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Once out of Nature

Chapter Text

I.

She had never been at the barge before, but it wasn't that hard to find. Still,
she hesitated. Cassandra felt the warm summer breeze caressing her cheeks, and
stood still for a moment to take in the picture. Paris in summer; not many
Parisians would be left here, but even with tourists overcrowding the city,
there were places like this one, full of peace, ironical though it was,
regarding the history of this spot. She had stood here on the bank of the river
Seine when the Romans had arrived, naming the place Lutetia, with their strange
mixture of arrogance and practicality presuming there was no better name than a
Latin one, never bothering to ask the Keltoi for their own designation. Yet the
Romans had not been the worst of conquerors; at least they had never imposed
their religion on the nations they subjugated, for the same arrogant
practicality and disinterest had propelled them to accept that conquered people
would be more content and efficient with their own gods to pray to, and why not
add a few to their already crowded Olympus anyway if it kept the various nations
of the Empire happy? Back then, when she had still been a priestess, she had
never been sure whether she felt more relieved or resentful about this attitude.
It had taken the fanaticism of both crusades and jihads during the middle ages
to mellow her resentment into something of dry gratitude.

It was not ancient history that had brought her here this time, though. Since
the visions had started again to haunt her, Cassandra had known she wouldn't be
able to postpone this visit much longer. Then, two days ago, when she had felt
the death and last message of her old rival and colleague Prokne nearly tear her
mind apart, her decision had been made. It was highly likely that she would not
survive what she had to do, but she wanted to say goodbye to Duncan MacLeod. She
had not spoken to him since she had left him and Methos behind in Bordeaux,
believing she would not do so for a very long time, if ever. Since then, a lot
of things had happened, though if she could avoid it, she would not tell Duncan
about them. The year when she and Methos had made a reluctant truce to find out
the truth behind Duncan's claims about being haunted by a demon, the year when
they had found and lost a pre-immortal child instead, was still too painfully
present for her. Still, in a way, it had helped her to come to terms with her
feelings about MacLeod at least, if not Methos. Though there were still some
issues between them, Duncan was primarily a friend, one of the few she had left,
and faced with the prospect of oblivion, she wanted to leave him a good memory.
She also wanted a good memory for herself, she admitted with an inward shrug;
they were rare enough as it was.

She did not intend to tell him anything about her plans, this time. For one
thing, he had to be still bleeding from the death of his student and his
confrontation with Ahriman; he simply didn't deserve being saddled with yet
another moral dilemma. For another, he would never approve of what she was about
to do, and this time it was too important that she succeed for her to permit his
interference. Therefore, he would never know. It had taken her a day to recover
from the invasion of her mind Prokne's death had been, from the knowledge that
death had brought, which had confirmed all the previous visions plaguing her.
Now, though, her calm exterior was once more intact, and Duncan, perceptive
though he could be, would discover nothing but what she wanted him to see.
Permitting herself one last glance at the river, Cassandra took the next step
which would bring an immortal of her powerful presence within perception range
of anyone within the barge.

Ever since O'Rourke had abducted Amanda right in front of the barge, Duncan
MacLeod had taken to reacting quickly and armed to any approaching immortal
presence. So he stood, sword in hand, on the deck before he recognised
Cassandra.

The furious, hurt woman who had left him in Bordeaux was again replaced by the
cool, regal presence he had associated with her previously. She had changed her
style, though; her long, glorious hair had been cut to shoulder-length, and the
short dress she wore made her look younger, though with those as old as
Cassandra it was hard to assess what their biological ages had been when they
were killed. It was even difficult with someone of Amanda's age, and he had not
managed to tease it out of her, though she had once commented that basic meals
in the Scottish Highlands must have been much healthier whereas what people of
her native century starved on made them age so fast that within 20 years, you
usually looked at least 40, and within 40 years, of course, you were dead. Even
when he had first encountered her as mortal boy, Cassandra had seemed ageless to
him, though if pressed (as he was later by his cousin Robert, who professed to
believe not a word of his adventure with the Witch of the Woods, but had been
eager to get every detail), he would have estimated her as roughly the same age
as Robert's mother Ailis, who was somewhere between 30 and 35. Now he realised
she could of course, as all the immortals learned to do, vary her apparent age
by choice of dress and by the way she carried herself. Methos, he remembered and
bit his tongue even though he had not said a word, had, after all, seemed little
older than Richie when they had first met, and could shed that boyish quality
with a simple haircut and an decidedly adult expression, as he had done when he
had come to warn him about Kristin.

Seeing Cassandra again proved that the old turnmoil in which she and Methos had
thrown him was far from solved. He could not, with all honesty, have said that
he loved Cassandra the way he loved Amanda, or any of the mortal women he had
shared his life with. They simply had not had enough time for that kind of
intense feeling to grow, and besides, he had sensed that, mutual attraction
aside, she had never been in love with him. There was friendship, though, the
camaraderie felt by all who had passed through danger together, and besides, he
could never forget that Cassandra was the last living person who had known him
when he was still mortal, still like everyone else, growing, changing, full of
mortal hopes and fears and with a family who was all too soon to be lost
forever. At a time when he had truly been Duncan MacLeod of the Clan Macleod,
without a shred of doubt as to who that might be. More than that, Cassandra had
not been his first love; Debra had, but Cassandra had been something else when
he encountered her at the bridge of adolescence: the female mystery personified,
the first woman who kissed him, who had, with her strange ways, both been
protective and dangerous... his first erotic dream. Yet even if all that had
never happened, if he had encountered Cassandra for the first time when Kronos
had come to Seacouver, he would have still, by the code which ruled his life,
have felt compelled to help her, to protect her - and to respect her right to
vengeance.

Instead, he had failed her at every turn, and he knew it. Thanks to him, Kronos
had had the chance to abduct and imprison her again, and he still had a dark
suspicion that there had been more to it, due to the images and sensations he
had absorbed after beheading the leader of the Horsemen. Kronos had felt
vengeful towards Cassandra, had hated her for killing and escaping him and for
the attention Methos had paid her. And he had had enough time at Bordeaux to
revenge himself the way men of his ilk always did on a woman. Duncan could not
be absolutely sure that Kronos had raped Cassandra after capturing her again,
and things happening as they did, he could never ask, but it was a reasonable
assumption.

And then, there was Methos. If the situation had been reversed, if it had been
Cassandra who pleaded with him for the life of an immortal who had done to him
what Methos had done to her, he probably wouldn't have let her stop him. He had
spared Felicia Martins for Richie, but Felicia had not taken his family and, in
effect, his entire life from him. He had spared Cord for Joe, but that had been
before Cord had killed his friend Charlie. Afterwards, there had been no mercy
for Cord, and little enough for Joe. He still felt guilty about the way he had
treated Joe back then, and Joe had been a closer friend to him than he ever had
been to Cassandra. Certainly, if Cassandra had been in Scotland during the time
he had pursued Kanwulf, who had killed his father and raided his village, he
would not have spared the man on her account.

There was Kage of course, who had been a murderer of women and children the way
Methos had been, who had sold everyone and anything for enough money, and whom
he had spared when finally convinced that the man who now called himself Kirin
sincerely repented and judged himself just as harshly, trying everything to make
up for the lives he had taken. But again, though some of Kage's victims had been
friends and all of them fellow humans, none of them had been family, or members
of the Clan he had created for himself during the centuries, or lovers. He
wasn't sure whether he could have let Kirin go if it had been Fitzcairn whom
Kage had sold, Little Deer who had died thanks to his greed, or Tessa. Joe,
otherwise the more tolerant of the two of them, had certainly not wanted to
believe Kage had changed and had all but urged MacLeod to kill him. After the
whole affair was over, Joe had admitted that one likely reason for this was that
Kage had been the first immortal his brother-in-law, James Horton, had watched,
and thus had heavily contributed to Horton's own descent into murderous madness.
Family. No, if he had been where Cassandra was at that point, motivated by the
same things, her wish to let such an enemy live would not have been enough.

He still wondered why she had stopped herself, and what he would have done if
she had not. There had been no ability to think left with him at that point, no
reasoning that Methos, by fighting Silas and sparing Cassandra, had just proven
he had changed. All the confrontations, the verbal ones with Methos, the duels
with Caspian and Kronos, the double quickening which gave him not just something
of the essence of both Kronos and Silas but also of the incomprehensible
chameleon whom he had befriended less than three years previously, had served to
strip him of everything but bare feelings, and what he felt was what he had
screamed at Cassandra: That he wanted Methos to live. And so, something he still
found incredible each time he thought about it, she had dropped her right of
vengeance, and had let Methos live.

"What about Cassandra?" he had asked the old man later, when reason had returned
and with it the acknowledgement that, if he had saved one friend, he had failed
another, troubled by the guilt this caused him, for still, he could not wish the
outcome different and so there was no way he could make up to Cassandra for this
guilt. Methos, who had otherwise withdrawn behind his enigmatic mask again, had
sounded sincerely sad and, for one of the few times, genuinely old when he
replied: "One of a thousand regrets, MacLeod. One of a thousand."

A regret, MacLeod realised, that he would now share, for having failed her
nearly as badly. Now the regret in question had come back, and he didn't know
what to say to her. *Welcome, but I still don't want you to kill Methos* was
hardly an acceptable greeting. Though it was unlikely the Bordeaux scenario
would ever repeat itself in precisely that way. Other than that time, and
perhaps during his futile quest to save Alexa with the Methuselah stone, Duncan
had never experienced Methos as ready to die, not even during their first
meeting when the eldest immortal had offered him his head but had looked at him
with a challenge in his eyes that belied his words about having lost the fire.
And Duncan's personal superstition about Methos was that Methos would always
have a way out left, would never die except if he were ready to do so. He would
have accepted death at Cassandra's hands in Bordeaux. Not now, though. The
prospect of Methos killing Cassandra in a duel, however, was appalling as well.
And Methos was in Paris right now.

"Aren't you going to greet me," Cassandra said in Gaelic and, incredibly,
smiled at him, "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod?"

"If you want me to," he answered, overwhelmed by relief but still careful. "I
wasn't sure you still wanted to speak with me."

Her smile vanished, but the expression of her eyes, settled on him, was still
calm and collected. "You did what you felt was right," she answered. "So did I.
As for the end, I can... live with it."

Right now, she thought, he looks like a child who doesn't quite believe in
Father Christmas anymore, but wants to. Two years ago, he would have believed
her without reservations. Strange how he had managed to keep that peculiar
innocence over the centuries, despite all the evil he had seen. There was still
something of that quality left, though not nearly as much as there had been
before the Horsemen, and before Ahriman. He seemed somehow older now, and it
wasn't just the short hair and the leaner frame. Not that he did not carry his
share of guilt before, but it had never been the death of what had in effect
been his child at his hands. She recognised the reflection of that experience
all too well, having gone through it not so very long ago.

"And you, Duncan," she continued, not wanting to think about Becky, "can you...
live with everything?"

He didn't ask what she meant, or how she knew about Ahriman. Once or twice
during his time at the monastery, when Duncan had pulled himself out of the
nearly suicidal despair Richie's death had thrown him in, he had had the curious
sensation of not being alone, of being touched by Cassandra, as if she had been
looking for him and was not quite able to reach him. At the time, he had
dismissed it as illusion. Now, he wasn't so sure anymore. He had experienced her
using her strange powers, after all, having him confront the child he had been,
subjugating him to her will for a short time in order to save him, creating
illusions to frighten others away. And then there had been her prophecy. It made
him still angry, hard-won wisdom or not. If there was such a thing as a
predestined future, there was no free will, and Richie, Sophie, Joe's four
Watcher friends and who knew how many others had been intended as sacrifices
from the beginning. By whom? Who had the presumption, the cruelty to demand
this?

"I try," he said, tersely. She looked at him, in that eerie way she sometimes
had, as if he were made of glass.

"Do you?"

Suddenly, he recalled kneeling before O'Rourke, ready to die, relieved in a way
that it would finally end, that no one else would die because of him, that he
would never cause harm to anyone he loved again. Right before Methos had come
in, guns blazing, with his usual disregard of rules and Duncan's right to decide
about his own life, and right before his own instinct for self-preservation had
once more kicked in and proved to him that a part of him didn't want to die
after all. Right before...

A new thought struck him. If there was anyone he could tell about his strange
experience with what might or might not have been Fitz and his visions of
alternate lives, it was Cassandra. She of all people would understand and not
automatically assume he had hallucinated or was completely self-delusional.
Hallucination and a near-death experience was an explanation he could not
disregard, of course, and sometimes he believed he would prefer it to have been
that way. Some of these alternate lives had been too disturbing to accept.
"Cassandra," he began, "did you ever - encounter someone who was dead, truly
dead, I mean?"

Her expression changed. For a moment, the calm was replaced by what looked
almost like panic. Then, she grew quiet again, as a lake after the stone which
had caused the waves had sunk. The gaze with which she regarded him grew in
intensity.

"Yes," she said simply.

This time, his relief had no reservations. After helping her to climb up to the
barge, he watched her sit down on the deck, soaking up the sun, since, she said,
it was too beautiful a day to spend inside. "Besides," she added, with a slight
smile, "it would be too much of a cliché to talk about this in shadows, wouldn't
it?"

So he sat down next to her and told her, first hesitatingly, then finding his
stride, about what he had experienced after being nearly killed by O'Rourke. She
listened attentively, not commenting, but with her eyes never leaving his face,
and he found he could even speak about finding and losing Tessa again. He was
two-thirds through his narrative when he realised the true difficulty
approaching and cursed himself for a fool. He should have thought of this from
the beginning. But if he simply left this part out, the whole telling might have
been in vain, for the alternate Methos and what he had done to Richie and Joe
troubled him most of all. So he suddenly grew still, searching for a way, and
Cassandra frowned. Then, enlightenment dawned.

"Duncan," she said. "What about Methos?"

Odd, that she should put it this way, use this phrase which was identical to
his own enquiry about her at Bordeaux. Internally, he debated whether to deny he
had seen Methos in this strange experience as well, but he realised it would be
in vain. Perceptive as she was, Cassandra would know that he would not have
grown silent about any other person, not even an alternate vision of herself,
which, incidentally, had not been there. Well, now there was nothing else for
it. She probably would say that this had been the likeliest vision of them all.

"I killed him," he said slowly, realising for the first time that this was what
haunted him most. "In that bizarre world, he had returned to Kronos after the
Watchers had killed his fiancé and nearly him as well. He was a Horseman again,
first using and then killing Richie, and damn well enjoying it. Frightening and
torturing Joe, and enjoying that as well. So I killed him - and I enjoyed it.
After being so sure I did not want to kill anyone ever again, let alone someone
who... meant something to me. I don't know which of us this makes worse. He
wasn't real after all, but my wish to kill him was."

He could not look at her anymore. "Now please don't tell me I should have done
that in reality as well."

"No," Cassandra said surprisingly, "you shouldn't have. You could not have
coped with the guilt. This is the difference between you and most of us, Duncan.
You have never learned to put a limit to the blame you take upon yourself."

He turned back to her, startled.

"The ability to feel so much," she continued, "is what makes you both
attractive and infuriating. You could have better taste in the people you care
about, of course, but there it is. One of the reasons why I was so furious with
you was that I realised very early on how much you cared about him, how much you
wanted to believe in him. One of the reasons why I stayed with you then and why
I am here today is that I realised you care about me as well. We probably
neither of us deserve it. Stay away from the ancients, if you can, Duncan. There
was a reason why I did not seek you out during all those centuries as well. I
did not want you to become like... us."

He smiled, tentatively, trying to deal with her unexpected reply. "Too late,
I'm afraid. It must be all that Celtic mysticism Amanda teases me about. I never
could resist living legends."

He had not realised this before, but in truth she and Methos had a lot in
common, at least when it came to him. He had believed both of them to be myths,
one something the immortals had made up to encourage themselves that it was,
after all, possible to survive everything, and the other a local legend mixed
with a boyhood fantasy. The eldest immortal and the witch of Donan Woods. Both
he had met when another immortal had tried to kill them. Both had,
paradoxically, decided to protect *him* during their first encounter, Methos by
throwing the rules out of the window and calling the mortal police to deal with
Kalas, Cassandra by keeping him safe in her cottage while Kantos searched for
him. On the downside, both had also an unfortunate tendency to believe they knew
best what was good for him. Methos had shown no more faith in his judgement
about Kalas, Kristin, Culbraith or Keane than Cassandra had in his judgement
regarding Kantos... or Methos. They were both ready to cheat within the Game
when they believed it necessary, Methos with his additional weaponry and
Cassandra with her Voice, certainly as devastating a weapon as anything Methos
carried around. They also weren't above manipulating him with what emotional
leverage they had. He raised a hand to touch Cassandra's cheek, feeling
strangely amused in the middle of this emotional wallow and misery. Children of
the millennia, both of them, coming out of legend and into life for him and
proceeding to disillusion him as quickly as possible. Hard to feel awe for the
eldest if he persists in irritating the hell out of you. Hard to feel awe for
the sorceress if you have seen her crying, have experienced her anger, and yes,
have slept with her.

Hard to feel anything but grateful that upon the battlefield your life has
turned into, after twelve blessed years of peace with Tessa, there were still
friends left whom you could care for, who cared about you.

"I'm glad to have met this ancient, Cassandra," he murmured, deliberately
leaving it open which of them he meant.

One eyebrow rose sceptically, but she took his other hand, squeezing it
briefly. Then she sighed.

"Ah well," she said, "they wouldn't leave you alone anyway, even if you tried
to stay away. You are a living legend yourself, you know."

The bright moment was over. His heart grew heavy again. "Yes," Duncan returned
bitterly, dropping the hand, "and people died because of that. Richie certainly
did."

"Not in your vision, though," Cassandra said, withdrawing as well. "There you
had Methos kill him."

Her choice of words was odd.

"So you believe I made it up - that is, my unconscious did?"

She did not reply directly. There was something he needed to hear, but the way
there was as important as the final destination. So she mused, as if abstractly:
"You know what shocked me about your tale? Not that he should kill a friend.
I've seen him do that. Nor that he should terrorise and torture a friend. I've
seen him do that as well. And certainly not his returning to Kronos. But that
all of this should start by his falling in love with a mortal woman and losing
her."

Instantly, Duncan, hearing this as an accusation, was defensive, which, had it
been about someone else, would have amused her. "He's capable of love," MacLeod
said heatedly. "He fell in love with a dying mortal in real life, and except for
the double quickening, it was the only time I've ever seen him completely
defenceless."

She had not known this, but then, during their year of uneasy alliance, Methos
and she had at no point trusted each other enough to speak of something like
this. Telling herself it did not matter, she pursued the point she was trying to
make.

"Did she die of her illness, or could he blame someone else for her death?"

"No, she died of her illness. Though he thought there was a chance to save her,
with the Methuselah stone. I didn't believe it would work at the time. Now, I'm
not so sure anymore, not after everything that happened, but we'll never know.
Some renegade Watcher wanted the stone for himself, and it ended up in pieces,
and in the river here."

"Interesting. So he could have blamed the Watchers for her loss," she prompted,
and Duncan saw what she was getting at.

"Yes. He could have, as in the - vision, dream - whatever. He didn't, though. I
think he did blame himself. He was - different, after she died. For a time, I
was afraid he was ready to withdraw again, but then he helped me with a problem
I had at the time, and gradually, everything normalised."

He thought of Warren Cochrane, of Methos speaking wistfully of a new chance, a
life without the burden of memory, with more meaning than Duncan could have
known at the time, but in the end, declining the possibility.

*Who would remember Alexa then?* "So what made the difference between what
happened and what could have happened? Don't tell me in the one case, he met me,
and in the other, he met Kronos. Then I'd know for sure this was something only
my ego could have produced."

"Then I won't tell you this," Cassandra said with the infuriating condescension
of the ancients. "I will tell you what would have been the difference to me,
though I fervently hope we are not that similar. It is not just the people who
help us, who care for us, that make the difference. It is those we can care for.
Not caring for anyone at all can be tempting, at times, but once you do that,
you've started becoming the monster time has in store for all of us." Seemingly
as a non sequitur, she ended: "How is your Greek mythology, Duncan?"

He shrugged, still caught up in what she had said about caring.

"Do you remember the name the Greeks gave to Time who devoured his children?"

An image of Darius came to him, talking about this particular myth while
serving him his abysmal tea. Duncan let the feeling of loss the memory evoked
wash over him, then he answered, wondering he had not noticed this before:
"Kronos."

"But," she went on with what was not quite a smile, "Time ended and became
history. Did you not say so yourself? We can't leave history behind us, though.
Sometimes we have to relive it again, to appreciate our victories."

"There was no victory in this vision for me. Only defeat. As far as Methos was
concerned, I returned to killing, and as far as the others were concerned, I
could not help them."

Her voice grew distant, even cold. "You could not help them by non-existing.
You killed - by non-existing. You could defeat time only by existing, in every
sense that word has for you. Including the care and the guilt."

They sat together in silence while Duncan digested this. The gist of it wasn't
new, but he had never put it in words before. Finally, he remarked: "Are your
visions like that? Symbolic struggles of what could have been and may be yet?"

"In the end," she said, sounding tired, "visions are reflections of yourself."

"And what was reflected in your vision of me as the champion then, Cassandra?"
Duncan returned, the bitterness of it all and the need to lash out overwhelming
him again. "Did you see what I would do, whom I would kill so I would be there
to perform the right execution at the right time? What kind of need was that,
the need for the right executioner?"

She flinched, as if he had slapped her, but she did not turn away. "My own
failure," she replied, matching his bitterness. "I failed as a teacher, or I
would have seen the signs earlier, with Kantos. I should never have taught him
the Voice. Then I failed to kill him. And I failed to see what waited for you
beyond this, since I was too caught up in my own regrets. For what I could not
do, I was condemned to wait for centuries. Waiting for you was my punishment.
For what I could not see, I..."

She stopped. She would not, could not tell him. Closing her eyes, she summoned
calm again, the necessary detachment to end this as she wanted to end it.

*Hurry, Cassandra*, the dead voice of Prokne whispered inside her again,
echoing the initial, burning invasion. *Cassandra by the oath we have both sworn
I command you...* With an effort, she surpressed it and stored it away.
Something of her anguish must have escaped before she had control of her
exterior again, however. When she turned to Duncan once more, he looked
stricken.

"I'm sorry," Duncan said, inwardly cursing himself. He had been so relieved to
see her living again, instead of being torn apart by her grief, and had ended up
reducing her to the same tortured state he had only so recently escaped himself.
"It is over. Over and done with."

She managed a smile. "Since I'm only in Paris for a day," she continued, "I
hoped you would show me around a bit. It has been decades for me."

He still had that remorseful expression, and she wasn't sure whether he
believed her, but he chose to accept her unspoken suggestion to change the
subject. Her solstice child had indeed matured.

"Of course I will. Paris it is."