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No Present Like the Time

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“What are you doing here?”

Duncan lowered his sword as he stepped deeper in the hallway of his apartment. Without dropping his guard, he pulled off his hat and gloves and shrugged out of his coat, handing them all to the closet to be put away.

At their acceptance, the lights around the apartment AI’s doorway sensor blipped on, followed by the rest of the hallway light.

“Welcome home,” the AI chirped.

Normally, Duncan would respond to the greeting, despite knowing that the AI didn’t put any stock in social niceties. It still felt wrong to ignore her.

As the room brightened, he recognized the form that belonged to the warning he’d felt. A familiar form—and one that hadn’t bothered to give him any kind of advance warning.

But when had she ever concerned herself with certain social niceties, either?

Behind him, the door locked itself shut with the slight click of magnets catching. That kind of lock was supposed to be unbreakable and untamperable, opening only to those with authorized biometrics. He’d only lived in this apartment for a couple years, and it had been longer than that since Amanda had last dropped in for a visit, so he hadn’t added hers to the system. She shouldn’t have been able to get in. Which meant, she shouldn’t be able to be waiting inside. Yet, here she was.

“Welcome home,” the AI chirped again, its pitch identical to the previous. Its sensor lights blinked off, then blinked back on, and it delivered the greeting a third time, like it had glitched. “Welcome home.”

“Aren’t you happy to see us?” Amanda asked, a pout bowing her lips and coloring the question.

She sat in one of the tall chairs that bordered his kitchen island, a glass of wine half-drunk in front of her. She’d been letting her hair grow out, Duncan noticed. It hung loose, just brushing the tops of her shoulders. Longer, yet still bleached white, the color contrasting sharply with the red blouse she wore.

“Us?” Duncan asked. His sword dipped up higher, though not high enough to block an attack if one came.

His apartment was designed on one of those now-out-dated open floor plans. He’d insisted on it, even paying extra to have the wall removed that was supposed to separate the kitchen from the great room. As much as he appreciated the privacy rooms afforded, he preferred the security of knowing that there were no convenient hiding places for potential attackers.

From the hallway, he had a clear view of the space and the unoccupied seating throughout.

Only the screen that hid his bed from public view and the door out to the balcony offered any place out of easy view, but anyone in those places would still cast incriminating shadows. Or the house should have alerted him.

Though if anyone could disable or override its security programming, Amanda would be that person. She’d probably disable it on principle, regardless of whether it was necessary.

Duncan took another careful step forward, broadening his scope. The thought niggled at his mind that Amanda might merely be using “us” in place of a more standard singular pronoun, until--

“You haven’t forgotten me already, have you? I know out of sight is out of mind …”

Duncan’s gaze whipped back to the kitchen, and to the long figure of Methos lounging against the wall beside the pantry, his own glass of wine in hand. The corners of his mouth twitched toward a familiar grin of satisfaction; he’d done something, and gotten away with it too.

“What?” Duncan demanded, looking back and forth between the two other Immortals. “How?”

There was no way he could have missed Methos standing there, yet he had.

Amanda turned toward Methos and, with slightly more pout, added, “I don’t think he’s happy to see us.”

Methos had also been letting his hair grow; it flopped across his forehead, shaving years off his face. He jumped up to take a perch on the counter next to Duncan’s stove, one foot propped for balance on the handle of the cabinet below. “He just needs a moment to get over the surprise.” A beat, and then he added, “Surprise!”

“Duncan,” Amanda said, “You should have known we’d be here. There are some occasions that one is just obligated to celebrate.”

“Such as milestone birthdays,” Methos supplied, as if Duncan didn’t know the significant dates on his calendar.

“What’s better than enjoying the day with friends, good food, and good wine?” Amanda hefted her glass. The wine glimmered with the light streaming in from the balcony door, and the heavy fruity aroma wafted through the apartment.

“That’s my wine,” Duncan pointed out, not a little miffed. Friends didn’t help themselves to a man’s hospitality without word or warning. And he knew without needing to ask that he’d be the one paying for the good food, too. Of course, their relationship had always been that way, so he couldn’t pretend to be taken unawares.

Methos took a sip from his glass and nodded approvingly. “A very good vintage it is, too. I don’t suppose you have any more bottles put away? Your AI doesn’t seem to have a good handle on your household inventory.” His brow creased with the new thought. “How does it let you get away with that?”

Amanda waved a hand, dismissing Methos’ concern. “You know Duncan. He has a whole warehouse somewhere dedicated to storing bibs and bobs. There’d be no reason to involve the household AI in that record keeping. Besides…” She flashed a conspiratorial smile at Duncan-- “It’s always smart to keep a few things off the record.”

The AI might not know about Duncan’s unofficial resources, but now everyone in the room knew that Amanda certainly did.

Duncan sighed, and finally let himself finish dropping his guard. “I don’t really celebrate birthdays anymore,” he pointed out. After so many of them, they stopped being noteworthy. In truth, he’d made it through most of his 460s without noticing, and it was only when he went back and did the math that he realized he had become older than he knew.

By the time he reached Amanda’s age, he probably wouldn’t remember the date of his birthday at all. And by the time he reached Methos’ age, he expected to be rounding to the nearest millennium--as he suspected Methos may also be doing.

“Well, cake and candles may not be the best idea,” Methos commented, casting a glance toward the fire alarm. “But there’s plenty to be said for spending a few days in the company of friends.”

Something in Methos’ tone tickled the hairs on the back of Duncan’s neck, and he narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

“Yes,” Amanda piped up, a touch too cheerfully, “Companionship. Celebration. Duncan, do be a dear and pour yourself a glass. We should have a toast. After all, it’s not every day someone turns 500.”

“Five-hundred,” Methos agreed, raising his glass toward a toast. “It’s a milestone.”

As he expected, the other two raised no objections when Duncan offered to buy dinner--though the fact that it was his birthday should have encouraged at least one of them to at least put up a protest about who was treating.

But when Duncan started to stand up to collect the drone’s delivery from his balcony, Methos leapt to his feet first. “It’s the least I can do,” he stated, all but pushing Duncan back down onto the couch. The leather squeaked from the sudden change of weight, and the house responded by raising the volume of the background music, as if to cover an embarrassing gaff.

“Trixie,” Duncan raised his voice so the AI could hear him over a drawn out high-note. “Lower volume.”

The volume didn’t change.

Duncan tried again. “Trixie!”

The volume increased a notch, and Duncan sighed. He’d been having a lot of these types of minor problems recently, but he figured that a software update would drop that would iron them out. Until then…

“I’ll go turn that down,” he stated. While most of the apartment’s AI worked on voice commands, he kept some of the controls on tactile mode only because, no matter how far computer technology advanced, he was still a 16th century boy at heart, and he needed to know he could override anything the AI did.

Amanda had been laying on her side, propped against the arm of the couch, legs curled up on the cushions. Before Duncan could react, she stretched her legs out so they rested across his lap, effectively anchoring him into place. “I’d rather you didn’t,” she purred, her voice somehow carrying easily over the notes. “I’m enjoying this playlist. It’s a different mix than my own AI chooses, and … some different artists?”

“Good ear,” Duncan stated. Amanda wasn’t the aficionado of opera that he was. She enjoyed dressing up and trying to steal the limelight at the performances more than the music itself, but she certainly knew the standards and held an opinion or two about which singers one should listen to.

“So, what made you name your AI Trixie?” Amanda asked, clearly changing the subject.

Duncan made a face. “Because she’s always been obstinate. Must be the kind of company I attract.” Though shouted over the music, he managed to keep the affection in his tone. As irritating as Amanda could be, he always still delighted in seeing her.

Absently, he began to press his thumbs into the sole of one of her feet. His fingers slid over the nylon stocking, digging into the pressure points. She groaned, lolling her head back in pleasure.

The music softened, the aria dimming, and Duncan kneaded his way around the sides of Amanda’s foot. His sword-strengthened grip allowed him to squeeze tighter and fatigue slower than most modern masseuses—both of which Amanda reveled in, if her continued soft noises could be taken as validation.

In the background, he recognized the click of the patio door shutting and Methos’ footsteps crossing the hardwood floor.

“Your order has arrived,” the computer intoned. “A tip has been automatically deducted from your account.”

“I hope you’re monitoring those automatic deductions,” Methos stated. “Fastest way to bankruptcy in this modern world. Though, it might be worth it in this case. The food smells incredible.” His words passed through Duncan’s awareness, yet left no lasting impression, little more than another layer to the ambient music. “When you said you knew a restaurant that still prepared food grown on a farm—Amanda!” He stopped in front of the couch and peered over the cardboard box clutched in his arms. “We talked about this.”

Amanda groaned again and waved a hand airily at him. “Don’t interrupt now. I haven’t had a massage this nice in ages.” With a moan, she added, “It’s positively decadent.”

“Amanda!” Methos chided.

Something in Methos’ tone cut through the haze that had filled Duncan’s mind, and he looked up, blinking. Then he looked back down, at a hand that encircled Amanda’s foot. He remembered giving the massage, of course, but he couldn’t recall why he started.

And that wouldn’t have bothered him, if Amanda’s expression didn’t drip in guilt, and if Methos wasn’t staring her down as if she’d betrayed him.

“What’s going on?” Duncan shoved Amanda’s feet out of his lap and straightened, mentally bracing for … well, wherever Amanda went, chaos followed. Methos’ involvement suggested that the chaos might at least be a controlled explosion. But Duncan knew to the core of his being that he needed to brace himself.

“It’s your birthday,” Amanda answered, with an innocent tilt of her head — the innocent tilt, in fact, that she only used when she was trying to avoid getting into trouble. Duncan’s hackles rose.

“I think we’ve thoroughly established that,” Duncan answered. “Same day every year. Yet this is the first time either of you have treated it like…” He trailed off, unable to decide what kind of analogy fit. They’d all joined him, individually and together, in celebratory activities before, though not with any kind of predictable consistency. This felt different, though. Momentous.

In some ways, it felt like the family gathering around the bed of a dying loved one.

Duncan looked from one friend to the other, trying to tease out a clue to what they weren’t saying. The only thing he did know is that none of them would be dying anytime soon.

“Is there bad news?” he finally managed, wracking his brain for what the two of them would find important enough to address together. The most obvious choice—one of their mutual friends losing a Challenge—usually only merited a text.

Amanda and Methos traded a long, meaningful glance, each of them daring the other to speak first.

Somehow, Amanda won the dare.

Or lost it, depending on what needed to be said.

Pulling her legs close, she tucked herself into the corner of the couch. “Not bad news,” she started. “Or, I guess, we won’t know if it’s bad news until we know what it is?” She drew a breath and squared her shoulders. “About birthdays … Connor never happened to … mention--”

“And here I’d hoped we could wait until after dinner to do this,” Methos interrupted. With a sigh and an eye roll that contradicted Amanda’s seriousness, he deposited the box of food on the counter, then returned to deposit himself into Duncan’s favorite reading chair. “If the food doesn’t reheat well, don’t blame me.”

“Would one of you please get to the point?” Duncan entreated. He also wanted to eat, but he knew the tension holding his stomach hostage wouldn’t ease until he got to the bottom of whatever was going on.

“Fine.” Methos slapped his hands on the arm rests. “How do you feel about growing wings? Maybe gaining the power of invisibility? Or … I don’t know … the ability to never slip on ice?”

Duncan blinked. “Come again?” He glanced at Amanda to check her reaction. If they’d planned some kind of prank together, she was the one who’d break first. Maybe. She looked only worried, teeth biting into her bottom lip.

“You have to admit that never slipping on ice could be useful,” she supplied, after a moment, as if trying to be helpful.

“What are ye getting at?” Duncan asked, his patience starting to slip. “What do ye mean: grow wings? I’m no’ some kind of shape-shifting beastie.” This time no one stopped him when he rose to his feet. Another possibility crossed his mind then, though he couldn’t imagine why either Amanda or Methos would ever seriously consider it. “And I have no plans to shell out my hard-earned money for any of those new-fangled genetic implants. I am not about to become anyone’s guinea pig for whether those implants would even work on immortal bodies.”

“Oh, Duncan, no.” An expression of horror flashed across Amanda’s face.

“Maybe we should hang this on Ramirez’s dandy head,” Methos suggested. “If he neglected to inform Connor, then it’s no wonder Connor didn’t do his diligence. It’s like this, Mac: When Immortals turn 500, they gain some kind of power.”

“Nonsense,” Duncan retorted. “I’ve known ye for nearly a century.” He turned to Amanda. “And you for more than five. Neither of ye have any kind of … power.” He spat the word, his disdain for the mere thought infecting the syllables. Surely, Methos was pulling one over on him.

“Don’t we?” Amanda looked thoughtful for a moment, one finger tapping at her lip. “Since we met, have you ever been able to deny me anything?”

It was true that Amanda had a way of getting Duncan to go along with the most hare-brained of her schemes. But he was certain that she didn’t always get her way. No one did. “When it’s necessary,” he answered, though he couldn’t immediately think of any times that qualified. She met his gaze, silently daring him to come up with one example. His face began to warm under her scrutiny, so he cut his attention back to Methos. “Then what’s yours? Some kind of super-sarcasm? I’ve seen ye naked often enough to know there are no wings hiding under that sweater.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Methos’ lips, but he managed to keep it contained. “I’ll bet if you think about it, you can figure it out. You might say, the answer is hidden in plain sight.”

“What does that mean?” Duncan demanded.

With a slight shake of his head, Methos made it clear that he wouldn’t be supplying any further hints. “If we’re not proof enough, consider the other long-lived immortals you know. Darius and his dreams? Cassandra and her Voice?”

Amanda jumped in. “Have you ever seen Matthew of Salisbury sleep?”

Now that Duncan thought about it, he hadn’t. The few times they spent an overnight together, Matthew was always the last one to bed and the first one up. Or, so Duncan thought. But, before he had time to dwell on that, other people came to mind.

“Rebecca had no powers. Neither did Fitzcairn. I think I’d know if he could … what was it ye said? Turn invisible?”

“Rebecca most certainly did,” Amanda countered softly, yet adamantly. “Hadn’t you ever noticed how she attracted people to her who needed healing? And how she always knew what kind of healing they needed?”

He had noticed it; he’d even thought there was something uncanny about her instincts. But that didn’t make them some kind of supernatural power. Plenty of mortals had a similar knack.

As Duncan opened his mouth to press the point about Fitzcairn, Methos interrupted. “Most of the time, the power is just an enhanced version of an attribute you already have. In some cases, the immortal doesn’t know they’ve developed a power until decades or centuries later because it takes that long for the circumstances that would make the power useful to arise.” He cocked his head. “But I’ve never known a case where it didn’t happen at all.”

Duncan threw out his hands in consternation. His apartment suddenly seemed far too small for the three of them, and shrinking by the second. He started toward the patio door, ready to throw it open to let in some much needed fresh air—and noticed that both Amanda and Methos shifted forward as it to intercept him. Spinning on his foot, he turned back to face them. “Let’s say for a moment that this isn’t some kind of tasteless joke.” They both gave short nods of concession, so he continued. “My birthday isn’t until tomorrow.”

Methos shook his head. “The infant you replaced was born on the Solstice. You are probably several hours older. Think about it, MacLeod: The midwife couldn’t have known she’d be able to make a substitution if she hadn’t already had access to a second baby who was close enough in age to pass as a newborn.”

For the first time in his life, Duncan did think about it. And he immediately recognized the validity of Methos’ point. There was no way to check the actual time of his actual birth—or appearance, depending on how exactly immortal children came into the world—as anyone who would know was long dead. He scrubbed a hand over his face, yet found no clarity in the gesture. The knowledge of one’s birthday was simple, stable. And now it was up for question.

Of the two announcements thrown at him that evening, the second one rocked him harder.

Duncan stood locked in place for several moments, struggling to figure out what to do with these revelations. At last he admitted, “I guess the only way we’re going to know for sure is to wait, and … see what happens. If anything happens.” He still wasn’t ready to concede that there might be some 500th-birthday superpower gift coming, but he couldn’t rule the idea out completely. Darius had had precognitive dreams, and Cassandra did have the ability to compel people with her voice. He’d heard rumors of other powers, yet had always chalked them up to being something intrinsic to the individual, rather than a function of age.

They dished up and settled in to eat, each of them keeping one eye on the analog clock Duncan insisted on owning as it counted down the minutes to the Solstice.

The minute and second hands clicked by, each movement seeming to take longer than the time they were supposed to be measuring. Duncan had some inkling that the wine might be responsible for that. The edges of his world grew softer and his recall shorter.

“Wings,” he blurted out, gulping down a sip of wine too fast as the example came to him. Had he asked about them before? He thought he might have, though he couldn’t remember if there’d been an answer. “You said wings.” His shoulder-blades did itch a little, but he didn’t dare reach back to see if any new appendages might be sprouting. He still refused to validate the idea of a power — though it was starting to sound less preposterous.

Methos had become glassy-eyed, and his tongue looser. He focused briefly on the accusatory finger Duncan pointed at him, then nodded, as if he’d only been waiting for Duncan to remember that one. “I did,” he agreed. Leaning back in his chair, he peered upward at the overhead lights. “Big wings.” He spread his arms wide as if to illustrate.

“Who?” Duncan managed. Any immortal with wings would be pretty obvious. Hard to hide. People would know about it.

“Kronos,” Methos answered, then smiled in fond memory. “Big wings.”

“Kronos?” Duncan echoed. The image didn’t compute.

Amanda swirled the last swallow of wine in her glass, watching the liquid spin round and round the glass. “Oh,” she breathed, “that’s who. I always wondered. Didn’t he cut them off?”

Methos hummed an agreement. “Used them to terrorize people for a few centuries, then decided that they caused too many problems--so--” He made a slicing motion with his hand, then did it again with the other one. Two wings, two slices. He chewed thoughtfully on a bite of food, then added, “Can’t say I missed the molting.”

“Kronos?” Duncan asked again, still trying to make the image work. Darius had visions. Cassandra could make people obey her. And Kronos had wings?

With a chuckle, Amanda stood up to carry her dishes over to the dishwasher. She wobbled, caught her balance, then set off to navigate to the kitchen with a firm look of concentration etched between her brows. “We’re just lucky that Kronos didn’t get a more, what’s the word … practice … prack … practical power.” There was a clatter as she moved dishes around to make room for her own, and some under-her-breath muttering as she maligned whoever had filled the appliance before. When she straightened, her expression had sobered, even if she hadn’t. “The invisibility, though. Take my advice: don’t ask about this soon after eating.”

Duncan blanched, and decided he didn’t need to know. Not with a setup like that.

Their latest bottle of wine was nearly empty, so he poured the remaining splash into Methos’ glass and considered whether it was worth opening another bottle this late. It wouldn’t hurt to sober up a little before they went to bed—not if they wanted to do anything other than pass out.

“You know—“ Duncan contemplated the shadow of the empty bottle on the table-- “Birthdays are really just days now; I ‘spected quiet. A quiet evening. Here. At home.” He mulled over the next words, determined to get them right and spoken on the first try. “If you two wanted to make it something special, you didn’t need to … come up with a, with a ridiculous excuse. All you had to do is drop by. That’s all. Time with friends doesn’t need an excuse.” He was aware of how maudlin his speech sounded, yet didn’t see any reason to hold back. He meant every word.

“Time with friends?” Amanda asked. Her voice sounded tight.

Duncan smiled, delighted to be understood. “Yes!”

“No.” Amanda carefully made her way back to him, tried to point, lost her balance again, and only managed to not fall into his lap because she tipped the other way and pulled off a controlled descent into her chair.

“The best time,” Duncan argued.

“No,” she insisted. “Look.” She gestured to the clock, the hands of which pointed to one minute after midnight.

The second hand didn’t move.

With some effort, Methos brought his own attention around. He stared at the silent clock, then began counting. He got to twenty before losing track and starting over. A couple times he changed languages for a handful of numbers before re-orienting himself. The numbers climbed higher and higher, well past where the clock should have reflected the change.

“Trixie,” he finally inquired, “What time is it?”

There was silence, then the soft ping of the AI’s acknowledgment. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t have any record of that.”

“What?” Duncan asked. The AI couldn’t mess that one up; it was impossible. He repeated the command, taking care to enunciate.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, in a measured cadence that gave no indication that she recognized a problem. “I don’t have any record of that.”

For all the AI’s issues—and for all Duncan’s inebriation—he sensed that this was not a programming glitch.

“Well,” Amanda managed, with a huff of a laugh. “Guess that’s our answer.” She dragged Duncan’s chair with a squeal across the floor until her knees slotted between his, and her legs pressed against his. Their warmth made promises. Grabbing his head, she pulled Duncan closer and planted a quick kiss on his mouth. “Happy birthday, Solstice boy.”

Methos continued staring at the clock and listening to the silence of its absent ticking until he couldn’t doubt his senses any more. “Right. It’s official. Our boy is 500.” He clapped Duncan on the shoulder, then dropped his own kiss on Duncan’s mouth. “Now, let’s hope this isn’t a single-use power. Even we can only celebrate for so long.”