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Whispered On The Winds

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Golden sand, aqua water, green and tan palm trees, silver shimmers along the tops of the waves rolling steadily onto the beaches -- Bora-Bora was peace and quiet, downright blissful compared to some of the trouble still roiling the planet even ten years after the end of World War II.

Methos sat in the shade of one of the palm trees reading Barbara Cartland's latest romance and making notes on how he could do it better. Even a medical student needed extra income (or at least, extra income he could explain); churning out a few romances, historical and otherwise, would do very nicely for that. Bora Bora's beaches were giving him plenty of inspiration, too.

He watched yet another muse pass by and debated getting up to go get another drink. He still hadn't decided when the brunette he'd been watching crossed paths with a redhead. He lounged more comfortably against the tree trunk to study that assured saunter and the thoroughly scandalous bikini -- by 1956 standards. It was still too much fabric for Methos, but then he missed the Roman baths.

He made a note to work that into the story, too, and kept watching her. She glanced over her shoulder at him, slowing down to do so, and Methos smiled back, his best shy college student expression. As he did, his mind kicked into overdrive.

She had turned back to look at him. She'd felt his eyes on her back, the way he'd been studying her, and turned to see why. Not a normal instinct, even if the slow, sensuous smile did a very good job of covering up her focus.

The redhead turned around again, hips swaying just a little more as she walked, transferring the motion up her spine in a slow flex and shift which was well worth watching -- and very distracting.

Methos watched her leave, holding his expression steady, and wondered again why he was worried. She wasn't immortal, and the war in the Pacific was mostly over. One Japanese straggler had been killed in the Philippines two years back, but that had been it since '50.

She still felt like a secret in a very pretty wrapping.

It was definitely time to watch his back. He'd leave early if he had to, but Methos didn't think he was her target. Assuming she had one, that was, but he suspected she did. He stuck his nose back in the book and went back to scribbling notes to himself for his latest fundraising venture.

He wasn't entirely surprised when there was a call for a doctor that night. He was even less surprised that the death looked entirely normal.

He set fingers on the man's throat purely as a formality. Even in the comfortable warmth of Bora-Bora, the skin was cooling. Dead, all right, and beautifully set up to look like a drunk who'd tripped and snapped his neck coming down wrong against a railing.

Anyone else would have believed it.

That redhead was nowhere around, not in the small crowd that had gathered or on the lantern-lit paths up the beach from the bungalow. Either her figure or her hat would have stood out among the gawkers and thrill-seekers. Methos shook his head and stood to give the expected bad news to the resort manager, completely unsurprised that she was nowhere to be seen.

Now the question was whether she suspected him of being more than he looked.

# # #

Four hours later, while his cabin was still dark, the air's movement through the room changed. Someone was looking at him. His knife was under the sheet, so Methos didn't need to move as he asked, "Do we have a problem?"

"Is he dead?" a woman asked, her voice soft and steady.

Methos turned to look at her, one eyebrow lifting in amusement. "Of course Lapointe is dead. He slipped, broke his neck, and suffocated."

She flinched at his deliberate brusqueness and harsh words. It was the right reaction for someone too young to have been a nurse in WWII and probably not old enough to have served during the Korean War either. She stood silhouetted by the light from the door and only his practiced eye let him see the way her pulse wasn't leaping in her throat.

Better he found out now how much trouble this was going to be. "Was there anything else, Miss...?"

"Leila. Should there be?" She started to lift a hand in nervousness that didn't actually exist; her breathing was too steady.

Methos held himself centered and not yet coiled as he pointed out, "We're not enemies. Shall we keep it that way?"

She paused at that, her mask thinning a little as she gave him a slow, considering look that swept from his eyes to his torso, noted the hand hidden from her, and came back up to his face. The redhead -- he had doubts her name was really Leila -- finally said, "Yes. I think we should remain... as we are. "

Methos raised an eyebrow. "Good. Then why don't you go away and I'll go to sleep. It's none of my business what happened to Dr. Lapointe." Despite himself, his skepticism over the good doctor's name came through. Whatever else the man had been, he hadn't been Swiss as he claimed: his German accent was close enough to the Swiss border, but his French had sounded like the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany.

A smile curled along one corner of her mouth and was gone again like the breeze, like Dr. Lapointe's heartbeat and his mind. The latter might even have been as brilliant as he thought; it might explain his death.

Leila said thoughtfully, "You're very insistent that it's not your problem, you know."

"This isn't Hamlet." And no matter that Methos felt like he was watching a play within a play just now. "I just want to be sure we understand each other, Leila."

"So you're just here to read and bask in the shade." She smiled again, faintly amused. "Perhaps I'll come borrow a book tomorrow."

"When it's light, say, and we're on the beach," Methos said calmly. "Don't come back to my cabin again."

"Of course not," she agreed. "It wouldn't do my reputation any good, now would it? Thank you for reassuring me, Doctor."

"I'm not a doctor yet," Methos lied.

She only smiled and faded back out the door. He spent the rest of the night regretting that he'd come to an island with night breezes and the constant soft splash of surf. They were going to make getting any decent sleep difficult.

# # #

Methos wasn't really surprised when 'Leila' left the island two days early, just after Lapointe's death was ruled a regrettable accident. He'd actually expected her to vanish much sooner.

He was also relieved to be able to sleep more soundly.

What surprised him was waking up in the morgue a day after he'd thought she was gone. Damn it.

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Chapter Text

Methos revived already trying not to gasp audibly -- and realized that his arms were pinned. A moment's exertion showed him that he wasn't lying on his arms, or trapped by bags, rocks, or his own clothes, for that matter. Wherever he was, it was also moving; a diesel engine's rumbles shook the floor under his back. He remembered at the last moment not to use a local language and ended up muttering in Turkish, "Who the fuck ties up a corpse?"

"Someone who's wondering why the corpse didn't rot two decades ago."

The reply was in Portuguese, not Turkish; a female voice, deliberately husky and knowing, and he might have heard it before but it wasn't lately. Twenty years back gave him a rough range to hunt through for the memory.

He had a few seconds to look around and think; a quick look told him he was in the back of an old army transport which hadn't gained any padding over the last thirty years. The truck turned sharply off a passable road onto a much rougher surface. Methos rolled with the momentum, unconcerned by the inevitable bruises. He folded his legs back as the transport came to a stop, arching his spine to reach for his boot knife.

Like the knife in his belt, the boot knife was gone. Methos' eyes narrowed and he asked in Portuguese, "Who are you? And what do you want?"

"You wouldn't know the name." The truck moved more slowly now, cutting around obstacles for a few more seconds. When she turned the engine off and came over the top of the seat into the back compartment, he saw the red hair first -- long, corkscrew curls of it falling around her shoulders, darker than he remembered -- before he placed her. Bora Bora. Not that Leila was ever her name. Her eyes had changed even more: still sharp and missing very little, but also cool, considering, dispassionate. Dangerous as any Horseman's, but more controlled, too, and less prone to excesses than they had been.

Because that was her nature? Or because she was on a tighter leash?

Methos let Benigno Alfaro fall away and allowed a minute bit of Death into his eyes. "As I said: why did you bind me?"

She stayed on her knees in front of him, heedless of the damage the truck's bed was doing to her fashionably bright skirt. "I killed you in 1956 and I killed you this afternoon. How are you reviving?" She considered him very thoughtfully. "You're very fit, but you don't show signs of any extra endurance or stamina and your skin cuts easily enough."

Methos raised an eyebrow. "I also bleed red, piss yellow, shit brown. What did you think you had?"

Leila smiled faintly. "We both know that knowledge is power. Why should I tell you that?"

Methos smiled cynically, only one side of his mouth tilting up. "Because, like me, you're no fool."

"With enough time, I could find a way to kill even you past coming back." She watched him, competent hands waiting motionless on her thighs. "Give me two honest answers, or I'll start searching for one."

Methos lay propped on shoulder and hip, his wrists straining against his bonds until they bled; he wanted the blood, wanted the additional slick to help him get free. He wasn't about to break bones, however; he might need his hands in a hurry once he was loose. "And you'll know truth when you hear it?"

"And see it," she agreed, watching his face so steadily he knew she had to be periodically widening her field of vision. There was no way this professional wasn't watching for him to get free now that he was conscious. "I don't think torturing you would work, Dr. Marchand. You'd lie until I wasn't certain which parts were truth, or you'd keep changing languages and soaking up pain until I had a furious madman who didn't stay dead. Neither of those is in my best interests, Mr. Alfaro."

He ignored the names; it wasn't even close to time to worry about those. "I give you two honest answers and you set me free -- with my weapons back," Methos specified.

"I keep the ammunition," she countered, one eyebrow lifting while she waited for him to take the deal or not.

Methos considered her, the intractability in the level voice and those watchful eyes. "You're not lying -- quite. What part are you shading?"

She shifted back, going from kneeling on both legs to sitting on one leg, the other folded in front of her. She'd be able to stand quickly now; it also moved her out of his arms' reach. Neither was by chance. "I think I know the first answer -- but if I'm wrong, I'll have to bring you with me. One way or another."

His left hand was almost free; just his luck, he was lying on that side. Methos kept working on the right with deliberately minute motions. "I have to bet that you're right about a question you haven't even asked me yet? I can't say I like those odds."

"I'm very bright," she said casually, pushing her hair behind her shoulder with one hand. The nails were shorter than was fashionable and painted with clear polish. It didn't match her hair, skirt, or lipstick, but it undoubtedly went very well with the gun or guns behind that loose blouse. "They're better odds than you think."

Methos' instincts said danger was rolling closer with every word out of those full red lips. In a murmur as husky as her own, Death promised, "You don't want me for an enemy."

Her pistols were in her hands remarkably quickly, one aimed at his heart and the other ready to give him a third eye socket. "That's mutual, and I have both hands free. Two answers."

His lips curved up, pale as the horse he supposedly rode. "Ask."

A bird called and they both waited a moment to be sure no other call answered. Both nodded before the spy asked him, "Have you ever been part of any Super Soldier project -- German, American, Russian, British, independent?"

Death raised an eyebrow, facts slotting neatly into place and new possibilities rising up out of them. "Now your questions make sense. No. I haven't." He tilted his head very thoughtfully, mirroring her motion and studying her as closely as she had studied him... and didn't comment further.

Her mouth tightened, a tendon tightening and releasing along her throat and jaw, but she finally nodded. "Your ability to revive from death: can you teach it, or in any way, shape, or form share it or give it to another?"

Death bared his teeth, deliberately drawing skin down against bone. "No. You can't come back if you die, and I can't give you any way to do it. No one can," he said flatly.

She studied him for a long moment, head tilting a little, then straightened and nodded. "So it's not just fast healing," she murmured. "Were you brain dead as well as heart and lungs dead?"

"You've had your two questions," Death said softly. "What now?"

"There's no safe way for me to cut you loose. I'd either give you a weapon or be in arm's reach. Right now, you still want to kill me," she said calmly. "By tomorrow, you won't."

He was still 'smiling' at her, but she was holding steady under it. If he'd wanted to revive the Horsemen, she'd have done superbly. She was right, however; Methos or Death, he didn't want the Horsemen back. But she shouldn’t know that part. "Really. Why won't I?"

Her gaze held as level as her pistols. "Because I haven't burnt your identity here yet, I haven't tortured you, and because you like the idea of having a female counterpart in the world." She smiled at that, lips curving and eyes lighting.

"You might be right," he murmured, distracted by that as she no doubt intended. Annoyingly, she wasn't wrong. "Perhaps."

She smiled a little. "About which? That I'm like you? Or that by tomorrow you'll have decided I owe you and I know it and that might be useful? I'd say it's both."

Methos smirked at her. "Bright girl."

"And you're settled again," she murmured. "How do you do that so quickly?"

"Practice," Death answered and watched her pulse pick up just that little bit in the blue vein under her jaw. He could bite it out... she backed away almost as soon as he thought it. He smiled when she did, letting his eyes track danger points for and from him before he went back to watching her eyes again.

She nodded slowly, calming herself as he settled. "Practice," she agreed softly. "Yes. And yes, I owe you. Which of you is older?"

"I'm sure you'd like to know," Methos replied. "If you haven't destroyed this life, where's my wallet?"

She indicated a bag next to him with chin and eyes, watching him much more closely now that his right hand was free, too. Since she knew, he let the ropes fall from his belt to hit the truck bed. "Right there. Weapons, wallet, clean shirt and all."

Now he studied her thoughtfully... and smiled, amused and almost impressed. "Well, well. You always meant to bargain for that."

"Your ability to heal alone would be a valuable secret. The ability to actually revive from death without medical assistance? That's priceless." She shrugged a little. "It's also something I would not want my... employers to have."

Methos cocked his head. "Nicely deliberate pause, but are you sure that's the right word?"

"It'll do," she said, moving a little farther back as he shifted onto his back, one arm reaching for his bag. She watched both arms, but then he'd known she was no fool.

Methos nodded and started checking by touch to be sure his belongings really were in there. He also warned her: "When I want the favor, you owe it."


He couldn't detect any lies or shadings in her assent. "What name do I look for you under, then?" Methos asked as he sat up at last.

The curve of her mouth warned him he'd like it; her voice was all business -- one of the world's oldest businesses, anyway. "Black Widow."

Methos was still laughing softly when she cut his legs loose -- from a safe distance, with a machete she'd had very well hidden -- and let him leave with the bag. Her soubriquet was appropriate, certainly, and it wasn't as if he cared what secrets she'd stolen from the government.

Let the bureaucrats worry about it. He was busy making sure Death slid back onto watch, not into command.

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Chapter Text

The wind whipped snow across one cheek, biting at skin that wanted to go numb. Natasha's head was throbbing; her ribs burned steadily and felt almost trapped, which was better than stabbing pains. Almost everything ached, actually, but there was warmth along her chest and one cheek, a strong weight along the back of her thighs, pressure against her stomach.

Natasha summoned enough concentration to realize she was hanging over someone's shoulder, someone who was straining to carry her up through the biting cold. He grunted from his efforts occasionally but didn't say anything to tell her language, nationality, or where she was.

She tried to open her eyes to see where she was, if her hands were tied -- her feet were no help, numb in her boots -- and passed out again.

When Natasha woke a second time, the wind's howl had dulled and her hands and feet were prickling with pins and needles. The air smelled of burning dung with a very little wood in the mix; there was heat along her right arm and thigh. Someone was patiently trying to get her to drink something warm out of a metal cup. She had one hand around the cup, pressing it away; its warmth felt almost scalding against her skin.

Whoever her rescuer was, he had her braced in his lap, one arm still tight around her arms and torso. His voice was almost familiar although she didn't think she'd heard him speak Russian before. At least his accent was good.

"Tea, damn it, woman. It's just tea. It's warm, it's got sugar in it, and yak butter, and I don't care how it smells or tastes, it's warm and it has calories and you're going to drink it--"

She could smell the tea, now: trader's tea, strong and smoky. There was a faintly sweet note to it, yes, and that damn rancid butter, but she couldn't smell anything else. Which wasn't much comfort. If she had to bet on anyone coming up with a poison she'd never seen before, well, some of her money would go on Ben Marchand, Benigno Alfaro, or whatever his name was this year.

He was right, though. She was much too cold, even for the way she healed. Natasha took a tentative sip, her eyes barely open where her eyelashes had frozen together. After a moment, when she couldn't catalog any oddities to it (damn the yak butter), she drank more of it.

"About time," he said, sounding relieved. "So? Are you back with me now?"

"Now?" Natasha asked -- rasped, really. Her throat was rough, her voice hoarse. "What do you mean?"

"I mean there've been at least three of you who've talked to me on the trail. One insisted she was late and the chorus manager was going to take a cane to her. One of them said, 'Ah, you,' and tried to kill me."

Natasha didn't wince, but she did drink more of the tea to buy a moment of thought. It was hard. Her head throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and what light she'd seen was rainbow-haloed. "I have a concussion, don't I?"

"If you're here and will hold still, I'll check," he said grimly. "I didn't dare before. You'd have tried to bite my face off."

"I'm here, Dr. Marchand." The name got a huff of a laugh before he cupped a hand over her eyes and began to exhale warm air onto her face. It felt hot to her skin, but she held still as her eyelashes thawed and dripped saltwater onto her cheeks.

Both his arms were around her now, with the edges of his coat wrapped up over the unzipped edges of hers. The two of them made up their own bundle of meager warmth, his back supported by the stone wall her feet were propped on. Like her feet, he was probably cold; the wind howling outside was leaching the heat from the stone.

He studied her eyes when she managed to get them open. "Your pupils are even in this light. I'm going to use a lighter, see how they react." Natasha appreciated the warning; she might have tried to jump off his lap at the clack and rasp of metal. Her headache spiked with the orange and blue flame but he nodded, relieved. "And they contracted evenly. No concussion now, anyway. How much pain are you in? Odd color effects when you look around, sharp or stabbing pains in your head, sounds, light, or touch painful?"

"Do you really think I'm going to admit to any of that?" Natasha held her voice even, but it really was a foolish set of questions.

"Not really," he said. "There's not much I can do for any of it either, other than shut up if you need quiet, so I probably should have saved my breath. Habit." He shrugged, careful not to dislodge their coats. "But the wind won't be quiet for you, so no point in my offering either."

"Where are we?" Natasha burrowed against him, but carefully; her ribs were still sore. Her entire left side was, really, with the dull ache of worse wounds only recently healed and not solidly healed yet at that. "How badly was I injured?"

"You've been unconscious most of the day. As cold as it's been, I'm not entirely surprised. We're over the Bhutan border," Marchand said. "Possibly even far enough over that the Chinese patrols won't bother us. I think we're in a shepherd's hut. Whatever it is, the walls are intact, there was a little wood for the fire, and I dug out pots and blankets."

Natasha focused on keeping her breathing even. "Bhutan? What are we doing here?"

"Well, I was on my way to Sri Lanka from Nepal," Marchand said dryly.

"By way of China, I assume? Don't they object to that?" Natasha asked, equally dry. She drank the last of the tea and forced herself not to complain when he moved, letting in a draft. The cup came back into her hand, warm with more tea, and she drank that too. If he'd drugged her, she already had it in her system at this point. And he was right; she needed the liquid.

"Of course they would. That's why I don't mention it to them and keep moving. Imagine my surprise when I found a downed Chinese army patrol and then you, halfway under a landslide." More seriously, he said, "I wrapped your ribs and the worst of the gashes, then I got us both out of there. Part of your headache may be from the fireman's carry up that goat or llama trail, by which I mean you hung upside-down most of the day. It was risk the blood to the head or blood in your lungs, and your ribs were cracked all down that left side."

"You needed your hands free," Natasha agreed, wincing a little as memories jostled loose -- fireman's carry, words in English, in Russian, a fire in a hospital, a nurse smiling at her as she stitched up Natasha's arm....

Fingers snapped in front of her nose. Focusing on them hurt momentarily, then the spike of pain was gone and Marchand was studying her, worried. "You're still sliding in and out on me."

"I will be fine." She looked at him, frowning. "You look the same age."

"Yes, although not the same way you still look twenty-some," Marchand said grimly. "What did the Soviets do, try that Super Soldier Serum on--" He cut himself off.

Natasha didn't even stiffen in his grip. "It's all right. You can say it."

Marchand curled around her more tightly. "You're still shivering. And I think I'll just stop speculating right there. You're probably going to think you have to kill me again anyway, aren't you?"

Oddly, he sounded both resigned and almost amused by it. How strange, he knew her well enough to know that carrying her to safety all day wouldn't sway her. It was almost... nice to have run into him again, into someone who understood the nuances under her words. She smiled despite herself, amused by his sense of humor.

What she said, however, was, "I quit." Natasha had to pause, momentarily startled by how much more real the decision was now that she'd said it aloud to someone. "Defected. Told them all which route to take to the devil. I don't know if they've sent the Chinese after me, or if I'm too good an opportunity for the Chinese to miss. It's even possible it's just bad luck."

Marchand looked at her, his gaze steady and evaluating. "You quit... what, KGB, GRU, something farther in than those?"

"Much deeper down than those," Natasha said softly. "I don't mind you wondering. It's nothing I haven't thought a time or six. I don't know what they did to me, but yes, it may have been some version of that serum. Any information on that project was always a high priority, sometimes higher than the rest of the mission. But you're right; I'm not aging. Not that I can tell. Many of the others I trained with died very young and very badly."

He pressed carefully at her ribs; the pain felt like a days-old bruise, not a crack or break. "Those are healing quickly. You don't seem worried one of those other three personalities might be stronger than you are." His voice suggested that he considered her possible instability a much more serious problem than her ribs or any brain injury.

"I've done a great deal of deep cover work. I may just have lost time." Natasha shook her head deliberately, for the spike of pain, wondering if he'd lied about a concussion or about drugs in the tea. "Why am I telling you any of this?"

"Because I'm not part of it?" he suggested sardonically. More seriously, Marchand went on, "You're saying it here and now because you need to say it out loud and you know I'd never dream of telling anyone. Not least because you've kept my secrets." He shrugged. "We both know that if I ever did give your secrets away, you'd return the favor."

Even concussed, that had the sound of truth to her. Truth, and pragmatism, and self-interests aligned where she needed to have them.

"Why did you rescue me?" Natasha finally asked, and suppressed a sigh of relief as her headache finally receded, clearing her vision as it faded.

Marchand watched her by the firelight, ignoring the winds still howling around the cottage. He finally said, "Because you might live a long time if I give you some help. It's nice running into you now and then." Natasha could hear something hidden under those truths, but Marchand distracted her by refilling her tea again. He stole a sip for himself on the way and admitted, "Then there's the part where I'd have hated not knowing what happened to you. And yes, I know, I'm too curious for my own good."

That was truth too -- he was both amused by it and resigned to the danger his curiosity put him in. Natasha laughed softly and slipped into English to tease him. "Well, it's a nice big nose to poke into other people's business."

"Always the nose," he complained, his voice mostly serious, but she could hear laughter dancing beneath his words. "No one's appreciated my nose properly in ages."

"I'm not sure who would appreciate that nose properly," she said and curled into him more thoroughly, ribs finally aching less under their wrappings. "Is there food?"

"You need fuel to heal, yes," he agreed. "I threw what I had together into a pot to heat. It won't taste wonderful, but it's food. We'll need to walk out tomorrow; I didn't bring food for two, especially one healing your wounds."

"'We'." Natasha wrapped her tattered coat more firmly around her; she pulled the brightly patterned, faintly sheep-scented blanket around her, too. "Why are you helping me?"

"I like your sense of humor," he said dryly.

"And I'll owe you another debt?" Natasha asked. So few people had ever seen her sense of humor that she ignored the rest of his explanation.

"It wouldn't change much. You already owe me one." He reached over and stirred the fire up a little more, careful not to lose them body heat -- or too worried about who'd wake up at a 'new' touch if he let go of her. "Don't look so grim. I rarely collect on them, as you may've noticed."

"That only means you're desperate when you do." Natasha watched him closely and was rewarded with a sudden smile.

"Well, yes. So are you when you call in favors, I imagine. No, I don't need one just now. I just killed off an identity -- quite successfully; avalanche, hiker, you know the routine, I'm sure --" and she nodded, because she did. "I probably should have expected you to show up, since I'm 'dead' again."

He inclined his head to her, a surprisingly graceful motion from a man who'd tried so hard to look gawky in the Pacific. "Adam Pierson, at your service. I start grad school in Europe this fall."

"Again?" Natasha asked, bemused. "Don't you get tired of studying?"

"Why? I have yet to make it through the sum of human knowledge. And it's not as if I'm easily bored." He swung over the pot full of rehydrated meat and vegetables. The stew was hot and had calories; that was more important than the taste. It tasted better than Russian army winter rations, anyway.

Now that she wasn't freezing, or starving, or aching, it was getting harder to stay awake. Natasha made herself ask, "How far into Bhutan are we?"

"Fifteen miles or so. We'd be farther but the storm was getting worse and there was shelter here."

Natasha asked, "Why do you keep saying 'we'?"

Adam shrugged and curled back into the coats with her, a mug full of mystery stew in his hand. "If they're still looking for me, it's for a lone hiker. If they're looking for you, it's by yourself. What I heard of your reputation doesn't often include a partner."

"No, not often." She considered him. "And on the rare times I repeated the partnership, he looked not much like you. His nose was less--"

"Distinguished?" Adam asked, smirking.

"Less," she left it at, deliberately dry. "Broader shoulders, too, and less height. And yes, I see your points."

"It's in both our interests to travel together a while," he agreed. "I'm headed to Paris, myself, but would anyone be looking for you in Belgium?"

She knew that deliberately casual air, had used it herself more than once. He'd better hope he'd used it as a courtesy, rather than thinking it would fool her. "Why Belgium?"

He studied her very seriously before he said, "Because you have at least four personalities in there at the moment, and you're extremely dangerous, to me and to others around you."

Natasha felt herself freeze. "Are you threatening me?"

"I'm offering to find you help that will keep your secrets." Adam matched her stillness, as close to unthreatening as he could manage.

Rather than say anything, she leaned forward, scooped the last of the stew into their mugs, and then ate her share. She finally looked up at him and said, "Your help has secrets of his or her own and is dangerous, too. Yes?"

"Yes," Adam agreed. "It would be another trade of secrets. You'd have to know some of his before you'd be willing to tell him enough of yours to do you any good." His mouth tightened and twisted. "And I'm not about to tell him this, but yes. I'd trust him."

"If you really had to," Natasha interpreted. "And not until then."

He shrugged. "He wasn't around when I really needed a confessor. I found one of my own. I can't take you to Paris; it has too many embassies for you to stay for long." He cocked his head as if to ask if he was wrong.

"Brussels isn't much better," Natasha warned.

That got her an incredulous look. "Of course I wouldn't take you to Brussels. Tell me yes or no as we travel. Try to give me at least a few hours' warning to convince him not to kill me for this, hmm?"

"I think I like him already."

Adam laughed at that, and after a moment, Natasha smiled too. She curled against him for warmth and decided not to chase off what help she had. There'd be time on the way through Bhutan and India to see if the other personalities had been the result of the concussion... or a 'present' left by the Red Room.

If they'd left traps in her mind then she'd go and meet this help of Adam's. He'd better not be a priest, however. Secrets of his own or not, she didn't think there was enough forgiveness for some of hers.

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Chapter Text

Tony Stark had finally been found -- after blowing his own way out to freedom.

What kind of fools let one of the greatest weapons designers of the last century loose with his own toys and expected any other results? If Ten Rings really was that stupid, however, how had they captured him alive?

The military medics were taking care of Stark. SHIELD was taking care of data-gathering and any necessary cleanup.

They'd used his trail in the desert to point them back to his armor; the wind on the dunes hadn't completely obliterated the trail from his impact, which pointed them back to a section of the mountains boiling over with people looking for Stark. The larger part of this Ten Rings cell appeared to be out hunting for Stark, never mind how many of them he'd already killed.

Since most of them were out, Natasha and Clint ghosted in.

Ten Rings had taken over an old smugglers' tunnel system in the mountain, part man-made and more of it natural cave system. The sections so far were dimly lit by bare bulbs strung along the walls or ceilings off the electrical cords. Lights had broken here and there, either at Stark's hands or at the guns of his captors.

The location was almost custom-made to field test SHIELD's newest tac-suit design. The fabric had been formulated to blend into shadows and reduce heat output. Hot as hell in the summer, in the desert night the stuff was both comfortable and useful. It also played havoc with both light-gathering devices and thermal imaging. A dark, form-fitting suit of the materiel couldn't hide her completely, but it made a good try at it, and had Kevlar woven in as well.

Between the lighting, the new suits, and his own skill, Natasha was having a hard time seeing Clint when he was only ten feet away. He could still see her, which was almost annoying, except for the part where he was on her side.

It also let him pause immediately when she flashed him a stop signal. There was a guard ahead but upright or not, in position or not, none of her instincts thought he was a threat.

When she got up to the guard, throwing knife ready in her hand the last fifteen meters, she found her instincts had, as usual, been right: he was dead. Someone had snapped his neck, then moved his head back into alignment. Natasha wasn't sure whoever it was hadn't opened the guard's eyes again, too.

So they had another player in the tunnels. That almost certainly wasn't good.

Black Widow waved Hawkeye further into the shadows before she made sure the guard's body was back in its original position. That done, she reached up and unscrewed the light bulb. Darkness fell around their section of the tunnel and she signaled Hawkeye to keep as far back as he could. She was just that bit quieter, so she moved ahead to make shadows for him to shoot out of.

It was a good plan that fell apart when the explosion announced itself with a thump of detonation, a huff of displaced air, the rattling thuds of falling rock, and finally the hiss of sand sliding down.

Widow tapped her comm off and on twice to warn SHIELD that the plan had just run into major obstacle of some kind. She knew Hawkeye would be right behind her, still in position and as alert as she was. That let her pay enough attention to everything else that she could hear someone moving ahead of them.

She signaled a five count to Hawkeye. On one, she shot out the next light and dropped into a crouch, moving forward while she looked for a heat source. She could barely hear Clint ghosting along the other side of the tunnel. Their suits would stop punctures and high-caliber bullets, but not bruises from rock edges; they'd still rather have the rock bruises than the impact bruises from a bullet.

Someone else took out the next light with a fast-moving rock. It hadn't come from behind her or above and beside her, so, not Clint.

From ahead of her, someone said, "Drop your weapons if you want to live." It was a cold, clear voice, male, using Pashto with a faint Pakistani accent. He repeated it in Dari and then again in Arabic.

By the third language, Natasha began to relax but she didn't signal Hawkeye off watch. Instead, she asked in English, "Collecting on those debts, Adam?"

He paused, then answered in English. "Possibly. Move into the light and bring your partner with you."

Natasha stood up and moved into the light. "My partner stays there for now."

Adam stepped out of a side tunnel his voice hadn't come from and studied her. "That's a useful suit."

Natasha raised an eyebrow. "And yours isn't?" It was a different material, but it was a tactical suit of some type -- British army special ops, she thought; not surplus, although probably off the back of some numberless truck -- and he wore it and the assortment of weapons as casually as she and Hawkeye did. His sword and knives went right along with Hawkeye's bow, come to that.

"It does the job." He met her eyes long enough for her to see that she was still dealing with his friendlier side. "What are you doing here?"

Natasha shrugged with a tilt of her head and a quirk of her mouth. "We have a few things we're looking for. Did you seal us in?"

"No." Adam kept watching her and she'd noticed the perfectly modern pistol on his thigh. "I sealed the idiots out."

Natasha raised an eyebrow at his brevity. "You need to get whatever you came for. We need what we came for. We all need to get out of these tunnels. Are you here to clean up after Stark?"

He half-smiled with that annoying arrogance; trying to intimidate Clint, perhaps, or simply masking his thoughts. "I'm just here for some stolen books."

Natasha nodded and left it at that, since that was quite possible from what she knew of him. "We're here to collect anything Stark's invented that needs to be kept out of these idiots' hands. Are we working together or just quartering the place with you?" Even through her comm, she could barely hear Hawkeye's profanity.

Adam watched her thoughtfully. "Not letting me out of your sight, hmm? There hasn't been much news of the Black Widow for the last few years. I was half-afraid you'd been overwhelmed."

"I changed who I work for, not who's in charge," she said lightly. "Why are you looking for books?"

"Because they were mine, and I understand they're here," Adam said flatly. "Stark's inventions? He's not dead then?"

"I have the shot," Hawkeye murmured in her ear.

Natasha shook her head, the motion for both of them. "He turned back up alive."

That got her an inquiring look and a few seconds' contemplation before that cold determination washed back over him. "I'll work with you and your partner, then, but we'll be blowing this place to hell and gone behind us."

"We can't get back out the front door." Natasha shrugged and salvaged what she could of the mission. "At the minimum, we need pictures of anything Stark invented. Better if we can carry some of it out with us. Why do you want to blow the tunnels?"

He shook his head, already scanning the area around them. "You have a perfectly good brain, Widow. Do you really think these idiots successfully planned an attack that looked like a hit and still left their target alive to play mad scientist for them?"

Since Clint had had similar comments coming in, only with more insults to Ten Rings' housekeeping and weapons maintenance, Natasha could honestly say, "That discrepancy had crossed our minds, yes. Our best guesses so far are a mole or bad luck."

He looked at her. "You think they'd be lucky enough to have Stark and my books? That is the wrong kind of luck." He paused, frowning. "You do have cameras with you, yes?"

"You think you've been set up?" Two sets of enemy in one set of caves? Natasha waved Clint forward. "Hawkeye, this is Adam. Adam, we need photos of anything that looks competently done, in its setting: how it was done, what was near it, everything. What we can carry out, we do. And then we need a way out."

Adam paid his half of the information exchange promptly. "I know three ways out of this complex that don't involve the front door. I'm looking for four bound books, each about thirty-three by fifty centimeters, about thirteen centimeters thick. Dark brown leather bindings, heavy as fuck for their size."

Clint took in their new working partner with his usual on the job calm. "You get to explain this later," was all he said to Natasha. "Four books, one foot by one and a half by five inches. Got it."

"American?" Adam said, sounding surprised finally. "I'd thought British. Right, let's go. They'll dig out the entrance eventually."

"What's the chance we'll run out of air?" Clint asked bluntly, focused on Adam so that Natasha could listen for people moving in a panic. So far, she hadn't heard anyone.

"Air isn't a problem; it would take a year to get stuffy in here, short of a massive fire," Adam replied. "Radio signal, however, is going to be a problem."

Natasha started tracking Stark's path by the char on the walls and the blood on the floor. "This way."

Adam shrugged and followed her, pistol in one hand and knife in the other. "I killed the guards I found. That might not be all of them."

Clint raised an eyebrow at that, but Natasha shook her head. Adam glanced at him anyway. "I gave them a cleaner death than their leader would have."

"No argument," Clint said, shrugging. "They weren't likely to live much longer anyway, after letting Stark escape."

Natasha waved Clint to her left, Adam to her right. "You two watch for guards. I'll listen for them and watch for tech and books. Cover me."

The stone tunnels didn't leave much chance of hidden objects. The walls were rough carved and mostly solid, the floors a thin layer of sand and small gravel that could hide an occasional coin or the wires run along the edges, but not much more than that. Adam had no comments about the room with the waterboarding tub other than, "Waste of water, but I suppose that impressed his men."

Clint looked the room over, his eyes taking in an empty ammo crate with the Stark Industries logo by the tub. He raised an eyebrow at Natasha who shook her head in return. Most people who could get Stark tech used it. They might even have taken it off the ambushed Army Humvees. She took pictures of the inventory numbers anyway.

She collected the same data for the video camera on a tripod. It had been shorted out by something, possibly Stark's escape, and someone had taken the data card.

From there, they went down a hall, through two doors that were never going to lock again, and over fly-covered, blood-stained sand. At the end of the blood trail, they found a security camera pointed at what used to be a door. The scorched, dented doorway led into a large cavern that had been organized into a combination sleeping area, workshop, and chemical shop.

Adam glanced at Clint and asked, "Do you live up to the name?"

"I didn't get it by accident." Clint was scanning the room, taking in the patterns. He pulled out a camera and started systematically taking photos the intel analysts would stitch into a panorama later. "Stay back until I'm done with this."

Natasha turned to keep watch on the hallway. Beside her, Adam smiled sourly. "I don't see my books, no. Let me know when you need things moved for detail shots."

"Speeding this up so you can get to your books, or just wanting her favorably inclined later?" Clint asked. Natasha laughed soundlessly to herself. Leave it Clint to deliberately phrase it so badly.

"She already owes me favors, thanks," Adam said, momentarily cold. Then he laughed softly, genuinely amused. "Oh, very nice. That's an excellent 'dumb grunt' routine, there."

Clint chuckled. "That you just admitted to seeing through. Okay, you can come in now. Yeah, turn that long tube... thanks. Catch." Metal thunked against flesh then clanged softly against the metal work table. "Intel bitches if we don't give them a scale."

"Well, of course they do," Adam said. "That's intel for you. A mind like hers and you're the one looking the scene over? Do your bosses trust the Black Widow that little or are you that much more than a grunt?"

Natasha called softly, "No secrets, Adam. And less chatter. You're the one who didn't secure the tunnels."

"This better not be like Ciénaga," Clint muttered. "Yeah, okay, whatever he left under the small soldering iron. Okay, turn it to the right now."

Natasha tilted her head, listening to them while she watched the corridor. "It won't be."

"That's what you said then, too." Clint added dryly, "Adam, I can tell you know where to place explosives, but tell me you actually know how not to set them off."

"Of course I do. I'm fond of my hands. You want a picture of that layout there, too, by the way. Stark didn't use a standard chemical arrangement." Adam prowled past behind Natasha but stayed out of her way. "Do cause and effect behave differently for you two, by the way?"

Clint's grin was only in his voice, but he did like people who could throw cracks right back. "Nah, she said Ciénaga wouldn't be like one of our jobs from a year or so before. Widow's good, but she can't mess with time. Quite. So you can do things besides look intimidating with a sword, huh?"

"Says the man with a bow and quiver? Are you aiming for a little M*A*S*H and a lot of Cooper?" Adam asked in return. "And I'm calling in one of those favors, by the way, Widow."

Natasha glanced over; he looked as grim as he'd sounded. She turned back to their lone exit tunnel. "What do you want?"

"Until we're well out of here -- and until we blow the place apart -- treat me like team, and not the ranking member." He sounded coldly precise as he went on, "I think my books may be here because someone needs to know what I look like."

Clint finally said, "Last picture. Right. Pass me those circuits -- yeah, and that. Got room in your pack for any of these? And if we're gonna treat you like team, you'd better give us some warning before you stop acting like it."

"It's hardly your debt," Adam said, but Natasha could hear him thunk his pack down to the gravel and the soft rustling of leather and fabric as he made space for whatever Clint wanted to take with them.

"If I don't go along with it, she can't pay. What I want in exchange for helping is fair warning before you quit acting on our side. Otherwise, no deal." Natasha hadn't expected Clint to help pay her debt. She wasn't sure she liked it; she already owed him too much.

Adam nodded. "It is, and yes, I can take those chemical notes and that... whatever it is. Right, my pack's full. I'll watch the hallway, Widow." He added in a different tone, "Yes. Fair warning, with as much leeway as I can give you. Feel free to ask your partner if you're still worried."

Natasha waved Adam into position by the tunnel, then met Clint's eye and nodded, holding his gaze until he eased that little bit he'd allow in the field. "He'll do his best for us, Hawkeye." She came to get her share of the odd bits and pieces of assembled tech, one eyebrow going up about a set of quickly rolled papers that looked like nothing useful.

Hawkeye superimposed them briefly; once he did, she could see the composite robot schematic.

She nodded and tucked those away into a hidden compartment in the pack's strap. She also said very softly, "Yes, I owe him. No, he won't hand us over when it's advantageous. He didn't give me to the Chinese years ago."

Clint nodded once and murmured, "And his books?"

She chuckled soundlessly. "I have no idea. But he was going to look anyway. This way--"

"We get what we came for instead of him taking something that looked interesting. Got it." Clint nodded, zipped his own pack, and checked the explosives Adam had set. "Nice work, Adam."

"Thank you," was the dry reply. "Shall we?"

Natasha moved forward, quick, quiet, and worrying at the question of why they could almost feel the minutes counting down to trouble. "Adam. When you blew the entrance, you didn't take out the power, did you?"

"No, but I cut every data line I saw," he said grimly. "You think my identity has already gone out?"

She shook her head. "I killed the data cables from the outside. What worries me is a satellite broadcast. The video camera might have been taping a ransom demand, but it could just as easily have been set up for video conferencing."

Clint shrugged. "Nothing we can do if it the intel has already gone out. If you're worried about a regularly scheduled data burst, I can blow the power from here, Adam. But we don't have spare NVDs and you're the one who knows the way out."

Adam said grimly, "If an image has gone out, then it's gone. I'll deal with that if I get to it." He exhaled, annoyed. "Damn it. I wanted those books back.... I can work in the dark if you two make a little noise. If we have to run quiet, tap my left shoulder and I won't drop you."

"Oh, thanks," Clint muttered. More loudly he said, "We have lights. We'll just be doing a fast scan and grab of rooms now. If you see your books, say something."

"If not, better that they're destroyed," Adam said flatly. "Let's get through this and out. Put me in the middle, I'll give directions as we go."

Natasha said dryly, "If we have to run quiet, I'll tap you, and you'll follow Hawkeye out. Hold on to his belt."

"And if it comes to a fight, well, it won't be quiet." Adam nodded.

"Oh, great, I get to play tug boat," Clint complained. He glanced at Natasha, received her nod, and triggered his own explosives.

# # #

They emerged into a rugby field-sized cavern almost three hours later, dusty, sweaty, and thirsty. Adam had been in the lead for much of that time, once he'd finally found his tomes. They'd blown the rest of the Ten Rings sections of the cave system shortly after that.

Natasha would have been less trusting if she hadn't had one of his books in her pack; Clint was carrying a second, and Adam had made room in his pack for the other two.

Adam had only hesitated twice leading them through the tunnels; both times he'd turned around to check the view of the back trail and then headed to the correct turn or crevice. Now he guided them into and through the large cavern, hand out and down in a warning of 'slow' and 'quiet.'

On the far side, he somehow swung a rock twice his height and at least ten times his mass out of the way. Clint shook his head in admiration or disbelief, but as soon as they were through the entry, Adam closed it again, leaving them in a small room with airflow from above and the pungent smell of guano from below.

"Two choices from here," Adam said softly. "One route is shorter but has more of a chance of the local smugglers noticing us. The other route is safer, but it will take another ten hours to get out and away, and you'll be on the far side of this ridge from where you went in. I should be able to find us a little water on our way through, safe but definitely rock-flavored. What I don't know is how badly your backup is worrying by now."

His undertones and body language didn't worry Natasha. The lack of intel, however, did. "Why does someone want to know what you look like?"

Adam paused, then asked softly, "Does it matter?"

She tilted her head, scoffing without a spoken word, one corner of her mouth curving up both because he knew she knew he wasn't a fool and because she also knew Clint would back her up, whether he knew the problem or not.

Adam sighed. "Widow. Those books are old journals of mine. Word that they're here came from... a counterweight to someone I'd rather not work for, or against." His mouth moved in something that wasn't a smile. "Although I will if I have to."

"For or against?" Clint asked.

"If he gains enough leverage, for. Now I have to sort out if I'm being maneuvered or if the General really is foolish enough to risk a preemptive strike."

"You're not fool enough to make one," Natasha said, but she was frowning a little too. "The General. Is he like you?" Clint straightened a little, but Natasha said, "Not my secret, Hawkeye, and not one we can let out."

Clint frowned. "'Like you.' What are you?"

Adam smiled at him, eyes noticeably colder. Natasha signaled Clint back but there wasn't much room for him to move. "I said I'd give you as much warning as I could, Hawkeye. If you goad me into changing sides, well, that might be your warning."

Clint nodded, steady and unflinching despite the rising danger levels Natasha knew he recognized. "I saw the way you were hitting your targets, Adam. You need me to drop it?"

"For both our sakes, yes." His expression thawed and Natasha relaxed with it. "He's an opponent I would have to take seriously."

Natasha frowned at Adam, needing more information for threat assessment. "You think he read something in your journals that might set him after you?"

"He might think I'd make a good second-in-command. I used to specialize in that." Adam's face was blank again, almost bleak. "But as I said, they're my journals. I know what I look like, so why write it? The journals don't have my current name, either."

Clint nodded. "And no photos tucked in? Smart move. So this general lets word get out that he has the books, and where they are, and watches to see who shows up. Because it's either going to be you," he frowned now, "or someone you trust. Who's going to come after us?" It was a question; it wasn't a request.

"No one. You're in SHIELD armor. Not even I would be mad enough to work with SHIELD." Adam shrugged. "And I came in from a very long way away through the mountains. It'll look like I either avoided the gambit or just didn't make it here soon enough. "

"We can't claim that we took them or he'll come after us," Natasha agreed. "That won't keep us out of his business. We can report several hand-bound volumes, some with chemistry and alchemy, and let it sound like we think the ones we couldn't translate in that time were more along those lines, or that Stark used some for fuel."

"He'll wonder if you kept copies," Adam said, considering it. "But the books shouldn't do you any more good than they would him. You'd think they were ravings at worst. Don't mention Stark being anywhere near them. Leave him out of this."

"Okay. So? Which way out?" Clint asked. "Seriously, the fumes in here are never going to come out of this suit."

"Baking soda," Adam said absently. "Suit, a layer of soda, another of charcoal, give it two days; repeat if necessary. All right. Yes. My enemies might have watchers out there."

Natasha raised an eyebrow at Clint; he cocked his head, considering, then waggled his free hand, finally angling it up just a bit. She let him see her surprise for a bare moment, then nodded. "We'll take the long way out, Adam. We're just exploring for SHIELD while we're in here and watching for Ten Rings caches."

"And how do you know we're SHIELD anyway?" Clint asked as Adam opened another doorway Natasha had only just found.

"Oh, please," Adam muttered. "You both have that screaming eagle at your throats, high quality comm equipment, and some kind of suit fabric that I would love to get my hands on if I didn't think SHIELD would come retrieve it."

Clint was snickering softly well before he finished. Natasha slid out to the left once they were in the new tunnel, still making mental notes on the cave and tunnel complex for what she could tell was going to be a very long debriefing.

She didn't tell Adam that he was going to have a minimal, verbal only, appearance in those reports. She still owed him a second favor, after all, but Natasha didn't think she could afford one as expensive as getting him back out of SHIELD's hands.

}{ }{ }{ }{

Chapter Text

Fog was drifting in from the French doors, wisps of moisture rolling into the ballroom and almost muffling the rumble of a riverboat going by. As a contrast with the 'Arabian Nights' theme of the party, the fog made Methos wish his hosts had provided good beer or Irish coffee. Fortunately, the red wine he'd finally found was almost strong enough to cope with the irony of it all.

Methos had deliberately gone for a costume more pseudo-medieval than desert scanty; as a result, he wasn't freezing amid the white sand and fake palm trees. One bright soul had come as a were-jackal. (An amazing number of the guests seemed to have the Arabian Nights mixed up with Egypt; in this case, Methos thought the mistake was deliberate good sense.)

Judging by a few of the disappearances and fidgety reappearances, a few people had acquired sand in unpleasant places. The party wasn't completely dull or useless, though. He'd been able to scout out and, in some cases, flirt with prospective targets over the course of the night. He'd even overheard a pair of useful conversations when charitable patrons had discussed their proposed security upgrades.

He'd also learned that a certain well-connected man was a ne'er do well whose cousin was adding a feature or six to her system. Someone who couldn't very well be denied entry but had a nasty habit of absconding with portable wealth might make a very useful red herring in a future job.

Methos commiserated with the other attendees, admitted that he'd had to sell off or secure a few things himself, and had made copious mental notes. Any jobs based on this gossip would need at least a six-month cooling off period, and have to be spread out over probably six more months besides, but a year's heists planned wasn't a bad night's work.

Especially when that night had included good wine, a view of a few rare first edition books, and an offer or four to keep him warm later. He might even take one of the offers up if he saw them on the way out, because it was definitely time to make his exit. He hadn't relocated anything here himself, but he'd seen a few jewels wander off costumes and at least four drug deals -- two of them unbeknownst to the 'donors,' he rather thought.

So. Time to make his goodbyes here, as he hadn't at the last couple parties. Once he'd established again that he was unpredictably courteous, he could head home.

Methos sauntered past a pair of women doing a very good Charleston and a trio of belly dancers. The women were good; the young man was amazing, but probably still working for another hour. Just past them, he found someone dressed as King Tut who was freezing quite a few of his assets off. Despite the drugs that kept him from noticing the chill, he remembered seeing their hosts dancing to French-Algerian jazz half an hour ago.

By now, they were most likely either getting food or drink. Methos glanced around again for a remarkably clean brigand chief -- really, no one did authenticity these days and thank Whomever for that -- and a genie whose outfit drew its influences from Hollywood. As he did, a hand slipped into the crook of his arm.

He kept walking, his attention on the inner pocket of his tunic, the one that held his licenses and cash. No one tried to lift anything, and he glanced over to see strawberry blond hair, cut short and shingled as Amanda's recent platinum pageboy. The figure, however, wasn't Amanda's, and she would never wear a kimono to an Arabian Nights party.

"You didn't mention knowing Grayson." The Black Widow's murmur was low, breathy, and sounded as admiring as any of the other people who'd tried to flatter Methos out of money for a pet cause that evening.

"No. That's not a name I'd mention," Methos said softly. "You're looking well. Did I see you in the background of the Monaco footage?"

She gave him an amused tilt of head, not so much a 'yes' as 'you know I won't answer that.' Answer enough. "No, I imagine you wouldn't. He seems to have an interest in old journals."

"It's a very good Malbec," Methos said lightly. "Come along, I'll get you one with my refill."

Natasha smiled at him adoringly. "Or we could just go home?"

"I'll take you home if he's not interested," offered a blond youngster who'd spent time in a tanning booth before he donned that skimpy costume. Good thing, too; as pale as that blond hair was, he'd have been deathly white against the black silk.

Natasha shook her head, smiling. "When you already have an admirer?" He turned to look and Methos moved them both along while he wandered his flustered way towards possible amours.

Methos asked softly, "Do we need to leave?"

"Afraid to take me home?" she countered, still clinging to his arm and smiling.

"Not really in a mood to decamp to a backup site," Methos said quietly.

"It might be better if we left," she said lightly.

"You sound distressingly like one of my partners." Methos headed towards the doors. "Come on. I know all the best coffee bars."

"I think I'm flattered by the comparison." Natasha added quickly but still quietly, "No. We have no interest in recruiting any of you three. That wasn't a threat. I needed to know who you were working with to decide when to approach you. That's all."

So SHIELD wasn't after Duncan or Amanda. He'd have to find out if she'd shared that information with SHIELD, however. "Good."

He left it at that as they headed for his car. They both checked the car, quickly and unobtrusively, then climbed in. Watching her crouch in that kimono almost erased his annoyance. Almost.

Methos drove with most of his attention on the road, disregarding Natasha's idle comments; he could already tell this wasn't going to be a conversation to be held at fifty miles per hour. Getting home took almost an hour and would have taken longer if it wasn't two in the morning.

Methos coded the security system off, already making plans to change the code as soon as Natasha left. He waved her in, however, and closed up and locked up behind her. "So. Coffee for this?"

"Some coffee house." She smiled at him. "Yes. Coffee, please, and some vodka if you have any?"

That wasn't a request he'd expected. Methos stopped and reevaluated her; she wasn't trying to present a front, he realized. "This isn't business, then."

Natasha shook her head. "No. I have a couple days off and some information for you which didn't need to be on paper, bytes, or a phone line."

"Ah." Methos flicked the coffee machine on and got cream out of the fridge, vodka from the freezer, and a tin of ginger biscuits off the shelf. "Duncan's been baking again."

"Shoulders like that and he bakes?" Natasha teased, but she brought two mugs over for the tray and added the sugar bowl and a pair of shot glasses.

"Shoulders and thighs like that, and a mouth made for sin, and he likes being domestic," Methos corrected. "Good thing, too. Amanda isn't."

"Amanda has... other talents," Natasha purred. She laughed, too, when he gave her a threatening glare. "No, Adam. I knew Amanda's name and skills before I killed you that time in Brasilia, so don't bother. They're fond memories, thank you. I just didn't know she was like you until a few years ago."

"And now that you know?" He poured the coffee into an insulated carafe and picked up the tray, leading the way back to his study. He was going to want the familiar ground, he suspected. He'd also have more weapons to hand at his desk than in the lounge.

Natasha followed him in, admiring (and probably memorizing) the house as she went. "How many cleaning people does it take to keep this place up?"

"A team once a week," Methos said calmly. "Bonded and insured. Do I need to change them?"

"No, they're incorruptible. I checked." She shrugged, breasts shifting under the kimono distractingly; the motion was probably more habit than intent by now.

"You would," Methos muttered, but it was nice to have the confirmation from someone whose professional opinion he could trust. "Close the door."

Natasha raised an eyebrow, turned to do so -- and smiled. "Now that's lovely. Who painted that for you?"

"I did, of course." Methos tried to look affronted, but he did love the way the room looked with the door closed. Windows and desk and couch on the south wall; books sweeping the length of the east and west walls in rows of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The north wall was his pride and joy, however, centered on the door and hand-painted to look like the forests of Britain as Methos first remembered them, full of green shadow and dappled gold light and tree trunks rising out of smaller plant life. If she looked, and he suspected she would over the course of the discussion, Natasha would find fruit here, flowers there, and a variety of animals under some of the shrubs. Including one of the great wolves that had rightfully been the terror of Europe. (He'd put it in to remind him of some of his past mistakes in both enemies and lovers.)

She stood there admiring it while Methos dispensed coffee, then turned and came back, removing her necklace as she did. She poured a warm string of golden pearls onto the tray before she took her coffee, added sugar to it, and sat down. "Could you give that back to Amanda? She hadn't meant to loan it to me."

"If she didn't steal it back in the interim, she probably did," Methos retorted. He took the strand up, running it through his hands. High quality, matched, naturally gold pearls? He was playing with a small fortune, and Amanda had definitely liked Natasha if she'd left it with her -- or she hadn't been in any position to go after it.

He put the necklace and its question aside. He also turned on a white noise generator and asked for an answer he probably wouldn't like. "Grayson?"

"Has reason to think that if you did still exist, you're probably dead now," Natasha said briskly. "I made sure a partial book cover that looked like yours was found with a partial body: male, tall, and in good shape before he died."

Methos sipped his coffee to hide his mouth and eyes and ran through Kronos' first score of alibis, pushing aside all the might-have-beens that Kronos always brought up. He finally said, "No wonder you wanted vodka."

"For both of us?" She stood, poured glasses for them both, and handed it over. "You'll want the details, I assume?"

"You assume correctly. Gods. You played games with Grayson?" Methos added sugar to his own coffee preemptively. Even immortals could end up in shock, and Grayson and his mentor were a challenge he hadn't wanted to take up.

"He's good," Natasha said lightly, "but not as good as he thinks. Now, when Darius was still in charge, he was terrifyingly competent." Her fingers twitched on her glass and she hissed, "Grayson is one of you?" She kept watching him and bit her lip. "No. Both of them are like you? Bozhe moi."

He hadn't held still enough, or he'd held too still, or maybe she could just read him too well now, as he could almost read her.... "Both of them are like me," Methos said quietly. "Do not ever let them know that you know, or you will be a very long time dying and I'll be digging for a safe enough hole. Or a large enough army."

"That's why von Doom isn't doing any better," Natasha said softly. "They're holding him off. And..." She changed what she'd been saying and Methos let her. He had no intention of ever working for SHIELD. "Did Darius abdicate because he'd been in charge too long? Or because Doom rose to power and he wanted to slide behind the scenes?"

"Both, probably. But yes. Those two consider that section of Europe to be theirs and Doom probably has no idea how much of his trouble they're responsible for." Methos held himself very level. "Enough of that. Tell me about what you left for Grayson's men and how you tracked them to Grayson."

"Tracking them was the easy part," Natasha said. "They delivered the book remnants and the sword--"

"A sword," Methos interrupted.

"It was the strangest weapon you were carrying in Afghanistan," Natasha said calmly, "and you've had one almost every time I've met you, even when you didn't have a gun. The one time you didn't have a sword, you had a very long knife. So I assumed one or the other was needed for the cover and acquired two swords and some very good knives, ones I'd use if I depended on them."

"Two swords." Methos was starting to feel like a parrot or a bad echo, but he hadn't expected this. Thorough, yes, and smart, yes, but he hadn't realized how much she'd put together. "Why two?"

"One for the body and one for me. I might ask for lessons sometime. People are surprisingly unnerved by a blade that long." She shook her head. "Drink your coffee. Let me know when I should start again."

Methos threw the vodka straight down his throat and followed it with some of the coffee. "Go on."

She nodded and straightened, the kimono fold sliding to expose a little more creamy skin. She sounded like the professional he knew damn well she was when she continued. "Here's what I left for them. They found most of a man who'd been almost six feet tall and in good enough shape that the forensic analysis of the bones confirmed extensive musculature and flexibility."

She went on, "The body was partially destroyed by fire. It retained the torso, one arm, and part of both legs. The hand was still holding the book cover and the heat-soaked vellum; the pages were not readable, even by checking for indentations. No feet, no head, insufficient flesh or skin left for fingerprints. He was found with a partially deformed gun -- we threw it in a fire; Hawkeye says thank you, that was fun to test -- and a heat-damaged sword, plus a pair of knives, also damaged."

"Where did you get the body?" Methos asked, frowning.

"A local farmer -- young and healthy, his family was wealthy by local standards -- who'd stepped on a mine." Natasha looked at him. "I assumed too much chemical trace in the bones would be a problem?"

Methos sighed in relief and leaned forward to refill his vodka, already mentally scheduling a quiet panic to be followed the next day by figuring out how much damage needed to be controlled. Panic first, though, although not right now. "You were right. Lovely. Now I think I may owe you."

Natasha waved that off. "I might have paid a little extra, but it was the sort of job where not doing it right would leave me farther in debt. It was better to go over and above. Shall we settle for sword lessons when we're in one place?"

Methos nodded immediately. "Done. You couldn't have done the whole thing more perfectly if you'd asked what I'd need."

"I pay attention," she said lightly. "And I like new skills, Adam. I imagine you could use a new sparring partner now and then?"

"I could. But we're even, Natasha. Thank you." He refilled their vodka and lifted the glass to her.

"I've gotten fond of running into you at odd intervals, too," she said, but she lifted her glass to him, mouth curving into a smile. "To us, and to surviving those who'd control us."

They both drank to that and she refilled the shot glasses before asking, "Do your generals want you for another second who can trade out with Grayson until Darius can realistically come back as his own grandson or something?"

"Or something," Methos agreed grimly. "And... probably, yes. With enough information on me, they might think they could blackmail me into holding down the fort for a generation. They'd have to spot-check to make sure I wasn't screwing them over, and I'd have to be very careful not to get caught when I did, but yes. Modern technology makes it much harder to hold power than it used to be. It used to be that people assumed portraits were just flattering or might even have been touched up to make it obvious the current generation held power by right of blood."

Natasha winced. "I really wouldn't care to see what you could do running part of Eastern Europe."

"And if SHIELD would like to see it, just point out that Doom is already in check," Methos said grimly.

Natasha shook her head. "Some secrets are mine alone. You asked how I know it was Grayson? The book remnants were shipped to his personal secretary. The analysis on the book and the forensic examination of the body were sent directly to Grayson. So was the analysis of the weapons. The knives were recent make, very good quality; one of them was a first responder blade, the chemically inert ones?" She raised an eyebrow; Methos nodded his recognition of what she meant.

"The sword, however, was five hundred years old, give or take, and not ceremonial." Natasha shrugged. "It looked a little like the one you had in Bhutan; I hope that isn't a problem. It seemed to be a fairly standard type."

Methos sighed and relaxed as much as he could. Much better than he'd hoped and more than fair as repayment of the debts. So, since they were even.... "No, that's perfect. Do you need a place to sleep?"

Natasha relaxed back against the chair. "And breakfast if you're free," she said immediately.

He eyed her. "You really do have a few days off?"

Natasha smiled, a bare quirk of her lips. "I didn't think you'd believe me this quickly."

Methos half-smiled back, amused that her motion had closed her kimono again. Distraction concluded, maybe. Or her version of back off the job; he had never offered her more than body warmth at night because she had made it clear nothing was on offer. Too much like work, he suspected, remembering a few decades he'd felt that way, too. She'd get over that when she was ready or if she wanted to. "You wouldn't come to me with a story like that if it couldn't be confirmed. So. Care to stay a few days, risk my cooking again, and learn sword work?"

Natasha mouth curved up, the real, rare smile he'd seen only a few times in all the years. "Does it come with library privileges?"

"I think we can manage something." He stood up. "But sleep first. I'll look for something of Amanda's that might fit tomorrow." Methos considered her. "Tops will be simple enough, but I'm not so sure about pants."

"I'll pick up my bag in London tomorrow," Natasha said. "How do you feel about backgammon?"

That answer had been much too prompt for comfort, Methos decided. "We're not playing for favors."

"I was thinking about stories," she said. "I've been wanting to ask you what gave away that kill in Bora Bora."

Methos smiled wickedly as he picked the tray up. "Intel and skills, now, are traditional stakes. I can think of a few things I'd like to ask you. Evening games it is."

Natasha wandered up the stairs to find a bedroom -- it wouldn't be his, Methos knew, and she'd probably case the entire place, but what the hell; he'd been needing to rearrange a few things -- and Methos went to clean up from the coffee, put out a few ingredients for breakfast, and go to bed himself.

He took the vodka with him -- and his current journal. Tonight, he'd have a nice quiet panic about how much she'd put together and how much SHIELD might be close to figuring out. While she was there, he'd try to sort out how much damage needed to be controlled. After she was gone, he'd figure out how to do it.

Tomorrow, however, he'd enjoy her company. 'Soon' would be soon enough for everything else.

~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~