lying.

But later the smell of it follows him into dreams of the world turned upside down.


Day Seven
Saturday December 30th

Methos wakes, not, as he has come to expect over the previous six days, to the smell of coffee, but to muffled voices and a rhythmic clanking that reminds him of nothing so much as an ill-advised journey to Nome in the autumn of 1906. A quick survey of his bedside table reveals a single empty mug, a copy of Poe's collected short stories, two new papers on a previously uncatalogued assemblage of Indo-Chinese entablature, and an alarm clock that blinks at him balefully. 8.05am. He struggles up in the bedclothes, and directs a deathly glare at his bedroom door. Elucidation is not forthcoming. There is nothing to be done: he finds his jeans but not his sweater, squares his shoulders, checks the sheath of his throwing knife and stalks to the door, sword in hand. A cautious squint through the crack reveals nothing more than a gently steaming bucket of water set directly outside his door: he frowns, tightens his grip and opens the door.

There is no one outside.

There is, however, a curious smell which Methos discerns to be composed of two parts bleach to one part Brasso. He follows his nose, turns the corner, and is confronted by the sight of Mrs P.'s youngest, Chloe, sweet sixteen and already with five piercings visible to the strictly friendly eye. At this particular moment, Chloe (whom Methos strongly suspects of being responsible for the construction, last November, of a Guy Fawkes fire that devastated his water meadow and attracted the attention of fire brigades from three different counties) is bent industriously over a bronze statue that survived Pompeii, not to mention an unfortunate escapade in sixteenth-century London. She is dusting.

"Good morning, Chloe." Methos says, sternly.

Chloe looks up. She grins, as if a half-naked man with a sword in his hand is entirely to be expected, nods her head once and says -

"Mornin', Dr P.!"

At this time in the morning Chloe's hair is just one shade of red too bright to be endured. Methos considers retreating to his bedroom or making a dash for the kitchen. The renewed sound of clanking from his back decides him: he tucks the blade under his arm, smiles once and flees. It's the wrong decision. Descending the stairs he encounters Mrs P. herself, brisk, bolstered, and carrying a load of sheets in her hands ("Good Morning...Doctor.") and between the bootroom and the kitchen almost collides with the stout behind of Mrs P.'s bosom-bow Mrs Carlisle, bent over the vacuum cleaner with something in her hand that can only be a new dustbag. Methos hasn't changed a bag in the vacuum cleaner since 1963, when the Beatles turned his world upside down. He gives the beast a single horrified stare and practically skitters into what should be the refuge of the kitchen, closing the door behind him with a sigh of relief.

He is mistaken. Slowly, one by one, like the awful heads of Cerebus at the gates of hell, his gardener, his gardener's son and his gardener's son's friend Steve from college turn to look at him. They are seated at his kitchen table, drinking his coffee out of his mugs. Furthermore, by the kitchen sink, his guest - his nemesis - is smirking at him over a clipboard and a stack of paper that looks horrifically like an incipient Duncan MacLeod Plan, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Methos looks down at his sword as if uncertain quite what it is doing in his hands.

He feels horrifically grateful when Duncan MacLeod reaches up and snags him a clean sweater from the drying rack. Two heads watch it fly across the room: Steve's eyes are firmly fixed somewhere between Methos's chest and his knees. He struggles into the warm folds, and emerges to discover that the boy has not only poured him a cup of coffee but is standing up and passing it across. Young, but presentable: kneeling -

Duncan clears his throat. "You understand?" he says. "The stables and the garages first, the yard: after that the driveway and the garden?"

There is a chorus of yeses and one yessuh, a shuffling of boots, and then Methos faces the world's most annoying Scotsman across the battlefield of one rectory table and three empty mugs, each of which, in the right hands, could be considered a deadly weapon.

He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.

Duncan smiles at him. It's blinding. White teeth and suppressed mischief. He blinks.

"I thought we'd spend the day in town," Duncan says.

"There are people in my house," Methos says.

Pursing his lips and nodding slowly, Duncan MacLeod gives a good impression of A Man Who Knows.

"Several of them," he says. "Do you want some milk in that coffee?"

"Duncan," Methos says, gritting his teeth and giving the name all the gravitas he can muster. "There are people in my house."

"It's just today," Duncan says. "It's Christmas."

He says it as if it is all the explanation needed.

"Am I paying them?" says Methos.

Hesitation. "No." Then: "Well then," says Duncan MacLeod. His head tips on one side: the look in his eyes becomes distinctly calculating. "When's the last time you were in Foyles?" he asks.

Methos is as susceptible to bribery as any other man. When bribery consists of breakfast at Claridges, and a trawl down Charing Cross Road that unearths three new BAR reports, a commentary on Lucretius he'd thought out-of-print, an entirely new edition of Audobon's prints he'd unaccountably missed from his dealer's catalogue and a collection of alt.sex sci-fi that will keep him content until past the end of January, he's history. Nose buried in Jacqueline Carey, he barely notices the trip up to Oxford Street and is only thankful when Duncan abandons him in Fortnum and Mason, on a set of chairs by the entrance to the food hall.

It's a long wait, but by the time Duncan returns, not smiling, but with the air of a man whose mission has been accomplished, he's onto chapter sixteen and reconciled to the world. He takes the spin around Harrods in his stride (does Duncan have an account? Purchases seen to vanish with unseemly haste: he catches a glimpse of a cashmere sweater and something decidedly slinky in silk) and is barely disconcerted by the paper aeroplane that flies by the tip of his nose in the doorway to Hamley's. Just why Duncan needs a complete set of Meccano, two Twister mats, three different editions of Trivial Pursuit and a bear with a polka dot bowtie and a martial gleam in his eye escapes him, but by the time he's decided to ask Duncan turns round, smiles, and says the magic word Beer.

They go to a cellar bar in Soho where Duncan makes lists and Methos surveys the passing traffic with smug satisfaction. And the beer is good. He tucks his feet up on the benchseat and opens Kushiel's Chosen. It is a good half-hour before Duncan collates his notes and looks up.

"Ready?"

"Mmm," Methos says.

He pockets Kushiel and finishes the last of his pint, watching Duncan file paperwork. He is, he realises, smiling. This could be the future, this companionable, unthreatening silence. He likes it. He likes the way Duncan heads for the steps and the door without looking to see if he is behind. He is. He likes the way Duncan expects him to be there, makes allowance for his personal space and the position of his swordhand. He likes, head cocked, the familiar and bountiful shape of Duncan's back, the breadth of his shoulders, the way the fabric of his coat curls around back and sword to form a flowing whole. He likes the way Duncan raises heads, and the way he himself fits, unnoticed but present, into Duncan's shadow. He likes it so much, thinking, that he walks right into that undeniably beautiful but disconcertingly solid back. They have stopped at the top of the stairs.

"Stranger," Duncan says, but Methos can already feel Immortal presence trail across his mind. It's young, aggressive, powerful. He has already slipped the throwing knife into his hand (fuck Duncan's scruples, he is not having this day spoilt by an adolescent challenge) and when the Highlander's hand comes down on his wrist the muscles are telltale tense.

"My dear," Duncan says, head bent, and turns round. "My dear." He is smiling. "I think...it's time to leave."

He can still not believe it, the whole trip back, almost does not notice his own house, sparkling, his dusted rooms and his laid fires and his made up beds. He is still unbelieving when they light the fire, after dinner: the fire in the great hall which has lain untouched since...he cannot remember. It burns now, pine sharp scented and crackling with sap, yew for heat, hawthorn for the shape of it, knotted and beautiful. Duncan's face in firelight is iconic grace, and tonight, the night of the new year, he wears plaid and an open shirt that shows the warm flesh of his throat and the pulse beating under his skin.

"Mac."

"Shush."

"Mac..."

"Hush now." His face, grave and older, surely, than he should look, this reckless child. Then he turns round, kneeling, and reaches Methos down with him beside the fire. "A Mhuire, did I not ever tell you a story, this story, of a girl who had seven brothers..."

Day Eight
Sunday January 1st

On Sunday, New Year's Day, Methos wakes to a cooling cup of coffee, the duvet pulled up to his chin, and the uneasy realisation that he has - must have - become accustomed to the fall of Duncan's step and the warmth of his breath. He sits bolt upright and knocks three pillows and Sei Shonagan to the floor, covers sliding in unwelcome disclosure.

It is in a decidedly churlish frame of mind that he descends, fully clothed, to breakfast. Which is ready made and coddled on a hot plate. A carafe stands ready on the Aga, and the coffee is just as he would prefer. The thin editions of the Sunday newspapers are stacked on the kitchen table and the one on top is folded to the very article on recent re-evaluation of Aramaic translation he would have chosen to read over his coffee. Duncan's workboots stand by his own at the back door as if they belong there, and his copper saucepans are polished. There are three different kinds of olive oil on the side, and a mug that reads, ' Scotsman do it in kilts' upside down on the draining board.

The library is undisturbed.

He files some paperwork and sharpens his pencils to a feather blade. The telephone rings and he does not answer, but the cut-short ring suggests that someone else has.

There is a real-ale pub on the coast Methos has been meaning to visit for nigh on eight months and it's near lunchtime. Indeed, Duncan can purchase lunch: the idea becomes more attractive by the minute, and Juvenal can afford to wait.

Lunch is good. The beer is dark and rich, the company intelligent and easy on the eye. Even the bare fields and shorn trees seem to carry not the cold ache of winter, but the potential of spring. Duncan is wittier than he remembers, either that or the beer is stronger than advertised. Time passes and the afternoon fades away into a soft dusk. Conversation eddies into contentment.

To sit in silence with a friend. It has been years.

It is Duncan who stirs, gathering up coats and scarves - "Come on, Old Man. Time to go."

"Hm?"

"We've somewhere to be. Here."

In the moment of helplessness - both arms shrugging into his jacket - Methos finds his scarf flipped over his head and the ends tucked down with careful fingers.

"You'll need this."

"Where?"

"You'll see," Duncan's grin flashes like a Christmas icon. "And I'm driving."

They pull up, three quarters of an hour later, outside the village church.

"You must be joking."

"No. The car stops here. Come on."

Over Christmas, and once a month during the year, the parish church is open for the locals who have been taking their pews since childhood. Methos has never been. The last time he set foot in a church it was lit by gaslight and he someone else: he had discarded faith some centuries before community.

"Is this one of your better ideas?" he mutters, and is unanswered.

The hymns are Ancient and Modern, the service 1642, necessarily familiar as an aged pair of walking boots, the sermon on the Beatitudes. The church seems bare still and the stanchions for the rood screen invite schadenfroid. Breath clouds in the cold air and Duncan beside him is a welcome warmth, his face, in profile, almost stern, the broad flat line of his cheekbones and the strength of his jaw, a lasting face.

It's Eveningsong, blessedly short. The last hymn, the blessing, go in peace.

"Happy?"

"You've no idea. Warm?"

At the door the Vicar, a middle-aged and robust gentleman Methos does not recognise, pumps his hand and invites them for sherry. Duncan accepts. Methos bites his tongue, for Mrs P. is standing behind him and he cannot afford a disgruntled housekeeper.

The vicarage turns out to be a modern semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac of identical houses: the Vicar has a plump wife and three assorted children, and an interest, judging by his bookshelves, in the numerical analysis of Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Methos, reluctantly intrigued, corners the man over a plate of liberally sugared mince-pies. Duncan is charming the susceptible of a certain age, who take to wandering up with refills of bad sherry, tea, and unfortunately explicable gratitude.

It is an absorbed few hours later that Duncan, pulling on the sleeve of his sweater with unaccountably public fondness, cuts the conversation short and takes him home. They are nearly the last to leave. It's near midnight.

"You knew?"

"I had an inkling. You don't mind?"

"He has a copy of Cohen's treatise on thaumaturgy and Gnostic imagery."

"I take it that's a no then. Methos-"

They are standing in the hall. Duncan has stopped mid-way through the removal of his jacket. His hair sparkles with the damp of the night and his eyes are wide, questioning.

"Yes, I know," Methos says, unwisely.

"Good," Duncan says.

He drops his coat to the floor and steps forward. Methos does not move, even when the man's arms curl under his, pulling him close. Duncan is as warm as a host-fire, comfortable as a favourite sofa, enticing as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night - and then is not: desire crashes against his skin and tightens the muscles of his back, sudden as the flare of a new-kindled pine branch. He shivers.

"It's not just me then," Duncan says. "I'm glad."

Methos would take a deep breath but cannot: there is too little air in the space that interleaves their skin.

He might have said then, "Will you?"

Because of course Duncan will, with desire laid bare between them. It is a clumsy coupling, short and sharp as a Quickening. Duncan's hand stripping the thread of his trouser fastenings, his own unaccountably fumbling on clasps and buttons. He's coming almost before he is touched, one, two strokes sight and hearing lost for an instant of piercing joy, and he's sinking to the floor, breathing like a blown horse. It would have been shaming but his own hand is sticky and the flesh it holds softening.

Duncan does fall like a tree toppled, all weight and power, tamed for an instant.

Tighter than is comfortable, he is held, the breadth of the man's chest against his, thighs thewed and unsteady. 'Is he like this every time?' Methos thinks, and cannot help the flare of interest that comes after, that says, this is not enough.

"Gradhach..."

Duncan's head, bent to his, turns in denial. "Give me a moment."

His hands, exploring gently, meet cloth. The man has a dimple in the hard muscle of his arse. Interest awakens.

"I'd come a virgin to my marriage bed, an you wish it," Duncan says then, low and searingly honest.

Methos's hands fly apart. "Mac."

They fall apart at the waist, legs still tangled. Under his tan Duncan is flushed and his eyes are curious, intent. His left hand - Methos will not bend into that touch, will not - rests on the bare skin of the older Immortals's belly, the tight curve of it. Beneath Duncan's palm lies the seed of both their bodies. In a few moments it will be tacky, and in a few minutes it will start to dry, ephemeral flaking iridescence.

Much too late to pretend he does not understand what the man means. Too many words unsaid, washing now against the barriers of his mind.

"It's too soon, isn't it," Duncan says. "I'm sorry."

"For this?" This should be nothing, a moment of foolishness gone in a heartbeat, a year, a lifetime - nothing really, but it's not, because it's Duncan and Duncan is not a casual obsession and never has been.

The man's fingers on his lips, the motley smell of both of them, mixed.

"Think about it," Duncan says, and leaves him there, on his knees in the hall.

If it had been him, Methos would not have had the strength.


Day Nine
Monday January 2nd

It's not morning. It's the middle of the night, unseemly and inopportune, shaking his shoulder and whispering insistently into his ear. Methos and night have an ongoing war: the invention of the pillow was his secret weapon, bedclothes his armament, and the armadillo his role model. He hunkers down for the siege.

Night, offensive in return, strips the warmth from his skin with the eiderdown. It should be a call to arms, but even in darkness the taste of this Quickening is unmistakable.

"Mac..." He wanted the word sharp, but his voice is low and the word shaded with questions.

"Wake up. Or I'll carry you down to the car as you are."

"Go ahead," Methos says.

He shouldn't have said it. There is a moment of sickening disorientation, the feel of being lifted, bedclothes wrapped like a winding sheet: he squawks, lashes out and hits something solid.

"Behave or I'll drop you," Duncan says, and then, provoked, does.

"You bastard.""

"Did you have to go for my balls?"

"I didn't know." Methos extracts himself with difficulty from the sheets. He has taken to wearing pyjamas, which he loathes, but the alternative was a nakedness no longer conducive to his own peace of mind.

"Where ever did you unearth those? No, never mind. You've five minutes. Strip."

Perhaps he should re-think the pyjamas. No, it's irresistible: "Mac," Methos says. He's - yes, he is grinning, the slow unsupressable rise of it - "Mac." He looks up, long and slow, under his eyelashes. It's a look that is as knowing as a courtesan's smile.

It works. Something in Duncan's face changes, takes wing. Last night was not a dream or myth of his own desire, he is not fooling himself, the world is turned upside down and himself with it willy-nilly as a tumbling jester.

"There's no time," Duncan says, low and accented. Then he says, "That was not part of the plan."

"Whose plan?" Methos says, and stretches, elegant and obvious as a cat in heat. "Never look a gift horse..."

"But I'm no Greek, my dear," Duncan says. "You had my word on it, last night."

"Just a little fuck?" Methos says.

"There is no time," Duncan says. "You know it. Methos, would you leave Joe to find his own way here? Because -"

"Pass me the blanket then. Give me five minutes."

It is at least prosaic enough to make Duncan smile, although Methos is himself a long way from laughter. Lust named, enticing as it is, lies uneasy under the fragile bridge of friendship and shows itself an abyss with no promise of solid ground. His hands are unsteady, his breath fraught, and when he looks it the mirror it is at an image of himself both desired and desiring.

This story's started and plays now to the end. He dresses in haste, and takes the blanket down to the car, and sleeps to Gatwick.

It's Joe who changes the time.

Because Joe, his friend Joe, is thinner under the padded warmth of his jacket. His beard is fully silver and he is clearly tired though would rather fall in his tracks than confess it. Joe's time is so fleeting, runs so fast, yet for his friends he has always time and to spare.

Methos has nothing but time, and a little love perhaps: he can spare some of it.

He reaches out and touches Duncan's shoulder. Eyes in the rear-view mirror, the man looks up.

"Have we an extra twenty minutes?" Methos says. "There's something I'd like to show you."

It's a stone circle, nine maidens dancing and a half-buried king stone. Nothing special. The stones are at most three feet above the cropped grass and unworked. The site itself is three minutes from the road, up a rutted track. But here on the hillside there is no sound of traffic and the beech copse hides the farmhouse, and through half-closed eyes the Downlands lie as they had done centuries before, and before that.

"You've been here before." Duncan says. He's walked the circle, and stands now in the short, winter-sharp shadow of the king stone. Methos is leaning against the tallest maiden.

"I married here, the first time." Methos said.

Duncan's face changes in an instant, hope flaring quick as lightning and as quickly shuttered away. He has learned caution, this Highland child, although maybe not enough of it yet.

Joe says, "Holy Ground?"

Methos says, "Aye." And holds Duncan's eyes.

"Documented?"

There is a telling pause.

"Leave this one, will you, Joe?" Duncan says. "For me?"

Joe chuckles and claps his hand to Methos's shoulders.

"He doesn't change, does he?" Joe says, with such affection in his voice.

The stars wheel, the world turns, he is not alone. He slings an arm around Joe's shoulders, warm under the quilt of the man's anorak, and says, "Joe."

To that Joe says nothing at all, but Joe has always known when to say nothing and Methos could love him for that alone.

He could have said nothing himself. They go home. Joe unpacks: Duncan makes lunch, and answers the phone, and Methos sits at the kitchen table and does the end-of-the-year crossword out loud. Afterwards, he shows Joe the house, more of it than he ever showed Duncan, and then they light the fire and sit in the library and crack open the Macallan and talk. Late and with ease and laughter, almost like a family, like a family should be.

This he doesn't want to lose. Lifetimes of leaving, and yet affection still came courting for him, with a pile of presents and a smile. More than affection. He is reminded of it, watching Duncan's face in firelight, the eased lines of it at peace.

Joe has been talking, and he did not hear a word. Joe is rising, collecting his stick, going to bed: Duncan follows him to the door and holds it open, waiting. Blood warms: he can feel his body tilt and lean towards the man, an hourglass tilted sideways. Duncan smiles down at him, slow and tender and private. They don't touch. It is sacred now, this thing between them.

Day Ten
Tuesday January 3rd

On this occasion, not the call of the telephone but the doorbell, an insistent peal. Duncan's step on the stairs, and the creak of the door, and Amanda's voice.

It's warm in bed, and his affection is secure. Methos turns over and goes back to sleep.

It's Joe who brings him coffee, two hours later, and sits on the bed as Duncan had done, and talks of cabbages and kings in the way of old friends. It is a conversation punctuated twice by the doorbell, and for Methos by the feel of presence although none of it hostile. Eventually he gets up and dressed, and wanders down to the kitchen where Amanda, smiling, kisses him with sly amusement and two of Duncan's young lordlings scramble to make him toast. The sound of the doorbell is punctuated by the ring of the telephone, brief and quickly answered. Just about the time he finishes breakfast, Mrs P. arrives, and Mrs Carlisle after her, and after them the sound of Claudia's voice from the door, and someone else's...He makes his way to the library through the Billiard Room, which is unsheeted and shows the baize on the table pristine, and locks the door behind him.

Juvenal no longer satisfies. He reads Propertius instead, with an ironic eye. Suitcases rattle across the hall flagstones, people shout from the landings, there is laughter and the sound of Duncan happy.

At three o'clock, a presence deeper and darker than any other. This one - he is almost inured to the sense of yet another Immortal presence at his gates, but for this one he rises, sets aside the poetry, and emerges blinking into the hall. MacLeod is already at the door. He allows himself a moment's irritation that, should challenge be issued, it will go first to the Scotsman, and a moment's gratitude that Duncan is at least prepared to take responsibility for his own actions: namely, the transformation of Methos's house into Immortal Grand Central Station. Then his thrice-dammed sense of protectiveness comes out to play: he takes the steps that will bring him up to Duncan's back, one hand on the gun in his pocket. The door opens.

Standing on the doorstep, grinning like a wolf, is a man Methos never expected to see again this side of the wheel's turning. Balanced on the toes of his feet in their white sneakers, claymore slung across his back, untempered, dangerous, Duncan MacLeod's cousin Connor reaches up with both hands and plants a smacking buss on his kinsman's astonished face.

"Brother," he says, with satisfaction. He leans back, hands still either side of Duncan's face, and grins again. "They gave me a pass." He lets go, and as Duncan falls back, steps forward.

In all his long years Methos has never envisioned an embrace from Connor MacLeod. But the man's hands are warm and his breath sweet: his grasp is inescapable. "Kinsman," Connor says, grinning, and kisses him full on the lips.

"We are kissing cousins, are we no?" Connor says to him, stepping back as Methos's hand tightens on the gun. His eyes dip, once, to the bulge in Methos's pocket that is his hand round the hilt of his gun, and he grins again. "Merry Christmas, Sassenach." Then he turns, and standing in the hall with its absurdly decorated tree, shouts - "A-mand-a!"

Someone squeals. Someone, in a blur of expensive and skimpy silk, runs down the stairs and into a waiting embrace: someone is lifted off her feet and carried, chattering, to the kitchen.

Left behind, Methos and Duncan MacLeod look at each other with the lack of expression that can only be summoned by the seethe of far too many emotions in turmoil all at once. As one, they turn, and head to the kitchen.

Millennial demons do not, on the whole, enjoy raspberry leaf tea. Nor do they chomp their way through four mince pies, three roast chicken sandwiches and a triple measure of Glenfiddich: nor do they do so whilst managing to keep a slippery, excited and flirtatious Immortal thief in their lap. Methos makes a mental note to ask his guest Duncan MacLeod, at some point, just exactly what relationship he, his cousin Connor and the egregious Amanda share, leaves his kitchen to the barbarian horde, and retreats to the library. He has not had time to find his page before the doorbell goes again.

This time, he lets Duncan answer. He considers his own madness, wonders how quickly it is possible to order a set of bolts and padlocks from the internet, and suspects that even if he did bar his front door, his guests would be entering via the windows.

Briefly, he considers boarding said windows. Even more briefly, he considers moving house. He settles for finding both the case of Glen Ord laid down in '56 and several sets of playing cards. These, like a demon catcher, he places outside the door of the library together with a note which states 'Do Not Disturb' in six languages including Gaelic with all the accents precisely correct.

Later, much later, Duncan brings him supper and beer, with a smile.

"Fourteen of them?" Methos says. Ten men, four women: he could enumerate their ages if he chose. He is adjusting, gradually, to the feel of it: tomorrow he will make his introductions.

"Aye." Duncan pauses, the door held open an inch. Connor appears to demonstrating the swimming action of a polar bear to someone Methos can't see. "I've moved my suitcases. Do you mind?"

"No," Methos says.

He had thought it would be strange. It's nine years since he shared a bed, and longer than he cares to recall since he shared one with a man whose presence matches his own, but Duncan fits into his space as a well-worn knife slides into its sheath. He falls asleep watching Duncan breathe. There is a bolster between them, and only their hands touch, a covenant forming.

Day Eleven
Wednesday January 4th

In sleep their hands have remained intertwined palm to palm. Methos wakes into contentment; warm and abiding, wrapped around his sense of self like an eider duvet.

His fingertips are kissed one by one. Duncan's lips are soft and generous.

"You're awake."

He opens his eyes. Across the bolster Duncan is regarding him gravely, hair pillow-tousled, his eyes sleepy and warm.

"It'll be all right," Duncan says softly. "I come dowered. I get on with your housekeeper. I don't have to kill people to keep myself entertained." His smile is wry but honest.

Methos quirks an eyebrow, but he cannot help the amusement that lends warmth to the irony.

"I'll keep you warm," Duncan says, and runs the tip of his tongue over Methos's index finger.

Breath catches.

Duncan looks at him sideways, eyes narrowing, and sucks the tip of that finger into his mouth. Hard. His mouth is ridiculously warm, his tongue strong and mobile, and when he bites down it is with calculated strength.

Methos is halfway across the bolster before conscious thought scrabbles him still.

"Tease." But he doesn't think he's ever heard his voice pitched to such a tone before, underscored with love.

"Twelfth Night is tomorrow," Duncan says. "Should I put a blade between us?"

"Do you have to be quite so medieval about it?"

"It's my first time." Duncan's grin, so warm with trust.

He would do anything for that smile. He has.

"If you won't break the rules -" Methos tugs his hand back and rolls back to the far side of the bolster. "Where's my coffee?"

"So you did like it?"

"It's the sole advantage to this relationship I have so far perceived. Mac -"

There is a knock on the door. Methos's Glock is, miraculously, under his pillow and not Duncan's. The doorknob rattles. Duncan pulls the bedclothes to Methos's collarbone, his hand lingering. Methos is not amused.

The door opens. It's Joe, with three mugs and an alarming list to his walk stickless.

"Oh bloody hell," Methos says, and flicks the safety back into place. Joe doesn't even blink. Says something about Watchers, but Methos isn't sure what. In a heartbeat Duncan, everyone's helper, is out of bed (black stretch-cotton shorts, long-legged. Methos's mouth goes dry) to rescue the tilting coffee mugs. Joe gets a Louis XIV side table before his own mug is passed across the eiderdown.

With absolutely no discernible embarrassment Duncan plumps up his pillows and slides back into bed. The man could be posing for one of those ridiculous straight-backed morning-after-the-night-before wedding portraits.

Joe's face is as carefully blank as years of Watcher training can make it. But he brought three mugs. Methos retreats under the bedclothes. After a moment or two, someone's hand comes down to cup his shoulder.

Duncan's voice. "Thanks. Did you sleep well?"

"Well enough," Joe says. "No need to ask about you. Mac, no hurry, but there are a lot of people with nothing to do, and a whole army of ladies with dusters. I am assuming -"

"There'll be something to do soon enough," Duncan says. "Joe. Have you ever been to Twelfth Night before?"

"What, the -"

But Joe's words are lost in the rumbling of what sounds like an arcticulated lorry pulling up outside Methos's front door. Methos, under the bedclothes, shuts his eyes with an emphasis it is a shame no one else can see, extracts a hand, pulls the pillow firmly over his head and makes his retreat from the whole situation perfectly clear.

Two hours later he goes downstairs to find his house transformed. Branches of spruce twine around his banisters and garland his walls. Trestle tables and benches crowd the hall. Crates, bottles, and carrier bags stack by the front door. People balance on ladders, shout at each other across the stairwell, and rush backwards and forwards with packages. There is a dais being built by the buttery and an alarmingly large pair of speakers vibrating to the atonal keen of a Gurkha marching band. The fire is blazing and in front of it curls a wolfhound and a small bundle of brown fur with tiny paws. The candelabra are lowered and candles pile beside them, the tree is stacked under with presents. The whole place smells of pine, mulled wine, and slow-roasted meat.

Methos surprises himself. This sense of bright anticipation, of cheerfulness...it shines like a new-minted coin. He turns it over in his mind, this private treasure. Then he snatches a honey-ham sandwich for breakfast, makes Mrs P. tea, fortifies himself with a bottle of stout, and rolls up his sleeves.

By the end of the day Methos is far better acquainted with his guests than he had believed possible. He has discovered Connor to be a dab hand at innuendo, Amanda to have the constitution of a goat and the ability to charm Mrs P. into producing lunch for twenty on half an hour's notice, and Duncan to be far better organised than he would have given the man credit for. No one has died. The Fortnam's delivery arrives in time for supper. The lordlings are not above washing up, not with Amanda sashaying around the kitchen with a scarlet tea towel wrapped round her hair. Joe has discovered a guitar Methos could have sworn he'd seen smashed on stage in 1974. The dachshund may have a penchant for ankles, but not his own.

He had forgotten he liked charades.

And through it all, the bright thread of Duncan's presence.

Although the man had not been lying about the carol singers. Just about midnight, just about time the latest game of Twister collapses into laughter, there is the sound of music from outside the front door.

"Hush," Connor says.

High and clear, the singer's voices echo in the cold of outside. Methos recognises the carol and shivers.

"Lullay my liking..."

Duncan opens the door and lets the sweet sound of it inside, and the cold: snowflakes tumble white out of the darkness.

"My dear child, my sweeting..."

In silence, people tiptoe to the doorway. It is the church choir singing, and other people from the village. Methos recognises Mrs P.'s face in the light of a paraffin lantern tied to a hoe.

"Lullay my dear heart, mine own dear darling..."

Duncan's arm around his shoulders is solid, warm and absolutely real.

It is a moment of pure magic.

Day Twelve
Thursday January 5th

Twelfth Night. The feast of fools, the defiance of winter, the eve of Epiphany: the day the year turns and the world changes with it.

Methos moves through the day in a blur of sexual tension, wound as tight as the thread on a spool. Amanda's silks, the rough leather of Connor's boots, and the blade-sharp notes of Claudia's playing drum against his skin. Like a fool on a leash, he spins in Duncan's space, never too far apart, never touching. If the man had laid a finger on him Methos would have gone up in flames, audience, guest right, self-preservation be damned. He cannot eat, he makes half a dozen cups of coffee and leaves them unfinished, he finds himself in rooms he cannot remember entering and listening to words that are meaningless. He has laid himself bare and the result is shattering.

But he is not alone. By the brightness of Duncan's eyes, by Joe's hands bringing him a bottle of beer, by Amanda's generous smile, he is loved and loves in return.

At twelve, the music starts. At one, a scratch lunch before the tables are cleared and laid. At three, the fire is relaid: at four, his neighbours start arriving, heavy-jacketed against the snow with wind-chapped faces, and boxes of farmhouse cheddar and elderflower wine under their arms. There are presents for the children under the tree - how can Duncan know so much, so fast - when Methos himself has lived here, off and on, for fifteen years and does not know to ask his nearest neighbour about the roof or his housekeeper's daughter about her band? There is music, Joe and Claudia and Chloe, Paul with his battered accordion, three shy girls with recorders and Amanda singing. There are mince pies and sausage rolls and lemon cake with the Vicar standing guard over the last slices: there is the dachshund, ribboned, adored by children small and round as pompom balls with legs. There are crackers and toasts and a measure of good red wine that does not come from his cellar. There is Duncan beside him in a gold crown that has slipped sideways and balances precariously on one ear.

Twelfth Night.

Food arrives like gifts. There are cranberries, sharp and sour, there is melon and sweet thin-sliced cuts of ham, buttered vegetables, roast chicken stuffed with prunes and apricots. There is a boar's head, he's sure of it, and forcemeat pies and rye bread and marzipan sweetmeats shaped like fruit. He had no idea Mrs P. could cook like this: he would not have been surprised to look down at the table and see, not the Sheffield silver cutlery, but the bone-handled knife of four hundred years before.

Time is passing quicker, gathering speed. There are more toasts. There is the warm burn of good whiskey which is not so warm as the heat of Duncan's hand two inches from his own. There is Connor on the table shouting for silence - and there is silence.

The lights go out, but the candles burn on.

From the kitchen, carried by Chloe and his gardener's son whose name he does not know, and his gardener's son's friend Steve, comes borne head-high the great silver sturgeon platter and on it in flames Duncan's Christmas pudding.

It is Connor's fist that pounds first on the table, emphatic as a bass drum. In two seconds the room is standing in measured uproar, rhythm thudding with Chloe's careful steps, approving acknowledgement. When the pudding reaches the head of the table it is Mrs P., resplendent in purple, who brings the knife down. Rhythm cracks open into applause, whistles, the thud of hands on tables and feet on the floor. Mrs P. cuts and serves like a woman possessed, dishes passed down to children, over heads, into waiting hands. Before she is finished there is a shout from one of the local children - "The shilling! I'm rich!" - and then from one of Duncan's lordlings - "I have the bean!"

It will not be Duncan, then, this year. And yet - he cannot know, cannot be sure - but the certainty of time has wrapped him in surety. He is learning to trust. He looks down, and from his own plate the little golden hourglass sparkles.

"Mac -"

Surely he cannot be heard above the din, but Duncan turns and looks down with him and laughs. The man starts to say something, and looks up, his eyes suddenly naked with desire, and stops for a heartbeat. Then he does shout again. "Quiet!" Duncan says. "Quiet! For the clock!"

It is ten seconds to midnight and the great clock in the hall is already striking, deep under the chatter of voices. But silence does fall, a breathy anticipation.

Seven seconds to midnight.

Four.

Suddenly, he cannot breathe.

Two.

And as the last strike sounds, the last call of the old year, as Duncan turns round, Methos breaks and runs for the stairs.


~*~


Twelfth Night.

All through the day, Duncan finds the curve of his neck entrancing, the skin of his chest under the fine silk of his shirt, the breadth of his shoulders and the strength of them, the knotted shape of his hands curiously vulnerable. Shadows highlight the slant of his cheekbones and the arched bone of his nose, his thin lips and the powerful set of his teeth: he has a predator's teeth, strong, with the incisors long and pointed. It's not memory, not yet, but like the ghost of a memory yet to be Duncan knows what those teeth would feel like set in his own flesh. He is aware of every inch of his own body, the way breath hesitates in his lungs, the pricking of his fingertips, the way his hair brushes the back of his neck and the stretch of cloth over his sex.

And then at last it is time. The clock strikes. It must be written all over his face, this sudden knowledge, because Methos slants him a single look, blazing, across the space between them.

All of the man's body is suddenly still, the stillness of a cat. His lips form a single word, but Duncan has no idea what Methos says: all his attention is suddenly caught by the shape of those lips, open, arched, waiting. Suddenly it doesn't matter that they are surrounded by others, people who have become unimportant, it doesn't matter that he planned to do this slowly and carefully, with wine and a bed piled with pillows, in privacy. It doesn't matter, nothing matters but this, the blazing conjunction of their bodies that reduces everything around them to irrelevance. He takes a step forward.

And Methos takes a step back. It's not retreat. It's invitation. The question of when becomes simply now. He takes another step forward and Methos backs again. He finds himself infuriated. Two more steps and he will have that body within the grasp of his hands: the time for games is over. He steps forward again, and Methos breaks and runs for the stairs. He is two steps behind, and furious, and Methos's feet slide on the floorboards: they slam into the woodwork together, Duncan's hands on the old man's wrists, all their strength suddenly set against each other, Methos fighting, Duncan intent of plastering every part of his skin against the other man's. He thinks Methos might say something, maybe, let go, Mac, but he lowers his head and takes the skin of the man's shoulder between his teeth and bites down hard, and Methos's head comes back and all his body arches backwards in surrender.

He's ready: he doesn't think he's ever been so ready in all the years of his life. He jams his body against Methos's, hands, thighs, cock thrust into the sweet taut curves of the old man's arse, head down against his neck where the skin is so soft and marks so easily. He says, Methos, Methos, Methos, until the words become little more than meaningless. The man is shaking against him. He thinks it's sex until he realises it's laughter, then thinks it might be both. Methos has stopped fighting. Realisation breaks in a wash of cold awareness against his skin.

"Just how public do you want to make this, Mac?" Methos says, altogether too smooth and controlled.

Just for that he lets go of Methos's hands and runs his nails down the hard muscles covering the man's ribs: Methos convulses, turning, and Duncan reaches for the bannisters and drags them both onto the staircase, though he won't have the sense run - run! - up the stairs. Instead, he is caught by the light in Methos's eyes, burning for him. He runs a hand up Methos's neck and onto the strong planes of his jaw, holds it steady. He doesn't need to bend. Methos meets him strength for strength, mouth opening immediately under his, all its sharp mystery open and greedy. Methos tastes of mincemeat and beer: there should be secrets in the twist of his tongue, in the tang of his saliva, but all here is honest want and that Duncan knows as well as he knows the strength of his own passion. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had thought this first kiss would be sweet, tentative, but it's not pretty. It's a force that cannot be controlled, a joining that speaks in tongues of violence and blood shared, beyond foreplay, sex in a language he's never spoken before. He doesn't think he's ever going to stop, ever going to be able to stop.

But even Immortals breathe. Gasping, he lets go: and looks at Methos who is looking back at him and laughing still - laughing - although his breath comes as short as Duncan's own and his skin is flushed.

"Mac -" Methos says, in a tone of voice Duncan has never before heard him use.

What?

Oh.

They are still on the staircase. Sound is suddenly present, shouts and catcalls, and there is the patter of something on the stairs - rice? - and above all other noise Connor's voice deep-belled as a stag's, "Dun-can! Dun-can!"

His intentions then are plain and he at least at this moment still capable of laughter. He asks his new-claimed lover, "Do you mind?" and Methos shakes his head, but says:

"I will in a moment, if you don't hurry -"

Their hands are still clasped. It's Duncan who turns up the staircase first, taking the treads two at a time, but they reach the bedroom door together and it's Methos who slams it shut.

"..so full of shapes is fancy.."
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act I scene I.


This story's done.


Image: credit to Eva.


On the twelve days of Christmas. I've gone with the liturgical calendar and with Frazer on the interpretation of Misrule. Twelfth Night, tonight, is thus the eve of Epiphany and not the day itself. Traditionally the twelve days of Christmas are the time when usual roles are relaxed, and this is why I've allowed myself a certain degree of flexibility in interpreting character action.

Misrule was written under the working title of The Iconography of Foolishness, and you'll notice I've tried to thread the imagery of the Fool through the text.

The story was started, nearly eighteen months ago, to the sound of David Bowie's Golden Years.

"I'll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years"

And was finished because of a woman I cannot name. For almost two years, until the Great e-mail Deletion Disaster of November 19th 2005, I had kept in my in-box a lengthy and most appreciative e-mail to which I had never replied. This is more usual than I care to acknowledge. Feedback, often better written than the fiction itself, can scare me.

So for this woman I don't know, and for everyone else who has never received a reply, Misrule.