Disclaimer: Characters from the television series Highlander are owned by Panzer-Davis productions.
An experiment in plain prose, containing both an enormously extended metaphor and character death.


Waiting for Joe
Jay Tryfanstone
June-November 2003

 

And as the chekker schawis us yis forne
Richt so it maye the kinrik and the crowne,
The world and all that therein suthlye,
The Chekker may in figour signifye.


"...was it a long flight?.."

"...Yes...."

"....Got somewhere to stay?..."

"...I'll be fine.."

"...You look well..."

"....."

Methos has still not looked at the man in Duncan's bed. He himself looks sleek and well fed: there are traces of fatigue in the deepened lines around his eyes, but it is nothing, it will fade. Duncan moves, then, once the initial shock has passed, the sense of Methos' presence crowding him against the plate glass of the window and holding him still, barely breathing. He is aware all at once of the smell of peppermint and bitter aloe, the unceasing, rhythmic shush of the ventilator and the sound that Methos' suitcase makes, placed carefully on the floor. It's a neat leather case, Louis Vuitton, and the coat Methos wears is well cut and discrete in the way of clothing that can afford to be unpriced.

"Thank you for coming," Duncan says. He takes two steps forward, his hand held out in awkward formality.

Methos looks at it as if he has forgotten which gesture is appropriate in this time and space. His face is expressionless. Stung, Duncan pulls his hand back and then cannot find a place to put it that would seem natural.

"I wasn't sure.."

"He had the number for emergencies," Methos says. He hasn't moved. He stands two exact paces within the flat, the door still closing, slowly, behind him. Duncan had left the door open: he has been leaving all the doors open, too late, for Methos.

He. Duncan turns his head to the other occupant of the loft who lies, shrunken and still, amongst the unnaturally tidy sheets and the hum of the machines which keep him alive. Methos does not move. He is looking at Duncan, but his eyes are opaque, flat.

"I came as soon as I could," he says. It has been thirty-seven hours and forty minutes. The machines counted out the time, shush, hush, blip. Blip. Blip. Blip...

Duncan drags his eyes back. Methos stands, waiting. He is uncannily self contained, as if he has pulled everything that makes him himself into some core of being Duncan will never be able to touch.

"Can I get you anything?" Duncan says. "I have beer." He essays a smile, but it is not a success. The muscles of his face are strung on hooks that bite into his flesh. "Tea.."

"I could use a cup of tea," Methos says.

Duncan walks to the kitchen. He is grateful to have something to do with his hands. His breathing is still shallow, but it settles as he reaches for the kettle, the sealed canister of Earl Grey: small, familiar motions that ground him in the here and now. The kettle takes hours to boil.

"Milk or lemon?" he asks, one hand on the refrigerator door where last night he replaced the bottles he had kept at eye-level for years.

"Nothing," Methos says. He has still not moved from the spot where he came to a halt, slim and straight and impossibly, indubitably there, five minutes ago. His head has tilted down: he is looking at the lock on his suitcase.

"Will you not at least take your coat off?" Duncan asks, and comes to an astonished halt: he had not realised what he was going to say until the words left his mouth.

Methos looks up then. The corner of his mouth lifts in a small and private amusement. He shrugs out of the coat with grace, folds it over his hands. It lies just a little unevenly, stiff.

"Coat hooks behind you," Duncan says.

Methos turns round. He turns round to his left, a full turn that means he does not have to look at the man in the bed. The coat falls, controlled, through his fingers: he lifts it and hangs it on the wall where it folds heavily, pulled into long lines of fabric and armament. Next to it, Duncan's jacket looks bulky and oversized, glaring with colour.

Methos puts his hands on the wall above the coat hooks. He stretches, pushing against the plaster, tightening every muscle in his body, unselfconscious and fully cognisant.

"Long flight?" Duncan asks again.

"Long couple of days," Methos says, to the wall. As he turns round Duncan realises that there is a smudge of blood on his arm, under the cuff of the black shirt with its dark opal buttons.

"Meet someone on the way?" he asks, knowing already what the answer will be.

"Yes," Methos says.

~*~

The kettle has boiled. Duncan pours a little water into the teapot, swills it round, and empties it into the sink. He measures out tealeaves with a steady hand, and then half fills the pot. There are only the two of them. Putting the teapot onto a tray, he adds two stacked saucers and then separates them. Two cups, two teaspoons. He takes the open milk carton and pours milk into one of the cups, then lifts the tray and carries it into the living space. The tray goes down in the exact center of the small table between the chairs. Once, there had been a rug here, but it has gone now. He seats himself carefully in the chair that faces the bed, allowing Methos the couch, facing him. He cannot look up. He reaches for a teaspoon and stirs the milk in his cup, waiting for the tea to brew, but in the silence the sound of the machines is loud, and he can hear (Shush. Hush. Bl-) Methos move to the couch, the creak of fabric as he sits down. Methos' feet appear at the top edge of his vision, neatly shod in plain black leather. Then Methos' hand. He looks up then, but Methos is bent over his feet. He is taking his shoes off.

The breath leaves Duncan's body in a long, silent sigh.

"I'm tired," Methos says. Pulling his socked feet up onto the couch, he starts to massage one of them. His fingers are long and fine, his toes elegantly bony under the gray cashmere wool.

Duncan: pours the tea. The steam rises from the cups sweet and fragrant, a pleasant, slightly dusty smell. It is the smell of china and long English summers. He takes Methos' cup from the tray and pushes it towards him, within reach, and takes his own cup in his hands, sitting forward in the chair. He would like to lean back, he too is tired, but tension rides his spine and aches in his muscles.

Across the divide, Methos reaches for his cup. He curls himself back around it, sniffing appreciably. "Thank you," he says. He allows his eyes to meet Duncan's, over the white porcelain of the cup. "How long has it been?" he asks.

Duncan does not say anything for a moment. There are many replies he could make at this point, and not all of them were pleasant. But it is not for him that Methos has come, and his own priorities are unimportant.

"Two weeks," Duncan says. "Not long."

Methos twitches, the first involuntary movement Duncan has seen him make. It's suppressed almost instantly. "Then..." Methos says slowly. He has dropped his eyes to the cup.

Grace to explain. "I took him out of the hospital three days ago," the Highlander said. "It was what he wanted. They give him-" He stops.

(Shush. Hiush. Blip. Blip. Blip. A tide, a heartbeat, a life.)

"I found your number in - in the paperwork," Duncan said.

It was only at the last minute that he had swept the contents of the locker into a bag and carried it home. When he had emptied the bag out on the table where the teapot now stood he'd found the black book with its creased napkin taped into the back. The napkin was from Joe's bar. The handwriting was so familiar that his sight blurred for a moment, in shock. His hands had been shaking. The paper had yellowed, but the blue biro was still clear, dragged against the soft surface in little cuts and tears. He did not recognise the number. It had taken him three hours to dial, picking up the receiver and putting it back down, flinching at the last digit. When at last, sweating, he made the call, what he got was a message service. When he put the phone down he was, to his absolute astonishment, quietly and comprehensively sick.

"You came," Duncan said. He tries to keep his voice neutral, but he can hear the relief sliding under the edges of the words.

Methos looks up. "You called," he said. The words hang in the air between them, so simple.

"Is it...inconvenient?" Duncan asks.

Methos laughs. It's a laugh with an edge to it, bleak and a little angry. He says, "No." He lifts the cup, drinks the tea. His lashes lie forward on his cheeks, strakes of black like the spaces of a picket fence at night.

"You look worn. Are you all right?" Duncan says.

"Give the boy a pat on the back," Methos says. "Are you?" His lashes rise. His eyes are unreadable. He could be a statute, a monster, a ghost in the machine.

"No," Duncan says. He shifts in his chair, looks out the window at the roofs of the houses opposite with their aerials and wires. "Not at the moment."

"He lived a good life," Methos says gently.

"You can't even bear to look at him," Duncan says.

~*~

Methos puts the cup down on the table. He uncurls himself slowly, stands up, pads past the couch and turns round. At the side of the bed he looks down, unhesitating. He says once, very quietly. "Joe." Duncan sees him reach down, lightly, to touch the thin hair that lies neatly brushed and still. Then he looks up. Duncan sees his eyes span the machines, the automated drip and the monitors and the ventilator. He takes his time, following wires and cables. Then his eyes move back to the man in the bed. He stands very still, but his body is relaxed, loose. Then he turns and walks back to the couch, sits down, facing the Highlander.

"You know it's only the machines that are keeping him alive," Methos says. It's not a question.

"I-." Duncan says, and paused. There were some words he could not form, not yet, not in front of this stranger. "But I got your message."

"I'm glad," Methos says. He sighs, short and harsh. "I didn't know if the address would still be valid."

It has been valid for thirty years.

"I would have picked you up from the airport, you know," Duncan says.

"I know," Methos answers. He pulls his feet up onto the couch again, yawns. His mouth is darkly pink, before his hand covers it. "I really need to sleep, Highlander," he says. "Wake me in an hour." His eyes close: he has gone. Like a cat, he sleeps when and where he can, asleep but aware. Duncan looks at him for long minutes. The shape of him is the same, long and slender, the wide shoulders tucked neatly into the line of his body, their strength disguised. Methos' skin is smooth and white, the bones of his face emphatic. He is not a usual man. The muscles under the cover of his clothes are living steel, but he is soft in unexpected places, the inner soles of his feet and the crook of his elbow. When he is sleeping, sometimes, he will curl into the warmth of another human body like a cat in the night, but he always wakes apart.

Duncan stands up. He walks over to the man asleep in his bed and checks the wires and the hoses. He dampens the dry skin of Joe's lips, changes the drip, smoothes the sheets. When he has done everything he can he returns to the couch and watches Methos sleep. He makes tea again at ten minutes to the hour, wondering how he should wake the man. His mind shies away from the thought of touching him, of breaking the implicit trust Methos has created, but his fingers itch and prickle. He is not at all certain that this was a good idea.

Hush. Shush. Blip.

Like a clock, the sounds of the machines fade in and out. At night, they can be intrusively loud, but during the day he can go for long spaces of time without hearing them at all. He has a business to run, obligations to meet, but for these three days his life has been bounded by the sound of Joe's heart.
Methos wakes.

He stretches, eyes still closed, and yawns again. Duncan carries the re-filled teapot over to the table and sets it down. Methos opens his eyes and looks at it. He frowns.

"Actually, MacLeod..." Methos says. It is the first time he has said the Highlander's name since he walked in the door, and Duncan can feel the word shiver over his skin, eddying in ripples of his own recognition, apology, want.

There was a time when he thought he could have predicted what Methos wanted, but that time was long gone. He stands waiting.

"That was beer I saw in the fridge, wasn't it?" Methos says. He looks up, and there are just the faintest traces of strain around his eyes. This is not easy for him, either.

Duncan opens the refrigerator and takes out three bottles of beer. He has been, in his time, a sentimental fool: but tonight he uncaps the bottles on the worktable and places the caps in the garbage sack under the sink. Then he carries them across to the table.

Methos waits for Duncan to let go of the bottle before he reaches for it. He does not drink it, but turns it in his hands, looking down at the label. "Do you know," he says. "I had forgotten how much I liked this." The space between them fills with the small ghosts of domestic intimacies, but that was another time and another place. Methos lifts the bottle and drinks from it, gently, deeply. His adam's apple bobs as he swallows. He does not hold the bottle wrapped in his hand, but lightly, the cool glass against the pads of his fingers and thumbs. His hands have always been exquisite. When he lowers the bottle he salutes it, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and leaving it slightly damp, liquid gleaming on skin. "Ah," he says. "Thank you."

"Do you want a shower?" Duncan says. He has put the deepest, softest towels in the bathroom, made sure it was warm. There are three different kinds of soap on the side of the bath, and irises on the windowsill. In the laundry basket he has put two clean sweaters and a pair of jeans that had once fitted the man in front of him.

"That would be good," Methos says. He stands up, holding the beer. "Where-" Any other man might have looked round, uncertain. Methos keeps his eyes on the bridge of Duncan's nose.

"Door in the corner," Duncan says. He hesitates. "There's a lock on the door," he adds.

Methos gathers up his suitcase. He is in no hurry. His stride is loose-limbed, sure of itself, easy, but when he shuts the door Duncan can hear the lock slide home.

Left alone, Duncan places the beer he holds down on the table. He takes a deep breath and lets the air out, sighing, through his teeth. Then he gets up and checks on Joe again. There is no change. He walks back to the kitchen and washes up the two cups and saucers, empties the cool tea down the sink and rinses the teapot. He puts the milk carton back in the refrigerator and wipes down the clean surface.

Then he walks to the rack of disks on the shelves by the kitchen. He pulls one out, replacing the case in the same spot, and carries the disk across to the small player on the table by Joe's bed. There are bottles here, wipes. He puts the disc in the tray and takes the earphones from the hook on the wall, adjusting them carefully over Joe's ears. He plays blues, for Joe.

~*~

Returning to the couch, he sits irresolute. He does not want Methos to emerge and find him waiting: it is a declaration of dependence he cannot make. On the shelves there is a box and a board: he retrieves the chess set and arranges it, with care, on the small table. The board is old and large, worn. The chess pieces are modern, painted wood, from Borneo. It's new. The set he and Methos used is in storage.

He runs through a couple of opening gambits, sets up a problem he knows well and solves it, again. The room has acquired an undertone of something cool and fresh, wintergreen, lying under the harsh notes of antiseptic and bleach. He hears the lock on the door snap back, and his hand tightens around the carved figure of the black rook. He looks up.

Methos has found the jumpers and the jeans. He looks younger, his hair ruffled and damp, roughly dried. There is a towel around his neck and another one in his hands. Walking forward, he drops it over the back of the couch before settling into place opposite the Highlander. His eyes are brown gold, the green fled to the edges of his iris, his pupils wide. He is still tired, but he looks refreshed, alert.

"MacLeod," he says.

Duncan places the rook back on the board. He leans back.

"Why did you call?" Methos asks.

Duncan cannot stop himself. His eyes flick to the man in the bed. He hears Methos' gasp, ruthlessly suppressed, and then silence. Then Methos stands up, flurried, pulling his limbs together one after the other: he knocks the edge of the chessboard and spills cushions onto the floor: he manages to get to the window, and stands with his back to the Highlander. Duncan, turning, can see the force of the air pulled into his lungs in the movement of his shoulders and back.

"No," Methos says. It is a keen. "No. No."

"What-" Duncan says, startled.

The older immortal turns round. His eyes are all green now, his face pared down, as if all the flesh has retreated to the bulwark of his bones.

"You can't do it, can you," Methos says "You can't do it, so you called for your private executioner, the one man you think won't care." The words hiss between his teeth. "You think it doesn't matter to me, you think I can snuff out someone's life as if it means nothing."

"No," Duncan says. He is horrified.

"I don't have to be that man any more," Methos says. His body has folded in on himself, he is gripping his arms across his chest. "How many times do I have to prove it to you?"

"No," Duncan says again.

"You and your easy morality," Methos says. "Your judgments, your standards, your choices. Your dammed...rightness."

Duncan stands up. "No," he says, yet again. He stops, considers. "It's not what you think," he says.
Methos is silent. The Highlander looks down at his hands. He'd hoped to do this differently, but now was as good a time as any. He leaves the man by the window and the chessboard, walks to the other man he loves, the one lying in his bed. He looks down for just a moment, reaches out and feels the dry, soft skin of Joe's cheek with its tiny, yielding creases, the footprints of humour and a life well lived. He turns the tap on the nutrient drip and disconnects the feed in Joe's wrist, checking as he does that Joe is warm, comfortable. He removes the sensors from Joe's heart and turns off the monitor. He smoothes the hair back from Joe's face, tenderly, and removes the hairline pads that monitor the electrical activity in Joe's brain: he turns that machine off, too. The electrical hum of the monitors fades into silence: there is only the shush, hush, shush of the ventilator. He reaches for the cap that covers the hose, and gently, very gently, twists it out of the ugly tube that mars Joe's neck. He turns the machine off, and the sudden silence is spine chilling. After three days, the sound had become integral to his own life. He looks down. He's left the morphine drip: he wants Joe to go quietly, comfortably, but under his fingers Joe's chest rises once, twice: the air bubbles in his throat. Joe groans when he breathes. The air whistles, thrums: it is not a comfortable noise, and Duncan can feel the muscles of his chest struggle to rise and fall. It might be an hour, they had said, it might be three. It might be a day. There is no-one left to call. Amy made her farewells weeks ago: she is back in London with her children, and Joe retired many years ago. He is almost the last of his generation. MacLeod's friend. Methos' friend, he thought.

He turns around then, and looks at the other immortal. Only the swift, shallow rise and fall of his chest shows that the other man, too, is alive.

"It's not about you," MacLeod says. "It's not about us."

It was the first time either of them had referred, even obliquely, to the relationship that gapes between them. He can see Methos flinch, just a little, and feels the heat rise in his own body in instinctive response. It's not lust, although God knows they have been there. It's more that this man is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, deeper embedded in his skin than the claws of his quickening.

The pupils of Methos' eyes have widened. He stands so still. If I touched him now, Duncan thought, would he crack and fall...?

Joe's breathing is quieter than the ventilator, but harsher. It doesn't have a set rhythm, but rather struggles and gasps unevenly, without pattern. The wait between each breath, the moment his lungs struggle to draw air once again, is heart breaking.

Duncan walks to the table between the couch and the chair. He puts the chess pieces into the box carefully, wood placed against wood with little hollow taps of acknowledgment. He picks up the board and the box and carries it to the bed. It's a big bed: he's not a small man. He puts the board down at the end of it, on the smooth blankets. Then he sits down on the bed. He places himself carefully, cross-legged: he takes exquisite care not to jar the man who lies there, but he hopes that the warmth of his body and presence will comfort Joe in this last journey. Tonight, he is the watcher.

"Play chess with me," Duncan says.

Methos breaks.

He folds, very slowly, down into himself. Like watching the sand run out of an hourglass. His hands come up to cover his face: the last part of him Duncan can see is his eyes, black and empty, before the long fingered hands hide the grief laid bare on his face. He stays that way for minutes.

There is a bitter taste at the back of Duncan's throat, and always, at the back of his mind, Joe, breathing. A roll call of missing years.

Then Methos' shoulders stretch, just a little, and he uncurls himself, slowly, and stands. If he has been crying, it does not show. He puts one foot forward, and another: he is walking. He makes it to the other side of the bed, and his eyes drop to the chessboard.

"MacLeod."

"Watch with me," Duncan says. It's not a question or a precondition. His voice is as empty as he can make it.

Methos reaches out. He touches, with one steady hand, the low curve of blanket that covers Joe's legs, and then he sits down on the bed. Like the Highlander, he lowers himself carefully, gently, and sits cross-legged, with the chessboard between them. Joe lies curved towards him, under the covers, and Methos reaches out one hand and lays it again on the watcher's leg, so that the old man can feel him. He raises his head, nostrils flared, as he must have done in the days when the enemy came booted and horsed in a skirl of dust.

"White or black?" he says.

"White," Duncan says. He looks up. He can manage the ghost of humour, surely. "Inappropriate?"

Methos watches him across the board, unreadable. He's never known where to put his word, what is sayable and what is not, when he can lay his heart open on the blade of Methos' understanding and when the old man would simply turn away. Then the corner of Methos' mouth lifts up, just a little.

"Just don't ask me to wear the hat," the old man says. He is breathing through his mouth, little, light breaths.

"No," Duncan promises. Now he sets the pieces out carefully, the rows of identical pawns and the big curved crosses of the kingpieces, the proud, Arabian arches of the knights and finally, in the corner the castellated rooks. Methos does not comment on the set.

Duncan looks at the board for a moment. It's infinite, now, in this moment of space and time: then he sets his hand down and moves a pawn, and suddenly all the choices are finite. He has opened the box, and Schrodinger's cat sits across the board.

Methos cocks his head to one side. He has thrown off that terrible moment of grief as if it never happened, although his left hand is still clasped loosely around Joe's foot, where it will remain. He doesn't move, as Duncan expects him too: when they played in the past Methos could gallop through a game with irritating speed, throwing off schemes and plans until the Highlander mazed himself in confusion, following. Instead the old man looks up.

"Did you know," he says "that the second book Caxton ever printed was on chess?" He waits. It's a gambit as plain as Duncan's pawn on the board.

"No," Duncan says. "Tell me." He says.

"It was called The Game and Play of Chess Moralised," Methos said. "He printed it in Bruges. There were very few typefaces at the time." Methos says "so he printed it in Gothic."

There is a way you can arrange your face that expresses interest without moving a muscle. Duncan does it.

"He printed four hundred copies," Methos says. "I've never seen one."

"Why not?" Duncan asks.

Methos shrugs. "It's like appearing on Oprah," he says. "It's a closure I'm avoiding."

He reaches out a hand and moves his first pawn forward. It's a perfect and unexpected defense, a piric opening, archaic and formal: response but not challenge. Duncan is discomposed. It's not usual for the old man to be so reticent on a chessboard, almost accommodating, but Methos' face is composed and carefully blank. Nevertheless, the man has dropped him a lure to follow and the Highlander does, bringing a second pawn forward to stand by the first.

" What have you been doing?" Duncan asks, "If not appearing on network television?" His voice is studiously neutral.

Methos glances up. " Been around," he says dryly, and Duncan chokes back a snort of amusement - it's so laconic, so Methos.

"Tibet?" he tries. " The islands?"

"Somewhere a little colder," Methos says. His eyes drop, he moves another pawn to match the first, tucks in the corner of his mouth and slides his hand, a little, over Joe's leg. Suddenly Duncan can hear the watcher's breathing.

" Moscow," Methos says, and Duncan cannot hide his astonishment. "Recently," Methos says. "Do you have any idea," Methos says "quite how many Russian chess players there are?" He pauses. "It's a peculiar Russian madness. Like potato vodka."

"I can't really see you," Duncan says "Playing chess on ice."

"It was enervating," Methos answers.

Duncan moves another pawn forwards. The older immortal is still playing a waiting game: none of his pieces ventured beyond a single space. "What's the attraction?" The Highlander asks.

"Mortification," Methos answers, quickly, wryly. " It's about-" He stops. " It's a long way from-" He stops again. " Dammit, MacLeod, ask me something I can answer."

"I didn't realize we had a commitment to honesty," Duncan says, slowly.

"It's not general," Methos says. " It's a special offer."

"Tell me about Russia," Duncan says. He moves his bishop forward. It's the bare bones of an attack.

" Cold," Methos says. " Is there anything else to say? You've been there, haven't you?" He pauses, but Duncan says nothing. " Still cold, rich, grindingly poor. Still smells of cabbage. Russians drink." Then Methos says, "I played with Ivan Vassilovitch once or twice. You weren't born then, Highlander, and you can't imagine it: you had to be there. The boyars, the black priests, the wet sheepskin and the silver. The smell of new-cut wood: Moscow was made of wood. Bearskins. The way the silk shreds on the body of a Cossack, after a winter's campaign. The scent of a new order."

Duncan waits.

"He could have ruled the world. He had that kind of charisma," Methos says. "But he was mad. If he was immortal we could have- But that's not what I wanted." He moves a bishop forward to counter Duncan's, but the old man is still playing a tight game, compact, without risk. "That wasn't ever what I wanted," he says.

" I know that," Duncan says. He moves quickly, sliding his queen forward, but all Methos does is touch one long finger down and move another pawn its single space forward. He has four of them lined up now.

Methos says nothing, but his hand grips Joe's foot: the breathing stops, momentarily. Both men raise their heads, eyes meeting over Joe's straining body. Methos has paled again.

"Is it so difficult?" Duncan asks.

"To watch him die? Yes."

"Because you care."

"Life is a lot easier when you don't," Methos says. His mouth closes, sharp as a sprung trap.

Breathe.

"I didn't expect this," Methos says, eventually. " I didn't know you would do this. Could."

" I'm just full of surprises," Duncan says.

" Oh, Gods," Methos says wearily. " Good, bad, life, death, black, white: it's all just shades of gray, Highlander. Even you." Yet the way his hand tightens on Joe's leg belies the words.

"On the whole," Duncan says, gentle, smiling. "I prefer to think of myself in colour." He moves a pawn forward to stand by his bishop, and what was opaque becomes clear. He's set up an attacking phalanx, direct threat to Methos' Queen.

" I'm sure you do," Methos snaps. He frowns down at the board, moves another pawn. It's the first time he's stepped beyond the invisible boundary of the third line of squares. His voice softens. " You are the colour of fire, to me," he says.

Duncan pulls the air in through his teeth. For a moment he and Joe breathe in disturbing harmony.
"It's an interesting analogy," he says, eventually.

"Isn't it?" Methos says. He uncurls himself from the bed, stalks to the refrigerator and plunders two beers, decapping them on the worktop. Then he starts opening cupboards and moving boxes with no respect for the Highlander's sense of order. As Duncan watches, he retrieves a heavy tumbler, holds it in one hand, opens more cupboards.

"Gods' sake, MacLeod, where do you keep the whisky?" he asks eventually.

"Bookshelves," Duncan says.

Methos favours him with a look that says plainly, comprehensively, that either prior information or a more logical choice of storage would have raised his general opinion of the Highlander's intelligence. He spins on his heel, trapping glass and bottles: tracks down the whisky. Without hesitating he takes out the Islay vat 1947, the bottle that cost Duncan $975 before import duty. The cork slides out the bottle with an audible crack as the wax breaks, and the liquid slides, pale gold, from the bottle. It's a generous measure. Duncan can smell it from where he sits.

The bottle re-corked and replaced, Methos carries beer and whisky back to the bed with an air of triumph. Duncan gets a bottle, cold in his fingers, Joe gets the glass, set gently on the bedside table. Methos holds his own beer tenderly as he lowers himself back onto the bed, long legs folding into angular, elegant shape. He looks down at the board.

"MacLeod..."

Duncan has moved his knight forward, to stand by king and queen. Methos follows him, quickly, and almost without hesitating Duncan stretches out and sends his bishop, bait to hook, across the board. The older man pounces. Duncan looses his bishop, but in the next second the Highlander's Queen takes Methos' own triumphant cleric.

"Ha!" Duncan says, but Methos just stares at the board.

"It's a quick death," he says.

Joe's breathing lies between them, the hitch and shuffle of his dragging breaths.

"We talked about it," Duncan said. "He'd said his farewells: he wanted to go gently, in peace, with friends." His hand clenches hard on the downed white bishop he still holds in his hands.

"Perhaps you're right," Methos says. "Me, I'd prefer to take a clean cut."

"You will not," Duncan spits out, horrified.

Methos' eyes snap up. "Don't be a fool, Highlander," he says, quick, acerbic.

Wrongfooted again, Duncan looks down at the board and moves a single pawn. He's still disconcerted by the way Methos sacrificed his bishop as if he hadn't known, as he surely had, that MacLeod's queen lay in wait.

Methos nudges his remaining bishop forward a space. "In 1476," he says, tapping one finger on the black piece, "Petro Alfonsi wrote the Disciplina Clericalis for Henry I. Don't smirk, MacLeod, take your mind off goat hair shirts. You'll like this. He discussed the seven essential knightly pursuits. Chess was one of them."

"What were the others?"

"Riding," Methos says. "Swimming, archery, boxing, hawking. What have I missed? Oh yes, writing poetry." The corner of his mouth curls upwards. "Ever written verse, Highlander?"

"Maybe," MacLeod answers, haunted by the memory of an excruciating bad rondeau recited at Lady Sarah Churchill's levé.

"I knew it," Methos says. His eyes glint green. "A parfait, gentil-"

"Surprise me," Duncan says, unreasonably annoyed.

Methos arches his brows. He touches the tip of his tongue to his upper lip, mischievous, then launches his attack. "Of course I can. Know your enemies." His eyelids half close. "Stung by Diana's chaste and star-"

"Stop," aays MacLeod. He is astonished when Methos does.

"Actually, it's not bad, for a first attempt," Methos says, rolling the words slowly round his tongue. "That epic you wrote later in Syracuse was far worse. But I liked the limericks from Hever Castle - the one about the goat and the milkmaid was inspiring."

The Highlander gazes at him in shock. Methos cocks his head on one side: his eyes slide to Joe's gray head, lying peaceably on the low pillow.

"You didn't," MacLeod breathes.

"I did. Ten years ago. He'd always wanted them."

"Ten years ago?"

"I might be the world's most dishonorable lover, MacLeod," Methos says. "But I do understand the value of friendship."

Duncan turns that over and over, trying to find a way round it, come back with some reply that is neither fatuous or clumsy. He can't.

Methos moves a pawn, almost casually.

"Perhaps that's where I went wrong," Duncan says, slowly.

"It's not always your fault," Methos replies. He's frowning at the corner of the board, and Duncan looks down, reflexively moves his castle away from those dangerously wise eyes. Then Methos says, unexpectedly, "I always thought we would be friends."

"We are," Duncan says.

Methos picks up the black queen and turns it in his fingers. "I suspect Cassandra thought that too," he says. "But there are limits to every contract, MacLeod. The trick is understanding them." He puts the queen down, advancing one space. It threatens Duncan's king directly, only a single pawn between them.

"What are you trying to tell me?" Duncan asks. He moves his king out of danger.

"That we all make mistakes," Methos says. "I do, you do, Joe does...But not all of us choose to live up to your standards."

"No judgmen," Duncan says.

"No," says Methos. "And neither am I saying it's a bad ideal, MacLeod." He moves his pawn towards Duncan's king. "But it can be difficult to live with." His mouth shuts on the words.

"In retrospect," Duncan says. "It was..unreasonable."

Methos looks up. His eyes are tranquil, his hands still. "The pieces don't change, MacLeod," he says.

"But the contracts can..." Duncan says, very quietly, so quietly that Methos can barely hear him. Then he looks up, and the corners of his mouth turn upwards, just a little. "There are all sorts and conditions of man..." he says.

Methos crows. "Cessolis!" he says. His eyes glint. "Customs of Men and Their Noble Actions with Reference to the Game of Chess...Particularly yours, Highlander, it's your move. And talking of noble actions, what does a man have to do to get fed around here?"

Still smiling, Duncan moves one of his knights back to the edge of the board. "Phone's by the bookshelves," he says. "You can pay for it later."

"Five nine eight six seven eight-"

"What?"

"Recognise it?"

Duncan sits back, carefully. "Just how much-"

"Tsk, tsk. I'm calling for pizza. Your move, Highlander."

"Methos! "

"How else do I keep track of you? I'm not a Watcher any more, you know."

"With my credit card number?"

"You 'd be surprised." Methos' grin is distinctly wicked around the edges. "I always know when you're sulking: the cleaning bills go up."

"I do not-"

"Your move. Free gift." The old man levers himself from the bed, careful not to disturb the living Watcher who lies between them.

"Fine," Duncan says. He moves his knight again, attacking, and looks up: Methos walks across his floor with absolute, assured grace. No one moves like the old man. Duncan could have sworn that he would recognise that tall, casual figure anywhere, in any airport or bar or bingo hall in the known universe.

"You want olives?"

"No," Duncan says automatically. "I'm not sure-"

"It's a wake, isn't it?" Methos says, looking up. "I broke open the whisky...Mac." Disapproving.

"What?"

"You've got the pizza place on speed dial."

"It's been a bit busy."

"For five years?"

"I don't cook that often."

Mercifully, the phone connects and Methos begins a long and involved conversation with someone whose grasp of spoken English appears to be rudimentary. After a while he drops into Turkish, but Methos' Turkish is archaic ("Kh'ástan nan i tahí...agar ín kár-há súrat mí-dihíd fabihá; wa illá javáb-") and communication does not appear to improve. Left alone, Duncan stands and checks on Joe. Little has changed. He lets his hand linger on the cool, dry skin of Joe's face, fascinated by the feel of the tiny, intimate lines, the slow and steady warmth of Joe's blood under his fingers. Joe has been strong all his life, and he is not sliding gently into death. The powerful muscles of his chest heave air into his lungs, push it out with an almost audible whine...

"It's all right to leave, Joe," Duncan says. "It's all right. We love you."

It's an intimacy he never meant Methos to hear, but suddenly there are fingers beside his on Joe's skin, very briefly, the gentlest of touches before the old man sits back at the end of the bed.

"Have you done this before?"

"What, like this? No."

"It always seems...terribly final," Methos says.

"I always thought-" Duncan says, and stops.

Methos snaps his pawn forward, takes one of Duncan's advance guard with pursued lips and lowered eyelashes. The muscles of his face have firmed around the compressed line of his mouth.

"What?"

"When you said - I always thought you would prefer to die quickly."

"As if there is a choice. I would prefer not to die at all. Weren't you going to say something about mortals, death, horsemen, compassion-"

"I slept with you for three years, Methos," Duncan says. "This is part of you, but not the whole of you. You know I know this."

Eventually, Methos says, "Aren't you going to take the bloody pawn, then?"

He has left the piece carelessly exposed, vulnerable.

Duncan reaches forward and removes it, tucking it safely into the box. "But what about the player?" he asks, frowning, moving his rook to the vacated square. Then he says, because he is Duncan, because he can't help it, because even though he has been avoiding these words for the last thirty years they still burn.

"What happened?"

Methos moves another pawn. "Do you know," he asks, "what happened when Cambridge played Bedlam at chess?"

"No. What?"

"Bedlam won," Methos says, expressionless.

"And that is supposed to tell me-"

"Leave off, MacLeod."

"But isn't this-" Duncan says, exasperated.

"Exactly what took me out the door? Funny that." Methos' breath has quickened: he looks up, and his eyes have darkened.

"I always felt I had to be so careful," Duncan says, with the distance of time and a single chessboard between them. "I never knew what to say. Then I couldn't say anything."

"Did it hurt?" Methos asks, showing his teeth.

"What do you think?"

"It was meant to."

"I know."

Methos takes a deep breath and leans back, his eyes hooded, slitted. "You say that so easily," he says. His voice has thinned: it's a tone Duncan recognises, from the nights when the old man pushed and pushed until one or other of them would break.

"Did it prove anything?" he asks. "You hurt me. I hit back. Just because you did it with words and I did it with silence doesn't make it any less of a battle."

"Didn't," Methos says, and then his eyes widen and drop.

"What is it?" Duncan asks, for Methos' hands have whitened on the pawn he has moved forward, unthinking, dragging it across the board.

"Oh Duncan," he says, very quietly, to the board. "Didn't you get it?"

"What, take me, make me yours?" Duncan says. He reaches forward and snaps Methos' pawn off the board. "I understood that bit. You didn't." He places his rook down. "I didn't want a god, Methos, or someone to sit at my feet."

"Oh, what a royal game this is," Methos says. He nudges another pawn forward: his hands are tight and cramped, but he has not moved from the bed or run to the door. "What a piece of work.."

"Oh, cue the violins," Duncan says, nastily.

Methos is still looking down at the chessboard. Then he takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he says. "That was unworthy."

"At least it meant something to you," Duncan says, sobered and thankful beyond words that the old man, for whatever reasons of his own, had not called him on the violins.

"MacLeod, do you think I'm that easy?" Methos' voice, dragging its fringes in the bedroom, pulling them both out of the gutter.

"Yes," Duncan says. He's paused before replying, but he can't help it: there is a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, and the humour sounds in his voice. Over the board, Methos' eyes rise, slowly, irresistibly, to his, and there are half a hundred shared memories in that green gaze, beds and beer bottles and an unexpectedly sweet surrender couched in darkness and painted in desire. Neither of them breaths for a moment, and then Duncan leans back and moves his rook forward, audaciously, right into the heart of Methos' carefully serried defense.

"Bugger," Methos says, looking at the board, pulling on innocent and confused, and Duncan laughs. Methos looks up, looks down, moves a random knight, cannot quite suppress the twitch of his long lips, and Duncan is achingly reminded of how good it can be between them...

And then into that space of time comes the sound of the air pulled into Joe's throat, the grunt and gasp of a body stretched beyond its allotted span but still flailing at life. Suddenly, it's not funny anymore, but hurts bright and sharper than the blade of a sword. Duncan's head turns: he gets off the bed, fast, turning to smooth the hair from Joe's forehead and moisten his lips. Behind him, he is vividly aware of the space that Methos occupies, silent and self-contained and withdrawn behind all the barricades of his shuttered mind. But then, he had never thought this would be easy, not for the man under his hands nor the man sitting on his bed.

But it is Methos' hands beside him that ease Joe's head against the pillows and check and change the disc in the Walkman and smooth sheets so they lie light and easy over Joe's skin.

"Do you think.." the old man says, from the other side of the bed. "Do you think...we were worth it?"

It's about as painfully honest a comment as he has ever received. He turns it in his mind, considering, tasting the flavour of the words and the potential for misunderstanding. He doesn't know what to say, looks up, and is struck again by how slight Methos can make himself appear. What can he say? He can't make it right, not for Joe, not for either of them.

He's saved by the sound of the buzzer.

"Pizza," Methos says, childishly pleased, and heads to the door of Duncan's condo apparently forgetting the question. As he watches, the other Immortal finds the entryphone and lets the deliveryman in with imperial dignity. Then, of course, after flinging open the door and directing the position of the pizza on the table Methos feels in his pockets, comes up empty handed and looks at the Highlander.

Some things never change. He pulls the billfold from his pocket and tosses it to the older man. Once, years ago, when they were lovers, Methos would have tucked the denuded clip into his own pocket with an insouciant grin, but this time it wings back to him almost immediately and the old man wanders round the kitchen opening unfamiliar drawers.

"Mac?"

And Duncan realises too late what Methos is looking for.

"Ah," he says, and at that Methos looks up, unholy and gleeful.

"You didn't."

Duncan shifts on the bed.

"You did!"

And Methos, still chortling, picks up the boxes and moves them to the bed without the addition of knife or sharp object. But the pizza box lands in front of him with nothing more than a lift of Methos' eyebrow at the weighted jacket which hangs twenty feet out of reach, and seconds later it's joined by the dull sheen of a short knife placed, with care, on the bedclothes. He opens the box and picks it up, turning it in his fingers, as Methos settles himself opposite and cleans a second knife on the sleeve of Duncan's sweater before opening his own box. He thinks about that, cutting into the pizza he did not think he would want which fills his nose with the rich smell of olive oil and tomatoes. Then decides, on the whole, he'd rather not know, and lifts the first slice of pizza to his mouth. It tastes amazingly good, and he tries to remember the last time he ate, and cannot. His hunger shocks him, ambushing his fingers and stomach into greed. He even eats the slices passed across the bed to him, anchovies salty on his tongue, and when he's finished he sits back and sighs, replete. The knives have vanished along with the pizza: he collects the boxes and bins them, bringing back more beer for Methos and a cup of green tea for himself. Automatically, he checks on Joe.

"Not eating isn't going to help him," Methos says, gently.

Duncan shrugs. "Starvation isn't exactly going to kill me."

"No, but-" Methos stops.

"It's not a pleasant death," Duncan says for him. It's not one he's experienced, but one he is very sure
Methos has. He gazes at the disconnected nutrient drip, frowning, and cannot help then looking at the older immortal. Who looks back, dispassionate.

"I wanted him not to have...all those wires and needles."

Methos says nothing. Duncan looks at the drip.

Then Methos uncurls himself and walks to the tray of equipment that sits on the table by Joe's head. He unwraps a disinfectant wipe, and quickly, as if he does not want what he is doing to be acknowledged, finds the vein in Joe's arm and runs a needle into it, reconnecting the drip with easy skill. His movements are practiced, automatic, easier than when Duncan saw him last stitching..indeed, Joe, and the Highlander wonders where he regained that competence. But this is Methos, and he will not ask.

Then he changes his mind, and, moving another pawn forward, says, "Where? Russia?"

Methos does not pretend to misunderstand him. "Moscow. Then Chechnya."

"For?"

Methos shifts his king, easily, from Duncan's implied threat. "Everyone. No one."

It's defensive, but Duncan looks up: Methos is frowning down at the board. He moves his knight, pushing, and says: "Red Cross?"

"Don't-" Methos says quickly, but then he softens. "Medicin Sans Frontiers, actually." Defensive, he moves his bishop back to the edges of the board, but Duncan can see the threat as well as the protection. He moves his own bishop, countermatching, almost twinned.


"Why?"

Methos shrugs. "Why not?" He moves another pawn forward, cover and challenge. "It's a beautiful country," Methos says, "but you know that."

Duncan is reminded once again that, whilst he has little idea of Methos' past, the man has read his like an open book...an open CD. Then, what are his four hundred years to Methos' five thousand? It's something he wishes he could accept, but even now he must pull and scratch at the wounds, wanting more, wanting Methos open to him, wanting to understand. He moves his queen, slowly, thinking it out as he goes.

Methos leans back and stares down at the board. It's obvious his king is under attack, but he picks the piece up, turns it in his hand. "I thought you would know this," he says, slowly.

"Joe?" Duncan asks. "But he wouldn't tell me. After a while, I gave up asking."

"Ah," Methos says. He puts the king down, safe under the wing of his bishop.

"Which means..." Duncan moves his castle across the board, towards Methos' king, but the man's defenses are sound.

"He knew where I was. He knew where you were. I..." Methos' head went back: his eyes were closed. "I didn't want you to know where I was."

Duncan says nothing. He's shocked by the pain that has flashed briefly across Methos' face, unhidden, and the way Methos opens his eyes and looks at Joe with open affection. "I did know that you were together." The older Immortal says.

"Which is why..."

Methos looks down at the board. He shifts another pawn forward, a small increment, a safe move. "We kept in touch," he says, lightly.

"But what if..." Duncan frowns down at the board, sorting through the images in his mind. He moves his knight forward, unthinking.

"What do you honestly think either of us could do, MacLeod, if the other one lost a challenge? Here or half a world away, it's the same rules." Methos' voice was harsh. He swung his own knight forward, took Duncan's off the board with a decisive click. "We all die, MacLeod."

Silence, a silence that grew, slowly, fed by the sound of Joe's breath, slower and gratingly loud when it came. They were both listening to that uneven, doomed struggle.

"What would you have done?" Duncan says, eventually.

Methos looks down. "Your move."

"You sacrificed your knight." Duncan says. He moves his own pawn forward, taking Methos' piece gently from the battlefield.

And Methos places a long finger on his queen, moves it forward to stand threat to both pawn and king. "Your quickening is no one's but mine," he says, looking up, remote. His eyes are narrowed, feral, the eyes of a man who has played and won bloodier battles than this.

But Duncan nods slowly into the power of those eyes. This he understands. He moves his own Rook into threat, taking the single pawn that stands between Methos' Queen and his own pieces. "And yours, mine," he says. "But it would be a hell of a lot easier if you were somewhere nearer."

"Why bother with the intermediaries?" Methos says. He reaches forward, removes Duncan's exposed Rook and replaces it with his own castle. On this square, at this point in time, Duncan's Queen could take the piece with a single move.

For a moment Duncan ignores both offers. He moves his Rook forward, joining battle, frowning over the board, wondering what he can say that will not sound either puerile or far too needy.

Across the board, Methos glances up. Duncan's move protects his own Queen as well as backing up his attack: it's neat, clever and unexpected. He moves his own king to stand, protective sentinel, at the black queen's back.

Now Duncan does take the proffered Castle, sending his Queen sliding across the board. "But why care?" he asks, and leans back.

He's not wrong. He has hit Methos on a nerve the older man did not mean him to know, ambushed by a game of chess. He knows it by the breath Methos draws, unguarded, hissing through his teeth.

"You are too important too loose," Methos says, but he says it to the board and not to the man who sits opposite him.

"Bullshit," Duncan says.

Under attack, Methos does not freeze but runs, uncurling from the bed and walking, stiff and taut, to the plate glass windows. He stands there, looking out into the darkening sky, watching the lights of a city he must once have known well but which will have become strange and new. The more things change, the more things remain the same...it's a line from a very old song, now, but one Joe had played for Methos, once. Across the room, the older Immortal presses his head against the cool glass. He looks both incredibly young and frighteningly vulnerable: it's easy to forget, sometimes, who he is: it's a disguise as carefully constructed as Adam's coltishness. Then Methos turns his back on the window, leaning against it.

"What are we going to do?" he asks.

And Duncan looks up and smiles, because it's Methos who asks, not this careful stranger, not Adam, and he has not been lying to himself about just what it is that lies between them... "Play chess?" he says, knowing that this is not what Methos means but that he isn't ready, yet, to have this discussion and neither is Methos. But it's the right thing to say. He could move mountains, bet his life, on the knowing smile sent in his direction. He has done. It's only there for seconds, before the older Immortal reclaims distance and noncomitance in the turn of his head, but it burns warm and promising in the pit of Duncan's awareness.

Methos walks back to the bed and sits down, curling his legs up and his hand around Joe's leg. He looks at his hand, at the sheet, at Joe. He says: "Joe played a song for me, once."

"I know," Duncan says. Joe has played a lot of songs, for both of them, and for others, and for himself.

"I was always grateful.."

"He trusted you."

"I know."

Duncan could say, here, that Joe had always hoped that, one day, he would look up and the man who came in the door would be Adam or Benjamin or Mattius. He knew this. But then, Joe's trust had not been entirely misplaced, for sitting opposite him was the man whose presence he too had desired.

"I have learnt," Duncan says, "that trust is not an absolute. But I never thought you would not be here."

"That's not trust, MacLeod," Methos says. He picks up his own king and turns it in his fingers, tracing the roughened, crude curves of the wooden figure. "That's blind faith."

"And so? When have you not been here when I needed you? I have learnt...that I should have trusted your definition of truth."

"What, no black and white? No absolutes? What have you been doing, MacLeod? Taken a gray quickening?" It's quick, defensive, bitten short.

"Just thinking."

"Don't damage yourself," Methos says. He snaps the king down onto the board, takes the Highlander's knight with controlled precision. His eyes are narrowed, and the hand that rests on Joe's leg has tightened.

Duncan smiles at him, shifts a pawn forward to stand poised one square from Methos' king. "I have faith in you, Methos," he says deliberately. "I have faith that you are true to your own definition of truth. I believe that you will hold to that truth in the face of any other definition, and I have come to understand that my own definition of truth is itself relative."

Methos looks up and blinks. His eyes are narrowed, oddly uncertain, as if he faces a threat he has yet to gage. His mouth opens, frames speech, rejects it, shuts, but he is nodding. Finally he says, "How long have you been practicing that?"

"Ten years, give or take," Duncan says. "I had to get over being angry, first."

He knows so well the exasperated turn of Methos' head, the way his eyes drop, the inklings of amused, frustrated tolerance. In the past, he's met Methos' withdrawal with his own stubborn silence. Now he leans back and smiles. "Whatever." Duncan MacLeod says to his convoluted, impossible, beloved friend.

"I haven't changed," Methos says, warning.

And it's Duncan's turn to raise his eyebrows and smile, for the man that sits opposite him has as many sides and shadings as a Gordian knot. For seconds, Methos holds his eyes, held so carefully blank, and then Methos ducks his head in inescapable, amused, rueful acknowledgment of who both of them are. "Mac-"

"I know. I love you too. Are you going to move that king, or can I take it now?"

Methos looks down at the board, shaking his head. His hands loosen and spread: he is smiling, grinning really, his eyes crinkled at the corners. "Not just yet..."

"Too much?"

"What are you getting off on?"

"You need to ask?"

Under his lashes, Methos' eyes flick up, once, and down to the safety of the board: his smile has faded. He reaches out one finger and slides his king back one space, out of danger.

"You do need to ask," Duncan says, stunned.

Methos is looking at Joe. And this is neither the time nor the place.

"You surprised me."

"So did you." Duncan slides his queen back, skirting Methos' king, playing with proximity.

"I didn't expect..."

"What?"

"The depth of your commitment," Methos says. He is still looking at Joe.

"Yes."

Then Methos does look at him. "That's it?"

"When I came to think about it...it's simple. It just took me a while to realise that there are no limits." The eyes that meet his are honestly puzzled. He's disconcerted the older man, thrown him off balance, and Methos has allowed him to see that confusion. He raises an eyebrow, acknowledgment, and slides off the bed again to check on Joe, giving Methos space.

On the pillow, Joe's head has turned, nestling into the warmth of the goose-down Duncan has given him in defiance of the hospital's sanctioned and uncomfortable polyester. His breathing is light now, slow, his eyes are closed, and his mouth curves just a little, gentle and pleased, as if he is listening to music he loves. Reminded, Duncan checks the CD player. Methos has given Joe a new recording, an experimental fusion he has never heard. For a moment, Duncan wonders just how many of the recordings Joe loved were sent by the old man, anonymous burnt CDs that he would file, cursing, as Joe smiled at his frustration.

"You know you can write on these things?" he says.

"Ah, but that's half the fun. You know, that's how writing begun? A means of identifying things you couldn't see?"

"Methos."

"Highlander?" The eyes that meet his are limpid and innocent.

"There are times when you can take paranoia to an extreme."

"But then..." Methos' head tilts: his eyes gleam, mischief and laughter.

"Don't," Duncan says. "Just don't. Immortality," he says, frowning happily, "Is just an accident of birth. It could just as well be me sitting there, saying to you, Pierson, you know, when you've lived to my age you'll discover that paranoia is no more than a useful survival tool.."

"Glad to know you learned something," Methos tells him.

"Oh, I learnt a lot, old man. And I've been practicing." One hand on Joe's hair, Duncan wiggles his eyebrows comically and is rewarded by Methos' peal of laughter.

Under his hand, Joe moves his head into the pillow: when Duncan glances down, he too is definitely smiling.

"And you," Duncan says. "You. Don't tell me you invented writing. I've been doing my research. I know perfectly well that writing was around long before you were born."

Methos tilts his head and raises his own eyebrows. Duncan decides, then, not to go there, but is hit by another thought. "Now, chess notation..."

"What on earth..."

"Clearly the product of a diseased mind," Duncan says. "You realise it took me years?"

"It's just another language, MacLeod," Methos says.

"Maybe for you," Duncan says. He slides back onto the end of the bed and notices that Methos is stealthily sliding his queen towards Duncan's knight with the point of an exceedingly slim stiletto. "For us barbarians.."

"Algebraic description," Methos says, rolling the words off his tongue. "MacLeod, you have no notion what a convenient code it makes..." Queen met knight: flicked off the board by the point of a knife, the Highlander's horseman dropped into his lap.

"No?" Duncan says, fishing. "And what were you doing in the war?"

"Statute of limitations doesn't apply in the UK," Methos tells him gleefully.

Duncan sends his rook chasing after Methos' king. "Oh? And how long is it now until they open the archives? Should I be waiting at the door?"

Methos shrugs, as the Highlander frowns at him. "Should have talked to Joe."

"I did." Duncan sends a quick glance at the Watcher, as Methos blocks his attack with a strategic bishop.

"Now there's a man who knows how to keep a secret," Methos says.

"God knows he's done it often enough for us," Duncan says, without thinking.

"Yeah."

Duncan glances up. The older immortal's face is shuttered again. What? Ah.

"Adam?"

Methos shrugged.

"Do you have a watcher?"

Silence.

"Oh," Duncan says. "They still don't know, do they?" He'd never wanted to ask, a blissful ignorance. Don't speak, don't listen, if you don't ask he won't tell and maybe he'll still be there in the morning.

"Adam died a long time ago, MacLeod." Methos said. "And there are no pictures. Joe made sure of that."

"Wanna bet?"

"No pictures in the database. Although after tonight..."

"Is this going to cause problems?"

"It's a little late to be asking, don't you think?"

Gazing at the board, Duncan contemplates both attack and retreat.

"You're here," he says, and takes Methos' bishop with his own rook.

Across the board, Methos looks down. "It took longer than I expected," he said. He looks up.

Duncan had expected evasion: what he gets is Adam, innocent, laughing, face curved into guileless amusement, hands raised and shaping the words.

"What you see is what you get, MacLeod," Methos says. He lets his eyes drift to the coat by the door, and it's only then that Duncan realises that the case has stayed in the bathroom, not by the door. In fact, it's about as far from the door as it could be in what is essentially a one-room apartment. "Three hard drives, one phone, one sweater, two pairs of jeans, a packet of disposable razors, shaving cream, and a wad of Euros I haven't had time to change...Some paperwork. A bottle of Highland Park."

"Oh," Duncan says. Laughter has not yet hit his face, but he can feel it rise.

"One sword. One coat. Some knives," Methos' eyes slide sideways and are brought back. "Five knives. One gun. Three pairs of socks...dirty. I stole yours from the laundry basket."

"Anything else?" Duncan asks, grinning.

"One suitcase?" Methos is smiling too, rueful. "I would say one copied CD, but that's Joe's...Ah. One taxi receipt, one - no, two used airline tickets, one passport - Benjamin Adamson, MacLeod - I did have a toothbrush, but I lost it in LA. Hope you don't mind..."

"Not at all," Duncan says politely. He leans back, looking at the mad, beautiful man opposite. "Carry on."

"What? Oh, a pair of exceedingly expensive shoes: never underestimate the ability of the European woman to judge a man by his footwear. An Everyman Herodotus, a Trocchi, and something awful by some woman I can't remember (must get rid of that one). A key."

"Hm?"

Methos shrugs. "C'est tout."

"You've come to stay."

Methos ducks his head, but from where Duncan sits he can see the familiar, deepening curves of his smile.

"Well," he says. "Well."

"Don't push it," Methos says, reflexive. Then he looks up, and for once his eyes are readable, shocked at himself, open. There is both realisation and offer in those eyes, and Duncan holds them, shocked himself.

"Methos...."

"I didn't..."

"It's OK," Duncan says. His hands are still, poised over the board: his stomach lurches: he thinks, now, that if he makes one wrong move or moves at all, it will be enough to lose this precarious balance.

"Fuck," Methos says. "Fuck. Fuck."

"Play chess with me," Duncan says, eventually.

"Should I thank you," Methos says "for avoiding the obvious?"

"All I can do is try to understand," Duncan says.

"I am trying to find at least some grace in the acceptance of what appears to be inevitable," Methos answers, crossly.

Duncan arches an eyebrow across the board.

"I mean, God's sake, MacLeod, look at us..."

"Might I remind you that this wasn't my idea in the first place?"

"That was different," Methos says, virtuously.

"Ah, so?" Duncan says. He can't catch the older man's eyes, but the beginnings of what is surely a Methos-patented smirk curl the corners of his mouth.

"I don't do Immortals, MacLeod," Methos says. "Valentines, roses, puppy dog's tails.."

"I do," Duncan says. "And you knew that."

"Yeah, well," Methos says. He picks up his Queen, moves it forward. "Meeting you...is like being bowled over by some hulking immortal juggernaut."

Duncan looks down at the board, moves his queen and sweeps Methos' knight off his pedestal and into the box. "You seemed to manage pretty well," he said. " Mi casa es su casa, MacLeod: have a beer: and just what are you hiding in those trousers? Are you really pleased to see me?"

Methos frowns, trying to hide a thoroughly unrepentant grin, sending his king forward to eliminate a hapless pawn. "Surprised you noticed."

"How could I not?" Duncan sent his queen across the board, snapping another pawn from the field.

"Everyone noticed."

Methos shrugged. "It was fun, at the time."

"I bet it was," Duncan says. He watches Methos' fingers pick up the black king again, graceful manipulation.

"Oh come on, " Methos says, displacing the piece into relative safety, executing another pawn en route. "You enjoyed it. You were flattered, challenged."

"Yeah?"

But Duncan is smiling too, shifting another pawn to counter Methos' advance. "Even Joe asked me if I knew what I was doing.."

Under Methos' hands, his king moved again, staged retreat. "As if you didn't.."

"Oh, I had it all planned, you know, once I got used to the idea," Duncan said. "I was taking my time. Events just overtook us." He stretches, untangles himself from the bedclothes and stands. "Hold that thought." He says, smiling. "I liked that innocence, that maybe, what if, that game we played."

Joe lies easy, head turned into the pillow. He looks, not happy, but content, lulled into peace. His breathing is so light that Duncan has to bend over his face to catch the gentle sound of it, smoothing the loose wisps of gray hair that the man was always privately pleased to have kept.

"Then after Bordeaux," he says. "I didn't think we had a hope in hell."

~*~

"We didn't," Methos says, eventually. Unspoken memories shadow the bed between them, but Duncan looks up, holding the old man's eyes, and he smiles.

"If it hadn't been for Joe's invitation..." Duncan says. Under his fingertips the Watcher's pulse flutters, steadies, pauses, and leaps forward. Such a small thing.

"He never said," Methos said. There is, still, a child's wonder in his voice. "He never said, not once. I didn't know, until I got there..."

"Until you rolled in drunk through the door..."

"You leave your bags in the most awkward of places."

"How was I to know Joe'd double booked the couch?"

"It's a damn good job that I recognise the sound of that katana.."

"Who are you kidding? You were out of it, you collapsed on my bed..."

"Whose bed?"

"How was I to know you'd got keys?"

"Joe never mentioned you, either..."

"He mentioned you," Duncan says, grinning. "And I should know." He levers himself back onto the bed.
"Then he came back to make sure....I was still awake. You crashed out after ten minutes."

"I did not."

"Did so. You held onto my shirt and slobbered."

"MacLeod."

"All right. You were dignified, sober and honorable: you've never thought I was a ghost, cried into my shoulder or told me in exquisite detail exactly what you planned to me once you'd found someone to take your own head..."

"I didn't," Methos says, horrified.

"It was just getting interesting when you passed out. Did it never occur to what Joe was doing? Or how, exactly, we ended up naked and in Joe's bed?"

There is a blush spreading across Methos' cheekbones.

"Carpe diem," Duncan says. "Or the night, in this case...Joe took one look and went to Michael's for the week. Told me where the washing powder was and wished me luck."

"What?"

"I spent the next three years wondering if you'd be home when I got there."

"Yeah. Well."

"And when you were there...What in heaven's name made you decide to prove it to both of us that you were too obnoxious to love?"

"Duncan-"

"We're not doing that again. You can have your snits in the hallway. I need to know you're coming back to me. Intact," Duncan says. "Preferably, in fact, waiting for me. In fact," he adds, "preferably naked, in my bed. Is that clear?"

"I thought that was where we were headed," Methos says.

"And fuck this living in the moment lark. We have history: I'll damn well talk about it if I want to. Is that clear too?"

"Perfectly," Methos says. "Do I get anything to say about it?"

"No," Duncan says. "You had your say, three years of it." He looks down at the board, frowns, and moves his queen forward with a decisive click. He's been chasing Methos' king for the last few moves, but the old man is as slippery as a bolt of silk in his hands.

"Does that mean," Methos says, sliding his pursued king out of danger again, "That when three years are up.."

"Don't play rhetoric with me," Duncan says. He shifts his queen again: this game of pursuit and avoidance, and looks up into the old man's narrow eyed challenge.

"MacLeod, I'll have you know..." He can't finish. The laughter that's been pulling at his mouth wins out: he can only lean back, grinning, shaking his head. "Duncan."

"And?" Duncan asks, feeling the reluctant amusement well up under his own skin.

Methos' hands describe mountains, molehills, incomprehension, a circling and unavoidable past.
"I was...I have a hotel room booked, you know," Methos says. "But I knew..If I came back now, it would be to you."

"Well, yes," Duncan says. "I would have come for you, if it wasn't for Joe."

"I know," Methos says. "But the time..I thought we had more of it." His eyes drop. "He kept telling me that he was fine, that you were fine: I thought you'd tell me if anything happened. Then I was too late, and I thought..."

"So did I," Duncan says. He turns his head, and looks at Joe: at the gentle curve of his cheek, and the wiry strength of his eyebrows, and the lines of humour and stubbornness that cross his skin. "There's never enough time, is there? If I hadn't been such a fool, he'd have had you as well, and so would I."

"Stop that right now."

Duncan looks up. Across the board Methos glares back at him, consciously self-righteous and snotty and knowing exactly which buttons to push. "I really wish you weren't right all the time," he complains, mildly.

For a second, Methos tilts his head, pulling on Adam, abashed, charming, but Adam is a ghost who slips across his face like gossamer. It's Methos who says: "If it wasn't the right time, do you think we'd be sitting across this board, actually talking to each other?" He lets the words hang in the air for a moment, looking at Joe. "I have come to believe.." he says, painfully honest. "I have come to believe that there are some truths which are absolute and this... this, whatever it is between us, I can no more run away from..." His hands flex on blanket, hold steady. "I am happier with myself than I was, MacLeod," he says.

"I'm glad to hear it," MacLeod says. "But you will always complete...I missed the way you made me laugh."

"I missed you making me coffee in the morning."

"I missed that I could always rely on you to be devious."

"I didn't know I would miss someone to call home."

"I like the sound of that." Duncan is smiling, gently. "More beer?"

"I always knew you would be dangerous," Methos says. He moves, stretching, and unfurls himself from the rumpling blankets with one sharp glance at Joe and another at Duncan's unabashed appreciation. "Play on, Highlander." He says, and Duncan drops his eyes to the board as Methos retrieves bottles from the refrigerator. There's little of the game left, and he can see the form and shape of the moves he can make stretch out across the board, ghosts and intimations of future present. He makes his move, sliding queen across the board to menace Methos' king once more, and appreciates as he does so that the options always narrow at the end of the game.

"Here," Methos says. He passes the bottles across the sheets, and checks on Joe before lowering himself back onto the bed and holding out one imperious hand for beer. Head cocked on one side, he frowns at the board, moves his king again. "Determined, aren't you?"

Duncan knows a pang of guilt, suppresses it, but nevertheless moves his bishop to a more innocuous position than he originally intended. Methos glances up, doesn't say anything: but there is the shadow of a smile at the corners of his mouth and Duncan knows he has been successfully manipulated once more as Methos moves his rook, strengthening the king's defense.

"You've been practicing," he says.

"Joe and I played a lot, this last year," Duncan frowns at the board.

"Mmm?" Methos says.

"It's been quiet," Duncan said. "He spent a lot of time updating the chronicles...Now I think about it." Duncan says. "For a man who retired ten years ago he was remarkably well informed."

"Well, you know what they say about watchers," Methos says.

Duncan shadows the black rook with his own.

"And up to date," he says. "If occasionally misled."

The black rook sweeps down the board, predatory, and lands with a decisive click. "Oh yeah?" Methos says, carrying away Duncan's piece.

"But then," Duncan says, thoroughly undisturbed. "Who could possibly have access to the database?" He reaches out a hand and lets it hover for a delicious, anticipated second before his bishop sweeps Methos' queen from the board.

"Oh, touché!" Methos says.

"Do I take that as a confession?" Duncan says, but when Methos looks back at him it is with the limpid innocence of youth. He says, however, precisely nothing, which in itself is as much of a confession as four perfectly structured and clearly enunciated paragraphs on the sacred truth of textual evidence.

"To you?" Methos says, and Duncan is reminded once, vividly, of Darius, holding the secrets of the confessional unto death. If Methos has a private religion - if Methos holds faith to anything except Methos - But Methos has held true for him through fire and flood.

"Does it matter?" the old man adds, glancing up, taking his revenge on the murderous bishop with exact intent, despite the now almost unassailable advantage Duncan holds.

Duncan shuffles conscience and loyalty. "No," he says, at last. "No, it doesn't."

"Thank you," Methos says.

"Rien."

There is a noise outside, a car pulling up in the street, engine idling. False dawn lights the windows when Duncan looks up, head cocked on one side. His eyes meet Methos', and their heads turn as one to Joe's sleeping face. The watcher's breath comes light, so light now that neither of them can hear it from where they sit, and the wait between each breath is poised on scales of life and death.

"How long do we-"

"Do you remember-" Methos' voice, for the first time, is strained.

Duncan takes a long breath, lets it out. " 'Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself, but in choosing for himself he chooses for all mankind.'" He smiles. "There is always a choice."

Methos' hands open and spread. "You were reading Sartre when we met," he says.

"You were saying-"

"Later."

Duncan stands up and walks to the windows. "If Kalas had not been after your head, if Joe hadn't known who you were.."

"You can't claim pre-destination and free will both, Highlander."

"No?" Duncan says, but is distracted. There are two cars waiting in the street now, and on the roof opposite a single still figure. Even as he watches, another car draws up at the end of the road. The driver's door opens, and he sees a tall figure get out, unhurried. The sun has risen, for light flashes from the blade in the stranger's hand. There is blood on the blade, and a terrible grace in the way the man moves.

He looks up. Dawn paints the sky gold with rosy fingers, the last dawn of Joe's life. He ponders the irony of that for a moment, for all the moments of a lifetime, for as long as he can bear before he has to turn back to the bed and the two men waiting, Methos with one hand clasped once more on Joe's leg.

"The offer still stands," Methos says.

Duncan looks at the chessboard. He has very nearly won, but the game is not over yet, and at this moment in time he does not think he can lay hand to another piece on the board. Instead he moves to Joe again, bending to catch the faint flutter of his breath.


It does not come.


He raises his head, and Methos is watching him with an inordinate gentleness in his eyes.
"When dawn broke," the older man says.

~*~

"Blessing on him, and his children, and his children's children," Duncan says, eventually. He gentles Joe's hair, takes the headphones from his ears and coils the wire neatly, leaving it on top of the bedside table. He smoothes the bedcovers and tucks them neatly around Joe's body. Methos does not move.


When he has done all he can do, he turns, and faces Methos over the board with its unfinished game. There really isn't anything else to say. He opens his arms, and the old man sighs into his embrace as softly and inevitably as the sweet breath in his own lungs. For a moment he feels Methos' strength centre and balance his own, the way it should be, and then their joined hands slide apart. Methos reaches his coat first, huddling down into the weighted fabric: Duncan has to pause to retrieve his katana from the safe above the desk.


"We can finish the game later," he says.

Methos says nothing at all.

"Are you ready?" he says.

Methos opens the door and goes through it. At the bottom of the stairs, someone is knocking on the door.


Duncan inclines his head to the man who lies in his bed, and nods: one last acknowledgment. He doesn't know yet if they have won or lost or simply played a game of chess. But it doesn't matter: it wasn't about them in the first place.


Then he goes outside. He may be a while.

Fin.

 

 

 

Notes:

Waiting for Joe draws on both Becket's Waiting for Godot and on Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women. It began life as a far lighter piece than it ended. I was intrigued by the way Middleton uses a chess game to illustrate a simultaneous seduction. I didn't even know what Methos was waiting for until Joe died. Yet when I went back to see what Methos had actually said, I realised this is what he'd been leading to all along. It came as bit of a shock, for the whole point of Waiting was to write something as plain and straightforward as possible.

The game of chess left unfinished by Methos and MacLeod was originally played by Veselin Topalov and Garry Kasparov in 1999, in the Netherlands. Kasparov plays white, Topalov Black: Kasparov wins.
Much of the chess trivia discussed by Methos was drawn from the website http://www.tradgames.org.uk/games/Chess.htm , supplemented by comments and suggestions from my own family.