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Phoenix Fire

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The cell phone rang, the sound almost lost in the hubbub of the airport's departure lounge. Impatiently Methos fished it out of his pocket, glared at the numbers on the screen. Joe Dawson. He sighed and put the phone to his ear. "Now what?"

"Mac's taken Connor's head." The shock and distress was clear in the Watcher's voice.

Nothing was permitted to show on Methos’ features. The only reaction was a moment of stillness. Then: "Connor could be a bit annoying," he said lightly. "And that old raincoat of his was decidedly suspect. Or did your boy have a better reason?"

"Who the hell knows? He's also taken Kell's."

"Ah," he said wisely, as if all was now clear.

"Shit, I still don't believe it!" Dawson groaned. "And I watched it happen! Something was going on between them--they were arguing--Mac didn't want any part of it, that was clear, but Connor was pushing it--Why would he? How could he--I keep telling myself it was a mistake--"

"Certainly was on Connor's part." Methos snorted. "I wouldn't care to cross swords with MacLeod on one of his good days. Took Kell as well, did he? Bet that quickening gave him a headache."

"You are a cynical asshole, you know that?" Dawson snarled.

"Joe, no doubt he had his reasons. Even if he didn't, it's what we do. So deal with it."

"Deal with it?" Dawson shouted, and with a pained expression Methos held the cell-phone away from his ear. "Is that all you can say? This is Mac we're talking about! And Connor!"

"If you felt that strongly about it, why didn't you stop them?" Methos demanded. "A bullet or three usually does the trick."

"You," Dawson said, his voice rough with grief, "are a shitty piece of work!" The connection was cut and Methos shrugged, slipped the phone back into the pocket of his long charcoal-grey coat.

"Deal with it," he said coldly.

           

###

 

For more than thirty hours, Dawson searched for Duncan MacLeod, but found no trace of the man. Finally, his face nearly as grey as his hair and beard, physically and mentally exhausted, joints aching and prosthetic legs giving his thigh-stumps hell, he returned to his hotel. There he found a letter had been left for him. He waited until he was back in his room, then ripped open the envelope and unfolded the several sheets.

Mostly, it was a report. It might almost have come from his own report--an impersonal account of a duel and a quickening--of another challenge, another death and quickening.

Connor MacLeod defeated and killed by Duncan MacLeod.

Jacob Kell defeated and killed by Duncan MacLeod.

Hands shaking, Dawson sat at the small en suite bar and poured himself a whiskey. He knocked it back before going on to the rest of the letter. This was more personal, and filled in the gaps. He had only seen the arguments, not heard them. Now he was being told the 'why'.

'Connor was working on the theory that only the combined strength of the two of us could defeat Kell, and losing Rachel had wounded him badly. He wasn't much interested in going on. So I took his quickening.'

"Oh, God, Mac…." Dawson whispered. He poured another drink. The heartbreak woven between those five stark words was enough to choke him.

'Kell's quickening is being difficult, worse than Kronos' and Caspian's in its different way. Besides, there's a lot I have to come to terms with, and for my own sanity I've got to find some kind of reason for this bloody madness immortals live by. Too often people I care about are being hurt and killed, and I don't know if I can take it anymore. I know, you've heard it all before, and I can almost hear Methos groaning in disgust. Whatever. If I ever get to the same state of mind Connor was in, I'll stick my neck on a railroad track before I put that kind of load on a friend.'

"MacLeod!"

'Nor will I give an enemy the satisfaction of removing my head. Sorry this is kind of disjointed, but that's the way I'm feeling right now. I'm taking Connor home, then I'm going to disappear for a while, but don't worry about me. Railroad tracks do not figure in any of my plans, long- or short-term.'

"So I should fuckin' hope!"

'I'll keep in touch with you, but I won't have a Watcher breathing down my neck, so please don't try to find me.'

"You won't what? You bastard!"

'Your friendship is something I value beyond any price. Take care of yourself.'

That was all. No signature, nothing. Dawson took another swallow of whiskey, trying to ignore the growing pain in his chest, and swore long and loud.

 

'Deal with it,' Methos had said. So Dawson did. He took no notice of the increasingly frequent chest-pains and shortness of breath, and booked a flight to Edinburgh. But he did not get a chance to board the plane.

"I'm what?" he shouted into the phone. "Damn it, Steve--"

 "You heard me, Joe." The Coordinator's voice was implacable. "You're suspended, pending a disciplinary hearing. Murder, Joe. And consorting with immortals. Inappropriate Conduct. Again."

"It was self-defence!" Dawson snapped. His hand tightened on his cane until the knuckles showed white.

"One bullet is self-defence. More is murder, and whatever game plan he was running with the enforced Sanctuary and MacLeod, Matthew Hale had a wife and kids. Don't argue it, Dawson. You'll get your say at the hearing. Are you coming in on your own or do I have to send a squad after you?"

"Don't bother," Dawson snarled wearily. "I'm coming in. Just tell my replacement to keep well back. Mac's got an itchy spine when he's being shadowed."

"I'll do that. Sorry it has to be this way, Joe, but you've stepped way out of line."

"Had to be done. Mac was no volunteer, Steve. What Hale and his pals had done to him stank to high heaven."

"Desperate times call for desperate measures--"

"Yeah, my point exactly." He put the phone down. There was something else he could have said: that Kell had been an evil piece of work, and Mac had been overwhelmed once before. Would Kell and his six hundred plus kills be too much for him to assimilate? Okay, there hadn't been any hint of it in that short letter, but Kell had also been damned clever, good at psychology; hell, he'd psyched out Connor MacLeod. Kell's quickening, his knowledge, was now lodged in Duncan MacLeod. But was Kell worse than Kronos? Caspian? He'd coped with those bastards without any obvious problems, but how about an accumulative effect? Fuck it, where was Methos when he needed him, needed to pick that five-thousand-year-old brain!

 

Dawson flew back to Paris on the first flight he could get, and was at once summoned to an initial hearing. Afterwards, Mitchell took him into his office and gestured him to a chair.

"Joe," he said, pouring whiskies for both of them, "I know you see them as friends, but you have to stay apart from them--"

"Contradiction in terms," Dawson said. "You don't stay apart from friends."

"Uh-uh. Your relationship with MacLeod and Pierson is the contradiction. I can understand it as far as Pierson is concerned; hell, the man was a Watcher, one of the best Researchers we had until Kalas killed him for the first time! But MacLeod--"

"Is valuable! They both are. Steve, little as it is, we've learned more about immortals and the quickening from what MacLeod's told me than the Society has managed to piece together in centuries! There's so much more--"

"Maybe. But I'll tell you straight out, Joe, murder charge aside, there's a small faction in the Watchers who've taken exception to your intervention in the attempt at setting up another Sanctuary. We're still debating putting together another--legitimate--one." He smiled bitterly. "But they're out for your head."

"Who?" Dawson leaned forward, fists clenched. "Not more like Horton? I thought we'd scoured that filth out of our ranks!"

"We have. But you're a loose cannon, Joe. That makes you dangerous. Some of us think it also makes you a valuable resource. Which is why I'll stall for what time I can give you, keep my eye on the more militant ones, and do my damnedest to haul your ass out of the shit again. And no, I'm not going to give you names. Yet. Just don't make it any harder for me. The suspension stands, of course, but you're not locked out. Good hunting."

"Not the best choice of words." Dawson grunted, and levered himself to his feet. "Thanks, Steve." He went back to his apartment above the Le Blues bar and booted up his computer.

 

###

 

The replacement Watcher did not have much luck--or, in Dawson's opinion, was simply not good enough. After the brief sighting in Scotland, MacLeod might as well have been abducted by aliens.

Methos, too, appeared to have been inflicted with itchy feet. He'd returned to London, had immediately closed up his house and taken off for Venice. He never arrived there. Probably never even got on the damned plane, Dawson decided in disgust. He glared at the computer screen, at the image next to the sidebar that listed the details of one Adam Pierson. It was a lean face, pale and enigmatic, with short-cut dark hair. Cool hazel eyes stared with supercilious detachment down an arrogant raptor's beak of a nose: Methos in his more acerbic aspect. 'Immortal', he read. 'First death, March 6th 1995, aged 28.'

"Yeah, right," Dawson muttered. Thanks mostly to his, Dawson's, continued Oath-breaking where certain people were concerned, the Society of Watchers didn’t know everything about the immortals they Watched and profiled, and every so often his mind still had major trouble with the five thousand-plus years that this man had lived. "Methos, you ancient bastard, it's just as well I didn't need you as a witness for the defence."

He called up MacLeod's file, gazed morosely at his immortal's picture. It was a handsome face, and like the shot of Adam Pierson, was that of a man who could have been any age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. In this case, deep brown eyes were set under rather heavy dark brows, and a windblown tangle of collar-length close-to-black hair made him look younger.

Dawson had Watched this immortal for over thirty years, at first with the impartial detachment demanded by his Watcher's Oath. Until MacLeod had confronted him at a time when the Society was being torn apart by a renegade faction led by Dawson's own brother-in-law, James Horton. A faction out to eliminate all immortals.

Then, when the dust had settled, Dawson had found he'd gained a friend. Since then, that friendship had grown on both sides, and now Dawson was missing the man as much as he would close kin.

So the search went on, and all the time that pain in Dawson's chest would not go away. He had a pretty damned good idea what his health problems were, but shunted them to one side. There were other matters for him to deal with. Like using the entire Watchers' resources to try to track down his missing friend. He, at least, had the advantage of knowing more about the man than anyone else in the organisation.

Methos was a good friend as well, despite their occasional verbal clashes, as close as MacLeod. Dawson didn't look for him. Methos had had many centuries to perfect his disappearing techniques; as Methos he was considered a myth and there were some who doubted he had ever existed, let alone survived so long. As Adam Pierson he was one of the few known immortals who didn't have an assigned Watcher, simply because no one could keep a tail on him. Dawson knew that sooner or later the man would decide to show up. Dawson had the uneasy feeling that MacLeod wasn’t going to surface so readily.

 

And so the months dragged on, without any sign of either of Dawson's immortals. He was summoned to hearing after hearing, begrudging the time it meant away from the computer, until at last he sat in front of the Panel to hear the verdict.

"It is the considered opinion of this Panel," Mitchell announced, "that you used excessive violence in protecting your own life and preventing MacLeod's abduction, but that there were extenuating circumstances. The illegal setting up of an alternative Sanctuary and MacLeod's abduction was, in themselves, violations of the Watchers' credo. Your years of experience are too valuable to lose, so you are not barred from the Society. With immediate effect, you are posted to Research."

"No!" Dawson surged to his feet, his cane slamming down on the wide table between them. "I'm a field operative, damn it! Duncan MacLeod is my assigned--"

"Not any more." Mitchell's face was implacable.

"Then I lodge an appeal, here and now--"

"Denied," the Coordinator snapped, but Dawson did not hear. Agony lanced through him and he could not breathe—

 

Dawson was in the hospital for a month, during which time they discovered not only the extent of the damage to his heart, but also the cancer in his left lung. The prognosis was not good. He dealt with that, too, making an effort to stay out of smoky atmospheres--apart from Le Blues bar--and taking the medications as prescribed. The alcohol ban was another matter entirely.

Under pressure from his specialist, Dawson stopped pushing for an appeal and settled uneasily into Research, splitting his time between the department and the bar. To add insult to injury, arthritis was rapidly making his fingers too stiff and painful to play his guitar for any length of time. He no longer played on the small stage, but served behind the bar when he was not crouched over the computer in the back office or up in his apartment. Very few people were aware of the extent of Dawson's illness, and that was the way he wanted it to stay.

 

###

 

Paris in springtime was legendary; in November the city was cold and dreary. But this wasn't a vacation. For Melissa Stone it was more in the nature of a business trip. She needed to see for herself, at the outset, some of the people she had read about and dreamed about for so long. Besides, she had not been able to get past the mutating firewalls around the Watchers' database for several months now, and she did not know if Duncan MacLeod had turned up. If he had, it was highly likely he would come here.

To be out of the bitter wind was a welcome relief, and the warmth of the dimly lit bar was even more so. It was early in the evening and the rush hadn't begun yet. She found a small table in a corner, and ordered coffee and a liqueur.

Melissa looked around her in the hope of seeing one or two familiar faces, but there was no one she recognised. She sighed philosophically. It was foolish to expect success on her first attempt. After all, finding Robert all those years ago had been pure serendipity, and she had not known at the time how useful he was going to be.

"My God," Matthew said, and laughed. "Mel-honey, come and take a look at this kid."

Melissa put down her book and rose to stand behind him, hands caressing his shoulders. He was checking through the latest sightings report. "That's Quinn Chrétien, isn't it?" she said, studying the image on the computer screen. She'd always had a knack of remembering faces and the names that went with them. It served her well in her PR career.

"Yeah, but it's the kid with him. Take a good look."

Obediently Mel leaned closer. Beside Chrétien stood a tall teenager with the gangly legginess of unfinished growth. Dark hair hung in an uncombed mess around a face that still had something of the softness of childhood, and so retained an androgynous beauty. "Well, he's drop-dead gorgeous," she agreed. "Give him another ten years, and--" Then she saw the likeness and in her mind she thinned the cheeks, defined the jaw and cheekbones, put fine laugh-lines at the corners of the rich brown eyes. "Good grief," she gasped. "Duncan MacLeod."

"Could be the man's kid-brother," Matthew agreed. "Okay, after our chat last night on DNA, gene-pools and immortality, I'm one step closer to being convinced there might be a secret lab somewhere, complete with a Doctor X. Are you sure you don't want to be recruited into the Watchers?"

"I'm sure." She laughed, and kissed the top of his head. "Too many Oaths and restrictions for my taste. I'll just carry on playing around in their database."

"While you're doing it, find me a few more look-alikes, and I'll be even more convinced." He turned, wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face between her breasts. "Or we could go back to bed?" he suggested hopefully.

Melissa chuckled, stroked his hair. "Oh, no," she said with loving indulgence. "You have a wife and son to go home to. You're taking them to the Zoo today, remember?"

"I could cry off."

"You will not." There was a hint of steel in Melissa's usually warm contralto voice. "You know where your responsibilities lie, Matthew Hale. What we have is special and wonderful, but they come first. I told you that right at the start."

"Mel-honey, there just isn't anyone like you," Matthew sighed and sat back. "I love you."

"I know." She smiled. "Love you, too. You are my life."

For ten years that had not changed. She formed a vital, if illegal, part of his Watcher life and didn’t begrudge the polyester-and-pearls wife who made a home for him and bore his children, and thought he was a security advisor. In Melissa's opinion, she had by far the better deal.

As well as the Watchers, Melissa also shared his conviction that the immortal Game must never be permitted to come to a conclusion, and that the Sanctuary was essential to that end. The Sanctuary, with its quota of immortals drugged and dreaming through their long years, insurance that no immortal would ever claim that unknown Prize. There could never be a final victor while it was functioning--but Jacob Kell and his coterie had raided the supposedly hidden base and killed all but one within.

So another had to be set up, and quickly, by roping in the first immortal Matthew's unofficial group could find, willing volunteer or not. That emergency required a swift response, especially with Kell collecting heads so quickly he was likely to trigger a Gathering. Ironically enough, it was Kell and his pack who presented them with that immortal; Duncan MacLeod, shot to death and impaled on broken metal. An offering to the Watchers' need.

But the new Sanctuary had been no more secure than its predecessor. In a matter of days someone had sprung MacLeod from the makeshift unit, and men had died. With the situation growing more desperate, it had been Matthew's idea to try for Kell himself, removing the cause and the effect with the one shot.

But Matthew was dead, had been for months now, and her last contact with him came in a too-brief phone call.

"Mel-honey, it's me. Can't talk for long, I'm on Kell's tail now and we're going to take him out." His voice was edgy, breathless as if he'd been running.

"Matthew, be careful!" she pleaded. "Kell is a psychopath! A killer!"

"Think I don't know that, sweetheart? Don't worry. I'm a sharpshooter, remember? Won't have to get close. Which is as well. Dawson has eyes in the back of his damned head, and he sticks to MacLeod like they were joined at the hip. Connor MacLeod's dead, by the way. It won't be up on the database yet, but Duncan topped him. Poor bastard didn't have much choice from where I was. Be interesting to see Dawson's take on it. Oh, shit. MacLeod's here!"

"Take them both," she said quickly. Faintly in the background she could hear the ringing clash of sword-blades. "Duncan would make good backup insurance, kept in a different place, and you may never get a better chance."

"Yeah, my thoughts, too. All I got to do is bypass both their Watchers. That isn't going to be easy, and I don't want to kill a Watcher unless I have to."

"You'll do what's right," Melissa said confidently, "the way you always do."

"Yeah. Honey, the pick-up team's in place and I've got to go. Talk to you later."

There had been no 'later'. For several days, Melissa had no idea what had happened, just suddenly found she could no longer access the database through his passwords. That had been chillingly ominous, and her foreboding had been proved right. A few hours of discreet watching had shown her a pale and tearful wife, stunned children, and family, friends and neighbors rallying round to give comfort and support.

Melissa had nothing and no one, no outlet for the grief that ate at her. Nothing to fill the empty void that now lived inside her. No one to offer support and caring. She lived in a maze, convoluted and stark. At the turn of every corner she expected to find her lover, but he was never there. Worse, she had to show a blandly smiling face to the world, to carry on as if nothing had happened, as if she hadn’t lost the pivot her life turned about.

But a featureless image had begun to grow in the bleakness inside her, and the need to find the face that fit it had started to lessen the hollow ache of amputation. The best place to begin her search would be the Society of Watchers and their database.

Someone was going to pay. Someone was going to suffer the way she was suffering.

 

It took months for Melissa to find an expert who would teach her the ways of infiltrating firewalls, then she'd discovered him literally on her doorstep: next-door's high school kid delivering her newspaper. Drew had swallowed her cover story. He had been more than happy to show her how to test her firm's IT security, his teen-age ego boosted by her belief in his skills. Melissa had duly tested the firewalls, found them easy to breach, and made her report to the IT department. Then she'd started work on the Watchers' security. Somewhere there would be a report on Matthew's death and who had murdered him.

Getting into the database had been by no means so easy. But once in, she'd gleaned some useful information, if not what she specifically hoped for.

Matthew Hale; Watcher, deceased. Killed on duty while undertaking unauthorized actions.

Damn them for that! He was trying to do his duty, saving them and the rest of mortal-kind from the likes of Jacob Kell!

But his file was closed down, locked behind a screen she could not break through. So that last phone call from Matthew was all she had to go on: "Dawson has eyes in the back of his damned head, and he sticks to MacLeod like they were joined at the hip." Perhaps Dawson had seen something, knew something.

Joseph Dawson; Watcher, inactive. Transferred from Field to Research, based permanently in Paris. Disciplined for inappropriate conduct and excessive force. See also files on immortals Duncan MacLeod, Adam Pierson, Amanda Darieux. Inappropriate contacts still occurring.

Melissa had stared at the brief summary. Disciplined for inappropriate conduct and excessive force. What did that mean? Excessive force…. Joseph Dawson, who had revealed the Watchers to his immortal, who had built a deep friendship with that immortal—deep enough to kill for? Matthew had told her he was sure it was Dawson and possibly Adam Pierson who’d freed MacLeod from their temporary Sanctuary. Someone had wielded MacLeod's katana like an expert but it certainly wasn't a man who, for whatever reason, relied on a cane to help him walk. She'd located the Conduct & Discipline files but failed to access them. Like Matthew's, their security had been, and still was, beyond her skills.

Melissa had downloaded more files, read the 'Current Status' headings.

Duncan MacLeod; missing but believed active. Last seen in Edinburgh's airport after burying Connor MacLeod. Watcher; none, assignment to be made when located. Previously Joseph Dawson, currently reassigned. Was in frequent contact with Joseph Dawson.

Amanda Darieux; active. Currently in Sydney, Australia, showing an interest in a museum display of jewelry from the time of the British Raj in India. Watcher; Hal Goldstein. Infrequent contact with Joseph Dawson.

Adam Pierson; missing but believed active. Last seen in New York in company with Joe Dawson, concurrently with MacLeod taking the heads of Connor MacLeod and Jacob Kell. Watcher; none, assignment to be made when located. Infrequent contact with Joseph Dawson.

Melissa had studied those last three summaries for a long time, putting the pieces together. Then another name had popped up in her memory and she searched it out, downloaded the files.

Quinn Chrétien; active. Currently living in Montreal, Canada, with wife Stacie and son Robert. Watcher; Connie Petros.

Next she had called up everything she had downloaded on Duncan MacLeod, read it through, over and over again until she knew every word, every image of the man, by heart.

Finally she'd pulled up Quinn Chrétien's full details. Connie hadn't added much since Melissa had last read the file. Quinn led a very quiet life that revolved around his wife and son. There were the occasional brief mentions of Robert's successes in Kendo and Tai Kwon Do, but no other pictures of the family.  Connie had definitely not been doing her job properly. Matthew had been quite scathing about her, claiming the old girl should have retired years ago, but that might have been a little unfair. On the other hand, Connie's failings could well serve Melissa perfectly. For instance, at no point did Connie speculate that Robert might be a potential immortal. There was only one way to test that theory.

Melissa had sat for a long time staring at the single photo of the man's adopted son. Then she'd gone back into the database, into Quinn Chrétien's file, and deleted the picture of the boy. She needed Duncan MacLeod, who was nowhere to be found. But the boy would be the key to that particular mystery. Once she'd located Duncan, everything else would fall into place.

She had a goal, and the stages to reach that goal were now clear before her.

 

Over a period of time Melissa had planned it all out like a military operation. She had sold everything of value that she owed to fund that operation; house, apartment in Florida, car, shares, jewelry. Now, many months later, she was in Paris, a city she used to dream about visiting--without Matthew at her side.

Melissa took a sip of her liqueur. The bar was on the periphery of her vision, and she could watch it without moving her head. Even so, when the grey-haired, grey-bearded man appeared and began to replace a couple of nearly empty bottles of spirits behind the bar, she had to stop herself from turning to stare.

Joe Dawson looked old, despite the breadth of shoulder that spoke of strength, older than she had thought he would. The hands that adjusted the set of the bottles were swollen about the knuckles. Her own hands twinged in sympathy. Poor man. This cold, damp weather was not good for arthritis. She didn't suffer from it herself, yet, but her memories of her father's pain were still fresh. Joseph was moving awkwardly, too. She remembered Matthew had said the man walked with the aid of a cane, so he probably had it in knees and hips as well. He would be finding it a blessing in disguise that his immortal still hadn’t been sighted. At least he could keep civilised hours and stay out of the weather, instead of lurking around side alleys and doorways, shadowing dangerous men.

Still, Joseph called Duncan a friend, so perhaps he was missing the man. Covertly, she studied what she could see of his features. There was a grimness to the set of his mouth, partially hidden by his short beard, and his eyes were sad. Melissa nodded to herself. This was a lonely man. He poured himself a shot of whiskey, knocked it straight back, then moved down the bar to serve a couple who'd just come in.

Another man entered, and Melissa saw Dawson's face light up. He reached under the bar and produced a bottle of beer without waiting for the order and put it in front of the newcomer. He was tall, lean, and young, with short dark hair spiked with rain, a wonderful profile that belonged on an ancient coin, and he was not Duncan MacLeod.

Her memory supplied the name: Adam Pierson. Well, two out of four wasn't bad for a first time, and she smiled gently to herself.

The two men were talking, heads leaning towards each other with the bar between them, and Melissa wished she dared get closer so she could hear what they were saying. For a while their conversation seemed desultory, Adam's shoulders were relaxed and Joseph even smiled occasionally. But gradually tension began to grow between them. Finally, Adam stood back from the bar, and their exchange became heated, though they did not raise their voices. The young man banged his empty bottle onto the bar, turned and walked out, the skirts of his long dark gray coat swirling about him. Melissa didn’t have to hear Joseph's parting comment; she could lip-read it without a problem. Perhaps Joseph and Adam didn't have that close a friendship, after all. That was a shame. Poor Joseph.

Melissa stayed in the bar for another hour, knowing Adam wouldn’t return, but hoping others might appear. They didn't, so she took a taxi back to her hotel to get an early night. Tomorrow she would be flying out to rejoin Robert in Tunisia and they'd move on.

 

###

 

To Dawson's intense relief, Methos returned to Paris, paid off one bar tab and opened up another. Dawson knew in his gut the immortal wouldn’t stay in the city for long. He refused to let that bother him, and shared a couple of shots of whiskey with Methos to underline it. Well, he drank whiskey, Methos stuck to beer, and Dawson made no mention of his hospital stay, or its results. Nor, with remarkable strength of will, did he immediately raise the subject right at the forefront of his mind.

He knew that damned letter off by heart, had spent far too long staring at the words.  There had to be another meaning to them, a code of some kind, but in all the months, he hadn’t found it. Even after so many readings, the names sank into his heart like dull blades.

Connor MacLeod defeated and killed by Duncan MacLeod.

Jacob Kell defeated and killed by Duncan MacLeod.

But where the hell was Duncan MacLeod?

"Heard anything from MacLeod?" Methos asked idly, as if he had picked up on Dawson's thought.

"Not recently. Kuklinski maybe saw him in Budapest, but couldn't make a confirmation," he said. He topped up his whiskey glass, and put another beer in front of Methos.

The immortal shrugged. "Yeah, well, he wasn't likely to, if Mac doesn't want to be found," he said disinterestedly. "Looks like he's finally created a new ID for himself. He'll show up when he's ready, then sooner or later we'll go through the whole rigmarole again."

"You think so?"

"I know so. Damn it, Joe, you know what a pain in the arse he can be--a cross between a mother hen with straying chicks and a stubborn, argumentative, autocratic, arrogant, anal-retentive--"

"I knew it!" Dawson said triumphantly. "You're worried about him as well."

"I am not! The man is big enough and old enough to take care of himself!"

"Can't fool me, Methos," Dawson went on with a gravity in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol he'd drunk, "Y'know, we don't give the guy much of a chance, do we? We make fun of him, kick against his protectiveness, object when he makes decisions that effect us without consulting us, but that's what he was raised to do. Raised to be Chief, take care of his friends--clan. That's us, whether we like it or not. Clan."

"Chieftain, not Chief," Methos corrected him acidly, and took a drink from his bottle. "There is a difference. Sept, not clan. It's a matter of degree, and the Chief of the Clan MacLeod would have a lot to say about a rag-tag hill-farmer--"

"Okay, that was 400 years ago, give or take." Dawson wasn’t listening. "But lessons learned in childhood stick longest, right? Formative years. Anyhow. It's not just training with Mac. It's him. It's in his genes. He'd be the same if he was born at the bottom of the heap."

"Oh, really?" Methos drawled. "Are you saying he can't change? Even if he wanted to?"

"Well, yes," Joe said.

"Then he's dead," Methos snapped impatiently. "As in an ex-MacLeod. Gone to the Great Broch in the Sky. Retired Immortal. Headless." He slammed his empty beer bottle onto the bar. "Change is survival, Dawson! Cling to the past, repeat the mistakes over and over again--stagnation has a very sharp blade and absolutely no mercy!"

"Survival, huh?" Dawson hit back, stung. "How about living, old man?"

A cold and glittering gaze fixed on him, as implacable as granite. "Invented writing, wrote the scroll, the book, the screen-play. Oh, yes. And I've got the t-shirt."

The door did not slam behind him as he walked out.

Glumly Dawson poured himself another whiskey, and wondered if that was the last he'd see of Methos for yet more God-knows-how-many months.