When she walked into his bar, Joe’s first thought was: She moved like a predator.
The woman had the balance of an experienced fighter and looked around with calm observant eyes that missed nothing. A beautiful woman with shiny hair pulled back in a braid, she looked dangerous. Joe would have thought her an Immortal on the hunt if he hadn't already heard her story on the news, just like every other person on the planet.
“Hello, Earth,” Isabelle’s voice had been received by any radio directed to the stars. “We have an alien space ship, a partial list of humans kidnapped and killed by the aliens, and a long story to tell.”
SETI and home radio operators had gotten to listen live. Within minutes, though, it had been streaming live on multiple websites. Within hours, the broadcast had been on every TV station. Little else had been on the news in the last month beyond the story the survivors had told and the reactions of various national powers. There had been four human survivors in that alien spacecraft and a stack of sketches of those who had not survived.
Isabelle, Gwilym, Paolo, and Bandele had come home with their spine-chilling tale.
They had brought sketches of every human they could remember who had died in alien skies. They provided closure to their families, sure, but mostly to provide closure on all the open case files trying to track them down. And proof that these were the people who had been taken by aliens.
It would have been a simple horror story, a prank like the War of the Worlds broadcast, if they hadn't had the evidence of an alien spacecraft and all of those case files. They'd landed the space craft, or more realistically performed a controlled crash, in an empty stretch of the Australian outback. Then the four survivors had met with as many national leaders, military leaders, and scientific leaders as they could, arranging the best way to reverse engineer the thing and send back help to those they'd left behind.
Joe hadn’t expected to see any of them in person. Duncan MacLeod had left Paris to join the quickly growing community built up around the landed spacecraft three days after the first broadcast. Joe didn’t follow.
Mac’s contacts at United Nations and various national embassies had welcomed him with open arms for being a polyglot, a fighter, and getting along with other fighters. They had him working with one of the returnees, Paolo.
“The only reason the returnees are the good guys is that the aliens they’re fighting are just that much worse.”
“And how are you doing with Paolo and the others?”
“I’ve dealt with Immortals like them before. Speaking of which, there are more than a dozen Immortals here. We’re constantly in each other’s quickening range. But so far no challenges, since we’ve all got bigger things to deal with.”
“I don’t know about you lot, but the Watchers are torn between horrified and delighted at the thought of a quickening taking place anywhere near the type of recording and analytical equipment in that boom town of yours.”
Mac made a pained noise that made Joe smile. But he hoped the Immortal truce lasted.
Given the major convergence, the Watcher’s Council shifted their assignments from Immortal-specific watchers to subject-specific watchers who could actively help with the work taking place at the research center while also jointing keeping track of the various Immortals. Everyone of any ability or importance was working on reverse engineering and strategic planning. Everyone.
Joe wasn’t involved in any of it.
As much as Joe wanted to be there, he agreed whole-heartedly with the decision: all hands on deck and no extras taking up space. He had nothing to offer in this instance. He was still glad for the periodic updates from Mac, just to hear from his friend.
“God, it’s a mess over here, Joe. I haven’t lived in a boom town since the Gold rush, and at least then the problem was too few governments rather than the too many that are fighting over the leadership roles here.”
“Ha! Well, you volunteered.”
“It’s also been over a hundred degrees every single day I’ve been here so far.”
“At least there’s air-conditioning, now?”
“Actually just makes it worse, going into and out of air-conditioning all day. I’m surprised more people haven’t gotten sick.”
The calls were always short, there was always too much for Mac to do and Joe didn’t want to distract Mac from everything. But he really appreciated getting those calls.
Like the rest of the world, he loved being up-to-date on what was happening with the research, with the discoveries, with the stories. Mac never really told him anything that he didn’t already know from following the news, reading the Watcher reports, and watching some of the many live-streams from the alien research boom town.
He got three things out of those calls though: contact with his friend who he missed, a connection with the events transforming society on a global scale, and confirmation from the silence that another friend still hadn’t shown up anywhere.
He’d only asked Mac once, “Have you seen any sign of Methos yet?”
Mac had been slow to answer, slow in the way one is when delivering bad news, “I’m sorry, Joe. With a confirmed alien threat, aliens with advanced technology kidnapping people, I doubt I’ll see Methos again this century. He was already in Tibet. The mountains are a good place to go to ground.”
That had seemed ludicrous to Joe. “No, he wouldn’t hide from this. This is new knowledge, new experiences like he’s never had before. He’d want to be right in the middle of it. I’m sure of it.”
Joe wanted to be the middle of it, himself, but he was too old and broken at this point. He was best on the sidelines. But there was no way that Methos would let himself miss any of this. No way.
Except that so far, Mac had been right. Methos still hadn’t returned from wherever he’d been hiding for the last decade.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking that made him so sure that Methos would feel the same need to be involved.
It seemed like the whole world had been turned upside down by the concrete knowledge that humanity was not alone in the cosmos. The whole world seemed different. If anyone knew what that felt like, who had gone through such transformations before, surely it was Methos, and Joe desperately wanted to know what Methos thought of it all.
Was Methos just as astonished and uncertain as the rest of humanity or was he used to having his whole world change? Was it possible to become inured to such change?
Was he in hiding from the danger of this newly revealed threat, planning strategies for how to avoid it, or was it not a newly revealed threat at all? Had he known that aliens existed before now?
Joe had tried to remember if Methos had ever teased him about having met aliens before. It would have been just like the old man to let them believe he was lying. It was certainly just like him to have let Mac assume he was going on a tour of Tibetan monasteries or whatever Mac thought, when he disappeared to “find himself.” Joe knew better on that account at least. Maybe.
“Adam Pierson” had gone to the Watchers, admitted to having died for the first time recently, retired as a Watcher, and declared his intent to become a mercenary in order to train to survive rather than apprenticing himself to another Immortal as was the more common approach.
To Joe, Methos had said that he was going out to re-find in himself the dangerous fighter he had been and needed to become again now that he wasn’t hiding anymore. And, he admitted quietly to Joe, he needed to mourn the loss of his brothers, whom he had still loved, despite the fear and hate. Joe had enough experience with such conflicting emotions himself to understand. Still, being a witness to the old man misleading both Mac and the Watchers, he wondered if he was deluding himself in thinking that he understood Methos when they did not.
Possibly. How was he to know?
No Watcher had been able to follow “Adam Pierson” after the first few the military actions he participated in and they hadn’t even heard rumors of him in the last few years. Most Watchers thought Adam had died a permanent death by some bombing or other attack that left a body beheaded, no need for a challenge. Joe had assumed the old man had chaos to mask moving on to a happier life. He could have used a postcard or something, though, to reassure him.
Especially now. Surely this was a time when Immortals could set aside their differences and make use of their long accumulated knowledge. And Methos was too curious to sit something like this out. Surely.
There were human beings still up there, fighting to not be prey in alien hunting games. They needed people like Methos, like Mac, like all the other Immortals who had gathered at the Australian research center, to come up with strategies and tactics to protect humanity.
The returnees hadn’t returned to their homes to hide, they’d come to get humanity’s help to keep fighting. Joe just wished he had something to offer for that. He wished he’d gotten the chance to meet those survivors himself, even though as a Watcher, he should have been used to staying back and just observing. He wasn’t used to that. After months of watching the chaos on the news and hearing about it from Mac’s occasional calls, Joe had almost convinced himself that he was just as glad to have missed it. Almost.
And then Isabelle walked into his bar.
He would say that she was out of place, except this was a bar that had hosted the Highlander, the Amazing Amanda, and the mythical Methos all at once in days past. She looked like she’d fit right in with that company.
She looked like an Immortal on the hunt: like she had more experience than humanly possibly, a determination to survive that pushed back all mortal boundaries, and a target that she’d get around to killing sooner or later. She looked like she knew what she was capable of and what everyone around her was capable of and wasn’t too worried about the comparison.
He wasn’t sure what she was doing in Paris – the news cycle hadn’t known, or at least hadn’t reported, that any of the survivors had crossed into France yet – but there she was. Just having her in his bar seemed to wake him up from a fog. Joe was a Watcher and for the first time in way too long, he had someone in his place worth Watching.
He nodded at her and tried to pretend she didn’t have his complete attention.
"What can I get you?"
She looked him up and down carefully, obviously noting the legs but not making a big deal of it, which Joe appreciated. Also carefully noting his concealed weapon and not making a big deal of that either, which Joe appreciated even more.
"Hmm. I'll have a beer. Whatever you have on tap.”
He got the beer for her and waved away payment. “On the house.” Then waited to hear what else. She was still standing there considering him.
“And a song, if you're up for it."
He blinked at that. It was only early afternoon, with a few die-hard drinkers here and there. The stage was set up but the band wasn't due in for several more hours.
"Sure, I can hook a player up to the sound system. Anything in particular you want to hear?"
The stare she gave him in return was something he would have expected from the old man. A sort of, seriously, you're attempting to play dumb? Except that apparently he was, because he didn't know what she was trying to get at.
"I've heard you play a mean guitar. When do you play?"
"You've heard...?” He must have looked absolutely gobsmacked because she looked amused rather than her apparent default expression of dangerous. “Sure I can do a set.”
There was no way he’d deny her a request, but who in the world had told her he sometimes played? It must have been Mac, but Mac hadn’t said anything about expecting a visitor. And why? Joe almost never played in public. Not for years, now.
But here and now, for Isabelle who had survived alien predators? Who had returned home with the intent of going back out there again to keep fighting? Who had seen the world transform in a way that surely only the oldest of Immortals had ever experienced before her?
He would absolutely play for her like he had once played for Mac and Methos and Richie and Amanda. He let the main bartender know to give her whatever she wanted, on the house, while he set up. Then he played.
He played the songs he’d been working on in private for the last few years as all of his Immortal friends had scattered or died. He played the songs that were the reason he didn’t play much in public anymore.
A song about the Game of Life and Death that’s not a game but still must be played.
A song about fighting to survive and fighting to live and what that did to a person’s soul.
A song about lost friends and unknown fates; the pain of hope and the refusal to give that pain up.
He even played a few songs that were inspired by more recent events.
A song about the world changing with no hope of changing back.
A song about the universe getting bigger even as he stayed the same or maybe just got smaller.
He played until his hands cramped and his mind felt calm for the first time in months. He played until he was done and then he stopped.
He opened his eyes, which he’d closed at some point, and knew exactly where to look for Isabel: she was in the same booth that Methos had always liked, the booth the most lines of sight and the best defensive position. It all felt familiar.
It felt familiar enough that he was comfortable grabbing a beer and going over to join her in the booth.
“Was that what you wanted?”
“Yes, it was. I understand why you were recommended.”
He was still curious about the recommendation – if it weren’t Mac, who could it have been? – but he didn’t say anything. For a while both of them just drank together in silence.
Then she said, “When I agreed to come back, I offered to carry messages for anyone staying out there. Royce said he wanted to let his bartender know to keep his tab open.”
For a moment, Joe was merely taken aback.
The survivors didn’t talk about each other. Never. All of the survivors had a history of extreme violence, often against each other’s cultures. For them to work together as a group against the greater enemy, they would have had to avoid internal conflict amongst each other. As a member of an international secret society that had survived for millennia despite invasions, conquests, and rebellions, Joe understood the necessity of maintaining strict codes of conduct. For Isabelle to say anything about Royce, another of the survivors, was practically taboo.
It was pretty clear from how the survivors talked about strategies, though, that Royce and Isabelle were the leaders of the resistance in space and the ones who had survived the longest. Once they'd captured an extra spacecraft, the survivors had chosen, either to stay and fight or to return to Earth. Gwilym, Paolo, and Bandele had decided to return, to work with their native governments, to protect the Earth, to try to stop people from being stolen away in the first place. Isabel said that she was just visiting. She intended to go back. Back to the fight and back to Royce.
It wasn't clear whether or not Isabelle and Royce were lovers, though rumors abounded given the deference the other survivors gave her and her sheer beauty. Plenty of interviewers had tried asking for personal details, but those hadn’t worked out well. All of the survivors were vicious fighters, protective of any potential or perceived threat, predators who had survived for months or years fighting for their lives on alien planets with alien technology, as the prey and as the hunter. They talked about the enemy. They talked about the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. They talked about strategy and tactics and wins and losses. They sometimes talked about their dead allies. They rarely talked about themselves. They never talked about their live allies.
But here Isabelle was, talking about Royce. It took him a ludicrously long moment for him to realize that, no, she wasn’t. She wasn’t talking about Royce; she was passing on Royce’s message to Joe.
He could practically feel his eyes shining and his grin felt large enough to split his face.
There was only one guy who would need to let Joe know to keep his tab open.
He rubbed his face with one hand, trying to force the grin away, but couldn’t quite managed it. “Well. Well, that explains where he disappeared off to.”
He wanted to ask questions: how was the old man? How much did Isabel know about him? What sort of tactics was he pulling on those alien hunters? And how many of the aliens’ tactics did the old man recognize from his own experience? Who was he now that he was Royce instead of Adam?
He wanted to tell stories. Tell this woman about the tricky guy who had managed to live for five thousand years while alternately hunting and hiding from his own kind. Tell her how maybe this meant that Death had a purpose after all. He wanted to shout his wonder and delight to the world, or maybe to just this one woman who was surely Methos’ shield mate and possibly his lover as well.
Neither asking nor telling would be appreciated. He bit back the words. He was a Watcher after all. Instead, he just shook his head. The old man was flying spacecrafts and fighting aliens. Who would have thought it? “That man…”
Isabelle was looking at him with something like humor peaking out from behind the watchful caution. He bet she was also biting back her own questions and stories. Joe couldn’t stop grinning. “When you see him, tell him, oh,” Joe tried to think of what he wanted Methos to know, “tell him, his next beer will be on the house, but I expect him to pay off the rest of the tab. Don’t think fighting aliens is getting him out of it.”
The old man had better stay alive. Stay alive and come back to visit.
“I will let him know.” She finished her drink and then stood abruptly. Joe wasn’t at all surprised that she didn’t do pleasantries. He was surprised when she paused rather than just walking out. “Open a tab for me, too.”
He nodded. “The first one was on the house, I’ll add the rest to your tab. So you better be back.” He’d wait for her just like he did for Methos. He couldn’t fight aliens or reverse engineer a space ship, but he could keep a place for her to return home to.
She nodded. And then she was gone. For now.