Disclaimers: Not mine, no money. It's better this way.

Spoilers for Prophesy to Money no Object

Not related to the Unconventional Virtue Series.

As always, all things are possible because of Martha, who is hosting my Highlander orphans out of kindness. Also, I owe an overdue thank you to Listen-r, who got me started on the whole Highlander thing in the first place. It began simply enough. I was just trying to see enough episodes to understand the Emory series.. Things...expanded from there.


The Birds and the Bees. And also, as it turns out, flowers.

 

By Dasha

Part 1: Duncan

When Duncan had left Paris, all he'd been able to think of was getting away from there, and Seacouver had been the obvious choice.  Unlocking the door of the dojo, though, didn't felt like coming home. It felt like digging up the dead.

The place had been closed for months. Charlie was...long gone. Dead. Richie had vanished in the wake of Duncan's madness, leaving no trace Duncan's private investigators could find. Mac had been between managers when the dark quickening had pushed him over the edge, so Joe had just locked the doors and pulled back to wait.

It made for a cold homecoming.

Duncan's eyes fell on the sparing mat where he'd finally cornered Richie on that warm, damp summer night. He could remember all of it, as much as he would rather not.  He could remember Richie scrambling backwards, frightened, desperate, pleading. He remembered how slow and awkward the kid had seemed, despite the fact that he was doing his very best to defend himself. He remembered how easy it was to land small, painful, mocking cuts on his arms, his face. He remembered laughing.

As of a month ago, Richie was fine. At least, according to Joe. Duncan had tried to press for more information, but Joe had been adamant: "He's not ready, Mac. And if you push him now, he's just going to run faster. I know how hard this is for you to hear, but he needs time."

It was Joe who had saved Richie. In the complete antithesis of proper watcher behavior, he'd shot MacLeod three times in the chest, protecting one immortal from another. There, across the room, was the equipment rack where Joe had tied MacLeod before he revived.  He remembered waking there. He remembered every hard, hurtful thing he'd said to Joe. But Joe hadn't been like Richie. He hadn't retreated from the words or, later, the threat of Duncan's sword. He had not run in terror or scrambled to defend himself....that had probably been what had saved him. He gave the beast in Duncan nothing to feed off of, nothing to inflame its hunger or its sick sense of humor. Only that steady, faithful warmth.

The last time he'd seen Joe was three days ago on the embankment. He had offered to take Duncan out for a drink, but that hadn't really been what he'd been asking. He'd been asking if they were still friends, if Duncan was going to forgive him for trading Jacob's life for Duncan's own.

He had said no.

He missed Joe with a bitter ache that was completely different from the way he missed Richie.

Duncan looked around the darkened room, wondering how he could have imagined that coming here would be an improvement over anything. Here was where he had met Charlie. Here was where he had played games with Richie's terror. He shouldn't have come home.

 

Part 2: Richie

He could walk across the dojo without breaking a sweat. It had taken him almost three weeks, but he could do it.

He was going to get over this. He was going to remember the Mac who was his teacher, his friend, who had given a shit when everybody else in the world had written Richie Ryan off as a punk kid with no future, no chance, no value.

But it was hard. As he turned to pull down the gate on the elevator, his eyes strayed to the practice mat where Mac had finally cornered him, the tip of the Katana teasing Richie's throat....

No. No. It could happen to anyone.  Richie could take a dark quickening tomorrow, and then he'd better hope to hell that his friends were strong enough to keep him from killing them and get him straightened out.

That wasn't Mac. Mac is upstairs, and he is my friend.

As the elevator passed the half-way point, Richie heard crashing and thumping from above. It sounded a lot more like people fighting than people moving furniture or something similarly innocent.  Richie pulled his sword free even though he was almost positive there was only one immortal in the loft.

He was sweating as his eyes cleared the floor. The table blocked most of his view, and he desperately searched for a glimpse of whatever was going on--he was practically in the room already, and he still couldn't see--

On the far side of the loft, something small smacked into Mac's middle and he stepped backwards, clunking into a bedside table and knocking over a lamp. He deftly caught the lamp before it could hit the floor and flourished something in the other hand.

And then Joe said, "Well, you managed not to fumble that time, but you still haven't got it. Keep your arms out more, so you can cushion the ball as it hits. And bend your elbows."  It took a moment to spot Joe. He was nearly invisible, leaning against the other side of one of the support columns.

The thing in Mac's right hand was a football, and he tossed it to Joe with fair accuracy and poor form.  Richie gasped, suddenly limp with relief and feeling oddly cold.

"Come a little forward and get back into ready position. Good, ok, turn your hand like this....Ready?"

Numbly, Richie put his sword away and pushed up the gate.

Mac caught the pass, but not without hitting the floor at an angle like he was trying to slide home in another kind of sport completely. Richie swallowed. "Um, nobody ever teach you guys not to play ball in the house?" he said, because he couldn't think of anything original.

For a moment Mac looked around his disordered home and winced, then he tossed the ball to Richie. He caught it automatically, and Joe said, "Like that."

Mac said, "It's a funny shape."

"I guess it is a little different from an inflated goat bladder."

"Sheep," Mac corrected, pretending to be affronted. "Pardon me, I need to check on dinner." He collected the football as he passed Richie and placed it on the counter before going to a pot on the stove. "I can remember when this little game came out. I was sure it was just a fad."  When Mac lifted the lid, Richie smelled curry.  Mac's comfort foods were mutton stew, sushi, and curry in that order.

Joe laughed and sat down on the arm of the couch. "Amazing foresight there. Remind me not to ask you to pick ponies."

Richie swallowed hard.  Everything was fine. Better than fine. There hadn't been a battle in the loft. Joe and Mac were just goofing off. They both looked happier than he'd seen them in a long time. Everything was cool. Curry for dinner. Joe here, which Mac had probably arranged so that Richie would feel safe--not that he was in any danger. There was no reason not to feel fine. Everything was cool.

Mac was at the fridge. "Beer anyone?" He took the long way around, so that when he handed Richie his, Joe was bodily between them. "So, Richie, how's the new job?" It struck Richie as kind of horrible, that Mac felt he had to be so careful.

"Not too bad. The pay is nine dollars an hour, but it's not full time.  No benefits....which would actually be a problem if I, you know, needed insurance." He took a swallow of the beer. Mac was trying microbrews again. "I've seen some of the stuff they're putting out. I swear, I could do better." He shook his head.

"Will you be able to pick up one of the beginning Tai Chi classes? Tuesday or Thursday afternoon."

Richie thought about spending over an hour in the dojo at least once a week. "Yeah," he said. "Sure."

 

Part 3: Joe

Richie came in at quarter past twelve, ordered a beer and stared at it until closing. This was not an encouraging sign, but Joe tried not to worry about it too much. The kid had been town less than a month. After what he and Mac had been through, it was only natural that it might take a little time before things between them settled out.  One night brooding over a beer did not mean that things were necessarily on the rocks.

But when Joe locked the door after the last of his more typical customers, Richie stood up and began setting the chairs on the tabletops.  Ok, then. Whatever it was, he wanted to talk about it. Joe sent the waitress working closing home and handed Richie a broom. "So?  What's new?"

Richie looked up at him for a moment, then shrugged innocently. "It's not like you only see me when something's up with Mac."

"No, that's true," Joe allowed. "Usually you look more cheerful, though, when you don't have a problem."

"It's...it's not a problem," he hedged awkwardly. "I just need some advice."

Joe raised his eyebrows and waited.

"It's embarrassing, all right? It involves friends of Mac's....and I'm not even sure it happened. But whether it did or not, there is no way in the world I can ask him--"

Joe went to the next table and sat down, pointing Richie toward the chair across from him. "Go ahead, I can't wait to hear this."

"Ok. So." Richie sat and studied the ceiling for a moment. He was still holding the broom. "These friends of Mac are in town, right? Gus and Liz Olson."

Joe nodded. This wasn't news. Every morning he got an update on who had moved in or out of his territory. Gus and Liz Olson were twenty-one hundred and twenty-six hundred years old, respectively.  Two decades ago they'd been Basil and Joanna Sloniski. Joe didn't have very much else about them right at hand, but he could look up the condensed version in about twenty minutes if he needed to.

"And they're nice people, Joe. Great couple. Charming. Friendly. So...they're there, and I'm there and Amanda's there and Mac invites us all out to dinner.  And after dinner, the Olsons take us all to watch an exhibition of Bavarian folk dancing--"

"Of what?"

"Apparently they have fond memories of Bavaria. I don't know, they've been married for eight hundred years." Richie stopped, this time studying the floor. "We had a nice time, all right? It was a good evening. Amanda was even on her best behavior. It was nice...." He sighed. "So afterwards, since they're driving, they drop Mac and Amanda off at the loft. But on the way back to my place, they ask if I want to stop by their hotel room for a drink."

He stopped, and Joe prodded gently, "Ok?"

"And I'm thinking, hey, they're nice, right? Friends of Mac's. And I don't know that many immortals. Certainly not some of the really old ones. So I say, 'sure.'" He leaned forward and lowered his voice, despite the fact that the two of them were alone in the empty bar. "But when Gus goes out for the ice bucket Liz starts...you know, coming on to me."

Joe had seen pictures of the Olsons. Liz Olson wasn't stunning, but she was attractive and exotic looking. What variety of exotic depended on what color she died her hair in any given identity. In person she must be quite alluring. "I can see how that could be awkward," he said, since Richie seemed to be expecting something.

"Yeah? Wait. Cause here is where it gets weird. When Gus gets back with the ice, she doesn't stop. She keeps on complimenting me and looking at me in front of him!" Joe nodded encouragingly, although Richie was staring at the ceiling again and didn't see it. "And then he starts," he paused, "making suggestions."

"Suggestions like what? Was he looking for a fight?"

"No! suggestions that I join them."

Oh. That would have been Joe's second guess. "So what did you say?"

"What do you think I said? I said I had an early day tomorrow and I got my ass out of there!"

"And you're talking to me...because you want me to tell you you did the right thing?"

"No! I want you to tell me I imagined the whole thing! I mean, they can't really have--Oh, god, Joe! You're not saying it."

Joe spread his hands.

Richie jumped to his feet and began to pace. "No. No. No. No. Mac's friends did not proposition me."

Joe cleared his throat. "Ah, Richie? How much has Mac told you about how immortals organize their lives?"

"What do you mean? I can forge identity documents, I understand how to juggle international banking, and I can lose my watcher when I need to."

"Very funny. No, I mean what do you know about immortal marriage?"

"Well...Mac told me about these friends of his, the Valicourts. They've been married for three hundred years. But that's pretty unusual."

"Yeah, it is. Gina and Robert de Valicourt are completely absorbed with each other. Absolutely besotted to the exclusion of all others. Most immortal marriages donít last that long--usually the longest is sixty or seventy years. But what's most unusual about them isn't that they've been together for so long. It's that they're so monogamous."

"Huh?"

"Usually," he said, speaking slowly and distinctly, "immortal marriages aren't exclusive for more then the first ten or twelve years."

Very slowly, Richie sat back down. "I don't think I understand, Joe."

"Well... look at Mac and Amanda....When they're together, they're together. And when they're not, they're not."

It took a moment for that to sink in, but when it did, Richie sat up sharply. "No!" he snarled. "No. You are not telling me that Mac ever cheated on Tessa. No."

Joe winced and silently cursed MacLeod again. Everything Richie knew about love and loyalty between men and women had come from Mac and Tessa. This was a talk Richie should have had from his teacher. "No, I'm not telling you that. When Mac was with Tessa, he was in her world, living by her rules.  And I'm sure when MacLeod married her, he would have gone through with it. He would have kept his promises."

"He loved her!"

"Yes, he did," Joe said gently. Richie closed his eyes, digesting this. Well, it was a lot to take in. It had freaked Joe out in class back at the Watcher Academy, and, unlike Richie, Joe hadn't had to cope with the thought of applying this sort of lifestyle to himself or his own family. "Richie, when Liz Olson was born a man could have as many wives as he wanted and divorce them with a word. Gus was born in Rome, where they had several different kinds of possible marriage contracts to choose from. All the rules change if you wait long enough: dowry or bride price; easy divorce or no divorce at all; sometimes a woman can have more than one husband and sometimes a man can have only one wife but as many legal mistresses as he wants. Or concubines. For people like them--for people like you--why worry about the rules when you're going to outlive them. All that matters is what you believe is right for you."

"So you're telling me this is normal."

"I'm telling you that for every Robert and Gina Valincourt there's at least one Gus and Liz Olson or--"

He'd been about to say Irene and Jacob Galati. He'd looked at their files only just over a month before. Their faces, their histories, their personalities were burned into his brain. They lived quiet, low profile lives. They avoided the game whenever possible. Sometimes Irene taught grammar school. Sometimes Jacob worked as a small-time musician or as a portrait artist. Every few decades, the Galatis had taken a guest into their home. Usually, but not always, it was an immortal.

"Joe? Joe, are you ok? All of a sudden, you don't look so good."

"Richie. Yeah. I'm...I just lost my train of thought. The point here is that the rules you were born under will only get you so far. At some point you have to follow your heart."

Duncan MacLeod had lived with the Galatis for more than three years.

In some cases, it was possible for a Watcher to get a clear idea of the nature of a relationship, but for that to happen, the Watcher had to get fairly close, and in small communities or closed societies, it was impossible to get an operative any closer than a neighboring village. You couldn't, for example, infiltrate a Romany caravan.

"But Joe...I know Mac gets around. But, I mean, you can't tell me he...he treats women casually." Richie's tone was much more uncertain than his words.

Joe dragged his attention back to the conversation. Richie looked deeply hurt and confused. "I'm not saying that. It's not that it's exploitive. It's just not monogamous."  After all, MacLeod generally didn't sleep with people he didn't love.

Joe swallowed hard.

He had thought it was strange even at the time. Duncan had been so adamant about protecting Jacob Galati. The man had already killed almost fifty people. He'd shot from cover. He'd hunted from ambush. He'd sliced open unarmed men and women with a long, sharp knife. There weren't a whole lot of options when an immortal started killing; no authority could effectively lock them away for any length of time. There was no punishment, no rehabilitation possible. The only way to stop an immortal was to kill him in the permanent way, and MacLeod had challenged and killed opponents over far less vicious actions than Galati's.

Joe's eyes burned with unshed tears.

"But, Joe--"

"It's none of our business, damn it!" Joe snapped, and then knotted his hands together around his cane to keep them from shaking. Not MacLeod's old friend. Not someone who had placed himself under his protection. A member of his family. Somebody he'd loved. "Look, Richie. What Mac does isn't the point. The point is what you're going to do. And nobody can decide that for you."

"Ok. Yeah. I see where you're coming from."

Joe nodded dully. His brother-in-law had killed one of MacLeod's former lovers in front of her husband. And then Joe had turned the rest of that family over to Shapiro. A man Duncan had loved....

"It's just....weird, you know?" Richie was saying. "I had no idea."

"No," Joe agreed faintly. "No idea."

 

Part 4: Duncan

It was early yet, and aside from the waitress, there were only a couple of people in the bar. The waitress gave Duncan a long, hungry look as she waved him toward the office. Joe didn't notice him hovering in the doorway. He was behind the desk, sorting through scruffy stacks of paper. By the scowl, Duncan guessed it was purchase orders for the bar, not watcher business. Anyway, he never did watcher business with the door open.  Duncan knocked softly.

"Hey. Come in. Shut the door." Joe smiled. "Save me from this."

Obediently, he shut the door. "Sorry," he said. "Nothing's up. I'm just stopping by."

"You? This early?"

"Yeah. Well." Duncan felt oddly awkward. "A man expects to see his Watcher once in a while."

Joe laughed at that. "If you're feeling neglected, I can pencil you in for some skulking on Saturday, but I'm spending the first part of next week in Geneva."

Duncan buried his worried frown and sat down casually. "Care for some company?"

Joe smiled. "Wouldn't that look lovely." His eyes narrowed. "Are you offering company? Or a body guard?"

"Body guard. I hate the food in Switzerland. I wouldn't go for fun."

Joe softened. "Mac. I'm going to ride them, not the other way around."

Duncan looked away. He could not hide how much he still distrusted the watchers, and he didnít want Joe to see it.

Joe sighed wearily. "Well, go on. Say it. Whatever it is."

"You're a very dangerous man, as far as they're concerned."

"At the moment, most of "Them" is me."

Duncan nodded and pushed aside his uncertainty. "So. You'll be fine." He would not point out that Joe had been vulnerable before.

But Joe was looking at Duncan, and perhaps his assignment was transparent to him by now. "They told me you were dead. I went to Paris to close your file."

Oh. Duncan tried to answer, had to swallow first. "That explains why you looked so surprised to see me," he managed at last.

"And why I didn't call ahead." He paused. "I wasn't...being very careful."

Right. The last time Joe had been taken unawares, he'd been distracted. It wasn't a normal thing. It wouldn't happen again.  "So you'll be back on--?"

"Thursday morning."

"I'll pick you up."

"I'll buy you breakfast. I hate airline food."

"Fair enough."

There was a short silence, and Duncan wondered if he'd seen enough. Joe was busy. He was also clearly fine. He thought, 'I ought to leave' just as Joe said, "So why are you really here?"

"Richie had a class today. On his way out, he told me he stopped by the here last night."

To Duncan's immense surprise Joe sat up straight, looking alert and defensive. "Before this goes any further, I apologize for stepping on your toes.  But Mac, it's not like you didnít have plenty of opportunity to take care of this yourself."

It sounded more like an attack than an apology, but for the life of him, Duncan couldn't see why Joe would offer either. "I had plenty of time?" he repeated blankly.

"Any time in the last three or four years would have been fine." Joe scowled at the desk and backed off. "Mac. The only reason he didnít come to you first was that he was embarrassed."

The confusion was only growing thicker. "Joe. The only thing Richie said to me was that you weren't yourself last night. He wanted to know if you'd been ill."

The slow horror on Joe's face would have been comical if it hadn't made Duncan's stomach sink. "What's happened?"

"Nothing. Well, nothing awful." He sighed. "Dalmeticus and Reuta propositioned Richie last night. He was a little freaked out--not that I blame Richie for that. And if you mention that I told you, you will probably regret it."

"Oh, hell."

"Yes. I see you grasp the situation."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize to me. Hmmm. And don't apologize to him either."

"Right, no....Damn. I didn't think...."

"No. You didn't." And for just a moment, Joe looked amused. "When did your teacher give you the talk?"

Duncan laughed. "Connor? Connor's never been unconventional. Not really. He taught me about the game and how to survive and how to keep track of my...self." Duncan had to smile, remembering what a short-sighted, ignorant, little barbarian he'd been in the early 17th century. Or wholesome and innocent and earnest, it could go either way. "I met Amanda and Rebecca not long after we separated--that was educational. But I didn't really understand until I was...almost seventy."

He could see Dawson doing math in his head. "Graham Ashe?"

Duncan smiled sadly. "Graham Ashe."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well. That's the Game, isn't it? And no matter how things turn out...you always want more time."

"Graham Ashe went back as far as our records. And you know what the old records are like. Will you tell me about him?"

"I didn't know that much. It was only a few weeks...."

"He's described as intelligent," Joe coaxed.

Duncan smiled. "Creative. Joyous. Patient. A good lover, a wonderful companion. Better than me with a sword--much--but a gracious winner. You would have liked him." It was stories Joe wanted, though. Even second hand they would be precious. But Duncan knew only one or two of Ashe's stories and he didn't feel like talking about them. "Whatever moment he was in, he was in it, Joe. He never forgot anything, but he...he lived very much in the present."  He picked up a paperweight from the desk and turned it blankly in his hands. "Richie told you I took the fight with Haresh Clay."

Joe nodded.

"Did he tell you why he let me?"

"No, no, I...assumed it was because of Ashe."

"I told Richie that after Clay killed Graham Ashe he chased me onto holy ground and mocked me because I wouldn't fight him."

"Ah. Very compelling. And it had the virtue of being true. A manipulation worthy of Methos."

"So you knew about that." It came out a question.

"It was in your chronicle."

Of course it was. Joe knew everything, didn't he? "Ashe didn't believe in revenge. 'It won't bring anyone back,' he said. It wouldn't make anything better...'there's no honor in not being able to keep your temper.'" He couldn't look at Joe any more, so he flipped the paperweight over and pressed his hands against the cool, smooth bottom. "It took me a long time to understand what he meant, and still...I almost never live up to it."

"Mercy," Joe whispered miserably.

"Mercy." The room was far too still and stiflingly quiet. Duncan could barely speak. "Sometimes....sometimes, mercy is the only hope in the world, Joe. And sometimes....it isn't about choosing between mercy and revenge. Sometimes it's just about making the slaughter stop."

"I didn't know what the Galatis were to you, Mac. Not then. Not then."

"Even if you'd known...you weren't wrong."

Joe looked up sharply. "The hell I wasn't."

"Everybody pretends the world is getting better," the words came louder and faster than Duncan intended, but he had no control over them. He was pacing, although he had no recollection of rising from the chair. "We're 'evolving.' We've become 'civilized.' But you know what I see? Everywhere, hundreds, thousands, millions of people killing and destroying out of fear or because they're angry. People don't change, Joe. I haven't changed. I'm still--"  Duncan stopped, had to swallow.  "There's just as much evil in the world as there always was. And people like Ashe who actually have mercy in their hearts are as rare as they've always been.  I had managed to convince myself that I'd changed since Culloden, but....I would have enjoyed killing Shapiro. I wanted to do it."

"But, Mac," Joe said kindly, "you didnít."

Surprised, Duncan faced him. There was no judgment in Joe's eyes, no censure. He really didn't understand. "Why do you think that is?"

"It...it would have been a war, if you'd killed him. The Watchers would have had to kill you. They were all so afraid." Joe closed his eyes. "And your friends would have come after them. To avenge you, to protect themselves. Amanda. Methos. Carl. Annie. Connor even , maybe. It would have been a bloodbath on both sides."

"No, Joe. That's why you stopped me. That isn't why I let you."

"Mac?"

"I didn't stop because you were right. I stopped because you asked me to."

Duncan saw it when the understanding finally settled. Sadness only, no disappointment. Forgiving. Finding mercy, again. Joe shook his head. "He would have wanted to be avenged--"

"Jacob couldn't want anything: he was dead. And yet, even after four hundred years...I'm still trying to learn mercy." He tried to smile. "At least, you seem to have enough for both of us."

There was a short pause. "I  dunno," Joe said finally, casually, as though they'd been sitting up late with Methos discussing philosophy. "Maybe. As useful as...prudence is, I think it must be some kind of gift, to love so completely that everything else disappears."

Joe was missing the point. Or maybe, after coming so close, he was afraid to admit he might not be missing it. Strangely--because god knew he was old enough to know better--Duncan was a little afraid, too. Despite that sudden anxiety he managed to say, "No, the gift is living in this moment, seizing what's there, right now." He hadn't been doing that. Ashe would have been the first to say so. Duncan had let things go on for years with Joe, telling himself that this Watcher--someone not in the game and encumbered with untold priorities Duncan didn't dare ignore--already had too much influence over him....Telling himself that Joe was too young anyway, and clearly not ready. All of that, while true, was beside the point.

He set the warm and slightly slippery paperweight back on the desk and--almost--reached out with his empty hand. "Would you like me to show you what Graham Ashe taught me?" Duncan might lose his head tomorrow, and then what would trying to keep things friendly with Joe have gained either of them?  Or he might live centuries more; then he would have to look back on this chance that would never come again, not even in a million years.  Slowly, he came around the desk, so there was nothing between them.

Joe blinked once, rallied. "Probably not something that belongs in the chronicle."

"Take the night off." Duncan was standing over him now. Joe watched him steadily, fearlessly, as always. Was this seduction or surrender? It was neither play nor romance. While he knew Joe loved him, a kind of uncertain--almost adolescent--desperation burned at the edges of Duncan's soul. He had not felt this anxious since the afternoon he'd asked Tessa to move in with him.

"I have some vacation coming, actually."

And then, somehow, Duncan was leaning down, kissing him. Joe was sweet, earthy, unhurrying. He tasted American and male, exotic and modern.  Joe's hands slid up along Duncan's shoulders. Everything throbbed now, and he could hardly breathe.

Joe pulled back. "Not here. The staff--" He gasped.

Right. Half the staff were Watchers working cover-jobs. Dizzily, Duncan let go, stepped back. Joe stood up, stopped. "I'm supposed to sing tonight." Duncan froze. He could have shared Joe with another person. But music? For music he might be completely passed over. Joe caught Duncan's right arm with one hand and picked up the phone with the other. It was almost a surprise to hear him canceling, just like that.

He called instructions to the staff as he led Duncan out of the bar. No one seemed surprised--leaving with Duncan without warning just looked like Watcher business. Non-traditional, but not unusual. Good. They couldn't keep this a secret forever, but tonight was just for them. Posterity could take care of itself for a while.

Outside, Joe paused to look back. "Shall I drive, or did you want to take the love machine?" He nodded toward Duncan's convertible.

Duncan cracked up completely. "The love machine. Definitely." He knew, suddenly, what he wanted to do.

They headed out of the city, north and slightly west along the coast. In just a few minutes, they were among trees, the low sun casting long, soft shadows that flickered over them.  It would be warm and clear for hours. He had a perfect evening for this.

Joe began to sing. It was nothing Duncan recognized, and he thought he knew Joe's usual repertoire. He had not kept up with popular music much since the 1930's. They were past the marker for Sherman County before he realized that they were love songs, the cheerful, soppy kind that almost never got played in a blues bar.

Duncan started to laugh, thinking maybe Joe was playing with him--and then he realized that of course Joe knew about his romantic streak.

He hadn't had a particular destination in mind when he'd left the city, but Duncan had lived in the general area several times in the last hundred and thirty years or so. It had been 'home' since the early 1980's.  Finding just the sort of place he wanted wasn't hard. A narrower highway, a dirt road, and then a clearing above a craggy inlet which on another continent would be called a fjord. There were gulls circling over head, and when he turned off the engine, they could hear songbirds calling in the trees.

With dancing eyes, Joe looked at Duncan and shook his head. "You're good. This is one hell of a spot."

"Well, that's the northwest. It's spectacular. When it's not raining. Or foggy."

"Sometimes it's spectacular with fog." Joe laughed. "I guess I lucked out. I came for another kind of view entirely."

Duncan's mouth was suddenly dry. "How is that working out?"

"Very nicely. But then, I think I might have mentioned a particular weakness for beautiful things."

The words were familiar, but it took Duncan a moment to recall where he'd heard them before.  "If I'd been someone else, I might have killed you that afternoon."

"If you'd been someone else, I probably would have shot you and ordered a general evacuation." He said it almost affectionately, laying a large, warm hand over Duncan's.  "If you hadn't pinned two of our guys that afternoon, it would have been the end of my assignment. You'd gotten a good look at me."

"What happened to them, anyway?"

There was a short, harsh silence. For a moment, Duncan thought he'd gone too far. They didn't usually talk about Watcher business. He didn't want to put Joe in an awkward position for no good reason--not when it happened so often with cause. But the cause of the silence was something else entirely. "They were hunters, Mac. Watching the bookstore to keep tabs on the rank and file. Making sure we weren't catching on. Remember? They were taken care of."

And Joe had been in charge of a lot of that cleaning up. Damn. There was so much ugliness behind them. So much pain. Tonight was not the time to go digging through it, but he did not find himself changing the subject. "Were you ever afraid of us?"

Joe looked surprised. "No. Never. Not as a group, anyway. Personally, Kalas scared the shit out of me. And I wasn't any too fond of Durgan."

"Joe--"

"Mac. I'm not here with them. I'm here with you. And I think we'd be more comfortable in that back seat."

Duncan took the emergency sleeping bag out of the trunk while Joe climbed into the back. It wasn't cool enough to need a cover over them, but the sleeping bag would make a good cushion against the corner. Be prepared. He wished he'd brought a picnic. Or maybe some minimal gear....

Joe was smiling, and his steady joy made Duncan a little dizzy.

"Now, I think you were going to show me what Ashe taught you?"

Duncan kissed him. "Oh, yes: seizing the moment, making the best of every opportunity, enjoying the sunsets." He kissed Joe again. "I think I must have been bluffing. There's nothing I can teach you about any of that."

A single, deft hand began to undo the buttons on Duncan's shirt. "Maybe you could teach me something less poetic instead."

 

Part 5: Joe

Joe woke slightly stiff and a little uncomfortable, but Duncan was still asleep, and that made him smile faintly. He'd been nervous about the idea that eternally young and perfect might also mean eternally ready. It seemed that Mac's enthusiasm had taken care of itself, though, because he'd scrambled far enough over the seat to trigger the car's roof and then settled against Joe's chest and fallen asleep.

Mac's hair had come loose and lay under Joe's hands in a silky, sandalwood-scented mass. The rubber band was lost somewhere out of reach on the floor.  Joe had never let himself wonder what Duncan MacLeod's hair smelled like. Being his watcher had been enough. Being his friend had been more than enough. Joe had done a very good job of establishing a solid, satisfying life that did not include the smell of Mac's hair or the soft slide of it underneath his fingers.

He would not think about what this would do to his objectivity. Or about what Ian would have said. Really, compared to everything else, what did it matter? So many immortals knew about the Watchers. So many Watchers had crossed the line. Nothing was the same, and nothing could be undone, so let history judge them.

Let history try. Joe had spent years trying to tease the truth out of history, trying to make the details paint some sort of meaningful picture. History would never understand this moment, Duncan pliant and warm and trusting in his arms. Duncan who had tried so hard, for so long to dislike and resent him. 

Not without reason, actually. And yet. Here he was.

Here both of them were, although Joe could have sworn he had been looking for Truth, History, and humanity's Future, not love.

Duncan stirred, and Joe kissed the top of his head. "Hi, Mac."

The only answer was a quiet sigh, and Joe smiled to himself, finally stroking the soft mane.

Slowly, Duncan picked up his head and looked around, squinting a little in the dimness. It must be just past sunset. For a moment, he smiled, but as he looked down at Joe, his expression faded to worry and apology and he started to pull away. Joe's arms tightened: MacLeod was both broad and heavy, but Joe wasn't small enough to be crushed by him. Duncan hesitated briefly and then cleared the concern from his eyes and lowered his head again to Joe's chest. Good.

Outside, crickets or frogs or something were calling. Who knew what? Joe was a city boy, and from a city far, far away.

"I'm afraid I'm not a very good student," Duncan said.

"How so?"

"Ashe would have brought a picnic basket."

"Yeah...food is not a bad idea."

"Hmm. Where are we? Durrant's isn't more than half an hour from here."

When Mac and Tessa went hiking, they often used to stop at Durrant's for dinner on the way home.  "You wouldn't mind?"

"Why would I mind?" he answered with such open puzzlement that Joe was forcefully reminded that, as protective as MacLeod might be, he was not possessive.  He would share Tessa's favorite restaurant with the same sweet affection that he'd shared Ashe's sensual skills.

How good was Joe going to be at sharing? In principle, it made sense. In practice...Amanda was still in town. How was he going to feel when Mac went home to his houseguest?

Duncan lifted his head and studied Joe in the growing darkness. Then he leaned forward, his solid, muscular body grinding against Joe's, and kissed him. The first kiss, in the office at the bar, had been  unsurprising, almost comfortable, as natural as breathing or singing. It had been like coming home.  This time it was explosive, completely absorbing.  A wild revelation, like that night in Paris when Methos had stayed up till four quietly singing hymns to Innana in a long dead language because the drugs that worked so well on the pain were also giving Joe nightmares, and every time he closed his eyes he saw Jack or James or Thomas coming for MacLeod with a guillotine. He could not remember the music from that long night, only the feeling of astonishment and rapture it had brought him. 

This kiss was as breathtaking. It seemed to last as long and left him just as stunned. When Duncan at last pulled back, Joe could barely remember where they were or what he had been thinking about a few minutes before.

Duncan smiled a little sadly.  His eyes edged on worried, and Joe knew that he had seen this exact expression before.  He couldn't place the context, but he didn't like it. "What?" he prodded.

Joe didn't like the long hesitation that followed, either. And he didn't like the way Duncan so gently asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Oh. What he had been thinking flowed back. "Look. It's just my first time with the whole Immortal Plurality thing, ok? And--"

He was surprised. "Immortal Pluralit--you have a name for it?"

Oh, yes. Watchers have terms for all the quirks of Immortal lifestyle. "What do you call it?"

"Sanity."

"Well. I learned about it from in a lecture, before which, if I remember correctly, I didn't have time to do the assigned reading. So you'll forgive me if it takes a little...adaptation."

The worry faded and Duncan slid back so he could sit up a little more. "Oh. That," He said. "Don't worry. You can handle that."

"What, that's it?"

"Yeah," Joe could hear quiet laughter behind the statement.

"What did you think the problem was?"

The shrug was too causal. "Sometimes you worry about things...that aren't terribly important."

It was a statement begging to be argued with, and Joe was getting ready to argue it when he realized what Duncan meant. He knew where he'd seen that slightly worried, almost-sympathetic look before. He hesitated, caught between a defensive impulse and remembering that he'd never even said 'thank you.' Into that hesitation, Duncan said, "You had a couple of bad days. And your bad days aren't even half as irrational as some of mine."

"Irrational." But Joe remembered the confusion on Duncan's face when he told him why he'd broken the lunch date with Bette. This was the blunt truth, not kindness. It wasn't that Duncan didn't notice Joe's disability. He just didn't notice Joe's disfigurement.

"Sorry." He took a deep breath. "Joseph. We don't have to do this my way. I mean...for me the rules are...."

"Different with mortals."

"Yeah."

"And Amanda?"

"She would understand. Anyway, she likes you."

"And what's thirty years or so after twelve hundred? Sorry, sorry. Forget I said that. I did not say that."  He sighed. "Look, nothing's changed, right? We're the same people we were last week or last month. And we don't feel anything we didn't feel before."

"True," he answered carefully.

"And what's between you and me, that has nothing to do with what's between you and anybody else, or me and anybody else."

"Also true."

"You said I could handle this."

"You can. You don't have to."

"Look, Mac. I know who you are. I always did. I'm not going to ask you to be something else now."

"Ok, then."

"Good. I'm starving. Let's go find something to eat."

 

Part 6: Richie

Cory told Mac he'd let him take us all out to dinner. "To show there's no hard feelings."

Mac smirked and shook his head. "You're taking us."

"What for? I'm the one who just got blown up?"

"You're taking us to dinner, and you're going to be a graceful, even generous, host."  Richie himself wouldn't have argued with that tone of voice, but he never expected Cory the Immortal Asshole to have the sense. He did give in, though. Almost meekly.

Cory had a small apartment in town. An extra little hidey-hole. Cory Raines probably spent a lot of time hiding. Amanda got the bathroom first, even though Cory was the one who was much the worse for wear. When it was finally Cory's turn, Mac called and made reservations at The Oaks: casual, but very expensive. Apparently, Mac was still pissed.

"Kind of early, isn't it?" Amanda asked, referring to the time Mac gave the restaurant.

"I'm hungry. And we're going to Joe's afterward. It's Friday. The house band's opening tonight."

Richie straightened. "Oh, hey," he whispered glancing at the bathroom door. "Does he know?"

Mac jumped slightly, looking flustered and confused. "Know what?"

"You know." Richie tapped the inside of his wrist.

Mac turned icy.  "No," he hissed. "And he's not going to." He glared at both of them, and Amanda raised her hands innocently.

Dinner was...weird.  Cory was trouble. Amanda preferred the description, "free thinker." Richie was still going with "self-centered, stupid little shit," even though he had to admit the guy had some funny stories. Mac seemed to be leaning more toward Richie's opinion than Amanda's.  He didn't tolerate Cory's obnoxious preening with the same  pleased affection he took Joe's occasional teasing or even Adam's mocking disrespect. If he felt anything, it seemed to be irritation. And yet--and yet--Cory had not been tossed out of town on his ass. Mac was polite--if bristly and cool--all through dinner.

Amanda was cheerful and friendly. She flattered everyone--including Richie--and flirted with no one. She didnít touch anyone either, which seemed very strange.

"We were brilliant today. The perfect team," Cory was saying while the waiter brought dessert. "Just like the good old days." He smiled. "Seriously, MacLeod, don't you miss the good old days?"

Mac just shrugged, looking unimpressed. "Like a hole in the head."

Cory turned to Amanda. "Tell me today wasn't the most interesting day you've had in years."

Mac chortled and said, "Oh, yes. Amanda needs you to make her interesting." 

And then Richie got it. Mac wasn't tossing Cory out on his ear or warning him to keep his hands off Amanda...he was just reminding both of them who came first. Amanda could have Cory as long as he remembered to stay meekly in his place. Richie had to swallow to keep from gasping aloud as he finally understood exactly what was going on.

Except, of course, that didn't seem to be it after all, because instead of being quelled Cory just shrugged and reached across the table to lay his hand on top of Mac's. "Oh, come on. It may not have been peaceful but you have to admit it was interesting."

Cory. And Amanda. And Mac.

Whoa.

It was not that Richie had disbelieved Joe, really.  He'd believed him. He just hadn't successfully pictured it.

Not that he had ever tried to picture it. Picture Mac. Certainly not. Not with anyone, let alone multiple anyones.

Besides, it didn't have to have been simultaneous.

Oh god.  Richie desperately hoped nobody would notice him blushing.

When the left the restaurant, Richie and Cory were relegated to the back seat. Richie spent the trip to Joe's trying to casually not look at his seatmate. It felt awkward until he remembered that he had every reason to be hostile. Cory had run over him twice.

Amanda and I were about to get into the hot tub. There's room for two more.

He hadn't been kidding.

He would have begged off and taken a cab from the bar, but that would have felt like retreating. It would have been retreating.

The thing was, once he knew what was going on, the show was kind of fun to watch. Cory seemed to be under the impression that if he could just ask the right way or be charming enough, he could get Duncan to give in and go along with whatever hair-brained idea he was working on now.

Cory didn't get Duncan at all. To Richie MacLeod just looked unimpressed and slightly amused by Cory's 'charm.' Every signal he caught screamed loud and clear: No and No and No and, by the way, remember just how far down you are on the totem pole and what I will do to you if you cause any more trouble for my friends.

Cory didn't have a clue. Apparently he assumed anybody not actively trying to kill him must be on his side....Amanda seemed satisfied, though. For some reason she liked the twerp. (Well, Richie kind of liked the twerp himself, but he wasn't made stupid enough by it to actually trust him). And Mac was paying enough attention to her at the moment. Amanda was a bitch when she felt neglected.

Someday, Richie would have a woman like Amanda. He would never give her an excuse to feel neglected.

Richie wasn't paying close enough attention to know exactly why Mac lost his temper with Cory, but finally he snapped, "Will you just shut up? I'm trying to listen to the music."  It was enough vehemence that Cory was promptly subdued, and even Richie immediately paid attention to the stage, where the house band was on the last song of their set.

They were singing something Richie hadn't heard before. It was sort of a love song; much more mushy and sentimental then songs usually got, in here. Downright optimistic, which blues usually wasn't, but...odd.  The lyrics didn't completely make sense.

The chorus just wasn't love-songish: I can't love you for ever and ever; But I can love you beautifully now; Don't worry that you can't have all of my heart; There's no part of my heart that doesn't love you. Or at least, that was the content with all the flourishes removed. Mushy and kind of clever, but non-traditional. Maybe it was something Joe had written.

Oh. Whoa.

Richie's head snapped around, scanning the crowd. Surely the implications of the song were completely obvious, and everyone in the room was scandalized.  What the hell was Joe doing? But...he looked and looked. Nobody seemed upset or shocked or amused.  A few were tapping their toes in time to the music. It was just another song.

Richie knew better. Joe had written a song for Immortals. It was a tremendous gift. Or, possibly, a very intimate inside joke. A beautiful song, actually, and kind of reassuring. The whole thing sounded a lot less weird than it had that night after closing when Joe had tried to explain it. Richie looked to see if the others at his table had also figured out the song.

Mac was staring stonily at the low stage. He didn't blink. For a moment, Richie thought he might be angry, but no. Whatever he was hiding behind that face, it wasn't anger. Maybe he was trying not to laugh; he was bound to get more of this inside joke than Richie was. Amanda was looking at Mac, and Cory was watching the waitress in the corner bend down to wipe off a table.

The song ended. The crowd applauded. Joe made a couple of announcements while his guys began to clear the stage for the guest band.  Across the table, Amanda leaned over and whispered something in Mac's ear. Mac startled slightly, and then whispered something back.  Amanda kissed his cheek and stood up, but Mac caught her hand and they had a short, wordless conversation before Amanda turned and said, "Cory. Come on."

Mac turned to Richie and held out his hand.  "You drive them home. I don't trust either one of them not to use my car for a police chase." He was smiling, though, when he said it.

Richie took the keys. "What about you?"

"I'll be fine. I'll get a ride with Joe."

"Are you sure? 'Cause I can come back for you--"

"Don't worry about it. I'll be fine."

Amanda, looking fond and patient and a little amused, patted Richie on the head. "Well? Come on," she urged gently.

Feeling that he had somehow missed something, Richie followed them to the door.

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