"Where have you been?"
"Here and there. There, mostly."
—Joe and Methos, "Indiscretions"
* * *
Boston, December 1997
Underneath an iron-gray sky, the smell of snow weighted the air. Methos jogged between cars slowed by afternoon congestion; a horn blared, followed by the angry bellow of a frustrated driver. As the day wore on toward rush hour, the traffic would only get worse, and Methos took a moment to be thankful his hotel wasn't far. Trying to get a cab later would be no fun whatsoever.
He checked the address he'd written down, matching it to the number on the building before him. Three-sixty-five Midlothian Lane was a solid, six-story brick building amidst a forest of taller, more modern concrete. Its entrance, on a busy side street, led to a quiet, unprepossessing lobby with a single elevator, a list of business names and unit numbers laid out in small white letters along one wall. He found the sign for Number 29; it read simply, S. Quaerito, and beneath that, Use Alley Entrance.
There appeared to be only one alley, on the north side of the building. Steam curled from the pipes as Methos jogged up the stairs toward the single door at the top. The door was unmarked and looked like it hadn't been painted since the last century. He was just beginning to wonder if perhaps he'd misread the sign when he felt the nerve-jarring, unmistakable presence of another Immortal.
Methos backed against the wall, going for his sword. He scanned the alley, but saw no one, heard nothing but the sudden rushing of blood in his ears. The way things had been going lately, he should have expected something like this—it was par for the course, and he blew out a breath in exasperation at his stupidity. Here he was, virtually trapped in a blind alley, a narrow flight of stairs to the right and a locked door at his left. You'd think he didn't have the sense of a gerbil.
Better to chance the drop than find himself fighting at a disadvantage on the stairs. He shifted his grip on his sword and stepped quickly across the small landing, already poised with one hand on the railing when the bolt slipped with a rusty sound and the door swung open.
Before he could jump, a sharp laugh punctuated the chill air.
"Thomas? Is that you?"
The voice was deep, melodic, accented—and oddly familiar. Methos hesitated, still tensed for flight, watching as the other Immortal's blade lowered, and a broad figure stepped forward into the doorway. Thick dark hair waved back from a high, intelligent forehead and round face; wide set, amused hazel eyes met his above a bow-shaped mouth. The sword, Methos noted, remained in readiness despite its slightly less threatening position.
Methos didn't drop his guard, but his fight or flight instinct eased down a few notches, and he let his own sword fall a touch. It had been easily six hundred years; nevertheless, the memory came sudden and vivid, unexpectedly welcome. De Montaigue was a friend, or had been, once upon a time. "Gérard! I think you just took a few centuries off my life."
"Lucky for us, it doesn't work that way. What the hell are you doing here? You haven't come for me, I hope."
"Heaven forbid." Methos cast a glance down the alley, suddenly conscious of their naked blades. "I came to see a man called Keel. I certainly didn't expect to see you. How long's it been?" He kept the other man's hands in view, trying not to give the appearance of doing so.
De Montaigue looked amused, reading him too well. "Avignon. Thirteen ninety-four, as I recall. And still a suspicious bastard, I see. Relax, old friend, I've no desire for your head. I've enough trouble sleeping through the night as it is."
Methos shrugged, putting on a bland smile. "Six hundred years is a long time. Man can't be too careful these days."
The other man laughed aloud at that. "True enough. But come inside, at least, and tell me what business you have with Keel. He's me, by the way. Or rather, I'm him." He shifted the sword to the hand that held the door open, and offered his right in welcome. "Alva Keel, at your service."
The grin that came with the welcome was as disarmingly jovial as Methos remembered, and he found himself relaxing in the face of the man's undeniable charm. He returned the hand clasp, Keel's strong, square hand squeezing his forearm. "Adam Pierson. For the time being, at least."
He followed Keel into the dark, cavernous office beyond the peeling door, blinking against the gloom. File boxes crowded on all sides, stacked haphazardly on drafting tables and chairs and battered filing cabinets, blocking what weak light managed to get in past the grimy windows. At the far end of the room, a door to a private office stood ajar; more boxes were visible within, along with stacks of books and what looked like parchment cases piled on the antique desk. The yellow glow of the desk's single reading lamp cast the only light in the place.
Methos' gaze skated over a row of Templar swords near the door. "Sodalitas Quaerito," he mused, sharing the joke. "Brotherhood in search of truth. That's cute."
Keel shot him a wry look, returning his blade to its place among its fellows. "I'm afraid it's also somewhat deceptive. As you can see, I'm rather on my own at the moment. Finding suitable office staff has proven to be... something of a challenge."
"I can imagine." Methos sheathed his own sword, his eyes falling on the handwritten label of the nearest box. It read, Pareidolia/Electronic Voice Phenomena. The last time he'd seen Keel—de Montaigue, then—he'd worn a priest's robes. "How long have you been..."
"Investigating paranormal phenomena? I encountered my first case twelve years ago."
Methos gave him a sharp look. "So you do believe these things are real." He waved a hand, indicating the boxes and books. "This isn't just a gimmick to sell magazine subscriptions, or tarot cards, or something."
"I assure you, I take my work very seriously." Keel gave him a searching look in return, and Methos remembered the man's fierce intelligence. "Something brought you here, did it not? Something happened to you, perhaps, that you can't explain?"
For a long moment, Methos was tempted to reconsider the dubious wisdom of coming here at all. This was a fool's errand to begin with, and encountering another Immortal, even one he'd once considered a friend, had unsettled him. It was entirely possible that appearances aside, Keel was nuttier than a fruitcake, and Methos wasn't certain the same couldn't be said of him. There seemed to be a lot of that going around these days.
But standing there in the deepening gloom, Keel's clear-eyed, expectant gaze made him feel as though he'd found an unexpected ally—or, at the very least, someone he could talk to who wouldn't have him committed.
Taking a deep breath, he said, "What can you tell me about demons?"
Keel's eyebrows rose. "That... could take quite some time." He surveyed Methos critically, then considered the cluttered, chilly room with its distinct lack of available comforts. "And perhaps it's a conversation best had over a drink, or several. What do you say?"
Methos' lips gave an involuntary twitch. "Sounds like the best idea I've heard today."
Keel clapped his hands and rubbed them together, pleased. "Coincidentally, I know just the place."
* * *
"When were you in Scotland?" Methos asked, as they claimed a private corner booth and signaled the barman. The last time they'd met, they'd both been speaking French; Keel's current accent was pure Glasgow, but softened by years away from the source. The resemblance, and the irony, were not lost on Methos.
"Late seventeenth century," Keel said, hanging his coat on a hook and sliding in across from Methos, his hair mussed and falling over his wide forehead. The man still had the same energy about him—that perpetual state of vibrant alertness that Methos remembered. "I went over some years ago, sold off some of my holdings there, but I still plan to go back one of these days. What about you? You're not living in Boston, by chance?"
"I'm... in transition, at the moment. Been living in Paris the last few years, but it's past time I moved on." He looked up as the barman arrived at their table.
"The usual, please, Sean," Keel said, and the man nodded before turning to Methos.
"And you, sir?"
"I'll have whatever he's having."
Sean returned shortly with two glasses of whisky; Keel sipped deeply of his and gave a sigh of appreciation before leaning forward, intent. "So, then. Tell me exactly what sort of demonic activity you experienced?"
Methos nearly choked on his drink. "You'll have to excuse me," he managed, when he'd recovered. "This is all a little new to me."
"Understood, understood. One's first encounter with the unexplained can be rather a shock. Particularly if one has lived a very long time, and has become accustomed to the idea that the world behaves in certain, predictable ways."
"That is... very well put. Yes, exactly."
Keel leaned forward, with a particular light in his eyes that he'd once reserved for theological debate. "I'll let you in on a secret. It's my belief that we are witnessing the beginning of a cycle in which various paranormal occurrences will become more and more commonplace."
Methos kept his expression blank with effort. "Really."
Keel smiled. "I know how it sounds. But I've been conducting extensive field research into these matters for over a decade, and believe me, once you've seen it, the evidence is difficult to deny."
"And you honestly believe there are such things as demons."
"I'm as certain of it as I am that you and I are sitting here right now." Keel's sharp gaze held Methos fast. "Something led you to seek help. Something you haven't been able to discuss with anyone. Tell me what happened."
Methos leaned back in the booth and studied his fingers, tracing them over the curve of the glass. He picked it up and took a healthy swallow.
"It could be that what I experienced was... an hallucination. You know as well as I do, the mind can play tricks, particularly in times of extreme stress or under extreme conditions."
"But you don't really believe that's the case."
Methos looked up at last. "I don't want to believe that," he said, and heard the roughness in his voice. It was the first time he'd admitted that aloud. "I want to think that there was a reason. Some explanation, no matter how fantastical."
"You'd be surprised how many unexplainable stories I've heard in my line of work, and how many of them turn out to be true."
In spite of himself, Methos found Keel's certainty compelling. But where to start? He'd been trying for half a year to make sense of what had happened, of when it had all started to go wrong. At the time, he and Joe had believed MacLeod had killed Richie in a fit of temporary insanity—at least, they'd hoped it was temporary. To their eyes, it had seemed to come out of nowhere, to consume MacLeod without warning in a matter of days.
He wasn't so sure anymore. Since Mac's disappearance, he'd been over it so many times, it was hard to know for certain whether he'd begun to see things through the skewed lens of hindsight—but as the months had passed, he'd become more and more convinced that whatever had gone wrong with MacLeod had started long before the fateful day when he'd killed Richie Ryan.
Methos let out a long, unsteady breath.
"I've a friend. An Immortal friend—name's MacLeod. You've probably heard of him."
Keel's interest sharpened. "The elder, or the younger?"
"The younger. Duncan." He finished his whisky in a long draught, barely tasting it; Keel ordered them another round with a wave of his hand. "We've been friends for a few years, but the last year or so, we've been going through a rough patch, you could say. He's taken a number of very old, very powerful Immortals, including a man named Jim Coltec who called himself a hayoka. Something went wrong with the quickening, and MacLeod suffered a kind of temporary insanity during which he killed a good friend of his. I'm not sure, but that may have been the start."
"When was this?"
"February of last year. But I can't really be certain it's connected to what happened in Paris."
The barman brought them each a fresh drink, and Methos nodded his thanks. The liquor's smoky burn was a welcome touchstone. He'd never intended to tell this story at all, and it was more difficult than he'd expected. He and Dawson, together and separately, had tapped every resource they had. This trip had been a last resort, and he'd never expected anything to come of it; he hadn't realized how little hope he had left until now, with Keel sitting across from him offering the uncertain but very real possibility of answers, of a concrete lead at long last.
He gave a wry smile, and shook his head. "Forgive me. I'm probably making this more complicated than it needs to be."
"On the contrary," Keel said. "You're right to look for patterns. Quite frequently, demons and other malevolent entities slip in where fault lines already exist. If there's one thing I've learned in my years of investigation, it's that where the paranormal is concerned, there are very few coincidences."
Methos considered that. "You're familiar with millennium theory, I assume."
"Of course. The time of great change, prophesied by Nostradamus, among others. Many Christians believe the world will end, or we will see the Second Coming of Christ—any number of dramatic events."
"How much do you know about the millennial prophecies of Zoroaster?"
Keel's eyebrows rose. "In the Zoroastrian scheme of things, the cycle spans twelve millennia, with significant events that recur each thousand years—essentially, a series of apocalypses. With each, a kind of messianic king, or champion, appears, who must fight a cosmic battle for the sake of the world." He studied Methos' expression a moment, then added, "But you already know this."
"I'm familiar with the stories, yes. What I don't know—" Methos stopped for a moment, aware that he might not be as ready to hear the answer as he'd believed. "What I don't know," he said again more slowly, keeping his voice low, "is what happens if the champion loses."
Keel chuckled at that, then stopped when he saw Methos' expression. "Well, he doesn't. The story goes—" Realization dawned, and Keel broke off. "You're saying you think this is actually happening. That MacLeod has been chosen to take on the role of champion."
Methos shook his head, grim. "That's what he believed. He was hallucinating; he saw the dead walking, and kept talking about demons and prophecies. We thought he'd lost it. Then he killed his student, a boy he loved like his own son. Afterward, he disappeared, and no one's seen or heard from him since."
He watched Keel absorb that, watched the questions flicker through in his expression as that quick mind considered what Methos had said. "You say you considered him delusional," he said, "but something changed your mind. What was it?"
"The night Richie was killed..." Methos drew a quiet, steadying breath. It was still unsettling to think about, even now. "The night Mac disappeared, a mutual friend of ours claims I was with them. He says I went to Mac's place with him, tried to talk to him, and that I was there when the boy died. That MacLeod asked me to take his head, and I refused. But I have no memory of that. I'd intended to meet them, but my car wouldn't start and I had to take the Metro—by the time I got there, they'd gone. So, either both my friends are delusional, or I am. Or... it wasn't me."
"There are cases," Keel said thoughtfully, "of demons who can alter human perceptions. Trick us into seeing what we want to see."
"Or what they want us to see." Methos rubbed his knuckles absently against his empty glass, bemused. "I say it, and it's still hard to get my head around it."
"But you believe it enough to keep looking for him."
Keel's voice was unexpectedly gentle. Methos looked up, meeting his eyes; he must be more tired than he thought, if he was giving that much away. Or perhaps Keel was as avid a student of human motivation as Methos himself.
He said nothing, but Keel nodded as if he had. "Let me ask you something," Keel said, sitting back. "The demon your friend spoke of. Did he mention the name Ahriman, by chance?"
Methos felt a chill, but he covered, doing his best to keep a tight grip on his reactions. "Why do you ask?"
"Ahriman's chief weapon against mankind is concupiscence—man's own innate tendencies toward evil and violence. You said your friend was tricked into killing someone close to him. It is the kind of method he'd prefer."
Methos digested that. It was difficult to accept. But a part of him wanted to believe, and the longer he lived with what had happened, the harder it was to reconcile the events of those days with the rational, the predictable. He kept thinking of that night on the quay, the last time he'd spoken to MacLeod. Mac had been tense, furious... and as afraid as Methos had ever seen him. What he'd said—Kronos, alive, tormenting him—it sounded insane. But Methos had seen insane in his time, a hundred variations of it, and he wasn't so sure any more.
"I should have listened to him," he said roughly, at last. "I should have at least considered—"
"Adam," Keel broke in, "has it occurred to you that the battle might not be over for him?" Keel spread one hand, as if offering him options. "It's possible that what you witnessed was only the opening gambit. The endgame may be yet to come."
Methos gave him a long, searching look, struggling against the small, treacherous hope it sparked within him. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, for one thing, it's early days. The millennium's not yet here. For another, the texts you're referring to are quite clear: the prophecy you're referring to is a salvation myth. The champion will fight a battle for the sake of the world, and the world will be saved."
"Even the best prophets sometimes fall down on the details," Methos said, thinking of Cassandra.
"Yes, well. There is that."
They looked at each other for long moments, and Methos felt a great weariness come over him. More than a few times in the last few years, he'd wished he'd never met MacLeod. Life would be so much simpler.
Except that was a lie, of course. Life had been simpler, but he wouldn't trade it, not for anything. He'd lived five thousand years coming to terms with the idea that there was no greater good, not in any concrete sense—that there was no great mystery to be solved. The meaning of life, as far as he was concerned, had always been to simply live it.
MacLeod had shaken him up, made him question things in ways he never had before. He'd told himself it was ridiculous, and tried not to think about it, but a part of him had believed from the start that something important had changed the day they met. That there was a reason besides the obvious for the way his heart beat a little faster when he was around Mac, the way he felt, as though he was waking up from a long sleep. No matter what his rational mind tried to tell him, a part of him still did believe it.
"You believe he's still alive," Keel said, reading him with uncanny insight.
"He's alive," Methos said, unhesitating. "I'd know it if—" He broke off.
Keel nodded. "And where there's life, there's hope."
Methos found a small smile, and looked away. He'd told Darius once that faith was the province of other men, that he had no use for it. It was something of a shock, at this late date, to discover he'd been wrong.
The bar had grown more crowded around them, and he hadn't noticed. Outside, the snow had started to fall in thick, soft flakes.
"I should get back," he said, watching them alight on cars and passersby as they hurried past. "It's started coming down."
* * *
Keel paid the check, and they went out into the wet chill, snowflakes swirling around them. They lit on the black wool of Keel's sweater, stuck in the thick waves of his hair.
"Where are you staying?" Keel asked, pulling on his coat.
"Not far. I'll walk with you for a bit."
Keel nodded, and Methos fell into step with him, warmed by the whisky and by a sudden gratitude for his old friend's company. He'd needed a sympathetic ear more than he'd realized, and though Keel had no certain answers for him, Methos felt the strong current of hope running through him anew. Despite his eccentricities, Keel had a conviction about him that was hard to resist.
"You'll stay in town, won't you?" Keel asked, as they reached the corner across from his building. "A few days, at least? I'd like to take the case, if you'll let me." At Methos' surprised look, he stopped, hands in his pockets. "If I've overstepped, forgive me, but this is what I do."
"Of course, I—" Methos felt slow, something he wasn't used to. "I'd be grateful."
A smile broke over Keel's face and lit his eyes. "Good. Excellent." He relaxed and clapped Methos on the shoulder, rubbed his upper arm with undisguised relief. "Naturally, I can't promise anything definite, but perhaps we'll turn up something that will help you find your friend." He offered his hand and Methos took it; Keel's grip was warm as he drew Methos in for just a moment and clapped him on the back. Methos caught a whiff of aftershave and the faint echo of the fine single malt they'd shared.
"Come by tomorrow," Keel said. "We'll talk further."
"I will," Methos said as they parted. Keel put his hands back in his pockets, and they stood there for an awkward moment.
"Or," Keel said, tentative, "you could come with me now, if you wish." He colored faintly, as if it had been a very long time since he had propositioned anyone, and wasn't quite sure he remembered how.
Methos was unexpectedly touched. It had been a long time for him, too, and he couldn't deny he found the idea appealing.
Smiling a little, he said, "I remember you, at Avignon. So scornful of man's animal passions. You never would have asked me that."
"Yes, well. That was a long time ago." Keel hesitated. "Just say the word, and we'll forget I said anything."
Most of the time, Methos tried hard to be as honest with himself as he could stand. He'd been as careful with MacLeod as he could be, fully aware of the dangers there. But three years of self-denial weighed heavy, and he could think of no objection strong enough to practice it now.
Heedless of the busy street, he stepped forward without a word and slipped a light hand under Keel's coat, leaned in and touched his mouth to Keel's for the briefest of moments. Before the other man could react, Methos had already stepped back—but the look on Keel's face was worth it.
Eyes bright, Keel said, "I'll take that as a yes."
* end *