Author's Notes:

Well, here's part 2. It ended up being much longer than I expected which is why it took me so long to finish it. So, I'm not even going to guess when I'll have the next part done. Just know that when it's finished, I'll post it. :-)

Don't be thrown because I start at Chapter 5. Since Becoming will eventually become a single story, I'm doing the chapters sequentially, which means "Wizard" ended at Chapter 4.

The info about Mount Rainier was found at USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory .

Hope you enjoy!

Restoration Series #6B

BECOMING II:

IT'S A MAGE, MAGE, MAGE, MAGE, MAGE, MAGE WORLD

by

D.L. Witherspoon

(Posted 12-22-00)


Every action we take, everything we do, is either a victory or defeat in the struggle to become what we want to be.

~ Anne Byrhhe


Chapter Five

Joe Dawson was used to there being a small crowd at the dojo in the mornings. People liked to workout before they went to work. Sorta started the day off on the right foot, according to some of his friends. So, he wasn't surprised that he had to make his way around people as he headed for the dojo's office. But he was surprised that no one was lifting the barbells, the practice mats were empty, and even the juice bar was untouched. Everyone was gathered in the back corner staring at the couple performing a complicated sword form.

Joe understood the draw immediately as he watched Methos and Cassandra move with grace and precision. Cassandra wore a gray sports bra over a matching pair of sweats. Her body was lithe and long, each turn, kick, and thrust fluid and unhurried. Methos, wearing baggy, cotton pants, was equally lithe and lean, each muscle clearly defined as he battled an invisible enemy. They moved as one. Every thrust of their katanas was timed perfectly. Every movement mirrored back. Even their breathing was matched. The Watcher gave a silent whistle and went to join Duncan who was watching through the windows of the dojo's office.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but they look good together."

Duncan nodded. "There's a certain elegance about them. Reminds me of the dancers of the forties era like Astaire and Rogers."

"What are they doing?"

"Driving me crazy."

Joe chuckled. "I meant what's the kata they're doing?"

"I have no idea. I recognize certain elements, but that's about it." He gave a small shrug. "I'm not surprised. I've only been studying forms for less than four hundred years."

"And they've been studying for thousands." Joe gave a wry smile. "You know your life is weird when you see nothing out of the ordinary in talking about a four-hundred year life as lacking. So, how are they driving you crazy? They seem to be behaving."

"It's the kata. They've reached a state of higher consciousness, leaving their petty human faults behind. But petty human faults were running rampantly earlier. My faults included. I overslept, and so I let the Old Man sleep until I showered and started breakfast. He was still sleeping when Cassandra arrived. She screamed at him, saying that she knew he wasn't interested in saving the world. He mouthed off about saving everyone but her. And she said that that wasn't anything new; he'd certainly let her die enough in the past. He told her to get over it, that surely he wasn't the only one who thought she deserved a good killing or two. She then drew her sword and before the sound of that cleared my ears, she was flying across the room again. I guess he wasn't as shocked by what he could do this time, so he managed to merely drop her over the back of the sofa. While I stood there with my jaw scraping the ground, he gets up, goes to the bathroom, and slams the door.

"I told Cassandra she was insane for goading him after what happened yesterday, but it seems she consulted with her Old Ones and they confirmed that Methos is indeed the one in the prophecy. She's unhappy about it, but determined that if Methos fails, it won't be because of her. Hence, her 'let's-get-to-it' attitude. Before I could explain that that was the wrong way to handle Methos, he was out of the shower, and quiet. That disturbed me more than his perpetual bitching."

"His powers--or whatever the hell they are--scare the shit out of him." Joe cut his eyes over at Duncan. "And you know how he gets when his Horsemen days are thrown up in his face."

Duncan shook his head. "Sometimes I think Cassandra isn't the only one carrying old grudges."

"I can pretty much guarantee that I'll be over it a thousand years from now." Joe decided to cut Duncan some slack since he had eventually come to his senses and completely accepted the Old Man's past. "So how did you get from hosting Divorce Court to Kung Fu: The Series?"

"I told them they both had to rein in their emotions or they weren't going to accomplish anything. Cassandra suggested meditation. Methos wanted something more active. I suggested a kata--open hand or fist. Cassandra wanted swords. I confiscated their usual weapons and handed them the katanas. There's always a moment of hesitation when you're fighting with a substitute sword. I was hoping that the moment would give me a chance to stop them from killing each other if things heated up again."

"And did it?"

Duncan shook his head. "If they stopped for just a moment, they would see they're more alike than different. Another age thing, I suppose. Once they started the kata, they just slipped away into their own heads. They didn't even say anything when they started this kata; it just flowed from the other one."

"You think this truce will hold when they come down from whatever mountain they've ascended?"

"I don't know, but we're about to find out."

Joe looked out to see the two Immortals bowing to each other, and the admiring crowd started clapping. Methos returned the katanas to their places on the wall, and he and Cassandra moved toward the office.

"Good morning, Joe. What's a bar owner doing running around this early in the morning?"

"Something told me Mac might be in need of a class monitor. Seems I was right."

Methos flopped into a chair. "You know, MacLeod, you're going to lose that macho image of yours if you keep on calling on Nanny Joe to keep me in line."

"Actually, I think I get bonus points for knowing when I'm in over my head. You two ready to get to work?"

"Don't ask me; I'm just the student."

"Cassandra?"

She was staring out the window. "We'll need privacy, Duncan. And a place devoid of breakables if possible."

"Hey, Mac, you still got that warehouse you used to work out in when you owned the antique store?" Joe asked.

"Yeah, but--I have to manage the dojo today. Ray sprained an ankle last night." Ray Ajuana handled the dojo for Duncan, leaving the Scot time to teach at the university and take care of Immortal emergencies.

"I'll go with them," Joe offered. "I've already told Mike the bar is his for a few days."

Methos rolled his eyes. "Oh, goody! Looks like the babysitter is going to tag along, Cassandra."

"Methos," Mac began.

"It's not like we're going to kill each other," Methos said heatedly. "Her gods have told her I'm the only hope she and the rest of you have, so she's not going to do anything to jeopardize that. And I--well, I have no reason not to kill her, but I give you my word I won't. Now, give us the directions and we'll be off."

"Can it, Adam. I'm going and that's final." Joe thumped his cane on the floor for emphasis.

"I don't want you there."

Duncan opened his mouth, but Joe shushed him with a raised hand. "I promise to stay in a far corner, Adam. You won't hurt me."

Methos shifted to his feet. "Fine. Whatever. I take it you're going to need that bag you left upstairs?" he asked Cassandra.

"Yes."

"I'll get it, along with my things." Methos turned toward the door and looked out of the dojo. "And, Mr. Manager, I think you need to have a talk with the body builder in Aisle 5. Seems he's having trouble with the barbells."

Duncan saw the skinny man struggling with a set of weights that were obviously too much for him, and dashed through the door quickly. Snickering, Methos casually strolled out behind him.

"They call you Nanny Joe. Why?"

Joe sighed, knowing he should have joined Mac out in the dojo when he had the chance. "Because sometimes kids need looking after."

"Immortals aren't children," she said, obviously offended.

"Well, from what I hear, you certainly acted like it this morning."

Cassandra flushed. "I admit to having let my emotions get the better of me. But they are under control now."

"Are they? Because I just want you to know that I won't have you bashing him about the Horsemen all day."

"And what could you do to stop me?"

"Shoot you."

"And then let him have my head?"

Joe gripped the top of his cane. "Lady, if he wanted you dead, you'd be long gone. Besides, it's his head I'm worried about."

"Why? You know who he is."

"Yes, I know exactly who he is--he's my friend."

"He's no one's friend."

"Sorry, sister, but I've been converted once and have no desire to be baptized in your hate. Methos saved my daughter. Even if he hadn't been a friend before, he would be now."

Cassandra lay her hand on his arm. "Methos never does anything without a reason. Saving her must have been to his gain."

"He had a reason--friendship. As for what he gained: a fight with an Immortal he'd avoided for nearly two hundred years."

"Ah. You helped him set up this Immortal."

For a second Joe wished he'd grown up before the age of chivalry too. "No, I set up Methos. He forgave me and saved my daughter. Maybe you can teach him about magic, but I think he could teach you about forgiveness."

Cassandra made a rude noise. "He has convinced you and Duncan that he's a saint. Perhaps he's not so different from this Mael."

Fuck chivalry. Joe wrenched his arm away from her and got right in her face. "We know he's not a saint. We know he's not perfect. But we also know that he's a good, caring man, human to his core. And that's a miracle in itself--that someone who has lived through five thousand years of human perversity still finds something to admire in humanity. Look at you--two thousand years younger and already warped."

"How dare you!"

"No, lady, how dare you! MacLeod says we need your expertise. Fine. But I won't have you going around telling Methos he's just like his father, because he isn't. I know it. Mac knows it. And somewhere in that deep, cold heart of yours, you know it too. Why the hell else did you fall for him so hard back then?"

"I didn't!"

"You did. I know Methos believes it was merely a case of Stockholm Syndrome, but I happen to think it was more. Hell hath no fury, Cassandra." Joe used his cane to push the door open and left the office.

Cassandra fumed for a few minutes, then struggled to get her emotions back in control. It was bad enough she was letting Methos get to her, but a mere mortal? She was better than that.

"Cassandra."

She looked at Methos standing in the door, two satchels held firmly in one hand. "Ready to go?"

"After a second of your time." He entered, closing the door behind him.

She shivered, but ignored the urge to step back. "What do you want?"

"To warn you. Joe is off-limits. Hate me, revile me, spit on me if you will, but leave Joe out of it. He's a mortal whether he acts like it or not. I will not see him hurt or manipulated by you. Understand?"

"Are you saying you have a new pet, Methos?"

Methos leaned casually against the closed door. "I'm saying that Joe Dawson means a lot to me, more than you have or ever will. I believe your grievance with me is well-founded, and I do not deny you your anger. But if you drag Joe into this, it will no longer be about a past grievance, Cassandra, and I won't owe you anything--not even a second of hesitation."

Cassandra shivered as she looked into the familiar hazel eyes. "Showing your true colors?"

Methos stood and put his hand on the doorknob. "Heed my warning, girl. It's the only one you're going to get." He tossed her bag at her feet and left.

Taking a deep breath, Cassandra shouldered the bag and followed him.

Chapter Six

Duncan felt a rush of Presence, and hastily dumped a load of used towels into the washer. He rushed out into the main area just in time to see Methos slam the elevator gate down and disappear to the upper floor. Uh-oh.

"What happened?" he asked as Joe came through the door.

The Watcher shook his head. "I need to be sitting for this." He started toward the office.

Duncan came up beside him and sniffed. "You smell like smoke."

"Well, I could have smelled like fried meat, so I'll take the smoke as a compliment."

"Shit. What did he do?"

Joe slumped into the chair in front of MacLeod's desk, and wiped his face wearily. "The man passed whatever tests the Witch threw his way. Let me tell you, Mac--he is one powerful, but scary dude. He juggled balls in the air. He arranged blocks into words and numbers with his eyes closed. He kept a paper airplane flying for thirty minutes. He picked me up and set me down as gently as a feather. I threw an egg at a wall. He did something and it didn't break. He made a glass of water with ice cubes burst into a sudden boil. He then turned the boiling water into ice. I watched him and I could swear for a second I saw him wearing one of those pointed Merlin hats cackling over a cauldron, you know? That's how freaky everything was. Then he took freaky and turned it into terrifying."

"One question before you go on: is Cassandra alive?" Duncan asked in concern since he couldn't feel another Presence.

"Only because deep down Methos has a kind and forgiving heart. She pushed him, Mac. I mean, he obeyed her all day. Whatever she wanted him to do, he did. There was a certain amount of reluctance on his part, and he bitched quite a bit, but he followed her orders. Until she asked him to burn a twig she pulled out of her bag--and I don't mean by using a Bic. He said no. I heard the fear beneath the short answer, and I tried to tell her that maybe it was time for a break. She wouldn't listen. She kept demanding and he kept saying no. I took out my cell phone to call you but I couldn't get clear reception inside the warehouse. I headed for the door. I guess she thought with Nanny Joe out of the way, she'd go for broke. I could hear her, but I thought it was more important to get in touch with you. She told him that he really hadn't changed. That he was still the same selfish bastard who had used her. That he was using you the same way. That he was raping your soul as surely as he'd raped her body. And that he would give you up to Mael like he'd given her to Kronos."

"Damn her," Duncan muttered bitterly. "That's it! She goes. If Methos still needs a teacher, we'll find him another one. See what you can find in the Watcher files and I'll--"

"He created fire, Mac," Joe said, his eyes dazed as he remembered. "It was just suddenly there. Flames everywhere. Reaching to the ceiling. God, I felt like I was back in 'Nam, and a load of napalm had been dumped. Thankfully--so I thought--I was already close to the door. I pushed it open, but I guess that caused a draft or a rush of oxygen. It was like I opened a flue. The fire came rushing toward me and there was nothing--" He took a deep breath and looked at his trembling hands. "And then the fire was gone. Methos took it away. At first I was just grateful that I was still alive. Next, I was angry, and I marched over to him to tell him what I thought of his idiotic display. But I couldn't say anything when I saw him, Mac. He was so--broken, smaller than I remember him being. While my mouth tried to catch up with my emotions, he just moved past me. Cassandra was just as stunned and more than a little singed, but I couldn't call up any pity for her. I just left. Methos was waiting in the car. I didn't know what to do, so I brought him here to you. I think--I scare him. I'm too mortal for him to deal with right now."

Duncan looked up and Joe turned around in the chair to see Cassandra coming through the dojo's main doors. "I can't listen to her. Not now. I'm going to check on the bar. See if you can get Methos to come down there. He needs a little normalcy, I think. We all do. He can mooch beer. I'll listen to his outrageous stories. And you can sit there and look on in wonder and disgust."

Duncan tried to smile because he knew that was what Joe wanted--and needed. "I'll do my best, Joe. But he can be a stubborn one."

"I know. And if I don't see you, I'll be by tomorrow."

"Any time, Joe."

Joe walked past Cassandra without a word or a look.

"He told you," Cassandra said without preamble.

"You pushed too hard."

"Look, Duncan. You weren't there. You didn't see how hard he was fighting."

"You?"

"No. His power. I don't know its source--although I tried to divine it all day--but it's strong and he could be capable of so much, if only he wasn't so stubborn. It's like I told you from the beginning: if Methos is the one spoken of in the prophecy, it's a lost cause. Methos exerts his will only to serve his pleasure."

Duncan sighed. "He's scared, Cassandra."

"Of what? Defeat?"

"No. Of his past."

Cassandra made a scoffing sound. "He doesn't fear his past; he revels in it. You didn't see him with his 'brothers.'"

"You didn't see him either. You saw what he wanted you to see, what he wanted them to see. And that's not the past that frightens him. He knows what he did as an Immortal. He knows, and lives with it. This power he has, it has nothing to do with his immortality. It's a legacy from his mortal years, years he had no recollection of until several months ago." Duncan's eyes pleaded with the woman who had watched after him when he was a child. "Whatever he was to you, he's still just a man, Cassandra. He has insecurities and weaknesses."

"And this weak, insecure man is capable of saving the world?"

"Yes."

"When did you become such a fool, Duncan MacLeod?"

"Maybe at the same time you became so unfeeling." Duncan walked over to the door. "Go back to your hotel. I--I'll call if you're needed. If you don't hear from me in a day or two, feel free to go back to wherever you came from."

"If only I hadn't heeded your command in Bordeaux."

Duncan shook his head. "If you had killed Methos, then we wouldn't have a hope at all, would we?"

"We still don't."

"Go."

Duncan took a few moments to get his emotions under control, then headed upstairs. He found Methos doing exactly what he expected--packing.

"Oh, there you are, MacLeod. Thought I was going to have to leave you a note. Listen, I know this little island in the Pacific where time has just about stood still. The world can go to hell in a handbasket and it'll be at least fifty years before it's felt there. I'll go set us up a little paradise, and you can pack Joe up--" Methos stopped as an outstretched hand came into view. "What?"

"It's like I told you at Christmas, Methos. Squeeze my hand when it starts to hurt."

Methos sank onto the sofa beside his stuffed bag. "Most of the time I leave, people think it's because I'm running. But I'm not. I'm a wanderer, Mac. It's all I know. It's all I've ever known. Mael and I wandered up and down the rivers from the moment he stole me from my mother. We traded 'magic' to villagers. They weren't really villages per se, merely large extended families combining their talents--and DNA," he added with a smirk.

"In the beginning, it was Mael who 'entertained' the paying customers. Love potions, reading futures, predicting the sex of a child...the usual bag of tricks. But he soon taught me how to do those things, and I was introduced to the masses as a bastard child of a fallen god in thrall to Mael. I quickly grew a rep and sometimes riders would come in search of me, begging for my assistance. We would ride into one of the villages and people would bow at my feet. Mael would negotiate, and then I would do whatever they wanted me to do. Sometimes they wanted rain, or less rain. Sometimes it was to know when and where the river would flood. At other times, people would come with personal requests: 'When will my father-in-law die?', 'Who is the father of my wife's child?', 'Curse my uncle so I can take over the family.'"

"Did you?"

"Curse the uncle? If Mael's payment was met. Roaming around like that, I was isolated. I had Mael, and only Mael. My life was completely his. He provided my food, the space to lay my head--everything. It wasn't until my teen years that I even realized that the things I could do weren't normal, that there weren't other bastards of fallen gods running around doing what I did. I was educated in the dark powers and very little else. Mael's little captive mage. I believed every word out of his mouth. I followed his every order. I only balked once."

"When?" MacLeod settled across from Methos, instinctively knowing it wasn't a good idea to crowd him.

"We came across a village who thought us demons. They stoned us and refused to let us have passage through their land...."

--Flashback--

"Father, you're bleeding." The child licked his fingers and rubbed them across the cut on the man's cheek.

"They shouldn't have done that to us, son." The man grabbed the child sitting next to him and lifted him into his lap. "When dark comes we will pay them back for every bruise, every cut, every drop of blood that they took from us."

The boy winced when the man's arms tightened around him. "Are we what they say we are? Are we demons?"

"No, son, we are gods."

"And gods are better than demons?"

"Far superior. We control what we do. Demons are under the control of others."

"Then why do they think we are demons?"

"Because they are ignorant."

The young one shifted. "I hurt."

"Good. That will help you focus when we return to the village."

"What will I have to do?"

"I'll tell you later. Now rest, my son. I will keep you safe."

The child nodded, leaned back against his father's chest, and slept.

Hours later, when the village was sleeping, he and his father slipped between the earth and straw huts and stood where the headman had stood earlier ordering his men to cast them out.

"Arise!" The man shouted. "Arise and meet the fate you brought upon yourselves!"

Curses and shouts wafted through the air as the villagers woke.

"The demons have returned!"

"Quickly gather the rocks!"

The man placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "Do it now, child."

A ring of fire began encircling the camp. Flames blazed inside huts and people ran out screaming.

"Stop, demons!"

Rocks sailed in their direction. The man held up his hand and the missiles missed their targets.

A bearded man stumbled out of a hut, mumbling words and pointing at them.

"Burn him."

The child looked to his father. "The man?"

"Yes."

"But--"

The hand on his shoulder became a vise. The boy closed his eyes and the bearded man burst into flames. His dying screams drowned out all the other noise around them. When the villagers saw what happened to the bearded one, they dropped to their knees around the boy and the man.

The headman, keeping his head bowed, spoke. "We beseech thee to have mercy upon us, O powerful gods. In our ignorance, we were blinded to your true identities. Whatever we have, is yours."

The erstwhile god shook his head. "Your defiance has sealed your fate. You will be a lesson to all those who think to defy us in the future. Burn them all, son."

"I--I--" The child looked at the people cowering before him. Children, women with babes in their arms. "I cannot, Father."

The man squatted down beside the boy. His hands went out and cupped the thin cheeks, forcing the boy to look at him. The reflection of the fires flickered in his dark eyes. "You will do as I say." When he removed his hands, the imprints stayed on the boy's face.

"Yes, Father."

--End Flashback--

"I made them all burn, MacLeod. The stench was incredible. I think the only thing that kept me from running away screaming was that my tears blocked the bodies from my sight. They were just shimmering lights and not people. And by the time my tears dried, they were just ashes. A number of years later, we passed through the village again on our trek along the river. It remained barren ground. Rains and floods had removed most traces of the people who had lived and died there, but the memories of what had happened lingered on. Strange how fast information moved in that day and age, despite the lack of cell phones and email."

Methos stopped his rambling and glanced at his friend, sitting with a stunned expression on his face. "Speechless, MacLeod? Wondering if you should pity me or kick me out on my ass?"

"You were just a child!" Duncan sputtered.

"Is that an excuse you're handing me, or a condemnation?"

"Methos, you were not to blame," Duncan said firmly.

"Tell that to the infants who fried in their mothers' arms. I wiped out an entire gene pool, Mac!"

"Not you. Mael."

"Forget Mael! He could barely scratch a flint, much less immolate a human being. It was me. It still is."

"Damn Cassandra," Duncan muttered as he watched Methos curl up in the corner of the sofa.

"It's not her fault. She didn't know. I mean, she knew I was a fucked up, homicidal psychopath, but she had no idea I'd started so young in life, or that fire would call up such fond early memories."

"Methos."

The eldest Immortal snorted dryly. "Yeah, I know, Mac. Not much to say, is there?"

Duncan shook his head, mentally berating himself for not being able to find the words to comfort his friend, to let him know how badly he felt for him. He wanted to tell Methos how strongly he wanted to find this Mael and beat him to a pulp for making Methos go through this, for making the young Methos do such terrible things. But Methos would only point out that it was his battle. He was the one Mael had damaged. He was the one destined to destroy his teacher.

"I can't do it," Methos said suddenly. He sat up, placing both his feet firmly on the floor. "I'm really sorry, MacLeod. I honestly thought I could do this. Arrogance is an old flaw of mine. Spend a few centuries acting like a god and you begin to buy into your own hype, I suppose. I thought I'd done everything at least twice, but this--this is too much."

"Okay."

"I know you're disap--What?"

"I said okay. You can't do this. I accept it."

"What the hell do you mean you accept it?" Methos shouted. "We're talking about the world suffering for millennia and you say, 'okay'? What is wrong with you?"

"What is wrong with me is that you're talking about the world suffering in the future, and all I can see is my friend suffering now. Don't you know how much that hurts me?"

Methos looked at him in confused wonder. "You can take it, Mac. So can I."

"But why should you have to? Hell, man, you've been suffering since you were just a wee one. Don't you think it's time you get a break?"

Methos threw his head back and laughed. "Apparently the universe doesn't agree. But thank you for the sentiment. And thank you for accepting my decision with such grace."

"You're welcome. Now what? Still heading off to your island?"

"No. I doubt if Cassandra has that in her lesson plan for tomorrow."

"Thought this was too much for you?"

Methos sprawled across the sofa, no longer tense. "I can't watch my friends suffer any more than you can. And you know it. You played me excellently, MacLeod."

"That doesn't mean every word wasn't true."

Methos nodded. "Where's Joe? I didn't scare him off, did I?"

"Not likely. He went to check on the bar, and he's hoping we'll meet him there."

"Guess it's best not to disappoint him. Where's Cassandra?"

"Gone back to her hotel."

"Call and tell her we'll pick her up in an hour. That should be enough time for her to wash away the soot. I suppose I best be doing that, too."

"I told her I didn't know if we'd be needing her further assistance."

Methos looked hurt. "You thought I was going to bail on you?"

"No!" Duncan sighed and joined Methos on the sofa, pushing the sprawling legs out of the way. "Methos, I know how you sometimes tune me out. But I want you to listen to me this time, because apparently you have yet to hear me. I have faith in you. I trust you. Even if you fail, I won't be disappointed because I know you will have tried your very best. But you know what? You're not going to fail because it's your destiny, and I happen to be an expert in that area."

"One short stint as the Millennial Champion and suddenly you're an expert?" Methos teased.

"Yeah, an expert," Duncan replied pompously.

"Well, Mr. Expert, what about the clause in the prophecy that says I could fall to the allure of power?"

"You won't."

"Are you so sure of that, MacLeod?" Hard gold eyes captured brown ones. "I have been a god before. I remember the world cowering at my feet."

"Aye. You looked at that cowering world, and your heart shattered into a thousand pieces. From that day on, you descended that throne of yours and joined the masses--serving in heaven rather than reigning in hell. This," Duncan waved his arms around, "is your home now, Methos. This is the place you store those thousand pieces, and where you're gradually knitting them back together. You're not going to go back to where you were. Your nature is to move on. You live in the moment, not the past."

"Tell that to my mind."

"Doesn't matter what your mind knows; just your heart."

Methos stared at Duncan, then burst out laughing.

"Do I want to know?" Duncan asked. He knew he should be offended; he'd bared his heart and Methos was laughing. But, hey, Methos was laughing. A definite improvement over the depressed man who'd been maniacally packing.

"I was picturing you in a short skirt and sweater with huge pompoms, yelling, 'Methos, Methos, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can!'" He stood and shook his head. "You've become my personal cheerleader, Mac. I don't think I've ever had one of those before. Thank you." He turned and headed for the bathroom.

"You're welcome," Duncan whispered, and picked up the phone.

Chapter Seven

Duncan saw Joe's eyes light up when they walked into the bar, then narrow dangerously as he saw Cassandra accompanying them. Once again Duncan debated the wisdom of bringing her to the bar, but Methos had been adamant about keeping up "team spirit."

"You guys find a table and I'll grab us a pitcher," Duncan said quickly. "How about you, Cassandra? A glass of wine, perhaps?"

"Beer is fine with me, Duncan."

He nodded and headed to the long wooden bar where Joe was already drawing a pitcher of beer.

Joe wasn't one to waste words. "I thought we were getting rid of her."

"Adam vetoed the idea. You know how paranoid he is about his identity. Since Cassandra already knows who he is, he sees no reason why anyone else should be involved. Besides, and I quote directly, 'You know that guilty feeling you get when something you do goes out of control and someone gets hurt? I don't feel that when I work with her.' We'll just have to watch her more carefully, Joe."

"Fine. But I'm telling you: she's your responsibility. Here's the Old Man's beer. What can I get for the lady?"

"Just four glasses. You're going to join us, aren't you?"

"Don't know if the table's going to big enough."

Duncan followed Joe's gaze to the door where their friends from the university were entering. "Oh, no," he whispered.

"It's got to be hell living a double life," Joe said, grabbing another pitcher and putting it beneath the tap. "It's like dating two women at one time, isn't it?"

"You know exactly what it's like, Watcher."

"Yeah, but it's different. Someone sees my tatoo and hey, it's just something leftover from my 'Nam days. But seeing you heal, or whack someone with a sword--well, that takes a lot more explaining."

"And with Methos and Cassandra in the same room, either might happen." Duncan pasted a smile on his face. "Victoria, Rose, Morgan, Robbins. Good to see you guys."

"Told you that was MacLeod's T-bird in the lot," Ed Robbins crowed to his friends. "Where's Pierson?"

Before Duncan could make a dry comment about not being bodily attached to Adam, Gray Morgan was pointing toward the table where Adam and Cassandra sat. "Is that his date?" he asked.

Duncan choked. Adam and Cassandra on a date. That probably wasn't a possibility even if the world was coming to an end. "No. Cassandra's a--friend of ours." He ignored Joe's snort as the bar owner stacked glasses onto a tray with the pitchers.

"Look who's here, Adam," Duncan said brightly as they approached the table since Adam's back was to the bar--which was odd because Methos was good about never having his back vulnerable. Of course if he thought the greater enemy was in front of him....

Adam turned and gallantly sprang to his feet. "Rose, Victoria." He kissed them on the cheeks. "Morgan, Robbins. Who thought it was safe to let you roam the streets at night, and why didn't anyone warn the general population?"

Everyone laughed.

"Summer School starts tomorrow, so there was this faculty get-together tonight. It was so lame we cut out early and ended up here," Rose said. "We didn't expect to find you here, though. How are you, Adam?"

"I'm fine, Rose, and where else would we be but drinking up all of Joe's beer?" He moved his chair out of the way so the table could be joined to the one beside it.

"Paris. Isn't that where you and Mac usually summer?" Morgan asked, helping to position the chairs around the double tables.

Adam grinned. "Why, you're quite right. Mac and I usually do 'summer' in Paris. We just haven't gotten around to leaving yet."

"Well, that's understandable with all the trouble you've had this spring. Have the police cleared you to move back into your apartment yet?" Victoria asked.

"Yes, but I'm having it repainted, so I'm still crashing at Mac's."

"Good. You need looking after," Rose said firmly.

Duncan watched Cassandra react to that, and wondered if she could see just how much Methos meant to these people--and they to him since he didn't berate Rose but merely lowered his head and looked like a little boy who knew he'd been naughty.

"I know I'm still a little thin, but I'm not totally helpless," Methos finally said in his own defense.

"Adam, you are one of the least helpless people I know." Rose tugged him into the seat next to hers. "But you don't need to be helpless to need help. Let your friends take care of you if they want to. Maybe it's our own need we're answering and not yours."

"Barry doesn't deserve you. Let me take you away and show you all that life has to offer," Adam said, dropping his head on her shoulder.

"I've hung in there with Barry and our boys all this time, so I might as well stay. But it's nice to have options, Adam. Thank you." She rubbed her hand through his hair. "Besides, I don't think I'd be able to keep up with you and Duncan."

"Forget Duncan. He's just an old stick in the mud."

"This stick is holding your beer," Duncan reminded him.

"And a jolly good fellow the gentleman is," Adam said smoothly. "A veritable good egg, you could say."

"Would you like to wear beer home?" Duncan held the pitcher over his head.

"I'll take good beer any way I can get it. But perhaps I should remind you that the shirt I'm wearing belongs to you."

Victoria smiled at the woman next to her. "Aren't they adorable? I'm Victoria Moon. We all work with Adam and Duncan at the university. They're both very good instructors, but are lousy when it comes to social graces." This last part she added quite loudly.

Properly chastened, Duncan hastily made the introductions. Cassandra was polite, but distant, and soon the conversation just wove around her, ending when Rose and Victoria demanded that Adam play the piano for them. Joe agreed, but Adam didn't. The good-natured arguing went on for nearly fifteen minutes before Adam gave in.

"Come on, Joe. The natives appear to be getting restless," Adam said with a dramatic sigh.

"Me? I don't know anything about classical music," Joe protested.

"Classical? Not here. Every good entertainer knows to cater to his audience. Doing classical in a bar would very likely get me tossed out on my bum."

"So, what exactly are you planning on doing?" Joe asked warily.

"It's a blues bar. You do the math." Without looking back, Adam made his way to the stage.

Muttering, "I hope I don't regret this," Joe reluctantly followed him.

"This should be good," Robbins said, pouring himself another glass of beer.

"At least he can't blame you for this," Morgan told MacLeod.

"That's what you think," Duncan replied, also fortifying himself with more beer. Methos didn't fool him. Getting up on stage and exposing part of himself was Methos' way of apologizing for what he considered "bad" behavior earlier. But sometimes Methos went overboard. Which is why he cringed when Methos donned a pair of shades before settling in front of the piano.

Methos spoke into the microphone in a low, silky voice. "Hello, good people of Seacouver. I'm Dr. P., and my prescription for whatever ails you tonight is a dose of the delta blues." He tickled the ivories enticingly. "Those blues aficionados among you know I'm talking about the blues that come from the river, the Mississippi River, as she winds through the miseries and joys of humankind. That ol' river sees and knows all. And oh, the stories she tells. Well, I don't have much of a voice, but the river doesn't care as long as I pass her message on to you. Just listen to what she has to say...."

For the next hour and a half, Methos played, sang, talked to the audience, and teased the band. Being tone-deaf, Duncan had no idea if Methos' voice was any good, but he looked around and saw everyone was enjoying the show. They clapped, laughed, and some appeared to be crying through some parts. Even he would admit to being slightly misty-eyed when Methos and Joe finished their set with a duet about lost loves.

The two musicians made their way back to their friends slowly, being stopped by many of the customers as they wove through the tables.

"Well?" Adam asked as he sank into his chair and took the beer Duncan offered him. "You think that if all else fails I can make it in Vegas as a lounge lizard?"

"You'd be a sellout," Victoria said. "You're amazingly versatile."

Adam shrugged. "Jack of all trades; master of none." He drained his glass, then stood again. "It's been fun, boys and girls, but the doctor needs his rest."

"You're just trying to get out of an encore, Pierson," Robbins said.

"Me? You wound me, Ed. Come on, MacLeod. You have to take me home so I can cry in private." Adam sniffed dramatically and walked away. Duncan, Cassandra, and Joe followed.

"Guess I'll be carrying my carcass home in a little while, too," Joe said, glancing at Cassandra. "School starts early these days."

"Don't remind me." Methos scowled, then touched Joe's arm. "Everything okay?"

Joe didn't pretend to misunderstand. "It's never not been okay, buddy."

"So I got up on that stage and humiliated myself for nothing? Thanks, friend."

"Don't get mad at me. I told Mac--"

Duncan groaned. "I knew it. I knew I'd get blamed for this."

"Well, of course you would," Methos said, his eyes twinkling merrily. "Everything that goes wrong in the world is your fault, MacLeod. Haven't I taught you anything after all these years?"

"Let me see if I can teach you how to walk home," Duncan muttered, stomping off toward his car.

"And let me see if I can teach you how to drive a car without keys." Methos held up a key-ring and shook it gently.

Duncan patted his pockets and glared at Methos. "You pickpocket!"

"Just a little trick Amanda taught me. You have very useful girlfriends, MacLeod. Goodnight, Joseph. And since I'm in possession of the keys, I get to drive. What was that, Mac? I don't think they quite heard you in Canada."

Joe watched the trio drive away, the two men still squabbling.

What a wonderful sound.

*****

"Theories?" Victoria asked, as the remaining U of S faculty members finished the pitcher of beer.

"An evaluator. She's here to see if Adam's fit enough for duty," Rose tossed out.

"I think she's MacLeod's new partner," Robbins said. "That's why there was that tension between her and Pierson."

"She never smiled at him," Victoria said. "Even when he was up on stage."

"And MacLeod kept fidgeting like he was caught between a rock and a hard place," Morgan added.

"And Joe couldn't stand her." Rose sniffed. "I found her rather cold myself."

"Maybe she was just uncomfortable being around MacLeod and Pierson's friends," Morgan offered.

"Then she shouldn't get in between them. They're the perfect partners," Rose said adamantly.

"But that poison has knocked Pierson out of the game for a number of months. They couldn't waste a good agent like MacLeod for all that time."

"Don't even talk about the poisoning, Ed," Rose berated. "You almost blew it, acting like you didn't believe it was just the flu Adam had."

"They expected me to be paranoid, Rose. If I hadn't, they would have been suspicious."

"Poisoned or not, Adam has been an efficient agent. Didn't he and Duncan catch that boy who killed his family?"

"But maybe that happened, Victoria, because it was Adam's apartment the boy chose to desecrate." Morgan eyed the dregs of beer in the pitcher, but didn't move his hand. As the designated driver, he hadn't had but a single glass.

'I bet it wasn't just a choice. Somehow they lured him there," Robbins guessed. "Damn. I hope Pierson recovers soon. I was sorta feeling safe with the two of them out there, you know?"

"He is going to recover, isn't he?" Victoria asked.

They all looked to Rose, mother of three, and therefore the designated medical expert.

"He seems better. No fever, and he didn't look excessively exhausted after his performance. I believe that whatever it is, is gradually leaving his system. It's just taking time."

"I wonder if that's why they haven't left for Europe yet."

"Maybe there's something going down here in Seacouver. Maybe that's why the other agent was called in," Morgan said, finally asserting his own theory. They all stared at him.

"I think I want to go home and see my boys," Rose said.

"My wife's probably waiting for me," Robbins said.

Morgan and Victoria looked at each other. Neither of them had anyone to rush home to. Gray cocked his head to one side. Victoria nodded hers.

"Well," Victoria said, standing up. "Seems we all need to be getting home. But we know there's no reason to be worried, don't we?"

"But will Wonder Woman throw our guys off-balance?" Robbins mused.

"We just have to have faith," Morgan said. "I'll just swing around and pick everyone up in the morning, okay? The cars should be fine in the faculty lot."

"If there is a morning," Robbins said, following Rose out the door.

"Makes the night seem even more precious," Victoria murmured as she felt Gray's presence at her back.

He smiled and took her hand. "I couldn't agree more."

Chapter Eight

"Give me the keys," Duncan demanded as the T'bird pulled into the hotel's parking lot.

"Why?"

"Because I'm going to walk Cassandra up to her room, and I don't want you driving off and leaving me."

"Spoilsport." Methos obediently handed over the keys.

"And you better not hot-wire it either."

"Dictator. Good-night, Cassandra."

"Good-night, Methos."

Cassandra and Duncan were quiet as they went through the busy lobby, but she spoke when the elevator doors closed.

"What is he, Duncan?"

"The sum of what he was, what he is, and what he will be. Just like the rest of us."

Her hair swung heavily as she shook her head. "No. I know of no one else who has so many faces."

"No one else has lived has long as he has. It bothers you to see him so charming and nice because you've seen him cold and cruel. I know how confusing that must be because his extremes are disconcerting to me, too. Nine days out of ten I consider him a royal pain in the ass, but even in those nine days, he's the person I most want at my back in a fight. He makes me want to scream in frustration one minute, and weep in sympathy the next. And even when he pisses me off, the next word out of his mouth can have me laughing so hard that I cry. The dichotomies bothered me until I realized that he has experienced--and been--the best and worst that life has to offer. That's earned him the right, I think, to bounce from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Most of the time it's all a game to him. Not just the Game, but existence itself. But when it matters, you won't find anyone as steadfast as he is."

"What is he to you?"

Duncan shrugged. "So many things, so many people." She tilted her head and silently asked for an explanation. "He's my teacher and confidante like Darius. He's my friend and cohort like Fitzcairn. He's my eddy of sanity in a sea of insanity like Sean Burns. He's my touchstone to the modern world like Richie was. When I get lost in what used to be, he makes me aware of what is. Most of all, he's Methos--the most cynical, exasperating, irritating curmudgeon that's ever walked this planet. How someone can be such a pain in the ass and a joy at the same time, I don't know. But he is a joy in my life, and I'm honored to call him my best friend."

"And what is he to the mortals?"

"A friend, someone to care about, someone who cares about them."

"He doesn't care."

"He does, Cassandra. More than you and I will ever comprehend, I fear."

"Why do you fear it?"

"Because when Methos cares, he puts himself last. You think he'll fail because he's weak, because his heart is too cold. But if he fails, it will be because his heart is too big." Duncan touched her arm as she inserted her keycard and opened the door to her room. "The way to deal with his extremes is to see him as he is now. The past is too intangible, too colored by time."

"I'll think about what you've said, Duncan. That's all I can promise you."

"That's enough. Goodnight, Cassandra."

"Goodnight, Duncan."

Duncan went back to the car to find Methos sprawled in the passenger's seat. He looked tired, and Duncan realized his friend must have expended a lot of energy doing Cassandra's tests, and not to mention his performance at Joe's. "Stay awake. There's no way I'm dragging your ass up to the loft. I don't think my spine's recovered from the last time."

Methos gave a small smile, then sighed. "Stop it, Mac."

"Stop what?"

"Trying to make things right between Cassandra and me. I thank you for what you did in Bordeaux, but it's time you stop beating your head against the wall she's put up. She either tears it down herself, or it remains."

Of course Methos knew what he'd been up to. "She deserves better. So do you."

"I agree. But the decision isn't in our hands. It will never be. So give it a rest and yourself a break. You don't have to worry, you know. I promise I won't let her kill me, and as long as she keeps this tiff just between the two of us, her head is safe from my sword."

"What does that mean?" Duncan asked, shivering despite the warmth of the night.

"Never mind. She knows what it means, and that's all that matters."

"I hate it when you go all inscrutable on me."

"What do you want from me, MacLeod? You won't let me sleep. You won't let me be inscrutable--which is a strange word, don't you think? Vaguely vulgar in a way.... Oh, where was I? Yes, and I know you don't want me to sing. God knows, I've done enough of that for one night, or even a lifetime."

Duncan smiled. "I think Joe was worried he was going to get stuck with another Claudia Jardine. She was really uncomfortable playing such 'plebeian' fare."

"The princess played at Joe's? Did she scrub the piano keys with disinfectant first? Damn, I hate I missed that."

"It was right after you left with Alexa."

"I remember now. Claudia had just come into her Immortality, right? You certainly had your hands full."

"As did you."

Methos stared out the window. "I have my regrets. Alexa is not one of them."

"And she shouldn't be. You gave her all that was possible to give a mortal."

"As you did to Tessa."

Duncan gripped the steering wheel tighter. "There have been times I've hated mortals because they die. There have been times I've hated myself because I live."

Methos nodded in total understanding. "And now?"

"I've learned to mourn and let go--mostly," he added with a wry grin. "I know now that their deaths serve a purpose, just as my continued life does. Sometimes the purpose is veiled and sometimes, like with Ahriman, it's all so clear."

"And does the desire for life stop when the purpose has been fulfilled?"

"I don't think you can ever be sure that your purpose is fulfilled. I thought Ahriman--after Ahriman, I thought I no longer served a purpose, unless it was to bring danger to those who loved me. That led to the stupidity with O'Rourke--"

"And the dream with Fitzcairn, a.k.a. 'It's A Wonderful Highland Life'," Methos added dryly.

Duncan knew it still bothered Methos that he'd dreamed of him teaming up with Kronos again. "I told you, Methos, it wasn't that I lost faith in you, but in myself. Hell, it started even before Ahriman. Remember Stephen Keane?"

"I remember. You threatened my life over him."

Duncan wasn't going to shoulder that particular bit of guilt. "And you believed the threat about as much as I meant it."

"True. I have never feared your sword."

Since Methos was being so forthcoming.... "Not even when I was under the influence of the Dark Quickening?"

Methos shook his head. "I only hoped that if you killed me, my Quickening would be strong enough to defeat the dark one."

Duncan took a deep breath, stunned by the easy confession. They could all learn about faith and love from this one--if he allowed it. "Which we now know it is," he said softly.

"Yes." Uncomfortable, Methos' eyes focused on a spot directly behind Duncan's head. "But we digress. You were telling me about purpose?"

"It was wrong of me to bow before O'Rourke because my purpose was far from over. Ahriman was just a diversion, a way to keep me on my toes as I go about what I figure is my main purpose."

"Which is?"

"Similar to yours."

"Making sure there is always good beer in existence?"

"Making sure there is always Methos in existence."

Methos "unsprawled" himself and gaped at MacLeod. "You can't be serious. You are NOT my keeper, regardless of the joking we do with Joe."

"No, I'm not your keeper; I'm your guardian."

"You're insane, that's what you are!"

"Quite possibly, but it doesn't change anything," Duncan said matter-of-factly.

"Forty-six hundred years after I'm born, I'm given a bodyguard. Sorta makes an ironic sense in my screwed-up life sorta way," Methos muttered.

"I'm not your first one. Kronos stood guard for over a thousand years. I think Darius was one too."

"Where are you getting this stuff, Mac?" Methos asked in exasperation.

"Just thinking off the top of my head." But it was making sense. It was all making sense now.

"Uh, I hate to break this to you, O Esteemed Guardian, but I've saved your ass more than you've saved mine."

"True. But your heroics have bound us together, as it should be."

"I can take care of myself. I don't need you fighting my battles. Wait--haven't we had this conversation already?"

"I don't want to fight your battles, Methos. The battles I fight are my own. Some of them just happen to be against those coming after you. It's just that simple."

"Nothing is simple, Mac. Please tell me I won't have to shoot you and dump you in the ocean to keep you out of the way when I go after Mael." Methos gave Duncan a pleading look. "Don't make me do that. Please."

"The battle with Mael belongs to you, Methos. I'm only around to make sure it's a fair fight."

Methos gave a bitter laugh. "I can assure you that won't be happening. Mael won't fight fair--and neither will I. I owe that son of a bitch."

"Have you remembered more?"

"Yes," Methos said softly. "Nothing I want to discuss, okay?"

"Okay. Just know that I'm always available to listen, no matter what it is. I'm your friend, Methos, regardless of my other duties."

"There goes those pompoms again."

Duncan sensed Methos was about to regret being so open, so he pulled back on his own openness and gave an exaggerated shudder. "If I wake up screaming about big balls of fluffy stuff attacking me, it'll be your fault."

"Note to MacLeod: I don't do guilt."

"Note to Methos: you're staying with me; if I scream, I'll wake you too."

Methos snorted grumpily. "Remind me to sleep with my sword handy."

"That's supposed to scare me? I'm better than you are, you know."

"Who says?"

"The Watchers. I'm the odds on favorite to win it all," Duncan informed him gleefully.

"That's only because Methos is just a legend. And they consider you their 'personal' Immortal since you've been involved in their business so much."

"Not as familiar as you. But the last I heard was that Adam Pierson was the odds on favorite to behead himself in a tragic library mishap. Someone should have warned the poor man to be careful when reaching for a book on the top shelf. Who knew gilded pages could be so sharp?"

Methos looked horrified. "Noooo. Damn. I hope it's supposed to be a large tome--War and Peace, maybe?"

"With that skinny neck of yours, I'm thinking more along the lines of a children's book."

"Bite your tongue. This tough column of sinew and cartilage--which has lasted me at least five thousand years, thank you very much--would require something substantial like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary--no, I know! A Michener novel. I've always been partial to Space."

"You had dreams of being an astronaut?"

"Do you remember the early days of space travel, MacLeod? Those tin cans exploded on a regular basis."

"So I assume that's a no."

"How astute of you. What about yourself? Any thoughts of walking on the moon?"

"No. Earth seems to hold enough challenge for me--no pun intended."

"I understand. It would be your luck to stumble upon an entire planet of Immortals. It would also be my luck to be with you when you did."

"Having you on my side, or at my back would be all the luck I'd need."

Methos gave a slight groan. "Quit with the cheers. I'm okay, Mac. And the parts of me that aren't okay, will be."

Duncan pulled into the parking space at the dojo. "Okay. Pep rally over. Go hit the showers."

"Golly gee, Coach MacLeod, I'll certainly do that," Methos said with feigned enthusiasm. Then he started singing the University of Seacouver fight song.

Horribly off-key, Duncan joined him, and the cat which had scurried into the alley at the approach of car lights, joined in, hoping it might get him a meal.

Windows went shut everywhere.

Chapter Nine

Duncan sat straight up in bed--and wondered why. He couldn't hear anything, and the only Presence he felt was coming from the sofa which Methos had stubbornly reclaimed. So why-- That was when he felt it. It started as a faint rumble and grew until the entire building shook. In the kitchen something shattered. A quick grab prevented the bedside lamp from vibrating off the table.

Earthquake.

"Better put the lamps on the floor before they fall on your head," he called out. No reply nor movement. "Methos?" The old coot couldn't be sleeping through the tremor, could he?

Worried, Duncan climbed out of bed and hurried to the sofa. Methos was curled in a fetal position. Tears dripped onto the pillow beneath his head, his features marred by wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His breathing was ragged as if he were running or fighting. And as usual, he was totally silent in his pain. What kind of nightmare held him so tightly in its grip that he couldn't feel the world shift all around him?

"Methos, wake up," Duncan called, taking a step back. "Methos!"

The body uncurled in a flash, a hand going unerringly to the sword in the sofa's crease. But the fingers halted before they reached the handle as even in the darkness, he recognized the Presence standing near him. "Mac?"

"There's been a tremor. We need to get the lamps onto the floor before--"

"No, no, no, no," Methos mumbled, getting to his feet.

"No what?" Duncan was ignored as Methos stepped around him, an intent look on his face. "No what, Methos?"

"Not an earthquake."

"Watch where you step, man," Duncan chided, remembering the sound of shattering. "Where are your slippers? And what do you mean not an earthquake? I felt it."

Methos waited impatiently as Duncan placed his shoes on the floor at his feet. "Not the earth. It's The Mountain, MacLeod."

"The mount--Mt. Rainier? You mean--?"

"Yes." Methos climbed the steps to the roof, Duncan following. "See?"

Duncan followed Methos' finger to where Mt. Rainier kept sentinel over the Puget Sound. But instead of seeing just a majestic, snow-capped mountain, he saw the truth of what it really was--a volcano that was apparently raging to life. Plumes of smoke billowed from the mountaintop, occasionally decorated with bright flashes of glowing sparks.

"Shit."

"Call Dawson and Cassandra. Tell them we'll pick them up within the hour," Methos ordered, his eyes never straying from the mountain.

"Where are we going?"

Methos smiled. "Where do you think?"

Duncan swallowed hard. "This was the time for you to reply Bora Bora."

"I can't run from fate anymore, Mac. He won't let me."

"He won't-- What are you saying? Everyone's always known Mt. Rainier could blow at anytime. We just ignored the fact and crossed our fingers. So this has nothing to do with--"

"It has everything to do with him. Trust me."

"If it does, what can you do about it?"

"Thousands will die, Mac. Even if this is the total sum of the eruption, there is so much snow and ice atop the mountain that the debris flow will destroy much of the landside. People will try to evacuate, but there are approximately 1.5 million people in the area." Methos turned to Mac and his eyes were haunted. "I'm so tired of seeing dead bodies."

"What do you plan to do?"

"Stop it."

"The eruption? But if what you say is true, the damage has already started."

"I will stop that, too."

"Can you?" Mac asked softly.

"I have to."

Mac started to speak, but merely turned around and went back inside.

*****

"What the hell is going on?" Joe asked Duncan when the Scot appeared at his door. The streets were so packed that the nearest parking space to Joe's was a block and a half away.

"If the Mountain won't come to Methos...."

"He's certain this has something to do with Mael?" Joe looked around, wondering if this was going to be the last time he saw his home. With a sigh, he turned the lock and followed Mac down the steps.

"Certain enough to risk his life to try to stop it."

"Knew the son of a bitch had been hanging around you too long."

"I agree. I even hinted that Bora Bora sounded pretty good. But he's taking this as a personal challenge."

"A challenge is supposed to consist of a long, pointed object with an edge, not some goddamned fire-breathing hole in the earth. He's always changing the rules when it suits him." Joe looked at his neighbors hauling out luggage and furniture. "Shit. If this is what Exodus was like, it's a wonder the Israelites ever made it to the Egyptian border."

"Feeling biblical tonight, are we?"

"I figure we're gonna get pretty damn close to God before the night's over."

"If you want to stay behind--" Mac stopped as soon as Joe's gaze cut into him.

"He asked for me, Mac. I'm not about to let him down. I'm mortal. I'm a cripple. He's knows that. I trust him not to put me in any more danger than I can handle."

Duncan nodded and continued walking to where Methos was getting out of his SUV.

"Good evening, Joseph," Methos said formally, bowing as he pulled the seat back to allow Joe access to the backseat.

"Put a sock in it, you crazy bastard."

"Someone woke on the wrong side of the bed, I see."

"And when did you get to be such a morning person?" Joe asked as he settled in.

Methos shrugged. "It's still night to me. You drive, MacLeod. I seem to be slightly distracted."

"You call contemplating stopping an erupting volcano a slight distraction?" Duncan muttered as the car pulled into a long stream of traffic.

"He's not exactly happy with me," Methos explained, turning to sit sideways in the passenger's seat, quite a feat since his seatbelt was carefully in place.

"I'm not either," Joe said grumpily. "God knows I'd rather have my bar standing than knocked down in some freak volcanic eruption. But we're talking about a bigger trick than setting a warehouse on fire, my friend. Don't think I don't have faith in you, because I do, but--but maybe this is even too big for you, Old Man."

"Maybe. We won't know until I try. But I understand your doubts, and if you'd rather be dropped off at the airport--"

"Don't go stupid on me."

"Oops, too late," Duncan commented, earning a glare from one and a grin from the other.

"Turn up the radio, Mac," Joe requested. "Sounds like they're talking about this thing."

"This is KSEA, and we have on line with us Dr. Kyle Stoddard, head of the Geology Department at the University of Washington. Dr. Stoddard, isn't it true that the university has a permanent monitoring station on The Mountain? And isn't it also true you had no warning that this was going to happen?"

"Predicting an eruption is not an easy task, nor can all eruptions be predicted."

"Then why waste all the money to have a monitoring station? I assume that the equipment alone is worth millions."

"Your assumption is correct about the cost, but it is not a waste of money. We've always known that Mt. Rainier was just dormant, not dead. Because The Mountain has been 'sleeping' for over a century, communities have grown in the area, communities which could be devastated by even the least bit of volcanic activity. So the university system and the government--we are working in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey--decided that Mt. Rainier needed to be monitored in order to protect people and property. We monitor in two ways: by studying the volcano's past activity and by seismographic and geothermal recordings. We also map the locations of particularly weak hydrothermally-altered rocks which would be the locations more prone to collapse in a volcanic event. In most cases, before renewed eruptions there are weeks or months of small earthquakes beneath the volcano. There will also be changes in the shape of the volcano, in the ground temperatures, and gases will be emitted from the summit."

"But we had none of these things this time?"

"Mother Nature sometimes has her own agenda."

"So we're back to my original statement that your station on The Mountain was a waste of money. On the other line I have Dr. Carl Womack who says that he's tried for years to get the government to focus on an evacuation plan for the area. Why didn't they listen to you, Dr. Womack?"

Duncan turned the radio down as he saw the number of taxies in front of the hotel. He'd never get close enough to get Cassandra. He pulled the car to the curb.

Before he could say anything, Methos was opening the door. "I'll go." He climbed out of the car and walked toward the hotel. He felt her Presence long before he spotted her in the throng of people trying to get the hell out of Seacouver.

"Duncan didn't say much on the phone. What's going on?" she asked when Methos grabbed an elbow and steered her toward the car.

"None of this is natural."

"What do you mean?"

Methos tugged her off the sidewalk and pointed her in the direction of Mt. Rainier. "Reach, Cassandra."

She frowned and focused her attention. A moment later she shook her head. "I can't sense anything. It's like I'm blocked."

He nodded and put his hands on her shoulders. "Try again."

She looked at the mountain again, then gasped. Her knees weakened and she would have fallen but for the strong arms wrapped around her. "By all that is sacred, is that what you're up against, Methos?"

"Yes. That is the power of Mael."

She straightened and turned to face him. "He will destroy you."

"He will try."

"Why are you doing this? At best you're a coward. At worst, you are as evil as your Master."

Methos started walking toward the car again. "I have my reasons, Cassandra. What they are is none of your concern."

"They are if they involve Duncan."

"You are not the only one capable of caring for him."

"I see you still lie with ease."

Methos suddenly clamped his hand around her arm, spinning her into him. "The only reason you are going with us is that I care for Duncan and Joe. You will protect them when I go to deal with this matter. And when I return, I don't expect either one of them to have so much as a cinder on them."

"And if you don't return?"

He gave her a sharp shake. "Don't forget to whom you speak, woman! I am Death. I will return one way or another, and if they are harmed, you will pay. Feel up to being on your knees in front of me again?"

She jerked in his grip. "Let me go, you bastard!"

"Fine. Just remember that I'll do anything to take care of the people I consider family--even give up my favorite toy when asked." The newly freed arm swung at him and he caught the wrist with ease. "You claim to know who I am. Fine. Keep that image in your head, Cassandra, and obey me. Joe and Duncan come to no harm!"

"I will always protect Duncan--and those he cares about."

"Good. I was sure we'd come to an understanding eventually." He let her go, and proceeded to the car.

"Methos fill you in?" Duncan asked as they rejoined the traffic.

"Explicitly."

"Any tips you can give him?"

"I'm sure Methos knows exactly what he's doing," she said flatly from the backseat.

"Why, thank you for that vote of confidence, Cassandra," Methos said, sounding delightfully surprised. "See, Mac? Everything's going to work out."

Duncan nodded. "With this traffic, it's going to take us a while. Why don't you catch up on your sleep? You might need it later."

"An excellent idea." Methos slipped into a more comfortable position. "It's nice to be surrounded by friends--and family. Wake me if I start to snore, Cassandra." He waited to see if she'd reply. When she didn't, he sank into a light sleep.

Chapter Ten

"Damn."

Methos eyes popped open. "What's the problem?"

"Roadblock."

Methos sat up to see that the exit to Mt. Rainier was closed off by the Highway Patrol. "You want me to--"

"I can handle it." Duncan reached into his pocket and pulled out his university I.D. He clipped it onto his jacket and rolled down the window, confident the officer wouldn't check close enough to tell his I.D. said the University of Seacouver, not the University of Washington.

"I'm sorry, sir," the patrolman began.

"We're with the university. We need to recalibrate our equipment at our station."

"Trying to figure out where you went wrong, huh?" the patrolman said, shaking his head. "Go on up."

"Nicely done, MacLeod," Methos praised.

"Been around you too long," Joe said.

"I thought I'd been around him too long. Make up your mind," Methos charged.

"You've both been around each other too long."

"I guess this is it, Mac. Our nanny is suggesting we get a divorce. Which one of us is going to get him in the settlement?"

Duncan rolled his eyes. "You can have him."

"Oh, no. I wouldn't want to deprive you of his wisdom and gentle tongue."

"But you need his guidance more than I do."

"Hogwash. You're still an infant. I'm a teen, remember?"

"Which means you need a steady hand to keep you on the straight and narrow."

"But who's going to feed you your pablum and make sure you're weaned properly?" They passed by an empty guardhouse. "Take the trail to the right."

"You know I've had a change of heart," Joe said. "The two of you deserve each other. Stay together. Annoy each other. And keep me the hell out of it."

"Ah, ah, Joe. You know that's not going to happen." Duncan followed the rugged road up the mountain, dodging a fallen tree.

"I knew you were going to say that." Joe saw the road was ending. "What do we do now?" he asked when Duncan stopped the SUV.

"You stay here and I go on." Methos stepped out, frowning at the smell of sulphur in the air.

"And do what?" Duncan asked as he helped Cassandra out of the car.

"Whatever it is I'm supposed to do."

"You're winging this, aren't you?"

Methos laughed. "If only I had wings. Basically, I'm out on the proverbial limb, and there's not a feather in sight."

"You'll make a lousy martyr, you know."

"I know, Mac. That's why I don't plan on becoming one."

Joe cleared his throat noisily. "There hasn't been another tremor. Maybe Mael's done all the damage he can."

"He's waiting for my countermove."

"And if you don't play the game?"

"He'll assume that I can't or I won't. Either way I will have conceded, and he'll go forward with whatever plans he has for the world."

"Millennia of pain and suffering."

"For the unlucky ones who survive his first wave of destruction."

"You understand him."

"I think like him."

"But you aren't him."

"I could be."

Duncan pulled Methos into an embrace, making sure his friend knew exactly what he thought of that statement. "Go kick his ass."

"Okay. Take care of Joe for me?" Methos asked softly.

"You got it, my friend."

"Hey, Adam, teach him that the world ain't big enough for the two of you," Joe said when Methos approached him.

"I think the shootout at high noon will come later, Joe." They hugged. "Take care of MacLeod for me?"

"You know it, buddy."

Methos stood before Cassandra and kneeled. "A favor to take into battle, m'lady?"

She reached around her neck and took off a silver rune pendant. "Here."

Instead of taking it, he bowed his head, signaling that she should place it around his neck. "This is a symbol of our accord, Cassandra. When I return it, you will be completely free of me."

"I will never be free of you," she said from between clenched teeth. She fastened the necklace and before she could step back, he grabbed her hand.

Standing, he lifted her knuckles to his lips. "That is your choice, Cassandra."

She watched him walk into the smoke which was curling down the mountain, shivering when he just seemed to disappear. "Come, Duncan, Joe. I will cast a circle to protect us as we wait." She went to find her athame in her bag.

"Cassandra, thank you," Duncan said, coming up behind her. "I don't know what kind of agreement you and Methos have, but I know your support means a lot to him."

Cassandra froze, debating whether to tell him the truth about the threats. But what purpose would it serve? If Methos failed, then her initial assessment of his unworthiness would be proven, and if he succeeded--she would be facing his wrath. She fought a shudder, knowing he wouldn't settle for just her death; he'd make sure she suffered long and hard for her betrayal. "He is a determined man, Duncan. There is not much that can stand in his way."

"I'm glad you see that now. I knew you two could work out your differences." He kissed her cheek and reached for the backpack Joe had brought. "Joe said he brought a deck of cards. Wanna play?"

Although it was nearly summer, at their present elevation the air temperature remained cold, so they chose to put down the backseat and spread out comfortably in the high cargo area of the SUV. Cassandra had just called gin for the third time straight when suddenly the car began to shake. Duncan reached for the door, but was stopped when long, tapered fingers closed around his wrist.

"No, Duncan. You mustn't leave the protection of the circle."

"But Methos--"

"Is or is not doing what he set out to do. Your presence could hinder him."

Duncan gave an abrupt nod, then grimaced as the car rocked again.

"Ho--ly shit."

Duncan turned and followed Joe's horrified gaze. A darkness was descending upon the mountain top. At first it looked like a thick cloud snuffing out all light as it settled gradually on the volcano, but in a minute something black began raining down on the car and they realized it was not a cloud, but some kind of gritty sediment. The car grew dark. Duncan felt Cassandra's hand seek his and as he returned the grip, he found Joe's hand and did the same.

Ten minutes later, the sediment stopped falling and an eerie silence took its place. The car rocked again, but this time the cause was a strong wind. They watched in amazement as the black grit was sucked into the wind, the return of the light of day filtering in as it was swept away. Except for a few dark drifts, the area around them looked exactly the same as it had when they arrived. Well, not exactly, for Mt. Rainier was no longer sending out smoke. Once again, The Mountain was dormant.

"He did it," Joe said, releasing Duncan's hand. "The Old Man did it!" He couldn't help but smirk in Cassandra's direction.

"At what cost?" Duncan whispered to himself. He moved toward the door.

"Do we know it's over?" Cassandra asked.

"Why don't you tell us, Witch?" Joe questioned flatly.

She closed her eyes and focused. Nothing blocked her. The malevolence was gone. Apparently, he had done it. "It's over," she admitted. "For now."

Duncan hurried out to search for Methos.

*****

Duncan headed in the direction Methos had gone, hoping to use his friend's Presence as a guide to him. He grinned when half a mile later up the slope, the familiar song rang out to him. The grin faded when the song led to a body lying in a bed of ice and snow.

"Methos!" He turned the body over and reeled back when he saw the condition of his friend. He was covered in blood. The tracks led from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. Further investigation showed that it had also leaked out of every pore of his body. "What the hell did you do? Blow every blood vessel you had?"

Methos shivered and a blood-covered hand reached out to clamp on Duncan's wrist. "MacLeod?" he rasped.

"Aye, Methos."

Fingers dug into his skin. "I can't see...or hear. But I can feel your Presence, Mac. I--I recognize it. Is it--is it done? Did I--did I stop it?"

Duncan brought the bloody hand to his face so Methos could feel him nod. "Come on. We need to get you somewhere to heal." He put his arms around his friend and urged him up, hoping he could walk. Methos stumbled and weaved heavily, and Duncan realized his middle ear--and therefore his balance--had been affected. Getting a firm grip, he patiently guided Methos toward the car.

As they walked, Duncan could feel Methos' Quickening fluttering through his body doing repairs. But the damage was apparently extensive, and Methos' exhaustion along with the cold temperatures was slowing down his healing.

"Cassandra?" Methos whispered.

Duncan wasn't surprised that Methos had sensed her Presence before he had. He placed the cold hand on his chin and nodded. A moment later, he realized Cassandra had sensed them as well because she and Joe met them on the path.

Joe limped over to Methos' side. "Adam?"

"He can't see or hear, Joe. He's healing but in these conditions, it's a slow process."

Joe patted his friend's shoulder and helped take some of his weight off of Duncan.

"Joe?" Methos inquired when he felt the pat.

"I'm here, Adam."

They helped him to the back of the car. "He's a mess," Duncan fretted. "We need to get him cleaned up before getting out of here. One look at him and we'll be pulled over for sure."

"I have an idea," Joe said. He gently pushed Methos out of the way and opened the storage area in the floor of the SUV. He pulled out a bag, revealing a change of clothes and a plastic tub of baby wipes. "I knew he was more of a Boy Scout than even you, Mac."

"Always prepared, huh? Okay, Methos, we're going to clean you up a little. Can't have you scaring the public any more than you already have," Duncan said lightly, taking a handful of wipes.

"You gonna change his clothes?"

"No. We'll just get him respectable and then we'll stop at a motel or something. No use in putting on clean clothes until he's showered. Besides I don't want to expose him to the cold any more than we have to."

Methos was cleaned and tucked into the backseat with Duncan while Cassandra drove. They didn't run into any interference from park officials or cops. Apparently the fast moving occurrences on The Mountain had everyone scrambling. Even the clerk at the motel barely looked up from the television as Mac requested a room. According to what he was hearing, it hadn't been an eruption, but a gravitational reaction to an approaching meteor. The "black rain" was dust from the near-miss, a substance which thankfully managed to stabilize the earth and ice loosened by the disturbance. The following wind was also part of the astronomical phenomenon.

Joe just shook his head when he heard the explanation, and laughed when he found out NASA was now being put on the hotseat for not spotting the meteor in the first place. He shifted his position on the closed toilet seat and spoke to the two behind the shower curtain. "You have to give us credit, Mac. We mortals can come up with a logical explanation for anything."

"Why do you think I worry about the general population finding out about Immortals? I can only imagine the 'logical explanation' they'll come up with for us." Joe heard flesh slip against the slick enamel and a curse. "Damn. I guess I'm not cut out to be a body slave, Methos. Joe, give me a hand. We're coming out."

Joe braced Methos as he gingerly stepped out of the tub. Then he took a towel and scrubbed him dry, while Duncan dried his own body. "Well, this is one way to save hot water when you're back at the loft," Joe teased.

Duncan shook his head vigorously, sprinkling the other two with water from his still dripping hair. "Not bloody likely. He's too damn slippery when he's wet."

"What did you expect? He's slippery when he's dry."

Duncan laughed. "Too true, Joe. Let's get him into his boxers and a T-shirt, then into bed. No use in him losing all the heat he gained from the water."

"He's still healing, isn't he?" Joe asked worriedly.

"He'll be fine by morning. You turn on the heat in the outer room?"

"Got it covered."

They walked out and Cassandra looked up from the telephone book.

"There's a pizza delivery place nearby."

Duncan nodded, just now realizing he was starving. Of course it had been a while since he'd eaten. Had it nearly been twenty-four hours since this whole thing started? "Anything other than anchovies. Methos hates them. Remember the last time we ordered a pizza with anchovies, Joe?"

"They're probably still picking them off the ceiling of the pizza parlor. Oh, he was in rare form that night," Joe said, laughing at the memory. He pulled back the covers on one of the twin beds and stepped back as Duncan guided Methos to the bed. "You don't know what I'd give for another night like that."

"We'll have one, Joe. I promise." Duncan pulled the covers up over Methos and watched the man fall into a deep sleep.

*****

Hours later, Methos twitched and awakened. Smiling, he realized he could hear Joe's gentle snores and even in the darkness he could see the outline of Duncan sleeping beside him. He felt the need to stretch and pop bones and ligaments back into place, but he was reluctant to wake Duncan and the others. This battle with Mael had taken a lot out of all of them.

But it had also provided him with answers. Things he'd forgotten for millennia had rushed back to him out on The Mountain. Mael really should have left him alone, he thought with a rueful smile, because now he knew more than he'd ever known before--and his daddy really wasn't going to be happy with him now.

"You've recovered," Duncan's voice breathed beside him.

"In more ways than one, Mac. I know who I am now. I know my heritage."

"And?"

"And Mael is going to be in for a very bitter surprise."

"You think he's going to attack again?"

"I'm not going to give him the chance."

"What do you mean?" Mac turned over and raised up on his elbows to get a good look at Methos.

"We're going to stick with the original plan."

"Which is?"

"I find Mael and end his threat."

"And how many pieces of you will I be picking up after that?"

"None."

"None?"

Methos turned to face Duncan. "Cassandra was right; I was fighting what should come naturally. It was that fight that left me a bloody mess, not what I did to counteract Mael. It's like what you told me when I went to fight Constantine and the Dark Quickening. There was a point where I had to just let go. I did. I have."

"You've accepted who you are?"

"Yes. And who I am--what I am--is so much more than Mael, Mac. He knows that--and now I do too. This contention between the two of us must end. The prophecy must be played out. So you're right once again. I guess you must be feeling pretty smug about now."

"I reserve the right to feel smug after you send Mael packing. Right now, I just feel sleepy. You see, I know something else too, Methos."

"What's that, O wise sage?"

"Hero's need rest."

Methos obediently burrowed under the covers. Mac was right--a nasty habit that was becoming. Today's battle had depleted him, and although he was now in control of the heritage Mael had endowed him with, a good night's sleep made sense. After all, tomorrow was just a sunrise away.

And tomorrow, the war would begin in earnest.

(Restoration Series #6C)


Comments? D.L. Witherspoon

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