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The River


Part Twenty: Immortal Monsters


Ash sat and watched Duncan sleep. He probably wouldn’t be violent when he woke up, so she hadn’t put his wrists back in the restraints and had released his ankles. He’d spent almost four days on his back and she wanted him to be able to sleep comfortably. He was lying on his side, his legs bent, snoring softly. He’d been so deeply asleep for twelve hours he’d hardly moved, but now he was showing signs of rousing. Across the space of the barge Methos had finally given in to exhaustion and also slept. She could tell he was missing Duncan, in his sleep he’d wrapped his arms around a pillow and cradled it like a lover. He had wanted to move MacLeod back into his own bed, but Ash had vetoed the idea.


She’d explained her reasoning to him. “He needs to wake up in this bed and see the restraints so he can realize exactly how sick he’s made himself. He needs to face what he’s done to himself if he’s to understand he has a problem and that he needs to do something about it.”

“What if that something is to drink himself senseless?”

“Worse yet, what if he only wants to die?”

“I’m trying not to think about that.” The pain was visible in his eyes.

They’d folded the screens and leaned them against the wall, then lowered the bed, turned Duncan on his side and covered him with a sheet and comforter. Ash had given in to Methos on one point and removed the diaper. Duncan wasn’t likely to wet the bed, and she didn’t want him to wake up diapered like an infant.

Methos had sat by the bed just as she was doing now, but she knew his thoughts had been very different from hers. His face had shown his love and longing, hers showed nothing, except for her eyes. Hiding in their remote, amber depths was something Methos would hardly have recognized; he’d rarely seen it in her. Fear. Ash remembered Methos’ words, “Sometimes he almost seemed to be someone else, he’d get this look in his eyes and then he’d hurt me.” She had spent decades upon decades in convents and monasteries and in her thoughts religions oddly mingled in an eclectic prayer. ‘Oh please sweet Jesus, let me be wrong. Lord Buddha help me. Please God, let this cup pass from me.’

She remembered other words, spoken by the man who had thought she was a newborn Immortal, who in his own perverted mind thought he was her teacher. “Any Immortal who takes my head will get far more than they bargain for, and more than they will ever know.”  He had smiled with his thin, cruel lips, his glacial blue eyes gleaming with enjoyment, “I will break them from the inside with such a subtle, insidious influence they will not even realize it. I will use their weaknesses against them, and then I will turn their strengths against them as well. I will torment them and make them torment those they love.”

She had seen his treasure, an ancient manuscript in an arcane tongue. “With this I can control other Immortals, I can defy the rules of the Game, I can do whatever I please!” von Kaltenberg felt it was safe to show it to her and gloat over it. He had no idea she could read it, and much less that she already had read it centuries ago, or that she had killed the Immortal monster that had owned it.

It had taken constant, intense focus to hide her strength from him, to appear the passive, cowed Immortal child. That focus had cost her enormously. It was then the insomnia started, afraid to give herself away, afraid to sleep, the strain only relieved when the Sturmbannfuhrer would leave the camp on one of his extermination actions, or when she was beaten insensible, or to death.

Ash had been petrified in shock when she saw that face in Duncan’s file, and when she discovered Duncan had killed him she had almost howled like a mother who had lost her only child. Johann von Kaltenberg. No, that wasn’t his name, though she still thought of him by that name, it was the only one she had known until that moment. ‘Of course Jacob was too Jewish for an S.S. officer,’ she thought, her mouth twisting as if she were tasting something foul. ‘You had the manuscript, the power, the fawning sycophants, why couldn’t you leave Connor alone? Why can’t you leave Duncan alone? What will I have to do to make you truly dead, Jacob Kell?’ She already knew, and closed her eyes. Another prayer came to her. ‘Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’

Duncan opened his eyes, his first sight a thick leather wrist cuff with a bloodstained sheepskin lining. Extremely disoriented, he looked around cautiously, moving only his eyes. Behind the leather cuff there was a pad, and above that a steel rail. Beyond the rail there were shadows, he had to blink and focus on the distant images and a curved ceiling became visible. The familiar was strange at this angle, especially when he had never thought to see it, or anything else, again. He was home, on the barge, and he wasn’t alone. He could feel the presence of another Immortal, or was it two?  Two, that was cause for alarm, then a faint wry amusement, he was alive and he wanted to be dead, what was there to fear? The worst they could do to him was force him to live. He didn’t want to know who they were. He didn’t want anything except death or a bottle, one oblivion or another.

Yet there was a wisp of hope, the buzz felt familiar and a name came into his head, immediately followed by rebuking thoughts. ‘Why would he be here? After the way you treated him you’ll never see him again, and even if he did come back it would only be out of pity, or maybe for revenge. How could he still love you? How could he have ever loved you, you’ve hurt him from the beginning, judging, condemning. You’re a child compared to him, and you acted like one. You abused him viciously, why would he come back for more?’

Duncan didn’t care if it was safe. He sat up and found himself looking into golden eyes he had thought to see only in dreams. Ash. He was surprised, but not as taken aback as he would have been in other circumstances. His surprise was overshadowed by his rage, how could she, of all people, have forced this life on him?

“Why couldn’t you leave me in peace? Damn you, why couldn’t you just let me die?” MacLeod’s voice was rough with anger and filled with despair.

It hurt Ash to hear it and she answered him too quickly, not thinking enough about the words. “I only want to help you, Duncan.”

He replied, his voice harsh, “Then take my head. Give me peace. Let me rest.”

“I can’t, Duncan, I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s selfish, I know, but we love you too much to let you go.”

We? He’d known there was too much of a Quickening buzz for Ash to be alone, and he felt another tiny tug of hope. Duncan looked around and spotted the covered silhouette of a body in his bed. Who was asleep in his bed? Who else could it be? Could he really love me enough to forgive me?

Ash saw the hope in his eyes and told him gently, “Yes Duncan, it’s Methos.”

He had the strangest feeling, as if his heart were too large for his chest, an almost painful opening outward, but his conscience started up again, hurting him with the truth. ‘How can you inflict yourself on them?  How can you let them close to you? You can’t trust yourself; you could hurt or kill both of them. You know what’s wrong, even if you can’t face it, even if you can’t bear to think it.’ There was only one way to stop the voice in his head.

“Give me a drink.”

Ash knew he didn’t mean water. “We’re out. Joe was running short of Scotch at the club, so we sent it over there.”

“Give me a fucking bottle now!” Even he heard the desperation in his voice.

“If you can walk to the kitchen and get it, you can have it.” Ash moved closer.

MacLeod threw off the blankets, his nudity not causing him any concern, he tried to stand and was shaken when he couldn’t support his own weight, almost crumpling to the floor. Ash caught him before he could fall, steadying him. She helped him to sit on the bed. Duncan didn’t want to let go of her; he wrapped his arms around her and pressed his face into her stomach. Ash caressed the back of his head, neck, and shoulders.

The touch of her hands, the touch of another being, it had been so long since he had been touched. It felt so good to be touched, to hold her in his arms, to have a connection with someone, and that bizarre feeling was back, as if his heart would break out of the prison bars of his ribcage. Then her voice, soft, rough, soothing, compelling, filling his mind, drowning out his conscience, calling him Donnchaid, speaking muted Gaelic. Somehow the pain was easing, he could breathe without wanting to scream and he thought, ‘Please stay with me. I will die if you don’t stay with me.’

Ash went on caressing him, planting suggestions carefully, afraid to push too hard. Too much could cause a backlash, making his mental state worse. She influenced him to stop drowning himself in Scotch, to let them stay, to let them show him how much he was loved. She could feel the need in him, for contact, for companionship, and she could see the depth of his love for Methos, equally matched by the depth of his remorse. She felt his grip loosen, his pain dulled, but far from relieved. She knew it wouldn’t always be this easy. Right now he was confused and malleable, he would put up far more resistance later.

She convinced him to eat something and helped him into a robe and got him seated at the table. Ash thought for a moment, what should she make for him? She smiled to herself and began to make oatmeal. It would be warm, easy on his stomach, and comfortingly familiar, reminiscent of his childhood. Duncan ate half a bowl and drank a cup of tea, and Ash was pleased he had managed to eat that much, though she was worried by his silence.

She brushed back his lank hair from his still-pale forehead. “Do you feel better now? Your strength will come back quickly, you just need food and rest.”

“And a shower, I can smell myself and it’s not pleasant.” Duncan found he could stand. Ash was right, his physical strength was returning, at least.

He crossed the floor to the bathroom unaided, and Ash heard the water running. She fought the impulse to check on him, he was strong enough to shower by himself, and there were no weapons in the bathroom he could really hurt himself with.  She stripped the hospital bed to give herself something to do.

When MacLeod came out of the bathroom Ash almost flinched, she had lost a chunk of time again. He was drying his hair and had wrapped a towel around his waist. Some color was back in his skin and he appeared healthier, although it would take time to put some weight back on his body. It would take even longer to put the joy of life back in his eyes; there was such deep sorrow in them when they met hers.

“Ash, how long have you known Methos?”

She smiled and said, “Oh a few years, or at least a couple millennia. He was my teacher.”

“Then you know him pretty well.”

“Yes, I would think so.”

Strangely he didn’t ask the question she expected next, but sat down on the edge of the bed, suddenly pale again.

“Duncan, you should lay down and rest.”

“You stripped the bed.”

“There’s another bed.”

“Someone’s already in it.”

“I know he wouldn’t mind sharing.”

“Are you sure of that? I’m not.”

Ash put her hands on his shoulders, then slid them up the sides of his throat and rubbed her thumbs gently into the hollows under his jaw. Duncan relaxed with a halting sigh, and Ash told him what he most wanted to hear.

“Methos loves you, Duncan.”

He wanted to believe her, but how could he? After all he had done there was no way to make it up to him, no way to atone. Ash led him over to the bed, where he stood looking down at Methos sleeping. Duncan wanted so much to lie down and put his arms around him.

Ash recognized the expression on his face, it was exactly the same as Methos’ had been so many times in the past days, love and longing, grief and regret.

“Lie down, Donnchaid, you’re tired, and it’s all right.”

Her voice was at its most persuasive and he let fall the towel. Nude, he lay down, but on the far edge of the bed, facing away from Methos. Despite his weakness and the lingering effects of days of sedation Duncan was restless. Twice he changed position, but he remained on the edge of the bed. He finally relaxed and Ash watched him slip into sleep. Once asleep he seemed to lose his need to stay so far from Methos. Slowly he moved closer, as if compelled by gravity or some other inexorable force, drawn to Methos as the moon draws the ocean, creating the tides. Methos felt that same force, releasing the pillow substitute and turning to Duncan, throwing his left arm over his chest, pulling him closer. Duncan wrapped his right arm around Methos and nestled into his embrace, all inhibitions lost in sleep.

Ash watched them sleep, finally in each others arms where they both wanted so much to be. She thought, ‘There’s no way to save all of us. One must be the sacrifice, but which one?’ She already knew. That knowledge was almost more than she could bear, and she hoped she would be strong enough to do what was necessary when the time came, no matter how profound the agony it would cause her.

       

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