Methos was finding it difficult to look at Richie Ryan across the cafe table. It wasn't guilt, or anything of the sort - Methos had long ago given up guilt, out of self-defense - but all he could think of, when he looked at Richie, was he's so very young.
He didn't look all that young. His first death had frozen him right on the cusp of adulthood, but immortality had, already, etched new pain and anger into his face. And Methos, looking into his eyes, could no longer see innocent childishness in what looked back at him.
But he could still see the foolhardy stubborness that some people never quite aged out of. "You agree with Joe, you think Macleod is crazy," Richie said, pointing an accusatory finger at him.
"I think he's hallucinating, Richie. He's seeing people he's killed." Which was oversimplified but true enough, and Methos had lived long enough to know that nothing he said now would turn Richie aside. Some people had to learn for themselves. Some people were constitutionally incapable of learning; he thought of MacLeod, lurching around his barge, certainty like a pillar, even in the midst of his confusion-- "And who knows what else he's doing."
"He did not set that fire." Richie shook his head, and leaned forward. "What if all this stuff is real?"
If all this stuff is real, Methos didn't say, You should consider what sort of 'destiny' would set something like this up, and re-think how far you trust it. But the kid was either going to get himself killed, or not, and Methos shaking his faith wouldn't change the odds in his favor. So he leaned forward, mirroring Richie as obnoxiously as he could manage, and said scornfully, "So, there are demons running around. Dead people walking."
"You're walking. How many times have you been killed?"
"Richie, it's not the same thing, and you know it." You have no idea...
"No, no, no, no. I don't know it! Nobody knows the reason why immortals exist and maybe this is it. Maybe we're here so that one of us can fight this thing." He was fired with purpose, the way they all were, their first real glimpse of something bigger than themselves, right before it burned them up in too-bright light. Dammit, he'd been looking forward to seeing Richie grow into himself, too: someone up there must have still hated him, to try to take even that away.
"--And no one has ever heard of it," Joe was picking up the conversation. "Not watchers, not immortals--"
"Basically, yeah," Richie said.
Joe shot Methos a glance -- Can you believe this? - which was rich, coming from him. Did he actually think Methos didn't know that he kept secrets from the Watchers, too? But in front of Richie was not the place to get into this, so he just shook his head and looked away.
"Aww, forget it," Richie said with disgust, and stalked off.
"Blind loyalty. Very common in the young," Methos offered, giving them both one last chance to get out of it.
"Yeah," Joe said heavily. "I guess that's why we both feel like rats."
Methos stared down at his hands. He was going to stay out of it: he was. He'd decided that as soon as he'd heard the name "Ahriman", as soon as he'd seen that shadow in Richie's eyes - a cleaner, newer version of the grimy weariness he was seeing settle over Joe. "Sinking ships," he said.
Joe glared at him. "What?"
Methos shrugged and toyed with his coffee. "I make it a policy not to overinvest in probationary wizards. How many kids die on Ordeal? And of course if you help too much the Powers get their knickers in a twist about cheating. Observe and record, never interfere, isn't that in the Oath?"
Joe dropped his hand heavily to the table. "Richie's on Ordeal? No, wait, back up: You're a wizard?"
Methos laughed, once, no humor in it. "Me? A wizard? You couldn't be more wrong. But I've been around, Joe. You must be, what, an Advisory?"
"Area Advisory, with special portfolio for Immortal matters," he said, giving in. "And I didn't get any notification about Richie."
"Do you usually?"
Joe threw up his hands. "Adam, they haven't even given us any confirmation that there are Immortal wizards. At least wizards proper. There are obviously Immortals who can do magic, but there's one theory that you're covered under humans, the way dogs are."
Methos leaned his head back, staring up. "Flattering comparison, Joe."
"Bite it. You know what I mean."
"And you're so sure that dogs don't have proper wizards--"
Methos turned and smiled at Joe. "I get the distinct feeling that you're trying to get some information out of me."
Joe rolled his eyes. "Richie. Ordeal."
"Well, it was pretty obvious. He's the right age for it, in Immortal terms, he has an affinity for seeing more than the expected, he certainly has the blind naiveté - and then there's the fact that he's just gone off, underinformed and with no useful weapons, to fight the Lone Power manifest. That's usually a good sign."
"Shit," Joe said.
Methos curled forward over his coffee cup. "Don't feel bad, Joe, Immortals and wizardry have confused more learned men than you."
"So you do have your own wizardry, you made a separate Choice than mortals--"
"Well, I don't know about that." He grinned sharply at the look on Joe's face. "You didn't think I was going to make it easy for you, did you? Watchers and Wizards alike have been arguing that for centuries. And besides, it's never easy."
"If you've been around as long as you claim, and you know wizardry, you must have heard a story."
"A story or two." Methos shrugged. "You ever heard the one about the two naked people, the snake, and the apple tree?"
"Adam--" he said, and stopped, maybe caught on the coincidence of names. Maybe just too tired.
"Tell it to me."
Joe sighed. "The Choice story that most human wizards from Christian-influenced cultures learn is shaped by the Adam and Eve story from the Hebrew testament: the first two humans to take the Oath and learn the uses of the Speech were visited by the Lone Power in the shape of a serpent, and he offered them a Choice between Knowledge and Life. So they Chose, as always not knowing the most important factors in the Choice: and ever since then we've been blundering around, poking our noses into places we shouldn't and learning and making mistakes and growing and dying... but--"
"As usual," Methos said, laughing a little, "You've left out the important parts. What happened before and after. The Hebrews had a story about who was in the Garden before Adam met Eve: have you heard it? It was starting to be forgotten, but the twentieth century's storytellers have dredged a lot of things up."
Joe wrinkled his brow. "Adam's first wife, Lillith? I've heard that one-- she refused to submit to Adam, so she was kicked out of the Garden. And something about her being a queen of demons."
"More mother than queen of demons, Joe. She roams the waste places, riding on the storm-wind, bearing thousands of motherless, fatherless, sterile demon children which she scatters among the cities of men."
Joe opened his mouth, shut it.
"At least, that's the version I heard. And, of course, she wandered out of the Garden before anybody had so much as touched the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge."
"You're telling me that out of the dozens of Choice stories told all over the Earth, the Jewish one is the one that just happens to be true?"
"You didn't object to Methuselah!"
"That's different! He was just a man, one among many. But the Choice story--" Joe frowned. "I guess I'd always assumed that all the stories had some truth in them, that they were different ways of describing something that happened before we knew how to describe it. Not that any of them were literal."
"All the stories are true, all the Choices happened, because the Choice is still happening, we each Choose for ourselves, every day? And the power of positive thinking and friendship can change the world. And also it's always the time of the Gathering." Methos stretched out his legs. "I guess at some point you must have been gullible enough to take the Wizard's Oath, but I thought by now you'd grown a little more cynicism than that."
"Oh, shut up," Joe said, and stared into his coffee for a moment. "Hell. And Ahriman. I guess I might as well buy into the Zoroastrian creation story as anything, huh."
Methos shot a glance at Joe, and away. He hadn't told this story, even in allusion, in a long time, and he didn't want to examine why he was starting it now, but: "Joe, do you know the Song of the Twelve?"
Joe jerked his head up. "Sure. It's the Cetacean Choice story, they re-enact it every few years. Why?"
Methos shook his head. "I don't know whether we got it from the whales, or they got it from us, or it's just one of the echoes that show up sometimes. But the first Choice story I ever heard - and this was a long, long time and a lot of languages ago, Joe, and even Immortal memory has limits - started like that one. When the anthropoid apes first started walking, and talking, and twisting fiber into rope, and taking Oath to the One, there were a lot of different kinds of humans. Stumpy ones with big teeth who ate grass, and pale ones who played music in the snow, and short ones who chased small creatures in the savannah, and dark ones who built boats out of reeds. And more than that: maybe even Twelve. And the Lone Power took the form of one of them, and came to the very first wizard of the boat people, and said he had an offer to make her, but first he needed to know if she could Choose for all the apes-who-spoke, or only those who shared her mastery over the seas. And she said she didn't know. So there's the answer to your question about Immortal wizardry," he said, and reached over to stir some more sugar into the sludge in the bottom of his cup.
Joe waited with admirable patience until it had become fairly clear that Methos considered himself done, and then all-but-growled, "Finish the damn story, Methos."
"But I make such a cute Scheherazade, Joe," he said, and grinned around the parts of himself that really didn't want to go on with the telling. "Oh, fine. So she sent her people out in their boats, and they gathered together a wizard or two from every kind of human people to decide the Lone One's question. And that Power moved among them, and offered each of them the sort of things the Lone Power always offers, and some of them fell to temptation, but some didn't - have you noticed that the Choice stories never specify exactly what the Lone Power offers? It's as if Someone doesn't want us to decide for ourselves whether the deal was worth it--"
"Story now, Methos, subversion later."
"But there's always time for subversion, that's what time is for," he said, and sighed. "Anyway. They couldn't agree on whether to take the Lone One's offers. And they couldn't agree about whether any of them had the mastery to decide for them all. But the ones who'd considered what the Lone Power had to say were mostly the ones who talked the most and carried the most sharp pointy things, so in the end, they convinced the others that humans were all one people, and they should Choose together. Which is why these days the genus Homo is so... homogeneous."
"What did they Choose?" Joe asked, clearly enthralled.
Methos waved a hand. "That's not part of this story. Or you could fall back on Genesis and say it was curiosity: there's a reason Ailurin wizards work most closely with you... But there was one wizard who refused to be convinced. He was from a people who had never played well with others, who spent most of their time wandering the world alone and rarely gathered in groups of more than three or four. He wouldn't agree that any of them had the right to Choose for the others. He didn't even agree that his wizardry gave him the right to Choose for his own kind: he declared that no one person would ever make a choice for all of his people unless there was only one of his people left in the world, and then that One could choose for himself. And when he was told that as a wizard, it was his responsibility to Choose, he renounced his wizardry and walked out, and there was no wizard of his people left to speak for them.
"So in some ways that great Gathering of humanity has never ended. And because their Choice is still not decided, his people never fully take part in the Great Death, but they never fully take part in life, either. Not until the time when there is Only One."
"The Gathering is your Choosing?"
"If you believe that story," Methos said, raising his eyebrows. "Me, I find it a little bit too tidy."
"There've been other accounts of unfinished Choices, though," Joe said. "It all fits. I wonder what that would explain about Immortal Wizardry."
"I've been wondering," Methos said - and he didn't want to talk about this, but he didn't want to discuss the nature of Immortal wizardry in any more depth either - "If Richie is right -- There was, well, let's call him a friend of mine. About Macleod's age, several millenia ago. And he thought he'd been selected, by fate and prophecy, to fight a great demon who was the source of all death and pain in the universe, and seal away his power for a thousand years."
"WHAT?" Joe said. "Methos, why didn't you bring this up earlier?"
Methos shrugged. "I was pretty sure in retrospect that it was just delusions of grandeur. Anyway, he didn't defeat the demon that time, assuming it existed; I never saw it. He didn't even come close to defeating it. Of course," Methos looked vaguely out the window, "That whole affair was followed by a thousand years of death, plague, famine, and war; I didn't make the connection at the time, so points for that. I didn't think bringing that up with Richie would be very constructive. The last time it came up, MacLeod didn't take it very well."
He could almost see Joe adding it up in his head, and coming to the conclusion that the 'friend' in question was Methos himself. Methos was happy to let him keep thinking that, as long as it didn't lead to Joe asking for more detail - and he wouldn't, not about that.
"But I was thinking, if the thousand-year cycle is true, and so is the story of the Choice refused, then maybe it's more like the Song of the Twelve than I thought."
"A re-enactment of the unfinished Choice?" Joe said slowly. "To bind some version of the Lone Power?" He shook his head. "The Fairest and Fallen can take many forms, but the ones associated with Choosing tend to be... fairer than what we've heard about Ahriman. Or at least more ambiguous."
"I didn't claim I'd thought it through all the way," Methos replied. "And maybe it's not exactly a re-enactment. Maybe, because of that in-between, undecided state, Immortals have some special ability to defend the rest of the humans against other embodiments of the Lone One. Maybe Richie's right, and that's why we're here. Maybe it's a test, to see if it's time for the Gathering. Maybe it's all a pile of rubbish and I'm getting almost as overwrought as MacLeod is."
"Is Mac a wizard?" Joe asked suddenly. "I haven't been Watching him for decades and missed that, have I? Sometimes it seems like there must be something about him, but--"
"No, he's not a wizard," Methos said. "Despite apparently having no wizarding connections at all, he goes around acting like it's his sole personal responsibility to take care of the entire world, and then, annoyingly, he always ends up being right. He's pure of heart, and incorruptible, and self-sacrificing to a fault, and people gather around him just to bask in his joy, yet he doesn't think he's anything special -- it's not exactly hard to figure out."
One of the best parts about having about Joe as a friend was that you never actually had to tell him things, just give him the pieces he needed to put it together. "You're telling me that Duncan MacLeod is an Ab--"
Methos slapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish. "Don't say it. It's too easy to form a habit. And I like him alive, please." He dropped the hand. "I probably shouldn't even have told you. You carry too many secrets already."
Joe shook his head. "Hell. I've been going around accusing one of the Pillars of the World of losing it."
"Just because he is what he is and Ahriman might be a -- somewhat unaesthetic - avatar of the Fairest, doesn't mean he isn't losing it. I can tell you that the man I knew wasn't safe to be around for a very long time. And how many abdals end up institutionalized at some point in their lives, usually for good reason?"
"That doesn't mean we need to let that happen to Mac!"
"So what, we go see him? Tell him we believe him, but we can't explain why? Oh, and we don't dare hint that he really is a Chosen One, because if he ever figures out that he bears the One's power, he'll explode and the world will stop turning?"
"Yes!" Joe said. "Yes, if that's what we can do, we do that!"
"None of what I've said here changes anything, Joe."
"I know," he answered. "Because I should have done that in the first place. I'm too old for this, Methos, they start 'em young for a reason - but I'm still under the Oath. The first one, the one that puts me in Life's service."
"Well I'm bloody not!"
"No," Joe said, levering himself up. "But you're his friend, so you'll come with me anyway."
Two steps from MacLeod's home, Methos found he was physically unable to go any farther. "I am telling you," he said, as casually as he could, "Me being there is only going to make it worse."
Joe glared at him. "And I told you, it doesn't matter if it makes it worse, because you'll be there." With his hands needed for his cane and balance, he couldn't physically pull Methos along; and Methos was pretty sure there was no actual wizardry involved, but his glare seemed to have the same effect anyway, and he was stepping down onto the barge shoulder-to-shoulder with the old wizard.
Their discussion with MacLeod went about as well as could be expected: they were evasive, he was defensive, they offered to help, he insisted on acting alone. When MacLeod mentioned, in passing, that the demon had taken the form of Kronos, Methos had fight off a wave of old sorrow, and then a new hot anger that insisted You have no RIGHT!, talking on autopilot to keep a façade of calm: and then Joe was left holding a dial-tone as MacLeod raced off after his demon, and the two of them staring at each other.
By the time Methos and Joe made it to the racetrack, it was, of course, too late. They got there only in time to find MacLeod crouched, not yet weeping, over the body of his student, and he turned to see them standing there like carrion angels.
MacLeod held his sword up to Methos, not having to ask in words for what he wanted, but Methos was overcome with the memory of the last time he had seen a Champion kneeling in the ruins of his family, that same old laughter echoing, and he could only walk away.
Kronos, that had been: laughing/weeping/exalted as his village burned around him, shouting about demons and promises and a thousand years of conquest: and Methos walked to him through the fire, and saw a darkness like bright shadowed wings around him, and said "Who are you?"
And Kronos looked up at him with shining, mad eyes, and said, "I am the Champion."
And Methos looked back into him and saw the Champion in him, and laughed with the same laughter that was in the burning village, and raised the Champion up, and called him "Brother."
He could not look at MacLeod. So he looked at Richie, at the child, lying headless on the ground, and he held the Area Advisory for Immortal Affairs as he cried into his shoulder, and he thought about all of the young wizards who the Powers had sent to him on Ordeal, heedless and unlearned, to face the Great Death, and had died.
"Who would have imagined," he said thoughtfully, "That one day it would be one too many."
"What?" Joe asked, straightening up and wiping at his face.
Methos didn't answer. He strode forward and picked up the katana from where it still lay near Richie. It thrummed with power, with the One's quick, clean white-hot rage that lived in MacLeod, and over it the Lone One's ancient, smoldering resentment like a coal-fire, and in his own hands it glowed blood-red. He raised it to ready position and turned away from where Richie was, and called out in the Old Speech, that he'd known before he knew himself: "Fairest and Fallen, greetings and defiance!"
He didn't for one moment think his challenge would go unanswered, and sure enough, a being faded into solidity before him. It took Richie's form, an empty mockery of the corpse still lying behind him, and it said, "Dai stihó, cousin," and tilted its head, curious. "You're no wizard. Don't your kind always announce your name when you challenge?"
Methos smiled at it, Death's old smile, full of teeth. "You know my name. And that form is not yours to take."
"No?" It looked down at itself, then shrugged. "You prefer this one?" It was Kronos, in the full paints and leathers he had worn for the thousand years when they had ridden together, Death and the Champion brothers in more than name once again, a gift unlooked-for, and Methos discovered a whole new way to be angry: he had forgotten that it was possible to be this angry and not blow up stars. He'd found the peace that comes on the other side of rage.
"And that face you have the least right to of all," he said, calm and deliberate.
It laughed at him. It should have been his brother's laugh, but it wasn't. It was the laughter of the universe winding down. "And how do you plan to stop me, Death Immortal? Do you think you can fight yourself?"
Methos shook his head. "Man, have you got a lot to learn. What else do you think I've been doing, all these years I've been trapped here on this puny little planet?" And he raised the sword, still glowing red, and swung at the image of the Dark Champion, but by the time the blade reached it, there was nothing there to cut. The empty building rang with the absence, and Methos knew that this time it had truly fled.
"What was that about?" Joe asked him, walking over.
"You really, really don't want to know, Joe," Methos said, and handed him the sword. "Take care of that until MacLeod gets back, would you? He'll probably want it eventually, and I have an avatar of the Lone Power to go hunt."
Joe looked down at the katana, now as lifeless as ever, and shook his head. "You're going to, what, destroy Ahriman yourself, when MacLeod couldn't even stop him from killing Richie?"
"MacLeod's not done with his fight yet," Methos said. "And I'm not going to destroy Ahriman - after all, I haven't got a destiny." He slid his hands into his pockets. "But I bet I'll be able to annoy him a hell of a lot, and keep him too busy to bother MacLeod for awhile. See you, Joe," he said, and sauntered away.
"Methos!" Joe called out, "Wait!" But with a sword in one hand, a cane in the other, and a body to take care of, he couldn't follow. "What did he mean, 'you can't fight yourself'?"
"I told you the story," Methos shouted back, trusting in the echoes of the place to bring the sound to Joe, even as he strode out of sight. "You figure it out."