The Stoics say that there are three good emotions: joy, watchfulness, wishing. Joy, they say, is the opposite of pleasure, consisting in well-reasoned elation; and watchfulness is the opposite of fear, consisting in well-reasoned shrinking. For the wise man will not be afraid at all, but he will be watchful. They say that wishing is the opposite of appetite, consisting in well-reasoned desire. Just as certain passions fall under the primary ones, so too with the primary good emotions. Under wishing: kindness, generosity, warmth, affection. Under watchfulness: respect, purity. Under joy: delight, sociability, cheerfulness. (Diogenes Laertius 7.116, SVF 3.431)
The thing that Joe could never understand was how a guy with 5,000 years of experience to fall back on could get bored so damn quickly.
That wasn't entirely fair: Methos could think of plenty of things to do to amuse himself. Then he would think of ways to get other people to do them for him. People like Joe, for example. Which was, as far as he could tell, how he'd ended up running a bar on a little island in French Polynesia. The island held his bar, a permanent population of about 900 Polynesians and French, and two small, exclusive hotels.
"You need a change of scene," Methos had announced when, after a year's absence, he had appeared out of nowhere in his usual fashion and informed Joe of his plans for them.
Joe had been shocked to see Methos without MacLeod; he had assumed that the old man was out looking for him. Stubbornly, he refused to leave Paris.
It had taken time to goad Methos into losing his temper but in the end Methos treated him to a half-hour tirade on the deficiencies of Joe's life in Paris. When he finally shut up, Joe asked, "What about Mac?"
"MacLeod isn't coming back to Paris."
"Did you find him?"
"No," Methos said shortly.
Joe waited silently for the rest of the story.
"He's not coming back any time soon, Joe." Methos' voice softened. "He needs space. When he wants to, Mac will be able to find us."
Joe's new life wasn't bad. The bar kept him busy and he wasn't always stumbling over things that reminded him of the past. The heat was better for his bones than the damp chill of Paris and Seacouver had been, and Methos proved a more sensitive companion than he had expected. Especially now that he was no longer pretending to be in charge of the restaurant side of the business. The kitchen had become a much happier place after Joe hired a cook from the village down the road.
He still looked up when he heard steps on the porch expecting to see MacLeod's tall form, but no longer felt the same sharp disappointment when it was someone else. A lifetime's habit of watching people soon provided him with a new set of targets.
The objects of his interest inhabited a large, sturdy house a mile and a half down the beach from his bar.
He had been told that the house belonged to an English diplomat, but the first inhabitant was a young American man. He had arrived on the island only a few months after the bar opened, and Joe was hoping that he'd become a regular customer. Jeffrey was clean, quiet and polite. He didn't go out much, and he kept his shirt on at all times. It made him stand out among the French and German tourists who made up most of his clientele. Joe mentioned this fact to Methos one lazy afternoon. "Because of all the scarring," Methos had said.
"The scarring?" Joe had repeated, trying to sound casual. Letting Methos know you were interested was not the best way to get information out of him.
"A bullet from close range. He's a lucky young man."
Joe didn't ask when Methos had seen Jeffrey with his shirt off.
That had been a few weeks after the arrival of Jeffrey's cousin, a slightly older woman names Diana: her appearance encouraged Jeffrey to spend more time out of the house. Whatever had happened to them, it seemed to require a whole lot of personal space. A couple months after Diana turned up on the island he realized just how much personal space. Diana walked in and sat down at the table Jeffrey always sat at. The younger man didn't look up. Joe did his best to tune out the tourists chatting at the bar.
"Jeffrey," he heard her say, "I'm sorry. How many times do I have to say so? Please talk to me."
"You knew about him the whole time," Jeffrey said. "You knew all about it. You should have told me. You want me to talk to you now, well, you should have been talking to me then."
"You wouldn't have believed a word I said. I got you out, didn't I?"
"Alex got me out, Diana. Remember?" Joe began to edge along the bar to bring himself closer to their conversation. "I was just a big joke to you."
"You know that isn't true..." she began; at that point Joe was called away to serve a customer. By the time the blender was off and he could hear again, the conversation had changed. Diana's soothing tone had been replaced by one of annoyance. "Damn it, Jeffrey, don't you think I wanted to be able to rely on you? If you could have gotten your head out of your ass for just one minute--"
The young man jumped out of his chair. "Shut up! Just, shut up, Diana. So I didn't live up to your hopes and dreams? Well too fucking bad for you. Maybe now you'll leave me alone. Or would you rather take a shot at me for it, like my--" Whatever he had been about to say, he caught himself. The blood had drained from Diana's face. They stared at each other for a long moment before Jeffrey turned and stomped off.
Joe expected to see her follow the young man out. Instead she sat at the table, staring out at the ocean until the sun set.
A few nights later, Methos added another piece to the puzzle. "Jeffrey has some remarkable stories, you know."
"He says that aliens are coming to take over the world."
"Methos..." Joe began.
"Quite. He also told me that there's a secret international organization dedicated to helping them colonize the planet, and that his father is in charge of it. His father, he claims, handed his mother over to aliens to be experimented on."
"How much had he had to drink when he told you all this?"
"Rather a lot," Methos admitted. "Still, it's an interesting story."
"A not-very-interesting delusion if you ask me." Methos had a suspiciously innocent expression on his face. "Don't tell me you believe him."
"Jeffrey also said that Diana used to live in Paris. Maybe you should try talking to her."
"About Jeffrey's delusions?"
"About whatever you like."
"Why don't you talk to her?"
"She's not my type," Methos said, and got up to get another beer.
Diana did admit to having spent time in Paris, but wasn't forthcoming about what she'd been doing there. Joe didn't bother mentioning aliens to her. Of course, he'd seen good friends of his die and come back to life, which most people would consider impossible. And he was willing to admit that life on other planets was possible. Probable, even. But alien invasions? No, he would pass on that one.
If he hadn't been a Watcher he would never have noticed how skillfully she turned the conversation from her business to his own. Of course she knew Le Blues Bar; she had even been in once or twice. She bought books at Shakespeare and Company. Soon enough they were talking about the blues--she was enthusiastic but not well-informed--and she had persuaded him to play at the bar one night soon. Joe excused the ease with which he had allowed himself to be distracted. It had all been done so smoothly, and besides it had been a while since a good-looking woman had flirted with him. In English, anyway.
The blues nights were extremely popular, too.
Soon after that, Methos' boredom became noticeable. He spent a couple weeks sitting around the bar, getting in the way and complaining about nothing in particular. Then he disappeared for three months. It was winter in the Northern hemisphere, their busiest season. Joe made a fortune over the turn of the millennium, but missed the other man's companionship as the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000. He spent the whole day looking out for him in the belief that Methos would make it home before midnight, and was surprised at how disappointed he was. He had a right to be resentful, he thought: the tropical island paradise had been Methos' idea in the first place.
At least he had the bar, the music and Diana to distract him from his worry and resentment. He assumed that she was simply flirting with him because she was bored and he was there. The days after the New Year began to change his mind, but Methos returned before he could be sure.
The old man looked pretty pleased with himself, so Joe greeted him cheerfully and didn't bother asking where he'd been. It was worth it to watch Methos getting progressively more annoyed at his lack of interest.
"You know," he finally said, "your girlfriend is dead."
That made Joe put down the glass he was drying and pay attention. He rejected the protest that he and Diana weren't lovers and went for the important point. "Dead how? Is she…?"
"Not one of us, no. Just legally dead. She was found shot in her apartment in Washington, D.C. Is there any obvious scarring?" Joe didn't bother to reply. If Methos was going to keep secrets from him, he would return the favor. After a few moments, Methos continued. "She and Jeffrey used to work together."
"In Washington," Joe agreed. He had managed to ask a few questions in the last months.
"For the FBI. In something called the X-Files division. They investigated unsolved cases and inexplicable phenomena. Paranormal stuff."
"Immortals?" Joe asked. He might have to get back in touch with the Watchers after all.
Joe rolled his eyes. "Little green men in flying saucers?"
"More or less. I've been doing a little research." Worry began to nibble away at Joe at that news. The only thing he'd ever known Methos to research was himself. True, Methos liked to exaggerate his own self-absorption: Joe knew how important Duncan was to the old man, had seen him with Alexa, hell, had himself been rescued from loneliness by him. But still.
He was still trying to think of a tactful way to ask Diana about the subject when she told him she was going away for a while. "Where will you be?" he asked instead.
"Switzerland, I think. I'll need to spend some time in Eastern Europe and in Russia as well."
He nodded and took a deep breath. "Diana," he said, "Jeffrey's been telling Adam some stories. Not that I haven't seen one or two unbelievable things in my life, but Jeffrey's stories are pretty incredible."
Wide brown eyes held his. She looked very serious. "I can't tell you everything about what I do, Joe. I wish I could but there are things… if you knew them, you'd be in danger."
"I'm not as fragile as I look."
She blushed slightly and said, "I didn't mean it like that." She still looked doubtful, and he had no way of telling her what he meant without breaking an oath he still took seriously.
"I just want you to know that if you even need help, you can come to me."
"I know that I can, Joe," she said. "And I don't underestimate you. This is a delicate situation, that's all."
That was that. Two days later she was gone. Three weeks after that Methos left as well. Jeffrey began to spend more time at the bar.
One night in late March, when Joe judged that the other man had had enough to drink, he asked, "This story you told Adam about the aliens. Is that for real?"
"Probably," Jeffrey said.
They got drunker.
A couple months later Joe got a postcard from Amanda, sent from Reykjavik. After that, she sent one from St. Petersburg. He kept an eye on the news, waiting to hear about a theft from the Hermitage Museum, but nothing happened. She must have learned his address from Methos, but what Methos expected him to learn from the postcards was a mystery to Joe.
Diana returned in September, without Methos but with two companions. There was a woman who was an invalid, and stayed in the house where Jeffrey and Diana took turns watching her. The second newcomer was a teenaged boy, who wandered over to the bar the afternoon after they arrived. He was a stocky child with light brown hair and glasses. He lifted himself up onto a barstool and requested a Coca- Cola. "You're Joe," he said as Joe handed him the drink. "Diana likes you."
There weren't many responses to that, so Joe said, "Oh."
"She's glad to be back and sorry she can't spend more time with you right away. But they're worried about Marita."
"Did Diana ask you to tell me this?"
"Not exactly," the boy said. "I'm Gibson Praise," he added.
"Nice to meet you, Gibson," Joe said. "Is Marita the woman who came with you?"
Gibson nodded. "They thought she was better, but she had a relapse. She wanted to stay but Alex insisted that she come here." Alex. Jeffrey had mentioned a woman named Marita once or twice. He had had little more to say about Alex; Joe knew that Alex had saved Jeffrey's life, that he was working in the US to oppose Jeffrey's father, and that Jeffrey considered him the most dangerous man he knew. The last fact probably explained Jeff's reluctance to go into any greater detail on the subject. Joe was wondering how to press the boy for more information when Gibson changed the subject. "Can you teach me how to play poker?"
"Sure," Joe said.
Diana came to see him the next night. They sat out on the balcony above the bar, looking at the beach and the ocean. "I hear you met Gibson," she said. "I knew he would like you."
"Why?" Joe asked.
"You're a good man," she said. "And he's a good judge of character. Just don't ask him to play cards or chess with you."
"Too late. I promised to teach him how to play poker."
She started to laugh. "Promise you won't play for money."
Joe sat there, enjoying having her next to him, being able to feel her laughter through his ribs. She was leaning her head against his shoulder. "Diana," he said, "while you were gone Jeffrey and I talked." She pulled away from him and sat up straighter.
"And?" she asked.
"I told you that I've seen a lot of unbelievable things. I guess this is another one."
"Did Jeffrey tell you what we're doing? About the hybridization research and the organization?" He nodded. "And the tests, and the people in place in the WHO and the UN?" He nodded again. "And you don't have a problem with that?"
"Joe, sometimes I think it's sordid, and I'm the one doing it. All the secrecy, the conspiracy, the experiments… It's not a pretty story."
He met her eyes. "I think you're a very brave woman, Diana."
She smiled weakly. "You're one in a million, Joe."
Contrary to expectations, Marita Covarrubias did not get better. Jeffrey and Diana spent most of their time taking care of her. Gibson was left to his own devices, and explored the entire island on his bike. He would sit out on the terrace of Joe's bar and watch the tourists for hours, or persuade Joe to play cards with him. He had an uncanny ability to guess the strength of Joe's hand.
Now when Joe wanted to see Diana he went to her. The house was in truth more of a compound; there was room for ten or twelve people to live there. He knew that there were parts of it that Diana never let him see, and suspected that the elaborate but discreet security system was protecting more than the comfortable home it appeared to be.
Among the places he was never taken was Marita's room. "She doesn't like strangers," Diana had explained apologetically. So he had to hide his surprise the day Diana asked him if he'd be willing to sit with her.
He had assumed that her room would be like a hospital room, that it would seem sterile, if not stark. Instead it was dim and comfortable. It contained the same wicker furniture and deep cushions as the rest of the house, and tall windows with dark shutters over them led onto a verandah. The bed was a large, dark wooden piece with a mosquito net tied tightly above it. The only things which set the room apart from the rest of the house were the heat and the humidity. There weren't even any machines hiding discreetly on the other side of the bed, aside from the humidifier.
"Is it too hot for you?" the shape on the bed asked. She was paler than her cream-colored sheets, all white skin and blonde hair. Her voice was hoarse.
"No," he said. Diana had warned him about the environment they kept her in, that she needed the humidity to help her breathe. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness before entering the room. Marita watched him like she thought he was about to leap at her and claw her eyes out; Diana had warned him about that as well, although he had pointed out that his days of sudden movements were long past. When he reached the side of the bed he held his hand out. "Joe Dawson."
She stared at his hand for a little longer than was polite before reaching up and placing hers in it for the briefest possible moment. "Marita Covarrubias. Have a seat, Joe Dawson."
He lowered himself onto one of the chairs, watching her in return. No more than skin and bones, although he could see how beautiful she had been.
"Thank you for coming to sit with me," she said. "Diana and Jeffrey don't think I can be left alone for a moment. Gibson comes and stays with me sometimes when they're busy, but he finds it disturbing."
"It's my pleasure," said Joe, wondering what it was that disturbed Gibson. "It's very peaceful in here. Quiet."
"It must be a change from your bar." Her voice was light, as if breathing out were too great an effort. "What made you decide to settle here?"
The question made Joe rethink his initial impression of her. Yes, she was fragile and nervous, but the eyes which were watching him were absorbing everything he did and although there were pillows behind her to prop her up she was sitting as straight as a ballerina. The body's weakness was hiding a mind which would analyze his responses and judge him on them. He sat straighter himself in preparation for the interrogation.
"It was Adam's idea. We needed a change from Paris."
"The helpful Adam Pierson," she murmured to herself. It confirmed what no one had bothered to tell him outright, that Methos was busy working with Diana and Jeffrey at whatever they were doing. "I'm suspicious of lucky coincidences, Joe Dawson."
He told himself that it was the humidity making him sweat. "Are you asking me if Adam chose this place because Diana and Jeffrey were here?" She didn't even bother to nod. Oh, Methos, he thought, how deep and twisted is that mind of yours? And what am I supposed to tell this woman, sitting here on her sickbed like a queen on her throne? He opted for something like the truth. "I don't know. It isn't impossible, although he's been talking about retiring to the South Pacific as long as I've known him."
She waited for him to continue. If this was a test, what would happen if he failed it? "You might think it strange that I wouldn't know something like that, but Adam… Adam doesn't tell anybody everything he knows." She smiled at that. "He doesn't commit to things easily or lightly. Things or people." He didn't add, but when he does, it's absolute. Let her figure it out for herself, because that was all the information Joe Dawson was handing out that morning. He had secrets too. In fact, it might have been helpful if Methos had thought to tell him how much he'd told Diana, Jeffrey and Marita.
"And you?" she asked. "What made you decide to follow him?"
"No place else to go," he said. The bitterness there surprised him. He must be feeling Methos' desertion. "No," he corrected himself, "that's not all of it. But Adam can be persuasive, and we both had reasons for wanting to leave Paris."
In the dim room, her eyes were very dark. She stared at him for a moment, then changed the subject. "You know what we've been doing," she stated.
He nodded. "Is this the place where you warn me off?"
"This is the place where we ask for your help, Mr. Dawson."
"You don't know anything about me," he pointed out. Perversely he added, "I could be about to betray you all," although if he tried it Joe suspected he'd be cut up and used for sharkbait.
A ghostly smile lit her face. "One must trust someone." She leaned back into the pillows. "I'm tired now. You'll find Jeffrey and Diana outside, I think." He waited until he was sure she was sleeping before leaving the room.
He could tell where Diana and Jeffrey were by the sound of their argument. "There might be something among his stuff that could help her," Jeffrey said. "And I'm the best one to get access to it. No one in the organization is going to work with Alex now; we can set it up between the two of us so that they have to accept me."
"It's too dangerous," Diana responded. "What if someone from the FBI recognizes you?"
"Who? My father's dead, Diana. And trust me when I tell you that Scully is not going to notice me. Not now, with Mulder missing."
"We can't leave her alone here with Gibson, and I have to go back to Europe."
The floors were carpeted with jute but even so Joe's cane and prostheses kept him from sneaking up on anyone. They fell silent as soon as they heard him, although Jeffrey whispered something at Diana. When he got to the doorway they both turned to look at him, and Diana got up. This, Joe supposed, was what Marita had in mind. "I'll look after her," he said, and then felt the blood rising to his face. As if they'd leave a sick woman and a boy in the care of a cripple. What if something went wrong?
Diana glanced back at Jeffrey and then looked Joe straight in the eyes. She seemed relieved, even happy. "Thank you, Joe. If Marita agrees, that's what we'll do."
Joe moved out of the bar and into the compound. Marita insisted that she didn't need someone with her all the time, but he cut back his hours anyway. As far as they could tell she was just very weak. Her eyes couldn't adjust well to light, her mouth and sinuses dried out easily, as did her skin, and she couldn't gain any weight. Taking care of her was more a matter of keeping her comfortable than waiting for a crisis. The infection, as far as he understood it, was gone. What they were seeing now was the side effect of the cure. If that was true, he was glad he had never seen the illness. It was like living with a ghost.
He stopped playing cards with Gibson, but surprised himself by not being angry with the boy. "Well," Gibson said, "if this doesn't work out, can we go on the road and make our living cheating at cards?"
"No," Joe said.
It was Methos who came up with a treatment plan, turning up out of nowhere six weeks after Jeffrey and Diana left. Jeffrey had infiltrated himself into the operation his father had run at the very end of his life, and had sent all the information he could find on Marita's illness. Then he chose to stay undercover with the organization outside Washington, D.C. "Who knew he would be such a good double agent?" Methos said to Joe. "It must run in the blood."
Most of Methos' time was taken up by Marita. He spent three days closeted with her, discussing her dosages and coming up with a treatment plan. She, in turn, seemed to tolerate his presence more easily than Joe's. Joe took to lurking near her room when he wanted to see Methos. "The improvement will be slow," Methos told him. "That's a good thing. Part of the trouble last time was that her healing was accelerated and her body couldn't take the strain." He gave Joe all the medical details he would need for Marita's treatment and told him nothing about what was going on in the outside world.
Gibson still avoided Marita, but when Methos wasn't in her room he followed him everywhere. Methos let him do it, most of the time. One night when he and Joe were reading after dinner he looked up to see Gibson watching him. He stared at the boy until Gibson's face went white and he ran from the room.
"You shouldn't do that," Joe said.
"My mind is not a suitable place for children."
Diana and Jeffrey had already told Joe more than he had ever wanted to know about aliens and biological warfare and the testing program run by Jeffrey's father. He had seen the elaborate communications system and the computers at the back of the house where Jeffrey had collected and analyzed everything they knew about the aliens and their plans. Still, he hesitated before asking his next question.
"Methos, why are you doing this?"
"Terrorizing Gibson? Helping Marita? Which part of this do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. Did you set this whole thing up? Did you choose this island because they were here?"
The person looking out of Methos' eyes was no one he'd ever seen before, and Joe had to remind himself that his friend would never hurt him. Then the killer's face was gone and in its place was the familiar self-mocking expression. "Can you possibly believe that I'd let the Apocalypse start without me?" Having delivered his riddle, Methos turned back to his book.
Whatever Methos did worked. The day after he left, Marita turned to Joe and told him that she was tired of sitting around the house and was sure that the bar needed some attention. He drove her over and let her sit at one of the tables by the verandah. With dark glasses and a wide-brimmed hat, drinking only water or juice, she looked like a movie star on a retreat.
Physically, she was getting stronger every day. Joe judged her mental recovery by the amount of time Gibson would spend in her presence. She began to have conversations with the two of them and would lean on Gibson's shoulder as they walked around the house. Much of the time, however, she seemed lost in thought, her mind probably far away with Methos, Diana and Jeffrey. Although Joe noticed that the only person she discussed with Gibson was Alex Krycek.
Joe felt the way he had when Duncan went out to meet a challenge: the knowledge that something important was going on somewhere else and that there was nothing he could do to help or hinder. The familiar hollow feeling while he waited for the news, the sense of unreality, as if he might dissolve through the walls and furniture like a ghost.
Then it ended. How tacky it seemed at first, like something out of an old movie, Gibson riding up to the bar and leaping off his bike to run to Marita's table and say something to her. The way she stood up, her arms wrapped around her chest but her face suddenly pink and alive, staring through the door as if she expected someone to walk down the road at any moment. Joe himself was looking on in confusion until Gibson went over to him and told him, "It's all right. They have it. They're coming home." He found himself staring at the door as well, until Gibson rolled his eyes and added, "Not right this minute. It'll be a couple of hours." His tone expressed his long-suffering opinion of the emotional stupidity of adults. It was the most normal thing the boy had ever said to him, and Joe laughed out loud.
Marita took Gibson straight back to the compound with her, along with half the food in the restaurant kitchen. Joe stayed on until he heard the noise of a small plane approaching the landing strip at the nearer hotel.
Closing up took longer than he'd expected--an old Frenchman with his niece who refused to leave--and they got to the compound before he did. The room Jeffrey and Diana had used as their living room was full of people. The first one he saw, as he paused in the doorway, was Amanda. She descended on him in a cloud of perfume, kissed him on both cheeks and said, "Darling, isn't this exciting? I've never saved the world before!" Her embrace knocked him slightly off-balance, but strong hands caught his arm and steadied him. Amanda rescued his cane before it could fall to the ground and turned him around gently. Diana was standing behind him; she still hadn't let go of his arm.
There were shadows around her eyes, but she looked satisfied. He was sure he had the most foolish smile in the history of the world plastered onto his face, although when she began to smile in return he had to admit it didn't look too bad on her. He was sure that he said something to her and she to him, but when she kissed him hello none of that seemed to matter.
When he turned back to the room he saw Amanda leaning against the sideboard, eating and talking to Jeffrey. Both Jeffrey and Gibson seemed fascinated by her. Marita was sitting on the sofa, Methos next to her; on a chair to her left was an unknown man. As he rose and walked over to Joe, the Watcher files suggested a name for him, Cory Raines, one of Amanda's old friends. That made sense, but when he saw the lines on the other man's face and his grim expression, Joe rejected the identification. This man was older than Cory would ever be. "Alex?" he guessed and the other man came to a stop in front of him. Clear green eyes assessed him, and he was rewarded with a curt nod.
The other man turned back to the room. "Let's get started, then."
Diana led Joe to a seat. The command in Alex's voice made Joe glance at Methos, but the old man just shrugged and slouched lower into the couch, putting his feet up on the table.
Alex began without preamble. "We have a pathogen now. It works: it's almost 100% fatal to them and almost harmless to us. The problem is infecting the aliens with it." He paused as if for questions; the one about the precise meaning of 'almost harmless' was on the tip of Joe's tongue, but he held it back. "Our ideal scenario would be to hit a large gathering of them. Adam and I have some ideas about a distraction, something to get their attention."
"You won't need to fake anything," Jeffrey said. He looked more confident than Joe remembered, as if he'd aged five years in the last three months. "In four months Dana Scully will give birth. That should be a big enough distraction for anyone."
That made no sense to Joe. He knew enough about Diana's work to know that Alex was proposing to use a biological weapon against the aliens--a weapon which had been developed under Diana's oversight during the last two years--but not what would make this pregnancy so interesting to these aliens.
Or, for that matter, to Diana. "Pregnant?" she asked sharply. "How did that happen?"
Jeffrey's voice expressed his distaste. "My father did it. Some kind of farewell gift. He destroyed most of the records, but it isn't a hybrid. Whatever it is, it's human."
"Do the aliens know about it?" Marita asked.
Jeffrey shook his head. "And I don't know whether they'll be interested in it, if it's human."
Joe didn't care for the smile spreading across Alex's face. "That's irrelevant. By the time I'm done, the whole world will think it's the Second Coming. Who would have thought that Scully would be so useful?"
"We'll have to monitor her carefully," Diana said. "That means you, Alex. You're the only one of us still out in the open."
"It won't be a problem," Alex said. "Diana, I want you and Jeffrey to determine how much of the pathogen we need and come up with a distribution strategy. Jeffrey, you'll have to set up some kind of contact through your father's organization if we're going to get the aliens worried about this pregnancy."
"I'm going back to D.C. with you," Marita said.
For the first time, a human expression appeared on Alex's face. "You aren't well enough," he objected. "It will be too dangerous for you. Adam, tell her."
Joe held his breath, waiting to see what the old man would say. Contrary to all his expectations, Methos responded as he was prompted. "He's right, Marita. You might have another relapse. I'll come back in a couple of months to check on you, but right now you need rest and a quiet life. No dodging bullets in Washington with Alex."
"And that brings us to another point," Diana said. "Getting Alex out of the game. Marita has been low profile for a while, but you can't just disappear, Alex. People will be looking for you as long as you live."
"Mm," Amanda began, and stretched her legs in front of her. "What if you were to die? In a public place, maybe with witnesses."
"Dying doesn't really appeal to me," Alex said.
"Well, of course, you wouldn't really be dead. That is, it wouldn't really be you." Joe had a bad feeling about the direction her thoughts were heading. How much did these people already know about Immortals, anyway? He glanced over at Methos, who was looking unusually smug for a man whose cover was about to be blown.
Joe's worst fears were confirmed when Amanda turned to him. "Joe," she said, "I'm sure you can find out where Cory Raines is for me." She was giving him the look she gave Duncan when she wanted him to do her some large and inconvenient favor.
"Don't you know where he is?" he grumbled.
"We had a disagreement. He gave away some of my jewelry."
"To the rightful owners, perhaps?" Methos asked.
"Adam, sweetheart," she said. "You've really got to stop sounding so much like Duncan."
"How will this Cory person help?" Alex's tone was disinterested, but his expression was sharp.
"Well," Amanda began, "oddly enough you bear a striking resemblance to a very old friend of mine. Adam and I have both noticed it. One of you could, with a little coaching, pass for the other. And Cory... Cory has a lot of experience faking his own death."
Joe saw Alex glance at Methos, who gave an almost imperceptible nod. Oh, he was definitely going to have a little talk with Methos about this.
"Do you think Cory will go for it?" Methos asked.
"I'm sure of it," she said. "Cory will be delighted to help hoodwink the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Joe?"
He sighed. Yet another attempt to cut all ties with the Watchers was about to end in failure. "I can find out, if I go to Paris."
"We wouldn't let you work from here anyway," Alex commented.
Paris was a shock after his years in Polynesia. He saw more people in the time he spent in the airport than he was used to seeing in a month. The whole city was noisy and crowded and smelly. Cold as well. He had forgotten what January in Paris was like.
He would never have made it through Charles de Gaulle Airport if it hadn't been for Diana's firm hand on his arm. She led him through passport control and customs and saw him into a taxi. When he reached the hotel room she'd reserved for him, he was ready to lock the door behind him.
It was tempting to stay inside, possibly even in bed, but he couldn't do that. There was a schedule to be adhered to, a due date marked in red not only on the calendar of the woman who was pregnant. They were all counting the days of Dana Scully's pregnancy.
It was already mid-January, and they only had until March. He picked up the phone and dialed the first number.
He was surprised and more than a little touched at how happy his former colleagues were to see him. It only took him a week to get an invitation back into his old poker game. They were clearly curious about his sudden return to Paris, and he let them believe that he missed the work and that he was looking for Duncan. In return, they teased him about his comfortable retirement. After a while, they started teasing him about his obsession with the Highlander. He didn't correct them, just looked wistful whenever they mentioned the new database the Watchers had installed.
Finally one night Richard Beaton lost his temper with his wistful act. "For Christ's sake, Joe," he said, "stop looking like such a sulky child. Come by my office tomorrow and I'll let you run a search on your Highlander. Maybe you can make sense of the information we have on him. At the very least, you can tell us if any of the sightings were really him."
The next morning he met Richard at Watcher HQ and Richard walked him through security, took him into his office and sat him down at his workstation. He watched while Joe began to examine the three or four most recent sightings of MacLeod, then went to get him a cup of coffee. "None of this French shit," he promised.
Joe ignored the nagging sense that he was doing something wrong and began to collect information on Cory Raines. He had used Watcher information more inappropriately than this in the past, and for worse reasons.
But then, it wasn't the organization he was feeling guilty about. Yes, he was using Richard, but Richard would probably do the same to him if he had a reason. The problem was Mac. He was using what the Watchers believed to be his obsession with the Scotsman to get access to their database. He felt like he was betraying their friendship. That he had already betrayed their friendship, because when was the last time he'd given the other man more than a passing thought? Not until he needed him for something. He hadn't even asked Methos if the old man knew where Duncan was, or why he hadn't tracked him down. Saving the world was Mac's line of work, after all--more than it was Methos' or Amanda's.
He memorized the information he needed on Cory. When Richard came back with a steaming cup of black coffee, he was staring at the screen, trying to feign interest in Mac's recent history. None of the sightings were confirmed. He dismissed three immediately. There was a challenge in Stockholm which might have involved MacLeod--had that been at the same time that Amanda had been traveling from Reykjavik to St. Petersburg? But the film had been destroyed by the Quickening, and a couple points in the Watcher's report made Joe reject that one as well. The best of them was a blurry photograph from Cairo, but that, Joe reflected sourly, was probably because there wasn't enough detail to be sure one way or another. Where the hell was MacLeod, anyway?
"Anything make sense to you?" Richard asked.
"They're all bogus. He hasn't even seen Amanda Darrieux, and she's one of the constants in his life."
"For all we know they're living together on a desert island," Richard pointed out. "She slipped her watcher about a year ago, right after we caught her and Cory Raines breaking into some kind of private clinic in Colorado. Never did figure out what that was all about, and while she was waiting for them to come out Janet Levitsky was knocked on the head and woke up in Salt Lake City."
It figured, Joe thought. No information on Duncan, and now he had to worry that some watcher somewhere was going to get interested in Amanda and Cory again and start snooping around their own conspiracy. He brought up Levitsky's report and glanced through it. No question in his mind, that wasn't Cory.
He printed out the material on Duncan, and he meant to look at it that evening. But after he'd sent off the information Amanda would need, he found that it couldn't hold his interest. Three days later he flew to Prague.
Diana met him at the airport and drove him to a laboratory outside the city. "I won't go back to the island until it's over," she said. "It's just too isolated, if something goes wrong."
If something goes wrong. Living among Immortals had freed him from having to worry much about the future: it would come, but he wouldn't be there to see it. A natural tendency to take life one day at a time had been encouraged by the sense that he was a short-lived creature, compared to the people around him. If he thought of the end of the world at all it was in terms of the Gathering, something mysterious and possibly even mythical. Immortals had been telling each other that the time of the Gathering was at hand as far back as Watcher records went. Most Watchers he knew told each other that they'd believe it when they saw it.
In the past year the future had become something precious. If he felt short-lived, it wasn't for the simple fact that he was human and mortal but because some great external force was pressing down on them all. Each day, to Diana and her companions, was a day snatched from death, not to be enjoyed but to be used to secure the next, and the one after that.
Was that how immortals saw their own lives, he wondered. Endlessly vulnerable? Always in preparation for the external threat they knew would come, the challenge, the duel? Maybe that was why Methos had involved himself, and by association Joe, in this struggle.
He stayed with Diana in an apartment on the top floor of the laboratory. They were the only ones there now; the scientists had scattered once the pathogen was perfected. Diana spent her days cultivating the bacteria that they hoped would save them all; he spent his distracting them both from the stress they were under. She hadn't asked him to stay with her, and he hadn't offered to leave.
Alex came to see them in February. He found Diana in the laboratory, where he paced back and forth as she told him how her work was progressing. Joe sat to one side and watched.
When she was done, Alex leaned against one of the tables. "Mulder's alive," he said.
"Alive," she repeated. She covered her mouth with one hand.
"For the moment. He's infected with a new strain."
"Oh my God."
"His immunity should protect him," Alex continued, "but I'd like to give him a little extra."
She was very pale. "Of course," she said. "I'll get you a vial of the vaccine."
Alex shifted his weight slightly, his jacket creaking in the silence after she left. "They used to be partners," he said.
"They were married," Joe corrected him, if only to let the other man know that Diana wasn't keeping secrets.
Alex nodded. "The thing about Mulder, when you're with him you really want to be special to him. How was she supposed to know he was like that with all his partners?" He glanced at Joe as if about to say something else, then looked up. Diana stood in the doorway, holding a suitcase and her coat. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" he said sharply.
"I have to see him. I'll give him the booster."
"The hell you will!"
"Damn it, Alex, he was my husband! We loved each other. You know what it was like when I thought he was dead. You may not have cared about him but I want to see him and make sure he's all right."
"You want to blow your cover sky high, is that it? And not just yours--Jeffrey and Marita and Gibson and me too! What kind of an idiot are you?"
"He's sick and I want to go to him! Just because you've never loved another person in your whole unnatural life…"
"Diana," he growled, cutting her off. She was silent. "You can't see him, anyway. He's still in his grave."
"In… his grave? What do you mean? You said he was alive." Joe hadn't thought she could get any paler than she already was; he got himself ready to get up and catch her before she fainted. "Oh my God, Alex. He's buried alive. You let them bury him alive."
"I didn't have anything to do with this," Alex said.
"Nothing to do with this?" Her voice rose, and with it color began to return to her face. "You sent him to his death. You wanted him dead!"
For the first time, Alex raised his voice. "That's enough, Diana." She fell silent again. He continued, his voice low and hard. "If I wanted Mulder dead, he would not be alive now. Do you understand me?" She nodded. Joe felt frozen to his seat. "You are going to stay here. You will not attempt to contact Mulder. Nothing is going to jeopardize our work. Nothing. Do you understand me?" She nodded again. "Diana?"
"I understand you, Alex," she muttered.
"Give me the vial." She took it from her purse and handed it over. "Joe, you stay with her. Diana, I'll be in touch."
When the door closed behind him Diana began to shake. Joe was out of his chair as quickly as he could and had his arms around her to hold her up. She took two deep, shuddering breaths, then buried her head in his shoulder and began to cry.
After a while, the tears gave way to sniffles, and she raised her head. "God," she said. "I'm sorry, Joe."
He shook his head. "Don't be."
"I don't know what came over me. I wasn't this upset when I heard he was dead. But the thought of him lying in his grave, still alive somehow…"
"Alex shouldn't have spoken to you like that. You were right to be upset."
"No," she said, "he was right. I can't go see Fox. It would be insane." Joe held his tongue. He had a list of questions about Alex building in his mind, but this wasn't the moment to ask them. Diana sighed then, and shifted slightly in his arms. "I guess I should get back to work."
It took Diana three more weeks to prepare a sufficient amount of the pathogen. They were both aware of the feeling that time was running out; the frequent emails from Alex and Jeffrey only added to the tension.
"How are you going to get that into the US?" Joe asked as she laid out the row of metal cylinders. To his eye they looked unmistakably like some kind of hazardous material. Airport security was almost certain to want to take a close look at them.
Diana began to blush. "I was hoping you could help me with that."
"Sure," he said.
She laughed, but her color didn't subside. "Wait until you know what I have in mind."
"How bad can it be?"
"Have you ever heard the expression, 'a hollow leg'?"
He stared at her. "Diana. Tell me you aren't serious."
Without speaking, she led him over to one of the laboratory cabinets. She unlocked it and pulled out a pair of prosthetic legs. "They're very good quality," she began. "You won't suffer any loss of mobility, and they won't be too heavy. Actually, they were pretty easy. I've done this for Alex, too, but it's really hard to fit the storage space in among all the electronics in his arm." She must have realized that she was babbling. "It won't be dangerous, Joe. Marita will travel with you."
"Not you?" he asked automatically. He couldn't stop staring at the legs on the counter. They looked just like the pair he used. He wondered if laughter would be an appropriate response or a sign of hysteria.
"I can't go back to the US," she said. "You know that."
"Whose idea was this? Yours? Adam's?"
"Alex's. He used to courier materials like this all the time." Alex, Joe thought. He should have guessed. The only question was whether he was resentful enough to refuse to help. It was tempting, but Joe knew he wasn't that irresponsible. He would do it, and he might as well go ahead and give in with good grace. "What will I use when I get there?" he asked. He winced at the whiney tone.
The smile she gave him almost made it worthwhile, though. "You can still use these," she said. "Or I can have a pair identical to your regular pair waiting for you."
They must have been counting on him. Marita turned up the next day. She and Diana fussed over the packing of the vials and gave him another day to get used to the new prostheses. Joe grumbled, but waited until they were in line at the check-in to ask his question.
"What would you have done if I had refused?"
Marita gave him a cool look. "I would have carried them myself, of course." He noted with some resentment that she was looking very well. Her eyes were clear and her skin was healthy. She still needed sunglasses, but they just added to the allure. Every man in the airport glanced after her as she walked past.
It was the worst flight of his life. The more he grumbled, the more sympathetically the flight attendants treated Marita, who was traveling as his niece. He spent the whole time in anxious exhaustion, afraid to move and unhappy with everything around him.
The final blow came when they got off the plane. Marita had arranged a wheelchair for him. He lost his temper and shouted at her for five minutes, calling her an ungrateful bitch and telling her that he'd walk out of the airport under his own steam or not at all. Marita blushed and mumbled an apology in front of the equally embarrassed flight crew, then followed him out into the airport. She took his arm in the corridor. "That was perfect," she said.
"The scene you made. No one will ever suspect us of anything illegal."
He stopped and stared at her. "You did that on purpose to piss me off," he accused her.
She smiled. "Come on. Adam will meet us once we get through Customs."
Methos drove them away from Dulles to a safe house in Virginia; they hurried Joe inside before he had a chance to get much more than an impression of tall trees and Georgian architecture. At least they left him alone in a bathroom to deal with the legs on his own. He unpacked the vials, taking his time with them, and stomped out to the living room. Marita was sitting on a chintz-covered chair holding a glass of white wine, and Methos, predictably enough, was doing his best to lounge on the matching sofa, a beer in one hand. It was Jeffrey who stood up to meet Joe in the middle of the room and take the vials from him. He was already wearing an overcoat.
Jeffrey stared at the metal cylinders. "I thought they'd be bigger. Is this really going to work?"
"It's going to work, Jeffrey," Marita said. "It has to."
"Right." Jeffrey was standing very straight. "I'll see you all when it's over."
"What's…" Joe began. After that flight, damn it, he deserved answers.
Methos cut him off. "The current version of the Alien Threat"--Joe could hear the capital letters-- "is controlled from a spaceship. Jeffrey and Alex are about to go be brave little idiots and destroy that spaceship. And no, before you ask, you aren't the only one wondering when your life started to resemble a bad science fiction movie."
"Adam." Marita's voice was gentle. She went over to Jeffrey and kissed him on the cheek. "Good luck." The two of them stood there in the doorway staring at Methos. The immortal stared back, then gave a dramatic sigh.
"Come on, Jeffrey," he said. "I'll walk you to the door."
Marita brought Joe a glass of wine. "Now what?"
"Now we wait," she said. "Alex smuggled Gibson into the FBI building earlier today. He wants them to take Scully somewhere isolated for the birth, in case there's a fight of some kind. So once Gibson finds out where they're sending her, Alex will meet up with Jeffrey and Cory will take over for him." She took a sip of wine. "Have you ever met Cory?" Her cheeks were slightly pink.
Joe shook his head. "But I've heard about him."
She was running her finger around the rim of the wine-glass. "We're all waiting for news on Scully. Wherever they take her, that's ground zero. But you might as well get comfortable while we wait."
When the news came, everything seemed to move very quickly. Methos and Marita piled into the SUV with Joe in the back and took off, heading for Georgia. They were in North Carolina when Methos' phone rang. He answered it with a "Hello?' then handed it over to Joe, who held it gingerly to his ear.
Amanda's voice came bubbling through the connection. "It went like a dream, Joe. It was amazing. Agent Mulder and AD Skinner were both there. Cory took three bullets, the last to the head, and died very dramatically, and--hey! Put that down!" She started to giggle; there was the sound of another voice. "Cory wants to know if we can keep the plastic hand?"
The plastic hand? Christ. "Is it up to me?" Joe asked.
He addressed the car at large. "Can Cory keep the plastic hand?" He turned to stare in amazement as Marita snorted, and then began to laugh. "I think that's a yes."
"Ask them where Gibson is," Methos directed.
"I head that," Amanda said. "We just dropped Gibson off for his flight to Los Angeles. We waited until he got onto the airplane and everything." Joe could just imagine the scene: the reluctant teenager and the two doting, and possibly blood-splattered, parent-like types seeing him off. "What was that, sweetie? Oh, yeah. They didn't even bother to check the body. The whole scene was pretty weird, actually. Are you sure these people hated Alex?"
"I'm not sure of anything about this, Amanda," Joe said. "Where are you meeting up with us?"
"I don't think we are, Joe," Amanda said. "Cory and I are planning a nice long vacation." She paused to listen to something Cory was saying then laughed again. "Plus, the Prince of Bahrain has some jewelry I've always wanted to look at. We'll come visit in a couple of years." She hung up.
"They're going to rob the Prince of Bahrain," Joe told Methos and Marita.
"That's all right," Methos said. "It'll keep them out of trouble."
As they approached their destination, Joe couldn't help noticing the bright light in the sky. "What the hell's that thing up there?"
Methos glanced up at it and began to sing off key, "We three kings of Orient are..."
Marita glared at him, her earlier laughter long gone. "That's our target. If Jeffrey and Alex can infect that ship with the pathogen, we'll win. It'll spread from that one to all of them. And it will disable the replicants active on the ground as well."
"But how are they going to get anywhere near it?"
"Ah," said Methos, in what Joe privately called his professor voice. "Here's where we return to the plot of the really bad science fiction movie. It seems that at some point in his misspent youth, our Alex discovered a small alien spacecraft. He and Jeffrey have moved it from its original resting place in North Dakota and even as we speak are flying it towards that shining point of light. At least, they are if Alex can fly the spacecraft."
"Isn't that something they would want to know beforehand?" Joe asked.
"You might think that, Joe," Methos said blandly. "I couldn't possibly comment."
"Be quiet, Adam," Marita said. She directed them to a hill above the town and got out of the SUV only to stand by it, scanning the night sky.
"More waiting around?" Joe commented.
"There's a lot of that in this 'saving the world' business," Methos replied.
Joe settled down in the back of the SUV; he was dozing when he hear the sound of a gun being fired. As always, that sound left him wide awake. He got out of the car. "What the hell's going on down there?" he demanded.
Methos came loping back to the car, Marita running after him. "There's something going on down in the town, but we can't see from up here," he said. "I'm going to go down and check it out."
Joe opened his mouth to object. There was a blinding flash; after that he just stood there with his mouth open until Marita started tugging at his arm. "Come on," she said. "The ship is moving!"
She shoved him into the car and jumped into the front next to Methos. The ship was getting brighter, maybe moving lower, or toward them. Methos began to drive after it, bouncing around on the hillside and yelling at Marita for directions: she was halfway out the window like a dog, tracking its movements and shouting, "Left thirty degrees!" and "Watch out for those trees!" Joe held on for dear life in the back. The light kept getting brighter, and he could actually see a kind of oval shape to it. Shit, he thought suddenly, I'm chasing a UFO.
It was getting lower or they were catching up to it, maybe both. It was brighter than a full moon now, casting shadows from the rocks and trees they were driving past. It was just one ridge away when Marita shouted, "Look!" He never learned what she'd seen. There was another blinding flash and then the ship was gone.
"What happened?" he asked. "Where did it go?" They all piled out of the car and stood staring across to the place they ship had been. Joe heard noises coming from the town they'd left behind. Engines, and above that a helicopter. He turned back to see if he could figure out what was going on.
Methos touched his shoulder. "Watch," he said. He was squinting up at the stars. "There's something dark out there, falling."
Joe concentrated: he could track the shape as the stars behind it winked out and then reappeared. Something about the motion seemed so familiar to him… "A parachute," he said abruptly. "No, two parachutes. We can't see them because the material is dark."
No one responded as they all climbed back into the SUV. Methos hit the gas at once and the force of the acceleration threw Joe backwards against his seat. They rolled and bounced down the hill. At the bottom, Methos slowed the car so that the three of them could watch the hillside for movement. They all saw the spurting light of the flare at the same time; Methos changed gear and took them up into the trees.
They found the flare in the center of a large clearing, propped upright in a pile of rocks. Otherwise, the clearing was empty.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Methos muttered as he got out of the SUV. "He's worse than I am. Alex?" he called. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."
A minute or so later there was a small motion in the trees to their left and the man who had been standing there watching them stepped out, hiding his gun in his jacket.
"Get into the car, Alex," Methos said. "I don't know about you, but I've had a long few months."
"And an old man like you needs his beauty sleep?" Alex asked.
"I hate Georgia," Methos declared.
Alex laughed and crossed over to the SUV. "You hate everyplace. Jeffrey should be just over the ridge. Let's go find him." He climbed in next to Joe.
As the car rolled off, Joe asked the question. "Did it work?"
A flash of teeth gave him his answer. "Am I dead?"
"You were shot three times, the last time in the head."
"Then all we need to do is collect Jeffrey and get the hell out of Georgia."
They heard Jeffrey before they saw him. When they found him, it seemed very important that they all get out of the car and stare up at the man hanging in the tree.
"Hey!" Jeffrey said. "Get me down from here, damn it!" He had one hand wrapped around a branch and was half-hanging from the harness, the parachute itself tangled with most of the rope in the upper branches of the tree.
"Try swinging over to get the other hand onto that branch," Marita suggested. "Then you can release the harness and climb down."
"My foot hurts," the younger man said. "I think I hit it on something on the way down. I think it's broken."
"Jeff," Alex said. They could all hear how hard he was trying to keep from laughing. "When you told me you'd done this kind of thing before, how honest were you?"
"Not very," Jeffrey admitted. "Ow! Damn it, stop laughing at me!"
"Jeffrey," Marita began, raising her voice to make herself heard over Alex's laughter.
"OK! Fine! I was trying to impress you. I only agreed to help save the world because I wanted you all to like me!"
Through the tears of laughter streaming down his own face, Joe heard Methos muttering what sounded like curses in what sounded like six or seven different languages. The Immortal took off his coat and placed it on the ground; despite his care, it clanked when he moved it.
"What are you doing?" Jeffrey called down.
"I'm going to climb up there and get you loose," Methos said.
"It's only about twenty feet," Alex offered. "Try not to land on the foot you broke."
From his position on one of the lower branches, Methos said, "Swing towards me, Jeff. That's right. Kick out to get some momentum and catch that branch. Now, stay there." He began to climb further up the tree until he was directly opposite Jeffrey. "Can you hold on with one hand and release the harness?" Jeffrey shook his head. Methos sighed, and began to inch out along the branch.
The branch creaked. The three people on the ground gasped. "Adam," Marita warned.
He ignored her. The branch creaked again as he moved forward. When he reached Jeffrey, he reached out quickly to release the harness. The branch gave a third creak, then a cracking noise as it split, tossing the two men to the ground and falling on top of them.
Joe jumped back to avoid it, stumbled, and fell to the ground. He could hear Jeffrey saying "Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck."
He sat up, and then Alex grabbed his arm and helped him get to his feet. "I knew I wasn't going to get through this without some kind of injury," the other man said. "I just didn't expect it to come from a tree." Joe snorted.
Marita was busy pulling broken bits of tree off of the two fallen men. Methos climbed to his feet, brushing leaves off his sweater. He blinked, then said a little too brightly, "Well, that was certainly an adventure."
Joe was excused from the cleanup for the operation. He flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where he met Gibson and flew the rest of the way home with him. By the time he reached the front steps of his bar Joe was ready to sleep for a week. Instead, he installed Gibson in Methos' old room, where he could keep an eye on the boy, and set to work. While Joe had been gone the cook had quit, three suppliers had renegotiated their contracts and profits were so far down that Joe was certain the manager he'd hired was stealing something. He was busy with the charm offensive against his old cook when Marita returned and took Gibson back to the house with her. He had finally caught the manager at his scam and fired him the day he looked up from the blender and saw Alex sitting at the corner of the bar. Two daiquiris and a Campari later Joe came to rest in front of him.
"It's on the house," Joe said.
"You don't know what I was going to ask for," Alex said. The elation of that night in Georgia seemed to have passed; he looked thoughtful.
"Didn't you come here for a drink?"
"Just a beer." Joe poured him a glass of Kronenbourg. "French beer?" Alex asked.
"It's all I've got until I get a new distributor." Alex took a sip, and sat there, staring at Joe. "Isn't it a little late for this?" Joe asked irritably.
"This--the interview, the test, whatever."
For a moment, Alex's face was blank. Then he smiled. "You're right," he agreed. "It is a little late for that. You're stuck with us now. This is just a beer. A beer you offered me."
"Just a beer," Joe repeated.
"A French beer, but still a beer." Joe didn't smile back at Alex. "Look," Alex said, "I don't know what they've told you about me--"
"No one has much to say about you at all," Joe interrupted.
"But we obviously got off on the wrong foot..." He trailed off, his mouth open. "To be fair, I think you ought to start the next sentence, 'On the other hand.'"
"On the other hand," Joe began dutifully. "On the other hand, I've had plenty of chances to watch you in action and reach my own conclusions." The man in front of him was a killer: that was clear not just from Joe's own observations but from the little Diana, Jeffrey and Marita had said about him. He was ruthless and determined. Diana thought he was heartless. But then, Gibson seemed to like the man. Methos treated him with the kind of annoyed respect which he used, in Joe's experience, to conceal real fondness.
What do you do with the killers you didn't need anymore, once the war was over? Joe didn't know the answer to that one. But he couldn't help being a little amused by the other man, who was clearly trying hard not to look intimidating: staring at the wood of the bar, telling stupid jokes with his shoulders hunched over. Waiting to find out if Joe would accept him or not.
Damn, he thought. It made so much sense he was amazed he hadn't seen it at once. He'd been right the first time. This was one of those tests. But it wasn't Alex testing Joe; instead, Joe was being offered the opportunity to interrogate Alex Krycek. Because just as much as the last few months had drawn Joe into the other man's world, Alex was now trying to enter Joe's.
That didn't alter the situation. "The problem," Joe said, "isn't what you've been or done in the past. It's that even you have no idea what you might do next."
The other man stared at the wood of the bar. "First of all, I'm going to finish this beer. Then I think I'll have another one. After that I may go back to the house and have a nap. When I wake up I might go find Marita and see if she wants company. That will have to do, Joe. That's further than I've been able to plan my own life in about ten years."
"Not too bad," Joe said, "for a man with no people skills."
Alex gave him a sharp glance. "I have people skills," he protested. "They just aren't the kind you use on..."
"I was going to say, on people you aren't trying to hurt."
"That's a good start."
A customer caught his attention, and he left Alex to his beer. By the time he got back to him, the glass was almost empty. "Want another?"
Alex nodded. "Tell me something, Joe. Is this really the only beer you're going to have in when Adam gets back."
"I believe so," Joe said.
"You're going to need all the friends you can get."
Methos fixed Joe's problem with the beer distributor the morning after he returned to the island. He then went back to bed and slept for eighteen hours.
None of them were what Joe would call familiar with normal life, but everyone seemed to be doing a good imitation of it. Methos moved into the compound when Diana started spending every night at Joe's; she took the hint--and Joe's open invitation--and moved all her things into the apartment over the bar. Joe assumed that everyone else was as happy as he was.
Then he came downstairs at dawn one morning to find Methos already camped out at the bar. "You've got to take me in, Joe," he said. "I can't live in that house another day."
"You have no idea," he said. "Imagine four well-practiced manipulators, all living in the same house, with no one else to practice on."
"Imagine," Joe said sourly, "if they all had as much practice as you. What happened?"
"It's a little complicated. Do you have any idea what we've been doing for the last few months?"
Doing, Joe thought. Clearly he hadn't been paying enough attention. He was spared the need to admit his ignorance as Diana came down the stairs, still wrapped in a cotton robe.
She took in the scene in a glance. "Where's Gibson?" she asked.
It wasn't the question Joe expected. "Gibson said he would never get such a good introduction to the varieties of human sexual behavior and refused to leave."
"Gibson said what?" Joe said.
Diana spared him a pitying look. "Joe thinks we've all been living happily ever after," she explained to Methos.
Methos snorted. "You two may have been. The rest of us are just trying to escape our creditors."
It was time for Joe to regain some kind of control over this conversation. "Two words, Adam. Bar tab."
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Diana asked. "Aside from taking you in, and finding someone to build you all that really big bed the group of you are going to end up in."
"Very funny," Methos grumbled.
"If you can keep Jeffrey from getting jealous," she continued blithely.
"And keep Alex and Marita from playing 'remember when'," Methos said.
"Or at least hide the weapons when they do."
Joe cleared his throat. "Do I really want to know any more about this?"
They turned as one to stare at him. "Probably not," Methos said. "I suppose I'm old enough to manage this sort of thing without your help."
If Methos expected Joe to swallow the bait and ask more questions, he was going to be disappointed. If Methos had found other people to keep him amused for the next few years, Joe could think of plenty of things to do with his new-found leisure. Now would be a good time to start trying them out.
The End. And of course they did all live happily ever after.
Disclaimer: The minor characters permitted to save the world here
belong to RPD and 1013, in their various corporate incarnations.
I do not profit from my use of their toys.
Dedication: Laurie Fenster told me not to write this story (and she was kidding, guys. Sheesh!), so I think she deserves the dedication.
Thanks: to Rhiannon Shaw, who improved this story mightily with her comments and suggestions.