He traced the scar with his fingertips, knowing the feel of it by heart. There were two more of the small, shiny marks on her skin, skin that had once been young and firm: a graze mark lower down, between her ribs, and the exit wound below her shoulder blade. It was this mark beneath her breast that he knew best, though, this one that must have borne the subtle print of his fingers after all these years. Her skin was softer now, not so young as it once had been, but the scar was the same, still smooth and unchanged to his touch.
At last, as she had so many times before, she stilled his hand with hers and held it there against her breast, kissing his forehead.
"Do you ever think about it?" he asked. He had, of course—a thousand times, at least, most often this time of year, when the leaves started to turn. But for some reason, he'd never asked her before.
She didn't answer right away. Her other hand came to rest against his head and she stroked his hair softly. Hers was silver now, as beautiful as it had always been, and still she wouldn't let him cut his. She said she still loved the feel of it, though he'd begun to streak it with gray years before.
"Sometimes," she said at last, shifting a little beneath him. He lay beside her, his head resting on her shoulder. "I used to. I used to think about you, what your life would have been like."
"I can't imagine it," he said, feeling her steady heartbeat under his hand. A millimeter to the left, they'd said all those years ago, and he'd learned how the world could end, or begin, in the tiniest of increments. "I can't even begin."
Tessa went on quietly stroking his hair until the pressure in his throat eased, and he drew a deep breath. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the wooden shutters, warm against his skin, making it easier. After a while, when he'd relaxed against her, she said, "Sometimes I think about what I would have been like if it had never happened at all, how I would have been different. Whether I would have made the same choices, you know? But then I'm grateful that I don't have to find out, because I wouldn't change anything. So then, I don't think about it."
He nodded. His heart was full, too full for words to express everything he wanted to say, all his love for her, his regrets for the things he could never give her. Children. A normal life, without fear, without the pain of living every day knowing that she would grow old alone, that her body would fail her and that he would have to watch it happen. All the things he would have changed for her if he could.
Her fingers exerted gentle pressure on his chin, and he had to look up, meet her stern look. "Not anything, Duncan," she said, and her gaze was clear and unshadowed, utterly certain.
He shifted up, lifting her hand to kiss the backs of her fingers, holding her eyes with his own, letting her see that the feeling was shared, and more than shared. "Tessa," he said huskily, moved by her passion, her strength, as he always was.
Then they were kissing, and his love for her bloomed warm in his body, spreading like honey and sparks of eagerness all through him. She moved against him, gently at first, then more urgently, and he felt her breath quicken. It awakened a powerful response in him, and he had to struggle to keep himself in check; she made a soft sound against his mouth and turned her body to him, yielding to his heat.
He pulled back, trembling a little with the effort. "You sure?"
She said nothing, and didn't have to—her answer was in her eyes. He came to her without another moment's hesitation, and it was sweet, so sweet, and she held him when he couldn't hold back any more, kept all the pieces of him together, safe, as she always had.
When he could breathe again, he kissed and caressed her for a long time, stroking warmth and pleasure into her skin until she was practically purring with it, and they might as well have been one person, their bodies warm and entwined in the fading light. He was very nearly asleep when she stirred, sighing.
"It's almost six."
"Mm." He nuzzled closer to her neck.
"Do we really have to go?"
"Mm. No, I don't think so. Let's stay here—they'll never miss us."
She tucked herself in more closely to his body. "Good, I was hoping you'd say that."
The shadows lengthened by slow, inexorable degrees.
"Of course, if we don't go," he said reluctantly, at last, "who'll play referee? Hannah would kill us for inviting Methos to Richie's birthday dinner and then not showing up to run interference." After thirty years, Duncan's best friend and his former student had learned to get along reasonably well, but he suspected it was mostly for his sake that they made the effort.
"They're both adults. Shouldn't they be able to manage one dinner without getting into trouble?"
"This is Methos and Richie we're talking about, right?"
She sighed again, resigned this time. "I suppose we really must go. Richie would be so disappointed."
"Well, if you say we go, we go. I want to log an official protest, though. Just so we're clear that getting out of this bed wasn't my idea."
She shifted away and raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh, I see, you want to reserve the right to complain about being forced to do the right thing by your cruel, heartless wife."
"Of course!" He caught her and pulled her towards him again, kissing her nose. "My cruel, heartless, beautiful, talented, wonderful wife."
She rolled her eyes. "Are there women who actually fall for that?"
"Just one," he said, smiling and turning her face up so he could kiss her properly. "Lucky for me, she's the right one."
* * *
They were twenty minutes late, but no one seemed to mind. The boys—that was to say, Methos, Richie, and Hannah's two oldest, Matt and Sean, eleven and nine respectively—were in the game room engrossed in some kind of competition over the pool table. Tessa could hear Richie laughing, and the two boys protesting loudly over some debated point of the rules. No doubt Methos was trying to persuade them that things had been done differently and with infinitely greater sense and style in the 15th century. Tessa's mother had warned her when she was a young girl that most men never really grew up, no matter how old they got, and it was good to know her mother had been right about some things.
Richie's wife Hannah was in the kitchen, and put Duncan to work immediately after hugging them hello. As usual, Tessa had eyes only for Leslie, Hannah's youngest, and was more than happy to take Hannah up on her suggestion that they go read a book until supper was ready. The five-year-old came straight to her and put her small hand in Tessa's, and Tessa was smitten all over again. They went into the living room and the time ran away like water; it seemed only a few minutes before Hannah was calling everyone to dinner.
A sudden weariness came over her as she sat at dinner, not really hearing the lively conversations that circled the table. It seemed to overtake her like weights settling on her limbs, dizziness making it hard to talk, or to eat, but she pretended to be listening. Duncan and Richie were discussing plans for the new house, and she didn't think Duncan noticed; if Methos did, he was careful not to draw attention to her.
It only lasted a few minutes, and then she felt better, and was able to eat a little of the lasagna and join in the conversation a bit. Before long, the ravening hordes had decided they'd had enough of dinner and were ready for cake. Hannah went to put the finishing touches on it while Richie and the boys took over cleanup, insisting that the rest of them relax and stay out of the kitchen. Leslie kidnapped Duncan to show him her drawings, so Tessa got up and went out onto the back patio, standing near the outdoor heater, tucking her hands into her sweater for warmth.
It was a beautiful night. There was enough chill in the air that you could smell the leaves that had already fallen, the faint, sweet scent of decay. You could still see the stars out here away from the city, and she tilted her head back and looked at them for a while, breathing deeply. She'd asked Duncan once if he felt young when he looked at the stars. He'd laughed and said looking at *her* made him feel young, and then he'd proven it, but he had never really answered. She thought she understood now. The stars had always made her feel young and small, in a way that was comforting; tonight, that comfort was absent, and looking at them made her think of bright little souls that sparkled for a few moments, a blink of time, and were gone.
He scared her. She could feel his fear, closer now than it had been when she had been young, growing closer and stronger still every year. She hadn't told him that what she thought about, when she thought about how her brush with death so many years ago might have changed her life, was whether she'd made a mistake in letting him love her so deeply, in loving him back just as deeply. She didn't know how she could have helped herself, or walked away from him. But sometimes she wondered whether the bullet that had almost killed her in the street hadn't been meant to finish the job.
Tessa hugged her arms closer to herself, wishing she were at home, with his strong, forever-young body curled protectively around her. She didn't know when she'd come to understand why some of them looked at Duncan the way they did. She'd seen it first in Darius, those long ago days in Paris, and she'd seen it in Connor, but she hadn't really understood. Maybe it was seeing the same thing in Methos, who seemed to alternate between perpetual adolescence and jaded pragmatism, who seemed the least likely candidate for hero-worship she'd ever met. Maybe it was recognizing that look in his eyes when he looked at Duncan, the same unspoken certainty that ran beneath the surface of everything he did and said, everything they'd all been through together. It didn't really matter when; somewhere, somewhen, she'd finally understood that Immortality was more than living through history, more than never growing old, or being unable to have children. That she was the one who was living through history every day she spent with Duncan, with all of them, and that all of them—perhaps Duncan most of all—held the world in the palm of their hands.
Maybe if she'd died thirty years ago at the hands of a drug addict, maybe if she'd walked away, chosen another life, a family, instead of making Duncan her life—maybe then he would have found the strength to go on, to accept it. Maybe he would have found others to love. Now? She tried to convince herself that she gave herself too much credit, that he had survived almost four centuries before he'd ever met her, but she could still feel the way he'd grown so tense beside her, the way he'd traced her scar, as he sometimes did even in his sleep.
The glass door slid open behind her, and quiet footsteps drew near.
"Hey. Thought I might find you out here."
Methos. He didn't ask if she was all right, and she was grateful for that. His presence made her feel a little better, a little less like she was standing on the edge of things, looking down. She could see her own fear when she looked at Methos sometimes, if she looked hard enough, or if he let her see it; she knew that there was one person in the world who understood what fate she held in her own hand. What consequences there might be for the choices she'd made.
"I'll tell him tomorrow," she said, and saying the words made her want to cry. She couldn't cry, not here; Duncan would see, and there would be questions. It might come out that Methos knew, had known for almost a week, and Duncan might never forgive him for that.
She should have gone to another hospital for the tests, but she'd needed someone she could trust, and she'd gone to Methos. He'd said nothing in the days since the results had come back, hadn't judged her for being unable to tell Duncan, but it wasn't fair to Methos to wait when every day was one more day they might have told him, and didn't. Duncan wouldn't be able to bring himself to be angry with her, but it would be all too easy for him to blame Methos, and she needed Methos to stay close now. Duncan would need him.
She was trembling, and she made herself move away from him, because if he saw her distress and tried to comfort her, she would fall apart.
"Tessa," he said, and she could hear the pain in the way he said it.
She turned and met his gaze at last, breathing in the scents of dead leaves and faint woodsmoke, focusing all her strength. "Be there for him," she said firmly. "Don't let him push you away. No matter what happens, no matter how hard it is, you have to be there for him. You are the only one who can be, do you understand?"
His face was all angles in the starlight, and his eyes were ancient and deep, full of all the sadness of the world. He nodded.
"Promise me," she insisted
"I promise," he said, unfaltering, and though he made no gesture, and didn't move, an image flashed through Tessa's thoughts of a medieval knight swearing fealty. It was enough.
His knowing gaze was more than she could bear for long, and she started to turn back towards the house; he stopped her with a quick step forward, one hand on her arm. "Tessa."
She turned back.
"I've waited a long time," he said, and his voice was hoarse, his eyes bright now, shining in the starlight. "But I would wait forever if I had the choice. I never wanted—"
"I know that," she said, and was relieved to hear that her own voice was strong. "You don't have to explain. Now, please, don't say any more. We have to go in and sing happy birthday."
He made a sound like a catch of breath, not quite a laugh, and his admiration was unmistakable. "In five thousand years, I have never known anyone quite like you, Tessa Noel."
She found a smile, or a hint of one, and arched her brows. "Well, I should hope not."
This time he did laugh, and that was how Duncan found them when he slid open the patio door and poked his head outside. "Come on, slowpokes! We're going to have a revolt in here if we don't get cake distributed to the troops. Get in here and sing for the fifty-four-year-old geezer of the house."
"I heard that!" Richie called from the dining room.
Duncan laughed, and yelled back, "See, I told you age jokes weren't funny! Right, Methos?"
"Like that ever stopped you," Methos complained.
"Details, details," said Duncan, his hand warm against Tessa's back as, together, the three of them went inside.