A tall dark-haired man stands on a crumbling hill, moving with liquid, tempered grace through the motions of a kata with a broken sword.
Unbeknownst to him, somewhere there are old friends, toasting him and wishing him safe return.
Somewhere there is warmth and laughter, regrets and memories.
Somewhere there is life and past and future.
But here and now there is only he and his sword and time holds no dominion.
The snow is falling and catching in his hair. His thoughts are his and his alone.
AD 2001, December 18, the second day of Saturnalia, Feast of Eponalia. Glenfinnan, Scotland.
The hilt was smooth - the feel, the weight, the familiarity of it comforting as it slid into his hand. The rest was simple, no thought required. The instinct and the ingrained reflexes took over and he simply let them as the blade struck out with viper's speed toward the darkness.
The man sitting easily in the chair by the window coolly regarded the sword point hovering only millimeters away from his eyes, incongruously hidden by the sunglasses even within the dark confines of the room.
"Bout time y' rejoined de livin,' mon ami. I've a task f' you."
Duncan MacLeod frowned and the sword moved closer still toward the stranger's face, but before he could ground out the obvious question the Cajun smiled crookedly at him. "It's time t' save de world again."
The sun was just breaking through, bleeding the dawn onto the horizon when Duncan joined his uninvited guest in the bar. It was empty, although Rachel had gotten up long since and was haranguing the rest of the inn's staff in the kitchen.
The Cajun, Remy ("But you can call me Gambit or LeBeau") as he introduced himself, was sitting with his back toward the stairs. He had reversed his chair and his hands were crossed along its back, his head cocked slightly as he listened to Rachel's tirade, a small grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Duncan did not bother to be quiet and so was not surprised when LeBeau acknowledged his presence by speaking suddenly, without turning. "A pleasure watchin' de lady go. Remind' me of a drill sergeant I knew."
"Who are you and what do you want." MacLeod did not make an effort to disguise his anger or impatience, and his words had a grim heavy finality. The implication should have been clear. Whatever LeBeau was selling, he wasn't interested.
"Them be de questions for the ages." Gambit drawled, faintly amused. "Who we be and what we want... "
Duncan felt the all too familiar blackness well up deep within. It horrified him, the ease with which it came in response to only the simple irritation of a pretentious blabbermouth. He swallowed the words that burned in his throat and sat himself opposite the Cajun, tightly controlled. "I have no time for foolish word games, Mr. LeBeau. Get to the point or, regrettably, I will have no choice but to involve the police."
That earned him a half turn of the man's head and an unfathomable scrutiny by the still hidden eyes. Duncan shrugged, smiling unpleasantly. "This is my kinswoman's inn. I'd like to discourage unannounced visitors breaking in to bother guests. Bad for business."
The pause stretched until LeBeau turned away again. "Non, I don' t'ink y'll be doin' dat."
"Oh?" His voice sounded brittle to his own ears and Duncan flushed. "Why not?"
Gambit sighed and with the faint air of regret abandoned his study of Rachel's management technique, turning around to gaze at Duncan.
"Y' had dealings wit' cops 'round here before, neh? Not on de best of terms, if I understand correctly. Besides, y' strike me as a private sort. And, incidentally..." he smiled. "Strictly speakin', th' mademoiselle not 'xactly kin, is she?"
The tips of his fingers flared with sudden pain and Duncan looked down, realizing that he had been clenching the edge of the table with enough strength to turn his knuckles white. LeBeau followed his glance, his attention lingering on Duncan's fingers just enough to show that he didn't miss it or what the scene betrayed to him about MacLeod.
Relaxing his grip, the Scot leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest, his stare cold. "I told Dawson that I was out of the helping Watchers business. I want to be left alone."
Gambit's eyebrow quirked and he looked puzzled for a moment. "Daw Oh! Non, non." He shrugged off the trench coat easily and rolled up his sleeve, proffering the arm to Duncan.
There was no telltale tattoo denoting the man's membership in the organization that tracked and recorded every move of the Immortals.
Which just made it all so much simpler.
LeBeau rebuttoned his sleeve, continuing to speak as if he had not heard MacLeod's command. "I am wit' a dif'rent outfit. More... diversified, y'might say."
A card appeared as if out of nowhere between his fingers. "And as I said, my employers have a job f'you."
Duncan made no move to take the card. "I've asked you to leave."
Gambit sighed and rose, absently grabbing his coat. "Well. I c'n take a hint. I know when I'm not wanted. When I outstayed de welcome."
Duncan ignored the feeble sarcasm wishing that the man would leave already. LeBeau sighed again, sniffing and glancing regretfully toward the kitchen. A regret distinctly misplaced, in Duncan's opinion. As much as he loved Rachel, her cooking was a prime example of a noble Scottish culinary tradition that drove most Scots to seek their fortunes abroad.
His coat flaring behind him with unnecessary drama, the Cajun strode lightly for the door, nimbly avoiding the haphazardly arranged furniture, his gliding, weaving step reminding Duncan suddenly of Methos.
He stepped across the threshold, pausing on the very border between the gathering light of a new day and the warm dimness of the inn.
Of course, Duncan thought grimacing slightly in resignation. One last pitch.
Remy turned slightly, his glasses sliding, the red-black eyes stabbing toward the Highlander with acid nonchalance.
"How are th' dreams?"
The steppe was quiet, the gray overcast sky overlooking the sea of grass, stretching as far as the eye could see. And on a day like this, just standing on a small knoll gave you a view into forever
The chilly wind that started somewhere over Baikal Lake was playing with the grass blades, making the dance under its light, negligent caress. Soon enough it would pick up, bringing first rain and spring. But not yet, not yet.
It was on the edge of his mind. He was sure that he knew this place. Perhaps Mei-Ling's little tribe stopped here once and in the shadow of this hill she showed him the crescent kick, 200 years ago.
Or perhaps it was not Mongolia but Ukraine, and he was only minutes from the place where he broke bread with Christov's Cossacks.
He was sure that if he only concentrated... if he had just a little more time...
The wind was picking up quicker than he expected. And suddenly, catching him unawares it was a storm and he was in the middle of it, the wind angry and cutting like a splintered knife.
Dust and snow, whirling in a mad dance of destruction, blotting out the sun, reaching out for him.
It was terrible and beautiful and mad and powerful and joyful and killing and...
There was something beyond the storm.
Something great and horrifying and on the age of wakefulness.
"Duncan?" Rachel appeared in the doorway, glancing warily at the tableau before her. MacLeod was standing, gasping by the upturned chair and seeming shorter than his usual, rather intimidating, six-foot-something. There was sweat on his forehead, despite the chilly breeze coming from the open door and his short black hair were disarrayed. He was staring at the stranger standing by the door. And there was something in Duncan's eyes that Rachel could not define but did not like at all.
The whole scene was odd and set her teeth on edge.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Remy, chere." He grinned at her, and almost bowed, letting the reddish-brown hair fall across his face. When he straightened his eyes were secreted behind sun-glasses and Rachel shook off the momentary impression of red irises on black. Must have been a trick of light.
The man exuded carefree, easy charm as he winked at her and slouched his lanky form against the doorframe. "Enchante, mademoiselle."
He had a certain appeal; she had to admit, catching herself on the verge of checking her hair. But he knew it too, she could tell. And there was Duncan's face...
She scowled at him. "Unless you're renting, you can use that there door."
He was laughing at her, behind those glasses, she was sure of it. The momentary allure of the exotic accent and graceful nonchalance quickly disappeared under chilly indignation.
"Kitchen opens at ten." She glanced pointedly toward the street. "See you then."
She glanced behind her, surprised.
"Let's take a walk." Duncan said quietly and brushed by her quickly, disappearing out the door.
Remy sketched a mock half-bow toward her. "I'll be back for dat breakfast, chere."
She squinted at him and muttered under her breath about finding the rat poison just in time.
The Cajun laughed out loud and followed MacLeod out.
The card remained, forgotten on the table, black letters clear on the beige background.
Rachel reached for it, curious despite herself.
"Landau, Luckman & Lake." She frowned, turning the card over. Nothing else, not even an address.
"Huh. He didn't look like a lawyer."
"Pah." The small cloud of fogged breath dissipated, torn away from his throat by the wind and Remy shivered, drawing his coat tighter about himself and glaring disgustedly toward MacLeod who was striding beside him, jeans and sweater his only protection against the Scottish winter.
Another gust brought a whirling flurry of snow from the frozen surface of the lake, giving the already pastoral panorama an idyllically fairy-tale quality.
"Pretty." LeBeau noted. "Nice place t' grow up, neh?" He offered MacLeod a pack of cigarettes.
Duncan glanced at Remy briefly and shrugged noncommittally, breathing the chilly air in deeply and, paradoxically, looking better with every breath, as if he drew strength from the very earth.
If Rachel could have seen him, she perhaps would have had an easier time recognizing her old friend in MacLeod strolling along the shores of Loch Shiel, rather than a haunted, strangely aged man with shadows behind his eyes that showed up on her doorstep a month ago.
"Must've been nice," Remy nodded to himself, and drew out a cigarette with his teeth, wagging it at MacLeod. "Still - why 'gain do we have t' talk out 'ere instead of a nice warm inside somewhere?"
"Rachel kicked you out, remember?" Duncan reminded him flatly. "You make friends fast."
Gambit tsked and capped his hands around the cigarette. A minute later Duncan could smell the telltale acrid nicotine scent. He frowned, bothered childishly that he didn't spot the lighter or the matches that LeBeau must have used.
"Oh, y' 'kinswoman?' She be crazy 'bout me, homme. Jus' don' know it yet."
MacLeod bristled at the sardonic tone. "She IS my kinswoman and-"
"She Immortal like y' too?" Gambit puffed out a veil of smoke, watching it curl in upon itself. "Found on a doorstep one day? No warm body knowin' where she come from 'til one day it turns out dat not'ing can harm her dat she can' heal."
His lips twisted slightly.
"Dat is 'less some other Immortal happen' to take her head and wit' it her power. She your kin like dat?"
MacLeod stared at him stonily. "We may not share blood or genes, but I'm Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod and she's family in all the ways that count."
"Ah." Remy drawled lazily. "Families of choice, de ones we make f' ourselves."
Duncan glanced at LeBeau speculatively, catching a strange note underneath the irony. Whatever it was the Cajun shrugged it off quickly, his face hidden behind the smoke.
"Where's de rest of y' tribe, MacLeod? Your friends? Why y' hidin' 'ere, alone and tryin' t'be forgotten?" His eyebrow quirked. "Fought one good fight too many?"
Duncan swallowed the memories and anger, refusing to be baited. Shrugging with brittle calm he looked back at Gambit, "Whether I have or not, is my business and it would seem that your employer thinks enough of me to believe I have at least one more in me." He drew his hand through the wet hair, brushing the snow out. "So why don't you get to the point."
LeBeau snorted, amused and turned to look over the frozen vista. "Pretty place," he repeated. "Y' clan's f' generations upon generations untold, right?"
MacLeod narrowed his eyes cautiously, unsure where this was going.
Remy puffed on his cigarette thoughtfully and nodded to himself. "All de way to the reign of the Wee People, neh?"
"You're going to lecture me about Gaelic lore, Remy?" MacLeod asked him interestedly.
Gambit sneezed and blinked at Duncan balefully. "Quiet. I'm showin' off."
"Ahh." MacLeod nodded understandingly and mockingly motioned for him to go on.
The story Gambit wove was not an unfamiliar one, but despite himself Duncan could feel himself getting caught up in it again. The Cajun's singsong cadence was so completely unlike the harmonious tales of his father's bards or the whispering, lullabies of his grandmother. Still the man was a good storyteller and Duncan could almost picture the scenes, the people and the time.
The time of myth and legend, of time when Dark Gods walked the earth and fought the wars that shook the very heavens.
The Fomorians ruled Europe then, the race of giants and demons and magic as cold and black and wild as the shadow of the ocean that born them. They were great in their power and their malice and none were greater than their king, Balor the One-Eye, who could not open his eye for his very glance would kill. They ruled the land and held it against all comers. All invaders they vanquished, like the sly Partholons and their king the Father-Slayer or enslaved, like the mighty Nemeds. Both were rebellious children of Fomor and both tried its power in vain.
They reigned like Gods and none compared until FirBolgs came, led by their five sons of Dela, five fractious kings. They humbled the Fomors, taking away the Emerald Isle for their own.
The two made peace and lived together for an age, their power and arrogance colossal.
Both broken into dust by Tuatha De Danann, the Fair Folk. And even they were nearly defeated, when Balor driven into timeless fury opened his eye. Only his grandson could vanquish him and did, and with his eye plucked out Balor fell into a slumber of the ages.
"Wait." Duncan interrupted, frowning slightly. "Dead. He died when Lugh took his eye..."
"Did he?" Gambit snorted again.
Balor slept but even trapped in his troubled and restless sleep he scared his destroyers, this Sea Demon, this God King that was nightmare come alive, the source of the wild magic of Fomor.
And so they exiled him, burying him far in the Outworld beneath a mountain and their strongest spells. But none were strong enough to chain the dreaming god completely and every year the wild magic would burst free and run like a flooded river through the world.
It was the age of Faerie then, the age of De Danaan. Eventually Man came and the age ended in war and fire like most do. A bargain was struck at the end and the Danaan left for the Outworld as well, left for the gleaming spires of Tir na Nog. The Unseelie Court and a few others lingered for a while but in time most followed their kin Beyond. And there they stay but for the times of year when Balor stirs, uneasy in his slumber and sends his magic spilling across the universe.
Four times a year, when great Changes shake the world, Balor casts his shadow across the land, restlessly turning in his sleep, instinctively trying to sunder the shackles of sleep and magic
Samhain the Summer's End, Beltane the Bloom of Spring, Litha the Summer's Birth and Yule, also known as Saturnalia, by the Romans.
*** "Wait, what do the Romans have to do-?"
"What do y t'ink was anot'er name for Balor One-Eye, the Child-Eater?" Remy inquired, dark amusement dancing in his eyes.
Four times a year, magic stronger than their own takes over and all else gives way as the Wilde Hunt is loosed abroad, wreaking havoc upon the land. The flower of Fae, the kings and queens, the knights and nobles of both Courts stand between the curse of Fomor and their people. They surrender to the wild magic and they ride.
The Outlands is not exempt but the worst of it, the blackest rage and madness of Balor is carried by the Hunt.
The Wild Hunt rides, the best of Danaan flying, riding, stalking whatever comes across its path, nothing and none exempt from the mad and merciless fury of the unleashed chaos and anarchy glorying in itself.
For three days the Hunt would ride, the huntsmen lost, caught, swept away by the dark dreams of a forgotten God. And every death, every drop of blood spilt by the laughing, singing cavalcade of frenzied killing angels would feed him, would bring him that much closer to wakefulness and resurrection.
The Wild Hunt rides, racing themselves, pursuing and consuming everyone that would chance upon them, and riding, riding across the land, spending the wild magic, pouring it into the land before the scale is tipped by their swords in the devourer wakes.
But much death is needed to wake Balor. Three days are never enough.
And yet he still stirs, clawing for awareness and wakeful wrath.
Never stronger, never closer to making his nightmares flesh than during Saturnalia, the time of the longest night.
But in the end...
In the end the magic runs its course in time and all settles, so it has been for ages.
Until a young witch came into her own in a sunny dale near a warm ocean in the western land. And, exploring her power, unleashed an old evil into the world. Weakening by an unlucky chance Balor's bonds.
Gambit spread his arms expansively. "And so, dis Yule's Hunt gonna be a bit dif'rent. And if it run too long..." Remy snapped his fingers. "Old One-Eye wakes up and we all be in big trouble."
Duncan stared at him for a second with hooded eyes. "You don't really expect me to take this... this... bullshit seriously, do you?"
Remy shrugged and lit another cigarette, "No more seriously dan a silly story 'bout invisible demon named Ahriman, homme. No more serious dan dat."
The silence stretched.
By the time the pair made it back to the inn, Gambit was visibly shivering, his teeth were chattering and he presented an appearance generally pitiful enough for the few regulars to chuckle quietly at the thin-skinned Southerner and for Rachel to squint her eyes pityingly and bark at the whisperers to shut up and for Duncan and LeBeau to "park their butts" by the fire.
"Frenchies..." Angus muttered scornfully, vacating his own place by the fireplace. "No stomach for real weather."
Duncan saw Remy's head turn slightly, probably to correct the man as to his nationality, but the Cajun gave up mid-motion and swallowing the retort, hugged his hot chocolate.
They sat there in more or less companionable silence for a time, Duncan observing Gambit's epicurean and catlike enjoyment of warmth with mute amusement.
It didn't take long for the other man to notice the MacLeod's regard and he twitched his shoulders with faint annoyance. "Don' like de cold."
Outside the snow began to fall thickly and fast, painting the landscape white.
Remy sipped the chocolate absently, a strange faraway look in his eyes. "Jus' don' like de cold, is all..."
It wasn't long before Remy excused himself, or rather didn't, and disappeared with the key to MacLeod's room, leaving, as promised, the Scot some time to think.
Think about what?
The proposition was preposterous; the story wild, LeBeau exuded the air of a conman. There was nothing to think about.
Duncan leaned back in his chair, absently listening to the amiable din of the filling bar. This was his home, or as much of one as anything was since he kill-... since Connor died. Why should he leave on a say-so of a potentially insane stranger?
"Why me?" He asked the Cajun, with the wind tugging at their clothes and hair. The account of what he was actually expected to do was still ringing like some sort of a demented fairy tale in the back of his mind. "Surely I am not the only one you can trust to do this."
Remy grinned mockingly and Duncan flashed with realization of the colossal conceit inherent in the question. Still, stubbornly, he held the other man's eyes, waiting for the answer.
"Non," Remy said finally, puffing on his cigarette. "Dere are ot'ers. But dey seem t'be a li'l busy at de moment. Got dey own Armageddons to deal wit' and y'..."
"I'm busy too, dammit!" MacLeod glared at him. "I've got my own problems, my own life to figure out, to rebuild, to..."
"Y' wallowing, homme. Dat ain't busy. Dat ain't life."
There was nothing to think about.
Nothing at all.
Except, of course... Except that there were the dreams. Except of course that the last time he ignored crazy explanations, Richie died. Except of course that Connor taught him to always trust his instincts.
Except of course that Remy reminded him somehow so much of Methos.
It looked as if he didn't even bother to undress or grab a blanket, simply shrugged off his coat and fell asleep on Duncan's bed. Asleep his face was more open, less guarded giving up secrets concealed by the practiced masks. He looked young, young and desperately weary. Couldn't have been older than thirty even with the deeply ingrained exhaustion, the tired lines around the mouth and the eyes aging him beyond his years.
He slept fitfully, cocooning himself in a mess of linen sheets and curling in the very corner of the bed, as if to gather in all the warmth around him.
He gasped occasionally and muttered in the bastardized French of Louisiana bayou, fast and hoarse enough to deny MacLeod understanding. He was only able to catch the snatches of it, the desperate pleading. "Non. Non, don't... don't leave..."
It seemed, Duncan thought as he gently draped the blanket over his uninvited guest and left the room to settle his bill, that he was not the only one ill at ease in the confines of his own mind.
"Non." Remy repeated impatiently.
"No planes?" Duncan repeated skeptically and tried to remember whether he thought to make sure to get refundable tickets. So much for taking initiative, he thought ruefully.
Remy simply shrugged and grinned enigmatically. "I do heap big magic, homme. Don' forget y' pig-sticker."
MacLeod did his best to mask the pained expression that, he was perfectly aware, must have flickered reflexively across his face at Gambit's choice of words to describe his sword.
"You're going to voodoo us to Belize?" He arched his eyebrow sardonically from the depths of the chair, stopping for a second his labor; an oiled cloth in one hand, his sword lying across his knees. "Or are we going to use a magic carpet? Travel in style?"
Gambit glared, from where he sat cross-legged on Duncan's bed, as he spread three sheets of paper in front of him. The paper was densely filled with what looked vaguely like Aramaic writing and arcane symbols that did not look familiar at all.
MacLeod chuckled again and resumed polishing his sword, feeling strangely lighthearted this morning, as if making the decision relieved some burden he wasn't aware of carrying.
"Disappointing, Mr. LeBeau. Very disappointing. I'd expect something much more efficient from someone who is part of a transdimensional firm, able to traverse parallel realities at will. Teleportation at the very least."
Judging by Remy's malevolent glower and indistinct imprecations muttered under his breath, the 24-hour sleep had done little to improve his mood.
"What was that?" Duncan inquired mildly, "Didn't quiet catch it."
"I'm not a _part_ of anyt'ing," Remy informed him haughtily. "Indepenten' contractor." He sighed and impatiently swiped his hair out of his eyes. "Now, pipe down. Dis ain't as easy as it looks."
MacLeod sat and watched as Remy continued to murmur in a dead language, his fingers tracing the ink, in an intricate, secretive, unsettling dance that made the hair on the back of his hand itch in vague and scraping premonition.
The moment still came as a shock; cold, quick and sharp like a plunge into icy water. The jolt expelled his breath from him as the world dissolved, fragmented into a kaleidoscope of anarchic facets, the time freezing and speeding up, trapping him between understanding and panic. He felt too small suddenly and the sky was falling, the whole universe seemed to narrow down toward him, tilting, crushing, suffocating him. And he could not move, could not breathe, spellbound and caught between the vivid, absolute clarity and all-encompassing terror.
The no-space, somebody said and maybe it was him. The undermind, somebody laughed or maybe cried. The Creation was screaming, whispering, pleading, weeping into his ear. Offering the answers to every question he never, always asked.
The faces, scenes and formless terrors blurred before his eyes, the past and future spreading their secrets before him. But too fast, too much, all spilling through his fingers like sand from broken hourglass.
It was like Quickening, he thought dimly, vaguely aware of life beginning to drain away from him. The moment of taking another Immortal's head, his very essence, strength, some said soul... But never like this. Not even during the... Oh, God... Too much... Too much.
"Duncan, you might want to hurry up, if you don't want to miss..."
Rachel opened the door and blinked, warily surveying the empty room. "... the morning flight."
The resurrection was as painful and jarringly disorienting as always, as MacLeod came gaspingly back to life.
"Welcome t' San Ignacio," A dark shape silhouetted by brilliant sunlight streaming through open window behind him moved toward Duncan and sunk into a crouch beside him. "What th' fuck was dat all 'bout?" Remy asked interestedly, snapping his fingers in front of the Highlander's slightly glassy eyes to help him concentrate.
"That was..." Duncan grunted and, pushing Gambit's hand away, got up. "Unpleasant."
"No shit." Remy noted conversationally and made himself visibly comfortable where he was, observing from the floor as MacLeod rose, weaving slightly and rubbing his temple.
"Could have warned me," The Scott remarked tightly and looked around blearily.
"I could," Remy agreed placidly. "Never happen 'fore. I t'ought you Immortals supposed t'be tough hombres."
Duncan threw a warning glare at the Cajun and staggered towards what he approximated to be the general direction of the bathroom.
Throwing a few handfuls of the cold water on his face, he stooped, pressing his forehead against cool surface of the mirror and closing his eyes. For a second the nausea that usually passed quickly after the revivification, threatened to overwhelm him. The faint shadows of the things that assaulted his mind in the no-space still flickered behind his eyelids, frustratingly out of reach but the sheer alien strangeness of the experience seemed to resist the vaunted regenerative powers gifted to him by a genetic quirk of fate.
He sighed and opened his eyes, freezing for a brief moment as somebody else's face looked back at him. "Connor." He breezed and the reflection grinned and he could almost hear that distinctive quiet chuckle again... and then the moment passed and was just him and his reflection again.
Duncan shook his head and reached for the towel, ignoring the slight tremor in his hands. After all, this was hardly the worst of it. It did not begin to compare with the nightmares that plagued those first nights after he had been forced to kill his teacher, his surrogate father. The screaming moments he spent poised on the edge of madness, battling for control of his own mind as Connor's Quickening threatened to overwhelm him. Weeks upon weeks of silent, grinding struggle for his sanity that in effect amounted to killing Connor yet again.
He never quite won at that. The peace of mind, the serenity he used to find in doing simple iaijutsu or tai chi escaped him now. His self-control was fragile as a just-healed bone. Brittle, frail chains holding the black and snarling thing within him barely at bay.
He swiped the cloth across his face and grinned crookedly, without mirth.
A simple, fleeting hallucination did not really compare.
When he reentered the main room Remy was still on the floor, talking into a battered cell. "Quoi? Why so late? All right, all right. We'll be dere at seven. Don' be..."
Duncan tuned him out, giving up on making sense out of the single side of the conversation. Instead he looked around, absently picking up his sword from the floor.
The house was small and fairly run down, although it was obvious that it was recently cleaned. Wooden floors, and spacious rooms of typical of the late-colonial South-American architecture. The bright sun and slight warm wind, the verdant green of the jungle that seemed to start mere steps away. The noise of kids splashing in the river. It all seemed welcoming in an unassuming way. Duncan stepped onto the patio and leaning against the rails smiled, closing his eyes again and letting the wind, the warmth and the sounds of the small city wash over him.
Remy followed him out mere minutes after, discarding the seemingly ever-present coat and sinking into the wicker chair, smoothly palming his cigarettes. "We goin' t'have to wait a bit."
MacLeod nodded. "Figured as much. Who are we meeting?"
Remy glanced at him quickly. "A guy who knows a guy."
Duncan frowned irritably and Gambit shrugged. "He's wit' US Army Special Branch. A while ago dey got dey greedy li'l hands on de Eye of Balor."
MacLeod blinked. "And this guy is just going to turn it over to you, like that?"
"Non." Remy caricatured his voice mockingly. "Not jus' like dat. L, L & L had t' pull some strings and trade some favors." He shrugged again and lit his cigarette with seemingly a flicker of his finger - the silly little mystery of how he was doing that was beginning to annoy the Scot.
"As it is," Remy continued, blissfully unaware of MacLeod's irritation. "It's goin' be all very hush-hush."
The brief, non-comitial grunt earned MacLeod a brief regard over the rim of sunglasses. "Qui?" Gambit inquired coolly. "Was dere somethin'?"
"Just wondering," Duncan twirled the sword gently, grasping the pommel lightly. "You said you weren't with L, L & L. Independent contractor, I believe was the phrase you used."
"Qui," Remy raised his eyebrows, "And?"
"Who were you before?"
"B'fore my exciting career as transdimensional troubleshooter?" Remy grinned thinly, "I was a t'ief, a murderer, a traitor and, for a li'l while, a hero." The long slender fingers, worried at his lapel for a second where a small, old and weathered X-shaped pin was barely visible. "An X-Man."
Well, that certainly tells me nothing in elaborate detail, Duncan thought and was about to comment bitingly to that extent when something flared and his vision blurred.
And suddenly he was freezing.
The snow was whipping all around him, getting in his eyes and mere feet away Remy was kneeling in the snow, watching after the dark speck retreating rapidly toward horizon.
Other knowledge locked away after his brief excursion into the undermind rose to the surface and he gasped under the onslaught of memories that were not his own and stared at the figure reclining in the wicker chair with undisguised, disbelieving horror.
"They left you there... They left you there to freeze alive..."
Gambit flinched and then went preternaturally still, staring at MacLeod silently for a long, tense moment before relaxing stiffly into a caricature of his earlier carefree pose. "What de hell did that trip do to y', homme?'
The ironic question sounded hollow and forced.
Duncan ignored the all too transparent attempt to change the topic. "They were your friends and they just left you there to die?"
"Enough." Gambit's face turned into a stone mask. "Enough wit' de dramatics. I ain't no angel, unfairly judged and betrayed. Save y' pity."
Remy's eyes, now free of sunglasses glinted coldly. "After all, let he wit'out sin... Y' judged a fair number of y' friends, in y' time, MacLeod. Remember?"
Duncan felt his own face freeze. "I had my reasons."
LeBeau grinned, a chilly cruel expression. "So did dey." The Cajun's long-limbed form unfolded itself gracefully and he moved past MacLeod toward the door. Duncan stood silently, the shock of the images he had experienced still in his eyes. He knew, intellectually, that the creeping, killing freeze making his crawl was the remnant of Remy's borrowed memories but he still had to fight an impulse to rub his hands together for warmth.
On his way back into the house Gambit gripped the Scotsman's shoulder briefly, "T'was a long time ago, homme. A long time ago."
He paused once more before closing the door behind himself and, without turning, added tonelessly. "And mebbe next time y' have a psychic experience, you should get th' whole t'ing."
Through the paned glass Duncan watched him lie down on the sofa and go to sleep as if he had no worries in the world.
The man without guilt, MacLeod thought. Now if could he only convince himself of that. He grinned suddenly and without cheer. It seemed that he wasn't reading into the seeming familiarity between Methos and Remy, after all.
The memory rose unbidden to the surface of that dreary afternoon with his old friend hurling the sickening, gruesome truths about himself, about horrors he committed, the innocents whose blood forever stained his hands. Methos, the oldest Immortal, reciting his litany of sins and daring, asking, expecting MacLeod to render judgment. And he did, of course.
Implacability of justice and surety of one's own soul, MacLeod looked toward the sleeping form, absently playing with his sword. I had them once. They made me strong once. And now...
And now, I wonder whose blood is on your hands, Remy... and whether I want to know it at all.
The pommel was cutting into his hand, he realized and relaxed his grip, absently patting his pockets. The headache had returned in full and he had a feeling he is going to need his focus tonight. Biting back a curse, Duncan spotted what he was looking for back in the room. It probably fell out during the ... trip.
He opened the door carefully, wincing slightly at the inevitable squeak. Walking by napping Gambit, Duncan quietly reclaimed the bottle, popping the cap and shaking out two pills in the same, practiced motion and raised his head only to find Remy watching him; perceptive, alert eyes taking in everything, everything at all.
They stared at each other, quiet uncertainty building in MacLeod's chest until Gambit shrugged, a strange smile twisting his lips as if to say 'whatever gets you t'rough th' day, homme,' turned over and went back to sleep.
He quietly made his way back outside and sat in the wicker chair, feeling the artificial clarity storm though his blood, casting everything in chilly, ringing tones.
The day was darkening by inches and it somehow seemed fitting to sit on the veranda and simply breathe the warm air. Be.
Remy found him still there, caught in a waking sleep and touched him lightly on the shoulder. "Time."
They walked unhurriedly through the stone-cobbled streets of San Ignacio, whose very name seemed to still carry faint echoes of conquistadors and dreams of blood and gold and empires to be won. The jungle was ever-present, lurking just outside the confines of sight and mind and this Iberian outpost, seemingly forgotten, misplaced in time and space.
The streets were still full basking in the welcome change from the noon's heat, couples and families and a few tourists laughing, drinking in the wonder of the day. Street vendors plying their trade, buskers and monkeys getting underfoot.
Life, vivid and messy and contagious, splashing all across the streets.
The meeting was to be held at the old Hotel Tropicool ran by an old Englishman, Sir Percival Cosgrove, whose gin and tonic seemed surgically attached to his right hand. He instantly introduced himself as lord of San Ignacio, let it be known that he remembered Gambit quite well and implied that the Cajun had the face of someone who would engage in irregular sexual practices with underage male relatives, parts of dead people and most of the animal kingdom.
Remy took it all in stride.
Grinning and following the striding Englishman through the hotel, he winked at Duncan and whisperingly explained. Cosgrove was in fact a bonifide aristo, who through several quirks of fate, too bizarre to go into ended up, in Belize during the late 70s and ran Tropicool ever since, somehow managing to make the small hotel in a sleepy border town a spot well known within the community of people working for myriad of three letter agencies, fallen Gods and damned Angels, transdimensional firms of Good and Evil.
Highs and Lows of Cold War, New World Order, Apocalypse or the New Coming - Cosgrove had seen it all, or at least loftily maintained he had, never letting go of the gin.
He showed them into the lobby, gave the pair one last derisive look and faded into the depths of his hotel, muttering scornfully under his breath.
Remy ignored him, instead concentrating his regard on the two figures carefully staying within the cover of room's shadows, much like Duncan himself. MacLeod's stare followed his, assessing what he could. One was sitting in the chair to the left of the stairs leading to the second floor, his posture, while nominally relaxed, nevertheless practically screaming 'military' to MacLeod's practiced eyes. The second, standing behind the chair was not, as far as Duncan could determine in the gloom of the unlit room. Somehow less alert, more relaxed. No, no military brand on that one yet. At least not a deep one. And something else. Something about the way he stood... Duncan nodded suddenly, briefly to himself.
Not he. A woman.
The two... and then MacLeod felt more than heard something and his eyes flickered. He bit back a curse. Missed one.
Three of them, he corrected himself.
The third was a study at hiding in plain sight, just standing calmly in the corner. A study at inconspicuous behavior even when compared to his two companions. At an almost imperceptible gesture from the man in the chair he stepped forward, placing a compact, sleek device on the table in the middle of the room and faded back again. He seemed young for 'Special Branch' Duncan noted absently, taking in dark hair and clever amused eyes that swept over him in counter-appraisal, cataloguing everything.
Duncan squinted in appreciation, no excess movement at all. He glanced toward the table and his reluctant respect inched higher still. Digital fingerprint ID reader, at least a generation ahead of what was commercially available.
Gambit was smiling mockingly and ruefully shaking his head even as he stepped forward and pressed his fingers against the blue screen of the machine. It beeped quietly and Remy flicked an amused glance toward the figure in the chair. "Happy?" he inquired sardonically. The man didn't answer glancing toward the Quiet One instead.
"Yep. Checks out." Duncan wasn't quite sure but he had a strong suspicion that the winked at Remy as he reclaimed the machine.
Remy shook his head again. "Now dat we're done wit' dis foolishness?"
The man in the chair nodded slightly and looked toward the guy with the reader again. "Graham."
"Yessir." He slid out of the room, presumably to retrieve what they came here for.
The woman, girl really Duncan thought, flicked the light switch on, finally illuminating the entire room with the soft light of an overhead candelabra.
The amusement on her face mirrored Remy's as she stepped forward, her hand extended. "Enough with cloak and dagger, I think."
"Oh, I don' know." Remy drawled, bowing exaggeratedly and kissing the gloved hand in a courtly gesture. " Dark rooms and shadowy deals? It's all very exciting, chere."
"Remy. Be good. " The nominally severe admonishment somehow lacked force. She too looked so very young; black BDUs, the dark brown hair gathered together in a sensible bun, warm generous mouth and laughing eyes. She offered her hand to Duncan as well. "Sam. Sam Finn." Before he could introduce himself she gestured back toward the man behind her. "That's Riley Finn."
"Husband?' Duncan asked automatically.
"For my sins." She smiled as she said it but there was an undertone to the words, and a strange tension as Riley rose and approached them, also offering his hand.
The scar running the left side of his face, scoring both the forehead and the cheek around the eye should have should have given him a rakish look, instead he looked grimly competent. He also looked supremely tired, in a bone-deep weariness that doesn't come from physical exhaustion. It made him look older than his years. The light brown hair was cut short, the wearer apparently indifferent to the possibility of covering up the scar. He'd had kind eyes once, you could still see it, but now it was as if they held shattered glass.
Graham returned as quietly as he had left and the Finns excused themselves - apparently the case holding the Eye had to be opened with synchronized keys.
MacLeod took the opportunity to catch Gambit's eye and nod toward Riley. "Who is he? What..." he shrugged almost helplessly, unable to articulate the question.
Remy smiled; a sad and cruelly wise expression.
"Dat is de man who tried to do de right t'ing, homme."
Duncan looked back toward Finn who was smiling slightly, head cocked as he listened to his wife. "He's broken." He didn't expect to hear himself say it, the thought seemed to vocalize itself but he wasn't sorry, he realized. He didn't regret to hear it out loud.
Gambit shrugged, the corners of him mouth turning up sardonically. "We're all broken, MacLeod."
In the silence that followed, Duncan wondered in dark, secret corner of his mind. Who is we?
The Eye itself was surprisingly anticlimactic, a gray, roughly oval rock the size of a fist it looked like a piece of gravel, mundane and innocuous laying nestled in the red lining of the case. For one incongruous moment Duncan was sure that they were being conned.
Gambit seemed satisfied, however, even before he bent over the case muttering strange incantations with frequent pauses to consult his notes or to sprinkle some sort of powder over the Eye.
Eventually he nodded, slammed the case shut and pronounced his complete satisfaction.
Finn looked up, his scarred brow furrowing in a gesture that was apparently familiar to Gambit. The Cajun smirked back. "Make de call, mon ami. We'll wait."
The call did not take long, although it amused Duncan, wildly out of proportion, to see Finn use brightly colored Nokia to make it. Nerves, he wandered detachedly, as Riley spoke quickly about shipments and verifications. Perhaps he was out of habit after all.
Finn hung up with a decisive click and turned, clearly to say goodbye. He did not have the chance as Graham's soft whistle cut the air at the same moment as Remy whirled around, a playing card appearing between his fingers glowing with some sort of energy.
"Boys." The chiding words were silkily, poisonously soft. "Let's not be silly."
The black clad figures on the upper floor and at the doors allowed themselves to be seen - sleek MP-5s and G36s painting everyone with the mad waltz of laser sights.
I'm truly beginning to tire of being surprised, MacLeod grit his teeth and slowly raised his hands, methodically taking in the situation. The conclusion did not take long
Well, Duncan thought, carefully keeping his hands in plain sight and well away from the sword. This is ugly.
The woman who spoke didn't over-dramatize her entrance... over much. The click of her very expensive shoes echoed as she made her unhurried, catlike way over to the case. She was beautiful, MacLeod had to admit, in the classic way of 1940s femme fatale. A devil in a black dress. And she knew it too, reveled in it - he could tell. Dark flowing hair, eyes full to brim with secrets you didn't want to know and did, the mouth twisting in a sated smile of being the center of attention, legs that went on forever, breathing sex and elegance and danger and temptation.
And that dress, he thought absurdly, would make Amanda either green with envy of pink with admiration.
The chuckle beside him broke his assessment, and he turned to find Remy leering appreciatively and grinning wryly even as the woman claimed the case. "Enter Emma Frost," he whispered, barely suppressing laughter, "Take 2, Scene One."
Duncan elbowed him discreetly, to show that he felt that Gambit's good humor was somewhat misplaced. "Who the hell is this?"
"Competition." Remy replied briefly and then the woman was standing in front of them. Over her head he saw Graham and Sam exchange significant looks and tensed. The woman was a leader and within reaching distance... Finn's miniscule, stilling glare and Remy very loud glance stopped them all in their tracks.
"Thank you," The Ingrid Bergman wannabe smiled at Remy. "That would have been unwise of your associates, Mr. LeBeau. And make no mistake, Wolfram and Hart has a much more consistent policy on hostage taking than most organizations."
Her smile widened a fraction as she looked him over with faint interest. "I must say it's a pleasure to meet you in person for once. Your dossier made for a fascinating reading."
Her dramatic pause was just too long, allowing Remy to lazily shrug. "So did yours Ms. Morgan. Do y' mind if I call y' Lilah?"
"I do." She told him sweetly and without missing a bit. "I do have a question, however, that has been killing me for ages now..." She paused again, clearly savoring the situation. Gambit kept quiet this time, but the corner of his mouth still twitched with masked amusement. Lilah's elegant eyebrow quirked and she leaned in, her whisper and perfume carefully understated. "Pink armor, Remy? That's quite.... Daring."
"I'm a trend setter," Remy agreed placidly and she laughed and stepped away, walking back toward the door and the cowled figure waiting there.
The case changed hands and the mysterious figure gave them a disinterested look, before disappearing in a flash of green light.
"What, no diabolical laughter?" Sam inquired.
"I'm kinda disappointed myself." Lilah admitted and shrugged. "But time is money - you know how it is. And now, this leaves just one problem of loose ends..."
If I make it to the stairs and concentrate their attention on me, that should give the rest more than enough time to go for their guns, Duncan calculated, carefully edging his hand toward the hilt. He felt dim disgust - dying twice in one day... life was a bitch sometimes.
From outside a faint wolf howl carried, making the situation that much more surreal. Duncan's eyes flickered toward the SpecOps people, hoping they'd react in time.
"I'm sorry t' disappoint you, Ms. Lilah," Remy's smile was brilliant enough to power Manhattan. "But dyin' would seriously cramp my Christmas plans."
"Remy..." Morgan sighed a little disappointedly. "Don't be tiresome."
"Look outside," Gambit suggested.
There was an uncomfortable pause and then Lilah's heels clicked toward the window.
"Y' didn't really t'ink, I'd come here wit'out a plan B, did y'?" The timing was perfect, MacLeod thought, and you could practically feel the gloating condescension drip off every word. Perhaps he should take solace in the fact that at least Gambit was enjoying himself.
Lilah's voice was even and perfectly controlled. "It would appear that I am still at a distinct advantage Mr. LeBeau. So if you would be as kind as approach the window and let your people know that you are seconds from being separated from some of your very vital parts..."
"No," Remy said brightly, "I don' t'ink I'll be doin' dat li'l t'ing."
Lilah stepped back into the light and shrugged. "Since I assume that US government's policies have not undergone sweeping reform, I feel fairly safe in assuming that the... people outside are yours. And that means I hardly need the rest of you, doesn't it?"
She raised her hand gracefully to catch the attention of one of her commandoes, pointed toward the Americans and Duncan, and drew her fingernail sharply across her throat.
Crap, he thought.
Remy still did not appear overly concerned but surprisingly it was Riley Finn who spoke, seemingly addressing empty air.
"You hear that, Percy?"
"It's my bloody hotel, you stupid Yank. I hear all, I know all."
MacLeod glanced discreetly around, vainly trying to locate the intercom.
"And?" Riley pressed, regarding Lilah steadily.
"And Tropicool has a firm policy against in-house slaughter." Cosgrove informed the entire room. "Blood doesn't come out."
"Mr. Cosgrove," Lilah's eyes narrowed. "Wolfram and Hart can make your life here very difficult..."
"Bite me, Morgan." Cosgrove advised her acidly and judging from the slurping sound partook of the ever-present gin and tonic. "Any more threats and your entire mob circus are banned from the 'Cool."
Lilah's lips thinned and she visibly bit back something cutting. Remy smiled at her amiably and waggled his fingers. "Nice doin' bid'ness wit' y'."
That was a little too blatant for her to let it pass and as her security detail faded back into the shadows, Lilah smiled coldly back. "It surely is. Thanks for the Eye."
Duncan waited until the Finns and Graham left, after quietly settling with Remy that the payment for the Eye was non-refundable. As far as MacLeod could hear gambit parlayed it into the US military owing him, him Duncan noted not L, L&L a favor. That, however, took a distant second place to the supreme satisfaction of grabbing the Cajun by the shoulder and manhandling him against the wall. "What the HELL is going on here?"
Remy glanced at the whitening knuckles gripping his collar and at MacLeod's reddening face, before he spoke very carefully as if addressing to an unhinged mental patient.
"I was afraid of somet'ing like dat. Th' Eye is a tempting t'ing, homme. So I arranged for reinforcements."
The patronizing tone did nothing for Duncan's mood but he relaxed his hold, grinding out in reasonable semblance of calm inquiry. "What kind of reinforcements?"
"Well, let's go. I'll introduce y'."
They made their way outside quickly, emerging into the dark and cool air of the Belize night. The streetlamps were out and it took a few moments for Duncan's eyes to adjust enough to make out close to a dozen figures ringing the front door. Two things struck him immediately. One was the fact that unlike less than two hours before, the street in front of Tropicool was empty save for these people, who arranged themselves rather professionally around the hotel. In fact he was reasonably sure that there were some of them out back as well, covering the back exit. That observation came and went quickly however, subsumed by a more pressing and vague feeling that something was off about them.
It was faint, no more than a hint of wrongness. In some ways it was similar to a buzz he felt being in a presence of another Immortal but... different. It made him wary.
"MacLeod," Remy said, either ignorant of his reaction or indifferent to it. "Meet Chico Escobeda. Head of the Barton Creek pack."
"Barton Creek Pack?' Duncan repeated, guardedly accepting the hand of a dark, longhaired slender man in front of him. Boy really, he hardly seemed older than 25.
"Si." Escobeda grinned and grasped MacLeod's hand into a firm handshake. He thumbed vaguely behind him. "The river by the town? The caves? Called after The Clive Barton. He founded the pack. We winter here still" he grinned, a flash of white even teeth in the darkness. "A lot."
"Pack?" MacLeod repeated again, "What-"
And then, in a space of an eyeblink the hand that he was holding -changed-.
He could feel the bone structure transform , meld, contact and expand - all beneath his very fingers. He could feel claws extend and scrape his forearm, the hair on Escobeda's own arm become fur.
Holy mother of God, his mind jabbered at him almost incoherently. Werewolves.
His grasp slackened and in instinct more than thought his hand found itself on the hilt of his sword yet again.
Escobeda's smile faded and the rest of the pack went very quiet, watching Duncan with yellow, impenetrable, steady gazes.
Behind him Remy was also silent. This was his choice it seemed. His play.
He let the pause lie for another minute and then grinned. "Your timing is impeccable, Senor Escobeda."
Chico grinned back and tension slackened noticeably even as Gambit stepped forward glaring at Escobeda. "Actually, y'late. And it cost me."
"Remy, man, that wasn't our fault tho'."
"Do I look in any way interested?"
"That's cold, dude."
Remy stepped forward suddenly bringing himself nose to nose with a surprised pack leader. "Dis is major leagues, Chico. No li'l boy excuses. D'y understand me? Stakes are too damn high."
"Si, si. All right, all right. I'm sorry. What do you want me to do?"
"Don' be late 'gain." Remy instructed him flatly, and drew him to a side, whispering.
Don't mind me, Duncan thought. Keeping me informed? Why that would obviously be a luxury we can't afford. Asshole.
Soon enough Escobeda nodded his assent to Remy and the quiet conference ended as Chico waved goodbye and grinned at Duncan wryly, before leading his pack into the night.
"You know," MacLeod remarked with exaggerated patience as he followed Gambit down the street. "I have some stake in this thing too. How about you level with me instead of keeping secrets for the sake of keeping secrets?"
"I do not keep secrets just t'keep secrets," LeBeau protested indignantly.
"Dey make me feel important."
"Remy..." Duncan said warningly, all humor leeched away, and Gambit sighed.
"What d'y' wanna know?"
"A lot." MacLeod informed him. "But let's start with the most pertinent bit of information. What the hell are we going to do now that the Eye is gone?" he squinted at Remy suddenly, understanding dawning. "We're going after Morgan? That's what you were talking to Escobeda about?"
Remy chuckled darkly. "Non. No use, mon ami. It'd take months, mebbe longer to track the Eye down. Probably not in dis dimension any more. We don't got dat kinda time. Clock is tickin'." He shook his head. "Non. It's time f'r plan C."
Duncan frowned. "But...
"De Eye is not important..." Remy winced and corrected himself. "Well, it is but in de long term. We can do wit'out f'r now. It jus' would've been easier, is all." he sighed. "Much easier."
"But I don't understand." Duncan said, somewhat plaintively. "Why would Wolfram and Hart try to interfere with us. Surely they are as interested as we are in preventing what's coming."
"Y' know what dey say about assumin', homme." Gambit raised his hands in mock surrender even before Duncan had the chance to bark at him. "But, oui. Dis time dey are not rooting for de Apocalypse. Jus' want power. Dey figure wit' de Eye dey can control Balor, when he wakes up." He chuckled. "Altho' dat don' mean dey won't come after us.Dey really hate loose ends. Plus..." he worried his lower lip between his teeth. "Even money at least one of dem will be sayin' dat they can't use de Eye 'less Balor is awake. So watch y' back."
"You don't think that's possible?" Duncan asked after a short pause. " That they can control him?"
"Non." Remy answered shortly.
The walked in silence the rest of the way, until they reached the house and Duncan winced slightly as he saw Gambit drop cross-legged onto the floor and arrange the all too familiar sheets of paper in front of him.
"Fraid so." The Cajun confirmed absently and with a distinct lack of sympathy.
"New York, New York." Remy wet his lips, sighing deeply, and Duncan realized that he was stalling, just as uneasy at the prospect of another trip through no-space as him. "So nice dey named it twice."
The transition itself was gruesome, but he didn't die this time, nor was there the same disturbing experiencing of coming face to face with universe and time. This trip was merely unpleasant. Nausea, MacLeod noted disgustedly, remained a fixture. Retaining his grip on consciousness also allowed him to see the toll that teleportation took on Gambit. For a good ten minutes following their appearance in a cramped, shabby apartment the Cajun simply sat, slumping wearily against the wall - pale and sweating, his sunglasses slipped to reveal dark circles under his eyes.
He didn't ask for water but nodded gratefully when Duncan brought him a glass. It took visible effort for him to rise, but then as if by sheer force of will his every step seemed more surer. They were off to find the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Gambit proclaimed as he led the Scot out into the streets of New York and advised MacLeod to keep his eyes peeled.
"Peeled for what?" Duncan inquired calmly
"The Witch Doctor. The protégé of the Last Etruscan. The latest in the line of the Urban Mystics. The Renegade Magi. The Empty Sorcerer. The Painted Shaman."
If he had to bet Duncan would say that Remy ran out of breath rather than epithets.
MacLeod shook his head and tiredly pinching the bridge of his nose asked how was he was supposed to recognize this miracle worker.
Remy grinned and puffed on yet another cigarette. "Oh, y'll know him when y' see him. Trust me."
The search seemed interminable as Gambit dragged Duncan from one seedy bar to another, from glitzy dance clubs to pretentious cafes, from uptown trendy spots where young and rich partied into the night to the rundown dives, in one of which they barely escaped a brawl. And in another, where they didn't.
By the time they found him it was past midnight, which was probably exactly how he wanted it.
He was in Times Square, emptied of passerbys and tourists by the cold snap, sitting relaxed on the top of an old beat up pick up truck that, Duncan noted, had Oklahoma plates. He sat easily, one leg twisted underneath him the other swaying and tapping irregularly on the door of his car. And he was carving something that on a closer inspection turned out to be a half-finished flute.
"Let me guess." He said, the Southwestern twang faint but clear beneath the overlay of California Standard. "You blew it."
Affronted, Gambit glared back, blackly measuring the man from the tips of his cowboy boots to his trucker's hat, taking in, with pointed scorn, the plaid shirt, worn jeans and opened woolen jacket.
"I didn't -blow- anyt'ing, lawyer boy." He sniffed snidely. "And by de way - g'evenin'. This is Duncan MacLeod. MacLeod - Lindsey McDonald, de insufferable pain in my ass."
"Pleased to meet you." The greeting was quick, and seemingly dismissive but Duncan noted that McDonald's green eyes lingered just enough to study him and come to whatever conclusion was being pondered behind the clever gaze. He nodded in return and Lindsey turned back toward Gambit.
"Didn't blow anything, huh?"
"Non." Remy confirmed haughtily. "All went as planned."
"Huh." Lindsey nodded understandingly and inquired. "Where's the Eye?"
"We don' need de fuckin' t'ing anyway." Remy informed him and waved his hand vaguely. "Stupid rock."
"True." Lindsey agreed tranquilly. "Where is it, did you say?"
"More trouble dan it worth." Gambit pointed out and stomped his fingers, glowering evilly in the general direction from where the latest wind gust came.
"Indubitably." Lindsey granted with placidity of Dalai Lama and interestedly asked. "And where did you put it?"
"Oh, shut up." Remy visibly gave up and spat disgustedly, before pointing an accusing finger. "T'was y' friends that ambushed us, anyway."
McDonald's eyes narrowed with sudden interest. "Wolfram and Hart?"
"Oui." Remy nodded with perverse kind of satisfaction. "Y' old partner. Miz Thang herself."
Lindsey shook his head, a peculiar, knowing smile flickering across his face. "Lilah. Well. She was always a go-getter."
Duncan cleared his throat slightly, "Wait. You worked for Wolfram and Hart?"
Lindsey nodded and Remy chuckled. "Dat's a bit modest. De boy here was an up an' comer. Real big man."
Duncan glanced back and McDonald and the latter shrugged, implicitly agreeing to Gambit's mocking introduction.
"What happened," MacLeod asked quietly and Lindsey shrugged again, looking down at his hands, slowly clenching and unclenching them, crooking and straightening his fingers.
"We had issues."
Duncan frowned but did not have the time to ask for clarification as Lindsey raised his finger in a fluid, quieting move. "Shh. It's almost here..."
"What?" MacLeod asked, rather lamely and Lindsey turned to stare incredulously at Gambit. "You didn't tell him?"
The Cajun shrugged. "Better if he sees it f'r himself."
McDonald muttered something acid and slid down to the ground, quickly glancing at his watch.
"What's going on?" Duncan repeated, looking around warily.
"It's the 20th of December, Highlander." Lindsey said a he quickly shrugged off his jacket and began to unbutton his shirt, ignoring the bitter cold. "Know what that means?"
MacLeod began to shake his head but stopped as half forgotten knowledge rose to the surface. "Modresnach."
"Dat's right." Remy nodded, materializing by his side, a short metallic tube dancing through his fingers. His sunglasses were gone and in a rare instant the strange red eyes were unhidden as he watched Lindsey with careful attention. The former lawyer had taken off his shirt and boots, sitting cross-legged on the pavement. The mosaic of neon swirled above around them, the river of light not too far away as if the cars rushing past the Square marked the boundary of some holy place, within the spires of the splashing radiance towering like wards against the darkness.
And as if in echo the tattoos on Lindsey's torso bloomed, glowing with a strange, fluid energy of their own, making Duncan's vision blur for a brief second as he felt himself sucked into the universal void, the latticed web of gleaming, living ink that crisscrossed Lindsey's body.
The shadows around them lengthened and changed, transforming and becoming something else as if a twisted, beautiful but always alien reflection of the city was suddenly looking back at them from the darkness.
A hurrying policeman crossed the street mere feet away and did not spare them a glance.
Perhaps it wasn't simply the cold, MacLeod thought suddenly and fleetingly, that emptied the Square on this night.
"Modresnach." Gambit repeated, a grinning, carefree and wild expression casting shadows across his face. But he was scared too, enjoying every second of it but scared, MacLeod knew. "Th' Feast to Mot'er Night. Yule's Eve. When th' dead come to visit. When the walls are t'in but not broken. When glimpse into the comin' year is given. Th' night of prophecies and omens."
"And also," Lindsey said quietly his eyes closed. "The third day of the Hunt."
Somewhere in the shadows the clock's bell struck suddenly with a deep, soul-reaching quiet force and the ground trembled. Again and again, they wouldn't end, the sound of them filling the entire universe till bursting, coming... until it reached thirteen and silence reigned once more.
Soft whooshing sound beside him caught his attention, and Duncan glanced at Gambit only to find him crouched slightly, an extended staff held easily but firmly, eyes staring into the darkness.
And then They came.
Suddenly and wildly, ghosting out of the darkness and the shadows, the strange procession of riders, decked out in florid costumes and baroque dresses, shouting, singing blaring their horns. Led by their antlered king, the throngs of barking dogs running alongside the horses
One after another they passed by, through stone and concrete, as if the buildings weren't even there, surrounded by the same glow that was running through Lindsey's veins.
They made MacLeod feel small and reflexively his fingers tightened around the hilt of the sword he didn't remember drawing.
They filed past, ignoring him as he might an ant and that familiar blackness welled up deep within again. One by one they disappeared until the last rider spurred its mount and it leapt through, into somewhere beyond the ken. And that was all but for the two hounds, loping through the square trying to catch up. Great black beasts, unlike the sleek, red-eared white hounds that danced around the Horned King's horse. These were massive, great and beautiful and awful... "Hell hounds." MacLeod breathed more than spoke and almost crossed himself.
Beside him Remy jerked his head in an abrupt, sad denial. "Non. Dey were Danaan. Till the Wild magic caught them. It was too much, it changed them, dey are lost to it now."
"Quiet!" Lindsey hissed but it was too late.
The dogs had stopped their run, standing stock-still and trembling with suppressed tension, their ears perked as they stared toward the three men.
And then in a blink of an eye they were running again, eating up the distance in great leaps, intent on their prey.
"Merde." Gambit swore vilely and leapt to meet them, ignoring Lindsey's shout to stop. His staff whirled gathering momentum and translating it into power, and from his other hand a glowing barrier of charged cards flew. It was a striking sight. It was skillful. And it as just as impressive as it was futile. The cards hit their target perfectly, exploding right in the path of the charging dogs, who did not pause at all, explosion doing them no harm, the shards of pavement passing through the wraithlike forms. One continued running, unerring aiming itself at Lindsey the other launched itself at Remy meeting him in midair. The staff whipped out, and just as the cards met air. The hound simply passed through it and Gambit, and then twisting in midair struck. Its fangs closed on the X-Man's leg and suddenly were real, drawing blood and bringing him down to the ground. He tucked and rolled, his teeth clenched in pained grimace, and even hobbled, danced away from the snapping jaws. But it couldn't last, his every strike meeting a ghost but the hound tangible at will.
MacLeod could not spare time to see his further progress however, as the second dog closed in and he stepped forward in front of McDonald's still form. He swallowed and exhaled just so, willing his mind to clear, the rage to quiet. It didn't. But obedient to his will, the body moved into the familiar pattern, bringing up the sword into the classic jodan no kame, sword held above his head, hilt first. Fluid strength, he had the time to think, fluid strength. And then a wall of light exploded from within the man he was protecting and he gasped out "Now!" and collapsed like a puppet with his strings cut. And then the hound was on him and he felt his lips draw back in a wolfish, ugly, snarl as he let the blackness uncoil and claim him.
He did not remember much of the fight that followed, the only moment clear in his mind was near the end as he wetly withdrew the sword from the hound's corpse and he pivoted sharply on his heel meeting the second charge.
Later in a small pub, still opened at the ungodly hour, as they sat nursing their beers in the dark corner the pieces were put together. Lindsey spell that made the hounds solid and nearly killed him in the process. Gambit's near death, the Cajun saved only by the beast being distracted by its mate's demise. Remy shivered and told him that he would not forget the howl before the hound abandoned him, throwing him away like a rag doll and going for Duncan.
"So." MacLeod said finally, and swirled the remnants of his beer in the practically empty bottle. "That was the Hunt.'
Remy was sleeping, the haphazardly bandaged wounds staining the coat he carelessly covered himself with.
Duncan's lips twisted in a fleeting smile and Lindsey ruefully shook his head. "Amateur."
MacLeod sighed and with a gulp finished off his drink. "I..." he started and paused before shrugging self-consciously. "I expected something more difficult."
Lindsey snorted. "Of course you did."
Duncan flushed and Lindsey raised his hand, tiredly drawing it through his hair. "Sorry. That came out differently than I meant it. " He looked at MacLeod. "Think it through, Highlander. Two mangy curs. What did it take to stop them? A mutant," He nodded toward Remy's inert form. "... who is half-dead as a result. A shaman, and let me tell you something it's not just anybody who could do what I pulled out of my ass out there. I almost didn't and I almost died. And I spent two years in the Collegium Obscura and then another under the wing of the Etruscan."
Duncan frowned. "Didn't you say earlier..." he gestured vaguely toward the table strewn with the remnants of their binge. "That Wolfram and Hart recruited you right out of university?"
"And you left them a year or so ago?"
The former lawyer nodded again, smiling slightly as Duncan frowned, "That doesn't add..."
"It wasn't here." McDonald said. "The Collegium? It was somewhere else. The time passed differently. Trust me, I'm not some punk high on X and wet with finding out that his Nana's book actually works. I know what I am talking about. Paid for the knowledge in blood and more important things."
He looked at Duncan, smile gone, replaced instead by a direct and cold assessment in his eyes. "And I'd still be laying there dead, just like him," he thumbed again toward the sleeping form, "If we didn't have here an Immortal, who just happens to hold the most Quickenings of them all."
He drunk from his own bottle, his eyes never leaving MacLeod's face. "And the best part of all - the Hunt isn't even at the peak of their power. But in a few days they will be. And they'll explode out of this world and across the Multiverse, death and destruction incarnate. Feral joy of kill and slaughter, the dance of chaos. Blood and Wild Magic will flow like honey and Balor will wake."
"And t'en," Remy said his eyes still closed. "We're all fucked. So let us drink and be merry." He sat up stretching and winked at Lindsey. "Couldn't be any worse than dat November t'ing."
Lindsey frowned. "It wasn't that bad, considering..."
Gambit fixed him with a baleful stare. "Y' raise any zombies tomorrow and I'm outta dere. Now gimme anot'er beer. Tomorrow we be heroes!"
"Get your own damn beer."
Duncan looked at him and Lindsey, quietly bickering. And then he shrugged and raised his glass.
What else, after all, was there to say?
The steppe was still, pausing, holding its breath and waiting. The steel-gray heavens hid the sun, transforming the landscape into a corridor of grass stretching into forever under the gloomy sky.
Just like in his dreams.
The same little hill, behind him, the same expanse of view into forever stretching out before him, the sky meeting land somewhere at the horizon.
Gambit and McDonald disappeared, leaving to wait.
"You'll know what to do. Just wait."
Just to the side two branches stood, stuck into the ground by Lindsey. Duncan glanced dubiously at the laughable approximation of what supposed to be a gate.
Just wait. Right.
The wind was picking up, bending the grass to its knees, cold and full of omens.
Yeah, MacLeod thought. The symbolism is crushing.
He set his shoulders, checking the scabbard strapped to his back and sneering into the wind.
Come on, then. I'm waiting on you.
The sun was melting air in front of them, blurring the towering stepped ziggurat that stood proudly dominating the valley. The steps of the broad, expansive stairway leading from the base to the top were crumbling, the walls covered in ivy, the jungle surrounded it, ever ready to close in and devour it yet again - the seeming proof of vanity of Man's labors.
The members of the Escobeda pack looked like ants hurrying back and forth clearing at least a portion of the structure.
The strange, ugly, powerful images of the alien gods and the weaving, stone carvings seemed to stare contemptuously back at Remy. Reminding him that they had been here for eons, witnessing the end of kings and commoners. Maya and Aztecs, generations after generation came here to kill and feed their gods with blood and death, to make sure that the Sun would rise again. Darkness was appeased and fought here with suffering and pain.
The stones have remained thirsty for an age. They lain forgotten, undisturbed, abandoned ever since the unwashed hordes of Cortez came to proclaim the era of new God of mercy and forgiveness, with the gun and sword.
But they had forgot nothing.
They looked at Remy and knew that blood would be spilt soon enough.
In the end it always came down to blood.
Gambit sighed and dropped his coat, unbuttoning his shirt as he started toward the stair, toward the top of the temple where incongruous amidst the fading, alien splendor the ash tree stood, beckoning to him.
The climb seemed to take hours as he walked toward the tree, Lindsey silently following behind him. It was well past noon, the sun high and bright and merciless. Still they paused, unwilling to enter the tree's shade.
"Are you sure?" Lindsey asked quietly.
Gambit didn't answer, standing and looking at the tree with hooded, secretive eyes. He seemed at ease, unworried, standing and staring at the great ash with catlike unconcern for his nudity.
"Remy..." Lindsey repeated, a little helplessly. "Four , maybe five days... it's....
"Odun hung f'r nine." The Cajun said suddenly, calmly, his eyes still on the tree.
"He was a God!" Lindsey barked, trapped in the inevitability of it all and furious because of it.
"What're you implying?" And Remy grinned, finally turning to look at his friend. "Y'askin' de wrong questions, mon ami. Can I? Am I strong 'nough? Do I want to? I don' know. None of it matters."
The smile was gone and Remy gaze flickered from Lindsey's face to his hands and the rope he was twisting in impotent anger.
*** The wind was much stronger now, almost a storm and different. It was coming. He could almost hear them, if he could just try... it was almost there, in the wind; the faint echoes of barking hounds, the horns, the shouting...
The blood coursed slowly down his body, some from the unbandaged wounds others from the strategic cuts. Slowly it made its torturous, feather-light way down his arms and downward in crimson streams, painting his body as if a ghoulish pentagram, an abstract map, a bloody reflection of the world. It reached his feet, dripping, pooled beneath on the cracked warm stone of the platform, mixing with sand and dirt.
He saw Lindsey reach in, dip his fingers in the bloody puddle and draw something, carefully, his eyes intent. It was important he knew but... but he had done his part. He was beginning to feel the rope cutting into his skin, the pain faint now, but he knew that wouldn't last. He closed his eyes and tried not to think.
He was waiting for them, daring them to come and still the sight of them emerging from the tempest was a shock, transfixing him.
It was less than a day since he had seen them last, although it felt like an eternity had passed since Times Square's battle. But it hadn't. It was just yesterday and yet there was already a new aura of power, of terror and beauty, strength and grace and menace but mostly of power, surrounding the cavalcade.
They've seen him now and raised a joyous cry. Prey. They would hunt till the end of time now, if need be. They would follow him forever.
They moved quickly, coming toward him and he could do nothing it seemed but stand and watch them come.
Lindsey voice thundered into his ear out of nowhere, exhausted and furious and scared. "Run, stupid!
He whirled, and saw the black doorway in the sky, the crude branch gate opened and offering a way out. Out into...
The time had lost all meaning... it seemed like such a cliché. He hated being predictable.
The thought flickered through his mind on the second day. Or it might have been the first? He could have kept the track. He could. It was just hard to bring himself to care. So he didn't.
Mostly he dreamt, occasionally opening the bleary eyes and trying to understand when something seemed to pull at him, trying to draw him out of his reverie. He dimly felt the welcome chill of water being squeezed onto his flaking and cracked lips, the moist cloth being drawn across his face.
Somewhere Lindsey was chanting. A monotonous sound in a language he didn't know but could immediately tell that Lindsey was butchering the accent. It irritated him in a detached, distant way.
Rogue came and watched him for a while, her eyes pained. He could feel his lips peeling back into a snarl. Go 'way. He told her, or meant to. I don't need de pity. Leave. She did.
The tree was always there, silent and solid presence, embracing and cradling him. The tree of life and knowledge and time and space. The center of all worlds. The massiveness of it, the sheer crushing unimaginable bigness loomed and detachedly he contemplated disappearing forever into the abyss of all. But didn't.
He thought he saw and heard gunfire, the camouflaged figures grappling with Escobeda wolves. The shouts, screams of pain and triumph, the life and death but it didn't seem important. The universe outside the tree flowed past him, and he remained an island of distant pain and troubled dreams. He came to with a scream torn out of his throat by the shining, scalding rush of sudden pain. Warren was leaning over him, the grimace of disgust twisting the handsome face, transforming it into the ugly, hating mask. He smiled at Remy coldly and twisted the runed spear in his side, laughing as Gambit screamed. And then his face changed at was Lindsey and then the blackness came...
He sat with MacLeod on Tropicool's patio and wagged his eyebrows at Rachel, winging suggestively and turning only to find Scott's disapproving stare. He shook his head at him and meant to tell him that life is far too important to be taken seriously all the time. Duncan looked back at him with Summers's grave face and shook his head in mute, tight-lipped disapproval.
Odin hung on the tree as well, he told him. Not this one but another avatar. For nine days and nights he had died impaled on his own spear, bleeding out his life and despair and hope and dreams and need.
Blood opens all sorts of doors. The old Norse God traded his for knowledge. And while he hung , his spirit crossed the Multiverse and learning much, much...
The worried face of Lindsey was a constant and he tried to grin, to say it would be all right. He wasn't sure if he succeeded. It wasn't important. All he had to do was stay alive. To keep open the door.
For if the Hunt remained forsaken on the Silent Shore...
Somewhere, eternities away and closer than his skin he could feel MacLeod. Connected through the universe by blood and magic and something beyond words. His spirit, his shade, his brother, his other half.
He could feel him out in the Dead Lands and he meant to wish him luck.
He could feel him...
It was his entire world, the deceptively simple matter of putting one leg in front of another.
Run, Lindsey's yell still echoed in his head. Run.
I'm trying, he thought back.
He could feel the Hunt behind him, always close but did not turn back to look.
The sword was thudding softly against his back, keeping the rhythm, reminding him that he was still him. Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.
And that there was something else out there besides this barren, poisoned, black landscape.
He chuckled soundlessly as a stay, strange, foolish thought appeared from recesses of his mind.
He had only met Remy three days ago.
Such a short long time.
Or maybe it was longer? Didn't matter.
He ran, falling easily into a soldier's ground eating stride that Connor taught him so long ago. Taught him like he taught him everything. How to be Immortal. How to be a man.
Why am I doing this he asked himself in that small New York pub. Why?
Because Connor taught him about honor? Or because he wanted someone to finally judge him too. Count his sins and decree what was his fate.
He ran and the Hunt followed him, their power great and blazing and pointless in the Land of the Dead, the Wild Magic flooding the lifeless realm and dissipating, the dry black dominion providing no new sustenance. No death to feed the gnawing, yawning hunger of the old, sleeping terror under the Mountain.
Sometimes he ran alone, only his thoughts and fears and his sword, the Wild Hunt snapping at his heels.
Sometimes they came and kept him company for a time.
Richie came and fell easily into the run with him, grinning and whispering something he could not hear. They ran together for a while, him and Duncan. It was nice to see his son again, his son in all but blood.
Another chuckle bubbled to his lips.
How appropriate, and maybe that was, after all, the reason for his choice.
Saturn. Cronos. Devourer of his children.
He ran, his eyes unseeingly staring into the past, into the gloomy room and Richie's unbelieving, betrayed eyes as Duncan's sword fell. He ran, Ahriman's mocking triumphant laughter echoing around him.
He killed him. Killed his son.
Richie was looking at him agitated and speaking urgently now, saying something important and Duncan smiled at him but still could not hear a word.
He killed him, took his head.
Deceived by a demon... what use are the excuses against death?
Richie and Connor.
The man who bore the mark of Death running through the pale rider's realm.
How appropriate, he thought once more.
He stumbled again and got up, sure for a second that he saw a colossal serpent rear its head and hiss at him. His lips pulled back and he bared his own teeth. The snake shifted and after a second's pause went back to gnawing on the giant, sprawling roots, its tongue flickering toward the slow crimson droplets that splattered heavily around it staining the wood.
Somewhere he could feel Remy. Strange friend, facing his own trial and judgment, keeping a vigil for the world.
He ran past him, leading a band of murderers into the tunnels and watched his horrified eyes as they killed. Women, children...
He watched him judged, convicted and abandoned in the snow only to be saved. But not forgiven. Not by the one man who mattered in the end. Not by himself.
Another man wearing the mark of Cain, Duncan thought dimly and stumbled, righting himself slowly and feeling the hound's hot breath on his neck. My brother.
His vision swam and his legs like leaden weights seemed to drag him to the ground.
Falling. It would be so simple. Rest. Finally, he could rest.
But he had to bring them back.
He had to or the Outlands would wither and die and with them his world.
He had to...
The sky opened and he fell through, staggering and dropping into the grass, the Hunt surrounding him, the dogs and riders circling this strange, exhausted quarry kneeling under the night sky in the middle of the steppe.
The hounds bayed their delayed triumph and he raised his head, dark eyes and strange scornful smile. He rose slowly and drew his sword, plunging it heavily into the ground and leaning against it, he looked levelly into the eyes of the Antlered King.
They closed in and he straightened.
He was Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod and he would not die kneeling.
Lindsey was yelling something. There were hands tugging at him, cutting the rope, lowering him to the ground. Yelling again. Water and something about stopping the blood.
It all seemed so loud, hectic. He was tired.
He would just sleep a while...
She was beautiful, Remy thought. And then. No, pretty. Not beautiful, simply pretty. Not a thing of unearthly splendor, forever out of reach. No. Red hair, green eyes and knowing smile as she bent down touching her lips to his forehead in a chaste, tender kiss.
"Y' welcome, petite." He answered automatically and opened his eyes.
Lindsey frowned and tugged at his earring, brushing the hair impatiently out of his eyes. Eventually he squinted and sniffed. "Has a distinct air of bullshit about it, this story does."
Gambit didn't answer, simply looking at his friend of the rim of his sunglasses as he sat leaning against the ziggurat.
Reluctantly Lindsey grimaced. "Except of course for your miraculous recovery." He squinted and his hand snapped out. "And this"
Reflexively Remy caught the small object arching towards him and looked thoughtfully at it.
Lindsey shook his head and closed his eyes. "God, this has been a fucked up week."
He sat there basking in the warmth. The Pack had left a while ago and soon so would they.
"You going to say good bye?" He asked Gambit quietly.
The latter didn't answer right away, and Lindsey could almost hear him shake his head when he finally did. "Non. I don't t'ink so."
The Cajun whistled softly, suddenly, a cheerful carefree sound. "D'y know what day it is. McDonald?"
"No, Remy" He told him tiredly. "I don't know what is today."
He opened his eyes, glancing up at Gambit whom he did not hear rising and hazarded a guess. "24th?"
"Oui." Remy was shading his eyes and looking up at the descending crimson disk.
"Christmas Eve, mon ami. Dat means dat tomorrow..."
"The Feast of Sol Invicta." Lindsey said softly and rose too, following Remy's gaze.
"Th' Unconquered Sun."
"Saturnalia is at an end."
He was tired after all, Remy considered as he stood on the side of the road with his hand out. Should have taken Lindsey up on his offer but then... he grinned. Then he wouldn't have been able to show off.
Unfortunately, he had teleported himself at least ten miles off his mark, where the portal home was waiting.
And so he found himself waiting, in a falling snow, on Christmas Eve, hoping against hope for a ride.
He sighed and spat, dropping his hand and starting walking.
Only to swear vilely as the passing car sped through a puddle, showering him with mud.
Typical, he thought and then blinked as the black DeSoto squealed to a halt and then backed up. The window rolled down and a pale blond driver fixed him with a malevolent stare, the scarred eyebrow raised in a sardonic invitation.
A tall dark-haired man stands on a crumbling hill, moving with liquid, tempered grace through the motions of a kata with a broken sword.
Unbeknownst to him, somewhere there are old friends, toasting him and wishing him safe return.
Somewhere there is warmth and laughter, regrets and memories.
Somewhere there is life and past and future.
But here and now there is only he and his sword and time holds no dominion.
The snow is falling and catching in his hair. His thoughts are his and his alone.