by Jane Carnall
Part 1; "Forgive me, you're so young."
Part 2; "Love unflinching that cannot lie"
Part 3; "And he yearned to the flare of hell-gate there"
Part 4; "No word or voice remains"
Part 5; "A rage 'gainst love or death"
Part 1; "Forgive me, you're so young."
Forgive me, you're so young.
Forty from sixty - twenty years of work
And power to back the working. Ay de mi!
You want to know, you want to see, to touch
And, by your lights, to act.
("One Viceroy Resigns")
Picard opened the holodeck door and went in. The room was long, with a smooth softwood floor and long mirrors all down one wall. There was a piano in one corner, and someone seated at it, playing something precise by Chopin. Fifteen dance students - mostly young, in their early twenties - sat on the floor or leant back against the barre, towels or sweaters flung round their shoulders. They had all, visibly, been working hard. They were watching their instructor, in the centre of the room.
He was a man in his early forties, slim, small, with exquisitely pale skin and large dark eyes. His hair was gleaming black, and tied back from his face in a sleek ponytail. He was moving, effortlessly, through the steps of a dance that seemed to be a breathing out of the music, as if the dancer were creating each note with step and gesture. He seemed not to notice Picard's entrance, though the Captain thought that unlikely.
The music ended, the dancer turned, arms held in the gesture that says "Finished" and then, and only then, smiled. Picard, still standing by the doorway, applauded briefly. "That was very beautiful. My apologies for interrupting your class, Mr Pasagardai." In front of most of his crew, he was careful to be as formal with Bagoas as Bagoas was with him.
"Is something wrong, Captain?" Data enquired. A moment ago, watching the dance as if recording it, he had looked like a dance student. But now his stance had changed, subtly enough; although he was wearing leotards and t-shirt like all the other student dancers, he was very definitely a Starfleet officer.
"Nothing immediate," Picard said. "I'm calling a staff meeting in two hours, at 2000."
Data nodded. "One hour, fifty-five minutes."
Picard glanced along the row of dancers. "Would you object if I stayed for the rest of the class?" A general shaking of heads, and one or two "Of course not, Captain" from bolder spirits.
"Stay, why not?" Bagoas said, still smiling. Then his attention turned back to his students, and the smile slipped away. "We have ten minutes more, and you will oblige me," the instructor spoke softly, but Picard knew the command tone when he heard it, "by repeating the routine as perfectly as you can. You have seen how it is to be done. Let me see that you have understood me." A nod, and the pianist began to play again, with no sign of weariness. Picard watched.
"Not bad," Bagoas said finally. "Very well. Class is ended."
The students left in a cluster, Data last, glancing at Picard as if to be sure the Captain didn't have a final word for him. Bagoas laughed and went over to where Picard stood. They smiled at each other.
"You must not do this often," Bagoas said. "Normally they would have half a hundred questions each."
"Did I scare them?" Picard raised his eyebrows.
Bagoas stepped closer, a precise and measured pace, and cupped long hands at either side of Picard's face. "Ah, who would dare come between the Captain... and his husband?"
Picard's hands came up to mirror the dancer's gesture. "I'll remember next time, mon mari," he said.
"See that you do." Bagoas smiled, challenging, and Picard answered the smile with a long slow kiss.
"Computer, end program," Picard said, rather breathlessly, pulling himself away from the other man's mouth. The mirrors, the piano, the piano-player, the room itself, all vanished, replaced with the dull lined walls of the holodeck.
"I take it," Bagoas said, grinning, "you want your supper."
"I do." Picard smiled. They turned towards the doorway, falling into step with each other. "You must be starved - you didn't have lunch."
"I never eat before I dance."
"Even a class?" Picard shot him a sharp look.
Bagoas shrugged. "If I know you lunch for you was a cup of tea and perhaps a sandwich in your ready room." Picard laughed a little and ducked his head, liking it. Bagoas smiled, but went on, quite seriously, "Don't scold, dear one, or I shall bring you lunch myself tomorrow, and see that you eat it."
"Over my dead body," Picard said, and laughed outright, imagining Bagoas' arrival on the bridge with a lunch tray. And Riker's expression as Bagoas dragged Picard into the ready room. He'd never believe it was just for lunch. They were walking down the corridor towards the turbolift. "All right."
A crewman passed them, giving the Captain and the dancer a brief nod. "Captain." Picard smiled and nodded back. "Lewis." An engineer, junior rank, but LaForge had mentioned him as a promising youngster. Bagoas smiled, but said nothing.
Bagoas had his own cabin assignment, on deck seven, a single room with basic facilities. He scarcely ever used it, though, except for storage. The Captain's quarters were more than big enough for two. As soon as they were inside, with the door closed behind them, Bagoas left Picard with a brief kiss and headed directly for the bedroom and the refresher unit.
Picard turned to the replicator to order supper. Soup and bread and a ripe Camembert. He set the table, taking an odd quiet pleasure in doing so. There had been guests in his quarters, in the years he had lived here. Beverly still dropped by to share breakfast, on occasion. But in the past three months Picard had learned again to love what he had thought lost when he left home: the pleasure of habit, of meals shared day by day, a customary routine that never grew stale.
Picard looked over the table, to check that he had forgotten nothing, and then around the familiar room. His quarters hadn't changed much; his partner had brought very little with him. A couple of books, two or three antiques, and a few items of clothing. His name on a certificate of marriage, joined with Picard's. And the complete transformation of Picard's life, by his own quiet, graceful, gentle presence. Picard knew, and a few others had learned, that the silence and elegance masked a swift but kindly wit. Only Picard knew the depth of passion and joy in the other man, so well hidden, no one would even guess it was there to be found. Picard had known him for nearly four years, and they had been married for just three months. It was hard to imagine life without him.
Picard felt strong hands at his shoulders, and turned. Bagoas' hair was flowing loosely about his shoulders. He was wearing only a light green robe, wrapped round his lean and elegant body. "All well?"
"I was just wondering how I ever managed without you."
Bagoas smiled. "I wonder the same. This smells good."
"Lentil soup. My Aunt Adele's recipe," Picard added needlessly, echoed by Bagoas. "I love your Aunt Adele already," Bagoas added, as they sat down to their shared meal. There was a casual silence between them, as they ate. Picard thought to ask, "You're not working in Ten-Forward tonight?" Bagoas filled in as a bartender on an irregular basis, shifts settled between him and Guinan. But he wore the green robe when he wasn't planning to leave their quarters.
"I can trade shifts with someone if you're busy tonight," Bagoas said, leaning back in his chair to gaze at Picard with cool dark eyes. "Or I may just stay home with a good book, even if you aren't there to share the evening with."
"I might be," Picard said. "The staff meeting is just to discuss Ambassador Carrington and her aides before they come aboard. It could go on till all hours, or we might manage to finish in under an hour." He rather hoped it would be under an hour, but there was no knowing what his officers might bring up. That was, after all, the point of having a staff meeting.
"I'll contrive to keep myself amused." Bagoas smiled at him. "You're not to hurry back on my account. This Ambassador; you'll tell me if I can be useful?"
"If she turns out to be a pain in the neck, you'll be the first to know." Picard grinned.
"Excellent." Bagoas shrugged and changed the subject. "Do you suppose Data would mind being... singled out for separate classes?"
Picard frowned. Newcomers to the Enterprise often found Data hard to deal with. Picard had learned, years ago, that the only way was to let Data deal with them himself. Intervention was rarely helpful. But he'd somehow assumed that Bagoas would not react like any other newcomer, as if his partner should absorb through his skin what Picard had learned. "Why?" he asked, soberly.
"I've never taught anyone like him before." Bagoas smiled and shook his head. "No, of course I haven't. I keep forgetting how different he is. He is so technically perfect - his routine this afternoon was the best in that respect - and yet, he expresses so little feeling in his dance."
"He's an android," Picard said. "He doesn't have feelings."
Bagoas considered that, and shook his head again. "He does. Or he has the equivalent. But in any case, I don't want to make him feel that he must leave the class - but he needs different teaching from the others."
"In what way?" Picard leaned his chin on his hand. This was genuinely surprising. People often claimed that Data 'must have' feelings, but not usually in this way.
"Any movement which I can make, he can duplicate. All he has to do is see it to understand it. So he can go much faster than the rest of the class. But he has to learn to express feelings, in his dance, which he himself doesn't feel. That's going to be difficult for him."
"I thought you said he did have feelings?"
"He does," Bagoas said. "They're just not human feelings. Or live feelings, I suppose I should say."
There was silence for a little while, and then Picard said, "I'm very glad I know you."
"You've just expressed something that took me a long time to learn, and that I don't think I could ever have expressed as neatly. Data has feelings; but not live feelings. Do you suppose that Data could learn to express his - android feelings, in his dance?"
"I have no idea," Bagoas said. "But children, when they learn to dance, can learn to express feelings that they have never experienced. In any case, if I told him to try, he would no doubt tell me he has no feelings."
"Yes, he would."
"You don't think he'd mind being asked to come to separate classes?"
"You'll have to ask him yourself," Picard said bluntly, and smiled to take the sting away. "If he does see a reason to remain in the group class, I'm sure he'll tell you."
Bagoas nodded, and glanced at the clock. "You have an hour before your staff meeting. What work do you have to do?"
"I ought to look over Ambassador Carrington's record. And I need to study the situation on Gisippus." Three religions, similar enough to an outsider, but with, apparently, violently different standards of behaviour.
Bagoas silently pointed to the sofa, and, smiling, Picard stood up and went across to it, picking up a padd from the shelf on his way over. He sat down, turning and putting his feet up, making himself comfortable. Ambassador Carrington's record was a distinguished one, beginning with a junior post on Vulcan, twenty-three years ago. She had been Ambassador Sarek's only human protege.
A few minutes later a cup of espresso appeared in front of him. Picard took it from Bagoas' hands with a smile. "You're spoiling me," he said briefly.
"Get on with your work," Bagoas retorted. Picard didn't argue; he knew that his partner would be clearing the table and straightening the room. When Bagoas sat down on the end of the sofa, Picard only had to move his feet enough to make room for him.
At ten to eight, the padd flashed a reminder. Picard had read his way through the ambassador's various and varied missions and was looking over the basic data on Gisippus. Religion had, as ever, become muddled with the control of resources. Bagoas glanced up, instantly aware. "Time?" He stood up and kissed Picard. "Did you finish your reading?"
"All I need to know, I hope." Picard pushed himself to his feet. "She's quite a character, this ambassador." He went out, half-smiling to himself. It was very comfortable to know that Bagoas would be waiting for him, whenever the meeting was over.
Methos was enjoying himself. Duncan, quite visibly, wasn't. They were flanking Amanda, conspicuously guarding her from whatever dangers might be lurking on this brightly-polished Starfleet spaceship. Methos edged close enough to mutter, "Remember, this was your idea."
He knew he'd hit the right nerve when Duncan, without turning and almost without moving his lips, hissed viciously, "This wasn't my idea!"
"Shh," Methos whispered smugly.
The Captain was greeting Amanda. He was a quiet, bald-headed man in his early sixties, quick-moving and alert.
"Ambassador," said the Captain, with a formal bow.
Amanda inclined her head graciously. "Captain. What a beautiful ship you have."
"Thank you," the Captain said. He sounded pleased and slightly amused. "I think so too. Your last mission on Minnaloushe was truly impressive."
"Thank you," Amanda said. Methos could tell that she was genuinely startled, though only a diplomatically mild surprise made it into her voice. "I'm surprised you chose that particular example - "
The Captain cut in. Methos managed not to grin. Amanda didn't like being interrupted. Even though what he was saying was complimentary enough: "Reconciling two species that had been at war since before their history began?"
"Oh, well," Amanda smiled. "There are times when enemies can be closer than neighbours, Captain. Besides, I only re-established and made stronger an old tradition; the pheelis and the husmus used to have a custom of full-moon truces, to trade goods and livestock. I - suggested that they return to the old ways."
"Yes, I read about that," the Captain said enthusiastically. "It was that you looked for and found records of their traditions, eight hundred years ago, that impressed me so much. How did you translate their historical records?"
"They'd already been translated, about two hundred years ago, by a historian from Kavkanin. It was just a matter of looking. Do you believe in finding answers in the past, Captain?"
The Captain looked a little embarrassed, but he smiled. "It's a bit of a hobby of mine, Ambassador. I'm interested in archaeology."
"Are you?" Amanda was definitely amused now. She had an - admirable sense of humour. "Then you should talk to my aide, Alex Cynan. He's rather interested in archaeology as well."
Duncan shot Methos a darkly triumphant grin, as the Captain said, "I'd be delighted," and Amanda, with a casual flick of her hand, dismissed him to Methos' custody. This 'Ambassador Carrington' identity was definitely going to her head. Methos put on his most charming smile.
"Mr Cynan. I gather you're also an archaeologist."
"It's just a hobby of mine," Methos said smoothly.
"Oh yes, for me too," the Captain said promptly. "What areas do you specialise in?"
"Earth," Methos said. "The Mediterranean civilisations, mainly. My colleague here has been more wide-ranging."
"Really?" The Captain smiled at Duncan, plainly trying to put him at ease. "What are your main interests?"
Duncan gave him a tight-lipped, formal smile. "Weapons."
The Captain looked him over, very briefly. "Is that a katana you have, Mr MacLeod?"
Duncan looked startled. "Aye, it is." His hand had fallen, unconsciously, to the hilt of the sword. "You know swords?"
"I take an interest," the Captain said, with deliberate friendliness. "How old is it?"
"Old enough," Duncan said shortly. "As a matter of fact, Captain, I've a favour to ask."
The Captain's mouth tightened. For an instant, he didn't look at all pleased. Then he smiled, just a bit too broadly, and said, "Ask it."
"You have a crewman aboard, a Colin O'Neil."
The Captain frowned.
The fencing room was bleak and quiet, and Picard's opponent faced him as faceless as he himself, masked and wrapped in white. The foil was light in Picard's hand. A friendly match, and within the boundaries set by this room, between equals, making nothing of the difference between Captain and ensign.
O'Neil seldom spoke of his past before the Academy. He had friends aboard, he was a friendly young man - a golden bear, Picard privately characterised him. No doubt he talked to them more freely than to his Captain.
There weren't many people who learned to fence any more, and Picard kept an eye out for anyone aboard who had learned. He tried to organise matches for, and with, all of them. Starfleet Academy still had a fencing team, but most people who took up fencing at the Academy dropped it again within a few years of leaving it, so most of the people Picard could match himself with were ensigns or very junior lieutenants. It meant keeping himself under even tighter rein than usual. The Captain on duty was a role that fitted Picard exactly, and always had. The Captain off duty was a far harder role to play: he must be relaxed enough to let his partner relax; he must always keep the necessary distance between them; he must never say anything, not even as a joke, which the other might assume was tantamount to an order.
O'Neil was growing a beard, and Picard was tempted to several jokes about beards (and bears) within five minutes of the start of their fencing match today. But O'Neil might think that Picard was hinting he ought to shave, and that would be an infringement of O'Neil's personal liberties. God knew an ensign didn't have many.
And O'Neil was damned good. Picard scored a hit, and O'Neil three; but Picard was beginning to suspect that O'Neil had let him do so. If so, O'Neil was even better than he'd thought - Picard was always on the watch for that kind of thing from ensigns who thought letting the Captain win was the better part of valour.
Picard flickered past O'Neil's guard to score a hit on his shoulder, and knew. He stepped back, formally en garde. "A hit?"
"A hit," O'Neil acknowledged,
Picard pulled off his mask and mopped his head, watching as O'Neil also pulled off his mask. The younger man hadn't even started to sweat.
"Where did you learn to fence, Ensign?" Picard asked.
"At the Academy," O'Neil said casually.
"You weren't on the fencing team," Picard observed. He'd checked.
O'Neil shrugged and smiled. "I never did like that kind of thing."
"You're very good. I'm surprised no one chivvied you into joining."
"Oh well," O'Neil shrugged again, "I don't like getting pushed around." He smiled guilelessly.
"I don't like to bring rank into the fencing room," Picard said, very carefully. "And I'd be sorry to lose you as a fencing partner."
"What?" O'Neil's face changed, frowning, suddenly and strangely looking much older than he was. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't know what you're talking about."
Picard took a step towards him. "I think you do, Ensign. You let me get through your guard. Twice today that I'm sure of."
O'Neil stood still, and seemed to relax. "Ah," he said, and smiled. "You're even better than I thought, Captain - I never thought you'd notice."
"Why?" Picard asked. He wasn't expecting an answer, but unexpectedly O'Neil laughed.
"I could wipe the floor with you, Captain," he said cheerfully. "And I didn't know exactly how you'd take being used for an ensign's floor cloth."
Picard laughed and pulled down his mask, watching the bear's grinning face disappear behind the other mask. "Well, now you know - let's fence."
Picard could not recall scoring another hit on O'Neil, not in a single one of their matches, but he'd enjoyed them more than with any other opponent aboard. He'd liked the bear's irreverent humour, liked his open and driving ambition, liked more than anything being matched against someone who gave no points away.
"You have a crewman aboard, a Colin O'Neil."
The Captain was frowning. Methos almost expected him to say 'None of your business' - he had that look - but after a moment, the Captain said, "No, we don't. What's your interest in Ensign O'Neil?"
"He was a student of mine," Duncan said, and shut his mouth like a trap. Duncan had a habit of adopting baby immortals, the barely-hatched, and keeping them by him for a decade or so while he taught them swordplay and honour.
Colin O'Neil had been one of those young immortals. Passionately in love with Duncan, which Duncan politely ignored, passionately jealous of Methos - which Methos, taking his cue from Duncan, politely ignored - and better at swordplay than most. He had also been offered a place at Starfleet Academy, and, despite everything Duncan could say about the unwisdom of joining Starfleet, had accepted it.
"A student in what?" the Captain asked, still polite. "You're not an Academy instructor...?" Audibly, the question was only for politeness' sake.
"No, I'm not," Duncan said. "He studied in my dojo before he went to the Academy. I took an interest in his career. He was posted aboard the Enterprise. Has he been posted somewhere else?"
"No," the Captain said, frowning. "Mr MacLeod, I hardly think this is a conversation for a party. If you'd care to talk tomorrow, you can have a word with my yeoman."
"I think not," Duncan said. Methos could hear the danger-signs in Duncan's voice, and wondered if he should attract Amanda's attention. She was chatting to a good-looking man with a vision-aid over his eyes. "If you know where Colin is, you'll tell me now."
The Captain's eyebrows went up, and his voice was very cold. "I have yet to hear that you have any good reason to demand that information, Mr MacLeod."
At that point, Amanda turned, took in the situation at a glance, and lifted a hand, palm upwards, fingers curved, towards Duncan. "Attend me," she said crisply.
Duncan glowered, but went. The Captain looked after him, with the oddest expression of amusement, annoyance, and relief on his face. Methos laughed, and the Captain appeared to decide that he would let amusement win. "He's quite a character, your friend."
"My partner," Methos said.
"Oh?" The Captain's social voice was back. Taking an interest. "You've been together long?"
"A few years," Methos shrugged. "Are you partnered, Captain?"
"Oh, yes," the Captain said, glancing round. "He should be here, as a matter of fact - he must have been delayed by something."
Starfleet Captains were notoriously either retired, single, or, as the common phrase had it, 'married to the ship,' which meant: "Your First Officer?" Methos guessed.
The Captain, for the first time, really laughed. He suppressed it quickly, though. "No - no, as a matter of fact, he's not even Starfleet. He works aboard as civilian personnel."
"You've been together long?"
"Three months," the Captain said, and smiled. "We'd known each other a few years, though. Bagoas worked in the starbase on Khitmugar."
"Bagoas?" Methos asked.
"Bagoas Pasagardai," the Captain said, and looked inquiring. "You know him?"
"Oh, I doubt it," Methos said.
He slipped away shortly afterwards. The Captain had gone to talk politely to someone else, and Amanda was keeping Duncan on a short leash.
Methos didn't know where he was going, but he knew who he was looking for. There was an immortal aboard the ship, and if it wasn't Duncan's baby Colin, then who was it?
Bagoas was a common enough name among Persians. The Pasagardai were a vast tribe.
Methos had not used the presence to track an immortal for - decades? Centuries? But he was more skilled than anyone he knew in using it to steer clear of other immortals. And it was simpler than he remembered to reverse the process, to follow the presence as it grew stronger, a thrumming buzz like an ache in his skull.
The trail led to a door with a lot of signs on it. Most of the doors just had a number and a name in Standard, which was basically a variant on that modern barbarian theme park of a language that was still, on Earth, called English. This door had over a hundred signs, each one in a different language, most in different glyphs. Methos didn't bother to read them. He pushed the door open and went in, and realised halfway through that it was holy ground. Well, that simplified things.
"Hello?" he said, closing the door behind him.
Bagoas had been sitting on the floor, his back against a wall, half-hidden by a chair. Methos only realised this when Bagoas stood up.
"Hello," Methos repeated, in the common tongue.
Bagoas sighed. "It was you, then."
"It was me," Methos agreed. "Have you been in here ever since?"
Bagoas shrugged. "I needed to think." He smiled. He had always had a very beautiful smile. "If I'd known it was you with the Ambassador, I'd have come to the party."
"Well," Methos said cautiously, "actually, you probably felt the Ambassador as well."
"Oh," Bagoas said, and his face stilled a moment. "Do I know her?"
Methos shook his head. "I don't think so. Her name's Amanda. She's a northern barbarian, about fifteen centuries old."
"The beginning of wisdom," Bagoas remarked. "The young are always impatient. One would think they believed themselves immortal." He smiled.
"I remember when you were that age," Methos said, and risked a few steps closer. Bagoas always tended to be as wary as Methos - or more so - of close physical contact. But he looked remarkably calm, for an immortal who had fled straight to holy ground at the first approach of another immortal. "You thought yourself old then."
"You have an unfair advantage," Bagoas said solemnly. "You knew us all when we were 'that age.'" He looked round the room as if seeing its barrenness for the first time. "Shall we go somewhere else to talk?"
"Um," Methos said. "There's something I should tell you. There's another immortal with us. A young one."
"Is he... impatient?"
"No," Methos said. "Well, yes. But I guarantee he won't pick a fight with you."
Bagoas nodded. "There's something I should tell you," he said after a moment. "I am... involved with a mortal."
"Yes, the Captain told me."
"Ah." Bagoas smiled faintly. "I should have been at the party, but I plan to tell him that I had... a headache."
Methos looked at him, thinking about the implications. Bagoas had never, in all the millennia Methos had known him, been one for mortal lovers. "He doesn't know," Methos said at last. "Does he?"
"No, of course not," Bagoas said. He shrugged again, the fluid courtier's shrug. "He would not believe me. If he did believe me, he would not think me human. He would want to investigate. He would not tolerate... what we are. And I am...." He paused to weigh his words. "Very fond of him."
Methos nodded. He had taken mortal lovers on occasion, but he had never risked telling them the truth, and had always been careful to leave, or have them leave, before they noticed that he did not age. "The young one with me... his name's Duncan MacLeod. He's known as the Highlander."
"Ah," Bagoas said. "Yes, I have heard of him. They say he has taken more heads in eight centuries than any other immortal."
"Yes, but - " Methos had often had this problem, trying to explain Duncan to other immortals. "He's not exactly like his reputation."
"I heard that he... caused the death of his own student."
"By accident," Methos said. It didn't surprise him that Bagoas had heard that story; when the Watchers who had studied immortals for two millennia were destroyed in the early 21st century, their records had been burned. But many immortals had read the records before they burnt them. "He won't try to take your head unless you try to take his."
"Really." Bagoas wore a look of courteous blankness.
"Yes," Methos said, "really. Look, the only reason we're here is because Duncan's looking for an infant he lost track of. He's not out after anyone's head, neither am I, neither is Amanda. He just wants to find Colin O'Neil." It was the only reason Duncan would ever have left Earth.
There was a sudden flicker in Bagoas' eyes, and Methos stopped short, and swore in Persian.
Bagoas raised his hands a little. "I'm sorry. If I'd known he meant something to you..."
"He didn't mean a damn thing to me," Methos said. "But Duncan..."
"The Highlander," Bagoas said, tasting the name. "I do not want his head. But I am attached to mine, and I intend to stay so."
"He won't take your head." Methos hoped it was true. "Look, if he does get pissed off and comes after you, I'll tell you how to deal with it - sit tight, don't draw your sword, keep your hands down. He won't be able to do anything then. It's almost like holy ground for him."
A moment, and then Bagoas nodded, accepting this. His mouth curled in a little, beautiful smile.
"There's just one other thing, though," Methos said. "If you kill Duncan, I'll have to kill you."
A long slow nod. Bagoas' dark eyes were opaque and intent, but at last he smiled again, and not the beautiful courtier's smile that masked his feelings. "How long has Duncan been with you?" he asked.
Methos shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Three hundred and ninety years... as of last year."
"Oh." Bagoas looked amused. "It has been a while since we've been in touch, hasn't it?"
"Well, if you will go running off to the ends of the universe like this."
"I didn't leave Earth till a couple of hundred years ago. When did you?"
"What date is it? About ten days ago."
"You won't regret it. Earth's too small and the records get larger every year."
"Oh, we're going back," Methos said. "Duncan's been updating our records regularly. They'd stand up to anything but a Starfleet stare."
"I wonder if he'd care to take a look at mine?" Bagoas asked. "There are two or three things I'd like to change."
Methos was shaking his head. "No. God no. Keep your head down. Duncan's looking for Colin, and he's not going to stop till he finds him... is he going to find him?"
"Of course not," Bagoas said, mildly affronted. "I always clear away when I've done. I used a phaser. They're convenient things. There is nothing to find."
"Where was this? Aboard this ship?"
"On Khitmugar," Bagoas said. "Before I came aboard. In his records, he vanished there, and that's what your Duncan will find."
Methos nodded, appreciating it. It had been taking more and more skill recently simply to survive the aftermath of a fight. For the past two or three centuries, a thorough concealment of the defeated had become essential. "Still. Steer clear. He'll probably go back to Khitmugar to investigate there, once Amanda's finished."
"Then we may see each other again in a few years."
"I hope so."
"Good." Bagoas smiled. "I'll be aboard this ship for so long as the Captain is - and he will be parted from the Enterprise only when they force him from her." Unexpectedly, Bagoas reached out and took Methos in a swift embrace. "Till we meet again," he said, and turned and went out. Methos looked after him, smiling. The Captain must be good for Bagoas; never before had Methos seen him touch anyone, even his oldest friend, so freely. Compared to that, the problem of Colin O'Neil was a minor thing, a difficulty of the moment. A decade, maybe less, and Duncan would find another baby to rear.
Bagoas was curled up on the couch in the sitting-room, wrapped in his green robe. The room was dimly lit, and it was a moment before Picard saw him, though he knew that Bagoas was there from the moment he stepped through the door.
"What's wrong?" Picard asked.
Bagoas shrugged, looking up at him. "I'm sorry," he said at last. "I know I should have been there."
"Are you all right?" Picard sat down beside him, looking at him with concern. Bagoas looked curiously withdrawn, his pale skin fragile in the dim light.
"I was going to tell you that I had a headache," Bagoas said briefly. He smiled, and Picard felt his heart turn over inside him. "But I didn't. I just didn't want to go to the party. I'm sorry."
"It's not part of your job," Picard said, hearing his voice bluffly trying to cover for his heart. His Captain's voice clearly thought that he was too old, too steady, too sedate, to be this much in love. "It's my job, unfortunately."
"I wanted to be there," Bagoas said, steadily, "because I wanted to be with you. Because there isn't much of your job that I can share, and so I wanted to share this. But I found that I couldn't."
"Is this one of the things that I mustn't ask you about?" Picard asked. He felt the Captain's voice and mask slide away from him, and was glad to let them go.
Bagoas swallowed, and turned his face away. For a moment he did not speak, and when he did, his voice was cracked like a broken bell. "Ah, dear one, I do not deserve you."
"For years," Picard said, "I knew there was something lacking that I didn't have. I thought I couldn't have it. Then you gave it to me." Bagoas turned back to face him; his face was wet, but he was no longer crying. Instead the delicate eyebrows rose and Bagoas said, in a voice now shaken by laughter,
"Jean-Luc, if you think that I believe you were entirely celibate - "
Picard put his hands on Bagoas's shoulders, shaking his head. "You are a wonderful lover, mon mari, and you always were. But what I value most isn't what we have in bed - it's what you give me here. I thought I couldn't marry and remain Captain, I thought any marriage I undertook would end in grief. But you are the best of husbands, and I treasure that more than I will ever be able to tell you."
"Even when there are some things I will not tell you?"
Picard cupped Bagoas' face between his hands. "When you're ready, you will."
Bagoas smiled faintly, and reached up to cover Picard's hands with his own. "Do you find me lacking, in bed?"
"Not even though - "
"No," Picard said, and this time so crisply and so definitely that Bagoas' eyebrows went up again.
"Well, shall we go to bed and prove it?"
"Yes," Picard said, and smiled. Bagoas stood up, and pulled Picard up with him. For all he looked fragile, he was deceptively strong.
"Come then," he said, and they went through to the bedroom together.
Four years ago, wandering through the starbase on Khitmugar for the first time, Picard had paused by a quiet storefront that barely advertised itself as a "therapeutic massage centre." It was run by a Mr Pasagardai. His legs still ached from a prolonged fencing bout the day before, but he'd gone inside more to kill time than for any other reason. After all, Beverly could sort out his muscular problems in five minutes, and with a lecture on trying to outfence a youngster like Ensign Ewart, who had won the Academy fencing championship only two years ago.
Still, it had been fun. Picard walked into the shop, still grinning reminiscently. The front room was a small waiting room. A bell rang somewhere beyond the further door, and a moment later the most perfectly beautiful man Picard had ever seen walked in.
A moment later, a moment during which he was afraid he had gaped inexcusably, and he saw that the man was in his forties, spare and slight, and very amused. Black hair clasped in a kind of ponytail at the back, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, large dark eyes gazing at him, and a faint, beautiful smile.
"Can I help you, Captain?"
"I, ah - could I make an appointment for a massage?"
"You can have tomorrow at sixteen hundred," the man said, "or you can have today in half an hour."
"Today," Picard said at random. There were four chairs in a row along the longest wall of the small room; the man waved him to one of them, and went back through to the inner room. There was a small set of bookshelves to the right of the chairs. Picard spent the next thirty minutes glancing through the assortment of literature stored there - it ranged from picture books for children to a treatise on Zoroastrian mythology - and wondering edgily if he shouldn't just leave.
An elderly Bajoran woman appeared from the inner room, the man at her side. They were exchanging lengthy and courteous farewells, as if ending a social call. They were at the door before the elderly woman said "Next week at the same time?"
"Of course. A pleasure." He opened the door for her, and closed it, pressing a switch to the right-hand side as he did so. "Now, Captain, a problem with your knees?"
"How did you know?" Picard had been impressed with the younger man's observation before - most civilians didn't have an instant awareness of rank pips. But this seemed almost Sherlockian. Data would like it.
The man smiled and flicked a hand at the monitor, half-hidden by the curtains. "I don't keep a receptionist. So I like to be able to see who's coming in before I come out. And I saw that you bent at the waist, not at the knees, to look at the books on the lower shelves."
"Oh." Picard shrugged. "It's nothing, I fenced a little too much yesterday."
"Well, come through and I'll take a look."
The man was professional about his strange profession, at least. He asked Picard to strip off his uniform pants, and gave him a short robe to wear. His hands were cool and strong, though they were thin and white, and pressed and pulled at Picard's knees without a trace of sensuality.
"No damage, I think," he said seriously. "You like to fence?"
"Yes," Picard said. "Though they say it's a sport for the young."
"Oh, I would say it's for all ages." The man smiled, amused. "Still, one must take care of oneself, the more as one grows older. Now lie down and let me give you what you came in for."
That proved to be a massage of much skill, with a subtly scented oil, focusing on Picard's knees and calf-muscles, but including a strained muscle in one thigh that Picard had barely been aware he was feeling. Picard occasionally felt sparks of arousal, but the man's hands never roamed above the limit of the robe.
After Picard had paid for the massage and left, he looked back - hoping to catch another glimpse of Pasagardai - and saw that the centre was now marked Closed, and had been, evidently, since the Bajoran woman left. There was a schedule of opening times on the inside of the window, and the centre closed tomorrow at sixteen hundred hours.
Picard was there at sixteen hundred hours, and discovered that Pasagardai's first name was Bagoas, that he had a wonderful laugh (he had laughed out loud, when he opened the door and Picard was standing there), and that a masseur's strong hands were wonderful for love.
For four years, whenever the Enterprise had called in at Khitmugar, Picard had gone to Bagoas' place and they had eaten wonderful meals that never saw a replicator and made love and swapped poems to each other's eyebrows and made love. In between visits, there had been letters; wordplays and gossip, recipes and favourite poets. It had been a year since their first meeting that Bagoas had let Picard find out something rather disturbing about him.
Bagoas's head was pillowed on his shoulder. Picard ran a hand through the mass of silky hair, stroking the back of his lover's neck. Picard had never grown a beard, but Bagoas' face was not beardless, it was smooth as a pre-pubertal boy's. He had little body hair, and no pubic hair at all. His testicles were as small as a boy's, and his voice had never truly broken.
Picard had never come nearer to hating himself when he thought that three times he had gone to bed with Bagoas and had never noticed any of this. Bagoas had not encouraged him to notice ("I find that too many men are put off from the start, and I like to know what we have, before I risk losing it") but Picard felt that he should have seen.
Picard had thought it was a hormonal anomaly. Such things still afflicted people on worlds without full access to modern medicine. And then Bagoas had shown him the scars, one on each testicle, and Picard had nearly been sick. He had swallowed it down, and embraced Bagoas, but there was still that vomitous rage in him whenever he thought of someone deliberately, with a knife, cutting into a child's genitals and mutilating them permanently.
It was strange to Picard - and, clearly, utterly unexpected to Bagoas - that Picard had come from this better knowledge of his friend to a deeper love. Not pity; it was impossible to pity someone with Bagoas' strength and pride. But anger and admiration for Bagoas, for the strength that had enabled Bagoas to survive this abuse and still love, still risk sexual sharing; for the pride that Picard felt in him, pride in himself, that Picard recognised and admired as akin to his own.
"Again tonight?" Bagoas whispered. "I should tell you bedtime stories till you go to sleep."
"Are you tired?"
"Dear one, I did nothing all evening."
"So did I."
"But you worked at doing nothing."
"That only means I'm much better at it than you are."
Picard both heard and felt a muffled snort from Bagoas, into his shoulder. "Jean-Luc, do you never let anyone but yourself be the best?"
"Absolutely not," Picard said, smiling into Bagoas' hair. "I have a reputation to maintain."
"So if I called you a pompous ass - "
Picard laughed suddenly. Long before they were married, he had stopped being surprised at the younger man's wide and varied knowledge of him. "I would say fine, but I want to be the most pompous ass in Starfleet." He felt Bagoas start to shake with giggles, and added "And I'd want to know when you last spoke to Louvios...?"
"Every profession has its honour. Even mine."
Picard slid his hand down Bagoas' back, into the spot just below the ribs which he had discovered was ticklish. "If I torture you till you confess?"
Bagoas uncoiled and sprang, knocking away Picard's hand and couching himself above Picard, his hair falling about them both as he looked down into Picard's eyes and bared his teeth. "I'd never sell my honour." He let himself down to lie atop Picard, letting Picard take his full weight. "And now you are my prisoner."
"Then you must do with me as you will." Picard was breathless, not from Bagoas' slight weight, but from the rising desire in him again. "I'm at your command, mon mari."
"No, I think this commands," Bagoas said, turning to take Picard's rising cock in his hand. "Basiliskos, little king, what are your orders?"
"'Little'?" Picard said, in pretended indignation.
"Be quiet so I can hear," Bagoas said, and slid backwards, bending as if he were listening to Picard's sex. "Ah, my lord, your orders shall be obeyed." His mouth opened and swallowed down the length of the cock, and Picard's head jerked back and he moaned, helpless under his lover's skill.
And later still, they slept, nested like spoons together in the bed where Picard had lain alone under the stars for years.
"Trust me," Amanda said, "if it was going to my head, I'd make one of you sleep across my door all night. Now go to bed, and take Duncan with you. I can't think with all that pacing."
Methos laughed, and Duncan stopped pacing, looking from Amanda to Methos with affronted dignity. He grinned after a moment, at himself, but it was strained.
"Come on," Methos said cheerfully, standing up and, with an arm round Duncan's shoulders, moving him towards the room assigned to them in these impersonal guest quarters. "Let's go make the bed."
"Everything's made for us," Duncan growled. The guest quarters were comfortable and spacious. The food was perfect. Replicator-perfect. Duncan's current persona ran a restaurant in New Orleans; Duncan had discovered about fifty years ago, two lifetimes ago, that knowing how to cook had become a marketable skill. Imperfections didn't matter; people would actually pay luxury prices for bread with the crust blackened, and bits of wheat still in the flour, and especially if it was flavoured with a sprinkling of wood-ash. (The wood had to be replicated, of course.) They even liked lumpy porridge. Replicated porridge was never lumpy.
Duncan thought they were all quite mad and ate in the Creole restaurant down the road where the owner's only fault was that he had a son who was in Starfleet and he was inordinately proud of him. When the son was given command of a space station, all Joe's regular customers heard about nothing else for weeks. Methos thought Duncan and Joe were both quite mad and ate in the replimat up the road.
"Not quite everything," Methos said, sliding his arms round Duncan and pulling him in. They stood almost nose to nose, and Methos looked at Duncan very solemnly but with the faintest twinkle in his eye.
After a moment, Duncan smiled. He looked smug and happy, quite intolerable and irresistible. His arms wrapped round Methos. He leaned in and nibbled at the side of Methos' neck, whispering, "I bet they have gadgets for this, too, in Starfleet." His breath tickled in Methos' ear, and Methos felt his arousal stir Duncan, as if they were reflections in a mirror.
"What do you think they look like?" Methos said breathlessly, beginning to tug Duncan's clothes off. "These gadgets?"
"I don't know," Duncan muttered, pulling at Methos' tunic. "But I swear the Captain had one up his arse."
Methos tried to stop himself, but he laughed, falling back on the bed and shaking with silent laughter. Duncan finished undressing himself and lay down on the bed beside Methos, looking amused, but his dark brows were drawn together in a puzzled frown.
"What is it?" Duncan asked.
"Nothing," Methos choked out, undiplomatically.
"Nothing," Duncan repeated, frowning still harder.
With a serious effort, Methos controlled himself. He slid his legs between Duncan's and interlocked their knees. "You never finished," he said. He was still wearing his pants and socks.
"Neither did you." Nevertheless, Duncan unfastened Methos' pants and began to tug them down. Graciously helpful, Methos let Duncan's legs go and shifted to let his lover strip him.
Duncan left Methos' pants still tangled below his knees, and moved up to poise himself above him, and kiss him hungrily.
"You haven't - finished," Methos repeated between kisses. "Hey - "
"I've done all I'm interested in," Duncan told him. He leaned himself on Methos' chest and began nibbling down Methos' throat. "Finish the rest yourself, if you want."
Methos kicked, accomplishing very little. "I can't move."
Duncan shrugged. "Not my problem," he said cheerfully, and fastened lips and teeth exquisitely on one nipple. He bit and nibbled his way down Methos, like a stag nibbling at a tree, down to his groin, and went down on his hard cock to the root.
It was by way of being an apology. Methos knew it. He stopped trying to kick himself free of his clothing and slid his hands into Duncan's hair, controlling him, knowing Duncan was letting himself be controlled.
Someone - probably one of Duncan's infants - had asked Methos once if sex didn't get boring after five millennia. Methos couldn't remember what he'd answered, but the truth was that for any immortal who had tasted the rush of quickening, sex seemed like anticlimax.
But making love had never staled. Not in four hundred years.
Picard sat on the other side of the table watching Bagoas toy with a piece of bread. Bagoas ate little at breakfast at the best of times, and from the quantity of crumbs he was shredding, this was not the best of times. Picard was thinking about the Muttianee Nebula, which they would cross to reach the Gisippus system, and wondering how much computer time he could squeeze out of Stellar Cartography to examine the strange artifacts in the cometary halo. Though no one had proved they were artifacts yet, Picard reminded himself conscientiously. But he found himself oddly distracted.
"What's wrong?" Picard asked at last, plainly.
Bagoas looked up and smiled. "Nothing, dear one."
Picard gestured at the crumbs all over Bagoas' plate.
Bagoas glanced down at the plate, up again to meet Picard's eyes in a single defensive flash, and then, reaching across the table to take Picard's hands with his, he laughed a little. "I'm thinking - about old friends."
"Alex Cynan?" Picard asked.
"Who?" Bagoas sounded genuinely bewildered.
"One of Ambassador Carrington's aides," Picard explained. "He wondered if he knew you, at the party last night. He left soon afterwards."
"No one came here," Bagoas shrugged. "I was thinking of someone I met a long time ago."
"What's wrong?" Picard turned his hands to take the long slender hands of his husband between his own.
"Something time will mend, I trust," Bagoas said slowly, his eyes focused on Picard's face.
Picard closed his hands more firmly. Bagoas smiled, swift and amused.
"But you aren't eating your breakfast, and you must, if you don't want me to bring you lunch." He detached his hands from Picard's, and conscientiously ate what was left of his bread.
Picard watched him for a few moments more. It was true he didn't have time for Bagoas this morning. He might be able to squeeze out half an hour before Gamma watch this evening, but even that wasn't likely. And Bagoas knew it as well as Picard did, and was signalling firmly that he did not intend to occupy the Captain's time until Picard had time. It was their bargain, it was the only way Picard could have married him, and Bagoas kept the terms of the bargain far more scrupulously than Picard could have borne, if it had been up to him to see the bargain kept.
Picard finished his last croissant, and the last of his cafe au lait, and kissed Bagoas goodbye for the day. He had to speak to Stellar Cartography before the interview with the undiplomatic aide. And then there was the briefing on the geographical, political, and religious history of Gisippus from Planetary Cartography and Xenohistorigraphy, and a fencing match with Lieutenant Ewart that Picard didn't want to miss, and no doubt thirty other things waiting the moment he stepped outside his quarters.
Picard could have conducted the interview in his ready room. Instead, when his yeoman told him that Ambassador Carrington's second bodyguard had asked for an appointment, he'd asked her to set up one of the small meeting-rooms. Picard had arrived on time. MacLeod had been nearly five minutes late, and hadn't apologised.
"Mr MacLeod," Picard said formally. He had thought about trying to push this job onto Riker or Data, but he suspected that MacLeod would only try to force an interview with him anyway. "I have Ensign O'Neil's records here."
All Starfleet records were open to any member of the public who had a good reason for accessing them. Or so the letter of the law said. In practice, a good many records were kept private, often by the simple solution of making only a very few people aware that they existed. But certainly someone who had taught the crew member in question had a right to access a simple personnel record. And that was all Picard intended to show this improbable diplomat. He turned the screen so that it faced MacLeod.
In the long salle the light made golden the battered wooden floor, survivor of a thousand fights. Colin was smiling, chin up, sword raised and waiting. Duncan met his student's sword with his own, and they and their swords stepped and turned and met and parted, through a fight that was, for both of them, almost a dance. An outsider might have taken it for a real fight, they moved so swiftly and the swordblades came so close to the skin.
"You're in a good mood." Duncan's sword snicked past Colin's ear as the younger immortal sidestepped exactly in time.
"I heard from the Academy today," Colin said blithely. He thrust his sword up in a gutting blow, which Duncan turned as if it had been an unwanted kiss. "They'll take me start of next term."
"Starfleet Academy?" Duncan asked sharply. He turned and stood, hands wide, sword turned down, and Colin accepted the invitation for a moment's pause and stood still.
"What else? You knew I'd been taking the exams."
"I thought you had more sense than to let them get their eyes on your records."
"My records are real, Duncan - give or take five years. And I'm a big boy now." Colin grinned and swung his sword, inviting Duncan to fight again.
"For the moment," Duncan said harshly. "For the next ten years, maybe, your records will stand up to a Starfleet stare. What about the next twenty years? The next fifty? What about the first time you die in a starship sickbay?"
"I'll be careful," Colin promised.
Duncan groaned in exasperation and turned away. He set his sword down on the bench and went to get himself a glass of water and a towel. After a moment, Colin went after him.
"Look, I see what you're saying. But they've got me down as twenty. That gives me five years leeway before I start looking my age. Then I can probably stretch it out another ten, maybe fifteen if I grow a beard - or hey, I could go bald, Duncan, what do you think?"
Duncan turned, glass in hand, and surveyed Colin from head to foot. "I think it's a stupid risk," he said. "I don't understand why you want to do it."
Colin shrugged and rubbed his hand across his face. He was rather red. "I want to be a starship captain," he mumbled.
"I want to be a starship captain," Colin said, more loudly. "And people have made it before they were thirty. So I've got ten years to get there, and then five or ten years with my own ship. And then I'll disappear or something. But this is what I want. I've wanted it all my life, and I'm not going to give it up just because I'm immortal."
Duncan glanced at him sideways, and lifted the glass to his mouth to drink the rest of the water.
Four centuries ago, Richie was smiling. "Come to think of it, do immortals have mid-life crises?"
The sun was hot on Duncan's head. "Well, only if they live long enough."
"I hope," Richie said thoughtfully, joining him on the veranda - it was that old house outside Seacouver, that Duncan had bought four centuries ago and worlds away. "I hope that when I'm four hundred years old, I buy an old Harley, or a Corvette, or something like that. Actually I wonder if they'll have Harleys or Corvettes when I'm four hundred. What do you think it's going to be like in four hundred years' time?"
"I have no idea." Duncan was trying to get the last old door off its hinges. Richie hadn't noticed. He was leaning against the veranda rail, smiling into space.
"You know, whenever I get bummed out about not being able to have a regular life, or kids, or the fact that any time someone's going to come along and try to whack my head off, I start to think about all the things I might be able to see... and do."
"Richie," Duncan said, faintly irritated, "give me a hand here, would you?"
"Sure," Richie said, sounding slightly startled that Duncan hadn't asked him before. He moved to stand beside Duncan, but didn't actually do more than reach for the tape measure.
"Immortality definitely has an upside," Duncan told him. "Think about it. In four hundred years you may be racing starships instead of Harleys."
Four centuries later, Duncan finished the water in the glass. He was still watching Colin out of the corner of his eye. Colin was staring at him, looking wistful and hopeful. Duncan knew if he tried, if he really forcefully argued against it, he could win. Colin would withdraw his application.
It was dangerous. But they'd outlived dangers before.
"Hey," Duncan said, finally, softly, smiling at Colin. "When you're racing those starships - think of me."
Colin lit up. He lunged forward and, before Duncan could even put down the glass, had his mentor in a large confused hug.
"Aye, that's him," MacLeod said briefly. "And you're saying he's not on board?" His voice conveyed a contemptuous disbelief.
"Not for several months, I'm afraid," Picard said with careful bland politeness.
MacLeod pushed the screen aside and, on his feet in an instant, he leaned over the table. He was smiling. His voice held no trace of threat. "I just want to talk to him."
Picard sat still, looking back at MacLeod. Although the younger man was smiling, his dark eyes were intent and piercing. The menace was more effective than any bluster would have been. Picard had used the technique himself.
"Ensign O'Neil is not aboard this ship," Picard said at last, in measured tones.
After a moment, MacLeod sat down again. "I believe you," he said. He had an absent look. "So what happened to him?"
Picard spread his hands. "He deserted," he said.
"What?" MacLeod looked up again, suddenly intent and focused. "That's ridiculous! All that boy ever wanted was Starfleet - " He stared at Picard, and said, with alarming perception, "You don't believe it yourself, do you?"
"Ensign O'Neil took shoreleave three months ago on Khitmugar. He never returned." Picard shrugged.
MacLeod glowered at him. "'Never returned,' so you logged him a deserter?"
"He was supposed to stay in the Starbase itself. He wasn't registered as having left it, so he must have gone out through one of the unofficial exits. We checked the Starbase so thoroughly that we would have found him if he had been there, anywhere - "
"Dead or alive?" MacLeod asked abruptly.
Picard frowned, annoyed.
MacLeod elaborated, rather as if he thought Picard was not quite bright enough to grasp what he was talking about. "Would you have found him if he were dead?"
"Yes," Picard said, and added, like a polite teacher to a recalcitrant child, "Of course, you're aware that any starbase, even one on a planet's surface, is monitored throughout, like a ship. If the ensign had been within the Starbase, we would have found him." Picard could have added that he had also authorised a planetwide scan for any trace of phaser-use on the highest, illegal level. A phaser set to the illegal level could vaporise a human body; it was Starfleet policy that any records which even implied such use should be records that only a very few people were aware existed. Picard smiled, and added, in MacLeod's own melodramatic phrase, "'Dead or alive.'" In any case, the scan had found no such traces.
"So he left the base without leave and he didn't come back. And you just assumed he'd deserted." There was considerable rancour there.
"No," Picard said. "We had every hospital on Khitmugar searched. We broadcast, planetwide, for anyone who had seen him. We scanned the unpopulated areas. If he had been there, anywhere, we would have found him. Even if he had died, we would have found him. But ships leave Khitmugar every day, no one had seen him since the first day of his shoreleave, and it was three days before we started to look." Also, any Starfleet officer knew several ways of hiding from a scan. The simplest, and the one which Picard believed young O'Neil had employed, entailed a good deal of quick, intelligent movement. Picard leaned forward a little, and said, with genuine sympathy, "I was disappointed as well, Mr MacLeod. O'Neil had the potential to be a good officer."
"He didn't desert," MacLeod said flatly, disdaining the sympathy. "If you didn't find him, it's because he's dead."
"I assure you," Picard said, allowing a little of his annoyance to become visible, "even if he were dead, we would have found him. Our scanners are extremely efficient."
MacLeod leant back in his chair and looked Picard over. "You do everything with gadgets, don't you." It wasn't a question. It was a wearily contemptuous statement. MacLeod stood up, looking down at Picard, and said, with the same weary flatness, "Well, I'll find out what happened to him. And if I can prove to you he died, you can take 'deserted' off his record and you can stuff it with the rest of your gadgets." He turned and walked out.
After supper in the ambassadorial quarters, Amanda had asked Duncan, casually, how his interview with the Captain had gone. Methos pushed his chair back from the table and wandered over to the couch, where he settled down with an ancient Clarke novel he'd found while they were waiting on Moonbase-1. He knew that Duncan was still angry.
Duncan described the interview. Amanda listened in increasingly grimmer silence until Duncan trailed to a halt. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"I don't believe this," Amanda said. She shook her head. "Duncan, have you no sense of timing?"
"That's rich, coming from you," Duncan snapped.
"What does that mean?" Amanda's voice was unexpectedly cold. There was no hint of flirtation.
Duncan stabbed out a hand. "You've got some scheme in mind. You let us hitch a lift with you, and thank you very much, but that doesn't change what you are."
"And what's that?"
"The most devious, scheming, deceitful, beautiful woman in history - "
"I am a Federation Ambassador," Amanda said. Her voice was quite controlled. "We're on a diplomatic mission. You have diplomatic immunity. You're not to pick a fight with the Federation Captain who's escorting us. Or any other member of the crew. Is that clear?"
"I didn't pick a fight with him," Duncan growled.
Amanda was still keeping a tight rein on her temper. "Fine. You didn't. Just don't do it again." She stood up abruptly, turned her back on Duncan, and went briskly to her own room. She couldn't slam the door behind her, but somehow her back conveyed that she would have if she could.
Methos was still, ostensibly, reading a book. He looked up as Duncan rounded on him. "You know as well as I do that Colin would never have deserted!"
Methos shrugged. "Not if he had a choice. What if he died too publicly to be able to go back?"
"No one saw him," Duncan said. He came over to the couch and sat down by Methos. "If anyone had seen him die, I'll give Starfleet credit, they'd have found out. Someone took his head."
"That's rather a sweeping assumption," Methos pointed out. "What if Colin was killed by some mortal? They wouldn't tell Starfleet they'd killed him, but he couldn't go back. Besides, it was a terrible risk for him to join Starfleet in the first place - maybe he'd realised it by that time, and he just wanted to get out, any way he could."
"He'd have got a message to me."
"Maybe," Methos shrugged. "Anyway, there's nothing you can do about it now. We'll go back to Khitmugar after Ambassador Carrington's finished her diplomatic mission, and you can hunt around for the trail there." He picked up his book and started to read it again, trying to indicate that he found the subject increasingly dull. He was beginning to wonder about Amanda. Once she would have been egging Duncan on to avenge his student's death; once she would have invented extravagant plots to discover the killer and bring him to MacLeod's sword. Keeping her temper and walking out of a good fight had not been Amanda's style... not three hundred years ago, at least.
"There's the other one," Duncan said.
Methos looked up with wide-eyed surprise. "What?"
"There's another immortal aboard somewhere," Duncan said. "He was near the shuttle bay when we came aboard. We thought it was Colin, but if it's not, then it must be someone else."
Methos dropped his book in order to applaud. "I've always loved your logic, Duncan." He picked the book up again.
Duncan plucked it out of his hands, checked the title and date of publication, and put it down on the table out of Methos' reach. "Do you know who it is?"
"This other immortal?" Methos asked tentatively.
"Helen of Troy!" Duncan snapped.
"Oh." Methos shook his head. "Definitely not."
"Very funny. Come on, this other one and Colin must have talked some time. I just want to talk to whoever it is, and it doesn't look like they want to talk to us."
"What makes you think I know him?" Methos inquired.
"The way you're dodging my questions."
Methos made a face. "Well, I know him. But I don't think you and he should meet. He's married to the Captain - and I doubt if he'd appreciate your opinion of his husband."
"Picard's married to one of us?" Duncan said in honest surprise. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have asked him - "
"Picard doesn't know a thing," Methos interrupted. "And his husband intends for it to stay that way for a while."
Duncan sighed. "Christ, one of those."
"Oh, I suppose you always start a relationship with a mortal by telling them 'I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I live forever, I fight a lot, and I collect heads.'" Methos' Scottish accent had improved over the centuries.
"Aye, but marriage - " Duncan shrugged as if the word itself should explain its importance to Methos. When it didn't, he said again, "But marriage - if they're married, he should trust him enough to tell him the truth."
"They've only been married three months," Methos said. "Give them a chance to finish their honeymoon before you decide their relationship is worthless because it's not founded on the absolute sense of honour that Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod requires everyone in his vicinity to live up to - "
"Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
"Fine. Can I have my book back now?"
Duncan reached for it. Then he paused. "Three months? Picard wouldn't have met this immortal on Khitmugar, would he?"
Methos hesitated for one fatal moment. Duncan's face tightened. "You might as well tell me," he said roughly. "I can find that out easily enough."
"Well, so what if he did?" Methos said with mild indifference, too late.
"Three months ago on Khitmugar one immortal who lived aboard the Enterprise vanished. Probably killed." Duncan's voice was clear and almost expressionless. Methos wanted to be elsewhere. "Three months ago on Khitmugar another immortal joined the Enterprise. An immortal who didn't want his identity to be known to anyone aboard. And you don't want me to meet him."
"Duncan, he's a friend of mine," Methos started, but Duncan cut him off.
"Colin was my student." He was on his feet, as swiftly as a cat, and out the door.
Methos stared after his lover. Calculating the odds of life and death was second nature to him, and had been for more than three times as long as Duncan had been alive. Duncan could not challenge Bagoas to a fight aboard the Enterprise. He could not because Bagoas would not accept a fight aboard his husband's ship, because Bagoas would not fight Duncan anyway, and (Methos hoped) because Duncan had more sense.
Methos sighed. He picked up his book. The printed letters on the yellowing page seemed to tremble in the steady light. There was no point in going after Duncan. There was no way to warn Bagoas - Methos wasn't even sure if the other immortal carried one of those little communicators. There was nothing to do but wait. But he wished he were one of those people who could take a nap when they had nothing to do.
Picard intended to be on the bridge with Gamma watch tonight, as they passed through the Muttianee Nebula. He was asleep in the bedroom when a raised voice from the other room woke him.
"Where's your sword?"
It was a moment before Picard recognised the voice. He sat up, wondering what the hell MacLeod was doing picking a fight in the Captain's quarters.
But the answering voice was definitely Bagoas. "I don't need my sword. It's not here."
"No, you preferred to eliminate the competition before you came aboard!" MacLeod was angry. Picard had thought him quick-tempered, but the sound of his voice even through the door was ferocious.
Bagoas, by contrast, was cool. "I don't want to fight you."
Picard hesitated. He didn't want to burst through the door, acting like a damned fool hero, as if he supposed Bagoas needed his protection.
"No, I don't imagine you would want to fight me," MacLeod said viciously. "Someone like Colin's much more to your liking. How long is it since you took a head in fair fight?"
"Three months," Bagoas said. He still sounded quiet and calm. "It was a fair fight and a fair challenge. You taught Colin well. But in the end, there can be only one."
"'There can be only one,'" MacLeod repeated. "You'll fight me." There was unleashed threat in his voice. "Or you'll die."
Picard turned away. He was bewildered, but this he understood. He kept a phaser in the storage unit nearest the bed. It was set to stun.
When he came back to the door, Bagoas was speaking, and Picard hesitated again. He had never heard Bagoas lose his temper. What he was hearing now was a bitter, quiet, unthinkably dangerous rage. "I will not take your head. I will not raise my sword to yours. The ancient one is my friend, and even a barbarian like you must understand that I can't take what he values, however worthless it appears in my eyes. Now get out of my sight."
Picard opened the door and came in. MacLeod was standing with his back to Picard, and his naked sword was gleaming dully. Bagoas was sitting on the couch, his hands by his sides, his head up, his gaze focused on Duncan's face, ignoring the blade that lay against his throat. Picard had never seen anything braver in his life. It didn't make him feel any better.
MacLeod raised the sword, ready to swing. "Get up and fight me - or did they cut off your courage with your balls?"
Picard had heard enough. He fired. MacLeod collapsed where he stood, and Picard walked tiredly across the room and picked up the sword from where it had fallen. It was beautifully made, a good weight in his hands, and Picard looked at it for a moment longer than need be, because he had no choice; he had to raise his head and look Bagoas in the face.
Bagoas was white, his eyes large and dark. Delayed shock, Picard thought, softening a moment.
"I'm sorry," Bagoas said. "I never meant you to hear that."
"That's what you're sorry about?" Picard asked. His voice rasped a little, as if it were his throat that hurt him. "That I overheard it?"
Bagoas moved his hands. Even now, his least gesture was beautiful. "I don't know what you heard."
There was a way out. Picard need not admit to having heard anything before Duncan's final outburst. Picard saw the exit, and closed it, firmly and finally. "Did you kill Ensign O'Neil?"
There was a pause. "Yes," Bagoas said at last.
"You let him be logged a deserter," Picard said, "and you murdered him."
There was another, longer pause. "I won't make excuses to you," Bagoas said. "I've never liked doing that, and I won't end what we had on an excuse. I killed Colin O'Neil for reasons which seem good to me, and I destroyed his body utterly, hoping that no one would ever discover what became of him. I didn't care whether he was supposed to have gone wilfully missing or to have been abducted by aliens."
"I don't know what to say," Picard said. The sword was heavy in his hands, but it did not occur to him to put it down. "Bagoas - I'll have to - to have you arrested."
"On what grounds?" Bagoas asked gently. "There is no proof. There can be no proof."
"MacLeod seemed to think so."
"Ah," Bagoas murmured. He stood up and looked down at the man's fallen body. "Jean-Luc, Duncan wants to kill me for the same reasons, however he justifies them, as I had three months ago. But he would never testify against me. It will be two against one; your word against mine and his. We are of the same kind."
Picard swallowed. "I thought we were of the same kind."
Bagoas laughed, and it was not a kind laugh. "Not in three thousand years, Jean-Luc."
"It was all a lie, then. Why did you marry me?"
"Because I loved you," Bagoas said remotely. "I loved you and I wanted to live with you for the rest of your life. I didn't understand you very well, not well enough to know that what I did to one of your crew you would find unforgivable. As I came to understand you better, I knew you would not forgive. I think it's time for me to go."
"Yes," Picard said. Certainly Bagoas would be better out of the way when Picard called Ambassador Carrington and Mr Worf.
"Yes," Bagoas nodded. "I'll leave the ship at the next opportunity." He hesitated, while Picard was still trying to find words to say that he hadn't meant go forever, and wondering if that was what he had meant. When Bagoas spoke again, his voice was cool and quiet as ever, as if the last ten minutes hadn't happened and turned Picard's life upside down again.
"You won't want to know this now, but I ask you to remember it. I love you; I always loved you. That part was never a lie." He made Picard a bow; a small, elegant bow, that somehow escaped mockery, and walked out.
Part 2; "Love unflinching that cannot lie"
Love unflinching that cannot lie -
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
("The Power of the Dog")
Methos looked up from his book as Amanda came out of her room. She looked round, walked briskly over to him, and whipped the book out of his hands. "Where's Duncan?"
"Don't give me that!" Amanda snarled. "I've just had a call from Captain Picard asking me to come and discuss a problem with one of my aides - now tell me, where's Duncan gone?"
"He went to have a discussion," Methos said carefully, "with the immortal he thinks killed Colin O'Neil."
Amanda stared at him, appalled. "There hasn't been a quickening - Duncan can't have challenged - Why the hell didn't you stop him?"
"Well," Methos shrugged. "You know how Duncan gets when he's really annoyed. I just stay out of his way. Are you sure there hasn't been a quickening?"
"You know what happens when there's a quickening in an enclosed space," Amanda said, almost absently. "Take it from me, it's about a hundred times worse aboard a spaceship. We'd know." She was mangling the book between her hands. Methos watched with growing apprehension. Amanda had formerly possessed a nearly instinctive appreciation of what was old and valuable. "We'd probably be breathing vacuum by this time, and explosive decompression is not a pleasant way to die." She glanced down at the remains of the book she was holding, and tossed it down on the table without a word of apology. "You should have stopped him. You should have called me, I'd have stopped him." She said a couple of words in a language that Methos did not know; he guessed, from Amanda's manner, that it was a curse. "He really hasn't changed, has he?" she added.
Methos picked the book up. Amanda had very strong hands. "What's happened?" he asked, finding that the spine had cracked and the covers were mangled.
"Captain Picard called me. He wants to have a word. In private. In his quarters. You're coming with me."
"Chaperone?" Methos asked, putting the book aside with a curious feeling of regret. It was probably unmendable, the paper was so fragile.
Amanda gave him a look of disgust. "You're going to get Duncan back here and keep him here. If you have to tie him up and sit on him."
Methos stood up. His sword was lying on the floor beside the sofa, within easy reach. It didn't take much logic to decide to leave it behind. Amanda would be annoyed. Anyway, the only other three immortals aboard were all safe. But it still felt rather strange to walk out and leave it there.
Worf wasn't happy. He hadn't been happy with the idea of the ambassadorial aides carrying swords about the ship, and still less with the discovery that the swords were not light and decorative toys. Now that one of them had actually been used, he wanted MacLeod in the brig.
"Not possible," Picard said flatly. "As far as we're concerned, this incident simply never happened. MacLeod has diplomatic immunity." He handed the katana to Worf, hilt first. "Take his sword, though, and put it under a triple security lock."
"That is sensible," Worf growled. "Sir." The swordhilt was too small for his hand, but Worf looked rather impressed against his will by the weapon itself. "Shall I report to Commander Riker?"
"No," Picard said. "I'll mention it to him myself. Not that it happened, of course."
Worf looked under his brows and said, "Of course not, sir." He glanced down at the unconscious body on the floor. "Shall I deliver him to the ambassador's quarters?"
"No," Picard said again. "I'll call the ambassador and ask her to come and discuss this privately. Take O'Brien and set up an in-ship transport. You handle it, though - no one else needs to know."
"Sir," Worf agreed. "You mean Singh, sir?"
"Yes," Picard said after a moment. "Yes, of course." O'Brien had transferred to the Deep Space Nine station, not a month ago.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"I'm fine. He didn't get near me."
"How is Mr Pasagardai?"
"He - wasn't here," Picard said. He had decided, not without thought but without much clear thought, that it made things simpler all round if Bagoas were kept out of it. No evidence. Not in three thousand years. I'll leave the ship at the next opportunity. And that stripping laugh.
Worf nodded. He turned away, holding the sword blade-downwards. By the door, he stopped. "Captain."
"Since Mr Pasagardai was not here," Worf said quietly, "it follows that I did not meet him entering the turbolift as I left it."
Picard let out a long breath. "That would follow," he said, equally quietly. "Thank you, Mr Worf."
The Ambassador agreed to come to Picard's quarters immediately. She didn't sound surprised. Picard went back into his bedroom to change into a uniform shirt that didn't look as if he'd slept in it.
After MacLeod and the other aide had been sent back to the diplomatic quarters, and Carrington and Picard had discussed the incident in properly diplomatic terms, the Ambassador paused a moment, looking at Picard. There was an odd frown on her face. "Did you, by any chance, hear what your husband and my aide quarrelled about?
"No," Picard said, and would have said it, he knew, even on oath.
"You're taking it very calmly," said Carrington. "Where is your husband?"
Picard shook his head. "He - left."
"I'd like to have a word with him, if I may."
"I don't think so."
The Ambassador smiled. "Your privilege." Her eyes were agelessly cold. Unexpectedly so. "But I look forward to meeting him sometime. Tell him that."
Picard couldn't think of a message he was less likely to deliver. He let Carrington go, and sat down on his couch, where Bagoas had been sitting. He had absolutely no idea what to do about Bagoas.
Methos was trying to mend the Clarke book when Duncan began to stir. The transporter had deposited them in the middle of the floor in the main room of the ambassadorial quarters. Methos had dragged him through into their bedroom and up on to the bed. He'd recover in an hour or so.
For something to do, Methos had called up some bookmending materials on the replicator, and was trying to tidy up the worst of the battered pages. When Duncan groaned and tried to turn over, Methos set the book aside and went over to stand above Duncan and watch him struggle up into consciousness.
Duncan was fumbling for his sword, his eyes still shut. "It isn't there," Methos said.
Duncan's eyes flicked open. "What?" he mumbled.
"Your sword is gone," Methos said distinctly.
"Oh." Duncan closed his eyes again and lay still. "Wha' happened?"
"You were a bloody fool," Amanda said from the doorway. "Do you have any idea what a quickening would have done to this ship?"
Methos looked up. Amanda was leaning against the wall by the door, arms folded.
"This is the last time you ever come on a diplomatic mission with me, Duncan MacLeod."
Duncan made a face. "Good." He rubbed at his head. "Wha' happened to me?"
"The Captain saw you threatening his husband and stunned you with a phaser," Amanda said distinctly.
"He did?" Duncan sat up, or started to, and lay down again with a groan. "Whe's m'sword?"
"I have no idea."
"What?" Duncan sat up all the way and glared at Amanda. "Where's my sword?"
"The Captain's got it. You'll have it back when we leave."
"What?" Duncan's elbows gave way. "What - why'd you let him?"
"I didn't have a great deal of choice, after what you'd done. None of us are to wear swords outside these rooms in future. You're not to leave these rooms. Methos, you're to make sure he doesn't. Chain him to the bed if you have to."
"Oh, thank you," Methos said lightly; "I've always wanted to do that."
"I mean it," Amanda said. "Neither of you seem to understand that there are more important things at stake than the honour of a MacLeod." Her voice flickered like a whip.
"He killed Colin," Duncan whispered.
"I'm sorry," Amanda said, and she was, Methos knew, though nothing of it showed in her voice or her face. "I'm sorry, but it will have to wait."
Duncan was staring at Amanda as if he had never seen her before. "Who on Earth are you?" he said. "Ambassador Carrington?"
"We're not on Earth," Amanda said. "Can't you understand that? This is different."
"Some things don't change."
"Some things must."
"You certainly have."
Amanda looked down at Duncan, and her face was curiously expressionless, almost masklike. "I spent ten years dying of explosive decompression, after I got into a fight in the wrong place." She turned and went out.
Duncan rolled over and tried to get out of bed. His legs collapsed underneath him this time. "What the hell's wrong with me?" he mumbled. He looked white and shaken, as much by what Amanda had told him as by the physical aftereffects.
"You were hit by a phaser on stun," Methos told him. He didn't stir to help. "You'll be wobbly for another hour at least. You might as well lie still."
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Duncan asked. His struggles to get up had left him sprawled half on and half off the bed, and it was only with a great deal of effort that he managed to lie on the bed on his stomach. He had to tilt his head to see Methos' face.
"You tried to kill an old friend of mine," Methos said. "Somehow that doesn't make me like you very much right now. I don't have very many old friends left."
Duncan nearly choked on a bitter laugh. "Christ, no wonder," he said into the bed.
"Bagoas would never have killed you," Methos said evenly, "knowing you were my friend."
"Wasn't going to kill him," Duncan said, rolling his head to one side effortfully. "Was going to cut his heart out. Bastard wouldn't get up and fight me."
"No, he wouldn't." Methos stared down at Duncan. "Cut his heart out?"
Duncan snorted, sounding less choked. His voice, though weak, held the edge of rage. "Or break every bone in his body. Something. Hurt him. God, Methos, Colin was just a kid, and he killed him, for nothing."
"I'll see you later," Methos said, and walked out.
Finding Bagoas was no harder than Methos had expected. The other immortal was several decks away, and not moving. It was tricky manoeuvring around a spaceship without using their turbolift, but possible.
The door opened, and Methos entered an open space, an amphitheatre floored with smooth sand. He was, apparently, halfway up the tier, and in the centre of the amphitheatre a solitary figure danced. A flautist sat in the lowest tier of seats, playing for the dancer. It was a holo-suite, of course; Starfleet could afford the best. Methos walked down the steps towards the dancer, recognising Bagoas.
The dancer turned and saw him, but did not cease his dance. Methos stood and watched him for a while, and then shook his head with a brief smile and turned away. Beyond the dancer was the skene, and there were several doors: Methos pushed one open at random and went through. The flute music was shut off as the door closed behind him. Methos was unsurprised to find himself in a green glade, and in the centre of the glade, another dancer, moving to unheard music. This one turned, and saw him, and stopped.
They stood and looked at each other for a while. At last Bagoas said, "You were right. He wanted to kill me, but he couldn't. Thank you."
Methos shrugged. It was done. "Does anyone ever find you here?"
"No one has yet," Bagoas said. "This is where I practice."
"Against hollow opponents?"
"Against those with the greatest skill in swordplay. I've even fought Klingons here."
Methos made a face. Bagoas laughed. "It works," he said, "and it means my skills don't rust. Computer, a sword."
One appeared between Bagoas' hands. Methos took a step back. Bagoas handed the sword to him, hilt first, and stepped back to pick up his own. "Dance with me," Bagoas offered.
"This sword's the wrong length for me," Methos said.
"Tell the computer to change it. Describe your perfect sword."
Methos looked down at the sword he was holding. It looked like the one Bagoas held, down to the plain silver hilt, given grip with inlaid turquoise. "The blade needs to be an inch or two longer."
It was. Methos raised his eyebrows. "And the hilt should be heavier. Not that heavy. An ounce or two more. And of bronze, not silver. And it needs to fit my hand." He moved the sword in the air, frowning, and added a few minor details. "This is perfect, Bagoas."
"Enjoy it. You can't use it outside this room."
Methos looked at the sword Bagoas held. Bagoas smiled. "Mine is real."
They looked at each other, and then Methos shrugged and almost smiled, raising his sword and stepping forward to meet the other's blade with his. "Let's dance."
The sun was shining far above, but never into either fighter's eyes. The grass smelt sweet underfoot. They turned and stepped and spun, matched partners in a dance both had learned long ago. "What's happened between you and your husband?" Methos asked.
"We are separated," Bagoas said, guiding Methos into a turn with a sweep of his sword. Methos spun and brought his sword up, and Bagoas whirled away. "He knows now what happened to Duncan's pupil, and he does not forgive." He said it smoothly, but his swordblade quivered an instant, as if the many-folded steel could feel pain.
"He can't be sure of it," Methos said. He beat the other swordblade up with his own and slid inwards, catching Bagoas' hand to keep it out of the way of his blade as he brought the keen edge to brush for an instant against Bagoas' slim throat. Perfectly balanced, they smiled at each other and parted.
"I can't lie to him," Bagoas said, as once more they were fencing with the tips of their swords, moving round each other in the pattern of the circle.
"Why not?" Methos met the thrust with a turn of his wrist.
"The dark Lie is faithlessness," Bagoas said in Persian. The edge of his sword sliced the air so close to Methos' right arm that he felt the hairs rise on the skin.
"You can't live twenty-seven hundred years and not lie," Methos said.
"Perhaps you can't," Bagoas said. His swordpoint made a tiny inflection on the word you. He stepped back.
"Have you told him the whole truth?"
"Can anyone tell the whole truth?"
Methos smiled and feinted sideways, turning and spinning the sword he held hard inwards. Bagoas was no longer there, and Methos turned to face him again. "A true Sophist's answer. Have you become an Athenian?"
Bagoas saluted him briefly, and with a dancer's turn the salute became a thrust that Methos barely dodged. "You still know how to make me angry," Bagoas said thoughtfully, and his sword darted again. "No, my old friend, I have not told him what we are. I never will. We have agreed I shall leave the ship as soon as I can, and then, it's a small matter to be certain that we never meet again."
Methos stopped dodging. He stood still, lowering his sword. Bagoas thrust once more, his blade almost touching the other man's throat, and then he too stood still, sword lowered.
"He'll forget me," Bagoas said at last. "He will remember me as a mistake he made."
Methos looked him over, from head to foot. He made his gaze blatant, assessing. "It always surprises me, how modest you are."
Bagoas lifted his head, looking affronted, and then, unwillingly, he laughed. "Well, he will remember my body, and the pleasure we had. But for the rest - he is not one to live for love. And what of your barbarian?"
"He's angry," Methos said.
"Tell me something new," Bagoas observed. "Warn your barbarian that Jean-Luc is well-guarded."
Methos shrugged. "Don't worry. Amanda confined him to our quarters." In any case, no matter how furious he was, Duncan wouldn't kill a mortal unless he was forced to it. "Anyway, he's still angry with you. And with me, now. I walked out on him."
"Forever?" Bagoas raised his eyebrows.
"No," Methos said, and shrugged, and smiled. "For a while. For a week or a month or a year. Until he decides he can forgive me."
"Forgive you?" Bagoas' composure cracked for an instant. "What have you done to him?"
"Nothing," Methos shrugged, "but it's easier for him to forgive than be forgiven."
Bagoas stared and then, visibly angry, though his voice was cold, snapped out "Why do you endure him? This - this barbarian - "
"After all," Methos pointed out, "I'm a barbarian."
Bagoas looked shaken. He always hated losing composure. A Persian would rather lose his life than his dignity. He made a beautiful gesture of apology, his face once more a mask. "I am sorry," he said gravely, "I did not mean to affront you. If he does not appear worthy in my eyes, my eyes are at fault."
"Oh, cut it out," Methos said, and shot out his hand to block Bagoas's sword in a mock parry. "No, no, not your eyes!"
Bagoas did not smile. "I did not intend to insult you."
"I'm not that easily insulted." Methos moved his hand to Bagoas' shoulder, and Bagoas stood still under his touch. Methos glanced around. "Can't your computer find us somewhere to sit down?"
"Computer, make cushions."
They sat down. Bagoas set his sword just out of easy reach. Methos tossed his away.
"How many swords have you had in your life?" Methos asked.
Bagoas shrugged. "How do I know?"
"How many that you trusted?"
Bagoas shrugged again, but answered with certainty, "Sixteen."
"How do you know when a sword is right for you?"
"You know this as well as I do," Bagoas said. "The weight, the balance, the shape of the hilt, the way it feels in my hand."
"From the moment I first met Duncan," Methos said, looking sideways, his eyes on Bagoas, saying something he had never said before to anyone, "I knew he was right for me. He feels right to my hand."
Bagoas nodded, at last, slowly. "He is your sword."
"You know I was never much of a fighter."
"You survive," Bagoas said. "You don't need to know how to fight. You know how to win."
"Yes." Methos turned and looked Bagoas full in the face. "And you do too."
"Perhaps," Bagoas acknowledged. "But I don't want to defeat Jean-Luc."
"Not even to win him back?"
There was silence, and Bagoas shook his head. "If I could defeat him, he wouldn't be worth winning."
"I see," Methos said.
"What do you see?"
"That after all these years," Methos said, slowly, "you still love only kings."
Bagoas leaned back on his hands and looked at Methos without a smile. "Ancient one," he said, with calm precision, "I grant you that you know so much that I do not know. I grant you that though I am old you are far older. You have been right, and I wrong, so many times over. But I do not grant to anyone the right to tell me who I must love, nor how I must love them, and least of all you."
"Love?" Methos said, and his voice was as sharp as the edge of a sword.
Bagoas tilted his head and looked at Methos and smiled, sitting forward and hugging his arms round his knees and suddenly looking much younger. "It was your word."
Methos lifted his hand in the gesture that acknowledges a hit. He grinned at Bagoas, and relaxed, deliberately. "Well," he said, "what now?"
Picard sat on the couch for a long time, long after it dawned on him that Bagoas wasn't coming back. He sat there fearing, in a vague unfocused sort of way, that if he stood up and began the evening routine, ordering himself supper, showering and changing his uniform before going on the bridge with Gamma watch, it would be real. Bagoas would really have gone.
At last he stood up. There were hours to go before Gamma watch. He could shower and change in the gymnasium, and have a sandwich and a cup of tea in his ready room. The gymnasium was on deck seven.
Leaving the turbolift, Picard turned left instead of right, and walked quietly along the corridor, nodding casually to passing crew - recognising none of them - as they passed. Along here were the quarters for transient crew or civilians who didn't rank as VIPs. Bagoas had been allotted a cabin down here, and if he didn't intend to return to their - to Picard's quarters, there was only one place he could go.
Except that the room was empty. Picard sat down on the undisturbed bed, and stared across at the wall where one of Bagoas' antiques had lately hung. It wasn't there now. He was going to feel like a fool if anyone tracked him down to this cabin, but at the moment that didn't seem to matter.
He sat there for what seemed a long time, head bent. When the door opened, he looked up from his hands, realising almost immediately, with a shock of embarrassment, that it wasn't Bagoas.
It was the other aide, the quiet one, Alex Cynan. He stopped just inside the doorway, letting it slide shut behind him, looking at Picard with an odd, startled expression.
"What are you doing here?" Picard asked. His voice was dry from disuse.
Cynan shrugged, smiling faintly. "Well, Bagoas said I could make use of his bed. But since you seem to be occupying it, I'll leave you to it." "You do know him, then."
"A little," said Cynan. His face still wore a faint bland smile, and Picard recognised it with a further shock of horror; Bagoas had smiled like that, beautifully, a skilful mask.
"He lied about that too," Picard said dully.
Cynan tilted his head a little to one side and smiled again, a little wryly. "Well, it can sometimes be unwise to admit to one's friends. Can't it? In any case, Bagoas doesn't lie."
Picard stared, silent, for a while. "He did," he said to Cynan, and past him to a man who wasn't there. "He may never have told me directly something that wasn't true, but he knew that he was letting me believe something that wasn't true. I've known people like that before - people who pride themselves on never directly lying. They never tell the truth, either." His voice in his own ears was sad and tired.
"When you've lived a long time," Cynan said, picking his words with care, "and especially when you've done things that most people would find unbearable, you learn that the truth is something that's often better not told. Wouldn't you say so?"
Picard drew in a breath, and got to his feet. People would throw Locutus in his face for as long as he lived, he supposed; he wondered who Alex Cynan had lost at Wolf 359. "Perhaps," he said, steadily. "But I'm not an old man yet, Mr Cynan, or not old enough to be afraid of the truth."
For a moment, Cynan looked utterly surprised, and then he laughed, almost soundlessly. "But I didn't say you were an old man, Jean-Luc." His voice was edged with amusement. "I said, 'when one's lived a long time.' And I," he was grinning quite openly now, "am old enough to be very afraid of the truth. It's a dangerous weapon."
Picard met the humour with a controlled bland look. "Why did Bagoas say you could use this room? If there's any problem you have with your own quarters, please let me know; I'll be happy to have it sorted out for you."
Cynan shook his head. "The only problem I have with my own quarters is a problem you created. Duncan, I mean," he added kindly.
"I did not create Duncan," Picard said with emphatic heat.
That too seemed to amuse Cynan. "No, of course not. But you stunned him and took away his sword. Don't get me wrong, Jean-Luc, I think it was absolutely the right thing to do, but you can hardly expect Duncan to agree."
"He was holding a sword to my husband's throat," Picard snapped.
"Was he?" Cynan raised his eyebrows. "And I suppose Bagoas - who I gather isn't your husband any longer - was sitting with his hands folded in his lap and insulting Duncan?"
"Yes," Picard said, surprised and stunned at once. "He was. That's exactly what he was doing. Bagoas and I are still married - not that it's any of your business."
"Well, Bagoas doesn't seem to think so," Cynan shrugged casually. "I suppose there are a few formalities to go through before you're officially unmarried, but I gather the relationship itself is finished with." He smiled, very charmingly. "I shall have to try and clear up matters between Bagoas and Duncan before we reach Gisippus, since it seems we'll all be leaving the ship there." Cynan turned to go.
"No, it's not," Picard said.
Cynan turned back, politely.
"It's not finished with." All Picard was clear about, at the moment, was that it was not.
"I understood that there was a fundamental problem with Duncan's student. A fundamental and permanent problem. Bagoas says you find it unforgivable."
"You seem to know a lot about it." Picard found his best tone of Captainly irritation, and was annoyed when Cynan only smiled.
"Oh well, I knew Colin. And I know Bagoas. And I have been learning a good deal about you, Jean-Luc. Tell me, what of all of it is really unforgivable?"
"What?" Picard stared.
"Is it unforgivable that Colin is dead, or that Bagoas killed him, or that Bagoas is proposing to leave you before you leave him, or that Bagoas lied to you?" Cynan looked at him inquiringly, and added, "Or is there something else I've left out?"
"Colin's death," Picard said at once. "That was murder."
"And you have never killed anyone you regret? Not once? What self-control you have."
"You take murder very lightly," Picard snapped. "Wait till you see someone killed in front of you - " He drew in a breath, as Cynan's pleasant, disbelieving gaze met his. It was as if Cynan knew about all the people who were dead because of Picard - even if he excused himself the deaths at Wolf 539, if he counted them to Locutus, even then - "Bagoas lied - " But I lied. I never told him. Not about Locutus. Not about why I wanted to marry him. Not the real reason.
Picard shook his head, and very clearly and deliberately, he said, "What is unforgivable, as you put it, is that Bagoas killed an innocent man, and blackened his name, and shows no remorse. That is irredeemable." He had not put it into words before. That made it final.
"If I could show you - " Cynan said quietly, and with surprising seriousness. "Well, if I could - I'll do my best for you, Jean-Luc."
"Don't call me Jean-Luc," Picard said wearily. He glanced at the clock. "I'd better be going, I'll be late on watch. Make yourself at home, Mr Cynan."
"Thank you," Cynan said, and Picard heard him laugh again, quietly, as Picard went out,
Riker heard the turbolift doors open, and glanced to his left, expecting Data. Then he stood up from the Captain's chair and moved aside. "Evening, sir," he offered, faintly surprised.
"At ease, Number One," the Captain said, but sat down in his chair. Riker had half-expected him to vanish into the ready room.
Riker sat down in his own chair. Beta watch handover wasn't for half an hour or so. He glanced sideways at Picard. The Captain looked tired. He was sitting with his chin propped on one hand, staring straight ahead at the nebula on the viewscreen.
"I was just going to have some coffee," Riker lied casually. "Can I get you anything, Captain?"
Picard shook himself abruptly, and turned to look at Riker. He smiled, rather formally. "Thank you, Number One. That would be very kind of you."
The Captain accepted his cup of tea with a brief smile of thanks and cradled it between his hands, not drinking from it. Riker studied the Captain sideways, drinking his coffee, and wondered. Picard and Pasagardai hadn't exactly been wandering round the ship hand in hand, but it had been pretty obvious to everyone who knew the Captain at all well that he was, personally, pretty damned happy with life. Riker hadn't seen Picard look this tired and depressed in, well, a long time. Besides, at this hour Picard ought to have been tucked up with Pasagardai - his presence on the bridge at this hour would not have been unusual at any time in the past seven years, when work was the Captain's method of dealing with insomnia. But for the past three months Picard had found a better method, and a damned good thing too.
Oh well, Riker thought. Honeymoon's over. "I was wondering," he said with mild mendaciousness, "if you could tell me anything about the 'Muttianee Artifacts.'"
Picard turned and looked at him, very hard. "What do you know about them, Number One?"
Riker shrugged. "There was an article about them in the Starfleet Voice. One of last year's mailings, I think; I read it in the barber's."
Picard frowned a little, but he was almost smiling. "To begin with, no one has yet proved whether they are or are not artifacts."
"I thought it had been proved that they couldn't have been generated by any natural occurrence?"
"By any force of nature that we are aware of," Picard corrected him dryly. "It's a big galaxy, Number One, and whatever these things in the cometary halo are, they are over five million years old. Older than any civilisation that we know about."
Riker didn't give a damn about the Muttianee Artifacts, whether they had been congealed by an unknown force or constructed by a long-dead civilisation or faked by someone on a Piltdown spree. He knew what they were: lifeless, rustless, near-symmetrical chunks of a complex alloy. Riker could not conceive why anyone should be interested in such manifestly uninteresting things, at least not for longer than it took to wait for a haircut.
But just now Riker would have listened to Picard lecture on almost anything that interested Picard, partly because Picard had the gift of making anything he found interesting seem interesting to his audience, but mainly to get that dull dead look off Picard's face. So he nodded, and smiled, and paid attention - rather more than just enough to be able to ask the right questions. When Picard was warmed up, he'd start talking with his hands, and at that point, Riker knew he could settle back and enjoy.
Data appeared, exactly on time, and stood waiting for Picard to finish before he moved forward to take the Beta watch handover from Riker. The rest of the Gamma watch bridge crew had been filtering in, one by one, unnoticed by either Riker or Picard. One or two of the Beta watch crew were still hanging around, to catch the end of the lecture, Riker supposed, when he glanced at them and saw them scuttle for the turbolift.
Riker followed them a moment later, leaving Picard still in the captain's seat, and Data beginning his usual thorough series of checks. He went straight to his own quarters to catch some sleep, and so he was among the last of the thousand people aboard the Enterprise to hear the rumours about Picard and Pasagardai.
Lieutenant Kayelle Pontis was nine months pregnant, and wanted her hand held more than any real counselling. Troi found her an unexpectedly relaxing person to be with.
"What are you doing after this?" Troi asked, picking up their cups. "Another cup of tea?"
"Please," said Pontis, to the tea. "I'm off to sickbay to have my tum rubbed," she added.
Troi nodded. "Did Doctor Crusher recommend it?"
Pontis made a face. "Sort of. I suggested massage therapy, she said if it felt good to me it was probably good for me. I get the feeling, though, that Doctor Crusher can't quite believe that just someone putting their hands on someone can actually do anything."
Troi laughed a little, smiling, shaking her head. "I know Doctor Crusher is rather opposed to informal medicine, but she knows that touch therapy has a long and honoured tradition."
"Actually," Pontis said after a moment, "I was wondering if I ought to cancel. I heard that Pasagardai and the Captain had a fight last night." She paused, studying Troi's face for reactions, but the Betazoid was careful to give nothing away. "In fact, I heard they were planning to divorce."
Troi had heard the same rumour, and had dismissed it at once. "Is that a reason not to go to your appointment with Mr Pasagardai?"
"Well..." Pontis looked embarrassed. "I don't know quite how to react. I always ask after the Captain, you see, and if I do ask this time I'm afraid he might think I'm prying, and if I don't he'll know I've heard about their fight and probably think I think the worst - " She broke off abruptly, and essayed a faint grin. "I'm obsessing again, aren't I?"
"Just a bit," Troi said, managing the correct blend of humour and sympathy. "Would you like me to come with you? I don't have any more appointments till after lunch."
"Would you mind?"
"Of course not," Troi said, meaning it. "It gives me a wonderful excuse to get out of this room and go for a walk."
Sickbay was quiet at this time of day. Pasagardai was sitting reading at one of the consoles. He looked up and rose to his feet, inclining his head in a graceful almost-bow.
"Lieutenant, a pleasure. Lieutenant-Commander Troi, what can I do for you?"
Troi felt, not for the first time, that behind that beautifully smooth and polite exterior, somewhere inside the elegantly controlled Pasagardai, there was an imp, and the imp was laughing. Pasagardai had a great deal of control over himself. It was quite possible for Troi to be near him and feel no more of him than if she were near an elder adept. This should have been a relieving grace, as an elder adept's presence always was, but it felt too strange to be in the presence of a human with such control.
"I just came along for the walk," she said, and wished that Pasagardai would raise an eyebrow, even, instead of that bland look of non-surprise. "I won't be in the way, I hope."
"Of course not. Lieutenant, would you lie down?"
Pontis was already seated on the examination couch Pasagardai used. She lay down on her back. "I feel like a mountain," she said, half-smiling.
Pasagardai smiled. "You don't look like one, I assure you. How do you feel?"
"My back hurts, my thighs have stretch-marks on stretch-marks, my tits have gone astronomical, and I can't believe she's ever going to come out!"
Troi would have said something clear and soothing, but Pasagardai put his hand briefly on Pontis' hand, and said, quite quietly, "Lieutenant, be still." He began to touch Pontis' stomach, carefully, through her maternity uniform. "Ah, I perceive; your daughter has not yet turned."
"No." Pontis rubbed her forehead with her hand. "Doctor Crusher said if she's still in the breech position day after tomorrow, I'll have to have a Caesarean." She sounded fretful, and pulled herself up. "It's not important, of course."
"You have an odd idea of the importance of things, Lieutenant," Pasagardai murmured. "With your permission?" He began to open the light uniform tunic. Stretch-marks, bright red, scored the tender skin of her belly like wide scratches that did not bleed. Pasagardai reached for a small oil-flask and tipped a little of it onto his hands.
"Tell me again about her name," Pasagardai said, glancing briefly at Troi. The glance surprised her a moment, until she recognised it as a command to talk, to distract Kayelle from what he was doing.
But all he was doing was a gentle massage, using both hands, sometimes his palms, usually his fingertips. Why would Pontis need to be distracted from that?
"Charlotte," Pontis said, "from my grandmother, and Rose, from hers."
"Charlotte Rose is a beautiful name," Troi said.
"Or I thought maybe Rose Charlotte? Which do you think sounds better, er- "
That's it, Troi noticed. The awkwardness.
"Rose Charlotte," Pasagardai said, his hands still working. "Charlotte Rose. No, I can't decide. Which do you prefer?"
"Rose Charlotte," Pontis said, with a decision which, Troi knew, might well not last beyond tomorrow. Troi felt more at home with the Betazoid tradition where a choice of name waited on the baby's birth, than any of the Terran traditions that ranged between deciding definitely on a name as soon as the baby's sex was determined, to not naming a child at all until it was old enough to go to school. "Rose Charlotte." She twitched a little. "Mr Pasagardai?"
The awkwardness. The formality. Pasagardai called everyone - even Picard, in public - by their rank, not by their name. So everyone both felt they should reciprocate, and felt uncomfortable about it - except Picard. Troi stepped forward and took Pontis' hand. "How do you feel?"
"She's kicking me," Pontis said, with a grimace.
"No, she's kicking me," Pasagardai said, with an odd smile. He laid his hand flat against the pregnant woman's belly. "She's strong, I think."
"I feel weird," Pontis said.
Pasagardai put his hand over hers again. "Just lie still."
"Should we call Doctor Crusher?" Troi asked, concerned. Pontis looked rather grey, and was sweating heavily. Her eyes were closed, but when Troi asked the question, she forced them open. "I don't feel that weird."
"Perhaps not," Doctor Crusher said, startling all of them - except Pasagardai, who looked up and stepped back in the same fluent motion. Crusher glanced at him. "But if you don't mind, Lieutenant, I think I'll give you a quick examination anyway."
Breakfast, for Doctor Crusher, was usually a pot of tea and some hot rolls eaten at her desk. Pasagardai had made a point of seconding Picard's routine invitations to have breakfast in the captain's cabin, but Crusher had made up her mind only to turn up for breakfast when specifically invited. On mornings when she was not, at least she caught up with her mail.
It was always slightly awkward when old friends married someone else. Particularly someone else whom you barely knew. Crusher had known, by chance, that Picard had a semi-regular liaison on Khitmugar Starbase. She had never met him, and had assumed, from the way Picard generally behaved about shore-leave liaisons, that she probably never would.
Crusher sipped her tea and went on reading a letter from Doctor Medway. Medway was serving on the Icarus, but years ago when a junior medic, she'd served on the Stargazer. ...I hear that Jean-Luc's husband is gorgeous, darling, and I hope that being happily united makes the so charming Captain look a little less like he had a poker up his backside that he isn't enjoying one inch...
Crusher giggled, nearly choking on her tea.
You must write and tell me what Bagoas is like. I want to meet him someday...
It would be a while. The Icarus was exploring far into the Beta quadrant. Crusher hadn't seen Medway in eight years.
It was very odd to think that in the possible-future which Picard remembered, Picard and she had been married and divorced. Even if the whole thing had been an implanted illusion, still, that aspect of the illusion was interesting, certainly from a psychiatrist's point of view. That Picard wanted, perhaps deep in his subconscious, to have been married to her. Not to be married to her now - but to have had that connection, to be permanently linked with someone. It was particularly significant that Picard had dreamed, or remembered ahead, that Crusher had taken his name for hers, and kept it, though she divorced him.
Thinking about it that way, it wasn't a bit surprising that almost with his first shore-leave after this illusion, or forward-memory, or whatever one might call it, Picard had gone to his liaison on Khitmugar and proposed.
Picard wanted a family. One who would not reject him.
She'd been very dubious about the liaison before she'd met him. From the moment she and Bagoas had first met, all her doubts had vanished; Pasagardai was amiable, polished, and diplomatic, and also, obviously, heart-and-soul devoted to Picard. He was charming and elegant, and seemed to know by instinct when to efface himself. In short, for a civilian, the perfect Captain's spouse. He had already made himself a part of the ship's daily life, working in Crusher's surgery as a physiotherapist, in Ten-Forward as one of Guinan's assistants, and, just recently, starting a dance class. Everyone liked him, but no one was familiar with him. Crusher liked him herself. More or less.
She heard a sound, a familiar voice, from the main sickbay. She closed the letter from Medway, to be finished some other time, and finished her tea at a gulp. This too was part of breakfast at her desk. Lieutenant Pontis was stretched out on one of the examination couches, with Bagoas and Deanna Troi either side. Troi sounded worried. "Should we call Doctor Crusher?"
"I don't feel that weird," Pontis protested.
"Perhaps not," Doctor Crusher said. Bagoas looked up and stepped back, very gracefully yielding her the patient. "But if you don't mind, Lieutenant, I think I'll give you a quick examination anyway."
Crusher finished the examination and looked at Pontis with a smile. "Your daughter's beginning to turn, Lieutenant."
"Great," Pontis said, and fumbled out one hand for something. Pasagardai, impassive, handed her a basin that stood ready on a nearby table. Pontis had time for a brief but telling look of gratitude at him, before she used it, thoroughly. Crusher went to fetch a glass of water for her, and found herself forestalled again by Pasagardai.
When Pontis had finished, she accepted the glass of water, rinsed her mouth out with half of it, and drank half the rest. "Great," she said again, to the world at large, and this time sounding rather more convinced.
"Would you like to stay in sickbay?" Crusher asked. She had an anti-nausea shot prepared.
"No, I'd rather go back to my quarters," Pontis said. "No thanks," to the anti-nausea shot.
"Really," Crusher said, "it's quite harmless, and you shouldn't vomit like that. It's bad for the baby."
Pontis laughed, a little feebly. "If she gets sick of me throwing up and comes out because of it, I'll throw up all day. Anyway, it only ever happens once a day, and it's happened. I'll be fine."
"Would you like Sh'theei to sit with you? Or Edouard?"
"They'd only have me climbing the walls if I called them off duty," Pontis said. "I'll be fine."
"If you promise to call me as soon as you feel the first sign of going into labour," Crusher said finally. "Or if you have any other problems. And you must let one of my staff walk you to your quarters."
"All right." Pontis smiled. She pulled herself up from the examination couch and onto her feet. She held out a hand to Pasagardai, looking awkward. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Pasagardai answered. "My best wishes for a safe delivery."
After the nurse had gone with Pontis, they were alone in the main sickbay. "Bagoas," she said, trying to sound more friendly than she felt, "could I have a word with you in private?"
Pasagardai glanced at Troi.
"I should go," Troi said promptly.
"I cannot imagine that either of you could have anything to say to me which I would wish the other not to hear," Pasagardai said, with another of his elegant, empty gestures.
Crusher caught Troi's eye, and Troi shook her head. "I have someone else to see in about ten minutes. I should go."
When Pasagardai looked at her again Crusher tried to show the very real compassion and liking she felt for him, and not the odd, backward, speechless mistrust of such perfection. "Would you like to come into my office?" she offered.
Over a month ago, in Crusher's office, she asked "I wondered if you were aware of the medical resources aboard this ship?"
"I think so," Pasagardai's voice was interested, but impersonal.
"Your... your injury. To your... reproductive organs."
"We can regenerate, you know." Crusher picked her way delicately, using her doctor's voice. Pasagardai's dark eyes gave her no help at all. "It's a little tricky with these particular organs, there might not be full functionality - but you would be - be normal again."
"Without full functionality?" Pasagardai sounded curiously blank.
"You would probably still be sterile," Crusher admitted, and searched his face for some reaction. She could swear he had understood her, but his face gave nothing at all away.
"Sterile," Pasagardai said at last, thoughtfully. Standing all at once, he made Crusher a small bow. "It is kind of you to plan such a gift. But I have been as I am for so long that I don't think I would know what to do with this gift if you could give it to me."
"But I - we can, Bagoas." Crusher strained to project sincerity. "Really. I've studied your medical records - "
Unexpectedly, Pasagardai reacted to that. "Of course you have," he said harshly. "But if I tell you that I neither need nor desire your help, Doctor, will you have the courtesy to leave me alone?"
"But - " The medical records on Pasagardai were minimal, mainly from transporter records, and few enough of those. There was enough that Crusher knew what she assumed no one else on the Enterprise knew (except, presumably, Picard) - that Pasagardai's epicene appearance was due not to a hormonal imbalance in puberty, or some other ill luck of the genetic draw, but to a serious pre-pubertal injury to his testicles. That this had not been repaired long ago meant that Pasagardai had grown up on a primitive planet, with few modern medical resources. "Please, would you - would you mind sitting down again and listening to me?"
Pasagardai hesitated. Crusher clenched her hands together beneath the desk. "I would like to help you," she said carefully, "for your own sake, for mine - because I hate to see someone suffering when I can help."
"I am not suffering." Pasagardai smiled, briefly and coldly. "Many wise men have prayed to be released from desire as from a tyrannous master. I have that freedom." With that parting shot, he turned and went out. Crusher had never seen him show less than perfect control since.
Today was no different. Crusher sat down behind her desk. She had to gesture Pasagardai to sit down in the chair opposite. "Bagoas," Crusher said carefully, leaning forward, "I don't know if you've ever lived on a starship before..."
"Yes," Bagoas said. "I have."
"Well, you know how fast gossip spreads..."
"I have been at some pains to supply no material for gossip."
Crusher thought of saying, "Nurse Madyes told me that her partner, Lieutenant Dejanira, overheard one of the security staff telling Geordi that the Captain's quarters were empty all last night. And Doctor Lesle had breakfast with Ensign Torrance, and she said the Captain spent the entire night on the bridge looking like hell." But the trail seemed too involved to explain to someone who had only been aboard the Enterprise three months. "You and the Captain seem to be having some... difficulty in your relationship."
Pasagardai's face was quite still and empty. "It is for the Captain to tell you," he said, blandly and formally. "But rest assured, Doctor, no gift you could give would mend what is between us."
"No, I - I didn't mean - " Crusher fought to keep herself from blushing. "You know I'm the Captain's friend... I'd like to be yours."
"You would not." Pasagardai spoke with crisp finality, as if he could see through her skull. "But the Captain will need his friends." He stood up. "Don't blame yourself, Doctor; you can't bring what is dead back to life." He gave another neat abrupt nod, and went out.
Data watched Pasagardai dance, memorising each movement. The human's movements were timed with the music, but in such a way that the movements seemed to... Data paused to consider the correct term ...to enhance the music.
Pasagardai stopped, and snapped out a command to the holographic piano player, who stopped playing. He looked at Data.
"Can you repeat that routine, please, exactly as I danced it."
Data nodded. He moved into the centre of the room, and watched himself in the long mirror as he repeated Pasagardai's movements. Learning to dance had been an intriguing problem, at first, but he had mastered the technique quite soon: it was, effectively, a complex problem in recursion and mirroring theory, transferring his visual records of the way in which his teacher moved to his motion activators. The music was, for human dancers, a useful mnemonic, but Data did not need it. He finished, and held his arms out in the gesture Pasagardai had taught them meant that the performance was over.
"Good," said Pasagardai. "But don't bother saying 'finished' - this isn't a performance, it's a class."
"I have observed that you sometimes utilise this gesture," Data was still holding it, "even in a class."
Pasagardai smiled for the first time. "I'm the teacher, I'm entitled to break my rules."
Data moved into the waiting stance Pasagardai had taught all of his students in their first lesson. "May I ask a question?"
"Ask," Pasagardai said, warily.
"Why did you invite me to these lessons?"
Pasagardai seemed to relax. Although it had not been his intention to improve his understanding of human body language in learning to dance, Data had found that his understanding had improved, substantively. Now Pasagardai shrugged, and Data thought he could tell that Pasagardai was amused. People were frequently amused by Data, and Data had found this extremely useful in his ongoing project of analysing humour. This was a new factor: Data did not comprehend why his question was amusing. Unless Pasagardai had been expecting another question, one which he did not wish to answer, and the relief of tension when Data asked a question which Pasagardai did not mind answering made him want to laugh. One of the commonest factors in human humour was relief of tension. Klingon humour was very different, but Data had had fewer opportunities of studying it. This analysis of the situation occupied the time it took for Pasagardai to shrug expressively and open his mouth to answer Data's question.
"You want to learn to dance."
Data nodded. "So do many other people on the Enterprise. As far as I am aware, you have not offered any of them one-to-one classes."
"No," Pasagardai agreed. "You learn differently."
"Then this special treatment is because I am an android?" Data posed the question, for a moment assigning all other processing to background.
"Because you learn differently," Pasagardai said. "There's no point pretending otherwise. My other students take hours to learn a single routine; some of them are still learning the basic movements of the dance. You can learn any movement I can make, any routine I can dance, as fast as I can dance them. You can learn that from library tapes."
"Then you see no point to my attending your classes?" Data asked. His other processing was still relegated.
"You need to learn how to express emotions," Pasagardai said.
"But I have no emotions. I am only an android."
For a moment, Pasagardai hesitated. Data saw pain in his body language, not physical, but emotional. Then he smiled, and there was genuine humour in the smile. "That's an emotion, Data. 'I am only an android.' But I don't want to argue with you about whether you have no feelings. I would like to see if you can express android feelings in your dance, but that can wait. We have plenty of time. Since your audiences, when you dance, will be largely human, I want to teach you how to express human emotions in your dance."
"Oh." Data considered this for a moment. "How can I express human emotions, when I have none?"
"You don't have to feel the emotions to express them. Piano," Pasagardai added, "play the amnesia theme from Dhalgren." The music swept up out of silence, and Pasagardai moved with it. The dance spoke of loss, of recursive time, of forgetfulness regretted. Data had seen the ballet once, a holo-performance, and remembered this as a recurring theme throughout.
The dance ended, and Pasagardai rose from the floor.
"That was the fifth recursion of the amnesia theme," Data said. "The one which ends with the young poet remembering the writing of his best poem and then fearing the loss of that memory with the rest."
"Yes," Pasagardai said, a little breathlessly. "I haven't danced it in years. Still, you understood it."
"I had read several interpretations of the ballet before I watched it, but the ballet itself was more than the written interpretations."
"You understand body language," Pasagardai said. "Dance is intense body language, large print body language, with music as an additional guide. What is that dance about, in as few words as possible?"
"Fear of loss," Data said.
Pasagardai looked startled. "That's not the classic interpretation. Did you think of that for yourself?"
"It is my interpretation of your body language," Data said. "Did you not intend to express that?"
After a moment, Pasagardai laughed, but the sound was bitter. "No, I didn't. But yes, that dance is fear of loss. Or that's how I interpreted it today. The point I am trying to make is that you can see, and read, body language. And whatever you can see, you can repeat. We've proved that."
"You suggest that I copy the emotions of others?"
"What else does any child, learning to dance, learn to do? Data, I am going to dance the routine I first showed you three more times. Each time, I will express a different emotion in the dance. For this lesson, you will repeat what I have shown you. For the next lesson, you will bring with you three more different ways of dancing the routine. The next lesson will be the day after tomorrow, at 1000."
Data hesitated. "May I ask a personal question?"
This time, Pasagardai looked even warier. "Ask."
"We will reach Gisippus the day after tomorrow, at 1213 hours shiptime. Is it your intention to leave the ship then?"
"Where did you hear that?" Pasagardai's voice was quite quiet.
Data opened his mouth, closed it again, thought for a second or two, and said, "I could repeat to you all the sources I am aware of through which this information has travelled, but I do not think that this is what you want to know. The information is widespread throughout the ship. It is based on a mixture of observation and conjecture."
Pasagardai went over to the bench and sat down, reaching absently for a towel to wipe his face and neck with. He was staring at his reflection in the mirror, but his face looked abstracted, processing inwardly. Data came over and sat down beside him.
"Would it be appropriate for me to say that I am very sorry that you are leaving?"
"Oh, God," Pasagardai said, as if he had not heard Data. "Not even twenty hours ago." He turned and looked at Data. "Yes, I'm leaving. I've left your Captain, and I'm leaving the ship. You can say whatever you like about it."
"I am very sorry that you are leaving," Data repeated.
Pasagardai's face, turned to him, was wiped of expression, though his body still expressed tension and anger. "I'm still your teacher, till the day after tomorrow." He stood, and moved into the centre of the room, adding a brief command to the piano-player.
Data observed. The routine was, clearly, the same dance; the same movements to the same music. Three times over; but each time Pasagardai moved a little differently, and the emotion conveyed by the dance was entirely different. All conveyed through the movement of Pasagardai's body, for his face held no expression at all.
Picard stood up as the Ambassador entered his ready room. "Good evening," he said pleasantly. "Can I offer you a drink?"
"Coffee, thank you," Ambassador Carrington said. She was crisp and polite, a thin elegant woman. Picard ordered coffee for her and tea for himself from the replicator, and carried the cups across the room to the couch by the wall.
The Ambassador's eyebrows twitched a little, and she almost smiled, a little cynical grin that startled Picard. She had to be in her forties, but she looked rather younger, though without losing any of the edge of command. Picard had met admirals like her.
"Ambassador, I'm glad you accepted my invitation."
The Ambassador shrugged and smiled, a swift and arrogant flash of teeth. "If you need further assurance, Captain, my aide, MacLeod, has been forbidden to leave our quarters until we reach Gisippus."
"Actually, I didn't mean to talk about MacLeod," Picard said. "I wanted to discuss the negotiations. We'll be working together once we reach Gisippus, why not begin now?"
Carrington picked her coffee cup up between her hands and drank from it, slowly, looking round the room over its rim. When she spoke again, her voice was friendlier. "I'm sorry. I misunderstood." She put her cup down on the table. "If you'd told me what you intended, though, I wouldn't have accepted the invitation, and I'd have been sorry to lose the chance of talking to you like this."
Picard frowned. "Why?"
"Well," Carrington said, and shrugged, laughing a little. "Captain, surely you must see that we won't be working together on Gisippus? I'm the neutral arbiter. You're the Starfleet representative. I need to have you around, in case we need a big stick, but if we do need a big stick, then I'm not doing my job right."
Picard studied her, thinking about what she had said. After a minute, he nodded. "Yes, I do see what you mean. Your job is to achieve a peaceful settlement between the factions, and secondarily to bring Gisippus into the Federation."
"And if a peaceful settlement can be achieved without bringing them into the Federation, then I've done my job successfully."
"I agree. I would see that as my job, too."
Carrington looked at him, head tilted a little to one side, lips slightly pursed. "No, your job is to be the big stick. I want to make sure that everyone who comes to the negotiations gets home alive and well. And sometimes a big stick is the best way of doing that."
Picard laughed, rather reluctantly. "I've never quite thought of myself as a 'big stick' before."
"Most men would take it as a compliment." There was an amused glint in the Ambassador's eyes.
Basiliskos, little king... Little?
Picard swallowed, hard, and kept his Captain's face with all the control he could summon. "I've never needed that kind of reassurance," he said. His voice was steady and sedate, the voice of a man who had never been this much in love.
Basiliskos, said Bagoas' voice in his mind, laughing, do you always have to be the best at everything?
"Ah, a confident man," the Ambassador said. "That's always reassuring." She picked up her cup and lifted it a little before drinking, as if in a salute.
"I try," Picard said. He would have enjoyed this kind of game before. Even two days ago....
The Ambassador did not answer him. She was studying him again, her face gone quite quiet. She put the coffee cup down. "Captain, I don't want to intrude on a personal matter."
"I'm sorry?" Picard made his voice cold.
"Alex mentioned that you and your husband are separated."
"Well," Picard said, and smiled to soften the snub. "As you say, you don't want to intrude on a personal matter."
For an instant, Carrington looked angry, but there was nothing of it in her voice when she spoke again. She had a self-control that was almost Vulcan. "Whatever he's done, surely you can talk about it."
"I hope so," Picard said briskly. He hadn't seen Bagoas now in twenty-four hours. Bagoas had disappeared. He was still aboard the ship - in a moment of minor lunacy, Picard had actually checked the transporter and shuttle records - but for over twenty-four hours, Picard hadn't seen him. And Picard found himself lurching between two desires, both deep and powerful. He wanted to see Bagoas again. He wanted to talk with him, to hold him, to bury his face in Bagoas' hair... but most of all just to see him. And he wanted, after that shattering moment when Bagoas said "I loved you," for Bagoas to want to see him. For Bagoas to seek him out, to want to talk with him again.
"We'll talk," Picard said briefly. "Ambassador, perhaps we could now discuss the situation on Gisippus?"
"Certainly," Carrington said, as briefly. "This is what I've planned..."
She laid out, neatly and in few words, a plan for the opening days of negotiation. Picard started to take notes on a padd. He became aware, as they talked, of a feeling that was like balm after the painful, pitiable lurchings of frustrated desire: mutual respect. The Ambassador understood her job, and could be relied on. It was like the moment in a fencing match when foil meets foil in a perfect riposte. It was solid, and felt right to the hand.
"You remind me of Ambassador Sarek," he said abruptly, surprising himself.
Carrington looked startled. "Of course, you knew him," she said slowly.
"Yes." Indeed, better than Picard could feel he had known anyone, before or... since. "I hope you don't mind - "
"I'm flattered," Carrington said, with another odd tilted smile. "I met him through my god-daughter. I always admired him."
"You were his protege?"
Carrington hesitated. "More or less. He was a very admirable man." She wasn't smiling as she added, "You remind me of him, in some ways."
And yet after the Ambassador had gone, Picard had to nerve himself to leave his ready room and walk through the bridge, nodding casually to Riker in the Captain's seat, "Good evening, Number One." It was, properly speaking, providing that it didn't affect the running of the ship, none of his business what his crew said about him behind his back. All he could do, properly, was to ignore it.
Duncan and Amanda were sharing a silent meal when Methos walked in. Of course they had turned to look at the door when they sensed his presence, but to Methos it looked as if neither of them had been talking to the other or even properly looking at the other all day.
"Good evening," Methos said.
"Where the hell have you been?" Duncan rasped. He still sat, looking down at his plate, deliberately not facing Methos.
"What's going on?" Amanda asked, after waiting a moment to see if Methos was going to answer Duncan's question with anything more than a tilted smile.
When Methos spoke, he answered Amanda's question. "The galaxy is turning on its axis, this ship is speeding through it at some bizarre multiplication of the speed of light, and - "
"Shut up," Duncan suggested.
Methos shrugged a little. "She did ask," he murmured, and pulled out a chair from the table. He sat down, looking from Duncan to Amanda. "Good morning, then."
"What?" Duncan glowered, dark brows coming together. Plainly, over twenty-four hours trapped in this small set of rooms had done his temper no good at all.
"Time is relative," Methos pointed out. "It's a conscious collective decision on the part of the people aboard this ship to call this time 'evening,' instead of 'morning,' or 'noon.' It isn't any time at all, really." He leant back in his chair, and smiled at Duncan, his oldest and most infuriating smile. "I find it quite refreshing, don't you?"
"Alex," Amanda said, crisp and definite. "I'm not interested in your games. What's going on?"
"Ambassador Carrington," Methos said, with thorough deference, "I'm not playing games."
"What are you doing, then?" Duncan sounded oddly lost.
"Shut up," Amanda said. "I'm asking the questions. What are you doing?"
Methos raised his eyebrows. "I have an old friend aboard the ship. I want to make sure he doesn't lose his head over Duncan."
Amanda stared at him, and her eyes were very cold. "This is the one who killed Duncan's student."
"Yes," Methos agreed readily. "But he didn't know Colin was Duncan's student, and he didn't know Duncan and I are... well, whatever it is we are; and he took Colin's head in fair fight."
"Is this a reason why Duncan shouldn't take his head in fair fight?" Amanda asked. "After we're off this ship, of course."
"It wouldn't be a fair fight," Methos said. "I've told him if he takes Duncan's head I have to take his. We've been friends for quite a while; he won't make me take his head."
"He's that good?" Duncan asked.
Methos smiled, guilelessly, straight into Duncan's eyes. "Who knows?" He looked at Amanda again. "He needs to leave the ship at the next stop. Unfortunately Duncan is also getting off at the next stop. I wondered if you'd use your diplomatic skills just to make sure that neither he or Duncan get into a fight."
"Who is he?" Amanda asked.
The presence of three immortals together would numb any immortal to a fresh presence until it was very close. Methos felt it, and saw Amanda and Duncan feel it in their widening eyes and lifting heads, as the door opened, and he walked in, and his presence bloomed and faded with the rest.
"I am Bagoas son of Artembares son of Araxis, of the Pasagardai."
Duncan was on his feet, facing Bagoas. Methos could not see his face, but knew that Duncan was smiling, his wide happy warrior smile.
"I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod. And you are dead."
Bagoas was carrying a duffle bag over his shoulder, and strapped to it, a long thin bundle that the other three all recognised. With careful, deliberate movements, he set the bag down by the door and came forward, his hands out and empty. "I am unarmed."
"Pick up your sword and I'll take you on," Duncan offered. He was poised on the balls of his feet, hands out and weaving, setting himself to spring.
"We can't fight here," Bagoas said, and with the same careful deliberation, walked past Duncan, leaving Duncan between him and his sword, to the fourth chair at the table. Duncan stood still, staring at Bagoas.
"Ambassador Carrington," Bagoas said, inclining his head, and pulled out the fourth chair half an inch. "May I?"
"Be my guest," Amanda said, equally formal.
"Thank you." Bagoas sat down. He glanced at Methos.
"I told her you need to leave."
Bagoas nodded. "My lady, I have come to ask you to extend your protection over me. You have a man in your service who wants my life. He is justified. But I do not want to fight him."
"What makes you think I can protect you?" Amanda shook her head. "What makes you think I want to?"
"And what makes you think I'm in her service?" Duncan muttered, distinctly.
"What do I have to lose if you can't protect me?" Bagoas' voice held a tone of polite enquiry. "I don't want this fight."
Amanda glanced up at Duncan. "Well?" said her eyebrows.
"Colin didn't want to fight you," Duncan said.
Bagoas turned and looked up at Duncan. His hands were neatly tucked together in his lap. He looked Duncan over and sighed. "Oh yes, he did. He was young - I suppose he'd been immortal ten years?"
"About that." Duncan's face was set.
"He graduated from the Academy two years ago," Bagoas said, "and I don't suppose he'd taken any heads since then. He was eager to fight."
"And you were just an innocent bystander," Duncan snarled.
Bagoas shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "I'm a dancer, not a warrior." His look was unexpectedly direct. "I don't think I would sacrifice my life to you to preserve my friendship with our ancient friend. If you force it on me, I will fight. But only if you force it on me, Highlander."
"Methos says he'd take your head, if - " Duncan grinned, with an edge of sarcasm " - you took mine."
"Yes," Bagoas said, and glanced at Methos. "He told me that, too. But you see, I have known our ancient friend a little longer than you have, and I would stake my head that though he might refuse to speak to me for a thousand years, he wouldn't kill me. If he had lost one friend, he would not think that he could gain by losing another."
Methos sank his head into his hands. "Oh, Bagoas," he said, in the common tongue, "sometimes I wish you'd learn how to lie!"
"What was that?" Duncan asked sharply.
"Greek," Amanda said. She sounded very wary. "Bagoas, how old are you?" She spoke a cautious and bastardised version of the common tongue.
"Twenty-seven centuries," Bagoas said, in the same language. "And you?"
"Fifteen hundred," Amanda said. Methos lifted his face out of his hands again; there was an odd mixture of expressions on Amanda's face, but a good part of it was the respect that any immortal was bound to feel for a survivor. Methos risked a glance up at Duncan's face. He only looked blank; of course, by the time he began to travel, the common tongue was no longer in much use.
"What was that?" Duncan asked again.
Bagoas looked up at him and switched to Standard. "My apologies, sir. I do not want to fight you. Will you force the fight on me?"
Duncan sighed and sat down. His face was set and sombre. He didn't look at Methos. "You must have known how young he was. Why did you agree to fight him?"
Bagoas looked back, equally grave. "Because I was afraid of what might happen if I did not fight him. On Khitmugar we could find somewhere private, and one of us would die. The game is the game, and in the end, there can be only one. But if I had not fought him on Khitmugar, it seemed certain I would have to fight him somewhere else. The young have a lust for fighting, and I was afraid he would force me to fight him aboard the Enterprise."
"And that would have given you away to your husband."
Bagoas moved his hands, as if brushing something away. "Well, that too. It would have killed everyone aboard, MacLeod. Have you never heard of the Carrington?"
Amanda's knife clattered wordlessly to the floor. She stared at Bagoas.
Duncan's eyebrows lifted. He looked from Bagoas to Amanda and back again. "No," he said slowly. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
"She was a starship. The story is still told, of how she set out from spacedock about ninety years ago, and was not seen for ten years - until she was found adrift, every porthole blasted open, every conduit for electricity burnt out, and not one living soul aboard."
Methos listened. Bagoas was a master storyteller, having learnt the art at a time and in a land where stories were not written down, but passed from teller to teller, a living art. But he was using no artifice at all to tell this story, and Methos knew that it would have all the more impact on Duncan.
"The Starfleet ship that found the Carrington recorded that while everyone else aboard had died of vacuum, or thirst, and one or two unfortunate ones of starvation, one had died of decapitation." Bagoas paused. "And one of their bodies vanished, but this they did not record. They saw no connection between a corpse lost and a corpse decapitated. Four hundred people died in that single fight."
Duncan looked across the table at Amanda. Methos glanced at his face, and looked at Bagoas, swiftly, a signal. Duncan looked both appalled and relieved, and Methos knew that Bagoas' story had found its mark.
Amanda looked like ice. She said nothing, only stared back at Duncan, as if daring him to say anything.
Duncan turned his head a little, keeping an eye on Amanda, and said to Bagoas, "I won't fight you. Not here."
Bagoas nodded, once. "Thank you," he said, quietly courteous.
Amanda stirred. "Are you still going to leave?" she asked coldly.
"Of course," Bagoas said. He sounded faintly surprised.
"What about your husband?"
Bagoas shrugged. "I have nothing to say to you about him."
"Don't you have anything to say to him?" Amanda demanded. "He's a good man, he's in love with you, and this is killing him."
"Even mortals do not die so easily," Bagoas observed. He sat there, apparently quite relaxed, his voice and his dark eyes mild. "I made a mistake; I should never have married him. He doesn't belong in our world. He has his own work to do."
"But all he knows, now, is that you're a murderer." Amanda had regained control of her temper. "He's damned sure of himself, damned confident, and you want to leave him believing that he fell in love with a callous murderer."
Bagoas shrugged again. "Well, so he did." He looked from face to face around the table. "What I've done, he can't forgive. It's not in his nature. I could try to explain to him that what I did to Ensign O'Neil was part of the game, and that O'Neil would have done the same to me, had I been a step slower. But to do so would mean bringing him from his world into ours."
"That isn't necessarily a bad thing," Duncan said, slowly. The look on his face wasn't precisely sympathetic, but it wasn't hostile, either.
"If I thought that he would forgive me if he knew what I am," Bagoas said slowly, precisely, "I might be weak enough to do what I know I should not. But I know Jean-Luc; he might understand, but would still not forgive. I choose to let him be what he is, and to go."
"You ought to tell him," Duncan said roughly. He turned to Methos. "Tell him. He'll listen to you."
Methos looked down at his hands. Colin's death. That was murder. "Sometimes the best thing to do is just walk away, MacLeod," he said. "I mean, so Bagoas and Jean-Luc are miserable for the rest of their lives. On a cosmic scale of things, what does it really matter?" He smiled brightly, and dismissed it. "Where are you sleeping just now, Bagoas?"
"In an access tube," Bagoas said. "It's very good for my back, no doubt."
"Well, we have a couch here. You're welcome to it."
"He is?" Duncan asked.
Amanda looked expressionlessly at the three men round the table. "I want it understood; I've had enough of this. I came to get a job done, and I want to get it done. I don't care what the three of you do, or where you sleep, or who you sleep with. I want it over. Preferably without blood on the carpet." She rose to her feet. "If you let your Captain get away, though, Bagoas, you're the oldest idiot I ever met." She glanced at Methos. It looked as if she were going to add something, but she walked out without another word.
Bagoas stood up and bowed, very formally. "Duncan MacLeod, I will trespass no further on your generous hospitality."
Duncan glowered a moment longer. "No, never mind, take the couch." He stood up, grabbing Methos by the wrist. "Come on."
Methos shrugged and went with Duncan, glancing back briefly to meet Bagoas' eyes with a glint of shared amusement. Duncan walked them both into their room, and waited until the door was closed before he let go of Methos' wrist and pinned the older man up against the wall in a familiar, swift, and deadly move.
Methos relaxed, staring up into Duncan's face. He might have smiled, but Duncan looked angry enough as it was.
"Where the hell were you?"
"Mainly in Bagoas' cabin," Methos said with unhelpful precision. "Bagoas wasn't using it."
Methos knew from the feel of Duncan's body, with the familiarity of centuries, when Duncan stopped pinning him against the wall. Duncan was leaning on him now, resting against him, giving up his balance-point to Methos. With one shove, Methos could have him over.
"Why does he have to be your friend?" Duncan asked. His face was still set in a glower, and his voice still grim.
Methos shook his head. "Sorry," he said, with a brief quirk of his lips. "I just happen to like him." He shifted a little, bringing his arms up and forcing Duncan's hands to slide downwards, so that he could put his arms round Duncan and hold him. "I've liked him for nearly half my lifetime."
"I won't kill him," Duncan said. His voice was even grimmer. It might have sounded like a threat to almost anyone else alive.
"Thank you," Methos said, and hugged Duncan a little tighter, to make up for the next question. "Tell me, MacLeod, what of all of it is really unforgivable?"
"Eh?" Duncan moved back a little, staring down at him. But he understood the question, that was obvious. "Colin is dead."
"You're lost students before."
"You've never tried to defend their killers before."
Methos paused a moment, watching Duncan intently. "Oh yes," he said softly, "I have."
Duncan turned away sharply, breaking Methos' grip and walking across the room, away from him. It had been two hundred years at least since Methos had mentioned Richie's death to Richie's killer. Methos didn't follow him, but stood, arms folded now, watching the younger immortal. "I really don't want to lose either of you," he said after a moment, without the slightest threat in his calm voice.
"I told you," Duncan said, as grimly, "I won't kill him."
"Or cut his heart out? Or break every bone in his body?"
"Colin's dead because of him." Duncan turned. "And you want the man who killed him to live. Fine, he can live forever for all of me, but don't expect me to love him!"
"I don't." Methos smiled. He began to approach Duncan, one cautious step at a time. "I don't even expect you to love me. Just - let's not get blood on the carpet?"
Reluctantly, Duncan half-smiled, reaching out to take Methos' hands in his. "Oh, why not?" he asked, pulling his lover closer. "They'll have some kind of gadget for getting it out again."
Picard didn't often go to Ten-Forward. He went in quietly, and no one did anything so crude as to stop talking when they saw him. Riker was propping up the bar, talking to one of the new lieutenants, but he only glanced over for long enough to make sure the Captain didn't want him, and went back to business.
Troi was sitting at one of the tables beside the windows, gazing out at the stars. She knew, of course, that he was approaching, but was polite enough not to look up and smile until he reached her table.
"Counsellor," Picard said, not quite a question, not quite an order, "could I have a word with you?"
"Of course." Troi stood up. "My office?"
The small room was comfortable and friendly. Picard had never met Troi here before. Troi had busied herself at the replicator; she handed him a cup of tea, and sat down on the couch with a steaming cup between her own hands.
Picard sat down, and looked at the tea in his cup. After a minute, he looked up again, caught Troi watching him compassionately, and almost laughed. "I'm sorry, Counsellor, I'm wasting your evening."
"I know this is difficult for you," Troi said. She hesitated. "I have heard that you and Bagoas have quarrelled," she said, picking her words cautiously.
"Quarrelled?" Picard nearly exploded. He stared past her, breathing hard. "We didn't exactly quarrel," he said, more calmly. "We - he's leaving me." Picard swallowed. "I suppose... he's already left me. He plans to leave the ship tomorrow, when we reach Gisippus."
"How does that make you feel?" Troi asked.
Picard glared at her. "You know how that makes me feel," he said, his words like edged weapons. "I don't want to feel better about him leaving. I don't want him to leave."
Troi drank. It was some Betazoid tea, probably, with a clear refreshing scent. Picard waited, knowing it for a delaying tactic.
"Captain," Troi said at last, and sighed, looking at him with quiet friendly eyes. "One of my jobs as ship's counsellor is to act as a mediator between couples who aren't communicating properly. I believe the Terrans call it being a marriage guidance counsellor. I can do that for you and Bagoas if you both want me to. I can't do anything like that for you on your own." She waited.
Picard ducked his head a moment, rubbing his fingers over his scalp. He made his face look expressionless before he lifted his head. "Go on," he said, his voice leached white.
"I can help you come to terms with the end of your relationship," Troi said, finally. She looked worried. "But what I think you want me to do, Captain, is somehow convince Bagoas that he ought to stay. As the Captain's counsellor, if I thought that your marriage was for the ultimate good of the ship, I suppose I might have to do that. But I don't think it is."
That took a while to sink in. Picard let himself absorb it, painfully, all of it, before he said finally, "You mean you think I've been a worse Captain, the past three months, because I've been married."
"No," Troi sounded shocked. "It's made you very happy. We've all been able to see that. Your attention and your concentration on your job, if anything, have been better than before, and it's obvious that you're enjoying life to an extent that we didn't know you could, before."
Picard frowned, rather more rueful than angry. Troi had a wonderful knack for disarming rage. "Then why," he began, and heard his voice, the Captain's voice, controlled and dry. It shocked him for an instant, and shocked him again that he should have been shocked at all. That was what he was. "Then why do you say that it is not for the ultimate good of the ship?"
Troi tilted her cup between her hands, looking down at it. "Bagoas Pasagardai is a very strange man," she said at last. "He's very detached. It's not that I dislike him. I don't think anyone dislikes him. But I have never felt that we were friends, and I have always assumed that this was because of some small, personal reason on his part to - not dislike me, but to be unwilling to share friendship." She paused, looking back at Picard. Her face was curiously withdrawn. "And then, when - this happened, I began to get a general feeling from individual members of the crew. There is no one aboard, except you, with whom Bagoas has allowed the slightest trace of intimacy. And everyone has thought that it was something to do with themselves, something that made Bagoas unwilling to share with them."
"I didn't know," Picard said. "They resent him?"
"No," Troi said. "No one resents him. No one dislikes him. No one feels any attachment to him at all, positive or negative, except in relation to you. He is like a shadow, aboard this ship... and that does make people feel uncomfortable, though most people don't know why."
Picard put down his cup and rose to his feet. "Thank you, Counsellor."
Troi stood up, putting herself, quite accidentally, between him and the door. "Captain, would you like to talk about this?"
"No," Picard said, with what was almost a smile. "No, I wouldn't. Perhaps some other time. For now, I've taken up enough of your evening." He gestured towards the door. Troi didn't move.
With a sigh, Picard walked round her and went out.
Part 3; "And he yearned to the flare of hell-gate there"
They may hold their path, they may leave their path, with never a soul to mark:
They may burn or freeze, but they must not cease in the scorn of the outer dark.
The wind that blows between the worlds, it nipped him to the bone,
And he yearned to the flare of hell-gate there as the light of his own hearth-stone.
Picard pressed the door-signal. There was no answer, but the door opened a moment later. Alex Cynan looked startled for an instant to see him standing there, but smiled. "Good morning, Captain. What can I do for you?"
"May I come in?"
"Of course." Cynan stood to one side, and Picard went past him. Sitting round the table still spread with breakfast, Ambassador Carrington, MacLeod, and Bagoas were looking at him.
"Ambassador," Picard said.
"Captain." Carrington looked back at him and smiled.
Picard ignored MacLeod, who was glowering at him. "Mr Pasagardai," he said formally, "may I have a word?"
Bagoas stood. He was looking at Picard with his dark eyes wide and open. "Captain."
For a moment, Picard couldn't think. It was obvious Bagoas wasn't going to move. In any case, he couldn't ask Bagoas to go back to the Captain's quarters, and he didn't want to go back to the cabin Bagoas had used. "Why are you doing this?" Picard asked, hearing himself dry and sedate.
"I didn't want to cause you further pain," Bagoas said at last. "Jean-Luc, I am very sorry that I ever brought you to this, but I think - I know - that it is better for you that I leave."
(O Lord Our God, who has granted to us all things necessary for salvation...)
"Don't you think I have the right to make my own decisions about that?"
Bagoas folded his hands in front of him. "You made your decision," he said quietly, "when you offered to arrest me for the murder of Colin O'Neil."
Picard glanced at the other three. None of them looked shocked, or even surprised; MacLeod sat glowering down at his plate, the Ambassador was watching him with wide clear eyes, and Cynan, if anything, looked amused.
Of all of them, it was MacLeod who first spoke. "I think you should tell him the truth," he growled.
"The young are so reckless," Bagoas said, but not in Standard. Picard blinked and frowned, realising suddenly that Bagoas was speaking Greek. Not modern Greek, either. This was old, almost a different language. His translator was having trouble handling it, and so was Picard; though he had learned to read the language, he had never before heard anyone speak it aloud, except once at a festival of plays in Athens, and then he'd been equipped with a written translation.
"'The young are so reckless,'" Picard repeated, in Standard. "What is so reckless about telling me the truth?"
"Ah, the benefits of a classical education," Cynan said flippantly. "Bagoas, why not?" "I have told you why not," Bagoas said, "and I will not."
"You owe it to him." MacLeod's voice was a controlled snarl.
"I think you do," Ambassador Carrington said, quietly.
Bagoas shook his head. He sat down again, and folded his arms, staring directly ahead, not looking at anyone. His face was still as calm water. He said nothing.
(...and didst command us to love one another)
"Bagoas," Picard said, forgetting to be calm, starting towards his husband with one fierce step. He was stopped an instant later by Cynan's lifted arm, and turned, delivering his coldest Captain's stare right into Alex Cynan's eyes.
Cynan wasn't smiling, but when he spoke, there was an undercurrent of barely-suppressed amusement in his voice. "Jean-Luc, out of my long experience with Bagoas, when he doesn't want to talk, nothing you could do to him would make him change his mind. And he will not love you more for losing your dignity over him."
"Don't," Picard said through his teeth, "call me Jean-Luc." Cynan raised his eyebrows. "You are rather sensitive about that, aren't you?"
There was a tiny pause. Ambassador Carrington said, very clearly, "Cynan, shut up. Captain, I apologise for my aides' behaviour. They're both old enough to know better."
Bagoas moved silently when he chose. Picard was startled to see him at his elbow, but it was a familiar and a welcome surprise. "Ancient one," Bagoas said softly, to Cynan, "I do not want to quarrel with you. Please do not force a quarrel on me."
Cynan looked, wide-eyed, from Bagoas to Picard, wearing a most convincing "Who, me?" look. He said nothing.
Bagoas turned and looked directly at Picard. "Please," he said, and Picard heard with a sudden lightening of the heart the warmth that had always been there for him, for him alone.
(...and to forgive one another our failings)
"Please," said Bagoas. "Go."
Picard was never sure, afterwards, why he had left like that, so instantly. Was it the first time that Bagoas had commanded him so directly? Or at all? Was it even the first time, aboard the Enterprise, that Bagoas had ever asked him to do anything?
The diplomatic team were due to leave the Enterprise at 1400 hours shiptime, according to arrangements made with the local civil authority on Gisippus. But the ship would make orbit an hour or two earlier. Picard had either two hours or three, he realised, sitting in his ready room, before Bagoas left the ship. Civilian employees could not be detained on a Starfleet ship for longer than they wanted to stay. Bagoas performed no vital service. No one, Troi had made clear, would even particularly miss him when he left. No one except the Captain - no, not even the Captain. Only Jean-Luc would miss him, and Jean-Luc didn't count.
The tracking system told him that Bagoas was on holodeck 4. Bagoas had a couple of holodeck programs that he had brought with him, "for dance practice," he'd told Picard once.
(protect in thy holiness, Lord and lover of good, these thy servants)
Picard opened the door and went in. The room was familiar; long, with mirrors all down one wall, and a smooth softwood floor. Someone - a standard holodeck person - was playing on the piano in one corner. In the centre of the room, Data danced. Bagoas stood a few yards away, watching both Data and Data's reflection in the mirrors. Picard saw Bagoas see his reflection enter the mirrored holodeck, but Bagoas did not turn. The music ended, and with it Data's dance.
Bagoas nodded, once, precisely. "Excellent."
"Thank you," Data said. And then, "Good morning, Captain."
Bagoas still did not turn around. "My class continues for another half hour. Please leave, Captain."
"I have no objection if Captain Picard wishes to remain as an observer," Data offered.
"I prefer not to teach with an observer," Bagoas said. His voice was quite neutral. "However, I suppose we cannot prevent him. Dance the routine again, Data, and this time with a theme of fear."
Picard stood, watching. Bagoas was a good teacher, good enough not to be disconcerted by a student like Data. Picard could see no sign of the distance that Troi had spoken of last night.
Data danced the routine twice more, each time with a different theme. Picard hadn't quite realised what an acute observer of human body language Data was. He stood there watching Bagoas watch Data, and could not see if Bagoas' eyes ever moved from Data to Picard's reflection.
(who love each other with a love of the spirit...)
Data finished the second repetition and stood in the first position, as neatly and precisely as he did everything else. Bagoas nodded. "I hope you will continue your work in the dance."
"I shall continue to practice."
"Do so." Bagoas walked towards Data, away from Picard, towards his reflection. He stopped, close enough to Data that the mirror now only reflected Data. Picard could no longer see his face, and Bagoas spoke quietly.
"I never dreamed of having a student like you," he said. "I hope we shall meet again, someday. Because we may, I want you to promise me two things."
Data looked as if he were trying to scan two places simultaneously: Bagoas' face, and Picard's. Picard turned away. He still heard Data say, "I will promise you anything if it does not conflict with my duty as a Starfleet officer," and then, following something inaudible from Bagoas, Data said, "I promise."
Data passed him without looking back. The door closed behind him, and Picard turned. Bagoas still stood with his back to Picard, and his face reflected in the mirror held no more expression than a skilful mask.
(...and have come into thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated by Thee.)
"Is this how the others feel?" Picard asked. This detachment that Troi had spoken of. He hadn't meant to ask that question first, but Bagoas was making him feel like a shadow.
Bagoas turned. "Jean-Luc, you should not be here."
"I wanted to see you."
"Sometimes the only mercy possible is a clean cut. I am trying to divorce you of me. Today I shall leave this ship and I will never see you again."
"We're married," Picard said. He clung to that, knowing it was foolish. If the marriage ceremony had meant to Bagoas what it meant to Picard, Bagoas would not now be leaving.
Bagoas laughed a little. "Marriage is a matter between families," he said, kindly. "I have no family, and yours does not know me."
"Is this how the others feel?" Picard asked again.
He knew Bagoas had understood him; the other man shrugged expressively and tilted his head a little. "Perhaps. I cultivate detachment. One cannot afford to care about many people."
"Is that why you killed Colin O'Neil?"
Instead of answering, Bagoas said "Computer. Pasagardai holodeck program 103."
The room changed. They were standing half-way up a tier of steps that led down to an amphitheatre floored with smooth sand. In the centre of the amphitheatre a solitary figure danced to flute music played by a second figure seated in the lowest step.
Picard had been here before. He looked at the solitary dancer, and then at Bagoas, already on his way down the steps, with a creeping realisation.
(Grant them unashamed faithfulness)
Bagoas didn't glance back. Picard followed him, down the steps, past the dancer Bagoas had programmed to look like him, and through a door in the skene into a mountain glade.
"It never occurred to me to look here," Picard said.
Bagoas turned, raising his eyebrows. "It wasn't supposed to."
"I... need privacy to practice."
"Especially from you." Bagoas met Picard's eyes with a sober look. "Jean-Luc, you don't know who I am. You never did. I knew I would have to tell you, or leave, but I hoped that it would be years, not months, before this moment came."
"All I want to know," Picard said, striving for control, "is why you killed Colin O'Neil?"
Bagoas laughed. It was the sudden high giggle that Picard was wonderfully familiar with, the swift warm laughter that had filled his heart. He smiled, unable to help himself, and caught himself smiling, and frowned at Bagoas, waiting for the other man's laughter to stop.
"I'm sorry, dear one," Bagoas said at last, wiping a hand across his eyes. "But it's not an easy question to answer."
"I don't want an easy answer."
"No." Bagoas was sober again. He looked at Jean-Luc and the barrier between them was gone. Bagoas came a step closer, reached out, and took hold of Picard's forearms, holding him firmly. "I want to tell you. Listen." He hesitated. His voice was very quiet. "When I was ten years old, because my father was loyal to the wrong man, soldiers came to my home. My sisters were raped and killed. My mother killed herself when she saw my father die. My father's ears and nose were cut from his face when he was still alive, and then his head was cut off. I alone was spared. The commander took me to rape me, and after he had done with me, he sold me. The man who bought me had me castrated, and I was sold again." He looked into Picard's eyes, his face very close to Picard's. "You wanted to know what happened to me when I was a child, and now you know. Does this knowledge make you happier? Can you bear further knowledge?"
"Bagoas - " Picard fought not to flinch away. "Bagoas, where did this happen? Who could allow it?"
"Such things happen to children."
"Where?" Picard's rage was nearly at boiling point. This horror explained so much about Bagoas, so horribly much; this quiet cold acceptance was worse than any outrage.
(and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples thy peace...)
"On Earth," Bagoas said, very gently.
It stopped Picard cold. "No." That was one thing that he was certain of. "No. It couldn't happen in the Federation. It couldn't happen anywhere on Earth."
"It happened on Earth," Bagoas said, "twenty-seven hundred years ago."
Picard did flinch back then. He felt Bagoas feel it, and let go of him. "What?"
"I am immortal." Bagoas had folded his hands in front of him, and was watching Picard with the same cold acceptance with which he had told his story. "I was born twenty-seven hundred years ago in Persis, near Susa. When I was forty, I died for the first time. But if I am wounded, I heal. If I die, I return to life. I am immortal, and so was Colin O'Neil."
"He's still alive?" Picard heard his voice as if it came from very far away.
"No." Bagoas shook his head slowly, watching Picard. "I cut his head off. That's the only way that we can die. It's how we live. He challenged me, we fought, I won." He reached into his jacket and drew a knife. "Shall I cut myself," he said, "and let you see me heal? I can show you my heart."
He's insane. "You need help," Picard whispered. It seemed as if all the blood had left his head. His ears were ringing. He saw Bagoas smile.
"Perhaps. But if I am mad, I have been insane for so long that I don't think I would know what to do if I were sane."
"Bagoas - " He lunged for the knife, but Bagoas, with a lightning move, stepped aside and slid the knife away where it had come from.
"Computer, end program and delete from all storage."
Abruptly, they were in the plain oblong room. Beside the exit lay a duffle bag with a long thin bundle strapped to it. Bagoas went over and picked it up, standing still for a moment to adjust the carrying strap across his shoulder.
"Bagoas," Picard said, and his voice sounded dreadful in his own ears. "Didn't any of it mean anything to you?"
(bestow also on these servants all those things needed...)
Bagoas did not turn. His voice was cool and controlled. "I didn't want to hurt you," he said. And then he laughed, shortly and painfully, the laughter ripping his chest open. "I wish you had never come to my door. I wish you had never seen me. Forget me!"
"You could forget that you have seen me," Bagoas offered to the young man standing in the waiting room.
Tall, golden-haired, golden-bearded, the man looked about twenty-five. He was standing alert and well-balanced, well-trained. And eager. He was wearing Starfleet uniform, which didn't give much room for a concealed sword, but he was carrying a long coat over one arm.
"I want to know what you're doing with Captain Picard," the man said.
"Ask him yourself, Ensign. How did you get into Starfleet?"
"My records are good."
Bagoas kept a sword hidden under the counter, and he was beginning to wonder if he would have to use it. Some people had no sense of decorum. "So you have cheated Starfleet, and you judge me by your standards."
"I am Starfleet," the man snapped. "I took the oath. I want to know why you're fucking up Captain Picard!"
Bagoas raised his brows, feeling a first cold stirring of anger. He had not heard that tone of voice, that of a man speaking to one he did not consider a man, in decades. "You have no right to ask me that question. I will not answer it."
The man leaned closer. "Listen, you," he hissed. "I don't know what your game is. But if you want to get to the Captain, you have to go through me."
"Oh," Bagoas said. He kept himself still. The man - the boy - was very young; you could hear it in his voice, in the way he carried himself. "I didn't know Jean-Luc had such an ardent defender."
"You steer clear of him in future," the man said. It was the tone of an order.
"I think not," Bagoas said. "I think that you are a young fool, and you should go away and make trouble somewhere else, if trouble is what you want, because if you try to make trouble here, shortly you will not want anything."
"Are you threatening me?" The man looked down at Bagoas - he was a good foot taller - and laughed.
"No." Bagoas could feel the cold anger inside him, and was determined not to let it rule.
"Stay away from the Captain," the man ordered.
"No." Bagoas put both his hands on the counter. He doubted that the young immortal had even noticed that Bagoas had kept his hands out of sight before this, but he owed this courtesy to himself, not to a mannerless barbarian. "If you wish to challenge me, do so."
The man stepped back, his chin lifting. He looked suddenly more serious. "All right. Where and when?"
"There is a cavern entrance, a mile to the north of the Beta-9-1 exit. I will meet you there, in an hour's time, if that is convenient to you."
"Fine." The man turned on his heel and walked out.
Bagoas turned and looked at Picard. "I wish," he said finally, his voice no longer controlled, "that I had let O'Neil say what he liked. I wish I had obeyed him. He was right. In the end, I brought you nothing but pain. Goodbye, Jean-Luc."
Picard stood there alone in the empty room. Bagoas had left him. Bagoas had left him no choice. None at all.
(for salvation and eternal life.)
Methos turned his head as he felt the other immortal presence approach. It couldn't be Duncan or Amanda; they were both in conference with the Captain, and would be for some time. Moving quickly and unobtrusively, Methos went to the shuttle bay door and waited in the corridor; a moment later, Bagoas appeared, duffle over his shoulder, walking with the same lithe easiness with which he had walked the Silk Road long ago. His face was a frozen mask of elegant perfection. Something was very wrong.
Methos went to him and put his arms around him in a swift hug that brought his mouth close to Bagoas' ear. He spoke in ancient Persian, a language he was all but certain no one else aboard this ship understood without translation, and old enough that even their tiny translators would have trouble with it.
"There are only three of them in there," he said, and felt Bagoas jerk as if in silent protest. "Don't worry. Nobody has to die today. Wait five minutes. Go into the second shuttle from the right-hand wall as you enter."
He felt Bagoas nod, and stepped back, letting the other immortal go. Bagoas stood still, his eyes wide and dark. He said nothing.
Methos went back into the shuttle bay, moving as if he had been overcome with boredom and decided to stretch his legs for a little while. The key to a good lie was to believe it yourself; Methos held that in the front of his mind, that he was bored with standing still, that the blue person with the portable gas supply was interesting in itself, that he was strolling over to where the blue ensign and the two technicians were working because he was bored, he was tired, he wanted to stare at an alien and make a little conversation -
"Hello," Methos said awkwardly. (Corpse-coloured skin.) "Can you," he hesitated noticeably, staring. "Can you tell me what this stuff does?" He gestured broadly at the array of lights and controls that the blue person was working at.
"Of course," said the blue person. "What do you wish to know?"
Methos glanced over at the hole in the side of the ship, where nothing separated them from death but an invisible force field. "Well," he turned his stare back to the blue one, "how does that thing work?" (Funny mouth.)
The blue one looked pleased. (Funny eyes. Funny way of looking pleased. Alien.) It started to explain. Methos nodded, and understood about one word in three, and noticed out of the corner of his eyes the other two Starfleet people edging in, eyeing him with suspicion.
(Alien,) Methos thought with ferocity, staring at the gas tank from which the creature breathed. The two humans moved closer and closer, ostensibly still working, staring at Methos, protective of their alien comrade. All Starfleet personnel had a wonderful and predictable pack mentality. Methos had used it to start bar fights once or twice.
Methos didn't hear or see Bagoas come in. He didn't expect to. He could feel the presence close in, before it bloomed and faded, but he ignored it and went on asking bland unnecessary questions with intrusive arrogant stares.
Ten minutes should be more than time enough. Methos had an acute sense of the passage of time. Then he ducked his gaze away from the dark unhuman eyes, muttered something unapologetic, and went back to stand on guard by the shuttle door. He heard one of the humans mutter, "Bloody provincials," and smiled inwardly.
Amanda - Ambassador Carrington, Methos corrected himself with a mental grin - had arranged that the aide-in-disgrace, Duncan MacLeod, should attend her personally to her final discussion with the Captain. The well-behaved aide, Alex Cynan, was to await her in the shuttle bay. (Well, MacLeod was normally the good boy. If anyone asked any of those three, they would remember Methos, but they would remember his behaviour, not his face.)
The official reason for this, if anyone asked, was that the Ambassador wanted to have MacLeod under her eye. The real reason was, of course, that Duncan wanted his katana back in his hands as soon as possible. And possibly, it occurred to Methos, as he returned to a stance of perfect waiting, because Amanda wanted to demonstrate her independence as an ambassador, her independence even of the power which was to protect her. Methos was familiar with the power held by those who claim to protect, and still more with the power held by those who truly do so.
The three factions on Gisippus had been at war for seventy-eight years. Longer than many mortal lifetimes, even now. That Amanda should propose to stop them hardly surprised Methos; with Amanda one expected the unexpected as a matter of course. That she had gained the protection of Starfleet and the support of the Federation in order to do so impressed him. Immortals had gained that kind of power before, but seldom within one lifetime.
It's good to keep busy, he thought, and smiled, this time quite openly.
Do the next thing. Picard could feel inside himself a pain that terrified him. He had to meet with Ambassador Carrington, before the diplomatic team went down to Gisippus. He had an appointment with Doctor Crusher to discuss some medical requisitions. He had to talk to Worf and Riker about...
...about the civilian Starfleet employee, Bagoas Pasagardai.
Do the next thing. Picard walked quite steadily down the corridors towards his meeting with the Ambassador. The numbness that he had felt encloaking him was fading, replaced with a desperate weariness that had to be ignored to be endured.
Picard hadn't expected MacLeod to be present. The aide stood behind Carrington's chair, as elegant and dangerous as his own sword. Picard hesitated, imperceptibly, in the doorway, making up his mind in the instant between one step and the next not to protest. Carrington had kept him confined to the ambassadorial quarters until now, when they were about to leave the ship. The only reasonable thing to do was to ignore him.
So Picard ignored him. For nearly an hour, he and the Ambassador exchanged information and discussed possible tactics if varieties of disaster struck.
"I've been invited to the opening ceremonies," Picard said finally. He smiled. "With the status of distinguished guest, whatever that means."
The Ambassador looked at him steadily for a long moment. "It means you will be allowed to bear a weapon into the council chamber," she said. "And I would appreciate it if you would do so."
"A phaser?" Picard frowned.
Carrington shrugged. "I assume the factions will all know what a Starfleet phaser looks like. I don't expect you to use it, Captain. But I want you to carry a visible weapon." She put her hands together in front of her and smiled at him. "And I want my aide's sword returned to him, before we leave."
"Of course," Picard said. Whatever the temptation - the katana was a beautiful thing - he had never intended to keep it.
"Now would be a good time."
Picard considered it with the same swiftness with which he had decided to ignore MacLeod. There was no security reason to retain the sword; MacLeod would be off the ship within the hour. "Of course," he repeated, and touched his communicator. "Picard to Worf."
Worf appeared, carrying the katana in front of him, minutes later. He was so quick, in fact, that Picard momentarily suspected him of having kept the sword in his own quarters, to gloat over, or whatever Klingons did with perfect weaponry. He took it back when he saw what Worf had done to the sword.
MacLeod took it from Worf and stared at the white peace-bonds, sealed with wax, that bound the katana into a scabbard that Worf must have replicated for it.
Worf spoke directly to MacLeod. "You will not remove those bonds until you and the sword are off the ship."
"No," MacLeod said, with an odd look at Worf. "Those symbols..."
"The Klingon word for 'peace,'" Picard said, unable to resist it.
Carrington stood up to study the symbols more closely. She glanced at Worf. "I thought that combination meant 'total destruction,'" she offered.
"It can also mean 'victory,'" Worf said. He was staring at MacLeod, his brows drawn together, and, Picard realised, MacLeod was staring back, his brows set in exactly the same kind of frown.
Then MacLeod smiled. It was a sudden, bright, and oddly happy smile. "Peace, destruction, victory," he said softly. "Thank you." He spread his hands, holding the katana neatly between them, and bowed. Like Bagoas, Picard saw with a stab at the heart, he could bow without a trace of mockery or subservience; it looked instead like a warrior's salute, and Worf returned it, looking - to Picard's familiar eyes - faintly surprised.
"You have a fine sword," Worf rumbled.
MacLeod hooked the scabbard neatly onto his belt. "It was made by a master; it was given to me by a master; I strive to be worthy of it." He stepped back, behind Ambassador Carrington's chair, and said, like a perfect bodyguard, "We are expected by your hosts in an hour, Ambassador."
Carrington rose to her feet. "Thank you, MacLeod. Captain. I will see you at the opening ceremonies."
"Of course," Picard said again. He stood up, feeling the weariness he had fought off fall on him again. The opening ceremonies were five hours away, and Picard could not, at the moment, imagine himself further away than what he had to do in the next hour. "If you would excuse me for now, then," Picard said, and added to Worf, "Would you come to my ready room as soon as you're free, Mr Worf?"
"Yes, sir." Worf looked at him a little oddly.
The Ambassador went past Picard, and stopped, and turned as if for one last word of farewell. "Are you all right?" she asked, quietly.
Consciously, Picard smiled. "Yes, of course, Ambassador."
Sometimes the corridors of the Enterprise seemed to stretch into infinity. Nevertheless, Picard reached the bridge at last, and stood a moment at Worf's station looking at the planet on the viewscreen. But there was no point in putting it off. Worf would be here soon.
He went into his ready room, closed the door, and sat down at his desk. What he was about to do was possibly not illegal, but probably unforgivable. Picard clenched his hands together. "Computer," he said. "Replay XCP102 record beginning 1200 hours, holodeck 4, audio only."
For the necessities of tracking and communication, the computer recorded everything done and spoken aboard a starship, a second at a time. The records were retained for one second only. It was possible, with the authority of a starship captain, to relay the tracking record from the one-second store to a permanent store. Even this permanent store was held under a complex security lock.
Picard had set up a permanent store, keyed to Bagoas' voice and including Picard's, after his encounter with Bagoas at the Ambassador's breakfast table. He meant to record a confession.
Picard was working his way through the security codes, verifying that he was who he was, that he was not under duress, when it suddenly hit him what he was doing. Not illegal. Unforgivable.
I can't do this.
A recording taken without the subject's permission is admissionable evidence under some circumstances....
But he is not a 'subject.' C'est mon mari.
Je ne peut pas faire ca.
" - dreamed of having a student like you. I hope we shall meet again, someday. Because we may, I want you to promise me two things."
Picard's head jerked up. Without thinking about it, he had finished the security routine, and the computer had started to play the record.
The computer had not recorded the other half of any conversation Bagoas had with anyone other than Picard. Picard had set it up that way, as a deliberate limit to eavesdropping. There was a brief pause, covering the time when Data had replied, and Bagoas spoke again.
"That you will not speak my name, nor will you say when or where we met before." A brief pause, and Bagoas added, "Because you are immortal, and immortal friendship has its risks."
Another silence. Picard heard his own voice. It sounded strange. "Is this how the others feel?"
Is this how I feel? His own voice, strange and dry and detached, and Bagoas, cold and dry and strange, estranged, the voice of a stranger, not his beloved. Picard bent his head, not listening to the brief conversation, until once more he heard himself ask, "Is that why you killed Colin O'Neil?"
"Computer. Pasagardai holodeck program 103."
And then, instead of the continuing conversation, there was another brief pause and Picard heard himself, ragged and rough with anger and grief, speak again. "Bagoas, didn't any of it mean anything to you?"
The contrast between Picard's and Bagoas' voice was shocking. Cool and controlled, Bagoas spoke. "I didn't want to hurt you. I wish you had never come to my door. I wish you had never seen me. Forget me!" He breathed in, the computer recording even that subtle pain, and suddenly there was a crack in his voice, and the pain in it was not subtle at all. "I wish that I had let O'Neil say what he liked. I wish I had obeyed him. He was right. In the end, I brought you nothing but pain." A pause, a barely detectable pause, and Bagoas said, "Goodbye, Jean-Luc."
"End record," the computer said, in its own voice.
Picard lifted his head and stared at the wall. "Computer," he said, "Explain why there is no record of the conversation between myself and Bagoas Pasagardai on holodeck 4."
"The record is complete," the computer said.
Bagoas had known, when he confessed to O'Neil's murder, that the tracking and communication software would not retain his confession without a permanent store being set up; he had known that the only evidence of that conversation would be Captain Picard's word against his own. And then, before Picard could set up a permanent store to record him, he had set up a shield, hidden in his holodeck program, to prevent himself being recorded.
Unless Bagoas was a programming genius, the recording shield must have been part of his holodeck program already. It might have been set up as soon as Bagoas came on board. Picard tapped his hands on his desk. "Computer. List amendments to 'Pasagardai holodeck program 103' in the past three months."
"No such program exists."
"No holodeck programs exist for Pasagardai," the computer repeated.
"Wait a minute. Why 'end record'? Computer. Have you continued to record into permanent store XCP102?"
"Subject of record is no longer on board."
"Subject of record is no longer on board."
"Bagoas Pasagardai has left the Enterprise?" Picard cut in before the computer had finished. "How?"
"No information," the computer said.
The door signalled for attention. "Come!" Picard called, and Worf came in.
"Mr Worf," Picard said. "Please, sit down."
Worf obeyed him. "Sir," he said, briefly. "The Ambassador and her aides have left the ship."
"The ambassador's shuttle," Picard said. "I should have thought of that."
Worf stared at him. "Sir?"
Picard linked his hands together. He had planned what he had to say. Worf had been responsible for the investigation into the disappearance of Ensign Colin O'Neil, over three months ago. Mr Worf, can you entirely eliminate the possibility that O'Neil never left Khitmugar? Can you tell me for certain that he could not have been murdered on Khitmugar? Can you find out who the murderer is?
He couldn't do it. But one thing he could do. "Mr Worf, it seems that Mr Pasagardai has taken the earliest opportunity to leave the ship." Picard kept his voice dry and even and controlled. "Without jeopardising the safety of the diplomatic team on Gisippus, please attempt to locate Mr Pasagardai."
"Sir," Worf acknowledged. He glanced away, briefly, at the port, and the stars outside the ship. When he looked back, his voice was fractionally less formal. "Captain... is this a personal request?"
Picard gave him back a calm unsmiling look. "What else could it be?" People who pride themselves on never directly lying never tell the truth. He might not be lying to Worf directly, but he was letting Worf believe a lie.
No. This was the difference; Worf knew that Picard was not telling the entire truth. Picard could see it in Worf's dark gaze. He saw also the moment when Worf decided not to ask, but to trust Picard despite not knowing the whole truth.
Worf nodded, slowly. "I will look for Pasagardai," he said, as if it were a vow. He did not use Picard's title.
"Thank you," Picard said briefly.
Worf waited a moment, and then stood up. His bearing changed, becoming formal. "Captain."
"Mr Worf." Picard acknowledged and dismissed him with a nod. There was one part of his non-conversation with Bagoas he wanted to listen to again. "Computer," he said. "Replay XCP102 record between 1200 hours and 1205, holodeck 4, audio only."
Most of the security locks were the same as before. One had changed because the time of the request had changed, and one had been altered because it was the second request to replay the XCP102 record. Picard worked through them all with forced patience, knowing that hurry wouldn't help.
Once more Bagoas spoke. " - dreamed of having a student like you. I hope we shall meet again, someday. When we do, I want you to promise me two things."
Again the invisible pause when Data had replied. He must have asked Bagoas what he was to promise.
And Bagoas answered; "That you will not speak my name, nor will you say when or where we met before."
Another pause. This time Data must have asked why. And Bagoas' reply: "Because you are immortal, and immortal friendship has its risks."
Another pause, and Picard's own voice: "Is this - " The replay stopped. Picard had heard what he had thought was there to hear.
I am immortal. If I am wounded, I heal. If I die, I return to life. Shall I cut myself, and let you see me heal?
Because you are immortal.
He believes it. Picard stared across the empty room. Bagoas believes that he is immortal. That he might meet Data again, in - a hundred years? and that he would be unchanged. Immortal. That's why he asked Data to promise not to recognise him. Immortal friendship has its risks.
He believes it.
Picard opened a drawer in his desk and took out the knife he kept there, the gift from another Captain who had risked his life to learn how to communicate, with whom he had shared the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It was not like the knife that Bagoas had produced and then hidden again so swiftly; that had been a neat, efficient, modern blade. This looked ancient and primitive. But it was very sharp.
Picard hesitated, the knife in his right hand, the blade against his left palm. What am I doing? Proving that if I cut myself I won't heal, or not without a visit to sickbay and a lecture from Beverly Crusher on playing with dangerous weapons?
Picard sighed and began to put the knife back in the drawer. I can show you my heart. His hand slipped, and he gashed himself anyway. Not deeply, but the red blood spilled out, staining the side of his hand.
Methos took the rearmost seat in the shuttle. He guessed that Bagoas had gone to ground back where the two beds were let into the sides of the wall. Neither Duncan nor Amanda - Duncan with a sword at his side again and looking very well pleased with himself - showed any sign of realising that there was a fourth immortal aboard.
Duncan sat down in the pilot's seat. Amanda shook her head and made an explicit gesture with her thumb. "How many orbit-to-ground landings have you made in the past century?"
"Forty-seven," Duncan said, and grinned. "In simulation." He showed no signs of moving. "You can't pilot your own shuttle, Ambassador. It wouldn't be dignified."
"It'll be considerably more dignified than scattering the Ambassador's shuttle across half the planet," Amanda retorted, and repeated her thumb-gesture. "Move, Duncan."
Duncan glanced up at her and stood up, reluctantly, moving into the co-pilot's seat. Amanda shot him a sideways grin that made Methos, watching them, smile. "Watch closely," she advised. "I might let you have the hot seat next time."
Duncan nearly choked. "If you think I'm going to let you talk me into this again - "
"Ha," Amanda said. Her hands were running over the control panel, performing a series of preflight checks with a swift expertise that Methos recognised. Forty-odd years ago, for a few years, he had been a shuttle pilot on the Earth-Moon run. It had been at one of the times when he and Duncan separated for a while. Neither of them ever asked what the other did when they were apart, but Methos usually succeeded in finding out what Duncan had been doing. Evidently, Duncan had not been as successful, or else not as curious.
Duncan talked to the spaceport on the communicator, getting their landing clearance confirmed, and spent the rest of the time clearing the silk and wax peace bonds off his katana. Methos didn't offer to help. Amanda hardly spoke at all, except to pass on data to Duncan. Once grounded, though, she stood up and turned to include Methos in her gaze.
"You two are here as my bodyguards," she said quickly, forcefully. "No arguments in public. No matter what happens. Whatever I tell you, just do it."
"Fine," Duncan said tersely. "We agreed."
"No problem," Methos said airily. He trusted that Bagoas could make his way off the shuttle unseen.
Both Methos and Duncan had met aliens before. You could hardly avoid it in New Orleans; it was one of the most popular offworld tourist resorts. The first time Methos remembered meeting an alien was nearly three hundred years ago. But walking off the shuttle, into the subtly different gravity, air pressure, and bright dry alien smells, Methos suddenly realised that here he was an alien. He saw, by the look in Duncan's eyes, Duncan realise it too.
There were three robed dignitaries in the reception party, each of them with four aides (bodyguards? civil servants? a combination of both?), and a fourth person of slightly less dignity who introduced herself as the mayor of Aalang, the city where the peace talks were to be held. The dignitaries were the Patriarch, the Kerkyon, and the Matistu of the three warring factions.
There were also at least three dozen others of sufficient importance to be introduced to the Ambassador, and getting on for three thousand who had come all the way out to the spaceport just for the sake of looking at her.
In the crowds you could see it most clearly. These people averaged a little taller than human, and their hair was as many shades of black as a starling's wing, and their eyes were slightly larger, and darker, all iris, no white visible.
Duncan was taking his duties as bodyguard seriously enough; Methos watched him watching the crowding people, knowing that he could read Duncan's reactions more quickly than he could himself spot an assassin in the crowd. Amanda greeted the three dignitaries in order of age, each with a different greeting and each with a slightly different courtesy. The mayor, however, got a double-handed handshake and an authentic Amanda grin, before Amanda moved on to the first of the following pack.
There were five groundcars to take the people who were too important to walk from the spaceport to the railway line to Aalang. There were five carriages attached to the train. One for each dignitary and their bodyguards, one for the mayor, and one for the Ambassador. The railway carriages were all about the same size, and there was plenty of room for twice as many bodyguards or civil servants as anyone had brought. The driver of their groundcar got in the Ambassador's carriage with them, and as the train pulled out of the station, produced a tray of nibble-sized food from a storage compartment and presented it to Amanda.
Turning away from the window facing the station platform, Amanda sat down in the nearest chair. "Thanks," she said, and grinned up at the driver. "Why don't we all sit down and eat these? It's an hour from here to Aalang, isn't it?"
"Yes, Ambassador Carrington, an hour," the driver said, and proffered the tray again.
"No, I meant it," Amanda said cheerfully, looking relaxed for the first time since they left the Enterprise. "Sit down. Help yourself. You too," she added to Duncan and Methos.
"Thank you," Methos said most politely, sitting down. He had wondered if Amanda would decide to keep them standing all the way there. Duncan grimaced, but he sat down next to Methos, helping himself to a handful of the greenish crackers.
The driver's name was Levin, and though Levin never quite relaxed, they did get to the point where a question from Amanda didn't elicit a crisp "Yes, Ambassador," or occasionally, for variation, "No, Ambassador," but a shy smile, and even some useful information.
"Can I ask a personal question?" Amanda asked, and promptly, before the driver could actually say yes or no, asked, "What religion are you?"
"Ah," the driver said, and looked embarrassed. "I don't want to offend you, but Mayor Castyin said that I should try not to discuss this with you."
"You don't offend me," Amanda said. "I just wanted to ask, and I don't want to offend you either, isn't it rather unusual for the Patriarch and the Matistu to agree to travel on the same train as the Kerkyon, or each other, for that matter?"
"It is a historic occasion," Levin said, head lifting in sudden pride. "Mayor Castyin said that as you had graciously agreed to use our spaceport and not the transporter, as the other Federakhi do, it was our - our world's right and duty to meet you with all courtesy."
"I do appreciate this," Amanda said, and Methos rather thought she meant it. Listening to her conversation with young Levin was like listening to any of ten thousand exchanges of information over the years. When moving into a new civilisation, it was essential to find out all one could. Amanda did it well. Methos wondered how Bagoas was faring, back at the spaceport.
The council chamber had been specially built for the occasion. It had four entrances: one for each religion, and one for the ambassador and the civil authorities who were desperately trying to be neutral.
Picard's status as distinguished guest also, he found when he checked, included a maximum of four bodyguards. The polite minimum was two. Picard beamed down with Worf and Troi; from what he understood of the Ambassador's plans, it might be useful to have senior officers on hand.
The opening ceremonies included three separate sets of prayers; the Patriarch outside his entrance, the Matistu outside hers, and the Kerkyon leading a group chant outside the third entrance. Picard waited outside the fourth entrance. The mayor of the city, a quiet woman, slightly below average height for a Gisippean, looked mild and calm. Her bodyguards, however, were clearly on edge and tense.
Ambassador Carrington stood with her bodyguards at either side, all three faces utterly neutral, almost expressionless. Picard watched them, aware at the back of his mind of the way they resembled Bagoas, the same kind of steady stillness, knowing he should not be thinking about that. All three were wearing swords.
The council chamber was arranged like a pentagon. The Patriarch had a throne of purple and gold; the Matistu, one of silver; the Kerkyon, one of green. None of them looked at either of the others. Picard found that he had a seat with the mayor's party. The mayor looked calmer than ever.
Ambassador Carrington moved to her chair, but did not sit down. Apart from all eighteen bodyguards, she was the only person in the chamber on her feet.
"I am Amanda Carrington," she said, "and I want to thank you all, and your people, for the welcome I have received. I am glad to be here, on Gisippus, in Aalang, a great city which is justly famed for the beauty and the health of the trees and the children. May the circles of your city remain for as long as God and harmony remain in the world."
Picard was impressed. It wasn't easy in a situation like this to compliment everyone and offend no one. The Patriarch was smiling a little; the Matistu looked pleased; the Kerkyon, from sitting bolt upright in the green wood chair, was leaning back a little, faintly surprised and slightly relaxed.
"We are all here for one purpose," the Ambassador went on. "We wish to re-create the harmony of the world together. I do not believe that harmony will be served by the presence of arms and armed warriors. I ask you all, therefore, to give up your arms, and to dismiss your bodyguards, within this council chamber and wherever we five meet as one."
Picard rose to his feet. He understood. "I agree," he said, clearly into the stillness, and detached his phaser, handing it to Worf. "Mr Worf, Ms Troi, you are dismissed."
Worf looked under his brows. "Sir," he said shortly, and turned to leave. Troi glanced at him a moment in worry, but went.
The mayor rose to her feet as Picard sat. "The Ambassador is right," she said. Picard saw her fingers clench at the cloth of her robe, a tiny, tense gesture. She unhooked a small gun from her belt, and turned to her bodyguards, handing it to one of them. "Lejihj, Tustu, Zsitrm, please go."
None of the three dignitaries had moved yet. Carrington unbuckled her sword belt - Picard would have bet the Enterprise to a garbage scow that it was a real sword, as real as MacLeod's katana, and it certainly looked impressive - and handed it, with the sword, to MacLeod. "You may go," she said.
There was an instant when everyone in the chamber saw that MacLeod did not want to obey her. He looked down at the sword he was holding, and back at the Ambassador, his face set and grim, but his throat working as if he were fighting back remonstrance. Then Cynan moved a little, clearing his throat, and MacLeod nodded, once, grimly. As they left, there was a murmuring throughout the chamber.
Ambassador Carrington sat down, her hands curling to hold the arms of her chair, and stared at the Patriarch, the Matistu, and finally the Kerkyon. "The circle is waiting," she said.
Once one of them moved, they all did. But it was a long minute. They were all armed with two or three weapons concealed in robes and hair; it took a measurable while for them to disentangle their armoury, and each of them to hand it to one of their bodyguards, and then for the three groups to leave, each through their own entrance.
"And now," the Ambassador said, "we can begin."
"'We wish to re-create the harmony of the world together,'" Duncan muttered sing-song under his breath. Methos gave him a sidelong look. They were walking back from the council chambers to their lodgings; after a couple of hours, all the bodyguards had been told they didn't need to wait about outside. Duncan was still carrying Amanda's sword, and looked, if you knew how to read him, seriously worried about it.
Methos took pity on him. "You're not thinking, MacLeod."
"Who on this Earth can hurt Amanda?"
That shut Duncan up for fully five minutes. It had dawned on Methos hours ago. There were only three other immortals on this world, and not one of them wanted to take his head.
"As if the gathering came early," Duncan said at last, "and we missed it."
"I intend to," Methos said, and grinned at him.
The houses here reminded Methos of China, nine hundred years ago. They were built wide-spreading and mainly all on one level, with many courtyards and trees. The Ambassador's lodgings were vast, if you considered that three people were rattling round inside them; either previous ambassadors had been large extended diplomatic families, or else most ambassadors had turned up with more bodyguards. A lot more bodyguards.
They were through the deserted entranceway and into the first, weed-grown courtyard, before they felt the presence of another immortal. MacLeod swung round on Methos. "Who the hell's that?" But he knew, or he wouldn't have sounded so accusing. Methos could only shrug.
With a final glare, Duncan was gone, through the doorway into the main atrium, on Bagoas' trail. Methos stood still, very tempted simply to walk out. Bagoas should have known better than to come here now.
But he must have had a reason. Uncomfortably, Methos followed the double-echo of his two friends, trusting that it would not change before he caught up with them. It was unexplored territory here; Methos could almost have trailed them by their footprints in the dust on the marble floors.
In the last and widest court, a circle of trees grew. Methos could not tell if they had been planted in the centre of the house or if the house had been built around them. They were sturdy, rough-barked trees, old, but not decrepit. Their leaves were darkly purple, and here and there a red berry glowed like a jewel.
Bagoas was standing at the centre of the circle. He was unarmed; his sword was lying next to his duffle, on a stone bench at the edge of the court. MacLeod stood at the very edge of the circle, glowering, but not moving. It was odd not to be immediately certain, but once he recognised the sense of it, Methos knew; the circle of these trees was holy ground.
"I apologise for intruding," Bagoas said.
"How did you get in here?" Duncan demanded, almost at the same moment. He was about to step within the circle, when Bagoas moved, lightly and swiftly, to stand between the trees, barring Duncan from the holy ground.
"Wait. You still have your sword."
"What?" Duncan's glower became ferocious. "I don't kill on holy ground."
"I don't defile holy ground. The Children of the Trees believe that to bring metal torn from the earth into holy ground is to defile it. Therefore my sword is over there. If you are afraid of me," Bagoas added, with the kind of cold courtesy that in a Persian court would have led to poison, "please, do not feel that you must join me on holy ground. I promise you I shall not take offence."
With another glower, Duncan turned away and went across to the bench. He laid his sword down next to Bagoas' weapon, and came back across the court. This time Bagoas did not try to bar his way into the circle of trees.
"All right," Methos said, walking out into the court. He didn't try to enter holy ground. "Congratulations, you're both very brave. Bagoas, why are you still here?"
"Ah," Bagoas said, and for an instant, looked rueful. "I have spent too long among people who depend on sensors to tell them what they can see. I was spotted leaving your shuttle."
"And you told them you were 'in the Ambassador's service'," Duncan said, very nearly right into Bagoas' face.
"No." Bagoas shrugged. He looked faintly disdainful, like a cat. "But they believed I was, and it seemed simpler to let them believe, rather than to contradict them. Therefore I came here, to apologise to the Lady Ambassador."
"And to ask her to take you under her protection?" Duncan was grinning.
Bagoas' head snapped back like a snake, and Methos thought that he would hiss. "I would rather do so than take your head, Highlander."
"Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that." Duncan's voice was pure fierce amused anger.
"If I had come here to fight you, would I have waited for you on holy ground?"
"Why would you want to fight me?" Duncan asked, and with a biting humour, "I'm not anyone's student."
Bagoas shrugged a little. "Colin O'Neil was not your student when I killed him," he said at last, his lips curling in a small cold smile. "But if you want his quickening, I will meet you." He lifted his hand. "After I have spoken with the Lady Ambassador."
Methos turned away. "Fine," he said, crisply and bitterly, to the ancient wall facing him. He turned back to glance at the silence behind him, and saw Bagoas and Duncan watching him instead of each other. He shook his head, exasperated, and almost laughed. "Fine, if you two would rather hack at each other with swords than sit down and talk like civilised beings, I give up. I'll be back after Amanda comes home. She can let me know which of my friends I have left."
"Well," Bagoas said, a moment after Methos left, "shall we stand here until the Lady Ambassador returns?"
"Why did you come back?" MacLeod sounded, for a moment, bewildered, as if he really wanted to know.
Bagoas shrugged again, and sat down with his back against one of the trees. He was tired, not physically, but with the enormous lassitude of the times when he found it hard to love life. "Oh, I had reasons," he said wearily. "I thought it might cause trouble for the Lady Ambassador if I vanished from the spaceport, after everyone there took me for a man in her service. And it was the easiest thing to do, to allow them to bring me here. And I wanted to see Methos once more. And perhaps, yes, I wanted to meet you."
MacLeod hunkered down, squatting on his heels, his arms folded round his knees. "Why did you want to meet me?" he asked, and oddly enough, it sounded as if he still wanted to know the answer.
"The reason Colin O'Neil gave me for his challenge," Bagoas said, after a moment, keeping his voice well under control, "was that he wanted to protect his Captain from me. And I wanted to tell you that he was right. If I had agreed then never to see Jean-Luc Picard again, then my lover would have been spared a great deal of pain and O'Neil would still be alive."
"Protect Picard from you?" MacLeod's voice was frankly disbelieving.
"Why not?" Bagoas heard himself, nearly toneless, and very far away. "We live to kill, MacLeod. It's what we do. It's all we have to love that ever lasts." He was no longer looking at MacLeod's face, but up past the other man's dark hair to the dark foliage clear against the sky. "Do you ever wonder," he asked, "if perhaps the truth is that we are insane?"
"I think that I remember being alive for the past twenty-seven hundred years. I think that I remember my childhood, and how it ended. But what if this is only a delusion? What if we are not immortal, we only think we are? What if, when we kill each other, the only truth is that we kill?"
MacLeod stood up swiftly and was out of the circle of trees in the next moment. Bagoas pushed himself to his feet and stood watching, curiously detached. He was still on holy ground, and he did not move as MacLeod came back, holding his sword. He stood facing Bagoas, outside the circle, and lifted the katana high and awkwardly with one hand, holding the other out where Bagoas could see it.
Neatly and precisely the sharp blade sliced across MacLeod's palm. It bled, and MacLeod came forward a step, kneeling to set down his sword out of immediate reach, holding his cut hand out where Bagoas could see it. It was a flesh wound, not deep, and it was already healing, the flesh and blood reweaving themselves into one whole.
Bagoas looked up, and nodded, slowly. Courtesy for courtesy. "Thank you," he said. "That was very kind of you."
"You told him, then?"
Bagoas nodded. "I told him the truth in such a way that I knew he could not believe me. And I succeeded; he thinks I am insane." He saw MacLeod's mouth twist up in a bitterly ironic commentary, and stepped back, further into the circle.
"Scared?" MacLeod asked.
Bagoas shook his head. "I see no need to answer that." He stood still, watching MacLeod. "All right," he said. Courtesy for courtesy. "I will meet you when and where you will."
"You don't want to talk to Amanda?" MacLeod's face held eagerness, but his voice drawled a little, deliberately unexcited.
"I would rather not fight you at all. But I will let you make the choice."
Bagoas saw MacLeod take a deep breath, and another, his head lifting, his back straightening, moving without thought into a perfectly balanced stance for combat. His eyes were darker, the pupils wider, and his breathing was slightly faster. And then he smiled, a wide and perfectly happy smile, with no shadows.
"We'll spar till Amanda arrives," he offered.
Bagoas tilted his head to one side, and did not smile back. "You mean, a practice fight."
MacLeod stepped back, and bowed to him, neatly, gesturing him out of the circle of trees. Bagoas took a long breath, like a diver, and walked out from between the trees, across the courtyard to where his sword lay. It was cool and right in his hand.
"The first courtyard is the largest, apart from this one."
"I'll take your word for it," MacLeod said, still in the highest of good humour. "I haven't had a chance to look over this house yet."
"Neither have I. Once I knew I would be walking here a while, I read as much about this world as I could find. This house was built two centuries ago, when the People of the Trees ruled Aalang. They had a very precise, one might even say unimaginative, architectural style."
In the first courtyard, they both turned to face each other, raised their swords, and bowed; and only then began to circle, pacing neatly as dancers on the greening stones. They talked as they moved. Now was not the time for speed or silence.
"The People of the Trees?" MacLeod asked, his smile still glimmering across his sword. "Or the Children of the Trees? Which?"
"Both," Bagoas answered. "Also the Treefolk. You met their leaders today. They all believe tree circles are holy ground. You were never offworld before."
"No," MacLeod said. "Not unless you count the Moon." He laughed suddenly. "Times change."
"For us all holy places are holy. This I learned long ago." Bagoas turned more swiftly than before, underpointing his words with a quick-edged movement.
"It's what we all learn." MacLeod sidestepped and his sword came out in a move that, if it had connected, would have gutted Bagoas.
"Then why didn't you learn the holy places of this world?" Bagoas turned MacLeod's blow in a heart-beat, and turned the counter-stroke into a killing thrust in the next. Unobtrusively, gently, the tempo of the dance was picking up. For the next few minutes they hardly spoke, focusing entirely on the dance made of their two swords and each other.
"I suppose I didn't quite believe it was real," MacLeod answered at last. "Not until we walked off the shuttle. These are the three factions Amanda wants to stop fighting?"
"Three religions," Bagoas said, making a perfect slice at MacLeod's face, and observing with something near appreciation MacLeod's equally perfect counter. "If the Children of the Trees found you had taken metal into a circle of trees, their Patriarch would curse you, they would torture you slowly, and then they would behead you."
"I'm glad you warned me."
"If the People of the Trees found you had taken cut wood into a circle of trees, they would ask if you had done it in innocence, in which case they would only beat you half to death, or in malice, in which case they would make you drink a swift poison." The fight at this time was almost like a lesson; they were each moving through classic patterns of defence and attack, swiftly and perfectly, as if each to each was proving what they knew.
"And how do I prove myself innocent?" MacLeod asked. His smile had hardly faded. He looked happy. Each time Bagoas increased the tempo, he only moved faster, and still in perfect time.
"If the Treefolk found a circle of trees in the centre of a house built with hands, they would put the house to the flame, and make sure you stayed inside while it burned."
"What?" The Treefolk, and their quiet Kerkyon, had clearly impressed MacLeod most favourably in the brief time he had to meet them. He looked shocked and angry now, and for an instant his stroke faltered.
"You see, there is much to learn, MacLeod," Bagoas said, never faltering. For an instant his sword was within a hair's breadth of MacLeod's throat, but MacLeod threw himself backwards and rolled to his feet, his sword still glinting dangerously. "And I know how to learn it. I can walk out of here and into their forests, and if it takes me a hundred years, I can walk across the world and not offend my hosts."
"You talk too much," MacLeod grunted. He was moving very swiftly now, and his sword danced with Bagoas' sword an intricate and deadly pattern.
"Listen," Bagoas said, and that was all; he thought that this was still a practice fight, but for it to remain so, it had reached a time when both of them must focus on nothing but each other, and the steel that cut between them.
Picard took the opportunity of a rest-break to get an unobtrusive briefing from Worf. When the other bodyguards had been sent home, he and Troi had gone for a short surveillance patrol. "Lieutenant-Commander Troi suggested that we hold hands," Worf added, "and appear to be engrossed with each other, to avoid anyone noticing that we were making observations."
"Excellent," Picard said, shortly.
"The Lieutenant-Commander says that the general mood appears to be quiet and hopeful. I agree, but I noticed that most of the adults and many of the children are armed."
Picard relaxed a little, and smiled sideways. "Good. So long as the mood stays quiet and people stay hopeful. We can try and change their weapons policy later."
There was a cough from behind them. Worf turned his head to look, and when Picard saw his jaw clench but his body relax, he knew he could be certain that it was not a direct threat. Picard flushed the urinal, re-sealed his pants, and turned, looking - he trusted - cool and dignified. "Mr Cynan. A pleasure."
"Captain," Cynan said urgently. "I have to talk with you."
"A message from the Ambassador?" Picard asked. His mind was ticking over the possibilities, the probabilities; he and Carrington had arranged several warning signals for extreme danger, and this was not one of them.
"No," Cynan said. He glanced at Worf. "It's private."
Picard stared at him, hope and fear springing up inside him for a moment, and then he repressed both, firmly. "I'm sorry," he said, politely, "I don't really have time just now."
Cynan shifted uneasily from foot to foot, looking desperately worried. "Captain, please. Half an hour."
Picard glanced at Worf. "Can't it wait?"
"No, I thought it could, but it can't." Cynan was leaning towards him, as if pushed by his own urgency. "Captain, please."
"Mr Worf, please wait for me outside," Picard said, and watched him go.
Cynan waited until the door closed and said, swiftly, "Jean-Luc, you have to come with me. Now. Bagoas is in danger."
Picard's heart thudded. "What?" he said, in time with the first heavy thud, and then, fighting for calm, "What do you mean?"
"There isn't time to explain," Cynan said. He caught hold of Picard's sleeve, and tugged at the fabric. "Please."
It was the worried restraint that broke Picard's determination. "Worf could help," he said, reluctantly.
Cynan shook his head. "Not the Klingon," he said. "It has to be you."
Picard got away from Worf in return for accepting his phaser back. In the street outside, Picard found he had to walk quickly to keep up with Cynan's easy stride. He was conscious of walking away from his obligations, even if he could be back inside half an hour. He should have sent Worf with Cynan to rescue Bagoas from whatever trouble he was in...
Only a few hours ago, Picard had realised that for Bagoas, he would break his oath to Starfleet. Or ignore it, at least, sooner than break the loyalty he had promised to his husband. Starship captains shouldn't marry....
He could take responsibility for breaking his own oath. He would not take responsibility for allowing Worf to break his. (Or do you just want to see Bagoas again, just once more...? a delicately ironic voice inquired.)
The Ambassador's mansion was only a few streets away from the council chamber. It had been recently repaired, Picard saw, but had an indefinable air of neglect about it. Clearly diplomacy had not been a major concern of the city for some years.
Cynan pushed open the door and let Picard in ahead of him. The entranceway was cold after the sunlight. Through the far doorway, from the first courtyard, came a sound of metalwork, steel rattling on steel.
Picard went rapidly to the door, and out into the sunlight again. The two people fighting with swords stopped, at his entrance, and turned, a curious quality of attention in their eyes. Picard caught his breath, walking with at a consciously steady pace to stand between them. He knew now why Cynan had run to find him; these two could have killed each other with these weapons.
"Give me your swords," he said, coldly and dryly, his Captain's voice. He was glad he could still muster it, and keep his face steady to glare at both Bagoas and MacLeod equally. "Whatever quarrel you have with each other, it can be settled some other way - "
Bagoas had handed Picard his sword immediately; an antique weapon that had hung on the wall in Bagoas' quarters for as long as Picard had known him. Picard was still holding out his hand for MacLeod's sword as it dawned on him, mid-sentence, that MacLeod wasn't going to obey him.
"Not again," MacLeod said, softly, emphatically. "Not twice, Captain. And you don't have your phaser, do you?"
Picard put his hand to his side, where his phaser ought to have been, and only then realised that it wasn't there. He brought his hand up to touch his combadge, and MacLeod's hand slapped his aside.
"Oh no," MacLeod said, and stepped back, bringing his sword up in a beautiful sweep of steel that cut swiftly through the tough fabric of Picard's uniform jacket. A second later, beyond astonishment, Picard heard his combadge clatter on the stone as MacLeod, lowering his sword, said, "No, not this time. No gadgets, Captain. I hear you fancy yourself as a fencer." He smiled, bringing his sword up in a perfect en garde, as graceful as a dancer. "Let's see how well you do without your gadgets to help you."
Instinctively, Picard raised Bagoas' sword en garde. It was longer than a fencing foil, and heavier. He saw MacLeod smile, lethally happy, and hoped to God that Bagoas had the sense to pick up the fallen combadge and call for help. Where was Cynan?
Hands caught his shoulders, moving him backwards out of MacLeod's reach, so swiftly that he stumbled on the weed-grown stones. Exactly as if Bagoas were dancing with him, Bagoas turned him, taking his sword back from Picard's hand, and then shoving him, further away from MacLeod, so fast and so hard that Picard landed on his seat and was out of breath for a long moment.
Bagoas was moving forward, balanced as lightly as he was when he danced, his sword light in his hand (and Picard had felt how heavy it was). "I'm the one you want," Bagoas said. There was the essence of anger in his voice. Nothing that could be pinned down to word or tone. This was rage, essential and pure and ancient. "I'm the one you came here to fight. I hold your student's quickening, MacLeod, and you want it. Come for me, Highlander. Fight me, student-killer."
MacLeod's face twisted suddenly, as if the last were too much to bear. His sword moved in his hand, as if it were alive, and suddenly, they were fighting again.
With equal suddenness, as abruptly as if the ground had given way beneath him, Picard almost believed what Bagoas had told him. Surely it took more than a mortal lifetime to learn how to fight like this.
Picard got to his feet with an effort, and tried to see where his combadge had fallen. It had to be somewhere around where they were fighting now, and he had to find it; it was the only way out for any of them. They were fighting to kill each other. Only miracles of skill and swiftness had saved either of them from an ugly death within minutes, but both of them were wounded now, bleeding on both sides.
If he could find his combadge, there had to be something he could do to stop the fight. Get a fix on the swords and beam their weapons up, out of their hands? Ask someone to beam down another phaser? Call Worf - two of them might stand a chance of intervening, without someone getting killed? Have Bagoas beamed up to the ship out of harm's way?
Picard circled them, trying to scan the weed-grown stones and watch the two fighters. He had seldom seen such focused concentration on two faces. Never, as far as he could remember, on a human face. He saw the piece of cloth that MacLeod had cut from his uniform, clinging to an infant tree, but his combadge had ripped away from it when it fell. He glanced up and saw Bagoas' eyes on him over MacLeod's shoulder, and knew, as if he looked in a mirror, that Bagoas was afraid for him. It did not surprise him, though from his sudden leap backwards it startled MacLeod, when Bagoas yelled, a high skirling like a seagull, and lunged forward, pressing an assault that had already seemed as vicious as a fight could be.
He still couldn't see his combadge, and it was even a moment before he understood the words that Bagoas had cried out to him, "Run! - Jean-Luc, run!" And he did not, he could not run; they were infighting now, locked almost as close as an embrace, and Picard could no longer see Bagoas' eyes; and he could not bear that this should be his last sight of Bagoas' face.
It was not; with a horrible screech of metal, Bagoas turned MacLeod's sword enough to step aside from the lethal embrace as lightly as he had ever kissed Picard, and thrust upwards at MacLeod's face - his partner in the dance jerked backwards, missing all but an edge-blow on his cheek - and yelling again as his eyes met Picard's, "Run!"
The instant's inattention was enough. MacLeod, bleeding down the side of his face, jerked back his sword and with both hands drove it, hard and point-first, at Bagoas' chest. Picard heard rib-bones crack. Bagoas grunted with pain and went to his knees, staring up at MacLeod, the katana dragging his life out of him. His lips parted, as if he meant to laugh, to pray, to say something - but instead, though it seemed to cost him the last of his life, blood bubbling to his lips, Bagoas lifted his own sword, and thrust one-handed into MacLeod's stomach and upwards, falling backwards as his own thrust pushed him off MacLeod's sword.
He was lying with his head towards Picard, his body torn open, his face set in a grimace of death. He was dead. Picard hardly needed to kneel and touch for the pulse at Bagoas' throat. It was still. Bagoas was dead.
Picard looked up. MacLeod was sagging to his knees, an expression of agonised disbelief on his face, pressing a hand against his gut, as if trying to hold himself together. He saw Picard looking at him and shook his head, managing to croak out "Don't - it's all - right - "
"You're dying," Picard said, and, too late to do himself or Bagoas any good, at last saw his combadge. It had been kicked far out of reach, towards the other side of the courtyard. From
somewhere, he found the ability to speak in a controlled voice. "We'll get you back to the ship. You'll be all right."
To his astonishment, MacLeod laughed. It was painful, choking him, but it was unmistakeable mirth. MacLeod laughed as Picard hadn't heard anyone laugh in forty years. It was a moment before Picard could shake it off and walk away, briskly, to take up the combadge and the reins of his life again.
From behind him, he heard the sound of a phaser on stun. He turned, and saw Cynan, holding his phaser, and smiling at him.
"Don't touch it, Jean-Luc."
"What?" Picard stared from the combadge to Cynan to where MacLeod was lying as still as Bagoas. "If we get him back to the ship," he said, his voice striving for control, "he stands a chance. He'll have to be tried for murder, but he'll be alive."
Cynan shrugged. "If I let you take MacLeod back to the ship, he'll probably never speak to me again. I don't want to have to stun you, I hate dragging out conversations longer than necessary, but trust me, if you make one move towards that communicator, we'll just have to start again in six hours." He gestured with the phaser. "And you'll have a splitting headache. Move."
"He's dying," Picard said again. "Can't you understand, he's dying and he doesn't have to."
"He's not dying," Cynan said, and tilted his head slightly as if listening to a sound that Picard couldn't hear. He shrugged again, showing no sign of grief. "He's dead. They both are. Come here, I want to show you something." He gestured again with the phaser, and when Picard didn't move, with a sound of exasperation, he stepped closer and grabbed Picard's arm, tugging him over to the bodies. "Look."
Cynan's hand was strong and thin and hard; he gripped the back of Picard's neck and forced Picard's head down, making him stare at the bodies on the stone. "Look," Cynan said again, briefly and forcefully.
Bagoas lay sprawled open on the stone. Picard did not look at him. He fixed his eyes on MacLeod's face. There was a mark on it, not easily seen for the crusting blood, a scar like a old sword-cut. Picard blinked, and stared harder; the scar didn't seem to be there any more. There was no mark on MacLeod's face at all. There was only the blood.
Bagoas looked calmer now in death. Picard's gaze flickered over him, afraid to hurt, and saw that the grimace in which Bagoas' face had been set seemed to have smoothed itself out.
And then Picard's knees seemed to give way beneath him. He hardly felt himself fall; only that he had to reach what he thought he had seen. Bagoas had been wrenched open on MacLeod's sword.
But he no longer was. There was a deep wound still in him, and in it Picard thought that he could see small sparks like fire, but the wound was closing, healing under Picard's hands as he touched the open flesh.
Picard jerked his hands back as if from an electric shock. He had felt the flesh move. Not live; but move. The wound was healing fast enough to feel, as if Picard's hands might have been melded into Bagoas' healing flesh, if Picard had touched him there a minute longer.
"He is," Picard whispered, to whom he did not know. "Oh God... immortal."
Part 4; "No word or voice remains"
Securely, after days
Unnumbered, I behold
Kings mourn that promised praise
Their cheating bards foretold.
Of earth-constricting wars,
Of Princes passed in chains,
Of deeds out-shining stars,
No word or voice remains.
Methos stood looking down at the man kneeling on the stones. "Well, Jean-Luc?"
Captain Picard didn't even look up. After a little while, he said, "He's immortal. They both are."
"Yes," Methos said. "They'll be alive again in about ten minutes. Stunned," he grinned to himself, "but alive. We have an hour."
"Six hours," Picard said. He sounded as if he were speaking by rote.
Methos stepped over Bagoas and squatted down on the other side, fastidiously choosing a clean paving stone. He looked Picard in the face. The Captain looked white and tired, but his eyes seemed quite focused. Not in shock, then. Good.
"No." Methos had wondered where to start, if he only had an hour, and it had not occurred to him to begin with phasers, but after all, why not? "Phasers on stun work on us, just less effectively. They'll be out of it for an hour, and neither of them will be in a fit state to fight for an hour or so after that." He waited.
Picard looked at him for a long moment. "You're one of them," he said at last, slowly. "If you're wounded, you heal. If you die, you return to life. Is that right?"
"Absolutely." Methos smiled. The phrasing was familiar. "Let me guess. Bagoas told you all about him, and you thought he'd gone mad." He couldn't suppress a laugh, and saw Picard's eyes focus on him, something cold and authoritative about his gaze. "I'm sorry," Methos said promptly. "It's not really funny. Bagoas never lies, but there's no one alive better at telling the truth and not being believed." He grinned. "I'm just very good at lying."
"Let me guess," Picard parodied back at him, and Methos grinned again in surprised amusement. "Now you want to tell me the truth."
"Yes, I do." Methos nodded at him. "You think I'm telling you what a good liar I am, just to convince you that I'm not lying to you now. That's true; I am. If I wanted to lie to you, you would never know it. You have no reason to believe a word I say to you, which is one reason why I made sure you would see these two kill each other."
Picard looked down at Bagoas again, and almost helplessly reached out to touch the healing wound. This time his hands stayed there longer, pressed against the knitting flesh, though it was, Methos knew, unexpectedly unpleasant for a mortal to touch.
"You arranged it," Picard said. His voice was quite expressionless.
"I took advantage of it." Methos was insouciant. "You had to believe that Bagoas is immortal, before I could tell you the rest of it."
"All right," Picard said, after a long moment. "Tell me the rest of it." His voice held the note of command that Methos recognised but was quite immune to. He stood up, and a second later Picard also stood, frowning.
"Let's sit down over there," Methos suggested, jerking his thumb at the stone benches against the wall opposite. "Don't worry about Bagoas, he'll come back to life whether or not you're watching him."
As he turned, he caught the edge of Picard's glare, but the Captain followed him over to the bench indicated, and sat down next to Methos. "Tell me the rest of it," Picard said, as if it were an order.
"All right," Methos said, as if he were obeying the Captain, and smiled. "You love Bagoas. Why do you love him?"
This time he caught Picard's glare full-on. The Captain was plainly not used to being questioned like this. Picard said, very coldly and dryly, "I don't see that my feelings for Bagoas have anything to do with the main issue."
"Well, if you didn't love Bagoas, you wouldn't be here listening to me now," Methos pointed out. "That makes it fairly relevant to the 'main issue.' Why do you love him?"
Picard drew a long breath, and let it out again, before he said, in a stiffly-controlled voice, "That's none of your business, Mr Cynan." He was staring straight across the courtyard, his eyes resting on Bagoas' body. Methos caught hold of his shoulder, and wrenched him round to face him.
It was almost funny; Picard looked so outraged. He glared at Methos, cold and Captainly, and opened his mouth to say something cutting. Methos put his hand up to shut Picard's mouth for him, and gave him back glare for glare.
"Listen, Jean-Luc," Methos said, keeping his voice deliberately quiet and unthreatening. "The only reason I am bothering with you at all is because Bagoas is the oldest friend I have alive. I don't have very many old friends left. So answer the question, kid, and don't waste my time acting your age; why do you love Bagoas?" He took his hand away from Picard's mouth.
Picard brought his own hand up to rub across his mouth where Methos had touched it, staring at Methos with the oddest mixture of outrage, surprise, and sheer curiosity naked in his eyes. Finally he said, "Bagoas told me he is... two thousand seven hundred years old. Is that true?"
Methos nodded, half-smiling. "Give or take a few decades, yes. Calendars change." He could guess the next question.
"How old are you?" Picard asked.
"Five and a half thousand years." Methos waited. Picard was still staring at him. "Best guess," Methos added, still waiting. "I didn't think about counting it for quite a while." More silence. "I didn't find out about calendars for a long time." He waited again. "Say something," he suggested.
"How old was O'Neil?"
"Oh," Methos said, with something like relief, "he was about five years older than his records. He became immortal when he was twenty, and he was twenty-five, real age, when he went to the Academy. We deducted five years so that his records matched his looks, at least at the start, and he promised us he'd grow a beard or something when he turned thirty. His records would have been good enough for a Starfleet stare for at least another ten years, probably. It was his looks that would have got him into trouble."
Picard looked at him, for what felt like a long time. Methos stared back. Picard was good at this, for someone with only mortal experience.
Finally, and it was a moment before Methos realised that Picard was answering his original question, Picard said, "I've been wondering that myself, the past few days." He glanced across the courtyard again, but looked back at Methos, and almost smiled. "You know, the captain of a starship is in a rather awkward position as far as getting involved with anyone is concerned. It's not a good idea for it to be anyone under the captain's direct command, and I've discovered for myself that it's not good for it to be anyone I might have to order into danger. It has worked sometimes for captain/first officer marriages, but even that is much more complicated that it seems from the outside. It only works when you have a captain who can let go of command off duty and take it up again on duty, and a first officer who genuinely doesn't want promotion."
"I can tell you've thought about it a lot," Methos said, politely. "So having eliminated your crew and your officers, you decided an outsider was safer?"
"No." Picard looked startled, and he lost the lecturing voice as he answered. "No. I met Bagoas... and he laughed at me."
"Do you always fall in love with people who laugh at you?"
Picard half-laughed as he answered. "It happens... but that wasn't why. I don't think I did love him then." He hesitated, clenching his hands together between his knees, and there was an awkward embarrassment in his voice when he said, "You did know... that he's... he's been crippled?"
"No," Methos said evenly. "Bagoas is not crippled. I do know he's a eunuch, yes."
Picard ducked his head. "I'm sorry," he said. He sounded oddly defeated. Neither of them said anything for a little while.
At last Methos sighed, and said, "All I want to know is why you love Bagoas. Is it because he's beautiful? Because he's good in bed? Because he's very good at being the perfect concubine, never there when you don't want him and always there when you do?"
Picard turned his head to look at Methos again, and this time he was angry enough to let it show. "I loved him," Picard said, "because I thought he was the strongest, bravest man I'd ever met. He'd been injured unspeakably, in a way meant to cripple him permanently, and yet he still reached out. He dared. That was why I fell in love with him. I asked him to marry me because I wanted him to be with me, because I knew I could trust him. Because he's - a reliable person. I didn't know how good he would be at being a Captain's husband until he came aboard. I didn't think he knew how difficult it could be."
Methos snorted. "I don't know how difficult it could be, after being a king's favourite. All right," he added, raising a hand in a quick, automatic counter, "I believe you. You loved him. And then you found out that he's a callous murderer."
"I can't understand you," Picard said tightly. "If O'Neil was like you, when he was killed he didn't just lose ninety years. He lost five thousand. He died at the very beginning of his life, as you must see it, but you don't seem to care."
"No," Methos said deliberately. "I don't. Most of us die within a couple of years of becoming immortal. More than half of those that survive die within a century. MacLeod's survived far longer than most, and he's not quite eight hundred. I can't afford to care about anyone under a century; they probably won't be around long enough to be worth getting attached to."
"If they're immortal," Picard said, as if he were pressing charges, "why do they die?"
"Because other immortals cut their heads off," Methos said evenly. "Young immortals are easy prey. It's what we do."
"Is that why Bagoas killed O'Neil?" It was an indictment, cold and terrible.
Methos shrugged. "No. Bagoas killed Colin because Colin challenged him. Jean-Luc, I want you to think about something. Suppose the fight had gone the other way, and Colin had won. He would also have destroyed Bagoas' body, so that no one would ever find it. We all do that. You would never have seen Bagoas again. You would never have known what became of him. He would only have vanished, and you would have been left wondering for the rest of your life why he went away. Why he deserted you."
Picard shook his head. "O'Neil wouldn't have done that - "
"He meant to do it," Methos interrupted, flatly. "You know you never knew Bagoas. You never knew Colin, either. Not the way I knew him. We're all killers."
"What do you think about when you kill?"
They were sparring in the long salle, Methos and the tall young man that Duncan had taken in just over a year ago. Methos could defend himself against a boy this age almost without looking, and Colin bored him. This wasn't his business; Colin wasn't his student. But this question wasn't unexpected. Duncan had gone out a couple of hours earlier.
"Surviving," Methos said, stepping back and parrying, circling to bring in the attack from a new direction. "What else?"
Colin paused, holding himself still in the first of the classic positions that MacLeod had taught him. "Come on, it can't be that simple. Someone's trying to take your head, so you fight, and you kill. Don't tell me all you think about is survival."
Methos mirrored that position, amused, knowing Colin would hardly recognise his echoing of Colin's stance as a joke. "It's all you can afford to think about, kid."
"Look, Alex," Colin said. He sounded quite serious. Of course he usually did. It was one of the many reasons why he bored Methos. "MacLeod's my teacher, and he's a lot older than me. I'll take him talking to me like that. Not you." He lunged, and Methos sidestepped neatly.
"What you really want is for me to tell you what it feels like to kill," Methos said. He smiled. "Ever tried explaining sex to a virgin, kid?"
"Yes, grandpa," Colin said, tightly. "I've taught sex classes three times, when I was at junior school."
Methos laughed. "You taught sex?"
"Even forty years ago they had sex education classes," Colin said impatiently. "Don't pretend you don't remember that far back."
Methos pursed his lips. "You'd be surprised what I remember, kid. All right - " he lifted his hand, bringing his sword up in a counter for an attack that Colin hadn't made yet, " - I won't call you 'kid.' You can't prepare for your first quickening. All you can do is prepare to survive."
"That's what Duncan says."
"He's right." Methos grinned. "Come on, k- Colin. Did you want to spar a while, or did you want to pick my brains about killing?" He flipped his sword neatly up in an ironic salute, and gestured at the door. "I'll just go back and finish my breakfast, then."
He didn't turn his back on Colin. But for an instant the younger immortal's right hand fell out of his peripheral vision, and the next moment it returned, swinging his sword hard at Methos' right arm.
The flat, not the edge, of Colin's sword. The blow smashed bones, ripping flesh. Methos felt his grip on his own sword going, and used the momentum from Colin's attack to fling it away from him. He ducked from under Colin's next blow, and threw himself down the salle, ignoring the sudden savage pain in his broken arm. He caught up his sword in his left hand, and came back, stopping a few feet away from Colin.
The younger immortal looked as if he were more taken aback by his actions than Methos was. But he raised his sword, moving in balance, readying himself for a fight.
Methos shook his head slowly. "No."
"Scared?" Colin spat out.
"That was stupid," Methos said. He was angry enough to kill, angry at his own mistake in letting his guard down, but he wasn't going to unleash it on Duncan's student. Duncan would never forgive him if he did. "Very stupid. What were you going to do if you had managed to kill me?"
"I wasn't going to kill you," Colin snapped. "Just - "
"Make me take you seriously? Or make MacLeod take you seriously? Or scare me off?" Methos didn't move. "Colin, this is not a fight either of us can really win, so let's just not have it. I'll go."
Colin swallowed, the point of his sword falling. "What? What - what are you going to tell Duncan?"
"I'll think of something," Methos shrugged. "I'll be gone a couple of months. Cool down, or pick a fight you can win and get it out of your system. I don't care." He brought his sword neatly up till the point all but shaved Colin's cheek. "Winner takes all, Colin. Don't start a fight you can't win."
"Why?" Picard demanded, his voice jerking at Methos. "Why do you kill each other? You could live forever - "
"For the quickening," Methos said. He pulled a knife out of the hidden pocket in his jacket, and was startled himself when Picard jerked back, a startled look on his face that seemed a little too much. "Don't worry, this is for me, not you. Watch." Irritably, he realised a simple cut on his hand would heal too fast to make his point, and shrugged his left arm out of his jacket, rolling the sleeve of his tunic up to bare the skin. Picard watched, looking puzzled. With a swift move, Methos ripped the back of his forearm open, setting his teeth against the raw and ragged pain. He could feel the warm sting of blood flowing. Supporting his arm with a hand under his elbow, he held it out to Picard. "Look. What do you see?" The pain faded rapidly, of course, but Methos hoped Picard had seen enough the first time.
Picard was rubbing his mouth with his hand again. But he said, still rather sternly, "I saw... sparks. Something like that. I thought I saw them... before."
"Yes," Methos said. He glanced at his arm. It was grubby with drying blood, but the cut was already healed; only the faintest scar was left, and even as Methos watched, that too vanished. He rolled his sleeve down again, and tucked the knife away. "You would have seen it in Bagoas, and felt it, too, when you put your hands on him. But I didn't think you were in any state to notice just then. Not even if he'd had a whole lightning-storm inside him."
"What are you talking about?"
"Those sparks are the quickening. What we hold inside us. It heals us. And when we die of decapitation," Methos deliberately made his voice impersonal, "the quickening leaps to the nearest immortal within range. I've seen it happen over several metres, but it's usually just the length of a sword-blade. When the quickening strikes..." Methos hesitated, and picked his words very carefully, "it's more intense than the strongest, most powerful shock of pleasure that you could possibly imagine. It is pleasure; there's nothing else. Every time I take a quickening, it feels like that's the only time I'm really alive. All the rest of my life is mere existence. And I can have it whenever I choose. All I have to do is cut off another immortal's head."
Picard swallowed. "Do you... does anyone... do that just - for fun?"
Methos couldn't stop it. He started to laugh, leaning back against the wall, crowing with laughter, knowing it wouldn't help. He saw Picard stare at him, eyes widening, and it occurred to him that Picard might think Methos was laughing at him. Would Picard fall in love with him if he did? That only made him laugh all the harder.
"Sorry," Methos got out, and choked back another laugh. "Not laughing at you, Jean-Luc. Not really. The answer is," he suppressed a final giggle, "yes. Oh, yes. Hundreds of us do nothing else but hunt for other immortals, and challenge them, and fight to the death. Winner takes head. We've all been headhunters, some time or other."
"Yes." Methos recovered, and nodded, seriously. "Oh, yes. There's a feeling, a kind of presence, whenever an immortal is near enough to be challenged. We always know when another immortal is nearby. We can't avoid it. And what it feels like is temptation. We want to fight. We like to fight. We can sublimate it or just avoid each other, or go to holy ground, but - it's like sex is for mortals. Could you decide to give up sex for the rest of your life?"
Unexpectedly, Picard bent his head into his hands and his shoulders shook; it was a moment before Methos could be sure that Picard was laughing, almost silently, and not crying. When Picard lifted his head, it was to say, in a voice still strained with the effort of controlling laughter, "Believe it or not, Mr Cynan, I'm seriously considering it," and then laughed again.
Methos sat back and waited for Picard to laugh himself out. When the mortal brought his hands up to wipe at his eyes, his shoulders still quaking a little, Methos said, "My real name is Methos, Jean-Luc. You might as well know it."
"An identity," Methos shrugged. "I change identities every thirty or forty years. Alex Cynan is nearly out of time."
"Mythos?" Picard stared, frowning a little. From the sound of the way he said it, Methos thought he probably wondered if he'd heard right. It didn't matter.
Methos glanced over at the other side of the courtyard. Both Bagoas and Duncan should be waking up fairly soon. "Methos," he confirmed.
"All right." Picard's hands came out in a sudden, conversational gesture. "All right, you've almost convinced me. You murder each other on equal terms, and none of you see anything wrong with this. If that's true, if it's just 'what you do,' why was MacLeod so angry with Bagoas for killing O'Neil?"
"Ah." Methos raised his eyebrows, and smiled. "Ah, well, Colin was MacLeod's student. We become immortal when we die for the first time. Before the first death we know no more about it than you did. It's traditional for an older immortal to take a newly-fledged immortal as a student, for a few years. The student learns the law, the rules of the game, and at least some fighting skills. The teacher is responsible for the student. MacLeod has always taken his responsibilities rather hard."
Picard looked as if he didn't care for the flippancy. "But Bagoas called MacLeod 'student-killer,'" he said slowly.
"That was an accident." Methos cut Picard off abruptly. "Bagoas was just trying to make MacLeod too angry to think." He stood up. "Let's go take a look at them, shall we?"
Picard stood up with alacrity, following Cynan across the courtyard. The wounds were all healed now; both MacLeod and Bagoas lay whole and uninjured on the bloodstained stones. Cynan - Mythos - stood looking down at them, an odd expression on his face. "They'll wake soon," he said.
Picard knelt again beside Bagoas, and touched his fingers to Bagoas' throat. The pulse was slow and heavy, but it was like magic to feel it, to feel Bagoas breathing lightly, alive.
Bagoas' eyelids fluttered, and he groaned, his hands fumbling out blindly. Picard caught hold of one hand, and felt Bagoas grip at him.
"He wants his sword," Cynan said. Picard looked up at him. Mythos. Bagoas was still gripping his hand, and Picard reached out for the antique weapon. The hilt was silver, made rough with turquoises. Picard fitted it into Bagoas' grip. Bagoas did not let go, but his other hand felt for Picard's and held it tightly. Picard was only half-aware of hearing MacLeod groan and Mythos say something, because Bagoas opened his eyes and stared up at him, at first unfocused, as stun victims always were, but his eyes acquired focus and depth far faster than Picard had ever seen in anyone else stunned by phaser-fire.
"Jean-Luc," Bagoas said at last, mumbling the words a little. "What are you doing here?"
Picard leaned across him. "Bagoas. You're alive."
Bagoas' hand clenched round Picard's wrist. He said nothing. Picard could feel Bagoas breathing, almost hear his heart beat. His tunic was cut and torn, but the skin beneath was smooth, unmarred. As Picard watched, Bagoas let go of his sword and brought his hand up to wipe at his mouth. An hour ago his lips had parted, as if he had meant to laugh or pray with his last breath - and blood had come bubbling to his lips, blood that was still crusted there.
The dark eyes looking up at him had been frozen open in a grimace of death only an hour ago. Only an hour ago, Picard had seen Bagoas torn open by a sword. "Bagoas..."
"I'm sorry," Bagoas said in a voice slightly clearer, but no stronger. He let go of Picard's wrist.
"You must be thirsty," Picard said, and stood up. He hardly looked at Mythos leaning over MacLeod. The house had probably been built a couple of hundred years ago; it was a Matistan style of architecture, very regular and precise. The kitchen must be to the west of the first courtyard.
It was, and it had been recently cleaned. There were supplies in the alcoves, and clean glassware on the shelves. Picard took a cup and filled it at the western water-fountain. He carried the cup out of the kitchen and into the open courtyard, stopping short for an instant as he saw how widely the blood from Bagoas and MacLeod had splattered the courtyard floor.
Bagoas propped himself up on his elbows as Picard approached, but they gave way and he fell back against the stone. Picard knelt down beside him, setting the cup down out of harm's way, and it seemed the simplest of things to do, to ease Bagoas up so that his head was resting against Picard's shoulder, and Picard could hold the cup of water to his mouth.
Bagoas was thin and light, resting against him as if any moment he would be somewhere else. He drank sparingly. "Thank you," he said, and his voice was still very quiet. "I'm sorry. I'll go."
Picard felt a tap on his arm and turned his head. Mythos was reaching out for the cup, eyebrows raised. Picard handed it to him, feeling Mythos' hand brush against his as he took the cup. Five and a half thousand years. It was quite unbelievable.
Mythos' eyes fastened on his, for a long moment, and the man smiled, briefly, but as if he knew exactly what Picard was thinking, and Picard shivered involuntarily. He turned his head so that his chin, once more, could rest against Bagoas' dark smooth hair.
"Mon mari," he said softly, "I don't want you to go."
"He's been talking to you," Bagoas said with an effort. "The ancient one. I mean Cynan."
"Mythos," Picard said.
"Methos," Bagoas echoed. There was a subtly different stress on the word, and a faint trace of the kind of anger with which he had spoken to MacLeod before he... before he died.
"I don't want you to go," Picard repeated, hopelessly.
"I'll go," Bagoas repeated, still gently. "It is necessary. I don't want to bring you grief."
He closed his eyes. Picard touched his throat, feeling again for the pulse, swifter now. He saw Bagoas' eyes flicker again, and knew that Bagoas was holding himself still under Picard's touch.
And then Bagoas jerked upwards, responding instinctively to the loud banging at the outer gate, an instant even before Picard could react.
The sound of a Starfleet phaser was loud in Duncan's ears, and for a long black dizzy moment it was the only sound he could hear, overwhelming even the pain in his gut where Pasargardai had wounded him.
There had been a moment of pure joy, pure fight, and Captain Picard had broken it. (Give me your sword.) The Captain had stood there, hand out to receive what he had no right to, his eyes fixed on Duncan's, arrogantly certain Duncan would obey.
Fight me, student-killer.
After that, it was easy. Not full of joy, but easy with rage, which makes the fastest stroke seem to move slow and lazy through the air.
Easy until he felt Pasargardai die. Easy until then, until the bright sustaining rage flickered and died, leaving only the red pain in his gut, a lethal wound, and Picard staring at him, his face white and shocked. A mortal shouldn't have had to see that. Duncan was almost sorry. Don't worry, Duncan tried to say, it's all right, but he could not hear his own voice, only feel it in the ragged hurt through his diaphragm.
"You're dying. We'll get you back to the ship. You'll be all right."
Duncan understood after a moment. Picard was trying to reassure him. Picard had seen his lover killed before his eyes, but he was trying to comfort his lover's killer. Picard thought that Duncan was dying. It was too much to bear, and Duncan felt himself laugh, heard the rough pain tearing at his lungs and gut, and laughed again. Overwhelming even the pain in his gut where Pasargardai had wounded him, for a long black dizzy moment the sound of a Starfleet phaser was loud in Duncan's ears.
Duncan felt his mouth tingling, his tongue unnaturally large, and his head hurt. He heard a sound of pain, and knew it was himself. He could feel that Methos was leaning over him, even before the familiar voice said "Back with us?" and the ivory hilt of his katana slid into his hand.
Duncan fought his eyes open. They felt dry. "You... bastard..."
"Sorry," Methos said, and smiled a little.
"You didn't need..." Duncan swallowed, hoping his tongue and the inside of his mouth would stop itching. Methos should have known he wouldn't take Bagoas' head. "Y' didn't trust...."
Methos put his hand over Duncan's mouth. "I knew you wouldn't," he said. "I had things to talk about with Captain Picard. I didn't want to be interrupted."
Duncan felt his mouth fall open a little, under Methos' hand. Methos smiled down at him, barely a twitch of his lips. He looked sure of himself, and amused at something.
"What're y' doing?" Duncan asked, mumbling round Methos' fingers.
Methos didn't answer for a little while. He sat still, looking down at Duncan, and there was still the oddest smile on his face. Duncan could hear two people talking almost at the edge of his hearing. After a little while one of them stood up and walked across the courtyard, and as he passed through Duncan's field of vision Duncan saw he was Captain Picard. Peripheral deafness seemed to be one of the side effects of being stunned with a phaser. Pasagardai and Picard couldn't be more than a couple of yards away, if that.
Some part of Duncan's mind was running through a training programme for himself, and wondering who he could get to stun him repeatedly with a phaser until he got used to the side effects, and speculating on possible Starfleet techniques for dealing with phaser-fire. This was not unusual; all that was unusual was that it had taken Duncan this long to think of it.
Most of the rest of his concentration was focused on the infinitely irritating man who was crouched beside him, smiling down at him, a hand over his mouth. "What are you doing?" Duncan asked again, not because he expected an answer, but because even the way Methos refused to answer would tell him something.
Picard came back carrying something. He didn't look in Duncan's direction. After a moment the low buzz of conversation resumed. Methos turned away from Duncan and returned with a glass half-full of water in his hand. "If you try and sit up you can have some of this." He was half-smiling.
"What, a prize for effort?" Duncan got his elbows under him. It might be just his imagination, but it seemed that he was coming round faster from the phaser stun than last time. Of course, the stones were considerably less comfortable than a bed.
"Well," Methos said, watching, "I could just pour it over your head."
Duncan grimaced at him, but got a hand out for the glass. He and Methos both watched as his hand trembled in mid-air, and Methos shook his head and shifted to hold the glass to Duncan's mouth. Duncan gulped the water down, and repeated, more grimly, "What are you doing?"
"How do you feel?" Methos put the glass out of the way.
"Better," Duncan said shortly.
There was a sudden clamour of knocking at the outer gate. Duncan tried to shove himself to his feet, reaching instinctively for his katana, but his muscles failed him and he found himself crouching on all fours, facing the gate, and Pasagardai a few feet away, in much the same position. Methos and Captain Picard were both on their feet, though Picard was leaning over Pasagardai and trying to steady him. Duncan shot Methos a look, and Methos shrugged back, as Pasagardai shook his head, refusing Picard's help.
"Come on," Picard said to Methos, and they went towards the gate together. Duncan watched them go. Pasagardai turned, slowly and awkwardly; Duncan could almost feel the effort in his own muscles. They were crouching now face to face.
The bright rage had flickered out of Pasagardai, too. Duncan could see the change in his eyes. But when he spoke, the threat in his voice didn't need anger to be believed. "If you harm Jean-Luc, I'll have your head."
Duncan grimaced. "I wouldn't have hurt him."
"No?" Pasagardai raised his eyebrows, his voice very cold. "You have a certain reputation among our kind, Highlander."
"I've never killed mortals unless they were trying to kill me," Duncan said. Facing that white bleak face, he found he had to be painfully honest. "Not in over six hundred years." He had been almost mad with rage after Culloden.
Pasagardai nodded, slowly. "And you are almost eight hundred. Well, we all do things when we are young that we later regret. I have heard you are a bloodthirsty, ruthless, arrogant young barbarian..." he paused, his eyebrows still raised, as if waiting for Duncan to protest the description.
Duncan only waited. But Pasagardai did not add the accusation Duncan was expecting to the list. At last Duncan grinned, like a grimace, and said, "Go on."
"Well, but I have to admit, I never heard that you were ever ruthless among mortals." Pasagardai studied Duncan a moment longer. "There are two things that require to be said between us, Duncan MacLeod."
"If you ever raise your hand against Jean-Luc again, you will die. If you ever raise a weapon against Jean-Luc again, I will take your head. You have had the only warning I will ever give you."
After a moment, Duncan nodded. "What's the second thing?"
"Methos is my friend, and you are his," Pasagardai said. There was an odd hesitancy in his voice, though barely a fractional crack in the polite control. "I insulted you to force you to fight me. I insulted you in a way that was unworthy of a gentleman, and I must ask your pardon for it."
Duncan swallowed. Student-killer.
Pasagardai pushed himself up with his hands on his knees, and Duncan followed suit, finding that he could keep his balance now. With a small, elegant movement, Pasagardai bowed to him.
Duncan cleared his throat. "That move of yours... the one you killed me with?"
"Do you want to learn it?" Pasagardai asked.
"I used to call it Richie's move," Duncan said. He heard his voice from very far away. "It's how he won about half his fights. He'd go to his knees and his opponent would think he'd given in, and then - " Duncan jerked his head up, miming the thrust of the sword upwards, " - he'd take them."
"You taught him the move?"
"No, he worked it out for himself." Duncan kept his face rigid. "I took his head. That part's true. He just stood there and let me do it." He swallowed again. "He wanted to race starships... but he couldn't fight me."
Pasagardai was silent. His eyes were very wide and dark. After a time Duncan could never measure, Pasagardai said, "It is a heavy sorrow, to see your students die before you. I am sorry to have brought you further grief."
Duncan sighed. Cautiously, leaning more heavily on the other hand, he brought one hand up to rub his knuckles hard over his eyes. "It's what we do," he said, finding the truism almost comforting, after the long anger. "Colin was... well." He held out his hand to Bagoas.
The gate was solid iron, and Worf's fist alone made a very satisfactory racket. He glanced at Troi, who was standing a little way off, a look of puzzled worry on her face, and decided to hit the gate again.
Just then it opened. Worf took his fist down and straightened abruptly. "Captain," he said. "Are you all right?"
"We were concerned about you," Troi said, moving to stand at Worf's side. Worf glanced at her. If anything, Troi looked more puzzled, and worried, than before, though the Captain was clearly unharmed. He looked rather pale, and tired, and his uniform was torn...
Worf frowned. It looked as if someone had slashed at it with a very sharp knife. "Captain?"
The Captain moved his hands in a brief, reassuring gesture. "I'm all right," he said. His voice was quite steady; he sounded like himself.
Worf nodded. Starfleet standard issue trousers were black. Human blood stains were hard to see on black cloth. But Worf could smell it on the Captain, human blood, only an hour or so old. Worf glanced at the ambassador's aide, Cynan, standing just behind the Captain. Cynan was obviously uninjured, and looked quite impassive, unconcerned.
"The other representatives have returned to the council chamber, sir," Worf said. If the Captain did not wish it mentioned that he had been kneeling, not long ago, in human blood, no doubt he had his reasons.
"Oh, God," the Captain muttered, and brought his hand up to rub hard across his mouth. He was silent for a moment, visibly thinking. "I - lost my combadge. Call the Enterprise - "
"Wait," Cynan said. He put his hand on the Captain's shoulder, an impertinence that Pasagardai would never have committed, and the Captain turned under his hand and looked at him. Cynan leaned close and whispered something, so quietly that even Worf could barely hear. He caught the name Bagoas, and the tone of Cynan's voice was not that of someone delivering a threat.
The Captain looked at Cynan, and in his gaze was something Worf did not think he had ever seen before. Not fear. Not respect - not, at least, the kind of respect that Worf was accustomed to see the Captain give. Not fear, no.
"Call the Enterprise," the Captain said, looking back at Worf. "I need another combadge, and a second phaser." He tugged at his uniform, absently, and added, "And a fresh jacket."
Worf nodded. He glanced at Troi, and saw her watching the Captain with a familiar, wide-eyed look of total observation. She had said nothing so far, except to warn the Captain that they were worried about him.
"As for the council..." The Captain stopped again, staring straight ahead of himself. His voice was steady, perfectly controlled, but there seemed to be lines of strain in it. "As for the council," he repeated, "I don't see how I can attend this session. Counsellor, have we..." He hesitated again. "Lieutenant Pontis is still... Has Lieutenant Pontis had her baby yet?"
"No, sir," Troi said. She sounded very faintly surprised. "Not when I last saw her."
"Pregnant women are auspicious," the Captain said soberly. "Please can you tell Lieutenant Pontis that I would be greatly obliged to her if she would convey my apologies to the council. Brief her on the formalities... and with my apologies, a green bough to each dignitary. They mustn't be cut; newly-fallen branches or else broken off by hand. I can't attend because..." he almost smiled, "because of a serious personnel problem that requires my personal attention."
"Sir," Worf agreed. He tapped his combadge and spoke to it.
"Captain," Troi said, in her gentlest voice. "Bagoas is in the house behind you."
Cynan had been watching the Captain, very intently. When Troi spoke, his head whipped round and he was looking at Troi with the same impassive attentiveness. Worf studied him a moment. The aide stood slouching, carrying himself lazily. But there had been a swiftness almost of menace in the speed with which he turned to watch Troi.
The Captain looked faintly surprised. He glanced over his shoulder, and shrugged, facing Troi again. "I know," he said dryly. "Thank you, Counsellor." He paused a moment. "Would you go back to the ship, and talk to Lieutenant Pontis? Mr Worf, would you return to the council chamber? Remain on observation. When Lieutenant Pontis beams down, you are responsible for her safety."
"Sir," Worf said.
One of the transporter technicians appeared in the middle of the street. He glanced round, saw them, and came over. He was carrying a jacket with four studs on the collar, a phaser, and a combadge. The Captain stepped forward and collected them from him, handing the phaser and combadge back after a moment, and tugged off the torn jacket. He shrugged himself into the new one, and accepted the phaser and the combadge back again. "Thank you, Mr Boswell," he said, and the technician nodded, tapped his own combadge, and disappeared again.
"Captain," Troi said. "Will you be all right?"
The Captain's head lifted a little, and he looked at Troi without expression. "Yes, Counsellor," he said. "Did I make myself clear? I want you to speak to Lieutenant Pontis as soon as possible. Do you need further clarification?"
"No, Captain," Troi said. She still sounded concerned. She glanced at Worf. There was some kind of warning in her gaze, but Worf could not answer it. Troi tapped her combadge and spoke, disappearing seconds later.
"Mr Worf," the Captain said. He moved one step closer, away from Cynan. "Do you remember a certain personal request?"
Worf nodded. To locate Bagoas Pasagardai.
"Put it on hold," the Captain said, very quietly. "For the moment."
Worf looked at Picard, and beyond him to Cynan. The aide was watching them both. Young and thin and slouching, he looked curiously in control of himself, and of the situation. Worf felt the hairs rising from the back of his neck all the way down his spine, and kept himself from baring his teeth by an accustomed effort of will.
"Sir," Worf said. He had no intention of asking the Captain, publicly, if he were sure he was all right. Before a stranger, someone not even in Starfleet, Worf was not going to challenge Picard's orders at all. But he wanted, very much, to speak to the Captain a moment alone, and he glowered at Cynan, who caught his gaze and smiled back at him.
"Go back to the council chambers, Mr Worf," the Captain said, his voice even. He smiled, briefly. "And thank you." He was fastening the combadge to his jacket as he turned back into the house, and Worf went briskly away down the street, hoping with every quick stride to be called back.
Methos went after Captain Picard, leaving Duncan and Bagoas to themselves. It was safe enough; neither of them would be strong enough to swing a sword for at least another half hour. Picard, on the other hand, was not safe out of Methos' sight, not for the moment.
When Picard opened the gate, it looked as if the Klingon who stood there was about to hit him in the face. Only for an instant, though; he dropped his raised fist and all but saluted, looking as embarrassed as a Klingon could. There was another senior officer, standing a bit further back and looking genuinely worried. Evidently an hour was as long as Picard could vanish and not have his officers come looking for him, which was useful knowledge.
"I'm all right," Picard said, and then, the words Methos had been listening for, "Call the Enterprise."
Methos caught at Picard's shoulder. This time the man turned without waiting to be pulled round to face him. Methos gave him the faintest of warning smiles, and leaned in closely, so that Picard's officers couldn't hear. "You know, if you go back to your ship now," he whispered, close to Picard's ear, "you'll never see Bagoas again. I swear; he'll have vanished. You'll never find him. Stay here if you want him. Your choice."
Picard looked at Methos with visible, wary disbelief. Methos could guess what he was thinking; some variation on "Five and a half thousand years?", or whether Methos was lying then, combined with the question of whether Methos was lying now. The phaser was tucked into one of the hidden pockets in Methos' coat. If Picard decided to go back to the Enterprise, Methos was fairly sure that he could take all three of them before their transporter beam caught them.
But it didn't matter. Picard turned away from Methos, and said, clearly and steadily, "Call the Enterprise." He hesitated, almost imperceptibly, but added, "I need another combadge, and a second phaser. And a fresh jacket."
Methos' lips twitched. A good move. Picard was pressing his limits. With the communicator and the phaser, Picard obviously thought that he'd be able to deal with the immortals on equal terms. He was gambling that Methos wouldn't try to stop him getting a couple of gadgets.
Picard went on to brief his officers on what to do while he was otherwise occupied; evidently he'd accepted that he was staying here for the moment.
The Klingon nodded, registering his orders. "Sir."
The other officer spoke, almost for the first time. She had a very gentle voice. "Captain, Bagoas is in the house behind you."
Methos had assumed she was human. He turned and looked at her. No. Nearly human, and very similar to human, but if he had paid attention he would have seen it sooner. She was as alien as the Klingon.
Her comment had disconcerted Picard, too. But he went on, still quite even-voiced, continuing his briefing, until the new jacket and the gadgets Picard had ordered arrived.
Was the alien telepathic? There was an instant when Methos contemplated the mess that would make, if she were capable of reading people's thoughts at a distance. No. If she were, and if she were reading either Methos or Picard, she would look much more apprehensive, instead of mildly worried and confused.
Either she could sense immortals at a distance, or she had some other kind of sensory perception. Perhaps she could smell him out. It didn't matter particularly that Picard's officers now knew for certain where Bagoas was, so long as Bagoas was no longer to be found there if Picard's officers had more reason to be interested than they had at present.
Picard dismissed her as quickly as he could. Evidently he too was concerned. Only then did he move away from Methos, and only by one step. He spoke to the Klingon, quietly. "Mr Worf, do you remember a certain personal request?"
The Klingon nodded. He was watching Methos, warily, over Picard's shoulder.
"Put it on hold for the moment."
"Sir," the Klingon agreed. He looked ferociously worried; it was surprisingly easy to read that expression on his face. On impulse, Methos smiled at him. The Klingon glared.
Picard dismissed him, and turned back, Methos at his elbow. The phaser was tucked under Picard's arm, with the remains of the jacket Duncan had shredded for him, as if Picard hoped that if Methos couldn't see it he would forget it was there. Without comment, Picard fastened the new communicator to his new jacket, and looked privately relieved when Methos didn't stop him.
In the courtyard, Duncan and Bagoas were squatting on the stone, facing each other, their hands joined. Methos suppressed a small, private smile.
"What a mess," he said cheerfully, keeping a step or so behind Picard, and gesturing to indicate the blood-splashed stones. "Which of you is going to clean it up?"
Duncan snorted. Bagoas shook his head, turning to face Methos again. His hand had fallen away from Duncan's quite casually. "I think you'll have to do it," he said. "Neither of us is yet strong enough to lift a mop, and since that is your doing, you'll have to deal with the consequences."
"The mops are through there in the second alcove from the door," Picard said unexpectedly.
"Thanks," Methos said with a shrug.
"You're welcome." Picard crouched down next to Bagoas, and said, rather formally, "May I have a word?"
Bagoas glanced over Picard's shoulder, and said to Methos, quickly and in ancient Persian, "I need to talk to you. Alone."
Methos shrugged. He answered in the same language. "I'm not letting your lord out of my sight until we know what he will do."
"I know what he will do." There was an edge in Bagoas' voice, calm precise anger. "You know so much I do not know. I am old but you are far older. You have been right, and I wrong, over and over again." Bagoas looked at Picard. "I'm sorry," he interjected, more gently, in Standard, and went on swiftly to Methos, "But there is a thing that requires to be said between us, ancient one. You have told him your name."
"Oh, that's not all I told him."
Bagoas glanced, almost desperately, at Picard. "Send him away, with your sword. We can't use this language long or his translator will learn it. "
"Too late," Picard said. He stood up, looking the three of them over. If there was a trace more warmth in his face as he looked at Bagoas, it was obviously against his will. "I need to talk with all three of you," he said, his voice dry and steady.
Methos grinned suddenly. "All right. There's just one thing, though." He moved swiftly and efficiently, and before even Bagoas could react, he was holding Picard's new communicator. "Sorry," he added, tucking it away into a hidden pocket. "But I really don't want you talking to your ship."
Bagoas was on his feet, swaying a little. "Methos!"
Picard moved to steady him, staring at Methos. "I had no intention of calling the Enterprise."
Duncan had tried to get up, but his legs had collapsed back under him. He was glowering impartially at all three standing upright.
Methos smiled at Bagoas and Picard. "Don't worry," he said, this time in the quick Coptic that had been spoken up and down the Nile both when he had lived in Egypt and when Bagoas was there. "I'm not going to hurt him."
Picard looked blank. Bagoas said, in Standard, "No more of this, Methos." He held out a hand to Duncan. Methos offered a hand on the other side, and between them they pulled Duncan to his feet. "We'll talk, in any language that we all four understand, but first of all, ancient one, you will clean these stones."
Methos glanced at the three faces, shrugged, and went for the mop and bucket. He made a quick detour on the way to pick up the other communicator that was still lying where Duncan had kicked it. At this rate, he could make quite a collection.
It was consistently convincing, Picard thought, as he walked with Bagoas and MacLeod, both of them still somewhat wobbly on their feet, towards a bench by the wall. MacLeod was slow and cautious, Bagoas perhaps a little steadier, but both of them ought still to have been unconscious.
Halfway across the courtyard, Bagoas said quietly to MacLeod, "Every time I've been stunned by a phaser, I've recovered more quickly. How many times have you been stunned before?"
"Once," MacLeod said, with some emphasis. Nevertheless, he looked oddly pleased with the news. "How often...?"
Bagoas shrugged. "Six or seven times. The last time was about twenty years ago. The first time was the worst - I had no idea what was happening to me."
Phasers had come into common use a little more than a hundred years ago. Many of their functions had been improved since the original invention, but the stun function was basic and almost incapable of improvement. Picard glanced sideways at Bagoas' familiar, beautiful profile, and didn't want to ask. Five millennia, three millennia, these were almost inconceivable as a lifespan, but a century... Picard cleared his throat, and asked.
Bagoas glanced at him, faintly surprised. "About ninety years ago."
MacLeod collapsed on the bench with a sigh of relief. Picard sat down beside him. Bagoas crouched neatly on the ground and drew his sword, flicking a cloth from somewhere. Head bent, ignoring both MacLeod and Picard, he began to scour the blood from the blade. He did it swiftly and with the expert ease of much practice; and this disconcerted Picard to silence all over again. When finished, Bagoas stood up and held out the cloth - it was one of the new Vanish fabrics, Picard noted, and MacLeod looked startled at how clean it was. But he held out his hand. "Thanks," he said briefly, as Bagoas flicked the cloth to him without touching him.
It was a moment before Picard realised that Bagoas was retreating across the courtyard, leaving him to sit with MacLeod. MacLeod's hands were busy with his swordblade, but he too was watching the other two across the courtyard, Mythos mopping and Bagoas talking. It was impossible to read either of them, or hear anything of what Bagoas was saying. When they both looked away, Picard found that MacLeod was now watching him.
"I'm sorry," MacLeod said. "You shouldn't have had to witness that."
It was a moment before Picard realised what he meant. "That's... all right," he said, after a pause. "I would rather know than not know." He smiled a little. "Even if I don't know that I don't know. Especially then."
"I wouldn't have hurt you," MacLeod added, after a pause. "I was angry, and I wanted to scare you. I'm sorry." He grinned a little, sideways. "It didn't work, anyway."
Picard looked at MacLeod reflectively, and shook his head. "It did."
MacLeod grimaced. "You didn't show it."
Picard shrugged a little, faintly pleased, despite everything. He paused, unsure whether MacLeod would take it the right way. "I'm... very sorry about O'Neil."
MacLeod leaned back against the wall and let out a long breath. "Yeah," he said, slowly. "So am I." He looked at Picard. "Was he as good as he thought he was?"
Picard blinked. "He was a very promising young officer," he said. "I liked him. He reminded me of... me, when I was - " he hesitated, " - younger."
MacLeod nodded. "Aye. That's the way he seemed to me, as well. He wanted to be a starship captain."
Picard almost laughed. "Yes, I know. He was that kind of young officer. He wanted my job, eventually, and he made no secret of it. That was why I liked him."
Again, MacLeod nodded, slowly. "And he was happy?"
"I thought so." Picard hesitated. "I may have seemed rather... callous about his desertion... his supposed desertion. But - " He shook his head. "It surprised me. I never would have thought it of him. I'm glad I don't have to think it of him any more. I... hope to be able to correct his records."
MacLeod frowned, looking inexplicably wary. "I wouldn't worry about it, Captain," he said. "Colin didn't have any family. If you know and I know, there is no one else who would care."
"I'd like to set the record straight. I would have thought you would want that too."
MacLeod shook his head, eyeing Picard. He said nothing more about it, though. They talked for a little while about O'Neil; Picard told the story of the first time he'd realised O'Neil was holding back in their fencing sessions, which MacLeod seemed to find immoderately funny.
"I could have stopped him," MacLeod said after a while. He was staring straight ahead, and his voice was very casual.
Picard looked at him. "Could you?"
"Oh, yes. I could have argued him out of the Academy, anyway. And if I had..."
"I know," Picard said, with complete understanding. "If you had, he might still be alive. But there has to be a time when you let go. However responsible you feel for other people's lives, sometimes - far too often - there's nothing you can do to save them. O'Neil did what he wanted to do."
"Yes." MacLeod nodded. He looked at Picard and smiled, with genuine warmth. "Colin always did."
Methos had long ago forgotten how many languages he knew. So far only three of the tongues in which Bagoas was cursing him had been unfamiliar, and one sounded tonal and was probably a dialect of Chinese from a couple of millennia before Methos had lived there.
Methos mopped at the last of the big bloodstains and glanced up at Bagoas. The younger man's face was the usual chillingly perfect mask, and his voice was quiet ice.
"So you just walk away," Methos said, not smiling, keeping his voice quiet, bright, and deeply casual. "What does it really matter? Jean-Luc is dying; he'll be dead in sixty years. You'd lose him then. Why not now?"
Even now Bagoas did not raise his voice. "That isn't why - "
"No?" Methos cut Bagoas off mid-sentence with practiced ease. "Oh, come off it. You're afraid to love him because he's mortal, because he'll die and leave you."
"And if I am," Bagoas said, at white heat, "can you change this? You made him watch me die, you made him see what I am, and whenever he looks at me he will see both his own mortality and my death! Your doing, ancient one!"
"Yes," Methos said. He nodded. "Oh, yes. I made him see you. You can't lie to him now, or to yourself. Now you can walk away, Bagoas son of Artembares son of Araxis, but if you do, what does that make you?"
There was a silence between them. Methos swiped at a small cluster of red speckles, and gave up. He'd got most of it, and the rest would go in the next rainfall. Blood was a good fertiliser. When he glanced up at Bagoas' face again, the chilled tension was gone.
Very quietly, Bagoas said, "Just a eunuch. Making the best of it. As always. How is it that no one has yet killed you, ancient one?"
"I'm elusive," Methos said. "Will you listen to me now?" He didn't wait for Bagoas to nod. "He doesn't want you to go, and you don't want to leave him. Listen, little brother, if you only have sixty years, if you only have six months, it's never worth giving it up just because you know they'll never win their fight."
Bagoas sighed. "Why didn't you say this before?"
Methos grinned. "I'd never heard you curse so well. I didn't like to interrupt."
"You haven't called me your 'little brother' in a thousand years, ancient one."
"And you haven't called me 'ancient one' in two thousand years, except when you're angry with me."
"I am angry with you." Bagoas folded his hands before him, and spoke calmly. "Methos, if I accept your judgement - or should I say, your forcible advice? - this still does not change our position. You don't understand what will happen. Captain Picard cannot keep our existence a secret, and you cannot force him to do so."
"No?" Methos asked lightly.
"I think I can."
"Don't worry. Nobody has to die today. I mean that your Captain has scruples, I think, about genocide."
Bagoas stared. Methos smiled. "Trust me."
"With my life," Bagoas said. "But beyond that...? Why couldn't you leave us alone?"
Methos looked away, at the two people by the wall, mortal and immortal, watching them. He couldn't pretend to be mopping the courtyard stones much longer; they would have to go back soon.
"You're the oldest friend I have left," he said, almost inaudibly. "I want you to live."
"And your sword?"
"Oh yes," Methos said, softly. "My sword...."
And then MacLeod looked up, abruptly; Picard followed his gaze. Mythos and Bagoas were coming back across the courtyard. Their paces matched exactly, even though neither one was looking at the other. The daylight was growing less clear, beginning to shadow towards dusk.
"Let's go in," Mythos said, and MacLeod stood up. Picard pushed himself to his feet. For an instant, he and Bagoas stood facing each other. Bagoas put his hand up to push back his hair.
"Would you go if I asked you to?" Bagoas said quietly.
Picard moved a step closer. "Mythos told me," he said, as quietly, "that if I went back to the Enterprise I would never see you again. That you would disappear. Was that true?"
There was a long moment of silence between them, and then, almost reluctantly, Bagoas nodded.
"Why don't you trust me?"
Bagoas shook his head. "I trust you." His voice was almost inaudible. "But you are who you are, Jean-Luc."
Consciously, Picard kept his hands down by his sides. He wanted to move closer and put his arms round Bagoas and feel the light narrow body press against his own, he wanted it in a sudden rush of wanting more physically than he could ever recall wanting anything. The barrier between them was almost palpable.
"Let's go in," Bagoas said, and went after Mythos and MacLeod, leaving Picard with no choice but to follow.
They sat down round the common table in the kitchen. Picard found himself sitting opposite Mythos, and studied him again for a moment, trying to fathom what five and a half millennia would look like on a living face. Before Mythos could speak, Picard asked, "Are you the oldest of your kind?"
Mythos tilted his head to one side and smiled. "Yes."
"Do you consider yourself to be their spokesman? Could you represent them?"
MacLeod's jaw dropped. Bagoas was leaning his elbows on the table; he turned his head a little, downwards, so that his forehead rested on his hands.
Mythos didn't look startled. He looked mildly amused. "Bagoas warned me you might misunderstand the situation."
"I did not," Bagoas said, downwards to the table. "I warned you that you did not understand, Methos."
"Where is he supposed to represent us?" MacLeod asked, leaning forward. He no longer looked surprised, just exasperated. "Captain, we don't have people who speak for us. If Methos speaks for anyone but himself, he does it at his own risk."
Picard shifted a little, looking at MacLeod directly, keeping Mythos - Methos? - in his peripheral vision. "To represent you as a people to the High Council of the United Federation of Planets. I am authorised as Captain of a Starfleet vessel to extend an invitation to you, to your people, for you to discuss your people's citizenship within the Federation."
"Wait a minute," MacLeod said. "I am a Federation citizen."
"You're older than the Federation," Picard observed. "If what Methos tells me is true."
"What difference does that make?" MacLeod shrugged. "I was born a subject of James, King of Scots, and Scotland was a member of the Terran Confederation, and all citizens of the Terran Confederation automatically became citizens in the United Federation of Planets, when it was founded."
"Besides," Methos said pleasantly, "both he and I have been citizens of the Federation more often than you, and for longer than you. I'm sure Bagoas can say the same."
Bagoas said nothing. He was moving his hand over the table as if he was drawing invisible patterns on the polished stone surface.
Picard was sitting very upright in his chair. He had been the first contact between the Federation and a new species only twice in his life, but he had played diplomat and Federation representative more often than he cared to think. Never before in quite these circumstances, though. Picard leaned back, and deliberately relaxed.
"But never as yourselves," he said, looking from face to face. "I can understand why you kept yourselves in hiding before this. You could have been destroyed by people who were envious of your immortality. The Federation could offer you a world of your own, a place to live together, so that you would no longer have to hide from humans." He spread his hands. "And that would bring you under the protection of the non-interference directive, the prime directive of Starfleet."
MacLeod frowned, glancing at Methos. There was a troubled look in his eyes. Methos smiled and shrugged. He slouched back in his chair.
"Captain - " MacLeod shook his head, grinning almost against his will, not in the least as if the situation amused him. "Oh, look, Jean-Luc, I admire the ideals of the Federation. I even think it lives up to those ideals better than any other government I've ever known. But as for telling them about immortals - " He darted a look at Bagoas, who was still sitting, head down. "Telling you is one thing, you deserve to know, you're married to one of us. But telling the government?"
"Why not?" Picard leaned forward, meeting MacLeod's dark-browed look with the steadiest gaze he could muster. (This man was more than twelve times his age?)
"Because - " MacLeod spread his hands and shook his head. "How long do you think the Federation will survive?"
Picard opened his mouth, and shut it again. He was genuinely taken aback. The Federation was one of the most successful forms of government ever known to humans; self-renewing, flexible, responsive, and - it seemed - both infinitely expandable, and everlasting. Everlasting?
"I'd guess you probably have another four hundred years," Methos said thoughtfully.
MacLeod nodded, his eyes still fixed on Picard. "The other reason is that you don't think we're human."
"He thinks we're aliens," Bagoas said, raising his head and looking at MacLeod, avoiding Picard's eyes. "And perhaps he's right. We've never known."
"We know that no one can tell the difference between a mortal and one of us," MacLeod retorted. "There's no way at all to tell, except by the presence and the quickening."
"It doesn't matter," Bagoas said. He looked at Picard for the first time since they had sat down. His hands lay still on the table. "Captain Picard, what must a Starfleet officer do, on encountering a new species?"
Picard's heart jolted, but his voice was calm. "Make out a first contact report under General Order 4. But the situation here is somewhat different. This isn't exactly a first contact."
"No." Bagoas raised his eyebrows. "Captain Picard, what would you say is the first duty of a Starfleet officer who discovers that Earth has been infiltrated by aliens who seem so very human? Except one: that if you kill us we do not die, or not for long. What is your duty, Captain?"
Picard's mouth was dry. There was a pit opening up beneath him. (Why don't you trust me? I trust you. But you are who you are.) He put his hands on the table, flat, palm down, pressing against the hard smooth stone, and took a quick deep breath. "My duty is to achieve a peaceful settlement," he said, sedate and quiet. "You know that."
"It doesn't matter," Bagoas said again. "You can make your report. You won't have any proof." His voice was perfectly expressionless, perfectly controlled. "We can vanish. You can make your report, and if you're believed, they may hunt for us. But we are all very good at disappearing. And we will." He folded his hands in his lap, as if that were final, though his dark gaze still rested on Picard.
"So we walk out?" MacLeod sounded irritated. "Just walk?"
"Yes." Bagoas was still looking at Picard, as if he were memorising him. "I don't think it wise to discuss our route or our method of travel in front of the Captain, but yes, MacLeod, I don't see that we have a choice about disappearing."
"Here? And not go back - "
"I haven't been back in two hundred years," Bagoas said calmly. "I learned how to walk on alien worlds. Are you ready to learn?"
"How did you know that the tree circle was holy ground?"
"It was. It is. What are you on about?"
"You felt the presence of belief," Bagoas said. "It is as real as our presence."
MacLeod leaned across the table, looking exasperated. "I've been in strange places before."
"But always on Earth. It's easy to believe in human belief. We believe we're human. Can you believe in alien belief, MacLeod? Can you believe a faith that has no god, no priest, no temple; only the certainty that trees growing in a circle enclose a holy space?"
"You read that in the Xenohistorigraphy report on the Gisippus factions," Picard said. He regretted it almost immediately, because the moment he spoke, Bagoas looked away.
"Yes, Captain," Bagoas said remotely. "But I know holy ground when I perceive it. Excuse me; I am trying to warn Duncan MacLeod to trust his own perceptions. Highlander, this above all; walk softly, here and on any world whose customs you do not know. If you offend your hosts, and they want your death to cleanse your offence, can you die?"
MacLeod grimaced. "I can always do that."
"Can you die well?"
"I can die," MacLeod repeated. He looked affronted. He looked as if he were trying to stare Bagoas down, and failing; Bagoas gazed back at him, reflecting his gaze like a mirror in a laser-fight.
Methos unslouched himself. He had been sitting very still; when he moved, Picard noticed, both MacLeod and Bagoas broke their stares and turned to pay attention to him. But Methos was staring at Picard.
"Do you understand now, Jean-Luc?" he asked quietly.
"Understand what?" Picard said.
"Bagoas thinks you have to tell your masters about us, and if he's right, we must either kill you or disappear for a mortal lifetime."
"Well?" Picard was determined to give nothing away. Methos' smile did not convince him that he had succeeded.
"I think you won't commit genocide." He smiled. "If I'm wrong, of course - "
"What?" Picard interrupted.
There was a double-beeping noise. Methos glanced down at himself, and up again at Picard. "Damn," he said, mildly. "They're early."
Picard held his hand out. "Give it to me."
Methos folded his arms and looked thoughtful. "Which one?"
"If I don't answer that," Picard said, "a landing party will beam down to this location within five minutes. I don't care how good you are at vanishing unseen, you can't do it in that time."
Methos unfolded his arms. One combadge was in his right hand. He handed it across the table. "Here."
Picard tapped the control. "Picard here."
"Worf here, Captain," the combadge said. "The council is ending for the day. Everything appears peaceful."
"Good. How is Lieutenant Pontis?"
"The Lieutenant is well. She has returned to the ship." There was a pause. "Her attendance at the afternoon session was both welcome and successful."
"Excellent," Picard said, feeling as if an invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "I'm very pleased to hear it. My commendations to the Lieutenant, and my thanks to you and to Counsellor Troi."
"Do you have further orders, sir?"
"Yes." Picard glanced across the table at Methos, and said, deliberately, "I'll be at this location until further notice. I'll call in every hour from now. If I miss any call by as much as five minutes, please beam into this location with an armed away team."
"Just a precaution, Mr Worf."
"Sir." Even the combadge could convey a Klingon's disbelief.
"Picard out." Quite deliberately, Picard pinned the combadge back on to his jacket. "Now. Methos. Genocide?"
"Let's say that you tell your masters about us," Methos said. His voice was crisp, and he looked quite serious. "You tell them everything you know, everything you've been told, and everything you've guessed. And they believe you enough to look for a means of identifying us at a distance. Which they would probably find, if they looked hard enough. Then it's only a matter of time before all of us on Earth, at least, are found." He smiled; a close-mouthed smile that made odd dimples at the corners. "And then the Federation would offer us - " his voice held an edge on the word offer, " - a world of our own, a place to live together, where we would not have to hide from humans. Yes, I think they would. After they had tagged us and studied us and made certain that it was true we cannot die, and that we cannot make any mortal live a day longer. It might take a hundred years, but the day would come when we would be offered a world of our own."
"It would be the gathering," MacLeod said. He looked across the table at Picard. There was an odd emphasis on the final word. "If they managed to track down all of us, it would be the final gathering."
"We would kill each other," Methos said. "A whole world of our own, only our own? Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Ten years, and we'd all be dead." He smiled again. "All but one." There was a curious twist to his voice, almost longing, and Picard remembered how he had spoken of taking heads for pleasure. "It would be finished. Genocide."
Picard glanced at Bagoas. "Is he telling the truth?"
Bagoas stared back at him, frowning. He stood. "Please stay with MacLeod, Captain. Or call the Enterprise and go."
Picard stood up. "Where are you going?"
Bagoas turned, in the doorway. "To find a clean shirt," he said. "MacLeod, shall I bring you one?"
"Thanks," MacLeod said. He nodded. "Don't worry, I'll take care of him." There was a moment of pure dark humour in his voice, and Bagoas smiled and raised his hand. The door closed quietly behind him.
"Is he telling the truth?" Picard asked MacLeod.
MacLeod shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. If you could find a way of tracking us, if you could round us all up, every single one, if you could get us all into one place...." he hesitated, and grinned suddenly at Methos. "Ten years?"
Methos shrugged back, still with that odd close-mouthed smile. "Best guess." He stood up. "If you'll excuse me...? Do take care of Jean-Luc, MacLeod."
MacLeod glanced round the kitchen. "We should start supper," he said. "I don't suppose you can cook, but can you take orders?"
"When it seems necessary," Picard said, keeping his temper. "But as it happens, I grew up in a house without a replicator."
MacLeod smiled, a white flash of teeth. "What a coincidence," he said. He sounded as if he were trying not to laugh. "So did I."
Bagoas stopped and turned to face Methos at the entrance to the courtyard with the circle of trees. "I'm not going to run away now," he said fiercely.
"Of course not."
"Then why are you following me?"
"You don't seem to trust me alone with your lord."
Bagoas turned his back on Methos and went on under the archway. Methos followed, but Bagoas only picked up his duffle and turned back again immediately, almost running into Methos. He stood and glared at Methos, who stood still and met his gaze without flinching. "What are you doing? Why are you meddling?" Bagoas demanded.
"Why indeed," Methos murmured. He smiled faintly. "Because I can?"
"What is it to you? Why couldn't you leave us be?"
"This morning you looked as if you wanted to die," Methos said, lightly as if it were a joke. "I didn't like it."
"I can't fight you!" Bagoas snapped.
"You are fighting me," Methos said.
Bagoas walked round him, moving with long angry strides, and out into the next courtyard, where he stopped. "Methos, where did you leave your baggage?"
"In the gatehouse," Methos said, and followed after Bagoas, not as quickly, but managing to keep up. If Bagoas stopped to think, he would realise that Picard was quite safe so long as Duncan had promised to take care of him. If Bagoas were not too angry with Methos to think clearly, he would leave, now.
In the gatehouse, Bagoas opened his duffle and pulled out a fresh shirt. Modestly, he turned his back on Methos as he stripped off his jacket and the torn shirt. He did not turn back to face Methos until the clean shirt and loose jacket covered him again. Methos pointed to the bag with Duncan's clothes, and Bagoas picked it up. "I wasn't going to die because I lost my lover," he snapped.
"No," Methos said, easily agreeing, "but you no longer wanted to live. Did you?"
"Sometimes it's hard to love life," Bagoas said finally. He swung Duncan's bag on to his shoulder. "Haven't you ever found that?"
"Sometimes I don't like myself," Methos shrugged. "But I always want to live."
Bagoas shook his head. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he closed his mouth and brushed past Methos on his way out.
"Bagoas," Methos said quietly. It was hard to see in the shadowy courtyard, but Bagoas did not turn to face him. "He knows about you, and he won't talk about us. You know that now. So if you don't stay, there's only one reason."
"That I'm a coward," Bagoas said. He still had his back turned to Methos.
"No," Methos said. "That you trust me to let a mortal who knows my real name run around the galaxy with no one to keep an eye on him."
Bagoas did turn then; Methos could see his face, white and bleak, burn at him in the shadows. "I don't believe you. Even you would not - tell a man your secret to have a reason to kill him? It would be vile, Methos."
Methos came a step or two closer. "Don't you trust me?"
Bagoas lifted his hand, his fingers an inch or so apart. "That far," he said.
The kitchen was brightly lit, and already smelt of food. Bagoas dropped Duncan's bag next to the door.
"Thanks," Duncan said casually.
MacLeod looked dubiously at the fungi in the bowl. "I hope those aren't poisonous."
Picard tipped them out onto the chopping board - toughened glass, not wood - and almost smiled. "Why would you care?"
"You have lots of time to really regret dying of food poisoning when you're immortal," MacLeod said. He had nearly finished eviscerating a plump fowl that they had found hanging in one of the cold alcoves. He did it very neatly, but without any professional flourishes.
"What do you do?" Picard asked.
"For a living?" MacLeod began to tidy the fowl debris away.
"To make it worthwhile getting up in the morning?"
MacLeod paused, arrested by the question. "That's good," he said thoughtfully. He shrugged. "I run a restaurant. Tourist trap." He glanced at Picard's combadge. "Or I did."
"The Gisippans will have checked the food for human tolerances," Picard said. "If I can survive it, I assume you can." Blandly, he added, "Do you believe Methos when he tells you he's over five thousand years old?"
MacLeod frowned at him. "Yes," he said shortly. "I believed it the moment I met him."
"Why?" As MacLeod glowered at him, Picard spread his hands. "Try to see it my way," he offered. "I saw you and Bagoas heal. I saw... the quickening."
MacLeod started, looking surprised, and then nodded. "All right."
"Methos told me all sorts of things about you," Picard said carefully. "About immortals." And very little of it could be proved. "Say I believe that you do live longer than normal. When I saw you two fight - I think I believed that part right then. And that you don't age the way we do, that would follow. But if you are eight hundred years old, you can't prove any more than I can that Methos is over five thousand."
"No," MacLeod said. "I suppose he could just be a consummate faker who's really only a thousand years old but who's done a lot of reading. Are you going to finish chopping those mushrooms?"
"Sorry." Picard began again. "It doesn't bother you?"
"No." MacLeod folded his hands on the table, watching Picard. "He's old, that's certain, I can feel it. So is Pasagardai. You'll just have to take the rest on trust." He looked up. The door opened behind Picard and a bag was dropped on the floor. "Thanks."
MacLeod picked himself up, went over to the bag, and began to pull out what was packed there. Mainly spare clothing. He found himself a clean shirt and shoved everything else back in, crumpled and rumpled. He pulled the remains of his old shirt off over his head and tugged the new one on. The old shirt went in the same disposal bin as the rubbish from the fowl.
Bagoas came round the table and looked across it at Picard. He said nothing. Picard could see Methos out of the corner of his eye, watching Bagoas.
And then all three of them turned away. MacLeod spun round, his head lifting and staring like a wolf. Bagoas, abruptly, was tense and poised as if for attack. Methos moved least of all, only one hand sliding into his jacket, but he too looked as if he had been alarmed by a sudden noise.
"What is it?" Picard asked, and turned and looked at the door. There hadn't been a sound. He could swear that. But now there was.
Footsteps across the courtyard. Someone walking quietly because that was how they habitually walked, not making any particular effort to conceal themselves.
MacLeod relaxed. "It's Amanda," he said, and sat down.
Bagoas frowned a little. He opened the door, making his small polite bow. He was very graceful. "Ambassador Carrington."
Picard stood up and turned to face the door. Carrington came in, looking each one of them over, her gaze assessing, yet somehow relieved. "Captain," she said. "What a pleasant surprise. I hope this isn't an official visit, because if it is, I can't ask you to stay to supper."
"Thank you," Picard said, with gentlest irony. "I think I've already been invited. How did the negotiations go?"
"Wonderful." Carrington's face lit up in a sudden wide smile. She sat down in the chair next to Picard's, and leaned back, stretching like a cat from her toes to her fingertips. "They all sat there and talked to each other. No one insulted anyone else." Her smile turned wicked for an instant. "So we didn't need the big stick."
Picard didn't flinch. Carrington's smile flickered for an instant, and then, smoothly, she went on, "Kayelle was wonderful - that was inspired, Captain. When's her baby due?"
"Last week," Bagoas said.
"Oh? Can she put it off for another week?"
"Oh," Bagoas said, and smiled, the familiar and private smile, "Jean-Luc could probably talk her into it." He sat down, looking directly across the table at Picard. "He has the best crew in the Fleet... and they'd do anything for him."
Carrington glanced at Picard. "Really, Captain? Anything?" There was a glint of amusement in her eyes. She really looked much younger than forty.
Picard stared for a long moment. Much younger than forty... He sat down, and quite without prior consideration, he asked, "How old are you?"
Carrington looked across the room at MacLeod. "Duncan?" She sounded surprised, and pleased.
"Don't look at me," MacLeod said, and flicked a hand at Methos.
Carrington turned her head. Picard followed her gaze. Methos was leaning against the door, his hands in his pockets. He shrugged at them, and smiled. Carrington's attention turned back to Picard, quite abruptly.
"What do you know?" she asked him. When Picard didn't answer, she flicked a look at MacLeod again. "What's been happening?"
When they searched the kitchen earlier, MacLeod had found a large earthenware dish. The chicken and the mushrooms and about half a pint of what had smelled very like wine was all going into it, with various pulverised herbs and spices on the sniff-and-dump method. He slid the dish into the oven, and slammed the door shut. He stood up and turned round, wiping his hands down his trousers. "What's been happening?" he repeated slowly. "Pasagardai and I had a fight. Methos set it all up. Picard saw us both die."
"Oh, come on," Carrington said, matter-of-factly. "You've been itching to kill Bagoas ever since you heard about Colin." She glanced sideways at Picard. "Was it bad?"
Picard rubbed the back of his thumb across his chin, staring at her. How old? "It's hard to see how it could have been worse," he said.
Carrington made a face. "I'm sorry," she began, and was interrupted.
MacLeod was leaning across the table. He was smiling. His voice was hard and almost empty. "You don't know how much worse it could have been," he said, to Picard. "And you know what, Amanda? While we were both dead, Methos told Picard the whole story. All about immortals."
"He must have talked fast," Carrington said lightly. She was tense now, sitting poised in her chair.
MacLeod's mouth tightened. "Now Picard wants us to join the Federation, Pasagardai wants us all to walk off into the forest and vanish, and Methos?" MacLeod stood up straight and looked at the other man. "Methos probably wants a beer."
Picard twisted again to glance up at Methos. He was still leaning against the door, still looking amused and relaxed. "Wouldn't say no," he observed.
When Picard looked back at Carrington, he saw her face change. Vulcans have a technique they call passion's mastery, which Vulcans learn almost as babies, and by the time they are adults, can perform so swiftly that to a human eye, a Vulcan face almost never changes expression. Carrington's expression changed, and Picard saw it happen, as if a Vulcan had performed passion's mastery in slow motion.
Carrington put both her hands flat on the table. "All right," she said calmly. "Captain, is that what you want? For us to come before the High Council, and explain who and what we are?"
"Not if it means genocide," Picard said.
Carrington's gaze flickered. "For you or for us?"
"Methos - "
"Oh," Carrington said. There was a world of comprehension in her voice. "And Pasagardai thinks the only way to avoid your making a report on us under General Order 4 is for us all to disappear, so that you're left with the job of making a report on a people you can't even prove exist." She looked across the table at Bagoas. "They'd laugh at him."
"Perhaps they would," Bagoas said. "But if we all vanish, including you, Lady Ambassador, they would know that something had happened. Captain, it's time for you to call the Enterprise again." He spoke as he always did, reminding Picard of something that might have slipped his mind. Picard nodded, and tapped his combadge.
His exchange with Riker was brief. Riker sounded profoundly curious, but not particularly worried, which puzzled Picard until Riker finished, "Good luck, Captain. My regards to Mr Pasagardai." A serious personnel problem that requires my personal attention. They think I'm here to get Bagoas to come back with me. He looked across the table at Bagoas watching him, and knew that Bagoas knew what he was thinking.
"Captain," Carrington said, breaking in on Picard's train of thought. "I think you should consider two things."
"Yes, what?" Picard was almost relieved to be able to look away from Bagoas.
"If we all die," Carrington said, "then I don't think it would be genocide. I don't think we're a separate species."
"Are you..." Picard stopped himself. "Are immortals interfertile with humans?"
"We're not fertile at all," Carrington said. "Not with each other, and not with mortals. None of us can have children."
Picard absorbed this. "Immortals are born from... ordinary humans?"
"I don't know. I don't remember being born." Carrington sounded flippant, but her eyes were serious enough. "There was an organisation of mortals once that studied us for over two thousand years, and they never found out where young pre-immortals come from. Those whose origins could be traced were usually foundlings. Maybe we're cuckoos. No one knows."
"Perhaps we could help you find out...?" Picard offered cautiously.
"Perhaps we don't want to know," Carrington said. "There's another thing I'd like you to think about. Whether it would be genocide or not, I think Methos is right; if we came out to the High Council, sooner or later, every immortal alive would die. Perhaps that's what the gathering is. But pre-immortals still exist. And if we were all dead, or in hiding, new immortals would never find teachers. Did Methos tell you about holy ground?"
"He mentioned it," Picard said. "It's sanctuary?"
"The last time two immortals fought each other on holy ground, and one took the other's head... well, I wasn't born then. They say it was in a temple of Apollo, near Pompeii, nearly two and a half thousand years ago." She waited. "You've heard of it."
Picard waited for the punchline. There wasn't one. Carrington wasn't joking.
"If we fight on holy ground, it rips the world apart," MacLeod said at last.
"If we all die, new immortals wouldn't know the rules." Carrington put her hands together, fingertip to fingertip. "It wouldn't matter to us. We'd be dead. By the time your government finished tracking down the last of us, probably so would you. But your world could be driven into a new age of darkness before new immortals managed to work the rules out for themselves."
Picard moved his chair back and looked at the four of them, one by one. All four of them were watching him, though as he looked at Bagoas, Bagoas turned his gaze down to the table top. Methos had, at least, stopped smiling. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, his hands out of sight. Picard had learned enough about him in the last few hours to find that extremely suspicious. MacLeod stood frowning and silent, hard-eyed, the most obviously dangerous and the least threatening. Carrington looked back at him with open, candid sincerity. And Bagoas sat, changelessly beautiful, drawing lines on the table with his fingertip, not looking at him.
It had been a long time, Picard realised, and it startled him to think of it, since he was the youngest person in any gathering. To these people he was a child. Powerless, and ignorant, and fragile. Easily manipulated. Easily lied to. Easily threatened.
"Bagoas," Picard said.
It was a moment before Bagoas looked up. During that moment, Picard changed his mind a hundred times. But he had to trust someone, and he had to assume that he could trust his own judgement.
"Jean-Luc." Bagoas waited.
"I need to ask you some questions," Picard said slowly.
Bagoas nodded, once, briefly.
Picard hesitated, trying to think through what he needed to know. "What is holy ground?"
"If mortals believe that a place is holy ground, it is holy ground," Bagoas said. "Once I would have told you that holy ground is a place where the god is worshipped. But worship is not essential. Belief - mortal belief - makes a place holy, forever."
"Forever...?" Picard asked.
"I've only lived twenty-seven centuries," Bagoas said. "For at least that long."
"Why can't you fight on holy ground?"
Bagoas looked as if he were holding himself still. "I haven't the faintest idea."
"You must have theories," Picard said. He glanced round at the other three. "You must have thought about it. Wondered."
Nobody else said anything. After a moment, Bagoas folded his hands together in front of himself, and answered, cold and distant, "We do. But we do not discuss this with mortals." He tilted his head, waiting. He might just as well have said, "Next question."
"Is that the only law that immortals obey?"
"It is the only law we must obey," Bagoas answered. "We have rules about the fight. One does not interfere in a fight once begun, and a challenge must be one against one. There are other rules, but they are irrelevant to you."
"What happens to an immortal who breaks the rules?"
"If an immortal will not accept the rules, that one forfeits the protection of the rules. Such immortals do not live long."
"But you don't... turn each other over to mortals?"
"We don't betray what we are to a mortal," Bagoas said. He turned his gaze, briefly, on Methos. "What you are seeing now, Jean-Luc, is rare. When we meet, we fight. If one does not want to fight, one evades other immortals. Obedience to the rules, loyalty to what we are, is all that makes us a people. Without that obedience, we have nothing that we cannot outlive, except..." He hesitated. "...except the pleasure of the kill."
Picard swallowed. This was Bagoas; the gentle man he'd loved. Loved? Still loved. This was Bagoas; cool and elegant, sitting there across the table from him, looking exactly like himself, and talking about the pleasure of killing. Briefly, he glanced back at Methos.
It is pleasure; there's nothing else... that's the only time I'm really alive. All I have to do is cut off another immortal's head.
"Do you get pleasure from killing... mortals?" Picard asked. He felt, not saw, the tension in the room leap up. MacLeod leaned forward as if he were about to breathe fire, and Carrington, though her face hardly reacted, slid her hands out of sight. Picard glanced sideways at her. She looked back at him and her face was still all open sincerity, asking him to trust her. An ambassador, yes, a diplomat, yes, and dangerous... yes.
Bagoas alone seemed unaffected. He began to trace patterns on the table again, though he still watched Picard. "We take quickenings only from each other. Not from mortals. But if you mean, have I ever taken pleasure in killing a mortal, then yes. Since I was fifteen years old, any man who tried to rape me has died, and I have taken great pleasure in their deaths."
Picard looked away abruptly. Methos stepped forward. His arms were still folded, hands still hidden, and he looked down at Picard with a curving smile. "How many people have you killed in your short life, Jean-Luc?"
"How many?" Methos repeated. "Do you even know? Are you going to judge us because when we are attacked we defend ourselves?"
Locutus breathed through Picard for an instant. He knew how many people had been on the ships Locutus had destroyed. He had not wanted to know, but Locutus had known.
"I know," Picard said, on a short breath. "Do you?"
Methos' smile vanished. "I have absolutely no idea," he said mildly.
"Leave him alone," said Bagoas.
"No death threats?" MacLeod asked.
Bagoas shrugged, briefly, almost awkwardly, watching Methos now. "No. This changes nothing. This is between Captain Picard and me. You chose this, Methos. Leave him alone."
"It's not," Carrington said. Her voice was fierce. "It is not. What are you doing, Bagoas?"
Picard turned and looked back at Bagoas. It wasn't possible to look away from him. He had tried to keep his questions impersonal, tried to keep his distance, to be the Captain. "Tell me," Picard whispered, "why did you kill Colin O'Neil?"
Bagoas' eyes widened. He did not look away, but Picard saw him flinch. The silence felt like years. Picard kept his eyes fixed on Bagoas. He wasn't sure that he could bear Bagoas' answer, but he was sure, as certain as faith, that Bagoas would tell him nothing but truth.
"You know part of it already," Bagoas said at last. "He challenged me. He wanted to take my head. But I could have spared him. I chose not to do so. I was hungry for a quickening. I was angry with him because he had spoken to me as if I were less than a man. These I have endured before. But there was a third thing. You had asked me to marry you, to live with you. And I knew I could never live aboard the Enterprise with such a young and reckless immortal. If I were to accept your proposal, Colin O'Neil had to die." He did not look away from Picard's face. "I cannot say that this did not influence me."
Picard pushed himself to his feet. He felt cold. The edges of his hands felt numb against the table. "No. You killed because it's your nature. It's what you do." The strongest, most powerful pleasure. There's nothing else. Nothing else. "Ah, I am a fool."
No one contradicted him. He turned. Methos had moved away from the door. Picard yanked it open and was through, into the cool darkness of the courtyard. Above him the naked stars burned endlessly.
Yet furthest times receive,
And to fresh praise restore,
Mere breath of flutes at eve,
Mere seaweed on the shore.
A smoke of sacrifice;
A chosen myrtle-wreath;
An harlot's altered eyes;
A rage 'gainst love or death;
Glazed snow beneath the moon;
The surge of storm-bowed trees --
"Hold him," Methos threw over his shoulder, and went after Picard. He would have to trust MacLeod to sit on Bagoas.
The Captain hadn't managed to get very far; he was standing in the courtyard outside, looking as if he had stopped to listen for something. Had Bagoas managed to yell a warning before MacLeod took him?
Picard was turning. Methos moved from the shadows and caught him by the elbows, holding him so that if Picard struggled he would break his arms. "Come on," he said, and began to move the younger man inexorably toward the gateway into the inner courtyards. Holy ground was the safest place to have a conversation with Bagoas' husband.
For a few moments Picard went with him quite cooperatively. He was obviously planning a move as soon as Methos let him go, so Methos let his grip relax, and as Picard tried to break his hold, he let go entirely and ducked away, pulling one of the phasers he had stolen from Picard. At a distance of five paces, Picard would be able to see it even in this light. Methos could see Picard's expression change briefly to disbelief and then once more to the faintly smiling controlled mask.
"Remember," Methos told him, "it would be really inopportune if I had to stun you just now. I'm not going to hurt you. Keep walking."
Picard grinned without humour. "Where to?" he asked. Wisely, his hands were conspicuously away from his combadge.
"Holy ground. If Bagoas gets away from MacLeod," Methos added bluntly, "that's where I'd rather be. Turn around and keep going."
"I want to talk to you."
"I don't think we have anything to say to each other." Picard's mouth had as stubborn a look to it as Bagoas' wore.
"I didn't say I wanted you to talk to me." Methos waved the phaser towards the gateway. After a moment, Picard turned and went on.
There was one thing that was absolutely reliable about Duncan. Methos followed Picard through the darkened house. He had a habit of being absolutely reliable. Ask him to guard someone and you could be certain that only death would stop him from doing it. Bagoas wouldn't get away from Duncan unless Amanda joined forces with him. And she was most unlikely to do that.
Nevertheless, it was a relief to step inside the circle of trees. With one smooth move, Methos pinned Picard up against one of the ancient trees, so close that he could see Picard's face in the starlight.
"I've seen you looking at me," he said. "Every time you do, I can see you think 'Five and a half thousand?' and disbelieve it."
Picard was holding himself very still. Methos could feel him on the edge of shaking. "Do you blame me?"
"Blame you?" Methos nearly laughed aloud. "No. No, Jean-Luc. Why should I? The truth is much too unbelievable. Usually I lie about it."
"What, you claim to be a mere thousand years old, but you read a lot?" Picard had excellent control over his voice. A listener, one not pressed against Picard, pinning him to the tree, might have thought Picard quite calm.
"No." Methos was so close to Picard he could almost hear his heart beat. "To those who know I'm immortal, I'm usually considered to be no more than forty or fifty, or younger. I pass as Duncan's old student, half the time. There are half a dozen people alive who know I'm Methos. And all but one thinks I can't remember anything before I took my first head. I tell them it's a blur. They're all much younger than me. They like to believe it's true. They want limits."
"But you're going to tell me the truth." Picard's voice held a bare thread of irony.
"Why not? The truth is I remember everything. But very little of it is worth remembering. I want to tell you about my brother."
"I want you to understand," Methos said. "Before I was immortal, I lived in a village somewhere in northern Europe, sometime between five and six thousand years ago. When I had been a man for seven years, it was time for the harvest, and I was chosen. We feasted three days and three nights. Then I was taken to our stonehouse, and the entrance stone was rolled away, and I was killed. They took my blood to feed our crops, and they buried me in the stonehouse with many gifts." His mouth felt dry. In his head he could still hear the sound of the stone rolling back with a crash and thunder, the first sound he had heard when he woke as an immortal.
"I don't know how long I lay there before they re-opened the stonehouse for the next harvest. We harvested every generation. Twenty years, perhaps. My wife was probably still alive. Her children were certainly still alive. The only one I recognised was the one who had killed me the first time. But what I need you to understand," Methos leaned closer, breathing into Picard's face, inhaling the mortal's breath, "is that I died, and woke, and died again, of hunger, of thirst, of cold, once or twice in a heavy winter of suffocation - over and over again, for years. That was how I became immortal."
No sound. Picard's eyes were intense.
"When they opened the stonehouse, the new harvest stood there as I had stood, garlanded and ready. I killed him. I took the axe they used on me, and I killed him. I killed the one who harvested me. I went out of the stonehouse and I killed and I killed, and no one could stop me. I thought I was a god." He paused. "No. They thought I was a god. I thought I was death." He paused again. He hadn't thought of this in decades. Centuries. "No. I thought I was dead. And I wanted death. Can you understand that?"
Silence. Picard nodded, jerkily.
Methos shook his head. "No. You can't. I killed everyone in my village. No one else had a face I knew, but I must have killed all my family, my friends, my wife, her children... Everyone. I walked away. I walked a long time. I died often. Whenever I met someone who seemed to be alive, I killed them. I wanted everyone dead. I was dead. I don't know how long I was dead, but it might have been centuries. All I knew was killing." He sucked in a deep breath. "And then I met someone who couldn't die. Someone I could feel. Someone like me. And he taught me how to live." He stopped. "No. He taught me I was alive. And we were brothers. For a thousand years, we were brothers, in blood, in arms, in everything but birth. We rode across the world together. We changed the world. Do you know what it's like to have a friend, a brother, for a thousand years?"
This time, Picard didn't make the mistake of nodding. He was very still.
"I knew him. He knew me. We moved as one. We understood each other. We almost thought the same thoughts. We killed as if we were one sword."
Methos stopped and bent his head, breathing in and out hard as if he had been running. He heard Picard open his mouth, and waited, all his weight poised against Picard, wanting to know what Picard thought he had to say.
"And what happened?"
Methos lifted his head. He stared Picard in the eye. "I have lived so long," he said finally, "not because I'm faster, or better, or stronger. I live because I learned not to become attached to anyone. To anything. Everything changes. Nothing lasts. People's thoughts change. I changed. My brother never did. We still thought and moved as one, but we were no longer the same person."
Picard let out a breath. He said, very tentatively, "That must have hurt...?"
Methos laughed at him. It hurt to laugh, his chest felt so tight, but it was the only possible answer. "It hurt," he said, a little breathlessly.
"What happened to him? Your brother."
"I couldn't kill him. But he had to die. So I - someone else took his head." And Methos could still remember the feeling of relief, like dying after a long walk in the snow, like sleep after long waking, like water after dying of thirst, not when MacLeod took Kronos' head, but when MacLeod said: You made me do it. You couldn't kill him, but you knew I could.
Picard could feel the rough bark against his back. Methos was pinning him to the tree, as if casually, but with a subtle use of weight and muscle that Picard doubted he could break. Methos had lifted his face from the shadows a minute or two ago, and Picard could see him, clear and drained of colour.
And he believed. Five and a half thousand years had written no more on that face than five million years had written on the Muttianee artifacts; but the artifacts were old, unthinkably ancient, and on seeing them Picard had known just why everyone who had seen them had been certain that they were made things. He was certain too of Methos; the man held him with a grip older than iron.
No wonder Bagoas called him the ancient one. The gaze from those clear uncoloured eyes was almost as old as history itself.
It terrified him, the breathless, out of control voice from a man who had proved himself so thoroughly in control. Even if it was deliberate.
"What is it," Picard asked, making his voice as deliberately steady as he could, "that you want me to understand?"
"Are you trying to tell me that you don't?"
"That you are not human?"
Methos' lips curled. It was not a smile. "Perhaps not. No. But more than that. I want Bagoas. I want him to live."
"Because he knows you," Picard said.
"Yes." It came out as an exasperated hiss. "There's nothing else that endures. I want him to live because he's known me almost half my life. I want him to have whatever he wants that will make him love life. And he wants you."
Picard drew in a deep, controlling breath. "Why are you trying to make this personal?" Bagoas, until Picard had asked the final question, had tried to answer as impersonally as Picard had tried to question him.
"Because it is," Methos said. "For all of us. Even you. You know you'll never be able to report your discovery to your masters. Because if you try, we'll vanish, all of us. You know that, don't you?"
Picard nodded. "I'm sure you'd try."
"You're sure we'd succeed," Methos said dryly. "Whether you're ready to admit it to me or not. Jean-Luc, you know I've been pushing you around."
"Oh," Picard said. He almost laughed, right in Methos' face. "I didn't really notice." He shifted his weight a little. As if absently, Methos held him still.
"I'm good at it," Methos said, quite factually. "I know how people react. I know what they do. I can manipulate most people, most of the time, and they never notice."
"Really." Picard was tense. Fifty-five centuries of observation, yes, how could Methos not be good at it? This close to Picard, what could he tell even from the speed of Picard's heartbeat?
"When I know people better, I can manipulate them even though they know I'm doing it. The better I know them, the easier it is to push them. It's a skill, it takes practice, that's all. Even you have a trace of it. Bagoas isn't nearly as good at it as I am... but he's good enough for you."
"What?" Picard stared.
"Bagoas never lies. What he told you was true. He wants you to believe not only that you ought to tell your masters about us, but that you must, because we're a danger to mortals."
Picard was disconcerted for an instant. "Well?"
"We're dangerous, yes. All of us at that table have killed mortals. But so have you, and more recently than any of us."
"It's not the killing," Picard said. Methos still had him pinned. This was not the best time to say it. "It's the contempt."
"What?" Methos looked, for an instant, surprised.
"You live so long," Picard said. "You said yourself you don't get attached to anyone younger than a century. How can you respect our lives, when many of us don't live even that long?"
Methos let go and stepped back, setting Picard free to move. He folded his arms and stood there looking at Picard with a tilt of his head. "I was talking about young immortals, Jean-Luc."
"There's a difference?"
"You think not?" Methos smiled a little. "Young immortals think they'll live forever. They burn themselves out, for the most part. They start fights they can't win. But the best mortals live the way we do."
Picard pushed himself away from the tree-trunk, tugging his uniform down. "How's that?" He eyed Methos warily.
"As if it were forever," Methos said. "And as if you were going to die tomorrow. Both at once."
"Are you saying you would have... treated me like this if I'd been immortal?"
Methos grinned. "No. If you'd been immortal, I'd have knifed you through the heart before I dragged you off here."
Picard swallowed. There were a number of answers to that, but none of them would have helped. "You want me to forgive Bagoas for being... what he is."
"No. Bagoas may want you to forgive him. That's not what I want. He's more than you think he is, not less."
Picard stood very still, disconcerted for the second time. "I shouldn't need you to tell me that," he whispered, almost to himself.
Methos said nothing. When Picard's head lifted, Methos was still standing there, utterly still, waiting.
"When you told me all that about yourself," Picard said, "you did it to manipulate me."
"Yes," Methos agreed. He smiled a little. "And because I know I can trust you for sixty years or so. It doesn't have to be for longer. What are you going to do now, Jean-Luc?"
"Go back," Picard said, "and ask my husband if he'll have supper with me." He smiled a little, in return. "Somewhere else."
It occurred to Amanda, and she knew it must have occurred to Duncan and Bagoas earlier, when they realised what Methos had done, that it would be far simpler and easier to kill Picard, and disappear his body, than for the four of them to vanish. Of course Duncan wouldn't consent to it, would probably never admit that he'd thought of it. And Bagoas was refusing to see it even as a possibility, insisting vehemently that the only possible solution was to walk out. But Methos was standing between Picard and the door, and his hands were out of sight, and he looked quite appallingly calm.
Amanda hadn't expected Captain Picard to walk out. Bagoas looked as white as if he had been completely drained of blood. But Picard looked almost dead. He seemed to need the table's support to get to his feet. "Ah, j'm'en fous!" He fumbled at the door to get it open and went out like a sleepwalker.
And then everything happened at once. Methos whipped round to follow the Captain out, and Bagoas cried out, lunging to his feet, his sword abruptly in his hand, "Methos, no - "
"Hold him," Methos threw over his shoulder, and was gone. MacLeod landed on Bagoas like a highly-controlled and directed ton of bricks, bearing him to the ground and pinning him there. Bagoas's sword clattered and rolled on the tiles.
Amanda stood up. Bagoas was fighting Duncan, but Duncan had all the advantages of weight, and knew how to block Bagoas's leverage. Bagoas was trying, fiercely and desperately, to get away, but he couldn't do it. He leaned his head back and glared up at Duncan. "Let me go. If you are a man of honour, let me go."
Duncan shook his head. His mouth was set in an odd grimace.
"I beg you." Bagoas's voice was high and strained. "Lady Ambassador, I beg you, make him let me go - "
Amanda had been thinking of nothing else. It wasn't that she would automatically trust Methos alone with a mortal. But MacLeod was reacting as if he trusted Methos not to hurt Picard. And add another immortal to the mix, and who could say what might not happen?
She shook her head. Bagoas struggled again, trying to bring his knee up to throw Duncan off, but Duncan shifted his weight and pushed him back down again. Duncan said nothing. Bagoas cursed him breathlessly for a few minutes, and then lay still.
Amanda knelt down beside him. "Methos isn't going to kill him."
From the look on Duncan's face, he wasn't sure she was right. Bagoas snarled at her in Persian - Amanda had never learned the language, but she recognised the sound - and then, more clearly, snapped, "Not that he'll kill Jean-Luc, but what is he saying to him?"
"What?" Duncan said, simultaneously with Amanda.
"Last time he had Jean-Luc to himself, he told my lord about immortals. What will he tell him this time?"
"Ah." Amanda shrugged. "Just so long as we don't all have to walk out of here. I don't want to have to leave my work unfinished. Is that clear?"
"Let me go," Bagoas said to Duncan.
Duncan shook his head, once, looking down at Bagoas almost as if he were afraid. He said nothing. Amanda looked from one to the other. There was a very similar, bleak shuttered look, on both their faces. She went back to the table and sat down again, waiting.
An hour ago, walking back through the alien-scented night, Amanda had felt like dancing. All three of the religious leaders had offered her an escort, and so had the mayor, and Amanda knew with conscious glee that she had scored points by refusing them all. In some places an Ambassador would have lost respect, not gained it, by refusing an escort; but all three branches of the Tree respected personal courage. Sarek had been right; the diplomatic game was exactly what Amanda had needed after the Carrington. It had seemed ironic and delightful, at the time, that this, the last of the diplomatic games that Ambassador Carrington would get to play, required only the dexterity of a much-practiced thief and the bluffing skill of an equally-practiced gambler.
It wasn't long - it only felt that way - before Amanda heard Methos' presence returning. Amanda stood up. If Picard was dead, the negotiations would still continue. If Picard was alive and Ambassador Carrington had to disappear or die, the negotiations would still continue. Starfleet was like that. But she wanted to meet whichever it was on her feet.
The door opened, and Picard came in, and Methos a step after him. MacLeod relaxed. Bagoas brought his right knee up, shoving down with his right foot, and slammed MacLeod off him, sending him rolling into the nearest table-leg. Bagoas was on his feet, sword in hand, staring at Methos and Picard.
So was Amanda. Picard looked - not relaxed. Drained, perhaps. But he looked at Bagoas as if he had never seen him before, and knew him to the end of himself.
"Jean-Luc," Bagoas said, and moved round the table, sliding his sword back into its hidden scabbard, cautious as a stalking cat. He paused, not touching the other man. "Are you all right?"
Picard nodded. "Mon mari," he said. "Would you have supper with me?" He reached out, evidently meaning to take Bagoas's hands in his, but Bagoas stepped back. He shook his head.
"Don't be so bloody stubborn," Methos snapped.
Duncan picked himself up, shaking his head as if it still ached from being slammed into a stone table-leg. "Methos?"
"I am not the man you married," Bagoas said. "I let you think I was human." He was moving as carefully as a cat, circling the table until the full width was between himself and Picard. "I am not a man."
"Bagoas," Picard said. Only the plain word, but there was so much love naked in it that Amanda was almost embarrassed to witness it.
"No!" Abruptly, Bagoas slammed his hand down on the stone table, smashing flesh and bone against the surface. His face was white, and sweated with pain, but he held his shattered hand still against the smooth stone. Blood was beginning to pattern the table. "I lied to you, I let you believe the lie. This is what I am."
Picard's mouth tightened. He leaned forward across the table and put his hand over Bagoas' hand. The sparks of the quickening were beginning to burn the flesh and twist the bones, but Picard never flinched. "Human or not," he said, "you are a man, and my husband, as I am yours."
Bagoas shook his head, and Methos leaned in and laid his hand on top of Picard's, pressing down. The quickening leapt up again, a bright flaring spark that lit the flesh from within. "Little brother," he said, very softly, "look at him. He's not a child, or a king, or a god. He's a man, like you."
Bagoas' face was shuttered with pain, and his voice was hoarse. "Let him go."
"Or what?" Methos leaned inwards. "If he's yours to defend, you are his. But if you are not his, he is not yours. What is your alternative, Bagoas? Look at him!"
"Let him go!" Bagoas almost snarled it, right into Methos' face. "Let him go and leave us alone."
With a shrug, Methos lifted his hand. Picard curled his finger round Bagoas' hand. "Mon mari," he said again, and said it urgently. "Come with me."
Bagoas let out a long breath. "If you will," he said at last. "Let's go."
Methos stepped aside, out of their way, and said a phrase in Persian. Bagoas stopped momentarily, turned, and said something back to him in the same language. The door closed behind them.
Once Bagoas' presence had faded, Duncan turned to Methos with a glower. "We're going for a walk."
"Fine," Methos said lightly.
Amanda shrugged. "Be here tomorrow morning," she said. "Both of you. You escort me to the council chambers in time for first prayers. Duncan, where's my sword?"
"Oh." Duncan looked baffled for a moment. "In the gatehouse."
"You're welcome," Duncan snapped, and to Methos, "Come on. Let's go."
Left alone, Amanda stood still for a full minute, enjoying the peace. Then she pulled out the Starfleet communicator she'd been issued with, and tapped a code. "Lieutenant Pontis? Kayelle? It's Amanda. Would you and your partners care to join me for dinner?"
The street was not well lit, and lined with trees that filled it with shadows. Picard picked his way cautiously. Bagoas kept pace with him.
"Do we know where we're going?" Bagoas asked finally.
"Somewhere we can get something to eat," Picard said. "I have to tell you something about myself I should have told you before I asked you to marry me."
"Ah." Bagoas sounded faintly, familiarly amused. "Well, I am in no position to judge. Jean-Luc, what did Methos say to you?"
"That he needs you," Picard said, obliquely. "That you want me." He didn't want to talk about it in any further detail. "He was... convincing. He reminded me... of myself." He paused. "...after Locutus."
"I know about Locutus." Bagoas glanced sideways. "Is that what you want to talk about? He wasn't you."
"No, I just have his memories."
"That doesn't make him you. Any more than Colin O'Neil is me. I have his memories with his quickening."
"Oh," Picard said. He wanted to hear more about this, but later; if there was to be a time later. They walked a few more steps in silence, turning down another street. "I wanted to tell you... why I asked you to marry me. The last time. Why I insisted."
"I had... a vision. A dream. Or it might have been real. I was twenty years in my own future."
"What did you see?" Bagoas sounded very serious.
"I had been married to Beverly, and divorced from her. I was no longer in Starfleet. I lived alone in my father's vineyard. My brother and his family weren't there. And I was... dying. Of Irumodic syndrome. It causes brain damage. It was taking me a long time to die."
Silence again for a few paces. "The only part of that vision that I could confirm in any way at all," Picard said, with difficulty, "was that I have the brain defect that makes it possible I could develop Irumodic syndrome. Perhaps in twenty years. Perhaps never. But, you see, I should have told you that."
Bagoas stopped. Picard turned to him and waited. "Does Beverly know about... your vision?"
Bagoas half-smiled. "She's always been very courteous to me."
"Mon mari..." Picard swallowed. "Will you come back to the Enterprise with me? Just for tonight?"
Bagoas paused. "I confess I don't think we're likely to be allowed to eat quietly anywhere else. Yes, thank you; if you can find us a shuttle."
"Transporters are too much like dying," Bagoas said, matter-of-factly. "And they take too much information with them."
Picard managed an equal matter-of-factness. "Oh, I'm sure the Captain can manage a shuttle. We'll need to walk out a bit further, though."
The crewman who piloted the shuttle, an ensign Tepper, was very quiet on the trip back up. Neither Picard nor Bagoas said anything. Picard remembered to thank the ensign as he left the shuttle; Bagoas turned and smiled, but said nothing.
It felt very strange to be back in his own quarters with Bagoas; strangest of all was how easy it seemed to take it for granted. Picard ordered two suppers from the replicator, and laid them on the table, without any of their familiar domestic rituals.
"When were you going to tell me that you're... immortal?" Picard asked.
"When I had to," Bagoas said evenly. "When you returned to Earth, if not before." He had dropped his duffle bag by the door, where he could pick it up quickly if he had to leave. And he had managed to leave the ship before without being detected.
The soup and the bread were good, but neither of them was eating much. Picard ventured again, "Would you ever have told me about Colin O'Neil?"
Bagoas put down his bread on the plate and looked at Picard. "No. No more than he would ever have told you about me. But I am sorry that I killed him, Jean-Luc. He died believing he was defending you. He wanted to protect you from me."
Picard almost laughed. It would have been so like O'Neil. "I don't want to be protected from you," he said soberly. "I have to tell you something that I did to you."
Bagoas raised an eyebrow and set down his knife. "I didn't notice. What, then?"
Picard told him about the datastore XCP102. "I'm sorry," he finished. "I knew even while I was doing it, on some level, that it was unforgivable."
Bagoas was silent a moment. "Captain," he said at last, formally, "you haven't mentioned what I would have thought you would find unforgivable; that I had already set up a program to block any such recording."
"It was justified, under the circumstances," Picard said.
"I didn't know that," Bagoas said. "And if you allow me to live here again, I will set up another program like it. I trust you; but I do not trust everyone who would have access to such a recording. Short of destroying this ship, there is no way to be rid of such records in the future."
Picard looked at Bagoas. His hands were spread on the table. Lean strong perfect hands.
"I want you to live here," Picard said.
Bagoas abandoned all pretence of eating his meal, pushing the bowl and plate to one side. "I told you, years ago, that there were things I would never tell you. You never tried to make me tell you anything. But I could tell you nothing true about my life except the past twenty years, so I told you nothing. But I lied to you when I let you believe lies. The dark Lie is faithlessness."
Picard pushed his meal to the side. He sat still, looking at Bagoas in silence. "I can't keep you here if you want to go," he said finally, soberly.
Bagoas let out a long soft breath. "I don't want to go." He lifted his chin, meeting Picard's eyes with an odd defiance. "The second person I ever killed in my life," he said, "was myself. Did the ancient one tell you that?"
Picard shook his head.
"I loved a man once," Bagoas said, as soberly as Picard. "He was my hero, my king, and my God. He died, leaving an unborn son as his heir. When his son was almost old enough to be a man, his father's enemies poisoned him, and there seemed nothing left of the man I had loved except his tomb. I thought carefully and long, I made my will, I freed my servants in case they were blamed, and then one night I killed myself." He did not move, and his voice was still and remote, speaking of an ancient, immediate pain. "And the next morning when I saw the sun rise, I knew that my lord was lost to me forever." He leaned forward, across the table. "It isn't you I don't trust," he said again. "I am a killer. That's my nature."
"Very good," Picard said. He leaned forward. "You're a killer. You are also a man I would trust with my life."
Bagoas almost smiled. "And you," he said, a little wryly, "are a man I would trust with my head." He moved his hands, slightly, drawing attention to them. Picard rubbed his fingertips together a moment; he had realised suddenly, aboard the shuttle, that dried blood from Bagoas' shattered hand still clung to his skin. Bagoas looked at Picard's hands before he lifted his gaze to Picard's face. "How can you know my nature and still trust me?"
"How can you know mine," Picard said, "and still trust me? How can you be certain that I won't go to Starfleet and report all I know about you and immortals?"
Bagoas looked affronted for an instant. "Because it's not... in your nature." He smiled, once, briefly, like a sword-thrust. "Because I am your husband, and I would have to leave you to set you free to do your duty as a Starfleet officer. Because you will not betray me, but you cannot betray your oath to Starfleet."
"My oath to Starfleet is to protect diversity and to prevent interference," Picard said. "I don't believe that allowing you and your kind to live as you always have, without interference from the Federation or from anyone else, is breaking my oath to Starfleet." He stopped for a moment to consider, but went on, clearly and steadily. "And even if it were a choice between my loyalty to you and my loyalty to Starfleet, I hope I would have the courage to choose rightly. Have you read Dante's Inferno?"
Bagoas nodded, once. He was even paler than usual.
"In the last and the coldest circle of hell," Picard said, "are those who betrayed their friends rather than their country. And first of all, I hope, you are my friend, as I am yours."
Bagoas' hands came up to cover his face, and he stood up, blindly. Picard pushed himself to his feet and stood, within arm's reach of Bagoas, wanting very much to hold him.
"When your priest prayed over us," Bagoas said into his hands, "I thought it was very beautiful and quite unreal. But you meant it."
Picard almost stepped back. "Yes," he said, formally, chilled to the heart.
"God," Bagoas said, a little muffled, "grant us unashamed faithfulness, true love, and bestow also on us thy servants all those things needed for salvation..."
Picard reached out and took Bagoas's hands away from his face, holding them between his own. "For salvation," he finished the prayer, "and eternal life."
Bagoas was looking at Picard with unguarded eyes. They were still a moment, and Bagoas gripped Picard's hands strongly, once, and let go. He said formally, "Dear one, if you will have me, I will go with you wherever you go. I will stay with you until the day you die, or the day you send me from you. Whether it is a year, or twenty years, or sixty, I promise that time to you."
"I may need time." Picard hesitated. He put his hand up to touch Bagoas' hair. "What you are... is more than I knew."
"All I have to give you is time," Bagoas said. "All that I am is yours." He stepped inward, his arms moving to close round Picard, and Picard mirrored him.
Methos turned down the street in the opposite direction to that Bagoas had taken. Duncan came after him, walking angrily.
"You set me up."
Methos smiled sideways at him. "Mm."
"Is that all you've got to say? I could have taken his head!"
"No, you wouldn't," Methos said. He didn't mean to be reassuring, but Duncan's footsteps sounded rather less furious.
"He could have taken my head. He's bloody good."
Bagoas' fighting style was very similar to Duncan's. No wonder Duncan thought he was good. "I knew he wouldn't. I knew you wouldn't." Methos walked on. "You'd promised me you wouldn't take his head, and Bagoas wouldn't have taken yours because he was responsible for you wanting to kill him."
"You know a lot, don't you?"
"Yes," Methos said. He nodded, feeling Duncan's eyes on him in the shadowy light. "Oh, yes."
"Did you plan all this? All of it?"
"No." Methos stared straight ahead. "My original plan was a lot less bloody. Even when I saw Bagoas this morning, I didn't mean you two to fight this afternoon." He smiled a little. "Especially not if it meant I had to clean up after you. But - " and his smile became a grin " - it worked, didn't it?"
"You could have told me." Duncan's voice was rough. "You could have trusted me."
"I did. I do."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You could have worked it out. You almost did. Thanks for hanging on to Bagoas for me, by the way."
"What did you tell Picard?"
Methos kept smiling, putting one foot in front of the other. "That we've all done things in the past we regret. That Bagoas is worth it." His voice was very casual.
He felt Duncan's hand almost before the other immortal touched him. Duncan's pace matched his, the swordsman's hand heavy and warm on his shoulder. "Methos."
"Thanks," Methos repeated.
"Bagoas called me your sword," Duncan said quietly. "Is that what I am?"
Methos shook his head. "You know who you are." He tucked his chin down, studying his moving feet on the rough stones. "You know me."
"Well," Duncan said, very quietly, "maybe I'm beginning to. I sometimes wonder how long it'll take."
"A lifetime," Methos said mildly. "Do you have one you're not using?" He glanced up. The stars overhead were burning in different constellations. He had never thought he would live long enough to see the very skies change. They walked on together under the alien trees.
July - December 1997
Endure while Empires fall
And Gods for Gods make room...
Which greater God than all
Imposed the amazing doom?
("The Survival", [Horace, Bk.V. Ode 22])
Feedback: e-mail me (or comment me if you have a livejournal).
All poems quoted as chapter headings are by Rudyard Kipling.
Part 1: One Viceroy Resigns, from Departmental Ditties and Other Verses.
Part 2: The Power of the Dog from Actions and Reactions.
Part 3: Tomlinson from the National Observer.
Part 4 and Part 5: The Survival, from Debits and Credits.
Deep thanks are owed to Shoshanna, Kari d'Herblay, and Barbara, all of whom helped me enormously with the finished story. Also to Gervaise, for putting up with bits read over the phone for months, to the entire membership of Pieces of Eight, who were compelled to read me in first draft and 10-point, and to Frances, eyeballs and all. I am more grateful than I can express to Phil d'Herblay for correcting and criticising my somewhat Shakespearean and operatic notions of swordfighting: the errors that remain are entirely my doing and none of his. Thanks and appreciation are owed to Mary Renault, for suffering without complaint my borrowing without compunction or consent from The Persian Boy and Funeral Games, and finally, to Bagoas, eromenos of kings, peace to his shade; he would never have wanted to be immortal alone.
The (italicised) lines in the opening of Part 3 are from the Prayer for Same-Sex Union, dated 1027/29 CE, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It is included with many other such prayers in John Boswell's The Marriage of Likeness, HarperCollins, 1995 (originally published in the U.S. as Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Random House (Villard Books), 1994).
O Lord Our God, who has granted to us all things necessary for salvation and didst command us to love one another and to forgive one another our failings, protect in thy holiness, Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of the spirit and have come into thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated by Thee. Grant them unashamed faithfulness, true love, and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples thy peace, bestow also on these servants all those things needed for salvation and eternal life.
(Antiphon) For thou art merciful and loving, God, and thine is unending glory, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
The deacon: Bow your heads.
The priest: Ruler and Lord, Our God, who hast called the congregation of thy holy apostles to one shepherd, one brotherhood, and sent them out unto all the corners of the world to preach thy commandments, bless now also these thy servants whom Thou hast found worthy to stand before thy glory and to be united in spirit. Keep them in thy name, sanctify them in thy truth, so that living according to thy commandments they may become heirs of thy kingdom, for Thou art giver of all good things and thine is unending glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The prayer in (i) is, says Boswell, "one of the most common components of same-sex union ceremonies, and this is one of the earliest versions of it." So when the Catholic church ceased to condemn same-sex love and commitment and returned to its earlier traditions and ceremonies (which they did at Vatican IV in 2143, under the guidance of Pope Julian), this prayer was the one revived for the new liturgy. (hJc)