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Incubus

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INCUBUS

I.

She sat in her armchair, waiting. For a while, she had tried to meditate, but this
time the discipline of millennia failed her, as it had done ever since she received
his letter. After Bordeaux, Cassandra had spent some time in Switzerland, for no other
reason than that the little village in the Alps where she stayed was completely
unconnected with anything in her previous life, especially the Horsemen and Duncan
MacLeod. There were not many places in the world she had not visited, but this was one
of them, and she needed a place without memories in order to recover. She thought she
had managed, at least as well as it was possible, when she returned to Britain, though
she still avoided her cottage in the Donan Woods. Then, just when some semblance of
normal life had returned, the letter arrived, written in a language few remembered and
just one person, to her knowledge, knew how to speak, throwing her once again into the
crucible of fury, hatred, helplessness and those memories she had so successfully
avoided for centuries. Trust him to destroy her life once more. But this time, she
wouldn't let him.

"I'm not your sorry little slave anymore," she had told him, and she wasn't. His slave
had been an ignorant village girl, new in her immortality and all too easily led to
believe that it was he who gave that ever returning life to her, that he was a god, a
god to be worshipped, feared and adored. And yet, sometimes she yearned for the
innocence of that pathetic girl, for in all the centuries that followed she had never
been able to trust another person again, not completely, though she had loved many,
loved them sometimes enough to risk the true death for them. But the ability to trust
deeply and thoroughly was something that seemed to be taken forever, ironically enough
not by the destruction of her people, the murder of her father and herself: no, by the
abandonment of the murderer who had made himself her god.

Seeing him helpless before her, on his knees, should have been the fulfillment of her
fantasies, the end of her pain. It wasn't, and not just because Duncan, her special
child, the child of the prophecy, had screamed his demand of the man's life at her. In
the end, she had not spared Methos because of Duncan. Duncan was too far away, both
literally and figuratively; he could hardly stand, let alone reach her in time to stop
her. And though she had always felt a connection to him, even before finding him again
as a man, the friendship they shared and their brief affair paled against her
millennia of grief. The possibility that he might take her head if she killed his
so-called friend didn't even enter her thoughts: not then, not later. She might feel
betrayed by the choice he made, but she knew he was no murderer. No, ultimately Duncan
had not been the reason why she did not go through with her vengeance.

In her first century, when the Horsemen were still there, ever-present in the tales
the people shared and haunting her nights, when she had learned, gradually, how to
submerge the fear, how to cope with her immortality and the gifts that slowly started
to change her, she had not even dreamed of revenge. That had come later, when the fear
had vanished and with it the last traces of the slave girl, when she had realised the
full magnitude of what he had done to her. Then, she had wanted to find him, to break
him as he had broken her, to kill him. But this wish, too, had changed as the past
grew ever more distant, leaving only the dream of his death behind, not as a burning
obsession but as a secret pain, hidden and pale for most of the time. It had not
become an obsession again until she saw him alive.

During all those stages, however, one thing had remained constant. She had thought of
him as he had been then, during their year together. She had seen him enraged, she had
seen him calm, she had listened to him planning the destruction of villages just like
her own with his cold efficiency; she had heard him laugh, both scornfully and without
malice, really amused; she had experienced his brutality and, more rarely, the
gentleness he was capable of, the gentleness which was ultimately his greatest deceit.
But never, not even once, had she seen him cry. She simply had not thought him capable
of tears, let alone the grief that produced them. Looking down on the man sobbing
before her, so shattered that he didn't even seem to notice her, she raised the ax
which could end his life: once, twice, searching for Death and failing.

"Don't hate yourself," he had told her, earlier, trying his deceit of gentleness
again. But she did, now more than ever when she had let the one moment that could have
brought her peace pass, because the man she could have killed seemed to be, at that
moment, not only completely unaware of her but also completely unlike the image that
had haunted her for so long. She had thought Duncan naive and blind when he insisted
to her Methos today was different, might genuinely want to help them; feeling his
death in her hands, for the first time she had also felt doubt. It confused her, hurt
her, left her almost as shattered as the man kneeling before her. When Duncan had
shouted for the second time that he wanted him to live, it had been the excuse she
needed to walk away.

In her darkest hours, Cassandra wondered whether the tears had not been a last
manipulative effort. Yet, each time she thought of that moment, reason and observation
told her that Methos had been beyond any self-control and manipulation. If never
before or afterwards, at least then. It did not take away one iota of his crimes, of
course. But it helped her to convince herself she made the right decision and to pick
up her life again. The other three Horsemen were dead, and in all probability she
would never see Methos again. She tended to avoid other immortals anyway, and she
certainly would not go near Duncan unless forced by extreme circumstances. The time in
Switzerland helped to settle the tumult in her soul somewhat, and working, getting
back into the routine of her daily life where the sight of Kronos had interrupted it
had proven to be the medicine she needed.

At least, that was what she thought until she received the letter. Her address had
been written by a type-writer, as had been the one of the sender, an unknown name,
but once she had opened the envelope and seen the hand-written note inside, she knew
at once who had sent it. He had taught her to write those letters, after all. Probably
just an amusement for him, he was so easily bored, but it had enraged Kronos, who
could not stand to see Methos talking to her at all, at least when it did not entail
giving orders. The sight of those letters sent her back to the desert, to the wonder
of learning and the fear she had of failing, of displeasing him, for he had shown
her all too clearly what displeasing him meant.

Why did he do this to her? You would think that any man whose life had been spared
under such circumstances would be both grateful and cautious enough to avoid the
person who had spared it. But no, he had to ask for a meeting. With a flash of dark
humor, she thought: At least he didn't turn up out of the blue. Giving her the advance
warning and the possibility to decline was clever, but then she had never doubted his
intelligence. She could have either refused or disappeared. Only the latter would have
proven she was still afraid of him, and the former was made impossible by the hints he
gave in his letter. Something to do with Duncan and her prophecy, something so
disturbing that it had, he wrote, come close to destroying the Highlander.

Of course it could be another lie, a trap. Methos could have simply decided that she
was too great a risk to his continued survival. Only the cold voice of reason which
had helped ensure her own survival told her that this was unlikely. He had had several
opportunities to kill her, and had not done so. Even if he had changed his mind, there
were better ways of doing it. He obviously knew where she lived, so why not take her
by surprise there, if this was what he wanted? Why leave evidence behind in the form
of a letter no one else could have written? Why demand a meeting on holy ground?

Still, she could decline. After all, she had given Duncan the life he asked for, and
that should settle the debt between them. She still had not sorted out her feelings
for MacLeod, the hurt from the implicit choice he had made in Bordeaux mixed with the
gratitude for the nobility he had shown in the past, taking on her battles when she
asked him to, comforting her when she needed comfort and compassion more than
anything. All in all, she knew friendship would win out in the end, but she had not
thought of having to see Methos again to prove it.

Finally, cursing the two of them and herself, she answered the letter, agreeing to a
meeting on holy ground, but adding a condition on her own: The meeting should take
place in her cottage, in Donan Wood. It was holy ground, had been since she
consecrated it as a Druid centuries ago, but it was her ground at the same time. And,
among other things, it was revenge as much as distrust and caution. Whatever Methos
was really up to, he had to wonder whether she wouldn't use the opportunity to trap
*him*. Imagining your death at the hands of your enemy was an ugly way to pass the
time, something she had ample experience of, most recently in a cage, surrounded by
four living nightmares.

When Cassandra felt the immortal signature, it took all the discipline she had to not
stand up and grasp her sword. Instead, it lay on her knees, visible, but untouched, a
demonstration of her ability to defend herself as well as her agreement not to attack.
She schooled her features in immobility, determined not to show Methos anything.
Still, when he entered she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. The man who stood there,
in the entrance, leaning against her doorpost and regarding her silently, could not
have been more different from the sobbing wreck she left behind in Bordeaux. Calm,
collected and utterly without any sign of guilt or remorse. For a moment, her
returning rage threatened to overwhelm her. Then, she suppressed it, reminding herself
that to give into the rage now, before she found out whether something really had
happened to Duncan and what Methos wanted, would be counterproductive, to say the
least. He seemed determined to out stare her, but two could play that game. He had
come because he wanted something from her; he could speak first. So she regarded him
while he regarded her, noticing that he did not hold his sword, either, but that the
hands in his pockets probably weren't empty. Even back in what people now called the
Bronze Age, he always had had more than one weapon.

Apart from the coat, he was dressed, as he had been in Seacouver and Bordeaux, in
jeans, a sweater and hiking boots, old boots at that, showing how muddy his trek to
her cottage must have been. Casual harmlessness itself. No wonder MacLeod had been
fooled. The features, of course, were the same, had always been the same, though she
had to admit the short hair contributed to the harmless look. But the hazel eyes did
not, taking everything in, giving nothing away. She knew that expression. Back then,
she had learned to read all his expressions, because it could mean the difference
between life and death - temporary death, but death still, and as she believed he
alone had the power to bring her back, she never knew whether one day he might not
bother anymore. Right now, he was assessing an enemy.

She wondered what he saw. His captive, superimposed on the woman who nearly killed him
some months ago? On an impulse, she decided to show him someone he had never met.
Cassandra the Queen, who had ruled the Iceni for decades before she grew sick of the
power and vanished, leaving that life behind and turning into Cassandra the Healer
again. With the small, disdainful inclination of the head she had used to greet
unruly chiefs, she silently motioned for him to enter.

A spark of amusement crept into his eyes. He followed her admonition, but instead of
either greeting her or continuing their silent exchange of looks, he grabbed the
nearest chair, straddled it and sat on it.

"Well," he began without further preliminaries, "as prophets go, I'd certainly take
you over two babbling old fools. Too bad Mac didn't. At least you wanted him to play
saviour just for you, not for the rest of humanity as well."

He proceeded to tell her about Landry, Ahriman and MacLeod's increasingly strange
behaviour, his studied sarcasm and flippancy a stark contrast to the story. She
abandoned the idea that the whole thing was an elaborate ruse almost as soon as it
came to her. Millennia myths and Persian demons weren't something the Methos of old
would have come up with, and the 20th century version seemed to be even more
sceptical. When he paused, she said, frowning: "In my own vision, I saw Duncan
fighting evil. But it always had a human face - one of us, I thought. Not something
from the nether regions. I would have warned him..."

"Oh, ultimately it was one of us," Methos interrupted, and for the first time, the
determined flippancy had completely vanished from this tone. Instead, he sounded
bitter, worried, and above all, very serious. He paused for a moment, then he said,
looking straight at her: "He killed his student, believing him to be the demon. And
then he asked me to take his head."

All the resentment she felt for Duncan vanished as the horror of it all sunk into her.
Demon or no demon, the man she knew would be destroyed by such an action. She had
never met Richie Ryan, but Duncan had told her about him, with the pride a father felt
for his son, and she knew, only too well, how utterly devastating the loss of a
student could be. It was one of the reasons for telling MacLeod about Kantos. She
couldn't have killed Kantos, and not just because the powers of her former pupil had
outstripped her own. Students were the closest thing the immortals had to children,
and at the same time they were even more. The older you were, the more you needed
young immortals in order to find contact to the present. They taught you as much as
you taught them. The killing of a student, even a student who had rejected one's own
way, was devastating. It tore up your soul. The killing of a beloved student...

"How will he bear it?" she whispered.

Sounding slightly questioning, Methos said: "You did not ask me whether I took it."

"Should I?" she replied, without really believing it. If Duncan were dead, she would
have known. She had her ways.

"Am I to take that as a vote of confidence in my reformed character?"

The returning sarcasm cut through her horror and the pain she felt for her friend.

"No," she said coldly. "You did not take his head because he's more useful to you
alive."

This, at least, had been easy to figure out during those weeks in Switzerland: the
reason why Methos had insinuated himself in MacLeod's life, making him his friend.
Duncan was one of the best fighters that their strange, sick race, doomed to fight one
another to extinction, had ever seen. At the same time, he was one of the few who
really hated the killing, for whom friendship and the protective instinct for all his
friends were stronger than the addictive power of the quickenings. Having Duncan
MacLeod as your friend might be the best life insurance an immortal could find.

"Where is he now?" she continued, because, obviously, this was the point the whole
conversation had been leading to. Getting her to help. While the messenger was the
one person she had hoped never to see again, the message was certainly important
enough to bury her own feelings about Methos for the moment. "Still in Paris? I'll
need an hour to pack my things, but then..."

She fell silent; Methos was shaking his head, and from the way he looked, she knew the
string of bad news still wasn't over. She braced herself. How much worse could it get?

"At the moment, I doubt that anyone can reach him. He vanished after Ryan's death. I
needed some time to track him down again, but ultimately I did. He's in a monastery in
Malaysia, and the one time I spoke to him, he insisted he never wanted to see any of
us again. Now, there are two possibilities. Either he's had a nervous breakdown. His
life in the last few years has been strained enough, to say the least. In this case,
retreat to a monastery where there are some experienced healers isn't a bad idea.
Beats a sanatorium with overcurious doctors anytime. He can't hurt anybody, and nobody
can hurt him. Or, and I still don't believe it, he's really haunted by a supernatural
being. Again, that makes a monastery a sensible choice. In any case, he needs time to
deal with what happened to the kid, and the one sensible thing he said during that
conversation was that nobody would be able to use his friends against him if he knew
none of them were nearby."

What MacLeod actually had said was something Methos did not intend to share with
anyone, especially not with Cassandra. The Dark Quickening had been bad enough, but
back then Methos had at least known exactly what had happened, could trust in Duncan's
strength to reintegrate all the personalities of the quickenings. This was different.
Demon or breakdown, either was out of anyone else's comprehension and ultimately not
as important as the result, the action the Highlander could not, would not deal with.

"It's you who doesn't understand," MacLeod had said, orange-clad monks by his side
because he refused to meet Methos alone. "I don't want to hear a lecture about how to
cope with being a murderer, especially not from you. Oh, I've no doubt you did
something like this in the past, and that you managed to forgive yourself. You seem to
have an infinite capacity of forgiving yourself, don't you?"

Bloody boy scout. When did his opinion start to matter so much? It had looked all set
for a screaming match, and if there was something the man did not need right then, it
was this. Sometimes the best you could do for people was really to leave them alone,
especially if you couldn't trust yourself not to say things which would do more harm
than good. So here he was, trying to deal with a part of his past he had successfully
avoided thinking about for more years than most people could count, and trying to
figure out the Ahriman mess to boot. Sometimes you really had to believe in divine
punishment.

"When exactly did all this happen?" asked Cassandra much too quietly. He told her, and
watched as her green eyes narrowed and an icy fury, so very different from the rage
she had shown in Bordeaux, lacerated her words.

"You must have realised I could have helped Duncan. At least more than you with your
bigoted egocentric I-never-saw-a-demon-views. So why didn't you ask me when it
happened? Or immediately afterwards? Did you fear for your life so much?"

Still, those kind of accusations he could work with. Infinitely preferable to
MacLeod's stony silence which had followed their short, bitter exchange on how to
survive after killing one's student. "It was a consideration, yes. But more
importantly, you and Duncan didn't exactly part on good terms. Frankly, I wouldn't
have been surprised if he had joined me on your list of least likable males."

Her right hand clenched to a fist around the pommel of her sword, but otherwise she
made no move, he was careful to note.

"You bastard. He is my friend, but then, you wouldn't really know what that means,
would you?"

He said nothing. For a moment, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"So why are you here?"

"For information. First, what about this hermit MacLeod met shortly after becoming
immortal? It seems unlikely that your paths never crossed, living so closely. Second,
what about Ahriman? If he isn't a delusion, that is. Some certainty would be nice, and
according to your chronicles, you picked up some useful talents in that area over the
millennia. Third, I hate living looking over my shoulder. A declaration of either war
or peace would be nice as well. What do you intend to do with the knowledge of my
continuing existence?"

Reporters who had just caught politicians in compromising situations had received
friendlier glares.

"You," she said, obviously trying very hard not to raise her voice and scream like
hell at him, "are unbelievable. This is all about you, isn't it? Duncan's life has
been shattered into a million pieces, and all you worry about is how it affects your
miserable neck."

He had no intention to start a discussion about his improved ethics and capacity for
friendship. This was something she either came to believe of him, or didn't. Besides,
such an argument might prove counterproductive to the one purpose of his visit he had
not mentioned yet.

"Something like that. But don't let that stop you from answering my questions. You
could, of course, go to Malaysia yourself. I'll even give you the exact location of
the monastery. But I doubt you'll get a much different reception at the moment. But
once your hero is ready to face the world again, he might need some answers, and it
would be nice if someone could provide them for him."

She pondered this, hating to admit there was some truth in it. Oh, she wouldn't take
Methos' word on Duncan's whereabouts and psychological situation. She had used mortal
detectives once, she could do so again. And since she had touched his soul when
leading him to confront the child he had been, she would be able to find him in the
Otherworld, at least. Meanwhile, trying to find some answers to the questions the
infuriating spectre of her past had posed could actually be helpful.

"I knew an immortal who vanished into our woods," she said, relenting, "but it was two
centuries before Duncan was born, so I can't be sure whether it was the same person.
I'll try to find him again, or at least the place where I saw him last. As for
Ahriman..." Involuntarily, she shuddered. Her kind weren't the only immortals on the
planet. In her three millennia, she had encountered some strange and bizarre
creatures, drawn to her because of her psychic abilities. Not all of them were
hostile, but all were dangerous.
"Again, I'll try to find out whether such a being exists."

"Thank you," he said, and even sounded as if he meant it. Just when she started to
hope that it was over, that he would go now he had had his say, he shrugged off his
coat, though he kept it tucked under one arm.

"Cassandra?"

"Yes?" she replied, disturbed by something she could not lay her finger on, until she
realised it was his pronunciation of her name, drawn out, without any of the modern
American a's most people, knowing no better, used. The correct pronunciation was
something she heard very rarely, so it would have been unusual in any case, but to
hear it from him was something else again. Names used to have power, in the world into
which she was born. Back then, he had not often called her by name. Usually, it was
"girl", woman", slave", according to his moods. When he did use her name, it had
always meant... She shook herself. She wouldn't think about that.

"What about my miserable neck?"

In a weird way, such relentless selfishness was almost a comfort. It spared her
further ponderings over whether or not he had changed.

"I don't go back on my decisions. When I spared your life," she answered, hoping to
sound as disdainful as possible, "it wasn't so I could gnash my teeth and hanker
after my lost chance for the next century."

He looked doubtful, and though it was absurd, she felt insulted. "You'd like that,
wouldn't you, Horseman?" she said scornfully. "Me, thinking about nothing else but
you. Or even better, me turning into a bloodthirsty lunatic like your dear brother
Caspian, so that you can feel justified in killing me. Well, add this to your
information: I had a life after I left you bastards behind. Three millennia of it. I
won't throw them away for a year of hell."

"Cassandra," he said again, actually smiling, and she never had wanted to hit him
quite so much, "I bow to your reason."

Before she could stop herself, she replied in kind.

"Bowing is not necessary. Just leave."

"If you can recommend a hotel in this godforsaken area. I'm not camping in the woods."

"What?"

"Look, I hate to sound offensive, but I don't trust you to call me if and when you
find some of those answers. Let's just say I understand that I'm not on your priority
list. So I'm afraid I'll have to stick around."

The expression on her face was new, or at least one he could not remember. Not quite
horror. Not quite hatred either, interestingly enough, something else in between he
had yet to figure out.

"Do you have any idea," she said slowly, "what this is doing to me? Talking to you?
Letting you live when you are actually around reminding me with every word how much
you would have deserved to die?"

He did, that was the problem. He had always known exactly what he was doing to her,
each step on the way. He had been a slave himself more than once, and so had
experienced the full spectrum - from humiliation and fear to the desperate eagerness
to please. For a fleeting moment, he remembered making some off-hand remark about
never being sold later than mid-morning to Joe, teasing Joe about some historical
event as usual. Unfortunately, MacLeod had sat within earshot and had just been drunk
enough to do what he usually avoided, bringing up Methos' Horseman days and asking
how, if Methos had been a slave, he could have enslaved others. Trust MacLeod to
believe being a slave made one somehow into Spartacus. How he could reconcile this
idea with all the slave-owning freedmen in the ancient world was another question, but
then MacLeod thought of slavery primarily in terms of the 19th century, of his own
experience. What slavery had done to Methos was confirm that he, to quote one of
MacLeod's idols, Abraham Lincoln, preferred to be the master in a world of slaves and
masters, thank you very much. Distaste of slavery per se had started much, much
later, and for other reasons.

For a moment, he wondered what kind of mistress Cassandra had been. He did not doubt
that she had owned slaves herself: in three millennia, with just two centuries that
frowned upon the custom, it would have been inevitable at one point or the other. But
now wasn't the time to speculate. *Focus on the task at hand, old man*, he told
himself.

Trying to project as much soothing calm as he could muster, he answered: "Yes, I do.
And I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."

Cassandra turned her face away, so she wouldn't have to look at him for a while.
Important, no doubt, to his own long-term plans. Still, she thought, there might be an
advantage in him staying around she had not considered yet. She hated to admit it, but
the last time she had been sure about his aims - terrorizing the world with Kronos -
he had proven her wrong, partially at least. When they had first met, she had been
ignorant and new-born into a bizarre, terrible world, and so it had been quite
understandable he had been able to manipulate her into becoming exactly what he
wanted, acting exactly like he wanted. He shouldn't have been able to do this to her
now, though, to use her again as a pawn. Yet that was what he had done. Not again. By
keeping him within her sight, she should be able to stay one step ahead of him, to
find out what exactly he had planned for MacLeod, if he couldn't use him as a shield
anymore.

"There's an inn in Glenfinnan," she said, still without looking at him again. "As a
matter of fact, it is owned..."

"....By the lovely Rachel MacLeod, I know. I know her; that's the problem. I was
hoping there was another one so I wouldn't have to come up with some plausible lies
about her hero when she asks."

This surprised her and forced her to face him again. The fact that Duncan had
befriended this mortal descendant of his Clan had been known to her, but Methos? With
one exception, Rachel had not left her home for years now, so this meant Methos must
have met her either then - or he must have been here before. Seeing Kronos again in a
modern city had been a terrible shock; seeing Methos here, in her sanctuary, without
warning, would have been... in a way, she thought drily, she had been lucky. However,
the whole thing posed several questions. He had mentioned her chronicles. So he had
known she was alive before Seacouver, had probably known where she lived, just as he
had known where to look for Silas and Caspian. So why hadn't he tried to kill her
years ago, when nobody important to him would have known or cared?

Better to think about that later, when he was gone. She tried to concentrate on what
he had said about Rachel, who was something less than a close friend, but more than a
casual acquaintance to her.

"If she *knows* you," she replied sarcastically, "lies, plausible or otherwise, won't
surprise her. Why don't you try a truly shocking thing and dabble in truth-telling?"

"Bright idea. So I tell her Duncan has killed his student. She'll either throw me out
on the spot, or actually believe me, drop everything and rush to his side, making him
feel even more guilty in the process. In either case, the inn would be closed to me."

Cassandra had to concede he was making sense, at least until she got her own
information. If he lied and Duncan was ready to accept help, Rachel might actually be
just the person... but then again, she was mortal. Best to keep her away from either
this Ahriman creature or an unstable Duncan, and the possibility of the latter still
existed, much as she wanted to deny it.

However, she was not prepared to admit to Methos he was right about something if she
could avoid it. So she said, with more bitterness than she intended: "You would know
about guilt and students." In the instant she had spoken, she wished she could take
back the words. She had not meant to show him this particular part of her pain.
He should have been her teacher. Of course, some immortals simply killed new immortals
on the spot when they found them - cheap victories in the game - but if they didn't,
an etiquette as ancient as he was demanded that they became student and teacher. But
what he taught her had had nothing to do with the game, or immortality. And when she,
centuries later, started to teach her own students, and failed with some of them, like
Kantos, she could not help but wonder whether this was due to some basic flaw. To an
incompleteness in her teachings, something she should have known but didn't. It was an
irrational idea, but one that returned with alarming regularity.

He was quick, she had to give him that. He did not need to ask what she meant. And of
course, he used his understanding for another cheap flippancy.

"Oh, please. I can just see myself telling Kronos: Sorry, I won't be available for the
next two hours, I have to teach Cassandra how to kill us all. It would have made his
day, my day and certainly yours - he would have beheaded you on the spot."

An enraged reply hovered on her lips, but she bit it back. What was the use? To
exchange insults with Methos while everything was going to hell would not help anyone,
least of all herself.

"There is a second inn, if you don't want to stay with Rachel, but you will meet her
anyway, Glenfinnan is too small," she said abruptly, suddenly feeling very tired. "No
doubt you can come up with some convincing excuse for your visit."

He shrugged, nodded and rose. Having automatically fallen back into searching his face
for the smallest signals, she could not help but notice that he looked tired himself,
tired and restless. Unbidden, the question which had haunted her since Bordeaux
escaped her before she could hold it back, and it did so without the anger that had
driven nearly everything she had said to him today.

"Do you ever feel responsible or guilty? About anything?"

His eyes narrowed, and for a second she felt fear, before the present grounded her
again in self-assurance.

"Okay," he said. "Let's strike a bargain, Cassandra. How about this: One year of my
life, against one year of your life?"

"Is this a joke?"

"No. If you agree, I'll stay around, no matter how this Ahriman business turns out.
I'll teach you, and believe me, you'll need it. That Voice of yours might be useful
against the young ones, but it didn't help you with Kronos, and it won't help you with
me. Frankly, I'm not the best swordsman myself, but I can ensure you don't lose your
weapon two minutes after the fight has started. We can have all the intense
teacher-student-conversations you want, you blaming me, me taunting you, both of us
improving our verbal skills in the process. At the end of that year, you'll even get
your fight, and we'll make damn sure no one else is in the neighborhood this time. But
if you lose, don't expect me to spare your head, because I'm really, really sick of
this particular melodrama."

"You're crazy," Cassandra whispered, horrified and spellbound at the same time. One
hour with him was bad enough, but a year? And yet, and yet... it could enable her to
bury the past, once and for all. In more than one sense. In the sixties of this
century, she had worked as a social worker with raped women, and she remembered
telling them how important it was to confront their fears, to stand up to their
rapists, accuse them in court instead of giving in to the fear of ever seeing them
again. Easy enough to say, if you didn't have to do it yourself.

It was one of the reasons why she had gone after Kronos, once she had discovered him
by accident, without asking Duncan or any other friend for help. Why she had gone
after him alone again even though Duncan had insisted on fighting her battle for her.
Fear of Kronos had been so deeply ingrained that she had been sure, if she did nothing
to confront this fear, to exorcise the nightmare by rewriting the end, it would haunt
her forever. Well, Kronos had never been her worst nightmare. Her hatred for him had
always been pure, unadulterated by any other emotion. Her worst nightmare had been the
man in front of her, who had just offered her what she had dreamt of for so long, even
though she had tried to bury that dream in the last months. To fight him as an equal,
to have that slave girl avenged by the woman she had become, and not by default, not
because he was weaponless and broken.

He was manipulating her again, of course. Oh, the arrogance of him. Not believing in
her word she wouldn't go after him, but so sure that after one year in his company,
she would not want to fight him anymore. And if she did, she'd still be not good
enough, for he was hardly suicidal. One did not have to be a genius to figure that
particular calculation out. But two could play that game. She was no stranger to
manipulation herself. Methos might be in for a surprise. As for her fighting skills,
let him go on believing they didn't amount to much. She had hardly been on her best
when confronting Kronos, not after the shattering discovery that Methos was still
alive as well and had somehow wormed himself into Duncan's life. If he thought that
the short and admittedly humiliating skirmish was all she had to offer, that in 3000
years she hadn't learned to fight better, all the worse for him.

So, shuddering, she suppressed the voice of reason which told her that this was her
worst decision yet and said, switching to the ancient language they had spoken when
the Horsemen still ruled the world she knew: "One year. I must be mad myself, but I
agree... on one condition."

His eyebrows rose.

"During that year, we'll fight only on holy ground. Of course, we could swear not to
kill each other for a year, but I don't trust your oaths, you just proved you don't
trust mine, and I trust neither of us not to yield to temptation in a critical
situation."

"Again, I bow to your reason. Still, I have a little condition on my own. Neither of
us tells anyone else of this little arrangement. I don't want any well meant rescue
missions, for either of us."

She nodded, and wondered how many blind friends besides MacLeod he had who would
bother rescuing him, but refrained from saying so. For now, she was tired of the quips
and taunts. She swallowed, then she did something which surprised both her and him.
She rose, putting her sword aside for the moment and drawing the little dagger, shaped
like the half-moon, which was one of the reminders of her time as a priestess in the
service of the Great Goddess. Quickly, she cut herself, and just as quickly, she took
his hand and cut him, pressing their opened palms against each other, feeling the
tingling of his quickening and her own as the flesh healed, but not before the blood
had intermingled.

Methos looked at her, not speaking. Kronos and Cassandra, both so sure in the sanctity
of blood oaths. It was a parallel she wouldn't appreciate. Still, he had achieved at
least his last purpose. It was risky as hell, to be sure. Living with a woman who had
tried to kill you several times was not the best survival technique. A part of him
wondered whether he had finally lost it. But the alternative had turned out to be more
and more of a living hell. When he took his leave, silently, he wondered whether this
night, at least, would be free of the crap his unconscious had managed to drag up for
months now.
**********
End Part 1