"I love a good apocalypse."
Duncan twisted the damp cloth one last time, watching the water swirl down the sink pink, then clear. He looked up. Methos was shaking out a match, smoke curling from his fingers for a moment illuminated by flickering candlelight, his face in shadow. Duncan flapped out the cloth and draped it over the edge of the sink. "I'll bet you do."
Methos threw him the flicker of a smile. "Dinner?"
"Next time, you go shopping," Duncan told him, and tossed over a can of soup. The movement reopened the mostly-healed wound in his shoulder; he gritted his teeth and added, "The gas is still out. You'll have to eat it cold."
"Mm." Methos held the can thoughtfully over his candle, as though actually considering the merits of trying to heat it that way; then he shrugged and popped the can open.
Duncan checked his shoulder gingerly. Closed again, though the skin was still tender. "God I miss the nineties."
"Which ones?" Methos wanted to know.
"The ones with electricity," Duncan answered, not quite able to keep the sarcasm from his voice. He cracked open his own can of soup. At least cold pea was better than cold tomato. Served Methos right.
"I could afford electricity in the eighteen-nineties," Methos said, in the distant voice of fond reminiscence. "Don't miss the pollution, though."
"No," Duncan agreed softly. Methos probably meant those old London fogs, but there wasn't much pollution anywhere these days. It was nice to see the stars again, nearly as sharp and cold and clear as they'd been when he was a boy. It mostly made up for the cold soup, the infrequent utilities, and their slowly-dwindling supply of candles. After all, unlike nearly everyone else out there in the world, Duncan and Methos had both lived through worse.
"Hey." Methos propped himself upright, still cradling his can of soup. "How's the shoulder?"
"Better now," Duncan said, rotating it slowly in demonstration. When Methos wouldn't break his gaze, Duncan managed a smile. "It wasn't a close call, just some kid not wanting to pay for a meal." But Methos didn't look any happier at this news. "What?"
"Nothing," Methos said, and curled up around his soup.
They ate in silence in their circle of candlelight. Methos set on his food with the silent singular concentration of a man utterly certain of the uncertainty of his next meal and determined to relish the gift while it lasted. Duncan tried to do the same, but he'd never really gotten the hang of famine.
He could no more rid himself of five hundred years' habit of caring for those around him than he could turn into a fish, so he watched Methos, barely tasting his own food. They were running out of supplies, but that wasn't a disaster; between them they had going on six millennia of survival skills. If Duncan was honest with himself, he wasn't even that worried that Methos' cheekbones were hollow-sharp, that his thin wrists nearly disappeared in the sleeves of his oversized jacket. Their physical condition was not the real cause for concern.
Methos finished his soup with a slurp and glanced up at Duncan, eyes annoyed. "What?"
"Nothing," Duncan said, and winced into his half-finished soup. He'd never been any good at lying to Methos, but in this last decade he'd become truly appalling.
"Right," Methos drawled, drawing out the vowel in that particular way he had that never failed to make Duncan fantasize about killing him, just a little. Methos swung his legs over the side of the ratty sofa and rose to his feet. "I'll be outside."
"Right," Duncan echoed, and waited until the tin door rattled closed behind Methos before he allowed himself to slump down a little. He finished his soup, still not tasting it, and rinsed both cans, setting them aside. The metal would be useful later; they could patch the door with it, before the autumn sharpness turned deadly. Duncan smiled humorlessly to himself and braced his arms against the sink, head hanging down, breathing in and out and in until he had room inside himself for anything besides sarcasm and terrible worry. After more than a hundred years, he still had yet to find a truly effective weapon against Methos, but honesty was at least a little better than defensiveness.
The candle guttered out into darkness.
Duncan stayed braced against the wall for long minutes, searching for the right words. Not for the first time he wished futilely that he could give Joe a call, ask for inside information or at the very least some of Joe's surprising, practical wisdom -- but reliable phones were a distant memory, and Joe Dawson had been in the ground for almost seventy-five years. Duncan tried to imagine what Joe might say, call up his face and voice, but all he could summon was a glimpse of kind eyes crinkled with years of laughter and compassion, the fleeting suggestion of Joe saying I don't know this time, Mac. Less than helpful.
Unbidden, another voice from the same time: Tessa, hand on her hip, hair pulled back from long hours working, looking right into Duncan's soul and saying, in that wonderfully pragmatic way she'd had: So who made the rules, anyway? If you're right, then it doesn't matter. You get to make the rules now.
Duncan's eyes snapped open in the dark.
"Maybe," he murmured, and he straightened, heading for the door.
Outside it was cold, the harsh biting cold of a dying autumn and of arctic currents rolling down the coast. There'd been a time when deep snow every November in Washington was unthinkable, but there was already a light crusting on the ground, and a promise in the air of more to come. Duncan crunched through it as softly as he could manage, leaving the house behind and coming up to the weed-grown balcony. He found Methos sitting there, his legs dangling over the edge like a child's.
Methos was gazing down at the city below them, patches of darkness and light delineating the rich or fortunate from the masses. Overhead, the sweep of the Milky Way spanned the sky, impossibly big and ancient. Maybe Methos was right; the world did basically stay the same, even if the details changed. Duncan felt his mouth quirk into a small smile, unbidden but welcome.
"If you're done being Batman," Methos said, not looking away from the view.
Duncan blinked. "Batman?"
"You're brooding. It gives me hives." Methos glanced up at him. "Sit down or leave."
"I'm not brooding," Duncan protested, mostly accurately, but he folded down next to Methos, his legs hanging off the balcony above a slope of dead grass. He resisted a passing urge to swing his legs, but instead sat steady, head tipped back to look at the sky. After a moment he could sense Methos looking at him, but he didn't shift; they were years past the time when baring their throats to one another meant anything.
"MacLeod," Methos said, but if he had anything to offer beyond that, he kept it to himself. Duncan tore his gaze from the sky. Methos met his eyes for a moment, then wrapped his coat tighter around himself and turned back to the city.
Duncan could almost hear Tessa muttering in exasperation.
"There hasn't been anyone else for a while," he said into the silence.
Methos snorted softly. "I hope that's not a declaration."
"No." Duncan elbowed Methos in the ribs, and Methos snickered. Duncan felt a wash of gratefulness. "Shut up. I'm serious. I haven't sensed anyone but you in over a week."
Methos was quiet for a time. Duncan waited. "I noticed," Methos said finally, and that was a sort of reward; there was no shred of sarcasm in it, no deliberate misunderstanding. "Never thought we'd want the Watchers back."
"Yeah." Duncan took a deep breath. The cold burned his lungs, and he let it out again in a steady exhale, centering himself. "Why did you come here, Methos?" He could sense the beginning sarcastic response this time, so he added hastily, "Back to Seacouver, I mean."
"I wanted to visit my old friend MacLeod," Methos said with careful lightness. "It's this bad habit I have. Usually the accommodations are a bit nicer, but I've allowed for hard times, and the company's better than you get at a hotel."
"Methos," Duncan said.
"What?" Methos snapped.
"This place was crawling with Immortals when you turned up," Duncan said helplessly.
"Yes, and now they've gone. It's all very convenient. I can get on with my vacation in peace." Methos fumbled his coat in around himself; Duncan could hear the brief bright scrape of a sword against concrete as he stood.
Duncan followed him up. "Why visit now? You hate the winters here."
"I don't know," Methos spat. "Masochism, maybe."
"You felt you had to come, didn't you?" Methos backed up a step, and Duncan followed again, more warily now. The last thing he wanted to do was spook Methos into doing something stupid. "I thought I'd give this place up, try somewhere new. I was really going to do it -- get maps, plan a route, everything -- but all of a sudden there were challengers everywhere." He couldn't quite stop the involuntary shudder of memory; he'd never kept score, but half a dozen Quickenings in the space of a week had a funny way of sticking in the mind, not to mention in the bloodstream. "And then you turn up in the middle of it --"
"Someone had to keep you from getting killed," Methos countered, almost triumphantly, with the air of a man given an unexpected lifeline and grabbing it for all he was worth. "It's not like this is the first time you've been a magnet for deranged Immortals --"
"Yeah, but it's the first time it's been so many," Duncan interrupted. It was difficult to see Methos' face in the starlight, but the expression he could make out looked horribly like despair. He pressed on anyway, determined to see this through; there was no way they could avoid the issue forever. "And the last one --"
"I know," Methos said tightly. He'd been there for the aftermath, after all, cleaning the blood from Duncan's body and muttering nonsense about what an idiot MacLeod was, holding Duncan through a night of fever and shaking while the Quickening fought to make its peace with Duncan's soul; it had been Methos who had, in the morning, all but forcibly dragged Duncan up to this old house in the mountain slopes above the city, where they'd been in relative peace for the last week excepting those times they'd had to venture out into the new world order to obtain food. There were a lot of things they hadn't talked about this week. Those other Immortals. How neither of them had heard from Amanda in an uncomfortably long time. Where they could possibly go from here. "I know, MacLeod," Methos said, and this time his voice was brittle to breaking.
"We can't know for sure," Duncan said, the words unbidden, trying at the last to take back this conversation when he saw what it was costing Methos.
Methos barked a harsh laugh. "Yes we can. Yes, we do." At least he wasn't backing away now, but Duncan didn't venture any closer. "They may not have their database now, but I'd stake my life that if there are any Watchers still around, they're out of any job but betting the odds."
"Don't," Duncan whispered. He resisted looking into the shadows.
"They're probably having the time of their lives," Methos pressed on, ruthless now, stepping forward into Duncan's space, and Duncan saw, too late, that he'd miscalculated, that by avoiding this conversation when it was still hypothetical, still unthinkable and impossibly far away, he'd destroyed any chance of making it safe now. He stared at Methos helplessly. Methos smiled back, savage and humorless. "They're probably all betting on you. I could announce myself. Methos, the oldest living man." He turned into the darkness, spreading his arms wide. "That's right! I'm Methos! I've taken heads tallied in languages you'll never hope to read!" His voice echoed off the hills, and he whirled back on Duncan, his eyes glittering in the starlight. "Now it's even."
"Stop," Duncan said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. "It doesn't have to be this way."
"No? But there can be only one," Methos said, precise and bitter. Duncan could see he was trembling. But neither of them had gone for their swords. Duncan held hard to that truth.
"Not yet," he whispered. "It doesn't have to end like this."
"Duncan," Methos said, and just like that, all the harshness was gone from his voice. He was still shaking, but his next words were astonishingly gentle. "Haven't you been paying attention for the last century? I've done everything in my power to keep you alive, no matter how stupid you act sometimes. And I've done everything I can to keep me alive, too. It doesn't take a genius to work out how this was going to end."
Duncan's throat ached. "There could still be others."
"No," Methos said, with such kindness that the ache in Duncan's throat nearly transmuted into tears. "We'd know. We'd know."
"I won't fight you," Duncan managed.
He could see, faintly, a smile slide onto Methos' face. It was one he was sure he'd seen before, but long ago, such a long time, when they'd known each other for only the briefest moment, before Duncan really knew anything about Methos, before Duncan really knew anything about himself. He hadn't understood the smile then, but he did now, and it knocked the breath from him: it was love, a depth of love summoned from a place Duncan could hardly imagine, and for the first time in a long while -- such a long while, the first time since more than a century ago, when he'd realized how many terrible things about his friend he would be lucky to never know -- he was afraid of Methos.
"I won't," Duncan repeated, trying to make it sound like a warning. It came out a plea.
"It has to be you," Methos said.
"No." Duncan tried to back up a step. His feet wouldn't cooperate. "No! Listen to yourself! You say you knew it would come to this, and in all that time you couldn't think up another solution? Me or him, and it has to be him? What sort of plan is that, Methos?"
Methos shrugged. If he was still shaking, Duncan couldn't see it; he seemed to have passed through terror into resolution. "It's the best one I've got. Maybe it's time."
"Maybe it's not!" Duncan took a shaky breath and made himself step forward. Methos held his ground. Duncan searched for something that would take his refutations beyond simple denials, and after a moment he'd grasped it. "Do you believe in the Prize?"
Methos blinked, a soft, liquid movement. "Yes."
"Really? You think that after all this, I'm a champion of all that is good and that if I cut off your head I'll somehow have all the knowledge I need to rule the world with a benevolent hand until the end of time?" Duncan reached out and grasped Methos' shoulders. Methos stayed perfectly still. Duncan shook him gently, and Methos moved without resistance. "Methos, you look me in the eye and tell me that you believe I'm really the champion of all goodness and light."
There was a pause. Methos simply looked at him, still with that terrible loving smile on his face. Then it slid into something like joy, and Methos was laughing, shaking again, grasping at Duncan's arms in turn and gasping, his voice full of mirth, "Yes, I do, I really do. Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, champion of all that is good in the world!"
Then Methos kissed him.
Duncan had already been standing there gaping like an idiot, so it was no great feat; one moment Methos was laughing in his face and trembling in his arms, and the next, Methos was devouring his mouth, hot and infinitely tender, wrapped in close around Duncan.
It was utterly unexpected. A century ago Duncan had given up hoping for it; in those first few months of knowing Methos, he'd entertained the possibility, felt their easiness with each other, their mutual admiration, and idly desired more. Then he'd learned of the Horsemen, and the desire, along with all his preconceptions of his friend, were gone like flashpaper. In the years that followed, growing to decades, they'd grown close again, regained the rhythm of their arguments, rescued each other from various scrapes, but under the returning easiness had been the understanding that, if they did anything now, it would mean much more than either of them were willing to risk.
And now this.
Now they were standing on a hillside above a weary wrecked city, the stars wheeling overhead and a long winter rolling down on them, and Methos was kissing Duncan MacLeod with the intense, worshipful passion of a man with nothing left to lose. After the first moment of shock, Duncan's body came alive, and he kissed Methos back; to his distant lack of surprise, he was trembling nearly as violently as Methos, utterly overwhelmed. He needed to be closer. His hands burrowed under Methos' coat, one brushing for a moment against the sword in the lining; he ignored it, palms skimming Methos' ribs. Methos made a faint shocked noise at the cold but only stepped closer, rubbing them up against each other. Stars burst behind Duncan's eyes.
He tore his mouth away, gasping in cold lungfuls of air. They stared at one another. Duncan had no idea what was written in his face, but Methos' eyes were wide, and full of the beginnings of fear.
Duncan leaned forward again and kissed him, gently, lightly, a promise. "No one's dying," he said firmly. "Not today. Live, remember? Live, grow stronger ..."
Methos heaved a sigh and leaned in, nuzzling his face against Duncan's neck. Duncan had the idea that he'd tried very hard to make it sound long-suffering, but to him it sounded like the most profound relief.
"All right, Highlander," Methos mumbled. "You win."