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One Step Ahead

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There are things that I would miss if I let myself. Afternoons at the Roman baths, musical instruments long extinct, the texture of hand-woven cloth, one lover's laugh, the curve of another's thigh. Nostalgia is dangerous and I can't afford to be trapped by it. I stay one step ahead of these thoughts, erase them before they've taken shape in my mind, shift my attention to something else, move on before I'm caught. Move on - I could have it written on my heraldic crest if they still had such things.

Unfortunately, I direct my mind away from one sinkhole only to fall straight into another. Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, who is sitting across from me at Joe's, working himself into a fine Scottish brood. There's no telling what about; no damsels are in distress to my knowledge, nor has he taken a head in weeks - an unprecedented run of peace for a man who attracts suicidal Immortals like a roach motel draws roaches. Perhaps he's fretting over the lack of action lately.

I consider saying, "Did I ever tell you about the time. . . " and launching into some wholly fabricated anecdote, but I'm not feeling all that chipper myself, so I just keep peeling the labels off the beer bottles in front of me and listen to Joe play.

Planes leave Charles de Gaulle by the quarter hour. I could say goodnight to the brooding Scotsman, wave my regrets to Joe, catch a taxi and be gone in three hours. I could reshape myself into something new, learn a new skill, find a new name, be someone with a bit more money and a bit less modesty than Adam Pierson. It's so easy to drop off the face of the earth once you know how to do it. They'd never find me.

But they would look.

MacLeod would be frantic, not because he's so attached to me, but because he's a sheepdog by nature and he thinks I'm one of his sheep. He's assigned me a place and if I strayed from it, he'd wind himself into hysteria trying to put me back where I go. That would be all right, I suppose, give him something to do. Something to brood about. If someone doesn't finally take his idiotic, sheepdog head, I'm certain to run into him again eventually.

But Joe. Joe's time is short. Every song he plays is another memory added to the long list of things I'm not allowed to miss, but I can't seem to stomach the idea of abandoning him, slipping back into legend and the pages of his private journals.

So, I'm staying for another night, it would seem, trapped by sentiments I thought I'd cut out of myself long ago, but which evidently grew back when I wasn't paying attention.

"What are you brooding about?" MacLeod asks me.

A glib response floats over my tongue for a moment - I'm not the brooding Highlander here, blah, blah, blah. But the question startles me into a kind of honesty.

"Joe," I say, indicating the stage with my eyes.

MacLeod glances over at Joe for a moment, and then back to me, Joe's mortality weighing heavy over the table.

"How much longer do you think you'll stay?" he asks, surprising me yet again. That's pure MacLeod, flashes of brilliant insight between long bouts of cluelessness.

"In Paris, you mean?"

He gives me a dark look for playing stupid and I sigh, a deep sigh that could never have come from Adam Pierson.

"I don't know," I say. "Another night at least."

He frowns just a little and begins picking up the damp scraps of beer labels I've left all over the table, gathering them up with jerky motions and wadding them into a ball.

"You've made a mess," he says, and I consider teasing him, asking if he's working on a merit badge for reducing litter. But he seems genuinely distraught so I only say, "Yes." And with that he's forced more truth from me in two minutes than in the last two weeks. Good work, there.

He finishes constructing his wad of paper and tosses it into the middle of the table. Then he looks up at me and holds my gaze. I know the look of a crusade coming on by now, and I brace myself.

"If you disappear, it will break Joe's heart."

Typical MacLeod, stating the obvious. But I say, "Joe's tougher than you give him credit for."

"It would break my heart, too."

All the air seems to evaporate from my lungs. He's earnest and beautiful, and I resent the hell out of him at this moment, even as some stupid, sentimental, un-excised part of me is horribly pleased.

"Mac," I begin but run out of words. And whoever heard of such a thing, the snare asking the rabbit so tenderly to stay. I pick up my most recent beer bottle but it's empty, giving me the perfect excuse to growl in frustration and flee to the bar, where I order a bottle of expensive whisky and two glasses.

When I get back to the table, MacLeod's still waiting for an answer and I still don't have one. I pour him a glass of whisky instead.

He takes a healthy swallow and sets the glass down. "Six months."

"What?" I reply, demonstrating my native intelligence as I pour my own glass full.

"Promise me you'll stay six months. That's the blink of an eye to you, right? Give me six months free from worrying that you'll be gone between one breath and the next."

I never thought he'd ask so much of me, not on his own behalf. For Joe, maybe, but he's dropped that pretense and I'm caught. Caught. His eyes are almost black in the low light, and pleading.

"Why should I?" I completely miss the flippant tone I was aiming for, my voice barely above a whisper.

"Because I asked you. Because we need some time."

Time for what, I could say, but almost any answer he could give me would scare me half to gibbering madness and there's been too much honesty tonight already.

Six months. I might easily spend that long staying without meaning to, contemplating flights to warmer climes every night and deciding by last call to wait another day. I'll have to find something else to brood about, when the mood strikes.

"All right. For what it's worth, I promise."

He gives me a fond, exasperated look for implying that I won't keep my word when we both know I will. His smile is blinding. He clicks his glass against mine and I find myself smiling back despite my best intentions.

Another moment added to the long, long list, and I wonder why I don't feel like I'm suffocating.